Sunday, January 08, 2006

Rogue Economics and the real Edge

One of the most enjoyable nonfiction reads of my past five years has been Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The book, which originally came out in 2000, concerns the viral nature of ideas and the way behavioral patterns can reach a critical mass and spread out into "epidemics." Though the idea is not new, Gladwell identifies three personality types crucial in the spread of memes: Connectors, who bring people together, Mavens, who love to pass along knowledge, and Salesmen, skilled at convincing the unenlightened. In the book, Gladwell explores this notion in examples as diverse as Paul Revere's ride, the drop in crime in New York City, and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The book was very influential in shaping my thinking about thinking and forms the basis of a lot of my own ideas about marketing. (I read Gibson's Pattern Recognition on the heels of The Tipping Point, and was so struck by the similarities that I spent a few months trying to get each to admit that they read the other, then, when that failed, to try to get each to read the other.) And though I've not read the author's follow-up, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, the book jacket combined with the few interviews I've heard has convinced me that he's describing the way my own decision making process operates.

So, Gladwell's endorsement on the cover, combined with that of the friend who had recommended Gladwell to me, was enough to get me to pick up Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. The book operates on the frequently expressed premise that if morality is how we want the world to work, economics is how it actually does. Inside its pages, the authors cover cheating in sumo wrestling, suggest that Roe vs. Wade has dramatically decreased the crime rate (ironically discrediting Gladwell's own position on the matter), and has some interesting statistics on the effects (or lack thereofs) on popular high and low income names on a child's eventual achievements. Now, don't get me wrong, the book had some interesting ideas in it, but it was hardly the fodder for "a thousand cocktail parties" worth of stories as the jacket promised. Sadly, its slender 256 pages read all to much like what they are, a heavily-padded expansion of the New York Times profile that Dubner wrote of Levitt in 2003. And, in fact, while Dubner sings Levitt's praises to the point that the reader begins to feel embarrassed for him, there's little in the book to convince one that Levitt is the maverick genius his co-author insists he is. (He may be, but the book doesn't sell it.) Most of the research cited is that of other economists and researchers, and there really are only about six or so case studies in the whole book, each stretched out and reiterated to the point of engendering irritation. A fun read for an airplane, but not the revolution in thinking I was hoping for.

Which is why I was so glad to discover this: The Edge Annual Question - 2006: What is Your Dangerous Idea? Founded in 1988, the mandate of the Edge Foundation is "to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society." Every year, The Edge asks over one hundred scientists and thinkers a question, and the results of the 2006 question, which should be required reading for any serious science fiction writer, are positively fascinating. I'm mainlining 119 ideas in its 75,000 online words, from such notables as Freeman Dyson, Ray Kurzweil, Rupert Sheldrake, and Frank Tipler- not all of which I agree with, of course, but that is hardly a prerequisite for enjoyment or enlightenment, and it's so much more intellectually satisfying than Freakonomics proved to be. I was glad to see two bona fide science fiction writer in the bunch, Gregory Benford and Rudy Rucker, with comments on the Kyoto Accords and panpsychism respectively. Still, pondering both the new ideas and the familiarity of those concepts which I have already encountered through genre fiction, I would love to see the question put to such illustrious members of our community as Charles Stross, Bruce Sterling, Greg Egan, Neal Stephenson... It is times like these that the dignity of our genre impresses itself upon me. Perplexing it is to me that when the greater world at large acknowledges daily that we are living the stuff of science fiction, that science fiction is not called upon to explain such stuff more often than it is.


Paul Cornell said...

I'm delighted by you pointing me to the 2006 Question, and am already chewing over those glorious answers. (But hmm, I wonder what Richard Dawkins' dangerous bigo...idea could possibly be?) And Rudy Rucker is brilliant on the subject of an idea that Shinto, rather than he, first elucidated, but which I find mighty appealing.

Lou Anders said...

Leaving aside Dawkins' comments about the crucifixion, I have pondered for some time if increased understanding of the brain doesn't lead to a diminishment in responsibility. Dawkins writes Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment.

However, when he writes Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing?, I wonder if the Death Penalty isn't a way of "replacing" these faulty units. Not that I am an advocate for the Death Penalty, but I do believe all societies have always claimed the right to determine who is and who is not among their members, and unless we attempt Clockwork Orange type rehabilitations, I'm not sure how we would go about "fixing" these faulty units either - an idea that has its own Draconian horrors built in.

Still, two recent studies on teenagers has me thinking. In one, scientists learned that teenagers actually lose the ability to correctly interpret emotional meanings from human expressions for a period of several years. In another, that they form an abundance of synaptic connections in their brain during their teen years - extra thought paths that actually cloud judgement, which die off in later adulthood allowing for simplified decision making. Both neurological changes are necessary for the brain to bootstrap itself up into adulthood, but mean that teenagers (who commit a large percentage of the violent crime), really aren't thinking with a fully functioning brain!

I'm reminded of William Petersen's line in the 1986 film Manhunter where, speaking of a serial killer Francis Dollarhyde, he says that he has infinite sympathy for the child that someone twisted and tortured into a monster, but that "as an adult he's irredeemable. Somebody should blow the sick fuck out of his socks." This dual-perspective may be increasingly necessary in a world where the brain is fully understood.

Tim Akers said...

First off, thanks for saving me from reading Freakonomics. I've been on the waiting list for that from the library for months. Now I'm not.

Secondly, the death penalty. I'd first like to know if the reinstatement of the death penalty has lowered crime rates. If it doesn't act as an effective deterrent to crime, then I'm not sure it's actually justifiable. But does imprisonment rehabilitate the criminal? I really don't know. The real question we should be asking is What is the purpose of our judicial system? Is it there to punish criminals for their actions, or is it there to prevent crime?

Lou Anders said...

Tim, I'm motified I've actually prevented you from reading a book. If I were to describe Freakonomics as a Hollywood movie, then I would say it was a "wait for DVD" film. I enjoyed aspects of it, but I suspect that if I'd read the original NY Times article, I'd have had no need to read the book. As it was, it was good airplane reading, but I was left feeling hungry.

re: the Death Penalty. My own opinion on this fluctuates wildly. Studies show that it is NOT an effect deterrent to lowering crime. Of course, it could be argued that it isn't enforced consistently enough to act as such. (Ironically, Freakonomics quotes a statistic that a gang member is significantly more likely to die in a shoot out than by death penalty execution as proof that the threat of death is not effective.) But I would not like to see the Death Penalty enforced more often now, not when other studies show the racial prejudice involved in who gets sentenced to death and who does not. Nor do I believe our current methods of incarceration say much for rehabilitation. I don't think that the judicial system as it exists is effective as either an instrument of punishment or as a deterrent. I believe it exists solely to remove those labeled as "undesirables" from society for society's benefit - out of sight, out of mind. I'm not sure what an effect alternative would be, in terms of a a cure. However, there are some interesting preventative measures.

There was a program where repeat youth offenders were taken out of the city into the outback - the first time most of them had left an urban environment - and the expose to nature, the world outside the city, etc.. had remarkable effects on them.

Tim Akers said...

It comes down to time, Brother Anders. Stacks of books to read, slivers of time to spend reading. The way of the world.

Lou Anders said...

Amen. In which case, find me at the bar at the next con and I'll fill you in on the few bits worth knowing.

Paul Cornell said...

You could provide that as a regular service. There are all sorts of books I'd like to have quickly summarised at a bar.

Tim Akers said...

You gonna be at Worldcon this year? I'm still trying to juggle the finances.

Lou Anders said...

I never miss. And LA is my old stompin' grounds. There is a sushi bar off Santa Monica I have been dreaming about for five years.

Ted said...

Just to offer another opinion on Gladwell and Freakonomics: from what I've read of both, I think they have a lot in common. In both cases, the writers are hit or miss, and in both cases, their books will be less interesting if you've read their original magazine articles.

For example, I haven't read all of Gladwell's Blink, but I know it contains both his article on reading people's faces (available on his website here), which I found fascinating, and his article on personality tests (available here), which I found a real letdown.

I haven't read all of Freakonomics, but I've read some of the sections in their original article form, and some in the book. I thought the chapter on how falling crime rates can be attributed to legalized abortion was very interesting; apparently the fall in crime can be correlated with legalized abortion on a state-by-state basis, which I'd never heard before. The book also has a chapter which says that, according to the data, essentially no decision you make as a parent will affect how your children turn out. The two co-authors are both parents, and aren't thrilled about this conclusion, but they couldn't find the evidence to reject it.

And that's perhaps the biggest difference between the two books. Gladwell's pieces rely heavily on anecdotes; often fascinating and thought-provoking anecdotes, but not necessarily a good basis for drawing broad conclusions. Freakonomics, on the other hand, tries to find patterns in statistical data. That doesn't guarantee that the conclusions are correct, but it does mean that challenging those conclusions will require sifting through a lot of numbers.

Ted said...

Also, regarding's survey of dangerous ideas, I think the vast majority of the people surveyed are actual scientists. That's presumably how Benford and Rucker made it in. As much as I love SF, most SF writers are not scientists, and I wouldn't blame anyone for preferring the opinions of scientists over those of SF writers.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Ted,
Points well taken. I refer back to my "wait for the DVD" opinion of Freakonomics. I found both sections you mentioned entertaining, just wished the book had more meat. Gladwell's book seemed to, though the abortion correllation makes one think, doesn't it?

As to scientists - that wasn't a bash on the Edge Foundation at all for their roster. More, their post, and their inclusion of Benford and Rucker, made me ponder the way our genre is perceived elsewhere vs. how it should be perceived. Personally, a book of scientist and science fiction writers in conversation with each other would fascinate me, but probably not a great many other people.