Notable Slate Star Codex Blog Posts

I think Slate Star Codex is the best blog on the internet. Below are the posts that changed how I view the world significantly.

For each post I give a one line summary, and inside of the toggle there’s an excerpt.

The Toxoplasma of Rage

Controversial stories will spread more.

Publicizing how strongly you believe an accusation that is obviously true signals nothing. Only controversial things get spread. A rape allegation will only be spread if it’s dubious enough to split people in half along lines corresponding to identity politics. This is why so much coverage [on rape allegations] focuses on the proposal that all accused rapists should be treated as guilty until proven innocent.

What Is Signaling, Really?

What signalling is, why it’s useful, and how it can be destructive.

A signal is a method of conveying information among not-necessarily-trustworthy parties by performing an action which is more likely or less costly if the information is true than if it is not true. Because signals are often costly, they can sometimes lead to a depressing waste of resources, but in other cases they may be the only way to believably convey important information.

For example, [signaling is why] rational employers will base decisions upon - and rational employees enroll in - college courses, even if those courses teach nothing of any value [as long as passing college courses signals something important].

The Noncentral Fallacy

The worst argument in the world (and possibly the most common)

Somewhere between many and most of the bad arguments in politics, philosophy and culture take some form of the noncentral fallacy

Suppose someone wants to build a statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. for his nonviolent resistance to racism. An opponent of the statue objects: “But Martin Luther King was a criminal!”

Any historian can confirm this is correct. A criminal is technically someone who breaks the law, and King knowingly broke a law against peaceful anti-segregation protest - hence his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

But in this case calling Martin Luther King a criminal is the noncentral. The archetypal criminal is a mugger or bank robber. He is driven only by greed, preys on the innocent, and weakens the fabric of society. Since we don’t like these things, calling someone a “criminal” naturally lowers our opinion of them.

The opponent is saying “Because you don’t like criminals, and Martin Luther King is a criminal, you should stop liking Martin Luther King.” But King doesn’t share the important criminal features of being driven by greed, preying on the innocent, or weakening the fabric of society that made us dislike criminals in the first place. Therefore, even though he is a criminal, there is no reason to dislike King.

Beware The Man Of One Study

Every viewpoint has research and experts who are both for and against it. People will choose to listen to the experts and research that confirms their pre-existing beliefs.

If you are a conservative, what you will find on the sites you trust [about minimum wage] will be something like this:

Economic theory has always shown that minimum wage increases decrease employment, but the Left has never been willing to accept this basic fact. In 1992, they trumpeted a single study by Card and Krueger that purported to show no negative effects from a minimum wage increase. This study was immediately debunked and found to be based on statistical malpractice and “massaging the numbers”. Since then, dozens of studies have come out confirming what we knew all along – that a high minimum wage is economic suicide. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses (Neumark 2006, Boockman 2010) consistently show that an overwhelming majority of the research agrees on this fact – as do 73% of economists. That’s why five hundred top economists recently signed a letter urging policy makers not to buy into discredited liberal minimum wage theories. Instead of listening to starry-eyed liberal woo, listen to the empirical evidence and an overwhelming majority of economists and oppose a raise in the minimum wage.

And if you are a leftist, what you will find on the sites you trust will be something like this:

People used to believe that the minimum wage decreased unemployment. But Card and Krueger’s famous 1992 study exploded that conventional wisdom. Since then, the results have been replicated over fifty times, and further meta-analyses (Card and Krueger 1995, Dube 2010) have found no evidence of any effect. Leading economists agree by a 4 to 1 margin that the benefits of raising the minimum wage outweigh the costs, and that’s why more than 600 of them have signed a petition telling the government to do exactly that. Instead of listening to conservative scare tactics based on long-debunked theories, listen to the empirical evidence and the overwhelming majority of economists and support a raise in the minimum wage.

Schelling Fences On Slippery Slopes

Setting “lines in the sand” helps you follow long-term goals in the moment.

One evening, I start playing Sid Meier’s Civilization. I have work tomorrow, so I want to stop and go to sleep by midnight.

At midnight, I consider my alternatives. For the moment, I feel an urge to keep playing Civilization. But I know I’ll be miserable tomorrow if I haven’t gotten enough sleep. Ten minutes’ sleep here or there doesn’t make any difference. So I say: “I will play Civilization for ten minutes - ‘just one more turn’ - and then I will go to bed.”

Time passes. It is now 12:10. I value the next ten minutes a lot, and subsequent times much less. And so I say: I will play until 12:20, ten minutes sleep here or there not making much difference, and then sleep.

And so on until my empire bestrides the globe and the rising sun peeps through my windows.

The solution is [as follows]. If I consider the problem early in the evening, I can precommit to midnight as a nice round number that makes a good Schelling point. Then, when deciding whether or not to play after midnight, I can treat my decision not as “Midnight or 12:10” - because 12:10 will always win that particular race - but as “Midnight or abandoning the only credible Schelling point and probably playing all night”, which will be sufficient to scare me into turning off the computer.

Meditations on Moloch

Competition in prisoner’s dilemmas leads people to ignore morals in the long-term.

DM me on Twitter if you find a good excerpt from this essay.

Studies on Slack

A lack of competition allows investments with long-term payoffs to succeed.

The Old World contains Rome and China. The New World contains Aztecs. Rome and China are very close to each other. Now what happens [if this was a game of Civilization V]?

Rome and China spend the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages hacking each other to bits. Aztecs spend those Ages building cities, researching technologies, and building unique Wonders of the World that provide powerful bonuses. In 1492, they discover Galleons and start crossing the ocean. The powerful and advanced Aztec empire crushes the exhausted axe-wielding Romans and Chinese.

This is another story about slack. The Aztecs had it – they were under no competitive pressure to do things that paid off next turn. The Romans and Chinese didn’t – they had to be at the top of their game every single turn, or their neighbor would conquer them. If there was an option that made you 10% weaker next turn in exchange for making you 100% stronger ten turns down the line, the Aztecs could take it without a second thought; the Romans and Chinese would probably have to pass.

Diseased Thinking: Dissolving Questions about Disease

People care too much if something is a “real disease” (e.g. obesity)

Our attitudes toward people with marginal conditions mainly reflect a deontologist libertarian (libertarian as in “free will”, not as in “against government”) model of blame. In this concept, people make decisions using their free will, a spiritual entity operating free from biology or circumstance. People who make good decisions are intrinsically good people and deserve good treatment; people who make bad decisions are intrinsically bad people and deserve bad treatment.

But people who make bad decisions for reasons that are outside of their free will may not be intrinsically bad people, and may therefore be absolved from deserving bad treatment. For example, if a normally peaceful person has a brain tumor that affects areas involved in fear and aggression, they go on a crazy killing spree, and then they have their brain tumor removed and become a peaceful person again, many people would be willing to accept that the killing spree does not reflect negatively on them or open them up to deserving bad treatment, since it had biological and not spiritual causes.

Under this model, deciding whether a condition is biological or spiritual becomes very important, and the rationale for worrying over whether something “is a real disease” or not is plain to see. Without figuring out this extremely difficult question, we are at risk of either blaming people for things they don’t deserve, or else letting them off the hook when they commit a sin, both of which, to libertarian deontologists, would be terrible things. But determining whether marginal conditions like depression have a spiritual or biological cause is difficult, and no one knows how to do it reliably.

Eight Short Studies On Excuses

Short stories on how accepting excuses lowers your credibility.

[A collection of stories where] the first party wants to credibly pre-commit to a rule, but also has incentives to forgive other people’s deviations from the rule. The second party breaks the rules, but comes up with an excuse for why its infraction should be forgiven.

The first party’s response is based not only on whether the person’s excuse is believable, not even on whether the person’s excuse is morally valid, but on whether the excuse can be accepted without straining the credibility of their previous pre-commitment.

The general principle is that by accepting an excuse, a rule-maker is also committing themselves to accepting all equally good excuses in the future.

Who By Very Slow Decay

Long-term care facilities are terrible for most patients.

This is the way many of my patients die. Old, limbless, bedridden, ulcerated, in a puddle of waste, gasping for breath, loopy on morphine, hopelessly demented, in a sterile hospital room.

Don’t Fear The Filter

Why common suggestions for the Great Filter don’t make sense.

No knows specifically what the Great Filter is, but generally it’s “that thing that blocks planets from growing spacefaring civilizations”. The planet goes some of the way towards a spacefaring civilization, and then stops. The most important thing to remember about the Great Filter is that it is very good at what it does. If even one planet in a billion light-year radius had passed through the Great Filter, we would expect to see its inhabitants everywhere. Since we don’t, we know that whatever it is it’s very thorough.

Various candidates have been proposed, including “it’s really hard for life to come into existence”, “it’s really hard for complex cells to form”, “it’s really hard for animals to evolve intelligent”, and “actually space is full of aliens but they are hiding their existence from us for some reason”.

This essay isn’t about proposing new [possible filters]. It’s about saying why the old ones won’t work.