Nov 082017

In a new book, Eliezer discusses civilizational inadequacy. In one section, he first explains that hundreds of babies die every year because a formula used to feed premature children with certain birth defects is made from soybean oil rather than fish oil. Swapping one for the other would prevent all these deaths, and many other cases of brain damage in babies who don’t die. It’s known by enough people that this should be fixable, and has been known for years, and yet nothing is changed and hundreds of babies die every year. He then goes on to postulate why we, as a society, can’t be assed to save these lives.

>Suppose you want to sell a used car, and I’m looking for a car to buy. From my perspective, I have to worry that your car might be a “lemon”—that it has a serious mechanical problem that doesn’t appear every time you start the car, and is difficult or impossible to fix. Now, you know that your car isn’t a lemon. But if I ask you, “Hey, is this car a lemon?” and you answer “No,” I can’t trust your answer, because you’re incentivized to answer “No” either way. Hearing you say “No” isn’t much Bayesian evidence. Asymmetric information conditions can persist even in cases where, like an honest seller meeting an honest buyer, both parties have strong incentives for accurate information to be conveyed.

>A further problem is that if the fair value of a non-lemon car is $10,000, and the possibility that your car is a lemon causes me to only be willing to pay you $8,000, you might refuse to sell your car. So the honest sellers with reliable cars start to leave the market, which further shifts upward the probability that any given car for sale is a lemon, which makes me less willing to pay for a used car, which incentivizes more honest sellers to leave the market, and so on.

>In our world, there are a lot of people screaming, “Pay attention to this thing I’m indignant about over here!” In fact, there are enough people screaming that there’s an inexploitable market in indignation. The dead-babies problem can’t compete in that market; there’s no free energy left for it to eat, and it doesn’t have an optimal indignation profile. There’s no single individual villain. The business about competing omega-3 and omega-6 metabolic pathways is something that only a fraction of people would understand on a visceral level; and even if those people posted it to their Facebook walls, most of their readers wouldn’t understand and repost, so the dead-babies problem has relatively little virality. Being indignant about this particular thing doesn’t signal your moral superiority to anyone else in particular, so it’s not viscerally enjoyable to engage in the indignation. As for adding a further scream, “But wait, this matter really is important!”, that’s the part subject to the lemons problem. Even people who honestly know about a fixable case of dead babies can’t emit a trustworthy request for attention.

There a LOT more to Eliezer’s book, this is just one excerpt, but boy does this fill me with guilt. Because this section, in essence, can be reduced to “The Culture War Kills Babies.” Not in the mamby-pamby way that university students scream “You are killing me!” but in actual, literal corpses that one can count. Due to all the social outrage we pour into things like cultural appropriation and “cis is the new straight,” there is no room left for drawing attention to actual outrageous things, like babies dying by the hundreds unnecessarily.

I do talk about cultural issues a fair bit. I may be contributing to the killing of babies, and I don’t want to do that. I think it may be possible to talk about cultural issues in a way that doesn’t engage the outrage drive, and I will strive to do that. I think Scott Alexander does it very well, and often Eliezer as well. From now on, any time I want to really get incensed about something, I will first ask myself if it’s as big a deal as hundreds of dead babies. I’m sure it sometimes is. Much of our future hangs on how we deal with (for example) intellectual property and privacy rights. But man, that pile of babies is really appalling.

Maybe the worst part is that anytime someone throws a fit over people kneeling or choosing an unorthodox hairstyle I’m going to think “Man, you are killing babies right now, but I can’t say anything about that because it wouldn’t only make things even worse incredibly quickly.”

Well OK, not the worst, by a long shot. But it’ll be there. /sigh

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