Lies, Damn Lies, and Fabricated Options

by Duncan_Sabien19 min read17th Oct 2021115 comments

232

Rationality
Curated

This is an essay about one of those "once you see it, you will see it everywhere" phenomena.  It is a psychological and interpersonal dynamic roughly as common, and almost as destructive, as motte-and-bailey, and at least in my own personal experience it's been quite valuable to have it reified, so that I can quickly recognize the commonality between what I had previously thought of as completely unrelated situations.

The original quote referenced in the title is "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."


Background 1: Gyroscopes

Gyroscopes are weird.

Except they're not.  They're quite normal and mundane and straightforward.  The weirdness of gyroscopes is a map-territory confusion—gyroscopes seem weird because my map is poorly made, and predicts that they will do something other than their normal, mundane, straightforward thing.

In large part, this is because I don't have the consequences of physical law engraved deeply enough into my soul that they make intuitive sense.

I can imagine a world that looks exactly like the world around me, in every way, except that in this imagined world, gyroscopes don't have any of their strange black-magic properties.  It feels coherent to me.  It feels like a world that could possibly exist.

"Everything's the same, except gyroscopes do nothing special."  Sure, why not.

But in fact, this world is deeply, deeply incoherent.  It is Not Possible with capital letters. And a physicist with sufficiently sharp intuitions would know this—would be able to see the implications of a world where gyroscopes "don't do anything weird," and tell me all of the ways in which reality falls apart.

The seeming coherence of the imaginary world where gyroscopes don't balance and don't precess and don't resist certain kinds of motion is a product of my own ignorance, and of the looseness with which I am tracking how different facts fit together, and what the consequences of those facts are.  It's like a toddler thinking that they can eat their slice of cake, and still have that very same slice of cake available to eat again the next morning.


Background 2: H2O and XYZ

In the book Labyrinths of Reason, author William Poundstone delves into various thought experiments (like Searle's Chinese Room) to see whether they're actually coherent or not.

In one such exploration, he discusses the idea of a Twin Earth, on the opposite side of the sun, exactly like Earth in every way except that it doesn't have water.  Instead, it has a chemical, labeled XYZ, which behaves like water and occupies water's place in biology and chemistry, but is unambiguously distinct.

Once again, this is the sort of thing humans are capable of imagining.  I can nod along and say "sure, a liquid that behaves just like water, but isn't."

But a chemist, intimately familiar with the structure and behavior of molecules and with the properties of the elements and their isotopes, would be throwing up red flags.

"Just like water," they might say, and I would nod.

"Liquid, and transparent, with a density of 997 kilograms per meter cubed."

"Sure," I would reply.

"Which freezes and melts at exactly 0º Celsius, and which boils and condenses at exactly 100º Celsius."

"Yyyyeahhhh," I would say, uneasiness settling in.

"Which makes up roughly 70% of the mass of the bodies of the humans of Twin Earth, and which is a solvent for hydrophilic substances, but not hydrophobic ones, and which can hold ions and polar substances in solution."

"Um."


The more we drill down into what we mean by behaves exactly like water, the more it starts to become clear that there just isn't a possible substance which behaves exactly like water, but isn't.  There are only so many configurations of electrons and protons and neutrons (especially while remaining small enough to mimic water's molarity, and to play water's role in various chemical interactions).

Once again, our ability to imagine "a substance that behaves exactly like water, but isn't" is a product of our own confusion.  Of the fuzziness of our concepts, the fast-and-loose-ness of our reasoning, our willingness to overlook a host of details which are actually crucially relevant to the question at hand.

(Tickling at the back of my mind is the axiom "your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality."  The thing I'm gesturing toward seems to be a corollary of sorts.)

Of key importance:

Until we actually zero in on the incoherence, the imagined thing feels coherent.  It seems every bit as potentially-real as actually-potentially-real options.

We have no internal feeling that warns us that it's a fabrication masquerading as a possibility.  Our brains do not tell us when they're playing fast and loose.


Fabricated Options

Claim: When people disagree with one another, or are struggling with difficult decisions, they frequently include, among their perceived options, at least one option which is fake-in-the-way-that-XYZ-is-fake.  An option that isn't actually an option at all, but which is a product of incoherent thinking.

This is what this essay seeks to point out, and to give you taste and triggers for.  I would like to establish fabricated options as a category in your mind, so that you are more likely to notice them, and less likely to be taken in by them.


Example 1: Price gouging

This example is one that many of my readers will already be familiar with; it's the kind of topic that gets covered in Econ 101.  I'm not trying to teach it to you from scratch so much as get you to see it as an instance of the class of fabricated options, so that you can port your intuitions about price gouging over to other situations.

In short: during natural disasters or other market disruptions, it often becomes difficult to deliver things like food, water, clothing, toilet paper, medical supplies, gasoline, transportation, etc., to the people who need them.

Sometimes there simply isn't enough supply, and sometimes there's plenty of supply but the logistics become complicated (because, for instance, the act of physically delivering things becomes significantly more dangerous).

In those situations, the price of the needed items often goes through the roof.  Toilet paper selling for $100 a roll, Ubers costing $500 for a ten-mile drive, things like that.

People watching from the outside see this, and feel horror and sympathy and dismay, and often propose (and sometimes successfully enact) legal barriers to price gouging.  They make it illegal to raise the price on goods and services, or put a ceiling on how much it can be raised.

Most such interventions do not produce the desired effect.

The desired effect is that people will just continue to deliver and sell items for a reasonable price, as if nothing has happened.

But that option was never really on the table.  In the middle of a wildfire, or a massive flood, or raging citywide riots, or global supply chain disruption, it simply isn't possible. The actual price of the goods and services, in the sense of "what does it take to provide them?" has gone up, and the market price will necessarily follow.

If you successfully prevent people from selling toilet paper at $100 a roll (rather than simply driving the transactions underground into a black market), the actual effect is usually that there's no one selling toilet paper at all.


The critical insight for this essay is that the thinking of the lawmakers is confused.  It is insufficiently detailed; insufficiently in touch with the reality of the situation.

The lawmakers seem to think that the options are:

  • [Do nothing], and bad people will continue doing a bad thing, and ludicrously jacking up the price on critically necessary items.
  • [Pass laws forbidding/punishing sharp price increases in times of trouble], and the bad people will just not do the bad thing, and the critically necessary items will be available for reasonable prices.

... and in that world, given that menu of options, of course we should choose the second one!

But in reality, that is not the menu.  The second option is fabricated.  The story in which [passing that law] results in goods being available at normalish prices is an incoherent fairy tale.  It falls apart as soon as you start digging into the details, and realize that there are forces at work which cannot be dispersed by the stroke of a lawmaker's pen, just as there are physical laws which prevent non-weird gyroscopes and non-water XYZ.

(No matter how easy it is to imagine these things, when we gloss over the relevant details.)

In fact, the true options in most such situations are:

  • [Do nothing], and people will be able to get access to the critically necessary items, but it will be much harder and more expensive because there is low supply and high logistical difficulty.
  • [Pass laws forbidding/punishing sharp price increases in times of trouble], and people won't be able to get anything at all, because someone erected an artificial barrier to trade.

And given that menu of options, the first is obviously (usually) better.


Caveat 1: this could be misinterpreted (both in the specific case of price gouging and in the more general case of fabricated options) as encouraging a sort of throw-up-your-hands, if-we-can't-solve-everything-we-shouldn't-bother-to-try-anything helplessness.

That's not the point.  There are often ways to break the tradeoff dynamics at play, in any given situation.  There are often third paths, and ways to cheat, and ways to optimize within the broken system to minimize negative effects and maximize positive outcomes.

There are, in other words, some versions of anti-price-gouging laws that do marginal good and avoid the outright stupid failure modes.

But in order to have those intelligent effects, you first have to see and account for the relevant constraints and tradeoffs, and what I am attempting to point at with the above example is the common human tendency to not do so.  To simply live in the fantasy world of what we could "just" accomplish, if people would "just" do [simple-sounding but not-actually-possible thing].  

Most anti-price-gouging proposals are naive in exactly the way described above; this is not meant to imply that non-naive proposals don't exist.  They do.  I'm just focusing on the central tendency and ignoring the unusually competent minority.
 

Caveat 2: in this example and many others, the fabricated option is less a made-up action and more a made-up story about the consequences of that action.  In both versions of the above dilemma, the listed actions were the same.  The difference was the valence assigned to the "pass laws" option, and the story emerging from it.

This is not always the case.  Sometimes people think the options are A or B, and they are in fact B or C, and sometimes people think the options are A or B and they are, but their imagination distorts the impact of option A into something utterly unrealistic.

For the sake of thinking about the category "fabricated options," this distinction is not especially relevant, and will mostly be ignored in the rest of the essay.  The important thing to note is that in either case, the fabricated option has inflated relative appeal.
 

 

Either it's a genuinely available action A wrapped up in an incoherent and unrealistic story that makes it sound better than the unappealing B, or it's an entirely made-up option A which makes the actual best option B look bad in comparison (causing us to fail to shoot for B over an even worse default C).

In both cases, the result in practice is that option B, which is usually sort of dour and uninspiring and contains unpleasant costs or tradeoffs, gets something like disproportionately downvoted.  Downvoted relative to an impossible standard—treated as worse than it ought to be treated, given constraints.

It's a common assumption among both rationalists and the population at large that people tend to flinch away from things which are unpleasant to think about.  However, people rarely take the time to spell out just what "flinching" means, in practice, or just what triggers it.

The fabrication of options is, I claim, one example of flinching.  It's one of the things we do, as humans, when we feel ourselves about to be forced into choosing an uncomfortable path.  There's a sense of "surely not" that sends our minds in any other available direction, and if we're not careful—if we do not actively hold ourselves to a certain kind of stodgy actuarial insistence-on-clarity-and-coherence—we'll more than likely latch onto a nearby pleasant fiction without ever noticing that it doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

"If only they would just [calm down/listen/take a deep breath/forgive me/let it go/have a little perspective/not be so jealous/not be so irrational/think things through more carefully/realize how much I love them/hang on just a little bit longer], everything would be fine."

Pleasant fictions always outnumber pleasant truths, after all.


Example 2: An orphan, or an abortion?

This is the question posed by John Irving's excellent novel The Cider-House Rules.  The point of the question, within the novel, is to break the false dichotomy wherein the choices are framed as "a living baby or a dead/murdered one?"

A living baby:  🙂

A dead one: 🙁, or perhaps 😡

But "living baby" in the sense often pushed for by pro-life advocates is something of a motte-and-bailey.  It's a naive, fabricated option.  It hand-waves away all of the inconvenient and uncomfortable detail, in exactly the same fashion as "gyroscopes, but not weird."

John Irving's novel doesn't take a stand on which is better—rather, it tries to force the reader to consider the decision at all, instead of getting confused by alluring falsehoods. The footing of the two sides, in the novel, is less uneven-by-design, which seems to me like a step in the right direction.


Example 3: Drowning

I have a longtime friend who I'll refer to here as Taylor, who's got a longtime romantic partner who I'll refer to here as Kelly.

Kelly struggles with various mental health issues.  They genuinely do their best, but as is so often the case, their best is not really "enough."  They spend the better part of each year depressed and mildly delusional, with frequent dangerous swerves into suicidality.

As a side effect of these issues, Kelly—who is at their core an excellent partner for Taylor—also puts Taylor through the wringer.  Kelly has destroyed multiple of Taylor's possessions, multiple times.  Kelly has screamed and yelled at Taylor, multiple times. Over and over, Taylor has asked Kelly what would help, what they can do, how they could change their own behavior to be a better partner for Kelly—and over and over, granting Kelly's explicit requests has resulted in Taylor being yelled at, punished, told to go away.

This has been rough.

Taylor is already the sort of person who doesn't give up on people—the sort of person who would willingly sacrifice themselves for a friend or a family member, the sort of person who will go to genuinely extreme lengths to save a fellow human in trouble.

And on top of that, Taylor genuinely loves Kelly, and has plenty of evidence that—when things are okay—Kelly genuinely loves Taylor.

But for years now, the situation has been spiraling, and Taylor has been getting more and more exhausted and demoralized, and it has become increasingly clear that neither Taylor's direct efforts, nor any of the other resources they've funneled Kelly's way (therapists, medication, financial stability, freedom of movement), are going to be sufficient.  It no longer seems reasonable to expect things to get better.

Taylor and I have talked about the situation a lot, and one of the metaphors that has come up more and more often is that of a drowning person out in rough waters.

From Taylor's point of view, saving Kelly is worth it.  Saving Kelly is worth it even if it means Taylor goes under.  From Taylor's point of view, the options have always been "help save Kelly, or watch Kelly drown."

But this frame is broken.  At this point, it's clear that "help save Kelly" is not a real option.  It's a fabrication, conjured up because it is deeply uncomfortable to face the real choice, which is "let Kelly drown, or drown with them."

(Alternately, and a little less harshly: "let Kelly figure out how to swim on their own, or keep trying to help them and drown, yourself, without actually having helped them float.")


Example 4: Block lists

I've previously had disagreements with a few people in various bubbles over block lists, and coordination, and what the defaults should be, and where various obligations lie.

In my (probably straw) characterization of the other side, they're fabricating options. They hold a position that (probably deserves steelmanning, but given my current state of understanding) looks like:

  • Option A, everyone keeps the lines of communication open, and people don't block each other except under extraordinary circumstances (which will tend to be legible and obvious and which basically everyone will agree upon), and that way everyone can see all of the important discussion and there aren't confusing non-overlapping bubbles of fragmented common knowledge.
  • Option B, some people defect on the project of maintaining a clear and open commons, and block people, and make everything worse for everybody.

Option A is 🙂

Option B is clearly 🙁

In my trying-to-look-at-the-actual-tradeoffs perspective, though—

(Which is not meant to imply that the other people aren't also trying, it just seems to me like if they are trying, they're not quite managing to do so.)

—it seems to me that the actual options are:

  • Option B, which is very much just as 🙁 as they think it is, in which the world is imperfect and communication and coordination are tricky and costly and often go sideways, and some people need to block other people for all sorts of valid and self-protective reasons, and yep, this makes it harder to coordinate and establish common knowledge but it's the actual best we can do—
  • or Option A, which is 😱, in which the self-protective blocking option is outlawed or disincentivized-on-the-margin, and people are either punished when they do it anyway (analogous to people being fined for selling toilet paper at inflated prices) or somehow compelled not to, in which they are either constantly exposed to triggers and to attacks from their enemies and abusers and all sorts of other things that are horrible for their mental health, or they just go dark and disappear from the conversation altogether.

The version of option A where [everyone just manages to be in the same room all the time and it's just never disastrously problematic] is obviously better than either of the two options described above.

But it's a substance identical to water that isn't water.  It's not actually on the table.


Example 5: Parental disapproval

Your kid wants to hang out with another kid who you're pretty sure is a bad influence.

Your kid wants to quit their piano lessons, sinking their previous three years of effort.

Your kid seems like they're about to start having sex, or using drugs, or playing Magic: the Gathering.

Your kid doesn't want to go to the family reunion.

Your kid doesn't want to eat that.

I see parents' hopes and expectations come up against the reality of their kids' preferences all the time, and I always have this sucking-in-a-breath, edge-of-my-seat anticipation, because it so often seems to me like parents fabricate options rather than dealing with the tradeoffs with eyes open.

If I just tell them they can't hang out with that kid anymore, the problem will be solved.

If I just make them keep playing piano, they'll thank me later.

I can just tell them no.

I can just tell them they have to.

I can ground them until they comply.

As with the example of price gouging, it's not that there aren't good ways to intervene on the above situations.  The claim is not "the options, as they are at this exact moment, are the only options that will ever be on the table."

Rather, it's "there are a certain limited number of options on the table at this exact moment.  If none of them are satisfactory, someone will have to actively create or uncover new ones.  They can't be willed into being by sheer stubborn fiat."

Option A, in each of the above scenarios, comes with massive costs, usually taken out of the value of the parent-child relationship.

Sure, you can ban your child from a given friendship, but what's going to actually happen is that your child will stop viewing you as their ally and start treating you as a prison warden or appointed overseer—as obstacle to be dealt with.  They'll either succeed at getting around your edict, and you'll have sacrificed a significant part of your mutual trust for nothing, or they'll fail, and resent you for it.

Some parents would argue that this is fine, it's worth it, better the kid be mad at me than suffer [bad outcome].

And in some cases that's genuinely true.

But most of the time, the thing the parent implicitly imagines—that they can get [good outcome] and it won't cost anything in terms of relationship capital—it's not really on the table.

It's not "I'll make them play piano and everything will be fine" versus "they'll lose their piano-playing potential."

It's "I'll make them play piano by using our mutual affection as kindling" or "I'll let them do what they want and preserve our relationship."

Neither option is great, viewed through that lens.  It's an orphan on the one hand and an abortion on the other.

But that's the thing.  Most of the time, neither option is great.  In difficult situations, it's wise to be at least a little suspicious of straightforward, easy Options A that are just so clearly better than those uncomfortably costly tradeoff-y Options B.


Example 6: 2020

(This section left as an exercise for the reader.)


Conclusion

A likely thought on the minds of some readers is that this isn't exactly new ground, and we already have all of the pieces necessary to individually identify each instance of fabricated options based on their inherent falsehood, and therefore don't actually need the new category.

I disagree; I find that fine distinctions are generally useful and have personally benefitted from being able to port strategies between widely-spaced instances of option fabrication, and from being able to train my option-fabrication-recognizer on a broad data set.

That being said: beware the failure mode of new jargon, which is thinking that you now recognize [the thing], rather than that you are now equipped to hypothesize [maybe the thing?].  The world would be a better place if people's response to the reification of concepts like "sealioning" or "DARVO" or "attention-deficit disorder" were to ask whether that's what's happening here, and how we would know as opposed to immediately weaponizing them.

(Alas, that's a fabricated option, and the real choice is between "invent good terms but see them misused a bunch" and "refuse to invent good terms."  But maybe LessWrong can do better than genpop.)

As for what to do about fabricated options (both those your own brain generates and those generated by others), the general recommendation is pretty much "use your rationality" and there isn't room in this one essay to operationalize that.  My apologies.

If you're looking for e.g. specific named CFAR techniques that might come in handy here, I'd point you toward TAPs (especially TAPs for noticing fabricated options as they come up, or booting up your alert awareness in situations where they're likely to) and Murphyjitsu (which is likely to improve people's baseline ability to both recognize glossed-over fairy tales and patch the holes therein).  You might also work on building your general noticing skill, perhaps starting with any number of writings by Logan Strohl, and on double crux and similar tools, which will make it easier to make disagreements over the menu-of-options productive rather than not.

In the meantime, I would deeply appreciate it if any comments sharing examples of the class contained the string #EXAMPLE, and if any comments containing concrete recommendations or stories about how-you-responded contained the string #TOOLS. This will make it easier for the comment section to stand as an enduring and useful appendix to this introduction.

Good luck.


Followup from Logan Strohl: Investigating Fabrication

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Somewhat tangential, but... what thinking-algorithm would lead to fabricated options popping up often? Some of the examples in the post just involve incomplete and/or wrong models, but I don't think that's the whole story.

Here's one interesting model: fabricated options naturally pop up in relaxation-based search algorithms.  To efficiently search for a solution to a problem, we "relax" the problem by ignoring some of the constraints. We figure out how to solve the problem without those constraints, then we go back and figure out how to satisfy the constraints. (At a meta-level, we also keep track of roughly how hard each constraint is to satisfy - i.e. how taut/slack it is - in order to figure out which constraints we can probably figure out how to satisfy later if we ignore them now. There's even a nice duality which lets us avoid an infinite ladder of meta-levels here: solutions are the constraints on constraints, just as proofs are the counterexamples of counterexamples.)

To the extent that this model applies, fabricated options are practically useful as a search strategy. A "useful" fabricated option is one for which we can more easily solve the problem by (1) solving the ... (read more)

9Benjamin Spiegel1moMy thoughts: fabricated options are propositions derived using syllogisms over syntactic or semantic categories (but more probably, more specific psycholinguistic categories which have not yet been fully enumerated yet e.g. objects of specific types, mental concepts which don’t ground to objects, etc.), which may have worked reasonably well in the ancestral environment where more homogeneity existed over the physical properties of the grounded meanings of items in these categories. There are some propositions in the form “It is possible for X to act just like Y but not be Y” which are physically realizable and therefore potentially true in some adjacent world, and other propositions which are not. Humans have a knack for deriving new knowledge using syllogisms like the ones above, which probably functioned reasonably well — they at least improved the fitness of our species — in the ancestral environment where propositions and syllogisms may have emerged. The misapplication of syllogisms happens when agents don’t actually understand the grounded meanings of the components of their syllogism-derived propositions — this seems obvious to me after reading the responses of GPT-3, which has no grounded understanding of words and understands how they work only in the context of other words. In the Twin Earth case, you might argue that the one fabricating the XYZ water-like chemical does not truly understand what H2O and XYZ are, but has some understanding at least of how H2O acts as a noun phrase.
8AllAmericanBreakfast1moYes. The attention given to price gouging could instead be given to programs to alleviate supply constraints during emergencies. For example, government-sponsored stockpiles and airlifts, municipal or statewide disaster insurance used to purchase such services from a private company, incentivizing private citizens to stockpile, sponsoring excess or rapid ramp-up production capacity, and so on.
7Duncan_Sabien1mo(Feels more like "going deeper" than being on a tangent. Very useful comment imo.)
5Decius1moMy experience with that behavior has been: 1: have a desired outcome in mind. 2: consider the largest visible difference between that outcome and the currently expected one 3: propose a change that is expected to alter the world in a way that results in that difference no longer being visible 4: if there are still glaring visible differences between the expected future and the desired one, iterate until there are no visible differences. For example, people who see homeless encampments in public parks wish that they were not reminded of income inequality. They propose courses of action which assign blame to individual homeless people for the lack of housing, justifying forcibly removing them from the public areas. Those courses of action are expected to make the world look (to the people making the proposals) exactly like one in which there is no income inequality, therefore they implement sweeps. In many political spheres, solving problems by making everyone shut up about them (and making non-issues problems by getting people to continuously mention them) actually works.

I just wanted to mention that you assume consequentialist thinking, specifically of the type "what should we do to change X for the better?" This is not at all how most people think. "Price gouging is unfair" is enough to pass a legislation, without heeding the consequences. "Abortion is against a sacred rule from God" is enough to fight to prohibit it. "But I can change my mind" is argument enough to two-box. And I'm not even touching issues where people don't reason at all, or, like politicians, optimize something other than the stated goal.

Yeah, I stumbled over the price-gouging example for similar reasons. After two background examples of inconceivable worlds, the world of that story sounded similarly incoherent to me - I could not write it in 2021.

Mainly, a world where lawmakers frequently ban pricegouging is a world where it's probably in their interest to do so. So to posit that they ban it because they're somehow mistaken about the consequences sounds wrong to me.

Rather than the options in the story, in my model they follow Asymmetric Justice, social reality, dysfunctional incentives in bureaucracies, taboo tradeoffs, etc.: voters see an action they don't like (pricegouging) and respond with outrage, and then lawmakers respond to this outrage by banning the action and getting rewarded by positive press or something. (Whereas if they instead argue against banning the bad action, they're accused of supporting it.) From the perspective of the lawmakers, it doesn't matter one bit what happens as a consequence of the ban, because these consequences are in some sense invisible.

For instance, institutions like the FDA provide constant real-life examples of this dynamic, and Zvi's Covid posts feature multiple such stories every month.

9Duncan_Sabien1moOoh, excellent point. I don't think I assume that others are actively trying and failing at consequentialist thinking (I think if I'd been queried on this, I would have said words that largely match your perspective/predictions) but I do think that effective people and trying-to-be-effective people should definitely at least often be in a consequentialist mode. And so I think I was pointing at something like "evaluate the stuff they're proposing from a consequentialist lens [regardless of whether they themselves are doing so]."
4AllAmericanBreakfast1moThis is a great point. When I feel frustrated with a faulty conversation, I often start by projecting my own motivations onto the other person. Or that their explicitly stated goals are their real goals. Even if I know that this is wrong, I try to act as if that were so. “You say you’re doing this for the good of humanity? Then I’m going to respond as if that’s really what you cared about, and that you’re going about it badly, even if I know deep down that you’re lying about your motives.” It’s this perverse form of “bravery.” There’s a class of shallow incoherent lies that we’re all supposed to know are shallow lies, and yet act as if they were deep coherent truths. It can feel like bravery to “expose” the lie by taking it literally and showing how incoherence is the result. An alternative is to focus not on bravely confronting the lie in order to expose the object level truth, but to focus on cannily understanding the motive and function of the lie itself. “Did you lie to me just now, and what’s the truth of the matter” is a very different question from, “I think you just lied to me, so why did you do that?” “You just pretended to care about price gouging, so why did you do that” seems like a good way to confront such statements, at least some of the time.
8shminux1moI... don't think this works, not even in the LW circles, as some of the reaction to my old post show https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/a4HzwhvoH7zZEw4vZ/wirehead-your-chickens [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/a4HzwhvoH7zZEw4vZ/wirehead-your-chickens]
5AllAmericanBreakfast1moYou are right! I worded that very poorly. Here’s what I meant. If someone has pretend noble motives and true ignoble motives, I sometimes get into a failure mode where I act as if the noble motives were their true motives. Then I try to show how their proposed solution will fail to achieve their pretend noble motives. There’s some sort of idea of “showing them up” behind my own behavior here, and also some idea that this behavior of mine is a “noble” form of bravery. An alternative approach in such circumstances is to become clear in my own mind that the other person has pretend motives. Then I can interpret their behavior or their proposition in light of that. This could also be useful for self-analysis. This is what I meant when I said “confront,” but this was the wrong word to choose for that! Thanks for pointing that out.
5shminux1moYeah, you are right, the only hope of getting somewhere is when you address their true objections [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/TGux5Fhcd7GmTfNGC/is-that-your-true-rejection]. That's not easy though because they might not even be aware of what they are, and refuse to acknowledge it when pointed out (again, see the examples in the thread I linked), often because acknowledging them would clash with their self-image. Successfully addressing their real arguments, not the chaff on top, is a difficult skill. If you can do it, it would feel like magic. Or a superpower.
2AllAmericanBreakfast1moThis sounds like the proper use of empathy, as a tool for constructive exchange of perspectives. Alice suspects Bob is not stating his true objecting to her idea. She tries to simulate the kind of mental experience that might cause Bob to resist her point of view. She bases this simulation on what she knows of Bob's background and personality. This simulation is an example of empathy. Alice can use it to predict what sort of response might shift Bob's point of view toward her own in a way that he would reflectively endorse. Improper use of empathy would be creating and broadcasting an empathetic simulation that may be detached from any particular relationship. It no longer serves to make one person understand another. Instead, it creates concern for a fictional character. This character is mistaken for a real person, or group of people. Concern for this fiction motivates real action. The action it motivates is a tool that the broadcasters of this simulation can use for their own ends. When we speak of empathy as a problematic motivating force, I think that this is the underlying mechanism. Perhaps it would be good if rationalists promoted this distinction between relational empathy and empathy for a fiction, and focused on practicing relational empathy. It might indeed be a superpower.

An alternative and maybe more fun term for this is a "comb-over."

If you're losing your hair, you might think that one of your options is to disguise the fact that you're balding by giving yourself a comb-over. But in fact, that's a fabricated option. Nobody will be fooled, and you'll look worse than you would if you left your hair alone or shaved it all off.

So we could say that a price gouging ban is a "comb-over for supply constraints." An abortion ban is a "comb-over for dangerous or unwanted pregnancies." Staying with an unstable partner is giving their issues a comb-over. Banning block lists is giving a comb-over to social discord. Forcing your kid to do things they don't like is giving a comb-over to their independence.

I like this term because it's a little funny and it gets the point across in a way that I might actually use in a conversation with a friend. If anybody else likes this, I give Duncan the credit, because I wouldn't have come up with this if Duncan hadn't focused attention on it.

I really liked the post, but I couldn't help ironmanning the so-called fabricated options at every step. Documented below, read at your own peril(or most likely skip the wall of text).

Example 1 

Every time price gouging is brought up online, I see it strawmanned. The proper ironman is something like anti-bank run measures. 

Price gouging measures are meant to ... solve a coordination problem. Supply is ... not necessarily as limited as people might think, if everyone just kept consuming at the same rate or even slightly reduced consumption but not to a self-harming degree, we'd make due.

But in a tragedy of the commons/prisoners dilemma style we expect everyone to defect so we all defect. Withdrawal limits and various other mechanisms exist to prevent bank runs, because these sorts of things can be positive feedback loops otherwise. Everyone thinks toilet roll is gonna run out and so they wanna stock up for the whole year today ... well yeah, the supply chain is unchanged but it's expecting smooth consumption not mass psychosis. 

Then you have the clowns that are buying up sanitizer or toilet roll anticipating that they'll be able to resell it on ebay later. 

I think... (read more)

5cousin_it1moIn the first part, you're saying that price limits have the same intent as withdrawal limits, rationing and so on: to prevent panic and speculation. That's true, but it doesn't matter if the result of price limits is different: empty shelves and not much else. That's what the econ folks have been saying.
7spkoc1moTriple prices or empty shelves is a false dichotomy. Everyone gets the supply and demand curve. That's not the point. Society exists to counter-balance natural bad luck not to amplify it. Social policies that make a disaster even more disastrous for an individual are going to produce rage. Your house got flooded, you have no heat or electricity, you really need some oil for your generator and now that oil is 10 times more expensive. I get that price signals are a good way to coordinate everyone in a community consuming less of a good, but people will fundamentally dislike it because it makes a bad situation worse for an individual. Also the actual reasons economists are against price gouging are hilariously theoretical universe of frictionless spheres type arguments. Supply chains can take ages to react to price changes even in situations where there is no government boogie man tweaking things. Just look at the microchip supply crisis. The actual solution to these issues is having effective emergency supply delivery handled by the government. The whole price gouging conversation is societal bike shedding. Modern governments can and do provide emergency aid almost in real time as disasters happen. If X developed world government lacks that capability, smack'em at the ballot box and tell the next crew to copy whatever the other dozens of countries are successfully doing in that department.
4Daniel V1moThe point economists make is that, on the contrary, price gouging does not "make a disaster even more disastrous," and instead makes a disaster more likely to be addressed quickly. Consider the case of a sudden positive demand shock (COVID toilet paper) - this is not a disaster that is causing individual-level suffering through paying exorbitant prices. Where this causes problems is when people can't get the item. The best way to nip this herding behavior in the bud is to make it costly. Then people for whom the product provides a lot of value will still buy it while those marginal people will think twice and leave it on the shelf. As demand normalizes, prices can come down. This also encourages those "clowns" in Tennessee to buy up hand sanitizer and ship it at great expense to LA to resell it there for high-but-lower-than-without-this-supply prices. In this case, prices still do a great job of ordering preferences and delivering good outcomes, so no wonder pro- and anti-gougers don't usually talk about it. Now consider the case of a sudden negative supply shock (hurricane knocks out a pipeline) - this IS a disaster that is causing individual-level suffering through paying exorbitant prices, but in a shortage like this, what alternative allocation mechanisms exist that could enable people to get the product, and ideally more to the people who have more valuable uses for it? Rationing is one - you can only get X amount of the product and then you're kicked from the market; when there is use-value variability, this is problematic as it means carving out exceptions to the rule (ambulance services get dibs on gas, do nurses trying to get to work also get dibs?). Another is to have the government ship in a bunch from elsewhere so prices don't need to rise, but has the catch that it's basically an implicit subsidy...for this specific group of people at this specific time in this specific place. That's great on humanitarian grounds and helps spread the cost to the rich
3Jiro1moThe market can stay irrational longer than your bum can stay free of shit. If people hoard toilet paper, expecting to sell it at prices higher than the market will actually bear, at some point they're going to discover that they overspent. They may even go bankrupt. But in the meantime, nobody had any toilet paper. And then, if the toilet paper price doesn't go up like they anticipated, they may just destroy their stock of toilet paper because the transaction costs of selling it at the market price outweigh the profits of doing so. The market punishes irrational people, but that doesn't mean you get no irrational people. You get a steady stream of them, each of whom causes some damage in the process of being punished by the market.
3Daniel V1moDefinitely but banning gouging doesn't fix this problem. It makes it worse. Hoard without consequence!
2RamblinDash1moI don't see how. Maybe you can hoard without consequence but you also remove a major reason to hoard. The two reasons to hoard are either for personal consumption, or for resale. For personal consumption: For people inclined to hoard it's hard to see how "I'd better buy it now because they might be out later" is likely to induce a lot more hoarding than "I'd better buy it now because it might only be available for an unaffordable price later." For resale: This is the kicker and this is Jiro's point - people get the idea "I'll buy TP now before those rubes, then when its out everywhere I can resell for higher." If its illegal to resell for higher then this excess TP is not hoarded because there's no incentive to do so - people know approximately how much TP they actually need for personal use and there wouldn't be much incentive to buy more. This is even more pronounced for durable goods like snow shovels, you only can use one shovel at a time but you could imagine yourself able to re-sell an unbounded number of snow shovels. I think the gods-eye optimal solution would be something like allowance of price increases for people who are bringing goods in from outside and a ban on speculation. But in the real world it's really hard to differentiate speculation from "legitimate" buying and selling, and, maybe it's wrong or maybe it's right, but it's definitely not crazy to think that the net effect of second-order speculation induced shortages is worse than the net effect of first-order disaster induced shortages.
1spkoc1moTo treacherously switch sides to the pro-price gouging side: The obvious solution is for shops to jack up prices as soon as an emergency situation occurs, thereby taking the wind out of speculators' sails. Now businesses are not going to want to do this, since it'll ruin their reputation with customers for minor short term gain. So the actual solution is for the government to mandate price-gouging in emergency situations, this way businesses can do it, without having to bear the public opinion penalty. If an area is declared a public disaster area, all shops are obligated to immediately implement scarcity prices. Scarcity prices work like this: as the stock of an item goes down, the price goes up by 100% of base cost for every 1% of missing stock. So by the time you only have 90% of toilet paper left in store, you're already paying 10 * base cost for it. Of course private citizens are also allowed to come in and sell whatever they want. I'm not sure what incentive this creates for shop owners, like maybe they want to not bring stocks back up to normal, but whatever, I'm sure it'll work out. Modern society gives people too much incentive to live in floodable/hurricanable/earthquakable areas anyway, a bit more spice in their lives would shift populations to more reasonable regions to live in so it's all good either way.
3Jiro1moAt best, this would only make sense if everyone had the same amount of money. They don't. Mandatory price-gouging would mean the poor get screwed over. Far better to have normal prices and mandatory purchase limits.
1spkoc1moOf course :D There's a strain of thought that would say price allocation of society's production itself is only ethical when everyone has the same amount of money, but that's a whole other can of worms.
2Jiro1moActually, if you mandate normal prices (and often if you don't, but the companies don't want to lose customer goodwill) the companies will institute purchase limits on their own. In other words, you've effectively argued for existing anti-gouging laws.
1Daniel V1moFor personal consumption: if prices are ceilinged to be low, "might be out later" becomes "might be out sooner," which makes getting to the store quickly more imperative, and not just for the hoarding-inclined but also the marginally-hoarding-inclined and maybe even the people who just heard something on the news. For resale: Indeed, there is a weaker incentive to hoard at low present prices if near-future prices are capped. But costs are also part of that equation, and you can weaken the incentive power of high near-future prices by bringing those prices into the present and squeezing any potential margin that way. I'll buy $1000 of TP today to sell for $2000 within 7 days, but would I pay $1500 for the same amount of TP today? First, if I expect $2000 to be the price, my margin is lower. Second, my expectations of continued price increases are dampened (I know I'm on the clock here because this price impulse won't last forever), so maybe it won't even get to $2000. Third, now I have more uncertainty about my time window. This is a ton more risk for me and maybe I'll just put it in an index fund (lol). Notice that in the price ceiling situation you can reduce the resale incentive but increase the personal consumption motivation whereas if you let prices rise, you reduce both the resale incentive and the personal consumption motivation. You also get the benefit, if it isn't a closed economy, that a price hike in the local market will encourage trade from other markets (think LA running out of hand sanitizer, importing it from TN would normally be nuts, but now people can get their hands on it because some "meanies" decided to buy it up where people really didn't care that much initially). I sort of agree with you on the optimal solution, and there was this same sentiment in 2008 with oil futures (and there, it's hard to distinguish speculation from supply/demand and hedging dynamics). But also remember that speculation serves the function of bringing future price
2Jiro1moSpeculators aren't selling back into the market now, and if their speculation doesn't pan out, they might discard the product due to transaction costs rather than sell it back into the market later.
1Daniel V1moLike I said, it's their buying that is the problem. Higher prices or rationing are the key. Mandating low prices doesn't solve it.
2Jiro1moIf you mandate low prices, they won't be buying since they won't have an incentive to speculate.
1Daniel V1moIf you assume speculation is the biggie here (I'm skeptical) or if it is the only thing you care about, then that is correct. If there is a supply shock or a herding demand shock, then there will be faster stockouts. What's the goal, reducing speculation or helping allocate product to its most valued uses? I'll take the latter every time, and letting price work as a signal is a useful means for that. I can also see a role for rationing.
2Jiro1moThose goals don't contradict. Reducing speculation is a method of helping allocate products to their most valued uses. "Bought by speculator, kept in a warehouse, and discarded months later" is not a valued use for a product, after all. Furthermore, it sounds as if you're defining "valued" as "willingness to spend on". Defined this way, I have no desire to allocate products according to their valued uses. Poor people exist, after all. (I see a motte and bailey here where the motte is "spending money indicates what is a valued use, according to my definition" and the bailey is "spending money indicates a valued use, as most people would understand that phrase".)
1Daniel V1moWTP is a pretty standard measure of valuation, but I understand the reticence to rely on that. Distributional concerns are legit, after all. If the goals didn't contradict, I'd be much more reliant on efficiency/welfare arguments, and it would be quite messy and assumptive. Anyway, they do contradict. This is because "bought by speculator, kept in a warehouse, and discarded months later" makes up so little of the sales volume, and that's even if you include "bought by speculator, kept in warehouse, and successfully sold back in the market for a profit months later," too. One knows this is the case precisely because speculation of this sort does not occur secularly - it occurs in response to catalysts like negative supply shocks and/or positive demand shocks, which make up way more of the price and quantity shifts. Basically, we're back to bikeshedding - speculators aren't the problem here, the "real" (in the economic sense) dislocation is.
2Jiro1moIf you're suggesting that there actually was a greater total need for toilet paper at the start of the pandemic in the sense that the majority of the excess demand was not made up of speculators and panic buyers, I'd like to see some evidence for this.
2Daniel V1moI've been keeping speculation separate from panic buying in my mind, perhaps that has confused us, but I thought it was clear earlier. Panic buying is part of the demand shock. It's not "smart" but it isn't a "fake need" either. There are varying of uncertainty here, and eventually it does slip into stupidity ("I think I'll run out next week, I might have enough til then, better get some in case" ... "I have enough for months but I better grab more!"), and yet again mandating low prices does not defeat this tendency because it operates just like any other demand. If you want them to think twice, charge them more. Or ration. But mandating low prices is counter-productive.
2Jiro1moPanic buying is a fake need when the supply shock has minimal direct effects. If you mandate low prices, stores will often implement purchase limits--that is, the store will ration the product themselves.
1Daniel V1moWell sure, there you go, paternalism is easy to justify when people are seen to be so irrational that their perceived needs can be dismissed and replaced with your personal preferences. That's a good point about encouraging rationing through price ceilings, as -finally- a reason why they might push in the right direction. As we saw already, price ceilings are not a necessary condition for the rapid implementation of rationing by business. I doubt any induction would be incrementally strong enough or implemented early enough to either matter or justify abandoning any potential preference ordering ability of pricing. But that's an empirical question, one that I cannot confidently dismiss out of hand. Been a pleasure discussing with you. And while I personally don't particularly hope to see new natural experiments on anti-gouging in the future, if we do, I sincerely hope we end up seeing solid analyses of the effects.
2Jiro1mo... in a real-world example of people being irrational over perceived needs.
2Rafael Harth1moJust chiming in to say that there has been a pretty good rationally speaking episode [http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/257-price-gouging-in-emergencies-raymond-niles-and-amihai-glazer/] about this topic. (It features two conversations with two different people; the first is not super impressive, but the second is great.) it covers a lot of arguments.
1cousin_it1moA few weeks ago I said the same thing [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/hRa5c5GaMNkNGtnXq/insights-from-modern-principles-of-economics#jrTchdoytJoCzap5n] : And yeah, I also wish the "bikeshed" of price limits stopped being discussed, made into law, etc.
2Jiro1moGiving people extra money so they could afford toilet paper would not have helped. The problem wasn't that people couldn't afford toilet paper, but that there wasn't any available, and it was the panic buying and speculation that resulted in it not being available. And the problem also wasn't that the manufacturers had no incentive to make more toilet paper, so giving people more money to buy toilet paper wouldn't have helped there either.
2cousin_it1moWhen I said the government should use tax money to finance disaster recovery, I didn't mean it should give that money to individual people to buy disaster supplies.

From Taylor's point of view, saving Kelly is worth it.  Saving Kelly is worth it even if it means Taylor goes under.  From Taylor's point of view, the options have always been "help save Kelly, or watch Kelly drown."

But this frame is broken.  At this point, it's clear that "help save Kelly" is not a real option.  It's a fabrication, conjured up because it is deeply uncomfortable to face the real choice, which is "let Kelly drown, or drown with them."

(Alternately, and a little less harshly: "let Kelly figure out how to swim on their own, or keep trying to help them and drown, yourself, without actually having helped them float.")

I've been a Taylor, and yes, that's exactly the right way of describing the relevant headspace and the perceived/actual options.

I remember even explicitly thinking of it in almost the exact same terms during the experience itself: knowing that saving the other person felt close to hopeless, but that the option of leaving them to drown was one that I just couldn't take, so it almost didn't matter how low-probability the chance of keeping them afloat fell. At some point I had a strong sense that I would look at this episode later and conclu... (read more)

#EXAMPLE: I thought "outlawing the symptoms of poverty" was a fairly common phrase, but I can't find it now. (Maybe it's something similar that I changed in my head?) But I feel like that has a lot of overlap with this, if not being just a subset.

Like, you see people living a whole family in one room and a landlord profiting off of that, and you think no one should have to live in those conditions. So you forbid landlords from putting a whole family in one room, thinking "this family now lives somewhere with more space" is a live option. Or outlawing loan sharks, thinking people will be financially secure without them.

(As with price gouging, there are less naive reasons to do these things, and other alternate options than "do nothing".)

I'm realizing that in addition to fabricated option, we have lots of other nouns for this concept, with different implications.

  • Illusion, mirage, fantasy
  • Nonsense, foolishness
  • Fairly tale, fable, tall tale
  • Bunk
  • Dead end, bridge to nowhere
  • Or, as I suggested below, comb-over

I'm sure there are many others.

A fabricated option is the complement of a "false dichotomy." In the false dichotomy, a realistic third option is being left out. With fabricated options, an unrealistic third option is being added in.

The phrase "false dichotomy" nicely highlights the intellectual objects (the set of options), as discrete entities that we can hold in our minds. By contrast, the many alternative phrases I noted above focus attention on the illusion and tell us how we should feel about it.

The phrase "fabricated option," unlike all the others, reminds us that there exist alternatives to the fabricated option that are more worthy of our consideration.

If I say "price gouging bans are a fabricated option," it suggests that there are other options for dealing with high prices during an emergency, and reminds us that we are looking for an effective solution to a problem that may admit more than one approach to so... (read more)

0Joshua William1moThe most sensical comment here; more sensical than the frame in the article. Nice remix.

#EXAMPLE

I always try to go to bed at right around 11 PM. I finish my game at 10:45 PM. I can stop playing now and go to sleep, or I can play one more 20-minute game and then go to sleep. The latter is pretty clearly better, games are short and I'm not all that tired. Three hours later I go to sleep.

Nate Soares on this topic:

Willpower is scarce in this world. Sometimes, you can will yourself out of a mental rut you're in, but only rarely; more often, sheer force of will alone is not sufficient. If your plan to stop staying up too late playing Civilization is "well I'll just force myself harder next time," then this plan is doomed to failure. If it didn't work last time, it likely won't work next time. Willpower is a stopgap, not a remedy.

I think that most people's "coulds" are broken because they put the action nodes in the wrong place. They think that the "choice" occurred at turn 347 of Civilization, when they decided to continue playing one more round (and at each following turn between midnight and 4:00 in the morning).

But that's not where the choice occurred. If you have to force yourself to change your behavior, then you've already missed the real choice node.

The actual choice occurs when you decide whether to play Civilization or not, at the very beginning.

[...] The real choices tend to happen a few minutes before the choices that people beat themselves up about. If you have to apply willpower, you've already missed the choice node. (In fact, I've previous

... (read more)
8GuySrinivasan1moYes, and nowadays I do recognize that I'm really choosing between going to sleep now or playing some number, not at all necessarily just one, "one more turn"s, and gauge what that distribution looks like and then choose. #TOOLS Recognize that your decisions are evidence of what sorts of decisions you're likely to make when deciding whether to do something; apply multipliers as needed.

>As for what to do about fabricated options (both those your own brain generates and those generated by others), the general recommendation is pretty much "use your rationality"

yeah ok https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/NjZAkfio5FsCioahb/investigating-fabrication

I was sort of teasing with the "2020" section.

#EXAMPLE Both of the major US tribes had fabricated options in their recommendations.

One tribe said "it's a choice between [everyone dying] and [locking down for a few weeks while the Competent Government Machinery That Definitely Exists gets a solid response together]!" and the other tribe said "it's a choice between [the death of the economy and also liberty as we know it] and [a small but inevitable sacrifice in lives that were going to end soon anyway while everything continues largely as normal]!"

3Jason Gross1moThe Competent Machinery did exist, it just wasn't competent enough to overcome the fact that the rest of the government machinery was obstructing it. The plan for social distancing to deal with pandemics was created during the Bush administration, there were people in government trying to implement the plan in ... mid-January, if I recall correctly (might have been mid-February). If, for example, the government made an exception to medical privacy laws specifically for reporting the approximate address of positive COVID tests, and the CDC / government had not forbidden independent COVID testing in the early days, we probably would have been able to actually stamp out COVID. (Source: The Premonition: A Pandemic Story (it's an excellent book, and I highly recommend it))
3Sherrinford1moAnd maybe tribe no. 3 saying "it's a choice between [this completely idiotic politics-driven policies we see] and [obviously much better policy I have described in this document, which could be implemented easily if only the actual government would let sensible scientist-policymakers thinking like myself do the job and guard it from anything that could derail their benevolent behavior]".
3Jason Gross1moOption number 3 seems like more-or-less a real option to me, given that "this document" is the official document prepared and published by the CDC a decade or two ago, and "sensible scientist-policymakers like myself" includes any head of the CDC back when the position was for career-civil-servants rather than presidential appointees, and also includes the task force that the Bush Administration specifically assembled to generate this document, and also included person #2 in California's public health apparatus (who was passed over for becoming #1 because she was too blond / not racially diverse enough, and who was later cut out of the relevant meetings by her new boss). Edit: Also, the "guard it from anything that could derail their benevolent behavior" is not necessary, all that's needed here is to actually give them enough power / rope to hang themselves to let them implement the plan.

It seems like many disagreements ultimately stem from different estimates about the options available.  Examples:

  • If you think "human society, but on Mars" is a realistic option, Elon Musk looks like a visionary.  If you think it's a fabricated option, he looks like a fool (but at least he seems to be having fun).
  • If you think "industrial society, but without world-destroying levels of fossil fuel use" is a live option, you might be right.  But you could be wrong.  It could be a fabricated option.
  • Leftists (stereotypically) view "current levels of wealth, but evenly distributed" is a real option.  Conservatives (stereotypically) view  self-interest as a major driver of wealth creation, and think that wealth creation without wealth inequality is a fabricated option.

I suspect that most people in this community will be prone to viewing all of the above as live options (rationalists, in my experience, have a strong bias toward optimism (1)).  I personally lean in the other direction, but I've been wrong before.

(1) Yes, this is technically irony.  It stems from a training data problem.  The rationalist community's training data vastly oversamples the tech industry in California between (circa) 1970 and 2010.  That time, industry, and place saw the most dramatic technological revolution in history and is in no sense representative of human experience.

2MondSemmel1moFrom what I understand, the Progress Studies people would strongly disagree with that and say that overall progress has significantly slowed down, and that while the Internet and computer revolution are significant, 100-ish years before that there were multiple such concurrent technological revolutions. From Jason Crawford's interview [https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/22652782/roots-of-progress-jason-crawford] on Vox's Future Perfect:
1Jay1moMoore's Law had processing power doubling every 18 months to two years for decades; the Atari 2600 [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari_2600] of my youth had 128 bytes of RAM; the comparably-priced machine I'm typing this on has 8 billion. No other technology has ever improved by seven orders of magnitude in four decades AFAIK. The economic shifts that came with that made California (and more specifically the Bay Area) what it is today, and my point was that California is highly atypical. On the other hand, I totally agree with the view that progress has overall slowed down. I think the difference is how you measure; measures that favor IT (e.g. information available) will show very different trends than other measures that may more reasonably reflect the impact of technology on human life (e.g. life expectancy, total energy use, inflation-adjusted mean family income). And even in the tech sector, most places weren't as changed as California. I don't think we have serious disagreements; we're just describing different parts of the same elephant.
3gwern1moThere are probably others. Genome sequencing is commonly cited as having been substantially faster, going more orders in fewer decades.
1Jay1moPerhaps. OTOH, even the Atari 2600 was already a consumer-grade mass-market product; gene sequencing is only now getting there. To be honest, there are a few other times and places where technological progress has been even faster like Japan between 1865 and 1945 or Shenzhen between 1975 and 2020. Nevertheless, such meteoric rises are a vanishingly small part of human history. There are lots of places and industries where the last 40 years have seen only very modest improvements, quite a few where the trend has been to modest decline, and some where the decline has been horrible (e.g. Lebanon, Yemen, Zimbabwe). In my extremely subjective, non-expert opinion, the rationalist community's expectations for technological progress are reasonable for computer technology (until recently) but are unreasonable compared to recent trends in industries like energy, transportation, agriculture, construction, medicine, and many more. In other words, it has a strong bias toward optimism.

I liked this post and your use of numerous examples to pinpoint it, but I wish you hadn't used political examples. Even if the examples themselves are fine, they can prompt comments in directions that cross the line of getting mindkilled. (E.g. a post summarizing stuff by Dominic Cummings was temporarily frontpaged here, and the comments section devolved into chaos.)

Even I myself got hung up on your first example on pricegouging for reasons similar to shminux's comment on consequentialist thinking. I might write a comment to elaborate, but if I do, that will further push the comments towards discussing politics, which is a tradeoff I don't like to make.

Strong disagree.  I believe it's important that we specifically practice being able to look at, think about, and discuss political stuff on LW, especially when the thing being pointed at is not the political beliefs themselves so much as these are the mechanics of how thinking goes sideways in this domain.

I think there's a thing to be afraid of, here, and that you're right to have some anxiety and hesitation, but that simply tabooing a huge domain of human thought and action because it's hard to get right is exactly the wrong move for LW-as-a-whole to make.

To put it another way: just as people sometimes say "if you've never missed a flight, you're spending too much time in airports," I think that if we never have a comment section that devolves into chaos and requires moderator intervention, we're staying way too far away from a domain where it's really important to be developing sanity-inducing social technology.

If LW doesn't make inroads here, no one will.

I would prefer a world where we can discuss politics on Less Wrong, and I agree that targeted practice at this would likely help move us closer to that world. But when you put political examples in a post that doesn't require them that seems less like targeted practice and more like diluting your original goal (here: introducing the concept of Fabricated Options) with politics. Unless you think political examples were required to properly introduce the concept, I guess.

Anyway, I've said my piece, and if we do manage to discuss politics here more sanely I'll be pleasantly surprised.

4Duncan_Sabien1moThat seems fair. It's not necessarily the case that this kind of practicing-talking-about-politics is the best way to go about it.
3celeste1moWhat would be a more apt situation in which to bring up politics on LW?
6JBlack1moWait what? People actually say that first thing? The expected utility loss due to consequences of missing a flight are usually vastly greater than the time wasted by aiming to get there earlier. If people do say that, I suspect they must be the jet-setting elites who fly more than a hundred times in their life. Apart from a terrible analogy, your point is perhaps well made. The utility loss from (very occasional!) chaotic messes that need moderators to take action may well be outweighed by the benefits of examining the Sanity Devouring Pit more closely without falling in. On the other hand, I see that quite a few of the comments to this post take issue with the specific somewhat-political examples given, and not with the concept they were intended to illustrate. I felt the pull of the Pit myself, before reminding myself that the examples are not themselves the concept and that refuting an example has very little weight on whether the concept is useful. Is the concept useful? Well, the adjective doesn't seem useful. All options are fabricated, in that they have been created. The connotation is also "a fabrication", meaning a deliberate untruth. The untruth aspect is fine: all options are untrue to some extent, in that they are based on flawed models that never correspond exactly with reality. Are "fabricated" options deliberately untrue? It seems more likely to me that the crucial distinction is just that the model behind it is more critically flawed, and whether that is accidental or deliberate is irrelevant. With some reservations about the name, it does seem to be a useful concept, with the proviso that in practice these things seem to be on a scale rather than a dichotomy.
5Duncan_Sabien1mo(My partner Logan is currently working on investigating what the act of fabrication actually is/what happens in one's internal experience when fabricating options, and why we do it/what the process is trying to achieve. Hopefully that content will make it to LW.)

i linked this as a top level comment, but i figure i should put it here too: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/NjZAkfio5FsCioahb/investigating-fabrication

5philh1moAfaik this is the post that popularized the phrase: https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=40 [https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=40] (Anecdote: in my case, the only time I missed a flight I got to my destination at the same time anyway, at no extra cost, albeit my luggage didn't and there was some hassle about that. The cost of getting to the airport earlier would have been significant, since I'd have had to take a different mode of transport or stay there overnight.)
2Decius1moMy general reply is “if you think you’re spending too much time at the airport now, try missing a connecting flight”. Different airports vary greatly in how much it sucks to unexpectedly spend the night in the terminal.
2Duncan_Sabien1mo(TBC I have never missed a flight "on purpose" in this way, by just saying "eh, I'd rather spend less time at the airport.")
1tcheasdfjkl21dI think the examples are good but I wish there were more examples that aren't highly controversial in some way, either politically or interpersonally. (The "parental control" example is the one that least pinged my "eek, drama here" sense, though certainly there are many who would disagree with your point there (but it doesn't feel like a locally live issue).)
6Slider1moIn my mind I made a counterexample of opposite leaning that would still get the main phenomena/point across. Some people would like to have Laissez-faire capitalism that everybody always has perfectly competed cheap goods. Then when a disaster strikes the market mechanism approach shows weaknesses. So you either have to choose that that you regulate that supply gets guaranteed or that you don't always get the goods. The option of a "invisible hand will provide" capitalism was a fabricated one. I do fell that calling it an approximation would highlight that it would for some context be proper. Always doing things via all the nitty-gritty details seems likely to be too overwhelming so choosing the appropriate approximations is likely that there is enough modelling depth without losing the big picture.
2localdeity1moThere is another possibility. Suppose a market participant suspects that there will be a disaster causing a shortage of vital good X. If X can be stockpiled, then they can buy up a bunch of X, sit on it, and hope to rake in the cash if the disaster does happen. (If X has a short shelf life, it's more difficult; I wonder if futures markets can help here.) (This will raise the price of X in the meantime, encouraging people to manufacture more and use less.) Thus, there exist natural market incentives to stockpile for disasters... ...Unless they anticipate anti-price-gouging interventions. If you're not going to be permitted to make a large profit on the rare event, then why bother stockpiling anything beyond what you yourself need? The opprobrium towards "price gougers", "speculators", "hoarders", etc., and the expected likelihood of the opprobrium turning into legal action, might well prevent us from being saved by some farsighted speculators. Or, well, the way it works, elites will probably get what they need, and it's the majority of regular people who will experience the shortages instead of having the option of paying a high price for what they need.
3Slider1moThe more sophisticated views are not that relevant for the fact that the naive view is false / fragile. Even for the more complicated case if there is anti-gouging it just means you have to price to good for the totality of history rather than a spot time price. This will mean that in calm times the price will be a bit higher. Any seller that would sell at a lower price taking only calm time realities into account would suffer unmitigated shocks from rare events. With gouging on it means that the financial hit from rare events is borne out mainly with the populace. For example with military one could have a reasonable expectation to be defended from invasions. Say that the goverment runs out of troops and hires private mercenaries to provide the defence. Fullfilling a goverment duty makes sense for the goverment to carry the burden and foot the bill on that. One could imagine that the very same peope could be deployed but instead of the goverment footing the bill the people defended pay the bills. In this arrangement the people themselfs organise the defence and don't enjoy protection by the state. One could have a "strategic snowstorm reserve" where goverment does the preparing and upon declaration of an emergency such as a snowstorm would flood shovels outside of the market mechanics. The catch would be that those reserves are not a freebie source of shovels at calm times. What tends to rather happen is that existing logisitical lines are repurposed or dual purposed for such alternate distribution means. If you want to have shovels in peoples hands shovel stores are atleast on okay delivery vector. You could do it so that it is nationalised for the duration of the execptional circumstances. Or you could do less drastic adjustments just as long as it works as an effective delivery vector. If people not being able to cough up big cash fronts stops shovels being delivered then it becomes ineffective. One could even do stuff like letting everybody be gouged but in
2Pattern1moWith inflation increasing over time, this 'totality price' becomes less and less possible or effective.
2Slider1moI guess I should have shot for possiblity rather than temporal extent. I for example believe that retail stores track and factor in theft ie they will assume and calculate that 1000$ worth of goods will just disappear off the shelfs with no transaction involved. Then if a secruity guard can for 600$ make only 200$ disappear in the same period it makes financial sense to hire the guard. The 600$ salary for the guard will be from legitimate purchaces of the product. So if the profit target of the company is kept the same a shop in a low crime area can afford lower prices as they don't have to source security guard salaries on it. If the shop is exposed to risk of not being able to have access to a functioning market at crisis times it will have to hedge against it or perish like a shop that didn't hedge against theft would go under when robbed.

It seems like the core issue underlying all of these specific examples is that “gather more information about the expected outcome and seek additional options” choice isn’t considered.

Sometimes the price gouging actually is someone who is making an obscene profit even considering their expenses. Price-fixing in that specific case can just be the socially desired outcome, but the policy maker has to have detailed information about the specifics of that specific case.

So far the idea that an embryo will become immortal if it exits the womb alive has been taken as an article of faith by people who claim that abortion is bad because it results in a death; if the choice is examined as including an option where the death is preceded by little suffering and an option where the death is preceded by an expected lot of suffering and little redeeming quality, the position that abortion is bad because death is bad loses all basis.

If someone is drowning (literally or metaphorically) and you don’t consider the option of calling a trained lifeguard or other person more competent or better equipped than you,, you haven’t considered all of the easily available options.

If you only consider the comple... (read more)

I like this essay and think the concept is excellent. 

I find example #2 confusing, though - possibly because I'm not American, so I mostly haven't been exposed to American pro-life views. What is the sense in which "living baby" is usually pushed for by pro-life advocates? Am I expected to be familiar with The Cider-House Rules (a novel I don't recall hearing about until now) to understand this example? 

I think maybe I gave you the sense that the example was cleverer or more profound than it really is.  I think it's just straightforward and you probably mostly already get it.

The thing that happens (not all the time, but fairly frequently, like at least 10% of the time and maybe as much as 40 or 50%) is that the pro-life advocates will make appeals that depend upon a certain concept of a thriving, happy child.  Like, they'll write a story in the first person about a child's life and all their hopes and dreams and accomplishments, but end with "but that never happened because my mommy aborted me." Or they'll wax eloquent about how good it is to be alive, generally, speaking unacknowledged-ly from the perspective of a person whose basic needs are met and who grew up with a happy family and supportive community, and then try to draw a straight and uncomplicated line from that to "therefore, no fetus should ever be aborted."

("No fetus should be aborted because life is good" being the unstated link in the chain, and by leaving it unstated that makes it harder for people to bring up "but sometimes life can genuinely be so not-good that it's not worth living, and isn't that relevant?")

TBC, I think there are similar blindspots and skipped steps and fabricated options on the other side of this argument, which is why I personally liked what I saw as the less uneven-by-design footing of the framing of the issue in the John Irving novel.

7Aaro Salosensaari1moI have not read Irving either but he is relatively "world-famous" 1970s-1980s author. (In case it helps you to calibrate, his novel The World According To Garp is the kind of book that was published in translation in the prestigious Keltainen Kirjasto series by Finnish publisher Tammi.) However, I would like make an opposing point about literature and fiction. I was surprised that post author mentioned a work of fiction as a positive example that demonstrates how some commonly argued option is a fabricated one. I'd think literature would at least as often (maybe more often) disseminate belief in fabricated options than correct them, as an author can easily literally fabricate (make things up, it is fiction) easily believable and memorable stories how characters choose one course of action out of many options and it works out (or not, either way, because the narrator decided so) but in reality, all options as portrayed in the story could all turn out be misrepresented, "fabricated options" in real life.
2Gunnar_Zarncke1moI read the summary on Wikipedia and couldn't figure out the specific alternatives either. But it is not needed. It is clear that the real options real people face are equally difficult.

Some extra nuance for your examples:

There is a substance XYZ, it's called "anti-water", it filling the hole of water in twin-Earth mandates that twin-Earth is made entirely of antimatter, and then the only problem is that the vacuum of space isn't vacuum enough (e.g., solar wind (I think that's what it's called), if nothing else, would make that Earth explode). More generally, it ought to be possible to come up with a physics where all the fundamental particles have an extra "tag" that carries no role (which in practice, I think, means that it functions ju... (read more)

Time-to-completion estimates fueled by the planning fallacy, are fabricated options. #EXAMPLE

#EXAMPLE, #TOOLS, on exercise:

Option A: Sit at my computer all day.

Option B: Go on daily 1-hour-long walks but inevitably break the habit due to boredom.

It took me a long time to resolve that conundrum, and my eventual solution was to break this false dichotomy via option C, i.e. "bringing my computer" with me.

So for years I've been taking daily walks with a Kindle or smartphone in one hand. Yes, it looks silly, but I don't care one bit since it actually works. (If I'd picked up the habit nowadays I might listen to podcasts instead, though I really don't like earbuds due to tinnitus.)

Curated. I wouldn't normally curate two posts from the same author in rapid succession, but in fact both are well-worthy of it. This post introduces a new Rationality technique/frame into shared knowledge that despite its simplicity, just seems powerful and great and I'm glad to have it in the toolbox.

#EXAMPLE: when I want to get five things done and I kind of know I only have time or energy for three of them but all the things are Very High Priority and unacceptable to leave unfinished, I sometimes find myself making plans for accomplishing the things that are pretty unrealistic if I'm honest with myself. Here the fake option is "get all the things done by trying hard and believing in myself", and what actually happens is that some random subset of the things will not get done when people expect them to and I'll feel bad about myself and also people wi... (read more)

I like that you glossed the phrase "have your cake and eat it too":

It's like a toddler thinking that they can eat their slice of cake, and still have that very same slice of cake available to eat again the next morning.

I also like that you explained the snowclone "lies, damned lies, and statistics". I'm familiar with both of these cliches, but they're generally overused to the point of meaninglessness. It's clear you used them with purpose.

Interestingly, if my research is not mistaken, "eat your cake and have it too" was the original form of the phrase and is much clearer imo; I was always confused by "have your cake and eat it too" because that seemed to be just ... describing the normal order of operations?

1MondSemmel1moAlso, this is the kind of thing that can trip up non-native speakers while learning a foreign language. I certainly stumbled over this specific example.

Interesting post. I find that most of my encounters with "fabricated options" (ones I think about and also ones others propose to me) are options where the "fabricated" part is about what's in other people's heads. Several of your examples include things in this category. This is probably because I have a very poor perception of what about other people's heads is more or less fixed, and what might change at a whim. If my kid really wants to go to the park, and I want to stay home, "going to the park and just being cool with it" is totally a real option for... (read more)

"[T]here are forces at work which cannot be dispersed by the stroke of a lawmaker's pen" is a statement as profound as it is succinct. Well done.

This made me think of gun-free school zones and how they appear to be completely ineffective at preventing children from getting shot at school. #EXAMPLE

4LoganStrohl16dfantastic prosody as well, geez

I'm reading Being you and they make a similar point to the one you make about H20 and XYZ. It's part of their argument against p-zombies:

Here’s why the zombie idea is supposed to provide an argument against physicalist explanations of consciousness. If you can imagine a zombie, this means you can conceive of a world that is indistinguishable from our world, but in which no consciousness is happening. And if you can conceive of such a world, then consciousness cannot be a physical phenomenon.

And here’s why it doesn’t work. The zombie argument, like many tho

... (read more)

I can see what you mean by saying that 'identical to water but not water' is not true, but it's called the 'Twin' planet. Even twins have different fingerprints. Can't a substance act like water, look like water, and anything we do without looking at the molecular structure makes it seem identical to water, yet actually the creatures on that planet discovered a new molecule, that was just the same shape/form as a water molecule and have a different number of electrons?

I don't really understand atom structure, so is this scenario possible?

2Duncan_Sabien1moAccording to my a-few-classes-of-college-level-chemistry-and-physics level knowledge, no. There just aren't enough possibilities that are small enough to do that sort of thing that share enough of water's properties, with the notable exception being literal anti-water (water made of antihydrogen and antioxygen).
Instead, it has a chemical, labeled XYZ, which behaves like water and occupies water's place in biology and chemistry, but is unambiguously distinct.

Reverse water. The chiral twin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiral_drugs, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chirality_(chemistry)

I've never heard of it.


Example 1:

Option 3: A reserve, just in case of an emergency. (I think there's a country that has this, and it includes coffee. Or coffee beans. Or it did, maybe they've run out?)


if we do not actively hold ourselves to a certain kind of stodgy actuarial insistence
... (read more)

Reverse water. The chiral twin.

Water isn't a chiral molecule though.

2Pattern1moWhich is why I wrote: I've never heard of it. (Is chirality determined by atoms of the substance bonding with themselves, or is HOH enough that 'that's symmetrical' so 'no chirality for water'?)
3Measure1moIt's because H-O-H is symmetrical. The simplest chiral molecule would be something like a tetrahedral structure with four different elements as the "points" (one of which could be an lone pair).
2Duncan_Sabien1moMore like "better lawmakers require actual unusual effort; they won't just happen by default."

Why not just call it an illogical option, due to its consequences, but instinctive thought, due to simplicity in a shortsighted context.

“Just like water,” they might say, and I would nod.

“Liquid, and transparent, with a density of 997 kilograms per meter cubed.”

“Sure,” I would reply.

“Which freezes and melts at exactly 0º Celsius, and which boils and condenses at exactly 100º Celsius.”

“Yyyyeahhhh,” I would say, uneasiness settling in

So assuming all the laws of physics are the same in this parallel world, you can't have another water. Ok, but it's a parallel world, so it need not have the same laws of physics.

But that's not even the main problem: the XYZ thought experiment doe... (read more)

7Duncan_Sabien1moThe point is, those "superficial" properties prove to be much less superficial once you think about them at all. Like, the comment above is exactly the kind of loose handwaving that I'm trying to highlight. Even if you set aside stuff like density and molarity and just focus on "freezes and boils at roughly the right places, and occupies the same role in biology" it immediately falls apart as a possibility. (Given our physics.)
4Slider1moOne can imagine a fantasy world where the world-dominating liquid is different from water but a real liquid (so it doesn't crumble as a molecyle (the would be a argument that star garbage output mechanics might need changing and could fail to make sense)) If we ever find a planet with life that lives for example in a nitrogen sea I would think that the term "aquatic" should apply to them and in the sense of "sea animal" those would be "fish". And yeah this comes from the dolphin discussion part of my brain.
3Duncan_Sabien1moSure, but one would not posit that this world looks just like Earth.
2Slider1moI think the point is that we first point at a "splashy stuff" that turns out later to have details such as made out of hydrogen. "splashy stuff" is not conceptually connnected to hydrogen because if those details were found out to be different it would still be "that splashy stuff" Water is pretty figured out, but for example dark matter could be a number of different things. If one thinks of neutronic dark matter or axionic dark matter they would be different aqnd not equivalent to each other but they still succeed to be dark matter. And this kidn of thing doesn't go away even if the thing is known better. It also strikes me that under current understanding having a planet made out of anti-matter would locally behave similarly even if water and anti-water are not interexhangeable. And the XYZ issue is that anti-water would be water in the "splashy stuff that makes oceanic worlds" sense. Or a radical rephrasing would be that if sitting on a chair in the real world is hard to distinguish from sitting on a chair in a simulation/matrix then "chairness" is not dependent on the metaphysics of the situation (so matrix-water woudl alos be water even if it made from bits instead of atoms).
3TAG1moCan you imagine a planet where all the water is heavy water?
3Duncan_Sabien1moI can. I am not sure if that ability-to-imagine reflects the same sort of failure-to-notice-consequences. EDIT: this [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heavy_water#Effect_on_biological_systems] would seem to indicate that it does.
-2TAG1moOf course heavy water is different to ordinary water . That's not the point. The point is that in Putnam's Twin Earth thought experiment, it is never asserted that XYZ is completely indistinguishable from water. The point is only that something similar sufficiently similar would have been called water when we started using the word thousands of years ago... thousands of years before a scientific understanding of water. This sort of thing happens in our world too. For instance the "wasabi" available in the West is not wasabi.
3Duncan_Sabien1moI think we're talking past each other. The point of Poundstone's exploration (which I independently endorse, having bought its claim) is that no such sufficiently similar substance can exist.That there's a big gap between water and the next nearest physically possible alternative. Heavy water being an example of something that would absolutely not fit the bill of "sufficiently similar" to water.
1Ramiro P.1moMy concern, which I interpret as being TAG's point (but with different words), is that your example of water vs. XYZ is immediately traceable (at least for anyone who knows the philosophical discussion) to Putnam's Twin Earth experiment [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twin_Earth_thought_experiment]. The way you express your point suggests you disregard this thought experiment - which is surprising for someone acquainted with it, because Putnam (at least when he wrote the paper) would likely agree that a substance with the same basic chemical properties of water would be water. He actually aims to provide an argument for semantic externalism - i.e., the idea that the meaning of "water" (or of other natural species) is H20, its chemical nature, and not the apparent properties commonly used as criteria to discriminate it (that it's a tasteless liquid...). He's so pushing against a conventionalist view about semantics (and philosophy of language), thus it's not about physics or ontology.
1TAG1moUnder which laws of physics? But we almost certainly are talking past each other , because Twin Earth isn't really about water..it's about naming and necessity . Any example where naming is contingent would have done .