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kilobug comments on Is Sunk Cost Fallacy a Fallacy? - Less Wrong

18 Post author: gwern 04 February 2012 04:33AM

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Comment author: kilobug 04 February 2012 10:25:54AM 5 points [-]

Two remarks :

  1. Be careful with the Concorde example. As a French citizen, I was told that the goal of the Concorde never was to be profitable as a passenger service, but it served two goals : public relation/advertising to demonstrate the world the technical ability of french engineering and therefore sell french-made technology (civilian and military planes for example, but also through halo effect, trains or cars or nuclear power plants), and stimulating research and development that could then lead to other benefits (a bit like military research or space program does lead to civilian technology later on). Maybe it was just rationalization and not admitting they felt to the sunk cost fallacy, but as long as I remember, that was the official stance on the Concorde - and on that side, I don't really think it was sunk cost.

  2. I agree with your analysis that sunk cost is useful to counter other biases. I didn't think about the part of young children not committing it, but now that you pointed to studies showing it, it makes perfect sense (and is compatible with my own personal observation of young relatives). So, yes, sunk cost fallacy is useful because it helps us lower the damages done by the planning fallacy and our tendency to be too optimist. But I wouldn't go as far as saying it's not a bias. It's a bias, a "perfect rationalist" shouldn't have it. A bug that partially negates the effects of another bug, but sometimes create problems of its own, is still a bug. So I wouldn't say "sunk cost is not a fallacy" but "sunk cost is a fallacy but it does help us overcome other fallacies, so be careful".

Comment author: gwern 04 February 2012 07:51:12PM 1 point [-]

IMO, the Concorde justifications are transparent rationalizations - if you want research, buy research. It'd be pretty odd if you could buy more research by not buying research but commercial products... In any case, I mention Concorde because it's such a famous example and because a bunch of papers call it the Concorde effect.

I agree with your analysis that sunk cost is useful to counter other biases.

I'm not terribly confident in that claim; it might be that one suffers them both simultaneously. I had to resort to anecdotes and speculation for that section; it's intuitively appealing, but we all know that means little without hard data.

I didn't think about the part of young children not committing it, but now that you pointed to studies showing it, it makes perfect sense (and is compatible with my own personal observation of young relatives).

Yeah. I was quite surprised when I ran into Arkes's claim - it certainly didn't match my memories of being a kid! - and kept a close eye out thenceforth for studies which might bear on it.

Comment author: Strange7 26 October 2014 02:03:14AM 2 points [-]

if you want research, buy research

Focusing money too closely on the research itself runs the risk that you'll end up paying for a lot of hot air dressed up to look like research. Cool-but-useless real-world applications are the costly signalling mechanism which demonstrates an underlying theory's validity to nonspecialists. You can't fly to the moon by tacking more and more epicycles onto the crystalline-sphere theory of celestial mechanics.

Comment author: gwern 26 October 2014 04:21:51PM 0 points [-]

If you want to fly to the moon, buy flying to the moon. X-prizes etc. You still haven't shown that indirect mechanisms which happen to coincide with the status quo are the optimal way of achieving goals.

Comment author: Strange7 28 October 2014 01:11:05PM *  0 points [-]

"Modern-day best-practices industrial engineering works pretty well at it's stated goals, and motivates theoretical progress as a result of subgoals" is not a particularly controversial claim. If you think there's a way to do more with less, or somehow immunize the market for pure research against adverse selection due to frauds and crackpots, feel free to prove it.

Comment author: gwern 28 October 2014 03:58:26PM 1 point [-]

is not a particularly controversial claim.

I disagree. I don't think there's any consensus on this. The success of prizes/contests for motivating research shows that grand follies like the Concorde or Apollo project are far from the only effective funding mechanism, and most of the arguments for grand follies come from those with highly vested interests in them or conflicts of interest - the US government and affiliated academics are certainly happy to make 'the Tang argument' but I don't see why one would trust them.

Comment author: Strange7 01 November 2014 11:50:01AM 0 points [-]

I didn't say it was the only effective funding mechanism. I didn't say it was the best. Please respond to the argument I actually made.

Comment author: gwern 01 November 2014 04:36:52PM 1 point [-]

You haven't made an argument that indirect funding is the best way to go and you've made baseless claims. There's nothing to respond to: the burden of proof is on anyone who claims that bizarrely indirect mechanisms through flawed actors with considerable incentive to overstate efficacy and do said indirect mechanism (suppose funding the Apollo Project was an almost complete waste of money compared to the normal grant process; would NASA ever under any circumstances admit this?) is the best or even a good way to go compared to directly incentivizing the goal through contests or grants.

Comment author: Strange7 02 November 2014 05:11:57PM 0 points [-]

You haven't made an argument that indirect funding is the best way to go

On this point we are in agreement. I'm not making any assertions about what the absolute best way is to fund research.

and you've made baseless claims.

Please be more specific.

There's nothing to respond to: the burden of proof is on anyone who claims that bizarrely indirect mechanisms through flawed actors

All humans are flawed. Were you perhaps under the impression that research grant applications get approved or denied by a gleaming crystalline logic-engine handed down to us by the Precursors?

Here is the 'bizarrely indirect' mechanism by which I am claiming industrial engineering motivates basic research. First, somebody approaches some engineers with a set of requirements that, at a glance, to someone familiar with the current state of the art, seems impossible or at least unreasonably difficult. Money is piled up, made available to the engineers conditional on them solving the problem, until they grudgingly admit that it might be possible after all.

The problem is broken down into smaller pieces: for example, to put a man on the moon, we need some machinery to keep him alive, and a big rocket to get him and the machinery back to Earth, and an even bigger rocket to send the man and the machinery and the return rocket out there in the first place. The Tsiolkovsky rocket equation puts some heavy constraints on the design in terms of mass ratios, so minimizing the mass of the life-support machinery is important.

To minimize life-support mass while fulfilling the original requirement of actually keeping the man alive, the engineers need to understand what exactly the man might otherwise die of. No previous studies on the subject have been done, so they take a batch of laboratory-grade hamsters, pay someone to expose the hamsters to cosmic radiation in a systematic and controlled way, and carefully observe how sick or dead the hamsters become as a result. Basic research, in other words, but focused on a specific goal.

would NASA ever under any circumstances admit this?

They seem to be capable of acknowledging errors, yes. Are you?

"It turns out what we did in Apollo was probably the worst way we could have handled it operationally," says Kriss Kennedy, project leader for architecture, habitability and integration at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, US.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11326

Comment author: Jiro 01 November 2014 06:14:40PM 0 points [-]

That's like asking "If homeopathy worked and all the doctors were wrong, would they admit it?" You can't just flip a bit in the world setting Homeopathy_Works to TRUE and keep everything else the same. If homeopathy worked and yet doctors still didn't accept it, that would imply that doctors are very different than they are now, and that difference would manifest itself in lots of other ways than just doctors' opinion on homeopathy.

If funding the Apollo Project was a complete waste of money compared to the normal grant process, the world would be a different place, because that would require levels of incompetency on NASA's part so great that it would get noticed.

Or for another example: if psi was real, would James Randi believe it?

Comment author: gwern 02 November 2014 02:55:20PM *  2 points [-]

That's like asking "If homeopathy worked and all the doctors were wrong, would they admit it?"

No; it's like asking "If homeopathy didn't work and all the homeopaths were wrong, would they admit it?" You can find plenty of critics of Big Science and/or government spending on prestige projects, just like you can find plenty of critics of homeopathy.

If funding the Apollo Project was a complete waste of money compared to the normal grant process, the world would be a different place, because that would require levels of incompetency on NASA's part so great that it would get noticed.

If homeopathy was a complete waste of money compared to normal medicine implying 'great' levels of incompetency on homeopaths, how would the world look different than it does?

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 November 2014 07:12:42PM -1 points [-]

That's like asking "If homeopathy worked and all the doctors were wrong, would they admit it?" You can't just flip a bit in the world setting Homeopathy_Works to TRUE and keep everything else the same.

You can look at cases like chiropractors. Over a long time there was a general belief that chiropractors didn't provide any good for patients because they theory based on which chiropractors practice is in substantial conflict with the theories used by Western medicine.

Suddenly in 2008 Cochrane comes out with the claim that chiropractors actually do provide comparable health benefits for patients with back pain as conventional treatment for backpain.

A lot of the opposition to homeopathy is based on the fact that the theory base of homeopathy is in conflict with standard Western knowledge about how things are supposed to work.

People often fail to notice things for bad reasons.

Comment author: Lumifer 28 October 2014 04:18:09PM -1 points [-]

"works pretty well" is not a controversial claim, but "motivates theoretical progress" is more iffy.

Offhand, I would say that it motivates incremental progress and applied aspects. I don't think it motivates attempts at breakthroughs and basic science.

Comment author: Strange7 01 November 2014 12:00:31PM 1 point [-]

'Breakthroughs and basic science' seem to be running in to diminishing returns lately. As a policy matter, I think we (human civilization) should focus more on applying what we already know about the basics, to do what we're already doing more efficiently.

Comment author: ChristianKl 26 October 2014 06:15:54PM 0 points [-]

IMO, the Concorde justifications are transparent rationalizations - if you want research, buy research. It'd be pretty odd if you could buy more research by not buying research but commercial products... In any case, I mention Concorde because it's such a famous example and because a bunch of papers call it the Concorde effect.

It really depends on your view of academics. If you think that if you hand them a pile of money they just invest it into playing status games with each other, giving them a clear measurable outcome to provides feedback around which they have to structure their research could be helpful.