Friday, November 25, 2011

The Practical Effect of an Epistemic Peer

Recently I was attempting to estimate the probability that we are living in a simulation. Watching my brain's natural attempt to estimate the probability of this eerie abstraction, I saw that it seemed to do two things: (a) poll my mental models of people I thought of as smart who had considered the question; and (b) discount that percentage by the high percentage of smart people I know who haven't considered the question (though this second is really about my confidence in my assignment of probability, rather than the probability itself - the hash I see my brian performing is to adjust the probability toward the status quo in response to a drop in confidence of a strange assertion).

I have no idea if my introspective experience is in any way univesal, but it does seem that polling one's epistemic peers is an excellent means for estimating probabilities. This is basically like looking things up on Wikipedia, which is also a highly rational action, but polling one's own personally vetted epistemic peers removes some of the uncertainty.

Noticing how I use my mental models of my epistemic peers in thinking about things caused me to notice how startling the effect of a single epistemic peer can be on my confidence in widely accepted beliefs. When I get to know someone and find that I have no choice but to grant that his brain works at least as well as mine, I have no choice but that any strange belief he holds alters my confidence in the commonly held belief.

One way that we protect important beliefs is to by definition exclude those holding opposing beliefs as epistemic peers. If we refuse to admit them into polite society, they can't harm the stable, practical ways of thinking that we have developed.

What this suggests to me is, to get your strange belief accepted by a wider audience, it's much more effective to establish yourself as an epistemic peer of a wide, influential group than it is to develop "convincing" arguments for your strange belief. The existence of an epistemic peer who holds a contrary belief is more devastating than any argument.

What this also suggests is that if we are really interested in the truth, we will surround ourselves with epistemic peers who hold beliefs as different from ours as possible, and try to figure out why similar brains have come to hold such different beliefs. We will counteract our social belief-protection systems.

I am anxious to test this - if anyone knows any 150+ IQ evolution deniers, please send them my way! (Basically I think this is how Chip Smith lives his life.)

As usual, I would like to thank marijuana for its important contributions to this post.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blind to the Downside

One theory of rational suicide (see The Mathematics of Misery and What Kind of Evidence for Effective Suicidality?") posits that a significant proportion of people - much greater than the proportion of people who actually commit suicide - act as if their lives are not valuable to them. They engage in "actuarially unfair" gambles in which the downside is not adequately compensated by the expected benefit.

One interpretation of those accepting actuarially unfair gambles with significant risks is that they ignore the downside because they secretly plan to commit suicide (limiting the harmful effects of the downside) if the gamble doesn't pay off. This would indicate that they assign low value to continuing to live, which contradicts the popular notion that everyone is very glad to be alive and wants to live as long as possible.

This model applies not only to serious gambles with significant downsides as well as significant, potentially permanent upsides (suicide gambles, like joining a street gang or going to law school), but also applies on a smaller scale to measures that temporarily reduce the pain experienced by the actor, though with potential future costs (palliation, like smoking cigarettes or playing World of Warcraft). Palliative remedies may have significant present and future costs, but at least they are generally effective at alleviating pain temporarily.

However, looking around at the transactions taking place in the world economy, one cannot help but notice the market share of bullshit. Huge numbers of consumers prove willing to spend money on products and services that measurably don't do what they promise to do. These products and services may or may not be particularly harmful, but they all have monetary cost, and they all have a very low likelihood of solving the problem they purport to solve. The market in expensive placebos is massive.

Here are exemplary lists of both Palliation phenomena and Expensive Placebo phenomena, so that the reader will have a better idea of what I'm talking about:

Palliation Expensive Placebo
Budweiser Chelada weight loss potion
heroin face de-wrinkling potion
World of Warcraft breast augmentation potion
cigarettes penis growth and erection potion
the McRib multi-level marketing wealth potion
7th Heaven psychic services
lactation porn Jesus
video poker nice Russian women looking for a good husband who need your credit card number

In both cases, consumers seem blind to the downside. In the Palliation case, there is a significant downside, but it's made up for by the reliable temporary relief from pain. In the Expensive Placebo case, the downside is limited to the cost of the product or service, but the upside is measurably nil.

The line between Palliation and Expensive Placebo may be fuzzy; for instance, a lonely person may get real social pleasure from interacting with a psychic consultant (and effective scammers, like all salesmen, tend to be pleasant people). And alcohol advertisement often includes implicit promises of social belonging, which if interpreted literally would make it more of an Expensive Placebo Belonging Serum than a genuine palliation tool. But the distinguishing characteristic is that in the case of what I call Expensive Placebo, the benefit that is bargained for is wholly imaginary, whereas with Palliation, the essence of the promised benefit is, in fact, provided.

Since the value of Expensive Placebos arises from pure fiction, ordinary measures of quality are not available; if acknowledged and utilized, real measures of quality would destroy the entire market. From this, we can distinguish Expensive Placebos from Palliation in terms of the effect of price.

The price of an Expensive Placebo is a measure of social proof it carries - a more expensive placebo gets you better fantasies. A $2 penis enlargement pill probably doesn't work, but one that costs $2000 is a much more effective fantasy projection device. Price has to take on more epistemic weight in the evaluation of Expensive Placebos, because no other indicia of reliability are relevant. This is so because every indication of reliability, except price, would show the value to be zero. In order to maintain the fantasy, we must look at price instead of real quality indicators. To the degree that an intervention is Palliation, consumers would seek out the most palliation for the cost - these are ordinary goods where price is negatively correlated with demand. But to the degree that an intervention is an Expensive Placebo, price should behave much more weirdly, perhaps even correlating positively with demand, as with Veblen goods. It's not just that the consumer of an Expensive Placebo makes himself blind to the downside of the purchase. The downside becomes the upside. (I describe a similar phenomenon here, in which parents report getting more meaning and joy from child-rearing activities, and plan to spend more time with their children over a coming weekend, when they are reminded of the downside, but not the upside, of having kids.)

There are some things that people will pay for even an imaginary chance at having. Youth, love, sex, wealth, and status are so deeply and painfully desired that people are willing to suspend their disbelief for the privilege of imagining that they might get them. The need for social belonging trumps all other needs, and even trumps our own rationality. Being old, fat, poor, or impotent means being in social pain. Just as the desperate, terminally ill cancer patient often turns to expensive placebos for an imaginary chance at more life, desperate, terminally alive sad people turn to expensive placebos for a chance to imagine a decent life.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Grouch Logic

Scene: Sesame Street. Oscar the Grouch and his girlfriend Grundgetta are watching Baby Bear try to teach his little sister, Curly Bear, to draw.

Oscar and Grundgetta, as grouches, are annoyed to see Baby Bear and Curly Bear playing peacefully. They attempt to sow discord, getting very excited when Curly Bear fails to grasp the basics of drawing and throws crayons and paper around. The Grouches hope that Baby Bear will flip out, but instead, to the grouches' extreme irritation, Baby Bear sings a fucking song about sharing.

By the end of the day, none of the grouches' trolling has been effective. Baby Bear and Curly Bear learned lessons about sharing, and nobody had a fight. The grouches announce that they feel rotten.

But wait! Grouches LOVE feeling rotten! So they're HAPPY!

I relate this important episode from literature not to demonstrate any point, but merely to illustrate a concept I use frequently: Grouch Logic. Grouch Logic refers to arguments that seem comically nonsensical, not because of flaws in reasoning as such, but because highly unusual preferences and values drive the logic - often preferences in direct opposition to the "common sense" preferences ostensibly shared by the entire reference group.

Philanthropic antinatalists like me are a special group of grouches who start from an eccentric assignment of value ("it's a great harm to be born"). This alone is enough to make most of our conclusions sound comical, no matter how sound our reasoning.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Obviousness Doesn't Solve the Problem

Science is the history of the mismatch between the obvious and the truth. The more we study science - and the more we study our meat brains, and the greater meat brain social network our meat brains comprise - the less epistemic weight we must attach to obviousness. For obviousness is a primary perceptive experience - not subject to methods of reason or even introspective analysis.

Warren Quinn (Morality and Action, p. 125 et seq.) has argued, in favor of moral realism, that in experience and even in the natural sciences, a great deal of the information we are most certain about arises from primary perception, impossible to ground in reason (or anything but more primary perceptive turtles). If we are warranted in believing that there is a chair beneath our butt based on nothing more than primary perception, then we are equally warranted in having initial moral beliefs grounded on nothing but the feeling of wrongness.

We can do nothing but proceed from our primary perceptions, trusting them until given reason to doubt them. But we must realize that the obvious is merely a starting point. What is obvious to humans has not been demonstrated to reliably correlate with facts about the universe. Obviousness may inform the problem and even set priors, but it does not solve it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Special Monkeys or Failed Monkeys?

The thing that disappoints me the most about my own nerdy subculture is a specific form of self-blindness (hypocrisy).

We "special monkeys" get a lot of our sense of status from our abstract cognitive capacities. These very capacities, of course, may also be seen as major social deficits. As David Foster Wallace famously put it:

...the other children's punishment of the SNOOTlet [Wallace's term for a "precocious" speaker of Standard Written English] is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. They're learning about Discourse Communities. Kids learn this stuff not in English or Social Studies but on the playground and at lunch and on the bus. When his peers are giving the SNOOTlet monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there's serious learning going on ... for everyone except the little SNOOT, who in fact is being punished for precisely his failure to learn. What neither he nor his teacher realizes is that the SNOOTlet is deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammar, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it's these abilities that are really required for "peer rapport," which is just a fancy Elementary-Ed term for being accepted by the most important Group in the little kid's life. [Bolded emphasis mine. References omitted.]

As nerds, we must realize that we are, at some level, failed human beings - according to the values and standards of the vast majority of humankind.

At our best, our special-monkey cognitive capacities let us see our own species from a more abstract, impersonal perspective than is generally possible for the regular monkeys. Even if this doesn't help us design better systems for monkey living, at least it helps us to have more compassion for the other monkeys (and ourselves).

At our worst, we attempt to flip it around and define our own freakish, mutant nonsocial cognitive capacity as REALLY AND TRULY HUMAN, making the rest of the monkeys out to be less than human. By so defining them, we create a comforting myth of struggle and can justify (and even happily take part in causing) the suffering of the regular monkeys. This is often true even for those of us who define ACTUAL monkeys (and chickens and cows and octopuses and salamanders) as worthy of moral consideration, in the sense that their suffering is bad.

If we special monkeys are to advance the values that our unusual cognitive capacities help us perceive - impersonal values, often opposed to regular human values as revealed by human behavior - then we must get better at seeing our own monkey nature. Specifically, we must learn that the struggle between the special monkeys and the regular monkeys is a dangerous (though evolutionarily beneficial) monkey illusion. And we must become aware that those in the regular monkey "out group," while they may not score as high as us on special monkey tests, are no less worthy of moral consideration than ourselves - in the sense that their suffering matters.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

To Say Status is Zero-Sum is Optimistic

I have previously argued that status, as a positional good, is by its nature a zero sum game; any gains in status by one participant are matched by losses on the part of other participants.

When we look at the real-world effects of status choices, though, it seems that the view of status as a zero-sum game (where losses of losers are balanced by gains of winners) is a very generous interpretation.

Losses of status, or having low status, seems to make people very miserable. Robin Hanson quotes the authors of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage on the harmful effects of status threats in maintaining poverty:

Conflicts over money do not usually erupt simply because the man cannot find a job or because he doesn’t earn as much as someone with better skills or education. Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.

Clearly, a loss in status causes serious enough social pain that the affected person is willing to risk his job and family to avoid or repair it. But don't gains in status make the winners much happier, rendering status contests at least Kaldor-Hicks efficient?

Not so, suggests a study on the welfare effects of commuting (Stress That Doesn't Pay: The Commuting Paradox). From the abstract:

People spend a lot of time commuting and often find it a burden. According to economics, the burden of commuting is chosen when compensated either on the labor or on the housing market so that individuals’ utility is equalized. However, in a direct test of this strong notion of equilibrium, we find that people with longer commuting time report systematically lower subjective well-being. Additional empirical analyses do not find institutional explanations of the empirical results that commuters systematically incur losses.

Unfortunately, the status gains a person may derive from commuting to work (high-status job, high-status suburban house, etc.) are not made up for by greater happiness; people with longer commutes are consistently less happy than people with shorter commutes. This is true even where people longer commute time is associated with higher income.

We are used to seeing sad low-status people, but what's missing is the ecstatic high-status people. It seems that the best we can achieve is somewhat stable mediocre life satisfaction, but the worst we can achieve is very bad indeed.

Tweets by @TheViewFromHell