↑ comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) ·
2023-04-27T21:32:05.256Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Much of what you write here seems to me to be accurate descriptively, and I don’t have much quarrel with it. The two most salient points in response, I think, are:
To the original question that spawned this subthread (concerning “[implicit] enforcement of norms” by non-moderators, and how such a thing could possibly work), basically everything in your comment here is non-responsive. (Which is fine, of course—it doesn’t imply anything bad about your comment—but I just wanted to call attention to this.)
However accurate your characterizations may be descriptively, the (or, at least, an) important question is whether your prescriptions are good normatively. On that point I think we do have disagreement. (Details follow.)
It’s also been mentioned that some questions are perceived as rude. An obvious candidate category would be those that amount to questioning someone’s basic competence. I’m not making the positive claim here that this accounts for a significant portion of the objectors’ perceived unpleasantness, but since you’re questioning how it’s possible for asking for clarification to be really unpleasant to a remotely functional person—this is one possibility.
“Basic competence” is usually a category error, I think. (Not always, but usually.) One can have basic competence at one’s profession, or at some task or specialty; and these things could be called into question. And there is certainly a norm, in most social contexts, that a non-specialist questioning the basic competence of a specialist is a faux pas. (I do not generally object to that norm in wider society, though I think there is good reason for such a norm to be weakened, at least, in a place like Less Wrong; but probably not absent entirely, indeed.)
What this means, then, is that if I write something about, let’s say, web development, and someone asks me for clarification of some point, then the implicatures of the question depend on whether the asker is himself a web dev. If so, then I address him as a fellow specialist, and interpret his question accordingly. If not, then I address him as a non-specialist, and likewise interpret his question accordingly. In the former case, the asker has standing to potentially question my basic competence, so if I cannot make myself clear to him, that is plausibly my fault. In the latter case, he has no such standing, but likewise a request for clarification from him can’t really be interpreted as questioning my basic competence in the first place; and any question that, from a specialist, would have that implication, from a non-specialist is merely revelatory of the asker’s own ignorance.
Nevertheless I think that you’re onto something possibly important here. Namely, I have long noticed that there is an idea, a meme, in the “rationalist community”, that indeed there is such a thing as a generalized “basic competence”, which manifests itself as the ability to understand issues of importance in, and effectively perform tasks in, a wide variety of domains, without the benefit of what we would usually see as the necessary experience, training, declarative knowledge, etc., that is required to gain expertise in the domain.
It’s been my observation that people who believe in this sort of “generalized basic competence”, and who view themselves as having it, (a) usually don’t have any such thing, (b) get quite offended when it’s called into question, even by the most indirect implication, or even conditionally. This fits the pattern you describe, in a way, but of course that is missing a key piece of the puzzle: what is unpleasant is not being asked for clarification, but being revealed to be a fraud (which would be the consequence of demonstrably failing to provide any satisfying clarification).
In some places on the internet, trolling is or has been a major problem.
Definitely. (As I’ve alluded to earlier in this comment section, I am quite familiar with this problem from the administrator’s side.)
But it’s quite possible, and not even very hard, prove oneself a non-troll. (Which I think that I, for instance, have done many times over. There aren’t many trolls who invest as much work into a community as I have. I note this not to say something like “what I’ve contributed outweighs the harm”, as some of the moderators have suggested might be a relevant consideration—and which reasoning, quite frankly, makes me uncomfortable—but rather to say “all else aside, the troll hypothesis can safely be discarded”.)
In other words, yes, trolling exists, but for the purposes of this discussion we can set that fact aside. The LW moderation team have shown themselves to be more than sufficiently adept at dealing with such “cheap” attacks that we can, to a first (or even second or third) approximation, simply discount the possibility of trolling, when talking about actual discussions that happen here.
Some people probably perceive some really impressive people on Less Wrong, possibly admire some of them a lot, and are not securely confident in their own intelligence or something, and would find it really embarrassing—mortifying—to be made to look stupid in front of us.
As it happens, I quite empathize with this worry—indeed I think that I can offer a steelman of your description here, which (I hope you’ll forgive me for saying) does seem to me to be just a bit of a strawman (or at least a weakman).
There are indeed some really impressive people on Less Wrong. (Their proportion in the overall membership is of course lower than it was in the “glory days”, but nevertheless they are a non-trivial contingent.) And the worry is not, perhaps, that one will be made to look stupid in front of them, but rather than one will waste their time. “Who am I,” the potential contributor might think, “to offer my paltry thoughts on any of these lofty matters, to be listed alongside the writings of these greats, such that the important and no doubt very busy people who read this website will have to sift through the dross of my embarrassingly half-formed theses and idle ramblings, in the course of their readings here?” And then, when such a person gets up the confidence and courage to post, if the comments they get prove at once (to their minds) that all their worries were right, that what they’ve written is worthless, little more than spam—well, surely they’ll be discouraged, their fears reinforced, their shaky confidence shattered; and they won’t post again. “I have nothing to contribute,” they will think, “that is worthy of this place; I know this for a fact; see how my attempts were received!”
I’ve seen many people express worries like this. And there are, I think, a few things to say about the matter.
First: however relevant this worry may have been once, it’s hardly relevant now.
This is for two reasons, of which the first is that the new Less Wrong is designed precisely to alleviate such worries, with the “personal” / “frontpage” distinction. Well, at least, that would be true, if not for the LW moderators’ quite frustrating policy of pushing posts to the frontpage section almost indiscriminately, all but erasing the distinction, and preventing it from having the salutary effect of alleviating such worries as I have described. (At least there’s Shortform, though?)
The second reason why this sort of worry is less relevant is simply that there’s so much more garbage on Less Wrong today. How plausible is it, really, to look at the current list of frontpage posts, and think “gosh, who am I to compete for readers’ time with these great writings, by these great minds?” Far more likely is the opposite thought: “what’s the point of hurling my thoughts into this churning whirlpool of mediocrity?” Alright, so it’s not quite Reddit, but it’s bad enough that the moderators have had to institute a whole new set of moderation policies to deal with the deluge! (And well done, I say, and long overdue—in this, I wholly support their efforts.)
Second: I recall someone (possibly Oliver Habryka? I am not sure) suggesting that the people who are most worried about not measuring up tend also to be those whose contributions would be some of the most useful. This is a model which is more or less the opposite of your suggestion that “someone being afraid to be shown to be stupid is probably Bayesian evidence that their intelligence isn’t that high”; it claims, instead, something like “someone being afraid that they won’t measure up is probably Bayesian evidence that their intellectual standards as applied to themselves are high, and that their ideas are valuable”.
I am not sure to what extent I believe either of these two models. But let us take the latter model for granted, for a moment. Under this view, any sort of harsh criticism, or even just anything but the most gentle handling and the most assiduous bending-over-backwards to avoid any suggestion of criticism, risks driving away the most potentially valuable contributors.
Of course, one problem is that any lowering of standards mostly opens the floodgates to a tide of trash, which itself then acts to discourage useful contributions. But let’s imagine that you can solve that problem—that you can set up a most discerning filter, which keeps out all the mediocre nonsense, all the useless crap, but somehow does this without spooking the easily-spooked but high-value authors.
But even taking all of that for granted—you still haven’t solved the fundamental problems.
Problem (a): even the cleverest of thinkers and writers sometimes have good ideas but sometimes have bad ideas; or ideas that have flaws; or ideas that are missing key parts; or, heck, they simply make mistakes, accidentally cite the wrong thing and come to the wrong conclusion, misremember, miscount… you can’t just not ever engage with any assumption but that the author’s ideas are without flaw, and that your part is only to respectfully learn at the author’s feet. That doesn’t work.
Problem (b): even supposing that an idea is perfect—what do you do with it? In order to make use of an idea, you must understand it, you must explore it; that means asking questions, asking for clarifications, asking for examples. That is (and this is a point which, incredibly, seems often to be totally lost in discussions like this) how people engage with ideas that excite them! (Otherwise—what? You say “wow, amazing” and that’s it? Or else—as I have personally seen, many times—you basically ignore what’s been written, and respond with some only vaguely related commentary of your own, which doesn’t engage with the post at all, isn’t any attempt to build anything out of it, but is just a sort of standalone bit of cleverness…)
My point was that Eliezer’s philosophy doesn’t mean it’s always an unalloyed good. For all that you say it’s “so innocuous, so fundamentally cooperative, prosocial, and critical to any even remotely reasonable or productive discussion” to ask for clarification, even you don’t believe it’s always a good idea (since you haven’t, say, implemented a bot that replies to every comment with “Be more specific”). There are costs in addition to the benefits, the magnitude of the benefits varies, and it is possible to go too far. Your stated position doesn’t seem to acknowledge that there is any tradeoff.
No, this is just confused.
Of course I don’t have a bot that replies to every comment with “Be more specific”, but that’s not because there’s some sort of tradeoff; it’s simply that it’s not always appropriate or relevant or necessary. Why ask for clarification, if all is already clear? Why ask for examples, if they’ve already been provided, or none seem needed? Why ask for more specificity, if one’s interlocutor has already expressed themselves as specifically as the circumstances call for? If someone writes a post about “authenticity”, I may ask what they mean by the word; but what mystery, what significance, is there in the fact that I don’t do the same when someone writes a post about “apples”? I know what apples are. When people speak of “apples” it’s generally clear enough what they’re talking about. If not—then I would ask.
Gwern would be asking for 3 examples
Gwern is strong. You (and Zack) are also strong. Some people are weaker.
There is no shame in being weak. (It is an oft-held view, in matters of physical strength, that the strong should protect the weak; I endorse that view, and hold that it applies in matters of emotional and intellectual strength as well.) There may be shame in remaining weak when one can become strong, or in deliberately choosing weakness; but that may be disputed.
But there is definitely shame in using weakness as a weapon against the strong. That is contemptible.
Strength may not be required. But weakness must not be valorized. And while accommodating the weak is often good, it must never come at the expense of discouraging strength, for then the effort undermines itself, and ultimately engineers its own destruction.
As long as we’re in the business of citing Eliezer, I’d point to the fact that, in dath ilan
I deliberately do not, and would not, cite Eliezer’s recent writings, and especially not those about dath ilan. I think that the ideas you refer to, in particular (about the Keepers, and so on), are dreadfully mistaken, to the point of being intellectually and morally corrosive.