Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates 2020-06-07T15:45:30.271Z
Can crimes be discussed literally? 2020-03-22T20:17:05.545Z
When to Reverse Quarantine and Other COVID-19 Considerations 2020-03-10T16:37:41.717Z
Simulacra and Subjectivity 2020-03-05T16:25:10.430Z
REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find 2020-01-31T18:07:05.348Z
Approval Extraction Advertised as Production 2019-12-15T14:51:44.878Z
Judgment, Punishment, and the Information-Suppression Field 2019-11-06T17:44:38.908Z
Blatant lies are the best kind! 2019-07-03T20:45:56.948Z
Reason isn't magic 2019-06-18T04:04:58.390Z
Drowning children are rare 2019-05-28T19:27:12.548Z
A War of Ants and Grasshoppers 2019-05-22T05:57:37.236Z
Towards optimal play as Villager in a mixed game 2019-05-07T05:29:50.826Z
Hierarchy and wings 2019-05-06T18:39:43.607Z
Blame games 2019-05-06T02:38:12.868Z
Should Effective Altruism be at war with North Korea? 2019-05-05T01:50:15.218Z
Totalitarian ethical systems 2019-05-03T19:35:28.800Z
Authoritarian Empiricism 2019-05-03T19:34:18.549Z
Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra 2019-04-10T21:27:40.700Z
Blackmailers are privateers in the war on hypocrisy 2019-03-14T08:13:12.824Z
Moral differences in mediocristan 2018-09-26T20:39:25.017Z
Against the barbell strategy 2018-09-20T15:19:08.185Z
Interpretive Labor 2018-09-05T18:36:49.566Z
Zetetic explanation 2018-08-27T00:12:14.076Z
Model-building and scapegoating 2018-07-27T16:02:46.333Z
Culture, interpretive labor, and tidying one's room 2018-07-26T20:59:52.227Z
There is a war. 2018-05-24T06:44:36.197Z
Talents 2018-05-18T20:30:01.179Z
Oops Prize update 2018-04-20T09:10:00.873Z
Humans need places 2018-04-19T19:50:01.931Z
Kidneys, trade, sacredness, and space travel 2018-03-01T05:20:01.457Z
What strange and ancient things might we find beneath the ice? 2018-01-15T10:10:01.010Z
Explicit content 2017-12-02T00:00:00.946Z
Cash transfers are not necessarily wealth transfers 2017-12-01T10:10:01.038Z
Nightmare of the Perfectly Principled 2017-11-02T09:10:00.979Z
Poets are intelligence assets 2017-10-25T03:30:01.029Z
Seeding a productive culture: a working hypothesis 2017-10-18T09:10:00.882Z
Defense against discourse 2017-10-17T09:10:01.023Z
On the construction of beacons 2017-10-16T09:10:00.866Z
Sabbath hard and go home 2017-09-27T07:49:40.482Z
Why I am not a Quaker (even though it often seems as though I should be) 2017-09-26T07:00:28.116Z
Bad intent is a disposition, not a feeling 2017-05-01T01:28:58.345Z
Actors and scribes, words and deeds 2017-04-26T05:12:29.199Z
Effective altruism is self-recommending 2017-04-21T18:37:49.111Z
An OpenAI board seat is surprisingly expensive 2017-04-19T09:05:04.032Z
OpenAI makes humanity less safe 2017-04-03T19:07:51.773Z
Against responsibility 2017-03-31T21:12:12.718Z
Dominance, care, and social touch 2017-03-29T17:53:20.967Z
The D-Squared Digest One Minute MBA – Avoiding Projects Pursued By Morons 101 2017-03-19T18:48:55.856Z
Threat erosion 2017-03-15T23:32:30.000Z
Sufficiently sincere confirmation bias is indistinguishable from science 2017-03-15T13:19:05.357Z


Comment by Benquo on Reason isn't magic · 2021-01-15T15:41:34.116Z · LW · GW

This post makes a straightforward analytic argument clarifying the relationship between reason and experience. The popularity of this post suggests that the ideas of cultural accumulation of knowledge, and the power of reason, have been politicized into a specious Hegelian opposition to each other. But for the most part neither Baconian science nor mathematics (except for the occasional Ramanujan) works as a human institution except by the accumulation of knowledge over time.

A good follow-up post would connect this to the ways in which modernist ideology poses as the legitimate successor to the European Enlightenment, claiming credit for the output of Enlightenment institutions, and then characterizing its own political success as part of the Enlightenment. Steven Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" might be a good foil.

Comment by Benquo on Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra · 2021-01-15T15:23:12.667Z · LW · GW

There are two aspects of this post worth reviewing: as an experiment in a different mode of discourse, and as a description of the procession of simulacra, a schema originally advanced by Baudrillard.

As an experiment in a diffferent mode of discourse, I think this was a success on its own terms, and a challenge to the idea that we should be looking for the best blog posts rather than the behavior patterns that lead to the best overall discourse.

The development of the concept occurred over email quite naturally without forceful effort. I would have written this post much later, and possibly never, had I held it to the standard of "written specifically as a blog post." I have many unfinished drafts. emails, tweets, that might have advanced the discourse had I compiled them into rough blog posts like this. The description was sufficiently clear and compelling that others, including my future self, were motivated to elaborate on it later with posts drafted as such.

I and my friends have found this schema - especially as we've continued to refine it - a very helpful compression of social reality allowing us to compare different modes of speech and action.

As a description of the procession of simulacra it differs from both Baudrillard's description, and from the later refinement of the schema among people using it actively to navigate the world.  I think that it would be very useful to have a clear description of the updated schema from my circle somewhere to point to, and of some historical interest for this description to clearly describe deviations from Baudrillard's account. I might get around to trying to draft the former sometime, but the latter seems likely to take more time than I'm willing to spend reading and empathizing with Baudrillard.

Over time it's become clear that the distinction between stages 1 and 2 is not very interesting compared with the distinction between 1&2, 3, and 4, and a mature naming convention would probably give these more natural names than the numbering we're using now, but my later attempt to name them was forced and premature.

Comment by Benquo on Can crimes be discussed literally? · 2020-08-18T23:12:11.430Z · LW · GW
If you only thought of this in hindsight, was it disrespectful of you not to think of it before either? (Sure, we should hold the author of a post to a higher standard than the reader, but still, I think the point you're making here is actually relatively subtle, in the scheme of things, so it strikes me as an overstatement to call out someone as disrespectful for not thinking of it.)

I'm not claiming to have been morally pure at the time. I'm just claiming that this was disrespectful to King. I'm not calling for anyone to be punished or shamed here, just trying to describe an unfortunate aspect of the post worth avoiding in the future, because it seems relevant to the point under discussion.

There was probably some unfortunate element of point-scoring in the way I brought it up, for which I am sorry.

Comment by Benquo on Can crimes be discussed literally? · 2020-08-18T23:05:32.582Z · LW · GW

What do you think the point of prosecutorial discretion (and other sorts of institutionalized hypocrisy) is, if not disparate enforcement? Does the majority have a coherent agenda that it's afraid to inform itself about?

Comment by Benquo on Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates · 2020-07-09T17:49:22.656Z · LW · GW

The director of NIAID publicly endorsed that model's bottom line.

Comment by Benquo on Covid-19: My Current Model · 2020-06-09T17:59:29.936Z · LW · GW

Comment by Benquo on Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates · 2020-06-08T01:53:23.061Z · LW · GW

Good point, I should add a clarifying note.

Comment by Benquo on Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates · 2020-06-07T20:42:35.954Z · LW · GW

Given that it apparently took you some time to dig up even as much as a tweet with a screen cap of some numbers that with quite a lot of additional investigation might be helpful, I hope you're now at least less "confused" about why I am "relying on this back of the envelope rather than the pretty extensive body of work on this question."

If you want to see something better, show something better.

Comment by Benquo on Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates · 2020-06-07T19:35:14.853Z · LW · GW

I clicked through to the tweet you mentioned, which contains a screencap of a chart purporting to show "An Approximate Percentage of the Population That Has COVID-19 Antibodies." No dates or other info about how these numbers might have been generated.

Fortunately, Gottlieb's next tweet in the thread contains another screencap of the URLs of the studies mentioned in the chart. I hand-transcribed the Wuhan study URL, and found that while it was performed at a date that's probably helpful (April 20th) it's a study in a single hospital in Wuhan, and the abstract explicitly says it's not a good population estimate:

Here, we reported the positive rate of COVID‐19 tests based on NAT, chest CT scan and a serological SARS‐CoV‐2 test, from April 3 to 15 in one hospital in Qingshan Destrict, Wuhan. We observed a ~10% SARS‐CoV‐2‐specific IgG positive rate from 1,402 tests. Combination of SARS‐CoV‐2 NAT and a specific serological test might facilitate the detection of COVID‐19 infection, or the asymptomatic SARS‐CoV‐2‐infected subjects. Large‐scale investigation is required to evaluate the herd immunity of the city, for the resuming people and for the re‐opened city.

I'd need to know more about e.g. hospitalization rates in Wuhan to interpret this.

The New York numbers seem to come from a press release, with no clear info about how testing was conducted.

All of these are point estimates, and to get ongoing infection rates, I'd need to fit a time series model with too many degrees of freedom. Not saying no one can do this, but definitely saying it's not clear to me how I can make use of these numbers without working on the problem full time for a few weeks.

You've nonspecifically referred to experts and models a few times; that's not helpful and only serves to intimidate. What would be helpful would be if you could point to specific models by specific experts that make specific claims which you found helpful.

Comment by Benquo on Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates · 2020-06-07T18:49:39.853Z · LW · GW

This points to an important weakness in the data source I'm using here.

Comment by Benquo on Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates · 2020-06-07T18:48:26.748Z · LW · GW

Not unless countries are reporting untested cases somehow.

Comment by Benquo on Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates · 2020-06-07T18:27:19.026Z · LW · GW

A link, or other citation if this somehow isn't available online, would help here. As would an explanation of why I should prefer this number to some other.

Comment by Benquo on Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates · 2020-06-07T18:26:31.962Z · LW · GW

IFR isn't that helpful when trying to use public case data to estimate a hazard rate. I'll add a note clarifying that in the post. Since what's reported are cases, case fatalities are the natural thing to multiply the rate of new cases by.

Some apparently expert-promoted models have been total nonsense, and I prefer a back-of-the-envelope calculation whose flaws are obvious and easy for me to understand, to comparatively opaque sophisticated estimates which I can't interpret.

Can you point me to a clear concise account that shows how to estimate IFR with available data and use it in a decision-relevant way?

Comment by Benquo on Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates · 2020-06-07T18:20:40.467Z · LW · GW

How do you get those #s?

Comment by Benquo on Studies On Slack · 2020-05-13T21:51:19.541Z · LW · GW

If you can't recognize who's already done some good work autonomously, how can you reasonably hope to extract good work from people who haven't been selected for that?

Comment by Benquo on Can crimes be discussed literally? · 2020-04-16T15:18:53.587Z · LW · GW

It's not something I'd say as a complete summary without context, but it's something that would be pretty frequently seized on and evaluated out of context even when - in context - it ought to be quite clear to a naive reader what specific patterns it's summarizing.

Comment by Benquo on Can crimes be discussed literally? · 2020-04-16T15:17:10.584Z · LW · GW

I think this conversation might be suffering from ambiguity in the term "knows"; it doesn't mean the same thing across simulacrum levels. In fact, it's not clear how someone operating above SL2 can "know" anything in the standard philosophical sense. There's know-how, and there's the holding of opinions that lower SL people would agree with, but as a function of social reality, not with real "aboutness" pointing to underlying reality.

Comment by Benquo on Can crimes be discussed literally? · 2020-04-16T14:46:27.370Z · LW · GW

It seems to me that you're taking the position opposite MLK's, and my position is pretty much MLK's.

MLK never equivocated about whether he was disobedient towards US law. He just asked people to accept the legitimacy of the justice over that of US law. As he wrote in Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an "I - it" relationship for the "I - thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn't segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.
Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
Let me give another explanation. An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because it did not have the unhampered right to vote. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up the segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout the state of Alabama all types of conniving methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties without a single Negro registered to vote, despite the fact that the Negroes constitute a majority of the population. Can any law set up in such a state be considered democratically structured?
These are just a few examples of unjust and just laws. There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I was arrested Friday on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade, but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.
We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.

This is an attempt at a principled, conceptual distinction between just and unjust laws. The idea that criminality becomes noncentral - and therefore the idea becomes not worth applying - because it's approved of by the majority is what King describes above as "difference made legal," and as such, the basic paradigm of injustice.

If someone disapproves of MLK because he was a criminal, they disapprove of him because he was disobedient to the US Government at the time, so they're taking a position in favor of unjust laws approved by the majority. Invoking the noncentral fallacy is effectively an appeal to democracy, favoring the current majority against the past one. This can look like justice if you focus attention on particular issues where the majority opinion has become more just, but is still fundamentally opposed to *principled* distinctions, which King stood for:

I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

in hindsight I think it was pretty disrespectful of you to use King as the example in the Noncentral Fallacy post.

Comment by Benquo on How About a Remote Variolation Study? · 2020-04-03T15:46:52.871Z · LW · GW

A crisis with massive blatant institutional failure seems like exactly the time for courage and the willingness to do things that might get one in trouble, if they're the right thing to do.

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-03-22T19:03:45.846Z · LW · GW

You've given a lot of details specifically about Madagascar, but not actually responded to the substantive argument in the post. What global picture does this correspond to, under which the $5k per life saved figure is still true and meaningful? I don't see how the existence of somewhere for which no lives can be saved for $5k makes that claim any more plausible.

Comment by Benquo on When to Reverse Quarantine and Other COVID-19 Considerations · 2020-03-11T21:40:59.398Z · LW · GW

How did you estimate "Likelihood of secondary long-term effects when getting it" and "Average badness of secondary long-term effects"?

Comment by Benquo on What should be my triggers for initiating self quarantine re: Corona virus · 2020-03-11T15:38:51.712Z · LW · GW

When to Reverse Quarantine

Comment by Benquo on Simulacra and Subjectivity · 2020-03-11T15:03:45.568Z · LW · GW

Someone at level 1 is going to take longer to learn how to get along in a level 3 or 4 environment than a level 3 or 4 player, but is capable of knowing about them, while people who are level 3/4 players at core can't really know about anything. They can acquire know-how by doing, but not know-about, insofar as their language is nonepistemic.

Comment by Benquo on Simulacra and Subjectivity · 2020-03-11T15:00:17.503Z · LW · GW

Does this mean I’m simultaneously at different levels for different purposes?

There's an important difference between:

(1) Participating in fictions or pseudorepresentative communication (i.e. bullshit) while being explicitly aware of it (at least potentially, like if someone asked you whether it meant anything you'd give an unconfused answer). This is a sort of reflective, rational-postmodernist level 1.

(2) Adjusting your story for nonepistemic reasons but feeling compelled to rationalize them in a consistent way, which makes your nonepistemic narratives sticky, and contaminates your models of what's going on. This is what Rao calls clueless in The Gervais Principle.

(3) Acting from a fundamentally social metaphysics like a level 3/4 player, willing to generate sophisticated "logical" rationales where convenient, but not constraining your actions based on your story. This is what cluster thinking cashes out as, as far as I can tell.

Comment by Benquo on Simulacra and Subjectivity · 2020-03-11T14:50:06.972Z · LW · GW

Level 1 (referential, or epistemic): Generating a business plan and financial projections as an integral part of the process by which you decide whether your startup is worth trying.

Level 2 (lying): Publicizing a business plan you don't expect to carry out, to obscure your secret plan to pivot to something that would undercut existing power, so they don't crush you immediately.

Level 3 (relating): Coming up with a business plan so you feel like a Real Business, and feel less impostor anxiety, and then feeling a need to rationalize whatever future decisions you make as somehow Part of the Plan.

Level 4 (magical): Coming up with a business plan and financial projections because that's something venture capitalists want, and no one thinks that anyone else cares whether the plan is literally true or even possible, it's just one of the theatrical hoops you gotta jump through for the vibe to feel right.

Comment by Benquo on When to Reverse Quarantine and Other COVID-19 Considerations · 2020-03-11T12:55:17.999Z · LW · GW

How dangerous is that assumption? What multiple of the impact from death is the impact from disability? How different a decision would that imply?

Comment by Benquo on When to Reverse Quarantine and Other COVID-19 Considerations · 2020-03-11T12:53:58.115Z · LW · GW

Heard it from someone I can't remember on Twitter, and then gave myself a (minor) copper cut.

Comment by Benquo on When to Reverse Quarantine and Other COVID-19 Considerations · 2020-03-10T19:56:29.055Z · LW · GW
Also, reverse-quarantining doesn't just benefit you, it also benefits the people who you might infect if you get the disease, and the person whose hospital bed you might be taking if you get the disease. I don't know what these numbers are but they should probably figure into your calculation.

I wanted to start with something very simple to avoid decision paralysis, but you're right that there are flow-through / flatten-the-curve benefits. I've added a note clarifying that while this consideration matters, I haven't counted it.

Comment by Benquo on When to Reverse Quarantine and Other COVID-19 Considerations · 2020-03-10T19:42:20.963Z · LW · GW
Have you looked into whether cinchona is really an acceptable substitute for chloroquine?

Nope! The epistemic status there is something like "rumor from a pretty sensible and curious friend." Definitely not a substitute for any other measure, and highly speculative. Edited to clarify (and link to your comment).

Comment by Benquo on Simulacra and Subjectivity · 2020-03-05T22:44:03.374Z · LW · GW

Level 1, objectivity, is trying to describe the territory accurately.

Comment by Benquo on [deleted post] 2020-02-17T23:39:08.033Z

That Kipling poem has always felt really creepy to me, and this post feels creepy in a related way; if doing normal stuff seems bad, maybe the normal stuff is in fact bad? For instance, wars. At least one side and likely more have to be actively making things worse, even if many of them are able to spend normal-to-them days doing normal-to-them activities, often doing lots of direct physical work, staying motivated, and having difficulty understanding the point of view of conscientious objectors who may seem unusually upset, and may in fact end up with worse life outcomes.


Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-17T16:18:27.290Z · LW · GW

This is too nonspecific to be meaningful; it brings up potential complicating factors without trying to put together any specific quantitative scenario in which they might have the suggested effect. Please no more like this.

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-17T16:05:37.592Z · LW · GW

That isn't an answer at all.

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-17T16:04:37.219Z · LW · GW

As you point out, you're making entirely nonspecific claims. This is a waste of everyone's time; please stop doing so here.

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-13T15:08:49.707Z · LW · GW

It doesn’t at all follow from “there is an enormous amount of good to be done at a rate of $5k per life-equivalent” that there are nice conclusive experiments like reducing malaria deaths to zero in one country for one year and measuring the cost. Many malaria deaths in a given year may be from infections in earlier years; even if a large fraction of malaria can be prevented at $5k per life-equivalent, the marginal cost will surely increase a lot as you get to the hardest cases; eliminating all malaria deaths somehere will probably require multiple different kinds of intervention, and any given organization has expertise only in a subset of them, and coordination is hard.

It would be helpful if you actually described the specific quantitative scenario you have in mind here, instead of simply asserting that one exists. What proportion of malaria deaths do you think are from infection in prior years? (Bednets disproportionately save the lives of young children.) How many years does that mean we should expect such an experiment would need to be funded? What percentage of malaria deaths do you think can be prevented at ~$5000 per life saved? What's the implied maximum effect size at that cost (and at $10k per life saved) in a well-defined area like Madagascar, and what would be the total cost of running such an experiment?

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-13T15:02:46.882Z · LW · GW

Also, they never, btw, talk about a fair share of lives saved but of funding provided, and while of course those things are closely connected they are not intensionally equivalent and there is an enormous difference between “we favour an approach that can be summarized as ‘donors consider the landscape of donors and try to estimate their share of the funding gap, and give that much’” and “it would be bad if anyone saved more than their fair share of lives”.

In the context of a discussion about how much money to give to a specified set of nonprofits, where no other decisions are being discussed other than how to decide how much money to give, what is the difference?

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-13T14:58:43.126Z · LW · GW

Could you give an example or two? I don’t mean of one person assuming shallow diminishing returns and another assuming steep diminishing returns—obviously different people may have different opinions—but of a single person doing the sort of combination you describe.

I think Scott's doing that here, switching back and forth between a steep diminishing returns story (where Good Ventures is engaged in at the very least intertemporal funging as a matter of policy, so giving to one of their preferred charities doesn't have straightforward effects) and a claim that "you or I, if we wanted to, could currently donate $5000 (with usual caveats) and save a life."

The more general pattern is people making nonspecific claims that some number is "true." I'm claiming that if you try to make it true in some specific sense, you have to posit some weird stuff that should be strongly decision-relevant.

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-09T16:31:47.682Z · LW · GW

OK but (1) what about the fact that to a large extent they're not actually talking about saving lives if you look into the details of the cost-effectiveness estimate? (2) GiveWell's analysis does not account for the kind of publication bias end users of GiveWell's recommendations should expect, so yes this does analytically imply that we should adjust the $5k substantially downwards based on some kind of model of what kinds of effectiveness claims get promoted to our attention.

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-09T16:26:51.982Z · LW · GW

How many lives do you think can be saved for between $5k and $10k? The smaller the number, the more "~$5k per life saved" looks like an impact certificate you're buying from Good Ventures at a price assessed by GiveWell, rather than a serious claim that for an extra $5k you can cause a life to be saved through the intervention you funded.

The larger the number, the more the marginal cost looks like the average costs for large numbers of lives saved (and therefore the "why don't they do an experiment at scale?" argument holds).

Claims that you can make the world different in well-specified ways through giving (e.g. more lives saved by the intervention you funded) imply the latter scenario, and substantively conflict with the former one.

Do you disagree with this model? If so, how?

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-09T16:23:51.447Z · LW · GW

It seems to me like people keep switching between the "shallow diminishing returns" and "steep diminishing returns" stories, combining claims that only make sense in one scenario with claims that only make sense in the other, instead of taking the disjunction seriously and trying to do some actual accounting. So I keep trying to explain the disjunction.

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-02T16:28:49.833Z · LW · GW

But the estimate that you can save a life for $5000 remains probably true (with normal caveats about uncertainty) and is a really important message to get people thinking about ethics and how they want to contribute.

GiveWell seems not to think this is true:

GiveWell's general position is that you can't take cost-effectiveness estimates literally. It might be confusing that GiveWell nevertheless attempts to estimate cost-effectiveness with a great degree of precision, but Holden's on the record as saying that donors need to adjust for publication bias.

If you look at those detailed cost-effectiveness estimates, you'll find that GiveWell is usually compressing a variety of outcomes into a single metric. The amount of money it takes to literally prevent a death from malaria is higher than the amount of money it takes to do the "equivalent" of saving a life if you count indirect effects. (Nevertheless, the last time I checked, CEA reported the number as though it were literally the price for averting a death from malaria, so I can see why you'd be confused.)

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-02T16:02:44.181Z · LW · GW

This is close, but I'm trying to say some thing slightly more complicated. GiveWell and CEA have, considered as a system, communicated somewhat ambiguously, and I keep seeing people construing the communications from that cluster in ways that don't add up. This is a predictable effect of GiveWell's and CEA's behavior, but my point isn't whether we should be mad at those orgs - my point is that the claims don't add up the way people keep assuming they do.

Comment by Benquo on REVISED: A drowning child is hard to find · 2020-02-02T15:52:54.601Z · LW · GW

On the object level, I agree that such interventions can't scale at stated levels of marginal cost effectiveness. That's actually one of the main points I wanted to communicate ("such experiments ... are impossible"), so while I'm glad you get it, I'm a bit frustrated that you're thinking of it as a counterargument. It seems really, REALLY difficult to communicate a disjunctive argument - rather than an object-level claim - as primary content.

Where I think we disagree is that I think that in practice it's extremely common for EAs to elide the distinction between average and marginal cost, and to imply that if Good Ventures were to fully fund everything near this level of cost-effectiveness, there's a realistic prospect of Good Ventures running out of money in the next couple decades. This is not true, at least because - as you point out - there are limits to how much anyone can scale up programmatic interventions.

Comment by Benquo on Less Wrong Poetry Corner: Walter Raleigh's "The Lie" · 2020-01-05T05:26:04.612Z · LW · GW

I don't understand how the second paragraph follows from the first at all.

Comment by Benquo on Firming Up Not-Lying Around Its Edge-Cases Is Less Broadly Useful Than One Might Initially Think · 2019-12-27T14:18:50.778Z · LW · GW

Comment by Benquo on Maybe Lying Doesn't Exist · 2019-12-25T13:56:44.297Z · LW · GW

The tone and implications of comments along the lines of “this wording is going to cause a lot of people to believe specific proposition X, when it seems to me like what you would actually be willing to defend narrower proposition Y” is very different from that of “this wording is inappropriate because it is likely to upset people.”

An important feature of the first comment is that it actually does some work trying to clarify, and is an implicit ITT.

Comment by Benquo on Maybe Lying Doesn't Exist · 2019-12-25T13:50:58.198Z · LW · GW

Someone deceiving with conscious intent can apply more compute / intelligence and other resources for optimizing and maintaining the lie, which means the deception can be much bigger and more consequential, thereby causing greater damage to others.

Unconscious deception is hard to distinguish from innocent mistakes.

Surely someone consciously intending to deceive can apply some of that extra compute to making it harder to distinguish their behavior from an innocent mistake.

Comment by Benquo on Approval Extraction Advertised as Production · 2019-12-21T23:36:41.013Z · LW · GW
Altman's belief is explicitly that he does not know what the next company should look like, what area it should be in, and what problem it should solve, and so I think he mostly thinks that good people need to be very reactive to their environment

I expect this to be good at many things - he's probably not wrong that Napoleon would make a good YC founder by his standards - but I expect it's not the mindset that can develop substantive new tech. And sure enough, it seems like substantive new tech is mostly not being developed.

Comment by Benquo on Approval Extraction Advertised as Production · 2019-12-18T16:08:20.365Z · LW · GW


Comment by Benquo on Approval Extraction Advertised as Production · 2019-12-17T15:13:19.338Z · LW · GW

I didn't use the word scam in the post. Cousin_it's comment was defending YC by saying, substantively, don't worry, it's just a pretend gatekeeper, so I tried to make that more explicit. How, precisely, does that not constitute being a scam?

Are we supposed to be at war with lions now? What's wrong with apex predators?