The Nudgelords

Comments at Andrew Gelman:

* At this point I’m pretty familiar with Cass Sunstein. I’ve participated in a multi-day workshop with him, read some of his books and many of his articles, and have used his writings frequently in my teaching. I don’t plan on reading his new book since I think I already know what he will say about almost any topic.

There are two central legs (stool minus one) to his thinking. The first is that he fully embraces a conception in which the ideal rational actor is counterposed to the empirical actor burdened by nonrational heuristics. His understanding of rationality is not simply abstract in the sense of consequentialist decision theory but operationalized via orthodox welfare economics. All choices are understood as consumption decisions over which each individual has or should have a consistent preference map. Our truest guide to well-being are the consumption choices people make when not under the influence of heuristics, which is most of them. Thus monetization as a framework for cost-benefit analysis of the remaining choices is theoretically grounded. There is also a libertarian bias to welfare economics insofar as it uses individual utility-maximizing as its benchmark, understanding individuality as possession of one’s own preference map. The honoring of individuals as a moral and political value—liberalism—is therefore no more or less than respecting their preferences. I will admit that Sunstein has helped me understand the limitations of welfare economics to the point where I would now do without it altogether.

The other leg, which has made him a frequent subject of this blog, is that he shares the delight that Andrew has recognized in many economists (and economist followers) in showing that people are less rational than they think they are. Sunstein and those of a similar bent regard themselves as experts in rationality, equipped to detect lapses among the less knowledgeable. Identifying such lapses and coming up with policy tweaks to remedy them is how they see their job. (Designing nudges is one strategy but hardly the only one, and Sunstein’s advocacy of cost-benefit analysis goes far beyond nudging.) As Andrew has pointed out, identifying the foibles of others gives people like Sunstein enormous pleasure, so much that they seize on every research paper that claims to have found a new irrationality, whether or not the evidence stands up to scrutiny. I won’t stoop to pointing out the irony here….

* Basically – famous/influential people have an impact because they have optimized, at least in part, for becoming and staying famous and influential. This might necessarily (though I don’t actually know that it must) make them worse at getting things right. There was a recent Scott Alexander post on this that I thought was pretty good:

* WebMD is the Internet’s most important source of medical information. It’s also surprisingly useless. Its most famous problem is that whatever your symptoms, it’ll tell you that you have cancer. But the closer you look, the more problems you notice.

* Dr. Anthony Fauci is the WebMD of people.

At least this is the impression I get from this rather hostile biography. He’s a very smart and competent doctor, who wanted to make a positive difference in the US medical establishment, and who quickly learned how to play the game of flattering and placating the right people in order to keep power. In the end, he got power, sometimes he used it well, and other times he struck compromises between using it well and doing dumb things that he needed to do to keep his position.

* I can’t tell you how many times over the past year all the experts, the CDC, the WHO, the New York Times, et cetera, have said something (or been silent about something in a suggestive way), and then some blogger I trusted said the opposite, and the blogger turned out to be right. I realize this kind of thing is vulnerable to selection bias, but it’s been the same couple of bloggers throughout, people who I already trusted and already suspected might be better than the experts in a lot of ways. Zvi Mowshowitz is the first name to come to mind, though there are many others…

When Zvi asserts an opinion, he has only one thing he’s optimizing for – being right – and he does it well.

When the Director of the CDC asserts an opinion, she has to optimize for two things – being right, and keeping power. If she doesn’t optimize for the second, she gets replaced as CDC Director by someone who does. That means she’s trying to solve a harder problem than Zvi is, and it makes sense that sometimes, despite having more resources than Zvi, she does worse at it.

The way I imagine this is that Zvi reads some papers on whether the coronavirus has airborne transmission, sees the direction they’re leaning, and announces on his blog that it probably has airborne transmission.

The Director of the CDC reads those same papers. But some important Senator says that if airborne transmission is announced, important industries in his state will go bankrupt. Citizens Against Lockdowns argues that the CDC already screwed up by stressing the later-proven-not-to-exist fomite-based transmission, ignoring the needs of ordinary people in favor of a bias towards imagining hypothetical transmission mechanisms that never materialize; some sympathetic Congressman tells the director that if she makes that same mistake a second time, she’s out. One of the papers saying that airborne transmission is impossible comes from Stanford, and the Director owes the dean of Stanford’s epidemiology department a favor for helping gather support for one of her policies once. So the Director puts out a press release saying the evidence is not quite strong enough to say airborne transmission definitely happens, and they’ll review it further.

* Dr. Fauci is able to make decisions that will affect billions of dollars in wealth, Senate seats, Twitter likes, and other extremely valuable resources. Thousands of people who would prefer that they get the dollars and seats and likes will be gunning for him. In order to stay on that throne, Dr. Fauci will need to get and keep lots of powerful allies (plus be the sort of person who thinks in terms of how to get allies rather than being minimaxed for COVID-prediction).

This interferes with his COVID predicting ability, but in the current system there’s no alternative.

* Think of centers of expertise like the CDC or the IGM Economists Panel as giant systems for disentangling corruption and power. Their job is to produce one or two people who can get in front of the population and say something which has some resemblance to reality, even though the entire rest of the economy and body politic is trying to corrupt them. They…actually do sort of okay. Anthony Fauci is neither Attila the Hun nor Trofim Lysenko. He’s a kind of bumbling careerist with a decent understanding of epidemiology and a heart that’s more or less in the right place. The whole scientific-technocratic complex is a machine which takes Moloch as input and manages – after spending billions of dollars and the careers of thousands of hard-working public servants – to produce Anthony Fauci as output. This should be astonishing, and we are insufficiently grateful.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in Andrew Gelman. Bookmark the permalink.