Friday, August 12, 2011

Commonplaces and Comments 4

Some Yudkowskian tidbits on politics.


Every profession has a different way to be smart - different skills to learn and rules to follow. You might therefore think that the study of "rationality", as a general discipline, wouldn't have much to contribute to real-life success. And yet it seems to me that how to not be stupid has a great deal in common across professions. If you set out to teach someone how to not turn little mistakes into big mistakes, it's nearly the same art whether in hedge funds or romance, and one of the keys is this: Be ready to admit you lost.


Politics is the mind-killer. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you're on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it's like stabbing your soldiers in the back. If you abide within that pattern, policy debates will also appear one-sided to you - the costs and drawbacks of your favored policy are enemy soldiers, to be attacked by any means necessary.

Like it or not, there's a birth lottery for intelligence - though this is one of the cases where the universe's unfairness is so extreme that many people choose to deny the facts. The experimental evidence for a purely genetic component of 0.6-0.8 is overwhelming, but even if this were to be denied, you don't choose your parental upbringing or your early schools either.

Saying "People who buy dangerous products deserve to get hurt!" is not tough-minded. It is a way of refusing to live in an unfair universe. Real tough-mindedness is saying, "Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation." Can you imagine a politician saying that? Neither can I. But insofar as economists have the power to influence policy, it might help if they could think it privately - maybe even say it in journal articles, suitably dressed up in polysyllabismic obfuscationalization so the media can't quote it.


If the reactor is more likely to melt down, this seems like a 'point against' the reactor, or a 'point against' someone who argues for building the reactor. And if the reactor produces less waste, this is a 'point for' the reactor, or a 'point for' building it. So are these two facts opposed to each other? No. In the real world, no. These two facts may be cited by different sides of the same debate, but they are logically distinct; the facts don't know whose side they're on. The amount of waste produced by the reactor arises from physical properties of that reactor design. Other physical properties of the reactor make the nuclear reaction more unstable. Even if some of the same design properties are involved, you have to separately consider the probability of meltdown, and the expected annual waste generated. These are two different physical questions with two different factual answers.

A scales is not wholly inappropriate for Lady Justice if she is investigating a strictly factual question of guilt or innocence. Either John Smith killed John Doe, or not. We are taught (by E. T. Jaynes) that all Bayesian evidence consists of probability flows between hypotheses; there is no such thing as evidence that "supports" or "contradicts" a single hypothesis, except insofar as other hypotheses do worse or better. So long as Lady Justice is investigating a single, strictly factual question with a binary answer space, a scales would be an appropriate tool. If Justitia must consider any more complex issue, she should relinquish her scales or relinquish her sword.

So am I Blue or Green on regulation, then? I consider myself neither. Imagine, for a moment, that much of what the Greens said about the downside of the Blue policy was true - that, left to the mercy of the free market, many people would be crushed by powers far beyond their understanding, nor would they deserve it. And imagine that most of what the Blues said about the downside of the Green policy was also true - that regulators were fallible humans with poor incentives, whacking on delicately balanced forces with a sledgehammer.

Close your eyes and imagine it. Extrapolate the result. If that were true, then... then you'd have a big problem and no easy way to fix it, that's what you'd have. Does this universe look familiar?


A candy bar is a superstimulus: it contains more concentrated sugar, salt, and fat than anything that exists in the ancestral environment. A candy bar matches taste buds that evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment, but it matches those taste buds much more strongly than anything that actually existed in the hunter-gatherer environment. The signal that once reliably correlated to healthy food has been hijacked, blotted out with a point in tastespace that wasn't in the training dataset - an impossibly distant outlier on the old ancestral graphs. Tastiness, formerly representing the evolutionarily identified correlates of healthiness, has been reverse-engineered and perfectly matched with an artificial substance. Unfortunately there's no equally powerful market incentive to make the resulting food item as healthy as it is tasty. We can't taste healthfulness, after all.

Evolution seems to have struck a compromise, or perhaps just aggregated new systems on top of old. Homo sapiens are still tempted by food, but our oversized prefrontal cortices give us a limited ability to resist temptation. Not unlimited ability - our ancestors with too much willpower probably starved themselves to sacrifice to the gods, or failed to commit adultery one too many times. The video game players who died must have exercised willpower (in some sense) to keep playing for so long without food or sleep; the evolutionary hazard of self-control.

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