Decoupling vs Contextualising Norms

post by Chris_Leong · 2018-05-14T22:44:51.705Z · score: 132 (42 votes) · LW · GW · 34 comments

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34 comments

One of the most common difficulties faced in discussions is when the parties involved have different beliefs as to what the scope of the discussion should be. In particular, John Nerst identifies two styles of conversation as follows:

(ht prontab. He actually uses low decoupling/high decoupling, but I prefer this terminology. Both John Nerst and prontab passed up the opportunity to post on this topic here)

Let's suppose that blue-eyed people commit murders at twice the rate of the rest of the population. With decoupling norms, it would be considered churlish to object to such direct statements of facts. With contextualising norms, this is deserving of criticism as it risks creates a stigma around blue-eyed people. At the very least, you would be expected to have issued a disclaimer to make it clear that you don't think blue-eyed people should be stereotyped as criminals.

John Nerst writes (slightly edited): "To a contextualiser, decouplers’ ability to fence off any threatening implications looks like a lack of empathy for those threatened, while to a decoupler the contextualiser's insistence that this isn’t possible looks like naked bias and an inability to think straight"

For both these norms, it's quite easy to think of circumstances when expectations for the other party to use these norms would normally be considered unreasonable. Weak men are superweapons demonstrates how true statements can be used to destroy a group's credibility and so it may be quite reasonable to refuse to engage in low-decoupling conversation if you suspect this is the other person's strategy. On the other hand, it's possible to use a strategy of painting every action you dislike to be part of someone's agenda (neo-liberal agenda, cultural marxist agenda, far right agenda, ect. take your pick). People definitely have agendas and take actions as a result of this, but the loose use of universal counter-arguments should rightly be frowned upon.

I agree with the contextualisers that making certain statements, even if true, can be incredibly naive in highly charged situations that could be set off by a mere spark. On the other hand, it seems that we need at least some spaces for engaging in decoupling-style conversations. Elizier wrote an article on Local Validity as a Key to Sanity and Civilisation [LW · GW]. I believe that having access to such spaces is another key.

These complexities mean that there isn't a simple prescriptive solution here. Instead this post merely aimed to describe this phenomenon, as at least if you are aware of this, it may be possible to navigate this.

Further reading:

34 comments

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comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-05-15T10:42:03.291Z · score: 29 (10 votes) · LW · GW

AAAAAAAAA THIS THING IT HAS A NAME AT LAST!

(ahem.)

comment by quanticle · 2018-05-14T23:45:00.481Z · score: 24 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Question: is there any reason to use the words "decoupling" rather than "coupling"? It seems to me that "low decoupling" is logically equivalent to "high coupling" and "high decoupling" is logically equivalent to low coupling. So in the spirit of simplification, would it not be better to state the distinction as being between "high coupling" people and "low coupling"?

comment by gjm · 2018-05-15T01:46:44.830Z · score: 39 (11 votes) · LW · GW

To me, (1) "coupling" suggests specifically joining in pairs much more strongly than "decoupling" suggests specifically detaching pairs and (2) "coupling" suggests that the default state of the things is disconnection, whereas "decoupling" suggests that the default state is connection.

The usual scenario here is that (1) you have lots of things that all relate to one another, and that (2a) most people find it difficult to disentangle, or disapprove of disentangling, and that (2b) all really truly are connected to one another, so that considering them in isolation is a sometimes useful and effective cognitive trick rather than any sort of default.

For all those reasons I think "decoupling" is a better term than "coupling" here. (I also like the opposition decoupling/contextualizing, as found in some of the earlier things Nernst links to, rather than more-decoupling/less-decoupling. When faced with a pile of interrelated things, sometimes you want to decouple them and sometimes you want to pay special attention to the interrelations. It's not as simple as there being some people who are good at decoupling and some who aren't. Though of course most people are bad at decoupling and bad at contextualizing...)

comment by Chris_Leong · 2018-05-15T10:14:54.874Z · score: 47 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, I like Decoupling vs. Contextualising more too, especially as they become single words.

comment by Raemon · 2018-05-16T12:17:53.509Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah I like those quite a bit more, actually (I actually thinking using them in the conversations on this post would make them easier to follow)

comment by Sniffnoy · 2018-05-15T07:21:09.490Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I definitely think Nerst has things the right way round, but I'm having trouble making explcit why. One reason though that I can make explicit is that, well, tangling everything together is the default. Decoupling -- orthogonality, unbundling, separation of concerns, hugging the query -- is rarer, takes work, and is worth pointing out.

comment by Sniffnoy · 2018-05-15T07:17:48.235Z · score: 20 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Decoupling, orthogonality, unbundling, separation of concerns, relevance, the belief that the genetic fallacy is in fact a fallacy, hugging the query.... :)

Not a new idea, but an important one, and worth writing explicitly about!

comment by Chris_Leong · 2018-05-16T13:11:23.456Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Any links to where this has already been discussed?

comment by Sniffnoy · 2018-05-16T18:16:15.454Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I mean, it's kind of implicit in lots of the stuff on Less Wrong, isn't it?

comment by Raemon · 2018-05-21T10:21:06.237Z · score: 15 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Curated for succinctly creating some useful handles for two concepts that have implicitly been coming up a lot. i think this has already been helpful to me when thinking about some confusing/challenging conversations.

comment by toonalfrink · 2018-05-16T10:48:28.388Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think this article is a considerable step forward, but it could benefit from some examples. I think I have a pretty good idea what this is about (and share the horror of being called out by a low-decoupler for being some kind of ism), but still.

comment by Chris_Leong · 2018-05-16T13:18:21.773Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm, well the article has an example, but it is super long and I'm trying to avoid this becoming political. Any suggestions for examples?

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2018-05-18T23:42:58.324Z · score: 11 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The example you use is already CW-enough that high-decouplers may be suspicious or hostile of the point you are trying to make.

Then again, maybe anything elsewould be too far removed from our shared experience that it wouldn't serve as a quick and powerful illustration of your point.

Here are some suggestions made with both of these points in mind:

--The original example Scott uses about a Jew in future Czarist Russia constantly hearing about how powerful Jews are and how evil Israel is.

--Flipping the script a bit, how about an example in which someone goes around saying "86% of rationalists are straight white men" (or something like that, I don't know the actual number).

--Or: "Effective Altruists are usually people who are biased towards trying to solve their problems using math."

Come to think of it, I think including one of those flip-script examples would be helpful in other ways as well.

comment by Raemon · 2018-05-15T00:30:38.689Z · score: 6 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed with quanticle, but otherwise think this is a very helpful dichotomy to have a handle for.

comment by Martin Sustrik (sustrik) · 2018-05-27T06:41:04.415Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't it just the distinction between how facts are used in scientific discourse (you state a fact, expect it to be confirmed or challenged) vs. how they are used in political discourse (carefully select other fact to augment it and suit your political narrative)? I guess Umberto Eco would have had something to say about that.

comment by Michael Pye (michael-pye) · 2018-05-30T11:59:06.279Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I can see the models usefulness but I think you are impling they are equal. This seems wrong. Decoupling required more specific knowledge and concentration and is more analogous to Kahneman's slow thinking. Obvious context can be thought of in a rich way but only after the individual ideas have been richly defined (often in previous thoughts). We cycle between the two approaches but I feel decoupling required the greater focus and is lacking when we discuss topics we are unfamiliar with (and a possible link with the Dunning Kruger effect). My understanding of cognitive load theory from education (limited working memory) also seems relavent. By limiting context we can more intensely analyse each aspect, repackage them efficiently and accurately before returning contextual information the whole problem. This seems to me the classic method of enlightenment thinking. Obviously understanding why other people might misunderstand d this is important however that is an argument around politics, rhetoric and persuasion not about clarity of thought.

Finally pure contextualisation is only about outcomes and decoupling only about process. Without understanding alternate approaches (which requires specialist knowledge) our assessment of the best method to achieve our outcome is likely flawed.

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-15T13:37:25.729Z · score: -21 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Since this comes from the Harris-Klein debate, I should point to this [LW · GW] recent post and especially the comments underneath it. To summarize, the "high decoupler" Harris is making errors. This is, of course, what happens when you ignore the context of the real world.

Now, there are perhaps better examples of disagreement between "high decouplers" and "low decouplers", and perhaps those are still meaningful categories. But I'd be weary of conclusions made with high decoupling.

I propose an alternative view, where "low decoupling" is the objectively correct way to look at the world, and "high decoupling" is something you do because you're lazy and unwilling to deal with all the couplings of the real world.

comment by Chris_Leong · 2018-05-15T23:04:39.883Z · score: 16 (3 votes) · LW · GW

""high decoupling" is something you do because you're lazy and unwilling to deal with all the couplings of the real world" - I suspect you don't quite understand what high decoupling is. Have you read Local Validity as a Key to Sanity and Civilisation [LW · GW]? High decoupling conversations allow people to focus on checking the local validity of their arguments.

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-16T09:05:11.165Z · score: -17 (8 votes) · LW · GW
High decoupling conversations allow people to focus on checking the local validity of their arguments.

We unfortunately live in a world where sometimes A implies C, but A & B does not imply C, for some values of A, B, C. So, if you're talking about A and C, and I bring up B, but you ignore it because that's "sloppy thinking", then that's your problem. There is nothing valid about it.

I suspect you don't quite understand what high decoupling is.

High decoupling is what Harris is doing in that debate. What he is doing is wrong. Therefore high decoupling is wrong (or at least unreliable).

I get the feeling that maybe you don't quite understand what low decoupling is? You didn't say anything explicitly negative about it, but I get the feeling that you don't really consider it a reasonable perspective. E.g. what is the word "empathy" doing in your post? It might be pointing to some straw man.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2018-05-17T16:58:17.773Z · score: 17 (3 votes) · LW · GW
High decoupling is what Harris is doing in that debate. What he is doing is wrong. Therefore high decoupling is wrong (or at least unreliable).

Upvoted for going all-in on a low-decoupling norm - I can't tell whether that was intentionally funny or you're genuinely living life by low-decoupling norms.

(Either way I think you're passing the ITT for low-decoupling, so thanks.)

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-17T18:39:31.364Z · score: -2 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you think there is something funny about low decoupling, then you're probably strawmanning it. Or maybe it was a straw man all along, and I'm erroneously using that term to refer to something real.

or you're genuinely living life by low-decoupling norms.

I can't say that I do. But I try to. Because high decoupling leads to being wrong.

comment by Chris_Leong · 2018-05-16T13:13:36.974Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"We unfortunately live in a world where sometimes A implies C, but A & B does not imply C, for some values of A, B, C. So, if you're talking about A and C, and I bring up B, but you ignore it because that's "sloppy thinking", then that's your problem. There is nothing valid about it." - What kind of "implies" are you talking about? Surely not logical implications, but rather the connotations of words? If so, I think I know what I need to clarify.

I didn't comment on what norms should be in wider society, just that low decoupling spaces are vital. I was going to write this in my previous comment, but I had to run out the door. John Nerst explains "empathy" much more in his post.

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-16T17:40:20.668Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm talking about the kind of "X implies Y" where observing X lead us to believe that Y is also likely true. For example, take A="wet sidewalk" and C="rain". Then A implies C. But if B="sprinkler", then A&B no longer imply C. You may read this [LW · GW], also by Elizer and somewhat relevant.

John Nerst explains "empathy" much more in his post.

Yes, I've read that, and he is also strawmanning. Lack of empathy is not the problem with what Harris is saying. Did you read the comments I linked to? Or should I have quoted them here?

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-05-16T19:38:16.385Z · score: 18 (5 votes) · LW · GW

For example, take A=“wet sidewalk” and C=“rain”. Then A implies C.

But this is false. That was Eliezer’s whole point.

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-17T18:29:50.632Z · score: -1 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When B is not known or known to be false, A implies C, and, when it is know to be true, A&B do not imply C. Surely we have no actual disagreement here, and I only somehow managed to be unclear that before I introduced B, it wasn't known?

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-05-17T18:54:52.617Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When B is not known … A implies C

No. This is wrong. This is what I am saying: when B is not known, A does not imply C. A can only imply C if B is known to be false.

Edit: In other words, A -> (B ∨ C).

Edit 2: Spelling it out in more detail:

  • A ⇒ (B ∨ C)
  • (A ⇒ (B ∨ C)) ∧ A) ⇏ C
  • (A ⇒ (B ∨ C)) ∧ (A ∧ ¬B)) ⇒ C
comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2018-05-17T19:41:45.741Z · score: 22 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Zulupineapple I feel like Said is trying to give a first lesson in propositional logic, a setting where all his statements are true. Were you trying to use the colloquial/conversational meaning of the word 'implies'?

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-17T19:48:59.940Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I explicitly said so earlier. And propositional logic makes no sense in this context. So I don't understand where the confusion is coming from. But if you have advice on how I could have prevented that, I'd appreciate it. Is there a better word for "implies" maybe?

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-17T19:45:32.245Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe you're talking about the usual logic? I explained in the very comment you first responded to, that by "X implies Y" I mean that "observing X lead us to believe that Y". This is a common usage, I assume, and I can't think of a better word.

And, if you see a wet sidewalk and know nothing about any sprinklers, then "rain" is the correct inference to make (depending on your priors). Surely we actually agree on that?

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-05-17T19:57:13.194Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I saw your definition. The standard sort of generalization of propositional logic to probabilistic beliefs does not rescue your claims.

And, if you see a wet sidewalk and know nothing about any sprinklers, then “rain” is the correct inference to make (depending on your priors). Surely we actually agree on that?

No. If you’re leaving propositional logic behind and moving into the realm of probabilistic beliefs, then the correct inference to make is to use the information you’ve got to update from your priors to a posterior probability distribution over the possible states of the world. This is all standard stuff and I’m sure you know it as well as I do.

The outcome of this update may well be “P(rain) = $large_number; P(other things, such as sprinklers, etc.) = $smaller number”. You would, of course, then behave as if you believed it rained (more or less). (I am glossing over details, such as the overlap in P(sprinkler, etc.) and P(rain), as well as the possibility of “hybrid” behaviors that make sense if you are uncertain between two similarly likely possibilities, etc.; these details do not change the calculus.)

Characterizing this as “A implies C, but (A ∧ B) does not imply C” is tendentious in the extreme (not to mention so gross a simplification that it can hardly be evaluated as coherent view).

Now, you might also be claiming something like “seeing a wet sidewalk does increase P(rain), but does not increase P(sprinkler)”. The characterization quoted in the above paragraph would be consistent with this claim. However, this claim is obviously wrong, so I assumed this wasn’t what you meant.

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-17T20:31:19.454Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So when I said "rain is the correct inference to make", you somehow read that as "P(rain) = 1"? Because I see no other explanation why you felt the need to write entire paragraphs about what probabilities and priors are. I even explicitly mentioned priors in my comment, just to prevent a reply just like yours, but apparently that wasn't enough.

Characterizing this as “A implies C, but (A ∧ B) does not imply C” is tendentious in the extreme (not to mention so gross a simplification that it can hardly be evaluated as coherent view).

Ok. How do you think I should have explained the situation? Preferably, in less than four paragraphs?

I personally find my explanation completely clear, especially since I expected most people to be familiar with the sidewalk/rain/sprinkler example, or something similar. But then I'm aware that my judgements about clarity don't always match other people's, so I'll try to take your advice seriously.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-05-17T20:53:38.812Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How do you think I should have explained the situation? Preferably, in less than four paragraphs?

Assuming that “the situation” in question is this, from upthread—

We unfortunately live in a world where sometimes A implies C, but A & B does not imply C, for some values of A, B, C.

I would state the nearest-true-claim thus:

“Sometimes P(C|A) is very low but P(C|A,B) is much higher, enough to make it the dominant conclusion.”

Edit: Er, I got that backwards, obviously. Corrected version:

“Sometimes P(C|A) is very high, enough to make it the dominant conclusion, but P(C|A,B) is much lower [this is due to the low prior probability of B but the high conditional probability P(C|B)]”.

comment by zulupineapple · 2018-05-18T07:28:52.961Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ok, that's reasonable. At least I understand why you would find such explanation better.

One issue is that I worry about using the conditional probability notation. I suspect that sometimes people are unwilling to parse it. Also the "very low" and "much higher" are awkward to say. I'd much prefer something in colloquial terms.

Another issue, I worry that this is not less confusing. This is evidenced by you confusing yourself about it, twice (no, P(C|B), or P(rain|sprinkler) is not high, and it doesn't even have to be that low). I think, ultimately, listing which probabilities are "high" and which are "low" is not helpful, there should be a more general way to express the idea.

comment by Michael Pye (michael-pye) · 2018-05-30T16:10:15.566Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Zulupineapple do you release you have been engaged in a highly decoupled argument? Your point (made way back) that values contextual conclusions is valid but decoupling is needed to enhance those conclusions and as it is harder by an order of magnitude requires more practice and knowledge.

Personally I feel the terms abstract and concrete are more useful. Alternating between the two and refining the abstract ideas before applying them to concrete examples.