2014-02-12

Everest And The Gnome Hypothesis

Photo courtesy Wikipedia
I.
No sooner had I written about minimum wage and the Gnome Hypothesis then did James Schneider write a post over at EconLog suggesting that people climb who summit the "eight-thousanders" do so mainly as a status-seeking enterprise. He also has a few choice words for marathon runners.

What do these two blog posts have to do with each other? Everything.

Clarity of reason is important because it enables us to spot fiction much more easily. That's why I come up with ideas like "Gnome Hypoetheses" and "shotgun theories." They function as good shorthand for ideas that would otherwise take a long time to explain.

II.
Schneider begins by stating:
If status is important, then climbing mountains just over 8000 meters will be much more desirable than climbing mountains just under 8000 meters. Even if the peaks just under 8000 meters are similar in deadliness, there is no simple shorthand way to communicate your achievement.
He then checks the record books to determine whether or not there is a cutoff in the frequency of summits, and finds that there is indeed a dramatic cutoff at the 8000 meter mark. He concludes that, since the 8000-meter elevation mark corresponds with a decrease in the frequency of summits, status must be important.

Do you see the problem? Schneider is affirming the consequent. As I wrote last week, a large proportion of economic analysis comes down to assuming that X is the only valid cause of Y, testing for Y, and then proclaiming that you have demonstrated X. But it doesn't work that way.

Status is probably one reason that some people climb Everest or other "eight-thousanders." But is it the only reason? Is it even the "average reason?" Schneider never establishes this, he simply assumes it.

So, his argument that people run marathons and climb Everest purely as a status-seeking enterprise is a fallacious one, for affirming the consequent, but also a Gnome Hypothesis because "status-seeking" is entirely speculative.

III.
This kind of speculation is particularly unreasonable since all one needs to do to find out why people climb Everest is to ask them. As commenter "DougT" points out, the case of Everest has a particularly noteworthy example in Edmund Hillary's famous explanation, "Because it was there." Not, "Because I wanted to impress people." Not, "Because I wanted to get laid." Not, "To attract donor funding to my Nepalese development charity." Because it was there.

Schneider's point gets less convincing when he tries to apply it to marathons. Marathons, as a distance, have a rich folklore justifying the length of the race. Schneider wonders why we run 26.2 miles instead of 25.8, but the question is silly. The distance of 26.2 miles came about as a result of the legend of the race. It's true that, once upon a time, there was no set, agreed-upon marathon distance, and so races were of varying lengths. But the push to length standardization was the result of competition. Winners like to know how they compare to each other. Standardizing race lengths enables us to set world records, etc.

Schneider might argue that attempting to break a world record is a status-seeking enterprise, but how cynical is that? Are people nothing more than status-seeking, utility-maximizing machines? Or, can we trace some of our ambitions to personal, romantic, spiritual, etc. motives?

To me, it seems unlikely that the only reason people are driven to greatness is status. I don't deny that some of us are wired that way, but it is yet to be determined that underneath it all, status is our only motive. It's just a hypothesis, and a Gnome Hypothesis at that.