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01/24/2018

*Elephant in the Brain* — what is really going on in this book?


Not long ago, over lunch, I asked Robin who he wanted to see rise and fall in status, as a result of his book with Kevin Simler.  As for who should rise, he cited the book’s epigram to me:

To the little guys, often grumbling in a corner, who’ve said this sort of thing for ages: you were right more than you knew. —Robin

So yes the little guys, but I also stress the cynics as well, or maybe it is the gentle cynics who go through life with a smile.

And who should decline in status?  Robin’s lunch answer was again to the point: policy analysts.  Policy analysis, while it often incorporates behavioral considerations, when studying say health care, education, and political economy, very much neglects the fact that often both the producers and consumers in these areas have hypocritical motives.  For that reason, what appears to be a social benefit is often merely a private benefit in disguise, and sometimes it is not even a private benefit.  Things that feel good aren’t always good for you, or for the broader world.  Here is Robin’s take on that:

Our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, can be seen as taking one side in a disagreement between disciplines. On one side are psychologists (among others) who say of course people try to spin their motives as being higher than they are, especially in public forums. People on this side find our basic book thesis, and our many specific examples, so plausible that they fear our book may be too derivative and unoriginal.

On the other side, however, are most experts in concrete policy analysis. They spend their time studying ways that schools could help people to learn more material, hospitals could help people get healthier, charities could better assist people in need, and so on. They thus implicitly accept the usual claims people make about what they are trying to achieve via schools, hospitals, charities, etc. And so the practice of policy experts disagrees a lot with our claims that people actually care more about other ends, and that this is why most people show so little interest in reforms proposed by policy experts. (The world shows great interest in new kinds of physical devices and software, but far less interest in most proposed social reforms.)

In ignoring hypocrisy, policy analysts are themselves hypocritical, and thus Robin wishes to downgrade their status, perhaps doubly so.  Sorry people!

I find these status questions to be a useful means of thinking about many non-fiction books, sometimes fiction too.  I would note it is sometimes hard to market books with the “group X ignores well-known truth from field Y” spin, but perhaps that also means there are intellectual arbitrage gains to be had from studying such works.

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About Originally Posted At Marginal REVOLUTION,