Intro. [Recording date: July 5, 2023.]
Russ Roberts: Today is July 5th, 2023, and my guest is Adam Mastroianni. His Substack is Experimental History. This is his second appearance on EconTalk. He was first here in February of 2023, discussing Peer Review in the Academic Kitchen. Adam, welcome back to EconTalk.
Adam Mastroianni: Hey, thanks for having me back.
Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is an essay you wrote for your Substack with the lovely title "You Can't Reach the Brain Through the Ears." It could be a good song title, I think, by the way. I think that's an opportunity you might want to pursue. But, it's a superb, very short essay. We will link to it obviously, and I encourage listeners to read it.
You start off the essay with the story that you used to work with undergraduates helping them get fellowships to Oxford, a university in the United Kingdom in England. How did that go?
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah, not so well. So, I was a graduate student adviser in graduate school, and part of my job was to counsel students who are applying for these fellowships, because I had done one myself before starting graduate school.
And so, every time a student would apply for one of these, I would have a sit-down conversation with them where I would try to explain to them that what they were applying for is not what they thought that it was.
I had a pretty bad time at Oxford. Not that everybody does, but in my experience, the median of the distribution is pretty mediocre, especially for Master's education. I don't know if Master's degrees everywhere are a scam, but at Oxford they certainly were. It's very complicated that, like, they can't actually charge undergraduates what it costs to educate them. And so, they overcharge foreign students who are there for graduate education. And so, the advisors are checked out. The lectures aren't very good. The cohorts of students tend to not be very cohesive or all that inspiring.
And, I try to explain this to the students who are thinking about doing this as the next step in their lives, and I'm trying to set their expectations and tell them, 'You can have a good time there, but you have to go in knowing what you're going to get yourself into.' And, I explain all the bad times that I had there, but how it could have been a good experience. And, they're nodding and they're nodding. And at the end they go, 'Okay, so how many letters of recommendation do I need?'
And I go, 'Okay, so after all that, you're still going through it.' And, I would walk away from these conversations thinking, 'Why didn't they believe me?' Like, what was it that I was doing wrong that left them still in the dark? They seemed exactly the same after the conversation than they were before.
Russ Roberts: When I used to teach a lot of undergraduates, they often would want to spend their junior year abroad, and they often wanted to spend it at a--I won't name the college or university--but they were in England, often. And, I would say, 'I don't mean to disillusion you, but the education there isn't actually--I don't think it's--it might not be as good as what you're getting here.' 'Oh, that's okay.' 'Well, why don't you just go take a semester off and go have fun? Because that's really what you're going for. You're going to be in a nice--in London or some other place. Go enjoy it.' He said, 'Well, my parents won't pay for that.' Okay, so we're clear. We're pretending it's this illustrious thing.
And, I look forward to hearing from Oxford students that Adam is insane: he's wildly inaccurate. Maybe it was true then, but it's not true now. So, I'm totally agnostic on this, so I am not going to weigh in on the particulars. And, you could argue that maybe they just have trouble hearing it, and that's really the point of your piece. What do you think is the nature of the problem? And, you call it--I love this--the Leaky Bucket Brigade.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. So, I think this is a specific example of a much more general problem, which is: As we live our lives, we fill up our brains--or our buckets--with all this wisdom, all this experience. You get your heart broken. You work your first job. Your car breaks down. You go to college or you study abroad. And it's not what you thought that it was.
All of these experiences are really valuable. And so, naturally, when the next generation is coming after us--our students, our children, or just younger people that we know--we would love to take everything that we have in our bucket and turn it upside down over theirs and fill theirs so they don't have to get their heart broke, and have their car break down, have a semester abroad that's kind of disappointing.
And, yet, it doesn't seem to work. We turn the bucket over and either nothing comes out or it all splashes up. You cannot take your bucket and fill up someone else's bucket.
Russ Roberts: Which, I'm going to read--you say it really beautifully in the essay--I'm going to read an excerpt from it:
We spend our lives learning hard things the hard way: what it feels like to fall in love, how to forgive, what to say when a four-year-old asks where babies come from, when to leave a party, how to scramble eggs, when to let a friendship go, what to do when the person sitting next to you on the bus bursts into tears, how to parallel park under pressure, and so on.
It's like slowly filling up a bucket with precious drops of wisdom, except the bucket is your skull. The fuller your bucket gets, the more you want to pour it into other people's buckets, to save them all the time, the heartache, and the burnt eggs that you had to endure to fill yours. This should be easy: you have the knowledge, so just give it to them!
But it isn't easy. You tell them they'll be sad and lonely at Oxford; they don't get it. You warn them that holding a grudge will only weigh them down; they refuse to let it go. You explain how to parallel park; they end up jammed into a spot at a 45-degree angle with a line of cars honking behind them. It's like you're tipping your bucket over theirs, but all the wisdom-water splashes everywhere, and none of it ends up in their bucket.
Why is this so hard? Why must every generation of humans spend their entire lives learning what the last generation already knew? Why can't we reach the brain through the ears? The lives we could save, the years we could get back, the progress we could make, if we could just solve this problem!
And of course, it's a very reasonable question. I think about it a lot, which is why we're having this conversation. What's your--why doesn't it work? Why can't I just tell you the truth and now you know it?
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah, I think there are a few problems. And, the first is a language problem: that, the experience and the knowledge that we have is extremely rich. It's multifaceted, it's complex. It's in mental language. But, if we want to transmit it to someone else, we have to put it in actual language.
And, as I go through in the piece, the way that we do this is we pass air over our vocal cords, and we wag our tongues, and we vibrate the air. And, that vibrates a series of very small bones in the other person's ear, which then impinge on their neurons, and they decode that back into words in their head.
And this turns out to be a very lossy way of transmitting information from one person to another. What I experience and what I am able to put into your head are two completely different things.
Like, when I say I was sad and lonely at Oxford, it doesn't really mean anything to you. I can't put you in the moment that I would have twice a week coming home from improv rehearsal--like, cycling home in the dark with two of my friends. And, there would be a point where they would turn off to go to where they live. And, I lived another half mile down the road. And, when they turned off and I was left alone in the dark cycling in Oxford, I felt this profound loneliness. Like I was the only person in the world. And, even saying that, I know the words that I'm saying are not actually capturing the feeling that I had.
And so, when I tell this story to undergrads, they go, 'So, you rode a bike in the dark and, like, that was the bad part?' I'm, like, 'Yes, but you don't get why it was the bad part. There's so much more here than I'm able to explain to you.'
And really, the only way that you could get that is by having that experience. But you can't have that experience because that experience required my whole lifetime of experiences up until that point--my particular circumstances. Like, you can't ride home from improv practice to the same house with the same friends and feel the same things.
So, that's our first barrier--is that: I'm trying to use a language to explain this experience that is simply not up to the task. I cannot compress the knowledge in a way that you can decompress it and get it back again.
Russ Roberts: It's an amazing example because nobody wants to be sad and lonely. Although, there are moments in my life where I've been sad and lonely and I kind of enjoyed it. And I convinced myself often that it was a growth experience, which it may have been. But, let's say that doesn't appeal to you.
And so, when you say 'sad and lonely' and they don't get it, you say, 'No, no, you don't understand. Very sad. Very lonely.' And, that, of course, still doesn't do it.
We had Patrick House on the program--the neuroscientist--a couple of times. And, he, I thought, had a different version of this. And of course, there's an irony here. You and I are talking, people are listening, and they're listening with their ears, and we actually think it might go into their brain. And, my argument for this is that the more cheerful version--the optimism here--is that we're having a dialogue. And I think a dialogue might be a little easier to get into the brain than a monologue, but we'll leave that alone and just remark on the irony here.
So, Patrick told the story of having a woman in his life who wanted to talk on FaceTime all the time. And he found that weird. Like, 'Can't we just sometimes just talk on the regular phone? It's a little too much sensory overload for me. I like to think about what you look like. It's okay, and I don't have to see you on FaceTime, and I have to hold the phone a funny way.'
And, he discovered that she had a folder on her hard drive, on her laptop, of photographs of him. And, when they would talk on the phone without FaceTime, she would pull up the folder and open it so she could see his face. And he thought, 'Well, that's kind of weird, and a little bit creepy maybe.'
Until he discovered that she was one of these people who cannot see visual images in their head. And, those of us who can say, 'What do you mean? What do you see?' 'Well, nothing.'
Start with that. Let me try to convey to you that I don't see visual images in my head or vice versa. I mean, the other people are saying, 'You mean you see things in your head without looking at them?' I mean it doesn't even make any sense to them.
It's interesting, but the reason it's profound is that Patrick made the observation that in some dimension, this is the essence of the human experience for all of us. Fundamentally, I think--mistakenly--that when I say 'sad and lonely,' you know what that means. You don't. You have no idea of what sad and lonely means to me. They're very common words.
And if anything, if you wrote a five-page story about cycling home from Oxford, there'd be a lot more words, and it would maybe get to me in a different way than the phrase 'sad and lonely.' But you'd think, 'Well, come on, I'm going to be more efficient. Why do I have to add any--you know what those words mean, don't you?' And yet, they don't mean the same to me as they meant to you.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. I think sometimes about trying to describe the experience of bungee jumping to someone who has never done it before. It's a bad example. I've never done it before. But I just imagine: you fall, and then you bounce, and it's scary. And, the problem--like you're pointing out--all of these words, they seem to have one meaning, but they actually have many, many meanings. Like 'sad': there are many flavors of sad. And the only way you can specify those flavors is with additional words. And, eventually, you need so many words to explain the kind of flavor that you are talking about, that now you're at 5,000 words just to explain one of the words.
And, even then, you are hoping that this person has tasted that flavor of sad before. That's the only way that they can really understand it. And if they haven't, then it's like a color that they haven't seen. You go, 'Well, it's not red. It's kind of like red, but it's lighter and it's bluer,' and people have no idea what you're talking about.
I think that's the first barrier: is that we are using words that just can't capture what we are trying to capture. But I think there are many more barriers after that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, we're going to get to those. I just want to add one other example. In my book--I've written about it; I've probably talked about on the program--when I went on a silent meditation retreat for five days, most people said to me, 'You did what?' Yeah, I went on a silent meditation retreat for five days. And, because they know what it's like not to talk for 30 seconds, and they know it's hard not to talk for more than five minutes, sometimes, in some conversations, they think they have an idea what it's like not to talk for five days. And the answer is, of course: They have no idea.
And, how do you convey that? Well, there's an obvious way: Go on a silent meditation retreat. That's the way number one. The best I could do after it was over was to say--when it was over, I felt like I'd seen Les Mis for the first time.
And, that's an interesting idea, right? If you've seen Les Mis and you liked it, it doesn't really work because you probably say to yourself, 'How could being silent for five days be anything like that?' But that's what it felt like to me. Maybe even to you, but you'd have to live through it to feel it.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. And, maybe the most useful thing that you can tell someone is: It's not what you think. That, what you're doing is extrapolating your own experience into an experience that you haven't had. And, I can't really tell you what it was like, but I can falsify the hypotheses that you have about it. It's not just more of what you know.
And, maybe similarly with Oxford. It's, like, it's not just taking a class that you don't really like. I know that you as an undergrad have had that experience. Imagine if you never took a class that you liked and imagine if--you know how sometimes it's hard to get your advisor to respond to an email? Imagine if you didn't even believe that they wanted to respond to your email. It's not that they're busy doing a bunch of other things, and they want to get back to you, but they're so tied up. It's that they fundamentally wish you would not talk to them. It's like that. And, I think that's part of what people didn't get.
Russ Roberts: While you were in England, did you ever have any experience with whether an English University could sue a podcast, say, based in America with an Israeli host? I'm just curious, because you keep bringing up this Oxford thing. We're going to get in trouble, Adam. I'm getting a little nervous.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. I got in a lot of trouble over there. Well, I will say I was there for graduate education. I did a lot of improvs[?]. I did a lot of undergrad through[?] doing that. They seem to have a pretty good time, because I think that's what that institution has done for a thousand years, and they do it pretty well.
And, I think they actually take seriously this problem that we're talking about, where a lot of the undergraduate education is you sit in a room for a long time with someone who knows more about something than you do. You show them the ideas that you have and they talk about those ideas, and they tell you about ideas that they have.
I don't actually know a better way of communicating complicated ideas to someone else, other than doing that. It's not really lecture-based. It's very dialogue based, like you mentioned. It's very reactive. It's very idiosyncratic and tailored to what you're doing.
And, the people I met who were going through it seemed to really know their stuff. They seemed to be having a good time--because that's what Oxford has done for a thousand years, is educate young people by spending a lot of time with them in a room and talking to them deeply about the things that they're interested in.
It's only at the graduate level where they dispense with all of that. And they go: 'Now we're going to do lectures and we're going to do basically the big-box-store version of education. Now you're not really going to have a deep personal relationship with someone who has more knowledge about this than you. You're kind of going to get that on your own, supposedly.'
That is where I think we failed to solve this problem. Because, we failed to take it seriously. That, we thought it is easy or it is even possible to transmit this kind of knowledge from one person to another without working very hard at it, without developing a personal relationship around it, without tailoring it to the person who is receiving it. And without thinking deeply about how it is you get the contents of one brain into another.
And, that's part of why I had a bad experience there, is I was so used to doing that that I felt like I had a lot of personal relationships, and I was in a cohort of people who really wanted to talk about the things that we were learning. And, that developed those things, too, rather than feeling like I was going to Costco and buying a big jar of mayonnaise, and the mayonnaise was supposed to be knowledge.
Russ Roberts: We're now in a story within a story. I think it's probably a Borges short story. I've never read Borges, I'm ashamed to say. But you're using the metaphor of you can't learn through your ears to now not just apply to your advice as people after experiencing Oxford, for why it didn't work so well at Oxford. We will come back to that, I hope. We're going to come back to teaching.
I want to just mention that the thing you sort of said in passing about, 'Well, at least I can rule this out: it's not like what you think,' is actually somewhat powerful. It still might not be credible. It still might not go into the brain. But, the idea of saying, 'I can't tell you what it's like, but I know what it's not like. It's not like being quiet, but just longer--say, for a meditation retreat.' That's interesting. Maybe that's helpful to some people.
Talk about the study--this is very beautiful--the 1990 study that a graduate student, Elizabeth Newton, did. Maybe we could reenact pieces of it for ourselves or for listeners. I tried it with my wife. She didn't[?did?] go one for two. I stopped there. I thought that was interesting. But tell us about that study.
Adam Mastroianni: This is a great study, and part of what makes it great is it was never formally published. Like, I don't know what Elizabeth Newton did with the rest of her life, but she just did this beautiful study and then walked away. I think there's something very profound about that.
Anyway, here's how the study works. You come into the lab: there's you and another participant, and there's a screen between you. And, you get a list of some common songs that anyone would know, like "Jingle Bells" or "Joy to the World." And, you are told which of these songs you're going to tap out on the table in front of you. You just take your index finger and make little tapping sounds, to try to play the melody of that song to the person on the other side of the screen.
So, they can't see you doing this. And, their goal is just to guess which song you're tapping.
It's the dumbest setup in the world. One person taps, the other person guesses.
You, as the tapper, the other thing you do is try to predict how often the other person is going to know which song you're tapping. And, I have the actual numbers in the piece, but basically the tappers think that the other side is going to get it most of the time. And the other side gets it basically none of the time.
And the reason this happens, I think is pretty straightforward. When you're tapping out the song, you hear the song. You don't just hear the tapping. When you're tapping out "Jingle Bells," you hear the bells ringing, and you hear the melody. You hear the last recording of this that you probably heard, or the recording that you hear most often. All the other person hears is tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. They don't get the richness that you have.
Russ Roberts: They hear tap, tap, tap; tap, tap, tap; tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Which sounds good to me. Come on, don't you get it? It's like when you're playing charades, and you're trying to do some horrible word, and you just keep repeating the same thing over and over. And, they don't get it. How can they not get it?
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. And, one of the reasons this study is so great is it is exactly the metaphor for what it's like to try to transmit information to someone else's mind. You have all of the context. They have none of the context. I find this often.
So, I do comedy in my other life, and so a lot of times people will try to tell me about standup bits that they've heard. And, every time I see someone winding up to start to do this, I want to stop them and go, 'This isn't going to go how you think it's going to go. You think what you are going to do is cause me to have the same experience that you had sitting in the audience watching a professional standup comedian tell a joke. That's not the experience I'm going to have. The experience I'm going to have is listening to you sort of half-remember what a joke was, and deliver it with none of the skill that the professional had when they did it.'
And so, what I really get is a description of a joke--which is not a joke. It may be interesting, but it's not going to make me laugh the way you hope that it will, because you think that you are going to reinvoke all of the context that you had.
And, part of the reason you think that is because you didn't realize that the context was context, that you thought there was an essence of this experience that could exist without context. You didn't have to hear all of the set up until that point to really appreciate this joke. You didn't have to be sitting in a dark room with a bunch of people who had just been laughing and drinking for an hour to really appreciate it. You thought that you could just distill this to this one thing, give it to me, and that I would experience it the way that you experienced it. And, that's a total misconception of the experience that you had. You had something very rich and you're giving me something very poor.
Russ Roberts: The irony of that example, which is quite extraordinary, is that I like to tell jokes. I don't know if I tell them well. I'm sure I don't tell them as well as you do, Adam, being basically a professional, it sounds like. But, sometimes people pretend to laugh at my jokes. And, now that I'm president, by the way, they laugh all the time. It's one of the great negatives of being a manager is that people laugh at your jokes, even if they're not funny. I worry sometimes anyway about that. Maybe not. Who knows? Maybe they're actually thinking they're funny.
But, what I think about a lot when I tell a joke and it sometimes misfires, is that so many jokes require a punchline that is quite precise. And, if you watch a really skilled comedian--and I'll pick Gary Gulman as an example--it's clear that Gary Gulman--he talks about this online--Gary Gulman works very carefully at crafting his word choices. His timing is obviously important, but the word choice itself.
And if I tell you a joke and I butcher the punchline--'butcher' is the word we often use for that--it's not just that it's not as funny, as long as a person just looks at you, 'I don't get it.' And, the irony is that the butchered punchline could be more accurate and easy to absorb than the humorous real punchline.
But with comedy, you need that precision. You really want to say 'sad and lonely.' You know, 'somewhat depressed and wishing I had company' might not work at all. It's not just equally good. And, that's really another interesting thing about words, that's insane.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. And, if you aren't the person who creates that context or who does that work, you don't even see the context around the work that needed to be done. So, you just heard the punchline, and you think that that punchline kind of could have been--there was a confidence interval around that punchline. No: The confidence interval is extremely small. It was a single point and it contained the punchline.
And so, you think that these things can be varied and still give the same experience. And, they can't. And, it's totally reasonable to think that you never saw the punchlines that didn't work. You didn't see the words that got tossed out. You watched a professional do this and make it look easy.
And so, the same thing that the person trying to recapitulate the standup routine is doing is the same thing that I was doing at the table in the dining hall, trying to explain to undergraduates the experience that I had at Oxford. I didn't know that, like, I really needed to use the right words to do this. There was a very small range of things that I could say that could actually capture the thing that I experienced. That, I thought I could just kind of evoke it with a few words or a few anecdotes. And I couldn't. I couldn't because I wasn't a professional at it. Or I certainly hadn't worked as hard at it as a standup would at making someone laugh.
Russ Roberts: But what we're talking about now is the--more or less--the ambiguity of language. And, in this case of humor, the precision of language that's necessary.
But you're really talking about something much deeper, which is the acquisition of knowledge. And, not just the factual kind that you can look up, but the absorbing of a lesson. The deep appreciation for something that, when you encounter it again, you will know and recognize it.
This is what I think of as wisdom as opposed to knowledge.
We've been talking on the program recently about what it means to be smart and whether AI is smart or not. In what sense is it smart?
And this is a part of the human experience that's quite strange. You can have access to many pieces of knowledge, but they are not absorbed. You are not in command of them to apply them to life situations. You've heard the advice, or the wisdom, but didn't go in. And that's really your deeper point.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. And I know--I'm sure there are some people who think a lot about this, but I think this is totally underappreciated and under theorized popularly, because it's a really hard lesson to drive home, because the problem in explaining it is the exact problem itself, which is trying to capture the ineffability of knowledge.
But, we encounter this every time we take a class, and at the end, our knowledge is assessed with a multiple choice test. And, we've all had the experience of figuring out how to game the test--that, like, 'Okay, I need to know that the fundamental attribution error is the tendency of humans to attribute other people's actions to their disposition rather than their situation.' And so, when that comes up on the multiple choice test, I find the thing that says disposition and situation, or very similar words, and I pick that thing.
That doesn't mean that the next time I get into an argument with my partner and I go, 'You're so argumentative,' like, and not think about the fact that, like, 'Oh, maybe she's had a hard day.' But, like, that is actually the test of knowing what the fundamental attribution error is--is spotting it, rather than calling it up when the correct keywords are entered, as if I'm sort of a search engine.
Russ Roberts: That's exceptionally deep. I'm tempted to ask you to repeat it, but I'll just ask listeners to just go back 30 seconds and listen to that again.
I think--there's two pieces to it, actually. One is, 'Oh. Maybe my partner has had a hard day. Maybe I should change my way of interacting with my partner in recognition of that.'
Because many times your brain goes, 'Oh yeah, fundamental attribution error,' and then you keep talking. You stay on script--meaning you're getting annoyed that your partner is not responding correctly, and so on.
I think that is exactly right. And again, we've talked a lot on the program about certain words that I love. 'Randomness.' A phrase like 'emergent order.' They're easy to define. It takes a lifetime to fully absorb their significance for how you take in data and understand the world around you. Both of those are really profound ideas; and the fact that you can define them is almost worthless.
And, you could spit them back on an exam. You'd get the--there'll be three or four blank lines, and you'd fill them in, and you'd get it correct. You'd get the five points. But that doesn't mean you'd[?] understand.
And it points to really a fundamental problem, I think, with education, which is that the emphasis on testing forces us to measure knowledge acquisition in the very short run. Not a month, a year later. But, more than that, you might have the information, but you are not prepared to use it.
And of course, that's a very high standard. It's a very high standard for young people, and we're going to be talking more about that in the course of our conversation, that maybe it just takes age or experience to absorb these lessons. But, it is fascinating that most of education is remarkably unrelated to learning.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah, because it's hard to assess someone at the point that is most indicative of whether they've learned or not. So, I also teach college classes, or have in the past. And, all that I can do is put a piece of paper in front of someone and see if they circle the right thing, or use the right words, or write the correct essay. I can't pop into their lives when they are encountering the fundamental attribution error or exhibiting it, and watch whether they catch themselves or not. And, there's good reasons why I can't do that. But, if I really want to know if people got what I had to give them, that's kind of where I have to meet them.
There's some work that I love a lot on what's called the illusion of explanatory depth, which is sort of this: that, just this idea that it is easy to feel like you know something, because you don't have any signal that you don't know. And, one of the things that induces this illusion is knowing the name of something.
And so, they run these little vignettes where you describe an astronomer who sees a type of star they've never seen before, and they choose to call it, like, a Moritz star or something. They have some arbitrary name for it.
And, in the version of this vignette where it's named, people at the end say that they understand the star better than in the version where it's not named. But, all you know is it has an arbitrary name. It could have been named anything.
So, one of the very simple heuristics we have for whether we understand something or not is do we have a word for it? Which is not an unreasonable thing to use, but it can lead you to this error where you think that because you know the word, you know the idea. Like: I have a handle on this, so I have a handle on it. No, you don't, but it's hard for there to be a signal for what you don't have.
Russ Roberts: I've been reading Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which I've not read for a long, long time. I want to say maybe 16 years. I think I have that right. I interviewed him about it a long, long time ago, and I love that book.
And, one of the reasons I love that book is because he's a colorful writer. Many of the lessons he describes in there, I found more easy to absorb and remember. But, not just remember: to absorb and to have them come to mind in situations where it was useful to have them, or at least it felt that way to me.
And, I'm telling it to my Israeli undergraduates, some of these ideas, and they're reading the book alongside me. And, at one point, one of them says, 'Why is it hard to remember that there's downside risk and you could not just lose something but be ruined and not be able to keep playing the game? I mean, why is that such a big insight?'
And, in my experience, it took me a very, very long time to have that insight affect my own behavior. I've noticed how often I've forgotten that potential. Often--I wasn't ruined, but I wasn't even worried. I should have been worried. And, it's a deep question and it's not unrelated to what you're talking about.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. Like, what does it mean to know that? And, like, what it means to know that--maybe there's a second level of knowledge that we could call something, like you really know it when you take it seriously. There's the version of knowing where you can recapitulate the knowledge. There's a version of knowing where you can spot it in the world, and there's the version of knowledge where I can tell that you know it because you behave differently from someone who doesn't know it.
And, I think there's a lot of knowledge--at least that I have--that doesn't hit that lower level, maybe because I haven't truly come to believe it or to understand it. I read plenty of stuff about personal finance or how to make prudent financial decisions, and I can tell you, like, what is the rational choice to make at whatever point.
But, if I don't do it, do I really believe it? Do I really know it? What I really know how to do is to speak certain words when prompted in a certain way. Which is not the same. I'm sort of a Chinese room. Right? That, like, words come in, I translate them, I put them back out. But, if I'm not doing Chinese in the Chinese room, like, I don't know Chinese.
And so, if I'm not making financial decisions that accord with the knowledge that I claim to have, I don't really have the knowledge. I have a way of speaking about things. And, it's hard to tell the difference.
Russ Roberts: The Chinese room example is from John Searle, and you can Google that and maybe we'll find a link to the example. I like your idea that, 'Well, I don't really understand it and I can't really use it, but I can describe it really well.' In some ways, that's the essence of the academic--the worst sides of academic life. But we won't go there.
Russ Roberts: So, now in the essay you go a little deeper, and I think this is--as interesting as I found all this, I think the Source Code and the Keep is really the punchline. So, explain what you mean by that.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. So, I think one reason why it is difficult to reach the brain through the ears, is because some parts of the brain are walled off--and for good reason. And, the analogy that I use is that if you have a Mac--I assume there's an analogous thing on Windows--you can open a program called Terminal, and you can type some things in there that will brick your computer. You will ruin it forever.
And, the reason they give you that option is so that you can do a bunch of important things with your computer. If you know how computers work, it gives you a lot of power over your machine. It also gives you a lot of ability to ruin your machine.
You can't have a version of Terminal for the brain. It's too important. Otherwise, you'd end up ruining your brain. You'd end up putting a few things in, and now you are sexually attracted to birds, or now you don't know how to read anymore, or now you've forgotten how to bake a potato. Even though it would give you immense power to be able to edit things, it's too risky, and the downside is too great.
And so, there are all these things that are walled off against other people, but also against ourselves, to prevent ourselves from fooling around with the way our minds work, even if in certain cases it could leave us better off.
And, my best guess is that this is an evolutionary equilibrium: that we have been left, with evolution, certain things in our minds that are editable with varying amounts of work. And the more important they are to us, the less editable they are.
So, there are things that are changed easily. Like, if someone tells you, 'This bridge is out today, don't go that way. Go this other way,'--very easy. That's an easy belief to change. But, if someone tells you, 'It's better to have loved and lost than never loved at all,' difficult. Very hard to internalize that. That is the kind of thing that the mind only lets in through direct experience.
And, I think our most important beliefs are held behind that gate--inside the Keep--where it takes a lot of work to get inside and change them. And often, the only thing that does is direct experience over a long period of time.
Which, I think, is good that that works that way. But, this is why this problem is so hard, because these are so important, and we can't take the risk of letting other people in and screwing around with these important beliefs and knowledge structures that we have. So, that's the idea of the source code and the Keep.
Russ Roberts: I was laughing at your example about baked potato or birds, but of course, people who have brain damage of certain kinds go off the rails in all kinds of unimaginable ways to those of us who are okay or normal, having had the damage that's being considered. And, the most basic things are not accessible to them anymore; and they're dysfunctional. Not just: they don't live as easily as they did before. They can't take care of themselves, they can't cross the street, they can't remember all kinds of crucial life things. And, sealing that hard drive, or at least making it very hard to tamper with it, is essential--that you not tamper with it.
Of course, I think back to my class on pragmatism and Charles Peirce in college, and my professor Dick Smyth, made the analogy of the Cartesian--the Descartes follower examines every plank in the boat to make sure that it's solid and stable. And, they're ripping them up all the time, and there's water coming into the boat all the time, and it's dangerous.
It seems like the best thing you could possibly do--what would be better than making sure that everything that you know is actually true? And, that's the analogy of picking up the plank.
But, of course, that's unbearable. We can't literally can't live that way.
And so, we have all these prejudices that we've been--either transferred through our family or community or through our early life experiences. And, to alter those, is--it's dangerous. But, if it gets bad enough--like, if the boat's already leaking and my foot's going through the plank--I better replace that one.
And so, I think it's a powerful idea when we think about persuasion. I think most people believe--maybe not--but I think most people believe that facts matter. And, 'I have my facts, and I'll just explain them to you and you'll change your mind. You'll be like me.'
And, it doesn't work that way for two reasons.
The first reason I've always assumed was the main reasons: is that: Well you have your facts, too, and they're cherry-picked to confirm your beliefs, just like mine are. And, therefore, you don't find mine so compelling. You just say, 'Well, that must be exaggerated. I'll just hold onto my cherry-picked ones.'
But, you're making a different point, which is that it's not easy just to change my period[?]. There are all these very, very powerful impulses we have. We call it a bias. It's not a bias. It's a really important thing that keeps us going.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. It's a guardrail, if anything.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, better word.
Adam Mastroianni: And I think about--you're exactly right that this is so important in persuasion, because we want other people's brains to be editable because then we could make them more like ours.
But, just to think about what the world would be like if we actually responded to these kinds of interventions--that, like, if you have a friend who is a Trump supporter and you don't want them to be, you just go, 'But, you don't realize Trump is bad', and then, they go, 'I never thought about that. Now I agree with it.' It would be chaos. This would be giving every person a nuclear weapon, if other people were as editable as we act like they are.
And, I think it is really the acting like people are editable that is the problem, because it leads to a bunch of interventions that I think at best don't do anything, and at worst really cost people a lot. That, the way we argue with one another in the hopes that we're going to change each other's minds leads to frayed friendships but not changed minds.
Or, the other favorite thing that we do is think that the barrier between someone and the better version of themselves is some kind of educational or informational intervention. That, like, I just need to give this person the correct facts and then they will change. Like, 'Oh, you are a smoker? Well, I have to tell you that smoking is bad, and now you won't smoke.'
And, this is such an impoverished view of the way other people's minds work, that if you just use the way your own mind works and you know that there are so few things in your life--maybe nothing in your life--that if you really wanted to change, the thing that you need is someone to tell you that the way you are is bad and that you need to be some better way. But you know that what you would need to change is multi--it's a lot.
If you want to lose weight, you go, 'Well, I need more hours in the day. I need a gym that's closer to me. I need a workout routine that I don't hate. I need someone to go with me so I feel motivated. I need a good podcast to listen to.' But, other people just think that, 'No, what you need is to be told to get off your butt.'
And, I think this is the problem, that, like,--so I'm home right now in the town I grew up in, and I was walking past my old high school the other day. And, there's this sign that's on the fence that I think is developed by the Ohio Department of Transportation, or Public Health, or something, and it just says, 'You're in control,' and it has a picture of a steering wheel; and then, like, some pictures of people.
And, I had to get really closer to be, like, 'What is this, like, public health intervention doing?' And, only after looking at it for 30 seconds is it, like, 'I think they want people to buckle up.' I think that's what it is. But, who was this, who, like, wasted actual money and, like, spent the time putting up this sign--like, getting it printed, thinking that this was going to be the thing that makes people use their seatbelt? If that's even what they wanted.
It is this version of people--I've written about this before. Like, when you think that people are stupid, this is what you do. You put up these signs that certainly have no effect on whether people buckle up or not. And if you really want people to go from not using their seatbelt to using their seatbelt, you have to think really carefully about why they aren't using their seatbelt right now and what it would take to turn them into a seatbelt-using person. And, like, those aren't easy questions, especially if you are a person who uses your seatbelt. You probably don't understand why people don't.
Russ Roberts: I want to go back to this idea of persuasion, because I realize, as I've gotten older, I'm much more comfortable letting people say things I radically disagree with. It's taken me a long, long time. I've written about it in a couple of books. And, to sit quietly while someone speaks nonsense used to drive me insane.
As I got older, I realized. One, it might not be nonsense. So, that's a level of intellectual humility. It's lovely to acquire it.
But, I think the deeper point is much more important, and it's related to what you're saying, which is: Your ability to say something thoughtful, even evidence-based, to get them to change their mind is close to zero. And, you think you're doing education, and you're just running your mouth. It's like that sign. They think they're saving lives. They're just spending money on the sign and the people that got to be hired to put it up.
And, of course, the third part, which I've learned getting older--and I'm telling this because this is a perfect example of what you write about--me telling people this is going to have almost no impact whatsoever on their urge to correct people around them that they disagree with.
But my third part is: I don't know how to take this. It's not so important. It took me a long time to get to that point. In my mind, if I could just convince this person, the world is going to be better because there'll be one more person who's smarter, or who gets it, or who knows it.
And, respecting another person, up to a point means simply: recognize the fact that actually, you can't convince them. You shouldn't be trying to, and you could be wrong as well.
I don't know why, as I've gotten older, that the inability to convince people is actually comforting. It should be depressing. I don't find it depressing, partly because of what you're saying, that actually, this is a really important defense mechanism for human beings.
So, for those of you out there who get in trouble because you're always lecturing other people--other their political views, their religious views, the lack of religious views--this is a way to respect another person as a human being and enjoying other aspects of their humanity and yours, without condescending to explain to them why they're wrong. [More to come, 45:37]
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. I feel like I'm on a similar trajectory, and a few things have similarly put me at ease. One is recognizing that it would be disastrous if everyone in the world thought the same way that I do, even though I'm pretty sure this is the correct way to think. That's why I think it. I'm not 100% sure. There seem to be good reasons why people have very different ideas about the world. And so, maybe what I should do is try to make my ideas as good as possible and hope that other people come to share them as well, but not be too worried about it; to make sure that my niche of the world is functioning as well as it can, and to hope that other people are doing that, too. And that in the fullness of time, the correct ideas will win out.
And, it's actually not that important that I convince individual people. What's really important is I turn these ideas into their best form, so that they can convince people who are open to them, so they can beat out the worst ideas. Or, at least if they fail, they failed at being at their best.
And, to think of myself basically as functioning in an ecosystem that wants to be an ecosystem, not a monoculture. That, like, I'm over here trying to be a lizard, and you're over there trying to be a mammal, and that's fine. Like, I don't have to lecture you about why it's very good to bask in the sunlight so you can warm your cold blood. And, you don't have to lecture me about why it's important to give birth to live young. Like, we can do our own thing. And I certainly hope we live in a world where I'm allowed to be a lizard, and you're allowed to be a mammal. And, sometimes, we're going to clash over the resources that are yours and the resources that are mine. But by and large, I'm trying to do my thing as best as I can. And, it's okay if it's not the same as your thing.
The other thing that puts me at ease is this work on the third-person effect, which is basically this effect when you show someone a persuasive message, they tend to say, 'Oh, that doesn't affect me. It would affect someone else, though.' And, obviously this is a bias, because everyone's looking at this and going, 'Doesn't affect me, but it'll affect the next guy,' and the next guy, 'Doesn't affect me, it'll affect the next guy.'
And, I think this feeling makes us really feel like the public record must be correct. Like, I cannot stand a politician standing up and saying lies, because those lies will convince people.
It actually turns out, like, it's not going to do that much. It's going to resonate with the people who already believe it. Like, this isn't the thing that's going to move the needle.
That doesn't mean that you shouldn't ever speak out against lies, but it does mean that every lie is not a disaster and shouldn't be treated as such. And in fact, if you treat it that way, you'll waste a lot of time trying to correct the record and not getting that much out of it.
But, it's hard to do. I think we have this visceral reaction when we hear someone speak an untruth. If you were walking by someone on the street and you heard them saying, 'James Madison was the first President of the United States,' it would, like, screw up your insides. It would be so hard, I think, to not stop and go, 'Sorry, you're wrong. George Washington was the first President of the United States. I don't know how you--,' and yet it turns out it doesn't matter that much if that person thinks that James Madison was the first President of the United States. Like, what's it going to do?
Russ Roberts: That's a whole separate question of why injustice rankles us so much, or untruth. I think that's a whole 'nother area of human experience, because I don't think it's a very rational experience that you go, 'I don't think it's James Madison.' You bark out, 'Wrong! George Washington.' And, there's something deeper going on there.
Russ Roberts: Now, we've been talking a lot in the last few minutes about disagreements over how the world works, political disagreements, say, religious disagreements, disagreeing over facts. But, there's a whole different arc in your piece that I don't think we focused on. I want to turn to it now, which is what I would call--what we started talking about--which is the ability to absorb things that are true, that eventually you will believe are true, but you cannot absorb them by hearing them. And, instead, you have to go through them and live them. It's not just you had a really good teacher, or the example of sad and lonely was really fleshed out well. It's just that until it happens to you, you have almost no chance of absorbing it.
And, I think about this because, you know, I wrote a book called Wild Problems--supposed to help you make decisions, think about decision-making. I think deep down somewhere in my thinking about the book, I thought, 'This is going to be a book that older and wiser people like grandparents will give to their younger grandchildren, because they'll want them to not make the mistakes they made. And, this kind of book is a richer framework for thinking about decision-making. And it's great for young people.' I still like to think that, because I have these biases in my keep. One of those biases is that, 'Oh yeah, the things I do are really different than the things other people do, of course.'
But, I had Kevin Kelly on the program recently. He wrote a book called Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I'd Known Earlier. I really enjoyed that book. It's a set of aphorisms. Many of them I think are true--almost all of them. And, they're put in very witty and memorable formats to help you remember them. And, that's good.
But, it does raise the question--and your essay raises the question--of whether giving that to a younger person--and there are many books with that kind of title or subtitle--does it have any impact whatsoever?
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. I think it certainly creates the feeling of learning. I've read some of Kevin Kelly's bullet-pointed advice. I think it's great. It makes me feel great reading it. And, maybe some of the nuggets get stuck in the system and they come back later. But, I don't actually think that's the main way or the best way, maybe even an effective way, of transmitting wisdom from one person to another.
Now, it is taking a different track, which is to say: Look, there's only so much I can do on a person-to-person basis. What if I try to mass produce what I do?' And, I know that for each person, it's going to have way less of an effect. But, if you multiply it by the number of people that it affects, maybe you actually get to a much higher number.
I don't know. The confidence interval around my beliefs certainly include that possibility. And so, I don't think it's useless to do that.
But, I know that the things that certainly have changed my life, they didn't have a bullet point in front of them. They had a person in front of them.
I think this is what I got out of doing a Ph.D., was I sat for five years in a room with someone who knew a lot more than I did, and we talked.
And, like, I can't even put back into bullet points the things that I learned. A few of them I can, but again, they wouldn't be the right words. They wouldn't get you there. What you really have to do is go talk to Dan Gilbert for five years. And, unfortunately, he's not doing that anymore. And, he can only do that with so many people.
And so, that's why I think, 'Yeah, it makes sense that, okay, well not everybody can have an experience like that. So, can we put some of that into a book and give it to some people?' I think that makes sense. So, long as we recognize that, like, you can't shrink to the bullet point the things that are most important. There is this inevitable part of this, that it has to be experienced to be gotten.
And, I think that helps refocus on, like: What is it that you seek to get from an educational experience? That, from the outside, a lot of people think that what you're going to get is really the bullet points. They're like, 'Well, you're going to take the class and the class has these bullet points; and then you'll know them; and then that's good.'
And, like, that's actually the smallest part of what you get out of the education.
What you really get is more like a vibe. You go into this room, and there's a person who acts a certain way, and in ways that you can't even articulate and maybe don't even, like, consciously realize, they have an influence on you. That, you start to be more that way. You talk to people in a different way. You learn to treat certain things as important. You gain a framework for thinking about things that might even be hard to articulate once you have it.
And, this is why you can only get a small portion of what that education has to offer if you watch the videos online. And in fact, if you just watch the lecture, like, it's not the same.
So, yeah, that I think is the downside of the bullet-point advice approach to life.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I've spoken about how much I love The Odyssey by Homer and the Robert Fagles translation. A listener, having heard that, said he doesn't need to read it. He read the comic book; and he does know what happens to Odysseus on his attempt to get home, but that is not what makes the book. That bullet-pointed list of the adventures of Odysseus--Cyclops, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, etc.--are not what make it a great book. And, by doing that, you of course learn almost nothing.
There was a wonderful--I can't remember the name of it now. It might come to me later, but there was a wonderful little book of short poems that summarized great novels. And, the idea being--it was humorous--the idea was if you've read the four-line poem, now you don't need to read the novel, because now you know what it said. And, the lecturer, the bullet points, doesn't get, obviously, at the inner life.
Russ Roberts: I want to close--I was going to say one other thing, about parenting. This leads to your point about advice and bulleting. As parents, we often want to share our wisdom with our children. When they're younger, they absorb all kinds of things that we don't tell them in bullet point form, that we don't understand how it gets in and what it does to them. And, some it's wonderful, and some it's probably horrible and destructive. And, that's the nature of--parenting is very hard. And that's even if you're well-intentioned.
But, as your children get older and you get older still, there is a very powerful urge to give them advice. My children--we can survey them--but the older I get, the less advice I try to give them, even though I think I know more than I did when I was parenting them when they were younger.
And, that's because I don't think it'll go in. They have to come to that knowledge through their own experience.
And, there is this unfortunate or not, I think reality for most folks that sometimes, learning a lesson from a parent is harder than learning it from Kevin Kelly. So, I'm more likely to give Kevin Kelly's book to my kids, say, than my book.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. I have the same experience with my parents. I think it drives them nuts that they give good advice, but the only way I'll ever take it is if I forget that they told it to me, and I think that I thought of it myself. And so, six months have to go away, and I'm like, 'Oh yeah, I think actually I'll do things this way.' And, they've become very zen about it because they're very good parents.
But, I'm not a parent yet, but I think what people don't realize is so much of the advice that you give is actually embodied, that it didn't come out of your mouth, it came out of the life that you constructed for your children. That, like, I know that my parents love me both because they say it, but also because every time as a child that I needed them, they were there.
And, that is actually how I learned that--that, like, words are easy to say. This is part of why I think we don't fully trust them, and part of why it's hard to transmit knowledge via words, because words can be faked. But, waking up in the middle of the night to deal with a crying child--like, that can't be faked. And, when you are on the receiving end of that, you know that is true.
Russ Roberts: So, we're going to close in a second, but I want to alert listeners who are of the kind that would enjoy this, that after we sign off and after I thank you for being part of EconTalk, Adam, I want us to take a look at a poem that gets at some of this.
And, I don't know how that's going to go. So, for those who are not into poetry, or are tired of hearing poetry on EconTalk, there'll be a first ending, and then there'll be a second ending.
So, the first ending, I want to close with--ironic after what we just said about parenting--your grandmother's advice. It's a beautiful example, and it happens to be the same way that--it's not advice actually. It's a conversational tick almost that your grandmother had. My father had the exact same one, which I love, and I'll say something about that. But, go ahead. Tell us what your grandmother's nature was.
Adam Mastroianni: Yeah, so I lost my grandmother in December. And, she was an amazing person. And, the advice that she would always leave you with when you were concluding your visit, she would say, 'Be good.' I mean, it sounds like the dumbest advice of all time. It's two words, and obviously 'good' definitionally is a thing that you would want to be.
But, the whole point is, knowing her and knowing her my whole life, I knew what she meant, and I could add another 5,000 words around what she meant, but I didn't have to, because I saw the way that she lived. I knew the things that she did. I knew the things that she cared about, and I knew what she was doing was invoking all of that.
And, she didn't even have to think about this explicitly. She lived this rich life and all she was saying was, 'Do this, be like this.' And, I don't think she was even saying this explicitly, but the experience that I had was this feeling that I had of being with this person who radiates love for other people, who raised six kids, who lived this tremendous life. She's saying, like, 'Do like this. Everything that you see, the way that you feel now, how you feel good, be like that for other people.'
And that was really powerful. I won't ever forget that. And, if she had written a book that was like, 'Here's how you make the food that I made, and here's my philosophy on raising children'--it wouldn't have had the same impact. I mean, I would've loved to read that book, but the two words I think do even more work than a book-length treatment would've done.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Adam Mastroianni. Adam, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Adam Mastroianni: Thanks for having me.
Russ Roberts: And now, the rest of the story. We're going to go a little longer. And, I will just mention that, I think for my dad, I think think he meant to say 'be well,' but he would confuse good and well. I'm not sure, but maybe he was encouraging me to be good. But, it's funny to me how warm those two words make me feel just as I am sure they do for your grandmother, even though they're kind of simple. But, they do get it, something that gives me goosebumps.
I want to talk about a poem, as I mentioned, for people who are still with us. And, it's a very hard poem, so I'm going to read it. I encourage you to read it before--listeners, I encourage you to read it before I start talking about it. And, I'm deliberately going to not fully explicate it. I'm going to skip to the part that I thought was relevant for our conversation.
The poem is by William Butler Yeats. It's called "After Long Silence," and I'll read it now:
Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.
And that's the whole poem. It's eight lines. The middle of it has this word 'descant.' It's quite a complicated word. It is either a reference to a certain type of singing in church, choir music, that were melody I think and harmony mixed together, and a certain note rises above the other. But also, it has other usages. But, when I sat it on a class on this, that was the main point.
I want to just look at the last three lines. Yeats wrote this when he was 67. He was--older. And, he's clearly saying, 'We descant and yet again descant.' He and a lover in this verse are saying over and over again, or singing over and over again, or remarking over and over again upon the 'supreme theme of art and song.'
So, what is that 'supreme theme of art and song'? You're thinking, 'Well, what could that possibly be?' And, here it is, here it is distilled, the essence of what is art and what is song--poetry presumably, and maybe life. He says, 'Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young we loved each other and were ignorant.' And, what I take that to mean, and then I'll let you comment, is: You can't be wise until you've lived it. It's not education, it's not the classroom, it's not reading, it's living. And, I don't totally agree with that, but that's the claim.
And, it's a bittersweet claim, because it comes with bodily decrepitude. Meaning when you're old, and infirm, and weak, and not so attractive as a lover, that's when you're the wise person. And, when you're young, and beautiful, and able, and strong, and you're at the height of your powers, you're ignorant. And, I think it's an incredibly powerful poem, but I think it gets very much at part of what you're saying.
Adam Mastroianni: It seems like a common theme in every culture is veneration of elders. And, I mean, the fact that this shows up in cultures that are very different from one another, it says something.
And, as a young person, I've always felt very skeptical of that. And, I've always seen the worst versions of it: that these people are stuck in their ways. They won't embrace the future.
And, maybe it's purely becoming closer and closer to being one of those people--inexorably, second after second, day after day--that I start to see more of the wisdom of doing that. That, if you recognize that people can have knowledge that is ineffable to you, that they cannot transmit to you easily, and that you can't fully understand, one shorthand or one heuristic for how to deal with that is just to respect and listen to them more than you would to someone who is much younger and doesn't have that.
And, obviously, that can go wrong in all sorts of ways and can lead to all sorts of abuses. But, I don't think the kernel of truth in it is wrong--that there are things that you only get through experience. And that, when you see someone who has those experiences, they deserve some deference. And, I'm sure I'll be singing that tune louder and louder the more gray hair I have.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, and the older and older I get the smarter my dad is. I think that's the joke.
How old are you, Adam?
Adam Mastroianni: I'm 32.
Russ Roberts: Thirty-two. Well, you're delightfully wise for a mere 32-year old. I think it's unlikely I'll be around when you're my age, but I'm sure you'll be older and wiser. Thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Adam Mastroianni: Thank you.