Tag Archives: Disagreement

Status Trumps Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parsing Pictures of Mars Muck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Debunking of Debunking

In a new paper in Journal of Social Philosophy, Nicholas Smyth offers a “moral critique” of “psychological debunking”, by which he means “a speech‐act which expresses the proposition that a person’s beliefs, intentions, or utterances are caused by hidden and suspect psychological forces.” Here is his summary:

There are several reasons to worry about psychological debunking, which can easily counterbalance any positive reasons that may exist in its favor:

1. It is normally a form of humiliation, and we have a presumptive duty to avoid humiliating others.
2. It is all too easy to offer such stories without acquiring sufficient evidence for their truth,
3. We may aim at no worthy social or individual goals,
4. The speech‐act itself may be a highly inefficient means for achieving worthy goals, and
5. We may unwittingly produce bad consequences which strongly outweigh any good we do achieve, or which actually undermine our good aims entirely.

These problems … are mutually reinforcing. For example, debunking stories would not augment social tensions so rapidly if debunkers were more likely to provide real evidence for their causal hypotheses. Moreover, if we weren’t so caught up in social warfare, we’d be much less likely to ignore the need for evidence, or to ignore the need to make sure that the values which drive us are both worthy and achievable.

That is, people may actually have hidden motives, these might in fact explain their beliefs, and critics and audiences may have good reasons to consider that possibility. Even so, Smyth says that it is immoral to humiliate people without sufficient reason, and we in fact do tend to humiliate people for insufficient reasons when we explain their beliefs via hidden motives. Furthermore, we tend to lower our usual epistemic standards to do so.

This sure sounds to me like Smyth is offering a psychological debunking of psychological debunking! That is, his main argument against such debunking is via his explaining this common pattern, that we explain others’ beliefs in terms of hidden motives, by pointing to the hidden motives that people might have to offer such explanations.

Now Smyth explicitly says that he doesn’t mind general psychological debunking, only that offered against particular people:

I won’t criticize high‐level philosophical debunking arguments, because they are distinctly impersonal: they do not attribute bad or distasteful motives to particular persons, and they tend to be directed at philosophical positions. By contrast, the sort of psychological debunking I take issue with here is targeted at a particular person or persons.

So presumably Smyth doesn’t have an issue with our book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, as it also stays at the general level and does’t criticize particular people. And so he also thinks his debunking is okay, because it is general.

However, I don’t see how staying with generalities saves Smyth from his own arguments. Even if general psychological debunking humiliates large groups all at once, instead of individuals one at a time, it is still humiliation. Which he still might do yet should avoid because of his inadequate reasons, lowering of epistemic standards, there being better ways to achieve his goals, and it unwittingly producing bad consequences. Formally his arguments work just as well against general as against specific debunking.

I’d say that if you have a general policy of not appearing to pick fights, then you should try to avoid arguing by blaming your opponents’ motives if you can find other arguments sufficient to make your case. But that’s just an application of the policy of not visibly picking fights when you can avoid them. And many people clearly seem to be quite willing and eager to pick fights, and so don’t accept this general policy of avoiding fights.

If your policy were just to speak the most relevant truth at each point, to most inform rational audience members at that moment on a particular topic, then you probably should humiliate many people, because in fact hidden motives are quite common and relevant to many debates. But this speak-the-most-truth policy tends to lose you friends and associates over the longer run, which is why it is usually not such a great strategy.

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Position Vs. Topic Contrarians

[You can take] an authority defying position [that you] can share with like-minded folks and which might later lead to glory, while avoiding most of the accuracy-reducing costs of disagreement: be contrarian on questions, not answers. (More)

People love to discuss and argue, but usually not on topics where everyone expects everyone to agree. Instead, it is the prospect of disagreement that gives energy and life to most conversation. Even if your conversation partners nod in enthusiastic agreement, they expect that others out there would not so easily agree.

Sometimes people agree with majorities and at other times they agree with minorities. When they take the latter route they often proudly claim that this shows they are motivated mainly by truth, as that explains their willingness to suffer disapproval from a majority.

But in fact, taking a minority position can show your independence and defiance, and it can often get you more attention, which you can use to show how likeable, clever, and articulate you are in the way that you take your contrarian position. Also, sometimes a minority is especially grateful for your show of loyalty to them. And you may hope for larger reputation gains if you are later proved right for taking a minority, relative to a majority, stance. Thus it isn’t at all obvious that being contrarian in this way reliably shows one’s truth-orientation.

As the above quote indicates, there is another kind of contrarian, who instead of taking unusual positions on familiar questions, focuses on unusual questions. Contrarians of this sort are less likely to be wrong and to cause the larger world to go wrong in listening to them. And they contribute more to an intellectual division of labor, wherein we all specialize on different mixes of topics, and then share our conclusions with each other.

But while a topic contrarian seems to contribute more to our all becoming better informed on everything, topic contrarians gain far fewer advantages from their stance. Human conversations tend to follow a norm of sticking to whatever are the current common topics, and so those who speak to other topics are mostly ignored. For example, in policy worlds, there’s a saying that there’s no point in releasing a white paper on a topic that hasn’t been in the news in the last two weeks.

So while audiences often listen especially attentively to position contrarians, they may not even hear a topic contrarian. Which means they are much less likely to notice how likable, clever, or articulate you are about that. Few will see your talking about a weird topic as showing loyalty to them. Yes, you might later gain reputation if your topic later becomes more popular, but usually folks will just see you as bad at following fashion.

I thus conclude that topic contrarians can better argue that their stance suggests a truth orientation, as they gain so much less in other ways.

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Response to Suri Re Futarchy

If by chance one of your writings strikes a chord, and is cited by folks decades later, your main reward may be to repeatedly hear the same misunderstandings and off-target counter-arguments that you’ve repeatedly tried to head off in your writings, but which critics apparently can’t be bothered to read. Sometimes, though not usually, I bother to respond. Case in point: Sunil Suri’s complaints about futarchy in Politics With Skin In The Game.

His summary of futarchy mechanics seems fine to me, though it might mislead readers into thinking that one needs to pick a new outcome for each new policy choice. I instead suggest picking just one standard outcome measure to use for most all big choices. I’d only pick specialized measures for decisions too small to sufficiently impact the standard measure.

Suri admits to some positives:  

futarchy creates financial incentives to be a better-informed citizen. This could transform our politics by:

  • Reducing our consumption of low-quality information and our susceptibility to cognitive biases – both of which distract us from what matters.
  • Making real expertise matter again – while democratising it. …

Suri then lists ten objections. But five of those objections merely point to general features of the problem that futarchy is trying to address, which are thus issues that bedevil any solution to its problem.

To review, the problem is how to make key government policy choices, the sorts of choices now made when bills are passed by a legislature, or when executives issue orders. These choices are typically made in a complex world under great uncertainty regarding relevant outcomes, outcomes which are often spread out over many decades. A great many values and preferences are relevant for these choices. These values, and the relevant info needed to make these decisions well, are all housed within opaque, distracted, and often irrational humans, who must somehow be induced to sufficiently reveal them.

Here are Suri’s five applies-to-all-solutions objections:  Continue reading "Response to Suri Re Futarchy" »

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Who Wants Common Sense?

The mass media often says things that should seem unlikely, at least to a well-informed common sense. And in such cases, the usual outcome is that common sense is proved right. This seems so obvious to me that I don’t see the point in arguing it. But to illustrate the point, let me mention the book Expert Political Judgement, and recent claims that AI would take away most jobs, that masks and travel restrictions do not help in pandemics, and that hell on Earth will result if the other side wins the next election.

What I want to point out in this post is a noteworthy lack of clearly-available voices that express such well-informed common-sense-based media-skepticism.

Let us focus on the top 1% of the top 1% of people, in terms of their ability to understand and apply common sense. Such people would be reasonably smart, know the intro-textbook basics of many fields, and the basic history of their industry, region, and world for the last century or two. Oh, and they must be able to write tolerably clearly.

Out of 8 billion people in the world, there should be 800K people in this 1% of 1% class. Each of which could in principle author a newsletter, blog, or podcast, etc. wherein they specialize in pointing out the worst ways that recent media reports conflict with common sense. In its first decade or two, such a newsletter could emphasize cases likely to resolve within a decade or two, in the sense that any reasonable attempt to score them for accuracy will be able to credit a substantial fraction of what they’ve said on this timescale.

For example, if you made one comment per week for ten years, that’s 500 comments, and if just 40% of these could be scored within two decades, that’s 200 scoreable comments. And if you make ten comments per week, that’s 2000 to score. Which should be plenty enough to show that an author can see and apply common sense to correct media errors.

Imagine that the top 1% of media consumers could recognize and appreciate such a track record. So if an author took a decade or two to collect such a track record of cases pointing out media deviations from common sense, this 1% of consumers would be capable of browsing this track record to evaluate it, or trusting intermediaries who scored it for them. And they’d value such a common sense corrections enough that they’d spend some time actually reading them.

So I’m postulating 80M media consumers who would want to read common sense media critiques, and 800K authors capable of writing such critiques, and of validating their track record within a decade or two. This seems a large enough market, in terms of supply and demand, that we should see at least 800 actual entrants, who regularly write commentary on media errors. That’s only one entrant per 100K customer/readers, and one per 1K potential authors.

Surely 80M customers eager to read such commentary could induce at least 800 writers to regularly write such things. Even if such authors did it as a hobby on the side, after their regular job, and got paid nothing directly for it. Maybe most of these 800K folks have better things to do with their time, but not all of them. The wisdom of at least one in a thousand of them may not be recognized by the labor market, or its realization may be blocked by individual personality quirks. Surely we all know this large a fraction of smart and wise but under-used folks.

Consider further that this class of 800K potential authors could each team with associates, to create more effective commentary. Associates could feed these authors summaries of media cases to consider, could polish their prose to become more concise and accessible to readers, and could organized the scoring of their track records. And once an author had validated his or her own track record, they might later specialize in rating other sources, either by endorsing their track records or directly including their commentary. Given all these possibilities, I’m confident that at least 800 writers could actually write such commentary, and have it be validated as accurate, if in fact there were 80M customers willing to read them.

Furthermore, 800 authors would allow a substantial degree of specialization, wherein each author focuses to some extent on particular regions, industries, topics, and media sources. I’d expect a lot of overlap, wherein authors end up commenting on the same media stories. But we don’t need all 80M customers to care mainly about the same world-media stories, ones that most of these 800 authors comment on. We just need these 80M customers to have wide enough interests so that 800 authors suffice to serve them.

The attentive reader has probably already deduced my point: As we don’t actually see 800 authors specializing in using common sense to correct common media errors, and proving their accuracy via track records, there must not actually be even 1% of media consumers interested in reading such corrections. And as I’m confident that at least 1% would be able to find and appreciate such corrections, if they were interested, I must put the main blame on their lack of interest.

I’m not sure we even see eight authors who specialize in this basic writing strategy of using common sense to correct media errors. So I’d say there may not even be 800K customers worldwide, 1% of 1% of readers, interested in reading such media corrections written by the top 1% of 1% common-sense authors, assuming that such writers are willing to write commentary if they can expect 100K readers each.

Now, I expect that many people will say that they’d like to read such commentary. But only as long as that comes with all the usual other things they get from their pundits. Such as wit, political affiliation, name recognition, and arguments they can repeat to associates to sound smart. They aren’t much willing to trade off those other desired pundit qualities for more common sense critical accuracy. Which of course really means that they don’t much care for common sense based media criticism.

Yes, media markets are often regulated. Professional licensing prevents most people from talking on some topics, and media regulation prevents many from getting paid for their commentary. Libel laws and other kinds of liability often punish honesty, as do cancel mobs. But on reflection I just can’t put the main blame on these things. There is in fact usually enough freedom of speech that media error correction could find an audience, if a large enough audience actually existed. (And yes, perhaps also if they stayed away from the most controversial of topics.)

Some hope that future innovations like AI-written commentary, or prediction markets on common media topics, could eventually provide such common-sense based criticism. But can it do so cheaply enough to overcome the low market demand problem? If even simple articulate humans can’t find such a market today, I don’t see why AI or prediction markets should expect to do much better later.

Finally, consider this: if there’s no market for the easiest cheapest way to correct many big errors all at once, why would there be markets for less-effective more-expensive ways to correct media errors?

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More on Experts Vs. Elites

When a boss issues a new order, usually the main thing he or she is fighting with is the effects of his (or a prior boss’) previous orders. It can take time to undo their effects. And subordinates who fear that yet newer orders will come down before they can make enough changes might prefer to drag their feet, to see if these current orders will last.

Some responded to my last post on experts versus elites by saying how good it is that elites often overrule experts, as experts get it so wrong so often. As with early in this pandemic. But the experts are less of an autonomous force here, and more just the repository of previous elite instructions. If pandemic experts had it wrong before about masks or travel bans, that is mostly because elites previously pushed them to adopt such policies. For example, our continued ban on challenge trials is due to how med ethics experts have interpreted prior elite instructions. Experts won’t change their mind on this until elites tell them they are allowed to change their minds. In contexts where elites are typically so pushy, it can be hard to tell what experts would decide in their absence.

In economics, it usually feels pretty obvious what the elites want us to say. Not all economists do what they are told, but the major institutions and their elite leaders seem mostly willing to go along, and so what the public mostly hears is economists saying what elites want us to say. When elites change their minds, our major institutions also quickly change their minds.

Now I had been thinking this is all bad news for the new kinds of institutions I want to introduce, as I had been assuming they would be framed as new expert institutions. And yes all this suggests a distrust of formal expert mechanisms that can’t be easily overruled by elite opinion. But maybe I have been too hasty about how new institutions might be framed.

Consider the widespread hostility to “market manipulation”, such as seen in the recent Gamestop stock price episode. Or consider movies like Boiler Room, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, and Wolf of Wall Street. Typically, financial markets are chock full of “manipulation”, in the sense that most traders are trying to talk and spin to get others to agree with and follow their trades. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they fail, but that mostly doesn’t bother people. What bothers people most is when they see clearly low status low prestige people seeming to greatly influence prices, especially in ways that seem unlikely to last. (Elite manipulations tend to last.)

Consider also that elites only rarely complain about errors in speculative market prices, such as stock prices or currency prices. They mainly complain when they think they can find non-elite folks to blame for such prices. Together, these facts suggest to me that most elites may see speculative market prices as something that elites create. They know that there is a lot of money at stake in such markets, and that many big powerful rich elite players play heavily in such markets. So perhaps elites usually accept the verdict of such prices as a verdict of elites!

If this were true, then the prospects for improving our social consensus via improving speculative markets would be far higher than I’d ever hoped! If we could get thick markets trading on many more topics, then elites might well defer to those price estimates in their elite conversations, and push experts to also accept such estimates.

Of course, even if elites would accept a price estimate when it exists, this doesn’t mean most are eager for such any particular price to exist. Rivalrous elites constantly try to undermine each other, including via undermining the organs that rival elites use to express their opinions. If if the prices existed for a while, I predict elites would cave and defer to them, at least until they could kill them.

To signal to all that they are dominated by elites, I do think it important that a lot of money seem be riding on these market prices. Mere prediction tournaments or polls of experts just will not do. Even real money markets with small stakes may not be taken seriously enough.

My proposal for Fire-the-CEO markets seems like it could work here. Though I’ve been waiting for 25 years now for someone to take up this idea.

Added 8Feb: I see now why my usual answer to “what should I read?”, namely “textbooks”, falls on deaf ears. People are looking for elites to read, not experts.

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Experts Versus Elites

Consider a typical firm or other small organization, run via a typical management hierarchy. At the bottom are specialists, who do very particular tasks. At the top are generalists, who supposedly consider it all in the context of a bigger picture. In the middle are people who specialize to some degree, but who also are supposed to consider somewhat bigger pictures.

On any particular issue, people at the bottom can usually claim the most expertise; they know their job best. And when someone at the top has to make a difficult decision, they usually prefer to justify it via reference to recommendations from below. They are just following the advice of their experts, they say. But of course they lie; people at the top often overrule subordinates. And while leaders often like to pretend that they select people for promotion on the basis of doing lower jobs well, that is also often a lie.

Our larger society has a similar structure. We have elites who are far more influential than most of us about what happens in our society. As we saw early in the pandemic, the elites are always visibly chattering among themselves about the topics of the day, and when they form a new opinion, the experts usually quickly cave to agree with them, and try to pretend they agreed all along.

As a book I recently reviewed explains in great detail, elites are selected primarily for their prestige and status, which has many contributions, including money, looks, fame, charm, wit, positions of power, etc. Elites like to pretend they were selected for being experts at something, and they like to pretend their opinions are just reflecting what experts have said (“we believe the science!”). But they often lie; elite opinion often overrules expert opinion, especially on topics with strong moral colors. And elites are selected far more for prestige than expertise.

When an academic wins a Nobel prize, they have achieved a pinnacle of expertise. At which point they often start to wax philosophic, and writing op-eds. They seem to be making a bid to become an elite. Because we all respect and want to associate with elites far more than with experts. Elites far less often lust after becoming experts, because we are often willing to treat elites as if they are experts. For example, when a journalist writes a popular book on science, they are often willing to field science questions when they give a talk on their book. And the rest of us are far more interested in hearing them talk on the subject than the scientists they write about.

Consider talks versus panels at conferences. A talk tends to be done in expert mode, wherein the speaker sticks to topics on which they have acquired expert knowledge. But then on panels, the same people talk freely on most any topic that comes up, even topics where they have little expertise. You might think that audiences would be less interested in hearing such inexpert speculation, but in fact they seem to eat it up. My interpretation: on panels, people pose as elites, and talk in elite mode. Like they might do at a cocktail party. And audiences eagerly gather around panelists, just like they would gather around prestigious folks arguing at a cocktail party about topics on which they have little expertise.

Consider news articles versus columnists. The news articles are written by news experts, in full expert mode. They are clearly more accurate on average than are columns. But columns writers take on an elite mode, where they pontificate on all issues of the day, regardless of how much they know. And readers love that.

Consider boards of directors versus boards of advisors. Advisors are nominally experts, while directors are nominally elites. Directors are far more powerful, are lobbied far more strongly, and are paid a lot more too. Boards of advisors are usually not asked for advise, they are mainly there to add prestige to an organization. But prestige via their expertise, rather than their general eliteness.

Even inside academic worlds, we usually pretend to pick leaders like journal editors, funding program managers, department chairs, etc. based mainly on their expert credentials. But they also lie; raw prestige counts for a lot more than they like to admit.

Finally, consider that recently I went into clear expert mode to release a formal preprint on grabby aliens, which induced almost no (< 10) comments on this blog or Twitter, in contrast to far more comments when arguable-elites discuss it in panelist/elite mode: Scott Aaronson (205), Scott Alexander (108), and Hacker News (110). People are far more interested in talking with elites in elite mode on most topics, than in talking with the clear relevant experts in expert mode.

All of which suggests that my efforts to replace choice via elite association with prediction markets and paying for results face even larger uphill battles than I’ve anticipated.

Added noon: This also helps explain why artists are said to “contribute to important conversations” by making documentaries, etc. that express “emotional truths.” They present themselves as qualifying elites by virtue of their superior art abilities.

See also: More on Experts Vs. Elites

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Lognormal Priorities

In many polls on continuous variables over the last year, I’ve seen lognormal distributions typically fit poll responses well. And of course lognormals are also one of the most common distributions in nature. So let’s consider the possibility that, regarding problem areas like global warming, falling fertility, or nuclear war, distributions of priority estimate are lognormal.

Here are parameter values (M = median, A = (mean) average, S = sigma) for lognormal fits to polls on how many full-time equivalent workers should be working on each of the following six problems:

Note that priorities as set by medians are quite different from those set by averages.

Imagine that someone is asked to estimate their (median) priority of a topic area. If their estimate results from taking the product of many estimates regarding relevant factors, then not-fully-dependent noise across different factors will tend to produce a lognormal distribution regarding overall (median) estimates. If they were to then act on those estimates, such as for a poll or choosing to devote time or money, we should see a lognormal distribution of opinions and efforts. When variance (and sigma) is high, and effort is on average roughly proportional to perceived priority, then most effort should come from a quite small fraction of the population. And poll answers should look lognormal. We see both these things.

Now let’s make our theory a bit more complex. Assume that people see not only their own estimate, but sometimes also estimates of others. They then naturally put info weight on others’ estimates. This results in a distribution of (median) opinions with the same median, but a lower variance (and sigma). If they were fully rational and fully aware of each others’ opinions, this variance would fall to zero. But it doesn’t; people in general don’t listen to each other as much as they should if they cared only about accuracy. So the poll response variance we see is probably smaller than the variance in initial individual estimates, though we don’t know how much smaller.

What if the topic area in question has many subareas, and each person gives an estimate that applies to a random subarea of the total area? For example, when estimating the priority of depression, each person may draw conclusions by looking at the depressed people around them. In this case, the distribution of estimates reflects not only the variance of noisy clues, but also the real variance of priority within the overall area. Here fully rational people would come to agree on both a median and a variance, a variance reflecting the distribution of priority within this area. This true variance would be less than the variance in poll responses in a population that does not listen to each other as much as they should.

(The same applies to the variance within each person’s estimate distribution. Even if all info is aggregated, if this distribution has a remaining variance, that is “real” variance that should count, just as variance within an area should count. It is the variance resulting from failing to aggregate info that should not count.)

Now let’s consider what this all implies for action biases. If the variance in opinion expressed and acted on were due entirely to people randomly sampling from the actual variance within each area, then efforts toward each area would end up being in proportion to an info-aggregated best estimates of each area’s priority – a social optimum! But the more that variance in opinion and thus effort is also due to variance in individual noisy estimates, then the more that such variance will distort efforts. Efforts will go more as the average of each distribution, rather than its median. The priority areas with higher variance in individual noise will get too much effort, relative to areas with lower variance.

Of course there are other relevant factors that determine efforts, besides these priorities. Some priority areas have organizations that help to coordinate related efforts, thus reducing free riding problems. Some areas become fashionable, giving people extra social reasons to put in visible efforts. And other areas look weird or evil, discouraging visible efforts. Even so, we should worry that too much effort will go to areas with high variance in priority estimate noise. All else equal, you should avoid such areas. Unless estimate variance reflects mostly true variance within an area, prefer high medians over high averages.

Added 3p: I tried 7 more mundane issues, to see how they varied in variance. The following includes all 13, sorted by median.

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Sim Argument Confidence

Nick Bostrom once argued that you must choose between three options re the possibility that you are now actually living in and experiencing a simulation created by future folks to explore their past: (A) its true, you are most likely a sim person living in a sim, either of this sort or another, (B) future folk will never be able to do this, because it just isn’t possible, they die first, or they never get rich and able enough, or (C) future folk can do this, but they do not choose to do it much, so that most people experiencing a world like yours are real humans now, not future sim people.

This argument seems very solid to me: future folks either do it, can’t do it, or choose not to. If you ask folks to pick from these options you get a simple pattern of responses:

Here we see 40% in denial, hoping for another option, and the others about equally divided among the three options. But if you ask people to estimate the chances of each option, a different picture emerges. Lognormal distributions (which ignore the fact that chances can’t exceed 100%) are decent fits to these distributions, and here are their medians:

So when we look at the people who are most confident that each option is wrong, we see a very different picture. Their strongest confidence, by far, is that they can’t possibly be living in a sim, and their weakest confidence, by a large margin, is that the future will be able to create sims. So if we go by confidence, poll respondents’ favored answer is that the future will either die soon or never grow beyond limited abilities, or that sims are just impossible.

My answer is that the future mostly won’t choose to sim us:

I doubt I’m living in a simulation, because I doubt the future is that interested in simulating us; we spend very little time today doing any sort of simulation of typical farming or forager-era folks, for example. (More)

If our descendants become better adapted to their new environment, they are likely to evolve to become rather different from us, so that they spend much less of their income on sim-like stories and games, and what sims they do like should be overwhelmingly of creatures much like them, which we just aren’t. Furthermore, if such creatures have near subsistence income, and if a fully conscious sim creature costs nearly as much to support as future creatures cost, entertainment sims containing fully conscious folks should be rather rare. (More)

If we look at all the ways that we today try to simulate our past, such as in stories and games, our interest in sims of particular historical places and times fades quickly with our cultural distance from them, and especially with declining influence over our culture. We are especially interested in Ancient Greece, Rome, China, and Egypt, because those places were most like us and most influenced us. But even so, we consume very few stories and games about those eras. And regarding all the other ancient cultures even less connected to us, we show far less interest.

As we look back further in time, we can track decline in both world population, and in our interest in stories and games about those eras. During the farming era population declined by about a factor of two every millennium, but it seems to me that our interest in stories and games of those eras declines much faster. There’s far less than half as much interest in 500AD than in 1500AD, and that fact continues for each 1000 year step backward.

So even if future folk make many sims of their ancestors, people like us probably aren’t often included. Unless perhaps we happen to be especially interesting.

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