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There may be good reasons to oppose technocratic solutions to global warming, but the actual most powerful man in the world pulled out of the global accord after explicitly claiming it was a Chinese hoax. That is not at all a straw man.

Granted, this was a Tweet and it's never exactly clear to what extent he means this stuff and to what extent he's just shitposting, which seems like an unfortunate quality in a world leader.

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Could you expand on the first part--it seems like local knowledge comes into play because future generations will have a stronger idea of what their preferences for the shape of the world will be than we do.

An interesting retrodiction thought experiment would be to figure out what a long-termist is doing in the high middle ages.

1) Can we identify the things that the medievals should have been doing to maximize our present-day goods? I would be very interested in a retrospective analysis of exactly this (very possibly they exist; I'm not an EA person, so I wouldn't know).

2) Given that we know the answer to #1, is it an answer that would have been figure-outable back then? It seems much more likely that we would be doing something like worrying about resolving the Investiture Controversy or trying to shore up Christendom than it is that we would be doing something that would promote our goals from #1.

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That makes sense! I would have to give some thought to what mechanisms could transmit wealth over that time period, and whether I have any reason to expect that the future's ethics are as good or better than my own, but regardless of the answers to that, the local knowledge issue seems to be circumvented to patient philanthropy.

I'm generally more skeptical about our ability to forecast the effects of our actions, which is why I still think that the middle ages exercise would be a really useful one for convincing me to worry about x-risk; i.e., doing relatively simple, short-term retrodiction on non-x-risk matters would do a lot to convince me that we can currently predict the impact of our actions on x-risk over longer scales. To take Scott's original example here, at a middle-ages-to-now time scale, it's not at all clear to me that increased knowledge of the causes of pandemics and how to address them has improved x-risk--if anything, increased understanding has probably lowered the average costs-to-humanity of disease, but increased the width of the long tail. Maybe this isn't a great example, since I expect pandemics are pretty small potatoes in terms of x-riskiness, but hopefully it makes the general point.

But I suppose you can get the best of both worlds by setting up a patient philanthropy system that is constantly being bled to fund short-term reductions in x-risk.

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For the entertaining approach: A Eschbach, One Trillion Dollars (2014). Compound interest since the Fuggers drops on an unsuspecting heir.

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Starting to think long-term in the middle ages may not have achieved much in practical terms, but if nothing else we could have 500+ years of longtermist philosophy to guide us today, that's got to count for something.

In the middle ages, they'd probably conclude that war and pestilence were the greatest existential risks, at least when thinking about the survival of their own society and values (setting aside eschatology, since that's inevitable). That's not so different to current EA thinking, we just also worry about other things. If you could work out the causes of war and disease a century early, you could presumably prevent a lot of suffering, and history could well have gone in a different direction - hopefully a better one!

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These are both important questions.

The first one has at least one plausible answer--medieval EAs could try to speed up the trends that led to the Scientific Revolution and later the Industrial Revolution (at least I think it would have been mostly the same trends for each). But to your second question, I think maybe very few people would have been able to understand why that made sense even if someone tried to tell them. And once they signed on, the specific actions to help are still pretty vague. Being a patron for natural philosophers might have helped, or creating libraries with large collections, or trying to get the ideas of Islamic scientists/mathematicians greater exposure in Europe. Probably something completely different if you lived in China.

Other possible far-future levers include:

Trying to prevent the smallpox/measles epidemics that depopulated the New World (unless this was a lost cause--I can't think of a way to prevent them short of delaying contact until vaccines were available, which would be like 400 years).

Trying to prevent the establishment of the slave trade, maybe with some sort of religious argument... seems difficult to give it teeth though.

Establish an institution that can save/grow resources for long periods of time and is explicitly dedicated to helping people. You might just end up with the Knights Templar...

I suspect other writers have explored similar thought experiments but I don't know of any--I'm going to try to find out more.

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(1) to me feels like really there was nothing they could have done. The only x risks in the medieval era were asteroid strikes, alien invasion, gamma ray burst, things they didn't know were possible and couldn't have stopped. The best thing they could have done is come up with science faster and generate more scientists.

And maybe that's still true? Maybe the greatest x risks out there are things we don't even know will ever exist yet, and the best thing we can do is produce more people who in turn produce better technologies and better ideas. The whole "how many Einsteins died in a cotton field" problem. Encourage the creation of more people, end poverty and hunger, and universalize some level of education (not free college for all Americans, but something like an American 10th grade education for all children everywhere in the world).

Basically, if we aren't really really certain that we know where to put the levers right now in order to make a better world in 10,000 years, just crowdsource the solution, and make crowdsourcing more likely to work by creating a larger crowd.

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I think it's super interesting that most of the solutions to the middle ages problem are "make science happen faster"--but on the middle-ages-to-now timescale, this has greatly increased our endogenous x-risk without concomitant decreases in exogenous x-risk (all those movies with Bruce Willis and asteroids notwithstanding).

Perhaps there is a island of stability out there in which increasing technological capability starts reducing x-risk, but the argument seems to completely hinge on the assumption that this is true.

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Changing the Frankish Empire to a system of primogeniture? Digging river navigations? Translating Mozi?

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I do think the sociology here is at least as important as the substance. The practice of exclusion matters more to me than any ideas in someone's head. This is what I fear about the rationalist community, especially given their positions of power.

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I agree exclusion is inherent to communities. This is why we don't want any one community dominating all others. My problem with the rationalist community overall is not its existence but its strong influence on the baseline mental models of many-most of the powerful people in Silicon Valley, which is in turn a hegemon in world power.

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This makes sense, but it seems like some movement will have a strong influence on decision-makers regardless. If this is true, then the question becomes: which movements *should* have influence, and how can they remain inclusive while developing a community?

What would you suggest? In more concrete terms, if Radical Exchange becomes even more influential in the next few years, what would you do to maintain broad support and a diversity of viewpoints?

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I think the g0v movement in Taiwan is a nice example of what can be accomplished, and a model for us. Wide use of a variety of different types of deliberatively democratic mechanisms that can scale as being the core of the movement.

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Also a very strong emphasis on multimodal communication and code-switching

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You might find some of my twitter exchanges with Eliezer around this instructive as well. Comments of the general vein of "I am too blinded by ideology to even literally repeat back to him his words and he will pay me to repeat them"

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This is a great point. Regardless of whether or not people agree with either person's argument, the rationalist community should pay close attention to technically-oriented outsiders with principled criticisms (and I appreciate Scott for pointing it out). It speaks to the possibility that the aspiring rationalist movement could be more accessible to others. Weyl's criticisms seem to attack a straw-man at times, but this is a symptom of the rationalist movement being complex. Every movement must trade off between strong culture and gathering broad support.

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Exactly, groups should actively seek criticism from others, steelman those arguments, and adapt.

Of course, regardless of how open-minded, a group will ultimately have to decide which criticisms they should respond to. There has to be some line on useful vs. not useful commentary.

In their defense, I think the rationalist community does a good job of considering/respecting criticism and encouraging diverse ideas, but reflection here can't hurt.

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I can't tell if the inclusion of Covid Lockdowns with everything else is parody or not (especially given Scott's prior scratchpad post on QALYs...)

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It's not parody, but I would prefer this not turn into a debate of COVID lockdowns (I realize this is my fault and I should have realized the risk of including that example).

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Not only lockdowns but everything COVID related. Later on in the essay you talk about how talk of a 'biological catastrophe" was unfortunate because it went on to happen and rationalists got that one right, or how "nobody" would argue the WHO shouldn't have epidemiologists.

The USA seems to have a bigger problem than most, maybe obesity related, but in much of the world COVID has come and gone with no biological catastrophe. Instead it's been another swine flu; expert predictions of disaster and then a reality that was far less and well within normal parameters. Control cases like Sweden make it clear, although it's not the only one. When controlling for population growth and the unusually non-deadly 2019 they saw a grand total of about 2000 excess deaths in 2020 - i.e. nothing that would normally have been noticed, despite their laissez-faire attitude and scientific assurance that with 100% certainty their chosen path would lead to over 100,000.

So quite a few of us who have looked at the disparity between reported data and epidemiology papers concluded that actually the WHO (and everywhere else) would be better off with no epidemiologists at all. Very far from "nobody" arguing that, huge numbers of people would argue exactly that if asked. The field is by far the most catastrophic I've personally ever encountered - their papers are just systematically pseudo-scientific and nobody cares. It's another 5-HTTLPR all over again but worse, because this time instead of (eventually) admitting their papers don't align with reality, they seem to have chosen to ignore reality and hope they can bluff everyone into ignoring it too.

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How is Sweden, a country with restrictions (and in the past 2 months, quite severe restrictions), a control group?

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They haven't had serious restrictions throughout basically all of 2020. Businesses were open, masks were not mandated, etc. In particular, there were no lockdowns. They passed a law to let them do that in the past few weeks, but for no clearly rational reason as their state epidemiologist still indeed recommends against lockdowns and their trivial death stats show clearly that this was the right call.

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They have a public gathering ban of anything above 8. So all cultural activities are basically closed down

Their restaurants have to stop serving alcohol at 10 pm

Most people are working from home

And their borders are de facto closed

Seems close enough (let's say 70% of the way) to a real lockdown that we can't really call them a control

Also they're looking at what will be 2000+ covid deaths in january 2021 alone, it's not like they're done dealing with the pandemic

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*restaurant and bars (obviously) (the lack of an edit time-window is a bit annoying)

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The rule of 8 only came in a week or two ago. As I said clearly, I was talking about 2020 but acknowledge they've recently changed their strategy, presumably for political reasons.

Please note the distinction between "deaths within 28 days of a positive test" (what you're calling a covid death) and an excess death. So many people die of old age or other causes within proximity to a positive test, often asymptomatic, that there are no reliable stats on how many people are really dying of COVID. It has to be inferred from the overall increases, which in turn is difficult because restrictions also end lives e.g. through discouraging access to healthcare. Sweden claims to have had 11,500 covid deaths so far, but that isn't visible in total all-cause mortality data.

The difficulty of using the COVID statistics correctly is one of the biggest problems throughout the last year.

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But the relevant thing isn't the amount of enforced lockdowns there exists on paper but what's actually happening in the real world. On one hand you could have a country trying to impose curfews with zero compliance and indeed riots in response to the attempted restrictions, and on the other hand you could have a country asking people nicely to "act responsibly" and they do just that. Sweden is pretty close to the latter - consider this mobility data for instance: https://www.macrobond.com/posts/new-mobility-data-google-citymapper-how-different-is-sweden-covid19/

Moreover, Sweden didn't JUST ask people to act responsibly. Higher education switched to distance-learning since March, they banned public gatherings of more than 50 people (now 8), restaurants are open but with restrictions, etc. Indeed, I believe there was a time during late summer/autumn when Sweden had the strictest restrictions in any Nordic country. It's also worth noting that the actions Sweden took are among the most cost-effective measures because they are exactly the sort of restrictions that curb superspreading events. Additional measures like, for example, requiring mask-wearing in public transport, grocery shops or city streets, even if masks were 100% effective, isn't going to do that simply because they're not particularly high-risk environments to begin with as people don't talk, shout or sing, and the potential time of exposure tends to remain low: it's just that governments don't have any easier interventions left for preventing exponential growth if the disease keeps spreading in homes, private parties, workplaces or other situations that they have little to no control over. Since Swedes "acted responsibly", no further restrictions were necessary in this sense, the cases were going down from ever since these restrictions were introduced (if you look at the graphs, the bump during summer is associated with a change in testing criterion, true cases almost certainly were going down despite that increase). Up until they too started experiencing lockdown fatigue and second wave happened, anyway, with per capita cases again surging near the top of Europe and Sweden introducing stricter restrictions than some of their Nordic neighbors. Unless there's another explanation to surge of cases, the fact that this could happen in the first place shows that Swedes were voluntarily limiting the amount of their social interactions in manner not too dissimilar from countries with greater number of enforced restrictions.

I think it's plausible that it was indeed the intent among Swedes (or, Tegnell, really) to go for "herd immunity" strategy at the beginning of last year, but if that was the case, that plan failed due to too high compliance and the cases in fact going down, and what actually ended up happening is basically the same thing as in other Nordic countries, except that the others did just a tiny bit more for little while longer so as to achieve almost disease and restriction free country for the summer and early autumn.

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Trivial death rate? It was 0.12%. Compared to their immediate neighbours with similar healthcare systems but did lockdowns thats horrendous. Norway had a death rate of 0.01%, Denmark had 0.035%. (Taking figures from the same site you linked). Which is a pretty damn stark difference.

Also case rates are probably a more useful comparison if talking about the effectiveness of lockdown: USA 7.9%, Sweden 5.6%, Denmark 3.4%, Norway 1.1%. Again pretty damn stark. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries

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You're just picking random countries to try and make Sweden look bad. Plot Sweden deaths vs EU deaths and you'll see their results are the same:

https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus-data-explorer?zoomToSelection=true&time=2020-03-01..latest&country=EuropeanUnion~SWE&region=World&deathsMetric=true&interval=smoothed&perCapita=true&smoothing=7&pickerMetric=total_cases&pickerSort=desc

The comparisons can be done in many ways, but when done appropriately they conclude Sweden is about middle of the pack. Not the best, not the worst, nothing remarkable. Their performance is interesting only in the context of what their laissez-faire approach was supposedly guaranteed to yield (massive disaster on an ahistoric scale). Clearly that didn't happen, which is sufficient to show that using lockdowns as an example of technocratic success is wrong.

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If even 10% of the population thought "This government is stupid, I'm going to socially distance just as the people in Germany do" wouldn't this already have a huge impact on transmission? Removing 10% of links from a local graph is huge!

For instance: Google mobility data tells us that social interactions dropped days before the UK put a lockdown in force, simply because Italy already had one and scared people followed the advice given to italian people.

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founding

Sweden is as good a control group as we are going to get, with very few restrictions during most of 2020 while the rest of Europe did pretty much the standard package of shutting down schools, restaurants, offices, etc.

But also, note that the Swedish policy is not "Lockdowns are Evil, we won't do them", nor "Lockdowns don't work, so we won't do them", and especially not "We volunteer to be the control group that does nothing". Sweden's policy was based on the position that, to be worth doing, a measure had to be sustainable until Covid-19 was wiped out and/or a vaccine was available, otherwise it would just postpone the inevitable.

And serious lockdowns are not sustainable for more than a couple of months. After that, you can keep the policy on the books to satisfy the "something must be done, this is something..." imperative, but really you're turning a blind eye to all the people who are going to private house parties instead of nightclubs.

With Sweden's neighbors experiencing a massive spike in cases in December, and with a proven safe and vaccine under production in December, a modest lockdown(*) for maybe two months is entirely consistent with the policy Sweden announced almost a year ago. Everybody was issued one (1) "postpone most infections for two months" bullet; everybody but Sweden wasted it.

* Seriously, "restaurants have to stop serving alcohol at 10 pm" is your idea of a "lockdown"?

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I think you're overestimating the difference between the restrictions in Sweden and it's neighboring countries

"* Seriously, "restaurants have to stop serving alcohol at 10 pm" is your idea of a "lockdown"?"

How's a public gathering ban of 8 not a major restriction?

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I'm confused about where you got that 2000 number for Sweden. It looks to me like every year in the past decade had 88,796 to 92,185 deaths, while 2020 had 97,941. The difference between 2020 and the highest in the previous decade is more than 1000 greater than the difference between the highest and lowest in the previous decade. I would think that a 6 or 7% increase in all-cause mortality seems pretty big.

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It's after correction for population growth and the low 2019 figure, which would have naturally inflated the 2020 figure even without COVID as that year seems to have just been a fluke - unless someone knows of a major healthcare breakthrough in Sweden that occurred at the start of 2019?

There are some useful calculations and graphs here:

https://softwaredevelopmentperestroika.wordpress.com/2021/01/15/final-report-on-swedish-mortality-2020-anno-covid/

For example, look at the section titled "regression to the mean" where he sums 2017/2018 and 2019/2020, which is one way to correct for the inter-year overflow.

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The article actually makes an interesting point that deaths per capita in Sweden are decreasing at such a fast rate, the impact of Covid is just a small blip in comparison. It's nothing like the 1918 Flu, it's more like 2012 standards of living and healthcare. This, I admit, is an convincing attempt at downplaying the severity of the pandemic.

The "adjusted excess deaths" numbers, however, are not, they smell of motivated reasoning. They're arrived at by completely disregarding the above information and assuming the death rate per capita is constant year to year. Adjust to the trendline instead, and the adjusted number doesn't meaningfully change from the "absolute" count.

Oh, and the trendline needs to be plotted without the 2020 data point. Including it only makes sense if you specifically want to treat 2020 as random fluctuation in the longer trend, it does not when you're assessing the impact of a known new factor. Without 2020 in the mix, 2019 stops being "unusually non-deadly" and becomes more of an expected correction to several above-average deadly years, especially 2018 and 2017. The decision to disregard it, again, smells of motivated reasoning.

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It seems to me that the fair way to put it is that COVID has caused a number of deaths equal to the last 7 or 8 years of improvement. That doesn't sound too hugely drastic.

But the people complaining about economic losses are complaining about an economic downturn equal to the last 3 or 4 years of growth.

Both of these are in some sense pretty small, but in another sense really huge.

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"Instead it's been another swine flu" -No, it hasn't been. COVID has killed perhaps 6 million around the world (the official statistics are underestimates in all but a few countries); swine flu didn't kill nearly as many. Many countries (Mexico, Russia, etc.) have been hit quite a bit worse than Sweden.

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The whole world has reported about 2M 'within 28 days of positive test' which is a standard guaranteed to overcount, as it ignores all other factors. This is visible when looking at all-cause mortality stats: it's impossible for more people in a country to have died of COVID than the increase in total deaths. To get 6M is assuming a very high level of undercounting indeed - far more than the 3x it would superficially look like.

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Far from everyone who contacts COVID is tested. Russia undercounts by 6.5x for political reasons, Indonesia and Sub-Saharan Africa barely count. I haven't seen how good South Asia's counting is. See this blogpost; the only places with appreciable excess deaths that have overcounted (barely) have been Germany, Chile, Sweden, Canada, Brazil, Israel, Oman, Belgium, and France:

https://github.com/dkobak/excess-mortality

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The standard overcounts much less than you might think given how low the ordinary death rate is. You have to admit there's probably more signal than noise given how much likelier people who test positive are likely to die than the general population.

And this is only in wealthy countries. In poorer countries, deaths are very clearly enormously undercounted. Look at the overall mortality numbers in Peru of South Africa, for example.

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I know all the potentional issues with quantifying covid deaths, but the data I'm seeing suggests covid deathrates between USA and Sweden are pretty comparable. Sweden has had about 12K deaths among 10M population. The USA has had about 450K deaths among 330M population. Sweden Covid Death Rate = 0.12%. USA Covid Death Rate = 0.14%. USA is worse, but it seems pretty marginal to me. Sources for covid deaths below:

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/sweden/

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/

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Yes but Sweden started out in a much better position with an extremely good public health system, high social trust, favorable geography, etc. Meaningful comparisons are other Scandinavian countries which are right next door and have similar health and social care provision.

Norway had a death rate of 0.01%, Denmark had 0.035%. (Taking figures from the same site you linked). Which is a pretty damn stark difference.

Also case rates are probably a more useful comparison if talking about the effectiveness of lockdown: USA 7.9%, Sweden 5.6%, Denmark 3.4%, Norway 1.1%. Again pretty damn stark. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries

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I appreciate the extra work you put in. I don't think I actually disagree with you here. The user I was responding to, Mike, seemed to be claiming that Sweden demonstrated that lockdowns were ineffective as Sweden had less of a lockdown than the US and performed better.

All I was doing was pointing out that Sweden and US have performed pretty similarly based on the available data.

The fact that Denmark and Norway are both doing better than Sweden is further evidence against the idea that lockdowns are ineffective as a public health policy.

Are we on the same page here?

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I think you guys are. Also, I like to point out that flu deaths this year are about zero per million. It's not that public health measures were ineffective - they stopped flu in its tracks. It's that COVID is a much tougher opponent than the average virus. Multiple provinces in my country report zero confirmed flu cases this year: https://globalnews.ca/news/7606557/alberta-2020-2021-flu-season-no-cases-increased-testing/

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Yes; this website: https://github.com/dkobak/excess-mortality also confirms excess deaths in Sweden and the U.S. were comparable, with Sweden doing a lot worse than its neighbors and worse than France.

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Being as charitable as I can possibly be: I assume that "It's been another swine flu", when you look at the data, but... ok, another swine flu, with lockdowns, masks and social distancing enforced at maximum strength across the world!! There are clear examples of what happens when this virus is allowed to spread without those preventive measures in place (Italy 03/19, UK 12/20, Brazil basically throughout).

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The point about Sweden is they didn't do those things and had basically average outcomes, which as discussed above, is "like 2012 or 2013". So, lockdowns and masks have no effect. Whilst Sweden is a neat example people tend to get distracted and over-focus on it (see above), but this has been studied more rigorously many times by looking at the data sets for all countries and plotting the correlations. The result is that there aren't any correlations. Here's one such study but there are many others:

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2020.604339/full#SM6

This is really unintuitive. Lockdowns should work, yet the data is clear as day - they have no effect. You don't actually need to do an all-country fancy statistical analysis to see this, just browsing through graphs of 'cases' and looking for inflection points will give a similar impression. Of course having it be done rigorously is better. So the most important question that nobody is asking right now is: why don't they work? Is the data wrong, are the analyses wrong or is germ theory wrong (incomplete)? They can't all be correct because they contradict each other. The analyses are pretty basic and have been done by now a lot of times by different people with the same results, so I doubt it's them.

My bet is there's a gap in germ theory. The COVID data is corrupted and difficult to interpret but it's not fake. But if the virus isn't only spread by coughing/sneezing/short range expulsion, then that would explain why lockdowns and masks don't work. It's also worth noting that classical germ theory doesn't have a really solid explanation of seasonality, although that's clearly an important part of COVID and influenza. There are various plausible guesses but no solid proof.

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founding

My bet is that after the first month or two, the principle effect of lockdowns is that people who would have been going out to e.g. bars and restaurants are mostly going to e.g. private house parties and mass political rallies.

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To this, while I think your Climate Change perspective rings true to a liberal American ear, I wonder if the "Climate Change Bad" logic would be less compelling from a different geopolitical perspective.

The most politically compelling argument for coordinating to stop climate change (imo) is that rising temperatures and sea levels will hurt the status quo global economy. So (e.g.) the Netherlands has a really compelling reason to think that climate change is bad: if sea levels rise, Amsterdam becomes Atlantis, and the dutch lose a lot of money. Likewise, Floridians should be pissed; their state will become both wetter AND hotter, and FL's got enough of each as it is. The same is true -- albeit to a lesser degree -- for any country with a lot of cities on the coast like America/or which is already relatively warm -- i.e. climate change will cause a ton of economic damage and make it harder for everybody to live there.

But what about a country like Russia? Russia has very few cities on the sea and is known for its less-than-balmy climate. Its (her?) economy is totally dependent on producing oil and fossil fuels. Appeals to the beauty of nature aside (which are at least to some extent subject to the eye of the beholder), why should Russia (or any state like it) support climate regulation?

If Russia does nothing to stop climate change (or even actively gums up the efforts of meddling adversaries to coordinate on climate change), then it gets [a] to milk fossil fuels for as long as they're viable, [b] a ton of warm(-er) sea ports where there were cold sea ports, and [c] turns Siberia from an inarable arctic tundra into a slightly-more-arable bc slightly-less-artic tundra. I just don't see where there's a moral imperative -- let alone the economic incentive -- for Russia to support climate change reform efforts.

And maybe the American right -- especially those in landlocked, oil-producing states like Texas or the Dakotas -- feel that their incentives align more with Russia and less with the Netherlands here. So from their perspective, top-down Climate Change reform really would seem like one-sided technocracy meant to help the status quo.

(FWIW I actually think the "Climate Change will kill many plants and animals, and plants and animals are beautiful so we shouldn't kill them" argument IS morally compelling, but I just wanted to show that you might have the same problem with the Climate Change point as you do with the COVID Shutdown one if you're thinking like a state.)

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Sorry, could you please link "Scott's prior scratchpad post on QALYs"? I couldn't find it :(

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hrm, isn’t there a huge populist backlash against Gates? chips in the

vaccines and all that?

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Yeah, I think there is. I don't think survey results are as strong of evidence of populist backlash as all of the Gates conspiracies. They may be a smallish minority, but they are still huge in absolute numbers and have a pretty far reach.

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I'm always skeptical of articles about how stupid everyone is and how many conspiracies they believe. I'm sure someone somewhere thinks Bill Gates is putting chips in vaccines, but I'm not sure it's enough people that it's worth thinking about or treating as A Thing.

Also, I'm not sure how to weight a backlash against someone for a false thing they didn't do. Maybe the fact that Bill Gates thinks in a data-driven way caused people to falsely believe he might inject microchips in them. But those two things could also be unrelated.

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founding

I thought that but then visited extended family for Christmas and half of them were very concerned about the vaccine's being Bill's plandemic endgame :|

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Anecdotally, my uncle immediately sent me the plandemic video when it came out and so did one of my friends to our group chat

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The Gates conspiracy theory significantly centered around decentralized identity and ID2020, which is a fabulous organization I greatly admire. On the other hand, that community has been promising a lot of social transformation with little that people can tangibly feel in their lives coming of it. That divorce is a big part of the problem. We need to pair technical ambition with social reality more tightly to avoid these types of conspiracy theories. There are many fewer about e.g. the microwave or iPhone because people have experience using them. This is again an example of the problem of technocracy, the emphasis on technical systems and their abstract potential v. making things speak to people in their lives in their own terms.

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There are conspiracies, but I don't think they rise to the level of a 'huge backlash'. Also, the whole chip-vaccine thing is part of a much larger conspiracy that's motivated not by backlash against Gates' methods but rather by backlash against lockdowns in general.

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"Chips in vaccines" and "5G causes COVID" are just the current iteration of the theories that have been spreading for two decades now, perhaps more. Before Gates came to the conspiracy peddlers' spotlight, it was "government will chip us all up", before COVID it was "5G causes cancer", before 5G it was "telcom towers and electric lines cause cancer". I'm not sure the belief in any of that has grown in relative terms.

(And populations' opinion varies. To quote someone from my close family: "Well, if They truly ended putting chips in us, at least advertisements would be targeted better, and if someone kidnapped me, maybe I'd be easier to find...")

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People just don't talk enough about the benefits of living in a totalitarian surveillance state

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This. When you read conspiracy theories figuratively rather than literally, you can often reveal credible concerns. So it's not that Bill Gates is planting chips in the COVID vaccine, it's that the global rich, (esp. the tech billionaires) [Bill Gates] can use the power of the Federal Government and the precedent that widespread mandatory vaccination sets [distributing the COVID vaccine] to later justify totalitarian technological surveillance [putting chips in the people].

All the facts are wrong, but the figure that they form is compelling. Government and Big Tech really might collude to create a totalitarian surveillance state, and justify it by saying it's good for you (cf. China). And that is really scary.

Likewise, with Q-Anon: It's not that there's a LITERAL cabal of globalist (cannibal?) pedophiles running the world, but it's at least more believable that Moloch (the god of global capitalism and child-sacrifice) is running amok, and is entrenching himself in the halls of Power. Here look at Jeffrey Epstein, the globalist pedophile par excellence. Guys like that point to a BIG problem, especially if they're working together, and the extent to which they do work together is probably deeper than most of us realize (though the conspiracy theory itself is likely exaggerated for virality). So again, although the facts are incredible, the figure which the facts make is (somewhat more) credible.

To be clear, I actually think that the concerns of both of these, while credible, are still overblown, and also that the conclusions the groups come to from there are deeply problematic and error-ridden. Figurative thinking only carries so far. I've just found figurative reading to be a much more useful way of interpreting conspiracy theories than a literal or scientific reading.

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One problem with both ideas is they do chain back to something plausible or real, but it got corrupted and exaggerated along the way (and I think the media is probably helping that process along whether wittingly or not).

Chips in vaccines is a corruption of a genuine story about the Gates Foundation funding research into a form of "quantum microdot" tattoo readable by electronic devices. It's not an actual chip but the idea is a human equivalent of the chips put in animals to track their vaccine history: basically a biological marker that you've been vaccinated that you can't lose and which can be quickly checked. If you search for quantum microdots you'll find stories discussing this, the research was done in collaboration with MIT. Quite unlikely Gates himself was involved with the decision to invest in that R&D but his foundation has its name attached to the project now, whether he likes it or not.

5G causes COVID appears to be a corruption of "millimetre wave radiation can cause health problems". The frustrating thing about this one is that again, the core claim has a kernel of truth. The military has researched firing millimetre wave RF on the battlefield to make enemies skin feel like it's burning. But of course it's all about signal strength and the RF technology used in 5G has nothing in it that would cause concern. Oh and for extra fun points, at least one of the 'scientists' cited in support of the more general theory that 5G might be dangerous is ... an epidemiologist. The sort of people we've all been told for the past year are experts who cannot be questioned.

I personally don't think the Gates project or 5G are at all dangerous. But I did spend a bit of time researching these ideas and the problem is the most commonly presented versions of them are actually only something a tiny, tiny minority believe. The slightly more generalised and plausible variants are true but not concerning for complicated contextual reasons.

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The bigger dangers in 5G would be more likely things like more stations in closer proximity allowing better location tracking and promoting even more high-res data intensive video use, which is probably an environmental disaster as far as watching video goes.

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I don't quite follow why watching video would be an environmental disaster. Computers are pretty energy efficient for what they do.

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Delivering data via mobile networks is more expensive than via cable, and high-definition streaming is a ton of data.

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Expensive for whom? Bandwidth in the air is limited so that pushes up the price for consumers. For providers in terms of energy and environmental impact? That would be really surprising. Digging holes in the ground feels a lot more expensive and impactful on the environment than erecting masts. Do you have some specific stats on energy usage that makes you believe that?

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My PC uses over 100 Watts idling, and over 400W when gaming. Reportedly "energy efficiency improved from 12.34 kWh/GB in 2010 to 0.30 kWh/GB in 2017", i.e. 300 watts if you download 1 GB in an hour (I, for one, never use so much mobile data). That's much higher than I expected, but similar to playing a video game on a wired device. In any case, let's build out clean energy, folks. https://davidmytton.blog/how-much-energy-will-5g-consume/

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Small vocal minority of people on the internet =/= the populace. This is why we rely on surveys of opinion not anecdotes

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I know one thing only. Bill Gates is not a trustworthy man.

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How do you know this?

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I think this illustrates some of the problems with taking population averages when looking at some things. Household economic response to the pandemic also illustrates this - the average family has higher income and much higher savings during the pandemic than before, but obviously a large minority of families have much lower income and much lower savings. Gates may be liked by a much larger fraction of the population than most public figures, but he is also loathed/feared/hated by a larger minority than most.

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I wonder, to some extent, how much things like this are reflective of the ascendancy of an intellectual movement that had some real and rational critiques of what came before it but has more or less failed to establish a positive program of its own.

My wife has a masters in urban planning. The acquisition of said masters involved a great deal of, basically, self-flagellation on behalf of the discipline of urban planning, in which the students seemed to learn a lot more about the (genuine) ways in which urban planning royally fucked up the mid-20th century than about what it could do right using what we'd learned from that experience. (I exaggerate somewhat, but, like, not all that much.)

None of this was that shocking to me, because I'd gotten into Jim Scott in college in the 2000s and pushed him on friends like a cool new drug. High modernism wasn't exactly riding high in 2007 (although I guess the US government was actively attempting to summon a functional democratic capitalist Iraq out of military force and ultra-crystallized McKinsey so maybe I'm wrong) but nonetheless the critique was fresh enough that it grabbed our attention.

And so, you'd think, maybe out of this will come some new synthesized perspective, but it doesn't really seem like that happened. I'm a data guy now and I constantly emphasize the importance of being aware of what the metrics actually measure and steering clear of optimizing for misguided targets, so I've clearly been influenced, but the case you're presenting above sure sounds like a description of a critical movement that spiralled of joyously criticizing its defeated bogeymen rather than engaging with people who have internalized a few lessons from either direction.

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I'm not averse to the argument but citing climate change as an example? Climate change is the poster child for technocratic over-confidence, wildly wrong predictions and the failure to balance costs with benefits.

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You haven't said who you claim is overconfident (Politicians? Environmentalists? Manabe & Wetherald 1967? Svante Arrhenius 1896?), what "wildly wrong predictions" they made, and how costs have exceeded benefits. I'd bet money that if you named specifics, your comment would attract fewer upvotes and probably more controversy.

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The IPCC has been wildly wrong on everything from the rate of temperature and sea level increases, to hurricanes, polar ice, Himalayan glaciers, polar bears and fires. It featured one report with a hockey stick graph from Michael Mann that manipulated pine cone data in what was basically criminal fraud in any other industry. NASA scientist James Hansen predicted sea level would be 4 feet higher today (it's a few inches), Al Gore made millions predicting the end of Arctic ice among other fables, the UK's CRU said kids won't know what snow is.

As for cost-benefits, CO2 growth and moderate warming can be beneficial as we've seen with the significant greening of the planet and rising crop yields. Germany wasted hundreds of billions on green policies only to see their CO2 continue to rise (while the US pursued fracking, generated $3 trillion of wealth and became the only modern country to consistently reduce CO2). Ontario has wasted tens of billions on green policies only to continue seeing record cold in the winters and become the most indebted sub-national government in the world.

The dominant party in the US today, which calls itself the science party, is currently eying a green policy that will cost a minimum $2 trillion while many of its members repeatedly say the planet only has a dozen years left.

Etc, etc, etc

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First off, "James Hansen predicted sea level would be 4 feet higher today" is a claim I've never heard, and Google can't find it, so I'll ask for a citation on that one. Googling "James Hansen sea level rise prediction" finds no such prediction. It does find a study, Hansen et al 2016, that according to National Geographic claims "sea levels may rise...10 feet" by 2100, but "mainstream climate scientists say the report appears speculative and is not in sync with the leading understanding of melting sea ice", so Beware The Man Of One Study. Also note that the paper "hypothesizes" (their word) that "ice mass loss from the most vulnerable ice...is better approximated as exponential than by a more linear response", but this is incompatible with a prediction of 4 feet of sea level rise "today".

Hanson et al 2016: https://acp.copernicus.org/articles/16/3761/2016/acp-16-3761-2016.pdf (I'm having trouble finding the 10ft/3m prediction in there - care to help me find it?)

But my main question is, what causes you to believe these mispredictions not only exist but are relevant to your position?

For example, when I show you an article indicating that the IPCC previously underestimated sea level rise, how do you go on thinking that the IPCC has exaggerated sea-level rise? Or if I point out that Michael Mann is only one of many paleoclimate scientists to have published a hockey stick graph, why doesn't the work of these other scientists affect your opinion?

https://skepticalscience.com/sea-level-rise-predictions.htm

https://static.skepticalscience.com/pics/Hockey_League_spaghetti.gif

Or if I point out that eight committees investigated the ClimateGate allegations and found no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct by Mann et al., why are you unmoved?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climatic_Research_Unit_email_controversy#Inquiries_and_reports

Every well-known climate scientist has heard allegations like you are making (probably with an occasional death threat) but over 500 of them continue to volunteer unpaid time to prepare the next IPCC report just the same. What makes you so sure that you can trust the opinion of, say, WattsUpWithThat or Breitbart over them?

A secondary question: the prediction you claim comes from CRU was actually written by a sports writer for The Independent who attempted to paraphrase something David Viner said. The question, then, is why this paraphrase is important to you. I mean, it's just one remark by one scientist who, as far as anyone can tell, said it to one sports writer and no one else. Do you judge every other scientific field by this standard - that any given scientific field should be judged by the most cringeworthy remarks any scientist has made to any newspaper, even if other scientists in the same field are the first ones to cringe?

By the way, I cannot defend Germany, which is shutting down their clean nuclear plants. It makes no sense from a scientific perspective. And while there has been a clear warming trend throughout Eastern Canada over the last 50 years, there has indeed been a cooling trend more recently, which I think is a result of changes in the behavior of the jet stream:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1fwNnJUYgU

I'm Canadian, and the reason I support efforts to stop global warming has nothing to do with Canada. Note that the possibility of new cold records despite global warming is well-known and acknowledged among climate scientists. Cold records can still be expected to happen occasionally for a reason separate from the jet stream, namely that scientists/IPCC predict that the variance in temperatures will increase along with temperatures themselves; thus more heat waves and cold snaps are expected. I could go on, but this distracts from my main question so I'll shut up now.

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I see you skated right past the cost-benefit argument. Fundamentally, this is all that matters. If the benefits of moderate warming outweigh the costs of warming and/or mitigation, then we shouldn't be spending billions let alone trillions. Period.

As for your other arguments:

1) Hansen in this 1981 paper predicted 5-6m in this century based on just 2 degree warming and melting of West Antarctic ice sheet. He said that would flood 25% of Florida and Louisiana. https://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/docs/1981/1981_Hansen_ha04600x.pdf

He was sticking with 5m in 2011. http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2011/20110118_MilankovicPaper.pdf

We should be a third of the way to his 5-6m prediction by now (ie, 4 feet) but in fact sea level is still rising at the slow and consistent 2-3mm it has for centuries.

2) Michael Mann's hockey stick was on the front page of the WMO's 1999 report and featured in the summary of the 2001 IPCC report. And it was garbage. As your fellow Canadian Michael McIntryre revealed, Mann ignored tree rings that showed little or no warming and chose outlier rings that had dramatic warming, which is indeed fraud because everyone knows the outliers' growth was likely from neighboring trees being blown down and allowing atypical amounts of sunlight to fuel growth.

That you then go on to cite a political committee as a defense of this technocrat instead of the science that disputes him ... is interesting.

3) Viner wasn't paraphrased. It's a direct quote.

“Children just aren’t going to know what snow is,” he said. And he isn't "just any scientist." He was the senior research scientist at the UK's top climate body.

https://www.climatedepot.com/2018/01/04/flashback-2000-snowfalls-are-now-just-a-thing-of-the-past-children-just-arent-going-to-know-what-snow-is-uk-independent/

I cited Hansen, Mann and Viner because they have been the leading scientists of the technocracy that wants to destroy a global economy based on a selective sampling of very uncertain data. Germany, Canada and many others have used their shoddy work to divert hundreds of billions of precious resources away from real needs in poverty and health. It's appalling.

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You didn't try to answer my main or secondary questions, and I'm not going to discuss new topics until you do. I would prefer if you didn't interpret my questions as "arguments", but you won't "win" simply by not answering.

Your misunderstanding of Hansen et al. 1981 is extreme. It says on page 965:

> Danger of rapid sea level rise is posed by the West Antarctic ice sheet, which, unlike the land-based Greenland and East Antarctic ice sheets, is grounded below sea level, making it vulnerable to rapid disintegration and melting in case of general warming(55). The summer temperature in its vicinity is about -5°C. If this temperature rises ~5°C, deglaciation could be rapid, requiring a century or less and causing a sea level rise of 5 to 6m.

Who told you that this was a prediction of "5-6m in this century based on just 2 degree warming"?

And then you add "we should be a third of the way to his 5-6m prediction by now", even though I already quoted Hansen et al saying that ice loss is not "linear", and even though common sense should tell you not to expect rapid melting at temperatures below zero.

> I see you skated right past the cost-benefit argument.

I only discussed topics you yourself brought up. When responding to a Gish Gallop my usual M.O. is to respond to whatever points the Gish Galloper placed first.

> Viner wasn't paraphrased. It's a direct quote.

You're right, I definitely should have chosen my words more carefully. The time period of the prediction, "within a few years", was paraphrased. But that part, "Children just aren't going to know what snow is" was a direct quote.

Please remember, though, that you were talking about predictions. In order for a prediction to fail, the date of the prediction must arrive without the prediction coming true. So for example, if there's a prediction for 2030, you cannot say in 2021 that the prediction has already failed. Therefore the time period and conditions for predictions are relevant, and in this case the time period was paraphrased.

David Viner was "a" senior research scientist, not "the" senior research scientist.

See my questions above.

Correction: my previous comment should have said "there has indeed been a cooling trend in more recent *winters*".

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1) "Your misunderstanding of Hansen et al. 1981 is extreme. ... Who told you that this was a prediction of "5-6m in this century based on just 2 degree warming"?

Excuse me? Hansen does it in the very next paragraph. "Climate models (7, 8) indicate that 2°C global warming is needed to cause 5°C warming at the West Antarctic ice sheet."

So world warms 2 deg, which causes a 5 degree jump locally in West Antarctica, which causes sea level to rise 5-6m by end of the century.

So you failed to understand the study that I cited accurately, and yet accused me of "extreme misunderstanding."

Yikes.

2) It's weird you persist in defending Hansen. He's been sidelined by the climate field in recent years but the fact remains that while at NASA he more than anyone kickstarted the idea that govts should spend billions mitigating warming.

You might also be interested in what he told a Salon reporter in 1988.

"He looked for a while and was quiet and didn't say anything for a couple seconds. Then he said, "Well, there will be more traffic." I, of course, didn't think he heard the question right. Then he explained, "The West Side Highway [which runs along the Hudson River] will be under water."

That's a rise of 10 feet by 2028. Maybe that exponential increase will kick in any time now.

3) You responded to my statement that "you skated right past the cost-benefit argument" by saying "I only discussed topics you yourself brought up."

Uhm, yes. I myself brought it up in my original comment.

"Climate change is the poster child for technocratic over-confidence, wildly wrong predictions and the failure to balance costs with benefits."

Cost-benefit analysis is key to climate policy.

4) Your next issue is that I didn't address "what causes (me) to believe these mispredictions not only exist but are relevant?"

Well, of course they exist. The IPCC has been wrong about extreme weather, sea level, glaciers, fires, hurricanes and much else. They publicly apologized for the glaciers one, though they usually just fiddle the predictions in subsequent reports to catch up with reality.

And they're relevant because (this seems achingly obvious) governments spend money based on predictions.

Bad predictions, wasted money.

And that I'm going to leave this conversation. It's one I've had a hundred times. Ciao.

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Thank you for the correction re: Hansen 1981. However, your misunderstanding remains severe if you have not acknowledged to yourself that (1) the rate of ice melt is not a constant independent of temperature, and (2) Hansen et al clearly don't treat it as a constant. In the 1981 paper he he appears not to expect the melting to occur until about 5°C warming is reached, and cites models by Manabe and Stouffer 1980 and others to support the idea that 2°C global warming is sufficient for 5°C of local warming.

I realize my initial questions weren't posed well enough, so I'll try again:

(1) When I show you an article indicating that the IPCC previously underestimated sea level rise, how do you go on thinking that the IPCC has exaggerated sea-level rise?

This was meant as context for the question "what causes you to believe these mispredictions not only exist but are relevant to your position", because surely you believe that the IPCC is alarmist. If, instead, you believe that the IPCC is merely overconfident but might well be wrong in either direction, you still haven't made a case for distrusting the IPCC, as the IPCC frequently expresses uncertainty and uses confidence intervals. If, for example, measured outcomes are outside their 75% confidence interval 25% of the time, it would suggest perfect calibration. I don't expect them to be perfectly calibrated, but showing an occasional misprediction in a >4000-page report is insufficient. (Making this more complex, most predictions are correlated via temperature, so even if they were perfectly calibrated, the error rate would not be 25%.)

The "The Man Of One Study" concept was also meant as context: https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/12/12/beware-the-man-of-one-study

That is, if one study says X and one scientist says Y to a reporter, but other experts in field F are skeptical of X and Y, then how is field F "the poster child for technocratic over-confidence" or "wildly wrong predictions" rather than being just like any other field?

(2) If I point out that Michael Mann is only one of many paleoclimate scientists to have published a hockey stick graph, why doesn't the work of these other scientists affect your opinion?

(3) If I point out that eight committees investigated the ClimateGate allegations and found no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct by Mann et al., why are you unmoved?

Regarding the 2028 thing, James Hansen said about the 1988 conversation that "Reiss asked me to speculate on changes that might happen in New York City in 40 years assuming CO2 doubled in amount." It's not clear why they would assume CO2 would double by 2028 (i.e. 560ppm), but it's clear that's not going to happen. A charitable interpretation is to assume Reiss was talking about a worst-case scanario that didn't happen, and that Hansen is talking about the highway's low point, not the average or high.

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Oops I missed an important one: What makes you so sure that you can trust the opinion of (individual writers at) WattsUpWithThat or Breitbart over the IPCC authors (with their consensus process based on peer-reviewed scientific literature)?

Note that all of these questions are epistemic in nature, and that's what I'm hoping to explore here, your epistemology. You say you've had this conversation a hundred times, but I'm betting that a conversation about your eipstemological process, and how you apply it to climate science & climate policy, is not a conversation you've had even once.

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In general, model uncertainty more likely means increased variance in both directions. So naively, if you are suss of the quality of research on X bad thing that bounds it to Y badness, you should be more worried about X, not less.

I find it rather interesting that the people critiquing climate scientists are less likely to be the doomsday/climate alarmist crowd, and more likely to be the denialist crowd. This seems the opposite of a reasonable epistemic process.

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Scott, I love your reasoning and think you have a great sense of which facts are important to a point, but when the facts *don't* matter, you almost invariably get them wrong. SCOTUS have JDs (or in the past LLBs) and Brown principally concerned the 14th Amendment, which was less than 90 years old at the time.

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author

Thanks, fixed.

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With respect, still quite not fixed. First, the degree weren’t from Harvard and Yale per se, but from Harvard and Yale Law schools. Second, Amy Coney Barrett graduated from Notre Dame Law, the first on the court in many years NOT from either Yale or Harvard. I think you were going for “ Nine unelected JD experts, almost all with Harvard and Yale Law degrees”

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While in recent years there's been a massive Harvard-Yale-ization of the Supreme Court, back during Brown v. Board of Education the Court was made of people who attended law school at eight different schools, to wit:

UC Berkley (Earl Warren)

University of Alabama (Hugo Black)

University of Virginia (Stanley F. Reed; he dropped out rather than complete his degree)

Columbia (William O. Douglas)

Albany Law (Robert H. Jackson, a 1 year "certificate of completion")

University of Texas (Tom C. Clark)

Indiana University Bloomington (Sherman Minton)

and yes,

Harvard (Felix Frankfurter, Harold Hitz Burton)

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I now feel bad for being a nitpicker and I'm glad you fixed only the most pointed issue (PhDs). By my count, 4/9 of the Brown Court had Harvard or Yale degrees of some sort, even if they weren't law degrees, and that's obviously how people perceive the Court now - which makes it truthful for effective writing purposes.

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Except that "the Court now" vs. the Court then actually represents two ends of a historically significant technocracy/democracy spectrum.

Many of the Warren Court's members had been elected officials before being nominated as justices. Warren was governor of California, Black was a US senator for Alabama and Minton for Indiana, Burton had been a state rep and US senator for Ohio as well as mayor of Cleveland. Reed never held statewide office, but did serve in the Kentucky legislature for a time.

3 of the other 4 had held high-profile federal political appointments: Jackson and Clark as Attorney General and Douglas as head of the SEC; Douglas was quite seriously considered at one point to be FDR's pick for Vice President. Only Felix Frankfurter, who'd made his name in legal academia, had a resume that wouldn't look altogether atypical for a nominee today.

The fact that a lot of these guys went to state-flagship law schools (which tend to feed into state-level politics) rather than Harvard or Yale Law is significant, then, because it ties into a whole different view of what qualifies someone to sit on the Supreme Court.

The Justices of 60 years ago were chosen essentially as regional notables whose stature was as much political as strictly legal, and who often enjoyed a measure of democratic legitimacy as popularly elected officials.

The Justices of today are chosen for their standing in a meritocratic professional hierarchy of legal academics and appellate judges and litigators; virtually none has held any position not dependent on the field's internal mechanisms of selection for specialist technical skill.

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Devil's advocate/Curious for your take: when the facts don't matter, why should Scott care if he gets them right?

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1) I'm confused about 1-5 - of these 1 and 4 seem objectively correct with later (scientific) knowledge, 2 seems to be correct in the sense that it's a no-brainer under our current values, 3 and 5 seem like a good examples of the state messing things up (lockdowns aside, the state *also* said "no masks" there for a long time).

2) A much bigger example of something that bothered me in Seeing Like a State - he tears up a lot of western agricultural practices that failed to generalize, but wasn't the green revolution a thing that happened, largely successfully, mostly eradicating third world hunger? What was different about it from the failure cases he's quoting? And most importantly, why does Scott never ask this? It reminds me of the three number pattern game in HPMOR - Scott assumes he has a theory to explain the failure of some big projects, but he never tests his theory on any government successes to see if it can separate them.

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I think there are reasonable critiques of the green revolution, in terms of leading to monoculture, environmental harm and debt from herbicides and pesticides, and a disappearance of indigenous agricultural practices. Which isn't to say it didn't have a lot of upsides, just that maybe things could have been done better, and that its faults align with Scott's critiques.

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Sure, I can believe that. But (James) Scott mostly takes the view that indigenous agricultural practices are superior in terms of raw food production (at least in the medium range), which seems to contradict that the green revolution has been successfully feeding the third world for several decades now.

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With respect, I don't think that was really his point - it was that changing indigenous practices with imported and not locally attuned knowledge can mess things up in unpredictable ways, precicely because of that lack of local knowledge. Sometimes that looks like complete failure and food production declining, which understandably are the examples he used, but sometimes it's more subtle or nuanced

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Right, it *can* mess it up in unpredictable ways, but it can also end up working fine (and overall seems to have worked out more often than not, given that food production is consistently up overall). And he never seems to bother to compare the cases that worked with the cases that failed.

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Even (1) isn't objectively 100% correct. It seems to conflate all vaccines and diseases together. Smallpox vaccination was a huge success partly because smallpox was a very nasty illness.

In more recent times vaccination against Swine Flu caused an outbreak of narcolepsy, a rather horrifying disease that causes people to randomly fall asleep. The vaccine trained the immune system to destroy some sort of sleep regulation protein in the brain. Swine Flu meanwhile was much milder than ordinary flu so even though only a relatively small fraction of the people who got vaccinated went on to develop brain damage, I don't think there's a rational argument for why that was a good tradeoff and haven't seen anyone try to mount one. The cure was worse than the disease, especially as the victims were teenagers.

The jury is still out on COVID vaccines, but the 'rationality' of such a thing will never be truly objective because COVID data is already so corrupted and open to interpretation. Even if the vaccines have a far greater rate of horrid side effects than most do, it will still be a relatively small proportion of those who get vaccinated, and the cost/benefit tradeoff will ultimately sink into debates about the exact IFR of the virus vs the exact rate of adverse reactions, the value of giving governments a face-saving way out of lockdowns etc. There will likely never be broad agreement on them in the same way there is for smallpox vaccines, and attempts to pretend there are or should be will just further undermine institutions that should know better.

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founding

I've got to go with the top-down vaccinators on this one. Various forms of influenza kill about twenty thousand people a year in the United States. The vaccines we roll out every year will cut this by about half among people who use them, which is about half the vulnerable population. Those are rough numbers, but even if every one of them is off by a factor of two in the worst direction, we're saving 625 lives a year by encouraging but not mandating flu vaccines.

Once, almost half a century ago, the vaccinators guessed wrong about which strain of flu would be really bad that year, and also about how safe the proposed vaccine was, and as a result - about five hundred people developed a serious but usually non-fatal neurological condition.

The promise of technocracy was never "all decisions will be correct and there will be no harmful consequences", so finding a single case of the technocrats making a wrong call is not an effective counterargument. The very biggest wrong calls, like forced collectivization of farms, have caused enough harm that it's worth thinking about how to put checks on the ability of technocrats to make massively disruptive changes for the sake of fitting everything into neat rectangular grids. But the Swine Flu vaccine ranks with Brasilia on the "meh, we can roll with the occasional punch if the average result is better" scale. And the average result of trusting the technocrats on seasonal flu vaccines, is better than the alternative.

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The swine flu vaccine was voluntary, so I agree it's not hugely relevant to the case of enforced technocratic decisions like farm collectivisation. I think the issue is more the general take on it by institutional society, which is that anyone who doubts technocratic decisions is some kind of loon who thinks the moon is made of cheese and who should generally be ignored, silenced or ridiculed. Given that their decisions are quite often not only wrong but obviously wrong that's a pretty unhelpful take and it leads to a low trust environment: if a group of people have to be given automatic and total deference, that means nobody is checking their own except themselves, and everyone understands how untrustworthy the results can get.

Also consider that the swine flu vaccine disaster wasn't an inevitable random problem. It was avoidable because the decision to mass vaccinate in the first place was based on unjustified panic, a (small) coverup and huge conflicts of interest amongst the technocratic classes. It really wasn't justifiable given the reported medical data about H1N1, the justification for taking any action at all was based on very poor use of logic and data.

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Can we please stop calling collectivisation a technocratic decision? I see no evidence it arose from a process applying some form of rationalism/optimisation, and it wasn’t like the did AB testing as it rolled out to check either.

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My first thought when I saw the whole "mandatory vaccines" thing was to recall we had https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/09/06/acc-entry-should-childhood-vaccination-be-mandatory/ on that topic and one of the data points was that "in many European nations vaccination isn’t mandatory, and those nations often achieve higher vaccination rates than in the US."

So I'm not sure that after reviewing the evidence, even "mandatory vaccines" comes out as the slam-dunk win Scott seems to imply, let alone some of the other, more controversial examples.

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I was going to dismiss Weyl out of hand, as I do for anyone who uses phrases like "strongly privileges rationalist approaches". But I realize that I can fully consider what he's saying and still dismiss him, based on the axis I think really matters: Chosen Vs. Coerced.

But I want to first take a whack at a similar issue that I think Scott elides in his introduction: "Nobody ever defends technocracy. It's like "elitism" or "statism". There is no Statist Party. Nobody holds rallies demanding more statism. There is no Citizens for Statism Facebook page with thousands of likes and followers."

Here I think we need to reach for our Orwell, and his Politics and the English Language: "https://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit"

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’"

For the record, I can give arguments against all 5 examples Scott mentions, and, yes, I can drag in quotes from black activists who said that forced integration was a fiasco, but if I explain what's wrong with all of the different initiatives we'll be here all day.

The point is that euphemism is always a way to evade what one is talking about.

Anyway, back to Weyl - the contradiction here is that he is against the E.A. movement which is purely voluntary. No one is forcing anyone to take part in it, and - as I understand it - everyone can make the case and present the evidence for and against it, and for and against what causes the E.A. movement tackles.

If you read the article, you see he somehow conflates both Stalinist central planning and economic liberalization. So the whole thing is a con job - it's saying: "Some people who thought they knew better advocated for _this_, and other people who think they know better advocated for _that_, so they're the same, and you shouldn't listen to either - because I know better!"

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Without wanting to reply to all of this, I think of Weyl as generally a smart and interesting person who deserves respect and probably doesn't need to be discounted this dramatically.

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Jan 29, 2021Liked by Scott Alexander

You're right - I should have been clearer, and specified I was only responding to this article, rather than Weyl as a whole person. That's a bad habit the internet inculcates.

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Smart and interesting he may be, but he also has a pattern of misrepresenting the "rationalists" he's critiquing: https://www.overcomingbias.com/2019/03/reponse-to-weyl.html

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If he's massively and hilariously wrong about stuff you know well, why do you continue to give him credence on stuff that you don't know well?

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I don't see where I gave him credence on any specific subject matter (although I'm not here denying that he has any such credence either).

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I was replying to Scott.

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Ah, I got an email notification for your comment that led me to think you were replying to me.

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Weyl has actually proposed some absurd ideas in voting theory, such as monetized score voting.

https://www.rangevoting.org/MonetizedRV

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I don't think that technocracy vs "unnamed good way of making decisions" is necessarily a good or useful dichotomy, but I do think that there is value in looking at what various solutions or ways of doing things are optimizing for. For instance, school admissions. Though this seems a little like a methodology debate - which I think is what talks about technocracy really are, discussions on the best way to do things - it seems more deeply like a debate about what you want in a student body. If you are optimizing for a student body who can expose each other to a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences, your admissions process is going to look different than if you are just attempting to get the most intelligent students.

I think a real postmodernist or critical theorist or whatever you want to call them would say that power is what is missing from both your and from Weyls analysis though. Just because something isn't data driven or centrally planned doesn't mean it's less likely to perpetuate power differentials or intergenerational wealth or elite capture, it's just that "technocracy" gives things a veneer of objectivity that would otherwise be missing, which gives it more staying power than otherwise. At least, that's what I think of as the actual critique of technocracy - not that it necessarily has worse outcomes than other methods but that it pretends to be above the entrenched interests etc.

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I think I do try to include power in my analysis - specifically the paragraph starting with "The people who devise mechanisms can sometimes be biased".

Total libertarianism is great and we should have more of it (this is also a big part of James Scott's point). But if we don't have total libertarianism, then people in power are going to be making decisions, which will be some combination of reasonable/altruistic and biased/selfish. Technocracy is about how they make those decisions, and the debate is around what sorts of decision-making structures make it harder vs. easier for them to be biased/selfish. The five axes I listed are different aspects of that.

My thesis in the third part of this is that mechanism (where the people in power have to create some rule and stick to it) makes them less able to exert arbitrary/biased/selfish power than direct judgment (where they do whatever they want without worrying about rules).

To give a concrete example: district creation via compact polygons isn't just providing a "veneer of objectivity" to some entrenched interest creating districts for their own nefarious ends. It's actually making it pretty hard for people in power to pursue their entrenched interests effectively.

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founding

Aaargh – the dreaded mistake vs conflict rivalry renews!

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In addition to providing a route of scrutiny and limits on abuse, it's also worth noting that having objective measures, or just keeping an eye on them, isn't incompatible with disrupting power structures or any other goal you might have. In the specific case of education, for example, Scott links to a paper showing how purely IQ based admissions actually increase representation of minorities and low income students. This is something you'd likely miss by only taking a holistic view. In fact, it seems to be missed by most everyone, given that institutions who explicitly say they value diversity are moving away from similar measures.

Of course, you might say that the specific minority/low income increase isn't what you value. Or maybe you can say there's something wrong with the paper or its conclusion. I would guess that many people would call IQ tests elitist, ironically enough if the effect is true. But it at least shows that there is probably some effect there that you shouldn't just immediately dismiss out of hand, if your goal is to actually increase diversity. You can promise with a cherry on top that your admissions screeners are perfectly fair and free from bias, but there's also a good chance they'll turn out like the doctors.

At least, that's what I'd reply do your hypothetical postmodernist.

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> If you are optimizing for a student body who can expose each other to a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences, your admissions process is going to look different than if you are just attempting to get the most intelligent students.

This is ostensible given the ideological shibboleths one has to pass to get admitted nowadays. The woke way of interpreting those backgrounds and life experiences is so crushingly conformist you don't have much individuality left afterwards.

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It’s very easy to agree with your essay in general, but counting the handling of COVID as a triumph for technocracy [outside of China] undermines the fundamental premise. The mask fiasco, the absurd discussions surrounding border closures, the idiotic conservatism surrounding vaccine approval, much of the school debate, etc were mostly elite failures. A good dose of Folksy Common Sense wouldnt have been terrible in many of those debates.

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I think the technocrats underperformed smart people on Twitter, but overperformed the median person who disagreed with them.

Getting the government to listen to the median person is an easy problem (direct democracy or mob rule); getting the government to listen to weird autodidacts on Twitter - who I think I have the skill of identifying beforehand, but who the average person might not be able to distinguish from crackpots - is a very hard problem. I'm okay with pronouncing technocrats better than the alternative until we can solve the very hard problem.

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Yeah, I think it's noteworthy that a lot of the times when people critique technocratic elites, it's often another 'elite' (to use the term poorly, but at an intellectual level and engagement with issue level, elite I guess?) who disagrees. This is alongside public outrage that's more inchoate.

A pretty good defense IMO of technocracy is that the 'inter-elite' arguments (about efficacy and deprivation of local schools) are generally more honest and approach judgements about total utility vs partisans who want to empower/disempower school unions, which I think the fifth clash points at.

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The issue is that 'the people' can't actually run anything. You always need a institutions, rules and a shared culture, which automatically means that the choice is between elites.

It's not a coincidence that it was the ANC/Mandela that got into power after the end of apartheid, rather than some random people.

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I wish more people understood this.

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I don't think you're taking that far enough. In truth, "the people" can't run anything, but neither can institutions, rules, nor a shared culture.

In the end, specific individuals make decisions which run whatever thing they have at least some power over. All those others are just abstractions hiding that fact. So you can have one individual who makes a good decision based on good data, or another who makes a bad decision based on good data, or yet another who makes a bad decision based on bad data, and call all of them part of the technocratic elite, or whatever other group you want.

But a lot of your resulting outcomes appear to be derived from the incentives and information surrounding those individuals in power who are making those decisions.

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founding

Technocrats underperformed smart people on Twitter and overperformed the median dissenter on the axis of "how effective will this policy be in limiting the spread of Covid-19?" I think they massively underperformed pretty much everyone else on the axis of "how much collateral damage will this cause?" Telling everyone to work from home and socialize on Zoom for a few weeks, er, months, er, maybe years, is a thing only a childless upper-middle-class knowledge worker would classify as "mostly harmless", and only if they'd never heard of the concept of bottom-up transparency or otherwise thought to ask people outside their bubble.

I think one of the failure modes of technocracy is that most technocrats are not polymaths, but experts in one thing. And, as such, judge their own efforts almost entirely on the basis of how they perform on the one axis corresponding to their own specialty. Put epidemiologists in charge of pandemic response, and you'll score prettty well on the number of pandemic deaths, but very poorly on e.g. how many kids wind up dropping out of school because a year of Zoom-schooling left them too far behind the curve to catch up. Maybe the ideal solution would be to have everything vetted by polymathic technocrats, but those are rare and maybe outnumbered by people who can convincingly pretend to be polymathic technocrats in order to further their own agendas. So there may still be a role for populist democracy here,

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" Put epidemiologists in charge of pandemic response, and you'll score prettty well on the number of pandemic deaths, but very poorly on e.g. how many kids wind up dropping out of school because a year of Zoom-schooling left them too far behind the curve to catch up."

Norway and Finland were some of the only places in the world to hove no required school closures in mid-to-late May 2020. And, to be honest, Zoom school is probably better than real school for many children.

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I don’t know how much each place trusted the medical establishment, so I can’t comment on that, but I do know, since I am a student and know a lot of students up and down the educational ladder, that zoom school fucking sucks. That’s my ‘metis’.

But also, the data says distance learning has been absolute shit worlwide. Teenage pregnancies are up in the third world and in the first the poor kids are dropping out. The kids that stay almost universally report learning less.

School closures were, early on, an expert recommendation. It was a micro scandal when some smart people realized Trump wasn’t wrong and that school closures were idiotic. It’s slowly becoming mainstream opinion in the US, but only slowly.

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As a professor who also has teenage kids in school, my experience is that you are right on the money. Online school is terrible for everyone. All other options besides "no school at all" are better.

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School closures aren't idiotic; they're one of the few levers the government has for the population to take a pandemic seriously. They forced parents and children to socially distance. Of course, it's probably better to reopen schools once the pandemic is contained.

"Teenage pregnancies are up in the third world and in the first the poor kids are dropping out. "

I call this a win. School dropouts are substantially less in much of the world than they need to be (both making school a worthless signal and ruining the days of people who happen to be in school), and aging populations are a growing crisis in most of the world.

"The kids that stay almost universally report learning less. "

This is a problem, but not a huge one. It's quite clear elementary school learning gains stall out in high school; ergo, elementary school learning losses shouldn't have a major effect on high school learning.

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I think they are pretty idiotic since basically every reliable study agrees that

A) Distancing + masks + ventilation limits spread to a very reasonable extent B) Unlike dining indoors, there’s no reason you can’t do/have these things while taking algebra class

C) Your whole ‘education system is signaling ~> it’s useless’ shtick is basically only superficially plausible in higher education in the rich countries. Practically every serious researcher agrees that incomes will decline with less/worse schooling (as a result of zoom school). You also seem to assume that people only drop out in New Jersey, when the big drops will obviously occur in the global south (which is also the same place with the teenage pregnancies; these things arent mutually exclusive).

D) Schools are also important for socializing. Having preschool kids basically not know what it’s like to share a classroom isn’t optimal, even if that doesnt deal directly with their writing skills (then again, poorer kids from less, say, literate households obviously benefit from the interactions *academically*).

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My guess is that you aren't encouraging your teenage daughter to drop out of school and get pregnant.

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founding

"And, to be honest, Zoom school is probably better than real school for many children".

I'm going to want a citation or three on that. Beyond what I read in the local and national news, I've got a couple of friends who are married to schoolteachers, and I've got an assortment of nieces and nephews, and the reports I've been getting on Zoom-schooling are 100% negative. Even the techno-literate 13yo girl whose favorite Christmas present was a high-end gaming computer and her even nerdier younger brother, are not doing well with remote schooling. Those two will come out of it OK, but they'll come out of it OK because they're pretty well set on the home-schooling front, not because the time they are spending on the other end of a Zoom window from their teachers is worth anything.

The ones who aren't in a good home-schooling or pod-schooling environment, and especially the ones who don't have nice computers, I am pretty sure are going to lose a lot out of this. I absolutely understand and mostly agree with the general criticism of America's public education system, but let's not overstate. It's better than nothing, at actual education and social development and not just signalling, and as near as I can tell Zoom-schooling is pretty close to nothing.

If you've got evidence that any great number of children are actually doing better under Zoom-schooling than in-person education, that would be a useful contribution to the discussion. If what you've got is basically "Modern American schools suck so much that anything else would be better, Zoom-school is something else, so it must be better", then that's not helpful and it's probably not true.

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> Telling everyone to work from home and socialize on Zoom for a few weeks, er, months, er, maybe years, is a thing only a childless upper-middle-class knowledge worker would classify as "mostly harmless"

This was one of my biggest prediction mistakes during the pandemic. I expected the prolonged quarantines to be much more harmful than they ended up being.

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I think it’s too early to call that. Effects of Child abuse and impact on social mobility are going to take a while to unwind.

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"is a very hard problem" -Actually, it is simpler than you think. One must simply have a government by superforecasters.

I don't think Western experts performed well at all in regards to COVID, but the places with the greatest expert input (Norway, Denmark, South Korea, Germany, Singapore, Canada) did not tend to be the worst of the bunch (which were in Eastern Europe, Indonesia, and Latin America; probably large parts of SSA as well). There were lots of Western experts promoting "herd immunity"/"flatten the curve" though, despite later revisionism. The best-performing places (North Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam, New Zealand) did many things that went against expert advice as of January-February 2020.

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I participated in "flatten the curve" messaging on internet. The point was to vehemently signal against then apparent government strategies that nothing could be done than prepare hospitals and wait for herd immunity. After witnessing Italy, I think nobody thought that the flattening effort would end up much more effective than only flattening the heights (I think can dig up tweets and blogs to back this up).

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South Korea and Taiwan are better examples than China since they didn't ignore the problem for months and arrest people who talked about it, then overreact to the extent that people starved from being locked in their homes. China is an example of exactly the kind of bad top down management we're talking about.

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That whole narrative where China handled the first months pathetically wrong is both wrong [there’s a good series on that in Quillette] and ultimately inconsequential since their excess deaths ended up minuscule. Also, recalibrating early on [overreacting] > having rolling lockdowns for literally a year. It’s absolutely correct that South Korea and Taiwan [and NZ and Japan] did better, but to say China had bad top down management, generally speaking, would be wrong.

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The interesting thing about the Chinese neglect then ‘overreaction’ is that it coincided with greater centralised and top down scrutiny of what had been less technocratic and more localised administration.

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No; South Korea is not a better example than China; China did not have daily cases rising into the four digits after the Wuhan outbreak. Taiwan only banned travel from Wuhan on January 22; the Wuhan lockdown followed just one day later. North Korea banned *all* tourism the same day as Taiwan imposed its Wuhan travel ban.

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One thing I'd be weary of is inside information that was known to government technocrats but not smart people on twitter.

For example, how much of the mask fiasco could be explained by the technocrats thinking "we can tell people not to use masks now when we need them all for the hospitals, and then use our friends in the media to turn the public narrative on a hairpin when supplies improve"?

That said the clever plan might have backfired and created the anti-masker stuff. But the counterfactual feels very hard to predict. Trump strikes me as someone who would be anti-mask no matter what. And how much opposition to masks is an unspoken cultural taboo from way back? Witness the hostility to Islamic veils.

The conservatism surrounding vaccine approval strikes me as a stronger example of a criticism that weakens with more details. The bottleneck in the EU's painfully slow rollout is production. Approving earlier wouldn't have fixed that (however signing orders and handing over the Euros earlier would have)

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Approvals and production bottlenecks can be connected. For instance, NYT wrote a couple of days ago that Moderna wants to use larger vials. There is a bottleneck with vials and larger ones can increase production up to 50 percent. But NYT adds that it will take FDA a few weeks to make a decision about vials. I do not think that EMA (European FDA) is quicker or more decisive.

The production process is heavily regulated and even small changes or tweaks need approval.

In fact, I talked with one member of EMA´s Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use - this body gives approvals in Europe - in mid-December. He described that they are assessing three things: efficacy, safety, and quality. By quality, they mean production process. By his words, efficacy and safety are easy-peasy, just a couple of hours of work. Okay, maybe a day if you decide to look more closely. But quality (production side) there are more papers and more work.

Overall I was quite shocked.

Our conversation went like this (we talked by phone).

I: I am very sorry, I know you are very busy right now, but maybe we can talk few minutes. (It was mid-December about two weeks after Pfizer's application, I was assuming that he is a Very Busy Person, who was tirelessly working day and night through Pfizer´s material).

Him: No problem, I have time. I am in the hospital right now...

I: Oh, I thought that Pfizer application...

Him: No I am not working on it. Tomorrow also not, I have a 24h shift. I think I will look at it during the weekend.

I: I thought that is very complicated and takes time.

Him: Vaccination research is super easy to evaluate. Two groups, just compare numbers. You know, cancer research is complicated to evaluate (follows long and interesting talk about cancer research). But vaccines, nah, it is not complicated. Efficacy and safety are simple. We will dedicate more time to quality (production) and what recommendations we are making to doctors.

Me: ok, thanks.

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I don't know what this is a product of, but I do not have negative connotations for the word 'technocrat'. The main usage I associate it with is when, say, The Economist says Country X has appointed a technocrat as Minister of Salad Forks or whatever, i.e. someone chosen for their competence rather than affiliation to a particular party; it's invariably presented as a good thing.

Does the word have universal negative associations in other media circles, or just in particular ones that Weyl would be a part of?

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What country are you from?

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Canada, native English speaker, but at this stage I consume mostly US and UK media and live in Europe.

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I have a vague sense that other countries use "technocrat" more positively than the US, but I'm not sure.

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Interesting, that's quite possible, as I associate it with e.g. the Italian coalition governments (that keep collapsing...). I think if you asked me what the opposite of 'technocrat' is I would instinctively say 'populist'.

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In line with that view, it's used as a positive in The Economist most weeks. I'd agree that they largely mean it as different from, if not the exact opposite of "populist".

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In the netherlands "technocrat" is usually reserved for eu politicians, I think sometimes disdainfully and sometimes descriptively.

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I think that 'zakenkabinet' is an example of a positive term. It refers to an executive made up of non-politicians, either technocrats or business leaders.

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Guy from Slovakia. Technocrat is used here in the same way as let's say neoliberal. As smear word and synonymous with detached elite person who is arrogant and smug because he thinks he is smarter than everybody else and who ignores emotions and human costs of his ideas - and being proud of it as he sees it as sign of his strength and moral virtue.

A person who uses technocratic analysis to produce popular position for particular person would not be seen as such. For instance somebody who devised pro/anti immigration technocratic arguments that agree with what you each group already believes in. I doubt that let's say antivaxxers would label Andrew Wakefield - the guy producing infamous "vaccines cause autism" paper - as technocrat.

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I think that’s right. Although in the UK, on the left at least, technocrat does also bring to mind moderate and competent but fairly neoliberal/conservative bankers being put in charge of things. We also often use it to describe ‘sensible’ people gaining power in southern European countries.

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> The Economist says Country X has appointed a technocrat as Minister of Salad Forks or whatever, i.e. someone chosen for their competence rather than affiliation to a particular party; it's invariably presented as a good thing.

Yeah, this is pretty much my exact reference point too. It always makes me a bit suspicious, because it seems like a way of pretending a favoured candidate is somehow above politics. I could certainly believe that others have taken that reaction much further and turned the word into an epithet. But its intended valence in that context always seems to be positive.

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"it worries me that everyone analyzes the exact same three examples of the failures of top-down planning: Soviet collective farms, Brasilia, and Robert Moses."

Excuse me, but Robert Moses is an example of a SUCCESS of top-down planning!

N.B. Since it appears to be impossible to find replies after I've been informed of them by email (or even to find my original comment), I'm going to put off responding to such until the site is fixed. In the meantime, I'll just sit here and pontificate.

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Technocrats were more useful when 1) the world had much less information and 2) that information was only available to technocrats pre-Internet.

Today it's impossible for technocrats to absorb even a sliver of the world's information and they're often not much smarter than a hobbyist or blogger somewhere.

Technocrats also tend to impose highly centralized decision-making and solutions, when decentralized systems are more robust and experimental.

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What do you mean by technocrats here though? Is e.g. Alon Levy a technocrat or a prole?

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> Today it's impossible for technocrats to absorb even a sliver of the world's information and they're often not much smarter than a hobbyist or blogger somewhere.

Arguably, the bloggers smart enough to absorb and process necessary information end up being labeled as "technocrats" too; as Paul and Michael M mention in another comment tree, at least in some circles, the opposite of "technocrat" is "populist".

You mention robustness of decentralized systems, and it's true that decentralized systems are more robust - once they settle around some equilibrium, it's hard to kick them out of it. Problem is, it's hard to predict a priori where such a system will settle. When you're designing an intervention and have a goal with mind, you naturally want to pick a system that gives you some degree of control over its output. You don't want to unleash a robust system that does the exact opposite of what you need it to do.

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Technocrats have power. Bloggers provide information.

And isn't the point of decentralized systems that outcomes are hard to predict? If you fail, you fail on a small scale. If you succeed, that success can be quickly replicated elsewhere.

It's ironic today that decentralization has never been easier or more beneficial thanks to wealth and tech, but our politics is becoming increasingly centralized. The federal government is acquiring far too much power at the expense of the states (ie, education and the more recent minimum wage). Not healthy.

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Since you mentioned Brazil, here's an example of the technocrats in Brazil saving the country from hyperinflation:

https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2010/10/04/130329523/how-fake-money-saved-brazil

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The really strange thing about the Interstate is that it was very likely heavily inspired by a nightmarish journey across the continent that Dwight D Eisenhower made when he was a young Lieutenant Colonel - one that must have made him think "There has to be a better way to do this!" - and it's hard to get more common-man and less elitist than "Army man made big remembers his American road trip"!

(https://www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/research/online-documents/1919-transcontinental-motor-convoy)

(https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/03mar/05.cfm)

(Granted, during World War II Eisenhower was a general who had never seen combat, so he may be a disgraceful example of an elite holding positions of unwarranted high rank; but he did fairly well for himself despite his lack of experience.)

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> Granted, during World War II Eisenhower was a general who had never seen combat, so he may be a disgraceful example of an elite holding positions of unwarranted high rank; but he did fairly well for himself despite his lack of experience

I read Eisenhowers memoir Crusade in Europe and my conclusion is that he is the epitome of "Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics." military saying. He was arguably logistics genius. His level of preparation of complicated operations is unparalleled - like with operation Overlord but also more broadly than that he was very good at thinking on theater level and selecting his pressure points for operations carefully. Additionally he was also very skillful negotiator and politician capable of handling quite a unique personalities in Ally coalition. A stark contrast with let's say WW1 experience where miscommunication and mistrust among military command caused endless pain.

Eisenhower's book is probably the most influential book on WW2 I have ever read. Prior to that I was interested in battles or even exploits of famous fighter aces or tank commanders. Reading Crusade in Europe showed me that those aspects are almost irrelevant. It seemed as if Allies winning was inevitable - Eisenhower's role was to save as many lives as possible - which includes healthy dose of risk and agressivenes - as opposed to let's say Soviet strategy where general staff including generalissimo himself had a little bit different priorities.

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Hmm...I suppose a focus on logistics would be technocratic, so in that case his leadership in WWII may be a shining example of a technocratic triumph! I really don't know much at all about it, though, so maybe there's some historian who could argue that Eisenhower was only successful due to common-sense plain-down-home thinking or whatever.

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I definitely got a vibe of Eisenhower "the technocrat" from the book. For instance he goes into detail of supply capacities across Europe - especially in southern France and why Overlord was necessary as the supply line from south would not be sufficient to support army necessary for ultimate victory - or at least that it would be much more risky than invasion from the North. He literally cites numbers and various alternatives even if using innovative supply methods.

But he also seemed to be very aware of what is happening on the ground. He often toured on frontlines and his main interest was in supply and morale of GI Joes. There is also this interesting incident with general Patton who famously slapped soldiers for being "cowards". Patton did not believe in "shell shock" which is now known as PTSD. Eisenhower forced Patton to apologize to the soldiers but still retained him as he saw Pattons effectiveness.

Lastly a thing I did not cover but which also fits into the narrative is Eisenhower's openness to use intelligence and spy networks resourcefully. There are numerous examples of this in North Africa and during the D-Day where he at the same time misdirected opponents by various tricks - such as so called "ghost armies" of rubber tanks and other vehicles - but also feeding false intel to Germans using spy drama-like scenarios.

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The only thing I can really think of here that maybe can be added is the idea of technocracy as the bureaucratization of government. Notably, I don't think their existence is a harmful features of technocracy, but rather that the process vs judgement is associated with principle-agent harms.

Which one I think is harmful depends on whether we're considering internal decision making or external relations. Internally, we see that having democratic systems of judgement (ie. commitees decide FDA approval vs simple rules or housing by right vs housing permit systems) adds complexity and delay, as well as undermining good outcomes.

I think the flip side is that having process based external relations vs democratic based external relations undermines responsiveness, especially if combined with internal judgement. It means that the personnel is unresponsive to outside feedback loops, which makes it hard for voters to ensure their best interests are being taken care of (eg vs. military contractors in the military or working towards liberal goals under R admin). The combination that I see as 'bad technocracy' is internal judgement (as opposed to formal process), which makes policy illegible for lawmakers, alongside external process (vs democracy) that makes it hard to effect personnel.

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founding

I don't think it's an accurate characterization to describe Weyl as taking the "judgment" side of the "mechanism vs judgment" axis! After all, he is a strong advocate for quadratic funding, Harberger taxes (aka COST aka SALSA...), superlinear quantity subsidies and other "radical mechanism design ideas". That said, he's certainly not anti-judgement in any sense either; I view him as being in the "we need the mechanisms, and we also need stronger public discourse to help us better use the mechanisms" camp.

I think the best way to view his position on this issue is that he has a strong opinion on the tradeoffs between different *types* of mechanisms. This piece co-written by him and myself is IMO a good explainer of the core idea:

https://vitalik.ca/general/2018/11/25/central_planning.html

Basically the idea is that mechanism designers should explicitly have simplicity and explainability as core values to a much greater degree than (math/econ) academics are naturally inclined to accept today. A more concrete example of what he's getting at is this piece from him:

https://promarket.org/2020/05/28/how-market-design-economists-engineered-economists-helped-design-a-mass-privatization-of-public-resources/

That piece talks about his experiences in spectrum auction design, and how a very complicated auctioning style actually was abused and led to a few actors getting spectrum licenses at very unfairly cheap prices. Furthermore, the "illegibility" of the mechanism makes it inherently hard to prove to the public that something wrong happened, because defenders of the outcome can just spout some technobabble that goes way over the heads of not just the average person but even the smartest person that the average person listens to.

Both markets + property rights, and democratic voting, are far superior on this dimension. The mechanisms are simple enough that even lay people can clearly understand how the mechanisms are supposed to work and so they trust them. (Yes, I know, lots of people express suspicion about both property rights and voting all the time. But I'm sure you can agree that if people's cars and houses and who the president is were instead allocated using "theoretically optimal" VCG auctions, then things would be 1000x worse).

Furthermore, markets and voting are both not *opposed* to "judgement"; it's pretty clear that in both cases, they perform reasonably well precisely because a lot of complicated and (necessarily) illegible judgements are being made by the participants in the mechanism! Though clearly this is not true of all mechanisms; Twitter likes/retweets, for example, have no way to express concepts like "I think this tweet is socially harmful and should be shown to fewer people, though it's not quite so egregious that it should be removed outright".

I do disagree with parts of his EA critique. Particularly, it's worth noting that one of the projects more prominently favored by the EA community, GiveDirectly, involves *just giving poor people money and trusting them to do what they want with it* - in many ways the ultimate anti-technocratic form of charity. (Though EA does do its fair share of more-centrally-planned things, like handing out anti-malaria bednets, as well).

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Thanks, I'll take a look at the central planning link.

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founding

BTW Glen himself responded to your response in a Twitter thread:

https://twitter.com/glenweyl/status/1355147750644600835

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I think there might be a mistake in: "Some people analyzed a bunch of data, came up with an algorithm for diagnosing heart attacks, and told doctors they should use the algorithm instead of their own judgment. (...) The interesting part (search "Goldberg Rule" in that link) is what happens when you give doctors the algorithm and tell them to use it to supplement their judgment." - I just looked up "Goldberg rule" in the article linked and it seems to be about diagnosing psychosis, not heart attacks.

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First I cannot tell you how overjoyed I am that you are writing regularly again. The mental clarity is sensational.

One nit-pick - the first time we hear about Scott is

"These axes prove their use when we use them to analyze Weyl's vs. Scott's conceptions of legibility."

I only learnt from the comments you were talking about someone called Jim Scott, and not referring to yourself in the third person.

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I also thought Scott was talking about himself in the third person, and felt that this new style of writing was the first negative of the new blog. It was only your comment that set me straight - I then googled "Seeing like a State" and found out that the book was written by someone named Scott.

Maybe most readers of ACX are familiar enough with the book to avoid the erroneous assumption we made, but given that "Scott" and "Scott" are identical, and neither are quite as settled in the public consciousness as, say, "Orwell" or "Dickens", I would suggest adding the authors name at the first mention of "Seeing like a State".

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@Danno28 - "First I cannot tell you how overjoyed I am that you are writing regularly again. The mental clarity is sensational" - you couldn't have expressed my thoughts better.

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I'm teaching Bertrand Russell's paper "On Denoting" in a couple weeks, and one of his central examples is that the sentence "George IV wondered whether Scott was the author of Waverley" doesn't mean "George IV wondered whether Scott was Scott" or "George IV wondered whether Scott had the property of being self-identical". So funny to see such a similar sentence here, with other Scotts. (This is Sir Walter Scott.)

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The paper which didn't use any formal symbols (presumably because Russell was trying to make it accessible to a non-technical audience), and which I've never heard of anyone teaching without using formal symbols (because they make Russell's position so much clearer). Definitely an interesting example for this discussion.

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Oh, you're in for a treat! Scott Alexander's review of Seeing Like a State is an amazing piece, probably one of the most popular on his old blog: https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/03/16/book-review-seeing-like-a-state/

(And if you haven't already, check out his piece on "Albion's Seed" too!)

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I suggest referring to the author of Seeing Like a State as JCScott or somesuch, and generally finding ways to disambiguate any other Scotts.

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There are multiple Statist parties, two of which spend billions of dollars evangelizing each election season.

Also, during my undergraduate years, I once came across a bound copy of several issues of the Technocracy Party newsletter when I was supposed to be studying. They were a Vietnam-era group which seemed to be pushing for evidence-based socialism to be applied by scientific-minded leaders - probably would have been big Yang fans.

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Great article! One thing on

'Suppose you're the FDA trying to regulate cigarettes, and your doctors and bureaucrats have come up with a plan. What do you do now to "seek democratic feedback"? Put a suggestion box outside the FDA office?

Here in the UK - yes. There's a requirement to have a public consultation on new policy - anyone can answer. It's not a vote but you have to consider the arguments raised and if you just ignore things raised without addressing them you can get into legal trouble.

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The US has something similar with notice and comment periods. When a Federal government agency wants to make a new rule, they have to publish it beforehand, accept comments from the public for a certain amount of time, and give a response to them.

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My impression is that commenting doesn't make any difference to what happens, but then I'm far from an expert on the regulatory process.

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It’s a collective action problem so yes, it can feel like shouting in the wind to be a lone commenter, but worse the fact of the comment period does mean too that agencies are talking with “stakeholders”, which sounds like a good thing until you realize that that is the textbook definition of regulatory capture.

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To be pedantic, "regulatory capture" would imply there actually was some effect, whereas listening to people and then promptly ignoring whatever they said is entirely compatible with the lack of any capture.

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I wasn’t clear then because you’ve misunderstood my point. I’m saying the public comment period is a nod to “hey we’re a government by the people” and is worthless because unelected agency technocrats/bureaucrats don’t have to consider them and indeed how could they, they likely are all over the place and not useful. Instead they only listen to those directly impacted or those that squawk the loudest via other avenues.

So by stakeholders I mean those who are organized, not the general public. When the comment period is open for you or I to enter a comment online (so we are shouting into the wind, do these comments even get seen and are they held as valid?), the agency in question is also talking to stakeholders (so interest groups, trade associations, manufacturers, etc.), groups that have a voice because they overtly and obviously are impacted, as in it’s their process or product that’s taking the regulatory hit. Be it quietly in closed door meetings with the secretary of that agency or via blue ribbon conferences for user groups, this is direct, influential access that does affect the outcome. That’s regulatory capture, when the thing being regulated has the largest voice in the outcome. It doesn’t mean they get everything they want, but for sure it means they get some of what they want. Imho the failure of transparency in what the public comment period collects (how many comments, were they useful comments, did any change anything) is the proof that the individual random citizen comments don’t do much. I would bet the same dynamic is in play in the UK too.

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I'm going to continue being pedantic. A closed door meaning does not, by definition, affect an outcome "for sure". One might expect it to do so, but if the secretary of the agency already has marching orders from the head of government, they can just proceed with that regardless of what anyone says in the meeting.

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The problem with such systems is that the people who tend to respond are small organised groups with strong opinions, not representing the majority of the population. E.g. you would get a lot of letters from tobacco companies, pro smoking groups, and anti smoking groups,

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IIRC the Republic of Ireland has some sort of mechanism whereby they select citizens randomly and ask them about issues. It was an important part of getting the people's feedback that lead to legislation allowing gay marriage or abortion or one of those sort of things.

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founding

The 'follow this idea off a cliff' version probably involves sortition!

With my 'hacker mindset' hat on, I immediately jump to thinking that this just pushes the new 'weakest link' to the people or mechanism used to select the sample of citizens.

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In theory, yes, but in practice it was manipulated by the govt. to reach conclusions it wanted political,support for. For example, on abortion, the pro life campaign complicated that there were 23 pro choice submissions vs four pro life. The chair of the committee was a politician of the governing party who is a staunch abortion rights supporter.

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founding

'Hacker mindset' FTW! Contact your representatives to voice your support for 'polygon tiling'!

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Strangely, Scott misses the opportunity to discuss the large scientific literature that actually tests whether "mechanism" predictions (and thus decisions) are better than "judgments" predictions, or what researchers call algorithms, or actuarial, or model predictions vs. human, clinical predictions. Fortunately, I wrote a blogpost summarizing this evidence a few years ago (2016), so readers can just read that.

https://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/2016/07/clinical-vs-statistical-prediction/

TL;DR formal methods essentially always beat human judgments, even when given the same data, even when humans are given the predictions from the formal model. I interpret this in line with human's desire to be in control, which is apparently stronger than their desire for good outcomes. In these cases, it seems wiser to set strong defaults in favor of whatever the models are saying, and let some minority of humans opt out of that if it's not too much of a problem (maybe for a price).

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