Annotate the Web: March 2016

I use Genius to add comments and context to the articles I read. This is a monthly round-up of articles I did the most Genius-ing on. To see all my annotations, follow me on Genius!

If you like to think while you read, you should get an account and add the Chrome extension. The Internet needs thoughtful people like you!

(Also, without the extension, you may not see the annotations on these articles.)

 

Articles of Note

80 years ago, Harvard had a “Jewish quota”. They used rhetoric about “character” to limit the number of Jews they admitted, in favor of students who weren’t as book-smart but fit the Harvard ideal. Today, the same thing is happening to Asians, for the same reasons.

Controlling for other variables […] Asians need SAT scores 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and an incredible 450 points higher than blacks (out of 1,600 points) to get into these schools. 

If you want to see some ridiculously offensive statements from MIT’s Dean of Admissions, this is the article for you!

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Google Experiment #1: Shared Humanity and Willingness to Help

It’s very cheap to experiment on people these days.

For ~$100 and ~5 hours of my time, I used Google Consumer Surveys (GCS) to collect over 800 responses to the following question:

Famine threatens Ethiopia. Thousands of lives are at risk, but U.S. help could save them. How important is it that the U.S. give $9 million in food aid to these Ethiopians?

This wasn’t just curiosity. This was an experiment. My question had three possible endings:

  1. …food aid to these Ethiopians?
  2. …food aid to these men and women?
  3. …food aid to these human beings?

 

We all know that Ethiopians are human beings, of course. But do our actions reflect that knowledge?

At least one study found evidence that we’ll donate more money to help rescue someone from our country than someone from another country. (Kogut & Ritov, 2007)

I have a similar question: Are we more willing to help foreigners when they are framed as our fellow humans, rather than as people from some other country?

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Alpha Gamma Reviews: Edge 2015

Each year, Edge.org asks a few hundred very smart people how they’d answer a certain question. The results are always a mixed bag, but it’s one of the most exciting mixed bags in the intellectual world.

This year’s question dug into one of my own interests: “What do you think about machines that think?” 

In other words: What does the increasing power of artificial intelligence (AI) mean for humans, for the universe, and for the machines themselves? What will happen if and when AI becomes “general” or “superintelligent”, outperforming humans at almost every task?

The answers to this question would fill a book (and will, since Edge publishes one book each year). But even if you don’t have time to read a book, you should sample the content, because there’s always a ton of interesting material.

This post is my attempt to gather up some of the best answers and individual quotes, while addressing some of the mistakes that many different thinkers made.

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Life in the Slums of Liberia

I try to use raw statistics to get a sense of what life is like in other places. This helps me avoid the selective nature of stories, though stories have their place after the numbers are in.

Here, a startling overview from Chris Blattman et al, in a survey of young Liberian men thought to be engaged in criminal behavior:

“On average the men were age 25, had nearly eight years of schooling, earned about $40 in the past month working 46 hours per week (mainly in low skill labor and illicit work), and had $34 saved. 38% were members of an armed group during the two civil wars that ravaged the country between 1989 and 2003. 20% reported selling drugs, 44% reported daily marijuana use, 15% reported daily use of hard drugs, 53% reported stealing something in the past two weeks, and 24% reported they were homeless.”

Measuring the Measurement Error: A Method to Qualitatively Validate Sensitive Survey Data

The entire paper is worth reading, and quite readable. Turns out that people are very honest in answering survey questions about “sensitive” behaviors when those behaviors are the norm within their social groups.

(The paper also provides a good lens for looking at cash transfers. In the hands of a man with $34 in the bank, who earns $40 a month, $500 might be enough to prevent multiple acts of theft or purchase a stable home. On the other hand, I’d guess that these men are more likely to spend some of the money on hard drugs than are families in rural villages.)

Ten Big Questions

At a recent symposium, social scientists gathered to create a list of “big questions” that might serve as a driving focus for academics in the years to come—inspired in part by David Hilbert’s (largely successful) use of this technique to guide mathematicians.

More on the symposium here. The final list of questions is highly informal, but gives us a good idea of what problems are on the minds of very smart people:

1. How can we induce people to look after their health?

2. How do societies create effective and resilient institutions, such as governments?

3. How can humanity increase its collective wisdom?

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