What are some low-information priors that you find practically useful for thinking about the world?

Thanks a lot for the pointers! Greaves' example seems to suffer the same problem, though, doesn't it?

Suppose, for instance, you know only that I am about to draw a book from my shelf, and that each book on my shelf has a single-coloured cover. Then POI seems to suggest that you are rationally required to have credence ½ that it will be red (Q1=red, Q2 = not-red; and you have no evidence bearing on whether or not the book is red), but also that you are rationally required to have credence 1/n that it will be red, where n is the ‘number of possible colours’ (Qi = ith colour; and you have no evidence bearing on what colour the book is).)

We have information about the set and distribution of colors, and assigning 50% credence to the color red does not use that information.

The cube factory problem does suffer less from this, cool!

A factory produces cubes with side-length between 0 and 1 foot; what is the probability that a randomly chosen cube has side-length between 0 and 1/2 a foot? The classical intepretation’s answer is apparently 1/2, as we imagine a process of production that is uniformly distributed over side-length. But the question could have been given an equivalent restatement: A factory produces cubes with face-area between 0 and 1 square-feet; what is the probability that a randomly chosen cube has face-area between 0 and 1/4 square-feet? Now the answer is apparently 1/4, as we imagine a process of production that is uniformly distributed over face-area.

I wonder if one should simply model this hierarchically, assigning equal credence to the idea that the relevant measure in cube production is side length or volume. For example, we might have information about cube bottle customers that want to fill their cubes with water. Because the customers vary in how much water they want to fit in their cube bottles, it seems to me that we should put more credence into partitioning it according to volume. Or if we'd have some information that people often want to glue the cubes under their shoes to appear taller, the relevant measure would be the side length. Currently, we have no information like this, so we should assign equal credence to both measures.

What are some low-information priors that you find practically useful for thinking about the world?

I'm confused about the partition problem you linked to. Both examples in that post seem to be instances where in one partition available information is discarded.

Suppose you have a jar of blue, white, and black marbles, of unknown proportions. One is picked at random, and if it is blue, the light is turned on. If it is black or white, the light stays off (or is turned off). What is the probability the light is on?
There isn’t one single answer. In fact, there are several possible answers.
[1.] You might decide to assign a 1/2 probability to the light being on, because you’ve got no reason to assign any other odds. It’s either on (50%) or off (50%).
[2.] You could assign the blue marble a 1/3 probability of being selected (after all, you know that there are three colors). From this it would follow that you have a 1/3 chance of the light being on, and 2/3 chance of the light being off.

Answer 1. seems to simply discard information about the algorithm that produces the result, i.e. that it depends on the color of the marbles. The same holds for the other example in the blogpost, where the information about the number of possible planets is ignored in one partition.

The Cost Of Wasted Motion

Thanks for writing this! I notice that this post seemed to have received some downvotes. I remember that when I read this post for the first time I felt a little irritated because I thought this post is not clear whether it (as I suppose) should be thought of as a summary of the concept of "wasted motion" from the Replacing Guilt series, or as an independently reached original contribution.

Getting Excited about Efficiency

Thanks for your writing, Lynette. This really resonated with me and put me in a delighted mood to get some work done!

How much does it cost to save a life in the mediterranean sea?

Hm, I'm surprised you're surprised. It's noteworthy and sad that the murder rate in the US is so high. I'd also guess the overall murder rate is not representative of the safety of refugees, and the murder rates might be underestimations in countries like Libya, a country that is literally in a civil war right now. Have you read the FAQ? Quoting:

Libya is known as a “failed state”, particularly since the start of the civil war. The German Federal Foreign Office writes (as of March 2019) of Libya: “The population and foreign refugees and migrants suffer criminality, kidnappings, irregular detention, arbitrary executions, torture and oppression of freedom of speech by the various actors due to the prevailing lack of rights.”

I unfortunately haven't found numbers when googling "murder rates in refugee camps", but here some more quotes from a DW article last year that gave me a strong impression that those places clearly are not safe:

According to Amnesty, the already calamitous conditions in Libyan camps worsened since the outbreak of fighting in early April; those detained were caught between the warring fronts and were left without food for days. On July 3, more than 50 refugees and migrants were killed during an airstrike on the Tajoura prison camp in Tripoli.
According to Julien Raickmann, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Libya, people in the camps continue to die from hunger and disease and the situation is "catastrophic."
Amnesty has reported instances of torture, serious violence and exploitation — including through sexual means — and forced labor. Amnesty also documented cases of people being murdered while trying to escape. Primarily, however, militias and traffickers are using refugees to make money by threatening them with violence or death — in some cases by making torture videos to send to their families.
How much does it cost to save a life in the mediterranean sea?

Just skimmed the FAQ from the discussed organization about returning rescued people to Africa:

  • Sea rescue conventions and international human rights law: People rescued at sea must be brought to a safe place, and African countries clearly disqualify (at least they say so about Tunisia and Libya)
  • African countries refuse to accept the rescued people, at least Tunisia did that repeatedly
  • African countries not having a procedure for taking asylum seekers, at least Tunisia doesn't
  • In Lybia they'd be put in detention centers where they'd lose their money and will return to the Mediterranean again afterwards
How much does it cost to save a life in the mediterranean sea?

This situation is such a tragedy and I appreciate that you looked at it with an EA eye. I found it surprising that the cost per saved life might be that low, thanks for sharing your calculation.

I find the political implications complicated here. In an 80,000Hours interview, talking about open borders, Peter Singer seemed to be very worried that a nations sense of controlling their border might strongly determine support for right-wing parties and politicians. I wonder if refugee boats in the mediterranean sea also contribute to this, and how this would be properly weighed in. If this indeed would be a significant problem, are there options that avoid this effect?

Peter Singer: Well, it’s not numbers, I agree it’s not [the numbers of immigrants that count]. But it is the sense of losing control of the borders. I think that’s the common thing [that leads to catastrophic events like Brexit and the vote of Trump]. And the Syrian refugee crisis has had an effect in Europe. It had no effect on the United States. It was minuscule numbers. And it wasn’t the focus. The focus there was people coming across the Mexican border, and that’s why Trump wants to build a wall, et cetera.
And it was the sense that we are losing control of our nation. And going back to a little earlier, Australia went through this as well with the boat people, the so called ‘asylum seekers’ coming across in small boats from Indonesia, which again helped to elect a conservative government in the 90s, the Howard government, rather than labor governments during that era, and maybe even contributed to the re-election of the Morrison government just recently which is also a very bad government on climate change.
So you’re right that it’s perceptions and the perceptions don’t depend on numbers, but they do depend on, do we have control of our borders, right? That’s the issue. And of course, if you really advocate open borders, you’re saying there should be no control of the borders, and that’s going to frighten people.
Are there any other pro athlete aspiring EAs?

My intuition was that pro athletes have more "cognitive horsepower" than average (and are much more able/willing to work hard, which also seems like a really valuable trait). I searched "average iq of athletes" on Google scholar and found this meta-analysis from 2019 that looks at cognitive function of pro-athletes vs. non‐elite athletes, seemingly supporting this. From the abstract:

An extraordinary physiological capacity combined with remarkable motor control, perception, and cognitive functioning is crucial for high performance in sports. [...] Moreover, a growing area of research evolved in the recent past that is particularly concerned with the basic cognitive functions by means of neurocognitive tests in experts and elite athletes. The aim of this meta‐analysis (k = 19) is to quantify differences among experts and nonexperts as well as elite athletes and non‐elite athletes. In addition, it aims to assemble and compare previous research and analyze possible differences in cognitive functions depending on age, skill level, and used cognitive tasks. Overall, the mean effect size was small to medium (r = 0.22), indicating superior cognitive functions in experts and elite athletes.
How have you become more (or less) engaged with EA in the last year?

I'm really excited about EA since I found out about it ~6 years ago. I think I always had the underlying impression that I'm not smart enough to contribute to anything except by donating and being a welcoming and generally knowledgable cheerleader in my local group. Maybe two years ago I started realizing that this mindset, while keeping me from feeling bad about making mistakes, was also keeping me from growing. Since then I try to push myself to make up my own mind more and I started to take part in discussions on the EA forum, mostly when I feel like I wouldn't increase the noise too much with my comments, e.g. when nobody else commented, or I feel strongly that what I comment adds something. (Reading this, I feel like the true story is messier, but it describes a facet of how my engagement changed.)

An argument for keeping open the option of earning to save

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I never thought about this question before and it challenges my intuitive outlook.

Larks mentioned a factor that seems central to me and that I don't know how to fit into your argument:

Diminishing returns due to running out of good people to employ.

My gut's perspective is this: By investing resources to employ/engage/convince smart people today, we are investing in "capacity building", and that's key for long-lasting impact. OPP excellent "Direct work" contributions to both long- and also short-term cause areas will pay off immensely by drawing in more excellent people, further growing the amount of smart minds and resources available to longtermist causes. So as long as there are a lot of EA & longtermism-sympathetic smart minds out there, we should try to reach them by public excellent work that they naturally would want to be part of.

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