This Failing Earth

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-05-24T16:09:11.621Z · score: 19 (60 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 166 comments

Suppose I told you about a certain country, somewhere in the world, in which some of the cities have degenerated into gang rule.  Some such cities are ruled by a single gang leader, others have degenerated into almost complete lawlessness.  You would probably conclude that the cities I was talking about were located inside what we call a "failed state".

So what does the existence of North Korea say about this Earth?

No, it's not a perfect analogy.  But the thought does sometimes occur to me, to wonder if the camel has two humps.  If there are failed Earths and successful Earths, in the great macroscopic superposition popularly known as "many worlds" - and we're not one of the successful.  I think of this as the "failed Earth" hypothesis.

Of course the camel could also have three or more humps, and it's quite easy to imagine Earths that are failing much worse than this, epic failed Earths ruled by the high-tech heirs of Genghis Khan or the Catholic Church.  Oh yes, it could definitely be worse...

...and the "failed state" analogy is hardly perfect; "failed state" usually refers to failure to integrate into the global economy, but a failed Earth is not failing to integrate into anything larger...

...but the question does sometimes haunt me, as to whether in the alternative Everett branches of Earth, we could identify a distinct cluster of "successful" Earths, and we're not in it.  It may not matter much in the end; the ultimate test of a planet's existence probably comes down to Friendly AI, and Friendly AI may come down to nine people in a basement doing math.  I keep my hopes up, and think of this as a "failing Earth" rather than a "failed Earth".

But it's a thought that comes to mind, now and then.  Reading about the ongoing Market Complexity Collapse and wondering if this Earth failed to solve one of the basic functions of global economics, in the same way that Rome, in its later days, failed to solve the problem of orderly transition of power between Caesars.

Of course it's easy to wax moralistic about people who aren't solving their coordination problems the way you like.  I don't mean this to degenerate into a standard diatribe about the sinfulness of this Earth, the sort of clueless plea embodied perfectly by Simon and Garfunkel:

I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again

It's a cheap pleasure to wax moralistic about failures of global coordination.

But visualizing the alternative Everett branches of Earth, spread out and clustered - for me, at least, that seems to help trigger my mind into a non-Simon-and-Garfunkel mode of thinking.  If the successful Earths lack a North Korea, how did they get there?  Surely not just by signing a piece of paper saying they'd never fight again.

Indeed, our Earth's Westphalian concept of sovereign states is the main thing propping up Somalia and North Korea.  There was a time when any state that failed that badly would be casually conquered by a more successful neighbor.  So maybe the successful Earths don't have a Westphalian concept of sovereignty; maybe our Earth's concept of inviolable borders represents a failure to solve one of the key functions of a planetary civilization.

Maybe the successful Earths are the ones where the ancient Greeks, or equivalent thereof, had the "Aha!" of Darwinian evolution... and at least one country started a eugenics program that successfully selected for intelligence, well in advance of nuclear weapons being developed.  If that makes you uncomfortable, it's meant to - the successful Earths may not have gotten there through Simon and Garfunkel.  And yes, of course the ancient Greeks attempting such a policy could and probably would have gotten it terribly wrong; maybe the epic failed Earths are the ones where some group had the Darwinian insight and then successfully selected for prowess as warriors.  I'm not saying "Go eugenics!" would have been a systematically good idea for ancient Greeks to try as policy...

But maybe the top cluster of successful Earths, among human Everett branches, stumbled into that cluster because some group stumbled over eugenic selection for intelligence, and then, being a bit smarter, realized what it was they were doing right, so that the average IQ got up to 140 well before anyone developed nuclear weapons.  (And then conquered the world, rather than respecting the integrity of borders.)

What would a successful Earth look like?  How high is their standard sanity waterline?  Are there large organized religions in successful Earths - is their presence here a symptom of our failure to solve the problems of a planetary civilization?  You can ring endless changes on this theme, and anyone with an accustomed political hobbyhorse is undoubtedly imagining their pet Utopia already.  For my own part, I'll go ahead and wonder, if there's an identifiable "successful" cluster among the human Earths, what percentage of them have worldwide cryonic preservation programs in place.

One point that takes some of the sting out of our ongoing muddle - at least from my perspective - is my suspicion that the Earths in the successful cluster, even those with an average IQ of 140 as they develop computers, may not be in much of a better position to really succeed, to solve the Friendly AI problem.  A rising tide lifts all boats, and Friendly AI is a race between cautiously developed AI and insufficiently-cautiously-developed AI.  "Successful" Earths might even be worse off, if they solve their global coordination problems well enough to put the whole world's eyes on the problem and turn the development over to prestigious bureaucrats.  It's not a simple issue like cryonics that we're talking about.  If, in the end, "successful Earths" of the human epoch aren't in a much better position for the catastrophically high-level pass-fail test of the posthuman transition, than our own "failing Earth"... then this Earth isn't all that much more doomed just because we screwed up our financial system, international relations, and basic rationality training.

Is such speculation at all useful?  "Live in your own world", as the saying goes...

...Well, it might not be a saying here, but it's probably a saying in those successful Earths where the scientific community is long since trained in formal Bayesianism and they readily accepted the obvious truth of many-worlds... as opposed to our own world and its constantly struggling academia where senior scientists spend most of their time writing grant proposals...

(Michael Vassar has an extended thesis on how the scientific community in our Earth has been slowly dying since 1910 or so, but I'll let him decide whether it's worth his time to write up that post.)

It's usually not my intent to depress people.  I have an accustomed saying that if you want to depress yourself, look at the future, and if you want to cheer yourself up, look at the past.  By analogy - well, for all we know, we might be in the second-highest major cluster, or in the top 10% of all Earths even if not one of the top 1%.  It might be that most Earths have global orders descended from the conquering armies of the local Church.  I recently had occasion to visit the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, and it's shocking to think of how easily a human culture can spend thirty thousand years without inventing the bow and arrow.  Really, we did do quite well for ourselves in a lot of ways... I think?

A sense of beleaguredness, a sense that everything is decaying and dying into sinfulness - these memes are more useful for gluing together cults than for inspiring people to solve their coordination problems.

But even so - it's a thought that I have, when I see some aspect of the world going epically awry, to wonder if we're in the cluster of Earths that fail.  It's the sort of thought that inspires me, at least, to go down into that basement and solve the math problem and make everything come out all right anyway.  Because if there's one thing that the intelligence explosion really messes up, it's the dramatic unity of human progress - if this were a world with a supervised course of history we'd be worrying about making it to Akon's world through a continuous developmental schema, not making a sudden left turn to solve a math problem.

It may be that in the fractiles of the human Everett branches, we live in a failing Earth - but it's not failed until someone messes up the first AI.  I find that a highly motivating thought.  Your mileage may vary.

166 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-05-24T21:20:18.453Z · score: 26 (34 votes) · LW · GW

Indeed, our Earth's Westphalian concept of sovereign states is the main thing propping up Somalia and North Korea. There was a time when any state that failed that badly would be casually conquered by a more successful neighbor.

I have to disagree here. First of all, North Korea has the world's third largest army. Any state that tried to conquer it would have its hands full. Additionally, counterinsurgency warfare has become damn hard these days - consider the Soviet failure in Afghanistan during the 1980s. As Stalin observed, it takes a generation and a half to pacify a country and convert it to your ideology by force.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, conquering poorly defended land isn't profitable any more; some time around World War I, conquest became far more trouble than it's worth. Nobody wants Somalia, even if the rest of the world would be okay with someone marching an army into it. It's just not worth anything. The British Empire, a more modern example of conquest for profit, never occupied Afghanistan. It would have cost far more to subdue the natives than it would ever produce in revenue. Today, far more wealth is created by Internet startups than could be stolen by a modern-day Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan.

To put the worthlessness of Somalia into perspective, here's some numbers:

  • The GNP of Somalia is $2 billion.
  • The market capitalization of Amazon.com is $32 billion. Its revenue in 2008 was $19.1 billion, and its net income was $0.64 billion.
  • Bernie Madoff convinced people to invest at least $10 billion in a completely fraudulent stock fund, and reported $50 billion in bogus returns.
comment by Matt_Simpson · 2009-05-24T21:42:52.034Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

To put the worthlessness of Somalia into perspective, here's some numbers:

The GNP of Somalia is $2 billion.

This is almost assuredly due to the lack of a sound institutional structure which is needed for a market economy to develop. An invading country may be able to bring this structure to Somalia.

One thing Somalia has going for it: ports. An inland neighbor would love to have ports, I'm sure.

comment by gwern · 2009-05-25T19:51:05.660Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

This is almost assuredly due to the lack of a sound institutional structure which is needed for a market economy to develop. An invading country may be able to bring this structure to Somalia.

It's worth noting that before Ethiopia invaded with tacit US permission*, Somalia was being incrementally conquered and pieced back together by the Islamic Courts Union. The impression of them I got early on, before the US media began to consider them dangerous for being Islamic and fell in line behind the Ethiopian invasion, is that they did a pretty good job of governing - and certainly a better job than either the warlords or the government the Ethiopian installed.

  • Arguably a major fuckup by both parties
comment by CronoDAS · 2009-05-25T00:40:53.229Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

This is almost assuredly due to the lack of a sound institutional structure which is needed for a market economy to develop. An invading country may be able to bring this structure to Somalia.

Said institutional structure would probably have to involve very few Somalis; broken governments and broken cultures tend to go hand in hand. The current attempt to introduce "rule of law" in Afghanistan is failing miserably in the face of widespread corruption. For example, local judges frequently rule in favor of whomever provides the largest bribe.

One would probably have to use Stalin-esque levels of oppression in order to successfully install such institutions in a lawless land. In the distant past, most rulers had no problems with ordering a few good massacres to keep the local population in line; it's much harder to get away with that today, although the leadership of countries like Syria and Sudan don't seem to be suffering very much.

comment by Matt_Simpson · 2009-05-25T07:58:48.282Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

One would probably have to use Stalin-esque levels of oppression in order to successfully install such institutions in a lawless land. In the distant past, most rulers had no problems with ordering a few good massacres to keep the local population in line; it's much harder to get away with that today, although the leadership of countries like Syria and Sudan don't seem to be suffering very much

If the invading country can somehow manage to stay out of the public eye, they could oppress as much as they want. However, this is probably more random than anything, though if the invaders are "communist liberators" it might help - though their economic policies probably wouldn't be any good. All things considered, you're right if the conversion is by force.

Ideally, the conversion wouldn't be by force in the strong sense of the word - military police to come in and enforce some law and order, but otherwise live and let live. For this to work, the invaded country must not have any major cultural or ideological conflicts with their invaders, along with some other conditions that we don't know about. These conditions probably aren't in place for any given invader, but it remains a possibility.

Yes, the problem of developing good institutions is vexing. I doubt anyone knows much about how to do it.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-05-25T04:07:10.297Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Ports certainly are valuable. Ethiopia doesn't want to depend on the Eritrean ports. But it's a lot cheaper to pay taxes for Djibouti to maintain order in its port than for Ethiopia to create order in a Somali port. And to create order on the roads. Also, it's probably expensive to cross the Ogaden plateau. Which brings us to the Somali rebellion in Ogaden, which would surely escalate if Ethiopia annexed Somalia. Maybe if Ogaden gained independence, it could annex Somalia.

But mainly, it's Ethiopia's failure to claim the ports that makes me doubt their worth. I dispute Eliezer's claim that anyone would care. But some sense of propriety, perhaps Westphalian, prevents other countries from recognizing Somaliland.

comment by gwern · 2010-10-05T17:08:27.206Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I've been doing a great deal of reading about Korea lately, and I've come to almost the opposite conclusion - that North Korea is a house of cards which resembles a cross between Iraq & East Germany.

It has a large army? Rations for it have been constantly cut and it is growing disaffected; as well, Iraq shows that a large army is just a target. It has 4 divisions of special ops? That practically refutes itself. It has a large airforce? But the recent defecting jet pilot (a remarkable occurrence itself, considering that pilots are supposed to be some of the most loyal and well-treated soldiers) apparently died because his plane had too little fuel due to systemic rationing & shortages.

Insurgency? By whom? Defector surveys show that while nostalgia for Il-Sung is still very strong (similar to Russian nostalgia for Stalin or Chinese for Mao), Jong-Il is disliked thanks to the '90s famine, and his son seems to be even less popular. Further, did East Germany start endless insurgencies after unification? The wealth difference between South and North Korea seems to be even greater than between West and East Germany.

And so on. I'm starting to be persuaded that the only reason North Korea still exists is because South Korea failed to man up and relocate Seoul's contents to Busan or somewhere much further south, and the US - which has effective sovereignty over the entire peninsula even excluding the use of nukes - doesn't want to risk Seoul's loss.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-10-05T22:28:21.952Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, it's a shitty army, but, as you said, it can still fire artillery shells. :(

As for your example of East Germany, the unification of Germany was voluntary. I don't think the average North Korean would be too happy to be conquered by, say, Japan. (And I don't think the people in East Germany would have been happy to have found themselves becoming part of France.) And insurgents don't have to be supporters of the previous regime; they could simply be out for themselves, or follow some other cause opposed to that of the occupying forces.

Mostly, though, invading North Korea just isn't in anyone's interest. There simply isn't enough wealth to steal to make it worth the billions of dollars it would cost to send an army to invade and occupy it.

comment by patrissimo · 2009-05-28T23:52:44.317Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This is a great point. Conquering makes sense when natural resources are the main source of wealth in the world (think Spain and the gold & silver in the New World). It does not make sense when ideas are the main source of wealth, as they are now. Occasionally there are resources (oil) which are still worth a war, but much less often.

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2009-05-25T06:38:42.524Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

it takes a generation and a half to pacify a country and convert it to your ideology by force.

then how did colonialism work? it worked because the new war isn't the same as the old war. see: war in the era of squeamishness by the war nerd.

comment by taw · 2009-05-26T05:14:08.056Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

then how did colonialism work?

It's not obvious that colonialism was ever profitable other than as means of grabbing natural resources (especially arable land) in conquered countries.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-05-26T14:58:51.983Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Colonialism was profitable to the colonists if they could get someone else to pay for the soldiers. But if the army was squeamish, it would have been such a drain on the mother country, it wouldn't have stood for it.

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-05-25T07:54:43.556Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Convert to your ideology" is the key here, I think... It's damn hard to wipe out a religion, especially those, such as some variants of Christianity and Islam, that push "your religion is the only thing that matters" up to 11. If all you care about is taking their money, I suppose you could emulate what the Mongols did in Russia and let the locals mostly govern themselves as long as they pay you your tribute.

comment by whpearson · 2009-05-25T08:17:10.381Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

it takes a generation and a half to pacify a country and convert it to your ideology by force.

then how did colonialism work?

While I would dispute that it necessarily takes a generation and a half to pacify all countries, it has become easier to organize and carry out insurrection in this technological era, with mobile phones and high explosives.

comment by Roko · 2009-06-01T12:23:14.256Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It would have cost far more to subdue the natives than it would ever produce in revenue.

Maybe on the successful Earths, mass genocide is considered morally acceptable in the case that the country involved is an obvious failure, such as north Korea. Let us assume here that the the people in such a "pro genocide" earth still value human lives as we do, but they act in accordance with the view that failed states present such a bad risk to the rest of the world that in certain cases genocide is morally acceptable or even required. Disclaimer: the author of this comment does not necessarily condone such action.

Or alternatively, perhaps the successful Earths have a global government that considers the cost of conquering and subduing failed states is worth the long term reduction in existential risk.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-06-01T12:34:35.283Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe on the successful Earths, mass genocide is acceptable in the case that the country involved is an obvious failure, such as north Korea.

This is a confusion of terms: "acceptable" is a cost-benefit calculation, and the cost of genocide is determined by human nature, by how much we value lives, independent among the Earths in this construction. If a certain variant of Earth considers genocide acceptable, it points to an epic failure of rationality (possibly due to something along the lines of scope insensitivity), and so can't be "successful".

comment by Roko · 2009-06-01T13:00:13.982Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If a certain variant of Earth considers genocide acceptable, it points to an epic failure of rationality

consider the cost in terms of lives lost versus the benefit in terms of reduced existential risk. Suppose, for example, that North Korea demonstrated the ability and intent to develop and deploy a genetically engineered supervirus in order to kill the entire population of the world; in this case I would consider it morally acceptable to decimate the population of that country in order to deal with the problem, if that really was the only option.

Whether genocide of unsubduable failed states is morally acceptable depends, I think, on just how bad a risk they are to the rest of the world.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-06-01T15:16:24.992Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I bet there is a third option, especially if you plan for disaster in advance.

comment by Roko · 2009-06-01T16:22:44.614Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

there may well be. My suggestion of a world government that really bites the bullet and goes in and sorts out failed states the long, hard way is such an option.

Other third options - or n'th options are probably available. But it should be noted that there are a lot of failed states in the world, and the cases of proven success fall into the categories I have given, as far as I can see. America and australia were examples of genocide working very well. Japan and germany were examples of invasion followed by high-cost, long term investment working.

Africa is a living testament that the "do nothing" approach is not a good one.

comment by MrHen · 2009-06-01T13:55:37.219Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Why are you jumping to genocide instead of just killing the people making the evil virus? What do the people have to do with the failed state?

(Edit) Oh, I hadn't travelled far enough up the tree to see CronoDAS's post. Still, a well targeted mass-destruction seems simpler than killing everyone.

comment by MichaelBishop · 2009-05-26T15:05:48.641Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

17 points? That is how much karma CronoDAS has earned from this comment (as of this writing). Don't get me wrong, it's a fine comment, but 17 points? Maybe I should be more concerned about good comments with zero points, or stupid comments with two points, but this is one more observation leading me to question karma. If the community deems my comment a distraction, I apologize.

Sorry to pick on you CronoDAS, I'll go look through your history and vote up some of your under-valued comments.

Or maybe I'm wrong to think 17 points inappropriate, maybe I should think more on why the community judged it so highly. And/or maybe lots more comments should earn this much karma.

Added: LW is inevitably changing. One can see it in the quantity and character of top level posts, and in how posts and comments earn karma. I suggest that someone make a top level post to discuss it.

comment by Apprentice · 2009-05-26T15:38:25.996Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I think the high rating of the comment is a reflection of the problem that Eliezer's post was sub-par (especially taking into account that he's, you know, brilliant). Voting up a (partial) rebuttal, even if it isn't great on its own terms, is a reasonably polite way to express this.

(But I'm very new here - this is my fourth comment - so maybe I have no idea what the dynamic is.)

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-05-27T20:08:04.574Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm surprised, too...

comment by MrShaggy · 2009-05-25T04:47:53.420Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, the idea that a certain concept of states is what explains North Korea and Somalia is wrong. Seconding the point on North Korea: it can defend itself quite well, and it's not just the size of the army. Also, compare post-Westphalian but pre-WW2 with post-WW2 to see a difference in terms of conquering other countries and redrawing borders. The difference: a deal between the US and USSR, two countries with enough power to enforce a certain kind of stability in general, and with the collapse of Stalinism leading to an uptick in the exceptions (esp. Kosovo and Russia-Georgia stuff).

comment by cabalamat · 2009-05-25T18:11:10.506Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There are two other reasons why it's harder to conquer countries now than then.

  1. people are more squeamish now; using Nazi levels of brutality in putting down rebellions would attract consideral moral opprobrium

  2. wealth now comes from highly skilled information workers, who must be at least partly free if they are to be productive; whereas in the past wealth came from farmland, raw materials, and unskilled labourers. The level of repression necessary to hold a territory (and people) against its will is likely to make the acquired terroritory unproductive.

comment by randallsquared · 2009-05-25T22:58:46.295Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

People know now. People are watching in real time (or almost), and so it's more difficult to rationalize that no one will ever find out.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-05-25T02:04:32.609Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Plato did advocate eugenics!

comment by billswift · 2009-05-25T23:25:26.479Z · score: 8 (16 votes) · LW · GW

Since the historically normal state of humanity is either static hunter-gatherer society or a crushing subsitence-agricultural poverty, even North Korea is doing fairly well. Up until about 200 years ago, there was really nothing for most people to look forward to than a life of hard, continuous labor, having hopefully at least one child survive long enough for you to pass whatever you may have accumulated to, and dying. Our world is doing pretty well. Your problem is you seem to be comparing the real world to some fantasy that you think could have been true somewhere.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-05-26T08:33:40.592Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

And in this remark, you are comparing the real world to the past that is not present anymore. To understand a system, it's usually instructive to vary its properties and see what follows. If it could be worse, or better, what would it take?

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-05-25T02:32:50.253Z · score: 8 (12 votes) · LW · GW

The very short version of my thesis on sci/tech change is that we have exponential increases in resources devoted to science and technology as a civilization, linear returns on many scales such as life expectancy, mean IQ, log GDP (which is still of mildly diminishing utility), etc.

Low hanging fruit depletion, the standard explanation for this, is very insufficient to produce the observed effect. Many other plausible effects have been proposed that could contribute to reduced scientific progress, including but not limited to excessive time in grant-writing and existentialism, various factors increasing conformity and selection for conformity locally and globally, and increased (until recently) environmental toxicity. Dysgenics may be a minor factor, decreased variance of all sorts is almost certainly more important, as is degradation in educational standards and institutions. I suspect that economic effects that I don't have time to discuss may be more important.

comment by CarlShulman · 2009-05-25T04:55:11.037Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

"degradation in educational standards" And yet people are successfully learning calculus and the like at younger and younger ages, and getting higher and higher absolute scores on international math and logic tests/IQ subtests. I'd like to see you square this with Flynn.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-05-26T15:14:49.511Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

But the relative value of knowledge is falling. If I knew calculus a thousand years ago, I'd have been the most brilliant mathematician alive. A hundred years ago, it'd have been more than I'd need to know for almost any profession. Today, calculus is the beginning of serious math. I need significantly more specialized math education to really be functioning at the top (even in fields that aren't pure math).

I'm not sure our education system is getting worse in absolute terms, though it may be (math and science seem to have lost a lot of gravitas). But, in that it's not getting better, it's getting worse, because demand for highly educated workers is much higher. As compared with a "better" education system, the demand for grad school (especially in math and science) is much lower than it otherwise would be, lowering student quality and student volume in some combination, and probably increasing the average cost of training, as it fails to take advantage of returns to scale that might otherwise be present.

Not to mention public policy is generally constrained by the ignorance of the masses. If your average voter had a college (or postgrad!) level of understanding of economics, do you think policy would look like it does?

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-05-25T22:27:45.305Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Surely the relevant educational standards of those of grad school, not high school. Scientists can use calculus, but maybe they're spending too much time mastering the same tools ("conformity").

Flynn is a good retort to environmental toxicity and dysgenics. (maybe there's increased environmental toxicity 1910-1960, and Flynn is measuring that going away)

comment by cabalamat · 2009-05-25T18:16:48.261Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The Flynn effect (higher IQs across time) is entirely compatible with the observation that educational standards are falling, which does appear to be the case, at least in some countries for some subjects. For example http://cabalamat.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/do-you-see-with-you-eyes-ears-nose-or-mouth/ or http://cabalamat.wordpress.com/2007/08/31/gcses-are-dumbed-down-and-getting-worse/

comment by Cyan · 2009-05-25T18:51:45.424Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The Flynn effect isn't caused by the fact that IQ tests are getting easier. There's an upwards drift (linear in time) in average score for a given fixed test. In order for the average score to be 100 (as it is supposed to be by definition), the IQ testers have to adjust the scoring normalization periodically. The Flynn effect changes are most apparent in the lower part of the distribution -- the lowest scoring people in the current generation score much higher than those of past generations; the highest scoring people are comparable across generations.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-05-25T22:30:37.927Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

IQ tests are getting harder and other tests (SAT, maybe GCSE) are getting easier. Flynn is stronger in fluid intelligence than crystalline. But there is supposed to be a small crystalline Flynn effect. SAT sounds like pure crystalline intelligence, yet it has the reverse effect.

This is really weird. But the Flynn effect is pretty weird on its own.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2009-05-26T01:47:09.381Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Vassar makes the argument that science funding is increasing exponentially, so mean intelligence scores should be increasing exponentially as well. Personally I'm not sure that science funding is increasing exponentially.

comment by knb · 2009-05-26T02:39:25.564Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How does it follow that science funding and intelligence scores should be so strongly correlated?

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2009-05-27T04:15:22.689Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Oh geez. Here is exactly what he wrote.

The very short version of my thesis on sci/tech change is that we have exponential increases in resources devoted to science and technology as a civilization, linear returns on many scales such as life expectancy, mean IQ, log GDP (which is still of mildly diminishing utility), etc.

In other words, one way Michael Vassar measures the success of science is by observing the ratio of change in average intelligence per year to the number of dollars spent on science per year. Even if intelligence is going up, that ratio could be going down. And if it is, our science spending is getting less efficient (according to one measure).

Got that? It's not too hard.

Edit: Why am I being downmodded? Is it because my interpretation of Michael Vassar's argument is incorrect, or because I am being overly hard on people who can't understand it, or something else? You guys are pissing me off.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2009-05-25T09:56:11.201Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Low hanging fruit depletion, the standard explanation for this, is very insufficient to produce the observed effect.

How come?

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-05-26T03:46:28.644Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

http://www.blog.sethroberts.net/2009/05/25/the-naysayers/ is pretty relevant to my claim. The point about lithium in particular.
It's implausible that part of the first few percent of the search space explored in all sorts of applications, from treating bipolar disorder to killing insects to making stockings should turn out to be best.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-05-26T21:42:45.484Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Lithium is being used because it's practically the only thing that works.

Seriously, everything else that's been tried has been useless. And lithium is a terrible, terrible treatment - the blood serum levels associated with gross toxicity is only about twice the effective levels. The old sleeping pills were banned for being too dangerous, and they have a much, much greater safety margin. A twofold serum increase can occur just from dehydration. Furthermore, a significant percentage of people who go through lithium overdoses show clear signs of brain damage afterwards - presumably there're subtler forms of impairment.

Lithium treatment is thus almost certainly exploiting the very early stages of metal poisoning, rather than being a truly beneficial effect. The reason it's still used despite those disadvantages is that manic depression is so extraordinarily destructive - the mania more than the depression, even. Manic-depressives can ruin their entire lives in a few days if they go through a severe bout. And nothing else works.

The only thing research has really done for mental illnesses is rule out some of the more obvious hypotheses. We know what they aren't - we really have no more idea of what they are than we ever did. There are a few exceptions, and they belong to neurology rather than psychology.

comment by pjeby · 2009-05-26T23:21:00.931Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Lithium is being used because it's practically the only thing that works.

FFT (Family-focused Therapy), IPSRT (Interpersonal Social Rhythm Therapy), and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) have all shown some promise in this area, actually. (Interestingly IPSRT has some crossover with Seth Roberts' "morning faces" hypotheses; part of IPSRT is regularizing social rhythms -- i.e., what faces you see when and for how long.)

comment by Annoyance · 2009-05-27T19:56:30.185Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am strongly in favor of non-pharmacological treatments - assuming they work, of course.

I have heard of those strategies before, but frankly if I had manic depression I'd be pursuing them only as adjucts and supplements to lithium. And I think the stuff is literally poison.

comment by Vladimir_Golovin · 2009-05-24T20:16:54.979Z · score: 8 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Michael Vassar has an extended thesis on how the scientific community in our Earth has been slowly dying since 1910 or so, but I'll let him decide whether it's worth his time to write up that post.)

Sounds scary. Michael, if writing up the full post will take too long, could you post a short summary / key facts here in the comments?

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2009-05-24T20:47:59.250Z · score: 16 (24 votes) · LW · GW

after the civil war a pipeline was built from the heart of academia into the sewage of politics, hoping that the crystal pure waters of science would wash out the muck. no one remembered to install a backflow valve and the sewage of politics simply backed up into academia.

90% of grants come from the same place. You don't need conspiracy theories to explain coordination when everyone is getting checks with the same signature.

edit: before i get down modded to oblivion I'd just like to point out that standard history suffers from severe crippling hindsight bias. history properly interpreted is the search for decisions that had disproportionate impact on the future light cone. Because we dont have access to alternate presents this is extremely difficult and the standard methods strike me as guilty of the same curve fitting that evolution was in its infancy (lamarckianism, social darwinism, other sillyness).

comment by Pfft · 2009-05-26T03:06:17.278Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You ought to cite the text you are quoting.

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2009-05-26T17:20:41.561Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

i'm genuinely curious about how other less wrong readers feel about UR. The robin/moldbug thread on OB was on a thoroughly boring subject.

comment by steven0461 · 2009-05-26T17:37:17.282Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

i'm genuinely curious about how other less wrong readers feel about UR.

Huge fan here. Not sure that Moldbug is necessarily the most reliable thinker of good thoughts, but his good thoughts have almost no overlap with other people's good thoughts, which makes them especially informative.

comment by patrissimo · 2009-05-28T23:57:54.287Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, exactly. If more people were writing on Moldbug's topics (structural improvements to government, differences between past and present that we completely miss because we are surrounded only by present, shittiness of many modern institutions, especially politics and academia) I doubt I would read him. He tends to exaggerate his theses and make overly sweeping claims (the comments often have good rebuttals), and I try to avoid people who say false things, especially interesting false things. His numerous mistaken comments on prediction markets are a good example.

But in the current intellectual climate, I think he adds a lot of valuable signal. I'm not the most objective b/c his areas of interest strongly overlap with mine, but for me he's a must-read.

comment by rhollerith · 2009-05-29T02:16:38.634Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am in tentative agreement with Moldbug's main points. But like patrissimo says, some of his claims are overly sweeping. Unlike patrissimo, I have no significant personal stake in Moldbug's being right aside from the stake we all have in the health of the state and the society in which we live.

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-05-26T19:51:32.355Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I see him as an eloquent crank. He's so far out from the mainstream that I can't really endorse anything he says, but he serves as a kind of sanity check, because he makes well crafted (and, sometimes, well-cited) arguments against things people usually take for granted.

(One complaint that I do have, however, is his focus on rising crime rates. The general historical trend in homicide rates has been a steady decrease.)

comment by knb · 2009-05-27T00:39:34.716Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with this. I think his writings reek of "dark side epistemology". He uses a lot of florid, non-precise, language filled with obscure references that seemed designed to instill reverence rather than educate.

The irony is that I agree with him about many things, but I can't stand him because he seems far too overconfident about the accuracy of his shocking claims.

comment by dfranke · 2009-05-27T02:06:43.839Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

He's so far out from the mainstream that I can't really endorse anything he says

Says the guy who posts on Less Wrong...

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2009-05-26T20:16:10.437Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

historical data of such a nature is worthless. if the ratio of recorded crime:crime changes how can you extract a meaningful trend? can you take into account the cost of living in areas vs the level of crime? (does it cost more or less today to buy yourself out of crime heavy areas?). trying to do induction over social data is one of the main things I'm in agreement with MM about. It's a waste of time. You can't isolate variables well enough to do proper regressions.

MM using crime as justification for widespread changes to society is one of the weird things about his position, taking into account his position on scientism in the social sciences.

comment by gwern · 2009-05-25T19:53:08.231Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you'd like a second source, you could read Charles Murray's _Human Accomplishment_; he dates decline in excellence to roughly the same time period, although he has no strong explanation of the statistics.

comment by roland · 2009-05-25T06:27:24.409Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

seconded

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2009-05-24T23:55:35.969Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Seconded.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-05-26T19:57:02.766Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

(Michael Vassar has an extended thesis on how the scientific community in our Earth has been slowly dying since 1910 or so, but I'll let him decide whether it's worth his time to write up that post.)

I put the inflection point near 1970 instead, and a variety of reasons support this:

  • Disappearance of merit scholarships to elite universities in America

  • Explosion of the cost of attending elite universities in America

  • Explosion of income of doctors and lawyers, without any explosion of income for scientists and engineers

  • Leveling off of the US science budget, which had grown exponentially until about 1970

  • Leveling off of the number of scientists trained in the US, which grew exponentially until about 1970

  • Rise of semiconductor-related industries, which had huge commercial returns and have absorbed most commercial research investment money since then (resulting in lower return on investment for research because you need exponentially-increasing funds to get constant output in terms of important discoveries within a single field)

  • Project Hindsight concludes that basic research is a waste of money

  • US enters a prolonged period of cultural economic irresponsibility

  • NASA diverts a high percentage of US brains and research dollars into research with a very low discovery/cost ratio

  • Government regulations on business and research rise dramatically in the 1960s, e.g., FDA regulation goes from specifically naming drugs to be regulated, to requiring all drugs to prove safety and efficacy

But you might be able to come up with just as good a list for some other decade, if you tried.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-05-27T03:10:23.315Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You are arguing that inputs stopped increasing exponentially in 1970. MV is looking at outputs and doesn't think they're much related to inputs. In fact, I think he's worried that too much focus on inputs has lead to their separation.

comment by kpreid · 2009-05-26T20:41:02.750Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Do you intend to claim the US is representative of the rest of the world?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-05-26T21:07:35.355Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW
  • I know more about the US than about the rest of the world

  • According to some statistics I've seen (which were brief, and I don't know how accurate they were), the US is, today, responsible for about as much basic research as the rest of the world combined. For instance, 309 out of 789 Nobel laureates are American; the non-American winners are dense in Literature and Peace.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-05-26T19:36:07.158Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Indeed, our Earth's Westphalian concept of sovereign states is the main thing propping up Somalia and North Korea. There was a time when any state that failed that badly would be casually conquered by a more successful neighbor. So maybe the successful Earths don't have a Westphalian concept of sovereignty; maybe our Earth's concept of inviolable borders represents a failure to solve one of the key functions of a planetary civilization.

A point good enough to be worth extending. What things other than bits of geography do we have Westphalian borders around? As in: We agree to leave certain topics to be settled according to a certain group of people or method or belief, in exchange for them not claiming dominion over other topics.

Religion, obviously. And this has historically been a good thing. Separation of church and state.

What else?

comment by teageegeepea · 2009-05-25T03:37:41.088Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Surprised no one linked to this yet on Somalia.

comment by billswift · 2009-05-25T23:15:50.107Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Another interesting discussion of Somalia is in the comments here, http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=975#comments , where Eric discusses how Somalia isn't as bad as he would have expected given what he had previously thought the necessary prerequisites for a successful anarchy to be.

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-05-26T04:48:38.008Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Doesn't Somalia simply have lots of mini-dictators in the form of local warlords and strongmen, instead of actual anarchy? In other words, something more like the feudalism that evolved in Europe after the fall of Rome, or Japan's Warring States period? (At least, that's what I'd assume you'd have, in the absence of a central authority: lots of little, local authorities.)

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-05-25T22:19:57.007Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The blog post makes it sound like it cherry-picks 1991 "the last year of government" as representative of government, when it's the last year of war, and thus the conditions one would expect to be worst. Actually, the article acknowledges that rebellion broke out in 1988, but it still averages 1985-1990 as five years of government.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-05-26T21:31:35.898Z · score: 4 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Selecting so that the average IQ was 140 would solve nothing. It would be just as destructive as selecting for Greek super-warriors, only more so, because intelligence is dangerous in ways rippling muscles and aggression aren't; the danger of high IQ utterly transcends the brute ability to win physical contests.

Neither IQ, nor the aspects of cognition which it represents, are the solution to our problems. They're responsible for a large part of the problems that confront us in the first place!

comment by JoeShipley · 2009-05-27T19:35:11.224Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think this is the case. It seems like we keep running into problems that are more based on our biological heritage rather than our personal intelligence: For example, limitations in our ability to accept evidence that goes against 'sacred' beliefs of a group, the idea that a belief told to you by a trusted peer or authority figure is more valid than something with reputable evidence. This might have been valuable to ancient societies to maintain cohesion, but less so in a world that is increasing piles of uncomfortable evidence against some sets of beliefs.

I think many aspects of our biology seem to stack the deck against us in solving the Big Problems. Conspicuous manipulation in terms of eugenics as they implemented is a horrible crime I couldn't condone, of course, but it may have been a solution that worked if it brought us more intelligent (not in the terms of high IQ but all-around-intelligent) people. Imagine a curve of capability that increases as our knowledge increases; Having a higher baseline means we reach that much higher in the present, possibly to the necessary critical mass to reach the tumbling cascade of solutions so many people hope to see.

On the last statement, intelligence is certainly not the problem, nor is 'intelligence' responsible for the large part of problems that confront us in the first place. Intelligence is just a measure of capability, and we should hope to increase our capability even though it means also increasing the risk inherent in each individual. To hope that our intelligence would stagnate at around the current level is completely defeatist -- We aren't going to solve the problems we've created without the intelligence to deal with them.

comment by blogospheroid · 2009-05-25T06:24:13.938Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

And yes, of course the ancient Greeks attempting such a policy could and probably would have gotten it terribly wrong; maybe the epic failed Earths are the ones where some group had the Darwinian insight and then successfully selected for prowess as warriors. I'm not saying "Go eugenics!" would have been a systematically good idea for ancient Greeks to try as policy...

And you shouldn't, too. Ancient India tried both intelligence and warriors, infact it tried a 4-fold caste system.

  • Brahmins - intellects and priests
  • Kshatriyas - Warriors and Rulers
  • Vaishyas - Merchants, traders
  • Sudras - Manual Labour.

It might have worked for a while, and probably did. Indian monuments and works of art, literature and philosophy from that period are good. Faith differences were resolved by dialogue and not by the sword. Trade happened with Egypt and China. Damascus steel originated actually in India. Surgeries took place and the traditional texts prescribed rituals for 120 yrs of life.

And some where in the past, entropy took over. Too many different tribes with different ideas came and the system could not handle them. Education became the ability to articulate properly the texts that were already in place and little new knowledge was added. The prosperity that was previously present was lost, slowly, but surely.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-05-25T06:46:49.448Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

They were doing deliberate breeding with a notion of heredity? Or just segregation by job into union-castes? There's a big difference.

comment by brian_jaress · 2009-05-25T09:24:51.610Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

They were doing deliberate breeding with a notion of heredity?

Nearly everyone was doing that.

Eugenics always plays at sophistication, but it's rooted in very old (false) folk intuitions.

comment by blogospheroid · 2009-05-25T09:28:38.435Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I hope I understood your question correctly..

Defenders of the caste system say that the system began just as job segregation, but that doesn't explain the endogamy that is prevalent in the system.

A majority of the people in India still have issues in marrying outside their caste.

The breeding may not have been deliberate as in blood type matching, but the duties of every caste and how a person matched the ideals of his caste were factors in deciding marriage.

Brahmins give their daughters away in marriage to learned pundits. Kshatriyas gave their daughters away in marriage to soldiers who achieved victories and kings who had territory. Vaishyas gave their daughters away in marriage to rich merchants and so on..

Deliberate notion of heridity, yes I think that is true. We match for the patrilineal and matrilineal lineage and avoid marriage with someone who is of the same patrilineal lineage for more than 3 generations and matrilineal for 1 generation.

comment by AllanCrossman · 2009-05-25T10:15:01.378Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

But this isn't enough to say that India was "doing eugenics". Eugenics involves a conscious effort to ensure that people with "the desired traits" produce more children than other people. Did that occur?

comment by blogospheroid · 2009-05-25T15:00:21.032Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting question - Probably only in the kshatriya caste where polygyny was practiced. Not so in the other castes.

comment by gwern · 2009-05-25T19:58:45.934Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

OK, so India shows us one way which doesn't work so well. What should we make of other examples?

I'm sure everyone here has read at least a little about the Ashkenazi researches. What did the Jewish ghettos get right? Was the selection pressure too weak in Indian society in general? Or was shooting for multiple targets a bad thing - maybe the Sudras mixed too much with Brahmins and the net effect was nil.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-05-26T21:36:11.357Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Respectfully, you're making a very big assumption there - that anything at all was "got right".

Before concluding that the eugenic forces the molded the Ashkenazi were beneficial, you should ask yourself: What did they lose?

It's very rare indeed that a population-level genetic change can take place without some tradeoffs being made.

comment by gwern · 2009-05-26T23:06:57.163Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Before concluding that the eugenic forces the molded the Ashkenazi were beneficial, you should ask yourself: What did they lose?

(Well, maybe I overestimated how much people know about the Ashkenazi.)

What they got was a ridiculously high average IQ (I've seen between 120 and 130). What the population paid for this was a ridiculously high rate of diseases related to the central nervous system.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-05-27T20:02:52.724Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, as usual, the devil is in the details.

The elevated IQ isn't nearly that high - the average is about 7 to 12 points higher than Western normal. (See Wikipedia entry on the topic.)

What IS that elevated is Ashkenazi verbal intelligence scores, which are roughly two sigma better than the norm.

Your point about central nervous system diseases is well-taken, but you misunderstood my question. What did the Ashkenazi lose? What do they lack that a 'normal' population of humanity has? Compare them to other peoples with a Western European cultural and genetic heritage, and see what's not there.

Noticing an absence is usually harder than a presence... though that's all a matter of perspective and emphasis.

comment by Alicorn · 2009-05-27T20:34:49.473Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Kindly stop being cryptic. It's irritating and patronizing. You are not teaching a class of fourth graders in whom you are obliged to instill the virtue of academic independence.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-05-28T19:21:17.381Z · score: -12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Fourth graders would probably be far less arrogant and far more willing to think.

Make up your minds: do you want me to treat you as intelligent and informed people who are capable of independently recognizing and deriving points, which requires that I not try to lead you by the nose through every observation and stage of reasoning, OR do you want me to spell out every step and logical procedure, requiring that I have no respect for your intelligence or ability to reason?

You can't have it both ways.

comment by Alicorn · 2009-05-28T19:39:41.716Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"Intelligent and informed" is highly compatible with "not willing to devote X amount of time to learning about the Ashkenazi population and their deficits in comparison to other European groups to compensate for the laziness and/or carelessness and/or rudeness of a poster easily capable of sharing that tidbit of data". You are not just leaving off the last line in a simple syllogism or neglecting to define a common word here. This is an obscure fact in an obscure area on a blog that does not select for an audience of geneticists or rabbis or whatever area of expertise is relevant to your point.

comment by thomblake · 2009-05-28T20:17:56.092Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Alicorn, you seem to be missing the conversation that was happening here. Annoyance was responding to a comment by gwern, who said:

(Well, maybe I overestimated how much people know about the Ashkenazi.)

indicating that he could assume gwern had a great deal of knowledge about the subject. I don't think it's appropriate to criticize him for not explaining things for the benefit of those not already involved in the conversation.

comment by Alicorn · 2009-05-28T20:33:32.121Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

How many nesting comments should there be, before I should assume that the conversation is semiprivate and I may not participate and consider myself a member of the audience on this public blog? Or is it some cue other than levels of nesting? (I would genuinely like to know, if you think I have run afoul of some convention, what that convention is.) I made my initial comment here because my curiosity was piqued and I was annoyed by the bizarre coyness around the thing it made me curious about.

comment by thomblake · 2009-05-28T21:41:20.435Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Kindly stop being cryptic. It's irritating and patronizing. You are not teaching a class of fourth graders in whom you are obliged to instill the virtue of academic independence.

Unless I'm missing something, this was your first contribution to the discussion. Is this seriously your idea of participating in the conversation? Apparently out of the blue, you referred to Annoyance as "cryptic", "irritating", "patronizing", and implied that he thought he was teaching 4th-graders.

4th-graders clearly were not the intended audience of the comment. The person to whom he responded, who clearly knows about the Ashkenazi, was. If you're missing something in the exchange, feel free to ask for clarification.

Consider a similar (hypothetical) situation where folks are having a conversation involving some advanced math, and you come along and berate them for not including explanations for those that haven't been exposed to it before.

comment by Alicorn · 2009-05-28T21:53:27.368Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

There is a mechanism for having a conversation between two people, but it isn't the comments, it's the private message system. If Annoyance's intended audience was exactly one person and no one else was meant to be able to understand him or get anything out of the comment, then why was it here and not there? Pure convenience?

Advanced mathematics is the sort of thing that a lot of people here know about; I stay out of such discussions partly because they rarely pique my curiosity and partly because I am aware that I am below the threshold of what could reasonably be expected in the way of mathematical expertise in this context. Most of the people here know vastly more about math than I do, so I don't expect people to keep mathematical discussions down to my level (although I'd probably leave the blog outright if such discussions came to dominate, since I would be unable to glean anything useful). Unless something has greatly escaped my notice, no highly specialized knowledge of genetics is commonplace here (or at least not more so than in any gathering of generally bright people).

Combined, the fact that it was posted publicly without any obvious earmarks of being intended only for gwern, and the fact that I don't think I am unusually poorly informed about genetics, led me to believe that Annoyance was aiming at too high a level of expertise (or possibly just being cryptic, irritating, and patronizing). The upvotes on the comment in which I said as much suggest that it is likely other interested viewers would also like to know what is being said. (Either that, or they just don't like Annoyance for some reason.)

comment by Annoyance · 2009-05-29T00:36:48.578Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If Annoyance's intended audience was exactly one person

My intended audience was everyone who knew something about Ashkenazi genetics and intellectual testing results and yet hadn't really taken notice of what those results suggest they lack.

If you don't know anything about the topic, the comment wasn't directed at you.

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-05-29T00:52:15.315Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

So, since you're hinting that they do, indeed, tend to lack "something" and that you know what that something is, would you mind enlightening the rest of us?

Edit: Never mind, I tracked it down:

Ashkenazi Jews have an unusual ability profile as well as higher than average IQ. They have high verbal and mathematical scores, while their visuospatial abilities are typically somewhat lower, by about one half a standard deviation, than the European average (Levinson, 1977; Levinson and Block, 1977). Han Eysenck (Eysenck, 1995) noted “The correlation between verbal and performance tests is about 0.77 in the general population, but only 0.31 among Jewish children. Differences of 10-20 points have been found in samples of Jewish children; there is no other group that shows anything like this size difference.” The Ashkenazi pattern of success is what one would expect from this ability distribution-great success in mathematics and literature, more typical results in representational painting, sculpture, and architecture.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-05-29T18:32:52.190Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you, CronoDAS.

As far as I can tell, their rate of dyslexia is virtually nil; I don't know if this is wholly due to breeding effects or partly to culture. The mental traits and abilities that are statistically associated with dyslexia seem to be generally underdeveloped.

The few famous Ashkenazi who seem to also have strong kinesthetic/visual abilities, like Einstein and Feynman, are such outliers and exceptions that I'm not sure they can be said to fit into any expectation system.

comment by JGWeissman · 2009-05-29T00:57:55.186Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps you could reach a larger audience, including many who don't yet know anything about the topic, if you simply shared the insight you believe gwern missed.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-05-29T16:49:16.363Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Consider a similar (hypothetical) situation where folks are having a conversation involving some advanced math, and you come along and berate them for not including explanations for those that haven't been exposed to it before.

Did Alicorn ask for explanations? Why do you think this has anything to do with explanations? Was the conversation remotely like that? Have you read the conversation? How do rhetorical questions make you feel?

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-05-28T21:51:46.703Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Keep in mind that Annoyance is consistently irritatingly cryptic, and not always in conversations that have reached an advanced level.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-05-28T20:05:25.481Z · score: -9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

The Ashkenazi routinely come up in discussions of genetics, culture, their effect on intellectual skills, and eugenics.

If you lack even the shallow knowledge of those topics that would be transmitted by reading such discussions, you have no place commenting on them.

When I'm interested in remedial education, I'll reduce everything I say to simplest terms. Until such a time, I'm speaking to people who know enough to have an informed opinion, not people who have essentially been living in a cave as far as the subjects are concerned.

These comments aren't for you. Stop responding to them.

comment by Cyan · 2009-05-28T19:30:33.421Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I will treat you as as an intelligent and informed person who is capable of independently recognizing and deriving points, who I am required to not try to lead by the nose, and simply state that the parent contains a blisteringly obvious logical flaw, and that spotting that flaw will answer your question.

comment by arundelo · 2009-05-26T15:50:47.410Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

List formatting help

comment by timtyler · 2009-05-24T19:40:35.511Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

It seems like a bit of a down post. My impression is that our position is pretty sweet. We face an almost-amazingly benign environment. Indeed, the environment seems better than we have reason to expect on anthropic grounds - curiously so, perhaps.

comment by steven0461 · 2009-05-25T14:35:23.518Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

the environment seems better than we have reason to expect on anthropic grounds

Could you expand on this? What quality of environment should we expect on anthropic grounds?

comment by timtyler · 2009-05-25T14:40:30.864Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

One that permits the evolution of intelligent agents - not necessarily one that permits them to easily spread throughout the universe.

comment by steven0461 · 2009-05-25T14:47:14.311Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe, but I'm not really convinced. If there's a technological pathway between prehistory and space colonization, it's not a miracle for intelligence to find it; and while the complete nonexistence of such pathways might be a generic feature of planets and biospheres containing intelligence, I don't see why it necessarily would be.

comment by timtyler · 2009-05-25T15:23:27.059Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It clearly isn't necessarily so, if we are a counter-example, as I am assuming.

I don't claim to have a hard scientific case for my statement. I'm just stating my impression - that we seem to have it pretty sweet, perhaps sweeter than we should reasonably expect.

comment by timtyler · 2009-05-24T21:46:59.784Z · score: -2 (14 votes) · LW · GW

How do I reconcile this view with all the doom-sayers? I have a hypothesis about many of them. It seems to me that the same people who claim that there are great risks ahead are often the same people who have plans to RAISE THE ALARM and/or SAVE THE WORLD.

I can understand why people would want to play heroic roles, or be seen to be alerting others to danger. However, doom seems to be an event with extremely poor historical foundations. Based on these observations, my hypothesis is that the heroic effort to SAVE THE WORLD is the cause - and that proclaiming that the end is nigh is one of its effects.

comment by timtyler · 2009-05-25T16:22:35.453Z · score: -2 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Well, that went down well.

This is not a new phenomenon:

http://bringontheendtimes.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/end-nigh.jpg

Are there any other plausible explanations for the cult of the apocalypse?

The end of the world is, after all, probably the single most repeated incorrect prediction of all time. The world has repeatedly stubbornly refused to end for thousands of years now - and yet for many the clock always seems to stand at five-minutes-to-midnight.

comment by simpleton · 2009-05-26T00:48:24.459Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The fact that we find ourselves in a world which has not ended is not evidence.

comment by timtyler · 2009-05-26T16:56:08.756Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Er, I wasn't citing the existence of the world as evidence, rather pointing to the extended period of time which it has persisted for - which is relevant evidence.

comment by timtyler · 2009-05-25T18:10:22.867Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Or thereabouts anyway: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doomsday_Clock

Since these are scientists you might think that they would realise someday that the clock is wrong - but no - it's been about five minutes to midnight for over 50 years! Amazing! Just think how lucky that makes us! Or maybe not - maybe this has something to do with marketing their bulletin.

comment by AllanCrossman · 2009-05-25T16:55:02.076Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The difference between then and now is that today, there are actually plausible ways it could happen.

comment by timtyler · 2009-05-25T17:52:32.953Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I was wondering why p(doom) has apparently been so consistently overestimated. Perhaps another possible reason is attention-seeking. When Martin Rees mentioned a probability of 0.5 on p.8 of "Our Final Century", people paid attention. Politicians are in on the act as well - check out Al Gore. Doom sells. Perhaps scaring people shitless is simply good marketing.

comment by alvarojabril · 2009-05-29T05:54:38.320Z · score: 1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

"Indeed, our Earth's Westphalian concept of sovereign states is the main thing propping up Somalia and North Korea."

Sure it is. It hasn't got anything to do with nukes/quagmire. I remember the Westphalian concept of sovereignty propping up Iraq in the spring of '03. How we laughed and laughed. Oh, Westphalia, you dog! I particularly enjoyed the part when Eliezer suggested that what Somalia needs is more Ethiopias.

There's a severe paucity of imagination in this post, or maybe empathy is the word I'm looking for. This planet doesn't fail Eliezer's space opera, it fails people.

Can someone tell me when going into the basement and solving the math problem has made "things turn out all right"? What I'm trying to point out is that SMARTS AREN'T SUFFICIENT. There's always a political framework around those smarts, and it directs them to ill or to good. There's far too little attention paid to this on the site.

"Of course the camel could also have three or more humps, and it's quite easy to imagine Earths that are failing much worse than this, epic failed Earths ruled by the high-tech heirs of Genghis Khan or the Catholic Church."

I would again submit that the relative rapacity and tyranny of our contemporary overlords is a matter of perspective.

"It's a cheap pleasure to wax moralistic about failures of global coordination."

I agree! I'd prefer to wax moralistic about the horrors of global coordination. Before we get to friendly AI we'd better get a grip on friendly I.

The "More Right" parody site is long overdue.

comment by Roko · 2009-06-01T12:13:59.024Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This comment would be better if it were less emotional and stuck to serious, constructive criticisms.

comment by AndrewH · 2009-05-27T22:37:06.104Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

WRT eugenics and other seemly nasty solutions, it is as they say: sometimes it has to get worse to get better. No option that causes, obvious to the voting population, short term harm but long term benefits, to the population as a whole, is going to be considered by politicians that want to be elected again.

It seems to me that the science and rationality that allow more than a shot in the dark probability of some social engineering project to work only came about recently (for example for Eugenics, post Darwin time). By the time that it was possible to do these sorts of projects, it was not possible to do them because of the national (and international) out-crying that would result.

So this really cuts off a great many possible projects that could benefit humanity in the long term. Is this a good or bad? depends on how far you are looking into the future, and whether or not you think AGI is possible or not!

I hope those nine guys in that basement are working hard.

comment by Ryan · 2009-05-27T09:35:51.074Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed we're in the successful group, easily. Sucks that NK exists as it is, but they are isolated and have no way to expand or threaten the world system. The fact that we can have websites like this, and people actually can sit in the basement and work on the math means we are doing well, up to this point at least.

My guess is more of the failed earths were long ago. Like humans continue to wander around in small tribes for millions of years and never get beyond stone-age technology. We are eventually wiped out by a meteor or some such.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-05-27T19:18:42.792Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My guess is that there is a bottleneck still ahead of us.

Evolution => intelligence => complexity => instability => collapse

Many people here seem to think increasing intelligence will help us solve our problems. History indicates that increasing intelligence will increase the number and severity of our problems.

comment by JoeShipley · 2009-05-28T00:55:45.165Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Phil, I'm sorry if this sounds negative, but I don't understand this attitude at all. Intelligence is how accurately you can mine the information of the past in order to predict the future. You can't possibly think that all of our problems would go away if you gave everybody in the world a lobotomy? Or is there just some preferable lower-limit to intelligence we should engineer people to?

I think the historical problems with intelligence is an uneven increase in different fields or typical misuse. This isn't a problem with the tool, but the protocols and practices surrounding it.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-05-29T18:35:24.547Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Intelligence is how accurately you can mine the information of the past in order to predict the future.

Very few people would claim that is an adequate definition of intelligence. The fact that there is a substantial clique of such people here, at this site, does not constitute a validation of the definition.

comment by JoeShipley · 2009-05-29T19:09:39.021Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, let's look at the short list google gives us:

the ability to comprehend; to understand and profit from experience

Capacity of mind, especially to understand principles, truths, facts or meanings, acquire knowledge, and apply it to practice; the ability to learn and comprehend.

Intelligence is an umbrella term used to describe a property of the mind that encompasses many related abilities, such as the capacities to reason, to plan, to solve problems, to think abstractly, to comprehend ideas, to use language, and to learn.

My definition was:

To mine information from the past in order to predict the future.

My definition is certainly more broad, but I think it breaks down to the same thing. In order to do anything in the list you have to use resources of past experience in order to apply information for future experience. I've been using that definition roughly since 'Consciousness Explained' came out, and I've never been in a discussion with somebody who felt it was a ridiculous way of describing the functional nature of intelligence especially in terms of biological utility. Do you just dislike summation and want a long, drawn out definition?

Either way, no matter which definition you use, the capabilities granted by extra intelligence do not generate extra problems, but help you mitigate the problems that come up. I don't really understand the criticism in context with the discussion.

comment by alvarojabril · 2009-05-29T19:27:54.536Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Joe, what you are forgetting is that human beings are not governed solely by their intelligence. I think Annoyance was referring to a sort of moral intelligence which isn't in your definition.

And intelligence doesn't generate extra problems? Ever hear of the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or, say, pollution?

comment by JoeShipley · 2009-05-29T20:00:58.970Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think those problems weren't caused by too much intelligence, but by too little. I know, intelligence enables these problems to form in the first place -- These entities wouldn't be making the problems if they weren't volitional agents with intelligence, but that seems like a kind of cop-out complaint -- Without intelligence there wouldn't be any problems, sure, but there also wouldn't be anything positive either, no concepts whatsoever.

Pollution is a great example: It's intelligent thought that allowed us to start making machines that polluted. Intelligence allowed us to realize we could capitalize on the well-being of the environment and save money by trashing it.

More intelligence realizes that this is still a value trade off, that you aren't getting something for nothing -- Depending on the rate at which you do this, you could seriously damage yourself and the people around you for the trade-off. You have to weigh the costs with the benefits, and if the benefit is 'some money' and the cost is 'destroying the world', the intelligent choice becomes clear. To continue to act for the money isn't intelligence, it's just insanity, overpowering greed.

The cuban missile crisis may have been caused by intelligence building the structures that led up to it, but the solution wasn't making everyone dumber so they couldn't build that kind of thing -- that just reduces overall utility. The solution is to act intelligently in ways that don't destroy the world.

I see your point about moral intelligence being considered separately though, I hadn't thought of that in the context. It's a more elegant package to wrap everything up together, but not always the right thing to do... Thanks for the reply.

comment by alvarojabril · 2009-05-29T20:16:41.984Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So you agree that yes, intelligence is continually generating "extra problems" for us to deal with. As you point out, many of the most pressing problems in the modern world are unforeseen consequences of useful technologies. You just believe that increases in human intelligence will invariably outpace the destructive power of the problems, whereas I don't.

The premise of this diary was many earths, so I'd submit that certainly there are many earths for which the problem of nuclear warfare outpaced humanity's capacity to intelligently deal with it, and that in the end we could very well share their fate.

I'll also note that I fail to see how anyone could conclude from what I've written above that my prescription for humanity is stupid pills.

comment by JoeShipley · 2009-05-29T20:20:22.144Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree completely. If intelligence-generated problems cannot outpace the solutions total destruction awaits.

I apologize if the stupid pill characterization feels wrong, I just was trying to think of a viable alternative to increasing intelligence.

comment by alvarojabril · 2009-05-29T20:32:59.604Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm glad we've hashed this out. I think that bias about the messianic/apocalyptic role of technology has largely been overlooked on this site, so I was glad to see this entry of Eliezer's.

Regardless of whether or not they're true I tend to think that arguments about the arc of history etc are profoundly counterproductive. People won't vote if they think it's a landslide, either for their guy or against. And I suspect I differ from others on this site in this respect, but I find it hard to get ginned up about cosmic endeavors, simply because they seem so remote from my experience.

And I don't think we need an alternative! What I was trying to point out from the start was that increasing our predictive ability is necessary but not sufficient to save the world. Entirely selfish, entirely rational actors will doom the planet if we let them.

comment by cousin_it · 2009-06-05T11:16:38.016Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Devil's advocate mode!

This isn't a problem with the tool, but the protocols and practices surrounding it.

Joe, I couldn't discern any verifiable meaning in this sentence. Both the tool and the protocols/practices contribute to the problem.

You can't possibly think that all of our problems would go away if you gave everybody in the world a lobotomy?

No more nukes. No more surveillance states. No more military/police robots. No more AI threat, nanotech threat, biotech threat. A lobotomy for everyone would increase our chances of surviving the century as a species.

I guess most people would object to an intelligence decrease because they feel it would make them worse off. In a world where growth of intelligence and knowledge leads to multiple high-probability scenarios of global collapse, this stance looks eerily equivalent to defecting in the Prisoner's Dilemma. I wonder what Eliezer, an outspoken proponent of cooperating, would say about global lobotomies viewed in this light.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-06-01T02:47:26.629Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's not an "attitude".

If everyone's intelligence were increased, and society stayed the same, and society's problems stayed the same, that higher intelligence would do better at solving today's problems than our current intelligence.

But society wouldn't stay the same, and society's problems wouldn't stay the same. People would come up with more complicated organizations, more complicated laws, more complicated financial interactions (credit default swaps), more complicated social roles, et cetera.

We can only hope there is a level of intelligence at which people can appreciate this effect, and design societies that will avoid black swan crashes even at the cost of everyone's expected personal gain.

comment by conchis · 2009-05-27T09:59:56.825Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

but they are isolated and have no way to expand or threaten the world system.

Well, except for the nukes.

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2009-05-24T20:44:58.703Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

we don't have much of a choice about generalizing from one example in this case.

considering the space of all possible worlds I wouldn't hesitate to put us in the top 10^-30%

comment by Emile · 2009-05-25T07:50:03.720Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I assume you're talking about "worlds, whether they include humans or not", otherwise what you're saying seems very very dubious.

Eliezer seems to be talking more about "worlds that include humans", which is a more interesting category.

comment by randallsquared · 2009-05-26T04:00:23.951Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I dunno about 10^-30, but top 5% seems easy. After all, if you posit that it only took about 10K years for civilization from scratch (and long periods of that were stagnant or in reverse, so I think it's actually much less), and if we take 200K years as the total of human span so far, then we have only about 1 in 20 of the 10K periods we know of in which civilization was developed. If you consider Neanderthals and other hominids separately, it's lower, and that's just technological development. I think it's really peculiar that nuclear weapons and weaponized bio agents haven't been used more, either one of which has the potential to erase civilization, in theory.

In spite of Eliezer's apparent optimism about how much better was possible, I think it's likely that we're clearly in the successful group.

comment by JoeShipley · 2009-05-28T00:50:39.871Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This strikes a bad chord with me.

We don't accept any scientific explanation that resides on 'Maybe we're just in a particularly rare or special configuration in the universe where this particular thing happens.' We assume we're in an average position in the universe and understand our observations from that framework because it's not good science to just assume you are special or unique and settle for that.

The probability of us just happening to be in the top # of universes out of an absolutely Vast number of universes seems highly unlikely if we have an even given chance of being any of those given universes. Given a set so huge, the vast majority of the cases are, by definition, average and we have no reason to assume we are not an average member of the set.

It disturbs me in some way to think of a universe where nobody has ever had a loved one die, been in a car accident or even accidentally spilled milk. But if every possible configuration must be real, that would mean there is not just one of these universes but a Vast number of them where some of them just had their first car wreck today... Living in one of these ridiculous disturbing branches would probably fantastically screw with your idea of reality.

If instead of by political and social organization and unity of purpose we sorted by 'number of unfortunate events happening' like above, it's intuitive to think we seem to be around the average: nothing ridiculously unlikely seems to persist in our universe, probability seems to roll exactly like we'd expect.

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2009-05-28T02:18:44.506Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

i appreciate the interesting response. here's how I think of it. If you have a one in a million event happen every day you might suspect that something is up with probability. But you can't neglect the fact that there could very well be a million different one in a million events. I dont think observing unlikely events makes it more likely that something weird is going on with your particular universe. just that the search space of unlikely events is large enough that you'll wind up seeing quite a few of them.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-05-28T11:53:58.867Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Assuming that you are typical may turn out to be as bad as assuming you are special. Any "assuming" is approximation, and depending on the problem the approximation may be either adequate or infinitely disastrous. That's what happens with doomsday argument, for example.

The values of probabilities of specific situations don't particularly matter if you don't approximate. The preference is for actions (i.e. areas in state space) with highest average utility (according to probability measure), independently of the probability measure of those areas as whole.

That is, if you have a huge event, something that can be predicted to happen very likely, with a certain average utility (weighted by probability), and a tiny event with significantly higher average utility, the tiny event is preferred. Ignoring the tiny event because of its tiny probability measure leads to losing that opportunity.

comment by JoeShipley · 2009-05-28T15:45:23.334Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I agree, but you still need evidence for the tiny event you are ignoring. Acting on the assumption that you are special/in a unique situation without any justification other than a blind guess and a worry that you are neglecting the opportunity is dangerous. It's the mediocrity principle: When we tend to assume something amazing about ourselves, like that the Earth is the center of the universe, we end up finding out otherwise.

Contrast with the anthropic principle, in that we know we must account for the universe being capable of supporting at least one type of intelligent life. The number of ways that could go wrong are already gigantic, so we've already hit the jackpot at once. How many times in a row do we win the lottery?

I see what you mean with the tiny event with high utility, but I mean compare:

1) Driving or walking slightly out of your way for 1 extra minute a day to check if a certain apartment building has opened up a unit you are looking to rent (Low chance, but no reason to squander the opportunity for small cost.)

2) Picking up every piece of paper you see, on the chance that some number of the pieces of paper could be lottery tickets and some number of those tickets could be winning ones. (Extremely high utility, extremely low chance, and most importantly, you don't have any reason to assume or guess somebody is around discarding used lottery tickets: You just know that it is possible.)

The chances described here are above and beyond the second. The top 10^-30% is a truly minuscule set out of the whole. (If still a Vast upon imagining set because we are dealing with Everett branches...) If we are in a particularly special branch, how do we take advantage of that? What useful information does that give us? At worst it will mislead our understanding of the universe and at best it is barely noticeable.

comment by Nominull · 2009-05-24T17:31:46.316Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Well, there is that Playstation advertising slogan, "Live in your world, play in ours."

comment by MrHen · 2009-05-30T04:40:06.612Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It may be that in the fractiles of the human Everett branches, we live in a failing Earth - but it's not failed until someone messes up the first AI. I find that a highly motivating thought. Your mileage may vary.

Perhaps I am missing something obvious (I am severely underversed in MWI), but we cannot see any of the other Earth's, right? Why are we supposed to assume that they are succeeding or failing? If I just need to read up on MWI let me know and ignore this comment.

Bullet-pointed because I like thinking that way:

  • What, exactly, does failed mean?
  • Why does it matter if Earth is failed? Can we do anything about it or is it once failed, always failed?
  • Why do other Earths matter? Are we being compared to them? Can we study them or learn from them?

But visualizing the alternative Everett branches of Earth, spread out and clustered - for me, at least, that seems to help trigger my mind into a non-Simon-and-Garfunkel mode of thinking. If the successful Earths lack a North Korea, how did they get there? Surely not just by signing a piece of paper saying they'd never fight again.

Is the answer to "how did they get there?" possible to achieve?

comment by taw · 2009-05-26T08:14:30.411Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

According to CIA 2008 estimates life expectancy in North Korea is 71.92, which is far higher than global average and even slightly higher than that of EU members Romania and Latvia. HDI for North Korea is only available for 1995 where it was 0.766. Both figures show that life in North Korea is somewhere in the middle of modern world, far better than in real third world, and vastly better than historical average.

It seems to me that North Korea was used as an example for its connotations, not denotations - that's a cheap trick that we should be avoiding.

comment by CarlShulman · 2009-05-26T15:55:47.272Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe 7 figure death tolls from famine didn't occur in those two years (definitely not 2008), since life expectancy is calculated based on death rates within the different age categories in the particular year. If every fifth year 20% of the population is slaughtered, that could actually raise life expectancy for most years if the death disproportionately affected the unhealthy (as famine might).

comment by taw · 2009-05-26T16:05:10.917Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

According to Wikipedia North Korea had positive population growth even during the famine, so this cannot be the explanation. Even if life expectancy figure for North Korea is too high for some reasons, it still seems to be far better than for most real failed third world countries, especially in Africa.

comment by CarlShulman · 2009-05-26T17:11:47.351Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Positive population growth means the addition of more low-mortality babies into the population. But certainly if the figures are to be trusted (like the claims of Kim Il Sung's supernatural powers?) that could only explain a portion.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-05-26T13:09:19.356Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This, um, sounds pretty suspicious to say the least. I can possibly see life expectancy in NK being better than life in Somalia, because at least in NK you've only got one dictator to worry about. But as a rationalist, I must indicate confusion and suspicion of the data.

comment by taw · 2009-05-26T15:21:38.811Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

CIA and WHO life expectancy estimates of poor countries differ a lot, I have no intention of arguing which is correct, however by both estimates of life expectancy, and by most other quality of life estimates, North Korea is far above most of Africa, in many cases including rich African countries like South Africa.

I think the reasons you and many other people think North Korea is so bad come from exposure to media. American and Western European media have political reasons to dislike North Korea, and no reason to care at all about most failed countries like Sierra Leone or Lesotho. And "evil oppressive government" is much easier to turn into a good sensational story than run of the mill "thousands of children died of diarrhea because they didn't have access to clean water" - in North Korean story there's a clear evil villain, in Africa there isn't.

As far as I can tell, government oppression tends to be focused on small number of people who are considered (truthfully or not) politically dangerous, and quality of life of most people isn't strongly affected - due to information scarcity I cannot be sure if that's true about North Korea, but it was definitely true about European Communist countries.

Typical third world economic oppression (low GDP + high income inequality + no social safety net) affects larger number of people, and as far as I can tell causes a lot more suffering. And these are pretty much the standard living conditions of humanity for most of the human history, so considering them some sort of spectacular failure would seem rather weird.

comment by Apprentice · 2009-05-26T14:32:36.637Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This might be hard to reliably estimate but the WHO gives North Korean life expectancy as 66 years. That doesn't confuse me or make me particularly suspicious.

I wouldn't be surprised if life expectancy on North Sentinel Island is significantly lower but it's possible that average happiness over there is higher. Which society would you prefer your child to be born into, if you had a choice between those two?

comment by steven0461 · 2009-05-26T11:55:17.404Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Are you serious?

comment by astray · 2009-05-26T17:05:26.553Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If you look at NK in conjunction with South Korea, it begins to look a lot worse.

(At the same time, you can look at Kenya relative to Somalia and it is just as unflattering.)

comment by Rain · 2009-05-25T19:26:07.986Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The extremely negative aspects of human history should be added in as priors to point to a fairly negative future, up to and including the realization of a man-made existential risk.

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2009-05-25T13:25:26.292Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

what does it say about your nation when your country's capital has by far the highest crime rates in the nation? (Washington D.C.)

comment by dclayh · 2009-05-27T22:50:41.719Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, when DC was founded it was intended to have a permanent population of zero, plus a few servants and slaves. Everything pretty much flowed from there.

comment by CannibalSmith · 2009-05-25T13:10:13.304Z · score: 0 (10 votes) · LW · GW

PORN ALERT

comment by Vladimir_Golovin · 2009-05-25T13:56:58.644Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Explanation for those who don't understand the comment above:
http://www.wordspy.com/words/climateporn.asp

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-05-25T15:06:16.344Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Dude, climate change doesn't even register on my radar except for the effects that it has on discourse, such as people sadly assuming that any talk of "global coordination" is about climate change. If all humanity had to worry about was CO2 in the atmosphere...

comment by Vladimir_Golovin · 2009-05-25T15:13:34.369Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Of course I didn't mean that you're concerned about climate -- I just wanted to clarify for non-native English speakers that the word "porn" can be used in a non-sexual context (it seems that I have done it in a misleading way), and the "climate porn" is the most frequent example of such usage, as far as I can tell.

comment by steven0461 · 2009-05-25T15:16:29.479Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I still don't get Cannibal's comment. Is all pessimism porn?

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-05-25T15:21:28.640Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Or, for that matter, is all negativity pessimism?

comment by blogospheroid · 2009-05-25T06:25:52.488Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And yes, of course the ancient Greeks attempting such a policy could and probably would have gotten it terribly wrong; maybe the epic failed Earths are the ones where some group had the Darwinian insight and then successfully selected for prowess as warriors. I'm not saying "Go eugenics!" would have been a systematically good idea for ancient Greeks to try as policy...

And you shouldn't, too. Ancient India tried both intelligence and warriors, infact it tried a 4-fold caste system. Brahmins - intellects and priests Kshatriyas - Warriors and Rulers Vaishyas - Merchants, traders Sudras - Manual Labour.

It might have worked for a while, and probably did. Indian monuments and works of art, literature and philosophy from that period are good. Faith differences were resolved by dialogue and not by the sword. Trade happened with Egypt and China. Damascus steel originated actually in India. Surgeries took place and the traditional texts prescribed rituals for 120 yrs of life.

And some where in the past, entropy took over. Too many different tribes with different ideas came and the system could not handle them. Education became the ability to articulate properly the texts that were already in place and little new knowledge was added. The prosperity that was previously present was lost, slowly, but surely.

comment by Ttochpej · 2009-05-30T18:13:40.422Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'd like to suggest an idea from "The Hitch hikers Guide to the Galaxy" and look at our earth as a big computer and people and all its problems as just being parts of the program. I think if you look at it this way and think of all the failures just being the program checking all possible solutions then instead of thinking the earth is failing heaps you can think we've checked out a lot of the different possibility's. If you think of it as in your political systems you have a group of parties, you pick the best two, take there ideas and combine them to produce your government. 3 years later they all come back with new ideas and do it again. That seems a lot like genetic programming to me.

I also think it's interesting to consider the possibility of passing as a Utopian world without the current technology of this world, If there are other worlds in this universe and if there was a Star Trek type of society of aliens that existed I think they would be waiting for the other earths to figure out all their ethical and social problems and perfect those problems before they introduced them self's, not waiting for them to invent technology that they had already invented.

comment by Rain · 2009-05-25T19:12:58.729Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

How do you know that this earth doesn't need a North Korea so that people have an appropriate example of how not to do things? And perhaps the global economic crash is saving us from future, even worse, collapses by allowing us to put in regulation before true catastrophe happens.

Perhaps failure, as an aspect of learning, must occur in many ways and through many times to properly teach every generation how to act and how to better themselves and the planet. A 'successful Earth' where North Korea and economic collapses don't exist may just be a fantasized Utopia (as linked in your post), when what we need to access a better future is a Weirdtopia that includes them as counterexamples or pressure points for change.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-05-26T20:02:57.239Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The best empirical estimate we have for the probability that the Earth will not fail, is the fraction of Earth-like planets around us that have succeeded. (Zero.)

That said, they don't seem to have failed after achieving AI, so I don't know if that really tells us much.

comment by dclayh · 2009-05-27T22:54:39.409Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

What are you considering "Earth-like planets"? I'm an astronomer and I'm not aware of any (under the usual definition of 0.5-10 Earth masses, with an equilibrium temperature allowing liquid water).

(And I would explain my vote on this post, but doing so in the absence of a request by the poster seems to be a downvotable offense.)

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-06-09T03:46:53.499Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

We've located enough planets nearby to infer that there are a large number of planets somewhat nearby that could support life.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-05-27T19:20:30.854Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm curious why people hate this comment so much. Is it just that they don't like hearing that we're likely to fail?

I'm also curious why most people haven't upvoted this post by EY. Same reason?

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-05-27T19:32:26.967Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't downvote your comment, but for me, "they don't seem to have failed after achieving AI, so I don't know if that really tells us much" is an overwhelmingly strong objection to drawing any conclusion about existential risk from the Great Silence.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-06-09T03:44:51.900Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If it's an overwhelmingly strong objection, why would people downvote me for raising it?

comment by JoeShipley · 2009-05-27T23:07:29.186Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It seems like we have a sample set of zero, as successes are not by definition or axiom noticeable. Certainly possibly noticeable but not required to be so. Failures are also not required to be noticeable. No earth-like planets sustaining life or having evidence of having sustained life have been documented yet. The probability estimate is useless, with a total margin of error.

comment by mklw · 2009-05-24T23:57:09.819Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

(off topic) Please add a favicon, they make bookmarking much easier. The FHI diamond in green might work, but just about anything is better than nothing.

comment by Alicorn · 2009-05-25T00:22:33.970Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

IAWYC but please use the off topic thread.

comment by MartinB · 2009-05-24T18:58:02.752Z · score: -4 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Considering the invention of the steam maschine and its improval the romans could have flown to the moon - if they had the right ideas regarding science and technology and how its usefull to improve on them. Likewise alot of early human inventions seem to be rather accidents than systematic work. So its easily imaginable that on other earth the way up to our current standard took way longer, or alot less long.

Now also one can imagine how Aristotle or Socrates could have dreamt up the scientific method and get it tought. Or that ppl. came to realize how killing and robbing each other is a net loss while cooperation helps alot. But we are right now in the possition we ended up in. And there is room for hope and room for being afraid.

comment by [deleted] · 2009-05-24T19:18:08.458Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, a lot of the ancient Greek philosophers despised empiricism. All they trusted to prove anything was deduction; they didn't believe their senses at all.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-05-25T02:22:13.501Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

But a lot didn't.
Most notably, Aristotle's school and most of the pre-Socratics were empirical. So were the Epicurians, and in their own way the skeptics, cynics and stoics. Aristotle and his followers failed to actually BE empirical because they propounded beliefs on everything and only had time for a few experiments, but you know, the Greeks had good enough data to need lots of epicycles.