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Less Wrong: Open Thread, September 2010

(sorry of this comment is too long, continued from above) Creating Incentives

Of course, a sense of public pride exists in many people, and this has led large numbers of people to learn about the issues without external inducements. But the population of educated voters could be vastly increased if there were these personal benefits, especially for groups where environmentalism has not become a positive norm.

While we have thought about other approaches to creating these wide-ranging personal incentives, specifically, material prizes and the intangible benefits of social networking and personal pride (such as are behind Wikipedia or Facebook’s success), it appears that these are difficult to apply to the issue of climate change. Material prizes would be costly to fund, especially to make them worth the several hours necessary to learn about the issues. The issues are difficult enough, and the topic possibly scary enough, that it is not necessarily fun to learn about them and discuss with your friends. For another, it takes time and a little bit of dedicated thinking to achieve an adequate understanding of the problem, but part of the incentive to do so on Wikipedia—to show off your genuine expertise on the topic, even if anonymous—is exactly not what is supposed to happen when there is an educated populace on the topic: you will not be a unique expert, just another person who understands the issue like everyone else. The sense of urgency and personal importance needed to spur people to learn just is not there with these modes of incentivization.

But there is one already extremely effective way that companies, schools, and other organizations incentivize behavior that has little to do with immediate personal benefits. These institutions use their ability to advance or deter people’s future careers to motivate performance in certain areas. The gatekeepers to these future prospects can use their position to bring about all kinds of behavior that would otherwise seem to be a huge burden on those individuals. Ordinary hiring and admissions processes, for example, can impose large writing and learning requirements on their applicants, but because the personal benefits of getting into these organizations are enormous, people are more than willing to fulfill these requirements. Oftentimes, these requirements do not even necessarily have much to do with the stated purpose of the organization, but are used as filtering mechanisms to determine which are the best candidates. Admissions essays are not what universities set out to produce, but rather a bar they set to see which candidates can do well. These bars (known as “sorting mechanisms” in economics) sometimes have additional beneficial effects such as increased writing practice for future students, but not necessarily. For example, polished CV writing is a skill that is only good for overcoming these bars, without additional personal or social benefits. But because these additional effects are really only secondary attributes of the main function of the hurdle, the bar can be modified in ways that create socially beneficial purposes without affecting their main function.

So our specific proposal is to leverage employers’ and schools’ gatekeeper status to impose a hiring hurdle, similar to a polished CV or a high standardized test score, of learning about contemporary climate change science and policy. This hiring hurdle would act much like other hiring hurdles imposed by organizations, but would create a huge personal incentive for individuals to learn about climate change in place of or in addition to the huge personal incentive to write good covering letters or scoring well on the SATs.

The hiring hurdle would be implemented by a third party, a website that acts both as the layman’s guide to climate change science and policy (possibly with something that already exists, but hopefully with something more modular) and as a secure testing center of this knowledge. The website would provide an easy way for people to learn about the most up to date climate science and different policy options available, something that could probably be read and understood with an afternoon’s effort. Once the individual feels that he or she understands the material well enough, a secure test can be taken which measures the extent of that individuals’ climate knowledge. (This test could be retaken if the individual is dissatisfied with the result, or it could be imposed again once new and highly relevant information is discovered). The score that individuals receive could be reported to institutions they apply to. This score would be just one more tickbox for institutions to check before accepting their applicants, and they could determine the score they require.

The major benefit of this approach is that it creates enormous personal incentives for a very small cost. Companies and other institutions already have hiring hurdles in place, and they do not have to burden their HR staff with hundreds of climate change essays but just a simple score that they could look up on the website. The website itself can be hosted for a relatively small cost, and institutions can sign up to the program as more executives and leaders are convinced that this is a good idea.

Presumably, it is much easier to convince a few people who are in charge of such organizations that climate change education is important than to convince individual members of the public. Potentially, this project could affect millions, especially if large corporations such as McDonalds or Walmart or universities with many applicants sign on to the program. Furthermore, approaching the problem of global climate change through nongovernmental institutions seems like a good approach because it avoids the stasis in many public institutions, and it can be done by convincing much fewer stakeholders. Also, many of these institutions have an increasingly global scope.

Developing a platform to combat “information cocoons” yet retain legitimacy

The major problem is that this type of incentivizing might be seen as a way of buying off or patronizing voters, but this appears to be necessary to break the “information cocoons” that many people unknowingly fall into.

Hopefully a charge of having a political agenda can be answered by allowing a certain amount of feedback and continuing development of the guide as more arguments are voiced. Part of the website will be organized so that dissent can be voiced publicly and openly, but only in an organized and reasoned way (something like lesswrong but with stricter limits on posting). The guide would have to maintain public legitimacy by being open to criticism and new evidence as we discover more and also display the evidence that is supporting the current arguments. We would like to include a rating system, something like Rotten Tomatoes, where we have climate experts and the general public vote on various arguments and scenarios that are developed (but this would probably be only for those who develop a specific interest, not part of the testable guide. Of course, the testable guide would follow major developments on this more detailed information). We have thought of using an argument map to better organize such information.

But still, it could not be so flexible that those previous information cocoons redevelop on the website, and a similar polarization occurs on the website as before. Some degree of control is necessary to drive some points home. Thus, a delicate balance might have to be achieved.

That sums up pretty much the ideas to this point. At this point, the project is pretty much all theorizing, although we have found a couple of programmers who might help for a reduced fee (Know of anyone that would be interested in this for free?) and are looking into some funding sources. This would be a large scale attempt at rational debate and discussion, spurred by a mechanism to encourage everybody to participate, so please if you have any advice it would be enormously appreciated.

Sincerely, Allen Wang

Less Wrong: Open Thread, September 2010

I have been following this site for almost a year now and it is fabulous, but I haven't felt an urgent need to post to the site until now. I've been working on a climate change project with a couple of others and am in desperate need of some feedback.

I know that climate change isn't a particularly popular topic on this website (but I'm not sure why, maybe I missed something, since much of the website seems to deal with existential risk. Am I really off track here?), but I thought this would be a great place to air these ideas. Our approach tries to tackle the irrational tangle that many of our institutions appear to be caught up in, so I thought this would be the perfect place to get some expertise. The project is kind of at a standstill, and it really needs some advice and leads (and collaborators), so please feel free to praise, criticize, advise, or even join.

I saw orthonormal's "welcome to LessWrong post," so I guess this is where to post before I build up enough points. I hope it isn't too long of an introductory post for this thread?

The aim of the project is to achieve a population that is more educated in the basics of climate change science and policy, with the hope that a more educated voting public will be a big step towards achieving the policies necessary to deal with climate change.

The basic problem of educating the public about climate change is twofold. First, people sometimes get trapped into “information cocoons” (I am using Cass Sunstein’s terminology from his book Infotopia). Information cocoons are created when the news and information people seek out and surround themselves with is biased by what they already know. They are either completely unaware of competing evidence or if they are, they revise their network of beliefs to deny the credibility of those who offer it rather than consider it serious evidence. Usually, this is because they believe it is more probable that those people are not credible than that they could be wrong. This problem has always existed, and has perhaps increased since the rise of the personalized web. People who are trapped in information cocoons of denial of anthropogenic climate change will require much more evidence and counterarguments before they can begin to revise an entire network of beliefs that support their current conclusions.

Second, the population is uneducated about climate change because they lack the incentive to learn about the issues. Although we would presumably benefit if everyone were to take the time to thoroughly understand the issue, the individual cost and benefit of doing so actually runs the other way. Because the benefits of better policies accrue to everybody, but the costs are borne by the individual, people have an incentive to free ride, to let everybody else worry about the issue because either way, their individual contribution means little, and everybody else can make the informed decision. But of course, with everybody reasoning in this way there is a much lower level of education on these issues than optimal (or even necessary to create the necessary change, especially if there are interest groups with opposing goals).

The solution is to institute some system that can crack into these information cocoons and at the same time provide wide-ranging personal incentives for participating. For the former, we propose to develop a layman’s guide to climate change science and economic and environmental policy. Many of these are already in existence, although we have some different ideas about how to make it more transparent to criticism and more thorough in its discussion of epistemic uncertainty surrounding the whole issue. There is definitely a lot we can learn from LessWrong on this point). Also, I think we have a unique idea about developing a system of personal incentives. I will discuss this latter issue first.

Less Wrong: Open Thread, September 2010

It seems to me that the main reason most hypertext sources seem to produce shallower reading is not the fact that it contains hypertext itself, but that the barriers of publication are so low that the quality of most written work online is usually much lower than printed material. For example, this post is something that I might have spent 3 minutes thinking about before posting, whereas a printed publication would have much more time to mature and also many more filters such as publishers to take out the noise.

It is more likely that book reading seems more deep because the quality is better.

Also, it wouldn't be difficult to test this hypothesis with print and online newspaper since they both contain the same material.

Transparency and Accountability

I really want to put up a post that is highly relevant to this topic. I've been working with a couple of friends on an idea to altar personal incentives to solve the kinds of public good provision problems that charities and other organizations face, and I want to get some feedback from this community. Is someone with enough points to post willing to read over it and post for me? Or can I get some upvotes? (I know that this might be a bit rude, but I really want to get this out there ASAP).

Thanks a bunch, Allen Wang

Consciousness of simulations & uploads: a reductio

I think that something like this must be the case. Especially considering the hypothesis that the brain is a dynamical system that requires rapid feedback among a wide variety counterfactual channels, even the type of calculation in Simplicio's simulation model wouldn't work. Note that this is not just because you don't have enough time to simulate all the moves of the computer algorithm that produces the behavior. You have to be ready to mimic all the possible behaviors that could arise from a different set of inputs, in the same temporal order. I'm sure that somewhere along the way, linear methods of calculation such as your simulation attempts, must break down.

In other words, your simulation is just a dressed up version of the wind up system from a dynamical system point of view. The analogy runs like this: The simulation model is to the real consciousness what the wind-up model is to a simulation, in that it supports much fewer degrees of freedom. It seems that you have to have the right kind of hardware to support such processes, hardware that probably has criteria much closer to our biological, multilateral processing channels than a linear binary logic computer. Note that even though Turing machines supposedly can represent any kind of algorithm, they cannot support the type of counterfactual channels and especially feedback loops necessary for consciousness. The number of calculations necessary to recreate the physical process is probably beyond the linearly possible with such apparatuses.