In praise of Robin Hanson

My fondest memory of Robin Hanson is when we interviewed him for a job and, during his on-campus visit, I gave him some papers I had been working on.  Later he emailed me back, before getting the offer I might add, and told me the papers weren't very good and what was wrong with them. 

Ten years later, as his colleague, I disagree with Robin on many topics, including futarchy, whether we will become computer uploads, and meta-ethics (oh, if Robin would only advocate the ethical theory he so consistently lives by!..instead of his contorted contractarian version of preference utilitarianism, which he sometimes calls "dealism.").  Despite our disagreements, Robin and I are oddly in frequent common agreement on practical "life topics."  Most of all, I view Robin as a reductionist thinker to a greater degree than I am comfortable with for myself; relative to Robin, I'm more attached to the mumbo-jumbo of the mess and the piling on of multiple perspectives to the point of squishiness.

Those of us who speak regularly with Robin know how brightly his star blazes.  He's a truly original and important thinker in a way that few are, plus on analytic back and forth he is blindingly fast and accurate.  But you can't expect him to be a "I'm going to agree with him all around" kind of guy; he isn't.  If you are one of his detractors, or even just a common sense skeptic, you can always find many of his beliefs to be outright absurd,  The real question, however, is how much you can learn from him and on that he is an A+.

Addendum: Robin responds.


OK, Tyler, please--enough making fun of Hanson with overly praising him--he's not *that* dumb.

But is his taste in food as sophisticated as yours, Tyler?

i high-fived him at the singularity summit. dawg is game.

All these explanations and last minute attempts to save the skeptical. Tyler - are you about to transcend?

hanson is intelligent. but that's just one dimension.

can he admit he is wrong? can he see the world in more than just black and white -- can he tolerate ambiguity, or see the world from multiple simultaneous perspectives without judgement crippling his perspective? does he have the ability to be in a state of not knowing, either as turbulent uncertainty, or as zen separateness?

does he have a keen observational mind, or is what he sees his own theories about the world more than the world as it is?

because he is a thinker, but not a mature one, yet.

on the whole, i would be very happy reading his work as science fiction. if he wrote long form fiction, he could be the the 21st century's ayn rand.

can he admit he is wrong?

in my limited experience, yes. most of the set of "hyper-rationalists" with whom robin associates with are actually totally not like randians, they're willing to concede rather quickly if they're shown to have had false premises or chains of inferences, or are disconfirmed by the empirical data. that's because they're nerds and have less emotional attachment to particular ideas.

now, are their experiences and propositions flexible enough to admit ambiguity, or at least a huge confidence interval on their expectations? i think i'm more with tyler on that.

in any case, interacting with someone like robin is bracing. and that's not just a throwaway compliment.

I don't know any different for myself, but I'm constantly amazed how people can mis-recognize value.

And even to the point they thought Tyler was signaling or outright lying, or even sniping.

I have no doubt that Robin Hanson the blogger, who is our common point of reference, is intelligent. I would trust those who know Robin Hanson the man about his personal characteristics. But reading Robin Hanson the blogger is, to me, like reading an intelligent Muslim or Protestant blogger whose subject is faith; there is a very important set of priors which I don't share, and the consequence is that they draw certain conclusions, the morality of which I find unusual and off-putting.

Firstly, there is a tendency to condemn the mote in the eye of people when they profess beliefs without doing an agnostic Bayesian calculation, while writing a remarkable amount about speculative subjects like panspermia, futarchy and singularity, which seems to me to be a fairly big beam in one's eye. At least the mote is generally based on the beliefs of others rather than scientific speculation. Secondly, there are Protestant blogs which honestly believe Catholics are disloyal to their countries, based on a perfectly credible reading of the facts given their priors, and there are equally disturbing conclusions to be read in Robin Hanson's work, which often requires faith in a deeply reductive utilitarianism, in which liberty is instrumental and human rights are a meaningless concept to be rationalised away.

Note that neither of these is a moral condemnation as much as it is an explanation of my defence mechanisms. Nonetheless, I can recognise my moral repulsion (to use too strong a word) and yet maintain my position. Hanson the blogger is hypocritical in practice due to his preference for using his intelligence to solve problems in future worlds, based on his priors, rather than in the agnostic present world in which he exhorts us all to live and think. It is a good kind of hypocrisy, in that sense, because at least it contributes something to our understanding of various problems.

Ultimately, we come to the problem that a man's original and important thought ought to speak for itself, rather than needing to be turned into a meme by his influential social circle.

Yeah, Robin is swell. What is the point of this post?

I don't know Hanson, and haven't read his work. But in my experience, most academics who are so characterized have adopted a non-standard lense for interpretation, be it a unique ideology or other framework. This gives them a fast way of interpreting, but there is a tradeoff for accuracy.

Since when have you given a damn about accuracy, Hubes?

Robin has very good taste in food!

The important thing having the correct ideology.

The only justification I would have to dislike Robin Hanson would be if he justified legacy academia and all its traditions as-is, and lo and behold he doesn't. He's got it right there too. Maybe he goes overboard, or maybe we just perceive the concepts to be overboard.

You know that whole libertarian saw that if you don't like something, don't partake? The internets make it reality. Thanks Al!

Any recommendations from the papers listed in Hanson's vita?

There is a natural tendency on the part of many people, including myself, to react negatively when we are constantly being told what a genius person X is. This is especially true when some of the things pointed to as evidence of genius seem to be obvious, or foolish, or simple things made complex.

I'm not familiar with Hanson's work. I've read nothing he's written aside from the occasional blog post. I'm in no position to be a detractor or an admirer. Further, I am willing to take Tyler's word that Hanson really is extraordinarily bright. But the worship - like the broader GMU collective egomania - does get to be a bit much, and so I sometimes post disagreeable comments.

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