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It that all there is? If you can't make a difference by yourself, should you give up? Eliezer Yudkowsky eloquently argues: of course not!
You will find exploitable flaws in the System. Bets you can win against most odds, because you know better. This book exposes in a few chapters how our civilization fails to live up to our childhood dreams, for understandable (but stupid and horrific) reasons. Sometimes, we are actually efficient as a society. Most of the time we can do better. Even at a personal scale.
It all starts with you. Build your epistemology, seek truth, refine your reasoning, have a firm grasp of reality. Read this book, and find the confidence to shift the equilibrium.
- Microeconomic tools for judging the epistemic incentives of groups of experts
- Concise and useful explanations for how major insitutions (academia, medicine, politics, venture capitalism) break
- Case studies in how to successful use Aumman's agreement theorem in real life
The most valuable part of this book by far is chapter 3, which is an extended dialogue between a cynical conventional economist ("C.C.E" or 'Cecie') and a visitor from a different world, trying to explain why a particular institution is killing babies. The example is a real one - the FDA hasn't approved a simple set of fats for intravenous baby food, causing severe brain damage in something like dozens of babies per year. And the explanation is a whirlwind tour of how our institutions work and how they break, with many concepts that I've been able to use elsewhere to great benefit.
Above all, this book has changed the way I think about learning from experts. I'll end my review with an example of how I analyse things like this now.
Recently someone came to me proposing a project for building a math-education website - combining math explanations and machine learning algorithms, connecting you with the best explanation given your background knowledge. And of my first 3 thoughts, 2 were about how the site would function and how a user would interact with it - it's important to concretely visualise a product to figure out if it feels like it would work. However, my 3rd thought was to do an adequacy analysis - I looked for data points about whether I should expect that, if this is a good idea that can work, why hasn't someone already done it? Think about all the money and time people spend on education each year - all the tutors in universities, all the teachers in high schools, all the assistant lecturers and support staff and government subsidies. Surely, if this project was a good idea, someone would've built it and it would be a common website we all use. Is the fact that this doesn't exist already enough evidence that it won't work?
In general I don't see the educational marketplace of resources changing rapidly in response to new tech and research. There was a bunch of research about spaced repetition and how memorisation works, that nobody has jumped to incorporate into how universities work. Many people can tell you the best physics/math textbooks (e.g. Feynman Lectures) but most students will never read them. It *doesn't* look to me like a space where it would require a great deal of effort to out-do the best in the field. You might counter by pointing out the success of Khan Academy, but personally I'm not sure I'd consider the fact that a single dad can make lots of videos and do better than everyone else, a sign of success for the educational market.
I'm not actually very confident in this analysis. However, the best part is that I can learn about the whole field by working on the one project. If the project fails, or I find out that someone else has tried this and failed, then I'll change my assessment of other projects in this space. On the other hand, if the project succeeds, I will update about how good the educational market is at incentivising people to create useful things like this.
I wouldn't have made these models and hypotheses before, and for that reason I'm really glad I read this book.
Chapters 1-3 cover Inadequacy Analysis, tools for thinking about the complex systems of people and incentives. The tools divide the sources of inadequacy into three broad categories:
1) Decision makers who don’t benefit from making good decisions
2) Information unavailable to decision makers
3) Sub-optimal Nash equilibria (stable conditions that require coordination of multiple actors to reach a better solution)
Yudkowsky discusses several instances of inadequate systems are discussed, and focusses the greatest attention on the United States medical system, including medical research. The analysis applies the above three categories to the various system components and their interactions, clarifying the causes of poor health care and delayed or failed adoption of life-saving procedures. Other systems covered more briefly include central banks, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, academic researchers and grant making agencies, and the politician-voter-journalist system. The reader will get distinctions in equilibria of incentives, efficiency versus inexploitability versus adequacy, and free energy.
Chapters 4-7 share a theme of examining Modest Epistemology, which argues that you shouldn’t expect (without specific evidence) to do better than a pool of (arguing) experts or ordinary people. I’m not happy with the organization of these chapters; it feels like a deck of concepts got shuffled. These chapters cover the flaws in modesty advice and, most importantly, offer tools for doing better. Those tools include frequently taking small risks (bet on your opinions as often as you can), updating hard on few data points, and letting go of your current opinions based on those updates (say Oops!).
The book is highly readable, with a very few difficult passages. It has valuable insights. I now feel equipped to reason in the realm of Modest Epistemology and I have tools to improve my library of opinions. However, I do not feel competent to disassemble a complex system and predict its inadequacies.
I recommend this book. It promotes clearer thought in an area that is often confused on popular opinion forums.