Monthly Archives: October 2012

Info Ideology

What is a political “ideology”? You might think your ideology is your set of core pivotal beliefs, the few beliefs that most influence your many other political beliefs. For example:

Political ideologies have two dimensions:
Goals: how society should work
Methods: the most appropriate ways to achieve the ideal arrangement.
… Typically, each ideology contains certain ideas on what it considers to be the best form of government (e.g. democracy, theocracy, caliphate etc.), and the best economic system (e.g. capitalism, socialism, etc.). … Ideologies also identify themselves by their position on the political spectrum (such as the left, the center or the right), though this is very often controversial. (more)

But in fact, political ideologies seem more to be the beliefs that most consistently divide us:

For the most part, congressional voting is uni-dimensional, with most of the variation in voting patterns explained by placement along the liberal-conservative first dimension. … since the 1970s, party delegations in Congress have become ideologically homogeneous and [more] distant from one another (a phenomenon known as “polarization.”) … [These] scores are also used by popular media outlets … as a measure of the political ideology of political institutions and elected officials or candidates. … [These] procedures … have also been applied to a number of other legislative bodies besides the United States Congress. These include the United Nations General Assembly, the European Parliament, National Assemblies in Latin America, and the French Fourth Republic. … Most of these analyses produce the finding that roll call voting is organized by only few dimensions (usually two): “These findings suggest that the need to form parliamentary majorities limits dimensionality.” (more)

It is a remarkable fact that a single dimension so well summarizes political opinions, especially given the range of topics relevant to politics. This, however, is not plausibly explained by saying that we mainly disagree about one core key belief, such as how much redistribution is fair. It instead seems to reflect how political coalitions form – groups tend to form alliances more with closer groups, against more distant groups, until two main alliances form, divided by their one strongest division, whatever that might be.

To the extent that the main political dimensions are associated with policies, they are mostly associated with lots of particular policies, instead of a few key principles. And this makes sense given that most voters seem incapable of comprehending and reliably applying most proposed political principles.

But if there really were sensible pivotal principles, and if the relevant political population could understand and apply them, then it would make sense to focus our political arguments on them. By aggregating info on a few key principles, we would more efficiently aggregate info on lots of specific policies.

So do sensible and pivotal political principles exist? To me, principles like maximize liberty or minimize inequality seem pivotal, but not very sensible. I’m more fond of the principle of economic efficiency, but it is pretty hard for ordinary voters to see what more specific policies this principle implies.

To me, the most sensible pivotal principles are at the meta level — they are about how exactly we should aggregate info on the efficiency, and other consequences, of policies. For example, I think decision markets can go a long way toward giving us better info on the effects of policies. I also think we should do a lot more randomized policy experiments. And I support more and better cost benefit analyses, though it is admittedly hard for ordinary voters to evaluate their objectivity.

Now these positions might be wrong, but whatever are the right answers, the question of how to best aggregate info on policy effects seems a pivotal core issue, with strong implications for many specific policies. Amid audiences that can understand them, these are the core issues about which we should argue. Info ideologies would be the best ideologies.

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Welcome Carl Shulman

Today we welcome a fourth author at Overcoming Bias: Carl Shulman. The other authors have known Carl for many years, he’s posted here at OB before, and while we (ok, I) have often disagreed, he’s consistently thoughtful, clear, and interested in interesting topics. You can read more about Carl here, here, and here, but I suggest you mainly just listen to what he has to say. 🙂

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Can Humans Be The FORTRAN Of Creatures?

It is one of the most fundamental questions in the social and human sciences: how culturally plastic are people? Many anthropologists have long championed the view that humans are very plastic; with matching upbringing people can be made to behave a very wide range of ways, and to want a very wide range of things. Others say human nature is far more constrained, and collect descriptions of “human universals” (See Brown’s 1991 book.)

This dispute has been politically potent. For example, in gender relations some have said that social institutions should reflect the fact that men and women have certain innate differences, while others say that we can pick most any way we want the genders to relate, and then teach our children to be like that.

But let’s set those issues aside, look to the distant future, and ask: do varying degrees of human cultural plasticity make different predictions about the future?

The easiest predictions are at the extremes. For example, if human nature is extremely rigid, and hard to change, then humans will most likely just go extinct. Eventually environments will change, and other creature will evolve or be designed that are better adapted to those new environments. Humans won’t adapt very well, by assumption, so they lose.

At the other extreme, if human nature is very plastic, then it will adapt to most changes, and change to embody whatever innovations are required for such adaptation. But then there would be very little left of us by the end; our descendants would become whatever any initially very plastic species would have become in such an environment.

So if you want some distinctive human features to last, you’ll have to hope for an intermediate level of plasticity. Human nature has to be flexible enough to not be out competed by a more flexible design platform, but inflexible enough to retain some of its original features.

For example, consider the programming language FORTRAN:

Originally developed by IBM … in the 1950s for scientific and engineering applications, Fortran came to dominate this area of programming early on and has been in continual use for over half a century in computationally intensive areas such as numerical weather prediction, finite element analysis, computational fluid dynamics, computational physics and computational chemistry. It is one of the most popular languages in the area of high-performance computing and is the language used for programs that benchmark and rank the world’s fastest supercomputers. (more)

FORTRAN isn’t the best possible programming language, but because it was first, it collected a powerful installed base well adapted to it. It has been flexible enough to stick around, but it isn’t infinitely flexible — one can very much recognize early FORTRAN features in current versions.

Similarly, humans have the advantage of being the first species to master culture in a powerful way. We have slowly accumulated many powerful innovations we call civilization, and we’ve invested a lot in adapting those innovations to the particulars of humanity. This installed based of the ways civilization is matched well to humans gives us an advantage over creatures with a substantially differing design.

If humans are flexible enough, but not too flexible, we may become the FORTRAN of future minds, clunky but still useful enough to keep around, noticeably retaining many of its original features.

I should note that some hope to preserve humanity by ending decentralized competition; they hope a central power will ensure than human features survive regardless of their local efficiency in future environments. I have a lot of concerns about that, but yes it should be included on the list of possibilities.

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Sleep Is To Save Energy

Short sleepers, about 1% to 3% of the population, function well on less than 6 hours of sleep without being tired during the day. They tend to be unusually energetic and outgoing. (more)

What fundamental cost do short sleepers pay for their extra wakeful hours? A recent Science article collects an impressive range of evidence (quoted below) to support the theory that the main function of sleep is just to save energy – sleeping brains use a lot less energy, and wakeful human brains use as much as 25% of body energy. People vary in how much sleep they are programmed to need, and if this theory is correct the main risk short sleepers face is that they’ll more easily starve to death in very lean times.

Of course once we were programmed to regularly sleep to save energy, no doubt other biological and mental processes were adapted to take some small advantages from this arrangement. And once those adaptations are in place, it might become expensive for a body to violate those expectations. One person might need sleep because their bodies expect them to sleep a lot, but another body that isn’t programmed to expect as much sleep needn’t pay much of a cost for that, aside from the higher energy cost to run the energy-expensive brain more.

This has dramatic implications for the em future I’ve been exploring. Ems could be selected from among the 1-3% of humans who need less sleep, and we needn’t expect to pay any systematic cost for this in other parameters, other than due to there being only a finite number of humans to pick from. We might even find the global brain parameters that bodies now use to tell brains when they need sleep, and change their settings to turn ems of humans who need a lot of sleep into ems who need a lot less sleep. Average em sleep hours might then plausibly become six hours a night or less.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Sleep Is To Save Energy" »

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Paternalism can be kind, just not to present-you

You may want to file this under ‘incredibly obvious’, but I haven’t seen it noted elsewhere.

Liberals and libertarians have an instinctive aversion to paternalism. Their key objection is: how can anyone else be expected to know what is good for you, better than you do?

This is usually true, but it neglects a coherent justification for many paternalistic policies that doesn’t require that anyone know more than you. The paternalist could be fine with their policy being bad for ‘present-you’ if it benefits ‘future-you’ even more. But don’t you care about your future self’s welfare too? Sure, but maybe not as much as they do, relative to your current welfare!

Confusion about the intent of the paternalistic policy is generated by the fact that it is natural to say “this policy exists to help you”, without noting which instance of ‘you’ it is meant to help – you now, you tomorrow, you in ten years’ time, and so on.

While this justification would make sense especially often where people engaged in ‘hyperbolic discounting’ and as a result were ‘time inconsistent’, it does not rely on that. All it requires is that,

  • there are things you could do now that would benefit your future self, at the expense of your present self, and;
  • the paternalists’ ‘altruistic’ discount rate for the target’s welfare is lower than the discount rate the target has for their own welfare.

The first is certainly true, while the latter is often true in my experience.

In the near-far construal theory often used on this blog, us-now and immediate gratification are both ‘near’, while ourselves in the future, other people, and other people in the future are all ‘far’. In far mode we will want to encourage other folks to act toward their future selves in ways our far view thinks they ought to – usually patiently.

More intuitively: it’s easier to stick to a commitment to help a friend stay on their diet, than it is to stay to our diet ourselves. We don’t enjoy seeing our friends go without ice cream, but we like to see them reach their and our idealised goals even more. As La Rochefoucauld observed, “We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.” You could add that we all have strength enough to bear the delayed gratification of others.

If a paternalist really does have a lower discount rate in this way, they could justify all kinds of interventions that benefit someone’s future self: preventing suicide, reducing smoking, encouraging exercise, requiring people to save for emergencies and retirement, and so on. I often find these policies distasteful, but as I support a moral discount rate of zero (on valuable experiences), and almost all people are impatient in their own lives, I can’t justify a blanket opposition. We don’t give people an unrestricted freedom to harm their children, or strangers, just because they don’t care much about them. Why then should we give a young woman unrestricted freedom to hurt her far-off 60 year old self, just because they happen to pass through the same body at different points in time? I care about the 60 year old too, perhaps even more than that young woman does, relative to herself.

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We Add Near, Average Far

Quick, what is the best gift you ever got from a woman? From your parents? From a left-handed person? From a teacher? These aren’t easy questions to answer. But they seem easier than these questions: What is the total value of all the gifts you ever got from women? From your parents? From left-handed folks? From teachers?

For the first set of questions you can try to think of examples of particular people in those categories, and then think of particular gifts you got from those particular people. That can help you guess at the best gift from those categories. But to estimate the total value of gifts from people in categories, you’ll have to also estimate how many gifts you ever got from folks in each category.

Note that it also seems easy to estimate the average value of gifts from each category. To do this, you need only remember a few gifts that fit each category, and then average their values.

As another example, imagine you are looking at building entrance laid out in multi-colored tiles. Some tiles are blue, some red, some green, etc. You are looking at it from a distance, at an angle, in variable lighting. In this situation it will be much easier to estimate if there is more blue than red area in the tiles, than to estimate how many square inches of blue tile area is in that entrance. This later estimate requires you to additionally estimate distances to reference points, to estimate the total surface area.

These examples suggest that when we think in far mode, without a structured systematic representation of our topic, it is usually easier to average than to add values. So averaging is what we’ll tend to do. All of which I mention to introduce to a fascinating paper that I just noticed, even though it got a lot of publicity last December:

This analysis introduces the Presenter’s Paradox. Robust findings in impression formation demonstrate that perceivers’ judgments show a weighted averaging pattern, which results in less favorable evaluations when mildly favorable information is added to highly favorable information. Across seven studies, we show that presenters do not anticipate this averaging pattern on the part of evaluators and instead design presentations that include all of the favorable information available. This additive strategy (“more is better”) hurts presenters in their perceivers’ eyes because mildly favorable information dilutes the impact of highly favorable information. For example, presenters choose to spend more money to make a product bundle look more costly, even though doing so actually cheapened its value from the evaluators’ perspective. (more)

The authors attribute this to a near-far effect:

Presenters face many pieces of potentially relevant information and need to determine, in a bottom-up fashion, which ones to include in a presentation. This presumably draws attention to each individual piece of information as a discrete entity and a focus on piecemeal processing. If a given piece of information exceeds a neutrality threshold, the presenter will conclude that it is compatible with the message he or she seeks to convey and will include it. This results in presentations that would fare better under an adding rather than averaging rule. In contrast, evaluators’ primary task is to make a summary judgment of the overall presentation, which fosters a focus on holistic processing and the big picture and results in an averaging pattern as observed in many impression formation studies.

Additional experiments confirm this near-far interpretation. Those who prepare presentations and proposals tend to focus on them in detail, and so add part values in near mode style, while those who consume such presentations or proposals tend to pay much less attention, and so average their values in far mode style.

This result seems to me quite pregnant with interesting implications, none of which were mentioned in the dozen blog posts on the subject that have appeared since last December. So I guess it’s up to me.

First, this result predicts the usual academic advice to delete publications from low ranked journals from your vita. Yes those extra publications took extra work, and show more total intellectual contribution, but distracted readers evaluate you by averaging your publications, not adding them.

Second, this also predicts that academia will tend in general to neglect conclusions suggested by lots of weak clues, relative to conclusions based on a single strong theory or empirical comparison. People with a practical understanding of particular areas will correctly complain that academics tend too much to latch on to a few easy to explain and justify arguments, at the cost of lots of detail that practitioners appreciate.

Third, this predicts that in morality and politics, which are especially far sorts of topics, arguments tend to be won by those who push simple strong principles, even though people privately tend to choose actions that deviate from such principles. For example, while laws say no one can get medical advice from non-doctors, on the grounds that docs know best, but given a private choice most of us would often let other considerations convince us to listen to non-docs. While actions tend to be chosen in a near mode where lots of other weaker considerations get added, people know their best chance for winning an argument with a distracted audience is to focus on their one strongest point.

Fourth, this predicts Tetlock’s hedgehog vs. foxes result. Foreign policy is an especially far view sort of subject, and experts who focus on one strongest consideration get the most respect and attention, but experts who rely on many considerations, which are on average weaker, are more accurate.

Futurism is probably the most far view sort of topic, so I’d guess that all this holds there the most strongly. That is, while the most futurists who get the most attention from distracted audiences are those who harp endlessly on one clear plausible idea, the most accurate futurists are probably those who know and use hundreds of clues, many of them weak. Alas this is a problem for those of us who want to consider some aspect of the future in detail, since we quickly run out of strong principles, and then have to rely more on many weak clues.

Added Nov 25, 2012: This post gives data showing people donate money based more on the average than the total sympathy of the recipients. So you are better off asking for donations to help a particular especially sympathetic recipient, than to help many such folks.

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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