post by jasoncrawford · 2021-06-14T00:38:29.791Z · LW · GW · 32 comments

This is a link post for

It’s almost impossible to predict the future. But it’s also unnecessary, because most people are living in the past. All you have to do is see the present before everyone else does.

To be less pithy, but more clear: Most people are slow to notice and accept change. If you can just be faster than most people at seeing what’s going on, updating your model of the world, and reacting accordingly, it’s almost as good as seeing the future.

We see this in the US with covid: The same people who didn’t realize that we all should be wearing masks, when they were life-saving, are now slow to realize/admit that we can stop wearing them.

For a dramatic historical example (from The Making of the Atomic Bomb), take Leo Szilard’s observations of 1930s Germany:

Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. … In late March, Jewish judges and lawyers in Prussia and Bavaria were dismissed from practice. On the weekend of April 1, Julius Streicher directed a national boycott of Jewish businesses and Jews were beaten in the streets. “I took a train from Berlin to Vienna on a certain date, close to the first of April, 1933,” Szilard writes. “The train was empty. The same train the next day was overcrowded, was stopped at the frontier, the people had to get out, and everybody was interrogated by the Nazis. This just goes to show that if you want to succeed in this world you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people, you just have to be one day earlier.

How to be earlier

1. Independent thinking. If you only believe things that are accepted by the majority of people, then by definition you’ll always be behind the curve in a changing world.

2. Listen to other independent thinkers. You can’t pay attention to everything at once or evaluate every area. You can only be the first to realize something in a narrow domain in which you are an expert. But if you tune your intellectual radar to other independent thinkers, you can be in the first ~1% of people to realize a new fact. Seek them out, find them, and follow them.

I was taking covid precautions in late February 2020, about three weeks ahead of official “lockdown” measures—but only because I was tuned in to the people who were six weeks ahead.


3. Distinguish independent thinkers from crackpots. Both are “contrarian”; only one has any hope of being right. This is an art, honed over decades. Pay attention to both the source’s evidence and their logic. Credentials are relevant, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient.

4. Read broadly; seek out and adopt concepts and frameworks that help you understand the world (e.g.: exponential growth, network effects, efficient frontiers).


5. Learn how to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. Even when you see the present earlier, you won’t see it with full clarity, nor will you be able to predict the future. You’ll just have a set of probabilities that are closer to reality than most people’s.

To return to the covid example: in January/February 2020, even the people farthest ahead of the curve weren’t certain whether there would be a pandemic or how bad it would be. They just knew that the chances were double-digit percent, before it was even on most people’s radar.

Find low-cost ways to avoid extreme downside, and low-investment opportunities for extreme upside. For example, when a pandemic might be starting, it makes sense to stock up on supplies, move meetings to phone calls, etc.—these are cheap insurance.

In some fantasy worlds, there are superheroes with “pre-cognition”, able to see the immediate future. They’re always one step ahead. But since most people are a few steps behind reality, you don’t need pre-cognition—just independent thinking.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-06-14T04:38:06.107Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It’s almost impossible to predict the future. But it’s also unnecessary, because most people are living in the past. All you have to do is see the present before everyone else does.

That really is a nice quote, though.

Replies from: gianlucatruda, adamzerner
comment by gianlucatruda · 2021-06-14T16:58:28.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Was about to comment the same thing. Saving it to my Wisdom List.

UPDATE: I've published the list here:

Replies from: mark-xu, aaronb50
comment by Mark Xu (mark-xu) · 2021-06-15T16:47:39.970Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd be interested to see the rest of this list, if you're willing to share.

Replies from: gianlucatruda
comment by gianlucatruda · 2021-06-17T16:56:48.981Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll DM you :)

Replies from: Peter Brown, Evan Rysdam
comment by Peter Brown · 2021-07-02T07:54:13.788Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Any chance you could send it to me as well?

comment by Sunny from QAD (Evan Rysdam) · 2021-06-22T01:07:59.657Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

May I see it too? 

Asking because the post above advised me to purchase cheap chances at huge upsides and this seems like one of those ^^

comment by aaronb50 · 2021-07-07T00:35:19.772Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would you be willing to post this as a general post on the main forum? I think lots of people including myself would appreciate!

Replies from: gianlucatruda
comment by gianlucatruda · 2021-07-08T09:11:01.154Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't feel like it's the kind of polished thing I'd put on LW. But here it is on my blog:

Replies from: aaronb50
comment by aaronb50 · 2021-07-08T20:22:39.094Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by adamzerner · 2021-06-30T17:17:43.229Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Definitely. I feel confident that it is something that will stick with me and have a meaningful influence on my thinking.

Replies from: gianlucatruda
comment by bfinn · 2021-06-14T14:39:28.278Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An extreme example is high-frequency trading, in which responding to a market change milliseconds ahead of others can be crucial to making money. A decade ago, Spread Networks spent $300 million laying a fibre optic cable in a straight line between Chicago and New Jersey, cutting through mountains, purely to shave 3 milliseconds off the transit time.

comment by Raemon · 2021-06-29T22:32:44.129Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Curated. I think this was a good distillation/overview of a good rationalist skill.

comment by alexflint · 2021-06-30T22:01:58.474Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this lovely post Jason.

Fundamentally, I think that the reason it is difficult to consistently pay attention to the present is that doing so means accepting things as they are, and generally that is very difficult for humans to do, since we are often attached to certain comfortable beliefs about the world, and we are willing to ignore what is actually happening in order to maintain these comfortable beliefs. Of course this doesn't serve us in the long term, but as you point out, we still do it.

So in terms of the means to consistently pay attention to the present, I would put "drop attachments" at the top of the list.

comment by Sunny from QAD (Evan Rysdam) · 2021-06-22T01:10:05.928Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This could be a great seed for a short story. The protagonist can supposedly see the future but actually they're just really really good at seeing the present and making wise bets. 

comment by dominicq · 2021-07-02T15:06:52.139Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regarding 2 and 3: that's the main practical perk of reading LessWrong, or as I'm inclined to call it now, SoonerRight.

Thanks everyone!

comment by masasin (jean-nassar) · 2021-06-30T08:48:41.055Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I started preparing in January. Bought my first ever car to avoid public transit, and bought emergency food and masks etc too. By the time China closed down Wuhan, I thought it was high double digits that a pandemic was inevitable. By the time the Diamond Princess happened and so many people on the ship got infected, it seemed likely that it was airborne (and the fact that SARS spread that way was an extra data point). I encouraged my SO to fly over because I didn't think we'd be able to meet that year otherwise. (She ended up coming, but we were about a week too late for cohabitation, and she had to return.)

That being said, it's still too early to stop wearing masks in most of the world. In most of the US, too, if that's your metric. Even if prevalence is low where you are right now, depending on how many people are no longer (as) susceptible, you can still get huge numbers again. More than half of your states have less than 50% of the population vaccinated. Not to mention the variants that are much better at spreading compared to the baseline (which was relatively high to start with), which have an even higher herd immunity threshold.

As for me, I'm in Belgium, and I am still double masking. We're starting to see another increase. Both the first and second derivatives are positive. But the government says it's okay to do basically everything again so people are essentially acting as if COVID doesn't exist. I haven't even eaten in a restaurant since March last year.

Replies from: Dr_Manhattan
comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2021-07-01T10:38:38.418Z · LW(p) · GW(p)



Wait, you can't get N95 or KN95 there? 

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-07-01T19:47:53.537Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Belgium is in Europe, so there won't be N95 masks but FFP-2 or KN95 and you can order those on Amazon. 

comment by M. Y. Zuo · 2021-06-17T17:27:38.527Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Referencing Leo Szilard is amusing for this topic as his moment of genius insight, that the atomic nucleus can be split to generate enormous explosions, is one of those few ideas so genuinely beyond the then current paradigm (1930’s) that it seems like real precognition.  

Allegedly he spent a significant fraction of every day sitting in a hotel bathtub in rumination, and he lived permanently in hotels for decades. I assume that is how he developed that depth of thinking. 

Replies from: bluefalcon
comment by bluefalcon · 2021-06-29T23:45:11.271Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Szilard got his key insight precisely by being pissed at Rutherford's hubris.

comment by adamzerner · 2021-06-30T17:38:14.977Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

are now slow to realize/admit that we can stop wearing them.

I'd like to offer a "precognition" rebuttal to this. If you value life at the typical $10M, one microcovid = $0.01 [LW(p) · GW(p)], then wearing a mask "costs" $0.01. But if you value life at eg. 1000x that amount, then wearing a mask costs $10, a bad price to pay. Applying "2. Listen to other independent thinkers.", my read [LW · GW] on it is that the consensus opinion of experts is that the singularity is quite plausible, and that this would imply wildly longer lifespans. Putting those two things together, it seems reasonable to value life wildly more than is typical, and that you seem to be valuing it at in saying that we shouldn't wear masks indoors anymore.

Replies from: Daphne_W
comment by Daphne_W · 2021-07-02T10:53:10.201Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're acting like wearing a mask is the only trade you can do to prolong your life. But there are many investments/interventions into your own longevity that are more effective per dollar that you probably haven't taken yet.

Do you spend more than two hours per day doing exercise? Do you check your micronutrient blood levels regularly? Do you refuse to go outside in fear of traffic accidents or muggings or skin cancer? Have you moved to an area with little air pollutants and good access to medical/cryogenic emergency services? Have you read everything on the internet that has a better than 1:100 million chance per hour of reading of saving your life? Are you always accompanied by your personal full-time physician?

Before you get to $1 per 10^-10 chance to preserve your life for the singularity, there are a lot of interventions you can take, many of which are expensive or time-consuming. Opportunity cost ruins it for all but the richest of people.

And that's just regarding your own life. Other people have a chance of post-singularity immortality too, so rather than a small chance of saving yourself, you could go for a much larger chance at saving someone else. EA charities can manage about $1 per 10^-4 chance to preserve a life for the singularity, and investing in friendly singularity research is almost certainly even more valuable given your long-termist argument for self-preservation.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-07-02T19:04:46.274Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not seeing where there is a tradeoff. Let's assume you are making a 1hr grocery run in SF. From there, you are faced with a choice: mask or no mask. My argument is that life should be valued wildly highly, and thus wearing a mask is worth it. It's not like wearing a mask is something that takes money or time, and that you could spend that money or time doing something more valuable (essentially).

Replies from: Daphne_W
comment by Daphne_W · 2021-07-13T07:13:52.825Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was relying on your numbers that 1 microcovid = $0.01 at $10M per life, and that you believe lives should currently be valued at $10B. Have you changed your mind in either of these areas?

Going by your link, wearing a mask during that trip would be about 0.5 microcovid if you're vaccinated. Where I live, a disposable mask is about $0.25. I would also not accept $10 to wear a mask when I'm alone for an hour per day for a year, so my discomfort is at least $0.03 per hour. I also care about my appearance, status and about the ease of communication of people seeing my lips move, which even for a grocery trip amounts to several cents per hour cost for wearing a mask.

So, for me, wearing a mask while going grocery shopping in SF for an hour would cost upwards of $0.30. If you already have a rotating set of non-disposable masks so the material costs are negligible on the margin, I would still rate the discomfort and social effects at upwards of $0.05, which means you would have to value your life at at least $100M, or $600M when including disposable or one-time investment material costs. Again, there are lots of trades that should be more valuable than this, including ordering your groceries to be delivered to avoid traffic accidents.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-07-14T00:44:26.788Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the OP, jasoncrawford says:

We see this in the US with covid: The same people who didn’t realize that we all should be wearing masks, when they were life-saving, are now slow to realize/admit that we can stop wearing them.

At $10M/life, I can* agree that a mask isn't worth it. But if we eg. 1000x the value of life, wearing a mask provides something like $5 of value instead of $0.005, and at that price it would be worth it. So the question becomes whether we should value life wildly highly like this.

The point I was trying to make in my comment was, "perhaps we should value life wildly highly like this". The following is mentioned in the OP as a way to do "precognition": "2. Listen to other independent thinkers." As I explain in this post [LW · GW], I get the impression that if you go by the judgements of these expert, independent thinkers, it might be justifiable to value life wildly highly.

*Not wearing a mask feels like defecting in a prisoners dilemma to me, which makes me feel icky.

comment by velcro · 2021-06-30T11:45:36.375Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It’s almost impossible to predict the future. But it’s also unnecessary, because most people are living in the past. All you have to do is see the present before everyone else does.

To be fair, it is still necessary to model/predict the future to make good decisions that have consequences in the future.  As this post says, your prediction will be better than others if your data is more up-to-date and from better sources.


Replies from: jasoncrawford
comment by jasoncrawford · 2021-06-30T17:14:32.147Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, it was a pithy tweet-length opener. To be precise, it's unnecessary to have a perfect model of the future / predict it with anything near 100% accuracy, or to have any appreciable degree of accuracy on the long-term future.

Replies from: velcro
comment by velcro · 2021-06-30T19:01:18.585Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree.

comment by sebkap · 2021-06-30T06:16:29.830Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Any list of independent thinkers who are worth following? I'm thinking about Zvi, Scott Alexander. Who else?

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-06-30T21:01:44.954Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The blogrolls on and come to mind as lists.

comment by adamzerner · 2021-07-14T03:25:14.154Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

$10M is a roughly standard value that the US government uses:

1000x, the short answer is "the singularity seems pretty plausible, and given how powerful a singularity would be, assuming we get the alignment problem right, I'd think we'd live really, really, really, long lives". I go into some more detail in [LW · GW], although that post is still very hand-wavy.