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In Praise of Robin Hanson

June 3, 2013

I don’t read Overcoming Bias often, and when I do, I don’t usually like it. Robin Hanson has a lot of bad ideas. But he has some good ones also, and most importantly, the ideas he has are ideas which only he could have thought of. He takes a lot of risks, and occasionally hits on something mind blowingly insightful.

Of all the economists I know, he is by far the most detached when writing about humanity. If an alien were to arrive on Earth and knew nothing about humans, Robin Hanson would be the best human alive to be their tour guide. Every aspiring social scientist should read at least 3 or 4 of his blog posts, simply to have idea of what to aspire to. Being able to estimate “WWRHS?” is a very useful skill. It’s completely refreshing to read someone who cares so much about societal norms which he himself is seemingly totally unbound by.

Further Reading:
On Neurodiversity.
My article on his robot presentation.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Bryant N. Carr permalink
    June 9, 2013 6:03 am

    The big problems for most collective intelligence tools come when the topics are controversial, and the contributions involve a lot of judgment. For example, consider folks elaborating a schedule of which projects will be finished when, or designing a budget of which potential projects shall be funded. Here folks are often justly concerned that many “contributions” will be self-serving attempts to make them or their groups look better or gain more resources.

  2. July 5, 2013 6:06 pm

    “Robin Hanson has a lot of bad ideas.”
    Care to elaborate? I think he overestimates likelihood of some of his pet theories, such as cryonics but then again I don’t do research on cryonics.

    “It’s completely refreshing to read someone who cares so much about societal norms which he himself is seemingly totally unbound by.”
    What? What did he do?

    I don’t expect anyone who reads about signaling theory to like it since signaling theory is very evil. Although a lot of his posts are more of application of it or speculation with it. But I also believe it is very close to the “truth”.

    But I agree WWRHS? is a good skill. And I think any aspiring social scientist should read more than 3 or 4 of his posts. At least a couple of dozen on signaling.

    • July 8, 2013 8:08 am

      I think his near/far distinction isn’t that insightful as well the stuff on cryo, although I have somewhat odd opinions about immortality myself. I think also he overestimates the degree to which ems will be treated as human equivalents.

      On not caring about the mainstream thought, his stuff on charity and health care is a good example. Most people think of charity as wishy washy feel good stuff, but Hanson applies logic and maximization to it. Also his work on health care runs directly counter to mainstream thought.

      I don’t signaling is evil, nor is open discussion of it evil. In fact, I think that open discussion of signaling is a great way to diffuse it. Suppose someone engages in conspicuous consumption and instead of saying “wow, that person must have a lot of money”, everyone says “wow, they put a lot of resources into signaling, they must be really shallow.” You can kind of start to see how inefficient equalibria might start to unwind. In fact, in many such situations, such as dualing and foot binding, outside disapprobation was critical in breaking down the institution.

      • July 13, 2013 6:56 pm

        “I think also he overestimates the degree to which ems will be treated as human equivalents.”
        Quote? He might consider them our replacements but did he say somewhere general population would do so? Em revolution could still happen, because of the economic nature of it. Whether we treat them as human equivalents or not isn’t really relevant.

        “Most people think of charity as wishy washy feel good stuff, but Hanson applies logic and maximization to it.”
        Robin also thinks people really don’t give a crap about where charity money goes. He shows how we could it make it better though. What’s wrong with that?

        “Also his work on health care runs directly counter to mainstream thought.”
        Mainstream by whom? General population? His views are based on research.

        “I don’t signaling is evil”
        I think signaling theory has many ideas that would be considered evil my common sense morality. There are many ways to approach this. One, like Tyler Cowen put it, is to say that economics says there’s nothing special about notion of loyalty, friendship or love. For most people, these are very evil ideas.

        “I think that open discussion of signaling is a great way to diffuse it.”
        Yes, I do think a lot problems in this world could be solved if more people understood signaling. We probably waste half of our resources on signaling. Over time, that is an awful lot of resources. People die (sooner) in this world because a lot of this waste. Not to mention all other kind of costs to human happiness.

        I think signaling on meta level is one of the biggest ideas in the history of ideas. It is truly breath-taking once you follow its logical path to a lot of conclusions. Its a perspective like relativity is, and very profound at that.

        I think it is more fun to be around guys who don’t think about why they are having fun. A lot institutions in this world are based on altruism. Sure its possible to go to your hindbrain when you are partying and back to your analytical forebrain when you are working. I don’t think world would come to an end either if more people would be more aware of their true motivations, but I think narcissism is a very degenerative force in a society. Likewise I think religion is to some extent a great thing, even if the beliefs they hold are false.

  3. July 14, 2013 1:37 pm

    Nothing is wrong with cold hard analysis of charity, it just upsets some people.

    Mainstream analysis of medicine assumes more money spent on medicine will result in better health outcomes. His views are based on the Rand study, sure, but it’s just one study and there are opposing researchers as well. I don’t know who is right, but there is a lot of room for debate.

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