Monthly Archives: February 2009

On Not Having an Advance Abyssal Plan

"Even though he could foresee the problem then, we can see it equally well now.  Therefore, if he could foresee the solution then, we should be able to see it now.  After all, Seldon was not a magician.  There are no trick methods of escaping a dilemma that he can see and we can't."
        — Salvor Hardin

Years ago at the Singularity Institute, the Board was entertaining a proposal to expand somewhat.  I wasn't sure our funding was able to support the expansion, so I insisted that – if we started running out of money – we decide in advance who got fired and what got shut down, in what order.

Even over the electronic aether, you could hear the uncomfortable silence.

"Why can't we decide that at the time, if the worst happens?" they said, or something along those lines.

"For the same reason that when you're buying a stock you think will go up, you decide how far it has to decline before it means you were wrong," I said, or something along those lines; this being far back enough in time that I would still have used stock-trading in a rationality example.  "If we can make that decision during a crisis, we ought to be able to make it now.  And if I can't trust that we can make this decision in a crisis, I can't trust this to go forward."

People are really, really reluctant to plan in advance for the abyss.  But what good reason is there not to?  How can you be worse off from knowing in advance what you'll do in the worse cases?

I have been trying fairly hard to keep my mouth shut about the current economic crisis.  But still –

Why didn't various governments create and publish a plan for what they would do in the event of various forms of financial collapse, before it actually happened?

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Who Are Macro Experts?

I never learned much macro-econ; they didn't respect it at Caltech where I got my Ph.D.  So while my econ colleagues blog 24/7 about the macro crisis, I've mostly kept quiet.  But I can speak on this issue: who are the real "experts"?

During this crisis, politicians and reporters have been eager to cite "economists" in support of their causes.  For example, Obama:

What I've said is what other economists have said across the political spectrum, which is that, if you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of. 

The Post:

While economists remain divided on the role of government generally, an overwhelming number from both parties are saying that a government stimulus package — even a flawed one — is urgently needed to help prevent a steeper slide in the economy. 

So who are these "economists"?  While Bryan reports "almost none of the economic `experts' pontificating [in the media] on Obama's economic plan are actually [degreed] economists", Obama and the Post were probably talking about standard "prestigious" economists, i.e., those holding top positions in prestigious institutions.  But are these really the most accurate sources for macro policy advice?  What is the best way to identify "experts" on such topics anyway? 

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What is Medical Quality?

The most prestigious Boston hospitals are paid 15-60% more per procedure, but are not especially healthier:

Call it the best-kept secret in Massachusetts medicine: Health insurance companies pay a handful of hospitals far more for the same work even when there is no evidence that the higher-priced care produces healthier patients. …

Brigham, Mass. General, Children's Hospital, and a few others are, on average, paid about 15 percent to 60 percent more than their rivals by insurance companies … The hospitals that are paid at the highest rates … have the bargaining clout to demand higher insurance payments. Often, that clout is based on a powerful brand name and elite reputation. … Insurers pay to keep Children's happy because they know parents won't buy insurance that doesn't include access to one of the world's most prominent pediatric hospitals. … One influential researcher found that Beth Israel's overall mortality rate was lower in 2005 than the mortality rates at both the Brigham and Mass. General, but the hospital and its doctors still earn 15 percent to 20 percent less for the same work. … 

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Fairness vs. Goodness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rationality Quotes 27

"Believing this statement will make you happier."
        — Ryan Lortie

"Make changes based on your strongest opportunities, not your most convenient ones."
        — MegaTokyo

"The mind is a cruel, lying, unreliable bastard that can't be trusted with even an ounce of responsibility.  If you were dating the mind, all your friends would take you aside, and tell you that you can really do better, and being alone isn't all that bad, anyway.  If you hired the mind as a babysitter, you would come home to find all but one of your children in critical condition, and the remaining one crowned 'King of the Pit'."
        — Lore Sjoberg

"Getting bored is a non-trivial cerebral transformation that doubtlessly took many millions of years for nature to perfect."
        — Lee Corbin

"The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the unanimous view of all parts of my mind."
        — Malcolm McMahon

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Write Your Hypothetical Apostasy

Let's say you have been promoting some view (on some complex or fraught topic – e.g. politics, religion; or any "cause" or "-ism") for some time.  When somebody criticizes this view, you spring to its defense.  You find that you can easily refute most objections, and this increases your confidence.  The view might originally have represented your best understanding of the topic.  Subsequently you have gained more evidence, experience, and insight; yet the original view is never seriously reconsidered.  You tell yourself that you remain objective and open-minded, but in fact your brain has stopped looking and listening for alternatives.

Here is a debiasing technique one might try: writing a hypothetical apostasy.  Remind yourself before you start that unless you later choose to do so, you will never have to show this text to anyone.

Imagine, if you will, that the world's destruction is at stake and the only way to save it is for you to write a one-pager that convinces a jury that your old cherished view is mistaken or at least seriously incomplete.  The more inadequate the jury thinks your old cherished view is, the greater the chances that the world is saved.  The catch is that the jury consists of earlier stages of yourself (such as yourself such as you were one year ago).  Moreover, the jury believes that you have been bribed to write your apostasy; so any assurances of the form "trust me, I am older and know better" will be ineffective.  Your only hope of saving the world is by writing an apostasy that will make the jury recognize how flawed/partial/shallow/juvenile/crude/irresponsible/incomplete and generally inadequate your old cherished view is.

(If anybody tries this, feel free to comment below on whether you found the exersise fruitful or not – but no need to state which specific view you were considering or how it changed.)

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Wise Pretensions v.0

Followup toPretending to be Wise

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

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

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

At any rate, here goes Eliezer2006

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

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

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

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

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

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Pretending to be Wise

Followup toAgainst Maturity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spotty Deference

The public often defers to medical experts, but not always:

Imagine you are seated at a table with two bowls in front of you. One contains peanuts, the other tablets of the illegal recreational drug MDMA (ecstasy). A stranger joins you, and you have to decide whether to give them a peanut or a pill. Which is safest? You should give them ecstasy, of course. A much larger percentage of people suffer a fatal acute reaction to peanuts than to MDMA. … 

As New Scientist went to press, the UK government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was widely expected to recommend downgrading it, based on evidence of its limited harmfulness (see "Ecstasy's legacy: so far, so good"). Yet the government has already rejected the advice.

No doubt this is partly a reaction to the furore over the government's de facto decriminalisation of cannabis in 2004, based on another advisory council recommendation. Despite the fact that the move actually reduced the quantity of cannabis being smoked … the government recently reversed it in the face of implacably bad press.

For evidence of how irrational and lacking in perspective the public debate has become, consider how the advisory council's chairman, David Nutt, found himself in hot water last weekend for comparing the harm caused by ecstasy to the harm caused by horse riding.

How does the public decide when to believe medical experts and when not to?  

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The intervention and the checklist: two paradigms for improvement

I’m working on a project involving the evaluation of social service innovations, and the other day one of my colleagues remarked that in many cases, we really know what works, the issue is getting it done. This reminded me of a fascinating article by Atul Gawande on the use of checklists for medical treatments, which in turn made me think about two different paradigms for improving a system, whether it be health, education, services, or whatever.

The first paradigm–the one we’re taught in statistics classes–is of progress via “interventions” or “treatments.” The story is that people come up with ideas (perhaps from fundamental science, as we non-biologists imagine is happening in medical research, or maybe from exploratory analysis of existing data, or maybe just from somebody’s brilliant insight), and then these get studied (possibly through randomized clinical trials, but that’s not really my point here; my real focus is on the concept of the discrete “intervention”), and then some ideas are revealed to be successful and some are not (with allowances taken for multiple testing or hierarchical structure in the studies), and the successful ideas get dispersed and used widely. There’s then a secondary phase in which interventions can get tested and modified in the wild.

The second paradigm, alluded to by my colleague above, is that of the checklist. Here the story is that everyone knows what works, but for logistical or other reasons, not all these things always get done. Improvement occurs when people are required (or encouraged or bribed or whatever) to do the 10 or 12 things that, together, are known to improve effectiveness. This “checklist” paradigm seems much different than the “intervention” approach that is standard in statistics and econometrics.

The two paradigms are not mutually exclusive. For example, the items on a checklist might have had their effectiveness individually demonstrated via earlier clinical trials–in fact, maybe that’s what got them on the checklist in the first place. Conversely, the procedure of “following a checklist” can itself be seen as an intervention and be evaluated as such.

And there are other paradigms out there, such as the self-experimentation paradigm (in which the generation and testing of new ideas go together) and the “marketplace of ideas” paradigm (in which more efficient systems are believed to evolve and survive through competitive pressures).

I just think it’s interesting that the intervention paradigm, which is so central to our thinking in statistics and econometrics (not to mention NIH funding), is not the only way to think about process improvement. A point that is obvious to nonstatisticians, perhaps.

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