Category Archives: Hypocrisy

Breeding happier livestock: no futuristic tech required

I talk to a lot of people who are enthusiastic about the possibility that advanced technologies will provide more humane sources of meat. Some have focused on in vitro meat, a technology which investor Peter Thiel has backed. Others worry that in vitro meat would reduce the animal population, and hope to use futuristic genetic engineering to produce animals that feel more pleasure and less pain.

But would it really take radical new technologies to produce happy livestock? I suspect that some of these enthusiasts have been distracted by a shiny Far sci-fi solution of genetic engineering, to the point of missing the presence of a powerful, long-used mundane agricultural version: animal breeding.

Modern animal breeding is able to shape almost any quantitative trait with significant heritable variation in a population. One carefully measures the trait in different animals, and selects sperm for the next generation on that basis. So far this has not been done to reduce animals’ capacity for pain, or to increase their capacity for pleasure, but it has been applied to great effect elsewhere.

One could test varied behavioral measures of fear response, and physiological measures like cortisol levels, and select for them. As long as the measurements in aggregate tracked one’s conception of animal welfare closely enough, breeders could easily generate immense increases in livestock welfare, many standard deviations, initially at low marginal cost in other traits.

Just how powerful are ordinary animal breeding techniques? Consider cattle:

In 1942, when my father was born, the average dairy cow produced less than 5,000 pounds of milk in its lifetime. Now, the average cow produces over 21,000 pounds of milk. At the same time, the number of dairy cows has decreased from a high of 25 million around the end of World War II to fewer than nine million today. This is an indisputable environmental win as fewer cows create less methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and require less land.

 Wired has an impressive chart of turkey weight over time:
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Prefer Peace

As fiction authors know, compelling stories need conflict; readers love to root for good guys against bad guys.  As college professors know, students perk up when academic topics are posed as conflicts.  Sophomores love to hear each subject posed as a conflict between several possible isms, especially a long bitter conflict.  To them, intellectual maturity consists largely of looking over a long menu and ordering one from column A, one from column B, and so on.  But while I'd like to be a popular teacher, I'd rather be honest, and most subjects are just not well described as a conflict of isms. 

When asked to evaluate a proposed economic policy, most students identify some winners and losers, and then favor or oppose the policy based on which group they like best.  It takes a long time for students to learn to think in terms of economic efficiency, weighing the costs and benefits for all effected parties, and even then students usually find an even-handed approach much less inspiring.  Some econ profs engage students by inviting them to join the few knowing insiders against the ignorant multitudes outside, but even that rings wrong to me.

Yesterday I discussed the tension between the ideals we often verbalize and the goals our usual choices seem designed to achieve.  I tried to argue for compromise, for seeking "variations on common ideals which one can more easily admit serve ordinary non-ideal ends."  But, most commenters did not want compromise; they instead wanted to take sides and seek better ways for their side to win the war.  Generation after generation, the [added: some] old tell the young to seek internal peace; no internal side has the strength to win a clean victory, so all out war risks all out destruction.  But the young will not hear.

It seems that one of humanity's strongest ideals is actually war, i.e., uncompromising conflict.  In our culture we are supposed to oppose ordinary bloody war, preferring peace when possible there. But we do not generalize this lesson much to other sorts of  conflicts.  We celebrate those who take sides and win far more than we do peacemakers and compromisers.  But the principle is the same; every side can expect to get more of what it wants from compromise deals than from all out conflict.

Added: Byran Caplan asks:

What makes Robin think that "every side can expect to get more" from compromise than conflict?  Doesn't anyone have a comparative advantage in conflict?  And all it takes to get a conflict is one willing combatant, no?

Deals are not always enforceable, admitting interest in a deal might send the wrong signal, and one may need to threaten conflict to get the best deal.  Even so, there is some deal that beats each conflict for each party.

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Toward Honest Ideals

In Generous Lust, I quoted:

In women, mating goals boosted public— but not private— helping. … In men, it did induce more helpfulness in contexts in which they could display heroism or dominance. … Overall, romantic motives seem to produce highly strategic and sex-specific self-presentations best understood within a costly signaling framework.

In Far Thoughts Fit Ideals, I said:

We tend more to say we will act in accord with our verbally expressed and proudly embraced abstract ideals, e.g., individualism, collectivism, universalism, environmentalism, when we are put into the mental mode that was designed more for talking relative to doing – the far mode.  In contrast, when we are in our usual near mode … we tend to ignore those abstract ideals, … practically achieving our usual ends.

I asked:

In what sense, if any, are folks who act these ways mistaken about what they want?

I'll say we tend to be mistaken about how much our wants depend on contextual details.  As I said in Generous Lust:

The disturbing thing is that these folks were probably unaware that their generosity was caused in large part by romantic feelings.  They probably thought they just wanted to help, not that they wanted to help especially when it might impress potential mates.

We tend to talk as if we "really" want to follow our ideals but are sometimes thwarted by "distractions" or "weakness of will."  But we probably favor our ideals more when:

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Who Loves Truth Most?

Who loves cars most?  Most people like cars, but the folks most vocal in their enthusiasm for cars are car sellers; they pay millions for ads gushing about how much their engineers love designing cars, their factory workers love building them, etc.  The next most vocal are probably car collectors, tinkerers, and racers; they'll bend your ear off about their car hobby.  Also vocal are folks visibly concerned that the poor don't have enough cars. 

But if you want to find the folks who most love cars for their main purpose, getting folks around in their daily lives, you'll have to filter out the sellers, hobbyists, and do-gooders to find ordinary people who just love their cars.  For the most part, car companies love to sell cars to make cash, car hobbyists love to use cars to show off their personal abilities, and do-gooders use cars to show off their compassion.  By comparison, those who just love to drive from point A to B don't shout much.

Truth loving is similar.  Most folks say they prefer truth, but the folks most vocal about loving "truth" are usually selling something.  For preachers, demagogues, and salesmen of all sorts, the wilder their story, the more they go on about how they love truth.  The next most vocal in their enthusiasm for truth are those who, like car hobbyists, use public demonstrations of truth-finding to show off personal abilities.  Academics, gamers, poker players, and amateur intellectuals of all sorts are proud of the fact that their efforts reveal truth, and they make sure you notice their proficiencies. And do-gooders earnestly talk about the importance of everyone understanding the truth of the uninsured, the illiterate, etc.

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As ye judge those who fund thee, ye shall be judged

"If it were not for the intellectual snobs who pay — in solid cash — the tribute which philistinism owes to culture, the arts would perish with their starving practitioners. Let us thank heaven for hypocrisy."
Huxley, Aldous

Robin is always keen to remind us how status-seeking humans are, and the above quote is a gem in that regard. Laced through it are the claims that art is valuable, that patrons are vital to art, and yet that these patrons should be disdained – especially compared with the poor-but-high-status artist.

This can be expanded into a general test for detecting self-serving status-seeking. It isn’t enough to show that people are attracted to high status professions (people’s opinions of status varies, and they may have decided that certain professions are worthwhile to the world, and thus accorded them higher status). It isn’t even enough to note that people’s everyday behavior is status seeking – unless we can estimate the marginal difficulties in making a “worthwhile” profession more worthy, versus the marginal difficulties in increasing status.

However Huxley’s quote gives us a way of controlling these variables. If a profession is deemed worthwhile to the world, then those who enable it, or fund it, are equally worthwhile. If someone would accord their own work a high status but disdains patrons/funding bodies/stockholders, then their own status seeking is plain to see.

The converse is also true; one artist, at least, gets it:

"If a patron buys from an artist who needs money (needs money to buy tools, time, food), the patron then makes himself equal to the artist; he is building art into the world; he creates."
Pound, Ezra

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Fairness vs. Goodness

It seems that back when the Prisoner's Dilemma was still being worked out, Merrill Flood and Melvin Drescher tried a 100-fold iterative PD on two smart but unprepared subjects, Armen Alchian of UCLA and John D. Williams of RAND.

The kicker being that the payoff matrix was asymmetrical, with dual cooperation awarding JW twice as many points as AA:

(AA, JW) JW: D JW: C
AA: D (0, 0.5) (1, -1)
AA: C (-1, 2) (0.5, 1)

The resulting 100 iterations, with a log of comments written by both players, make for fascinating reading.

JW spots the possibilities of cooperation right away, while AA is slower to catch on.

But once AA does catch on to the possibilities of cooperation, AA goes on throwing in an occasional D… because AA thinks the natural meeting point for cooperation is a fair outcome, where both players get around the same number of total points.

JW goes on trying to enforce (C, C) – the option that maximizes total utility for both players – by punishing AA's attempts at defection.  JW's log shows comments like "He's crazy.  I'll teach him the hard way."

Meanwhile, AA's log shows comments such as "He won't share.  He'll punish me for trying!"

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Wise Pretensions v.0

Followup toPretending to be Wise

For comparison purposes, here's an essay with similar content to yesterday's "Pretending to be Wise", which I wrote in 2006 in a completely different style, edited down slightly (content has been deleted but not added).  Note that the 2006 concept of "pretending to be Wise" hasn't been narrowed down as much compared to the 2009 version; also when I wrote it, I was in more urgent need of persuasive force.

I thought it would be an interesting data point to check whether this essay seems more convincing than yesterday's, following Robin's injuction "to avoid emotion, color, flash, stories, vagueness, repetition, rambling, and even eloquence" – this seems like rather the sort of thing he might have had in mind.

And conversely the stylistic change also seems like the sort of thing Orwell might have had in mind, when Politics and the English Language compared:  "I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."  Versus:  "Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."  That would be the other side of it.

At any rate, here goes Eliezer2006

I do not fit the stereotype of the Wise. I am not Gandalf, Ged, or Gandhi. I do not sit amidst my quiet garden, staring deeply into the truths engraved in a flower or a drop of dew; speaking courteously to all who come before me, and answering them gently regardless of how they speak to me.

If I tried to look Wise, and succeeded, I would receive more respect from my fellows. But there would be a price.

To pretend to be Wise means that you must always appear to give people the benefit of the doubt. Thus people will admire you for your courtesy. But this is not always true.

To pretend to be Wise, you must always pretend that both sides have merit, and solemnly refuse to judge between them. For if you took one side or another, why then, you would no longer be one of the aloof Wise, but merely another partisan, on a level with all the other mere bickerers.

As one of the Wise, you are omnipotent on the condition that you never exercise your power. Otherwise people would start thinking that you were no better than they; and they would no longer hold you in awe.

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Pretending to be Wise

Followup toAgainst Maturity

"The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral."
        — Dante Alighieri, famous hell expert John F. Kennedy, misquoter

A special case of adulthood-signaling worth singling out, is the display of neutrality or suspended judgment, in order to signal maturity, wisdom, impartiality, or just a superior vantage point.

An example would be the case discussed yesterday of my parents, who respond to theological questions like "Why does ancient Egypt, which had good records on many other matters, lack any records of Jews having ever been there?" with "Oh, when I was your age, I also used to ask that sort of question, but now I've grown out of it."

Another example would be the principal who, faced with two children who were caught fighting on the playground, sternly says:  "It doesn't matter who started the fight, it only matters who ends it."  Of course it matters who started the fight.  The principal may not have access to good information about this critical fact, but if so, he should say so, not dismiss the importance of who threw the first punch.  Let a parent try punching the principal, and we'll see how far "It doesn't matter who started it" gets in front of a judge.  But to adults it is just inconvenient that children fight, and it matters not at all to their convenience which child started it, it is only convenient that the fight end as rapidly as possible.

A similar dynamic, I believe, governs the occasions in international diplomacy where Great Powers sternly tell smaller groups to stop that fighting right now.  It doesn't matter to the Great Power who started it – who provoked, or who responded disproportionately to provocation – because the Great Power's ongoing inconvenience is only a function of the ongoing conflict.  Oh, can't Israel and Hamas just get along?

This I call "pretending to be Wise".  Of course there are many ways to try and signal wisdom.  But trying to signal wisdom by refusing to make guesses – refusing to sum up evidence – refusing to pass judgment – refusing to take sides – staying above the fray and looking down with a lofty and condescending gaze – which is to say, signaling wisdom by saying and doing nothing – well, that I find particularly pretentious.

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Against Maturity

I remember the moment of my first break with Judaism.  It was in kindergarten, when I was being forced to memorize and recite my first prayer.  It was in Hebrew.  We were given a transliteration, but not a translation.  I asked what the prayer meant.  I was told that I didn't need to know – so long as I prayed in Hebrew, it would work even if I didn't understand the words.  (Any resemblance to follies inveighed against in my writings is not coincidental.)

Of course I didn't accept this, since it was blatantly stupid, and I figured that God had to be at least as smart as I was.  So when I got home, I asked my parents, and they didn't bother arguing with me.  They just said, "You're too young to argue with; we're older and wiser; adults know best; you'll understand when you're older."

They were right about that last part, anyway.

Of course there were plenty of places my parents really did know better, even in the realms of abstract reasoning.  They were doctorate-bearing folks and not stupid.  I remember, at age nine or something silly like that, showing my father a diagram full of filled circles and trying to convince him that the indeterminacy of particle collisions was because they had a fourth-dimensional cross-section and they were bumping or failing to bump in the fourth dimension.

My father shot me down flat.  (Without making the slightest effort to humor me or encourage me.  This seems to have worked out just fine.  He did buy me books, though.)

But he didn't just say, "You'll understand when you're older."  He said that physics was math and couldn't even be talked about without math.  He talked about how everyone he met tried to invent their own theory of physics and how annoying this was.  He may even have talked about the futility of "providing a mechanism", though I'm not actually sure if I originally got that off him or Baez.

You see the pattern developing here.  "Adulthood" was what my parents appealed to when they couldn't verbalize any object-level justification.  They had doctorates and were smart; if there was a good reason, they usually would at least try to explain it to me.  And it gets worse…

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…And Say No More Of It

Followup toThe Thing That I Protect

Anything done with an ulterior motive has to be done with a pure heart.  You cannot serve your ulterior motive, without faithfully prosecuting your overt purpose as a thing in its own right, that has its own integrity.  If, for example, you're writing about rationality with the intention of recruiting people to your utilitarian Cause, then you cannot talk too much about your Cause, or you will fail to successfully write about rationality.

This doesn't mean that you never say anything about your Cause, but there's a balance to be struck.  "A fanatic is someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject."

In previous months, I've pushed this balance too far toward talking about Singularity-related things.  And this was for (first-order) selfish reasons on my part; I was finally GETTING STUFF SAID that had been building up painfully in my brain for FRICKIN' YEARS.  And so I just kept writing, because it was finally coming out.  For those of you who have not the slightest interest, I'm sorry to have polluted your blog with that.

When Less Wrong starts up, it will, by my own request, impose a two-month moratorium on discussion of "Friendly AI" and other Singularity/intelligence explosion-related topics.

There's a number of reasons for this.  One of them is simply to restore the balance.  Another is to make sure that a forum intended to have a more general audience, doesn't narrow itself down and disappear.

But more importantly – there are certain subjects which tend to drive people crazy, even if there's truth behind them.  Quantum mechanics would be the paradigmatic example; you don't have to go funny in the head but a lot of people do.  Likewise Godel's Theorem, consciousness, Artificial Intelligence –

The concept of "Friendly AI" can be poisonous in certain ways.  True or false, it carries risks to mental health.  And not just the obvious liabilities of praising a Happy Thing.  Something stranger and subtler that drains enthusiasm.

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