Monthly Archives: June 2021

“Artificial” = Not-Self-Made?

Recently I’ve said that it seems obvious that our descendants will soon be artificial, as will be any advanced aliens we meet. And I’ve complained of futurists and astrobiologists who ignore this possibility. But I’ve realized that even though I may “know it when I see it”, I don’t have a good definition of “artificial”.

Usually it works to say that stuff is “artificial” if humans made it, but didn’t inherit their ability to make it from pre-humans. Making spears, language, and bags “artificial”. But this definition doesn’t work well for alien civilizations, or for our future after humans are gone. So let me try here to find a better definition of “artificial”, in contrast to “organic”.

And let me make my task easier by assuming that we have some working definition of “life”, something like “processes that consume negentropy to try to perpetuate stuff like itself.” We can of course talk about artificial life, and artificial non-life.

The concept of “artificial” that I want to explore here is “not self made”. (With “organic” meaning “self made”.) Now of course nothing is literally self-made, but things are sometimes made by things very much like themselves. For example, when an asexual cell reproduces, the new cell is very similar to the old one, at least if we can distinguish between the thing itself, its environment, and the ways that environments naturally change things.

In contrast, when a beaver makes a dam, or when a human writes a program, the things made differ far more from from the things that make them. So we can consider calling these made things “artificial” in the sense of “not self made”, relative to “organic” things that are “self made”. Now let’s explore more examples of this distinction, to see how useful it might be.

Compared to an asexually reproducing cell, the child of a sexual cell differs more from its parents. In Eukaryote cells, different parts reproduce separately, and so are only like the matching parts of their parents, and less like other parts. In a multi-cellular organism, most of the cells differ a lot more from the stem cells from which they start, which were made by parent stem cells. So if we focus on individual cells, then most cells in such a creature seem more artificial. It is only when we look at the entire organism that we can see it as relatively organic.

Thus how “self made” something is depends on how we divide it from its environment, and on what size units we consider. Evolutionary progress has consisted in substantial part of moving to larger self-made units, where their parts are less self-made. How artificial something looks should also depend on the timescale we pick, and on our diversity reference. Things look more self-made on short timescales, relative to long, as distant ancestors may be quite different. And things look more self-made the wider the variety of other creatures to which we compare them, as parent-child differences will loom less large then.

Once humans developed culture, our behaviors were less made by our parents, and more by a larger culture from which we learned. Isolated groups of humans together with their cultures were relatively organic. But as our world has become more integrated, we are made less by local associates and more by the entire world culture.

For example, an individual firm that tries to be profit maximizing is “made” to some degree by its investors, designers, producers, managers, suppliers, and customers, all of whom are watching the entire world for ideas on more efficient ways to do things. Such a firm is “like” the prior firms associated with such people mainly because the prior experiences of they or their ancestors shaped their sunk investments, expectations and understandings. To a substantial degree, it is the entire world economy that is “self-made”, with each firm being much less so. Firms are more artificial, but the whole economic is more organic.

But even so, there are still identifiable smaller units that are “self-made” to important degrees. Individuals, firms, and nations, among other units, “own” and control resources that they use to promote the future prosperity of “their” future units. Especially their investors.

Governance processes are justified in terms of promoting the future of the units they govern, but internal sub-units are often rightly suspicious that such processes are used by rival units to gain relative advantages over them. Governed units become less “self-made”, which carries substantial risks. Competition between larger units can restrain such internal predation via governance, but competition would not restrain a world government.

Someday humans will probably create artificial creatures who are fully capable of cheaply doing all the tasks needed in their future economy. These creatures are likely to differ more from humans than from the creatures that they make to follow them. So relatively “self made” humanity will “artificially” make new creatures who then more “self make” their new world. But each particular new creature will be much less “self made”, and thus more “artificial”, as it will be made more by its entire civilization.

Okay, while this concept of “self-made” depends on units and timescale, it still seems useful for discussing how future life should be more “artificial”. Life will in general be less self-made on smaller unit scales, even if still self-made on an entire civilization scale. And after alien civilizations meet each other, even they may become less self-made.

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Would UFO Aliens Be Our Gods?

In ancient societies, leaders and elites gained legitimacy in the minds of the masses via impressive displays of clothes, music, furniture, food, buildings, parades, etc., which made more plausible their claims to actually be a higher class of creatures. Religions also gained legitimacy by claiming to represent even higher classes of creatures, i.e., gods, with which they also associated impressive luxury displays. The masses worshipped and obeyed these leaders and gods, and deferred to their judgment.

One of the main reasons that we less worship and defer to such leaders and gods today is that we know more about them; we see leaders as less clearly superior, and gods as less clearly existing. But we are still the same sort of humans as the ancients, and so are capable of their actions, should we share their beliefs.

Which brings us to an interesting hypothetical that I will now consider: What if the world soon comes to a general consensus that some UFOs actually are aliens? And what if our direct physical relation to these aliens doesn’t change much? That is, they still don’t talk to us, we only see them rarely, and we don’t find their “bases”, their origins, or figure out any of their tech. And what if this situation persists for another century, or for many centuries?

In this postulated scenario, I think the main way that our world changes is this: in our minds, these UFO aliens take over the top of our status hierarchy; we see them as the top dog in our “pack”. And as status is a big deal to we social animals, this ends up being a big deal.

The first obvious implication is that acting or looking alien-like would start to become higher status. Hovering, fast movement and acceleration, bright fuzzy lights, making no sounds, geometric shapes, and smooth shiny surfaces without protuberances. Because that’s just how status works; if aliens are high status, we want to look like them.

Some would fall in status as a result of aliens being top status. The highest would fall, as would those who seemed to have opposed them, such as governments who lied about them and elite academics who dismissed them. We’d also see our familiar human elites and leaders as less in charge of our long term future.

We’d guess that these aliens have some agendas, and so even if they haven’t actually done much yet, they may well intervene in some scenarios. Maybe we’d worry less about killing ourselves, if we think they’d stop that. And if aliens don’t seem worried that our AI experiments might create super-intelligences that suddenly explode to remake the universe, maybe we would worry less about that too.

We would gossip a lot trying to guess alien priorities, priorities we’d be reluctant to visibly resist. We’d more want to adopt their priorities as our priorities, because, again, that is just how status works. Just as people in firms gossip a lot about CEO priorities, and as courtiers of a king gossip a lot about king priorities. They gossip, and also try to pretend that the CEO/king priorities always were their own deepest priorities.

People do seem to believe that they can guess UFO alien motives. In a recent poll, 65.2% of respondents guessed that these aliens main motive for visiting Earth is to “study us as independent example of life evolution.” Which is a pretty high status motive, you have to admit.

No doubt the people who push each priority X would try to also push the view that aliens also prefer X. But we also have some more direct evidence on alien priorities.

First, aliens must be very old and stable, so they less want or experience innovation and change compared to us. Second, they aren’t remaking the universe much around here, or anywhere we can see, yet such remaking would have happened naturally unless they had coordinated strongly to prevent it. Thus they must have a strong “world” government which enforces a policy of preventing mass colonization and remaking of the universe.

They haven’t killed us yet, and they also let us see them, so they can’t feel very threatened by us at our current level. Also, they refuse to talk to us, so they don’t respect us that much, and aren’t that interested in running the details of our world or our lives, or in converting us to their beliefs. In a great many ways, we are just “beneath” them.

Now when humans treat us like this, we are often offended, and expect observers to support our outrage. For example, 81% of respondents said that a small nation should see it an insult if the US refused to respond in any way to their request for a meeting. But only 36.6% of respondents said we should feel insulted if UFO aliens keep refusing to talk to us for another century. (And 52.3% said it would be an insult for a human to treat you like aliens are treating us now, in refusing to talk.)

This all suggests to me that we treat UFO aliens as very high status. You are far more likely to be offended if your sister refused to talk to you, relative to Bill Gates refusing to talk, as you accept that Gates is much higher status than you or your sister. Similarly, even though UFO aliens have come to visit our home, and are showing off their vast abilities, which they must know makes us nervous, most still don’t think we should be offended by their refusing to talk to us. Perhaps because they are as gods to us?

These inferred alien priorities have implications for our behavior. As the aliens have a world government, we’d be more inclined to give substantial powers to a world organization through which we study and deal with them. We’d also be more inclined to limit our physical and tech expansion, as the aliens seem to have also done this. We’d be more willing to slow down our rates of innovation and change, as aliens seem okay with this in their society. And we’d be more okay with just ignoring and refusing to talk to humans we see as beneath us, like the aliens seem to do with us. We’d also be less eager to preach and proselytize, as aliens don’t do that. Finally, if we keep thinking that aliens are mainly here to study us, we’ll be more eager to (from a distance) study other creatures of all sorts.

Of course not everyone would be eager fans of the aliens. Some would resent their ignoring us, and seek to resist their presumed dominance. In fact, being pro- or anti-aliens might become a big new axis of political orientation. Maybe even the main one. For every other existing political axis, we’d ask ourselves which side is more naturally the pro- or anti-alien side. Even racism.

To me this isn’t that pretty a picture overall. But the universe doesn’t consult me before it paints its pictures, and I will first try to see what it has painted, before I think about how I might change it, if that became possible.

Yes, many of these predictions might apply if alien behavior did change after we became convinced of them. But its hard to say more there without knowing more about in what ways their behaviors change. For example, if they acted more hostile we might not see them as top dog in our pack, but as a powerful enemy pack.

Note that this scenario seems to work out well for the aliens, which seems to vindicate their choice to not talk yet also not completely hide. And talking could easily risk their being forced to admit strange repulsive stuff that would really put us off. Maybe their show-not-talk strategy isn’t as crazy and a priori unlikely as many claim.

Added 15Jun: If we come to believe, as I do, that aliens are most likely artificial, having transcended their biological origins, we may then respect artificial things more.

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How School Goes Wrong

I’ve been teaching for over two decades, but haven’t yet posted much on my theoretical view of school. Talking recently to an entering education Ph.D. student has inspired me to fill that gap.

The obvious usual purpose for school is to help people learn how to do useful tasks in life. And the obvious way to help with that is to show students various useful tools, show examples of their use, and then have students practice trying related tasks with related tools. Finally, score students on how well they do these practice tasks, to help others judge their suitability for various positions.

In this view, the big question is: how far and in what ways should school tasks differ from the later life tasks for which students are preparing? School tasks can differ from life tasks in many ways, such as in how long they take, how wide a scope of subproblems they encompass, how clearly performance on them can be judged, how many others have previously completed similar tasks, how connected each new task is to one’s recent tasks, what sort of teams take on tasks, and what sort of other distractions one must deal with while working on each task.

It seem obvious to me that school tasks must differ greatly from life tasks, at least when kids are young. It is also obvious that choosing school tasks well is hard, but that this can offer huge gains. We should search well the vast space of possibilities for the best student tasks.

Furthermore, it seems obvious that student tasks often complement each other strongly. Often learning one task helps a lot in learning another task. So we want all the tasks that students eventually take on to fit into a total package where the parts fit well together, and where that package fits well with later life tasks. Which can justify a lot of coordination between the teaching of related topics, and between schools and those who manage life tasks. In addition, there are often scale and scope economies from having many students do similar tasks, especially regarding evaluation. (This coordination isn’t obviously better when governments run schools.)

Our simplest general task tool is inference, supported by related “facts”. That is, one tells students about key facts related to a task class, and shows them examples of drawing relevant inferences from such facts. This “book learning” is far from the only useful tool, but it is useful often enough to make fact-telling a big fraction of learning for most topics. Yes, it is somewhat possible to teach better general inference, but the scope for this seems vastly overrated.

Not only is it hard to choose the package of learning tasks well, it is even harder for non-experts to judge the quality of such packages. And even when one can judge the quality of particular school tasks, their fitting together into large integrated packages makes it hard to push for particular changes. (Such as the long-overdue switch from geometry to statistics in high school.) If schools competed fiercely on measured student outcomes, they might try harder to find the best packages. But such outcomes are usually not measured well, and many schools are funded and managed by customers who are not very outcome-oriented.

The net result is that teachers and schools can have a lot of slack regarding their choices of student tasks and supporting tools. Which suggests that schools may allow other priorities, besides preparing students for life tasks, to influence their choices. For example, when the world changes, teachers with status tied to their expertise regarding particular student tasks may have insufficient incentives to change those tasks to better fit a changed world. As another example, teachers who seek to push ideologies may over-emphasize teaching facts, and try to infuse those ideologies into the facts they present, even when that cuts student performance.

When schools face stronger selection pressures regarding the perceived quality of their students, relative to preparing students for life tasks, then such schools may pick tasks with less evaluation noise and higher perceived prestige, even if those tasks help less for common life tasks. Especially for students likely to go into industries where the main product sold to customers is affiliation with worker prestige. In that case, schools mainly just need to agree on how to prestige is measured, and then pick school tasks that fit well with those prestige concepts. Here the social value of such schooling seems far less than its private value; we should tax, not subsidize, such school.

When accusations of teacher bias are important, schools may emphasize tasks that can be more clearly and objectively evaluated, even if those tasks are otherwise less useful. And when an accusation of school bias against particular subgroups is salient, schools may emphasize tasks on which those particular subgroups do better. Some have suggested that accusations of bias against girls has induced schools to switch more to tasks on where girls do better. (Even though the direct measured biases seems to be against boys.)

Over the last few decades there seems to have been a move away from giving students “hard” tasks, where one cannot offer clear procedures to follow to succeed. On such hard tasks, teachers show students related tools and examples of prior successful performance, and can offer suggestions on how to improve tasks in progress. But students must flounder and search for how to achieve excellence, and most students will not so achieve. Some have claimed that such hard tasks favor boys, who are less risk-averse.

One of the main tasks for grad students is to write research papers. And my grad classes are focused overwhelmingly on this task. This is a hard task, where many will fail, and where evaluations are more subjective. And it is a big task chunk, which takes a long time and is not easily broken down into subtasks that can be evaluated independently. But it is also a task clearly and directly relevant to their future life, at least if they move near academic circles. While academics are willing to water down many school tasks to satisfy various outside pressures, they have so far drawn the line at how they train their own replacements.

When teaching undergrads, I usually split the class grade into four quizzes and four short papers. The quizzes are more fact-based, and have more parts and thus less noise in their overall evaluation. With quizzes, I more give students what they, their parents, and their schools want. The papers are harder and have more evaluation noise, but are closer to a life task that I value: using economic tools to argue for a policy position of their choice on a topic that I choose. For papers, I grade using a point system designed to ignore my personal opinions on paper topics.

My teaching strategy roughly matches my theory of teaching; I get as close as I can to having my students practice a real life task related to the class topic that I have been assigned. Even if those tasks are hard, even if that makes my evaluations of students more noisy, and even if students like it less. I accept that schools have mostly devolved to sorting students by prestige, instead of preparing them for life tasks. But in my classes, I do what I can to resist that trend.

Added 11a: The main obstacle to replacing college with real jobs is finding ways to standardize across such jobs the topics learned and performance evaluation. That will just require a lot of trial and error to figure out. Don’t invest in a firm that claims to know the answers if you aren’t willing to pay for lots of trial and error time.

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Protecting Hypocritical Idealism

I’m told that soldiers act a lot more confident and brave when they are far from battle, relative to when it looms immediate in front of them.

When presented with descriptions of how most citizens of Nazi Germany didn’t resist or oppose the regime much, most people claim they would have done different. Which of course is pretty unlikely for most of them. But there’s an obvious explanation of this “social desirability bias”. Their subconscious expects a larger positive payoff from presenting an admirable view of themselves to associates, relative to the smaller negative payoff from making themselves more likely to actually do what they said, should they actually find themselves in a Nazi regime.

When the covid pandemic first appeared, elites and experts voiced their long-standing position that masks and travel restrictions were not effective in a pandemic. Which let them express their pro-inclusive global-citizen liberal attitudes. Their subconscious foresaw only a small chance that they’d actually face a real and big pandemic. And if that ever happened, they could and did lower the cost of this previous attitude by just suddenly and without explanation changing their minds.

For many decades it has been an article of faith among a large fraction of these same sort of experts and elites that advanced aliens must be peaceful egalitarian eco-friendly non-expansionist powers, who would if they saw us scold and lecture us about our wars, nukes, capitalism, expansion, and eco-damage. Like our descendants are presented to be in Star Trek or the Culture novels.

Because in this scenario aliens would be the highest status creatures around, and it is important to these humans that the highest in status agree with their politics. I confidently predict that their attitudes would quickly change if they were actually confronted with unknown but very real alien powers nearby.

This predictable hypocrisy could be exposed if people would back these beliefs with bets. But of course they don’t. They aren’t exactly sure why, but most just feel “uncomfortable” with that. Visible and open betting market odds that disagreed with them would also expose this hypocrisy, but most such also oppose allowing those, mostly also for vague “uncomfortable” reasons. Their unconscious knows better what are those reasons, but knows also not to tell.

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On UFOs-As-Aliens Priors

A careful analysis of UFOs should consider lots of data, and consider it in much detail. I oft hear skeptics seek shortcuts, such as by declaring all testimony invalid, or insisting that only some long conjunction of encounter features could be sufficient. But consider a legal accusation of attempted murder. Even though the prior odds that a random  X attempts to kill Y during hour Z is terribly low (<10-12), we are still willing to entertain such claims, and we accept personal testimony as an important part of supporting evidence.

Yes, advocates of things like UFOs seem willing to put more time into such details, and it may seem unfair to expect skeptics to put in as much work. But jurors and lawyers must put in a lot of effort in legal trials. This is the great problem of how to divide intellectual labor; as with most topics, we do best if we task a few with going into great detail on each topic, so the rest of us can defer to their analysis. If you aren’t willing to go into sufficient detail, then admit this isn’t one of your topics, and defer to others on it.

In that spirit, instead of expressing opinions on many UFO topics, let me instead focus on the area where I have the most relative expertise: the priors to associate with the some-UFOs-are-aliens hypothesis. As far as I can tell, the main reason that most give for skepticism that aliens visit Earth in the UFO style is that this theory seems a priori crazy unlikely. But that estimate seems wrong to me. Let me explain.

A full Bayesian analysis of the four main UFO theory categories (error, hoax, secret Earth orgs, aliens) needs eight numbers: one prior and likelihood for each theory. In this post I try only to estimate one of these eight numbers: the prior for the aliens theory. Here goes.

Life exists here on Earth, and our standard best theories say that this was not a miracle, nor was Earth the only place such things could happen. Furthermore, our universe also seems very large (perhaps infinite). Thus our standard best theories predict that advanced life has appeared and will appear many times out there.

These standard best theories also predict a wide range of dates when this could happen. As a result, two independent alien origins are likely to be millions to trillions of years apart in time. Which gives aliens a lot of time to travel to visit other aliens.

So we can break down doubts on prior expectations about UFO as aliens into three parts:

  • What is the chance that advanced aliens appear often enough in space and time for some of them to have been born early and close enough to travel to Earth to be here now?
  • What is the chance that aliens (or, more likely their robot descendants) who can travel actually do travel to Earth by now, but do not visibly remake the local universe?
  • Given that aliens exist, and travel to here, but don’t remake the local universe, what is the chance that they would act the way that UFOs seem to act, i.e., being somewhat evasive, but not completely hiding nor announcing themselves?

First, how close might aliens be? As my co-authors and I discuss here, humans seem to have arrived quite early in history, at least if one assumes that the universe would remain empty and wait indefinitely for advanced life like us to appear. This is the main reason we offer for postulating a grabby aliens deadline, to explain human earliness. And our grabby aliens model implies that aliens do appear often enough for maybe some of them to have come here by now.

Now grabby aliens arriving by here now would also be quite visible to us now. But our basic model is quite consistent with variations wherein there are many, perhaps thousands or millions, of non-grabby alien civs per grabby civ, all born at the same sort of places and times. These non-grabby civs do not remake their local universe. So either they die fast, life long but do not expand, or they expand long but do little to remake their universe.

In my view, the most likely scenario that puts long-expanding-but-not-remaking aliens here now is panspermia siblings. Life arose long ago on some very rare Eden, which then seeded our Sun’s stellar nursery, with life quickly spreading to most stars in that nursery. At least two of these stars eventually developed advanced life, but Earth was not the first. Aliens at the first star looked for their panspermia siblings, noticed simple life on Earth here long ago, and then long ago traveled to near here to await the arrival of advanced life. Where they now do their weird UFO encounter things.

So to explain UFOs as aliens, we must postulate that these first star sibling aliens had preferences and coordination abilities sufficient to do the following:

  • prevent any parts of their own civ from expanding and visibly remaking the local universe,
  • travel to sibling stars that might birth civs, to stand ready to prevent them from also expanding, but also not kill them, and
  • while waiting here they allow or induce the sort of UFO encounters we see, but prevent any clearer more direct interactions.

I estimate a chance of at least 10% for each of the following events, given the prior events:

  1. Earth was seeded by panspermia in its nursery
  2. A sibling star gave rise to a long-lived advanced civ long before now
  3. That civ prevents itself from expanding, tries to prevent siblings from expanding, and long ago traveled to here to wait to enforce this preference,
  4. They induce or allow UFO-style encounters while they wait here.

Note that #1 requires a high enough rate of rock transfer between star systems, #2 requires that most of the great filter happened on Eden, #3 is more likely when civs adopt strong “world” governments, and #4 is relatively likely because we shouldn’t really expect to be able to predict detailed behaviors of strange alien civilizations.

Four factors of 10% gives a minimum prior chance of 10-4, but as most of the probability weight should above these minimums, I estimate the total chance to be at least 10-3. As I’ve said before, combining all the relevant priors and posteriors I judge the hoax and aliens theories to be most likely for the hardest-to-explain UFO cases. But I don’t claim as much expertise on all the other numbers required to judge that, as I do for the one number I estimate here:

The prior chance of the aliens theory of the hardest-to-explain UFO cases is at least 10-3, relative to the other three theory categories of error, hoax, and secret Earth orgs.

This prior is actually pretty high compared to the usual priors in most legal cases. So the types and amounts of evidence on particular cases that is sufficient to convict in legal cases seems sufficient to judge UFOs-are-aliens as more or less likely than not. But again, I have no special expertise to offer you for judging the details of UFO encounters. I can just say that you need to look at such details; you can’t just dismiss UFOs-as-aliens theory with a wave of your philosophical hands.

Added 10June: Many take issue with my estimating 1/10 for the chance that aliens waiting here would be somewhat evasive, but not completely hide nor announce themselves. They don’t see this as a good plan for any goals they can think of.

But we are talking about an entire alien civilization here! Human societies often do things, like fight wars or stop having kids, that seem counter-productive from the point of view of that society as a whole. In addition, individual humans often do things that seem counter-productive until you consider their signaling incentives. I wrote a whole book on this.

If we often have trouble explaining the behaviors of human societies and individuals, I don’t think we should feel very confident in predicting detailed behaviors of a completely alien civilization. After all, many have reasonably doubted if we could even communicate with aliens, or recognize them when we saw them. Having outlined some possible signaling motives for alien UFO behavior, I can see that there are many possible explanations for aliens-as-UFO behavior. Thus a 1/10 prior seems reasonable to me.

Added 13Jun: I did 6 Twitter polls to elicit relative priors and likelihoods for the four main theory categories:

Added 14Jun: Thinking through the consequences of the show-but-don’t-talk strategy suggests that it will work out pretty well for the aliens.

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Skirting UFO Taboos

Since before I was born, elites have maintained a severe taboo against taking seriously the hypothesis that UFOs are aliens. As I’ve discussed, elite-aspiring UFO researchers have themselves embraced this taboo. They seem to figure that if we look carefully at all the other hypotheses, and see how inadequate they are, then the taboo against UFOs as aliens must collapse.

For elites pundits, this taboo is a problem when UFOs as possibly aliens are the topic of the day. Because elite pundits are also supposed to comment on the topic of the day. Their obvious solution: talk only about the fact that other people seem to be taking UFOs as aliens seriously.

For example, here is Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) in a 1992 word New York Times article:

Even if You Think Discussing Aliens Is Ridiculous, Just Hear Me Out

I really don’t know what’s behind these videos and reports, and I relish that. … Even if you think all discussion of aliens is ridiculous, it’s fun to let the mind roam over the implications. … Imagine, tomorrow, an alien craft crashed down in Oregon. … we are faced with the knowledge that we’re not alone, that we are perhaps being watched, and we have no way to make contact. How does that change human culture and society? …

One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. … Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public. … “Instead of a land grab, it would be a narrative grab,” … There would be enormous power — and money — in shaping the story humanity told itself. … “An awful lot of people would basically shrug and it’d be in the news for three days,” …

how evidence of alien life would shake the world’s religions… many people would simply say, “of course.” … nation-states fall to fighting over the debris, … fractious results. … “Russians and Chinese would never believe us and frankly large numbers of Americans would be much more likely to believe that Russia or China was behind it,” … difficulty of uniting humanity …

knowledge that there were other space-faring societies might make us more desperate to join them or communicate with them. … might lead us to take more care with what we already have, and the sentient life we already know. … “inspire us to be the best examples of intelligent life that we could be.”

Note how Klein very clearly signals that he doesn’t believe, and that this is all about how people who believed would react; he never crosses the line to himself consider aliens.

Here is Tyler Cowen (@tylercowen) in a 746 words Bloomberg article:

Now that the Pentagon takes UFOs seriously, it’s perhaps appropriate to consider some more mundane aspects of the phenomenon — namely, what it means for markets. UFO data will probably remain murky and unresolved, but if UFOs of alien origin become somewhat more likely (starting, to be clear, from a low base rate), which prices will change?

My first prediction is that most market prices won’t move very much. In the short run, VIX might rise, … But … would probably [quickly] return to normal levels. … I would bet on defense stocks to rise, … alien drone probes … might be observing with the purpose of rendering judgment. If they are offended by our militaristic tendencies, the quality of our TV shows and our inability to adopt the cosmopolitan values of “Star Trek” over the next 30 years, maybe they will zap us into oblivion. But … after such an act of obliteration, neither gold nor Bitcoin will do you any good.

Note that Cowen touches on a crucial issue, what if they judge us, but with a flippant tone and only for the purpose of predicting assets prices, which are set by other investors. If he were to directly and seriously consider that issue, he’d have violated the key taboo.

Here is Megan McArdle (@asymmetricinfo) in 835 word Washington Post article:

These are all major, important stories, stories that lives and futures depend upon. And yet they’re almost irrelevant compared to the question that isn’t anywhere in my Twitter feed right now: Are we being watched by alien technology? …

Other humans … would not will the death of our entire species. Aliens might. … Whether we’re being visited, and what they might be up to, is the most important question of anyone’s lifetime, because, if so, everything that currently obsesses us, including the pandemic, will retreat to a historical footnote. …

So I’ve been surprised to find that the story of unexplained sightings, which has now been percolating for years, has been mostly a subplot to more ordinary human politics and folly. … it seems to be mostly fodder for jokes.  …Why is this particular unknowable getting such short shrift? …

One possibility is that UFOs have a social status problem; historically, they are associated with cranks … Thus, most … reflexively refuse to take the topic seriously. … But the third option is that we understand at some level that aliens would be a Very Big Deal — and that most of the possibilities for alien contact are pretty unpleasant. … the alternative is so horrible that I suspect for many of us, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

This is like all those long calls for a “conversation on race” that can’t seem to find the space to actually start conversing on race. (Because there is very little safe that one can actually say.) Here McArdle talks long on on being puzzled that we aren’t talking on the key issue, about which she doesn’t actually say much. In response to my complaint she tweeted “I did my best in 800 words!”

I’m pretty sure that any of these authors could have directly addressed the big “elephant in the room” alien issues here, if they had so desired. I’ve tried to do better.

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UFOs and Status

Status seems pretty central to the UFO phenomena.

For example, reports have been filed on well over 100K encounters worldwide so far, but most of the books & movies on the topic focus on the same few cases. These cases are chosen in part for having more witnesses, detail, and physical evidence. But they seem especially chosen for having prestigious witnesses and locations. Seen by police or military workers, especially pilots. At military bases, especially housing nukes. These same books and movies are most eager to interview sympathetic people who are very high status, such as heads of state.

Similarly, many ancient legal systems had formal rules relating status to whose legal testimony to believe. And the social status of witnesses matters greatly today in court, even when there are no explicit rules requiring this.

Apparently most who witness UFOs as part of their job don’t report them, fearing reputation consequences. Because UFO fans are widely seen as very low status, at least among cultural elites. Similarly, organizations like police, militaries, airlines, and airports don’t want to be associated with such events, and so discourage reports by members. Unless some outside monitoring system discourages it, such orgs probably simply destroy such reports when they can.

When high officials have been asked privately why they would be reluctant to publicly admit to UFOs, they consistently say that the public rewards them for projecting ability and knowledge re their topic areas. UFOs require them instead to admit that they don’t know, and that there may be other parties around far more able than they. This effect is larger for police and militaries, compared to other agencies. And it is largest for the United States, at least during the period when it has been nearly the world’s dominant military power.

This all fits with several other militaries around the world releasing their UFO reports, long before the US has considered doing so. And it predicts that coming US release will be minimal, at least compared to the data the US could have and may have been collecting.

As a mildly elite academic, I can directly feel the status hit. If UFOs have an exotic intelligent cause, then we as a species have a lot less freedom than we thought to direct our destiny. And our governments, elites, and academics can do less to protect or inform us.

Yes, we might fund more UFO research, but I honestly don’t see the evidence situation changing that much for the indefinite future. Given how much data we already have, I don’t see more funding changing the overall data situation that much. These aren’t events you can seek out; you have to wait for them. And if there are intelligent exotic UFO causers here, they are clearly not eager to clearly show themselves.

And as long as the data situation remains ambiguous, I expect academic elites to remain adamant in dismissing exotic explanations. They’ll probably divert most funding they get on this topic to other topics they respect more. It will be hard to make much intellectual progress here, and those who do will be consistently slighted by academic elites. Even if society comes to accept UFOs more as a legitimate topic of investigation, elites will make very sure that the people who have so far championed this cause will not get more respect. Instead funding and respect will go to existing elites who deign to touch on the topic, at least from acceptable angles.

Status effects may even help explain some key features of UFO behavior. For example, among humans today, the response to an aggressive physical attack usually depends on how strong is the attacker relative to the defender. (The strengths of both sides’ allies are usually included in this calculation.) When the attacker is much stronger, the usual response is submission. And if they have similar strength, then the defender is likely to react vigorously.

However, if the attacker is far weaker, like a toddler attacking an adult, the usual response is to signal one’s strength by easily deflecting the attack, with little harm to either side. And in the reports I’ve read, this seems to be the usual reaction of UFOs to human attack: easy deflection. Which seems to signal their awareness, intelligence, abilities, and status stance. Maybe they sometimes let us seem them just so they can dis us in this way.

Status effects might even explain their lack of communication. (If they exist, of course.) Often small nations are eager to “enter into talks” with big nations just for the status bump this gives; “they take us seriously, and include us among those who must be consulted”. Conversely, the ultimate status dunk is to refuse to talk to or about someone; you act as if they are as worthy of this as a gnat. Might this explain the otherwise-puzzling lack of direct communication from intelligent exotic causes of UFOs?

A perhaps related and more ominous possible reason for their lack of communication is that they expect this to lead to us asking them some awkward questions. About our history, their expectations about us, their previous behavior toward us, their future plans regarding us, etc. Often the simplest way to avoid having to answer awkward questions is simply refusing to talk. Maybe how they plan to treat us reflects their view of our relative status, and we might not react well to hearing this.

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Who Wants Curated Democracy?

Most democratic systems are pretty simple. To a first approximation, anyone can run for office, any adult citizen can vote, and voters can use all their usual ways to associate and talk to evaluate and coordinate on who to vote for in upcoming elections.

Imagine that some academics instead develop and advocate for a “curated” system of democracy. They research how democratic outcomes vary with the candidates, who votes on which candidates, and who talks to who about which candidates and topics. These academics say that if you put someone who knows this literature well in charge of “curating” democracy, you can get better outcomes.

Assume that these researchers have the usual level of academic competence at doing their research. They study a real phenomena and make real progress, but have the usual academic biases, such as playing usual games of hindering rivals via insider clubs and method fashions. Their results tend to be complex, though news media can sometimes offer deceptively simple summaries of them.

How eager are you to replace your simple democratic system with a voting system curated by an expert credentialed by these academics? That is, to put these curators in charge of who can run for office, who can vote on what, and who can talk to who how about what political topics? They wouldn’t suggest simple rules that we could then debate and choose whether to adopt. No, they’d make many detailed context-dependent choices that they couldn’t well explain to us; we’d just have to trust them.

Most of us wouldn’t trust them, and thus would be wary of such curated democracy. Because democracy is less about having a well-oiled machine and more about having a simple neutral system that we can trust when we don’t together trust any particular people that much to run our system.

This is how I feel about the forecasting systems and contests that are now popular among academics, relative to simple prediction markets. In a simple prediction market, you set up a topic on which to bet cash, and then let any individual or group bet cash there at any time, in any amount, and the current price is your best estimate. Biases are to be fixed by traders profiting from finding and correcting them. Yes, each market has some mechanical details, but those matter less when there is lots of trading, and it usually works okay to let people compete to pick details of the markets they pay to create.

In contrast, in curated prediction contests, the curators pick who participates on which questions, assign them to teams in which they work together, assign them each a weight in a final consensus function that they choose, say how and in what units each is rewarded as a function of their predictions and outcomes, adjust their consensus for various “biases” they see. Curators say that in their studies that this approach gives more accurate predictions.

Which may well be true. Except they don’t do the crucial test where a lot is at stake in the decisions that the markets influence, so much that interested parties try to corrupt the curators themselves. By bribing curators, threatening to get them fired, or just taking over the whole process by which they are trained and selected. The more details that curators control, and the harder to understand their reasons for making adjustments, the more room there’d be for curator corruption.

Institution/system/mechanism design is a very different problem between when (a) you can trust someone to run it, and make discretionary adjustments as needed, and (b) there is no one we can agree to trust, so we need to agree on something simple and clear that will run with few such adjustments. I’m most interested in that second kind of design problem.

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