This is a dialogue between me and Noam, my student. It is reproduced, in edited form, with his permission. When commenting, please consider that he is a teenager. Many of these ideas are new to him.

How do you get a student? You steal them. His previous teacher was a Marxist. I demolished his previous teacher in debate so thoroughly that he abandoned her teachings and now listens to me instead.

I think this dialogue demonstrates good pedogogical techniques.

  • I let Noam be the judge of what is reasonable, what makes sense, and what constitutes "proof". I competed in my first debate tournament before Noam was born. This handicap reduces the disparity a little.
  • I ask a series of questions, instead of just saying " is true". This makes password-guessing impossible. He's playing chess, not Jeopardy!
  • I avoid telling Noam what I believe, unless he asks explicitly. This is more fun for Noam, because nobody likes getting unsolicited preaching. It's more persuasive too, because the conclusions feel like they're his conclusions.
  • I back off immediately when Noam changes the subject.

Noam: I know you are against forgiveness of student loan debts. Can you tell me why? I am doing this for a speech and debate tournament.

Lsusr: Didn't you used to believe the pro relief arguments? Surely it is not difficult to repeat the arguments that once persuaded you.

Noam: I don't know if I have enough research to debate someone like you right now.

Lsusr: You're not trying to convince me. You're trying to convince them. Play to their biases, their irrationalities, their tribalism and their ignorance.

Noam: I also have to appease the judges.

Lsusr: That's what I said.


Noam: I'm struggling to find one good argument for student loan forgiveness.

Lsusr: But didn't you used to endorse it? Surely you can repeat the bad arguments that once convinced you.

Noam: Those were moral arguments without any economic understanding.

Lsusr: That's fine. Your audience is probably economically illiterate.

Noam: Somehow I think we won once as the side in affirmative for forgiving all student loan debts.

Lsusr: Well done.

Noam: Thank you.


Lsusr: Have you ever heard of "effective altruism". You might like some of the stuff they put out. It tends to be both morally coherent and economically literate (unlike the major Democratic, Republican, socialist, etc. political platforms).

Noam: No, but I will look into it.

Lsusr: You might not agree with it. But I predict its intellectual robustness would be refreshing to you.


Noam: Wouldn't that imply it would be moral for me to kill myself and then donate all my organs to people who need them? Unless I could save more lives without killing myself, I guess. Maybe a better argument would be to kill myself, have someone sell all my body parts, and then use the money to buy malaria nets to give to people living in Africa.

Lsusr: You can save more lives without killing yourself. Also, I can't think of a single EA who has committed suicide for the cause.

Noam: Probably because there is something that we find intuitively wrong about killing ourselves.

Lsusr: Don't get distracted by the kidney thing. Here's the basic idea:

  • It takes $10,000,000 for the US government to save an Amerian life.
  • It takes $5,000 to save a life in Africa via public health measures.

That's why I donated $20 to public health measures in Africa last month. It does as much good as $40,000 spent by the US federal government.

Noam: Yeah, that's true. Save a life from what in America?

Lsusr: The basic idea is you should crunch the numbers.

Noam: I think this works for money, but I don't know if it can be fully applied to everything.

Lsusr: Why not? Concrete example.

Noam: Well, it depends on if you think humans should have protected rights.

Lsusr: That's not a concrete example. What is a real world decision your claim might apply to? Be specific.

Noam: A doctor has 5 patients in need of organ transplant or else they will die. There is one perfectly healthy person who is under anesthesia due to a minor surgery. If we crunch the numbers, the doctor should kill that one guy to save five lives. If you think humans have rights, this would be immoral. If you think humans do not then it wouldn't be.

Lsusr: Correct. That is obviously immoral. But human rights is not the only reason a doctor shouldn't murder his patients. Can you think of a utilitarian one?

Noam: The doctor would lose their license and then they would be out of a job.

Lsusr: What if there were no license requirements? Such as in a war zone.

Noam: The patient may be able to save lives in the future.

Lsusr: So could the 5 organ recipients. Another reason.

Noam: I'm not sure.

Lsusr: Nobody is going to go to a doctor they believe will murder them.

Noam: If it is a war zone then there may not be another option.

Lsusr: Fair. Are you familiar with the term "deontological ethics"?

Noam: Yes. It's whatever has the best intention. Is that correct? I might have forgotten.

Lsusr: Nope. It's not best intentions.

Noam: Okay. What is it then?

Lsusr: Deontological ethics is following good rules like "don't kill your patients". EAs believe in crunching the numbers, but they do not generally violate deontological restrictions. When I donated $20, I donated my own money. I didn't steal it.

Noam: Okay. Let me think if there are any flaws that I see.

Lsusr: Take your time.

Noam: If you follow what I see to be good rules and you're helping the most amount of people, then I couldn't possibly object to it.

Lsusr: That's EA. Not just people though. They have far more than their fair share of vegans.

Noam: Okay. Slightly unrelated question: What is your thoughts on vegans?

Lsusr: I haven't eaten meat in months.

Noam: Is it an environmental thing for you or is it a moral objection to killing animals? Or health?

Lsusr: The effect on my health is probably negative. The environmental impact matters little to me. I don't care about killing animals. If you can find an ethically-sourced hamburger, then I'd happily eat it. The problem is that our animal products, by default, come from factory farms, which are Hell on Earth. [Correction: I ate some gravy at my family's Thanksgiving dinner.]

Noam: That is interesting to me and I don't necessarily disagree with your reasoning.

Lsusr: I try not to impose my beliefs and values onto other people. Which is why I didn't mention this until you asked.

Noam: Wouldn't killing animals also be immoral if you say that tormenting them is wrong?

Lsusr: There is little suffering in an animal's clean death, especially compared to a long, good life. I'm trying to reduce suffering while adhering to deontological restrictions.

Noam: Would you say that moral consideration should scale in importance with how advanced a thing is? Sorry if I am phrasing things poorly. It is late at night and I am waiting for my power to come back on so I can do the rest of my homework.

Lsusr: I know what you mean. Answer = Yes. If I had to choose between saving two cows vs one person, the human is the obvious choice.

Noam: Okay. I would agree with you.


Lsusr: How'd the debates go?

Noam: You were very correct in your assumption that the judges would be economically illiterate.

Lsusr: HAHAHAHAHA


Lsusr: Did you enjoy it? I feel like you'd enjoy debate tournaments a lot. Good job making it to competing with the varsity kids.

Noam: Yes. It was quite fun.

Lsusr: I liked high school debate too. I did it 3-4 years.

Noam: It's fun trying to defend a wrong position because of how hard it is.

Lsusr: What if your beliefs are wrong (so you think it's the right position)? Is it hard then?

Noam: I know it is not on this one because―as you said―it is like debating if the sky is blue. But for some of the other ones like "the USA should deploy more troops in <place>", it is a bit harder to see what is right.

Lsusr: Go outside. Look straight up. Tell me precisely what color you see.

Noam: It's black at the moment.

Lsusr: Usually, debate competition resolutions are (deliberately) so vaguely defined that they can be right or wrong, depending on how they are interpreted.

Noam: From what I can see, this one is wrong no matter how you interpret it. I think the word "all" makes it almost impossible to defend.

The United States federal government should forgive all federal student loan debt.

Lsusr: Suppose everyone in a democracy (wrongly) supports student loan forgiveness. Should the democratically-elected government respect the will of the people?

Noam: Yes, because if they do not then it would set a dangerous precedent for disobeying the people.

Lsusr: Then all you have to show is that a supermajority of the United States' voters support loan forgiveness.

Noam: I would fear the implications of that more than the 3.4% inflation rate.

Lsusr: Don't worry about it. A supermajority of US voters support far stupider policies. What inflation rate should the US have?

Noam: My intuition says 0%, but there is some little economic thing that I am unaware of that says a country should have  amount of inflation.

Lsusr: This is an hour-long YouTube video I made attempting to convey how complex the question is. [I'm the guy in the mask on the right.]

Why should it be zero?

Noam: My gaps in economic knowledge are showing, I think, but isn't it good when a currency is worth as much as it can be? Also, my power is back on now. So I'm going to do homework and then go to sleep.

Lsusr: If you want the currency to be worth as much as possible then we should have a negative inflation rate. Good night! Get lots of sleep.

Noam: Oh, you're right. I blame that on "2 am".

Lsusr: Nah. Your questions aren't stupid. This is just hard.

Noam: I think I should remember numbers can go down.

Lsusr: 🤑

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14 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:40 PM

I haven't eaten meat in months.

 

Completely orthogonal to any of the more interesting points you were trying to make, but: it looks like you might be going vegan in an unsystematic way. I heard this gives people severe permanent disabilities, in ways that are trivial to dodge once you know what they are. (I realize you've probably already addressed this, but thought I'd err on the side of caution and nag you anyway.)

Thanks for watching out! Your comment thoroughly passes any reasonable cost-benefit expected value calculation. That post is a useful, concise resource.

I actually did run into (what I think are) vitamin deficiency issues initially. I began taking a daily multivitamin (that includes vitamin B12, among other things), and the problems went away. I also drink a bit of milk that seems to be tolerably-sourced.

This was super fun to read, thanks for sharing! Hm... your new student seems like an interesting person to talk to. Mind asking if he'd be interested in a chat with someone else his age? I'm also a public form (debate format) debater in high school, and I'm doing prep work for this particular topic on student loans as well. I'd love to get a chance to talk with him a bit, and I feel like he may enjoy it as well. 

On that note, I think I can elaborate a bit on the format a bit in ways others might find helpful. 

Public forum is one of many debate formats with it's own time and argument structure. The general idea goes something like this. You and your partner (this is a 2v2 format) prepare a case about a few weeks to a month in advance for a topic that's disclosed prior to the debate. Each side gets 4 minutes to make their initial speech. From there, each side gets a rebuttal, a cross examination, a summary, etc etc. About an hour later, each side gives their closing statements (final focus) and the judge drops their vote for the side which was more 'persuasive'. 

Now, I think your student is a bit new to the format, because it seems like he hasn't gotten the optimal mindset for the format yet. In public forum, being persuasive almost never means being right. Quite the opposite, actually. You typically be persuasive by being completely damn wrong. 

Let me illustrate with an example. In one of my last debate tournaments the resolution was: "The US military should substantially increase it's military presence in the Artic." Seems pretty clear cut and typically vague, and it could go any direction. A reasonable person might consider future artic trade routes, security obligations to neighbors, defense of strategic chokepoints or resources... 

Fortunately, we were debaters, not reasonable people, so me and my partner ran two main arguments. Climate change and nuclear Armageddon. On the affirmative, the argument was fairly straightforward. Climate change bad, renewables good. To stop climate change we thus need rare earth minerals... but... China has 90% of them. We proceeded to find an evidence card saying how the Artic has a massive deposit of rare earth minerals, and how the US military should deploy forces to maintain security against grayzone operations. On the negative, things were much more fun. We found some instances of Russia sending ships/submarines to the US coast, the range of a nuclear hypersonic missile, and a few buildups of military bases in the Artic. We then proceeded to argue that Russia had a credible first strike capability and if we didn't take the Artic we'd be at risk of nuclear Armageddon (yes, I'm serious, I actually argued that). 

We clean swept that entire tournament without losing a single round. 

For an outsider, I imagine this might seem pretty ludicrous (to be honest I'd think so too) but in the context of the actual format it makes perfect sense. The debaters aren't experts, nor are they proficient in Bayes craft. Their readings are limited, and their prep time even more so. On a regular debate most teams would be scurrying to make counterarguments for common objections opponents might raise, often as late as the night before. We have just enough information and confidence to sound like experts, but only to a layperson. In front of an actual expert I'd imagine we look ridiculous. (I'd love to hear Bryan Caplan's reaction to my argument saying student loan forgiveness boosts the economy). But that's not a relevant concern. Nobody is an expert. 

So what even if they were? You have 4 minutes for the main speech, and 4 minutes for the rebuttal. It takes 5 minutes to make a bullshit claim and a whole debate to prove it wrong. This is part of the reason why scientists typically don't debate flat earthers. Any tinfoil hat theorist worth their salt can spend a minute spinning some wild story an exasperated expert will have to spend hours to disprove. Thus, most debaters can spare themselves the trouble of even trying. 

Case in point: my evidence card for Russian nuclear threats was the range of the Kinzhal hypersonic missile, about 1000 miles. Coincidentally, around the same distance from the Artic to the US mainland. Thus the argument for why control of the Artic is important. You can hit the mainland US with a first strike from the Artic, but not from Moscow. If my opponents spent 2 minutes to read the card they would've discovered another missile I neglected to mention, the Avantgarde, which has a range of 3000 miles. Even if they didn't know this, the argument is obviously bogus. Hypersonics are not a credible first strike capability unless Russia has the ISR to identify and destroy ALL of our nuclear submarines, silos, and aircraft at the same time. But of course, my opponents never read much material on nuclear doctrine, so they repeated the claims about mutually assured destruction which I was able to shoot down with ease. (What mutually assured destruction? We'd be dead before we could react). 

Likewise with rare earth minerals. I neglected to mention the US is not fully mining it's stockpiles. I neglected to mention other mineral reserves. I also neglected to mention that China has no military forces in the Artic, and there's no credible threat to defend against. Even if there was, I had no evidence of any US mining interests in the Artic. (I actually pointed this out against a team that stole the case and tried to run it against us. 'Why are you sending the military? What are they going to do, mine the minerals with tanks? Bomb the deposits with HIGHMARS?)

Now, all of this is obvious in hindsight, but in an hour long debate a team only has 2 minutes of prep time, so there's basically no room for anybody except the fastest readers to credibly review all the evidence carefully. (Hell, I read at 1000wpm and I still have trouble). Thus, most of the time you can safely get away with the most egregious bullshit. In a setting where all claims are purportedly from 'experts' or 'reliable sources', where each word comes with complete confidence even when the speaker is lying through their teeth, it's rarely an efficent strategy to actually pursue the truth. Rhetorical flourishes, appeals to fear, ridiculously outsized impacts, and weak arguments are the name of the day. 

 In that sense, I think I've illustrated that there isn't such a thing as a truly 'indefensible' argument, only overly scrupulous debaters. With my four years of experience in the format I have reasonable confidence I can beat an novice in a fair public forum debate, even while taking a completely ridiculous stance like flat eartherism. Much the same with student loans, though the problem is less acute. Your student could do the same. Say with a straight face that student loans help the economy, and the power of social cognition will make it so. 

To conclude, never argue with a public forum debater. They will drag you down to their level, and beat you with experience. 

(Note: This was an argumentative piece by a debater. Realities explained are not necessarily endorsed, and arguments made typically do not reflect my opinion or that of any sane person. I disavow responsibility for anyone who takes my arguments seriously :P) 

Hm... your new student seems like an interesting person to talk to. Mind asking if he'd be interested in a chat with someone else his age?

I've sent you his Discord information via PM. (After obtaining permission, of course.)

Say with a straight face that student loans help the economy, and the power of social cognition will make it so.

XD

Yep. In a debate competition, you can win with arguments that are obviously untrue to anyone who knows what you're talking about, which is why I'm much less interested in traditional debate these days. (Not to discourage you, of course. The dark arts are useful.) When teaching Socratic dialogues, the first thing I have to teach is "Don't give arguments you don't actually believe in."

There's lots of tricks I use to get around this in real life (mostly betting face, since betting money only works for facts), but they're not allowed in a debate tournament.

I've sent you his Discord information via PM. (After obtaining permission, of course.

Thank you very much! I think I'll enjoy the chat. Just sent him the friend request. Oh, and, my discord is the same as my lesswrong btw.

Yep. In a debate competition, you can win with arguments that are obviously untrue to anyone who knows what you're talking about

YES! Hahhahahaa... it's quite dumb. The information you can reasonably convey in 4 minutes is so short that even when your case is common sense it's hard to actually prove your point. I can bring up a variety of commonsense and economic arguments for why student loan forgiveness inflates prices, but my opponents can basically just say 'nu-uh' the entire debate, citing some random article saying it... somehow creates 1.2 million jobs? I sometimes wish I could just throw a book at them and say 'read the damn research!' 

But then, I should talk, I'm equally guilty. On the affirmative side I decided to all in on an emotional appeal to the starving children of bankrupt parents, and when my opponents brought up the obvious objection (rising tuition prices due to overcharge) I decided to sneakily claim that forgiveness wasn't an actual subsidy and thus doesn't allow the government to read prices. I also told the judge, verbatim, that my opponents were 'misrepresenting their own evidence' by claiming that forgiveness as a subsidy. I even invited the judge to examine the evidence himself, saying that it was on our side (it wasn't). Seeming reasonable won us that debate, even though I most definitely was not being reasonable. 

“The Dark Side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.” 

But hey, is fine. This is debate, and the only crime is to lose. We went undefeated again. Long live the dark arts! 

It takes $10,000,000 for the US government to save an Amerian life.

 

I'm pretty sure the right number is much, much lower. For example:

  • Sommers 2016 found that Medicaid expansion saved a life for ~$600k 
  • Barro 2022 found that COVID vaccines saved a life for $55k
  • The EPA estimates that the Clean Air Act saved a life for $280k

I take it your $10m number is from Value of a Statistical Life. But VSL measures typical willingness to pay to avert risk to one's own life. The best-targeted interventions will be much cheaper.

Thank you for checking my numbers.

I enjoyed this a lot. 
The interactions seem very kind/patient (I'm looking for a word with more nuance, but English isn't exactly my strong suit) , in a good way. The humor is also great, reminds me of someone, maybe Scott? Unsure.
 

Thank you!

What word would you use in your native language?

I reflected a bit and I think there isn't one. So it wasn't about the english after all :D. For me it's in two (somewhat intersecting) dichotomies:

  1. Being there for them, but giving them space to grow
  2. Being patient and not to expect unreasonable things of them, but not being condescending and meeting them on eye level ("auf Augenhöhe begegnen", don't know if that translates, but it's about meeting as equals. [Even if you're not technically, like squatting down to talk to a child on "their" terms, taking them seriously.])

Mr. Lsusr, I thoroughly appreciated the post. It was very didactic and I feel like I could teach way better if I were to.

But that said, I feel like I should warn you of something.

It’s clear you are very knowledgeable. Your video on finance 101 was quite interesting, and you seem to question what most people don’t. A quality I find most valuable. Nonetheless, I find the manner with which you portray yourself to be lacking. I’m not sure if it was due to excitement, joy, or if it was the genre of communication of your choice, but I could feel a tinge of arrogance behind your words. It’s a problem I face constantly as well, so I can guess what you might feel about this comment. Perhaps you could share your take on this?

Aside from that, I feel like you could become way more credible if you fixed your posture and/or your wardrobe? Not that you dress terribly, but, you know… (I’m aware it the video wasn’t supposed to be formal. It’s just something to keep in mind)

Looking forward to other posts from you.

Regards,

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

The way I think about things, if the person I'm talking with is smiling, laughing, and generally having a good time, then that's what's important.

In a more recent video, I've tried out a toga instead.

This isn't related to the post directly, but do you think that public transportation being free would be a good or bad decision for any reasonably large city (Chicago, Boston, New York, etc)?

Good meaning 'good for people, good for the city's local economy generally (via other benefits besides income from fares)'

TL;DR: I don't think it matters much.

This question is a rounding error compared to a much bigger problem in civic planning: car-centric cities are expensive and enable worse quality-of-life compared to traditional, walkable cities. They're not even natural. They only exist as a result of government intervention. For a more detailed dive into this subject, I recommend the Not Just Bikes YouTube channel.