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Is my view contrarian?

22 lukeprog 11 March 2014 05:42PM

Previously: Contrarian Excuses, The Correct Contrarian Cluster, What is bunk?, Common Sense as a Prior, Trusting Expert Consensus, Prefer Contrarian Questions.

Robin Hanson once wrote:

On average, contrarian views are less accurate than standard views. Honest contrarians should admit this, that neutral outsiders should assign most contrarian views a lower probability than standard views, though perhaps a high enough probability to warrant further investigation. Honest contrarians who expect reasonable outsiders to give their contrarian view more than normal credence should point to strong outside indicators that correlate enough with contrarians tending more to be right.

I tend to think through the issue in three stages:

  1. When should I consider myself to be holding a contrarian[1] view? What is the relevant expert community?
  2. If I seem to hold a contrarian view, when do I have enough reason to think I’m correct?
  3. If I seem to hold a correct contrarian view, what can I do to give other people good reasons to accept my view, or at least to take it seriously enough to examine it at length?

I don’t yet feel that I have “answers” to these questions, but in this post (and hopefully some future posts) I’d like to organize some of what has been said before,[2] and push things a bit further along, in the hope that further discussion and inquiry will contribute toward significant progress in social epistemology.[3] Basically, I hope to say a bunch of obvious things, in a relatively well-organized fashion, so that less obvious things can be said from there.[4]

In this post, I’ll just address stage 1. Hopefully I’ll have time to revisit stages 2 and 3 in future posts.

 

Is my view contrarian?

World model differences vs. value differences

Is my effective altruism a contrarian view? It seems to be more of a contrarian value judgment than a contrarian world model,[5] and by “contrarian view” I tend to mean “contrarian world model.” Some apparently contrarian views are probably actually contrarian values.

 

Expert consensus

Is my atheism a contrarian view? It’s definitely a world model, not a value judgment, and only 2% of people are atheists.

But what’s the relevant expert population, here? Suppose it’s “academics who specialize in the arguments and evidence concerning whether a god or gods exist.” If so, then the expert population is probably dominated by academic theologians and religious philosophers, and my atheism is a contrarian view.

We need some heuristics for evaluating the soundness of the academic consensus in different fields. [6]

For example, we should consider the selection effects operating on communities of experts. If someone doesn’t believe in God, they’re unlikely to spend their career studying arcane arguments for and against God’s existence. So most people who specialize in this topic are theists, but nearly all of them were theists before they knew the arguments.

Perhaps instead the relevant expert community is “scholars who study the fundamental nature of the universe” — maybe, philosophers and physicists? They’re mostly atheists. [7] This is starting to get pretty ad-hoc, but maybe that’s unavoidable.

What about my view that the overall long-term impact of AGI will be, most likely, extremely bad? A recent survey of the top 100 authors in artificial intelligence (by citation index)[8] suggests that my view is somewhat out of sync with the views of those researchers.[9] But is that the relevant expert population? My impression is that AI experts know a lot about contemporary AI methods, especially within their subfield, but usually haven’t thought much about, or read much about, long-term AI impacts.

Instead, perhaps I’d need to survey “AGI impact experts” to tell whether my view is contrarian. But who is that, exactly? There’s no standard credential.

Moreover, the most plausible candidates around today for “AGI impact experts” are — like the “experts” of many other fields — mere “scholastic experts,” in that they[10] know a lot about the arguments and evidence typically brought to bear on questions of long-term AI outcomes.[11] They generally are not experts in the sense of “Reliably superior performance on representative tasks” — they don’t have uniquely good track records on predicting long-term AI outcomes, for example. As far as I know, they don’t even have uniquely good track records on predicting short-term geopolitical or sci-tech outcomes — e.g. they aren’t among the “super forecasters” discovered in IARPA’s forecasting tournaments.

Furthermore, we might start to worry about selection effects, again. E.g. if we ask AGI experts when they think AGI will be built, they may be overly optimistic about the timeline: after all, if they didn’t think AGI was feasible soon, they probably wouldn’t be focusing their careers on it.

Perhaps we can salvage this approach for determining whether one has a contrarian view, but for now, let’s consider another proposal.

 

Mildly extrapolated elite opinion

Nick Beckstead instead suggests that, at least as a strong prior, one should believe what one thinks “a broad coalition of trustworthy people would believe if they were trying to have accurate views and they had access to [one’s own] evidence.”[12] Below, I’ll propose a modification of Beckstead’s approach which aims to address the “Is my view contrarian?” question, and I’ll call it the “mildly extrapolated elite opinion” (MEEO) method for determining the relevant expert population. [13]

First: which people are “trustworthy”? With Beckstead, I favor “giving more weight to the opinions of people who can be shown to be trustworthy by clear indicators that many people would accept, rather than people that seem trustworthy to you personally.” (This guideline aims to avoid parochialism and self-serving cognitive biases.)

What are some “clear indicators that many people would accept”? Beckstead suggests:

IQ, business success, academic success, generally respected scientific or other intellectual achievements, wide acceptance as an intellectual authority by certain groups of people, or success in any area where there is intense competition and success is a function of ability to make accurate predictions and good decisions…

Of course, trustworthiness can also be domain-specific. Very often, elite common sense would recommend deferring to the opinions of experts (e.g., listening to what physicists say about physics, what biologists say about biology, and what doctors say about medicine). In other cases, elite common sense may give partial weight to what putative experts say without accepting it all (e.g. economics and psychology). In other cases, they may give less weight to what putative experts say (e.g. sociology and philosophy).

Hence MEEO outsources the challenge of evaluating academic consensus in different fields to the “generally trustworthy people.” But in doing so, it raises several new challenges. How do we determine which people are trustworthy? How do we “mildly extrapolate” their opinions? How do we weight those mildly extrapolated opinions in combination?

This approach might also be promising, or it might be even harder to use than the “expert consensus” method.

 

My approach

In practice, I tend to do something like this:

  • To determine whether my view is contrarian, I ask whether there’s a fairly obvious, relatively trustworthy expert population on the issue. If there is, I try to figure out what their consensus on the matter is. If it’s different than my view, I conclude I have a contrarian view.
  • If there isn’t an obvious trustworthy expert population on the issue from which to extract a consensus view, then I basically give up on step 1 (“Is my view contrarian?”) and just move to the model combination in step 2 (see below), retaining pretty large uncertainty about how contrarian my view might be.


When do I have good reason to think I’m correct?

Suppose I conclude I have a contrarian view, as I plausibly have about long-term AGI outcomes,[14] and as I might have about the technological feasibility of preserving myself via cryonics.[15] How much evidence do I need to conclude that my view is justified despite the informed disagreement of others?

I’ll try to tackle that question in a future post. Not surprisingly, my approach is a kind of model combination and adjustment.

 

 


  1. I don’t have a concise definition for what counts as a “contrarian view.” In any case, I don’t think that searching for an exact definition of “contrarian view” is what matters. In an email conversation with me, Holden Karnofsky concurred, making the point this way: “I agree with you that the idea of ‘contrarianism’ is tricky to define. I think things get a bit easier when you start looking for patterns that should worry you rather than trying to Platonically define contrarianism… I find ‘Most smart people think I’m bonkers about X’ and ‘Most people who have studied X more than I have plus seem to generally think like I do think I’m wrong about X’ both worrying; I find ‘Most smart people think I’m wrong about X’ and ‘Most people who spend their lives studying X within a system that seems to be clearly dysfunctional and to have a bad track record think I’m bonkers about X’ to be less worrying.”  ↩

  2. For a diverse set of perspectives on the social epistemology of disagreement and contrarianism not influenced (as far as I know) by the Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong conversations about the topic, see Christensen (2009); Ericsson et al. (2006); Kuchar (forthcoming); Miller (2013); Gelman (2009); Martin & Richards (1995); Schwed & Bearman (2010); Intemann & de Melo-Martin (2013). Also see Wikipedia’s article on scientific consensus.  ↩

  3. I suppose I should mention that my entire inquiry here is, ala Goldman (1998), premised on the assumptions that (1) the point of epistemology is the pursuit of correspondence-theory truth, and (2) the point of social epistemology is to evaluate which social institutions and practices have instrumental value for producing true or well-calibrated beliefs.  ↩

  4. I borrow this line from Chalmers (2014): “For much of the paper I am largely saying the obvious, but sometimes the obvious is worth saying so that less obvious things can be said from there.”  ↩

  5. Holden Karnofsky seems to agree: “I think effective altruism falls somewhere on the spectrum between ‘contrarian view’ and ‘unusual taste.’ My commitment to effective altruism is probably better characterized as ‘wanting/choosing to be an effective altruist’ than as ‘believing that effective altruism is correct.’”  ↩

  6. Without such heuristics, we can also rather quickly arrive at contradictions. For example, the majority of scholars who specialize in Allah’s existence believe that Allah is the One True God, and the majority of scholars who specialize in Yahweh’s existence believe that Yahweh is the One True God. Consistency isn’t everything, but contradictions like this should still be a warning sign.  ↩

  7. According to the PhilPapers Surveys, 72.8% of philosophers are atheists, 14.6% are theists, and 12.6% categorized themselves as “other.” If we look only at metaphysicians, atheism remains dominant at 73.7%. If we look only at analytic philosophers, we again see atheism at 76.3%. As for physicists: Larson & Witham (1997) found that 77.9% of physicists and astronomers are disbelievers, and Pew Research Center (2009) found that 71% of physicists and astronomers did not believe in a god.  ↩

  8. Muller & Bostrom (forthcoming). “Future Progress in Artificial Intelligence: A Poll Among Experts.”  ↩

  9. But, this is unclear. First, I haven’t read the forthcoming paper, so I don’t yet have the full results of the survey, along with all its important caveats. Second, distributions of expert opinion can vary widely between polls. For example, Schlosshauer et al. (2013) reports the results of a poll given to participants in a 2011 quantum foundations conference (mostly physicists). When asked “When will we have a working and useful quantum computer?”, 9% said “within 10 years,” 42% said “10–25 years,” 30% said “25–50 years,” 0% said “50–100 years,” and 15% said “never.” But when the exact same questions were asked of participants at another quantum foundations conference just two years later, Norsen & Nelson (2013) report, the distribution of opinion was substantially different: 9% said “within 10 years,” 22% said “10–25 years,” 20% said “25–50 years,” 21% said “50–100 years,” and 12% said “never.”  ↩

  10. I say “they” in this paragraph, but I consider myself to be a plausible candidate for an “AGI impact expert,” in that I’m unusually familiar with the arguments and evidence typically brought to bear on questions of long-term AI outcomes. I also don’t have a uniquely good track record on predicting long-term AI outcomes, nor am I among the discovered “super forecasters.” I haven’t participated in IARPA’s forecasting tournaments myself because it would just be too time consuming. I would, however, very much like to see these super forecasters grouped into teams and tasked with forecasting longer-term outcomes, so that we can begin to gather scientific data on which psychological and computational methods result in the best predictive outcomes when considering long-term questions. Given how long it takes to acquire these data, we should start as soon as possible.  ↩

  11. Weiss & Shanteau (2012) would call them “privileged experts.”  ↩

  12. Beckstead’s “elite common sense” prior and my “mildly extrapolated elite opinion” method are epistemic notions that involve some kind idealization or extrapolation of opinion. One earlier such proposal in social epistemology was Habermas’ “ideal speech situation,” a situation of unlimited discussion between free and equal humans. See Habermas’ “Wahrheitstheorien” in Schulz & Fahrenbach (1973) or, for an English description, Geuss (1981), pp. 65–66. See also the discussion in Tucker (2003), pp. 502–504.  ↩

  13. Beckstead calls his method the “elite common sense” prior. I’ve named my method differently for two reasons. First, I want to distinguish MEEO from Beckstead’s prior, since I’m using the method for a slightly different purpose. Second, I think “elite common sense” is a confusing term even for Beckstead’s prior, since there’s some extrapolation of views going on. But also, it’s only a “mild” extrapolation — e.g. we aren’t asking what elites would think if they knew everything, or if they could rewrite their cognitive software for better reasoning accuracy.  ↩

  14. My rough impression is that among the people who seem to have thought long and hard about AGI outcomes, and seem to me to exhibit fairly good epistemic practices on most issues, my view on AGI outcomes is still an outlier in its pessimism about the likelihood of desirable outcomes. But it’s hard to tell: there haven’t been systematic surveys of the important-to-me experts on the issue. I also wonder whether my views about long-term AGI outcomes are more a matter of seriously tackling a contrarian question rather than being a matter of having a particularly contrarian view. On this latter point, see this Facebook discussion.  ↩

  15. I haven’t seen a poll of cryobiologists on the likely future technological feasibility of cryonics. Even if there were such polls, I’d wonder whether cryobiologists also had the relevant philosophical and neuroscientific expertise. I should mention that I’m not personally signed up for cryonics, for these reasons.  ↩

Feed the spinoff heuristic!

49 CarlShulman 09 February 2012 07:41AM

Follow-up to:

Parapsychology: the control group for science

Some Heuristics for Evaluating the Soundness of the Academic Mainstream in Unfamiliar Fields

Recent renewed discussions of the parapsychology literature and Daryl Bem's recent precognition article brought to mind the "market test" of claims of precognition. Bem tells us that random undergraduate students were able to predict with 53% accuracy where an erotic image would appear in the future. If this effect was actually real, I would rerun the experiment before corporate earnings announcements, central bank interest rate changes, etc, and change the images based on the reaction of stocks and bonds to the announcements. In other words, I could easily convert "porn precognition" into "hedge fund trillionaire precognition."

If I was initially lacking in the capital to do trades, I could publish my predictions online using public key cryptography and amass an impressive track record before recruiting investors. If anti-psi prejudice was a problem, no one need know how I was making my predictions. Similar setups could exploit other effects claimed in the parapsychology literature (e.g. the remote viewing of the Scientologist-founded Stargate Project of the U.S. federal government). Those who assign a lot of credence to psi may want to actually try this, but for me this is an invitation to use parapsychology as control group for science, and to ponder a general heuristic for crudely estimating the soundness of academic fields for outsiders.

One reason we trust that physicists and chemists have some understanding of their subjects is that they produce valuable technological spinoffs with concrete and measurable economic benefit. In practice, I often make use of the spinoff heuristic: If an unfamiliar field has the sort of knowledge it claims, what commercial spinoffs and concrete results ought it to be producing? Do such spinoffs exist? What are the explanations for their absence?

For psychology, I might cite systematic desensitization of specific phobias such as fear of spiders, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and military use of IQ tests (with large measurable changes in accident rates, training costs, etc). In financial economics, I would raise the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in index funds, founded in response to academic research, and their outperformance relative to managed funds. Auction theory powers tens of billions of dollars of wireless spectrum auctions, not to mention evil dollar-auction sites

This seems like a great task for crowdsourcing: the cloud of LessWrongers has broad knowledge, and sorting real science from cargo cult science is core to being Less Wrong. So I ask you, Less Wrongers, for your examples of practical spinoffs (or suspicious absences thereof) of sometimes-denigrated fields in the comments. Macroeconomics, personality psychology, physical anthropology, education research, gene-association studies, nutrition research, wherever you have knowledge to share.

ETA: This academic claims to be trying to use the Bem methods to predict roulette wheels, and to have passed statistical significance tests on his first runs. Such claims have been made for casinos in the past, but always trailed away in failures to replicate, repeat, or make actual money. I expect the same to happen here. 

Some Heuristics for Evaluating the Soundness of the Academic Mainstream in Unfamiliar Fields

73 Vladimir_M 15 February 2011 09:17AM

(This post is an expanded version of a LW comment I left a while ago. I have found myself referring to it so much in the meantime that I think it’s worth reworking into a proper post. Some related posts are "The Correct Contrarian Cluster" and "What is Bunk?")

When looking for information about some area outside of one’s expertise, it is usually a good idea to first ask what academic scholarship has to say on the subject. In many areas, there is no need to look elsewhere for answers: respectable academic authors are the richest and most reliable source of information, and people claiming things completely outside the academic mainstream are almost certain to be crackpots. 

The trouble is, this is not always the case. Even those whose view of the modern academia is much rosier than mine should agree that it would be astonishing if there didn’t exist at least some areas where the academic mainstream is detached from reality on important issues, while much more accurate views are scorned as kooky (or would be if they were heard at all). Therefore, depending on the area, the fact that a view is way out of the academic mainstream may imply that it's bunk with near-certainty, but it may also tell us nothing if the mainstream standards in the area are especially bad.

I will discuss some heuristics that, in my experience, provide a realistic first estimate of how sound the academic mainstream in a given field is likely to be, and how justified one would be to dismiss contrarians out of hand. These conclusions have come from my own observations of research literature in various fields and some personal experience with the way modern academia operates, and I would be interested in reading others’ opinions. 

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Theists are wrong; is theism?

5 Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 12:18AM

Many folk here on LW take the simulation argument (in its more general forms) seriously. Many others take Singularitarianism1 seriously. Still others take Tegmark cosmology (and related big universe hypotheses) seriously. But then I see them proceed to self-describe as atheist (instead of omnitheist, theist, deist, having a predictive distribution over states of religious belief, et cetera), and many tend to be overtly dismissive of theism. Is this signalling cultural affiliation, an attempt to communicate a point estimate, or what?

I am especially confused that the theism/atheism debate is considered a closed question on Less Wrong. Eliezer's reformulations of the Problem of Evil in terms of Fun Theory provided a fresh look at theodicy, but I do not find those arguments conclusive. A look at Luke Muehlhauser's blog surprised me; the arguments against theism are just not nearly as convincing as I'd been brought up to believe2, nor nearly convincing enough to cause what I saw as massive overconfidence on the part of most atheists, aspiring rationalists or no.

It may be that theism is in the class of hypotheses that we have yet to develop a strong enough practice of rationality to handle, even if the hypothesis has non-negligible probability given our best understanding of the evidence. We are becoming adept at wielding Occam's razor, but it may be that we are still too foolhardy to wield Solomonoff's lightsaber Tegmark's Black Blade of Disaster without chopping off our own arm. The literature on cognitive biases gives us every reason to believe we are poorly equipped to reason about infinite cosmology, decision theory, the motives of superintelligences, or our place in the universe.

Due to these considerations, it is unclear if we should go ahead doing the equivalent of philosoraptorizing amidst these poorly asked questions so far outside the realm of science. This is not the sort of domain where one should tread if one is feeling insecure in one's sanity, and it is possible that no one should tread here. Human philosophers are probably not as good at philosophy as hypothetical Friendly AI philosophers (though we've seen in the cases of decision theory and utility functions that not everything can be left for the AI to solve). I don't want to stress your epistemology too much, since it's not like your immortal soul3 matters very much. Does it?

Added: By theism I do not mean the hypothesis that Jehovah created the universe. (Well, mostly.) I am talking about the possibility of agenty processes in general creating this universe, as opposed to impersonal math-like processes like cosmological natural selection.

Added: The answer to the question raised by the post is "Yes, theism is wrong, and we don't have good words for the thing that looks a lot like theism but has less unfortunate connotations, but we do know that calling it theism would be stupid." As to whether this universe gets most of its reality fluid from agenty creators... perhaps we will come back to that argument on a day with less distracting terminology on the table.

 


 

1 Of either the 'AI-go-FOOM' or 'someday we'll be able to do lots of brain emulations' variety.

2 I was never a theist, and only recently began to question some old assumptions about the likelihood of various Creators. This perhaps either lends credibility to my interest, or lends credibility to the idea that I'm insane.

Or the set of things that would have been translated to Archimedes by the Chronophone as the equivalent of an immortal soul (id est, whatever concept ends up being actually significant).

The Irrationality Game

38 Will_Newsome 03 October 2010 02:43AM

Please read the post before voting on the comments, as this is a game where voting works differently.

Warning: the comments section of this post will look odd. The most reasonable comments will have lots of negative karma. Do not be alarmed, it's all part of the plan. In order to participate in this game you should disable any viewing threshold for negatively voted comments.

Here's an irrationalist game meant to quickly collect a pool of controversial ideas for people to debate and assess. It kinda relies on people being honest and not being nitpickers, but it might be fun.

Write a comment reply to this post describing a belief you think has a reasonable chance of being true relative to the the beliefs of other Less Wrong folk. Jot down a proposition and a rough probability estimate or qualitative description, like 'fairly confident'.

Example (not my true belief): "The U.S. government was directly responsible for financing the September 11th terrorist attacks. Very confident. (~95%)."

If you post a belief, you have to vote on the beliefs of all other comments. Voting works like this: if you basically agree with the comment, vote the comment down. If you basically disagree with the comment, vote the comment up. What 'basically' means here is intuitive; instead of using a precise mathy scoring system, just make a guess. In my view, if their stated probability is 99.9% and your degree of belief is 90%, that merits an upvote: it's a pretty big difference of opinion. If they're at 99.9% and you're at 99.5%, it could go either way. If you're genuinely unsure whether or not you basically agree with them, you can pass on voting (but try not to). Vote up if you think they are either overconfident or underconfident in their belief: any disagreement is valid disagreement.

That's the spirit of the game, but some more qualifications and rules follow.

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But Somebody Would Have Noticed

36 Alicorn 04 May 2010 06:56PM

When you hear a hypothesis that is completely new to you, and seems important enough that you want to dismiss it with "but somebody would have noticed!", beware this temptation.  If you're hearing it, somebody noticed.

Disclaimer: I do not believe in anything I would expect anyone here to call a "conspiracy theory" or similar.  I am not trying to "soften you up" for a future surprise with this post.

1. Wednesday

Suppose: Wednesday gets to be about eighteen, and goes on a trip to visit her Auntie Alicorn, who has hitherto refrained from bringing up religion around her out of respect for her parents1.  During the visit, Sunday rolls around, and Wednesday observes that Alicorn is (a) wearing pants, not a skirt or a dress - unsuitable church attire! and (b) does not appear to be making any move to go to church at all, while (c) not being sick or otherwise having a very good excuse to skip church.  Wednesday inquires as to why this is so, fearing she'll find that beloved Auntie has been excommunicated or something (gasp!  horror!).

Auntie Alicorn says, "Well, I never told you this because your parents asked me not to when you were a child, but I suppose now it's time you knew.  I'm an atheist, and I don't believe God exists, so I don't generally go to church."

And Wednesday says, "Don't be silly.  If God didn't exist, don't you think somebody would have noticed?"

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Undiscriminating Skepticism

97 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 March 2010 11:23PM

Tl;dr:  Since it can be cheap and easy to attack everything your tribe doesn't believe, you shouldn't trust the rationality of just anyone who slams astrology and creationism; these beliefs aren't just false, they're also non-tribal among educated audiences.  Test what happens when a "skeptic" argues for a non-tribal belief, or argues against a tribal belief, before you decide they're good general rationalists.  This post is intended to be reasonably accessible to outside audiences.

I don't believe in UFOs.  I don't believe in astrology.  I don't believe in homeopathy.  I don't believe in creationism.  I don't believe there were explosives planted in the World Trade Center.  I don't believe in haunted houses.  I don't believe in perpetual motion machines.  I believe that all these beliefs are not only wrong but visibly insane.

If you know nothing else about me but this, how much credit should you give me for general rationality?

Certainly anyone who was skillful at adding up evidence, considering alternative explanations, and assessing prior probabilities, would end up disbelieving in all of these.

But there would also be a simpler explanation for my views, a less rare factor that could explain it:  I could just be anti-non-mainstream.  I could be in the habit of hanging out in moderately educated circles, and know that astrology and homeopathy are not accepted beliefs of my tribe.  Or just perceptually recognize them, on a wordless level, as "sounding weird".  And I could mock anything that sounds weird and that my fellow tribesfolk don't believe, much as creationists who hang out with fellow creationists mock evolution for its ludicrous assertion that apes give birth to human beings.

You can get cheap credit for rationality by mocking wrong beliefs that everyone in your social circle already believes to be wrong.  It wouldn't mean that I have any ability at all to notice a wrong belief that the people around me believe to be right, or vice versa - to further discriminate truth from falsity, beyond the fact that my social circle doesn't already believe in something.

Back in the good old days, there was a simple test for this syndrome that would get quite a lot of mileage:  You could just ask me what I thought about God.

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A survey of anti-cryonics writing

75 ciphergoth 07 February 2010 11:26PM

(This was originally a link to a post on my blog, A survey of anti-cryonics writing. Eliezer asked me to include the entire text of the article here.)

For its advocates, cryonics offers almost eternal life. To its critics, cryonics is pseudoscience; the idea that we could freeze someone today in such a way that future technology might be able to re-animate them is nothing more than wishful thinking on the desire to avoid death. Many who battle nonsense dressed as science have spoken out against it: see for example Nano Nonsense and Cryonics, a 2001 article by celebrated skeptic Michael Shermer; or check the Skeptic's Dictionary or Quackwatch entries on the subject, or for more detail read the essay Cryonics–A futile desire for everlasting life by "Invisible Flan".

That it seems so makes me sad, because to my naive eyes it seems like it might work and I would quite like to live forever, but I know that I don't know enough to judge. The celebrated Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman tells a story of a US general who spoke to him at a party and explained that one big challenge in desert warfare is keeping the tanks fuelled given the huge distances the fuel has to travel. What would really help, the general said, would be if boffins like Feynman could invent a sort of engine that was powered by sand. On this issue, I'm in the same position as the general; in the same way as a tank fuelled by sand seems plausible enough to him, it makes sense to me to imagine that however your brain stores information it probably has something to do with morphology and chemistry, so there's a good chance it might not evaporate right away at the instant of legal death, and that freezing might be a way to keep the information there long enough for future societies to extract it with their future-technology scanning equipment.

And of course the pro-cryonics people have written reams and reams of material such as Ben Best's Scientific Justification of Cryonics Practice on why they think this is exactly as plausible as I might think, and going into tremendous technical detail setting out arguments for its plausibility and addressing particular difficulties. It's almost enough to make you want to sign up on the spot.

Except, of course, that plenty of totally unscientific ideas are backed by reams of scientific-sounding documents good enough to fool non-experts like me. Backed by the deep pockets of the oil industry, global warming denialism has produced thousands of convincing-sounding arguments against the scientific consensus on CO2 and AGW. Thankfully in that instance we have blogs like Tim Lambert's Deltoid, RealClimate, and many others tracking the various ways that the denialists mislead, whether through cherry-picking evidence, misleading quotes from climate scientists, or outright lies. Their hard work means that denialists can barely move or speak without someone out there checking what they have to say against science's best understanding and pointing out the misrepresentations and discrepancies. So before I pony up my £25 a month to sign up to cryonics life insurance, I want to read the Deltoid of cryonics - the articles that take apart what cryonics advocates write about what they do and really go into the scientific detail on why it doesn't hang together.

Here's my report on what I've found so far.

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That Magical Click

58 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 January 2010 04:35PM

Followup toNormal Cryonics

Yesterday I spoke of that cryonics gathering I recently attended, where travel by young cryonicists was fully subsidized, leading to extremely different demographics from conventions of self-funded activists.  34% female, half of those in couples, many couples with kids - THAT HAD BEEN SIGNED UP FOR CRYONICS FROM BIRTH LIKE A GODDAMNED SANE CIVILIZATION WOULD REQUIRE - 25% computer industry, 25% scientists, 15% entertainment industry at a rough estimate, and in most ways seeming (for smart people) pretty damned normal.

Except for one thing.

During one conversation, I said something about there being no magic in our universe.

And an ordinary-seeming woman responded, "But there are still lots of things science doesn't understand, right?"

Sigh.  We all know how this conversation is going to go, right?

So I wearily replied with my usual, "If I'm ignorant about a phenomenon, that is a fact about my state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself; a blank map does not correspond to a blank territory -"

"Oh," she interrupted excitedly, "so the concept of 'magic' isn't even consistent, then!"

Click.

She got it, just like that.

This was someone else's description of how she got involved in cryonics, as best I can remember it, and it was pretty much typical for the younger generation:

"When I was a very young girl, I was watching TV, and I saw something about cryonics, and it made sense to me - I didn't want to die - so I asked my mother about it.  She was very dismissive, but tried to explain what I'd seen; and we talked about some of the other things that can happen to you after you die, like burial or cremation, and it seemed to me like cryonics was better than that.  So my mother laughed and said that if I still felt that way when I was older, she wouldn't object.  Later, when I was older and signing up for cryonics, she objected."

Click.

It's... kinda frustrating, actually.

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Normal Cryonics

59 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 19 January 2010 07:08PM

I recently attended a small gathering whose purpose was to let young people signed up for cryonics meet older people signed up for cryonics - a matter of some concern to the old guard, for obvious reasons.

The young cryonicists' travel was subsidized.  I suspect this led to a greatly different selection filter than usually prevails at conferences of what Robin Hanson would call "contrarians".  At an ordinary conference of transhumanists - or libertarians, or atheists - you get activists who want to meet their own kind, strongly enough to pay conference fees and travel expenses.  This conference was just young people who took the action of signing up for cryonics, and who were willing to spend a couple of paid days in Florida meeting older cryonicists.

The gathering was 34% female, around half of whom were single, and a few kids.  This may sound normal enough, unless you've been to a lot of contrarian-cluster conferences, in which case you just spit coffee all over your computer screen and shouted "WHAT?"  I did sometimes hear "my husband persuaded me to sign up", but no more frequently than "I pursuaded my husband to sign up".  Around 25% of the people present were from the computer world, 25% from science, and 15% were doing something in music or entertainment - with possible overlap, since I'm working from a show of hands.

I was expecting there to be some nutcases in that room, people who'd signed up for cryonics for just the same reason they subscribed to homeopathy or astrology, i.e., that it sounded cool.  None of the younger cryonicists showed any sign of it.  There were a couple of older cryonicists who'd gone strange, but none of the young ones that I saw.  Only three hands went up that did not identify as atheist/agnostic, and I think those also might have all been old cryonicists.  (This is surprising enough to be worth explaining, considering the base rate of insanity versus sanity.  Maybe if you're into woo, there is so much more woo that is better optimized for being woo, that no one into woo would give cryonics a second glance.)

The part about actually signing up may also be key - that's probably a ten-to-one or worse filter among people who "get" cryonics.  (I put to Bill Faloon of the old guard that probably twice as many people had died while planning to sign up for cryonics eventually, than had actually been suspended; and he said "Way more than that.")  Actually signing up is an intense filter for Conscientiousness, since it's mildly tedious (requires multiple copies of papers signed and notarized with witnesses) and there's no peer pressure.

For whatever reason, those young cryonicists seemed really normal - except for one thing, which I'll get to tomorrow.  Except for that, then, they seemed like very ordinary people: the couples and the singles, the husbands and the wives and the kids, scientists and programmers and sound studio technicians.

It tears my heart out.

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