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Nominating Oneself For The Short End Of A Tradeoff

I’ve gotten a chance to discuss The Whole City Is Center with a few people now. They remain skeptical of the idea that anyone could “deserve” to have bad things happen to them, based on their personality traits or misdeeds.

These people tend to imagine the pro-desert faction as going around, actively hoping that lazy people (or criminals, or whoever) suffer. I don’t know if this passes an Intellectual Turing Test. When I think of people deserving bad things, I think of them having nominated themselves to get the short end of a tradeoff.

Let me give three examples:

1. Imagine an antidepressant that works better than existing antidepressants, one that consistently provides depressed people real relief. If taken as prescribed, there are few side effects and people do well. If ground up, snorted, and taken at ten times the prescribed dose – something nobody could do by accident, something you have to really be trying to get wrong – it acts as a passable heroin substitute, you can get addicted to it, and it will ruin your life.

The antidepressant is popular and gets prescribed a lot, but a black market springs up, and however hard the government works to control it, a lot of it gets diverted to abusers. Many people get addicted to it and their lives are ruined. So the government bans the antidepressant, and everyone has to go back to using SSRIs instead.

Let’s suppose the government is being good utilitarians here: they calculated out the benefit from the drug treating people’s depression, and the cost from the drug being abused, and they correctly determined the costs outweighed the benefits.

But let’s also suppose that nobody abuses the drug by accident. The difference between proper use and abuse is not subtle. Everybody who knows enough to know anything about the drug at all has heard the warnings. Nobody decides to take ten times the recommended dose of antidepressant, crush it, and snort it, through an innocent mistake. And nobody has just never heard the warnings that drugs are bad and can ruin your life.

Somebody is going to get the short end of the stick. If the drug is banned, depressed people will lose access to relief for their condition. If the drug is permitted, recreational users will continue having the opportunity to destroy their lives. And we’ve posited that the utilitarian calculus says that banning the antidepressant would be better. But I still feel, in some way, that the recreational users have nominated themselves to get the worse end of this tradeoff. Depressed people shouldn’t have to suffer because you see a drug that says very clearly on the bottle “DO NOT TAKE TOO MUCH OF THIS YOU WILL GET ADDICTED AND IT WILL BE TERRIBLE” and you think “I think I shall take too much of this”.

(this story is loosely based on the history of tianeptine in the US)

2. Suppose you’re in a community where some guy is sexually harassing women. You tell him not to and he keeps doing it, because that’s just the kind of guy he is, and it’s unclear if he can even stop himself. Eventually he does it so much that you kick him out of the community.

Then one of his friends comes to you and says “This guy harassed one woman per month, and not even that severely. On the other hand, kicking him out of the community costs him all of his friends, his support network, his living situation, and his job. He is a pretty screwed-up person and it’s unclear he will ever find more friends or another community. The cost to him of not being in this community, is actually greater than the cost of being harassed is to a woman.”

Somebody is going to have their lives made worse. Either the harasser’s life will be worse because he’s kicked out of the community. Or women’s lives are worse because they are being harassed. Even if I completely believe the friend’s calculation that kicking him out will bring more harm on him than keeping him would bring harm to women, I am still comfortable letting him get the short end of the tradeoff.

And this is true even if we are good determinists and agree he only harasses somebody because of an impulse control problem secondary to an underdeveloped frontal lobe, or whatever the biological reason for harassing people might be.

(not going to bring up what this story is loosely based on, but it’s not completely hypothetical either)

3. Sometimes in discussions of basic income, someone expresses concern that some people’s lives might become less meaningful if they didn’t have a job to give them structure and purpose.

And I respond “Okay, so those people can work, basic income doesn’t prohibit you from working, it just means you don’t have to.”

And they object “But maybe these people will choose not to work even though work would make them happier, and they will just suffer and be miserable.”

Again, there’s a tradeoff. Somebody’s going to suffer. If we don’t grant basic income, it will be people stuck in horrible jobs with no other source of income. If we do grant basic income, it will be people who need work to have meaning in their lives, but still refuse to work. Since the latter group has a giant door saying “SOLUTION TO YOUR PROBLEMS” wide open in front of them but refuses to take it, I find myself sympathizing more with the former group. That’s true even if some utilitarian were to tell me that the latter group outnumbers them.

I find all three of these situations joining the increasingly numerous ranks of problems where my intuitions differ from utilitarianism. What should I do?

One option is to dismiss them as misfirings of the heuristic “expose people to the consequences of their actions so that they are incentivized to make the right action”. I’ve tried to avoid that escape by specifying in each example that even when they’re properly exposed and incentivized the calculus still comes out on the side of making the tradeoff in their favor. But maybe this is kind of like saying “Imagine you could silence this one incorrect person without any knock-on effects on free speech anywhere else and all the consequences would be positive, would you do it?” In the thought experiment, maybe yes; in the real world this either never happens, or never happens with 100% certainty, or never happens in a way that’s comfortably outside whatever Schelling fence you’ve built for yourself. I’m not sure I find that convincing because in real life we don’t treat “force people to bear the consequences of their action” as a 100% sacred principle that we never violate.

Another option is to dismiss them as people “revealing their true preferences”, eg if the harasser doesn’t stop harassing women, he must not want to be in the community too much. But I think this operates on a really sketchy idea of revealed preference, similar to the Caplanian one where if you abuse drugs that just means you like drugs so there’s no problem. Most of these situations feel like times when that simplified version of preferences breaks down.

A friend reframes the second situation in terms of the cost of having law at all. It’s important to be able to make rules like “don’t sexually harass people”, and adding a clause saying “…but we’ll only enforce these when utilitarianism says it’s correct” makes them less credible and creates the opportunity for a lot of corruption. I can see this as a very strong answer to the second scenario (which might be the strongest), although I’m not sure it applies much to the first or third.

I could be convinced that my desire to let people who make bad choices nominate themselves for the short end of tradeoffs is just the utilitarian justifications (about it incentivizing behavior, or it revealing people’s true preferences) crystallized into a moral principle. I’m not sure if I hold this moral principle or not. I’m reluctant to accept the ban-antidepressant, tolerate-harasser, and repeal-basic-income solutions, but I’m also not sure what justification I have for not doing so except “Here’s a totally new moral principle I’m going to tack onto the side of my existing system”.

But I hope people at least find this a more sympathetic way of understanding when people talk about “desert” than a caricatured story where some people just need to suffer because they’re bad.

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Cognitive Enhancers: Mechanisms And Tradeoffs

[Epistemic status: so, so, so speculative. I do not necessarily endorse taking any of the substances mentioned in this post.]

There’s been recent interest in “smart drugs” said to enhance learning and memory. For example, from the Washington Post:

When aficionados talk about nootropics, they usually refer to substances that have supposedly few side effects and low toxicity. Most often they mean piracetam, which Giurgea first synthesized in 1964 and which is approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for use in adults and the elderly. Not so in the United States, however, where officially it can be sold only for research purposes. Piracetam is well studied and is credited by its users with boosting their memory, sharpening their focus, heightening their immune system, even bettering their personalities.

Along with piracetam, a few other substances have been credited with these kinds of benefits, including some old friends:

“To my knowledge, nicotine is the most reliable cognitive enhancer that we currently have, bizarrely,” said Jennifer Rusted, professor of experimental psychology at Sussex University in Britain when we spoke. “The cognitive-enhancing effects of nicotine in a normal population are more robust than you get with any other agent. With Provigil, for instance, the evidence for cognitive benefits is nowhere near as strong as it is for nicotine.”

But why should there be smart drugs? Popular metaphors speak of drugs fitting into receptors like “a key into a lock” to “flip a switch”. But why should there be a locked switch in the brain to shift from THINK WORSE to THINK BETTER? Why not just always stay on the THINK BETTER side? Wouldn’t we expect some kind of tradeoff?

Piracetam and nicotine have something in common: both activate the brain’s acetylcholine system. So do three of the most successful Alzheimers drugs: donepezil, rivastigmine, and galantamine. What is acetylcholine and why does activating it improve memory and cognition?

Acetylcholine is many things to many people. If you’re a doctor, you might use neostigmine, an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, to treat the muscle disease myasthenia gravis. If you’re a terrorist, you might use sarin nerve gas, a more dramatic acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, to bomb subways. If you’re an Amazonian tribesman, you might use curare, an acetylcholine receptor antagonist, on your blowdarts. If you’re a plastic surgeon, you might use Botox, an acetylcholine release preventer, to clear up wrinkles. If you’re a spider, you might use latrotoxin, another acetylcholine release preventer, to kill your victims – and then be killed in turn by neonictinoid insecticides, which are acetylcholine agonists. Truly this molecule has something for everybody – though gruesomely killing things remains its comparative advantage.

But to a computational neuroscientist, acetylcholine is:

…a neuromodulator [that] encodes changes in the precision of (certainty about) prediction errors in sensory cortical hierarchies. Each level of a processing hierarchy sends predictions to the level below, which reciprocate bottom-up signals. These signals are prediction errors that report discrepancies between top-down predictions and representations at each level. This recurrent message passing continues until prediction errors are minimised throughout the hierarchy. The ensuing Bayes optimal perception rests on optimising precision at each level of the hierarchy that is commensurate with the environmental statistics they represent. Put simply, to infer the causes of sensory input, the brain has to recognise when sensory information is noisy or uncertain and down-weight it suitably in relation to top-down predictions.

…is it too late to opt for the gruesome death? It is? Fine. God help us, let’s try to understand Friston again.

In the predictive coding model, perception (maybe also everything else?) is a balance between top-down processes that determine what you should be expecting to see, and bottom-up processes that determine what you’re actually seeing. This is faster than just determining what you’re actually seeing without reference to top-down processes, because sensation is noisy and if you don’t have some boxes to categorize things in then it takes forever to figure out what’s actually going on. In this model, acetylcholine is a neuromodulator that indicates increased sensory precision – ie a bias towards expecting sensation to be signal rather than noise – ie a bias towards trusting bottom-up evidence rather than top-down expectations.

In the study linked above, Friston and collaborators connect their experimental subjects to EEG monitors and ask them to listen to music. The “music” is the same note repeated again and again at regular intervals in a perfectly predictable way. Then at some random point, it unexpectedly shifts to a different note. The point is to get their top-down systems confidently predicting a certain stimulus (the original note repeated again for the umpteenth time) and then surprise them with a different stimulus, and measure the EEG readings to see how their brain reacts. Then they do this again and again to see how the subjects eventually learn. Half the subjects have just taken galantamine, a drug that increases acetylcholine levels; the other half get placebo.

I don’t understand a lot of the figures in this paper, but I think I understand this one. It’s saying that on the first surprising note, placebo subjects’ brains got a bit more electrical activity [than on the predictable notes], but galantamine subjects’ brains got much more electrical activity. This fits the prediction of the theory. The placebo subjects have low sensory precision – they’re in their usual state of ambivalence about whether sensation is signal or noise. Hearing an unexpected stimulus is a little bit surprising, but not completely surprising – it might just be a mistake, or it might just not matter. The galantamine subjects’ brains are on alert to expect sensation to be very accurate and very important. When they hear the surprising note, their brains are very surprised and immediately reevaluate the whole paradigm.

One might expect that the very high activity on the first discordant note would be matched with lower activity on subsequent notes; the brain has now fully internalized the new prediction (ie is expecting the new note) and can’t be surprised by it anymore. As best I can tell, this study doesn’t really show that. A very similar study by some of the same researchers does. In this one, subjects on either galantamine or a placebo have to look at a dot as quickly as possible after it appears. There are some arrows that might or might not point in the direction where the dot will appear; over the course of the experiment, the accuracy of these arrows changes. The researchers measured how quickly, when the meaning of the arrows changed, the subjects shifted from the old paradigm to the new paradigm. Galantamine enhanced the speed of this change a little, though it was all very noisy. Lower-weight subjects had a more dramatic change, suggesting an effective dose-dependent response (ie the more you weigh, the less effect a constant-weight dose of galantamine will have on your body). They conclude:

This interpretation of cholinergic action in the brain is also in accord with the assumption of previous theoretical notions posing that ACh controls the speed of the memory update (i.e., the learning rate)

“Learning rate” is a technical term often used in machine learning, and I got a friend who is studying the field to explain it to me (all mistakes here are mine, not hers). Suppose that you have a neural net trying to classify cats vs. dogs. It’s already pretty well-trained, but it still makes some mistakes. Maybe it’s never seen a Chihuahua before and doesn’t know dogs can get that small, so it thinks “cat”. A good neural network will learn from that mistake, but the amount it learns will depend on a parameter called learning rate:

If learning rate is 0, it will learn nothing. The weights won’t change, and the next time it sees a Chihuahua it will make the exact same mistake.

If learning rate is very high, it will overfit. It will change everything to maximize the likelihood of getting that one picture of a Chihuahua right the next time, even if this requires erasing everything it has learned before, or dropping all “common sense” notions of dog and cat. It is now a “that one picture of a Chihuahua vs. everything else” classifier.

If learning rate is a little on the low side, the model will be very slow to learn, though it will eventually converge on a good understanding of its topic.

If learning rate is a little on the high side, the model will learn very quickly, but “jump around” between different understandings heavily weighted toward what best fits the last case it has worked on.

On many problems, it’s a good idea to start with a high learning rate in order to get a basic idea what’s going on first, then gradually lower it so you can make smaller jumps through the area near the right answer without overshooting.

Learning rates are sort of like sensory precision and bottom-up vs. top-down weights, in that as a high learning rate says to discount prior probabilities and weight the evidence of the current case more strongly. A higher learning rate would be appropriate in a signal-rich environment, and a lower rate appropriate in a noise-rich environment.

If acetylcholine helps set the learning rate in the brain, would it make sense that cholinergic substances are cognitive enhancers / “study drugs”?

You would need to cross a sort of metaphorical divide between a very mechanical and simple sense of “learning” and the kind of learning you do where you study for your final exam on US History. What would it mean to be telling your brain that your US History textbook is “a signal-rich environment” or that it should be weighting its bottom-up evidence of what the textbook says higher than its top-down priors?

Going way beyond the research into total speculation, we could imagine the brain having some high-level intuitive holistic sense of US history. Each new piece of data you receive could either be accepted as a relevant change to that, or rejected as “noise” in the sense of not worth updating upon. If you hear that the Battle of Cedar Creek took place on October 19, 1864 and was a significant event in the Shenandoah Valley theater of the Civil War, then – if you’re like most people – it will have no impact at all on anything beyond (maybe, if you’re lucky) being able to parrot back that exact statement. If you learn that the battle took place in 2011 and was part of a Finnish invasion of the US, that changes a lot and is pretty surprising and would radically alter your holistic intuitive sense of what history is like.

Thinking of it this way, I can imagine these study drugs helping the exact date of the Battle of Cedar Creek seem a little bit more like signal, and so have it make a little bit more of a dent in your understanding of history. I’m still not sure how significant this is, because the exact date of the battle isn’t surprising to me in any way, and I don’t know what I would update based on hearing it. But then again, these drugs have really subtle effects, so maybe not being able to give a great account of how they work is natural.

And what about the tradeoff? Is there one?

One possibility is no. The idea of signal-rich vs. signal-poor environments is useful if you’re trying to distinguish whether a certain pattern of blotches is a camoflauged tiger. Maybe it’s not so useful for studying US History. Thinking of Civil War factoids as anything less than maximally-signal-bearing might just be a mismatch of evolution to the modern environment, the same way as liking sweets more than vegetables.

Another possibility is that if you take study drugs in order to learn the date of the Battle of Cedar Creek, you are subtly altering your holistic intuitive knowledge of American history in a disruptive way. You’re shifting everything a little bit more towards a paradigm where the Battle of Cedar Creek was unusually important. Maybe the people who took piracetam to help them study ten years ago are the same people who go around now talking about how the Civil War explains every part of modern American politics, and the 2016 election was just the Confederacy getting revenge on the Union, and how the latest budget bill is just a replay of the Missouri Compromise.

And another possibility is that you’re learning things in a rote, robotic way. You can faithfully recite that the Battle of Cedar Creek took place on October 19, 1864, but you’re less good at getting it to hang together with anything else into a coherent picture of what the Civil War was really like. I’m not sure if this makes sense in the context of the learning rate metaphor we’re using, but it fits the anecdotal reports of some of the people who use Adderall – which has some cholinergic effects in addition to its more traditional catecholaminergic ones.

Or it might be weirder than this. Remember the aberrant salience model of psychosis, and schizophrenic Peter Chadwick talking about how one day he saw the street “New King Road” and decided that it meant Armageddon was approaching, since Jesus was the new king coming to replace the old powers of the earth? Is it too much of a stretch to say this is what happens when your learning rate is much too high, kind of like the neural network that changes everything to explain one photo of a Chihuahua? Is this why nicotine has weird effects on schizophrenia? Maybe higher learning rates can promote psychotic thinking – not necessarily dramatically, just make things get a little weird.

Having ventured this far into Speculation-Land, let’s retreat a little. Noradrenergic and Cholinergic Moduation of Belief Updating does some more studies and fails to find any evidence that scopolamine, a cholinergic drug, alters learning rate (but why would they use scopolamine, which acts on muscarinic acetylcholine receptors, when every drug suspected to improve memory act on nicotinic ones?). Also, nicotine seems to help schizophrenia, not worsen it, which is the opposite of the last point above. Also, everything above about acetylcholine sounds kind of like my impression of where dopamine fits in this model, especially in terms of it standing for the precision of incoming data. This suggests I don’t understand the model well enough for everything not to just blend together to me. All that my usual sources will tell me is that the acetylcholine system modulates the dopamine system.

(remember, neuroscience madlibs is “________ modulates __________”, and no matter what words you use the sentence is always true.)

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OT113: Opentekonter Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page).

Starting today, the visible Open Thread is culture-war-free. Please try not to talk about extremely controversial political and social topics. You can still talk about those in the Hidden Open Threads that you can find at the Open Thread tab every Wednesday and alternating Sundays. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. I know that the email subscription function is broken. Thanks to everyone who alerted me of this. I don’t know how to fix it. If someone is good with WordPress and thinks they know how to fix it, please let me know and I’ll give you access to whatever you need. I also need someone willing to fix the Report Comment function, which seems to work very inconsistently right now.

2. Comment of the week is this discussion of dark matter.

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Classified Thread 6

This is the…monthly? bimonthly? occasional?…classified thread. Post advertisements, personals, and any interesting success stories from the last thread.

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The Chamber of Guf

[I briefly had a different piece up tonight discussing a conference, but the organizers asked me to hold off on writing about it until they’ve put up their own synopsis. It will be back up eventually; please accept this post instead for now.]

In Jewish legend, the Chamber of Guf is a pit where all the proto-souls hang out whispering and murmuring. Whenever a child is born, an angel reaches into the chamber, scoops up a soul, and brings it into the world.

In the syncretist mindset where every legend has to be a metaphor for the human mind, I map the Chamber of Guf to all the thoughts that exist below the level of consciousness, fighting for attention.

We already know something like this happens for behaviors. From Guyenet’s The Hungry Brain:

How does the lamprey decide what to do? Within the lamprey basal ganglia lies a key structure called the striatum, which is the portion of the basal ganglia that receives most of the incoming signals from other parts of the brain. The striatum receives “bids” from other brain regions, each of which represents a specific action. A little piece of the lamprey’s brain is whispering “mate” to the striatum, while another piece is shouting “flee the predator” and so on. It would be a very bad idea for these movements to occur simultaneously – because a lamprey can’t do all of them at the same time – so to prevent simultaneous activation of many different movements, all these regions are held in check by powerful inhibitory connections from the basal ganglia. This means that the basal ganglia keep all behaviors in “off” mode by default. Only once a specific action’s bid has been selected do the basal ganglia turn off this inhibitory control, allowing the behavior to occur. You can think of the basal ganglia as a bouncer that chooses which behavior gets access to the muscles and turns away the rest. This fulfills the first key property of a selector: it must be able to pick one option and allow it access to the muscles.

So in the process of deciding what behavior to do, the (lamprey) brain subconsciously considers many different plausible behaviors, all of which compete to be enacted. I don’t know how this extends to humans, but it would make sense that maybe only the top few candidate behaviors even make it to consciousness, with the rest getting rejected without conscious consideration.

The particular qualities of a behavior that help it reach consciousness and implementation vary depending on mental state. Guyenet goes on to talk about how in dopamine-depleted states, only the simplest and most boring behaviors make it out of the Guf; with enough dopamine blockade, a person will sit motionless in their room for lack of any better ideas. In high dopamine states like mania or methamphetamine use, it’s much easier for behaviors to make successful “bids”, and so you tend to do bizarre things that would never have seemed like good ideas otherwise.

This is how I experience thoughts too. When I’ve had a lot of coffee, I have more interesting thoughts than usual. New ideas and clever wordplay come easily to me. I don’t think it makes sense to say that coffee makes me smarter; that breaks Algernon’s Law. More likely I always have some of those thoughts in the Guf, but the relevant angel considers them too weird to be worth scooping out and bringing into the world. This is probably for the best; manic people report “racing thoughts”, a state where the angels build a giant conveyor belt from the Guf to consciousness and give you every single possible thought no matter how irrelevant. It doesn’t sound fun at all.

I find this metaphor especially useful when thinking about Gay OCD.

Gay OCD, and its close cousins Pedophilic OCD and Incest OCD, are varieties of obsessive-compulsive disorder where the patient can’t stop worrying that they’re gay (or a pedophile, or want to have sex with family members). In these more tolerant times, it’s tempting to say “whatever, you’re gay, that’s fine, get over it”. But a careful history will reveal that they aren’t; most Gay OCD patients do not experience same-sex attraction, and they’re often in fulfilling relationships with members of the opposite sex. They have no good reason to think they’re gay – they just constantly worry that they are.

I studied under a professor who was an expert in these conditions. Her theory centered around the question of why angels would select some thoughts from the Guf over others to lift into consciousness. Variables like truth-value, relevance, and interestingness play important roles. But the exact balance depends on our mood. Anxiety is a global prior in favor of extracting fear-related thoughts from the Guf. Presumably everybody’s brain dedicates a neuron or two to thoughts like “a robber could break into my house right now and shoot me”. But most people’s Selecting Angels don’t find them worth bringing into the light of consciousness. Anxiety changes the angel’s orders: have a bias towards selecting thoughts that involve fearful situations and how to prepare for them. A person with an anxiety disorder, or a recent adrenaline injection, or whatever, will absolutely start thinking about robbers, even if they consciously know it’s an irrelevant concern.

In a few unlucky people with a lot of anxiety, the angel decides that a thought provoking any strong emotion is sufficient reason to raise the thought to consciousness. Now the Gay OCD trap is sprung. One day the angel randomly scoops up the thought “I am gay” and hands it to the patient’s consciousness. The patient notices the thought “I am gay”, and falsely interprets it as evidence that they’re actually gay, causing fear and disgust and self-doubt. The angel notices this thought produced a lot of emotion and occupied consciousness for a long time – a success! That was such a good choice of thought! It must have been so relevant! It decides to stick with this strategy of using the “I am gay” thought from now on. If that ever fails to excite, it moves on to a whole host of similar thoughts that still have some punch, like “Was I just sexually attracted to that same-sex person over there?” and the like.

I practice in San Francisco, and I rarely see Gay OCD these days. Being gay just isn’t scary enough any more. I still see some Pedophilic OCD and Incest OCD, as well as less common but obviously similar syndromes like Murderer OCD and Infanticide OCD. I’ve also started noticing a spike in Racism OCD; the patient has a stray racist thought, they react with sudden terror and self-loathing, their angel gets all excited, and then they can’t stop thinking about whether they might be a racist. There’s a paper to be written here about OCD patients as social weathervanes.

All of these can be treated with the same medications that treat normal OCD. But there’s an additional important step of explaining exactly this theory to the patient, so that they know that not only are they not gay/a pedophile/racist, but it’s actually their strong commitment to being against homosexuality/pedophilia/racism which is making them have these thoughts. This makes the thoughts provoke less strong emotion and can itself help reduce the frequency of obsessions. Even if it doesn’t do that, it’s at least comforting for most people.

This is not an official theory by an official professor, but I wonder how much of a role this same process plays in normal self-defeating thoughts. The person who can’t stop thinking “I’m fat and ugly” or “I’m an imposter who’s terrible at my career” even in the face of contradictory evidence. These thoughts seem calculated to disturb the same way Gay OCD is. They’re not as dramatic, and they rarely reach quite the same level of obsession, but the underlying process seems the same.

If you want to see the Guf directly, advanced meditators seem to be able to do this. They often report that after successfully quieting their conscious thoughts, they become gradually aware of a swamp of unquiet proto-thoughts lurking underneath. They usually describe it as really weird, which is a remarkably good match to the theory’s predictions.

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Anxiety Sampler Kits

The best thing about personalized medicine is that it’s obviously right. The worst thing is we mostly have no idea how to do it. We know that different people respond to different treatments. But outside a few special cases like cancer, we don’t know how to predict which treatment will work for which person. Some psychiatric researchers claim they can do this at a high level; I think they’re wrong. For most treatments and most conditions, there’s no way to figure out whether a given sometimes-effective treatment will work on a given individual besides trying it and seeing.

This suggests that some chronic conditions might do best with a model centered around a controlled process of guess-and-check. When it’s safe and possible, we should be maximizing throughput – finding out how to test as many medications as we can in the short time before we exhaust our patients’ patience, and how to best assess the effects of each. The process of treating each individual should mirror the process of medicine in general, balancing the need to run controlled trials and gather more evidence with the need to move quickly.

I don’t know how seriously to take this idea, but I would like to try it.

Some friends and I made thirty of these Anxiety Sampler Kits, containing six common supplements with some level of scientific and anecdotal evidence for treating anxiety (thanks to Patreon donors for helping fund this). The 21 boxes include three nonconsecutive boxes of each supplement, plus three boxes of placebos. They’re randomly arranged and designed so that you can’t tell which ones are which – I even put some of the supplements into different colored capsules, so you can’t even be sure that two capsules that look different aren’t the same thing.

Each box contains enough supplement for one dose, and all supplements are supposed to work within an hour or so. Whenever you feel anxious, you try the first non-empty box remaining. Afterwards, you rate how you felt on the attached log (not pictured). When you’ve finished all twenty-one boxes, you fill out a form (link is on the attached paperwork) and figure out whether there was any supplement you consistently rated higher than the others, or whether any of them were better than placebo. If your three highest ratings all went to boxes which turned out to contain the same supplement, and it did much better than placebo, then you have a strong argument that this is the best anti-anxiety supplement for you.

(this setup isn’t quite as irresponsible as it sounds. The six supplements I’m using are all considered very safe. I’m not concealing which six supplements are in it – it’s magnesium, 5-HTP, GABA, Zembrin, lemon balm, and l-theanine – so you can check if you have allergies to any of them. And there’s a spoilers page available if you have a bad reaction and need to tell your doctor what caused it)

Also on the form is a link to send me your data, which I’m asking you to do as a condition for using the kits. I’ll add everything up and this will double as an n = 30 placebo-controlled trial of six different supplements. I don’t think n = 30 is enough to impress anybody, but it might be enough to get some informal hunches about what works and be able to give people better advice. And if the experiment goes well, I can always make more kits.

If you live in the Bay Area, have enough anxiety that you expect to use a sample at least two days a week, and are okay with self-experimentation, these kits might be for you. Starting tonight I’m leaving a box full of them at the Rationality & Effective Altruism Community Hub, on the ground floor of 3045 Shattuck, Berkeley. REACH is usually open (or contains people who will open it if you knock) at all reasonable hours, and the caretaker there is aware that people might be coming in to get these kits. If you notice the box is out of kits, please comment here telling me so and I’ll add an update so people don’t waste their time. [EDIT: All out of kits, sorry! Once I have gotten results I might make a new batch.]

Remember that by taking a kit, you’re saying you expect to have anxiety that you’d be willing to experiment on at least twice a week (it’s okay if it doesn’t work out this way exactly) and you’re committing to – if you’re able to finish the test – sending me a form with your results. People who are pregnant or nursing, who have relevant preexisting medical conditions, or who are already taking potentially-interacting medications should talk to their doctor before trying these kits. I will not give you medical advice about whether these kits are safe for your specific situation, so please don’t ask. If you would be comfortable taking a random supplement you got off the shelf at Whole Foods, you should feel comfortable with everything in here.

I might take this idea further, but I’m going to wait until the first set of results come in. If you are interested in taking this idea further, send me an email and let me know your thoughts.

Links 10/18: +1 Insiteful

Mark Hofmann, master forger, built a comfy career for himself forging documents that discredited Mormonism and selling them to Mormon officials who wanted to cover them up – for example, a letter in which Joseph Smith confessed that instead of seeing an angel, he had only seen a salamander. Then the murders began.

Byron White is the only person to have ever been both an NFL player and a Supreme Court Justice. He also won two Bronze Stars working naval intelligence in World War II. From his Wikipedia article: “White said that he was supposed to enroll at Harvard Law School, but got sick on the train ride there, so he got off the train in New Haven, Connecticut and went to Yale.”

Update on the mystery illness plaguing US diplomats in Cuba (and now China) – it may be a microwave-based weapon developed by the old USSR, possibly deployed from the back of a van. Still no word on who is using it against US diplomats or why.

Want to participate in a medical study? Don’t care which one? helps connect researchers to wannabe-subjects. If you have a disease, great, but even if you don’t you can be someone’s control group.

Exposure to opposing views on social media increases partisan polarization. It’s not true that if people read the other side they would appreciate or like them more. I think this is probably related to everyone giving up on convincing the other side and focusing on radicalizing the base instead. If people were trying to convince you, listening to them would make you more convinced; if people are trying to radicalize your enemies, listening to them will make you more concerned. And here’s an article about people trying to do this right.

It’s 2018, so of course a rapper is planning to build a cryptocurrency-themed city in Senegal, and of course it’s already being compared to “a real-life Wakanda”.

One way to identify a brilliant person is that, while ordinary people are afraid you’ll steal their ideas, brilliant people have so many ideas that they know they will never be able to do all of them, and practically beg you to steal them so that they get done. Luke Muehlhauser is definitely a brilliant person, and here is his list of Projects I Wish I Had Time For. Somebody please do the historical music one and send it to me.

Eleven European nations are planning to mandate that recipients of government scientific grants must publish resulting papers somewhere they are freely available to everyone, eg open-access journals. This could be an even bigger deal than it sounds, since it would ensure open-access journals were the only place you could find a lot of the most important research, and so raise their prestige. Good job governments solving coordination problems!

Inevitably, capsule hotels have come to San Francisco. The symbolism isn’t great, but I’ve stayed at capsule hotels before and can recommend them as surprisingly comfortable and convenient.

Related: a real estate startup is getting into the Bay Area group house market. This sounds kind of like dialing the Bay-Area-ness up to 11, but it…actually seems like a good idea? They acquire and maintain the houses, screen potential residents, take care of chores like cleaning and keeping provisions stocked, and occasionally hold events, and residents pay them like any other landlord. professorgerm on the subreddit describes it as “take college dorms, remove the college, and make it a subscription model with transfer options”.

This month in dog-whistling: was a low-level Trump administration official resting her arms on each other in a totally normal way during the Kavanaugh hearings? Or was it a secret white supremacist salute? Update: it was the first one, and the official involved is a half-Mexican, half-Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors.

Iran has one of the world’s largest cash transfer programs, though it’s not quite a basic income. Now a new study finds generally positive effects on labor participation.

Robin Hanson: The Game

The Institute for Competitive Governance is trying to crowd-fund an “open source legal system”, ie “an alternative law system for places where existing legal systems either do not exist or cannot be trusted”. Some more information here. There is no way this doesn’t end up being on the blockchain somehow. Also in crowdfunding news – friend of the blog Thomas Eliot is raising money for his new illustrated translation of the Enchiridion of Epictetus. Somewhat less likely to end up on the blockchain, but it is 2018.

This month in phrenology: “A series of studies conducted by Caltech researchers show that when people are shown photos of politicians they’re not familiar with, they can make better-than-chance judgments about whether those politicians have been convicted of corruption”. In particular. politicians with wider faces are more corrupt. And here’s a photoset in case you want to remind yourself what wide- and narrow-faced politicians look like.

The partisan makeup of different occupations. Note the consistent pattern where professions that manipulate the physical world are conservative and professions that manipulate ideas are liberal (in a way that doesn’t seem to depend entirely on skills or salary).

Ben Carson (who, remember, is still the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) comes out against NIMBYism, cites econblogger Noahpinion’s article.

Why do people on hallucinogenic drugs so often see spirals or concentric circles? Because the brain maps the visual field to the visual cortex using a polar-to-Cartesian coordinate transform, and drugs cause linear abnormalities in the visual cortex through a reaction-diffusion process similar to the one that makes stripes on zebras. If this doesn’t make sense, read the link, it’s brilliant and fascinating and one of the only times I feel like some aspect of human perception has been completely explained with no mystery left anywhere. Original paper is here, zebra-stripe-generator applet is here. (h/t eukaryotewrites)

Ron Unz did a lot of interesting work on both sides of the political spectrum, and you may have cached that he’s a guy with some heterodox opinions but still pretty thoughtful. I was disappointed to learn that he’s now gone totally off the deep end into Holocaust denial and other related beliefs; this article gives a good bio and summary. This scares me because I don’t know how it happened; I often see people I respect in one domain having otherwise crazy opinions, but for some reason it’s worse when I can watch it happening in real time.

Step one: some Chinese people are going back to wearing traditional Chinese clothes, how #aesthetic. Step two: uh oh, it looks like the people wearing traditional Chinese clothing are a far-right supremacist movement. Step three: “Conspiracy theories among Han Clothing Movement participants claim that there is a secret Manchu plan for restoration [of the Qing Dynasty] that has been underway from the start of the post-1978 reform era. They argue that Manchus secretly control every important party-state institution, such as the People’s Liberation Army, the Party Propaganda Department, the Ministry of Culture and especially the National Population and Family Planning Commission which is regarded as a stronghold of Manchu influence. They believe that its one-child policy is but “an escalation of the long-term Manchu genocide that targets the Han people”.

You know the planet astrological symbols? Where Venus is a mirror, Mars is a circle with an arrow coming out of it, and nobody ever remembers the others? Well, did you know that more than thirty asteroids have their own astrological symbols for you to not remember?

Roopkund is a small lake 15,000 feet high in the Tibetan Plateau, which made headlines when explorers discovered several hundred human skeletons on its desolate shores. Scientists carbon-dated the skeletons to around 700 AD. Now somebody has gene-sequenced them, and found that they are mostly Greeks. How did hundreds of Greek people get to a remote part of Tibet and die there en masse in the eight-century AD? Wikipedia discusses the mystery.

This month in “nobody has principles”, USA Today on the implications of Kavanaugh: “’Law review editors: brace for a tidal wave of legal academic theories supporting judicial minimalism, Thayerianism, and strong — very strong — theories of precedent. Above all: the Court must do nothing without bipartisan agreement, otherwise it is illegitimate.’ The past half-century’s enthusiasm for judicial activism will vanish, as legal academia turns on a dime to promote theories that will constrain the court until a left-leaning majority returns, at which point they’ll turn on a dime again.”

Ben Hoffman: Financial investment is just a symbolic representation of investment projected onto a low-dimensional space inside a control system run by the US government. Tldr he disagrees with Nassim Taleb’s barbell strategy.

A year after China said it would “dominate” AI, it seems to be walking back its position and calling for international collaboration.

Will MacAskill’s TED talk on effective altruism. Related: 80,000 Hours synthesizes and summarizes their research finding the highest-impact careers.

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire Of Louis Bonaparte

Confronted with the science saying it’s bad for teenagers to wake up too early, California’s legislature passes a ground-breaking bill saying that schools may not start earlier than 8:30 AM – only for it to be vetoed by governor Jerry Brown, who is apparently in the pocket of Big Morning.

This probably confuses a lot of people’s narratives: women are having more children than they were a decade ago.

Evidence that the solar cycle affects human lifespan, embryo survival, and number of children, probably because UV affects folate levels. h/t towardsagentlerworld

Commuting by bicycle has gone down over the past few years, at least in part because working from home is finally starting to rise.

no_bear_so_low does research on Google trends, including how left-wing searches are gaining on right-wing searches over time and anxiety-related searches are exploding.

Genomic Prediction launches their flagship product, a test that will assign polygenic scores to embryos and let parents decide which ones to implant. So far only being used for a few specific disorders, but the same technology would work for traits like height or intelligence. Gwern estimates that at current tech level, a process like this could probably gain three IQ points.

Americans with a science PhD can “get a fast track to influencing policy” by applying for the AAAS Science And Technology Fellowship by Nov 1.

NYT uses Facebook data to generate a map of how likely people in any one American county are to have friends in another American county. You could probably do some interesting research on migration patterns with this tool.

A clustering algorithm sorts 50,000 philosophy papers onto a 2D grid to make a map of philosophy. Somebody needs to turn this into sentimental cartography.

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Kavanaugh: A Probability Poll

There’s some literature suggesting that people are more careful when they think in probabilities. If you ask them for a definite answer, they might give it and sound very confident, but if you encourage them to think probabilistically they might admit there’s more uncertainty.

I wanted to look into this in the context of the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, so I asked readers to estimate their probability that Judge Kavanaugh was guilty of sexually assaulting Dr. Ford. I got 2,350 responses (thank you, you are great). Here was the overall distribution of probabilities. Horizontal axis is percent chance he did it; vertical axis is number of people who responded with that percent:

This looks weird because people were most likely to give numbers rounded off the the nearest ten.

I separated responses into bins from 0 – 9%, 10 – 19%, and so on to 90 – 100%. Keep in mind that the last bin is slightly larger than the others, so it might make it unfairly look like more people gave extreme high answers than extreme low answers. I also switched the vertical axis to percent of responses in each bin. Smoothed out, it looks like this:

This looks pretty balanced, and it is: the average probability is 52.64%. This is probably a fake balance based on all the different demographic skews involved cancelling out: 2.5x as many Democrats as Republicans answered the survey, but 9x as many men as women did.

Here are the results broken down by party (blue is Democrats, red is Republicans):

And here are the results broken down by gender (blue is men, pink is women):

There should be an interaction between party and gender, because men are more likely to be Republicans, and women Democrats. I didn’t have enough data to investigate this too carefully, so I can’t say whether gender controlled for party remains significant or not.

I asked two questions to assess participants’ level of background knowledge: where did Kavanaugh go to law school? (correct answer: Yale) and what is Kavanaugh’s wife’s name? (correct answer: Ashley, but a shout-out to everyone who wrote “Mrs. Kavanaugh” and to the one person who wrote “beer”). Here are the probabilities of people who got both questions right (gold) vs. both questions wrong (green):

People with high background knowledge were more extreme in their answers, and slightly more likely to think Kavanaugh is innocent. I worry that I made a mistake in the questions I chose, since people who are more sympathetic to Kavanaugh might be more likely to know about his family. In retrospect, I should have asked at least one question about Dr. Ford.

What about neutral people? Do such people exist? I looked at people who were neither registered Democrats nor Republicans, and who rated their liberal-vs-conservative ideology, on a one to ten scale, as 4, 5, or 6. These people looked like this:

This chart makes it look like they’re slightly leaning towards guilt, but I think that might be a function of the binning; their mean probability of guilt was 49.85%, about as close to “totally uncertain” as you can get. Neutral people with more background knowledge were, again, more likely to lean innocent, with a mean of 41%.

I asked people whether they felt the evidence that Kavanaugh may have committed sexual assault was sufficient to reject his nomination to the Supreme Court, regardless of any other reasons to vote for or against him (like his legal opinions). 55% of respondents thought that yes, his nomination should be voted down; 45% still supported him. Here is a list of support for confirmation by probability of guilt:

Of people who thought there was only a 0 – 9% chance Kavanaugh was guilty, 98% thought he shouldn’t be rejected from the Supreme Court on this basis alone. Of people who thought there was a 90-100% chance of guilt, 96% thought that was sufficient to reject the nomination. Of people who thought there was 50-50 chance of guilt, about 50% still supported him and 50% opposed him.

This question suggests there is no real consensus about how plausible an accusation has to be before it means someone should be denied nomination to the Supreme Court. People generally agreed that if there was below a 25% chance the accusations were true, he should definitely be confirmed, and if there was above an 80% chance, he definitely shouldn’t be. But between 25% and 80%, people were pretty split on whether the Senate should err on the side of not confirming a potential assaulter, or wait until it was beyond a reasonable doubt. If we were trying to make these answers into a guideline for how a Senator should vote, it looks like they would be satisfying the most people if they voted to confirm if they thought the accusations had a less than 50% chance of being true, and to reject if they thought they had a more than 50% chance. I wonder how many people would endorse this rule as written.

I also asked people whether they would reject Kavanaugh in the hypothetical universe where he had immediately admitted to the accusations, then apologized for his actions and said he had changed as a person since then. About 55% of people said they would accept him in this scenario, meaning he gains about 10% support in the SSC demographic compared to the real-world situation. But the question was poorly worded and I’m not sure how many people answered yes they would reject him, accidentally meaning to say yes they would accept him.

Here is a graph of how people answered this hypothetical compared to how guilty they thought he was:

There’s no correlation. This makes sense: how guilty you think he is in this universe shouldn’t affect your opinions about a hypothetical universe where you know he’s guilty – but for some reason I’m still surprised. I guess I expected people’s partisan biases to sneak in, even if they didn’t make sense. Maybe the question was so confusing that answers to it are basically random.

Overall, when asked to use probabilities people were able to admit to a little bit of uncertainty in their answer. They could give probabilities that were well-formed and self-consistent. But none of this came close to removing the partisan bias and the strong difference in opinions. There is no consensus in the general SSC demographic, and even unbiased people as a group are unable to send a coherent signal. This is not a good way to get beyond confusion and disagreement on an issue like this one.

You can download the raw data (slightly cleaned up) here.

OT112: Opentagon Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. I am retiring the scott[at]shireroth[dot]org email in favor of scott[at]slatestarcodex[dot]com. Please use the new email if you want to reach me. I prefer not to receive comments on blog posts by email. If you have a comment on a blog post, please put it on the comment section of the blog or the subreddit.

2. Comment of the week is this set of tweets on how the adversarial collaboration contest’s main benefit might not be to readers, but to participants and to democracy itself.

3. I am interested in publishing basically any good adversarial collaboration people do (this isn’t a promise, just an expression of interest). If you have one, let me know. If you’re thinking of doing one and you want to know if I would publish it beforehand, let me know. Also, I am slightly behind on paying some of the people who need payment, but I will take care of it later this week.

4. In some weird reverse of Conquest’s Law, any comment section that isn’t explicitly left-wing tends to get more right-wing over time. I am trying to push against this and keep things balanced, so I want to be explicit that I’m practicing affirmative action for leftist commenters. You may have noticed some leftists saying things that should have gotten them banned. After some thought, I’ve decided to keep them around anyway with warnings instead (this means you, Brad and Freddie). I will still ban leftists for more serious issues. This doesn’t mean other people will be able to get away with this kind of behavior, so consider yourself warned.

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Nighttime Ventilation Survey Results

Thanks to the 129 people who tried altering their nighttime carbon dioxide levels after my post on this, and who reported back to me. There was no difference between people who pre-registered for the study and people who didn’t, on any variable, so I ignored pre-registration.

126 people reported one intervention they performed. The most common was sleeping with a window open:

People generally reported slight but positive changes:

When asked to rate the magnitude of improvement to well-being on a 0 to 5 scale, they averaged 1.4:

I mentioned in the post that succulents could help in theory, but you needed to get the right kind of succulents and you needed at least ten of them. I was skeptical that anyone really got ten succulents in their room, so I wondered whether that might work as a crypto-placebo group.

If so, the intervention failed to separate from placebo. Succulent users had an average improvement of 1.29, compared to about 1.50 for people who did other things. The difference wasn’t significant, although admittedly the sample size was low.

Looking at the various groups, the most striking difference was actually people who left a window open (1.57) vs. people who did one of the other named options (1.31). A few people who left windows open mentioned this made their room cooler, which seemed to help with sleep. But this is very post hoc, and this difference wasn’t significant either.

Here are some reports from people who described dramatic improvement:

Less headaches, less fatigue in the morning, less trouble staying asleep through the night

I slept more comfortably, woke less in the night, and felt less fatigue in the morning. I also felt more alert during the day. I used a CO2 meter. Peak level changed from 1400s before to 800s after the intervention.

When I get up I feel less groggy, It takes my brain less time to get on line, I can way more often wake up and do things right away rather than spend time in a stunned haze or distracting myself so I don’t fall back asleep. I feel more like doing things and have the energy to back that up, it lasts some time after I wake up but usually not all day. I feel like I sleep better.

And here are some of the more typical results from people who said they felt only minor or placebo-like improvements:

Possibly more alert upon waking, possibly needing slightly less time sleeping to feel rested

Slightly more likely to sleep through the night and/or feel better rested in the morning.

I don’t recall waking up as often, but maybe it’s a placebo. If it’s a placebo, it’s a cheap/free one and I’m happy to keep taking it as long as it works. Oh god is taking this survey going to make it not work anymore?

Despite the underwhelming results, most people were going to stick with their intervention:

I consider these results basically negative – both for nighttime ventilation, and for the ability of informal blog surveys to give data that one can be confident in either way. But I’m glad some people think they feel better, and the results of the last question suggest it still might be a cheap and productive thing to try.

If you’re interested in analyzing this further, you can download the data at this link.