Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 212: In praise of social media; Pollution and science; How to read better books; and more...

Welcome new readers! Thoughts in Between is a newsletter (mainly) about how technology is changing politics, culture and society and how we might do it better.

It goes out every Tuesday to thousands of entrepreneurs, investors, policy makers, politicians and others. It’s free.

Forwarded this email? Subscribe here. Enjoy this email? Forward it to a friend.

In praise of social media (sort of)

Jonathan Haidt wrote a long essay in The Atlantic on the societal impact of social media, which won praise from Jeff Bezos among others. It's worth reading, but this thread by Josh Wolfe is a good summary. The core argument is that social media is responsible for the fracturing and fragmentation of American (and more broadly Western) democracy over the last decade or so. Also last week, Barack Obama made a related argument: misinformation, amplified by social media, is poisoning public life.

I'm a fan of Haidt's work on moral foundations, but I think he and Obama are wrong on this. For good summaries of the counter arguments, see this thread by political scientist Thomas Zeitzoff and this one by Daniel Kreiss (also a political scientist). Matt Yglesias's rebuttal of Obama's thesis is worth a read too. In short, the evidence we have suggests that empirically the impact "filter bubbles" and fake news is greatly overstated. In Zeitzoff's words, "Misinformation is a symptom of democratic dysfunction rather than a cause of it". There are good links to helpful studies on these topics in both threads.

More importantly, as Kreiss argues, there never was a golden age of "unity of knowledge" or "unity of community" (Marc Andreessen - whose political views I suspect are very different from Kreiss and Zeitzoff's - has been making a similar point recently). Of course, this doesn't mean that our democracies don't face a crisis. But I'm more inclined to the view that an increasingly large proportion of political elites just isn't very committed to democratic norms (a good recent example; see also TiB 133). The historical precedents for such a situation are... unpromising. Blaming technology is tempting, but I doubt it gets us very far.

Care about science? Cut pollution.

Perhaps the most influential paper in the burgeoning field of "metascience" is Bloom et al's "Are ideas getting harder to find?". The core idea is that we're having to invest an increasing amount of resource (human and financial) to achieve each incremental "unit" of scientific and technological progress. Relative to the 1970s, a doubling of the number of transistors on a chip (the unit of account in the famous Moore's Law) requires nearly 20 times the resource today. This led Bloom et al to suggest that maybe we've picked all the low hanging scientific fruit - a theory that, if true, would be deeply pessimistic for our future.

Ben Southwood (see TiB 92 for previous coverage) has a good piece in Works in Progress that argues for an alternative hypothesis: what if we've just got worse at picking the fruit? In other words, there may well still be a cornucopia of good ideas to harvest, but we've just become structurally less effective at picking it. Southwood presents three potential mechanisms that might explain this. The first is the perverse incentives in academic that will be familiar to long time TiB readers; last week's podcast with Stuart Buck discusses this in detail. The second is a decline in the number of geniuses; we discussed this in the context of Erik Hoel's thesis on tutoring in TiB 207.

The third is quite different: what if we're suffering from the long term and cumulative impact of lead and other pollution? At peak, the lead content of the atmosphere was 1000 times prehistoric levels. Southwood presents some striking findings from recent research on the consequences. One example: "being exposed to one[!] extra [Nascar] race’s worth of lead is about as damaging for learning outcomes as increasing class size by three students". It's worth pondering. If Southwood is right, environmental protection may be the most important scientific productivity issue.

PS: I've not had chance to read properly yet, but this looks to be an extremely thorough review of the US National Institutes of Health, which spends $40bn a year funding research

The reading habits of the most voracious readers

Tyler Cowen's recent conversation with Russ Roberts on EconTalk on the topic of their reading habits is outstanding - one of my favourite episodes of any podcast this year. Partly it's because it's an extremely rich source of book recommendations (I love that Tyler names seven books in his all-time "top five"; I did my own top 10 here), and partly because it's an insight into the habits and "productivity function" of (surely) one of the world's most voracious readers.

Some of Tyler's advice is wonderfully eccentric. He talks about how he worries about giving people books in case they feel they ought to read them: "I'm afraid to give away books because unless I think the book I'm giving is the book in the world the recipient most needs to read, I feel I'm doing the person harm." And he never highlights, but does fold down pages, but with an unusual caveat: "I don't mark what was notable [on the folded page] because then when I go back, I'll find other things, so I'm deliberately randomising my search a bit". He also has interesting thoughts on re-reading, reading in clusters and picture books.

Above all, it's quite liberating to hear two readers with extremely highbrow tastes who are nevertheless delightfully un-snobby - happy to admit they hated a "great" book or loved something popular (Tyler suggests that Isaac Asimov's I, Robot will go down as the most influential novel of the 20th century). Finally, it's a great reminder that however well read someone is, they always have gaps and so recommendations are always valuable. Towards the end, Russ mentions David Eagleman's superb Sum, one of the best short story collections I've come across. Tyler hasn't heard of it. If you've not either, that's my recommendation to you - so do send me yours.

Quick links

  1. Striking China declines I: global public opinion edition
  2. Striking China declines II: birth rate edition
  3. Who's winning the war for global talent? Or rather, who's benefiting from the US's decline?
  4. Lock 'em up? Striking comparison of police-to-prison spending in the US vs everywhere else.
  5. GPT-3 meets... microwave. Bizarre and often hilarious thread. I have done zero due diligence on this, but seems worth reading in any case.

BONUS: "Red teaming for good" feels like something that some of you should get involved in

The bit at the end

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. If you know someone who might like Thoughts in Between, do forward this to them.

And feel free to hit reply if you have comments, questions or suggestions.

Until next week,

Matt Clifford

PS: Lots of newsletters get stuck in Gmail’s Promotions tab. If you find it in there, please help train the algorithm by dragging it to Primary. It makes a big difference.