Wrong About Me Too

Not Ideal But I Was Way Off

In an earlier post I was very critical of the form the me too movement took predicting that simply conveying me too in the absence of any clear agreement on what was being claimed (did someone once ask you out in a way you found creepy or did your boss threaten to have you blacklisted from the industry if you didn’t sleep with him) would do more harm than good. I didn’t believe that merely expressing vague pro-social feelings of unknown intensity on social media would do much to persuade anyone to change their ways nor would it do much to change anyone’s justified belief in the prevalence of any particular kind of behavior. To be clear, I always supported the goal of eliminating the impunity with which many powerful men harassed I just thought it would require sharing emotionally detailed accounts of actual harassment to shift people’s beliefs.

Now I still believe I was right about many of the unimportant issues. MeToo didn’t directly do much to change people’s estimates of the incidence of harassment and I do think that the temptation for those who wouldn’t have otherwise judged their experiences as qualifying to participate (with the best of motives) might have lead some people to see harassment as less serious1 but all these effects were trivially small if real at all and I totally missed the real importance of the movement it created common knowledge that there was widespread condemnation of sexual harassment and that many people were finally willing to take accusations against powerful and admired figures seriously. Note, that conveying common knowledge didn’t require shifting belief in any particular frequency (of incidence or of people willing to stand up) and I totally missed this possibility[^facebook].

Was MeToo the optimal vehicle to accomplish this? I don’t know but it seems to have worked quite well and there is a good chance any little tweak I might have preferred would have undermined it. So I was totally, extremely wrong about all the parts that mattered and I believe in owning up to that. Indeed, I even vaguely remember someone mentioning the theory I endorse here on facebook at the time but I wasn’t convinced.

In retrospect I let my annoyance that people seemed to be just doing things because they felt emotionally satisfying rather than having any particularly good justification biased me so even when someone made the right argument I missed it.

  1. For instance, someone assumed that those posting mostly just to be supportive were the extent of harrassment with rare exceptions. 

Trump’s Twitter

Preserving The President's Free Speech Rights

So I’ve long been skeptical about the 1st ammendment right not to be blocked on twitter by Donald Trump. It seemed to me th
e fact he was president and even talked about official policies in his tweets in no way meant his actions on his twitter account were taking in his public capacity. As Prof. Volokh points out in the link it’s is common for presidents to discuss policy, promise governmental action and even announce new programs during their stump speeches which are clearly and unequivocally understood to be made in their capacity as private individuals.

But Prof. Volokh finally convinced me on this point by observing that Trump uses white house staff to manage and post on his twitter account in ways that would be illegal if it was a political or even purely personal concern.

Nicely, this means we don’t have to worry that it will become impossible for government officials to campaign via social media. Donald Trump can have @RealDonaldTrump as his personal twitter but he then has to run it out of Trump tower or his political staff and not the white house (though he will probably be far too lazy to do that).

More broadly, rather than the harms I feared would come from either treating all presidential social media as official or unofficial we get an incentive for politicians to more carefully separate their official and personal roles.

Blocking of Twitter Users from @RealDonaldTrump Violates First Amendment

President Trump has been blocking some Twitter users from his @RealDonaldTrump account, apparently because of their viewpoints. (The President apparently stipulated, in this lawsuit, that “[s]hortly after the Individual Plaintiffs posted the tweets …

Sleeping Beauty and Philosophy of Language

Why The Debate Over The Sleeping Beauty Paradox Is Confused

The Sleeping Beauty Problem is a famous philosophical problem in the philosophy of probability which has seeped into debates in the rationalist community. Apart from it’s independent philosophical interest it raises issues of practical significance via it’s close connection to the Doomsday argument. However, I will argue below that sleeping beauty is only an apparent problem that arises only because framing the talk in terms of probability hides an unjustified assumption that our notion of (epistemically justified) credence refers and we have a good grip on what it refers to. An assumption which this very paradox shows to be false. As a result all attempts to directly argue for any particular position on the sleeping beauty problem is deeply confused.

In particular, if we take our word credence to (like water) refer to something like the most scientifically/philosophically useful term in the area then it should be obvious that the only answer we can give is “we don’t know.” If not then our natural language term simply doesn’t uniquely refer so it doesn’t make sense to expect a right answer to the sleeping beauty problem (though each particular preciseification would yield one).

In a latter post I’ll argue that debates about interpretations of probability are making a similar error in assuming there are the sort of facts behind the meaning of ascriptions of probability that are at issue between the interpretations.

The Sleeping Beauty Problem

The Sleeping Beauty Problem is defined thusly on wikipedia

Sleeping Beauty volunteers to undergo the following experiment and is told all of the following details: On Sunday she will be put to sleep. Once or twice, during the experiment, Beauty will be awakened, interviewed, and put back to sleep with an amnesia-inducing drug that makes her forget that awakening. A fair coin will be tossed to determine which experimental procedure to undertake:

  1. If the coin comes up heads, Beauty will be awakened and interviewed on Monday only.
  2. If the coin comes up tails, she will be awakened and interviewed on Monday and Tuesday.

In either case, she will be awakened on Wednesday without interview and the experiment ends. Any time Sleeping Beauty is awakened and interviewed she will not be able to tell which day it is or whether she has been awakened before.

During the interview Beauty is asked: “What is your probability now for the proposition that the coin landed heads?”.

The apparent paradox arises because there are compelling seeming arguments (described in more detail on wikipedia) that sleeping beauty should answer 1/2 and a 1/3. Roughly the argument for 1/2 is that on waking up sleeping beauty doesn’t receive any information that might justify updating her probability. An argument for 1/3 is that when woken up she should assign equal probability to it being Monday or Tuesday conditional on the coin landing tails while conditional on the day being Monday she should assign equal probability to the coin being heads or tails. As there are twice as many equally probable outcomes involving tails the probability the coin landed heads is 1/3 (this is also the probability that sleeping beauty should use to bet with if offered a bet each time she is woken).

While phrased in this manner the sleeping beauty problem seems like a pretty irrelevant paradox the same reasoning applies in much more interesting settings. For instance, suppose you assign some non-zero prior to the possibility that instead of one single universe there are infinitely many universes containing an exact duplicate of you1. If you accept the arguments for the 1/3 position in the sleeping beauty paradox the mere fact that you are having an experience should cause you to update your probability for there being infinitely many universes to 1.

Similarly, what arguments you find compelling in the sleeping beauty case affect how you should evaluate the Doomsday argument. For instance, taking the 1/3 position in sleeping beauty might lead one to argue against the doomsday argument on the grounds that there are more total individuals having experiences if there is no imminent doomsday and this should weight our probabilities.

What Does A Credence Mean?

While the sleeping beauty paradox may pose a challenge to our philosophical idea of (subjective) probability it doesn’t raise any problems for the mathematics of probability. But if the problem isn’t mathematical what is it about? At first blush it appears to be a question about the notion of (epistemically appropriate) credence. In other words sleeping beauty is a question about epistemology dressed up as a problem about probability.

But once we realize this we should be immediately be drive to ask: what does it mean to have an (epistemically appropriate) credence of 1/3 (or half)?

The sleeping beauty paradox itself demonstrates immediately that there are multiple plausible ways we could understand such a statement. For instance, one way of understanding the notion of epistemically appropriate credence might build from the intuition that the percent of times you believe something to be true with credence p and it is true should be p. If you allow the fanciful device of imagining restarting the universe one might think that a credence p in a claim C is appropriate relative to a given experience E if we ran reality a bunch of times and the ratio of the number of times C is true when E is experienced approaches p. In other words a credence is like a bet with reality you take each time you form it (though one would need to flesh out the notion of forming a credence if one wanted to pursue this). This concept supports the 1/3 answer to the sleeping beauty problem since, if the experiment is repeated many times, 1/3 of the times sleeping beauty has the experience of waking up the coin will be heads.

On the other hand, another way of understanding the notion of epistemically appropriate credence might build from the idea that you only care about whether or not a claim is true not how often it is true relative to the number of times you form a credence about it. In other words, credence p in a claim C is appropriate relative to a given experience E is appropriate if the number of times the universe is restarted where both claim C is true and you (or someone?) has experience E divided by the number of times the universe is restarted and you have experience E approaches p. This concept supports the 1/2 answer to the sleeping beauty problem since if the experiment is repeated many times 1/2 of those times will result in the coin landing heads.

Now, of course, all the problems with defining interpretations of probability and limiting frequency approaches mean I didn’t fully define a precise concept in either case. However, I don’t need to fully define any concept merely demonstrate that there is more than one way one could want to define the notion of epistemically appropriate credence.

Which notion one is interested in will depend on the particular situation at hand. For instance, if sleeping beauty’s concern is about making a bet with one of the researchers (who promises to accept bets either day) she should use the concept which considers the number of times she’s had the experience. If one of the researchers is a serial killer who tells her right before she goes under that he’s going to kill her spouse if the coin lands heads then a notion of credence which doesn’t concern herself with how many times she has the experience. Note that this nicely resolves the more applied versions of sleeping beauty once we make clear just what we are interested in.

Given that there are more than one notion of epistemically appropriate credence one could care about the most informative to the sleeping beauty problem should simply be that it is under-specified. Indeed, the fact that for any practical purpose we know which value to use should have been a red flag from the beginning that this was merely a verbal dispute not a genuine puzzle about epistemology.

Philosophy of Language Discussion

While I expect that I could stop at this point and satisfy non-philosophers there is a tendency among philosophers to insist that even if we don’t know exactly what properties epistemically appropriate credence (or ‘probability’) has one might nevertheless be justified in believing it uniquely asserts. While I’m skeptical of such claims in this case it certainly can happen. For instance, ‘water’ referred to H2O when Avogadro determined water’s chemical formula rather than changing it’s meaning2. However, that was only because (and to the extent) that past dispositions about the use of the word water would have lead (at least hypothetically philosophically informed3) people to hesitate to call something water despite it’s appearances if given sufficient reason to suspect it might differ in underlying nature, e.g., if flown in a spaceship to visit a stream on another world people would have expressed uncertainty as to whether the refreshing clear liquid was water.

But if our term ‘probability’ (or ‘epistemically appropriate credences’) is to, like ‘water’, refer to whatever natural kind fits sufficiently well with our usage then the only sane position for philosophers to take on questions like sleeping beauty is to admit that they don’t know, and indeed can’t know, until we figure out what natural kinds are in the neighborhood of our use of the term. After all, there is no doubt that problems like the sleeping beauty paradox differ from our usual applications of epistemically appropriate credences in ways that might or might not affect how some, yet undiscovered, natural kind in the neighborhood might apply. This wouldn’t reveal any kind of deep puzzle about the nature of the world, merely uncertainty as to the true reference of ‘epistemically appropriate credences’ as a result of our lack of knowledge about natural kinds in the neighborhood.

So sure, we can take ‘epistemically appropriate credences’ to refer to whatever concept turns out to be most elegantly useful in our theorizing about uncertainty in the world. However, if we do then the answer to all these paradoxes about probability becomes a simple “I don’t know” for the boring reason that we don’t know if there is an elegantly useful concept in the neighborhood yet. Thus, bald insistence that our notion of epistemically appropriate credences or probability has an implicit forward reference to the best concept in the neighborhood can’t save the arguments between the 1/2 and 1/3 camps from being appropriately regarded as confused.

  1. To make the case fully analogous, one may assume that you have a soul which occupies each duplicate of you in turn, so you can’t escape the conclusion merely by appeal to the fact the same individual isn’t having the experiences. 
  2. While this makes for a nice philosophical parable I’m not totally convinced the claim holds up as a matter of linguistic history. The latin word aqua seems to be closely linked in meaning to the stuff in rivers and streams so I wouldn’t take it for granted that the average English speaker didn’t just mean whatever flows in the rivers and streams by ‘water’ back in 1811. 
  3. It might not be necessary for this to be the usual reaction but surely we must imagine that hypothetical philosophers who were somehow well versed Kripke’s arguments in Naming and Necessity back in 1800 would have such doubts if they didn’t understand ‘water’ to mean (as it is surely possible for a word to mean) any wet, clear, refreshing stuff that flows in a river or stream. If you deny this then you aren’t really studying the observable phenomena of language anymore but positing some kind of inaccessible platonic realm of truths regarding true meanings completely beyond the grasp of those using the language. 

Social Control and The Principle Agent Problem

The Chinese Example And The Dangers Of Restricting Free Speech

This interesting post reminded me of my suspicion that a lot of the censorship in China isn’t the result of Xi Jinping’s crazed desire to be repressive. Almost certainly Xi would benefit from far less censorship and may indeed benefit from reports in the media exposing misbehavior by low level party officials but the incentives of those with the power to control expression (both to show off their loyalty and hide embarrassing events) means that far more censorship gets implemented than Xi would ideally want.

I think this is an important lesson for those who want to limit our free speech (or academic freedoms) when it comes to issues of race, gender harassment and the like. Even though the speech that one intends to ban may not have much value and impose great harms one needs to keep in mind the risks posed in delegating the practical authority to determine what speech qualifies.

Ethereum Eschatology and Bitcoin Bankruptcy

Regulatory Arbitrage and Governmental Support For Cryptocurrency Alternatives

So I’ve been thinking a bit about cryptocurrencies lately and I don’t think the future is very promising for Bitcoin, Ethereum and other pure cryptocurrencies. I’ve always been a big fan of these currencies (though don’t get me started on the idiocy of companies using blockchain everywhere) but I think they are doomed in the not to distant future. However, this is only because I am convinced it won’t be long before we have the option to realize all (or at least most of) the major benefits of cryptocurrencies without the kludge and overhead of the blockchain, the dangerous price volatility and the unreliability/general sleaziness of many cryptocurrency exchanges.

Now lots of cryptocurrency value is currently the result of pure speculative interest. People are making a big bet that Bitcoin or Ethereum will take off and surge in value. While I highly recommend this Last Week Tonight episode mocking the HODL gang and other idiocy in cryptocurrency investing it’s not a fundamentally unreasonable bet. Just an extremely high risk bet that eventually non-speculators1 will buy out the speculators at well above (enough balance the risk) the current market price. It’s a bet that the currency will prove to be (at least) so useful/desirable that normal economic actors will see fit to hold far more value in the cryptocurrency than it’s current market capitalization of $151 billion BTC/$63 billion ETH. Given that $5 trillion is being held in physical currency and $60 trillion is held in bank accounts if you think there is a decent chance that Bitcoin or Ethereum will be adopted as the global currency then it’s valuation might not be absurd.

However, let’s ask what it is that cryptocurrencies offer the non-speculator. It seems to me there are several attributes that make them desirable.

  1. Cryptocurrencies offer finality in payments, e.g., unlike credit cards you don’t need to worry the payment you received will be cancelled by the payor or reversed as fraudulent.
  2. Cryptocurrencies let you pay people who wouldn’t (or can’t be bothered) be get paypal merchant accounts or US bank accounts.
  3. Relative freedom from government monitoring.
  4. Smart contracts. I can enter into cryptocurrency contracts that are enforced regardless of what a court thinks and even if local law enforcement is non-existent.
  5. Cryptocurrency schemes don’t require any kind of trust in government currency or a government system.

Frankly, 5 isn’t a serious consideration. It matters to a few people who want to show off their crypto-anarchists credentials but generally having a central bank behind one’s money is an advantage (stability etc..). So much so that other cryptocurrencies are trying to build in similar systems. If your concern is a hedge against inflation or governmental collapse you are better buying gold which a desperate government can’t try and attack (a combination legal and technical attack by a motivated government would seriously threaten any cryptocurrency). Besides, you can still use it if the internet fails.

But notice that, excepting 5, really all these advantages are really just avoidance of regulation. I don’t think there would be much demand for cryptocurrencies if it was legal to make a version of paypal where payments were completely final (even if they later turned out to be fraudulent), all records of transfers were immediately deleted, no one was turned away (marijuana growers, people in countries with sanctions and even conmen all got to keep their accounts) and the government couldn’t easily monitor accounts or determine whose account was whose.

Now some of this is just about enabling illegal activity (which also has value insofar as it lets individuals replace organized crime in the drug trade) however, strange as it might seem there is really substantial value in monetary exchanges with less protections against fraud and theft. In high-trust, relatively low value transactions in countries with strong legal systems such protections are a bonus but they make it virtually impossible to do make deals in low trust situations or when the seller can’t absorb a loss. For instance, as a tourist I couldn’t buy a high value good (say a found meteorite) from a villager I encounter because even if he could accept credit card payments he doesn’t have the means to contest a claim of fraud I might later make so, without cash, we can’t reach a mutually beneficial deal.

What puts current cryptocurrencies at risk is the fact that at any point any of the hundreds of sovereign governments on Earth could choose to offer an alternative digital payment system capturing most of these benefits. At any time Montenegro could sit down with Goldman-Sachs and some IT guys and launch Montenegro digital cash. Individuals from around the world could open up numbered accounts on the MontCash website and transfer money in or out of these accounts using credit cards or bank transfers. The MontCash app (or api) would then function exactly as paypal does today except that it would have numbered accounts (instead or as well as accounts in individual names), wouldn’t allow chargebacks or canceled transactions (absent a final court judgement) or require troublesome certifications to accept money at scale. In other words MontCash would just be a trusted bookkeeper maintaining a list of account balances.

Of course, diplomatic pressure would ensure that no government offered a completely untraceable totally anonymous system like this but for 99% of users it would be just as good (indeed better in some respects than Bitcoin’s publicly trackable transactions) if MontCash only released the accounts linked to certain payments, deposits etc.. only in response to a subpeona/warrant or for use in terrorism cases. While many governments might not particularly like the fact that accounts are simply numbered and can be used by whoever has the right credentials if it appears that real cryptocurrencies are gaining serious adoption (as necessary to vindicate their current valuation) then a system like MontCash would start to seem like an appealing alternative. After all, unlike Bitcoin, MontCash would still allow accounts to be seized with valid court orders, be more convenient to subpoena for transfers to/from given credit cards/bank accounts than the fluctuating legion of cryptocurrency exchanges and, most importantly, offer the carrot of secret counterterrorism access. After all, 99% of users wouldn’t care that much if the NSA/GCHQ etc.. got some degree of secret access to the financial data feed provided it wasn’t shared with tax collectors or drug dealers while the counterterrorism/intel benefits of having not only all transactions and accounts used to purchase or sell MontCash but also log details of where the app/api was used on what kind of device etc.. would be invaluable.

Even though it might not be universally loved the potential for massive profit by whichever country decides to give this a go is a very strong incentive. Not only could they collect a tiny percent of each transaction but they would earn huge amounts of interest on their total deposits. Also, they would have a compelling reason to allow numbered accounts not associated with any individual since they would get to keep all funds in such accounts when the owner losses their password (or cryptographic key or whatever). It’s hard to imagine that no country would take up this opportunity if they already see a true cryptocurrency gaining legitimacy. A system like MontCash would be far more attractive to most normal users as it could offer accounts denominated in various stable currencies (dollars, Euros etc..), greater user friendliness and more flexibility (you could potentially set daily transaction limits for your account, give up some degree of anonymity for password recovery options etc..) not to mention solving the long transaction times and high overhead costs (paid for in fees rewarded to miners) in cryptocurrencies.

In short, it’s hard to imagine that cryptocurrencies will win the day when for everyone but the hardcore technoanarchist their needs can be better met by a system that governments would see as less bad and can bring into being at any time.

  1. It’s not possible to maintain a rate of return substantially outpacing global economic growth indefinitely and eventually even the most irrational speculators will realize the good times are over and either liquidate their investments to speculate elsewhere or store their value in a safe asset. If, at this point, there isn’t sufficient non-speculative investment in the cryptocurrency to support it’s price the price will crash as speculators race to sell.