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September 21, 2008

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"High school students are easily engaged to elect class presidents, even though they have little idea what if any policies a class president might influence. Instead such elections are usually described as "popularity contests." That is, theses elections are about which school social factions are to have higher social status. If a jock wins, jocks have higher status. If your girlfriend's brother wins, you have higher status, etc. And the fact that you have a vote says that others should take you into account when forming coalitions - you are somebody."

Well written insightful paragraph in my opinion. This theory (as applied to elections -and media representations- more generally) seems me to be testable empirically, which would give it more credibility.

Also, can you direct us to any games that attempt to model status-maximizing behavior of this type?

Few people claim that food is mostly about nutrition or clothes about comfort anywhere NEAR the 1st world margin. Marriage is supposed to be about kids and romance is supposed to be a ritual part of marriage in the claims of the ideologically 'pure'. I don't think that there are clear claims about art and what its for.

Otherwise, I strongly endorse that list as largely true and incredibly important to understanding and effecting the world.

It seems pretty clear to me that there are people who want the other statements to be true. What fraction do commenters think such people are in the population? Are any societies run by them to an unusual degree?

You might say this is because character is a cheap clue to the policies candidates would adopt, but I don't buy it.

For any given policy, most people can have only the vaguest idea whether it is good or bad. Given that a voter can not make a good decision about what policies should be followed, it would seem sensible to pick someone he trusts to make those decisions on his behalf.

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"(What else should go on this list?)"

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Data is not information.

Information is not knowledge.

Knowledge is not wisdom.

(-- Clifford Stoll)


_______________

Overcoming Bias isn't about overcoming bias.

I do like the list, but I doubt this particular topic carries the contrarian bang of the others. It's unlikely that many people actually see politics the way your civics teacher described it.

I kinda wanna hear the bedroom is not about sleep one.

Justice is not about the victim
Commercials are not about the product

Quinlan, Stoll's "X is not Y" slogans are good, but not the same as "X is not about Y".

Aron, your suggestion on commercials is good, but "Justice" has too many connotations to work well. Perhaps "Law" or "Trials"?

Well, whaddaya expect from a bunch of monkeys? The leader of a tribe didn't run on specific policies - without language, policies would be hard to explain. The leader of the tribe was selected based on some kind of character, popularity, and fierceness, and the ability to build and maintain coalitions. See _Chimpanzee Politics_ to read about human politics writ small, on the monkey stage.

I think many of the problems with social organization result from the application of monkey methods and monkey brains to very non-monkey problems. Voting for leaders is a perfect example.

To me, the interesting question is: Given this, how do we fix it?

One part of the answer, perhaps, is to move power downwards, so people are making decisions in groups closer to the size of a tribe, so their instincts are more in line with the actual situation. But that's a pretty weak solution because the world has changed, and it's a lot bigger now. Ideally we'd find methods that work for the bigger world while appealing to the monkey brain. If anyone has any ideas, I'm all ears. Big, hairy, monkey ears :).

"Laughter isn't about Jokes"

I don't get this one. What's the assertion supposed to be here, that genuine, spontaneous laughter at a good joke doesn't actually happen? Really?

Regarding the general issue, I want to highlight and second one of Eliezer's comments from earlier this year: "I'm not sure the adjective 'real' in the phrase 'real motive' is really helping anyone. Propositional beliefs are real. So are emotions. [...] Whatever is, is real." There can be multiple reasons for doing something. So while it is much harder to research and talk about, I think we should focus on exactly what conflicting motives are at play and how they interact, rather than brushing it all away with a slogan like "X is not about Y." At the very least, it would only take one extra word to say "X is not only about Y." It can't be the case that all our values are lies, because if no one cared about Y, why would they bother pretending to care about Y? There's much more to the story here. Nominull wins the thread.

ZM, slogans can't include all possible qualifiers. I was very clear in the first paragraph that I'm not claiming that Y has no influence on X. On laughter, it seems most is not in response to jokes.

Rather pedantic. The last sentence in the post highlights the fuzzier interpretation to be 'X is less about Y than X is about Z'. Must we always add words to avoid interpretations that make the statement plainly absurd?

I wrote: "At the very least, it would only take one extra word to say 'X is not only about Y.'" But for the purposes of transparency, I guess I should note that I myself have been repeatedly thinking lately that "School isn't about learning!" So maybe I should have been a little bit more moderate in my criticism above! I still think that including qualifiers oftentimes makes matters much more clear--and I don't think I need to qualify that statement by explicitly noting that I don't mean all possible qualifiers.

My main point still stands: fakeable signals are fakeable signals of something we care about, or no one would bother.

In "How the Mind Works" Pinker discusses an examination of what causes laughter among friends. None of the lines are that funny. "You had to be there", as they say. Laughter indicates a lack of hostility or serious competition among friends.

@TGGP

"Laughter indicates a lack of hostility or serious competition among friends"

Also deference to those higher in the social hierarchy or those you need to impress, as well as a socially unthreatening way to question authority, and restore balance in cases of social tension. Thus the laughter at all the boss' jokes, the girl who laughs at her date's "wit," jay leno, and your friends when you spill wine on them.

How do you explain the existence of jokes? Like, there are some arrangements of words that, all else equal, are significantly more likely to provoke laughter than other arrangements, and this holds over a wide variety of speaker and listener situations.


The social theory of laughter cannot account for the portability of jokes.

@Nominull

"the portability of jokes"

What portability of jokes? You must be going to much different international business dinners than I do.

The entire reason we pay John Cleese a gazillion dollars a keynote is that he's 1 of about 3 people on the planet who are globally funny. Otherwise you are stuck at the table while the Korean, American, Saudi and Brazilian bank executives are wondering why the heck that Swiss guy is saying that.

"Overcoming Bias isn't about overcoming bias."-Nominull
You sir/lady are my hero. Perhaps the authors of Overcoming Bias simply want to signal to their other scientist buddies that they "care about the truth".

Adaptation isn't about Fitness
Business isn't about getting things done
(or, Economic Adaptation isn't about Economic Fitness)
Success isn't about Rationality

The third one may provide some grist for the OB mill. Rationality is critical to doing anything well, so why is irrationality so widespread?

"Overcoming Bias isn't about overcoming bias."-Nominull You sir/lady are my hero. Perhaps the authors of Overcoming Bias simply want to signal to their other scientist buddies that they "care about the truth".
Most all science seems to be driven by the desire for each scientist to increase his or her status. Seems to have worked pretty well so far, as long as we keep the real motivations in mind.

Kind of off-topic, but I think someone needs to consider what sort of a life a man would lead if he didn't have all the biases discussed here. He could probably find work as an engineer, but I'm quite sure he'd never get laid. So are we sure we want to say that a bias is necessarily irrational?

If you're a contrarian, then you're attempting to profit from holding a belief that few others hold. If you're trying to articulate a world view in public (which you seem to be) then you are trying to persuade others to adopt beliefs which you hold, in which case you are not a contrarian.

You pose an argument about what factors drive behaviour: 'while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more'.

Assuming that you succeed in establishing the value of Z, what have you discovered? If you know what drives the election of a candidate to office, and I don't, does that give you any kind of advantage over me? Does it help you deceive me? Does it protect you if I attempt to deceive you?

If I agree with you in calling a spade a spade, or I choose not to, what difference does it make?

Not sure if these all fit the pattern or make sense, but...

Public safety isn't about the safety of the public.
Food and Drug Administration isn't about food and drug safety.
The military isn't about defense.
The military isn't about wars.
Serving your country (in the military) isn't about
Religion isn't about having your mind full of religious concepts dictating your thinking.
Honor isn't about being good in a universal sense.
Wars aren't about making wrongs right.
Banks and the Federal Reserve aren't about loaning or keeping the economy working.
Greed isn't about... well, greed *is* about greed. It seems vices really are about the vices. Vices serve pleasure. Pleasure really is about pleasure.
Music isn't about entertainment.
Work isn't about achievement.
Work isn't about salary.
Salary isn't about money.
Money isn't about meeting your needs.
Property and wealth isn't about having access to things.
Your needs aren't about your needs.
Addictions aren't about what you really want.
Travel isn't about reaching the destination.
A lie isn't about being untruthful.
Telling the truth isn't about avoiding lies.
Not being a criminal isn't about avoiding punishment.
Being a criminal isn't about doing bad things.
Achievement isn't about doing something worthwhile.
Science isn't about finding out how the universe works.
Life isn't about living.
Life isn't about life.
Existence isn't about existing.
Atoms aren't about tangible matter.
Space isn't about distances.

One thing is for sure:
Eliezer Yudkowsky is about optimization.

DJs aren't about finding and playing good music.
Models and particularly supermodels aren't about beauty.

Most of those considered "beautiful" in the media, the commercial fashion models, aren't beautiful at all. I'm not talking about people who aren't ugly but aren't beautiful either. This is a different class. They're what I term "borderline beautiful", or "borderline beauties"; they DO have certain characteristics that truly beautiful people have, often to a great degree, but there's something wrong. Not unlike the uncanny valley. Just like computer generated people who look human but... they look beautiful, but... Something is amiss. You can tell. The configuration is put together in a slightly wrong way, and the full effect is never achieved. The result is that they're not beautiful. It's as if they have muscles but aren't strong. Like a bomb that is assembled almost right - it never goes off. It seems that the more popular, stronger their borderlineness beauty is.

True, full beauties, those that transfix your gaze and never let go, that overwhelm the pleasure center in the brain, are in an entirely different class. Entirely. They're very, very regular in appearance. To a degree, boringly so. They share characteristics with very little variance. The sizes, shapes and positions of their characteristics lie within very, very fine tolerances. With true beauties you can't tell who really is more beautiful because the features you consider beautiful in each one of them exceed your beauty threshold. Whatever the variation, it is beautiful - you can't argue with it.

Borderline beauties, those that almost enter the domain of beauty but barely miss it, are just frustrating to behold. You can't derive any pleasure. Even a regular person with one truly beautiful feature among not-so-beautiful features brings more aesthetic pleasure.

It seems that there are more truly beautiful people walking the streets than the catwalk.

Do beautiful people exist in every gene pool? Yes. Do very beautiful? Yes. Do the most beautiful? No. The highest beauty is the most average, and that is found only in a very narrow gene pool. All other gene pools exhibit excesses, having some features that are too far from the average. It's not a question about culture, or your own gene pool, or what you "prefer", it's a question about averageness. Only a few gene pools have achieved the highest averageness. Just like some gene pool has to be at the bottom in terms of beauty, there's one that has to be at top. Not unlike intelligence.

(Most) DJs don't play good music. They don't care about music. They care about appearances. But that's fine; so does the audience. The music isn't the point for them. It's a tool. A commodity.

I've been frequenting this site for about a year now, and I can't say I'm any better off. Nobody appreciates my lack of bias. Some even call it indeciseveness. When does this pay off?

Your lists of "X is not about Y" statements are a bit like a old guy's aphorisms on how to live life: they sound like they should be true, but they are often given without justification. I would like to hear justifications.

Sentences that sound true without justification are dangerous. You'd think the people on this blog would know that.

@ Overcoming Laziness: Freedom from bias is generally most useful if you're making important decisions where the outcome of the decision is more important than what people think when you make it. That's my understanding, at least.

By the way,

Gambling isn't about winning.
Investing isn't about making money or maximizing utility.

"Kind of off-topic, but I think someone needs to consider what sort of a life a man would lead if he didn't have all the biases discussed here. He could probably find work as an engineer, but I'm quite sure he'd never get laid. So are we sure we want to say that a bias is necessarily irrational?"

Yes. The kind of biases talked about here are (almost ?) by definition irrational: inconsistencies in a person's internal model of the world. If getting laid was a goal, eliminating an irrational bias couldn't make him less likely to get laid.

Ok, you can always construct horizon-effect scenarios where a little extra insight leads to a worse outcome, but those always seem extremely contrived in the real world. And the cost of eliminating the bias might be so high as to leave no time for getting laid.

I'm amazed how many people read this blog while, apparently, hating the experience and deriving no utility from it. I begin to suspect that Complaints aren't about Problems.

Sex isn't about pleasure.

Rock'n'roll isn't about music.

Drugs, however, are about the high, at least at first.

These uninformed comments about laughter came up in marginal revolutions a while back too. I recommend folks research up on laughter in non-human apes. It exists, and from what I read it seems to be about defference to a higher status ape. Why would it be different for us (except we may be able to abstract it out a bit, like laughing when that higher status "ape" called gravity causes someone to slip and fall on a banana peel).

applause also precedes human apes (I think to signal group social agreement).
And as far as I know this one is just my strong personal suspicion: I think the popular diagram for romantic hearts (almost always colored red or pink) is the inflamed buttocks of a female ape in heat -hence the expression heart shaped ass.

This is a good post. It really summarizes Robin's unique methods very clearly. Maybe even worthy of going in the List Of Good Posts on the Welcome link on the sidebar. Eliezer would've linked each of the italicized sentences to blog posts that support that point, but I forgive Robin for not doing so.

"Kind of off-topic, but I think someone needs to consider what sort of a life a man would lead if he didn't have all the biases discussed here. He could probably find work as an engineer, but I'm quite sure he'd never get laid. So are we sure we want to say that a bias is necessarily irrational?"

Overcoming bias doesn't turn you immediately into a socially inept nerd any more than overcoming arachnophobia immediately makes you roll around in a giant pit full of spiders. A reasonable, non-arachnophobic person might well avoid spiders because they're often poisonous, but he does so because he's decided it's a good idea, not because he's too weak to decide otherwise. A person who understands that romantic gestures only make women happy because of evolutionary psychology will still give his girlfriend flowers if he wants her to be happy; he'll just do so because he's decided it's a good idea and not because he's doing what everyone else does. He may even be able to use evolutionary psychology to determine what romantic gestures she'll appreciate most.

"I'm amazed how many people read this blog while, apparently, hating the experience and deriving no utility from it. I begin to suspect that Complaints aren't about Problems."

I hope that wasn't in response to my comment, I like to read Overcoming Bias even if it's often not about overcoming bias. Similarly, I like to eat food even if it's often not nutritious.

Serving your country (in the military) isn't about helping your country survive. It's about enabling the few to exploit the many. Why do the few need to exploit the many? In order to control vast resources, you need to control vast numbers of people. For what reason? Controlling vast resources is more fun than controlling your backyard.

In this particular case, the need is to shorten the expected life-span of targeted intra-species organisms that share your resource pool (territory, raw materials, energy). Why? Do the math; if they stick around, it's less for you.

Usually the target belongs to a different version of meme and/or gene pool. The bigger the difference, the greater the probability of being targeted. Historically the few often cite meme and gene domination as reasons - to heal and improve the species. Healing: end superstition in the case of Communism, or supplant their memes with your own variety in the case of proselytizing wars, such as the Crusades. Optimizing (aka purifying): eradicate gene pools perceived or measured to be inferior to your own, in the case of Nazism and all sorts of "I prefer my genes over your genes, so you need to expire sooner than me" selection pressures.

I'm amazed how many people read this blog while, apparently, hating the experience and deriving no utility from it.
Why did Holmes derive utility from his association with Watson? It wasn't because Watson was good at uncovering the truth.

Because blowhards get lonely? Just guessing.

"Overcoming Bias isn't about overcoming bias."

And "Godël, Escher, Bach" isn't about just these three people.

Is that a bad thing?

Nothingness isn't about nothing.

"Complaints aren't about Problems."

Correction:

Complaints aren't about solving problems.

That great repository of "wisdom" known as the TV Tropes Wiki explains the phenomenon in detail.

It'd be a fascinating series to have each of these axioms discussed at length under their own posts.

This reminds me of Monty Python:
"This isn't a proper argument-you're just being contrary!"
"No, I'm not."

Some of your contrary statements seem to be true, while others seem to be nonsense that's merely contrary for its own sake. I think at least one of them misrepresents the common conception it's claiming to debunk. I rather suspect that the ones that seem true appear so either by accident, or because they align most easily with my own biases.

For example:

-How are bedrooms not about sleep? I can't speak for everyone, but sleep is one of only a couple of things I do in mine. They may not be completely about sleep, but's their primary, or at least secondary, function.

-Church, or religion, is (I think) commonly thought of as and instrument of the SEARCH for God, making it at least somewhat about the seeker, even if he's completely sincere. Even Jesus said that the Sabbath was created for Man and not the other way around. No Christians I know think that God needs them to go to church.

I generally like this blog, but your list of contrary one-liners doesn't seem that well thought-out.

Just because it is turtles all the down doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of fun and interesting things to do on the particular turtle you find yourself on.

Overcoming Acrostics

Consulting isn't about Advice
Or investment about earning.
Nutrition’s not the same as food
Teaching’s not for learning.
Religion isn't there for God
Art doesn’t plumb what’s deep
Research isn't after progress.
In bedrooms, little sleep.
And charity isn’t helping.
News isn't information.
Instead of policy, politics.
Sex isn’t procreation.
Medicine isn't about Health.


Public service is not about serving the public.

Posting isn't about making well-thought arguments. It's about filling up space and giving people something to read.

Commenting isn't about making comments. It's about smacking stupidity upside the head.

Futurism isn't about the future.

I totally disagree that art is not about insight, that is exactly what it is about. That the artist has the gifts to visualize his "Ah ha!" moment is another matter. When many look at the "Masters" they see only subject matter on a single plane; portraits, landscapes and religious themes and technique. They are in fact snapshots that draw you into that moment in time as it was experienced by the artist; just as Youtube video does today.

Caravaggio's "Salome with the Head of John the Baptist" with his own head on the platter in an act of contrition for past bad behavior. Picasso's "Guernica" conveys the sheer terror of aerial bombing on a guttural level and presaged the power of propaganda and destruction of Europe. Many modernists, Rothko for example, turns it around on us, the viewer provides the insight, making what they will of his blocks of color. I see calm portals, others may glimpse the black dog or something uniquely personal. His insight becomes ours. That's as good as it gets.

Just sayin', carry on.

Lots of great suggestions here.

d., things are not about their secondary functions

BJ, seeing things other do not see is not the same as insight.

It's not about the corollaries. It's about the application. Your conclusions are far too rigid and are biased themselves in their assumptions. Overcoming bias MUST first begin with recognizing the bias in ourselves. Identifying the bias in others without first having done so in ourselves is nothing more than an exercise in projection. For example, your dismissing of high school elections for class president as "popularity contests", overlooks all of the students who would aspire to become part of the decision-making process in their schools. You risk sounding like a class president candidate who lost, and summarizes the cruelty of their defeat as a result of "not being popular enough". In that regard, you can take comfort in the example of Barack Obama. He has become popular without having done anything at all. Please don't talk to me about him being a "community organizer". Those are all just popularity contests, anyway.

It's not about the corollaries. It's about the application. Your conclusions are far too rigid and are biased themselves in their assumptions. Overcoming bias MUST first begin with recognizing the bias in ourselves. Identifying the bias in others without first having done so in ourselves is nothing more than an exercise in projection. For example, your dismissing of high school elections for class president as "popularity contests", overlooks all of the students who would aspire to become part of the decision-making process in their schools. You risk sounding like a class president candidate who lost, and summarizes the cruelty of their defeat as a result of "not being popular enough". In that regard, you can take comfort in the example of Barack Obama. He has become popular without having done anything at all. Please don't talk to me about him being a "community organizer". Those are all just popularity contests, anyway.

Argument isn't about persuasion.

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