David R. Henderson  

Tyler Cowen on Stories

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Commenter Ken B's positive comment on Tyler Cowen's TED talk motivated me to watch the whole thing. I agree that it's excellent. The talk is about 15 minutes long and moves along at a good pace. The basic message: don't be seduced by stories. Stories are oversimplifications of a much more complex and messy reality. I agree.

Tyler also makes a point that I make in classes and in talks: think on the margin. Whatever point you're at now, don't throw out your whole life and your whole way of being. There are reasons, some of them good, for why you are the way you are. (Of course, he, and I, are talking about normal everyday people here. If you're a modern Hitler or Stalin, then, yes, please do throw out your whole life.)

One part of it left me wanting more. At about the 7:45 point, Tyler says:

I used to think--I was within the camp of economists--I was one of the good guys, and I was allied with other good guys and we were fighting the ideas of the bad guys. I used to think that. And probably I was wrong. Maybe on some issues I was one of the good guys but on some issues, I finally realized, "Hey, I wasn't one of the good guys." I'm not sure I was the bad guy in the sense of having evil intent, but it was very hard for me to get away with that story.

I'm guessing that the "I was probably wrong" was mainly about the fact that the guys with the bad ideas were not bad guys. I get that. I don't think most of the people I argue with are bad guys. I think that most of them simply have bad ideas.

So I thought the point of his "throw out the good vs. bad" idea was that we shouldn't just assume that people who disagree with us are bad guys. But then Tyler seems to go in a different direction when he says, "I wasn't one of the good guys." So it seems as if he's keeping the "good vs. bad" theme but saying that he, Tyler, was bad.

So was Tyler a bad guy? Probably not if, as he seems to mean, we define "bad" by evil intent. It would be much easier to know what he means if he told us one or two instances in which he realized he "wasn't one of the good guys." What were the instances and when he realized that he wasn't one of the good guys, what did he realize he was?


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Tom West writes:

The trouble is that stories are one of the fundamental motivations for human effort.

It's why I find truth-seeking (ala Robert Hanson) to be a little dangerous. If you go too far towards the "truth", you end up with life just a random outcome of physics and thus utterly meaningless, with human activity simply a drive to fulfill biological urges.

I think there's a reason that evolution has made one of those urges the desire to believe in stories.

[Maybe truth-seeking is like playing "Call of Cthulu". You want to know a little about the "truth" to protect yourself, but every bit you learn (costing you precious sanity points) makes you more vulnerable to knowing too much and learning "things that man was never meant to know" :-)]

RPLong writes:

My first thought on reading this was of Bryan Caplan's excellent post from a couple of years ago, in which he explored the idea of whether we give "our side" more credit than "the other side."

I really wish I could find that post right now and link to it, because it's an important tie-in, in my opinion. It was all about how we seldom see things as bad when "we" do them, but quickly notice them as bad when "they" do them.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
The trouble is that stories are one of the fundamental motivations for human effort.
Tyler would agree with you. In fact, he does in the talk. That's why my emphasis, and his, is "think on the margin."
I think you mean Robin Hanson, right?

Steve Reilly writes:

I think the implied ending of "I wasn't one of the good guys is "...because there aren't any just-plain-good guys", right? So he isn't calling himself one of the bad guys.

Ken B writes:

I had the same reaction to the good guys/bad guys bit. I don't know much about Cowen, but I get a strong vibe that his instincts are all big government leftist, but he's restrained by his understanding of markets. It sounded to me like at some point he decided -- his word is realized -- that he was letting economics arguments sway him too much. To make a fanciful illustration: like a man whose intellect was with Ron Paul but whose heart was with Al Gore who decided one of them (in Cowen's case his intellect) was wrong.

John Roccia writes:

@Tom West:

Comments like yours are why I read this blog. Come for the economic insight, stay for the Lovecraftian RPG references!

Tom West writes:

Robin Hanson, right?

Whoops. You are, of course, correct. I shouldn't post before my morning coffee.

And yes, it helps to post *after* watching the talk rather than before... Well, at least the Lovecraft reference worked for John :-)

I do miss the days when I was always right (at least until I was wrong, and then I was right again). Wouldn't trade, but I do miss them...

John Fast writes:

@Tom West and @John Roccia:

Werewolf: The Apocalypse is just a Call of Cthulhu game where you can actually beat up some of the horrors.

At least if it's run properly.

Tom West writes:

Definitely off-topic:

Werewolf: The Apocalypse is just a Call of Cthulhu game where you can actually beat up some of the horrors.

But... but... but that's sacrilege!

The whole point of CoC is that you're helpless in the face of the true awfulness of reality. In the end, the best you can hope for is buying the world a little more time in which in which to enjoy its ignorance.

Perhaps my favorite CoC moment as a player came after losing half the party to obtain incontrovertible evidence of the existence of the Old Ones for a senior official who had sent us on our quest (not believing there was anything behind the odd occurrences). We proudly thought we had "won" the session by bringing back the evidence.

He gravely examined the evidence we had returned with, pronounced "something must be done", pulled out a revolver (aha, he's a doer! A retired Indiana Jones meant to guide our exhausted and injured party to victory!) and blew his brains out in front of us...

The shock to our party and players was truly palpable.

(The second session ended with the bad guys getting blown up when the sole surviving player lit the fuse of the explosives under the bad guys lair. However, to the shock of the GM, but keeping with the CoC ethos, after having lit the fuse, instead of making the climactic run out the tunnels before the inferno, he simply sat among the explosives until it detonated, finally free.)

It was perfect.

(Especially for happy undergrads who are so far removed from existential horror that they they're only chance to experience it is to role-play it.)

John Roccia writes:

Man oh man, do I love me some existential horror. Even when I'm running non-horror based games, I always end up running some sort of theme of it as an undercurrent.

Also - I love how the comments on a post about story-seeking devolved into swapping tales about roleplaying. Seems rather fitting - what is roleplaying, after all, but a perfect example of us trying to create a sensible narrative?

Tom West writes:

Also - I love how the comments on a post about story-seeking devolved into swapping tales about roleplaying. Seems rather fitting - what is roleplaying, after all, but a perfect example of us trying to create a sensible narrative?

Funny, as soon as I clicked "Submit", I had exactly the same thought.

I'll go with the "great minds think alike" on this :-).

A writes:

I think Tyler discovered the literature on status-seeking and relized that he was just one more person pursuing personal advantage under the guise of "just wanting what's best for everyone" (i.e., being one of the good guys).

It's harder to take yourself and the good guy/bad guy narrative seriously once you realize your "sincere" beliefs are probably just the toy sandbox models of your brain that your bigger, more practical, and mostly hidden brain lets you see.

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