Biased Classifiers

It seems most of our wars, love, and art, can be explained by how we use our prefrontal cortex to understand our ape nature, while never truly being able to escape. It’s the cleanest definition of what it means to be human. Before that model of the world, our best classification was that we are the product of divine creation.

It’s an interesting way to understand political interaction, it’s how I see the world. There are no Manichean battles or poetic struggles. It’s a series of physical computers processing the world, relaying information to one another, and doing it all while having their preferences shaped by the the unbelievably complex yet comically base machinations of our evolutionary programming.

As computers we have evolved to absorb massive amounts of information almost effortlessly. If I showed you a matrix of 1s and 0s it would be nonsensical. If those 1s and 0s contain a pictorial information and are read through a program that mapped them to colors you could process and understand thousands of bits of information seamlessly.  

If those 1s and 0s represent a puppy, it will trigger a reaction of love and warmth, because humans who have bonded with dogs and used animals have done better than humans who didn’t. We are machines to process vast amounts of information, classify them with incredible accuracy, and respond as we were programmed.

Estimating models using numerical methods isn’t part of our evolutionary toolset, so we made computers to do it for us. Classifying dogs is part of our evolutionary toolset. At a general level it’s incorrect to say one of those is harder than others. We are all insanely complex and efficient computers.

Our puppy is an easy way of studying how we interact with information and how it makes us feel, in a relatively one-dimensional way. If we didn’t know about evolution we couldn’t explain why we loved puppies, we just would, we would feel it as self-evident. Old Yeller was obviously mans best friend.

2.

Humans evolved tribally, and we are great at classifying tribes. I think it’s probably impossible to break free of tribal thinking. It’s such a natural and comforting way of viewing the world.

Most modern day activists are motivated by protecting who they view as their in-group, and enjoy fighting with their enemies. As in, they get a rush out of it and it’s fun. It always reminds me of this Vietnam war documentary where the director focused less on platitudes and asked the vets if they enjoyed killing. Some of them loved it, why wouldn’t they? I sometimes think it has to be one of the biggest open secrets that most humans can learn to enjoy killing.

On Reddit /r/SyrialCivilWar is also a great example, where you can choose a flag that best represents your faction. At least with regards to Syria there is no pretending. Our foreign policy seems to be built on the assumption “Can you guys just act like you aren’t strictly loyal to your tribal culture for a second and see where that takes us?” Good luck with that. McChrystal revolutionized our anti-terror force in Iraq when he realized the key to intelligence was to work within the tribal patchwork.

Part of our problem is that humans didn’t evolve to belong to tribes of millions of people, spread out across space, connected through networks. What do you see when you look at /r/SyrianCivilWar? Misguided humans? Freedom fighters vs. evil? Or a bunch of broken robots trying to classify and optimize their world using out of date software?

They remind me more of machine learning models I optimize. I mean, for goodness sake, humans for rational reasons once believed sacrificing other humans on top of pyramids made logical sense (it was rational because there was no reason not to expect that it would work. After all, if your gods can make magma spew from the earth–or whatever–why wouldn’t sacrifice make crops grow?). You can swing on the branches of technology and scientific advances others made, but for the most part most human thinking is no better than what we see as the idiocy of the past. The only difference is they get to be constrained by the scientific progress of humanity.

We have convinced ourselves that our modern domestic policy is classified by !science (opposed to science). The truth is that it’s the other way around. All research into sociological or political statistics has to be motivated by a human’s inference of the world. Most of the time this results in strangely biased results.

Andrew Gelman notes two studies on racial bias in police shootings that come to different results. How is this even possible? Isn’t science foolproof? What turned this science into !science? It has to do with human failures more than any numerical failures.

  1. A human perceives the world and forms a hunch
  2. A human uses their knowledge of information to collect data that they believe, based on their human classifications and judgement, is an accurate representation of the world.
  3. A human uses classifications of various model types, and their historical successes with other data, to decide which one to use.
  4. A human runs a series of models, tests, and validations, that are hidden to the reviewer. (these errors are well documented as Bonferroni correction and the garden of forking paths)
  5. At each stage a human analyzes the results, and in his or her mind simulates the higher dimensional nature of reality it might be reflecting. From an excerpt in Gelman’s point “This is not to say we can’t cook up a plausible sounding story to support this result. For example, officers may let their guard down against white suspects, and then, whoops, too late! Now the gun is the only option.” Coming up with what sounds ‘plausible’ based on parameter estimates is par for the course.
  6. Choosing the right data, model, and ‘story’ to present the results.

 

You all already knew this. I mean you might not have been able to break it down, but you know something wasn’t right.

Each tribe still has enough fuzzy information to retain their claim to righteousness. Fuzzy information is what I call the class of knowledge that is clear enough that it clearly exists to any one of us, yet cannot be codified into any sort of !science model.

For the example from Gelman’s page, it has to do with the worst police encounters blacks have that don’t result in a shooting. That’s fuzzy information, it doesn’t map to any discrete data set. It’s not a clear enough event that it can grab mainstream attention. It is filtered as common knowledge among progressive and black communities.

The numbers are not great, but from wiki about 1,000 Americans are shot by police per year. The difference in the number of black people shot, compared to how many ‘should be shot’ based on a proportional representation is a couple hundred. That’s about how many babies drown to death in pools per year. We’re a country of 320 million.

The devil is in the fuzzy information as it exists within tribal knowledge. You won’t find it in any statistics. It’s a classification issue we struggle to estimate ourselves and communicate. Those who don’t belong to your in-group, who don’t have access or trust in your tribal information, simply won’t believe it. And, sure, they could read James Baldwin or testimonials. But that’s anecdotal evidence, which isn’t !science. Seriously though, that stuff is manufactured evidence, which humans instinctively seem to mistrust if it’s produced from an out-group. It’s not the same as experiencing it yourself, organically, straight from the population distribution.

Still, it is true that issues regarding racial injustice are very widely discussed. It has been a core issue for our country politically for centuries, and is currently the central platform of the progressive party. Caring about these issues is very fashionable, and it signals you’re part of the progressive group for justice. It’s your way of saying you share their classification of the world.

The danger with fuzzy information though is that it is by definition hard to measure, it’s hard know how representative of the population it is in countries of hundreds of millions, and most of all it interacts with tribes and in-groups in strange and nonlinear ways.

One way to think of this is that every year a few hundred kids drown to death and a few thousand have their limbs amputated by lawnmowers in the US. Now, if this exclusively happened to a group with a shared identity, it might become flagged as a group-issue. As of now it’s, for the most part, distributed across tribal groups. Plus, it’s not human violence, so it’s an event distributed across all identities, without a clear antagonist.

You know though that when these issues correlate with one group, and then have an out-group that is perceived as causing them, it blows up into a serious issue. And due to the fuzzy nature of the information, each group, and all outsiders, get a different picture of reality. Whether you know it or not, you are likely associated with a certain set of groups. Based on your political and group identity you will then choose a certain set of news outlets. These groups have a model of the world built around fuzzy information and its interaction with your groups.

Another way I like to think of this is that almost nothing we do politically suggests that we are good people. The causes we pick to fight over have some of the lowest effort to reward ratios, and our end goal always seems to involve amassing power. Our best and brightest don’t go to D.C. because of their love for public service  They go there for power in its rawest most uncut form. Our smartest and most ambitious don’t take a paycut because they love their fellow citizens. Do you really think followers of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals have done more good (any good?) than, I don’t know, Effective Altruists?

It feels stupid to even write, because it’s so obvious: If you want to alleviate suffering, donate your time, money, or expertise, to those in need. If private citizens gave up their right to political speech and voting for a year in exchange for a $10 donation to Doctors Without Borders, the world would be a measurably better place. Political outrage doesn’t save lives. A few dollars worth of medicine saves lives.

Paying smart students to teach urban, black, kids can help the world. In a world where every family with the means donated $1,000 a year to private sector urban development charities multiple organizations with the same organizational efficiency as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation would form, poaching the best and most talented teachers from Berkeley, paying them $90k-120k a year to be competitive with Facebook, and have them go actually teach kids shit.

If you never wrote about how stupid or bad politicians are again, but donated a few dollars, you’d make the world a better place. We all would. If we all began donating in non-trivial amounts our entire industry structure would shift to create a robust system that hires top talent to alleviate real, severe, suffering in our country and out of our country. None of us do this. Political outrage isn’t about alleviating suffering or helping people. It’s about the facade of feeling good, sweet, just, and true, while doing what we really crave: Fighting and struggling over power. As I said, it’s stupid to even write because it’s so obvious.

I guess the most potent counter-argument would be that if our side won we could use the power of governmental decree and taxation to outright solve the issue. Not only that, but if their side wins, the consequences are too horrific to consider. For example, we had incredible activists in Seattle such as Anna Strong. In a book she wrote in the 1930s on the Soviet collective farms, she marvels at their efficiency and the government’s ability to collectively solve such tremendous and awful market failures that plagued her (awful) country, the United States.

She fought to gain power for what she believed was good, sweet, and true. She was an activist. With updated knowledge she seems like an awful person. We should be thankful modern progressive activists in the United States would never make such awful mistakes.

3.

Let’s take a trip down to the darkside of fuzzy information. Can we undermine the worldview we grew up with? I know the model of fuzzy information I received throughout my education was pretty tilted. How dark can it get? And what should our response be to fuzzy information that chills us to the bone and counters everything we believe is good, sweet, and true? The question you have to ask yourself is the following: Is this fuzzy information not mainstream because it’s not representative of reality, and your model of the world is? Or can you find clear criteria why your model is correct and this alternative one is wrong?

It’s hard to think through this stuff clearly. Sometimes when I read particularly reactionary or racial blogs I get chills: Evil is lurking. It seems like a catch-22 sometimes. If I read this stuff with an open mind I need to be willing to accept it as true. But the only people who accept this stuff as true are pretty hateful people. I’m not hateful, therefore I can’t accept it. But it’s important to have an open mind…

The Gates of Vienna documents in detail the dark fuzzy information regarding Islam and immigration. Read through some of the articles, focus on the ones that translate or link from local news sources. In this post you can read about a refugee who raped a women, and was sentenced to only a year in jail. The court also determined he was too young to be deported. Does one example make a case? Of course not. It’s hard to measure all this stuff, and even if it wasn’t, many countries either choose not to for ideological reasons or are too bureaucratic. Still, it’s strange how certain cases involving rape or sexual assault always seem to hit the fashionable news circles, whereas others never provoke the progressive outrage machine. Why?

A structured question to ask is are the refugees raping women at a higher ratio than current men, right? Well, it’s interesting. But what would the answer tell us? Let’s suppose for a moment, contrary to fuzzy evidence, that they are raping women with the same likelihood. Does that mean immigration is acceptable? The problem is that they are raping women who are part of another tribe, which for that tribe is worse. Why is it worse? Well as a tribe we know bad things go on within our tribe. That’s a constant. American blacks know the state of affairs within their communities. Ethnic Europeans know rapists exist within their groups.

When an outsider comes and attacks, your evolutionary brain starts screaming “ENEMY AT THE GATES.” Is this rational? Well, we are biological machines with preprogrammed subroutines, so if we instinctively perceive it as worse, that’s the same thing as it being worse. On the other hand, we have the capacity to incorporate information and, to an extent, override our preprogrammed subroutines. The tension between this conflict is incredible. Activism at its most successful identifies these base tensions that can be overridden by sufficient education. Scott Alexander makes the case nicely on the positives of an optimal (he calls it universal) culture:

On the one hand, universal culture is objectively better. Its science is more correct, its economy will grow faster, its soft drinks are more refreshing, its political systems are (necessarily) freer, and it is (in a certain specific sense) what everybody would select if given a free choice. It also seems morally better. The Tibetans did gouge out the eyes of would-be-runaway serfs. I realize the circularity of saying that universal culture is objectively morally better based on it seeming so to me, a universal culture member – but I am prepared to suspend that paradox in favor of not wanting people’s eyes gouged out for resisting slavery. 

Where does that place our current generation of activists? I’m honestly not completely sure, and it feels like a prisoner’s dilemma. If the other side treats the world as tribal, your best bet is to act tribal as well because you can’t expect them to have your interests at heart. However, it would be better for both groups to eschew tribalism or ethnic nationalism in favor of a common interest.

What’s the answer then? The problem is that it’s basically impossible to independently verify any of them. Remember the adorable picture of the dog? It’s consists of thousands of bits of information. Far more information than many modern datasets used for statistical analysis. Our brains can absorb and classify that information at a level both science (and !science) cannot hope to achieve. Those tribal subroutines ensure those vast amounts of information are distorted and biased in ways we can barely tell, but which surely obfuscate reality.

Of course, understanding this is the first step towards not being unaware of the world.

4.

The angel in all humans still exists. Or at least I choose to conjecture that it does. If you push towards the robotic view than killing a human is nothing more than breaking a very complicated computer well… it depresses me to imagine. Thankfully, we all evolved to experience compassion.

Human rights is an exercise between optimizing the world we want, and its complex interaction with the angel buried in our processing algorithms.

When you look at a puppy you feel warm. When you form a tribal relationship you feel good. For humans associating with a tribe improved your chances of survival, your evolutionary subroutines buried deep in your brain is rewarding you for the smart choice of associating with a team: Good job!

My goal is to interface with reality. That’s what I do for fun. I imagine the world as an information rich matrix, and want to identify and ignore the evolutionary subroutines that are biasing my classification algorithms.

What would a biased algorithm look like? Probably people joining tribes and downplaying the downsides of their tribe while pointing out the flaws in their opponents. That’s the default. It’s what I used to do. I remember the president of my old university was a Mormon. That meant he donated 10% of his money to the Mormon church who in turn donated money to causes against gay marriage. This was unacceptable to me, he was an enemy donating to enemy causes. I felt the righteousness flow through my blood as I posted this “controversial” topic on Facebook, where I would gain the support of my entire social circle.

Today we see #blacklivesmatter vs. #alllivesmatter. It’s not the first of the hashtag wars, but it may be the most retarded. One tribe views the world as consisting of oppressive structures that harm ethnic minorities–mainly American blacks–and advocates for a combination of progressive equality dynamics and one-sided ethnic nationalism at the solution. The other side views long run success as derived from the individual, and sees ethnic nationalism as never acceptable, even if tribal-ethnic outcomes are correlated with individual success (in a way that conveniently works out to their favor).

Whew. It’s a clusterfuck of blown out biased classifications. I could try to go into it a little more, but really.

Not to suggest that both sides are wrong and the truth is in the middle. Rather than both sides are clearly modelling the world tribally, which may still be true, but we have no reason to expect it to be correlated with reality.

The way in which was classify other humans and groups is essential to our survival, and our own survival doesn’t at all have to be correlated with, you know, reality. So is it any surprise that at its most base level it comes down to ‘enemy’ or ‘friend’? And maybe this is what Moldbug so deeply loves in Thomas Carlyle: A natural order removes our need for constantly classifying one another as friend or enemy, it is formalized!

In Carlyle’s world when the right formalization is set, we drop our tribal hangups. I suppose if we don’t the government would hang us until we do. Churchill had more success squashing insurgencies than the modern day occupying forces. Humans love fighting, and they love their tribe. A system where that’s forcibly removed could be one where we all get along, or it could be a terrifying dystopia of public hangings and curfews.

 

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