Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Newcomb Problem of Going to Law School, Vet School, or Becoming a VAP

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

When I teach contracts, one of my catch phrases is "you pays your money and you takes your chances."  It's consistent with my view, expressed ad nauseam in this article and elsewhere that thinking of any kind (whether or not "like a lawyer") only gets you so far.   To tap into my inner existentialist for a moment, life is about choices.  Making a choice is a mental process, but it's not quite the same thing as sorting things out rationally.  Making a choice (particularly one on which you then act) is more akin to the action than the thought.  (One might even say that making a choice but not acting on it isn't really making a choice because there's no consequence to it.)

NewcombAn ancillary catch phrase to "you pays your money..." might be "hope springs eternal."  My heart goes out to all of those who have made rational life decisions that have not panned out.  I'm an old guy who made a career in a different time, and I have no idea if I'm good or lucky, but I'm closer to the end than the beginning than most of my current professional peers, with a completely different set of life burdens.  So I observe the battle from the standpoint of one who has fought in it but has since been evacuated to safety.

To get  a sense of the turmoil, one need only have read the dozens of almost uniformly anonymous posts of law students whose debt obligations presently exceed their income expectations.   Then, in this morning's New York Times, David Segal, the author of a similar series on young lawyers, writes about debt-laden and unemployable young veterinarians.   And, over at The Faculty Lounge, it's hard not to be moved by the story of someone who committed to be a VAP and has similarly been caught in the backwash of the bursting of the law school and legal profession bubble.

I know that every one of my current students applied to and matriculated in law school (i.e., committed to the battle) after it was clear that the bubble had burst.  Why are they here?  Why apply to vet school after reading today's Times?  Why be a VAP?

There's a thought problem in decision theory called the "Newcomb Paradox."  The graphic above lays it out.   In the problem, assume an all-knowing and all-powerful "Predictor" and a "Chooser."  The Chooser has in front of her two boxes.  Box A is transparent and she can see it holds a $1,000 bill.   Box B is opaque.   It either contains nothing or $1,000,000.  Her choices are limited to the following:  (i) choose only Box B, or (ii) choose both Box A and Box B.  Here's the rub.  The Predictor (being all-knowing and all-powerful) has already predicted how she is going to choose.  And Chooser knows this as well.  So, if she goes with choice (ii) (both boxes), the Predictor will have predicted that and Box B will contain nothing.  If she goes with choice (i) (only Box B, thus giving up the sure $1,000), then the Predictor will have predicted that, and Box B will contain the $1,000,000.

Here's the paradox.  A causal decision theorist says choose both boxes because what is done is done.  Chooser's choice can't change the past, so there ought to be $1,000,000 in the box, and Chooser will get both the $1,000,000 and the $1,000.  The evidential decision theorist says, no, the best present evidence of what the Predictor has put in place is Chooser's present choice, and so Chooser ought to choose only Box B, even though it means giving up a sure $1,000.  Each side, the causalist and the evidentialist, thinks the other is irrational.  As Robert Nozick observed, there is no "knockdown" argument for either side.

Elsewhere, I've suggested this is a helpful way of looking at the illusion (or delusion) that we can beat the market.  It's a causal world, but one in which real causes are so complex and remote that they might as well have been put in place by the Predictor (or God).  So, like the evidentialist Chooser, we rely on evidence, part of which is our own assessment of our own abilities to make probabilistic judgments about the future of the causal world.  And hope springs eternal.  If we don't believe in our assessment of our own ability to go for broke, then unlike the sad VAP, we never leave the safe confines of our Big Law job (the $1,000 bill in the transparent box) for the big reward - a tenure track position in an accredited law school (which may or may not be in the opaque box).

Daniel Kahneman refers to this as the "illusion of skill."  My critique of Kahneman is that, while his is an undoubtedly accurate empirical assessment of the behavioral heuristics and biases of what I would more plainly call "self-deception," merely applying more thought to the problem leaves you with the very same problem you started with:  is my own assessment of my own self-deception itself an illusion of skill (the skill here being self-knowledge)?  No wonder I conclude:  at some point, you pays your money and takes your chances.

I know that's no comfort to those disappointed by the outcomes in the real, causal world.  But it's the only way I can understand the inner process of making the commitment decision - whether it's going to law school, becoming a vet, or trying to be a law professor - in a world we inhabit, don't control, and in which can only make educated guesses about the future.

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Well this is a new angle on making decisions.

Posted by: Lowellguy | Mar 7, 2013 6:55:11 AM

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