Tag Archives: Disagreement

When to Parrot, Pander, or Think for Yourself

Humans are built to argue and persuade. We tend to win when we endorse arguments that others accept, and win even more when we can generate new arguments that others will accept. This is both because people notice who originated the arguments that they accept, and because this ability helps us to move others toward opinions that favor our policies and people.

All of this is of course relative to some community who evaluates our arguments. Sometimes the larger world defers to a community of experts, and then it is that community who you must persuade. In other cases, people insist on deciding for themselves, and then you have to persuade them directly.

Consider three prototypical discussions:

  1. Peers in a car, talking on the path to drive to reach an event where they are late.
  2. Ordinary people, talking on if and how black holes leak information.
  3. Parents, talking on how Santa Claus plans to delivers presents Christmas eve.

In case #1, it can be reasonable for peers to think sincerely, in the sense of looking for arguments to persuade themselves, and then offering those same arguments to each other. It can be reasonable here to speak clearly and directly, to find and point out flaws in others’ arguments, and to believe that the net result is to find better approximations to truth.

In case #2, most people are wise to mostly parrot what they hear experts say on the topic. The more they try to make up their own arguments, or even to adapt arguments they’ve heard to particular contexts, the more they risk looking stupid. Especially if experts respond. On such topics, it can pay to be abstract and somewhat unclear, so that one can never be clearly shown to be wrong.

In case #3, parents gain little from offering complex new arguments, or even finding flaws in the usual kid arguments, at least when only parents can understand these. Parents instead gain from finding variations on the usual kid arguments that kids can understand, variations that get kids to do what parents want. Parents can also gain from talking at two levels at once, one discussion at a surface visible to kids, and another at a level visible only to other parents.

These three cases illustrate the three general cases, where your main audience is 1) about as capable , 2) more capable, or 3) less capable than you in generating and evaluating arguments on this topic. Your optimal argumentation strategy depends on in which of these cases you find yourself.

When your audience is about the same as you, you can most usefully “think for yourself”, in the sense that if an argument persuades you it will probably persuade your audience as well, at least if it uses popular premises. So you can be more comfortable in thinking sincerely, searching for arguments that will persuade you. You can be eager to find fault w/ arguments and criticize them, and to listen to such criticisms to see if they persuade you. And you can more trust the final consensus after your discussion.

The main exception here is where you tend to accept premises that are unpopular with your audience. In this case, you can either disconnect with that audience, not caring to try to persuade them, or you can focus less on sincerity and more on persuasion, seeking arguments that will convince them given their different premises.

When your audience is much more capable than you, then you can’t trust your own argument generation mechanism. You must instead mostly look to what persuades your superiors and try to parrot that. You may well fail if you try to adapt standard arguments to particular new situations, or if you try to evaluate detailed criticisms of those arguments. So you try to avoid such things. You instead seek generic positions that don’t depend as much on context, expressed in not entirely clear language that lets you decide at the last minute what exactly you meant.

When your audience is much less capable than you, then arguments that persuade you tend to be too complex to persuade them. So you must instead search for arguments that will persuade them, even if they seem wrong to you. That is, you must pander. You are less interested in rebuttals or flaws that are too complex to explain to your audience, though you are plenty interested in finding flaws that your audience can understand. You are also not interested in finding complex fixes and solutions to such flaws.

You must attend not only to the internal coherence of your arguments, but also to the many particular confusions and mistakes to which your audience is inclined. You must usually try arguments out to see how well they work on your audience. You may also gain by using extra layers of meaning to talk more indirectly to impress your more capable sub-audience.

What if, in addition to persuading best, you want to signal that you are more capable? To show that you are not less capable than your audience, you might go out of your way to show that you can sincerely, on the fly and without assistance, and without studying or practicing on your audience, construct new arguments that plausibly apply to your particular context, and identify flaws with new arguments offered by others. You’d be sincerely argumentative.

To suggest that you are more capable than your audience, you might instead show that you pay attention to the detailed mistakes and beliefs of your audience, and that you first try arguments out on them. You might try to show that you are able to find arguments by which you could persuade that audience of a wide range of conclusions, not just the conclusions you privately find the most believable. You might also show that you can simultaneously make persuasive arguments to your general audience, while also discreetly making impressive comments to a sub-audience that is much more capable. Sincerely “thinking for yourself” can look bad here.

In a world where people following the strategies I’ve outlined above, the quality of general opinion on each topic probably depends most strongly on something near the typical capability of the relevant audience that evaluates arguments on that topic. (I’d guess roughly the 80th percentile matters most on average.) The less capable mostly parrot up, and the more capable mostly pander down. Thus firms tend to be run in ways that makes sense to that rank employee or investor. Nations are run in ways that make sense to that rank citizen. Stories make sense to that rank reader/viewer. And so on. Competition between elites pandering down may on net improve opinion, as may selective parroting from below, though neither seems clear to me.

If we used better institutions for key decisions (e.g., prediction/ decision markets), then the audience that matters might become much more capable, to our general benefit. Alas that initial worse audience usually decides not to use better institutions. And in a world of ems typical audiences also become much more capable, to their benefit.

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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.

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A Book Response Prediction

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. Schopenhauer, 1788-1860.

My next book won’t come out until January, and reviews of it will appear in the weeks and months after that. But now, a year in advance, I want to make a prediction about the main objections that will be voiced. In particular I predict that two of the most common responses will a particular opposing pair.

If you recall, our book is about hidden motives (a.k.a., “X is not about Y):

We’re afraid to acknowledge the extent of our own selfishness. .. The Elephant in the Brain aims to .. blast floodlights into the dark corners of our minds. .. Why do humans laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do people brag about travel? Why do we so often prefer to speak rather than listen?

Like all psychology books, The Elephant in the Brain examines many quirks of human cognition. But this book also ventures where others fear to tread: into social critique. The authors show how hidden selfish motives lie at the very heart of venerated institutions like Art, Education, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion.

I predict that one of the most common responses will be something like “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” While the evidence we offer is suggestive, for claims as counterintuitive as ours on topics as important as these, evidence should be held to a higher standard than the one our book meets. We should shut up until we can prove our claims.

I predict that another of the most common responses will be something like “this is all well known.” Wise observers have known and mentioned such things for centuries. Perhaps foolish technocrats who only read in their narrow literatures are ignorant of such things, but our book doesn’t add much to what true scholars and thinkers have long known.

These responses are opposing in the sense that it is hard to find a set of positions from which one could endorse both responses.

I have not phrased this prediction so as to make it very easy to check later if its right. I have also not offered a specific probability. Given the many ambiguities here, this seems right to me.

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When Does Evidence Win?

Consider a random area of intellectual inquiry, and a random intellectual who enters this area. When this person first arrives, a few different points of view seemed worthy of consideration in this area. This person then becomes expert enough to favor one of these views. Then over the following years and decades the intellectual world comes to more strongly favor one of these views, relative to the others. My key question is: in what situations do such earlier arrivals, on average, tend to approve of this newly favored position?

Now there will be many cases where favoring a point helps people to be seen an intellectual of a certain standing. For example, jumping on an intellectual fashion could help one to better publish, and then get tenure. So if we look at tenured professors, we might well see that they tended to favor new fashions. To exclude this effect, I want to apply whatever standard is used to pick intellectuals before they choose their view on this area.

There will also be an effect whereby intellectuals move their work to focus on new areas even if they don’t actually think they are favored by the weight of evidence. (By “evidence” here I also mean to include relevant intellectual arguments.) So I don’t want to rely on the areas where people work to judge which areas they favor. I instead need something more like a survey that directly asks intellectuals which views they honestly think are favored by the weight of evidence. And I need this survey to be private enough for respondents to not fear retribution or disapproval for expressed views. (And I also want them to be intellectually honest in this situation.)

Once we are focused on people who were already intellectuals of some standing when they choose their views in an area, and on their answers to a private enough survey, I want to further distinguish between areas where relevant strong and clear evidence did or did not arrive. Strong evidence favors one of the views substantially, and clear evidence can be judged and understood by intellectuals at the margins of the field, such as those in neighboring fields or with less intellectual standing. These can included students, reporters, grant givers, and referees.

In my personal observation, when strong and clear evidence arrives, the weight of opinion does tend to move toward the views favored by this evidence. And early arrivals to the field also tend to approve. Yes many such intellectuals will continue to favor their initial views because the rise of other views tends to cut the perceived value of their contributions. But averaging over people with different views, on net opinion moves to favor the view that evidence favors.

However, the effectiveness of our intellectual world depends greatly on what happens in the other case, where relevant evidence is not clear and strong. Instead, evidence is weak, so that one must weigh many small pieces of evidence, and evidence is complex, requiring much local expertise to judge and understand. If even in this case early arrivals to a field tend to approve of new favored opinions, that (weakly) suggests that opinion is in fact moved by the information embodied in this evidence, even when it is weak and complex. But if not, that fact (weakly) suggests that opinion moves are mostly due to many other random factors, such as new political coalitions within related fields.

While I’ve outlined how one might do a such a survey, I have not actually done it. Even so, over the years I have formed opinions on areas where my opinions did not much influence my standing as an intellectual, and where strong and clear evidence has not yet arrived. Unfortunately, in those areas I have not seen much of a correlation between the views I see as favored on net by weak and complex evidence, and the views that have since become more popular. Sometimes fashion favors my views, and sometimes not.

In fact, most who choose newly fashionable views seem unaware of the contrary arguments against those views and for other views. Advocates for new views usually don’t mention them and few potential converts ask for them. Instead what matters most is: how plausible does the evidence for a view offered by its advocates seem to those who know little about the area. I see far more advertising than debate.

This suggests that most intellectual progress should be attributed to the arrival of strong and clear evidence. Other changes in intellectual opinion are plausibly due to a random walk in the space of other random factors. As a result, I have prioritized my search for strong and clear evidence on interesting questions. And I’m much less interested than I once was in weighing the many weak and complex pieces of evidence in other areas. Even if I can trust myself to judge such evidence honestly, I have little faith in my ability to persuade the world to agree.

Yes if you weigh such weak and complex evidence, you might come to a conclusion, argue for it, and find a world that increasingly agrees with you. And you might let your self then believe that you are in a part of the intellectual world with real and useful intellectual progress, progress to which you have contributed. Which would feel nice. But you should consider the possibility that this progress is illusory. Maybe for real progress, you need to instead chip away at hard problems, via strong and clear evidence.

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Why We Mix Fact & Value Talk

For a while now I’ve been tired of the US political drama, and I’ve been hoping that others would tire of it as well. Then maybe we could talk about something else, like say, my books. So I was thinking of writing a post reminding folks about futarchy, saying that politics doesn’t have to be this way. That is, we could largely (if not entirely) separate the political processes that deal with facts and values. In this case, even when there’s a big change in which values set policy, the fact estimates that set policy could remain the same, and be very expert.

In contrast, most of our current political processes mix up facts and values. The candidates we vote for, the bills they adopt, and the rulings that agencies make, all represent bundles of opinions on both facts and values. As a result, the fact estimates implicit in policy choices are less than fully expert, as such estimates must appeal to the citizens, politicians, administrators, etc. who we choose in part for their value positions. And so, to influence the values that our systems uses, we must each talk about facts as well, even when we aren’t personally very expert on those facts.

On reflection, however, I think I had it wrong. Most of those engaged by the current US political drama are enjoying it, even if they say otherwise. They get a rare chance to feel especially self-righteous, and to bond more strongly with political allies. And I think the usual mixing of facts and values actually helps them achieve these ends. Let me explain.

For the purpose of making effective decisions, on average the best mix of fact vs. value in analysis has over 90% of the attention go to facts. Yes, you need to pay some attention to values, but most of the devil is in the details, and most of the relevant details are on facts. This is true at all levels, including personal, family, firm, church, city, state, and national levels.

However, for the purpose of feeling self-righteous and bonding with allies, value talk is much more potent than fact talk. You need to believe that your values are superior to feel self-righteous, and shared values bond you with allies much more strongly than do shared facts. Yet even for this purpose, the ideal conversation isn’t more than 90% focused on values; something closer to a 50-50 mix works better.

The problem is that when we frame a debate as a pure value disagreement, we actually find it harder to feel enough obviously superior, and to dismiss the other side. We aren’t really as confident in our value positions as we pretend. We can see how observers might perceive a symmetry between us and our opponents, and label us unfair if we just try to crush the other side to achieve our values at the expense of their values.

However, by mixing enough facts into a value discussion, we can explain to ourselves and others why crushing them is really best for everyone. We can say that they just don’t understand that global warming is a real thing, or that kids really need two parents to grow up healthy. It is the other side’s failure to accept key facts that can justify to outsiders our uncompromising determination to crush them for a total win. Later on they may see we were right, and even thank us. But even if that doesn’t happen, right now we can feel justified in dismissing them.

I expect this dynamic plays out not only in national politics, but also in firm, church, and family politics. And it helps explain our widespread reluctance to adopt prediction markets, and other neutral fact estimation methods such as experiments, in relatively political contexts. We regularly want to support decisions that advance the values we share with our political allies, but we prefer the cover of seeming to be focused on estimating facts. To successfully use facts as a cover for values, we need to have enough fact issues mixed into our debates. And we need to avoid out-of-control fact estimation mechanisms that lack enough adjustment knobs to let us get the answers we want.

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Surprising Popularity

This week Nature published some empirical data on a surprising-popularity consensus mechanism (a previously published mechanism, e.g., Science in 2004, with variations going by the name “Bayesian Truth Serum”). The idea is to ask people to pick from several options, and also to have each person forecast the distribution of opinion among others. The options that are picked surprisingly often, compared to what participants on average expected, are suggested as more likely true, and those who pick such options as better informed.

Compared to prediction markets, this mechanism doesn’t require that those who run the mechanism actually know the truth later. Which is indeed a big advantage. This mechanism can thus be applied to most any topic, such as the morality of abortion, the existence of God, or the location of space aliens. Also, incentives can be tied to this method, as you can pay people based on how well they predict the distribution of opinion. The big problem with this method, however, is that it requires that learning the truth be the cheapest way to coordinate opinion. Let me explain.

When you pay people for better predicting the distribution of opinion, one way they can do this prediction task is to each look for and report their best estimate of the truth. If everyone does this, and if participant errors and mistakes are pretty random, then those who do this task better will in fact have a better estimate of the distribution of opinion.

For example, imagine you are asked which city is the the capital of a particular state. Imagine you are part of a low-incentive one-time survey, and you don’t have an easy way to find and communicate with other survey participants. In this case, your best strategy may well be to think about which city is actually the capital.

Of course even in this case your incentive is to report the city that most sources would say is the capital. If you (and a few others) in fact know that according to the detailed legal history another city is rightfully the capital, not the city that the usual records give, your incentive is still to go with usual records.

More generally, you want to join the largest coalition who can effectively coordinate to give the same answers. If you can directly talk with each other, then you can agree on a common answer and report that. If not, you can try to use prearranged Schelling points to figure out your common answer from the context.

If this mechanism were repeated, say daily, then a safe way to coordinate would be to report the same answer as yesterday. But since everyone can easily do this too, it doesn’t give your coalition much of a relative advantage. You only win against those who make mistakes in implementing this obvious strategy. So you might instead coordinate to change your group’s answer each day based on some commonly observed changing signal.

To encourage this mechanism to better track truth, you’d want to make it harder for participants to coordinate their answers. You might ask random people at random times to answer quickly, put them in isolated rooms where they can’t talk to others, and ask your questions in varying and unusual styles that make it hard to guess how others will frame those questions. Prefer participants with more direct personal reasons to care about telling related truth, and prefer those who used different ways to learn about a topic. Perhaps ask different people for different overlapping parts and then put the final answer together yourself from those parts. I’m not sure how far you could get with these tricks, but they seem worth a try.

Or course these tricks are nothing like the way most of us actually consult experts. We are usually eager to ask standard questions to standard experts who coordinate heavily with each other. This is plausibly because we usually care much more to get the answers that others will also get, so that we don’t look foolish when we parrot those answers to others. That is, we care more about getting a coordinated standard answer than a truthful answer.

Thus I actually see a pretty bright future for this surprisingly-popular mechanism. I can see variations on it being used much more widely to generate standard safe answers that people can adopt with less fear of seeming strange or ignorant. But those who actually want to find true answers even when such answers are contrarian, they will need something closer to prediction markets.

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Trade Engagement?

First, let me invite readers, especially longtime/frequent readers, to suggest topics for me to blog on. I try to pick topics that are important, neglected, and where I can find something original and insightful to say. But I also like to please readers, and maybe I’m forgetting/missing topics that you could point out.

Second, many of my intellectual projects remain limited by a lack of engagement. I can write books, papers, and blog posts, but to have larger intellectual impact I need people to engage my ideas. Not to agree or disagree with them, but to dive into and critique the details of my arguments, and then publicly describe their findings. (Yes, journal referees engage submissions to some extent, but it isn’t remotely enough.)

This is more useful to me when such engagers have more relevant ability, popularity, and/or status. Since I also have modest ability, popularity, and status, at least in some areas, this suggests the possibility of mutually beneficial trade. I engage your neglected ideas and you engage mine. Of course there are many details to work out to arrange such trade.

First, there’s timing. I don’t want to put in lots of work engaging your ideas based on a promise that you’ll later engage mine, and then have you renege. So we may need to start small, back and forth. Or you can go first.

Second, there’s the issue of relative price. If we have differing levels of ability, popularity, and status, then we should agree to differing relative efforts to reflect those differences. If you are more able than I, maybe I should engage several ideas of yours in trade for your only engaging one of mine.

Third, we may disagree about our relevant differences. While it may be easy to quickly demonstrate one’s popularity, status, and overall intelligence, it can be harder to demonstrate one’s other abilities relevant to a particular topic. Yes if I read a bunch of your papers I might be able to see that your ability is higher than your status would suggest, but I might not have time for that.

Fourth, we may each fear adverse selection. Why should I be so stupid as to join a club that would stoop so low as to consider me as a member? The fact that you are seeking to trade for engagement, and willing to consider me as a trading partner, makes me suspect that your ideas, ability, and status are worse than they appear.

Fifth, we might prefer to disguise our engagement trade. When engagement is often a side effect of other processes, then it might look bad to go out of your way to trade engagements. (Trading engagement for money or sex probably looks even worse.) So people may prefer to hide their engagement trades within other process that give plausible deniability about such trades. I just happened to invite you to talk at my seminar series after you invited me to talk at yours; move along, no trade to see here.

These are substantial obstacles, and may together explain the lack of observed engagement trades. Even so, I suspect people haven’t tried very hard to overcome such obstacles, and in the spirit of innovation I’m willing to explore such possibilities, at least a bit. My neglected ideas include em futures, hidden motives, decision markets, irrational disagreement, mangled worlds, and more.

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When Is Talk Meddling Okay?

“How dare X meddle in Y’s business on Z?! Yes, X only tried to influence Y people on Z by talking, and said nothing false. But X talked selectively, favoring one position over another!”

Consider some possible triples X,Y,Z:

  • How dare my wife’s friend meddle in my marriage by telling my wife I treat her poorly?
  • How dare John try to tempt my girlfriend away from me by flirting with her?
  • How dare my neighbors tell my kids that they don’t make their kids do as many chores?
  • How dare Sue from another division suggest I ask too much overtime of my employees?
  • How dare V8 try to tempt cola buyers to switch by dissing cola ingredients?
  • How dare economists say that sociologists keep PhD students around too long?
  • How dare New York based media meddle in North Carolina’s transexual bathroom policy?
  • How dare westerners tell North Koreans that their government treats them badly?
  • How dare Russia tell US voters unflattering things about Hillary Clinton?

We do sometimes feel justly indignant at outsiders interfering in our “internal” affairs. In such cases, we prefer equilibria where we each stay out of others’ families, professions, or nations. But in many other contexts we embrace social norms that accept and even encourage criticism from a wide range of sources.

The usual (and good) argument for free speech (or really, free hearing) is that on average listeners can be better informed if they have access to more different info sources. Yes, it would be even better if each source fairly told everything relevant it knew, or at least didn’t select what it said to favor some views. But we usually think it infeasible to enforce norms against selectivity, and so limit ourselves to more enforceable norms against lying. As we can each adjust our response to sources based on our estimates of their selectivity, reasonable people can be better informed via having more sources to hear from, even when those sources are selective.

So why do we sometimes oppose such free hearing? Paternalism seems one possible explanation – we think many of us are unreasonable. But this fits awkwardly, as most expect themselves to be better informed if able to choose from more sources. More plausibly, we often don’t expect that we can limit retaliation against talk to other talk. For example, if you may respond with violence to someone overtly flirting with your girlfriend, we may prefer a norm against such overt flirting. Similarly, if nations may respond with war to other nations weighing in on their internal elections, we may prefer a norm of nations staying out of other nations’ internal affairs.

Of course the US has for many decades been quite involved in the internal affairs of many nations, including via assassination, funding rebel armies, bribery, academic and media lecturing, and selective information revelation. Some say Putin focused on embarrassing Clinton in retaliation for her previously supporting the anti-Putin side in Russian internal affairs. Thus it is hard to believe we really risk more US-Russian war if these two nations overtly talk about the others’ internal affairs.

Yes, we should consider the possibility that retaliation against talk will be more destructive than talk, and be ready to forgo the potentially large info gains from wider talk and criticism to push a norm against meddling in others’ internal affairs. But the international stage at the moment doesn’t seem close to such a situation. We’ve long since tolerated lots of such meddling, and the world is probably better for it. We should allow a global conversation on important issues, where all can be heard even when they speak selectively.

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Beware Futurism As Political Allegory

Imagine that you are junior in high school who expects to attend college. At that point in your life you have opinions related to frequent personal choices if blue jeans feel comfortable or if you prefer vanilla to chocolate ice cream. And you have opinions on social norms in your social world, like how much money it is okay to borrow from a friend, how late one should stay at a party, or what are acceptable excuses for breaking up with boy/girlfriend. And you know you will soon need opinions on imminent major life choices, such as what college to attend, what major to have, and whether to live on campus.

But at that point in life you will have less need of opinions on what classes to take as college senior, and where to live then. You know you can wait and learn more before making such decisions. And you have even less need of opinions on borrowing money, staying at parties, or breaking up as a college senior. Social norms on those choices will come from future communities, who may not yet have even decided on such things.

In general, you should expect to have more sensible and stable opinions related to choices you actually make often, and less coherent and useful opinions regarding choices you will make in the future, after you learn many new things. You should have less coherent opinions on how your future communities will evaluate the morality and social acceptability of your future choices. And your opinions on collective choices, such as via government, should be even less reliable, as your incentives to get those right are even weaker.

All of this suggests that you be wary of simply asking your intuition for opinions about what you or anyone else should do in strange distant futures. Especially regarding moral and collective choices. Your intuition may dutifully generate such opinions, but they’ll probably depend a lot on how the questions were framed, and the context in which questions were asked. For more reliable opinions, try instead to chip away at such topics.

However, this context-dependence is gold to those who seek to influence others’ opinions. Warriors attack where an enemy is weak. When seeking to convert others to a point of view, you can have only limited influence on topics where they have accepted a particular framing, and have incentives to be careful. But you can more influence how a new topic is framed, and when there are many new topics you can emphasize the few where your preferred framing helps more.

So legal advocates want to control how courts pick cases to review and the new precedents they set. Political advocates want to influence which news stories get popular and how those stories are framed. Political advocates also seek to influence the choices and interpretations of cultural icons like songs and movies, because being less constrained by facts such things are more open to framing.

As with the example above of future college choices, distant future choices are less thoughtful or stable, and thus more subject to selection and framing effects. Future moral choices are even less stable, and more related to political positions that advocates want to push. And future moral choices expressed via culture like movies are even more flexible, and thus more useful. So newly-discussed culturally-expressed distant future collective moral choices create a perfect storm of random context-dependent unreliable opinions, and thus are ideal for advocacy influence, at least when you can get people to pay attention to them.

Of course most people are usually reluctant to think much about distant future choices, including moral and collective ones. Which greatly limits the value of such topics to advocates. But a few choices related to distant futures have engaged wider audiences, such as climate change and, recently, AI risk. And political advocates do seem quite eager to influence such topics, due to their potency. They seem select such topics from a far larger set of similarly important issues, in part for their potency at pushing common political positions. The science-fiction truism really does seem to apply: most talk on the distant future is really indirect talk on our world today.

Of course the future really will happen eventually, and we should want to consider choices today that importantly influence that future, some of those choices will have moral and collective aspects, some of these issues can be expressed via culture like movies, and at some point such issue discussion will be new. But as with big hard problems in general, it is probably better to chip away at such problems.

That is: Anchor your thoughts to reality rather than to fiction. Make sure you have a grip on current and past behavior before looking at related future behavior. Try to stick with analyzing facts for longer before being forced to make value choices. Think about amoral and decentralized choices carefully before considering moral and collective ones. Avoid feeling pressured to jump to strong conclusions on recently popular topics. Prefer robust and reliable methods even when they are less easy and direct. Mostly the distant future doesn’t need action today – decisions will wait a bit for us to think more carefully.

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Smart Sincere Contrarian Trap

We talk as if we pick our beliefs mainly for accuracy, but in fact we have many social motives for picking beliefs. In particular, we use many kinds of beliefs as group affiliation/conformity signals. Some of us also use a few contrarian beliefs to signal cleverness and independence, but our groups have a limited tolerance for such things.

We can sometimes win socially by joining impressive leaders with the right sort of allies who support new fashions contrary to the main current beliefs. If enough others also join these new beliefs, they can become the new main beliefs of our larger group. At that point, those who continue to oppose them become the contrarians, and those who adopted the new fashions as they were gaining momentum gain more relative to latecomers. (Those who adopt fashions too early also tend to lose.)

As we are embarrassed if we seem to pick beliefs for any reason other than accuracy, this sort of new fashion move works better when supported by good accuracy-oriented reasons for changing to the new beliefs. This produces a weak tendency, all else equal, for group-based beliefs to get more accurate over time. However, many of our beliefs are about what actions are effective at achieving the motives we claim to have. And we are often hypocritical about our motives. Because of this, workable fashion moves need not just good reasons to belief claims about the efficacy of actions for stated motives, but also enough of a correspondence between the outcomes of those actions and our actual motives. Many possible fashion moves are unworkable because we don’t actually want to pursue the motives we proclaim.

Smarter people are better able to identify beliefs better supported by reasons, which all else equal makes those beliefs better candidates for new fashions. So those with enough status to start a new fashion may want to listen to smart people in the habit of looking for such candidates. But reasonably smart people who put in the effort are capable of finding a great many places where there are good reasons for picking a non-status-quo belief. And if they also happen to be sincere, they tend to visibly support many of those contrarian beliefs, even in the absence of supporting fashion movements with a decent chance of success. Which results in such high-effort smart sincere people sending bad group affiliation/conformity signals. So while potential leaders of new fashions want to listen to such people, they don’t want to publicly affiliate with them.

I fell into this smart sincere conformity trap long ago. I’ve studied many different areas, and when I’ve discovered an alternate belief that seems to have better supporting reasons than a usual belief, I have usually not hesitated to publicly embrace it. People have told me that it would have been okay for me to publicly embrace one contrarian belief. I might then have had enough overall status to plausibly lead that as a new fashion. But the problem is that I’ve supported many contrarian beliefs, not all derived from a common core principle. And so I’m not a good candidate to be a leader for any of my groups or contrarian views.

Which flags me as a smart sincere person. Good to listen to behind the scenes to get ideas for possible new fashions, but bad to embrace publicly as a loyal group member. I might gain if my contrarian views eventually became winning new fashions, but my early visible adoption of those views probably discourages others from trying to lead them, as they can less claim to have been first with those views.

If the only people who visibly supported contrarian views were smart sincere people who put in high effort, then such views might become known for high accuracy. This wouldn’t necessarily induce most people to adopt them, but it would help. However, there seem to be enough people who visibly adopt contrarian views for others reasons to sufficiently muddy the waters.

If prediction markets were widely adopted, the visible signals of which beliefs were more accurate would tend to embarrass more people into adopting them. Such people do not relish this prospect, as it would have them send bad group affiliation signals. Smart sincere people might relish the prospect, but there are not enough of them to make a difference, and even the few there are mostly don’t seem to relish it enough to work to get prediction markets adopted. Sincerely holding a belief isn’t quite the same as being willing to work for it.

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