Why Glen Weyl is a technocrat

by ChristianKl2 min read16th May 20216 comments

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In 2019 Glen Weyl wrote the article Why I Am Not A Technocrat where he asserted that while he isn't a technocrat the rationality community is technocratic. I think he suffers from a case of projection because he fails to understand the problem of technocracy.

Weyl presents the challenge of one between the humanities on the one side and people believing in technology on the side. He sees himself on the side of the humanities and thinks that doesn't put in on the technocrat side.

In a reply to Scott, Weyl writes about him finding it surprising that Scott sees the technocratic response to COVID-19 a positive example. When talking about why it surprises him, he writes about him co-developing the Harvard Covid-Roadmap that was a lot worse then Audrey Tang's response in Taiwan.

Scott wrote about how the rationalist community with it's way of thinking did well on COVID-19 not that the technocrats in power, which partly includes Weyl, got things right. It seems that Weyl understands that his response was awful, but fails to understand why he's the kind of person who reacted with an awful technocratic response that is different from the rationalist response of our community.

What did the Covid-Roadmap get wrong? In the key points of the roadmap to tackle Covid it doesn't include any of the phrases:

science, experiment, trial, probability, uncertainty, knowledge, education, ventilation, mask, drug,  vaccine, cost-benefit analysis, FDA, QALY, utility, work-from-home, distancing, bureaucracy

The roadmap calls for upholding bureaucracy by saying:

programs established by states and administered by local health authorities—can and should be fully aligned with civil liberties, due process, non-discrimination, data and health privacy protections, and health ethics.

From the Harvard perspective health ethics likely means the bioethics people who are the reason we don't have challenge trials. Managing to both avoid speaking about the need for science will at the same time advocating regulation that make it harder to do the necessary science is quite an accomplishment for Harvard ethicists.

As far as developing additional technology, the only new technology that they think should be developed is track-and-trace apps. They argue that it's important that any track-and-trace apps follows all the bureaucratic norms they can think of while considering adoption of the app unimportant enough to speak about policies that would make sure the app gets adopted.

If you haven't read the roadmap, you might ask yourself how Harvard, with it's anti-science position, thought we should respond to Covid. Harvard beliefs in problems getting solved by bureaucrats and advocates hiring 100,000 bureaucrats to do track-and-trace and do a lot of testing.

While Glen Weyl was willing to criticize the rationalist community as technocratic, he put his name under a technocratic treatise when lives were on the line and it mattered.

While rationalists spoke about the need for uncertainty about the effects of Covid, masks, building out vaccine factories and speeding up vaccine trials via challenge trials, Weyl sided with the people who prefer bureaucracy.

In addition to getting the priorities wrong, the roadmap also argued "Consensus is emerging about what we need." This means that Weyl signed up to a paper that argues that there's little uncertainty and any diverging opinions like those that call for masks should simply be ignored.

The problems of technocracy are about using bureaucracy and expert judgement when faced with uncertainty. Science and new technology development are different ways to deal with uncertainty and Weyl's article fails to see that distinction.

I'm uncertain whether Weyl put his name on the Harvard roadmap because he believed in it at the time or whether he didn't want to lose his good standard at Harvard and Yale but a crisis reveals a person. This crisis revealed Weyl as a technocrat.

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What did the Covid-Roadmap get wrong? It manages to create a plan to tackling Covid that doesn't include any of the phrases:

science, experiment, trial, probability, uncertainty, knowledge, education, ventilation, mask, drug,  vaccine, cost-benefit analysis, FDA, QALY, utility, work-from-home, distancing, bureaucracy

I clicked the "Covid-Roadmap" link, and found the link https://ethics.harvard.edu/files/center-for-ethics/files/roadmaptopandemicresilience_updated_4.20.20_1.pdf from it.  It contains the "programs established by states and administered by local health authorities..." section you quoted, so I think we're looking at the same document.

I then tried searching the document.  "vaccine" occurs 9 times, "drug" occurs 26 times (although every reference is to "drug testing" or otherwise connected to prohibited drugs rather than to "developing a COVID-treatment drug"), "mask" occurs once, "FDA" occurs 8 times...

To steelman your claim, perhaps you mean just the executive summary section?  That is more of a fair criticism.

To steelman your claim, perhaps you mean just the executive summary section?

Yes, I meant the key points section. Somehow that specification got lost during editing, I fixed it. 

This seems to be quite uncharitable at best. Here are a few points that are incorrect and surprising:

Managing to both avoid speaking about the need for science will at the same time advocating regulation that make it harder to do the necessary science is quite an accomplishment for Harvard ethicists.

At no point in the report are regulations endorsed to slow down science. On the contrary, the report calls for speeding up research into vaccines and therapeutics (p.20): 

Throughout all four phases, research and development of both therapeutics and vaccines should proceed aggressively with the goal of accelerating the transition to phase 4 and hopscotching over the intermediate phases. 

Despite your claim that masks are not mentioned, mask usage is at least somewhat endorsed (albeit there is not much emphasis on it):  

Establish a culture of universal mask wearing in “hotspot” areas during outbreaks, and increased standards of hygiene and decontamination.

And of course, Weyl and the others deserve credit for calling for a massive increase in testing capacity with the goal of regular (weekly/daily) testing for large parts of the population very early. It is also not understandable how one would claim that a test-and-trace program is anti science, as it has been widely recognized as essential (including by rationalists).  

I do think that key points of the roadmap are important and that the fact that things that the priorities about speaking about vaccine/drugs only on page 20 reflects the policy thinking that lead to us being bad at both.

Science was drastically underfunded. 

We still don't have a good idea about how harmful long Covid happens to be because we didn't fund the studies for that. 

We failed to fund trials for how to optimize indoor air when multiple people are around. The optimal answer is likely something about controlling humidity, opening windows and air filteration but we didn't run the studies and likely wasted the opportunity to reduce Covid that way. 

We didn't run trials for all the promising substances for treating Covid. 

Throughout all four phases, research and development of both therapeutics and vaccines should proceed aggressively with the goal of accelerating the transition to phase 4 and hopscotching over the intermediate phases.

That's neither calling for human challenge trials nor advocating building vaccine factories. I don't see how anybody who read that at the time (if the would read past page 20) would get the idea that there's urgent action that we aren't taking and that needs policy decisions. 

It is also not understandable how one would claim that a test-and-trace program is anti science, as it has been widely recognized as essential (including by rationalists).  

At the time the roadmap was written, there was a lot of uncertainty about how to best deal with Covid. Science is a way to deal with uncertainty and advocating it is not found in the key points. 

"We have consensus about what we need" is a position that pretends that the uncertainty isn't there and thus science isn't needed to deal with the uncertainty. It's exactly the kind of way of thinking that's the problem of technocracy. The problem of technocracy is experts pretending they know what's needed when they don't. 

It wasn't advocated in the roadmap to optimize those programs to be as effective as possible but to build programs that accord with due process, civil liberties, equal protection, non-discrimination, and privacy standards. 

The non-technocratic response is to either let people on the ground make decisions about what makes the most sense based on local conditions or run scientific trials to guide the testing program instead of trying to get the people running the program top-down bureaucratic rules that optimize for other goals. 

It's decentral decision making where people on the ground and a lot of different perspectives are thus taken into account on the one hand and top-down bureaucracy on the other. The roadmap chooses the side of top-down bureaucracy.

And of course, Weyl and the others deserve credit for calling for a massive increase in testing capacity with the goal of regular (weekly/daily) testing for large parts of the population very early.

The goal that they advocate is "This number will need to increase over time (ideally by late July) to 20 million a day to full remobilize the economy" I don't see how you get weekly/daily testing of 328 million American's with 20 million tests per day. They explicitely advocate that over time we should target a testing capacity that's lower then weekly/daily. 

Even if they would have spoken in favor of daily testing, saying "we want daily testing" isn't enough to get daily testing. It would have been needed to say "We should be okay with cheap low accuracy tests and allow them to be brought to market". That wasn't articulated in the roadmap.

The goal that they advocate is "This number will need to increase over time (ideally by late July) to 20 million a day to full remobilize the economy" I don't see how you get weekly/daily testing of 328 million American's with 20 million tests per day. They explicitely advocate that over time we should target a testing capacity that's lower then weekly/daily.  

They advocate for testing of workers, and  my quote was "for large parts of the population", so explicitly not everybody. 140 million tests per week is enough to cover the 125 million full time employed Americans, which would be enough for weekly testing. However, it was an incorrect reading on my part to assume that these tests should be distributed randomly to everybody in the workforce, the approach in the roadmap seems to rely on aggressive contact tracing + tests. 

Even if they would have spoken in favor of daily testing, saying "we want daily testing" isn't enough to get daily testing. It would have been needed to say "We should be okay with cheap low accuracy tests and allow them to be brought to market". That wasn't articulated in the roadmap.

Why are you saying this? Appendix A, B,C, and D deal explicitly and at length with how to achieve such testing capacity. You may disagree with their approach, but it is laid out. For example: 

INNOVATING FOR SCALE (ACHIEVING A MORE EFFICIENT 2 MILLION AND GETTING TO 100 MILLION) A potentially more powerful approach may be to develop simpler protocols. We are indeed seeing rapid innovation to accomplish this—for example, replacing nasal swabs with spit kits. Rapid innovation would favor lab structures with generic robots and plates that can be easily adapted. Innovative lab designs can then be cloned and replicated.

Furthermore:  

To maximize existing testing capacity and throughput for asymptomatic surveillance, each household or community should be offered the option of daily sample pooling to facilitate early detection of the virus. 

With regards to the top-down aspect, you say: 

It's decentral decision making where people on the ground and a lot of different perspectives are thus taken into account on the one hand and top-down bureaucracy on the other. The roadmap chooses the side of top-down bureaucracy. 

This is again at the very least an incomplete and uncharitable summary. Appendix D deals with "innovative organizational strategies at the local level": 

response to the pandemic similarly needs a centralized authority for information gathering/dissemination, oversight of national production, and surge capacity, but it also needs a distributed capacity for execution that can respond quickly and flexibly to local circumstance

It further lays out the benefits of a Fusion cell model that appears to integrate Top-Down with local decision making.  

Again, it seems to me that your goal is to interpret this roadmap in an uncharitable way. Given that Glen Weyl has had reasonable criticisms of the rationalist community in the past, we should instead be maximally charitable. 

Establish a culture of universal mask wearing in “hotspot” areas during outbreaks

I forgot to address the point about masks above. In April 2020 the important policy decision about masks was to increase mask productions as much as possible and the government spending a few billion for ramping up mask production.

Speaking about mask wearing being important during "hotspot" areas doesn't suggest this need of producing as much masks as possible and thus was the wrong way to think about the issue at the time. 

Why are you saying this? Appendix A, B,C, and D deal explicitly and at length with how to achieve such testing capacity. You may disagree with their approach, but it is laid out.

My issue is with the decisions that were made and not with how it's laid out. That approach couldn't achieve daily testing and didn't in practice while there was a policy that would have provided daily testing that they didn't advocate. 

They explicitely said that their roadmap contains a consensus about all actions that were needed. If you say that you list all actions that are needed and you don't list actions that would have produced daily testing that's a statement against the necessity of daily testing.

The only way to get daily testing would have been cheap at-home-antibody-tests instead of just analysing samples in the lab. 

Given that Glen Weyl has had reasonable criticisms of the rationalist community in the past, we should instead be maximally charitable. 

Scott describes the level of his critcisms as something that someone who spend 10 minutes getting an impression of our community might think but 30 minutes would have been enough to learn that that the criticisms are wrong. 

Those criticisms are partly about the rationality community believing in using science to find out what policies are good and it's important to point out Weyl taking the other side and signing the roadmap that doesn't speak about science as being important for making policy decisions in it's key points.

It further lays out the benefits of a Fusion cell model that appears to integrate Top-Down with local decision making.  

When it comes to a policy roadmap, you have to think about what possible policy choices there are and among the possible choices which one's get selected. You don't get any credit for saying you want "top-down with local decision making" as there's nobody who's against "top-down with local decision making".

I can't imagine any person reading the roadmap to read "we should do top-down with local decision making" and as a result take an action that he otherwise wouldn't take. 

I'm also not sure what  "top-down with local decision making" means. Either I can make a local decision to produce vaccines in a crisis and give them to people or there's a top-down decision about who's allowed to give vaccines to people. 

The same goes for tests. Either you do a top-down decision about which tests are allowed or you allow people locally to decide. 

If people on the local level can only take those actions that are allowed by the top-down decisions you don't have local decision making. 

Again, it seems to me that your goal is to interpret this roadmap in an uncharitable way.

No, my goal isn't to be uncharitable. My goal is that Weyl stops being a technocrat and actually speaks out when it matters and switches to being pro-science and anti-bureaucracy as those are the important conflicts that matter even after this crisis is over.

Being pro-science in turn means that when faced with a lot of uncertainty you advocate science as a way to deal with the uncertainty. Weyl criticises our community for being for believing in using science to find out which policies to persue and thus it's fair to make that point here. 

If you read Zvi, then you will find a policy position like reducing FDA regulation being important as a common refrain. The FDA would be a prime example of technocrats in the usual sense of the word. I googled for Weyl's position on the FDA and the thing that comes up is that Weyl argues for a new organization that takes the wisdom of how the FDA is setup to regulate another domain similarly.  

There's an interesting interview between Peter Thiel and David Graeber in which they Thiel lamaents that given Graeber's positions of being anti-bureaucracy he was unhireable at Yale. Glen Weyl criticising our community for technocracy instead of Yale where he teaches might be a lot easier for him but it's avoiding the conflicts with those people who are actually responsible for bad technocracy. 

When people formulate policy and someone advocates a way to make the policy more bureaucratic then necessary it's important to stand up and challenge it. Especially, when people die as the result the lost flexibility that's created.