New York culture

Recently, a friend looking to support high-quality news sources by subscribing asked for recommendations. I noted that New York Magazine had been doing some surprisingly good journalism.

I'd sneered at that sort of magazine in the past – the sort that people mainly buy to see who's on the annual top doctors list or top restaurants list. But my sneering was inconsistent. I'd assumed that such an obviously gameable metric must already be corrupt – but when I lived in DC, Washingtonian Magazine's restaurant picks were actually pretty good, and my girlfriend found a really good doctor on the Top Doctors list. Nor was he an expensive concierge doctor – he took her fairly ordinary health insurance. I'd assumed there would be paid placement, but there wasn't. The methodology of such lists is actually fairly clever: they survey doctors, asking for each specialty – if you needed to see a doctor other than yourself in this specialty, whom would you go to? Now I live in Berkeley, and the last time I needed to see an ear doctor, I found one on the list just a few blocks from my house – and he was excellent.

But even after correcting for my prejudices, New York Magazine is special. They recently published some of the best science reporting I've seen – it's nominally about the Implicit Association Test, but it's really about the sorts of bad science that contributed to the replication crisis. Here are some excerpts I thought were especially clear:

What constitutes an acceptable level of test-retest reliability? It depends a lot on context, but, generally speaking, researchers are comfortable if a given instrument hits r = .8 or so. The IAT’s architects have reported that overall, when you lump together the IAT’s many different varieties, from race to disability to gender, it has a test-retest reliability of about r = .55. By the normal standards of psychology, this puts these IATs well below the threshold of being useful in most practical, real-world settings.


In a 2007 chapter on the IAT, for example, Kristin Lane, Banaji, Nosek, and Greenwald included a table (Table 3.2) running down the test-retest reliabilities for the race IAT that had been published to that point: r = .32 in a study consisting of four race IAT sessions conducted with two weeks between each; r = .65 in a study in which two tests were conducted 24 hours apart; and r = .39 in a study in which the two tests were conducted during the same session (but in which one used names and the other used pictures). In 2014, using a large sample, Yoav Bar-Anan and Nosek reported a race IAT test-retest reliability of r = .4 (Table 2). Calvin Lai, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard who is the director of research at Project Implicit, ran the numbers from some of his own data, and came up with similar results. “If I had to estimate for immediate test-retest now, it would be r ~= .35,” he wrote in an email. “If it was over longer time periods, I would revise my estimate downward although I’m uncertain about how much.” (In emails, Greenwald argued that Lai’s figures should be adjusted upward using the so-called Spearman-Brown formula to account for the fact that they stemmed from IATs that weren’t full-length, but Blanton strongly pushed back on that claim. I emailed a few statisticians asking them to arbitrate the dispute and basically got a hung jury.) (Update: Lai emailed me after this article went up and said that in light of research published since he provided me with the original estimate, he’d now estimate the true value to be in the neighborhood of r = .42.)


One is that the most IAT-friendly numbers, published in a 2009 meta-analysis lead-authored by Greenwald, which found fairly unimpressive correlations (race IAT scores accounted for about 5.5 percent of the variation in discriminatory behavior in lab settings, and other intergroup IAT scores accounted for about 4 percent of the variance in discriminatory behavior in lab settings), were based on some fairly questionable methodological decisions on the part of the authors. The Oswald team, in a meta-analysis of their own published in 2013, argued convincingly that Greenwald and his colleagues had overestimated the correlations between IAT scores and discriminatory behavior by including studies that didn’t actually measure discriminatory behavior, such as those which found a link between high IAT scores and certain brain patterns (these studies, in fact, found some of the highest correlations). The Oswald group also claimed — again, convincingly — that the Greenwald team took a questionable approach to handling so-called ironic IAT effects, or published findings in which high IAT scores correlated with better behavior toward out-group than in-group members, the theory being the implicitly biased individuals were overcompensating. Greenwald and his team counted both ironic and standard effects as evidence of a meaningful IAT–behavior correlation, which, in effect, allowed the IAT to double-dip at the validity bowl: Unless the story being told is extremely pretzel-like, it can’t be true that high IAT scores predict both better and worse behavior toward members of minority groups. If one study finds a correlation between IAT scores and discriminatory behavior against out-group members, and another, similarly-sized study finds a similarly sized correlation between IAT scores and discriminatory behavior against the in-group members, for meta-analytic purposes those two studies should average out to a correlation of about zero. That isn’t what the Greenwald team did — instead, they in effect added the two correlations as though they were pointing in the same direction.

And this is the middlebrow city magazine for New York. The other magazine is the New Yorker. Which happens, incidentally, to be the other source of high-quality reporting I'd recommend. What's so good about New York? I wonder whether it's the theater.

A friend was recently considering moving from the San Francisco Bay Area, back to New York. At first, they thought that their social life there couldn't plausibly measure up to the level of intellectual engagement and high-quality friendship they'd found here. At first, I agreed.

But then I thought, what if we don't have to be stupid about this? What if, instead of trying to find the exact same kinds of friends one left behind in the Bay, one looked for where New Yorkers were trying to make something real and interesting?

My friend would probably end up in a finance job if they moved back to New York. There's a certain sort of honesty in finance, where you're not expected to pretend you're not motivated by money. In fact, people look at you funny if you talk about how you love your job – which I suspect is more conducive to actually loving your job than the opposite norm. But, ultimately, I don't expect that to lead to full authentic engagement with reality.

Then I thought about the other major New York industry - one where the creative class start new entrepreneurial ventures on a small scale in the hopes of making it big. I'm speaking, of course, of off-off-broadway theater. And, more generally, the startup arts scene.

Most new businesses in the developed world aren't about providing basic necessities anymore, so there's no point in old prejudices in favor of "industrialists" against impractical artsy types. A theatrical performance is a kind of organized production that requires both good taste and operational competence. Hamilton and its ilk might be the Apple Computer of the east coast.

The arts engage with what it is to be human, they grapple with philosophical and political questions, they are an especially human use of human beings, and they benefit from a very, very long tradition. And, there's an important sense in which theater is more honest than large portions of the new app-driven tech economy – they're both pretending, but theater is overtly pretending. They both say they're going to change the world, but theatrical artists actually do change the way people talk about their lives, the narratives people have available.

So, perhaps it's no coincidence that the magazine smart enough to retain Atul Gawande (of checklist manifesto fame) as a staff writer, is one that has a focus on the New York arts scene. That the other New York magazine, with extensive theater listings, even unto the off-off-Broadway shows, gets science reporting right.

So I argued that my friend should try to make friends with theater people if they moved to New York. That these are the New York equivalent to the Berkeley Rationalists and Bay Area startup founders - or better.

11 thoughts on “New York culture

  1. Howie

    I generally find New York to be as intellectual as the Bay Area, so that bit seems right to me. I also think that you're right to notice the importance of the arts to New York relative to the Bay Area. People move to DC to work in policy. People (mostly but less exclusively) move to the Bay to work in tech. People often move to New York to make the New York cultural scene better.

    That said, based on my experience living in and around New York, I think this post is weirdly overfocused on theater relative to other types of culture. New York's also where people go to make it in pop music, classical music, jazz, and the restaurant scene.

    Outside of the realm of culture, it also has a very vibrant left-activism scene and two world class universities.

    1. Benquo Post author

      You're right that there's much more to the New York arts scene than I mentioned, I think I knew more theater & film types than other types growing up.

      I do think theater is especially interesting. Classical music mostly seems finished, though the remaining artifacts are still interesting in their own right. There are other major cities with substantial restaurant innovation (e.g. SF and Chicago and now even DC). I also don't see how that would contribute much to intellectual progress more generally, but I could just be missing something. Tyler Cowen seems to find it interesting, but mostly not the high-culture stuff you can only get in New York.

      Pop music seems more culturally relevant, and so does jazz, and I guess you could call the music scene one thing if you squint. And it seems plausible that music is important intellectually. Intellectuals often seem interested in it.

      I'm not sure "work in tech" is a fair description of what's going on in the SF Bay Area. It seems like mostly marketing. SpaceX is in LA (though Tesla is in South Bay), and Amazon is in Seattle. Theranos is a recent famous Bay Area "tech" startup, though.

      1. Howie

        One thing that some of the NYC service industries seem to provide is jobs for people for whom their jobs are not the focal point of their lives (although certain sectors of the service industries are very professionalized).

        I think that may in some ways contribute to NYC culture although I may be biased by the differences between my friend circles in NYC and the Bay.

      2. komponisto

        >Classical music mostly seems finished...

        Uh, not while I still exist...

        (I feel like this opinion is, to a significant degree, a reflection of my being personally insufficiently salient to you.)

        >Pop music seems more culturally relevant

        This is true almost by definition in a society that is not sufficiently aristocratic or "elitist".

        There is no question that serious music is fundamentally incompatible with mass consumer culture. The question is: why should we cede the cultural field to the latter? Why not embrace elitism instead, if it would be more interesting?

        The existing musical heritage -- including what you refer to as the "remaining artifacts" -- constitute more than enough material on which to build an thriving subculture, even if we grant the assumption that there isn't one already (which we need not do, because there is, or rather, there are probably multiple distinct ones).

        Keep in mind that Eliezer Yudkowsky created the rationalist subculture singlehandedly, out of a heritage of sci-fi, cartoons, and Richard Feynman, by means of writing blog posts.

        If you actually think "classical music" is interesting in its own right, you're giving up *way* too soon.

    1. Raymond Arnold

      This was my initial reaction too, although it was a clearly "defensive" reaction, and when I'm feeling defensive that's usually a red flag that the way-I-want-to-respond-to-it isn't most useful.

      I think there *is* a qualitative difference between the Bay Area Rationalist and the NY Rationalists. Bay Area rationalists are 300+ people, and it bleeds over into the startup scene which is huge. NY is more like 20-30 and doesn't bleed as much. So if you're looking for a thriving *village* as opposed to one particular social-group, I think it may be fair to say the theater/art scene is more like that.

      That all said: I have periodically attempted to make friends with music and artsy-ish people, but generally failed. I haven't tried that hard, so take this all with a grain of salt. But I felt like I'd have to invest a lot of myself into that way-of-life, and... it wasn't that socially rewarding? Which is weird, because I used to heavily identify as an artist and it seems like I should be into this.

      I think the biggest thing I found was that the people I was most interested in getting to know in the artsy/music scene, are people who have ambition/agency, and those people have already arranged their lives to pursue their goals (including social life), so it was hard to find a way to fit myself into their lives.

      1. Douglas Scheinberg

        Wow, I didn't realize the Bay Area community was THAT much bigger than the NYC one... it's like bigger than Dunbar's Number huge.

      2. Benquo Post author

        I'm now wondering whether I was actually too generous to the Bay, and Startup culture isn't reasonably described as "tech" anymore. (See my response to Howie.) Two generations ago there was a real tech startup industry, with companies like Apple (in South Bay) developing personal computers, and Microsoft (in the Seattle area) developing software. One generation ago there was the internet boom, but which created companies like Google (in South Bay) and Cisco (in SF) and Amazon (also Seattle). This generation seems to mostly be marketing companies like Facebook, and political machines like Uber, and separately Tesla and SpaceX which aren't really integrated with the Bay culture at all. I think that there's a leftover halo from the memory of past booms in the Bay, from people like Paul Graham, which I've been projecting over my surroundings instead of seeing what I actually see.

        It's also unclear to me that the Rationalists have that much of a true intellectual culture anymore. Our main community institution is now no longer a math and philosophy research org (Singularity Institute, now known as MIRI), but an organization marketing self-improvement workshops (CFAR). But, there are a lot of us here, in a way that's basically not true of the New York Rationalists. That's totally consistent with the typical New York Rationalist being qualitatively better in some way, mostly because I think we've been coopted by Pan-Bay Area "Actor" culture, which has mostly displaced tech culture.

        Overall it seems to me as though we have sold out to a bunch of people vaguely mimicking an older more generative culture. Probably I should hang out with the Maker people more.

        1. Howie

          I don't feel strongly but I disagree with your claim that SpaceX and (especially) Tesla aren't really integrated into Bay Area culture. I also think it's a little weird to say that there was a "tech" culture a generation ago because Google was created but there isn't a tech culture anymore even though Google now employs many more people (even if you only count the people working in "tech" roles).

          That said, I agree with your point that a lot of what's going on in the Bay Area is marketing. I think it's less that there is less technical innovation happening now and more that the big tech companies do so much marketing that the technical innovation has been diluted.

          As a picky language thing, I think it's confusing to claim that the culture isn't really "tech" anymore. It's still dominated by companies that almost everybody considers to be "tech" companies. I think refusing to call them tech companies is basically glamorizing the word "tech" too much. I'd rather say that a lot of the "tech" industry is just about marketing. One ar

          1. Michael Vassar

            Show me some integration WRT SpaceX or Tesla!. I encounter their people on Yoga retreats more frequently than at 'tech' events. Actually, this thread needs F2F debate with proper penalties for Mott and Bailey and other modern rhetoric.

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