Pursuit of Truthiness

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What Time Travel tells us about Doing Good

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If you were transported back in time a few years with all of your current knowledge, what would you do?

You probably have a lot of ideas about things you could do differently in your personal life. But, say your goal is to make the world a better place. How could you best use your knowledge from the future to accomplish this?

The first idea that comes to my mind is to think of the biggest disasters of the past few years and how they might be stopped or mitigated. But most of these would be near-impossible for one person prevent even knowing that they would happen. How could I, as a grad student in the US, have prevented the Syrian Civil War? Or prevented various countries from sliding toward illiberalism or dictatorship? Credibly warned people about earthquakes or tsunamis? About the best you could realistically hope for is tipping off authorities about a terrorist attack, and even there you would to remember more about the exact times, places, or perpetrators than most people do and find a way to communicate this credibly (“Hi, 9-1-1? I’m a time traveller and I have some information that you’ll really want to…. hello?”).

The second idea that comes to mind is to accelerate progress by bringing back knowledge of future inventions and discoveries. But again, the problem here is that most people don’t have enough detailed knowledge in their heads to make a difference. CRISPR sounds cool but not only could I not reinvent it myself, I probably couldn’t explain it well enough to speed real biologists along the path to discovery. Even in my own field of economics its hard to think of any real breakthroughs I could bring back.

So, would anything really work? The only thing I’m confident in is the Biff Tannen strategy of turning knowledge into money, and money into influence. Biff’s book of future sports scores would be a great way to cash in. But even barring that, a basic memory of the most successful teams to bet on, companies to invest in (e.g. early Facebook), and out-of-the-blue alternatives like BitCoin would be helpful. A few successful investments give you a bigger capital base for the next ones. Then, you can use the money to try to do good in the world, for instance by giving it to effective charities.

What is the lesson from all this? First, that Dustin Moskovitz is a time traveller. It also makes me wonder about my current strategy of trying to improve the world mainly through research, rather than “earning to give“. The most general lesson, though: we usually think that decision-making is hard because we lack information about the future, and we spend lots of time trying to guess at what the future might look like. But this concern could be overrated. Even having a pretty good idea of what the future looks like doesn’t necessarily mean making decisions or having a big impact will be easy.

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Where Academics Succeed, Where We Fail

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Holden Karnofsky’s take from the latest 80,000 Hours podcast on where academics provide the most value and where they could be doing much better aligns a lot with my own, especially as I get ready to write a book that will sum up a lot of the cutting-edge work others have done on US healthcare and try to explain what it all means. Added emphasis is my own:

I used to have this very simplified, “Academia. That’s like this giant set of universities. There’s a whole ton of very smart intellectuals who knows they can do everything. There’s a zillion fields. There’s a literature on everything, as has been written on Marginal Revolution, all that sort of thing.” I really never know when to expect that something was going to be neglected and when it wasn’t. It takes a giant literature review to figure out which is which.

I would say I’ve definitely evolved on that. I, today, when I think about what academia does, I think it is really set up to push the frontier of knowledge, the vast majority, and I think especially in the harder sciences. I would say the vast majority of what is going on in academic is people are trying to do something novel, interesting, clever, creative, different, new, provocative, that really pushes the boundaries of knowledge forward in a new way. I think that’s really important obviously and great thing. I’m really, incredibly glad we have institutions to do it.

I think there are a whole bunch of other activities that are intellectual, that are challenging, that take a lot of intellectual work and that are incredibly important and that are not that. They have nowhere else to live. No one else can do them. I’m especially interested, and my eyes especially light up, when I see an opportunity to … There’s an intellectual topic, it’s really important to the world but it’s not advancing the frontier of knowledge. It’s more figuring out something in a pragmatic way that is going to inform what decision makers should do, and also there’s no one decision maker asking for it as would be the case with Government or corporations.

To give examples of this, I mean I think GiveWell is the first place where I might have initially expected that there was going to be development economics was going to tell us what the best charities are. Or, at least, tell us what the best interventions are. Tell us is bed nets, deworming, cash transfers, agricultural extension programs, education improvement programs, which ones are helping the most people for the least money. There’s really very little work on this in academia.

A lot of times, there will be one study that tries to estimate the impact of deworming, but very few or no attempts to really replicate it. It’s much more valuable to academics to have a new insight, to show something new about the world then to try and nail something down. It really got brought home to me recently when we were doing our Criminal Justice Reform work and we wanted to check ourselves. We wanted to check this basic assumption that it would be good to have less incarceration in the US.

David Roodman, who is basically the person that I consider the gold standard of a critical evidence reviewer, someone who can really dig on a complicated literature and come up with the answers, he did what, I think, was a really wonderful and really fascinating paper, which is up on our website, where he looked for all the studies on the relationship between incarceration and crime, and what happens if you cut incarceration, do you expect crime to rise, to fall, to stay the same? He picked them apart. What happened is he found a lot of the best, most prestigious studies and about half of them, he found fatal flaws in when he just tried to replicate them or redo their conclusions.

When he put it all together, he ended up with a different conclusion from what you would get if you just read the abstracts. It was a completely novel piece of work that reviewed this whole evidence base at a level of thoroughness that had never been done before, came out with a conclusion that was different from what you naively would have thought, which concluded his best estimate is that, at current margins, we could cut incarceration and there would be no expected impact on crime. He did all that. Then, he started submitting it to journals. It’s gotten rejected from a large number of journals by now. I mean starting with the most prestigious ones and then going to the less.

Robert Wiblin: Why is that?

Holden Karnofsky: Because his paper, it’s really, I think, it’s incredibly well done. It’s incredibly important, but there’s nothing in some sense, in some kind of academic taste sense, there’s nothing new in there. He took a bunch of studies. He redid them. He found that they broke. He found new issues with them, and he found new conclusions. From a policy maker or philanthropist perspective, all very interesting stuff, but did we really find a new method for asserting causality? Did we really find a new insight about how the mind of a …

Robert Wiblin: Criminal.

Holden Karnofsky: A perpetrator works. No. We didn’t advance the frontiers of knowledge. We pulled together a bunch of knowledge that we already had, and we synthesized it. I think that’s a common theme is that, I think, our academic institutions were set up a while ago. They were set up at a time when it seemed like the most valuable thing to do was just to search for the next big insight.

These days, they’ve been around for a while. We’ve got a lot of insights. We’ve got a lot of insights sitting around. We’ve got a lot of studies. I think a lot of the times what we need to do is take the information that’s already available, take the studies that already exist, and synthesize them critically and say, “What does this mean for what we should do? Where we should give money, what policy should be.”

I don’t think there’s any home in academia to do that. I think that creates a lot of the gaps. This also applies to AI timelines where it’s like there’s nothing particularly innovative, groundbreaking, knowledge frontier advancing, creative, clever about just … It’s a question that matters. When can we expect transformative AI and with what probability? It matters, but it’s not a work of frontier advancing intellectual creativity to try to answer it.

A very common theme in a lot of the work we advance is instead of pushing the frontiers of knowledge, take knowledge that’s already out there. Pull it together, critique it, synthesize it and decide what that means for what we should do. Especially, I think, there’s also very little in the way of institutions that are trying to anticipate big intellectual breakthroughs down the road, such as AI, such as other technologies that could change the world. Think about how they could make the world better or worse, and what we can do to prepare for them.

I think historically when academia was set up, we were in a world where it was really hard to predict what the next scientific breakthrough was going to be. It was really hard to predict how it would affect the world, but it usually turned out pretty well. I think for various reasons, the scientific landscape maybe changing now where it’s … I think, in some ways, there are arguments it’s getting easier to see where things are headed. We know more about science. We know more about the ground rules. We know more about what cannot be done. We know more about what probably, eventually can be done.

I think it’s somewhat of a happy coincidence so far that most breakthroughs have been good. To say, I see a breakthrough on the horizon. Is that good or bad? How can we prepare for it? That’s another thing academia is really not set up to do. Academia is set up to get the breakthrough. That is a question I ask myself a lot is here’s an intellectual activity. Why can’t it be done in academia? These days, my answer is if it’s really primarily of interest to a very cosmopolitan philanthropist trying to help the whole future, and there’s no one client and it’s not frontier advancing, then I think that does make it pretty plausible to me that there’s no one doing it. We would love to change that, at least somewhat, by funding what we think is the most important work.

Written by James Bailey

March 1, 2018 at 12:32 pm

Mad Economists

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Who is the closest person out there to being a “mad economist”, in the sense of a mad scientist?

I have a hard time thinking of anyone who really qualifies. I think this is because mad scientists do practical things that directly affect the real world- either by building crazy things (death ray, killer robot, 5 assed baboon, et c), or by using crazy methods for research (harming human/animal subjects, making their base underwater/ in an active volcano / on the moon).

Economists tend to be bound to relatively boring methods (doing math on a chalkboard or analyzing data on a computer) that lead to relatively boring outcomes (writing papers that expand our understanding of the world a bit and possibly tell policymakers what to do).

The recent trend toward lab and field experiments in economics certainly expands the possibilities for madness. Prisoners’ Dilemma experiments are a nice touch here, especially when someone decided to run them with actual prisoners. The Phillips machine was a fun one-off. But I can’t think of anything that rises to the level of psychology’s Milgram Experiment, much less the things that have been done in the “real” sciences of biology, chemistry and physics.

Occasionally economists get some power within companies, or start their own. But coming up with a new strategy for a hedge fund or designing auctions for Google doesn’t really get into “madness” territory either. Economists are forever telling the government what to do, but rarely get listened to. During total war they have been vested with lots of power over the economy, though I haven’t heard of any particularly crazy things they did with this power. Levitt’s long con to catch terrorists was a nice touch. Armen Alchian used economics to discover that lithium was the moderator for the atomic bomb, but his only plan to use that information was to write a paper about it, and he abandoned even that at the request of the government.

Image result for dr horrible

But is there anything an economist has done that rises to the level of a Tesla, Mengele, Musk, or TunaPig? Anything an economist might do that could match a single invention of Drs Kreiger, Evil, or Horrible?

Marx? GiveDirectly founders? Shleifer? Jeff Sachs?

In general, PhD economists (myself certainly included) are too much thinkers rather than doers. The closest people we have to mad economists are probably people who learned some undergraduate economics, then went out to change the world- people like Elon Musk or Dread Pirate Roberts.

Who am I forgetting? What would a real mad economist look like?

Written by James Bailey

January 18, 2016 at 6:42 pm

A Naive Economist Analyzes Climate Data

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Has global temperature risen significantly in the last century?  I’m sure this post will settle the global warming debate once and for all.

Seriously though, I am surprised how economists feel the need to qualify their discussion of the subject by saying “I’m not an expert”.  True, economists are not experts on climate, but many are leading experts on the analysis of time-series data.  One of the biggest debates in economics for the last 3 decades is about the trend in a time series- not temperature, but gross domestic product.

I am not an expert even on this narrower subject, but in some sense this is an advantage- I don’t know enough to cheat.  I can’t keep trying different approaches until the results come out the way I want, because I only know a couple of approaches.  Compare this to graphs, where I know enough to get exactly the results I want.  Here is a graph of global temperatures since 1881, data from NASA:

Hard to see an upward trend there.  Case closed?  Well, check out the temperature anomaly (difference from the average), graphed in a different way:

Now that’s an upward trend if I’ve ever seen one!  These two graphs are two basically legitimate ways to look at essentially the same data, but they seem to point to opposite conclusions.  This is one reason statistical tests are important- they can’t be fooled by changing axes or adding a constant to the whole series.  Of course, the disadvantage is that they require a lot more knowledge to use and analyze than graphs do.

You can already see the result of one statistical test- the regression equation on the second graph that was used to draw the trend line.  It estimates that temperature is increasing .006 degrees Celsius each year, and that this simple increasing-temperature model predicts 75% of the variation in the annual data.  A regression on the first graph shows the same thing (rescaled), though I did not include it as it would undermine the how-to-lie-with-graphs point.  Time is strongly significant in this regression (p-value 0.00)- so this basic analysis says the increase in temperate is statistically significant.

A more advanced way to test for a trend in data is an Augmented Dickey-Fuller test.  This test also suggests there is an upward trend- technically, that we cannot reject the null assumption of a unit root (more technically, it looks like it is ARIMA(0,1,3), for those who care).  So, according to my naive analysis, there certainly seems to be an upward trend in temperature.

What does this really tell us?  Perhaps not much.  First, I assumed that the dataset from NASA is correct.  Second, I chose to analyze 130 years, but there is no reason to choose this number except that it is how much data I had; the results are certainly sensitive to the number of years included.  Finally, I have done nothing to test the idea that increased carbon is causing this increase- perhaps I will in another post.  So, with those three grains (big rocks?) of salt, it looks like we have global warming.

Written by James Bailey

April 23, 2011 at 12:00 am

Philosophy is Pointless

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There are three kinds of philosophy:

1) Natural Philosophy

2) Ethics

3) Answers to made-up questions like ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ that show the answerer is really clever.

If most philosophical questions were definitively resolved one way or another, should people act any differently as a result?  I think not, and if not, I submit that philosophy is pointless.

Except, of course, as a way of showing how clever you are.  That is to say, most philosophers are just in it for the chicks and the money.

So, philosophers, tell me why you do it and what would change if you got definite answers to non-scientific, non-ethical questions.

Written by James Bailey

February 18, 2010 at 11:24 am

The successes of the Iraq War…

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I’m sure it’s helped cull our army of some people who were cut out for a different world.

Imagination and irresponsibility collide with a brilliant flash.

Written by James Bailey

July 19, 2007 at 2:05 am

Posted in clever and bored, Iraq