COVID and perspectives on causality

Recently, people have been circulating a statistic from the CDC that says 94% of death certificates listing COVID-19 as a cause of death also list at least one other cause of death. For instance, if someone catches COVID, can’t breathe anymore and dies, perhaps the doctors would also list “Respiratory failure” as one of the causes of death, in addition to COVID. Come to think of it, why do only a third of COVID deaths include respiratory failure as a cause, how exactly is COVID killing people if not by causing respiratory failure?  Before parading around this statistic, I have to ask, do we really understand what it’s even saying?

That misleading statistic came to my attention because a friend wrote a Vox article about it. He brings not a medical perspective, but a psychology perspective, discussing the cognitive biases that make people bad at understanding causation.

Causation is also a favorite topic of mine as well, although I come at it from a different set of perspectives: philosophy, physics, and law. And although I don’t have medical expertise, it’s not hard to find the medical standard of causation from google, so I include that at the end.

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Explaining Roko’s Basilisk

Before I move away from the topic of Rationalism and EA, I want to talk about Roko’s Basilisk, because WTF else am I supposed to do with this useless knowledge that I have.

From sci-fi, a “basilisk” is an idea or image that exploits flaws in the human mind to cause a fatal reaction. Roko’s Basilisk was proposed by Roko to the LessWrong (LW) community in 2010. The idea is that a benevolent AI from the future could coerce you into doing the right thing (build a benevolent AI, obv) by threatening to clone you and torture your clone. It’s a sort of a transhumanist Pascal’s Wager.

Roko’s Basilisk is absurd to the typical person, and at this point is basically a meme used to mock LW, or tech geeks more broadly. But it’s not clear how seriously this was really taken in LW. One thing we do know is that Eliezer Yudkowsky, then leader of LW, banned all discussion of the subject.

What makes Roko’s Basilisk sound so strange, is that it’s based on at least four premises that are nearly unique to the LW community, and unfamiliar to most anyone else. Just explaining Roko’s Basilisk properly requires an amusing tour of multiple ideas the LW community hath wrought.

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Review of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

This is my (semi-)monthly repost.  This review was originally published in 2015.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) is one of the best-known pieces of fanfiction ever written, meaning it was even read by people like me, who otherwise despise fanfic.  This is my (spoiler-free) review.

I should begin with the caveat that I hardly remember most of HPMOR.  Like much of internet fiction, it has updated very slowly over a long period of time.  I started reading HPMOR over three years ago, and I know because there’s something in my blog archives about it.  Frankly it would have been better suited to reading over a short period of time rather than a period of years.  But this is hardly relevant now, because the fanfic has now been completed and you can read it at your leisure.

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MBTI: A lukewarm analysis

MBTI, or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, is probably the most popular personality test. It contains four axes: Introverted/Extraverted, iNtuitive/Sensing, Thinking/Feeling, Judging/Perceiving. If you take the test, you may be assigned one of 16 personality types, for instance I would be INTJ.

The MBTI is regarded as pseudoscience, perpetuated by the popular consciousness and HR departments rather than academic research. One time I asked a personality psychologist and she said it was just so far off from reality that nobody even bothered talking about it. Psychologists prefer to talk about another personality model, called the Five Factor Model, also known as The Big Five. This has five axes, labeled Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).

I’ve often remarked that although the Five Factor Model is supposedly more scientific, it’s clearly a lot less compelling. And isn’t that something? I couldn’t honestly say that I find astrology compelling, or ear candles compelling, but the MBTI, now that’s some yummy pseudoscience. I have some remarks on what makes MBTI a pseudoscience, what makes it compelling, and what its problems are.

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Wheelchair miracles

One of the best-known pieces of media in the skeptical canon, is a video in which James Randi debunks faith healer Peter Popoff. In the 1980s, Popoff ran a scam where he called out people’s names in a crowd, described their diseases, and claimed to heal them by laying on hands. James Randi and his associates demonstrated that Popoff did not get these names from divine revelation, but instead got them from his wife, who had collected that information beforehand and was speaking to him through an earpiece.

Under media fire, Popoff’s ministry declared bankruptcy in 1987–but rebooted again in the late 90s. As far as I know Peter Popoff is still at large, now on the Black Entertainment Network.

I want to talk about a particular kind of miracle that Popoff is said to perform: allowing people in wheelchairs to walk again. Back when I was more invested in the skeptical movement, I had heard that they just had fully mobile people seated in wheelchairs, and thought “well that explains it”. This is the explanation currently offered by Wikipedia:

Critics later documented that the recipients of these dramatic “cures” were fully ambulatory people who had been seated in wheelchairs by Popoff’s assistants prior to broadcasts.[10]

But years later, I had a quiet realization: such fraudulent tactics aren’t necessary, because many people in wheelchairs can in fact walk!

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People sure are judgmental about food

Some years ago, I read an article about how millennials are killing breakfast cereal or something, and I made the mistake of reading the comments. Surprisingly, it was less millennial bashing, and more older readers looking down on cereal. Something something nutrition, something obesity epidemic, something something overpriced processed foods. This article isn’t the one I remember but has comments along the same lines.

Disclosure: I eat cereal every day. It’s cheaper and easier than most options, there’s enough diversity in brands that I don’t get tired of it. Personally I don’t buy the sugary cereals, except to mix with less sugary cereals. I wouldn’t care if it was linked to obesity, and judging by the first meta-analysis I found, cereal is actually negatively correlated with being overweight.

To be fair, it’s a fine line between explaining your preference in foods, and moralizing your preference in foods. But I get the impression that these commenters don’t care a bit about walking that line.

My impression is that commenters, without realizing it, are basically complaining that cereal is too low class for them. Which seems misplaced on an article talking about how millennials (who are on average poorer) are eating less cereal.

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The target of criticism

Looking at my past two months of blogging, I seem to be talking a lot about critical thinking–i.e. how to argue. Why break the pattern now? My bloggy friend Coyote also likes talking about how to argue, and today I would like to borrow one of their ideas.

So, here’s the problem. Suppose I have a friend who just did a thing that annoyed me–they linked to a news story where a celebrity they dislike was swindled out of their money. To me, this is victim blaming–con artists often rely on victims being too embarrassed to admit they were swindled. So I vent by writing something on Twitter or Facebook about how much I hate victim blaming. But I don’t want to specifically call out my friend so I keep it general. My friend sees and cheerfully agrees with my post, but fails to realize that I was talking about them; they thought it was about sexual assault or something.

As Coyote put it:

If you want to tell people “this belief is wrong” or “this practice won’t do what you think it will” then the first step is making sure you can precisely and accurately describe the belief/practice in the first place, where “accurately” here is assessed by your audience (not you), because if nobody can see themselves in the flawed behavior as you’ve described it, then your criticism might as well be addressed to nobody.

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