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A bit of word-dissolving in political discussion

2 eli_sennesh 07 December 2014 05:05PM

I found Scott Alexander's steelmanning of the NRx critique to be an interesting, even persuassive critique of modern progressivism, having not been exposed to this movement prior to today. However I am also equally confused at the jump from "modern liberal democracies are flawed" to "restore the devine-right-of-kings!" I've always hated the quip "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others" (we've yet tried), but I think it applies here.

-- Mark Friedenbach

Of course, with the prompting to state my own thoughts, I simply had to go and start typing them out.  The following contains obvious traces of my own political leanings and philosophy (in short summary: if "Cthulhu only swims left", then I AM CTHULHU... at least until someone explains to me what a Great Old One is doing out of R'lyeh and in West Coast-flavored American politics), but those traces should be taken as evidence of what I believe rather than statements about it.

Because what I was actually trying to talk about, is rationality in politics.  Because in fact, while it is hard, while it is spiders, all the normal techniques work on it.  There is only one real Cardinal Sin of Attempting to be Rational in Politics, and it is the following argument, stated in generic form that I might capture it from the ether and bury it: "You only believe what you believe for political reasons!"  It does not matter if those "reasons" are signaling, privilege, hegemony, or having an invisible devil on your shoulder whispering into your bloody ear: to impugn someone else's epistemology entirely at the meta-level without saying a thing against their object-level claims is anti-epistemology.

Now, on to the ranting!  The following are more-or-less a semi-random collection of tips I vomited out for trying to deal with politics rationally.  I hope they help.  This is a Discussion post because Mark said that might be a good idea.

  1. Dissolve "democracy", and not just in the philosophical sense, but in the sense that there have been many different kinds of actually existing democracies.  There are always multiple object-level implementations of any meta-level idea, and most political ideas are sufficiently abstract to count as meta-level.  Even if, for purposes of a thought experiment, you find yourself saying, "I WILL ONLY EVER CONSIDER SYSTEMS THAT COUNT AS DEMOCRACY ACCORDING TO MY INTUITIVE DEMOCRACY-P() PREDICATE!", one can easily debate whether a mixed-member proportional Parliament performs better than a district-based bicameral Congress, or whether a pure Westminster system beats them both, or whether a Presidential system works better, or whatever.  Particular institutional designs yield particular institutional behaviors, and successfully inducing complex generalizations across large categories of institutional designs requires large amounts of evidence -- just as it does in any other form of hierarchical probabilistic reasoning.
  2. Dissolve words like "democracy", "capitalism", "socialism", and "government" in the philosophical sense, and ask: what are the terminal goals democracy serves?  How much do we support those goals, and how much do current democratic systems suffer approximation error by forcing our terminal goals to fit inside the hypothesis space our actual institutions instantiate?  For however much we do support those goals, why do we shape these particular institutions to serve those goals, and not other institutions? For all values of X, mah nishtana ha-X hazeh mikol ha-X-im? is a fundamental question of correct reasoning.  (Asking the question of why we instantiate particular institutions in particular places, when one believes in democratic states, is the core issue of democratic socialism, and I would indeed count myself a democratic socialist.  But you get different answers and inferences if you ask about schools or churches, don't you?)
  3. Learn first to explicitly identify yourself with a political "tribe", and next to consider political ideas individually, as questions of fact and value subject to investigation via epistemology and moral epistemology, rather than treating politics as "tribal".  Tribalism is the mind-killer: keeping your own explicit tribal identification in mind helps you notice when you're being tribalist, and helps you distinguish your own tribe's customs from universal truths -- both aids to your political rationality.  And yes, while politics has always been at least a little tribal, the particular form the tribes take varies through time and space: the division of society into a "blue tribe" and a "red tribe" (as oft-described by Yvain on Slate Star Codex), for example, is peculiar to late-20th-century and early-21st-century USA.  Those colors didn't even come into usage until the 2000 Presidential election, and hadn't firmly solidified as describing seemingly separate nationalities until 2004!  Other countries, and other times, have significantly different arrangements of tribes, so if you don't learn to distinguish between ideas and tribes, you'll not only fail at political rationality, you'll give yourself severe culture shock the first time you go abroad.
    1. General rule: you often think things are general rules of the world not because you have the large amount of evidence necessary to reason that they really are, but because you've seen so few alternatives that your subjective distribution over models contains only one or two models, both coarse-grained.  Unquestioned assumptions always feel like universal truths from the inside!
  4. Learn to check political ideas by looking at the actually-existing implementations, including the ones you currently oppose -- think of yourself as bloody Sauron if you have to!  This works, since most political ideas are not particularly original.  Commons trusts exist, for example, the "movement" supporting them just wants to scale them up to cover all society's important common assets rather than just tracts of land donated by philanthropists.  Universal health care exists in many countries.  Monarchy and dictatorship exist in many countries.  Religious rule exists in many countries.  Free tertiary education exists in some countries, and has previously existed in more.  Non-free but subsidized tertiary education exists in many countries.  Running the state off oil revenue has been tried in many countries.  Centrally-planned economies have been tried in many countries.  And it's damn well easier to compare "Canadian health-care" to "American health-care" to "Chinese health-care", all sampled in 2014, using fact-based policy studies, than to argue about the Visions of Human Life represented by each (the welfare state, the Company Man, and the Lone Fox, let's say) -- which of course assumes consequentialism.  In fact, I should issue a much stronger warning here: argumentation is an utterly unreliable guide to truth compared to data, and all these meta-level political conclusions require vast amounts of object-level data to induce correct causal models of the world that allow for proper planning and policy.
    1. This means that while the Soviet Union is not evidence for the total failure of "socialism" as I use the word, that's because I define socialism as a larger category of possible economies that strictly contains centralized state planning -- centralized state planning really was, by and large, a total fucking failure.  But there's a rationality lesson here: in politics, all opponents of an idea will have their own definition for it, but the supporters will only have one.  Learn to identify political terminology with the definitions advanced by supporters: these definitions might contain applause lights, but at least they pick out one single spot in policy-space or society-space (or, hopefully, a reasonably small subset of that space), while opponents don't generally agree on which precise point in policy-space or society-space they're actually attacking (because they're all opposed for their own reasons and thus not coordinating with each-other).
    2. This also means that if someone wants to talk about monarchies that rule by religious right, or even about absolute monarchies in general, they do have to account for the behavior of the Arab monarchies today, for example.  Or if they want to talk about religious rule in general (which very few do, to my knowledge, but hey, let's go with it), they actually do have to account for the behavior of Da3esh/ISIS.  Of course, they might do so by endorsing such regimes, just as some members of Western Communist Parties endorsed the Soviet Union -- and this can happen by lack of knowledge, by failure of rationality, or by difference of goals.
    3. And then of course, there are the complications of the real world: in the real world, neither perfect steelman-level central planning nor perfect steelman-level markets have ever been implemented, anywhere, with the result that once upon a time, the Soviet economy was allocatively efficient and prices in capitalist West Germany were just as bad at reflecting relative scarcities as those in centrally-planned East GermanyThe real advantage of market systems has ended up being the autonomy of firms, not allocative optimality (and that's being argued, right there, in the single most left-wing magazine I know of!).  Which leads us to repeat the warning: correct conclusions are induced from real-world data, not argued from a priori principles that usually turn out to be wildly mis-emphasized if not entirely wrong.
  5. Learn to notice when otherwise uninformed people are adopting political ideas as attire to gain status by joining a fashionable cause.  Keep in mind that what constitutes "fashionable" depends on the joiner's own place in society, not on your opinions about them.  For some people, things you and I find low-status (certain clothes or haircuts) are, in fact, high-status.  See Yvain's "Republicans are Douchebags" post for an example in a Western context: names that the American Red Tribe considers solid and respectable are viewed by the American Blue Tribe as "douchebag names".
  6. A heuristic that tends to immunize against certain failures of political rationality: if an argument does not base itself at all in facts external to itself or to the listener, but instead concentrates entirely on reinterpreting evidence, then it is probably either an argument about definitions, or sheer nonsense.  This is related to my comments on hierarchical reasoning above, and also to the general sense in which trying to refute an object-level claim by meta-level argumentation is not even wrong, but in fact anti-epistemology.
  7. A further heuristic, usable on actual electioneering campaigns the world over: whenever someone says "values", he is lying, and you should reach for your gun.  The word "values" is the single most overused, drained, meaningless word in politics.  It is a normative pronoun: it directs the listener to fill in warm fuzzy things here without concentrating the speaker and the listener on the same point in policy-space at all.  All over the world, politicians routinely seek power on phrases like "I have values", or "My opponent has no values", or "our values" or "our $TRIBE values", or "$APPLAUSE_LIGHT values".  Just cross those phrases and their entire containing sentences out with a big black marker, and then see what the speaker is actually saying.  Sometimes, if you're lucky (ie: voting for a Democrat), they're saying absolutely nothing.  Often, however, the word "values" means, "Good thing I'm here to tell you that you want this brand new oppressive/exploitative power elite, since you didn't even know!"
  8. As mentioned above, be very, very sure about what ethical framework you're working within before having a political discussion.  A consequentialist and a virtue-ethicist will often take completely different policy positions on, say, healthcare, and have absolutely nothing to talk about with each-other.  The consequentialist can point out the utilitarian gains of universal single-payer care, and the virtue-ethicist can point out the incentive structure of corporate-sponsored group plans for promoting hard work and loyalty to employers, but they are fundamentally talking past each-other.
    1. Often, the core matter of politics is how to trade off between ethical ideals that are otherwise left talking past each-other, because society has finite material resources, human morals are very complex, and real policies have unintended consequences.  For example, if we enact Victorian-style "poor laws" that penalize poverty for virtue-ethical reasons, the proponents of those laws need to be held accountable for accepting the unintended consequences of those laws, including higher crime rates, a less educated workforce, etc.  (This is a broad point in favor of consequentialism: a rational consequentialist always considers consequences, intended and unintended, or he fails at consequentialism.  A deontologist or virtue-ethicist, on the other hand, has license from his own ethics algorithm to not care about unintended consequences at all, provided the rules get followed or the rules or rulers are virtuous.)
  9. Almost all policies can be enacted more effectively with state power, and almost no policies can "take over the world" by sheer superiority of the idea all by themselves.  Demanding that a successful policy should "take over the world" by itself, as everyone naturally turns to the One True Path, is intellectually dishonest, and so is demanding that a policy should be maximally effective in miniature (when tried without the state, or in a small state, or in a weak state) before it is justified for the state to experiment with it.  Remember: the overwhelming majority of journals and conferences in professional science still employ frequentist statistics rather than Bayesianism, and this is 20 years after the PC revolution and the World Wide Web, and 40 years after computers became widespread in universities.  Human beings are utility-satisficing, adaptation-executing creatures with mostly-unknown utility functions: expecting them to adopt more effective policies quickly by mere effectiveness of the policy is downright unrealistic.
  10. The Appeal to Preconceptions is probably the single Darkest form of Dark Arts, and it's used everywhere in politics.  When someone says something to you that "stands to reason" or "sounds right", which genuinely seems quite plausible, actually, but without actually providing evidence, you need to interrogate your own beliefs and find the Equivalent Sample Size of the informative prior generating that subjective plausibility before you let yourself get talked into anything.  This applies triply in philosophy.

 

Is arguing worth it? If so, when and when not? Also, how do I become less arrogant?

9 27chaos 27 November 2014 09:28PM

I've had several political arguments about That Which Must Not Be Named in the past few days with people of a wide variety of... strong opinions. I'm rather doubtful I've changed anyone's mind about anything, but I've spent a lot of time trying to do so. I also seem to have offended one person I know rather severely. Also, even if I have managed to change someone's mind about something through argument, it feels as though someone will end up having to argue with them later down the line when the next controversy happens.

It's very discouraging to feel this way. It is frustrating when making an argument is taken as a reason for personal attack. And it's annoying to me to feel like I'm being forced into something by the disapproval of others. I'm tempted to just retreat from democratic engagement entirely. But there are disadvantages to this, for example it makes it easier to maintain irrational beliefs if you never talk to people who disagree with you.

I think a big part of the problem is that I have an irrational alief that makes me feel like my opinions are uniquely valuable and important to share with others. I do think I'm smarter, more moderate, and more creative than most. But the feeling's magnitude and influence over my behavior is far greater than what's justified by the facts.

How do I destroy this feeling? Indulging it satisfies some competitive urges of mine and boosts my self-esteem. But I think it's bad overall despite this, because it makes evaluating the social consequences of my choices more difficult. It's like a small addiction, and I have no idea how to get over it.

Does anyone else here have an opinion on any of this? Advice from your own lives, perhaps?

Three methods of attaining change

7 Stefan_Schubert 16 August 2014 03:38PM

Say that you want to change some social or political institution: the educational system, the monetary system, research on AGI safety, or what not. When trying to reach this goal, you may use one of the following broad strategies (or some combination of them):

1) You may directly try to lobby (i.e. influence) politicians to implement this change, or try to influence voters to vote for parties that promise to implement these changes. 

2) You may try to build an alternative system and hope that it eventually becomes so popular so that it replaces the existing system.

3) You may try to develop tools that a) appeal to users of existing systems and b) whose widespread use is bound to change those existing systems.

Let me give some examples of what I mean. Trying to persuade politicians that we should replace conventional currencies by a private currency or, for that matter, starting a pro-Bitcoin party, fall under 1), whereas starting a private currency and hope that it spreads falls under 2). (This post was inspired by a great comment by Gunnar Zarncke on precisely this topic. I take it that he was there talking of strategy 2.) Similarly, trying to lobby politicians to reform the academia falls under 1) whereas starting new research institutions which use new and hopefully more effective methods falls under 2). I take it that this is what, e.g. Leverage Research is trying to do, in part. Similarly, libertarians who vote for Ron Paul are taking the first course, while at least one possible motivation for the Seasteading Institute is to construct an alternative system that proves to be more efficient than existing governments.

Efficient Voting Advice Applications (VAA's), which advice you to vote on the basis of your views on different policy matters, can be an example of 3) (they are discussed here). Suppose that voters started to use them on a grand scale. This could potentially force politicians to adhere very closely to the views of the voters on each particular issue, since if you failed to do this you would stand little chance of winning. This may or may not be a good thing, but the point is that it would be a change that would not be caused by lobbying of politicians or by building an alternative system, but simply by constructing a tool whose widespread use could change the existing system.

Another similar tool is reputation or user review systems. Suppose that you're dissatisfied with the general standards of some institution: say university education, medical care, or what not. You may attain this by lobbying politicians to implement new regulations intended to ensure quality (1), or by starting your own, superior, universities or hospitals (2), hoping that others will follow. Another method is, however, to create a reliable reputation/review system which, if they became widely used, would guide students and patients to the best universities and hospitals, thereby incentivizing to improve.

Now of course, when you're trying to get people to use such review systems, you are, in effect, building an evaluation system that competes with existing systems (e.g. the Guardian university ranking), so on one level you are using the second strategy. Your ultimate goal is, however, to create better universities, to which better evaluation systems, is just a means (as a tool). Hence you're following the third strategy here, in my terms.

Strategy 1) is of course a "statist" one, since what you're doing here is that you're trying to get the government to change the institution in question for you. Strategies 2) and 3) are, in contrast, both "non-statist", since when you use them you're not directly trying to implement the change through the political system. Hence libertarians and other anti-statists should prefer them.

My hunch is that when people are trying to change things, many of them unthinkingly go for 1), even regarding issues where it is unlikely that they are going to succeed that way. (For instance, it seems to me that advocates for direct democracy who try to persuade voters to vote for direct democratic parties are unlikely to succeed, but that widespread of VAA's might get us considerably closer to their ideal, and that they therefore should opt for the third strategy.) A plausible explanation of this is availability bias; our tendency to focus on what we most often see around us. Attempts to change social institutions through politics get a lot of attention, which makes people think of this strategy first. Even though this strategy is often efficient, I'd guess it is, for this reason, generally overused and that people sometimes instead should go for 2) or 3). (Possibly, Europeans have an even stronger bias in favour of this strategy than Americans.)

I also suspect, though, that people go for 2) a bit too often relative to 3). I think that people find it appealing, for its own sake, to create an entirely alternatively structure. If you're a perfectionist, it might be satisfying to see what you consider "the perfect institution", even if it is very small and has little impact on society. Also, sometimes small groups of devotees flock to these alternatives, and a strong group identity is therefore created. Moreover, I think that availability bias may play a role here, also. Even though this sort of strategy gets less attention than lobbying, most people know what it is. It is quite clear what it means to do something like this, and being part of a project like this therefore gives you a clear identity. For these reasons, I think that we might sometimes fool ourselves into believing that these alternative structures are more likely to be succesful than they actually are.

Conversely, people might be biased against the third strategy because it's less obvious. Also, it has perhaps something vaguely manipulative over it which might bias idealistic people against it. What you're typically trying to do is to get people to use a tool (say VAA's) a side-effect of which is the change you wish to attain (in this case, correspondence between voters' views and actual policies). I don't think that this kind of manipulation is necessarily vicious (but it would need to be discussed on a case-by-case-basis) but the point is that people tend to think that it is. Also, even those who don't think that it is manipulative in an unethical sense would still think that it is somehow "unheroic". Starting your own environmental party or creating your own artifical libertarian island clearly has something heroic over it, but developing efficient VAA's, which as a side-effect changes the political landscape, does not.

I'd thus argue that people should start looking more closely at the third strategy. A group that does use a strategy similar to this is of course for-profit companies. They try to analyze what products would appeal to people, and in so doing, carefully consider how existing institutions shape people's preferences. For instance, companies like Uber, AirBnB and LinkedIn have been succesful because they realized that given the structure of the taxi, the hotel and the recruitment businesses, their products would be appealing.

Of course, these companies primary goal, profit, is very different from the political goals I'm talking about here. At the same time, I think it is useful to compare the two cases. I think that generally, when we're trying to attain political change, we're not "actually trying" (in CFAR's terminology) as hard as we do when we're trying to maximize profit . It is very easy to fall into a mode where you're focusing on making symbolic gestures (which express your identity) rather than on trying to change things in politics. (This is, in effect, what many traditional charities are doing, if the EA movement is right.)

Instead, we should think as hard as profit-maximizing companies what new tools are likely to catch on. Any kind of tools could in principle be used, but the ones that seem most obvious are various kind of social media and other internet based tools (such as those mentioned in this post). The technical progress gives us enormous opportunities to costruct new tools that could re-shape people's behaviour in a way that would impact existing social and political institutions on a large scale.

Developing such tools is not easy. Even very succesful companies again and again fail to predict what new products will appeal to people. Not the least, you need a profound understanding of human psychology in order to succeed. That said, political organizations have certain advantages visavi for-profit companies. More often than not, they might develop ideas publically, whereas for-profit companies often have to keep them secret until they product is launched. This facilitates wisdom of the crowd-reasoning, where many different kinds of people come up with solutions together. Such methods can, in my opinion, be very powerful.

 

Any input regarding, e.g. the taxonomy of methods, my speculations about biases, and, in particular, examples of institution changing tools are welcome. I'm also interested in comments on efficient methods for coming up with useful tools (e.g. tests of them). Finally, if anything's unclear I'd be happy to provide clarifications (it's a very complex topic).

Every Paul needs a Jesus

9 PhilGoetz 10 August 2014 07:13PM

My take on some historical religious/social/political movements:

  • Jesus taught a radical and highly impractical doctrine of love and disregard for one's own welfare. Paul took control of much of the church that Jesus' charisma had built, and reworked this into something that could function in a real community, re-emphasizing the social mores and connections that Jesus had spent so much effort denigrating, and converting Jesus' emphasis on radical social action into an emphasis on theology and salvation.
  • Marx taught a radical and highly impractical theory of how workers could take over the means of production and create a state-free Utopia. Lenin and Stalin took control of the organizations built around those theories, and reworked them into a strong, centrally-controlled state.
  • Che Guevara (I'm ignorant here and relying on Wikipedia; forgive me) joined Castro's rebel group early on, rose to the position of second in command, was largely responsible for the military success of the revolution, and had great motivating influence due to his charisma and his unyielding, idealistic, impractical ideas. It turned out his idealism prevented him from effectively running government institutions, so he had to go looking for other revolutions to fight in while Castro ran Cuba.
  • Lauren Faust envisioned a society built on friendship, toleration, and very large round eyes, and then Hasbro... naw, just kidding. (Mostly.)

The best strategy for complex social movements is not honest rationality, because rational, practical approaches don't generate enthusiasm. A radical social movement needs one charismatic radical who enunciates appealing, impractical ideas, and another figure who can appropriate all of the energy and devotion generated by the first figure's idealism, yet not be held to their impractical ideals. It's a two-step process that is almost necessary, to protect the pretty ideals that generate popular enthusiasm from the grit and grease of institution and government. Someone needs to do a bait-and-switch. Either the original vision must be appropriated and bent to a different purpose by someone practical, or the original visionary must be dishonest or self-deceiving.

continue reading »

Politics is hard mode

25 RobbBB 21 July 2014 10:14PM

Summary: I don't think 'politics is the mind-killer' works well rthetorically. I suggest 'politics is hard mode' instead.


 

Some people in and catawampus to the LessWrong community have objected to "politics is the mind-killer" as a framing (/ slogan / taunt). Miri Mogilevsky explained on Facebook:

My usual first objection is that it seems odd to single politics out as a “mind-killer” when there’s plenty of evidence that tribalism happens everywhere. Recently, there has been a whole kerfuffle within the field of psychology about replication of studies. Of course, some key studies have failed to replicate, leading to accusations of “bullying” and “witch-hunts” and what have you. Some of the people involved have since walked their language back, but it was still a rather concerning demonstration of mind-killing in action. People took “sides,” people became upset at people based on their “sides” rather than their actual opinions or behavior, and so on.

Unless this article refers specifically to electoral politics and Democrats and Republicans and things (not clear from the wording), “politics” is such a frightfully broad category of human experience that writing it off entirely as a mind-killer that cannot be discussed or else all rationality flies out the window effectively prohibits a large number of important issues from being discussed, by the very people who can, in theory, be counted upon to discuss them better than most. Is it “politics” for me to talk about my experience as a woman in gatherings that are predominantly composed of men? Many would say it is. But I’m sure that these groups of men stand to gain from hearing about my experiences, since some of them are concerned that so few women attend their events.

In this article, Eliezer notes, “Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality — but it’s a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.” But that means that we all have to individually, privately apply rationality to politics without consulting anyone who can help us do this well. After all, there is no such thing as a discussant who is “rational”; there is a reason the website is called “Less Wrong” rather than “Not At All Wrong” or “Always 100% Right.” Assuming that we are all trying to be more rational, there is nobody better to discuss politics with than each other.

The rest of my objection to this meme has little to do with this article, which I think raises lots of great points, and more to do with the response that I’ve seen to it — an eye-rolling, condescending dismissal of politics itself and of anyone who cares about it. Of course, I’m totally fine if a given person isn’t interested in politics and doesn’t want to discuss it, but then they should say, “I’m not interested in this and would rather not discuss it,” or “I don’t think I can be rational in this discussion so I’d rather avoid it,” rather than sneeringly reminding me “You know, politics is the mind-killer,” as though I am an errant child. I’m well-aware of the dangers of politics to good thinking. I am also aware of the benefits of good thinking to politics. So I’ve decided to accept the risk and to try to apply good thinking there. [...]

I’m sure there are also people who disagree with the article itself, but I don’t think I know those people personally. And to add a political dimension (heh), it’s relevant that most non-LW people (like me) initially encounter “politics is the mind-killer” being thrown out in comment threads, not through reading the original article. My opinion of the concept improved a lot once I read the article.

In the same thread, Andrew Mahone added, “Using it in that sneering way, Miri, seems just like a faux-rationalist version of ‘Oh, I don’t bother with politics.’ It’s just another way of looking down on any concerns larger than oneself as somehow dirty, only now, you know, rationalist dirty.” To which Miri replied: “Yeah, and what’s weird is that that really doesn’t seem to be Eliezer’s intent, judging by the eponymous article.”

Eliezer replied briefly, to clarify that he wasn't generally thinking of problems that can be directly addressed in local groups (but happen to be politically charged) as "politics":

Hanson’s “Tug the Rope Sideways” principle, combined with the fact that large communities are hard to personally influence, explains a lot in practice about what I find suspicious about someone who claims that conventional national politics are the top priority to discuss. Obviously local community matters are exempt from that critique! I think if I’d substituted ‘national politics as seen on TV’ in a lot of the cases where I said ‘politics’ it would have more precisely conveyed what I was trying to say.

But that doesn't resolve the issue. Even if local politics is more instrumentally tractable, the worry about polarization and factionalization can still apply, and may still make it a poor epistemic training ground.

A subtler problem with banning “political” discussions on a blog or at a meet-up is that it’s hard to do fairly, because our snap judgments about what counts as “political” may themselves be affected by partisan divides. In many cases the status quo is thought of as apolitical, even though objections to the status quo are ‘political.’ (Shades of Pretending to be Wise.)

Because politics gets personal fast, it’s hard to talk about it successfully. But if you’re trying to build a community, build friendships, or build a movement, you can’t outlaw everything ‘personal.’

And selectively outlawing personal stuff gets even messier. Last year, daenerys shared anonymized stories from women, including several that discussed past experiences where the writer had been attacked or made to feel unsafe. If those discussions are made off-limits because they relate to gender and are therefore ‘political,’ some folks may take away the message that they aren’t allowed to talk about, e.g., some harmful or alienating norm they see at meet-ups. I haven’t seen enough discussions of this failure mode to feel super confident people know how to avoid it.

Since this is one of the LessWrong memes that’s most likely to pop up in cross-subcultural dialogues (along with the even more ripe-for-misinterpretation “policy debates should not appear one-sided“…), as a first (very small) step, my action proposal is to obsolete the ‘mind-killer’ framing. A better phrase for getting the same work done would be ‘politics is hard mode’:

1. ‘Politics is hard mode’ emphasizes that ‘mind-killing’ (= epistemic difficulty) is quantitative, not qualitative. Some things might instead fall under Middlingly Hard Mode, or under Nightmare Mode…

2. ‘Hard’ invites the question ‘hard for whom?’, more so than ‘mind-killer’ does. We’re used to the fact that some people and some contexts change what’s ‘hard’, so it’s a little less likely we’ll universally generalize.

3. ‘Mindkill’ connotes contamination, sickness, failure, weakness. In contrast, ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t imply that a thing is low-status or unworthy. As a result, it’s less likely to create the impression (or reality) that LessWrongers or Effective Altruists dismiss out-of-hand the idea of hypothetical-political-intervention-that-isn’t-a-terrible-idea. Maybe some people do want to argue for the thesis that politics is always useless or icky, but if so it should be done in those terms, explicitly — not snuck in as a connotation.

4. ‘Hard Mode’ can’t readily be perceived as a personal attack. If you accuse someone of being ‘mindkilled’, with no context provided, that smacks of insult — you appear to be calling them stupid, irrational, deluded, or the like. If you tell someone they’re playing on ‘Hard Mode,’ that’s very nearly a compliment, which makes your advice that they change behaviors a lot likelier to go over well.

5. ‘Hard Mode’ doesn’t risk bringing to mind (e.g., gendered) stereotypes about communities of political activists being dumb, irrational, or overemotional.

6. ‘Hard Mode’ encourages a growth mindset. Maybe some topics are too hard to ever be discussed. Even so, ranking topics by difficulty encourages an approach where you try to do better, rather than merely withdrawing. It may be wise to eschew politics, but we should not fear it. (Fear is the mind-killer.)

7. Edit: One of the larger engines of conflict is that people are so much worse at noticing their own faults and biases than noticing others'. People will be relatively quick to dismiss others as 'mindkilled,' while frequently flinching away from or just-not-thinking 'maybe I'm a bit mindkilled about this.' Framing the problem as a challenge rather than as a failing might make it easier to be reflective and even-handed.

This is not an attempt to get more people to talk about politics. I think this is a better framing whether or not you trust others (or yourself) to have productive political conversations.

When I playtested this post, Ciphergoth raised the worry that 'hard mode' isn't scary-sounding enough. As dire warnings go, it's light-hearted—exciting, even. To which I say: good. Counter-intuitive fears should usually be argued into people (e.g., via Eliezer's politics sequence), not connotation-ninja'd or chanted at them. The cognitive content is more clearly conveyed by 'hard mode,' and if some group (people who love politics) stands to gain the most from internalizing this message, the message shouldn't cast that very group (people who love politics) in an obviously unflattering light. LW seems fairly memetically stable, so the main issue is what would make this meme infect friends and acquaintances who haven't read the sequences. (Or Dune.)

If you just want a scary personal mantra to remind yourself of the risks, I propose 'politics is SPIDERS'. Though 'politics is the mind-killer' is fine there too.

If you and your co-conversationalists haven’t yet built up a lot of trust and rapport, or if tempers are already flaring, conveying the message ‘I’m too rational to discuss politics’ or ‘You’re too irrational to discuss politics’ can make things worse. In that context, ‘politics is the mind-killer’ is the mind-killer. At least, it’s a needlessly mind-killing way of warning people about epistemic hazards.

‘Hard Mode’ lets you speak as the Humble Aspirant rather than the Aloof Superior. Strive to convey: ‘I’m worried I’m too low-level to participate in this discussion; could you have it somewhere else?’ Or: ‘Could we talk about something closer to Easy Mode, so we can level up together?’ More generally: If you’re worried that what you talk about will impact group epistemology, you should be even more worried about how you talk about it.

A Parable of Elites and Takeoffs

22 gwern 30 June 2014 11:04PM

Let me tell you a parable of the future. Let’s say, 70 years from now, in a large Western country we’ll call Nacirema.

One day far from now: scientific development has continued apace, and a large government project (with, unsurprisingly, a lot of military funding) has taken the scattered pieces of cutting-edge research and put them together into a single awesome technology, which could revolutionize (or at least, vastly improve) all sectors of the economy. Leading thinkers had long forecast that this area of science’s mysteries would eventually yield to progress, despite theoretical confusion and perhaps-disappointing initial results and the scorn of more conservative types and the incomprehension (or outright disgust, for ‘playing god’) of the general population, and at last - it had! The future was bright.

Unfortunately, it was hurriedly decided to use an early prototype outside the lab in an impoverished foreign country. Whether out of arrogance, bureaucratic inertia, overconfidence on the part of the involved researchers, condescending racism, the need to justify the billions of grant-dollars that cumulative went into the project over the years by showing some use of it - whatever, the reasons no longer mattered after the final order was signed. The technology was used, but the consequences turned out to be horrific: over a brief period of what seemed like mere days, entire cities collapsed and scores - hundreds - of thousands of people died. (Modern economies are extremely interdependent and fragile, and small disruptions can have large consequences; more people died in the chaos of the evacuation of the areas around Fukushima than will die of the radiation.)

continue reading »

Democracy and individual liberty; decentralised prediction markets

-1 Chrysophylax 15 March 2014 12:27PM

A pair of links I found recently (via Marginal Revolution) and haven't found on LW:

 

http://www.cato-unbound.org/2014/03/10/mark-s-weiner/paradox-modern-individualism

https://bitcointalk.org/index.php?topic=475054.0;all

 

The former discusses liberty in the context of clannish behaviour, arguing that it is the existence of the institutions of modern democracies that allows people individual liberty, as it precludes the need for clan structures (extended family groups, crime syndicates, patronage networks and such).

The latter is a author's summary of a white paper on the subject of decentralised Bitcoin prediction markets with a link to the paper.

[LINK] Joseph Bottum on Politics as the Mindkiller

2 Salemicus 27 February 2014 07:40PM

One of my favourite Less Wrong articles is Politics is the mindkiller. Part of the reason that political discussion so bad is the poor incentives - if you have little chance to change the outcome, then there is little reason to strive for truth or accuracy - but a large part of the reason is our pre-political attitudes and dispositions. I don't mean to suggest that there is a neat divide; clearly, there is a reflexive relation between the incentives within political discussion and our view of the appropriate purpose and scope of politics. Nevertheless, I think it's a useful distinction to make, and so I applaud the fact that Eliezer doesn't start his essays on the subject by talking about incentives, feedback or rational irrationality - instead he starts with the fact that our approach to politics is instinctively tribal.

This brings me to Joseph Bottum's excellent recent article in The American, The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America. This charts what he sees as the tribal changes within America that have shaped current attitudes to politics. I think it's best seen in conjunction with Arnold Kling's excellent The Three Languages of Politics; while Kling talks about the political language and rhetoric of modern American political groupings, Bottum's essay is more about the social changes that have led to these kinds of language and rhetoric.

We live in what can only be called a spiritual age, swayed by its metaphysical fears and hungers, when we imagine that our ordinary political opponents are not merely mistaken, but actually evil. When we assume that past ages, and the people who lived in them, are defined by the systematic crimes of history. When we suppose that some vast ethical miasma, racism, radicalism, cultural self-hatred, selfish blindness, determines the beliefs of classes other than our own. When we can make no rhetorical distinction between absolute wickedness and the people with whom we disagree. The Republican Congress is the Taliban. President Obama is a Communist. Wisconsin’s governor is a Nazi.

...

The real question, of course, is how and why this happened. How and why politics became a mode of spiritual redemption for nearly everyone in America, but especially for the college-educated upper-middle class, who are probably best understood not as the elite, but as the elect, people who know themselves as good, as relieved of their spiritual anxieties by their attitudes toward social problems.

Video of a related lecture can also be found here.

Link: Poking the Bear (Podcast)

0 James_Miller 27 February 2014 03:43PM

A Dan Carlin Podcast about how the United States is foolishly antagonizing the Russians over Ukraine.  Carlin makes an analogy as to how the United States would feel if Russia helped overthrow the government of Mexico to install an anti-American government under conditions that might result in a Mexican civil war.  Because of the Russian nuclear arsenal, even a tiny chance of a war between the United States and Russia has a huge negative expected value.

How big of an impact would cleaner political debates have on society?

4 adamzerner 06 February 2014 12:24AM

See this Newsroom clip.

Basically, their news network is trying to change the way political debates work by having the moderator force the candidates to answer the questions that are asked of them, not interrupt each other, justify arguments that are based on obvious falsehoods etc.

How big of a positive impact do you guys think that this would have on society?

My initial thoughts are that it would be huge. It would lead to better politicians, which would be a high level of action. The positive effects would trickle down into many aspects of our society.

The question then becomes, "can we make this happen?". I don't see a way right now, but the idea has enough upside to me that I keep it in the back of my mind in case I come up with a plausible way of implementing the change.

Thoughts?

Democracy and rationality

8 homunq 30 October 2013 12:07PM

Note: This is a draft; so far, about the first half is complete. I'm posting it to Discussion for now; when it's finished, I'll move it to Main. In the mean time, I'd appreciate comments, including suggestions on style and/or format. In particular, if you think I should(n't) try to post this as a sequence of separate sections, let me know.

Summary: You want to find the truth? You want to win? You're gonna have to learn the right way to vote. Plurality voting sucks; better voting systems are built from the blocks of approval, medians (Bucklin cutoffs), delegation, and pairwise opposition. I'm working to promote these systems and I want your help.

Contents: 1. Overblown¹ rhetorical setup ... 2. Condorcet's ideals and Arrow's problem ... 3. Further issues for politics ... 4. Rating versus ranking; a solution? ... 5. Delegation and SODA ... 6. Criteria and pathologies ... 7. Representation, Proportional representation, and Sortition ... 8. What I'm doing about it and what you can ... 9. Conclusions and future directions ... 10. Appendix: voting systems table ... 11. Footnotes

1.

This is a website focused on becoming more rational. But that can't just mean getting a black belt in individual epistemic rationality. In a situation where you're not the one making the decision, that black belt is just a recipe for frustration.

Of course, there's also plenty of content here about how to interact rationally; how to argue for truth, including both hacking yourself to give in when you're wrong and hacking others to give in when they are. You can learn plenty here about Aumann's Agreement Theorem on how two rational Bayesians should never knowingly disagree.

But "two rational Bayesians" isn't a whole lot better as a model for society than "one rational Bayesian". Aspiring to be rational is well and good, but the Socratic ideal of a world tied together by two-person dialogue alone is as unrealistic as the sociopath's ideal of a world where their own voice rules alone. Society needs structures for more than two people to interact. And just as we need techniques for checking irrationality in one- and two-person contexts, we need them, perhaps all the more, in multi-person contexts.

Most of the basic individual and dialogical rationality techniques carry over. Things like noticing when you are confused, or making your opponent's arguments into a steel man, are still perfectly applicable. But there's also a new set of issues when n>2: the issues of democracy and voting. For a group of aspiring rationalists to come to a working consensus, of course they need to begin by evaluating and discussing the evidence, but eventually it will be time to cut off the discussion and just vote. When they do so, they should understand the strengths and pitfalls of voting in general and of their chosen voting method in particular.

And voting's not just useful for an aspiring rationalist community. As it happens, it's an important part of how governments are run. Discussing politics may be a mind-killer in many contexts, but there are an awful lot of domains where politics is a part of the road to winning.² Understanding voting processes a little bit can help you navigate that road; understanding them deeply opens the possibility of improving that road and thus winning more often.

2. Collective rationality: Condorcet's ideals and Arrow's problem

Imagine it's 1785, and you're a member of the French Academy of Sciences. You're rubbing elbows with most of the giants of science and mathematics of your day: Coulomb, Fourier, Lalande, Lagrange, Laplace, Lavoisier, Monge; even the odd foreign notable like Franklin with his ideas to unify electrostatics and electric flow.

They'll remember your names

One day, they'll put your names in front of lots of cameras (even though that foreign yokel Franklin will be in more pictures)

And this academy, with many of the smartest people in the world, has votes on stuff. Who will be our next president; who should edit and schedule our publications; etc. You're sure that if you all could just find the right way to do the voting, you'd get the right answer. In fact, you can easily prove that, or something like it: if a group is deciding between one right and one wrong option, and each member is independently more than 50% likely to get it right, then as the group size grows the chance of a majority vote choosing the right option goes to 1.

But somehow, there's still annoying politics getting in the way. Some people seem to win the elections simply because everyone expects them to win. So last year, the academy decided on a new election system to use, proposed by your rival, Charles de Borda, in which candidates get different points for being a voters first, second, or third choice, and the one with the most points wins. But you're convinced that this new system will lead to the opposite problem: people who win the election precisely because nobody expected them to win, by getting the points that voters strategically don't want to give to a strong rival. But when people point that possibility out to Borda, he only huffs that "my system is meant for honest men!"

So with your proof of the above intuitive, useful result about two-way elections, you try to figure out how to reduce an n-way election to the two-candidate case. Clearly, you can show that Borda's system will frequently give the wrong results from that perspective. But frustratingly, you find that there could sometimes be no right answer; that there will be no candidate who would beat all the others in one-on-one races. A crack has opened up; could it be that the collective decisions of intelligent individual rational agents could be irrational?

Of course, the "you" in this story is the Marquis de Condorcet, and the year 1785 is when he published his Essai sur l’application de l’analyse à la probabilité des décisions rendues à la pluralité des voix, a work devoted to the question of how to acheive collective rationality. The theorem referenced above is Condorcet's Jury Theorem, which seems to offer hope that democracy can point the way from individually-imperfect rationality towards an ever-more-perfect collective rationality. Just as Aumann's Agreement Theorem shows that two rational agents should always move towards consensus, the Condorcet Jury Theorem apparently shows that if you have enough rational agents, the resulting consensus will be correct.

But as I said, Condorcet also opened a crack in that hope: the possibility that collective preferences will be cyclical. If the assumptions of the jury theorem don't hold — if each voter doesn't have a >50% chance of being right on a randomly-selected question, OR if the correctness of two randomly-selected voters is not independent and uncorrelated — then individually-sensible choices can lead to collectively-ridiculous ones. 

What do I mean by "collectively-ridiculous"? Let's imagine that the Rationalist Marching Band is choosing the colors for their summer, winter, and spring uniforms, and that they all agree that the only goal is to have as much as possible of the best possible colors. The summer-style uniforms come in red or blue, and they vote and pick blue; the winter-style ones come in blue or green, and they pick green; and the spring ones come in green or red, and they pick red.

Obviously, this makes us doubt their collective rationality. If, as they all agree they should, they had a consistent favorite color, they should have chosen that color both times that it was available, rather than choosing three different colors in the three cases. Theoretically, the salesperson could use such a fact to pump money out of them; for instance, offering to let them "trade up" their spring uniform from red to blue, then to green, then back to red, charging them a small fee each time; if they voted consistently as above, they would agree to each trade (though of course in reality human voters would probably catch on to the trick pretty soon, so the abstract ideal of an unending circular money pump wouldn't work).

This is the kind of irrationality that Condorcet showed was possible in collective decisionmaking. He also realized that there was a related issue with logical inconsistencies. If you were take a vote on 3 logically related propositions — say, "Should we have a Minister of Silly Walks, to be appointed by the Chancellor of the Excalibur", "Should we have a Minister of Silly Walks, but not appointed by the Chancellor of the Excalibur", and "Should we in fact have a Minister of Silly Walks at all", where the third cannot be true unless one of the first is — then you could easily get majority votes for inconsistent results — in this case, no, no, and yes, respectively. Obviously, there are many ways to fix the problem in this simple case — probably many less-wrong'ers would suggest some Bayesian tricks related to logical networks and treating votes as evidence⁸ — but it's a tough problem in general even today, especially when the logical relationships can be complex, and Condorcet was quite right to be worried about its implications for collective rationality.³

And that's not the only tough problem he correctly foresaw. Nearly 200 years later and an ocean away, in the 1960s, Kenneth Arrow showed that it was impossible for a preferential voting system to avoid the problem of a "Condorcet cycle" of preferences. Arrows theorem shows that any voting system which can consistently give the same winner (or, in ties, winners) for the same voter preferences; which does not make one voter the effective dictator; which is sure to elect a candidate if all voters prefer them; and which will switch the results for two candidates if you switch their names on all the votes... must exhibit, in at least some situation, the pathology that befell the Rationalist Marching Band above, or in other words, must fail "independence of irrelevant alternatives".

Arrow's theorem is far from obvious a priori, but proof is not hard to understand intuitively using Condorcet's insight. Say that there are three candidates, X, Y, and Z, with roughly equal bases of support; and that they form a Condorcet cycle, because in two-way races, X would beat Y with help from Z supporters, Y would beat Z with help from X supporters, and Z would beat X with help from Y supporters. So whoever wins in the three-way race — say, X — just remove the one who would have lost to them — Y in this case — and that "irrelevant" change will change the winner to be the third — Z in this case.

Summary of above: Collective rationality is harder than individual or two-way rationality. Condorcet saw the problem and tried to solve it, but Arrow saw that Condorcet had been doomed to fail.

3. Further issues for politics

So Condorcet's ideals of better rationality through voting appear to be in ruins. But at least we can hope that voting is a good way to do politics, right?

Not so fast. Arrow's theorem quickly led to further disturbing results. Alan Gibbard (and also Mark Satterthwaite) extended that there is no voting system which doesn't encourage voting strategy. That is, if you view an voting system as a class of games where the finite players and finite available strategies are fixed, no player is effectively a dictator, and the only thing that varies are the payoffs for each player from each outcome, there is no voting system where you can derive your best strategic vote purely by looking "honestly" at your own preferences; there is always the possibility of situations where you have to second-guess what others will do.

Amartya Sen piled on with another depressing extension of Arrows' logic. He showed that there is no possible way of aggregating individual choices into collective choice that satisfies two simple criteria. First, it shouldn't choose pareto-dominated outcomes; if everyone prefers situation XYZ to ABC, that they don't do XYZ. Second, it is "minimally liberal"; that is, there are at least two people who each get to freely make their own decision on at least one specific issue each, no matter what, so for instance I always get to decide between X and A (in Gibbard's⁴ example, colors for my house), and you always get to decide between Y and B (colors for your own house). The problem is that if you nosily care more about my house's color, the decision that should have been mine, and I nosily care about yours, more than we each care about our own, then the pareto-dominant situation is the one where we don't decide our own houses; and that nosiness could, in theory, be the case for any specific choice that, a priori, someone might have labelled as our Inalienable Right. It's not such a surprising result when you think about it that way, but it does clearly show that unswerving ideals of Democracy and Liberty will never truly be compatible.

Meanwhile, "public choice" theorists⁵ like Duncan Black, James Buchanan, etc. were busy undermining the idea of democratic government from another direction: the motivations of the politicians and bureaucrats who are supposed to keep it running. They showed that various incentives, including the strange voting scenarios explored by Condorcet and Arrow, would tend open a gap between the motives of the people and those of the government, and that strategic voting and agenda-setting within a legislature would tend to extend the impact of that gap. Where Gibbard and Sen had proved general results, these theorists worked from specific examples. And in one aspect, at least, their analysis is devastatingly unanswerable: the near-ubiquitous "democratic" system of plurality voting, also known as first-past-the-post or vote-for-one or biggest-minority-wins, is terrible in both theory and practice.

So, by the 1980s, things looked pretty depressing for the theory of democracy. Politics, the theory went, was doomed forever to be a worse than sausage factory; disgusting on the inside and distasteful even from outside.

Should an ethical rationalist just give up on politics, then? Of course not. As long as the results it produces are important, it's worth trying to optimize. And as soon as you take the engineer's attitude of optimizing, instead of dogmatically searching for perfection or uselessly whining about the problems, the results above don't seem nearly as bad.

From this engineer's perspective, public choice theory serves as an unsurprising warning that tradeoffs are necessary, but more usefully, as a map of where those tradeoffs can go particularly wrong. In particular, its clearest lesson, in all-caps bold with a blink tag, that PLURALITY IS BAD, can be seen as a hopeful suggestion that other voting systems may be better. Meanwhile, the logic of both Sen's and Gibbard's theorems are built on Arrow's earlier result. So if we could find a way around Arrow, it might help resolve the whole issue.

Summary of above: Democracy is the worst political system... (...except for all the others?) But perhaps it doesn't have to be quite so bad as it is today.

4. Rating versus ranking

So finding a way around Arrow's theorem could be key to this whole matter. As a mathematical theorem, of course, the logic is bulletproof. But it does make one crucial assumption: that the only inputs to a voting system are rankings, that is, voters' ordinal preference orders for the candidates. No distinctions can be made using ratings or grades; that is, as long as you prefer X to Y to Z, the strength of those preferences can't matter. Whether you put Y almost up near X or way down next to Z, the result must be the same.

Relax that assumption, and it's easy to create a voting system which meets Arrow's criteria. It's called Score voting⁶, and it just means rating each candidate with a number from some fixed interval (abstractly speaking, a real number; but in practice, usually an integer); the scores are added up and the highest total or average wins. (Unless there are missing values, of course, total or average amount to the same thing.) You've probably used it yourself on Yelp, IMDB, or similar sites. And it clearly passes all of Arrow's criteria. Non-dictatorship? Check. Unanimity? Check. Symmetry over switching candidate names? Check. Independence of irrelevant alternatives? In the mathematical sense — that is, as long as the scores for other candidates are unchanged — check.

So score voting is an ideal system? Well, it's certainly a far sight better than plurality. But let's check it against Sen and against Gibbard.

Sen's theorem was based on a logic similar to Arrow. However, while Arrow's theorem deals with broad outcomes like which candidate wins, Sen's deals with finely-grained outcomes like (in the example we discussed) how each separate house should be painted. Extending the cardinal numerical logic of score voting to such finely-grained outcomes, we find we've simply reinvented markets. While markets can be great things and often work well in practice, Sen's result still holds in this case; if everything is on the market, then there is no decision which is always yours to make. But since, in practice, as long as you aren't destitute, you tend to be able to make the decisions you care the most about, Sen's theorem seems to have lost its bite in this context.

What about Gibbard's theorem on strategy? Here, things are not so easy. Yes, Gibbard, like Sen, parallels Arrow. But while Arrow deals with what's written on the ballot, Gibbard deals with what's in the voters head. In particular, if a voter prefers X to Y by even the tiniest margin, Gibbard assumes (not unreasonably) that they may be willing to vote however they need to, if by doing so they can ensure X wins instead of Y. Thus, the internal preferences Gibbard treats are, effectively, just ordinal rankings; and the cardinal trick by which score voting avoided Arrovian problems no longer works.

How does score voting deal with strategic issues in practice? The answer to that has two sides. On the one hand, score never requires voters to be actually dishonest. Unlike the situation in a ranked system such as plurality, where we all know that the strategic vote may be to dishonestly ignore your true favorite and vote for a "lesser evil" among the two frontrunners, in score voting you never need to vote a less-preferred option above a more-preferred option. At worst, all you have to do is exaggerate some distinctions and minimize others, so that you might end giving equal votes to less- and more-preferred options.

Did I say "at worst"? I meant, "almost always". Voting strategy only matters to the result when, aside from your vote, two or more candidates are within one vote of being tied for first. Except in unrealistic, perfectly-balanced conditions, as the number of voters rises, the probability that anyone but the two a priori frontrunner candidates is in on this tie falls to zero.⁷ Thus, in score voting, the optimal strategy is nearly always to vote your preferred frontrunner and all candidate above at the maximum, and your less-preferred frontrunner and all candidates below at the minimum. In other words, strategic score voting is basically equivalent to approval voting, where you give each candidate a 1 or 0 and the highest total wins.

In one sense, score voting reducing to approval OK. Approval voting is not a bad system at all. For instance, if there's a known majority Condorcet winner — a candidate who could beat any other by a majority in a one-on-one race — and voters are strategic — they anticipate the unique strong Nash equilibrium, the situation where no group of voters could improve the outcome for all its members by changing their votes, whenever such a unique equilibrium exists — then the Condorcet winner will win under approval. That's a lot of words to say that approval will get the "democratic" results you'd expect in most cases.

But in another sense, it's a problem. If one side of an issue is more inclined to be strategic than the other side, the more-strategic faction could win even if it's a minority. That clashes with many people's ideals of democracy; and worse, it encourages mind-killing political attitudes, where arguments are used as soldiers rather than as ways to seek the truth.

But score and approval voting are not the only systems which escape Arrow's theorem through the trapdoor of ratings. If score voting, using the average of voter ratings, too-strongly encourages voters to strategically seek extreme ratings, then why not use the median rating instead? We know that medians are less sensitive to outliers than averages. And indeed, median-based systems are more resistant to one-sided strategy than average-based ones, giving better hope for reasonable discussion to prosper. That is to say, in a simple model, a minority would need twice as much strategic coordination under median as under average, in order to overcome a majority; and there's good reason to believe that, because of natural factional separation, reality is even more favorable to median systems than that model.

There are several different median systems available. In the US during the 1910-1925 Progressive Era, early versions collectively called "Bucklin voting" were used briefly in over a dozen cities. These reforms, based on counting all top preferences, then adding lower preferences one level at a time until some candidate(s) reach a majority, were all rolled back soon after, principally by party machines upset at upstart challenges or victories. The possibility of multiple, simultaneous majorities is a principal reason for the variety of Bucklin/Median systems. Modern proposals of median systems include Majority Approval Voting, Majority Judgment, and Graduated Majority Judgment, which would probably give the same winners almost all of the time. An important detail is that most median system ballots use verbal or letter grades rather than numeric scores. This is justifiable because the median is preserved under any monotonic transformation, and studies suggest that it would help discourage strategic voting.

Serious attention to rated systems like approval, score, and median systems barely began in the 1980s, and didn't really pick up until 2000. Meanwhile, the increased amateur interest in voting systems in this period — perhaps partially attributable to the anomalous 2000 US presidential election, or to more-recent anomalies in the UK, Canada, and Australia — has led to new discoveries in ranked systems as well. Though such systems are still clearly subject to Arrow's theorem, new "improved Condorcet" methods which use certain tricks to count a voter's equal preferences between to candidates on either side of the ledger depending on the strategic needs, seem to offer promise that Arrovian pathologies can be kept to a minimum.

With this embarrassment of riches of systems to choose from, how should we evaluate which is best? Well, at least one thing is a clear consensus: plurality is a horrible system. Beyond that, things are more controversial; there are dozens of possible objective criteria one could formulate, and any system's inventor and/or supporters can usually formulate some criterion by which it shines.

Ideally, we'd like to measure the utility of each voting system in the real world. Since that's impossible — it would take not just a statistically-significant sample of large-scale real-world elections for each system, but also some way to measure the true internal utility of a result in situations where voters are inevitably strategically motivated to lie about that utility — we must do the next best thing, and measure it in a computer, with simulated voters whose utilities are assigned measurable values. Unfortunately, that requires assumptions about how those utilities are distributed, how voter turnout is decided, and how and whether voters strategize. At best, those assumptions can be varied, to see if findings are robust.

In 2000, Warren Smith performed such simulations for a number of voting systems. He found that score voting had, very robustly, one of the top expected social utilities (or, as he termed it, lowest Bayesian regret). Close on its heels were a median system and approval voting. Unfortunately, though he explored a wide parameter space in terms of voter utility models and inherent strategic inclination of the voters, his simulations did not include voters who were more inclined to be strategic when strategy was more effective. His strategic assumptions were also unfavorable to ranked systems, and slightly unrealistic in other ways. Still, though certain of his numbers must be taken with a grain of salt, some of his results were large and robust enough to be trusted. For instance, he found that plurality voting and instant runoff voting were clearly inferior to rated systems; and that approval voting, even at its worst, offered over half the benefits compared to plurality of any other system.

Summary of above: Rated systems, such as approval voting, score voting, and Majority Approval Voting, can avoid the problems of Arrow's theorem. Though they are certainly not immune to issues of strategic voting, they are a clear step up from plurality. Starting with this section, the opinions are my own; the two prior sections were based on general expert views on the topic.

5. Delegation and SODA

Rated systems are not the only way to try to beat the problems of Arrow and Gibbard (/Satterthwaite).

Summary of above:

6. Criteria and pathologies

do.

Summary of above:

7. Representation, proportionality, and sortition

do.

Summary of above:

8. What I'm doing about it and what you can

do.

Summary of above:

9. Conclusions and future directions

do.

Summary of above:

10. Appendix: voting systems table

Compliance of selected systems (table)

The following table shows which of the above criteria are met by several single-winner systems. Note: contains some errors; I'll carefully vet this when I'm finished with the writing. Still generally reliable though.

 Major­ity/
MMC
Condorcet/
Majority Condorcet
Cond.
loser

Mono­tone
Consist­ency/
Particip­ation
Rever­sal
sym­metry

IIA
Cloneproof
Poly­time/
Resolv­able
Summ­able
Equal rankings
allowed
Later
prefs
allowed
Later-no-harm­/
Later-no-help
FBC:No
favorite
betrayal
Approval[nb 1] Ambig­uous NoStrategic yes[nb 2] No Yes Yes[nb 2] Yes Ambig­uous Ambig.­[nb 3] Yes O(N) Yes No [nb 4] Yes
Borda count No No Yes Yes Yes Yes No No (teaming) Yes O(N) No Yes No No
Copeland Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes No (but ISDA) No (crowding) Yes/No O(N2) Yes Yes No No
IRV (AV) Yes No Yes No No No No Yes Yes O(N!)­[nb 5] No Yes Yes No
Kemeny-Young Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes No (but ISDA) No (teaming) No/Yes O(N2[nb 6] Yes Yes No No
Majority Judg­ment[nb 7] Yes[nb 8] NoStrategic yes[nb 2] No[nb 9] Yes No[nb 10] No[nb 11] Yes Yes Yes O(N)­[nb 12] Yes Yes No[nb 13] Yes Yes
Minimax Yes/No Yes[nb 14] No Yes No No No No (spoilers) Yes O(N2) Some variants Yes No[nb 14] No
Plurality Yes/No No No Yes Yes No No No (spoilers) Yes O(N) No No [nb 4] No
Range voting[nb 1] No NoStrategic yes[nb 2] No Yes Yes[nb 2] Yes Yes[nb 15] Ambig.­[nb 3] Yes O(N) Yes Yes No Yes
Ranked pairs Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes No (but ISDA) Yes Yes O(N2) Yes Yes No No
Runoff voting Yes/No No Yes No No No No No (spoilers) Yes O(N)­[nb 16] No No[nb 17] Yes[nb 18] No
Schulze Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes No (but ISDA) Yes Yes O(N2) Yes Yes No No
SODA voting[nb 19] Yes Strategic yes/yes Yes Ambig­uous[nb 20] Yes/Up to 4 cand. [nb 21] Yes[nb 22] Up to 4 candidates[nb 21] Up to 4 cand. (then crowds) [nb 21] Yes[nb 23] O(N) Yes Limited[nb 24] Yes Yes
Random winner/
arbitrary winner[nb 25]
No No No NA No Yes Yes NA Yes/No O(1) No No   Yes
Random ballot[nb 26] No No No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes/No O(N) No No   Yes

"Yes/No", in a column which covers two related criteria, signifies that the given system passes the first criterion and not the second one.

  1. Jump up to:a b These criteria assume that all voters vote their true preference order. This is problematic for Approval and Range, where various votes are consistent with the same order. See approval voting for compliance under various voter models.
  2. Jump up to:a b c d e In Approval, Range, and Majority Judgment, if all voters have perfect information about each other's true preferences and use rational strategy, any Majority Condorcet or Majority winner will be strategically forced – that is, win in the unique Strong Nash equilibrium. In particular if every voter knows that "A or B are the two most-likely to win" and places their "approval threshold" between the two, then the Condorcet winner, if one exists and is in the set {A,B}, will always win. These systems also satisfy the majority criterion in the weaker sense that any majority can force their candidate to win, if it so desires. (However, as the Condorcet criterion is incompatible with the participation criterion and the consistency criterion, these systems cannot satisfy these criteria in this Nash-equilibrium sense. Laslier, J.-F. (2006) "Strategic approval voting in a large electorate,"IDEP Working Papers No. 405 (Marseille, France: Institut D'Economie Publique).)
  3. Jump up to:a b The original independence of clones criterion applied only to ranked voting methods. (T. Nicolaus Tideman, "Independence of clones as a criterion for voting rules", Social Choice and Welfare Vol. 4, No. 3 (1987), pp. 185–206.) There is some disagreement about how to extend it to unranked methods, and this disagreement affects whether approval and range voting are considered independent of clones. If the definition of "clones" is that "every voter scores them within ±ε in the limit ε→0+", then range voting is immune to clones.
  4. Jump up to:a b Approval and Plurality do not allow later preferences. Technically speaking, this means that they pass the technical definition of the LNH criteria - if later preferences or ratings are impossible, then such preferences can not help or harm. However, from the perspective of a voter, these systems do not pass these criteria. Approval, in particular, encourages the voter to give the same ballot rating to a candidate who, in another voting system, would get a later rating or ranking. Thus, for approval, the practically meaningful criterion would be not "later-no-harm" but "same-no-harm" - something neither approval nor any other system satisfies.
  5. Jump up^ The number of piles that can be summed from various precincts is floor((e-1) N!) - 1.
  6. Jump up^ Each prospective Kemeny-Young ordering has score equal to the sum of the pairwise entries that agree with it, and so the best ordering can be found using the pairwise matrix.
  7. Jump up^ Bucklin voting, with skipped and equal-rankings allowed, meets the same criteria as Majority Judgment; in fact, Majority Judgment may be considered a form of Bucklin voting. Without allowing equal rankings, Bucklin's criteria compliance is worse; in particular, it fails Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives, which for a ranked method like this variant is incompatible with the Majority Criterion.
  8. Jump up^ Majority judgment passes the rated majority criterion (a candidate rated solo-top by a majority must win). It does not pass the ranked majority criterion, which is incompatible with Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives.
  9. Jump up^ Majority judgment passes the "majority condorcet loser" criterion; that is, a candidate who loses to all others by a majority cannot win. However, if some of the losses are not by a majority (including equal-rankings), the Condorcet loser can, theoretically, win in MJ, although such scenarios are rare.
  10. Jump up^ Balinski and Laraki, Majority Judgment's inventors, point out that it meets a weaker criterion they call "grade consistency": if two electorates give the same rating for a candidate, then so will the combined electorate. Majority Judgment explicitly requires that ratings be expressed in a "common language", that is, that each rating have an absolute meaning. They claim that this is what makes "grade consistency" significant. MJ. Balinski M. and R. Laraki (2007) «A theory of measuring, electing and ranking». Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, vol. 104, no. 21, 8720-8725.
  11. Jump up^ Majority judgment can actually pass or fail reversal symmetry depending on the rounding method used to find the median when there are even numbers of voters. For instance, in a two-candidate, two-voter race, if the ratings are converted to numbers and the two central ratings are averaged, then MJ meets reversal symmetry; but if the lower one is taken, it does not, because a candidate with ["fair","fair"] would beat a candidate with ["good","poor"] with or without reversal. However, for rounding methods which do not meet reversal symmetry, the chances of breaking it are on the order of the inverse of the number of voters; this is comparable with the probability of an exact tie in a two-candidate race, and when there's a tie, any method can break reversal symmetry.
  12. Jump up^ Majority Judgment is summable at order KN, where K, the number of ranking categories, is set beforehand.
  13. Jump up^ Majority judgment meets a related, weaker criterion: ranking an additional candidate below the median grade (rather than your own grade) of your favorite candidate, cannot harm your favorite.
  14. Jump up to:a b A variant of Minimax that counts only pairwise opposition, not opposition minus support, fails the Condorcet criterion and meets later-no-harm.
  15. Jump up^ Range satisfies the mathematical definition of IIA, that is, if each voter scores each candidate independently of which other candidates are in the race. However, since a given range score has no agreed-upon meaning, it is thought that most voters would either "normalize" or exaggerate their vote such that it votes at least one candidate each at the top and bottom possible ratings. In this case, Range would not be independent of irrelevant alternatives. Balinski M. and R. Laraki (2007) «A theory of measuring, electing and ranking». Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, vol. 104, no. 21, 8720-8725.
  16. Jump up^ Once for each round.
  17. Jump up^ Later preferences are only possible between the two candidates who make it to the second round.
  18. Jump up^ That is, second-round votes cannot harm candidates already eliminated.
  19. Jump up^ Unless otherwise noted, for SODA's compliances:
    • Delegated votes are considered to be equivalent to voting the candidate's predeclared preferences.
    • Ballots only are considered (In other words, voters are assumed not to have preferences that cannot be expressed by a delegated or approval vote.)
    • Since at the time of assigning approvals on delegated votes there is always enough information to find an optimum strategy, candidates are assumed to use such a strategy.
  20. Jump up^ For up to 4 candidates, SODA is monotonic. For more than 4 candidates, it is monotonic for adding an approval, for changing from an approval to a delegation ballot, and for changes in a candidate's preferences. However, if changes in a voter's preferences are executed as changes from a delegation to an approval ballot, such changes are not necessarily monotonic with more than 4 candidates.
  21. Jump up to:a b c For up to 4 candidates, SODA meets the Participation, IIA, and Cloneproof criteria. It can fail these criteria in certain rare cases with more than 4 candidates. This is considered here as a qualified success for the Consistency and Participation criteria, which do not intrinsically have to do with numerous candidates, and as a qualified failure for the IIA and Cloneproof criteria, which do.
  22. Jump up^ SODA voting passes reversal symmetry for all scenarios that are reversible under SODA; that is, if each delegated ballot has a unique last choice. In other situations, it is not clear what it would mean to reverse the ballots, but there is always some possible interpretation under which SODA would pass the criterion.
  23. Jump up^ SODA voting is always polytime computable. There are some cases where the optimal strategy for a candidate assigning delegated votes may not be polytime computable; however, such cases are entirely implausible for a real-world election.
  24. Jump up^ Later preferences are only possible through delegation, that is, if they agree with the predeclared preferences of the favorite.
  25. Jump up^ Random winner: Uniformly randomly chosen candidate is winner. Arbitrary winner: some external entity, not a voter, chooses the winner. These systems are not, properly speaking, voting systems at all, but are included to show that even a horrible system can still pass some of the criteria.
  26. Jump up^ Random ballot: Uniformly random-chosen ballot determines winner. This and closely related systems are of mathematical interest because they are the only possible systems which are truly strategy-free, that is, your best vote will never depend on anything about the other voters. They also satisfy both consistency and IIA, which is impossible for a deterministic ranked system. However, this system is not generally considered as a serious proposal for a practical method.

11. Footnotes

¹ When I call my introduction "overblown", I mean that I reserve the right to make broad generalizations there, without getting distracted by caveats. If you don't like this style, feel free to skip to section 2.

 

² Of course, the original "politics is a mind killer" sequence was perfectly clear about this: "Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality—but it's a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational." The focus here is on the first part of that quote, because I think Less Wrong as a whole has moved too far in the direction of avoiding politics as not a domain for rationalists.

 

³ Bayes developed his theorem decades before Condorcet's Essai, but Condorcet probably didn't know of it, as it wasn't popularized by Laplace until about 30 years later, after Condorcet was dead.

 

⁴ Yes, this happens to be the same Alan Gibbard from the previous paragraph.

 

⁵ Confusingly, "public choice" refers to a school of thought, while "social choice" is the name for the broader domain of study. Stop reading this footnote now if you don't want to hear mind-killing partisan identification. "Public choice" theorists are generally seen as politically conservative in the solutions they suggest. It seems to me that the broader "social choice" has avoided taking on a partisan connotation in this sense.

 

⁶ Score voting is also called "range voting" by some. It is not a particularly new idea — for instance, the "loudest cheer wins" rule of ancient Sparta, and even aspects of honeybees' process for choosing new hives, can be seen as score voting — but it was first analyzed theoretically around 2000. Approval voting, which can be seen as a form of score voting where the scores are restricted to 0 and 1, had entered theory only about two decades earlier, though it too has a history of practical use back to antiquity.

 

⁷ OK, fine, this is a simplification. As a voter, you have imperfect information about the true level of support and propensity to vote in the superpopulation of eligible voters, so in reality the chances of a decisive tie between other than your two expected frontrunners is non-zero. Still, in most cases, it's utterly negligible.

 

⁸ This article will focus more on the literature on multi-player strategic voting (competing boundedly-instrumentally-rational agents) than on multi-player Aumann (cooperating boundedly-epistemically-rational agents). If you're interested in the latter, here are some starting points: Scott Aaronson's work is, as far as I know, the state of the art on 2-player Aumann, but its framework assumes that the players have a sophisticated ability to empathize and reason about each others' internal knowledge, and the problems with this that Aaronson plausibly handwaves away in the 2-player case are probably less tractable in the multi-player one. Dalkiran et al deal with an Aumann-like problem over a social network; they find that attempts to "jump ahead" to a final consensus value instead of simply dumbly approaching it asymptotically can lead to failure to converge. And Kanoria et al have perhaps the most interesting result from the perspective of this article; they use the convergence of agents using a naive voting-based algorithm to give a nice upper bound on the difficulty of full Bayesian reasoning itself. None of these papers explicitly considers the problem of coming to consensus on more than one logically-related question at once, though Aaronson's work at least would clearly be easy to extend in that direction, and I think such extensions would be unsurprisingly Bayesian.

Less Wrong’s political bias

-6 Sophronius 25 October 2013 04:38PM

(Disclaimer: This post refers to a certain political party as being somewhat crazy, which got some people upset, so sorry about that. That is not what this post is *about*, however. The article is instead about Less Wrong's social norms against pointing certain things out. I have edited it a bit to try and make it less provocative.)

 

A well-known post around these parts is Yudkowski’s “politics is the mind killer”. This article proffers an important point: People tend to go funny in the head when discussing politics, as politics is largely about signalling tribal affiliation. The conclusion drawn from this by the Less Wrong crowd seems simple: Don’t discuss political issues, or at least keep it as fair and balanced as possible when you do. However, I feel that there is a very real downside to treating political issues in this way, which I shall try to explain here. Since this post is (indirectly) about politics, I will try to bring this as gently as possible so as to avoid mind-kill. As a result this post is a bit lengthier than I would like it to be, so I apologize for that in advance.

I find that a good way to examine the value of a policy is to ask in which of all possible worlds this policy would work, and in which worlds it would not. So let’s start by imagining a perfectly convenient world: In a universe whose politics are entirely reasonable and fair, people start political parties to represent certain interests and preferences. For example, you might have the kitten party for people who like kittens, and the puppy party for people who favour puppies. In this world Less Wrong’s unofficial policy is entirely reasonable: There is no sense in discussing politics, since politics is only about personal preferences, and any discussion of this can only lead to a “Jay kittens, boo dogs!” emotivism contest. At best you can do a poll now and again to see what people currently favour.

Now let’s imagine a less reasonable world, where things don’t have to happen for good reasons and the universe doesn’t give a crap about what’s fair. In this unreasonable world, you can get a “Thrives through Bribes” party or an “Appeal to emotions” party or a “Do stupid things for stupid reasons” party as well as more reasonable parties that actually try to be about something. In this world it makes no sense to pretend that all parties are equal, because there is really no reason to believe that they are.

As you might have guessed, I believe that we live in the second world. As a result, I do not believe that all parties are equally valid/crazy/corrupt, and as such I like to be able to identify which are the most crazy/corrupt/stupid. Now I happen to be fairly happy with the political system where I live. We have a good number of more-or-less reasonable parties here, and only one major crazy party that gives me the creeps. The advantage of this is that whenever I am in a room with intelligent people, I can safely say something like “That crazy racist party sure is crazy and racist”, and everyone will go “Yup, they sure are, now do you want to talk about something of substance?” This seems to me the only reasonable reply.

The problem is that Less Wrong seems primarily US-based, and in the US… things do not go like this. In the US, it seems to me that there are only two significant parties, one of which is flawed and which I do not agree with on many points, while the other is, well… can I just say that some of the things they profess do not so much sound wrong as they sound crazy? And yet, it seems to me that everyone here is being very careful to not point this out, because doing so would necessarily be favouring one party over the other, and why, that’s politics! That’s not what we do here on Less Wrong!

And from what I can tell, based on the discussion I have seen so far and participated in on Less Wrong, this introduces a major bias. Pick any major issue of contention, and chances are that the two major parties will tend to have opposing views on the subject. And naturally, the saner party of the two tends to hold a more reasonable view, because they are less crazy. But you can’t defend the more reasonable point of view now, because then you’re defending the less-crazy party, and that’s politics. Instead, you can get free karma just by saying something trite like “well, both sides have important points on the matter” or “both parties have their own flaws” or “politics in general are messed up”, because that just sounds so reasonable and fair who doesn’t like things to be reasonable and fair? But I don’t think we live in a reasonable and fair world.

It’s hard to prove the existence of such a bias and so this is mostly just an impression I have. But I can give a couple of points in support of this impression. Firstly there are the frequent accusations of group think towards Less Wrong, which I am increasingly though reluctantly prone to agree with. I can’t help but notice that posts which remark on for example *retracted* being a thing tend to get quite a few downvotes while posts that take care to express the nuance of the issue get massive upvotes regardless of whether really are two sides on the issue. Then there are the community poll results, which show that for example 30% of Less Wrongers favour a particular political allegiance even though only 1% of voters vote for the most closely corresponding party. I sincerely doubt that this skewed representation is the result of honest and reasonable discussion on Less Wrong that has convinced members to follow what is otherwise a minority view, since I have never seen any such discussion. So without necessarily criticizing the position itself, I have to wonder what causes this skewed representation. I fear that this “let’s not criticize political views” stance is causing Less Wrong to shift towards holding more and more eccentric views, since a lack of criticism can be taken as tacit approval. What especially worries me is that giving the impression that all sides are equal automatically lends credibility to the craziest viewpoint, as proponents of that side can now say that sceptics take their views seriously which benefits them the most. This seems to me literally the worst possible outcome of any politics debate.

I find that the same rule holds for politics as for life in general: You can try to win or you can give up and lose by default, but you can’t choose not to play.

Dark Arts 101: Winning via destruction and dualism

-13 PhilGoetz 21 September 2013 01:53AM

Recalling first that life is a zero-sum game, it is immediately obvious that the quickest and easiest path to success is not to accomplish things yourself—that's a game for heroes and other suckers—but to tear down the accomplishments and reputations of others. Destruction is easy. The difficulty lies in constructing a situation so that that destruction is to your net benefit.

continue reading »

Another way our brains betray us

3 polymathwannabe 17 September 2013 01:56PM

This appeared in the news yesterday.

http://www.alternet.org/media/most-depressing-discovery-about-brain-ever?paging=off

It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem. The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are. We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

...

The bleakest finding was that the more advanced that people’s math skills were, the more likely it was that their political views, whether liberal or conservative, made them less able to solve the math problem. [...] what these studies of how our minds work suggest is that the political judgments we’ve already made are impervious to facts that contradict us.

...

Denial is business-as-usual for our brains. More and better facts don’t turn low-information voters into well-equipped citizens. It just makes them more committed to their misperceptions.

...

When there’s a conflict between partisan beliefs and plain evidence, it’s the beliefs that win. The power of emotion over reason isn’t a bug in our human operating systems, it’s a feature.

Consider the Most Important Facts

-9 CarlJ 22 July 2013 08:39PM

Followup to: Choose that which is most important to you

When you have written down what your own fundamental political values are, the next step is to get an understanding of all possible societies so you can see which one is best. And by best I mean that society which comes closest to meeting your criteria of what you find most valuable.

So, to construct a model for thinking about this issue two things are needed. First, a list of all possible societies. And then some lists of those facts which would seem to rule out the largest number of possible societies as not being best; it would close in on the best society. The important point for this post regards the second list, but I still have a little discussion on the scope of the first list. If it seems obvious to, more or less, look at variants of economic systems, you can skip the next section and go straight to Facts which rule out and points toward certain societies.

A list of all possible societies – How long and exhaustive should it be?
I don't know if anyone has made such an exhaustive list. One might be constructed if one takes the list of economic systems (which regards laws, institutions, and how they are produced, and some culture) from Wikipedia and imagines that each of those systems may vary somewhat by different cultural norms. Not all cultural norms are compatible with every economic systems (objectivist virtue ethics with central planning), but every system would seem to allow some variation.This means 54 broad economic systems with, let's just say, ten broad cultural variations of these. So there's approximately 500 types of societies that people discuss today to take into account.

There's an obvious limitation to all this, which is that for every type of system, that system may vary in five million ways regarding certain laws. So, the Nordic model have changed a lot during the last 25 years. And if you take each law and consider a society of this type to be able to switch that on or off, there's, from that period alone, enough laws to be changed that the total combination exceeds five million. Many of the laws are however interdependent on one another, but there's still room for enormous configuration to ”construct” different societies.

So, maybe there are around a billion to a trillion possible societies. Now, it seems obviously clear that it is wrong to start discussing what, of two quite similar possible societies are better than the other – even if each society can have one million variations.1 That is because each are highly unlikely to be the best society.

If we can make one assumption, this will be much more easy. And that is that societies which we today would consider to be more similar than others would produce more or less the same results relative to other societies. There are some areas where every society would change drastically with just a small change in that area since it would lead to drastic change in the rest of the society. These areas are of great importance when we come to changing systems, but for now I assume these areas are too few in number to be of any importance.

With this assumption we can return to look at broad systems, because if societies of one category would seem to be better than other societies, we do not need to look more closely at that sort of society. If one type of mercantilistic society looks bad compared to a free-trade economy, any other type of the former are not worth looking at again.

Again, societies have these fundamental attributes (i) some general rules regarding how their laws are structured, (ii) some definitive rules on how these rules should be changed, and (iii) cultural norms. This model is still somewhat limiting, however. It seems to assume that a society can only have only one law and so on. But that problem disappears if we assume they can be different for different time, places and people. In all, this means we're back to some 500 possible societies.

Facts which rule out and points toward certain societies
Before considering any facts that has an impact on how you view a society, all societies should appear to be equally probable of being the best. This starting point may seem strange to some. It means that one should not dismiss even the policies of Nazi Germany out of hand. That is just the starting point however. After one accumulates more and more data some societies will appear less and less probable to be on that best fulfill your criteria.

But, since you don't have time to read everything, it is necessary to construct a model of how humans (and other beings, for post-singularity issues2) function and interact, that first only considers the most important facts. This could be done in several ways.

One could begin by just following normal science and ask what general facts can explain most of observed behavior and then see what those facts would predict about all societies. That seems wise to do, in and of itself, because it forces the discussion (which will ensue with others who follow the same method) to be very methodical and well grounded in a rich theory. This can be called the general method.

But this path is not the quickest, since these general facts would probably not damn enough societies to be unsuitable to your goals. A much faster way, but which will paint a more sketchy painting, is to just list those facts which will rule out the most societies. This is quicker since it will go straight to the chase. These facts may be thought of by thinking on what assumptions certain systems rely on to work adequately and trying to figure out what facts disprove most of these assumptions. This can be called the specific method.

Then there are statements which you are uncertain about but if they were true, it would become really obvious what society is best. So, not facts actually, but those ideas which you believe are worth learning more about. These potential facts should be the ones you are pondering or those which are the root cause of many debates among those with similar goals. This can be called the search method.

Here's an illustration of all three methods. Except for the last illustration, I write my own views, but these are not my own most important facts but the 11th to 20th.

The general method:

  1. People tend to conform to popular opinion.
  2. Societies become wealthier with extended markets, more savings, gaining better knowledge, producing more advanced technology, peace, and institutions which support these activities.
  3. Man is not a perfectly rational creature but has the possibility to correct his mistakes
  4. To wield power over others one generally need superior military strength.
  5. Most people fear being ostracised.
  6. Ideologies are usually formed by the social structure, and the social structure can be changed by those ideologies.
  7. People tend to enjoy the company of those who they are similar to.
  8. On markets with freedom of entry, prices for reproducible goods tends to be as low as their cost of production.
  9. Producers who don't sell what the customers want tend to receive lower earnings.
  10. Most people are adept at spotting others mistakes, but do quite poorly on noticing their own.

The specific method:

  1. All or almost all states today have tariffs to protect a certain industry or firm from competition.
  2. Generally, to know for sure if one possible society is better than another, one must be able to discuss their respective merits and demerits.
  3. The leaders of large governments tend to have less incentive to produce collective goods, rather than private goods, relative to leaders of smaller states.
  4. Most people today in democratic states give in to pressure to support policies which they are unable to know if they actually are for their own good or not.
  5. Children can be indoctrinated to glorify mass-murderers and to want to join them as soldiers, asking nothing about the justice of their cause.
  6. People are disposed to believe that the society they grow up in is good.
  7. Most people are conservative; they dislike change.
  8. All centrally planned economies perform less well than market based economic systems.
  9. Firms tend to invest money in rent-seeking if it's profitable until the expected return is similar to normal investments.
  10. Generally, it's difficult for new facts to overturn one's ideology without a contrasting ideology and it is difficult to come up with a new one by oneself.

The search method:

  1. Political system X will best achieve my goals.
  2. Political system X leads to the best incentives for everyone to produce the most important collective goods.

Now, these facts are not simply facts. They are the tip of a theoretical ice-berg; they are interpretation of reality. As such they will not by themselves explicate what system they damn. For oneself they should be clear what they mean, but if one should discuss it with others it might be necessary to write down the points and their theoretical point of view explicitly.

In any case, if you've followed my steps you should have one candidate which seems to be best. This step might, of course, take years, but if you're confident you should next estimate how much a political action towards these societies might cost.

Notes
[1] It might seem that I'd imply that that is what most people do today when they discuss politics – which, by its nature, is usually limited to tweaking the existing system one small way here and there, instead of looking at larger changes to be made. That implication is tempting to make, but most people seem to be more engaged in a ideological debate. I'd guess, anyway – I do not know for sure.

[2] They are too hard to predict so I'll skip discussing them.

Choose that which is most important to you

-4 CarlJ 21 July 2013 10:38PM

Followup to: The Domain of Politics

To create your own political world view you need to know about societies and your own political goals/values. In this post I'll discuss the latter, and in the next post the former.

What sort of goals? Those which you wish to achieve for their own sake, and not because they simply are a means to an end. That is, those goals you value intrinsically. Or, if you believe that there exists only one ultimate goal or value, then think of those means which are not that far removed from being intrinsic goal. That is, a birthday party might be just of instrumental value but most would agree that it is more far away from the intrinsic value than, say, good tires. I will for the rest of the post assume that most people value a lot of things intrinsically, and by values I will denote intrinsic values.

So, I'd like to draw a line between values and that which achieve those values. The latter is what we're trying to figure out what they are, without first proposing what they are. Those are political systems, or parts of them; they are institutions and laws. This is not to say that these things cannot be valued for their own sake – I put value on a system, possibly for aesthetic reasons – but those values should be disentangled from the other benefit a system produces.

With that in mind, you should now list all the things you value in ranking order. To rank them is necessary since we live in a world of scarce resources, so you won't necessarily achieve all your goals, but you will want to achieve those that are most important to you.

Now, what one values may change over time, so naturally what seems to be most important may also change. That which was on place #7 may go to #1 and vice versa. That is, values are changing with new information and a change in one's condition. That said, one's political values don't probably shift all that much. And even if they do, if you can't predict how they will change, you still need them to be able to know what political system is good for you.

There are many ways to get a feel of what your most highly valued political values are. Introspection, discussing with friends, think through a number of thought experiments, read the literature on what makes most people happy, listen to what experiences have been most horrible or pleasurable to others, etc.. In any case, here's a thought experiment to help with finding your ideological preferences, should you need it:

A genie appears and it says that it will make ten wishes come true and then it will be gone forever. As this genie will make more than three wishes come true it has an added restriction: all wishes need to be political in nature. By luck you get to make the wishes – what do you wish for?

The important thing to remember is that, if you should lose one wish, you will be less sorry to give up your tenth wish than any other. And less sorry to give up the ninth wish than the eight if you lost two wishes, and so on.

To make it clearer what I mean I'll write down some of the things I value. Not my most preferred goals, but those on 11th to 20th place:

  1. Those who have trouble excelling in life should receive whatever help can be given so they may become better.
  2. If someone comes up with a previously unknown idea for improving the world, and if three knowledgeable and unrelated individuals believe the idea is very good, it should only take some hours for everyone to be able to know that this matter is of importance.
  3. Everyone should have access to some means of totally private communication.
  4. There should be no infringement on the right to develop one's mind, whatever technology one uses.
  5. All animals should be, if the technology ever becomes available, sufficiently mentally enhanced to be given the choice of whether or not to become as intelligent (or more) as humans.
  6. If it ever seems likely to be possible, we should strive towards creating a technology to resurrect the dead sooner rather than later.
  7. The civilization should be able to co-exist with other peaceful civilizations.
  8. There shouldn't be any ultimate certainty on the nature of existence or in any one reality tunnel; some balkanization of epistemology is good.
  9. Everyone who share these values should know or learn the art of creating sustainable groups for collective action.
  10. The civilization which embodies these values should continue indefinitely.

EDIT: DanielLC notes that this simple ranking wouldn't give you any information on how valuable a 90% completion of one goal is relative to a 95% completion of another goal. That information will however be important when you have to choose between incremental steps towards several different goals.

To create a ranking which displays that information, imagine that each goal you have written down can be in progress in five stages - 0%, 25%, 50%, 75%, 100% - so that it is possible to be 75% or 0% on the way to achieve any particular goal. So, for instance, the goal of having private communication for everyone might be 50% completed if half the population have access to secret communication channels, but the other half doesn't.

Next, assume your one wish (in the scenario) is divided into five parts, one for each stage. And then rank every wish again following the same rule. This will look something like this:

  1. 100% of my first goal.
  2. 100% of my second goal.
  3. 100% of my third goal.
  4. 100% of my fourth goal.
  5. 75% of my first goal.
  6. 100% of my fifth goal.
  7. 50% of my first goal.
  8. 75% of my second goal.

(This was made purely for illustrative purposes. I haven't thought the matter through completely on how much I value these incremental parts.)

Another option is to do these more fine-tuned rankings on a gut level. Just having an imprecise feeling that, somewhere being closer to goal A stops being as important as being closer to B. This should be appropriate for those areas where your uncertainty about your preferences is high or where you don't care that much about which goal gets satisfied.

Next post: "Consider the Most Important Facts"

The Domain of Politics

0 CarlJ 21 July 2013 06:30PM

Followup to: How To Construct a Political Ideology

Related to: What Do We Mean By "Rationality"?

Politics is the art of the possible.

The word 'politics' is derived from the Greek word 'poly', meaning many, and the English word 'ticks', meaning blood sucking parasites.

Politics can be inspiring; there have been several groups that have organized to achieve wonderful ends now and in the past. Such as ending slavery, the subjugation of women, and the censorship of ideas. (None of these have, however, been brought to their full completion yet.)

Politics can also be irritating. As when some politician or bureaucrat wastes money or lies in a particularly annoying way, or when the supporters of that politician or that bureau talk about the wonders of politics while ignoring all its bad parts. (Politics can also be horrible and devastating.)

Predictably, some of us who find politics today to be more irritating than inspiring will define politics somewhat differently. For some, politics is ”a relic of a barbaric past” because politics always entails the threat of violence, and if we should ever find ourselves in a better state of affairs, politics will have had nothing to do with it. But many others would contend that wherever there's civic life there's politics – for some that's true even in a stateless society.

So, there's a little disagreement on the definition of politics. For my part, I will use the latter definition, which contends that politics deals with certain areas of life – regarding civic life, elections, war, fund-raising for a cause, influencing cultural norms, establishing alliances and so on. This is almost the same as the definition used by Wiktionary, but it seems to have a broader focus than the one used by Wikipedia. The goal of political action can then be said to be to act rationally in this domain, just as one would act rationally in any other domain.

That definition isn't too detailed, so let me try and give a fuller definition. I will do that by introducing a hypothetical scenario which explores some fundamental political strategies:

You live in a village by a river, and you are interested in building a bridge across it.  But a fisherman also lives in the village and if you'd build the bridge it would make it difficult for him to fish during that time. No one else will be directly effected by this project. You bring up the issue with the fisherman and ask what he thinks about all this.

The fisherman could then have two basic attitudes towards your project: it would  either be a concern for him or it wouldn't. If it is the latter, then you are not in any conflict, but have a (weak) harmonious relationship. All that remains is for you to build the bridge, which I'll discuss later.

First, let's assume that the fisherman opposes your plans. Let us assume that he is willing to physically prevent you from building the bridge. What can you do then, given that you still want to construct the bridge? It seems only these six general strategies are available:

Persuasion  – You can try to convince the fisherman that it is in his best interest that the bridge be built, or that the construction will not disturb him so much as he believes. That is, convince him that the project will not become problematic for him.

Deceit – You can try to convince the fisherman that the construction won't be problematic, while lying.

Trade - You take his stated preferences, true or not, as given and you offer him something in return for letting you build the bridge.

Threat – You offer to give him something/do something to him which he does not want, if he doesn't let you build the bridge.

Bypass – You ignore the fisherman and try to build the bridge without him knowing about it.

Force – You can try to physically stop him from preventing you to build the bridge. As in, hitting him on the head, poisoning him or locking him up. 

(There might be other strategies I've missed, but for now it's not necessary to know all fundamental strategies.)

Suppose now that the fisherman doesn't mind at all that you build the bridge. Well then, what happens  now?

Well, either you  want the help of others in doing this or not. If not, there's no more politics. If you do want the help of others, and they are willing to help you, then everything is also settled. But, if they do not want to help you right away, then you can use persuasion, deceit, exchange, threats and force. Bypassing is not an option here, since that would be pointless.

Each option entails costs, and they could all have too high a cost so that there's no point in going forth with anything.  In that case, it's time to do something else. On the other hand, the cost for each mode of action might be so low that any option is advantageous. In that case the only prudent move is to choose whatever has the lowest cost, the one which let's you pursue and reach the largest number of your most highly valued ends. The point is that not only does an option have costs in money and time but it can also affect any further actions in, at least, two ways. First off, if the action should fail, some, or all, of the other options might become totally improbable to succeed. And secondly, even if the action succeeds, it might have some negative effects in other non-political circumstances, making it less likely to achieve your goals. Thus, the costs worth pondering are the opportunity costs of an action - the loss is what you otherwise could have achieved.

It seems  that every political problem can be seen through the lens of this framework. Both for, loosely speaking, dealing with conflicts and producing values. What about upholding laws that support certain property rights? Well, you can persuade or force those who disagree with the norms to accept them. You can even bargain with them. What about helping those who are addicted to drugs? Same thing, you can either get their consent or choose to force them. Everything can ultimately be seen as how you interact with others.

What does this then tell us about the goal of political action? Well suppose you need to interact with others regarding the bridge-project (either with the fisherman or someone else). You will need to perceive the effects of each path and compare their effects to choose whichever is most beneficial to you.  After that has been solved, that should be the end of politics. But, what does it mean to solve the problem? Well, what goals will be harder to reach if you choose to trick the fisherman into letting you build the bridge? That depends on a lot of circumstances, but, for most villages, I'd guess you lose any chance of being on really good terms with the fisherman, and you'd lose favour with most people in the village (if you weren't already dominant in the village). And what if you'd traded with others to get their help in constructing the bridge? You'd only lost the money, probably.

Now, maybe this doesn't feel like that hard of a problem. But let's suppose that you will face one thousand such scenarios in your life, every one of which are intertwined with each other. That is, you will want to build a bridge, but you may also want to be friends to friends of the fisherman, be on good terms with everyone in the village, be secure in your property rights, help fund the building of a local town hall, change the current law on building-restrictions, support the abolishment of the Bakers' guild, do a whole lot of ordinary things and so on. Now your choice in one area will have to fit with every other area. Or, at least those you care about the most.

All of this calls for you to create a meta-strategy; a grand plan plan so all those small plans are compatible with each other and will produce the most benefit to you. How to make that plan and follow it through is the essence of political choice, it's an essential part of your goal in politics.

To know what plan to choose you need to know two things: (1) what your political values/goals are and (2) what sort of political system (society) would be best in promoting your goals.

If you know everything about your preferences, but nothing about societies, then you can't support any complex system without running the risk of supporting something which is totally detrimental to your values. If you, on the other hand, know everything about how societies function but are, somehow, unable to know what you really want, then you cannot decide what society to strive towards.

The next two posts will discuss these two issues - first goals and thereafter means.

Next post: "Choose that which is most important to you"

How To Construct a Political Ideology

-2 CarlJ 21 July 2013 03:00PM

Related to: Hold Off On Proposing Solutions, Logical Rudeness

Politics is sometimes hard to discuss. Partly since most of us seem to unconsciously take political matters with the same degree of seriousness as our forefathers used to, because we use the same mode of thought as they used to. Back then, a bad political choice or alliance, could mean death, while the normal cost today in a democratic society might be ridicule for having supported the losing team or position.

Nevertheless, politics should be taken seriously. Bad politics means that it'll take longer for us humans to reach world peace, an end to hunger and disease, and favourable conditions so that no one will create an unfriendly AI. Therefore, discussing  politics is vital so that, someday, some collective actions could be performed to alter the political course for the better.

But what should that collective action be? - what should the new course(s) be? - and who should do it? - and what does "for the better" imply? To engage in politics one needs to be able to give some (implicit or explicit) answers to these questions. This can be done, and in so doing one has constructed a political ideology - which might be similar to existing ideologies or it might be different.

A political ideology might be constructed in various ways. In this and a few more posts I will propose one way of doing that. These posts might be seen as a tutorial in constructing a political ideology. In these posts I will not suggest an answer to what the best political system should be, nor will I follow my own instructions. But if one should follow these instructions I believe that one can answer the questions mentioned above.

Political ideologies might be constructed in various other ways. The one I discuss in my following posts is based on two principles: (1) that one should not propose an answer until one has thought about the question extensively, and (2) that one should consider the most important questions first.

Before writing the next post, here are the points I will discuss in each of them - I will write the posts as an instruction manual so I'll address you, dear reader, through them out:

  • what is politics, what is the goal of engaging in politics?
  • what are your most highly valued political goals?
  • what facts (and interpretations) can explain most societal features, what facts/interpretations will damn most societies as not ideal?
  • how much does it cost to engage in political action?
  • what are the most important facts concerning political strategies?
  • some thoughts on alliances, representatives and conspiracies.
  • some thoughts on discussing politics generally.

Next post "The Domain of Politics"

How should negative externalities be handled? (Warning: politics)

-5 nigerweiss 08 May 2013 09:40PM

Politics ahead!  Read at your own risk, mind killers, etc.  Let all caveats be well and thoroughly emptored.

It seems reasonably clear to me that, from a computational perspective, functional central planning is not practically possible.  Resource allocation among many agents looks an awful lot like an exponential time problem, and the world market is quite an efficient approximation.  In the real world, markets, regulated to preclude blackmail, theft, and slavery, will tend to provide a better approximation of "correct" resource allocation between free agents than a central resource allocation algorithm could plausibly achieve without a tremendous, invasive amount of information about the desires of every market participant, and quite a lot of computing power (within a few orders of magnitude of the combined computational budget of the human species).  

It would be naive to say that we'd need exactly the computational power of the human species in order to achieve it: we can imagine how we might optimize the resource allocation scheme by quite a lot.  Populations are (at least somewhat) compressible, in that there are a number of groups of individual people who optimize for similar things, allowing you to save on simulating all of them.  Additionally, a decent chunk of human neurological and intellectual activity is not dedicated to economic optimization of any kind, which saves you some computing time there as well.  And, of course, humans are not rational, and the homunculi representing them in the optimized market simulation could be, giving them substantially more bang for their cognitive buck - we can imagine, for instance, that this market simulation would not sink billions of dollars into lotteries each year!  It may also be that the behavior of the market itself, on some level, is lawful, and a sufficiently intelligent agent could find general-case solutions that are less expensive than market simulation.    

Still, though, the amount of information and raw processing power needed to pull off central planning competitive with the market approximation seems to be out of our reach for the time being.  As a result of this, and a few other factors, my own politics tend to lean Libertarian / minarchist, and I'm aware that there is some of this sentiment in circulation on this site, though generally not explicitly.  I'm trying to refine my beliefs surrounding some of the sticky issues in Libertarian philosophy (mostly related to children and extreme policy cases), and I thought I'd ask LW what they thought about one issue in particular.  

I have been wondering whether or not there are any interventions in the economy that can have a positive expected benefit.  I honestly don't know if this is the case: put another way, the question is really asking if there are any characteristic behaviors of markets that are undesirable in some sense, and can be corrected by the application of an external law.  Furthermore, such things cannot be profitable to correct for any participant or plausibly-sized collection of participants in the market, but must be good for the market as a whole, or must be something that requires regulatory power to fix.  

An obvious example of this sort of thing is the tragedy of the commons and negative externalities.  The most pressing case study would be climate change: the science suggests, fairly firmly, that human CO2 emissions are causing long-term shifts in global climate.  How disastrous these shifts will actually be is less well settled, but there is at least a reasonable probability that it will be fairly unpleasant, in the long term.  Personally, I feel that we are likely to run into much bigger problems much sooner than the 50-200 year timescales these disasters seem to expected on.  However, were this not the case, I find that I'm not quite sure how my ideal government, run by a few thousand much smarter and better informed copies of me, ought to respond to the issue.  I don't know what I think the ideal policy for dealing with these sorts of externalities is, and I thought I'd ask for LessWrong's thoughts on the matter.

In my own mind, I think that as light a touch as possible is probably desirable.  Law is a very blunt instrument, and crude legislation like a carbon tax could easily have its own serious negative implications (driving industry to countries that simply don't care about CO2 emissions, for example).  However, actions like subsidizing and partially deregulating nuclear power plants could help a lot by making coal-fired power plants noncompetitive.  We could also declare a policy of slowly withdrawing any government involvement in overseas oil acquisition, which would drive up the price of petroleum products and make electric cars a more appealing alternative.  However, I don't know if there would be horrifying consequences to any of these actions: this is the underlying problem - I am not as smart as the market, and guessing its moods is not something that I, or any human is going to be very good at.  However, it seems clear that some intervention is necessary in this sort of case.  Rock, hard place, you are here.  

Thoughts?  

What truths are actually taboo?

6 sunflowers 16 April 2013 11:40PM

LessWrong has been having fun lately with posts about sexism, racism, and academic openness.   And here just like everywhere else, somebody inevitably claims taboo status for any number of entirely obvious truths, e.g. "top level mathematicians and physicists are almost invariably male," "black people have lower IQ scores than white people," and "black people are statistically more criminal than whites."  In my experience, these are not actually taboo, and I think my experience is generalizable.  I'll illustrate.

You're at a bar and you meet a fellow named Bill.  Bill's a nice guy, but somehow the conversation strayed Hitler-game style to World War II.  Bill thinks the war was avoidable.  Bill thinks the Holocaust would not have happened were it not for the war, and that some of the Holocaust was a reaction to actual Jewish subterfuge and abuse.  Bill thinks that the Holocaust was not an essential, early plan of the Nazis, because it only happened after the war began.  Bill thinks that the number of casualties has been overestimated.  Bill claims that Allied abuses, e.g. the bombing of Dresden, have been glossed over and ignored, while fantastic lies about Jews being systematically turned into soap have propagated.  Bill thinks that the Holocaust has become a sort of national religion, abused by self-interested Jews and defenders of Zionist foreign policy, and that the freedom of those who doubt it is under serious attack. Bill starts listing other things he's not allowed to say. Bill doesn't think that the end of slavery was all that good for "the blacks," and that the negatives of busing and forced integration have often outweighed the positives.  Bill has personally been the victim of black-on-white crimes and racism.  Bill is a hereditarian.  Bill doesn't think that dropping an n-bomb should ruin a public career.

Here's the problem:  everything Bill has said is either true, a matter of serious debate, or otherwise a matter of high likelihood and reasonableness.  Yet you feel nervous.  Perhaps you're upset.  That's the power of taboo, right?  Society is punishing truth-telling!  First they came for the realists... Rationalists, to arms!

Or.

We can recognize that statements like these correlate with certain false beliefs and nasty sentiments of the sort that actually are taboo.  It's just like when somebody says, "well science doesn't know everything."  To this, I think, "duh, and you're probably a creationist or medical quack or something similarly credible."  Or when somebody says, "the government lies to us."  To this, I think, "obviously, and you're likely a Truther or something."  Bill is probably an anti-Semite, but Bill doesn't just say, "I'm an anti-Semite," because that really is taboo.  He might even believe that he shouldn't be considered something awful like an anti-Semite.  Bill probably doesn't think Bill so unpleasant.

That's the paradox:  "taboo" statements like black crime statistics are to some extent "taboo" for sound, rationalist reasons. But "taboo" is not taboo:  it's about context.  People who think that such statements are taboo are probably bad at communicating, and people often think they're racists and misogynists because they probably are on good rationalist grounds.  If you want to talk about statistical representatives on the topic of race, be ready to understand that those who are listening will have background knowledge about the other views you might hold.

All this is the leadup to my question:  what highly probable or effectively certain truths are genuinely taboo?  I'm trying to avoid answers like "there are fewer women in mathematics" or "the size of my penis," since these are context sensitive, but not really taboo within a reasonable range of circumstances.  I'm also not particularly interested in value commitments or ideologies.  Yes, employers will punish labor organizers and radical political views can get you filtered.  But these aren't clear matters of fact.  I also don't mean sensitive topics like abortion or religion, nor do I mean "taboo within a political party."

Is there really anything true that we simply cannot say?  I have the US in mind especially, but I'm interested in other countries as well.  I'm sure there are things that deserve the label, but I've found that the most frequently given examples don't hold water.  I think hereditarianism is a close contender, but it's not an "obvious truth."  Rather, my understanding is that it is a serious position.  It's also only contextually taboo.  If it were a definitive finding, it could perhaps become taboo, though I think it more likely that it would be somewhat reluctantly accepted.

Any suggestions?  If we find some really serious examples, we might figure out a way to talk about them.

[Link] Diversity and Academic Open Mindedness

3 GLaDOS 04 April 2013 12:31PM
David Friedman writes on his blog.

I had an interesting recent conversation with a fellow academic that I think worth a blog post. It started with my commenting that I thought support for "diversity" in the sense in which the term is usually used in the academic context—having students or faculty from particular groups, in particular blacks but also, in some contexts, gays, perhaps hispanics, perhaps women—in practice anticorrelated with support for the sort of diversity, diversity of ideas, that ought to matter to a university.

I offered my standard example. Imagine that a university department has an opening and is down to two or three well qualified candidates. They learn that one of them is an articulate supporter of South African Apartheid. Does the chance of hiring him go up or down? If the university is actually committed to intellectual diversity, the chance should go up—it is, after all, a position that neither faculty nor students are likely to have been exposed to. In fact, in any university I am familiar with, it would go sharply down.

The response was that that he considered himself very open minded, getting along with people across the political spectrum, but that that position was so obviously beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse that refusing to hire the candidate was the correct response. 

The question I should have asked and didn't was whether he had ever been exposed to an intelligent and articulate defense of apartheid. Having spent my life in the same general environment—American academia—as he spent his, I think the odds are pretty high that he had not been. If so, he was in the position of a judge who, having heard the case for the prosecution, convicted the defendant without bothering to hear the defense. Worse still, he was not only concluding that the position was wrong—we all have limited time and energy, and so must often reach such conclusions on an inadequate basis—he was concluding it with a level of certainty so high that he was willing to rule out the possibility that the argument on the other side might be worth listening to.

An alternative question I might have put to him was whether he could make the argument for apartheid about as well as a competent defender of that system could. That, I think, is a pretty good test of whether one has an adequate basis to reject a position—if you don't know the arguments for it, you probably don't know whether those arguments are wrong, although there might be exceptions. I doubt that he could have. At least, in the case of political controversies where I have been a supporter of the less popular side, my experience is that those on the other side considerably overestimate their knowledge of the arguments they reject.

Which reminds me of something that happened to me almost fifty years ago—in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was running for President. I got into a friendly conversation with a stranger, probably set off by my wearing a Goldwater pin and his curiosity as to how someone could possibly support that position. 

We ran through a series of issues. In each case, it was clear that he had never heard the arguments I was offering in defense of Goldwater's position and had no immediate rebuttal. At the end he asked me, in a don't-want-to-offend-you tone of voice, whether I was taking all of these positions as a joke. 

I interpreted it, and still do, as the intellectual equivalent of "what is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" How could I be intelligent enough to make what seemed like convincing arguments for positions he knew were wrong, and yet stupid enough to believe them?

Yup. (Q_Q)



Why Politics are Important to Less Wrong...

6 OrphanWilde 21 February 2013 04:24PM

...and no, it's not because of potential political impact on its goals.  Although that's also a thing.

The Politics problem is, at its root, about forming a workable set of rules by which society can operate, which society can agree with.

The Friendliness Problem is, at its root, about forming a workable set of values which are acceptable to society.

Politics as a process (I will use "politics" to refer to the process of politics henceforth) doesn't generate values; they're strictly an input, by which the values of society are converted into rules which are intended to maximize them.  While this is true, it is value agnostic; it doesn't care what the values are, or where they come from.  Which is to say, provided you solve the Friendliness Problem, it provides a valuable input into politics.

Politics is also an intelligence.  Not in the "self aware" sense, or even in the "capable of making good judgments" sense, but in the sense of an optimization process.  We're each nodes in this alien intelligence, and we form what looks, to me, suspiciously like a neural network.

The Friendliness Problem is equally applicable to Politics as it is to any other intelligence.  Indeed, provided we can provably solve the Friendliness Problem, we should be capable of creating Friendly Politics.  Friendliness should, in principle, be equally applicable to both.  Now, there are some issues with this - politics is composed of unpredictable hardware, namely, people.  And it may be that the neural architecture is fundamentally incompatible with Friendliness.  But that is discussing the -output- of the process.  Friendliness is first an input, before it can be an output.

More, we already have various political formations, and can assess their Friendliness levels, merely in terms of the values that went -into- them.

Which is where I think politics offers a pretty strong hint to the possibility that the Friendliness Problem has no resolution:

We can't agree on which political formations are more Friendly.  That's what "Politics is the Mindkiller" is all about; our inability to come to an agreement on political matters.  It's not merely a matter of the rules - which is to say, it's not a matter of the output: We can't even come to an agreement about which values should be used to form the rules.

This is why I think political discussion is valuable here, incidentally.  Less Wrong, by and large, has been avoiding the hard problem of Friendliness, by labeling its primary functional outlet in reality as a mindkiller, not to be discussed.

Either we can agree on what constitutes Friendly Politics, or not.  If we can't, I don't see much hope of arriving at a Friendliness solution more broadly.  Friendly to -whom- becomes the question, if it was ever anything else.  Which suggests a division in types of Friendliness; Strong Friendliness, which is a fully generalized set of human values, and acceptable to just about everyone; and Weak Friendliness, which isn't fully generalized, and perhaps acceptable merely to a plurality.  Weak Friendliness survives the political question.  I do not see that Strong Friendliness can.

(Exemplified: When I imagine a Friendly AI, I imagine a hands-off benefactor who permits people to do anything they wish to which won't result in harm to others.  Why, look, a libertarian/libertine dictator.  Does anybody envisage a Friendly AI which doesn't correspond more or less directly with their own political beliefs?)

[Link] False memories of fabricated political events

16 gjm 10 February 2013 10:25PM

Another one for the memory-is-really-unreliable file. Some researchers at UC Irvine (one of them is Elizabeth Loftus, whose name I've seen attached to other fake-memory studies) asked about 5000 subjects about their recollection of four political events. One of the political events never actually happened. About half the subjects said they remembered the fake event. Subjects were more likely to pseudo-remember events congruent with their political preferences (e.g., Bush or Obama doing something embarrassing).

Link to papers.ssrn.com (paper is freely downloadable).

The subjects were recruited from the readership of Slate, which unsurprisingly means they aren't a very representative sample of the US population (never mind the rest of the world). In particular, about 5% identified as conservative and about 60% as progressive.

Each real event was remembered by 90-98% of subjects. Self-identified conservatives remembered the real events a little less well. Self-identified progressives were much more likely to "remember" a fake event in which G W Bush took a vacation in Texas while Hurricane Katrina was devastating New Orleans. Self-identified conservatives were somewhat more likely to "remember" a fake event in which Barack Obama shook the hand of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

About half of the subjects who "remembered" fake events were unable to identify the fake event correctly when they were told that one of the events in the study was fake.

Politics Discussion Thread February 2013

1 OrphanWilde 06 February 2013 09:33PM

 

  1. Top-level comments should introduce arguments; responses should be responses to those arguments. 
  2. Upvote and downvote based on whether or not you find an argument convincing in the context in which it was raised.  This means if it's a good argument against the argument it is responding to, not whether or not there's a good/obvious counterargument to it; if you have a good counterargument, raise it.  If it's a convincing argument, and the counterargument is also convincing, upvote both.  If both arguments are unconvincing, downvote both. 
  3. A single argument per comment would be ideal; as MixedNuts points out here, it's otherwise hard to distinguish between one good and one bad argument, which makes the upvoting/downvoting difficult to evaluate.
  4. In general try to avoid color politics; try to discuss political issues, rather than political parties, wherever possible.

As Multiheaded added, "Personal is Political" stuff like gender relations, etc also may belong here.

 

On private marriage contracts

8 Konkvistador 12 January 2013 02:53PM
Warning: First Read Everything Here, only participate or read on if you are sure you understand the risks.

Based on the commentary and excerpt Federico made on studiolo, I've added the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Thaler and Sunstein to my reading list. Since the book seems relevant enough to this site and has been mentioned before, I may eventually write a review. The post by Federico is made up mostly of excerpts from Chapter 15 of the book "Privatizing Marriage".

In addition to this I recommend reading the following excellent essays:

The reason the particular topic he talks about caught my interest is because the proposed solutions by Thaler and Sunstein seem somewhat similar to the one I argued for...

Marriage is a personal or religious arrangement, it is only the states business as far as it is also a legally enforceable contract. It is fundamentally unfair that people agree to a set of legal terms and cultural expectations that ideally are aimed to last a lifetime yet the state messes with the contract beyond recognition in just a few decades without their consent.

Consider a couple marrying in 1930s or 1940s that died or divorced in the 1980s. Did they even end their marriage in the same institution they started in? Consider how divorce laws and practice had changed. Ridiculous. People should have the right to sign an explicit, customisable contract governing their rights and duties as well as terms of dissolution in it. Beyond that the state should have no say, also such contracts should supersede any legislation the state has on child custody, though perhaps some limits on what exactly they can agree on would be in order.

Such a contract has no good reason to be limited to just describing traditional marriage or even having that much to do with sex or even raising children, it can and should be used to help people formalize platonic and non-sexual relationships as well. It should also be used for various kinds of non-traditional (for Western civ) marriage like polygamy or other kinds of polyamours arrangements and naturally homosexual unions.


...and Vladimir_M argued convincingly against. Here...

However, are you sure that you understand just how radical the above statement is? The libertarian theory of contracts -- that you should have full freedom to enter any voluntary contract as far as your own property and rights are concerned -- sounds appealing in the abstract. (Robin Hanson would probably say "in far mode.") Yet on closer consideration, it implies all sorts of possible (and plausible) arrangements that would make most people scream with horror.

In any realistic human society, there are huge limitations on what sorts of contracts you are allowed to enter, much narrower than what any simple quasi-libertarian theory would imply. Except for a handful of real honest libertarians, who are inevitably marginal and without influence, whenever you see someone make a libertarian argument that some arrangement should be permitted, it is nearly always part of an underhanded rhetorical ploy in which the underlying libertarian principle is switched on and off depending on whether its application is some particular case produces a conclusion favorable to the speaker's ideology.

...and here.

I think this would be a genuine cause for concern, not because I don't think that people should be able to enter whatever relationships please them in principle, but because in practice I'm concerned about people being coerced into signing contracts harmful to themselves. Not sure where I'd draw the line exactly; this is probably a Hard Problem.

The speaker has an ideological vision of what the society should look like, and in particular, what the government-dictated universal terms of marriage should be (both with regards to the institution of marriage itself and its tremendous implications on all the other social institutions). He uses the libertarian argument because its implications happen to coincide with his ideological position in this particular situation, but he would never accept a libertarian argument in any other situation in which it would imply something disfavored by his ideology.

Well, there you go. Any restriction on freedom of contract can be rationalized as preventing something "harmful," one way or another.

And it's not a hard problem at all. It is in fact very simple: when people like something for ideological reasons, they will use the libertarian argument to support its legality, and when they dislike something ideologically, they will invent rationalizations for why the libertarian argument doesn't apply in this particular case. The only exceptions are actual libertarians, for whom the libertarian argument itself carries ideological weight, but they are an insignificant fringe minority. For everyone else, the libertarian argument is just a useful rhetorical tool to be employed and recognized only when it produces favorable conclusions.

In particular, when it comes to marriage, outside of the aforementioned libertarian fringe, there is a total and unanimous agreement that marriage is not a contract whose terms can be set freely, but rather an institution that is entered voluntarily, but whose terms are dictated (and can be changed at any subsequent time) by the state. (Even the prenuptial agreements allow only very limited and uncertain flexibility.) Therefore, when I hear a libertarian argument applied to marriage, I conclude that there are only two possibilities:

  1. The speaker is an honest libertarian. However, this means either that he doesn't realize how wildly radical the implications of the libertarian position are, or that he actually supports these wild radical implications. (Suppose for example that a couple voluntarily sign a marriage contract stipulating death penalty, or even just flogging, for adultery. How can one oppose the enforcement of this contract without renouncing the libertarian principle?)

  2. The speaker has an ideological vision of what the society should look like, and in particular, what the government-dictated universal terms of marriage should be (both with regards to the institution of marriage itself and its tremendous implications on all the other social institutions). He uses the libertarian argument because its implications happen to coincide with his ideological position in this particular situation, but he would never accept a libertarian argument in any other situation in which it would imply something disfavored by his ideology.

[Link] St. Paul: memetic engineer

2 Konkvistador 12 January 2013 01:21PM
New post by Federico on his new blog that I mentioned earlier. Worth reading for those interested in the memetics of religion, politics, Christianity or Islam. The cited material also led my mind to some related questions.

AnnoDomini suggests I write about “St. Paul the social engineer!”

“Social engineering” is coercive. Saint Paul was a missionary, not a law-maker; I would call him a memetic engineer.

Like any ingeniarius, a memetic engineer takes elements at his disposal, makes one or two small changes, synthesises, and sells his product. The product is designed to fulfil a personal end; if it endures, this is most likely incidental. Few engineers care if their creation outlasts them.

The elements at this memetic engineer’s disposal are an ethnic-supremacist religion, a popular dead Messiah, and a cunning intellect.

Saul of Tarsus spends his twenties persecuting Christians. In his own words:

13 For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: 14 And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.

Galatians 1:13–14

He even participates in the racist murder of a naive idealist called Stephen, in a scene echoed many centuries later by Sacha Baron Cohen.

55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, 56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. 57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, 58 And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. 59 And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. 60 And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 7:55–60

But what he sees afterwards gives him pause.

1 And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. 3 As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison. 4 Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word. 5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. 6 And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. 8 And there was great joy in that city.

Acts 8:1–8

Saul realises that he can do better as a Christian. All that joy to be had in all those cities. The problem is, he never met Jesus. So he spins an absurd yarn about Jesus’s ghost.

13 At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. 14 And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. 15 And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. 16 But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; 17 Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, 18 To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.

Acts 26:13–18

Christians are not popular with the Jews. Therefore, Saul Paul won’t risk preaching to them. Here is his first innovation:

1 I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, 2 That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. 3 For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: 4 Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; 5 Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. 6 Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: 7 Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. 8 That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.

Romans 9:1–8

In other words, Yahweh, God of the Israelites, who was complicit in the genocide of Amalekites, Canaanites, Midianites, Gibeonites, Libnahites, Eglonites, Debirites, Moabites, Benjamites, Ammonites, Edomites, Egyptians, Syrians, Philistines and anyone else who got in the way of his favourite ethnic group…is now God of Everyone. “Israel” is just a metaphor, decides Paul.

Paul now has license to go on a world tour; but he mustn’t upset the local rulers. The Romans are touchy about rabble-rousers. Paul has heard of Christ’s cryptic comment:

15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. 16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. 17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? 19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. 20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? 21 They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. 22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

Matthew 22:15–22

So Paul invents “separation of Church and State”. This makes his exotic new religion seem inoffensive, although the Romans end up killing him anyway.

1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Romans 13:1–7

Leo Tolstoy points out:

Not only the complete misunderstanding of Christ’s teaching, but also a complete unwillingness to understand it could have admitted that striking misinterpretation, according to which the words, “To Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” signify the necessity of obeying Caesar. In the first place, there is no mention there of obedience; in the second place, if Christ recognized the obligatoriness of paying tribute, and so of obedience, He would have said directly, “Yes, it should be paid;” but He says, “Give to Caesar what is his, that is, the money, and give your life to God,” and with these latter words He not only does not encourage any obedience to power, but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God it is not right to obey Caesar.

But the deed was done.

Paul is set to have fun in his middle age. He isn’t married, and all his expenses are paid.

So, too, in his last speech to the Ephesian elders he lays great stress on the fact that he had not made money by his preaching, but had supported himself by the labour of his hands. ‘I coveted no man’s gold or apparel. Ye yourselves know that these hands ministered unto my necessities.’

Yet St. Paul did receive gifts from his converts. He speaks of the Philippians as having sent once and again unto his necessity, and he tells the Corinthians that he ‘robbed other churches, taking wages of them, that he might minister to them’. He does not seem to have felt any unwillingness to receive help; he rather welcomed it. He was not an ascetic. He saw no particular virtue in suffering privations. The account of his journeys always gives us the impression that he was poor, never that he was poverty-stricken. He said indeed that he knew how ‘to be in want’, ‘to be filled, and to be hungry’. But this does not imply more than that he was in occasional need. Later, he certainly must have had considerable resources, for he was able to maintain a long and expensive judicial process, to travel with ministers, to gain a respectful hearing from provincial governors, and to excite their cupidity. We have no means of knowing whence he obtained such large supplies; but if he received them from his converts there would be nothing here contrary to his earlier practice. He received money; but not from those to whom he was preaching. He refused to do anything from which it might appear that he came to receive, that his object was to make money.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans holds a clue to the source of his mysterious wealth.

19 Through mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God; so that from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. 20 Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation: 21 But as it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand. 22 For which cause also I have been much hindered from coming to you. 23 But now having no more place in these parts, and having a great desire these many years to come unto you; 24 Whensoever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you: for I trust to see you in my journey, and to be brought on my way thitherward by you, if first I be somewhat filled with your company. 25 But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. 26 For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. 27 It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things. 28 When therefore I have performed this, and have sealed to them this fruit, I will come by you into Spain. 29 And I am sure that, when I come unto you, I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.

Romans 15:19–29

Scholars are puzzled by this excerpt.

He is a person who is somehow a city person, and he sees that the cities are the key to the rapid spread of this new message. . . . At one point he can write to the Roman Christians, I have filled up the gospel in the East, I have no more room to work here. What could he possibly mean? There are only a handful of Christians in each of several major cities in the Eastern Empire. What does he mean, that he has filled up all of the Eastern Empire with the gospel?

He had merely filled up his coffers. Those burgeoning trade centres, bustling with merchants and artisans…

Paul’s final stroke of genius is to dumb down the gospel.

8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. 9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Romans 13:8–10

“The law” means the Decalogue, or the parts of it Paul can remember. This is another gross misinterpretation of Jesus and his disciples’ teaching. Yahweh says in Leviticus:

18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19:18

Jesus, like any hipster, uses this obscure reference to put a Pharisee in his place:

34 But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. 35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, 36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Matthew 22:34–40

This doesn’t mean that Christians can dispense with the law! James the Just concurs:

8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. 10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.

James 2:8–11

Paul not only tells his converts that God’s single law is “be nice”, but he abolishes all of the fiddly rules.

Now the situation seems to be that initially when people were attracted to the Jesus movement, they first became Jews and they had to go through all the rituals and rites of conversion to Judaism. But apparently it’s among Paul and some of his close supporters that they began to think that it was okay to become a member of the Christian movement without having to go through all of those rites of conversion to Judaism [...]

Now the other things that one must do in order to convert to Judaism, in addition to circumcision if a male, would be to observe the Torah. That is, the Jewish law and the dietary and other kinds of purity regulations that would have come from the Torah. [...]

Paul’s notion that it was possible for gentiles to enter the congregation of God without some of the rules of Judaism interestingly enough seems to be a conviction on his part that comes from his own interpretation of the Jewish scriptures.

A very convenient interpretation, for someone who is on a whistle-stop tour of Europe’s richest and most cosmopolitan cities. Does a televangelist ask his marks to study ancient Greek, or make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem?

If human nature has changed little in 2000 years, Saint Paul was a con artist. He turned Yahweh into a universalist, Jesus into a lackey, and Christianity into Barney, all because he wanted to live the good life. He also misled the world in general about the plausibility of “Damascene conversion”.

Yet, Christianity prospered. Kenneth Clark thought it essential to Western civilisation. Why is that? One must contrast it with Islam. Roger Scruton explains:

The student of Muslim thought will be struck by how narrowly the classical thinkers pondered the problems of political order, and how sparse and theological are their theories of institutions. Apart from the caliphate—the office of “successor to” or “substitute for” the Prophet—no human institution occupies such thinkers as Al-Mawardi, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiya, or Saif Ibn ‘Umar al-Asadi for long, and discussions of sovereignty—sultan, mulk—tend to be exhortatory, instructions for the ruler that will help him to guide his people in the ways of the faith. [...]

Law is fundamental to Islam, since the religion grew from Muhammad’s attempt to give an abiding code of conduct to his followers. Hence arose the four surviving schools (known as madhahib, or sects) of jurisprudence, with their subtle devices (hila) for discovering creative solutions within the letter (though not always the spirit) of the law. These four schools (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi and Maliki, named for their founders) are accepted by each other as legitimate, but may produce conflicting judgements in any particular case. As a result the body of Islamic jurisprudence (the fiqh) is now enormous. Such legal knowledge notwithstanding, discussions of the nature of the law, the grounds of its legitimacy, and the distinguishing marks of legal, as opposed to coercive, social structures are minimalist, Classical Islamic jurisprudence, like classical Islamist philosophy, assumes that law originates in divine command, as revealed through the Koran and the Sunna, and as deduced by analogy (qiyas) or consensus (ijma’). Apart from the four sources (usul) of law, no other source is recognised. Law, in other words, is the will of God, and sovereignty is legitimate only in so far as it upholds God’s will and is authorized through it.

There is nevertheless one great classical thinker who addressed the realities of social order, and the nature of the power exerted through it, in secular rather than theological terms: Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century Tunisian polymath whose Muqaddimah is a kind of prolegomenon to the study of history and offers a general perspective on the rise and decline of human societies. Ibn Khaldun’s primary subject of study had been the Bedouin societies of North Africa; but he generalized also from his knowledge of Muslim history. Societies, he argued, are held together by a cohesive force, which he called ‘asabiya (‘asaba, “to bind,” ‘asab, a “nerve,” “ligament,” or “sinew”—cf. Latin religio). In tribal communities, ‘asabiya is strong, and creates resistance to outside control, to taxation, and to government. In cities, the seat of government, ‘asabiya is weak or non-existent, and society is held together by force exerted by the ruling dynasty. But dynasties too need ‘asabiya if they are to maintain their power. Hence they inevitably decline, softened by the luxury of city life, and within four generations will be conquered by outsiders who enjoy the dynamic cohesion of the tribe.

I'm bolding this just in case you aren't familiar with Ibn Khaldun's theory to emphasise how important this is. I would argue that it is basically correct.

That part of Ibn Khaldun’s theory is still influential: Malise Ruthven, for example, believes that it casts light on the contemporary Muslim world, in which ‘asabiya rather than instituions remains the principal cohesive force. But Ibn Khaldun’s secular theory of society dwells on pre-political unity rather than political order. His actual political theory is far more Islamic in tone. Ibn Khaldun introduces a distinction between two kinds of government—that founded on religion (siyasa diniya) and that founded on reason (siyasa ‘aqliya), echoing the thoughts of the Mu’tazili theologians. The second form of government is more political and less theocratic, since its laws do not rest on divine authority but on rational principles that can be understood and accepted without the benefit of faith. But Ibn Khaldun finds himself unable to approve of this form of politics. Secular law, he argues, leads to a decline of ‘asabiya, such as occurred when the Islamic umma passed from Arab to Persian rule. Moreover the impediment (wazi’) that constrains us to abide by the law is, in the rational state, merely external. In the state founded on the shari’a this impediment is internal, operating directly on the will of the subject. In short, the emergence of secular politics from the prophetic community is a sign not of civilized progress but of moral decline. [...]

At this point I ask my fellow rationalists to consider. If this was the case, what might decline of 'asabiya look like in modern secular societies if it was happening?

For all his subtlety, therefore, Ibn Khaldun ends by endorsing the traditional, static idea of government according to the shari’a. To put in a nutshell what is distinctive about this traditional idea of government: the Muslim conception of law as holy law, pointing the unique way to salvation, and applying to every area of human life, involves a confiscation of the political. Those matters which, in Western societies, are resolved by negotiation, compromise, and the laborious work of offices and committees are the object of immovable and eternal decrees, either laid down explicitly in the holy book, or discerned there by some religious figurehead—whose authority, however, can always be questioned by some rival imam or jurist, since the shari’a recognizes no office or institution as endowed with any independent lawmaking power.

Three features of the original message embodied in the Koran have proved decisive in this respect. First, the Messenger of God was presented with the problem of organizing and leading an autonomous community of followers. Unlike Jesus, he was not a religious visionary operating under an all-embracing imperial law, but a political leader, inspired by a revelation of God’s purpose and determined to assert that purpose against the surrounding world of tribal government and pagan superstition.

Second, the suras of the Koran make no distinction between the public and private spheres: what is commanded to the believers is commanded in response to the many problems, great and small, that emerged during the course of Muhammad’s political mission. But each command issues from the same divine authority. Laws governing marriage, property, usury and commerce occur side-by-side with rules of domestic ritual, good manners, and personal hygiene. The conduct of war and the treatment of criminals are dealt with in the same tone of voice as diet and defecation. The whole life of the community is set out in a disordered, but ultimately consistent, set of absolutes, and it is impossible to judge from the text itself whether any of these laws is more important, more threatening, or more dear to God’s heart than the others. The opportunity never arises, for the student of the Koran, to distinguish those matters which are open to political negotiation from those which are absolute duties to God. In effect, everything is owed to God, with the consequence that nothing is owed to Caesar.

Third, the social vision of the Koran is shaped through and through by the tribal order and commercial dealings of Muhammad’s Arabia. It is a vision of people bound to each other by family ties and tribal loyalties, but answerable for their actions to God alone. No mention is made of institutions, corporations, societies, or procedures with any independent authority. Life, as portrayed in the Koran, is a stark, unmediated confrontation between the individual and his God, in which the threat of punishment and the hope of reward are never far from the thoughts of either party.

Therefore, although the Koran is the record of a political project, it lays no foundations for an impersonal political order, but vests all power and authority in the Messenger of God. [...]

Islamic revivals almost always begin from a sense of the corruption and godlessness of the ruling power, and a desire to rediscover the holy leader who will restore the pure way of life that had been laid down by the Prophet.

If only people commenting on upheavals in the Middle Eastern world actually knew anything about the Middle East, they might actually make usable predictions. Not that punditry is about predictions anyway.

There seems to be no room in Islamic thinking for the idea—vital to the history of Western constitutional government—of an office that works for the benefit of the community, regardless of the virtues and vices of the one who fills it. Spinoza put the point explicitly by arguing that what makes for excellence in the state is not that it should be governed by good men, but that it should be so constituted that it does not matter whether it be governed by good men or bad. This idea goes back to Aristotle, and is the root of political order in the Western tradition—the government of laws, not of men, even though it is men who make the laws. There seems to be no similar idea in Islamic political thinking, since institutions, offices, and collective entities play no part in securing political legitimacy, and all authority stems from God, via the words, deeds, and example of his Messenger.

Islam and Christianity both flourished, once the latter had endured its dormant period on the Celtic fringe. Yet Christendom’s civic evolution, courtesy of “separation of Church and State”, eventually left its rival in the dust.

We mustn’t give Saint Paul too much credit. Jethro Tull surely wasn’t the only person capable of inventing the seed drill. The triumphant religion in Europe could easily have been someone else’s mutated Judaism, Christianity or another Messiah cult.

Facile, universalist religions spread easily within a multi-ethnic empire. Kings and emperors see the benefit to themselves in “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God”. And who would miss circumcision or dietary regulations? Adaptive traits coincide in a product that happened to be useful to the antique version of GodTV.

God-memes like Yahweh (v.1) prosper in more refractory circumstances. A draconian, legislative God supplements the tribal leader’s tenuous monopoly on violence, allowing regimented Israelites to conquer the libertines of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The tragedy of Islam is that it falls between two stools. It is legislative enough to help its adherents conquer other unruly Arab tribes, universalist enough to spread worldwide, and simple enough to go viral: There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God. But it wasn’t born within an empire, so it lacks “separation of Church and State”. The memeplex persists, but doesn’t avail its bearers.

[Link] The school of science fiction

11 Konkvistador 05 January 2013 06:07PM

I recently discovered a cool new blog called studiolo and wanted to share it here. You will probably like this post if you like science fiction since it contains long excerpts of it. Unfortunately formatting it properly as a quote has been giving me some trouble, so I'll go with the least ugly looking solution, please don't think I claim to have wrote it. I found the speculation entertaining and interesting because I have extensively thought along similar lines about the effect of science fiction I consumed on my own world view (though I didn't mention it often).

Link to original post by Federico.

The school of science fiction

I have tried to persuade my friends and acquaintances that governmental reboot, and friendly AI, are important problems. I have failed. Two candidate hypotheses:

1. They do not share my distaste for the banal.

2. They did not consume, at the formative age, a sufficient amount of science fiction.

#1 and #2 are not mutually exclusive. Distaste for the banal is merely an attitude—but in the first place, fascinating consequences are what nourished my Bayesian, utilitarian beliefs. Science fiction encourages kids to realise that life, the Universe and everything holds out fascinating possibilities, and that it is both valid and essential for humans to explore these ideas.

Sister Y, in her pornographically insightful essay on insight porn, highlights Philip K Dick’s short stories. I concur. Dick writes in 1981:

I will define science fiction, first, by saying what sf is not. It cannot be defined as “a story (or novel or play) set in the future,” since there exists such a thing as space adventure, which is set in the future but is not sf: it is just that: adventures, fights and wars in the future in space involving super-advanced technology. Why, then, is it not science fiction? It would seem to be, and Doris Lessing (e.g.) supposes that it is. However, space adventure lacks the distinct new idea that is the essential ingredient. Also, there can be science fiction set in the present: the alternate world story or novel. So if we separate sf from the future and also from ultra-advanced technology, what then do we have that can be called sf?

We have a fictitious world; that is the first step: it is a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society; that is, our known society acts as a jumping-off point for it; the society advances out of our own in some way, perhaps orthogonally, as with the alternate world story or novel. It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet. This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society — or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or bizarre one — this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition. He knows that it is not his actual world that he is reading about.

Now, to separate science fiction from fantasy. This is impossible to do, and a moment’s thought will show why. Take psionics; take mutants such as we find in Ted Sturgeon’s wonderful MORE THAN HUMAN. If the reader believes that such mutants could exist, then he will view Sturgeon’s novel as science fiction. If, however, he believes that such mutants are, like wizards and dragons, not possible, nor will ever be possible, then he is reading a fantasy novel. Fantasy involves that which general opinion regards as impossible; science fiction involves that which general opinion regards as possible under the right circumstances. This is in essence a judgment-call, since what is possible and what is not possible is not objectively known but is, rather, a subjective belief on the part of the author and of the reader.

Now to define good science fiction. The conceptual dislocation — the new idea, in other words — must be truly new (or a new variation on an old one) and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader; it must invade his mind and wake it up to the possibility of something he had not up to then thought of. Thus “good science fiction” is a value term, not an objective thing, and yet, I think, there really is such a thing, objectively, as good science fiction.

I think Dr. Willis McNelly at the California State University at Fullerton put it best when he said that the true protagonist of an sf story or novel is an idea and not a person. If it is good sf the idea is new, it is stimulating, and, probably most important of all, it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader’s mind so that that mind, like the author’s, begins to create. Thus sf is creative and it inspires creativity, which mainstream fiction by-and-large does not do. We who read sf (I am speaking as a reader now, not a writer) read it because we love to experience this chain-reaction of ideas being set off in our minds by something we read, something with a new idea in it; hence the very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create — and enjoy doing it: joy is the essential and final ingredient of science fiction, the joy of discovery of newness.

Spoiler_warning

Several of Dick’s short stories prefigure Eliezer Yudkowsky’s (entirely serious) notion of unfriendly AI:

“The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.”

—Eliezer Yudkowsky, Artificial Intelligence as a Positive and Negative Factor in Global Risk

Here is an excerpt from Autofac (1955):

Cut into the base of the mountains lay the vast metallic cube of the Kansas City factory. Its surface was corroded, pitted with radiation pox, cracked and scarred from the five years of war that had swept over it. Most of the factory was buried subsurface, only its entrance stages visible. The truck was a speck rumbling at high speed toward the expanse of black metal. Presently an opening formed in the uniform surface; the truck plunged into it and disappeared inside. The entrance snapped shut.

“Now the big job remains,” O’Neill said. “Now we have to persuade it to close down operations — to shut itself off.”

Judith O’Neill served hot black coffee to the people sitting around the living room. Her husband talked while the others listened. O’Neill was as close to being an authority on the autofac system as could still be found.

In his own area, the Chicago region, he had shorted out the protective fence of the local factory long enough to get away with data tapes stored in its posterior brain. The factory, of course, had immediately reconstructed a better type of fence. But he had shown that the factories were not infallible.

“The Institute of Applied Cybernetics,” O’Neill explained, “had complete control over the network. Blame the war. Blame the big noise along the lines of communication that wiped out the knowledge we need. In any case, the Institute failed to transmit its information to us, so we can’t transmit our information to the factories — the news that the war is over and we’re ready to resume control of industrial operations.”

“And meanwhile,” Morrison added sourly, “the damn network expands and consumes more of our natural resources all the time.”

“I get the feeling,” Judith said, “that if I stamped hard enough, I’d fall right down into a factory tunnel. They must have mines everywhere by now.”

“Isn’t there some limiting injunction?” Ferine asked nervously. “Were they set up to expand indefinitely?”

“Each factory is limited to its own operational area,” O’Neill said, “but the network itself is unbounded. It can go on scooping up our resources forever. The Institute decided it gets top priority; we mere people come second.”

“Will there be anything left for us?” Morrison wanted to know.

“Not unless we can stop the network’s operations. It’s already used up half a dozen basic minerals. Its search teams are out all the time, from every factory, looking everywhere for some last scrap to drag home.”

“What would happen if tunnels from two factories crossed each other?”

O’Neill shrugged. “Normally, that won’t happen. Each factory has its own special section of our planet, its own private cut of the pie for its exclusive use.”

“But it could happen.”

“Well, they’re raw material-tropic; as long as there’s anything left, they’ll hunt it down.” O’Neill pondered the idea with growing interest. “It’s something to consider. I suppose as things get scarcer –”

He stopped talking. A figure had come into the room; it stood silently by the door, surveying them all.

In the dull shadows, the figure looked almost human. For a brief moment, O’Neill thought it was a settlement latecomer. Then, as it moved forward, he realized that it was only quasi-human: a functional upright biped chassis, with data-receptors mounted at the top, effectors and proprioceptors mounted in a downward worm that ended in floor-grippers. Its resemblance to a human being was testimony to nature’s efficiency; no sentimental imitation was intended.

The factory representative had arrived.

It began without preamble. “This is a data-collecting machine capable of communicating on an oral basis. It contains both broadcasting and receiving apparatus and can integrate facts relevant to its line of inquiry.”

The voice was pleasant, confident. Obviously it was a tape, recorded by some Institute technician before the war. Coming from the quasi-human shape, it sounded grotesque; O’Neill could vividly imagine the dead young man whose cheerful voice now issued from the mechanical mouth of this upright construction of steel and wiring.

“One word of caution,” the pleasant voice continued. “It is fruitless to consider this receptor human and to engage it in discussions for which it is not equipped. Although purposeful, it is not capable of conceptual thought; it can only reassemble material already available to it.”

The optimistic voice clicked out and a second voice came on. It resembled the first, but now there were no intonations or personal mannerisms. The machine was utilizing the dead man’s phonetic speech-pattern for its own communication.

“Analysis of the rejected product,” it stated, “shows no foreign elements or noticeable deterioration. The product meets the continual testing-standards employed throughout the network. Rejection is therefore on a basis outside the test area; standards not available to the network are being employed.”

“That’s right,” O’Neill agreed. Weighing his words with care, he continued, “We found the milk substandard. We want nothing to do with it. We insist on more careful output.”

The machine responded presently. “The semantic content of the term ‘pizzled’ is unfamiliar to the network. It does not exist in the taped vocabulary. Can you present a factual analysis of the milk in terms of specific elements present or absent?”

“No,” O’Neill said warily; the game he was playing was intricate and dangerous. “‘Pizzled’ is an overall term. It can’t be reduced to chemical constituents.”

“What does ‘pizzled’ signify?” the machine asked. “Can you define it in terms of alternate semantic symbols?”

O’Neill hesitated. The representative had to be steered from its special inquiry to more general regions, to the ultimate problem of closing down the network. If he could pry it open at any point, get the theoretical discussion started. . .

“‘Pizzled,’” he stated, “means the condition of a product that is manufactured when no need exists. It indicates the rejection of objects on the grounds that they are no longer wanted.”

The representative said, “Network analysis shows a need of high-grade pasteurized milk-substitute in this area. There is no alternate source; the network controls all the synthetic mammary-type equipment in existence.” It added, “Original taped instructions describe milk as an essential to human diet.”

O’Neill was being outwitted; the machine was returning the discussion to the specific. “We’ve decided,” he said desperately, “that we don’t want any more milk. We’d prefer to go without it, at least until we can locate cows.”

“That is contrary to the network tapes,” the representative objected. “There are no cows. All milk is produced synthetically.”

“Then we’ll produce it synthetically ourselves,” Morrison broke in impatiently. “Why can’t we take over the machines? My God, we’re not children! We can run our own lives!”

The factory representative moved toward the door. “Until such time as your community finds other sources of milk supply, the network will continue to supply you. Analytical and evaluating apparatus will remain in this area, conducting the customary random sampling.”

Ferine shouted futilely, “How can we find other sources? You have the whole setup! You’re running the whole show!” Following after it, he bellowed, “You say we’re not ready to run things — you claim we’re not capable. How do you know? You don’t give us a chance! We’ll never have a chance!”

O’Neill was petrified. The machine was leaving; its one-track mind had completely triumphed.

“Look,” he said hoarsely, blocking its way. “We want you to shut down, understand. We want to take over your equipment and run it ourselves. The war’s over with. Damn it, you’re not needed anymore!”

The factory representative paused briefly at the door. “The inoperative cycle,” it said, “is not geared to begin until network production merely duplicates outside production. There is at this time, according to our continual sampling, no outside production. Therefore network production continues.”

This is not to say that sci-fi always hits on the right answers to important problems. The panel below is from Meka-City, an episode of Judge Dredd that takes place shortly after the “Apocalypse War”.

Nuclear EthicsRobert Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is equally questionable, from an x-risk perspective: the heroes place Earth at the mercy of a superintelligence whose friendliness, and even sanity is unproven and untested. Might it, however, have inspired a generation of libertarian dissidents?

Prof shook head. “Every new member made it that much more likely that you would be betrayed. Wyoming dear lady, revolutions are not won by enlisting the masses. Revolution is a science only a few are competent to practice. It depends on correct organization and, above all, on communications. Then, at the proper moment in history, they strike. Correctly organized and properly timed it is a bloodless coup. Done clumsily or prematurely and the result is civil war, mob violence, purges, terror. I hope you will forgive me if I say that, up to now, it has been done clumsily.”

Wyoh looked baffled. “What do you mean by ‘correct organization’?”

“Functional organization. How does one design an electric motor? Would you attach a bathtub to it, simply because one was available? Would a bouquet of flowers help? A heap of rocks? No, you would use just those elements necessary to its purpose and make it no larger than needed—and you would incorporate safety factors. Function controls design.

“So it is with revolution. Organization must be no larger than necessary—never recruit anyone merely because he wants to join. Nor seek to persuade for the pleasure of having another share your views. He’ll share them when the times comes . . . or you’ve misjudged the moment in history. Oh, there will be an educational organization but it must be separate; agitprop is no part of basic structure.

“As to basic structure, a revolution starts as a conspiracy therefore structure is small, secret, and organized as to minimize damage by betrayal—since there always are betrayals. One solution is the cell system and so far nothing better has been invented.

“Much theorizing has gone into optimum cell size. I think that history shows that a cell of three is best—more than three can’t agree on when to have dinner, much less when to strike. Manuel, you belong to a large family; do you vote on when to have dinner?”

“Bog, no! Mum decides.”

“Ah.” Prof took a pad from his pouch, began to sketch. “Here is a cells-of-three tree. If I were planning to take over Luna. I would start with us three. One would be opted as chairman. We wouldn’t vote; choice would be obvious—or we aren’t the right three. We would know the next nine people, three cells . . . but each cell would know only one of us.”

“Looks like computer diagram—a ternary logic.”

“Does it really? At the next level there are two ways of linking: This comrade, second level, knows his cell leader, his two cellmates, and on the third level he knows the three in his subcell—he may or may not know his cellmates’ subcells. One method doubles security, the other doubles speed—of repair if security is penetrated. Let’s say he does not know his cellmates’ subcells—Manuel, how many can he betray? Don’t say he won’t; today they can brainwash any person, and starch and iron and use him. How many?”

“Six,” I answered. “His boss, two cellmates, three in sub-cell.”

“Seven,” Prof corrected, “he betrays himself, too. Which leaves seven broken links on three levels to repair. How?”

“I don’t see how it can be,” objected Wyoh. “You’ve got them so split up it falls to pieces.”

“Manuel? An exercise for the student.”

“Well . . . blokes down here have to have way to send message up three levels. Don’t have to know who, just have to know where.”

“Precisely!”

“But, Prof,” I went on, “there’s a better way to rig it.”

“Really? Many revolutionary theorists have hammered this out, Manuel. I have such confidence in them that I’ll offer you a wager—at, say, ten to one.”

“Ought to take your money. Take same cells, arrange in open pyramid of tetrahedrons. Where vertices are in common, each bloke knows one in adjoining cell—knows how to send message to him, that’s all he needs. Communications never break down because they run sideways as well as up and down. Something like a neural net. It’s why you can knock a hole in a man’s head, take chunk of brain out, and not damage thinking much. Excess capacity, messages shunt around. He loses what was destroyed but goes on functioning.”

“Manuel,” Prof said doubtfully, “could you draw a picture? It sounds good—but it’s so contrary to orthodox doctrine that I need to see it.”

“Well . . . could do better with stereo drafting machine. I’ll try.” (Anybody who thinks it’s easy to sketch one hundred twenty-one tetrahedrons, a five-level open pyramid, clear enough to show relationships is invited to try!)

Presently I said, “Look at base sketch. Each vertex of each triangle shares self with zero, one, or two other triangles. Where shares one, that’s its link, one direction or both—but one is enough for a multipli-redundant communication net. On corners, where sharing is zero, it jumps to right to next corner. Where sharing is double, choice is again right-handed.

“Now work it with people. Take fourth level, D-for-dog. This vertex is comrade Dan. No, let’s go down one to show three levels of communication knocked out—level E-for-easy and pick Comrade Egbert.

“Egbert works under Donald, has cellmates Edward and Elmer, and has three under him, Frank, Fred, and Fatso . . . but knows how to send message to Ezra on his own level but not in his cell. He doesn’t know Ezra’s name, face, address, or anything—but has a way, phone number probably, to reach Ezra in emergency.

“Now watch it work. Casimir, level three, finks out and betrays Charlie and Cox in his cell, Baker above him, and Donald, Dan, and Dick in subcell—which isolates Egbert, Edward, and Elmer, and everybody under them.

“All three report it—redundancy, necessary to any communication system—but follow Egbert’s yell for help. He calls Ezra. But Ezra is under Charlie and is isolated, too. No matter, Ezra relays both messages through his safety link, Edmund. By bad luck Edmund is under Cox, so he also passes it laterally, through Enwright . . . and that gets it past burned-out part and it goes up through Dover, Chambers, and Beeswax, to Adam, front office . . . who replies down other side of pyramid, with lateral pass on E-for-easy level from Esther to Egbert and on to Ezra and Edmund. These two messages, up and down, not only get through at once but in way they get through, they define to home office exactly how much damage has been done and where. Organization not only keeps functioning but starts repairing self at once.”

Wyoh was tracing out lines, convincing herself it would work—which it would, was “idiot” circuit. Let Mike study a few milliseconds, and could produce a better, safer, more foolproof hookup. And probably—certainly—ways to avoid betrayal while speeding up routings. But I’m not a computer.

Prof was staring with blank expression. “What’s trouble?” I said. “It’ll work; this is my pidgin.”

“Manuel my b— Excuse me: Señor O’Kelly . . . will you head this revolution?”

“Me? Great Bog, nyet! I’m no lost-cause martyr. Just talking about circuits.”

Wyoh looked up. “Mannie,” she said soberly, “you’re opted. It’s settled.”

The marriage of fantastic and familiar allows science fiction authors to deal freely with touchy issues. The following excerpt, from PKD’s The Golden Man, is about “mutants”:

From the dirt road came the sound of motors, sleek purrs that rapidly grew louder. Two teardrops of black metal came gliding up and parked beside the house. Men swarmed out, in the dark gray-green of the Government Civil Police. In the sky swarms of black dots were descending, clouds of ugly flies that darkened the sun as they spilled out men and equipment. The men drifted slowly down.

“He’s not here,” Baines said, as the first man reached him. “He got away. Inform Wisdom back at the lab.”

“We’ve got this section blocked off.”

Baines turned to Nat Johnson, who stood in dazed silence, uncomprehending, his son and daughter beside him. “How did he know we were coming?” Baines demanded.

“I don’t know,” Johnson muttered. “He just — knew.”

“A telepath?”

“I don’t know.”

Baines shrugged. “We’ll know, soon. A clamp is out, all around here. He can’t get past, no matter what the hell he can do. Unless he can dematerialize himself.”

“What’ll you do with him when you — if you catch him?” Jean asked huskily.

“Study him.”

“And then kill him?”

“That depends on the lab evaluation. If you could give me more to work on, I could predict better.”

“We can’t tell you anything. We don’t know anything more.” The girl’s voice rose with desperation. “He doesn’t talk.”

Baines jumped. “What?”

“He doesn’t talk. He never talked to us. Ever.”

“How old is he?”

“Eighteen.”

“No communication.” Baines was sweating. “In eighteen years there hasn’t been any semantic bridge between you? Does he have any contact? Signs? Codes?”

“He — ignores us. He eats here, stays with us. Sometimes he plays when we play. Or sits with us. He’s gone days on end. We’ve never been able to find out what he’s doing — or where. He sleeps in the barn — by himself.”

“Is he really gold-colored?”

“Yes. Skin, eyes, hair, nails. Everything.”

“And he’s large? Well-formed?” It was a moment before the girl answered. A strange emotion stirred her drawn features, a momentary glow. “He’s incredibly beautiful. A god come down to earth.” Her lips twisted. “You won’t find him. He can do things. Things you have no comprehension of. Powers so far beyond your limited –”

“You don’t think we’ll get him?” Baines frowned. “More teams are landing all the time. You’ve never seen an Agency clamp in operation. We’ve had sixty years to work out all the bugs. If he gets away it’ll be the first time –”

Baines broke off abruptly. Three men were quickly approaching the porch. Two green-clad Civil Police. And a third man between them. A man who moved silently, lithely, a faintly luminous shape that towered above them.

“Cris!” Jean screamed.

“We got him,” one of the police said.

Baines fingered his lash-tube uneasily. “Where? How?”

“He gave himself up,” the policeman answered, voice full of awe. “He came to us voluntarily. Look at him. He’s like a metal statue. Like some sort of — god.”

The golden figure halted for a moment beside Jean. Then it turned slowly, calmly, to face Baines.

“Cris!” Jean shrieked. “Why did you come back?”

The same thought was eating at Baines, too. He shoved it aside — for the time being. “Is the jet out front?” he demanded quickly.

“Ready to go,” one of the CP answered. “Fine.” Baines strode past them, down the steps and onto the dirt field. “Let’s go. I want him taken directly to the lab.” For a moment he studied the massive figure who stood calmly between the two Civil Policemen. Beside him, they seemed to have shrunk, become ungainly and repellent. Like dwarves. . . What had Jean said? A god come to earth. Baines broke angrily away. “Come on,” he muttered brusquely. “This one may be tough; we’ve never run up against one like it before. We don’t know what the hell it can do.”

Of course, there is a political subtext. Dick writes in 1979:

In the early Fifties much American science fiction dealt with human mutants and their glorious super-powers and super-faculties by which they would presently lead mankind to a higher state of existence, a sort of promised land. John W. Campbell. Jr., editor at Analog, demanded that the stories he bought dealt with such wonderful mutants, and he also insisted that the mutants always be shown as (1) good; and (2) firmly in charge. When I wrote “The Golden Man” I intended to show that (1) the mutant might not be good, at least good for the rest of mankind, for us ordinaries; and (2) not in charge but sniping at us as a bandit would, a feral mutant who potentially would do us more harm than good. This was specifically the view of psionic mutants that Campbell loathed, and the theme in fiction that he refused to publish… so my story appeared in If.

We sf writers of the Fifties liked If because it had high quality paper and illustrations; it was a classy magazine. And, more important, it would take a chance with unknown authors. A fairly large number of my early stories appeared in If; for me it was a major market. The editor of If at the beginning was Paul W. Fairman. He would take a badly-written story by you and rework it until it was okay – which I appreciated. Later James L. Quinn the publisher became himself the editor, and then Frederik Pohl. I sold to all three of them.

In the issue of If that followed the publishing of “The Golden Man” appeared a two-page editorial consisting of a letter by a lady school teacher complaining about “The Golden Man”. Her complaints consisted of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s complaint: she upbraided me for presenting mutants in a negative light and she offered the notion that certainly we could expect mutants to be (1) good; and (2) firmly in charge. So I was back to square one.

My theory as to why people took this view is this: I think these people secretly imagined they were themselves early manifestations of these kindly, wise, super-intelligent Ubermenschen who would guide the stupid – i.e. the rest of us – to the Promised Land. A power phantasy was involved here, in my opinion. The idea of the psionic superman taking over was a role that appeared originally in Stapleton’s ODD JOHN and A.E.Van Vogt’s SLAN. “We are persecuted now,” the message ran, “and despised and rejected. But later on, boy oh boy, we will show them!”

As far as I was concerned, for psionic mutants to rule us would be to put the fox in charge of the hen house. I was reacting to what I considered a dangerous hunger for power on the part of neurotic people, a hunger which I felt John W. Campbell, Jr. was pandering to – and deliberately so. If, on the other hand, was not committed to selling any one particular idea; it was a magazine devoted to genuinely new ideas, willing to take any side of an issue. Its several editors should be commended, inasmuch as they understood the real task of science fiction: to look in all directions without restraint.

(Now read between the lines of this, with reference to the policy implications of this.)

Finally, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series has inspired all sorts of people.

The lights went dim!

They didn’t go out, but merely yellowed and sank with a suddenness that made Hardin jump. He had lifted his eyes to the ceiling lights in startled fashion, and when he brought them down the glass cubicle was no longer empty.

A figure occupied it ‚ a figure in a wheel chair!

It said nothing for a few moments, but it closed the book upon its lap and fingered it idly. And then it smiled, and the face seemed all alive.

It said, “I am Hari Seldon.” The voice was old and soft.

Hardin almost rose to acknowledge the introduction and stopped himself in the act.

The voice continued conversationally: “As you see, I am confined to this chair and cannot rise to greet you. Your grandparents left for Terminus a few months back in my time and since then I have suffered a rather inconvenient paralysis. I can’t see you, you know, so I can’t greet you properly. I don’t even know how many of you there are, so all this must be conducted informally. If any of you are standing, please sit down; and if you care to smoke, I wouldn’t mind.” There was a light chuckle. “Why should I? I’m not really here.”

Hardin fumbled for a cigar almost automatically, but thought better of it.

Hari Seldon put away his book – as if laying it upon a desk at his side – and when his fingers let go, it disappeared.

He said: “It is fifty years now since this Foundation was established – fifty years in which the members of the Foundation have been ignorant of what it was they were working toward. It was necessary that they be ignorant, but now the necessity is gone.

“The Encyclopedia Foundation, to begin with, is a fraud, and always has been!”

There was a sound of a scramble behind Hardin and one or two muffled exclamations, but he did not turn around.

Hari Seldon was, of course, undisturbed. He went on: “It is a fraud in the sense that neither I nor my colleagues care at all whether a single volume of the Encyclopedia is ever published. It has served its purpose, since by it we extracted an imperial charter from the Emperor, by it we attracted the hundred thousand humans necessary for our scheme, and by it we managed to keep them preoccupied while events shaped themselves, until it was too late for any of them to draw back.

“In the fifty years that you have worked on this fraudulent project – there is no use in softening phrases – your retreat has been cut off, and you have now no choice but to proceed on the infinitely more important project that was, and is, our real plan.

“To that end we have placed you on such a planet and at such a time that in fifty years you were maneuvered to the point where you no longer have freedom of action. From now on, and into the centuries, the path you must take is inevitable. You will be faced with a series of crises, as you are now faced with the first, and in each case your freedom of action will become similarly circumscribed so that you will be forced along one, and only one, path.

“It is that path which our psychology has worked out – and for a reason.

“For centuries Galactic civilization has stagnated and declined, though only a few ever realized that. But now, at last, the Periphery is breaking away and the political unity of the Empire is shattered. Somewhere in the fifty years just past is where the historians of the future will place an arbitrary line and say: ‘This marks the Fall of the Galactic Empire.’

“And they will be right, though scarcely any will recognize that Fall for additional
centuries.

“And after the Fall will come inevitable barbarism, a period which, our psychohistory tells us, should, under ordinary circumstances, last for thirty thousand years. We cannot stop the Fall. We do not wish to; for Imperial culture has lost whatever virility and worth it once had. But we can shorten the period of Barbarism that must follow – down to a single thousand of years.

“The ins and outs of that shortening, we cannot tell you; just as we could not tell you the truth about the Foundation fifty years ago. Were you to discover those ins and outs, our plan might fail; as it would have, had you penetrated the fraud of the Encyclopedia earlier; for then, by knowledge, your freedom of action would be expanded and the number of additional variables introduced would become greater than our psychology could handle.

“But you won’t, for there are no psychologists on Terminus, and never were, but for Alurin – and he was one of us.

“But this I can tell you: Terminus and its companion Foundation at the other end of the Galaxy are the seeds of the Renascence and the future founders of the Second Galactic Empire. And it is the present crisis that is starting Terminus off to that climax.

“This, by the way, is a rather straightforward crisis, much simpler than many of those that are ahead. To reduce it to its fundamentals, it is this: You are a planet suddenly cut off from the still-civilized centers of the Galaxy, and threatened by your stronger neighbors. You are a small world of scientists surrounded by vast and rapidly expanding reaches of barbarism. You are an island of nuclear power in a growing ocean of more primitive energy; but are helpless despite that, because of your lack of metals.

“You see, then, that you are faced by hard necessity, and that action is forced on you. The nature of that action – that is, the solution to your dilemma – is, of course, obvious!”

The image of Hari Seldon reached into open air and the book once more appeared in his hand. He opened it and said:

“But whatever devious course your future history may take, impress it always upon your descendants that the path has been marked out, and that at its end is new and greater Empire!”

And as his eyes bent to his book, he flicked into nothingness, and the lights brightened once more.

Hardin looked up to see Pirenne facing him, eyes tragic and lips trembling.

The chairman’s voice was firm but toneless. “You were right, it seems. If you will see us tonight at six, the Board will consult with you as to the next move.”

They shook his hand, each one, and left, and Hardin smiled to himself. They were fundamentally sound at that; for they were scientists enough to admit that they were wrong – but for them, it was too late.

He looked at his watch. By this time, it was all over. Lee’s men were in control and the Board was giving orders no longer.

The Anacreonians were landing their first spaceships tomorrow, but that was all right, too. In six months, they would be giving orders no longer.

In fact, as Hari Seldon had said, and as Salvor Hardin had guessed since the day that Anselm haut Rodric had first revealed to him Anacreon’s lack of nuclear power – the solution to this first crisis was obvious.

Obvious as all hell!

Sayeth Moldbug:

Now, some have described the dramatic formula of UR as having a rather Tolkienesque feel; others may connect it more with C.S. Lewis; I certainly grew up reading both. But above all, I grew up reading Isaac Asimov.

If my journey into the awesome, humbling lost library that is Google Books was a film and needed a name, it might be called “Searching for Hari Seldon.” With more or less the entire Victorian corpus, modulo a bit of copyfraud, the Hari Seldon game is to enquire of this Library: which writers of the 19th would feel most justified, in their understanding of the eternal nature of history, humanity and government, by the events of the 20th? Whose crystal ball worked? Whose archived holograms delivered the news?

Broadly speaking, I think the answer is clear. Hari Seldon is Carlyle – the late Carlyle, of the Pamphlets. I consider myself a Carlylean pretty much the way a Marxist is a Marxist. There is simply no significant phenomenon of the 20th century not fully anticipated. Almost alone Carlyle predicts that the 20th will be a century of political chaos and mass murder, and he says not what but also why. And what a writer! Religions could easily be founded on the man – and perhaps should be.

And Paul Krugman:

There are certain novels that can shape a teenage boy’s life. For some, it’s Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; for others it’s Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As a widely quoted internet meme says, the unrealistic fantasy world portrayed in one of those books can warp a young man’s character forever; the other book is about orcs. But for me, of course, it was neither. My Book – the one that has stayed with me for four-and-a-half decades – is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, written when Asimov was barely out of his teens himself. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.

A pity he didn’t move on to this.

Politics Discussion Thread January 2013

6 OrphanWilde 02 January 2013 03:31AM
  1. Top-level comments should introduce arguments; responses should be responses to those arguments. 
  2. Upvote and downvote based on whether or not you find an argument convincing in the context in which it was raised.  This means if it's a good argument against the argument it is responding to, not whether or not there's a good/obvious counterargument to it; if you have a good counterargument, raise it.  If it's a convincing argument, and the counterargument is also convincing, upvote both.  If both arguments are unconvincing, downvote both. 
  3. A single argument per comment would be ideal; as MixedNuts points out here, it's otherwise hard to distinguish between one good and one bad argument, which makes the upvoting/downvoting difficult to evaluate.
  4. In general try to avoid color politics; try to discuss political issues, rather than political parties, wherever possible.

As Multiheaded added, "Personal is Political" stuff like gender relations, etc also may belong here.

[Link] Economists' views differ by gender

7 GLaDOS 31 December 2012 01:34PM

Edit: ParagonProtege has provided a link to the original study. Thank you! (^_^)

Link.

A new study shows a large gender gap on economic policy among the nation's professional economists, a divide similar -- and in some cases bigger -- than the gender divide found in the general public.

What does an economist think of that?

A lot depends on whether the economist is a man or a woman. A new study shows a large gender gap on economic policy among the nation's professional economists, a divide similar -- and in some cases bigger -- than the gender divide found in the general public.

Differences extend to core professional beliefs -- such as the effect of minimum wage laws -- not just matters of political opinion.

Female economists tend to favor a bigger role for government while male economists have greater faith in business and the marketplace. Is the U.S. economy excessively regulated? Sixty-five percent of female economists said "no" -- 24 percentage points higher than male economists.

Can this be reasonably explained by self-interest? Female and male economists' views are probably coloured by gender solidarity. Government jobs  may be more likeable to women than men because of their recorded greater risk aversion. Regardless of the reason government jobs are more important for women than for men. Also in the US where the study was done middle class white women benefit quit a bit from affirmative action in government hiring.

"As a group, we are pro-market," says Ann Mari May, co-author of the study and a University of Nebraska economist. "But women are more likely to accept government regulation and involvement in economic activity than our male colleagues."

Opinion differences between men and women are well-documented in the general public. President Obama leads Mitt Romney by 10 percentage points among women. Romney leads Obama by 3 percentage points among men, according to the latest Gallup Poll.

Politics is the mind-killer probably does play a role in explaining the difference.

The survey of 400 economists is one of the first to examine whether gender differences matter within a profession. The answer for economists: Yes.

How economists think:

  • Health insurance. Female economists thought employers should be required to provide health insurance for full-time workers: 40% in favor to 37% against, with the rest offering no opinion. By contrast, men were strongly against the idea: 21% in favor and 52% against.
  • Education. Females narrowly opposed taxpayer-funded vouchers that parents could use for tuition at a public or private school of their choice. Male economists love the idea: 61% to 14%.
  • Labor standards. Females believe 48% to 33% that trade policy should be linked to labor standards in foreign counties. Males disagreed: 60% to 23%.

First two points are somewhat congruent with stereotypes. Anyone who has run into the frequent iSteve commenter "Whiskey" will probably note that the third point indicates women may not hate hate HATE lower and middle class beta males in this case.

"It's very puzzling," says free-market economist Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "Not a day goes by that I don't ask myself why there are so few women economists on the free-market side."

A native of France, de Rugy supported government intervention early in her life but changed her mind after studying economics. "We want many of the same things as liberals -- less poverty, more health care -- but have radically different ideas on how to achieve it."

This seems plausible since politics is about applause lights after all, the tribes are what matters not the particular shape of their attire. But might value differences still be behind the gender difference? Maybe some failed utopias I recall reading aren't really failed.

Liberal economist Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic Policy and Research, says male economists have been on the inside of the profession, confirming each other's anti-regulation views. Women, as outsiders, "are more likely to think independently or at least see people outside of the economics profession as forming their peer group," he says.

The gender balance in economics is changing. One-third of economics doctorates now go to women. The chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers has been a woman three of 27 times since 1946 -- one advising Obama and two advising Bill Clinton. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors has three women, bringing the total to eight of 90 members since 1914.

"More diversity is needed at the table when public policy is discussed," May says.

Somehow I think this does not include ideological diversity.

Economists do agree on some things. Female economists agree with men that Europe has too much regulation and that Walmart is good for society. Male economists agree with their female colleagues that military spending is too high.

The genders are most divorced from each other on the question of equality for women. Male economists overwhelmingly think the wage gap between men and women is largely the result of individuals' skills, experience and voluntary choices. Female economists overwhelmingly disagree by a margin of 4-to-1.

The biggest disagreement: 76% of women say faculty opportunities in economics favor men. Male economists point the opposite way: 80% say women are favored or the process is neutral.

No mystery here. (^_^)

[Link] The Collapse of Complex Societies

9 Konkvistador 31 December 2012 12:11PM

TGGP a frequent commenter at Overcoming Bias (and hence old LessWrong), writes about his thoughts on a book by Joseph Tainter.

I’ve seen Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies” recommended in a few different places. Jared Diamond’s book might be one of them, the guest-posts of Captain David Ryan aka “Tony Comstock” for James Fallows at the Atlantic might be another. The sidebar of John Robb’s “Global Guerrillas” blog is the only one I remember with certainty. It’s a not a very long book, and you can get the gist of it from Tainter’s wikipedia page.

Lots of people have found civilizational collapses to be interesting, and Tainter reviews many of their theories while finding them wanting. The “eleven major themes in the explanation of collapse” he lists are depletion/cessation of a vital resource, establishment of a new resource base (which I found too stupid to take seriously even momentarily), insurmountable catastrophe, insufficient response to circumstances (which is almost tautological), other complex societies, intruders, class conflict or elite mismanagement, social dysfunction, mystical factors, chance concatenation of events (almost tautological if you don’t think collapse is predetermined) and economic factors. Like Tainter, I find the “mystical” theories to not really constitute theories at all, although some of the most popular writers on the subject (Spengler, Toynbee, various ancients) are included there. Tainter often contrasts “integrative” (or “functional”) theories on the origin of the state/complexity vs “conflict” theories, and acknowledges that he is more partial toward the former. Unfortunately, most of the latter theorists he lists are Marxists and carry a lot of baggage. The observation that throughout much of history some set of people ruled over others as a result of military victory regardless of any benefit to the subjects (though a Leviathan may happen to have upsides) predates Marx, with Ibn Khaldun being one of the few non-Marxist examples Tainter mentions. That’s not to say Tainter is anti-Marxism, he actually compares Marxist “social science” to Einsteinian physics and Darwinian biology! I suppose there is (or was) just such a heavy representation of Marxists among academic anthropologists and historians that Tainter regards Marxism as somewhat normative, whereas to me it’s something weird and laughable like Holocaust revisionism.

Resource depletion is the reverse of the theory I found so absurd, and (showing there is hope for humanity) it is a much more popular theory. J. Donald Hughes blamed Rome’s collapse in part on deforestation, but W. Groenman van Waateringe some years later provided evidence at the time that cereal pollens declined while forest pollens increased. That of course is not a causal proof, since it is documented that when the empire was declining many agricultural regions became depopulated. Waateringe blames agricultural intensification for increasing the population and thus the demands on agriculture, but to me that just raises the question of why marginal agricultural lands weren’t reclaimed. There actually is an explanation for that depopulation, but like Tainter I’m not going to get to that in a hurry. Tainter finds this theory (like most other theories he rejects) unsatisfactory because complex societies should have leaders who notice the depletion and think of a response. I am reminded of David St. Hubbin’s girlfriend in Spinal Tap who says “It’s just a problem! It get’s solved!” Sometimes a solution is not within a society’s feasible choice-set. Tainter briefly acknowledges that possibility (noting that it would have to be proved, which is difficult given how little information we have about many ancient societies) but spends more time castigating imaginary opponents depicted as claiming societal elites just stood around slack-jawed rather than attempting to deal with the situation. I would call that a strawman, except that Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” bears too much resemblance. He also mentions Richard Wilkinson’s documenting that deforestation spurred development in late/post medieval England, which is really just extra evidence that Hughes was wrong (as had already been mentioned) rather than a broader point against a class of theories. I should acknowledge that Tainter also cites evidence on the differential abandonment of cities and the failure to correlate with expected environmental characteristics, which is just the sort of thing that would later puncture Jared Diamond’s take on the Maya. His point that greed is constant enough (or its variance poorly enough understood) to make it a poor explanation of a variable situation is fair enough, but he can’t dismiss theories of collapse based on mismanagement because by their nature they should keep their society going, even if only out of self-interest. There are basic agency problems that mean one shouldn’t identify the interests of elite (or non-elite, for that matter) actors with that of a larger organization. In an uncertain world it also makes sense to discount the future (you or your dynasty might be replaced, might as well get what you can while you can).

Steve Sailer once critiqued Diamond’s thesis by noting that societies tend to die from homicide rather than suicide, and lumping together two of Tainter’s rejected explanations would make for a very popular theory. Tainter, however, would exclude most cases clearly caused by another complex society because those involve absorbtion rather than collapse (indigenous populations thoroughly devastated by disease before Europeans even arrived would be exceptions). So his question is then why a complex society would succumb to less complex intruders. Sometimes it may not be so easy to disentangle the two scenarios, such as when the persian & eastern roman empires exhausted themselves fighting each other, leaving themselves open to the Muslim invaders exploding out of Arabia (although it was only the persians that succumbed in fairly short order, and Tainter wouldn’t consider that a collapse). Tainter says it is “unsatisfactory [...] that a recurrent process – collapse – is explained by a random variable, by historical accident”. If random numbers for that variable (I’m imagining a stochastic process with a threshold for collapse rather than a binary control variable) are constantly being generated over time, it shouldn’t be that unsatisfactory that they recur throughout history. Tainter does make the legitimate point that elites, with a number of Roman emperors being good examples, have often proved capable of dealing with barbarian intrusions. But there’s no guarantee that they will always be successful. He also wonders why invaders would “destroy those things which repay conquest”. The obvious answer is that, by the second law of thermodynamics, it’s very easy to break things, and that includes during the process of conquering & looting. Some relatively sophisticated barbarians may conquer a territory and leave much of the administrative apparatus intact to rule as before, others may have no particular interest (or competence) in being bound to a territory and collecting scraps of taxes from farmers.

The collapse of Rome is probably the most famous example (at least to westerners) and forms one of his three case studies, paradigmatic of the most complex sort of society to collapse. I find it more enlightening than the others because, and call me a drunk looking under a lamppost if you will, it’s the most well documented. Among the things documented is that the proximate cause of collapse was invasion by various (mostly Germanic) barbarians. That is discussed extensively in Peter Heather’s “Empires and Barbarians” which I have discussed earlier. It’s because I read that one so recently that a few of Tainter’s remarks stuck out. Focusing on the internal soundness of a society and its affordable scale/complexity he writes “The Germanic kingdoms that succeeded Roman rule in the West were more successful at resisting invasions”. If he limited that claim to the particular kingdoms which survived past the dark ages, it would be rather tautological. But if he means germanic kingdoms generally, then it just doesn’t seem to be the case. They got invaded and replaced all the time, we just don’t remember the ones that died out. Part of the reason the Romans had such problems with barbarians is that one group would get invaded by another, and then start moving around and displacing other barbarians. The western Roman empire, in contrast, was able to survive many invasions before the last Roman emperor was toppled. Tainter portrays the formation of the empire as a process in which a territory is able to summon the resources to mobilize a force to conquer more territory to extract its resources, then rinse and repeat in a self-sustaining cycle until it expanded too far to get many marginal returns. There is some truth to that, but it overlooks the non-extractive aspect of Roman rule which increased productivity in conquered territories, thereby making those territories more attractive as a target for raiding. In Heather’s story, barbarian confederations on the border engaged in a process of competitive selection for the strength to hold an attractive position (for reasons of trade, raiding and diplomatic subsidy) and eventually the size and cohesion necessary to survive and settle within Roman territory. Focusing on the internals of the collapsed societies, he overlooks any dynamics occurring within outside societies that could give them the capability of defeating the imperial power. Heather’s account is similar to Peter Turchin’s in “War and Peace and War” except that, like Khaldun, Turchin focuses more on the softening effects of metropolitan decadence that renders old dynasties vulnerable to the hardened asabiya-endowed border marchers.

Tainter’s two other case studies are the Mayan lowland citystates and Chaco canyon cliff-dwellers. The Mayans are less complex (or at least less well-documented, since the conquistadors destroyed many of the remaining documents) and the Chacoans even less so. He also used the Ik as an example of an extremely simple society that collapsed even further below the level of familial organization, but he didn’t discuss it all that much and I’m not sure how reliable primary source Colin Turnbull was (supposedly they hadn’t been hunter-gatherers for centuries when their supposed “livelihood” of hunting was banned). The interesting thing about the Maya is that there were multiple relatively equivalent city-states rather than one dominant hegemon. Tainter includes them as a case study of collapse, even as he states elsewhere that collapse is not an option for “peer polity competition” because the weakening of one peer just invites conquest by another. Also, rather than devoting most of their resources under duress to a standing army (something documented in the Roman case) Tainter discusses the building of monuments as conspicuous consumption to demonstrate how powerful and brutal (per the depictions of torture) the city was, rather similar to the story Diamond tells. I don’t know what kind of evidence we have for the scale of their military expenditures, although we know they did war from time to time. There was no writing whatsoever in Chaco canyon, so we are left with the old archeological standby of potsherds and whatnot. Tainter does make the interesting point that the culture benefitted from uniting different ecological niches, with higher elevation territories having more agricultural productivity in cold wet years while lower elevation ones were more productive in warm dry ones. An economist would say that this diversified portfolio allowed for more consumption smoothing. However, I was confused by Tainter’s argument that as more outlier territories were incorporated diversity and gains from exchange went down. As long as the ratio between high and low places was stable, incorporating more territories should not cause any problems in that respect. Admittedly, this does mean that there are more viable subsets of communities that would be individually stable if they withdrew, which is indeed what he claims happened eventually. But he also seemed to be suggesting that the system overally was degrading its performance, without clearly stating whether an excess of a particular type of environment was upsetting the balance.

Tainter’s theory to explain collapse is declining marginal returns. This is a common concept in economics, but it is normally used to understood how equilibrium can develop. Applied to a society, we would expect the declining returns to territorial expansion or administrative complexity (the former often requiring some degree of the latter) to result in eventual stasis rather than collapse. David Friedman has an interesting paper on how the advantages of taxing trade, land or labor gave rise to different equilibria for the sizes & boundaries of polities during the Roman, medieval and nationalist eras in Europe. In Friedman’s theory, each shift between eras resulted from some exogenous change rather being part of the internal logic of societies. Tainter relates some various interesting bits from C. Northcote Parkinson’s “Parkinson’s Law, and Other Studies in Administration”. For example, while “between 1914 and 1967, the number of capital ships in the British Navy declined by 78.9 percent, the number of officers and enlisted men by 32.9 percent, and the number of dockyard workers by 33.7 percent [...] the number of dockyard officials and clerks increased by 247 percent, and the number of Admiralty officals by 767 percent” (emphasis added). Mencius Moldbug would not be surprised to learn that “between 1935 and 1954 the number of officals in the British Colonial office increased by 447 percent” even though “the empire administered by these officials shrank considerably”. These examples are important because they do not demonstrate an increasingly large requirement of administrators for a marginal increase in size/complexity of an entity to be administered, but paying more for less. Parkinson’s explanation was bureaucratic self-serving, which Tainter rejects because he finds trends of increasing hierarchical specialization in the private sector. But because Tainter fails to distinguish between declining marginal returns (eventually reaching zero at a steady-state) and NEGATIVE returns he doesn’t specify whether the latter occurs in the private sector (though Karl Smith would not be surprised if it does for many publicly owned corporations whose shareholders would be better served by liquidation of assets). The growth of administration in higher education would also count, but as a heavily subsidized non-profit sector I can’t say it would qualify. At one point Tainter acknowledges “In many cases this increased, more costly complexity will yield no increased benefits, at other times the benefits will not be proportionate to costs” (emphasis in the original). This is precisely the question at issue of elite mismanagement or the out-of-control inertia of expanding administrative bureaucracies, but as noted he rejected Parkinson’s theory and mocks the idea of societies as runaway trains as self-evidently absurd. Instead he portrays collapse as a choice which is preferable once marginal returns have declined to a certain point. This didn’t entirely make sense to me, because if a society has accidentally shot part the point of zero marginal returns to one of negative returns, the sensible thing is just to reduce that marginal increase in complexity to return to the steady state with zero marginal returns.

The Roman empire sometimes seemed to behave in such a manner, losing some territory and sticking with a more defensible and adminstrable domain (although in Heather’s account some of the lost territory was among the most agriculturally productive), although Tainter thinks the conquests of Britain & Dacia never paid for themselves. So why the path dependency so that changes are not simply reversible? There could be consumption of a not easily renewable resource, a sort of borrowing from the future that leaves future generations deeper in the red. This could happen with soil deterioration, though Tainter doesn’t discuss that much (odd, despite his focus on societies as means of managing sources of energy). His example of Roman emperors increasingly resorting to the debasing of the currency could count (by Diocletian’s time it collected taxes in kind rather than the currency it had rendered nearly worthless), as well as the selling of imperial land. The larger problem in Rome seemed to be an increasingly large portion of subjects who were citizens (both urban proletariat and squabbling elites) subject to fewer or no taxes, while marginal lands were abandoned by overtaxed farmers. An odd feature of the empire was that election officials had to cover the costs of their own office, and as expenses rose there were fewer wealthy people willing to come forward as candidates, until the position was made hereditary. It became obligatory to farm certain deserted lands, with peasants drafted by local city Senates, and Constantine made soldiery a hereditary profession (which required a number of new laws over time to deal with sons who’d rather not follow that career). Taxation of land was simplistic and did not vary based on its quality or yield, so a farmer of marginal land would often be better off working for the owner of a more productive territory and paying rent than failing to cover the taxes on his own plot. With agricultural labor becoming legally tied to the land, we can see the clear beginnings of serfdom and the manorial system. As mentioned, Tainter views the Roman collapse as a choice (as he does others), although of course accounts from the time were more apt to regard it as unfortunate failure or divine punishment.

Interestingly, the “peer polity competition” that replaced Roman civilization is a situation he regards as invulnerable to collapse as opposed to absorbtion, and by removing that “option” he thinks this made peasants demand democratic representation. He acknowledges that this did not happen in the “Warring States” period of China, and instead the Confucian ideology of governance developed. He suggests “Perhaps participatory governance was simply not possible in ancient societies that were so much larger, demographically and territorially, than the Greek city-states”. Someone should have told James Madison (and I’m not being sarcastic). Interestingly enough, there was a civilization of Greek city states which did collapse, just as we’ve mentioned the lowland Maya doing. These are the Mycenaean Greeks who preceded the Dark Ages of Homer’s time. Their collapse is usually attributed to invasion by Dorian Greeks, but Tainter isn’t convinced there’s enough evidence for the Dorians’ presence. Because “Collapse occurs, and can only occur, in a power vacuum” (emphasis in the original) both the Mycenaean Greek and lowland Maya polities must have experienced simultaneous collapse.

The choice of peasants may be limited to passively withdrawing support and just not working very hard (I’d have more to say on that if I’d read James Scott’s “Weapons of the Weak”), but even then I don’t think it’s a desirable outcome for peasants. I’ve mentioned Heather on the greater productivity of Roman territory, and what do you think happened to the masses when that productivity crashed? My understanding of the current archaelogical consensus is that the population crashed as well. Tainter talks about the malnourished skeletons of the peasantry as evidence for the undesirability of certain degrees of complexity, but we also know that English peasants ate better after so many of their peers died of the bubonic plague (it’s also known that peasants have poorer diets than hunter-gatherers, though in Darwinian terms you definitely want to be a farmer). As in James Scott’s account of highland southeast asia (which I don’t entirely buy) was there much cultural defection of the peasantry to the greener pastures outside civilization? Tainter writes that “In 378 [...] Balkan miners went over en masse to the Visigoths”, and that others wished to be conquered/liberated. It is precisely due to the risk of being conquered that he argues is the reason many societies don’t simply revert to a lower level of complexity “even if marginal returns are unfavorable”, but it’s unclear whether conquest is one of outcomes being factored into those marginal returns.

Few people are going to read this book without speculating on their own complex society’s liability to collapse. John Robb and James Kunstler (along with some others in the “Peak Oil” camp) are going to place a high probability on it, while the Singularitarians have the opposite view. Globalization could mean the entire world is now in a state of “peer polity competition” but modern norms (and economic incentives) against conquest and giving war a chance means “failed states” can keep failing for a long time without someone replacing the bad management. Tainter’s studied societies are also Malthusian agricultural ones, it’s hard to know if the same logic will generalize past the industrial revolution. In modern technological economies the costs and benefits of advances may not be simple increasing or declining curves. Robin Hanson doesn’t even consider nearly free energy (which would very important to Tainter) to be nearly as important as the replacement of most human labor by computers (since the latter takes up so much more of GDP). When Tainter was writing there was still just the slightest possibility of nuclear armageddon, now the most likely candidates for death by complexity are grey goo or an unstoppable manmade pandemic. My two cents are that collapse is unlikely in my lifetime, and that’s for the better considering how much worse things could be.

[Link] Statistically, People Are Not Very Good At Making Voting Decisions

14 Konkvistador 31 December 2012 11:50AM

Link. Nothing surprising considering previous work on the subject, but a good reminder.

A study by three scientists in the American Political Science Review finds that voters are not competent at accurately evaluating incumbent performance and are easily swayed by rhetoric, unrelated circumstances and recent events.

Gregory Huber, Seth Hill, and Gabriel Lenz constructed a 32-round game where players received payments from a computer "allocator." The goal is to maximize the value of those payments.

Halfway through, at round sixteen, the player had to decide whether to get a new allocator or to stick with the old one.

The allocators pay out over a normal distribution based on a randomly selected mean. Getting a new allocator means that a new mean is selected. This was meant to simulate an election based on performance. 

The group ran three experiments where they changed some of the rules of the game in order to find out how voters could be manipulated or confused over performance. Essentially, how good were voters at accurately analyzing the performance of the "allocator?" 

  • The first experiment merely alerted the player at round twelve that they would have the chance to pick a new allocator at round sixteen. This "election in November" reminder made the player weight recent performance in rounds 12-16 over earlier performance in rounds 1-12.
  • The second experiment involved a lottery held at round eight or round sixteen. The payout was either -5000, 0, or 5000 tokens. The participant was told that the lottery was totally unrelated to the current allocator, but players still rewarded or punished their current allocator based on their lottery performance.
  • The third experiment primed the player with a question right before the election. The question took an adapted form of either Ronald Reagan's "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" or John F. Kennedy's "The question you have to decide on November 8 is, is it good enough? Are you satisfied?" 

The conclusion: 

Participants overweight recent performance when made aware of the choice to retain an incumbent closer to election rather than distant from it (experiment 1), allowed unrelated events that affected their welfare to influence evaluations of incumbents (experiment 2), and were influenced by rhetoric to focus less on cumulative incumbent performance (experiment 3).

If you were ever wondering why Congress has a 95% incumbency rate despite an approval rating in the high teens, this study may be worth a read. 

That Thing That Happened

19 Konkvistador 18 December 2012 12:29PM

I am emotionally excited and/or deeply hurt by what st_rev wrote recently. You better take me seriously because you've spent a lot of time reading my posts already and feel invested in our common tribe. Anecdote about how people are tribal thinkers.

That thing that happened shows that everything I was already advocating for is correct and necessary. Indeed it is time for everyone to put their differences aside and come together to carry out my recommended course of action. If you continue to deny what both you and I know in our hearts to be correct, you want everyone to die and I am defriending you.

I don't even know where to begin. This is what blueist ideology has been workign towards for decades if not millennia, but to see it written here is hard to stomach even for one as used to the depravity caused by such delusions as I am. The lack of socially admired virtues among its adherents is frightening. Here I introduce an elaborate explanation of how blueist domination is not just completely obvious and a constant thorn in the side of all who wish more goodness but is achieved by the most questionable means often citing a particular blogger or public intellectual who I read in order to show how smart I am and because people I admire read him too. Followed by an appeal to the plot of a movie. Anecdote from my personal life. If you are familiar with the obscure work of an academic taken out of context and this does not convince you then you are clearly an intolerant sexual deviant engaging in motivated cognition.

Consider well: do you want to be on the wrong side of history? If you persist, millions or billions of people you will never meet will be simultaneously mystified and appalled that an issue so obvious caused such needless contention. They will argue whether you were motivated more by stupidity, malice, raw interest, or if you were a helpless victim of the times in which you lived. Characters in fiction set in your era will inevitably be on (or at worst, join) the right side unless they are unredeemable villains. (Including historical figures who were on the other side, lest they lose all audience sympathy.).

Remember: it's much more important what hypothetical future people will consider right than what you or current people you respect do. And you and I both know they'll agree with me.

While sympathetic to this criticism I must signal my world-weariness and sophistication by writing several long paragraphs about how this is much too optimistic and we are in grave danger of a imminent and eternal takeover by our opponents. The only solution is to begin work on an organization dedicated to preventing this which happens to give me access to material resources and attractive females.

Ciphergoth proves to be the lone voice of reason by encouraging us to recall what we all learned on 9/11:

However, we must also consider if this is not also a lesson to us all; a lesson that my political views are correct.

http://www.adequacy.org/stories/2001.9.12.102423.271.html

Politics Discussion Thread December 2012

5 OrphanWilde 04 December 2012 08:19PM

I skipped October and November owing to election season, but opening back up:

  1. Top-level comments should introduce arguments; responses should be responses to those arguments. 
  2. Upvote and downvote based on whether or not you find an argument convincing in the context in which it was raised.  This means if it's a good argument against the argument it is responding to, not whether or not there's a good/obvious counterargument to it; if you have a good counterargument, raise it.  If it's a convincing argument, and the counterargument is also convincing, upvote both.  If both arguments are unconvincing, downvote both. 
  3. A single argument per comment would be ideal; as MixedNuts points out here, it's otherwise hard to distinguish between one good and one bad argument, which makes the upvoting/downvoting difficult to evaluate. 
  4. In general try to avoid color politics; try to discuss political issues, rather than political parties, wherever possible.

As Multiheaded added, "Personal is Political" stuff like gender relations, etc also may belong here.

[Link] Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study

14 Konkvistador 02 December 2012 02:43PM

Related to: Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People

HT: Marginal Revolution

Paper.

Social psychologists have identified various plausible sources of ideological polarization over climate change, gun violence, national security, and like societal risks. This paper reports a study of three of them: the predominance of heuristic-driven information processing by members of the public; ideologically motivated cognition; and personality-trait correlates of political conservativism. The results of the study suggest reason to doubt two common surmises about how these dynamics interact. First, the study presents both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with closed-mindedness: conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on an objective measure of cognitive reflection; and more importantly, both demonstrated the same unconscious tendency to fit assessments of empirical evidence to their ideological predispositions. Second, the study suggests that this form of bias is not a consequence of overreliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning; on the contrary, subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition. These findings corroborated the hypotheses of a third theory, which identifies motivated cognition as a form of information processing that rationally promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups. The paper discusses the normative significance of these findings, including the need to develop science communication strategies that shield policy-relevant facts from the influences that turn them into divisive symbols of identity.

[Link] The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.

28 Konkvistador 02 December 2012 12:50PM

The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.

A six page article that reads as a very interesting autopsy of what institutional dysfunction in the intersection of government and non-profits looks like. I recommend reading the whole thing.

Minus the alleged harassment, city government is filled with Yomi Agunbiades — and they're hardly ever disciplined, let alone fired. When asked, former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin couldn't remember the last time a higher-up in city government was removed for incompetence. "There must have been somebody," he said at last, vainly searching for a name.

Accordingly, millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted on good ideas that fail for stupid reasons, and stupid ideas that fail for good reasons, and hardly anyone is taken to task.

The intrusion of politics into government pushes the city to enter long-term labor contracts it obviously can't afford, and no one is held accountable. A belief that good intentions matter more than results leads to inordinate amounts of government responsibility being shunted to nonprofits whose only documented achievement is to lobby the city for money. Meanwhile, piles of reports on how to remedy these problems go unread. There's no outrage, and nobody is disciplined, so things don't get fixed.

You don't say?

In 2007, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) held a seminar for the nonprofits vying for a piece of $78 million in funding. Grant seekers were told that in the next funding cycle, they would be required — for the first time — to provide quantifiable proof their programs were accomplishing something.

The room exploded with outrage. This wasn't fair. "What if we can bring in a family we've helped?" one nonprofit asked. Another offered: "We can tell you stories about the good work we do!" Not every organization is capable of demonstrating results, a nonprofit CEO complained. He suggested the city's funding process should actually penalize nonprofits able to measure results, so as to put everyone on an even footing. Heads nodded: This was a popular idea.

Reading this I had to bite my hand in frustration.

There are two lessons here. First, many San Francisco nonprofits believe they're entitled to money without having to prove that their programs work. Second, until 2007, the city agreed. Actually, most of the city still agrees. DCYF is the only city department that even attempts to track results. It's the model other departments are told to aspire to.

But Maria Su, DCYF's director, admitted that accountability is something her department still struggles with. It can track "output" — what a nonprofit does, how often, and with how many people — but it can't track "outcomes." It can't demonstrate that these outputs — the very things it pays nonprofits to do — are actually helping anyone.

"Believe me, there is still hostility to the idea that outcomes should be tracked," Su says. "I think we absolutely need to be able to provide that level of information. But it's still a work in progress." In the meantime, the city is spending about $500 million a year on programs that might or might not work.

What the efficient charity movement has done so far looks much more impressive in light of this. Reading the rest of the article I think you can on your own identify the problems caused by lost purposes, applause lights and a dozen or so other faults we've explored here for years.

Discussions here are in many respects a comforting illusion, this is what humanity is like out there in the real world, almost at its best, well educated, wealthy and interested in the public good.

Yes it really is that bad.

FAI, FIA, and singularity politics

12 Mitchell_Porter 08 November 2012 05:11PM

In discussing scenarios of the future, I speak of "slow futures" and "fast futures". A fast future is exemplified by what is now called a hard takeoff singularity: something bootstraps its way to superhuman intelligence in a short time. A slow future is a continuation of history as we know it: decades pass and the world changes, with new politics, culture, and technology. To some extent the Hanson vs Yudkowsky debate was about slow vs fast; Robin's future is fast-moving, but on the way there, there's never an event in which some single "agent" becomes all-powerful by getting ahead of all others.

The Singularity Institute does many things, but I take its core agenda to be about a fast scenario. The theoretical objective is to design an AI which would still be friendly if it became all-powerful. There is also the practical objective of ensuring that the first AI across the self-enhancement threshold is friendly. One way to do that is to be the one who makes it, but that's asking a lot. Another way is to have enough FAI design and FAI theory out there, that the people who do win the mind race will have known about it and will have taken it into consideration. Then there are mixed strategies, such as working on FAI theory while liaising with known AI projects that are contenders in the race and whose principals are receptive to the idea of friendliness.

I recently criticised a lot of the ideas that circulate in conjunction with the concept of friendly AI. The "sober" ideas and the "extreme" ideas have a certain correlation with slow-future and fast-future scenarios, respectively. The sober future is a slow one where AIs exist and posthumanity expands into space, but history, politics, and finitude aren't transcended. The extreme future is a fast one where one day the ingredients for a hard takeoff are brought together in one place, an artificial god is born, and, depending on its inclinations and on the nature of reality, something transcendental happens: everyone uploads to the Planck scale, our local overmind reaches out to other realities, we "live forever and remember it afterwards".

Although I have criticised such transcendentalism, saying that it should not be the default expectation of the future, I do think that the "hard takeoff" and the "all-powerful agent" would be among the strategic considerations in an ideal plan for the future, though in a rather broader sense than is usually discussed. The reason is that if one day Earth is being ruled by, say, a coalition of AIs with a particular value system, with natural humans reduced to the status of wildlife, then the functional equivalent of a singularity has occurred, even if these AIs have no intention of going on to conquer the galaxy; and I regard that as a quite conceivable scenario. It is fantastic (in the sense of mind-boggling), but it's not transcendental. All the scenario implies is that the human race is no longer at the top of the heap; it has successors and they are now in charge.

But we can view those successors as, collectively, the "all-powerful agent" that has replaced human hegemony. And we can regard the events, whatever they were, that first gave the original such entities their unbeatable advantage in power, as the "hard takeoff" of this scenario. So even a slow, sober future scenario can issue in a singularity where the basic premises and motivations of existing FAI research apply. It's just that one might need to be imaginative in anticipating how they are realized.

For example, perhaps hegemonic superintelligence could emerge, not from a single powerful AI research program, but from a particular clique of networked neurohackers who have the right combination of collaborative tools, brain interfaces, and concrete plans for achieving transhuman intelligence. They might go on to build an army of AIs, and subdue the world that way, but the crucial steps which made them the winners in the mind race, and which determined what they would do with their victory, would lie in their methods of brain modification, enhancement, and interfacing, and in the ends to which they applied those methods.

In such a scenario, we could speak of "FIA" - friendly intelligence augmentation. A basic idea of existing FAI discourse is that the true human utility function needs to be determined, and then the values that make an AI human-friendly would be extrapolated from that. Similar thinking can be applied to the prospect of brain modification and intelligence increase in human beings. Human brains work a certain way, modified or augmented human brains will work in specifically different ways, and we should want to know which modifications are genuinely enhancements, what sort of modifications stabilize value and which ones destabilize value, and so on.

If there was a mature and sophisticated culture of preparing for the singularity, then there would be FAI research, FIA research, and a lot of communication between the two fields. (For example, researchers in both fields need to figure out how the human brain works.) Instead, the biggest enthusiasts of FAI are a futurist subculture with a lot of conceptual baggage, and FIA is nonexistent. However, we can at least start thinking and discussing about how this broader culture of research into "friendly minds" could take shape.

Despite its flaws, the Singularity Institute stands alone as an organization concerned with the fast future scenario, the hard takeoff. I have argued that a sober futurology, while forecasting a slowly evolving future for some time to come, must ultimately concern itself with the emergence of a posthuman power arising from some cognitive technology, whether that is AI, neurotechnology, or a combination of these. So I have asked myself who, among "slow futurists", is best equipped to develop an outlook and a plan which is sober and realistic, yet also visionary enough to accommodate the really overwhelming responsibility of designing the architecture of friendly posthuman minds capable of managing a future that we would want.

At the moment, my favorites in this respect are the various branches, scattered around the world, of the Longevity Party that was started in Russia a few months ago. (It shouldn't be confused with "Evolution 2045", a big-budget rival backed by an Internet entrepreneur, that especially promotes mind uploading. For some reason, transhumanist politics has begun to stir in that country.) If the Singularity Institute falls short of the ideal, then the "longevity parties" are even further away from living up to their ambitious agenda. Outside of Russia, they are mostly just small Facebook groups; the most basic issues of policy and practice are still being worked out; no-one involved has much of a history of political achievement.

Nonetheless, if there were no prospect of singularity but otherwise science and technology were advancing as they are, the agenda here looks just about ideal. People age and decline until it kills them, an extrapolation of biomedical knowledge suggests this is not a law of nature but just a sign of primitive technology, and the Longevity Party exists to rectify this situation. It's visionary and despite the current immaturity and growing pains, an effective longevity politics must arise one day, simply because the advance of technology will force the issue on us! The human race cannot currently muster enough will to live, to openly make rejuvenation a political goal, but the incremental pursuit of health and well-being is taking us in that direction anyway.

There's a vacuum of authority and intention in the realm of life extension, and transhuman technology generally, and these would-be longevity politicians are stepping into that vacuum. I don't think they are ready for all the issues that transhuman power entails, but the process has to start somewhere. Faced with the infinite possibilities of technological transformation, the basic affirmation of the desire to live as well as reality permits, can serve as a founding principle against which to judge attitudes and approaches for all the more complicated "issues" that arise in a world where anyone can become anything.

Maria Konovalenko, a biomedical researcher and one of the prime movers behind the Russian Longevity Party, wrote an essay setting out her version of how the world ought to work. You'll notice that she manages to include friendly AI on her agenda. This is another example, a humble beginning, of the sort of conceptual development which I think needs to happen. The sort of approach to FAI that Eliezer has pioneered needs a context, a broader culture concerned with FIA and the interplay between neuroscience and pure AI, and we need realistic yet visionary political thinking which encompasses both the shocking potentials of a slow future, above all rejuvenation and the conquest of aging, and the singularity imperative.

Unless there is simply a catastrophe, one day someone, some thing, some coalition will wield transhuman power. It may begin as a corporation, or as a specific technological research subculture, or as the peak political body in a sovereign state. Perhaps it will be part of a broader global culture of "competitors in the mind race" who know about each other and recognize each other as contenders for the first across the line. Perhaps there will be coalitions in the race: contenders who agree on the need for friendliness and the form it should take, and others who are pursuing private power, or who are just pushing AI ahead without too much concern for the transformation of the world that will result. Perhaps there will be a war as one contender begins to visibly pull ahead, and others resort to force to stop them.

But without a final and total catastrophe, however much slow history there remains ahead of us, eventually someone or something will "win", and after that the world will be reshaped according to its values and priorities. We don't need to imagine this as "tiling the universe"; it should be enough to think of it as a ubiquitous posthuman political order, in which all intelligent agents are either kept so powerless as to not be a threat, or managed and modified so as to be reliably friendly to whatever the governing civilizational values are. I see no alternative to this if we are looking for a stable long-term way of living in which ultimate technological powers exist; the ultimate powers of coercion and destruction can't be left lying around, to be taken up by entities with arbitrary values.

So the supreme challenge is to conceive of a social and technological order where that power exists, and is used, but it's still a world that we want to live in. FAI is part of the answer, but so is FIA, and so is the development of political concepts and projects which can encompass such an agenda. The Singularity Institute and the Longevity Party are fledgling institutions, and if they live they will surely, eventually, form ties with older and more established bodies; but right now, they seem to be the crucial nuclei of the theoretical research and the political vision that we need.

Please don't vote because democracy is a local optimum

-8 Konkvistador 05 November 2012 08:09PM

Related to: Voting is like donating thousands of dollars to charity, Does My Vote Matter?

And voting adds legitimacy to it.

Thank you.

#annoyedbymotivatedcognition

[Link] Offense 101

28 Alejandro1 24 October 2012 09:28PM

From Julian Sanchez, a brilliant idea unlikely to be implemented:

American politics sometimes seems like a contest to see which group of partisans can take greater umbrage at the most recent outrageous remark from a member of the opposing tribe.  As a mild countermeasure, I offer a modest proposal for American universities. All freshmen should be required to take a course called “Offense 101,” where the readings will consist of arguments from across the political and philosophical spectrum that some substantial proportion of the student body is likely to find offensive. Selections from The Bell Curve. Essays from one of the New Atheists and one of their opponents, and from hardcore pro-lifers and pro-choicers. Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” monograph. Defenses of eugenics, torture, violent revolution, authoritarianism, aggressive censorship, and absolute free speech. Positive reviews of the Star Wars prequels. Assemble your own curriculum—there’s no shortage of material.

For each reading, students will have to make a good faith, unironic effort to reconstruct the offensive argument in its most persuasive form, marshaling additional supporting evidence and amending weak arguments to better support the author’s conclusion. Points deducted if an observer can tell the student doesn’t really agree with the position they’re defending.

Only after this phase is complete will students be allowed to begin rebutting the arguments. Anyone who thinks it’s relevant to point out that the argument is offensive (or bigoted, sexist, unpatriotic, fascistic, communistic, whatever) will receive a patronizing look from the professor that says: “Yes,  obviously, did you not read the course title? Let’s move on.” Insofar as these labels are shorthand for an argument that certain categories of views are wrong and can be rejected as a class, the actual argument will have to be presented. 

 

 

 

LessWrong, can you help me find an article I read a few months ago, I think here?

2 Thecommexokid 12 October 2012 04:24AM

I'm sorry in advance for a post that doesn't really offer the chance for any substantive discussion, but I am engaged in the most futile of all tasks — trying to find again something I read on the Internet six months ago — and I need all the help I can get. So onward to the point:

Within the last 6 months I read an article. In my memory of the event I read it on LessWrong, but perhaps it was on Ovcoming Bias, or linked to from a LW post, or something. The main thesis of the piece was that American politics is covered in the press as a spectator sport, and issues that have enormous impact for millions of Americans are treated as though their only importance lies in their political ramifications. E.g., newspaper headlines say things like "Victory for Obama as Congress passes healthcare bill," as if the only importance of the bill was that it constituted a political win, as if the American public ought to care more about the political victories and defeats of one guy in Washington than about the actual ramifications of the law on their own healthcare.

Does anyone recognize the sound of this article? I have searched LessWrong in vain, but is it nonetheless here somewhere? Is anyone so familiar with the site that they can confirm definitively that it is not from here, so I can at least cross it off the list? In short, help?

All my thanks.

Let's talk about politics

-14 WingedViper 19 September 2012 05:25PM

Hello fellow LWs,

As I have read repeatedly on LW (http://lesswrong.com/lw/gw/politics_is_the_mindkiller/) you don't like discussing politics because it produces biased thinking/arguing which I agree is true for the general populace. What I find curious is that you don't seem to even try it here where people would be very likely to keep their identities small (www.paulgraham.com/identity.html). It should be the perfect (or close enough) environment to talk politics because you can have reasonable discussions here.

I do understand that you don't like to bring politics into discussions about rationality, but I don't understand why there shouldn't be dedicated political threads here. (Maybe you could flag them?)

all the best

Viper

 

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