Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Pretty Smart Healthy Privilege

In our social world, people who are prettier (or hotter) can wear a wider range of clothing and still be seen as socially acceptable. For example, when less pretty people wear especially form-fitting or revealing clothes, they are likely to face social disapproval. They can’t “pull it off.”

Similarly, people who are smarter (or wittier) can talk in conversation about a wider range of topics. If you are not clever or witty, and you bring up a sensitive topic, you are likely to seem awkward and inappropriate, and induce social disapproval. But if you are clever or witty, you can often bring up such subjects in a way that makes people around you laugh and approve.

People who are healthier also have a wider range of socially acceptable activities. People who try to join a group hike or club dance, but who don’t have the energy or coordination to keep up with others, are often frowned upon.

These are three examples of privilege based on familiar kinds of inequality. Not only are these sorts of privilege quite widely accepted, rarely causing much embarrassment or guilt, but we often go out of our way to celebrate and revel in them. In fashion runways, lecture halls, and sporting events we select the most pretty smart healthy people we have, and give them extra attention and approval, thereby increasing social inequality resulting from differences in these features.

An even more dramatic example is inequality based on species. Humans today are gaining huge advantages relative to other species. And most people seem quite okay with celebrating and encouraging these advantages.

When you hear concerns expressed about privilege or inequality, you don’t usually hear these features mentioned. Instead the focus is more often on inequalities tied to income, parental wealth, dominant vs. marginal cultures and ethnicities, rich vs. poor nations, or dominant vs. marginal gender or sexual preferences and styles. Many people seem to find it quite easy to get worked up over privilege and inequality tied to those features.

Now while I can sorta empathize with such resentment and indignation, they don’t feel much more compelling to me that related feelings about the privileges of pretty, smart, or healthy people. Or even humans relative to other species. So while I could sort get behind efforts to mildly reduce the worst extremes caused by all forms of privilege and inequality (or by total inequality, weighing all things), I can’t get behind efforts to focus much more on some forms relative to others.

I have tried to make sense of why people treat these things differently. For example, people seem more concerned about the kinds of inequality that concerned their distant forager ancestors. People seem more eager to express indignation about kinds if inequality would more support more easy grabbing. And people seem more suspicious of inequality resulting from more opaque larger-scale social processes (like labor markets), rather than from more transparent biological and smaller-scale social processes.

But none of these explanations seem to me good reasons to actually worry much more about these kinds of privilege and inequality. Yes disapproved processes like wars, slavery, and theft have contributed substantially to some cultures or sexual styles becoming dominant in our world. But disapproved processes also contribute substantially to some people becoming prettier, smarter, or healthier in our world. And in neither case am I willing to conclude that disapproved processes are the overwhelming cause of such inequality.

As things are counted in today’s political calculus, this apparently makes me a “conservative,” in that I’m less concerned about the sorts of inequalities that greatly concern “liberals.” But I see this less as taking a political position than as remaining uncertain – until I see a good reason to care differently about different kinds of inequality, I’m going to consider them as similar. I see this as like being agnostic about religion. Some people consider a religious agonistic as taking a strong position against religion, and as being almost the same as an atheist. But I think it is worth distinguishing people who take a position against a common view, from people who are uncertain about that view.

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Hope For A Lumpy Filter

The great filter is the sum total of all of the obstacles that stand in the way of a simple dead planet (or similar sized material) proceeding to give rise to a cosmologically visible civilization. As there are 280 stars in the observable universe, and 260 within a billion light years, a simple dead planet faces at least roughly 60 to 80 factors of two obstacles to birthing a visible civilization within 13 billion years. If there is panspermia, i.e., a spreading of life at some earlier stage, the other obstacles must be even larger by the panspermia life-spreading factor.

We know of a great many possible candidate filters, both in our past and in our future. The total filter could be smooth, i.e. spread out relatively evenly among all of these candidates, or it could be lumpy, i.e., concentrated in only one or a few of these candidates. It turns out that we should hope for the filter to be lumpy.

For example, imagine that there are 15 plausible filter candidates, 10 in our past and 5 in our future. If the filter is maximally smooth, then given 60 total factors of two, each candidate would have four factors of two, leaving twenty in our future, for a net chance for us now of making it through the rest of the filter of only one in a million. On the other hand, if the filter is maximally lumpy, and all concentrated in only one random candidate, then we have a 2/3 chance of facing no filter at all in our future. Thus a lumpy filter gives us a much better chance of making it.

For “try-try” filters, a system can keep trying over and over until it succeeds. If a set of try-try steps must all succeed within the window of life on Earth, then the actual times to complete each step must be drawn from the same distribution, and so take similar times. The time remaining after the last step must also be drawn from a similar distribution.

A year ago I reported on a new study estimating that 1.75 to 3.25 billion years remains for life on Earth. This is a long time, and implies that there can’t be many prior try-try filter steps within the history of life on Earth. Only one or two, and none in the last half billion years. This suggests that the try-try part of the great filter is relatively lumpy, at least for the parts that have and will take place on Earth. Which according to the analysis above is good news.

Of course there can be other kinds of filter steps. For example, perhaps life has to hit on the right sort of genetic code right from the start; if life hits on the wrong code, life using that code will entrench itself too strongly to let the right sort of life take over. These sort of filter steps need not be roughly evenly distributed in time, and so timing data doesn’t say much about how lumpy or uniform are those steps.

It is nice to have some good news. Though I should also remind you of the bad news that anthropic analysis suggests that selection effects make future filters more likely than you would have otherwise thought.

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Great Filter TEDx

This Saturday I’ll speak on the great filter at TEDx Limassol in Cyprus. Though I first wrote about the subject in 1996, this is actually the first time I’ve been invited to speak on it. It only took 19 years. I’ll post links here to slides and video when available.

Added 22Sep: A preliminary version of the video can be found here starting at minute 34.

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Did Industry Cause Nations?

An interesting claim: the nation-state didn’t exist before, and was caused by, the industrial revolution. Oh there were empires before, but most people didn’t identify much with empires, or see empires as much influencing their lives. In contrast people identify with nation-states, which they see as greatly influencing their lives. More:

Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states. … If you travelled across Europe, no one asked for your passport at borders; neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these didn’t really define the political entity they lived in. …

Agrarian societies required little actual governing. Nine people in 10 were peasants who had to farm or starve, so were largely self-organising. Government intervened to take its cut, enforce basic criminal law and keep the peace within its undisputed territories. Otherwise its main role was to fight to keep those territories, or acquire more. … Many eastern European immigrants arriving in the US in the 19th century could say what village they came from, but not what country: it didn’t matter to them. … Ancient empires are coloured on modern maps as if they had firm borders, but they didn’t. Moreover, people and territories often came under different jurisdictions for different purposes.

Such loose control, says Bar-Yam, meant pre-modern political units were only capable of scaling up a few simple actions such as growing food, fighting battles, collecting tribute and keeping order. …

The industrial revolution … demanded a different kind of government. … “In 1800 almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. By 1900 they all did.” … Unlike farming, industry needs steel, coal and other resources which are not uniformly distributed, so many micro-states were no longer viable. Meanwhile, empires became unwieldy as they industrialised and needed more actual governing. So in 19th-century Europe, micro-states fused and empires split.

These new nation states were justified not merely as economically efficient, but as the fulfilment of their inhabitants’ national destiny. A succession of historians has nonetheless concluded that it was the states that defined their respective nations, and not the other way around. …

“nation building” … required the creation of an ideology of nationalism that emotionally equated the nation with people’s Dunbar circle of family and friends. That in turn relied heavily on mass communication technologies. … Nationalist feelings … arose after mass-market books standardised vernaculars and created linguistic communities. Newspapers allowed people to learn about events of common concern, creating a large “horizontal” community that was previously impossible. National identity was also deliberately fostered by state-funded mass education. Continue reading "Did Industry Cause Nations?" »

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Tarot Counselors

[Tarot card] readers claim to be able to describe a person’s life, his problems, hopes and fears, his personality and even his future. (more)

I recently watched a demonstration of Tarot card reading. The reader threw out various interpretations of the cards she placed, in terms of the subjects personality and life, and watched the subject carefully for reactions, moving the interpretation closer to options where the subject seemed more engaged. Though the subject was a skeptic, she admitted to finding the experience quite compelling.

Contrast such life readings to school career counselors. Economists have long been puzzled by the lack of student interest in career info. Career counselors usually refer to statistics about the income or graduation rates of broad categories of people given certain types of careers, colleges, or majors. Such advice may be evidence-based but it seems far less compelling to students. It is not connected to salient recent personal experiences of the subjects, or to outcomes in which subjects are very emotionally engaged. The advice is clear but uncertain, in contrast to the certainty and ambiguity of Tarot readings.

It seems obvious to me that many students would be more engaged by more Tarot-like career counseling. It also seems obvious that many parents and other citizens would loudly object, as this would be seen as unscientific and lower the status of this school, at least among elites. Even if the process just took on the appearance of Tarot readings but mainly had the usual career counseling content.

The high status of science seems to push many people to have less compelling and engaging stories of their lives, even if such stories are more accurate.

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Do Economists Care?

Art Carden:

Heavy traffic is a problem every economist in the world knows how to solve: price road access, and charge high prices during rush hour. With technologies like E-ZPass and mobile apps, it’s easier than ever. That we don’t pick this low-hanging fruit is a pretty serious indictment of public policy. If we can’t address what is literally a principles-level textbook example of a negative spillover with a fairly easy fix, what hope do we have for effective public policy on other margins? (more)

Yes! If economists actually cared about influencing real policy, they would:

  1. Identify a few strong candidate policies that are a) widely endorsed by economists, b) based on relatively simple clean analysis, c) not much adopted in the wider world, and d) should bring big gains.
  2. Try to engage other intellectuals in detail on one or a few of these, seeking to either gain their endorsement, or to understand better the barriers that block them. If possible, do this as a group, and using all our status levers to make them respond in detail. If we succeed in persuading intellectuals, then join with them to try to persuade policy-makers, again either succeeding or better understanding barriers.
  3. Once we better understand barriers, focus our economic research on doing what it takes to overcome them.

By not doing this, we basically say that while we think we know how to make a better world, we don’t much care if that happens; our priorities are elsewhere.

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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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Beware Status Arrogance

Imagine that you are expert in field A, and a subject in field B comes up at party. You know that there may be others at the party who are expert in field B. How reluctant does this make you to openly speculate about this topic? Do you clam up and only cautiously express safe opinions, or do you toss out the thoughts that pop into your head as if you knew as much about the subject as anyone?

If you are like most people, the relative status of fields A and B will likely influence your choice. If the other field has higher status than yours, you are more likely to be cautious, while if the other field has lower status than yours, you are more likely to speculate freely. In both cases your subconscious will have made good guesses about the likely status consequences to you if an expert in B were to speak up and challenge your speculations. At some level you would know that others at the party are likely to back whomever has the higher status, even if the subject is within the other person’s area of expertise.

But while you are likely to be relatively safe from status losses, you should know that you are not safe from being wrong. When people from different fields argue about something within one of their areas of expertise, that expert is usually right, even when the other field has higher status. Yes people from your field may on average be smarter and harder-working, and your field may have contributed more to human progress. Even so, people who’ve studied more about the details of something usually know more about it.

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Fundamentalists Are Not Traditionalists

In my last two years of college I rebelled against the system. I stopped doing homework and instead studied physics by playing with equations (and acing exams). In this I was a “school fundamentalist.” I wanted to cut out what I saw as irrelevant and insincere ritual, so that school could better serve what I saw as its fundamental purpose, which was to help curious people learn. I contrasted myself with “traditionalists” who just unthinkingly continued with previous habits and customs.

One of the big social trends over the last few centuries has been a move toward reforming previous rituals and institutions to become more “sincere,” i.e., to more closely align with stated purposes, especially purposes related to internal feelings. For example, the protestant revolution tried to reform religious rituals and institutions toward a stated purpose of improving personal relations with God. (Christian and Islamic “fundamentalists” continue in this vein today.) The romantic revolution in marriage was to move marriage toward a stated purpose of promoting loving romantic relations. And various revolutions in government have been justified as moving government toward stated purposes of legitimacy, representation, and accountability.

In all of these cases advocates for reform have complained about insincerity and hypocrisy in prior practices and institutions. Similar sincerity concerns can be raised about birthday presents, or dinner table manners. Kids sometimes ask why, if gifts are to show feelings, people shouldn’t wait to give gifts until they most feel the mood. Or wait for when the receiver would most like the gift. Kids also sometimes ask why they must lie and say “thank you” when that is not how they feel. Here kids are being fundamentalists, while parents are traditionalists who mostly just want the kids to do the usual thing, without too much reflection on exactly why.

We economists are deep into this sincerity trend, in that we often analyze institutions according to stated purposes, and propose institutional reforms that seem to better achieve stated purposes. For example, in law & economics, the class I’m teaching this semester, we analyze which legal rules best achieve the stated purpose of creating incentives to increase economic welfare.

I’ve been made aware of this basic sincerity vs. tradition conflict by the sociology book Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. While its sociology theory can make for hard reading at times, I was persuaded by its basic claim that modern intellectuals are too quick to favor the sincerity side of this conflict. For example, even if dinner manners and birthday presents rituals don’t most directly express the sincerest feeling of those involved, they can create an “as if” appearance of good feelings, and this appearance can make people nicer and feel better about each other. We’d get a lot fewer presents if people only gave them when in the mood.

Similarly, while for some kids it seems enough to just support their curiosity, most kids are probably better off in a school system that forces them to act as if they are curious, even when they are not. Also, my wife, who works in hospice, tells me that people today often reject traditional bereavement rituals which don’t seem to reflect their momentary sincere feelings. But such people often then feel adrift, not knowing what to do, and their bereavement process goes worse.

Of course I’m not saying we should always unthinkingly follow tradition. But I do think our efforts to reform often go badly because we focus on the most noble and flattering functions and situations, and neglect many other important ones.

From Ritual and Its Consequences I also got some useful distinctions. In addition to sincerity vs. tradition, there is also play vs. ritual. This is the distinction among less-practical “as-if” behaviors between those (play) that spin out into higher variance and those (ritual) that spin in to high predictability. Ritual in this sense can help one to feel safe when threatened, while play can bring joy when one doesn’t feel threatened. One can also distinguish between kinds of play and ritual where people’s usual roles are preserved vs. reversed, and distinguish between kinds where people are in control vs. out of control of events.

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Security Has Costs

Technical systems are often insecure, in that they allow unauthorized access and control. While strong security is usually feasible if designed in carefully from the start, such systems are usually made fast on the cheap. So they usually ignore security at first, and then later address it as an afterthought, which as a result becomes a crude ongoing struggle to patch holes as fast as holes are made or discovered.

The more complex a system is, the more different other systems it is adapted to, the more different organizations that share a system, and the more that such systems are pushed to the edge of technical or financial feasibility, the more likely that related security is full of holes.

A dramatic example of this is cell phone security. Most anyone in the world can use your cell phone to find out where your phone is, and hence where you are. And there’s not much anyone is going to do about this anytime soon. From today’s Post: Continue reading "Security Has Costs" »

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