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.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

    I think the bullet analogy is totally inapt. If you talk about statistical lies, you aren’t just refusing to use certain weapons, you are forcibly disarming other people who are using those weapons. Contrary to the analogy, disarming bad statistics is as much of an “attack” as the original statistics themselves–they are both made of words on the internet.

    Sometimes you disarm enemies, sometimes you disarm allies. Disarming allies is useful because it prevents them from recklessly hurting people, it maintains credibility, and helps us select *better* rhetorical weapons.

    I have a completely different way of thinking about it. Some effort should be invested in figuring out the correct direction to go, and some effort should be invested in getting there. The rationalist community spends far too much time on the former–it’s practically what they stand for. What’s more, is that in order to convince readers, the readers also have to invest all that time reading and thinking about all of it. It’s no surprise that the buzzfeed article was more popular than Scott Alexander’s thousands of words refuting it.

    And I have a marginal blog where I talk about pointless stuff in too many words, so I’m guilty of the same. I for one am perfectly willing to admit that the primary benefit I get from this is not “winning”, but my personal enjoyment.

    • jjramsey

      To make the bullet analogy more apt, I would liken bad statistics to badly-manufactured bullets that easily jam in the chamber and even blow up the gun that one is trying to fire. Getting caught using bad statistics costs one credibility and risks making one’s opponents look better by comparison.

      • grendelkhan

        Plus… I mean, isn’t it possible that people might care about facts? About whether what they’re saying is true or not? Is it really such an accepted practice to go around believing anything that conforms to your prejudices, without a second thought to whether or not it’s even true?

        Eww, right?

  • Drew Hardies

    all too often LessWrongers seem to optimize not for winning, but for showing off how rationalisty they can be.

    Winning what?

    Alexander Chu says that his primary goals are advancing a political point. So, for him, ‘winning’ is anything (true or not) that convinces people to support his cause.

    His mistake is assuming that everyone shares his preferences. The Less Wrong folk could want to be as rationalist as possible. And a sentiment like “I don’t want to win [the argument] if I’m wrong” would make perfect sense.

    • Patrick

      If you insist upon relying purely on rational arguments in political debates, you may not win even if you are right.

      Rational arguments didn’t convince my relatives to let up on gay people. Knowing their kids thought less of them? Did.

      So rationality is great and all. But the arguments that convinced you do not inherently need to be the only things you use to convince others.

      • Greg Nieto

        I think that you need to recognize what kind of debate you’re having. If you’re arguing with someone, and they consistently use logic to assert their position, responding with emotional appeals will make you seem like an idiot. If you’re arguing with someone that uses emotional appeals, then they’ll think you sound too detached to be convincing.

        It’s not some all-or-nothing tactic.

    • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

      When it comes to winning, I really only think there is one rational goal and that’s the implementation of what I would call my own golden rule. Allegiance/love of your (visible) neighbor is always of higher importance than allegiance to a foreign power and the second is like it commitments to man made law should always trump commitment to perceived God laws.

    • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

      Even end goals are subject to scrutiny. Maybe LW people have the goal to be as rational as possible, but isn’t this only a value insofar as it helps us determine which of our actions are best? If LW people exclusively prefer rationalism over advancing political goals (and I don’t think this is true), then they have lost sight of what they really want.

      • Jai
      • Collin237

        They criticize quantum interpretations containing collapse or similar ideas because they claim scientists support them only for being potentially testable. They reject them in favor of MWI because it’s supposedly supported by rational argument, which they claim scientists have to ignore in order to protect their profession.

        Of course, science doesn’t always progress by strict adherence to testability. And I’d also venture to say collapse dynamics has more virtues than just testability. But they invoke Concretism to claim that testability is a vice, in the name of “rationality”.

        This is more than just bad philosophy. They’ve got an ax to grind.

        • Random LWer

          This is false, on many levels.

          “They” (Eliezer, who is singular, and not the entire site) criticize collapse for being:

          “The only non-linear evolution in all of quantum mechanics.

          The only non-unitary evolution in all of quantum mechanics.

          The only non-differentiable (in fact, discontinuous) phenomenon in all of quantum mechanics.

          The only phenomenon in all of quantum mechanics that is non-local in the configuration space.

          The only phenomenon in all of physics that violates CPT symmetry.

          The only phenomenon in all of physics that violates Liouville’s Theorem (has a many-to-one mapping from initial conditions to outcomes).

          The only phenomenon in all of physics that is acausal / non-deterministic / inherently random.

          The only phenomenon in all of physics that is non-local in spacetime and propagates an influence faster than light.”


          In other words, Eliezer rejects it because he finds it incredibly complex, in the information theory sense of the word, and Occam’s razor suggests the MWI is right.

          Your talking about “testability” is all nonsense, most notably because Eliezer believes many worlds is testable.


          You’re making things up, in other words.

    • Vanzetti

      > The Less Wrong folk could want to be as rationalist as possible

      The LessWrong folk define rationality as winning. And then say their way to win is to be as rational as possible.

      Don’t you see the circular logic?

      • Jai

        “Winning” in this context means “getting what you want”. “Rationality” is defined as the set of things you can do to get what you want. This doesn’t appear circular – it’s mostly just used to disqualify things from being considered rational.

      • Guest

        They differentiate between epistomological rationality (Having a set of beliefs accurately reflecting reality) and instrumental rationality (winning). The first type doesn’t necessarily aid the second, and is the primary focus of the blog, but many people feel they ARE heavily correlated. This may be a bias.

    • Eli Sennesh

      It would be more accurate to say that LW often has a pathological preference for epistemic rationality over instrumental, because they/we don’t want to be so gauche as to show that they/we have a utility function.

  • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

    I’ve been thinking on the history of religion and its seemingly impenetrable hold on culture and I think Arthurs comment is spot on as to why religion seems to operate like a hydra. Weapons and tactics. I find that skeptics, atheists, and humanists tend to avoid using the same tools that religion does where as religion constantly incorporates secular tools to advance their goals. Consider such a simple thing as music. Christian musicians constantly borrow form secular culture to become more attractive, more hip, and do so with the full knowledge that it advances their goals. We on the other hand, tend to avoid doing that with things that religion has had in their back pocket for a long time. Consider ritualistic community for instance which has been found time and time again to deliver happiness, fulfillment and more importantly, staying power to any movement where it’s incorporated. I’m actually heartened to see atheist “churches” pop up because it brings people of common philosophy together and at the very least allows those people to join in common cause.

  • eric

    Off Topic, but Chris as you are a WLC watcher, I thought you might be interested. Physicist Sean Carroll is debating WLC tonight (8pm EST) on the subject of God and Cosmology. See here for Carroll’ commentary on it. Its being live streamed if you’re interested.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com/ JQuinton

    If you signal that you’re a “just the facts, ma’am” sort of person, then
    people are more willing to accept your arguments as being more
    legitimately unbiased. So maybe LW is irrational for not being willing
    to engage in political debates, but knowing that they don’t engage in
    political debates and/or winning at any and all costs is itself a
    rational thing to signal.

  • Guest

    Sounds about right to me. Good points.

  • ThePrussian

    “In other words, if a fight is important to you, fight nasty. If that means lying, lie. If that means insults, insult. If that means silencing people, silence.”

    And people wonder why the “freethinker” crowd has a bad reputation.

    • grendelkhan

      That’s hardly endemic with the “freethinker” crowd; the whole point here is that Scott Alexander is strongly opposed to this idea, as is the LessWrong consensus.

      On the other hand, the social justice crowd could very easily be said to have a serious problem of that sort.

      • ThePrussian

        Fair enough :-) Sorry, my blogging community got started because we were sickened by the amount of this stuff emerging from the FtB crowd, etc.

        • grendelkhan

          You know what, I’m sorry. I generally don’t spend much time around FtB (I got here from Alexander’s blog), and I don’t know the community that well. I shouldn’t have jumped on you like that.

  • Y. A. Warren

    This winner-loser BS is exactly what’s wrong with politics and the whore of politics called religion.

  • Mind over Mater

    In other words Chu doesn’t believe in the Constitution.

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