Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss related topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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  • nw3

    The truth is a tool that works in favor of some interests and against the interest of others.

    Scientists pursue truth with singular focus. The Ph in PhD is philosophy, Greek for love of wisdom and truth.

    The search for truth, however, is subordinate to the pursuit of status: promote truth that advances your cause; discredit and ignore truth that hurts your cause.

    This results in a crude division of labor, with scientists identifying truth, and a ruling class of liberal arts graduates (generalization) deciding which truths to promote, slander, or ignore.

    When nerdy scientists aren’t given their true measure of respect, is it:
    1. because it’s dangerous to give authority and rank to people that won’t advance the interests of the group?
    2. failure to recognize the interests of the group is low-status?

  • chakira

    Is the economy more about distribution of limited resources or social hierarchization?

    • OhioStater

      Good question. I think social hierarchization. The theory of the leisure class, aka the book coining the term conspicuous consumption, argues capitalists seek passive income, which affords freedom from working, which then allows for the cultivation of social graces like etiquette and time for leisure activity like yachting. In places like Boston and aristocratic England, social grace is the only way up to the top of the social ladder.

      The goal of a software program isn’t optimal distribution of resources, it’s the reallocation of resources to the shareholders of the programming company. It’s a good selling point if the program is efficien, but that’s incidental to the ultimate goal.

      One way to see this is technological progress hasn’t resulted in a shorter work day. If we cared about distribution of resources, we’d keep our population flat, our machines would work, and we’d have a shorter work day. Instead, our bosses demand we produce more than last year, and produce more than the other company.

      Another way to see this is economics textbooks argue companies should overshoot the maximum profit margin level of production and expand until marginal cost equals marginal revenue. This basically means leave no money on the table.

      • chakira

        Maybe the answer is still social hierarchy but it has more to do with the non-existence of given things in the world in themselves, and their coming into economic play via intrasubjective value judging activities which tend to (and here we will go with Robin) focus on relative status as very high on the internal hierarchy of needs?

    • It is both. Those with high social status use the lack of resources by those with low status to exploit those with low status so as to achieve higher status for themselves.

      F or example the king forces the poor to be his soldiers to fight the poor from next kingdom over so he can gain status over that kingdom’s king. The number of dead poor people don’t matter except that the king who runs out of poor people first will lose.

      Those who have enough material resources then use those material resources to achieve social status (of which one can never have enough because it is all zero-sum) mostly by denying material resources to those without enough.

      That is why the economy will never be set up to provide enough material resources for all. The “leaders” can never get enough social status and power, so they can never allow the poor to get enough material resources such that the poor can’t be exploited because they don’t have enough.

      • anon

        That is why the economy will never be set up to provide enough material resources for all.

        More pithily, the economy will never provide “enough” resources because you can never have “enough” as long as resources can be wasted on zero-sum status competition. One solution to this problem is shifting our culture from wasteful status competition to either voluntary status transactions, or forms of status competition which preserve and perhaps enhance resources rather than waste them.

      • Yes, much more pithily stated.

        I don’t think the problem can be solved from the top down. The king won’t disarm by setting his peasants free. The first king to do so simply becomes an ex-king. It does nothing to compel the other kings. The peasants have to free themselves from the kings’ tyranny and exploitation. But they need to remember; never wound a king.

      • chakira

        Isn’t (and here I really want Robin’s input) saying that there is no limit to zero sum status competitions the same as saying that economic activity is a way of valuing and judging which refers back to subjectivity? Are we back at Kant?

      • There is the apocryphal story of Cleopatra gaining status by winning a bet with Mark Antony over who could put on the most expensive meal. He put on a lavish feast. She ground up one of her large, matched pearl ear rings, dissolved it in vinegar and drank it. He conceded the bet when she handed him the second one.

  • Adam Ozimek


    You’ve argued that all creatures should be considered in utilitarian calculus, but I don’t think you’ve ever laid out what if anything that means for animal rights, regulation, etc. What should these laws look like to maximize welfare?

  • What does the near future hold for program based medical diagnosis?
    I have read several interesting pieces suggesting that int he near term it is likely, unlikely and necessary. Which do you think it is?

    IBM’s Watson Now A Second-Year Med Student

    Why is machine learning not more widely used for medical diagnosis?

    Mind the Median

  • Prakash

    A discussion on bitcoin might be interesting. If bitcoin were to spread as virally as its advocates present the case,, how would society react to this absolutely huge change in status dynamics – crypto geeks becoming super wealthy.

    Has there ever been cases of such large changes in relative statuses via non-violent means in history? (Would the early rise of the christians in Roman times count?)

    • Khoth

      How about the time some geek won the lottery? Bitcoin, even if wildly successful, won’t make becoming a crypto-geek a path to becoming wealthy, it’ll just make a (fairly small) number of early adopters incredibly wealthy. Is there any real difference between that and, say, buying cheap shares early in a company that later becomes wildly successful?

    • anon

      Geeks seemed to gain a lot of status during the dotcom boom, and quant finance geeks were highly regarded prior to the 2008 crisis (they still are, to an extent). There were seemingly few or no side effects to note from this change of status.

      One problem is that many status-conferring enterprises are organized along a rigid command hierarchy, and climbing such hierarchies requires folks to forgo their geeky culture and play all sorts of ‘power’ games. Theoretically, we are supposed to address this incentive problem by demanding responsibility from the folks in the hierarchy, but unfortunately we are quite reluctant to do this.

      • Douglas Knight

        Not to disagree with you, but your two paragraphs are a weird combination because both the dot com boom and the finance boom involved those industries shifting to smaller organizations. In both industries people jump sideways a lot, though the comment about power games may still be true. Silicon valley start ups want to become big organizations, but small hedge funds are the professional goal of most people in finance.

      • anon

        Yes, note that I said “many” enterprises, not all. Obviously, hedge funds and tech startups are rather small and non-hierarchal, but they seem to be the exception not the rule.

        Other small organizations do exist, but they mostly attract risk-loving, entrepreneurial folks; given the amount of risk involved, it seems that on average they don’t really confer that much status compared to just pursuing a career in a large firm or public bureaucracy.

    • Seems like increases in the anarchist / libertarian power share is a likely outcome. I’d guess cryonics would have a better shot at gaining broad support in such an environment. Almost certainly, more free software would get written.

  • Doug


    You’ve argued time and time again for prediction markets. In your ideal world there would be at least tens of thousands of markets with many different speculators taking bets on many questions, many of them somewhat related.

    However real world experience show that (sophisticated) speculators tend to highly value liquidity, even more so than precision of the market. I.e. speculators will tend to prefer trade in markets that are liquid, but less correlated to their predictive edge. As evidence I present you with the volume report from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange:

    There’s a sea of very lightly traded or untraded contracts, against a few mountains of ultra liquid contracts (the S&P index futures, treasury futures, the major currency pairs, a few major commodities, etc.).

    Clearly the CME is trying to offer at least some contracts that would look pretty similar to a Hansonian prediction market. Take note of the non-farm payroll contract (volume 0). Or the Case-Schiller Home Price Index future (volume 0). It seems that speculators even with edge into economic data or real estate prices prefer to express their sentiment in the liquid equity and interest rate markets.

    Or the many many agricultural and energy products that aren’t traded, because the major markets (crude oil, nat gas, corn, wheat) soak up almost all the liquidity.

    Obviously this problem, of speculators congregating in large liquid markets, rather than a diverse set of specific prediction markets poses a negative externality to futarchy. If real estate wizards, economists, and business experts are all just trading in equity price markets, rather than respectively real estate, economic and business prediction markets it dulls the predictive power. One aggregated market tells us a lot less than a dozen specific markets.

    How would you address this problem?

    • Paul Christiano

      If you care about an accurate market price, you can subsidize a market maker to provide liquidity. I would be willing to bet that it wouldn’t take much of a subsidy to produce a lot of liquidity for, say, the Home Price Index Future.

    • You could also tax transactions where there is too much liquidity (i.e. where the speculators dominate the market).

      How would you subsidize a market such that a market maker doesn’t game it just to get the subsidy risk free?

  • Robin,

    Have you ever explored the relationship between weather and farmer / forager behavior? Based on superficial cultural observations and my own personal habits, it seems obvious that warmer temperatures (or more generally, nice weather) promote forager behavior, but I’ve wondered if any research has attempted to quantify the effect in any meaningful way.

  • mjgeddes

    A long-range announcement for a meet-up. Calling all hackers. The revolution begins in Edinburgh, Scotland, September 27th, 2019, 7.30pm at at the ‘Jekyll and Hyde pub’. Thanks.

  • Here’s a lengthy but intriguing paper by Mark Chaves on the scientific study of religion. Essentially, he is saying that we know that there is widespread and indeed dominant incongruence between beliefs, traditions, and behaviors in religious life, but scholars study religion as if there were congruence. He includes this example:

    The problem is illustrated in a story told by Meyer Fortes. He once asked a rainmaker in a native culture he was studying to perform the rainmaking ceremony for him. The rainmaker refused, replying: “Don’t be a fool, whoever makes a rain-making ceremony in the dry season?”

    Surely this must be a problem in other areas of inquiry.

  • OhioStater, you’ve just given more evidence against the frequentist interpretation of probability and for the Bayesian one!

    Adam Ozimek, Hanson favors “dealism”, which includes Hannibal Lecter eating babies.

  • rapscallion

    Will there be significantly less demand for female humans in a world with sexbots and artificial wombs?

  • The “Human Brain Project” to model brains is one of the E.U’s “flagship” research initiatives:

  • Doug S.

    Robin Hanson should make a video of himself singing this song. 😉

  • Matthew

    Better bike helmets, coming soon to a store near you?