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The Corruption of our Social Learning System

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  • We learn socially, so that most of our beliefs come from other people. 2. This makes the problem of choosing which people to trust the central problem in epistemology.
  • In The Secret of Our Success, Joseph Henrich drives home the point that almost all of the knowledge that we possess comes from culture rather than from personal experience.
  • Kevin Laland points out that the human species is unique in the extent to which we learn from one another. Learning comes both from informal copying and formal teaching. Formal teaching, and in particular teaching that passes new knowledge from generation to generation, are why humans are the species with culture.
  • But because our beliefs about reality come from other people, I think that the choice of which people to trust is the core issue in epistemology.
  • The epistemological problem boils down to deciding on what basis I should trust economist X more than economist Y.
  • Henrich points out that humans have two types of hierarchies. In a dominance hierarchy, the people at the top gain authority by force, and the people at the bottom reluctantly obey. In a prestige hierarchy, the people at the top gain authority by earning respect, and the people at the bottom willingly try to copy and learn from those at the top.
  • Prestige hierarchies work through competitive mechanisms. In a democracy, people compete to win political offices. Under capitalism, firms compete for customers. In a legal proceeding, lawyers compete for the verdict. In science, researchers compete to obtain discoveries and verify hypotheses.
  • Prestige hierarchies are robust to the extent that the people who reach the top have wisdom worth sharing. These hierarchies are corrupt to the extent that people reach the top by “gaming the system,” getting ahead through ruthlessness rather than wisdom.
  • The process of getting ahead in a prestige hierarchy is analogous to the process of earning a bonus in a firm’s compensation system. If the bonus criteria align with the firm’s goals, people who do productive work will earn bonuses and the firm will be successful. If the bonus criteria are not well considered, worker who are not particularly productive will obtain bonuses, and the firm’s performance will suffer.
  • My observation is that the longer a specific bonus system is in place, the better workers become at figuring out how to get more compensation for less effort. Incentive systems naturally degrade over time.

The Corruption of our Social Learning System

rw-book-cover

Metadata

Highlights

  • The incentive systems and selection mechanisms in the credential-based hierarchies have become corrupted over time, allowing people to rise to the top who lack wisdom and intellectual rigor.
  • Elites resort to dominance moves when they can no longer rely on prestige.
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