Measuring the Sanity Waterline

by moridinamael 2 min read6th Dec 201621 comments


I've always appreciated the motto, "Raising the sanity waterline." Intentionally raising the ambient level of rationality in our civilization strikes me as a very inspiring and important goal.

It occurred to me some time ago that the "sanity waterline" could be more than just a metaphor, that it could be quantified. What gets measured gets managed. If we have metrics to aim at, we can talk concretely about strategies to effectively promulgate rationality by improving those metrics. A "rationality intervention" that effectively improves a targeted metric can be said to be effective.

It is relatively easy to concoct or discover second-order metrics. You would expect a variety of metrics to respond to the state of ambient sanity. For example, I would expect that, all things being equal, preventable deaths should decrease when overall sanity increases, because a sane society acts to effectively prevent the kinds of things that lead to preventable deaths. But of course other factors may also cause these contingent measures to fluctuate whichever way, so it's important to remember that these are only indirect measures of sanity.

The UN collects a lot of different types of data. Perusing their database, it becomes obvious that there are a lot of things that are probably worth caring about but which have only a very indirect relationship with what we could call "sanity". For example, one imagines that GDP would increase under conditions of high sanity, but that'd be a pretty noisy measure.

Take five minutes to think about how one might measure global sanity, and maybe brainstorm some potential metrics. Part of the prompt, of course, is to consider what we could mean by "sanity" in the first place.


This is my first pass at brainstorming metrics which may more-or-less directly indicate the level of civilizational sanity:

  • (+) Literacy rate
  • (+) Enrollment rates in primary/secondary/tertiary education
  • (-) Deaths due to preventable disease
  • (-) QALYs lost due to preventable causes
  • (+) Median level of awareness about world events
  • (-) Religiosity rate
  • (-) Fundamentalist religiosity rate
  • (-) Per-capita spent on medical treatments that have not been proven to work
  • (-) Per-capita spent on medical treatments that have been proven not to work
  • (-) Adolescent fertility rate
  • (+) Human development index

It's potentially more productive (and probably more practically difficult) to talk concretely about how best to improve one or two of these metrics via specific rationality interventions, than it is to talk about popularizing abstract rationality concepts.

Sidebar: The CFAR approach may yield something like "trickle down rationality", where the top 0.0000001% of rational people are selected and taught to be even more rational, and maybe eventually good thinking habits will infect everybody in the world from the top down. But I wouldn't bet on that being the most efficient path to raising the global sanity waterline.

As to the question of the meaning of "sanity", it seems to me that this indicates a certain basic package of rationality.

In Eliezer's original post on the topic, he seems to suggest a platform that boils down to a comprehensive embrace of probability-based reasoning and reductionism, with enough caveats and asterisks applied to that summary that you might as well go back and read his original post to get his full point. The idea was that with a high enough sanity waterline, obvious irrationalities like religion would eventually "go underwater" and cease to be viable. I see no problem with any of the "curricula" Eliezer lists in his post.

It has become popular within the rationalsphere to push back against reductionism, positivism, Bayesianism, etc. While such critiques of "extreme rationality" have an important place in the discourse, I think for the sake of this discussion, we should remember that the median human being really would benefit from more rationality in their thinking, and that human societies would benefit from having more rational citizens. Maybe we can all agree on that, even if we continue to disagree on, e.g., the finer points of positivism.

"Sanity" shouldn't require dogmatic adherence to a particular description of rationality, but it must include at least a basic inoculation of rationality to be worthy of the name. The type of sanity that I would advocate for promoting is this more "basic" kind, where religion ends up underwater, but people are still socially allowed to be contrarian in certain regards. After all, a sane society is aware of the power of conformity, and should actively promote some level of contrarianism within its population to promote a diversity of ideas and therefor avoid letting itself become stuck on local maxima.