Monthly Archives: July 2008

Detached Lever Fallacy

Followup toHumans in Funny Suits

This fallacy gets its name from an ancient sci-fi TV show, which I never saw myself, but was reported to me by a reputable source (some guy at an SF convention).  Anyone knows the exact reference, do leave a comment.

So the good guys are battling the evil aliens.  Occasionally, the good guys have to fly through an asteroid belt.  As we all know, asteroid belts are as crowded as a New York parking lot, so their ship has to carefully dodge the asteroids.  The evil aliens, though, can fly right through the asteroid belt because they have amazing technology that dematerializes their ships, and lets them pass through the asteroids.

Eventually, the good guys capture an evil alien ship, and go exploring inside it.  The captain of the good guys finds the alien bridge, and on the bridge is a lever.  "Ah," says the captain, "this must be the lever that makes the ship dematerialize!"  So he pries up the control lever and carries it back to his ship, after which his ship can also dematerialize.

Similarly, to this day, it is still quite popular to try to program an AI with "semantic networks" that look something like this:

(apple is-a fruit)
(fruit is-a food)
(fruit is-a plant)

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OK, Now I’m Worried

Nukes seem our biggest near-term disaster threat, and this worries me most:

The U.S. intelligence community "doesn’t have a story" to explain the recent Iranian tests.  One group of tests that troubled Graham, the former White House science adviser under President Ronald Reagan, were successful efforts to launch a Scud missile from a platform in the Caspian Sea. … Another troubling group of tests involved Shahab-3 launches where the Iranians "detonated the warhead near apogee, not over the target area where the thing would eventually land, but at altitude," Graham said. … Graham chairs the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, a blue-ribbon panel established by Congress in 2001. … "That’s exactly what you would do if you had a nuclear weapon on a Scud or a Shahab-3 or other missile, and you wanted to explode it over the United States." …

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Humans in Funny Suits

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Biggornandkirk_2Followup toThe Psychological Unity of Humankind

Many times the human species has travelled into space, only to find the stars inhabited by aliens who look remarkably like humans in funny suits – or even humans with a touch of makeup and latex – or just beige Caucasians in fee simple.

It’s remarkable how the human form is the natural baseline of the universe, from which all other alien species are derived via a few modifications.

What could possibly explain this fascinating phenomenon?  Convergent evolution, of course!  Even though these alien lifeforms evolved on a thousand alien planets, completely independently from Earthly life, they all turned out the same.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that a kangaroo (a mammal) resembles us rather less than does a chimp (a primate), nor by the fact that a frog (amphibians, like us, are tetrapods) resembles us less than the kangaroo.  Don’t be fooled by the bewildering variety of the insects, who split off from us even longer ago than the frogs; don’t be fooled that insects have six legs, and their skeletons on the outside, and a different system of optics, and rather different sexual practices.

You might think that a truly alien species would be more different from us than we are from insects – that the aliens wouldn’t run on DNA, and might not be made of folded-up hydrocarbon chains internally bound by van der Waals forces (aka proteins).

As I said, don’t be fooled.  For an alien species to evolve intelligence, it must have two legs with one knee each attached to an upright torso, and must walk in a way similar to us.  You see, any intelligence needs hands, so you’ve got to repurpose a pair of legs for that – and if you don’t start with a four-legged being, it can’t develop a running gait and walk upright, freeing the hands.

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Touching Vs. Understanding

On the plane home last week I talked to a sharp Yale historian, and realized we devote far more resources to preserving historical sites, and to making history available via museums, than we do to funding professional historians to make sense of it all.  That reminded me of complaints that NASA spends far more on sending instruments into space to collect data than it does on funding scientists to analyze that data.  In both cases we collect far more data than ever gets carefully analyzed.

Now part of the explanation must be that the public can more easily see historical sites, museums, and space instruments than historians and data analysts.  But that doesn’t seem to me a sufficient explanation – I suspect we are also just more interested in touching the past, and in touching space, than in understanding either.  We talk about understanding because that is a modern applause light, but really we just like to touch exotic things.  The more we can touch, the further is our reach, and the more important and powerful we must be.  I wonder how much more this explains.

Added: We have related desires to see art and sport events in person, up close, and to meet and touch celebrities in person. 

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Intrade’s Conditional Prediction Markets

We have often discussed the possible benefits of prediction markets for reducing bias. One key element that could be particularly useful is a conditional prediction market, where betting claims are based on outcomes conditional on some factor we want to evaluate. Robin recently mentioned the possible benefit from market claims on longevity or health conditional on various interventions.

Unfortunately, there are few prediction markets in the world, and fewer conditional ones, so it is hard to know how practical this institution may become. Thanks to an initiative by OB contributor Peter McCluskey, Intrade – the large, real-money prediction market – has added conditional claims based on the outcome of the U.S. Presidential elections. These may represent the first major case study of real-money conditional futures markets. So how are they doing? Here is some data and analysis.

Because of how the conditional claims are computed, we need to normalize the results by dividing the claim prices by the probability of a win for that party’s candidate. At the moment I looked (2008-07-28, 5:00 PM PDT), clicking on Politics and “2008 US Election”, and expanding “2008 Presidential Election Winner (Political Party)” I saw that the odds for a Democratic victory are 66.7-67.4. The claims are based on Democratic vs non-Democratic victories, so we will use the complementary odds of 32.6-33.3 for a non-Democratic win.

Then clicking on the left on “US Pres. Decisions” gives us the six conditional markets funded by Peter McCluskey.

Here are the claims, the prices, and the normalized values found by dividing by the corresponding Democratic and non-Democratic victory probabilities above. To compute the normalized values, I divided the lowest claim price by the highest party-victory price, and the highest claim price by the lowest party-victory price, giving the maximum range consistent with current trading prices. (Peter provides continually-updated information on current implied values as well.)

Claim Dem price non-Dem price Dem norm non-Dem norm
Increase in US government debt (over $10 billion) 51.2-53.7 34.4-36.5 76.0-80.5 105.5-109.6
Number of US troops in Iraq on 30 June 2010 (over 2000) 41.3-43.8 32.1-34.3 61.3-65.7 96.4-105.2

These prices imply that the market expects that under a non-Democratic administration, we will see substantially higher government debt, as well as much higher numbers of soldiers in Iraq.

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Interpersonal Morality

Followup toThe Bedrock of Fairness

Every time I wonder if I really need to do so much prep work to explain an idea, I manage to forget some minor thing and a dozen people promptly post objections.

In this case, I seem to have forgotten to cover the topic of how morality applies to more than one person at a time.

Stop laughing, it’s not quite as dumb an oversight as it sounds.  Sort of like how some people argue that macroeconomics should be constructed from microeconomics, I tend to see interpersonal morality as constructed from personal morality.  (And definitely not the other way around!)

In "The Bedrock of Fairness" I offered a situation where three people discover a pie, and one of them insists that they want half.  This is actually toned down from an older dialogue where five people discover a pie, and one of them – regardless of any argument offered – insists that they want the whole pie.

Let’s consider the latter situation:  Dennis wants the whole pie.  Not only that, Dennis says that it is "fair" for him to get the whole pie, and that the "right" way to resolve this group disagreement is for him to get the whole pie; and he goes on saying this no matter what arguments are offered him.

This group is not going to agree, no matter what.  But I would, nonetheless, say that the right thing to do, the fair thing to do, is to give Dennis one-fifth of the pie – the other four combining to hold him off by force, if necessary, if he tries to take more.

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The Meaning of Right

Continuation of:  Changing Your Metaethics, Setting Up Metaethics
Followup toDoes Your Morality Care What You Think?, The Moral Void, Probability is Subjectively Objective, Could Anything Be Right?, The Gift We Give To Tomorrow, Rebelling Within Nature, Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom, …

(The culmination of a long series of Overcoming Bias posts; if you start here, I accept no responsibility for any resulting confusion, misunderstanding, or unnecessary angst.)

What is morality?  What does the word "should", mean?  The many pieces are in place:  This question I shall now dissolve.

The key – as it has always been, in my experience so far – is to understand how a certain cognitive algorithm feels from inside.  Standard procedure for righting a wrong question:  If you don’t know what right-ness is, then take a step beneath and ask how your brain labels things "right".

It is not the same question – it has no moral aspects to it, being strictly a matter of fact and cognitive science.  But it is an illuminating question.  Once we know how our brain labels things "right", perhaps we shall find it easier, afterward, to ask what is really and truly right.

But with that said – the easiest way to begin investigating that question, will be to jump back up to the level of morality and ask what seems right.  And if that seems like too much recursion, get used to it – the other 90% of the work lies in handling recursion properly.

(Should you find your grasp on meaningfulness wavering, at any time following, check Changing Your Metaethics for the appropriate prophylactic.)

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Funding Bias

From a Post article while I was traveling:

Wal-Mart and Toys R Us … will stop selling plastic baby bottles, food containers and other products that contain [BPA]. … One of the eyebrow-raising statistics about the BPA studies is the stark divergence in results, depending on who funded them.  More than 90 percent of the 100-plus government-funded studies performed by independent scientists found health effects from low doses of BPA, while none of the fewer than two dozen chemical-industry-funded studies did.  This striking difference in studies isn’t unique to BPA. When a scientist is hired by a firm with a financial interest in the outcome, the likelihood that the result of that study will be favorable to that firm is dramatically increased. …

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Setting Up Metaethics

Followup toIs Morality Given?, Is Morality Preference?, Moral Complexities, Could Anything Be Right?, The Bedrock of Fairness, …

Intuitions about morality seem to split up into two broad camps: morality-as-given and morality-as-preference.

Some perceive morality as a fixed given, independent of our whims, about which we form changeable beliefs.  This view’s great advantage is that it seems more normal up at the level of everyday moral conversations: it is the intuition underlying our everyday notions of "moral error", "moral progress", "moral argument", or "just because you want to murder someone doesn’t make it right".

Others choose to describe morality as a preference – as a desire in some particular person; nowhere else is it written.  This view’s great advantage is that it has an easier time living with reductionism – fitting the notion of "morality" into a universe of mere physics.  It has an easier time at the meta level, answering questions like "What is morality?" and "Where does morality come from?"

Both intuitions must contend with seemingly impossible questions.  For example, Moore’s Open Question:  Even if you come up with some simple answer that fits on T-Shirt, like "Happiness is the sum total of goodness!", you would need to argue the identity.  It isn’t instantly obvious to everyone that goodness is happiness, which seems to indicate that happiness and rightness were different concepts to start with.  What was that second concept, then, originally?

Or if "Morality is mere preference!" then why care about human preferences?  How is it possible to establish any "ought" at all, in a universe seemingly of mere "is"?

So what we should want, ideally, is a metaethic that:

  1. Adds up to moral normality, including moral errors, moral progress, and things you should do whether you want to or not;
  2. Fits naturally into a non-mysterious universe, postulating no exception to reductionism;
  3. Does not oversimplify humanity’s complicated moral arguments and many terminal values;
  4. Answers all the impossible questions.

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Bias Against the Unseen

Economist John Lott on why many doctors oppose guns:

Doctors see the bad things that happen and it motivates them to do what they think is good. Take away the guns and those bad things won’t happen. However, what the doctors don’t see is the acts by guns that keep others from showing up in their emergency rooms. They are well motivated, but seeing only part of the picture causes them to misdiagnose the cure.

Bias against fully considering unseen consequences influences many public policy positions and, I suspect, explains why many intellectuals support the minimum wage, rent control and strong FDA regulations.  These anti-market intellectuals don’t, I believe, give proper weight to the jobs that were never created because of minimum wage laws, the buildings that were never constructed because of rent control, and the pharmaceutical products that were never developed because of the great expense of complying with FDA regulations.

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