The electric lag

From Tim Harford’s book Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy:

As electric motors became widely available in the late nineteenth century, some factory owners experimented by using them to replace that large central steam engine, drawing clean and modern power from a nearby generating station. After such a big investment, they tended to be disappointed with the cost savings. And it wasn’t just that people didn’t want to scrap their old steam engines. They kept installing more. Until around 1910, plenty of entrepreneurs looked at the old steam-engine system, and the new electrical drive system, and opted for good old-fashioned steam. Why?

The answer was that to take advantage of electricity, factory owners had to think in a very different way. They could, of course, use an electric motor in the same way that they had used steam engines. It would slot right in to their old systems. But electric motors could do much more.

Electricity allowed power to be delivered exactly where and when it was needed. Small steam engines were hopelessly inefficient, bu small electric motors worked just fine. So a factory could contain several smaller motors, each driving a small driveshaft– or, as the technology developed, every workbench would have its own machine tool with its own little electric motor. Power wasn’t transmitted through a single, massive spinning driveshaft but through wires…

You needed to change everything: the architecture, the production process, how the workers were used. And because workers had more autonomy and flexibility you had to change the way they were recruited, trained, and paid…

As more factory owners figured out how to make the most of electric motors, new ideas about manufacturing spread. Come the 1920s, productivity in American manufacturing soared in ways never seen before or since. You would think that kind of leap forward must be explained by a new technology. But no. Paul David, an economic historian, gives much of the credit to the fact that manufacturers finally figured out how to use technology that was nearly half a century old. They had to change an entire system: their architecture, their logistics, and their personnel policies were all transformed to take advantage of the electric motor. And it took about fifty years.

(pp. 93-94)

Here’s Paul David on the parallel between the dynamo and the computer. Here’s the Brynjolfsson/Hitt paper that Harford cites on organizational transformation as a limiting factor in productivity growth from computers. Here’s a previous post I did with links to a few other relevant papers and articles, including Rebecca Henderson’s classic paper on architectural innovation. And here’s one other post on the same idea.

The boundary between opinion and expertise

There’s a line I love from The New York Times 2020 Report, on staffing:

We should continue to employ a healthy mix of newshounds, wordsmiths and analysts.

I like it for the simple reason that it acknowledges that great journalists can take many forms — indeed many more than that simple (and text-biased) categorization. But if “analysts” is one category of great journalist, perhaps it then further splits into the explanatory journalists and the opinion journalists. Both are certainly analysts more often than newshounds or wordsmiths, I’d argue, (though certainly some opinion journalists do have wordsmith tendencies). Where, then, is the line between opinion and explanation?

If the answer seems obvious to you, consider these lines. Here’s Dan Kahneman:

if a large body of evidence published in reputable journals supports an initially implausible conclusion, then scientific norms require us to believe that conclusion.

Here’s Bertrand Russell:

when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain

Both of these sentences hint at what to me is a somewhat haunting idea: can it ever be rational to hold, confidently, an opinion that every other deeply informed person thinks is wrong? It seems like we would want the answer to be “Yes”, at least sometimes, or else we’d end up with too much group think. And yet most good analysts would acknowledge that the aggregated judgment of a group of experts is superior to any one person’s view. Why exempt yourself from that rule?

OK, I won’t attempt to answer that whole puzzle in this post. But with it out there as motivation, I want to clip together a couple decent treatments of the distinction between opinion and explanation.

First, here’s economist Greg Mankiw writing in Foreign Affairs:

When economists write, they can decide among three possible voices to convey their message. The choice is crucial, because it affects how readers receive their work.

The first voice might be called the textbook authority. Here, economists act as ambassadors for their profession. They faithfully present the wide range of views professional economists hold, acknowledging the pros and cons of each. These authors do their best to hide their personal biases and admit that there is still plenty that economists do not know. According to this perspective, reasonable people can disagree; it is the author’s job to explain the basis for that disagreement and help readers make an informed judgment.

The second voice is that of the nuanced advocate. In this case, economists advance a point of view while recognizing the diversity of thought among reasonable people. They use state-of-the-art theory and evidence to try to persuade the undecided and shake the faith of those who disagree. They take a stand without pretending to be omniscient. They acknowledge that their intellectual opponents have some serious arguments and respond to them calmly and without vitriol.

The third voice is that of the rah-rah partisan. Rah-rah partisans do not build their analysis on the foundation of professional consensus or serious studies from peer-reviewed journals. They deny that people who disagree with them may have some logical points and that there may be weaknesses in their own arguments. In their view, the world is simple, and the opposition is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Rah-rah partisans do not aim to persuade the undecided. They aim to rally the faithful.

Journalists and economists do different things, but you could imagine that Voice #1 is explanatory journalism, whereas Voice #2 is good, responsible opinion journalism. (Voice #3 perhaps is bad opinion journalism.)

The next example comes from Paul Bloom’s introduction to psychology on Coursera. Consider the differences between these two statements:

I think it’s fair to say that nobody believes this anymore.  Just about everybody agrees to at least some extent that these three claims are mistaken.

And:

More recently, the philosopher Dan Dennett [has argued,] “Perhaps the kind of mind you get when you add language to it is so different from the kind of mind that you’d have without language that calling them both minds is a mistake.”

So, is this true?

Well, there’s an extraordinary amount of debate about it. My comments about animals and their lack of a human-like language are controversial,  but this stuff gets really controversial, and people have different views. So I’ll give you a sort of a warning, that what’s going to follow is my perspective. But my perspective is this…

Statement #1 is Mankiw’s Voice #1. Statement #2 adopts Mankiw’s Voice #2.
None of this addresses the deeper question of when it’s rational for an analyst to have an opinion that differs from expert consensus. But Mankiw’s framework and Bloom’s examples do show how to present those different opinions responsibly, and how they differ from the more “textbook” or “explanatory” approach.

Triangulating the truth, and how journalistic objectivity should work

In a recent study, researchers at Stanford asked 45 people to evaluate the credibility of information on different websites. Their goal was to examine the participants’ ability to discern truth from falsehood. 10 of the participants were PhD historians; 10 were professional fact-checkers; the rest were college students.

The fact-checkers did far better on the tasks the researchers assigned. Most of the historians were indistinguishable from the college students. Of course, a study this small can’t say much with any confidence. But its conclusions are intriguing. The fact-checkers did better because they “read laterally.” As the researchers write:

They employed a powerful heuristic for taking bearings: lateral
reading. Fact checkers almost immediately opened up a series of new tabs on the horizontal axis of their browsers before fully reading the article… In an Internet teeming with cloaked sites and astroturfers (front groups pretending to be
grassroots efforts), taking bearings often assumes the form of lateral reading. When reading laterally, one leaves a website and opens new tabs along a horizontal axis in order to use the resources of the Internet to learn more about a site and its claims. Lateral reading contrasts with vertical reading. Reading vertically, our eyes go up and down a screen to evaluate the features of a site. Does it look professional, free of typos and banner ads? Does it quote well-known sources? Are bias or faulty logic detectable? In contrast, lateral readers paid little attention to such features, leaping off a site after a few seconds and opening new tabs. They investigated a
site by leaving it.

This idea of lateral reading reminded me of a somewhat pithier description of how fact-checkers do their work, from the book Deciding What’s True:

PolitiFact items often feature analysis from experts or groups with opposing ideologies, a strategy described internally as “triangulating the truth.” “Seek multiple sources,” an editor told new fact-checkers during a training session. “If you can’t get an independent source on something, go to a conservative and go to a liberal and see where they overlap.” Such “triangulation” is not a matter of artificial balance, the editor argued: the point is to make a decisive ruling by forcing these experts to “focus on the facts.” As noted earlier, fact-checkers cannot claim expertise in the complex areas of public policy their work touches on. But they are confident in their ability to choose the right experts and to distill useful information from political arguments.

The “lateral readers” from the study were doing something similar, but through internet research instead of interviews. In both cases, the key to evaluating information is to compare multiple sources. And that process involves both comparing different sources’ treatment of the claim and using multiple sources to assess the credibility and trustworthiness of the original source.

The key part of “triangulating the truth,” though, is the word “truth.” Fact-checkers don’t check multiple sources simply to be “balanced” or “neutral.”* That’s in line with Yochai Benkler’s recommendation to journalists, “to shift away from… objectivity as neutrality to objectivity as truth-seeking.”

But these examples illustrate how some of the tools of journalism that were sometimes adopted in part to serve an ideal of objectivity-as-neutrality — like talking to multiple sources from different ideological persuasions — can be re-purposed to serve the goal of objectivity-as-truth-seeking.

At this point, someone might reasonably ask: does “triangulating the truth” work? Does the process of speaking to multiple sources improve one’s chances of reaching the correct answer on empirical matters? The study that I started with hints at that possibility, but as I said it’s too small a sample to put much confidence in. However, I’d argue that “triangulating the truth” and “reading laterally” both accord with another bit of research-backed advice for truth-seeking.

Research on geopolitical forecasting by Philip Tetlock and others has found that the best forecasters consider many perspectives, are actively open-minded, and use a “many-model” approach to thinking about the world. Here’s how I described some of that research:

He found that overall, his study subjects weren’t very good forecasters, but a subset did perform better than random chance. Those people stood out not for their credentials or ideology but for their style of thinking. They rejected the idea that any single force determines an outcome. They used multiple information sources and analytical tools and combined competing explanations for a given phenomenon. Above all, they were allergic to certainty.

(More detail on that work can be found here.)

The methods of Tetlock’s superforecasters aren’t exactly those of the fact-checkers, but they’re similar. Certainly, the superforecasters appear to be lateral readers. They check multiple sources and “triangulate them” — and the evidence shows quite clearly that some people can do much better than others at this skill of triangulation.

For me, this suggests that the fact-checkers’ process has merit, and it points toward a future for journalistic objectivity. If journalists are going to take Benkler’s advice, as I believe they should, they need to reevaluate their processes with an eye toward empirical truth-seeking. We’ve seen that many standard journalistic processes are well-suited to this endeavor, but they can also likely be improved. What might this look like?

One place journalists might look for inspiration is the literature on diversity and decision-making, as well as the (related) literature on why aggregating multiple models often outperforms one model on its own. In both cases, the key insight isn’t simply that adding more perspectives is always useful. It’s that adding additional perspectives is most useful when those perspectives add things the previous perspectives left out. Here’s Scott Page, a professor at Michigan who’s done lots of work in both areas:

With an ensemble of models, you can make up for the gaps in any one of the models. Constructing the best ensemble of models requires thought and effort. As it turns out, the most accurate ensembles of models do not consist of the highest performing individual models. You should not, therefore, run a horse race among candidate models and choose the four top finishers. Instead, you want to combine diverse models.

Viewed through the many-model lens, it makes a certain amount of sense to talk to both a conservative and a liberal when trying to discern the truth about a political claim. However, a traditional “balanced” or “neutral” approach to political journalism would say that if you’re going to talk to four people, talk to two liberals and two conservatives. But the literatures on both diversity and model aggregation would suggest that your third and fourth interviews should be about finding different perspectives and additional information that the conservative and the liberal both lack.

My point isn’t to rewrite anyone’s protocol for sourcing in this post; it’s to suggest that the social science on decision-making has a lot to add as journalism reorients its practice of objectivity away from neutrality toward truth-seeking. The professional fact-checkers already seem to be doing a pretty good job of following that advice.

*For what it’s worth, PolitiFact uses both “neutrality” and “transparency” to describe its approach to objectivity (Deciding What’s True, p. 124). So the organization may not agree completely with Benkler’s suggestion to move away from “neutrality.”

Electricity, the New Deal, and America’s urban-rural divide

But the New Deal’s electrical reformers aimed for something even bigger than an economic stimulus to relieve farmers and put workers back in business. They hoped to use this program to heal a cultural rift between urban and rural America that had been widening for decades, as city populations boomed, rural villages dwindled, and many farmers felt increasingly alienated from the economic and social mainstream. By the 1920s, the center of cultural authority had shifted in America; public opinion was now dominated by cosmopolitans who lampooned country “hayseeds” and dismissed parochial thinking as “small town stuff.” Once proud to think of themselves as belonging to a nation of farmers, many Americans now faced an identity crisis.

Page 301 of Age of Edison which I have now finished. My previous posts on it are here, here, and here.

Who gets credit for America’s adoption of electricity?

Another post from Age of Edison:

Defending these new regulations [on electric light], the progressive reformers pointed to Europe’s example. Governments there had played a more active role in controlling the development of the electric industry. National laws encouraged municipal ownership of utilities and set standards for all electrical work, drawn up by leading scientists and engineers. And Europeans had done a better job of preventing the new technology from scarring their fine buildings and urban boulevards, placing most wires in the urban core underground early on…

But American electric companies drew a very different lesson from Europe’s example. As they claimed time and again, the United States enjoyed far more electric light than any other place in the world, a bounty that electricians traced not only to their own inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit but also to the lack of government interference.

Both arguments sound familiar.

So who really deserves the credit for America’s rapid embrace of the electric light?

By the turn of the twentieth century, electricity was coming of age, no longer a curiosity but a mass commodity, delivered by a sophisticated and heavily capitalized industry that saw nothing but exponential growth ahead. Some old-timers who gathered at the National Electric Light Association conventions looked back nostalgically on the early years when any man with a bit of enterprise, practical skill, and a fascination with electricity could go into the light business for himself. But most acknowledged that the changes had been necessary, the only way for industry to grow, providing more, safer, and less expensive light while paying healthy dividends for its inventors.

Though the rash of fires and electrocutions had threatened the industry’s growth in the late 1880s, it emerged from these challenges stronger than ever. The owners and operators of the utility companies deserved a share of the credit for turning electric light from an invention into a paying business, but the expanding electrical grid was also created by other institutions and conflicting forces, an attempt by many Americans to mediate the interests of rival inventors and manufacturers, the salesmen of light and their customers, the competing values of free enterprise and progressives’ all to use government to protect the public from the twin dangers of market chaos and corporate monopoly.

The more mature and stable electrical system that emerged by the early twentieth century had been produced by other forces as well–the scientists and journalists who helped to develop and spread a common language of electricity; research institutions and technical schools that turned a growing number of enthusiastic students into licensed electricians and engineers; legislatures that created regulatory bodies and electrical codes; the experts who protected the public interest through their work as inspectors, utilities commissioners, and civic-minded economists; unions that tried to protect their members from unsafe work practices; and the insurance companies that guarded the public’s interest and their own bottom line by imposing safety standards on electrical products and work. All played their part in turning Edison’s famed invention into the far more complex and powerful creation, the modern electrical grid.

Pages 210-212. My previous posts on the book are here and here.

America the inventive

More from Age of Edison, on why the U.S. surpassed Europe in invention:

Europeans often conceded that Americans displayed a remarkable aptitude for invention, particularly in the field of labor-saving devices. The country had not produced many philosophers, as one Englishman put it, “but her practical men may be numbered by the hundreds. If a Yankee has an idea, he likes to put it into practice. He is not content to read a paper, and let someone else work out his theories.” Pioneers in industrial innovation, the British still made better products, and sold the world many more of them. But they conceded, with evident concern, that “it is from America that all the new inventions come to us.”

…As one educator put it, “very great inventiveneness” had become a defining national trait…

Many explained America’s inventiveness as a by-product of its expanding market and its chronic labor shortage…

Others attributed American inventiveness to the nation’s more democratic educational system…

Americans were fast passing the Old World in technological creativity, many argued, because the U.S. economy offered these rewards not just to a small educated elite and those who inherited titles of nobility, but to all those entrepreneurs who served their fellows through the marketplace… In a variation on the American dream, some people joked that every true American man would feel ashamed to go to his grave without at least one patent to his name.

(Pages 144-154.) Here’s my previous post on the book.