Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day, Courage, and Risk Taking

Overcoming Bias asks, why celebrate war heroes? As Robin Hanson notes:
Yes warriors, dead and otherwise, deserve some honor, but to me this seems all out of proportion... How about warriors who died on other sides, or in other wars? How about civilians who died or sacrificed in wars? How about those who prevented wars?
I think we primarily celebrate military heroes out of a tradition of doing so, because in the past such people truly were responsible for our survival. For example, if the Mongol horde won the battle, they killed all the men and raped all the women. So guys willing to put their life on the line to prevent this were pretty important, and owed a debt of annual gratitude.

But in modern conflict, it's not so obvious. The past 200 years of fighting seem pretty silly, as our old foes, Germans and Japanese, are so much just like us today its hard to think that even if they won they would have not turned out the same through some other means. The US Civil War killed a lot of people, but Brazil and Canada were able to move on from slavery without such a mess. And the Revolutionary war with Britain, seems a lot like an adolescent chaffing under the control of a parental unit (Tony Blair gave a speech in the US congress and made a joke about the War of 1812, funny because the cause of that war has zero resonance today, seemingly pointless).

Venerating soldiers reminds us to celebrate courage, but physical courage is somewhat easy to venerate because it is so intuitive. However, I think we need to remember most of us deal with intellectual, not physical, courage, in the same way most of us today are involved in intellectual, not physical, work.

There’s an important distinction between physical and intellectual courage. Physical courage is the ability to act despite the risk of pain, injury or death. Most ancient texts on courage are examples from male warrior culture. Old Testament heroes like Joshua and David and the warriors of Greek and Roman mythology demonstrated the heart and mind that led them to persist in the face of danger or hardship. Intellectual courage, in contrast, is mainly based on facing humiliation, the thought that one’s beliefs or actions might cause a loss of reputation or status, because rash risk-taking does lower one’s status. For an intellectual the risks and challenges of advocating courageous ideas is the likelihood of feeling or looking foolish, of not being accepted by colleagues and people one respects, and reputations have a lot of inertia.

If you have objectively low alpha in what you are attempting, your willingness to attempt it will not be seen positively by your status group. They will see, based on their cues, you had no chance, and thus will be mocked for the obtuseness implied in such an objectively absurd form of risk-taking. To seriously try to dance with flair or wear a really eye-catching new outfit invites the scorn, the ridicule, of failing so bad, the joke is not the failure, but your mind-numbingly-clueless thought that you are John Travolta or Jennifer Lopez. And this holds for perverse persistence as well. An 18-year-old aspiring rock star is cool, a 43-year-old aspiring rock star is pathetic. Courage is therefore not viewed in isolation, because if it is rash or excessive it is considered merely foolhardy, not admirable. Physical courage perhaps is even more context dependent, as fighting for a dumb idea is courageous but shameful.

It should be remembered that intellectual courage is only admired ex post for those who were right, and were doing something that was unorthodox at the time. My kids all learn about civil rights heroes as examples of courage, but it should be remembered that while Ruby Bridges and other people who fought for civil rights in the 50s and early 60s were courageous, supporting civil rights today is about one of the easiest things to do. It is easy to forget that Galileo's famous observation that all objects accelerate at the same speed was not so obvious. If you push something faster, it accelerates--a heavy weight pushes harder on your hand, ergo, it should push downward faster. Add to that the observation that leaves fall to the ground more slowly than rocks, and I could see why people would assume weight is positively correlated with acceleration. Around the same time, Tycho Brahe, the man whose measurements allowed Kepler to formulate his laws of motion, did not accept the heliocentric model of the solar system, in spite of his very good data and good natured persuasion from Kepler--isn't it obvious we are at rest?

Intellectual courage in real time means the average respectable, knowledgeable person will lessen his estimation of you, like those who believe in cold fusion or intelligent design. And it will only be respected, if you turn out to have been presciently correct. Of course, this is obviously true for investing, where those who called the internet boom in 1996, or bust in 2000, are considered courageous. Those who were bearish in 1996, or bullish in 2000, however, are considered merely foolish.

Courage is very important to one’s self discovery, finding one’s niche, and making real breakthroughs, and it is only admirable in combination with other virtues, like prudence (ie, being right on scientific facts or prediction) and justice (being right on morality). If you broke conventional wisdom on something wrong, like those who fought for communism, or eliminated DDT from Africa, you were self-righteous, courageous, and also a fool whose actions created a lot of harm. We venerate physical courage of soldiers because, unlike intellectual courage, it is easier to measure, and generally presume it was for a righteous cause.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The man" makes us celebrate war heroes to push the supply curve for soldiers to the right, lowering the cost and increasing the supply.