• ## YAAS Social Norms

Social norms are collective behaviors conditional on empirical and normative social expectations. We can confirm their existence in the world via carefully constructed measurement, usually in the form of questionnaires. Changing a harmful norm requires not just changing individuals but changing a community and making that change common knowledge. It may also require solving collective action problems.

When agents act or plan to act, they do so on the basis of both beliefs and preferences. Alternatively, we can phrase these as reasons and passions. Or we can say that a reward function and a model of the environment are required for a policy.

### Foundation

Before we can analyze collective behavior, we have to make a few foundational distinctions.

#### Preferences

##### Individual or social

Preferences can be either individual or social preferences. Social preferences are those that “take into account the behavior, beliefs, and outcomes of other people” while individual preferences do not (Bicchieri 2016). (Example to come.) This distinction is important because changing individual preferences can plausibly happen in isolation, one person after another. Changing social preferences on the other hand is more likely to require coordinated group action.

##### Conditional or unconditional

Preferences can also be conditional or unconditional1. Conditional preferences are those that vary with some feature of the environment while unconditional preferences do not. This is an important distinction because a social engineer can change the way conditional preferences manifest by changing the environment while unconditional preferences can only be altered in a direct confrontation.

NitW also draws a distinction between prudential and moral preferences. I think these can be viewed as a special case of conditional and unconditional preferences. It seems we can gloss these to preferences which seek to satisfy instrumental or intrinsic values. Preferring not to cheat out of a fear of getting caught is a prudential preference; preferring not to cheat because it’s an odious breach of faith is a moral preference. This distinction is important because moral preferences are typically more stable—prudential preferences may change with changing circumstances while moral preferences will not.

##### Together

If we put these two axes together, we end up with a classificatory grid like this:

• ## The curse of the altruistic voter

If voters have social preferences (second-order preferences about the preference satisfaction of others) and imperfect information, voting altruistically may produce worse outcomes—for the individual voter and for society at large—than ignoring their social preferences and voting egocentrically. This problem seems like it may actually be common in the real world. While I doubt any voting system can eliminate it, including information about private preferences in polls may ameliorate it.

Broke
Voting on election day
Woke
Advocating for alternative voting systems on election day
Bespoke
Talking about obscure desiderata of voting systems on election day

### Scenario

#### Narrative

Suppose you’re voting on increased funding for the local library. You don’t personally use the library much, but you figure that others in the polity are reliant on the library. Out of a sense of solidarity you vote for increased funding even though, from a purely egocentric perspective, this reduces your welfare (i.e. the increased cost outweighs your private benefit). When results come in, the library funding measure passes in a landslide and you bask in your altruism.

Alas, the voting results are no guarantee that you’ve actually acted altruistically. It’s entirely possible that you misunderstood the preferences of others and that the polity has made a decision that’s net harmful.

#### Numerical

For generality, we’ll call voting for increased library funding option $$\alpha$$ and voting against (the status quo) option $$\beta$$.

The table outlines a scenario in which each of three voters (it’s a small polity) prefers option $$\beta$$. Unfortunately, they’ve each come to the inaccurate belief that each other voter prefers option $$\alpha$$. That is voter A slightly prefers $$\beta$$ but believes voter B and voter C each slightly prefer $$\alpha$$.

If our voters are good utilitarians in a first-past-the-post system, they’ll all vote for $$\alpha$$ (because $$1 + 1 - 1 > 0 + 0 + 0$$) and it will win. The resulting social welfare will be $$-3 = 3 \cdot -1$$. If our voters had voted in a purely egocentric manner—ignoring the preferences of others, they would each pick $$\beta$$ and the social welfare would have been $$0 = 3 \cdot 0$$.

This is pretty perverse—our voters have selected the social welfare minimizing option despite their scrupulous motives and they would have better achieved their altruistic ends by voting selfishly!

• ## Assorted links VIII

Evolving Floor Plans is an experimental research project exploring speculative, optimized floor plan layouts. The rooms and expected flow of people are given to a genetic algorithm which attempts to optimize the layout to minimize walking time, the use of hallways, etc.
Really good ocean. Not the best hurricane basin, but very large and full of swift currents and interesting fauna. If you’re only going to see one ocean, it should be this one. —Kiefer Hicks
One star deducted due to great big garbage patch. One additional star deducted for proximity to California. Try visiting the Atlantic Ocean instead. Pic unrelated. —Edward Drawde

Interesting example of unintended consequences:

So, the potential logic here is that if your parents know you are going to end up living with them (and supporting them—not living in their basement and eating their food), they’ll invest more in your education. […] On average, [after the introduction of a national pension program,] fully treated women experience a 6.7 percentage point (7.6 percent) drop in the likelihood of completing primary school, a 3.3 percentage point (10 percent) drop in secondary, and a 1.1 percentage point (20 percent) drop in attending university.

Vividly illustrates the garden of forking paths (Gelman and Loken 2013):

Twenty-nine teams involving 61 analysts used the same data set to address the same research question: whether soccer referees are more likely to give red cards to dark-skin-toned players than to light-skin-toned players. Analytic approaches varied widely across the teams, and the estimated effect sizes ranged from 0.89 to 2.93 (Mdn = 1.31) in odds-ratio units. Twenty teams (69%) found a statistically significant positive effect, and 9 teams (31%) did not observe a significant relationship. Overall, the 29 different analyses used 21 unique combinations of covariates.

[…]

Analysts’ subjective beliefs about the research hypothesis were assessed four times during the project: at initial registration (i.e., before they had received the data), after they had accessed the data and submitted their analytic approach, at the time final analyses were submitted, and after a group discussion of all the teams’ approaches and results.

More long-term results on direct cash transfers. Also mixed. See earlier discussion. Awaiting GiveWell’s promised update eagerly.

• ## Clickbait from Norms in the Wild

Curios from (Bicchieri 2016) follow. These don’t fit into subsequent posts, but may pique your interest in said posts.

### On honoring infants

From UNICEF participants in our training program I learned that in many parts of Africa milk is classified as “hot” and water “cold,” that honored guests are given water, and that children are treated like honored guests. (Bicchieri 2016)

### On diarrhetic taxonomies

Norms in the Wild emphasizes that would-be reformers must understand not only local conditions (physical facts) but also local understandings (beliefs about those facts and schema). It illustrates the point with this vivid example:

For example, Yoder (1995) demonstrated that local Zairian understandings of the nature, causes, and appropriate treatment of childhood diarrhea differed considerably from the contemporary biomedical approach. What most Westerners would consider a case of diarrhea could be classified as one of six different diseases by residents of Lubumbashi, Zaire, depending on the perceived symptoms of the sufferer. All of the diseases feature frequent stools as one of their central symptoms, but only Kauhara (one of the local terms for a type of diarrhea) was functionally equated with what a medical practitioner would diagnose as diarrhea. Other diarrheal classifications, such as Lukunga, which featured a “clacking sound” in the mouth as a critical symptom (in addition to frequent stools), was not equated with the typical medical diagnosis. When various organizations tried to inform Zairians about appropriate treatments for diarrhea, many locals likely interpreted the information to be only specific to Kauhara (and not other local disease classifications). In line with this assertion, the sampled Zairians in Yoder’s (1995) study readily *gave the appropriate treatment (e.g., oral rehydration therapy) to their children if they were thought to have Kahuara but not if they were thought to have another diarrheal disease. (Bicchieri 2016)

### On taming poop

Open defecation is the practice of defecating outside in something like a field rather than a toilet. It’s still common in many parts of the world despite being a public health nightmare. When trying to eliminate open defecation:

In some such interventions, facilitators will lead groups of people through the heart of open defecation fields, effectively triggering collective feelings of disgust and embarrassment. Later the facilitators will place feces next to food, and point out how flies will flit back and forth between them, effectively simulating the disease transmission process. Through this example, food that is left out near feces is linked with feelings of disgust. The facilitator can also smear her hands with clay or charcoal, wipe them on a leaf (simulating having fecal matter on one’s hands even after wiping them “clean”), and shake hands with members of the community. The community members will get a little clay or charcoal on their hands, and consequently those who do not adequately wash their hands will be seen as disgusting. (Bicchieri 2016)
All the communities where the practice was successfully abandoned collectively decided to sanction transgressions and closely monitored adherence to the new behavior. Children may go around with whistles drawing attention to the defectors, and elders may take long sticks, ready to “slap the wrists” of anyone who violates the new rule. (Bicchieri 2016)

### On reluctant female genital cutting

Pluralistic ignorance describes scenarios in which group members conform to a norm they each privately reject because each falsely believe that others accept the norm. It seems to sometimes explain the persistence of female genital cutting.

• ## YAAS

The “amateur” part isn’t an entirely false modesty. I am indeed often summarizing works in areas where I have limited experience and I’m certainly not paid for it. As such, despite my best efforts, I will assuredly sometimes mangle the subject matter. Once we both acknowledge this, we’re left with the question: Why bother to read or write these summaries?

### For you

I can think of a few reasons you might like to read these summaries despite those limitations:

#### Curse of expertise

Experts may1 be worse at explaining material than intermediate practitioners due to heuristics like anchoring and availability (Hinds 1999). Anecdotally, it seems like professors who know the material too well to explain it are a common experience. As someone who has just learned the material I’m summarizing, I may be well-positioned to explain it.

#### Length

As the perennial popularity of summarizers attests, there’s an audience for condensed versions of books. Existing summarizers seem to target self-help and management books though. I, on the other hand, expect to target a more niche and academic set of books. I’ll somewhat cheekily summarize that as: If it’s ever been on a best-seller list, don’t expect to see it here.

• ## YAAS Epistemology

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Its central questions include “What is knowledge?” and “Is knowledge possible?”. This post tries to give an overview of the field highlighting key terminology, open problems, and categories of responses to those problems.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge.

### What is knowledge?

For literally millenia, people were content to think of knowledge as justified true belief (Plato 360BC). Let’s break that down briefly:

Belief
A belief is mental content held as true. Thinking to myself, with conviction, “I am a human.” and “I am a dragon.” are each equally examples of beliefs.
True
Alas, only one of the above claims is true. Even if I have very convincing hallucinations of breathing fire and flying, “I am a dragon” is merely justified belief. It’s not true and so not knowledge.
Justified
On the other hand, if I stumble onto true belief, it still doesn’t count as knowledge. If you roll a 100-sided die and hide the result under a cup, I don’t know that the result is 64 even if I believe it and it turns out to be true—I have no justification for the belief.

It’s only when beliefs are both true and justified that they count as knowledge. Sounds reasonable, right?

#### Gettier problem

Not to Edmund Gettier. In a three page paper (Gettier 1963), he presented two compelling counterexamples to this analysis. An example of this vein of anecdote is:

Whetu is driving home from work one day and happens to see her coworker Sigrún in a Vanagon. She thinks to herself, “Ah, one of my coworkers owns a Vanagon.” However, unbeknownst to Whetu, Sigrún does not actually own the Vanagon she was driving—she was in the midst of stealing it. But, coincidentally, one of Whetu’s other coworkers does own a Vanagon.

So Whetu’s initial belief—“One of my coworkers owns a Vanagon”—turns out to be true and justified (we’ll count seeing someone driving a car as convincing justification for believing that they own it). But intuitively, we’re reluctant to accept that Whetu knows that one of her coworkers owns a Vanagon. It seems like she just got lucky—her mistaken justification was rescued by a fact that she would be surprised to learn.

• ## Shilling for Anki

I like Anki.

### The decline and rise of long-term memory

I used to scorn long-term memory. My brain is an exquisite organ for vanquishing conundra, thank you very much, not some library card catalog. I assume I assimilated this attitude from discussion like1:

But, after reading up on pedagogy in articles like the one we discussed earlier, “[I] no longer see longterm memory as a repository of isolated, unrelated facts that are occasionally stored and retrieved; instead, it is the central structure of human cognitive architecture.” (Sweller 2008)

### Spaced repetition

Thus, I present my own entry in the burgeoning subgenre of spaced repetition software encomia.

Briefly, spaced repetition software optimally schedules flashcard review to radically boost retention of information in long-term memory. Anki is one such program. I’d heard of Anki in the past but only managed to acquire the habit of regular review more recently. I’ve performed a total of 14306 reviews of 3811 cards during review sessions and reviewed on 58 of the last 58 days (Let it never be said that I do things in half measures.). This is probably too intense and more than I’d recommend for most people. But that information should serve to calibrate you as to how much experience I have with Anki.

#### The feel of a thing

The dominant feeling I now have is a mild frustration at the betrayal of present me by past me—so much of my prior reading and general intellectual development was wasted effort. If we each had anterograde amnesia and forgot 100% of what we’d read or otherwise experienced, we’d surely take a different approach to life. We wouldn’t just wander along learning and forgetting in an endless cycle. But the truth of our memories is not so far off!

• ## Assorted Links VII

“The meteorite itself was so massive that it didn’t notice any atmosphere whatsoever,” said Rebolledo. “It was traveling 20 to 40 kilometers per second, 10 kilometers — probably 14 kilometers — wide, pushing the atmosphere and building such incredible pressure that the ocean in front of it just went away.”

These numbers are precise without usefully conveying the scale of the calamity. What they mean is that a rock larger than Mount Everest hit planet Earth traveling twenty times faster than a bullet. This is so fast that it would have traversed the distance from the cruising altitude of a 747 to the ground in 0.3 seconds. The asteroid itself was so large that, even at the moment of impact, the top of it might have still towered more than a mile above the cruising altitude of a 747. In its nearly instantaneous descent, it compressed the air below it so violently that it briefly became several times hotter than the surface of the sun.

“The pressure of the atmosphere in front of the asteroid started excavating the crater before it even got there,” Rebolledo said. “Them when the meteorite touched ground zero, it was totally intact. It was so massive that the atmosphere didn’t even make a scratch on it.”

Unlike the typical Hollywood CGI depictions of asteroid impacts, where an extraterrestrial charcoal briquette gently smolders across the sky, in the Yucatan it would have been a pleasant day one second and the world was already over by the next. As the asteroid collided with the earth, in the sky above it where there should have been air, the rock had punched a hole of outer space vacuum in the atmosphere. As the heavens rushed in to close this hole, enormous volumes of earth were expelled into orbit and beyond — all within a second or two of impact.

“So there’s probably little bits of dinosaur bone up on the moon,” I asked.

“Yeah, probably.”

Survival in the first hours of the Cenozoic

Life confined to Earth’s surface would have perished well before incineration. After ignition temperature was reached, fires would not have spread from one area to another in the usual way. Rather, fires would have ignited nearly simultaneously at places having available fuel.
The shortest-lived child of Prohibition actually survived to adulthood. This was the change in drinking patterns that depressed the level of consumption compared with the pre-Prohibition years. Straitened family finances during the Depression of course kept the annual per capita consumption rate low, hovering around 1.5 US gallons. The true results of Prohibition’s success in socializing Americans in temperate habits became apparent during World War II, when the federal government turned a more cordial face toward the liquor industry than it had during World War I, and they became even more evident during the prosperous years that followed.50 Although annual consumption rose, to about 2 gallons per capita in the 1950s and 2.4 gallons in the 1960s, it did not surpass the pre-Prohibition peak until the early 1970s.

In MUSE a distinction is made between present and past perfect (i.e., within the perfect aspect, tense is marked). Perfect means that the action is completed. AAVE has two additional markers for aspect which extend the perfect:

Muse AAVE
present perfect I have walked I have walked
past perfect I had walked I had walked
completive n/a I done walked
remote time n/a I been walked
Study 1 (N = 228) examined 49 common variants (SNPs) within 10 candidate genes and identified a nominal association between a polymorphism (rs237889) of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) and variation in deontological vs utilitarian moral judgment

• ## The moral imperative and mortal peril of maximizing

### The world as we understand it

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. —Probably not Joseph Stalin

We humans are famously bad at finely-tuned and well-calibrated caring. In an early study on scope neglect, experimental subjects were willing to pay $80 to save 2,000 migrating birds from drowning in oil ponds and$78 to save 20,000 (Desvousges et al. 1992). Alas, our sentiments are not a precision instrument.

But suppose that our moods better mapped to the world as we understand it:

Whatever betrayal you feel watching Doubt, the betrayal would feel more than 300 times as sharp. 300 abusers represents just Pennsylvania. The full tally is unknown and probably unknowable.

Whatever loss you feel watching Up, you’d be struck by it again and again for each of the approximately 80,000 miscarriages per day across the world (Obstetricians, Gynecologists, and others 2002).

Whatever despondency you feel watching Winter’s Bone, your feelings would be magnified in depth and breadth by the knowledge that 836 million people in the world live on less than \$1.25/day (UN 2015).

Whatever precarity you feel watching Grapes of Wrath, you’d feel it a shattering 2 billion times more intensely for the approximately 25 percent of the world population that live on small farms.

Whatever despair you feel watching The Skeleton Twins, you would feel that way for each of the estimated 334 million people in the world with depression (Organization and others 2017).

Whatever loneliness you feel watching Three Colors: Blue, you might feel that same feeling 2,500 times a day for each of the one quarter of US women who are widowed by age 65 (Berardo 1992).

Whatever shame you feel watching Tokyo Sonata, you’d feel it 192 million times over for the global unemployed in 2018 (International Labour Organization 2018). Then you’d remember that any period of unemployment’s negative effects last at least 10 years [louis2002].

Whatever horror you feel watching The Battle of Algiers, you’d feel it just the same for each and every one of the approximately 80,000 people who will die from battle in state-based conflicts this year (Roser 2018).

Whatever impotence you feel watching Killer of Sheep, you’d remember that there are over 900,000 black people in Los Angeles alone living under flawed structures and institutions.

Whatever grief you feel watching Amour, you’d have around 3.5 minutes to recover before the grief of another US death by stroke crashed over you.

Whatever hopelessness you feel watching Cool Hand Luke, it would echo and rebound magnified from the cells of more than 10 million detainees (Walmsley and others 2015).

Whatever suffocation you feel watching Requiem for a Dream, you’d feel it on behalf of the approximately 164 million people with substance use disorders (Ritchie and Roser 2018).

Whatever ache you feel watching Grave of the Fireflies, it would hollow you out each day along with the approximately 815 million people who are chronically undernourished (Organization 2014).

But, for good or for ill, we are bounded and parochial. We cannot comprehend in any but the most abstracted ways the daily ruin that nature visits on us, that we visit on ourselves and each other.

### The world as we imagine it

[T]hose who would play this [utopian] game on the strength of their own private opinion … and would brave the frightful bloodshed and misery that would ensue if the attempt was resisted—must have a serene confidence in their own wisdom on the one hand and a recklessness of other people’s sufferings on the other, which Robespierre and St. Just […] scarcely came up to. (Mill 1879)

The tragedies of life on Earth are no recent revelation. The Epic of Gilgamesh—our earliest surviving great work of literature—is about the hero’s vain attempt to undo the great tragedy of his life.

For some, the knowledge that tragedy has been with us from the beginning inspires not acquiescence but determination that we might leave it behind before we reach the end. These are names that go down in history. Names like:

• ## A non-exhaustive list of putative problems with ignorant priors

The principle of indifference (a.k.a. the principle of insufficient reason) suggests that when considering a set of possibilities and there’s no known reason for granting special credence to one possibility, we ought to assign all possibilities the same credence (which, on the Bayesian point of view, is also a probability). For example, when someone asks what the result of a 6-sided die roll is, the principle of indifference recommends we assign a probability of 1/6 to each outcome. Slightly more interesting is that it also recommends assigning a probability of 1/6 to each outcome even when we’re told the die is weighted as long as we’re not told how it’s weighted.

There’s a definite intuitive plausibility and appeal to this rule. But it turns out there are a lot of difficulties when it comes to actually operationalizing it. Below, I list some of the problems that have been raised over the years. Some of these problems seem silly to me and will doubtless seem silly to you. Others strike me as important. I list them all here regardless and ignore any claimed solutions for the moment.

### Coarsening

“What is the origin country of this unknown traveler? France, Ireland or Great Britain?”

Naive application of the principle of indifference (NAPI) suggests we assign probability 1/3 to each possibility.

The question can be rephrased: “What is the origin country of this unknown traveler? France, or the British Isles?”.

In this case, NAPI suggests we ought to assign a probability of 1/2 to each possibility.

So, depending on the framing, we assign probability 1/2 or 1/3 to the same outcome—the traveler is from France.

Description Outcome Probability
France, Ireland, or Great Britain France 1/3
France or British Isles France 1/2

### Negation

“I’ve just pulled a colored ball from an urn containing an equal number of red, black and yellow balls. Which color is the ball? Red, black, or yellow?”

NAPI suggests we assign probability 1/3 to each possibility.

The question can be rephrased: “Which color is the ball? Red or not red?”.

In this case, NAPI suggests we ought to assign a probability 1/2 to each possibility.

So, depending on the framing, we assign probability 1/2 or 1/3 to the same outcome—the ball is red.

Description Outcome Probability
Red, black or yellow Red 1/3
Red or not red Red 1/2

“I have an equilateral triangle inscribed in a circle. I’ve also chosen a chord in the circle randomly. What is the probability that the chord is longer than a side of the triangle?”

If we construct our random chords by choosing two random points on the circumference of the circle and construct a chord between them, we find that the probability of a long chord is 1/3.

If we construct our random chords by choosing a random radius and then constructing a chord perpendicular to a random point on that radius, we find that the probability of a long chord is 1/2.

If we construct our random chords by choosing a random point inside the circle and constructing a chord with that point as its midpoint, we find that the probability of a long chord is 1/4.

So depending on our framing, we assign probability of 1/4, 1/3 or 1/2 to the same proposition.

Description Outcome Probability
Chord by two points on circumference Long chord 1/3
Chord by random radius and point Long chord 1/2
Chord by random point as midpoint Long chord 1/4

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