Some bad news: I’m travelling at the moment and have had to chuck away my ADHD meds because apparently they’re extremely illegal in Japan (jail time illegal, rather than small fine illegal). People have told me that drugs are not something to mess around with in Japan so I’ve decided not to take the risk of carrying them around. The battery on my laptop is also fucked, so don’t expect much content until I get to the US and get it sorted in April (if anyone wants to hang out, I’ll be in SF for around a month, then maybe New Orleans, then NYC).
But anyway, I figured I’d throw together some hot and cold takes to keep Samstack at least semi-active while I’m in this unproductive phase:
Grow, baby, grow!
Economic growth is obviously really important in a load of ways, but I think some people I read on Substack and elsewhere have gone back around to overrating it. One problem here is that people see the correlation between economic growth and loads of other good stuff, acknowledge that it’s not definitely always causal, but then act like it is. Take Tyler Cowen’s remarks in a podcast with Ezra Klein:
There’s a very good paper by Stanford economist Charles Jones, and they correlate with G.D.P. across nations more than 0.9, so they move very closely with wealth. And you can debate which causes which, but again, to consider G.D.P. as simply a metric, it is going to capture some amount of what makes life really valuable — having the ability to relax, be in a lower stress environment, have better healthcare, have the resources to visit your grandkids, and so on.
This is a good case for using GDP as a useful signal of how well a country is doing, but not a good case for focusing only on increasing GDP growth. I know this is a pretty trite take by now (made by a lot of people who massively underrate economic growth), but some kinds of economic growth are obviously way better than others. I still get the impression that the Progress Studies people forget this too quickly a lot of the time. I also think there’s a problem with not taking Bostrom’s Vulnerable World Hypothesis seriously enough, there’s a kind of nod towards it without actually thinking about how this relates to growth.
Similarly, a lot of analogies that people use when thinking about progress are basically just the survivorship bias aircraft meme. There’s this joke phrase that people use when criticising new technologies or start-ups that takes the format of ‘X, you’ve invented X’. So, when Elon tweeted this:
The meme response is ‘buses, you’ve invented buses’. Then, some people rightly point out that loads of stuff that was actually good and useful could’ve also been meme-d this way. If the washing machine was invented today, someone might say ‘washboards, you’ve invented washboards’, even though washing machines save a load of time.
The problem I have here is that most start-ups fail and loads of new technologies suck. The question ‘how is this any better than the alternative that already exists?’ is a useful one, even if some people would have asked it of technologies that genuinely were innovative and important.
I think Artificial Intelligence is likely to be really important, but it feels a bit like there’s something similar going on with AI progress. There’s an assumption that it will get at least 10% or 20% better each year, in the same way that the iPhone (or whatever else) does. But using the iPhone as the analogy here is just selecting for a product that improves a lot each year. If we use 3D TVs or the median new technology as the analogy, we might think about it differently.
On science and stuff
I like Aella’s sex survey stuff, it’s all pretty interesting and fun. But I’m worried that the rationalist community is leaning too much into the ‘representative data doesn’t really matter’ view. Here’s Aella on the problem:
In one world, most clowns prefer pie. In the other world, most clowns prefer anal sex. You’re not sure what world you’re in, you guess about 50/50% chance you’re in either. So you go and post an internet survey for all the clowns in your neighborhood to ask if they prefer pie or anal sex. Ten clowns respond, and nine of them prefer pie.
This is very imperfect data - it’s not a random sample at all, it’s a tiny dataset, but it should still update your probabilities of what world you’re in, because you ask the question “in which world, the pie or anal sex world, is it more likely that you get this result?” Maybe you’re update now to 60% clowns-prefer-pie world now instead of 50%.
I think this is basically right, and have said so in the past. There’s a meme on political science Twitter about Twitter polls being useless, see here:
I think they’re useful as long as they’re not about politically contentious topics with a partisan audience. If a Brexit supporting account asks everyone if they think Brexit has been a success, the poll is worse than useless. In general, the demographics of Twitter are going to skew Twitter polls. But if you’re asking whether most people prefer Snickers or Twix, they go back to being useful. I have no idea whether most people prefer Snickers or Twix, but if I ran a Twitter poll and it came back that 90% of people said they preferred Snickers, I’d move from 50/50 to 60/40 or something.
Okay, so where do I disagree with Aella? I guess the main thing is that it sometimes feels like she says one thing, then does another. Her claim is ‘these polls should update you a bit if you don’t have better representative data’, which is right. But then the articles are titled stuff like ‘Women prefer more violent porn (and other data)’, which seems much too definitive. And the way that they’re written makes it seem like these correlations are facts about the world rather than chunks of information that might be kinda, sorta true some of the time.
There’s also another problem with the analogy here. In the clown world that Aella talks about, we have no reason to think that the neighbourhood she’s in would have clowns who are very different from other clowns. Unless she lives in a neighbourhood known for its delicious apple pie, it seems like we don’t have that much reason to think ‘this data is probably really weird in a load of ways’.
But when she does sex surveys, we do have reasons to think that the data is probably really weird in a load of ways. Aella is a sex worker with weirdo followers (I don’t mean weirdo in a derogatory sense here). So, the data is likely to be weird in all sorts of ways. It’s better than no data, sure, but I don’t think we should assume that the correlations are going to hold among the general public at all.
On growth: there was a brilliant little exchange between Sam Bowman and Sam Freedman on Twitter there recently (here and elsewhere: https://twitter.com/s8mb/status/1623708501481586691?t=EEG7ix0Dm23rXRz1jV78tw&s=19), where Bowman advocated for quite a libertarian childcare policy (roughly just 'hand cash to parents') and Freedman pointed out that it would be better for economic growth to instead invest that cash in the childcare sector. I'm not sure to what degree Freedman actually endorsed this policy vs to what degree it was a gotcha, but it is at least a successful gotcha: I think Bowman is entirely right on the first-order policy merits, but Freedman is right that many of the benefits of 'hand parents money' would not show up in growth statistics! (I also think Freedman is completely right that certain intellectual interests of the current young British "pro-growth" right are motivated by unspoken values, and their political hobbyhorses look a little odd if you accept their face-value claim that they primarily care about growth - to give another interesting example, a huge number of them are very anti-immigration, a crazy position to take if you genuinely really do care about GDP growth.)
On Aella: I think in some regards Aella's followers are sufficient weirdos to *reverse* certain trends in the general population, and sometimes when I see an Aella poll it makes me update a teeny tiny infinitesimal amount in the *opposite* direction to her conclusion. (The reasoning being something like, 'this thing isn't talked about publicly; thus, on priors either this thing is relatively widespread but shamed, or is rare and concentrated in a small subset of weirdos; thus, evidence that it's widespread among weirdos is ipso facto weak evidence that it's not prevalent among normies'.) This is entirely compatible with the "motte" of the Aella-defenders, that you should make small Bayesian updates based on her polls - if two people's likelihoods differ, then the strength and direction of their ideal Bayesian updates can differ to arbitrary degrees - but is incompatible with their "bailey", which is that she is rightly treated as a "sex researcher" and her Twitter polls are basically analogous to academic research. This latter claim is rooted in a deep rationalist scepticism towards the norms and institutions of science, which is as old as rationalism itself (see Eliezer Yudkowsky's discussion of "science v Bayes": https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/viPPjojmChxLGPE2v/the-dilemma-science-or-bayes). This is the subtext to, say, Zvi's entire post on twitter polls (https://thezvi.substack.com/p/twitter-polls-evidence-is-evidence) - even as he's careful to almost never stray from the motte in his explicit claims, because in fact Aella-esque Twitter polls say exactly fuck all about how sceptical we should be towards academic research.
> But when she does sex surveys, we do have reasons to think that the data is probably really weird in a load of ways. Aella is a sex worker with weirdo followers (I don’t mean weirdo in a derogatory sense here). So, the data is likely to be weird in all sorts of ways. It’s better than no data, sure, but I don’t think we should assume that the correlations are going to hold among the general public at all.
It's not like this is a hidden confounder though. You can update your beliefs according to the survey data, adjusted for the fact that it likely skews kinky.
If Aella did the clown survey and found that 9/10 prefer pie, maybe I'd shift to a 95% chance that I'm in the clowns-love-pie world, because that would be an unexpected result given her demographic. If her results showed that 9/10 prefer anal sex, maybe I shift to a 55% chance that I'm in the clowns-love-anal world, because that result would be more or less what if expect from her surveys.