Getting Honest Advice
Paul Graham: How to get good advice from experts: ask what they'd do in your situation. Many experts feel they should just tell you all the options and let you decide. But they usually know which is the right one, and asking what they'd do gives them permission to tell you. Replying to @paulg Experts worry about moral and legal liability. It's helpful if they can say, "I didn't say doing X was right, just that that's what I'd do if it were me."
Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1953;
Fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: πόλλ' οἶδ' ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ' ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα ("a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing").
rEasmus Adagia, 1500, "Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum. "
Being Accurate versus Being Politic and Successful
Steve SailerFeb 6 Perhaps this could be an objective definition of an expert: An expert is somebody who is usually right about a topic too boring for the average person to have a strong opinion about. For example, most practicing tax lawyers are, under this definition, experts on what the IRS will and won't let you deduct on your 1040. They get the various questions right the great majority of the time. But they seldom get nationally famous for their expertise.
On the other hand, topics that huge numbers of people find interesting, such as who will win the Super Bowl, tend to be ones that are hard to predict. https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/webmd-and-the-tragedy-of-legible
"WebMD, And The Tragedy Of Legible Expertise," AstralCodexTen (2021). This is a hugely important article.
Right now I think my database is better and more useful than WebMD. This isn't because I'm smarter or more of an expert than whoever WebMD employs. It's because I'm small enough to have a sort of security by obscurity.
If some bad thing will happen to one in a million people who read my site - they take Drug A because I said it was better for most people, but it was worse for them, and it injures them - probably my site will never get a million readers and I won't have to worry about it. WebMD gets a million readers a day and worries about it a lot.
If some lawyer with dollar signs in their eyes where the pupils should be reads my website, they know I'm not rich enough to be worth their time. WebMD is definitely rich enough to be worth their time.
If I think it's helpful to mention politically incorrect stereotypes (is it true that disproportionately many borderline personality cases are young women with lots of piercings and tattoos? what does that tell us about diagnosis and etiology?) I can do that, knowing that I'm probably not worth the mob's time to cancel. Also, I'm my own boss and don't have to worry about getting hauled in front of WebMD's Chief Diversity Officer.
If I think it's helpful to have a personal opinion on something (eg which antidepressants are scams), I can write my personal opinion without having a boss who can tell me to stop being a cowboy and devise a Procedure instead. I don't really have to worry that the pharmaceutical companies whose antidepressants I am calling scams will care enough to sue me for libel, or destroy my reputation, or lock me out of cool biotech industry meetings, or whatever.
The essence of Moloch is that if you want to win intense competitions, you have to optimize for winning intense competitions - not for some unrelated thing like giving good medical advice. Google apparently has hard-coded into their search algorithm that WebMD should be on the front page for any medical-related search; I would say they have handily won the intense competition that they're in. They must have placated a wide variety of stakeholders and fought off a wide variety of attackers; each of those victories took a minor change to their medical information or their procedures for producing medical information. Repeat a thousand times, and they're on top of the world, and also every diagnosis is "cancer" and every drug's side effects are "everything".
WebMD is too big, too legitimate, and too canonical to be good.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is the WebMD of people.
At least this is the impression I get from this rather hostile biography. He's a very smart and competent doctor, who wanted to make a positive difference in the US medical establishment, and who quickly learned how to play the game of flattering and placating the right people in order to keep power. In the end, he got power, sometimes he used it well, and other times he struck compromises between using it well and doing dumb things that he needed to do to keep his position.
I don't want to judge him. Everyone has to make their own compromise between morally-pure-but-useless and tainted-but-useful, and I think Fauci comes out better than many. This isn't about judgment.
This is about, well - in 2015, if you and a few of your weird friends beat the experts, it was new and exciting. You would prance around, singing "We beat the experts! We beat the experts!" In 2021 it's just depressing. Are the experts okay? Do they need help? Blink once for yes, twice for no...
I can't tell you how many times over the past year all the experts, the CDC, the WHO, the New York Times, et cetera, have said something (or been silent about something in a suggestive way), and then some blogger I trusted said the opposite, and the blogger turned out to be right. I realize this kind of thing is vulnerable to selection bias, but it's been the same couple of bloggers throughout, people who I already trusted and already suspected might be better than the experts in a lot of ways. Zvi Mowshowitz is the first name to come to mind, though there are many others.
There are all sorts of places you could go with this. Maybe expertise is a sham, and a smart guy thinking for five minutes can outdo a decade of working on a PhD. Maybe Joe Biden is an idiot for not appointing Zvi the Secretary of Health. Maybe the whole system is a plot to keep good people down, and we need to burn it down and start over again. Or maybe I'm dumb and biased, and actually the experts are doing much better than Zvi but I'm selectively misinterpreting evidence until I think they aren't.
Probably all of these have a grain of truth in them. But I find myself settling on a different explanation, which is something like this:
When Zvi asserts an opinion, he has only one thing he's optimizing for - being right - and he does it well.
When the Director of the CDC asserts an opinion, she has to optimize for two things - being right, and keeping power. If she doesn't optimize for the second, she gets replaced as CDC Director by someone who does. That means she's trying to solve a harder problem than Zvi is, and it makes sense that sometimes, despite having more resources than Zvi, she does worse at it.
The way I imagine this is that Zvi reads some papers on whether the coronavirus has airborne transmission, sees the direction they're leaning, and announces on his blog that it probably has airborne transmission.
The Director of the CDC reads those same papers. But some important Senator says that if airborne transmission is announced, important industries in his state will go bankrupt. Citizens Against Lockdowns argues that the CDC already screwed up by stressing the later-proven-not-to-exist fomite-based transmission, ignoring the needs of ordinary people in favor of a bias towards imagining hypothetical transmission mechanisms that never materialize; some sympathetic Congressman tells the director that if she makes that same mistake a second time, she's out. One of the papers saying that airborne transmission is impossible comes from Stanford, and the Director owes the dean of Stanford's epidemiology department a favor for helping gather support for one of her policies once. So the Director puts out a press release saying the evidence is not quite strong enough to say airborne transmission definitely happens, and they'll review it further.
I realize it doesn't sound like it, but I'm trying to excuse the CDC here. I'm not just saying they're corrupt. I'm saying they have to deal with the inevitable amount of corruption which it takes to be part of a democratic government, and they're handling it as well as they can under the circumstances.
Expertise isn't a sham. The Director of the CDC could generate opinions as accurate as (or more accurate than) Zvi's, if she wanted to. Maybe she's even doing that internally, when she decides what precautions she and her family should take. Or maybe she isn't; I know a lot of people who have turned into the mask they put on to succeed, just because it's easier that way. The Director may carefully avoid being the kind of person who can generate opinions more accurate than the ones she has to officially endorse; this is probably the best option for her mental health.
Joe Biden can't appoint Zvi as CDC Director, at least not usefully. If Biden appointed Zvi as Director one of three things would happen. One, Zvi would learn to play politics as adroitly as the current Director, and lose his advantage over her. Two, Zvi would offend enough people that they would pressure Biden to fire him. Or three, Zvi would offend people, Biden would offend people by not firing Zvi, and eventually Biden would fall beneath some necessary threshold of support and not be able to be an effective President. I'm not saying that just appointing Zvi would inevitably get Biden impeached. I'm saying Biden has a certain amount of slack, given how many people he needs to keep happy in order to govern effectively, and appointing Zvi as CDC Director would use up so much of that slack that he couldn't do other equally useful things later without becoming ineffective and likely to lose reelection.