Estimation Is the Best We Have

by Katja Grace, originally from her blog Meteuphoric


This argument seems common to many debates:

‘Proposal P arrogantly assumes that it is possible to measure X, when really X is hard to measure and perhaps even changes depending on other factors. Therefore we shouldn’t do P’.

This could make sense if X wasn’t especially integral to the goal. For instance if the proposal were to measure short distances by triangulation with nearby objects, a reasonable criticism would be that the angles are hard to measure, relative to measuring the distance directly. But this argument is commonly used in situations where optimizing X is the whole point of the activity, or a large part of it.

Criticism of utilitarianism provides a good example. A common argument is that it’s just not possible to tell if you are increasing net utility, or by how much. The critic concludes then that a different moral strategy is better, for instance some sort of intuitive deontology. But if the utilitarian is correct that value is about providing creatures with utility, then the extreme difficulty of doing the associated mathematics perfectly should not warrant abandoning the goal. One should always be better off putting the reduced effort one is willing to contribute into what utilitarian accuracy it buys, rather than throwing it away on a strategy that is more random with regard to the goal.

A CEO would sound ridiculous making this argument to his shareholders. ‘You guys are being ridiculous. It’s just not possible to know which actions will increase the value of the company exactly how much. Why don’t we try to make sure that all of our meetings end on time instead?’

In general, when optimizing X somehow is integral to the goal, the argument must fail. If the point is to make X as close to three as possible for instance, no matter how bad your best estimate is of what X will be under different conditions, you can’t do better by ignoring X all together. If you had a non-estimating-X strategy which you anticipated would do better than your best estimate in getting a good value of X, then you in fact believe yourself to have a better estimating-X strategy.

I have criticized this kind of argument before in the specific realm of valuing of human life, but it seems to apply more widely.  Another recent example: people’s attention spans vary between different activities, therefore there is no such thing as an attention span and we shouldn’t try to make it longer. Arguably similar to some lines of ‘people are good at different things, therefore there is no such thing as intelligence and we shouldn’t try to measure it or thereby improve it’.

Probabilistic risk assessment is claimed by some to be impossibly difficult. People are often wrong, and may fail to think of certain contingencies in advance. So if we want to know how prepared to be for a nuclear war for instance, we should do something qualitative with scenarios and the like. This could be a defensible position. Perhaps intuitions can better implicitly assess probabilities via some other activity than explicitly thinking about them. However I have not heard this claim accompanied by any such motivating evidence. Also if this were true, it would likely make sense to convert the qualitative assessments into quantitative ones and aggregate them with information from other sources rather than disregarding quantitative assessments all together.

Part of Introduction to Effective Altruism

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Comments (1)

Comment author: Pilif  (EA Profile) 12 August 2016 11:12:33PM 0 points [-]

This article would be better if it mentioned Status quo bias. I belive that's exactly the thing that makes people behave in the described way.