Monthly Archives: May 2021

Biologists Taboo Artificial Life

Recently I’ve reviewed three new books by academic biologists on the future of life in the universe. All three books have gained high profile and prestigious reviews in major media and academia. (Which is how I heard of them.) And all of these books, and all of these prestigious reviews, seem to share and enforce a taboo against seriously considering the possibility that artificial life will make a big difference to the cosmos.

For example:

Arthur admits the possibility of intelligent life spreading across planets, … and Arthur admits the possibility of artificial life. … But somehow these admissions make little difference to his forecasts, which ignore the possibility of artificial life at places other than planets, or made out of stuff other than carbon. And which ignore the possibility of intelligent artificial life spreading very far and wide, to become even more common than non-artificial life.


I recently reviewed The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein a [Cambridge] zoologist says that aliens we meet would be much like us, even though they’d be many millions of years more advanced than us, apparently assuming that our descendants will not noticeably change in million of years.

And in a new book The Next 500 Years, a geneticist [and computational biologist] recommends that we take the next few centuries to genetically engineer humans to live in on other planets, apparently unaware that our descendants will most likely be artificial (like ems), who won’t need planets in particular except as a source of raw materials.

I actually just did a written debate with this last author, who wouldn’t even admit that I disagreed with him:

You write a long book mostly on the details of genetic engineering, saying we should use it to slowly change humans and their allied plants and animals, so that in 500 years we could launch them out to the cosmos, to arrive at other stars in a few thousand years.

I say, no, long before then artificial minds and life should have thoroughly replaced biology. A new kind of life, far more robust, able to grow far faster, able to travel out into space much sooner and faster, all made in factories out of stuff dug up in mines, and not at all based on biological cells, so that genetic engineering has little to offer them.

This all suggests more than just a few biologists with a mental block; it suggests an overall taboo within their shared intellectual culture, of biology academics who study astrobiology and our future. A taboo that has likely discouraged and distorted related research and analysis.

Added 30May: This post is discussed at Hacker News.

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Roemer’s Socialism

Several times before I have posted on trying to figure out what just people mean when they propose “socialism”, and which variations seem how attractive. I just tried this exercise again, this time reading respected Yale economist and political scientist John E. Roemer’s paper What is Socialism Today? Conceptions of a Cooperative Economy, published Dec. 2020 in International Economic Review.

Roemer says “My intention in this article is to retrieve, from the history of the socialist idea, several alternatives to these two socialist varieties” of (1) central planning, which was “toxic” when combined with state ownership and one-party politics in the Soviet Union, and (2) “social democracy” that taxes and redistributes in a familiar world of private firms. He has two proposals for us to consider, explained via math models.

In “Socialism 1”, there is one profit-maxing firm wherein each worker and owner of capital gets paid their marginal product. Capital owners get paid because we need “incentives for citizens to invest their wealth productively. The remainder of firm income goes to firm owners, whom he insists are not being paid for prior entrepreneurial or managerial efforts or investments, not unless the firm was “created by individuals” who did not sell any ownership to others. Yet Roemer is reluctant to expropriate such illegitimate owners because then

We would … lose the monitoring advantages that might accrue to having firms be in part privately owned. And having the state own a large share of firms introduces the issue of political interference in firm decisions.

A linear income tax is instead imposed on everyone, which would result in inefficient work and investment choices if people behaved according to standard game theory, but which they do not because everyone instead follows a cooperative “Kantian optimization” (except that they are price takers due to “bounded rationality.” )

In “Socialism 2”, there are many profit-maxing firms, each of which is entirely owned by its workers and which pays a firm-specific tax set by the state, though he worries that this tax would “discourage innovation on the part of the firm’s workers and investors, who would have no incentive to cut costs to earn above-normal profits”.

In both Socialism 1 & 2 that cooperative “Kantian optimization” behavior ensures the production of public goods and the suppression of public bads such as “employing child labor, polluting, or running assembly lines at a breakneck pace”.

Roemer says that we know such cooperative behavior is possible because the U.S. once taxed the rich more:

In the period 1930−1970, a more cooperative ethos existed in the United States than we experience today: the key evidence is the existence of very high, even confiscatory, taxes on the very rich.

And he suggests we could enforce cooperation via labor unions:

Each must trust that others will optimize in the Kantian manner if he/she does. … [To achieve this,] workers may entrust decisions (such as supplies of labor) to organizations that represent them—unions—which can carry out the Kantian optimization for them.

But Roemer thinks this cooperation requires redistribution, as people won’t cooperate “with others whom they see have much higher incomes”. And it requires the right sort of politicians, as “ethnic, linguistic, and religious heterogeneity frustrate” it, and “power-hungry leaders seek to divide their citizenries by emphasizing identity and difference”.

So why don’t we see this cooperation today? We have the wrong “ethos”:

The behavioral ethos of socialism is cooperation. … they are engaged in a cooperative enterprise to transform nature to improve the lives of all. … Capitalism’s behavioral ethos is individualistic: economic activity is characterized as the struggle of each person against all other persons and nature. The ethos may be summarized as one of “going it alone.”

But Roemer is famous for studying, and approving of, political competition. So for some reason he doesn’t think that sort of competition hinders the right ethos. Unless maybe “power-hungry” leaders appear? Are labor unions to stop that somehow?

Here are my reactions:

1) I don’t see how Roemer’s proposal really does much to cut back on economic competition, or how it prevents the bad sort of politicians. Or how even it is “socialism”. Workers still compete within professions and firms, investors compete to pick the best firms, firms compete to max profits, and politicians compete in elections. What exactly is different?

2) I don’t think all the math really adds much to his proposals.

3) I’m not convinced that his “public bads” really fit the definition,

4) I’m pretty convinced in the absence of war, theft, slavery, etc. firm ownership gains really are returns to entrepreneurial or managerial efforts or investments.

5) I agree that humans do often vary in how “cooperative” they feel and act, and that it can be valuable to promote such cooperation, all else equal. But I don’t at all see high taxes on the rich as much evidence of or cause of useful cooperation. Nor do I see the existence of economic competition as reducing cooperation more than does political competition.

6) Most fundamentally, I just don’t see what Roemer is proposing to do to increase our cooperative inclinations. In our competitive world nations, firms, political parties, and other orgs have long competed to promote cooperation internally and among alliances. The world we see is the result of those attempts.

Merely declaring that we now have “socialism” won’t ensure more cooperation, nor will mass redistribution, nor will increased control by governments or labor unions. Those might induce some temporary cooperations, but they also seem to hinder the longer-term search by orgs to find better ways to induce cooperation.

In the end I just don’t see much to Roemer’s proposals beyond “if you agree cooperation is good, then you should do everything I say and then maybe everyone will cooperate.” No thanks.


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The Biological Universe

In his new book The Biological Universe: Life in the Milky Way and Beyond, evolutionary biologist Wallace Arthur predicts the life we will find in the galaxy and universe:

Life forms are to be found across the Milky Way and beyond. They will be thinly spread, to be sure. … we can anticipate what life elsewhere will be like by examining the ecology and evolution of life on Earth.

Arthur defines life broadly:

If an entity is metabolically alive and membrane-bound, and groups of individual entities of this kind are characterized by variation, reproduction, and inheritance, then we describe the situation as ‘life’. … And regarding extraterrestrial life we should try to keep as open a mind as possible (p.13)

He says life is only near the surface of planets:

There are no macromolecules in [interstellar] clouds. There is thus no basis for life even approximately as we know it. So in the end we rule out all of the interstellar medium as a home for life. And that means in spatial terms that we have ruled out more than 99% of the galaxy. … Next we rule out suns. This means all suns and all parts them. No metabolizing, reproducing life, whether simple like bacteria, or more complex, like mammals, could exist in such a hellish environment. … By ruling out suns as possible homes for life, we rule out more than 99% of the matter of the galaxy. … Here’s a selection of other objects that seem likely to be barren. First, dead stars, including white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes. Second those entities somewhere in between a small star and a large planet that we call brown dwarfs. … Third, pulsars. (pp.42-44)

Arthur says most life is enclosed, made of carbon, and of long molecules with sequence specificity:

Carbon based life is the most probable, and hence more common, form of life in the Milky Wa, and indeed in the universe. … Life requires a type of macromolecule that exhibits sequence specificity that is that is similar in general, though not necessarily in detail, to the specificity that is found in nucleic acid and proteins. … Membrane-enclosed cellular life is the norm. (p.203)

Life is almost everywhere that it can be:

The fraction of habitable planets that actually become inhabited. My personal view is that it is close to 100%. (p.191)

And here is how many planets of each type:

Number of planets in Milky Way: 1 trillion
Number of planets with microbial life: 1 billion
Number of planets with animal life: 10 million
Number of planets with broadcasting life: between 0 and 1 million

Arthur even predicts more intelligent life is rarer:

Lets define four thresholds levels of intelligence. … animals with a small brain … crossed the first threshold. … Animals that can use tools, and indeed plan their use of tools, … cross the second threshold. … Animals that have begun to investigate the abstract nature of things, and to keep written records of their investigations, have cross the third threshold., … fourth threshold the achieving of a civilization with a technology that includes the use of radio signals and other means of interstellar communication, such as lasers. … It’s hard to believe that the number of planets whose evolutionary processes have crossed these four respective thresholds would go upward rather than downward. (p.328??)

How does Arthur make all these predictions? By assuming that that the distribution of stuff in the universe is much like the distribution of stuff across our solar system and across the history of Earth:

On the basis of Earth’s history to date, the fraction of microbial inhabited planets that also have animals can be estimated by the relative durations of these two types of life here, which is 630 million compared to 4 billion years. (p.200)

The fact that [intelligence] and the physical basis for it – the brain – can be downplayed or even lost altogether in some lineages [in Earth history] should temper our hopes for the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. … Natural selection is not on a long-term quest for the ultimate brainy animals. (p.134)

With regard to possible life, the vast majority of the solar system, like the vast majority of the galaxy, is of little interest to us. For the most part, our system looks barren. (p..139)

But doesn’t all this neglect the possibility of that intelligent life on some planet will develop a more robust and powerful artificial life, which then spreads widely across the cosmos? Arthur admits the possibility of intelligent life spreading across planets:

Between two and three billion years from now … if new make it that far, we might have the technology to colonize the closest suitable exoplanets. (p.160)

Intelligent life may have colonized nearby planets, as may the the case in the mid-term future wit humans on Mars. (p.315)

Planets on which radio-level intelligence has evolved constitute only a tiny fraction of those on which life in general has evolved. Yet because of the vastness of the universe, and perhaps also because of planetary colonization, there are many planets with such life-forms in the universe right now. (p.328)

And Arthur admits the possibility of artificial life:

But there is a caveat here. What about AI (artificial intelligence)? It’s a moot point whether any of our machines are yet intelligent enough to truly merit that label, though no doubt they will get there eventually. Perhaps the machines associated with ultra-intelligent aliens are already there. In this case, the intelligent universe and the biological universe … are overlapping sets. Having made this point, let’s focus on intelligent living beings across the universe, not intelligent machines. And let’s ignore the advanced organism-machine hybrids of science fiction, even though entities of this type probably exist somewhere. (p.318)

But somehow these admissions make little difference to his forecasts, which ignore the possibility of artificial life at places other planets, or made out of stuff other than carbon. And which ignore the possibility of intelligent artificial life spreading very far and wide, to become even more common than non-artificial life.

Arthur instead assumes that advanced intelligence and artificial life will just not spread much, perhaps due to self-destruction:

Intelligent life may have a tendency to self-exterminate within a few centuries of its inception. (p.221)

Wallace Arthur seems to be yet another biologists who just can’t imagine our descendants being that different from us, or artificial life making much of a difference to the cosmos.

Out of a great many reviews of this book I read, I only found one other reviewer, David Studhalter, a non-academic, making a similar complaint:

Arthur … blithely assumes that humans and their descendants will simply become extinct before advancing to a stage where they are spreading terriform life elsewhere in the Galaxy, and that we will never exceed the bounds of our own Solar system. … Arthur mentions virtually nothing discussed in this last paragraph. But they are crucial to his subject, which does purport to discuss the future of life. (More)

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Views Aren’t About Sights

Regarding window/patios with nice beach or city views, and days when those views are nice, in two polls respondents estimate that at any given time 1.3% and 0.8% of such places are actually occupied by people enjoying these views. Which makes one wonder why people bother to buy exclusive use, instead of sharing them. For example, ten tenants could share a single view spot for a tenth the price, and hardly ever have conflicts over who uses it when. We similarly see people owning boats and RVs that they hardly ever use and could instead rent more cheaply.

A related phenomenon is that most people strongly prefer to pay a monthly or annual fee for phones or internet, instead of paying per minute of use. Even though per usage payment can give better incentives for thriftiness. Similar for movies and TV shows. And, recently, e-books. And country clubs. Also, apparently a secret to Amazon’s success was that people much prefer to pay for shipping once per year than to pay each time they ship.

Many justifications are offered for these habits, some of them sensible. But surely a big fraction of all this is explained by signaling; people want others to know of and envy that they can afford to buy a view instead of renting it, and can afford the monthly phone fee, instead of having to worry about each call.

But if so, why don’t we buy more things via all-you-want-for-an-annual-fee? Like food or clothes or planes. You might say that these have high marginal costs, but then so do views and boats and RVs and country clubs.

I suspect part of the problem is that it just takes time to build up the scale required for the business arrangements which let people buy many things at marginal cost for an annual fee. Which makes me more optimistic about the future prospects for such programs. Places like Costco go somewhat in that direction, but we could go a lot further.

Imagine large menus of products where you can get as much of each one as you want (for personal use only) at their marginal cost, if you pay a corresponding annual fee. The higher an annual fee you pay, the larger a menu of things you can get at marginal cost. This arrangement not only gets you stuff more efficiently, grabbing anything that’s worth more to you than its marginal cost, but this also lets you signal your wealth by the menus you can afford.

It may take a lot of coordination to get all these suppliers to agree to deals where they sell stuff at marginal cost and get some fraction of the annual feel. And it takes some enforcement to prevent reselling. A single org that tries to arrange all this will face the usual scale diseconomies due to internal coordination costs. But I still think more of this is coming.

Added 23May: Many saying that they feel psychological aversions to renting, sharing, or paying per usage, aversions that go beyond concrete time and effort costs. They say this implies we aren’t avoiding these things to signal wealth. But that confuses different levels of causation. It could be that the way that our minds induce us to signal wealth is via making us feel these aversions.

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“If We Win, You Win”

One of the big wins of capitalism is that it creates strong private incentives for some kinds of social change. If someone has an idea for change, they can get investors and employees to work with them, in the hope of rewards if the change earns profits.

Alas, the most fundamental problem with social change in our world is that capitalism doesn’t encourage many other kinds of changes. Yes, under democracy elected politicians can get some weaker rewards for proposing changes. But for anything but small local changes, it isn’t worth a politican’s time to work out change details, explain it to voters, and organize support. That sort of thing is left to social movements and organized interest groups.

While many will deny it, the main promise that movements make to potential recruits is this: “If we win, you win”. Thus we mainly see movements around changes that can credibly make such promises. For example, crypto promises to reward investors with more money, and workers with valued job skills. Academic and technical movements promoting particular tools promise rewards to those who invest in these tools, relative to those who invest in competing tools.

Sometimes a movement has a vague label, and the real message is “As we ‘own’ this label, if our movement grows then we can send rewards to the high status loyalists among us.” Sometimes the movement’s implicit message is simply “We need to replace old folks with young folks like us in positions of influence.”

In entertainment and fashion movements, the reward can just be looking and sounding more knowledgable and “with-it”. For example, if I watch a lot of Game of Thrones, and it is popular, then in conversations I can relate to and say more about what others discuss. If locally sourced foods get popular, then I can seem more with-it when I cook such foods or recommend their restaurants. And if I grow or sell local food, I can gain even more. If I do or don’t wear masks, and then my mask side wins, I can brag that I supported the winning side.

The key point is that there are a lot of good ideas for change, including ideas that most people will admit are good ideas upon examination, where it is hard to organize supporting movements this way. For example, you can make a movement around a new way to teach kids, as you might start a school or be a teacher that uses it, or you might have your kid taught with it. But it is much harder to make a make a movement around the idea that there should just be a lot less school, unless you push a particular alternative to school.

Colleges rate professor teaching via student evaluations, which seems to have zero correlation with how much students learn, even though learning is the main reason given to attend college. But it seems hard to start a moment to fix this. We probably could construct ways to evaluate teacher effectiveness at student learning, but that would take resources away from other things, and would interfere with letting teachers teach any way they like. And a movement to just stop using current evaluations would admit to the public that we don’t care much about teaching quality.

More generally, when the public will mainly listen to people who specialize in X regarding changes in X, it is hard to make a movement to cut back on X. You can have movements to increase investments in X, or change how X is done, but the people who gain from cutting X are not the people listened to much on X.

Note that early on, movements can just promise gains via personal association with prestigious founders. It is later on when movements need to offer other rewards.

Futarchy would solve this, as it could give much stronger rewards for initiating changes. (At least for problems that government can solve.) But what would be gained by those who joined a movement to promote futarchy? The mechanism is simple, so there’s little to gain from investing in learning how to use it. It doesn’t promise to promise the young over the old, or to promote any particular policies for which we could identify the winners. Just making the world, or your nation better, inspires little passion.

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Panspermia Siblings

The UFOs as aliens hypothesis is only as believable as the most a priori believable story for how it could be true. When I tried to find a story like that, I ended up relying heavily on the idea of panspermia siblings. And now that I’ve given that idea a bit more thought, I’ve realized that it is somewhat harder to arrange than I’d realized, and thus somewhat less believable. Making UFOs as aliens less likely, though still quite possible.

The scenario, if you recall, is that there are aliens visiting Earth today who have not expanded much to colonize and remake the universe, aliens who were born at a planet around a star that is a sibling to our sun. That is, this alien’s star was born in the same stellar nursery as our sun. This scenario requires three key elements:

Old Non-Expansionist Aliens – A substantial fraction of advanced civilizations choose not to expand and visibly remake the universe, but do choose to go visit their sibling stars that develop advanced life, and these civilizations last for longer than the typical differences between when advanced life would appear when grown from simpler life at the same level four billion years before. Thus a substantial fraction of alien civilizations must last for several hundred million years. (Oh and they choose do all these apparently-useless glow-buzzings of our treetops.)

Easy Earth Filter – In order for there to be at least two advanced civilizations both born from the same stellar nursery, it can’t be too hard to evolve advanced life from the sort of life that Earth starts with. The time of the origin of life on Earth and the time now remaining suggest 3-9 hard steps happened on Earth, if this whole time was take up by hard try-try steps. So we need some combination of a large nursery, fewer such hard steps, much of Earth history being taken up with delay steps instead of hard try-try steps, and the “hard” try-try steps not being that hard. So, for example, in a nursery of ten thousand stars, there might be just three try-try steps each only a factor of ten hard, and perhaps half of Earth history was taken up with delay steps.

Panspermia or Huge Try-Once Step – In order for life to spread across a large fraction of a stellar nursery, that life would have to appear within roughly a hundred million years after that nursery formed. So either life appeared from nothing very fast, mainly via some very hard try-once steps, or our nursery was seeded by life from an Eden at some other passing star, either just as our nursery was forming, or via a prior seeding of the molecular cloud which collapsed to form our nursery. (Which requires life to survive a long time in a molecular cloud.) On average stars pass within 5 parsecs of  such clouds every 50-100Myr.

While this prior Eden would have had a similar number of hard steps as Earth, those steps would on average be much harder, so that most of the total great filter would have happened at Eden. Very hard steps might include the very first life, and the transfer from Eden to a stellar nursery.

A 2012 paper in Astrobiology works out details of this scenario for life moving between star systems in a stellar nursery, where many stars are crammed together and many rocks are flying between them.

We don’t know when life first appear on Earth, but current best guess is 400Myr, with a range 200-800Myr, after the Earth and Sun formed together. They were formed together with ~1K-10K other stars, all packed close together.

Earth had water to support life within ~160–290 Myr, while our cluster took ~135–535 Myr for sibling stars to drift away from each other (the largest value is for the largest star clusters). During this early period there were a lot of rocks smacking into Earth kicking up a lot more rocks. Maybe the top kilometer of rock across Earth was kicked up.

About ~1% of these rocks were ejected from Earth with a weak enough impact shock to let life survive, and rocks of >10 kg seem like they could protect life from radiation and impact over the 3-5 million years it would take to drift to the closest star system in this cluster during this period. Some kinds of life could last that long.

About 2 * 10^11 such rocks would escape our solar system at a slow enough velocity to be captured by a neighboring star. Given such assumptions, if the nearest star were also Sun-like, then the number of such rocks ejected from Earth in this period that would land on an Earth-like planet around that nearest star is about 3*10^4. If that star had half the sun’s mass, this number falls to just 10^4.

Thus if our Sun’s stellar nursery were big enough, and if life appeared early enough in this cluster, then life might have spread to many stars in this cluster. And thus aliens could have evolved before us at one of those stars, and then came here to be the UFOs we see. But this is a lot of ifs, and so the a priori unlikeliness of this scenario has to be weighed against the a priori unlikeliness of: secret Earth orgs with really advanced tech, a vast conspiracy to create the false appearance of UFO encounters,  or mass delusions widespread enough to create the same.

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Status Trumps Argument

Are elites nicer than other people? No, but they are better at being nice contingently, in the right situations where niceness is rewarded. And also better at being mean contingently, in the situations where that is rewarded. Other people aren’t as good on average at correlating their niceness with rewards for niceness. A similar pattern applies to elites and arguments.

In a world with many strong prediction markets, social consensus would be set by the people willing and able to trade in those markets. Which could be most anyone. And those traders would in general be responsive to good arguments, as traders are on the hook to win or lose a lot of money if they fail to listen to good arguments. In this world, arguments would be a powerful force for producing better beliefs.

But in our world today, the perceived social consensus is mostly set by elites. That is, by whatever seems to be elites’ shared opinion. And so the power of arguments depends on elites being willing and able to listen to them. Do they?

Many elites are selected for their ability to generate and evaluate good arguments. So many are quite able to listen. But as with being nice, elites are especially good at contingent strategies: they generate and credit good arguments when they are rewarded for that, but not otherwise.

The key parameter that determines if an elite is rewarded for using and crediting good arguments is the relative status of the parties involved. When elites argue with equal status elites, their arguments may need to be good. At least if their particular audience values arguments.

But consider a case where two parties to a dispute are of very unequal status, and where the topic is one where there’s a perception that elite consensus agrees with the high status party. In this case, the higher status party only needs to offer the slim appearance of argument quality. Just blathering a few related words is often completely sufficient. Even if put together in context those words don’t really make much sense.

I have seen this happen many times personally. For example, if I argue with a higher status person, who for some reason engages with me in this context, and if my position is one seen as reasonable by the usual elite consensus, then my partner is careful to offer quality arguments, and to credit such arguments if I offer them. But if I take a position seen as against the current elite consensus, that same high status partner instead feels quite comfortable offering very weak and incoherent arguments.

(Yes, low status people follow this approach too, but high status people are better at executing this as a contingent strategy, and their choices matter more.)

Or consider all the crazy weak arguments offered by Project Bluebook to dismiss hard-to-explain UFO encounters. As they were confident that audiences would see UFO advocates as much lower status, they could blithely blather things like “swamp gas” that just didn’t fit case details.

Thus in our world today the quality of arguments only matters for positions “within the Overton window”. That is, positions that many elites are seen to take seriously. Which is why contrarians positions are so often unfairly dismissed. Even though, yes, most contrarian positions are wrong. And this is why we need to break out of our system of social consensus dominated so strongly by elites.

Added 20May: Note that this sort of thing can fool people who listen to such contrarian debates into underestimating the usual intellectual standards for non-contrarian topics. They may then think that arguments only modestly better than the ones elites use to dismiss them are of sufficient quality. But that isn’t remotely good enough.

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Who Watches Discrimination Watchers?

Two LA area colleges, UCLA and USC, have a famous rivalry. Imagine that local law firms took sides, preferring to hire graduates from one or the other law school. Imagine further that some USC lawyers at a UCLA-favoring firm complained about this, calling it bias, pure and simple; UCLA grads coordinate to prefer other ULCA grads, independent of their qualifications. These USC lawyers demand a quota system, to ensure equitable hiring. If management resists, they plan to go to the media, to get the public mad about this, and then either use legal or norm/mob pressures to get their way.

Firm leaders say instead that UCLA trains better in their type of law, they can find better people by using personal connections, and many of their clients and collaborating specialists (like detectives) are also UCLA grads. Also, there are productivity advantages from having similar kinds of people, trained similarly, working together.

Now both kinds of theories are plausible. There are often productivity advantages from similar people working together, and yet humans also quite consistently, naturally, and even unconsciously coordinate to use relatively arbitrary features to form mutual-admiration societies that promote each other. And disentangling these effects can be quite hard. The UCLA grads involved may themselves not even know why they prefer other UCLA grads. (Random noise is of course also possible.)

What sort of evidence might we collect to decide? We could look at whether UCLA grads talk directly about preferring each other. We might note when they make mean jokes about USC grads, and prefer to socialize with each other. We could experimentally vary the school label for particular applicants, and see if that changes their chances. But even if that does change chances, defenders of the status quo could attribute this to well-calibrated statistical discrimination, as we can’t usually look into the depths of others’ souls.

We could do statistical regressions to predict who gets hired based on which individual features, and also school. But even if those stats found no significant coefficient on school, after controlling for other features, USC grads might claim that the weights used on which desired features count more are biased by what UCLA grads are taught to do and to value, and it isn’t fair if USC grads aren’t taught the same things.

This same sort of story can of course apply to many other features besides schools. Those who hire may prefer candidates who play particular sports, watch particular TV shows, live in particular neighborhoods, and wear particular styles of dress, or have particular work hour preferences. In all such cases, these choices might be due to productivity advantages, or due to arbitrary mutual promoting coordination. And these same processes can also influence who we choose as friends, lovers, and other kinds of associates.

When the purported feature of coordination is rather specific and local, such as school attended or sport preferred, our usual attitude is to allow local associations to “discriminate”, that is, to make choices correlated with such features. We tend to see competition between such associations as sufficient to discipline those who discriminate badly. If a law firm has a hiring strategy that picks worse lawyers, it will suffer naturally as a result; little need for the rest of us to add punishments. And we also balk at the enormous effort that would be required to impose, monitor, and enforce quotas, or other forms of preferential treatment, on a vast number of such features.

But attitudes on preferential treatments may change as (a) choosers face weaker competition and losses from choosing badly, (b) we consider features that are harder to change, (c) wider social scopes all coordinate to prefer the same features together, (d) many features come together as a package preferred across wider social scopes, (e) the choices made look closer to “dominance” relative to “prestige”, and (f) the features involved are strongly correlated with pretty objective and obvious coordinations to mistreat people that we are confident happened in the past, or in current societies of which we disapprove.

Sometimes we are more sympathetic to intervention, that is, to government or social/norm/mob pressure to insist on something closer to preferential treatment to ensure equity. But note: if we believe in a common tendency of humans to coordinate to form self-promoting mutual-admiration societies, and so are tempted to authorize such intervention to suppress this, we must also believe that this same tendency will induce similar group attempts to coordinate to take control over any powers in charge of such intervention. In order to use that power to directly favor themselves.

For example, if a committee is formed at a LA law firm to decide on the details of a USC vs UCLA quota system, a committee full of UCLA grads would probably make different choices than a committee full of USC grads. Thus these groups would vie for control over this committee. And if the problem was that UCLA grads dominate in the firm, wouldn’t they be most likely to win this contest for control?

The key claim might be that while we worry less about many small uncoordinated self-admiration societies, there is in fact a very large social coalition, spread across many associations, and using a large package of features to promote itself. Making it especially able to resist competitive pressures.

But in this case, I have to worry that this coalition seems especially likely to take control of this intervention process, and then use it to favor themselves. So I don’t feel much more confident about the political coalitions and government agencies that would be in charge of choosing preferential treatment regimes, relative to the many smaller organizations which would instead make such decisions in the lack of such intervention.

I’d rather try to increase the strength of competitive pressures on smaller organizations, to break up this larger coalition. For example, if there were one big law firm in LA that most all lawyers worked for, I’d rather try to break this firm up into many smaller law firms. Or imagine most all judges in LA come from UCLA, are in charge of choosing new LA judges, favor UCLA lawyers in the courtroom, and thus induce LA law firms prefer UCLA grads. In this case I’d rather break up this local cabal of judges, by bringing judges into LA from all across the nation or world.

So what I worry most about are centralized choke points controlled by groups responsible mainly to themselves. Groups who take over these choke points can then arbitrarily favor others like themselves for key positions, and punish any of them for favoring anyone else. Central government agencies, academic discipline leaders, professional associations, accreditation bodies, etc. Even if such people claim that their highest priority is global equity, to resist the worst self-promoting coalitions out there, I just find it hard to trust them.

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When The Tabooed Taboo

For Leslie Kean’s book “UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record”, the only social scientists I know who have written on UFOs, Alexaner Wendt and Raymond Duvall, wrote “a new essay … incorporating their ideas … into one designed for nonacademic readers, with some new thoughts added.” They say:

There is a taboo on this book – the UFO taboo. Not in popular culture, of course, where interest in UFO abounds and websites proliferate, but in elite culture – the structure of authoritative belief and practice that determines what “reality” officially is. With respect to UFO phenomena this structure is dominated globally by three groups: governments, the scientific community, and the mainstream media. … In public these groups share the official view that UFOs are not “real” and should not be taken seriously – or at least no more seriously than any other cultural belief. …The media reinforce this disinterest by rarely covering UFOs, and when they do it is inevitably with a wink and a nod, as if to reassure us that they don’t REALLY take UFOs seriously. …

Our thesis is that the origins of this taboo are political. … The threat is threefold. … very powerful “other” might actually exist … the UFO calls into question the states ability to protect its citizens from such an invasion. Second, … a confirmation of extraterrestrial presence would create tremendous pressure for a world government, which today’s terroritorial states would be loath to form. … Third, however, and in our view most important, … calls into question … [if] human beings have the ability and authority to govern and determine our collective fate. … human-centeredness is a modern assumption, one less common in prehistoric and ancient times, when Nature of the gods were considered more powerful that human beings and thought to rule. … In sum, the UFO creates a deep, unconscious insecurity in which certain possibilities are unthinkable. … akin to denial in psychoanalysis. …

The taboo has at least three weaknesses that make it … potentially unstable. … The kind of resistance that can best exploit these weaknesses might be called “militant agnosticism.” By “agnostic” here we mean that no position on whether UFOs are extraterrestrial should be taken until they have been systematically studied. … given our current knowledge, neither denial nor belief in the extraterrestrial hypothesis is justified; we simply do not know. … To be politically effective, however, resistance must also be militant, by which we mean public and strategic. … That is, what is needed above all else is a systematic science of UFOs, on the basis of which we might eventually be able to make informed judgements about them, as opposed to simply reiterating dogmas one way or the other. …

Such a science will have to do three things. First, it will have to focus on aggregate patterns rather than individual cases. … Second, … focus on finding new reports rather than analyzing old ones. This is because existing high-quality reports are relative few in number and were collected by accident and through a variety of means, making it almost impossible to find patterns. Finally, … focus on collecting objective, physical evidence rather than subjective, eyewitness accounts, for only the the former will convince the authorities that UFOs “exist”.

Kean concludes:

A deeper understanding of the unconscious aspects of the UFO taboo -the ones otherwise beyond our reach – is essential if we are to finally close the door on old ays of thinking and move this issue forward. … With the launching of a new U.S. government agency and the liberation of new resources, science could take its rightful place in the study of UFOs. … One impediment is that instead of looking at the data and taking steps to acquire more, main scientists have tended to interpret the issue theoretically and then give a theoretical reason for dismissing it. …

We have seen that there are solid, three-dimensional objects of unknown origin flying in our skies, stopping in midair and zooming toward outer space, which are apparently not natural or man-made. They’ve come very close and landed as well, leaving physical trails in soil while shriveling the leaves of nearby plants. They interact with aircraft and have physical effects on them. Photographs have caputured their image on film, and radar blips have done the same on tracking monitors. … There is more than enough evidence to determine that something physical is there.

We in this group are also “militant agnostics”: we don’t know what this something is, nor do we know what it is not. We are not making an extraordinary claim, because we’re not claiming anything beyond the reality of a physical phenomena. … We ask those on the two sides of this outmoded contest between unwavering believers and nonbelievers to realize the fallacy of both positions, and to accept the logical, necessity, and realism of the agnostic view. … Isn’t it time to acquire the additional evidence needed to find out what it is? If we need extraordinary evidence, then let’s do our job and go get it.

So, they say, to overcome the taboo among elites against seeing UFOs as anything more than hoaxes, lies, or delusions, we must study UFO patterns, especially the physical details in new UFO reports. And much more funding should go for that. But only that. As theory has been used to critique UFOs, to fight the anti-UFO taboo we must keep UFO theory taboo.

That is, in response to any question of theory, it seems that they say the only acceptable answer is “I don’t know”. One must not express more refined degrees of belief, neither numerically nor in terms a more refined partition of possibilities. Regarding various possible hypotheses, one must not discuss their prior plausibility, the likelihood which which each one predicts various empirical details, nor the appropriate posterior beliefs that best combine prior plausibility and empirical fit. Just say “I don’t know” and shut up.

(Yes, they allow an exception for expressing confidence that hoaxes, lies, delusions, and honest mistakes don’t work as explanations. And for giving detailed reasons for this confidence. But only those exceptions.)

This anti-theory taboo among the “serious” who study UFOs seems to me quite wide-spread and it has been going for a long time. You can find a vast amount of UFO work on many particular cases, some work on patterns across those cases, and even some work considering concrete physical mechanisms to explain some common patterns. But you will find almost nothing among the “serious” people on less proximate more social explanations. They are okay with saying that UFOs often seem intelligent, aware, and responsive, but not with discussing the goals, agendas, origins, or histories of those intelligences.

Alas, I have seen this before, in other areas of social science. In fields similarly dominated by empiricists who keep throwing more data papers on the pile, but offering few rewards to those who might try to make sense of all that data. Often because they wouldn’t like the best explanations. It seems that UFOs is now such a field.

Apparently reports have been submitted on over 100,000 UFO encounters worldwide in the last 75 years. Of which 5-10%, or 5K-10K, seem quite hard to explain. Yes, the taboo may have discouraged reports on ten times that number, and yes some governments have actively taken or prevented some data. But the rate at which encounters allow concrete physical samples to be collected seems to have gone way down over the decades, and it isn’t obvious to me that we will really learn that much more from sharper and longer pictures, videos, and radar images.

So an anti-theory taboo risks us spending another 75 years in data collection, after which we may still not know that much more than we do now. The point of data is to inform theory, and it still seems to me that we now have plenty enough data, not only to judge if there is something real, but also to do some theorizing. Yes much theorizing so far has been motivated and/or sloppy, but honestly most of that has been done by folks not very experience or skilled at social science theory. Which is why it seems a shame that social theorists Wendt and Duvall explicitly endorse the anti-theory taboo.

Well I plan to continue to ignore both taboos, both the anti-UFO one and the anti-UFO-theory one. And I invite other experienced and knowledgeable social theorists to join me. It may be less fun at times to work on tabooed topics, but when the taboo is unfair you can have much higher of making valuable contributions on them. And the huge potential importance of this topic seems obvious.

The quotes above seem to me a bit hypocritical in invoking the usual presumption against taboos when complaining about anti-UFO taboos, while not working much to overcome that presumption when declaring a new taboo. Yes, that combination of positions could be coherent, but one should at least notice and address the apparent conflict.

P.S. I think that independent juries evaluating the hardest to explain UFO cases would usually agree that they support the usual pattern claims, to the usual civil preponderance-of-evidence standard. I’d be willing to bet on that, and to join such a jury, but I’m not really interested in litigating this in comments here or elsewhere. Such a discussion needs to get into details of particular cases, which requires more than a few brief comments.

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Parsing Pictures of Mars Muck

On Thursday I came across this article, which discusses the peer-reviewed journal article, “Fungi on Mars? Evidence of Growth and Behavior From Sequential Images”. As its pictures seemed to me to suggest fungal life active now on Mars, I tweeted “big news!” Over the next few days it got some quite negative news coverage, mainly complaining that the first author (out of 11 authors) had no prestigious affiliation and expressed other contrarian opinions, and also that the journal charged fees to authors.

I took two small supportive bets and then several people offered me much larger bets, while no one at all offered to bet on my side. That is a big classic clue that you are likely wrong, and so I am for now backing down on my likelihood estimates on this. And thus not (yet) accepting more bets. But to promote social information aggregation, let me try to explain the situation as I now see it. I’ll then listen to your reactions before deciding how to revise my estimates.

First, our priors are that early Mars and early Earth were nearly equally likely as places for life to arise, with Mars being habitable sooner. The rates at which life would have been transferred between the two places look high, though sixty times higher from Mars to Earth than from vice versa. Thus it seems nearly as likely that life started on Mars and then came to Earth, as that life started on Earth. And more likely than not, there was once some life on Mars.

Furthermore, studies that put today’s Earth life in Martian conditions find many that would survive and grow on Mars. So the only question is whether that sort of life ever arose on Mars, or was ever transferred from Earth to Mars. Yes, most of the Martian surface looks quite dead now, including most everything we’ve seen up close due to landers and rovers. But then so does most of the surface of Antartica look dead, but we know is it not all dead. So the chance of life somewhere on Mars now is pretty high; the question is just how common might be the few special places in which Martian life survives.

This new paper offers no single “smoking gun”, but instead offers a collection of pictures that are together suggestive. Some of the authors have been slowly collecting this evidence over many years, and have presented some of it before. The evidence they point to is at the edge of detectability, as you should expect from the fact that the usual view is that we haven’t yet seen life on Mars.

Now if you search though enough images, you’ll find a few strange ones, like the famous “face on mars”, or this one from Mars:

But when there’s just one weird image, with nothing else like it, we mostly should go with a random error theory, unless the image seems especially clear.

In the rest of this post I’ll go over three kinds of non-unique images, and for each compare a conventional explanation to the exotic explanation suggested by this new paper. Continue reading "Parsing Pictures of Mars Muck" »

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