Monthly Archives: July 2012

Is World Government Inevitable?

Several sources lately incline me to think of world (or solar) government as very likely in the long run. First, I read Betrand Russell, in a 1950 essay The Future of Mankind, advocating violence to make a world government:

Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of three possibilities will have been realized. These three are:

I. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.
II. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.
III. A unification of the world under a single government, possessing a monopoly of all the major weapons of war. …

A world government is desirable. More than half of the Amerian nation, according to a Gallup poll, hold this opinion. But most of its advocates think of it as something to be established by friendly negotiation, and shrink from any suggestion of the use of force. In this I think they are mistaken. I am sure that force, or the threat of force, will be necessary. …

The governments of the English-speaking nations should then offer to all other nations the option of entering into a firm alliance, involving a pooling of military resources and mutual defense against aggression. In the case of hesitant nations, … great inducements, economic and military, should be held out to produce their cooperation. … When the Alliance had acquired sufficient strength, any Great Power still refusing to join should be threatened with outlawry, and, if recalcitrant, should be regarded as a public enemy. The resulting war … (more)

Russell was right that Americans then favored a world government:

In March 1951, nearly half (49%) of Americans thought the United Nations should be strengthened to make it a world government with power to control the armed forces of all nations, including the United States, while 36% thought it should not. (more)

Seems they still favored it in 1993:

In a [1993] telephonic survey financed by the WFA, 58% of 1200 adult American citizens polled thought that to have practical law enforcement at home and abroad, a limited, democratic world government would be essential or helpful (with 35%) disagreeing). For effective enforcement of laws, 66% of those questioned felt there should be a world constitution, more than double the number who disagreed. … 82% of respondents felt the UN Charter should be amended to allow the UN to arrest individuals who commit serious international crimes, and 83% felt that leaders making war on groups within their country should be tried by an International Criminal Court. (more)

In 2007, much of the world also agreed:

A total of 21,890 people were interviewed between July 2006 and March 2007 [in 19 nations: US, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Armenia, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, France, Pales. Terr., Israel, Australia, S. Korea, Thailand, China, Indonesia, India, Philippines, Iran.] …

■ Large majorities approve of strengthening the United Nations by giving it the power to have its own standing peacekeeping force, regulate the international arms trade and investigate human rights abuses.
■ Most publics believe the UN Security Council should have the right to authorize military force to address a range of problems, including aggression, terrorism, and genocide. (more)

Finally, the history of China suggests that, once started, “world” government becomes hard to stop:

This study explores the ways in which the Chinese imperial system attained its unparalleled endurance. … I do not pretend to provide a comprehensive answer. … Rather, I shall focus on a single variable, which distinguishes Chinese imperial experience from that of other comparable polities elsewhere, namely, the empire’s exceptional ideological prowess. As I hope to demonstrate, the Chinese empire was an extraordinarily powerful ideological construct, the appeal of which to a variety of political actors enabled its survival even during periods of severe military, economic, and administrative malfunctioning. …

Centuries of internal turmoil that preceded the imperial unification of 221 BCE … were also the most vibrant period in China’s intellectual history. Bewildered by the exacerbating crisis, thinkers of that age sought ways to restore peace and stability. Their practical recommendations varied tremendously; but amid this immense variety there were some points of consensus. Most importantly, thinkers of distinct ideological inclinations unanimously accepted political unification of the entire known civilized world—“All-under-Heaven”—as the only feasible means to put an end to perennial war; and they also agreed that the entire subcelestial realm should be governed by a single omnipotent monarch. These premises of unity and monarchism became the ideological foundation of the future empire, and they were not questioned for millennia. (more)

Even if a world (or solar) government is inevitable, it is still probably best to not start it too early, before we are able to coordinate sufficiently well.

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The Riddle of Ritual

Since I love social puzzles, I was pleased to discover the book The Problem of Ritual Efficiency:

Ritual has come to be thought of in popular discourse as a kind of action that is ineffective, superficial, and/or purely formal, and this view is the unexamined premise behind much of ritual studies. This attitude explains why …we “know it when we see it” – and what we know to be rituals when we see them are acts that are apparently non rational, in which the means do not seem proportionate to the ends, the intended objects of human action are non empirical beings, or the theories of efficacy that ostensibly explain the ritual acts are inconsistent with modern, scientific paradigms. This reaction is similar to what an archaeologist does when he discovers a structure whose purpose is unclear – he calls it a temple. … The notion that ritual is ineffective is false. … Shamatic rituals heal, legal rituals ratify, political rituals unify, and religious rituals sanctify. Rituals transform sick persons into healthy ones, public spaces into prohibited sanctuary, citizens into presidents, princesses into queens … One of our most important tasks as scholars is to explain how rituals accomplish these things. (pp.6-7)

I bought and read that book, and have also been reading The Creation of Inequality, which emphasizes the centrality of rituals to foragers:

Cosmology, religion, and the arts were crucial to hunters and gatherers. … The lessons of myth were passed on audio visually. Performances combining art, music, and dance fixed in memory the myth and its moral lessons. … We doubt that art, music, and dance arose independently. More than likely the evolved as a package that committed sacred lore to memory more effectively than any lecture. … The archeological data suggest … that the use of the arts increased as larger social units appeared, because each moiety, clan, section, or subsection had its own body of sacred lore to commit to memory. … Dancing, drinking, and singing for days, as some tribes did, opened a window in the the spirit world and thereby confirmed it existence. (pp. 62-63)

Also, reading a BBS article on “ritual behavior”, I came across this comment by Bjorn Merker:

Literal duplication … lies at the very heart of ritual. The need to remember and reproduce essentially arbitrary details on an obligatory basis burdens behavior with a handicap, and the ability to sustain that burden is proof of capacity, and hence tends to impress. … There is reason to believe that humans by nature are carriers of ritual culture in the sense just defined. We, in contrast to chimpanzees – indeed, alone among all the primates but like many songbirds and the humpback whale – are in possession of a neural mechanism that allows us to duplicate with our voice that which we have heard with our ears. Most mammals, who excel at learning in other respects, are incapable of doing so; yet we humans do so with every song we know how to sing and with every word we know how to pronounce. … Such a perspective helps us understand why ritual form marks human culture not only in domains touched by precautionary concerns, but in well nigh every area of human pursuit. (p.624)

While much about ritual remains puzzling, one thing seems clear: the essential human difference, the one that has let us conquer the Earth, was an ability to accumulate useful innovations via culture. And this primarily required a good ritual sense, i.e., a good way to watch and copy procedures like starting a fire, shaping a knife, etc. Having language and big neighbor-friendly social groups helped, but were less essential.

The fact that language require good vocal ritual skills suggests better ritual abilities appeared before full recursive language. Since they were very social, pre-language but post-ritual humans probably filled much of their social lives with complex rituals, showing off their abilities to precisely execute complex procedures, and showing loyalty via doing their group’s procedures. Music, dance, and other such ritual habits continued after full language.

Language let us better express and enforce complex social norms, and helped us gain a more conscious and flexible understanding and control of our procedures. But we still have poor introspective access to our pre-language systems, and so still don’t know a lot about why we do which procedures when, and why they make us feel good or bad.

When humans believe in hidden spirits who take an interest in whether they follow social norms, hard-to-understand rituals offer a natural place to locate their connection to spirits. Humans can believe that spirits watch their rituals, and then respond by making them feel good or bad. This helps us understand why religions emphasize rituals.

Added: This poll has a majority favoring culture coming before language.

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Old Minds Are Fragile

Consider three design problems:

  • Case #1: First, you are asked to modify a stock car, making it into a truck to haul stuff. After you do that, you are asked to create a race car. Which would you rather start from for this second task, another stock car, or the stock car that you turned into a truck?
  • Case #2: A species of beetle lives in a varied and changing environment, and so has a rather simple and basic design. Some of these beetles invade a different and more stable environment, and acquire adaptations specific to that environment. A third rather different but also stable environment opens up adjacent to both previous environments. Which beetle type’s descendants will likely fill this third environment?
  • Case #3: Over the last decade a group wrote software to do a certain task (e.g., print driver, web server, spreadsheet, etc.) This design of this software was matched to certain features of the problem environment, such as hardware, network speeds, etc. Today there is a need for software to do a similar task, except that the problem environment has changed. To write this new software, would you have your team modify this previous software, or start a new system mostly from scratch?

In all these cases, one makes a system to function in a given environment, and can either modify a complex system adapted to a different environment, or “start over” via modifying a simpler system less adapted to any specific environment. In general, the more different is the new environment from the old, the better it is to start over. Old  systems tend to be rigid, which makes them fragile, in that they break if you bend them too far.

This suggests that designed systems tend to get irreversibly fragile as they adapt to specific environments. When context changes greatly, it is usually easier to build new systems from “scratch,” than to un-adapt systems designed for other contexts. Software tends to “rot“, for example.

An empirical prediction here is that species occupying highly variable environments tend to have more descendant species in other environments, compared to species occupying less variable environments. I don’t know if this has been tested. It fits with the Innovator’s Dilemma though, where firms who serve the low end of a product line with simpler techs tend to creep up and displace those serving the high end; high end products tend to be more complex.

Today I’m focused on this being bad news for the feasibility of immortality, at least for human-like creatures. You see, our minds seem designed to adapt to the environment in which we grow up, via youthful plasticity transitioning to elderly rigidity. For example, we are great at learning languages when young, and terrible when old. We are similarly receptive when young to new ways to categorize and conceive of things, but once we have often used particular ways, we find it harder to understand and use alternatives.

The brains of most animals peak in functionality during their key reproductive years, and do worse both before and after. Short lived animals peak sooner than long lived animals. Some of the early rise is due to learning, and some of later decline is due to the decline of individual cells and connections. Some of this pattern may even be due to an explicit plan to turn up some dials on plasticity early on, and then turn down those dials later. But I think another important part of this rise and fall is due to a general robust tendency for adapted systems to slide from plasticity to rigidity.

Thus even if we succeed in creating emulations of whole human brains, “ems” which can use backups, body swaps, etc. to avoid bodily death and decay, we should expect such ems to decay by getting mentally rigid with subjective age. Even if we do not emulate any decline in individual cell and connection performance, nor any age-specific general plasticity dial settings, the mind itself may well decay with subjective experience, because such decay is just intrinsic to mind design.

Now in software design one can often slow a slide to rigidity by refactoring code, such as by looking for better abstractions to achieve modularity. But the brain probably already has some analogues to refractoring, such as in its ways to reorganize concepts. And even with large refactoring efforts, most designed software eventually gets rigid, so that when environments change enough such software is replaced wholesale by new systems built from scratch.

Similarly, em workers who start out subjectively young, and then learn how to work in a stable environment, may become increasingly productive in that environment, even after thousands of years of subjective experience. But when a new quite different work environment appears, one can probably gain more work productivity by training subjectively young ems for it, rather than trying to change ems who had spend thousands of subjective years adapting to a very different environment.

Today most houses and cars are in principle immortal, in the sense that enough maintenance can keep them functioning indefinitely. Yet most houses and cars are not immortal in practice, because those maintenance costs keep rising to the point where it is cheaper to build new houses and cars. Similarly it might be possible to keep very old ems around, even when they have become much less productive because relevant environments have changed. Someone, however, would have to pay that cost, relative to the option of using more productive younger ems. And as with houses and cars today, maybe few will pay.

If you personally hope to become an em with an especially long productive subjective life, it is probably important to stay general and flexible for as long as you can. Prefer to acquire habits and insights that are widely applicable, and whose value is likely to long continue. Prefer to write, deal with people, and manage complexity, rather than learning the detailed layout of a city or how best to write in a particular new programming language.

Eventually we may find mind designs with a much weaker tendency toward rigidity with age. And we may find ways to transfer some important elements of once-human minds, such as their memory and personality, into this alternative framework. But even then there should be some aging. And it gets even less clear if you’d want to think of such a changed creature as you.

Even more eventually, the universe should get a lot more stable, and with it the environments where minds function. Then there will be a lot more scope for very long lived human-like minds. If there are any human-like minds left at that point.

Added: Stem cells fit this; bodies usually make cells designed for specific places from general simpler stem cells, not by changing other specific cells.

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BSG As Horror Tale

We wanted to take the time to examine what happens to people when their dreams are shattered, when everything they held as true turns out to be an illusion. After a blow like that, how do you pick yourself up from the floor and go on? Are you able to pick yourself up at all? This is perhaps the most universal theme you can explore. For the people of ragtag fleet, the dream was Earth. (more)

I recently rewatched the entire Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series, and now have a somewhat different take on it. Many spoilers below – you are warned. Continue reading "BSG As Horror Tale" »

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Ethical heuristics

I would like to think I wouldn’t have been friends with slave owners, anti-semites or wife-beaters, but then again most of my friends couldn’t give a damn about the suffering of animals, so I guess I would have been. – Robert Wiblin

I expect the same friends would have been any of those things too, given the right place and period of history. The same ‘faults’ appear to be responsible for most old fashioned or foreign moral failings: not believing that anything bad is happening if you don’t feel bad about it, and not feeling bad about anything unless there is a social norm of feeling bad about it.

People here and now are no different in these regards, as far as I can tell. We may think we have better social norms, but the average person has little more reason to believe this than the average person five hundred years ago did. People are perhaps freer here and now to follow their own hearts on many moral issues, but that can’t make much difference to issues where the problem is that people’s hearts don’t automatically register a problem. So even if you aren’t a slave-owner, I claim you are probably using a similar decision procedure to that which would lead you to be one in different circumstances.

Are these really bad ways for most people to behave? Or are they pretty good heuristics for non-ethicists? It would be a huge amount of work for everyone to independently figure out for themselves the answer to every ethical question. What heuristics should people use?

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What Is Your Sermon?

Here is a simple model of intellectuals. It is wrong, but insightful:

  1. Intellectuals discover insights, and better intellectuals find more and better insights.
  2. Insights can be ranked by net value of personal effort. This net value includes how much it would matter if the idea was taken more seriously, and a person’s marginal ability to achieve this.
  3. Insight value falls with the number of others well placed and motivated to pursue an idea, and by the effectiveness of effort to sustainably change opinions on the subject. Value tends to fall with costs to explain and explore a subject, and with the previous efforts already made.
  4. Insights vary greatly in value. Topics vary in how unequally distributed are their insight values, and with the potential for very large values.
  5. Usually, insight value is distributed so unequally that one’s best insight is a substantial fraction, even most, of the value of all one’s lifetime insights.
  6. When value is very unequal, intellectuals best help the world by following a career plan of first mostly searching for their one best insight, and then mostly promoting and developing that insight.
  7. Intellectuals following this search-then-promote career plan would do most preaching in the second half of their career. At least if a lot of promotion is possible.
  8. Greatly diminishing returns to promotion efforts might justify ending promotion of your best insight, and returning to a search for more, or promoting your second best insight.
  9. An intellectual uncertain about which insight is best might pursue several while studying them, but the world is better off if they soon focus on their one best guess.
  10. If “preaching” differs from “teaching” in focusing more on fewer bigger insights, then intellectuals promoting their one best insight are roughly “preaching” “sermons”.

In reality, the tendency to preach as a function of status seems to have a roughly slanted-N shape: /\/. While non-intellectuals preach little, amateur intellectuals preach a lot, and even more early in their career. Among academics, high status folks often find a new angle very early in their career, and then publish variations on that for the rest of their career. In contrast, low status folks tend to produce a steady stream of publications, which don’t much build on each other.

Getting the Nobel prize often triggers a burst of preaching, but mostly on the subject where the prize shows that their insight has long since won out, and doesn’t need promoting. The rest of their preaching is usually spread across many topics, rather than a single second best topic.

A lot of intellectual preaching is about the “insight” that one political ideology is better than others. Given the number of others motivated to promote each such idea, the marginal value of these promotion efforts by any one person must be very low.

Most of these deviations from the simple model can be seen as puzzles – we can ask what needs to be added to the simple model to explain them. Some possible missing elements:

  • Status – The freedom to preach may be seen as high status, with low status academics punished when they presume to take on this high status mark. Amateurs can more freely ignore such pressures.
  • Signaling – Common forms of preaching may be seen as too easy. If academics are mainly selected for being impressive, they need to do other things to show off.
  • Power – Academics tied to powerful social institutions could make such institutions uncomfortable by endorsing disruptive ideas. Preaching by such academics needs to be channeled into institutionally approved directions.

If you are an intellectual, occasionally ask yourself:

  1. Of all your insights so far, which is most worth devoting a life?
  2. If you are young and promoting, shouldn’t you keep looking instead?
  3. If you are old and not yet focused on promoting your best, isn’t it time?

That is: What is your sermon?

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The geoengineering double catastrophe

I recently attended the World Congress on Risk in Sydney, primarily to see some sessions on ‘global catastrophic risk’. There were some presentations on the ‘tail risk’ of climate change that made me think that I should take it more seriously as a catastrophic risk than I have over the last few years. Despite some promising signs to the contrary, I am pessimistic that we will have enough incentive to limit emissions individually, or be able to coordinate to limit emissions collectively. It looks as though we are on track to burn most of easily accessed oil and gas, and much of the coal. If we do continue with ‘business as usual’ then I am told to expect temperature increases of at least 4 degrees Celsius over the next 100-200 years.

If temperatures rise that far then it will be very tempting to try to suppress them with geoengineering. One of the cheaper options is to release aerosols into the atmosphere. Another suggestion is to use chemicals or sea spray to seed clouds, or make them more reflective. A single country could afford to do this for the whole planet if they chose, which makes it much more likely that someone eventually will.

While this geoengineering might be better than nothing, a new paper (currently under review for publication) by Seth Baum, Tim Maher, and Jacob Haqq-Misra of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute points out that it would leave humanity as a whole in a precarious position. Aerosols and sea spray gradually fall out of the atmosphere, so these geoengineering activities would need to be kept up continuously. If a disaster ever occurred that interfered with the project, for example a serious pandemic, then temperatures could start rising very quickly. This would lead to a second disaster – unpredictable and dramatic climate change – that humanity would have to deal with on top of the first.

Given that we should be focussed on the worst risks that threaten humanity as a whole, this kind of double-punch is particularly worrisome. That said, even if significant parts of the planet were made unliveable for mammals, it still seems improbable that climate change would lead to extinction. Some of the planet would still be suitable for humans, even if in the worst case they had to return to subsistence farming. However, having to deal with rising temperatures when our ability to adapt has already been compromised would increase the chance of a cascading collapse of law and order and sophistication in the economy, which would take us away from achieving the technologies or space colonisation that would safeguard us for the long term.

If rising carbon emissions are nonetheless inevitable an option would be to find geoengineering projects that continue working for some time without ongoing maintenance – perhaps mirrors in space or reflective white surfaces.

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Prediction Markets “Fail” To Mooch

What is new about prediction markets? To many, the key new idea is “crowd-sourcing”, which to many means that if you can “gamify” your problem enough, hobbyists will solve it for fun, much cheaper than if you had to hire employees. To me the key new idea is instead the “information prize”, a way to offer to pay others to find the info you want. (If they don’t find, you don’t pay.)

Intrade is a typical gamified market – you might pay Intrade a little to put up a question, and if traders like it they’ll pay Intrade to answer your question. A market-maker-driven corporate prediction market (such as firms pay Consensus Point to set up) is very different – to answer key business questions, firms pay lots to create markets, to fund employee participants, and to subsidize market makers.

Alas there’s been a lot more interest over the last few years in the get-work-for-free concept than in the pay-for-info concept. And more alas, recent discussions of “prediction market failures” are mostly on their failures to mooch. Case in point #1, Casey Mulligan today:

The efficient-prediction perspective presumes that the market exists on a scale large enough to create significant rewards for those with accurate predictions. Another perspective, “no-trade,” says prediction market participation will be low, if not zero, because traders suspect that a person would take the opposite side of their trades only because he had superior knowledge about the outcome. A market cannot survive if its only participants are “insider traders.”

Paradoxically, a prediction market cannot succeed unless it multitasks – it must serve an additional purpose separate from predictions, so that the participants with information about the outcome have counterparts to take the other side of their trades. In the case of sports and political markets, that additional purpose is entertainment – people enjoy engaging in the activity and are willing to participate even if their expected profits are zero or negative. These people are participating for various reasons other than prediction. (more)

No, a market can single-task, with no other function than prediction, and no other trader motive than selfish financial profit, if someone who wants the info will pay to subsidize the market. It is only when you want people to answer your question for free that you’ll have to piggyback on their having some other reason to trade.

Of course there’s no guarantee that your willingness to pay for some info exceeds other folks’ cost to supply that info. Supply and demand curves need not intersect at a positive quantity. But that’s hardly a failure of an info exchange mechanism.

Case in point #2, Snowberg, Wolfers, & Zitzewitz’s new paper “Prediction Markets for Economic Forecasting“, for the Handbook of Economic Forecasting, also sees not getting stuff for free as “failure”:

3.1 Why They (Sometimes) Fail

Although prediction markets generally function quite well, design flaws sometimes prevent reliable forecasts. These flaws generally lead to a lack of noise traders (or thin markets) that reduces incentives for discovering, and trading on the basis of, private information. In order to attract noise traders, the subject of a prediction market must be interesting and information must be widely dispersed. Prediction market contracts must be well specifed, so that it is clear when they will (and will not) pay off. However, this specicity may be in tension with making a contract interesting for traders. …

Noise traders may quite rationally choose not to trade in markets where there is a high degree of insider information. For example, despite the high intrinsic interest in who a Supreme Court nominee will be, markets on this topic have routinely failed. This may be due to the fact that most traders are aware that there are very few people with actual information on who the President’s choice will be. This anecdote underlines the importance of prohibiting insider trading: for instance, a market to predict the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM’s) business confidence measure would be unlikely to function if it were well known that ISM employees were trading in it. …

Corporations are attracted to prediction markets as they can potentially pass unbiased information from a company’s front-line employees to senior management. However, many questions of interest to executives are not widely interesting, nor are there many employees that have relevant information. This creates a lack of liquidity in markets, perhaps leading to no trading, or, worse, inaccurate predictions. Microsoft has responded to this problem by using a market-making algorithm. ….

The stories of failure above lead to some straight-forward rules for designing prediction markets: make sure the question is well-defined, that there is dispersed information about the question, and that there is sufficient interest in the question to ensure liquidity. (more)

Noise traders are traders who subsidize your market for free, for reasons of their own, such as risk-hedging, idiocy, etc. If you fail to attract noise traders, you fail to get their free subsidy. But you can still offer to directly pay for your info, by subsidizing the market, as the Microsoft sentence in the quote indicates. Similarly, if employees find executive questions uninteresting, that just means they won’t answer such questions as freely in their spare time. But that hardly means firms can’t pay employees to address key firm questions. Here we are only talking about a “failure” of prediction markets to mooch stuff for free!

Snowberg, Wolfers, & Zitzewitz also err in saying that sometimes there is “no” info:

An extreme form of information not being widely dispersed is when there is no information at all to aggregate. For example, prediction markets on whether weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) would be found in Iraq predicted they would very likely be found. The false confidence that could be inspired by such an estimate ignores the fact that there was no information being aggregated by these markets. That is to say, it was unlikely that anyone in Iraq, who might actually have some information (perhaps based on rumors, past experience, or informal discussions with friends and relatives in the government) about whether Iraq’s WMD program was likely to exist or not, was trading in these markets.

Yes particular info, such as direct personal observations of WMD efforts, existed out there somewhere, but was prohibitively expensive to supply. That is, the price to buy info offered by the Intrade markets was too low to induce folks with such info to supply it. But that hardly meant there was no info available on the subject! There were a great many cheap but relevant clues available for making rough guesses on the subject, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of trading in that market was based on such clues.

When you offer to pay a certain price for info, an efficient info exchange mechanism will typically induce some supply of that info, but only up to the point where the marginal cost of supplying info reaches the price you have offered to pay. It is no failure of an exchange mechanism when buyers cannot always buy everything they want at as low a price as they want.

Finally Snowberg, Wolfers, & Zitzewitz end with this stunner:

We believe the real promise of prediction markets comes not from their ability to predict particular events. Rather, the real promise lies in using these markets, often several at a time, to test particular economic models, and use these models to improve economic forecasts.

This seems like saying the real promise of democracy is that academics can study votes to refine their theories of human behavior. Really?!

Added: Alas The Economist blog swallows this “no info” error whole.

Added 20July: Scott Sumner says people similarly say that his NGDP futures proposal “fails” if they don’t come for free.

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Life after death for Pascal’s Wager?

You are probably familiar with Pascal’s Wager – the idea that it is worth believing in God in order to increase your probability of going to heaven and lower your probability of going to hell. More generally, for an expected utility maximiser it will always be worth doing something that offers any probability of an infinite utility, no matter how low that probability.

My impression is that most folks think this argument is nonsense. I am not so sure. I recently met Amanda Montgomery, who is at NYU studying the challenges that infinite values present for decision theory. In her view, nobody has produced a sound solution to Pascal’s Wager and other infinite ethics problems.

A common response, and one I had previously accepted, is that we also need to consider the possibility of a ‘professor God’ who rewards atheists and punishes believers. As long as you place some probability on this being the case, then being an atheist, as well as being a believer, appears to offer an infinite payoff. Therefore it doesn’t matter what you believe.

This logic relies on two premises. Firstly, that a*∞ = b*∞ = ∞ for any a > 0 and b > 0. Secondly, that in ranking expected utility outcomes, we should be indifferent between any two positive probabilities of an infinite utility, even if they are different. That would imply that a certainty of going to ‘Heaven’ was no more desirable than a one-in-a-billion chance. Amanda points out that while these statements may both be true, if you have any doubt that either is true (p < 1), then Pascal’s Wager appears to survive. The part of your ‘credence’ in which a higher probability of infinite utility should be preferred to a lower one will determine your decision and allow the tie to be broken. Anything that made you believe that some kinds of Gods were more likely or easy to appease than others, such as internal consistency or historical evidence, would ensure you were no longer indifferent between them.

Some might respond that it would not be possible to convert sincerely with a ‘Pascalian’ motivation. This might be true in the immediate term, but presumably given time you could put yourself in situations where you would be likely to develop a more religious disposition. Certainly, it would be worth investigating your capacity to change with an infinite utility on the line! And even if you could not sincerely convert, if you believed it was the right choice and had any compassion for others, it would presumably be your duty to set about converting others who could.

On top of the possibility that there is a God, it also seems quite imaginable to me that we are living in a simulation of some kind perhaps as a research project of a singularity that occurred in a parent universe. There is another possible motivation for running such simulations. I am told that if you accept certain decision theories, it would appear worthwhile for future creatures to run simulations of the past, and reward or punish the participants based on whether they acted in ways that were beneficial or harmful to beings expected to live in the future. On realising this, we would then be uncertain whether we were in such a simulation or not, and so would have an extra motivation to work to improve the future. However, given finite resources in their universe, these simulators would presumably not be able to dole out infinite utilities, and so would be dominated, in terms of expected utility, by any ‘supernatural’ creator that could.

Extending this point, Amanda notes the domination of ‘higher cardinality’ infinities over lower cardinalities. The slightest probability of an infinity-aleph-two utility would always trump a certain infinity-aleph-one. I am not sure what to do about that. The issue has hardly been researched by philosophers and seems like a promising area for high impact philosophy. I would appreciate anyone who can resolve these weird results so I can return to worrying about ordinary things!

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Astrology Up Close

I recently appeared on the TV show William Shatner’s Weird or What?, episode on Premonitions.  Unusual for me, this time I played the straight man, against astrologer Dr. Turi, who is said to have predicted the 9-11 attacks, Hurricaine Katrina, the Colombia Shuttle disaster, and others with “uncanny accuracy.” I said he makes lot of predictions that don’t turn out, and calls attention to the few that look best.

I didn’t know it when I was filmed, but Dr. Turi agreed to demonstrate his ability, my making “specific predictions” a week in advance. He opened an envelope on camera containing this text:

These predictions will mature within 48 hours centering on the date of January 23.

  • 1 Expect news with earthquake above 6.0 and/or nukes (Japan/ring of fire)
  • 2 Expect nature devastating forces (volcano/tsunami or tornadoes)
  • 3 Expect scientific news from the cosmos and/or NASA
  • 4 Expect shocking news and very large explosions in the Middle East.
  • 5 Expect shocking news with satellites, airlines or airplanes
  • 6 Expect shocking news involving nukes
  • 7 Key words are “shocking news, explosions, surprises, on these days Jan …

He says he feels vindicated, because of the five predictions he gave, four came to pass. (Yeah, I count six too.) There were two quakes over 6.0, a tornado killed people in the US, NASA announced a big solar flare, and 150 were killed in an explosion in the Mideast.

I’d guess that if we applied these very same predictions to all the weeks in the last year, with the same flexibility of interpretation, we’d see a similar accuracy. In most weeks, NASA has press releases, there are earthquakes and tornados somewhere, something blows up in the Mideast, and airplanes have problems. Of course I’ll not bother to do such an evaluation – it is his job to set up careful evaluations of his abilities, if he wants us to believe them.

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