Scott Alexander

Scott Alexander's Comments

REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find

I've read this. I interpret them as saying there are fundamental problems of uncertainty with saying any number, not that the number $5000 is wrong. There is a complicated and meta-uncertain probability distribution with its peak at $5000. This seems like the same thing we mean by many other estimates, like "Biden has a 40% chance of winning the Democratic primary". GiveWell is being unusually diligent in discussing the ways their number is uncertain and meta-uncertain, but it would be wrong (isolated demand for rigor) to retreat from a best estimate to total ignorance because of this.

REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find

I don't hear EAs doing this (except when quoting this post), so maybe that was the source of my confusion.

I agree Good Ventures could saturate the $5000/life tier, bringing marginal cost up to $10000 per life (or whatever). But then we'd be having this same discussion about saving money for $10000/life. So it seems like either:

1. Good Ventures donates all of its money, tomorrow, to stopping these diseases right now, and ends up driving the marginal cost of saving a life to some higher number and having no money left for other causes or the future, or

2. Good Ventures spends some of its money on stopping diseases, helps drive the marginal cost of saving a life up to some number N, but keeps money for other causes and the future, and for more complicated reasons like not wanting to take over charities, even though it could spend the remaining money on short-term disease-curing at $N/life.

(1) seems dumb. (2) seems like what it's doing now, at N = $5000 (with usual caveats).

It still seems accurate to say that you or I, if we wanted to, could currently donate $5000 (with usual caveats) and save a life. It also seems correct to say, once you've convinced people of this surprising fact, that they can probably do even better by taking that money/energy and devoting it to causes other than immediate-life-saving, the same way Good Ventures is.

I agree that if someone said "since saving one life costs $5000, and there are 10M people threatened by these diseases in the world, EA can save every life for $50B", they would be wrong. Is your concern only that someone is saying this? If so, it seems like we don't disagree, though I would be interested in seeing you link such a claim being made by anyone except the occasional confused newbie.

I'm kind of concerned about this because I feel like I've heard people reference your post as proving that EA is fraudulent and we need to throw it out and replace it with something nondeceptive (no, I hypocritically can't link this, it's mostly been in personal conversations), but I can't figure out how to interpret your argument as anything other than "if people worked really hard to misinterpret certain claims, then joined them together in an unlikely way, it's possible a few of them could end up confused in a way that doesn't really affect the bigger picture."

High-precision claims may be refuted without being replaced with other high-precision claims

An alternate response to this point is that if someone comes off their medication, then says they're going to kill their mother because she is poisoning their food, and the food poisoning claim seems definitely not true, then spending a few days assessing what is going on and treating them until it looks like they are not going to kill their mother anymore seems justifiable for reasons other than "we know exactly what biological circuit is involved with 100% confidence"

(source: this basically describes one of the two people I ever committed involuntarily)

I agree that there are a lot of difficult legal issues to be sorted out about who has the burden of proof and how many hoops people should have to jump through to make this happen, but none of them look at all like "you do not know the exact biological circuit involved with 100% confidence using a theory that has had literally zero exceptions ever"

REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find

I'm confused by your math.

You say 10M people die per year of preventable diseases, and the marginal cost of saving a life is (presumed to be) $5K.

The Gates Foundation and OpenPhil combined have about $50B. So if marginal cost = average cost, their money combined is enough to save everyone for one year.

But marginal cost certainly doesn't equal average cost; average cost is probably orders of magnitude higher. Also, Gates and OpenPhil might want to do something other than prevent all diseases for one year, then leave the world to rot after that.

I agree a "grand experiment" would be neat. But are you sure it's this easy? Suppose we want to try eliminating malaria in Madagascar (chosen because it's an island so it seems like an especially good test case). It has 6K malaria deaths yearly, so if we use the 5K per life number, that should cost $30 million. But given the marginal vs. average consideration, the real number should probably be much higher, maybe $50K per person. Now the price tag is $300M/year. But that's still an abstraction. AFAIK OpenPhil doesn't directly employ any epidemiologists, aid workers, or Africans. So who do you pay the $300M to? Is there some charity that is willing to move all their operations to Madagascar and concentrate entirely on that one island for a few years? Do the people who work at that charity speak Malagasay? Do they have families who might want to live somewhere other than Madagascar? Do they already have competent scientists who can measure their data well? If not, can you hire enough good scientists, at scale, to measure an entire country's worth of data? Are there scientists willing to switch to doing that for enough money? Do you have somebody working for you who can find them and convince them to join your cause? Is the Madagascar government going to let thousands of foreign aid workers descend on them and use them as a test case? Does OpenPhil employ someone who can talk with the Madagascar government and ask them? Does that person speak Malagasay? If the experiment goes terribly, does that mean we're bad at treating malaria, or that we were bad at transferring our entire malaria-treating apparatus to Madagascar and scaling it up by orders of magnitude on short notice? What if it went badly because there are swamps in Madagascar that the local environmental board won't let anyone clear, and there's nothing at all like that in most malarial countries? I feel like just saying "run a grand experiment" ignores all of these considerations. I agree there's *some* amount of money that lets you hire/train/bribe everyone you need to make this happen, but by that point maybe this experiment costs $1B/year, which is the kind of money that even OpenPhil and Gates need to worry about. My best guess is that they're both boggled by the amount of work it would take to make something like this happen.

(I think there was something like a grand experiment to eliminate malaria on the island of Zanzibar, and it mostly worked, with transmission rates down 94%, but it involved a lot of things other than bednets because it turned out most of the difficulty involved battering down at the problems that remain after you pick the low-hanging fruit. I don't know if anyone has tried to learn anything from this.)

I'm not sure it's fair to say that if these numbers are accurate then charities "are hoarding money at the price of millions of preventable death". After all, that's basically true of any possible number. If lives cost $500,000 to save, then Gates would still be "hoarding money" if he didn't spend his $50 billion saving 100,000 people. Gates certainly isn't optimizing for saving exactly as many people as he can right now. So either there's no such person as Bill Gates and we're just being bamboozled to believe that there is, or Gates is trying to do things other than simultaneously throwing all of his money at the shortest-term cause possible without any infrastructure to receive it.

I think the EA movement already tries really hard to push the money that it's mostly talent-constrained and not funding-constrained, and it already tries really hard to convince people to donate to smaller causes where they might have an information advantage. But the estimate that you can save a life for $5000 remains probably true (with normal caveats about uncertainty) and is a really important message to get people thinking about ethics and how they want to contribute.

High-precision claims may be refuted without being replaced with other high-precision claims
Likewise for psychiatry, which justifies incredibly high levels of coercion on the basis of precise-looking claims about different kinds of cognitive impairment and their remedies.


You're presenting a specific rule about manipulating logically necessary truths, then treating it as a vague heuristic and trying to apply it to medicine! Aaaaaah!

Suppose a physicist (not even a doctor! a physicist!) tries to calculate some parameter. Theory says it should be 6, but the experiment returns a value of 6.002. Probably the apparatus is a little off, or there's some other effect interfering (eg air resistance), or you're bad at experiment design. You don't throw out all of physics!

Or moving on to biology: suppose you hypothesize that insulin levels go up in response to glucose and go down after the glucose is successfully absorbed, and so insulin must be a glucose-regulating hormone. But you find one guy who just has really high levels of insulin no matter how much glucose he has. Well, that guy has an insulinoma. But if you lived before insulinomas were discovered, then you wouldn't know that. You still probably shouldn't throw out all of endocrinology based on one guy. Instead you should say "The theory seems basically sound, but this guy probably has something weird we'll figure out later".

I'm not claiming these disprove your point - that if you're making a perfectly-specified universally-quantified claim and receive a 100%-confidence 100%-definitely-relevant experimental result disproving it, it's disproven. But nobody outside pure math is in the perfectly-specified universally-quantified claim business, and nobody outside pure math receives 100%-confidence 100%-definitely-relevant tests of their claims. This is probably what you mean by the term "high-precision" - the theory of gravity isn't precise enough to say that no instrument can ever read 6.002 when it should read 6, and the theory of insulin isn't precise enough to say nobody can have weird diseases that cause exceptions. But both of these are part of a general principle that nothing in the physical world is precise enough that you should think this way.

See eg Kuhn, who makes the exact opposite point as this post - that no experimental result can ever prove any theory wrong with certainty. That's why we need this whole Bayesian thing.

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.

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