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Call for a moratorium on the use of the term “prisoner’s dilemma”

Palko writes:

I’m not sure what the best way to get the ball rolling here would be (perhaps a kickstarter?) but we need to have a strictly enforced rule that no journalist or pundit is allowed to mention the prisoner’s dilemma for the next five or ten years, however long it takes to learn to use it properly and, more importantly, discover that game theory consists of more than that one concept.

He actually made that suggestion back in 2016, but it remains relevant.

While we’re at it, let’s also institute a moratorium on articles with the scientist-as-hero theme. And a moratorium on posts about the pizzagate guy, the disgraced primatologist, the gremlins guy, the stasi guy, the sleep guy, . . . uh oh, we’re starting to run out of topics here!


  1. AV says:

    Everyone – up to some approximation (your call), is already observing this moratorium – in ignoring such things, at their politest.

  2. Matt Skaggs says:

    The Prisoner’s Dilemma is just one of a long list of evolutionary explanations for human behavior, all of which are “just so” stories. Kin selection still enjoys a good reputation – often stated as fact – but it has no basis in any formal understanding of evolution either.

    All this silliness stems from the simplest of formulations, that if a trait is naturally selected for by even 0.01%, that trait eventually has to prevail in the population. (You can prove that mathematically!) This despite solid evidence for things like balancing selection and random drift.

    It’s the more general idea – that we can ferret out the reasons why we evolved the way we did by reverse engineering our behavior – that needs to be tossed in the dustbin of history. It is never going to happen because evolution is too messy and reverse engineering complex systems only seems successful when there is no way to validate the results.

  3. Steve says:

    But, if one of us wants to use the term “prisoner’s dilemma” improperly and someone else doesn’t, we will all end up using the term improperly because that’s a prisoner’s dilemma.

  4. Jonathan (another one) says:

    I defect from this understanding and will the monopolize the use of the term to my benefit.

  5. paul alper says:

    Palko also wrote this in early 2016 regarding Iowa as the land of red squares (a Schelling focal point):

    “Back when Krugman first got serious about being a pundit, he was remarkably strong in two areas: economics (unsurprisingly) and press criticism (“Shape of Earth—Views Differ” alone would earn him the honor), but rather weak when it came to politics. This was particularly notable around 2008 and 2009.

    But Krugman did a couple of remarkable things (at least remarkable for an NYT columnist): he admitted his mistakes and he learned from them. His political analyses have improved steadily while the quality and credibility of most political commentators have fallen down a mine shaft.”

  6. Jukka says:

    It has been quite a while since I last had the interest to read and study anything about game theory. But, sure, let journalists have their own games.

    On the other side, on our side, unfortunately, economists seem to have hijacked the playground. It used to be political scientists playing the big games, right? RAND games? Axelrod and who else?

  7. phdummy says:

    I feel that we can pretty much extend this problem to any concept, construct, or theory that requires some specified knowledge or training to fully understand and apply. It kills me anytime someone tries to diagnose another person with a psychological disorder after like 10 seconds of meeting that person. Or dismisses any study/research findings or debate/conversation with “small sample size” or “correlation =/= causation”, without any nuance to these ideas. But I am pretty sure I do the same thing when it comes to political stuff or other things that I care enough to have an opinion on but not invest my time and energy into actually trying to fully understand. So I can’t complain too much.

  8. Dzhaughn says:

    Sorry, “strictly enforced rules” are diametrically opposed to the general guidelines and the mission statement.

    Anyway, there is a moratorium on moratoria.

    Would Palko benefit from reading Martin Gurri? Institutional control of information is over; institutions must adapt to be effective. Maybe he can make a meme.

  9. Peter Dorman says:

    The PD is the victim of its own vividness. It’s a very simple but powerful demonstration of the difference between individual rationality that takes the behavior of others as given and a sort of collective rationality in which everyone’s behavior is on the table. Its stark message makes an impression on people who don’t know any other game theory. As a result, it not only tends to eclipse other sorts of games, like chicken and coordination, but also the extremely important refinements of the PD when it is extended through repetition and large numbers of players. This second dimension of “pop PD” bothers me the most.

    Rather than instructing non-game theory people to stop referencing, accurately or not, the PD, the better approach is to make a point of invoking other concepts. Eventually it will sink in that there’s a wide spectrum of strategic situations.

  10. Mikhail Шubin says:

    moratorium on posts about the pizzagate guy and sleep guy? This is actually late 1 April suggestion, right?

  11. Dmitri says:

    From now on, journalists are only allowed to talk about the Stag Hunt.

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