So I didn’t manage to finish The Vorrh in enough time to ensure I’d get through The Handmaid’s Tale in enough time for book club, so I’ll be going back to it*. I’m far enough in that I know it’s going to be an interesting post, for sure.
I’ll admit it, I haven’t actually read The Handmaid’s Tale before. I know, I know, I really ought to have. Seminal work of feminist dystopia and all that. Booker nominated speculative fiction! Multi-award winning! So many reasons I should have got round to this, rather than have it lurking on my To Read list. So, probably spurred on by the current tv show (which I wouldn’t watch without having read the book), I decided to nominate it for this month’s book club meeting, and I am so, so pleased it won. Not because I’ve ticked it off my list. But because it turns out it is probably one of the best books I have ever read.
I think part of that is I got to it in a good week. I started reading it on a Monday, mid-way through a book I suspect of being… iffy on gender stuff, and just after having reacted very very positively to a film for feministy reasons. I was in the right headspace for this. But I think I’d have loved it, if not quite as ridiculously much, whenever I came to it. Because it strikes the perfect balance of horror and realism, creating a dystopia thoroughly rooted in things one can relate to. Atwood is particularly good at grounding her world in history, creating images of the future with echoes of the past, making it so much easier to visualise things ever so clearly. Likewise, the style of the narration, the humanity of it brings it closer to something you can easily feel and imagine. It’s not a dispassionate, third person narrative, watching from a distance. It’s a person right there, feeling those feelings and seeing those things, with all the attendant confusion, unreliability and lack of detail that brings. It’s not explaining every single tiny cause and effect and grand scheme and overarching theme. It’s more human than that, and that’s what makes it so wonderful.
More than anything, though, it is Atwood’s prose that sells it. I forget, sometimes, when I’ve been reading a lot of books with good stories and writing that… gets out of the way… that I really really value decent prose. For all that I love the SFF genre, and I do (I mean, I have a blog dedicated to talking about it and everything), one of the ways I feel it lets itself down is that, on the whole, the standard of writing required for something to be considered good is much, much lower than you might get in other genres. Not all the time, and I’m not saying there’s no well written SFF (I mean, China Miéville exists). But it’s not the norm. So when I do get to some SFF with properly glorious, beautiful writing (thank you David Mitchell, for instance), it stands out as the joy it is to read. And The Handmaid’s Tale is exactly that. Atwood uses her prose to create a vivid, personal and very real sense of a person, as well as subtly crafting her as an unreliable narrator in her own unreliable words. But the thing which truly stood out to me more than all of that was how Atwood describes a scene. My memories of the book are the vivid mental pictures of the landscapes she describes. The weather particularly – the weather which feeds into the tone and themes and which becomes such a subtle but integrated part of the narrative – sticks firmly in my mind. I could see so clearly the empty blue skies of summer she called up, and the sharp edges of the headdresses, the stark colours of the clothing. Colour and sensation are massive focal points in how she creates her world, and it is this more than anything which sticks with me, because it creates a palpable atmosphere. It’s not just that you can imagine her summer, but you can feel and see it. And that’s just so, so rare in SFF that I read… and it’s not like I’m rereading comfort-trash all the time. I generally try to read well-written things, for the standards of the genre, because I do really like good writing… but there’s a step-change between most of that and this, and it’s something that stands out so strongly when I get it.
And then of course there’s the world she describes.
One of the most chilling… but in a weird way almost comforting… things about the book is how real it seems. How… detached from its own time. Like, I know when the book was written, and if I really really pay attention, I can get some sense of that when reading it. But otherwise, it feels sort of timeless. It could happen now. And for all that current events definitely are nudging it more towards realism than anyone wants, part of me feels like that might have been true in the entire intervening time between the writing and now. It feels far more universally applicable than… say… Animal Farm, as well as, frankly, being a better book. It hasn’t (yet? I hope this changes) got the sense of absurdity and unreality that Animal Farm has that really undercuts the seriousness of its message. This… feels so real. And the reactions of the women – the way that not everyone is good, and many of them are their own oppressors – the way there are people all the way down the spectrum of morality particularly emphasise this. It’s not a simple story. It accepts that people are complex, and not everyone follows the same logics, and it still manages to come out of that with a coherent narrative drive.
But somehow, this complex narrative about many people being absolutely horrible is a comfort. And I think part of that is solidarity. My general impression has been that the women who’ve read it and expressed opinions are not… shocked by it. It feels real in a way it doesn’t to the men. And I feel like part of that might be a feeling of, however much the scale is different, not feeling alone. Because this is grown out of a reality many women experience – expanded and overgrown as it may be – and so there’s a sense of understanding and… feeling like you’re believed? I’m not sure how to articulate it.
Mainly, it feels like a very very relevant story, and one that is deeply personal and human. Because the main beauty of it is the narrator, in all her unreliable glory. She’s torn between resentment and horror at her situation and acceptance, almost gratefulness. She’s not a fighter. She’s not a glorious rebel facing up to the evil regime. And that’s why she matters so much. She’s a survivor. She’s someone who puts down her head and gets by. Yes, she hates what her world is. But she lives. Yes, she takes the freedoms she’s given and enjoys them. But she hides them, quietly, sensibly and carefully. She’s who many of us would be, in a way we wouldn’t be the outspoken, strident fighter, consequences go hang. The book gives us her too, in Moira, but she’s someone to be admired, sometimes close and sometimes from a distance, not the voice that speaks directly to us. We’re not meant to identify with Moira, just wonder at her. And for all that sounds a somewhat grim indication of the mindset of most people… to me, at least, it felt real. And that felt so much more worthwhile than a story of noble and… unrealistic, in most people’s cases… dramatic fight and rebellion and turmoil and drama. Because most things aren’t like that.
I’m rambling now, so I’ll get to the point. Much like Wonder Woman, but in a very different direction, The Handmaid’s Tale is a book I found emotionally important, as well as objectively good. There is much to recommend it in the abstract – it is painfully well-written, moving, clever, insightful, horrifying and plausible – but where it really succeeds is the emotional. It feels real, and it feels important. And that’s… a very difficult thing pulled off beautifully. I felt no hesitation giving it five stars on Goodreads, and I honestly think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I am definitely going to seek out more of Atwood’s work because this was just too… yeah.
Next up, a break towards something slightly lighter, ish, maybe – I’m currently reading The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okarofor, and so far it’s really really readable.
*This is still technically true, but I’ve now started reading something else that isn’t creeping me out with male gaze/sexist/casual racism swan stuff.
I’m still on vacation, so here’s another classified thread. Post ads, personals, and any interesting success stories from the last thread.
…and I’ll start. SSC is part of a wider movement of philosophy enthusiasts, transhumanists, effective altruists, etc which has somehow ended up with the simultaneously boring and arrogant moniker of “the rationalist community”. We’ve developed a small intellectual/social scene in the SF Bay Area, with a few hundred interesting people who hang out together and cooperate on various projects. Since rent in the Bay is so high, a lot of the rationalists there are living in group houses, which have become nuclei for social events and cooperation.
Four of these have ended out clustered on Ward Street in Berkeley, and we’re thinking we might as well try to accelerate this and turn the area into a center of the community. We’ve been trying to snatch up houses in the area, and we just got dibs on four houses immediately adjacent to the existing rationalist cluster that are currently available for rent:
1. A five bedroom house for ~$5500/month, available now
2. A four bedroom house for ~$4200/month, available now
3. A seven-to-eight bedroom house, cost to be determined, available 9/1/17
4. A three bedroom house for ~$3100/month, available now (not adjacent to existing cluster; a few blocks away)
All of these are owned by the same landlord, who we’ve previously found pretty reasonable. They’re all kind of old and not going to win any Modern Architectural Design awards or even Especially Well Maintained awards, but we think (investigations still ongoing) that they’re basically solid and in good shape. Pictures and viewings available on request.
We’re currently looking for people who might be interested, either in renting entire houses, or in taking single rooms in what will probably become group houses. Existing community members are of course welcome to apply, but so is anyone who’s reading this and who thinks the idea sounds interesting. If interested, contact katja.s.grace[at]gmail[dot]com for more information and to arrange viewings, etc.
(disclaimer: I enjoyed living in the Bay Area, but I can’t deny that the prices are terrible, the local politics absurd, and the density at just the right level to frustrate lovers of big cities and quiet suburbs alike. Experiences with the rationalist community there vary widely, from people who say it was life-changingly good to people who found it disappointing and difficult to get into. The housing situation here might make it easier to get into, but no guarantees)
Did you know: medieval Christians who didn’t understand Islam imagined Muslims as worshiping a god named Termagant; through a weird chain of events this became the modern word for an argumentative woman.
I was previously pretty convinced that lithium in drinking water was having a significant (and positive) effect on populations, but the most recent study is skeptical.
Ancient people believed the kidney was involved in conscience and deliberation, and according to the Talmud “one of the two kidneys counsels what is good, and the other evil”. What would they think of kidney donors? (h/t Elissa)
You know what nobody hates each other over yet? Quilting.
Study on economic vs. social politics finds that economically-conservative-socially-
Another highly positive study on the connection between lead and crime, this one almost a true experiment. Children placed in a lead-reduction program, compared to children just over the cutoff for qualifying for the program, saw their risk of violent crime as adults drop by 66%! The reduction of lead in the experimental group of this study was about the same as the society-wide reduction over the past twenty years.
Vice presents a counter-narrative about the opioid crisis: pain patients prescribed opiates rarely get addicted, most addicts happen when the pills get diverted away from real patients. Haven’t really evaluated this to see how true it is but I agree with them that some of the statistics going around about how every single person prescribed a painkiller is at high risk of addiction are a little overblown.
Among the latest attempts to cut federal bureaucracy: ordering agencies to stop providing updates on their preparations for the Y2K bug.
That time Pepsi bought 17 submarines, a cruiser, and a destroyer from the Soviet Union as part of the Cola Wars.
Some context for Jon Ossoff’s loss in the recent Georgia special election: was the last Democratic candidate for that seat even a real person?
Daniel Lakens: Impossibly Hungry Judges. That famous study showing judges are more likely to convict just before lunch has such a high effect size that it can’t possibly make sense. Also a link to a more thorough critique of the study suggesting that courts schedule defendants without representation just before lunch, providing a more likely explanation than judges’ hunger.
Elizabeth Warren as synthesis of the Hillary/Bernie dialectic. I think she’s probably the Democrat closest to my own views right now.
Jonathan Kay discusses mob culture and attacks on free speech, but focuses on something important that isn’t mentioned enough. Yes, the PC-left are doing most of the attacking, but the PC-left is also most of the victims. Non-leftists can occasionally get in trouble if they’re Charles-Murray-level good targets, but generally escape unscathed (Murray’s conservative think tank unsurprisingly continues to support him). Leftists live in constant fear because they’re in social circles where this happens all the time and where all their friends will automatically side with the accusers. This isn’t just mean, it’s really bad strategy if you want people to stay on the left. I wonder if part of the success of the Bernie Sanders/socialist left is about it being a leftist space which is safe(r) from this kind of thing.
How much of effective altruism is about doing things directly, versus acting as a living advertisement to attract the attention of rich people with a thousand times more money available than everyone else? I think this is an important question insofar as it challenges the philosophy that doing good is always more important than looking good. Some form of weirdness which raises effectiveness 10% but turns off one otherwise-recruitable billionaire ends up being pretty costly.
Center For A Stateless Society has probably the best response to my cost disease post I’ve seen so far, which suggests the problem is something like oligopolies, plus weird accounting rules that treat “costs” and “revenues” in confusing and inappropriate ways.
Political Regime Type And Warfare: Evidence From 600 Years Of European History. Between 1200 and 1800, parliamentary regimes were more likely to get involved in wars than absolutist ones.
What Democrats mean when they say that AHCA is being “rammed through” Congress (compared to Obamacare).
Milton Friedman on how to change the world; relevant for almost everybody.
Vox on the sordid history of the COEXIST bumper sticker. Spoiler: the various people with financial stakes in the design aren’t very good at coexisting.
Washington Post: No One Is Paying Attention To The Worst Humanitarian Crisis Since World War II: “the danger [is] that about 20?million people in four countries will suffer famine in the coming months, and that hundreds of thousands of children will starve to death.”
Lots of discussion about the recent study finding that Seattle’s minimum wage increase backfired and hurt poor workers. The argument in favor of the study, as presented by the Foundation for Economic Education; the argument against, as presented by the Economic Policies Institute. But also, see the Seattle Weekly on how the city tried to cover up/muddy the waters on the incriminating data, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on how St. Louis’ minimum wage is decreasing, Marginal Revolution on potentially relevant evidence from Denmark, Megan McArdle and Noah Smith‘s analyses, and Zvi (1, 2) on some ways the Seattle data don’t really add up. Luckily, there are enough other cities making large minimum wage increases (and Seattle plans to increase it further) that we should have much more evidence on this pretty soon.
Related: Maine Tried To Raise Its Minimum Wage; Restaurant Workers Didn’t Want It. “Some cried with relief, Buckwalter said, when the final vote ended at 110 to 37 — overwhelmingly [in favor of lowering their wages]”.
Popehat: “There are many very stupid ideas about free speech in academia. Perhaps the stupidest is this: free speech is a legal norm used to protect the powerful at the expense of the powerless, but exceptions to free speech will benefit the powerless. Nobody with a passing knowledge of the history of free speech takes this seriously.” Related (albeit old): Why I Think XKCD Is Wrong About Free Speech.
Related: Data On Campus Free Speech Cases. “Of the 77 cases, I coded 20 (26%) as censorship of liberals, 40 (52%) as censorship of conservatives, and 17 (22%) as apolitical censorship.”
Something I didn’t expect to see a serious argument for today: “The entire edifice of Western civilization – all the cultural, social, and philosophical structures that define the world in which we live today – can be traced back to a stupid loophole in Roman inheritance law.”
2,100 Australian public servants participate in a gigantic resume experiment to assess unconscious bias against women and minorities; finds that there is in fact bias in favor of women and minorities, and that gender-blind or race-blind assessments cause more whites and men to be hired. Concludes that this indicates “need for caution when moving towards blind recruitment processes”.
Everything about economics in India sounds like a mess, but there’s been at least one small step forward with the passage of a national sales tax. “The official schedule of rates runs to 213 pages and has undergone repeated changes, some taking place as late as on Friday evening…Adding to the complexity, businesses with pan-India operations face filing over 1,000 digital returns a year.”
Example-Based Synthesis Of Stylized Facial Animations, the movie – watch an AI convert a video to different artistic styles on the fly.
The US government can borrow money at about 1% per year. The stock market earns about 4% per year. “I expect the government should own a bunch of stuff.”
Roman concrete does outlast modern concrete, but it’s not a simple story about ancient wisdom so much as different solutions for different problems.
A very very thorough study not only finds no effect of birth order, but demonstrates some of the ways other studies that did claim to find an effect could have gone wrong. The only exception is a small effect on “intellect”, defined as whether people self-report as being “eager for knowledge”. Possibly related to this study on firstborn IQ and the very strong birth order effects on the LW survey?
NYT: How To Make Congress Bipartisan. Described by Jonathan Haidt as “the best single idea I’ve seen to reduce political polarization and dysfunction”. Make larger districts with proportional representation, so that there’s an actual fight between Democrats and Republicans everywhere, and nobody is more afraid of being primaried than of the general election.
Neural networks generate Harry Potter fan fiction.
New from OpenAI: Deep reinforcement learning from human preferences. Obvious AI safety implications.
Latest study in growth mindset shows decent effect sizes, persistence at least three weeks.
More evidence against corporate campaign contributions mattering: “We find no evidence that corporations benefit from electing their favored candidate, and we can statistically reject effect sizes greater than 0.4 percent of firm value…corporate campaign contributions do not appear to but significant political favors.”
Detecting polygenic adaptation in admixture graphs. Genes linked to educational attainment show signs of differential recent selection in different populations. Except if I’m reading it right, the only populations that show selection are East Asians
and Peruvians, which is kind of a weird grab bag of groups. And the East Asian selection seems to have happened very early (10,000+ years ago?), which rules out explanations based on the Chinese civil service exams or any other historical selection pressures. Overall not sure what to think about this. [EDIT: See discussion in the comments]
Someone commenting on my perception/cognition post found me this paper, which tries the same thing and not only finds very little connection between illusion perception and personality, but even very little correlation between perception of different illusions. “The findings suggest that vision is highly specific; ie there is no common factor”.
1. I’m still traveling, so blog output might be a bit light for the next few weeks. Ongoing trip progress updates on my my girlfriend’s travel blog.
2. Thanks to everyone who attended the Salt Lake City meetup on Friday. Highlight was listening to a Mormon theologian describe how Mormon doctrine was basically the same as Bostrom’s view of superintelligent AI. Remember, there are ongoing monthly-ish Salt Lake City meetups; if you’re interested, contact oconradh[at]gmail[dot]com for more information.
3. Topher Brennan, a Bay Area programmer/activist/effective altruist who I’ve engaged with on this blog a few times, is running for Senate. Specifically, he’ll be running in the California primary, probably against incumbent Dianne Feinstein. Although his chances can charitably be described as “a long shot”, if nothing else it’ll hopefully raise awareness of some of the ways Feinstein has disappointed Silicon Valley and other California progressives on issues like health care, free speech, technology, and foreign policy.
Last month I talked a little bit about the Hollow Mask Illusion as a clue to the Bayesian operations going on “below the hood” in the brain. Today I want to go a little bit deeper into what the SSC survey results can tell us here. This is a list of a bunch of different variables I tested in the survey, and the percent of each group who saw the Mask Illusion and Dancer Illusion as ambiguous. “RR” is relative risk:
I don’t have p-values listed here, but almost all the Hollow Mask results, and a few of the Spinning Dancer results, were significant at p ≤ 0.01. And beyond the individual results, a few things jump out of the data in general. The Hollow Mask results and Spinning Dancer results are always in the same direction. And it always seems to be the weirder group who see more ambiguity in the illusion. Yes, schizophrenics see more ambiguity than non-schizophrenics. But transhumanists also see more ambiguity than non-transhumanists. Polyamorous people see more than monogamous people, gay people see more than straight people, EAs see more than non-EAs, et cetera. Where there’s no clear weirder/less-weird dichotomy, it seems like it’s the lower-functioning group that has more ambiguity. High school dropouts rather than PhDs. Single people rather than married people.
So there seems to be a picture where high rates of perceptual ambiguity are linked to being weirder and (sometimes, in a very weak statistical way) lower-functioning.
But why stop there? The dream is to connect this to some sort of intuitively-meaningful cognitive variable.
For a sense of “intuitively meaningful cognitive variable”, consider something like those four-letter things you get on the Myers-Briggs test. Go ahead and interject that Myers-Briggs is unscientific, and no better than astrology, and inferior to the Five Factor Model in every way. But everyone who says that always ends up being INTJ/INTP. And a survey found that SSC readers are about ten times more likely to be INTJ/INTP than the general population, p ≤ 0.001. Without necessarily claiming that the underlying classification cleaves reality at the joints, or even that it gives you more information than you put into the personality test that generates it, differences in cognitive styles seems real. I don’t know how fundamental they are – it could just be something as silly as a freshman philosophy professor who encouraged you to think logically or something – but they seem real.
And they seems different than the variables on the Big Five. The Big Five measures personality. Myers-Briggs claims – maybe wrongly, but at least it claims – to measure how you reason about things. Maybe everyone’s had the experience of meeting someone who seems very smart, but who just reasons in a very different way than they do.
And if the Bayesian brain hypothesis is right, and perception and reason really do draw on the same fundamental processes, then I wonder if we could isolate some differences in reasoning by measuring differences in perception. Could perception of certain optical illusions predict responses to certain cognitive biases? Could that go on to predict things like whether people like analytic or continental philosophy, whether they’re early-adopters or traditionalists, whether they think people are basically good or basically evil?
I know this is an overly ambitious research program. But remember: the studies looking for the genetic underpinning of political opinions usually implicate NMDA receptors, the same receptors most likely involved in the Hollow Mask. And there was a small but highly significant correlation between Mask perception and political opinion on the survey. I agree this is crazy, but I don’t want to say it’s impossible just yet.
On the the next survey, I want to include a whole battery of illusions, including multiple examples of the same illusion asked in different ways, and different illusions that seem to be measuring the same thing. For an example of the latter, take the “saw duplicate thes” item on the table above. This was a question asking if people had noticed various duplications of the word “the” I had put in the survey (like the one in the second and third words of this paragraph). People who noticed the duplicates were more than twice as likely to see ambiguity in the Hollow Mask as others, the highest result other than schizophrenia itself. This confirms my hypothesis that there’s some underlying similarity between these two illusions. If I can get enough of these, then I can eliminate noise and get a better idea of the underlying mental process that might be generating all of these.
With luck, I might end up with a couple of different factors that predict illusion perception. Then I would want to see if those factors also predict performance on reasoning problems (like cognitive biases) and on high-level beliefs (like liberal versus conservative).
The big question is whether some non-neurological factor influences perception of illusions – like maybe just trying really hard to see them. I’m not sure how to adjust for that, except to say that the pattern here doesn’t really look like that. The Dancer illusion was the one most susceptible to increased effort, and it got the weakest results. On a quick check, it doesn’t look like this is all due to something obvious like gender or age. But maybe there’s still some confounding factor that I’ve missed.
Current Affairs: The Democratic Party Just Admitted It Doesn’t Stand For Anything. Overall it makes some good points, but one passage caught my eye:
[Democrats believe that if you moderate your platform and swing toward the center] you might lose a few hardcore lefties, but you’ll more than make up for it in the number of Reaganites you peel away from the other side. (Or, as Chuck Schumer put it, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.”)
But this philosophy is a dead end. For one thing, it doesn’t work. Unless you have Bill Clinton’s special charismatic magic, what actually happens is that progressive voters just stay home, disgusted at the failure of both parties to actually try to improve the country. And the mythical “moderate Republicans” never seem to show up. (This is because there are no actual moderate Republicans.)
This has been a staple of recent leftist thought. Another example from Daily Kos (via the paper below):
The key data is this, and it’s important to re-emphasize if only to shut up the useless, overpaid political consultants who idiotically babble about “moving to the center” or “compromising with the other side”…What matters is turning out our voters. That’s it. The Democrats win when we fire up and turn out our base.
This sounds like a win-win situation. We can stick to our principles, and that actually makes us more electable. Big if true. But is it?
First: do more extreme views increase base turnout? This is the subject of Hall & Thompson (2017). They examine 1658 House races from 2006 to 2012 and start by noticing that the more distant a candidate from the median voter in their district, the fewer votes they get and the lower their party’s share of turnout in the general election (ie the various other races that go on at the same time). This suggests that not only are the voters who do turn out less likely to vote for the extremist, but that many of their voters are staying home (or many of their opponents’ voters have been galvanized to show up).
These raw results could be driven by exogenous factors. For example, maybe in swing states, parties nominate more centrist candidates (to get a broader appeal) and have higher turnout (because people’s votes actually matter). To eliminate this possibility, the researchers try a regression discontinuity design – ie they compare districts where extremists won the primary by 0.1% to districts where extremists lost the primary by 0.1%. These sorts of tiny margins are likely to be pretty random, so it’s almost like an experimental trial of what happens when you randomly vary candidate extremism.
This better-controlled data set finds the same thing. The more extreme a candidate, the lower their party’s share of the turnout.
This actually makes a lot of sense – a lot of my normally non-voting friends turned out last November because they hated Trump so much, and a lot of #NeverTrump Republicans, unwilling to hold their nose and vote Hillary, just stayed home.
Hall and Thomspon conclude:
This paper engages with a longstanding debate over the relative strengths of extreme legislative candidates, thought to boost turnout among their party’s base, and moderate candidates thought to attract hypothetical moderate swing voters. Using several different empirical strategies, we have found consistent evidence that extremist nominees do poorly in general elections in large part because they skew turnout in the general election away from their own party and in favor of the opposing party.
They crunch a few more numbers and conclude that effects on turnout might be the entire reason why extremist candidates do worse. That is, there is no remaining effect from swing voters who switch from their own party to the other party. Turnout is the only thing that matters:
The results suggest that much of moderate candidates’ success may actually be due to the turnout of partisan voters, rather than to swing voters who switch sides. In fact, our regression discontinuity estimates are consistent with the possibility that the entire vote-share penalty to extremist nominees is the result of changes in partisan turnout. Seen in this light, the results are more consistent with the behavioral literature’s focus on turnout than they are with the institutional literature’s theoretical focus on swing voters. As such, we see this paper as helping to link the behavioral and institutional literatures together, suggesting that moderate candidates do possess an electoral advantage, but that this advantage may depend heavily on turnout-based mechanisms.
So Thompson and Hall disagree with the theory that a less compromising, more robustly leftist Democratic Party would get more votes. But they tentatively agree with Current Affairs’ claim that “moderate Republicans” are a myth and nobody ever switches sides.
Second: Is base turnout really the only thing that matters?
I’m reluctant to disagree with real political scientists like Hall and Thompson, but I’m a little more optimistic about whether people can change their minds.
There’s little data on vote-switching, and the only directly relevant information I could find was this CNN exit poll from 2008:
Of people who voted Democrat for President in 2004, 9% went Republican in 2008. Of people who voted Republican in 2004, a full 17% went Democrat in 2008. Some analysts of this information caution us that people are bad at remembering their votes so some of this may be wrong. But I feel like this story also doesn’t fit well with with unchanging-eternal-partisanship narrative – if you’ve voted straight Republican for the last ten elections and loathe all Democrats with a burning fury, you’re not going to just forgot whether you voted Bush or Kerry in ’04.
Rasmussen doesn’t have a real exit poll, but they put a couple of different sources together to guess about how many people switched votes in most recent election. I don’t really understand their graphs – in particular, their use of the Other category doesn’t make much sense. But if I’m reading them right, of people who voted Democrat in 2012, about 13% voted Trump in 2016. And of people who voted Republican in 2012, about 4% voted Clinton in in 2016. These may seem like small numbers. But in the context of the tiny margins by which Trump won swing states (Michigan by 0.3%, Pennsylvania by 0.7%, Wisconsin by 0.8%), these sorts of changes are absolutely decisive.
So swing voters and moderates aren’t totally mythical. But how do they compare with turnout as a determining factor in elections?
This is hard to figure out.
We know that total turnout decreased 2% between 2012 and 2016 [EDIT: More recent sources say turnout increased. Not clear on this right now. See here]. But it’s hard to interpret party turnout figures. If the number of Democratic votes dipped more than the number of Republican votes, how much of that is because the Democrats had a bigger turnout problem, and how much is because some Democrats crossed the aisle to vote Republican?
Nate Cohn of the New York Times tries to solve this by analyzing turnout of predicted partisan voters – eg a young black gay college graduate will probably vote Democrat, so if he doesn’t show up it suggests Democratic base turnout declined. Before the election, he made some mechanical projections about how much each demographic would turn out based on how often they’ve turned out before in situations like this. Sometimes this risks adjusting away exactly the factors we’re interested in – eg he predicts black people will have much lower turnout in 2016 because part of their record 2012 turnout was personal loyalty to Obama. But as far as I can tell he doesn’t adjust for anything about the candidate’s ideologies, making his predictions okay for our purposes of talking about the effects of candidate extremism.
Cohn finds that blacks voted a little bit less than he predicted, and Hispanics a little bit more. Whites likely to support Trump (eg older, less educated, etc) turned out about 7% more than expected. Whites likely to support Clinton turned out about 4% more (sic!) than expected. But overall, these differences were “only a modest effect”, and probably not enough to affect the election:
Turnout improved Mr. Trump’s standing by a modest margin compared with pre-election expectations. If the turnout had gone exactly as we thought it would, the election would have been extremely close. But by this measure, Mrs. Clinton still would have lost both Florida and Pennsylvania – albeit very narrowly…Democrats are right to blame many of their midterm election losses on weak turnout. They’re on far shakier ground if they complain about the turnout last November.
He thinks that it was the much-maligned swing voters who were more important:
If turnout played only a modest role in Mr. Trump’s victory, then the big driver of his gains was persuasion: He flipped millions of white working-class Obama supporters to his side.
The voter file data makes it impossible to avoid this conclusion. It’s not just that the electorate looks far too Democratic. In many cases, turnout cannot explain Mrs. Clinton’s losses.
Take Schuylkill County, Pa., the county where Mr. Trump made his biggest gains in Pennsylvania. He won, 69 percent to 26 percent, compared with Mitt Romney’s 56-42 victory. Mrs. Clinton’s vote tally fell by 7,776 compared with Mr. Obama’s 2012 result, even though the overall turnout was up.
Did 8,000 of Mr. Obama’s supporters stay home? No. There were 5,995 registered voters who voted in 2012, remain registered in Schuylkill County, and stayed home in 2016.
And there’s no way these 2016 drop-off voters were all Obama supporters. There were 2,680 registered Democrats, 2,629 registered Republicans and 686 who were unaffiliated or registered with a different party. This is a place where registered Democrats often vote Republican in presidential elections, so Mr. Obama’s standing among these voters was most likely even lower […]
Survey data, along with countless journalistic accounts, also suggest that voters switched in huge numbers.
Throughout the campaign, polls of registered voters — which are not subject to changes in turnout — showed Mrs. Clinton faring much worse than Mr. Obama among white working-class voters.
The postelection survey data tells a similar story: Mrs. Clinton won Mr. Obama’s white-working class supporters by a margin of only 78 percent to 18 percent against Mr. Trump, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.
In the Midwestern battleground states and Pennsylvania, Mrs. Clinton had an advantage of 76 percent to 20 percent among white working-class Obama voters.
The survey data isn’t perfect. It relies on voters’ accurate recall of their 2012 vote, and that type of recall is often biased toward the winner. Indeed, the C.C.E.S. found that Mr. Obama had 54 percent of support among 2012 voters, compared with his actual 51 percent finish.
But the data all points in the same direction: Shifts in turnout were not the dominant factor in Mr. Trump’s success among white working-class voters.
I tried to model some of this myself to get actual numbers I could compare. It doesn’t work. If I apply the exit poll models of voter defections to the real numbers, I get implausibly high numbers for Trump and implausibly low numbers for Hillary. I would have to add a huge jump in Democratic turnout, and a corresponding crash in Republican turnout, to produce the modest Hillary popular-vote win we actually saw. Nobody’s claimed this and I don’t think that it happened. So I’m confused. I hate to have to go off of Cohn’s analysis, especially since he never really explains what goes into his projections, but right now it’s all I have. And it matches what Rasmussen thought in a lot of ways.
So I very tentatively conclude that swing voters might have changed the result of the 2016 election. I can’t directly compare to decreased turnout, but it seems at least as important, especially if you discount the non-ideology-related black turnout decrease.
Granted, the 2016 election was weird, we might be in some kind of unique realignment of the two-party system, maybe this doesn’t happen too often. But the Obama/Trump defections don’t seem much greater than the Bush/Obama defections on the 2008 CNN exit poll. And Current Affairs admits that Bill Clinton did pretty well attracting moderates and Republicans to his banner. I think there’s enough examples to think that a large effect from swing voters might not just be possible, but common.
As far as I can tell, the evidence leans against the win-by-extremism-turning-out-the-base argument. Extremists tend to do worse in elections. They don’t raise turnout of their base; in fact, they probably lower it. They may fire up their opponents’ base. And swing voters can make a big difference when a candidate appeals to them.
This doesn’t mean only boring centrists can win; Donald Trump is the obvious counterexample. But Trump’s extremism wasn’t just “Paul Ryan but much more so”. He won not by moving straight right, but by coming up with new ideas that held the attention of the Republican base while also appealing to some disaffected Democrats. And the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party might be able to do something similar from the left if it gets the chance.
Just don’t frame it as “extremism turns out the base”, and especially not as “swing voters don’t matter”.
Financial Times: What We Get Wrong About Technology. It cites boring advances like barbed wire and shipping containers to argue that some of the most transformative inventions are not the product of complicated high technology but just some clever hacks that manage to revolutionize everyday living. Throughout, it uses AI as a foil, starting with Rachel the android from Blade Runner and going on to people concerned about superintelligent AI:
Economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee write of “the second machine age”, while the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab favours the term “fourth industrial revolution”, following the upheavals of steam, electricity and computers. This coming revolution will be built on advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, nanotech, biotech, neurotech and a variety of other fields currently exciting venture capitalists.
Forecasting the future of technology has always been an entertaining but fruitless game. Nothing looks more dated than yesterday’s edition of Tomorrow’s World. But history can teach us something useful: not to fixate on the idea of the next big thing, the isolated technological miracle that utterly transforms some part of economic life with barely a ripple elsewhere.
If the fourth industrial revolution delivers on its promise, what lies ahead? Super-intelligent AI, perhaps? Killer robots? Telepathy: Elon Musk’s company, Neuralink, is on the case. Nanobots that live in our blood, zapping tumours? Perhaps, finally, Rachael?
The toilet-paper principle suggests that we should be paying as much attention to the cheapest technologies as to the most sophisticated. One candidate: cheap sensors and cheap internet connections. There are multiple sensors in every smartphone, but increasingly they’re everywhere, from jet engines to the soil of Californian almond farms — spotting patterns, fixing problems and eking out efficiency gains. They are also a potential privacy and security nightmare, as we’re dimly starting to realise.
Like paper, [mildly interesting warehouse management program] Jennifer is inexpensive and easy to overlook. And like the electric dynamo, the technologies in Jennifer are having an impact because they enable managers to reshape the workplace. Science fiction has taught us to fear superhuman robots such as Rachael; perhaps we should be more afraid of Jennifer.
I agree with the gist of this article. It’s correct to say that we often overlook less glorious technologies. It’s entirely right in pointing out things like barbed wire as good examples of these.
Also, it was written on a digital brain made of rare-earth metals consisting of billions of tiny circuits crammed into a couple of cubic inches, connected to millions of other such brains by underwater fiber optic cables that connect entire continents with one another at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light.
What I’m saying is, sometimes the exciting cool technologies are pretty great too.
I realize this isn’t a brilliant or controversial insight. Exciting-looking technologies that everybody agrees will be exciting turn out to be exciting, breaking news, more at eleven.
But then what am I to make of the original article? It points out some cases where simple boring technologies proved to be pretty important. In one or two cases, it describes a field where a simple boring technology proved to be more important than a flashier and superficially-much-more-promising technology. Then it concludes that “perhaps” we should be more afraid of simple voice recognition programs than of superintelligent AI.
I can come up with equally compelling anecdotes proving the opposite. For example, the humble stirrup was one of the most disruptive and important innovations in world history – read about the Great Stirrup Controversy sometime. Imagine a society of horses in 1890, where some especially wise horse relates the story, and concludes with “So perhaps we should be more concerned about simple innovations like new stirrups and more efficient reins, than of the motorcar.” Nice try, A+ for effort, you’re still going to end up as glue.
I don’t want to claim that flashy paradigm-shifting technologies are always more disruptive than simple boring technologies, or that technologies always deploy quickly. I do want to claim that the article hasn’t even tried to prove the opposite. So when it says “perhaps we should be more worried about warehouse management programs than superintelligent AIs”, it means “perhaps” in the weaselly sense, like “perhaps we should be more worried about a massive worldwide snake infestation than global warming. I have no evidence for this, but perhaps it is true.”
Part of me wants to let this pass. It’s obviously a throwaway line, not really meant to be a strong argument. But another part of me thinks that’s exactly the problem. There are so many good throwaway lines you could use to end a piece. If you have to halfheartedly make a not-strong argument for something, why would you choose the one where you randomly dismiss an impending threat that already has way too few people willing to pay any attention to it?
I worry there’s a general undersupply of meta-contrarianism. You have an obvious point (exciting technologies are exciting). You have a counternarrative that offers a subtle but useful correction (there are also some occasional exceptions where the supposedly-unexciting technologies can be more exciting than the supposedly-exciting ones). Sophisticated people jump onto the counternarrative to show their sophistication and prove that they understand the subtle points it makes. Then everyone gets so obsessed with the counternarrative that anyone who makes the obvious point gets shouted down (“What? Exciting technologies are exciting? Do you even read Financial Times? It’s the unexciting technologies that are truly exciting!”). And only rarely does anyone take a step back and remind everyone that the obviously-true thing is still true and the exceptions are still just exceptions.
And for some reason, any discussion of AI risk dials this up to eleven. It seems pretty obvious that smarter-than-human AI could be dangerous for humans. For a hundred years, every scientist and science fiction writer who’s considered the problem has concluded that smarter-than-human AI could be dangerous for humans. And so we get these constant hot takes, “Oh, you’re afraid of superintelligent AI? What if the real superintelligent AI was capitalism?” Or “What if the real superintelligent AI was the superintelligent AI in the heart of all humanity?” Or just “What if superintelligent AI turns out to be less important than a bunch of small humble technologies that don’t look like anything much?” And so I feel like I have to do the boring work of saying “hey, by the way, 10-20% of AI researchers believe their field will end in an ‘existential catastrophe’ for the human race, and this number is growing every year, Steven Hawking is a pretty smart guy and he says we could all die, and Nick Bostrom is an Oxford professor and he says we could all die, and Elon Musk is Elon Musk and he says we could all die, and this isn’t actually a metaphor for anything, we are actually seriously worried that we could all die here”.
But I worry even more that this isn’t an attempt to sound sophisticated. I worry that it’s trying to sound cautious. Like, “ah, yes, some firebrands and agitators say that we could all die here, but I think more sober souls can get together and say that probably things will continue much as they always have, or else be different in unpredictable ways because history is always inherently unpredictable”, or something like that.
I worry that people don’t adequately separate two kinds of caution. Call them local caution and global caution. Suppose some new spacecraft is about to be launched. A hundred experts have evaluated it and determined that it’s safe. But some low-ranking engineer at NASA who happens to have some personal familiarity with the components involved looks at the schematics and just has a really bad feeling. It’s not that there’s any specific glaring flaw. It’s not any of the known problems that have ever led to spacecraft failure before. Just that a lot of the parts weren’t quite designed to go together in exactly that way, and that without being entirely able to explain his reasoning, he would not be the least bit surprised if that spacecraft exploded.
What is the cautious thing to do? The locally cautious response is for the engineer to accept that a hundred experts probably know better than he does. To cautiously remind himself that it’s unlikely he would discover a new spacecraft failure mode unlike any before. To cautiously admit that grounding a spacecraft on an intuition would be crazy. But the globally cautious response is to run screaming into the NASA director’s office, demanding that he stop the launch immediately until there can be a full review of everything. There’s a sense in which this is rash and ignores all sorts of generally wise and time-tested heuristics like the ones above. But if by “caution” you mean you want as few astronauts as possible to end up as smithereens, it’s the way to go.
And part of me gets really happy when people say that we should avoid jumping to conclusions about AI being dangerous, because the future often confounds our expectations, and shocking discontinuous changes are less likely than gradual changes based on a bunch of little things, or any of a dozen other wise and entirely correct maxims. These are the principles of rationality that people should consider when making predictions, the epistemic caution that forms a rare and valuable virtue.
But this is the wrong kind of caution for this situation. It’s assuming that there’s some sort of mad rush to worrying about AI, and people need to remember that it might not be so bad. That’s the opposite of reality. As a society, we spend about $9 million yearly looking into AI safety, including the blue-sky and strategy research intended to figure out whether there’s other research we should be doing. This is good, but it’s about one percent of the amount that we spend on simulated online farming games. This isn’t epistemic caution. It’s insanity. It’s like a general who refuses to post sentries, because we can’t be certain of anything in this world, so therefore we can’t be certain the enemy will launch an attack tonight. The general isn’t being skeptical and hard-headed. He’s just being insane.
And I worry this is the kind of mindset that leads to throwaway phrases like “perhaps we should be more worried about this new warehouse management program than about superintelligent AI”. Sure, perhaps this is true. But perhaps it isn’t. “Perhaps” is a commutative term. So, “Perhaps we should be more worried about superintelligent AI than about a new warehouse management program”. But the warehouse management company makes more money each year than the entire AI safety field budget combined.
Perhaps we should spend more time worrying about this, and less time thinking of clever reasons why our inaction might turn out to be okay after all.