Finding and Solving Problems

18 February, 2014

Luke Muelhauser, executive director of the Machine Intelligence Research Insitute, has been doing some interviews:

Scott Aaronson on philosophical progress.

Greg Morrisett on secure and reliable systems.

Robin Hanson on serious futurism.

Recently he interviewed me. Here’s how it went.

LM: In a previous interview, I asked Scott Aaronson which “object-level research tactics” he finds helpful when trying to make progress in theoretical research, and I provided some examples. Do you have any comments on the research tactics that Scott and I listed? Which recommended tactics of your own would you add to the list?

JB: What do you mean by “object-level” research tactics? I’ve got dozens of tactics. Some of them are ways to solve problems. But equally important, or maybe more so, are tactics for coming up with problems to solve: problems that are interesting but still easy enough to solve. By “object-level”, do you mean the former?

LM: Both! Conceiving of—and crisply posing—good research problems can often be even more important than solving previously-identified research problems.

JB: Okay. Here are some of my tactics.

(1) Learn a lot. Try to understand how the whole universe works, from the philosophical, logical, mathematical and physical aspects to chemistry, biology, and the sciences based on those, to the historical sciences such as cosmology, paleontology, archaeology and history, to the social sciences such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, politics and economics, to the aspects that are captured best in literature, art and music.

It’s a never-ending quest, and obviously it pays to specialize and become more of an expert on a few things – but the more angles you can take on any subject, the more likely you are to stumble on good questions or good answers to existing questions. Also, when you get stuck on a problem, or get tired, it can be really re-energizing to learn new things.

(2) Keep synthesizing what you learn into terser, clearer formulations. The goal of learning is not to memorize vast amounts of data. You need to do serious data compression, and filter out the noise. Very often people will explain things to you in crappy ways, presenting special cases and not mentioning the general rules, stating general rules incorrectly, and so on.

This process goes on forever. When you first learn algebraic topology, for example, they teach you. homology theory. At the beginner’s level, this is presented as a rather complicated recipe for taking a topological space and getting a list of groups out of it. By looking at examples you get insight into what these groups do: the nth one counts the n-dimensional holes, in some sense. You learn how to use them to solve problems, and how to efficiently compute them.

But later—much later, in my case—you learn that algebraic topology of this sort not really about topological spaces, but something more abstract, called “homotopy types”. This is a discovery that happened rather slowly. It crystallized around the 1968, when a guy named Quillen wrote a book on “homotopical algebra”. It’s always fascinating when this happens: when people in some subject learn that its proper object of study is not what they had thought!

But even this was just the beginning: a lot has happened in math since the 1960s. Shortly thereafter, Grothendieck came along and gave us a new dream of what homotopy types might actually be. Very roughly, he realized that they should show up naturally if we think of “equality” as a process—the process of proving two thing are the same—rather than a static relationship.

I’m being pretty vague here, but I want to emphasize that this was a very fundamental discovery with widespread consequences, not a narrow technical thing.

For a long time people have struggled to make Grothendieck’s dream precise. I was involved in that myself for a while. But in the last 5 years or so, a guy named Voevodsky made a lot of progress by showing us how to redo the foundations of mathematics so that instead of treating equality as a mere relationship, it’s a kind of process. This new approach gives an alternative to set theory, where we use homotopy types right from the start as the basic objects of mathematics, instead of sets. It will take about a century for the effects of this discovery to percolate through all of math.

So, you see, by taking something important but rather technical, like algebraic topology, and refusing to be content with treating it as a bunch of recipes to be memorized, you can dig down into deep truths. But it takes great persistence. Even if you don’t discover these truths yourself, but merely learn them, you have to keep simplifying and unifying.

(3) Look for problems, not within disciplines, but in the gaps between existing disciplines. The division of knowledge into disciplines is somewhat arbitrary, and people put most of their energy into questions that lie squarely within disciplines, so it shouldn’t be surprising that many interesting things are lurking in the gaps, waiting to be discovered.

At this point, tactics (1) and (2) really come in handy. If you study lots of subjects and keep trying to distill their insights into terse, powerful formulations, you’re going to start noticing points of contact between these subjects. Sometimes these will be analogies that deserve to be made precise. Sometimes people in one subject know a trick that people in some other subject could profit from. Sometimes people in one subject have invented the hammer, and people in another have invented the nail—and neither know what these things are good for!

(4) Talk to lots of people. This is a great way to broaden your vistas and find connections between seemingly different subjects.

Talk to the smartest people who will condescend to talk to you. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions. But don’t bore them. Smart people tend to be easily bored. Try to let them talk about what’s interesting to them, instead of showing off and forcing them to listen to your brilliant ideas. But make sure to bring them some “gifts” so they’ll want to talk to you again. “Gifts” include clear explanations of things they don’t understand, and surprising facts—little nuggets of knowledge.

One of my strategies for this was to write This Week’s Finds, explaining lots of advanced math and physics. You could say that column is a big pile of gifts. I started out as a nobody, but after ten years or so, lots of smart people had found out about me. So now it’s pretty easy for me to blunder into any subject, write a blog post about it, and get experts to correct me or tell me more. I also get invited to give talks, where I meet lots of smart people.

LM: You’ve explained some tactics for how to come up with problems to solve. Once you generate a good list, how do you choose among them?

JB: Here are two bits of advice on that.

(1) Actually write down lists of problems.

When I was just getting started, I had a small stock of problems to think about – so small that I could remember most of them. Many were problems I’d heard from other people, but most of those were too hard. I would also generate my own problems, but they were often either too hard, too vague, or too trivial.

In more recent years I’ve been able to build up a huge supply of problems to think about. This means I need to actually list them. Often I generate these lists using the ‘data compression’ tactic I mentioned in part (2) of my last answer. When I learn stuff, I ask:

• Is this apparently new concept or fact a special case of some concept or fact I already know?

• Given two similar-sounding concepts or facts, can I find a third having both of these as special cases?

• Can I use the analogy between X and Y to do something new in subject Y that’s analogous to something people have already done in subject X?

• Given a rough ‘rule of thumb’, can I state it more precisely so that it holds always, or at least more often?

as well as plenty of more specific questions.

So, instead of being ‘idea-poor’, with very few problems to work on, I’m now ‘idea-rich’, and the challenge is keeping track of all the problems and finding the best ones.

I always carry around a notebook. I write down questions that seem interesting, especially when I’m bored. The mere act of writing them down either makes them less vague or reveals them to be hopelessly fuzzy. Sometimes I can solve a problem just by taking the time to state it precisely. And the act of writing down questions naturally triggers more questions.

Besides questions, I like ‘analogy charts’, consisting of two or more columns with analogous items lined up side by side. You can see one near the bottom of my 2nd article on quantropy. Quantropy is an idea born of the analogy between thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. This is a big famous analogy, which I’d known for decades, but writing down an analogy chart made me realize there was a hole in the analogy. In thermodynamics we have entropy, so what’s the analogous thing in quantum mechanics? It turns out there’s an answer: quantropy.

I later wrote a paper with Blake Pollard on quantropy, but I gave a link to the blog article because that’s another aspect of how I keep track of questions. I don’t just write lists for myself—I write blog articles about things that I want to understand better.

(2) Only work on problems when you think they’re important and you see how to solve them.

This tactic isn’t for everyone, but it works for me. When I was just getting started I would try to solve problems that I had no idea how to solve. People who are good at puzzles may succeed this way, but I generally did not.

It turns out that for me, a better approach is to make long lists of questions, and keep thinking about them on and off for many years. I slowly make progress until—poof!—I think I see something new and important. Only then do a take a problem off the back burner and start intensely working on it.

The physicist John Wheeler put it this way: you should never do a calculation until you already know the answer. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, because it’s also good to fool around and see where things go. But there’s a lot more truth to it than you might think.

Feynman had a different but related rule of thumb: he only worked on a problem when he felt he had an “inside track” on it—some insight or trick up his sleeve that nobody else had.

LM: And once you’ve chosen a problem to solve, what are some of your preferred tactics for actually solving it?

JB: By what I’ve said before, it’s clear that I get serious about a problem only after I have a darn good idea of how to solve it. At the very least, I believe I know what to do. So, I just do it.

But usually it doesn’t work quite that easily.

If you only officially tackle problems after absolutely every wrinkle has been ironed out by your previous musings, you’re being too cautious: you’ll miss working on a lot of interesting things. Many young researchers seem to fall prey to the opposite error, and waste time being completely stuck. The right balance lies in the middle. You break a problem down into sub-problems, and break those down into sub-subproblems… and you decide you’re ready to go when all these sub-subproblems seem likely to be doable, even before you’ve worked through the details.

How can you tell if they’re doable? This depends a lot on having previous experience with similar problems. If you’re a newbie, things that seem hard to you can be really easy to experts, while things that seem easy can turn out to be famously difficult.

Even with experience, some of sub-subproblems that seem likely to be routine will turn out to be harder than expected. That’s where the actual work comes in. And here it’s good to have lots of tricks. For example:

(1) If you can’t solve a problem, there should be a similar problem that’s a bit easier. Try solving that. And if you can’t solve that one… use the same principle again! Keep repeating until you get down to something you can solve. Then climb your way back up, one step at a time.

Don’t be embarrassed to simplify a problem to the point where you can actually do it.

(2) There are lots of ways to make a problem easier. Sometimes you should consider a special case. In math there are special cases of special cases of special cases… so there’s a lot of room for exploration here. If you see how enough special cases work, you’ll get ideas that may help you for your original problem.

(3) On the other hand, sometimes a problem becomes simpler when you generalize, leaving out potentially irrelevant details. Often people get stuck in clutter. But if it turns out the generalization doesn’t work, it may help you see which details were actually relevant.

(4) Sometimes instead of down or up the ladder of generality it pays to move across, by considering an analogous problem in a related field.

(5) Finally, a general hint: keep a written record of your efforts to solve a problem, including explanations of what didn’t work, and why. Look back at what you wrote from time to time. It’s amazing how often I come close to doing something right, forget about it, and come back later—sometimes years later—and see things from a slightly different angle, which makes everything fall into place. Failure can be just millimeters from success.


Global Climate Change Negotiations

28 October, 2013

 

There were many interesting talks at the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop last week—too many for me to describe them all in detail. But I really must describe the talks by Radoslav Dimitrov. They were full of important things I didn’t know. Some are quite promising.

Radoslav S. Dimitrov is a professor at the Department of Political Science at Western University. What’s interesting is that he’s also been a delegate for the European Union at the UN climate change negotiations since 1990! His work documents the history of climate negotiations from behind closed doors.

Here are some things he said:

• In international diplomacy, there is no questioning the reality and importance of human-caused climate change. The question is just what to do about it.

• Governments go through every line of the IPCC reports twice. They cannot add anything the scientists have written, but they can delete things. All governments have veto power. This makes the the IPCC reports more conservative than they otherwise would be: “considerably diluted”.

• The climate change negotiations have surprised political scientists in many ways:

1) There is substantial cooperation even without the USA taking the lead.

2) Developing countries are accepting obligations, with many overcomplying.

3) There has been action by many countries and subnational entities without any treaty obligations.

4) There have been repeated failures of negotiation despite policy readiness.

• In 2011, China and Saudi Arabia rejected the final agreement at Durban as inadequate. Only Canada, the United States and Australia had been resisting stronger action on climate change. Canada abandoned the Kyoto Protocol the day after the collapse of negotiations at Durban. They publicly blamed China, India and Brazil, even though Brazil had accepted dramatic emissions cuts and China had, for the first time, accepted limits on emissions. Only India had taken a “hardline” attitude. Publicly blaming some other country for the collapse of negotiations is a no-no in diplomacy, so the Chinese took this move by Canada as a slap in the face. In return, they blamed Canada and “the West” for the collapse of Durban.

• Dimitrov is studying the role of persuasion in diplomacy, recording and analyzing hundreds of hours of discussions. Countries try to change each other’s minds, not just behavior.

• The global elite do not see climate change negotiations as an environmental issue. Instead, they feel they are “negotiating the future economy”. They focus on the negative economic consequences of inaction, and the economic benefits of climate action.

• In particular, the EU has managed to persuade many countries that climate change is worth tackling now. They do this with economic, not environmental arguments. For example, they argue that countries who take the initiative will have an advantage in future employment, getting most of the “green jobs”. Results include China’s latest 5-year plan, which some have called “the most progressive legislation in history”, and also Japan’s plan for a 60-80% reduction of carbon emissions. The EU itself also expects big returns on investment in climate change.

I apologize for any oversimplifications or downright errors in my notes here.

References

You can see some slides for Dimitrov’s talks here:

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, A climate of change.

For more, try reading this article, which is free online:

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, Inside Copenhagen: the state of climate governance, Global Environmental Politics 10 (2010), 18–24.

and these more recent book chapters, which are apparently not as easy to get:

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, Environmental diplomacy, in Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, edited by Paul Harris, Routledge, forthcoming as of 2013.

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, International negotiations, in Handbook of Global Climate and Environmental Policy, edited by Robert Falkner, Wiley-Blackwell forthcoming as of 2013.

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, Persuasion in world politics: The UN climate change negotiations, in Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, edited by Peter Dauvergne, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK, 2012.

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, American prosperity and the high politics of climate change, in Prospects for a Post-American World, edited by Sabrina Hoque and Sean Clark, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2012.


What To Do About Climate Change?

23 October, 2013

Here are the slides for my second talk in the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop at the Balsillie School of International Affairs:

What To Do About Climate Change?

Like the first it’s just 15 minutes long, so it’s very terse.

I start by noting that slowing the rate of carbon burning won’t stop global warming: most carbon dioxide stays in the air over a century, though individual molecules come and go. Global warming is like a ratchet.

So, we will:

1) leave fossil fuels unburnt,

2) sequester carbon,

3) actively cool the Earth, and/or

4) live with a hotter climate.

Of course we may do a mix of these…. though we’ll certainly do some of option 4), and we might do only this one. My goal in this short talk is not mainly to argue for a particular mix! I mainly want to present some information about the various options.

I do not say anything about the best ways to do option 4); I merely provide some arguments that we’ll wind up doing a lot of this one… because I’m afraid some of the participants in the workshop may be in denial about that.

I also argue that we should start doing research on option 3), because like it or not, I think people are going to become very interested in geoengineering, and without enough solid information about it, people are likely to make bad mistakes: for example, diving into ambitious projects out of desperation.

As usual, if you click on a phrase in blue in this talk, you can get more information.

I want to really thank everyone associated with Azimuth for helping find and compile the information used in this talk! It’s really been a team effort!


What Is Climate Change and What To Do About It?

13 October, 2013

Soon I’m going to a workshop on Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Climate Change at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, or BSIA, in Waterloo, Canada. It’s organized by Simon Dalby, who has a chair in the political economy of climate change at this school.

The plan is to gather people from many different disciplines to provide views on two questions: what is climate change, and what to do about it?

We’re giving really short talks, leaving time for discussion. But before I get there I need to write a 2000-word paper on my view of climate change—’as a mathematician’, supposedly. That’s where I want your help. I think I know roughly what I want to say, and I’ll post some drafts here as soon as I write them. But I’d like get your ideas, too.

For starters, the program looks like this:

Friday 25 October: What is Climate Change?

9:00 – 9:30 Introductory remarks
John Ravenhill, Director, BSIA
Dan Scott, University of Waterloo, Interdiscipinary Centre for Climate Change.
Simon Dalby, BSIA

9:30 – 10:45 Presentation Session 1
Chair: Sara Koopman, BSIA
John Baez, University of California (Mathematics)
Jean Andrey, University of Waterloo (Geography)
Byron Williston, Wilfrid Laurier University (Philosophy)

11:15 – 12:30 Presentation Session 2
Chair: Marisa Beck, BSIA
Chris Russill, Carleton University (Communications)
Mike Hulme, Kings’ College London (Climate Science)
Radoslav Dimitrov, Western University (Political Science)

1:30 – 2:30 Presentation Session 3
Chair: Matt Gaudreau, BSIA
Jatin Nathwani, University of Waterloo (Engineering)
Sarah Burch, University of Waterloo (New Social Media and Education)

3:00 – 5:00 Roundtable 1 (all presenters)
Chair: Lucie Edwards, BSIA
Discussant: Vanessa Schweizer, University of Waterloo

5:00 – 5:15 Wrap-up
Dan Scott and Simon Dalby

Saturday 26 October: What Should We Do About It?

9:00 – 10:15 Presentation Session 4
Chair: Matt Gaudreau, BSIA
Radoslav Dimitrov, Western University (Political Science)
Mike Hulme, Kings’ College London (Climate Science)
Jean Andrey, University of Waterloo (Geography)

10:45 – 12:00 Presentation Session 5
Chair: Lucie Edwards, BSIA
Jatin Nathwani, University of Waterloo (Engineering)
Sarah Burch, University of Waterloo (Environmental Education)
Chris Russill, Carleton University (Communications)

1:00 – 2:00 Presentation Session 6
Chair: Marisa Beck, BSIA
Byron Williston, Wilfrid Laurier University (Philosophy)
John Baez, University of California (Mathematics)

2:30 – 4:30 Roundtable 2 (all presenters)
Chair: Sara Koopman, BSIA
Discussant: James Orbinski, CIGI Chair in Global Health

4:30 – 5:00 Wrap-up
Dan Scott and Simon Dalby

Some thoughts

Though I’m playing a designated role in this workshop—the “mathematician”—I don’t think it makes sense to focus on mathematical models of climate change, or the math projects I’m working on now.

I will probably seem strange and “mathematical” enough just saying what I think about climate change! Most of the other people come from fields quite different than mine: they seem much more in tune with the nitty-gritty details of politics and economics. So, perhaps my proper role is to mention some facts and numbers that they probably know already, to remind them of the magnitude, scope and urgency of the problem.

It may also be useful to emphasize that with very high probability, we won’t do enough soon enough, so we need to study a series of fallback positions, not just an ‘optimal’ response to climate change. And these fallback positions should go as far as thinking about what happens if we burn all the available carbon. What to do then?

When I talked about this workshop with the mathematician Sasha Beilinson, he wickedly suggested that the best solution to global warming might be a global economic collapse… and he asked if anyone was looking into this.

Of course this solution comes along with huge problems, and anyone who actually advocates it is branded as a nut and excluded from the ‘serious’ discourse on global warming. But the funny thing is, a global economic collapse could be just as probable as some more optimistic scenarios, for example those that require a massive outbreak of altruism worldwide.

So it’s worth thinking about economic collapse scenarios, and ‘burn carbon until there’s none left’ scenarios, even if we don’t want them. And these are the sort of things that only the mathematician in the room may be brave—or foolish—enough to mention.

What else?


What To Do? (Part 2)

28 August, 2013

Dear John,

If you could do anything to change the world what would you do? Many people haven’t had the opportunity to ponder that question because they have been busy studying what could be possible within a particular set of resource constraints. However, what if we push the limits? If all the barriers were removed, then what would you do?

The XXXXXXXXX Foundation has an open, aggressive, and entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy. Our goal is to produce substantial, widespread and lasting changes to society that will maximize opportunity and minimize injustice. We tap into the minds of fearless thinkers who have big, bold, transformational ideas, and work with them to invest in strategies designed to solve persistent problems.

Our team is reaching out to you because we believe you are the type of innovative thinker with ideas that just might change the world. While this is not a promise of grant funding, it is an invitation to share your ideas. You can learn more about the XXXXXXXXX Foundation by visiting our website. Thank you for your interest and I look forward to hearing your ideas.

Sincerely,
ZZZZZZZ


I got this email yesterday. While I have some ideas, I really want to make the most of this chance. So: what would you do if you got this sort of opportunity? To keep things simple, let’s assume this is a legitimate email from a truly well-meaning organization—I’m checking that, and it seems to be so. Assume they could spend 1-10 million dollars on a really good idea, and assume you really want to help the world. What idea would you suggest?

Some ideas

Here are some comments from G+ to get your thoughts going. Heather Vandagriff wrote:

Hard core grassroots organization toward political involvement and education on climate issues. 

Jason Holt wrote:

Ideas are cheap.

http://www.pretotyping.org/the-pretotyping-manifesto-1/innovators-beat-ideas

Borislav Iordanov wrote:

I don’t agree that ideas are cheap. It could take a lifetime to have a really good one. However, one could argue that really good ideas are probably already funded. But if to maximize opportunity and to minimize injustice is the motivation, I say government transparency should be top priority. I can google the answer to almost any technical or scientific question, any historical fact, or pop culture, you name it. But I can’t know what my government is doing. And I’m not talking only, or even mostly, about things that governments hide. I’m talking about mundane day-to-day operations that are potentially not conducted in the best interest of the people, knowingly or unknowingly. I can easily find what are the upcoming concerts or movies, but it’s much harder to find out what, for instance, my local government is currently discussing so I can perhaps stop by the commissioner chamber and have my voice being heard (why aren’t there TV commercials about the public hearing of the next city ordinance?).

I realize this is not a concrete idea, but there are plenty of projects in that direction around the internet. And I don’t think such projects should come only from within government agencies because there is a conflict of interest.

Bottom line is that any sustainable, permanent change towards a better society has to involve the political process in some way, and the best (peaceful!) way to enact change there starts with real and consequential openness. Didn’t expect to write so much, sorry…


John Baez wrote:

Borislav Iordanov wrote:

But if to maximize opportunity and to minimize injustice is the motivation, I say government transparency should be top priority.

That’s a great idea… and in fact, this foundation already has a project to promote government transparency. So, I’ll either need to come up with a specific way to promote it that they haven’t thought about, or come up with something else.

Noon Silk wrote:

I guess the easy answer is some sort of education program; educating people in some way so-as to generate the skills necessary to do the thing that you really want to do. So I don’t know. Perhaps part of it could be some sort campaign to get a few coursera et al courses on climate maths, etc, and building some sort of innovative and exciting program around that.

Richard Lucas wrote:

Use existing corporate law (thanks, Capitalists!) to create collectives (maybe non-profits?) into which people could elect to participate. Participation would be contingent upon adoption of a certain set of standards for behavior impossible in the broader, geographical society in which we are immersed. Participants would enjoy a guaranteed minimum income, health care, etc – the goals of Communism, but in a limited scope, applied to participants who also exist in the general society. It’s just that participants would agree to share time, resources, and expertise with the collective. If collective living can’t be made to work in such an environment, where participation could be relatively selective up front, to include the honest and the committed…. well, then it can’t work. When the right formula is established, and the standard of living for participants is greater than for peers who are not “participants”, then you can expect more people to join. A tipping point would eventually be reached, where the majority of citizens in the broader, geographical society were also participants in an optional, voluntary, supersociety which does not respect geographic or national boundaries.

This is the only way it will work, and the beauty is that Communists and Objectivists equally hate this idea, because it breaks their frames, and because it is legal, and because if the larger society tried to block it, they would then have to justify the ability of crazy UFO cults and religions to do it. So, it can’t be stopped. There’s no theory to defend. You just do it.

Xah Lee wrote:

put the $10M to increase internet penetration, or in other ways enhance communication such as cell phone.

absolutely do not do anything that’s normally considered as good or helpful to humanity. such as help africa, women, the weak, the cripple, poor, vaccine, donation, institutionalized education etc.

even though, i’m still doubtful there’d be any improvement of humanity. $10M is like a peanut for this. One missile is $10M… 

John Baez wrote:

Xah Lee wrote:

even though, i’m still doubtful there’d be any improvement of humanity. $10M is like a peanut for this.

There are certain activities where the benefit is roughly proportional to the amount of money spent – like, giving people bed-netting that repels malaria-carrying mosquitos, or buying textbooks for students. For such activities, $10 million is often not enough to get the job done.

But there are other activities where $10 million is the difference between some good self-perpetuating phenomenon starting to happen, and it not starting to happen. This is the kind of thing I should suggest.

It’s the difference between pushing a large rock up a long hill, and starting a rock rolling down a hill.

By the way, this foundation plans to spend a lot more than $10M in total. I just want to suggest a project that will seem cheap to them, to increase the chance that they actually pursue it.

Piotr Migdal wrote:

I think that the thing that needs a drastic change in the education system. I suggest founding a “hacker university” (or “un-university”).

The educational system was designed for preparation of soldiers and factory workers. Now the job market is very different, and one cannot hope to work in one factory for his/her lifetime. Additionally, the optimal skill set is not necessarily the same for everyone (and it changes, as the World changes). But the worst thing is that schools teaches that “take no initiative, just obey” which stops working once one needs to find a job. Plus, for more creative tasks usually the top-down approach is the worst one (contrasting with the coordination tasks).

While changing the whole system may be hard, let’s think about universities; or a… un-university. Instead of attending predefined classes, let’s do the following:
• based on self-learning,
• lectures are because someone is willing to give them,
• everything voluntary (e.g. lectures and classes),
• own projects highly encouraged, starting from day one.

So basically, a collection of people who actually want to learn (!= earn a degree / prestige / position / fame), perform research which they consider the most fascinating (not merely doing science which is currently most fashionable and well-funded or “my advisor/grant/dean told so”) and undertake projects for greater good (startup-like freedom (unexperienceable in the current academia, at least – for the young) for things not necessarily giving monetary profit).

Sure, you may argue that there are more important goals (unemployment, bureaucracy, poverty, wars, ongoing destruction of natural environment – to name only a few in no particular order). But this one can be a nucleus for solving many other problems – wider in education and in general. And such a spark may yield in an unimaginable firestorm (a bad metaphor, it has to be about creation) seed can grow, flourish and make deserts blossom.

EDIT:

By founding I don’t mean paying for administration. Quite opposite – just rent a building, nothing more (so no tuition and no renting cost for students, to make it accessible regardless of the background). Almost all stuff (e.g. admission) in the first years based entirely on voluntary work.

John Baez wrote:

Noon Silk wrote: “I guess the easy answer is some sort of education program…”

That sounds good. The foundation already has a program to improve K-12 education in the United States. So, when it comes to education, I’d either need to give them ideas they haven’t tried in that realm, get them interested in education outside the US, or get them interested in post-secondary education. Piotr Migdal’s idea of a ‘hacker university’ might be one approach. It also seems the potential of free worldwide online courses has not yet been fully exploited. 

Piotr Migdal wrote:

The point is in going well beyond online courses (which, IMHO, are nice but not that revolutionary – textbooks are there for quite a few years; I consider things like Usenet, Wikipedia and StackExchange way more impactful for education) – by gathering a critical mass of intelligent and passionate people. But anyway, it may be the right time for innovations in education (and not only small patches).

Robert Byrne wrote:

Firstly, thanks for sharing this John! Secondly, congratulations on being chosen!

I would look into three aspects of this. 1) Who funds it, and whether you are comfortable with that, 2) do they choose candidates and generally have processes that make use of the experience of similar organizations such as MacArthur?, 3) what limits are there on using the grant — could you design your own prize to solve a problem using these funds?

But you’ve asked for ideas. The biggest problems that can be fixed/improved for $5 million! I’ll stick to education and technology. Here are some areas:
• Education reform in the U.S., think-tanks or writers who can create a model to switch away from municipal public education funding, with the aim of reducing disadvantage,
• Office, factory and home power efficiency technology, anything that needs $1 million to get to prototype,
• Solve the commute/car problem — e.g. how can more people work within the suburb in which they live? How can public transit be useful in sprawling suburbs?

John Baez wrote:

Robert Byrne wrote:

Firstly, thanks for sharing this John! Secondly, congratulations on being chosen!

Thanks! I’ve been chosen to give them ideas.

“I would look into three aspects of this. 1) Who funds it, and whether you are comfortable with that, 2) do they choose candidates and generally have processes that make use of the experience of similar organizations such as MacArthur?, 3) what limits are there on using the grant — could you design your own prize to solve a problem using these funds?”

Thanks – I definitely plant to look the gift horse in the mouth. They didn’t say anything about giving me a grant, except to say “this is not a promise of a grant”.

So, right now I’m treating this as an exercise in coming up with a really good idea that I’m happy to give away and let someone try. Naturally there’s a self-serving part of me that wants to pick an idea where my participation would be required. But knowing me, I’ll actually be happiest if I can catalyze something good in a limited amount of time and then think about other things.

“Solve the commute/car problem — e.g. how can more people work within the suburb in which they live? How can public transit be useful in sprawling suburbs?”

My wife Lisa raised this one. I would love to do something about this. But what can be done for just 1-10 million dollars? To do something good in this field with that amount of money, it seems we’d need to have a really smart idea: something where a small change can initiate some sort of chain reaction. Any specific ideas?

And so on…

In some ways this post is a followup to What To Do (Part 1), so if you haven’t read that, you might want to now.


Bridging the Greenhouse-Gas Emissions Gap

28 April, 2013

I could use some help here, finding organizations that can help cut greenhouse gas emissions. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute. But the big question is:

How can we bridge the gap between what we are doing about global warming and what we should be doing?

That’s what this paper is about:

• Kornelis Blok, Niklas Höhne, Kees van der Leun and Nicholas Harrison, Bridging the greenhouse-gas emissions gap, Nature Climate Change 2 (2012), 471-474.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, we need to cut CO2 emissions by about 12 gigatonnes/year by 2020 to hold global warming to 2 °C.

After the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, many countries made pledges to reduce CO2 emissions. But by 2020 these pledges will cut emissions by at most 6 gigatonnes/year. Even worse, a lot of these pledges are contingent on other people meeting other pledges, and so on… so the confirmed value of all these pledges is only 3 gigatonnes/year.

The authors list 21 things that cities, large companies and individual citizens can do, which they claim will cut greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 10 gigatonnes/year of CO2 by 2020. For each initiative on their list, they claim:

(1) there is a concrete starting position from which a significant up-scaling until the year 2020 is possible;

(2) there are significant additional benefits besides a reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, so people can be driven by self-interest or internal motivation, not external pressure;

(3) there is an organization or combination of organizations that can lead the initiative;

(4) the initiative has the potential to reach an emission reduction by about 0.5 Gt CO2e by 2020.

21 Initiatives

Now I want to quote the paper and list the 21 initiatives. And here’s where I could use your help! For each of these, can you point me to one or more organizations that are in a good position to lead the initiative?

Some are already listed, but even for these I bet there are other good answers. I want to compile a list, and then start exploring what’s being done, and what needs to be done.

By the way, even if the UN estimate of the greenhouse-emissions gap is wrong, and even if all the numbers I’m about to quote are wrong, most of them are probably the right order of magnitude—and that’s all we need to get a sense of what needs to be done, and how we can do it.

Companies

1. Top 1,000 companies’ emission reductions. Many of the 1,000 largest greenhouse-gas-emitting companies already have greenhouse-gas emission-reduction goals to decrease their energy use and increase their long-term competitiveness, as well as to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility. An association such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development could lead 30% of the top 1,000 companies to reduce energy-related emissions 10% below business as usual by 2020 and all companies to reduce their non-carbon dioxide greenhouse-gas emissions by 50%. Impact in 2020: up to 0.7 Gt CO2e.

2. Supply-chain emission reductions. Several companies already have social and environmental requirements for their suppliers, which are driven by increased competitiveness, corporate social responsibility and the ability to be a front-runner. An organization such as the Consumer Goods Forum could stimulate 30% of companies to require their supply chains to reduce emissions 10% below business as usual by 2020. Impact in 2020: up to 0.2 Gt CO2e.

3. Green financial institutions. More than 200 financial organizations are already members of the finance initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP-FI). They are committed to environmental goals owing to corporate social responsibility, to gain investor certainty and to be placed well in emerging markets. UNEP-FI could lead the 20 largest banks to reduce the carbon footprint of 10% of their assets by 80%. Impact in 2020: up to 0.4 Gt of their assets by 80%. Impact in 2020: up to 0.4 Gt CO2e.

4. Voluntary-offset companies. Many companies are already offsetting their greenhouse-gas emissions, mostly without explicit external pressure. A coalition between an organization with convening power, for example UNEP, and offset providers could motivate 20% of the companies in the light industry and commercial sector to calculate their greenhouse-gas emissions, apply emission-reduction measures and offset the remaining emissions (retiring the purchased credits). It is ensured that offset projects really reduce emissions by using the ‘gold standard’ for offset projects or another comparable mechanism. Governments could provide incentives by giving tax credits for offsetting, similar to those commonly given for charitable donations. Impact by 2020: up to 2.0 Gt CO2e.

Other actors

5. Voluntary-offset consumers. A growing number of individuals (especially with high income) already offset their greenhouse-gas emissions, mostly for flights, but also through carbon-neutral products. Environmental NGOs could motivate 10% of the 20% of richest individuals to offset their personal emissions from electricity use, heating and transport at cost to them of around US$200 per year. Impact in 2020: up to 1.6 Gt CO2e.

6. Major cities initiative. Major cities are large emitters of greenhouse gases and many have greenhouse-gas reduction targets. Cities are intrinsically highly motivated to act so as to improve local air quality, attractiveness and local job creation. Groups like the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability could lead the 40 cities in C40 or an equivalent sample to reduce emissions 20% below business as usual by 2020, building on the thousands of emission-reduction activities already implemented by the C40 cities. Impact in 2020: up to 0.7 Gt CO2e.

7. Subnational governments. Several states in the United States and provinces in Canada have already introduced support mechanisms for renewable energy, emission-trading schemes, carbon taxes and industry regulation. As a result, they expect an increase in local competitiveness, jobs and energy security. Following the example set by states such as California, these ambitious US states and Canadian provinces could accept an emission-reduction target of 15–20% below business as usual by 2020, as some states already have. Impact in 2020: up to 0.6 Gt CO2e.

Energy efficiency

8. Building heating and cooling. New buildings, and increasingly existing buildings, are designed to be extremely energy efficient to realize net savings and increase comfort. The UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative could bring together the relevant players to realize 30% of the full reduction potential for 2020. Impact in 2020: up to 0.6 Gt CO2e.

9. Ban of incandescent lamps. Many countries already have phase-out schedules for incandescent lamps as it provides net savings in the long term. The en.lighten initiative of UNEP and the Global Environment Facility already has a target to globally ban incandescent lamps by 2016. Impact in 2020: up to 0.2 Gt CO2e.

10. Electric appliances. Many international labelling schemes and standards already exist for energy efficiency of appliances, as efficient appliances usually give net savings in the long term. The Collaborative Labeling and Appliance Standards Program or the Super-efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment Initiative could drive use of the most energy-efficient appliances on the market. Impact in 2020: up to 0.6 Gt CO2e.

11. Cars and trucks. All car and truck manufacturers put emphasis on developing vehicles that are more efficient. This fosters innovation and increases their long-term competitive position. The emissions of new cars in Europe fell by almost 20% in the past decade. A coalition of manufacturers and NGOs joined by the UNEP Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles could agree to save one additional liter per 100 km globally by 2020 for cars, and equivalent reductions for trucks. Impact in 2020: up to 0.7 Gt CO2e.

Energy supply

12. Boost solar photovoltaic energy. Prices of solar photovoltaic systems have come down rapidly in recent years, and installed capacity has increased much faster than expected. It created a new industry, an export market and local value added through, for example, roof installations. A coalition of progressive governments and producers could remove barriers by introducing good grid access and net metering rules, paving the way to add another 1,600 GW by 2020 (growth consistent with recent years). Impact in 2020: up to 1.4 Gt CO2e.

13. Wind energy. Cost levels for wind energy have come down dramatically, making wind economically competitive with fossil-fuel-based power generation in many cases. The Global Wind Energy Council could foster the global introduction of arrangements that lead to risk reduction for investments in wind energy, with, for example, grid access and guarantees. This could lead to an installation of 1,070 GW by 2020, which is 650 GW over a reference scenario. Impact in 2020: up to 1.2 Gt CO2e.

14. Access to energy through low-emission options. Strong calls and actions are already underway to provide electricity access to 1.4 billion people who are at present without and fulfill development goals. The UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative could ensure that all people without access to electricity get access through low-emission options. Impact in 2020: up to 0.4 Gt CO2e.

15. Phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels. This highly recognized option to reduce emissions would improve investment in clean energy, provide other environmental, health and security benefits, and generate income. The International Energy Agency could work with countries to phase out half of all fossil-fuel subsidies. Impact in 2020: up to 0.9 Gt CO2e.

Special sectors

16. International aviation and maritime transport. The aviation and shipping industries are seriously considering efficiency measures and biofuels to increase their competitive advantage. Leading aircraft and ship manufacturers could agree to design their vehicles to capture half of the technical mitigation potential. Impact in 2020: up to 0.2 Gt CO2e.

17. Fluorinated gases (hydrofluorocarbons, perflourocarbons, SF6). Recent industry-led initiatives are already underway to reduce emissions of these gases originating from refrigeration, air-conditioning and industrial processes. Industry associations, such as Refrigerants, Naturally!, could work towards meeting half of the technical mitigation potential. Impact in 2020: up to 0.3 Gt CO2e.

18. Reduce deforestation. Some countries have already shown that it is strongly possible to reduce deforestation with an integrated approach that eliminates the drivers of deforestation. This has benefits for local air pollution and biodiversity, and can support the local population. Led by an individual with convening power, for example, the United Kingdom’s Prince of Wales or the UN Secretary General, such approaches could be rolled out to all the major countries with high deforestation emissions, halving global deforestation by 2020. Impact in 2020: up to 1.8 Gt CO2e.

19. Agriculture. Options to reduce emissions from agriculture often increase efficiency. The International Federation of Agricultural Producers could help to realize 30% of the technical mitigation potential. (Well, at least it could before it collapsed, after this paper was written.) Impact in 2020: up to 0.8 Gt CO2e.

Air pollutants

20. Enhanced reduction of air pollutants. Reduction of classic air pollutants including black carbon has been pursued for years owing to positive impacts on health and local air quality. UNEP’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition To Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants already has significant political momentum and could realize half of the technical mitigation potential. Impact in 2020: a reduction in radiative forcing impact equivalent to an emission reduction of greenhouse gases in the order of 1 Gt CO2e, but outside of the definition of the gap.

21. Efficient cook-stoves. Cooking in rural areas is a source of carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, there are emissions of black carbon, which also leads to global warming. Replacing these cook-stoves would also significantly increase local air quality and reduce pressure on forests from fuel-wood demand. A global development organization such as the UN Development Programme could take the lead in scaling-up the many already existing programs to eventually replace half of the existing cook-stoves. Impact in 2020: a reduction in radiative forcing impact equivalent to an emission reduction of greenhouse gases of up to 0.6 Gt CO2e, included in the effect of the above initiative and outside of the definition of the gap.

For more

For more, see the supplementary materials to this paper, and also:

• Niklas Höhne, Wedging the gap: 21 initiatives to bridge the greenhouse gas emissions gap.

The size of the emissions gap was calculated here:

The Emissions Gap Report 2012, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

If you’re in a rush, just read the executive summary.


Meta-Rationality

15 March, 2013

On his blog, Eli Dourado writes something that’s very relevant to the global warming debate, and indeed most other debates.

He’s talking about Paul Krugman, but I think with small modifications we could substitute the name of almost any intelligent pundit. I don’t care about Krugman here, I care about the general issue:

Nobel laureate, Princeton economics professor, and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is a brilliant man. I am not so brilliant. So when Krugman makes strident claims about macroeconomics, a complex subject on which he has significantly more expertise than I do, should I just accept them? How should we evaluate the claims of people much smarter than ourselves?

A starting point for thinking about this question is the work of another Nobelist, Robert Aumann. In 1976, Aumann showed that under certain strong assumptions, disagreement on questions of fact is irrational. Suppose that Krugman and I have read all the same papers about macroeconomics, and we have access to all the same macroeconomic data. Suppose further that we agree that Krugman is smarter than I am. All it should take, according to Aumann, for our beliefs to converge is for us to exchange our views. If we have common “priors” and we are mutually aware of each others’ views, then if we do not agree ex post, at least one of us is being irrational.

It seems natural to conclude, given these facts, that if Krugman and I disagree, the fault lies with me. After all, he is much smarter than I am, so shouldn’t I converge much more to his view than he does to mine?

Not necessarily. One problem is that if I change my belief to match Krugman’s, I would still disagree with a lot of really smart people, including many people as smart as or possibly even smarter than Krugman. These people have read the same macroeconomics literature that Krugman and I have, and they have access to the same data. So the fact that they all disagree with each other on some margin suggests that very few of them behave according to the theory of disagreement. There must be some systematic problem with the beliefs of macroeconomists.

In their paper on disagreement, Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson grapple with the problem of self-deception. Self-favoring priors, they note, can help to serve other functions besides arriving at the truth. People who “irrationally” believe in themselves are often more successful than those who do not. Because pursuit of the truth is often irrelevant in evolutionary competition, humans have an evolved tendency to hold self-favoring priors and self-deceive about the existence of these priors in ourselves, even though we frequently observe them in others.

Self-deception is in some ways a more serious problem than mere lack of intelligence. It is embarrassing to be caught in a logical contradiction, as a stupid person might be, because it is often impossible to deny. But when accused of disagreeing due to a self-favoring prior, such as having an inflated opinion of one’s own judgment, people can and do simply deny the accusation.

How can we best cope with the problem of self-deception? Cowen and Hanson argue that we should be on the lookout for people who are “meta-rational,” honest truth-seekers who choose opinions as if they understand the problem of disagreement and self-deception. According to the theory of disagreement, meta-rational people will not have disagreements among themselves caused by faith in their own superior knowledge or reasoning ability. The fact that disagreement remains widespread suggests that most people are not meta-rational, or—what seems less likely—that meta-rational people cannot distinguish one another.

We can try to identify meta-rational people through their cognitive and conversational styles. Someone who is really seeking the truth should be eager to collect new information through listening rather than speaking, construe opposing perspectives in their most favorable light, and offer information of which the other parties are not aware, instead of simply repeating arguments the other side has already heard.

All this seems obvious to me, but it’s discussed much too rarely. Maybe we can figure out ways to encourage this virtue that Cohen and Hanson call ‘meta-rationality’? There are already too many mechanisms that reward people for aggressively arguing for fixed positions. If Krugman really were ‘meta-rational’, he might still have his Nobel Prize, but he probably wouldn’t be a popular newspaper columnist.

The Azimuth Project, and this blog, are already doing a lot of things to prevent people from getting locked into fixed positions and filtering out evidence that goes against their views. Most crucial seems to be the policy of forbidding insults, bullying, and overly repetitive restatement of the same views. These behaviors increase what I call the ‘heat’ in a discussion, and I’ve decided that, all things considered, it’s best to keep the heat fairly low.

Heat attracts many people, so I’m sure we could get a lot more people to read this blog by turning up the heat. A little heat is a good thing, because it engages people’s energy. But heat also makes it harder for people to change their minds. When the heat gets too high, changing ones mind is perceived as a defeat, to be avoided at all costs. Even worse, people form ‘tribes’ who back each other up in every argument, regardless of the topic. Rationality goes out the window. And meta-rationality? Forget it!

Some Questions

Dourado talks about ways to “identify meta-rational people.” This is very attractive, but I think it’s better to talk about “identifying when people are behaving meta-rationally”. I don’t think we should spend too much of our time looking around for paragons of meta-rationality. First of all, nobody is perfect. Second of all, as soon as someone gets a big reputation for rationality, meta-rationality, or any other virtue, it seems they develop a fan club that runs a big risk of turning into a cult. This often makes it harder rather than easier for people to think clearly and change their minds!

I’d rather look for customs and institutions that encourage meta-rationality. So, my big question is:

How can we encourage rationality and meta-rationality, and make them more popular?

Of course science, and academia, are institutions that have been grappling with this question for centuries. Universities, seminars, conferences, journals, and so on—they all put a lot of work into encouraging the search for knowledge and examining the conditions under which it thrives.

And of course these institutions are imperfect: everything humans do is riddled with flaws.

But instead of listing cases where existing institutions failed to do their job optimally, I’d like to think about ways of developing new customs and institutions that encourage meta-rationality… and linking these to the existing ones.

Why? Because I feel the existing institutions don’t reach out enough to the ‘general public’, or ‘laymen’. The mere existence of these terms is a clue. There are a lot of people who consider academia as an ‘ivory tower’, separate from their own lives and largely irrelevant. And there are a lot of good reasons for this.

There’s one you’ve heard me talk about a lot: academia has let its journals get bought by big multimedia conglomerates, who then charge high fees for access. So, we have have scientific research on global warming paid for by our tax dollars, and published by prestigious journals such as Science and Nature… which unfortunately aren’t available to the ‘general public’.

That’s like a fire alarm you have to pay to hear.

But there’s another problem: institutions that try to encourage meta-rationality seem to operate by shielding themselves from the broader sphere that favors ‘hot’ discussions. Meanwhile, the hot discussions don’t get enough input from ‘cooler’ forums… and vice versa!

For example: we have researchers in climate science who publish in refereed journals, which mostly academics read. We have conferences, seminars and courses where this research is discussed and criticized. These are again attended mostly by academics. Then we have journalists and bloggers who try to explain and discuss these papers in more easily accessed venues. There are some blogs written by climate scientists, who try to short-circuit the middlemen a bit. Unfortunately the heated atmosphere of some of these blogs makes meta-rationality difficult. There are also blogs by ‘climate skeptics’, many from outside academia. These often criticize the published papers, but—it seems to me—rarely get into discussions with the papers’ authors in conditions that make it easy for either party to change their mind. And on top of all this, we have various think tanks who are more or less pre-committed to fixed positions… and of course, corporations and nonprofits paying for advertisements pushing various agendas.

Of course, it’s not just the global warming problem that suffers from a lack of public forums that encourage meta-rationality. That’s just an example. There have got to be some ways to improve the overall landscape a little. Just a little: I’m not expecting miracles!

Details

Here’s the paper by Aumann:

• Robert J. Aumann, Agreeing to disagree, The Annals of Statistics 4 (1976), 1236-1239.

and here’s the one by Cowen and Hanson:

• Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson, Are disagreements honest?, 18 August 2004.

Personally I find Aumann’s paper uninteresting, because he’s discussing agents that are not only rational Bayesians, but rational Bayesians that share the same priors to begin with! It’s unsurprising that such agents would have trouble finding things to argue about.

His abstract summarizes his result quite clearly… except that he calls these idealized agents ‘people’, which is misleading:

Abstract. Two people, 1 and 2, are said to have common knowledge of an event E if both know it, 1 knows that 2 knows it, 2 knows that 1 knows is, 1 knows that 2 knows that 1 knows it, and so on.

Theorem. If two people have the same priors, and their posteriors for an event A are common knowledge, then these posteriors are equal.

Cowen and Hanson’s paper is more interesting to me. Here are some key sections for what we’re talking about here:

How Few Meta-rationals?

We can call someone a truth-seeker if, given his information and level of effort on a topic, he chooses his beliefs to be as close as possible to the truth. A non-truth seeker will, in contrast, also put substantial weight on other goals when choosing his beliefs. Let us also call someone meta-rational if he is an honest truth-seeker who chooses his opinions as if he understands the basic theory of disagreement, and abides by the rationality standards that most people uphold, which seem to preclude self-favoring priors.

The theory of disagreement says that meta-rational people will not knowingly have self-favoring disagreements among themselves. They might have some honest disagreements, such as on values or on topics of fact where their DNA encodes relevant non-self-favoring attitudes. But they will not have dishonest disagreements, i.e., disagreements directly on their relative ability, or disagreements on other random topics caused by their faith in their own superior knowledge or reasoning ability.

Our working hypothesis for explaining the ubiquity of persistent disagreement is that people are not usually meta-rational. While several factors contribute to this situation, a sufficient cause that usually remains when other causes are removed is that people do not typically seek only truth in their beliefs, not even in a persistent rational core. People tend to be hypocritical in have self-favoring priors, such as priors that violate indexical independence, even though they criticize others for such priors. And they are reluctant to admit this, either publicly or to themselves.

How many meta-rational people can there be? Even if the evidence is not consistent with most people being meta-rational, it seems consistent with there being exactly one meta-rational person. After all, in this case there never appears a pair of meta-rationals to agree with each other. So how many more meta-rationals are possible?

If meta-rational people were common, and able to distinguish one another, then we should see many pairs of people who have almost no dishonest disagreements with each other. In reality, however, it seems very hard to find any pair of people who, if put in contact, could not identify many persistent disagreements. While this is an admittedly difficult empirical determination to make, it suggests that there are either extremely few meta-rational people, or that they have virtually no way to distinguish each other.

Yet it seems that meta-rational people should be discernible via their conversation style. We know that, on a topic where self-favoring opinions would be relevant, the sequence of alternating opinions between a pair of people who are mutually aware of both being meta-rational must follow a random walk. And we know that the opinion sequence between typical non-meta-rational humans is nothing of the sort. If, when responding to the opinions of someone else of uncertain type, a meta-rational person acts differently from an ordinary non-meta-rational person, then two meta-rational people should be able to discern one another via a long enough conversation. And once they discern one another, two meta-rational people should no longer have dishonest disagreements. (Aaronson (2004) has shown that regardless of the topic or their initial opinions, any two Bayesians have less than a 10% chance of disagreeing by more than a 10% after exchanging about a thousand bits, and less than a 1% chance of disagreeing by more than a 1% after exchanging about a million bits.)

Since most people have extensive conversations with hundreds of people, many of whom they know very well, it seems that the fraction of people who are meta-rational must be very small. For example, given N people, a fraction f of whom are meta-rational, let each person participate in C conversations with random others that last long enough for two meta-rational people to discern each other. If so, there should be on average f^2CN/2 pairs who no longer disagree. If, across the world, two billion people, one in ten thousand of who are meta-rational, have one hundred long conversations each, then we should see one thousand pairs of people with only honest disagreements. If, within academia, two million people, one in ten thousand of who are meta-rational, have one thousand long conversations each, we should see ten agreeing pairs of academics. And if meta-rational people had any other clues to discern each another, and preferred to talk with one another, there should be far more such pairs. Yet, with the possible exception of some cult-like or fan-like relationships, where there is an obvious alternative explanation for their agreement, we know of no such pairs of people who no longer disagree on topics where self-favoring opinions are relevant.

We therefore conclude that unless meta-rationals simply cannot distinguish each other, only a tiny non-descript percentage of the population, or of academics, can be meta-rational. Either few people have truth-seeking rational cores, and those that do cannot be readily distinguished, or most people have such cores but they are in control infrequently and unpredictably. Worse, since it seems unlikely that the only signals of meta-rationality would be purely private signals, we each seem to have little grounds for confidence in our own meta-rationality, however much we would like to believe otherwise.

Personally, I think the failure to find ‘ten agreeing pairs of academics’ is not very interesting. Instead of looking for people who are meta-rational in all respects, which seems futile, I’m more interested in to looking for contexts and institutions that encourage people to behave meta-rationally when discussing specific issues.

For example, there’s surprisingly little disagreement among mathematicians when they’re discussing mathematics and they’re on their best behavior—for example, talking in a classroom. Disagreements show up, but they’re often dismissed quickly when one or both parties realize their mistake. The same people can argue bitterly and endlessly over politics or other topics. They are not meta-rational people: I doubt such people exist. They are people who have been encouraged by an institution to behave meta-rationally in specific limited ways… because the institution rewards this behavior.

Moving on:

Personal policy implications

Readers need not be concerned about the above conclusion if they have not accepted our empirical arguments, or if they are willing to embrace the rationality of self-favoring priors, and to forgo criticizing the beliefs of others caused by such priors. Let us assume, however, that you, the reader, are trying to be one of those rare meta-rational souls in the world, if indeed there are any. How guilty should you feel when you disagree on topics where self-favoring opinions are relevant?

If you and the people you disagree with completely ignored each other’s opinions, then you might tend to be right more if you had greater intelligence and information. And if you were sure that you were meta-rational, the fact that most people were not might embolden you to disagree with them. But for a truth-seeker, the key question must be how sure you can be that you, at the moment, are substantially more likely to have a truth-seeking, in-control, rational core than the people you now disagree with. This is because if either of you have some substantial degree of meta-rationality, then your relative intelligence and information are largely irrelevant except as they may indicate which of you is more likely to be self-deceived about being meta-rational.

One approach would be to try to never assume that you are more meta-rational than anyone else. But this cannot mean that you should agree with everyone, because you simply cannot do so when other people disagree among themselves. Alternatively, you could adopt a “middle” opinion. There are, however, many ways to define middle, and people can disagree about which middle is best (Barns 1998). Not only are there disagreements on many topics, but there are also disagreements on how to best correct for one’s limited meta-rationality.

Ideally we would want to construct a model of the process of individual self-deception, consistent with available data on behavior and opinion. We could then use such a model to take the observed distribution of opinion, and infer where lies the weight of evidence, and hence the best estimate of the truth. [Ideally this model would also satisfy a reflexivity constraint: when applied to disputes about self-deception it should select itself as the best model of self-deception. If people reject the claim that most people are self-deceived about their meta-rationality, this approach becomes more difficult, though perhaps not impossible.]

A more limited, but perhaps more feasible, approach to relative meta-rationality is to seek observable signs that indicate when people are self-deceived about their meta-rationality on a particular topic. You might then try to disagree only with those who display such signs more strongly than you do. For example, psychologists have found numerous correlates of self-deception. Self-deception is harder regarding one’s overt behaviors, there is less self-deception in a galvanic skin response (as used in lie detector tests) than in speech, the right brain hemisphere tends to be more honest, evaluations of actions are less honest after those actions are chosen than before (Trivers 2000), self-deceivers have more self-esteem and less psychopathology, especially less depression (Paulhus 1986), and older children are better than younger ones at hiding their self-deception from others (Feldman & Custrini 1988). Each correlate implies a corresponding sign of self-deception.

Other commonly suggested signs of self-deception include idiocy, self-interest, emotional arousal, informality of analysis, an inability to articulate supporting arguments, an unwillingness to consider contrary arguments, and ignorance of standard mental biases. If verified by further research, each of these signs would offer clues for identifying other people as self-deceivers.

Of course, this is easier said than done. It is easy to see how self-deceiving people, seeking to justify their disagreements, might try to favor themselves over their opponents by emphasizing different signs of self-deception in different situations. So looking for signs of self-deception need not be an easier approach than trying to overcome disagreement directly by further discussion on the topic of the disagreement.

We therefore end on a cautionary note. While we have identified some considerations to keep in mind, were one trying to be one of those rare meta-rational souls, we have no general recipe for how to proceed. Perhaps recognizing the difficulty of this problem can at least make us a bit more wary of our own judgments when we disagree.


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