On the Power of Intelligence and Rationality

post by alyssavance · 2009-12-23T10:49:44.496Z · score: 15 (27 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 193 comments

As Eliezer and many others on Less Wrong have said, the way the human species rose to dominate the Earth was through our intelligence- and not through our muscle power, biochemical weapons, or superior resistance to environmental hazards. Given our overwhelming power over other species, and the fact that many former top predators are now extinct or endangered, we should readily accept that general intelligence is a game-changing power on the species level.

Similarly, one of the key ingredients in the birth of the modern era was the discovery of science, and its counterpart, the discovery of the art of Traditional Rationality. Armed with these, the nations of Western Europe managed to dominate the entire rest of the world, even though, when they began their explorations in the 15th century, the Chinese were more advanced in many respects. Given how Western Europe, and the cultures derived from it, has so completely surpassed the rest of the world in terms of wealth and military might, we should readily accept that science and rationality is a game-changing power on the civilization level.

However, neither of these imply that intelligence, science, and rationality, as a practical matter, are the best way to get things done by individual people operating in the year 2009. We can easily see that many things which work on the species level, or the civilization level, do not work for individuals and small groups. For instance, until the discovery of nuclear weapons, armed conflict was often a primary means of settling disputes between nation-states. However, if you tried to settle your dispute with your neighbor, or your company's dispute with its competitor, using armed force, it would achieve nothing except getting you thrown in prison.

People are crazy and the world is mad, but it does not necessarily follow that we should try to solve our own problems primarily by becoming more sane. Plenty of people achieve many of their goals despite being completely nuts. Adolf Hitler, for example, achieved a large fraction of his (extremely ambitious!) goals, despite having numerous beliefs that most of us would recognize as making no sense whatsoever.

We know, as a matter of historical fact, that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, despite being generally incompetent, unintelligent, irrational, superstitious and just plain insane, managed to take over a country of tens of millions of people from nothing, in the span of fifteen years. So far as I am aware, no group of people has managed to achieve anything even remotely similar using, not only rationality, but any skill involving deliberative thought, as opposed to skills such as yelling at huge crowds of people. However, it is a corollary to the statement that no one knows what science doesn't know that no one knows what history doesn't know, so it is entirely possible, perhaps likely, that there is something I am overlooking. To anyone who would assert that intelligence, science or rationality is the Ultimate Power, not just on the level of a species or civilization, but on the level of an individual or small group, let them show that their belief is based in reality.

193 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-12-25T01:09:36.398Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Whether rationality is or isn't the best way to get things done depends very much on what those things are. Talk of generic success is either meaningless or a covert importation of cultural baggage.

Linguistic qualms aside, if you're cautioning people against expecting rationality to be an quick road to material wealth and power then I completely agree.

comment by Vladimir_Golovin · 2009-12-25T15:35:27.063Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Plenty of people achieve many of their goals despite being completely nuts.

I haven't yet read the whole discussion, but it seems to me that it is overlooking an important component of goal-reaching ability: not being nice. It applies to at least two major examples of 'winning' discussed here, namely Hitler (wasn't nice to conquered nations, Jews etc.) and Western Europe (to native Americans etc.)

It is obvious that an agent not constrained by ethics can plan shorter / less expensive paths through reality to its desired state than an ethically-constrained agent, and it may well be that the absence of ethical constraints can compensate for agent's irrationality.

comment by billswift · 2009-12-23T11:52:54.227Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

On an individual level, the most powerful ability is to leverage yourself by getting others to work for you, by whatever means cost you least time and effort (for example, defrauding or deluding them, paying them if you've the means, coercing them if you have a gang or an army). An individual's time and physical abilities are extremely limited, no matter how smart or rational a person is, he can only work so long and can only be in one place at a time. Until intelligent agents come along, using people is the only way to significant power, the more people the better.

comment by CannibalSmith · 2009-12-23T12:35:19.135Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Therefore, people skills is the ultimate power.

comment by SilasBarta · 2009-12-24T03:22:27.755Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And AGI (infused with human memes) is ultimater*.

* Not the actual proper English comparative form of "ultimate".

comment by cousin_it · 2009-12-23T12:28:47.405Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I imagine a similar realization prompted Eliezer to start Less Wrong :-)

comment by smoofra · 2009-12-24T19:46:06.152Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

What makes you think Hitler didn't deliberately think about how to yell at crowds?

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-24T20:00:07.611Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

From reading histories of him. He took classes on how to yell at crowds; studied it in great detail.

comment by smoofra · 2009-12-25T02:19:08.527Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

wait so, are you agreeing with me or disagreeing?

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-25T03:10:46.616Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think I am agreeing with you.

I am saying that Hitler did think about how to yell at crowds, and then took action to that effect (learned to yell at them effectively, and then yelled at them; to great effect, so it would seem).

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-08T10:52:45.705Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Not only that he watched recordings of himself yelling at them to spot where he could improve his technique.

comment by ChrisHibbert · 2009-12-31T18:29:04.631Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You didn't state a point of view. I'm surprised that MatthewB was willing to guess at what side you were taking.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-12-23T19:54:55.344Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to me that many of the objections here miss the point of the post — at least, it certainly isn't about rational argument not working on non-rationalists. (Though at least the last paragraph here seems correct and germane.) Tom, would this be a fair summary?

From e.g. the Nazis, we see that rationality is not necessary to win (in some important sense) when you have the right narrow skills and/or luck; and since (at least stereotypically) many of these skills are hard to develop or substitute for using rationality, it's not sufficient either. We should be skeptical of claims that sincere Bayesian wannabes have a justified high expectation of overwhelming general real-world success.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-23T20:32:40.978Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, precisely.

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-25T03:27:12.660Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

One needn't go back to the Nazis to find an example of irrational rulers. Our previous POTUS was one irrational guy, and even though he may have surrounded himself with some high grade advisers (They all came from the cream of the crop of ivy league schools and all that money could buy) to make it seem as if he was well guided and informed; he was still amidst a swirl of some of the most irrational claims and actions in recent history.

This isn't even addressing the rise in things like Creationism, and Homeopathy (which I notice are frequent topics of irrationality discussed on the blog) that seem to have taken hold among the population here

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-12-25T03:39:03.333Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW · GW

We discuss homeopathy only in tiny amounts.

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-25T03:58:05.046Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

As well it should be (discussed in tiny amounts... Doh!) Otherwise, it wouldn't work.

comment by Emile · 2009-12-23T17:49:04.284Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW · GW

We know, as a matter of historical fact, that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, despite being generally incompetent, unintelligent, irrational, superstitious and just plain insane, managed to take over a country of tens of millions of people from nothing, in the span of fifteen years.

A good case could be made that "incompetent, unintelligent, irrational, superstitious and just plain insane" applies as well to us modern-day westerners - at least, I can imagine a parallel 2009 where Nazis won World War 2 and marvel at the successes of democratic nations in the early 20th century despite them being "incompetent, unintelligent, irrational, superstitious and jew-ridden". Insanity can be hard to distinguish from up close.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-28T19:12:19.428Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I can imagine a parallel 2009 where Nazis won World War 2 and marvel at the successes of democratic nations

I only want to note that the nation that in fact won WW2 was the USSR, but we in 2009 aren't Communists wondering at the transient success of democracies.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-23T20:34:36.293Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The Nazis were visibly substantially more insane than other European countries at the time; Nazi Germany was, to a very high degree, a medieval pre-Enlightenment government teleported into the modern era.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-12-24T19:47:23.605Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

...and you can draw a pretty direct line from the part where Hitler was insane to Nazi military defeats, so if you zoom in up close I'm not sure it supports the main thesis.

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-24T19:58:54.644Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This was exactly where my Great-Great Uncle had his great letdown in WWII (and even more so after the war when he learned of the Concentration Camps. My Uncle was at sea on the Scharnhorst the whole war). When the Kriegsmarine began to get orders directly from Herr Hitler they knew that the end was near, as many of the orders directly contravened known naval practices.

Could you elaborate on the "not so sure it supports the main thesis" a bit please?

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-12-24T20:09:55.017Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Once zoomed in, insanity starts to look like quite a bit of a disadvantage on the microstructure, and rationalist skills (like knowing your own incompetence) like quite a bit of an advantage.

comment by Torben · 2009-12-28T17:09:08.409Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

...and you can draw a pretty direct line from the part where Hitler was insane to Nazi military defeats

Like not going for the Middle East, but focusing on Russia. I had grown used to the idea that Allied victory was pretty much ensured, at least by the entry of the US into the war. Reading about how Hitler's generals really, really wanted him to go through Egypt to the oil was unsettling.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-26T15:45:59.955Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Nazi Germany was, to a very high degree, a medieval pre-Enlightenment government teleported into the modern era.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by this? To me the only thing that comes to mind is their agricultural laws of inheritance...

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-29T09:31:35.513Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Roman-style glorification of the military, increased subordination of women to men, the creation of a class of inferior non-citizens with no rights (slaves in ancient cultures and Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, Slavs and political dissidents in Nazi Germany), extreme levels of violence and brutality towards the people of other countries, an ultimate goal of world conquest, extreme inefficiency and corruption in government.

comment by Jack · 2009-12-29T11:13:05.350Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Nearly all of those things look like pre-Enlightenment values not features of pre-Enlightenment government. I'm not sure I agree that Nazi Germany was extremely inefficient (most literature I've seen lauds its efficiency) and I'm not sure extreme efficiency and corruption are features of pre-Enlightenment government that contrast it with modern government.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-29T20:09:02.837Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"I'm not sure I agree that Nazi Germany was extremely inefficient (most literature I've seen lauds its efficiency)"

This is pure propaganda. Read Speer's Inside the Third Reich- the higher Nazi officials were generally very inept at governing, and spent so much time fighting amongst themselves that it was quite rare for them to get anything done at all.

"and I'm not sure extreme efficiency and corruption are features of pre-Enlightenment government that contrast it with modern government."

Suppose that, in a modern, democratic country, candidate X is running for President. His father was nobody in particular, but X has shown himself to be a very capable thinker, and quite a competent politician. Would you ever hear someone say that it would disgrace the office of the Presidency if X were elected, because his father was nobody in particular, regardless of how meritorious X was in and of himself?

That was quite routine in Ancient Rome (the X I was thinking of was Marcus Tullius Cicero). And Ancient Rome was one of the saner pre-Enlightenment governments.

comment by DanArmak · 2010-01-02T21:43:10.773Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This is pure propaganda. Read Speer's Inside the Third Reich- the higher Nazi officials were generally very inept at governing, and spent so much time fighting amongst themselves that it was quite rare for them to get anything done at all.

I've read that, and recently I also read the book The Wages Of Destruction by Adam Tooze, an economic analysis of the Nazi regime. He devotes a chapter to Speer's book and claims that Speer's story is in fact the propaganda. Tooze says the Reich was reasonably efficient and competent, if not exceptionally so among other nations, and that Speer deliberately painted it as inefficient to falsely present himself as the savior who made huge efficiency gains possible.

It might take many years of studying the primary sources (and of studying some economics and industrial and military management) for me to form a personal opinion on this... So please form your own.

comment by Jack · 2010-01-01T08:45:29.268Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This is pure propaganda. Read Speer's Inside the Third Reich- the higher Nazi officials were generally very inept at governing, and spent so much time fighting amongst themselves that it was quite rare for them to get anything done at all.

Looks like an excellent book suggestion. Thanks. That said, whose propaganda is the claim of Nazi efficiency? Also, I'm not sure an account of the leadership's incompetence is sufficient to show that Nazi Germany was especially inefficient or corrupt compared to other nations in the WWII era. I suspect similar books could have been written by intelligent high level members of the allied governments as well (but I doubt there was a market for that kind of book). Though I suspect they were more corrupt than the US or UK, see below.

Suppose that, in a modern, democratic country, candidate X is running for President. His father was nobody in particular, but X has shown himself to be a very capable thinker, and quite a competent politician. Would you ever hear someone say that it would disgrace the office of the Presidency if X were elected, because his father was nobody in particular, regardless of how meritorious X was in and of himself?

So this is an example of a way in which ancient government can be seen as less efficient and more corrupt. But 1) this hardly proves a rule and 2) was Nazi Germany 'ancient' in this way?

Germany certainly had the legalistic, bureaucratic and other institutional features of the modern state. These institutions were possibly somewhat more corrupt than those of the democracies (which were still plenty corrupt but at least had more institutional checks and a freeish press to check corruption). But I doubt that Nazi Germany was significantly more corrupt or inefficient than the Stalinist USSR.

comment by taw · 2009-12-23T13:02:33.839Z · score: 7 (15 votes) · LW · GW

You got facts entirely wrong.

Western Europe did not come to dominate the world thanks to science and rationality, but thanks to disease which wiped out the natives, effective use of organized violence, and successful use of divide-and-rule politics. Expansion happened long before scientific revolution had any success.

Key events in Western domination happened in final decades of the Late Middle Ages (the first few decades of 16th century still count as "Late Middle Ages" as far as I'm concerned) - like establishment of naval domination over Arabs in 1509, conquest of Aztecs in 1521, Incas in 1530s etc.

Nazis were quite sane, command of German armed forces was very clever, and Hitler was a very smart politician.

In both cases you can find plenty of intelligence where in mattered - organized violence and politics, and plenty of superstition and silliness in other areas.

Given wrong facts, I'm not sure what you're arguing about.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-23T13:37:11.625Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

"Western Europe did not come to dominate the world thanks to science and rationality, but thanks to disease which wiped out the natives, effective use of organized violence, and successful use of divide-and-rule politics."

Disease was a major ally in conquering the native Americans, of course, but in Asia it was neutral, and in Africa disease was a major factor on the side of the natives. The Europeans still conquered most of it eventually.

The Europeans were generally adept politicians, but they did not rely primarily on their political skill; they relied primarily on their military power, which by 1900 allowed them to defeat native forces with a casualty ratio of more than 100:1.

"Expansion happened long before scientific revolution had any success."

Exploration did, but during the fifteenth century, except for the Americas (where the Europeans had a disease advantage, as noted above), they were not generally superior to the people they were trying to conquer, and were frequently defeated and killed (eg. Magellan). It was only later on that they established an overwhelming military advantage.

"Nazis were quite sane, command of German armed forces was very clever, and Hitler was a very smart politician."

The German generals were indeed very smart, but the German generals weren't Nazis (it was illegal at that time for a member of the German military to belong to a political party). And I wasn't trying to discuss German victories in battle, but Nazi victories in politics.

Under what conceivable definition of the word was Adolf Hitler smart? He failed his first year in high school, was later expelled for using his school certificate as toilet paper, failed to get into art school (twice), was homeless for a while, eventually joined the army but had a hard time getting promoted past private because he "lacked leadership ability". This is hardly the track record of a generically "very smart" person; if a person walked into your office with such a resume, there's no way in hell you would hire them for a position requiring very high intelligence.

comment by taw · 2009-12-23T19:23:45.126Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The Europeans were generally adept politicians, but they did not rely primarily on their political skill; they relied primarily on their military power, which by 1900 allowed them to defeat native forces with a casualty ratio of more than 100:1.

This is not as impressive as you think. Those "native forces" were Neolithic people, nothing like that happened in conflicts against other civilizations like Islamic states or China. And such ratios require merely good organized violence - for example Romans claim 50:1 casualty ratios for conquest of Gaul.

It was only later on that they established an overwhelming military advantage.

Europeans didn't really expand after Late Medieval / Early Modern period - they temporarily established various levels of controls over local governments all over the world, and had low level migration there, but all major areas of persistent European settlement are those conquered much earlier - thanks to disease and opponents still being in Neolithic.

Re Hitler

Hitler rose to a place of prominence in the early years of the party (1919 - 1923) largely as a result of his considerable skills in oratory, organization and promotion.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-23T20:53:29.433Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"Those "native forces" were Neolithic people,"

Did you even read the article? They had twenty thousand people who were armed with rifles, which means that, even if they had a backwards culture, their technology was very far from Neolithic.

"Romans claim 50:1 casualty ratios for conquest of Gaul."

All numbers that ancient historians give for enemy armies are highly suspect in general (everyone wanted to exaggerate their triumphs).

"Hitler rose to a place of prominence in the early years of the party (1919 - 1923) largely as a result of his considerable skills in oratory, organization and promotion."

Yes- notice how rationality and intelligence are not on that list.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-24T15:23:25.682Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Hitler rose to a place of prominence in the early years of the party (1919 - 1923) largely as a result of his considerable skills in oratory, organization and promotion."

Yes- notice how rationality and intelligence are not on that list.

Intelligence should be, or at least it should be acknowledged that high generalised intelligence allowed success in the diverse combination of skills mentioned.

comment by cabalamat · 2009-12-24T15:04:58.127Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

They had twenty thousand people who were armed with rifles, which means that, even if they had a backwards culture, their technology was very far from Neolithic.

Even if you disregard the rifles, the Ndebele were not a neolithic culture, since they worked iron.

comment by taw · 2009-12-23T21:41:44.411Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Lobengula had 80,000 spearmen and 20,000 riflemen, armed with nine pound Martini-Henrys which were modern arms at that time. However, poor training meant that these were not effective weapons.

Hardware is tiny part of technology. This wasn't an army with modern technology - just a mob which got its hands on hardware, without any of the know-how and training necessary to use it properly. And in any case rifles were already ancient technology by then - the battle was won with Maxim machine guns like most battles of that time.

Such number are not atypical. See battles of Carrhae, Legnica, Poitiers, Německý Brod and many others - all against modern enemy armies, not some Neolithic mobs which got its hands on some hardware it didn't know how to use. It was very typical about warfare that losing side got massacred while fleeing, so 10:1 casualty ratios were the norm, and 100:1 not unheard of.

As for Hitler, organization skills require a lot of intelligence.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2009-12-23T13:47:29.673Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Effective use of organized violence" included having superior weapons, and science and mass production contributed a lot to make them possible.

comment by taw · 2009-12-23T19:10:32.276Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

In 16th century there was neither science nor mass production in Europe - and enemies against which Europeans won so readily were still in Neolithic. It wouldn't surprise me if in some parallel universe Roman Empire conquered Americas after their accidental discovery.

Against more modern Islamic powers, Late Medieval/Early Modern European track record was more or less even - Europeans managed to win the oceans, but Ottomans defeated Europeans over and over again until 1683, resulting in net loss of Christian land in Europe. The only major European conquest of lands in which more or less equivalent civilization level existed - India - was a textbook example of divide and conquer, and required neither science nor even much in terms of technological advantage.

(and in general, if you want to use some historical process or event as example based on conventional wisdom about it, conventional wisdom usually overstates things)

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-23T20:55:12.083Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Against more modern Islamic powers, Late Medieval/Early Modern European track record was more or less even"

Agreed- that's precisely what I said. Except for the Americas (where they had a huge disease advantage), the Europeans did not have overwhelming military power until science and Traditional Rationality were well-developed.

comment by taw · 2009-12-23T21:44:05.043Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

By that time Europeans had some level of control over most of the world, achieved thanks to diseases, politics, and fighting very low tech opponents.

What large victories were left to be done?

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-24T00:04:15.647Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That's silly. It's like saying, "In 1945, the US had a huge army, but the Nazis and Japanese were already mostly defeated anyway, so the huge army didn't really have much to do with it".

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-24T15:52:04.144Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

In term of impact, I'd say Ben Franklin beat Hitler. Rationality + energy vs. charisma + energy. Energy seems like the key unifier, shared by almost all highly successful people. Einstein was an exception to that, but I think he's uncommon. All of the above however, took major risks in life and show a survivorship bias. I think that energy is less critical for more mundane success.

Of course, energy can come in pills but those pills tend to sap one's rationality if it wasn't extremely high to begin with (and one's physical robustness). Erdos comes to mind, but also Kennedy, Nixon, Rand, and yes, Hitler. Pills in question mimic physiology, namely, excess adrenalin, so I expect highly successful people to have high adrenalin levels or rationality, but recognize that there is usually a trade-off. Where someone has both, extreme success becomes much more likely.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-26T15:57:05.109Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In term of impact, I'd say Ben Franklin beat Hitler.

How do you define or measure this impact? And how does it correlate with their own stated goals or unstated desires?

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-26T19:41:35.168Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Hitler seems to have failed in all of his goals except for harming Jews and Slavs, and to have had far from total success in those two goals.

The US still exists, while the Third Reich is long gone.

Franklin seems to have succeeded at being rich, amusing himself, having lots of children who retained a high level of socio-economic status and probably lots of unknown children. Living two or three times the contemporary life expectancy and having what most people would see as an extremely successful family life, scientific career, business life, literary career, non-family Romantic life, and a maximally successful political career seems to me to meet a best guess for the content of "winning" regardless of what his goals may have been.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-26T20:06:17.750Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that Franklin fulfilled his goals much, much better than Hitler. But it's not clear to me that one of them had a bigger impact on the world than the other. It's just that Hitler's impact wasn't aligned with his intentions.

I probably should have read "success" rather than (raw) "impact".

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-27T10:52:59.812Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

And how does it correlate with their own stated goals or unstated desires?

Unstated desires: Hitler was right on the money. Sure, his plans didn't quite work out. Take over the world? It's kind of a long shot. But given the payoff and the probabilities of success (remarkably high it would seem, given how close he got) the expected utility is rather high.

And consider what was motivating him. That nearly ubiquitous drive to dominate the world. Sure, the 'world' was historically a bit smaller than, you know, the actual world but the unstated desire still seems to be in place. The problem with taking over the world (or the several tribes between the inhospitable desert and the uncrossable river) is it doesn't tend to last all that long. Someone else wants a turn. And has a big stick. So you'd better make the most of raping the conquered and servicing the concubines while you're still in power. From what I understand Hitler didn't really take advantage of his situation from the perspective of genetic fitness. His unstated sexual goals didn't line up too well with the 'short lived yet prolifically sexual dominance' reproductive strategy but I don't really hold that against his rationality.

When all is said and done I consider even Hitler's short lived rise to power a far more successful fulfillment of goals than Ben Franklin managed and Hitler himself an example of rationality far above the mean rather than a counterexample of successful irrationality. He declined towards the end. His paranoia went from being an incredibly well calibrated asset to a liability as burn out took over. His judgement became impaired as he tried to push himself beyond human limits with stimulants, overwork and stress. A more rational person would have deduced that he was similar to all the other humans he could see not being able to achieve superhuman feats of achievement indefinitely and made allowances for that. History may have turned out differently if he had cut down on his workload and relaxed a bit.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-29T09:51:33.629Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"And consider what was motivating him. That nearly ubiquitous drive to dominate the world."

Most people don't actually want to conquer the world, or do much of anything, really. What most people actually want can be nicely summed up here.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-29T09:49:23.946Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"In term of impact, I'd say Ben Franklin beat Hitler."

Ben Franklin was extremely rational, but he also had Hitler's charisma. (I was not arguing that rationality was generally bad, just that it was not a large advantage.)

comment by byrnema · 2009-12-24T16:34:10.783Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This discussion is difficult to jump into (and make any progress with) because the questions are so complex. Is there some way to back up and formalize what we're discussing? What is the main question? I suppose it's whether "success" and "rationality" correlate historically, among humans.

How would we define success? If success means 'achieving goals', then we can notice that we don't mean rationality as 'achieving goals' but as something more focused, like rationality as good reality mapping.

And then I will say that my experience is that human success is not at all correlated with good maps: while good maps and motivation will lead to achieving goals, it seems many people are successful despite bad maps.

An argument can be made that very successful people are likely to have extremely bad maps precisely in the area around their success. Hitler, Napoleon, mad scientists, mathematicians that can't distinguish formulas from furniture, politicians that people relate to but which are themselves impervious to criticism and self-awareness, surgeons that are actually misanthropic, etc., etc. I think it might have to do with obsession, which leads to uncanny expertise in the area of the obsession despite all wrong supporting ideas.

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-12-23T19:51:56.922Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

one of the key ingredients in the birth of the modern era was the discovery of science, and its counterpart, the discovery of the art of Traditional Rationality. Armed with these, the nations of Western Europe managed to dominate the entire rest of the world,

You'll actually find it pretty hard to find evidence to support this view, unless you interpret "science" so broadly as to make the claim uninteresting.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2009-12-23T20:09:47.228Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What part of the view is hard to establish? Is it (1) that Western Europe dominated the rest of the world, or (2) that Western Europe needed science and traditional rationality to effect this dominance?

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-12-23T21:12:55.520Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

(2), that "science" was responsible for Western dominance.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2009-12-23T21:24:13.531Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. A followup: Is it hard to establish (1) that technology is responsible for Western dominance, or (2) that science is responsible for technology?

comment by billswift · 2009-12-24T01:11:28.895Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Science has mostly trailed technology until very recently. Thermodynamics, for example, developed largely from observing and explaining the already invented and fairly highly developed steam engines. Once the theory was developed it helped suggest improvements, but its original development relied on the already existing technology. Many other examples exist, partly I think because technologies are easier to see clear relationships in and explanations for, than the messy, complicated real world.

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-12-24T14:06:43.596Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

tech was necessary, but to call it "responsible" is to think of it as a more autonomous process than it is. And Bill is right, science has usually gained more from tech than vice versa.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-24T15:29:57.045Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I strongly agree that science gained much (more?) from tech, but disagree about tech being "autonomous". Islam and China had more impressive tech in 1200 than Europe had in 1650 but Europe in 1650 had spectacularly more impressive science, and oddly, art. In 1650 though, Europe was still generally a minor global player while a century later they were far the dominant player and in 1850 their dominance was utterly unprecedented.

comment by rrostrom · 2010-01-03T21:31:03.596Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

First, the Nazis were not stupid or incompetent. They didn't just yell at people, they persuaded. They formed a large and efficient media organization to push their program. In retrospect, much of what they advocated now seems obvious nonsense, but that's in retrospect: it was a lot more plausible at the time. The final success of the Nazis also occurred in the context of economic disaster. 25% unemployment tends to discredit orthodox, established doctrines. Did the Nazis screw up? Massively, in the end. But they would not have gotten in the position to make those mistakes without doing a lot of difficult things correctly first.

Second, "no group of people has managed to achieve anything even remotely similar using... rationality [and] deliberative thought"? How about the Founders of the United States? In fifteen years (1775-1790) they took their country from being the exploited colony of a Great Power to being a prosperous sovereign nation with the most advanced system of government in the world. And they were rational men and deliberate thinkers,

comment by DonGeddis · 2009-12-26T05:10:04.800Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Roughly on the same topic, a few years ago I read Intelligence in War by John Keegan. I was expecting a glorification of that attribute which I believed to be so important; to read story after story of how proper intelligence made the critical difference during military battles.

Much to my surprise, Keegan spends the whole book basically shooting down that theory. Instead, he has example after example where one side clearly had a dominant intelligence advantage (admittedly, here we're talking about "information", not strictly "rationality"), but it always wound up being a mere minor factor in the outcome of the battle.

Definitely worth checking out, if you're at all interested in the power (or lack thereof) of being smarter, rather than all the other factors that determine the outcome of military battles.

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-24T18:07:01.699Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Michael Vassar hit upon something which I think is probably more key than rationality: Charisma.

Hitler had goals, and by the means he had at his disposal, he was highly rational in achieving those goals (this does not mean that he was rational in the sense of being sane). I also recall from hearing my Great-Great Uncle talk about meeting Hitler once, that he said the man could talk a person into anything (he also related how devastated he was when he learned of how evil the man was. Of course, just not liking Jews was not considered to be exactly evil in much of Europe at the time either). Please, do not read this as apologizing for Hitler's actions. It is just a statement that he was a very skilled personal operator, and as someone later has stated, he managed to get other people to do his work for him.

That seems to be the MO of almost all politicians: To be able to personally charm those they meet, and then subtly suggest "You can help me if you go out and tell others about my GRAND PLAN" (Wasn't there a post about The One Big Theory? This seems to be among the tools of the politically motivated. That they have One Big Theory that will "fix it all").

That "One Big Theory" is so appealing to most people that they are willing to overlook the failures of the theory in order to feel god. It is exactly like a drug.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-26T16:00:21.603Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Hitler had goals, and by the means he had at his disposal, he was highly rational in achieving those goals (this does not mean that he was rational in the sense of being sane).

What is the meaning of "sane", then? Conforming to the majority?

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-29T09:46:17.095Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ability to not believe things that are blatantly obviously false.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-27T08:29:54.075Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What is the meaning of "sane", then? Conforming to the majority?

That does seem to be how it is used in practice. Modified in the direction of 'conforming to the will of the most powerful'. It is, of course, a lot harder to be 'insane' when you are rich or well connected.

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-27T09:20:07.025Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

It is, of course, a lot harder to be 'insane' when you are rich or well connected.

How I wish that this were not the case (well, maybe it isn't, but it sure does seem to be so).

Michael Murdock comes to mind. Rich, powerful, and has a values system that seems to run so contrary to the greater good, and even though it may seem to be conforming to a majority (although I do not think it actually is) it could be said to be just as insane as Hitler (although perhaps less psychotic - The jury is still out on that one though).

But, to reign it back in a little bit. Murdock has a system of beliefs whereby he is pursuing a course of action based upon those beliefs. Some would define that as rational. Yet, he is influencing what is seen as sane by modifying what is seen as:

conforming to the will of the most powerful'

This may seen completely tangential, but Michael Murdock was the very first thing I thought of when I saw that comment (which led directly into GW Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and so forth...) These people created a definition of sanity that includes such things as marginalizing those who have pursued a path of what this site defines as Epistemic Rationality (and any sort of behavior that is seen as Intellectual, or Academic), marginalizing those who do not conform to a similar belief system (rather than attempting to reach a consensus with those who disagree, attack them as being evil), and those who do not conform to a religious ideology that supports the definitions of evil mentioned before...

Agh! I am so angry now that I cannot remember what my point was. Earlier tonight, I had to defend a very intelligent 14 year old against his own "friends" (He is the son of my best friend) who were all castigating him as having been indoctrinated into atheism (even though he refuses to accept their definition of his beliefs or lack of them), and many other completely irrational and hateful things...

I will come back to this post when I can remember my point, because I swear there was one.

(I keeping this post intact so that I will be able to recall my original thoughts as well)

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-27T09:32:09.702Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

These people created a definition of sanity that includes [...]

Created? This is a good description of most people in most places at most times, throughout history. Better to think of them as countering the historically, geographically and (even today) demographically small and abnormal phenomenon of rationality, pursuit of truth and tolerating dissident opinions.

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-27T03:38:26.852Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Oh! Good point. I guess that I need to define that a bit better. Yet, I am not certain how to word it.

Conforming to the Majority might be one was of defining sanity, as would conforming to what we think of as moral (moral sanity).

Yet, ultimately, I think that I used the wrong word there. I think that I need to look for a new word or definition. His rationality did not conform to the norms of society as a whole, and his rationality was based upon a foundation that did not make sense outside of his insular world.

So, maybe the conforming to the majority is a good definition. I need to think about that

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-27T09:28:16.549Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

His rationality did not conform to the norms of society as a whole, and his rationality was based upon a foundation that did not make sense outside of his insular world.

If his "insular" world is taken to include Greater Germany, where many (possibly most) people agreed with his views, it's not all that insular.

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-27T09:42:17.749Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I am referring more to the elite crowd of yes-men with which he surrounded himself. especially later in the war.

From what I have been told by my family (some of whom were in Germany and Fought on the side of the Nazis), not everyone was aware of the extent to which Hitler was prepared to take the country in order to achieve his goals. His public face differed from that he showed in Private. His public face was that of a much saner person than was his private face.

It was his private world that I am referring to as Insular, based entirely upon the stories I have been told about what it was like to have lived through that time, and which did not make sense to those outside of that world once they became aware of it.

You are correct though, that pretty much all of Germany was behind the man, and cooperated with his goals. I know that my Uncle had not read Mien Kampf until the end of the War, and related that had he (and many of his friends) read it earlier, they might have been more reluctant to support Hitler. He related it to how many people read the Bible. They tend to skip over the bits that conflict with their personal values and only read the bits that confirm what they already believe.

comment by Jack · 2009-12-24T18:14:23.960Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What is the ev psych explanation for charisma?

comment by Blueberry · 2009-12-24T18:19:15.473Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure exactly what you're asking, but in the ancestral environment of tribes of 100 or so people, being able to negotiate alliances, curry the favors of those in power, and attract mates were essential qualities for survival and reproduction.

Something that's often overlooked in this context is that it's not these qualities themselves that are adaptive, but the ability to analyze your surroundings and learn how to develop them. In other words, we didn't evolve charisma as much as the ability to develop it.

comment by Jack · 2009-12-24T18:26:24.957Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The benefits to having charisma are obvious. I'm wondering about the benefits of being under the spell. Having a property (x) that leads people to follow you is way beneficial for survival. But how is it that humans evolved to follow people with characteristic x. Presumably it is some kind of proxy for competence in the ancestral environment. Or a side effect of something else.

comment by jimrandomh · 2009-12-24T21:52:22.812Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There are sometimes very large benefits to "being under the spell". It's most obvious in military contexts, where signaling disloyalty is likely to be fatal.

comment by Blueberry · 2009-12-24T21:27:53.412Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

You are looking at it backwards. It's not that humans evolved to follow people with characteristic X, it's that people evolved to exploit human psychology to get people to follow them. There are not necessarily any benefits to being under the spell. Compare: predators evolved to have hunting skills, but that doesn't mean there are benefits for the prey to being hunted.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-26T16:02:43.103Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It might be a kind of Prisoner's Dilemma. If others are voting to follow the leader, the minority who don't suffer. If the majority doesn't follow any leader, a small clique that does follow benefits.

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-24T19:54:19.249Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That is a very good question. One guess might be that being under the spell affords one the safety to breed (see the birds above). If they allow the more dominant bird to protect them, then they have more opportunity to breed safely (or gather food and eat, or stay safe themselves and not get eaten, as the dominant more charismatic will draw the attention away from the less obvious)... Just guesses though.

comment by byrnema · 2009-12-24T22:24:14.474Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Safety to breed? Kind of.* I think you're all missing the obvious...

The template of the charismatic person is the idealist thinker who wants something better for mankind. Think Yuri Zhivago. (Lenin.) Hitler. They're not tricking us: we have the ability to recognize that they really believe in their ideas, and that they are willing to sacrifice all that is necessary to realize those ideas. Our trust in their ability to realize their ideas may be misplaced, and of course our trust in their ideas may be misplaced.

The "spell" though is the ideas they represent. If you want to explain why we follow, you just need to explain our idealistic tendencies; our ability at times to sacrifice our time, money, even our lives and all our other values for an idea. A charismatic person is someone who is able to stir up our innate idealism in the direction of their chosen ideals.

*Idealistically, I can think of the most idealistic leaders as the altruists willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause while the masses are busy raising their families...

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-24T19:52:13.485Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know... My Younger sister (she is a zoologist and mathematician) says that Birds can exhibit traits that might be primitive forms of charismatic behavior. Certainly among male birds there are all manner of display and currying favor behaviors. And, in some flocking birds, the most dominant males will seek out positions that place themselves in danger in order to protect the rest of the flock. These birds often have shorter life spans, yet have more offspring.

I'll have to ask her more about this, and see if she has an Evo Biologist on staff that might have more info.

comment by Thomas · 2009-12-24T10:16:02.514Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

A perfect rationalist can mimic any kind of irrational behavior like Hitler's, for example.

Therefore we can expect, that the SAI may act weird just to utilize our irrationality.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-24T15:23:43.327Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

True. There aren't even plausibly any perfect rationalists though. In practice, good rationalists don't seem to mimic effective irrational people frequently. Why not?

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-26T15:55:14.807Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

wedfrid's right, it's (edit: partly) a selection effect. If they imitated irrational people frequently and well, we wouldn't identify them as rationalists.

Once again, it's the difference between rationality-as-winning and rationality-as-signalling.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-26T19:44:07.504Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No, if they imitated irrational people well when doing so was useful we would see many irrational successful people suddenly shift behaviors to different sorts of irrationality or to rationality as their situations changed. We wouldn't be able to predict future weaknesses of successful rational people from past irrationalities but we can do this with successful people who appear irrational.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-26T20:09:11.791Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're partly right, I'll change my statement: I think it's partly a selection effect.

The most obvious examples are along the lines of pretending to believe in God when atheism is illegal.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-25T00:32:37.370Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

In practice, good rationalists don't seem to mimic effective irrational people frequently.

How do we know that?

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-29T09:53:02.190Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"A perfect rationalist can mimic any kind of irrational behavior like Hitler's, for example."

What you mean is, AIXI could mimic any kind of irrational behavior. Someone could have perfectly accurate beliefs about everything and still not have Hitler's speechmaking ability.

comment by Thomas · 2009-12-29T12:28:24.980Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Knowing everything means also knowing what a spoken statement will do inside listeners minds.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-12-29T12:36:44.845Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Which still doesn't mean being able to produce it.

comment by Thomas · 2009-12-29T12:42:25.348Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Knowing everything means also knowing HOW to produce the best speech. Even more so for all Hitler's, which were probably not the best possible, after all.

comment by Dustin · 2009-12-25T02:43:14.926Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is what I always come back to when people talk about the value of rationality.

If the art of rationality is winning, the art of rationality includes the art of behaving in what appears to be an irrational manner to get people to do what you want.

comment by Sebastian_Hagen · 2009-12-23T21:06:09.865Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Nitpick:

the fact that many former top predators are now extinct

Mammoths, predators? My initial intuitive reaction was that that couldn't possibly be right - they're way too massive for that. It's a bit tricky to find definite statements on this on the web, but the relevant WP article does say that "Their teeth were also adapted to their diet of coarse tundra grasses". Also note that their closest surviving relatives are herbivores. I'm 0.9 sure mammoths weren't predators. Do you have evidence for your claim?

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-23T21:34:52.531Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"I'm 0.9 sure mammoths weren't predators. Do you have evidence for your claim?"

Nope, it appears that you are right. Saber-toothed tigers work just as well, though.

comment by Sebastian_Hagen · 2009-12-23T22:03:38.405Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

And for that matter, driving mammoths to extinction is no mean feat either (though it was probably not just pressure from human hunting - apparently we got help from climate changes). Herbivores have been optimized to limit their risk from predation, and for the heavier ones (which can't hope to outrun a predator) those adaptions usually involve fighting back. Them not being naturally aggressive doesn't mean it's trivial to bring one down.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-12-23T22:05:49.833Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

My other comments in this thread seem to have misread Tom's intention, so let me try again. I'll summarize what I think the point is, so if I'm off, it'll be obvious.

The point is that, while rationality has been important and effective on the level of Western civilization, it isn't really a super power when it comes down to individual behaviour. Thus, claims about rationality being all-important are dramatically overstated; there are much more important criteria for success.

My criticism of this, and the reason that I think it's generating debate the way it is, is that the first half is simply false, and the second half is so obvious that people refuse to interpret it correctly.

Western civilization isn't particularly powered by rationality. There's a pretty complex cultural and institutional framework that powers the West and its prior success, some of which is thoroughly irrational (Mercantilism, anyone?). Rationality may have played some role in the West's rise to dominance - it certainly did in a technological context - but you don't need to be rational to point guns at people, even if you do need to be rational to invent guns.

Conversely, at the individual, rationality is easily outweighed by other factors. If you want to be a baseball player, hand-eye coordination, speed, and strength top rationality. For a politician, pick charisma. For a designer, pick social skills and taste. For a scientist, if you have basic competence in your field, pick skills conducive to publicity and obtaining grants. The only special thing about rationality is that, insofar as all of these professions must make decisions, additional rationality will help all of them, whereas running faster will not help most politicians.

There's also an issue of survivorship bias. There are a whole lot of very irrational people. Therefore, saying, "Being irrational isn't so bad; look at so-and-so, he did pretty well," is actually not a useful argument. I guarantee you that, if your goal is being a lottery winner, being less rational will serve you extremely well. If a million irrational people all set out to be movie stars, ten succeed, and the rest are miserable, this does not make irrationality a good strategy.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2009-12-23T23:12:08.947Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

For a scientist, pick skills conducive to publicity and obtaining grants.

Wait, really? I was given to understand that there was, like, math involved. And what we call "epistemic rationality."

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-12-24T00:09:10.036Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I agree, but, ceteris paribus, I expect you'd see higher returns to these abilities. That is, if you had to choose between being better at math and being better at getting grants, you'd want to pick the grants, particularly over a certain threshold of math skills. This, however, assumes a lot about how you define "success" as a scientist. I may be overly cynical; I am not in the sciences.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-24T15:23:48.576Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, I've looked at the data here, and I'd say to pick math skills. Professors at top-25 departments in mathematical sciences who took SATs at age 12 scored, at that time, 3.75 SD above the mean, which is FAR above the threshold for entry to any scientific field even at the PhD level (and there's some regression from SAT scores at age 12 to math ability making the correlation even more impressive).

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-24T03:34:42.376Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I may be overly cynical; I am not in the sciences.

In my experience actually being in the sciences would make you more cynical.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-12-24T00:15:12.309Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This sounds correct at the margin of an average scientist or average LW reader, but your original post could've been read as implying an average human baseline, where math probably is more important.

comment by ChristianKl · 2009-12-25T00:53:26.382Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's why you've got postdocs ;)

comment by Cyan · 2009-12-25T01:45:20.673Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Postdocs need shmoozing and grant-writing skills too -- ask me how I know.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2009-12-25T02:27:40.832Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How do you know, oh friend Cyan?

comment by Cyan · 2009-12-25T02:55:35.900Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm a postdoc sorely feeling the lack of schmoozing and grant-writing skills. :-p

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-12-23T17:00:55.159Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

For instance, until the discovery of nuclear weapons, armed conflict was often a primary means of settling disputes between nation-states. However, if you tried to settle your dispute with your neighbor, or your company's dispute with its competitor, using armed force, it would achieve nothing except getting you thrown in prison.

This is really, really false. People use armed force all the time with their neighbors. Just like at the national level, armed force is very effective as long as no one bigger and badder will smack you down for using it, as they almost always will if you're a corporation operating on a large scale in an industrialized nation. The situation is virtually identical.

On a separate point, while the Nazis had some crazy beliefs, they still excelled in a number of important areas. A superintelligence trying to figure out how to take over a country would probably create a public enemy and invoke as much Nationalism as possible, and publish lots of propaganda, and indoctrinate the youth, and establish a cult of the leader, and so forth. Acting rationally does not mean winning your opponent over with well-reasoned blog posts, unless those are the most effective means you have of getting to him. Acting rationally means using the means that will accomplish your desired ends most effectively.

If the Nazis had had their crazy values but actually been rational and carried out their war differently (less aggression towards Russia, not dragging the US in, delaying the Holocaust until they could actually afford the military resources for it), they could have been a whole lot more successful than they actually were. So let's be glad they underrated rationality.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-23T20:42:19.655Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"People use armed force all the time with their neighbors."

No, they really, really don't. Compared with either a). governments or b). people in the ancient world, violence nowadays is really rare. For governments, consider that, in 1900, it was common for a country to spend 10% of its GDP on its military; how many people do you know who spend 10% of their gross pre-tax income on weapons to fight their neighbors with? For people in the ancient world, consider that the murder rate for males before they reached age 25 in pre-agricultural societies was something like 30%; nowadays it's something like 1%.

"On a separate point, while the Nazis had some crazy beliefs, they still excelled in a number of important areas."

Agreed, but what I was saying was that none of these areas involved general intelligence, science, rationality or deliberative reasoning.

"So let's be glad they underrated rationality."

Agreed. My thesis in this post was that rationality, intelligence, and science are the most important factors on the level of a country, but not on the level of an individual. Hence, the Nazis, who were really irrational, succeeded at taking over Germany, but then failed at taking over the world largely through irrational stupidity.

comment by cabalamat · 2009-12-24T15:23:38.483Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"On a separate point, while the Nazis had some crazy beliefs, they still excelled in a number of important areas." Agreed, but what I was saying was that none of these areas involved general intelligence, science, rationality or deliberative reasoning.

Hitler was known to go over his speeches in retrospect with Goebbels, and note which bits worked and which didn't, so he could make better speeches in future. I regard this as involving deliberative reasoning and general intelligence; there's even an element of the scientific method in it.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-12-23T22:44:50.802Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"People use armed force all the time with their neighbors."

This was not phrased correctly. It should have said, "used," and it should have included the threat. Back when governments were weaker and there was more crime and fewer educated people, courts weren't great at punishing violence, so violence and the threat thereof were widespread - look at the historic power of organized crime. This remains true today, but it's less true because our ability to enforce the law has improved.

People used violence when it was effective and they wouldn't get in trouble with other, more powerful people. Nations used violence when it was effective and they wouldn't get in trouble with other, more powerful nations. Nuclear weapons simply changed how much trouble they'd get into, just as better law enforcement monitoring and a lower general crime rate, and falling cultural acceptance have changed how likely people are to get into trouble when they use force. I really don't think the two examples are as different as you claim they are.

comment by cabalamat · 2009-12-24T15:26:39.333Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Nations used violence when it was effective and they wouldn't get in trouble with other, more powerful nations. Nuclear weapons simply changed how much trouble they'd get into

The major change that nuclear weapons have brought to international affairs is not that the weaker party in a conflict gets into more trouble, it's that the stronger party does too. There is not much to be gained from fighting a war when, even if you win, your major cities are destroyed.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-26T15:07:16.335Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Hence, the Nazis, who were really irrational, succeeded at taking over Germany, but then failed at taking over the world largely through irrational stupidity.

Certainly, sufficiently great (superhuman) rationality and intelligence could have taken over the world. But I'm not convinced that a group of sane, rational, intelligent mere humans at the head of Nazi Germany had a high probability of conquering the whole world (which would include the USA). The Nazis already did much better than could be expected on average for humans. How much better than that could you be, if you were in their place? What would you do exactly?

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-24T15:30:41.207Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A transhuman might do those things, but you don't think that a freakin superintelligence would do something you wouldn't think of?!?

comment by [deleted] · 2009-12-27T05:26:11.153Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe, maybe not. Many of the things we do today, we do the same way as we did ten thousand years ago. Geniuses don't do everything differently. Sometimes, the way we mere humans can think of really is the best way to do something.

comment by teageegeepea · 2009-12-24T20:14:45.181Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The invasion of Russia was probably the most important reason for Hitler's downfall, but it was also his overriding goal (putting it in a different category from some other examples of Hitler's meddling with the military). Western Europeans might view the eastern front as a distraction from the obviously more important war with the western allies, but from Hitler's perspective it was the other way around. The U.S came in after Japan attacked. The Axis Powers were never as coordinated as the allies, so that can't really be laid at Hitler's feet.

Regarding the Holocaust, most of the killings took place fairly late. The "functionalist" interpretation is that they were a reaction to setbacks in the east (where people were originally to be deported). On the other hand, it may be argued that their brutal strategy in that front made resistance to the death inevitably and victory impossible.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-26T15:43:41.639Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The invasion of Russia was probably the most important reason for Hitler's downfall, but it was also his overriding goal (putting it in a different category from some other examples of Hitler's meddling with the military).

If he hadn't invaded, then the USSR would certainly have invaded within a year or two. Preempting them was a victory on Hitler's part, and Operation Barbarossa was fantastically successful militarily in its first year.

Western Europeans might view the eastern front as a distraction from the obviously more important war with the western allies

Only if they know nothing at all about the war. The Eastern Front involved from five to ten times more men, weapons, tanks and artillery, and an order of magnitude more casualties, prisoners, territory and natural resources taken or lost, etc. If you discount aerial bombardments, it also lasted more than twice as long as the Western Front.

To a first approximation, the only effect of the Western Front's existence was to prevent the USSR from conquering the rest of Western Europe beyond Berlin. (By this I mean a scenario where the US gave the USSR and the UK Lend-Lease aid, but did not open the Western Front.)

Are Western Europeans today really taught that the Eastern Front was insignificant?

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-12-27T06:23:44.534Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Are Western Europeans today really taught that the Eastern Front was insignificant?

Americans certainly are, implicitly by not mentioning the Eastern Front (except for the initial treaty and betrayal). In my experience, when people set out to talk about the whole of WWII, as opposed to some piece that comes up in conversation, they make a point of saying that it was about the Eastern Front.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-27T09:35:10.969Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, well, anecdotally average Americans can't even find the Eastern Front on a map of the world... And they're also hung up on the Pacific theater. I really was wondering about Western European school indoctrination though. (Incidentally, does the EU mandate some sort of common requirements for grade school programs in members states?)

comment by tut · 2009-12-27T09:58:47.565Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I really was wondering about Western European school indoctrination though

They don't explicitly claim that the east front doesn't matter, and probably mention at some point that it was significant. But most of the time is spent on the west front, because the biggest goal of the teaching of WWII is to make students able to discuss how "the West" reacted to the nazis.

does the EU mandate some sort of common requirements for grade school programs

There are standards, but they are mostly formalisms. As in, if two programs follow the standards, then you can compare them, but just knowing that they comply with the standards does not tell you anything about the content of the courses.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-27T12:41:39.866Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As an anecdotal probably not average Australian I don't recall hearing the term 'Eastern Front' discussed. I would probably be able to point out some of the places on a world map where significant fighting was concentrated and some of the key events occurred, particularly those most related to Australia. It may be the case that I simply haven't made note of the term 'Eastern Front' because that kind of detail bores me.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-12-27T12:30:01.882Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I object to the status implications you make (and to the factual assumption that school curriculum translates into knowledge of adults).

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-27T14:06:34.529Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I was talking about anecdotal average Americans. That is to say, they may or may not be highly representative, but they're the one we hear anecdotes about. In other words, I didn't mean to impugn Americans as a group, and intended to refer only jokingly to the idea of classing all Americans as a single group with a meaningful (low variance) typical knowledge of history.

and to the the factual assumption that school curriculum translates into knowledge of adults

I do believe that a large majority of people everywhere never learn any more about most historical subjects than what they are taught in mandatory classes in school. And so they don't revise or correct the school curriculum's claims. If you disagree, can you give examples of historical claims made in school that average adults disbelieve? Particularly descriptions of historical events that happened outside their own country?

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-12-27T14:26:24.397Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If you disagree, can you give examples of historical claims made in school that average adults disbelieve?

Not disbelieve, just don't remember, aren't aware of anymore, 10 or 30 years later.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-27T14:50:20.811Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Certainly, some things are forgotten, but I expect other things are remembered, particularly when people encounter direct questions about the subject. And those that are remembered, are typically there from school.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-27T12:59:22.090Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I object to the status implications you make

Egocentrism is a high status trait. Suggesting that Americans are able to get away with neglecting stories that don't focus particularly on their influence is to suggest they are able to claim high status. It also suggests that the speaker rejects the implied presumption of higher status over his own group. This would seem to be the default state of anyone who is not cowed into supplication by the status claimants.

Is the core factual claim accurate? That is, do average Americans have the kind of bias in historical education that Dan suggests? I don't particularly care either way but from my observational perspective if Dan's factoid was accurate then Dan could reasonably object to Vladmir's status implication. That implication being that Dan doesn't have the status required to state facts that make Vladmir's group look bad.

comment by pjeby · 2009-12-27T13:49:38.109Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Do average Americans have the kind of bias in historical education that Dan suggests?

Hell yes. One example: I remember being shocked as a teenager when, going to school outside the US for the first time, I learned that it took the US 100 years longer to free their slaves than Britain. My US education had made it out to be such a big deal that they'd been freed at all, that they neglected to mention that little detail.

comment by Bo102010 · 2009-12-27T14:54:03.883Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This still surprises me when I remember that I did not ever hear about other countries freeing their slaves in school.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-27T15:09:33.215Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Since I started this discussion, it's only fair that I point out that the history classes in public schools here in Israel are very bad, too. (As are all the other subjects...)

We didn't learn much world history that didn't fall under the umbrella of "history as it applied to Jews". We never even mentioned areas where there haven't been many Jews, like all of South and East Asia. We also didn't learn any regional (middle-east) history that wasn't about Israel itself. And we didn't learn any post-WW2 history outside Israel, presumably because all good Jews were supposed to have come to Israel then.

We did, though, predictably spend a lot of time on WW2.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-12-27T14:22:53.277Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Again, an anecdote. It is a piece of narrative representative to the idea that yes, US education is particularly self-embellishing (and thus evoking this connotation in the human mind, with availability and representativeness heuristics etc.), but it's insignificant evidence towards concluding that. Argument-as-soldier, dark arts.

The problem with the argument remains the same no matter whether the conclusion is correct, and whether the intention is to enlighten or to deceive.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-12-27T13:24:41.596Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That implication being that Dan doesn't have the status required to state facts that make Vladmir's group look bad.

"My group" here must be people with bad memory for things that don't interest them. Objection is not to "stating a fact", but to the way it's stated: it's in the "arguments as soldiers" class, missing the context and as a result giving connotations not following from the stated fact ("dark arts" feel). This discipline applies no matter what object-level connotation is created (of course emotions make some violations more salient to my mind than others).

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-12-23T20:08:24.823Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

A superintelligence trying to figure out how to take over a country would probably create a public enemy and invoke as much Nationalism as possible, and publish lots of propaganda, and indoctrinate the youth, and establish a cult of the leader, and so forth.

If true, this seems to support the post, since they got the right answer without being rationalists.

Acting rationally means using the means that will accomplish your desired ends most effectively.

Yes, but (not being unitary agents and all that) even the most sincere rationalist-wannabe human probably won't do so, or even use the most effective humanly-achievable means; and one merely trying probably won't use the most effective means they can. (I know this is blatantly obvious, but I suspect repeating it is valuable.) Also, the valley of bad rationality may extend a damned long way in some domains.

If the Nazis had had their crazy values but actually been rational and carried out their war differently (less aggression towards Russia, not dragging the US in, delaying the Holocaust until they could actually afford the military resources for it), they could have been a whole lot more successful than they actually were. So let's be glad they underrated rationality.

Agreed.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-12-23T20:42:49.045Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I hadn't recognized the survivorship bias issue here. There are a lot of crazy groups that try to take over countries. Every now and then, one succeeds. This doesn't imply that being crazy will consistently lead to effective coups.

ETA: Arguing, "The Nazis succeeded despite inadequate rationality," is of limited value as evidence. There are a LOT of political groups out there, virtually all of them are fairly irrational in some respect, and a few are bound to succeed. Thus, arguing, "Rationality isn't important to success, because so-and-so succeeded," is only useful if they have been consistently beating out more rational groups.

On an individual level (and I'll put this in more detail in a separate thread) Tom is absolutely right that there are more important factors in individual success than mere rationality. This just fails to come across in his post, at least on my reading of it. The Nazis are, I think, a substantial distraction if this is indeed the point.

comment by brazil84 · 2009-12-27T02:20:45.278Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree. Besides, the rational thing to do might be to steer clear of putsches, coups, and the like. And even if you are the democratically elected head of a state, your chances of being assassinated are pretty good.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-24T02:36:45.788Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

See http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ko/on_the_power_of_intelligence_and_rationality/1d5t . If rationality is an important factor in success, you'd expect pretty much all of the successful groups to have above average rationality.

comment by orthonormal · 2009-12-26T19:52:21.809Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'd expect them to be above-average within the reference class of "cabals attempting to overthrow the established political order", not the reference class of "people in general" or "organizations in general". And I'd expect the average rationality level of that first category to be pretty low.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-12-23T20:45:06.353Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Of course. I'm not sure what you're responding to.

comment by cousin_it · 2009-12-23T17:43:33.753Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Acting rationally means using the means that will accomplish your desired ends most effectively.

So intelligence == winning by definition? What a way to cut the argument short!

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-12-23T18:55:33.060Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Saying "yelling at large crowds" is irrational, without giving any definition of "rational," is quite problematic. The author can't mean "rational argument", because the power of the West is not built on Modus Tolens; it's built on guns, smallpox, and better industry. Thus, he does not seem to be using a consistent definition of rational; furthermore, "You won't conquer the world by reasoning with people" is hardly an insight. Additionally, he makes no claim that the Nazis succeeded because of their irrationality; indeed, if they hadn't been quite so adamant about killing all the Jews and taking back the Caucuses, they likely would have been a whole lot more successful.

In short, he has no clear definition of rationality, nor an explanation of how having less of it was good, or having more of it was bad. In the absence of a consistent definition or an explicit claim about methods and results, it seems entirely appropriate for me to use the conventional (around here) definition of rationality as systematically making good decisions that advance your goals.

Now, if his whole argument were, "You can accomplish a lot without being consistently rational," I wouldn't dispute that. But his point is, "You can accomplish a lot without being consistently rational, therefore, rationality isn't all it's cracked up to be." Given that the Nazis probably could have accomplished more if they'd had slightly fewer crazy ideas, he does not appear to support his own claim.

comment by pjeby · 2009-12-23T19:09:39.609Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Given that the Nazis probably could have accomplished more if they'd had slightly fewer crazy ideas, he does not appear to support his own claim.

But there is an interesting question, which is how many fewer crazy ideas would be required. I mean, arguably if the Nazis were completely reasonable, it's unlikely that they'd have been all that successful either. They had to 1) appeal to a certain contingent, while 2) scaring the crap out of everybody else. Arguably, having a certain amount of sheer batshit crazy ideas helped with both... whereas being merely mildly eccentric and power-mongering probably wouldn't have helped.

IOW, it's likely difficult to separate the Nazis' results from their irrationality... even if that just means they were being rationally irrational, so to speak. (Of course, making a commitment to being scary-crazy as a deterrent/threat strategy means you're likely to still be quite crazy when you actually have some power.)

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-23T20:47:54.218Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Saying "yelling at large crowds" is irrational, without giving any definition of "rational," is quite problematic. "

Yelling at large crowds is neither rational nor irrational, as it is not a belief and rationality is about beliefs. What I was saying was, effectively yelling at a large crowd doesn't depend on whether your beliefs are accurate, any more than the ability to roll your tongue does.

"The author can't mean "rational argument", because the power of the West is not built on Modus Tolens; it's built on guns, smallpox, and better industry. "

The power of the West isn't built on rational argument with other people, it's built (in large part) on rational argument internally, Westerners arguing more rationally with other Westerners. This caused the West to become better at science and business, which caused it to become more effective at creating wealth, which in turn generated guns and industry.

"In short, he has no clear definition of rationality, nor an explanation of how having less of it was good, or having more of it was bad."

That, as you said yourself, was never my thesis; my thesis was that, for attaining many goals on the individual level, rationality is not the most important factor.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-26T14:59:24.673Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Given that the Nazis probably could have accomplished more if they'd had slightly fewer crazy ideas, he does not appear to support his own claim.

Their "crazy" ideas included most of their top-level goals. Whatever they achieved or didn't achieve has to be measured in terms of their goals, so you can't just propose to throw away some goals to improve the chances of achieving others.

Take the example of killing Jews. This was a top-level Nazi goal. Yes, if they had achieved complete and lasting world domination, or even domination of Eurasia, they would have been able to kill Jews later. But given a significant chance of military failure, and an even more significant chance of partial failure - holding on to Western Europe, losing the rest of the conquered territories - diverting resources to killing Jews was a rational tradeoff.

comment by tut · 2009-12-27T09:00:12.349Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Take the example of killing Jews. This was a top-level Nazi goal.

Which is part of the reason for calling them irrational. Killing the jews was originally a means to the end of preventing jews from breeding wtih (other) germans, which itself was a means to the end of making Germany stronger. When the killing became a top level goal that was what Eliezer would call subgoal stomp. The means became a supergoal, and their pursuit of that goal was part of what defeated the goal that it originally should help achieve.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-27T09:26:11.846Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

From the Nazis' POV, racial contamination was only one way in which the Jews maliciously influenced society. They also directly intervened in politics, the economy, culture, war efforts (like when they caused the German surrender in WW1), etc. The jews and their allies controlled states like the USA and used them to interfere with Germany, and they could not be allowed to threaten Germany directly from the inside.

The jews could not be reformed, their malicious tendencies could not be eradicated, and therefore they had to be killed. Tthat was a legitimate supergoal.

comment by tut · 2009-12-27T09:41:44.299Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

...They also directly intervened in politics, the economy, culture, war efforts (like when they caused the German surrender in WW1), etc. The jews and their allies controlled states like the USA and used them to interfere with Germany, and they could not be allowed to threaten Germany directly from the inside...

Which was just more reasons for having it as a subgoal to making themselves more powerful. If a subgoal defeats its supergoal you are irrational, no matter how important the subgoal is.

Besides all of that could have been achieved by taking away power from all jews and putting them in ghettos. Which they had already done before even starting on the "final solution".

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-27T10:02:26.664Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

By your argument, they should never have made any effort that did not lead directly to increasing their power.

But their rule wasn't (just) a goal in itself, but a tool used to achieve other goals. Given that they had a chance of failing to achieve lasting world domination, it made sense to pursue goals like killing Jews which would leave a lasting legacy even if they were ultimately defeated. In other words, the destruction of the Nazi regime is not the absolute possible min-utility.

Besides all of that could have been achieved by taking away power from all jews and putting them in ghettos. Which they had already done before even starting on the "final solution".

If the ghetto solution had worked, they would not have needed the Final Solution, and would not have worked on it. The F.S. wasn't just for the fun of it - it was created to handle the problem of large jewish populations in newly-conquered Eastern territories. In some of these territories they never instituted ghettos because killing the jews right away was thought to be economically cheaper or more efficient (e.g. Ukraine). In others (Poland, etc), they thought that ghettos wouldn't work in the long term, and they had or feared local management problems. It's easier to kill a hostile conquered population than to keep it from revolting while it starves. (They also had plans to kill most of the Poles, but they never had the manpower to carry those out.)

Later, towards the end of the war, it acquired an additional (rational) reason: killing all the jews quickly before the relevant territories were lost to the advancing Red Army.

comment by tut · 2009-12-27T11:47:50.552Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

By your argument, they should never have made any effort that did not lead directly to increasing their power.

There are at least two 'increasing their power'. One is individuals gaining power in Germany. That was a subgoal. The other is increasing the power of their nation or race in the world. That is the supergoal that, according to their ideology, all nazis should be working for. Beyond that they could have personal selfish goals. Perhaps including survival, reproduction and a legacy of having achieved something constructive. All of which they failed at.

In the values they expressed they took an extremely long perspective. They would extablish a thousand year empire, when they designed a building the first thing they thought of was what it should look like as a ruin and they included Darwinian evolution in their methods and considerations, as though their plans covered at the very least tens of thousands of years. But in their actions they threw away every chance at creating something stable for some futile gestures and a bunch of murders.

...killing all the jews quickly before the relevant territories were lost to the advancing Red Army.

And wasting their forces to conquer territories that they knew that they would lose immediately was in itself irrational.

If the ghetto solution had worked, they would not have needed the Final Solution

They didn't need the final solution to protect themselves from jews. They "had to" do it because they had used the jew as their outside threat to make the germans fall in line at the start of their rule, and they had internalized their own propaganda to the point that killing jews became a supergoal.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-27T14:11:14.017Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But in their actions they threw away every chance at creating something stable for some futile gestures and a bunch of murders.

Not every chance. A small reduction in probability. The key word in my argument that you're not addressing is that they made a tradeoff.

They didn't need the final solution to protect themselves from jews. They "had to" do it because they had used the jew as their outside threat to make the germans fall in line at the start of their rule, and they had internalized their own propaganda to the point that killing jews became a supergoal.

if you assume (without evidence) that they didn't believe in their stated anti-Jewish goals at first, and that it was only propaganda, then you're undermining the whole discussion. We started out by considering their success in terms of their own goals and under the assumption they were being rational.

comment by tut · 2009-12-27T16:44:30.544Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Not every chance. A small reduction in probability. The key word in my argument that you're not addressing is that they made a tradeoff.

The probability was small in the first place, so throwing it away was a small reduction in probability. But there was no chance at all that Germany would conquer all of the Soviet Union in one step. Especially while fighting inefficiently, also fighting in the west and distracting themselves with other things.

And throwing one thing away to pursue another is a tradeoff. I just pointed out one tradeoff that they made, wich I consider inconsistent (for the reason stated in the grandparent of this comment).

We started out by considering their success in terms of their own goals and under the assumption they were being rational.

Consider it under their goals: Of bloody course. Assume that they were rational: That's exactly what I was arguing that they weren't. It doesn't make any more sense to assume one side of the argument than the other.

assume ... that they didn't believe in their stated anti-Jewish goals at first ...

I'll expand a bit on that if you don't mind. There were two (sets of) reasons why they hated the jews.

*1) Their biological beliefs, where the jewish race and the aryan race were "natural enemies", and the aryan race could be diluted by the jewish but not vice versa. For that reason they wanted to get jews out of every significant part of society, and prevent them from crossbreeding. That goal could be pursued by genocide, or by isolating jews in ghettos and keeping others from associating with them. The nazis did the latter successfully in every place that they controlled before they started on the final solution. Jewish leaders were quite willing to cooperate with the nazis in this matter, because they got more power in the ghettos than they had in the outside society.

Isolating and concentrating jews was probably a necessary stage before extermination. And once that was achieved the jews were not a significant threat (even from the race biologist perspective). People very seldom revolt purely because of bad conditions. They revolt against change, of which there is very little in a ghetto. And while they were kept around they were an economic asset. But once you upset the boat by starting the killing you risk getting revolts. As they did in several places.

*2) They wanted an outgroup to spread hate and fear against. And the jews came in handy, again for two reasons. First the nazis already wanted to hurt jews because of 1). Second it was easy to rile the germans up against jews due to widespread christian antisemitism. For that reason they did a lot of antijewish propaganda (as you referred to earlier), some related to 1) and some being pure lies and fallacies. It also meant that they had to give the appearance of a continued campaign against the jews rather than just doing the minimal to solve the problem in 1). But spending one bullet or one drop of fuel beyond what was needed to appear credible for the proles for the purpose of 2) was irrational.

But since the nazis kept talking and thinking about the propaganda in 2) as their reason for their actions in 1) they felt that they had an urgent need to continue with the genocide. Even when that hurt their original goals.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-27T18:15:27.117Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But there was no chance at all that Germany would conquer all of the Soviet Union in one step.

According to most of the historical analyses I've read, Germany certainly might have defeated the USSR conclusively - if they hadn't made mistakes like the 6th Army not retreating from Stalingrad, and if they had succeeded in conquering Murmansk, and if the USA had not started to provide huge amounts of aid to the USSR. They did have a lot of luck - more than might be expected - but it certainly wasn't impossible for them to have a bit more luck and win outright.

Of course they would have benefited from preparing good fallback positions somewhere in the Ukraine which they could hold if the Red Army started to push them back. But they never had the spare time or resources for it. Of course hindsight is 20/20; today we can say they should have diverted resources from the Atlantic Wall which failed to prevent D-Day.

On what do you base your statement that they had no chance a priori of ultimately defeating the USSR? Sure, they didn't have the manpower to actually conquer and hold all the vast territories of Russia, but that wasn't necessary to defeat the Red Army conclusively.

Especially while fighting inefficiently, also fighting in the west and distracting themselves with other things.

The Western Front didn't exist until the Germans were completely defeated in the East. It simply wasn't relevant. (Battle of Kursk was in August 1943. Allied invasion of Italy was in September 1943 and of Normandy in June 1944.)

As for distractions, apart from the tradeoff we're discussing and similar decisions (which I think were at least in principle rational), what else do you mean? Certainly there were many mistakes made, inefficiencies, etc. but nobody's perfect.

But since the nazis kept talking and thinking about the propaganda in 2) as their reason for their actions in 1) they felt that they had an urgent need to continue with the genocide. Even when that hurt their original goals.

I'm sorry, I lost you. The original goals included finding a "final solution to the Jewish problem". Even if ghettos could have worked in the longer term, once it was clear that they risked losing e.g. Poland to the Red Army, they switched to extermination. That way no matter what happened to the Nazi regime, the Jews could not hurt the German people in the future. How does this hurt their original goals?

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-27T09:25:29.660Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

By this subgoal stomp, do you mean that when their subgoal (Killing Jews) became a priority, that it diverted resources away from their supergoal (world domination, or at least the domination of Europe/Asia), and thus they stomped on their own supergoal by irrationally promoting the importance of the subgoal?

If that is what you mean, then I think that a strong case could be made for this, as a lot of manpower was sucked into that particular void.

comment by tut · 2009-12-27T09:36:17.860Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

By this subgoal stomp, do you mean that when their subgoal (Killing Jews) became a priority, that it diverted resources away from their supergoal...

Yup. Exactly.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-26T14:44:40.679Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No, rationality == winning by definition. Intelligence doesn't seem to be well defined.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-29T10:01:44.399Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Rationality = having accurate beliefs about the world, not winning. If Eliezer Yudkowsky were serving a life sentence in a prison in Pakistan, he would be much more rational than the average person, but much less capable of winning.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-12-30T22:30:36.573Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Eh, I'd just convince them to let me out.

comment by Bo102010 · 2009-12-30T22:40:46.888Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Hahahaha... How long have you been saving that one?

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-12-31T02:50:55.933Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect that it's easier to talk your way out of an AI-box than a prison cell.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-12-31T05:05:49.026Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps, but I'm a bit stunned at the idea that being in a prison cell means you should just give up. Have I taught you all nothing?

comment by orthonormal · 2009-12-31T05:24:24.782Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, come on, the first ideas I thought of wouldn't work in that situation. What do you expect me to do, think about it for five minutes?

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-12-31T06:48:37.010Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The full phrase is "think about it for five minutes by an actual physical clock".

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-12-31T19:06:18.341Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Good point.

comment by komponisto · 2009-12-31T08:01:03.671Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm a bit stunned at the idea that being in a prison cell means you should just give up. Have I taught you all nothing?

Or, if you like, you can take it from Amanda.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-30T22:25:29.680Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Rationality == winning, but you still have to work with what you're given, obviously. Given that you're serving a life sentence in a Pakistani prison, (perfect) rationality will let you make the best of it.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-12-23T19:36:43.558Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Given that you have to figure out how to win, not just decide to win, it's not that trivial!

comment by [deleted] · 2009-12-23T16:04:22.532Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to be indicating that rationality may not be the best way for an individual to achieve her goals. From the wiki:

The rational algorithm is to do what works, to get the actual answer—in short, to > win, whatever the method, whatever the means.

If you aren't achieving your goals in the best possible way you aren't practicing the rational way. If you are losing it should not be for your using rationality, but due to you poorly approximating an ideal rational agent.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-12-23T20:15:44.008Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Humans inevitably poorly approximate ideal rational agents.

comment by MatthewB · 2009-12-25T11:48:55.677Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Luke, I think (and this is just me) that rationality may not be the best way to achieve all goals... Or, rather, it is not sufficient for all goals would be a better way to say that.

I know that when I was younger, I had a tremendous advantage over others in my field due to my desire to try to formulate rational strategies in a workplace that was overrun by irrationality and playing to the basest desires. Yet, it required a lot of charisma and a modicum of talent in order to get a foot in the door (It was in the entertainment industry).

And, no matter how rational one was, it was difficult to work in an environment where one could be blindsided by a paranoid or irrational co-worker who thought that they were being too marginalized by any attempt their co-workers might have made to better themselves.

But, ultimately, I agree with your last comment:

If you aren't achieving your goals in the best possible way you aren't practicing the rational way.

As, given that one knows one is working in an irrational workplace, one should be able to find a way to make that a part of one's strategy in that workplace.

Nick Tarleton seems to have hit the nail on the head in that sense(see his comment below).

comment by MrHen · 2009-12-23T15:23:05.758Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

However, neither of these imply that intelligence, science, and rationality, as a practical matter, are the best way to get things done by individual people operating in the year 2009.

I am not sure science belongs in that sentence. The application of science is an assumed part of my everyday life in the form of technology. Sure, I am not whipping up new chemicals to help me get through today, but I use computers, pens, clothing, dishwashers...

Intelligence certainly has a practical threshold. If you have no intelligence at all you cannot thrive in a world of computers, pens, clothing, dishwashers... On the other hand, technology has allowed some areas to lower their intelligence thresholds. People who have severe mental disabilities can function in relatively normal lifestyles. I see this as a good thing.

Rationality is probably the least necessary for everyday living, but I wonder if it works the same way as science and intelligence: Is applied rationality what we see day in day out? If something applied rationality to the world around us, would our personal lives get easier/better?

I am not really disagreeing with what you said. I guess I am more looking for clarification about what you meant by the quoted sentence above.

So far as I am aware, no group of people has managed to achieve anything even remotely similar using, not only rationality, but any skill involving deliberative thought, as opposed to skills such as yelling at huge crowds of people.

I would offer a reactionary counterpoint and say that most people who achieve things that similar were using deliberative thought. I have about as much evidence as you showed in your post. I really think you are underplaying Hilter's abilities. He deliberately set out to achieve a particular goal and succeeded. It's not like he accidently tried to take over the world. The British Empire, the Roman Empire, and any other large ruling body was also acting deliberately. I am not a big history buff, so I cannot think of many others. Mao? Stalin?

Today the large conquerers could be translated into people with money. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, et al were able to systematically make money. They weren't lucky, unintelligent, crazy, or anything like that. They are smart, driven people with a specific goal who have succeeded.

comment by cabalamat · 2009-12-24T15:51:58.048Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Intelligence certainly has a practical threshold. If you have no intelligence at all you cannot thrive in a world of computers, pens, clothing, dishwashers... On the other hand, technology has allowed some areas to lower their intelligence thresholds. People who have severe mental disabilities can function in relatively normal lifestyles.

I'm not sure what you mean by "relatively normal". In countries like the UK and USA, about 20% of the adult population are said to be functionally illiterate. In a world where a normal lifestyle is rapidly coming to include using the internet, where applying for entry-level jobs can only be done online, these people are going to have major difficulties coping. This may well be a significant social issue in coming decades.

comment by MrHen · 2009-12-24T18:12:19.661Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It is a deliberately ambiguous term. I do not think that it is possible to rate "normal" for every mental disability at once. What I wanted to say was, "technology is helping some of them."

comment by AndrewKemendo · 2009-12-23T12:32:56.627Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Your argument seems to conclude that:

It is impossible to reason with unreasonable people

Agreed. Now what?

Ostensibly your post is about how to swing the ethos of a large group of people towards behaving differently. I would argue that has never been necessary and still is not.

A good hard look at any large political or social movement reveals a small group of very dedicated and motivated people, and a very large group of passive marginally interested people who agree with whatever sounds like it is in their best interest without them really doing too much work.

So can rationality work on a large scale? Arguably, it always does work. I rarely hear political or social arguments that are obviously (to everyone) pure hokum. If you look at how the last 4 U.S. presidents campaigned, it was always on "save you money" talking points and "less waste, more justice" platform. All rational things in the mind of the average person.

I think however your implication is that rationality is not always obviously rational. Well friend, that is why you have to completely understand the implications of rational decision making in terms that the majority can agree on in order to describe why they are better decisions. You often have to connect the dots for people so that they can see how to get from some contrarian or "non-intuitive" idea to their goal of raising a happy family.

This is the essence of "selling." Of course spinners and politicians sell lots of crap to people by telling half truths, overcomplicated arguments or simply outright lying. These are obviously disingenuous. If you need to lie to sell your ethos it is probably wrong. That or you just aren't wise enough to make it comprehensible.

comment by cabalamat · 2009-12-24T16:02:13.645Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So can rationality work on a large scale? Arguably, it always does work. I rarely hear political or social arguments that are obviously (to everyone) pure hokum. If you look at how the last 4 U.S. presidents campaigned, it was always on "save you money" talking points and "less waste, more justice" platform. All rational things in the mind of the average person.

Sure. What's not rational is to believe that politicians will deliver on the promise of reducing waste. All politicians say they will do it, and have done for a long time, but governments are not noticable less wasteful than they were 50 or so years ago.

It's therefore irrational to believe a politician when they say they will cut waste, unless they say in detail how they will do so (which they usually don't).

comment by AndrewKemendo · 2009-12-25T14:10:15.510Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sure. What's not rational is to believe ... politicians

I think that is likely the best approach

comment by Jack · 2009-12-29T11:48:06.434Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think I would assert that intelligence, science or rationality is the Ultimate Power on the individual level. But your argument to that point doesn't work at all, afaict.

We know, as a matter of historical fact, that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, despite being generally incompetent, unintelligent, irrational, superstitious and just plain insane, managed to take over a country of tens of millions of people from nothing, in the span of fifteen years.

What evidence is there that they were generally incompetent, unintelligent or irrational? They certainly were in some instances (efforts at racial categorization were certainly a waste of resources) but the instances of irrationality can almost always be traced to events that harmed Nazi Germany in some way. Hitler's poor military decisions were what brought them down. On the other hand, investment in the sciences gave them distinct advantages over their enemies. Certainly their ideology involved holding false beliefs that undermined their science (expelling Jewish physicists was definitely harmful) but a good deal of their science was just fine. Is there any indication that the German state was run less efficiently than the other major powers?

comment by Roko · 2009-12-27T00:48:57.853Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There is the argument that rationality should be seen as a meta-algorithm: you look at the particular situation, work out what specific algorithm will win, and then use that.

Having the meta-algorithm will work better (on average) than any particular algorithm, though in certain cases the time lag and limited foresight of rational methods will mean that there will usually be some specific algorithm that will beat rationality in a given context.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-29T09:34:35.395Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

By rationality, what I mean is, specifically, reaching accurate beliefs about the world. If we define rationality as "whatever strategies win", then of course rationalists are going to win; however, it might also be the case that the rational thing to do is to brainwash yourself with drugs and mental training into believing in nonexistent deities (depending on how tolerant your society is of atheists and how good of a liar you are).

comment by Roko · 2009-12-29T15:58:58.546Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think I have a substantive point with regard to epistemic rationality actually being a meta-algorithm.

you look at the particular situation, work out what specific algorithm will win, and then use that.

I should amend this to:

"you look at the particular situation, work out that you adopting a specific algorithm will cause you to win, and then try to use that algorithm."

So, if an epistemic rationalist forms the true belief that the way to win is to brainwash yourself with drugs and mental training into believing in nonexistent deities, and also holds the preference that he wants to win, then he is rationally forced to try his hardest to brainwash himself with drugs and mental training into believing in nonexistent deities, and therefore he will probably stand an optimal chance of winning.

The force of this point is that if, instead of being an epistemic rationalist, he had merely started out as an ardent atheist, he would not have won.

comment by Roko · 2009-12-27T00:45:24.120Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So far as I am aware, no group of people has managed to achieve anything even remotely similar

I doubt that the NSDAP of 1930 had any particular "secret sauce" for goal achievement; right place, right time, luck, populism and ambition seems to explain them. Also, as a matter of fact, they lost so badly and in such a horrific way that the agenda of white/aryan power has been badly damaged; they managed to actually anti-optimize their goal!

The real, human world seems to demand a time/context-varying skillset for goal achievement, and the context of 2010 MEDCs is the one of most interest.

I agree with the overall point, though.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-29T09:37:42.834Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"right place, right time, luck, populism and ambition seems to explain them."

Even if luck is a big factor (which it probably is), if rationality is important, you'd still expect pretty much all the successful groups to have above-average rationality. Everyone agrees, for instance, that luck is a big factor in your ability to become an actor, yet pretty much all actors have above-average physical attractiveness.

"Also, as a matter of fact, they lost so badly and in such a horrific way that the agenda of white/aryan power has been badly damaged; they managed to actually anti-optimize their goal!"

My point was that rationalists generally won on the scale of nations/civilizations/decades, but didn't have a big advantage on the scale of individuals/small groups/minutes to years.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-12-27T06:01:57.403Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Also, as a matter of fact, they lost so badly and in such a horrific way that the agenda of white/aryan power has been badly damaged; they managed to actually anti-optimize their goal!

Not to disagree with the particular example, but be careful to distinguish between slogans and actual goals. Names are often villanized without actually tainting the meaning.

comment by argumentics · 2009-12-25T11:24:17.224Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe the terminology is a little sloppy. To "get things done", the "things that work on a species level", people who "achieve many of their goals" etc. these are vague references, vagueness on which the text relies. In addition, it's not at all clear to me what being "generally incompetent" actually means (as opposed to "totally incompetent"?).

Be that as it may, the move from "all nazis are incompetent" and "they managed to take over x and do y" to "using something which we will tag as non-rationality might get you there even faster than using the opposite tag", this move is plainly fallacious.

But even if we had sufficient data to support that argument, we would still be trapped in the meaning of "being nuts" (it's the closest concept I found close to non-rationality in the text). How are we to understand "being nuts"?

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-29T09:44:22.616Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"To "get things done", the "things that work on a species level", people who "achieve many of their goals" etc. these are vague references, vagueness on which the text relies."

What I am calling on here, general ability to achieve stuff, is admittedly a fuzzy thing, but not any more fuzzy than Spearman's g, and arguably less. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1LFWONlP_k is real, it's something that actually happened, and there's a strong correlation between your ability to pull it off and your ability to pull of other things that you might see as desirable, like military conquest, the evolutionary goal of having lots of offspring, pure hedonism, spreading your ideology to as many people as possible.

"How are we to understand "being nuts"?"

The belief in things which are blatantly obviously false, like huge nonexistent islands from which the "Aryan Race" was supposed to have originated?

comment by saturn · 2009-12-23T23:46:57.470Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, improving your individual rationality won't necessarily allow you to duplicate the success of the luckiest individuals selected from a pool of billions of irrational people, but I don't see how this fact implies that individual rationality is useless.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-24T02:29:18.767Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If rationality was the most important component of individual level success- the Ultimate Power- then you'd expect pretty much all the most successful people to have above-average rationality. Heck, even if it wasn't, you'd still expect pretty much all the most successful people to have above-average rationality. Nobody would claim that height is the most important thing in playing basketball, but pretty much all the most successful basketball players have above average height.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-24T15:12:13.040Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, a lot of people would claim that height is the most important thing in playing basketball. Average NBA players are 78.9 inches tall. Height is roughly normally distributed, this puts them at about 3 SD above mean height. They surely aren't typically 3 SD above the mean in any trait that doesn't correlate strongly with height, and height is less environmentally influenced (and simply simpler) than the traits it correlates with so its reasonable to assume that it is more causal of other extreme traits than the reverse.

comment by saturn · 2009-12-24T08:52:51.029Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

How many highly rational people do you suppose there are in the world? How many of them do you suspect are risk-seeking enough to aim for the type of swing-for-the-fences success that would make them notable?

If your respective answers aren't "quite a lot" and "a significant fraction" then it seems like you're neglecting the base rate. Otherwise, I'd like to know how you arrived at those estimates.

comment by alyssavance · 2009-12-29T09:54:52.732Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"How many highly rational people do you suppose there are in the world? How many of them do you suspect are risk-seeking enough to aim for the type of swing-for-the-fences success that would make them notable?"

Precisely half of the human population has above average rationality. What's notable about people like the Nazis is not that they weren't x-rationalists, it's that they were well below average.

comment by Jonii · 2009-12-25T23:09:50.739Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If rationality was the most important component of individual level success- the Ultimate Power- then you'd expect pretty much all the most successful people to have above-average rationality. Heck, even if it wasn't, you'd still expect pretty much all the most successful people to have above-average rationality.

Average general rationality is probably a lot less than you'd think. Domain-specific rationality is what determines the success in any particular endeavor, and rather than generating full theory of rationality, simple heuristics and lots of attemptees most likely approximate it well enough and thus produce steady amount of really succesful people.

comment by Jack · 2009-12-24T05:02:09.031Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I believe there is one NBA player shorter than the average height for Americans. His height is such a liability that his team is trying to trade him and he hasn't played for the last nine games or so.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-12-24T00:32:52.473Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Luck should cancel out in a large population. Given the 100 most-successful people in history, is rationality the trait at which they most commonly excelled?

EDIT: Luck shouldn't cancel out, but be selected for. What I meant was, the most-lucky people were probably lucky with different skill sets, so that we should still be able to identify skills contributing towards success. If you saw that 5 of the 10 most-successful people were manipulative sociopaths, you shouldn't attribute it to luck.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-24T03:31:33.002Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Luck should cancel out in a large population. Given the 100 most-successful people in history, is rationality the trait at which they most commonly excelled?

No. Given the most successful people in history you would expect them to be far more attracted to risk taking than would be rational. Selecting the 100 most successful doesn't cancel out luck and the larger the population the more you can be sure that the 100 chosen are non representative.

To select 10,000 people randomly and compare success and rationality.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-12-24T17:30:15.753Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Right; what I meant was that if you see a particular skill crop up repeatedly, you shouldn't attribute that to luck.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-24T15:23:37.651Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I have no freakin idea who the most successful 100 people in history were. I'd tend to guess that I have never heard of any of them.

comment by Peter_de_Blanc · 2009-12-25T03:46:41.603Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Then you must not be measuring success by absolute wealth. How are you measuring it?

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-12-25T18:38:15.764Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Then you must not be measuring success by absolute wealth. How are you measuring it?

Even if you want to measure success by money, absolute wealth is not a good measure because of inheritance. Four of the 10 richest americans are survivors of Sam Walton.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-12-26T19:47:09.639Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Accomplishing their goals of course. Why on Earth would you use absolute wealth?

Anyway, you can't translate well between different times and situations.

Finally, really large amounts of wealth aren't even well defined, partly because large assets aren't liquid and partly because the largest assets are frequently unofficial political power.

comment by Peter_de_Blanc · 2009-12-29T04:09:20.870Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Why on Earth would you use absolute wealth?

I was not recommending that.

Accomplishing their goals of course.

If two agents have different goals, I don't see how to say which has accomplished its goal "more" than the other.

comment by righteousreason · 2009-12-24T22:16:05.914Z · score: -5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

"To anyone who would assert that intelligence, science or rationality is the Ultimate Power, not just on the level of a species or civilization, but on the level of an individual or small group, let them show that their belief is based in reality."

What is this, flame bait?