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‘Discrimination’ against certain groups supposedly remains a big problem in the modern world. But I have never found a theory that can sensibly explain what this bad ‘discrimination’ is precisely and sensibly distinguishes the sorts of discrimination which are OK from those which are not OK and justifies the difference.

Here’s the challenge: can anyone develop a complete theory of discrimination that makes sense?

Let’s say we know a racial group (or any group) is statistically different on characteristic X. When is it OK to discriminate on that basis if X is something you care about? When, if ever, should we choose to deny ourselves the use of that info? Does it matter what X is as long as you care about it? Does it matter how you get information about these groups and how reliable your information is?

I’m assuming mere errors cannot be justified. The hard question is figuring out when, if ever, using information accurately is a bad thing. We should consider groupings all the way from the fully involuntary (gender/race) through traits that are voluntary to display (sexuality) and ones that are chosen in the usual sense of the word (political opinions, religion, career, obesity).

This is one of the most interesting presentations I’ve ever found online. That is has only 17,000 views is a disgrace, so go watch it now!

Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs – Phillip Tetlock

“From his perspective as a pyschology researcher, Philip Tetlock watched political advisors on the left and the right make bizarre rationalizations about their wrong predictions at the time of the rise of Gorbachev in the 1980s and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. (Liberals were sure that Reagan was a dangerous idiot; conservatives were sure that the USSR was permanent.) The whole exercise struck Tetlock as what used to be called an “outcome-irrelevant learning structure.” No feedback, no correction.

He observes the same thing is going on with expert opinion about the Iraq War. Instead of saying, “I evidently had the wrong theory,” the experts declare, “It almost went my way,” or “It was the right mistake to make under the circumstances,” or “I’ll be proved right later,” or “The evilness of the enemy is still the main event here.”

Tetlock’s summary: “Partisans across the opinion spectrum are vulnerable to occasional bouts of ideologically induced insanity.” He determined to figure out a way to keep score on expert political forecasts, even though it is a notoriously subjective domain (compared to, say, medical advice), and “there are no control groups in history.” – The Long Now Foundation”

A while back I noted that we naturally trust fiction more than fact, even though fiction can be contrived to say any nonsense an author might want it to say. Robin Hanson today describes how Lord of the Flies grossly misrepresents ‘state of nature’ humans in order to glorify our own civilization:

“This famous novel [Lord of the Flies] suggests that only our “civilized” rules and culture keeps up from the fate of our “savage” ancestors, who were violent dominating rule-less animals.  But though this may be true regarding our distant primate ancestors of six or more million years ago, it is quite unfair slander regarding our face-painting forager ancestors of ten thousand or more years ago.

While our kids are segregated into schools where light monitoring lets them terrorize each other and form dominance hierarchies, forager kids are mixed among forager adults, who enforce their strong social norms against violence and domination.  At school, our kids are rated and ranked far more often than most adults will tolerate, even though this actually slows their learning!”

I particularly liked this (hopefully true) story from the comments:

“When my oldest son was subjected to this book in high school, he got in quite a bit of hot water with the teacher when he responded to a question about what Lord of The Flies tells us about human nature with the observation that as a work of fiction it could say anything at all that the author chose to make up, and therefore it may tell us nothing.”

Parents: warn your kids to beware English teachers, who would try to teach them to value fiction as the equal of fact.

Research confirms our intuition that, regrettably, fiction is more persuasive than non-fiction:

…the dramatic narrative reduced reactance by fostering parasocial interaction with characters and decreasing perceptions of persuasive intent. Also as expected, identification with characters in the narrative reduced counterarguing and increased perceived vulnerability to unplanned pregnancy – although the latter occurred only at the delayed post-test 2 weeks after exposure. Unexpectedly, transportation into the dramatic narrative was associated with greater counterarguing. Taken together, this research demonstrates that investigating narrative influence from the perspective of overcoming resistance is a useful approach.

If we were more rational the opposite would of course be true:

In the ancestral environment, there were no moving pictures; what you saw with your own eyes was true.  A momentary glimpse of a single word can prime us and make compatible thoughts more available, with demonstrated strong influence on probability estimates.  How much havoc do you think a two-hour movie can wreak on your judgement?  It will be hard enough to undo the damage by deliberate concentration – why invite the vampire into your house?  In Chess or Go, every wasted move is a loss; in rationality, any non-evidential influence is (on average) entropic. … Remembered fictions rush in and do your thinking for you; they substitute for seeing – the deadliest convenience of all.

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

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