Friday, 9 May 2014

On Teachers and Artists

Most teachers are experts on the particular topic they try to educate their students on. But they aren't necessarily experts at teaching. It's assumed that because they know the topic well, that they can teach it well, but most teachers (at least the ones I've had) can't. They don't know about which teaching techniques work best or which kinds of assignments students actually learn from or what kind of atmosphere a class should be.

In contrast, artists are experts at a particular craft and use that craft to express messages. But they aren't necessarily experts on any other topic and may not have anything intelligent or useful to say with their art. They're ordinary people that have platforms for personal expression like bloggers - and like bloggers, they don't come with a guarantee of being well-read, smart, original, or moral.

Teachers have things to say but can't necessarily communicate those things effectively. Artists can communicate their ideas but don't necessarily have anything interesting to say.

Monday, 5 May 2014

GiveWell Update on DMI

In February, I wrote an Effectiveness Case Study on Development Media International (DMI), the charity that changed my mind about the effectiveness of mass media interventions. Although I began writing this blog with the belief that the mass media could potentially rival all other charitable interventions in effectiveness and cost-effectiveness, my hope had been evaporating the more I researched the issue. When I discovered DMI and other organizations like it, it renewed my belief that the mass media could do tremendous good when in the hands of people that know what they're doing. Since then, after researching entertainment-education and other explicitly altruistic forms of media, I am even more confident of this.

The other day, after reviewing midline reports on the ongoing randomized controlled trial in the Burkina Faso, GiveWell updated its views on DMI:
"If the results - and DMI's cost-effectiveness calculations - held up, DMI could become a GiveWell top charity with substantially better estimated "cost per (equivalent) life saved" than our current top charities." 
Based on my own research, GiveWell's tentative guess about DMI is right. Their programs are extremely cheap, highly scalable, and a little bit effective. The questions surround the difficulty of proving the relationship between the media and the behaviour change. That sort of causation is notoriously difficult to discern with the level of rigour that GiveWell usually looks for. I think there's strong evidence that media content has small and quantifiable effects, however.

It's good to see that GiveWell is about to go more in-depth into this issue, as they can get quantitative in a way that I can't. I expect to see DMI as their #1 charity by the end of the year.

What's Happening In Ukraine

My bullshit alarm goes off every time I hear somebody referring to some political crisis with: 

"Look at what's happening in Ukraine"
"Given everything going on Syria..."
"...The whole situation in Greece"

Or anything else of that sort.

"What's happening in Ukraine" is the language used by people who don't really understand what's happening in Ukraine. (I'm usually one of those people; I just don't pretend to know more than I do.)

The next time someone mentions what's happening in Ukraine, ask them what's happening in Ukraine. I'd put money on you getting some very vague response about a conflict with the Russians.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Translation Across Mediums

Having read movie message boards a lot as a teenager, there are two popular ideas that I came across often - and I think they contradict each other.

The first idea is that no medium is better than any other medium, even at specific things. All mediums have a wide range of potentialities and you shouldn't be narrow minded about what they can produce. They just need to be used correctly for whatever they're trying to accomplish. So the first claim is that you cannot draw conclusions about which emotions or ideas or moods a specific medium is best at expressing.

The second idea is that many spiritual experiences - such as those occurring during the viewing of a great work of art - cannot be translated into language. Note Korine's explanation that he wants to make films that are difficult to articulate in words, that are more like experiences. I think a lot of movie fans, especially those that reject metaphysical naturalism - which might be the majority of them - would sympathize with Korine's statement and even go beyond it, saying that certain audiovisual experiences simply cannot be translated into words. Words might be able to describe these experiences pretty well, but they are not exact replicas of the original experience. Something very important is lost in the translation.

So the first statement claims that ideas, emotions, and moods cannot be unique to specific mediums, while the second statement holds that ideas, emotions, and moods can be unique to specific mediums.

Now, to me the first idea is obviously wrong - and in fact, I was the OP in the thread I linked to. Maybe it's true that, in theory, almost any medium can express almost any idea but mediums certainly differ in what they can express most easily.

That's why various kinds of official documents are written in text, rather than represented with interpretive dance or cooked into meals. Verbal language has the advantage of possessing clarity. It is the ideal vehicle for communicating precise thoughts. It's the same reason why we use language, whether spoken or written, rather than any other language, for philosophy, science, presidential debates, court trials, etc. I don't see any room for arguing that other mediums could realistically be used just as well for these purposes. Certainly, not in our current society.

I think the second idea is true, as long as we don't believe it too dogmatically. I could easily imagine it used as an argument for the futility of language or logic to describe the external world. I only want to argue that it is in fact true that some mediums are better suited for some things than others are. This becomes even more true when we consider existing social and cultural infrastructure: the channels of production and distribution which support media industries in societies around the world. Even if it is true that interpretive dance can express everything that cinema can, it still wouldn't be true that dance can accomplish as much in a society that is far more cinema-dominated than interpretive dance-dominated.

Artists and other communicators should not feel any obligation toward a particular medium. Instead, they should think about what they're trying to accomplish, what ideas, emotions, and moods need to be expressed in order to accomplish that, and which medium is therefore best suited for that project.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Bordering On Straw Vulcanism

Effective altruists and rationalists know about the Straw Vulcan stereotype of rationality. The stereotype is that rationality is cold, without wisdom, and somehow missing the big picture. Thus it is possible that rationality could lead one to make transparently bad decisions, as Spock did in Julia's example, when he expected irrational beings to act rationally.

This isn't the definition of rationality that EAs use, though. Rather, rationality refers to making a decision "that is not just reasoned, but that is also optimal for achieving a goal or solving a problem." The rational decision is by definition the right decision, whatever it is. If a car is flying toward you, the rational decision is to jump out of the way, rather than to calculate how much time you have or what options are available to you. This second type of rational reasoning seems pretty foolproof to me. But nobody should want to identify with the first type.

It is not rare for EAs to be accused of missing something or making some mistake and then use the Straw Vulcan defence: "You're assuming that we hold the Straw Vulcan position here - but actually most EAs don't believe we should do that."

I think that defence is sometimes a cop out. The fact is that EAs are walking a fine line between rationality and Vulcan rationality. When trying to optimize, it's very easy to make a mistake or overlook factors and wind up with worse results than had you been less intent on optimizing. That isn't to say that EA is based on Straw Vulcan rationality - it isn't - but that the risk of occasionally stepping into Straw Vulcan territory is very real and should be taken seriously. In real life, we should expect this to happen somewhat regularly among those hoping to maximize the altruistic impact of their lives - even if they know about the Straw Vulcan stereotype. Knowing the name of the problem is not the same as knowing how to solve the problem.