Is “success mostly results from luck and connections” a luxury belief?

I have been pondering this essay from Rob Henderson for a while, and will continue to do so: Luxury Beliefs are Status Symbols.

Much of it is well-argued and compelling. I need to consider it further before I can say how much I agree or disagree.

But one part is so poorly argued it merits mentioning. Henderson writes:

There are other examples of luxury beliefs as well, such as the downplaying of individual agency in shaping life outcomes.

A 2019 study led by Joseph Daniels at Marquette University was published in the journal of Applied Economics Letters.

They found that individuals with higher income or a higher social status were the most likely to say that success results from luck and connections rather than hard work, while low-income individuals were more likely to say success comes from hard work and individual effort.

Well, which belief is more likely to be true?

Plenty of research indicates that compared with an external locus of control, an internal locus of control is associated with better academic, economic, health, and relationship outcomes. Believing you are responsible for your life’s direction rather than external forces appears to be beneficial.

Here’s the late Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura. His vast body of research showed that belief in personal agency, or what he described as “self-efficacy,” has powerful positive effects on life outcomes.

Undermining self-efficacy will have little effect on the rich and educated, but will have pronounced effects for the less fortunate.

According to Henderson this is evidence that this belief is a “luxury belief”.  I have a few problems with this section

1. The framing

Henderson asks “which belief is more likely to be true?” and then goes on to discuss the benefits of believing one vs the other, which patently has nothing to do with a belief being true. Was this just bad editing? This is such a non sequitur, I don’t know what to make of it.

There is plenty of research (though what I was able to find in a brief internet search generally seemed low quality) on whether hard work vs luck vs other factors are contributors to success. Henderson does not consider any of that here.

Additionally, there is a large body of research, as Henderson states, on the benefits of internal locus of control (e.g. The happy personality) and it does support the idea that internal locus of control is correlated with happiness and achievement. But it seems like a bit of a jump to go from “people emphasize the important of luck and connections in having success” to “people have weak/less internal locus of control and therefore are more likely to be unhappy and achieve less”, which is the conclusion that Henderson implies. The data used in the paper under discussion come from the World Values Survey, specifically the questions here are:

An answer of “in the long run, hard work usually brings a better life’ carries a value of one (1) in the survey and an answer of ‘hard work doesn’t generally bring success – it’s
more a matter of luck and connections’ carries a value
of ten (10).

To me this seems more about achieving societal markers of success (income, savings, housing, cars), while internal vs external locus of control is more about an individual believing they are responsible for and in control of what they do.

I am obviously not an expert on these terms, nor deeply familiar with the relevant theory and research, so I may be wrong here, but it seems like a big analytical leap that Henderson is making here. The relevance of this research to Henderson’s claim needs to be argued but he assumes it is obvious and uncontroversial.

2. The research

Reading the original research paper, we see the following correlations between belief in luck/connections (there are some others as well, but these are the ones that stand out as most problematic for Henderson’s case, in my opinion):

  • with social class: 0.0834
  • with gender: 0.0678
  • with country’s GDP: 0.0844
  • with income: 0.0077

Henderson seems to latch onto the correlation with social class, but this  leaves us with a few head scratchers, given his conclusions:

  • if this is a luxury belief, why is the correlation with income so much weaker than the correlation with social class?
  • why is there a correlation with GDP? are entire populations of wealthier countries more likely to adopt this view in order to distinguish themselves from other countries?
  • what’s with women? why are they so more drawn to this luxury belief than men?

It seems like Henderson had an idea, went around looking for evidence, found something resembling evidence if you squint right and ignore some things, and then just ran with it.

I understand that the piece of writing I’m discussing is not academic per se, but given that he frames it as a transcript of a talk he delivered at a “behavioural science festival” I found the lack of rigor in this part disappointing. It casts a shadow over the rest of the argument.

Automatic brain, free person

I agree with much of what Michael Gazzaniga says here, and with the overall thrust of the project exemplified most recently in his book Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.

However, as much as we might like to make this project entirely palatable, there is an important sense in which it does seem to challenge some stubborn intuitions, and I think we need to recognize the fact that such findings can and do influence our ideas about how and when to hold people responsible. The clearest evidence for this is found in the legal realm where, from the insanity defence to the twinky defence, we encounter a long history of attempts to grapple with the relation between the apparently mechanistic nature of the brain and our ability to hold people responsible for their actions–attempts which clearly show that a scientific-mechanistic understanding of the brain has important bearing on our understanding of freedom and agency.

Mis-applications of Gaia theory

I often encounter a sort of frustrating combination of Gaia theory plus bad philosophy of language, which goes something like this:

Earth is not sick, earth has been around for billions of years, and underwent many catastrophes before us, and will undergo many catastrophes afterwards. Everything will be fine. Human activity is barely a blip on the radar of the earth’s lifespan, and we can have no serious, long term detrimental impacts. It is merely another form of human hubris to think that we can have so serious an impact on the earth.

I admit to not being totally clear as to what people who say things like this are saying. Given the global scale at which Gaia theories consider things (life, physical processes), do they consider earth to be special, or do they suppose that earth itself is just another tiny little, basically irrelevant microcosm within what is surely a Universe teeming with life? If this is so, then presumably we shouldn’t care if the Earth is destroyed altogether at any point, because life will go on elsewhere. Man’s time on earth is to Earth as a whole, as Gaia/Earth is to Gaia/Universe.

I don’t suppose the people who say that sort of thing would accept this. If it’s because they think Earth really is special, and the likelihood of life elsewhere is very low, then that’s consistent enough. If not, I’m not sure what reason they could give thinking the destruction of Earth matters.

I’m also not clear as to what they think would constitute a genuine threat to Earth. Presuming that the destruction of Earth is a bad thing (maybe that’s an invalid assumption), how severe would the threat posed by humans have to be in order for Gaia theorists to really take it seriously?

If it wiped out life for 1 million years, is that okay? What about 10 million years, or 100 millions years? It seems like my Gaia theorist (who I hope is just a strawman, but I fear is not) is committed to there being some amount of destruction that would be intolerable, and just thinks it it unlikely that we will attain that level of impact. Let’s say the sun becomes a red giant in 7.5 billion years, and the earth is wiped out in 8 billion years. And let’s say that humans succeed in destroying life for the next 7 billion years in the year 2500 (improbable but not impossible), so that Earth only has about 500 million more years where it supports life. Is that acceptable, or is that “too little life”? And how would we decide? What if life is not totally wiped out, but all we have for 6 billion years is protozoa and cockroaches, acidic oceans, sulfur skies, etc. Is that bad? Is anything bad, or is that just a category that humans impose onto the world, and whether there is life or not, and what kind of life is there, and how much life there is, doesn’t matter?

If we are committed to there being a specific amount of destruction that is “too much,” as it seems my Gaia theorist is, how might we decide what that level is?

My problem is not with the idea that the Earth is a resilient system, capable of surviving great stresses, and regenerating a system capable of supporting flourishing life.

My problem is the incoherence of holding both that

  1. it is possible for something to happen to the Earth that we could legitimately call “bad”, or at least an undesirable outcome, i.e. it is conceivable that under some circumstances too much life might be destroyed; and
  2. the earth is currently just fine, and we shouldn’t worry about it, because we humans are totally incapable of causing any serious amount of damage

I would be happy if any Gaia theorist would be able to explain my confusion.

I say it is a combination of Gaia theory and bad philosophy of language because however it is put, it seems to trade on ambiguous use of words like “fine,” “sick,” “actual damage,” that the speaker wants to be able to apply both in their normal contexts (as in, we can say someone is sick even if they aren’t going to die, or were injured even if they only have a cut and will be fine), and in a sort of vague Gaia theory sense that attempts to apply them to very different contexts (large scales of space and time) without providing any sense as to how we could know whether we were using them well or badly. My point is that people who talk like my Gaia theorist does, don’t actually know what they’re saying.

Neat, plausible, and wrong

One of my favourite quotations is from H.L. Mencken:

There is always an easy solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and wrong.

Tom Flanagan amply demonstrates the sort of reasoning at which this barb was aimed in a recent op-ed for The Globe & Mail, We don’t need a centre party to prevent polarization.

I will let his words speak for themselves:

What keeps democratic politics focused on the centre? Not the existence of a centre party but the workings of the “median voter theorem” (MVT). Think of voters as points spread out along a line – on the left, on the right, in the middle. By mathematical necessity, there is a median position, with half of voters to the left and half to the right. The median voter sits at the winning position in the democratic competition of political parties.

The proof is simple and elegant. If Party A moves to the left or right of the median, it allows Party B to locate itself closer to the majority of voters. The MVT predicts that Party A and Party B will tend to converge on the median because they cannot afford to let their rivals cut them off from more than half the voters.

The first problem is that he invokes the MVT as having some causal role here, as though it were a force moving people around rather than just a description of the phenomena. The MVT does not “keep democratic politics focused on the centre.” Any account that purported to explain such a thing would have to be vastly more complicated than this simple theorem. Its unsuitability to the task appears clearly when Flanagan notes that a move in one direction by a party “allows” the other part to locate itself closer to the majority of votes. The problem is that this “allows” not only is not “causes,” but is a stand-in for some entirely vague understanding of political strategy, and must admit of all sort of other determining factors which we don’t really have any idea of being able to outline without enough detail that we could consider the MVT to have real explanatory force here.

The other problem is that it is absurdly simplistic to lay out political view on a line. I thought first year undergrads learnt that any remotely sophisticated organization of the political spectrum does not draw its inspiration from a straight line. It’s surprising, and somewhat disappointing, that a political science professor such as Flanagan would give any credence to this approach.

This is not just the problem of relating abstract models to the real world. That is of course always a problem, as a model must abstract some things out in order to be a model and not just a copy. Flanagan correctly admits that “The MVT is a mathematical abstraction belonging to game theory, and the world is far more complicated than that,” but this makes it seem like the problem is just the traditional one of translating abstraction into real-world, concrete application. In fact the issue is that the model is just bad. And when you start with a bad abstraction, you will never get a good translation back into concrete terms.

A Heidegger Poem??

who knew equipmentality was so lyrical

I came across a short poem that I apparently wrote, I don’t exactly remember when. Presumably it was after the summer of 2002 or 2003 which I think was when I read Heidegger’s Being and Time. Relevant excerpt followed by poem:

the less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is–as equipment (Heidegger, Being and Time p. 98).

You simply must spend less time just staring at that hammer-Thing. Really, it’s ghastly
the way you just waste your time watching it,
as if waiting for it to move.
Let me assure you, that hammer-Thing
isn’t going to animate itself and build us a new deck;
it’s not going to just pick itself up and start hammering in those nails:
me into better living,
and you out of a job!

I’m not really sure what I was thinking when I wrote this, nor what it exactly means to hammer oneself out of a job.

I recall writing some poetry based on Leibniz and possibly also Malebranche at one point. If I find it I will share.

Some Philosophical Chuck Norris Facts

(The original)

Chuck Norris can imagine a chiliagon.

Chuck Norris has intellectual intuition.

Chuck Norris threatened Alexandre Kojeve into conceding that history wasn’t over until Chuck Norris said it was.

After watching one episode of Walker: Texas Ranger, Nietzsche changed his concept of “the will to power” to simply “Chuck Norris”. A lost revision to Thus Spoke Zarathustra has the progression camel, lion, baby, Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris can get outside of language and the text.

Hobbes had to rewrite Leviathan after Chuck Norris roundhoused him until he promised to remove the line “No man is so strong that he cannot be killed by the cunning of one man or the strength of many in alliance”. The new edition had an image of Chuck Norris on the cover.

Everything you know only by description, Chuck Norris knows by acquaintance.

Chuck Norris can stand in the same river twice.

Chuck Norris overtook Zeno’s tortoise no problem, then roundhoused the turtle into Zeno’s face.

Chuck Norris can stop an infinite regress with his beard.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite abandoned negative theology because he just couldn’t bring himself to write that the Godhead “is not Chuck Norris.”

After Heidegger met Chuck Norris, he agreed that Chuck isn’t thrown: he throws.

When Levinas published Totality and Infinity, Chuck Norris sued him for infringing on the names of his left and right fists. He sued Foucault for Discipline and Punish cuz that’s what Chuck’s legs are called.

It is a little known fact that Lacan occasionally used “Chuck Norris” as a synonym for the Name of the Father.

When Chuck Norris tells a meta-narrative, everyone believes it.

Chuck Norris can conceive of bare matter without any properties.

When Nietzsche’s demon told Chuck Norris he would live his life over again and again, innumerably, he roundhoused the demon in the face for interrupting him in his loneliest loneliness. The demon called off the eternal recurrence to avoid eternal roundhousing.

Chuck Norris can dispute about taste, and win.

When Parmenides said “ex nihilo nihil fit”, Chuck Norris roundhoused him out of nowhere. Parmenides took it back.

Empedocles developed his concept of atoms “swerving” after he saw Chuck Norris on a motorcycle.

Solon attended Chuck Norris’ baptism, and agreed baby Chuck had achieved eudaimonia at the age of three weeks.

Deleuze and Guatarri actually got the inspiration for the “body without organs” not from Artaud but from watching Chuck Norris kick the crap out General Trau in Missing in Action.

Leibniz recanted his arguments for ours being the “best of all possible worlds” after he learned Chuck Norris wasn’t going to be in Delta Force 3.

Epic Castoriadis run-on sentence

Currently reading Castoriadis’ The Imaginary Institution of Society. The man likes his run-on sentences, as evidenced below. Semi-colons do little to mitigate the sense of being overwhelmed by the piling-up of explications.

The image is therefore a symbol here — but of what? In order to know, one must enter the labyrinths of the symbolic elaboration of the imaginary in the unconscious. What is at the end of it? Something that is not there to represent something else; something that is instead the operative condition for every subsequent representation, but that already itself exists in the mode of representation: the fundamental phantasy of the subject, his or her nuclear (and not ‘primitive’) scene, where that which constitutes the subject in his or her singularity exists; the organizing-organized schema that provides its own image and exists not in symbolization but in the imaginary presentification that is already for the subject an embodied and operative signification, the initial grasp and the first, overall constitution of an articulated, relational system positing, separating and uniting the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’, the sketch of gesture and the sketch of perception, the division into archetypal roles and the originary ascription of a role to the subject as such, positive and negative valuation, the source of subsequent symbolic significance, the origin of privileged and specific investments of the subject, something at once structuring and structured.