Monthly Archives: December 2007

Honest Teen Paternalism

Worried about teens taking risks tonight, on New Year’s Eve?  Most people think teens take too many risks, and so we should limit the risks teens can take, for their own good.  And from the usual lectures we give teens, it seems we think teens underestimate the rate and severity of bad events.  But in fact, a recent NYT says teens overestimate drug and sex risks:

Scientific studies have shown that adolescents are very well aware of their vulnerability and that they actually overestimate their risk of suffering negative effects from activities like drinking and unprotected sex.

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My Strange Beliefs

Yesterday, "Overcoming Cryonics" wrote:

Eliezer, enough with your nonsense about cryonicism, life-extensionism, trans-humanism, and the singularity.  These things have nothing to do with overcoming bias… if you’re going to enforce the comments policy then you should also self-enforce the overcoming bias posting policy instead of using posts to blithely proselytize your cryonicism / life-extensionism / trans-humanism / singularity religion.

One, there is nothing in the Overcoming Bias posting policy against transhumanism.

Two, as a matter of fact, I do try to avoid proselytizing here.  I have other forums in which to vent my thoughts on transhumanism.  When I write a blog post proselytizing transhumanism, it looks like this, this, or this.

But it’s hard for me to avoid all references to transhumanism.  "Overcoming Cryonics" commented to a post in which there was exactly one reference to a transhumanist topic.  I had said:

The first time I gave a presentation – the first time I ever climbed onto a stage in front of a couple of hundred people to talk about the Singularity – I briefly thought to myself:  "I bet most people would be experiencing ‘stage fright’ about now.  But that wouldn’t be helpful, so I’m not going to go there.

What, exactly, am I supposed to do about that?  The first time I ever got up on stage, I was in fact talking about the Singularity!  That’s the actual history!  Transhumanism is not a hobby for me, it’s my paid day job as a Research Fellow of the Singularity Institute.  Asking me to avoid all mentions of transhumanism is like asking Robin Hanson to avoid all mentions of academia.

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Cultish Countercultishness

Followup toEvery Cause Wants To Be A Cult, Lonely Dissent

In the modern world, joining a cult is probably one of the worse things that can happen to you.  The best-case scenario is that you’ll end up in a group of sincere but deluded people, making an honest mistake but otherwise well-behaved, and you’ll spend a lot of time and money but end up with nothing to show.  Actually, that could describe any failed Silicon Valley startup.  Which is supposed to be a hell of a harrowing experience, come to think.  So yes, very scary.

Real cults are vastly worse.  "Love bombing" as a recruitment technique, targeted at people going through a personal crisis.  Sleep deprivation.  Induced fatigue from hard labor.  Distant communes to isolate the recruit from friends and family.  Daily meetings to confess impure thoughts.  It’s not unusual for cults to take all the recruit’s money – life savings plus weekly paycheck – forcing them to depend on the cult for food and clothing.  Starvation as a punishment for disobedience.  Serious brainwashing and serious harm.

With all that taken into account, I should probably sympathize more with people who are terribly nervous, embarking on some odd-seeming endeavor, that they might be joining a cult.  It should not grate on my nerves.  Which it does.

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To Lead, You Must Stand Up

Followup toLonely Dissent

True story:  In July, I attended a certain Silicon Valley event.  I was not an organizer, or a speaker, or in any other wise involved on an official level; just an attendee.  It was an evening event, and after the main presentations were done, much of the audience hung around talking… and talking… and talking…  Finally the event organizer began dimming the lights and turning them back up again.  And the crowd still stayed; no one left.  So the organizer dimmed the lights and turned them up some more.  And lo, the people continued talking.

I walked over to the event organizer, standing by the light switches, and said, "Are you hinting for people to leave?"  And he said, "Yes.  In fact [the host company] says we’ve got to get out of here now – the building needs to close down."

I nodded.

I walked over to the exit.


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Econ of Longer Lives

I’m a little late to the party, but in December’s Cato Unbound debate, Aubrey de Grey and Ronald Bailey argued that much longer healthy lifespans would be good, while Diana Schaub and Daniel Callahan had doubts.  Some samples:

Daniel Callahan: My standing complaint against de Grey and his enthusiastic colleagues is that they defend themselves by hypothesizing a variety of changes in our present way of life that would make our extended lives a kind of heaven on earth. We would be so healthy and energetic we would want to keep working indefinitely. We could start new careers, new families, new ways of life. That we might get tired of it all, or bored, is not allowed into their calculations. Nor is any imaginative effort to imagine the deleterious social effects allowed.

Ronald Bailey: So what about the social consequences of radically longer and healthier lives? In that regard, Diana Schaub in her reaction essay raises many questions for reflection about those consequences, but curiously she fails to actually reflect on them.  Schaub … simply recapitulates the standard issue pro-mortalist rhetorical technique of asking allegedly "unnerving questions" and then allowing them to "fester in the mind." Sadly, all too many bioethicists think they’ve done real philosophic work by posing "hard" questions, then sitting back with steepled hands and a grave look on their countenances.

This issue has sparked many debates, conferences etc. over the last few years.  The invited participants have naturally been intellectuals who have published on the topic recently, mainly activists and bioethicists.  We economists have not published on this topic, and so have not been included.  But this is not because we have nothing to say.  Instead, no economist has anything special to say.  We can all easily see that standard economic theory seems to say longer healthy lives are a good thing.  So none of us thinks any of us should get precious academic publication credit for saying such an obvious thing.  As a result, life extension debates ignore economic theory. 

Of course appearances may be deceiving, so perhaps there are good economic theory reasons against longer healthy lives.  And perhaps economists would typically let their "judgment" overrule economic theory on this issue.  But it still seems to me a shame that observers of this debate can remain unaware of what standard economic theory seems to say on this subject. 

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Lonely Dissent

Followup toThe Modesty Argument, The "Outside the Box" Box, Asch’s Conformity Experiment

Asch’s conformity experiment showed that the presence of a single dissenter tremendously reduced the incidence of "conforming" wrong answers.  Individualism is easy, experiment shows, when you have company in your defiance.  Every other subject in the room, except one, says that black is white.  You become the second person to say that black is black.  And it feels glorious: the two of you, lonely and defiant rebels, against the world!  (Followup interviews showed that subjects in the one-dissenter condition expressed strong feelings of camaraderie with the dissenter – though, of course, they didn’t think the presence of the dissenter had influenced their own nonconformity.)

But you can only join the rebellion, after someone, somewhere, becomes the first to rebel.  Someone has to say that black is black after hearing everyone else, one after the other, say that black is white.  And that – experiment shows – is a lot harder.

Lonely dissent doesn’t feel like going to school dressed in black.  It feels like going to school wearing a clown suit.

That’s the difference between joining the rebellion and leaving the pack.

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On Expressing Your Concerns

Followup toAsch’s Conformity Experiment

The scary thing about Asch’s conformity experiments is that you can get many people to say black is white, if you put them in a room full of other people saying the same thing.  The hopeful thing about Asch’s conformity experiments is that a single dissenter tremendously drove down the rate of conformity, even if the dissenter was only giving a different wrong answer.  And the wearisome thing is that dissent was not learned over the course of the experiment – when the single dissenter started siding with the group, rates of conformity rose back up.

Being a voice of dissent can bring real benefits to the group.  But it also (famously) has a cost.  And then you have to keep it up.  Plus you could be wrong.

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Too Much Hope

Did you have great hopes for Xmas?  Were you disappointed, but think it was good at least for you to have hoped?  Turns out, hope need not make you happier.  From the NYT Year in Ideas :

Prisoners with life sentences but with the possibility of parole adapt less well to prison life, for example, than prisoners with life sentences without the possibility of parole. … The research team … tracked people who had portions of their colons removed or bypassed, such that the patients couldn’t defecate normally. The condition is extremely unpleasant and leads many people to say they’d rather be dead. … But a colostomy isn’t always permanent. Some patients are likely to heal and have their bowels reconnected. .  Were it up to the patient to choose, "almost anybody would choose temporary over permanent," Ubel says.

So it’s surprising that the permanent-colostomy patients ended up happier six months after the operation than the temporary group, whose members were still holding out hope. … It might seem strange that patients who are better off objectively were less satisfied with their lives, yet the finding makes sense: "If your condition is temporary," Ubel explains, "you’re thinking, I can’t wait until I get rid of this." Ubel says thoughts like these keep you from moving on with your life and focusing on the many good things that remain. …

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Asch’s Conformity Experiment

Asch2 Solomon Asch, with experiments originally carried out in the 1950s and well-replicated since, highlighted a phenomenon now known as “conformity”.  In the classic experiment, a subject sees a puzzle like the one in the nearby diagram:  Which of the lines A, B, and C is the same size as the line X?  Take a moment to determine your own answer…

The gotcha is that the subject is seated alongside a number of other people looking at the diagram – seemingly other subjects, actually confederates of the experimenter.  The other “subjects” in the experiment, one after the other, say that line C seems to be the same size as X.  The real subject is seated next-to-last.  How many people, placed in this situation, would say “C” – giving an obviously incorrect answer that agrees with the unanimous answer of the other subjects?  What do you think the percentage would be?

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The Amazing Virgin Pregnancy

People who grow up believing certain things,
even if they later stop believing them,
may not quite realize how the beliefs sound to outsiders…

(SCENE:  A small cottage in Nazareth.)

Joseph:  Mary, my dearest fiancĂ©e, there's something I've been meaning to talk to you about.

(Mary's shoulders slump.  Slowly, as if under a heavy burden, she turns around to face Joseph.)

Joseph:  You seem to be getting fat around the waistline, and throwing up in the morning, and, er, not getting any periods.  Which is odd, because it's sort of like –

Mary:  Yes!  I'm pregnant!  All right?  I'm PREGNANT!

Joseph:  How is that possible?

(Mary's shoulders slump further.)  Mary:  How do you think?

Joseph:  I don't know, that's why I'm asking you.  I mean, you're still a virgin, right?

(Mary looks up cautiously, and sees Joseph's face looking blankly puzzled.)

Joseph:  Well?

Mary:  God did it.

Joseph:  You had sex with –

Mary:  No!  Haha.  Of course not.  I mean, God just snapped his fingers and did one of those miracle things and made me pregnant.

Joseph:  God made you pregnant.

Mary:  (Starts to sweat.)  Yes.

Joseph:  Mary, that is just so… completely…

(Mary's eyes squeeze shut.)

Joseph:  …COOL!

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