Overcoming Bias: Why Not?

In a recent New Atlantis essay, “In Defense of Prejudice, Sort of,” I criticized what I call the new rationalism:

Today there is an intellectual project on the rise that puts a novel spin on the old rationalist ideal. This project takes reason not as a goal but as a subject for study: It aims to examine human rationality empirically and mathematically. Bringing together the tools of economics, statistics, psychology, and cognitive science, it flies under many disciplinary banners: decision theory, moral psychology, behavioral economics, descriptive ethics. The main shared component across these fields is the study of many forms of “cognitive bias,” supposed flaws in our ability to reason. Many of the researchers engaged in this project — Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, Dan Ariely, and Richard Thaler, to name a few — are also prominent popularizers of science and economics, with a bevy of bestselling books and a corner on the TED talk circuit.

While those scholars are some of the most prominent of the new rationalists, here on Futurisms it’s worth mentioning that many others are also spokesmen of transhumanism. These latter thinkers draw on the same cognitive science research but lean more on statistics and economics. More significantly, they drop the scientific pretense of mere description, claiming not only to study but unabashedly to perfect the practice of rationality.

Their projects have modest names like Overcoming Bias, Less Wrong, and the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR, pronounced “see far” — get it?). CFAR is run by the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, whose board has included many of the big guns of artificial intelligence and futurism. Among the project’s most prominent members are George Mason University economist and New York Times quote darling Robin Hanson, and self-described genius Eliezer Yudkowsky. With books, blogs, websites, conferences, meetup groups in various cities, $3,900 rationality training workshops, and powerful connections in digital society, they are increasingly considered gurus of rational uplift by Silicon Valley and its intellectual hangers-on.

A colleague of mine suggested that these figures bear a certain similarity to Mr. Spock, and this is fitting on a number of levels, from their goal of bringing all human action under the thumb of logic, to their faith in the relative straightforwardness of this goal — which is taken to be achievable not by disciplines working across many generations but by individual mentation — to the preening but otherwise eerily emotionless tone of their writing. So I’ll refer to them for shorthand as the Vulcans.

The Vulcans are but the latest members of an elaborately extended tradition of anti-traditionalist thought going back at least to the French Enlightenment. This inheritance includes revolutionary ambitions, now far higher than most of their forebears, from the rational restructuring of society in the short term to the abolition of man in the only-slightly-less-short term. And at levels both social and individual, the reformist project is inseparable from the rationalist one: for example, Yudkowsky takes the imperative to have one’s body cryogenically preserved upon death to be virtually axiomatic. He notes that only a thousand or so people have signed up for this service, and comes to the only logical conclusion: this is the maximum number of reliably rational people in the world. One can infer that it will be an elect few deemed fit to command the remaking of the world, or even to understand, when the time arrives to usher in the glorious future, why it need happen at all.

The Vulcans also represent a purified version of the idea that rationality can be usefully studied as a thing in itself, and perfected more or less from scratch. Their writing has the revealing habit of talking about reason as if they are the first to discuss the idea. Take Less Wrong, for example, which rarely acknowledges the existence of any intellectual history prior to late-nineteenth-century mathematics except to signal disgust for the brutish Past, and advertises as a sort of manifesto its “Twelve Virtues of Rationality.”

Among those virtues, “relinquishment” takes spot number two (“That which can be destroyed by the truth should be”), “lightness” spot three (“Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy”), “argument” and “empiricism” are modestly granted spots five and six, and “scholarship” pulls up the rear at number eleven. What about the twelfth virtue? There isn’t one, for the other virtue transcends mere numbering, and “is nameless,” except that its name is “the Way.” Presented as the Path to Pure Reason, the Way is drawn, like much Vulcan writing, from Eastern mysticism, without comment or apology.

Burke vs. Spock

It’s wise not to overstate the influence of Vulcanism, which may well wind up in the dustbin of pseudoscience history, along with fads like the rather more defensible psychoanalysis. The movement is significant mainly for what it reveals. For at its core lie some ingredients of Enlightenment thought with enduring appeal, usefully evaporated of diluting elements, boiled down to a syrupy attitudinal essence covered with a thin argumentative crust. It contains a version of the parable of the Cave, revised to hold the promise of final, dramatic escape; an uneasy marriage of skepticism and self-confidence whose offspring is the aspiration to revolution.

In the book The Place of Prejudice, which I reviewed in the essay linked above, Adam Adatto Sandel notes rationalism’s reactionary counterpart, typically voiced through Edmund Burke, which accepts the conflict between reason and tradition but embraces the other side. Like Sandel, I see this stance as wrongheaded, a license to draw a line around some swath of the human world as forever beyond understanding, and draw it arbitrarily — or worse, around just those things one sees as most in need of intellectual defense. But the conflict cannot be avoided as an epistemological and practical matter, a duel over the reasons for our imperfect understanding, and the best guides for action in light of it.

Looking at the schemes of the Vulcans, it’s hard not to hear Burke’s point about the politically cautious advantages of (philosophical) prejudice in contrast with the dangerous instability of Reason. The link between the aspirations of the French Enlightenment and the outrages of the French Revolution was not incidental, nor are the links of either to today’s hyper-rationalists.

A few years ago, I attended a conference at which James Hughes eagerly cited the Marquis de Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit, which seems to prefigure transhumanism and depicts a nearer future in which reason has fully liberated us from the brutality of tradition. Hughes mentioned that this work was written when Condorcet was in hiding, but skipped past the irony: as Charles Taylor writes of the Sketch, with a bit of understatement:

it adds to our awe before his unshaken revolutionary faith when we reflect that these crimes were no longer those of an ancien régime, but of the forces who themselves claimed to be building the radiant future.

Condorcet died in prison a few months later.

But it persists as stubbornly as any prejudice, this presumption of the simple cleansing power of reason, this eagerness to unmoor. Whether action might jump ahead of theory, or rationalism decay into rationalization, providing intellectual cover for baser forces — these are problems to which rationalists are exquisitely attuned when it comes to inherited ideas, but show almost no worry when it comes to their own, inherited though their ideas are too. “Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own,” counsels one of the Virtues of Rationality, the image well more apt than it’s meant to be.

Civil Rights, Eugenics, and Why It’s “Being a Good Human” to Kill Your Daughters

As Adam very kindly described, I appeared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream last week to talk about transhumanism with George Dvorsky and Robin Hanson. (Thanks to both the producers and my interlocutors for an enjoyable chat.) I’d like to expand upon a subject I mentioned on the show. Back in January, Prof. Hanson expressed support on his “Overcoming Bias” blog for sex selection — that is, selective abortion of female fetuses based on their gender. His reasoning was:

if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have moves [more] lives that are more pleasant?

I took the opportunity to ask Prof. Hanson about this on the air (my comments start around 14:45, and his response is at 16:30). Here is how he replied:

He’s right that that’s what I said, and I meant it. But we’re talking about individual private choice. We can think about parents choosing children, choosing high-IQ versus low-IQ children, choosing athletic versus less athletic children. I think it’s good if parents have the best interest of their children at heart, and choose children that they think will have better lives. I think that goes to the center of humanity; it goes to the center of being a good human — wanting the best for your children.

Reported Sex Ratios at Birth
and Sex Ratios of the Population Age 0-4:
China, 1953-2005 (boys per 100 girls)
Year Sex Ratio
at Birth
Sex Ratio,
Age 0-4
1953 107.0
1964 105.7
1982 108.5 107.1
1990 111.4 110.2
1995 115.6 118.4
1999 117.0 119.5
2005 118.9 122.7

This sounds sensible and compassionate for about half a second, until one realizes what it means: “having the best interest of your child at heart” means not allowing her to exist or killing her because she’s a girl. Tempting though it is, however, there are more clarifying ways to understand this issue than through the abortion debate — or through the trivial extension of Hanson’s logic to justify killing girls long after birth.Commentators on sex selection have been right to talk about the issue as in part one of women’s rights, since this is almost entirely a phenomenon directed against girls, with some 160 million worldwide barred from life due to being female. Whether you consider these to be actual lives or potential lives lost, the fact is that these societies are deeming women less worthy than men by increasingly preventing them from even entering into this world. Not in the least coincidentally, this happens overwhelmingly in countries where women are considered inferior to men, where they often lack basic rights like voting, driving, and full ownership of property, and where not only women but girls are frequently forced into labor, marriage, and prostitution. If nothing else, Hanson is right that, in these countries, women’s lives are generally a lot less pleasant than men’s.




Differing approaches to social uplift

Consider for a moment: what direction would Hanson’s arguments have pushed us in had they been made during past struggles for equality and civil rights? Women had to struggle for rights here in the United States, too — to gain the right to vote, and then later to gain equality in the workplace and in the broader culture. Women’s lives could have been considered a lot less “pleasant” than men’s at these times, too.Had Hanson and sex-selective technology been around at the time, his prescription would have been not to change laws, attitudes, and culture to bring a class of people out of oppression — but to just get rid of those people. This is exactly what Hanson is prescribing and celebrating in countries where women are abused and oppressed today.One can imagine how Hanson’s prescription would have applied to still other civil rights struggles from America’s past. And not just in imagination: the idea that certain classes of people had lives that were less worth living — either based on race, or, just as in Hanson’s criteria, strength and intelligence — was in fact the rationale behind eugenics programs that sought to eliminate those lives. Other practices recently proposed and praised by transhumanists include infanticide, compulsory drugging of populations to make them more “moral”, and massive programs of engineering the human race to control their greenhouse gas emissions.The path of moral progress we moderns tell ourselves we have been forging is toward a society of ever greater justice and equality, in which the individual cannot be denied her place by the prejudices of others, in which the weak are protected from the strong. Transhumanists, utilitarians, and self-anointed rationalists insist that they are dedicated to pushing us further down the path of enlightenment — toward “Overcoming Bias.” They insist that their dreams, when realized, will be a vehicle of moral progress and individual empowerment — the repudiation rather than the continuation of the twentieth century’s programs of social coercion. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Arguing with Transhumanists

Yesterday, our co-blogger and New Atlantis senior editor Ari Schulman discussed transhumanism on The Stream, a social-media-based show on Al Jazeera English. Hosts Imran Garda and Malika Bilal did a good job of kicking off the discussion, and plenty of viewers commented and asked questions in real-time via Twitter. Several video clips were interspersed throughout the show, including a snippet of Regan Brashear’s documentary Fixed, which we previously discussed here on Futurisms.Ari debated two outspoken advocates of transhumanism*: Robin Hanson, a professor at George Mason University (whom we have frequently written about here), and George Dvorsky, a blogger and activist. If that sounds unfairly lopsided to you — two against one — well, it was unfairly lopsided: Ari clearly had the better of the conversation.The conversation touched on many subjects, and there wasn’t time to deal with anything in great depth, but I’d like to highlight three items.First, Ari pointed out on the show something that Hanson said recently — that “if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives.” (Hanson wrote this in response to a New Atlantis article; we blogged about it here.) When confronted with his own words, Hanson didn’t retreat; he stood by those remarks. Today, one of Hanson’s blog readers took him to task: “You totally let yourself look like you’d support sexism…. You made us look bad and … I doubt you’ll have an opportunity to repair the damage your mistake caused.” I certainly agree that Hanson’s comments make transhumanism look bad — not because he misspoke or misrepresented his views, but because his forthright comments revealed the heartless calculation that underlies much transhumanist thinking.Second, Dvorsky and Hanson both objected to one of Ari’s comments: that transhumanism shares with the twentieth century’s eugenics movement a deep dissatisfaction with human nature. When we sometimes make this comparison, transhumanists accuse us of smearing them — after all, who would want to be compared to a movement that was responsible for forced sterilizations and that inspired some of the worst Nazi atrocities? But Ari’s remarks were measured and careful, and the comparison is apt: both eugenics and transhumanism are rooted in a profound dissatisfaction with evolved human nature. That does not mean (as Dvorsky claimed) that we think that human nature as it now exists is perfect. To the contrary, we think that human beings are flawed, and some of us might even say fallen, creatures. But for this very reason, as Ari said, we are skeptical of grand schemes that promise or pursue perfection.Dvorsky also bridled against the comparison to eugenics for another reason. He said that eugenics was a “top-down imposition,” wherein terrible decisions were made by “either the state or certain groups in power.” By contrast, Dvorsky said,

transhumanism is absolutely opposed to any of those ideas. In fact, it’s very much a hands-off type of a philosophy. If anything, it’s bottom-up, where we give the benefit of the doubt to individuals who are informed individuals, in conjunction with their doctors, their fertility clinics, and so on, who will make the decisions that are right for themselves. So everything from their reproductive rights, their morphological rights, and their cognitive rights as well.

But as Ari rightly noted on the show, not all transhumanist proposals pleasantly envision free, autonomous individuals pursuing the good as they see it. Julian Savulescu, for example, recently proposed that we should compel people to take behavior-altering drugs to make them more “moral” (as our colleague Brendan Foht mentioned here last month). And just because Dvorsky and some of his confreres think that the transhumanist future will be “hands-off” and “bottom-up” doesn’t mean that it actually will be. Who’s to say that we won’t see dictatorships of (or backed up by) Unfriendly AI? And even if somehow the transhumanist future were accomplished without obvious coercion, that doesn’t mean (as we have pointed out many times here on Futurisms) that “individuals who are informed individuals” would be free to abjure the enhancements that society is pressuring them to accept.All in all, a fine television performance by Ari; anyone interested in hearing more such intelligent criticism of transhumanism should poke around here on Futurisms and read some of the articles we’ve linked to the right.* To be clear, Hanson doesn’t consider himself a transhumanist, and during the program he said that he thinks “it’s somewhat premature to either advocate for or oppose these changes, because we don’t actually know very much about the context in which they’ll appear.” But since he is a vocal proponent of cryonics and he believes that many of the things that transhumanists embrace are at least plausible and in some cases desirable, I think it’s not unfair to put him on the transhumanist side of these debates.UPDATE: See Ari’s follow-up on his exchange with Robin Hanson about sex selection.

Robin Hanson, Proudly Fighting the Good War Against Baby Girls

A recent issue of The New Atlantis features the article “The Global War Against Baby Girls,” by Nicholas Eberstadt, on the epidemic of sex selection. In countries that value the lives of women less than men, gender discrimination now means not just that women are likely to be treated poorly, but that they might not be allowed to live at all. Baby girls in these countries are habitually being killed because of their sex (typically in the womb but also in many cases after birth).Eberstadt’s article goes into some detail about the demographics of this phenomenon: it’s happening in scores of developing countries across the world, and, perhaps counterintuitively, is much more prevalent among affluent families. Minimum estimates place the number of baby girls eliminated based on their gender in the range of 30 million; more comprehensive estimates place the total upwards of 160 million.

Reported Sex Ratios at Birth
and Sex Ratios of the Population Age 0-4:
China, 1953-2005 (boys per 100 girls)
Year Sex Ratio
at Birth
Sex Ratio,
Age 0-4
1953 107.0
1964 105.7
1982 108.5 107.1
1990 111.4 110.2
1995 115.6 118.4
1999 117.0 119.5
2005 118.9 122.7

So what do our friends, the bastions of potential biotech progress, have to say about this very actual biotech present? The transhumanist and libertarian economist Robin Hanson has weighed in on Eberstadt’s article on his blog. Hanson has previously turned his moral acumen to subjects like how we should forget the 9/11 attacks because they killed an insufficient number of people to matter. When Hanson responds to Eberstadt’s article, however, the number of lives lost doesn’t seem to matter, even though in this case it can be expressed as large percentages of affected countries’ populations.Instead, Hanson asks the really important question, which is what a high school student in the second week of his introductory macroeconomics course would say about all this:

A simple supply and demand analysis says that selective abortion both expresses a preference for boys and causes a reduction in that preference as wives become scarce. In South Korea this process is mostly complete, with excess boys down from 15% in the 1990s to 7% today (with ~5% as the biologically natural excess).

That’s a nice story, except that South Korea is the only country where there has been a clear reversal. Hanson doesn’t mention the dozens of other countries where the ratio of male to female births has increased steadily, without significant reversal, since the early 1980s. Perhaps this issue isn’t clarified by forcing it inside “a simple supply and demand analysis.” But let’s not let facts stand in the way of our favorite theories.Reported child (0-4) sex ratio in China by county, 2000Or perhaps the reversal just hasn’t kicked in yet for those countries. So history should bear out Hanson’s idea. Can you think of any societies that have selectively exterminated a certain class of their members? Now, how did those exterminations come to an end: was it because those societies suddenly began to value what they had made scarce?Hanson elaborates:

This topic offers a good example of a conflict between sending desired signals and getting desired outcomes. Since parents who selectively abort girls show favoritism toward boys, it can feel quite natural to signal your opinion that women have equal value by condemning such parents, and favoring policies to discourage their actions. Not doing so can make you seem anti-female. Yet since via supply and demand the abortions chosen by these parents directly increase the value of women, then all else equal discouraging their abortions reduces the value of women. So if you want women to have higher value, your signal is counter-productive.

You might think that the people who devalue girls so much that they kill them are the ones who, well, devalue them. But you’d be wrong. The best thing you can do to help the cause of girls is to get rid of more of them. Got it?Maybe I’ve been hasty in my take on Hanson’s analysis. Let’s see how he wraps this up:

Of course it is far from clear that the relative value of males and females should be the main consideration here. One might instead argue that if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have moves [more] lives that are more pleasant?

One goes through life aware that some people, even respected intellectuals, think these things — but you figure they at least know better than to say them in public. Did I mention that the name of Hanson’s blog is “Overcoming Bias”? And he doesn’t seem to be kidding, either. If some other people think your life is not worth living, then that makes it actually not worth living, and the rational, beneficial thing to do from a public and economic standpoint is to end it.Transhumanists claim they’re bringing us away from moral slavery and toward rational enlightenment. Libertarian economists claim to offer tools to make peoples’ lives better and more free. To borrow a line from Alan Jacobs: How are they doing so far?

Robin Hanson on Why We Should “Forget 9/11”

A few days ago, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attack, George Mason University economics professor Robin Hanson, who is influential among transhumanists, wrote a blog post arguing that we should “Forget 9/11.” Why? Well, partly because of cryonics:

In the decade since 9/11 over half a billion people have died worldwide. A great many choices could have delayed such deaths, including personal choices to smoke less or exercise more, and collective choices like allowing more immigration. And cryonics might have saved most of them.Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles. And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11. Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

Hanson’s post may have been “flamebait” — but we should assume that he sincerely means what he has written, and read it as charitably as possible. His concern about matters of public health is admirable (although one wonders how much more public attention could be paid to the importance of exercising and not smoking, and whether paying attention to 9/11 was really a significant blow to those efforts). And many would agree that our government could have better allocated its money to save, lengthen, and improve lives (although one wonders when this is ever not the case, and what is the foolproof way to avoid misallocation).Still, one has to marvel at Hanson’s insistence that there is no meaningful difference between the ways people die. He implies that all deaths are equally tragic — so there is no difference, apparently, between a peaceful death and a violent one, or between a death in old age and one greatly premature. In a weird version of “blaming the victim,” Hanson implies that many of the people who have died since 9/11 are to blame for their own deaths, because they could have made choices like exercising, not smoking, and undergoing cryonic preservation. But of course, people who are murdered never get the chance to make or have these choices matter at all.This is part of the larger point Hanson misses: One certainly can doubt the severity of the threat posed by terrorism, and the wisdom of the U.S. response to it. But the September 11th attack was animated by ideas, and Hanson willfully ignores the implications of those ideas: The lives he would have us forget were lost in an attack against the very liberal order that allows Hanson to share his ideas so freely. It’s hard to imagine transhumanist discourse flourishing under the theocratic tyranny of sharia law. And if the planners of that attack had their way, that liberal order would be extinguished, as would the lives of many who now live under it — which would certainly alter even the calculus admitted by Hanson’s myopic utilitarianism.Thus the true backwardness of Hanson’s argument. While he may think he is making a trenchantly pro-humanist case for how insensitive and outrageous it is that we focus our emotions on some deaths much more than others, one wonders whether dulling our sensitivity to the deaths of the few can really be the best way to make us care about the deaths of the many. If we cannot feel outrage at what is shocking, can we still be moved by what is commonplace? If we do not mourn the loss of those who are close to us, how can we ever mourn the loss of those who are far?

Robert Ettinger (1918-2011)

Robert Ettinger, whose 1962 book The Prospect of Immortality kicked off the cryonics movement, has died at the age of 92. His remains have reportedly been frozen, along with those of his mother and two wives, at the Cryonics Institute in Michigan.

We will eventually have more to say in the journal about Ettinger, the feasibility of cryonics, and the movement’s true believers. For now, though, readers interested in learning more about Ettinger’s claims and his life — including his service in the U.S. Army during the Second World War — can consult his Wikipedia entry, this obituary by cryonics supporter Mike Darwin, and these memorials by bloggers Mark Plus and Giulio Prisco. The London Telegraph has also just posted an obituary.

Readers wishing for more background on cryonics might consult the two most recent high-profile articles on the subject in the popular press, both from last year: the New York Times Magazine story focusing on Robin Hanson, “Till Cryonics Do Us Part” (which we discussed here), and Jill Lepore’s excellent New Yorker piece, featuring probably the last substantial interview Ettinger ever gave, “The Iceman” (alas, behind a paywall). Also, Ed Regis has an excellent chapter on Ettinger and cryonics in his book Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition.
I hope Ettinger’s admirers will take it as a sign of respect and not as a backhanded criticism of cryonics if I close simply with R.I.P.

UPDATES (oldest on top):
  • KurzweilAI has a short post up, including a statement from Ben Best, president of the Cryonics Institute, confirming that Ettinger “had an ice bath sitting by his bedside” when he died, and his body “is now in the cooling box.” [Actually, Best would later clarify that the ice bath was in the next room; see below.] The post also includes a statement from Max More, the prominent transhumanist who recently became president and CEO of the other big cryonics outfit, Alcor. (Quick side note: Until Ettinger’s death, the Cryonics Institute claimed to have the bodies of 105 of its customers stored in its facilities while Alcor claimed to have the bodies or at least the heads of 106. Now, with Ettinger’s body becoming, as Best puts it, the Cryonics Institute’s “106th patient,” the Cryonics Institute and Alcor are tied.) (One other side note, in case you’re curious about their one-syllable heroic-sounding names: Max More chose that name for himself, having been born Max T. O’Connor, while Ben Best was really born with that name.)
  •  

  • Ben Best’s statement was also posted on the Cryonet mailing list, a discussion forum well known in cryonics circles. If you scroll down on that Cryonet post, you’ll see several replies and remembrances, including this comment from Mark Plus: “[Ettinger] anticipated a lot of today’s ‘transhumanism,’ yet today’s H+ youngsters think they’ve just invented many of the ideas [he] discussed nearly 40 years ago.”
  •  

  • The Cryonics Society has posted a statement (cribbed in part from Wikipedia and other blogs).
  •  

  • I haven’t asked Ettinger’s family and colleagues to confirm this, but it seems possible that the final recorded interview he ever gave was one to Ioannis Papadopoulos in 2010. It’s on YouTube here, and Papadopoulos has posted further information and pictures here. (The page is in Greek, but here’s a translated version via Google.) In the interview, Ettinger says that he “was not by any means the first person to think of these things. There have been lots of others, there’ve been many others, some of them thousands of years ago. But, as it happens, I was the first one to put it together in a coherent way in book-length form.” Another fairly recent recorded interview with Ettinger, conducted by filmmaker Jeph Porter, can be found in his short 2007 documentary “Dying for Immortality.” (Ettinger first appears around 7 minutes and 30 seconds.) Both videos include tours of cryonics facilities, although neither tour is led by Ettinger.
  •  

  • Washington Post obituarist Emma Brown quotes Ettinger’s son David: “We’re obviously sad” but “we were able to freeze him under optimum conditions, so he’s got another chance.” She also quotes an interview Ettinger apparently gave the Detroit News last year: “If both of my wives are revived … that will be a high class problem.” She also quotes a short letter by Ettinger published almost exactly one year ago in the New York Times Magazine: “the tide of history is with us.”
  •  

  • In a short post over on his blog, economist Tyler Cowen notes that few newspapers have printed an obituary for Ettinger so far, jokingly adding that he doubts the silence “is an intended tribute to Ettinger’s ideas.”
  •  

  • The Cryonics Institute, which Ettinger founded and which now stores his body, has just put out a press release: “Founder of Cryonics Movement Dies, is Frozen at Cryonics Institute.”
  •  

  • Michigan reporter Jonathan Oosting interviewed Ettinger’s son David this morning (July 25, 2011): “I never had a conversation about how he would be remembered…. Memorial services and funerals didn’t interest him. He was interested in practically preserving his life.”
  •  

  • Another obituary, this time from the Detroit News‘s Kim Kozlowski, who notes that David Ettinger “said there was discussion about having” a memorial service for his father, even though his father “didn’t want” one. In January 2010, Kozlowski published an interview with Ettinger (unfortunately behind a paywall) that was the source of Ettinger’s remark that, if he and both of his late wives were someday reanimated, he would face “a high class problem.” Out of context, it sounds like a joke. But in Kozlowski’s original 2010 article, Ettinger goes on to discuss the possibility more seriously: “I would be lucky if they both wanted to be with me. But maybe neither one of them will want me.” Ettinger also told Kozlowski that he was sad that his brother had given up on cryonics before dying in 1998: “That was one of my major sorrows…. He was my brother. I had hoped to save him from death.”
  •  

  • The only thing worth mentioning about this short Ettinger notice on io9 is the picture they chose to put at the top. It shows Ettinger standing with Bob Nelson, who is an extremely controversial figure in the cryonics movement. Nelson played a part in some of the earliest cryonic freezings, but was also involved in a scandal that resulted in several decomposed bodies. To learn more about Nelson, you can see these stories that Google brings up, or you can listen to this 2008 episode of the radio show This American Life, which is reportedly being adapted into a movie starring Paul Rudd (presumably as Nelson).
  •  

  • Here are two short newswire obituaries, from the Associated Press and Agence France-Press.
  •  

  • Pursuing Immortality, He Followed a Frozen Path“: Stephen Miller’s obituary of Ettinger in the Wall Street Journal includes at least one item I hadn’t seen mentioned elsewhere: Ettinger “rejected cloning as an alternative route to immortality, because ‘all it does is get you a twin.'”
  •  

  • From Ben Best, president of the Cryonics Institute, more details about Ettinger’s death and the freezing of his body. Best says that he had personally been present for every cryopreservation since mid-2005 (that’s more than thirty bodies), but he happened to be traveling when Ettinger died. Best says that he participated a bit by telephone, and that Ettinger’s cryopreservation “went well without me.” He also offers this detail about the moments after Ettinger’s death (correcting an earlier statement Best made over the weekend): “His head was placed in a cube full of ice within 30 seconds of pronouncement [of death], and the ice bath was brought from the next room … and set up within the next minute” rather than instantly.

Are “Hostile Wives” Too Cool Toward Science?

I recently reviewed Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. I note the shallowness of those science-policy arguments that pretend that the issues — like embryo-destructive stem cell research, or proposals to mitigate climate change — are purely scientific and that disagreement over them results chiefly from differing literacy in and enthusiasm for science.
Transhumanism, of course, has inherited much from the ideologies that spawned this scientism, and so falls prey to it as well. Consider a recent example from that reliably credulous disseminator of scientistic tropes, Michael Anissimov.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published a feature article on the men who want their heads chopped off and frozen when they die, the women who love them, and the marital strife that results when they both keep at it. Attacks of spousal common sense are, of course, a barrier to icy immortality, and so cryonicists safely package them up and stick them on a shelf with the label “hostile-wife phenomenon.” The article explores the bizarre and often sad features of romantic relationships of cryonicists, and focuses on one couple in particular, prominent transhumanist Robin Hanson and his wife Peggy Jackson, who happens to be a hospice worker.
Anissimov, writing about the Times article, bundles up “hostile-wife phenomenon” even more neatly: “My explanation for the phenomenon is pretty simple: gender differences in enthusiasm towards science.” Okay, but “enthusiasm for science” — if we do truly just mean science — means enthusiasm for empirical facts and the discovery and understanding of them. But the article makes it sound as if Ms. Jackson is as curious and intelligent as her husband, and as well-informed of the empirical facts of cryonics. How can her differing enthusiasm for cryonics then be a matter of differing enthusiasm for science? Might there be something else at stake?
As the article notes, her hostility to the idea is “rooted less in scientific skepticism than in her personal judgments about the quest for immortality.” It continues, “Peggy finds the quest an act of cosmic selfishness.” “[T]o be rocketed into the future — a future your family either has no interest in seeing, or believes we’ll never see anyway — is to begin to plot a life in which your current relationships have little meaning.” Indeed, lending some support to her judgment, the article notes that Robert Ettinger, the father of cryonics, advised his followers in the late 1960s, “Divorce your wife if she will not cooperate.”
Ms. Jackson’s level of enthusiasm for science itself can’t explain her differing judgment from her husband on the good and bad of cryonics.
(In fact, notably and rather hilariously, the first commenter on Anissimov’s post was Robin Hanson himself, and, though he falls for the same trope, he does so by way of succinctly countering Anissimov’s argument: “Women are actually more enthusiastic about most medicine than men. Women go to the doc more often, and push men to go more often than men push women. So this isn’t about women not being as pro science.”)

Make scientists cooperate to usher in the Singularity?

Day two of the 2009 Singularity Summit is back underway here in New York. They front-loaded the summit today with short talks by smaller-name speakers on topics that were pretty peripheral to the Singularity. Typical setup for a conference, but I decided to spare my sanity by skipping those first few.

Just starting now is a panel discussion on the “Future of Scientific Method,” with the last three speakers, Gary Wolf, Michael Nielsen, and Robin Hanson, and moderated by James Jorasch.
[From left: Michael Nielsen, Robin Hanson, Gary Wolf, and moderator James Jorasch]
Jorasch asks if scientists should still be doing science, rather than just dedicating their efforts to achieving A.I. (in light, presumably, of the fact that Our Very Existence Depends Upon It). Michael Nielsen says, you’re right, most scientists don’t have any skills to contribute to A.I. Jorasch suggests that we retrain them — to rapturous applause from the audience.
Jorasch then asks if we should want all of the changes that the conferencegoers expect the future to bring. Gary Wolf, making what you might call a “Determinist-Lite” argument, says that our moral beliefs about whether technological change is good don’t matter for much, because as long as someone finds that there’s something in it for themselves, technological change is unstoppable. (Unless I misread Wolf’s tone, this statement wasn’t intended as a criticism or warning.)
They’re talking now about current systems that augment us. Jorasch talks about how he used an iPhone app last night to monitor how much sleep he got (6.5 hours) and asks, isn’t this turning me into more of a robot? Robin Hanson says, “That’s called civilization,” to scattered laughs and applause. Uh… ba-da-bing? We’ve built civilization on technology, he says. I guess Rome fell for lack of apps.
The panelists are talking now about centralization and coordination in scientific research. Jorasch seems to think it’s a problem that there isn’t more coordination among scientists, because redundant work is going on. Hanson answers this the same way he has every other question, with a knowing (and a touch snide) little smile and an assertion that the system works. Hanson is taking a weirdly defensive stance to all of these questions. Portions of the audience have been quite supportive of the “takedown” stance Hanson’s been taking, but I think Michael Nielsen, gracious and poised, is the far more effective speaker here.
Audience questions now. One guy notes that almost everyone here is an adult, and he asks how we can do more to get young kids trained in avoiding all of this messy competition we see now in the scientific world. (Soviet-style central planning, anyone?) Gary Wolf says that he seems to have found that competition is a natural thing, that you get in any sort of setup of scientific research, and that it even seems to spur new research and advances. Well, whaddya know. And that’s a wrap on the panel.