Tag Archives: policy

Laughing strategy

People who believe that a certain group of other people deserve higher relative status often refuse to laugh at jokes about that group of people. Unfortunately (for them) this tends to make them look like uptight goody-goodies who don’t have a sense of humor; a group whom almost everyone agrees should have low status. Why not instead focus on making up more jokes about the group whose relative status seems too high? It seems like that should have the opposite effect on the campaigners likability, and so also encourage more people to join that side of the fight. What am I missing?

When to explain

It is commonly claimed that humans’ explicit conscious faculties arose for explaining to others about themselves and their intentions. Similarly when people talk about designing robots that interact with people, they often mention the usefulness of designing such robots to be able to explain to you why it is they changed your investments or rearranged your kitchen.

Perhaps this is a generally useful principle for internally complex units dealing with each other: have some part that keeps an overview of what’s going on inside and can discuss it with others.

If so, the same seems like it should be true of companies. However my experience with companies is that they are often designed specifically to prevent you from being able to get any explanations out of them. Anyone who actually makes decisions regarding you seems to be guarded by layers of people who can’t be held accountable for anything. They can sweetly lament your frustrations, agree that the policies seem unreasonable, sincerely wish you a nice day, and most importantly, have nothing to do with the policies in question and so can’t be expected to justify them or change them based on any arguments or threats you might make.

I wondered why this strategy should be different for companies, and a friend pointed out that companies do often make an effort at more high level explanations of what they are doing, though not necessarily accurate: vision statements, advertisements etc. PR is often the metaphor for how the conscious mind works after all.

So it seems the company strategy is more complex: general explanations coupled with avoidance of being required to make more detailed ones of specific cases and policies. So, is this strategy generally useful? Is it how humans behave? Is it how successful robots will behave?*

Inspired by an interaction with ETS, evidenced lately by PNC and Verizon

*assuming there is more than one

I am anti-awareness and you should be too

People seem to like raising awareness a lot. One might suspect too much, assuming the purpose is to efficiently solve whatever problem the awareness is being raised about. It’s hard to tell whether it is too much by working out how much is the right amount then checking if it matches what people do. But a feasible heuristic approach is to consider factors that might bias people one way or the other, relative to what is optimal.

Christian Lander at Stuff White People Like suggests some reasons raising awareness should be an inefficiently popular solution to other people’s problems:

This belief [that raising awareness will solve everything] allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges…

What makes this even more appealing for white people is that you can raise “awareness” through expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and bracelets.  In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference…

So to summarize – you get all the benefits of helping (self satisfaction, telling other people) but no need for difficult decisions or the ensuing criticism (how do you criticize awareness?)…

He seems to suspect that people are not trying to solve problems, but I shan’t argue about that here. At least some people think that they are trying to effectively campaign; this post is concerned with biases they might face. Christian  may or may not demonstrate a bias for these people. All things equal, it is better to solve problems in easy, fun, safe ways. However if it is easier to overestimate the effectiveness of easy, fun, safe things,  we probably raise awareness too much. I suspect this is true. I will add three more reasons to expect awareness to be over-raised.

First, people tend to identify with their moral concerns. People identify with moral concerns much more than they do with their personal, practical concerns for instance. Those who think the environment is being removed too fast are proudly environmentalists while those who think the bushes on their property are withering too fast do not bother to advertise themselves with any particular term, even if they spend much more time trying to correct the problem. It’s not part of their identity.

People like others to know about their identities. And raising awareness is perfect for this. Continually incorporating one’s concern about foreign forestry practices into conversations can be awkward, effortful and embarrassing. Raising awareness displays your identity even more prominently, while making this an unintended side effect of costly altruism for the cause rather than purposeful self advertisement.

That raising awareness is driven in part by desire to identify is evidenced by the fact that while ‘preaching to the converted’ is the epitome of verbal uselessness, it is still a favorite activity for those raising awareness, for instance at rallies, dinners and lectures. Wanting to raise awareness to people who are already well aware suggests that the information you hope to transmit is not about the worthiness of the cause. What else new could you be showing them? An obvious answer is that they learn who else is with the cause. Which is some information about the worthiness of the cause, but has other reasons for being presented. Robin Hanson has pointed out that breast cancer awareness campaign strategy relies on everyone already knowing about not just breast cancer but about the campaign. He similarly concluded that the aim is probably to show a political affiliation.

These are some items given away to promote Bre...

Image via Wikipedia

In many cases of identifying with a group to oppose some foe, it is useful for the group if you often declare your identity proudly and commit yourself to the group. If we are too keen to raise awareness about our identites, perhaps we are just used to those cases, and treat breast cancer like any other enemy who might be scared off by assembling a large and loyal army who don’t like it. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, I think our enthusiasm for increased awareness of everything is given a strong push by our enthusiasm for visible identifying with moral causes.

Secondly and relatedly, moral issues arouse a  person’s drive to determine who is good and who is bad, and to blame the bad ones. This urge to judge and blame should  for instance increase the salience of everyone around you eating meat if you are a vegetarian. This is at the expense of giving attention to any of the larger scale features of the world which contribute to how much meat people eat and how good or bad this is for animals. Rather than finding a particularly good way to solve the problem of too many animals suffering, you could easily be sidetracked by fact that your friends are being evil. Raising awareness seems like a pretty good solution if the glaring problem is that everyone around you is committing horrible sins, perhaps inadvertently.

Lastly, raising awareness is specifically designed to be visible, so it is intrinsically especially likely to spread among creatures who copy one another. If I am concerned about climate change, possible actions that will come to mind will be those I have seen others do. I have seen in great detail how people march in the streets or have stalls or stickers or tell their friends. I have little idea how people develop more efficient technologies or orchestrate less publicly visible political influence, or even how they change the insulation in their houses. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is too much awareness raising; it is less effort to do things you already know how to do, so it is better to do them, all things equal. However too much awareness raising will happen if we don’t account for there being a big selection effect other than effectiveness in which solutions we will know about, and expend a bit more effort finding much more effective solutions accordingly.

So there are my reasons to expect too much awareness is raised. It’s easy and fun, it lets you advertise your identity, it’s the obvious thing to do when you are struck by the badness of those around you, and it is the obvious thing to do full stop. Are there any opposing reasons people would tend to be biased against raising awareness? If not, perhaps I should reconsider stopping telling you about this problem and finding a more effective way to lower awareness instead.

Why can’t a man be more like a woman?

Women are often encouraged to move into male dominated activities, such as engineering. This is not because overall interest in engineering appears to be lacking, but because women’s interest seems to be less than men’s. This is arguably for cultural reasons, so it is argued that culture is inhibiting women from pursuing careers that they may be otherwise suited to and happy with.

If the symptom is that women do less engineering than men, why do we always encourage women to do more engineering, rather than encouraging men to do less? It seems we think men are presently endowed with the perfect level of engineering interest, and women should feel the same, but are impaired by culture.

This could make sense. For instance, perhaps all humans somehow naturally have the socially optimal level of engineering interest, but then insidious cultural influences eat away those interests in women. I think this is roughly how many people model the situation.

This model seems unlikely to be anywhere near the truth. Culture is packed with influences. These influences are not specific to inhibiting women’s impulses to do supposedly masculine things. They tell everyone what sort of people engineers are supposed to be, how much respect a person will get for technical abilities, how much respect they get for wealth, which interests will be taken to indicate the personal qualities they wish to express, which personal qualities are good to express, which cities are most attractive to live in, etc etc etc. Everyone’s level of inclination to be an engineer is significantly composed of cultural influences.

A cacophony of cultural influences may somehow culminate in a socially optimum level of interest in engineering of course. But it is hard to believe that some spectacular invisible mechanism orchestrates this perfect equilibrium for all cultural influences, except those that are gender specific. If there are fleets of rogue cultural influences sabotaging women’s inclinations, this must cast suspicion on the optimality of all other less infamous cultural influences.

Besides the incredible unlikelihood that all cultural influences except gender related ones culminate in a socially optimal level of interest in a given activity, it just doesn’t look like that’s what’s going on. Socially optimal cultural influences would mainly correct for externalities, for instance encouraging activities which help others beyond what the doer would be compensated. But this is not the criterion we use for dealing out respect. It may be part of it, or related to it, but for instance we generally do not respect mothers as much as CEOs, though many people would accept both that mothers have huge benefits often for little compensation and that CEOs are paid more than they are worth. We respect the CEO more probably because it is more impressive to be a CEO.

Incidentally, the correction of cultural influences is another example of expressing pro-female sympathy by encouraging females to do manly things. It seems here we accept that many male jobs are higher status than many female jobs, so to give women more status we would like them to do more of these jobs. Notice that while more men operate garbage trucks, there is less encouragement for women to do that. But my main point here is that we are obsessed with equalising the few cultural influences which are related to gender, while ignoring the sea of other influences which may misdirect both genders equally.

If a gender gap only tells us that either men or women or both have the wrong level of interest in engineering, and we don’t know what the right level is, trying to move women’s interest to equal men’s seems about as likely to be an improvement as it is a deterioration, except to the extent people like equality for its own sake, or where the cultural influences have other effects, such as making women feel less capable or worthy. If we are really concerned about people finding places in the world which suit them and let them make a worthy contribution, we should probably focus on other influences too, rather than being mesmerised by the unfairness of a politically salient discrepancy in influence.

So when people motivate their concern about a gender gap with the thought that there might for instance be capable and potentially interested women out there, missing their calling to be engineers, I can’t feel this is a pressing problem. Without investigating the rest of the cultural influences involved, there might just as easily be capable and potentially interested men out there missing their calling to not be engineers. Or perhaps (as I suspect) both genders should be engineers more often than men are, or more rarely than women are.

Statistical discrimination is externality deliniation

Discrimination based on real group average characteristics is a kind of externality within groups. Observers choose which groups to notice, then the behaviour of those in the groups alters the overall reputation of the group. We mostly blame those who choose the groups for this, not those who externalize within them. But if  we somehow stopped thinking in terms of any groups other than the whole population, the externality would still exist, you just wouldn’t notice it because it would be amongst all humans equally. If someone cheated you, you you would expect all people to cheat you a little more, whereas now you may notice the cheater’s other characteristics and put most of the increased expectation on similar people, such as Lebanese people or men.

Does this perspective change where to lay blame for the harm caused by such discrimination? A bit, if the point of blame is to change behaviour. Changing the behaviour of the category makers is still useful, though we probably try to change them in the wrong direction sometimes. But another option is to deal with the externalities in the usual fashion: subsidise positive externalities and tax negative ones. This is done via social pressure within some groups. Families often use such a system, thus the derision given for ‘bringing shame to the family’, along with the rewards of giving parents something to accidentally mention to their friends. Similar is seen in schools and teams sometimes I think, and in the occasional accusation ‘you give x a bad name!’, though that is often made by someone outside the group. I haven’t heard of it done much in many other groups or via money rather than social pressure. Are there more such examples?

One reason it is hard to enforce accountability for such externalities is that boundaries of groups are often quite unclear, and people near the edge feel unfairly treated if they fall on the more costly side. The less clear is the group boundary the more people are near the edge. Plus people toward the edge might only be seen as in the group a quarter of the time or something, so they aren’t externalizing or being externalized to so much. Families are a relatively clearly bounded group, so it is easier for them to punish and reward effects on family reputation. Gender is a relatively clear boundary too (far from completely clear, but more so than ‘tall people’), so I would expect this to work better there. Could women coordinate to improve the reputation of women in general by disrespecting the ones who complain too much for instance? Should they?

Of  course in a few areas making one group look better just makes another group look worse, so if all the externalities were internalized things would look just as they are. I don’t think this is usually the case, or the entire case.

Discrimination: less is more

‘Discrimination’ can mean all sorts of things. One of the main ones, and what it will mean in this post, is differential treatment of people from different groups, due to real or imagined differences in average group features.  Discrimination is a problem because the many people who don’t have the supposed average features of a group they are part of are misconstrued as having them, and offered inappropriate treatment and opportunities as a result. For instance a capable and trustworthy middle aged man may miss out on a babysitting job for which he is truly the best candidate because the parents take his demographic information as reason not to trust him with their children.

This means that ‘discrimination’ is really a misnomer; this problem is due to lack of discrimination. In particular lack of discrimination between members of the groups. For instance if everyone could instantly discriminate between women with different levels of engineering ability, generalizations would be useless, assuming engineering ability is really the issue of interest to the discriminators. Generalizations aren’t even offensive when enough discrimination is possible. Telling a 6’5” Asian man that he’s probably short since he’s Asian is an ineffective and confusing insult.  Even if observers can’t discriminate perfectly, more ability to discriminate means less misrepresentation. For instance a test score doesn’t perfectly determine people’s abilities at engineering, but it is much more accurate than judging by their gender. This is assuming the generalizations have some degree of accuracy, if they are arbitrary it doesn’t make much difference whether you use false generalizations of larger groups or smaller ones.

The usual solution suggested for ‘discrimination’  is for everyone to forget about groups and act only on any specific evidence they have about individuals. Implicitly this advice is to expect everyone to have the average characteristics of the whole population except where individual evidence is available. Notice that generalizing over a larger group like this should increase the misrepresentation of people, and thus their inappropriate treatment.  Recall that that was the original problem with discrimination.

If the parents mentioned earlier were undiscriminating they would be much more trusting of middle aged men, but they would also be less trusting of other demographics such as teenage girls. All evidence they had ever got of any group or type of person being untrustworthy would be interpreted only as weaker evidence that people are untrustworthy. This would reduce the expected trustworthiness of their best candidate, so more often they would not find it worth going out in the first place. Now the man still misses out on the position, but so does the competing teenage girl plus the parents don’t get to go out. Broadening group generalizations to the extreme makes ‘discrimination’ worse, which makes sense when we consider that discriminating between people as much as possible (judging them on their own traits) is the best way to avoid ‘discrimination’.

It may be that something else about discrimination bothers you, for instance if you are most concerned with the equality status of competing social groups, then population level generalizations are the way to go. But if you want to stop discrimination because it causes people to be treated as less than they are, then work on making it easier to discriminate between people further, rather than harder to discriminate between them at all. Help people signal their traits cheaply and efficiently distinguish between others. In the absence of perfect discrimination between individuals, the other end of the spectrum is not the next best thing, it’s the extreme of misrepresentation.

Agreeable ways to disable your children

Should parents purposely have deaf children if they prefer them, by selecting deaf embryos?

Those in favor argue that the children need to be deaf to partake in the deaf culture which their parents are keen to share, and that deafness isn’t really a disability. Opponents point out that damaging existing children’s ears is considered pretty nasty and not much different, and that deafness really is a disability since deaf people miss various benefits for lack of an ability.

I think the children are almost certainly worse off if they are chosen to be deaf.  The deaf community is unlikely to be better than any of the millions of other communities in the world which are based mainly on spoken language, so the children are worse off even culture-wise before you look at other costs. I don’t follow why the children can’t be brought up in the deaf community without actually being deaf either. However I don’t think choosing deaf children should be illegal, since parents are under no obligation to have children at all and deaf children are doing a whole lot better than non-existent children.

Should children be brought up using a rare language if a more common one is available?

This is a very similar question: should a person’s ability to receive information be severely impaired if it helps maintain a culture which they are compelled to join due to the now high cost of all other options? The similarity has been pointed out before, to argue that choosing deaf children is fine. The other possible inference is of course that encouraging the survival of unpopular languages is not fine.

There are a few minor differences: a person can learn another language later more easily than they can get their hearing later, though still at great cost. On the other hand, a deaf person can still read material from a much larger group of hearing people, while the person who speaks a rare language is restricted to what is produced by their language group. Nonetheless it looks like they are both overwhelmingly costs to the children involved. It may be understandable that parents want to bring up their children in their own tiny language that they love, but I’m appalled that governments, linguists, schools,  organizations set up for the purpose, various other well meaning parties, and plenty of my friends, think rescuing small languages in general is a wonderful idea, even when the speakers of the language disagree. ‘Language revitalization‘ seems to be almost unanimously praised as a virtuous project.

Continue reading

You might be population too

I recently attended a dinner forum on what size the population should be. All of the speakers held the same position: small. The only upsides of population mentioned were to horrid profit seeking people like property developers. Yet the downsides to population are horrendous – all our resource use problems multiplied! As one speaker quoted “The population can’t increase forever, and as a no brainer it should stop sooner rather than later”. As there are no respectable positives in the equation, no need for complicated maths. Smaller is better.

I suggested to my table what I saw as an obvious omission in this model: I at least am enjoying the population being big enough to have me in it, so I would at least consider putting a big positive value on human lives. My table seemed to think this an outlandish philosophical position. I suggested that if resource use is the problem, we fix externalities there, but they thought this just as roundabout a way of getting ‘sustainability’, whereas cutting the population seems straightforward and there’s nothing to lose by it. I suggested to the organizer that the positive of human existence deserved a mention (in a multiple hour forum), and he explained that if we didn’t exist we wouldn’t notice, as though that settles it.

But the plot thickened further. Why do you suppose we should keep the population low? “We should leave the world in as good or a better condition as we got it in” one speaker explained. So out of concern for future generations apparently. Future people don’t benefit from being alive, but it’s imperative that we ensure they have cheap water bills long before they have any such preferences. Continue reading

Moving marginal mothers

Julian Savulescu suggests extending the idea of paying drug addicts not to have children to everyone.  At first the purpose is to avoid the eugenics feel of discouraging only one set of people from procreating, but then he reasons:

“The benefit of a policy of offering inducements to sterilisation is that it would select those who do not value, do not understand, do not want the role of parent. And it is precisely these people who are likely to be the worst parents.

Being a parent is, at best, a difficult job. Why not excuse those with the least motivation and determination? There are plenty of others willing to take their place. And the earth can only sustain a finite number of people.”

It’s of course true that if you penalize an activity, those to whom it is most expensive already will be the ones to quit. However:

  1. The existing costs of parenting already induce those who dislike parenting most not to parent. Adding another cost to parenting would just move the line where it becomes worthwhile to parent, not implement such selection. Justifying this requires an argument that the level of value at which people find parenting worthwhile is too low, not just a desire to encourage better parents to do a greater proportion of parenting in general.
  2. “Excuse those with the least motivation and determination”? We aren’t exactly pushing them to do it. Why presume they don’t excuse themselves at the appropriate point? This goes with the above point; the line where parenting seems worthwhile could be in the wrong place if parents were pushed for some reason to have too many children, but why think they misjudge?
  3. Why would there be plenty of others willing to take their places? Presumably those wanting to bear children will do so already or at least would not start at a 1:1 ratio on the news that others are not. Few factors influencing conception depend on the ambient birthrate.
  4. If others really were willing to ‘take their place’, the exit of poor parents from parenting  wouldn’t be relevant to the total population and whether the planet can sustain it.
  5. Presumably the issue is how big a finite number of people the earth’s resources can support, and more importantly why and to what extent parents should be expected to misjudge.
  6. Smaller populations are not automatically better if you value human life at all. That parents are unlikely to account for the entire value of their potential child’s life is a strong reason to think that parents don’t have enough children. If that is the overwhelming externality, the line should be lower, and we would be better off paying people to have children.

    Divide individuals for utilitarian libertarianism

    or Why I could conceivably support banning smoking part 2 (at the request of Robert Wiblin, who would not support banning smoking)

    A strong argument for individuals having complete freedom in decisions affecting nobody else is that each person has much better information about what they want and the details of their situation than anyone else does or could. For example it is often argued that people should choose for themselves how much fat to eat without government intervention, as they have intimate knowledge of how much they like eating fat and how much they dislike being fat, and what degree of mockery their social scene will administer and so forth. Not only that, but they have a much stronger incentive to get the decision right than anyone else.

    A counterargument often made here is that people are just so irrational that they don’t know what’s good for them. Sometimes it’s not clear how anyone else would do better, being people themselves, and people in complicated organizations full of other motives no less. Sometimes it’s not clear whether people are actually that irrational in real life, or if they manage to compensate.

    However one situation where it seems quite likely that other people would be better informed on your preferences and how an outcome will affect you is when you are making decisions that will affect you far in the future.  The average seventy five year old probably has more in common with the next average seventy five year old than they have in common with their twenty five year old selves, at least in some relevant respects. The stranger people are the less true this is presumably, but most people are not strange.  So for instance a bunch of old people dying of lung cancer have a much better idea of how much you would like lung cancer than you do when you are weighing it up in the decision to smoke or not much earlier in life.

    This might not matter if people care a lot about their far future selves, as they can of course seek out people to ask about how horrible or great which experiences are. However even then they are doing no better than anyone else who does that, so there is no argument to be made that they have much more intimate knowledge of their own preferences and situation.

    You could still argue that I have much more of an interest than anyone else in my own future, if only a slight one compared to how much my future self cares about herself. But I also have a lot to gain by exploiting her and discounting her feelings, so it’s not clear at all from a utilitarian perspective that I should be free to make decisions that only affect myself, but far into the future.

    The simple way to make this argument is to say that the ‘individual’ is temporally too big a unit to be best ruled over by one part in a (temporal) position of power. The relevant properties of the right sized unit, as far as the usual arguments for libertarianism are concerned, are lots of information and shared care, and according to these a far future self is drifting toward being a different person. You shouldn’t be allowed to externalize onto them as much as you like for the same reasons that go for anyone else.