Has "politics is the mind-killer" been a mind-killer?

post by SonnieBailey · 2019-03-17T03:05:06.935Z · score: 21 (16 votes) · LW · GW · 25 comments

To my mind, one of the seminal pieces of writing in the rationalsphere is Eliezer's short essay titled "Politics is the mind-killer" [LW · GW].

YMMV, but it had a big influence on me personally. On reflection, however, I think its influence was negative rather than positive - for me, personally. 

I don't really put the blame on Eliezer. It's on me, for not reading closely enough and taking broader conclusions than were appropriate. But the net effect for me was that the idea that "politics is the mind-killer" was, to some extent, a mind-killer of its own. 

Below I'm going to break down some of the comments and how they impacted me:

  • The first thing I want to acknowledge is that there was one aspect of this article that I totally misread/misinterpreted. Eliezer says "Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality - but it's a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality".
  • But he adds a caveat to the above sentence - "unless all the discussants are already rational". I think the source of my misreading is that I took this to mean that you can't talk about politics rationally, unless you're talking with "rational" actors - period. Reading this excerpt more closely I can see where I went wrong. But I wonder if I'm alone. 
  • The first sentence in the article is that "People go funny in the head when talking about politics". It's a good lede, but it would be more accurate to say that "People TEND TO go funny in the head when talking about politics". I don't think it should be a given that if you're talking about politics, people are going funny in the head. In fact, wouldn't this presupposition put you off talking about politics? Personally, it did for me, for many years. 
  • Eliezer says that "In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death". The truth of the matter is, that policy decisions can often have life-and-death consequences. It may not be immediate, and it may not be personal, which I think is the point he's trying to make. But the scope of political decisions impact a lot of people, and this shouldn't be downplayed. Arguably, policy decisions have a much bigger impact on our fellow countrypeople than any individual decision we can make.
  • He also says that politics was a matter of "sex, and wealth, and allies, and reputation". Well, I wouldn't say that has changed. 
  • Eliezer says that "If your point is inherently about politics, then talk about Louis XVI during the French Revolution". The trouble with this is that it raises the bar too high for anyone to discuss politics. A small enough proportion of people are engaged with politics at the contemporary level. To also require broad historical knowledge to talk about policies will mean that only a very limited number of people can talk about it. (I understand if this is an appropriate norm in the rationalsphere, or areas that aren't directly related to politics.) 
  • He says that "Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers". I'd update this to say that "ONE WAY OF THINKING ABOUT politics is AS IF IT IS an extension of war by other means. Arguments CAN BE THOUGHT OF AS soldiers". 
  • Eliezer extends the above metaphor by saying that "Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side". The trouble with this metaphor (coupled with the strong language I point out above) is that it reinforces a view of politics that doesn't have to (and, I'd argue shouldn't) be this way. He follows by saying that "People who would be level-headed about evenhandedly weighing all sides of an issue in their professional life as scientists, can suddenly turn into slogan-chanting zombies". I really want to stress that to me, there's a key word in that statement: "can". People CAN suddenly turn into slogan-chanting zombies, but that doesn't mean that they WILL or that they HAVE TO. Again, I overlooked this until I really scrutinised the article. 
  • I acknowledge that the second half of the article (which begins with the nonmonotic reasoning example relating to Nixon, Republicans, and Pacifists) seems to be a way of encourage people to resist political digs (and dog whistles?) within the rationalsphere. This makes sense, I agree with it, and it seems to have been effective. It's refreshing that this community has largely stayed away from modern politics.
    But at the personal level, I've let "politics is the mind-killer" be a mind-killer. It has dissuaded me from being as politically interested or engaged as I would have otherwise been.

    As I've mentioned, policy decisions that are made by our elected representatives have an enormous impact on society. There is a lot of room for good faith debate. The more people who are practiced at, or at least sensitive to, the value of rationality, the more likely that we'll get good outcomes.

    At the very least, if we can introduce some of the norms in the rationality community and apply these to political conversations outside of it, the quality of the conversations surrounding these areas where there is room for good debate will improve. Which will hopefully result in better outcomes. 

    I'm not saying this should be discussed on LessWrong or anywhere else. But I'm saying that the impact of this article and broader norm within the rationalsphere made me think in these terms more broadly. There's a part of me that wishes I'd never read it in the first place.

    If anyone has had a similar perspective on "politics is the mind-killer", or a completely different perspective from me, than I'm interested to hear! 

    25 comments

    Comments sorted by top scores.

    comment by cousin_it · 2019-03-22T08:52:20.021Z · score: 17 (5 votes) · LW · GW

    Until now no one has managed to make political discussion healthy. There's certainly room for experiment, e.g. I'd like to see a space for political discussion with a norm like "please stick to easily checkable claims". But norms like "please speak in good faith" or "please try to be rational in a vague general way" have been already tried and found not to work.

    comment by jessicata (jessica.liu.taylor) · 2019-03-17T05:41:34.586Z · score: 16 (10 votes) · LW · GW

    Everything in this post seems correct. The original post wasn't even that wrong (your changes are all good corrections), but it seems like many people took from it a shallow, slogan-like interpretation of "politics in the mind-killer", taking it to mean that rationally thinking about or discussing politics isn't even worth trying.

    See also: Politics is hard mode [LW · GW], for previous discussion.

    comment by SonnieBailey · 2019-03-17T08:38:52.921Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

    Thanks for the link!

    comment by Joshua_Livingston · 2019-03-17T05:06:51.844Z · score: 15 (10 votes) · LW · GW

    Policy decisions are important, granted. That doesn't mean that conversations about policy by people who are (generally) relatively ignorant and who don't make decisions or have much influence over the people who make decisions are important. Insofar as they are important, it is when they are converted into activism, which does have the problem of prioritizing your side winning over truth or rationality related goals.

    Politics, that is, the actual process of running government, making laws and regulations, etc, that is important. Talking about politics as a spectator doesn't seem very important.

    comment by SonnieBailey · 2019-03-17T08:32:42.193Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

    Hi Joshua, thanks for the comment!

    This might be influenced by my experience/current situation. There are one or more domains where I have (or could/will have) some degree of influence over policy - and the debate over that policy. If I hadn't taken what I've set out in my article, I'd probably have been in this position earlier, or taken this more seriously sooner. Ie, I would have aspired towards being something more than being a spectator. I wonder whether any other capable people in this community might have been in a similar situation or have had that experience but for developing a knee-jerk reaction (like I have) that politics is a mind-killer.

    Interestingly, in those domains where I have/might have influence, I find that discussions with people who don't have influence and might be characterised as spectators are quite interesting/revealing/useful. But that is mainly from the perspective of what the optics of a situation are for the majority of people, and the points that might sway public opinion. It's also useful to see what actually influences them - so I can get an empirical sense rather than guess using my own flawed mental models.

    The other thing is that talking about politics with people who think through their views and don't tie their identity to a particular party/tribe can actually be quite interesting to talk to. Where they don't let it be a mind killer it can be a very good lens for getting their perspective on the world, and quite revealing about their personal ideological views. But again - that's for the rare person who doesn't let politics to be a mind-killer! (And at least in my recent experience it seems to be more people than I had initially thought. It's a great litmus test IMO.)

    comment by Viliam · 2019-03-17T21:54:29.280Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · LW · GW

    I agree with your disclaimers that not all people go crazy when they start talking politics, and not always the predicted bad things happen. Problem is, I already see how most people would react to a text saying that sometimes, some people go crazy when talking politics: "Meh, 'some people', that definitely doesn't apply to me. Now let me start screaming about why unconditionally supporting my faction is the most important thing ever, and why everyone who doesn't join us is inherently evil and deserves to die painfully." Or just keep inserting their political beliefs in every other discussion endlessly, because "hey, my political beliefs are rational (unlike political beliefs of those idiots who disagree with me), and this is a website about rationality, therefore it is important for people here to discuss and accept my political beliefs. If they disagree with me, they fail at rationality forever."

    We tried to debate politics here; it usually failed. Apparently, believing in one's own rationality is not enough.

    (There is also another way how political topics can destroy rational debate: they attract people who don't really care about the main topic of this website, but only came here to fight for a specific political belief.)

    From my perspective, the main problem of "rationality vs politics" is that in a political fight, being transparent about your beliefs is usually not a winning strategy. (Saying "I am 80% sure I am right" is not going to bring masses to your side. Neither is replying to slogans and tweets by peer-reviewed articles full of numbers.) If you had a completely honest debate about politics, it would have to be done in private, because the participants would have to write things that could ruin their political careers if quoted publicly. (Imagine things like: "Yeah, I know that this specific important person in our party is a criminal, or that this specific popular argument is actually a lie, but I still support them because the future where they prevail seems like a lesser evil compared to the alternatives, for the following reasons: ...") So you get the multiplayer Prisoners' Dilemma with high motivation to defect, because breaking the rules of the game in favor of doing the right thing (which is how acting on a strong political belief feels from inside) seems like the right thing to do.

    comment by SonnieBailey · 2019-03-18T07:53:42.052Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

    I agree that the evidence currently suggests that being transparent about your beliefs isn't a winning strategy.

    I'm not 100% convinced that we can conclusively say that it can't be a winning strategy. Perhaps if norms change, and someone who was sufficiently well-calibrated to this way of thinking and was effective at communicating (and probably came across as high-status enough) it could be very effective.

    Could someone be completely honest and still be effective? I'd love to see someone who could pull this off, and I haven't written this off as a possibility. But maybe I'm being naive :-)

    comment by Viliam · 2019-03-18T21:19:17.564Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

    The effectivity of truth and lying depends on environment. For example, imagine a culture where political debates on TV would be immediately followed by impartial fact checking. Or a culture where politicians have to make predictions about future events ("I don't know" also counts as a valid prediction), and these are later publicly reviewed and evaluated. And, importantly, where the citizens actually care about the results. I suppose such environment would bring more truth in politics.

    But this is a chicken-and-egg problem, because changing the environment, that's kinda what politics is about. Also, there are many obvious counter-strategies, such as having loyal people do the "fact checking" in your tribe's favor. (For example, when a politician says something that is approximately correct, like saying that some number is 100, when in reality it is 96, it would be evaluated as "a correct approximation -> TRUE" when your side does it, or as "FALSE" when your opponent does it. You could evaluate opponent's metaphorical statements literally, but the other way round for your allies; etc.)

    Could someone be completely honest and still be effective?

    That mostly depends on other people. Such as voters (whether they bother to check facts) and media (whether they report on the fact that your statements are more likely to be true). If instead the media decide to publish a completely made up story about you, and most readers accept the story uncritically, you are screwed.

    (There are also ways to hurt 100% honest people without lying about them, such as making them publicly answer a question where the majority of the population believes a wrong answer and gets offended by hearing the correct one. "Is God real?")

    comment by SonnieBailey · 2019-03-19T00:10:02.419Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

    I agree with everything you say. I'm reminded of Dan Gardner's terrific book Future Babble on how and why people respond to pundits even though their predictions/calibrations are often woeful.

    The thing is, in the same way that there are people who can get away with clearly being in bad faith and not being truthful, I think there are probably some people who can get away with being relatively well-calibrated and up-front about not treating everything in black and white terms, and still be effective communicators, and effective in politics in general.

    I wouldn't be surprised if there are some other factors (something to do with the conveyed social status of the person in question?) that relate to their effectiveness that are in some ways independent of the positions they actually take. Taking the "Is God real?" example, it's true that the vast majority of people couldn't get away with that. But there are probably some people who could get away with it.

    I'm speculating. And to my mind this is an empirical question. The fact that no one comes to mind probably indicates I'm wrong. But I can always be hopeful!

    I'm also writing this in a rush, so apologies if I haven't been very clear. Thanks for the comments!

    comment by clone of saturn · 2019-03-17T09:40:33.597Z · score: 10 (3 votes) · LW · GW

    You write:

    The truth of the mat­ter is, that policy de­ci­sions can of­ten have life-and-death con­se­quences.

    But also:

    ONE WAY OF THINKING ABOUT poli­tics is AS IF IT IS an ex­ten­sion of war by other means. Ar­gu­ments CAN BE THOUGHT OF AS sol­diers.

    This seems like a contradiction. As you allude to, the fundamental question of politics is whose desires should and can legitimately be overridden by society--up to and including their desire not to be killed. With stakes so high, how can you justify placing good faith debate above using whatever tactics are necessary to avoid losing? It seems to me that if arguments aren't soldiers, you aren't actually engaged in politics.

    comment by jessicata (jessica.liu.taylor) · 2019-03-17T09:45:15.159Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · LW · GW

    With stakes so high, how can you justify placing good faith debate above using whatever tactics are necessary to avoid losing?

    Local validity [LW · GW]!

    [EDIT: also, you could actually be uncertain, or could be talking to aligned people who are uncertain, in which case having more-informative discussions about politics helps you and your friends make better decisions!]

    comment by SonnieBailey · 2019-03-18T07:42:46.595Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

    I'm not sure I see the contradiction.

    I see it as the difference between a one-off prisoner's dilemma situation and an iterated version of the prisoner's dilemma.

    War is arguably a one-off situation, where competition is king and you want to win at all costs. Politics and policy-making is more of an ongoing endeavour and in the scheme of things, requires cooperation.

    Where there are good intentions involved (and that is the case much of the time - it's just not publicised nearly as much), both sides of a debate will often want to come to a solution that is something that the other side can live with - and there is at least the potential for changing perspectives and positions. So having high stakes doesn't necessarily mean that it's all-out competition and war between arguments.

    comment by AprilSR · 2019-03-17T05:05:30.032Z · score: 8 (7 votes) · LW · GW

    I feel like “Politics is the Mind-Killer” made two points that came out pretty clearly to me and, I’d assume, most other people.

    1. It is very hard to discuss politics rationally.
    2. Therefore, avoid political examples (or use historical ones) when discussing rationality.

    For example, Eliezer would advocate against saying “Hey, those stupid [political party] people made a huge mistake in supporting [candidate] in the 20XX election. Let’s learn from their mistake,” unless you were quite confident people could discuss the rationality and not the politics.

    I think a lot of the “might”s and “could”s were avoided mainly for emphasis. Unless you have a strong reason to believe that someone will be able to be rational about politics, you can very safely assume they won’t be. “You have to support every argument on one side,” for example, is basically saying that most people don’t understand the nuance in saying that you think an argument is flawed even if you agree with its conclusion. I very commonly see people male horribly incorrect arguments for positions I strongly support, but pointing these out as flawed is rarely looked upon nicely among people who lack rationality skills.

    While the conclusions you drew from the post were obviously harmful, I feel like very few people interpreted it that way.

    comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2019-04-06T10:28:02.950Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW
    He says that "Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers". I'd update this to say that "ONE WAY OF THINKING ABOUT politics is AS IF IT IS an extension of war by other means. Arguments CAN BE THOUGHT OF AS soldiers". 

    This is a good shift for you to have made and I'm glad you can make it. Now you can just do this mentally to everyone's writing (and speaking, for that matter) all the time.

    But asking writers to do it themselves is crippling. The new sentence you propose is obviously technically more accurate but it's also clunky, anemic prose.

    Someone ages ago (maybe Viliam_Bur?) said that people thought they were drawn to LW by the good ideas but they were equally if not more drawn to LW by the quality of Eliezer's writing, and a key quality of Eliezer's writing is that he knew how to be punchy when he needed to be.

    "Arguments are soldiers" is, and was always, poetry, not a mathematical identity. The point was to shock you into a frame shift in how you look at arguments (away from e.g. an implicit frame of "arguments are neutral tools we use to search for truth"), not tell you a Platonic Truth that you Believe Forever. And punchy writing is key to provoking these kinds of frame shifts; clunky writing just doesn't actually get through to any part of you that matters.

    comment by Dagon · 2019-03-17T17:13:07.921Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

    There are some groups with which I enjoy discussing politics, and some which I believe it is effective to do so, as it leads to decisions I make about where to live, what donations to make, how to vote (though that's pretty small impact), who to publicly support, etc.

    In all cases, they're relatively small groups, with enough face-to-face contact that I can estimate the levels of rationality and knowledge, and tailor the discussions to what I can learn, more than how I can convince them of something (note: many times there _is_ an adversarial tone to the truth-seeking. I think this works well in person, and very badly online).

    My main resonance with those threads is that politics (at all levels, from family to office to town to nation to world) is baked into humanity, and cannot be ignored. And simultaneously, the topics can't be abstracted or generalized enough to actually discuss dispassionately in almost any group situation. Politics is prisoner's dilemma with participants (including myself) whose motives are unknown and inconsistent, known to be at best partially-rational. When I can play with a consistent group of identified participants, I can learn which mechanisms work for each. When I play simultaneously with a large group, which statistically will include some always-defect, I fall into the defect-for-defense pattern.

    I do, in fact get mind-killed. Often by what I perceive as my correspondents' mind-killing, so internally it feels like I'm tit-for-tat, but it's not clear that there's enough bandwidth to ever get back to a good equilibrium.

    So, please do put individual thought into it, and if you have the right groups of people discuss in those groups. But not here, and probably not anywhere online in large groups. For those places, just recognize that you're there (as are most participants) to win people to your side, not to learn.

    comment by SonnieBailey · 2019-03-18T07:49:23.801Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

    Great points.

    I hope I don't come across as saying that this is a forum for talking about politics in the specific.

    The article is more a reflection of how the "politics is the mind-killer" perspective impacted me and my broader relationship to politics and policy, probably for the worst.

    Just because it's not a great topic to discuss in this particular context ,and in some other situations, this doesn't make it a valuable or important topic to discuss in other contexts. (And to be clear, I haven't taken your comments as suggesting as such!)

    I'd go as far as arguing that if rationalists can better discuss politics effectively with people who are less rationally-inclined, this might go some way towards raising the sanity waterline in a really important domain.

    comment by ChristianKl · 2019-03-19T08:41:12.349Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

    The term dog whistle seems very commonly misused. According to the core meaning of the term, most people can't recognize the dog whistles of groups to which they belong.

    Wearing a MEGA hat isn't a dog whistle, wearing Thor Steinar might be. If I meet someone wearing Thor Steinar I likely won't notice and as a result there wouldn't be mind killing effects.

    The idea that you should treat certain statements as dog whistles because they are frequently made by people with certain political views and those statements should be treated as if the person is arguing for someone else, is an idea that's mind-killing.

    comment by Benito · 2019-03-18T14:15:19.661Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

    Note: even with you making a point of it, it took me two reads to understand why my initial read of "unless all the discussants are already rational" was wrong.

    comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-03-18T21:49:19.863Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

    I think I still don't get it. Can you elaborate more?

    comment by SonnieBailey · 2019-03-18T23:58:47.901Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

    I'm not sure if this relates to my article or the comment. But I initially took this comment to mean that you can't talk about politics rationally unless the people you're talking to are rational. Given that no one is perfectly rational (even those of us who aspire to it), it lead me to the conclusion - what's the point?

    In other words, avoid discussion of politics in all situations, because no one can be rational about it. I'll admit, I overstepped the mark, and this is largely my misreading of the initial article.

    comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-03-19T00:05:28.498Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

    Ah, I see. I had interpreted it as "don't discuss it, as long as the people involved aren't exceptionally good at the art of rationality" which still seems valid to me. Did you end up on a different reading?

    comment by Benito · 2019-03-21T23:32:15.103Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

    Yes, the new reading is "Politics isn't a good place to practice rationality unless all the discussants are already rational". Not that you shouldn't engage in discussion of politics, just that you shouldn't go to train rationality there (when not already well practiced in other areas).

    comment by steven0461 · 2019-03-26T17:27:45.139Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

    On the other hand, whenever you do something, you practice it whether you intend to or not.

    comment by ChristianKl · 2019-03-19T10:35:32.535Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

    People do go funny in the head when discussing politics. People who would never advocate for a medical treatment because they know one person for whom that treatment was effective are often very fast to see it as a valid argument that a given political policy is good because they observed positive outcomes in a single country after implementing that policy.

    I quite recently heard from a Bay Area expat that they consider both Eliezer and Scott to have been politically mindkilled in the last years. I don't think Eliezer ate that hat he promised to eat.

    Thinking rationally in general is hard and it's even more hard when statements are linked to tribal loyality. It's worthwhile to keep in mind that it's quite easy to become mindkilled while discussing politics when one engages in discussing politics.

    comment by Nebu · 2019-04-06T03:33:01.715Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
    I'm not saying this should be discussed on LessWrong or anywhere else.

    You might want to lead with that, because there have been some arguments in the last few days that people should repeal the "Don't talk about politics" rule on a rationality-focused Facebook group, and I thought you were trying to argue for in favor of repealing those rules.

    But I'm saying that the impact of this article and broader norm within the rationalsphere made me think in these terms more broadly. There's a part of me that wishes I'd never read it in the first place.

    https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/06/09/all-debates-are-bravery-debates/

    https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/03/24/should-you-reverse-any-advice-you-hear/

    For some people "talk less about politics" is the right advice, and for other people "talk more about politics" might be the right advice. FWIW, in my experience, a lot of the people I see talking about politics should not be talking about politics (if their goal is to improve their rationality).