Steven Levy’s Generic Skepticism

Steven Levy praises TED to the heavens:

Not every talk is one for the ages, but the TED News Feed is in sync with Ezra Pound’s insufficiently famous quote that “literature is news that stays news.” In TED’s world, at least when it’s working well, the news that stays news is science — as well as the recognizable truths of who we are as a species, and what we are capable of, good or evil. .. Much of the TED News Feed was an implicit rebuke of the politics of the day. Generally, TED speakers are believers in the scientific method. There were even a couple of talks this year whose very point was that there is a thing called truth.

Well, except for my talk:

Still, the TED News Feed was not free of potentially fake news, albeit of the scientific kind. A speaker named Robin Hanson (a George Mason professor and a guru of prediction markets) gave what he described as a data-driven set of predictions of a world where super-intelligent robots would rule the earth after forcing humans to “retire.” It seemed to me that he simply labeled his sci-fi fantasy as non-fiction. Plus, when I checked his website later, I learned he “invented a new form of government called futarchy,” and that his favorite musician was Vangelis. (When I later asked Anderson about that talk, he explained, without necessarily endorsing my criticism, that it was “a roll of the dice,” and that generally it was a good thing when talks took risks.)

That is all of Steven Levy’s critique; there is no more. He actually came up to me after my talk, saying something generically skeptical. I pointed out that I’d written a whole book full of analysis detail, and I asked him to pick out anything specific I had said that he doubted, offering to explain my reasoning on that. But he instead just walked away.

Maybe Mr. Levy comes from a part of science I’m not familiar with, but in the parts of science I know, a critic of a purported scientific analysis is expected to offer specific criticisms, in addition to any general negative rating. The 130 words he devoted here was enough space to at least hint at which of my claims he doubted. And for the record, in my books and talks I’m very clear that my analysis is theory-driven, not data-driven, and that it is conditional on my key technology assumptions.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Does the TED news feed contain any power poses? That’s science that stays science.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Maybe Mr. Levy comes from a part of science I’m not familiar with

    This Steven Levy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Levy ?

    He’s a journalist, not a scientist. Masters in Literature from Penn State…

    • Robin Hanson

      Yes, that’s the one. He seems to be claiming some familiarity with science, whatever his formal background.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I recall reading his columns in MacWorld (or was it MacUser?) decades ago when he was an Apple fanboy.

    • oldoddjobs

      He has mastered the omniscient tone of voice required of journalists, that should be enough. /sarc

  • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

    What’s so infuriating isn’t that Mr. Levy is generically skeptical. Different people have different priors and I think it’s perfectly fair for those of us who (like me) have priors which render your futuristic assumptions very implausible to simply note that we assign those assumptions a very low probability. That is it is perfectly fair to point out that one doesn’t find what happens conditional on the assumptions you make to be of much interest beyond the purely speculative.

    However, to suggest that making an argument explicitly conditional on assumptions you find implausible is fake news is risible. Particularly in the context of TED talks where many other speakers are selling the audience BS based on preliminary or outright misleading studies while drawing the mantle of scientific authority around them.

    I feel this illustrates what is so wrong with both the cultural phenomena of TED talks and a certain kind of journalism. Instead of being concerned about the intellectual rigor of claims or what arguments are justified they simply care about the emotional valence of the scenarios considered. As Mr. Lewis doesn’t like (or finds silly) the scenarios you are considering he vilifies it rather than disagreeing with particular arguments you make or recognizing it as a compelling analysis (even if one he doesn’t find interesting because of the presumptions it makes).

    • Mark Bahner

      “…he vilifies it rather than disagreeing with particular arguments you make or recognizing it as a compelling analysis…”

      I don’t like the phrase “fake news” but it seems to me that the statement, “It seemed to me that he simply labeled his sci-fi fantasy as non-fiction” is a good description of how I would label Robin’s book.

      My assessment is based on my agreement with your assessment that technology will favor “pure AIs”…that is, AIs that may have some tiny similarities to the human brain (e.g., neuromorphic chips) but won’t be in any way close to an exact emulation of a human brain. So if Robin’s entire analysis is based on something that has virtually no chance of happening, it’s not capable of being falsified.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        So if Robin’s entire analysis is based on something that has virtually no chance of happening, it’s not capable of being falsified.

        I’m wondering what’s the chance of something happening that is compatible with falsifiabilitiy?

      • Mark Bahner

        What I meant is that Robin has written a whole book based on the premise that human brain emulations become the dominant intelligence on earth. He has a whole bunch of speculations on what would happen in that event. But I (and many others) think that there is virtually zero chance of human brain emulations becoming the dominant intelligence on earth. So there will be no chance to evaluate whether his speculations were wrong.

        By way of contrast, I predict that, when fully autonomous vehicles become common:

        1) Single-seat vehicles will become far, far more common than they are now, and

        2) Brick and mortar retail will be devastated, with more than 90% of the brick and mortar stores of Walmart, Target, Kroger, etc. being shut down or re-purposed within the first two decades of the first fully autonomous delivery vehicles.

        Both of those predictions are falsifiable, because fully autonomous vehicles *will* happen…and (hopefully) within the lifetime of virtually everyone who reads these comments.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        If he had said “I find your key premise very unlikely”, that would have been a concrete criticism, making his critique no longer generic.

      • Mark Bahner

        According to your account, “He actually came up to me after my talk, saying something generically skeptical. I pointed out that I’d written a whole book full of analysis detail, and I asked him to pick out anything specific I had said that he doubted, offering to explain my reasoning on that.”

        It’s difficult for many or most people to come up with a response like, “I find your key premise unlikely” if you request that they identify a specific thing in your talk that they disagree with.

        It’s less time-consuming to simply walk away. If you are sincerely interested in trying to get more input on his specific criticism, you could contact him and ask something like, “I notice you described my analysis as ‘sci-fi fantasy,’ but I’m not sure what that means. Do you doubt the very premise that human ems will become the dominant intelligence on earth?”

  • Dave Lindbergh

    I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Levy is a technology journalist, known mainly for his 1984 book _Hackers_ (indeed an excellent snapshot of early computer hackers, except for the quasi-worship of Richard Stallman toward the end).

    Since then he’s kind of been coasting on the reputation of _Hackers_. None of his more recent books made much of a splash.

    It’s a shame how people with creative minds in youth commonly have ever less imagination as they age.

  • SK

    This is really annoying. For what it’s worth Robin, I’m a physicist, and I read your book, and it’s quite hard to come up with specific detailed criticisms of your assumptions and your reasoning. In order to come up with such criticisms, one needs dive into the relevant literature — neuroscience, economics, sociology. Mr. Levy should make such an effort if he wants to dismiss a thesis on grounds somewhat stronger than the author’s favorite musician.

    • Dave Lindbergh

      A lot of people, and a larger proportion as the sample gets older, seem to believe that any idea that’s too weird or unfamiliar must be wrong.

      Solely on the basis of strangeness.

      It’s not a terrible heuristic for those with poor imaginations, or weak general knowledge.

      Because most new ideas are bad ideas. If you don’t have the imagination – or the background – to actually consider an idea rationally, that heuristic will give the right answer for most people, most of the time.

      And of the set of very strange, very unfamiliar ideas the average person encounters in life, most are indeed wildly wrong.

      • Robin Hanson

        Yes a completely reasonable heuristic. But if you present yourself as an expert advising a less expert public, you should hold yourself to a higher standard.

  • http://epautos.com/ Doofor

    Steven Levy is a Jewish Cultural Marxist. He evaluates TED talks with postmodern critical theory. He is a hack who praises whatever pushes his agenda.

    • Robert Koslover

      As a Jewish Applied Physicist, I evaluate TED talks with FORTRAN.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Do you parse that as (Jewish Cultural) Marxist or Jewish (Cultural Marxist)?

  • JamieNYC

    To me, this character (Levy) is exactly the type that LOVES the TED talks. So, yes, he is shallow, “on the side of science” that pushes his agenda (as someone else already mentioned), narrow minded and rigid. What did you expect, going to give the TED talk?