The Sanity Waterline Bulges at the Middle

by matejsuchy2 min read29th May 20215 comments

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World OptimizationRationality
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Ideas have consequences. A subset of ideas — we’ll call it ideology — has consequences on material life. Naturally, this means that ideology is subject to a selective pressure.

Which means we need to consider slack. Just as with intermediary adaptions in the stylized case of eyespots, there can are frictions associated with adhering to new ideology. In departing from the previous paradigm, one is supported by less wisdom and has a narrower reference class to work from. There will be bumps along the way as you and your fellow innovators figure things out. These frictions require slack.

In a world with too little slack, activation energy is too scarce to spend on innovation. If eyespots cost energy but only payoff after the system settles into a new equilibrium, they won’t reach fixation in a population of energy-constrained worms. If one day a Russian serf had come up with Progressive Belief X that could yield some utility returns in a decade’s time if the community refactored a bit, it wouldn’t matter. They have mouths to feed right now.

On the other hand, if there’s too much slack, the adaption will also fail to reach fixation. Why? Well, even if it happened to do so, by a stroke of luck, it’d be helpless to prevent another adaption from replacing it. Too much slack means too little selective pressure, which means that there’s no mechanism by which any phenotype could characterize an evolutionarily stable equilibrium. In a lab where worms are fed no matter what, eyespots might arise and then fade back away, just as might the latest Western social fad among the bored and comfortable Russian elite.

In order for good adaptions to reach fixation, you need some slack, but not too much. When these conditions don’t hold, you might expect dysfunction.

What does this look like? Take education. The poor have little slack, so they under-educate themselves. There are scores of people with 145+ IQs working manual jobs. Whereas the middle class have some slack, so they get roughly the education they need — you see the greatest dispersion in middle class schools, with a sizable proportion not going to college and some going to very prestigious colleges. With the upper class, almost all go to good schools, and most are simply not equal to the education and eventual career they hold onto. They’re able to hold onto their jobs by dint of their good social networks (slack), and so the costs are mostly passed off to society in the form of an elite that is 2/3 incompetent and stupid. 

Anecdotally, it seems that this does incur a real cost for these overeducated elites — because they're not smart enough to do the job right, they either become (secretly self-acknowledged) frauds or struggle mightily to keep their heads above water, making a job that would be fun for the right person into a stress fest for them. Both tails don't find work that matches their skills and generates flow; the middle generally does.

More controversially, one might look at something like sexual behavior. But, that’s a story for another time. The takeaway: the sanity waterline is probably higher with the middle class. Whenever you wish to seek wisdom, seek it there first.

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This sounds interesting, although I would prefer to support your assertions with more evidence. But seems like you used education as a synonym or a proxy for sanity, which doesn't seem so obvious to me.

Yes, it certainly is too short. I fear some of my writing is too long-winded, and wanted to try the whole "most blog posts should be a tweet" thing. Evidently, this is not the most effective strategy.

I don't intend to use education as interchangeable for sanity. Here "sane ideology" is just a cultural belief that maximizes utility. The three ideologies here are: "education is not worth it", "pursue education according to your ability", "get a masters as long as you're not brain dead," which are espoused by much of the lower, middle, and upper classes, respectively. 

My claim is that the middle position is the best — that wealthy and dumb individuals would actually be much happier if they learned a skilled trade and built a respectable small business than if they went to university and ended up in a low-pay, low-impact jobs program for the overeducated such as ... well, I don't want to be rude and name the sectors, but I'm sure you can fill in the gaps. Of course, it's easier to argue that eschewing education altogether (the low-slack-enforced lower class ultimatum) is also undesirable. So, the middle class approach to education is sane insofar as it produces the best results.

Of course, insane is not quite an apt descriptor for the two tail beliefs here. However, there are other areas where the insane/sane dichotomy really is appropriate (I hesitate to introduce them, as, naturally, they are the sort of thing that induces half of the population to froth at the mouth).

In retrospect, this may be the fatal flaw in attempting to introduce something like this. In order to properly provide evidence for an insane/sane split, one would necessarily have to pick an example that is culture-wars radioactive. It's my understanding that doing so is against site policy/norms, so I'm not sure how to approach this.

Of course, insane is not quite an apt descriptor for the two tail beliefs here. However, there are other areas where the insane/sane dichotomy really is appropriate (I hesitate to introduce them, as, naturally, they are the sort of thing that induces half of the population to froth at the mouth).

In retrospect, this may be the fatal flaw in attempting to introduce something like this. In order to properly provide evidence for an insane/sane split, one would necessarily have to pick an example that is culture-wars radioactive. It's my understanding that doing so is against site policy/norms, so I'm not sure how to approach this.

Does that really follow? From my perspective a lot of the culture war stuff misses the point. Sometimes both sides have a good reasons to be upset with the other, but arguments are soldiers. Sometimes both sides are wrong and there's a third way that isn't even part of the conversation. The current rationalist culture disagrees with the mainstream on numerous points, but not necessarily in ways that fall into the Overton window.

It's difficult to talk about this so abstractly with no examples. Are there any examples you could use that the rationalists already mostly seem to agree on? Is it possible you're simply wrong about these? Have you considered double-cruxing?

Perhaps you could introduce it allegorically? Write a fictional story illustrating the point. The insane probably won't get it.

than if they went to university and ended up in a low-pay, low-impact jobs program for the overeducated such as ... well, I don't want to be rude and name the sectors, but I'm sure you can fill in the gaps.

Bullshit Jobs? It's not entirely obvious to me what you're referring to.

Bullshit jobs are a lot of it. I'd add anything in media, a lot of academia (shocking numbers of those who'd be better off running a plumbing business in some depts), and non-profit / political activism stuff