Julia Galef and Matt Yglesias on bioethics and "ethics expertise"

by Rob Bensinger4 min read30th Mar 202111 comments

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Expertise (topic)Ethics & MoralityWorld ModelingWorld Optimization
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I recently collected excerpts from 33 random bioethics papers from 2014–2020, plus 10 papers from 2000, in the hope of getting a better picture of what the field is like, how healthy it is, and what its social effects may be.

One of the conversations that prompted me to look into this was Julia Galef's Feb. 3, 2021 interview of Matt Yglesias. The exchange is interesting in its own right, so I've copied it below. The relevant discussion pivots from the Iraq War to COVID-19:


Julia: Well, not to bring it back to metacognitive updates, but I was wondering whether there's an update in here about trusting expertise.

Because with the mistakes that public health communicators have made -- in communicating whether masks work, and how big of a deal COVID was going to be -- there've been a series of debates this year about whether people should just “trust experts,” on a topic that they aren't an expert in. And a lot of people have pointed out that the failure of the public health establishment kind of undercuts that “trust the experts” policy.

So do you think there's a similar thing that should be said about the Iraq War? Where the, not politicians, but the “experts” in the intelligence community really fucked up, so should that update us away from “Trust experts in general”?

Or is it kind of an exception, for some reason? 

Matt: It's hard for me to know what the alternative to trusting experts is exactly --

Julia: I mean, it's like having a higher prior on… If you're pretty confident that war is really bad, and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary, then if you have lower trust in the intelligence community, it should mean you should need a really, really compelling case, with strong evidence, before you go with their recommendation.

Matt: Yeah, I think in both foreign policy and public health that… particularly thinking after the pandemic, which has shook me in a variety of ways, is: I feel like I need to be raising the bar for what is the actual subject matter, that the subject matter expert is an expert in?

A lot of what we get is adjacent expertise. So somebody who studies viruses, and maybe knows a lot about the protein structure of viruses, will opine about masks, right? And you’ve got to ask yourself, "Do they have subject matter expertise in this mask thing? Whose expertise do we need here?"

Because one thing that I think clearly came out of the whole masks controversy is that public health experts underrated how easy it would be to get cloth masks in everybody's hands. It didn't occur to them as a solution to the PPE shortages that we could just get everybody a cloth mask.

And that's because they're not experts in textile manufacturing. And it's no shame on them for not being experts in textile manufacturing. But they were thinking about, “Will masks give people a false sense of security?” Which is a psychology question. They were thinking about “Can we substitute away from surgical masks?” Which is a textile supply chain question. They were thinking about “Well, what are the antiviral properties of cloth masks?” Which again is a textile question. That's not a public health -- it's obviously relevant to public health, but it's a material science question.

They didn't have expertise in those areas, and were in fact just on a par with me, or anybody else, right? But they had the, sometimes, arrogance that comes with believing you're being asked about your area of expertise.

And so I'm really trying… it's like, if somebody has published research on the immune response of vaccines, I don't think it's a great idea for me to question them on that, like what do I know? I can read, I can try to do work, but I don't know. They are experts.

But what are you an expert in? Because there is so much social psychology, individual psychology, economics, right? This COVID pandemic is such a big problem, that I don't think anybody has actually done deep scholarly work in all the relevant areas. So it's like the hour of the foxes, right? Rather than the hedgehogs. Because it's such an interdisciplinary problem.

Julia: Right. Yeah. Probably one of the worst offenders, in my opinion, was the debate over vaccine distribution, and who should get a vaccine first.

Matt: Oh my god…

Julia: You know where I’m going with this!

And there were a number of bioethicists -- or just bioethicist fanboys, I guess -- who got really angry at anyone questioning the draft recommendations for vaccine distribution from the CDC, and said, "Stay in your lane, you're not an expert."

We're not even talking here about, like, virus transmissibility. We're just talking about, what is a fair and reasonable way to prioritize different people over each other?

And it's horrifying to me that we can have some people who think they're the only ones qualified to have opinions about that. 

Matt: I would like to know more, this is on my to-do list…

Julia: What do you mean?

Matt: Like, what is the field of bioethics? I don't understand how that's a purported domain of expertise. Because I've clashed with bioethics Twitter, on both this vaccine distribution thing and on human challenge trials for vaccines.

And honestly I say this as a… I was a philosophy major in college. The number of people who have tenure track jobs doing normative ethics in philosophy departments is tiny, because the world does not… It's an interesting subject matter, but it's not... The world needs a lot of engineers. The world doesn't need a lot of "Experts in normative ethics." Because people have their own opinions.

And, I don't know, the ethics experts just disagree about the big picture, obvious controversies. The trolley problem, et cetera. I was blown away, on the human challenge trials, that Christine Korsgaard, my former professor -- I think the leading Kantian deontological thinker -- she had her name on the 1Day Sooner challenge trials thing. And then there's these, I don't know who, being like, "Well, that's not good ethics."

And I'm like, "Well, according to whom?" Right? Obviously in consequentialist terms, it’s good ethics. I happened to know the top expert in Kantian ethics, she thinks that's a good idea. So, who the fuck are you?

Julia: Even by their own standards of who is allowed to have opinions, they should be taking that seriously.

Matt: Right. But then I feel weird about it. It's like, okay, she's not a high priest of Kantianism. People are allowed to disagree with her. But then it's like, "What is this subject area?"

Whereas if somebody wants to tell me they have expertise about spike proteins? You absolutely do.

I know, I guess, what a spike protein is, because we've talked about this enough on Twitter. But I've never used an electron microscope. I don't think I could correctly define a virus.

There's a lot of stuff that experts know that's relevant to this pandemic, but then like… “I'm an expert in right and wrong”? That doesn't sound like a real thing to me.

Julia: I agree.

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Note there is a whole class of basic problems where it is possible to verify or falsify a solution quickly, but not come up with as solution yourself.

Part of this 'trust experts' meme is that : most human beings on earth are not sufficiently trained to venture an opinion that should be taken seriously on complex subjects like ethics.

But, it is trivially easy for anyone with even basic math to check an ethicist's decision, and see when it is lethally bad. [for example, by declaring challenge trials unethical or the mask debacle]

The issue with this is that when regular citizens check the official advice, find it is incoherent and wrong, then because they are not a credentialed expert they are disallowed from having their criticism even looked at for correctness.  Note that doctors frequently make medical errors, and when their patients check the decision and find it to be obviously wrong, they have difficulty getting their criticism acknowledged as valid.

How can you check proof of any interesting statement about real world using only math? The best you can do is check for mathematical mistakes.

"what do they claim to know and how do they know it"

No amount of credentials or formal experience makes an expert not wrong if they do not have high quality evidence, that they have shown, to get their conclusions from. And an algorithm formally proven to be correct that they show they are using.

Or in the challenge trials : ethicist claims to value human life. A challenge trial only risks the lives of a few people, where even if they die it would have saved hundreds of thousands.

In this case the " basic math" is one of multiplication and quantities, showing the "experts" don't know anything. As you might notice, ethicists do not have high quality information as input to generate their conclusions from. Without that information you cannot expect more than expensive bullshitting.

"Ethics" today is practiced by reading ancient texts and more modern arguments, many of which have cousins with religion. But ethics is not philosophy. It is actually a math problem. Ultimately, there are things you claim to value ("terminal values"). There are actions you can consider doing. Some actions have an expected value that with a greater score on the things you care about, and some actions have a lesser expected value.

Any other action but taking the one with the highest expected value (factoring in variance), is UNETHICAL.

Yes, professional ethicists today are probably mostly all liars and charlatans, no more qualified than a water douser. I think EY worked down to this conclusion in a sequence but this is the simple answer.

One general rule of thumb if you didn't read the above: if an expert claims to know what they are doing, look at the evidence they are using. I don't know the anatomy of the human body enough to gainsay an orthopedic surgeon, but I'm going to trust the one that actually looks at a CT scan over one that palpates my broken limb and reads from some 50 year old book. Doesn't matter if the second one went to the most credible medical school and has 50 years experience.

But ethics is not philosophy. It is actually a math problem.

Engineering. (You're also making assumptions about shoulds, which might not hold in general, but I don't think I disagree with here.**)


Any other action but taking the one with the highest expected value (factoring in variance), is UNETHICAL.

Variance and /knowledge. I.e. maximize expected value (optimize!*), /or minimize risk from being incorrect (robust!).


*As it is commonly used.

**What is right, may be a complicated question. Less people dying, though - this seems right. Though I haven't done a cost benefit analysis. And maybe those ethicists didn't either.

In this case the ” basic math” is one of multiplication and quantities, showing the “experts” don’t know anything

Or they have reason to think that utilitarianism is not entirely correct.

Ultimately, there are things you claim to value (“terminal values

So is objective value based on what I value, or on what you do? You are confusing with personal utility maximisation with utilitarianism.

Yes, professional ethicists today are probably mostly all liars and charlatans

Maybe, but you're no longer in a position where you can complain about how people treat you.

I am saying a person who chooses an action that kills thousands of people and claims it to be ethical is probably not ethical.

(FDA delaying vaccine approvals)

Unless you can show that that was something to do with the majority of professional ethicists , you have changed the subject.

“I'm an expert in right and wrong”? That doesn't sound like a real thing to me.

In theory, I can imagine a person collecting examples of frequent ethical problems, their frequently proposed answers, and possible consequences of those answers. Like a person who would immediately try to see what perverse incentives some rule creates, what slippery slopes exist in given situation (preferably with historical examples of what actually happened), possible second-order effects (again, with historical examples), etc.

Today, such specialization would probably be some combination of ethics, economics, and history.

When I heard this, I was simply confused at how unexamined Matt's position was.

The idea of being an expert on ethics is something the Rationalist is community quite familiar with. Effective Altruism, in general, assumes that an EA mode of moral behavior is in fact something one can develop an expertise in. Perhaps you have different values than EA, but even so, whatever your values, there can be more or less effective ways of achieving them, an expert is just someone who has mapped the tensions and conflicts and contradictions involved in thinking about the territory clearly.

It seems to me that there are many different complaints being raised:

A) Experts in specific things were treated as general authorities.

A lot of what we get is adjacent expertise. So somebody who studies viruses, and maybe knows a lot about the protein structure of viruses, will opine about masks, right... They didn't have expertise in those areas, and were in fact just on a par with me, or anybody else, right? But they had the, sometimes, arrogance that comes with believing you're being asked about your area of expertise.

B) People have differing moral values about what is a good result.

We're just talking about, what is a fair and reasonable way to prioritize different people over each other?

C) The arguments and decisions being made aren't actually being made by the real experts, they are being made by pseudo-experts.

And I'm like, "Well, according to whom?" Right? Obviously in consequentialist terms, it’s good ethics. I happened to know the top expert in Kantian ethics, she thinks that's a good idea. So, who the fuck are you?

I think these complaints are not incompatible with some people being experts at reasoning about ethics. It seems like what's happening (I certainly have never observed "bioethics Twitter" so I am just guessing) is that random people are rationalizing their beliefs by appealing to random prestigious or powerful people and calling them the "experts" to whom you should defer all judgment, and then Julia and Matt are pushing back on that whole general dynamic.