Book review: Inadequate Equilibria, by Eliezer Yudkowsky.
This book (actually halfway between a book and a series of blog posts) attacks the goal of epistemic modesty, which I’ll loosely summarize as reluctance to believe that one knows better than the average person.
The book starts by focusing on the base rate for high-status institutions having harmful incentive structures, charting a middle ground between the excessive respect for those institutions that we see in mainstream sources, and the cynicism of most outsiders.
There’s a weak sense in which this is arrogant, namely that if were obvious to the average voter how to improve on these problems, then I’d expect the problems to be fixed. So people who claim to detect such problems ought to have decent evidence that they’re above average in the relevant skills. There are plenty of people who can rationally decide that applies to them. (Eliezer doubts that advising the rest to be modest will help; I suspect there are useful approaches to instilling modesty in people who should be more modest, but it’s not easy). Also, below-average people rarely seem to be attracted to Eliezer’s writings.
Later parts of the book focus on more personal choices, such as choosing a career.
Some parts of the book seem designed to show off Eliezer’s lack of need for modesty – sometimes successfully, sometimes leaving me suspecting he should be more modest (usually in ways that are somewhat orthogonal to his main points; i.e. his complaints about “reference class tennis” suggest overconfidence in his understanding of his debate opponents).
Eliezer goes a bit overboard in attacking the outside view. He starts with legitimate complaints about people misusing it to justify rejecting theory and adopt “blind empiricism” (a mistake that I’ve occasionally made). But he partly rejects the advice that Tetlock gives in Superforecasting. I’m pretty sure Tetlock knows more about this domain than Eliezer does.
E.g. Eliezer says “But in novel situations where causal mechanisms differ, the outside view fails—there may not be relevantly similar cases, or it may be ambiguous which similar-looking cases are the right ones to look at.”, but Tetlock says ‘Nothing is 100% “unique” … So superforecasters conduct creative searches for comparison classes even for seemingly unique events’.
Compare Eliezer’s “But in many contexts, the outside view simply can’t compete with a good theory” with Tetlock’s commandment number 3 (“Strike the right balance between inside and outside views”). Eliezer seems to treat the approaches as antagonistic, whereas Tetlock advises us to find a synthesis in which the approaches cooperate.
Eliezer provides a decent outline of what causes excess modesty. He classifies the two main failure modes as anxious underconfidence, and status regulation. Anxious underconfidence definitely sounds like something I’ve felt somewhat often, and status regulation seems pretty plausible, but harder for me to detect.
Eliezer presents a clear model of why status regulation exists, but his explanation for anxious underconfidence doesn’t seem complete. Here are some of my ideas about possible causes of anxious underconfidence:
- People evaluate mistaken career choices and social rejection as if they meant death (which was roughly true until quite recently), so extreme risk aversion made sense;
- Inaction (or choosing the default action) minimizes blame. If I carefully consider an option, my choice says more about my future actions than if I neglect to think about the option;
- People often evaluate their success at life by counting the number of correct and incorrect decisions, rather than adding up the value produced;
- People who don’t grok the Bayesian meaning of the word “evidence” are likely to privilege the scientific and legal meanings of evidence. So beliefs based on more subjective evidence get treated as second class citizens.
I suspect that most harm from excess modesty (and also arrogance) happens in evolutionarily novel contexts. Decisions such as creating a business plan for a startup, or writing a novel that sells a million copies, are sufficiently different from what we evolved to do that we should expect over/underconfidence to cause more harm.
Another way to summarize the book would be: don’t aim to overcompensate for overconfidence; instead, aim to eliminate the causes of overconfidence.
This book will be moderately popular among Eliezer’s fans, but it seems unlikely to greatly expand his influence.
It didn’t convince me that epistemic modesty is generally harmful, but it does provide clues to identifying significant domains in which epistemic modesty causes important harm.