High Road Doubts

According to the intellectual norms that I learned when young, there is a high road and a low road for proposing reforms. The low road is populist and pandering – you ignore critics and try anything to get folks who could do something excited about your idea – sex appeal, group loyalties, demonizing opponents, overselling gains, whatever it takes. The high road is elitist and analytical – you carefully write up arguments, ideally with math models, randomized trials, and stat analysis, and present them to elites for evaluation.

Academics usually see the low road as deceptive – by ignoring critics and refusing to present careful arguments for evaluation, you admit your arguments are weak. Low road advocates counter that academic models and trials are often quite distant from actual applications — what really matters is that people try and evolve ideas in realistic contexts, and see how they feel about them there.

Twenty-five years ago, as a thirty year old wondering how to devote my life to pushing prediction markets, a mentor I respected basically suggested a low road – I should write a popular book to get lots of people excited. Instead I mostly chose a high road, going back to school to get a Ph.D., doing math models, lab experiments, etc.

Today I have reached a notable milestone along that road; my paper arguing for futarchy, a form of governance based on decision markets, is now published in the leading academic journal in the field of political philosophy: the Journal of Political Philosophy. This would be the abstract, if that journal had them:

Shall We Vote on Values, But Bet on Beliefs?

Democracies often fail to aggregate information, while speculative markets excel at this task. I consider a new form of governance, wherein voters would say what we want, but speculators would say how to get it. Elected representatives would oversee the after-the-fact measurement of national welfare, while market speculators would say which policies they expect to raise national welfare. Those who recommend policies that regressions suggest will raise GDP should be willing to endorse similar market advice. Using a qualitative engineering-style approach, I consider twenty-five objections, and present a somewhat detailed design intended to address most of these objections.

Of course I might do even better someday, perhaps publishing top journal articles on math models or lab experiments. Even so, this seems a good time to ask: is the high road really better?

I have doubts. What futarchy and decision markets mainly need, and have long needed, are organizations to try them out on small scales, to work out the little details that general ideas need for practical application. Small scale successes might then lead to larger trials, perhaps eventually at very large scales. And I doubt that publishing this paper, or further top journal papers, will do much to induce such trials.

A pandering popular book might do much more, if it actually got people to try the idea. They wouldn’t have to do it for the right reasons, by correctly evaluating pro and con arguments. In fact, it would be fine if the book gave most folks much worse estimates, as long as it induced a thicker high tail of enthusiasm to actually do something. A better idea for reform, with a big pool of rational advocates, might add much less value to the world than a worse idea for reform, matched with fewer less rational advocates willing to actually try and evolve their idea.

After all, beliefs mainly matter for inducing relevant actions. The high road might produce more accurate beliefs, but the low road may often get more things done.

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    When you are absolutely sure your idea is right you will of course not care about the high or the low roads anymore, then only the end result counts. SInce Robin Hanson beliefs in futarchy it is no surprise he is willing to see his dream become reality through the low road if necessary.

    Here’s the thing though: how can you be sure your idea is right? The high road is useless when you’re preaching to the choir (which Hanson is doing when he is thinking to himself about futarchy), but it is essential to figure out whether your idea is actually right in the first place and to convince others of this, you can’t just ask other people to trust you, they can’t look into your head to see if you’re being honest.

    I suppose this is similar to thinking taking over the world is justified because you believe you can be an enlightened despot, the problem is that even your belief is true other people have no way of knowing for sure that your intentions are strictly honorable and they are therefore justified in resisting and questioning you.

    • Stephen Diamond

      When you are absolutely sure your idea is right you will of course not care about the high or the low roads anymore, then only the end result counts.

      You’d have to be sure not only that your idea is right but that’s it’s important enough to outweigh the harm to other projects, resulting from at least some low-road tactics.

  • I love the “I consider twenty-five objections” line of the abstract; it’s a shame that that won’t be included. (“But does he consider X?” “Probably, yes.”)

    On high road vs. low road: I was once told the story (and don’t remember enough details to verify it) of a Czar of Russia, trained by libertarian tutors. The libertarian movement was optimistic; teach the Czar the right way, and the country will be converted at once! The Czar comes to power, and immediately begins ruling the normal way. “Well, this is a nice theory, but did you really expect me to bet the country on it?”

    I think the real divide in usefulness is between tight feedback loops and loose feedback loops, not between high road and low road. If a lot of people are trying it haphazardly, you’re unlikely to learn much, and a few spectacular failures could derail the movement. But unless it’s structured as a movement, not Hanson’s Pet Idea, it’s unlikely to get adopted and tested, and if it’s not tested, the rate of learning about it will be much slower than it could be.

  • Filipe

    Do people who want to take the low road say it publicly? Do they shun their lower IQ readers as you’ve done in “Shoo Freethinkers”, claiming they are more likely to hurt than to help? And this all after a whole life trying to overcome bias and be honest. Some people are just not made for this kind of thing.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    “What futarchy and decision markets mainly need, and have long needed, are organizations to try them out on small scales, to work out the little details that general ideas need for practical application.”

    Larry Page said almost exactly that just yesterday at Google I/O. I think you have an ally.

    • Do you really think that legal obstacles and regulation are the prime reason why nobody starts to run his NGO or company with futarchy?

    • Jess Riedel

      This is essentially an argument for seasteaders and charter cities, right? Has Larry Page publicly supported these ideas?

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Not, so far as I know, until Wednesday.

  • Does writing an sf novel based on your ideas count as an attempt at the low road?

    Marc Steigler’s _Earthweb_.

  • Luke Muehlhauser

    The subject of Friendly AI makes an interesting case study.

    Bostrom and Yudkowsky (and others) first discussed the need for Friendly AI in the 90s on the extropians mailing list. From there, Bostrom took mostly a “high road,” and Yudkowsky took mostly a “low road” (in the sense of being aimed at a popular audience, via a popular medium — I’ll leave it up to the reader to judge whether Yudkowsky’s work is “pandering”).

    Bostrom wrote a bunch of journal articles and ended up directing a research institute within Oxford, and will soon publish a scholarly monograph on machine superintelligence via Oxford University Press.

    Yudkowsky started a non-profit, wrote some informal articles on Friendly AI, and then wrote a really popular series of blog articles and a really popular Harry Potter fan fiction. (Only recently has Yudkowsky started to do technical work that, in collaboration with others, might be published in math journals.)

    For several months I’ve been asking significant people working (in various ways) to reduce AI risks how they came to be involved in the cause, and as far as I can tell, a lot more of them came from Yudkowsky’s work than from Bostrom’s. (It might be sampling bias because I’m in the US rather than the UK, but I’ve tried hard to counteract this.)

    On the other hand, would these people have taken AI risk seriously were it not for Bostrom’s work? Moreover, will Bostrom’s book — which he couldn’t have published in the same way without all the “high road” work — tip the scales of influence in favor of Bostrom over the next few years?

    Interestingly, Yudkowsky’s “low road” work may soon result in a bunch more “high road” work. Yudkowsky’s blog posts captured the interest of Jaan Tallinn, whose conversations with Huw Price led Price to launch the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University. It doesn’t have funding yet, but if may roughly double the amount of serious work being done on AI risk mitigation.

    Molecular nanotechnology offers another intriguing case study. Eric Drexler launched the field with a popular work in 1986 (excepting one academic paper in the early 1980s), but he quickly switched to more academic work (e.g. his technical thesis in 1992). As Drexler notes in his 2013 book, the popular audience of his 1986 book latched on to the frightening “grey goo” scenario and gave it more concern than was warranted, and this screwed things up for the development of nanotechnology as a field. Here, you might argue that a “high road first” approach would have worked out better, though that was probably impossible to see in 1985.

    • I focused on proposals for reform than need small scale trials to work out details. How analogous are nanotech or friendly AI depends on how important are small scale trials in those cases.

    • (Minor correction: I’ve done technical work earlier. This stuff is much more publishable, though.)

      • Luke Muehlhauser

        Right, sorry. The object of that sentence was meant to be “technical work that might be published in math journals” not “technical work.”

    • dmytryl

      Yudkowsky got the poorly educated and uneducated (e.g. you) interested. But there’s also damage to this path – for example one resulting from you writing really stupid and arrogant letters to, among others, an editor of an important journal (Pei Wang).

      The benefits are out in the open for you – the uneducated – to see. You attract folks that haven’t completed their education, you attract philosophers who have hard time selling their work otherwise.

      The damages on the other hand concern people who are actually relevant to the field, and are too subtle for you to see.

      Picture taking low road about, say, the theory of relativity… not actually solving any equations but instead babbling about in a popular journal about how Newton is all wrong. That would have been pure crackpottery.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Yudkowsky got the poorly educated and uneducated (e.g. you) interested.

        Wouldn’t have been possible without funding from billionaire Peter Thief.

        The enthusiasts drinking at Thiel’s trough caricature the reactionary image of welfare-recipients sucking off the government and consequently voting for its policies.

      • Curious

        Would you care to elaborate what you mean by “damages” that concern people who are actually relevant to the field? Thank you.

      • dmytryl

        Sending stupid letters to editors of AI related journals, for example, can be expected to slightly increase the barrier for publishing actual safety papers.

      • Curious

        Thanks for the elaboration, dmytryl. I appreciate the fact that you took time to reply.

      • Curious

        Thanks for your reply, dmytryl. Would you care to explain why you think Luke’s letters are “arrogant and stupid”? I have not read his exchange with Pei Wang in detail; your feedback would be helpful in helping me decide whether to read it more attentively.

      • dmytryl


        Well, I’ve even talked with someone at SI about it and they agreed that it’s pretty bad [note: I use singular ‘they’ as a gender neutral pronoun].

  • Mitchell Porter
  • I don’t think you can succeed very well at a road you consider to be ‘low’. It is difficult for people like myself and probably you to succeed at any endeavor we do not truly respect. If you decide to take the low road, my first advice is to think of something better to call it – internally, mentally – and to ask yourself which parts of it you truly respect and why. If the answer is ‘No’ and ‘I can’t just rationalize that’ then keep taking the high road.

    For myself I’ve never respected the high road very much, or maybe it would be better to say that I think it improper and disrespectable to act ‘high’ and inaccessible when, in reality, the concept could be made much more accessible if you tried harder. This has determined much of my life as well.

    • Sure, I used those labels in part to provoke. But that is in fact how most academics internalize the choice, and so one has to reject such academic standards to see the popular road as respectable.

      • Doug

        The presumption here is that academia represents the high road. As an outside observer looking in academia is largely concerned with showing off, building fiefdoms, pursuing fashionable areas, and hitching your wagon to others.

        And that’s academia when it’s done “right,” before even considering the absolutely massive amount of research that’s plagued by manipulation, referee corruption, cherry-picking and outright fraud.

        Show, don’t tell. Guido van Rossum changed the programming language landscape more than the massive army of PL researchers employed at nearly every university in the world.

        If futarchy actually gains a foothold in the real world it probably won’t be because of some well-written journal articles or New York Times bestseller. It will be because some clever entrepreneur or hacker (probably in Silicon Valley) created a futarchy killer app. Something that everyone *must* have, in a way that it causes a mass of people to actually use and run prediction markets to do real world things, rather than just think about them.

      • Academics do, but the people who Academics endorse, from Socrates to Russell to Darwin, Einstein and Feynman, consistently choose the ‘low road’ and endorse doing so. I have never been able to relate to the non-transitive endorsements that seem to be so common, where one endorses certain thinkers but not their thoughts. My intuition transfers authority from the conventional academics endorsing people like Russell and Feynman to, you know, Russell and Feynman.

      • komponisto

        Academia presents itself as the natural home of Russell and Feynman. If you’re naïve enough to take such propaganda at face value (not doing so seeming “cynical” to you), you won’t make the distinction. This includes contemporary Russells and Feynmans, some of whom are indeed elite academics and don’t notice their privilege and that they exist despite, not because of, the academic system.

        In this mindset, it’s taken for granted that the low road was a luxury they could afford after having earned their place via the high road.

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  • Stephen Diamond

    1. Congratulations on the publication.

    2. You’re a university professor, and your aim is primarily academic status. Taking the low road would be self-defeating, just as you decided emphasizing blogging is.

    3. I think it’s fair to ask: Do you have direct economic interest in prediction markets? (Such as an ownership interest in any of the commercial markets.)

    4. I’m struck by the correlation between “roads” and writing styles, as delineated in a book Robin reviewed: “Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose” (Robin’s review, “Lying with Style,” is at http://tinyurl.com/dxvego ; my posting on the same book is at http://tinyurl.com/cdzotb4 .)

    The “low road” is characterized by the “plain style”–for example, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s.The “high road,” standard academic writing, is in practical style. I haven’t yet looked at your recent publication, but it’s a fairly safe assumption it is mostly practical.

    Classic style fits neither class. It aims neither to provide arguments that can be evaluated only by elites nor to win the masses by demagogy but to win nonelites by the honest yet effective presentation of truth. (An interpretation that differs substantially from Robin’s.)

    5. In the end, I agree the “low road” is low . The plain style, suitable for church sermons, disrespects truth. (See “Plain Talk Writing: The New Literary Obfuscation” — http://tinyurl.com/3glcy28 , which criticizes Luke Muehlhauser’s style advice.) And resort to demagogy and appeal to irrationality is only justified when you place excessive weight on the value of some specific measure or belief. (Taking an outside view, you must realize prediction markets are likely not nearly as important as you think they are.)

  • Wei Dai

    Congratulations on the publication. I recall that you had written a version of the paper already in 2000. Can you give the story behind how you managed to get it published in a leading academic journal, and why it took 13 years? It would be interesting to learn how the “high road” actually works behind the scenes, and the information may be useful for others trying to decide what path to take.

  • Seriously, write a popular business book on prediction markets and how executives can use them to manage their companies more effectively. That’s the way to change the world and get you ideas respected. Please write this book.

  • Stefano Bertolo

    why not being empirical about this and take as accurate as possible a census of situations where decision markets *have* been tried and then run a post-mortem to figure out the most common cause of death of those that failed? This seems to be a first step towards a theory of what constitutes a Great Filter for prediction markets (i.e. why they are not observed in practice with the frequency expected by those — like me — who think they are in principle a great idea).

    that would be another stretch of the high road, i.e. a rigorous study of the conditions under which such markets prosper or fail.

    my experience with http://www.forecastingace.com and https://www.goodjudgmentproject.com suggests that even people who are highly motivated in participating in such markets find it difficult to find markets that contain bets they are willing to take (i.e. bets that one could reasonably connect with one’s state of knowledge, resulting in reasonably confident predictions).

  • yaobviously

    good post. two comments.

    1. you don’t seem like the ideal candidate to promote futarchy to the corporate crowd. you’re too honest and lucid to embellish effectively and i doubt you can compete with gladwell &co. in the storytelling department. how willing are you to hand your baby over to a proven ideamonger?

    2. to reiterate a sentiment expressed in a few other comments, if you are planning on taking the low road it doesnt make much sense to publically describe it as ”pandering”. i understand why and how you used the word — you didnt intend to betray contempt — but broaching the subject at all is an obvious mistake. see 1.

  • Stephen Diamond

    After all, beliefs mainly matter for inducing relevant actions. The high road might produce more accurate beliefs, but the low road may often get more things done.

    Other readers too must be asking this question: Why should we believe you’re being honest in your postings? Maybe all you’re really doing here is pandering, only to a nerdy crowd.

    I might trust some utilitarians to be intellectually honest, but this is only because they seem to have accepted that intellectual truthfulness is (almost always) good policy. But grounds seem absent for having intellectual trust in a utilitarian who believes that, practically, utility often conflicts with truth and when it does, trumps it.

  • nextbigfuture

    I think that path that needs to be followed is to have ambitious and committed students. What happened with Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys.



    The Chicago Boys (c. 1970s) were a group of young Chilean economists, most of whom trained at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger, or at its affiliate in the economics department at the Catholic University of Chile. The training was the result of a “Chile Project” organised in the 1950s by the US State Department and funded by the Ford Foundation, which aimed at influencing Chilean economic thinking. The project was uneventful until the early 1970s. The Chicago Boys’ ideas remaining on the fringes of Chilean economic and political thought, even after a 500-page plan based on the Chicago School’s ideas called El ladrillo (“the brick”) was presented as part of Jorge Alessandri’s call for alternative economic platforms for his 1970 presidential campaign. Alessandri rejected El ladrillo, but it was revisited after the 1973 Chilean coup d’état on 11 September 1973 brought Augusto Pinochet to power, and became the basis of the new regime’s economic policy. Eight of the ten principal authors of “The Brick” were Chicago Boys.

    Failing with foreign students who are able to go back and implement policy.

    Try to get adoption at a special economic zone.

    Establishing a seastead operated with these principles

    Failing any small scale real world adoption try to create a virtual community / virtual world that uses Futarchy as a basis.

    This order can also be reversed. Try to do the virtual world tests – have a conventional virtual world tested with the same participants.

    With proven superior results and fine tuning move up to seasteading or special zones. Then try to get national or regional adoption.

  • “I propose the shape of the pyramid, which is well known in traditional political thought. The pyramid is indeed a particularly fitting image for a governmental structure whose source of authority lies outside itself, but whose seat of power is located at the top, from which authority and power is filtered down to the base in such a way that each success possesses some authority, but less than the one above it, and where, precisely because of this careful filtering process, all layers from top to bottom are not only firmly integrated into the whole but are interrelated like converging rays whose common focal point is the top of the pyramid as well as the transcending source of authority above it”

    -Hannah Arendt

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