Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Thinking in Bets for Calmer Debates

Even the best decision doesn't yield the best outcome every time. There's always an element of luck that you can't control, and there is always information that is hidden from view.
That is from the summary of Annie Duke's book Thinking in Bets. The subtitle is "Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts". 

Her way of looking at the world inspired Arnold Kling to create an entire category for it in his Fantasy Intellectual Teams (FITs) competition. 

People tend to think in terms of did or didn’t and will or won’t rather than the proper probabilistic and adaptive viewpoint. Couple this with Julia Galef's The Scout Mindset, and you have a very sound method for decision making. But a scout's mind thinking in bets is not only a much better way of getting to solutions and making predictions, it is also more socially constructive since it tempers our emotional responses. 

In the political realm we often devolve and retreat to the simplistic concept of binary conclusions. While this human trait is very common in most all people and realms, it is a natural byproduct and significant downside of government action in general. Governments are the ultimate one-size-fits-all. Democracy adds to the problem by lending credibility to the process--we voted; therefore, the outcome is just/reasonable/practical, of course none of which follows. 

When it is all or nothing, we have too much at stake to compromise much less admit we don't know. This leads us to reject ideas we don’t want to be true along with resisting ideas we believe likely not to be true

Consider climate change/global warming and anthropogenic causation or contribution. Do we really want to place all of our bets on the idea we cannot affect the climate? Conversely do we really want to place all our bets that we absolutely can change what is happening to the climate? Do we really want to assume that we know exactly what the solution to the problem(s) will be such as subsidizing solar or wind, outlawing oil and gas, etc.? Wouldn’t the consideration of a carbon tax be a more appropriate response? And shouldn’t we consider the downside and extremities of what introducing a carbon tax might lead to? 

A framework of thinking in bets can help a lot in areas like this. Instead of tribally aligning with one absolute or another, we could take a more measured, agnostic view that allows for experimentation as well as revising. Instead we battle it out on the front end (the public and political stakes placed in the ground) having captured interests and biased reasoners (bootleggers and Baptists) and their lobbyist soldiers actually do the brute-force compromising for us on the back end with all the predictable shortcomings.

The thinking-in-bets perspective allows nuance and graceful position changes. Instead of having to be pro renewables/anti fossil fuels or vice versa we can adopt a mindset that skips past labels to force deeper thinking. Sure a person could always claim 100% confidence that THIS is the problem and THIS is the solution, but then at the very least we know not to waste our time in that discussion. Also, the more we make them be precise with predictions, the more likely they will step back from the barricade. 

Betting is a tax on bullshit, and forcing a bet can be a great method of separating our hearts from our minds. I am after a different benefit in this case, though. I don't necessarily want to call anyone out for bloviation. Rather I want to get a more open-minded and charitable disposition for all sides in a debate--allowing us to consider how little we actually know for sure.

P.S. I thought of this while listening to the recent excellent interview of Mike Munger on The Curious Task Ep. 131: Mike Munger - What’s Wrong With Anti-Trust and Industrial Policy?

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