Bullet-Biters And Bomb-Testers

Sometimes serendipity happens. I was trying to think of a way to link together a couple of sections of the Hyperpost book, when I found this old post from Scott Aaronson’s blog Shtetl-Optimised.

In it, Aaronson talks about how he’d noticed that there was a lot of overlap between Libertarians and proponents of the Many-Worlds Hypothesis in quantum physics, and had tried to figure out why:

Some connections are obvious: libertarianism and MWI are both grand philosophical theories that start from premises that almost all educated people accept (quantum mechanics in the one case, Econ 101 in the other), and claim to reach conclusions that most educated people reject, or are at least puzzled by (the existence of parallel universes / the desirability of eliminating fire departments)…

My own hypothesis has to do with bullet-dodgers versus bullet-swallowers. A bullet-dodger is a person who says things like:

“Sure, obviously if you pursued that particular line of reasoning to an extreme, then you’d get such-and-such an absurd-seeming conclusion. But that very fact suggests that other forces might come into play that we don’t understand yet or haven’t accounted for. So let’s just make a mental note of it and move on.”

Faced with exactly the same situation, a bullet-swallower will exclaim:

“The entire world should follow the line of reasoning to precisely this extreme, and this is the conclusion, and if a ‘consensus of educated opinion’ finds it disagreeable or absurd, then so much the worse for educated opinion! Those who accept this are intellectual heroes; those who don’t are cowards.”

I think he’s on to something, but I think there’s a second aspect, which is what happens when those ideas actually hit reality.

Because Libertarianism and the Many Worlds Hypothesis have one big difference between them – one has immediate real-world consequences, and the other doesn’t. And that means that it is no longer a purely intellectual exercise.

Leaving aside whether the claims for Libertarianism (of the Ayn Rand type, which is what Aaronson is referring to) stack up logically, and assume for a moment one believes them to be correct, should you *act* as if you believe the claims to be correct? To take Aaronson’s example, should we privatise the fire service?

If you’re a libertarian, you believe the answer should be yes – that privatising the fire service would have the end result of fewer fires, and those fires being fought more cheaply. But what if you’re wrong? If you’re wrong, then the result would be people – potentially a lot of people – losing their homes.

So there’s a second level of calculation to be done here – how sure are you of your own reasoning ability and the information (your priors, in Bayesian terms) you use to come to your conclusions? *WHEN YOU FACTOR IN THE PROBABILITY OF YOU BEING WRONG* does the expected benefit if you’re right outweigh the expected loss if you’re wrong?

Now, on this blog I often fall into the ‘bullet biter’ side of things *when talking about ideas with no real-world immediate consequences*, because it’s both intellectually right and more interesting. But take the Many-Worlds hypothesis. I consider this the most likely of the various explanations of quantum theory I’ve read, and would put my confidence in that judgement at about 80% – I’m a bullet-biter there, and proud of it.

And I’m a bullet-biter when it comes to certain forms of alternative medicine. I’m convinced from the experimental evidence, for example, that taking certain vitamin supplements in large doses will massively decrease the risk of cancer, and have stated that on this blog too. And again, I’d put my confidence in that at about 80% (I rarely put my confidence in *anything* much above that).

Now, the downside with taking vitamins is that there’s a cost of maybe a pound a day and – if you believe the very worst possible reports, which as far as I can see have no evidentiary basis, but if we’re assuming I’m wrong we’re assuming I’m wrong – a very small increased risk of kidney stones. The benefit, if I’m right, is not getting cancer. An 80% chance of ‘not getting cancer’ outweighs a 20% chance of a 1% increase in kidney stones, so it’s worth the pound a day to me to put my money where my mouth is and actually take the vitamins.

On the other hand, one can come up with a real-world test for the Many-Worlds Hypothesis. If it’s true then, were I to stand at ground zero of a nuclear weapons test, I should expect to live through it. There would be a googolplex or so universes where I’d die instantly, but I would not experience those, because I’d die too quickly. On the other hand, there’d be a one-in-a-googolplex chance of me surviving, which according to Many-Worlds means there’s a universe where I *would* survive. That would be the only one I’d experience, so from my own point of view I’d survive.

But even though I am persuaded by the Many-Worlds hypothesis, I’m not going to try that one out.

However, there are people out there who *would* do it, who would say “No, I’ll be fine! Drop the bomb!” – let’s call them bomb-testers.

And I think while being a bullet-biter can be a good thing, being a bomb-tester never is.

A bullet-biter might say “I’m convinced the Singularity is coming, but I’ll give some money to Greenpeace just in case” while the bomb-tester would say “I’m convinced the Singularity is coming, so I’m not going to support environmental protection measures, because we’ll be gods in twenty years anyway”.
A bullet-biter might say “I’m convinced the Bible is literally true, but I’m not going to hurt anyone who thinks differently”. A bomb-tester would say “I’m convinced the Bible is literally true, so I’ll persecute homosexuals”

I think a lot of people – particularly in the ‘skeptic’ community – think of themselves as being bullet-biters when they’re actually bomb-testers. They’ve reached a logical conclusion, and are going to act on that and damn the consequences. This is why some people say Richard Dawkins and fundamentalist Christians are the same kind of person – not because their beliefs are equally unjustifiable, but because they are both certain enough of their own rightness that they’ll act on it even when the downside of that action looks to the rest of us far worse than whatever upside they believe in.

Which is not to say that “acting on one’s beliefs” is a bad thing. One reason I have more respect for Eliezer Yudkowsky (of Less Wrong ) than for other Signulatarians is that he’s willing to act on his beiefs (even though I don’t find his arguments convincing, and think he has more than a little of a Messianic streak at times). But his actions *take into account the possibility he’s wrong* – he’s acting in a way to minimise expected harm. If he’s right and he doesn’t act, the world will end. If he’s wrong and he does act, then he wastes his time and looks a fool. Were I to find his general arguments convincing, I’d be doing the same.

If you find yourself defending an intellectual position that others don’t hold, then you’re quite possibly an ‘intellectual hero’. But if you find yourself acting on that position without considering what might happen if you’re wrong, then you’ll end up a real-world villain…

Geeks Dig Metaphors: Paradigm A Dozen

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, all work…

This series of posts has become rather longer than the very short thing I was originally going to write, but we’re heading into the home stretch now. (Parts one, two and three for latecomers.)

This post is the part that inspired the overall title for this mini-series, and is probably going to be the least convincing. But I find it the most convincing.

You see, in large part I agree with the Singulatarians, and that’s precisely why I disagree with them.

Let me explain.

Belief in the Singularity is part of what we might call a ‘paradigm’ or ‘meme-plex’ (depending on precisely what species of wanker we are), or a world-view. It’s one that, in its broadest outlines, I share, and it is that the universe can be regarded as pure information.

People arrive at this position – a sort of scientific neo-Platonism – from a variety of scientific sources, but you can get to it from proper computer science (see Scott Aaronson’s wonderful series of lectures on Quantum Computing Since Democritus), information theory, cybernetics, quantum theory via either the Copenhagen or Many-Worlds interpretations, Bayes’ theorem, Solomonoff induction or probably a dozen other ways. Almost all these fields, incidentally, come originally from work by John von Neumann…

In brief, this world-view could be summarised as:

  • Most of modern science is more-or-less correct. In particular, relativity, evolution and quantum physics are largely correct
  • It makes no sense to talk about things that are outside of the physical world, such as souls or gods, unless those things can be proved to exist by some effect they have on the physical world
  • Any physical system can be modelled by a Turing machine, given enough time and memory
  • Any two things which are isomorphic are the same (the identity of indiscernibles)
  • The scientific method – form a hypothesis, make a prediction from that hypothesis, test the prediction, revise the hypothesis in light of the results – is the only way of obtaining accurate information about the universe
  • The mind is a purely physical process
  • If you want a book explaining this viewpoint in great detail, I recommend David Deutsch’s The Fabric Of Reality (which I reviewed here )

    Now, most of this is stuff which is fairly sensible, and with which I (and I suspect most people) could agree. And it leads to the belief that both the universe and the human mind can be thought of in some sense as computer programs, or as mathematical formalisms.

    (Those of you who know a little of the history of philosophy will now get why I referred to the attitude of Singulatarians as Panglossian in the last post – Doctor Pangloss in Candide being of course a satire of Leibniz, whose ideas are very much a 17th century precursor to this worldview).

    At one extreme, this belief that the universe can be modelled as a computer program simply leads to things like Steve Yegge’s argument that we should treat questions like ‘what’s outside the universe?’ the same way we should treat an undef in programming. At the other, it leads to the ideas of mathematical physicist Max Tegmark, who argues that all mathematical formal systems have an objective reality in exactly the same way our universe does.

    This worldview does impact on the Singulatarians, in a variety of ways, from shaping their view of the end result of the Singularity, to their thoughts on how it should be created (a lot of the discussions around the Singularity Institute involve people trying to come up with a rigorous decision theory, based on Bayesian probabilities, that would work in a quantum multiverse, because they believe this to be necessary for the creation of an artificial intelligence that won’t harm humanity).

    But while this worldview is probably the closest we’ve got to a ‘correct understanding of the universe’ so far, it is only a model. And I think going from that model to statements that the mind ‘is’ a computer program, or that the universe ‘is’, is a step too far – confusing the map with the territory. Our models – our worldviews – are metaphors. They’re ways of understanding the universe. They’re not the actual universe itself, any more than Burns’ love really was a red red rose.

    Every other model we’ve had of the universe so far – the Aristotelean worldview, the clockwork universe of Newton and so on – has proved incorrect. Those models all worked for a restricted domain – those cases that could be understood and measured at the time, and that people had bothered to check. But it was the edge cases – those areas in which those worldviews were stretched to their limits – that caused those models to fall down.

    And every time, while the predictions made for things that were already known stayed the same (Aristotle, Newton and Einstein all predict that things will fall to the ground), the underlying view of the universe changed immeasurably, along with the predictions for the unknown.

    Our knowledge of science is immeasurably better now than, say, a hundred years ago, but it’s not yet complete. It may never be, but no matter what, things like a quantum theory of gravity, if we ever find one, *will* bring with them new ways of looking at the world, and I have no doubt that saying the universe is a computer program, or that the human mind is one, will look as ridiculous as saying that things move towards their natural place based on how much earth, air, fire or water they contain.

    The Singularity is, pretty much by definition, the place where our current thinking breaks down, even if you accept all the arguments for it. Now, either we’ve managed to get everything exactly right for the first time in history, and what’s more that getting everything exactly right will lead to immortality just before Ray Kurzweil would otherwise die, followed by the creation of heaven on Earth, or there’s a mistake in our current scientific thinking.

    I’d like to believe the former, but I’m not putting money on it…

    What’s Your Heresy?

    I was going to do a Batman post today, but I’ve got annoyed again, so you’ll have to wait.

    Specifically, I got annoyed by this , something that’s been going round on the internet for a few days.

    It calls itself The Periodic Table Of Irrational Nonsense, but it is itself nonsense at least as irrational as anything it attacks, and I’m *SICK* of this.

    Before I go any further, let me make something clear: I am a scientific rationalist. I have had papers I co-authored published in more than one scientific discipline. I consider the scientific method the only reliable way of discovering knowledge that humanity has ever discovered. I am also a sceptic and, I believe, a clear-headed thinker.

    But *as* a scientific, clear-headed, rational thinker, I consider that list to be utter, unadulterated, concentrated irrationality.

    Because I can see two possible ways that list was put together:
    Possibility a – The author has, himself, researched into all these categories, read all the relevant literature, looked at the arguments used by the most prominent advocates of those beliefs/hypotheses/ideas, checked their data, and somehow come to the conclusion that only those things that are attacked regularly by Ben Goldacre, Richard Dawkins and other prominent ‘skeptics’ are irrational nonsense or
    Possibility b – He has chosen a list that, within the group of people he wishes to associate with, is completely uncontroversial, a list endorsed by the alpha males of his group, without actually thinking rationally about any of it.

    There is quite a bit of evidence for possibility b. (In the next two paragraphs I’m using examples that my friend Gavin brought up in a discussion with me. I’d probably have used these examples anyway, but credit where due):

    “Faith healing” supposedly works through the placebo effect. Double-blind clinical trials rely on the supposed efficacy of the placebo effect to have any validity. Either the placebo effect is real, in which case faith healing works, or (as I consider the evidence to show) it isn’t, and double-blind trials should be on there too.

    “Memetics”, on the other hand, is just a set of Just-So stories, a supposed ‘science’ with no explanatory power, which makes no falsifiable predictions that are not trivially true without it, and which insists on treating a metaphor as having objective reality. Judged purely rationally, it should be right there snugly next to Scientology. Yet it’s strangely missing…

    Other things that are strangely missing from there, but are irrational as hell, include meta-analyses, libertarianism and supporting illegal wars, all of which many of the ‘rational’ ‘skeptics’ (always spelled the American way, even though the creator of this image is British) on that person’s blogroll support. Those would certainly be on any list of the ‘irrational’ I put together…

    And on the other hand, several of the things on there simply shouldn’t be. The obvious one is ‘conspiracy theories’. *ALL* conspiracy theories? Even the ones we know demonstrably to be true (such as Brown agreeing to stand down in the Labour leadership so long as Blair stood down in his favour eventually as Prime Minister)? So *no* conspiracies ever happen? We should probably get rid of the laws against conspiracy then, I suppose…

    I’ve looked into *some* of the things on that list for myself – the majority I haven’t. Of those I have, some appear to me to have some truth, some appear to me to be almost certainly false, and some are in a grey area. I suspect that that would be true for anyone who looked into them *without the bias of trying to fit into a pre-approved ‘skeptic’ mould*.

    So I’ve made a decision – I’m not going to believe in the ‘rationality’ of anyone who isn’t prepared to defend at least one of the things on that list as being reasonable. I won’t fall out with anyone over it, but I’m going to assume that anything you say is justified not by reason but by appeal to authority. (Of course some of you already get a pass on this – like Debi, who is a rational, sceptical, scientist but also a Buddhist – Buddhism’s on the list).

    So what’s your heresy? What, out of that list of thoughtcrimes, do you think has some merit?

    In my case, it’s vitamin megadoses.

    I take a minimum of six grams of vitamin C every day, rising to much more whenever I’m even slightly ill. I take many other supplements, too, at much higher than the RDA. These ‘megadoses’ have improved my physical and mental health enormously. Having read many books co-authored by my uncle Dr Steve Hickey (here are two of them, both of which I proofread. That’s my Amazon affiliate link, but you can buy them without that) and, more importantly, checked the original papers he cites, I have come to the conclusion that there is an *overwhelming* body of evidence in favour of the hypothesis that many vitamins can have health benefits at levels far beyond those in the RDA.

    To take the most egregious example, in the mid 1970s Prof Linus Pauling – possibly the most important scientist of the 20th century, and the only person ever to win two Nobel Prizes – and Dr Ewan Cameron tried giving vitamin C in very large doses to terminal cancer patients. These patients outlived their expected lifespan by significant periods (in some cases people expected to live hours or days stayed alive for years on this treatment).

    The Mayo Clinic, a ‘prestigious’ medical centre, claimed to have ‘proved’ that Cameron and Pauling’s research was flawed – they tried to replicate the tests and failed, and their publication effectively meant that any investigation of vitamin C’s role in cancer was laughed at as ‘pseudo-science’ for more than twenty years.

    Except that the Mayo Clinic used oral doses while Pauling and Cameron used intravenous doses. And that the Mayo Clinic cut their trial short. And that before the Mayo Clinic cut their trial short there had been no deaths from cancer, but the death rate went up as soon as the vitamin C was withdrawn. There were methodological errors in the Mayo paper that would get someone a fail in GCSE Biology, let alone when dealing in serious oncology.

    I could go into this much, much more, but I’m tired and too hot. But I’ll discuss in comments. But if you want me to discuss more of my reasoning here, first tell me: What’s *YOUR* heresy? And while you’re at it, what do you think *should* be on that list that isn’t (my big one would be ‘making lists of things and claiming those things are irrational nonsense, as if “irrational nonsense” was a property attached to them rather than an opinion’)?

    Linkblogging for 14/09/09

    Well, if I’d realised how many hits a blog gets just from saying “Beatles”, I’d have done that years ago. Beatles Beatles Beatles… you have a go…

    I do hope some of you stick around and read my other stuff (especially those of you who came linked from a Doctor Who site – I have tons of Who material on here) – I’ve written quite a lot about music here, and I’m planning on reviewing the rest of the Mono Box one disc a week.

    Anyway, on to links (no longer post today as I’m suffering from exhaustion).

    Firstly, an old one – I’ve been arguing today with a USian fundamentalist (well, I say arguing, more ‘hurling abuse at’, but in fairness I’ve known him twelve years and he just *will not shut up*) so now’s as good a time as any to link to Brad Hicks’ excellent series of essays from a few years ago, about the perversion of USian fundamentalism into something he considers literally Satanic, Christians In The Hands Of An Angry God (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

    Charlie Brooker on the plans to ban p2p users from the internet.

    David at Vibrational Match on Adam Curtis’ It Felt Like A Kiss.

    Over at the Mindless Ones Amypoodle has a great post on the Joker, Morrison & Quitely’s Batman & Robin, mental illness and concepts of the self.

    Abhay on crime novels.

    And Cameron Stewart has previews of his Batman & Robin art

    Linkblogging for 22/07/09

    Sorry for the lack of posting over the last few days, but I was unprepared for the amount of vitriol that came at me for that “Ten Things…” post (not, I hasten to add, from my regular reader/commenters, who mostly kept civil, whether here or over on Charlotte’s response – and I’m very impressed with some of you, like James and Pillock…). I’ve been mostly scared away from the internet by this (meaning I’ve also not done a few important things like sort out hosting for a website I’m working on…) . I’ve also had some other problems (lost my passport, someone stole my wife’s bike, someone else tried to steal my wife’s purse) which have been rather more pressing than this blog.

    I would like to say though, ignoring the actual abuse and so forth, that one thing I found annoying was when people saw two apparently-contradictory statements and said “That’s a contradiction, therefore you’re stupid!” rather than “That looks contradictory to me – how do you reconcile those points?”

    I will be doing a post, soonish, on how ‘evidence-based medicine’ as currently practiced is actually in many respects anti-scientific, but I’ll be leaving it until the fuss dies down. I’ll also be on holiday next week, without net access, so don’t expect anything from me then. But this week I’m hoping to get a few more posts done, on the usual subjects rather than anything controversial. Today, though, some links…

    Most Lib Dem bloggers have been talking about the proposed policy document that’s just come out, which will not commit us to as much spending in the event we were to get into power. (We will still *hope* to spend as much, but recognise it’s not likely as the current GDP is fifty pence, and that’s being taken out of the country and held in an off-shore tax haven by Rupert Murdoch). Alex has what I suspect is the most accurate take on this, but Darrell and Costigan both have good posts too.

    Calamity Jon has a post about a genuinely touching moment in 60s Superman, which also contains the best description of comic book ‘ages’ ever.

    Slacktivist talks about offendedness, including a remarkable picture which is apparently the first ever Christ-on-the-cross image…

    The Daily Mail have been reviewing films without bothering to watch them

    And Microsoft are ‘donating’ code to the Linux kernel

    Linkblogging for 29/04/09

    I’ve been too tired to blog properly for a couple of days – the migraine mentioned in the last post was actually a symptom of me coming down with some minor infection – not bad enough to keep me from going to work, but bad enough that I’m too tired to concentrate. Getting a bit better though so hopefully normal blogging will resume tomorrow (and I *might* have some big news – though I might not. Either way, my usual netcast *will* be up tomorrow at Liberal Conspiracy). In the meantime, here’s some links:

    The people who used to be at Seebelow, the livejournal community, have started a group comics blog by the same name. It’s got some of my favourite writers involved, including the welcome return to blogging of Matt Rossi, ex of the Howling Curmudgeons and Once I Noticed I Was On Fire…

    Roasted Peanuts is also worth a look, going through (nearly) every Peanuts strip from the beginning in order and analysing Schulz’s changing style.

    Andy at Wouldn’t It Be Scarier? has strong views on the government’s recent plans to allow faith schools to apply their ‘values’ to sex education. I’m not keen on his last paragraph, which assumes it’s the responsibility of all religious people to constantly distance themselves from those who supposedly share their faith but who hate gay people, but I agree with the thrust of his point.

    Brad Hicks is not keen on the newspapers.

    And Alison Goldworthy points out how Labour is failing the people who used to be its core supporters.

    Those wanting to get involved in the ‘newniverse’ project I spoke about a few days ago, by the way, I’m taking next week off work and one of the things I’m going to do is get that sorted properly.

    You Damned Sadist! You’re Trying To Make Them Think!

    Debi has a fascinating post today on ‘the FedEx arrow’ – on the way that once you’ve seen subtext in a work, you can’t unsee it, and the various reactions that can come from that.

    Now, I’m not really one to talk about that directly, because I can completely distance my reaction to a piece of work from a recognition of its political flaws – hell, I love Cerebus where for a large part the rampant misogyny and homophobia are text, not subtext. I enjoy the banjo music of Uncle Dave Macon, who recorded songs like “Run, Nigger, Run”. I can distance myself from these things, of course, partly because I’m not in the group being attacked, but also because I can split good art from its message.

    However, many people in ‘fandom’ (a group of which I emphatically do not count myself a member ) have real trouble with this. If someone points out, say, that in Star Wars how heroic a character is correlates very strongly with how blonde they are, they go absolutely berserk, asking “How dare you accuse George Lucas of being racist?!” and saying “you’re reading too much into things!” Which is where Debi comes in.

    Now Debi thinks, and I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of truth in this, that many of these people are worried that liking something that is (say) racist would make them racist, and since they think (possibly even correctly) that they’re not racist, and they do like those things, then the thing they like can’t be racist. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in this – one should never underestimate the sheer, overwhelming sense of privilege and entitlement in fan circles – but I think there’s more to it than that. I think fans are often fundamentalists.

    Many fans (at least the ones who don’t go around trying to find gay subtexts in everything) hate the whole idea of subtext – you just have to look at the people whose reactions to Seaguy we talked about in this comment thread. There is a sizable contingent of ‘fandom’ who hate metaphor, theme and subtext, and who say things like “It’s what it is, you just need to turn your brain off”. Many go so far as to deny, at least implicitly, the very possibility of something meaning more than its literal meaning (which is to say, they deny the possibility of art).

    I’ve wondered for a long time what could cause such hostility to the idea of a layered narrative (and if you doubt that such hostility exists, go on to Newsarama and try to discuss Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, or anyone else who’s a relatively competent writer), and why it should show up in ‘fandoms’ far more than in the general public.Because I think, though I may be wrong, that most people’s reaction if you show them that a work they like is one that works on multiple levels, would be to say “Oh, that’s quite clever!” – to use the metaphor Debi elaborates on, they’re pleased to see the arrow in the FedEx logo, rather than thinking the designer was trying to play some trick on them.

    In this, fans are like fundamentalists, who believe in the ‘literal truth’ of their holy books, even the bits that specifically state themselves to be fictional (there are people who believe in the literal existence of the Good Samaritan – Fred Clark has a great pair of analyses of their mentality) and who get really angry if you say “Well, the world wasn’t *really* made in seven days”. With the fundamentalists, it’s because they can’t understand the difference between ‘metaphor’ and ‘lie’ – if you say that some of their holy book isn’t ‘literally’ true, you’re saying it’s a lie.

    I think some fans have such an intense desire to *actually live in* the DC or Marvel Universe, or the Star Trek or Star Wars or Doctor Who or whatever ones, that any reminder that these are artistic works – any reminder that they were created by a human being with a point of view, rather than just being neutral historical records of true events, is a reminder that they will never really get to travel in the TARDIS or Enterprise, and they react, at least a little, to that. If something isn’t absolutely, incontrovertibly, linear and one-dimensional, then they won’t be comfortable with it.

    Which is, I suspect, why so many things created for or by fans are so deeply, deeply awful.

    (This post took longer to write than any other post I’ve done, and is fewer words than almost any of my ‘proper’ posts. I’ve no idea why this should be, but thought it worth noting…)