Social media checks, bias and the presumption of innocence

A few weeks ago, stories started circulating about an IT consultant who would approach women on tinder and, after being rejected, insult them. I work at a series B fintech in London. At our weekly all-hands, I learned that a he used to work for my company. After talking about him being bad, the CEO talked about introducing stricter checks for new staff, including social media and news searches, to prevent someone like that from getting in.

Putting aside the fact that a policy like this wouldn’t do much, most bad people don’t have newspaper stories written about them, it’s interesting how quickly people were willing to destroy someones life. Of the people I talked to about this, most were left wing and yet almost none had stopped for a moment to think about the ethics of barring someone from holding a job on the basis of basis of a single article published in a right wing tabloid. It’s not that we had different views on what the burden of proof was before someone should be considered guilty/too-risky and silently denied a job at our firm, it’s that the question was never raised in the first place. Needless to say, this is wrong. As always [[A big part of ethics is getting people to admit their decision is a moral one]]

As startups grow, most start doing background on candidates at some point. There are a few risks that arise from this. The two most serious in my eyes are the increased scope for bias as the personal life/political views of a candidate leak more into the interview process and getting things wrong.

Getting people to want to address the problem of bias can be hard. Assuming people do want to address it, solving it is not that hard. Some basic process around the screening can help:

  • The people doing the screening should be different from those doing the interview
  • Screeners by default should not pass information about the candidates personal life, political beliefs or other bias vectors to interviewers/assessors
  • The things that candidates are being screened for should be well defined (e.g: criminal activity, threats of violence on social media, history of rape accusations etc…) rather than left vague. This is because, unfortunately, a significant proportion of people genuinely believe that the political tribe opposed to theirs is evil and even greater proportions have strong biases against those who are from their political outgroup. Hence leaving the screening criteria undefined will usually lead to those biases creeping in.

Mitigating the wrongness problem is harder. It’s harder because determining what is and is not true when all you have to go on are years old media articles or anonymous posts is difficult. It’s also hard because it requires that people do things that are morally right but bad for them personally. As a decision-maker, choosing to not hire someone is always safe. On the other hand hiring someone who is later revealed to have done bad things, or things other employees think are bad, can seriously damage your career. It’s because of this incentive structure that in the vast majority of situations people will advocate for not-hiring a person but no one will advocate for hiring them. I’m not sure how to solve the wrongness problem. My only two suggestions are:

  • Having a procedure for intentionally taking the accused’s side can help overcome the social stigma associated with defending a "bad" person. Just as we specifically assign lawyers to defend accused criminals in court, so as a hiring committee you can either choose one person or set aside 15 minutes as a group where you genuinely try to shoot holes in the case against a prospective candidate.
  • Rather than silently binning candidates, consider calling them and asking them about the allegations. It’s surprising how often media stories are later retracted or how common cases of mistaken identity can be.

Denying someone employment on ethical rather than economic grounds is a serious decision. It means that you’re leveraging your economic power to make political power, which is not something to be done lightly. If other firms do the same, as they often will since most large companies in a given sector tend to have similar norms and culture, your actions may make it impossible for these people to hold jobs. This kind of blacklisting is even more serious. If you’re going to do it, you should invest some time to make sure that you do it well.

Racism as a prisoners dlimma

Imagine you live in a society that is divided between three major ethnic groups. The groups help their own members, frequently fight over resources and there have been more than a few atrocities or borderline genocidal wars in the past with different groups using circumstances to kill/drive away their opponents. You are a member of one of these groups. Your personal fortune in significant part depends on that of your group. The more of the machinery of state your group controls, the more jobs and government provided goods and services you and your family can expect to receive. If another group dominates in the area you live, you can expect mild harassment your business being targeted for extortion/enforcement, the police being non-responsive to your claims and finding a job to be harder.

Now that the stage is set, let’s consider a question. Should you be a non-racist? Even assuming you have a liberal worldview, recognize that the ethnic division in your society is an illogical accident of history and recognize that there are good and bad people present in every group the answer is still not an obvious "yes". The problem is that if you stop favoring members of your group and fighting other groups, you weaken your group and comparatively strengthen others. If enough people in your group adopt your liberal norms, then your group starts to punch below it’s weight and will loose contests with other groups more and more, leading to worse and worse outcomes for it’s members. In effect, you’re trapped in a collective action problem. The costs of defecting from the existing (sub-optimal) racist equilibrium are private and fall upon the individual or group who defects. The benefits of moving towards a society free from ethnic division and strife flows to everyone. Two implications:

  • You do not want your group to be the first to adopt non-racism. The consequences of loss of group cohesion, especially in a developing nation, can be dire.
  • As a group, you have a strong incentive to punish individuals who do not contribute back to the group or challenge the legitimacy of the group as an organizing principle.

It’s a hard problem to resolve. When I did debating, I often saw people who had grown up in developed countries talk about genocide or ethnic conflict as a matter of people just being evil and the wrong beliefs. It’s not that simple. Ideology plays a part but so does the incentive structure you find yourself in. It’s easy to claim that people doing bad things are just moral aliens or brainwashed. The reality is usually more complex.

Why prostitution is immoral on the buy side

(TLDR: Because a significant % of prostitutes are forced/coerced into it, meaning when you sleep with a prostitute there’s a decent % chance you’re raping someone)

When I did debating, most arguments I would hear against prostitution were about the innate wrongness of it. Prostitution was bad because it’s morally wrong to trade sex. Prostitution was bad because it’s exploitative of sex workers as they have to engage in it to eat. Prostitution is bad because you can’t meaningfully consent to sex if money is involved etc… I never found these arguments persuasive. Logically, if you can consent to working other dangerous jobs such as coal mining or the military you can consent to the dangers/hardships of life as a prostitute. In terms of exploitation I think people should be allowed choose for themselves if they would rather be exploited or unemployed/employed in a shitty job doing manual labour. Still, my intuition was that there was still something wrong other people weren’t hitting on. In retrospect the reason why it’s wrong, at least from the buy side, is obvious. A decent percentage of prostitutes in first world countries are controlled by pimps, coerced, trafficked and generally can’t really say no. Hence purchasing sex from a prostitute means running a high risk of raping someone. Hence it’s wrong to buy sex from a prostitute.

Links 20/08/2020

Thoughts on cancel culture.

Let’s say there’s a society where people who say the wrong thing about topic X are killed by the secret police. Is this a society where people have freedom of speech in relation to topic X? The answer seems to be an obvious no.

Let’s say there’s a society where people who say the wrong thing about topic X are not killed or thrown in prison but instead loose their party membership and with it the ability to hold any high-status, well-paying or skilled job. Is this a society where people have freedom of speech in relation to X? Again the answer seems to be no.

Let’s say there’s a society where people who say the wrong thing about topic X face not retribution or action from the state. Instead they find that society seems them as being strange or immoral or holding the wrong views and consequently they are fired, struggle to find another job, can be denied education and that even their parents, spouse or family members can face similar consequences. Is this a society where people have freedom of speech in relation to X? For the third time the answer seems to be no.

My position on cancel culture is the same as my position on most forms of social coercion of individuals who’s beliefs or behavior falls outside of social norms. It’s wrong by default and requires very strong reasons to be just.

Why do the defenders of cancel culture think they’re right? I spot a few lines of argumentation:

  • People who take the wrong views on certain issues are bad and deserve to be punished
  • Cancelling people chills speech on certain topics, stopping bad ideas from spreading.

I think a good limtus test for this reasoning is the one applicable to moral reasoning in general. Is it universalizable? Does it work differently for your ingroup and outgroup or is it the same for everyone?

Three examples of cancellations:

  • A person living in a republican dominated area comes out supporting abortion. Most others think abortion is murder and that the person is evil for supporting such a position. A mob forms that pressures their employer to fire them. Their employer agrees. That person cannot find a job and is unemployed or stacks shelves.
  • A person working in an oil firm in Texas in 2003 comes out as being against the Iraq War. Most people are for the war. Most people believe that by being against the war, the person is spreading dangerous ideas which make it more likely that a dictator who literally murders, gasses and kills millions will be allowed to keep doing so. The person looses their job, their reputation and no one will hire them. Other peopl who have doubts about the war see what happens and are silent from then onwards.
  • A miner works in a coal mine in Thatchers England. He organizes strikes and agitates for industrial action. The social elite, including officials, mine owners and most newspaper owners, have decided that strikes are bad. The miner is fired and blacklisted so that he can never work again.

I believe that almost no one who supports modern cancel culture would support the above examples of cancellation. There’s no impartial basis for that difference in judgement. The only difference is that the victims in those examples are either left-wing or defending traditionally blue tribe positions.

Hence I put modern cancel culture in the category of "it’s fine to use force and coercion and restrictions of speech on our opponents but obviously not fine for them to do it to us".

Closing thoughts.

People should be free to believe what they wish. Freedom of conscience requires freedom of speech, both because ideas you silence internally enough times die and because ideas are not the product of one mind but of a network of minds.

Using economic coercion to silence people with beliefs you and your tribe deem to be wrong is almost always immoral. Using economic coercion purely to punish people for having the wrong beliefs is always wrong.

Avoiding obviously bad things

Draw one circle inside another. The inner circle is you. The outer circle is the world.

One of the main pursuits in life is being better. The stronger, wiser and more moral you are the more you can achieve.

There are things in life which are bad. Some of those bad things are innate parts of your character and psychology. They can’t be entirely avoided, only fought against and managed. Other things, like addiction, are imposed from the external world. You can’t be a drug addict if you never take drugs. This second class of bad thing is often easy to avoid. It’s clear what the bad thing is. It’s clear that the tradeoff, pleasure for a chance at addiction in the case of drugs, is not worth it. All it takes is a choice and an obvious one at that.

My impression is that for the average person born in the west today, all it takes to have a decent life is to avoid obviously bad choices.

Founding a tech startups is not a good way to maximize your own wellbeing

Why do people start a business? Two reasons:

  • Meaning
  • Money

Let’s focus only on money for now.

If you start a tech startup, you should expect to fail and make no money. Even if you think you’re super special, have an amazing idea and generally have all the signs of a successful business, including funding from a major firm in your seed round, you should still assume you’ll fail. The reality is that 99%+ of tech startups fail and even for the 1% that do succeed, most value is captured by a very small proportion of firms. The distribution of income among startup founders is a fairly extreme power one.

TLDR: If you start a tech startup, you’ll probably make no money and have a tiny chance of making lots of money.

One could take the money you could make in tech startup land and do an expected value calculation at this point. That’s what some people do who then say "You’ll probably make no money but the extreme payoffs in the marginal cases still push the expected value high enough that it’s worth doing.". That’s mistaken because money does not convert to utility at a constant rate.

If you go from having $0 income to having $600, there’s a huge utility gain. You get to not starve to death. If you go from $80’000 to $100’000’000, there’s not that much of a gain in utility. You can buy nicer things. That’s about it. You can’t buy a longer life, a happy family, meaningful friends, IQ points or anything else that would make a difference once your basic needs are met.

TLDR: Money converts to utility at a steeply declining rate.

If you’re a highly paid professional, you already make a lot of money. Probably enough to save 50% of your income and still live a fairly luxurious life. Winning the startup lottery and getting rich will make your life a bit better but not much. Loosing the lottery will mean years of stress, burn-out, potentially low income and other bad stuff. The utility calculus is less one of a small chance of extreme payoffs and more one of a large chance of halving your life quality and a very small chance of increasing it by 10 – 20%.

TLDR: If you want to start a startup because you want to be rich, you’re probably making a mistake.

Cases where this doesn’t apply:

  • You want to start a startup for other, non monetary reasons. (A good litmus test for this is whether you would do it even if you had to forgo any personal profit from it.)
  • You money/utils conversion does not suffer from diminishing marginal returns. (e.g: you donate money to AMF and want to maximize lives saved. A thousand times more money = a thousand times more lives saved.)
  • Your entry/exit costs are low. (Note that this is unlikely. Starting a firm is unforgiving. It will likely require late nights and weekends for a prolonged period of time. It takes at least half a year to know if you’re on track for success of some kind or for it to be clear that your a failure. Even if you don’t loose career capital/a cush job, you will loose time and your relationships will suffer.)

Massai wife sharing

I read Barefoot over the Serengeti a while back. In it David Read writes about his childhood in africa. He was born in 1922 in Nairobi and spent his early years in Tanzania. He spent most of his time with the Massai. He spoke their language as well as english. He knew not just their customs but about how their society operated. From the inside. Much of the book is spent transmitting that knowledge. A few examples:

  • He explains how society is stratified by age groups. Massai boys are placed in a cohort based on age. Those cohorts are around 5 years wide. The age gap between the youngest and oldest members of a cohort mean that often individuals will graduate to the next stage in life at different ages. Some boys may become morans (men, warriors) at 15. Others at 20.
  • He explains the significance of circumcision and all the strange steps in the ritual that surrounds it. If a boy flinches during it, he’s disgraced. While the man rests after the circumcision any woman may come and sleep with him as a punishment for past transgressions.
  • Most ceremonies or transitions are marked with sacrifices of meat and other valuable foods. These sacrificed foods are then consumed by the elders/men.
  • Wife sharing is normal and expected. It is expected that a man should give his wife to a friend of the same age group who visits him as normal form of hospitality.

The last norm is probably the strangest. In most cultures men are fiercely possessive of their women, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Letting someone else sleep with your wife means you risk spending your resources raising someone elses child. Evolution strongly selects against those who let that happen. Why then is it a thing in Massai society? My hypothesis is that it helps solve the most difficult problem any group of humans faces when trying to build functioning social organizations, in-group preference/nepotism. Naturally people form cliques based on familial relation. Brothers support brothers. Cousins support cousins. These kinds of cliques then go on to corrupt any larger organization as they divert resources (physical goods, positions of power, etc…) to their members. The massai use of wife sharing makes the father of any child uncertain, weakening male familial bonds. Their early grouping of men into age group bands which then form the primary form of social life also serve to to some extent replace normal familial bonds, especially when young men become warriors and live together in warrior camps for years.

Ignoring the crimes of the powerful/revered

I read an article on Kemal Ataturk. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/01/31/the-ataturk-path-to-islamic-modernity/ . It goes over his achievements. It leaves out any mention of the genocides, murders of journalists or other crimes.

This treatment isn’t specific to attaturk. It seems to be that people who have power/status are held to a different standard. Their crimes are often ignored, forgotten or not mentioned. They are welcome in polite company where an ordinary criminal who had done one thousandth of what they had would not be. It’s strange.

An old poem/song. I can’t remember if I came up with it or read it somewhere.

Kill one man a murderer,
Kill 10 a monster.
Kill 100 a hero,
Kill 10’000 a conquerer.

Violence towards children in history

Childhood for most people was brutal. The notion of children as innocent and sacred and especially valuable is recent. From Pinkers "The Better Angels of our Nature":

Biblical Judaism prohibited filicide, though it didn’t go the whole hog: killing an infant younger than a month did not count as murder, and loopholes were claimed by Abraham, King Solomon, and Yahweh himself for Plague. The prohibition became clearer in Talmudic Judaism and in Christianity, from which it was absorbed into the late Roman Empire. The prohibition came from an ideology that held that lives are owned by God, to be given and taken at his pleasure, so the lives of children no longer belonged to their parents. The upshot was a taboo in Western moral codes and legal systems on taking an identifiable human life: one could not deliberate on the value of the life of an individual in one’s midst. (Exceptions were exuberantly made, of course, for heretics, infidels, uncivilized tribes, enemy peoples, and transgressors of any of several hundred laws. And we continue to deliberate on the value of statistical lives, as opposed to identifiable lives, every time we send soldiers or police into harm’s way, or scrimp on expensive health and safety measures.)

For almost a millennium and a half the Judeo-Christian prohibition against infanticide coexisted with massive infanticide in practice. According to one historian, exposure of infants during the Middle Ages “was practiced on a gigantic scale with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with most frigid indifference.” Milner cites birth records showing an average of 5.1 births among wealthy families, among the middle class, and 1.8 among the poor, adding, “There was no evidence that the number of pregnancies followed similar lines.” In 1527 a French priest wrote that “the latrines resound with the cries of children who have been plunged into them.”

Various fig leaves were procured. The phenomenon of “overlying,” in which a mother would accidentally smother an infant by rolling over it in her sleep, at times became an epidemic. Women were invited to drop off their unwanted babies at foundling homes, some of them equipped with turntables and trapdoors to ensure anonymity. The mortality rates for the inhabitants of these homes ranged from 50 percent to more than 99 percent. Women handed over their infants to wet nurses or “baby farmers” who were known to have similar rates of success. Elixirs of opium, alcohol, and treacle were readily obtainable by mothers and wet nurses to becalm a cranky infant, and at the right dosage it could becalm them very effectively indeed. Many a child who survived infancy was sent to a workhouse, “without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing,” as Dickens described them in Oliver Twist, and where “it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.” Even with these contrivances, tiny corpses were a frequent sight in parks, under bridges, and in ditches. According to a British coroner in 1862, “The police seemed to think no more of finding a dead child than they did of finding a dead cat or a dead dog.” The several-thousandfold reduction in infanticide enjoyed in the Western world today is partly a gift of affluence, which leaves fewer mothers in desperate straits, and partly a gift of technology, in the form of safe and reliable contraception and abortion that has reduced the number of unwanted newborns. But it also reflects a change in the valuation of children. Rather than leaving it a pious aspiration, societies finally made good on the doctrine that the lives of infants are sacred—regardless of who bore them, regardless of how shapeless and foul they were at birth, regardless of how noticeable a gap their loss would leave in a family circle, regardless of how expensive they were to feed and care for. In the 20th century, even before abortions were widely available, a girl who got pregnant was less likely to give birth alone and secretly kill her newborn, because other people had set up alternatives, such as homes for unwed mothers, orphanages that were not death camps, and agencies that found adoptive and foster parents for motherless children. Why did governments, charities, and religions start putting money into these lifesavers? One gets a sense that children became more highly valued, and that our collective circle of concern has widened to embrace their interests, beginning with their interest in staying alive. A look at other aspects of the treatment of children confirms that the recent changes have been sweeping.

That children with devils in them had to be beaten goes without saying. A panoply of beating instruments existed for that purpose, from cat-o’-nine tails and whips to shovels, canes, iron rods, bundles of sticks, the discipline (a whip made of small chains), the goad (shaped like a cobbler’s knife, used to prick the child on the head or hands) and special school instruments like the flapper, which had a pear-shaped end and a round hole to raise blisters. The beatings described in the sources were almost always severe, involved bruising and bloodying of the body, began in infancy, were usually erotically tinged by being inflicted on bare parts of the body near the genitals and were a regular part of the child’s daily life.

Severe corporal punishment was common for centuries. One survey found that in the second half of the 18th century, 100 percent of American children were beaten with a stick, whip, or other weapon. Children were also liable to punishment by the legal system; a recent biography of Samuel Johnson remarks in passing that a seven-year-old girl in 18th-century England was hanged for stealing a petticoat. Even at the turn of the 20th century, German children “were regularly placed on a red-hot iron stove if obstinate, tied to their bedposts for days, thrown into cold water or snow to ‘harden’ them, [and] forced to kneel for hours every day against the wall on a log while the parents ate and read.”160 During toilet training many children were tormented with enemas, and at school they were “beaten until [their] skin smoked.” The harsh treatment was not unique to Europe. The beating of children has been recorded in ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, China, and Aztec Mexico, whose punishments included “sticking the child with thorns, having their hands tied and then being stuck with pointed agave leaves, whippings, and even being held over a fire of dried axi peppers and being made to inhale the acrid smoke.”161 DeMause notes that well into the 20th century, Japanese children were subjected to “beating and burning of incense on the skin as routine punishments, cruel bowel training with constant enemas, … kicking, hanging by the feet, giving cold showers, strangling, driving a needle into the body, cutting off a finger joint.” (A psychoanalyst as well as a historian, deMause had plenty of material with which to explain the atrocities of World War II.) Children were subjected to psychological torture as well. Much of their entertainment was filled with reminders that they might be abandoned by parents, abused by stepparents, or mutilated by ogres and wild animals. Grimm’s fairy tales were just a few of the advisories that may be found in children’s literature of the misfortunes that can befall a careless or disobedient child. English babies, for example, were soothed to sleep with a lullaby about Napoleon: Baby, baby, if he hears you, As he gallops past the house, Limb from limb at once he’ll tear you, Just as pussy tears a mouse. And he’ll beat you, beat you, beat you, And he’ll beat you all to pap, And he’ll eat you, eat you, eat you, Every morsel, snap, snap, snap.163 A recurring archetype in children’s verse is the child who commits a minor slipup or is unjustly blamed for one, whereupon his stepmother butchers him and serves him for dinner to his unwitting father. In a Yiddish version, the victim of one such injustice sings posthumously to his sister: Murdered by my mother, Eaten by my father. And Sheyndele, when they were done Sucked the marrow from my bones And threw them out the window.