Communication should be judged for expected value, not intention (by consequentialists)

TLDR: When trying to understand the value of information, understanding the public interpretations of that information could matter more than understanding the author's intent. When trying to understand the information for other purposes (like, reading a math paper to understand math), this does not apply.

If I were to scream "FIRE!" in a crowded theater, it could cause a lot of damage, even if my intention were completely unrelated. Perhaps I was responding to a devious friend who asked, "Would you like more popcorn? If yes, should 'FIRE!'".

Not all speech is protected by the First Amendment, in part because speech can be used for expected harm.

One common defense of incorrect predictions is to claim that their interpretations weren't their intentions. "When I said that the US would fall if X were elected, I didn't mean it would literally end. I meant more that..." These kinds of statements were discussed at length in Expert Political Judgement.

But this defense rests on the idea that communicators should be judged on intention, rather than expected outcomes. In those cases, it was often clear that many people interpreted these "experts" as making fairly specific claims that were later rejected by their authors. I'm sure that much of this could have been predicted. The "experts" often definitely didn't seem to be going out of their way to be making their after-the-outcome interpretations clear before-the-outcome.

I think that it's clear that the intention-interpretation distinction is considered highly important by a lot of people, so much so as to argue that interpretations, even predictable ones, are less significant in decision making around speech acts than intentions. I.E. "The important thing is to say what you truly feel, don't worry about how it will be understood."

But for a consequentialist, this distinction isn't particularly relevant. Speech acts are judged on expected value (and thus expected interpretations), because all acts are judged on expected value. Similarly, I think many consequentialists would claim that here's nothing metaphysically unique about communication as opposed to other actions one could take in the world.

Some potential implications:

  1. Much of communicating online should probably be about developing empathy for the reader base, and a sense for what readers will misinterpret, especially if such misinterpretation is common (which it seems to be).
  2. Analyses of the interpretations of communication could be more important than analysis of the intentions of communication. I.E. understanding authors and artistic works in large part by understanding their effects on their viewers.
  3. It could be very reasonable to attempt to map non probabilistic forecasts into probabilistic statements based on what readers would interpret. Then these forecasts can be scored using scoring rules just like those as regular probabilistic statements. This would go something like, "I'm sure that Bernie Sanders will be elected" -> "The readers of that statement seem to think the author applying probability 90-95% to the statement 'Bernie Sanders will win'" -> a brier/log score.

Note: Please do not interpret this statement as attempting to say anything about censorship. Censorship is a whole different topic with distinct costs and benefits.

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12ozziegooen4moIt seems like there are a few distinct kinds of questions here. 1. You are trying to estimate the EV of a document. Here you want to understand the expected and actual interpretation of the document. The intention only matters to how it effects the interpretations. 2. You are trying to understand the document. Example: You're reading a book on probability to understand probability. Here the main thing to understand is probably the author intent. Understanding the interpretations and misinterpretations of others is mainly useful so that you can understand the intent better. 3. You are trying to decide if you (or someone else) should read the work of an author. Here you would ideally understand the correctness of the interpretations of the document, rather than that of the intention. Why? Because you will also be interpreting it, and are likely somewhere in the range of people who have interpreted it. For example, if you are told, "This book is apparently pretty interesting, but every single person who has attempted to read it, besides one, apparently couldn't get anywhere with it after spending many months trying", or worse, "This author is actually quite clever, but the vast majority of people who read their work misunderstand it in profound ways", you should probably not make an attempt; unless you are highly confident that you are much better than the mentioned readers.

One nice thing about cases where the interpretations matter, is that the interpretations are often easier to measure than intent (at least for public figures). Authors can hide or lie about their intent or just never choose to reveal it. Interpretations can be measured using surveys.

4Dagon4moSeems reasonable. It also seems reasonable to predict others' future actions based on BOTH someone's intentions and their ability to understand consequences. You may not be able to separate these - after the third time someone yells "FIRE" and runs away, you don't really know or care if they're trying to cause trouble or if they're just mistaken about the results.

ozziegooen's Shortform

by ozziegooen 31st Aug 2019127 comments