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Genetic "Nature" is cultural too

7 Stuart_Armstrong 18 March 2016 02:33PM

I'll admit it: I am confused about genetics and heritability. Not about the results of the various twin studies - Scott summarises them as "~50% of the variation is heritable and ~50% is due to non-shared environment", which seems generally correct.

But I am confused about what this means in practice, due to arguments like "contacts are very important for business success, rich people get much more contacts than poor people, yet business success is strongly correlated with genetic parent wealth" and such. Assuming that genetics strongly determines... most stuff... goes against so many things we know or think we know about how the world works. And by "we" I mean lots of different people with lots of different political views - genetic determinism means, for instance, that current variations in regulation and taxes are pretty unimportant for individual outcomes.

Now, there are many caveats about the genetic results, particularly that they measure the variance of a factor rather than its absolute importance (and hence you get results like variation in nutrition being almost invisible as an explanation for variation in height), but it's still hard to figure out what this all means.

Then we have Scott's latest post, which points out that "non-shared environment" is not the same as "nurture", since it includes, for instance, dumb luck.

However, "heritable" is not the same as as "nature", either. For instance, sexism and racial prejudices, if they are widespread, come under the "heritable" effects rather than the "environment" ones. And then it gets even more confusing.


Widespread prejudice is not "environment". Rarer prejudice is.

For instance, imagine that we lived in a very sexist society where women were not allowed to work at all. Then there would be an extremely high, almost perfect, correlation between "having a Y chromosome" and "having a job". But this would obviously be susceptible to a cultural fix.

Obviously racial effects can have the same effect. It covers anything visible. So a high heritability is compatible with genetics being a cause of competence, and/or prejudice against visible genetic characteristics being important ("Our results indicate that we either live in a meritocracy or a hive of prejudice!").

Note that as prejudices get less widespread, they move from showing up on the genetic variation, to showing up in the environmental variation side. So widespread prejudices create a "nature" effect, rarer ones create a "nurture" effect. Evenly reducing the magnitude of a prejudice, however, doesn't change the side it will show up on.


Positional genetic goods: Beauty... and IQ?

Let's zoom in on one of those visible genetic characteristics: beauty. As Robin Hanson is fond of pointing out, beautiful people are more successful, and are judged as more competent and cooperative than they actually are. Therefore if we have a gene that increases both beauty and IQ, we would expect it's impact on success to be high. In the presence of such a gene, the correlation between IQ and success would be higher than it should objectively be. This suggest a (small) note of caution on the "mutation load" hypotheses; if reducing mutation load increases factors such as beauty, then we would expect increased success without necessarily increased competence.

But is it possible that IQ itself is in part a positional good? Consider that success doesn't just depend on competence, but on social skills, ability to present yourself well in an interview, and how managers and peers judge you. If IQ affects or covaries with one or another of those skills, then we would be overemphasising the importance of IQ in competence. Thus attempts to genetically boost IQ could give less impact than expected. The person whose genome was changed would benefit, but at the (partial) expense of everyone else.

Do people know of experiments (or planned experiments) that disentangle these issues?

Preference over preference

5 Elo 06 March 2016 12:51AM

Each individual person has a preference.  Some preferences are strong, others are weak.  For many preferences it's more complicated than that; they aren’t static, and we change our preferences all the time.  Some days we don't like certain foods, sometimes we may strongly dislike a certain song then another time we may not care so much. Our preferences can change in scope, as well as intensity.

Sometimes people can have preferences over other people's preferences.  

  • Example 1: I prefer to be surrounded by people who enjoy exercise, that way I will be motivated to exercise more.
  • Example 2: I prefer to be surrounded by people who don't care how they look, that way I look prettier than everyone else.
  • Example 3: I prefer when other people like my clothes.
  • Example 4: I prefer my partners to be polyamorous.
  • Example 5: I prefer people around me to not smoke.

The interesting thing about example 3; is that there are multiple ways to achieve that preference:

  1. Find out what clothes people like and acquire those clothes, then wear them regularly.
  2. Find people who already like the clothes that you have, then hang around those people regularly.
  3. Change the preference of the people around you so that they like your clothes.

Changing someone’s preference over clothing seems pretty harmless, and that way you get to wear clothes you like, they get to like the clothes you wear, and you get to be around people who like the clothes you wear without finding new people. The scary and maybe uncomfortable thing is that the other preferences can be also achieved through these means.

Example 4:

  1. Find out where poly people are, and hang out with them. (and ask to be their partners - etc)
  2. Find out which of the people you know are already poly and hang out with them  (and ask to be their partners - etc)
  3. Change the preferences of your existing partner/s. 

Example 1: 

  1. Find out where people who enjoy exercise hang out, and join them.
  2. Find out which of your friends already enjoy exercise and hang out with them.
  3. Change the preferences of those around you to also enjoy exercise.

Example 5:

  1. Find out where people don't smoke, hang out in those places.
  2. Figure out who already doesn't smoke and hang out with them.
  3. Encourage people you know to not smoke.

(I think that's enough examples)

Is it wrong?

There is nothing inherently wrong with having a preference. Having a preference over another person’s preference is also not inherently wrong.  Such is the nature of having a preference (usually a strong one by the time you are dictating it to your surroundings).  What really matters is what you do about it.

In this day and age; no one would be discouraged from figuring out where people are not smoking and being in those places instead of the smoking places.  In this day and age you wouldn't be criticised for finding out which of your friends don't smoke and only hanging out with them either - but maybe it makes some people uncomfortable to do it, or to feel that the reciprocal might happen if someone strongly didn't like their preferences.  In this day and age; encouraging those around you to not smoke can come across as an action with questionable motives.

So let's look at some of the motives:

  1. I prefer it when people don't smoke around me because then I don't get second hand smoke.
  2. I prefer it when my friends don't smoke because I don't like chemical dependency in my environment.
  3. I prefer it when my friends don't smoke so that we look better than that other group of people who do smoke.
  4. I prefer it when my friends don't smoke because I don't want them to get cancer and die (and not be around to be my friends any more).

Motive 1 seems very much about self-preservation.  We can't really fault an entity for trying to self-preserve.  

Motive 2 is a more broad example of self-preservation - the idea that having dependency in your environment might negatively impact you enough to warrant the need to maintain an environment without it - it's a stretch, but not an unreasonable self-preservation drive.  

Motive 3 appears to be a superficial drive to be better than other people.  We often don't like admitting that this is the reason we do things; but I don't mind it either.  If it were me; I'd get pretty tired of being motivated by *keeping up with the Joneses* type attitudes but some people care greatly about that.

Motive 4 seems like a potentially altruistic desire to protect your friends; but then it seems less so once you include the bracketed sub-motive.  

Herein lies the problem.  If a preference looks like it is designed to improve someone else's life like "others shouldn't smoke" (remember that "looks like to me" is equivalent to "I believe it looks like..."), and we believe that having a preference over their preference would improve their life - should we enforce that preference?  Do we have a right or even a burden to encourage those around us to quit smoking? To take up exercise?  To become poly?  To like us (or our clothes)?

The idea of preference over preference is a big one.  What if my preference is that people eat my birthday cake? and Bob’s preference is that he sticks to his diet today?  Who should win?  It’s My Birthday. On Bob’s birthday he doesn’t have to eat cake, but on My Birthday he does.  Or does he?  

The truth is neither way is the best way.  Sometimes hypothetical bob should eat the birthday cake and sometimes hypothetical birthday-kid should respect other people’s dietary choices.  What we really have control over is our own preference for ourselves.  My only advice it to tread delicately when having preferences over other people’s preferences.

If we think we know better (and we might but also might not) and are trying to uphold a preference over a preference (p/p), then what happens?

Either we are right, we are wrong, or something else happens.  And depends on whether the other party conformed or not (or did something else).  Then what happens when things resolve.


  1. A is smoking
  2. B says not to because it's bad for you
  3. A doesn't stop
  4. It turns out to be bad for you
  5. A gets sick

B was right, tried to push a p/p and lost.  (either by not pushing hard enough or by A being stubborn). Did the p/p serve any good here?  Should it have happened?  What if an alternative 5 exists; “A keeps smoking, never gets sick and lives to 90”.  Then was the p/p useful?

  1. A is monogamous 
  2. B says to be poly
  3. A does 
  4. It goes badly 
  5. A is hurt

B was wrong, tried to push a p/p and won.  But was wrong and shouldn't have pushed it? Or maybe A shouldn't have conformed.

This can be represented in a table:


B prefers to maintain P/P

B does not maintain P/P

A is susceptible to pressure

A gives in

A does not change (because there is no pressure)

A is not susceptible

A does not change (stubborn)

A does not change (because there is no pressure)

And a second table of results:

change was negative (or caused a negative result)

change was positive (or caused a positive result)

A is susceptible

A loses.

A wins!

A is not susceptible

A wins!

A loses.

Assuming also that if A loses; B takes a hit as well.  Ideally we want everyone to win all the time. But just showing these things in a table is not enough.  We should be assigning estimated probability to these choices as well.

For example (my made up numbers of whether I think smoking will lead to a bad result):


98% smoking causes problems

2% smoking does not cause problems.

If we edit the earlier table:


B prefers to maintain P/P

B does not maintain P/P

A is susceptible to pressure

A gives in (2% estimate that the change was pointless)

A does not change (because there is no pressure) (98% estimate that this is a bad outcome)

A is not susceptible to pressure

A does not change (stubborn) (98% estimate that this is a bad outcome)

A does not change (because there is no pressure) (98% estimate that this is a bad outcome)

To a rationalist; seeing your p/p table with estimates should help to understand whether they should take you up on fulfilling your preference or not.  Assuming of course that rationalists never lie; and can accurately estimate the confidence of their beliefs.

If you meet someone with a 98% belief they should be able to produce evidence that will also reasonably convince you of similar ideas and encourage you to update your beliefs.  So maybe in the smoking case A should be listening to B; or checking the evidence very seriously.

What should you do when you hold a strong p/p that will be to your benefit at the same time as being to someone else’s detriment.  (and part 2: what if you are unsure of the benefit or detriment)


B want's A to try a new street drug "splice".  B says it's lots of fun and encourages A to do it.  B is unsure of the risks; but sure of the benefits (lots of fun).  Should B encourage A? (what more do we need to know to make that sort of judgement call?)

B has a sexual interest that is specific, and A’s are indifferent B could easily encourage A to "try out this".  should B?

B has an old crappy car that B doesn’t like very much.  B prefers to make friends with shady A’s who will steal the car.  then B can claim on insurance that it was stolen. and get a nicer care with the payout.  Should B?

B wants A to pay for the two of them to go on a carnival ride.  the cost is simple (several dollars) the benefit is not.  Should B pressure A?  (what more do we need to know in order to answer that question?)

A always crosses the street dangerously because they are often running late.  B believes that A should be more safe - walk a distance to the nearest crossing before crossing the road; B knows that this will make A late.  Should B pressure A? (will more information help us answer?)

It was suggested that the Veil of ignorance might help to create a rule in this situation.  However the bounds of this situation dictate that you know which party you are; and that you have a preference over a preference.  So the Veil of ignorance does not so much apply to give us insight.  


  1. It is possible to be a selfish entity, hold p/p and encourage others to fulfil your preference
  2. it is also possible to be a non-influential entity, and never push a preference over others.  
  3. it is possible to be a stubborn entity and never conform to someone else’s p/p.  
  4. It is also possible to be a conforming entity and always conform.  


It is also possible to be a mix of these 4 in different situations and/or different preferences.

Partial Solution

Know your preferences, know your p/p’s and think very carefully about pushing your p/p’s, hiding your p/p’s; changing your preferences to conform, or being needlessly stubborn about your preferences.  (warning: this is hard; don’t think it’s easy just because it fits into one sentence)

Knowing what your strong preferences are; knowing which of your preferences are potentially not beneficial for others and understanding whether you have a tendency to push your p/p on other people will possibly help you to be more careful when handling p/p and avoid manipulating people (to their detriment).  In addition to this; knowing what culture you come from and what culture others come from will help to know how weak p/p might be misinterpreted as strong p/p (see "ask culture", "guess culture" and "tell culture"). (some cultures aim to please when asked, and ask little of each other; some cultures are stubborn, vocal and demanding.  In the middle of the two cultures is the crazy-confused zone.  Of course these are the obvious cases.  Sometimes cultural taboo will come up around some topics and not others; i.e. dinner etiquette might be something you never ask about - because it would be bad etiquette; but expressing a strong preference over what you want to drink is expected)

In conclusion there are no rules to be drawn around p/p other than - Try to understand it; and how it can go wrong and be careful.

Meta: 4.5 hours to write, 30mins to take feedback and edit.  Thanks to the slack for being patient while I asked tricky example questions.

My Table of contents - contains links to the other things I have written.

Further comments adjustments and suggestions welcome.

[Link] Knowledge, not opinion, information extraction, not persuasion

4 [deleted] 03 October 2012 09:13PM

A post from Gene Expression by Razib Khan who some of you may also know from the old gnxp site or perhaps from his BHTV debate with Eliezer. Some thoughts on the problem of trying to optimize your interactions to help you be less wrong. Your time is quite limited. Expect trade-offs.

A few days ago I was having drinks with some friends, and it came up that some of them had only recently become conscious of the fact that I leaned more toward the Republican party than the Democratic (I had remarked that my wife preferred that I keep my sideburns, as otherwise I would look too much like a Republican…though I sort of was one!). More shockingly for them was that I did not consider myself a liberal. I was somewhat bemused by the whole situation because it isn’t as if I’m particularly shy about expressing my various politically-incorrect opinions on any specific topic at work or play (these are people who I have met within the past ~2 years).

I assume that the problem here is that I violated a cognitive schema: liberal people are smarter than conservative people. Since I was conservative, they were, logically, smarter than me. The reality is probably not so convenient for the theory in this case, generating some dissonance. In the course of conversation I expressed frankly what I actually do hold to be a rough & ready approximation of my attitude toward discussion: I have almost no interest in persuading anyone of the truth of my particular views on any issue. This was relevant in that context because on occasion people try and draw me out as to the details of my disagreement with the consensus on an array of topics, when I often have no interest in expending the mental energy to do any such thing. It isn’t that I’m worried about getting into any argument with everyone else in the room. My friends are mostly natural scientists so I am very confident that I can alone hold my ground on any topic having to do with history and quantitative social science. Rather, the problem is my worry as to the point of it all. Who exactly is being edified by such exchanges? I never learn anything, as I am well acquainted with the standard arsenal of conventional Left-liberal talking points, while my interlocutors are often too amazed as my incomprehensible existence (i.e., not stupid, but not right-thinking) to really take in anything I’m saying.

Yet on a one-on-one basis I am much more likely to be open to a deep and thorough exchange. Why? The dynamic of signalling and group conformity is strongly dampened by removing third party observers from the interaction. With that tension removed I myself often feel less irritated if I have to invest a great deal of background information to make my own position clearer. Similarly, I often feel that my interlocutors are much less likely to trot out hackneyed and unpersuasive, but group approved, arguments.* There is quite often idiocy in crowds.

Ultimately we have to take a step back and reflect on what the point of it all is. For me the answer is rather easy: the point of it all is to understand the shape of reality as best as I can. It is impossible to do such a thing sitting back in an armchair and reflecting as an individual. Learning is a social process. You need feedback from others, and you need to mine and cull appropriate data and analyses from those who are more well versed in a given topic than you are. This is not easy, and time is finite. Avoiding stupid people is easy. The more difficult trick, at least for me, is avoiding smart people who offer stupid opinions on topics with which they are absolutely unfamiliar.** Creationist engineers are classic cases of the power of ignorance in the hands of the intelligent.

This brings me to learning more generally. Obviously I have no problem with people being autodidacts. Today the ability for one to be an autodidact has greatly expanded, but with power comes responsibility, and the necessity of prudence. I’m speaking obviously about the internet. But now we have the rise of online education. Recently MRUniversity opened, and Khan Academy is already rather famous. Tyler Cowen and Alex Taborrak’s endeavor has already received some praise:

MRU is ultimately aiming for a better actual education, not a better means of signaling. Cowen and Tabarrok are betting that there is an extraordinary amount of dead weight in current university classes (for example, on MRU the professor need not repeat himself as he inevitably must during live lectures, because if a student requires repetition, she can just watch the video again). “You can think of this,” Cowen says, laughing for the only time during our phone conversation and only lightly, “as a marginal attempt—a marginal revolution, so to speak—to get education to be more about learning.”

I am moderately skeptical, but I also think such experiments are necessary. Over the long term it seems likely that new forms of educational delivery and assessment with replace the middle and lower tiers of American higher education, and modify even the elite levels. But I don’t think we know yet what the exact nature of the information ecology is going to be.

Here is what I’d really like in the future: an app which analyzes someone’s stream of assertions and immediately assesses whether they are full of crap or not.*** There are many domains where I can do this analysis myself, and know to tune someone out because I know they’re signalling to ignorant people. But, there are many, many, more domains where I am ignorant and lost, and may fall prey to the bluffs and assertions of high caliber signalers, who have fashioned the simulacrum of intelligence. More concretely, people who are trying to impress without deep knowledge often fumble on many facts, something which could be run through an application such as WolframAlpha.

Of course things have changed a great deal. Over the past few years smartphones have cast a pall over the skills of the professional bullshitter. I think that there has been a qualitative change for the better.  Bullshitters known that they need to be cautious, so there is a preemptive effect.

* I am never in social circumstances where the political context is conservative.

** You also need to avoid socializing only with your own ideological set. This is easy for me since I don’t socialize with anyone who shares my politics or metaphysical opinions.

*** Looking things up manually is time consuming.

Debating group consensus with the group is less productive than debating it with individuals making up that group. Avoiding smart people who offer stupid opinions on topics with which they are absolutely unfamiliar is expensive. The internet has made this somewhat harder. We should like make an app to fix this or something.

[Link] The real end of science

14 [deleted] 03 October 2012 04:09PM

From Gene Expression by Razib Khan who some of you may also know from the old gnxp site or perhaps from his BHTV debate with Eliezer.

Fifteen years ago John Horgan wrote The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age. I remain skeptical as to the specific details of this book, but Carl’s write-up in The New York Times of a new paper in PNAS on the relative commonness of scientific misconduct in cases of retraction makes me mull over the genuine possibility of the end of science as we know it. This sounds ridiculous on the face of it, but you have to understand my model of and framework for what science is. In short: science is people. I accept the reality that science existed in some form among strands of pre-Socratic thought, or among late antique and medieval Muslims and Christians (not to mention among some Chinese as well). Additionally, I can accept the cognitive model whereby science and scientific curiosity is rooted in our psychology in a very deep sense, so that even small children engage in theory-building.

That is all well and good. The basic building blocks for many inventions and institutions existed long before their instantiation. But nevertheless the creation of institutions and inventions at a given moment is deeply contingent. Between 1600 and 1800 the culture of science as we know it emerged in the West. In the 19th and 20th centuries this culture became professionalized, but despite the explicit institutions and formal titles it is bound together by a common set of norms, an ethos if you will. Scientists work long hours for modest remuneration for the vain hope that they will grasp onto one fragment of reality, and pull it out of the darkness and declare to all, “behold!” That’s a rather flowery way of putting the reality that the game is about fun & fame. Most will not gain fame, but hopefully the fun will continue. Even if others may find one’s interests abstruse or esoteric, it is a special thing to be paid to reflect upon and explore what one is interested in.

Obviously this is an idealization. Science is a highly social and political enterprise, and injustice does occur. Merit and effort are not always rewarded, and on occasion machination truly pays. But overall the culture and enterprise muddle along, and are better in terms of yielding a better sense of reality as it is than its competitors. And yet all great things can end, and free-riders can destroy a system. If your rivals and competitors and cheat and getting ahead, what’s to stop you but your own conscience? People will flinch from violating norms initially, even if those actions are in their own self-interest, but eventually they will break. And once they break the norms have shifted, and once a few break, the rest will follow. This is the logic which drives a vicious positive feedback loop, and individuals in their rational self-interest begin to cannibalize the components of the institutions which ideally would allow all to flourish. No one wants to be the last one in a collapsing building, the sucker who asserts that the structure will hold despite all evidence to the contrary.

Deluded as most graduate students are, they by and large are driven by an ideal. Once the ideal, the illusion, is ripped apart, and eaten away from within, one can’t rebuild it in a day. Trust evolves and accumulates it organically. One can not will it into existence. Centuries of capital are at stake, and it would be best to learn the lessons of history. We may declare that history has ended, but we can’t unilaterally abolish eternal laws.


Link to original post.

[Link] Why the kids don’t know no algebra

21 GLaDOS 04 July 2012 10:29AM

Post by fellow LW reader Razib Khan, who many here probably know from  the gnxp site or perhaps from his debate with Eliezer.

A few days ago I stumbled upon a really interesting post. And I’m wondering if my readers are at all familiar with the phenomenon outlined here (it was a total surprise to me), The myth of “they weren’t ever taught….”:

With all this I am not saying conditions which are non-hereditary are irrelevant. What I am saying is that we can’t ignore the shape of the pre-existent landscape before we attempt to reshape it to our own image. Excoriating teachers for having pupils who can’t master mid-level secondary school mathematics is in some cases like excoriating someone for the fact that their irrigation canals from the plains into the mountains are failures. You need to level the mountains before your canals can work (or, barring that design and implement a mechanical system which will move water against the grade). Easier said than done. E. O. Wilson said of Communism, “Great Idea, Wrong Species.” The reaction of Communist regimes to this reality was brutal and shocking. Obviously the modern rejection of unpalatable aspects of human nature are not so grotesque. But they have a human toll nonetheless. I’m skeptical that this generation will pass before we have to acknowledge these realities and calibrate our policies accordingly.

Stage One: I will describe this stage for algebra I teachers, but plug in reading, geometry, writing, science, any subject you choose, with the relevant details. This stage begins when teachers realize that easily half the class adds the numerators and denominators when adding fractions, doesn’t see the difference between 3-5 and 5-3, counts on fingers to add 8 and 6, and looks blank when asked what 7 times 3 is.

Ah, they think. The kids weren’t ever taught fractions and basic math facts! What the hell are these other teachers doing, then, taking a salary for showing the kids movies and playing Math Bingo? Insanity on the public penny. But hey, helping these kids, teaching them properly, is the reason they became teachers in the first place. So they push their schedule back, what, two weeks? Three? And go through fraction operations, reciprocals, negative numbers, the meaning of subtraction, a few properties of equality, and just wallow in the glories of basic arithmetic. Some use manipulatives, others use drills and games to increase engagement, but whatever the method, they’re basking in the glow of knowledge that they are Closing the Gap, that their kids are finally getting the attention that privileged suburban students get by virtue of their summer enrichment and more expensive teachers.

At first, it seems to work. The kids beam and say, “You explain it so much better than my last teacher did!” and the quizzes seem to show real progress. Phew! Now it’s possible to get on to teaching algebra, rather than the material the kids just hadn’t been taught.

But then, a few weeks later, the kids go back to ignoring the difference between 3-5 and 5-3. Furthermore, despite hours of explanation and practice, half the class seems to do no better than toss a coin to make the call on positive or negative slopes. Many students who demonstrated mastery of distributing multiplication over addition are now making a complete hash of the process in multi-step equations. And many students are still counting on their fingers.

The author is involved in education personally, so is posting their own reflections as well as what others report to them. In personal correspondence they explain that this phenomenon is common among children of average intelligence. The lowest quartile presumably would never have been able to master many of these rules in the first place. Some of the information resembles the stuff that a friend of mine experienced when he went in to do tutoring for disadvantaged students in Boston when he was getting his doctorate at MIT. At first my friend was totally taken aback at the level of ignorance (e.g., the inability to see the relationship between 1/10 and 10/100). Today he works at a major technology firm as a scientist, but continues to be involved in mentoring “at risk” kids. At some point you have to muddle on. He does his best, and does not indulge in the luxury of shock and disappointment. That helps no one.

This matters because American society is notionally obsessed with education. All this isn’t too clear or important to be frank when you aren’t a parent. It’s somewhat in the realm of the abstract. That changes when you become a parent. Suddenly you become immersed in the data of your local schools, and begin to weight various options to optimize your child’s schooling experience. Of course the real differences in school metrics have not only parental relevance, they matter in terms of national policy and attention. Both the political Left and the Right have their own pet solutions. More money, reform teachers’ unions, charter schools, vouchers, etc.

But the biggest problem at the heart of the matter is the fundamental populist drive to ignore human difference. American schools were designed to produce the citizen, and the citizen has the same rights and responsibilities from individual to individual. In some ways the public school system as it emerged in the 19th century was a project by the Protestant establishment to assimilate white ethnics, in particular Catholics (who of course created their own alternative educational system to maintain cultural separation and distinctiveness). In the 21st century the drive to produce H. Americanus seems quaint, rather, we want to citizens of the world with skills and abilities to navigate an information economy.

What American society on a deep philosophical level, no matter the political outlook, detests acknowledging is that a simple and elegant public policy solution can not abolish human difference. Some children are more athletic than others, and some children are more intelligent than others. Starting among conservatives, but now spreading to some liberals, is a rejection of this premise via blaming teachers. The premise is bewitching because it presents tractable problems with solutions on hand. Here is John B. Watson, the father of behaviorism:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years

I think if Watson were alive today he’d have to admit he was wrong. Your ancestors are not destiny, but they are probability. If your father plays in the N.B.A., the probability that you will play in the N.B.A. is not high. But the probability is orders of magnitude higher than if you are a random person off the street.

Compression progress, social niches, and culture

4 [deleted] 19 January 2012 04:11PM

I'm probably succumbing to "guy with a hammer" syndrome in a big way, but here goes...

From Jürgen Schmidhuber's "Compression Progress" talk:

[How] should an unsupervised intelligent agent... deal with data that is streaming in through the input centers in response to the actions that it's executing?


You have to find regularities in this history of inputs and actions that you store and... compress it.


So... what is the interestingness of some data X?  Well, it's not the number of bits that you need to encode the data.  It's the first derivative, the change of the number of bits as your subjective learning algorithm based on your subjective previous knowledge is improving the compressibility.

If I understand him correctly, Schmidhuber is saying that interestingness is your brain rewarding you for giving it new data that allows it to function more efficiently by encoding fewer bits.  This he calls compression progress.

Why should this process be confined to visual and auditory patterns?  Shouldn't it also apply to improvements in the compressibility of beneficial social data?  Furthermore, shouldn't your brain have to constantly negotiate between rewards for novel, compressible social patterns and rewards for novel visual and auditory patterns?  With social encoding occasionally -- or mostly -- winning?

Seen this way, culture looks like iterated niche-forming.  Imagine a hunter-gatherer band with synchronized aesthetic values.  Everybody follows the beat of the stone on the hollow log with nary an iconoclastic thought.  Then the tribe gets bigger.  Change in scale weakens synchronization.  There is suddenly more variation in ideas.  Subgroups form that may value intentional suppression of their former values, opening up social niches where the ability to notice small differences wins out over innate reactions.  Basically, if difference-noticing can create a status niche, it will.

In other words -- and I'm only half-joking -- compression progress explains hipsters.

The Controls are Lying: A Note on the Memetic Hazards of Video Games [Link]

18 Nic_Smith 19 December 2011 05:25AM

Chris Pruett writes on the Robot Invader blog:

Good player handling code is often smoke and mirrors; the player presses buttons and sees a reasonable result, but in between those two operations a whole lot of code is working to ensure that the result is the best of many potential results.  For example, my friend Greggman discovered that Mario 3's jumping rules change depending on whether or not a level has slopes in it. Halo's targeting reticle famously slows as it passes over an enemy to make it easier to target with an analog stick without using an auto-aim system. When Spider-Man swings, he certainly does not orient about the spot where his web connects to a building (at least, he didn't in the swinging system I wrote).

Good player handling code doesn't just translate the player's inputs into action, it tries to discern the player's intent. Once the intended action has been identified, if the rules of the game allow it, good player handling code makes the action happen–even if it means breaking the rules of the simulation a little. The goal of good handling code isn't to maintain a "correct" simulation, it's to provide a fun game. It sucks to miss a jump by three centimeters. It sucks to take the full force of a hit from a blow that visually missed. It sucks to swing into a brick wall at 80 miles per hour instead of continuing down the street. To the extent that the code can understand the player's intent, it should act on that intent rather than on the raw input. Do what I mean, not what I say.

I suppose this explains why I am better at arcade bowling games than I am at actual bowling. More seriously, while I had some vague awareness of this, I am slightly surprised at the breadth (Mario 3!?) and depth to which this "control re-interpretation" takes place.

Podcast on Cryonics by 'Stuff you should know'

3 FiftyTwo 04 September 2011 10:36PM

The podcast 'Stuff you should know' has done an episode on cryonics.


Available here: 



I don't know much about the subject, but what do people think of it as a depiction of cryonics in popular culture? 

Start the week - On life extension, neuro-ethics, human enhancement and materialism

3 FiftyTwo 27 June 2011 09:13PM

Briefly Start the week is a popular BBC radio 4 program discussing scientific and cultural events in the UK. This episode covers a lot of issues relevant to Less Wrong.

In their own words: 

"Andrew Marr explores the limits of science and art in this week's Start the Week. The philosopher and neuroscientist Raymond Tallis mounts an all-out assault on those who see neuroscience and evolutionary theory as holding the key to understanding human consciousness and society. While fellow scientist Barbara Sahakian explores the ethical dilemmas which arise when new drugs developed to treat certain conditions are used to enhance performance in the general population. And the gerontologist Aubrey de Grey looks to the future when regenerative medicine prevents the process of aging."

Available for listening here:


Podcast here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006r9xr


Admittedly this is a more populist approach to the issues then we're used to, and there are a few moments where the guests make statements we would find a bit silly. But it seems to provide a very good summary of the issues for a lay audience, and an excellent defense of the moral importance of life extension. 


The Phobia or the Trauma: The Probem of the Chcken or the Egg in Moral Reasoning.

1 analyticsophy 15 June 2011 04:16AM


Today there is an almost universal prejudice against individuals with a certain sexual orientation. I am not talking about common homophobia; the prejudice I would like to bring to your attention is so rarely considered a prejudice that it has no particular name. Though the following words will most likely be met with harsh criticism, the prejudice referenced above is the prejudice that almost all of us have against pedophiles. At first thought, it may seem that having a phobia of pedophiles is no more a prejudice for a mother, than having a fear of lions is a prejudice for a mother chimpanzee, but I hope at least to show that the issue is not so clear.

This text does not at any point argue that pedophiles are regular people like you and I, they may well not be. If the hypothesis to be presented is true, however, it follows that the trauma children experience when molested would not happen if we didn't hold the moral judgments towards pedophiles that we do. If this is true then the best thing for us to do as a species for our children is, paradoxically, to stop making the moral judgements we make towards pedophiles. Of course, intuition would have us believe that we hold those moral judgements towards pedophiles precisely because of how traumatic a molestation is for children; this is an attempt to show that that causal interaction goes both ways and forms a loop.

This isn't a defense of pedophilia, nor is it a suggestion that we should stop morally judging pedophiles as a culture, it's an analysis of how circularity can enter the domain of social morality undetected and spread rapidly. We will take a memetic approach to figuring this out, and always ask "how it is useful for the meme to have such and such property?" rather than "how is it useful for us to have a belief with such and such property?".

I will apologize here and now for the graphic nature of this text's subject. But know that part of what I claim is that the reason the following considerations are so rarely even heard is precisely because of their graphic nature. Nowhere in this text is there an argument that can even be loosely interpreted as a defense of individual acts of pedophilia, but the reader may well conclude that in the end, less children would have been seriously hurt if we had refrained from involving our moral attitudes in our dealings with pedophiles.

Inherently Traumatic?:

Let's ask a simple question: "would a feral child be traumatized if molested at a young age?" Notice there was no mention of sodomy in that question. Sodomy is clearly as traumatic to a child as any intense pain caused by another would be. But what about molestation? How can an infant tell the difference between being cleaned and being molested? These two actions could be made to appear behaviorally identical to the child. How does the brain know to get traumatized from one and not from the other? Clearly, children are more frequently traumatized by molestation than by being cleaned. They must somehow make the distinction, either during the act, soon after the event, or retroactively upon remembering the event in adulthood. 

In any case, that distinction must either be learned or inherited. Though we are genetically designed to avoid certain stimuli, e.g., fire, sharp things, bitter chemicals, etc. it is unlikely that getting your genitals touched is one of those stimuli. There might be genes which give you a predisposition to being traumatized when molested as a child, but it is unlikely that we have a sense built into our bodies that distinguishes between acceptable and unacceptable genital touching before puberty. Again, any molestation that causes pain does not apply, we are considering only those cases of molestation which don't cause any physical pain.

If we somehow conclude that any given human does indeed react in a neurologically distinct way when touched on the genitals before puberty by an adult that isn't one of that human's parents, then certainly that sort of molestation would be out of the question. But at the risk of being far to graphic, the fact is that an infant or even a very young child would be largely incapable of distinguishing between grabbing a finger and grabbing an adult male genital. There is clearly nothing inherently evil about the foreskin of a male compared to the skin on his finger. The only difference is the adults intention, which children, or at least infants, are largely insensitive to. What then is the justification for not allowing pedophiles to come to our houses and have our infants reach out and grab their genitals as our infant's instincts would have them do?

It could be argued that children might be traumatized simply by being forced to do something that they do not want to do, and that is certainly likely. But does that mean that we should allow our children to be involved in sexual acts with adults if they are consenting? If we were to argue that children cannot consent, then we would have to ask "can they be non-consenting?" What we generally mean by saying that "children cannot consent." is that they can't consent responsibly because they lack the information to do so. This is granted, but they can simply consent. Children can be made to be the main actors in cases of molestation and even consensual sex. Again, at the risk of being far to graphic: it is not uncommon for one child to molest another, nor is it uncommon for young friends of the same gender to naively engage in games of a sexual nature. Even in the case of molestation from an adult to an infant: if the adult presents his/her genitals the infant will naturally grab. How this grabbing is to be distinguished by the infant from the thousands of other skin covered objects that he/she will grab through out his/her life remains a mystery to me.


Infants and children are not designed by evolution to avoid being involved in non-painful forms of sexual encounters which they are willing participants in. By "willing participant" all that is meant is not being forced to engage in the sexual act. The trauma that often follows sexual encounters with adults for children is caused by the reactions of the children's parents. There would be no trauma in the children if the parents and other role-models of said children saw sex with children as a routine part of growing up.

Experiments to Falsify:

(1): Take two appropriately large and randomized samples of infants and children. Have the control monitored by a brain imaging device while cleaned by their parents. Have the variable do the same only have researchers dressed in normal clothes do the cleaning as opposed to the parents. If there is a difference observed in the neurological behavior of these two groups which is larger than the difference between a group of children that are simply looking at their parents and looking at strangers, then there is likely a mechanism from birth which identifies sexual acts. All subjects must be sufficiently young so as to have no learned association with their genitals and sex.

(2): Find a closed population which has no concept of sex as a demonized act or of children as being too young to have sex with. Determine this by extensive interviews with the adult population designed to get them to be contradictory. After finding this population if it exists, show that the stability of those children which were involved in non-painful sexual acts with adults is lower than those children which were not involved. If this is accomplished it will suggest that the behaviors of parents of victims of molestation is not the source of the trauma caused in children after being molested.

Experiments to Verify:

(1): Setup the same control and variable as in (1) above. If we get the result that there is no significant difference between the neurological behavior of the control and the variable, then it becomes less likely that there is anything in children which allows them to tell the difference between non-painful acts of molestation, and cleaning of the genitals.

(2): Find a population as described in (2). Show that those individuals which engaged in sexual acts at a young age have no lower stability than those which did not. 

A Meme not a Gene:

If molestation is not inherently traumatic, why do we feel the need to protect our children from it? There are many possible reasons, but one of the most biological might be our jealousy. We are built to not let others have sex with loved ones, yes. But are we really biologically built to not let others have sex with our children? It'd be a strange adaptation to say the least. Why have children, and prevent them from reproducing? It might well be a side-effect of our evolved jealously. 

But more seems to be at play here then a confusion of jealousy. As my evidence for this I propose that you recall how salacious and downright offensive you found it when I mentioned that an infant would instinctively grab a genital if presented. It doesn't have to be your own infant in your mind to be repulsed by imagining the situation. It is a repulsive situation to imagine for almost anyone I have met that is not a pedophile, and even most pedophiles. If it is not our child we're imagining, just some random token child, and it is just some token child molester we are imagining, the image still repulses us greatly, which suggests that it does not come from biological design since our genetic fitness is not at all increased by worrying about the children of others.

We likely started demonizing pedophiles well after the development of language if the hypothesis stated above is correct. If trauma isn't caused in children from sexual acts with adults before learning about the taboo nature of sex, then it is likely the taboo nature of sex that causes such events to be traumatic. But sex is not taboo because of our genetic history, sex is taboo because of our memtic history.

Why the Meme is such a Success (Imagining Patient Zero):

Let's imagine a hypothetical culture which has demonized sex but doesn't really have an accepted attitude towards pedophiles. Suppose one parent catches another adult engaged in sexual behavior with his/her children. The parent, confused by and scared of sexual action, quickly pulls away the child while attacking the other adult and tells the child that he/she is not to do that anymore or go near that person. The child reacts negatively to this, now knowing that sex is demonic. We have all seen this sort of behavior before, if a child bumps his head and his/her parents say "Oh that's ok, come on, we gotta get going." in a lovely mommy voice the child is more likely to get up and keep on trucking. But if the parents react with "Oh God! Grab the ice pack, grab the ice pack!" yelling urgently, the child cries and may well act is if he/she is much more hurt than he/she really is.

When this hypothetical parent next sees his/her fellow parent friends he/she tells them of the event and how horrific it was for him/her, and how traumatic it was for his/her child. The other parents then warn their children of the strange man/woman that lured the first child and tell their own children never to go near that man/woman's house. The children of course need to find out why for themselves and go there anyway. Another child gets involved in acts of a sexual nature with the town pedophile. This catches the attention of a passerby, who by now knows of what goes on in that house, and how evil it is. This passerby alerts the others that it is happening again. At this point the town decides to do something about it. They lynch the pedophile. This becomes the talk of the town and of the local ruling government body.

Now all of the adults in the town know how to react to pedophilia: as if it would be a demonizing traumatic event for their children. Acting as such when one of their children is inevitably molested, causes that child to find it traumatic. News of the trauma it caused to the child spreads and the whole process is repeated, strengthening the believe that children become traumatized when molested. 

This thought experiment is likely not very much like what really happened to produce this meme in the first place. To actually understand how that happened we would have to trace the memetic evolution of our ancestors for much further than we have the ability to do now. But this hypothetical does at least give us a way of imagining how a belief like "Sexual acts with children and adults causes trauma in the children involved." might start off false and become truer as it becomes more widely accepted, and more widely accepted as it becomes truer. In the end holding that belief is going to cause more suffering in our children than if we didn't hold it provided the hypothesis above is correct. But we believe it anyway, and our moral judgements stray that way anyway, regardless of whether or not we have any benefit from the belief.

The true benefactor here is the meme itself. The meme of fearing and hating pedophiles need not be useful for us as a species, it needs only to be good at getting itself spread. Luckily for the meme, as it gets itself spread the belief associated with it becomes truer. This meme has a belief built in that is a self-fulfilling prophecy so that the more widespread the meme becomes the better its chances of replicating. It's a feedback loop, the meme predisposes us to act a certain way towards molested children, acting towards molested children this way makes them find the event traumatic, the observed trauma of the molested children enforces the meme.


We can and do hold very basic moral attitudes as a culture which are completely unexamined. Even the most basic moral judgements that we make, like "pedophilia is wrong" are not on as firm of footing as we would like to believe them to be. But when we sharpen the issue and we are faced with the bluntness of the situation, things can become even more difficult. Our biases are very firmly rooted in us. Even I, who will tell you that I'm on the fence about the utility of demonizing pedophilia, am absolutely repulsed and ethically offended upon the thought of such an act. But I consider it important that we think sharply about the utility involved in such basic and unquestioned moral judgements and report our progress. If we find that those most basic moral judgements haven't been beneficial to us as a whole, we should start to wonder about whether or not ensuring utility really is the point of our moral system. Alternatively, our moral system might have little benefit to us and evolve only because it benefits the memes which it is. Our whole theory of ethics, might be the result of nothing more than the continued warfare of memes for our brains. Sometimes the memes convince us to adopt them by being beneficial, sometimes they just trick us into thinking they are right, and other times they make themselves true by the mere virtue of spreading themselves. This last class of memes we can call "self-proving memes" and it is this class of memes that the hypotheses above suggests the fearing and hating pedophiles meme belongs to. If that hypotheses is falsified by any of the suggested experiments or any other applicable experiment, we should still consider that the hypothesis has never even been suggested outside this text. Is this more likely because the hypotheses is so stupid, or because it is so rooted in us not to question such simple facts?




Kazakhstan's president urges scientists to find the elixir of life

7 Document 10 December 2010 04:17AM

...according to this front-page Reddit headline I just saw, which links to this Guardian article. I wonder if he's heard of KrioRus, whether he's signed up (Wikipedia says they offer services "to clients from Russia, CIS and EU"), and what his odds would be if he were (would it be possible to emigrate to Russia to be closer to the facility, and if not, what would be the best possible option?). Given his being a head of state, presumably it'd be pretty tough for an advocate to even get close enough to try to make the case.

Searching the Reddit comment thread for "cryo" turned up nothing.

The Singularity in the Zeitgeist

6 dclayh 02 October 2010 06:51AM

As a part of public relations, I think it's important to keep tabs on how the Singularity and related topics (GAI, FAI, life-extension, etc.) are presented in the culture at large.  I've posted links to such things in the past, but I think there should be a central clearinghouse, and a discussion-level post seems like the right place. 

So: in the comments, post examples of references to Singularity-related topics that you've found, ideally with a link and a few sentences' description of what the connection is and how it's presented (whether seriously or as an object of ridicule, for instance). 


There should probably be a similar post for rationality references, but let's see how this one goes first.