Category Archives: Rationality

Is Automation a Severity/Frequency Tradeoff for Risk?

People make poor monitors for computers.

I think the thesis here is fundamentally correct. As automated systems become more proficient and more complex, the proportional number of “hard failures” relative to all system failures will increase. At the same time, though, those systems are also intended to reduce the likelihood of any system errors at all. So the question remains as to whether or not the actual “risk” (the probability of a failure times magnitude of the severity of that particular failure, summed across all failures) is greater in systems with high automation. I suppose this deserves to be inspected on a case-by-case basis.

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On Truth and Objectivism as a Moral Philosophy

On the whole, I like objectivism as a philosophy. It deals with morality in the most concrete way possible, which is, as I see it, desirable. History has proven time and again that subjective morality is dangerous. I’m of the opinion that few (if any) human beings wake up in the morning and decide that they’re going to do something really evil that day. The roads to war, poverty, and genocide are paved with the best of intentions. (Stalin probably woke up every morning and thought about what a great place he had made Russia.) In truth, I would wager that humans cannot really coexist peacefully without some sort of objective reality; we need some way of understanding what is “right” or “wrong.” The question doesn’t just go away once we’ve installed a government that’s capable of telling us what’s legal or not. If anything, the question of right or wrong just becomes more important, because we’ve given the authority to the government to imprison us on the (tangentially) related grounds of legality. (There is, and should be, a distinction made between “right” and “legal” – an article for another time.)

As much as an objective reality is necessary for us to understand morality, objectivity in and of itself poses a problem for us.

Science is often touted as being the key to our ability to begin to understand the universe in an objective manner. And, for the most part, I agree; we can’t ever come to a significant understanding of the physical world if we do not use scientific reasoning to get there. But I think that objectivity needs to be qualified as followed: there exists an objectivity relativity, provided we allow for axiomatic truths.

Let me elaborate.

Newtonian physics works in virtually every context that we encounter in our daily lives, but it is still totally useless when we try to apply it to matter that is too large, too small, or is traveling too fast. Is Newtonian physics objectively wrong? No, not really. We just have to make assumptions about how the world works. We assume that the “stuff” we’re talking about is a lot larger than one atom and a lot smaller than a star, and is moving at a speed much slower than the speed of light. And it that context, the Newtonian framework works fine. In other contexts, we may require statistical mechanics, electrodynamic theory, special/general relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. But those aren’t strictly right, either. Quantum mechanics and general relativity still have yet to be unified; there is no one branch of physical theory that has successfully been able to describe how the universe operates, and yet all of these theories prove time and again to be experimentally true. So all of these theories are true, but only if we make assumptions about our initial conditions. In short, science requires assumptions. Therefore, our objective reality can only be objective if we all make the same assumptions about our “initial conditions,” which doesn’t sound a whole lot better than subjectivity to me. But qualifications notwithstanding, the claims that follow these assumptions are still held to high standards of scientific rigor, which is the key difference between qualified objectivity and organized religion. (Even if we assume God exists, the Bible, or any other religious text, does not become empirically true by means of our assumption.)

As a result, I think it’s imperative that we be absolutely clear about our assumptions about how the world works when we argue about morality. Our discussions must begin on common ground. (Any real debate at all must follow that rule.) We are never in a position where we can argue deductively without first being clear about what we assume to be true or of importance in the first place.

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On “Plausibility” and Reputability

Earlier today I linked someone this article (elsewhere on the internet) about irrational fears of radiation. Specifically, I was mentioning a statistic:

Studies of more than 80,000 survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts have found that … only about 500 [cancer] cases could be attributed to the radiation exposure the people experienced.

Now, when you use statistics to argue against people who are entirely unprepared for them, more often than not you will get a flustered response… like this:

This article is coming from a blogger who also said that child labor laws are hypocritical bc in America we have little girls selling girl scout cookies (hard labor!) nd kids doing school work. Just sayin… Where u get facts from is important…! There are a lot of official reports out there with facts that sound a little more plausible abt this topic!

You can’t make this stuff up. This is the sort of comment that almost defies response. To begin with, the first sentence is a textbook red herring. The statistic in the article is linked to a Washington Post article, so even if you have a beef with Hanson, it doesn’t matter. I’ll forego commenting on Robin’s child labor article (and it’s sequel), because they’re irrelevant to this conversation. (Kudos to Hanson, though, for writing an article that so gravely offended this commenter – if you’re not offending someone, then you probably haven’t said anything of consequence.)

My biggest beef is really with the “plausible” line. If you look for statistics that tell you what you are already convinced of, their scientific utility is null. Journalists want to publish articles that people want to read and believe, and consequently you run into this enormous positive-response feedback mechanism (see: anthropogenic global warming.) When people encounter counter-intuitive statistics, their initial reaction (usually) is to decry your sources as fraudulent, rather than to examine why it is that a particular scientific finding is in conflict with their beliefs. There’s a lot of bad science out there, and there’s plenty of good science, too, so to dismiss any scientific finding on the basis of its violation of your sensibilities is irrational. But, of course, it’s easier to attack people than it is to attack science or logic. It’s easier to talk about how you “feel” that something is incorrect, rather than to prove, at least inductively, that it isn’t so.

Needless to say, I give people an earful when is see this sort of my behavior. It drives me bananas.

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Quantity or Quality?

Quantity always beats quality.

Makes sense to me. You can always learn more from proving yourself wrong than attempting to prove yourself right. And, quite frankly, it seems we (as a species) are wrong very often. It doesn’t help that we’re all prone to an incredible positive response bias. The most important part of science is to learn from your mistakes, not be right the first time around. (Someone tell this to the AGW crowd, please?)

Rationality Quotes: April 2011 on Less Wrong

This is worth reading, contributing to, and sprinkling with snarky comments.

UPDATE: My favorite:

Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.

– Mencken, quoted in Pinker: How the Mind Works