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“What should you talk about?”

Tyler Cowen quotes Robin Hanson:

If your main reason for talking is to socialize, you’ll want to talk about whatever everyone else is talking about. Like say the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. But if instead your purpose is to gain and spread useful insight, so that we can all understand more about things that matter, you’ll want to look for relatively neglected topics. . . .

One advantage of having this blog on a lag of a month or two is that I can post things, knowing that when my discussion finally appears, it will no longer be topical. Indeed, this post is an example.


  1. Megan says:

    TC’s point is that “topical” and “likely to lead to insight.” are mutually exclusive. But in this case, they are coextensive. His “insight” is a month old and therefore no longer topical. But it is ludicrous to suggest that discussing it will lead to insight. I am 99% sure that was not your point but I have no idea what your point was.

    • Rahul says:

      I’m not sure whether Robin’s “talk about whatever everyone else is talking about” is good advice even for socialization. Often the guy having something new to say is the most interesting one.

      OTOH, I don’t get why Andrew thinks non-topicality is in itself a virtue? To me topicality & useful insights are unrelated dimensions. You can very well have one without the other & indeed both together or neither.

      • Andrew says:


        The argument for non-topicality being a virtue is that, if everyone else is being topical, there can be a benefit to writing about items that are a month or two old, for two reasons: First, if you read about something a month later, you might have a different sense of it than you would’ve, at the time; Second, if a topic is important, there can be a benefit to discussing it a month later, because it will bring the topic again to people’s attention. But I’m not saying that topicality should be always or even usually avoided, just that in an environment of hyper-topicality, in which entire twitter debates take place over a few hours, there can sometimes be a benefit to a lag.

  2. bxg says:

    Another Tyler Cowen trademark is to cite/reference something, and say absolutely nothing about why he found it
    interesting or even whether/what he agrees with. Indeed, there’s often a short and cryptic follow-up whose main purpose _seems_ to be
    to establish plausible deniability of any endorsement.

    Are you suggesting Hanson’s quote is nontrivial or of practical relevance? I think I’m with Megan above, but in an case you aren’t shy about your opinions in general: WHY did you cite this? WHAT did you learn that you think we might (any definition of “we” you want, of course)? Or something; merely throwing a Hanson quote into the wind seems a strange use of electrons.

    TC’s habit of “here’s a quote”, “(explicitly) no further comment”, is not a good one to emulate. Arguably he has a political purpose in doing this which, even if true, you do not.

    • Kupperman says:

      Yes, Cowen is quite fond of “Blog-Bait” topics — provocative topics primarily selected to stimulate page-views and comments on his blog… topics casually skimmed from the web, and referenced with little or no analysis by Cowen.

      Also, there’s a big difference between “talking” and “blogging” in terms of socialization — one is highly direct, interactive, and personal — the other ain’t. Serious blogs inherently eliminate most of the socialization factor.

      There’s nothing new under the sun. The alleged value distinction between topical and “aged” topics is merely a subjective viewpoint, perhaps driven by the mechanics of blogging and some variables in the type of people attracted to different blog genres.

      • Rahul says:

        While your criticism of Tyler is valid he does do a great job of prolifically curating great links. It’s not easy to keep 4-5 high quality posts every day, week after week for a decade. Also, the overall quality of commentators there is fairly good; especially the amount of good comments if not the fraction. Quite a few insiders and experts from the most esoteric professions lurk there offering occasional tidbits of great insight.

        I’d rather a blogger say less than more. There’s nothing as annoying as verbiage because it invariably leads to a low “S/N” ratio. Taciturn is easier to handle than prolix.

  3. numeric says:

    Looks like it’s time for a debate on free silver again.

  4. gaddeswarup says:

    May be even on current topics, one can go to some neglected writers to gain some insight. Recently I read Piketty, thought that it was good but incomplete in terms of processes leading to inequality and suggestions to overcome it. I read a number of reviews in the prominent blogs which did not seem to lead anywhere. But finally I found from a link two interviews with Michael Hudson who has not read the book satisfactory. I try to browse discussions where I have no expertise and find it useful if I do not take them too seriously.

  5. jrc says:

    The “argument” seems to be: It is easier to make progress towards insight on stuff you know something about but that hasn’t been discussed ad nauseum in the public sphere, and so if you are really guided by intellectual pursuits of knowledge you’ll go there because its the best bang for the buck. That seems like a stupid argument to me. Two reasons:

    First, I don’t think people’s interests and pursuits work that way. I don’t choose what I’m interested in because it is where I think I can make the most progress for humanity (whatever that might mean). And the author must have internalized some weird concept of a utility function if they think that smart people are (an “are” which sounds like “ought to be”) most interested in the lowest-hanging fruit they can find. Sure, sometimes low hanging fruit is great and helpful, but sometimes so is banging your head against an impossible problem and hoping to make a little bit of progress, even if that progress is fleeting or of such small magnitude that the problem itself will never actually be solved. – I study “poverty”. That ain’t gonna end. Ever. But does it mean that I’m not actually interested in real knowledge because I work on a core problem we’ll never fix but would like to understand better? Is the Hipster who forces everyone to hear about the travesty that is the 1931 re-recording of a 1918 blues record he just bought that was the first to use some new chord progression really doing the serious intellectual work?

    Second, I don’t like the whole idea that there are Real Intellectuals whose verbal communications tend to be Deep, and then, separately, a whole bunch of Fake People who just wanna talk about the Kardashians. I would guess (and I like everyone am poor at this) that somewhere north of 90% of everything everyone says is of the “talking to socialize” variety. I’d bet the difference in percentage of “shallow” v “deep” conversations as a fraction of total speech between, say, Einstein and Lindsay Lohan, is less than 5 percentage points. We’re people. We talk to each other. Its mostly just for fun.

    I think a distinction between intellectually productive and intellectually vapid speech has to focus less on the subject and more on the basic concept of good-faith argumentation. But maybe I’m just trying to read this too broadly, and the author means “in the context of talking to professional academics about research and work, then…” in which case, I think it’s just not a very interesting claim.

  6. Andrew says:

    Megan, Bxg, Jrc:

    I just thought the whole conversation was funny because I don’t know anyone who’s talking about that missing plane. I think we talked about for about 5 minutes when it happens.

    Also, I do think there is something to what Cowen and Hansen are saying. Setting aside the loaded terms such as “socialize” and “spread useful insight,” I do think there can be value to being non-topical, and that does seem to me like one advantage to having a one- or two-month delay on the blog.

  7. jrc says:



  8. Steve Sailer says:

    The real challenge is to come up with something neglected yet useful to say about whatever happens to be topical.

  9. Winston Lin says:

    This all reminds me of Bill Thurston’s wonderful essay “On proof and progress in mathematics”:

    “There is a real joy in doing mathematics, in learning ways of thinking that explain and organize and simplify. One can feel this joy discovering new mathematics, rediscovering old mathematics, learning a way of thinking from a person or text, or finding a new way to explain or to view an old mathematical structure.

    “This inner motivation might lead us to think that we do mathematics solely for its own sake. That’s not true: the social setting is extremely important. We are inspired by other people, we seek appreciation by other people, and we like to help other people solve their mathematical problems. What we enjoy changes in
    response to other people. Social interaction occurs through face-to-face meetings. It also occurs through written and electronic correspondence, preprints, and journal articles. One effect of this highly social system of mathematics is the tendency of mathematicians to follow fads. For the purpose of producing new mathematical theorems this is probably not very efficient: we’d seem to be better off having mathematicians cover the intellectual field much more evenly. But most mathematicians don’t like to be lonely, and they have trouble staying excited about a subject, even if they are personally making progress, unless they have colleagues who share their excitement.”

  10. Darf says:

    My comment may not seem relevant, but it was three weeks ago.

  11. […] this post is more upbeat, it’s a return discussion of my practice of posting blog entries a month ahead of time. One thing that can be frustrating […]

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