Category Archives: Hypocrisy

Academic Ideals

Academia doesn't live up to its noble image. Philosopher Peter Fosl: 

Although academics will hardly raise an eyebrow about this "open secret," it comes as a surprise to many others to learn that many philosophers … are little devoted to the love of wisdom. In only a merely "academic" way do they aspire to intellectual virtue. Even less often do they exhibit qualities of moral excellence. On the contrary, many philosophers, or what pass as philosophers, are, sadly, better described as petty social climbers, meretricious snobs, and acquisitive consumerists.  I blush a bit now to confess that part of what drove me into philosophy in the first place was the naive conviction that among those who call themselves lovers of wisdom I would find something different in kind from the repugnant and shallow brutalism of the worlds of finance, business, and the law.  …

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Beware Detached Detail

Yesterday I talked about how "social minds must both make good decisions, and present good images to others" and suggested "the near-far brain division can be handy when facing this problem; let the far system focus more on image, and the near system focus more on decisions." But I didn't follow this thought very far down the game tree. To an economist going down the game tree is like going down the rabbit hole; it shows us just how deep and strange are the underlying drivers of top behavior.

If our far thoughts are more distorted to present good images, then the next step down the rabbit hole is this: to judge how we will typically act, others should prefer to see our near thoughts, at least if they can distinguish near versus far thoughts. After all, near thoughts drive most day to day actions. And we should each look more to our own near thoughts to judge our own sincerity.

Once we evolved to weigh near others' thoughts more heavily, the next step would be to look for cheap ways to have good-looking near-thoughts, without paying the full price of distorting important actions. That is, our mind designer would look for ways to show "detached" near thoughts, consistent with good-image far-thoughts, but not actually impacting much on important near decisions. This could be accomplished by vivid engaging detail that can clearly occupy our near thought systems, but which isn't much connected to substantial personal decisions.

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A Tale Of Two Tradeoffs

The design of social minds involves two key tradeoffs, which interact in an important way.

The first tradeoff is that social minds must both make good decisions, and present good images to others.  Our thoughts influence both our actions and what others think of us.  It would be expensive to maintain two separate minds for these two purposes, and even then we would have to maintain enough consistency to convince outsiders a good-image mind was in control. It is cheaper and simpler to just have one integrated mind whose thoughts are a compromise between these two ends.

When possible, mind designers should want to adjust this decision-image tradeoff by context, depending on the relative importance of decisions versus images in each context.  But it might be hard to find cheap effective heuristics saying when images or decisions matter more.

The second key tradeoff is that minds must often think about the same sorts of things using different amounts of detail.  Detailed representations tend to give more insight, but require more mental resources.  In contrast, sparse representations require fewer resources, and make it easier to abstractly compare things to each other.  For example, when reasoning about a room a photo takes more work to study but allows more attention to detail; a word description contains less info but can be processed more quickly, and allows more comparisons to similar rooms.

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A World Without Lies?

Among the many provocative answers to this year's Edge question, "What Will Change Everything?" my favorite was Sam Harris' "True Lie Detection":

Deception commends itself, perhaps even above violence, as the principal enemy of human cooperation. Imagine how our world would change if, when the truth really mattered, it became impossible to lie. … Reliable lie-detection will be much easier to achieve than accurate mind reading. … We will almost surely be able to determine, to a moral certainty, whether a person is representing his thoughts, memories, and perceptions honestly in conversation. Compared to many of the other hypothetical breakthroughs put forward in response to this year's Edge question, the development of a true lie-detector would represent a very modest advance over what is currently possible through neuroimaging. …

The greatest transformation of our society will occur only once lie-detectors become both affordable and unobtrusive. Rather than spirit criminal defendants and hedge-fund managers off to the lab for a disconcerting hour of brain scanning, there may come a time when every courtroom or boardroom will have the requisite technology discretely concealed behind its wood paneling. Thereafter, civilized people would share a common presumption: that wherever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored.  Of course, no technology is ever perfect. Once we have a proper lie-detector in hand, we will suffer the caprice of its positive and negative errors. … But some rate of error will, in the end, be judged acceptable.

I'm more skeptical about developing unobtrusive detectors soon, but even cheap obtrusive detector-caps would change a lot; by refusing to put one on you'd be admitting you expected to lie.  Of course by asking someone to put one on, you'd be admitting you don't trust them, but such admissions are already pretty common today.

I'm also more skeptical that "lying" is such a clear categories of mind states.  Many people seem to find it relatively easy to find a state of mind where they can "honestly" saying whatever is in their interest to say, no matter what other beliefs their minds may hold.  A world of cheap "lie" detectors would reward people with good self-deception abilities, and encourage others to train such abilities.  Perhaps we could also develop self-deception detectors, but I expect a murky mess of an arms race to follow.  Still this is indeed one of the biggest changes likely to come in the next twenty years. 

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Awww, a Zebra

This image recently showed up on Flickr (original is nicer):


With the caption:

“Alas for those who turn their eyes from zebras and dream of dragons!  If we cannot learn to take joy in the merely real, our lives shall be empty indeed.” — Eliezer S. Yudkowsky.

“Awww!”, I said, and called over my girlfriend over to look.

“Awww!”, she said, and then looked at me, and said,  “I think you need to take your own advice!”

Me:  “But I’m looking at the zebra!”
Her:  “On a computer!
Me:  (Turns away, hides face.)
Her:  “Have you ever even seen a zebra in real life?”
Me:  “Yes!  Yes, I have!  My parents took me to Lincoln Park Zoo!  …man, I hated that place.”

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Fake Norms, or “Truth” vs. Truth

Followup toApplause Lights

When you say the word "truth", people know that "truth" is a good thing, and that they’re supposed to applaud.  So it might seem like there is a social norm in favor of "truth".  But when it comes to some particular truth, like whether God exists, or how likely their startup is to thrive, people will say:  "I just want to believe" or "you’ve got to be optimistic to succeed".

So Robin and I were talking about this, and Robin asked me how it is that people prevent themselves from noticing the conflict.

I replied that I don’t think active prevention is required.  First, as I quoted Michael Vassar:

"It seems to me that much of the frustration in my life prior to a few years ago has been due to thinking that all other human minds necessarily and consistently implement modus ponens."

But more importantly, I don’t think there does exist any social norm in favor of truth.  There’s a social norm in favor of "truth".  There’s a difference.

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The Fear of Common Knowledge

Followup toBelief in Belief

One of those insights that made me sit upright and say "Aha!"  From The Uncredible Hallq:

Minor acts of dishonesty are integral to human life, ranging from how we deal with casual acquaintances to writing formal agreements between nation states.  Steven Pinker has an excellent chapter on this in The Stuff of Thought, a version of which can be found at TIME magazine’s website. What didn’t make it into the TIME version is Pinker’s proposal that, while there are several reasons we do this, the most important reason is to avoid mutual knowledge:  "She probably knows I just blew a pass at her, but does she know I know she knows? Does she know I know she knows I know she knows?"  Etc.  Mutual knowledge is that nightmare where, for all intents and purposes, the known-knows can be extended out to infinity.  The ultimate example of this has to be the joke "No, it wasn’t awkward until you said, ‘well, this is awkward.’"  A situation might be a little awkward, but what’s really awkward is mutual knowledge, created when someone blurts out what’s going on for all to hear…

The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes is another example of the power of mutual knowledge

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Walking On Grass, Others

Amelia Rawls in a Post OpEd:

During four years at Princeton University and nearly a year at Yale Law School, I have been surrounded by students who dazzle. … But they are not always nice people. … the kind of “nice” that involves showing compassion not merely because membership in community service groups demands it. The kind of “nice” that involves sharing notes with a student who is sick or lending a textbook to a friend who doesn’t have one. The kind of selfless, genuine “nice” that makes this world a better place — but won’t get you accepted to college.

Of course, top universities accept hundreds of individuals who have demonstrated the highest levels of citizenship. These teenagers have volunteered in more food banks, sponsored more fundraisers and lobbied more officials than any previous generation. … Sometimes some of these students will denounce world hunger but be unfriendly to the homeless. They will debate environmental policy but never offer to take out the trash. They will believe vehemently in many causes but roll their eyes when reminded to be humble, to be generous and to “do what is right.”

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Doctor Hypocrisy

The fact that your life would be easier if you could trust someone does not make that person trustworthy.  Doctors are a good example.  Wednesday’s Post:

The first-of-its-kind survey of more than 1,600 physicians, published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that 45 percent said they did not always report an incompetent or impaired colleague to the appropriate authorities — even though 96 percent agreed that doctors should turn in such people.

Moreover, 46 percent said they had failed to report at least one serious medical error that they knew about, despite the fact that 93 percent of doctors said physicians should report all significant medical errors that they observe. …

A majority said they would refer patients to an imaging facility in which they had a financial interest, but only 24 percent would inform patients of that financial tie.  Yet 96 percent told researchers that doctors should put their patients’ welfare above their own financial interests.

Also, more than a third of physicians, 36 percent, said they would order an unneeded MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) test if it were requested by a patient with low back pain, though most doctors say they do not want to waste scarce resources.

And while 93 percent said doctors should provide necessary medical care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay, only 69 percent currently accept uninsured patients who are unable to pay.

I doubt doctors are much different from other professionals in succumbing to such temptations.  The problem is that people want to believe that doctors are somehow different, and can be trusted just because they are doctors.  Which lets them get away with …

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Fake Optimization Criteria

Followup to:  Fake Justification, The Tragedy of Group Selectionism

I’ve previously dwelt in considerable length upon forms of rationalization whereby our beliefs appear to match the evidence much more strongly than they actually do.  And I’m not overemphasizing the point, either.  If we could beat this fundamental metabias and see what every hypothesis really predicted, we would be able to recover from almost any other error of fact.

The mirror challenge for decision theory is seeing which option a choice criterion really endorses.  If your stated moral principles call for you to provide laptops to everyone, does that really endorse buying a $1 million gem-studded laptop for yourself, or spending the same money on shipping 5000 OLPCs?

We seem to have evolved a knack for arguing that practically any goal implies practically any action.  A phlogiston theorist explaining why magnesium gains weight when burned has nothing on an Inquisitor explaining why God’s infinite love for all His children requires burning some of them at the stake.

There’s no mystery about this.  Politics was a feature of the ancestral environment.  We are descended from those who argued most persuasively that the good of the tribe meant executing their hated rival Uglak.  (We sure ain’t descended from Uglak.) 

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