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Privacy Policy

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One of these days Robin Hanson will put some of his papers here.  For now though, see his vita.

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Welcome to Overcoming Bias!

Overcoming Bias began in November ’06 as a group blog on the general theme of how to move our beliefs closer to reality, in the face of our natural biases such as overconfidence and wishful thinking, and our bias to believe we have corrected for such biases, when we have done no such thing.

While we had a few dozen authors, most posts came from Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowsky. The topics drifted more widely, and early in ’09 Eliezer moved to a new sister blog, Less Wrong. Robin then made this his wide-ranging personal blog for the next three years. In ’12, Robin wanted to cut back to make more time to write a book, and so Katja Grace, Rob Wiblin, and Carl Shulman joined as new-co-bloggers. In ’13, Robin decided he’d changed his work habits, and this went back to being a personal blog.


While we are affiliated with several organizations, and we list them as “supporting” Overcoming Bias, none have paid us to blog, and none necessarily endorse any views expressed here. We’ve never sold ads or access in any way. Copyright is retained by each author.  Finally, all views expressed here are ours, not those of George Mason University or the Commonwealth of Virginia.


Anyone can comment here, but spam and trollers may be removed or banned.  Comments should be polite, on topic, short (< 500 words), and sparing with quotations (links are ok).  Don’t repeat your own comments word for word. We have Open Threads once a month for general discussion; longer comments are acceptable there.

Commenting frequency:  A good rule of thumb is that your name should not appear more than two times in the 10 most recent comments, as shown on the right sidebar.  Three times is acceptable on rare occasions.  Four times, never. Post authors are of course excepted. To help us enforce this, we ask that you only use one name when commenting here.

The banner picture above is cropped from “Ulysses and the Sirens” by John William Waterhouse, 1891.

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Robin Hanson

“Flicking through Robin’s thoughts … you start to feel the ground shifting beneath you” (UK Observer, 26Mar95 )

Do you find it hard to summarize yourself in a few words? Me too.

But I love the above quote. I have a passion, a sacred quest, to understand everything, and to save the world. I am addicted to “viewquakes”, insights which dramatically change my world view. I loved science fiction as a child, and have studied physics, philosophy, artificial intelligence, economics, and political science — all fields full of such insights. Unfortunately, this also tempted me to leave subjects after mastering their major insights.

I also have a rather critical style. I beat hard on new ideas, seek out critics, and then pledge my allegiance only to those still left standing. In conversation, I prefer to identify a claim at issue, and then focus on analyzing it, rather than the usual quick tours past hundreds of issues. I have always asked questions, even when I was very young.

I have little patience with those whose thinking is sloppy, small, or devoid of abstraction. And I’m not a joiner; I rebel against groups with “our beliefs”, especially when members must keep criticisms private, so as not to give ammunition to “them.”  I love to argue one on one, and common beliefs are not important for friendship — instead I value honesty and passion.

In ’77 I began college (UCI) in engineering, but switched to physics to really understand the equations.  Two years in, when physics repeated the same concepts with more math,  I studied physics on my own, skipping the homework but acing the exams.  To dig deeper, I did philosophy of science grad school (U Chicago), switched back to physics, and was then seduced to Silicon Valley.

By day I did artificial intelligence (Lockheed, NASA), and by night I studied on my own (Stanford) and hung with Xanadu’s libertarian web pioneers and futurists.  I had a hobby of institution design; my best idea was idea futures, now known as prediction markets.  Feeling stuck without contacts and credentials, I went for a Ph.D. in social science (Caltech).

The physicist in me respected only econ experiments at first, but I was soon persuaded econ theory was full of insight, and did a theory thesis, and a bit of futurism on the side.  I landed a health policy postdoc, where I was shocked to learn of medicine’s impotency.  I finally landed a tenure-track job (GMU), and also found the wide-ranging intellectual conversations I’d lacked since Xanadu.

My Policy Analysis Market project hit the press shit fan in ’03, burying me in media attention for a while, and helping to kickstart the prediction market industry, which continues to grow and for which I continue to consult.  The press flap also tipped me over the tenure edge in ’05; my colleagues liked my being denounced by Senators. 🙂  Tenure allowed me to maintain my diverse research agenda, and to start blogging at Overcoming Bias in November ’06, about the same time I became a research associate at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.  Recently I’ve become chief scientist at Consensus Point.

My more professional bio is here.

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How to Reach Robin Hanson

Office (Fairfax): 10A Carow Hall
Work Phone (Fairfax): 703-993-2326 (has voicemail)
Office (Arlington): Truland Building Room 400Q
Work Phone (Arlington): 703-993-4854
CELL: 703-201-8129
FAX (Fairfax): 703-993-2323
E-mail: rhanson@gmu.edu
Web site: hanson.gmu.edu
Paper mail:

Associate Professor of Economics,
James M. Buchanan Center
MSN 1D3, Carow Hall
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030-4444

Home: Burke, VA 22015-3837
Home Phone: 703-239-9660 (has answering machine)

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Tyler on Cryonics

My friend and colleague Tyler Cowen is smart, well-traveled, writes on cultural diversity, and manages a large organization.  If his political writings forced him to flee for his life to live in "off the grid" in a distant foreign land, with only a small chance of success and even less of returning, I expect he'd take a very practical approach, and try with all his considerable strength.  Tyler's wife would try hard to help him, easily preferring the uncertainty of never knowing if he made it over the certainty of turning him in to certain death.  Even imagining the remote prospect of such a situation years ahead of time, I expect Tyler would be pretty rational and practical about this scenario.

But when Tyler considers the prospect of fleeing for his life into the future via cryonics, he thinks very differently:

[On cryonics] my current view is this: one's attention is extremely scarce and limited, as are one's affiliations.  Insofar as you have the luxury of thinking "bigger thoughts," those thoughts should be directed at helping others, not at helping oneself. … Furthermore the universe (or multiverse) may be infinite, so in expected value terms it seems my copies and near-copies are already enjoying a kind of collective immortality. … What probability of future torture would cause us to wish to die forever rather than be resurrected?  And should I therefore be scared by the idea of an infinite universe?  Do Darwinian selection pressures — defined in the broadest possible way — suggest it is worth spending energy on making entities happy?  Or do most entities end up as suffering slaves?

Huh?  Can you imagine Tyler giving himself up to be killed for his writings because maybe other Tylers exist in an vast universe, because maybe he'd be tortured in a foreign land, or because saving his live would be a selfish "big thought"?  No, like the woman in Monty Python's "Can we have your liver?" sketch, cowed into giving her liver after hearing how vast is the universe, Tyler has succumbed to the severe human bias to think about distant times and places in impractical abstract symbolic terms.   

Though I think they are mistaken, I can at least respect those, like Bryan Caplan or Penn and Teller, who reject cryonics because they think it has too little chance of working.  But most other reactions seem just bizarre.

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False false dichotomies

Jed Harris wrote, in one of his otherwise very insightful comments:

(Incidentally, there probably is no viable distinction between cognitive structure and content.)

This statement is true, in that there is probably no distinction that I can write, that Jed can’t come up with a counter-example to.  Much as I can’t write a definition of "game" that Wittgenstein couldn’t come up with a counter-example to.

But the statement was used to imply that distinguishing AI architectures by reliance on content vs. learning is nonsensical.  If that were so, knowledgeable people would be confused when Eliezer (or Lenat) says Cyc emphasizes content more than other architectures do.  They aren’t.

Some more-popular false false dichotomies:

  • Nature vs. nurture (e.g., genetic or instinctual vs. learned behavior):  We’re told that there’s no true distinction between them, since "nurture" can only occur when expected by "nature".  I like Paul Bloom’s reply (paraphrasing), "There’s something wrong with a theory of mind that says that a knee reflex and word learning are the same sort of thing."
  • Race:  We’re told that race is a "social construct" because, for any particular genetic criteria you set to determine who is in a race, someone can be found who looks to us like they belong to that race, yet doesn’t satisfy your criteria.
  • Gender:  There are people naturally having characteristics of both sexes; people whose phenotypic gender is different from their genotypic gender; and people who’ve had sex-change operations.  Therefore, there is no gender.

You probably knew where I was going with this when you saw the Wittgenstein reference.  Every word in our languages breaks down when you apply enough pressure to it.  A word encodes a statistical regularity.  Applicability in all cases is not required.  Forbid us from using words that aren’t precise, and we’d be unable to talk at all.

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The Hypocrisy-Charge Bias

There is a type of a bias that is so common in political commentary that it deserves a name. An example of this bias is exhibited by Brian Tamanaha over at the Balkinization Blog. Tamanaha notes that many Republicans in 2003 asserted strong arguments against judicial filibusters. But now that the Republicans will only have a minority of the Senate, with a Democratic President, they will have an incentive to engage in judicial filibusters. Tamanaha sarcastically writes, there is “nothing to worry about” because the Republican will no doubt continue their previous position opposing judicial filibusters. Obviously Tamanaha is charging the Republicans with hypocrisy, predicting that they will not conform to their stated principles.   

So far there is no bias, just a prediction of hypocrisy. The bias occurs when one realizes that the prediction of inconsistency is equally applicable to the Democrats. If the Republicans choose to filibuster, one could equally expect the Democrats to criticize such filibusters, even though the Democrats defended judicial filibusters in 2003.  So the charge of hypocrisy against the Republicans is equally applicable to the Democrats. Yet, Tamanaha says not a word about the Democrats. He can only see the hypocrisy of his opponents: hence the bias.

Once one identifies this bias – accusing one’s political opponents of inconsistency or hypocracy, but ignoring its equal application to one’s political friends – it seems to pop up everywhere. It is committed by Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and conservatives.

What is going on? Obviously, people are both good at discovering, and bothered by, the inconsistency of their political opponents. They are not so quick to discover their own team’s inconsistencies.

One way to think about this is that commentators who commit the hypocrisy-charge bias are not commenting on political events but are actually engaged in them. When Tamanaha suggests that the Republicans will not follow their stated principles, he is, as a Democrat, attacking Republicans. That his criticism also applies to Democrats does not matter. That is not his point. It is only a observer of political events who would be concerned in this situation with the fact that both parties are likely to change their principles because their interests have changed. 

Posted by: Mike Rappaport

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Preventive Health Care

As Robin has pointed out before, there isn’t a lot of evidence that so-called preventive health-care is worthwhile. A recent NY Times op-ed by Dartmouth professor H. Gilbert Welch, author of "Should I Be Tested for Cancer? Maybe Not and Here’s Why," is worth flagging:

In a presidential campaign that promises straight talk and no gimmicks, why do both candidates champion one of medical care’s most pervasive myths? The myth is that like magic, preventive medicine will simultaneously reduce costs and improve health. . . .

The term "preventive medicine" no longer means what it used to: keeping people well by promoting healthy habits, like exercising, eating a balanced diet and not smoking. To their credit, both candidates ardently support that approach. But the medical model for prevention has become less about health promotion and more about early diagnosis. Both candidates appear to have bought into it: Mr. Obama encourages annual checkups and screening, Mr. McCain early testing and screening.

It boils down to encouraging the well to have themselves tested to make sure they are not sick. And that approach doesn’t save money; it costs money.

Continue reading "Preventive Health Care" »

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