Sunday, October 11, 2009

World Values Survey Results

Have you seen the results of the World Values Survey?

The existence of this data makes it easier to determine the correlation of values, and the institutions dependent on them, with development and (most importantly) happiness. It's a bit of a coordination game, that is, a chicken-and-egg question: how exactly would a person in rural Zimbabwe go about obtaining self-expressive secular/rationalist values?

I do find it curious that in measures of quality of life, transparency, etc. the ranking organizations tend to be in Scandinavia, and the countries that typically do the best are in (drum roll) Scandinavia. Have you also noticed that in intra-US QOL measures, the Upper Midwest seems to do amazingly well? As I recall the survey organization is in Madison. This of course is possible, and you could say that the better-educated, more democratic, and more concerned with human welfare is a country, the more likely it is to have such organizations. Assuming that self-expression and rationalism are the good ends of the two dimensions on the values survey, Northwest Europe wins out again - although the executive board of the WVS has members from the US, Germany, Turkey, Spain, and elsewhere.

Added later: I was looking at this chart again and specifically looking at the ex-communist boundary. That's another way of asking how much of an impact a communist government might have on a culture. I'm typically a hard sell when it comes to arguments that a government can change the underlying culture (or even work well with it - witness democracy in Iraq). It's hard to tell, because the ex-communist countries are geographically adjacent, although the fancy footwork boundary around China, Korea and Taiwan is interesting.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Critical Thinking and Rejection of Received Wisdom in Greek Myth

Perseus knows from the conventional wisdom that fighting Medusa is a fool's errand, that to look in her eyes is death; yet he can't help himself, and in spite of common sense, he sets off to kill her. Too clever for his own good, he takes a polished shield that shows her reflection. Not only does he succeed in his mad quest as a result of this ingenuity, afterward he runs around using her head as an ugly-laser.

King Leonidas of Sparta goes to the Oracle to ask what he should do. The Oracle tells him either Sparta will fall, or you will die. Disgusted that a Greek oracle would suggest to a fellow Greek that they lay down in front of Xerxes, Leonidas leads the Spartans at Thermopylae. Whatever part of that story is real, we know that a) Leonidas really did lead the Spartans to fight and prevail against the Persians at Thermopylae, and b) the story as it's been handed down contains Leonidas's rejection of the Oracle. Because of this, Western civilization exists as we now now it.

Odysseus was told that no man could resist the call of the Sirens. Like a smartass he tells his men to cover their ears, and bind him firmly to the mast of the ship so he can hear them without jumping overboard. He hears the Sirens and once the ship has passed out of earshot he is no worse for the wear, though through his innovation he has experienced something supposedly fatal to mortals and defied the natural order.

Why Set Up Conventional Wisdom to Only to Reject It?

One of the functions mythology accomplishes, in its more coherent moments, is to transmit mores. Most of the time this is clear. Listen to Jehovah; if, despite direct commands from the Almighty, you give in to temptation like Lot's wife did, you will be smitten. Clear enough - which is why some of the Greek myths start to seem very strange indeed. Why would Greek myths so often set up a value or more, and then show how moral or cosmogonic authority can be dismissed with critical thought and persistence?

Imagine that, like Perseus, Lot were celebrated for overturning the established order, and doing an end-run around God by giving his wife a mirror with which to look back at burning Sodom. The Old Testament would have a different flavor.

Is This Aspect of Greek Myths Unique Among Ancient Cultures?

Is it possible that the Greeks were unique in incorporating directives to critical thought in their myths so early? To do this concretely, you would be forced to invoke some established wisdom, and then show how a hero could succeed by applying a new solution to an old problem. I have often wondered if the impact of Athens on the modern world was not a coincidence of history, that they were fetishized by the later Roman Empire who spread their work around Europe and the Middle East and it could have just as easily been the Lydians or the Cyreneans. (I've had the same questions about whether grapes are really any more characterful as the basis of a fermented beverage than say, apples.) If the Greeks were unique in so early celebrating as virtues critical thought and the rejection of static groupthink, this constitutes one argument for the uniqueness of the classical period and its contribution to world history.

Could Greek Myths Be a Palimpsest of Bronze Age and Classical Mores?

Another and not necessarily mutually exclusive explanation is that what we're seeing are bronze age myths with the standard structure of human fables, plus a layer added later, during the classical period.

In this view, maybe in the original "pre-rationalist" Mycenaean version, Perseus kills Medusa by luck or resists her power because he's Zeus's son, and the mirror trick was added later. Jason and the Argonauts encounter the Siren. As royalty (authority), Jason is able to outplay the Sirens, and the sailor who jumps off his ship is saved not by his own cleverness, but by a god. For this reason it's worth investigating whether the passage of Odysseus through the Sirens was a late addition to the Odyssey.

It should be stressed that this kind of shift-in-values-over-time is often investigated in epic works that seem to have accreted narrative from temporally-separated contributors, Beowulf being one example. Another is the Mayan Popol Vuh, which features Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque defeating a whole pantheon of gods. Westerners don't typically draw a distinction between classical and post-classical Mayan periods, and the Popol Vuh is a K'iche' story from a post-classical culture in the Western highlands, separated by several centuries and more than a hundred miles from the much more famous earlier religious centers in the Peten lowlands. The interpretation is that the K'iche' were mocking the religion of their predecessors by incorporating its figures into their own myths and denigrating them.

It's worth noting that Beowulf and the Twins of the previous examples are "normal" exemplars of virtue who, like the heroes of the vast majority of human mythology, succeed by dint of their adherence to concrete ideals and their position within an authoritarian hierarchy (royal or divine heredity, or a mandate from a god or king). They aren't smartasses like Perseus and Odysseus.

Economic Rationality Index

It's been fashionable to point out that Homo economicus is not a fully rationally self-interested animal. Kahneman and Tversky were instrumental in waking us up to the reality that the human brain is not a universal well-rounded problem-solving machine - and of course, as a product of the accumulated exaptations and legacy systems and local optima and ad hoc functionalities of evolution, why would we expect it to be? Rather than serving as cause for hand-wringing, appreciating this fact lets us either do something to address and correct it, or at least to call it out and create hacks and workarounds. To me this is the promise of the Late Enlightenment.

I recently moved from the Bay Area to San Diego. Looking at, I noticed that the spread on gas prices in San Diego seemed greater. My experience of actually price-comparing gas stations has borne this out. There is greater variation over smaller areas in San Diego than there is in San Francisco. Sometimes there are ten cent differences at service stations across the street from each other. What's more amazing is that there are quite often cars filling up at the more expensive one. I've been tempted to walk up and ask people why. Clearly, this bothers me.

This suggests a way to compare the degree of rational self-interest between two geographic areas - take the price on 87 for all the gas stations within two predetermined square miles. Find the standard deviation for each square mile. Take repeated readings over some period of time and average, if you're worried about changes in supply cost rippling through the market and driving up the SD out of instability, rather than irrationality (non-100%-efficient markets is not that same as irrationality). Then look to see if the localities are consistently different. If there are consistent differences, next step: does it correlate with certain chains? Or with demographics of the area (education, income, income distribution)? Or some cultural intangible (i.e. San Diego is too relaxed for its own good)?

The square mile should be controlled so that there aren't geographic barriers (busy highways or streets, water, etc.) that would actually make consistent price differences more rational. The differences I've seen are ones between gas stations across the street or opposite ends of the block from each other. Since the index would consist purely of posted price as reported online, rather than sales, it's assuming that people are actually buying gas at the more expensive stations. But unless there's some bizarre detail at work here, this is a fair assumption - service stations aren't going to set a price at which nobody buys gas. (The bizarre detail could be something like - the local area is dominated by a single chain that profits from products other than gasoline, so its prices are less sensitive to actual consumer behavior; or, a frequent-flyer style gas club not available in both cities. This is why I should actually ask people what they're thinking filling up at the more expensive station, because maybe they are actually thinking something.)

In fairness, I'm very sad to have left San Francisco, and very eager to jump on anything that points the Bay Area or its residents as better than San Diego. But what I've observed anecdotally suggests strongly that San Diegans just can't be bothered to drive an extra 2 minutes to save three dollars. That is to say, it seems that San Diegans are truly less rationally self-interested than San Franciscans, and this provides a way for me to make sure it's not just my own confirmation bias operating against poor San Diego.

The next step is to actually do the calculation, which will take a while. If you run across this post and know of a similar index that's already established, please comment.