Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Parrocites, Part 1

This is an occasional series where I collect quotations in which some familiar snippet of text turns out to be not so familiar after all. This occurs when someone cites it in a truncated or otherwise mangled form, or in ignorance of what it meant in its original context.

The original text is being parroted. Not all parrots do a good job of repeating. Some parrots seem to parrot because they've noticed that people think it's cute. I suspect they all don't much care what they do, as long as they get attention. It's not fifteen minutes of fame, but it's a start.

Exhibit 1:
In a phrase, Thomas Gray was right: Ignorance is bliss - at least when it comes to assessments of one's own ability.
This occurs in an annoying article of statistical psychology entitled Unskilled and Unaware of It (top of page 1131). After much sampling and speculation, the authors decide that dumb folks don't know they're dumb, and that they seem unable to learn to see themselves as dumb and then to incorporate this knowledge into a more successful ("calibrated") life-style.

In the "Concluding Remarks", the authors enter the twilight zone. They gaze at themselves in their speculum, and allow as how they might be overestimating themselves and the value of their work.
In sum, we present this article as an exploration into why people tend to hold overly optimistic and miscalibrated views about themselves. We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish. That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.
Culpability peeps over the ramparts! Dumb people don't worry about being smart - the authors charge this against them (in the most gingerly thoughtful manner). Smart people worry about being dumb - the authors give themselves credit for this. But haunted by faulty logic, my foot. The authors see other trouble coming, which they hope to deflect in the following way. Having invited themselves to a party by publishing the article, they tell the host: "in the course of the evening, if you're stupid, you may discover that we have peed in your pocket. It is not a sin we will have committed knowingly".

Grumbleby sez: if you're not sure about what you want to say, and whether and how you ought to say it, then don't say it. That especially applies to claims of knowing other people better than they know themselves. Geebus! Did Luhmann live in vain?

There's more than tautology in Wittgenstein's
Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, läßt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.
[Whatever can be said at all, can be said clearly. On things about which one cannot speak, one must remain silent.]
For those with a tin ear, allow me to pump up the volume:
Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, sollte klar gesagt werden; und wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber müßte man schweigen. Also raff' dich zusammen!
[Whatever can be said at all, should be said clearly. On things about which one cannot speak, one ought to zip up. So pull yourself together, dude!]
In the Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, Gray imagines students at play, and what life will become for them. He does not say "ignorance is bliss" tout court but rather, conditionally, "where ignorance is bliss", namely in young people.
To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another's pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.
Here now, as a refreshing alternative to hand-wringing over other folks, is a witty mathematical paper applying Bayesian analysis to the question of how ignorant it might be to believe that ignorance is bliss, and then act accordingly. The authors quote Gray's stanza in full. The abstract reads:
If ignorance were bliss, there is information you would pay not to have. Hence the question is whether a rationally-behaving agent would ever do such a thing. This paper demonstrates that

1. A Bayesian agent with a proper, countably additive prior never maximizes utility by paying not to see cost-free data.

2. The definition of "cost-free'' is delicate, and requires explanation.

3. A Bayesian agent with a finitely additive prior, or an improper prior, however, might pay not to see cost-free data.

4. An agent following a gamma-minimax strategy might also do so.

5. An agent following the strategies of E-admissibility recommended by Levi and of maximality recommended by Sen and Walley, might also do so.

A discussion follows about how damaging to a decision theory intended to be rational it might be to pay not to receive cost-free information.

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