Thinking about the impact of Rationalist writing after a small blog post made a big difference. Cross-posted from Putanumonit.
Changing British Minds
Even a year after the fact, it’s difficult to compile an accurate timeline of the UK Government’s thinking on COVID and how it changed in spring 2020.
The first COVID case in the UK was confirmed on January 31. Spread continued throughout February, and the British government published its first Coronavirus action plan on March 3. It focused on the tracing and isolation of known cases while saying that it “will aim to minimise the social and economic impact” and that “it may be that widespread exposure in the UK is inevitable”.
The decisions ultimately came down to PM Boris Johnson and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. At the beginning of March, according to the Sunday Times, Cummings leaned towards a strategy of herd immunity: having the majority of the UK’s population catch the virus throughout the summer months to protect the economy and put Britain in the clear by winter. The PM’s office denied this claim and alleged that the quotes attributed to Cummings by the Sunday Times were fabricated. In any case there were clearly heated debates within Johnson’s inner circle on the costs and benefits of mitigation.
Whatever the stance was in the first two weeks of March, by March 12 things began to shift. The strategic advisory group of experts warned that the UK would suffer 500,000 deaths if the virus was left unmitigated, and Cummings himself began pushing vigorously for a shut down. The UK Government began implementing mitigation measures on March 13, and on March 23 announced a full lockdown of the entire nation. The UK spring COVID wave peaked at 70 daily cases per million, significantly below the US and many European nations.
Oh, there’s one other thing that may have changed the mind of Dominic Cummings and the fate of Britain in early March.
The four hours I spent writing Seeing the Smoke on a whim were more impactful than projects I spent months of my life on. I calculated that if just 1% of the 20,000 people who read that post the week it came out avoided catching COVID and infecting others during a period when the curve was steepening, the post probably saved several lives. To learn that my post impacted policy for 67 million Britons is a whole other level of bonkers.
I’m struggling a bit to make sense of it all. My immediate motivation for writing is simply to get the thoughts out of my head, along with a cycle of anxiety about disappointing my readers if I go too long between posts. Aside from the satisfaction of having my post out there, my main reward for writing is making friends — even in 2020 I talked online or in person with dozens of people who I connected with in part because of the blog. On occasion I find out that some famous person mentioned one of my posts on a podcast or something. It’s always a pleasant surprise, but I’m never sure what to do with this. I don’t write to become famous and change the world. And yet somehow…
My first thoughts when Cummings mentioned that my post influenced British COVID policy was: holy shit! My second: if I had known you will read it, I would have written a better post! I would have done more research. I would have thought more about the impact of government interventions. I would have made some quantified predictions and recommended specific policies.
None of that would have made the post any better or more useful. In late February I didn’t know of a better policy beyond “shut everything down including travel and take some time to think this through”. By the middle of March I was convinced of the Hammer and Dance approach: suppress the pandemic by instituting complete shut downs (including travel) at the first sign of R0>1, since the timeliness of lockdown is the most important factor in their success. Then re-open equally quickly to maximize the proportion of time in non-lockdown over the 1-2 years it would take to make vaccines. In my understanding, this is basically the strategy that Australia and New Zealand successfully executed.
But on the day Hammer and Dance was published the UK already had 10 times New Zealand’s per capita case rate and R0 north of 2. As a result, the lockdown in the UK dragged into the summer instead of lasting only 3-4 weeks. The government had to make up for the economic damage with schemes like “eat out to help out” (that’s what she said) in the summer, then suffered a second COVID wave in the fall that inflicted all the damage the spring lockdown was supposed to avoid and likely gave rise to the more dangerous B1.1.7 variant.
Even with a year of hindsight and my current understanding of political pressures, lockdown fatigue, and equilibrating control systems, I’m not confident whether it was good or bad for the UK to lock down in March 2020. In the moment I was surely no wiser.
Would I have made a bigger impact by focusing more on COVID research and running the numbers? In March I was busy reading up on hydroxychloroquine, which turned out to be mostly a waste of time. In June I was doing math to convince people that it’s safe to meet up with small groups of friends, but all the people who hailed my genius in February now called me irresponsible and arrogant. It turns out that they needed permission to start worrying about COVID in the spring, but didn’t want permission to stop worrying in the summer.
In December I wrote a follow up post about the B1.1.7 variant, predicting a relatively high chance of massive infection wave in the spring. Judging by the recent uptick in cases I got the timing and importance of new strains right, as well as the reluctance to lock down. But I downplayed the possibility of vaccines having a big impact, which they have. William Kiely got the vaccine math spot-on in the comments, but I don’t know if many people read that or cared. The main impact of that post may have been to get people into an options trade that ended up losing all the money.
So: I’m not a COVID expert, and playing one on the internet is not a reliable way for me to have a major positive impact on the world. But the original post wasn’t really about COVID. It was public psychology, how people act as if appearing weird is worse than any disease, and that this is true not just of media consumers but also of the journalists and “experts” who produce it. What impact could I have through this deep and novel understanding of how everyone thinks?
Thinking that one understands how the public thinks and how to shape it invites the worst sort of hubris.
While the idea of benevolent rulers shaping the public mind goes back at least to Plato, it’s most recent incarnation goes back to the 2008 book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The book repeats the Kahnemanian critique of “homo economicus” and gives some common sense advice that people knew long before Kahneman was born, such as that shoppers are more likely to pick the items displayed at eye level on the shelf. It then pivots to a defense of “libertarian paternalism” — a doctrine of shaping the public mind through control of the public’s choices by the government.
“Libertarian paternalism” is really a rebranding of “manufacturing consent” for democracies with some fuzzy anecdotes about cab driver tips and a patina of scientism. Sunstein himself is quite supportive of manufacturing consent by direct means, free speech be damned. In any case, Nudge landed Sunstein a job as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Obama, where presumably he proceeded to regulate and inform the nation according to his theories.
In 2020, every terrible decision made by the experts in charge was justified by appealing to the effects on public psychology. I don’t know if this was inspired or instigated by Sunstein directly, but I like to call this phenomenon nudgerism. I despise nudgerism.
Since one can invoke a “bias” for any side of any decision, you’d expect the universal application of nudgerism to have a 50% hit-rate. Yet somehow it seemed to do much worse than chance, probably because any non-terrible decision could be justified by actual evidence instead of the appeal to psychology.
COVID nudgerism started with Sunstein himself, of course. Other “experts” downplayed the risk of COVID to “prevent panic”. Then they told people not to wear masks or get tested to avoid “a false sense of security“. Scrubbing surfaces was still recommended, even though unlike masks and testing it probably doesn’t do shit for COVID. “Experts” said that challenge trials would reduce trust in the vaccine among normal people; normal people turned out to support challenge trials by an overwhelming 75-90% majority. “Experts” said that delaying the second dose of the vaccine or allowing the AstraZeneca shot would increase vaccine hesitancy. Britain delayed the second dose, is giving everyone AstraZeneca, and has the least vaccine hesitancy in the world. Probably the British government reads Marginal Revolution along with Putanumonit, and ignoring Sunstein.
I don’t think all these nudgers are wholly cynical about this. I think their inside view finds their theories of public psychology reasonable and valid. And while I will mock and deride them in any opportunity, I doubt I’d do better if I tried it myself. Not in small part because I’m an alien.
Coordinating Social Reality
A big theme in my writing since Seeing the Smoke has been coming to terms with the gargantuan gap between the way I think and the way most people do. It may even be wrong to use the word “think” for both. Michael Vassar says that what Rationalists call “thinking” is treated by most people as a rare technical ability (“design thinking”) that normal people can only pretend to do. What they call “thinking” we call “being depressed and anxious”. This sounded crazy when I first heard it, but the more I mulled it over the more it made sense and explained much of what has been happening in the last year.
Social reality is what is normal, accepted, cool, predictable, expected, rewarded, agreed upon. Physical reality is what is out there determining the outcomes of physical experiments, such as whether you get COVID or not if you wear a mask. When Rationalists say “thinking” they usually mean something like “using your effortful system 2 to determine something about physical reality”. It’s what I try to do when writing posts about COVID. Swimming in social reality is best done on feeling and intuition, not “thought”.
My experience is spending perhaps 97% of my time in social reality, swimming along with everyone else. 3% of the time I notice some confusion, an unexpected mismatch between my predictions and what physical reality hits me with, and try to think through a solution. 3% is enough to notice the difference between the two modes and to be able to switch between them on purpose.
I don’t think that this experience is typical.
With Vassar in mind, my best guess of the typical experience is being in social reality 99.9% of the time. The 0.1% are extreme shocks, cases when physical reality kicks someone so far off-script they are forced to confront it directly. These experiences are extremely unpleasant, and processing them appears as “depression and anxiety”. One looks at the first opportunity to dive back into the safety of social reality, in the form of a communal narrative that “makes sense” of what happened and suggests an appropriate course of action.
I think this explains why so many people don’t seem to notice or care that even institutions they consider to be “on their side”, like the CDC and the New York Times for the educated progressive tribe, are wrong or lying all the time. People look to those sources not for “truth” about physical reality but for coordination of social reality. The CDC’s job is to tell other institutions which policies they can implement and not get blamed for, not which policies will keep their clients healthy. People read the Times not to find out what happened where and when, but to find out who is to be comforted and who afflicted. People just want to be on the same page as their peers.
Seeing the Smoke came out during the 0.1% of the time when physical reality was manifesting and the institutions of social reality hadn’t reacted adequately yet (in spinning it into the narrative). By the summer, social reality reasserted itself. Whether someone was masking or not, locking down or protesting, eating fish tank cleaner or Lysol-sprayed Uber Eats was due mostly to their tribe membership, not to a physical model of the virus. No one cared about my microCOVID calculations.
Zvi, who is better than me at thinking about many things including COVID, explains why being good at thinking doesn’t mean one could be put in charge and change the world for the better. The entire post is worth reading, especially for young Rationalists just coming to grips with how non-Rationalist the rest of the world is. If I had to summarize it in one sentence: being correct is not the same as being good at coordinating social reality, and what those “in charge” really do is the latter.
The Bayesian Monastery
Zvi lays out a model of how Rationalists like him can influence policy:
Anna Salamon suggested a model of a rising sanity water line, but in the sense that this makes it harder to stay above water and thus directly sane. There’s a small and decreasing number of people who are still capable of synthesizing information and creating new hypotheses and interpretations.
Then there’s those who are mostly no longer capable of doing that, things got too complicated and weird, and they can’t keep up, but they can read the first group and meaningfully distinguish between people claiming to be in it, and between their individual claims, ask questions and help provide feedback. To them, the first group is legible. This forms a larger second group that can synthesize the points from the first group, and turn it into something that can be read as an emerging new consensus, which in turn can be legible to a third much larger group.
This third group can then be legible to the general public slash general elites, who learn that this is where good new ideas come from. Then the Responsible Authority Figures can feel under public pressure, or see what the emerging new ideas are, and run with the ball from there, and the loop continues.
The filtering process also acts as a selection for feasibility, as the second layer picks up things from the first that it thinks it can present legibly to the third, and so on.
This model doesn’t mean that self-identified Rationalists are always in the first group. Most of what I write, especially about COVID, is second or third layer (or just nonsense). I think that Rationality gives people two important things: the tools to evaluate original thinkers without relying on mere credentials, and the permission to occasionally shoot for first-level insight themselves. As a community, we are closer to the surface of the sanity waterline than most and thus, by necessity, farther from political power and institutional authority.
Byrne Hobart makes the same point in a post about how Rationalists got COVID right and early:
This puts the rationalists in a uniquely prosocial position. They’re a sort of distributed, mostly open-source monastic order, spending a lot of time contemplating the world and passing down important observations, but less time directly interacting with it. The influence of people who read rationalist blogs, but don’t self-identify as rationalists, is quite wide—the blogs are very widely followed in technology circles, and anecdotally have a large audience in the more quantitative branches of finance.
Byrne goes on to say that “identifying as a Rationalist is a losing move”, but I think that he presupposes that everyone is playing the same game. Joining a monastic order is a “losing move” if your goal is to inherit titles and command knights, but the life of a monk has much to recommend it over the life of the medieval court and battlefield. The pursuit of wisdom and the pursuit of power are usually at odds. Identifying as a Rationalist is a small way to nudge yourself (heh) toward the former.
A typical LessWrong meetup
In March 2020 Dominic Cummings was in a unique position to bridge the many layers between first-level analysis and “Responsible Authority Figures” by himself. He could take word from the monastery directly to the throne room. I just happened to be the monk that was on thinking duty that day.
But that doesn’t mean that I should now abandon the monastery and fancy myself a vizier. In general, I try to write about enduring topics like statistics and romance and how our brains work, not about breaking news. Instead of trying to coordinate social reality for the masses, I try to help people become slightly more independent of it. To avoid the mind-kill of political polarization, to get in touch with their own desires when deciding what to spend money on and whom to date, to spend some time in our monastery.
I hear individually from people that my writing is impacting them, and as long as those DMs come I’m content. I think my writing has some broader influence, but by the time it is passed down to actual influencers I would not be credited with it. And that’s fine! I’m really not looking for credit, and now that I got some for influencing the UK lockdown decision I don’t even know if it’s deserved or if the decision was the right one. I recommend that if anyone in power wants to hire a Rationalist advisor they do so secretly, and pay them based on the calibrated accuracy of their predictions only.
In the meantime, I’ll try to keep writing as if no one important will ever read it at all. Otherwise, the temptation grows to climb the simulacra levels away from reality, to signal loyalties and “nudge” the public and play 4D chess on a backgammon board. And that’s not how we do it in the monastery.