Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Futurists blogging about thinking

Here are two blogs about thinking, by futurists. Overcoming Bias "is economist Robin Hanson's blog, on honesty, signaling, disagreement, forecasting, and the far future." Less Wrong "is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality." Tying them together, the latter site says,

In November 2006, Eliezer Yudkowsky began posting about rationality on Robin Hanson's blog Overcoming Bias. In February 2009, Yudkowsky's posts were used as the seed material for a new community website, Less Wrong. Overcoming Bias remains Less Wrong's "sister site."

Less Wrong is associated with the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University and the Singularity Institute, where Yudkowsky is a senior researcher.

Hanson wrote "If Uploads Come First," , a 1994 cold splash of an essay about the consequences of having human minds transcribed into easily-copyable form. Yudkowsky coined the term "friendly AI" and has developed ideas about how to program AIs to be able to learn and adapt and yet still be constrained by design to human-friendliness.

In my 1990s online extropian neighborhood, memes popped up a lot, and there were hopes for memetic science and engineering. In general we preferred Key New Ideas to conventional sluggishness, and tended to see things from outsider points of view. We liked to be meta and recursive. It stemmed from shared interests (among a larger set) in AI, cognitive science and The Singularity. I've always thought there was something more-than-met-the-eye about the extropian shared-interest convergence.

Anyway, rather than scientific study of rationality, or mental hygiene per se, I'm interested in how thinking about The Future, in particular, is hard and shows up background habits and assumptions.

The Singularity, with its supposed flat wall of incomprehensibility, is aggravating. Which aspects of the day after tomorrow will be futuristic and which will be business as usual... or timeless principle? How many orders of magnitude might simultaneous rates of change spread over? As William Gibson said, "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." Humanity has lived with mixtures of the novel and familiar forever, but humanity might be a bygone topic. Still, is mental confrontation with the future actually space-like? Cone-shaped? A story of accreting layers?

Another thrilling annoyance is the very notion of a futurist, a declared expert in something that has never been seen. Since Walter Cronkite and "The Twenty-First Century," since before Alvin Toffler. To focus on The Future seems both necessary and absurd... to me like Szechuan and Thai food when I was new to them.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Second-Order-First Fallacy

I admit, that when I think "about ways of thinking about the future," I'm often thinking condescendingly about others' mistakes. This is one of the first I imagined blogging about (taking a deep breath).

This example of the "second-order-first" fallacy is probably familiar: cars make it easier to regularly visit people and places that are farther away than you would regularly visit without a car. So, we can live further away from those people and places and still visit them with comparable ease. So, we do. We are less constrained in just where we live. Therefore (and here's the kicker) the effect of the automobile has been to push people farther away from each other and disconnect us from our surroundings.

My response is to say, excuse me, but no. The effect of the automobile is to bring people and places effectively closer and avail us of more connection. That's the starting point of the "further away" argument. The first-order effect of cars is to make us closer. A second-order effect, a dependent follow-on effect, is that we sometimes use that freedom to move physically further away from some people and places.

We could focus on this one example and get into details about the politics and sociology of place; the relative immediacy of walking over driving; the difference between being freed and being forced; zoning and the causes of urban and suburban sprawls; the way the area of a territory is proportional to the square of its radius; the way the landscape has become accommodated to cars; and so forth. But by trying to be fair we'd miss my larger point. When it's a SOFF, the rhetorical point isn't to be fair.

The rhetorical advantage of an author, say, wrestling a second-order effect into the foreground is, first of all, the paradox. Paradox is impressive and it gets the attention. It also raises suspicion: seemingly something has been hidden from us, or we have been tricked, and the author is bringing the trick and the hidden truth to our attention. That makes the author seem clever, and we are clever for recognizing the point, for seeing the care we must take to view the situation in this new way. I can't be the only one who feels a certain somber thrill at being alerted to any dark reality underlying the spectacle.

Now you may rightly suspect that I'm being paranoid. Here I am looking at the mere surface form of an argument, and pulling amateur psychoanalysis of the author (an imaginary author in fact!) and his audience into the foreground. My argument needs better footing to say the least.

Speaking of cars specifically, of course there are attractive poisons. In general, things aren't always what they seem. Talking about these sorts of issues is almost the whole justification for critical thinking.

But what I mean by the second-order-first fallacy is when a second-order effect is made to magically appear to be the real effect. You be the judge. A SOFF is being pulled when the paranoiac or paradoxical or clever logic is quietly substituted for justification and we proceed to analyze-- now that we have our heads on straight and our eyes squinted-- the details of this secondary effect which is the real story.

Let me illustrate with some similar points I would like people to believe. I think the effect of welfare programs is to degrade charity, and that the degradation of the attitudes, habits and institutions of charity is larger than the effect of helping out people in need. I think minimum-wage laws, overall, bring unemployment to poor people. I think equal-opportunity laws worsen-- that is , their larger effect is to worsen-- relations between people who seem different to each other.

If you're not a libertarian, you've probably at least heard crap like this before, accompanied by, guess what, twisty tortured crap libertarian paradoxy arguments that you forgot as soon as you could get a hot shower.

So, while I merely stated conclusions without taking us through the paradoxes, try to decide whether I could only make these points by SOFFing. One of the things I made a point of was to say explicitly that the effect I find important is actually larger than the intended effect of the programs I was criticizing. That way, were I to lay out my reasoning, at least it might be more noticeable if I failed to connect the dots. In any case, I think SOFF often happens as a shorthand-- or at least an easier sloppiness-- within an implied in-group.

Whether something is a SOFF isn't a technical criterion. SOFF isn't necessarily a deliberate strategy either. I think a paradox can help highlight a valid point. SOFF is more about whether proportion is lost or hobbled in the process of an argument. It's about the feeling of paradox itself substituting for support.


Naming and describing fallacies is a fun way to talk about thinking, and I suspect it's a good way to remember in the background things to be on the alert for, and once alerted, to remember how to judge whether a fallacy is actually happening.

At least two blogs about the future, by people in my loose peer group, the small-e extropians, are also explicitly about thinking and its pitfalls. The subject of thinking and its vagaries is fascinating, but putting oneself in the position of ragging on others' thought patterns at an abstract level is prone to irony and wobbliness, I think. I will have to write about that.