Category: Philosophy

We are more risk-averse for other people

From Pavel D. Atanasov:

Are we more inclined to take risks for ourselves rather than on someone else’s behalf? The current study reviews and summarizes 28 effects from 18 studies (n=4,784). Across all studies, choices for others were significantly more risk-averse than choices for self (d=0.15, p=0.012). Two objective features of the choices moderated these effects: potential losses and reciprocal relationships. First, self-other differences in risk preferences were significant in the presence of potential losses (k=14, d=0.33, p<.001), and not significant (k=14, d=-0.06, p=0.473) in the gains-only domain (Q=12.56, p=<0.001). Choices for others were significantly more risk-averse when decision makers were reciprocally related to recipients (k=6, d=0.33, p=0.018) but no different in the absence of such a relationship (d=0.11, p=0.115). Reciprocal relationship was a marginally significant predictor (Q=2.02, p=0.155). Results are shown separately by publication status and by context (medical, economic game, hypothetical choice). A relational model of surrogate risk taking is proposed to explain the pattern of results, which emphasizes the importance of chooser-recipient relationships, and the tendency of choosers to minimize anticipated blame from losses, rather than maximizing credit for gains. Implications for benefits design, medical and managerial decision making are discussed.

At least that is what the science says.

The Omission-Commission Error is Deadly

Britain will start a human challenge trial in January.

The Sun: Imperial College said its joint human challenge study involves volunteers aged 18 to 30, with the project starting in January – and results expected in May.

Initially, 90 volunteers will be given a dose of an experimental nasal vaccine.

They’ll then be deliberately infected with Covid-19.

But this is really just the first part of an excessively cautious study designed to “discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause a person to develop Covid-19 infection.” Moreover:

… it’s taken a few months to come to fruition, as before any research could begin the study had to be approved by ethics committees and regulators.

The omission-commission error is deadly. Notice that giving less than one hundred volunteers the virus (commission) is ethically fraught and takes months of debate before one can get approval. But running a large randomized controlled trial in which tens of thousands of people are exposed to the virus is A-ok even though more people may be infected in the latter case than the former and even though faster clinical trials could save many lives. Ethical madness.

Neil Tambe on Courage Studies (from my email)

Most importantly, happy holidays to you and your family. Thank you (and Alex) for another year of MR and CWT.

I wanted to suggest that you involve the theme of courage into your various projects. For the purpose of this message, my working definition of courage is the capability to do the right or needed  thing, even though one knows it will be difficult.

Several recent posts in MR have a question of courage at their foundation. For example, reasonable people could agree that accelerating vaccine approvals by eliminating conventional but unnecessary bureaucracy, crossing the fault lines of polarized political issues, taking a risk to start a business, implementing provocative new ideas for democracy and liberalism, or launching a project within a corporation that improves productivity might all be “right” to do.

And yet they don’t happen. Why?

To be sure, there are many explanations. That said, I’ve spent my career operating in large organizations and I’ve come to observe a common thread – courage.

Teams and individuals often have motivation, skill, and even the power to do the “hard but important stuff” like the ones I’ve listed. But we pass. We aren’t willing to go out on a limb. We follow conventional courses of action even though they don’t live up to our ideals. If we only had the courage to act.

Again, there are many other reasons why hard stuff doesn’t get done. Courage, in my observation, is a fundamental one but not an idea that is well understood.

Much like you’ve suggested “Progress Studies” as  a discipline in its own right, I’d suggest “Courage Studies” (the study of what courage is and how to cultivate it) as a relevant sub-discipline within the domain of Progress.

I’m particularly interested in this area, and doing my own writing here, so I acknowledge that this point of view is biased by my own interests. I won’t be shy about submitting my work to Emergent Ventures once a manuscript is transcribed from my handwritten notebook!

In the meantime, I’m happy to share more detailed ideas on “Courage Studies” if they’d be helpful to you or your team.

My Conversation with John O. Brennan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript — we are both Irish-Americans who were born in Hudson County, New Jersey, and who spent most of our lives working in northern Virginia, the CIA in his case.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

John joined Tyler to discuss what working in intelligence taught him about people’s motivations, how his Catholic upbringing prepared him for working in intelligence, the similarities between working at the CIA and entering the priesthood, his ability to synthetize information from disparate sources, his assessment on the possibility of alien life, the efficacy of personality tests and polygraphs, why CIA agents are so punctual, how the CIA plans to remain a competitive recruiter for top talent, the challenges that spouses and family members of intelligence workers face, the impact of modern technology on spycraft, why he doesn’t support the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, his favorite parts of Cairo, the pros and cons of the recent Middle Eastern peace deal brokered by Jared Kushner, the reasons he thinks we should leverage American culture more abroad, JFK conspiracy theories, why there seemed to be much less foreign interference in the 2020 election than experts predicted, what John le Carré got right about being a spy, why most spies aren’t like James Bond, what he would change about FISA courts, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Are CIA agents more punctual than average?

BRENNAN: Some certainly are. Many of them need to be if you’re going to have a rendezvous, a clandestine rendezvous with a spy from overseas, one of your assets or agents. You have worked for hours to get clean so that you make sure that the local security services are not onto you and surveilling you, and your agent has done the same thing so that when you meet at the designated place at a designated hour, you can quickly then have either a brush pass or a quick meeting or whatever.

If you’re not punctual, you can put that agent’s life in danger. I think it’s instilled in CIA, certainly case officers, that time is of the essence, and you need to be able to follow the clock.

Also, I remember when I was CIA director and I would go down to the White House for an executive council meeting or a principals committee meeting. Jim Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and myself would always be the first ones there because we were always very punctual. I think sometimes the policymakers would look at the clock not as carefully as we would.

COWEN: If you’re hiring for punctuality, and obviously, you would expect employees to show an extreme degree of loyalty, do you worry that you’re not hiring for enough of what’s called disagreeability in the personality literature: people who will contradict their superiors, people who will pick fights? They’re a pain to work with, but at the end of the day, they bring up points that other people are afraid to say or won’t even see.

BRENNAN: We’re not looking to hire just a bunch of yes people. To me, I don’t think punctuality means that you’re looking to instill discipline in an organization. You’re trying to ensure that you’re taking advantage of —

COWEN: But that and loyalty — it would seem to select against disagreeability.

BRENNAN: There’s loyalty to the Constitution. There’s loyalty to the oath of office. To me, there shouldn’t be loyalty to any individuals, including inside the CIA. I would like to think that CIA recruiters would be looking for individuals who are intellectually curious, have critical thinking skills, and mainly have also, I think, some degree of contrariness because you don’t want people just to accept as gospel what it is that they are being told, especially if they’re going to be interacting with spies overseas.

Definitely recommended, fascinating throughout.  And here is John’s new book Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad.

John O. Brennan on UFOs

I thought I would give this segment its own post, again here is the audio, video, and transcript of my Conversation with John O. Brennan, head of the CIA for four years under President Obama:

BRENNAN: I’ve seen some of those videos from Navy pilots, and I must tell you that they are quite eyebrow-raising when you look at them. You try to ensure that you have as much data as possible in terms of visuals and also different types of maybe technical collection of sensors that you have at the time.

Also, I believe, it’s important to reach out into other environments and find out, were there any type of weather phenomena at that time that might have, in fact, created the appearance of the phenomenon that you’re looking at? Were there some things that were happening on the ground, or other types of phenomena that could help explain what seems to be quite a mystery as far as what is there?

I think an important thing for analysts to do is not to go into this type of challenge either discounting certain types of possibilities or believing in advance that it is likely X, Y, or Z. You really have to approach it with an open mind, but get as much data as possible and get as much expertise as possible brought to bear.

COWEN: At the end of all that sifting and interpreting, what do you think is the most likely hypothesis?

BRENNAN: [laughs] I don’t know. When people talk about it, is there other life besides what’s in the States, in the world, the globe? Life is defined in many different ways. I think it’s a bit presumptuous and arrogant for us to believe that there’s no other form of life anywhere in the entire universe. What that might be is subject to a lot of different views.

But I think some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.

The major reason I take UFO reports seriously is simply the “gradient” of other people who take them seriously — the people with the very highest security clearances!  It is not just Brennan and Harry Reid, there are others too, namely people with the very highest level of security clearance who believe these issues deserve further investigation, and are not just weather phenomena, instrument mistakes, weather balloons, etc.

The ideological shift of the libertarian movement on pandemics

In the midst of his libertarian phase, Milton Friedman wrote:

As already noted, significant neighborhood effects justify substantial public health activities: maintaining the purity of water, assuring proper sewage disposal, controlling contagious diseases.

Yet today many libertarians shy away from the actual execution of this for Covid-19.

Here is a 2014 Reason magazine symposium on Ebola, by .  Of those four I know Bailey a wee bit (not well), but from the entries and bylines and the very title of the feature — “What Is the Libertarian Response to Ebola? How a free society should respond to a communicable disease outbreak” — they would indeed seem to be self-described libertarians.

All four, as I read them, are willing to accept the idea of forced quarantine of individuals.  Not just in extreme lifeboat comparisons, but in actual situations that plausibly might have arisen at that time.  If you don’t already know, Reason, while not mega-extreme, typically would be considered more libertarian in orientation than most of the libertarian-leaning think tanks.

Maybe I was napping at the time, but I don’t recall any mega-scandal resulting from those proclamations.

Here is my earlier Bloomberg column rejecting the notion of forced quarantine of individuals for Covid-19, mostly on rights grounds, though I add some consequentialist arguments.  I would not trade in the American performance for the Chinese anti-Covid performance if it meant we had to weld people inside their apartments without due process, for instance, as the Chinese (and Vietnamese and others) did regularly.

To be clear, Ebola and Covid-19 have very different properties, and you might favor forcible quarantine for one and not the other.  Whether those differences in properties should matter for a rights perspective is a complex question, but still I am surprised to see that quarantine was — not long ago — considered so acceptable from a libertarian point of view, given the current pushback against pandemic-related restrictions.

(Speaking of shifts, here is Will Wilkinson on GBD.  While I agree with many of his points, I am curious where Will stands on forcible quarantine of individuals on a non-trivial scale.  He does say he favors a “supported isolation program,” so maybe he favors coercive quarantine but he doesn’t quite commit to that view either?)

I am surprised most of all how little interest current libertarians seem to have in the following “line”:

“A unregulated Covid-19 response would have been much, much better. We would have had a good vaccine right away, and tested it rapidly with a Human Challenge Trial. It would be sold around the world at a profit, with much quicker distribution and pandemic resolution than what we are seeing today. This pandemic was awful, but the market would have kicked butt cleaning it up.”

I am not here claiming that view is correct, only that a strong libertarian ought to be amenable to it.  And yet I hear it remarkably infrequently, even though I think most committed libertarians would agree if you posed it to them as a direct question.

It is at least 20x more fashionable to obsess over the costs of lockdowns, combined with various denialist claims about the severity of the problem.

As for masks, how about this?:

“Masks? Masks are great, of course they are a public good.  Markets are great at producing and maintaining value-maximizing voluntary norms such as mask-wearing!”

I cannot help but think that the views above in quotation marks would have been the dominant libertarian response in the 1980s or 1990s, and that the various brews appearing today are yet another sign of our Douthatian decadence.

From my email, on bioethicists

Hi Tyler. I had a brief career as an ethicist. I realized quickly that the incentives are all wrong if what we want is people who will think hard about humanity’s pressing ethical dilemmas and who will suggest intuitively appealing solutions.

Since almost all ethicists are academics, they have to publish, and in order to publish you have to be novel, and since the basic principles of ethics are little changed for millennia the incentives to do thorough homework on the basis of principles which are widely understood and accepted is not great.

Furthermore, if you decide to be a utilitarian, then basically all ethical issues will boil down to cost/benefit analyses which you have to outsource to technocrats, so your unique expertise as an ethicist will be worth little.

For whatever it’s worth, one could justify most of the widespread opinions of bioethicists and other ethicists who reach conclusions quite repugnant to utilitarians on the basis of “care ethics”. The result is not important and even the rule is not important, what is important is the amount of personal concern you project to specific human beings. Most people would prefer not to expose their close family members to mortal danger so adopting a policy deliberately exposing strangers to such danger appears un-caring.

If ethicists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.

The name of the author has been anonymized to protect the innocent.

The rude people who comment on Derek Lowe’s blog

Gotta love the logic of bioethicists…

>> Hey guys, can we maybe run a vaccine challenge trial to help accelerate research? We’ve got 30k volunteers signed up already

Aw jeez, that would be horrible! Humans are unable to consent to taking a deadly risk! (though lets ignore doctors volunteering to work despite PPE shortages or soldiers volunteering to fight in remote countries) We might harm a few hundred people with this challenge trial so its best if we just run a Phase 3 trial and wait for months and months to get the results. Who cares if lives could be saved by accelerating the research?

>> Hey guys, we’ve got this vaccine candidate that’s only effective on young people. Can we just launch a Phase 3 trial for young people while we run a separate Phase 1/2 trial for older people?

Aw jeez, that would be bad! Old people are people too and we might hurt someone’s feelings if we declare that there’s a vaccine that’s only available for young folks. Lets just delay it by many months instead to the point where it becomes irrelevant, even if it could’ve saved tens of thousands of people in the meantime.

>> Folks, I’ve got this Oxford vaccine that’s 62% effective and has no major side effects. Can we start using it?

Aw jeez, absolutely not! Some people might get offended because they could’ve received the 90% effective vaccine instead, even if that 90% vaccine is in short supply and wouldn’t actually be available to them for many months to come. Rather than offending people, we should just let them die from COVID – that way we’re not to blame for anything. So lock that vaccine up until you run many more trials and ignore the fact that this causes tens of thousands of extra deaths. Bio ethics above all!

Here is the post link.  From myst_05.

David Millstone interviews me

David is co-CEO of Standard Industries, the world’s largest roofing company, and also a major presence in chimney supply, among its other activities.  He asked me many good questions, I asked him about how roofs would develop and whether there was a great stagnation in chimneys.  I also asked him his views about the analytic-synthetic dichotomy and whether numbers were real (he almost did a career in philosophy).  Here is the link.

What is the meta-rational thing to do here?

…the LessWrong community…just released our first book set “A Map that Reflects the Territory: Essays from the LessWrong Community“. It’s a collection of essays from 2018 by Scott Alexander, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and over twenty other writers on LessWrong. It’s a 5-book set, and we actually used quadratic voting to determine what went into the books and what didn’t.

We’re now offering the books on pre-order for $29. It turns out the demand is much higher than I expected, we only planned to print 500 sets but we already sold that many in the first 48 hours.

That is from my email…

My excellent Conversation with Zach Carter

Zach is author of the recent book The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, which has been on many year-end “best of” lists.  Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Zach joined Tyler to discuss what Keynes got right — and wrong — about the Treaty of Versailles, how working in the India Office influenced his economic thinking, the seemingly strange paradox of his “liberal imperialism,” the elusive central message of The General Theory, the true extent of Keynes’ interest in eugenics, why he had a conservative streak, why Zach loves Samuel Delaney’s novel Nova, whether Bretton Woods was doomed to fail, the Enlightenment intuitions behind early defenses of the gold standard, what’s changed since Zach became a father, his next project, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: [Keynes is] sympathetic to his own ideas and wants to promote them. But to me, there’s a discord. Milton Friedman spends, what, 45 minutes talking to Pinochet, has a very long record of insisting economic and political freedom come together — maybe even too simplistically — writes against the system of apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia, calls for free markets there. And people give Friedman hell over that.

Keynes writes the preface for the Nazis and favors eugenics his whole life, and that’s hardly ever mentioned.

CARTER: I don’t know that the way that Keynes talks about eugenics is as salient as you suggest. The best article that I came across on Keynes and eugenics is by this guy — I think David Singerman. It’s in the Journal of British Studies. It’s a pretty in-depth look at the way Keynes came to eugenics and what he did and did not support. It’s very clear that Keynes didn’t support eugenics in the way that Americans sterilizing poor Black workers in the South were interested in eugenics.

Keynes was broadly interested in it from the perspective of birth control. This is a time when eugenics and genetics are not as clearly defined as they are today, so he’s thinking about heritability of eye colors — how he gets involved in this stuff. He never really supports anything other than birth control.

When he actually has power as a policymaker, he just doesn’t do any of this stuff. He is working on the Beveridge plan. He is working on financial stuff that is much more egalitarian than what we think of him when we think about eugenics.

COWEN: But he is chair of the British Eugenics Society for eight years late in his career.

CARTER: He doesn’t do much there. There are big debates that are happening within that society, and he’s mostly sitting them out. Singerman goes into this in much more detail. It’s been a while since I read the article, but Singerman seems to think that this is a useful way of understanding Keynes’s worldview, but not that Keynes is some guy who’s going around wanting to sterilize people and do the things that we think of with the eugenics movement in the United States.

COWEN: I don’t think he wants to sterilize people, but he has those essays on population, which are not put into the collected works. They’re not mentioned by Roy Harrod. He is greatly worried that the people from some countries — I think including India — will outbreed the people from Britain, and this will wreak havoc on prices and wages, and it’s a big crisis. He even says, “We need to worry not only about the quantity of people, but the quality of people in the world.”

A very good episode, definitely recommended.  And here is Zach on Twitter.

“Mirror, Mirror” (Star Trek classic, spoilers in this post)

I haven’t seen most Star Trek episodes since I was a young teen, so I tried rewatching this one, you know, with the alternate universe and the evil Spock.  It was good!

I took away from it the main lesson that our moral behavior — or lack thereof — is one of the most contingent and fragile features of our universe.  The possibly happy ending for the bad universe drives this point home, as does the opening speech from the indigenous folk (the Halkans) who won’t sell their dilithium crystals, reminding Kirk that the Federation too might turn bad.  Add to that the utter implausibility of their “highly moral” behavior in the bad universe, as the absurdity and unlikelihood of their invited destruction reminds us that virtually everyone is pliable in response to strong enough incentives.

If you think through the plot, to the extent the “good” people are more powerful and effective than the “bad” people, that is because the “good” people are better at deceit.  Though the good people can teach deceit to the bad people, as the good Kirk does at the end to the evil Spock, who perhaps will reform.  Another embedded lesson is that both the “good” and the “bad” men will sexually harass (both the good and bad) women, with the major differences being those of style not substance.  And the “good” men seem to prefer the “bad” women.

If the “bad” universe were safer, would the powerful people find it better or worse to live in?  What if you had a Ring of Gyges to help you along?

Overall you can read the whole episode as “the spirits” (God?) sending a Shakespearean-like dream to Kirk, so that he can better understand the perspective of the Halkans, which otherwise he finds baffling.  Might the Halkans have sent the dream themselves?

Recommended, it was better and more idea-rich than expected.  I will try another episode soon.

Erasmus Darwin, apostle of progress

Erasmus Darwin plunged into popular scientific poetry.  Cantering along in the style — if not with the elegance — of Alexander Pope, he never aspired to greatness.  His verses, however, were remarkable for their vivid pictures of evolution interlaced with stirring accounts of the advancement of science, technology, and human culture during the late eighteenth century, the very epitome of optimistic entrepreneurial thought applied to the natural world in the bright glow of the prerevolutionary era.

It is hard to recapture the full extent of the fame these writings, virtually forgotten today, brought him.  Yet for many readers of the 1790s, Darwin was the poet for the age of liberty and social advance: an advocate of industrialisation and cultural improvement; an avid admirer of the power of steam; a discipline of the French philosophes, revealing his Jacobin-like fervour for change and transformation at every turn, and deliberately provocative in taking as his publisher the radical Joseph Johnson, the Londoner who printed William Godwin and friends; at all times a poet of progress, with such an obvious sense of humor that his zest for life could not fail to amuse.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was of course the grandfather of Charles Darwin and also of Francis Galton.  And that passage is from the truly excellent biography Charles Darwin Voyaging, by Janet Browne.

That was then, this is now, wartime casualties edition

U.S. Civil War combat deaths per day: 449

World War II U.S. combat deaths per day: 297

Covid-19 U.S. deaths per day: > 1,000

And rising, 1500 per day seems baked in, 2000 per day might also be within reach.  I just don’t get you people who say this isn’t a big deal.

By the way, deaths as a percentage of population isn’t the right metric here.  Losing 320,000 lives (including excess deaths) has about the same moral import, whether or not there are a billion Morlocks living under the earth’s surface, though that fact would change the loss greatly as measured in percentage terms and of course make it look much smaller.

If one thousand lives (and more) per day is not a big deal, then what is?  The global toll is much larger of course, and most of the gdp contraction has come from fear rather than lockdowns per se — see for instance Sweden.

And as Scott Gottlieb tweeted:

This is not a question of lockdowns vs no lockdowns. The question is how do we take targeted measures, get broader compliance to prudent steps like masks, distancing, avoiding large gatherings; to reduce, slow spread so that the healthcare system doesn’t risk getting overwhelmed.

You won’t do a bit of restraint to stem these losses, and shift infections into the future, while a good vaccine is coming not to mention other therapeutics?  Or try this simple question: If you are a limited government libertarian, then when would you deploy government action if not now?

Speaking of “that was then, this is now,” here is Jeffrey Tucker of AIER (of GBD fame) predicting, circa October 14, that there will never be a vaccine.

Vaccine politics will soon replace electoral politics

That is the title and theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

And who should get the vaccine first? The elderly are more vulnerable, but the young are more likely to spread Covid-19. Some recent results suggest it would be better to vaccinate the young first, but that is less politically likely. Again, it is easy to see potential conflicts over this question, cutting across traditional party lines.

An even more complex problem would arise if one good vaccine is available but other, possibly better, vaccines are imminent. Does everyone get the “good enough” vaccine, disrupting the ability to conduct clinical trials to see if the other vaccines are better? How much patience do Americans have, really?

Americans would probably resent having to wait. But if they end up choosing a lesser quality vaccine, over the long run they might be unhappier yet. It is not clear the U.S. public health bureaucracy is up to the task of approving one vaccine and restructuring the other trials (possibly by paying participants more to stay in, or by shifting to other countries for data) so they can continue.

Be prepared for a mess, with almost everybody unhappy.