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Culture War Roundup for the week of August 14, 2023

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Are you stupid or am I evil?

There is a political quote which says that "the Right thinks the Left is stupid while the Left thinks the Right is evil". Today/yesterday there was a poll floating around rationalist twitter which I think is the best example I've ever seen of this dynamic.

It asks you to choose between two options:

  1. (Blue pill)
  2. (Red pill)

And what happens is that:

- if > 50% of ppl choose blue pill, everyone lives
- if not, red pills live and blue pills die

Now if you think about it for even 30 seconds, it clearly makes sense for everyone to choose Red Pill here: if everyone chooses Red Pill nobody dies, which is the best case scenario from choosing blue, and on top there is no personal risk to yourself of dying. You can even analyse it game theoretically and find that both 100% blue and 100% red are Nash equilibria, but only 100% red is stable, and anyways, choosing red keeps you alive with no personal risk (not present in case you choose blue), so everyone should just choose Red, survive and continue on with their lives. Indeed this poll is equivalent to the following one (posted by Roko):

  1. Walk into a room that is a human blender
  2. Do nothing

And what happens is that:

- if you choose the blender, you will die, unless at least 50% of people choose the blender as well, in which case the blender will overload and not work, making you live
- if you do nothing, you live

You would have to be monumentally, incorrigibly stupid to choose the blue pill (walking into the blender) here and we should expect Lizardman's constant level support for blue.

If only our world were really that simple...

The poll can be found here on Twitter: . Currently there is a 65% majority for choosing the blue pill ::facepalm:: . At least this number is over 50% so nobody is dying. What justification is provided for people choosing Blue over Red? Well, one of the top replies is that "red represents the values of intolerance and fascism". Now this is an extreme example of a reply but even then personally I am stunned that there are a non-negligible proportion of people who actually think in this way. The best response explain what's going on here seems to be this one:

I’ll take the over on preference falsification driving these results.

If all voters were in a position where the non-zero chance of death for a blue vote vs zero chance of death for a red vote was salient and believable, red would win.

Cost-free signaling is a hell of a drug.

Perhaps expectedly enough, no matter how many Red supporters try to explain to people that choosing Blue is stupid, making the choice really really clear using examples like this:

Your plane crashes into the sea. Everyone survives, and exits the plane with their life vest.

Someone says, “If over half of us turn our life vests into a raft, it can save everyone without a life vest! Otherwise, we’ll drown!”

Everyone has a life vest.

Everyone wearing a life vest will not drown.

Do you build the boat, or just put on your vest?

And yet, large amounts of people still support blue (taking your life vests off to build a raft). The fact that such people get to vote (and make up a majority of at least this twitter poll) is a fucking scary thought. This is why we can't have nice things people!

</rant over>

In more encouraging news also ran this poll here: . Fortunately people there were sensible enough to vote for Red by a 90-10 margin, which is basically everyone once you discount the ultra-edgy maximally contrarian nodule on the site ("I want to die, so I pick blue") which will always vote to pick the maximally dramatic option (which on the site would be Blue).

I'd be interested in trying this out here on the Motte too, but unfortunately we don't have poll functionality on this site...

&&Blue Pill&&
&&Red Pill&&


For people who say "Blue" is the right choice for pro-social reasons:

Consider a slightly changed version of the poll where instead of choosing for yourself whether you have Red/Blue you are making this choice for a random stranger who's also taking part (and in turn some other random stranger is making the choice for you). In this case it makes sense from a selfish perspective to choose Blue for that random stranger, since there's a chance that the person choosing for you chooses Blue for you as well in which case you'd want 50%+ Blue as you want to live, while from an altruistic perspective it makes sense to choose "Red" for your stranger, since that way you're saving them from potentially dying.

In this case we'd expect everyone to end up choosing Blue if they play rationally, even though the "altruistic" pro-social option is to choose Red. If you still think that everyone should choose Blue then you agree that there are cases where the non-(pro-social) thing is the right thing to do.

If you say that in this case we should each of us now choose Red as that's the socially good option then since people generally value their own life at least as much as the life of a stranger (note: I say "at least as much", not "more" here) you must also agree that it's just as fine for people to choose "Red" in the case where they're deciding for themselves instead of a stranger.

The choice isn't as obvious as either side is making it out to be.

Let n be the number of other pill takers. Let p1 be the probability that strictly less than half of the other pill takers choose blue, let p2 be the probability that exactly half of the other pill takers choose blue. Choosing blue accomplishes 2 things:

It kills you with probability p1

It saves n/2 people with probability p2

Is this a good trade off? Unless you don't care about other people at all or don't care about your own life at all the answer is: it depends on the ratio between p1 and p2. This ratio in turn depends upon a lot of factors, the specific population of pill takers, the specific formulation of the question, the amount of time alotted to discuss before a decision must be made etc.

I tried plotting the difference in EV of these (based on very handwavy assumptions: suppose your prior probability of C% of the other pill takers choosing red is a Gaussian with mean x and standard deviation y, ignore everything that's discrete rather than continuous here so the factors of n cancel out and we can express the problem as a simple integration, ignore the fact that this can give us C less than 0 or greater than 100 so we can use erf to evaluate the integrals...).

The expected value of you not dying because you picked red, 1/2*(1+erf((x-1/2)/(y*sqrt(2)))), is here. It's one if you're certain most people are picking red, zero if you're certain most people are picking blue, and the less certain you are the more smoothly the result depends on your mean estimate.

The expected value of people not dying because you picked blue, 1/(2*y*sqrt(2*pi))*exp(-1/2*((1/2-x)/y)^2), is plotted (in the negative, to keep red/blue consistent with red/blue) here. Except in the situation where your expectation has a mean near 50% and a standard deviation as small as that nearness, your choice doesn't matter, since either all the blue-pickers are doomed or they aren't unless you specifically cast the tie-breaking vote ... but the "I'm certain I'll be the tie-breaker" case is a hell of an off-to-infinity singularity. I had to truncate the y axis above zero to keep this random web app I picked from yelling at me.

The difference between the two is here, but because the color scale on that doesn't match up nicely, let's just look at the "which one is bigger" comparison here.

And boy, that's a hell of a scissor statement graph, isn't it?

If you're sure that most people are going to pick blue, or if you think a small majority are going to pick red but your uncertainty is just wide enough to make you think you might be the tie-breaking vote, you picking blue has the higher EV! And since everybody thinks like you, you're right to expect that blue is the default, so those red jackasses are just free riders!

If you're sure that most people are going to pick red, or if your uncertainty is so wide you really don't know what's going to be picked, you picking red has the higher EV! And since everybody thinks like you, you're right to expect that red is the default, so those blue idiots are just suicidal!

since either all the blue-pickers are doomed or they aren't unless you specifically cast the tie-breaking vote

Y'know, this interests me strangely, because I'm nearly certain a lot of the "you should pick blue becuse your choice is going to save people" are also the ones going "it's stupid to vote because one single vote in an election is meaningless and can't affect the outcome".

So my vote in millions of votes is worthless and won't tip any balances, but my picking blue in millions of selections is the vital saving decisions? Make up your minds!

Nate Silver once made a cute little calculation about the probability that your vote will matter in a presidential election.[1] Basically, take the probability you'll be the swing voter in your state times the probability your state's electoral college votes will be the swing which decides the presidency.

If you were in Colorado or Virginia for the 2012 election, there was a whopping 1-in-10 million chance that your vote would matter. It's not inconceivable that you might consider the difference between the candidates to be large enough for it to be rationally altruistic to spend your time voting. If voting gives you the equivalent of 10 dollars of disutility, then the better candidate need only provide the equivalent of 100 million dollars of relative value to the world. EG: Maybe you believe the better candidate would remove a 1% chance of war. More local elections have lower stakes, but also a higher chance your vote matters.

[1]: What is the Probability Your Vote Will Make a Difference (Gelman, Silver, Edmin, 2012)

PS: I'm not on the blue-pill side, here. I believe in rule utilitarianism, and "oppose suicide cults" is a very good heuristic, no matter how strongly people argue I'm evil for following it. The pro-social move in this scenario isn't to take the blue-pill; it's to contact all your friends and loved ones, make sure they aren't taking the blue pill, and if need be, shove an emetic down their throats. Similarly I vote because I think it's usually good to do so, and don't bother to calculate whether the expected value shakes out in each case before heading to the polls.

If the vote is mandatory, why would I vote against blue provided I think blue is winning anyway? Some sense of contrarianism? To show FarNearEverywhere on the internet that I'm not a sheep nanny virtue signaler but instead an enlightened rational lifemaxxer?

If you're sure that most people are going to pick blue, or if you think a small majority are going to pick red but your uncertainty is just wide enough to make you think you might be the tie-breaking vote, you picking blue has the higher EV!

One caveat here, this is EV of lives saved which counts your life as equal in value to a random persons life. By revealed preference of how people actually live their lives almost everyone values their own life at least an order of magnitude higher than a random persons life. Taking that into account I think red should be prefered in the majority but not all situations. Heres the graph for when red is prefered using a 10x multiplier on your own life (link isn't working but I just added a zero to your expression it goes to a small blue region in the corner and red ahead everywhere else)*(1%2Berf((x-1%2F2)%2F(ysqrt(2))))-1%2F(2ysqrt(2pi))exp(-1%2F2((1%2F2-x)%2Fy)%5E2)%3E0%2C1%2C0)&xRange=0%2C1&yRange=0.01%2C1&resolution=100

Ha! I was just pulling up my own comment to reply with basically what you just said, except that I added a 20x multiplier to make it seem more selfish. The higher you make the multiplier, naturally, the lower the uncertainty you can tolerate before red becomes the preferred option.

Is this how some blue pickers are modeling red pickers? "Just like me he knows we're probably going to pick blue, so the only way his red pick makes sense if he would prefer the deaths of twenty strangers over his own one; that selfish jerk!"

All that said, I think the "trembling hand" model makes for a good reason to try to coordinate around blue. It doesn't take too high a percentage of irrational choices before you start to be tempted by the hope of saving all of them.