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“Inadequate Equilibria” by Eliezer Yudkowsky author at Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) addresses the question as to whether there exists any avenue or opportunity for individual thinking, in a globalised and internet fueled world where the norm is to place blind and total trust on expert agreements. It dwells deeply on the notion of efficient market hypothesis (EMH), a concept which underpins the logic that that asset prices reflect all available information. The concept of EMH, literally eviscerates the notion of “low hanging fruit” out of any decision making parameter, since if there was an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of such low hanging fruits, such an opportunity would already have been exploited.
Hence, if you happen to glimpse a $20 bill lying on the sidewalk, that day undoubtedly would be your lucky day. However, if you happen to cast your eyes upon a $20 bill lying on the sidewalk in Grand Central Station, and it happens to be the same bill that was lying on the same sidewalk a week ago, then something is amiss. Grand Central is a beehive that witnesses hundreds of thousands of footfalls every day. It is ridiculous to assume that at least a pair of feet amongst the multitude would have passed up a $20 bill just lying there for the taking. Unless and until such a bill Maybe it’s some kind of weird trick. Maybe you’re dreaming. But there’s no way that such a low-hanging piece of money-making fruit would go unpicked for that long.
Just when you are beginning to warm up to the notion of Nobel Laureate Eugene Fama’s ubiquitous creation (EMH), Eliezer, expertly throws some sand in the gear. The author expended quite a bit of time and effort in lashing out at the macroeconomic policies instituted by the Bank of Japan. He and a few of his “econblogger’ acquaintances were of the informed opinion that not only were the strategies implemented by the bank daft, but they also cost Japan trillions of dollars in lost economic growth. But wouldn’t the experts and PhD holders within the hallowed portals of the famed institution know more than Eliezer Yudkowsky? A few years after Eliezer’s criticisms, the Bank of Japan indeed switched strategies thereby resulting in an instant improvement to an otherwise tepid economy! Does this mean that one of the biggest economies of the world left a trillion-dollar bill on the sidewalk by ignoring what even a non-professional could detect?
The innate notion of bowing to expert opinion is a fallacy which Eliezer attributes the term “epistemic modesty”. In layman terms, epistemic modesty represents an unwillingness to believe that one knows better than the average person. An exact opposite of the famed or the infamous Dunning-Krueger Syndrome.
In attacking the syndrome of epistemic modesty, Eliezer provides certain interesting illustrations from his personal life. His wife Brienne suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The received wisdom treatment-wise for SAD involves “light boxes”, very bright lamps that mimic sunshine thereby making winter seem more like. When the consensus therapy did not give Brienne any relief and her seasonal depression got so bad that she had to move to the Southern Hemisphere three months of every year just to stay functional, Eliezer decided to depart from the traditional. Stringing up the house with around 130 LED Bulbs, Eliezer was able to cure Brienne’s disorder. This SAD cure was based on the simple premise that ultimately nothing can be brighter than the sun and more the brightness, more the potential for a complete recovery. This therapy was the equivalent of a vaunted medical establishment leaving a $20 bill on the sidewalk in Grand Central Station.
The book, however, is for the most bit, arcane, abstruse and incredibly complex. Filled with passages expounding on the Bayesian Model of decision making, the reader is left with the feeling that she has definitely bitten off much more than what she can comfortably chew.
So is there escaping the curse of “Epistemic Modesty?” Eliezer provides three broad solutions to wriggle oneself out of the modesty trap:
- Cases where the decision lies in the hands of people who would gain little personally, or lose out personally, if they did what was necessary to help someone else;
- Cases where decision-makers can’t reliably learn the information they need to make decisions, even though someone else has that information;
- Systems that are broken in multiple places so that no one actor can make them better, even though, in principle, some magically coordinated action could move to a new stable state.
In writing “Inadequate Equilibria”, Eliezer Yudkowsky might well be catering to a niche and targeted audience. As he very clearly states in the book, people who read his book will mostly be smarter than average.
It would have been much more desirable if he had focused on articulating his views to readers irrespective of their smart quotient and intellect. That way everyone would have been adequately equipped to spot and make the best use of dollar bills that might be left on many a sidewalk. But then again if everyone was to be an expert in spotting and exploiting that opportunity, will there be such an opportunity in the first place?