NꙮW WITH MꙮRE MULTIꙮCULAR ꙮ

Searching For One-Sided Tradeoffs

Suppose you are an admissions official for a moderately prestigious college, which is neither the best nor the worst in your state. Your job is to look over people’s SAT scores, high school GPA, and essays on How I Overcame Adversity, and then decide whether or not to admit them to your college.

And suppose that you have a team of subordinates who make the really easy decisions for you. Auto-reject the losers who show up drunk to their interview and spell your institution’s name as “collej” on their applications, pass the rest on to you.

Your job probably doesn’t matter. Yes, there will be some very high quality candidates – the kids with straight As, perfect SATs, and stories about how they personally stopped the civil war in Lebanon despite being born without legs. But they will be using you as their safety school, and whether you accept them or not they will be going to Harvard and you will never see them. You will only be deciding among a small band of students – those too smart to get auto-rejected by your subordinates, but not smart enough to go to a school better than yours.

Given that kids who are good at everything and kids who are bad at everything are equally unlikely to be your target population, your job reduces to choosing what tradeoffs to take. Do you want kids with great SAT scores but terrible grades, kids with great grades but terrible SATs, or kids with mediocre grades and test scores alike? How about kids with terrible grades and terrible SATs, but they’re really really attractive and good at sports?

Even here your job won’t matter too much. Your counterparts at Harvard will presumably be smart people who have a pretty good idea of how important test scores and grades are in terms of the Intangible Qualities That Make You Good At College. If a new study comes out showing that SAT scores determine your future but grades are meaningless, that study will make you want to shift to a high-SAT-low-grade model, but it will equally increase the high-SAT-low-grade kids’ ability to get into Harvard, meaning that you will, to use an economics metaphor, have to buy SAT scores with grades at a lower exchange rate.

So basically no matter how competent you are as an admissions official, all of the kids entering your college will be about equally “good”.

There is a fun legend I heard in a stats class – I don’t know if it’s true – of a psychology professor who got very excited about her new theory that the brain traded off verbal and mathematical intelligence – being better at one made you worse at the other. She got SAT Math and SAT Verbal scores from her students and found it supported her theory. A friend of hers did a replication at his college and found support for the the theory there as well.

But larger scale testing disconfirmed the theory. What the professors working off college samples were finding was that all of the kids in their college were equally “good”, in a general sense, so excellence in any quality implied a tradeoff in other qualities. Suppose the professor worked at a mid-tier college – students with SATs much less than 1200 couldn’t get in; students with SATs much more than 1200 could and did go to better schools instead. Then all her students would have SATs around 1200. Which meant a student with an SAT Verbal of 700 would have an SAT Math of 500, a student with an SAT Math of 800 would have an SAT Verbal of 400, and boom, there’s your “trade-off of verbal and mathematical intelligence”. Obviously the tradeoff wouldn’t be perfect, since there’s random noise and since students are also trading off less obvious qualities like attractiveness, wealth, social skills, athleticism, musical talent, and diligence. But it would be more than enough for her to find her correlation if she was looking for it.

This suggests some odd strategies if we’re looking for particular college students. If we want to find the dumbest students in a particular college, we might look at the football star – not because football stars are naturally dumb, but because plausibly a student who couldn’t get in on his wits alone might make it in on the promise of helping the college team. If we want to find the smartest student in a particular college, we might look for someone on a scholarship – because perhaps she would otherwise be at Harvard, but was made less attractive to the Ivy League by her inability to pay them any money.

It also implies some weird strategies for admission officers. How do you maximize student quality when in theory all your job allows you to do is make tradeoffs between different subcharacteristics among students of the same quality? Aside from just hoping the occasional Harvard-caliber student accidentally stumbles into your office, I suggest three potential techniques: insider trading, bias compensation, and comparative advantage.

Insider trading is where you’re just plain smarter than everyone else. Maybe you’re a brilliant psychologist who has invented a test that invariably reveals students’ true potential. You can find kids with terrible grades and terrible SAT scores who will nevertheless shine. If you happen to luck into this position, you’ve got it made.

Bias-compensation is where you try to see if other colleges have biases that you can exploit. Sometimes this is simple and profitable. If Harvard is controlled by anti-Semites and auto-rejects all Jews, then you have a free shot to get Jews with 800 SAT Math, 800 SAT Verbal, and amazing football talent (though good luck finding Jews with amazing football talent). Once again, if you happen to luck into your competitors being stupid, you’ve got it made.

Sometimes it’s not that easy, and you have to kind of spin someone else’s preferences as “bias” when they might secretly have some wisdom behind them. For example, it is no doubt true that college admissions officials are influenced by student charm and social skills. So if you want, you can probably get smarter students if you go for the really really unpleasant students whom everyone dislikes as soon as they open their mouths. You can then declare “success” when your college gets a disproportionate number of academic awards, but unless you are a remarkably single-minded academic-award-maximizer, you may find that your college is kind of horrible now and other schools had pretty good reasons for rejecting these people.

Comparative advantage is where you decide you are going to have radically different priorities than anybody else. Maybe you want to be The Math School and become known for the quality of your math geniuses. So you nab all the students with 800 SAT Math and 400 SAT Verbal and then advertise the heck out of your students’ mathematical acumen. There’s also another sort of comparative advantage, where if you have a great sign language interpretation program and Harvard doesn’t, you can advertise to deaf kids who maybe Harvard doesn’t want because they can’t develop their talents effectively.

So let’s generalize from college to the sorts of choices that we actually face.

In one of the classics of the Less Wrong Sequences, Eliezer argues that policy debates should not appear one-sided. College students are pre-selected for “if they were worse they couldn’t get in, if they were better they’d get in somewhere else.” Political debates are pre-selected for “if it were a stupider idea no one would support it, if it were a better idea everyone would unanimously agree to do it.” We never debate legalizing murder, and we never debate banning glasses. The things we debate are pre-selected to be in a certain range of policy quality.

(to give three examples: no one debates banning sunglasses, that is obviously stupid. No one debates banning murder, that is so obviously a good idea that it encounters no objections. People do debate raising the minimum wage, because it has some plausible advantages and some plausible disadvantages. We might be able to squeeze one or two extra utils out of getting the minimum-wage question exactly right, but it’s unlikely to matter terribly much.)

So there’s some argument to be made that, like the admissions officer, our decisions aren’t too important. I don’t think things are quite that depressing. But, like the admissions officer, we will have to be clever if we want to figure out how to escape the seemingly iron law of tradeoffs.

I recently heard a Catholic guy condemn the “culture of death”, which by his telling consisted of abortion, stem cells, euthanasia, and capital punishment. I’m in favor of three of those things, and I avoid a perfect four-out-of-four only on a technicality: I can’t support capital punishment until it gets better at sparing the innocent and maybe becomes more cost-effective.

My near-unaninimous support for culture-of-death issues seems unlikely to be a coincidence, and indeed it isn’t. I have a deep philosophical disagreement with the Catholics here – they think life is a terminal value, I think life is only valuable insofar as it gives certain goods associated with living.

This means from my point of view, the Catholics have a bias in their trade-off arithmetic. They are the equivalent of the anti-Semitic Harvard leadership, who have given me this great gift of trade-off-free students. Just as learning the Harvard leadership is anti-Semitic makes me suddenly want to accept all Jews as a tradeoff-free utility gain, learning that a large portion of the electorate is biased against death means that certain death-related policies can be tradeoff-free utility gains to me.

I will add one more political example. I’ve previously proposed sticking lithium in the water supply as an intervention to promote psychiatric health. People are super creeped out by this – and in fact, so am I, a little bit. But this is encouraging! If people’s response was “actually, we have proof that these quantities of lithium hurt cardiac health” we’d be faced with a useless tradeoff – X psychiatric health against Y cardiac health – and so a policy we’d be squeezing a couple measly utils out of depending on which way the tradeoff went. But if their response is “I see no particular downside, but I am very creeped out by it”, then this is like learning Harvard is anti-Semitic – an explanation for why other people haven’t gobbled up a possible advantage, and a neon sign pointing out potential tradeoff-free gains for you.

We can also use this framework to evaluate life hacks.

Life hacks are touted as “little-known techniques you can use to improve your life”. There are two ways something can fail to be a life hack – either it becomes universally known, or it fails to improve anything. These form a pre-selection kinda like a college selecting students of a certain quality, or a country debating issues of a certain quality. If an intervention was obviously great, then either you’d already do it (think “sleeping at night” or “working at a job to earn money”) – or you would at least feel guilty for not doing so (think “diet and exercise”). If an intervention was useless, no one would call it a life hack (think “hitting yourself on the head with a baseball bat every day”). Life hacks are the things that are sort of in between, where there seem to be some benefits, and also some costs in terms of time and energy and money, and you’re not sure if they’re worth looking into or not.

If you want to do better than trade off your time and energy for the occasional small benefit, you need a theory of why that might be possible.

Every life hacker wants to be an insider trader – someone who is able to outperform competitors with more resources by being a little savvier about biology and psychology. And probably some are. But unless you are the first scientist to discover a new supplement, or the first psychologist to discover a new technique, your trades aren’t that insider and you’ll eventually have to explain why no one else has adopted them.

And most life hackers pay lip service to comparative advantage: “Everyone has their own individual biology and their own set of problems, what works for you may not work for everyone else.” This is pretty plausible. It suggests the reason the whole world isn’t adopting life hacks is because there’s a very high startup cost, where you’ve got to sort through a hundred different things and find the ones that work for you and the ones that don’t, and nobody can do this for you, and if you’re not very smart you’ll get it wrong.

Another form of comparative advantage is willpower. Maybe no one else is doing weight lifting because they don’t have the determination to go to the gym three times a week. This is a fine theory – plausible even – but it’s interesting to see how many of the people who confidently assert their own comparative advantage then buy a gym membership but end up not having the determination to go three times a week.

But in terms of using a tradeoff-based framework to help inform the decision of what lifehacks to try, it seems most promising to consider opportunities for bias compensation.

Like insider trading, bias compensation is claimed a lot more often than I think it can be supported. The polyphasic sleep crowd, for example, tell you that you can increase your free time per day – and all you need to do is stick to a very strict schedule, be very tired for a long time while you’re working out kinks, and abandon all hope of a social life or flexible schedule. To me this seems a lot like the admission official with the bright idea of admitting unpleasant low-social-skills kids: it sounds good if you’re only thinking about the most easily quantifiable results, but when you actually try it you tend to regret it very quickly.

Can we find anything more promising? I think that people are unnecessarily pessimistic about nootropics because they are scared of taking drugs. Fear of taking drugs is an excellent and rational fear to have, but if you happen to lack it that fear, or you have enough comparative advantage in pharmacological knowledge / research ability that you can justifiably be less afraid of taking drugs than everyone else, then this starts to look like the lithium-water example: getting free utility by abandoning your sense of creeped-out-ness.

But if you’re going to force me to give you an example of something I actually did differently because of thinking about tradeoffs, I’ll have to go with “try bacopa”.

Bacopa is a memory-enhancing drug that performs very well in studies. But it’s rarely used and it only got a middling ranking on my survey. I think this has something to do with having to take it for three months before it has any effect. Talk about trivial inconvenience. Most people don’t want to bother, so it remains largely uninvestigated, and the nonsuperabundance of bacopa use stands explained without resorting to it being a bad drug or having other tradeoffs we really don’t want. So using it – if you can stand the three month waiting period – has a higher-than-otherwise-expected likelihood of being free utility.

Me? I tried to start taking bacopa, but it gave me terrible diarrhea and I had to stop. Another tradeoff! That should just increase its expected psychological benefits!

Last, something on the lighter side: an article going around the Internet recently claims houses on streets with mildly rude names (example: “Slag Lane”) apparently cost £84,000 less than control houses on more properly named streets (the article does not give me enough information to rule out hypotheses like poor people being more willing to give their streets rude names). If you don’t care about what your street name is called, this might be another potential free trade-off – buy a house on Slag Lane and save $100,000+. Or buy a house that’s supposed to be haunted if you don’t believe in ghosts. Or buy a house near a prison with a very low escape rate because you trust the statistics and other people don’t.

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137 Responses to Searching For One-Sided Tradeoffs

  1. St. Rev says:

    The story about math/verbal SAT tradeoffs is pretty easy to formalize as a theorem. Given uncorrelated random variables X and Y, it’s easy to create spurious correlations by filtering the sample; in that case, by only looking in the band 1100 < X + Y < 1300 we create a strong negative correlation.

    Another possibly relevant example occurred to me a while back in the case of perceptions of economic justice.

    Suppose people mostly associate with other people in their economic class. Suppose, furthermore, that people's economic class is determined by two random variables, which we could call virtue and vice–virtue would include hard work and skill, and vice would include dumb luck, exploitation and theft.

    Then people, looking around at their economic peers–e.g. sampling the band lower middle class < Virtue + Vice < upper middle class–will see an apparent negative correlation between the two variables. Their neighbors will be a mix of hardworking, smart people who've had a rough time, and lazy cheats who've gotten away with it. From this, they may well conclude that a meritocratic society is intrinsically less just!

  2. suntzuanime says:

    What if being anti-death is less like being anti-Semitic and more like being anti-gross people? What if it turns out that death is actually bad?

    • Daniel H says:

      If Scott hadn’t mentioned the particular policies in question, I’d agree with you here that death is actually bad (as I do in the general case). However, I agree with Scott on each of these policies, despite being very anti-death (at least in comparison to the general population). For two of these, I am for them because I don’t think fetuses are people, at least not until late in the pregnancy (I don’t know enough about prenatal and neonatal neural development to be very precise, so am being cautious with this estimate). For euthanasia, I don’t think there’s an ethical problem with it if the patient gives informed consent, as it seems like in that case the person’s life is no longer worth living and we shouldn’t force them to do so. Iff comunication is impossible, then I’d let those close to the patient decide based on what they think the patient would want, but am less sure that’s a good idea.

      I am more against the death penalty than Scott seems to be, though: even with perfect knowledge of guilt, I wouldn’t support the death penalty unless it was a) shown to be an effective deterrent (unlikely given my limited knowledge of criminal psychology), b) sufficiently reduced chances of a repeat crime over other options (depends on the effectiveness of available rehab, prisons, or other options), or c) was the request of the criminal in question. Without perfect knowledge of guilt, I only support it in the last case, for the same reason I support consensual euthanasia.

  3. Qiaochu Yuan says:

    For reference, the phenomenon you describe in the introduction is called restriction of range. Should be better known as far as defense against dark statistics goes.

  4. jsalvatier says:

    Do you have a link on the Bacopa research? Also gwern says

    The research looks interesting and it’s cheap; but I am suspicious of anything Ayurvedic because of heavy metals, and Bacopa monnieri is a hyperaccumulator of heavy metals.

    Which certainly *sounds* bad.

    • gwern says:

      It is bad, IMO, which is one reason I’ve held off on taking any bacopa – where do I get heavy-metal-free bacopa? Hopefully I’ll know soon: /r/Nootropics has had a lab testing program in place for a year or so, and our next target is bacopa. We’ve already bought 2 or 3 samples from the standard retailers.

      • Daniel H says:

        I can’t wait for those results, although I suspect the trivial inconvinience will prove difficult for me to overcome. Does anybody have advice on surmounting them?

      • Mqrius says:

        Is there a central summary of these tests?

        The reported cognitive enhancement reminds me of what’s said about Lion’s Mane; as a mushroom I’d expect it to have similar heavy metal risk.

        • Cyan says:

          gwern doesn’t just talk about collecting data in blog comments — he documents, aggregates, and disperses it:

          gwern’s page on nootropics

          Let all aspiring rationalists rain approbation down upon gwern!

        • anon1 says:

          Medicinal lion’s mane is typically (not always; supplier will probably specify this though) cultivated directly on whole grains, which are allowed to produce many small fruiting bodies; the mushrooms and colonized grains are dehydrated and ground up together. So it should have exactly the same elemental composition as a similar mass of whole grain.

          Culinary lion’s mane is grown on sawdust, not on a soil-based substrate, so I’d expect that the opportunities for heavy metal accumulation would be very limited even if you are only using the fruiting body and tossing out the substrate.

          Bacopa monnieri is apparently not difficult to grow as long as you keep it warm. I would suggest growing your own; I believe commercial potting soil is pretty low in heavy metals.

        • Mqrius says:

          anon1: Fair enough! Thanks for sharing that 🙂

          Growing it myself sounds interesting, but I’m not sure if I trust my mushroom farming skills enough to eat the results on a regular basis.

        • anon1 says:

          Lion’s Mane is a bit finicky. It’s fun to grow because it looks incredibly cool (sort of like a living koosh ball), and it has a lovely delicate flavor that’s reminiscent of lobster, but the expected yield is not super high even if you do everything right.

          If you’re interested in growing mushrooms at home, I’d recommend starting with pearl oyster mushrooms first, perhaps starting with purchased spawn. They are fast-growing, high-yielding, and much more able to defend themselves against enemies like mold and bacteria. Also they’re unusually un-picky about their food. Straw, cardboard, junk mail, corncobs, sawdust, logs… pretty much anything goes. (Also they make microscopic traps to capture and digest live nematodes! Mushrooms are SO COOL!) And they also contain fair amounts of lovastatin, which is supposed to be good for you or something. Once you’re hooked on the hobby, *then* go ahead and branch out to somewhat harder species like lion’s mane.

        • Mqrius says:

          Heh. It sounds like a cool hobby. I wonder if my girlfriend will hate me if I take that up after we move in together 😀

          Thanks for the pointers! I’ll keep it in mind. For now I’ll order extracts though.

      • gwern says:

        Bacopa test results are up: http://www.reddit.com/r/Nootropics/comments/21zqvh/purityheavy_metals_testing_results/

        TLDR: Bacognize good. Himalaya not as good, but under the limits. Nootrabiolabs bad.

  5. Dave says:

    Two related anecdotes:

    – I remember hearing a variant of the SAT verbal/math story in a college stats class, but it related to the usefulness of SAT prep classes. The benighted university (this being a stats class at MIT, the university was of course identified as Harvard) naturally concluded they had no value, since both the “took classes” and “didn’t take classes” subsets of the incoming freshman class had comparable SAT scores.

    – I commented to a realtor once that I did not understand why all the deaf people in the greater Boston area didn’t live in the part of Winthrop right under the flight paths from Logan Airport. She replied that she went out of her way to market houses there to hearing-impaired clients, but as far as she’d noticed none of her competitors had figured that out, so she’d appreciate it if I didn’t spread that observation around. (I made no promises.)

  6. Anonymous says:

    Another one might be creatine. It is mainly used for bigger muscles, but it can also improve cognition in people that are deficient. I would imagine its reputation of users being jock muscleheads would deter the kind of people who are interested in nootropics. But it’s only of limited use–if you regularly eat red meat you probably aren’t deficient.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1691485/

  7. If you’re looking for the stupidest student, it’s probably better to look at the least capable player on the football team rather than the football star. However, why not check out the legacy admissions?

    My insider trader admissions policy would be to choose students who aren’t good-looking.

    • CaptainBooshi says:

      Actually, choosing students who aren’t good-looking would almost certainly lead to bad outcomes as well. I remember, back in high school, that how attractive the average student was at a college made a big difference in how attractive most people found the school. You may very well be able to attract a student who could get into a better school just by having more attractive people to be around. It actually fits perfectly into the trade-off model that Scott was talking about.

      I also don’t understand your first comment, about looking at the least-capable player. The entire point of Scott’s post was that higher athletic skill might compensate for lower academic ability, so the star is exactly who you would look in that case.

      • I’m assuming it takes intelligence to be very good at football, and also that even the worst player isn’t really bad at football, but not as good at academics at the general student population.. I’m not sure my reasoning is completely sound– perhaps someone who knows something about college football players will chime in.

        I agree that selecting for plain-looking students will damage the universities’ reputation (and probably the reputations of its students), but I’m betting that finding people who’ve been overlooked will add more intelligence than the loss of reputation will drive away. We can assume that universities are already competing on the basis of having pretty people.

    • Elissa says:

      My insider trader admissions policy would be to choose students who aren’t good-looking.

      A better strategy might be to select for students who aren’t well-dressed and well-groomed and give them some kind of freshman makeover seminar.

      • T. Greer says:

        This only works if we assume said seminar will permanently change their behavior.

        I am always curious how those people on “Extreme Make over” look a year or so after the show is over.

  8. a person says:

    Can we find anything more promising?

    PUA? You can use it to get something everyone wants – sex with lots of attractive people, but people are creeped out by it because (I theorize) they have an implicit belief in souls that suggests people have a core unchanging true self and deviating from presenting that self is a form of dishonesty.

    • Zathille says:

      I have had little to no contact with PUA literature, but the usual objections I’ve seen raised hardly took such dualistic direction [at least superficially] and, instead, expressed suspicion that such practices were inherently manipulative or constituted ’emotional blackmail’ of some sort.

      Then again, with my inexperience on the subject, I merely know of the more superficial criticisms raised and am unable to judge their merits.

      • a person says:

        That’s kind of what I’m saying. “Manipulating” = “tricking” women into having sex with you = putting on a supposed false persona to attract women, which only makes sense if you believe in a “true” persona.

        I recognize that this is a controversial subject though. I probably should have said that for certain people this is an example of the phenomenon Scott is discussing.

        • Kaminiwa says:

          You two might be referring to different crowds. There’s definitely PUA that’s just about putting on a different/”false” persona. Buuut… there’s also PUA that’s basically teaching how to be a *successful, competent* abuser. And, obviously, plenty of middle ground too.

    • ozymandias says:

      IME people’s objections to PUA fall into one of the following categories:

      (1) some PUA techniques are very ethically dubious (most things that fall in the category of fighting ‘Last Minute Resistance’)
      (2) some PUA techniques are not necessarily ethically dubious but are often presented as such by their creators and critics (e.g. negging, disqualification)
      (3) PUAs tend to emphasize gender differences very hard, even in places that have absolutely nothing to do with pickup per se, which turns off a lot of feminists and feminist-sympathetic people
      (4) a lot of feminists and feminist-sympathetic people are ideologically committed to “everybody is beautiful,” for fairly decent reasons (if you believe that beauty is socially constructed and you would like everybody to be considered beautiful, loudly insisting that everyone is beautiful seems like a fairly decent strategy to achieve this); therefore they dislike an ideology which explicitly opposes that idea
      (5) some PUA things appear low-status and therefore people don’t want to believe they will work (peacocking, especially gender-non-conforming peacocking; approaching lots of people; prioritizing getting laid)
      (6) steelmanning your “implicit belief in souls” point: people are not actually blank slates, and pretending to be an extroverted and traditionally masculine man when you are not attracts women who are into extroverted, traditionally masculine men, thus leaving you in the unenviable position of either pretending your entire relationship or turning her off and having her leave you.
      (7) a lot of PUA advicegivers are actually just keyboard jockeys, making the entire business somewhat unreliable.

      Mystery-style peacocking, incidentally, seems to be a pretty clear tradeoff situation: it makes more women really into you and more women think you’re gross than being a generic dude in a polo shirt, and most dudes do not want women to think they’re gross. (Also, to maximize the number of people who don’t think you look gross, you have to learn something about fashion.) I recommend it for entirely selfish reasons, because I want more pretty dudes in eyeliner hanging around for my aesthetic pleasure.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        if you believe that beauty is socially constructed and you would like everybody to be considered beautiful, loudly insisting that everyone is beautiful seems like a fairly decent strategy to achieve this

        It seems to me that your prediction of the direction of effect is backwards both for this strategy and as a side effect of the PUA ideology.

      • suntzuanime says:

        To the extent that beauty is socially constructed, it is surely also zero-sum. I can’t accept these reasons as “fairly decent”.

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          Is beauty zero sum? If everyone suddenly became 100 beautils more attractive I would expect people to have more sex. I don’t really have a good reason for thinking this though.

        • suntzuanime says:

          I imagine when you imagine everyone becoming 100 beautils more beautiful you imagine their actual physical features changing. What would it even mean for everyone to become 100 beautils more beautiful in the socially-constructed sense?

          I suppose one strategy might be to create fake people who we socially-construct ugliness onto, to boost the beauty of the real people. Mass media with its beautiful celebrities does basically the exact opposite of this, and to their credit the Radical Omnibeauticians do direct a substantial amount of their hate toward this social phenomenon.

        • Alejandro says:

          Assuming that beauty is both socially constructed and zero-sum, you could describe the project of the “Omnibeauticians” as trying to attain a redistribution of beauty: to move from a situation in which a society as a whole agrees that supermodels are super beautiful and that fat people/disabled people/etc are not beautiful, to one where there is no such social consensus and any kind of person has a chance of being seen as attractive by a decent number of people.

        • suntzuanime says:

          I don’t think *that* goal is particularly served by “everyone is beautiful” propaganda. For that you want fractured, diverse standards of beauty, not no standards at all.

          I dunno how exactly you promote that. Fill the world with various weird fetish porn and hope that what sticks is different from person to person?

      • misha says:

        instead of saying “everyone is beautiful” you could just say “everyone is beautiful to someone” or “No matter what, you’re somebody’s fetish”

        • Randy M says:

          But the important thing is to be beautiful to someone who you find beautiful as well, and it isn’t necessarily so, or likely to be achievable.

      • Steve says:

        > if you believe that beauty is socially constructed and you would like everybody to be considered beautiful, loudly insisting that everyone is beautiful seems like a fairly decent strategy to achieve this

        What’s the threshhold for “fairly decent strategy”? It seems to me that 60 seconds of actual thought would suggest that fighting any standard for discriminating between people head-on will lead only to your developing a reputation as someone who fares poorly according to that standard, and doesn’t want to admit it.

        • Multiheaded says:

          Trivial countermeasure: get attractive people on your side to decry conventional beauty standards.

        • Randy M says:

          Which just appears to be sabotaging the competition.

          Like, if I tried to get all other men to believe that they shouldn’t care about hygene or social skills or money or whatever, despite my having naturally neutral smell or wit or inheritance. Am I fighting against my privilege, or encouraging others not to try to reduce my natural advantage in areas where the tastes of women are unlikely to change?

    • CaptainBooshi says:

      I don’t think you understand what most people actually find creepy about being a pick-up artist. In fact, pretty much everyone understands a little dishonesty can be a good thing sometimes.

      My theory as to why people find pick-up artists creepy is that it is, at least apparently, incredibly selfish. From everything I’ve heard about the community, they are trying to satisfy their own values with pretty much no regard to the values of the other person, and in the worst cases, are willing to actively sabotage the other person to get what they want.

      I have no real interest in having a discussion about whether this is true of pick-up artists or not, but it is definitely the popular opinion, and when I’ve seen them representing themselves, that’s the way they usually come across, so that would be my guess as to why people find them creepy.

      • There’s certainly a huge chunk of it that *appears* incredibly selfish.

        I tend to mentally classify techniques into “light side” and “dark side” – the former being the ones that are trying to satisfy values all around, the latter those that are essentially selfish.

        One of the things that fascinates me is that, as with self help stuff, the means used to sell the technique may be nothing to do with why the technique actually works – there’s a bunch of stuff I can think of that to me seemed like really pretty basic “how not to come off as a complete creep” but was sold with varying forms of psychobabble so as not to require the student to admit to themselves that they were previously doing so.

    • Amanda L. says:

      Um, I’m creeped out by it because the community seems to have an unusual proportion of people who only pay lip service to the idea that women have agency and moral value. As a woman I find this rather uncomfortable.

      More generally, I think it is useful to avoid thinking that people who criticize groups you identify with are doing so for [insert community boo light]: irrational bias (LW), racism/misogyny (social justice circles), etc. It is a fast track to complacency and lack of self awareness.

      • Andy says:

        This, and Booshi’s comment,

        My theory as to why people find pick-up artists creepy is that it is, at least apparently, incredibly selfish. From everything I’ve heard about the community, they are trying to satisfy their own values with pretty much no regard to the values of the other person, and in the worst cases, are willing to actively sabotage the other person to get what they want.

        are pretty much why PUAs make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Even when I was desperately single, horny, and lonely, I looked at PUAs and said “Yeaaaaaah, that is not who I want to be at all.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I agree with this comment, but that also means it may in fact be a tradeoff in the sense mentioned in the post.

        That is, the fact that most people don’t want to do it because it’s morally questionable seems like a good explanation for how pickup artistry could be “successful” at its stated goal without becoming universal/popular.

        The tradeoff holding it at equilibrium is success versus morals.

        This brings up a glaring deficiency in the original post. I mentioned the lithium example where we can get free gains by trading off against feelings of creepiness as if this was always a good thing. But sometimes the creepy feeling is right, and what we’re actually doing is winning “free” gains by trading off against the desire to be moral.

    • Desertopa says:

      Speaking as someone who does not, in fact, want sex with lots of attractive people, and would much rather have sex with those relatively few (preferably attractive) people I actually like, I think this is an inaccurate representation of the positions of most objectors to PUA.

      You don’t need an implicit belief in souls to believe that individuals have a nature that is to a very significant extent invariant. People certainly behave differently in different contexts (otherwise the Fundamental Attribution Error wouldn’t be an error,) but at the same time, there is clearly a nature component which factors heavily into the overall determination of people’s personalities. People generally don’t just judge whether they’d like to have sex with someone by their impression of how the person is behaving that particular night, but by their impression of what that person is like in general.

      (Thought experiment here; imagine that an attractive person at a club is a White Nationalist who spends their spare time agitating for forcible separation of races. They have hooked up with people at the club previously, but none of them knew about this. Do you think that, if the people they had sex with learned this information, none of them would be distressed?)

      Now, one might argue that as long as the information is carefully withheld, it won’t cause anyone distress, and thus is not unethical. Whatever the framework behind it though, this doesn’t conform to most people’s ethical intuitions, which is why actions such as Rape By Deception are criminalized.

      The point that I think underlies the objections of most people who’re opposed to PUA though, is that the focus on getting men sexual access to attractive women suggests priorities or an ideology that many people find unpalatable. If the general community focus were simply on improving members’ understanding and command of interpersonal communication, which could then be applied to attaining greater sexual or romantic success if the participants so chose, you’d have something like Dale Carnegie seminar training, which far fewer people find objectionable.

      • Multiheaded says:

        The point that I think underlies the objections of most people who’re opposed to PUA though, is that the focus on getting men sexual access to attractive women suggests priorities or an ideology that many people find unpalatable. If the general community focus were simply on improving members’ understanding and command of interpersonal communication, which could then be applied to attaining greater sexual or romantic success if the participants so chose, you’d have something like Dale Carnegie seminar training, which far fewer people find objectionable.

        I’ve heard folks (guys and/or feminists) speak very approvingly of Mark Manson, an ex-PUA who switched to the self-improvement model. People say that he gives good life advice and feminists would actually give him the time of the day. For a more narrow “ethical PUA” angle, there’s the recently started r/LetsGetLaid.

      • Geirr says:

        Besides Sweden, where is being a lying asshole to get laid a crime? Also, that name is probably politically expedient but it triviaises the experience of rape victims.

  9. ThrustVectoring says:

    In general, difficult decisions are not particularly important (and vice-versa). Whenever the net benefit of each choice is close enough to make it hard to decide, the difference between them is rather low. I just thought it strange that it wasn’t mentioned explicitly.

  10. Douglas Knight says:

    We never debate legalizing murder, and we never debate banning glasses.

    I’d think that you were choosing the examples to suggest counterexamples, except that you later switched it to sunglasses.

  11. Morendil says:

    Maybe you don’t care about your street name, but other people do, so the $100K savings on buying is also going to mean a $100K shortfall in resale value when you move out. If you’re OK with dying on Slag Lane, though, go for it.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Presumably that 100K is earning interest and stuff. It would be really weird for there to be no advantage at all to having a cheaper house.

      You could also just buy a much nicer house on Slag Lane for the same price as a crappy house somewhere else, enjoy the nice house for a while, and then sell it for the same amount you would have sold the crappy house for.

      • Khoth says:

        Perhaps the optimum strategy is to buy a house on a street with a name which is a rude word which is falling out of use. So by the time it comes to sell, it won’t be rude any more and you can sell for full price.

        • Anonymous says:

          Curiously enough that is pretty much the exact opposite of what happened in real life, e.g. slag used to be a value neutral term for furnace waste, but evolved into a disparaging term for promiscuity.

      • Yes, but the house is also likely gaining in value too (averaged over the years you live there), so starting 100K in the hole finishes 100K * (1 + X) in the hole later, where the X is the change in value of the house.

        Of course, if you need the extra 100K more now than you need 100K * (1 + X) when you sell it, buy the house on slag lane. Similarly, if you expect other investment vehicles to appreciate faster than the house, or to provide liquidity you need, then the buy the house on slag lane. But it’s not a slam dunk to buy on slag lane given that you personally don’t mind the name.

        • Andrew says:

          If you’re not convinced by the angle of “spend 100k less on a slag lane house” (which feels like a fully general argument for always buying as much house as you can afford, which ended poorly), then you should at least be convinced by the angle of “buy 100k more house on slag lane”.

          Unless you’re like me and actively prefer less house, which turned out awfully well for me, since my house currently has 60% of the value it had when I bought it at almost the worst possible time.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Reversal test: would you buy a house on Good Luck Road that cost $100K more than a similar house on a normally named street?

        • Andy says:

          I know someone who refused to buy a house in Southern California because it was on a street called “Fawnskin,” even though it was in a really nice neighborhood.

        • Anonymous says:

          Presumably, all the other houses on Good Luck Road are also selling for $100K more than the similar houses around. So sure. It shouldn’t make a difference, unless you can spot a trend going in either direction.

    • ThrustVectoring says:

      There are two parts to a house’s value – the right to live there, and the right to sell it to someone else. You can estimate the first by looking at prevailing rents, and estimate the second by subtracting rents out.

      A really important missing piece of detail is how many people are willing to rent a house with a poor street name. I suspect that there’s a narrower purchase premium over renting in places like that – and really, that’s the metric you should be using for home-buying.

  12. mimosomal says:

    And the negative relative holds for much the same reasons obviously, the more naturally appealing people find a certain class of idea based on information that you’ve decided to discount, the more likely a member is to turn out worthless or negative. Examples including most of the push towards natural medicines, philosophical positions and facts that have been wrapped up in good stories and fun traditions to make them more palatable, and so on. On that note, even the less tested racetams probably have an inflated reputation in the nootropics community based on familiarity with piracetam, but halos and horns aside the evidence I’ve seen of noopept being effective without reported issues and Bacopa being harmful due to heavy metal buildup led me to use the former and not the latter.

    Also, “Peripherally associated with the Gwernosphere” indicates that you may be indirectly aware of my rather atrocious tumblr through ozy now. Commencing illogical panic at the possibility of a hero knowing me (anonymously) through some of my most awful creations.

  13. Your claims about politics fall into the common trap of assuming we’re all on the same side, and that politics is just about maximizing total utilons. It isn’t. Politics is about deciding who gets how much at the cost of who else. It is about competing interest groups who want different things.

    We don’t talk about banning sunglasses because no one wants sunglasses banned. We do debate banning murder, though mostly by arguing whether a particular form of killing people is or is not “murder” (e.g. capital punishment; political assassinations; stand your ground)

    We debate raising the minimum wage because it advantages some people (mostly low wage workers) and disadvantages others (mostly employers). The question is not whether raising the minimum wage increases or decreases total utilons. It’s who gets extra utilons (well, in this case we can talk about dollars so who gets extra dollars and who loses dollars) when the minimum is raised. Even if everyone agrees that raising/lowering the minimum wage will increase total utilons/dollars, if it’s going to decrease the utilons/dollars of one group, then that group will oppose the change (and vice versa of course).

    • Multiheaded says:

      Just wanted to say exactly this. Hear, hear!

      It sure gets even worse with things like the “war” on “drugs”, where people make everyone worse off just to damage the group they fear and despise. A zero-sum fight for resources is still better than a negative-sum spiral of oppression.

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        “The question is not whether raising the minimum wage increases or decreases total utilons.”

        -Actually that is part of the debate; if it reduces total employment it reduces utilons.

        “It sure gets even worse with things like the “war” on “drugs”, where people make everyone worse off just to damage the group they fear and despise.”

        -The alternate theory I’ve heard is the war on drugs was adopted when more oversight was enforced on police and sentences were reduced. Using drugs as a proxy for anti-social and criminal behavior lets the justice system suppress crime, even with the handicaps they labor under.

        • Multiheaded says:

          But it reproduces crime on a massive scale by destroying neighbourhoods and generally reigning in terror. Haven’t you, like, watched The Wire?

        • Douglas Knight says:

          I’ve heard many people say that this is a good description of how the American criminal justice system works today, but I’ve never heard anyone claim it was the original intention. Can you point to someone who actually says that? I find more plausible the obvious hypothesis that Nixon in 1970 wanted to lock up hippies.

          An argument against: this hypothesis is bottom-up. The imagery of the “war on drugs” or the “drug czar” is top-down. Imagery isn’t everything, but prison sentences are set centrally; if the problem is short sentences for normal crimes, why increase the sentences for drugs? Another example is asset forfeiture laws, where the police keep what they seize. The whole point of these laws is that the legislature wants the police to prioritize drug laws.

        • Reducing total employment does not imply reducing total utilons. It may, but that is an empirical question, not one that necessarily follows.

          If 1% of low wage jobs are eliminated, but the jobs that remain double in salary, you’re probably increasing total utilons (or not; those dollars are coming from somewhere).

          But none of this addresses the main point: the issue is not and never has been total utilons. It is about the distribution of utilons among different groups and individuals.

          Utilons/dollars are not strongly conserved. They can both be created and destroyed. However relatively little political disputes resolve around gross utilons/dollars. Far more commonly they are about giving more or less (or taking more or less) from one group or another.

  14. AJD says:

    If we want to find the smartest student in a particular college, we might look for someone on a scholarship – because perhaps she would otherwise be at Harvard, but was made less attractive to the Ivy League by her inability to pay them any money.

    (I recognize that this is only a hypothetical example; but it seems worth noting that Harvard is less put off by the inability to pay than the typical lower-tier college. I guess extreme wealth is another source of comparative advantage?)

    • Max says:

      In fact, that example is even less plausible in the way it is worded, since Harvard and all Ivy League schools have some kind of need-blind admission (at Harvard, apparently, even for non-US applicats; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Need-blind_admission).

      • orthonormal says:

        Yes, but you could still have the choice between zero or little need-based aid at Harvard and a full ride at a lesser school. I was tempted to go to a lesser school offering a merit scholarship, because my self-employed dad earned too much to qualify me for need-based aid but didn’t have the guarantee of continued income that would make the price tag irrelevant.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I call this phenomenon the “efficient markets hypothesis of everything.” I used to have a job in which I had a commute through one of the worst highways in the country. Geographically, the main route (a freeway) was through a valley between two large hilly areas that divided the city, but there were several alternate routes one could take over the top of the hills through wealthy residential areas. It turned out that no matter which alternate route I took, there was just enough traffic to make it take almost exactly the same amount of time, or the route was so convoluted that the driving overhead was not quite worth the minimal time savings. I eventually settled on a route that saved me about 10 out of 60 minutes that was very convoluted, but I reduced the cognitive overhead by repetition, making it almost as mindless as the freeway. It only worked in the evening, never in the morning.

    The closer there is to being one clear determinant of value in a competitive situation (risk vs. return in the case of the stock market, time in the case of the commute route market), the more differences are optimized away between alternatives. In school admissions there are fewer relevant axes than in public policy, with SAT scores (and other markers that just so happen to highly be correlated with IQ) acting as the primary scoring mechanism.

  16. Mary says:

    The “creepy” part of your lithium proposal is that it inherently calls for the government — claiming to act for our good — sets out to manipulate our minds without our consent. What’s next?

    That’s the problem with “I think life is only valuable insofar as it gives certain goods associated with living.” There have been many, many, many people who were willing to put conditions on whether life is valuable. Put them in power, and it ends with a stack of corpses and much misery all around.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Do you feel the same about putting iodine in salt? If not, can you articulate the difference?

      • Me says:

        My answer is as follows: Insofar as we have accepted fluoridated water/iodine in salt/etc, we should go full speed ahead with the lithium. There is no major difference between the scenarios, and if we accept the tradeoffs in regards to fluorine/iodine, there is no reason not to accept them for lithium.

        But… actually… that is a major source of scariness. If we accept that the government can mess with our minds in proscribed cases A, B, and C, you just vaulted right over a very importent schelling fence. That is not a route we want to go down at all.

        Thus runs the argument against it. It argues that the schelling point is at zero government mind modification, and that is a situation we don’t want to mess with, so much so that we may be willing to take a hit to our health and IQ for its sake.

        I’m sympathetic with this argument, but I would not go so far as to wholeheartedly support it. Health and IQ are very important, and I don’t like the notion of trading them away so easily. It’s a tough problem, I’ll admit. (Actually, this kinda contradicts Scott’s use of this in his example. I guess it’s rather hard to find a pure example of unambiguous tradeoff-free policies that have not been implemented. (As per Scott’s whole point, but I digress.))

        In any case, I think the best solution is to add them in, so long as there is a clear, legal, and easy way for anyone to filter them out of their personal water supply, if they are so inclined. That way, everyone get’s the boosts to there health and IQ, and if anyone feels things have gone to far, they can just install a filter over their house’s water supply, and remove the stuff they don’t want. It seems like the best of both worlds…

        • Mqrius says:

          If you’re mentioning Schelling fences; The status quo is a quite important Schelling fence. You could take that and halt there, even though it’s not a logically consistent Schelling fence were one to start on top of the Schelling hill.

      • Mary says:

        Mind modification!

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          Iodine affects the mind as well, as do many things that are put into your food.

          Also, the reason why lithium was suggested is because the lithium levels in some water supplies are abnormally low compared to other regions. This intervention would simply maintain a standard level of lithium in the water supply rather than leaving it to chance.

        • Ken Arromdee says:

          If you can get doctors and scientists to classify lithium as a nutrient, and lithium deficiency as a deficiency disease which affects mental health and is caused by an absence of lithium in the diet, then you might be able to compare it to iodine. Otherwise, there’s a difference between a substance that alters mental health because it alleviates a deficiency that harms mental health, and a substance that affects mental health because it is a mind-altering substance and moves minds in a particular direction rather than moving them towards what is clearly a base state and stopping there.

          • gwern says:

            Is it better to earn a dollar, or to avoid the loss of a dollar?

            One way micronutrients and essential vitamins are defined is basically to put animals or humans on a normal diet completely deficient of it, and see if they look worse off than a control group. Murder, suicide, rape – all these seem like the deficient group is worse off to me.

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          I understand why this proposal scares you. Iodine is an innocent “nutrient”. Whereas Lithium is a scary “drug” that big pharma produces in pills. However, please realize why “drug” might be an unnatural category.

          Some cities have problems with crime and suicide, and other cities mysteriously don’t (we knew that). What we’ve recently found out, is that a very significant part of that difference is caused by differences in the naturally occurring levels of lithium. Cities that have lower lithium supplies tend to have problems with crime and suicide. How can you not be excited that such a simple thing could be the cause of such a seemingly unstoppable problem? Now you could:

          1) Demand that every city now filter out all of their lithium thus increasing the amount of suicides and crimes in the world because lithium is a “drug”. And there is a Deontic Principle that “People shouldn’t be taking drugs without their consent”.

          OR

          2) You could create a standard for the levels of lithium in water supplies that will save millions of lives.

        • Ken Arromdee says:

          As I’ve tried to explain above, there’s a difference between something which affects you by moving you towards a baseline, and which no longer affects you in the same manner once you have reached the baseline, and something which affects you by moving you in a particular direction without a baseline (that is not an obvious overdose). The former is characterized as a deficiency; the latter isn’t.

          Using your dollar analogy, if you have a hole in your pocket, you may lose money, and putting a patch on the hole will keep you from losing money. However, you won’t find yourself with even more money if you put on two patches. Patching the hole takes you to a base state and more patches have no effect. On the other hand, if you work at an hourly job to earn money, working more hours will let you earn additional money. So patching the hole is “preventing a loss” while earning the money at a job isn’t, even if patching the hole means you don’t lose $x and working at the job means you earn $x with the same net effect on your money supply as patching the hole.

          Giving people iodine is the equivalent to patching a hole. Giving people lithium isn’t.

        • gwern says:

          As I’ve tried to explain above, there’s a difference between something which affects you by moving you towards a baseline, and which no longer affects you in the same manner once you have reached the baseline, and something which affects you by moving you in a particular direction without a baseline (that is not an obvious overdose). The former is characterized as a deficiency; the latter isn’t…Giving people iodine is the equivalent to patching a hole. Giving people lithium isn’t.

          I don’t see how you can possibly know this, and why my reversal test is inaccurate. To be more explicit: due to heavy rains this spring, the lithium level in the local wells spikes from 11mcg/l to 70mcg/l; admission rates to the local mental hospital halves from 22 per 10k residents to 13 per 10k (estimate borrowed from Dawson et al 1972); the local government refuses to act as this change is well below EPA-defined safe limits for lithium in drinking water; is this a gross injustice, and would you vote on a referendum to add additional filtering to the wells to restore the original levels?

          Again, what is the moral difference between losing a dollar and missing out on the gain of a dollar? Do humans really have holes?

        • Ken Arromdee says:

          would you vote on a referendum to add additional filtering to the wells to restore the original levels?

          By a baseline level I (roughly) mean a level 1) at which the substance stops having a beneficial effect (and where the beneficial effect is considered beneficial by pretty much everyone), and 2) which is still far from the range where it has harmful effects. Iodine has this and lithium doesn’t. Something does not become a baseline level merely because it is the original level.

          what is the moral difference between losing a dollar and missing out on the gain of a dollar? Do humans really have holes?

          To take the second answer first, yes, humans have “holes”–I’m comparing holes to deficiency diseases. Humans certainly can have a deficiency of iodine, but humans cannot have a deficiency of lithium, because iodine and lithium behave differently: a certain level of iodine is necessary for normal functioning and additional doses of iodine cannot help further, while additional doses of lithium continue to have mind-altering effects far past the point where the negative consequences begin.

          The answer to the first question is that there’s no moral difference when talking about perfect people, but there’s a huge practical difference. If there is widespread agreement that the effects are positive and if there’s a level at which the positive effects end before there are any negative ones, we don’t need to trust the person who supplies the substance to make good tradeoffs between positive and negative effects or to make good decisions about whether an effect is actually positive.

          • gwern says:

            To take the second answer first, yes, humans have “holes”–I’m comparing holes to deficiency diseases. Humans certainly can have a deficiency of iodine, but humans cannot have a deficiency of lithium, because iodine and lithium behave differently: a certain level of iodine is necessary for normal functioning and additional doses of iodine cannot help further, while additional doses of lithium continue to have mind-altering effects far past the point where the negative consequences begin.

            And again, your basis for this is…? You can know this how…? We observe severe dysfunctionality correlated with low levels of lithium: suicide, murder, insanity. This matches iodine exactly.

        • Prussian Prince of Automata says:

          If this were pretty much any other time and place adding lithium to the water would make sense for a variety of excellent reasons[1], but our government simply cannot be trusted with the power to administer psychiatric medication without consent. It demonstrated as much when it started using involuntary psychiatric commitment to avoid the constitutional protection against double jeopardy[2], and by the eagerness many of it’s academic allies have to medicalize dissent[3].

          Once a chemical popularly conceived of primarily as an anti-psychotic is placed into the water supply the doors to genuinely harmful drugging are left wide open; indeed it seems practically in invitation to do so. Maybe this is just a failure of my imagination, but I cannot for the life of me think of any argument which could be used to protect people against forced administration of mood altering chemicals which would also allow for lithium supplementation through the water.

          [1] And not just mental health reasons; it looks like Lithium’s effect on lifespan might be because it reduces expression of LSD1 (a protein which demethylates histones).
          [2] While SVP laws were made with pedophiles in mind, like the rest of the legal architecture around “sex offender” laws they are wide open to abuse as the definition of what constitutes a “sex crime” becomes murkier and the psychiatric community (or at least the people writing the DSM-5) continues to expand what constitutes a mental illness.
          [3] Radish did a really excellent article on this, but this is hardly just a right wing concern; people on the far left have been making similar observations for years. It is far too easy and far too profitable to label any behavior you don’t approve of as pathological, whether the specific targets are ‘racists’ or gays.

        • Ken Arromdee says:

          I have never said that because problems are correlated with the absence of X, the problems are caused by a deficiency of X, and I see no reason why I should. Lack of Rogaine is correlated with baldness, and lack of iron is also correlated with baldness, but the latter is a deficiency and the former is not.

          Treating a deficiency is different from administering a drug, even though in both cases supplying a substance alleviates symptoms.

          • gwern says:

            You haven’t answered any of my questions or given a principled clear explanation of why iodine is A-OK and lithium sheerly beyond the pale (poor analogies to Rogaine aside), so I think I’m going to stop here.

        • nydwracu says:

          Break it down.

          1) Would any reasonable person, aware of both the state of the scientific literature and of the shortcomings of that literature, and without any exceptionally rare medical condition that they would already know about and be equipped to deal with, add the thing at hand to their own water supply, assuming it’s not already present at the necessary level?

          2) Would any reasonable community of a few hundred people, aware of etc., add the thing to their own water supply, assuming etc.?

          If the answers to 1) and 2) are both ‘yes’, what’s the problem with taking another scale jump and saying it should be added at the state level? Or does lithium fail one or both of those tests?

          One of the points of having a state that can put things in the water supply is that not everyone has the IQ, the free time, the interest, or the patience to add the things on their own. Another point of having a state that can etc. is that there are community benefits to having the people least likely to add the things on their own get the things added.

          If you’re in Kazakhstan (I’m not sure if iodized salt was a government initiative in the US), you benefit directly from salt iodization, but you also benefit from the increase in general intelligence brought about by salt iodization, and from the effects of that increase, whatever they might be.

          If you’re in America, you might benefit directly from lithium in the water supply, but you’d also benefit from the drop in crime, and from the effects of that drop, and those benefits don’t obtain unless it’s done large-scale.

          There really isn’t a good heuristic for this sort of thing that allows abstraction away from the properties of the proposal at hand, except “stick with the status quo” — and nobody would actually hold that; if it were demonstrated tomorrow that a component of the status quo had serious negative effects, who would not campaign to change the status quo toward avoiding those effects?

        • St. Rev says:

          Ken Arromdee’s point is pretty clear to me, and I’m not sure why people are missing it:

          Iodine deficiency is well-studied, severe, and easily treated. Furthermore, iodine is of relatively low toxicity, and overdose is not a meaningful risk for most people, unless they’re eating a whole ton of kelp.

          Lithium is a very different story. There are a handful of suggestive studies about lithium deficiency being associated with mental illness, but there’s no consensus and no generally agreed on deficiency syndrome. A lot of people pushing the lithium deficiency concept are supplement pushers and quacks. On the other hand, there are a damn ton of unpleasant side effects to lithium at therapeutic levels, including obesity, sedation, and cognitive blunting.

          tl;dr: Iodine offers big, well-understood benefits and minimal harm. Lithium offers poorly-documented benefits, and extensive and well-understood harms. The two are not comparable.

          • gwern says:

            Lithium is a very different story. There are a handful of suggestive studies about lithium deficiency being associated with mental illness, but there’s no consensus and no generally agreed on deficiency syndrome. A lot of people pushing the lithium deficiency concept are supplement pushers and quacks. On the other hand, there are a damn ton of unpleasant side effects to lithium at therapeutic levels, including obesity, sedation, and cognitive blunting…Lithium offers poorly-documented benefits, and extensive and well-understood harms.

            There’s a damn ton of side effects – at doses as much as 6000x larger (the ceiling of natural levels tends to be 150 micrograms/l, therapeutic doses seem to be often around 900mg or 900000mcg). This is a point that has been made repeatedly.

            More importantly, you are attacking a strawman here. Neither me nor Scott nor anyone else is calling for running out and dumping lithium in local reservoirs. We certainly do agree that the data, while interesting, is very far from definitive. Our criticisms are about the absence of experimentation: we are calling for experiments to be done to furnish precisely the sort of information which would show lithium to be useful at all.

            After all if the correlations turn out to not be causal (as is one’s strong prior for any correlational result of this sort), then there is nothing further to debate! Obviously. It will just have been some boring confounding from insufficient controlling for rural populations or the success of the local harvest being caused by additional rain or something else we’ll never figure out, and of no general interest.

            The question is, if the causality is verified, whether lithium should then join the ranks of other public health interventions such as iodization, iron fortification, vitamin D fortification, fluoridization, vaccines, remineralization of overly-purified water (eg from revere osmosis), and if not, what clear moral principle bars its use.

            My response is that you can tell the difference based on what happens when you administer it. If you administer it, it causes some unarguably beneficial changes, and then the changes stop, then it’s a nutrient, and the point at which the changes stop is the baseline level at which the body functions normally. If you administer it, and it keeps causing changes all the way up to the point of toxicity without there being any level that you can call baseline, and there are harmful changes as well as beneficial ones or the changes are only arguably beneficial, then it’s a drug.

            That is completely ridiculous. All ‘drugs’ and ‘nutrients’ have different dose-response curves and ranges. Does ‘water’ pass your criterion? What about hormones? Consider the case of melatonin: after 10mg or so, it stops having effects on sleep and instead starts having different effects (for example, being a contraceptive); is melatonin a ‘nutrient’ or a ‘drug’? By your definition, apparently it is a ‘nutrient’ because it has ‘some unarguably beneficial changes’ (sleep is good) and then changes stop (past 10mg). What about drugs that change their effects at different doses, like nicotine switching from stimulant to depressant? Or let’s take iodine: iodization can kill people in previously-deficient populations because of thyroid shock; was it a ‘drug’ for some people and a ‘nutrient’ for others…?

            This is not a distinction which cleaves reality at the joints. Status quo bias indeed.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          That’s a reasonable argument, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to notice that he made it, buried among all the other arguments he made.

        • St. Rev says:

          I think it’s the substance of KA’s first comment on the subthread, which got misread (at least I misread it on the first pass). The subthread then got sidetracked splitting hairs over what nutrient and deficiency actually mean. But that’s really a distraction; what’s concretely relevant is our knowledge of the shapes of the respective benefit curves.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Of course my response to your comment was to reread all of Ken’s comments, which is why I didn’t condemn them wholesale. It’s not like I merely “misread” his first comment the first time; I attempted to read it in light of yours and utterly failed. It still appears to me to be 200 proof status quo bias. That comment is all about “baseline”; ignoring Ken is the only way not to be distracted by definitions.

        • Ken Arromdee says:

          It’s really pretty simple, and I’m actually saying both things at the same time.

          A nutrient is something which it is necessary to consume for normal functioning of the body. Lack of a nutrient is a deficiency.

          A drug is a substance which alters the normal functioning of the body. Lack of a drug is not a deficiency.

          Alexander tried to blur the distinction on the grounds that in both cases you add a substance to the body and cause changes, and that “normal functioning” is arbitrary, so there is no difference between a nutrient (iodine) and a drug (lithium).

          My response is that you can tell the difference based on what happens when you administer it. If you administer it, it causes some unarguably beneficial changes, and then the changes stop, then it’s a nutrient, and the point at which the changes stop is the baseline level at which the body functions normally. If you administer it, and it keeps causing changes all the way up to the point of toxicity without there being any level that you can call baseline, and there are harmful changes as well as beneficial ones or the changes are only arguably beneficial, then it’s a drug.

          And the fact that nutrients and drugs behave in these different manners is *why* we can trust untrustworthy people to supply nutrients more than we can trust them to supply drugs.

          St. Rev: Or in other words, yes it’s about the benefit curves, but nutrients and drugs inherently have different benefit curves.

    • Damien says:

      “The “creepy” part of your lithium proposal is that it inherently calls for the government — claiming to act for our good — sets out to manipulate our minds without our consent. What’s next?”

      Where’s ‘without our consent’ coming from? You and I live in a democracy, more or less, and if I had my way it’d be more. Lithium would go in the water because elected representatives approved it, or because voters did in a referendum. Not everyone would agree but hey, maybe those could get a water purifier that removed lithium.

      • Mary says:

        That is why democracy is evil.

        That is why our Constitution is ringed around with rights to prevent a mob composing 51% of our citizens from shoving whatever nonsense they please down the throat of the 49%.

        The idea that the 49% somehow consented because the 51% decided is a plea of tyrants.

        • Desertopa says:

          Essentially, every form of government ultimately requires some level of coercive power in order to accomplish anything useful. You need some body with the power to make people do things they wouldn’t otherwise do in order to resolve certain coordination problems for the public good, and the threat of force can improve outcomes in game theoretic considerations. That democracy involves coercion doesn’t make it any more tyrannical than any other form of government, it just invests the coercive power in the hands of the public majority instead of elsewhere.

  17. Troy says:

    My evidence for this is purely anecdotal, but I think you may be a bit too glib about the possibility of someone who could get into Harvard settling on a mid-tier school instead. My impression (as a college teacher who has worked at several schools and talked to other college teachers who have worked at several schools) is that although the overall distribution of student quality varies substantially from school to school, almost every school has some real top-notch students who could do well at, say, an Ivy League school. Often these students will choose a mid-tier school because it’s geographically convenient, or for financial reasons, but sometimes they’ll choose it because their friends go there, or some relatives went there, or because (say) they’re Baptist and it’s a Baptist school. So maybe admissions officers’ jobs are worthwhile after all.

    • Damien says:

      Yeah, I know someone who says he thinks the top Boston University students are as good as the top ones at Yale, but the BU bottom is much lower. He says this as someone who wasn’t a top student at Yale.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Then you’re trading off geographic convenience and religious concordance against prestigiousness. That doesn’t seem to change the model much, just add more (admittedly personally idiosyncratic) terms.

    • Desertopa says:

      In one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books (I forget which, unfortunately,) he makes the argument that above a certain threshold of IQ, further intelligence doesn’t make much difference in one’s capacity for intellectual accomplishments, and accomplishment is determined largely by other factors which act in addition to the individuals’ intelligence.

      He set this threshold around an IQ of 120, and as supporting evidence, he did a breakdown of the colleges attended by Nobel Prize winners, and showed that they were not particularly slanted towards top tier schools, which presumably smarter students would be able to get into.

      …Except that if he had looked at the IQ scores of Nobel Prize winners, he would have found that average is much higher than his suggested threshold, which refutes the supposition that which college the person attended is an effective proxy for IQ. But in either case, it suggests that the real top tier students are not strongly concentrated in the top tier schools.

      • gwern says:

        Seems like that would lead to a considerable underestimate since elite colleges have steadily gotten more selective since the 1940s, Nobel prizes are awarded at long lags (on top of the lag between elite college and Nobel-winning work), and how old is the cited research anyway?

  18. Damien says:

    “learning that a large portion of the electorate is biased against death means that certain death-related policies can be tradeoff-free utility gains to me”

    I’m not sure what that means in practice, here.

    Nootropics… well, evolution isn’t perfect, but to first order the same logic applies: if there were some easy and costless way to improve brain performance, we might expect evolution to have included it already. So there’s a presumptive bias against improvement drugs: if they work, there may be a good reason we don’t naturally do what they do. Maybe it’s an obsolete reason (“makes you burn more calories”) but you need to know what the reason is first…

  19. James James says:

    “I can’t support capital punishment until it gets better at sparing the innocent and maybe becomes more cost-effective.”

    I was under the impression that the high cost of capital punishment is caused by its opponents.

    • DavidS says:

      Do you think that they deliberately just raise the cost of killing the guilty? Or that it’s due to concern about killing the innocent? (This is a genuine question, btw, not snark: I can imagine campaigners wanting to ‘raise the cost of doing business’ overall as well as saving the wrongly convicted.

      Personally, I have another problem with capital punishment: assuming we don’t get magically better at improving evidence-gathering, introducing capital punishment either means
      a) convicting people at the current level of proof, meaning some innocents will die
      b) upping the level of proof for everything, making it hard to lock up those who are almost certianly guilty
      c) having different levels of proof, which I suspect would undermine trust in the system (‘we’re sure enough to lock you up for life but not to execute you’ probably doesn’t keep the defence or prosecution happy)

      • Mary says:

        Considering many of them openly and loudly profess their dislike for capital punishment for the most evil and egregious cases, I would say it’s very implausible that they would not try to hinder the executions if they knew the criminal was guilty.

        • DavidS says:

          Sorry, I wasn’t very clear. As well as the innocence point, I think campaigners may try to save the guilty (in a way that inevitably increases costs) without setting out to waste government money. Or they could have a deliberate strategy of making it too costly an approach: that’s possible too. I don’t live in a country with capital punishment so I don’t hear much of how those campaigns work in practice.

      • James James says:

        “Do you think that they deliberately just raise the cost of killing the guilty?”

        No comment, I’m just pointing out that most advocates of capital punishment do not advocate the very expensive current system where people sit on death row for decades, often until they die of natural causes.

        One argument for capital punishment is that it should be much cheaper than keeping people in jail forever. The expense of the current system of capital punishment does not seem to me to be an argument against it; rather it’s an argument against drawing out the process for years.

        As a consequentialist, it seems to me that the costs of executing innocent people are outweighed by the costs of keeping guilty people in jail forever. (It used to be called “dying for your country”.)

        I don’t see how “having different levels of proof… would undermine trust in the system (‘we’re sure enough to lock you up for life but not to execute you’…)”. It seems to me to be an excellent, marginalist idea. Executing a few people would be better than executing none. We could start with Michael Adebolajo, who is extremely clearly guilty.

        • DavidS says:

          It may be an excellent idea in theory. But it’s pretty critical the justice system makes sure that ‘justice is seen to be done’ on a fairly gut level.

          I think this is a large part of why we distinguish attempted murder from murder, and why a drunk driver who happens to hit and kill a child is treated differently to one that doesn’t.

          It seems very obvious to me that saying we had enough proof to put someone in prison for life but not to executr them would make the victims and punitive types scream they were let off, and the defence to be appalled that you were giving life in prison even though you weren’t that sure.

          Maybe once courts give actual percentage chances of guilt and identify what % ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ means, this will be possible. At the moment, I’d be incredibly shocked.

          As for ‘better to execte a few’, I completely disagree. Passing the Schelling point by having the death penalty at all reduces moral authority when opposing the wider use of execution elsewhere. Doing it to save the cost of locking u a handful of people isn’t worth that fixed overhead cost.

          Incidentally, a justice system that recognised degress of ‘beyond reasoanble doubt’ would inevitably attract more appeals and thus cost, as it’s an extra distinction to fight over.

        • James James says:

          Judges already have discretion over sentencing. The jury says guilty or not guilty, then the judge decides the sentence, within sentencing guidelines. So two people convicted of the same offence can already get different sentences if the details are different, e.g. mitigating circumstances, or if one crime is more “serious” than the other.

          I accept what I’m proposing is different: different sentences not because the details of the crimes are different but based on strength of evidence.

          But I don’t think the difference is a big deal. Framing can help. You could say that the “default” sentence is death, but if the evidence isn’t completely clear, you get life imprisonment as a “bonus”.

          ***

          “Passing the Schelling point by having the death penalty at all reduces moral authority when opposing the wider use of execution elsewhere.”

          You say that like it’s a bad thing.

          “Doing it to save the cost of locking u a handful of people isn’t worth that fixed overhead cost.”

          Are you sure?

          “Incidentally, a justice system that recognised degress of ‘beyond reasoanble doubt’ would inevitably attract more appeals and thus cost, as it’s an extra distinction to fight over.”

          This begins to sound like special pleading of exactly the sort I was complaining about above: “the high cost of capital punishment is caused by its opponents.”

        • DavidS says:

          Discretion on sentencing is based on severity of crime, not lack of certainty of guilt. Saying that someone can be guilty of various levels of crime is different to saying ‘well, given you might be innocent we’re just throwing you in prison for the rest of your life’.

          I’m really not sure whether you just think it would be good if society worked like this, or if you think that it would genuinely work in current societies. But looking back over your posts, I think we’re coming from incredibly different positions. The idea you can found a decision for the death penalty on such a stark utilitarian calculation (based on cost, not even harm by murderers) etc. is also massively unrealistic IMO.

          I was also assuming that you thought capital punishment was a necessary evil, so to speak. If you’re relaxed about giving tacit support to high-execution regimes, happy to default to execution and prefer executing innocents to the costs of keeping the guilty in prison, we’re coming from utterly different perspectives, so the pragmatic arguments of balancing when capital punishment is justified are unlikely to go anywhere.

          My final point isn’t special pleading at all, and nothing to do with the death penalty, just with having degrees of certainty of guilt. You get appeals when it’s unclear which side of a line something falls, and the more different lines you add to the system, the more it will be unclear where exactly something sits. Unless you’re also proposing we massively lower the standards for conviction, the line for ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ for life imprisonment and ‘beyond the shadow of a doubt’ for death penalty would be very fine indeed.

        • James James says:

          “The idea you can found a decision for the death penalty on such a stark utilitarian calculation (based on cost, not even harm by murderers)”

          Well of course a rational, i.e. consequentialist system would take everything into account: cost, harm/deterrent, etc.

          Funnily enough, Moldbug has already discussed the idea of “Bayesian courts”. “For instance, our courts – the form of official reasoning we know best – operate on a decidedly pre-Bayesian paradigm. The defendant is innocent (null hypothesis) until proven (inappropriate use of deductive terminology in inductive context) guilty.”
          http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/adore-river-of-meat.html

      • Mary says:

        Hmm. Another point — they could be the chief cause without intending it, but that doesn’t change their nature.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Sort of. I think it’s caused by the high cost of appeals, which opponents demand in order to ensure that no innocent people slip by. But I’d guess that lessening all these appeals would cause more innocent people to slip by, which would also be bad.

      I do think it would be possibly to have near-equally-good precision with lower cost, but only in the same sense we could probably do this with our entire justice system if the country was better run, and this is apparently really hard.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        You claim that the appeals process filters out innocent people. I’m pretty sure that the result of the appeals process is life imprisonment, not acquittal. The best one can say for such a system is that it has a higher standard of evidence for death than for life. Is that what you want?

        • Mary says:

          Depends on what grounds your appeal is about.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          My personal weird preferences tell me that I’d rather be executed than life imprisoned, but conditioning on most people having the opposite preference, yeah, I would like a higher standard of evidence for execution than life imprisonment, just like I’m perfectly fine with police officers being able to give out speeding tickets at will but they should have to go through the court system to give out jail terms.

        • DavidS says:

          Do you actually have a principle that they move from death to life imprisonment due to uncertainty of guilt? I thought that was only a hypothetical (and I’m arguing against it above). I’d assume death row appeals would either be mitigating circumstances of some kind, or would be aiming at actual release.

  20. DavidS says:

    The house thing is a very practical one for most people, and can potentially cover renting as well (where there’s less of an issue with resale value).

    However, it goes beyond the cases where the other people’s values are weird (street name, haunting etc.) To some extent, I think almost everyone assumes the market valuation of places is some evidence as to their value to them as an individual. But the market values houses based on lots of things that might not be relevant to you particularly. So (in the UK at least, not sure how this works in the States) if you’re considering renting a family-size house and discover it’s in the catchment area of a really good school (the area where the school takes pupils from first), then bear in mind you are probably paying for a privilege you will never use. Ditto with people buying computers with lots of graphics/audio capability aimed at gamers when actually they just want an efficient word processor and internet browser.

    Given that estate agents and salesmen rarely point out the weaknesses of what they’re selling, I think it’s very useful to pay attention to whether there are large elements of the sales pitch that don’t matter to you at all. If so, you’re probably not getting a good deal.

    • Troy says:

      This is quite right. In my case I benefited from the converse of the situation you describe: I have an awesome house in a “bad” part of town. The most rational reason for not buying such houses is that they tend to be in “bad” school districts. (Of course crime is also a concern, but people tend to overestimate the risks of crime to people who take reasonable precautions.) I don’t have kids, and so I benefit from the decreased demand.

      • mcallisterjp says:

        I’m in a similar situation that’s possibly even a little more one-sided: I have a house in an area at the boundary of two postcode regions, where one is much more prestigious than the other. Houses on the less prestigious side of the road seem to cost >10% less for the same space and quality, and they can hardly be in a much worse area than the other side of the road.

        I hypothesize that quite such an extreme differential is largely driven by buyers-to-let, who pay disproportionate attention to postcode-scoped statistics as a quick way of summarizing information about an area.

        So I’m profiting from the worst argument in the world, I guess.

    • orthonormal says:

      Given that estate agents and salesmen rarely point out the weaknesses of what they’re selling, I think it’s very useful to pay attention to whether there are large elements of the sales pitch that don’t matter to you at all. If so, you’re probably not getting a good deal.

      That’s a really good heuristic.

  21. Ben says:

    People *do* debate raising the minimum wage, because it has some plausible advantages and some plausible disadvantages. We might be able to squeeze one or two extra utils out of getting the minimum-wage question exactly right, but it’s unlikely to matter terribly much

    I think this assumption is naive, especially since I remember commenters on this blog previously discussed the fact that, empirically, raising the minimum wage doesn’t really seem to have the ill effects imputed to it in terms of lower employment.

    Obviously there are a lot more minimum wage workers who would benefit from a wage rise than their bosses who might have their profits reduced slightly, but in fact the minimum wage isn’t even kept up in line with inflation.

    I think in this case the process is more like: raising the minimum wage (by some reasonable amount) would benefit workers, but hurt corporate profits. Economists who argue against raising the minimum wage from unrealistic classical economics principles get more funding, jobs in right-wing “think tanks” than economists who test the situation empirically.

    The existence of a debate about something doesn’t always mean that the evidence for trade-offs is equivocal; it can also indicate a disparity in power and status between the people who would benefit and those who would lose out.

    Most of the public in the UK would support making sure corporations don’t dodge tax, or taxing excessive banker pay, but the governing party gets half its funding from the finance industry, so they won’t do either of those.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      The evidence that minimum wage doesn’t hurt employment is pretty controversial. And the evidence that it does help poverty in a meaningful way is pretty controversial too.

      “The existence of a debate about something doesn’t always mean that the evidence for trade-offs is equivocal; it can also indicate a disparity in power and status between the people who would benefit and those who would lose out.”

      …by using the phrase “those who would lose out” and imputing to them the power to fight minimum wage increases, you’re already acknowledging the existence of a tradeoff.

      I think you might be overestimating what I mean by “squeeze out a few utils”. I’m not saying there can’t be a right side to political issues. I’m saying that political issues will always have losers, the loss will always be non-negligible (hence why there are so many businesspeople who oppose minimum wage increases), and that this is disappointing compared to some hypothetical policy that has only benefits – a policy which we would expect not to exist in politics-space because the only things we talk about are ones with politically-powerful opposing sides.

      • Ben says:

        The evidence that minimum wage doesn’t hurt employment is pretty controversial. And the evidence that it does help poverty in a meaningful way is pretty controversial too.

        Yeah, but is it ‘controversial’ because the evidence is genuinely weak, or because some economists have been captured to serve the interests of the rich? Academic economics is very corrupt. The section on this in the film Inside Job (nb, it’s about the 2008 finance crisis, not 9/11) is particularly convincing.

        In general we could say that (number of utilons X political influence) will be roughly balanced on each side.

        That means a policy that would hugely benefit millions of low status people, and mildly inconvenience the high status, will be as controversial as one that makes a tiny difference to everybody.

        I think the difference between the two cases is important to bear in mind.

      • Damien says:

        Given how simple the microecon theory that predicts “raising the minimum wage causes unemployment” is, the fact that the evidence might be controversial is significant in itself. But: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/01/04/economists-agree-raising-the-minimum-wage-reduces-poverty/?tid=up_next

  22. Pingback: Do Life Hacks Ever Reach Fixation? | Slate Star Codex

  23. Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

    My mental model of Michael Vassar says that you are waaaaaaayyyyyyyyy overestimating the background competence of the planet. On reflection, I agree with my mental model of Michael Vassar. This blog post was written for a different planet, not the one where immigration is this heavily restricted and there are random trade barriers all over the place and nobody uses the land-value tax or NGDP level targeting and the government diet handbook is still telling pregnant woman to eat folic acid instead of choline and blah blah blah civilizational inadequacy.

    • Q says:

      Can I have a link on folic acid versus choline for pregnant women ? (I mean, something else than lmgfy ).

  24. James Brooks says:

    I am in agreement with the admissions hypothetical but for life-hacks I think you are assuming a greater level of knowledge in the area than exists in the population. Spaced repetition learning, mental contrasting, and implementation intentions are three examples where I think most people would be unaware of them yet could significantly improve an aspect of their life if they did know about and use them.

    • Berna says:

      I for one don’t know what ‘mental contrasting’ and ‘implementation intentions’ are.

  25. Princess_Stargirl says:

    Generally:

    Psychologists have cataloged a list of common cognitive biases. As far as I know most of what Kahneman/Tversky’s work still holds up. If a person can overcome some of these biases then they should be able to get an advantage in many situations.

    A more controversial point:
    I think one plausible way to get advantage is to exploit the fact that many people are very unwilling to break certain laws. Even when its pretty safe. Take modafinil, most people agree its effective and since its schedule 4 its not a big risk to buy it online. But you can presumably get an advantage from being in the 30-50% of people who are wlling to take prescription drugs to be more productive.