konrad's Shortform

by konrad10th Mar 20213 comments
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I am somewhat disappointed by Yuval Noah Harari's Lessons from a year of Covid (https://ft.com/content/f1b30f2c-84aa-4595-84f2-7816796d6841…). He says many great things in the article but furthers a weird misconception of political decision-making.

Two quotes to illuminate what bothers me 

One reason for the gap between scientific success and political failure is that scientists co-operated globally, whereas politicians [...] have failed to form an international alliance against the virus and to agree on a global plan.

 

a global anti-plague system already exists in [...] the World Health Organization and several other institutions. [...] We need to give this system some political clout and a lot more money, so that it won’t be entirely dependent on the whims of self-serving politicians.

I agree with his framing of this being a political failure but think he's drawing a false dichotomy that perpetuates the problem. Scientists have an easy time collaborating on COVID related matters because it's mainly **natural** scientists. They all more or less agree on something like scientific realism. Scientists utterly fail in political arenas all the time. There is no way around politics, given this planet's diverse societies, so claiming that politicians are self-serving is a little bit of a dick move.

At their core, scientists are as self-serving as politicians. It's just that the political environment compounds minor discrepancies into giant gaping cleavages, in the face of which any single individual feels fear and the need to save their own ass first. To compare political failure to scientific success, we should not look at the individuals but their environment. Unless we have reason to believe that selection effects direct a super disproportionate amount of sociopaths into politics. That doesn't seem very plausible.

We need to foster a culture that evaluates policy-makers and politicians based on their decision-making processes, not outcomes. Essentially, a culture closer to the ideal of science: what matters most are your methods and even negative results can be great learning. One key problem here is a problem scientists routinely avoid: public relations. When you're being judged on outcomes, massive uncertainty incentivizes you to do the most defensible thing - which usually doesn't correlate with upside potential.

The trick we need to achieve: make the most defensible thing not the least risky but the most methodological. Everybody can learn to sit with uncertainty and communicate it. It doesn't matter if the broader public is demanding certainty. What matters is the immediate environment of policy-makers and politicians - their teams and institutions. Each and every one of us can impact that incentive landscape. We can vote, we can advocate, we can become policy actors ourselves. 

But whatever you do, the first step is to not criticize the people who are usually really trying their best under many many constraints. Going into science is, in some ways, the route of least resistance for anybody who values truth. If you have the capacity: play in hard mode, go into international policy-making and incrementally change the face of it such that it becomes an easy mode for future generations.

[crossposted from my twitter]

Evaluating the UN based on news from the security council is like evaluating the US government based on news from hollywood.

The SC is a circus, but the UN fosters lots of multilateral progress through meetings you don't hear about because everybody's scared of showing that they just want world peace in a world where realism reigns. 

Hollywood shows American superheroes fighting evil, while the government tries to operationalize the coordination of 300mio people. Sure, hollywood memes might foster popular American dream narratives and the government fails regularly but it's doing surprisingly well even when a hollywood-esque clown was its face for four years.

UN soft power has given us beautiful multilateralism that lets a virus spread faster than any, even more virulent ones, before - take a moment to appreciate it when you brush your teeth. Our tooth brushes also are the product of a crazy amount of coordination that no national security focused perspective would have enabled.

The national security perspective is a potentially harmful self-fulfilling prophecy and the people meeting in Geneva to undermine it or those running governments as a career are much closer to superheroes than most others. 

Of course, the UN is highly dysfunctional in many ways but there's also a lot of room for improvement. Of course, there's Musk et al, but they are crazy outliers, unreachable for most. 

I think, if more EAs focused on international governance and diplomacy, the UN system would already be substantially better off. From what I've seen so far, what it's lacking most is memetic leadership and EA+LW have done a great job at reifying values through memes that would actually catch on and could be well-maintained in the cosmopolitan UN context.

Pre- vs post-Cuban-Missile-Crisis Kennedy quotes illustrating a too common development pattern I have observed in people who dabble in world-improvement. They start out extremely determined to do Good and end up simply reminding themselves of our humanity. In a somewhat desperate way, holding onto the last straw of hope they could find.

Pre: 

> We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

Post: 

> weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need to use them is essential to keeping the peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles--which can only destroy and never create--is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace

Pre: 

> So let us begin anew--remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Post: 

> For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.

This is essentially what I see in many parts of international organization circles: lots of people who were very serious about improving the world in the past but are now mostly reassuring each other that they are good people instead of busting their asses to make sure they *actually* try.

This seems unfortunately mainly due to the innate human need for safety and acceptance. Needy humans produce bad culture. Even though we're living in abundance, most of us do not perceive the world as such.

My two-step plan: 

1. Engineer my local bubble such that I am constantly reminded of living in abundance. 

2. Figure out interventions at increasingly larger scales to get more and more people to do the same, more and more easily.

Quotes from:

1961 President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address: https://ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=91&page=transcript… 

1963 COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS AT AMERICAN UNIVERSITY, WASHINGTON, D.C.: https://jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/american-university-19630610