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Mike Darwin on the Less Wrong intelligentsia

16 Post author: Synaptic 28 February 2012 01:59AM

He has resumed posting at his blog Chronopause and he is essential reading for those interested in cryonics and, more generally, rational decision-making in an uncertain world. 

In response to a comment by a LW user named Alexander, he writes:

I have no objection to you promoting Chronosphere on LessWrong and would strongly encourage you to do so. But my guess is that you will find it an unrewarding, and possibly punishing exercise.... I’m not being trite when I say that people do NOT like reality.... Life is scary and hard, in fact, it is absolutely terrifying if looked at objectively, and things like cryonics and religion ostensibly exist to REDUCE that terror and to make to life (and death) more bearable.

For that to work, there has to be a happy sense of optimism and trust that everything is going to work out just fine. This makes sense, and, arguably, is even necessary, because the alternative would be that everyone who chose cryonics would have to more than a customer – they would have be involved – at least to some extent – as an activist. That’s asking an awful lot. But most of all, it is asking that people who opt for cryonics give up the comfort of the fantasy that they can be customers, buy the product, pay their money every month or every quarter, and that they will then be taken care of when the need arises. It means that they will have to do two exceedingly difficult and uncomfortable things:

1) Confront and understand the reality of the the many shortcomings and uncertainties of contemporary cryonics and live with them.

2) Work industriously, creatively and continuously to overcome those shortcomings.

It is very, very hard to create and sustain an organization and a community where the above two dictums are practiced. It is not only hard for the community members, it is hard for the community leaders.

(Sidenote: This reminds me of what Luke considers his most difficult day-to-day tasks.) 

...[I]f you expect to see cryonics organizations to have validated the quality of their brain cryopreservation technology under a wide variety of real world conditions, you will be disappointed. If you expect to see contingency planning for serious, inevitable near-term existential risks, such as pandemic disease, you will also be disappointed. Similarly, if you expect to see technologies in place to mitigate post-cardiac arrest normothermic ischemic injury, more accurately predict when a patient will experience cardiac arrest (i.e., is truly terminal), experience less cold ischemic injury, or be better protected from outside attack, again, you will be disappointed.

LessWrong is structured around the rational cognition of Eli[e]zer Yudkowsky and his colleagues. They posit that they have a better (i.e., more rational, more functional) way of decision making and of living their lives. They also advocate being signed up for cryonics, and in particular making cryonics arrangements with Alcor. [ed note: Actually I think EY is with CI.] I don’t dispute that this a better and more rational choice than having no cryonics arrangements. I would say that this is necessary, but not sufficient. Or in other words, a small, but wholly inadequate step in the right direction. More generally, I would say that LessWrong suffers from the same sort of deficiency that cryonics does. The world is clearly racing towards catastrophe on many fronts. In some areas these catastrophes are not due to any kind of bad “active” decision making by humans. For instance, any competent epidemiologist at the CDC or WHO can give you fairly precise odds of when the next global pandemic will occur with a mortality of 30% to 50% of the population. No expert in this area voice any doubt that such an outbreak will occur. It is not a question of if, but of when. It is also clearly the case that the general population will not be prepared and that vast numbers of people will die, including some you reading this. It is also clear that most or all cryonics patients will be lost in any such pandemic.

My point is, that if “immortalism,” which includes both radical life extension and cryonics, is to have any material chance of working, a far higher degree of cohesion, activism, planning and commitment are required. Pandemic disease is just one example. Crazy behavior in a multitude of forms is another – and it is arguably more prevalent, more virulent and more of an immediate threat.

So, my guess is that most of the other cryonicists of your generation will prove singularly uninterested in my message and that they will not want to do anything – and indeed, that most have not even signed up for cryonics! I sincerely hope you prove me wrong!

As to your last question, by no means have I given up on cryonics, nor will I ever, within reason. As long as it is at all practical to be biopreserved, it makes sense to do so. No matter how small the odds, some chance is better than no chance at all. I am signed up with Alcor for now.

On a related note, Carl Shulman has said that more widespread cryonics would encourage more long-term thinking, specifically about existential risk. Is it a consensus view that this would be the case? 

Every now and then people ask LW what sort of career they should pursue if they want to have a large impact improving the world. If we agree that cryonics would encourage long-term thinking, and that this would be beneficial, then it seems to me that we should push some of these people towards the research and practice of brain preservation. For example, perhaps http://80000hours.org/search?q=cryonics should have some results. 

Comments (30)

Comment author: Anubhav 28 February 2012 02:46:44AM *  23 points [-]

For instance, any competent epidemiologist at the CDC or WHO can give you fairly precise odds of when the next global pandemic will occur with a mortality of 30% to 50% of the population. No expert in this area voice any doubt that such an outbreak will occur. It is not a question of if, but of when.

... what

ETA: Wikipedia yields nothing except an equivocal "there is concern". The only panic I see was about H5N1, and that turned out to be way overblown.

Comment author: XFrequentist 28 February 2012 03:13:35AM 34 points [-]

"What" indeed!

I'm an epidemiologist (and hopefully a competent one), and I agree that we are not anywhere close to adequately prepared for a bad pandemic (where H1N1 was a not-so-bad pandemic, and H5N1 would probably be a bad pandemic). However, I've participated in several foresight and pandemic preparedness exercises that tried to put odds on pandemics with various profiles (mortality, infectiousness, etc.), and I have never observed a consensus anywhere close to this strong.

If anyone could direct me to a publication, report, group, or anything that supports the claims quoted in the parent and/or give the reasoning that lead to it, then I am in need of a massive update and would like to know immediately!

No expert in this area voice any doubt that such an outbreak will occur.

This is not only false, but epistemically absurd.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 28 February 2012 05:10:37AM 6 points [-]

Could you elaborate on the distribution of opinions you observe at these exercises? Do the opinions get written up? Is MD's opinion within the 90th percentile of pessimism?

Comment author: XFrequentist 02 March 2012 06:54:48PM *  2 points [-]

From our internal report (IM me for additional details)

Risk of a severe natural pandemic:

  • Likelihood estimate ~ 1/55 years [1]
  • Impact estimate ~ > 10 000 domestic fatalities, severe disruption of social services
  • Confidence grade - D (Low confidence in the judgement based on a relatively small body of knowledge, relatively small quantity and quality of relevant data and somewhat consistent relevant assessments).

[1] There were several things I thought were sub-optimal about this process, not least of which was the confusion between frequentist and Bayesian probabilities; the latter were what was really being elicited, but expressed as the former. This led to confusion when we were asked to estimate the probability of events with no historical precedent.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 03 March 2012 06:04:05AM *  1 point [-]

Thanks.

If you don't believe that the world is rapidly changing, then 1/55 years seems fairly summarized by "when it happens."

"10 000 domestic fatalities" and "severe disruption of social services" seem like a weird pair. The latter sounds much more severe than the former. Of course, a disease that infects many but kills few could accomplish both.

If this is the most severe thing you put odds on, it's quite far from the 1% fatality rate, let alone the 20-30% MD talks about; he is probably way beyond the 90th percentile of pessimism. Is it possible that he is mixing up infection with mortality?

Comment author: bogdanb 28 March 2012 08:12:11PM *  0 points [-]

"10 000 domestic fatalities" and "severe disruption of social services" seem like a weird pair. The latter sounds much more severe than the former.

See “9/11, immediate fatalities” and “9/11, consequences” for comparison. I can easily see huge indirect impact due to panic and the like.

[edited to add:] Also: I wouldn’t be surprised to see a graph for the distribution of “disease fatalities” that has most of the mass around 10k, perhaps with a long, low tail, but the graph of “social disruption vs. fatalities” rising very sharply before 10k, but then growing only slowly.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 28 March 2012 08:57:25PM 0 points [-]

Yes, in a catastrophe localized to a city 10k fatalities pairs sensibly with "severe disruption of social services," but we're talking about a pandemic.

Comment author: bogdanb 28 March 2012 09:37:29PM 0 points [-]

10k fatalities, 100k gravely ill but not dying, the media confuses the two, politicians try to push lower numbers, real numbers are discovered and as a result much higher numbers are extrapolated, folk without the disease but similar or imagined symptoms overwhelm the hospitals, large scale quarantine (appropriate or not) tie up qualified personnel, actual or imaginary paucity of vaccines causes a few riots...

There’s lots of stuff that can get out of proportion. And anyway, “severe disruption of social services” is kind of vague. I mean, it sounds bad, but that might be misleading. For instance, the phrase as given does not say “country-wide”.

Comment author: XFrequentist 29 February 2012 02:51:26AM 1 point [-]

I'll dig this up when I'm back in the office Thursday, I have at least one report handy.

Comment author: CarlShulman 28 February 2012 02:55:09AM *  19 points [-]

My sense from a lot of epidemiologists is that this does not seem inevitable, particularly sans bioterrorism or biowarfare, before technology renders it impossible. The claim is that there will be a plague killing a higher percentage than the Black Death in Europe, despite modern nutrition, sanitation, etc, and an order of magnitude worse than the 1918-1919 flu. H5N1 flu has had case-mortality rates in diagnosed cases that match those numbers, but more people were found with antibodies than were diagnosed, suggesting that the real case-fatality rate is quite a bit lower, and not everyone gets infected in a pandemic.

ETA: Also, fatalities in the 1918-1919 flu were worse in the poor parts of the world, and cryonics facilities are located in prosperous countries. There are also generic reasons to think that there are virulence-infectiousness tradeoffs that would shape the evolution of the virus. However, the recently reported lab-modified H5N1 experiments count as evidence against that (they were justified, despite the danger of revealing a bioterrorism method, as a source of evidence that an H5N1 pandemic would be highly virulent).

ETA2: And the flu experiments actually demonstrating that breeding the virus for airborne transmission reduced its lethality.

Comment author: Quinn 28 February 2012 02:54:22AM 0 points [-]

Additionally, the link in the OP is wrong. I followed it in hopes that Luke would provide a citation where I could see these estimates.

Comment author: Synaptic 28 February 2012 03:30:50AM 0 points [-]

This was the quote I was referring to:

So, I often have a nagging worry that what I’m working on only seems like it’s reducing existential risk after the best analysis I can do right now, but actually it’s increasing existential risk. That’s not a pleasant feeling, but it’s the kind of uncertainty you have to live with when working on these kinds of problems. All you can do is try really hard, and then try harder.

I was referencing how it is difficult to effectively lead an organization that is so focused on the distant future and which must make so many difficult decisions.

I should have been clearer.

Comment author: Quinn 28 February 2012 06:10:12AM 0 points [-]

Oh! Well I feel stupid indeed. I thought that all the text after the sidenote was a quotation from Luke (which I would find at the link in said sidenote), rather than a continuation of Mike Darwin's statement. I don't know why I didn't even consider the latter.

Comment author: CarlShulman 28 February 2012 02:36:18AM *  21 points [-]

On a related note, Carl Shulman has said that more widespread cryonics would encourage more long-term thinking, specifically about existential risk.

I suspect the sign is positive. I don't think pushing cryonics is anywhere near the efficiency frontier for disinterested altruism aimed at existential risk. If focused on current people, I think GiveWell donations would save more (save a kid from malaria, and they have a nontrivial chance of living to see a positive singularity/radical life extension to get there, plus GiveWell builds the effective altruism community and its capabilities). There are many, many things with positive expected impact relative to doing nothing, but that doesn't mean they are anywhere near as good as the best things.

A more plausible moralized case for it would be something like "I want cryopreservation to work for myself, which requires public good contribution of various kinds, so I will cooperate in this many-player iterated Prisoner's Dilemma." Instead of stretching to argue that pushing cryonics is really at the frontier, better to admit you want to do it for non-existential risk reasons, and buy it separately.

Comment author: Synaptic 28 February 2012 04:05:38AM 1 point [-]

Thank you for the clarification of your stance. The best counterargument seems to be that brain preservation has the potential to save many more lives than are lost due to malaria, if properly implemented, and yet receives very little if no funding. For example, malaria research received 1.5 billion in funding in 2007, whereas one of the only studies explicitly designed as relevant to cryonics is still struggling to reach its modest goal of $3000 as I write this.

they have a nontrivial chance of living to see a positive singularity/radical life extension to get there

How you do define and estimate this probability?

plus GiveWell builds the effective altruism community and its capabilities

True. But donations to cryonics organizations build the effective brain preservation community and its capabilities, and once again we are back to the question of which has the higher marginal expected utility.

Instead of stretching to argue that pushing cryonics is really at the frontier, better to admit you want to do it for non-existential risk reasons

Fair enough, I'll defer to your expertise on existential risk.

Comment author: CarlShulman 28 February 2012 04:16:51AM *  5 points [-]

they have a nontrivial chance of living to see a positive singularity/radical life extension to get there

How you do define and estimate this probability?

Life expectancy figures for young children (with some expectation of further health gains in Africa and other places with malaria victims in coming decades, plus emigration), combined with my own personal estimates of the probability of human-level AI/WBE by different times. I think such development more likely than not this century, and used that estimate in evaluating cryonics (although as we demand that cryonics organizations survive for longer and longer, the likelihood of success goes down). We can largely factor out the risk of such development going badly, since it is needed both for the vast lifespans of the malaria victims and for successful cryonics revivification.

We can save many malaria victims for each cryonics patient at current prices, which are actually less than the cost (due to charitable subsidies). Marginal costs could go down with scale, but there is a lot of evidence that it is difficult to scale up, and costs would need to fall a lot.

People saved from malaria can actively take care of themselves and preserve their own lives (and use life extension medicine if it becomes available and they are able to migrate to rich countries or benefit from local development), while cryonics patients have a substantial risk of not coming through due to organizational failure, flawed cryonics, conceptual error, cryonics bans, religious interference, etc.

Comment author: Synaptic 28 February 2012 05:02:16AM *  1 point [-]

Marginal costs could go down with scale, but there is a lot of evidence that it is difficult to scale up, and costs would need to fall a lot.

Would you mind going into details?

Plastination is a route that has been discussed but has had in my understanding zero research devoted to actually understanding whether it would work in humans for preserving personal identity. Ken Hayworth says that it could cost just a few thousand dollars.

Right now it may seem like there is no cheap route for effective brain preservation, but it is also clear that we as a species have not tried very hard to find out. Do you weigh that uncertainty in your calculations?

People saved from malaria can actively take care of themselves and preserve their own lives

One counter to this, which I do not necessarily endorse, is that people saved from malaria may also contribute to the world in negative ways, whereas preserved people are only likely to be revived if future society has good reason to believe that they will be a net positive.

ETA: Then again, I suppose there could also be strife and violence about the status of the preserved individuals, which actually might be worse in EV.

Comment author: CarlShulman 28 February 2012 05:27:31AM *  8 points [-]

Would you mind going into details?

I was referring to the difficulty cryonics organizations have had in recruiting customers, and their slow growth. I was contrasting this to the rapid growth of cost-effectiveness oriented efforts in private charity in aid, and the sophistication and money moved of groups like GiveWell (with increasing billionaire support), Giving What We Can, Life You Can Save, etc.

Right now it may seem like there is no cheap route for effective brain preservation, but it is also clear that we as a species have not tried very hard to find out. Do you weigh that uncertainty in your calculations?

Yes, that's responsible for much of the EV in my mind.

One counter to this, which I do not necessarily endorse

I first talked about cryonics not being at the frontier of existential risk reduction, and then separately said that I thought GiveWell type donations would do better for preserving current people than cryonics. I don't think that marginal malaria cures have very large effects on existential risks, and was not making any claim about the sign (I am not very confident either way). I was trying to illustrate that for a variety of disinterested objective functions I was skeptical about cryonics promotion coming out on top, except in terms of the welfare of cryonicists (a motive I can strongly sympathize with).

ETA: I did not include plastination under the banner of cryonics (since it isn't cryonics, in terms of temperature, organizational structure, or technology). It looks more promising from a state of relative ignorance.

Comment author: gwern 28 February 2012 06:28:59PM *  4 points [-]

Plastination is a route that has been discussed but has had in my understanding zero research devoted to actually understanding whether it would work in humans for preserving personal identity. Ken Hayworth says that it could cost just a few thousand dollars.

For those interested, my notes on plastination: http://www.gwern.net/plastination

(Also, Darwin has provided me a lot of material on plastination I have lazily failed to get around to incorporating.)

Comment author: fubarobfusco 28 February 2012 02:38:18AM 5 points [-]

On a related note, Carl Shulman has said that more widespread cryonics would encourage more long-term thinking, specifically about existential risk. Is it a consensus view that this would be the case?

I've heard similar claims made about reproduction — with one political form being the argument that non-parents should not be permitted to vote, since parents would have more concern for the long term.

Comment author: Grognor 28 February 2012 10:18:23AM 2 points [-]

I’m not being trite when I say that people do NOT like reality.... Life is scary and hard, in fact, it is absolutely terrifying if looked at objectively[...]

Is it me or did Mike Darwin say the exactly wrong thing here? (Considering LW's stance on harsh truths.)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 28 February 2012 11:57:30AM 6 points [-]

Reciting the Litany of Gendlin does not make one accept reality better.

Comment author: hairyfigment 28 February 2012 09:11:46PM 3 points [-]

I don't know why you would think this, unless you know of studies on the topic? Given what I've read about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy I'd feel at least mildly surprised by this result. Perhaps you exaggerated for effect?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 28 February 2012 09:56:24PM 3 points [-]

Sorry, I have overreacted.

What I should have written is: "Just because someone is reciting Litany of Gendlin, it does not mean they like reality." Some people only say it because it is cool, and even those who take it seriously are probably still disliking reality enough that whatever is written in the article applies to them too.

Comment author: Grognor 28 February 2012 08:08:34PM 0 points [-]

I wonder how you would have responded if I had not linked to the Litany of Gendlin wiki article. I wasn't trying to say that reciting things is an ultrapowerful effect on disposition (though it might be anyway), just that facing reality even if it's difficult is one of Less Wrong's goals.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 29 February 2012 09:07:56AM *  8 points [-]

Every cause wants to be a cult: simply claiming to want to face reality as it is is rather weak evidence about actually working for it, or even actually wanting to. Many, if not most, people claim to want to face reality as it is, even when they actually don't. "This group doesn't actually want to face reality" is the overwhelming default expectation for any group, which requires much stronger evidence than claims of the contrary to be seriously doubted.

That's the outside view for LW. As for the inside view, well, I might be overgeneralizing from one example too much, but from introspection and noting how easily I myself still often flinch from reality, I think most LWers still aren't ready to truly face reality either.

Comment author: MileyCyrus 28 February 2012 03:16:44AM *  7 points [-]

This post convinced me that Darwin is a crank. If it because clear by 2016 that the 2011 economy was "fucked", then I will withdraw this comment and declare Darwin a prophet. But 2016 comes and we're still bartering with dollars instead of canned food, then it will be safe to say that Darwin is a paranoid fool.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 28 February 2012 04:18:09AM 7 points [-]

Does that problem significantly inform you about accuracy of Darwin's position on the state and prospects of cryonics? If actual evidence doesn't get warped too much, pessimism might be a good (not great) attitude to successfully pick holes in convenient illusions, and evidence screens off occasional craziness. So the relevant query is about the actual summary of Darwin's case.

Comment author: gwern 28 February 2012 06:26:11PM *  6 points [-]

As I've pointed out, I think Darwin has a good track record when it comes to medicine predictions and cryonics forecasts in particular. (And with the former, his errors were more those of optimism than pessimism.)

As for his economics claims? I dunno. It seems pretty clear to me that marginal returns are shrinking in science & tech (consistent with his claims that we are not in a long-run sustainable situation), but this is an observation whose implications are very easy to overstate - the data is about about humans; that doesn't rule out advances in things like nanotech much less any regime shifts like uploads or AGIs, or give us any clear deadlines like '2 centuries' (diminishing returns seem clear in the Roman empire, too, centuries and maybe millennia before the final fall of Constantinople).

This may be a case where we could say with Napoleon, "the real truths of history are hard to discover. Happily, for the most part, they are rather matters of curiosity than of real importance."

Comment author: thelittledoctor 28 February 2012 05:44:59AM 3 points [-]

This strikes me as highly pessimistic, but given the planning fallacy, possibly a nevertheless prudent viewpoint.