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What are some Civilizational Sanity Interventions?

by elityre3 min read14th Jun 202027 comments

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World Optimization
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Lately, I've been thinking about the class of things that I'm calling "Civilizational Sanity Interventions." With that term I'm meaning to refer to technologies, institutions, projects, or norms that, if implemented, would improve the quality of high level decision making about important issues.

Which things if they existed in the world, would make our society, collectively, saner?

Some examples (with which I expect most people around here to be familiar):

Prediction markets

Prediction markets are a clever way to aggregate all the available information to make accurate predictions.

Robin Hanson posits that the reason why there isn't wider adoption of prediction markets is because they are a threat to the authority of existing executives.

If we lived in a world where the use of prediction markets were commonplace standard practice, eventually, decision makers would face flack for acting against the predictions of the market, and pundits would have a lot less leeway to make inaccurate, politically-motivated predictions.

Hanson, in a recent interview,

I’d say if you look at the example of cost accounting, you can imagine a world where nobody does cost accounting. You say of your organization, “Let’s do cost accounting here.”
That’s a problem because you’d be heard as saying, “Somebody around here is stealing and we need to find out who.” So that might be discouraged.
In a world where everybody else does cost accounting, you say, “Let’s not do cost accounting here.” That will be heard as saying, “Could we steal and just not talk about it?” which will also seem negative.
Similarly, with prediction markets, you could imagine a world like ours where nobody does them, and then your proposing to do it will send a bad signal. You’re basically saying, “People are bullshitting around here. We need to find out who and get to the truth.”
But in a world where everybody was doing it, it would be similarly hard not to do it. If every project with a deadline had a betting market and you say, “Let’s not have a betting market on our project deadline,” you’d be basically saying, “We’re not going to make the deadline, folks. Can we just set that aside and not even talk about it?”

So pushing from this equilibrium, to the one where prediction markets are common, would improve our societies beliefs about just about everything that one could make a prediction market for.

Arbital (or something like it)

The pitch I heard for arbital went something like this...

[Please note that I am recalling conversations that I had back in 2016. This should not be taken as an authoritative summary of Arbital's vision or plans.]

In the old days, it used to be that when people disagreed about a simple matter of fact, there was not much recourse for resolving the disagreement. If you were committed, you could go to a library and try to research the answer, but most people didn't have the scholarship skills, nor the inclination to do that. (As an example, if two people got into a fight about the origin of the phrase "loose cannon", in pre-internet days, they might argue about it for years.
But Wikipedia changed that, because it made it easy to verify questions of settled fact. Now if you disagree about the origin of "loose cannon", you can just check Wikipedia (or in this case, Wikitonary). Wikipedia is reliable enough, and accessible enough, to be an authoritative source.
Thus, Wikipedia narrowed the scope of things that people could confidently assert, without any foundation. Because if it was the sort of thing you could check on Wikipedia, your conversation partner could just check, and you would loose social points for appearing like a confident idiot.
What Wikipedia did for settled facts, Arbital was aiming to do for still contentious topics.
For instance, questions of macroeconomic policy are pretty hard, and still controversial: even professional economists disagree about what the best approach is. But the fact that the question is not yet settled is often taken as license to promulgate any old opinion, regardless of how economically sound it is. Even though we haven't solved macro, doesn't mean there aren't some distinctly wrong answers. Arbital was aiming to be an authoritative source on the state of the discussion about such not-yet-settled topics, to further narrow the space of claims that a person can confidently assert, because they know that if they say something inane, someone might refute them with the relevant Arbital page.

Now of course, setting this as your goal is one thing, and actually designing a mechanism that is able to do this is another. And Arbital did not, in fact, succeed. But if something like this could be made to work, that would be a substantial boon to high level decision making.

In deed, even just educational tools that make it much easier to understand complicated topics might be a major help, under the (possible?) model that part of the reason why politicians and other high-level decision makers produces far from optimal policy, is that it is too hard, or too time consuming, to make sense of the conflicting arguments about, say, economics.

Electoral Reform

My understanding is that part of the reason our government is apparently so dysfunctional is that the electoral system is biased toward polarization.

A case in point is gerymanderying, whereby districts are drawn in such a way that congressmen are all but guarantied to win general elections, which disenfranchises voters, and polarizes both parties (because in order to keep your job, you only need to appeal to your base, not cater to citizens across the political spectrum).

Similarly, the first past the post system used in the United States gives rise to the spoiler effect, which penalizes third parties by increasing the odds that their least preferred candidate wins.

It seems like solving those underlying incentives problems would moderate law makers, which seems likely to produce saner outcomes.

Kick-starter / Free state project style platforms

Kickstarter is a solution to a class of collective action problems, funding the creation of products that many people would want, but no one person can afford to pay the upfront startup costs for.

It seems like there is a lot of room for collective action solutions like that to shine.

For instance, many scientists know that the statistical methods that they use are less than ideal, but it would be costly for their personal careers if they switched to better methods, while everyone else continued to use the old ones. To solve this, young grad students might all commit to abandon using p-values, so long as x% of their peers agree to do the same.


I want to collect as many ideas for Civilizational Sanity Interventions as I can. Does anyone else have other examples?

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6 Answers

This is a tricky problem. The first-order answer seems to be 'have the right people in power', but that's not an actionable strategy. However, it's amazing what a difference just one or two people can make - apparently a major reason the UK didn't delay its lockdown even further and risk ending up like the US is just because of Dominic Cummings.

The two main angles are either making the marketplace of ideas / electoral system select for foresight and sanity more effectively or building institutions with specific remits that can stand aside from such pressures and make the right choices anyway. The first is really hard and the second is really dangerous. However, neither are impossible.

For the first, there's ordinary electoral reform. An interesting alternative was given in Against Democracy by Jason Brennan - he proposes a new form of epistocracy to better reach higher-quality decisions - you can judge his scheme for yourself.

For the second, building competent independent institutions and then handing off power, the track record is pretty mixed. Independent central banks come to mind as a good example, the recent horrible Coronavirus debacle with the CDC, FDA or Public Health England as an especially bad example. For how to do that sort of thing correctly, you might also want to look at all the things Dominic Cummings has proposed, starting with e.g. this, or this article on Westminster dysfunction. He likes prediction markets, but not exclusively - he talks about building decentralised institutions that can operate with a large degree of independence.

On the specific angle of being more sane with respect to X-risks, I tend to favour the second approach (independent institutions) because I think it likely has a bigger effect and is easier to pull off than raising the society-wide sanity waterline. Toby Ord spoke a lot about this in 'The Precipice'. As for why, here's Scott Alexander:

Average national IQ correlates well with GDP per capita and other measures of development. But is average national IQ really the right number to look at? “Smart fraction theory” suggests we should instead look at the range of top IQs, since the smartest people are most likely to drive national growth by inventing things or starting businesses or governing well. Now Heiner Rindermann and James Thompson (names you may recognize!) have given the hypothesis its most complete test so far, and found that yes, IQ at the 95th percentile correlates better with national development than at the 50th percentile. But I am a little skeptical of their results...

Having elite opinion be non-crazy matters a lot in situations like the one we're in right now. Don't make 'we need to improve public discourse' your plan A for avoiding this level of chaos. So as suggested here, we should hand off more and more stuff to expert boards with limited remits, follow the example of independent Central Banks which didn't turn into French-revolution style rationalist tyranny over the masses - starting with everything to do with catastrophic risks. Someone in the UK government apparently took that suggestion seriously. Just don't get Steven Pinker involved.

One idea I was thinking about over the last few days: academic hoaxes have been used many times over the past few decades to reveal shoddy standards in journals/subfields. The Sokal affair is probably the most famous, but there's a whole list of others linked on its wikipedia page. Thing is, that sort of hoax always took a fair bit of effort - writing bullshit which sounds good isn't trivial! So, as a method for policing scientific rigor, it was hard to scale up without a lot of resources.

But now we have GPT2/3, which potentially changes the math dramatically.

I'd guess that a single small team - possibly even a single person - could generate and submit hundreds or even thousands of bullshit papers, in parallel. That sort of sustained pressure would potentially change journals' incentives in a way which the occasional sting doesn't. There'd probably be an arms race for a little while - journals/reviewers coming up with cheap ways to avoid proper checks, bullshit-generators coming up with ways around those defenses - but I think there's a decent chance that the end result would be proper rigor in reviews.

Eliezer had a lot of interesting ideas in My April Fools Day Confession, where he talked about a fictional society called Dath Ilan.

Electoral reform: The proponents of Random Sample Voting make it sound pretty cool. Appendix 1 in this white paper gives an efficient summary: https://rsvoting.org/whitepaper/white_paper.pdf

Kickstartery things: Dominant Assurance Contracts (DACs) are similar to regular assurance contracts (including Kickstarter campaigns), except with tweaked incentives that attract pledges from otherwise indifferent parties. For explanation and discussion, I recommend these links: https://www.cato-unbound.org/2017/06/07/alex-tabarrok/making-markets-work-better-dominant-assurance-contracts-some-other-helpful http://jessic.at/writing/dac.pdf

Other: Vitalik Buterin wrote, "Conditional payments for paywalled content--after you pay for a piece of downloadable content and view it, you can decide after the fact if payments should go to the author or to proportionately refund previous readers". He also sketched out a mechanism by which mail recipients can price spammers out of their attention: https://ethresear.ch/t/conditional-proof-of-stake-hashcash/1301 I like these two ideas because they directly help individuals economize their own attention, even if they aren't exactly civilizational sanity interventions in the way you're talking about.

My understanding is that part of the reason our government is apparently so dysfunctional is that the electoral system is biased toward polarization.

While I think better voting systems would be better (score voting or approval voting seem like clear improvement over the status quo), the electoral system has been this way for a long time, but polarization has increased dramatically recently. That suggests to me it's not downstream of the voting system, and simple fixes to the voting system won't solve it.

Expertise measurement via credence calibration. I wrote Prediction-based-Medicine to layout the concept for medicine. 

It's also applicable to a variety of other professionals who make a lot of decisions that have clear measured outcomes. If you for example look at the people filing parole boards you can let them predict recivism rates. 

Government burocrats who predict how variables will be in the future can be scored on credence.