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Pablo_Stafforini comments on Inadequacy and Modesty - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 29 October 2017 11:32:55AM *  6 points [-]

The reason people aren't doing this is probably that it isn't profitable once you account for import duties, value added tax and customs clearance fees, as well as the time costs of transacting in the black market. I'm from Argentina and have investigated this in the past for other electronics, so my default assumption is that these reasons generalize to this particular case.

I think this discussion provides a good illustration of the following principle: you should usually be skeptical of your ability to "beat the market" even if you are able to come up with a plausible explanation of the phenomenon in question from which it follows that your circumstances are unique.

Similarly, I think one should generally distrust one's ability to "beat elite common sense" even if one thinks one can accurately diagnose why members of this reference class are wrong in this particular instance.

Very rarely, you may be able to do better than the market or the experts, but knowing that this is one of those cases takes much more than saying "I have a story that implies I can do this, and this story looks plausible to me."

Comment author: RobBensinger 29 October 2017 02:38:46PM *  1 point [-]

Similarly, I think one should generally distrust one's ability to "beat elite common sense" even if one thinks one can accurately diagnose why members of this reference class are wrong in this particular instance.

Note that in Eliezer's example above, he isn't claiming to have any diagnosis at all of what led the Bank of Japan to reach the wrong conclusion. The premise isn't "I have good reason to think the Bank of Japan is biased/mistaken in this particular way in this case," but rather: "It's unsurprising for institutions like the Bank of Japan to be wrong in easy-to-demonstrate ways, so it doesn't take a ton of object-level evidence for me to reach a confident conclusion that they're wrong on the object level, even if I have no idea what particular mistake they're making, what their reasons are, etc. The Bank of Japan just isn't the kind of institution that we should strongly expect to be right or wrong on this kind of issue (even though this issue is basic to its institutional function); so moderate amounts of ordinary object-level evidence can be dispositive all on its own."

From:

[W]hen I read some econbloggers who I’d seen being right about empirical predictions before saying that Japan was being grotesquely silly, and the economic logic seemed to me to check out, as best I could follow it, I wasn’t particularly reluctant to believe them. Standard economic theory, generalized beyond the markets to other facets of society, did not seem to me to predict that the Bank of Japan must act wisely for the good of Japan. It would be no surprise if they were competent, but also not much of a surprise if they were incompetent.

Comment author: Gregory_Lewis 29 October 2017 07:58:31PM 3 points [-]

If that is the view, I am unsure what the bank of Japan example is meant to motivate.

The example is confounded by the fact that Eliezer reports a lot of outside-view information to make the determination the BoJ is making a bad call. The judgement (and object level argument) which he endorses originally came from econ bloggers (I gather profs like Sumner) who Eliezer endorses due to their good track record. In addition he reports the argument the econ bloggers make does make object level sense.

Yet modest approaches can get the same answer without conceding the object-level evidence is dispositive. If the bank of Japan is debunked as an authority (for whatever reason), then in a dispute of 'them versus economists with a good empirical track record.', the outside view favours the latter's determination for standard reasons (it might caution one should look more widely across economic expertise, but bracket this). It also plausibly allows one to assert confidence in the particular used to make the determination the BoJ makes a bad call.

So I think I'd have made a similar judgement to Eliezer in this case whether or not I had any 'object level' evidence to go on: if I didn't know (or couldn't understand) the argument Sumner et al. used, I'd still conclude they're likely right.

It seems one needs to look for cases where 'outside' and 'inside' diverge. So maybe something like, "Eliezer judged from his personal knowledge of economics the BoJ was making a bad call (without inspiration from any plausible epistemic authority), and was right to back himself 'over' the BoJ."

That would be a case where someone would disagree this is the right approach. If all I had to go on was my argument and knowledge of the BoJs policy (e.g., I couldn't consult economists or econbloggers or whatever), then I suggest one should think that the incentives of the BoJ are probably at least somewhat better than orthogonal on expectation, and probably better correlated than an argument made by an amateur economist. If it transpired the argument was actually right, modesty's failure in a single case is not much of a strike against it, at least without some track record beyond this single case..

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 29 October 2017 08:41:57PM *  1 point [-]

I never claimed that this is what Eliezer was doing in that particular case, or in other cases. (I'm not even sure I understand Eliezer's position.) I was responding to the previous comment, and drawing a parallel between "beating the market" in that and other contexts. I'm sorry if this was unclear.

To address your substantive point: If the claim is that we shouldn't give much weight to the views of individuals and institutions that we shouldn't expect them to be good at tracking the truth, despite their status or prominence in society, this is something that hardly any rationalist or EA would dispute. Nor does this vindicate various confident pronouncements Eliezer has made in the past—about nutrition, animal consciousness, philosophical zombies, population ethics, and quantum mechanics, to name a few—that deviate significantly from expert opinion, unless this is conjoined with credible arguments for thinking that warranted skepticism extends to each of those expert communities. To my knowledge, no persuasive arguments of this sort have been provided.

Comment author: RobBensinger 29 October 2017 09:43:57PM *  2 points [-]

Yeah, I wasn't saying that you were making a claim about Eliezer; I just wanted to highlight that he's possibly making a stronger claim even than the one you're warning against when you say "one should generally distrust one's ability to 'beat elite common sense' even if one thinks one can accurately diagnose why members of this reference class are wrong in this particular instance".

If the claim is that we shouldn't give much weight to the views of individuals and institutions that we shouldn't expect to be closely aligned with the truth, this is something that hardly anyone would dispute.

I think the main two factual disagreements here might be "how often, and to what extent, do top institutions and authorities fail in large and easy-to-spot ways?" and "for epistemic and instrumental purposes, to what extent should people like you and Eliezer trust your own inside-view reasoning about your (and authorities') competency, epistemic rationality, meta-rationality, etc.?" I don't know whether you in particular would disagree with Eliezer on those claims, though it sounds like you may.

Nor does this vindicate various confident pronouncements Eliezer has made in the past—about nutrition, animal consciousness, AI timelines, philosophical zombies, population ethics, etc.—unless it is conjoined with an argument for thinking that his skepticism extends to the relevant community of experts in each of those fields.

Yeah, agreed. The "adequacy" level of those fields, and the base adequacy level of civilization as a whole, is one of the most important questions here.

Could you say more about what you have in mind by "confident pronouncements [about] AI timelines"? I usually think of Eliezer as very non-confident about timelines.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 30 October 2017 12:35:07PM *  1 point [-]

I think the main two factual disagreements here might be "how often, and to what extent, do top institutions and authorities fail in large and easy-to-spot ways?" and "for epistemic and instrumental purposes, to what extent should people like you and Eliezer trust your own inside-view reasoning about your (and authorities') competency, epistemic rationality, meta-rationality, etc.?"

Thank you, this is extremely clear, and captures the essence of much of what's going between Eliezer and his critics in this area.

Could you say more about what you have in mind by "confident pronouncements [about] AI timelines"? I usually think of Eliezer as very non-confident about timelines.

I had in mind forecasts Eliezer made many years ago that didn't come to pass as well as his most recent bet with Bryan Caplan. But it's a stretch to call these 'confident pronouncements', so I've edited my post and removed 'AI timelines' from the list of examples.

Comment author: RobBensinger 31 October 2017 12:41:35AM *  1 point [-]

Going back to your list:

nutrition, animal consciousness, philosophical zombies, population ethics, and quantum mechanics

I haven't looked much at the nutrition or population ethics discussions, though I understand Eliezer mistakenly endorsed Gary Taubes' theories in the past. If anyone has links, I'd be interested to read more.

AFAIK Eliezer hasn't published why he holds his views about animal consciousness, and I don't know what he's thinking there. I don't have a strong view on whether he's right (or whether he's overconfident).

Concerning zombies: I think Eliezer is correct that the zombie argument can't provide any evidence for the claim that we instantiate mental properties that don't logically supervene on the physical world. Updating on factual evidence is a special case of a causal relationship, and if instantiating some property P is causally impacting our physical brain states and behaviors, then P supervenes on the physical.

I'm happy to talk more about this, and I think questions like this are really relevant to evaluating the track record of anti-modesty positions, so this seems like as good a place as any for discussion. I'm also happy to talk more about meta questions related to this issue, like, "If the argument above is correct, why hasn't it convinced all philosophers of mind?" I don't have super confident views on that question, but there are various obvious possibilities that come to mind.

Concerning QM: I think Eliezer's correct that Copenhagen-associated views like "objective collapse" and "quantum non-realism" are wrong, and that the traditional arguments for these views are variously confused or mistaken, often due to misunderstandings of principles like Ockham's razor. I'm happy to talk more about this too; I think the object-level discussions are important here.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 31 October 2017 02:46:42PM *  2 points [-]

A discussion about the merits of each of the views Eliezer holds on these issues would itself exemplify the immodest approach I'm here criticizing. What you would need to do to change my mind is to show me why Eliezer is justified in giving so little weight to the views of each of those expert communities, in a way that doesn't itself take a position on the issue by relying primarily on the inside view.

Let’s consider a concrete example. When challenged to justify his extremely high confidence in MWI, despite the absence of a strong consensus among physicists, Eliezer tells people to "read the QM sequence”. But suppose I read the sequence and become persuaded. So what? Physicists are just as divided now as they were before I raised the challenge. By hypothesis, Eliezer was unjustified in being so confident in MWI despite the fact that it seemed to him that this interpretation was correct, because the relevant experts did not share that subjective impression. If upon reading the sequence I come to agree with Eliezer, that just puts me in the same epistemic predicament as Eliezer was originally: just like him, I too need to justify the decision to rely on my own impressions instead of deferring to expert opinion.

To persuade me, Greg, and other skeptics, what Eliezer needs to do is to persuade the physicists. Short of that, he can persuade a small random sample of members of this expert class. If, upon being exposed to the relevant sequence, a representative group of quantum physicists change their views significantly in Eliezer’s direction, this would be good evidence that the larger population of physicists would update similarly after reading those writings. Has Eliezer try to do this?

ETA: I just realized that the kind of challenge I'm raising here has been carried out, in the form of a "natural experiment", for Eliezer's views on decision theory. Years ago, David Chalmers spontaneously sent half a dozen leading decision theorists copies of Eliezer's TDT paper. If memory serves, Chalmers reported that none of these experts had been impressed (let alone persuaded).

Comment author: Benito 31 October 2017 07:37:44PM 3 points [-]

A discussion about the merits of each of the views Eliezer holds on these issues would itself exemplify the immodest approach I'm here criticizing. What you would need to do to change my mind is to show me why Eliezer is justified in giving so little weight to the views of each of those expert communities, in a way that doesn't itself take a position on the issue by relying primarily on the inside view.

This seems correct. I just noticed you could phrase this the other way - why in general should we presume groups of people with academic qualifications have their strongest incentives towards truth? I agree that this disagreement will come down to building detailed models of incentives in human organisations more than building inside views of each field (which is why I didn't find Greg's post particularly persuasive - this isn't a matter of discussing rational bayesian agents, but of discussing the empirical incentive landscape we are in).

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 31 October 2017 08:39:17PM *  0 points [-]

why in general should we presume groups of people with academic qualifications have their strongest incentives towards truth?

Maybe because these people have been surprisingly accurate? In addition, it's not that Eliezer disputes that general presumption: he routinely relies on results in the natural and social sciences without feeling the need to justify in each case why we should trust e.g. computer scientists, economists, neuroscientists, game theorists, and so on.

Comment author: Benito 31 October 2017 09:18:06PM 0 points [-]

Yeah, that’s the sort of discussion that seems to me most relevant.

Comment author: WillPearson 31 October 2017 08:51:24AM 1 point [-]

Concerning QM: I think Eliezer's correct that Copenhagen-associated views like "objective collapse" and "quantum non-realism" are wrong, and that the traditional arguments for these views are variously confused or mistaken, often due to misunderstandings of principles like Ockham's razor. I'm happy to talk more about this too; I think the object-level discussions are important here.

I don't think the modest view (at least as presented by Gregory) would believe in any of the particular interpretations as there is significant debate still.

The informed modest person would go, "You have object reasons to dislike these interpretations. Other people have object reasons to dislike your interpretations. Call me when you have hashed it out or done an experiments to pick a side". They would go on an do QM without worrying too much about what it all means.

Comment author: RobBensinger 31 October 2017 12:50:21PM *  0 points [-]

Yeah, I'm not making claims about what modest positions think about this issue. I'm also not endorsing a particular solution to the question of where the Born rule comes from (and Eliezer hasn't endorsed any solution either, to my knowledge). I'm making two claims:

  1. QM non-realism and objective collapse aren't true.
  2. As a performative corollary, arguments about QM non-realism and objective collapse are tractable, even for non-specialists; it's possible for non-specialists to reach fairly confident conclusions about those particular propositions.

I don't think either of those claims should be immediately obvious to non-specialists who completely reject "try to ignore object-level arguments"-style modesty, but who haven't looked much into this question. Non-modest people should initially assign at least moderate probability to both 1 and 2 being false, though I'm claiming it doesn't take an inordinate amount of investigation or background knowledge to determine that they're true.

(Edit re Will's question below: In the QM sequence, what Eliezer means by "many worlds" is only that the wave-function formalism corresponds to something real in the external world, and that this wave function evolves over time to yield many different macroscopic states like our "classical" world. I've heard this family of views called "(QM) multiverse" views to distinguish this weak claim from the much stronger claim that, e.g., decoherence on its own resolves the whole question of where the Born rule comes from.)

Comment author: WillPearson 31 October 2017 12:59:54PM 0 points [-]

and Eliezer hasn't endorsed any solution either, to my knowledge)

Huh, he seemed fairly confident about endorsing MWI in his sequence here

Comment author: RobBensinger 31 October 2017 01:16:17PM *  1 point [-]

He endorses "many worlds" in the sense that he thinks the wave-function formalism corresponds to something real and mind-independent, and that this wave function evolves over time to yield many different macroscopic states like our "classical" world. I've heard this family of views called "(QM) multiverse" views to distinguish this weak claim from the much stronger claim that, e.g., decoherence on its own resolves the whole question of where the Born rule comes from.

From a 2008 post in the MWI sequence:

One serious mystery of decoherence is where the Born probabilities come from, or even what they are probabilities of.

[... W]hat does the integral over squared moduli have to do with anything? On a straight reading of the data, you would always find yourself in both blobs, every time. How can you find yourself in one blob with greater probability? What are the Born probabilities, probabilities of? Here's the map—where's the territory?

I don't know. It's an open problem. [...]

This problem is even worse than it looks, because the squared-modulus business is the only non-linear rule in all of quantum mechanics. Everything else—everything else—obeys the linear rule that the evolution of amplitude distribution A, plus the evolution of the amplitude distribution B, equals the evolution of the amplitude distribution A + B.

Comment author: RobBensinger 31 October 2017 12:18:52AM *  0 points [-]

Cool. Note the bet with Bryan Caplan was partly tongue-in-cheek; though it's true Eliezer is currently relatively pessimistic about humanity's chances.

From Eliezer on Facebook:

Key backstory: I made two major bets in 2016 and lost both of them, one bet against AlphaGo beating Lee Se-dol, and another bet against Trump winning the presidency. In both cases I was betting with the GJP superforecasters, but lost anyway.

Meanwhile Bryan won every one of his bets, again, including his bet that "Donald Trump will not concede the election by Saturday".

So, to take advantage of Bryan's amazing bet-winning capability and my amazing bet-losing capability, I asked Bryan if I could bet him that the world would be destroyed by 2030.

The generator of this bet wasn't a strong epistemic stance, which seems important to emphasize because of the usual expectations involving public bets. BUT you may be licensed to draw conclusions from the fact that, when I was humorously imagining what I could get from exploiting this phenomenon, my System 1 thought that having the world not be destroyed before 2030 was the most it could reasonably ask.