Search Results for: cynic

Math: Useful & Over-Used

Paul Krugman:

Noah Smith … on the role of math in economics … suggests that it’s mainly about doing hard stuff to prove that you’re smart. I share much of his cynicism about the profession, but I think he’s missing the main way (in my experience) that mathematical models are useful in economics: used properly, they help you think clearly, in a way that unaided words can’t. Take the centerpiece of my early career, the work on increasing returns and trade. The models … involved a fair bit of work to arrive at what sounds in retrospect like a fairly obvious point. … But this point was only obvious in retrospect. … I … went through a number of seminar experiences in which I had to bring an uncomprehending audience through until they saw the light.

Bryan Caplan:

I am convinced that most economath badly fails the cost-benefit test. … Out of the people interested in economics, 95% clearly have a comparative advantage in economic intuition, because they can’t understand mathematical economics at all. …. Even the 5% gain most of their economic understanding via intuition. .. Show a typical economist a theory article, and watch how he “reads” it: … If math is so enlightening, why do even the mathematically able routinely skip the math? .. When mathematical economics contradicts common sense, there’s almost always mathematical sleight of hand at work – a sneaky assumption, a stilted formalization, or bad back-translation from economath to English. … Paul[‘s] … seminar audiences needed the economath because their economic intuition was atrophied from disuse. I can explain Paul’s models to intelligent laymen in a matter of minutes.

Krugman replies:

Yes, there’s a lot of excessive and/or misused math in economics; plus the habit of thinking only in terms of what you can model creates blind spots. … So yes, let’s critique the excessive math, and fight the tendency to equate hard math with quality. But in the course of various projects, I’ve seen quite a lot of what economics without math and models looks like — and it’s not good.

For most questions, the right answer has a simple intuitive explanation. The problem is: so do many wrong answers. Yes we also have intuitions for resolving conflicting intuitions, but we find it relatively easy to self-deceive about such things. Intuitions help people who do not think or argue in good faith to hold to conclusions that fit their ideology, and to not admit they were wrong.

People who instead argue using math are more often forced to admit when they were wrong, or that the best arguments they can muster only support weaker claims than those they made. Similarly, students who enter a field with mistaken intuitions often just do not learn better intuitions unless they are forced to learn to express related views in math. Yes, this typically comes at a huge cost, but it does often work.

We wouldn’t need as much to pay this cost if we were part of communities who argued in good faith. And students (like maybe Bryan) who enter a field with good intuitions may not need as much math to learn more good intuitions from teachers who have them. So for the purpose of drawing accurate and useful conclusions on economics, we could use less math if academics had better incentives for accuracy, such as via prediction markets. Similarly, we could use less math in teaching economics if we better selected students and teachers for good intuitions.

But  in fact academia research and teaching put a low priority on accurate useful conclusions, relative to showing off, and math is very helpful for that purpose. So the math stays. In fact, I find it plausible, though hardly obvious, that moving to less math would increase useful accuracy even without better academic incentives or student selection. But groups who do this are likely to lose out in the contest to seem impressive.

A corollary is that if you personally just want to better understand some particular area of economics where you think your intuitions are roughly trustworthy, you are probably better off mostly skipping the math and instead reasoning intuitively. And that is exactly what I’ve found myself doing in my latest project to foresee the rough outlines of the social implications of brain emulations. But once you find your conclusions, then if you want to seem impressive, or to convince those with poor intuitions to accept your conclusions, you may need to put in more math.

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Is Social Science Extremist?

I recently did two interviews with Nikola Danaylov, aka “Socrates”, who has so far done ~90 Singularity 1 on 1 video podcast interviews. Danaylov says he disagreed with me the most:

My second interview with economist Robin Hanson was by far the most vigorous debate ever on Singularity 1 on 1. I have to say that I have rarely disagreed more with any of my podcast guests before. … I believe that it is ideas like Robin’s that may, and often do, have a direct impact on our future. … On the one hand, I really like Robin a lot: He is that most likeable fellow … who like me, would like to live forever and is in support of cryonics. In addition, Hanson is also clearly a very intelligent person with a diverse background and education in physics, philosophy, computer programming, artificial intelligence and economics. He’s got a great smile and, as you will see throughout the interview, is apparently very gracious to my verbal attacks on his ideas.

On the other hand, after reading his book draft on the [future] Em Economy I believe that some of his suggestions have much less to do with social science and much more with his libertarian bias and what I will call “an extremist politics in disguise.”

So, here is the gist of our disagreement:

I say that there is no social science that, in between the lines of its economic reasoning, can logically or reasonably suggest details such as: policies of social discrimination and collective punishment; the complete privatization of law, detection of crime, punishment and adjudication; that some should be run 1,000 times faster than others, while at the same time giving them 1,000 times more voting power; that emulations who can’t pay for their storage fees should be either restored from previous back-ups or be outright deleted (isn’t this like saying that if you fail to pay your rent you should be shot dead?!)…

Suggestions like the above are no mere details: they are extremist bias for Laissez-faire ideology while dangerously masquerading as (impartial) social science. … Because not only that he doesn’t give any justification for the above suggestions of his, but also because, in principle, no social science could ever give justification for issues which are profoundly ethical and political in nature. (Thus you can say that I am in a way arguing about the proper limits, scope and sphere of economics, where using its tools can give us any worthy and useful insights we can use for the benefit of our whole society.) (more)

You might think that Danaylov’s complaint is that I use the wrong social science, one biased too far toward libertarian conclusions. But in fact his complaint seems to be mainly against the very idea of social science: an ability to predict social outcomes. He apparently argues that since 1) future social outcomes depend in many billions of individual choices, 2) ethical and political considerations are relevant to such choices, and 3) humans have free will to be influenced by such considerations in making their choices, that therefore 4) it should be impossible to predict future social outcomes at a rate better than random chance.

For example, if allowing some ems to run faster than others might offend common ethical ideals of equality, it must be impossible to predict that this will actually happen. While one might be able to use physics to predict the future paths of bouncing billiard balls, as soon as a human will free will enters the picture making a choice where ethics is relevant, all must fade into an opaque cloud of possibilities; no predictions are possible.

Now I haven’t viewed them, but I find it extremely hard to believe that out of 90 interviews on the future, Danaylov has always vigorously complained whenever anyone even implicitly suggested that they could any better than random chance in guessing future outcomes in any context influenced by a human choice where ethics or politics might have been relevant. I’m in fact pretty sure he must have nodded in agreement with many explicit forecasts. So why complain more about me then?

It seems to me that the real complaint here is that I forecast that human choices will in fact result in outcomes that violate the ethical principles Danaylov holds dear. He objects much more to my predicting a future of more inequality than if I had predicted a future of more equality. That is, I’m guessing he mostly approves of idealistic, and disapproves of cynical, predictions. Social science must be impossible if it would predict non-idealistic outcomes, because, well, just because.

FYI, I also did this BBC interview a few months back.

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Why don’t futurists try harder to stay alive?

A significant share of the broader ‘singularitarian’ community believes that they have a chance to live for hundreds of years, if they can survive until the arrival of an AI singularity, whole brain emulation, or just the point at which medical technology is advancing fast enough to keep extending our health-span by at least a year each year (meaning we hit ‘escape velocity‘ and can live indefinitely). Some are sufficiently hopeful about this to have invested in cryonics plans, hoping to be revived in the future, including Robin Hanson. Many others plan to do this, or think they should. (For what it’s worth, I am not yet convinced cryonics is worth the money – for reasons I am writing up – but I do think it warrants serious consideration.)

But there are much more mundane ways of increasing the chance of making it to this glorious future: exercise regularly, eat a nutritious diet low in refined carbohydrates, don’t smoke or hang around those who do, drink in moderation, avoid some illegal drugs, develop strong social supports to lower suicide and other mental health threats, have a secure high-status job, don’t live in an urban area, don’t ride a motorbike, get married (probably), and so on. While the futurist community isn’t full of seriously unhealthy or reckless people, nor does it seem much better in these regards than non-futurists with the same education and social class. A minority enjoy nutritional number crunching, but I haven’t observed diets being much better overall. None of the other behaviours are noticeably better.

I am fairly confident that the lowest hanging fruit would be raising fitness levels, which may even be lower among us than the general population. In addition to the immediate benefits regular and strenuous exercise has on confidence, happiness and productivity, it makes you live quite a bit longer. One study suggests that just 15 minutes of moderate exercise per day adds three years to your life expectancy (HT XKCD).

Now, maybe you are skeptical that those few years will allow you to live long enough to reach the end of involuntary death. Probably they won’t, but the whole life extension approach is to bank on a low chance of a giant payoff (living for hundreds or thousands of years). Furthermore, as the Singularity Institute has compellingly argued, we should not think we can confidently predict when AGI will be invented, if at all. The same is true to a lesser extent of progress towards whole brain emulation, or ending ageing. Furthermore, cryonics preservation procedures, and the selection of organisations that offer cryonics are gradually improving. Extending your life by five to ten years by doing all the ordinary things right could really make the difference; at least anyone considering gambling on cryonics should surely also find regular jogging worth their time.

I have even heard smart people claim that there is no need to worry about staying healthy because new technology will cure any diseases you get by the time you get them. But uncertainty about how soon such technologies will appear, combined with the high potential reward of living a little longer, would suggest exactly the opposite.

If I had to provide a cynical explanation for this apparently conflicting behaviour, I would suggest people are signing up for cryonics, or engaging in nutritional geekery, to signal their rationality and membership of a particular social clique. Going to the gym, even if it is a better bet for extending your life, doesn’t currently have the same effect. If you fear you’re stuck in that or some similar trap, consider using Stickk or Beeminder to make sure you do the rational thing.

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Silly Mayans

In my morning paper, today’s possible apocalypse was mentioned in five comics, but no where else. I’ve heard many mention the issue of the last few weeks, but mostly mocking it; none seem remotely concerned. Why so many mentions of something so few believe? To mock it of course – to enjoy feeling superior to fools who take such things seriously.

So are we ridiculing only those who fear apocalypse based on ancient predictions, or all who fear apocalypse? Alas, as I’ve discussed before, it seems we ridicule all of them:

On average, survivalists tend to display undesirable characteristics. They tend to have extreme and unrealistic opinions, that disaster soon has an unrealistically high probability. They also show disloyalty and a low opinion of their wider society, by suggesting it is due for a big disaster soon. They show disloyalty to larger social units, by focusing directly on saving their own friends and family, rather than focusing on saving those larger social units. And they tend to be cynics, with all that implies. (more)

Over the years I’ve met many folks who say they are concerned about existential risk, but I have yet to see any of them do anything concrete and physical about it. They talk, write, meet, and maybe write academic papers, but seem quite averse to putting one brick on top of another, or packing away an extra bag of rice. Why?

Grand disaster is unlikely, happens on a large scope, and probably far away in time, all of which brings on a very far view, wherein abstract talk seems more apt than concrete action. Also, since far views are more moral and idealistic, people seem especially offended about folks preparing selfishly for disaster, and especially keen to avoid that appearance, even at the expense of not preparing.

This seems related to the wide-spread rejection of cryonics in a world that vastly overspends on end of life medicine; more folks pay a similar amount to launch their ashes into space than try to extend life via cryonics. The idea of trying to avoid the disaster of death by returning in a distant future also invokes a far view, wherein we more condemn selfish acts and leaving-the-group betrayal, are extra confident in theories saying it won’t work, and feel only weak motivations to improve things.

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Invent yourself and think through your impact – graduation ceremony speech

I was lucky enough to be chosen to be the student speaker for my graduation ceremony. Unsurprisingly, I decided to talk about some key ideas emerging from the effective altruist movement, in which I have recently started working.

It was a challenging event to write for, because I am too cynical to be sentimental or outright wrong, but nor did I think it would be productive to spurn the social norms surrounding this kind of tradition altogether. I’ll let you judge whether I did a good job of riding the line.

The speech is below the fold. The personal content comes first; if you would like to skip that, click here.

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen. Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.

Continue reading "Invent yourself and think through your impact – graduation ceremony speech" »

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Who Believes These?

“Fifty Shades” … tells the story of Anastasia Steele, an inexplicably virginal recent college graduate, and Christian Grey, the impossibly handsome and twisted 27-year-old billionaire who falls for her. Boy meets girl, boy whips girl, boy loses girl. In the end, … Ana has it her way: She declines to sign Grey’s “submissive” contract; they keep on having kinky sex, but not too much; and Steele helps Grey recover from his wounded childhood. …

It has ushered in a moment of frank talk about women’s sexual needs and desires. … Leonard, the author, makes the key distinction: between women’s fantasies and their realities. “In real life, I think it’s something very, very different,” she told NBC. “You want someone who does the dishes.” (more)

A symbiotic relationship [is] developing between the Obama campaign, with its style-conscious first lady who dons a wide variety of American designers, and a deep-pocketed, largely Democratic fashion industry, which has been increasingly coordinating its support of Obama. … Name an American designer. Vera Wang. Michael Kors. Diane von Furstenberg. Michelle Obama wears these American luxury labels and a host of others, earning her consistent praise from a fickle industry. …

The first lady’s campaign spokeswoman Olivia Alair said: “The first lady thinks that women should wear whatever makes them feel good and be comfortable. That’s how the first lady chooses her own clothes and based on no other considerations.” (more)

Right. Most women have no interest in impossibly handsome 27 year old billionaires who don’t do the dishes. And Michelle Obama only wears Democrat donor fashion items because they just happen to be the most comfortable clothes available.

These people didn’t believe these things when they said them, and 95% of people who hear them don’t believe them either. Yet we all know they are the things these people are supposed to say to avoid seeming unacceptably cynical.

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Death of a Salesman

A recent NYT article intrigued me:

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” … is the most devastating portrait of punctured middle-class dreams in our national literature. … [It] has consolidated its prestige as an exposure of middle-class delusions. … Mr. Miller later wrote …. that he had hoped the play would expose “this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.” … Mr. Miller remembered worrying in 1949 that “there was too much identification with Willy, too much weeping, and that the play’s ironies were being dimmed out by all this empathy.” … Miller’s outrage at a capitalist system he wanted to humanize has become our cynical adaptation to a capitalist system we pride ourselves on knowing how to manipulate. (more)

I didn’t remember the play offering a critique of capitalism, but looking around I see this view is common:

Critics have maintained that much of the enduring universal appeal of Death of a Salesman lies in its central theme of the failure of the American Dream. Willy’s commitment to false social values—consumerism, ambition, social stature—keeps him from acknowledging the value of human experience—the comforts of personal relationships, family and friends, and love. … Some commentators perceive the play as an indictment of American capitalism and a rejection of materialist values. … Willy’s … penchant for blaming others has been passed onto his sons and, as a result, all three men exhibit a poor work ethic and lack of integrity. Willy’s inability to discern between reality and fantasy is another recurring motif. (more)

So I just re-read the play. And it does contain critiques of status, ambition for status, and self-delusion to gain status. It is indeed sad to see a success-driven man unwilling to admit his failure, or to accept charity from friends, choose instead to kill himself. But I see no further critiques of materialism or capitalism in the play.

On materialism, Willy Loman and his similar son Happy mainly want to be liked and respected. Sometimes they care about money, but mainly to keep score, and get respect. When they want luxury goods, such as stockings or fancy drinks, it is mainly to get women to sleep with them. In contrast, Willy’s other son Biff wants “to be outdoors, with [my] shirt off.” Perhaps those other women are materialistic, but not these men.

On capitalism, the play might hold critiques of failing to save for hard times, or of success based on who you know, good looks, and likability. But these are not intrinsic to, or even obviously correlated with, capitalism. For example, North Korea today is nothing like capitalism, yet it has strong status differences, people who struggle for status, in part to gain sex, and success based in part on good looks and who you know. A story about an old self-deluded status-seeking North Korean failure would make just as much sense as Willy Loman’s story.

This seems to me a common situation – things said to be critiques of capitalism are often just critiques of humanity. Humans vie selfishly and self-deludedly for status. Some succeed, while others fail. The struggle, and the failures, aren’t pretty. Yes capitalism inherits this ugliness, but then so does any other system with humans.

It is interesting to note that, compared to most occupations, the world of Miller the playwright was especially like the salesmen Miller described:

For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. … He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. … A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

Like salesmen, playwrights succeed when others like them. Even though most fail, most self-deludedly think they will be the exceptions, and can be crushed when they eventually learn otherwise. But few playwrights lament this, or blame it on capitalism. Why?

I suspect this is because playwrights see even failed playwrights as high status, and successful salesmen as low status. A hidden message of the play is “Poor Willy can’t see that even if he sold a lot, he’d still be a failure in our eyes.” Which is part of why it bothered Arthur Miller that his audiences empathized so much with Willy. Audiences thought Willy could have high status.

Some key quotes from the play: Continue reading "Death of a Salesman" »

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Life Is Good

At Sunday’s meetup, some folks expressed surprise that I seemed nicer, softer, and less cynical in person, relative to my writings. I do often take “cynical” positions, in the sense of assigning low motives to behavior, and cynics do often have sour attitudes.

So let me take this opportunity to affirm something that usually seems too obvious to be worth mentioning: life is good! Lives based on motives that are not considered especially admirable can be satisfying and enjoyable. For example, I like to compete (such as in board games and conversation), to be admired, to lust, to find fault and criticize, and to make and spend money. I love talking with smart people interested in interesting topics, even if I don’t agree with them. And I love having the time and freedom to think and write about topics that interest me. And, do I really need to say it, I love eating, sleeping, getting clean, riding my bike, watching clouds float past the trees, etc. And I don’t think I’m that unusual. Even if most of us follow low motives most of the time, LIFE IS GOOD!

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Do Liars Care More?

One of the biggest lies we tell is not having favorite kids:

It’s one of the worst-kept secrets of family life that all parents have a preferred son or daughter, and the rules for acknowledging it are the same everywhere: The favored kids recognize their status and keep quiet about it. … The unfavored kids howl about it like wounded cats. And on pain of death, the parents deny it all. …

384 sibling pairs … [were] questioned … and videotaped … as they worked through conflicts. Overall, … 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child, usually the older one. … “The most likely candidate for the mother’s favorite was the firstborn son, and for the father, it was the last-born daughter. ” …

Firstborns have a 3-point IQ advantage over later siblings. … Kids who felt less loved than other siblings were more likely to develop anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. (more)

Interestingly, lying here is seen by many to signal caring:

Not all experts agree on just what the impact of favoritism is, but as a rule, their advice to parents is simple: If you absolutely must have a favorite (and you must), keep it to yourself. Even if your kids see through the ruse, the mere act of trying to maintain it can help them preserve the emotional pretext too — a bit of denial that does little harm. What’s more, the effort it takes to tell a benign lie is in its own way an act of love toward the unfavored child.

Its not clear though how often disfavored kids see self-serving denials as showing care. Do parents who care more about disfavored kids actually lie more than others?

Also, we less resent favoritism to lower status siblings:

Even the most blatant favoritism is easier to take when there’s a defensible reason for it. Perhaps the most extreme example is when one child in the home has special needs. Children with Down syndrome or autism … Kids with physical disabilities … require more time and attention from parents … Talking about the situation openly is the best and most direct way to limit resentment. … “Research suggests that differential treatment may have no negative effects when children understand why.”

Oh kids understand favoritism toward smarter, prettier, stronger siblings – they just hate it more.

I suspect that many commonly told lies are accepted and even encouraged because they are seen by many as showing that liars care. Cynics who tell the truth are, in contrast, described as cold and hostile. A problem, of course, is that we often believe our lies, leading to mistaken inferences and decisions. Which may be why humans often seem so oblivious to “obvious” implications of their “beliefs.”

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Is Selfless Evil Far?

Brainstorming came from Osborn in 1939 as a method for creative problem solving. He was frustrated by employees’ inability to develop creative ideas individually for ad campaigns. … Osborn claimed that two principles contribute … “1. Defer judgment,” and “2. Reach for quantity.” (more)

In the last decade or so, psychologists have confirmed one of the most robust mind patterns ever seen: construal level theory, which I call near vs. far thought. In brief: humans think more abstractly, and in less detail, about things far away in time, space, social contact, and probability, and assume that things near or far in some ways are also near or far in other ways.

Since far mode thoughts tend to have weaker decision consequences, I’ve suggested that far mode is better adapted to managing social images, relative to making helpful choices. This fits with far mode being more associated with confidence, high power/status, positive moods and reasons, pride and shame, self-control, trusting others, resisting conformity pressure, supporting underdogs, love over sex, words over sounds, polite speech over slang, and ideal values over practical constraints.

But even if its greater role in managing social images makes far mode beliefs less accurate, far mode is built too deeply in us to do without it. If we must use it, how can we best use it, to avoid bias? My tentative answer starts from the observation that in far mode we are better at creativity, while near mode we are better at analysis.

Mental tasks can be roughly divided into generation and evaluation. Our minds must search a vast space of possible thoughts, generating possible thoughts to explicitly consider. We must also evaluate such explicit thoughts. Since far mode is better at creativity, while near mode is better at analysis, we should prefer to generate in far mode, and evaluate in near mode. First see if idealism can be made practical, before resorting to cynicism. This fits with claims that groups create better when they temporarily avoid criticism and evaluation.

Of course we can’t make this a strict rule; circumstances will often force us to evaluate in far mode, and to generate in near mode. But we should at least be aware of our handicaps in such situations. Which brings us to the subject of evil.

Humans evolved a sense of morality, helping us to coordinate to discourage many specific forms of selfish behavior that hurt groups. We thus evolved to tell stories of evil villains who engaged in such harmful behaviors, and of good heroes who opposed them. Such stories often depicted villains who are tempted in near mode by concrete personal gain, such as loot or sex, and heroes who thought in far mode about a wider good.

But today, most evil is probably not of this selfish sort. Instead, very bad things are caused more by far thinking. Consider the prototypically-evil Nazis. Their urge to exterminate Jews came less from unhappy personal experiences with individual Jews, and more from abstract fears gone wrong – killing Jews probably hurt Germans overall. Similarly, most xenophobia comes less from personal interactions and more from abstract, and largely incorrect, fears. People tend to have satisfactory and mutually advantageous relations with immigrants, even as they politically support policies to prevent such relations.

Similarly, democratic regulation usually goes wrong by supplanting direct consumer evaluations of products, services, and practices, which tend to be made in near mode, with abstract public opinions about good policy, which tend to be formed in far mode. Autocratic regulation goes wrong similarly, since power tends to put leaders in a far mode. I’m not saying that there should never be regulation, but rather that an important and neglected cost of regulation is displacing reliable near mode evaluations with unreliable far mode evaluations.

We can’t think without far mode, but we can use it most where it works best: to suggest candidate actions, products, policies, theories, etc. We should minimize biases from a far mode system designed more for social image management, by using near mode where it works best, to analyze and evaluate these candidates. Science experiments, computer engineering demos, policy trials, prediction bets, and business profits all offer such crucial concrete near-mode feedback. We need these to avoid the all-too-common selfless evil of far mode evaluation errors.

Added 8Sept: There is some tension between this post and my older post on The Felt & The Unfelt.

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