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.