Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Team Thinking and the Zone of Bad Information

Anarchists talk as if there is something fundamentally worthwhile in human life. They employ terms like 'virtue', 'goodness', 'potential' and so on. Anarchism is based on the premise that if it weren't for pesky and interfering governments, human life would be substantially better, if not indeed unrecognisably so, from the current picture. It's based on a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature that has very little evidential support.
-Karl, in a comment on his post

This insight extends to almost every belief structure there is, because almost every belief structure is fundamentally (and shamefully) optimistic. Feminists and men's rights people seem to think life would be grand if it weren't for pesky, interfering patriarchy/gynocracy. [Group A] thinks life would be grand if it weren't for pesky, interfering [Group B] fucking up the program, and vice versa.

I think of this as "team thinking" - the idea that (a) we are on teams (what Vonnegut calls granfalloons), and that (b) our team should win against the other teams, which (c) totally exist, and (d) then life would be great.

This "team thinking" is a huge part of the reason that we get bad information and cannot think clearly. This is because of the practice of civility, which is a form of bullshit.

Civility means that we avoid saying things that cause our conversation partners to experience negative affect. Unbiased information about oneself is particularly difficult to get, because negative information about oneself is likely to cause one to feel bad, and is hence "impolite" to discuss. Team thinking extends this zone of bad information to information about all kinds of spurious groups we happen to belong to, not just the individual - gender teams, race teams, political teams, geographic location teams, socioeconomic teams, religious teams.

In-groups (the existence of, and bias toward, which are on the list of human universals) represent an important part of self-deception, in that it allows us to imagine that others deserve suffering.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Population Is Magic

Does a future of glorious prosperity await us if we forget about the direct, measurable harms of overpopulation and instead focus on the indirect, unpredictable benefits that might come from denser populations?

The human population can no longer be allowed to grow in the same old uncontrolled way. If we do not take charge of our population size, then nature will do it for us and it is the poor people of the world who will suffer most.
David Attenborough
Over the observed range, people and good outcomes go hand in hand—and there’s no sign of anything else on the horizon.
Bryan Caplan

You may have seen the satellite images of rainforest loss. You may have heard that we are in the middle of an anthropogenic extinction event. Perhaps you have become aware that a billion people are hungry and a sixth of the world lives in slums. Perhaps you have noticed that the costs of fuel and food continue to rise dramatically, trends that have historically been followed by large-scale misery and mass human die-offs.

Bryan Caplan sees a clear solution to all these troubling problems: more babies.

Characterizing population worries like those of David Attenborough, above, as "fretting," Caplan surprisingly argues that increasing population has always gone along with greater human well-being, and that there is every reason to suspect that a larger population will result in higher levels of human welfare in the future.

With a totally straight face.

Lest you suspect I am mischaracterizing Caplan's argument for dramatic effect, here are some direct quotations:

People have been fretting about the “population problem” for at least fifty years. But over those five decades, the perceived problem has practically reversed.

During the last two centuries, both population and prosperity exploded. Maybe the world just enjoyed incredibly good luck, but it makes you wonder: Could rising population be a cause of rising prosperity?

When population goes up, everyone gets extra choices. [Emphasis in original.]

And the only mention of environmental problems at all in the entire essay:

After two centuries of rising population and rising prosperity, attempts to blame low living standards on overpopulation have worn thin. The most popular anti-population arguments now come from environmentalists. But their case is surprisingly weak. We’re not “running out” of food, fuel, or minerals. Despite occasional price spikes, real commodity prices have fallen about 1% per year for over a century. Air and water quality in the First World have been improving for decades despite rising population. Genuine problems remain, but limiting population to counter environmental problems is using a sword to kill a mosquito. Pollution taxes and congestion prices are far cheaper and more humane remedies. [Citations omitted.]

Caplan argues, essentially, that (a) ideas come from human brains; (b) ideas drive prosperity; (c) more brains mean more ideas. He maintains that there is no downside to growing population; somehow, all those new brains will come up with ideas that will solve all of our present problems, and all future problems as well.

At its core, Caplan's argument is that we should ignore direct, certain harms and costs of rising population (environmental destruction, water shortages, overpopulation-driven conflicts like the Rwandan genocide) and focus on the indirect, uncertain potential future benefits of increasing population - all those ideas future brains might come up with.

Optimism is not nice (or "humane") when it allows for the mental elision of real human suffering. More importantly, it is not warranted when the harms are direct and certain and the benefits are indirect and uncertain.

"Imagine deleting half the names in your music collection—or half the visionaries in the computer industry," says Caplan. "Think how much poorer the world would be." He includes a sentimental quotation from fellow breeding advocate Julian Simon, who says:

There came to me the memory of reading a eulogy delivered by a Jewish chaplain over the dead on the battlefield at Iwo Jima, saying something like, “How many who would have been a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein have we buried here?” And then I thought, Have I gone crazy? What business do I have trying to help arrange it that fewer human beings will be born, each one of whom might be a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein—or simply a joy to his or her family and community, and a person who will enjoy life?

The idea that we should breed lots more people because there might be a Mozart or an Einstein among them has two major problems. One is that the sheer number of brains is not the sole determinant of the creation of valuable ideas - else the slums of São Paulo would be outperforming Cambridge, Massachusetts, in new idea creation. (And these other determinants of the creation of valuable ideas, tied as they often are to real-world, material resources, may very well be negatively affected by increased population.) Another is that at the outset, the creation of a new Josef Fritzl is at least as likely as the creation of a new Einstein. (Indeed, many people who have committed horrific crimes fit the definition of the type of person Caplan says we should make more of - people whose lifetime tax payments exceed their lifetime consumption of government services. Even Jeffrey Dahmer, killed so quickly after his incarceration, might have met these criteria.)

Caplan is correct that each new person is a potential cooperation partner for every existing person. But he ignores the fact that each new person is also a new competitor. Caplan makes much of the fact that "much" government spending is "non-rival" - that is, it doesn't increase with population size. But how much of human welfare is truly "non-rival"? It is an undeniable fact that humans compete for resources that are genuinely scarce, such as water and land. This could be solved, in Caplan's magical view, by new ideas.

Caplan thinks reducing population to reduce harms like scarcity and environmental destruction is "like using a sword to kill a mosquito." In my view, breeding lots of new people in hopes that they come up with solutions to the problems caused by overpopulation is akin to snorting cocaine in hopes that it helps you figure out a way to overcome your cocaine addiction.

Or, perhaps more poignantly, it's like open-pit-mining the fuck out of Montana in hopes that microorganisms in the digestive tracts of endangered snow geese that die horribly in the polluted open pits will prove capable of cleaning up the damage.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Imagining Upheaval: The Often Adversarial Relationship of Solicitude and Respect

Imagine the upheaval that would result from adoption of blanket language requiring total equality. Would male citizens be justified in insisting that women share with them the burdens of compulsory military service? What would become of traditional family relationships? What about alimony? Who would have the obligation of supporting whom? Would fathers rank equally with mothers in the right of custody to children? What would become of the crimes of rape and statutory rape? Would the Mann Act be invalidated? Would the many State and local provisions regulating working conditions and hours of employment for women be struck down?

You know the biological differences between the sexes. In many States we have laws favorable to women. Are you going to strike those laws down? This is the entering wedge, an amendment of this sort. The list of foreseeable consequences, I will say to the committee, is unlimited.

—Comments by Emanuel Celler (D-NY), the Representative who introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into the House of Representatives, opposing an amendment to forbid discrimination based on sex, 110 Cong. Rec. 2,577-2,584 (1964).

You want to treat [group] as full persons? But don't you care about them?

See also: slaves, native inhabitants, mental patients, poor people, children.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Incentives from the Group Crowd Out Joy

The "overjustification effect" is the cognitive process whereby getting a reward for doing something makes people do it less.

In experiments demonstrating the overjustification effect (such as the classic felt-tip marker study), the rewards were never (that I know of) things the subjects found or discovered themselves, but were presented by the researchers. I emphasize: the rewards were perceived by subjects to come from people.

The process of overjustification is often explained by the idea that a reward acts to shift salience from the inherent enjoyability of the activity to the external-reward-generating aspect of the activity. In short, with the introduction of an incentive, fun becomes work.

Why should this be? Why should the shift to "reward" thinking make the activity less fun?

There is a perfectly rational reason: because the reward is a signal given by interested others, who are one's competitors.

When one receives a promise of an incentive for some behavior, one might rationally ask the promissor, "what's in it for you?" Of course, words can lie, but costly incentives cannot. By providing a valuable incentive (or the reliable promise of one) to someone, the promissor assures the recipient in very credible language that the action of the recipient is valuable to the promissor, and in fact he is willing to pay for it. The recipient should rationally slow down and think about whether, instead of wasting his time doing the activity for free, he should be getting compensated for it - and, relatedly, whether this activity has a cost to him that he hadn't perceived.

One way for this abstract strategy to be implemented would be to cause the actor to feel less joy in an activity another indicated a willingness to pay to promote.

This strategy also applies to disincentives. From a group's perspective, why waste resources prohibiting an activity unless individuals have some reason to engage in the activity? A group prohibition is a reliable signal to individuals that there is some individual benefit - an advantage over the group - to be gained from violating the prohibition. One way to instantiate this strategy would be to build into your creatures curiosity about forbidden things and a little thrill from rule-violation.

The overjustification effect is our rational, built-in stubbornness. We recognize that incentives are signals, and immediately adapt to best take advantage of those signals. Joy is the casualty. The thrill of illicitness is the consolation.
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