It’s All Data

Bayesian decision theory is often a useful approximation as a theory of decisions, evidence, and learning. And according to it, everything you experience or see or get as an input can be used as data. Some of it may be more informative or useful, but it’s all data; just update via Bayes rule and off you go.

So what then is “scientific” data? Well “science” treated as a social phenomena is broken into many different disciplines and sub-fields, and each field tends to have its own standards for what kinds of data they will publish. These standards vary across fields, and have varied across time, and I can think of no universals that apply to all fields at all times.

For example, at some times in some fields one might be allowed to report on the content of one’s dreams, while in other fields at times that isn’t okay but it is okay to give statistics summarizing the contents of all the dreams of some set of patients at a hospital, while in other fields at other times they just don’t want to hear anything subjective about dreams.

Most field’s restrictions probably make a fair bit of sense for them. Journal space is limited, so even if all data can tell you something, they may judge that certain kinds of data rarely say enough, compared to other available kinds. Which is fine. But the not-published kinds of data are not “unscientific”, though they may temporarily be “un-X” for field X. And you should remember that as most academic fields put a higher priority on being impressive than informative, they may thus neglect unimpressive data sources.

For example, chemists may insist that chemistry experiments know what are the chemicals being tested. But geology papers can give data on tests made on samples obtained from particular locations, without knowing the exact chemical composition of those samples. And they don’t need these samples to be uniformly sampled from the volume of the Earth or the universe; it is often enough to specify where samples came from.

Consider agricultural science field experiments, where they grow different types of crops in different kinds of soil and climate. They usually don’t insist on knowing the exact chemical composition of the soil, or the exact DNA of the crops. But they can at least tell you where they got the crops, where exactly is the test field, how they were watered, weeded, and fertilized, and some simple stats on the soils. It would be silly to insist that such experiments use a “representative” sample of crops, fields, or growing conditions. Should it be uniformly sampled from actual farming conditions used today, from all possible land on Earth’s surface, or from random mass or volume in the universe across its history?

Lab experiments in the human and social sciences today typically use convenience samples of subjects. They post invitations to their local school or community and then accept most everyone who signs up or shows up. They collect a few stats on subjects, but do not even attempt to create “representative” samples of subjects. Nationally, globally-now, or over-all-history representative samples of lab subjects would just be vastly more expensive. Medical experiments are done similarly. They may shoot for balance along a few particular measured dimensions, but on other parameters they take whoever they can get.

I mention all this because over the last few months I’ve had some fun doing Twitter polls. And I’ve consistently had critics tell me I shouldn’t do this, because Twitter polls are “meaningless” or “worthless” or “unscientific”. They tell me I should only collect the sort of data I could publish in a social science journal today, and if I show people any other kind of data I’m an intellectual fraud. As if some kinds of data were “unscientific”.

Today I have ~24,700 followers, and I can typically get roughly a thousand people to answer each poll question. And as my book Elephant in the Brain suggests, I have many basic questions about human behavior that aren’t very specific to particular groups of people; we have many things to learn that apply to most people everywhere at all times. Whenever a question occurs to me, I can take a minute to post it, and within a few hours get some thought-provoking answers.

Yes, the subset of my Twitter followers who actually respond to my polls are not a representative sample of my nation, world, profession, university, or even of Twitter users. But why exactly is it so important to have a representative sample from such a group?

Well there is a big advantage to having many representative polls from the same group, no matter what that group. Then when comparing such polls you have to wonder less whether sample differences are driving results. But the more questions I ask of my Twitter followers, the more I can usefully compare those different polls. For example, if I ask them at different times, I can see how their attitudes change over time. Or if I make slight changes in wording, I can see what difference wording changes make.

Of course if I were collecting data to help a political candidate, I’d want data representative of potential voters in that candidate’s district. But if I’m just trying to understand the basics of human behavior, its not clear why I need any particular distribution over people polled. Yes, answers to each thing I ask might vary greatly over people, and my sample might have few of the groups who act the most differently. But this can happen for any distribution over the people sampled.

Even though the people who do lab experiments on humans usually use convenience samples that are not representative of a larger world, what they do is still science. We just have to keep in mind that differing results might be explained by different sources of subjects. Similarly, the data I get from my Twitter polls can still be useful to a careful intellectual, even if isn’t representative of some larger world.

If one suspects that some specific Twitter poll results of mine differ from other results due to my differing sample, or due to my differing wordings, the obvious checks are to ask the same questions of different samples, or using different wordings. Such as having other people on Twitter post a similar poll to their different pool of followers. Alas, people seem to be willing to spend lots of time complaining about my polls, but are almost never willing to take a few seconds to help check on them in this way.

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#MeToo In A Star Is Born

The Me Too movement (or #MeToo movement), with many local and international alternative names, is a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. #MeToo spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. It followed soon after the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein. (more)

It is now a bit over a year since #MeToo started to push for more strongly censuring an expanded range of activities. Both the facts of change and expansion suggest that we are now less clear on what exactly counts as unacceptable sexual “harassment.” This increased ambiguity struck me when watching the new Star is Born movie, which now has a 64% chance to win the Best Picture Oscar, and when asking my twitter followers a few related questions.

The prototypical #MeToo villain was Harvey Weinstein, a powerful older man in the movie industry who offered to help young pretty much-less-powerful women with their acting careers, in trade for sex. He’d help by recommending them for jobs, or hurt them by recommending against them. Yes, Harvey was also accused of directly forcing himself on some women, but society already had a strong consensus against that. These sex for career help offers were the newer issue.

In the new movie A Star is Born, a popular older male singer hears a young amateur female singer. He then quickly expresses both sexual and professional interest in her, and many people around the two of them indicate that they see both of these interests expressed. He offers to fly her to his next show, she declines, but then changes her mind. He brings her on stage to sing a song, which greatly helps her career. She stays with him that night and they have sex. She continues to travel with him, and he continues to help and they continue to have sex. She isn’t an idiot, so we must presume she knows that if she stops having sex with him, there’s a good chance he will stop helping her career.

One could interpret this situation as him making an implicit offer to trade career help for sex, and her accepting this offer. Which seems to violate the #MeToo standard that Harvey Weinstein violated. Yet few complain of this, even in a politically sensitive industry during this extra sensitive time. And in fact, while most of my twitter followers seemed reluctant to take any position on this, those who did were about 3 to 1 against blaming this man. They instead said they would not defend this woman and “believe her” if, a month into their relationship, she had soured on it and publicly accused him of abusing his position of power:

Yet given an abstract description of this sort of situation, about half of my twitter followers say that his behavior is not okay, and that he is not saved by her liking the deal overall, his asking only once, or his offering an implicit deal that gives her (and him) plausibly deniability:

These results seem to me to imply a lot of uncertainty, disagreement, and individual inconsistency. Whatever the actual causes of these opinions, we seem far from achieving a consensus on what behaviors to censure how much.

Added 7pm:  Many on Twitter now say that my last poll above is aggressive, offensive, pro-harrassment, and itself constitutes harassment, because I allow respondents the possibility of saying that the man’s offer could be okay. In particular, respected economist Betsey Stevenson says:

This kind of “innocent query” sums up why economics is a more hostile profession for women than many others. … it suggests the options you gave are potentially ok behavior. … why don’t you change your behavior given the feedback if you don’t want to be harassing.

Added 10:30a: I’m struck by the contrast between so many people taking a moralizing critical tone with me for even allowing survey respondents to say such an trade is okay, and the complete lack of anyone taking such a tone regarding the apparently implicit trade in the movie.

Added 19Dec: I did two more polls:

So given an abstract description of the situation in A Star is Born, ~26-27% of my twitter followers say that they disapprove of the relation, regardless of whether the woman complains or not. If the woman doesn’t complain, then ~29% approve of the relation and the remaining ~45% don’t want to express an opinion. But if the woman does complain, then only ~20% approve. It seems that ~9% of those who would otherwise approve switch to not expressing an opinion, instead of having some switch from approval to disapproval.

However, after watching the movie people are probably much more sympathetic to the relation, compared to hearing an abstract description of the situation. That’s what movies do to people. The still surprising thing to me is that #MeToo supporters don’t complain more about the movie, as it seems to create more sympathy for these relations, and probably encourages men to package expressions of both sex and career interest together in the way that this male character did.

Added 27Jan: It is standard polling practice to not explain the motivation for a poll to its participants, as knowing that can change their answers. The odds for A Star Is Born winning best picture is much worse now, at 10:1.

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Response To Hossenfelder

In my last post I said:

In her new book Lost in Math, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder describes just how bad things have become. … To fix these problems, Hossenfelder proposes that theoretical physicists learn about and prevent biases, promote criticism, have clearer rules, prefer longer job tenures, allow more specialization and changes of fields, and pay peer reviewers. Alas, as noted in a Science review, Hossenfelder’s proposed solutions, even if good ideas, don’t seem remotely up to the task of fixing the problems she identifies.

In the comments she took issue:

I am quite disappointed that you, too, repeat the clearly false assertion that I don’t have solutions to offer. … I originally meant to write a book about what’s going wrong with academia in general, but both my agent and my editor strongly advised me to stick with physics and avoid the sociology. That’s why I kept my elaborations about academia to an absolute minimum. You are right in complaining that it’s sketchy, but that was as much as I could reasonably fit in.

But I have on my blog discussed what I think should be done, eg here. Which is a project I have partly realized, see here. And in case that isn’t enough, I have a 15 page proposal here. On the proposal I should add that, due to space limitations, it does not contain an explanation for why I think that’s the right thing to do. But I guess you’ll figure it out yourself, as we spoke about the “prestige optimization” last week.

I admitted my error:

I hadn’t seen any of those 3 links, and your book did list some concrete proposals, so I incorrectly assumed that if you had more proposals then you’d mention them in your book. I’m happy to support your proposed research project. … I don’t see our two proposals as competing, since both could be adopted.

She agreed:

I don’t see them as competing either. Indeed, I think they fit well .

Then she wrote a whole blog post elaborating!: Continue reading "Response To Hossenfelder" »

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Can Foundational Physics Be Saved?

Thirty-four years ago I left physics with a Masters degree, to start a nine year stint doing AI/CS at Lockheed and NASA, followed by 25 years in economics. I loved physics theory, and given how far physics had advanced over the previous two 34 year periods, I expected to be giving up many chances for glory. But though I didn’t entirely leave (I’ve since published two physics journal articles), I’ve felt like I dodged a bullet overall; physics theory has progressed far less in the last 34 years, mainly because data dried up:

One experiment after the other is returning null results: No new particles, no new dimensions, no new symmetries. Sure, there are some anomalies in the data here and there, and maybe one of them will turn out to be real news. But experimentalists are just poking in the dark. They have no clue where new physics may be to find. And their colleagues in theory development are of no help.

In her new book Lost in Math, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder describes just how bad things have become. Previously, physics foundations theorists were disciplined by a strong norm of respecting the theories that best fit the data. But with less data, theorists have turned to mainly judging proposed theories via various standards of “beauty” which advocates claim to have inferred from past patterns of success with data. Except that these standards (and their inferences) are mostly informal, change over time, differ greatly between individuals and schools of thought, and tend to label as “ugly” our actual best theories so far.

Yes, when data is truly scarce, theory must suggest where to look, and so we must choose somehow among as-yet-untested theories. The worry is that we may be choosing badly:

During experiments, the LHC creates about a billion proton-proton collisions per second. … The events are filtered in real time and discarded unless an algorithm marks them as interesting. From a billion events, this “trigger mechanism” keeps only one hundred to two hundred selected ones. … That CERN has spent the last ten years deleting data that hold the key to new fundamental physics is what I would call the nightmare scenario.

One bad sign is that physicists have consistently, confidently, and falsely told each other and the public that big basic progress was coming soon: Continue reading "Can Foundational Physics Be Saved?" »

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Overconfidence From Moral Signaling

Tyler Cowen in Stubborn Attachments:

The real issue is that we don’t know whether our actions today will in fact give rise to a better future, even when it appears that they will. If you ponder these time travel conundrums enough, you’ll realize that the effects of our current actions are very hard to predict,

While I think we often have good ways to guess which action is more likely to produce better outcomes, I agree with Tyler than we face great uncertainty. Once our actions get mixed up with a big complex world, it becomes quite likely that, no matter what we choose, in fact things would have turned out better had we made a different choice.

But for actions that take on a moral flavor, most people are reluctant to admit this:

If you knew enough history you’d see >10% as the only reasonable answer, for most any big historical counterfactual. But giving that answer to the above risks making you seem pro-South or pro-slavery. So most people express far more confidence. In fact, more than half give the max possible confidence!

I initially asked a similar question on if the world would have been better off overall if Nazis had won WWII, and for the first day I got very similar answers to the above. But I made the above survey on the South for one day, while I gave two days for the Nazi survey. And in its second day my Nazi survey was retweeted ~100 times, apparently attracting many actual pro-Nazis:

Yes, in principle the survey could have attracted wise historians, but the text replies to my tweet don’t support that theory. My tweet survey also attracted many people who denounced me in rude and crude ways as personally racist and pro-Nazi for even asking this question. And suggested I be fired. Sigh.

Added 13Dec: Many call my question ambiguous. Let’s use x to denote how well the world turns out. There is x0, how well the world actually turned out, and x|A, how well the world have turned out given some counterfactual assumption A. Given this terminology, I’m asking for P(x>x0|A).  You may feel sure you know x0, but you should not feel sure about  x|A; for that you should have a probability distribution.

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Open Policy Evaluation

Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue. La Rochefoucauld, Maximes

In some areas of life, you need connections to do anything. Invitations to parties, jobs, housing, purchases, business deals, etc. are all gained via private personal connections. In other areas of life, in contrast, invitations are made open to everyone. Posted for all to see are openings for jobs, housing, products to buy, business investment, calls for proposals for contracts and grants, etc. The connection-only world is often suspected of nepotism and corruption, and “reforms” often take the form of requiring openings to be posted so that anyone can apply.

In academia, we post openings for jobs, school attendance, conference attendance, journal publications, and grant applications for all to see. Even though most people know that you’ll actually need personal connections to have much of a chance for many of these things. People seems to want to appear willing to consider an application from anyone. They allow some invitation-only conferences, talk series, etc., but usually insist that such things are incidental, not central to their profession.

This preference for at least an appearance of openness suggests a general strategy of reform: find things that are now only gained via personal connections, and create an alternate open process whereby anyone can officially apply. In this post, I apply this idea to: policy proposals.

Imagine that you have a proposal for a better policy, to be used by governments, businesses, or other organizations. How can you get people to listen to your proposal, and perhaps endorse it or apply it? You might try to use personal connections to get an audience with someone at a government agency, political interest group, think tank, foundation, or business. But that’s stuck in the private connection world. You might wait for an agency or foundation to put out an open call for proposals, seeking a solution to exactly the problem your proposal solves. But for any one proposal idea, you might wait a very long time.

You might submit an article to an open conference or journal, or submit a book to a publisher. But if they accept your submission, that mostly won’t be an endorsement of whether your proposal is good policy by some metric. Publishers are mostly looking at other criteria, such as whether you have an impressive study using difficult methods, or whether you have a book thesis and writing style that will attract many readers.

So I propose that we consider creating an open process for submitting policy proposals to be evaluated, in the hope of gaining some level of endorsement and perhaps further action. This process won’t judge your submission on wit, popularity, impressiveness, or analytical rigor. Their key question is: is this promising as a policy proposal to actually adopt, for the purpose of making a better world? If they endorse your proposal, then other actors can use that as a quality signal regarding what policy proposals to consider.

Of course how you judge a policy proposal depends on your values. So there might be different open policy evaluators (OPE) based on different sets of values. Each OPE needs to have some consistent standards by which they evaluate proposals. For example, economists might ask whether a proposal improves economic efficiency, libertarians might ask if it increases liberty, and progressives might ask whether it reduces inequality.

Should the evaluation of a proposal consider whether there’s a snowball chance in hell of a proposal being actually adopted, or even officially considered? That is, whether it is in the “Overton window”? Should they consider whether you have so far gained sufficient celebrity endorsements to make people pay attention to your proposal? Well, those are choices of evaluation criteria. I’m personally more interested in evaluating proposals regardless of who has supported them, and regardless of their near-term political feasibility. Like how academics say we do today with journal article submissions. But that’s just me.

An OPE seems valid and useful as long as its actual choices of which policies it endorses match its declared evaluation criteria. Then it can serve as a useful filter, between people with innovative policy ideas and policy customers seeking useful ideas to consider and perhaps implement. If you can find OPEs who share your evaluation criteria, you can consider the policies they endorse. And of course if we ever end up having many of them, you could focus first on the most prestigious ones.

Ideally an OPE would have funding from some source to pay for its evaluations. But I could also imagine applicants having to pay a fee to have their proposals considered.

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Stubborn Attachments

Tyler Cowen’s new book, Stubborn Attachments, says many things. But his main claims are, roughly, 1) we should care much more about people who will live in the distant future, and 2) promoting long-run economic growth is a robust way to achieve that end. As a result, we should try much harder to promote long-run economic growth.

Now I don’t actually think his arguments are that persuasive to those inclined to disagree. On 1), the actions of most people suggest that they don’t actually care much about the distant future, and there exist quite consistent preferences (including moral preferences) to represent this position. (Also, I have to wonder how much Tyler cares, as in the 20 years I’ve known him I’ve often worked on distant future issues, and he’s shown almost no interest in such things.)

On 2), while Tyler mainly argues for econ growth by pointing to good trends over the last few centuries, many people see bad trends as outweighing the good, and many others see recent trends as temporary historical deviations. Tyler also doesn’t consider that future techs which speed population growth could cut the connection observed recently between total and per-capita growth; I describe such a scenario in my book Age of Em.

Tyler being Tyler, he is generally vague and gives himself many outs to avoid criticism. For example, he says that rights should take priority over growth, but he doesn’t specify those rights. He says he only advocates growing “wealth plus” which includes any good thing you could want, so don’t complain that growth will hurt a good thing. He notes that the priority on growth can justify the usual intuition excusing limited redistribution, but doesn’t mention that this won’t at all excuse not doing everything possible to promote growth. He says he isn’t committed to econ growth being possible forever, but only to a finite chance of eternal growth. Yet focusing all policy on trying to increase growth within some tiny-chance eternal growth scenario is overwhelmingly likely to seem a huge mistake later.

However, as I personally happen to agree with his main claims, at least the way I phrased them, I’d rather focus on their implications, which Tyler severely neglects. The following are the only “concrete” things he says about how exactly to promote long term econ growth:

For some more concrete recommendations, I’ll suggest the following: a) Policy should be more forward-looking and more concerned about the more distant future. b) Governments should place a much higher priority on investment than is currently the case, in both the private sector and the public sector. … c) Policy should be more concerned with economic growth, properly specified, and policy discussion should pay less heed to other values. … d) We should be more concerned with the fragility of our civilization. … e) We should be more charitable on the whole, but we are not obliged to give away all of our wealth. … f) We can embrace much of common sense morality with the knowledge that it is not inconsistent with a deeper ethical theory. … g) When it comes to most “small” policies affecting the present and the near-present only, we should be agnostic.

More “investment” and “growth”, that’s it?! We actually know of many more specific ways to encourage choices that promote long term growth, but they mostly come at substantial costs. I don’t how much you actually support faster long-term growth until I hear which such policies you’ll support. Continue reading "Stubborn Attachments" »

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Moral Choices Reveal Preferences

Tyler Cowen has a new book, Stubborn Attachments. In my next post I’ll engage his book’s main claim. But in this post I’ll take issue with one point that is to him relatively minor, but is to me important: the wisdom of the usual economics focus on preferences:

Sometimes my fellow economists argue that “satisfying people’s preferences” is the only value that matters, because in their view it encapsulates all other relevant values. But that approach doesn’t work. It is not sufficiently pluralistic, as it also matters whether our overall society encompasses standards of justice, beauty, and other values from the plural canon. “What we want” does not suffice to define the good. Furthermore, we must often judge people’s preferences by invoking other values external to those preferences. …

Furthermore, if individuals are poorly informed, confused, or downright inconsistent— as nearly all of us are, at times— the notion of “what we want” isn’t always so clear. So while I am an economist, and I will use a lot of economic arguments, I won’t always side with the normative approach of my discipline, which puts too much emphasis on satisfying preferences at the expense of other ethical values. … We should not end civilization to do what is just, but justice does sometimes trump utility. And justice cannot be reduced to what makes us happy or to what satisfies our preferences. …

iI traditional economics— at least prior to the behavioral revolution and the integration with psychology— it was commonly assumed that what an individual chooses, or would choose, is a good indicator of his or her welfare. But individual preferences do not always reflect individual interests very well. Preferences as expressed in the marketplace often appear irrational, intransitive, spiteful, or otherwise morally dubious, as evidenced by a wide range of vices, from cravings for refined sugar to pornography to grossly actuarially unfair lottery tickets. Given these human imperfections, why should the concept of satisfying preferences be so important? Even if you are willing to rationalize or otherwise defend some of these choices, in many cases it seems obvious that satisfying preferences does not make people happier and does not make the world a better place.

Tyler seems to use a standard moral framework here, one wherein we are looking at others and trying to agree among ourselves about what moral choices to make on their behalf. (Those others are not included in our conversation.) When we look at those other people, we can use the choices that they make to infer their wants (called “revealed preferences”), and then we can then make our moral choices in part to help them get what they want.

In this context, Tyler accurately describes common morality, in the sense that the moral choices of most people do not depend only on what those other object people want. Common moral choices are instead often “paternalistic”, giving people less of what they want in order to achieve other ends and to satisfy other principles. We can argue about how moral such choices actually are, but they clearly embody a common attitude to morality.

However, if these moral choices that we are to agree on satisfy some simple consistency conditions, then formally they imply a set of “revealed preferences”.  (And if they do not actually satisfy these conditions, we can see them as resulting from consistent preferences plus avoidable error.) They are “our” preferences in this moral choice situation. Looked at this way, it is just not remotely true that “ ‘What we want’ does not suffice to define the good” or that “Justice cannot be reduced to … what satisfies our preferences.” Our concepts of the good and justice are in fact exactly described by our moral preferences, the preferences that are revealed by our various consistent moral choices. It is then quite accurate to say that our moral preferences encapsulate all our relevant moral values.

Furthermore, the usual economics framework is wise and insightful because we in fact quite often disagree about moral choices when we take moral action. This framework that Tyler seems to use above, wherein we first agree on which acts are moral and then we act, is based on an often quite unrealistic fiction. We instead commonly each take moral actions in the absence of agreement. In such cases we each have a different set of moral preferences, and must consider how to take moral action in the context of our differing preferences.

At this point the usual economists’ framework, wherein different agents have different preferences, becomes quite directly relevant. It is then useful to think about moral Pareto improvements, wherein we each get more of what we want morally, and moral deals, where we make verifiable agreements to achieve moral “gains from trade”. The usual economist tools for estimating and calculating our wants and the location of win-win improvements then seem quite useful and important.

In this situation, we each seek to influence the resulting set of actual moral choices in order to achieve our differing moral preferences. We might try to achieve this influence via preaching, threats, alliances, wars, or deals; there are many possibilities. But whatever we do, we each want any analytical framework that we use to help us in this process to reflect our actual differing moral preferences. Yes, preferences can be complex, must be inferred from limited data on our choices, and yes we are often “poorly informed, confused, or downright inconsistent.” But we rarely say “why should the concept of satisfying [my moral] preferences be so important?”, and we are not at all indifferent to instead substituting the preferences of some other party, or the choice priorities of some deal analyst or assistant like Tyler. As much as possible, we seek to have the actual moral choices that result reflect our moral preferences, which we see as a very real and relevant thing, encapsulating all our relevant moral values.

And of course we should expect this sort of thing to happen all the more in a more inclusive conversation, one where the people about whom we are making moral choices become part of the moral “dealmaking” process. That is, when it is not we trying to agree among ourselves about what we should do for them, but when instead we all talk together about what to do for us all. In this more political case, we don’t at all say “my preferences are poorly informed, confused, and inconsistent and hardly matter so they don’t deserve much consideration.” Instead we each focus on causing choices that better satisfy our moral preferences, as we understand them. In this case, the usual economist tools and analytical frameworks based on achieving preferences seem quite appropriate. They deserve to sit center stage in our analysis.

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On the Future by Rees

In his broad-reaching new book, On the Future, aging famous cosmologist Martin Rees says aging famous scientists too often overreach:

Scientists don’t improve with age—that they ‘burn out’. … There seem to be three destinies for us. First, and most common, is a diminishing focus on research. …

A second pathway, followed by some of the greatest scientists, is an unwise and overconfident diversification into other fields. Those who follow this route are still, in their own eyes, ‘doing science’—they want to understand the world and the cosmos, but they no longer get satisfaction from researching in the traditional piecemeal way: they over-reach themselves, sometimes to the embarrassment of their admirers. This syndrome has been aggravated by the tendency for the eminent and elderly to be shielded from criticism. …

But there is a third way—the most admirable. This is to continue to do what one is competent at, accepting that … one can probably at best aspire to be on a plateau rather than scaling new heights.

Rees says this in a book outside his initial areas of expertise, a book that has gained many high profile fawning uncritical reviews, a book wherein he whizzes past dozens of topics just long enough to state his opinion, but not long enough to offer detailed arguments or analysis in support. He seems oblivious to this parallel, though perhaps he’d argue that the future is not “science” and so doesn’t reward specialized study. As the author of a book that tries to show that careful detailed analysis of the future is quite possible and worthwhile, I of course disagree.

As I’m far from prestigious enough to get away a book like his, let me instead try to get away with a long probably ignored blog post wherein I take issue with many of Rees’ claims. While I of course also agree with much else, I’ll focus on disagreements. I’ll first discuss his factual claims, then his policy/value claims. Quotes are indented; my responses are not.  Continue reading "On the Future by Rees" »

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Vulnerable World Hypothesis

I’m a big fan of Nick Bostrom; he is way better than almost all other future analysts I’ve seen. He thinks carefully and writes well. A consistent theme of Bostrom’s over the years has been to point out future problems where more governance could help. His latest paper, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis, fits in this theme:

Consider a counterfactual history in which Szilard invents nuclear fission and realizes that a nuclear bomb could be made with a piece of glass, a metal object, and a battery arranged in a particular configuration. What happens next? … Maybe … ban all research in nuclear physics … [Or] eliminate all glass, metal, or sources of electrical current. … Societies might split into factions waging a civil wars with nuclear weapons, … end only when … nobody is able any longer to put together a bomb … from stored materials or the scrap of city ruins. …

The ​vulnerable world hypothesis​ [VWH] … is that there is some level of technology at which civilization almost certainly gets destroyed unless … civilization sufficiently exits the … world order characterized by … limited capacity for preventive policing​, … limited capacity for global governance.​ … [and] diverse motivations​. … It is ​not​ a primary purpose of this paper to argue VWH is true. …

Four types of civilizational vulnerability. … in the “easy nukes” scenario, it becomes too easy for individuals or small groups to cause mass destruction. … a technology that strongly incentivizes powerful actors to use their powers to cause mass destruction. … counterfactual in which a preemptive counterforce [nuclear] strike is more feasible. … the problem of global warming [could] be far more dire … if the atmosphere had been susceptible to ignition by a nuclear detonation, and if this fact had been relatively easy to overlook …

two possible ways of achieving stabilization: Create the capacity for extremely effective preventive policing.​ … and create the capacity for strong global governance. … While some possible vulnerabilities can be stabilized with preventive policing alone, and some other vulnerabilities can be stabilized with global governance alone, there are some that would require both. …

It goes without saying there are great difficulties, and also very serious potential downsides, in seeking progress towards (a) and (b). In this paper, we will say little about the difficulties and almost nothing about the potential downsides—in part because these are already rather well known and widely appreciated.

I take issue a bit with this last statement. The vast literature on governance shows both many potential advantages of and problems with having more relative to less governance. It is good to try to extend this literature into futuristic considerations, by taking a wider longer term view. But that should include looking for both novel upsides and downsides. It is fine for Bostrom to seek not-yet-appreciated upsides, but we should also seek not-yet-appreciated downsides, such as those I’ve mentioned in two recent posts.

While Bostrom doesn’t in his paper claim that our world is in fact vulnerable, he released his paper at time when many folks in the tech world have been claiming that changing tech is causing our world to in fact become more vulnerable over time to analogies of his “easy nukes” scenario. Such people warn that it is becoming easier for smaller groups and individuals to do more damage to the world via guns, bombs, poison, germs, planes, computer hacking, and financial crashes. And Bostrom’s book Superintelligence can be seen as such a warning. But I’m skeptical, and have yet to see anyone show a data series displaying such a trend for any of these harms.

More generally, I worry that “bad cases make bad law”. Legal experts say it is bad to focus on extreme cases when changing law, and similarly it may go badly to focus on very unlikely but extreme-outcome scenarios when reasoning about future-related policy. It may be very hard to weigh extreme but unlikely scenarios suggesting more governance against extreme but unlikely scenarios suggesting less governance. Perhaps the best lesson is that we should make it a priority to improve governance capacities, so we can better gain upsides without paying downsides. I’ve been working on this for decades.

I also worry that existing governance mechanisms do especially badly with extreme scenarios. The history of how the policy world responded badly to extreme nanotech scenarios is a case worth considering.

Added 8am:

Kevin Kelly in 2012:

The power of an individual to kill others has not increased over time. To restate that: An individual — a person working alone today — can’t kill more people than say someone living 200 or 2,000 years ago.

Anders Sandberg in 2018:

Added 19Nov: Vox quotes from this article.

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