So asks Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias, a blog I like reading because it presents a smart, well-thought-out, likeable account of a style of thinking and valuation so utterly alien to my own that I can hardly believe human beings manage it.
Hanson objects to the speaker at his son’s graduation saying things like “Never let anyone tell you there is something you can’t do,” and “You’ll have setbacks, but never let them discourage you.” He remarks:
I was embarrassed to be associated with such transparent falsehoods, but apparently I’m in a minority. What obvious lies have you heard at commencement, and why do you think such lies were told?
Surely this is one of those questions only an economist could be puzzled about. Lots of posters and commenters on Overcoming Bias seem to live in a weird Gricean dystopia in which every utterance is a mechanism for, and only for, modifying our degrees of belief about the truth-values of various propositions. Which means, I guess, that every utterance that fails to do this is a “lie.”
Of course, lots of utterances — especially utterances produced in public, and directed at a heterogeneous audience — aren’t like this. Love, for instance, is not “all you need” — oxygen, protein, and sunlight are at least as essential to life. But the Beatles aren’t liars. For each person in the commencement audience, there is indeed something they cannot do. And that doesn’t make the commencement speaker a liar, either. Commencement speeches, like songs, are mainly intended to produce feelings. This is not worthless. But now I’m puzzled, because Hanson obviously knows all this. He is not — I assume — the kind of person who, when asked “Would you mind passing the salt?” answers “No, I wouldn’t,” and keeps the salt.
Anyway, comment if you too find Overcoming Bias interesting and alien, or if you find it interesting and mainstream and think I’m the alien. That would be good to know.