Agnes Callard and Robin Hanson on the secrets of communication and how to be an expert

The Browser's Uri Bram and Applied Divinity Studies sit down with Robin Hanson and Agnes Callard to discuss their new podcast, Minds Almost Meeting.

Uri: Agnes, Robin, you just started a podcast together, Minds Almost Meeting. What kind of thoughts are best expressed (or discovered) in speech? What kinds of thoughts are best expressed in writing? How do the two interact?

Robin: I love conversation, but we academics don’t get that much credit for it. A podcast is a place to do that, but most podcasts don’t actually have a real conversation. They are usually lots of softball questions that let someone give a series of prepared speeches. In a real conversation, the other person might challenge you and derail your speech.

Agnes: The thought that can worst be expressed in writing is a question.  This is not only because one needs the other person to offer an answer, but also because most questions are themselves incomplete. I don’t generally know what I’m asking when I first ask a question, I’m fishing around.

Uri: I feel this very strongly: that often when I speak out loud I just say half a thought and (in the best cases) my interlocutor figures out what I was trying to say, or that my ideal self would have said, and that this basically doesn’t work in writing. (Sometimes when I speak out loud my interlocutor answers a question I wasn’t even slightly trying to ask, though that can be interesting in its own way).

When I listen back to my podcast interviews, I’m often shocked at how much less clear my questions were than they seemed in my head at the time.

Robin: Yes, my conversations with Agnes felt vital at the time, but then reading over our transcripts I can see how much we could have edited for a smoother reader experience. But hopefully some readers will enjoy seeing an actual conversation in real time, not a prepared script.

Uri: To me, a major theme of your podcast is the difficulty of communicating. Sometimes you seem to spend a lot of time just checking with each other if you both understood the thing you were trying to say; you sometimes don’t agree about whether you agree or not. How do we deal with the difficulty of figuring out new and important truths if we can’t even agree on whether we’re talking about the same things?

Robin: It is actually pretty amazing that we can communicate at all. We are hardly ever clear, so our listeners have to do so much work to figure out what we could be saying. Spending half your time trying to check if we understand each other isn’t at all implausible in such a context.

Agnes: One way to think about conversations is: how quickly are you going to coordinate on “our message.”  In smalltalk, people feel the need to coordinate very quickly: our message is that the weather is bad, or that we are both stressed, or whatever.  The more you’re going to delay the question of “what do we think”---that is, what is the pair going to come to an agreement on—the more you encounter questions of “do we mean the same thing.”  There’s very little of “what do you mean by rain?” I think Robin and I are willing to delay a lot!

ADS: I don't like using the internet that much, especially for many-to-many communication.

You two seem to like it a lot. Why is that? Do the benefits outweigh the costs, or do the costs just not exist for you?

Robin: We both like to talk, and to have big audiences to what we say. And to engage others who respond. For that, the internet can be great.

Agnes: I like being able to start and stop communication at will, to not have to work my way into or out of conversations.  This is the one thing I enjoy about Zoom, the power of just “shutting down” the conversation.

ADS: Some intellectual circles start out one-to-many, but once the authors find their “people” (tribe, scene, whatever), they can just cater to them directly. So why aren’t you just writing for the 10 or so most important people for your audience, and conversing with them directly? Are you hoping that your audience will continue to expand and you’ll find new people to talk to?

Robin: If I knew the ten most important people to talk to, and they were willing to talk to me, sure, I’d talk to them lots.

Agnes: It’s interesting to ask oneself why Plato almost never has Socrates repeat chief interlocutors (never, if you think the Hippias Major is inauthentic, as I suspect). There’s something about working one’s way into a conversation that reaffirms your motivations for having it; I like starting over each time, being forced to justify the interest of the topic, etc. But I also DO communicate over and over again with a small group of people--I guess those communications don’t tend to take the form of writing so much as speech!  (Phone/Zoom/in person)

Uri: How much of your brainspace at any given time is being used on calculating social implications and dynamics in conversations?

I am starting to think there is a massive gap between people who spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the social dynamics of what they’re doing in conversations, and people who spend little or no time on it at all.

Agnes: I’m not sure I can tell whether or not I am doing this. Lately, however, I have taken to muting every tweet, as soon as I post it.  (I’ve done this for about a month or two)  I then go back later and check on replies (or sometimes I forget to do this).  I’ve noticed it has led to me devoting much less energy overall to twitter.  So that’s some empirical evidence there.

Robin: So, you two, tell us something about how we came across to you, so we can react to that. Did we spin our wheels? Did we come to understand each other better over time? Did we just completely misunderstand each other at times? Is there a point to such different people talking in this way? Inquiring minds want to know. Could you tell one of us is from humanities and the other from STEM?

Uri: Ahahah so I’m not sure I can answer this well, since I would be liable to attribute any lack of understanding I heard in the podcast to my own shortcomings rather than failures on your parts.

I would not have guessed that one was a humanities and one STEM, except the times when Robin said “I’m an economist, economists tend to say/think/bring X, it’s good that there’s someone representing X.”

Robin: It could be that the fact that we are unique oddballs overwhelms the different origins. That is, I’m a poor sample of STEM and she’s a poor sample of humanities, as we are  both just so weird compared to typical samples from such places.

Uri: I don’t remember which episode but there was a long conversation about Paris where I remember thinking: “are they talking about the same thing? Or not? Are they making progress? I can’t perceive it if so.” If that helps.

And/but I’d also like to say: I mainly think of podcasts as being a vehicle for “comfort listening”. It’s really pleasant to hear the same few voices that you really enjoy, to imagine that they’re your friends. It’s a great medium for reinforcing certain ideas/concepts over time. But my retention from podcasts (in general) is not great, though neither is my retention from reading to be honest.

Robin: So do you feel like you want to sit next to us at the party while we argue about random stuff?

ADS: Yes, absolutely.

Which is exactly why I’m so afraid of podcasts. I think the illusion that famous strangers are your personal friends is incredibly unhealthy, and even more so during periods of social isolation.

Agnes: I’m realizing that the fact that I don’t listen to podcasts makes me bad at understanding what people would be getting out of them. When we were doing our podcast, I wasn’t thinking about the listener at all, I was just thinking about talking to Robin -- though I do think I was more nervous than during (non-recorded) conversations we’ve had, so I suppose that suggests I was aware of the listener.

But it had never occurred to me that people listening to a podcast would be thinking of themselves as your friend. (Whereas that does make sense to me w/twitter, I see myself as “twitter friends” with some people on the basis of the fact that I interact with them regularly or even just follow their stories, e.g. I’m invested in Liz Bruenig’s baking odyssey)

Uri: ADS, I wanna push back a bit on your opposition to thinking of famous strangers as friends. We want more people to be Agnes-like and Robin-like; isn’t the fact that people imagine themselves to be Agnes and Robin’s friend quite likely to do that? The podcast then functions not to convey ideas but to mold people’s self-images in a possibly productive way. (I think that’s Tyler’s model of universities?)

ADS: That might be true, but there are a few things happening:

  1. You mistake their knowledge/understanding for your own, which actually makes you less curious and invest less seriously in learning. You listen to Agnes instead of reading Plato (or at least I do).
  2. Relatedly, you’re molding your self-image, but in a very shoddy way that involves no personal development. It’s like going to a superhero movie, feeling your testosterone shoot up, and coming out of it feeling powerful and bold.

Agnes: I think there is something to this but it would also apply to classroom experience; some amount of modeling/aspiration involves mistargeting -- so the question is whether it’s too distant from the aspirational target for you to go anywhere, which would be where the superhero movie analogy comes in.

Uri: I mean what’s the relevant comparison set here? It would definitely be better if I spent the time thinking my own thoughts, coming up with new ideas, but I’m not going to do that anyway. The alternative to listen to Minds Almost Meeting is to listen to some other podcast that shapes my self-image in some other way. No?

Robin: I have this theory about experts vs elites, that conference talks are more experts, though panels are more elites. Podcast conversations feel more like elite panel discussions. Under that theory, the question is whether we come across as elites enough for people to want to listen to us. I have mixed feelings about the world’s love for elites, but still that seems to be the niche we are going for here.

ADS: A good test for if you’re an elite or an expert is how much you talk about things outside your domain of expertise. Of course that’s a bit tricky for Robin since he’s famously multidisciplinary, but once a physicist/psychologist/etc starts talking about politics, and people start taking them seriously, it’s pretty clear which side of the fence they’re on.

Robin: Agree that talking about non-expert areas is a sign of eliteness. But we are in fact expert on the topics we discussed. At least to some degree.

I actually think it is more okay to talk about things you aren’t expert in yet, if you talk about them in the way that makes sense for someone stepping into a new area. The problem is more when elites talk as if they knew as much as experts, or as if expertise wasn’t relevant.

Agnes: Seems like you’re kinda territorial about experts, Robin. You feel they need to be protected, that they are likely not to get the credit/deference that they deserve.

Robin: A world of 7 billion people can in principle gain hugely from a division of intellectual labor. So it is a terrible shame if we don’t find ways to do that. Expertise is when different people focus on particular areas.

Agnes: Sometimes I worry Robin will scorn me because I seem obviously to be more of an elite than an expert. How can I be an expert if there’s nothing I have expertise in?  Or could there be a 3rd option? I think I’d like to be something other than either of those if it were on offer….?

ADS: Well… philosophers are also in an odd category. On some view, you’re experts in thinking, or experts in rhetoric, or experts in logic or something.

Agnes: I’m definitely not an expert in logic or rhetoric. I wouldn’t at all mind if philosophers got their own category, that would make us VERY special.

ADS: Someone asked me to explain your writing/popularity to them. Let me just quote myself directly:

most pop-philosophers forsake philosophical rhetoric and just present the "big ideas" as soberly and clearly as possible. But for Callard, rhetoric *is* the point. So her "pop-philosophy" approach is philosophical explanations of practical questions instead of practical explanations of philosophical ones.

There are a lot of “100 big ideas from philosophy” books, or “Kant for dummies”. But the shift seems to be that you write philosophically about non-philosophical issues instead of the other way around.

Agnes: There’s this part in Plato’s Euthydemus where Socrates asks these two sophists who claim to be able to teach people wisdom, can you also teach them to want the wisdom you have to offer them?

I guess maybe that’s what you mean by rhetoric -- I’d call it “protreptic.”  I think it’s not so much about whether you approach a philosophical topic non-philosophically or vice versa but that there’s a kind of didacticism in how philosophy is sometimes presented that ignores the problem of protreptic -- it ignores the fact that you have to lead people to want to know the answer to the very question you’re asking.

Robin: I think we have to admit that we don’t have a good reason to give for why people should listen to us. My best shot is to see a real conversation in the process. Two very different people actually trying to understand and engage, and see how that plays out. But the rest of you will have to tell us if that actually worked.

Uri: How similar is the podcast, in fact, to your non-recorded conversations? I imagine your non-recorded conversations involve a lot more shorthands and references and just tacit agreement when you already understand each other.

Robin: I think we are “on show” on the podcast, talking to each other but with a wider audience in mind. We try to keep it going, rather than breaking or pausing or switching modes. I think I try to pick topics that will showcase our interesting differences and similarities, rather than just being curious to know the answer. But these are overall minor corrections; we are mostly just talking like we would alone.

Agnes: I think we switch topics more on non-recorded conversation, or I should say I switch topics, I think I’m usually the one responsible. I agree with Robin that they’re not so different overall.

ADS: You should just do the podcasts with the shorthand, and then someone else should release the Minds Almost Meeting Exegesis podcast. Though perhaps no one else could.

Uri: This could be one of the obligations of a full time Librarian of Robin.

Agnes: We don’t have a lot of shorthand between the two of us; we were pretty much strangers when we started doing the podcast.

Robin: So why don’t more other podcasts show real conversations? I feel like that’s what I’d like, but I must be either weird or wrong about what I like. Either way seems bad news re: how popular our podcast will be.

Agnes: I think it’s interesting and funny that whenever anyone does anything they wonder why other people don’t do more of that thing. But maybe podcasts will start to show real conversation, like reality TV.

ADS: Probably for about the same reason movies don’t. Humans are hideous by nature and listening to a conversation that doesn’t matter is like listening to someone explain their dream to you.

...which is again why I attribute podcast popularity mostly to parasociality.

Robin: I like parties where there are many intellectual conversations going on, and I can wander picking the ones I want to listen to and maybe join. Isn’t offering podcasts kinda like that, but on a larger scale? If so, doesn’t seem such a bad thing. Just don’t spend all your time going to parties.

Agnes: I think that sounds more like Clubhouse.  Why don’t you listen to Clubhouse lots if that’s what you like?

Robin: Good question. Maybe I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as its member.

Maybe I really do think Agnes is better to talk to than 95% of people I’d meet at parties.

Agnes: I’m honored, and also jealous of whoever is in the 5% with me.

ADS: Shouldn’t you just throw a party with the top 5%?

Robin: If only people came with such numbers stamped on their foreheads.

Agnes: Oh good, at least you don’t know who is in the 5%. That gives me an advantage.

Robin: I also must admit to not listening to podcasts much. I’m much more likely to browse a transcript. That’s why I thought we had to have a transcript, so I could be less hypocritical.

Agnes: That’s funny that you think it makes you less hypocritical.

Agnes: I don’t know why Robin likes parties so much. I mostly find them miserable.

ADS: Have you been to his parties?

Agnes: No, Robin has never invited me to a party. Not once.

Robin: I haven’t thrown a party in years, since attendance drifted to embarrassing low levels.

Maybe I should try again though.

Agnes: I would come, and a very small party sounds like the ideal to me!

Robin: When young I seemed very introverted and didn’t like parties. Then I met people much more like me, and I was an extrovert who was the last person to leave the parties. But that’s when I was young with lower standards. It is hard for older people to make friends, as we tend to raise our standards.

ADS: Is that a mistake? When I was younger I spent more time with people I didn’t like, but I also met most of the people I do really like today.

It seems like old people might be over-exploiting their existing friendships and under-exploring for new ones. But they also just have less time left, so it makes sense to skew more towards exploiting.

Standards aside, it just seems hard for logistical reasons. You’re not joining new institutions (clubs, schools, teams, companies) regularly, you don’t party as much, maybe you spend more time with your family.

Agnes: Also other old people don’t want to be friends with you, and it’s weird to make friends with young people.

ADS: Ohh, is it selection effects? Are all the good old people already taken?

If so, is the trick to have children, and then hang out with their friends? Then you can give off “cool mom” vibes instead of “creepy cat lady” vibes.

Robin: Dopey dad vibes seems the best dads can hope for there.

Agnes: When I first had a kid I started a mom’s group, thinking I would bond with other moms, but I didn’t like them. So I started another mom’s group, but I didn’t like them either. I did this 2-3 more times before I realized the problem might be me.

Have not had much luck befriending parents of kids’ friends with one notable exception but that couple moved away from Chicago a few years ago, to Boston.

ADS: Maybe you weren’t sending your kids to the right institutions. I wonder how much of private school tuition is just parents wanting better parents to befriend.

Uri: To segue off that slightly, something I was meaning to ask you… In the episode Hidden Motives, you talk about how we try to impress others and how much we can choose who we care to impress.

Agnes, you claim to care about what other people think of you, and/but you act in lots of unusual ways (for example, you once lay down in the middle of a road, just to see what it felt like).

Robin, you say lots of things that other people wouldn’t/don’t say, and I always assumed it was because you don’t care what other people think of you, but maybe that isn’t true.

How do you each see this?

Robin: We can’t change the fact that we care lots about what others think, but we can have some influence over who we are trying to impress. I pick people like Einstein. I don’t think he’d be very put off by seeing Agnes lying down in the road, so from my view that shouldn’t bother her much. My ideal audience is smart intellectuals who look back and ask “who should have been listened to, because if so the world would have been better off.”

Agnes: I think I’m in a constant battle between caring what other people think of me and wanting to impress them and then wanting to fight back against that.  Probably I waste a lot of energy this way.  Though maybe in many contexts I genuinely care less, and I don’t notice this; hard to compare myself to others.

ADS: Which contexts?

Agnes: In yoga studio changing rooms I am much more fine walking around naked than other people, I’ve noticed that. Also, I don’t change my voice/affect/mode of speech as much between different contexts (lecturing, talking to kids, talking to students) -- other philosophers have more of a “philosopher voice” -- and people have observed to me that I “sound different” -- I think it’s mostly that I did not pick this up.

One time I tried to teach a class at a lunch (break during conference), and someone got (rightly) annoyed that I was doing this (the people I was “teaching” were professional philosophers, one of them the keynote speaker of the conference! I was in teaching withdrawal because I’d been on leave that year), and then I realized I’ve probably done this lots of times but not noticed irritation. So, often I’m just not picking up on cues.

Sometimes I can tell the person I’m communicating with wants more of a signal from my face as to whether I’m agreeing with what they’re saying than I’m giving them -- they look at me with a look of “why is your face broken.” So I’m not participating in some kind of social game, though I don’t give thought to this, it’s more something I realize in retrospect.

Sometimes if I am very accommodating in socializing and I do it for a long time, I feel sick afterwards (get a stomachache). This has led (over many years) to me being less accommodating or exiting interactions before others. (The stomachaches started in my early teens and it took me a looooooooong time to figure out this was what was causing them.)

Uri: Wow, this is so interesting. I feel like we rarely get an articulated insight into people’s inner experiences like this.

To once again speciously segue into something else I wanted to ask you about: I (Uri) have been spending several hours per week recently doing whatever ADS thinks is the best or most important use of my time, without myself becoming convinced that those activities are best. (I think this was influenced by Robin’s writing over the years on meta-rationality and honest disagreement, for what it’s worth).

Should we all be doing something like this more often -- deferring to somebody else’s priorities over our own? Agnes, if you could control (say) 5 hours a week of Robin’s time, what would you make him do with it? Robin, what would you have Agnes do?

Agnes: I find the idea of controlling other people’s time hilarious. I think I’d make Robin read Plato, and then make him talk to me about it. Purely for my own benefit though, not for his.

Robin: From the point of view of accurate beliefs, it is clear that most people should listen to each other a lot more and give their beliefs more weight. This is somewhat countered by our wanting to show our independence and creativity, and we can each explore different areas and then bring them together later. But still, yes, we disagree too much for accuracy’s sake.

Agnes: I don’t see how other people are of use to us, in getting more accurate beliefs, unless they disagree with us.

Robin: Serving in a role of challenging and offering alternatives is yes a useful conversational role. But to do that well they don’t actually have to have different estimates from us, for the purpose of choosing action, on the key questions at issue.

Uri: If I believe that ADS (or some other person) is smarter than me, should I just defer to them 100%? Spend 100% of my time doing whatever they think I should do?

ADS: There are a bunch of reasons you probably shouldn’t defer to me 100%. I don’t have the time to manage you. You might know more about specific areas. Our values might not be aligned, etc.

On Robin’s point, I don’t think it’s just wanting to show creativity, I think it’s actually important that people do different things and try different avenues.

Uri: So I think this depends on how much smarter than me I think you are. If it’s only 10% smarter then, sure, that’s unlikely to swamp the benefits of my specific knowledge of my specific situation that you don’t share. But if I think there are people who are 100 times smarter and more effective than I am, it becomes more plausible that I should sign my life over to them completely; possibly it makes sense even if someone is 10x or possibly just 2x more effective than I am, I’m not very clear where the line would be.

ADS: But what does that look like in practice? Say Elon is the smartest person or whatever. Even if you got an audience with him, it’s not like he has the time to tell you what to do with your life. Maybe you can watch a Q&A where a college kid says “do you have any career advice” and Elon says “build cool rockets” or something, but it doesn’t seem obvious to me that you should take that personally.

Also: very smart people seem to disagree with each other a lot. So how do you pick which one to sign your life over to?

Uri: Yeah, so this is basically my problem with this strategy, too -- in choosing who to sign my priorities over to, I’m still making my own decision about who is/isn’t smart or insightful, and therefore basically still making my own decision about What To Do, just with an unusually high (or at least, unusually direct) level of input from one specific other person. But everyone who ever chooses anything is doing it partly in the context of the advice and recommendations they get from other people.

On a related note, in the episode Distant Signals, you mention that you both know that certain of your colleague’s papers aren’t actually very good, but that you’re not able to say that publicly.

As an outsider, a really large amount of academic writing seems bad to me. But it also seems plausible that some of it isn’t bad, it’s just something I don’t understand. As an outsider, how should I evaluate whether a given piece of academic writing is bad or not, given that the insiders in the profession won’t tell me?

Agnes: I’m not sure it matters so much how good it is. The question is, does it teach you anything? A lot of academic writing isn’t designed to teach people who aren’t already academics (in that specific sub field!) so I think it’s fine to dismiss it.

Robin: I see no easy substitutes for reading and thinking lots, as a personal way to learn to see what is good vs. bad. It would of course be better if we could collectively fund rating efforts to help readers, but we don’t coordinate to do that.

Uri: Funny you should mention that: Robin, there is now a $12k bounty for someone to read and compile your best blogposts, on the grounds that your ideas “are not read nearly as widely as they should be” because “it's difficult to navigate” your 3,302 posts.

Does this point at an inefficiency in how you spend your time? You keep writing new blogposts, but people want easier access to your best existing work.

More broadly, does this point at a problem with knowledge production in general? Is there an inefficiency in how much new work gets created versus the cataloging and organisation and dissemination of the best existing work out there?

Robin: I have forgotten many things that I’ve written, and so am often surprised to read my old posts. So yes, after the fact, many look like maybe I shouldn’t have written them. But this is more about search. I have to try out many ideas to find ones that are worth going back to and spending more time on.

ADS: What’s the appropriate bounty, and how sensitive is the task of curation to curator quality? Given that this represents over a decade of your life, it seems worth well over $12k. Alternatively, given that you haven’t put in the effort to curate it yourself, maybe it’s just not that valuable.

Robin: The intellectual world is quite unequal, and it largely fails to integrate the efforts of those it ranks as lower. Some people say they can’t (well) invent new ideas, but they can organize and summarize the ideas of others. If there are such people, why not have them do that work?

Uri: Well, it’s been a great pleasure and honour to talk to both of you today. I am not sure if we have helped organise and summarise your ideas or just confused ourselves and wasted your time, but it was an honour to do whichever it was.

For anyone reading, we of course highly recommend the podcast Minds Almost Meeting, and you can follow Agnes here and Robin here and should absolutely do both.

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