On some criticism of LessWrong

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A friend of mine alerted to me a thread on Facebook where someone named Arthur Chu was making some criticisms of LessWrong, and of Scott Alexander in particular, which I suspect a lot of LessWrongers would dismiss out of hand, but which I’m extremely sympathetic to:

I just find it kind of darkly amusing and sad that the “rationalist community” loves “rationality is winning” so much as a tagline and yet are clearly not winning. And then complain about losing rather than changing their tactics to match those of people who are winning.

Which is probably because if you *really* want to be the kind of person who wins you have to actually care about winning something, which means you have to have politics, which means you have to embrace “politics the mindkiller” and “politics is war and arguments are soldiers”, and Scott would clearly rather spend the rest of his life losing than do this.

Which is fine. I do, in fact, believe the war is very very real and has very very real stakes and the people who stand to be hurt by losing the war matter more than my abstract comfort with my “principles”.

“Rationality is winning” is a reference to this post by Eliezer. I think the criticism is spot-on: in spite of this official stance on the part of the LessWrong community, all too often LessWrongers seem to optimize not for winning, but for showing off how rationalisty they can be.

That post is exactly my problem with Scott. He seems to honestly think that it’s a worthwhile use of his time, energy and mental effort to download evil people’s evil worldviews into his mind and try to analytically debate them with statistics and cost-benefit analyses.

He gets *mad* at people whom he detachedly intellectually agrees with but who are willing to back up their beliefs with war and fire rather than pussyfooting around with debate-team nonsense.

It honestly makes me kind of sick. It is exactly the kind of thing that “social justice” activists like me *intend* to attack and “trigger” when we use “triggery” catchphrases about the mewling pusillanimity of privileged white allies.

Now, part of the context for this is a post Scott wrote on a dishonest statistic being passed around the feminist blogosphere about men’s chances of being falsely accused of rape. I’m very much pro- that post. I think statistics like that are extremely dangerous, in part for reasons Ozy gave in Scott’s comments.

But when it comes to things like Scott’s Anti-Reactionary FAQ, again I’m sympathetic to Arthur. My first reaction to encountering the neo-reactionaries was that they were crazy and should be ignored. Then I saw Scott paying lots of attention to them, so I wondered if maybe they were worth paying attention to. Then his FAQ comes out, and the message I got from it was, “nope, nothing to see here.” But that leaves me wondering what he was hoping to accomplish by respectfully engaging with them at such length.

The more I observe the online rationalist community’s relationship with the neoreactionaries, the ickier it all seems. I even feel a bit icky about my own giggling over their Twitter conversations. It feels like there’s an undercurrent here of, “They’re crazy, but they’re our kind of crazy. Hyper-contrarian crazy. Aren’t we cute and clever for taking about them the way we are?”

Continuing with Arthur:

I think that whether or not I use certain weapons has zero impact on whether or not those weapons are used against me, and people who think they do are either appealing to a kind of vague Kantian morality that I think is invalid or a specific kind of “honor among foes” that I think does not exist.

In a war, a real war, a war for survival, you use all the weapons in your arsenal because you assume the enemy will use all the weapons in theirs. Because you understand that it IS a war.

When Scott calls rhetorical tactics he dislikes “bullets” and denigrates them it actually hilariously plays right into this point. To paraphrase someone I saw lay an epic smackdown on Reddit:

“I don’t get it! American troops in Iraq are so fiercely opposed to bullets when fired from the rifles of insurgents at themselves and their allies, but then demand increased congressional funding for bullets to be fired from their OWN rifles! What hypocrisy! Why can’t the Army take a clear pro-bullet or anti-bullet stance?”

To be “pro-bullet” or “anti-bullet” is ridiculous. Bullets, as you say, are neutral. I am in favor of my side using bullets as best they can to destroy the enemy’s ability to use bullets.

Who actually wins depends on who’s better at it, which is why I have a responsibility to become better. It’s not the integrity of my principles that the world is going to test, it’s my competence and skill and power. That is the important thing. Any energy spent mentally debating how, in a perfect world run by a Lawful Neutral Cosmic Arbiter that will never exist, we could settle wars without bullets is energy you could better spend down at the range improving your marksmanship.

All of this I would think would be immediately obvious to someone who likes “rationality is winning” as a tagline. I am amazed that the “rationalist community” finds it to still be so opaque.

Here’s where I start to disagree more with Arthur. In the real world, people do manage to agree on rules for war, things like not using chemical or nuclear weapons, and while those rules don’t stop war from being awful, they can at least make it less awful.

Nevertheless, there’s an important difference between obeying the rules of war and unilateral disarmament, and this applies to rhetoric as well. LessWrong types often seem to jump from

“People often make really stupid arguments based on loaded terminology and that’s bad”


“Therefore we must optimize for literal accuracy of our rhetoric, and choose words that are completely unloaded, except when we use words that are loaded against us to shoot ourselves in the foot before our enemies can get us”

For examples of this, see people using “eugenics” to describe things they support, when there’s less loaded terminology they could be using. Or trying to defend abortion by agreeing that abortion is murder and then trying to argue that might be okay.

More Arthur:

” I don’t want to win if I’m wrong.”

Well congratulations, you won’t ever have to worry about that, because endless self-criticism about whether your values are in fact right or wrong guarantees that you will lose and someone else’s values will win anyway. You’ll be spared the anguish of knowing whether you made the right decision because that power will be taken away from you.

I’m not just mad at Less Wrong in particular — this is the *whole history* of why the institutional Left in our society is a party of toothless, spineless, gutless losers and they’ve spent two generations doing nothing but lose.

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. You have a zero chance of having any impact on the world if you lose and a nonzero chance of having a positive impact if you win.

Rationality is winning.

But of course there’s also the possibility of having a negative impact if you win. Or, as Jesse Galef put it in the same thread:

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. You have a zero chance of having any impact on the world if you lose and a nonzero chance of having a positive impact if you win.”

So… shoot indiscriminately into a crowd?

We know that we (humans) have a strong tendency toward overconfidence and poor judgement. We have a good chance of being wrong and taking shots at the wrong things.

The best way we’ve found to check that impulse is to spend more (true, not infinite!) time letting reality and good reasons guide our shots.

So self-doubt, self-criticism, can be good when applied correctly. Still, using reason to guide our shots ≠ letting your desire to show off how rationalisty you are get in the way of hitting your target when you do take a shot.

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