Two conflicting concepts

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Sometimes you hear a word or concept that changes how you look at the world. For me, these include speciecism and epistemic injustice.

Speciecism is analogous to racism and sexism, but for species: treating another being differently because they are of another species. Speciecism is about intent; if you eat chickens because they are chickens and not humans, that is speciecist, but if you eat chickens because you concluded from observation that they are incapable of suffering, that is not speciecist.

Epistemic injustice is when someone is wronged in their capacity as a knower. If you unjustly limit somebody’s ability to access or express knowledge, like forbidding them from learning to read or speak, that is an epistemic injustice.

I am an outspoken anti-speciecist and I think we should do what we can to prevent epistemic injustice in all forms. But some animals have learned enough language to meaningfully communicate with humans. Does that mean I should find it reprehensible that there are no schools for animals? I think I should and I think I do, but I feel hesitant to firmly claim the position.

On the value of anecdotes

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What is better, if everyone is wrong about the same 2% of facts, or if everyone is wrong about a different 4% of facts? Depending on how you answer this question, you should act in very different ways. I’ll take vegan advocacy as an example, but the question can be applies more generally.

If you’re in the first group, you would prefer a scientific data-driven approach. You would experiment with many different approaches to advocacy, analyse the data to find the single best way of doing outreach, and make everyone in vegan activism aware that this is the best way to do it.

If you prefer the 4% case, a local algorithm is the way to go. Think about what drove you to become vegan, and continue this strategy. If you were shocked into becoming vegan by a Cube of Truth, you should be participating in Cubes of Truth. If you became vegan after your friendly vegan neighbour exemplified that veganism is a totally normal lifestyle and they allowed you to pick their brain about why they became vegan themselves, then you should become the friendly vegan acquaintance of the people you know yourself.

One interesting question if you enact the local algorithm, is how to weigh anecdotes. The local algorithm described above only considers your data; one alternative algorithm is to use the approach that was effective on the majority of your direct friends that became vegan before you. Another algorithm looks at all your the friends of your friends, or everyone within distance 3 in the friendship-graph. If everyone is connected by everyone by a friendship-path of length 6, then the distance 6 algorithm is exactly the data-driven approach from the second paragraph.

Evolutionary theory suggests that the small-distance algorithms are effective, for the best outreach strategy will eventually out-compete all others. But for the distance 0 or 1 cases, you’re basically working on anecdotal evidence. I’m not sure anymore what the correct value is to place on anecdotes.

Invisible people

295 wordsSome people are invisible. Not really to eyes and such, but invisible in studies and statistics, we know nothing about them. They’re the dark matter of humans, but please don’t call them dark humans.

Suppose there was a gene, let’s call it gene X, that predisposes you never to participate in any study as a subject. It makes you decline all requests to record your data for research purposes and refuse to ever vote for anything.

Carriers of gene X might be at increased risk for cancer. They might be invulnerable to hemlock. They might all individually have an IQ of exactly 120.2. Maybe they never forget where they left their keys, or grow an extra belly button during their third puberty. Possibly they’re all called Alex and stop aging when 50 years old, only to suddenly die on the day they turn 90 years old. Hell, they might be 20% of the world population, favour the Libertarian Party and think Estonia should have won the last Eurovision song contest. We’d never know because nobody can study them.

On the other hand: suppose there is some subpopulation that always participates in studies, and forms a big fraction of participants in nearly any study. It makes sense to want to be a part of this subpopulation, because that way every study ever will be more descriptive of you. Luckily, you can become part of this group simply by committing to participate in every study you are asked for from now on. Except that reading this post might have caused you to make that commitment while you would never have done so yourself. You can now only become part of a new subpopulation, the one that commits to being studied after reading a participation bias-based suggestion to do so.

Optimal diffusion rate in social media

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In some social media it is too easy to share content. That makes them breeding ground for fake news and encourage a culture of shallow or vile discussion. For other media, it might be too hard to share content, like traditional print and online publishing. Those need recommendation or search engines, or at least book clubs and advertising.

Is there an optimal rate of knowledge diffusion? Is it different from the optimal rate of publishing new content? Imagine Twitter, except you’re only allowed one tweet every 10 minutes, one retweet every 30 minutes, and one reply every 5 minutes.

It is frustrating how all media suck. I hope humans will develop something, anything, less shitty during my lifetime.

Veg*n dishes versus constrained optimization

313 wordsMathematical optimization is concerned with  problems of the form \text{maximize~} f(x) \text{~ for ~} x \in X for some set X \subset Y and function f : Y \to \mathbb{R}. In this post, we’ll think of Y as the set of possible restaurant dishes, X\subset Y as the set of dishes satisfying certain constraints like being digestible, non-poisonous and not containing human flesh. The function f to optimize is some combination of price, healthyness and taste.

A first observation is that for any X' \subset X the maximum of f(x) over X' is no bigger than the maximum over X, for if x \in X' attains the maximum of f(x) over X', then also x \in X, so the maximum of f over X is at least f(x). In normal words, if you restrict your diet, you can miss out on good dishes, but never gain access to better dishes than on an unrestricted diet.

From this, we could deduce that you should never pick a vegan dish in a restaurant because the non-vegan dishes were made with fewer restrictions and hence can only be better than the vegan dish. Same for choosing recipes to cook yourself. Before I was vegan, this was my conscious reason for always choosing dishes with meat.

But is the deduction true? I don’t think so. Because, unbeknownst to many, the meat dishes are actually constrained to contain meat. I don’t know why, but my two prime suspects are Goodhart’s law impacting the reasoning above, or meat-eaters being scared of vegetables.

As it turns out, making a good vegetarian meal takes non-zero skill, contrary to making a good meal with meat. In my experience, this causes chefs to put actual thought into their vegetarian dishes, causing these to actually be tastier than most dishes with meat. So the argument from mathematical optimization actually gives the wrong answer here!

Abstinence-only education criticism as general template

540 wordsTW: self-harm, suicide, substance abuse

Context: In conservative regions in the US, there is a thing called abstinence-only sex education. People believe that you can tell teenagers “Don’t have sex before marriage” and that that will protect them from STI’s and unwanted pregnancy. Leftist people point to research that shows this is ineffective, and it is much better to tell kids how to have sex safely. I have not looked at the research so I will not link it.

If you squint, you can see how abstinence-only education is used for other things as well. It makes me wonder whether the same criticism would transfer.

Self-harm

One area to which it might transfer is self-harm. Everybody says you should not self-harm. In many psychiatric hospitals, you may temporarily lose privileges (being allowed to watch tv or to go outside) if the staff thinks you have self-harmed while there.

If you search online for “self-harm tips”, the first result is a wordy self-righteous “Don’t do that“. I used to find this really really frustrating. Same goes for online self-harm communities: they mostly forbid giving instructions and such.  Positively helpful stuff gets silenced, like when Reddit banned /r/selfharmpics. Ironically, that sub used to help me get my thoughts away from harming myself by living it vicariously through others.

Here is a link to some good self-harm tips and advice. Though I can think of a dozen other pieces of information that could help a lot of people. Examples include:

  • Hiding scars: What parts of the body scar the least? What body parts are least visible in common positions?
  • Preventing scarring: How much do anti-scarring creams really help? Do cuts with sharp or dull blades make for less visible scars?
  • Safely climbing the hedonic treadmill: a list of body parts sorted by sensitivity to pain would help people to safely get more painful wounds without cutting deeper.
  • What is a good place to cut when you are just starting out?

Some of these things you can maybe find online if you know the academic jargon, but that won’t help most self-harming persons.

Suicide

I have no idea if the abstinence-only criticism would meaningfully transfer to suicide. But at least this area does have educational resources provided by helpful individuals, like http://lostallhope.com/. I never found this website before I started researching for this post, but it might not have had much PageRank credit back when I was looking for these things. [Also santioned-suicide.com]

Drugs

This is an obvious case where the abstinence-only education criticism directly transfers. Some substances are way worse for your health than others, so it would be good if people knew which those are, even if one would also recommend to not do them at all.

My high school actually did this. They were pretty backwards in many respects, but here, they were on point. We got a guest lesson by a cool lady who had tried all kinds of drugs. She told us about various kinds of drugs and what they do, and we got to ask all kinds of questions. I mostly remember her warning that heroin is super addictive, like, a single use and you’re addicted. That was a great lesson, and exactly the sort of thing I want to see on more issues.

Asymmetry of passion

259 wordsSome time ago I first read the phrase “asymmetry of passion” in an article (in Wired via Kottke) about so-called “keyword voids” in internet search engines. The article starts by discussing the internet search results for “vitamin K shots”, a routine injection that newborns get.

This is a routine practice—ask your pediatrician, your obstetrician, or the CDC. “Babies are born with very low stores of vitamin K, and without the Vitamin K shot … they do not have enough Vitamin K in their blood to form a clot,” the CDC says on its website.

But new parents who turn to search engines to understand the practice will find an aberrant—and dangerous—strain of thinking. Google “vitamin K shot” and the first result advises “Skip that Newborn Vitamin K Shot.” It isn’t until below the fold—the fourth result—that the CDC website appears.

This is blamed on an asymmetry of passion; anti-vaxxers put much more effort into writing blogs stating that the shots are unnecessary or even dangerous than government organizations like the CDC do to refute their claims. Hence the search results get populated with all-natural anti-science lies. (I just tried the search and my results page only has a single anti-vax result. The Wired article caused a number of scientifically literate websites write about the vitamin K shots.)

Asymmetries of passion happen more often. [A couple of situations where I think something like that is happening include blockchain, political videos on Youtube, conspiracy theories and prepping.

The “marketplace of ideas” is a cute idea, but it is too bad that you can’t short.