Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Economic Minds: Keynes as Top-Down Thinker, Hayek as Bottom-Up Thinker

As I have been thinking of the varieties of thinking, from top-down to bottom-up, with solipsism and autism being the extremes of each, respectively, it seems we should perhaps try to identify various thinkers regarding where they would fit on the spectrum.

If we look at a few economists with whose personalities I am familiar, I think it is very safe to say that J. M. Keynes was at the solipsistic end of the spectrum. Certainly this short bio strongly suggests that interpretation. Keynes was not an analytical thinker in the least; rather, he was an extremely strategic thinker. His every move, his every idea -- and change of ideas -- was a strategic move. Criticize him, and he had already changed his mind, thank you very much (that this resulted in people like Hayek not taking on his ideas enough was no coincidence).

But what about Mises? An interesting case. His apriorism would seem to suggest a level of solipsism, since Mises claimed that an internalistic apriorism would allow one to understand how the economy works for everyone. Is this a claim that there is really no difference between the individual thinker and the outside world? I do believe there are interpretations of Mises that go in this direction, but I think that Mises' propensity for analytical thinking saves him from this. He was perhaps a more balanced thinker -- both top-down and bottom-up.

Hayek, of course, is the main proponent of spontaneous order theory explicitly stated, and spontaneous orders are themselves bottom-up orders. It may be that one needs to be a bottom-up thinker in order to most clearly see bottom-up processes. Hayek's tendency to actually change when he received new information (vs. Keynes, for whom this was a strategic statement) is also suggestive of his being a primarily bottom-up thinker. Throw in his pattern thinking and interdisciplinarity, and you have a standard strong bottom-up thinker.

I would be curious as to what others think of this quick analysis. I am most confident of my observations on Keynes and Hayek than I am on Mises. I would also be interested in how other economists, philosophers, etc. might be categorized along the top-down to bottom-up continuum.

Friday, February 21, 2014

On the Varieties of Styles of Thinking

Styles of thinking occur along a continuum. At the center of the two extremes are top-down and bottom-up thinking. In fact, these are not the most extreme forms of thinking, but we have to first establish the norm of each before we can understand the extremes of each.

Top-down thinkers tend to see the big picture first. They start with the answer. The end goal is identified, and then ways to get there are investigated. To flip the old cliché, you see the forest, but not the trees. In developing ideas, theories, hypotheses, a top-down thinker will get a handful of data before developing the ideas, theory, hypothesis, then proceed to try to find ways to prove that theory, as proving the theory is the end goal. Of course, data may not prove the theory, in which case one then posits a different theory. The more top-down a thinker is, the less data is needed to develop an idea, etc., or to prove (or, indeed, disprove) a theory to them, which makes the process faster; however, this means they are more likely they are to engage in confirmation bias. Such thinkers are strategic thinkers.

Bottom-up thinkers tend to see the parts first. There is no clear end goal identified; the process itself is sufficient, and the end will be reached when you get there. These are the people who sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees. Or, specifically, they need to have a sufficient number of trees in order to agree that what we have here is in fact a forest. In developing ideas, theories, hypotheses, a bottom-up thinker will collect copious amounts of data, work out the patterns within the data set, then develop the idea, etc. from the identified patterns. The more bottom-up a thinker is, the more data is needed before they are comfortable developing an idea, etc., but as a result they are very likely to be quite confident in their idea, etc. However, sufficient contradictory data will in fact change their minds, especially after they figure out how to fit the new data in with the old data. Such thinkers are analytical thinkers.

Now please note that these are general patterns. The fact that one is generally a bottom-up thinker does not mean they cannot engage (or learn to engage) in top-down thinking. Or vice versa. However, the more extreme one's natural thinking process is, the less likely one is going to learn (or learn well) how to engage in the other kind of thinking.

Also, one may note that there are strengths and weaknesses in each of these approaches. If you need to strategize, you need to engage in top-down thinking. If you need to come up with a solution quickly, you need to engage in top-down thinking. However, if you need to do a careful analysis, you need to engage in bottom-up thinking. If you want to understand patterns, you need to engage in bottom-up thinking.

I will also note that both styles of thinking also match the two general patterns of network architecture: top-down, hierarchical networks and bottom-up, scale-free networks. Top-down networks require step-by-step organization. You start at the top and you add things over time to create the network. The most efficient way is to create a hierarchy. Our organizations, including our firms, are so structured. However, bottom-up networks self-organize as the parts interact with each other. Things aren't added; rather, patterns emerge from the interactions of the parts already there. As a result, you get a scale-free architecture following power law distributions of links.

I would further argue that those who primarily engage in top-down thinking are going to be more comfortable with, and more likely to identify and identify with, top-down hierarchical networks, or organizations. Those who primarily engage in bottom-up thinking are, thus, going to be more comfortable with, and more likely to identify and identify with, bottom-up hierarchical networks, or spontaneous orders. As a result, one would predict that the more top-down a thinker you are, the more likely you are to support policies that support that world view -- you will be more likely to support policies that will create more hierarchical organizations and which will organize the world from the top-down. Equally, one would predict that the more bottom-up a thinker you are, the more likely you are to support policies that support that world view -- you will be more likely to support policies that will create decentralized networks and reduce hierarchy.

Those who are most typically bottom-up thinkers, though, have been pathologized by the majority, who are primarily top-down thinkers, into Asperger's and Autism. But what if things are more complex than that? Although there are certainly problems -- from a neurotypical's standpoint, anyway -- with those in the autism spectrum, one ought to acknowledge that if the most extreme end of bottom-up thinking is problematic, then the most extreme end of top-down thinking is problematic as well.

What would you expect from an extreme bottom-up thinker? That the -up part is gone, that the world remains fragmented and that the pieces can therefore not be brought together at all. I think this would go a long way to explaining the behavioral situation of those with the most extreme forms of autism. Equally, then, one would expect from an extreme top-down thinker that the -down part is gone, that the world remains an undifferentiated whole. This would mean there is no difference between the person and the rest of the world -- which is solipsism. The solipsist, however, can function in the social world, whereas the extreme autistic cannot. However, the solipsist believes he has the answer to everything, that everyone is the same as him, and that to question his ideas is to insult him personally, as there is no differentiation between him and his ideas. The extreme autistic sees infinite variety; the solipsist sees infinite sameness. The solipsist would then be expected to support egalitarianism, to think wealth disparities are terrible, that differences in opinions from his own are terrible, and thus would seek to create a society that conformed to him and his ideals. The extreme autistic is a problem only to himself (and those who have to take care of him); the solipsist is a problem to society.

Let me now relate all of this to Spiral Dynamics. It seems to me that the more collectivist levels -- purple (tribal), blue (authoritative), green (egalitarian), and turquoise (holistic) -- are going to develop out of and in turn encourage more top-down thinking. Individualistic levels -- red (heroic), orange (entrepreneurial), and yellow (integrationist) -- are going to develop out of and in turn encourage more bottom-up thinking. The more one is able to switch from one style of thinking to another, the easier it will be to move through the levels; extremes of either side will find such emergence more difficult, since switching styles is more difficult. Difficult does not mean impossible, of course; life conditions can certainly give one a strong nudge, to say the least. But if we take the fact that most people are in fact predominantly top-down thinkers, while those with a more balanced style of thinking are relatively rare, we can perhaps make sense of the fact that there are relatively few of the most complex psychologies, even within even the most complex societies.

We would also expect top-down thinkers to prefer to "settle in" in the more collectivist levels, where they are comforted by top-down organization of society, whereas we would expect bottom-up thinkers to prefer to "settle in" in the more individualistic levels, where they are comforted by less hierarchical, more scale free social orders. At the same time, we would expect many business owners to be top-down, strategic thinkers, while we would expect analysts and scholars to be more bottom-up, analytic thinkers. All of which clearly problematizes any simple political divisions. Still, it would probably not be surprising if one were to learn that there is a positive correlation between dominance of bottom-up thinking and support for libertarianism.

All of this points to the fact that when it comes to understanding any social order of any sort, you are dealing with very complex situations. The dominance of a style of thinking is going to affect the structure of society and of the culture as well. It also suggests that we need to be careful pathologizing ways of thinking. As a style of thinking comes to dominate in a society, that society will itself shift into being a society more open to that style of thinking, but not to another. Today's pathology might be tomorrow's norm. But if we pathologize, we don't really have to even try to understand; we can simply get such uncomfortable thoughts such as that there are people out there who do not in fact think like us well away from us so we won't have to worry about it or even deal with it. But that impoverishes both ourselves as individuals and society itself as a whole.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How My Thinking Affects My Social Views

My research into my son's autism has resulted in my coming to understand myself as well, since one of the results of that research is to learn that I have Asperger's, a form of autism. The result is I now have a causal explanation for why I think as I think.

For example, with the Intense World Theory of autism, one would predict I would have very strong emotional reactions and strong feelings of empathy. However, expressing these strong emotions and feelings of empathy in the intensity in which I feel them is considered to be socially inappropriate. As a result, I engage in suppression, to keep in control. That doesn't mean I don't feel deeply or that I don't empathize deeply -- quite the contrary -- but it does mean that if I don't want to be an emotional nightmare to everyone around me, I have to keep continuous conscious control over it. The overwhelming bombardment of empathy for others can also make one shut down when one is in a crowd. Imagine intensely empathizing with a room full of people! It's often too much. Thus, I appear socially awkward at parties.

People with Asperger's and autism (hereon out, simply "autism") also are more bottom-up thinkers, while neurotypicals are top-down thinkers. What this means is that autistics collect lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of data before creating a hypothesis or theory, whereas neurotypicals will form a theory after collecting a much smaller amount of data. A consequence of this is that neurotypicals will then typically engage in confirmation bias, searching for confirming data for their theories. Autistics, on the other hand, are not so attached to their theories that they won't change their minds if there is enough data to disconfirm their ideas. For my own part, I in fact seek out disconfirming data and ideas. I have changed my ideas quite a bit over time, adjusting my world view as new data becomes available.

Bottom-up thinking also tends to lead to pattern thinking. I am very good as seeing patterns -- especially complex patterns that are not obvious to others. Much economic thinking is based on the ability to see exactly these kinds of patterns. It also means that I can see similarities among ideas that others may miss. I see the commonalities among information theory, self-organization, evolution, emergence, network theory, and Austrian economics -- to such a degree that I quite often interchange them and their vocabularies. This sometimes leads to confusion when I am conversing with someone -- but very often I get them to see that I am really saying the same thing they are, just using a different language from a different model. I can do that because the patterns of each of these theories are actually identical.

Having laid the groundwork, I can now explain how the way I experience the world leads to my social views. I have extreme empathy for those who are poor and who suffer. It deeply bothers me to see suffering. As a result, I have tried to learn the best ways to alleviate suffering on as large a scale as possible. I have collected data over the decades, and come to the conclusion -- based on historical, social, cultural, and economic data -- that free markets in the economy, and other kinds of spontaneous orders in other social spheres. Spontaneous orders are bottom-up orders -- not unlike my thinking. And seeing the patterns in common among the various social systems helps me to see how if one spontaneous order benefits people the most the freer it is, then the same is true of other orders as well. Since I do not have an emotional connection to ideas, as neurotypicals seem to do, but only care about whether what I propose actually has the effects I seek, I do tend to come across as, at best, incredulous when I come across people who will not see the incredible damage their ideas have done, continue to do, and will do.

I will also note that the fact that neurotypicals are top-down thinkers might explain the preponderance of top-down ideas. More than that, if we are looking at thinking as occurring along a continuum, one would expect a few extremes of top-down and bottom-up thinkers. The most extreme bottom-up thinker would never be able to synthesize everything into a theory (they could not see the unity), while the most extreme top-down thinker would never be able to see the pieces, but would have a theory and stick to it no matter what evidence (they could not see the diversity). For the hyper-autistic thinker, everything would be outside of them; for the opposite, there would be nothing outside of them (that is, they would be purely solipsistic). It seems odd that the autistic thinker is seen as pathological, but not the solipsistic thinker, though as I have demonstrated, they are equally pathological. More, their thinking is necessarily going to make them more defensive of their ideas, since their ideas are them, and an attack on their ideas is an attack on them. It would also explain why they care more about their ideas than the outcomes, even at the expense of human lives. It would also explain why so many people think that top-down organizations are preferable to bottom-up spontaneous orders.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Microaggressions Article at The Pope Center -- and More Musings

My latest at The Pope Center is on the UCLA debacle regarding microaggressions and correcting students' writing. The discussion going on at the end is particularly interesting.

Aria Razfar, whose paper I cite and link, comes by to comment. He and I are actually not all that far off from each other. For example, I agree with him that, "language itself can not be separated from values, identities, and culture." But the problem is that many people (not Razfar, though, I believe) think that one's values, identity, and culture are and ought to be completely unchanging over time. The fact of the matter is, though, that one's values, identity, and culture do change over time. And when you go to a university, you either adapt to the university's values, identity, and culture, or you end up dropping out. Is that wrong? Or is that as it should be?

Humans are social, and social identity comes about in no small part from shared values, identity, and culture. If you want to join my group, you have to conform to my group's values, identity, and culture. Does that mean you will have to give up some of your own values, modify your identity, and adapt to a different culture? Yes. Necessarily so. I did it with each university I attended, I did it with each city to which I moved, and I did it when I married. We all do.

Thus, when a professor corrects you, that professor is attempting to help you adapt to the new values, identity, and culture inherent in university life. If you want to attend a university, that is what you are doing and what you must do. It is no different than if you decided to go live in Saudi Arabia for four years -- you cannot run around in a bikini or say aloud whatever negative opinions you may have about Islam there. Fortunately, the cultural differences are such that the ramifications for not fitting in well in a university are far less personally dangerous, but the general principle is the same. So if you attend a university, you need to understand that you need to adapt to that culture -- and that means, adapt your language to the university and the professors' expectations as well.

Daniel, Language, Handedness

Today Daniel picked up a pen and wrote with his left hand. I am left-handed, so there is a certain heightened probability each of my children would be left-handed, meaning this shouldn't be all that surprising. Except for the fact that until recently, Daniel had been writing with his right hand.

Daniel is also autistic, and there is increasing evidence that many of the neural wiring differences are located in the left hemisphere, where language and social processing is typically located. An MRI of Temple Grandin's brain also shows the extent of this difference, as discussed in an article in Discover Magazine. Among the differences is a larger corpus collosum, which allows for increased communication across the hemispheres.

At may be possible that Daniel's brain is rewiring the right hemisphere for language and, as it is doing so, causing Daniel's dominant hand to switch from right to left. Certainly nobody is encouraging him to switch hands from right to left. If his brain is rewiring his language onto the right hemisphere, that would explain his language delay and why his language seems to be developing much better now.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Autistic Brain and Thinking About Spontaneous Orders

I am currently reading The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin. It is a fascinating book that really draws your attention to what is known and what is unknown about autism -- and some of the problems with autism research that are caused by the fact that most researchers into autism are not themselves autistic, and the fact that there is a strong bias against self-reports, meaning there is too much focus on external expressions and not enough on what someone with autism is experiencing. It seems odd that autism research is, in this sense, a final holdout of behaviorism.

It should not be surprising that Grandin, being autistic herself, focuses on how autistics experience the world. But she also points out that autistics think about the world in a different way. Specifically, she notes that neurotypicals think in a top-down fashion (big picture before details), while autistics think in a bottom-up fashion (details before big picture). This has an interesting result. This means that neurotypicals tend to develop ideas from fewer sources, then take that theory and go back to the facts, where as autistics collect far more details and develop a theory from the details, from the facts. This also, coincidentally, is what allows autistics to see and understand patterns better and in more detail.

Also, this bottom-up thinking might help autistics to understand bottom-up processes better. I am learning that there are a large number of people with Asperger's and autism among libertarians. I could point to the fact that autistics base their decisions on facts and information and are dispassionate in their conclusions, which is no doubt one of the main reasons why they would tend to support free markets. A more cynical view would be that autistics just want to be left alone to do their work, and extrapolate this out to government (just leave me alone and everything will be fine!). I'm not even going to argue that this isn't perhaps a part of it. However, it is also likely true that a more bottom-up, pattern-based thinker is going to see and understand bottom-up processes with complex patterns better than neurotypicals, meaning they will tend to understand spontaneous orders in general better than neurotypicals. Seeing social processes for what they are surely has to help one to come to certain kinds of libertarian conclusions when it comes to social orders.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Learning vs. Acquiring. Reading and Writing vs. Speech

One of the reasons humans can learn so much so quickly is because of the presence of adaptive modules -- really, instincts -- that both result in the creation of social knowledge and are developed from that social knowledge. Language is a good example of this. Without an instinct to language, humans could not use or make language. The notion that someone came along and decided, one day, to create language is utterly ridiculous. You cannot create language without a notion of language. It is thus an evolved instinct. However, the details of any given language are learned.

I say, "learned," but in fact the details of any given native language are actually acquired, not learned. There is a huge difference between acquiring something and learning it. You acquire your native language and any other language you encounter pre-puberty, but you learn any second language you have learned post-puberty. You can only learn how to read and write -- they are not acquired. But morals are acquired, not learned.

What, then, is the difference between something learned and something acquired? You acquire something for which you have the neural modules. You thus acquire the language you speak, the morals you practice, the aesthetics with which you judge works as beautiful. On the other hand, when you learn something, there are no naturally evolved modules to speed things along; more, the modules available in the brain have to be adapted to the task. For example, parts of the brain modules for recognizing shapes and for recognizing faces, which are right next to each other, are used for reading and writing in the creation and recognition of letters. Other modules are no doubt adapted for other uses as well. For example, we acquire music, but we learn to play a musical instrument.

Unfortunately, we use the same term -- learn -- when we talk about language acquisition and learning to read and write. However, the former is natural and acquired, while the latter two are learned technologies. The fact that reading and writing are learned technologies explains how it is that a person can speak more eloquently than they write, or write more eloquently than they speak. Yet, there is this expectation that, because someone can speak, that they should be able to learn how to read and write just as easily. However, our brains are not designed to read and write -- our brains merely adapt to learn to read and write. And that adaptation comes at a cost: literate peoples are less able to recognize faces than are illiterate peoples. Educators need to recognize these facts in teaching students how to read and write, and in our expectations about our students' willingness to read and write.

Think about it. We may think a person impractical given contemporary circumstances, but we wouldn't wail and gnash our teeth if someone were to say they didn't like using computers and/or the Internet. There are people who don't like cars and don't like to drive, and drive as little as possible. I resisted getting a cell phone for the longest time, and since my son put my phone in a glass of water, I honestly haven't missed it. Yet, we (overeducated elites) are appalled when we come across people who (horror of horrors!) hate to read and are happy going through life not doing so.

At the same time, communication is increasingly written. We write tweets and emails and on Facebook and on blogs and send memos and have to write reports. How much more reading do people do because of the existence of the Internet? Of course, much of that reading is the tweets, emails, etc. of their friends, meaning common errors in composition make their rounds and build within textual communities. But I would venture to guess that even this is not the real problem with college students' writing.

The real problem is that the percentage of people attending college has been steadily increasing over time. Once, universities were primarily full of people who loved to read and had read a great deal. Those same people are going to college, but they are being joined by an increasing number of people who not only do not read, but actually hate to read. You simply cannot teach adult students who do not like to read, and thus have not been exposed to literally thousands of hours of good sentences, how to write well. The hours of reading and writing (and corrected writing) have to be put in well before college. There is no getting around this fact. Student writing is getting worse not just because our high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools are complete disasters at teaching these two technologies -- but because most of the students attending college are now non-readers.