Tag Archives: michael shermer

Understanding Spontaneous Order

Spontaneous order is one of the most important concepts in the social sciences, and also one of the most maligned. It’s most closely associated with Hayek, but it has roots going back to at least the 18th century English and Scottish Enlightenments. Thinkers like Bernard Mandeville, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and David Hume all used some kind of spontaneous order framework. They knew that not every design requires a designer.

Nobody designed languages, for example. They emerge and continually evolve on their own, with nobody deliberately directing the process. The economy is also a spontaneous order, even though most people think it has to be be consciously directed. Nobody is in charge of food distribution for New York or Paris, and yet those great, farmless cities are still fed every day. It’s an everyday miracle if you think about it.

The reason that a lot of non-economists are skeptical or unaware of spontaneous order is that it’s a difficult concept for the human brain to comprehend. We’re not wired to.

Back in our hunter-gatherer days, the traits that evolutionary biologist Michael Shermer calls patternicity and agenticity had a great survival advantage. Find a pattern in everything, and know that some agent is probably behind it. There’s a rustle in the bush. A hungry tiger must be causing that rustle. Run. Hide. Survive.

Even if most rustles are false alarms, people with strong patternicity and agenticity tended to outlive their fellows who didn’t. We are their descendants, and our brains haven’t changed to match our new surroundings.We think that there are patterns and agents behind everything, even though there aren’t, really. We’re still looking for that tiger, but he isn’t there anymore.

To this day, a lot of people think the president runs the economy. His policies do have some effect, but literally he runs very little. The global economy has so many variables, so many nooks and crannies of specialized, dispersed local knowledge, that even if a president were to try and take charge of the economy, he simply couldn’t. The result is that presidents, like quarterbacks, get far too much credit when times are good, and far too much blame when times are bad. Patternicity and agenticity strike again.

Hayek has a well-deserved reputation as a poor prose stylist. But he did come up with a very clear way to explain how spontaneous orders can emerge in everyday life:

The way in which footpaths are formed is such an instance. At first everyone will seek for himself what seems to him the best path.  But the fact that such a path has been used once is likely to make it easier to traverse and therefore more likely to be used again; and thus gradually more and more clearly defined tracks arise and come to be used to the exclusion of other possible ways. Human movements through the region come to conform to a definite pattern which, although the result of deliberate decisions of many people, has yet not been concsiously designed by anyone.

-F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason, pp. 70-71.

And when a regulator comes along and tries to design a straighter, more orderly path, the results will rarely be what he intends. In a way, you can blame his hubris on tigers.

The Believing Brain

Reason‘s Ronald Bailey reviewed Michael Shermer’s excellent The Believing Brain for The Wall Street Journal. If you don’t feel like reading all 340 pages, Bailey summarizes them well:

Superstitions arise as the result of the spurious identification of patterns. Even pigeons are superstitious. In an experiment where food is delivered randomly, pigeons will note what they were doing when the pellet arrived, such as twirling to the left and then pecking a button, and perform the maneuver over and over until the next pellet arrives. A pigeon rain dance. The behavior is not much different than in the case of a baseball player who forgets to shave one morning, hits a home run a few hours later and then makes it a policy never to shave on game days.

It’s surprising how much of human behavior can be explained by what Shermer calls patternicity and agenticity. Like pigeons, we seek patterns and therefore find them. But we also have the ingrained instinct to believe that some kind of agent has to be behind those patterns: god, a politician, somebody, anybody. Every design must have a designer.

No wonder Hayekian spontaneous order polls so poorly, despite having the benefit of being true. Lessons abound.

The Neuroscience Behind Partisanship

I’m very much enjoying Michael Shermer’s new book The Believing Brain. It’s about how the brain forms beliefs, why people hold on to their beliefs so strongly, and why people believe in weird things like ghosts and conspiracy theories.

On p. 260, Shermer quotes from a study (pdf) by Drew Westen, et al, where his team ran fMRI scans on the brains of political partisans to see what parts of their brains were firing when engaged in political dispute:

We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up… Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidascope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.

There you have it: scientific proof that partisans aren’t quite right in the head.

Happy Birthday, Carl Sagan

I’m a bit late on this, but Carl Sagan would have turned 75 on November 9. The Skeptic Society’s Michael Shermer has set up a nice tribute to him.

The thing I admire most about Carl Sagan isn’t his academic credentials, impressive though they were. It’s that he wasn’t afraid to be a popularizer. In fact, he embraced it. He has been an inspiration for what I hope to accomplish in my own professional life.

Will Durant’s book The Story of Philosophy is credited with introducing more people to its subject than any other book. What Will Durant did for philosophy (and later, with his wife Ariel Durant, history), Carl Sagan did for astronomy.

Some pointy-nosed academics looked down on Sagan for pandering to the masses. But Sagan did more in his too-short life to actually educate people than the lot of them combined. How many of those same disdainful academics were inspired to forge a career in science because of Carl Sagan? For a subject as esoteric as cosmology, this is no small achievement.

People who work in economics or public policy would do well to pay attention not just to what Carl Sagan did, but to how he did it. Intellectuals from all disciplines should follow the sterling example set by Carl Sagan.