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07-22-2012, 03:52 AM   #1
Nichlemn
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Status quo bias and the reversal test

Status quo bias appears to me to be pervasive in political discourse and legislating. In this thread we discuss the merits of Nick Bostrom's heuristic, the reversal test (see original paper here) in detecting this bias. The original context is human enhancement, but the test can be applied in a wider variety of ways, including political debate.

Quote:
 Originally Posted by Nick Bostrom Reversal Test: When a proposal to change a certain parameter is thought to have bad overall consequences, consider a change to the same parameter in the opposite direction. If this is also thought to have bad overall consequences, then the onus is on those who reach these conclusions to explain why our position cannot be improved through changes to this parameter. If they are unable to do so, then we have reason to suspect that they suffer from status quo bias.
In other words, if you oppose any changes to the status quo for a given issue, you're saying that the status quo is (at least locally) optimal. Why is the onus on you to give an explanation for this?

Quote:
 Originally Posted by Nick Bostrom The rationale of the Reversal Test is simple: if a continuous parameter admits of a wide range of possible values, only a tiny subset of which can be local optima, then it is prima facie implausible that the actual value of that parameter should just happen to be at one of these rare local optima (ﬁg. 1). This is why we claim that the burden of proof shifts to those who maintain that some actual parameter is at such a local optimum: they need to provide some good reason for supposing that it is so.
It is very unlikely the status quo is (at least locally) optimal purely by chance. Thus, you need to give a good reason for what has driven the status quo to its current optimal state.

Bostrom gives several arguments for why certain states could be optimal. The most generally applicable are the "Argument from transition costs" and the "Arguments from risk".

----

Here's an analysis of some political issues using the reversal test:

Global warming. If it is bad to increase the Earth's temperature, would it be good to reduce the Earth's temperature? Doubtfully. If not, why do we assume Earth's current temperature is optimal? Downside risk is certainly a big component. Transition costs are also a good reason - there are a lot of sunk costs involved in settlements designed for the current climate. On the other hand, in the long run, these are less significant, as people migrate and build in newly hospitable places. So there's a good case for preferring the status quo climate, but it's perhaps not as strong as alleged.

Privatisation. I bring this up mainly because it's currently a big issue in New Zealand. If it's a bad idea for the government to sell assets, is it a good idea for the government to buy more assets (i.e. nationalisation)? As far as I'm aware, few hold this viewpoint. I do not see any compelling reason to believe that governments have optimal allocations of assets, thus I'm inclined to believe that much opposition to privatisation is based on status quo bias.

Retirement Age. If it's a bad idea to raise the retirement age, is it thus a good idea to reduce the retirement age? I've very rarely seen this view prescribed for any country. What reasons are there to believe the status quo is optimal then? Well, while it is true that people have based their working and saving decisions based on the status quo, all proposals to increase retirement ages that I've seen to date do so over a long time period, minimising the transition costs. And it just doesn't that likely that the magnitude of the costs of ex post inefficient savings decisions are going to be that large anyway. Thus, it looks like there's status quo bias here.

I know that this thread is begging to be hijacked into a debate about one of the above issues, so I beg of you to try to keep this into a discussion of the reversal test itself and not stray into generic debate.

 07-22-2012, 09:46 PM #2 vhawk01 Carpal \'Tunnel     Join Date: Feb 2006 Location: GHoFFANMWYD Posts: 31,866 Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test Didnt know this was a thing with a name, but this is basically my usual tactic when I find that the person disagreeing seems to be doing so simply because "is=ought."
07-22-2012, 11:25 PM   #3
dessin d'enfant
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by Nichlemn I know that this thread is begging to be hijacked into a debate about one of the above issues, so I beg of you to try to keep this into a discussion of the reversal test itself and not stray into generic debate.
That's really hard to do because your global warming example is flat out wrong. Lowering and raising mean global temperatures would obv both be disastrous for humans. The current mean temperatures are special because that is what human civilization has postfit itself to, and there very well could be a very narrow range on both ends to have anything resembling modern society. Things like rain forests that are important to climate regulation and the ecosystem take thousands of years to form and are based on historical mean temperatures. I can't imagine this being a good argument in your hands if you think it works with things like global warming.

Last edited by dessin d'enfant; 07-22-2012 at 11:33 PM.

 07-22-2012, 11:52 PM #4 grizy Carpal \'Tunnel     Join Date: Dec 2006 Posts: 19,922 Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test Oakeshott on being conservative
 07-23-2012, 12:22 AM #5 Melkerson Carpal \'Tunnel   Join Date: Nov 2008 Posts: 10,027 Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test I find it amazing that someone actually published this in a scholarly journal. This seems like a super obvious consideration when thinking about these types of things.
07-23-2012, 12:50 AM   #6
Nichlemn
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by dessin d'enfant That's really hard to do because your global warming example is flat out wrong. Lowering and raising mean global temperatures would obv both be disastrous for humans. The current mean temperatures are special because that is what human civilization has postfit itself to, and there very well could be a very narrow range on both ends to have anything resembling modern society. Things like rain forests that are important to climate regulation and the ecosystem take thousands of years to form and are based on historical mean temperatures. I can't imagine this being a good argument in your hands if you think it works with things like global warming.
Actually, I gave global warming as an example of something that can pass a reversal test. However, I do think that many people underestimate the degree to which humans can adapt in the long run, partially because we're inclined to think we'll be doing pretty much the same things as we're doing right now. That doesn't mean global warming isn't a net negative, just that the status quo isn't necessarily as rosy as we think it is.

It's also not clear that status quo bias in the other direction (opposing climate change mitigation) doesn't dominate any of these concerns anyway.

 07-23-2012, 01:14 AM #7 Low Key Carpal \'Tunnel     Join Date: Jan 2007 Location: Thank you, Florida Posts: 33,327 Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test I don't think he's saying humans adapting is the issue with the global warming example.
07-23-2012, 01:15 AM   #8
dessin d'enfant
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by Nichlemn However, I do think that many people underestimate the degree to which humans can adapt in the long run, partially because we're inclined to think we'll be doing pretty much the same things as we're doing right now.
You say it can pass the test and then you say stuff like this though. "Long run" is irrelevant. On the scale of 10s of thousands of years (which is the natural scale for non catastrophic climate change) humanity is going to go close to extinct baring radical technology that lets us control world wide climate or create food from dirt, not need food etc. Nothing we do now, short of extinction, has a clear cut effect "long term".

Quote:
 That doesn't mean global warming isn't a net negative, just that the status quo isn't necessarily as rosy as we think it is.
Nobody is saying the status quo is rosy. There is mass suffering, starvation, people not being able to get clean water etc today. Both raising average mean temperatures and lowering them on the time scales of MMGW make those problems worse.
Quote:
 It's also not clear that status quo bias in the other direction (opposing climate change mitigation) doesn't dominate any of these concerns anyway.
I'm not sure what you mean....but when you are talking about biological systems there is no fallacy of "status quo bias" because of how fine tuned the systems are. Raising the ph of your blood very slightly will kill you. So will lowering it. You can say that practically everything based on biology passes your test....but that just makes it seem like the test sucks.

07-23-2012, 01:47 AM   #9
Nichlemn
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by dessin d'enfant You say it can pass the test and then you say stuff like this though. "Long run" is irrelevant. On the scale of 10s of thousands of years (which is the natural scale for non catastrophic climate change) humanity is going to go close to extinct baring radical technology that lets us control world wide climate or create food from dirt, not need food etc. Nothing we do now, short of extinction, has a clear cut effect "long term".
Clearly ecosystems take a lot longer to adapt than humans and that might make up a significant bulk of the expected costs of global warming. What I am saying is that the cost of things like inland areas being flooded are probably overstated because the low lying inhabited areas of today are not necessarily going to be as inhabited in 100 years.

Quote:
 I'm not sure what you mean....but when you are talking about biological systems there is no fallacy of "status quo bias" because of how fine tuned the systems are. Raising the ph of your blood very slightly will kill you. So will lowering it. You can say that practically everything based on biology passes your test....but that just makes it seem like the test sucks.
What I mean is people might oppose mitigating climate change out of status quo bias, so knowledge of status quo bias shouldn't necessarily cause us to update our beliefs on global warming towards it being less costly.

It is true that a lot of things based on biology pass the test, but that doesn't mean it sucks. There are lots of human invented status quos (such as retirement ages as I've mentioned) for which there is no strng reason to believe that they are presently optimal.

07-23-2012, 02:21 AM   #10
dessin d'enfant
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by Nichlemn Clearly ecosystems take a lot longer to adapt than humans and that might make up a significant bulk of the expected costs of global warming. What I am saying is that the cost of things like inland areas being flooded are probably overstated because the low lying inhabited areas of today are not necessarily going to be as inhabited in 100 years.
Regardless of the merits of this claim it has nothing to do with the test, so i don't think it matters to bostroms idea

Quote:
 What I mean is people might oppose mitigating climate change out of status quo bias, so knowledge of status quo bias shouldn't necessarily cause us to update our beliefs on global warming towards it being less costly.
On every argument, you should completely ignore the people who are making mistakes and see what everybody else is saying.

Quote:
 It is true that a lot of things based on biology pass the test, but that doesn't mean it sucks. There are lots of human invented status quos (such as retirement ages as I've mentioned) for which there is no strng reason to believe that they are presently optimal.
The test seems really weak to me. Obv loopholes are fine tuned systems, systems with high change costs and many more. Seems to only be a problem for bad faith arguers

07-23-2012, 02:43 AM   #11
chezlaw
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

The fallacy normally encountered is that even if we agree that state B is better than the current state A the changes proposed normally have little chance of bringing B about. We may recognise B would be far better but still correctly oppose changes that claim they will bring B about. So its nothing to do with A being optimal but a realistic (sometimes cynical) assesment of the competence/honesty of the people arguing for B

so
Quote:
 The point is that it puts the burden of proof on the status quo supporter to say why
How much proof do we have to supply that the politicians are incompetent/dishonest.

07-23-2012, 02:45 AM   #12
Nichlemn
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by dessin d'enfant Regardless of the merits of this claim it has nothing to do with the test, so i don't think it matters to bostroms idea
It's a means of applying it.

Quote:
 On every argument, you should completely ignore the people who are making mistakes and see what everybody else is saying.
Woo hoo, you've discovered the secret of truth - listen to good arguments and not bad ones! I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

Quote:
 The test seems really weak to me. Obv loopholes are fine tuned systems, systems with high change costs and many more. Seems to only be a problem for bad faith arguers
The point is that it puts the burden of proof on the status quo supporter to say why e.g. the transition costs are high. In a lot of cases they probably aren't. Changing the retirement age slightly starting in over a decade is highly unlikely to have any large transition costs.

07-23-2012, 08:09 PM   #13
dessin d'enfant
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by Nichlemn I Woo hoo, you've discovered the secret of truth - listen to good arguments and not bad ones! I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.
The post I quoted directly contradicts it, where you say your procedure for updating probabilities is a function of whether some people arguing for it are making mistakes. My point was obvious...but I rarely do it myself. Now seems like a good time to start.

07-23-2012, 08:27 PM   #14
seattlelou
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by dessin d'enfant The post I quoted directly contradicts it, where you say your procedure for updating probabilities is a function of whether some people arguing for it are making mistakes. My point was obvious...but I rarely do it myself. Now seems like a good time to start.

07-23-2012, 10:06 PM   #15
Nichlemn
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by dessin d'enfant The post I quoted directly contradicts it, where you say your procedure for updating probabilities is a function of whether some people arguing for it are making mistakes. My point was obvious...but I rarely do it myself. Now seems like a good time to start.
You said you should completely ignore people making mistakes, which means you should ignore everybody. Though what you probably really think "People who agree with me are making mistakes, and people who agree with me aren't".

If you're a layperson on an issue like global warming (which we all are, to varying degrees), you can't evaluate all arguments on their own merits, you have to instead come up with heuristics to evaluate the judgments of others. This isn't just a matter of "picking a side", you need to consider the incentives and potential biases facing all agents involved. So the ubiquity of status quo bias should make us think that all else equal, people overrate the disadvantages of moving from the status quo climate. However, note this is only one of many possible biases, many of which may favour the "pro"-AGW side.

07-23-2012, 10:11 PM   #16
TomCollins
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by dessin d'enfant That's really hard to do because your global warming example is flat out wrong. Lowering and raising mean global temperatures would obv both be disastrous for humans. The current mean temperatures are special because that is what human civilization has postfit itself to, and there very well could be a very narrow range on both ends to have anything resembling modern society. Things like rain forests that are important to climate regulation and the ecosystem take thousands of years to form and are based on historical mean temperatures. I can't imagine this being a good argument in your hands if you think it works with things like global warming.
It's not wrong, it's just a case of where the current temperature might actually be ideal.

07-23-2012, 10:21 PM   #17
JayTeeMe
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by dessin d'enfant That's really hard to do because your global warming example is flat out wrong. Lowering and raising mean global temperatures would obv both be disastrous for humans. The current mean temperatures are special because that is what human civilization has postfit itself to, and there very well could be a very narrow range on both ends to have anything resembling modern society. Things like rain forests that are important to climate regulation and the ecosystem take thousands of years to form and are based on historical mean temperatures. I can't imagine this being a good argument in your hands if you think it works with things like global warming.
When did the last ice age end? The Little Ice Age? We've had our current climate for, what, 500 years?

07-23-2012, 10:40 PM   #18
dessin d'enfant
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by JayTeeMe When did the last ice age end? The Little Ice Age? We've had our current climate for, what, 500 years?
The little ice age wasn't a global climate shift like potential continued global warming or the last ice age, so I don't think it makes much sense to claim that our "current climate" is only 500 years old.

Last edited by dessin d'enfant; 07-23-2012 at 10:47 PM.

07-23-2012, 10:54 PM   #19
dessin d'enfant
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by Nichlemn So the ubiquity of status quo bias should make us think that all else equal, people overrate the disadvantages of moving from the status quo climate.
No, because of the prevalence of high degrees of fine tuning in biological/ecological systems.

07-23-2012, 10:55 PM   #20
dessin d'enfant
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by TomCollins It's not wrong, it's just a case of where the current temperature might actually be ideal.
OP disagrees...or at least seems to be saying that we should lower the probability of global warming being bad because of the prevalence of status quo bias, which is surely wrong.

07-24-2012, 12:01 AM   #21
Nichlemn
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Re: Status quo bias and the reversal test

Quote:
 Originally Posted by dessin d'enfant No, because of the prevalence of high degrees of fine tuning in biological/ecological systems.
The key is "all else equal". Certainly, people could be prone to underestimating the prevalence of fine tuning, and that would cause us to increase our estimates of the expected costs of AGW.

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