Discussion with Aubrey de Grey

I discussed epistemology with Aubrey de Grey via email. The discussion focused on cryonics initially, but the majority is about epistemology. Epistemology is the field of philosophy that covers knowledge and learning.

Aubrey de Grey is the driving force behind SENS – Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. What that means is organized and comprehensive medical research to deal with the problems caused by aging. If you donate money to any kind of charity, consider SENS.

If you're interested in SENS, read Aubrey de Grey's book Ending Aging. I read it and think it's a good book with good arguments (something I don't say lightly, as you can see by the critical scrutiny I've subjected Ann Coulter and others to.)

Click here to read the whole discussion. I made minor edits to remove a few irrelevant personal remarks and fix typos. Or click below for individual parts.

This discussion is now complete.

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Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Aubrey de Grey Vs. Smoking

Quotes from Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime by Aubrey de Grey.
And, slowly but surely, smoking is becoming less popular. Just like drunk driving before it, smoking is becoming socially disreputable. It’s a long, hard road, though: not just because nicotine is addictive, but because youngsters continue to take up smoking despite the social stigma increasingly attached to it.
Sometimes they smoke because of, not despite, that social stigma. Sometimes they want to rebel against social control.
the battle to protect youngsters from taking up smoking is one that virtually all adults, smokers or not, support.
This is a political position which is nowhere near universal. Not everyone thinks children should be "protect[ed]" – meaning controlled supposedly for their own good. Some people value the freedom to smoke, and the freedom of individuals (even young individuals) to choose their own fate. Some people see some value in smoking (e.g. South Park has defended smoking). Some people think children should be helped to become more wise, rather than protected. Maybe good advice and control over their own lives works better for children than protection. There are diverse approaches to this topic.

Similarly, not everyone agrees about addiction. I don't.

Approaching issues by saying everyone agrees is a bad approach in general. Look what would happen with SENS and aging. People would say virtually everyone disagrees with SENS, so it's bad. The same tactic could be used against most innovative new ideas, early on.
with smoking, even though it causes some of those self-same diseases, somehow society is itself subject to an addiction that robs it of its rationality concerning new young addicts. We face every day the brutal disconnect between allowing cigarettes to be advertised and sold widely and seeing how much they blight and shorten the lives of those who fall under their spell.
Rather than argue with people who disagree with him, here Aubrey de Grey attacks their rationality and metaphorically accuses them of a mental illness (addiction). He then attacks free trade and free speech, as if his positions against those things are uncontroversial and need no explanation. (Saying a product is good is speech; selling it is trade. Disallowing those things is incompatible with freedom.)

People who disagree with you are not mentally ill. They have not fallen under a magic "spell". People are capable of thinking and disagreeing with you. You should expect that and speak to the issues, rather than gloss over the issues (no direct criticism of freedom was provided) and spend your time denying the other side exists. Try to find win/win solutions which address people's concerns. Persuade people instead of calling them mentally ill, irrational, or otherwise talking around their arguments.

It'd be better to approach this like David Deutsch: "in every human dispute there’s a substantive issue at stake". Calling the other side mentally ill does not help anyone better understand the substantive issue at stake. Claiming (correctly or not) that one's position is popular, or creating a social stigma against things one disagrees with, are not truth-seeking approaches.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (4)

Are Anti-SENS Arguments Dumb?

Biogerontologists' Duty to Discuss Timescales Publicly by Aubrey de Grey:
... the prevalence of comments from laypeople along the lines of “Who would want to spend all that time being old?”, “Wouldn’t we get terribly bored?” or “How would we pay for all those pensions?” fills many of us with such awe at their breathtaking stupidity that any ardour to persist in a patient explanation of what success in this endeavour would actually mean is rapidly sapped. But this is not a legitimate reaction to such inanity, in my view. To put it simply, it is just not plausible that people are really that dumb. Hence, before we abandon our fellow man to his misconception, we as biogerontologists are duty bound to seek a more satisfactory basis for the persistence of these extraordinarily transparently flawed opinions.

On doing so we are forced, it seems to me, to acknowledge that one very simple reason fits the facts: denial.
But in Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime by Aubrey de Grey:
... the prospect of eventually being able to combat aging as well as we can currently combat most infectious diseases—essentially to eliminate aging as a cause of death, in other words—strikes terror into most people: Their immediate (and, I must point out, often high-pitched) reaction is to raise the specter of uncontrollable overpopulation, or of dictators living forever, or of only a wealthy elite benefiting, or any of a dozen other concerns.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that these objections are dumb—not at all. We should indeed be considering them as dangers that we should work to preempt by appropriately careful forward planning.
Previously (2003), Aubrey de Grey said these objections are dumb, inane, and breathtakingly stupid. Later (2007), he says they certainly aren't dumb. These statements contradict. Which is it – and why?

Previously he attacked these sorts of objections, but condescendingly defended the speakers as rationalizing not arguing. Rather than address the issues, he focused on ad hominem claims about the psychology of people who disagree with him. But four years later he says the objections are reasonable concerns which should be considered and dealt with by careful planning.
I consider it highly likely that within ten years from now, if the rather modest necessary funding is forthcoming, we will have the ability to take a mouse cohort with a three-year life expectancy, when it is already two years old, and treble its remaining life expectancy (that is, give it a total life expectancy of five years). I also consider it highly likely that the announcement of that degree of control over mouse aging will almost instantly overturn society’s prevailing fatalism concerning any chance of personal benefit from real anti-aging medicine.
The objections won't all instantly melt away because they are not just meaningless emotional irrationality. It's so condescending to think there's no real objections. It's going to take patient discussions to create agreement with the many people who currently disagree (and it should not be assumed they are wrong about everything – rational discussions must be approached without assuming the conclusions in advance). It'd be better to begin that process today, rather than expect a shortcut will work.

Improved technology simply won't answer concerns about boredom, dictators or overpopulation. Nor will the objections be addressed by calling them dumb and then commenting negatively about the objectors, rather than discussing the issues to find win/win solutions. Condescendingly calling others irrational is itself an irrational way to deal with intellectual issues.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (5)

Letter to SENS

I sent the below letter to SENS, which is a medical research non-profit seeking to solve human aging. I like them because they have a good plan for how to do this which makes sense. Aubrey de Grey is their leader, I had a long discussion with him which you can read here.

SENS claims to be basically the most important thing in the world. SENS' web presence is inconsistent with this claim. SENS' web presence communicates low-prestige, low-intellectual-seriousness amateur hour. I offer criticism for several issues, partly on Aubrey's direct invitation, in hopes of helping.

Concrete Examples:

The SENS website LOOKS like a very standard generic format that doesn't stand out at all or get attention.

The SENS website has many basic web design errors such as:

- requires giving your country and even US State to sign up for newsletter. email should be the ONLY required field, period. and don't even ask for stuff like people's zip code. it's not OK to add friction to newsletter signups.

- SENS front page should be aimed at the public. that means you don't put things like "jobs" and "terms of use" there. you put all the stuff the public doesn't care about on an About page or other internal page.

- the February newsletter webpage does not link to the previous newsletter, or the archives, at the bottom.

- SENS has 3 blogs instead of 1 blog with categories. this splits up viewer attention. and since all 3 are very inactive, it just makes them look even more inactive – even with triple content in one place it'd still look bad and like SENS is inactive.

- It just plain looks like a cheap generic site in terms of layout and design. It's hard to explicitly explain why it does, but lots of people can tell because they've seen many other websites that look similar. The look of the site doesn't stand out and doesn't DIFFERENTIATE SENS. It doesn't communicate that this is something special or important.

- The images used look generic and unimpressive too. They don't stand out.

- It's not a .com site. That's bad because lots of people don't understand other TLDs besides com. (People given the website URL in person will literally do things like try to go to sens.org.com or just forget and go to sens.com. This especially applies to older people who I'm guessing are a larger part of the SENS audience. This issue is well known and makes a substantial difference.)

- The site doesn't have a bunch of awesome impressive essays (or other content) with amazing ideas. Or if it does they aren't prominent and I managed to miss them.

The SENS newsletter isn't even consistently once per month (which would be the bare minimum frequency to not look bad and have people forget about you).

The SENS newsletter looks like a normal newsletter, it doesn't stand out, it doesn't communicate SENS is SUPER FUCKING IMPORTANT.

The SENS contact form looks like a generic "we have to put up a contact form to pretend we listen to feedback" black hole. I don't know whether it is or not, but it looks that way. It looks generic and boring, and like you won't get a reply just like you don't from many other organizations. And it even adds annoying friction like making you categorize your inquiry – which is asking people, if they want to contact SENS at all, to do extra work which they aren't good at and don't want to do.

The SENS website homepage links to the SENS subreddit. This is not OK because that subreddit is very inactive (the 15th highest submission is 3 months old!). Do not send homepage visitors to a dead site, only link them places they should actually go and will be glad they went.

When you claim SENS is super duper important, but lots of the stuff you do implicitly contradicts, you destroy your own credibility and drive away most people.

Here's an example of acting inconsistently with your claims from Facebook:

Jonathan Weaver That's $10,000 in 2-3 days. Nice booster.
Like · Reply · December 5, 2014 at 6:45am

SENS Foundation Jonathan Weaver That's right! We're very thankful.
Like · Reply · December 5, 2014 at 8:31am

SENS claims to need something like $100,000,000/yr for the RMR project to go full speed and save everyone's lives. 10k/2.5 days would be too little by a factor of 68 if you got it constantly all year. 10k fundraising also just looks bad for being a small amount of money, all kinds of unimportant projects get more than 10k on kickstarter in 2-3 days. By being happy with a small amount, you accept it as appropriate to SENS, and accept a status below all sorts of stuff that can raise more.

If you really think you need 100mil/yr or MILLIONS OF PEOPLE DIE (which is what even a few year delay for SENS means), then sound the alarm instead of saying you're happy with an amount of fundraising that kills millions. When you act happy with pennies, you are telling people SENS isn't really that big a deal.

You may doubt the importance of these things. Keep in mind the cultural context. People don't expect to be listened to. If SENS is any different (which I'm unclear on), you have to shout it from the rooftops before anyone will notice. You have to make the difference extremely clear.

When Joe Random has what he thinks is a good idea, he knows he'll have a hell of a time getting anyone to listen, be it a big company, a small company, a scientist, a politician, etc. It's true that the majority of Joe Randoms have bad ideas, but some have good ideas and some others could learn to have good ideas with some pointers in the right directions. If you want Joe to communicate with SENS, you have to get his attention, not blend in with every other organization that he expects to ignore him.

I posted at the subreddit per Aubrey's recommendation and got replies which said, basically:

1) Leave and email Aubrey personally (or Michael Rae or SENS) instead.

2) Leave and go to the longevity subreddit which is more active. [Note: the longevity subreddit isn't really active either.]

3) I like SENS but got discouraged from the SENS subreddit because my posts kept getting downvoted.

4) You could try posting here and hope that somehow things will work out, contrary to your reasonable expectation.

I was not impressed. And the subreddit does nothing to stand out and communicate SENS IS IMPORTANT.

I think the talk to Aubrey/Michael personally plan is problematic because they are busy. For SENS to succeed on a big scale, there needs to be division of labor rather than expecting Aubrey/Michael to do most stuff personally. It also communicates that SENS is small time and un-prestigious if it doesn't have anyone below the top people to answer questions and have discussions with the public – there should be tiers with only a few things being escalated to the top people.

I checked the SENS Facebook page that Aubrey mentioned. It, again, does nothing to stand out and communicate that SENS is something different that's really important. It's more active than the subreddit. I dislike Facebook so I'm not familiar enough with Facebook pages to say if the activity level is OK or not, but it's definitely not GREAT.

I'd like to differentiate between three different styles of promoting SENS. Three categories of how to approach this. SENS is not doing well for any of them.

Style 1) Prestige

Impress people and say how SENS is smarter than you, and works with prestigious people and has a fancy reputation, etc, etc

This is irrational and will alienate the best and smartest people, but will impress the second tier people. It could work I guess (I'm not a fan of this style and don't recommend it).

SENS does some stuff clearly in this direction, but overall isn't good at this. An example in this style is writing, "Extramural research at PRESTIGIOUS universities and other state-of-the-art laboratory facilities throughout the world". Which isn't even well done, it's crude and blatant. Achieving prestige works better with more subtlety.

Style 2) Generic

You can just be yet another charity organization for yet another undifferentiated cause and try to get somewhere anyway. Some organizations have success with this. They aren't super important, they aren't super prestigious, but they put in the work and get somewhere.

SENS does some stuff in this direction (e.g. runs yet another small stakes matching fundraising), but isn't by any means great at it. For example the website isn't very well done, nor the subreddit, blog or newsletter.

Note, btw, that matching donation drives are bad and should not be done. See: http://blog.givewell.org/2011/12/15/why-you-shouldnt-let-donation-matching-affect-your-giving/

I tried explaining the problems with matching donations to "Reason" (the Fight Aging guy) at more length at the GRG email group but he was unwilling to address/discuss the problem.

Style 3) Reason

The third style is to focus on ideas and the intellect. Really seriously, not in the token way that's common. Here is one way to do this to give you the flavor:

Have high quality public discussions and challenge the entire public to offer any criticism of SENS, and answer every single criticism so you can honestly say there are literally no unanswered criticisms of SENS.

Saying that properly requires not just answering all the criticisms you know of, but also making a serious effort to seek them out in the first place, which involves, for example, having discussion forum of some kind for people to post criticisms at where they expect to be heard and taken seriously. For criticism to be fully possible, you also have to answer questions so people can get you to take stances on every issue and potentially criticize your answers to the questions. They have to be able to draw out more claims from you and get things clarified.

This approach isn't just about telling people SENS is super important and intellectually correct, and acting the part. It also means SENS will get all kinds of ideas, suggestions, comments, feedback and criticism from the public. And some of it will be correct and SENS will learn something too. And it also means one member of the public can answer the question of another member of the public – there can be an interested group of people being helpful.

Broadly, I would say if people are too damn stupid and irrational and have no interest in thinking, SENS is pretty screwed anyway. But I don't think they all are, and I think you ought to try and give people the benefit of the doubt and stop treating them like they are beneath you. I think SENS ought to take the position that people really do have minds, and they matter – if they don't there honestly isn't much point in saving their lives anyway. Don't just ask for monetary donations, show you care about ideas by seeking them out too.

Note these 3 styles are incompatible. The prestige approach appeals to the irrational side of people. Focusing on reason isn't generic, it would stand out. Being generic isn't prestigious. So it's important to pick something and focus, rather than do a little of everything badly.

I recommend the Reason style because it's the only one where SENS is at an advantage. SENS does not have the most expertise at impressing fools with prestige, or at grassroots hard work and community building and running charities. And SENS has no inherent advantage at those activities. That SENS could save millions of lives, and has some good arguments for its importance, is only a major advantage intellectually. In the prestige and generic games, people with much worse causes will say they are important too or whatever else, and since there isn't an intellectual atmosphere they can get away with those claims.

I think SENS should focus on where it has a large advantage over almost all rivals. (I am not personally convinced SENS is the most important cause in the world. But I agree it's a top cause, much better than the vast majority of causes.)

As a separate topic, consider that SENS would like a LOT of money. Like $100,000,000/yr for a decade. SENS, therefore, could use knowledge about money and economics. This kind of knowledge is necessary to use the money well. Consider that you wouldn't want an economically illiterate person deciding how to spend a million dollars. Well, at the billion dollar level, you wouldn't want a person with, say, "above average" economics knowledge either, you'd want world class knowledge to be involved. And it really helps to know how to deal with this money before asking for it, instead of telling people to trust that you'll figure it out correctly after getting it. And understanding these things is important for speaking intelligently to potential donors about these subjects.

This means, for example, familiarity with economics books such as _Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics_ and _Human Action_ (the best two major economics books). Preferably much more.

This does NOT mean that Aubrey should read those books. Understanding economics (not just reading a few books but studying it enough to really understand the material) is HARD and TIME CONSUMING. Therefore, it is an appropriate area for specialization and division of labor. SENS should have access to SOMEONE who knows this stuff, and who can relay important points to Aubrey and others when they are relevant.

Economics is not something everyone should learn, but it is important to basically everyone, and certainly to SENS which wants to deal with huge quantities of wealth. This is just like science: not everyone should be a scientist, division of labor is good, but science is important to everyone (and many organizations ought to have science advisors of some sort).

Similar lines of reasoning apply to quite a few other areas besides economics, such as epistemology (an understanding of the best methods of reasoning, and of philosophy of science, are two things that could aid SENS), moral philosophy (some of the objections to SENS involve moral issues), political philosophy (some actual and potential SENS projects involve the government), and computer science (maybe instead of preserving our bodies, we should upload our minds into computers. if we could accomplish that faster and cheaper than SENS, it could be the better option).

For each area, there are ongoing debates about which ideas in the field are right, which specialist experts are actually fools in disguise, which books are good, and so on. How is SENS to deal with this?

There is no way other than open rational public discussion. It leads back into the issue of discussion. Get a SENS economics expert who will address all public criticism, address all questions and issues about his economics claims, and so on. Open-ended rational discussion addressing all the issues is the only way to sort out the messes in all the various fields full of disagreement. I know this is hard and not SENS' expertise, but there is no way around it. This is what reason, truth-seeking and getting stuff right requires. The truth isn't easy to come by, too bad, suck it up and deal with it; there are no shortcuts.

SENS should not BET ITS FUTURE on the proposition that economics is irrelevant and ignorance of it won't lead to any major mistakes. Nor should SENS bet its future on siding with any particular side in the economics debates and not have that stance fully open to criticism and revision in case it's mistaken. And the same goes for other fields besides economics too.

SENS is struggling. It's badly underfunded. This stuff is URGENT and LIFE OR DEATH. SAY SO. CLEARLY. EVERYWHERE. Don't tell people everything is fine, tell the truth, it's NOT. Most current SENS communications act like these ideas about SENS' urgency are FALSE and actually everything is fine and not too urgent.

I think the most important thing is consistency. Have a consistent message and act commensurate with it. Have a consistent plan instead of a little from several styles.

I have more to say (lots), and more details for these points, but I think this is enough to get started. Please do not say "good points, you're very smart" and then proceed to do your (inevitable) initial misunderstandings of what I meant, without further discussion, in private (as is typical with this kind of thing).

PS Why didn't I write this sooner? Partly because of the contact form, as addressed above, and also the lack of any good SENS discussion place. Another major reason is b/c even now I don't really expect much to change, I don't expect this to have much effect. One reason is because I don't expect you guys to agree with everything I say INITIALLY (which is completely fine and reasonable). And I don't expect you to discuss all this to resolution (which is problematic, it blocks Paths Forward, which is irrational). One reason for these low expectations is SENS does little to differentiate itself from all the other non-profits out there, and I certainly wouldn't expect most orgs to really listen to comments like these and make big changes.

But Aubrey asked me to write (some of) this, and anyway I think it's interesting. And SENS is important – as far as medical science, it impresses me more than anything else I've seen – so I hope this helps.

Update: I received a bad reply from Michael Rae and wrote some comments on it.

Update 2: I wrote SENS Against Specialization and Division of Labor.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

SENS Against Specialization and Division of Labor

SENS has a budget of around 4 million dollars a year.

from this, they are unwilling to spend much or any on their website. (not sure the exact amount, i know they’ve asked for volunteers, and whatever they bought or didn’t buy is low quality.)

i would strongly suspect they ARE willing to spend some money on an accountant, a lawyer, and perhaps a few other non-SENS-specific functions. as well they should be.

they also should spend money on a website. it’s not very hard to buy quality web knowledge and work. it’s readily available on the market at prices very low compared to the value provided, and easily affordable on their budget.

this is something many other organizations do. it’s not a weird FI-only idea. SENS is frankly just plain incompetent here.

there are some other areas where SENS is making similar errors which are less well understood in general, and where useful expertise is less readily available to purchase.

if you want a good website, you can have that set up tomorrow. it’s no problem at all to find a person or group. if you want a GREAT website, you should shop around some, but it’s not that hard.

what if you want economics expertise? SENS deals with quite a bit of money – around 4 million a year. that’s enough that i think they should spend more than $0/yr on economics expertise (at least if they could find some to hire – which i strongly suspect is completely possible despite the market for it being more problematic than for websites).

further, SENS wants to deal with at least 100 million a year. they have openly and explicitly asked the public for that amount as a minimum for the project they regard as most important (robust mouse rejuvenation). and they want that 100 million budget for 10 years or more. that is a LOT of money. if 4 million a year is too trivial to merit more than $0 of economics knowledge (i disagree!!!), surely 100 million a year has room in the budget for economics expertise. yet i don’t believe SENS would hire economics expertise even at that budget level. they expressed serious hostility to this kind of thinking. they don’t see why people dealing with huge quantities of money would need to know anything about money. additionally, i pointed out that they ought to understand how to use the budget they request BEFORE requesting it, which they were also hostile to.

but actually SENS already has some economics knowledge. everyone who works at SENS knows SOMETHING about economics. it is amateur level knowledge. they are dabblers. they think that’s good enough. they think they are clever enough to get by, and/or economics is easy, and/or what’s well known about economics is all they need to know and knowing anything more would be pointless. that is very foolish.

suppose, hypothetically, that Aubrey de Grey (AdG) is smarter than anyone working in the field of economics. and suppose that AdG puts an equivalent of 2 hours a month of his SENS work into thinking related to economics issues. this is completely plausible. he thinks about money, how to get money, different places money comes from, what to do with money, and so on.

what are the consequences?

nothing but disaster, even though, by premise, AdG is smarter than any economist.

first, AdG is by far the best person to do some tasks – such as explain SENS on podcasts. the consequences are either to do without that, or to have someone worse at it do it. either it’s going to be done 2 hours less per month, or someone lesser to the amazing genius AdG would be doing it in his place – a huge loss. the only way this SENS podcast advocacy would not be lost is if there is something even more important AdG is giving up instead – something where to an even greater extent than SENS podcasting, AdG is the best suited to do it – in which case if he freed up 2 hours per month it would go to that even more important task instead.

second, AdG is not an economics specialist. being the smartest person in the world could not make up for this. why? because the more time you spend on economics, the more you can specialize in the field. if you only work on economics 2 hours a month, for SENS, that will justify very little or no time spent reading economics books. but a specialist, who does economics work for 100 hours per month, could very reasonably also devote 20 hours per month to reading economics books. this is a huge advantage which more than makes up for AdG being the smarter clever person in general. additionally, during those 100 hours per month of economics work, the specialist will gain benefits too. he’ll get accustomed to many common economics problems and get practice at solving them quickly. all that practice and experience and familiarity will help. and the specialist will keep up-to-date better than the non-specialist, because he does frequent work in the field which will benefit from staying up-to-date. and the specialist will be able to have discussions where he challenges his views about economics, tests them in debate, listens to people with new ideas, and so on. why will he find time for those things? because he spends so 100 hours per month doing economics work, any little improvement in his craft will be 50 times as valuable to him as it will be to AdG who spends 2 hours per month. (and actually the difference is larger, because a specialist is expected to know his field, and will care about his reputation in the field, whereas AdG will be recognized as wearing many hats, and barely dealing with economics, and will therefore be forgiven for not doing it as well as a specialist would be expected to.)

so there is a double issue. AdG would be giving up time to do what he’s better at than economics – doing the stuff where is able to get the most valuable work done per hour – and he would also be at a huge disadvantage due to not specializing in economics.

and even if AdG was so great he could do economics work equally well, and twice as fast, as an economist, he STILL shouldn’t do it. because his advantage at SENS work is even larger than that. if AdG can do SENS-specific work three times as well as the next best person, and economics work twice as well, then he should only do SENS work and hire an economist (for twice the number of hours it’d take AdG). That beats having to hire someone to do SENS work in place of AdG for three times the number of hours!

put another way: suppose AdG can create $300 per hour of value doing SENS work, or $200 per hour of value doing economics. i think the real ratio is more like 100 to 1, rather than 1.5 to 1, but this will illustrate my point. And suppose if AdG hires people to do these things instead of him, the best people he can find aren’t as good as him – they can create $100 of value per hour for SENS work or economics work. Then very simply, AdG should not do economics work – he’s better off outsourcing that, even though he’s (hypothetical) the best in the world at it, because his advantage at SENS work is even greater. he is relatively more productive when doing SENS work over economics work. and other people are equally productive. (more realistically, SENS is obscure and economics is common, so other people in general would be relatively more productive at economics work over SENS work, which would only increate the advantage of AdG sticking to SENS work).

this last point i’ve explained is a well known economics concept called "comparative advantage”.

if you ask AdG if he knows what comparative advantage is, and how it works, my guess is that he does. yet i still think it’s important to hire an economics specialist to help advise on topics including comparative advantage. why? because there are different senses of understanding comparative advantage.

a specialist would have an ACTIVE understanding of comparative advantage – he will have used the concept many times in many different situations. he will be able to recognize, pro-actively, many times he’d be able to use it. he’ll have experience stretching it to use in all kinds of cases where it doesn’t obviously apply.

someone like AdG, who spends little time on economics, would have a PASSIVE understanding of comparative advantage. he would be able to tell you what it is IF YOU ASK HIM. he might bring it up himself in a few situations – especially if you asked him about international trade between countries, especially countries where one is at a big advantage (e.g. industrial first world country trading with a third world poor country). That’s the best known context for thinking about comparative advantage, and the most common one discussed when the concept taught. But AdG hasn’t read books about all the other situations comparative advantage is relevant to, he hasn’t practiced finding ways to use it in many situations. His way of knowing what it is if you ask is completely different than superior sort of understanding that a specialist would have.

so even when AdG thinks, “oh i’ve got this, i know what comparative advantage is, there’s no need for an economics specialist to tell me that” he would be wrong.

there is no way SENS gets by with an actual expense of $0 on economics. it is relevant to what they do. they must think about it some. depending on their ideas about economics, it would to some extent lead them to different strategies. and AdG discusses economics in his book _Ending Aging_ very literally – he tries to explain his ideas about the effect on the country, economy (including medical prices), government, and world if everyone had AIDs and we had to produce enough AIDs medicine for everyone. That is very clearly partly an economics issue.

so AdG and/or others at SENS, who are not economics specialists, inefficiently do some economics work, instead of sticking to SENS-specific work that they are, relatively, better at doing. and i think they make some large mistakes due to their arrogance to do work outside their fields. and they are completely hostile to the idea that maybe they should spend more than $0 getting specialist help with economics, rather than sacrificing SENS-specific work to dabble in it themselves. the people at SENS may be pretty smart, but there are very smart people working on economics too, and it’s HARD even for people who study it extensively and specialize in it. it’s completely unrealistic and unreasonable for SENS to be like, “ok we’re doing the most important thing in the world. now for this AIDS hypothetical, and some other matters, let’s try amateur hour. we can probably get away with that. it’ll be fine. and it doesn’t require any humility or respect for other people who aren’t doing what is obviously the most important work in the world.”

all of what i’ve said applies to other topics besides economics. they dabble in many other areas: philosophy of critical thinking, philosophy of science, philosophy of persuasion, political philosophy (they have various ideas about the government and its agencies, and how to deal with them and talk about them), and some rather different fields like how to run a charity fundraiser (an area where they have made big mistakes such as using matching donation fundraising). and what about marketing? they appear completely clueless about that. it’s ridiculous that they don’t have a specialist guiding them to do a much better job with marketing. i’ll let Steve Jobs explain this one:

Becoming Steve Jobs: the evolution of a reckless upstart into a visionary leader by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli:
[Context: Seva is a philanthropy type foundation. They are having a meeting, at the start, about how the make the world better. One of the guys had just been significantly involved in eradicating smallpox in India. Now they want to make Seva and do more. What would be the best thing to work on? They decide on curing blind people in the third world.]

[Steve Jobs] sat down and started listening. The decision to create a foundation had already been made; the question now on the table was how to tell the world about Seva, its plans, and the men and women who would implement those plans. Steve found most of the ideas embarrassingly naïve. The discussion seemed more appropriate for a PTA meeting; at one point, everyone but Steve heatedly debated the finer points of a pamphlet they wanted to create. A pamphlet? That’s the best these people could dream up? These so-called experts may have achieved notable progress in their own countries, but here they were clearly out of their league. Having a grand, bold goal was useless if you didn’t have the ability to tell a compelling story about how you’d get there. That seemed obvious.

As the discussion meandered, Steve found his own attention wandering. “He had walked into that room with his persona from the Apple board meeting,” Brilliant remembers, “but the rules for doing things like conquering blindness or eradicating smallpox are quite different.” From time to time he’d pipe up, but mostly to interject a snide remark about why this or that idea could never fly. “He was becoming a nuisance,” says Brilliant. Finally, Steve couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up.

“Listen,” he said, “I’m telling you this as someone who knows a thing or two about marketing. We’ve sold nearly a hundred thousand machines at Apple Computer, and when we started no one knew a thing about us. Seva is in the same position Apple was in a couple of years ago. The difference is you guys don’t know diddly about marketing. So if you want to really do something here, if you really want to make a difference in the world and not just putter along like every other nonprofit that people have never heard of, you need to hire this guy named Regis McKenna—he’s the king of marketing. I can get him in here if you’d like. You should have the best. Don’t settle for second best.”
The result? They made Steve Jobs cry (yes, literally) and kicked him out of the meeting (yes, literally). (And then, I take it, did a much worse job fighting blindness than they could have). That’s how hostile and unreasonable they were. They wanted to do this extremely important humanitarian work (their own view), but they absolutely would not consider hiring some world class expertise to do it right.

And SENS, which claims to be basically the most important thing in the world, and which has enough money to hire help, won’t hire top experts either – be it about economics, marketing, philosophy, fundraising, or even making a good website.

By the way, I’m not even going to send AdG a link to this, even though we had a long discussion before. I wrote to him to tell him I’d given up on SENS – and why. He did not reply. He is too unreasonable to talk to, or tell things like this. He won’t listen. I think it’s hopeless. It’s a ridiculous situation. I may well literally die because AdG won’t listen, and yet he convinced me to give up (I just had a some thoughts I wanted to write down, because it’s interesting and I think about things like this, but in another month maybe I’ll forget about SENS).

I could fucking cry.

Steve Jobs apologized to Seva for trying to help. At least I won't be apologizing to SENS.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (5)