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The Treacherous Path to Rationality

I didn't really see much public discussion early outside of epidemiology Twitter. I'm married to an epidemiologist who stocked our flat with masks in December when there were 59 confirmed cases in Wuhan, and we bought enough tins of food to eat for a few weeks in January, as well as upgrading our work-from-home set up before things sold out. Although I completely failed to make the connection and move my pension out of equities, that doesn't actually seem to have cost me very much in the long run (for those keeping count, S&P 500 is up 17% year-on-year).

(The biggest very early warning sign, apparently, was that when there were 59 cases China was still claiming there was no person-to-person transmission, which seemed implausible). 

I actually am impressed by how well the Lesswrong-sphere did epistemically. People here seem to have been taking COVID seriously before most other people were, but as I've tried to explain a bit more above, I'm not sure how much this good this did anyone personally. If the argument is 'listen to rationalists when they say weird things because they're more often right when they say weird things that most other people', then I think I'm on board. If the argument is 'try explicit rationality, it will make your life noticeably better in measurable ways', then I'm less convinced, and I think these really are distinct claims.

PS - your links seem to be broken, it's easy enough to follow them, as you gave full URL's, just thought I'd let you know.

The Treacherous Path to Rationality

I'm actually confused by that response, and I don't think it's really part of your best attempt to explain what you meant by 'rationalists pwned covid'. I'll try to explain why I'm unimpressed with that response below, but I think we're in danger of getting into a sort of 'point-scoring' talking past each other. Obviously there were a few rhetorical flourishes in my original response, but I think the biggest part of what I'm trying to say is that the actual personal benefits to most people of being ahead of the curve on thinking about the pandemic were pretty minimal, and I think avoiding infection would fall in that 'minimal benefit' bucket for most of us. 

I think we can be a bit more concrete - I think the actual personal benefits to either you or me of being aware of what was happening with COVID slightly before everyone else were pretty minimal. I really liked your article from February, and I really think the points you were making about conformity bias are probably the strongest part of your argument that rationality has practical uses, but you pretty much said yourself in that post that the actual, practical benefits were not that big: 

"Aside from selling the equities, all the prep I’ve done was to stock a month of necessities so I can work from home and to hold off on booking flights for a trip I had planned for April."

And I think (and this is where we probably differ) that this is pretty typical of the sort of topics where you can get the right answer using explicit reason. 

To address the actual claim that rationalist didn't get infected (although, as I said, I don't think it really gets the meat of what you were saying originally).

First, I think it's probably not true, there are two main reasons for this: one, there are 255k confirmed COVID cases in New York City, so if there are 10 million people in the city, and 25% of them have had COVID, then only 10% of the people who've had it know they've had it; two, I'm about 85% sure that I remember a post going round Bay Area rationalist Facebook friends in March about someone who had been to a party at a group house having a positive test.

Second, if it is (even proportionally) true, I think it's probably mostly down to demographics. I play in a regular bridge game with some Scottish and English internationals, and as far as I'm aware, none of them have had COVID. I think this is probably more to do with the fact that very few bridge players work in the service sector, and almost all of us were able to work from home during a pandemic than any particular perspicacity on our part.

Third, as I said above, it's a pretty low bar. If you're rich enough (and don't work at a hospital), avoiding personally getting infected is relatively straightforward, and while obviously it has some benefits, I don't think it would be enough of an incentive to convince me to take on a whole new worldview.

The Treacherous Path to Rationality

Seriously, in what sense did rationalists "pwn covid"? Did they build businesses that could reliably survive a year of person-to-person contact being restricted across the planet? Did they successfully lobby governments to invest properly in pandemic response before anything happened? Did they invest in coronavirus vaccine research so that we had a vaccine ready before the pandemic started? Did they start a massive public information campaign that changed people's behaviour and stopped the disease from spreading exponentially? Did they all move to an island nation where they could continue life as normal by shutting the border? 

Honestly, it seems pretty distasteful to say that anyone 'pwned' a disease that has now killed over 1 million people, but on the face of it, it's also pretty ridiculous. So far as I can tell, a small handful of people divested a small amount of their stock portfolio, and a bunch of people wrote some articles about how the disease was likely to be a big deal, mostly around the time other people were also starting to come to the same conclusion. By late February it was probably already too late to start stockpiling for a quarantine without effectively taking those supplies away from someone else. Honestly, the practical benefits of being a couple of weeks ahead of the curve on this seem pretty minimal.

(Also, to be clear, it's not obvious you were that much ahead of the curve. The Vox article about 'no handshakes please' was written about 2 weeks before either of the 'rationalist' articles you link to, which implies that at least a good chunk of Silicon Valley was already taking it seriously)

 I really think this is a big part of the reason that people don't benefit nearly as much as you might initially think from 'rationality'. There are huge benefits to going with the crowd, and huge coordination problems to be solved if you want to outperform the crowd. Sure, there are a handful of very impressive rationalists who seem to have done very impressive things, but there are a handful of very impressive people in pretty much any community built around any intellectual pursuit. I'm not sure I buy the premise that 'explicit rationality' is nearly as good as you think it is. 

Collection of GPT-3 results

In case you haven't already found out, the free version has been updated to be a smaller version of GPT-3. Confirmed on twitter https://twitter.com/nickwalton00/status/1284842368105975810?s=19

March Coronavirus Open Thread

It is now literally not true that car accidents kill more people, in either the UK or Italy, and won't be true in the US in about a week.

I've found the time-delayed log graphs like this one pretty convincing: https://images.app.goo.gl/iKrfzw9Wt7hAqkVB6