Don't be afraid to move down the ladder of abstraction

In programming, there's an idea that's often called the ladder of abstraction. When you approach a problem, you can understand small bits of it and then put those together into larger pieces. By thinking about the problem with these larger pieces, you can get a better idea of what's going on.

A piece of advice that's often given is to move up the ladder of abstraction. Build a tool or function that does a low level thing, then just use that instead of looking at the lower level again. When you're starting from scratch on a project. This is a great idea. Using the ladder of abstraction allows you to quickly build things that work well, without having to keep solving the same problems over and over again.

However, there are times that it makes total sense to move down the ladder of abstraction, and look at what's going on as concretely as possible. This is especially true if you're debugging, and trying to fix something that's broken. Higher levels of abstraction obscure what's actually happening, which makes it difficult to isolate a problem so it can be fixed.

That's not to say that bugs should always be hunted in the weeds. Moving up the ladder of abstraction can help you to find out which particular component of a larger system is the source of the problem. Once that's been determined, you'll have to be more concrete with that component in order to solve the problem.

I also think this kind of model is good for solving more than programming problems. I've successfully used the idea of changing levels of abstraction to solve software bugs, fix hardware errors, and figure out how to deal with socially difficult situations. I would expect the idea to also work well in the softer sciences, like politics, but it seems like people often get stuck in at one level in those areas.

I sometimes have conversations with people about political systems that have clear problems, like how global warming is dealt with in the US. Sometimes, the solution proposed is systemic change. When I ask what that means, answers are often given at the level of the entire political system, rather than what specific people or groups should do. While I agree that "the system" needs to change, I think trying to change the system as a whole is ineffective. It would be much more effective to move down a level of abstraction and suggest who do what differently. Once that's done, the system is different. Systemic change has happened, but at a level that is easier to impact.

I think that some aspects of political discontent stem from being stuck at one level of abstraction. If you think that global warming or poverty needs to be solved at the level of the US government, then that's a huge problem and how are you going to do anything. It's easy to get overwhelmed that way. On the other hand, if you think of those problems as being generated by smaller sub-components, then you have places to look for actions that are achievable.

I don't have the answers for those large systemic political issues right now, but I do think that this idea from software can be of help. By being willing to move to more concrete understandings, we can solve problems that seem intractable.

Nutrition and Politics

My dad developed diabetes when he was in his twenties, and struggled with it for the rest of his life. Throughout my childhood, I had a bunch of conversations with him about what diabetes was and how he was dealing with it. As I got older, I watched his health decline faster and faster. He died suddenly of diabetes related heart failure while I was in grad school.

Since then, I've read a lot more about nutrition and health. The more I learn, the more I believe that my dad was treated using the best advice politicians could give. GCBC goes into some detail about how politics played a huge part in how heart disease and diabetes were treated historically, and how a lot of evidence about the origins of those diseases was ignored.

Large portions of GCBC are spent explaining the history of nutrition science in excruciating detail. Study after study is held up and compared to everything else. After slogging through all of that, the takeaway seems to be that one guy was sure he was right, and everyone else fell in line and stopped studying (or believing studies about) other hypotheses.

Ansel Keys first popularized the idea that cholesterol was the main cause of heart disease after WWII. He then found a link between eating high fat diets and having lots of cholesterol. Nevermind that no causal studies were performed, he was convinced. The next fourty years saw the production of a number of not very convincing studies that were used to inspire huge changes in the American diet.

Once Keys had convinced a critical mass of scientists and politicians, everyone who questioned the idea that cholesterol was to blame was treated with derision in an epic example of groupthink. A government panel released a report called "Dietary Goals for the United States", which recommended a diet for all Americans based on Keys' cholesterol ideas.

The motivation for all of this seemed to be the mass prevention philosophy of Geoffrey Rose. The idea was that, even though all the studies on dietary fat hadn't shown much impact for a given person, the impact on society was huge. For example, it was estimated that you could live an extra 4 months if you completely cut saturated fat out of your diet. That may not be much for you, but if everyone did that the effect would be huge.

Since 4 months of additional lifetime might not be enough to convince someone to completely cut saturated fat out of their diet, Rose explicitly advocated creating social pressure to be healthy. Social pressure, unfortunately, is often highly resistant to scientific evidence. This effectively meant that future scientific discoveries would have a very difficult time changing anything.

The science became political goals. The political goals led to social manipulations. After that, the early scientific ideas became dogma. Subsequent research on nutrition was interpreted in light of that dogma and very little advancement happened.

Or that's the idea that GCBC espouses. I take less of a cynical attitude. It's easy to make the right decisions with the benefit of hindsight. I've seen some talks that take a more conspiratorial view of things. I don't think that these nutrition decisions were made optimally, but why ascribe to malice what can be explained by human nature?

Whatever the reason, the increasing incidence of heart disease and diabetes since "Dietary Goals for the United States" was released is only tragic.

Voting and the Prisoner's Dilemma

Voting is important to me. It’s something that I do every time elections roll around, and it’s something that I take a lot of pride in. I wouldn't say that I’m the most political guy in the world, but I definitely have strong opinions about the best direction for my country to go. I want to make sure that those opinions get counted and have an effect.

That’s why I’m so bothered by people who don’t vote, especially if those people agree with me. People’s excuses for not voting are as numerous as the non-voters themselves, but they usually fall into a few different categories. There are the people who don’t vote because they’re too lazy. Some don’t vote because they just don’t care (or claim not to, they sure complain about the government a lot for people who don’t care). Others don’t vote because they say it’s not worth it.

It’s that last group that I want to address here. I've recently been in a few different conversations with people who feel that their vote has such a small impact that it’s not worth the time it takes to get informed and actually cast their ballot. The people I've met who think this way tend to be economists and computer scientists, so it’s not like they’re ignorant about the situation. From their perspective, they’re probably making the right choice. However, that choice is predicated on the fact that many other people with similar views will be voting.

Voting is the Prisoner’s Dilemma played at scale. There are huge groups of people who can either defect (not vote) or cooperate (vote). Assume for simplicity that each issue is divided on party lines and each party is the same size. In that case, each individual voter is playing the prisoner’s dilemma with people of their own party.

If the person defects and doesn't vote, they get the extra time and energy they would have spent on voting to use for other things. If everyone defects, then the bill/politician/whatever that they wanted gets voted down by the other party.

So when people who share my political ideas say they don’t vote, I get upset. I don’t much mind that my vote is then that much more important. What I do mind is that those people are making it less likely that the world turns out how I want it.

This is a bit different than the popular idea that voting is a civic duty, and that everyone should vote. Basically I’m saying that I only want people who agree with me to vote. I’m still working on how to reconcile that with my general belief in the process of democracy.

Freedom and freedoms

It seems like talking heads on the news, in all kinds of mass media really, use the word "Freedom" as a cudgel to bludgeon opposing arguments with. Bills are drafted that will "save our Freedom," others are condemned for destroying Freedom. Politicians, the public, and the journalists themselves are all accused of not caring about Freedom.

The problem with this, other than the political infighting it causes, is that it treats freedom as some indivisible thing. People speak of freedom as if you either have it or you don't. Freedom isn't like that.

There's no such thing as "Freedom," there are only freedoms. I have a freedom to vote (when I'm old enough), to say what I want (as long as I avoid certain topics in certain places), and to date who I want (as long as I don't mind being mocked or worse if I date the wrong person). These and others are freedoms that we have, and I think that losing sight of this and treating Freedom as one homogeneous thing is dangerous.

By living in the society that we do, we agree to give up certain freedoms in return for certain guarantees. Everyone gives up some "freedoms to" so that everyone can expect "freedoms from." I don't have the freedom to beat you up and take your hat, but I can expect to remain free from beatings and hat thievery myself. It's important to realize that we make these trade offs so that we don't start making the wrong trade offs, or not realizing it when a trade off is being made.

If we treat Freedom as an indivisible thing, we may go around thinking we have Freedom because we can do X, even though our freedoms to do y and z have been reduced. If we're too focused on what Freedom means and whether we have it, we may not notice that our freedoms are being eroded until all that's left is a little island of freedoms that exactly defines what we thought Freedom was. This is the situation that I think we're in now. People are getting wrapped up in what Freedom is and who has it, and they aren't noticing that many of our freedoms are being revoked or wrapped in stipulations and conditions.

Another risk is that we might start to think that we have Freedom and those other poor folks over there don't. Maybe we should bring them our Freedom? This despite the fact that they may have freedoms we don't have and we may have freedoms that they don't have. There's more than one possibility here.

Next time you hear someone (or yourself) start talking about Freedom, unpack the statement. What freedom is it that you're talking about at the moment? What are the effects of that freedom and how might that freedom be affected by what you're considering? How would what you're talking about affect other freedoms? This case-by-case treatment will lead to a much more Free country.