Van Nostrand, Alexander, and Mowshowitz on Long COVID

This is a quick set of excerpts I’m putting together for easy reference.

Elizabeth van Nostrand wrote an Aug. 30 blog post, Long Covid Is Not Necessarily Your Biggest Problem, concluding that “for vaccinated people under 40 with <=1 [comorbidity], the cognitive risks of long covid are lost in the noise of other risks they commonly take”.

She also concludes that

[…] your overall risk of long covid is strongly correlated with the strength of the initial infection. […]

Van Nostrand estimates estimates that the risk of hospitalization for a vaccinated person who catches Delta is:

  • 0.38% for a healthy 30yo man;
  • 0.24% for a healthy 30yo woman;
  • 0.58% for an asthmatic 25yo man;
  • 0.92% for a 40yo obese woman.

And:

[…] My tentative conclusion is that the risks to me of cognitive, mood, or fatigue side effects lasting >12 weeks from long covid are small relative to risks I was already taking, including the risk of similar long term issues from other common infectious diseases. Being hospitalized would create a risk of noticeable side effects, but is very unlikely post-vaccine (although immunity persistence is a major unresolved concern).

I want to emphasize again that ‘small relative to risks you were already taking’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘too small to worry about’. For comparison, Josh Jacobson did a quick survey of the risks of driving and came to roughly the same conclusion: the risks are very small compared to the overall riskiness of life for people in their 30s. Josh isn’t stupid, so he obviously doesn’t mean ‘car accidents don’t happen’ or ‘car accidents aren’t dangerous when they happen’. What he means is that if you’re 35 with 15 years driving experience and not currently impaired, the marginal returns to improvements are minor.

[…] What this means is not that covid is safe, but that you should think about covid in the context of your overall risk portfolio. Depending on who you are that could include other contagious diseases, driving, drugs-n-alcohol, skydiving, camping, poor diet, insufficient exercise, too much exercise, and breathing outside [during wildfire season]. If you decide your current risk level is too high, or are suddenly realizing you were too risk-tolerant in the past, reducing covid risk in particular might not be the best bang for your buck. Paying for a personal trainer, higher quality food, or a safer car should be on your radar as much as reducing social contact, although for all I know that will end up being the best choice for you personally.

In Long COVID: Much More Than You Wanted To Know, Scott Alexander expresses stronger worries about long COVID (albeit with a broader definition of ‘long COVID’ that includes very mild symptoms like ‘reduced sense of smell’):

The prevalence of Long COVID after a mild non-hospital-level case is probably somewhere around 20%, but some of this is pretty mild.

[…]

Vaccination probably doesn’t change the per-symptomatic-case risk of Long COVID much

Alexander’s Fermi estimate:

About 25% of people who get COVID report long COVID symptoms. About half of those go away after a few months, so 12.5% get persistent symptoms. Suppose that half of those cases (totally made-up number) are very mild and not worth worrying about. Then 6.25% of people who get COVID would have serious long-lasting Long COVID symptoms.

[…] I’m going to round all of this off to about 1% – 10% per year of getting a breakthrough COVID case (though obviously this could change if the national picture got better or worse). Combined with the 0.4% to 6.25% risk of getting terrible long COVID conditional on getting COVID, that’s between a 1/150 – 1/25,000 chance of terrible long COVID per year.

[…] I find the 1/150 risk pretty scary and the 1/25,000 risk not scary at all, so, darn, I guess there’s not yet enough data to have a strong sense of how concerned I should be.

Zvi Mowshowitz comments on Alexander’s post in Covid 9/2: Long Covid Analysis:

[…] What I’m confused by is how he uses the data he reports in this section to end up at 20%, since he quotes studies where (Long Covid percent in Covid group minus Long Covid percent in control group) is respectively at most 28%, 12%, 17%, 13% and 13%, two of which lack a control group. If we naively average that we get 17% minus a few percent for the missing control groups, so maybe 15%. Scott seems to be buying that ‘any symptom at all’ is a reasonable standard here, and that asking ‘did you have Long Covid?’ is ripe with false negatives.

[…] I think we can safely throw out the upper part of [Scott’s] range, as I think a 10% chance of breakthrough symptomatic Covid within a year isn’t reasonable if you do a little math, and it’s starting at 25% which seems higher than the studies referenced above would suggest, so I think the range here would be more like 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 25,000.

[…] Long Covid seems legitimate, and worth a nonzero amount of effort to minimize, but my model says it is mixing a lot of things together, is largely typical of what happens after being sick, is protected against by vaccines similarly to how they protect against symptomatic disease, and in many studies they go on a fishing expedition for symptoms then attribute everything that happens chronologically after Covid to Covid.

Van Nostrand summarizes her disagreements with Alexander in Alternate Views on Long Covid:

– […] I think his studies are too small and sample-biased to be meaningful.

– He thinks my studies (especially Taquet) didn’t look at the right sequelae.

– I was only looking at cognition (including mood disorders), whereas he looked at everything.

Scott also didn’t do age-specific estimates, although I’m that’s not a crux because I expect other post-infection syndromes to worsen with age as well.

I intended to include fatigue in my analysis of cognitive symptoms but in practice the studies I weighted most highly didn’t include them. Scott’s studies, which he admits are less rigorous although we differ on how much, did include them. Why the hell aren’t the large, EHR-based studies with control groups looking at fatigue? […]

The Story of the COVID-19 Pandemic

… in four bullet points.

• Institutional failure.

Chinese officials suppressed early information about the virus. The WHO and the US CDC consistently spread misinformation and shoddy science throughout the course of the pandemic, and showed a shocking inability to understand and communicate basic distinctions like ‘we don’t know whether X’ versus ‘we know that not-X’.

World governments banned challenge trials for a full year based on imagined fears that they might prove unpopular, only to learn that they were very popular with the public once we bothered to check.

The US FDA banned COVID-19 testing and research during the critical early days of the pandemic in the US, and caused tens of thousands of deaths by refusing to approve well-tested vaccines in wide usage in the rest of the world. The developed world (and especially the European Union) massively under-invested in vaccines, spending thousands of dollars in human life and welfare to save pennies.

Most remarkably, many of these errors recur across many different countries, suggesting deep dysfunction in the way global elites generate, evaluate, and propagate ideas.

• Paranoid passivity.

A common theme in many of the above dysfunctions is a willingness to kill hundreds of thousands of people through inaction, before decisionmakers are willing to risk taking any unpopular action.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics points to one possible explanation, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that leaders are to a large extent giving the public what they want in all of this — it’s just that the public has pathologically low standards and a bizarre level of change aversion.

• Nationalism.

… But all of that may turn out to be a footnote in light of recent events in India. History may instead remember COVID-19 as a pandemic whose death toll largely occurred after vaccines were widely available, and one that mostly afflicted the poorest parts of the world.

May be an image of text that says 'LINEAR LOG Daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people Shown the rolling -day average The number confirmed casesi ower than the number of actual cases: the main reason for hati limited testing. Our World Data 150 India 100 Mar 2020 Apr 30, 2020 Jun19,2020 Aug8 Aug8,2020 Sep27,2020 16, Nov16,2020 2020 Jan5,2021 2021 Apr 21, 2021'

The story of the pandemic may be: ‘The developed world made the strategic decision to prioritize themselves over the developing world. An effective genocide ensued. Crematoria spit their smoke into the sky while tens of millions of unused vaccines sat where they had been for months, gathering dust in storage in the US, useless even to Americans because their FDA refuses to approve the vaccines for domestic use too. They just sat there.’

• Biotech revolution.

… Or even that may turn out to be a footnote. History may remember COVID-19 like this:

‘By spurring the world to experiment with new vaccine tech, the COVID-19 pandemic ended up saving vastly more lives than it cost.’

This is even more uncertain, but if true, it raises major questions about why we couldn’t act sooner. Illnesses that kill millions of people don’t become less deadly just because we’re used to them. Yet somehow, it took a pandemic for human civilization to start taking human death and disease seriously to this degree.

It Seems Like Education is Mostly Socially Bad

Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education argues that education mostly serves a signaling function—it’s an easy way of proving to prospective employers that you’re a relatively smart, hard-working, mainstream member of society—and only a small part of education (maybe 20%) exists to help people learn anything or build any skills.

Excerpts from Julia Galef’s interview of Bryan Caplan:

Bryan Caplan: [… T]here’s a standard story that almost everyone tells about why education pays in the labor market, and it just says: you go to school, they pour some skills into you, you’re better at your job, and so you get paid more. What’s the problem?

And I’m happy to say, sure, that’s part of the story.

But I say there’s also a much bigger part of the story that rarely gets discussed, and that is that when you do well in school, you impress others. You get certification. You get stamped with a sign of approval saying “Grade-A Worker”. And my story is that the majority—in fact, a large majority—of the payoff from education actually comes from this.

Selfishly speaking, that doesn’t matter so much. But from a social point of view, it matters tremendously. Because if the reason why people get paid more for school is because they learn more skills, then basically it’s a way that taxpayers invest in our productive capacities and then we produce the very wealth that we are being paid for.

But on the other hand, in the signaling story, the main thing that’s going on is that you’re getting paid because you’ve impressed employers. And if everyone has a bunch of stickers on their head, this doesn’t mean everyone gets good jobs or gets paid a lot. It just means that you need a lot of stickers in order to get a job.

So the biggest sign of this, I would say, is what’s called a credential inflation, which is you just now need more education to get a job that your dad or grandfather could’ve gotten with one or two fewer degrees.

Julia Galef: And what kind of signal are you mostly pointing at? Is it the signal that someone was good enough to be accepted into a college, or the signal that someone was good enough to graduate with the grades that they did?

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, so the graduation seems like it’s a lot more important. Because if it were the first story, if it were just you get a great signal by being accepted, then people would take their admission letters and shop them around employers saying, “I got into Harvard and Stanford, so what are you going to offer me, Goldman Sachs?” And in practice, that doesn’t seem to work very well.

So I think if you’re wondering why, I would say that there’s something very odd about a person who tries to do that. They seem like they’re trying to skip out on this sacred institution of our society. So, yeah, employers are understandably nervous about someone so weird that they would get into Harvard and then try to weasel out of it.

So in terms of what is it people are signaling, I’d say it’s really a big package of different traits. Intelligence, obviously, but it’s not just that. That’s too easy to measure by itself. It’s also work ethic. And then finally, sheer conformity, which again, is very important on the job. Someone could be really smart and really hard-working, but if they’re defiant, if they don’t play as part of the team, then they’re almost useless to you. And I say really to understand a lot of what’s going on with education, we have to focus on this conformity signaling.

[… T]he whole idea of signaling is that if you come up with a really cheap way of signaling, the result isn’t that you get your signal across at a low cost, but rather that you just have to do more of it. A key idea in the signaling model is if you found a way of cutting the cost of signaling in half, the result wouldn’t be that we do half as much signaling. The result would be that we signal for twice as long. […]

My favorite example of this is suppose that someone comes up with a new way of making synthetic diamonds at 10% of the current cost. And my question is, how long would it take before people either stopped giving diamond engagement rings, or they started giving rings that were enormous?

And the key point is that since what you’re signaling with that ring is that you’re willing to go and put in a lot of money into something to indicate your devotion, if the cost per carat of diamond were to fall, it’s not that we would just keep giving the same diamonds that we’re currently giving. Instead, people would say, “Well that doesn’t really convince people very much anymore. It doesn’t say much anymore. I’d better go and either get an even bigger diamond or give something that can’t be synthesized.”

And a lot of it is really the same for education. If you were to go and have, say, free college for all, the result wouldn’t be that everybody with a college degree can get the kind of jobs that people get with it now. Instead there’d be an army of extra people going, and then you might need a Master’s degree or another advanced degree to be considered worthy of an interview.

[…M]ost specialists in both education and labor economics, they’re only looking at income. So they’re looking at the effects of education, and then there is this really circular effort to say, “Well, since there’s a big effect on the income of the person, they must’ve learned something useful,” and you say, “Yes, but the signaling model predicts the very same thing.” So that’s a big issue.

And there is an idea of, “Well of course we all know that the people are learning tons of useful stuff.” And then when you say, “Well, actually, they’re learning a ton of stuff they’re never gonna use.” And this is then where economists will often retreat to, “Oh, well, they’re learning how to learn, learning critical thinking, it doesn’t really matter what the subject is.”

And then I’ll say there’s something they really don’t know about, which is: in educational psychology, they’ve been studying this very issue for a hundred years. They want to find evidence of learning how to learn. They want to find evidence that critical thinking is being successfully taught. And yet, after a hundred years, they’re really pretty shell-shocked and say, “Look, we’re just not finding much sign of this broad, general inculcation of thinking skills that educators love to believe is actually happening.” So that’s the stuff I’d say most economists are just totally unaware of.

[… S]tudents seem so focused on getting easy As. If you were in school to acquire skills, this is pretty perverse. But if you’re in school to impress employers, then it’s pretty easy to understand why you want an easy A, because the employer doesn’t know that it was an easy A. If you find the easiest teacher of real analysis in the country, get an A+ in exchange for doing some arithmetic, people look at that and say, “Wow, he’s got an A plus in real analysis. Wow, look at that guy.” So that makes sense.

The practical implication: if, e.g., college as it exists in the real world is largely a zero-sum arms race to signal pre-existing traits (like intelligence and disposition to conform / accept instructions), rather than a positive-sum opportunity to actually learn useful or enriching material, then causing more people to go to college doesn’t improve people’s lives in aggregate.

Just the opposite, since college is expensive in time and money. If you get another 10% of people to go to college, then everyone else has to burn that many more resources to keep up in the signaling competition, but there’s still the same pool of new jobs, and people are still roughly as good at those jobs as they would have been without the education. Which means that everyone is now burning more resources just to not fall behind relative to everyone else in the ‘signal you’re a good worker’ game. Like forcing everyone in a race to run twice as fast, without doing anything to increase the reward for absolute performance at the end.

So, for example, subsidizing college education is a terrible idea that actively hurts people. A better case could be made, if anything, for taxing it as a source of net harm to society, to try to reduce how much time people spend at college etc. and thereby put more time, money, and other resources in people’s hands. Forcing poor people to get more years of education doesn’t appear to materially benefit them at all in aggregate, but handing them back money and free years of their life certainly does.

If you want to enrich people with cool ideas as an end in itself, because cool ideas are cool, then give people Internet access and free time and let them decide how to use that time. Don’t force them into camps where they have to learn classics and jump through hoops in order to be able to pay medical bills, start a family, etc. later in life.

From Caplan’s book:

Higher education is the only product where the consumer tries to get as little out of it as possible. […]

Some big blatant facts are inexplicable without the signaling model.

[1.] The best education in the world is already free. All complaints about elite colleges’ impossible admissions and insane tuition are flatly mistaken. Fact: anyone can study at Princeton for free. While tuition is over $45,000 a year, anyone can show up and start attending classes. No one will stop you. No one will challenge you. No one will make you feel unwelcome. Gorge yourself at Princeton’s all-you-can-eat buffet of the mind. Colleges do not card. I have seen this with my own eyes at schools around the country.

If you keep your learn-for-free scheme to yourself, professors will assume you’re missing from their roster owing to a bureaucratic snafu. If you ask permission to sit in, most professors will be flattered. What a rare pleasure to teach someone who wants to learn! After four years of ‘guerrilla education,’ there’s only one thing you’ll lack: a diploma. Since you’re not in the system, your performance will be invisible to employers.

[… 2.] Failing versus forgetting. You’ve studied many subjects you barely remember. You might have motivated yourself with, ‘After the final exam, I’ll never have to think about this stupid subject again.’

[… 3.] Easy As. Students struggle to win admission to elite schools. Once they arrive, however, they hunt for professors with low expectations. A professor who wants to fill a lecture hall hands out lots of As and little homework.

[… 4.] Cheating. According to human capital purists, the labor market rewards only job skills, not academic credentials. Taken literally, this implies academic cheating is futile. Sure, a failing student can raise their grade by copying an A+ exam or plagiarizing a term paper from the Internet. Unless copying and plagiarizing make people more productive for their employer, however, the human capital model implies zero financial payoff for the worker. […]

The human capital model doesn’t just imply all cheaters are wasting their time. It also implies all educators who try to prevent cheating are wasting their time. All exams might as well be take-home. No one needs to proctor tests or call time. No one needs to punish plagiarism—or Google random sentences to detect it. Learners get job skills and financial rewards. Fakers get poetic justice.

[… 5.] Teachers have a foolproof way to make their students cheer: cancel class. If human capital purists are right, such jubilation is bizarre. Since you go to school to acquire job skills, a teacher who cancels class rips you off. You learn less, you’re less employable, yet your school doesn’t refund a dime of tuition. In construction, contractors don’t jump for joy if their roofers skip shingling to go gambling. In school, however, students jump for joy if their teachers cancel class to attend a conference in Vegas.

When students celebrate the absence of education, it’s tempting to blame their myopia on immaturity. Tempting, but wrongheaded. Once they’re in college, myopic, immature students can unilaterally skip class whenever they like. Why wait for the teacher’s green light? For most students, there’s an obvious answer: When you skip class, your relative performance suffers. When you teacher cancels class, everyone learns less, leaving your relative performance unimpaired.

Human capital purists must reject this ‘obvious answer.’ Employers reward you for your skills, not your skills compared to your classmates’. Signaling, in contrast, takes the ‘obvious answer’ over the finish line. Why do students cheer when a teacher cancels class? Because they’ve escaped an hour of drudgery without hurting their GPA.

And another excerpt—the following is a relatively minor argument in a big 400-page book, but I’ve come back to it a few times, so I’ll put it here too. As a philosophy major, I get to do this without looking like I’m lording my major over others…

We can ballpark the practicality of higher education by looking at the distribution of majors. Table 2.1 breaks down all bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2008-9 by field of study—and rates their usefulness.

High usefulness: Defenders of the real-world relevance of education love to invoke engineering. Engineering students learn how to make stuff work; employers hire them to make stuff work. Engineering has well-defined subbranches, each with straightforward applications: electrical, mechanical, civil, nuclear. Before we get carried away, we should accept a key act: Engineering is a challenging, hence unpopular, major. Psychologists outnumber engineers. Artists outnumber engineers. Social scientists plus historians outnumber engineers almost two to one. […]

Medium usefulness: Majors like business, education, and public administration sound vaguely vocational and funnel students toward predictable occupations after graduation. At the same time, they teach few technical skills, and nonmajors readily compete for the same jobs. While you could dismiss these majors as Low in usefulness, let’s give them the benefit of doubt. You don’t need a business degree to work in business, but perhaps your coursework gives you an edge. You don’t need an education degree to land a teaching job, but explicitly studying education could enhance your teaching down the road. […] By this standard, about 35% of majors end up in the Medium category. […]

Low usefulness: The status of most of the majors in this bin [which contains 40% of all bachelor’s degrees]—fine arts, philosophy, women’s studies, theology, and such—should be uncontroversial. Liberal arts programs uphold the ideal of ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake.’ Few even pretend to prepare students for the job market. You could argue I underrate the usefulness of communications and psychology. Don’t they prepare students to work in journalism and psychology? Yet this objection is almost as naive as, ‘Don’t history programs prepare students to work as historians?’ Psychology, communications, and history’s usefulness is Low because they prepare their students for fields where paying jobs are almost impossible to get. In 2008-9, over 94,000 students earned their bachelor’s in psychology, but there are only 174,000 practicing psychologists in the country. In the same year, over 83,000 students earned their bachelor’s degree in communications. Total jobs for reporters, correspondents, and broadcast news analysts number 54,000. Historians, unsurprisingly, have the bleakest prospects of all. There were over 34,000 newly minted history graduates—and only 3,500 working historians in the entire country. […]

The staunchest defenders of education reject the idea of sorting subjects and majors by ‘usefulness.’ How do you know Latin, trigonometry, or Emily Dickinson won’t serve you on the job? A man told me his French once helped him understand an airport announcement in Paris. Without high school French, he would have missed his flight. Invest years now and one day you might save hours at an airport. See, studying French pays!

These claims remind me of Hoarders, a reality show about people whose mad acquisitiveness has ruined their lives. Some hoarders collect herds of cats, others old refrigerators, others their own garbage. Why not throw away some of their useless possessions? Stock answer: ‘I might need it one day.’ They ‘might need’ a hundred empty milk cartons.

Taken literally, the hoarders are right: there is a chance they’ll need their trash. The commensense reply is that packing your house with trash is almost always a bad idea. You must weigh the storage cost against the likely benefits. […] ‘No one knows if this trash will come in handy’ is a crazy argument for hoarding trash. ‘No one knows if this knowledge will come in handy’ is a crazy argument for hoarding knowledge.

More discussion from Julia Galef’s podcast:

Julia Galef: You mentioned the case in which a teacher cancels class and the students are all happy about that and say like, “Jeez, if it was really about gaining skills that they expect to increase their productivity and value to future employers, then why would they be happy?”

You know, they already paid for tuition, and now they’re just getting less for their money. Which I do think is a suggestive and striking fact about the world.

But I felt like you didn’t quite give enough space to the alternate explanation of that—which is just, you know, people buy gym memberships because they want to lose weight or get fit, and then they find excuses not to go to the gym, or they’re happy when there’s a holiday and the gym is closed, so they don’t have to go to the gym.

It just feels like there’s this common phenomenon of a tension, of struggle between your present self’s interests and your future self’s interests, and this leads to a lot of behavior that otherwise looks irrational.

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, so I think I did have a couple sentences on that point, but you’re right, I could’ve talked more about it. […] But the main thing I say is that this myopia can explain why students don’t show up on a regular day. And yeah, typical college class in the middle of the semester, barely half the students are showing up. And that, I think you might say, “Well, it’s just myopia,” because they’re going and putting this money in, and they’re gonna get worse grades, and their life is going to be worse as a result.

But of course, there’s all the students who do show up, and why is it that those students are also happy when you cancel class? And that one seems to be that well, then I get to have this holiday without having to worry about the material that I failed to learn and that is going to lead me to get lower grades.

So yeah, I think in terms of just low attendance, you can explain it with myopia. But why people see a big difference between skipping class when everyone else is doing it, and skipping class when only half of the people are doing it, or when only you’re doing it—that’s where I think that you can detect the signaling element. It’s like, “I don’t mind missing it if everyone else misses it, but if I’m the only one missing it, then I’m dead, so no. I’ll go.” […]

Julia Galef: I just want to zoom out for a moment to note that I’ve been honing in on the parts of your argument that I find relatively less convincing—but I actually do find your argument overall pretty convincing. And if you’re correct about the standard [view] being closer to 10% signaling, I’m closer to 80% than 10%.

But yeah, I don’t know, I’ve just been thinking during our conversation about cruxes of disagreement between you and me. And I think probably one of them is I just expect that companies are less rational than you expect they are. And so I would just be less surprised if they were leaving large amounts of money on the table. Or less surprised if societal inertia or irrational biases were doing a lot of the work here. Which just changes the whole way you make sense of what’s happening.

Bryan Caplan: I mean, what’s funny is for an economist, I’d say I’m very open-minded about this stuff, and there are a bunch of cases where I’ll say, “Yeah, it looks like firms are actually not maximizing profits,” or, “They’re leaving money on the table.” But again, I think the cases that are well-documented are ones where it’s more marginal.

And there is actually a big body of literature on how firms that don’t maximize profits and have low productivity per worker have much higher attrition rates than other firms. And on the other end, the firms that have usually high productivity are just more likely to not only survive, but also to expand. It’s another thing to say, your firms are leaving money on the table for five years, but to say that it’s gone on for decades, again, this seems to go against most of what we know about selective attrition in growth of firms.

Julia Galef: Okay. Well, that’s a way bigger crux of disagreement than we can resolve in two minutes, so I’ll leave it at that. I just thought it was interesting to point out.

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, totally.

Julia Galef: And I want to make sure that I don’t forget to tell you about an ironic thing that I’ve noticed, that’s very relevant to your case, which is: Philosophy departments, in their “Why you should be a philosophy major” page on their departmental website, they always cite statistics about how there’s a high return to a philosophy major, in terms of the starting salaries you get offered. And they say, “See, this is proof that philosophy majors teach you critical thinking skills!”

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, that’s terrible.

Julia Galef: Which is especially ironic, because they’re confusing correlation and causation, which is an example of poor thinking skills in their very argument! That just struck me as a very Bryan-flavored observation.

Bryan Caplan: Yeah. Plus it’s not even true that a philosophy major is well-paid.

Julia Galef: Oh?

Bryan Caplan: It’s not at the bottom of the distribution by any means, but… actually, now that I think about it, normally the numbers that I look at actually correct for test scores. So it might be that, yeah, philosophers do come in with very high test scores. So it might be that if you just look at raw means, what you’re saying is true.

Julia Galef: Right, yeah.

Bryan Caplan: But if you go and look at how people who had the same test scores but who majored in something else do, then I think philosophy does pretty poorly. Especially if you’re not looking at people who go on to get a law degree or something like that. Those people are probably pulling up the average a lot.

Students who do unschooling seem to do totally fine; and differences between education approaches mostly don’t seem to change much. So on the face of it, mandating decades of universal formal education seems to just be burning value.

There may be subtle society-wide effects of forcing people to spend a large chunk of their life in something like a well-intentioned labor camp; but the balance of these effects might be on things like “how conformist society is in general” that I don’t think are good things to optimize for.

Some related discussion by Scott Alexander:

Odds and Ends – Mar 2021

A grab bag of interesting links and news:

___________________________________________

The first COVID-19 human challenge trials have been approved… in February 2021, instead of February 2020.

If this is a good idea now, when the benefits are vastly lower and the risks are only slightly lower, then it was probably also a good idea a year ago. Opponents of human challenge trials should think hard about the background heuristics that caused them to get this one wrong, so we don’t have to repeat this tragic error again.
___________________________________________

From Zvi Mowshowitz on Feb. 11:

The good news is that Johnson & Johnson has applied for emergency use authorization, and they are going to get it. There’s going to be a sprint to review the data in which every second will be used! Which started right after the official application, because you can’t review data that hasn’t been submitted in a completed application, that’s physically impossible, what are you even talking about. 

The bad news is that it’s going to take three weeks to get to the meeting, likely with additional time after the meeting before we can distribute the vaccine, but hey:

Last week I went over how we know the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe and effective, and there are millions of doses waiting to be distributed, and there’s no good reason we can’t start that process yesterday.

I do realize that there is a difference between, as Scott Alexander discusses, the FDA’s need to be legible and reliable, and follow proper procedures, versus my ability to apply Bayesian reasoning. 

That doesn’t mean this needs to happen three weeks after application, and attempts to justify that timeline are obvious nonsense

Mostly, it’s a call and response. You say ‘why are we letting people die for no reason?’ and they say ‘Thalidomide!’ and ‘people won’t trust it.’

So basically, one time someone had a drug that wasn’t safe. We didn’t approve that drug because our existing review process made it look unsafe, so in response to that we created a more involved and more onerous process, as opposed to noticing that the previous process actually worked in this case exactly as designed. Then we use this as a fully general excuse to freak everyone out about everything that hasn’t gone through this process, and then use that freak out (that, to the extent it exists which it mostly doesn’t, is directly the result of such warnings) as our reason to force everything through the process. Neat trick. 

Oh, and did I mention that the ‘safety data’ that requires three weeks to review is, and I quote it in its entirety, ‘nothing serious happened to anyone at all, and no one was struck by lightning.’ Either J&J has created a safe vaccine, or J&J  is committing a fraud that will be caught and get everyone involved arrested within three weeks, or they’re committing a fraud so effectively that the review won’t catch the fraud and won’t help. Those are the only possibilities. If the data isn’t fraudulent then the drug is safe, period. […]

On the actual J&J vaccine, I don’t know what more there is to say. As with Moderna and Pfizer, they’ve already done the actual approval process and confirmed that it’s going to get approved before they applied, and now we’re delaying in order to make it clear we are Very Serious People who Follow Proper Procedure and are not In Bed With Industry and Putting People At Risk or Destroying Trust in Vaccines by going ‘too fast.’ Or something like that. 

We have now done this three times. It’s one thing to have the first vaccine application point out that there’s weeks of lost time. It’s another thing to not have fixed the problem months later.

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From Zvi on Mar. 4:

Meanwhile, now that we were provided a sufficiently urgent excuse that we were able to show that mRNA vaccines work, we’ve adopted them to create a vaccine for Malaria. Still very early but I consider this a favorite to end up working in some form within (regulatory burden) number of years. It’s plausible that the Covid-19 pandemic could end up net massively saving lives, and a lot of Effective Altruists (and anyone looking to actually help people) have some updating to do. It’s also worth saying that 409k people died of malaria in 2020 around the world, despite a lot of mitigation efforts, so can we please please please do some challenge trials and ramp up production in advance and otherwise give this the urgency it deserves? And speed up the approval process at least as much as we did for Covid? And fund the hell out of both testing this and doing research to create more mRNA vaccines? There’s also mRNA vaccines in the works for HIV, influenza and certain types of heart disease and cancer. These things having been around for a long time doesn’t make them not a crisis when we have the chance to fix them.

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From Bryan Caplan on Feb. 16: Bioethics: Tuskegee vs. COVID. Excerpts:

[…] Why do bioethicists habitually invoke the Tuskegee experiment?  To justify current Human Subjects Review.  Which is bizarre, because Human Subjects Review applies to a vast range of obviously innocuous activities.  Under current rules, you need approval from Human Subjects merely to conduct a survey – i.e., to talk to a bunch of people and record their answers.

The rationale, presumably, is: “You should only conduct research on human beings if they give you informed consent.  And we shouldn’t let researchers decide for themselves if informed consent has been given.  Only bioethicists (and their well-trained minions) can make that call.”

On reflection, this just pushes the issue back a step.  Researchers aren’t allowed to decide if their human experiment requires informed consent.  However, they are allowed to decide if what they’re doing counts as an experiment.   No one submits a formal request to their Human Subjects Review Board before emailing other researchers questions about their work.  No professor submits a formal request to their Human Subjects Review Board before polling his students.  Why not?  Because they don’t classify such activities as “experiments.”  How is a formal survey any more “experimental” than emailing researchers or polling students?

[…] The safest answer for bioethicists, of course, is simply: “They should get our approval for those activities, too.”  The more territory bioethicists claim for themselves, however, the more you have to wonder, “How good is bioethicists’ moral judgment in the first place?”

To answer this question, let me bring up a bioethical incident thousands of times deadlier than the Tuskegee experiment.  You see, there was a deadly plague called COVID-19.  Researchers quickly came up with promising vaccines.  They could have tested the safety and efficacy of these vaccines in about one month using voluntary paid human experimentation.

[…] In the real world, researchers only did Step 1, then waited about six months to compare naturally-occurring infection rates.  During this period, ignorance of the various vaccines’ efficacy continued, almost no one received any COVID vaccine, and over a million people died.  In the end, researchers discovered that the vaccines were highly effective, so this delay really did cause mass death.

How come no country on Earth tried voluntary paid human experimentation?*  As far as I can tell, the most important factor was the formal and informal opposition of bioethicists.  In particular, bioethicists converged on absurdly (or impossibly) high standards for “truly informed consent” to deliberate infection. Here’s a prime example:

“An important principle in human challenge studies is that subjects must give their informed consent in order to take part. That means they should be provided with all the relevant information about the risk they are considering. But that is impossible for such a new disease.”

Why can’t you bluntly tell would-be subjects, “This is a very new disease, so there could be all sorts of unforeseen complications.  Do you still consent?”  Because the real point of bioethics isn’t to ensure informed consent, but to veto informed consent to whatever gives bioethicists the willies.

[…] I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Bioethics is to ethics as astrology is to astronomy.  If bioethicists had previously prevented a hundred Tuskegees from happening, COVID would still have turned the existence of their entire profession into a net negative for humanity.  Verily, we would be better off if their field had never existed.

If you find this hard to believe, remember: What the Tuskegee researchers did was already illegal in 1932.  Instead of creating a pile of new rules enforced by a cult of sanctimonious busybodies, the obvious response was to apply the familiar laws of contract and fiduciary duty.  These rules alone would have sent people like the Tuskegee researchers to jail where they belong.  And they would have left forthright practitioners of voluntary paid human experimentation free to do their vital life-saving work.

In a just world, future generations would hear stories of the monstrous effort to impede COVID-19 vaccine research.  Textbooks and documentaries would icily describe bioethicists’ lame rationalizations for allowing over a million people die.  If the Tuskegee experiments laid the groundwork for modern Human Subjects Review, the COVID non-experiments would lay the groundwork for the abolition of these deadly shackles on medical progress. […]

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General COVID-19 thoughts, from me (someone with no relevant medical background):


1. I’ve head reports of people getting seriously ill or dying from various preventable illnesses, because they’re too scared to go to the hospital for various non-COVID-related ailments. In general, I think people are unduly scared of hospitals: going to the hospital is risky, but not catastrophically so. I’d advise people to stop going into grocery stores (if they can avoid it) long before I advised avoiding hospitals (in cases where they’re worried something might be seriously wrong).


Obviously, now is not the time to go in for routine check-ups, and video calls with doctors are a good first step in most cases, etc.


2. I’ve updated toward thinking it won’t be that hard to avoid catching COVID-19 in March/April in spite of the new strain, if you’re the kind of person who’s in a social network of very cautious people who have ~all avoided catching COVID-19 thus far. A large number of people are taking few or no precautions, and the bulk of COVID-19 exposures has been (and will continue to be) drawn from that group.


If you’re young and your whole social network has almost completely avoided anyone catching COVID-19 thus far, it’s more likely your social network is being over-cautious.


3. A lot of sources have been exaggerating the risk that you’ll be infected, or infect others, even if you’ve previously caught COVID-19 or been vaccinated. I think most people who’ve recovered from COVID-19 should mostly act as though COVID-19 doesn’t exist at all, at least for the next few months (in areas where the Brazil and South Africa strains aren’t widespread yet).


I’d say the same for people who have had two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, as long as it’s been ~2 weeks since you had your second shot. For more detailed risk assessments than that, I recommend using the microCOVID website.


4. This is the home stretch. Universal vaccine availability is on the horizon, and our vaccines seem amazingly effective (especially for preventing deaths and hospitalizations). It goes without saying that it’s extra-unfortunate to catch COVID-19 shortly before you would have gotten vaccinated.

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From Scott Alexander’s March link post:

CTRL+F “Blackrock” in this Matt Levine column for a discussion of how we accidentally stumbled into true communism for the good of all. The short version: an investing company called Blackrock owns so much of the economy that it’s in their self-interest to have all companies cooperate for the good of the economy as a whole. While they don’t usually push this too hard, the coronavirus pandemic was a big enough threat that “BlackRock is actually calling drug companies and telling them to cooperate to find a cure without worrying about credit or patents or profits”.

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Also from Scott’s link post:

The class-first left’s case for why the Sanders campaign failed: he tried too hard to reinvent himself as a typical liberal to fit in, but people who wanted typical liberals had better choices, and it lost him his outsider energy (see especially the description of his “astoundingly dysfunctional” South Carolina campaign – “not only did basic tasks go unfulfilled, phone-banking and canvassing data were outright fabricated” – the article claims nobody was able to fix it because it was run by social justice activists who interpreted any criticism of them as racist/sexist. Interested to hear if anyone knows of other perspectives on this). Counterpoint: South Carolina was always going to be hostile territory for him, and maybe he didn’t reinvent himself as a typical liberal enough. I cannot find any other source confirming the South Carolina campaign allegations; interested in hearing what people think.

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Marginal Revolution (also linked in Scott’s roundup) quotes Tanaya Devi and Roland Fryer’s “Policing the Police: The Impact of ‘Pattern-or-Practice’ Investigations on Crime”:

This paper provides the first empirical examination of the impact of federal and state “Pattern-or-Practice” investigations on crime and policing. For investigations that were not preceded by “viral” incidents of deadly force, investigations, on average, led to a statistically significant reduction in homicides and total crime. In stark contrast, all investigations that were preceded by “viral” incidents of deadly force have led to a large and statistically significant increase in homicides and total crime. We estimate that these investigations caused almost 900 excess homicides and almost 34,000 excess felonies. The leading hypothesis for why these investigations increase homicides and total crime is an abrupt change in the quantity of policing activity. In Chicago, the number of police-civilian interactions decreased by almost 90% in the month after the investigation was announced. In Riverside CA, interactions decreased 54%. In St. Louis, self-initiated police activities declined by 46%. Other theories we test such as changes in community trust or the aggressiveness of consent decrees associated with investigations — all contradict the data in important ways.

Neal Zupancic comments:

The authors seem to suggest it is mostly the investigations themselves causing the increase in crime, rather than any particular policy changes. The mechanism they propose is that police officers greatly reduce their quantity of policing when under federal investigation after a “viral” incident, but there is little indication that this comes about as the result of any particular policy reform – the suggestion is that police are either reducing public contact in an effort to avoid having their own actions scrutinized, or are trying to make a point (in the case of deliberate strikes and slowdowns/sickouts). There’s also a section (page 27) where the authors talk about the possible impact of increased paperwork, and estimate it might account for about 20% of the reduction in police activity in one city. I’m not sure if we’re calling this “reform” but even if we do it’s a small proposed effect.

American houses

Suppose that American politics decomposed into ~four ‘houses’, representing different perspectives and different sets of virtues (and vices). What might they be?

My first attempt:

[epistemic status: playing around with narratives]

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Coeptis – The nietzschean house. Some combination of ‘everyone benefits when we stay out of the way and let the cream rise to the top’, and ‘if you don’t pull yourself up by your boot-straps, well, that’s on you’. Believes in advancing, gaining power, and letting power concentrate in the hands of a few super-competent elites.

Believes in cowboys, superheroes, lone vigilantes. Stubbornly refuses to take orders or conform, where it disagrees with their conscience or taste. Persnicketiness.

Believes the world is intelligible; so hand the world to the best and brightest, and let them figure it out.

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Pluribus – The wisdom-of-crowds house. Believes in the elegance of democratic and (competitive, monopoly-free) market-based solutions, and believes in the nobility of respecting others’ autonomy and agency. Live, and let live. Distributed decision-making, and aesthetic appreciation for the dizzying variety of different individuals’ life-projects.

Pluribus is skeptical of Coeptis’ belief that any one individual can model and optimize the world. The world is too messy for that; it requires diverse and distributed optimization. But Pluribus agrees with Coeptis that individuals’ free action is the special sauce of civilization (albeit en masse, not through an elite).

Let a hundred flowers bloom. Don’t just leave me be; leave people be. See America for what it is, not just what you wish it were. Respect what it is. Respect who we are.

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Novus – The compassionate utopian consequentialist house. Do whatever it takes to protect people and save lives. Break the rules and encroach on apparent ‘rights’ when doing so actually works and improves welfare.

Radicalism; idealism; willingness to work hard for fundamental change. Paternalism. Progress. Deliberately moving toward a brighter future.

Coeptis breaks the rules out of stubbornness and frustration with the idiots who designed things wrong. Novus breaks the rules because people are starving and in need.

Novus is confident that somehow this can be fixed, even if it’s less certain of methodology (more pragmatic, willing to experiment, break eggs, be inelegant) than the other three houses.

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Unum – The house of coordination and tradition.

1. Deferring to authority. Forming tight-knit high-trust alliances. Achieving great things via teamwork and the superpower of acting in lock-step.

2. Preserving and absorbing established scholarship. Learning the lessons of history. Minding Chesterton’s fences and the wisdom of old, evolved systems. Approaching risky new ideas with caution.

1 and 2 are related: strong coordination requires everyone to know with confidence what everyone else in the group believes and wants, which requires relatively stable, uniform, uncertainty-minimizing culture. A marching band can’t be confused about what their orders are, or be perpetually uncertain about whether the left side will suddenly decide to go off and do its own thing.

3. Rule of law, since law is much of what makes society legible and enables cooperation. Applying the law consistently. Resisting corruption. Order.

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

trumpbw
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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