Friday, 31 January 2014

Measuring News Slant

In Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power, Robert Entman tries to re-conceptualize media effects within the context of bias. Drawing from the literatures on media framing, priming, and agenda setting, Entman theorizes about the role of news slant, or bias, in the struggle for political power within the mainstream media.

One useful contribution that Entman makes is distinguishing between three types of media bias:
  • Distortion bias: News that distorts or falsifies reality
  • Content bias: News that favours one side
  • Decision-making bias: News twisted to serve the motivations of impartial journalists
Unlike the field of agnotology, which interests itself in the first kind of bias (among others), Entman suggests focusing on only the next two if we are to formalize a concept of media bias.

He offers the following equation:

NS = the slant of a news item
F = the perceived facts
SWH = the skill of White House news managers
SO = the skill of opposition news managers
BE = decision biases arising from evaluation of the political game
BM = decision biases arising from market competition
BI = decision biases arising from personal ideology
E = event context and other sources of variation

This equation demonstrates the complex interaction of decision biases with other factors such as the skill of a political administration's news managers.

Entman also suggests applying the Hirschman-Herfindahl index (HHI) used in economics to media slant. The HHI represents the relative power of a firm with the square of its market share percentage. Thus if one firm holds a monopoly over the market, its HHI score is 10,000 (100 x 100), but if the power is divided up among a huge number of equal competitors, their individual scores near 0. Through content analysis, something like the HHI could be applied to the media to determine aggregate slant.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Seeming to Care

In Playing a Long Term Game, I wrote that sometimes people rage about their values to signal how much they care about them. But, I said, if they really cared, they would be able to summon up the presence of mind to use more effective strategies. Calling people murderers for eating meat sure makes it seem like you care about animal suffering. But if you really cared, you would try to frame your position in a way that it can actually persuade someone that doesn't already agree with you.

I think seeming to care is one of the reasons for the unpopularity of the word "utilitarianism." Utilitarianism just sounds like something cold and ruthless, where sacred things are exchanged for their weight in non-sacred things. In rejecting utilitarianism for whatever "more empathetic" ethical system you support, you seem to care about suffering, but if your chosen ethical system actually leads to more suffering, then you don't really care. You really care about something else (fairness, hanging on to your intuitions, feeling good about yourself, sacred values) but it isn't suffering.

"You would let 3 people get tortured in order to prevent 1000 rapes? How heartless of you to be quantifying and trivializing the value of human suffering!"

That sure makes you seem to care about human suffering. But if you really cared, you would support the option that, you know, actually reduces human suffering, rather than the option that makes you seem to care more.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Art Has Barely Left the Womb

[This is the third post in my Sequence on artistic value. The entire Sequence can be viewed here:

  1. Art Consequentialism
  2. Art Should Accomplish Something
  3. Art Has Barely Left the Womb
  4. Taste and Social Intuitionism
  5. Artistic Integrity

Together these five posts argue for a theory of artistic value that I have never encountered before.]

People often complain about a perceived decline in artistic quality. Now, there have been documented complaints of this kind for over a century and there are many reasons why we should expect this sentiment to consistently be present in generation after generation, whatever the true quality of that era's artistic output. In 1893, one writer bemoaned the newspaper trend of reporting increasingly on gossip and sports rather than on scientific and religious affairs by rhetorically asking, "Do newspapers now give the news?"

In hip hop, the sentiment is often expressed that "hip hop is dead." If you want to find "real hip hop," you need to go back to the 80s or 90s, apparently. But there's a reason why Common wrote I Used to Love H.E.R. in 1994. Back in the "golden era," hip hop was also said to be dying. Not only is hip hop regularly proclaimed to be dead but so are Hollywood, mainstream music, radio, the printed word, and art.

I don't want to argue that art is dead, but that it has, in contrast, barely even left the womb as an intellectual exercise. In this post, I situate the discipline of art alongside the similar fields of theology, alchemy, and Freudian psychoanalysis. What all these fields have in common is that they were hotspots for naive introspection, Dark Side epistemology, and plain bad thinking that eventually launched legitimate academic fields capable of making real progress.

The cosmologist and atheist spokesman Lawrence Krauss likes to pick on theology for barely making any progress in the millennia since its been around. The reason is that theological methods, whatever those are, simply do not work. They cannot settle questions, anticipate experiences, or advance our state of knowledge. As a result, theologians continue to ask themselves the same questions and deal with the same issues that concerned Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. There continue to be theologians working on the major issues in theology, but the field itself makes little to no progress.

Art is remarkably similar to theology in this sense. It's old, it's been around for a while, and it's been of the utmost interest to some talented people for generation after generation, who have spent their lives trying to unravel its deepest mysteries. But can art be said to have made progress? 

Regarding the production of art, our tools are constantly being upgraded, equipment is becoming more accessible and easier to use, and we have whole mediums to create art that never could have existed in the past. But is our artistic output steadily improving alongside these technological advances? As more and more art is created, there is more stuff out there for new artists to draw inspiration from. Yes, artists take bits and pieces from other artists and when one artist invents a really great technique, it might become an important tool in the toolkit of future artists. But can artists be said to be standing on the shoulders of giants?

Regarding the theory and philosophy of art, the situation highly resembles that of theology. People debate the same fundamental subjects over and over, never getting anywhere. To a lesser extent, this is true of all philosophy, another discipline that is diseased at its core, but the philosophy of art is yet far less accomplished than other branches of philosophy such as ethics, the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of mind.

When we have an imprecise method of doing something (such as drafting in sports), we sometimes say about it that it's "not a science, it's an art form." It is intuitively understood that art is not a science. It is less well understood that art does not exist alongside science - it is simply in a pre-scientific stage. The reason why so few people attempt to make progress in art is because we hold double standards about art, considering it sacred, just as the fruitless project of theology fails from holding double standards about religion, which it considers to be sacred.

Art consequentialism suggests that artworks should be treated like other man-made works such as mass manufactured chairs and lampshades. Should chairs exist? I think so. Why? Because they make our lives better by giving us comfy places to sit and rest. I may be wrong about that but it seems pretty clear to me that a world with chairs is better than a world without chairs. Should lampshades exist? I think so. Why? Because they allow us to control a room's lighting and so make our lives better in that way. Things gain value in accordance with how much they make the world better or worse for the persons living in it.

I think art as a whole makes the world better for several reasons. I also think most individual works of art make the world better. But not because artists are intentionally optimizing in that direction. What our society completely lacks is a sense of considering art in terms of the effects it has on the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Art has no value outside of this. Rather than thinking of artistic value in terms of qualities possessed by the work - profundity of ideas, emotional magnitude, popularity, originality - which are only indicators of a work having good consequences, we should place our emphasis on the consequences themselves. In fact, the production of every work of art, like the production of every chair and every lampshade, has an impact on the world and that impact can be good or bad. Making works of art with better consequences for humanity would be better for humanity, axiomatically.

What we need is a more precise science of how art affects things and thus, the knowledge of how to optimize our cultural output by focusing on their end effects on society. This would launch the true birth of art and allow the discipline to progress in a way it never has in its long history.

The Uncanny Valley Hypothesis

The uncanny valley hypothesis suggests that people experience revulsion when confronted with humanoid things that look kinda like real people but a bit off.

If there's anything to this hypothesis, then that suggests AGI advocates should avoid these sorts of humanoid representations of AGI.

If one wishes to spread fear toward the technological singularity and inspire a cultural push-back, it might be useful to use humanoid representations of AGI so as to equate AGI with an aesthetically displeasing image.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Advertising in Public Spaces

We are bombarded with advertising messages on a daily basis.

Some of them - such as commercial breaks on TV - we have the option to avoid. Others sit in public spaces, catching the eyes of thousands of passersby a day.

There are some negative effects of advertisements: the glorification of extrinsic and materialistic values (correlated with low subjective wellbeing), increased indifference toward the protection of the environment (also correlated with low subjective wellbeing), and the inability of people to move through public spaces without encountering messages with the potential to influence them. All of these strike me as minor relative to some of the big issues activists often concern themselves with.

But what are the benefits of advertisements in public spaces?

Advertisers would argue that their messages introduce people to products that may be desirable to them. This is probably true but are they idealized preferences? Probably not, given everything we know about positive psychology.

It also allows companies to raise awareness of their brands, which might be claimed to be "only fair." I have a conflicting intuition: that it is "only fair" to let people go places without being forced to come into contact with persuasive messages they don't want to be around.

Are there any real benefits to advertising in public spaces and do they outweigh the costs? If not, is the omnipresence of advertisements still a reality that we just need to get used to?

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Third Person Effect and Pluralistic Ignorance

A lot of people seem to be concerned about how the media is influencing other people. Not as many people claim to themselves be influenced by media content. 

The third person effect is the occurrence of people assuming the media will influence, well, not smart people like you and me, of course, but "them," those other people over there. Maybe it's true that only certain types of people are negatively influenced by some media content. But the third person effect could also be an overestimation of the media's persuasive power, overconfidence, or the bias blind spot.

Pluralistic ignorance is the occurrence of a majority of people assuming everyone else believes something that in fact only a minority of people believe. As a result of this misperception, the majority follow rules and norms that they privately reject or disagree with.

W. Phillips Davison cleverly spotted a connection between the two effects:

"Pluralistic ignorance, and the misperception of others' attitudes in general, may also involve the third-person effect, at least in some cases. If individuals assume that they are virtually alone in holding particular attitudes and expectations, not knowing that many others privately share them (Merton, 1968:431), it may be because they 
assume others have been brainwashed by the mass media. Indeed, the tendency to perceive the media as being biased toward the "wrong" side of an issue, combined with the tendency to impute persuasiveness to the media insofar as others are concerned, creates a strong presumption that the attitudes of other people on any controversial issue that is in the focus of public attention will be widely misperceived." - W. Phillips Davison

I think, contrary to Davison's guess, that demassification, selective exposure, and the formation of "cyber ghettos" might make people more likely to believe that the majority is on their side, as they primarily view media content that is sympathetic to their own viewpoint. These biases and misperceptions can be countered by appealing to social proof.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Playing a Long Term Game

Sometimes people rage over their values to signal just how much they care about them.

This is counter-productive.

In the long run, being patient should be the winning strategy. After all, people are only very rarely persuaded of anything on the spot. All you can do is be the best spokesperson for your position that you possibly can be. You might plant some seeds in their head - as Peter Singer did in mine - or just break their stereotype about what someone that holds your view is like.

Remaining calm might make it seem like you care less but it's the more effective strategy. If you really care about maximizing utility then you should keep in mind that you are playing a long term game and that being patient with those that disagree with you will do more good than will lashing out at them to signal how much you care.

Small Symbolic Contributions

Apart from ordinary niceness, I can think of three examples of small voluntary contributions people can make to society. Each of these contributions accomplishes very little on its own but in all three cases, millions of contributors in unison can make a difference.

The first example is voting. In reality, your vote is only very slightly better than worthless. But thousands of votes together start to matter a little bit. And millions of votes in one direction can matter a lot. So even though the world will be no better or worse if you vote or if you don't vote, if everybody votes, the world will probably be better than if most people don't vote.

The second example is recycling. In reality, your recycling accomplishes almost nothing. All the waste produced by all the homes in the world put together accounts for only a tiny percentage of the world's waste. But recycling still accomplishes a tiny bit of good and if everybody recycles, that can amount to something kinda sorta substantial.

The third example is vegetarianism. Boycotting the meat industry for the rest of your lifetime can save a certain number of animal lives - and that's nice. But given the vast amount of animals still living in torture and the fact that most of your peers will continue to eat meat, you aren't really accomplishing much in the grand scheme of things. You are, however, contributing to a good cause, playing a microscopic role in some larger movement. Mainly, you are signalling your interests and values. One vegetarian alone isn't accomplishing much, but if everybody went vegetarian, that would vastly improve the state of the world. 

All three of these situations require one to decide whether to play one's tiny altruistic part in a massive prisoner's dilemma or whether to say "fuck it" and worry about things they can actually control. 

Are you consistent across all three? If you think going vegetarian is a waste of time, do you have the same attitude about voting and recycling? If you're adamant about the importance of voting, are you equally adamant about recycling and vegetarianism? What is the crucial difference? 

I think all three of these are Good Things but I don't think too much emotion should be invested in any of them. If you forget to recycle something, too bad. If somebody you know doesn't believe in voting, who cares. If your friend refuses to give up meat, well whatever. You're playing a long term game to minimize expected suffering - it pays to be forgiving of small differences and offenses.

Why I Now Prioritize Animals

For a while, I thought it was kind of silly to prioritize animal suffering because I consider a single human life to be worth more than a single animal life. The thing is, though, that there are so many more animals suffering for the same reason than there are humans suffering for the same reason that it is so much easier to identify and target a root cause that we can actually do something about

Animal suffering exists in such astronomical amounts that it is an obvious place to look for opportunities to eliminate huge amounts of suffering in a single move. Moreover, such a move could even be called realistically attainable. For the purposes of this post, I will overlook wild-animal suffering, where it is more difficult to identify what should be done.

Each year, in the US alone, the food industry kills:

~42 million cows
~120 million pigs
~300 million turkeys
~452 million hens
~6 billion fish
~7 billion chickens

Passing legislation that affects even 0.1% of these 14 billion animals would still be reaching a staggering 14 million. On such a large scale, just making their lives 10% better would yield huge rewards without putting any farmers out of business (or even preventing them from getting rich). Even playing a small role in contributing to such an event would have more moral weight than the entirety of an average person's lifetime.

One way to ignore this conclusion would be to deny that animals are capable of feeling enough pain to deserve our concern. This is scientifically and philosophically unjustifiable, however.

Imagine a factory farm with a giant counter on top of it that keeps track of the amount of suffering going on under its roof. Every time a chicken stubs its toe - tack-tack-tack-tack, 50 points to Gryffindor! - the number on the counter rises in proportion to the amount of pain. When an animal gets killed, the number on the counter goes down slightly because that animal's suffering is reduced to 0. Now, imagine substituting all the animals inside the farm for humans, who must live in the same conditions and suffer the same fates. I claim that the number on that counter remains in the same general ballpark it was in prior to the switch. Maybe it even goes down because of the power of the psychological immune system to protect humans from depression.

If this is the case, then given the sheer numbers of factory farmed animals and given what they are put through, we are dealing with roughly a Holocaust's worth of suffering per year, in the United States alone. Given that the meat industry will continue to prosper indefinitely, we can expect multiple future Holocausts worth of suffering, again without counting any farming done outside the United States. Cutting out a tiny chunk of this suffering is still massive relative to almost anything else that can be done in a human lifetime. Contributing to a new law that makes animal farming more humane or deters meat consumption would be very effective.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Cool Imperative

Things don't become popular when supporting them doesn't raise anyone's status. This goes from movies, to clothing, to dietary choices, to political views. People associate themselves with things signalling an identity they're comfortable with.

If you want altruism - or whatever your best kept secret is - to become a fad, then you need it to become fashionable. You aren't going to reason someone into giving tons of their money away. You need to first make them feel as if the implications for their social status will be beneficial.

More effort should be placed on making altruism the cool thing to do, rather than merely the morally right thing to do. If it isn't attractive for self-interested reasons, then it will not become popular whether it is considered to be morally superior or not. If it is attractive for self-interested reasons, then it will become popular whether it is considered to be morally superior or not. This could even be the most important challenge facing effective altruists.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Torture vs Dust Specks

In a post called Torture vs Dust Specks, Eliezer Yudkowsky says the worst thing that can realistically happen during one's lifetime is ~50 years of torture and the least bad bad thing that can happen is a dust speck momentarily getting in your eye.

Assuming that both the negative utility of 50 years of torture and of getting a dust speck in one's eye are theoretically quantifiable, there must be a finite number of dust specks that equal the suffering caused by 50 years of torture. Let's say that number's 500 trillion. 

Would you prefer for one person to suffer 50 years of torture or for 500 trillion + 1 people to get dust specks in their eye? (If you take issue with the numbers selected, imagine the number of people getting dust specks in their eye is a googolplex.)

I've said in Possible Positions on Insect Suffering that I think many little pains can stack up to equal singular instances of large pain. Torture seems like the only rationally justifiable choice to me.

I've thought of a way to tweak the intuition pump to serve a separate purpose. Suppose the 500 trillion + 1 people were informed of this situation and each of them selflessly agreed to accept a dust speck in the eye so that that one unfortunate person could avoid getting tortured. Would you still prefer the torture over the dust specks? In this case, I change my answer and vote for dust specks. This is because I'm a(n idealized) preference utilitarian and I want people to get what they want, even if that leads to less happiness.

For those who choose dust specks right off the bat, what if it was the other way around? What if one brave martyr volunteered to get tortured for 50 years in order to prevent 500 trillion + 1 people from getting a dust speck in their eye? Would you still prefer to have 500 trillion + 1 people get dust specks in their eye? If not, you might be a preference utilitarian.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Coke vs Pepsi

When people try Coke and Pepsi without knowing which one's which, they show a widespread preference for Pepsi, which is demonstrated in their brain activity (specifically, in the ventral putamen). But if you tell people which one's which before they drink it, the majority prefers Coke. These experiment subjects did not have the same sensory experience as the others and then give a biased report of it - they actually had a different sensory experience, again demonstrated in their brain activity. This famous experiment by Read Montague shows the power of brand influence on our experiences.

Taste in music is equally subject to external pressures. When asked to download and rate unknown songs, choices are affected by social influence. When people are aware of which songs are heavily downloaded and highly regarded, they are more likely to download and then rate those songs highly.

Needless to say, moral intuitions are no more stable than these other subjective judgments. 

These experiments also show the power of branding. In Change of Heart, Nick Cooney writes about realizing he had to normalize his physical appearance in order to be more socially persuasive. Whether or not people should judge you based on your appearance, people do, and altruists need to be conscious of that. Get your appearance straight and the halo effect kicks in, making your message more appealing.

Not only is physical appearance important, but so is your brand. The New Atheists are branded by many as strident, arrogant, and close-minded. Whether or not these charges are true, this image limits what they're able to accomplish. Political activists are often branded as violent, radical, overly antagonistic, needlessly belligerent, and aggressive. Far-left, drug legalization, and environmental activists are often branded as hippies, tree-huggers, slackers, etc. It's important for activists to be aware of how they're being perceived because those perceptions have everything to do with the effectiveness of their campaigns.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Incentivizing Self-Skepticism On School Tests

Student answers to exam questions usually have two possibilities: they are either right or wrong. Sometimes the question is worth multiple points and it is possible to get “part marks” by getting some things right and some things wrong. For the purposes of this post, I’ll ignore situations where it is possible to get part marks. Let’s just assume questions are the fill-in-the-blank or true-or-false type each worth 1 point.

What if school tests offered a third option?

You get 1 point for getting the answer right. You get no points for leaving the answer blank. You lose 1 point for getting the answer wrong.

This gives students a reason to “think before they speak” – to distinguish between answers they’re more than 50% sure of and those that they’re less than 50% sure of. Rather than taking a wild guess, students will learn the skill of assessing the likelihood of their guesses being correct and holding off if they aren’t certain enough. Each question is a reminder to think hard about whether they've really got the right answer. It's a call for self-skepticism.

I’m not sure whether this would have good consequences or not. It could train people to be sheepish, risk-averse, and obedient. I’m also not sure the 1-0-1 point system is optimal. Maybe it should be more like 2-0-1 so that guesses won’t be too harshly penalized. I think incorporating incorrect guesses into scoring systems could potentially have good effects on students.

Thursday, 2 January 2014


Agnotology is the opposite of epistemology - it is the study of ignorance. This includes both misinformation, the spread of wrong info, and disinformation, the intentional spread of wrong info. It does not cover the metaphysically unknowable realm, but rather the historical and political reasons for information being kept private, uncertain, or unknown.

Robert Proctor distinguishes between three views of ignorance:

Ignorance as native state: This is an intuitive understanding of ignorance and it is often adopted by scientists. On this view, ignorance is a hole waiting to be filled with knowledge. People originate in ignorance and replace it with knowledge as they learn.

Ignorance as lost realm: This perspective understands ignorance as occupying a space. Nobody can be knowledgeable of everything. When we learn one thing, we are giving up the opportunity to learn something else.

Ignorance as social construct: Ideas are spread throughout society by idea-communicators. These ideas can either be right or wrong and, if wrong, their communicators can either be aware or unaware of this wrongness. Ignorance is something humans construct and spread.

Some of the key examples of disinformation in recent times are: global warming denial, intelligent design, and the major tobacco companies' denial of smoking-induced health risks. The tobacco industry has been perhaps the most transparently duplicitous. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company's internal memo in 1969 was: "Doubt is our product." Proctor describes the process by which these corporations fund researchers to produce non-incriminating results so that they can (1) generate public uncertainty over the health side effects of smoking cigarettes, and (2) show their research in court to prove that they are honestly investigating the effects of their products.

Understanding the strategies used to keep people ignorant can be helpful for (1) preventing these strategies and (2) generating strategies for spreading good memes and true information.