Sunday Links #24

So I still do these… Yeah.

“The Virtue of Silence”: “Leah Libresco writes a couple of essays on an ethical dilemma reported in the New York Times. In the course of a confidential medical history, a doctor hears her patient is suffering from stress-related complaints after having sent an innocent man to prison. The doctor wants to know whether it is ethical to report the matter to the police. The Times’ columnist says yes – it would save the poor prisoner. Leah says no – violating medical confidentiality creates an expectation that medical confidentiality will be violated in the future, thus dooming patients who are too afraid to talk about drug use or gay sex or other potentially embarrassing but important medical risk factors. But both sides are ignoring the much bigger dilemma lurking one meta-level up: is it ethical to debate this dilemma in the New York Times?”

Charity Cost-Effectiveness in an Uncertain World: “Evaluating the effectiveness of our actions, or even just whether they’re positive or negative by our values, is very difficult. One approach is to focus on clear, quantifiable metrics and assume that the larger, indirect considerations just kind of work out. Another way to deal with uncertainty is to focus on actions that seem likely to have generally positive effects across many scenarios, and often this approach amounts to meta-level activities like encouraging positive-sum institutions, philosophical inquiry, and effective altruism in general. When we consider flow-through effects of our actions, the seemingly vast gaps in cost-effectiveness among charities are humbled to more modest differences, and we begin to find more worth in the diversity of activities that different people are pursuing. Those who have abnormal values may be more wary of a general “promote wisdom” approach to shaping the future, but it seems plausible that all value systems will ultimately benefit in expectation from a more cooperative and reflective future populace.”

“The Reason So Many People are Unemployed”: “A good way to wrap your head around this is to think about a much smaller case: instead of the whole economy, let’s think about a now-famous babysitting co-op on Capitol Hill. Instead of dollars, the co-op used its own scrip that was worth an hour of babysitting time. When you wanted to go out, you’d pay a couple hours to someone else to watch your kids; then when they wanted to go out, they’d pay you or someone else to do the same for them. It all worked great for a while, until one day they found they had too few pieces of scrip. Every couple had only a couple hours left and, having so little, they didn’t want to waste it. So they all decided to save it for a very special occasion. This was kind of an incredible situation — even though there were people who wanted someone to babysit their kids, and people who were willing to do just that, the deal didn’t happen, simply because the co-op hadn’t printed enough colored pieces of paper. Eventually the co-op learned their mistake, printed some more scrip and handed it out, and everybody went back to babysitting like before and were much happier for it.”

The Single Most Effective Method for Influencing People Fast: “Influence techniques vary considerably in how effective, ethical and easy to perform they are. At the easy, more ethical end of the spectrum, is affirming someone’s right to choose. This is a benign strategy which happens to have the handy side-effect of increasing persuasion. But what if you are looking to use a little more effort to get a lot more persuasion-power? Then perhaps the disrupt-then-reframe (DTR) technique is for you. A word of warning, though: the DTR technique is more of a cheap (but very effective) trick which some might find morally questionable. OK, with the health warning over, here’s what they did in the original study which kicked off this whole line of research.”

Cognitive Democracy: Condorcet with Competence: “We usually think of democracy as a way of aggregating diverse preferences but we can also imagine that we share similar preferences and that what we disagree about is the best way to achieve those preferences. From this perspective, democracy can be thought of as a tool for information aggregation. Using simple probability theory, Condorcet showed in 1785 that even when each individual voter has only a slightly better than chance probability of choosing the bettier of two options the probability that majority rule chooses the better outcome quickly goes to 1 as the number of voters increases (the wisdom of the crowds).”

Systematic Lucky Breaks: “Many people can point to significant events that improved their lives in a positive way. They often refer to these as ‘lucky breaks’, and take it for granted that such events are rare. But most of the time ‘lucky breaks’ don’t need to be uncommon-you can often reverse engineer the reasons behind them and cause them to happen more frequently. So when a one-off event ends up contributing a lot of value, you should systematically make it part of your life.”

“Do Unpaid Internships Lead to Jobs? Not for College Students”: “The common defense of the unpaid internship is that, even if the role doesn’t exactly pay, it will pay off eventually in the form of a job. Turns out, the data suggests that defense is wrong, at least when it comes to college students.”

Amid all the focus on how much it costs precisely to save a life, here’s a good reminder from GiveWell that the moral case for giving doesn’t rely on questionable quantitative estimates”: “To us, the strongest form of the challenge is not ‘How much should I give when $X saves a life?’ but ‘How much should I give, knowing that I have massive wealth compared to the global poor?’”

Life is a game, this is your strategy guide. Cute.