Social media odds and ends – Feb 2020

Miscellaneous links and discussion from the past month:


Brown, Wai, and Chabris – Can You Ever Be Too Smart for Your Own Good? Linear and Nonlinear Effects of Cognitive Ability

Despite a longstanding expert consensus about the importance of cognitive ability for life outcomes, contrary views continue to proliferate in scholarly and popular literature. This divergence of beliefs among researchers, practitioners, and the general public presents an obstacle for evidence-based policy and decision-making in a variety of settings. One commonly held idea is that greater cognitive ability does not matter or is actually harmful beyond a certain point (sometimes stated as either 100 or 120 IQ points). We empirically test these notions using data from four longitudinal, representative cohort studies comprising a total of 48,558 participants in the U.S. and U.K. from 1957 to the present. We find that cognitive ability measured in youth has a positive association with most occupational, educational, health, and social outcomes later in life. Most effects were characterized by a moderate-to-strong linear trend or a practically null effect (mean R^2 = .002 to .256). Although we detected several nonlinear effects, they were small in magnitude (mean incremental R^2 = .001). We found no support for any detrimental effects of cognitive ability and no evidence for a threshold beyond which greater scores cease to be beneficial. Thus, greater cognitive ability is generally advantageous—and virtually never detrimental.


Boxell, Gentzkow, and Shapiro – Cross-Country Trends in Affective Polarization

Politics seems to have gotten more polarized over the last 40 years in the US and to a lesser extent Canada and Switzerland, but polarization has gone down in Germany, Sweden, and Norway, and hasn’t changed much in New Zealand, Australia, or Britain.

Stefan Schubert comments:

As always, one should be careful with making generalisations based on American observations alone. The fact that the trend isn’t universal speaks against American polarisation being due to technological changes, since those changes also have affected the other countries in the study.


Burum, Nowak, and Hoffman – An Evolutionary Explanation for Ineffective Altruism

We donate billions to charities each year, yet much of our giving is ineffective. Why are we motivated to give but not to give effectively? Building off evolutionary game theory models, we argue that donors evolved (biologically or via learning) to be insensitive to efficacy because efficacy is difficult to socially reward, as social rewards tend to depend on well-defined and highly observable behaviors. We present five experiments testing key predictions of this account that are difficult to reconcile with alternative accounts based on cognitive or emotional limitations. Namely, we show that donors are more sensitive to efficacy when helping (i) themselves or (ii) their family. Moreover, (iii) social rewarders don’t condition on efficacy or (iv, v) other difficult-to-observe behaviors, like amount donated.


Schubert on rationality:

Rationality has many aspects. It seems to me that the rationalist community often focuses on the fun bits, such as self-improvement, musings on one’s own thought-processes, and speculative theorising (though no doubt there are important exceptions). What then gets a bit lost is that rationality is to a large extent about discipline, restraint, and rigour: things that aren’t necessarily fun for most people. This is maybe natural given that the community is at least partly built around an intrinsic interest in rationality – they normally don’t provide strong extrinsic incentives (e.g. degrees, money) to students of rationality. Nevertheless, I think a stronger emphasis on these less intrinsically appealing aspects of rationality is important.


Huemer – The Failings of Analytic Philosophy

[…] Analytic philosophers used to think that philosophy was or ought to be a body of analytic knowledge, and that analytic knowledge was essentially about the meanings of words, or the relationships between concepts, or something like that, and did not concern substantive, mind-independent facts. […]

I don’t know how many people still think the job of philosophy is to analyze language/concepts. I don’t think it’s very many. But the field retains leftover influences of that early doctrine. And the central problem with this is that most questions that are amenable to typical analytic-philosophy methods are just not very interesting.

More specifically, I see three things that we’re doing too much of.

1. Fruitless Analysis [- …] Perhaps the value of these analyses is purely for the theoretical understanding of philosophers. But understanding of what — how a specific word is used in a specific language? The exact contours of a conventionally defined category? […]

2. Semantic Debates [- …] Ex.: Reliabilists (the most common kind of externalists) sometimes say that a belief is “justified” as long as the subject formed it in a reliable way, whether or not the subject knows or has reason to believe that the belief-forming method is reliable. Internalists say this is not enough. That looks to me semantic. As an internalist, I don’t deny that reliability exists or is good. I just don’t think that’s what “justification” refers to. […]

3. Defining Down the Issue [-] Okay, here is my biggest complaint. Philosophers will actually decide what questions to ask based on the consideration of to what questions they can apply purely a priori methods, especially conceptual analysis and deductive arguments. This often involves shifting attention away from questions that matter, to questions that are in the vicinity but that in fact do not matter at all. […]

When I worked as a TA in grad school, some of the classes covered the Problem of Evil. […] Here is a possible response: maybe God isn’t all-powerful after all. (Or he could fail to be all-knowing, or maximally good, but the ‘all-powerful’ attribute is the one theists are most likely to give up.)

I saw this discussed in one of these introductory philosophy textbooks that the students were reading. The author (who was defending atheism based on the Problem of Evil) said something like ‘we are merely bored by such replies’ — I guess because it’s not interesting to defend a thesis by redefining it. (Well of course you can defend the existence of ‘God’ in some sense of that word!)

I found this kind of amazing. So if it turns out that there is an extremely powerful, intelligent, and good being who created the physical universe, but the being isn’t capable of all logically possible actions, then that would be completely uninteresting to a philosopher, because … it doesn’t satisfy the definition of a certain word that we stipulated at the start? That sounds to me like caring more about word games than about reality. […]


Huemer – Against History

In my previous two posts, I attacked Continental philosophy and Analytic philosophy, respectively. But some philosophers remain unoffended, so now it’s time for me to attack the third main thing that people do in philosophy departments: the history of philosophy. I don’t understand why we have history of philosophy. I’ve taken several courses in history of philosophy, and listened to many lectures on it over the years, and occasionally I have raised this question, but no one has ever told me why we have this field.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why we read historical figures, and why we cover them in classes — because the famous philosophers of the past are usually interesting, and they gave canonical formulations of very important views that are often still under discussion today. They also tended to have a breadth of scope and a boldness missing from most contemporary work.

What I don’t understand is why we have history of philosophy as a field of academic research. For those who don’t know, philosophers in the English-speaking world have whole careers devoted to researching a particular period in the history of philosophy (almost always within Western philosophy), and sometimes just a single philosopher.

What are these scholars trying to find out? Are they looking for more writings that have been lost or forgotten? Are they trying to trace the historical roots of particular ideas and how they developed over the ages? Or are they perhaps trying to figure out whether particular theories held by historical figures were true or false?

No, not really. Not any of those things. Scholarship in the history of philosophy is mainly like this: there are certain books that we have had for a long time, by a certain list of canonical major figures in philosophy. You read the books of a particular philosopher. Then you pick a particular passage in one of the books, and you argue with other people about what that passage means. In making your arguments, you cite other things the philosopher said. You also try to claim that your interpretation is “more charitable” than some rival interpretation, because it attributes fewer errors, or less egregious errors, to the great figure.

What you most hope to do is come up with some startlingly new way of interpreting the great philosopher’s words, one that no one thought of before but that turns out to be surprisingly defensible. It’s especially fun to deny that the philosopher said one of the main things that he’s known for saying. For instance, wouldn’t it be great if you could somehow argue that Kant was really a consequentialist?


Hausfather and Peters – Emissions – the ‘business as usual’ story is misleading

Stefan Schubert: “Nature comment says 5 °C warming scenario by the end of the century is looking increasingly unlikely.”

Another paints a dystopian future that is fossil-fuel intensive and excludes any climate mitigation policies, leading to nearly 5 °C of warming by the end of the century. That one is named RCP8.5. […] Happily — and that’s a word we climatologists rarely get to use — the world imagined in RCP8.5 is one that, in our view, becomes increasingly implausible with every passing year. Emission pathways to get to RCP8.5 generally require an unprecedented fivefold increase in coal use by the end of the century, an amount larger than some estimates of recoverable coal reserves. It is thought that global coal use peaked in 2013, and although increases are still possible, many energy forecasts expect it to flatline over the next few decades. Furthermore, the falling cost of clean energy sources is a trend that is unlikely to reverse, even in the absence of new climate policies.

Assessment of current policies suggests that the world is on course for around 3 °C of warming above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century — still a catastrophic outcome, but a long way from 5 °C. We cannot settle for 3 °C; nor should we dismiss progress.

Some researchers argue that RCP8.5 could be more likely than was originally proposed. This is because some important feedback effects — such as the release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost — might be much larger than has been estimated by current climate models. These researchers point out that current emissions are in line with such a worst-case scenario. Yet, in our view, reports of emissions over the past decade suggest that they are actually closer to those in the median scenarios. We contend that these critics are looking at the extremes and assuming that all the dice are loaded with the worst outcomes.

[…]

Those who are tasked with taking climate action on the basis of information from model scenarios are increasingly calling for a more risk-based approach to help with adaptation and mitigation. This approach accounts for the relative likelihood of different outcomes. Controversially, it requires researchers to assign probabilities to scenarios. Critics don’t want to do this, because many see it as an arbitrary process. But when specialists refuse to assign probabilities, users often do so themselves. Most do so poorly because they do not have a deep understanding of the assumptions that underpin these scenarios.


International Energy Agency – Defying expectations of a rise, global carbon dioxide emissions flatlined in 2019

Despite widespread expectations of another increase, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions stopped growing in 2019, according to IEA data released today.

After two years of growth, global emissions were unchanged at 33 gigatonnes in 2019 even as the world economy expanded by 2.9%. This was primarily due to declining emissions from electricity generation in advanced economies, thanks to the expanding role of renewable sources (mainly wind and solar), fuel switching from coal to natural gas, and higher nuclear power generation. Other factors included milder weather in several countries, and slower economic growth in some emerging markets.

“We now need to work hard to make sure that 2019 is remembered as a definitive peak in global emissions, not just another pause in growth,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. “We have the energy technologies to do this, and we have to make use of them all. The IEA is building a grand coalition focused on reducing emissions – encompassing governments, companies, investors and everyone with a genuine commitment to tackling our climate challenge.”

A significant decrease in emissions in advanced economies in 2019 offset continued growth elsewhere. The United States recorded the largest emissions decline on a country basis, with a fall of 140 million tonnes, or 2.9%. US emissions are now down by almost 1 gigatonne from their peak in 2000. Emissions in the European Union fell by 160 million tonnes, or 5%, in 2019 driven by reductions in the power sector. Natural gas produced more electricity than coal for the first time ever, meanwhile wind-powered electricity nearly caught up with coal-fired electricity. Japan’s emissions fell by 45 million tonnes, or around 4%, the fastest pace of decline since 2009, as output from recently restarted nuclear reactors increased. Emissions in the rest of the world grew by close to 400 million tonnes in 2019, with almost 80% of the increase coming from countries in Asia where coal-fired power generation continued to rise.

Across advanced economies, emissions from the power sector declined to levels last seen in the late 1980s, when electricity demand was one-third lower than today. Coal-fired power generation in advanced economies declined by nearly 15% as a result of growth in renewables, coal-to-gas switching, a rise in nuclear power and weaker electricity demand.

“This welcome halt in emissions growth is grounds for optimism that we can tackle the climate challenge this decade,” said Dr Birol. “It is evidence that clean energy transitions are underway – and it’s also a signal that we have the opportunity to meaningfully move the needle on emissions through more ambitious policies and investments.”


Yudkowsky – Dunbar’s Function

Old LessWrong post.


Samuel, Piper, and Matthews – 19 big predictions about 2020, from Trump’s reelection to Brexit

Vox staff’s predictions for 2020.

Phenomenal consciousness is a quasiperceptual illusion: Objections and replies

The following is a long excerpt from an unpublished paper I wrote in 2012-2013, mostly before I was enmeshed in rationality-community ideas. The paper was a response to David Chalmers’ “hard problem of consciousness,” described well in “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness” and “Consciousness and its Place in Nature.

Chalmers gives various arguments for thinking that phenomenal consciousness isn’t reducible to merely physical facts. A complete reductive explanation must make it logically impossible for the reduced entity to differ in any way unless the thing you’re reducing it to also differs in some way. Chalmers argues that reductions of consciousness to physical facts can never be complete in this sense, because there is some aspect of consciousness that could in principle vary without varying any physical fact. This aspect is the first-person, subjective, phenomenal character of consciousness; what it actually feels like “from the inside” to instantiate conscious states.

I accept Chalmers’ arguments, for reasons I detail in an earlier section of the paper but won’t go into here. Rather, I agree with him that phenomenal reductionism is probably false; but Chalmers’ own position, which I call phenomenal fundamentalism (the idea that there are irreducible phenomenal states), also commits us to absurdities.

Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Zombies! Zombies?” does a good job of articulating the core problem with non-interactionist fundamentalism, though I didn’t really understand this argument’s force at the time. Sean Carroll’s “Telekinesis and Quantum Field Theory” dispenses with interactionist fundamentalism.

By process of elimination, I conclude that phenomenal anti-realism, or eliminativism, is probably true: phenomenal consciousness is neither reducible nor irreducible (in our universe), because it doesn’t exist.

This idea seems absurd, so I endorse it only grudgingly: it’s absurd, but less absurd than the two alternatives.

There are a number of obvious objections to the idea. While I think some of these objections are partly successful, I think on the whole they aren’t successful enough to make eliminativism a worse option than reductionism and fundamentalism. Here, I’ll try to systematically address a large number of possible objections. In the process I’ll hopefully clarify for some people what I mean by “eliminativism.”

Be warned that the following is not my standard fare. It’s very much written for an audience of professional analytic philosophers, and is pretty relentless about pursuing fine distinctions and subtle counter-arguments. I think this is warranted by the fact that eliminativism is such a strange view. Philosophers to date have reasonably complained that anti-fundamentalists like Dennett and Yudkowsky have been needlessly sloppy and imprecise. My view is that the arguments of anti-fundamentalists have exhibited less rigor than those of fundamentalists for contingent historical reasons, and this shouldn’t be taken to indicate that the underlying idea is fragile and liable to collapse under close scrutiny.

Continue reading

Trump and the world order

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My co-worker Eliezer Yudkowsky recently made the case on social media that Trump’s candidacy raises national security concerns qualitatively more serious than the sort you see in a normal US presidential race:

Every election, the Chicken Littles of both parties make a big deal out of how this year’s election opponent is the Worst Ever and Literally Hitler, and take every single thing their opponents do and try to make it sound as terrible as possible, and so on.

Okay, but here’s the thing. What does not happen every election cycle — and this happened months ago, not in the wake of the current bandwagon — is the entire Republican national security establishment going holy shit and repudiating the Republican candidate en masse.

Maybe I shouldn’t take it for granted that everyone already looks at the world and sees (a) a level of politics that’s theater and (b) a level of politics that’s deadly, deadly serious.

Maybe you heard that Trump said maybe we shouldn’t defend NATO countries if Russia invades. And you interpreted that as Trump expressing fed-up-ness with American military spending and our trying to defend everything in the world without getting much in return. Somebody in the newspapers seemed to be making a big deal out of it, just like they make a big deal out of Clinton emails. Clutching at their pearl necklaces and fainting about how terribly important it is that America honor its commitments to other countries, or something.

No.

The people in the national security bureaucracy — hell, even me, even though I’m not a national security bureaucrat and have only read a handful of military history books — heard that and thought:

Holy shit.”

Members of the Washington, DC establishment who privately laugh about sexual assault and insider trading, heard that and thought: “You don’t do that.”

And I want to try to spell out why this was so terrible. But I’m not sure it will do any good for me to try to talk about that, until I can slice off and distinguish that discussion from the “that was oh such a terrible bad idea” of the pundits that you’ve already filtered out by now.

Which is a difference that might be difficult to convey. Because the news media and the pundits and certainly all the politicians pretend that, why, of course it’s all deadly serious. It’s hard to convey without me sounding like I myself think that taking bribes and grabbing genitals are not “deadly serious”. And to be clear, it’s not that all discussion of national security is on this separate serious level, because there’s lots of pearl-clutching and professional-wrestling about national security too, in the media.

In a previous thread on my Facebook wall, about the existence of expertise, Brent Dill observed that from the perspective of somebody sufficiently ignorant, maybe there doesn’t seem to be any higher expertise in the world. “Then who builds the spaceships, dammit?” I asked, and Brent Dill replied, “They just saw a TV special on how the moon landings were faked.” From your perspective and my perspective, there are these sorts of entertaining TV shows about the moon landing being faked, and then above that is Real Science, where some things are pretty darned solid despite all the frothy arguments that go on about the replication crisis.

Okay, but what if all you see is the arguments over whether the moon landing was real, and as far as you know, that’s all there is to see? You understand that the TV shows are entertainment, but you don’t realize that there’s a non-entertainment part. Or maybe you think that “did aliens build the pyramids” is real serious science and that it doesn’t get any more serious than that. The Discovery Channel isn’t going to tell you about it. If you’re sufficiently immersed in that world, maybe it’s the only world there is.

Maybe I’m assuming too much when I assume that everybody knows that politics is theater. Maybe the reason the political theater works is that people honestly don’t realize it’s all professional wrestling. That hypothesis doesn’t seem to quite fit with people’s behavior, but maybe this is one of those things I’m not likely to understand that well?

It does occur to me, though, that I might be presuming too much in supposing that other people realize that there’s a Level B in politics as well. Maybe if you grow up with the modern media, it’s easy to think that the Level A is all that exists and there is no deadly serious politics, that people clutching at their pearls and fainting is as serious as anything ever gets.

At this point the analogy to science breaks down, because in science, the Level B above the Discovery Channel is a virtuous place where you find the real pursuit of truth. The Level B in politics is not in the same way the repository of true concern for truly important things. But the Level B in Washington, DC, the issues that people take seriously unlike insider trading, is also not just sociopaths reacting to disasters that are so bad that their own personal hometown might get a nuclear missile. The Level B does contain more stuff than that. The Level B is also not the upper ranks of the Illuminati where they discuss how to keep power and worry about things so bad that they might affect their personal stock prices, because there aren’t any Illuminati and Washington, DC doesn’t work like that either. It’s not the level at which people are just trying to do their jobs, because nobody in Washington, DC is just trying to do their jobs.

But it is the level where you worry about things like the stability of the Europe-Russia border, not because a journalist is going to clutch their pearls in offense because you don’t seem concerned enough, but because you actually care about the stability of the Europe-Russia border. Yes, there are people in Washington, DC like that.

I said this in a comment elsewhere on Facebook, but I’m going to repeat it here, in case there’s people on my Facebook wall who haven’t seen it before:

My reading of history books is admittedly biased by having read about historically interesting cases. This does tend to be cases where things went very right, or more usually, very wrong. American revolution, French revolution, World War I, World War II.

Perhaps there are dozens of other cases where a country elected an impulsive, chaotic, populist leader and nothing whatsoever went wrong.

But when I think of Trump, I think of Hitler, and not in the generic sense of “Hitler” meaning “bad”. I think of the British diplomats who sent Hitler a sternly worded note on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, warning that Britain would defend Poland even though they hadn’t defended Czechoslovakia. According to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Hitler read the note himself instead of having his diplomatic corps explain it to him, and interpreted the standard diplomatic politesse as conciliatory and a go-ahead to invade Poland.

I once played a four-hour live simulation/game called the National Security Decision-Making Game, which was run by various people who were ex-whatevers. There were around 80 of us simulating just 3 different countries, with myself trying to play the Secretary of Defense of the US.

Thinking myself probably above-average intelligence for the room, I’d originally asked for a position that involved intrigue; I was given the title for Director of National Intelligence. But somebody who’d played the game before said he really wanted to be DNI, so I traded it for his Secretary of Defense position. Which I’m glad happened, because my ambitions rapidly went from world optimization to “Understand what is happening immediately around the Department of Defense.”

By the end of NSDM, I left with a suddenly increased respect for any administration that gets to the end of 4 years without nuclear weapons being used. We did not do that well in our NSDM session. I left with a greatly increased appreciation of the real skill and competence possessed by the high-level bureaucrats like the Secretary of Defense who keep everything from toppling over, and who understand what the sternly worded diplomatic notes mean.

I think that a lot of the real function of government is to keep things from toppling over like they did in our NSDM session, and that this depends on the functionaries including the President staying inside certain bounds of behavior — people who understand how the game is supposed to be played. It’s not always a good game and you may be tempted to call for blowing it up rather than letting it continue as usual. Avoid this temptation. Randomly blowing it up will not end well. It can be so, so much worse than it already is.

The system isn’t as stable as it might look when you’re just strolling along your non-melted streets year after year, without any missiles ever falling on your own hometown. I don’t even know how much work it really takes to prevent everything from falling over.

If I were to try summarize very briefly why Trump’s remarks on NATO crossed a holy shit line, it’d be along the lines of: “If you read the history books, you realize that it is really really bad to have any ambiguity about which minor powers the major powers will defend; that is how World War I and World War II both started.”

And: “In the wake of the second World War that started from that kind of ambiguity, the senior leaders in both the East and the West, enemies though they may have been, decided to learn the lesson and henceforth be more clear about which countries they’d defend. Not only did Trump blow through that, he did so in a way that indicates he has no idea of how World War I started and why this is one of the things you absolutely don’t do. He doesn’t listen to advisors. He doesn’t have advisors! God knows what other guardrails he’s going to blow through!”

Trump didn’t realize he was blowing through one of the deadly serious guardrails. And Trump is not actually stupid, he does not actually have an IQ below 100, he took economics at Wharton. So it’s fine, it’s okay, it does not make you a bad person, if you also don’t know why that was so much more terrible than everything else the media is making a fuss about. Not every citizen of America needs to read The Guns of August and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, like I did, or study a vastly larger amount of real military history, like the Republican national security bureaucracy did.

However. If you want to be in the national government, you are supposed to know that this is one of those places where you talk to one of the senior bureaucrats before deciding that it is okay to mouth off about NATO commitments, or before deciding to go ahead and invade Poland.

Even people in Washington, DC who haven’t read any history books understand that part, because most people in Washington, DC do know that politics has a deadly serious level as well as a media theater level.

What Trump said wasn’t a gaffe, it was not one of those things that you’d have to be an idiot to say in front of journalists, it was a world-threatening misstep in the real-life version of the National Security Decision-Making Game.

And now Xi Jinping is thinking about the part where Donald Trump said “Why do we have all these nukes if we can’t use them?” and wondering whether China can take for granted America’s possession of nuclear weapons given that America’s electoral system seems to allow for a certain kind of President. That has already happened and cannot be undone. Even though Donald Trump doesn’t seem to give a fuck about the NSDM, the NSDM gives a fuck about him.

Like it or not, there is in Washington, DC a perceived difference between “committed sexual assault” and “violated the system guardrails that prevent World War III”. Some people in Washington, DC think sexual assault is a big joke, and other people honestly believe it is quite bad and would be just as swift to fire any abuser whether or not the journalists knew about it. But both of those kinds of people understand that the current culture in Washington, DC dictates a difference.

And I’m glad that cultural rule exists, because the Level A culture where everybody clutches their pearls and every gaffe indicates a life-threatening level of incompetence and everything is oh so terribly serious, is not a culture where policy-making can take place. The fact that there are quiet backroom talks with no journalists present, in which at least some people are actually concerned about the Europe-Russia border, is why the Earth hasn’t already blown up.

Again, it’s not that all discussion of national security takes place on that level, there’s lots of theater about that too, the entire Transportation Security Administration is well-known to be pure theater. But there’s also cases where somebody blows through the real actual guardrails, which is when the senior bureaucrats in your own party repudiate you.

That didn’t happen to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she made a move about suggesting a no-fly zone over Syria. Because that’s a kind of move people make sometimes in the NSDM. Some people disagreed with that as a Level B move, and maybe some of those people wrote Level A articles about how terribly wrong and serious it was; but nobody who understood that Level B existed went holy shit over it. From their standpoint the difference is clear-cut, even if it so happens that you can’t immediately perceive that difference and what Clinton did sounds maybe arguably just as bad as what Trump did. The holy shit reaction to Trump from senior national security bureaucrats, and from a lot of smart people you know who never seemed that worked up about Mitt Romney in 2012, is one cue as to what just happened. Even though you can’t tell the difference yourself and maybe shouldn’t expect to be able to tell the difference yourself. Certainly the media isn’t going to tell you about the difference, because everyone in the Level A theater has to pretend that all the professional wrestling is terribly, terribly serious.

Maybe you wish that Washington, DC culture would take sexual assault more seriously, as something deadly serious in its own right, as serious at it is possible to be — instead of some people laughing it off, some people being frankly offended, and everyone in Washington, DC tacitly understanding that this is not one of the issues that everyone has agreed to take deadly seriously even when no journalists are looking.

Maybe you look at that, and conclude that this ‘deadly serious level of politics’ thingy does not respect your own values and priorities. Maybe you conclude that the kind of political issues people are fighting over theatrically in the newspapers are, yes, every bit as vital to you as that so-called ‘deadly serious’ stuff, even if a lot of other people are treating them as entertainment.

I think you’re making a dreadful mistake. Scope is real. If you ever have to choose between voting a convicted serial abuser of children into the Presidential office — but this person otherwise seems stable and collected — versus a Presidential candidate who seems easy to provoke and who has ‘bad days’ and doesn’t listen to advisors and once said “Why do we have all these nukes if we can’t use them?”, it is deadly important that you vote for the pedophile. It isn’t physically possible to abuse enough children per day over 4 years to do as much damage as you can do with one wrong move in the National Security Decision-Making Game.

An evil but sane NSDM player is far, far less dangerous than an impulsive one who doesn’t care all that much about what the rules of NSDM are supposed to be.

That’s one reason why people at my level of national security expertise and above–and there’s a hell of a lot of headway above me on that one–went into holy shit mode over Donald Trump, on both sides of the aisle.

Programmer Michael Keenan details the circumstances under which ambiguous alliances sparked WW1 and WW2, as well as the Korean War and the Iraq-Kuwait War.

Maritime security author John-Clark Levin’s “How Trump Could Realistically Start a Nuclear War” picks one example of how Trump’s temperament is likely to increase the probability of international catastrophes:

[…] Trump has pulled off a stunning victory. Transition team Chairman Chris Christie’s first task is assembling a solid national security staff, but most of the top officials who would normally serve in a Republican administration refuse to serve under Trump (many have already stated this publicly).

So instead of the smartest and ablest leaders, Trump is forced to fill essential defense and intelligence posts with hacks  —  the B-level talent whose ambition overcomes their objections, and the C-level talent whose loyalty wins them undeserved appointments. Some good people do go to work in the Trump White House, judging they’d rather be in the Situation Room than the alt-righters who’d otherwise get their jobs. Maybe, they think, they can influence Trump for the better.

By the end of Trump’s first 100 days, though, it’s clear that his lifelong leadership style will not change. First, he surrounds himself with people who flatter him and tell him whatever he wants to hear, because he is a “great loyalty freak.” Second, he can’t take criticism or dissent, and sees these as disloyalty that must be punished. Third, he has a profound insecurity that cannot tolerate advice from big minds and strong personalities. Instead, he famously said, “Always be around unsuccessful people because everybody will respect you.” Over Trump’s first years in office, these traits force more good people out of government, replaced by those willing to follow Trump blindly.

Meanwhile, just as Trump boasted during the campaign that he knew more about ISIS than the generals, he now demoralizes top military leaders, publicly denigrating their competence even as he thwarts them with meddling and micromanagement. Trump continues to alienate the CIA, just as during the campaign he ignored consensus assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies in their briefings to him, instead bizarrely insisting that the DNC hacks weren’t the work of Russia, but perhaps a “400-pound man sitting on his bed.” Under these conditions, many of the best people in the Pentagon leave, and Trump makes good on his campaign statements by firing others.

On an October afternoon in 2019, terror strikes again  —  this time, a truck bomb in Jersey City kills almost a hundred people. Trump’s first instinct  —  as it has been throughout his long and well-documented life  —  is immediate and overwhelming retaliation. Despite contemplating nuclear counterattacks during the campaign (“Somebody hits us within ISIS  —  you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?”), Trump now orders conventional punitive airstrikes on civilian areas in Raqqa, Syria. “We have no choice, people,” Trump says. Trump’s Justice Department insists that the strikes are legal, but as images of maimed children fill the airwaves, officers of conscience start retiring or resigning rather than participate in what they see as war crimes.

Then, on a sleepy summer morning in 2020, Chinese jets make simulated attack runs against the USS Ronald Reagan, operating in the South China Sea. Trump’s pride is pricked. Officials in Beijing have been bragging about how the SCS is becoming a Chinese lake. It makes him look weak. So Trump orders the jets shot down (which he has already said he would do in similar circumstances). Several Chinese airmen die. China responds by shooting down a B-1 bomber off Taiwan.

Trump orders the carrier to enter Chinese waters in a show of force to reassert American might in the region. The admirals who would have resisted such recklessness have already left or been muscled out. Chinese warships intercept, and in the tense and confused standoff, someone starts shooting. American firepower blows the smaller Chinese vessels out of the water. In minutes, DF-21 carrier-killer missiles rain down on the U.S. strike group, and when the smoke clears, the Ronald Reagan is on the bottom along with a couple thousand American sailors. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Beijing has ordered its nuclear forces to maximum alert in preparation for a first strike.

6,500 miles away in Washington, an admiral approaches President Trump as an aide unlatches the nuclear football. “Well, Mr. President. Here are your options…” […]

This particular scenario, obviously, isn’t likely; but it seems broadly in keeping with Trump’s impulsive and Jacksonian brand of militarism. Freelance policy analyst and GCRI affiliate Matthijs Maas comments on Levin’s hypothetical:

(1). The specific scenario that’s presented — a tit-for-tat with the Chinese — may be slightly exaggerated — specifically: while the Chinese might gamble with shooting down the (nonnuclear) B1 bomber, they would know that a DF-21D strike on a US carrier group would constitute an attack against US regional nuclear capabilities (viz. the US Navy doesn’t confirm or deny whether carriers carry nukes, but strategically it would be surprising if they didn’t). Given that Chinese nuclear first-strike/counterforce capabilities are by far insufficient against the US, they would be unlikely to sanction such a gamble. On the other hand, the Chinese would certainly disperse their nuclear forces to increase survivability in case of a US first strike, and this could in turn be misperceived by the US as preparation for a first strike, and… you get the picture. Let’s not take the gamble.

(2) Setting aside discussions of this specific illustration — I think the key phrase in this article, and the broader underlying argument, is ‘Uncertainty breeds danger’. This is perhaps the fundamental geopolitical insight which I’d want people to take away / keep in mind.

In short: it’s been suggested that Clinton’s bad relations with the Kremlin would lead to destabilising conflict. However, reliable antagonism may lead to outcomes that are tense, but at least predictable (and therefore ‘manageable’): both sides roughly know each others’ ‘red lines’, and trust that the other side grasps the basics of nuclear deterrence, and the magnitude of mismanaging it, and to count those risks in their decision-making. So it might be useful to note that a Clinton presidency may see a higher base rate of crises (specifically vis-a-vis Russia), as a function of her bad relationship with Putin and general hawkish tendencies — but that these crises generally will remain more ‘manageable’. (doesn’t mean it’s a good situation to be in, in terms of global catastrophic risks, but we’re considering relative cases).

(3) Conversely, even if we assume that Trump’s bravado and unpredictability may cause some countries to tread more lightly, ensuring a slightly lower base rate of crises, the stakes of these crises will be higher. By taking all guarantees off the table, his presidency would increase strategic uncertainty, creating opportunities for conflict between other powers, and making those crises that do inevitably occur massively more vulnerable to miscalculation and unintentional escalation. That doesn’t mean those cannot be managed — Consider Nixon’s ‘madman strategy’, where he once ordered a fake nuclear assault on the Soviet Union to force them to suspend their support for the Vietcong (this failed); or when another time (during the Watergate proceedings) threatening that ‘I could walk out of this room and pick up a phone, and in 20 minutes 70 million people will be dead’—but managing such bravado requires a responsible, capable, and realistic national security staff (which, as the article rightly points out, Trump will likely not suffer to have around for long).

(4) At that point — and considering how short is the chain of nuclear command, how tiny the window for decision-making, and how irreversible the command to launch –Trump’s personality traits create a dangerous situation. At worst, we’ll see a combination of (a). Trump’s (perceived) personality traits (e.g. impulsiveness; inability to back off), unchecked by (b). a sycophant national security apparatus; and tempted by (c). the availability of a new generation of ‘flexible’ nuclear weapons now being developed (e.g. hypervelocity missiles; the LRSO).

(5) Even if his sort of policy-making doesn’t lead directly to nuclear catastrophe, it will indirectly heighten the baseline global risk of such (or other) global risks. Trump’s disregard for international institutions and laws (yes — they’re boring; yes — they’re imperfect; yes–we need them), his retraction of US security guarantees, the idea that all alliances are negotiable or conditional, and his overarching zero-sum view of the world will work to increase states’ incentives to engage in arms races or realpolitik, and decrease willingness to cooperate on non-proliferation / responsible development and innovation regimes.

Trump’s warning that he’s liable to ignore Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty “if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed” — even though the treaty itself doesn’t include this as a requirement; even though Article 5 has only ever been invoked once; and even though the one time it was invoked was on behalf of the U.S., drawing NATO into Afghanistan in response to 9/11 — suggests a new regime in which international law is much softer and more ambiguous than we’ve seen in past decades. It suggests that Trump’s perspective is a novel one on which treaties as they’re understood today should be replaced with more informal arrangements, and that from his perspective the US government ought honor its word to other nations only while it happens to be favorably disposed to those nations.

That’s at least one way of understanding what Trump means when he says — in response to a question from NBC’s Katy Tur, “Do you think the Geneva Conventions are out of date?” — “I think everything’s out of date. We have a whole new world.” Without the benefit of context, I might take this to mean that Trump thinks the Geneva Conventions ought to be revised through some ratification procedure. Now, this sounds like a more sweeping statement: the threat of terrorism means that international law simply doesn’t apply anymore. Absent is any apparent insight into why the rule of law (both domestically and internationally) has serious practical value, and why some measure of forced predictability makes us more safe.

I think it’s extremely clear that this is one of the most critical issues American voters should weigh when they decide who to vote for this Tuesday.

Are Musk’s Mars spaceship problems problems?

Elon Musk is planning to start a colony on Mars. Jason Torchinsky proposed some improvements to Musk’s proposed spaceship design, but some commenters on social media questioned Torchinsky’s proposals. I’ve reproduced these comments below, so that I can link to them more easily.

Amateur rocket engineer Evan Daniel writes:

1) I’m not sure how luxurious the actual craft will be. It should clearly be more luxurious than Apollo, to keep the passengers sane. But it being more spartan than Elon was talking about, especially early, seems likely.

2) Elon clearly likes the simplicity of only one upper stage hull design. The cargo, passenger, and fuel versions share a hull. This makes a great deal of sense for version one to me. Adding a second, third, or fourth major ship type is for later.

2a) If the author is keen on their hab module thing, they might as well go all the way to a cycler, which plenty of other people have talked about. I’m confused by them not mentioning this along with the L1 garage idea, given that it should further save propellant.

3) That means you don’t actually want to shrink the passenger ship. Sure you could build everything, first stage and fuel stages included, to a smaller scale… but the large scale is part of why it will be cheap per passenger or per pound. So “more spartan” translates as “more passengers” or “more cargo on board”, not “smaller ship”.

3a) That combined with number 2 might mean that open space is weirdly cheaper than you’d think. I’d have to investigate in more detail (aka break out the spreadsheets) to be sure. I’m not certain on this. (Mass for stuff is definitely still as pricey as you think, but the passenger version might have “too much volume” because the fuel-carrying version needs it for tanks and they share a hull.)

4) On-orbit transfer of people is complicated. Propellant transfer is far less so. The ITS as proposed is actually a very conservative design in some ways; these changes are less so. In particular they cost development money in an attempt to save operating costs, while making operations more complex. This seems misguided, given that SpaceX is probably short on funds for development (relatively speaking). Before you call for making operations more complex, think hard about the F9H schedule slips (while noting that F9H should be cheaper per pound launched than F9).

Anyway, I definitely don’t have enough info to say who is right. But I definitely know enough to think these proposed changes are not obviously a good thing. Especially the parts that advocate for more complex development and operations in an attempt to reduce operating costs. I’ll put my money on the SpaceX crew mostly knowing what they’re talking about in this case. (I’d also put money on the ITS having meaningful changes from this before its first passenger-carrying Mars flight, but I suspect they won’t be the ones listed here.)

Or, more simply: the author didn’t pay enough attention to the most relevant slide of all:

f7biktl

The dominant cost of the flight to Mars is the ship that goes to Mars. Not the stage to launch it, not the other launches to fuel it. The dominant cost of that ship is the development and construction cost. If your “cost saving” measures are saving elsewhere by making that budget item bigger, you’re probably doing it wrong.

James Tillman writes:

Well, one difficulty with the proposed “space only” module is that you cannot aerobrake with it. The proposed Muskian solution is to aerobrake as you’re entering the Mars atmosphere, and decrease overall fuel requirements thus for going from Earth to Mars; you can also aerobrake when entering Earth’s atmosphere, and decrease fuel requirements for going from Mars to Earth. So that’s a big cost. This solution will require fuel for braking while going Earth to Mars, and Mars to Earth, for both the hab and the lander.

Someone raises this point in the comments, and [Torchinsky] says, “throw an aerobraking shell on it,” but I’m not sure it’s that simple. An inflatable structure designed for zero g–which is the whole attraction of the concept–wouldn’t work well aerobraking, I’d guess.

The second difficulty is re fuel requirements. Decreasing aerobraking means that you’ll need more fuel for the Mars to Earth rendevous, and that makes me wonder if the smaller ship will have difficulty getting enough fuel through in-situ methane generation to both launch from Mars, push the larger structure to Earth, then brake the larger structure and itself so they’re in orbit. So you’re dealing with potentially (absolutely) increased fuel requirements, unless you can cut the mass by enough, while you’re also decreasing the amount of fuel you bring from the Martian surface.

Oh, re the concern with difficulty landing the ship on Mars–Mars dust storms are extremely weak (least accurate part of The Martian), compared to earth storms, so that would be no problem.

Suggestion re launching the tanker before the crewed ship–this has been raised, I think Musk has said they might do this, unsure of advantages and disadvantages.

Of course I’d need to do the math to really know anything about this.

And mathematician Jonathan Lee adds:

The Soyuz is lighter than the Apollo capsules because the Orbital and instrument modules did not have to be recovered successfully; they burned up on Earth entry. It’s an approach that’s useful when you do not need everything.

The object of the ITS is to, well, get one’s ass to Mars. The galleys, toilets etc. (which are not actually the main mass drivers but let us not have mere facts get in the way) need to get down onto the surface, at least until the crew have built out a bunch of extra infrastructure. This needs to go there. Fuel on Mars is pretty explicitly not precious; the entire architecture is based around solar driving electrolysis and Sabatier reactions to make fuel. You actually want the lander to have enough delta-V to push the entire Mars – Earth return stack back to Earth. Scale is actually important here. They are ultimately not trying to get minimum cost flags-and-footprints. They are trying to build an architecture that reliably moves 200-500 tonnes of stuff to Mars. That is the point. To get enough mass there that you can build a self sustaining colony in a place colder, dryer and with less atmosphere than Antarctica. They need the mass moved.

Oh, winds. Ha. Yeah, so the atmosphere on Mars is about 1% the density of that of Earth. Wind forces go like the square of velocity, so you can convert Mars winds to Earth winds by dividing velocity by 10. The highest wind speeds that I can find reported for Mars are about 90mph (solid hurricane territory). So the dynamic pressures are about that of a 10mph wind on Earth. So, no, wind is not a problem.

The in-transit model being proposed cannot aerobrake, cannot even pretend to provide radiation protection, and means that now you need to have orbital assembly at both Mars and Earth on every launch. Oh, and have those docked connections take the not-inconsiderable forces of the injection burns each way.

I asked aerospace engineer Lloyd Strohl III to review this post, and he affirmed that Daniel and Lee’s comments here look correct.

Ditch the word “hypocrite”

I try to watch out for inconsistencies in my beliefs (and between my actions and my stated beliefs and goals). Yet I’m not a fan of criticizing people for things like “hypocrisy.”

It’s obviously a personal attack, and personal attacks obviously make people defensive, and defensiveness is obviously boring and terrible. But I have four other concerns with attacking people for their inconsistencies:

1. It’s too meta. Proving that someone said “p” and “not-p” is a great way to conclusively defeat them in a debate. No matter what your audience believes about p, they’ll agree with you about the laws of logic; and by not entering the fray, you get to appear impartial and objective.

But the fray matters — or if it doesn’t matter, why are we talking about p in the first place?

“You said !” is an amazing argument that works no matter what the facts are. For that reason, it’s an amazing argument that tells us nothing about the world, aside from ad-hominem facts about the claimant’s character.

If someone is saying both “p” and “not p,” then at least one of those views is false. If you know which of those views is false, why not just attack the false view? If you don’t know which of those views is false, why not talk that over and try to figure it out? If figuring it out matters less than scoring points against Ms. Placeholder, then it’s possible that neither is worth your time.

2. Charges of hypocrisy discourage updating and nuance. The easiest way to look consistent over time is to assert simple blanket statements and then refuse to change your mind about them. Better yet, say nothing substantive at all.

It’s sometimes important to publicly evaluate others’ character. In a presidential debate, for example, “ad hominem” is not always a fallacy. We’re trying to assess which person is more trustworthy and competent, not just which one is more correct; the personal virtues and vices of the candidates matter.

Yet even in this context, “Senator Placeholder is wrong on taxes” is much more useful than “Senator Placeholder is inconsistent on taxes.” Debate the latter, and the candidates and their audience only learn new things about a particular senator’s record, not about taxes; and Placeholder’s immediate incentive is to obfuscate her views or make them as simple and unchanging as possible, rather than to improve or defend them.

3. In the case of groups, charges of hypocrisy discourage intellectual diversity. This is one of the problems I have with the “motte and bailey” idea: by attacking groups for “strategically equivocating” between a more defensible view (the “motte”) and a less defensible one (the “bailey”), we neglect the more common case where some people honestly have less defensible versions of their friends’ views.

By attacking the hypocrisy rather than attacking the false view, we again focus the debate on people’s faults and vices. In this way, the motte/bailey accusation increases the number of debates that are about how generally “good” or “bad” a group is, to the exclusion of mundane empirical questions.

The motte/bailey charge can be useful when a particular individual explicitly states both the motte and the bailey, though even then it’s a charge best reserved for friends and not enemies. But when two different individuals can be accused of Emergent Hypocrisy merely for associating with each other, it becomes a lot harder to associate with anyone who doesn’t share all your views.

4. Ambitious goal-setting and self-improvement can look like behavioral hypocrisy. Accusing someone of hypocrisy because their deeds don’t live up to the moral principles they endorse encourages people to have low, easily-met standards.

We’re already risk-averse, and the charge of hypocrisy makes risk-taking even riskier, especially for groups. Trying to build a community that exemplifies certain virtues often requires that you talk quite a bit about those virtues. But then you risk looking like you already think you have those virtues.

Even if your community is a standard deviation above most groups in the virtue of Temperance, the mere fact that you’ve endorsed Temperance means that any small misstep by anyone in your group can be used to charge you with hypocrisy or hubris. And hypocrisy and hubris are approximately people’s favorite things to accuse each other of. Easier, then, to steer clear of endorsing good ideas too loudly.

 

Related links

Library of Scott Alexandria

I’ve said before that my favorite blog — and the one that’s shifted my views in the most varied and consequential ways — is Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. Scott has written a lot of good stuff, and it can be hard to know where to begin; so I’ve listed below what I think are the best pieces for new readers to start with. This includes older writing, e.g., from Less Wrong.

The list should make the most sense to people who start from the top and read through it in order, though skipping around is encouraged too — many of the posts are self-contained. The list isn’t chronological. Instead, I’ve tried to order things by a mix of “where do I think most people should start reading?” plus “sorting related posts together.” If stuff doesn’t make sense, you may want to Google terms or read background material in Rationality: From AI to Zombies.

This is a work in progress; you’re invited to suggest things you’d add, remove, or shuffle around.

__________________________________________________

I. Rationality and Rationalization
○   Blue- and Yellow-Tinted Choices
○   The Apologist and the Revolutionary
○   Historical Realism
○   Simultaneously Right and Wrong
○   You May Already Be A Sinner
○   Beware the Man of One Study
○   Debunked and Well-Refuted
○   How to Not Lose an Argument
○   The Least Convenient Possible World
○   Bayes for Schizophrenics: Reasoning in Delusional Disorders
○   Generalizing from One Example
○   Typical Mind and Politics

II. Probabilism
○   Confidence Levels Inside and Outside an Argument
○   Schizophrenia and Geomagnetic Storms
○   Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale
○   Arguments from My Opponent Believes Something
○   Statistical Literacy Among Doctors Now Lower Than Chance
○   Techniques for Probability Estimates
○   On First Looking into Chapman’s “Pop Bayesianism”
○   Utilitarianism for Engineers
○   If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing with Made-Up Statistics
○   Marijuana: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   Are You a Solar Deity?
○   The “Spot the Fakes” Test
○   Epistemic Learned Helplessness

III. Science and Doubt
○   Google Correlate Does Not Imply Google Causation
○   Stop Confounding Yourself! Stop Confounding Yourself!
○   Effects of Vertical Acceleration on Wrongness
○   90% Of All Claims About The Problems With Medical Studies Are Wrong
○   Prisons are Built with Bricks of Law and Brothels with Bricks of Religion, But That Doesn’t Prove a Causal Relationship
○   Noisy Poll Results and the Reptilian Muslim Climatologists from Mars
○   Two Dark Side Statistics Papers
○   Alcoholics Anonymous: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   The Control Group Is Out Of Control
○   The Cowpox of Doubt
○   The Skeptic’s Trilemma
○   If You Can’t Make Predictions, You’re Still in a Crisis

IV. Medicine, Therapy, and Human Enhancement
○   Scientific Freud
○   Sleep – Now by Prescription
○   In Defense of Psych Treatment for Attempted Suicide
○   Who By Very Slow Decay
○   Medicine, As Not Seen on TV
○   Searching for One-Sided Tradeoffs
○   Do Life Hacks Ever Reach Fixation?
○   Polyamory is Boring
○   Can You Condition Yourself?
○   Wirehead Gods on Lotus Thrones
○   Don’t Fear the Filter
○   Transhumanist Fables

V. Introduction to Game Theory
○   Backward Reasoning Over Decision Trees
○   Nash Equilibria and Schelling Points
○   Introduction to Prisoners’ Dilemma
○   Real-World Solutions to Prisoners’ Dilemmas
○   Interlude for Behavioral Economics
○   What is Signaling, Really?
○   Bargaining and Auctions
○   Imperfect Voting Systems
○   Game Theory as a Dark Art

VI. Promises and Principles
○   Beware Trivial Inconveniences
○   Time and Effort Discounting
○   Applied Picoeconomics
○   Schelling Fences on Slippery Slopes
○   Democracy is the Worst Form of Government Except for All the Others Except Possibly Futarchy
○   Eight Short Studies on Excuses
○   Revenge as Charitable Act
○   Would Your Real Preferences Please Stand Up?
○   Are Wireheads Happy?
○   Guilt: Another Gift Nobody Wants

VII. Cognition and Association
○   Diseased Thinking: Dissolving Questions about Disease
○   The Noncentral Fallacy — The Worst Argument in the World?
○   The Power of Positivist Thinking
○   When Truth Isn’t Enough
○   Ambijectivity
○   The Blue-Minimizing Robot
○   Basics of Animal Reinforcement
○   Wanting vs. Liking Revisited
○   Physical and Mental Behavior
○   Trivers on Self-Deception
○   Ego-Syntonic Thoughts and Values
○   Approving Reinforces Low-Effort Behaviors
○   To What Degree Do We Have Goals?
○   The Limits of Introspection
○   Secrets of the Eliminati
○   Tendencies in Reflective Equilibrium
○   Hansonian Optimism

VIII. Doing Good
○   Newtonian Ethics
○   Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others…
○   The Economics of Art and the Art of Economics
○   A Modest Proposal
○   The Life Issue
○   What if Drone Warfare Had Come First?
○   Nefarious Nefazodone and Flashy Rare Side-Effects
○   The Consequentialism FAQ
○   Doing Your Good Deed for the Day
○   I Myself Am A Scientismist
○   Whose Utilitarianism?
○   Book Review: After Virtue
○   Read History of Philosophy Backwards
○   Virtue Ethics: Not Practically Useful Either
○   Last Thoughts on Virtue Ethics
○   Proving Too Much

IX. Liberty
○   The Non-Libertarian FAQ (aka Why I Hate Your Freedom)
○   A Blessing in Disguise, Albeit a Very Good Disguise
○   Basic Income Guarantees
○   Book Review: The Nurture Assumption
○   The Death of Wages is Sin
○   Thank You For Doing Something Ambiguously Between Smoking And Not Smoking
○   Lies, Damned Lies, and Facebook (Part 1 of ∞)
○   The Life Cycle of Medical Ideas
○   Vote on Values, Outsource Beliefs
○   A Something Sort of Like Left-Libertarian-ist Manifesto
○   Plutocracy Isn’t About Money
○   Against Tulip Subsidies
○   SlateStarCodex Gives a Graduation Speech

X. Progress
○   Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism
○   A Signaling Theory of Class x Politics Interaction
○   Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell
○   A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum
○   We Wrestle Not With Flesh And Blood, But Against Powers And Principalities
○   Poor Folks Do Smile… For Now
○   Apart from Better Sanitation and Medicine and Education and Irrigation and Public Health and Roads and Public Order, What Has Modernity Done for Us?
○   The Wisdom of the Ancients
○   Can Atheists Appreciate Chesterton?
○   Holocaust Good for You, Research Finds, But Frequent Taunting Causes Cancer in Rats
○   Public Awareness Campaigns
○   Social Psychology is a Flamethrower
○   Nature is Not a Slate. It’s a Series of Levers.
○   The Anti-Reactionary FAQ
○   The Poor You Will Always Have With You
○   Proposed Biological Explanations for Historical Trends in Crime
○   Society is Fixed, Biology is Mutable

XI. Social Justice
○   Practically-a-Book Review: Dying to be Free
○   Drug Testing Welfare Users is a Sham, But Not for the Reasons You Think
○   The Meditation on Creepiness
○   The Meditation on Superweapons
○   The Meditation on the War on Applause Lights
○   The Meditation on Superweapons and Bingo
○   An Analysis of the Formalist Account of Power Relations in Democratic Societies
○   Arguments About Male Violence Prove Too Much
○   Social Justice for the Highly-Demanding-of-Rigor
○   Against Bravery Debates
○   All Debates Are Bravery Debates
○   A Comment I Posted on “What Would JT Do?”
○   We Are All MsScribe
○   The Spirit of the First Amendment
○   A Response to Apophemi on Triggers
○   Lies, Damned Lies, and Social Media: False Rape Accusations
○   In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization

XII. Politicization
○   Right is the New Left
○   Weak Men are Superweapons
○   You Kant Dismiss Universalizability
○   I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup
○   Five Case Studies on Politicization
○   Black People Less Likely
○   Nydwracu’s Fnords
○   All in All, Another Brick in the Motte
○   Ethnic Tension and Meaningless Arguments
○   Race and Justice: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   Framing for Light Instead of Heat
○   The Wonderful Thing About Triggers
○   Fearful Symmetry
○   Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism

XIII. Competition and Cooperation
○   The Demiurge’s Older Brother
○   Book Review: The Two-Income Trap
○   Just for Stealing a Mouthful of Bread
○   Meditations on Moloch
○   Misperceptions on Moloch
○   The Invisible Nation — Reconciling Utilitarianism and Contractualism
○   Freedom on the Centralized Web
○   Book Review: Singer on Marx
○   Does Class Warfare Have a Free Rider Problem?
○   Book Review: Red Plenty

__________________________________________________

 

 

If you liked these posts and want more, I suggest browsing the Slate Star Codex archives.

Revenge of the Meat People!

Back in November, I argued (in Inhuman Altruism) that rationalists should try to reduce their meat consumption. Here, I’ll update that argument a bit and lay out some of my background assumptions.

I was surprised at the time by the popularity of responses on LessWrong like Manfred’s

Unfortunately for cows, I think there is an approximately 0% chance that hurting cows is (according to my values) just as bad as hurting humans. It’s still bad – but its badness is some quite smaller number that is a function of my upbringing, cows’ cognitive differences from me, and the lack of overriding game theoretic concerns as far as I can tell.

and maxikov’s

I’m actually pretty much OK with animal suffering. I generally don’t empathize all that much, but there a lot of even completely selfish reasons to be nice to humans, whereas it’s not really the case for animals.

My primary audience was rationalists who terminally care about reducing suffering across the board — but I’ll admit I thought most LessWrong users would fit that description. I didn’t expect to see a lot of people appealing to their self-interest or their upbringing. Since it’s possible to pursue altruistic projects for selfish reasons (e.g., attempting to reduce existential risk to get a chance at living longer), I’ll clarify that my arguments are directed at people who do care about how much joy and suffering there is in the world — care rather a lot.

The most detailed defense of meat-eating was Katja Grace’s When should an effective altruist be vegetarian? Katja’s argument is that egalitarians should eat frugally and give as much money as they can to high-impact charities, rather than concerning themselves with the much smaller amounts of direct harm their dietary choices cause.

Paul Christiano made similar points in his blog comments: if you would spend more money sustaining a vegan diet than sustaining a carniferous diet, the best utilitarian option would be for you to remain a meat-eater and donate the difference.

Most people aren’t living maximally frugally and giving the exactly optimal amount to charity (yet). But the point generalizes: If you personally find that you can psychologically use the plight of animals to either (a) motivate yourself to become a vegan for an extra year or (b) motivate yourself to give hundreds of extra dollars to a worthy cause, but not both, then you should almost certainly choose (b).

My argument did assume that veganism is a special “bonus” giving opportunity, a way to do a startling amount of good without drawing resources from (or adding resources to) your other altruistic endeavors. The above considerations made me shift from feeling maybe 80% confident that most rationalists should forsake meat, to feeling maybe 70% confident.

To give more weight than that to Katja’s argument, there are two questions I’d need answered:

 

1. How many people are choosing between philanthropy and veganism?

Some found the term “veg*nism” (short for “veganism or/and vegetarianism”) confusing in my previous post, so I’ll switch here to speaking of meat-abstainers as “plant people” and meat-eaters as “meat people.” I’m pretty confident that the discourse would be improved by more B-movie horror dialogue.

Plant people have proven that their mindset can prevent a lot of suffering. And I don’t see any obvious signs that EAs’ plantpersonhood diminishes their EAness. To compete, Katja’s meat-person argument needs to actually motivate people to do more good. “P > Q > R” isn’t a good argument against Q if rejecting Q just causes people to regress to R (rather than advance to P).

What I want to see here are anecdotes of EAs who have had actual success trying “pay the cost of veganism in money” (or similar), to prove this is a psychologically realistic alternative and not just a way of rationalizing the status quo.

(I’m similarly curious to see if people can have real success with my idea of donating $1 to the Humane League after every meal where you eat an animal. Patrick LaVictoire has tried out this ritual, which he calls “beefminding“. (Edit 9/11: Patrick clarifies, “I did coin ‘beefminding’, but I use it to refer to tracking my meat + egg* consumption on Beeminder, and trying to slowly bend the curve by changing my default eating habits. I don’t make offsetting donations. What I’m doing is just a combination of quantified self and Reducetarianism.”))

If I “keep fixed how much of my budget I spend on myself and how much I spend on altruism,” Katja writes, plant-people-ism looks like a very ineffective form of philanthropy. But I don’t think most people spend an optimal amount on altruistic causes, and I don’t think most people who spend a suboptimal amount altruistically ought to set a hard upper limit on how much they’re willing to give. Instead, I suspect most people should set a lower limit and then ratchet that limit upward over time, or supplement it opportunistically. (This is the idea behind Chaos Altruism.)

If you’re already giving everything to efficient charities except what you need to survive, or if you can’t help but conceptualize your altruistic sentiment as a fixed resource that veganism would deplete, then I think Katja’s reasoning is relevant to your decision. Otherwise, I think veganism is a good choice, and you should even consider combining it with Katja’s method, giving up meat and doubling the cost of your switch to veganism (with the extra money going to an effective charity). We suboptimal givers should take whatever excuse we can find to do better.

Katja warns that if you become a plant person even though it’s not the perfectly optimal choice, “you risk spending your life doing suboptimal things every time a suboptimal altruistic opportunity has a chance to steal resources from what would be your personal purse.” But if the choice really is between a suboptimal altruistic act and an even less optimal personal purchase, I say: mission accomplished! Relatively minor improvements in global utility aren’t bad ideas just because they’re minor.

I could see this being a bad idea if getting into the habit of giving ineffectively depletes your will to give effectively. Perhaps most rationalists would find it exhausting or dispiriting to give in a completely ad-hoc way, without maintaining some close link to the ideal of effective altruism. (I find it psychologically easier to redirect my “triggered giving” to highly effective causes, which is the better option in any case; perhaps some people will likewise find it easier to adopt Katja’s approach than to transform into a plant person.)

It would be nice if there were some rule of thumb we could use to decide when a suboptimal giving activity is so minor as to lack moral force (even for opportunistic Chaos Altruists). If you notice a bug in your psychology that makes it easier for you to become a plant person than to become an optimally frugal eater (and optimal giver), why is that any different from volunteering at a soup kitchen to acquire warm fuzzies? Why is it EA-compatible to encourage rationalists to replace the time they spend eating meat with time spent eating plants, but not EA-compatible to encourage rationalists to replace the time they spend on Reddit with time spent at soup kitchens?

Part of the answer is simply that becoming a plant person is much more effective than regularly volunteering at soup kitchens (even though it’s still not comparable to highly efficient charities). But I don’t think that’s the whole story.

 

2. Should we try to do more “ordinary” nice things?

Suppose some altruistic rationalists are in a position to do more good for the world by optimizing for frugality, or by ethically offsetting especially harmful actions. I’d still worry that there’s something important we’re giving up, especially in the latter case — “mundane decency,” “ordinary niceness,” or something along those lines.

I think of this ordinary niceness thing as important for virtue cultivation, for community-building, and for general signaling purposes. By “ordinary niceness” I don’t mean deferring to conventional/mainstream morality in the absence of supporting arguments. I do mean privileging useful deontological heuristics like “don’t use violence or coercion on others, even if it feels in the moment like a utilitarian net positive.”

If we aren’t relying on cultural conventions, then I’m not sure what basis we should use for agreeing on community standards of ordinary niceness. One thought experiment I sometimes use for this purpose is: “How easy is it for me to imagine that a society twice as virtuous as present-day society would find [action] cartoonishly evil?”

I can imagine a more enlightened society responding to many of our mistakes with exasperation and disappointment, but I  have a hard time imagining that they’d react with abject horror and disbelief to the discovery that consumers contributed in indirect ways to global warming — or failed to volunteer at soup kitchens. I have a much easier time imagining the “did human beings really do that?!” response to the enslavement and torture of of legions of non-human minds for the sake of modestly improving the quality of sandwiches.

I don’t want to be Thomas Jefferson. I don’t want to be “that guy who was totally kind and smart enough to do the right thing, but lacked the will to part ways with the norms of his time even when plenty of friends and arguments were successfully showing him the way.”

I’m not even sure I want to be the utilitarian Thomas Jefferson, the counterfactual Jefferson who gives his money to the very best causes and believes that giving up his slaves would impact his wealth in a way that actually reduces the world’s expected utilitarian value.

am something like a utiltiarian, so I have to accept the arguments of the hypothetical utilitarian slaveholder (and of Katja) in principle. But in practice I’m skeptical that an actual human being will achieve more utilitarian outcomes by reasoning in that fashion.

I’m especially skeptical that an 18th-century community of effective altruists would have been spiritually undamaged by shrugging its shoulders at slaveholding members. Plausibly you don’t kick out all the slaveholders; but you do apply some social pressure to try to get them to change their ways. Because ditching ordinary niceness corrodes something important about individuals and about groups — even, perhaps, in contexts where “ordinary niceness” is extraordinary.

… I think. I don’t have a good general theory for when we should and shouldn’t adopt universal prohibitions against corrosive “utilitarian” acts. And in our case, there may be countervailing “ordinary niceness” heuristics: the norm of being inclusive to people with eating disorders and other medical conditions, the norm of letting altruists have private lives, etc.

 

Whatever the right theory looks like, I don’t think it will depend on our stereotypes of rationalist excellence. If it seems high-value to be a community of bizarrely kind people, even though “bizarre kindness” clashes with a lot of people’s assumptions about rationalists or about the life of the mind, even though the kindness in question is more culturally associated with Hindus and hippies than with futurists and analytic philosophers, then… just be bizarrely kind. Clash happens.

I might be talked out of this view. Paul raises the point that there are advantages to doubling down on our public image (and self-image) as unconventional altruists:

I would rather EA be associated with an unusual and cost-effective thing than a common and ineffective thing. The two are attractive to different audiences, but one audience seems more worth attracting.

On the other hand, I’d expect conventional kindness and non-specialization to improve a community’s ability to resist internal strife and external attacks. And plant people are common and unexceptional enough that eating fewer animals probably wouldn’t make vegetarianism or veganism one of our more salient characteristics in anyone’s eyes.

At the same time, plantpersonhood could help us do a nontrivial amount of extra object-level good for the world, if it doesn’t trade off against our other altruistic activities. And I think it could help us develop a stronger identity (both individually and communally) as people who are trying to become exemplars of morality and kindness in many different aspects of their life, not just in our careers or philanthropic decisions.

My biggest hesitation, returning to Katja’s calculations… is that there really is something odd about putting so much time and effort into getting effective altruists to do something suboptimal.

It’s an unresolved empirical question whether Chaos Altruism is actually a useful mindset, even for people to whom it comes naturally. Perhaps Order Altruism and the “just do the optimal thing, dammit” mindset is strictly better for everyone. Perhaps it yields larger successes, or fails more gracefully. Or perhaps rationalists naturally find systematicity and consistency more motivating; and perhaps the impact of meat-eating is too small to warrant a deontological prohibition.

More anecdotes and survey data would be very useful here!


[Epistemic status: I’m no longer confident of this post’s conclusion. I’ll say why in a follow-up post.]