Scott Alexander

Scott Alexander's Comments

Are "superforecasters" a real phenomenon?

I was going off absence of evidence (the paper didn't say anything other than taking the top 2%), so if anyone else has positive evidence that outweighs what I'm saying.

Free Speech and Triskaidekaphobic Calculators: A Reply to Hubinger on the Relevance of Public Online Discussion to Existential Risk

I agree much of psychology etc are bad for the reasons you state, but this doesn't seem to be because everyone else has fried their brains by trying to simulate how to appease triskaidekaphobics too much. It's because the actual triskaidekaphobics are the ones inventing the psychology theories. I know a bunch of people in academia who do various verbal gymnastics to appease the triskaidekaphobics, and when you talk to them in private they get everything 100% right.

I agree that most people will not literally have their buildings burned down if they speak out against orthodoxies (though there's a folk etymology for getting fired which is relevant here). But I appreciate Zvi's sequence on super-perfect competition as a signpost of where things can end up. I don't think academics, organization leaders, etc. are in super-perfect competition the same way middle managers are, but I also don't think we live in the world where everyone has infinite amounts of slack to burn endorsing taboo ideas and nothing can possibly go wrong.

Less Wrong Poetry Corner: Walter Raleigh's "The Lie"

I think you might be wrong about how fraud is legally defined. If the head of Pets.com says "You should invest in Pets.com, it's going to make millions, everyone wants to order pet food online", and then you invest in them, and then they go bankrupt, that person was probably biased and irresponsible, but nobody has committed fraud.

If Raleigh had simply said "Sponsor my expedition to El Dorado, which I believe has lots of gold", that doesn't sound like fraud either. But in fact he said:

For the rest, which myself have seen, I will promise these things that follow, which I know to be true. Those that are desirous to discover and to see many nations may be satisfied within this river, which bringeth forth so many arms and branches leading to several countries and provinces, above 2,000 miles east and west and 800 miles south and north, and of these the most either rich in gold or in other merchandises. The common soldier shall here fight for gold, and pay himself, instead of pence, with plates of half-a-foot broad, whereas he breaketh his bones in other wars for provant and penury. Those commanders and chieftains that shoot at honour and abundance shall find there more rich and beautiful cities, more temples adorned with golden images, more sepulchres filled with treasure, than either Cortes found in Mexico or Pizarro in Peru. And the shining glory of this conquest will eclipse all those so far-extended beams of the Spanish nation.

There were no Indian cities, and essentially no gold, anywhere in Guyana.

I agree with you that lots of people are biased! I agree this can affect their judgment in a way somewhere between conflict theory and mistake theory! I agree you can end up believing the wrong stories, or focusing on the wrong details, because of your bias! I'm just not sure that's how fraud works, legally, and I'm not sure it's an accurate description of what Sir Walter Raleigh did.

Less Wrong Poetry Corner: Walter Raleigh's "The Lie"

What exactly is contradictory? I only skimmed the relevant pages, but they all seemed to give a pretty similar picture. I didn't get a great sense of exactly what was in Raleigh's book, but all of them (and whoever tried him for treason) seemed to agree it was somewhere between heavily exaggerated and outright false, and I get the same impression from the full title "The discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado)"

Less Wrong Poetry Corner: Walter Raleigh's "The Lie"

I'm confused by your confusion. The first paragraph establishes that Raleigh was at least as deceptive as the institutions he claimed to be criticizing. The second paragraph argues that if deceptive people can write famous poems about how they are the lone voice of truth in a deceptive world, we should be more careful about taking claims like that completely literally.

If you want more than that, you might have to clarify what part you don't understand.

What is Life in an Immoral Maze?
Questions that will be considered later, worth thinking about now, include: How does this persist? If things are so bad, why aren’t things way worse? Why haven’t these corporations fallen apart or been competed out of business? Given they haven’t, why hasn’t the entire economy collapsed? Why do regular people, aspirant managers and otherwise, still think of these manager positions as the ‘good jobs’ as opposed to picking up pitchforks and torches?

I hope you also answer a question I had when I was reading this: it's percolated down into common consciousness that some jobs are unusually tough and demanding. Medicine, finance, etc have reputations for being grueling. But I'd never heard that about middle management and your picture of middle management sounds worse than either. Any thoughts on why knowledge of this hasn't percolated down?

Less Wrong Poetry Corner: Walter Raleigh's "The Lie"

Walter Raleigh is also famous for leading an expedition to discover El Dorado. He didn't find it, but he wrote a book saying that he definitely had, and that if people gave him funding for a second expedition he would bring back limitless quantities of gold. He got his funding, went on his second expedition, and of course found nothing. His lieutenant committed suicide out of shame, and his men decided the Spanish must be hoarding the gold and burnt down a Spanish town. On his return to England, Raleigh was tried for treason based on a combination of the attack on Spain (which England was at peace with at the time) and defrauding everyone about the El Dorado thing. He was executed in 1618.

For conflict theorists, the moral of this story is that accusing everyone else of being lying and corrupt can sometimes be a strategy con men use to deflect suspicion. For mistake theorists, the moral is that it's really easy to talk yourself into a biased narrative where you are a lone angel in a sea full of corruption, and you should try being a little more charitable to other people and a little harsher on yourself.

Predictive coding & depression

In this post and the previous one you linked to, you do a good job explaining why your criterion e is possible / not ruled out by the data. But can you explain more about what makes you think it's true? Maybe this is part of the standard predictive coding account and I'm just misunderstanding it, if so can you link me to a paper that explains it?

I'm a little nervous about the low-confidence model of depression, both for some of the reasons you bring up, and because the best fits (washed-out visual field and psychomotor retardation) are really marginal symptoms of depression that you only find in a few of the worst cases. The idea of depression as just a strong global negative prior (that makes you interpret everything you see and feel more negatively) is pretty tempting. I like Friston's attempt to unify these by saying that bad mood is just a claim that you're in an unpredictable environment, with the reasoning apparently being something like "if you have no idea what's going on, probably you're failing" (eg if you have no idea about the social norms in a given space, you're more likely to be accidentally stepping on someone's toes than brilliantly navigating complicated coalitional politics by coincidence). I'm not sure what direction all of this happens in. Maybe if your brain's computational machinery gets degraded by some biochemical insult, it widens all confidence intervals since it can't detect narrow hits, this results in fewer or weaker positive hits being detected, this gets interpreted as an unpredictable world, and this gets interpreted as negative prior on how you're doing?

Perfect Competition
Things sometimes get bad. Once things get sufficiently bad that no one can deviate from short-term selfish actions or be a different type of person without being wiped out, things are no longer stable. People cheat on long term investments, including various combinations of things such as having and raising children, maintaining infrastructure and defending norms. The seed corn gets eaten. Eventually, usually when some random new threat inevitably emerges, the order collapses, and things start again. The rise and fall of civilizations.


I'm wondering if you're thinking of https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/08/12/book-review-secular-cycles/ . I think that was what made me realize things worked this way, and it was indeed a big update on the standard narrative. I still haven't decided whether this is just a quirk of systems that have certain agriculture-related dynamics, or a more profound insight about systems in general. I look forward to reading more of what you have to say about this.

I think my answer (not yet written up) to why things aren't worse has something to do with competitions on different time scales - if you have more than zero slack, you want to devote a small amount of your budget to R&D, and then you'll win a long-run competition against a company that doesn't do this. Integrate all the different possible timescales and this gets so confusing that maybe the result barely looks like competition at all. I've been having trouble writing this up and am interested in seeing if you're thinking something similar. Again, really looking forward to reading more.

Firming Up Not-Lying Around Its Edge-Cases Is Less Broadly Useful Than One Might Initially Think

At the risk of being self-aggrandizing, I think the idea of axiology vs. morality vs. law is helpful here.

"Don't be misleading" is an axiological commandment - it's about how to make the world a better place, and what you should hypothetically be aiming for absent other considerations.

"Don't tell lies" is a moral commandment. It's about how to implement a pale shadow of the axiological commandment on a system run by duty and reputation, where you have to contend with stupid people, exploitative people, etc.

(so for example, I agree with you that the Rearden Metal paragraph is misleading and bad. But it sounds a lot like the speech I give patients who ask for the newest experimental medication. "It passed a few small FDA trials without any catastrophic side effects, but it's pretty common that this happens and then people discover dangerous problems in the first year or two of postmarketing surveillance. So unless there's some strong reason to think the new drug is better, it's better to stick with the old one that's been used for decades and is proven safe." I know and you know that there's a subtle difference here and the Institute is being bad while I'm being good, but any system that tries to implement reputation loss for the Institute at scale, implemented on a mob of dumb people, is pretty likely to hurt me also. So morality sticks to bright-line cases, at the expense of not being able to capture the full axiological imperative.)

This is part of what you mean when you say the report-drafting scientist is "not a bad person" - they've followed the letter of the moral law as best they can in a situation where there are lots of other considerations, and where they're an ordinary person as opposed to a saint laser-focused on doing the right thing at any cost. This is the situation that morality (as opposed to axiology) is designed for, your judgment ("I guess they're not a bad person") is the judgment that morality encourages you to give, and this shows the system working as designed, ie meeting its own low standards.

And then the legal commandment is merely "don't outright lie under oath or during formal police interrogations" - which (impressively) is probably *still* too strong, in that we all hear about the police being able to imprison basically whoever they want by noticing small lies committed by accident or under stress.

The "wizard's oath" feels like an attempt to subject one's self to a stricter moral law than usual, while still falling far short of the demands of axiology.

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