codex Slate Star Codex

"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Classified Thread 4: Vinson Classif

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

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What To Make Of New Positive NSI-189 Results?

I.

I wanted NSI-189 to be real so badly.

Pharma companies used to love antidepressants. Millions of people are depressed. Millions of people who aren’t depressed think they are. Sell them all a pill per day for their entire lifetime, and you’re looking at a lot of money. So they poured money into antidepressant research, culminating in 80s and 90s with the discovery of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac. Since then, research has moved into exciting new areas, like “more SSRIs”, “even more SSRIs”, “drugs that claim to be SNRIs but on closer inspection are mostly just SSRIs”, and “drugs that claim to be complicated serotonin modulators but realistically just work as SSRIs”. Some companies still go through the pantomime of inventing new supposedly-not-SSRI drugs, and some psychiatrists still go through the pantomime of pretending to be excited about them, but nobody’s heart is really in it anymore.

How did it come to this? Apparently discovering new antidepressants is really hard. Part of it is that depression has such a high placebo response rate (realistically probably mostly regression to the mean) that it’s hard for even a good medication to separate much from placebo. Another part is that psychopharmacology is just a really difficult field even at the best of times. Pharma companies tried, tried some more, and gave up. All the new no-really-not-SSRIs are the fig leaf to cover their failure. Now people are gradually giving up on even pretending. There are still lots of exciting possibilities coming from the worlds of academia and irresponsible self-experimentation, but the Very Serious People have left the field. This is a disaster, insofar as they’re the only people who can get things through the FDA and into the mass market where anyone besides fringe enthusiasts will use them.

Enter NSI-189. A tiny pharma company called Neuralstem announced that they had a new antidepressant that worked on directly on neurogenesis – a totally new mechanism! nothing at all like SSRIs! – and seemed to be getting miraculous results. Lots of people (including me) suspect neurogenesis is pretty fundamental to depression in a way serotonin isn’t, so the narrative really worked – we’ve finally figured out a way to hit the root cause of depression instead of fiddling around with knobs ten steps away from the actual problem. Irresponsible self-experimenters managed to synthesize and try some of it, and reported miraculous stories of treatment-resistant depressions vanishing overnight. Someone had finally done the thing!

There are many theories about what place our world holds in God’s creation. Here’s one with as much evidence as any other: Earth was created as a Hell for bad psychiatrists. For one thing, it would explain why there are so many of them here. For another, it would explain why – after getting all of our hopes so high – NSI-189 totally flopped in FDA trials.

I don’t think the data have been published anywhere (more evidence for the theory!), but we can read off the important parts of the story from Neuralstem’s press release. In Stage 1, they put 44 patients on 40 mg NSI-189 daily, another 44 patients on 80 mg daily, and 132 patients on placebo for six weeks. In Stage 2, they took the people from the placebo group who hadn’t gotten better in Stage 1 and put half of them on NSI-189, leaving the other half on placebo – I think this was a clever trick to get a group of people pre-selected for not responding to placebo and so avoid the problem where everyone does well on placebo and so it’s a washout. But all of this was for nothing. On the primary endpoint – a depression rating instrument called MADRS – the NSI-189 group failed to significantly outperform placebo during either stage.

Neuralstem’s stock fell 61% on news of the study. Financial blog Seeking Alpha advised readers that Neuralstem Is Doomed. Investors tripped over themselves to withdraw support from a corporation that apparently was unable to handle the absolute bread-and-butter most basic job of a pharma company – fudging clinical trial results so that nobody figures out they were negative until half the US population is on their drug.

From last month’s New York Times:

The first thing you feel when a [drug] trial fails is a sense of shame. You’ve let your patients down. You know, of course, that experimental drugs have a poor track record – but even so, this drug had seemed so promising (you cannot erase the image of the cancer cells dying under the microscope). You feel as if you’ve shortchanged the Hippocratic Oath […]

There’s also a more existential shame. In an era when Big Pharma might have macerated the last drips of wonder out of us, it’s worth reiterating the fact: Medicines are notoriously hard to discover. The cosmos yields human drugs rarely and begrudgingly – and when a promising candidate fails to work, it is as if yet another chemical morsel of the universe has been thrown into the dumpster. The meniscus of disappointment rises inside you: That domain of human biology that the medicine hoped to target may never be breached therapeutically.

And so the rest of us gave a heavy sigh, shed a single tear, and went back to telling ourselves that maybe vortioxetine wasn’t exactly an SSRI, in ways.

II.

But the reason I’m writing about all of this now is that Neuralstem has just put out a new press release saying that actually, good news! NSI-189 works after all! Their stock rose 67%! Investment blogs are writing that Neuralstem Is A Big Winner and boasting about how much Neuralstem stock they were savvy enough to hold on to!

What are these new results? Can we believe them?

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what’s going on; the results themselves were presented at a conference and aren’t directly available. But from what I can gather from the press release, this isn’t a new trial. It’s new secondary endpoints from the first trial, that Neuralstem thinks cast a new light on the results.

What are secondary endpoints? Often during a drug trial, people want to measure whether the drug works in multiple different ways. For depression, these are usually rating scales that ask about depressive symptoms – things like “On a scale of 1 to 5, how sad are you?” or “How many times in the past month have you considered suicide?”. You could give the MADRS, a scale that focuses on emotional symptoms. Or you could give the HAM-D, a scale that focuses more on psychosomatic symptoms. Or since depression makes people think less clearly, you could give them a cognitive battery. Depending on what you want to do, all of these are potentially good choices.

But once you let people start giving a lot of tests, there’s a risk that they’ll just keep giving more and more tests until they find one that gives results they like. Remember, one out of every twenty statistical analyses you do will be positive at the 0.05 level by pure coincidence. So if you give people ten tests, you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting one positive result – at which point, you trumpet that one to the world.

Statisticians try to solve this loophole by demanding researchers pre-identify a primary endpoint. That is, you have to say beforehand which test you want to count. You can do however many tests you want, but the other ones (“secondary endpoints”) are for your own amusement and edification. The primary endpoint is the one that the magical “p = 0.05 means it works” criteria gets applied to.

Neuralstem chose the MADRS scale as their primary endpoint and got a null result. This is what they released in July that had everybody so disappointed. The recently-released data are a bunch of secondary endpoints, some of which are positive. This is the new result that has everybody so excited.

You might be asking “Wait, I thought the whole point of having primary versus secondary endpoints was so people wouldn’t do that?” Well…yes. I’m trying to figure out if there’s any angle here besides “Company does thing that you’re not supposed to do because it can always give you positive results, gets positive results, publishes a press release”. I am not an expert here. But I can’t find one.

The pattern of positive results shows pretty much the random pattern you would expect from spurious findings. They’re divided evenly among a bunch of scales, with occasional positive results on one scale followed by negative results on a very similar scale measuring the same thing. Most of them are only the tiniest iota below p = 0.05. Many of them only work at 40 mg, and disappear in the 80 mg condition; there are occasional complicated reasons why drugs can work better at lower doses, but Occam’s razor says that’s not what’s happening here. One of the results only appeared in Stage 2 of the trial, and disappeared in Stage 1 and the pooled analysis. This doesn’t look exactly like they just multiplied six instruments by two doses by three ways of grouping the stages, got 36 different cells, and rolled a die in each. But it’s not too much better than that. Who knows, maybe the drug does something? But it sure doesn’t seem to be a particularly effective antidepressant, even by our very low standards for such. Right now I am very unimpressed.

III.

Except…why did their stock jump 67%? We just got done talking about the efficient market hypothesis and the theory that the stock market is never wrong in a way detectable by ordinary humans.

First of all, maybe that’s wrong. My dad is a doctor, and he swears that he keeps making a lot of money from medical investments. He just sees some new medical product, says “Yeah, that sounds like the sort of thing that will work and become pretty popular”, and buys it. I keep telling him this cannot possibly work, and he keeps coming to me a year later telling me he made a killing and now has a new car. Maybe all financial theory is a total lie, and if you get a lucky feeling when looking at a company’s logo you should invest in them right away and you will always make a fortune.

Or maybe the it’s that it’s not investors’ job to answer “Does this drug work?” but rather “Will investing in this stock make me money?”. Neuralstem has mentioned that they’ll be bringing these new results in front of the FDA, presumably in the hopes of getting a Phase III trial. FDA standards seem to have gotten looser lately, and maybe a fig leaf of positive results is all they need to give the go ahead for a bigger trial anyway – after all, they wouldn’t be approving the drug, just saying more research is appropriate. Then maybe that trial would come out better. Or it would be big enough that they would discover some alternate use (remember, Viagra was originally developed to lower blood pressure, and only got switched to erectile dysfunction after Phase 1 trials). Or maybe Neuralstem will join the 21st century and hire a competent Obfuscation Department.

I don’t know. I’m beyond caring. The sign of a really deep depression is abandoning hope, and I’ve abandoned hope in NSI-189…

…which just leaves me even more time to be excited about SAGE-217, the novel GABA-A positive allosteric modulator that just passed Phase 2 trials! This one is going to be great!

[EDIT: Wait, is SAGE-217 just a weird attempt to rebrand benzodiazepines? Surely it’s got to be more than that, right?]

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Tax Bill 3: Don’t Mess With Taxes

I.

Thanks to everyone who commented on my last two posts, especially the many people who disagreed with me. Two things I will admit I got mostly wrong:

1. I was wrong to say there was “no case” for the tax bill. Aside from all of the minor provisions which can be good or bad, the case for slashing corporate rates is that they’re more distortionary and less efficient than other forms of taxation. Thanks to everyone who pointed this out to me.

2. Several people brought up problems with the article saying CEOs say they will just give the money back to shareholders, most notably that giving money back to shareholders may stimulate the economy in other ways.

But two things I still think are true:

1. Seriously, guys, I admit I don’t know as much about economics as some of you, but I am working off of a poll of the country’s best economists who came down pretty heavily on the side of this not significantly increasing growth. If you want to tell me that it would, your job isn’t to explain Economics 101 theories to me even louder, it’s to explain how the country’s best economists are getting it wrong. You may find this book review relevant.

2. I stand by my claim that I care less about economic growth than about where the money goes. That includes caring less about distortionary taxation, deadweight loss, and all those other concepts.

Suppose Alice is an effective altruist who supports whatever charity you think is most important and does a really good job of it. Every dollar she spends saves multiple lives. She lives in a town of 1000 people where nobody else is an effective altruist and everyone else just lives a pretty decent life and spends their extra money on, I don’t know, breeding virtual cats or something.

A demon places a curse on Alice’s neighbor Bob. Every time Bob pays a dollar in taxes, it destroys a random two dollars’ worth of wealth somewhere in the town.

The town elders meet and decide that for some reason they have to lower taxes either on Alice or Bob. The economic case for Bob is overwhelming – taxes on him are especially inefficient because of the extra wealth they destroy.

Still, I would want a tax cut for Alice. It seems like the only important thing that happens at all in this town is Alice’s charitable donations. The amount I care about this town’s utility focuses pretty much entirely on that. We could give the break to Bob, and have a nominally better economy, but it would just lead to more people buying virtual cats. It could be that the extra two dollars’ of wealth destroyed by Bob’s taxes was some sort of useful machinery, and so taxing Bob harms economic growth. Again, it is hard to care, except insofar as that hurts Alice, the only person in town whose wealth matters much for anyone’s utility.

I can imagine a world in which Bob’s curse was stronger, and every dollar Bob was taxed destroyed a million dollars in value, and soon any tax on Bob meant the citizens of the town were starving to death and all of them including Alice went bankrupt. But right now the tax on Bob isn’t big enough to be worse for Alice than a tax on Alice, and since Alice is the only important person in this situation, I don’t care.

I can also imagine a world where a wise economist comes to town. She says “Alice’s work is the most important thing in this town, but taxing Bob destroys wealth for no reason. Some of the town elders support tax breaks for Bob, and others support tax breaks for Alice. But we can give the tax break to Bob, and then all the people who saved $2 each from the curse not being activated can give $1.50 to Alice. That way Bob is better off, Alice is better off, and potential curse victims are better off.”

This is the best argument in favor of wealth creation instead of redistribution. But right now we’re not doing that. We just create the wealth and then don’t redistribute it, except through charity, which is a rounding error, and taxes, which everyone agrees this bill causes there to be less of. If we actually had Pareto-optimal wealth redistribution, then of course, create as much wealth as possible and redistribute it Pareto-optimally. Since we don’t, we’re kind of stuck.

My takeaway from this story is that in societies with a lot of marginal-value-of-money inequality, economic growth is potentially less useful than working to keep the money with people who can spend it on higher-marginal-value things. Consider three variables:

1. How low is the marginal utility of money for the person holding the average dollar, if no efforts are made to redistribute it?

2. How much economic growth are we sacrificing by choosing redistribution?

3. How high a marginal utility of money do we get by redistributing it?

Point 1 is why I stress the research showing increasing inequality eg most money going to people rich enough not to really have much use for it.

Point 2 is why I stress the economists saying that the gains from cutting corporate taxes really won’t have that much effect on growth.

Point 3 is the one I’m least sure about. If the government were a perfect effective altruist, it would be no contest – them having the money would be thousands of times more effective than random corporations (or even random middle-class people) having it. Even if the government were to give the money as a tax break to the working classes, it still seems really obvious to me that the increased utility swamps any effect from higher economic growth. In reality, the tax cut is being funded by increasing the deficit. I don’t know whether that means we need to compare it to whatever is bad about having a higher deficit, or else take as a given that the deficit has a certain amount of slack, and then compare it to other things we could do with the same money.

Imagine the government went $100 billion into debt to build a giant bronze statue of George Washington. Should we be debating whether running up the deficit is really that bad? Should we be debating the artistic merit of giant bronze statues of Washington, and whether it’s actually a pretty good statue that boosts tourism in the area? Or should we be comparing it to the best possible use for that money?

(added: I would be 100% happy with a bill that cut corporate taxes exactly this much, then raised taxes somewhere else in an equally progressive way, causing there to be the same amount of taxes with less distortion)

II.

The fairest thing I can think of is to compare this use of $100 billion to just spreading $100 billion evenly among all the government’s existing priorities.

Suppose that this tax cut was vastly better at stimulating economic growth than any reasonable person expects, and it increased growth by 1% per year. Then it would create $200 billion in value. With extreme good luck, 3% of that might go to the poorest quintile, giving them an extra $6 billion.

Or suppose the government keeps the $100 billion and distributes it evenly according to its existing priorities. Half of the budget is entitlement programs, and 32% of those go to the poorest quintile, so they would get an extra $16 billion.

I’m sure these numbers are wildly off. But it’s hard to come up with remotely plausible numbers in which the poor and working-class are better off with the tax bill than without it. I think the assumptions I plugged in were overly generous: the bill won’t really increase growth 1%, and although poor people have 3% of income they get much less than 3% of economic gains. Still, even under these generous assumptions, this bill gives poor people less money than the default case of not doing it.

One could argue that poor people are better off with $6 billion in actual money than $16 billion in government programs purporting to help them. But although I agree there’s a multiplier, I don’t know if it’s this big. And government programs would also disproportionately help the poorest of the poor, compared to economic gains which would disproportionately help the richest of the poor.

I think the marginal utility from an extra dollar to the poor (and the working class, etc) is orders of magnitude higher than the same dollar going to something else. So if you want to get me to support the tax bill, don’t tell me yet another reason why you think it would make the economy more efficient. Tell me why I’m wrong about this.

[EDIT: Commenters point out I was mistaken about the speed at which this would compound. See here. If the real growth from the bill was as high as 1%, it would probably be better for the poor than the lost government spending; if it were lower, it would take several decades to break even. So the best way to convince me to support this bill would be to find a plausible estimate of what level of growth is expected. My best guess from the economist poll is still “approximately zero”. ]

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Response To Comments: The Tax Bill Is Still Very Bad

There was some good pushback on yesterday’s article on taxes. But sorry, I’m still right.

Many people responded with generic low-tax anti-government positions. Fine. Let’s say the government is definitely bad and taxes are definitely too high. The current tax bill is still not the right way to do tax cuts.

Budget director Mick Mulvaney claims that the richest 20% of people pay 95% of income tax; the Wall Street Journal‘s numbers are a little lower, at 84%. Total income taxes are $1.8 trillion, so the poorest 80%’s share comes out to somewhere between 90 and 280 billion. This is around the same order of magnitude as the $100 billion in tax cuts in the current GOP bill. So it looks like one alternative to this bill, no more or less costly, would be to halve income taxes for the bottom 80% of the population, maybe anyone making less than $100,000.

Is there any reason to prefer the existing GOP proposal to this one?

The only argument I can think of is that corporations are good because they make investments are hire employees and stimulate the economy. But…

First of all, the IGM Forum asked the nation’s top economists whether the current tax bill would substantially raise GDP. 51% said it wouldn’t, 36% said they weren’t sure, and only 2% (= 1 economist) thought it probably would.

Second, as Marxist and anti-corporate a site as Forbes notes that A Corporate Tax Cut Won’t Boost Economic Growth, because they went around and asked a lot of CEOs whether they were going to invest the tax cut in cool economic-growth boosting stuff, and the CEOs mostly said no, they would probably just increase shareholder dividends.

Third, for the past few decades there’s been a weird uncoupling between economic growth and the fortunes of most people in the developed world. I won’t insult your intelligence by re-posting the same graph you’ve seen a thousand times, but this isn’t subtle. If all the economists and all the CEOs are wrong, and we get a 3% boost in GDP over a decade or something, I expect when I open a holo-newspaper in 2027 it’ll be about how mysterious it is that average middle-class salaries are still pretty close to their 1970s level. I don’t think you have to be a communist to believe that economic growth that just goes to a tiny subsection of the population isn’t all that useful. You just have to be a utilitarian.

(I guess expanding the economy can also give us cool technology, but I would like rather less cool technology for a while, actually).

But most important, if all of this is wrong – if the CEOs are lying and really they’ll spend the money on investment, and the economists are wrong and really corporate investment will turbo-charge the economy, and the past few decades of economic history are wrong and some of the gains of a turbo-charged economy go to the poor and middle-class – then the good thing that happens is that poor and middle-class people have more money.

…which is the same thing that would have happened if you had just lowered the taxes on the poor and middle-class directly, you moron. It’s also what would happen if we spent it on welfare for the poor, on health care for the middle class. God help me, even Bernie’s free college tuition would save a couple people from student loan debt.

For the corporate tax cut to be a better idea, it would have to turbo charge the economy so dramatically that even after accounting for the low chance it will work at all, the amount taken off the top by executives and shareholders, and the poor ability of economic turbo-charging to ever reach the working class, it still puts more money in the hands of people who need it than just giving them the money would. I am not an economist and I don’t know as much about multipliers as I should, but I have not heard anyone seriously assert this.

Last week I criticized socialists who prefer funding complicated government programs that might eventually help poor people, to just giving poor people the money. I feel like this is the same sort of issue. Some sort of complicated scheme in which we make corporations much richer and hope this is good for the poor and middle-class in some way is a lot less certain than just giving poor and middle-class people more money.

Spending the tax money on social welfare programs would help give poor and middle-class people more money. Expanding the EITC would give poor and middle-class people more money. Cutting personal income taxes in lower brackets would give poor and middle-class people more money. This tax bill doesn’t do any of those things, and it costs the money that would make doing any of those things easier.

It’s sometimes unfair to compare real government programs to the most effective possible government program; everything fails by that measure. But this tax bill seems so much worse than even other tax cuts that I think it’s fair to judge it as a tremendous opportunity cost.

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The Tax Bill Compared To Other Very Expensive Things

Here is the cost of the current GOP tax bill placed in the context of other really expensive things. Although it’s not quite enough money to solve world hunger, it’s enough to end US homelessness four times over or fund nine simultaneous Apollo Programs.

I’m writing this post sort of as penance. During the primaries, I wrote a post arguing that Sanders’ college plan was bad. And compared to any reasonable use of the money, I still think that’s true.

But I worry that people – including me – focus way too much on the kind of bad idea that tries to help people but ends up being too expensive, and not enough on the kind of bad idea where there’s only the thinnest veneer of a claim anyone will be helped at all. If Sanders had been elected, and we were debating his college plan, people would be worried. The affordability of every piece of it would get run over with a fine-toothed comb. Its irresponsibility would be noticed.

Well, instead of Sanders we got Trump. I won’t say nobody’s talking about the tax plan – the problems with it have been all over the news – but are our fiscal irresponsibility detectors being triggered twice as strongly as they would if it was Sanders’ college plan we were considering?

There must be a toxoplasma effect going on here, where things that are possibly bad get debated to pieces, because debating them is so much fun – but things that are definitely bad, things that nobody likes, get through much more easily. Even more pessimistically, if Sanders proposed free college for everybody, it would get a lot of resistance precisely because the fact that so many people would benefit would make sure everyone knew about it and was thinking about it a lot and understood how big a deal it was. Since nobody except a few corporations benefits from the GOP tax plan, how do we even get a feel for how big and important it is?

Next election, if he’s running, I’m probably going to support Sanders, who seems like a decent person who really wants to help the poor. This is going to be a weird choice for someone who flirts with identifying as libertarian, given the whole socialism thing. But the thing is, we have antibodies to socialism. When people push socialism, we give it the scrutiny it deserves. I’m more worried about the things we don’t have antibodies to, and one of them is going to be passed by a joint session of Congress in the next week or two.

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Against Overgendering Harassment

About 30% of the victims of sexual harassment are men. About 20% of the perpetrators of sexual harassment are women.

Don’t believe me? In a Quinnipiac poll, 60% of women and 20% of men said they’d been sexually harassed. Opinium, which sounds like a weird drug, reports 20% of women vs. 7% of men. YouGov poll in Germany finds 43% of women and 12% of men. The overall rates vary widely depending on how the pollsters frame the question, but the ratio is pretty consistent.

The data on perpetrators is less clear. The best I can find is this Australian study finding that 21% of harassers are women. The German poll finds it’s 25%. I’m less confident on this one, but 20% seems like a conservative guess.

If you prefer anecdotes to data, you can sift through this Reddit thread with 2474 comments. For example:

I’m a junior ncm in the Canadian forces. I had a chief harass me daily which resulted in administrative actions when I tried resisting her abuse. My introduction to her was when she was telling the 20 or so people “Under her” that her dildos name is George…it went downhill from there and eventually she was groping me on the daily. I requested a geographic posting to get away from that lunatic and get an investigation underway but I was told by my WO that “these things happen for a reason”. Eight months later I was suicidal and that WO was signing my counselling and probation with her husband.

I went up to get a drink in a crowded bar and a rather large woman ruffled my hair and said ‘I like this one’. She then started thrusting into my backside. I wasn’t sure how to respond… I just kinda waited for it to stop. It was pretty uncomfortable and I felt kinda vulnerable. In the wake of all these sexual harassment stories, I looked back on this moment and considered for the first time that that was actual sexual harassment. Huh.

Don’t believe random Redditors, but do believe random bloggers? Then for what it’s worth I’ve been sexually harassed by two women, and I see no reason to think my experience is anything other than typical.

But then is it odd that so few of the recent high-profile victims of sexual harassment have been men, and so few of the high-profile perpetrators women? No. Everyone has made it clear from the start that they don’t want to hear about this. The viral Facebook message that started #MeToo – at least the one I saw – urged women to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment, and men to come forward with stories of times they perpetrated sexual harassment. The slogan “BELIEVE WOMEN” got enshrined into a mantra, pretty ominous if you’re a guy wondering whether people will believe your harasser’s story over yours. The mainstream media strongly discouraged men from coming forward with their own cases, with articles like I’m a man who has been sexually harassed – but I don’t think it’s right for men to join in with #MeToo. Their excuse was the usual – it’s not “structural oppression”, so it doesn’t count.

(The “structural oppression” model is false, by the way. Homosexual male harassment is more prevalent than the percent gay men in the population would imply, suggesting that gay men harass men more often than straight men harass women. The obvious explanation for gender differences in harassment has always been that men constitute 80% of sexual harassers for the same reason they constitute 83% of arsonists, 81% of car thieves, and 85% of burglars. Since most men are straight, most victims are women; when the men happen to be gay, they victimize men. Men probably get victimized disproportionately often compared to the straight/gay ratio because society views harassing women as horrible but harassing men as funny. If this theory is right then it’s men who are the structural victims, which means it’s your harassment that doesn’t count and you’re the ones who shouldn’t be allowed to talk about it. The “it only matters if it’s structural” game isn’t so much fun now, is it?)

Could this kind of ploy really shut up everybody? It didn’t have to. Men absolutely came forward with stories of harassment by high-profile women in Hollywood, and they were summarily ignored. By freak coincidence I came across this story from last month where Mariah Carey’s bodyguard accused her of sexually harassing him. Carey is much higher-profile than most of the men involved. But she didn’t even publish an apology, or a denial, or try to pick holes in his story. She just assumed nobody would care – and she was right.

Having silenced or ignored all men who might be sexually harassed, the media proceeded to treat sexual harassment in the most gendered way humanly possible, constantly reinforcing that only men can do it and only women can suffer it. The Guardian, being commendably honest about its priorities: We Must Challenge All Men About Sexual Harassment. Newsweek worries about how Women Are Attacked By Men In Almost Every Workplace. The Independent thinks the story is how powerful men seemingly never face the consequences of their actions toward women.

On the meta-level, the same publications pushed the narrative that men can’t possibly understand sexual harassment, or men will never believe accusers’ stories, or men refuse to believe other men can be harassers. The Guardian writes about Men Who Are Silent After #MeToo, and the Washington Post about how Some Men Disagree About What Counts As Sexual Harassment. Do any women disagree about what counts as sexual harassment? Yes, the stats show that they disagree exactly as much as the men do – but who cares? The story is that women are always victims and totally understand exactly what’s going on, and men are always perpetrators with their fingers in their ears denying that a problem exists. We are told to worry about Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Harassment (against themselves) but about Why Men Don’t Speak Up About Sexual Harassment (that they see happening against women). Needless to say, every line of evidence we have shows men are less likely to report harassment that happens to them than women are.

Is this really that bad? Might the 3:1 ratio justify focusing on women? Our society already has an answer to this, and in every other case, the answer is no.

I mean, for one thing, we’re telling people to stop using the phrase “pregnant mothers” since sometimes transgender men get pregnant. It seems kind of contradictory to think of this as a pressing issue, but also think that the fact that only 30% of harassment victims are men means that we should always use female pronouns for generic harassment victims, and always generically call perpetrators “males in position of power”.

But there’s also a deeper issue. Suppose I write about how we need to do more to support the victims of terrorism. Sounds good. But what if I write about how we need to do more to support the Christian victims of Muslim terrorism? Sounds…like maybe I have an agenda. If I write story after story about how Christians need to be on the watch out for Muslim terrorists, but Muslims need to be on the watch out for other Muslims being terrorists, and if I tell Muslim victims of Christian terrorism to stay silent because that’s not “structural oppression” – then that “maybe” turns to “obviously”. This is true even if the numbers show terrorists are disproportionately Muslim.

Or suppose I write about how we need to do more to help the victims of crime. Again, sounds good. What if I write about how we need to do more to help white victims of black criminals? Again, this does not sound so good, unless you happen to be Richard Spencer. If I write articles like “We Must Challenge All Blacks About Crime” or “Whites Are Attacked By Blacks In Almost Every Neighborhood”, then probably I am Richard Spencer. This is true regardless of whether the statistics show a racial skew in perpetrators. Nobody would accept “yeah, but I’m right about what the ratio is” as an excuse that your motives were pure.

Frames like “We need to do more to support the victims of terrorism” are an attempt to come together to stop an important social problem. Frames like “We need to do more to support the Christian victims of Muslim terrorism” are a hit job on the outgroup. Do I think that sexual harassment is being used this way? I have no other explanation for the utter predominance of genderedness in the conversation.

I’ve previously talked about two visions of social justice. The first vision tries to erase group differences to create a world free from stereotypes and hostility. The second vision tries to attack majority groups and spread as many stereotypes as possible about them in the hopes that the ensuing hostility raises the position of minorities. I think the gendered nature of the conversation is deliberate, being done with exactly this vision and for exactly the same reason some people talk about “Christian victims of Muslim terrorism”. I think this is unfortunate. Why?

Because it ensures that nobody has more than half the picture.

I wonder if the woman who wrote this knows any of her close female friends who are harassers?

I mean, statistically, some of them have to be. According to the German study, 6% of women admit to being harassers. Know more than a dozen women? One of them’s probably a harasser. Don’t know which one it is? Congratulations, now you can understand why some men don’t know which of their same-gender friends is a harasser either.

There’s a truism that rich people can’t understand what it’s like to be poor. Why don’t you just get a minimum wage job, earn $7/hour = $60/day = $18000/year, save half of it, after few years you’ve got enough to go to a cheap college and get your ticket to the middle class? It’s possible to figure out what’s wrong with this from a third-person perspective, but it’s much easier to get the first-person perspective and be like “Oh, I guess that’s what it’s like”.

The reason this tweeter can’t understand how it’s hard to believe that your friends are sexual harassers is because she’s never tried to consider the question from a first-person perspective. I predict the sort of person who makes tweets like this is exactly the sort of person who would say “How dare you say any of my female friends could be sexual harassers! Don’t you even understand structural oppression?!”

Likewise, do you think this woman knows any men who are victims of sexual harassment? If you were a man who’d been sexually harassed, would you admit it to this woman and expect a sympathetic ear? Once she contemplates why she doesn’t know so many men who have been sexually harassed, maybe she’ll understand why some men don’t know so many women.

But more than that, if men were included in the conversation – if it were understood that a man who was sexually harassed by a female Hollywood celebrity would have the slightest chance at a fair hearing – then maybe they would feel like it was more in their self-interest to support victims.

And if women were included in the conversation as potential perpetrators, they might understand why some people find it scary when people lose their careers over unsubstantiated allegations.

Instead, since we’ve chosen a narrative where one side can only ever be a victim and the other can only ever be perpetrators, we’ve made it impossible for anyone to see both perspectives. Self-interested men worry only about how to avoid allegations, self-interested women worry only about how to make sure all allegations are believed, and nobody worries about how to make a system where they expect fair treatment no matter which role they find themselves in.

The solution is to treat harassment the same way we treat terrorism. It’s something that’s bad. It’s something that some groups might do more often than other groups, but this is not the Only Relevant Factor About It, and we are suspicious of people who seem more interested in stereotyping the groups involved than in making sure everyone of every group gets justice.

And once we get good evidence that someone is guilty, we have drones bomb their house. Seriously, the terrorism model has a lot going for it.

OT90: Telescopen Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server. Also:

1. Comments of the week: last open thread we talked about standing-room-only flights, and of course bean chimed in with some knowledge of the economics of airline travel (1, 2).

2. The rationalist community is holding various Solstice celebrations this month. I’ve been asked to advertise Seattle in particular, but there are other ones in NYC, Berkeley, Boston, Columbus, Nashville (Ohio), Silicon Valley, and Chapel Hill – see this site for details, and keep in mind some are as early as the 9th. Also, I think the Sunday Assembly is running a lot of them – the only ones I can certify as definitely rationalist-affiliated are Berkeley, Boston, Seattle, and (mostly) New York.

3. David Friedman (author of the legal systems book recently profiled here) is holding a San Jose SSC meetup at 3806 Williams Rd on Saturday 12/9 2:00 PM. Go for the interesting discussion, stay for the authentic medieval Islamic cooking.

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Book Review: Inadequate Equilibria

I.

Eliezer Yudkowsky’s catchily-titled Inadequate Equilibria is many things. It’s a look into whether there is any role for individual reason in a world where you can always just trust expert consensus. It’s an analysis of the efficient market hypothesis and how it relates to the idea of low-hanging fruit. It’s a self-conscious defense of the author’s own arrogance.

But most of all, it’s a book of theodicy. If the world was created by the Invisible Hand, who is good, how did it come to contain so much that is evil?

The market economy is very good at what it does, which is something like “exploit money-making opportunities” or “pick low-hanging fruit in the domain of money-making”. If you see a $20 bill lying on the sidewalk, today is your lucky day. If you see a $20 bill lying on the sidewalk in Grand Central Station, and you remember having seen the same bill a week ago, something is wrong. Thousands of people cross Grand Central every week – there’s no way a thousand people would all pass up a free $20. Maybe it’s some kind of weird trick. Maybe you’re dreaming. But there’s no way that such a low-hanging piece of money-making fruit would go unpicked for that long.

In the same way, suppose your uncle buys a lot of Google stock, because he’s heard Google has cool self-driving cars that will be the next big thing. Can he expect to get rich? No – if Google stock was underpriced (ie you could easily get rich by buying Google stock), then everyone smart enough to notice would buy it. As everyone tried to buy it, the price would go up until it was no longer underpriced. Big Wall Street banks have people who are at least as smart as your uncle, and who will notice before he does whether stocks are underpriced. They also have enough money that if they see a money-making opportunity, they can keep buying until they’ve driven the price up to the right level. So for Google to remain underpriced when your uncle sees it, you have to assume everyone at every Wall Street hedge fund has just failed to notice this tremendous money-making opportunity – the same sort of implausible failure as a $20 staying on the floor of Grand Central for a week.

In the same way, suppose there’s a city full of rich people who all love Thai food and are willing to pay top dollar for it. The city has lots of skilled Thai chefs and good access to low-priced Thai ingredients. With the certainty of physical law, we can know that city will have a Thai restaurant. If it didn’t, some entrepreneur would wander through, see that they could get really rich by opening a Thai restaurant, and do that. If there’s no restaurant, we should feel the same confusion we feel when a $20 bill has sat on the floor of Grand Central Station for a week. Maybe the city government banned Thai restaurants for some reason? Maybe we’re dreaming again?

We can take this beyond money-making into any competitive or potentially-competitive field. Consider a freshman biology student reading her textbook who suddenly feels like she’s had a deep insight into the structure of DNA, easily worthy of a Nobel. Is she right? Almost certainly not. There are thousands of research biologists who would like a Nobel Prize. For all of them to miss a brilliant insight sitting in freshman biology would be the same failure as everybody missing a $20 on the floor of Grand Central, or all of Wall Street missing an easy opportunity to make money off of Google, or every entrepreneur missing a great market opportunity for a Thai restaurant. So without her finding any particular flaw in her theory, she can be pretty sure that it’s wrong – or else already discovered. This isn’t to say nobody can ever win a Nobel Prize. But winners will probably be people with access to new ground that hasn’t already been covered by other $20-seekers. Either they’ll be amazing geniuses, understand a vast scope of cutting-edge material, have access to the latest lab equipment, or most likely all three.

But go too far with this kind of logic, and you start accidentally proving that nothing can be bad anywhere.

Suppose you thought that modern science was broken, with scientists and grantmakers doing a bad job of focusing their discoveries on truly interesting and important things. But if this were true, then you (or anyone else with a little money) could set up a non-broken science, make many more discoveries than everyone else, get more Nobel Prizes, earn more money from all your patents and inventions, and eventually become so prestigious and rich that everyone else admits you were right and switches to doing science your way. There are dozens of government bodies, private institutions, and universities that could do this kind of thing if they wanted. But none of them have. So “science is broken” seems like the same kind of statement as “a $20 bill has been on the floor of Grand Central Station for a week and nobody has picked it up”. Therefore, modern science isn’t broken.

Or: suppose you thought that health care is inefficient and costs way too much. But if this were true, some entrepreneur could start a new hospital / clinic / whatever that delivered health care at lower prices and with higher profit margins. All the sick people would go to them, they would make lots of money, investors would trip over each other to fund their expansion into new markets, and eventually they would take over health care and be super rich. So “health care is inefficient and overpriced” seems like the same kind of statement as “a $20 bill has been on the floor of Grand Central Station for a week and nobody has picked it up.” Therefore, health care isn’t inefficient or overpriced.

Or: suppose you think that US cities don’t have good mass transit. But if lots of people want better mass transit and are willing to pay for it, this is a great money-making opportunity. Entrepreneurs are pretty smart, so they would notice this money-making opportunity, raise some funds from equally-observant venture capitalists, make a better mass transit system, and get really rich off of all the tickets. But nobody has done this. So “US cities don’t have good mass transit” seems like the same kind of statement as “a $20 bill has been on the floor of Grand Central Station for a week and nobody has picked it up.” Therefore, US cities have good mass transit, or at least the best mass transit that’s economically viable right now.

This proof of God’s omnibenevolence is followed by Eliezer’s observations that the world seems full of evil. For example:

Eliezer’s wife Brienne had Seasonal Affective Disorder. The consensus treatment for SAD is “light boxes”, very bright lamps that mimic sunshine and make winter feel more like summer. Brienne tried some of these and they didn’t work; her seasonal depression got so bad that she had to move to the Southern Hemisphere three months of every year just to stay functional. No doctor had any good ideas about what to do at this point. Eliezer did some digging, found that existing light boxes were still way less bright than the sun, and jury-rigged a much brighter version. This brighter light box cured Brienne’s depression when the conventional treatment had failed. Since Eliezer, a random layperson, was able to come up with a better SAD cure after a few minutes of thinking than the establishment was recommending to him, this seems kind of like the relevant research community leaving a $20 bill on the ground in Grand Central.

Eliezer spent a few years criticizing the Bank of Japan’s macroeconomic policies, which he (and many others) thought were stupid and costing Japan trillions of dollars in lost economic growth. A friend told Eliezer that the professionals at the Bank surely knew more than he did. But after a few years, the Bank of Japan switched policies, the Japanese economy instantly improved, and now the consensus position is that the original policies were deeply flawed in exactly the way Eliezer and others thought they were. Doesn’t that mean Japan left a trillion-dollar bill on the ground by refusing to implement policies that even an amateur could see were correct?

And finally:

For our central example, we’ll be using the United States medical system, which is, so far as I know, the most broken system that still works ever recorded in human history. If you were reading about something in 19th-century France which was as broken as US healthcare, you wouldn’t expect to find that it went on working when overloaded with a sufficiently vast amount of money. You would expect it to just not work at all.

In previous years, I would use the case of central-line infections as my go-to example of medical inadequacy. Central-line infections, in the US alone, killed 60,000 patients per year, and infected an additional 200,000 patients at an average treatment cost of $50,000/patient.

Central-line infections were also known to decrease by 50% or more if you enforced a five-item checklist that included items like “wash your hands before touching the line.”

Robin Hanson has old Overcoming Bias blog posts on that untaken, low-hanging fruit. But I discovered while re-Googling in 2015 that wider adoption of hand-washing and similar precautions are now finally beginning to occur, after many years—with an associated 43% nationwide decrease in central-line infections. After partial adoption.

Since he doesn’t want to focus on a partly-solved problem, he continues to the case of infant parenteral nutrition. Some babies have malformed digestive systems and need to have nutrient fluid pumped directly into their veins. The nutrient fluid formula used in the US has the wrong kinds of lipids in it, and about a third of babies who get it die of brain or liver damage. We’ve known for decades that the nutrient fluid formula has the wrong kind of lipids. We know the right kind of lipids and they’re incredibly cheap and there is no reason at all that we couldn’t put them in the nutrient fluid formula. We’ve done a bunch of studies showing that when babies get the right nutrient fluid formula, the 33% death rate disappears. But the only FDA-approved nutrient fluid formula is the one with the wrong lipids, so we just keep giving it to babies, and they just keep dying. Grant that the FDA is terrible and ruins everything, but over several decades of knowing about this problem and watching the dead babies pile up, shouldn’t somebody have done something to make this system work better?

We’ve got a proof that everything should be perfect all the time, and a reality in which a bunch of babies keep dying even though we know exactly how to save them for no extra cost. So sure. Let’s talk theodicy.

II.

Eliezer draws on the economics literature to propose three main categories of solution:

There’s a toolbox of reusable concepts for analyzing systems I would call “inadequate”—the causes of civilizational failure, some of which correspond to local opportunities to do better yourself. I shall, somewhat arbitrarily, sort these concepts into three larger categories:

1. Cases where the decision lies in the hands of people who would gain little personally, or lose out personally, if they did what was necessary to help someone else;

2. Cases where decision-makers can’t reliably learn the information they need to make decisions, even though someone else has that information

3. Systems that are broken in multiple places so that no one actor can make them better, even though, in principle, some magically coordinated action could move to a new stable state.

The first way evil enters the world is when there is no way for people who notice a mistake to benefit from correcting it.

For example, Eliezer and his friends sometimes joke about how really stupid Uber-for-puppies style startups are overvalued. The people investing in these startups are making a mistake big enough for ordinary people like Eliezer to notice. But it’s not exploitable – there’s no way to short startups, so neither Eliezer nor anyone else can make money by correcting that error. So it’s not surprising that the error persists. All you need is one stupid investor who thinks Uber-for-puppies is going to be the next big thing, and the startup will get overfunded. All the smart investors in the world can’t fix that one person’s mistake.

The same is true, more tragically, for housing prices. There’s no way to short houses. So if 10% of investors think the housing market will go way up, and 90% think the housing market will crash, those 10% of investors will just keep bidding up housing prices against each other. This is why there are so many housing bubbles, and why ordinary people without PhDs in finance can notice housing bubbles and yet those bubbles remain uncorrected.

A more complicated version: why was Eliezer able to out-predict the Bank of Japan? Because the Bank’s policies were set by a couple of Japanese central bankers who had no particular incentive to get things right, and no particular incentive to listen to smarter people correcting them. Eliezer wasn’t alone in his prediction – he says that Japanese stocks were priced in ways that suggested most investors realized the Bank’s policies were bad. Most of the smart people with skin in the game had come to the same realization Eliezer had. But central bankers are mostly interested in prestige, and for various reasons low money supply (the wrong policy in this case) is generally considered a virtuous and reasonable thing for a central banker to do, while high money supply (the right policy in this case) is generally considered a sort of irresponsible thing to do that makes all the other central bankers laugh at you. Their payoff matrix (with totally made-up utility points) looked sort of like this:

LOW MONEY, ECONOMY BOOMS: You were virtuous and it paid off, you will be celebrated in song forever (+10)

LOW MONEY, ECONOMY COLLAPSES: Well, you did the virtuous thing and it didn’t work, at least you tried (+0)

HIGH MONEY, ECONOMY BOOMS: You made a bold gamble and it paid off, nice job. (+10)

HIGH MONEY, ECONOMY COLLAPSES: You did a stupid thing everyone always says not to do, you predictably failed and destroyed our economy, fuck you (-10)

So even as evidence accumulated that high money supply was the right strategy, the Japanese central bankers looked at their payoff matrix and decided to keep a low money supply.

It should be horrifying that this system weights a small change in the reputation of a few people higher (who will realistically do well for themselves even with a reputational hit) higher than adding trillions of dollars to the economy, but that’s how the system is structured.

In a system like this, everybody (including the Japanese central bankers) can know that increasing money supply is the right policy, but there’s no way for anyone to increase their own utility by causing the money supply to be higher. So Japan will suffer a generation’s worth of recession. This is dumb but inevitable.

The second way evil enters the world is when expert knowledge can’t trickle down to the ordinary people who would be the beneficiaries of correct decision-making.

The stock market stays efficient because expertise brings power. When Warren Buffett proves really good at stock-picking, everyone rushes to give him their money. If an ordinary person demonstrated Buffett-like levels of acumen, every hedge fund in the country would be competing to hire him and throw billions of dollars at whatever he predicted would work. Then when he predicts that Google’s price will double next week, he’ll use his own fortune, or the fortune of the hedge fund that employs him, to throw as much money into Google as the opportunity warrants. If Goldman Sachs doesn’t have enough to do it on their own, JP Morgan will make up the difference. Good hedge funds will always have enough money to exploit the opportunities they find, because if they didn’t, there would be so many unexploited great opportunities that the rate of return on the stock market would be spectacular, and everyone would rush to give their money to good hedge funds.

But imagine that Congress makes a new law that nobody can invest more than a thousand dollars. So Goldman Sachs invests their $1000 in Google, JP Morgan invests their $1000, and now what?

One possibility is that investment gurus could spring up, people just as smart as the Goldman Sachs traders, who (for a nominal fee) will tell you which stocks are underpriced. But this is hard, and fraudulent experts can claim to be investment gurus just as easily as real ones. There will be so many fraudulent investment gurus around that nobody will be able to trust the real ones, and after the few experts invest their own $1000 in Google, the stock could remain underpriced forever.

Something like this seems to be going on in medicine. Sure, the five doctors who really understand infant nutrition can raise a big fuss about how our terrible nutritional fluid is killing thousands of babies. But let’s face it. Everyone is raising a big fuss about something or other. From Eliezer’s author-insert character Cecie:

We have an economic phenomenon sometimes called the lemons problem. Suppose you want to sell a used car, and I’m looking for a car to buy. From my perspective, I have to worry that your car might be a “lemon”—that it has a serious mechanical problem that doesn’t appear every time you start the car, and is difficult or impossible to fix. Now, you know that your car isn’t a lemon. But if I ask you, “Hey, is this car a lemon?” and you answer “No,” I can’t trust your answer, because you’re incentivized to answer “No” either way. Hearing you say “No” isn’t much Bayesian evidence. Asymmetric information conditions can persist even in cases where, like an honest seller meeting an honest buyer, both parties have strong incentives for accurate information to be conveyed.

A further problem is that if the fair value of a non-lemon car is $10,000, and the possibility that your car is a lemon causes me to only be willing to pay you $8,000, you might refuse to sell your car. So the honest sellers with reliable cars start to leave the market, which further shifts upward the probability that any given car for sale is a lemon, which makes me less willing to pay for a used car, which incentivizes more honest sellers to leave the market, and so on.

In our world, there are a lot of people screaming, “Pay attention to this thing I’m indignant about over here!” In fact, there are enough people screaming that there’s an inexploitable market in indignation. The dead-babies problem can’t compete in that market; there’s no free energy left for it to eat, and it doesn’t have an optimal indignation profile. There’s no single individual villain. The business about competing omega-3 and omega-6 metabolic pathways is something that only a fraction of people would understand on a visceral level; and even if those people posted it to their Facebook walls, most of their readers wouldn’t understand and repost, so the dead-babies problem has relatively little virality. Being indignant about this particular thing doesn’t signal your moral superiority to anyone else in particular, so it’s not viscerally enjoyable to engage in the indignation. As for adding a further scream, “But wait, this matter really is important!”, that’s the part subject to the lemons problem. Even people who honestly know about a fixable case of dead babies can’t emit a trustworthy request for attention […]

By this point in our civilization’s development, many honest buyers and sellers have left the indignation market entirely; and what’s left behind is not, on average, good.

The beneficiaries of getting the infant-nutritional-fluid problem right are parents whose kids have a rare digestive condition. Maybe there are ten thousand of them. Maybe 10% of them are self-motivated and look online for facts about their kid’s condition, and maybe 10% of those are smart enough to separate the true concern about fats from all the false concerns about how doctors are poisoning their kids with vaccines. That leaves a hundred people. Even if those hundred people raise a huge stink and petition the FDA really strongly, a hundred people aren’t enough to move the wheels of bureaucracy. As for everyone else, why would they worry about nutritional fluid rather than terrorism or mass shootings or whatever all the other much-more-fun-to-worry-about things are?

Likewise:

To see how an inadequate equilibrium might arise, let’s start by focusing on one tiny subfactor of the human system, namely academic research.

We’ll even further oversimplify our model of academia and pretend that research is a two-factor system containing academics and grantmakers, and that a project can only happen if there’s both a participating academic and a participating grantmaker.

We next suppose that in some academic field, there exists a population of researchers who are individually eager and collectively opportunistic for publications—papers accepted to journals, especially high-impact journal publications that constitute strong progress toward tenure. For any clearly visible opportunity to get a sufficiently large number of citations with a small enough amount of work, there are collectively enough academics in this field that somebody will snap up the opportunity. We could say, to make the example more precise, that the field is collectively opportunistic in 2 citations per workday—if there’s any clearly visible opportunity to do 40 days of work and get 80 citations, somebody in the field will go for it.

This level of opportunism might be much more than the average paper gets in citations per day of work. Maybe the average is more like 10 citations per year of work, and lots of researchers work for a year on a paper that ends up garnering only 3 citations. We’re not trying to ask about the average price of a citation; we’re trying to ask how cheap a citation has to be before somebody somewhere is virtually guaranteed to try for it.

But academic paper-writers are only half the equation; the other half is a population of grantmakers.

In this model, can we suppose for argument’s sake that grantmakers are motivated by the pure love of all sentient life, and yet we still end up with an academic system that is inadequate?

I might naively reply: “Sure. Let’s say that those selfish academics are collectively opportunistic at two citations per workday, and the blameless and benevolent grantmakers are collectively opportunistic at one quality-adjusted life-year (QALY) per $100.8 Then everything which produces one QALY per $100 and two citations per workday gets funded. Which means there could be an obvious, clearly visible project that would produce a thousand QALYs per dollar, and so long as it doesn’t produce enough citations, nobody will work on it. That’s what the model says, right?”

Ah, but this model has a fragile equilibrium of inadequacy. It only takes one researcher who is opportunistic in QALYs and willing to take a hit in citations to snatch up the biggest, lowest-hanging altruistic fruit if there’s a population of grantmakers eager to fund projects like that.

Assume the most altruistically neglected project produces 1,000 QALYs per dollar. If we add a single rational and altruistic researcher to this model, then they will work on that project, whereupon the equilibrium will be adequate at 1,000 QALYs per dollar. If there are two rational and altruistic researchers, the second one to arrive will start work on the next-most-neglected project—say, a project that has 500 QALYs/$ but wouldn’t garner enough citations for whatever reason—and then the field will be adequate at 500 QALYs/$. As this free energy gets eaten up (it’s tasty energy from the perspective of an altruist eager for QALYs), the whole field becomes less inadequate in the relevant respect.

But this assumes the grantmakers are eager to fund highly efficient QALY-increasing projects.

Suppose instead that the grantmakers are not cause-neutral scope-sensitive effective altruists assessing QALYs/$. Suppose that most grantmakers pursue, say, prestige per dollar. (Robin Hanson offers an elementary argument that most grantmaking to academia is about prestige.9 In any case, we can provisionally assume the prestige model for purposes of this toy example.)

From the perspective of most grantmakers, the ideal grant is one that gets their individual name, or their boss’s name, or their organization’s name, in newspapers around the world in close vicinity to phrases like “Stephen Hawking” or “Harvard professor.” Let’s say for the purpose of this thought experiment that the population of grantmakers is collectively opportunistic in 20 microHawkings per dollar, such that at least one of them will definitely jump on any clearly visible opportunity to affiliate themselves with Stephen Hawking for $50,000. Then at equilibrium, everything that provides at least 2 citations per workday and 20 microHawkings per dollar will get done.

This doesn’t quite follow logically, because the stock market is far more efficient at matching bids between buyers and sellers than academia is at matching researchers to grantmakers. (It’s not like anyone in our civilization has put as much effort into rationalizing the academic matching process as, say, OkCupid has put into their software for hooking up dates. It’s not like anyone who did produce this public good would get paid more than they could have made as a Google programmer.)

But even if the argument is still missing some pieces, you can see the general shape of this style of analysis. If a piece of research will clearly visibly yield lots of citations with a reasonable amount of labor, and make the grantmakers on the committee look good for not too much money committed, then a researcher eager to do it can probably find a grantmaker eager to fund it.

But what if there’s some intervention which could save 100 QALYs/$, yet produces neither great citations nor great prestige? Then if we add a few altruistic researchers to the model, they probably won’t be able to find a grantmaker to fund it; and if we add a few altruistic grantmakers to the model, they probably won’t be able to find a qualified researcher to work on it.

One systemic problem can often be overcome by one altruist in the right place. Two systemic problems are another matter entirely.

The third way evil enters the world is through bad Nash equilibria.

Everyone hates Facebook. It records all your private data, it screws with the order of your timeline, it works to be as addictive and time-wasting as possible. So why don’t we just stop using Facebook? More to the point, why doesn’t some entrepreneur create a much better social network which doesn’t do any of those things, and then we all switch to her site, and she becomes really rich, and we’re all happy?

The obvious answer: all our friends are on Facebook. We want to be where our friends are. None of us expect our friends to leave, so we all stay. Even if every single one of our friends hated Facebook, none of us would have common knowledge that we would all leave at once; it’s hard to organize a mass exodus. Something like an assurance contract might help, but those are pretty hard to organize. And even a few people who genuinely like Facebook and are really loud about it could ruin that for everybody. In the end, we all know we all hate Facebook and we all know we’re all going to keep using it.

Or: instead of one undifferentiated mass of people, you have two masses of people, each working off the other’s decision. Suppose there was no such thing as Lyft – it was Uber or take the bus. And suppose we got tired of this and wanted to invent Lyft. Could we do it at this late stage? Maybe not. The best part of Uber for passengers is that there’s almost always a driver within a few minutes of you. And the best part of Uber for drivers is that there’s almost always a passenger within a few minute of you. So you, the entrepreneur trying to start Lyft in AD 2017, hire twenty drivers. That means maybe passengers will get a driver…within an hour…if they’re lucky? So no passenger will ever switch to Lyft, and that means your twenty drivers will get bored and give up.

Few passengers will use your app when Uber has far more drivers, and few drivers will use your app when Uber has far more passengers. Both drivers and passengers might hate Uber, and be happy to switch en masse if the other group did, but from within the system nobody can coordinate this kind of mass-switch occuring.

Or, to take a ridiculous example from the text that will obviously never happen:

Suppose that there’s a magical tower that only people with IQs of at least 100 and some amount of conscientiousness can enter, and this magical tower slices four years off your lifespan. The natural next thing that happens is that employers start to prefer prospective employees who have proved they can enter the tower, and employers offer these employees higher salaries, or even make entering the tower a condition of being employed at all. The natural next thing that happens is that employers start to demand that prospective employees show a certificate saying that they’ve been inside the tower. This makes everyone want to go to the tower, which enables somebody to set up a fence around the tower and charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to let people in.

Now, fortunately, after Tower One is established and has been running for a while, somebody tries to set up a competing magical tower, Tower Two, that also drains four years of life but charges less money to enter. Unfortunately, there’s a subtle way in which this competing Tower Two is hampered by the same kind of lock-in that prevents a jump from [Facebook to a competing social network]. Initially, all of the smartest people headed to Tower One. Since Tower One had limited room, it started discriminating further among its entrants, only taking the ones that have IQs above the minimum, or who are good at athletics or have rich parents or something. So when Tower Two comes along, the employers still prefer employees from Tower One, which has a more famous reputation. So the smartest people still prefer to apply to Tower One, even though it costs more money. This stabilizes Tower One’s reputation as being the place where the smartest people go.

In other words, the signaling equilibrium is a two-factor market in which the stable point, Tower One, is cemented in place by the individually best choices of two different parts of the system. Employers prefer Tower One because it’s where the smartest people go. Smart employees prefer Tower One because employers will pay them more for going there. If you try dissenting from the system unilaterally, without everyone switching at the same time, then as an employer you end up hiring the less-qualified people from Tower Two, or as an employee, you end up with lower salary offers after you go to Tower Two. So the system is stable as a matter of individual incentives, and stays in place. If you try to set up a cheaper alternative to the whole Tower system, the default thing that happens to you is that people who couldn’t handle the Towers try to go through your new system, and it acquires a reputation for non-prestigious weirdness and incompetence.

III.

Robin Hanson’s review calls Inadequate Equilibria “really two separate books, tied perhaps by a mood affiliation”. Everything above was the first book. The second argues against overuse of the Outside View.

The Inside View is when you weigh the evidence around something, and go with whatever side’s evidence seems most compelling. The Outside View is when you notice that you feel like you’re right, but most people in the same situation as you are wrong. So you reject your intuitive feelings of rightness and assume you are probably wrong too. Five Outside View examples to demonstrate:

1. I feel like I’m an above-average driver. But I know there are surveys saying everyone believes they’re above-average drivers. Since most people who believe they’re an above-average driver are wrong, I reject my intuitive feelings and assume I’m probably just an average driver.

2. The Three Christs Of Ypsilanti is a story about three schizophrenics who thought they were Jesus all ending up on the same psych ward. Each schizophrenic agreed that the other two were obviously delusional. But none of them could take the next step and agree they were delusional too. This is a failure of Outside-View-ing. They should have said “At least 66% of people in this psych hospital who believe they’re Jesus are delusional. This suggests there’s a strong bias, like a psychotic illness, that pushes people to think they’re Jesus. I have no more or less evidence for my Jesus-ness than those people, so I should discount my apparent evidence – my strong feeling that I am Him – and go back to my prior that almost nobody is Jesus.”

3. My father used to get roped into going to time-share presentations. Every time, he would come out really convinced that a time share was the most amazing purchase in the world and he needed to get one right away. Every time, we reminded him that every single person who bought a time share ended up regretting it. Every time, he answered that no, the salespeople explained that their time-share didn’t have any hidden problems. Every time, we reminded him that time-share salespeople are really convincing liars. Eventually, even though he still thought the presentation was really convincing, he accepted that he was probably a typical member of the group “people impressed with time-share presentations”, and almost every member of that group is wrong. So even though my father thought the offer sounded too good to be true, he decided to reject it.

4. A Christian might think to themselves: “Only about 30% of people are Christian; the other 70% have some other religion which they believe as fervently as I believe mine. And no religion has more than 30% of people in the world. So of everyone who believes their religion as fervently as I do, at least 70% are wrong. Even though the truth of the Bible seems compelling to me, the truth of the Koran seems equally compelling to Muslims, the truth of dianetics equally compelling to Scientologists, et cetera. So probably I am overconfident in my belief in Christianity and really I have no idea whether it’s true or not.”

5. When I was very young, I would read pseudohistory books about Atlantis, ancient astronauts, and so on. All of these books seemed very convincing to me – I certainly couldn’t explain how ancient people built whatever gigantic technological marvels they made without the benefit of decent tools. And in most cases, nobody had written a good debunking (I am still angry about this). But there were a few cases in which people did write good debunkings that explained otherwise inexplicable things, and the books that were easily debunked were just as convincing as the ones that weren’t. For that and many other reasons, I assumed that even the ones that seemed compelling and had no good debunking were probably bunk.

But Eliezer warns that overuse of the Outside View can prevent you from having any kind of meaningful opinion at all. He worries about the situation where:

…we all treat ourselves as having a black box receiver (our brain) which produces a signal (opinions), and treat other people as having other black boxes producing other signals. And we all received our black boxes at random—from an anthropic perspective of some kind, where we think we have an equal chance of being any observer. So we can’t start out by believing that our signal is likely to be more accurate than average.

There are definitely pathological cases of the Outside View. For example:

6. I believe in evolution. But about half of Americans believe in creation. So either way, half of people are wrong about the evolution-creation debate. Since I know I’m in a category, half of whom are wrong, I should assume there’s a 50-50 chance I’m wrong about evolution.

But surely the situation isn’t symmetrical? After all, the evolution side includes all the best biologists, all the most educated people, all the people with the highest IQ. The problem is, the true Outside Viewer can say “Ah, yes, but a creationist would say that their side is better, because it includes all the best fundamentalist preachers, all the world’s most pious people, and all the people with the most exhaustive knowledge of Genesis. So you’re in a group of people, the Group Who Believe That Their Side Is Better Qualified To Judge The Evolution-Creation Debate, and 50% of the people in that group are wrong. So this doesn’t break the fundamental symmetry of the situation.

One might be tempted to respond with “fuck you”, except that sometimes this is exactly the correct strategy. For example:

7. Go back to Example 2, and imagine that when Schizophrenic A was confronted with the other Christs, he protested that he had special evidence it was truly him. In particular, the Archangel Gabriel had spoken to him and told him he was Jesus. Meanwhile, Schizophrenic B had seen a vision where the Holy Spirit descended into him in the form of a dove. Schizophrenic A laughs. “Anyone can hallucinate a dove. But archangels are perfectly trustworthy.” Schizophrenic B scoffs. “Hearing voices is a common schizophrenic symptom, but I actually saw the Spirit”. Clearly they still are not doing Outside View right.

8. Every so often, I talk to people about politics and the necessity to see things from both sides. I remind people that our understanding of the world is shaped by tribalism, the media is often biased, and most people have an incredibly skewed view of the world. They nod their heads and agree with all of this and say it’s a big problem. Then I get to the punch line – that means they should be less certain about their own politics, and try to read sources from the other side. They shake their head, and say “I know that’s true of most people, but I get my facts from Vox, which backs everything up with real statistics and studies.” Then I facepalm so hard I give myself a concussion. This is the same situation where a tiny dose of Meta-Outside-View could have saved them.

So how do we navigate this morass? Eliezer recommends a four-pronged strategy:

1. Try to spend most of your time thinking about the object level. If you’re spending more of your time thinking about your own reasoning ability and competence than you spend thinking about Japan’s interest rates and NGDP, or competing omega-6 vs. omega-3 metabolic pathways, you’re taking your eye off the ball.

2. Less than a majority of the time: Think about how reliable authorities seem to be and should be expected to be, and how reliable you are — using your own brain to think about the reliability and failure modes of brains, since that’s what you’ve got. Try to be evenhanded in how you evaluate your own brain’s specific failures versus the specific failures of other brains. While doing this, take your own meta-reasoning at face value.

3. And then next, theoretically, should come the meta-meta level, considered yet more rarely. But I don’t think it’s necessary to develop special skills for meta-meta reasoning. You just apply the skills you already learned on the meta level to correct your own brain, and go on applying them while you happen to be meta-reasoning about who should be trusted, about degrees of reliability, and so on. Anything you’ve already learned about reasoning should automatically be applied to how you reason about meta-reasoning.

4. Consider whether someone else might be a better meta-reasoner than you, and hence that it might not be wise to take your own meta-reasoning at face value when disagreeing with them, if you have been given strong local evidence to this effect.

But then he mostly spends the rest of the chapter (and book) treating it as obvious that most people overuse the Outside View, and mocking it as “modest epistemology” for intellectual cowards. Eventually he decides that the Outside View is commonly invoked to cover up status anxiety.

From what I can tell, status regulation is a second factor accounting for modesty’s appeal, distinct from anxious underconfidence. The impulse is to construct “cheater-resistant” slapdowns that can (for example) prevent dilettantes who are low on the relevant status hierarchy from proposing new Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments. Because if dilettantes can exploit an inefficiency in a respected scientific field, then this makes it easier to “steal” status and upset the current order.

So if we say something like “John has never taken a math class, so there’s not much chance that his proof of P = NP is right,” are we really implying “John isn’t high-status enough, so we shouldn’t let him get away with proving P = NP; only people who serve their time in grad school and postdoc programs should be allowed to do something cool like that”? I know Eliezer doesn’t believe that. Maybe he believes it’s only status regulation when it’s wrong? But then wouldn’t a better explanation be that people are trying a heuristic that is right a lot of the time, but misapplying it? I don’t know.

I found this part to be the biggest disappointment of this book. I don’t think it grappled with the claim that the Outside View (and even Meta-Outside View) are often useful. It offered vague tips for how to decide when to use them, but I never felt any kind of enlightenment, or like there had been any work done to resolve the real issue here. It was basically a hit job on Outside Viewing.

I understand the impetus. Eliezer was concerned that smart people, well-trained in rationality, would come to the right conclusion on some subject, then dismiss it based on the Outside View. One of his examples was that most of the rationalists he knows don’t believe in God. But if they took the Outside View on that question, they would have to either believe (since most people do) or at least be very uncertain (since lots of religions have at least as many adherents as atheism). He tosses this one off, but it’s clear that he’s less interested in religion than in worldly things – people who give up on cool startup ideas because the Outside View says they’ll probably fail, or who don’t come up with interesting contrarian ideas because the Outside View says most contrarians are wrong. He writes:

Whereupon I want to shrug my hands helplessly and say, “But given that this isn’t normative probability theory and I haven’t seen modesty advocates appear to get any particular outperformance out of their modesty, why go there?”

I think that’s my true rejection, in the following sense: If I saw a sensible formal epistemology underlying modesty and I saw people who advocated modesty going on to outperform myself and others, accomplishing great deeds through the strength of their diffidence, then, indeed, I would start paying very serious attention to modesty.

But these are some very artificial goalposts. The point of modesty isn’t that it lets you do great things. It’s that it lets you avoid shooting yourself in the foot. Every time my father doesn’t buy a time-share, modesty has triumphed.

To be very uncharitable, Eliezer seems to be making the same mistake as an investing book which says that you should always buy stock. After all, Warren Buffett bought stock, and look how well he’s doing! Peter Thiel bought stock, and now he’s a super-rich aspiring oceanic vampire! And (the very rich person writing the book concludes) I myself bought lots of stock, and now I am a rich self-help book author. Can you name a single person who became a billionaire by not buying stock? I didn’t think so.

To be more charitable, Eliezer might be writing to his audience. He predicts that the people who read his book will mostly be smarter than average, and generally at the level where using the Outside View hurts them rather than harms them. He writes:

There are people who think we all ought to [use the Outside View to converge] toward each other as a matter of course. They reason:

a) on average, we can’t all be more meta-rational than average; and

b) you can’t trust the reasoning you use to think you’re more meta-rational than average. After all, due to Dunning-Kruger, a young-Earth creationist will also think they have plausible reasoning for why they’re more meta-rational than average.

… Whereas it seems to me that if I lived in a world where the average person on the street corner were Anna Salamon or Nick Bostrom [people Eliezer knows who are very good at rationality], the world would look extremely different from how it actually does.

… And from the fact that you’re reading this at all, I expect that if the average person on the street corner were you, the world would again look extremely different from how it actually does.

(In the event that this book is ever read by more than 30% of Earth’s population, I withdraw the above claim.)

The argument goes: You’re more rational than average, so you shouldn’t adjust to the average. Instead, you should identify other people who are even more rational than you (on the matter at hand) and maybe Outside View with them, but no one else. Since you are already pretty rational, you can definitely trust your judgment about who the other rational people are.

Eliezer makes the assumption that only unusually rational people will read this book (and the preliminary hidden assumption that he’s rational enough to be able to make these determinations). I think this is a pretty safe claim; I don’t object to it in real life. But I worry about it in the same way I worry about the philosophical Problem Of Skepticism. I don’t think I’m a brain in a vat. But I’m vaguely annoyed by knowing that an actual brain in a vat would think exactly the same thing for the same reason.

This section’s argument runs on the same principle as a financial advice book that says “ALWAYS BUY LOTS OF STOCKS, YOU ARE GREAT AT INVESTING AND IT CANNOT POSSIBLY GO WRONG” that comes in a package marked Deliver only to Warren Buffett. It may be appreciated, but it’s not any kind of deep breakthrough in financial strategy.

IV.

Inadequate Equilibria is a great book, but it raises more questions than it answers. Like: does our civilization have book-titling institutions? Did they warn Eliezer that maybe Inadequate Equilibria doesn’t scream “best-seller”? Did he come up with a theory of how they were flawed before he decided to reject their advice?

But also, it asks: how things stay bad in the face of so much pressure to make them better? It highlights (creates?) a field of study, clumping together a lot of economic orthodoxies and original concepts into a specific kind of rational theodicy . Once you start thinking about this, it’s hard to stop, and Eliezer deserves credit for creating a toolbox of concepts useful for analyzing these problems.

Its related question – “when should you trust social consensus vs. your own reasoning?” – is derivative of the theodicy section. If there’s some giant institution full of people much smarter and better-educated than you who have spent much more time and money investigating the question, then whether you should throw away your own opinion in favor of theirs depends a lot on whether that giant institution might fail in some unexpected way.

Its final section on the Outside View and modest epistemology tries to tie up a loose end, with less success than it would like. Should you trust your own opinion over the giant institution’s on the object level question? Surely you could only do so if certain conditions held – but could you trust your own opinion about whether those conditions hold? And so on to infinite. The latter part of the book acts as if it has a definitive answer – you can trust yourself, or at least trust yourself to correctly assess how trustworthy you are relative to others – but depends on Eliezer’s judgment that the book will probably only find its way to people for whom that is true.

I think you should read Inadequate Equilibria. Given that I am a well-known reviewer of books, clearly my opinion on this subject is better than yours. Further, Scott Aaronson and Bryan Caplan also think you should read it. Are you smarter than Scott Aaronson and Bryan Caplan? I didn’t think so. Whether or not your puny personal intuition feels like you would enjoy it, you should accept the judgment of our society’s book-reviewing institutions and download it right now.

A Completely Accurate Map With No Distortion At All

Does something seem off about this map? Maybe Amsterdam is a little too far inland? Maybe the coastline is a bit too squashed, or the sea a bit too narrow?

No. This map is fine. The problem is with you. Think of it as a riddle: what mistake are you making in reading this map?

Hints (after a fashion) here and here.

If you give up, the answer to the riddle is here.

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Links 11/17: Sri Linka

Paul Palaiologos Tagaris, Byzantine con man, “was appointed an Orthodox bishop, pretended to be the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, switched from Greek Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism and back again, supported both the See of Rome and the Avignon anti-popes in the Western Schism, and managed to be named Latin Patriarch of Constantinople”.

Inside the cutthroat cash-flush dog-eat-dog world of…online mattress reviews?

Canadian FDA-equivalent bans Soylent for violating standards. Particular standards weren’t mentioned, but jimrandomh’s research suggests it was a regulation saying that all meal replacements have to be low-fat – which is not supported by research and might be actively unhealthy. I’m glad I still live in a country where…

…hold that thought. FDA is trying to ban kratom, an herb many people use as a chronic pain treatment or to help overcome opiate addiction. Previously the DEA tried the same, but backed down after an outcry from kratom users and their families who say they rely on it to stay well. Conspiracy theorists note that Trump’s FDA head Scott Gottleib took $100,000 from GlaxoSmithKline, which is working on a synthetic patent-protected version of kratom that will become people’s only option if the real thing is banned.

Related: how have insulin prices increased by 10x in the past twenty years, and what does that mean for diabetics? Also: Trump nominates man whose firm tripled price of insulin to regulate drug companies. Some of the discussion I saw around this article recommended mentioning that Eli Lilly has a patient assistance program to help poor people afford their insulin, though obviously this isn’t anywhere near a solution to the real problem.

The Olympics used to be more willing to deviate from their core mission of sports, and people have competed for Olympic medals in activities from town planning to sculpture to music.

Geolibertarians frustrated with early 20th-century society’s failure to adopt Georgist land taxes built their own private intentional community, which continues to exist in the present day. Delaware’s Odd, Beautiful, Contentious Private Utopia. Interesting look at its century-long history of trying to resist assimilation and stick to its principles – including having the first desegregated schools in the region.

New poll analyzes Americans’ views of global warming, with some surprising results – only 13% of people don’t think global warming is happening, and only 30% don’t believe it’s human-caused. 23% of people think scientists mostly believe global warming’s not human-caused, suggesting that most skeptics aren’t disbelieving scientists so much as unaware of them. Also, 39% of Americans say that there is a greater-than-even-odds chance that global warming will cause the extinction of the human race.

Man speaking in slang says “give me a lawyer, dawg”; judge rules he was not exercising his right to ask for a lawyer because he actually asked for a “lawyer dog”, which does not exist.

Did you know there’s a whole field of empirical software engineering studies? Recent claimed findings include eg: “there is no evidence that [industry] experience is a significant factor in either quality of productivity [of programmers]”. Study describes itself as “exploratory” and I am totally unqualified to judge.

@beachdeath: “The CIA is releasing tens of thousands of files and videos from bin laden’s compound today, except his DVDs of ‘home on the range’ and ‘ice age: dawn of the dinosaurs’ and his copy of final fantasy vii, because those are copyrighted” is not a sentence i ever thought i would type, but 2017 continues to be full of surprises”. And a list of some of Osama’s DVDs and computer games.

Redditor asks why Google Home gives such weird readings when asked “what is the temperature inside”; top commenter notes that depending on your tone of voice, Google Home will answer this question with the temperature in the city of Side, Turkey.

A group of scientists including Friend Of The Blog Stephen Hsu launch Genomic Prediction, a company that uses genetic testing to helps families select embryos for IVF. It’s a natural outgrowth of existing tests that check for Down Syndrome and other very serious genetic diseases, but the exciting new part is where they can analyze risk for some polygenic diseases (ones that depend on contributions from hundreds or thousands of genes) as well as the usual simple stuff. Important because several socially-important traits like height and intelligence are polygenic so this advance essentially places science at the point where it could select for these traits if it were considered legal/ethical to do so (in practice, current height selection algorithms would probably do a good job; current intelligence selection algorithms are still very limited but advancing quickly). Given that Hsu has said a bunch of times that his end goal is using genetics to increase human intelligence, there’s no way him setting up a company that has exactly the right technology to do so is a coincidence, even if it’s not their first product or likely to happen any time soon.

Related: most people are really averse to genetic testing and embryo selection, even to the point where they will (in real life, not hypothetical questions) choose to give their kid a 50% chance of a horrible and invariably fatal genetic disease rather than use it.

Some of the ads Russia bought on Facebook for the 2016 election are hilarious. Some of these have a sort of “HOW DO YOU DO, FELLOW KIDS AMERICANS” vibe to them, but maybe not much more than a lot of real political ads do

Catholic readers: is this a ridiculous misinterpretation of something, or did the Pope really say that married priests might be a good idea?

Reminds me of the recent discussion of Confucians vs. Legalists on whether people should be allowed to know laws: Georgia’s laws are available only if you pay for access; the state pursues people who publicize them for copyright violation. ACLU is on the case.

This Reddit post reminded me of my essay on Kolmogorov complicity. Many US states have legalized medical marijuana, which in practice means a boom industry of special-purpose clinics where unscrupulous doctors give medical marijuana cards to everyone who comes in, claims to have a symptom, and pays them a fee. But these doctors can’t say “We are frauds who give everyone marijuana cards”, so lots of marijuana-wanting and even marijuana-needing people won’t go to the doctor because they’re afraid they’ll get turned down.

Clash of civilizations: Armed militia shuts down comic book convention in Libya.

The Intercept: Four Viral Claims Spread By Journalists On Twitter In The Last Week Alone That Are False

Gene Expression: “In Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy he argues that the difference in per capita economic wealth between Europe and China is a relatively recent phenomenon. One of the major arguments he makes is that one has to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Comparing Northwest Europe to China is not apples-to-apples, but comparing Northwest Europe to the lower Yangzi Delta region of Central China is apples-to-apples. Using this measure Europe and China are roughly comparable up until 1800.”

Free speech watch: woman who gave President Trump’s motorcade the finger in her spare time is fired from her marketing job. This is the world that all of you “free speech only constrains the government” and “it’s just people think you’re an asshole and are showing you the door” people have built for us.

More claims that increased health spending does not increase health outcomes.

After years of self-driving cars being five years away, there’s now a date for a self-driving car being available to ordinary people for a commercial purpose: next year. It’s pretty minimal – some cooperating ride-sharing passengers in Phoenix will get self-driving cars without human backup drivers – but it’s happening.

Zvi Mowshowitz, Vladimir Slepnev, and Paul Christiano have announced a $5000 prize for “publicly posted work advancing understanding of AI alignment”. An example of an existing submission, in case you’re wondering what an entry would even look like. I know the sponsors and can vouch that they’re good honest people who are actually going to pay out the money.

Stuart Ritchie and Elliot Tucker-Drob: How Much Does Education Improve Intelligence: A Meta-Analysis. It gets a number (between 1 and 5 IQ points per grade year), but it seems kind of an uninterpretable aggregate (surely educating a naturally-IQ-100 person for fifty years wouldn’t give them an IQ of 150 to 350) – the take home point is that it’s a positive and significant number. There’s been a lot of work on “gains to IQ test scores” vs. “gains in g” which I don’t know enough about but which is probably relevant here; unclear how much past work has to be reconsidered in that light. There’s some good discussion between Gwern and Stuart (one of the authors) here.

Sci-Hub loses another lawsuit, apparently on legally shaky grounds, and now might get banned by ISPs or search engines or something. It sure would be bad if this kind of lawsuit led to a Streisand effect that made even more people aware that sci-hub exists and is a website with almost all academic papers on it available unpaywalled for free.

The Trump/GOP tax reform plan will hit grad students super-hard, maybe so hard as to make graduate studies financially impossible unless universities immediately change their compensation structure. The problem seems to be that it counts tuition waivers as taxable income, so if a college pretends it’s charging grad students a $20,000 tuition but waives the fee, those grad students will have to pay taxes of (their tax rate) x ($20,000) without actually seeing any of that income. I don’t understand why universities maintain the fiction of charging tuition and then waiving it, so I’m not sure if they can solve the problem just by not doing that. Some people think this might have very long-run positive effects of forcing universities to actually pay grad students a decent salary, but until then it may be only slight exaggeration to call this the destruction of graduate education in the United States. If you’re a grad student, contact your program to see if they have any ideas for what to do.

Related: Trump tax plan to hit colleges by changing some of their weird tax exemptions. Taxation has always been a little about punishing your party’s political enemies and giving tax breaks to its allies, but this is some next-level stuff here and it’s really blatant how much the new code shifts tax burden onto traditionally Democratic constituencies.

Related: It will also be really terrible for startup employees.

Modern people’s jaws are aligned differently due to their different eating habits. More interesting than it sounds. Also good example of nominative determinism, featuring orthodontics researcher Charles Brace.

The Open Philanthropy Project gives MIRI a $3.75 million grant, the largest it’s ever received. Some commentary here on why this is unexpected. There’s more complicated political background which I don’t think is fully written up but which this post at least hints at. Overall I view this as a really positive development.

Related: an attempt to make neural nets more transparent by investigating what pictures maximally activate each neuron of an image classifier. There’s something very creepy about this, like dissecting the world along some mysterious dimension into incomprehensible conceptual primitives. Also, some neural net is very convinced that “either an animal face or a car body” is a fundamental concept that cleaves reality at its joints, and now I’m questioning how I know for sure that it isn’t.

Related: Katja Grace of AI Impacts finishes her report on recent trends in the cost of computing and top supercomputers.

Related, and maybe this is that “negative effects of already-existing AI” I keep hearing we should worry about: Israel Arrests Palestinian Because Facebook Translated “Good Morning” As “Attack Them”

Blue collar wages are…actually doing pretty well right now? But see comments and caveats on the subreddit.

80000 Hours: What Are The Most Important Talent Gaps In The Effective Altruism Community? Good news for those of you who majored in “good calibration, wide knowledge and ability to work out what’s important”.

Cordelia Fine is good now? She describes James Damore’s Google memo as “more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature…[some of his ideas] are not seen as especially controversial”, and declares it “quite extrarordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate”. Interesting how hard it is to find anyone familiar with the science of gender, even the most blank-slatist and furthest left, willing to endorse the narrative treated as 100% proven and obvious in the popular media.

Yemen Facing Largest Famine World Has Seen For Decades, Says UN Chief.

Speculative, but why do so many trans people dye their hair unnatural colors?

New study: naltrexone as good as suboxone for opiate addiction. Also in the same genre of “studies saying an obviously worse drug is as a good as an obviously better one” – Tylenol/ibuprofen as good as opiates for acute pain relief. And heck, let’s throw in this study showing antihistamines work better than benzodiazepines for anxiety relief. I don’t know what’s up with any of these.

Also, niacin-based skin test has decent specificity (and, I’m guessing, no sensitivity) in identifying schizophrenics (vs. mood disorder). Especially interesting if it leads to understanding the etiology or ontology of some schizophrenia subtypes.

This week’s ridiculous non-controversy: Christians are boycotting British food producer Greggs for making a nativity scene with a sausage roll as Jesus. Thanks to LukeBBZ on Twitter for pointing out the kabbalistic implications: “Lord Jesus” spelled backwards is “Susejd rol”, which I guess is close enough.

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