The Real Inter-Disciplinary Barrier

The view of academic experts in an area often differs considerably from the impression given in the popular media, such as in newspapers and magazines.  But each academic knows only a few areas as an academic; most of the rest he knows mainly as a consumer of popular media.  Unfortunately, academics typically accept media impressions of academic consensus in areas outside their own. 

Because of this, it is very hard to combine media-contrary results from more than one academic field.  No field will accept a contribution from another field that differs much from the media impression of that other field; only the most elite academics can get people to listen long enough to believe otherwise.  Non-elites who try will mainly just be called "strange" or "crazy."  I had trouble convincing hard sci/tech folks to believe uncontroversial results in economics, and I’ve had similar troubles going the other direction.  I’ve even had non-health-economists call me crazy for telling them standard results in health economics. 

This is my main explanation for my apparent disagreement with Tyler Cowen (of whom I’m a big fan), who today clarified where he thinks we disagree.  If you recall, Tyler profiled me in his new book Discover your Inner Economist, saying "Robin has strange ideas" and also recently said "I do think he’s crazy on a bunch of things."  I suggested Tyler didn’t really disagree with me much, but used me to "voice views Tyler is reluctant to embrace directly in a popular book." 

Tyler countered, "In some ways I think of the whole book as an (attempted) rebuttal to Robin" and then described our disagreement via labels like "Darwin, Fourier, Comte" versus "Henry Sidwick, Hayek, Quine."  I complained that this was too vague, explaining that I don’t mind differing styles or values, but being a reluctant disagreer I want to see disagreements on fact stated as clearly as possible.   

Today Tyler clarified:  (Added: In the comments see Tyler, me, Tyler, me.)


Of a randomly chosen three hundred persons, I am probably closer to Robin’s views than anyone else in the group.

(Does this mean most people could say Tyler has "strange ideas"?)  But then Tyler lists eight items of disagreement.  Tyler’s list does not include these "strange ideas" tied to me in his book: medical spending ineffectiveness, fast future robot-driven growth rates, widespread evolution-driven signaling and self-deception, and objections to social hypocrisy.  Can I presume he doesn’t disagree much on these?

Strikingly, the three items on which Tyler most clearly identifies a disagreement (only one of which was in the book) are all in hard science and technology:

1. I see the chance of people becoming uploads — even within centuries — as less than one percent.  Apart from the technical issues (ever get a flat tire?), I think it is easier to graft greater intelligence and computational abilities onto already-existing biological beings.

5. … "If your head is cryogenically frozen today, you will be alive in 2100."  … I assign this a "p" of under one in ten thousand, basically for the reasons that a stupid person would give.

7.  Robin believes in the "many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics."  … I’ll accept the estimate of the professional community of the relevant experts and not raise my "p" or betting odds any higher than that.

Tyler seems to be unaware that relevant physics experts probably give many worlds view a "p" of over 1/3, which isn’t far from what I’d give.  And having just attended a technical workshop on whole brain emulation (WBE), I can say I doubt any attendee would have assigned it a chance anywhere near as low as one percent in centuries.   And if WBE (= upload) works, then cryonics (to which I’ve assigned a chance of >5%) must work too if freezing doesn’t destroy too much info, and if premature thawing is prevented.

Honestly, Tyler doesn’t know that much about hard science and technology; in eight years of close contact I’ve never seen the argumentative Tyler introduce, engage, or even show much interest in a technical hard sci/tech argument.  And yet Tyler feels confident enough in his perception of expert consensus on such topics to base his disagreements with me on them, even though I’ve spend years in such areas (e.g., M.S. physics, 2 physics journal articles, 9 years computer research).  Thus I attribute our disagreement to the standard interdisciplinary barrier/bias. 

On Tyler’s other five points, it is still not clear to me that we actually disagree.   On his #2 and #6, I think Tyler and I both agree that private law and decision markets are among the twenty most interesting big potential policy ideas in the last few decades, that such big ideas have little chance of being adopted wholesale and even then would work out very differently than anticipated, but that such ideas are nevertheless well worth exploring and trying out first on small scales.  On decision markets Tyler says:

I stress the expressive function of democracy, and its ability to maintain public morale and cohesion, … I don’t think values and beliefs can be so easily separated.

But I don’t disagree; yes non-policy functions of government are important, and I never said fact-value separation was easy.  Tyler also exaggerates our differences on private law, saying "Robin thinks we could privatize all law; I don’t." while the link he gives for me is to this essay, where I explored subjecting private law to anti-trust regulation and invasion protection by a central government. 

On Tyler’s points #3, #4, and #8, as best I can understand them I just don’t see that Tyler has identified facts on which we disagree.  Sure we may have "very distinct analytical engines", though even that is a bit of an exaggeration.  But it does make perfect sense for people to take advantage of their comparative advantages at different styles.  The problem only comes when we conclude for no good reason that our favored style is more informative than others.   

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  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Robin, Very interesting post. This whole exchange is enlightening and entertaining. Why don’t both of you run for President in that third party that’s being created, just so you could debate national policy against each other in this way as an informative contrast to dem/republican debating.

    Specific concern with your post: whole brain simulations seem to me to be a substantively different topic than successful uploading, so I think there’s a bit of a scope shift there. Thanks for leaving a clear trail so we could see that though.

    Further discussion on this specific concern in my blog.

  • http://mangans.blogspot.com Dennis Mangan

    Tyler’s recent post about IQ and his friends the Mexican villagers was a case in point regarding not knowing another academic field. The study of intelligence might be the field with the greatest disconnect between what the experts believe and what you read in the popular media. In that post, Tyler seemed to dismiss entirely the idea that what intelligence tests measure is real and important, which is a mainstream media caricature.

  • http://nerdbound.blogspot.com nerdbound

    “But it does make perfect sense for people to take advantage of their comparative advantages at different styles. The problem only comes when we conclude for no good reason that our favored style is more informative than others.”

    Isn’t Tyler’s claim that there are good reasons to avoid logical atomism, even if he doesn’t really state what they are? In other words, you two would disagree about a claim like ‘most substantive disagreements can be reduced to disagreements about a set of simple factual premises’? I’m thinking even of Thomas Kuhn’s argument that observation itself is theory-laden, and thus that factual premises can’t be evaluated alone, although that argument is not strictly relevant to an atomism/pluralism debate (nor, perhaps, all that great of an argument).

    Anyway, I seem to remember reading a passage where he indicated that the Einsteinian worldview is more similar to Aristotle’s worldview than the Newtonian worldview. Let’s ignore whether that’s true or not and assume that it’s true. Despite the fact that, hypothetically, an Aristotleian and an Einsteinian agree on facts, while an Einsteinian and a Newtonian disagree on facts, perhaps an Einsteinian sees a Newtonian as being closer to the truth. In your characterization, this is because Einstein and Aristotle would disagree on the truth value of a whole host of other methodological and empirical claims. In Tyler’s characterization, this is because the style of Einstein’s thinking jives way more with Newton’s than with Aristotle’s, thus making Newton’s arguments more true. As I say, Kuhn is irrelevant here, and the historical example is pretty weak, I think. I just thought that that is a clear example, perhaps illuminating the nature of your respective arguments and thus why they’re not really getting anywhere.

    Basically, the intellectual framework a statement is made in may matter more for the determination of the truth of that statement than some kind of objective determination of the statement’s truth (which may even be impossible). Tyler seems to be arguing that even when your facts are correct, you come to the wrong conclusion because the intellectual framework you’re applying ideas to is overly narrow. Because Tyler is a pluralist, he likes the fact that people like you exist, because you can do successful work due to that whole comparative advantage thing mentioned above. But he thinks you can be wrong while not really disagreeing with you on any particular facts.

    Since he’s in an intellectual framework where that’s a genuine disagreement, and you’re in a framework where that’s not a genuine disagreement, it’s clear that you guys really do have a substantive disagreement :-) It’s so meta.

    Anyway, I don’t really know what I’m saying here. I’m just riffing. I’ve been enjoying reading this debate a lot over the last couple of days. If the debate is to continue, I would suggest that Tyler needs to show why logical atomism (or a slightly more atomistic viewpoint) + a set of true facts may be more incorrect than pluralism (or a slightly more pluralistic viewpoint) + a set of partially false facts. You need to show the opposite. If the above is true, than ‘style’ is not merely style but a truly important disagreement. If the above is false, then it’s just style, and facts are all that matters. My two cents.

  • TGGP

    Dennis, Tyler is not the only one who has done just that, although at least he never actually claimed any expert consensus, unlike here. I tried to be extra-polite and put forth claims weak enough to reach some agreement, but it wasn’t happening.

    I was surprised that Tyler did not link to any support for his statement about what others think of Multiple Worlds.

  • QuantumTaco

    I think you glaze over the most interesting point on Tyler’s list, number four. Of all the flaws that inhibit the good life, why focus on eliminating bias? Does it even inhibit the good life at all? Wouldn’t the world be happier if you spread good cooking and love of food, ala Tyler, rather than your austere bias free vision? (I think Will Wilkinson also questioned the normative basis of overcoming bias in his only post here.)

    Also I am intrigued by this many-worlds belief of yours. The many worlds interpretation is characterized as ill-defined by many sources I have read (as well as my own personal opinion). Can you suggest a good explication pf th position which addresses the usual problems? In reference to that article you linked suggesting a one-third support for many worlds I do not think that a convention of quantum computation physicists constitues the relevant. Perhaps you’ve had different experiences than I’ve had, but the time I’ve spent in physics departments has shown me the average physicists knows or cares jack about the philosphical foundations of QM.

  • http://www.cs.bris.ac.uk/~aram/ aram

    I don’t think it’s meaningful to assign probabilities to “the many-worlds interpretation.” In fact, most predictions of quantum mechanics (far from black holes or extremely small length scales, high energies, etc…) are pretty uncontroversial. What’s difficult is how to make sense of the math.

    Asking whether the many-worlds or, say, the Copenhagen interpretation holds is like asking whether a photon is a wave or a particle. The answer is that both interpretations can give intuition and partial explanations, but that they are just models, like the Schrodinger equation, Feynman’s path integrals, etc. And when these models give, by design, identical predictions, it’s meaningless to say that one is right and the other is wrong.

    Another way to say this is that if you’ll assign probabilities to these models, then you’ll also be willing to bet on them. But there’s no way to resolve a bet about whether many-worlds is true (unless quantum mechanics itself is false).

  • Tyler Cowen

    Nerdbound is fully on the mark, he wrote a great comment. My critique of logical atomism is simply that as found in mainstream philosophy.

    On the verdict of mainstream science, I simply don’t think Robin has this on his side. Selection bias — which experts work on certain unusual topics — may appear to support him but in my view a professional consensus of the informed would not support him on the topics he lists or come close to supporting him. If it did it would mean Robin wasn’t so original, for one thing, and Robin’s own presentation belies that. Does Robin really think that informed scientists expect us all to become uploads? Even with p = 0.1? Robin here is just cherry-picking a scientific community. Now that doesn’t mean Robin is wrong (the mainstream can be maddeningly unwilling to entertain “big ideas”), but I don’t buy Robin’s defense here, not at all. I’m not a scientific expert, I’m simply relying on common sense for my skepticism.

    Robin lists a few other points I didn’t write about. He’s more skeptical about health care than I am, but I don’t think he has ever made it clear just how skeptical he is. In any case I’m closer to Robin’s position on that than most people are, but (possibly?) unlike Robin I think we can pick apart the gross data and do more of what works to positive effect. Pharmaceuticals would be one example, pre-natal care another.

    On exponential growth, I would not be surprised if producing pleasure within the brain became much more efficient relatively soon. I find it misleading to label this an acceleration of economic growth (as Robin seems to; I think the growth concept is more fruitfully used for more local changes), but still this difference with Robin might be semantic rather than real.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Nerd, I haven’t accepted Tyler’s label of “logical atomism”, and I’m still not even very clear on what it means.

    Quantum, it is not clear that Tyler and I disagree about any fact regarding overcoming bias; it could just be a preference difference.

    Quantum and aran, most of the relevant physics experts do think that it is meaningful to talk about whether many worlds is true, and many expect experimental tests to be found eventually. The average physicist does not think the average physicist to be the relevant experts – quantum specialists are much closer.

  • michael vassar

    Tyler: This blog has so far lacked deep analysis as to how one should pick one’s relevant community of experts, but surely common sense skepticism of IQ combined with the opinions of most psychologists who haven’t actually studied it would tell you one thing while asking scientists who have studied IQ would tell you another. Is that, to you, cherry picking? I certainly think that for the only plausibly relevant definition of informed then informed scientists expect uploads to exist within several centuries with P >.1 Since most informed scientists in the relevant manner are not informed economists or are informed about other matters that counter-indicate for Robin’s conclusion, I don’t think that they expect us to all become uploads or anything even fairly close to it.
    I appreciate your agreement with me that it is misleading to label every type of progress as economic growth.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Tyler, I don’t yet accept this “logical atomist” label you have put on me, and even after reading a bit I’m not entirely clear on what it means. I certainly don’t think the label applies to me merely because I objected to having my views called “strange” and “crazy” on the basis of some other vague labels you invoked, and therefore ask you to be as clear as possible about where you think we disagree.

    My claim is not that “informed scientists expect us all to become uploads” but that those most informed specifically about both brain modeling and emulation expect, with at least “p=0.1″, whole brain emulation to be technically feasible within a few centuries at most. Are you suggesting scientists with this specific expertize are biased because their topic is “unusual”?

    As per the title of this post, the contrarian point, if any, (and not my contribution btw) is to combine this technical conclusion with social analysis to predict social consequences. My contribution, if any, is to apply standard formal economic analysis to this situation.

    Selection bias — which experts work on certain unusual topics — may appear to support him but … Robin here is just cherry-picking a scientific community. … I’m not a scientific expert, I’m simply relying on common sense for my skepticism.

    This is, in a nutshell, exactly the problem of the topic of this post. When people hear a claim that the relevant experts deviate from the perceived media consensus, they find it easier to attribute this to cherry-picking than to an actual deviation. Do you think I am cherry-picking on many worlds as well?

  • http://amnap.blogspot.com Matthew C

    My claim is not that “informed scientists expect us all to become uploads” but that those most informed specifically about both brain modeling and emulation expect, with at least “p=0.1″, whole brain emulation to be technically feasible within a few centuries at most.

    I would not concede that “brain modeling” scientists are experts on consciousness. In fact, I suspect that the people I would consider experts on consciousness and your list of such experts would have very little overlap.

    In fact, a great many of my differences with you on your list of fourteen wild ideas (I agree with some of them) have to do with differences in whose opinion should be worth listening to on any particular subject.

    You want to defer to an “expert” opinion, and I feel that your lists of “experts” are so subject to selectionist and other effects that their opinion is very biased and questionable.

    Just as a single example, I would submit that the fifty years of hearing “AI in 5-7 years” should produce more skepticism about claims of strong AI in the future. I most certainly would not trust the predictions of people working in AI over the predictions of well-informed outsiders.

    We could say the same thing about many other putative experts in very speculative fields, with vested financial, career and emotional interests in rapid progress or at least perceptions of rapid progress.

    Frankly I feel bad making these kinds of comments on a board full of true believers in these kinds of Singularian ideas. I have no particular desire to rain on anyone’s parade, and some of the Singularian activities are likely to produce modest or substantial fruit (even though not the everlasting life hoped for by their proponents). The only reason I bother to speak up here is the putative purpose of this forum to “overcome bias”, the lack of many (any?) Singularity-skeptic voices here over an extended period of time, and a genuine wish to support Robin Hanson’s heartfelt continuously stated desire to discover truth. I do believe he is very sincere in that quest, and I do feel it would be a worthwhile quest for many other people who contribute here to take up as their own, which would require less epistemic arrogance than some of the posts here demonstrate.

    You certainly won’t overcome bias and discover truth with a room full of true believers. But the temptation is ever-present for me to move on and let the millenarian parade-planners have their fun, and sooner or later I am likely to succumb to it.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Matt, I don’t think I have made any claims about consciousness, just on reproducing I/O patterns. I agree with you that AI advocates have been too optimistic about rates of progress, though as I was an AI researcher for nine years, I’m pretty sure few AI researchers ever endorsed 5-7 year forecasts. And I consider myself to be a singularity skeptic in many ways.

  • Tyler Cowen

    Robin is free to tell me that I don’t disagree with him on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. I don’t know much about what the scientific consensus is, but I do believe that such a consensus is my best estimator, given my limited understanding. Robin talks “as if” he has a higher p than the consensus, but of course he is free to announce that he doesn’t.

    Robin juxtaposed these two sentences:

    “Nerd, I haven’t accepted Tyler’s label of “logical atomism”, and I’m still not even very clear on what it means.

    Quantum, it is not clear that Tyler and I disagree about any fact regarding overcoming bias; it could just be a preference difference.”

    Again, this is the heart of the matter. And the second sentence shows just how strong Robin’s logical atomism is. It reflects Robin’s reductionism to call it “just a preference difference.” Nerd remains right on target.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    So the main evidence that I am a “logical atomist” is that I want to distinguish the possibility that our differing values lead to our differing priorities on overcoming bias, from the possibility that our differing priorities result from some as yet unstated factual belief related to overcoming bias? Is my interest in the particular distinction I am considering an especially potent evidence of “logical atomism”, or is the inclination to draw any distinction whatsoever equally suggestive evidence of such an alarming tendency?

  • http://infoproc.blogspot.com steve

    Robin’s choice of experts on quantum computing as an estimator of p is a good one — such people are much more likely to have thought about the foundations of qm than average physicists.

    I posted the list below on the other thread, but it may be of use here. I have been told that Feynman and Gell-Mann would ofted *aggressively* proselytize about many worlds to visitors at Caltech.

    Some eminent physicists who (as far as I can tell) believe(d) in MW: Feynman, Gell-Mann, Hawking, Steve Weinberg, Bryce DeWitt, David Deutsch, Sidney Coleman … In fact, I was told that Feynman and Gell-Mann each claim(ed) to have independently invented MW, without any knowledge of Everett!
    http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2007/07/many-worlds-brief-guide-for-perplexed.html

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nickbostrom/ Nick Bostrom

    On the MW, one poll is reported here: http://www.anthropic-principle.com/preprints/manyworlds.html. It is probably a couple of decades old, but my impression is that MW has continued to have the wind in its sails, so I don’t think support has declined since then:

    “Political scientist” L David Raub reports a poll of 72 of the “leading
    cosmologists and other quantum field theorists” about the “Many-Worlds
    Interpretation” and gives the following response breakdown [T].

    1) “Yes, I think MWI is true” 58%
    2) “No, I don’t accept MWI” 18%
    3) “Maybe it’s true but I’m not yet convinced” 13%
    4) “I have no opinion one way or the other” 11%

    If Robin, based on his own investigations, assigns a probability just slightly higher than the physicist consensus, I don’t think this would count as a significant disagreement.

    On “Probability of uploads within centuries < 1%” and “Probability of ‘If your head is cryogenically frozen today, you will be alive in 2100.’ < 0.01%”, I have to say that these seem astonishingly low. Even if we just use arguments from authority, and even if we discount the most-informed authorities as being self-selected for optimism about these prospects, it is hard to see how we could get estimates that are that low. Would Tyler claim that if we assembled historical data on cases in which a better-informed scientific minority held a view that conflicted with a less-informed scientific majority about what technological feats might be possible a century later, we would find that the minority had been right only in 1/100 to 1/10,000 of the cases?

    I do think that if we are going to improve the way we deal with disagreements, one important first step is to try to be very careful about how we specify the contested claim. One of the most significant methodological advances in philosophy over the past century or so has been to appreciate the importance of precision of language and care in how we articulate our theses. This methodological insight could probably be more widely applied. Taking a vague disagreement, and, through analysis and distinctions, transforming it into a (set of) precise disagreement(s) can be a major research contribution if done well.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    Am I odd for thinking that blogs are an odd place to work out this meta-disagreement when physical separation is not an issue? If there are going to be rounds of back-and-forth about what exactly x means, lunch seems like a good time to pin that down; text report-outs can follow. Perhaps there is some value in showing the back-and-forth to the public or in fixing words in text, but I imagine you two will see each other some time in the next week or two.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Zubon, a good question.

  • Sebastian Holsclaw

    I think the most interesting question is on how important ‘overcoming bias’ is. I would rate it as fairly important, but certainly not more important than overcoming laziness or some such. And I suspect that a well governed bias can be a useful time-saving technique that has more positive effects than negative. So I value people like Robin who [mistakenly] think that overcoming bias is the preeminent value because their endeavours may reveal things which when integrated into my own biases are very useful.

    But the effort to reward ratio in overcoming bias is like many things–subject to marginal returns.

  • RobbL

    My two cents on “many worlds”.

    I think that physics today is in about the condition that physics was a hundred years ago. There is a well establshed model that cannot explain certain aspects of reality. It is unclear what to do about this. The only thing that is clear is that something new will probably be needed.

    To assign high likelyhood (to “believe”) in any of several deeper explanations is hardly prudent. In fact the most important thing may be to be contrary :-)

  • http://amnap.blogspot.com Matthew C

    Interesting. The high-water polls for MWI have been mentioned, but not any of the contrary polls (all listed in the Wikipedia article on MWI). I would suggest that is not very surprising on a blog where the vast majority of the partipants subscribe to the MWI because it fits best with their beliefs about the nature of reality, some of them without the slightest degree of doubt in its correctness.

    However when the title and raison d’être of the blog is “overcoming bias”, I think we ought to raise the expectations up a notch. Go ahead and mention the contrary polling data — it will enhance your truth orientation (and credibility to boot!)

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nickbostrom/ Nick Bostrom

    Matthew, thanks for the wiki link. But, if convenient, could you please provide some direct links (or summary of results) to these negative polls? The wikipedia article reports the following:

    “A 2005 minor poll on the Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics workshop at the Institute for Quantum Computing University of Waterloo produced contrary results, with the MWI as the least favored.”

    But this poll consisted of a sample of 4 (four) researchers.

    I’m also curious whether there is anybody here who subscribe to MWI “without the slighest degree of doubt about its correctness”?

    And how can you be sure that the vast majority of participants on this blog subscribe to the MWI? My own probabily would be closer to the mid-way mark than to either 0 or 1, and I have no idea what most of the other people here think about the MWI.

  • Steve

    I have a practical question: Just $200 per year for Alcor? Even with term life insurance, an $80K (charge for head only) policy is over $500/year for someone with Robin’s published stats; and that doesn’t even protect against senescence like a more expensive whole life policy. Add Alcor’s yearly dues of $600 or $1200, and that $200 figure starts to look an order of magnitude too low.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Reviewing the items, I think I mostly agree with Robin. I have different views on uploads, but wouldn’t but the chance of anyone becoming an upload after centuries as low as Cowen’s 1%. Rather, my view is that uploads are likely to come last - and have correspondingly low economic impact. p(success) = one in ten thousand also seems over-confident for Cowen’s cryonics prediction to me. Rah, the belief-value dichotomy!

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