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Slate Star Codex Podcast

Dec 20, 2018

A recent discussion: somebody asked why people in Silicon Valley thought that only high-tech solutions to climate change (like carbon capture or geoengineering) mattered, and why they dismissed more typical solutions like international cooperation and political activism.

Another person cited statements from the relevant Silicon Valley people, who mostly say that they think political solutions and environmental activism were central to the fight against climate change, but that we should look into high-tech solutions too.

This is a pattern I see again and again.

Popular consensus believes 100% X, and absolutely 0% Y.

A few iconoclasts say that X is definitely right and important, but maybe we should also think about Y sometimes.

The popular consensus reacts “How can you think that it’s 100% Y, and that X is completely irrelevant? That’s so extremist!”

Some common forms of this:

Reversed moderation of planning, like in the geoengineering example. One group wants to solve the problem 100% through political solutions, another group wants 90% political and 10% technological, and the first group thinks the second only cares about technological solutions.

Reversed moderation of importance. For example, a lot of psychologists talk as if all human behavior is learned. Then when geneticists point to experiments showing behavior is about 50% genetic, they get accused of saying that “only genes matter” and lectured on how the world is more complex and subtle than that.

Reversed moderation of interest. For example, if a vegetarian shows any concern about animal rights, they might get told they’re “obsessed with animals” or they “care about animals more than humans”.

Reversed moderation of certainty. See for example my previous article Two Kinds Of Caution. Some researcher points out a possibility that superintelligent AI might be dangerous, and suggests looking into this possibility. Then people say it doesn’t matter, and we don’t have to worry about it, and criticize the researcher for believing he can “predict the future” or thinking “we can see decades ahead”. But “here is a possibility we need to investigate” is a much less certain claim than “no, that possibility definitely will not happen”.

I can see why this pattern is tempting. If somebody said the US should allocate 50% of its defense budget to the usual global threats, and 50% to the threat of reptilian space invaders, then even though the plan contains the number “50-50” it would not be a “moderate” proposal. You would think of it as “that crazy plan about fighting space reptiles”, and you would be right to do so. But in this case the proper counterargument is to say “there is no reason to spend any money fighting space reptiles”, not “it’s so immoderate to spend literally 100% of our budget breeding space mongooses”. “Moderate” is not the same as “50-50” is not the same as “good”. Just say “Even though this program leaves some money for normal defense purposes, it’s stupid”. You don’t have to deny that it leaves anything at all.