[LINK] Scott Adam's "Rationality Engine". Part III: Assisted Dying

post by shminux · 2015-04-02T16:55:29.684Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 19 comments

Scott Adams, the author of the Dilbert comic and several books, my favorite being How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, named his debating format The Rationality Engine. He calls it this way because he claims that it is "the system for turning irrational opinions into rational outcomes". He applies it to several polarizing issues, those this site tends to label "Politics" and "Mind Killer" and shy away from.

His first application, investigating the gender pay gap, seems to have worked pretty well, resulting in several unexpected conclusions. His second, Who is More Anti-Science? I found to be slightly less impressive, but still producing a rather balanced output.

Now he is applying it to the debate about Assisted Dying. Scott's goal is to have a law passed in California that is similar to the ones already in effect in Oregon and several other places.

Scott will debate Jimmy Akin, a prominent contributor to Catholic Answers

I am quite attracted to Scott's attempts at hands-on instrumental rationality, and on a rather grand scale to boot. They are very much in the spirit of his latest book.

Currently he is accepting suggestions for questions and links for all sides of the issue. Feel free to contribute.

EDIT: I think adding cryonics to the discussion would only complicate the issue and not be helpful, but that's just a guess.



Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-04-02T17:39:24.743Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I generally approve of Scott Adams, and am glad to see someone being rational (or at least shooting for that) loudly in public. But:

resulting in several unexpected conclusions

Eh. The gender wage gap is an issue where you just need to be unbiased and read carefully to get to the right answer, and so the only possibly surprising thing was that the partisans were willing to accept that a famous person had read carefully and was unbiased, especially since he used enough space to make the various claims distinct and clear. (I was surprised by nothing in that post, because I had read carefully about the gender wage gap in the past.)

But the second one rapidly turned into being unproductive (by his own admission) because the question was ill-formed, and you need more than being unbiased and reading carefully to get to the right answer. (Note his claim that no one ever died because they misunderstood evolution--as if antibiotic resistance and eugenics weren't relevant! You also need a strong world-model, i.e. an understanding of all the relevant science.)

"Balance" is also not that good a way to look at things: like he discovered, both parties have roughly equal numbers of voters who are against vaccination. In general, we should expect scientific ignorance (do more Republicans or Democrats believe in Newtonian physics instead of folk physics?), and so unless it's a club they can use to beat their enemies, it rarely shows up.

Perhaps you could go science by science, and figure out which delusions are encouraged by which party. The Republicans surely like to misuse the Laffer Curve, but the Democrats also surely like to misrepresent the effects of a minimum wage. Which is the more serious sin? Now we have to rerun the engine on a new topic, and getting an answer may require evidence that does not yet exist.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-04-02T19:22:07.343Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

but the Democrats also surely like to misrepresent the effects of a minimum wage.

The empirical data on the minimum wage question doesn't indicate that at the sizes minimum wage is debated it has much negative economic consequences.

To me it's not clear that democrats are usually arguing on the topic positions that are farther away from the data than Republicans.

comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-04-02T18:43:45.494Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I notice he is 100% confidant of several conclusions in "the gender pay gap", and that he thinks that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But apart for that, it seems fairly rational.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-04-02T18:46:35.851Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He argues that the absence of evidence is primarily because you can't control for relevant factors. If you don't have evidence because you can't control for the relevant factors absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

comment by advancedatheist · 2015-04-02T20:16:42.310Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I understood the sentiment in Scott Adams's post, "I Hope My Father Dies Soon."


I had a similar experience with my father, who died last October (age 87) after years of dementia.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-03T08:34:49.312Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I had the opposite, dad 63, with plans, fit, energetic, and waiting for the first grandchild to be born. Blam, cancer, metastasis, dead in less than a year. Not sure which one is worse, I guess it is good that I have memories of a fit active guy who was building things around the house, and regret that the another 10 active years were denied, or or have the memories of a person in a poor state and those memories staying with you, but at least having no regrets that there were no actually quality years lost. I can kind of compare both because my grandpa, gone just two years ago, was the exact case of your dad and Scott's, except that in his case the shitty Eastern European healthcare system (that probably contributed to not noticing my dads cancer metastasis earlier, because lumps in a stomach somehow avoid the vibrations of a swallowed ultrasound device if the doctor is stupid enough) was actually doing a favor in the sense of when he was so demented that he would refuse to eat or be unable to, they did not really force the issue. A kind of a letting starve situation as a quasi-assisted suicide, with painkillers and all that so he never felt hungry. This is one of the weirdest things in the world: if the goal itself is bad, then highly efficient first-worlder systems end up worse than crappy not-so-first-worlder ones that simply botch pursuing the bad goal. Is there a name for that?

At any rate, I think the first was worse. I would rather have memories of a human vegetable staying with me as a price, if this would have bought another 5 years in good shape and photos left him with his grandchild. This, the grandchild-grandpa meeting is what I regret most and find the hardest to deal with: just how the eff you are expected to do fathering with your own father being alive and showing the ropes?

Worst thing is he did not write a book for us. Did yours? This is a huge mistake and if we have children we must absolutely make sure to write them a book. Just a brain dump, of our opinions and advice about everything so that we leave something more substantial than just photos to them.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-03T08:23:59.529Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is the actual algorithm? In the gender pay gap debate, it seems the idea is that asking the right questions is 75% of the win.

I think Adams needs to get a bit more Bayesian, as he seems to think the absence of evidence is not an evidence of absence. It is, although its strength depends on how loud signals the thing you are looking for (gender bias) is supposed to emit. Not seeing a chameleon on a tree is a weak evidence of not being a chameleon on the tree, but not seeing an elephant on a savannah is a fairly strong evidence of it not being on the savannah.

I should add I find his argument very persuasive that average group privilege does not equal every member having exactly that much, so if you are a white male but other things, such as being nerdy with poor social skills reduces your chances, you had one good chance and it was blown via some diversity policy, that is, well, bad.

(The meta level is getting treated like a member of your group when you are not a typical member of your group. It is really turtles all the way down: pretty much every social-justice thing is rooted in a bunch of people saying "hey, we are not typical members of the group you think we are!" e.g. white male but also mentally ill, disabled fat or gay. Doing this with enough granularity you will have about two and half unquestionably privileged people to be discriminated against left in the world, as everybody else will claim and find some kind of a special disadvantage.)

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-04-03T13:27:42.077Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought Adams' comments on the economics of AGW were rather silly.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-04-03T20:05:26.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought the "Who is more anti science?" post was a thorough embarrassment, with the only redeeming factor being that he realized in the end he was talking out of his ass and stopped.

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-04-02T19:15:25.934Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a fascinating link and nice idea, but I think it's ultimately useless.

In my experience, there is no point in "debating" religious people on topics that are obviously dominated by religious belief: They think there is an absolutely flawlessly moral invisible alpha male who has already given them the answer.

Sure, you could debate them on apologetics of theism and supernaturalism first, but this debate is pretty much dead for decades or centuries now. At least for informed people. There are no new arguments or new evidence.

In fact, this is why I don't debate religious people. Their clinging to indefensible religious beliefs is evidence they're not going to change their minds on social issuses that depend on them either. Such as the ethics of suicide and euthanasia. It's fruit of the poisonous tree.

Sure, it may look nice and not arrogant to "debate" them on these matters. But to expect anything other than a post-hoc rationalization circlejerk from them is delusional.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2015-04-02T20:45:40.225Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The primary benefit of debate is not convincing the other side. It is providing a breakdown of both sides' positions for the audience so that they can make an informed decision.

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-04-02T21:17:03.826Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have no doubt that this is true in some cases, but it is not true in others.

If you stage a "debate" between evolutionary scientists and creationists, give both sides equal speaking time, treat both with the same respect and social credibility signals, pretend that both are equally interested in the scientific truth, then you are doing the common good a disfavor.

Because the very framing of the debate is happening in the wrong terms. It just allows people whose true rejection is "it's in the bible" or "God said so" to pretend that they're interested in something else, such as the common good or the scientific truth.

If we had true freedom of religion, the debate about voluntary euthanasia would be over (*). Logically, it's a total no-brainer. To pretend that Catholic spokespeople give two shits about the common good, and calculate some kind of utilitarian calculus and then conclude one way or another, is total bullshit.

This is not their true rejection, and everybody knows it. To let them publicly pretend otherwise is doing the true common good a disfavor, because it allows them to implicitly attack other people's freedom of religion, without explicitly having to say, "Look, that freedom of religion thing is fine as long as everybody obeys our religious demands - but not otherwise."

Because the latter is an open attack on the Schelling point of basic human rights and implies a form of defection that they do not want the rest of society to reciprocate. They are rational, instrumentally, in lying about this and pretending otherwise, but we are irrational, instrumentally, in letting it happen.

(*) There would still be discussion about euthanasaia's legal details, but the fundementals would be obvious. Perhaps it would be illegal for voluntary members of religious organizations who decide it, but that is just another form of consent.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-03T08:49:05.145Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think this would be over, because potential arguments is not simply "god forbade it" but more like "what kind of culture do you want?" I mean culture wars are culture wars. The weird thing is that the the conservative side of the culture wars sticks to the god-forbade-it bullshit instead of actually doing their "job" and debating culture. For example something like "de-tabooing the ending of human life sends the wrong kind of cultural message around and makes those people who don't think logically but rather associatively more likely to murder, as they will not see the ending of life in itself as bad, but only the lack of consent there" is a strong enough argument to at least say this kind of debate would not be already over. I mean it should be the conservatives job to say things like this, to actually, really debate culture in a culture war. Instead, they go for the stupid god-forbade-it stuff. Frankly I think the primary reason the world is marching towards a liberal direction is most conservatives being way too stupid to represent their own case halfway convincingly. They engage in culture wars, but they talk about just about anything but actual culture.

This can be kind of frustrating if you think actually sensible conservative arguments should be useful for brakes on rash social change. The best way to steelman them is IMHO de-meta it (is that a word?) so basicallly someone says "god forbade the ending of human life" then you can think "maybe there are really a lot of people out there who would would be murderers if not for their belief that god forbade the ending of human life. maybe for this reason it is not such a good idea to send out the message consensually ending it is okay, because they don't give a crap about consent, only about the god-forbade thing and if we weaken that they will turn into murderers?"

So the point is instead of using these conservatives as debate partners, you can use their arguments as signals of potential unforeseen social consequences.

I really wish for a better conservatism, this is really frustrating this way.

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-04-03T16:47:03.839Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're right that the logical structure of consequentialist arguments are not inherently bad. The argument you mention is the class of argument that I find relevant, and many other people too.

But my point is that this is why we can expect endless rationalization in this form.

It is very easy to turn your argument upside down: "Allowing the state, rather than the private individual, to decide about the time and manner of the individual's death sends the wrong kind of cultural message around and makes those people who don't think logically but rather associatively more likely to violate people in other ways and other areas of life against their will, as they will not see the destruction of the informed consent principle in itself as bad, but only the mere end of a life whose span was limited anyway."

You can make the same framing for making people suffer against their will, and even murdering people if you frame it in terms of "ownership of life" (the government decides who has to live and who has to die).

The religious people who honestly say, "It's a sin", can be countered with, "That is your right to believe, but freedom of religion says you can't ban something for everyone just because you think it's a sin. If you want freedom of religion for yourself, you have to accept it for others, which means you have to try to convince people instead of coercing them."

That is the cultural foundation for a peaceful existence in a pluralistic society.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-09T09:23:39.781Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah... I see. You are applying to the sense of libertarianism that is very strong in American culture, the idea that it is thinkable, possible and even normal for the people to allow or not allow something for the state. To me it is a very alien concept, I am used to it being the other way around, the state decided if we are allowed something or not. I mean it was very clearly the case in the time of absolute monarchy, so up to roughly 1920, and basically just democratizing it did not change it. Just because now kings are elected for 4 years, there are checks and balances, and lists of rights they are not allowed to violate, the basic setup did not change.

Can you formulate it in a way that someone who feels like a subject of the state who does not feel entitled to tell the state what it may or may not do can still identify with it?

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-04-09T20:45:15.642Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The state is not an omnipotent entity who can make arbitrary choices. Its institutions are made of people, and its power is affected by how legitimate it is seen to be. Private individuals can make it stronger or weaker through their political, economic choices or even by breaking the law and using physical violence.

Freedom of religion is already a constitutional right in most western democracies and it is not at all futile to insist on it when religious lobby groups try to undermine it.

If you think of yourself as a slave who has no rights nor influence against the people who comprise "the state", then you are factually wrong. But I'm sure those people are happy if you belive it, as it makes power use (or abuse) easier for them.

comment by Jiro · 2015-04-03T04:09:13.360Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is not their true rejection, and everybody knows it.

So? Just because they weren't personally convinced by an argument (because they don't go for arguments at all) doesn't mean they can't legitimately believe they have an argument that could convince someone who doesn't do the faith thing.

It's no different from wanting someone to do X and trying to convince them that X is in their own self-interest. That's probably not why you want them to do X, but so what? It's a valid reason for the purposes of convincing them.

Of course, there is good reason to be wary of someone who isn't giving you their true rejection, because motivated reasoning increases the chance of mistakes, but not giving you their true rejection isn't automatically dishonest.

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-04-03T16:59:12.472Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It means they're lying about their motivation and you give them false respect for it.

The practical reality is that they will use arguments as soldiers in a religious culture war and innocent people are going to be the victim of the practical social consequences of it.

Practical ethics implies practical memetics; if you are faced with a culture war you would do well to remember it's a war, not a benevolent debate in good faith.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-03T08:41:37.468Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I personally use debates to learn about the viewpoints of other people, not to change theirs. Some religious folks are not stupid. Such as edwardfeser.blogspot.com sure, they are just smart post-hoc rationalizations and essentially irrational in the willing-to-change-mind-in-face-of-evidence sense, but interesting ones. They teach a lot about psychology. I may know better what is true, but they may know a lot better what feels good to believe for the human brain. I am also fascinated how much logical consistency can be achieved without the whole thing being real. Often very much.