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.
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.”
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)”
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
EDIT: Want to talk to you further before I try to explain my understanding of your previous work on this, will rewrite this later.
The short version is I understand we disagree, I understand you have a sophisticated position, but I can’t figure out where we start differing and so I don’t know what to do other than vomit out my entire philosophy of language and hope that you’re able to point to the part you don’t like. I understand that may be condescending to you and I’m sorry.
I absolutely deny I am “motivatedly playing dumb” and I enter this into the record as further evidence that we shouldn’t redefine language to encode a claim that we are good at ferreting out other people’s secret motivations.