Elitism isn't necessary for refining rationality.

post by Epiphany · 2012-09-10T05:41:16.398Z · score: -20 (31 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 93 comments

Contents

  e·lit·ism
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93 comments

  Note:  After writing this post, I realized there's a lot I need to learn about this subject.  I've been thinking a lot about how I use the word "elitism" and what it meant to me.  I was unaware that there are a large number of people who use the word to describe themselves and mean something totally different from the definition that I had.  This resulted in my perception that people who were using the word to describe themselves were being socially inept.  I now realize that it's not a matter of social ineptness, that it may be more of a matter of political sides.  I also realized that mind-kill reactions may be influencing us here (myself included).  So, now my goal is to make sure I understand both sides thoroughly to transcend these mind-kill reactions and explain to others how I accomplished this so that none of us has to have them.  I think these sides can get along better.  That is what I ultimately want - for the gifted population and the rest of the world to understand one another better, for the privileged and the disadvantaged to understand one another better, and for the tensions between those groups to be reduced so that we can work together effectively.  I realize that this is not a simple undertaking, but this is a very important problem to me.  I see this being an ongoing project in my life.  If I don't seem to understand your point of view on this topic, please help me update.  I want to understand it.

 

TLDR: OMG a bunch of people seem to want to use the word "elitist" to describe LessWrong but I know that this can provoke hatred.  I don't want to be smeared as an elitist.  I can't fathom why it would be necessary for us to call ourselves "elitists".

 

I have noticed a current of elitism on LessWrong.  I know that not every person here is an elitist, but there are enough people here who seem to believe elitism is a good thing (13 upvotes!?) that it's worth addressing this conflict.  In my experience, the word "elitism" is a triggering word - it's not something you can use easily without offending people.  Acknowledging intellectual differences is a touchy subject also, very likely to invite accusations of elitism.  From what I've seen, I'm convinced that using the word "elitism" casually is a mistake, and referring to intellectual differences incautiously is also risky.

Here, I analyze the motives behind the use of the word elitism, make a suggestion for what the main conflict is, mention a possible solution, talk about whether the solution is elitist, what elitism really means, and what the consequences may be if we allow ourselves to be seen as elitists.

The theme I am seeing echoed throughout the threads where elitist comments surfaced is "We want quality" and "We want a challenging learning environment".  I agree that quality goals and a challenging environment are necessary for refining rationality, but I disagree that elitism is needed.

I think the problem comes in at the point where we think about how challenging the environment should be.  There's a conflict between the website's main vision: spreading rationality (detailed in: Rationality: Common Interest of Many Causes) and striving for the highest quality standards possible (detailed in Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism).

If the discussions are geared for beginners, advanced people will not learn.  If the discussions are geared for advanced people, beginners are frustrated.  It's built into our brains.  Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of "Flow: The psychology of optimal experience" regards flow, the feeling of motivation and pleasure you get when you're appropriately challenged, to be the secret to happiness and he explains that if you aren't appropriately challenged, you're either going to feel bored or frustrated depending on whether the challenge is too small or too great for your ability level.

Because our brains never stop rewarding and punishing us with flow, boredom and frustration, we strive for that appropriate challenge constantly.  Because we're not all at the same ability level, we're not all going to flow during the same discussions.  We can't expect this to change, and it's nobody's fault.

This is a real conflict, but we don't have to choose between the elitist move of blocking everyone that's not at our level vs. the flow killing move of letting the challenge level in discussions decrease to the point where it results in everyone's apathy - we can solve this.

Why bother to solve it?  If your hope is to raise the sanity waterline, you cannot neglect those who are interested in rational thought but haven't yet gotten very far.  Doing so would limit your impact to a small group, failing to make a dent in overall sanity.  If you neglect the small group of advanced rationalists, then you've lost an important source of rational insights that people at every level might learn from and you will have failed to attract the few and precious teachers who will assist the beginners in developing further faster.

And there is a solution; summarized in one paragraph:  Make several areas divided by their level of difficulty.  Advanced learners can learn in the advanced area, beginners in the beginner area.  That way everyone learns.  Not every advanced person is a teacher, but if you put a beginner area and an advanced area on the same site, some people from the advanced area will help get the beginners further.  One-on-one teaching isn't the only option - advanced people might write articles for beginners and get through to thousands at once.  They might write practice quizzes for them to do (not hard to implement from a web developer's perspective).  There are other things.  (I won't get into them here.)

This brings me to another question: if LessWrong separates the learning levels, would the separation qualify as elitism?

I think we can all agree that people don't learn well in classes that are too easy for them.  If you want advanced people to improve, it's an absolute necessity to have an advanced area.  I'm not questioning that.  I'm questioning whether it qualifies under the definition of elitism:

e·lit·ism

noun
1.  practice of or belief in rule by an elite.
2.  consciousness of or pride in belonging to a select or favored group.

(dictionary.com)

Spreading rationality empowers people. If you wanted to take power over them, you'd horde it.  By posting our rational insights in public, we share them.  We are not hoarding them and demanding to be made rulers because of our power.  We are giving them away and hoping they improve the world. 

Using rationality as a basis for rule makes no sense anyway.  If you have a better map of the territory, people should update because you have a better map (assuming you overcome inferential distances).  Forcing an update because you want to rule would only amount to an appeal to authority or coercion.  That's not rational.  If you show them a more complete map and they update, that isn't about you - you should be updating your map when the time comes, too.  It's the territory that rules us all.  You are only sharing your map.

For the second definition, there are two pieces.  "Consciousness of or pride in" and "select or favored group".  I can tell you one thing for certain: if you form a group of intellectual elitists, they will not be considered "select or favored" by the general population.  They will be treated as the scum on the bottom of scum's shoe.

For that reason, any group of intellectual elitists will quickly become an oxymoron.  First, they'll have to believe that they are "select and favored" when they are not, and perhaps justify this with "we are so deserving of being select and favored that no one can see it but us" (which may make them hopelessly unable to update).  Second, the attitude of superiority is likely to provoke such anti-intellectual counter-prejudice that the resulting oppression could make them ineffectual.  Powerless to get anywhere because they are so hated, their "superiority" will make them into second class citizens.  You don't achieve elite status by being an intellectual elitist.

In the event that LessWrong was considered "select" or "favored" by the outside population, would "consciousness" of that qualify the members as elitists?  If you use the literal definition of "consciousness", you can claim a literal "yes" - but it would mean that simply acknowledging a (hypothetical) fact (independent market research surveys, we'll say) should be taken as automatic proof that you're an arrogant scumbag.  That would be committing Yvain's "worst argument in the world", guilt by association.  We can't assume that everyone who acknowledges popularity or excellence is guilty of wrongdoing.

So let's ask this: Why does elitism have negative connotations? What does it REALLY mean when people call a group of intellectuals "elitists"?

I think the answer to this is in Jane Elliot's brown eyes, blue eyes experiment.  If you're not familiar with it, a school teacher named Jane Elliot, horrified by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to teach her class a lesson about prejudice.  She divided the class into two groups - brown eyes and blue eyes.  She told them things like brown eyed kids are smarter and harder-working than blue eyed kids.  The children reacted dramatically:

"When several of the brown-eyed kids who had problems reading went to their primer that morning, they whizzed through sentences"

"A smart blue-eyed girl, who had never had problems with her multiplication tables, started making all kinds of mistakes."

"During afternoon recess, the girl came running back to Room 10, sobbing. Three brown-eyed girls had ganged up on her, and one had hit her, warning, “You better apologize to us for getting in our way because we’re better than you are."

When people complain of elitism, what they seem to be reacting to is a concern that feeling "better than others" will be used as an excuse for abuse - either via coercion, or by sabotaging their sense of self-worth and intellectual performance.

The goal of LessWrong is to spread rationality in order to make a bigger difference in the world.  This has nothing to do with abusing people.  Just because some people with advanced abilities choose to use them as an excuse to abuse other people, it doesn't mean that anybody here has to do that.  Just because some of us might have advanced abilities and are also aware of them does not mean we need to commit Yvain's "the worst argument in the world" by assuming the guilt that comes with elitism.  We can reject this sort of thinking.  If people tell you that you're an elitist because you want a challenging social environment to learn in, or because you want to make the project that is the LessWrong blog as high quality as it can be, you can refuse to be labeled guilty.

Refusing to be guilty by association takes more work than accepting the status quo but what would happen if we allowed ourselves to be disrespected for challenging ourselves and striving for quality?  If we agree with them, we're viewing positive character traits as part of a problem.  That encourages people to shoot themselves in the foot - and they can point that same gun at all of humanity's potential, demanding that nobody seeks the challenging social environment they need to grow, that nobody sets any learning goals to strive for because quality standards are elitist.  To allow a need for challenges and standards to be smeared as elitist will only hinder the spread of rationality.

How many may forgo refining rationality because they worry it will make them look like an elitist?

These are the reasons I choose to be non-abusive and to send a message to the world that non-abusive intellectuals exist.

What do you think of this?

 

93 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2012-09-10T08:56:24.664Z · score: 21 (21 votes) · LW · GW

LW started out as a site where rationality itself was the main topic of discussion. It has since devolved somewhat, into a site dominated by open-ended discussion, but in which certain rational practices still dominate. The danger of a policy of anti-elitism, at a time when the original mission of the site has been somewhat obscured by all the diverse enthusiasms of the community, is that it could complete the devolution of the site into a forum where rationality dominates neither in content nor in practice. The "elitist" current may just be the selfishness of people who don't want to share a good thing, but it does serve to prevent that final dilution.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T01:13:20.111Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I have decided to try and understand other people's ideas about elitism, because I realized that I don't know enough about them. Would you like to explain yours to me?

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2012-09-10T06:13:41.556Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW · GW

The flow of this post is very strange. You are starting with extensive use of a word without clarifying its intended sense, then proceed to enumerate its possible dictionary senses. The problem that you get to eventually seems to be the fact that in at least some of the legitimate senses, "elitism" is a denotationally correct characterization of some of the LW-related behaviors, but there are associated negative connotations, possibly incorrect ones. Yet the post doesn't seem to address this problem, and its end is a collection of calls to shift in attitude whose content and motivation remain unclear.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T01:16:35.360Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. I've realized that I have a different way of ordering information in my mind than most LW readers do. I tend to organize things in interconnected systems, when what is expected seems to be a straight line of ideas. I accidentally assume other people see the same connections I do (hindsight bias?) and that causes confusion. I'm working on predicting where I'm going to make that mistake so I can avoid it.

comment by drethelin · 2012-09-10T05:55:39.718Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

Is the plan to make the advanced area password protected and only give the password to the worthy? Will people be able to read but not comment unless they have enough karma?

Also, any time you want to use a dictionary definition to make your point, don't. It's obnoxious and unhelpful. It skews your argument from being about reality to being about words.

You talk about elitists getting treated like scum, and yet all over the world people earn high salaries and are treated like princes for being "elite" in dozens of fields. Being elite is being awesome. We WANT people who want to be awesome, and don't want people who think that being awesome sucks.

Using rationality as a basis for rule makes no sense anyway. If you have a better map of the territory, people should update because you have a better map (assuming you overcome inferential distances). Forcing an update because you want to rule would only amount to an appeal to authority or coercion. That's not rational. If you show them a more complete map and they update, that isn't about you - you should be updating your map when the time comes, too. It's the territory that rules us all. You are only sharing your map.

I can't even figure out what you mean by this quote. If people aren't rational, and don't update, then the rulers should be the ones who DO.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T01:17:28.551Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I have decided to try and understand other people's ideas about elitism, because I realized that I don't know enough about them. Would you like to explain yours further?

comment by shminux · 2012-09-10T06:00:40.993Z · score: 9 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Who is with me?

Apparently you are still not getting that this is a wrong question to ask here. Try something less polarizing, like "what do you think of this suggestion?"

Additionally, feel free to work on your writing style. Like, creating a reasonable summary upfront is generally not a bad idea. Having a title that reflects your main point often works. Reviewing what other people here wrote about the same topic (multiple tiers) and quoting them also strikes me as sensible, though maybe a bit advanced for a new participant.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-10T06:07:12.682Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Well I tried your ideas. Thanks Shminux. I guess you really do want to improve me. That's very nice of you. I wasn't sure, because of your harsh style before.

I'm sorry I haven't gotten back to your other comments yet. As you can see I've barely written anything for the last few days. I was so horrified by the elitism that I kept seeing ... I lost the will to write here. This discussion may be my last one.

comment by shminux · 2012-09-10T06:34:52.321Z · score: 14 (18 votes) · LW · GW

I guess you really do want to improve me.

No, not really. I just want to enjoy reading this forum, and your posts interfere with this enjoyment, probably because your ego/skills ratio is too high, at least in my opinion. You are clearly intelligent enough to produce quality contributions (maybe not as good as Yvain's, but few here can match him). Unfortunately, your inflated estimate of how good you are gets in the way. Plus your combative style could use some improvement.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2012-09-10T06:51:35.231Z · score: 9 (15 votes) · LW · GW

ego/skills ratio is a huge problem on LW, imo. Founder bias, perhaps.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-10T07:05:30.537Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

That explains your behavior. The way it looks to me is that I don't predict this audience very well at all. I admit, I'm lost when it comes to figuring out how to present to you guys. I don't think the problem is my ego. Mostly because I can admit that I can't figure out in advance how LessWrong is going to react. I'll keep your criticisms in mind. Thanks again, Shminux.

P.S. I don't know who downvoted you but I liked that you were being so honest, so I put you back up to zero.

comment by Morendil · 2012-09-10T10:09:10.941Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think the problem is my ego. Mostly because I can admit that I can't figure out in advance how LessWrong is going to react.

Of the 6 posts you've submitted so far, 5 were meta-discussion, and 4 were calls to change Less Wrong. My hunch is that the overall response you're seeing is mostly determined by that. Try sticking to writing only about substantial issues for a while.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-20T08:38:26.762Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Okay. That's a good point. Though I'd like to ask you to take a moment to understand where I'm coming from:

I find LessWrong, and go "A clearing of sanity in this jungle of irrationality? Great!" I see that the clearing of sanity wants to improve it's website in John's proposed rewrites thread. (I thought he had been chosen to do this task but evidently, he just up and started a thread.)

As a web professional who knows things about web marketing, I could see that if LW wants to grow, they're doing it wrong. I say so in John's thread. This doesn't get anywhere, so I make a chart, and I post about it.

This becomes one of the top 30 discussions of all time. I volunteer to help LessWrong grow, and I'm given access to the LessWrong Google Analytics account.

A bunch of people commented with concerns about how growth could destroy the culture in the discussions, including a link to the wiki on the Eternal September phenomenon.

I discovered a comment that I found upsetting about "keeping out the intellectual riff-raff" and told Luke about it. I mention in an email that "my ethics do not allow me to do work for an organization that allows elitism." I assumed he did not want LessWrong to have a reputation for "elitism" (regardless of how it's defined internally, the external world will most likely think it looks bad) so I figured he'd do something about it.

Now I'm in a pickle. I do not want to destroy the nice clearing of sanity by deluging it in newbies, but I have volunteered to help it grow. Being a responsible person, I can neither forget the volunteer offer or just risk destroying the culture without even thinking it through. Instead of giving up, I think of solutions to the problem and invite the group to criticize these and share their wisdom with me in my Preventing "endless September" discussion.

Luke says he's not very worried about endless September even though Eliezer is definitely worried about discussion quality and a whole bunch of people posted concerns, but he invites me to discuss it because he might change his mind.

My concerns are complex and they won't fit in a comment, and people had been interested in criticizing my ideas so far, so I make a new thread, a call for agreement. Bad idea if you go by the popularity of that, but I've noted to self that people prefer to have few to no meta threads and hopefully, my original reasons are understandable.

A bunch more people express that they're in favor of "elitism" most notably in a comment with over 20 upvotes: "LessWrong is elitist:" ... "I wish LessWrong was more elitist!". Though it's still not clear what they mean, I find the amount of "elitism" talk to be rather alarming, because calling one's self or group "elitist" makes a very bad impression, even if you guys are all wonderful people. But for all I know, the 20+ people that upvoted that comment interpreted it in the worst possible sense of the word and really did mean to express that they're jerks, and may have not even stopped to consider whether the original commenter didn't mean it that way before pressing the upvote button.

At this point, two new obstacles to me helping LessWrong grow appear: One, helping LessWrong grow in order to be seen as "elitist" by the world will only smear their public reputation. This would hurt the site and make the parent organization look bad. Two, if LessWrong really is "elitist" in the nasty sense of the word, I have to refuse to help them for ethical reasons.

The people here are describing themselves and each other in public as "elitist". But some of them use their real names on the forum. This is the internet where what you say might last forever. Yet here they are smearing themselves and each other, the LessWrong website, and the Singularity Institute (by association), as "elitist".

Nobody seems to think that this is a bad idea but me. The clearing of sanity in a jungle has begun to look too much like the jungle itself to me. At this point, it's either try to explain it to them or revoke my offer to volunteer and leave the site. I figure "These guys care about rationality, right? How hard can it be? I'll explain my view and we'll probably come to a nice sensible agreement of some kind."

That attempt (this thread) didn't go over too well, for reasons that still aren't completely clear to me due to the large number of completely different criticisms. Few have responded to the topic itself, so I don't really know whether people agree or disagree. Some people think they speak for the group, but I have never seen that work out on LessWrong - so far, those I've seen speaking for the group have been verifiably incorrect. So I made a poll. Where I am at right now is that even though some (Schminux, Mitchell_Porter) seem to think I have potential to be a good writer here, I am so terribly put off by the way people are smearing themselves as elitists that if it doesn't get resolved somehow, I'm more likely to throw up than ever write you guys an article.

I either have to try to resolve my concerns about the "elitism" talk, or go do something better with my time than stay here being smeared as an "elitist" with the rest of you.

If anyone can suggest a resolution to this problem, I'm more than willing to hear it.

comment by Unnamed · 2012-09-20T11:14:50.832Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The word "elitism" is vague and affect-laden. In order to have a productive conversation about the set of topics that the label "elitism" vaguely points towards, it is necessary to set aside that term and get into specifics, rather than letting the conversation revolve around the word "elitism".

Before you started posting on Less Wrong, the word "elitism" (and its variants) rarely appeared on the website. You introduced the word to the conversation (e.g., here), and you have used it again and again (over a hundred times, according to your comment history). That is why some people have expressed their opinions in terms of the word "elitism" (where their opinion, roughly, is that they want Less Wrong to have high quality content). So if you just want people to stop using the word "elitism", you should be able to accomplish that (for the most part) by not using the word "elitism."

You let yourself get sidetracked from your goal of growing Less Wrong and decided to lead a largely irrelevant side conversation centered on the word "elitism" (what it means, whether it applies to Less Wrong, whether people might get the impression that it applies to Less Wrong, etc.). This discussion has been unproductive and lengthy, and you didn't heed the signals to stop taking the conversation in that direction (which included downvotes, comments about how you should proceed differently, and the obvious lack of progress towards your goal).

If you weren't offering to do work to help the site, I'd second Morendil's suggestion that you stick to object-level conversations, at least for a while. Maybe once you've spent some more time here and gotten a better feel for the site and its users you could re-engage in meta-level conversations about improving Less Wrong. That still might be the best option in the actual situation.

Another potential option for moving forward is for you to focus on more concrete questions about improving the site which draw more directly on your web marketing expertise. Is there a standard menu of options that web marketing professionals use to help a site grow? Do some of those options stand a better chance of maintaining the site's quality, or can they be tailored to do so? Are there proven techniques for preventing a drop in quality in the face of growth? If your company does this sort of thing, what kinds of conversations do you have with organizations to try to figure out how to increase their web presence in a way that's consistent with their goals? You're the one who has been leading this effort to improve the site; figure out how to lead it in a more productive direction. (And be aware that many Less Wrongers are losing their patience with you, or have already lost it. So don't waste whatever attention you can get).

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T01:53:11.660Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think you understand the very bad reaction I had to elitism. I feel that it is very important not to contribute to elitism (by some definitions like this one, which are not the same as the more popular interpretations here from what I can tell, though I didn't know that before) and that it is also very important to avoid being judged as an elitist (by that definition). I feel so strongly about this that I wanted to quit. According to my poll, 20% have the same strong feelings I do.

Based on the fact that you didn't seem to realize I was willing to quit over this and didn't see further interaction as worthwhile unless it was determined that most people here do not support elitism (by the particular definition), I would have to guess that you have a radically different idea of what elitism is from the definition that I was using.

I have realized that I need to learn a lot more about other people's ideas of elitism. This is an important topic to me. Would you be interested in explaining your ideas about elitism?

comment by Morendil · 2012-09-20T13:10:46.919Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the obviously thought-out response.

Instead of giving up, I think of solutions to the problem

This, perhaps, is where you missed an opportunity to apply a lesson from the Sequences. There is no urgency to solving the problem, the urgent task is to understand it, and it is this task that requires time.

You might also have missed subtle cues that you were violating tacit norms of behaviour, for instance when Luke said "we could debate in this comment thread" and you ignored that in favor of making a new post.

The clearing of sanity in a jungle has begun to look too much like the jungle itself to me.

This stands out a bit from the rest of your comment: it suggests you are idealizing the community, rather than acknowledging the consequences of its being made up of human beings equipped with standard issue human brains.

The reason I suggest you write about substantive topics is that this will give you more of a chance to get acculturated into the thinking tools that are the cause of your perceiving this as "a clearing of sanity in a jungle".

Even for the most acculturated among this community, best performance consists of applying some of these thinking tools some of the time, somewhat competently. Rationality remains the exception rather than the rule - this is implied in the very name "Less Wrong".

If anyone can suggest a resolution to this problem, I'm more than willing to hear it.

Play a round of Rationalist Taboo for yourself (i.e. don't try to second-guess what anyone else means by that term) on "elitist". Spell out what it is exactly that your ethics does not allow you to support or be seen as supporting. Approach this question lightly, with an open mind and no bottom line already filled in. Now relate this specific question to the way this community approaches ethical questions - you do not have to agree with the community, but you have to grasp what the approach is.

Are you willing to do the above?

If you can steer clear of any meta-discussion (including even allusions to meta topics), this could even be good material for a post.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T01:42:19.772Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This was so sane, Morendil. Thank you.

I don't know why I didn't realize that I needed to understand this better before I jumped in. I was ignorant of my own ignorance. Sometimes when you don't realize you're missing a piece of information, there is nothing to warn you. Other times, I see that things are going to be complex. (Which is why I took the time to think it out and wrote something like ten pages on different solutions to Eternal September and their consequences). I also do that at work - I clarify what the purpose of the project is before I code it. For some reason, that little flag was missing here. Now I get to try and guess why.

I think you're right that I don't pick up on hints enough. I really don't get why people hint. That seems dysfunctional to me. I wish they'd just be clear.

idealizing the community

The problem isn't that I idealized the community, the problem is ... how do I explain this. I am extremely prone to a particular bias. I know I have it, I just don't know the word for it. I give people too much credit. It's something I do over and over again. Not sure how to stop it. I seem to need to learn about each group's flaws individually.

a chance to get acculturated into the thinking tools

I started challenging my ideas and using logic at 17, and I've been pretty hard core about it since then. I'm already using a lot of the thinking tools. Apparently I still am not perfect. I feel like I really needed to be part of a group of people capable of pointing out my flaws and giving me ideas I would not have thought of. I am so grateful for this. I will have a chance to find any unseen problems now.

Rationality remains the exception rather than the rule - this is implied in the very name "Less Wrong".

Thank you for that. I feel better about not being perfect. (: Still going to aim for perfection though. (:

Play a round of Rationalist Taboo

I decided to take your and Alicorn's suggestion on this. At first I didn't know what that meant but I have since found the correct reading materials.

If you can steer clear of any meta-discussion (including even allusions to meta topics), this could even be good material for a post.

I would love to do that. I've been thinking that if I can learn enough about the political sides that seem to be triggered here, I can transcend thinking inside that dichotomy, and perhaps show others how to do the same. That's my thought on how to present it. Do you have anything to suggest in addition?

comment by Sarokrae · 2012-09-20T21:27:37.735Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't speak for all of Less Wrong here, but spending two years at Cambridge has already primed me to have an instinctive tribal urge to attack anyone who attacks elitism, because they tend to be Guardian comment section class warfare types, aka "the other side". It is a mindkill topic for me, so it's probably a mindkill topic for a lot of people here. It might even be a mindkill topic for you, I don't know. But it does mean you need to tread really carefully when you talk about it. There's a reason I need to consciously shrug off Guardian articles, and make myself not read through 10 pages of comments that will make me angry.

Guardian commenters are at least the more intelligent face of "the other side"; I understand there are many more people in both the US and the UK who share those views but are much less eloquent about them.

The way you use the word "smear" is telling my System 1 that you are on "the other side", which makes it hard to sympathise with you at all. In fact I can physically feel the indignant mindkill response rising in myself right now, so I'm going to stop talking, but I hope I've made my point.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-21T05:13:00.999Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I can physically feel the indignant mindkill response rising in myself right now

I admire how you've identified your reaction as a mindkill response. I don't know whether this is a mindkill topic for me. I am not even sure that we disagree. I care specifically that people do not abuse or take advantage of each other verbally or otherwise, that people should not feel owed something by strangers, and that people should not make excuses to dominate one another. Class and intellect are not excuses for any of these things to me. Aside from those specifics, I don't feel any tenacious urges to rend anyone's ideas asunder.

Are we in agreement about this?

Because I have barely read any of the writing by "Guardian comment section class warfare types" I have very little idea what these two sides are like. Your post brings me into an awareness of the fact that there are groups of people who identify as "elitists". Other than one specific (Mensa, which I view as a place where people who are lonely due to the differences that giftedness causes go to meet kindred spirits, and where people who are suffering from boredom go to alleviate ennui because they have a greater need for a challenge) and a vague sense that there must be overbearing jerks somewhere who call themselves elitists (I've met a few abusive intellectuals and I figure they must form groups somewhere) I was not aware that any groups actually identified as "elitists" or would want to defend that.

I have observed though, that mentioning intelligence differences is likely to trigger anger and the word "elitism" appears during those times.

I hate this reaction, so I try to be careful with phrasing.

Would you mind explaining these two sides?

comment by Sarokrae · 2012-09-21T10:54:13.953Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I admire how you've identified your reaction as a mindkill response.

It's not that hard. If you feel adrenaline/indignance/anger at a Less Wrong comment and/or a compulsive urge to reply then the prior should be that you've been mindkilled, since when one takes the outside view people on LW tend to be a pretty reasonable bunch.

Are we in agreement about this?

I am in agreement with your points as I interpret their statement. I am not sure my interpretation of the statements agrees with yours. For example, what do you mean by "not make excuses to dominate one another"? There are many situations (governments, chain-of-command in workplaces, employers) where people can legitimately dominate one another, if that's what you mean by dominate.

Because I have barely read any of the writing by "Guardian comment section class warfare types" ... Would you mind explaining these two sides?

Sure. I'll PM you, since I don't think a detailed description of British politics is very relevant. :)

The point that is relevant is that I'm not defending what you're calling elitism, nor do I frequently call myself elitist, I'm just opposing people who oppose elitism, since when they use that word the definition tends to include me.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-22T02:56:59.967Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

What I meant was just that it's pleasant to see that someone else was doing that. I didn't expect it. I know I'm capable of doing that, too. I am beginning to wonder about my response to the elitism thing. I'm asking myself questions like "Would I have responded differently if I was not upset?" and "If so, why did I let being upset influence my reaction to this specifically, when I know I can prevent it from influencing me on other things?"

The point that is relevant is that I'm not defending what you're calling elitism, nor do I frequently call myself elitist, I'm just opposing people who oppose elitism, since when they use that word the definition tends to include me.

Oh. I didn't think of the possibility of you being lumped into that outside of your control.

That's a good point and makes the situation more complex.

Back to the "two sides" - I don't really want to be on one side or the other. I want to understand both. There's got to be a way for both sides to get along with each other. It's a problem worth solving. Do you think a lot of LessWrongers would agree with these statements, or do you think they're too entrenched in mindkill?

comment by bogus · 2012-09-20T22:27:08.285Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There's no such thing as "the other side". There are a variety of arguments for anti-intellectualism, some of which may be more compelling than others.

comment by Sarokrae · 2012-09-20T22:29:29.904Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I meant "the other side" in a blue vs green sense, hence the link. I didn't claim it was a well-defined political stance, merely that perceived membership of it provoked a reaction in my system 1 and that fact was probably worth pointing out.

ETA: While the first half of the article you linked was interesting and informative, the rest of it plus the comments was precisely a demonstration of the kind of rhetoric that happens when people are motivated by what I referred to as "mindkill". This time it's surrounding the word "intellectual" rather than "elitism", but my point still stands.

comment by Emile · 2012-09-20T10:31:31.163Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The people here are describing themselves and each other in public as "elitist". But some of them use their real names on the forum. This is the internet where what you say might last forever. Yet here they are smearing themselves and each other, the LessWrong website, and the Singularity Institute (by association), as "elitist".

I'm quite surprised by your use of "smear". I'm aware that "elitist" has negative connotations, but not nearly as bad as "sexist" or "racist".

To clarify the connotations you're seeing, would you agree that MIT is "elitist"? Do you think saying that is a slur?

I consider LessWrong to be "elitist" in the same way that MIT is - if anything, LessWrong is much less elitist than mainstream academia.

Neither LessWrong not MIT would use "elitist" in their self-description, but both would answer "yes" if asked whether they are elitist.

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2012-09-20T15:23:19.013Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm quite surprised by your use of "smear". I'm aware that "elitist" has negative connotations, but not nearly as bad as "sexist" or "racist".

I find this confusing too. Maybe Epiphany is coming from somewhere like the American place where a prosecutor will always remember to address a defendant with a PhD. as 'doctor' in order to turn the jury against them.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T02:00:31.124Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for theorizing that - my situation was different from the situation most of you guys probably had growing up, I was disadvantaged. That might be the cause for the differing viewpoints. I have realized I'm pretty ignorant about other points of view on elitism. Care to explain yours? I want to understand them.

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2012-09-30T06:17:27.082Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I probably internalized something like this growing up:

  • There are people who are really good at something,
  • this is a good thing,
  • I'm not one of them,
  • but if I work very hard I could be.

I haven't been very aware of social class issues or using 'elitism' as an actual term. So my quick association with someone calling out elitism as a bad thing is that they're saying that people shouldn't try to be very good at anything. People who grew up more social class aware might have quite different instant associations.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T07:13:00.610Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm. That's interesting. What's interesting is that I relate with you completely about knowing that there are people who are good at things and wanting to work to become one, and not seeing anything wrong with it. I even want to defend the right to work to become good at things.

But I don't call that elitism.

Why do you?

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2012-09-30T07:48:43.906Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But I don't call that elitism.

Why do you?

Because that's what I think the people who say LW should be more elitist are saying.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T01:58:00.963Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I did not attend MIT but I am really curious about other people's ideas about elitism and I realize now that I was ignorant about them before. Would you mind explaining your ideas on elitism please?

comment by Emile · 2012-09-30T22:31:56.409Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't really have well thought-out ideas on elitism, but I think there are places like MIT that have high standards that everybody accepts as normal, and I'm not sure of what distinguishes situations where the high standards are accepted, and situations where those standards would give rise to accusations of "elitism".

Overall I don't consider "elitism" a very useful word because it's vague and can describe many different things: "my group has more qualities than other groups", "you should grand me special respect just because of this group I belong to", "some people are more skilled or more gifted than others", etc. - add to that a general negative connotation, and it seems like a multi-purpose boo light, along with "fascist", "anti-American", "defeatist", "terrorist", "cult", "fanatic", etc.

(have you read the sequence on words? It's very relevant here, especially the bit on sneaking in connotations )

comment by Emile · 2012-09-20T11:12:29.590Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

By the way, in the line of emotive conjugations like (from various sources)

I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool.
I am righteously indignant; you are annoyed; he is making a fuss over nothing.
I have reconsidered the matter; you have changed your mind; he has gone back on his word.
I am sparkling; you are unusually talkative; he is drunk.
I know my own mind; you like things to be just so; they have to have everything their way.
I am outspoken; you are blunt; he is rude.
I am creative; you are quirky; he is crazy.
I stay up to date; you procrastinate with blogs; he should get a life.

... you could add

I have high standards; you are elitist; he is arrogant.

Debating over whether "elitist" is the right word or not doesn't seem much more useful than it does in those other cases.

comment by Patrick · 2012-09-20T09:18:45.947Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The word "elitist" has political connotations. It is often used in right wing political discourse as a slur against liberals. For example the phrase "intellectual elite" is used a great deal in this article defending Sarah Palin. Some of these upvotes may be made by people who interpret "do you think elitism is bad" as asking "Do you hate university professors and would you vote for Sarah Palin?"

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T02:02:33.771Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you for pointing this out. I don't bother with politics, (I quit being interested a long time ago when I realized that nothing was being solved and no one was looking for solutions that would get to the root of the problem because they seemed to prefer squabbling) so I didn't know that.

I see now that it's something I really need to learn more about if I want to understand elitism better. And I do. Would you mind explaining more or, if you know of good reading materials, direct me?

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2012-10-02T13:04:53.414Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

it's something I really need to learn more about if I want to understand elitism better. And I do.

I think it's more useful to first better understand the reasons for wanting to understand "elitism" better. (I expect you are wrong in believing that it's a project worth working on.)

comment by Patrick · 2012-10-02T10:30:16.788Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

On the political use, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_elite

I bring up the political connotations because I don't think Less Wrong is particularly snobbish or exclusionary, and I think there are more flattering reasons why someone might choose to label themselves as "elitist".

Personally, I think the word "elitist" is too politically charged and emotionally laden to be of much use. There are a few different questions that the word lumps in together, I outline them below and my opinion of them.

Question 1. Should this site be hostile towards new members? (No)

Question 2. Should this site praise intelligence and rationality? (Yes)

Question 3. What privileges should those regarded as particularly rational receive? (No formal privileges)

Question 4. How concerned should we be with trying to preserve the current culture? (Somewhat, but not to the extent of making people feel small)

comment by Emile · 2012-09-20T16:21:58.890Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's interesting that "elitist" doesn't strike me as being politically charged - I would even be hard-pressed to tell whether it seems more left-wing or right-wing (if it wasn't for your comment, I'd tend to call it slightly right-wing).

Maybe it's because elitism vs. anti-intellectualism isn't as much of a hot political issue here in France; maybe French people (or French politicians?) are less hung-up about seeming elitist than people in lesser countries.

This article seems to indicate a clear cultural difference between at least France and the US on the issue of elitism.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T02:12:09.437Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Wow that's interesting. Thank you for the article. Do the French find it horrible when intelligent people end up on the wrong educational tier? What is thought about those who are unhappy because they're brighter than their tier allows them to be?

comment by Emile · 2012-09-30T22:24:04.306Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Eh, I don't know enough to answer you with much confidence on that, sorry.

There are some significant differences between the French and American educational sytems: we have the bac, a national standardized exam everybody takes at the end of high school, and getting a good grade at that can open a lot of doors, so is often a "way out" for a smart kid in a bad environment. Also, there are many good colleges with nearly free education, so French students typically graduate with waaay less debt than American ones, and you don't often hear of people who cut their education short because they were poor. Socialism: it works, bitches :D (disclaimer: I don't identify as a socialist and don't want to start a flame war, I just like poking fun at Americans).

Also, from what I've heard of Americans, I got the impression that smart kids would feel "held back" because the system cared more about not preventing the dumb kids from being left behind than about stimulating the smart kids, resulting in some smart kids getting bored out of their minds. I think that's less of a concern in France, it seems to be more of an American thing.

Overall I have a pretty low opinion of the American system, and concerns about my kid's education is one reason why I am reticent to move to the US (despite all the things that the US does better than France). And I get the impression that concerns of "elitism" may be partly behind the low quality of the American system.

But then, I haven't researched the topic in much depth (prior to this conversation, I wasn't aware that "elitism" sounded all that bad to Americans); it would be interesting to look at the British system, that is probably a bit closer to the French system than to the American one. The Chinese system is probably even more extreme than the French one, and Chinese people coming to France have a bit of the same reaction that I have when hearing about the American system - those people are crazy and lazy!

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2012-09-11T02:52:29.213Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

This post is currently tied for eighth most downvoted of all time (-22), while your original post on growing LW is tied for 25th most upvoted post of all time (+49). If you could figure out how to induce those responses at will, you could play us like a yoyo. :-)

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T01:18:36.103Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you so much for this. It was encouraging. I have decided to do just that - figure out how to present to this audience. (:

Though, I do not plan to write intentionally unpopular posts. (:

comment by faul_sname · 2012-09-10T07:49:00.816Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I can tell, you're trying to use standard arguments and appeals to emotion and group membership. LWers, as a general rule, come here because it's a community that mostly ignores those appeals. LW is one of very few places I've come across where this is the case.

In general, the most effective thing I think you could do to improve your posts and comments would be to use more specific claims and back them up with specific evidence. You're doing a great job of creating outlines before you post, and with translating your ideas into simple language (really, we do appreciate that). You could work a bit on being concise: there's no need to write an essay just to ask if we should have more areas than just Discussion and Main.

Another, specific thing relating to this post: taboo "elitist" and all synonyms. You already started to reduce elitism to the parts that were bad, and I think you could benefit by going a bit further with that thread.

Finally, we kind of do have a third level: the biweekly open threads. This probably belongs there.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-09-10T10:18:07.556Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

there's no need to write an essay just to ask if we should have more areas than just Discussion and Main.

Oh, was that what the post was about? Right, thanks.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T02:16:36.493Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you, Wedrifid. (:

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T02:16:05.152Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My intent was to say, basically "We look really bad, let's not look bad" which, I realize, is different from a scientifically provable or mathematically verifiable point, but it's interesting you went so far as to interpret this as "appeals to emotion". Maybe you meant something else was wrong with it?

I am working on being concise, thanks for the suggestion.

I did work out what I mean by "elitism" that's here.

Also, I've decided to investigate what other people mean by elitism. Do you care to explain your point of view?

comment by saturn · 2012-09-10T07:46:11.575Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

In this case, it's easy to predict how LessWrong is going to react. Your initial posts were well-received because you pointed out a potential problem, LW's high bounce rate, and even created some nice graphs. But when a consensus started to emerge that reducing the bounce rate would actually be a net negative, instead of accepting this or refuting it, you made a long series of posts mostly reiterating the same unconvincing points. Doing that will result in a poor reception.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T02:18:42.708Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Weird that you interpreted it that way. I thought I was working on solving the problem. This post would be an exception. I had a mind kill reaction surrounding "elitism" and, like 20% of the people who took my poll, was trying to decide whether or not I should quit LessWrong.

How did you end up with the perspective that I was wasting time reiterating unconvincing points?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-09-10T06:31:28.031Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think people who feel comfortable posting average youtube comments are going to be welcome or useful at LessWrong, I don't think this is a problem, and there are a lot of people like that.

Raising the sanity waterline on a grand scale should affect the comments on youtube, but we're a long way from that.

This being said, I'd like to see more rationality materials for people of average intelligence, but that's another long term possibility. Not does there not seem to be huge interest in the project, figuring out simple explanations for new ideas is work, and it seems to be be a relatively rare talent.

I only recently ran into a good simple explanation for Bayes-- that the more detailed a prediction becomes, the less likely it is to be true. And I got it from a woman who doesn't post on LW because she thinks the barriers to entry are too high. (It's possible that this explanation was on LW, and I didn't see it or it didn't register--- has anyone seen it here?)

There's some degree of natural sorting on LW-- I'm not the only person who doesn't read the more mathematical or technical material here, and I'm not commenting on that material, either.

I don't think having separate ranked areas is going to solve the problem of people living down to expectations.

comment by johnlawrenceaspden · 2012-10-02T14:34:36.680Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

that the more detailed a prediction becomes, the less likely it is to be true

That looks like part of the definition of probability.

Bayes would be more like 'If you've got two ideas about what's going on, and one of them says one thing's going to happen, and the other says a different thing, but in the event it's the first thing that happens, then you should believe the first idea more and the second idea less'.

Or to get a bit less abstract, say you're playing dungeons and dragons, and and orc hits you with a sword, and you're pretty sure that orcs do either 1D12 or 2D6 of damage, then if the orc does 2 damage, you should think 'probably 1D12', but if she does 7 damage, you should think 'probably 2D6'.

Does anyone know of any games that normal human beings play that could be used in this sort of example? I mean, apart from, you know, life.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T02:33:37.570Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'd like to see more rationality materials for people of average intelligence

Actually, search for "Center for Modern Rationality" and a post along the lines of "Name new Rationality Inst." - the latter describes an organization Eliezer is making as a spinoff and explains that it's going to have materials for high school students. They ARE trying to branch out to the rest of the population! This is exciting! (: I wonder how far they've gotten.

As for your other suggestions, I've begun talking about that again in my preventing endless September thread. You're invited to check out the cliff notes version and request new pros and cons be added.

comment by billswift · 2012-09-10T20:06:25.574Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I only recently ran into a good simple explanation for Bayes-- that the more detailed a prediction becomes, the less likely it is to be true.

That looks like a good way of explaining the conjunction and narrative fallacies, too. They could easily be looked at as adding details to a simpler argument. I wonder what other fallacies could be "generalized" similarly?

One thing I think we should be working on is a way of organizing the mass of fallacies and heuristics. There are too many to keep straight without some sort of organizing principles.

comment by cousin_it · 2012-09-10T13:16:47.320Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Can you give a link to that explanation?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-09-10T14:48:18.300Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It was an in person conversation. Her phrasing may actually have been tighter. My extension to her explanation is that if you have probabilities for aspects of a prediction, then there's math so that you can derive a probability for the whole prediction.

Her specific problem is that she'd like to post articles, but she's put off by having to make sufficiently upvoted comments to do so. I've told her that if she writes an article I'll post it with attribution for her.

I don't have a general problem with the 20 karma requirement for posting articles.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-23T22:47:08.912Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Rationalist taboo style explanation of how my perceptions of "elitism" developed:

I started out in life with disadvantages that I had to overcome. I am also gifted, but didn't know that until my mid twenties. I lived in a rich, privileged town and there were a majority of rich, privileged children in my school. Because I was disadvantaged, I never made friends with privileged children or teens. They were wearing Gap while I was wearing resale shop finds. If they ever used the word "elite" to describe themselves, I didn't know it. We occasionally annoyed each other - that was all the interaction that we had. Aside from my objection to their focus on status signaling (to me, there were obviously more important things to spend money on like starvation), because I was surrounded by them, I thought that their lifestyle was the way things were supposed to be, but that I was unlucky and didn't get to have that. These were not the "elitists" to me.

I met other gifted and disadvantaged people after school. These were my friends. This pattern of interacting mostly with the disadvantaged variety of gifted people continued until more recently. There are a variety of reasons for this. For instance: it took me years of excruciating effort to learn to speak and write in a way that's polished enough that it prevents privileged gifted people from assuming that I'm stupid because I have dyslexia.

A lot of the gifted and disadvantaged people I met felt strongly that they did not want to see themselves as gifted - it would make them feel arrogant. Some of them even deny that intellectual differences exist. They were not the "elitists" to me.

I had occasionally met an abusive disadvantaged gifted person who insulted people who weren't as intelligent, made assumptions about them (prejudice), and reasoned in ways that were based on that prejudice. Those were the people I thought were the "elitists".

But they are uncommon in my experience. I don't know of them forming any big groups so I don't see them as a big threat. My perspective is more like "this is the sort of intellectual you don't want to be confused for." Since I hadn't interacted much with advantaged people, I had no idea that they'd ever want to call themselves "elitists". Wouldn't that cause people to confuse them with these abusive intellectuals? I figured they would never want that.

Now, I realize that there are large groups of people out there made up of advantaged / gifted people that call themselves "elite" and that I don't understand them very well. I want to understand them better. If you guys feel inclined, please help me get a better understanding of this group so I can update.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2012-09-23T23:42:15.720Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

When a concept is used, it draws attention to its connotations, the way people associate them with it. The role of a concept in an argument is to bring forth relevant inferences. A misleading concept might suggest incorrect or unintended conclusions, as is the case when it doesn't describe the situation very well or when you are relying on nonstandard connotations not shared by other people.

To taboo a concept is to screen off implicit reliance on its ability to activate connotations in an argument, instead naming them and motivating their relevance explicitly. If the argument is valid, it will go through in this more explicit form as well (if it doesn't, there might be an actual problem with the argument). The main focus of this procedure are particular arguments, not the concept that was causing trouble. So it is the arguments that you are trying to make that should be clarified, communicated in a way that doesn't rely on your understanding of the concept, while the use of the concept itself in communication and persuasion should be avoided.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-24T00:02:46.961Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I appear to be doing it wrong. Thank you Vladimir. The wiki on rationalist taboo is pretty short. Is there an article somewhere with good instructions for playing rationalist taboo?

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2012-09-24T00:32:13.613Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

As I recommended before, read the sequence on words and some of Yvain's posts (Diseased Thinking, Studies on Excuses, Schelling Fences, Worst Argument in the World). My comment works as a summary, if you follow what it's describing (which is where all those posts might help).

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-24T00:46:11.355Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Okay thank you. I've read more random sequences than I can count and Worst Argument in the World and I'm systematically working my way through the major sequences right now. I will check these other ones out, too.

Wait, I assume you mean "A Human's Guide to Words" when you say "sequence of words"?

Ironic place to have this confusion, isn't it. ;)

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2012-09-24T00:58:02.912Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

(Yes, should be "sequence on words", sorry, fixed.)

comment by someonewrongonthenet · 2012-12-28T01:00:10.328Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Elite - a group of people who are considered the best in a certain category. It's a descriptive term.

Usage - Power elite are the most powerful. Intellectual elite are the smartest. The Navy SEALS are an elite team of soldiers - they are the best at what they do.

Elitism - the view that their exists an elite class which aught to be given some privilege or consideration which is not given to non-elite members. This is a normative term - note the word "aught".

Usage - Obama is an elitist because he doesn't think the opinions of people like Joe the Plumber are important. He is dismissive of them because they cling to guns and religion.

So, putting this in context:

The users of lesswrong (rightly or wrongly) believe themselves to constitute an intellectual elite. Thanks to the lesswrong polls, they reason to believe that the average user has an IQ that is two to three standard deviations above the mean.

A self described intellectual elitist may believe that this group (as defined by education, high IQ, and rationality skills) is best suited to make decisions for the rest of society. An ideal political system in the view of such a person would be one that brings these intellectual elite to power. There are in fact quite a few people on lesswrong who hold this opinion - that politicians aught to be high IQ individuals with a scientific and "rational" approach to life. Additionally, people who come to lesswrong and write comments that fall short of what the users judge to be intelligent are generally not welcomed - letting non-elites participate in the discussion makes it more difficult for the elites to interact and make each other smarter. The common theme here is that those who are not part of the elite need to get out of the way so that the elite can carry out their tasks/discussions more effectively.

The charge of elitism against lesswrong implies that these individuals believe that the opinions of other people (in particular the religious, the conservative, other demographics which correlate negatively with low IQ) are not worthy of consideration. It also carries the insinuation that the self perception of lesswrongers as an elite intellectual group is unfounded ... that the users are just a bunch of smart-mouthed kids suffering from dunning-kruger. Or, going further, a group of genuinely intelligent people who have gotten carried away with their intelligence and are trapped in a loop of self congratulating themselves for being so smart. I believe this is called an "affective death spiral" around these parts.

Note that I'm describing end-of-spectrum views here in both instances, not expressing them. I can express them in another post if you feel it will be helpful.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-12-28T02:14:01.070Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for taking the time to elaborate on these ideas. I agree that people use the word in the ways that you describe, but I have a specific issue with one of these definitions. I am not sure whether you hold the following view or mine or some other one, but since you are offering to express your views, I decided to accept your offer and to share mine as well:

View I disagree with: "When intellectuals / gifted people / nerds hang out with each other and don't want non-intellectuals / non-gifted people / non-nerds around, they're elitists."

If you've ever talked to a vegetarian, you'll know that they prefer to eat with other vegetarians. If you've talked to a hunter, you can guess that they would not appreciate a vegetarian coming along on a hunting trip. If you know everything about basketball, it's going to be really boring to have a basketball conversation with someone who hates sports. If you've ever talked to a single mom, she'll probably tell you that sometimes she just needs to be with the adults for an evening - the children can't talk about the same topics and there are a lot of things you can't say around them.

Gifted adults often have different views that mix with mainstream views about as well as hunters and vegetarians. They're not able to talk about all of their ideas with everyone, just like people from different religions or political groups often can't. They tend to accumulate an unusual amount of knowledge in areas they're interested in, making conversations pretty one-sided. Everybody wants to talk to people at their own level - it's not spite, that's a phenomenon called "flow" - put simply, the brain rewards you for doing things that are challenging but not frustrating. For many gifted adults, especially in the upper ranges, having conversations with dissimilar people is either frustrating (because they can't get their ideas across or are misunderstood) or tedious (because all the work involved in explaining everything and presenting it just right is tiring). Many of them simply cannot experience flow in conversations with most people.

It's no wonder that gifted people like to gather in groups and talk to each other. Everybody from sports fans to Twilight fans needs the company of like-minded people. Everybody else does it. This is considered normal.

But when gifted people do it, they're called elitists.

Trying to play football at a bingo game or sing in a classroom will get you booted from those locations - because like-minded people are all trying to do the same thing, and here you are disrupting what they are doing. Kicking them out is perceived as good.

Boot someone for side-tracking an intelligent conversation, and you get called a name that inspires hatred in many.

I think it's unfair that people are politicizing the social needs of gifted people with the term "elitism" and instead of putting up with this or calling ourselves elitists we should say "No. You have your football buddies, your shopping buddies, your bingo buddies. These are my like minded buddies. I'm fulfilling my social needs the same way you are. Bug off."

comment by someonewrongonthenet · 2012-12-28T04:23:08.413Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

So, IRL I have exactly one good friend that I'd consider extremely intelligent. That's not to say that my other friends are stupid...but, they aren't like me, and that's a peculiar kind of loneliness.

Before I met my friend, most of my intellectual conversations were, as you say, one sided. It was almost like I was trying to provoke people into intellectual conversation, gently steering them into a frame of mind where they could engage me. People thought that I was argumentative and enjoyed debate - but I wasn't really, it's just that taking a stance that someone disagrees on is one of the best ways to force them into an intellectual conversation.

This is really not a healthy way to interact with people, since it often triggers emotional outbursts and leaves hard feelings behind...but I did it anyway for my own amusement. What was the point of having friends, I reasoned, if you couldn't talk to them? As I grew older and discovered better outlets for my intelligence, I stopped feeling the need to do this to people.

Even when people were willing and happy to engage intellectually however... after knowing them long enough I felt like a cat batting around a piece of string...or perhaps untying a knot. I was often able to predict what they would say and they rarely came up with arguments I hadn't already considered. Imagine playing the same game with an NPC, over and over again. It was amusing, but not fulfilling. I can't improve myself this way. (Although, every once in a while, these conversations help them...and when that happens it is pretty fulfilling, actually.)

Though I'm an extrovert and have many friends, I've gradually became socially withdrawn because most people cannot hold my interest. On the other hand, I need companionship to be happy. And my friends do provide most of the important facets of interaction ... they care for me and will look out for me, they are willing to listen to me even if they can't understand... and more importantly I can care for them. Being smart means you can solve other people's problems to some extent, simply by virtue of heightened empathy.

Anyway, when my "intelligent" friend and I have conversations, we don't leave anyone else out on purpose. Usually they just roll their eyes and say something like "there they go again, those two" and just go on to do other activities or talk amongst themselves. Once in a while they'll get interested and say something, and we usually give them an earnest answer, rather than a dismissal.

I describe these personal experiences to you to demonstrate that I do understand why gifted people might want an environment all their own.

The crux of the matter is, there are real differences between an intellectually gifted person and the average person...but the average person may not be capable (or more often, not interested) in understanding these differences. These differences are as insurmountable as the difference between an adult and a child.

The primary difference is what psychologists call "need for cognition". Even if someone isn't particularly smart, if they have a high need for cognition you can still have an interesting conversation with them because they share your interest in having meaningful conversation. These conversations can be fun and can spur you to develop new ideas.

The secondary difference is "metacognition". A gifted person is extremely self aware. what exactly am I doing, what are the reasons that I am doing it, what will be the results of what I am doing etc. This practice leads them to develop extremely good empathetic abilities, so they are acutely aware of the context of each situation, and of how their actions appear to others.

Ordinary people often act in ways that they themselves feel are "wrong", that they can regret or feel guilty about later. They often are incapable of understanding their own emotions, and therefore are unable to regulate them appropriately. They are susceptible to conformity and authority, primarily because they either do not recognize or do not care when conformity/authority is acting on them.

It is the difference in meta-cognitive ability which makes the ordinary person ...childlike? senile?... in comparison to the intellectually gifted person.

There are other quantitative differences, but I think I've hit on most of the qualitative ones.

By analogy, imagine people were interested in football (need for cognition). But only a subset of these people are physically fit (high IQ), and of these an even smaller subset have natural athleticism (meta cognition). Of these, an even smaller number of people are experienced in playing football (knowledge of the topic at hand).

Back to our question of elitism. I agree with you that it is totally understandable that people who enjoy football (high need for cognition) do not want to be disturbed by those who are uninterested in football (low need for cognition). But, i do not believe that is where the charge of elitism comes from.

If someone makes an on-topic and earnest comment on lesswrong, but the comment is judged as stupid, it is downvoted to oblivion. Often times, someone will write "this is not the website for you, sorry" or something equally insulting.

The person who made the comment probably has a high need for cognition. In other words, they want to play football with us, and we are being the mean kids who aren't letting them because they are physically weak (low IQ), klutzy (low metacognition) or out of practice (low topic knowledge).

I know that when I was a weak, klutzy, non-sporty kid, I didn't mind getting picked last at recess. I understood that I was not particularly good at the game, and I didn't begrudge that other players chose players accordingly. But if my friends had told me that I couldn't play at all or insulted me for trying... well, then I think I would have just cause to be angry with them. It's not like I had asked to play for the NFL (get a PhD?)...all I wanted was to play (discuss) with some buddies at recess (internet forum).

The difference between associating with people with similar interests and elitism, is that in the former case you allow anyone who shares that interest to join you, whereas in the latter case you only allow people above a certain threshold to join you. That's why Mensa is considered (and probably considers themselves) an elitist organization. Joining Mensa is seen as an act of snobbery, while doing the Putnam exam isn't...and the reason for this is that anyone has the option to try the Putnam, but only an elite group can go to Mensa meetups. It's not fun to be excluded from something you earnestly wanted to participate in.

For all that, the fact remains that it is also not particularly fun to play with someone who isn't an equal.

I don't have a solution to this issue, but I do empathize with what it's like to be on the other side of the elite/non-elite coin. For my part...yes, I would rather play with equals. But I don't desire to play with equals so strongly that I'm willing to hurt the feelings of someone who doesn't measure up by excluding them.

If, say, lesswrong gets over-run by the lowest common denominator of the internet...then it will be regrettable, but not more regrettable than the harm that is done to an individual's self esteem when they are told that they are too stupid to play. If it happens, there is not much we can do about it anyway, and there will be other forums.

Edit: Uh, this may be hard to read because it's a bit drawn out... but at least this way you can see my thought process in its entirety, which I think is what you wanted from this conversation.

Oversimplified TL:DR - it's only elitist if someone earnestly wants to participate in the conversation, but is excluded because they are too inept to make meaningful contributions.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-12-28T04:45:00.337Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Have you ever experienced alienation? I'm not talking about feeling a little bit annoyed. I'm talking about:

Half the time when you express your feelings, people misunderstand you. Half the time when you explain an idea, it's too complicated and they either stop listening or misunderstand. You start to learn not to express certain thoughts and feelings. After a while, these add up, until you're barely expressing yourself at all. Then you start to feel like life itself is boring, something very important is missing. Your friends say they care, but you can't escape the fact that they have no idea who they care about. You try and try to find people who can understand, with any amount of explaining, and they never do. You feel like you're from a different planet.

For some people, the amount of loneliness or alienation they experience due to being gifted is very small, or they don't notice it at all. I've noticed, however, that a lot of people with very high IQs are frequently alienated, settle for a social life that isn't satisfying, or give up on ever finding anyone.

It's not just that they feel that social enjoyment could be improved, it's that they feel exhausted from being different.

I'm talking about burnout.

Some people are different enough that they literally burn out from having to interact with people who misunderstand them, who they can't explain things to without frustrating themselves, who can't truly care about them because they never understand their feelings, who don't share their interests, etc.

Maybe you have never experienced this burnout. My whole life is that burnout.

Some people really do have a need to get away and be with people who are like minded. It's not about power, it's not about ego, it's not a game. The need is real and I'm sick and tired of it being misunderstood and politicized.

comment by someonewrongonthenet · 2012-12-28T11:35:19.460Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I do not often feel that, but sometimes I do. It might be due to my young age (early 20s, although I suspect that's the lesswrong median) or because I happen to have an unusually happy disposition. And though both are just an accident of biology, I take pride in having a happy disposition, much as I take pride in being intelligent.

But I recently had what I believe was an adverse reaction to a medication which triggered a period of depression for a couple months. I'm still in the recovery phase from that, but I'm getting much better.

During that period, I found it much more difficult to put up with the company of ordinary people ... the only thing that would cheer me up was intellectual conversation with an intellectual equal. I didn't realize what immense reserves of emotional energy a happy disposition gives you until I was robbed of it.

Depleted of emotional energy, it was much harder to maintain a conversation with ordinary people, and I would burn out and retreat to my room after a while. Before my period of depression, when my emotional reserves were virtually unlimited, I actually enjoyed talking to almost everyone...at worst, I'd get bored and move on to talk to someone else.

What you are describing sounds a lot like the "need for cognition" which I was talking about earlier, but it goes a step deeper because you also want to be understood by others.

It also sounds like your emotional reserves are generally at the low end of the spectrum, which makes it hard for you to find enjoyment among dull company - although I may be extrapolating too much from my own case.

For me, what drove the "burnout" for me was an immense feeling of cynicism. I'd talk to people, and every word would show me the weakness, laziness, and foolishness that makes up the nature of most ordinary people. And because I was depressed at the time, I saw a lot of that weakness in myself as well, which troubled me.

The happy, high emotional reserve me cared about understanding how other people worked, and doing my best to make their lives better. Even if they had dull intellects, I could make them happy through my actions and I could help them move forward, and that would make me happy as well. When my friends had problems, I put my intelligence to use in understanding and solving those problems.

The depressed, anxious, low emotional reserve me needed someone to understand me, to make my life better. But a complicated person often has complicated problems, and no one was really able to help me. A well meaning gesture of caring goes a long way and means a lot to me, but it can only go so far in helping me. I have to spend hours explaining "Today I am sad because person A did X, which reveals Y about the person's nature, and I feel like everyone I know has Y as part of their nature" or "today I feel lonely because I care passionately about Z and no one else including you even knows what Z is" in order to get coherent help from anyone, and the response is usually something I've thought of before. Fighting hard to be understood didn't necessarily improve my mood.

By the way, I've checked the data. Contrary to stereotype, there is no correlation between IQ and depression, even at the very high end. Sad people with low IQ, sad people with high IQ ... they may attribute the sadness to different sources (and they may or may not be attributing correctly), but at the end of the day the overall rate of depression is the same.

So...to answer your question, yeah, I feel different. Sometimes it is lonely. I wish more people were like me, that would make life much more interesting. I'm glad I am intelligent in the absolute sense, but in the relative sense I wish that everyone around me was smarter than me.

At the same time, when I am in a healthy frame of mind, I do not feel burdened by having to associate with dull people. It's only when I am in an unhealthy frame of mind to begin with that this is an issue. Healthy me has a need for cognition which is fulfilled by like-minded people, but healthy me does not have a need to be understood by others. We all go through life fundamentally alone, that's a lesson I learned early on - and not just those of us who are intellectually gifted. Everyone.

And in truth, though my intelligent friend understands my intellectual thought process, he doesn't always understand my emotions ... it takes more than just IQ to understand that. You've also got to learn to read faces too. As you said, I've given up on the prospect of someone understanding me completely... there are some people who understand my intellect, there are some people who understand my emotions, but it's too much to expect one person to fulfill all those requirements at once. This isn't a cause for unhappiness, by the way - it's just how reality is. One might as well be sad about the fact that their is no heaven, as long as one is going to be sad about the imaginary visions that reality doesn't live up to. I'd rather appreciate what people are, rather than hanker after the gaudy vision of what I imagine they could be.

And when I'm under-stimulated...I do my science. I read articles, write articles. I think every smart person needs a hobby or job or some other creative outlet that they are passionate about in order to be happy. That way you don't have to depend on another person - plus, you often meet interesting people this way.

Sorry if this is nonsensical...it's late.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-12-28T22:05:40.977Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for making the effort to try and understand. You've thrown one more variable into the equation - emotional energy. I don't know if you've considered how these other variables would affect things, but:

Other Variables Involved in Gifted Alienation

Ability to communicate is something that will increase or decrease frustration / alienation / misunderstanding, depending on whether it's low or high. Unfortunately, not all gifted people get the gift of communication, and gifts come in different sizes so they may not get enough of a gift in communication to compensate for the difficulty of communicating ideas and feelings that are as different as theirs.

Age of the person matters a lot. Supposedly, the speed at which you learn doesn't change, but if you're learning at say, twice the average speed, you'll be much further ahead of your age peers at 30 than at 20, and so on. The gap seems to have grown as I have aged (I'm in the ballpark of 30 myself). It has become harder and harder to find stimulating intelligent conversation. Make sure to value your sources of intelligent conversation, you may need them more later on.

Amount of intelligence. If your IQ is 130, you'll notice a difference between yourself and others but if it is over 160, you may feel like a complete alien. One interesting characteristic of the people I've met who have IQs in the profoundly gifted range is that they feel so very different that it's like being stranded on a planet full of aliens. It can be very stressful for them. I don't know what your IQ is, but it sounds to me like you can understand a little bit what this sort of problem would be like for them. You keep saying "need for cognition" but firstly, that's a trait that's more common to gifted people (it fuels the gift!) and not as common to non-gifted people. Secondly, have you ever been asked a lot of "why" questions by a little child and gotten burned out on answering them? Or can you imagine going a year without having a conversation that wasn't one-sided? These are the experiences that some of the very gifted people might have with "need for cognition". It's better if the person wants to know what you have to say, and compensates a little for the difficulty of communication, but it's not a substitute for having a conversation with an intellectual equal.

Also, understanding people's feelings is a lot more complicated than reading faces. If I make a sad face, why did I make a sad face? Is it because someone said something that hurt my ego, and I need a compliment, or is it that the person was trying to hurt my ego, which kicked me in a deeper place - the part of me that questions why I bother to make a difference when the world can be so nasty. I get this kind of misunderstanding a lot. They read my face right, if I show emotion at all (I frequently don't) but they interpret the wrong reasoning into it. People can be particularly stubborn in their interpretations. I can tell them "It's not my ego" and they will insist that it and ignore the real problem. I'm different enough that my explanations sometimes seem unlikely to people, and they disagree with me about my own feelings. I find it intolerable.

If you imagine for a moment that there's a wild variety of people here, all with different amounts of emotional energy, communication ability, different mental age gaps and different IQ gaps. Some of those people will be lucky, like yourself, and have a gap that's not too difficult to overcome considering the communication and emotional resources they have. Others will either have gaps that are much larger than yours, or won't have the same resources to compensate, or both.

Are gifted people more frequently depressed?

As far as whether gifted people are more frequently depressed, this really depends on the source that you read. A lot of things about gifted adults are not well-established. There's not nearly enough research on them, and a lot of published research findings are false. One source of confusion is that there are a lot of prejudiced myths about gifted adults (before Terman did his research, apparently people thought that gifted people were ugly, unhealthy and all kinds of things) so there are studies that refute these myths and do not tell the whole story, and some of the sources disagree on important things. I've read a lot of stuff about gifted adults (I'm a psychology enthusiast and that's my main psychology interest), and here's my take:

For people with IQs under 145, I'd bet that they do have pretty normal rates of depression. For people with IQs over 145, from what I've read, I'd bet that they have elevated rates of existential depression. Whether or not existential depression was lumped in with depression, or did not qualify as depression might be something that influenced the studies you read. For a citation, I will select "Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults". Here is an excerpt:

"There is relatively little inherent in being a gifted child or adult that makes them more prone to depression than others. Most often, it is a poor fit between the gifted person and the environment that creates the problems. A lack of understanding and support from teachers, peers, or family can precipitate very real problems of various kinds, including depression. Existential depression is an exception; it seems to emerge in most environments, though some circumstances prompt it more than others. Existential depression is particularly likely among the highly gifted, even though it is not a category of depression that is recognized in the DSM-IV-TR." (Page 133)

Can anything (like intellectual activities) compensate for unmet social needs?

No. If you want a source, I will refer to Mazlow. His hierarchy of needs clearly includes various social needs. Further, his take is that you need to have social needs met before you can actualize your potential. Trying to channel your potential into intellectual activities without having your social needs met is likely to be frustrating. A lot of people (possibly everyone who is not a sociopath?) experience purpose in relation to other humans. This post by Academian explains that experience. The gist of it is: When asking "What is the purpose of life" this question implies a "who" so you need to have agents to have purposes to in order to have a sense of purpose. I experience this need, myself. I need someone to be close to, to have a purpose to. Random strangers and donations are not enough. I am a social organism. I need to bond emotionally with others, to need others, and to be needed by them.

Someone I know with a very high IQ said one key reason he hasn't made anything of his potential is that he has to spend so much time trying to get his social needs met. This is a lot of work - it can be like rebuilding your social life after a move, except imagine that the social life you build never sticks. You'll be constantly rebuilding your social life over and over again. Some people in that range are lucky and meet someone that fulfills their social needs. Others rarely ever find an intellectual equal, let alone one who is compatible with them (even friendship requires a certain amount of compatibility - though this may not be very obvious to people who aren't really different). Some of them try marrying someone that's not an intellectual equal, but the people I know who have tried this struggle with severe depression due to it.

There unfortunately appears to be no substitute for having your social needs met. Therefore, I regard it as important for people who are significantly different (any meaning of different, including different due to having a high IQ) to be able to participate in a haven where they can interact with like minded others without being made to put up with alienation.

comment by someonewrongonthenet · 2012-12-31T00:54:51.408Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

On NFC - NFC is moderately correlated with IQ, it's true. But personality traits turn out to be equally accurate predictors.

I'll also point out that the loose correlation between NFC and intelligence is an implicitly made assumption underlying the worry that the quality of posts at Lesswrong will deteriorate with the new user influx...if it were true that NFC has an extremely strong relationship with intelligence, unintelligent people would simply would not be interested in participating in the discussion on the site, and there would be nothing for the older-user base to fret about.

We observe in everyday life that NFC doesn't imply giftedness...there are lots of people who have extremely complicated but stupid opinions. Ever spend time on a white nationalist forum? Or argued with an intellectual fundamentalist christian? They write long sentences and cite academic papers, while simultaneously lacking even a basic understanding of how the world works. I don't know whether people like this would score low or high on an IQ test - it's possible that this faulty reasoning results from deficits which does not influence IQ scores - but it can't be disputed that they've put a lot of thought into it.

On existential depression - This will naturally be correlated with intelligence, since you need to ponder philosophy in order to be identified as having this issue. However, is a social life really the cure for that? It seems to be like introspection is the only solution to existential depression ... the issue arises via faulty philosophy in the first place.

Moreover...it would be really easy for someone suffering normal depression to attribute it to existential problems. We often feel emotions and then look around for the source afterwords. Naturally, only intelligent people would think to attribute the sadness to a philosophical issue.

On social life - I agree that smart people are more socially fulfilled when they are around other smart people.

In my earlier post, I was conveying that social needs and intellectual needs can be met separately. If I understand your post, you believe that in order for the social need to be met, one must be conversing with an intellectual equal.

From your post, it appears that you feel like an adult surrounded by children. The children tirelessly engage in activities which you do not find appealing, and will be unable to understand complex, adult matters.

I guess I feel more like a child surrounded by adults. The thing that bothers me about people is a profound unwillingness to engage and a stubborn lack of curiosity about anything. Yes, there are things that they don't understand .. but that's okay, those are my things and I can play by myself, like I always have.

I guess it's not really a point that can be argued, since there's no accounting for utility functions. Either you've got different needs, or the gap in intelligence for you is greater, etc...

Anyway, I'll pick your brain on this, since you seem to have thought about it quite a bit - how does one create these safe havens for smart people? Is it really as simple as filtering out those who don't pass an IQ test's threshold?

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2012-12-29T06:57:36.954Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Can anything (like intellectual activities) compensate for unmet social needs?

No. If you want a source, I will refer to Mazlow. His hierarchy of needs clearly includes various social needs. Further, his take is that you need to have social needs met before you can actualize your potential.

That's a rather quick dismissal. Maslow's hierarchy is a "most people are mostly like this" type of argument. I'd think you'd need something stronger to argue for "no people are ever unlike this".

comment by ahartell · 2012-09-10T07:21:20.927Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not really sure what your point is with this post.

These are the reasons I choose to be non-abusive and to send a message to the world that non-abusive intellectuals exist.

If it's just that, I think the post would benefit from better focus. More likely, it would be better to conclude with something more related to the content of the post itself.

Also, I'm not sure how this

I have noticed a current of elitism on LessWrong.

jives with this

If people tell you that you're an elitist because you want a challenging social environment to learn in, or because you want to make the project that is the LessWrong blog as high quality as it can be, you can refuse to be labeled guilty.

You talk about people being elitist on the site, and that this concerns you, and as evidence you point to an upvoted comment to which you replied stating that they were using "elitism" differently from you. In fact, it seems like you would actually endorse their statement if not for the use of the word. I don't think it's worthwhile to argue about definitions (as others have mentioned w/r/t your quoting of the dictionary), but also I wonder what you're concerned about if the "current of elitism" is just people wanting to have a challenging, high quality, environment, as is stated in the comment you point to.

Finally, and this is minor, you refer a couple of times to "Yvain's 'the worst mistake'" when I think you're talking about his "the worst argument in the world," which seems clunky and kind of confusing, and using the phrase "guilt by association" is probably better avoided due to its more common use.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T02:37:53.302Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for your thoughts, Ahartell. (:

comment by cata · 2012-09-10T06:30:36.431Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think it's useful to argue about the word "elitism" any longer. I think most people already agree with most of the points in your post about "elitism" except for the actual actions we should take as a result.

I think that the problem with making a beginner and advanced section is basically shame. In lieu of a quantifiable metric that classifies people into the two sections (not likely) it's going to be very hard for people in the "lower" section to admit that the people in the "higher" section are actually better writers or smarter or more rational or whatever, even if they are. The foundation of anti-intellectualism in the real world is a bunch of people in lower sections sneering at people in higher sections. With that as a backdrop, I don't think that the lower section would be a fertile place for actual self-improvement.

comment by billswift · 2012-09-10T20:19:24.901Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You are grossly over-simplifying anti-intellectualism, some streams of which are extremely valuable. Your claim only fits the "thalamic anti-intellectual", one of at least five broad types Eric Raymond discusses.

The most important and useful to society is the "epistemic-skeptical anti-intellectual. His complaint is that intellectuals are too prone to overestimate their own cleverness and attempt to commit society to vast utopian schemes that invariably end badly." Of course lefties who want to change society to fit their theories try to smear them with claims like yours, but:

Because it’s extremely difficult to make people like F. A. Hayek or Thomas Sowell look stupid enough to be thalamic or totalitarian enough to be totalizers, the usual form of dishonest attack intellectuals use against epistemic skeptics is to accuse them of being traditionalists covertly intent on preserving some existing set of power relationships. Every libertarian who has ever been accused of conservatism knows about this one up close and personal.

And:

"If “intellectuals” really want to understand and defeat anti-intellectualism, they need to start by looking in the mirror. They have brought this hostility on themselves by serving their own civilization so poorly. Until they face that fact, and abandon their neo-clericalist presumptions, “anti-intellectualism” will continue to get not only more intense, but more deserved."

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T02:42:49.126Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You sound like you've researched this. If I wanted to get a really good idea of what both sides mean by elitism and understand the problem better, is there some reading you could recommend for that?

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-20T07:15:42.438Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting link, however, this looks like a tangent. If this is more related than I realize, please point out the connection.

comment by cata · 2012-09-11T05:46:47.958Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for this link. I think it just boils down to more arguing about words -- as far as I can tell, I agree with what you and he are actually saying, but I was using "intellectual" more sloppily to refer to people who interact with culture via argument, ideas, and art, regardless of whether they dabble in politics, perform what Eric criticizes as "ceaseless questioning," or whether they have an inclination toward "vast utopian schemes." It was sort of a throwaway remark and not very well thought-through.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-30T02:41:13.736Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's an interesting point, and I added that to the cliff notes version of my endless September idea list. I'm currently taking more suggestions for pros and cons to add to the list, or new ideas.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-20T07:10:07.443Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, I've had multiple responses (to other threads) where people confidently state that the other people think this or that, and they're completely, verifiable wrong. I've got people saying stuff in this thread like many here are fine with being called "elitist" which is a fundamental disagreement with my stance - I'm not fine with it and I think it makes LessWrong look bad. I think there's some confusion over what my main point is. I made a lot of points, so that may be why. For these reasons, I created an elitism poll which I hope will help me understand what people think on the most important points.

In lieu of a quantifiable metric that classifies people into the two sections (not likely) it's going to be very hard for people in the "lower" section to admit that the people in the "higher" section are actually better writers or smarter or more rational or whatever, even if they are.

I suggested a test in Preventing discussion from being watered down by an "endless September" user influx

A test won't deter ignorant cheaters, but they can force them to educate themselves. Questions can be worded in such a way that they serve as a crash course in reasoning in the event that someone posts a cheat sheet or registrants look up all the answers on the internet.

Some would be motivated to barrel through it even though they're not good at rational thought, but at least then they'd probably begin to get an idea of what an advanced rationalist is like. I think a lot of people would choose to hang back because such a questionnaire would make it seem too challenging to those who haven't developed their abilities yet. If you'd like to criticize that idea, I'd appreciate it, but it will be much easier for me to find that criticism later if it's on the endless September thread.

comment by Emile · 2012-09-10T11:16:52.782Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think the beginner / advanced distinction covers why many here are fine with being called "elitist" (I know I am!). There's also a good attitude / bad attitude distinction. If someone is intellectually lazy , or only wants to rant about one topic (politics or racism or open source or religion ...), or enjoys getting into fights, or just wants to make dumb jokes, then I'd rather they go post somewhere else. And yes, such people will invariably complain about elitism when made felt unwelcome, so the mere presence of accusations of elitism doesn't carry much information about whether the community's standards are really too high.

Make several areas divided by their level of difficulty. Advanced learners can learn in the advanced area, beginners in the beginner area. That way everyone learns. Not every advanced person is a teacher, but if you put a beginner area and an advanced area on the same site, some people from the advanced area will help get the beginners further. One-on-one teaching isn't the only option - advanced people might write articles for beginners and get through to thousands at once.

We already do something like that, but instead of having explicitly different sections, individual posts are of different levels, some are advanced technical discussions, some are intros for beginners. You're proposing that we replace this informal distinction with a formal, explicit one. The problems with doing that are:

  • making the distinction explicit makes it much stronger, maybe stronger than it needs to be
  • It reduces many axes to one axis: right now some people may be comfortable with advanced discussions of maths but not psychology, or the other way around, so the sets of what counts as "advanced" will vary from person to person
  • Having explicitly lower standards of knowledge in one section is likely to be perceived as allowing implicitly lower standards of behavior in that section - dumb jokes, flame warms, etc.
comment by cousin_it · 2012-09-10T13:27:43.100Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It reduces many axes to one axis: right now some people may be comfortable with advanced discussions of maths but not psychology, or the other way around, so the sets of what counts as "advanced" will vary from person to person

That's a fair point, but I don't see many people on LW who are productive in math discussions but trollish in psychology discussions, or vice versa. Poster quality may be multidimensional, but seems to have a strong primary component.

comment by Emile · 2012-09-10T16:19:49.623Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I pretty much agree (though am a bit surprised by your use of "trollish" - I don't think we would want trollish comments in any section, "advanced" or "beginner").

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-09-10T14:55:17.347Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The problem might not be trollishness, it might be that if there's are sections based on level of difficulty, then people will be reluctant to read and/or comment outside their self-perceived level (which might be too high or too low).

comment by wedrifid · 2012-09-10T11:22:23.493Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(Try adding an additional newline before the first bullet point.)

comment by Emile · 2012-09-10T11:37:17.044Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Fixed, thanks.

comment by faul_sname · 2012-09-11T06:53:44.080Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Y'know, you don't even begin to compete with the lowest-rated post. Not that that's an invitation to try.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-20T05:54:53.912Z · score: -9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Elitism Poll:

Note: The poll currently doesn't display results correctly, but I assume they'll fix it. If not, the CSV file does have the results, so I will total it once in a while.

You may PM me your responses to be posted anonymously if you wish to elaborate on your answers. Your critiques would be preferred to silent downvotes.

I should make a new elitism poll with better wording.

See also: Kindly's critique. Please critique the poll further if desired. [pollid:73]

Are you an "elitist", and, if so, how do you use the word? [pollid:32]

How do you think most people perceive groups that describe themselves as "elitists"? [pollid:33]

Do you feel inhibited about participating in a group that is described as as "elitist"? [pollid:36]

Hypothetically speaking: if LessWrong had a method that you thought was good to ensure you can still experience flow* in discussions while also maintaining quality on the blog, would you welcome beginners who are interested in becoming more rational and refrain from using the word "elitist" to describe LessWrong? [pollid:35]

*Flow: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow the psychology of optimal experience explains that flow is an enjoyable state of mind you enter when what you're doing is neither too hard or too easy. He regards it as an important key to happiness. Because people's ability levels differ, not everyone can experience flow doing the same tasks. In conversations with beginners, it can be too frustrating to try to explain your points, and sometimes the kinds of conversations they want to have are not challenging enough, so I think that may be a core issue here.

comment by Kindly · 2012-09-20T13:55:49.548Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

These polls are poorly posed for the following reasons:

  1. The first poll simultaneously asks "Do you think you are better than other people?" and "How do you use the word "elitist"?" and the result is confused voting.

  2. The first option of the first poll is too emotionally charged and conflates too many different responses. People that technically agree with it might be uncomfortable with choosing it.

  3. The third poll ignores the base rate. I, for one, would not participate in an online group non-anonymously, and therefore the same is true for a group described as "elitist". The poll options should be stated like "I will be less likely to participate than otherwise" or "It will be more important for me to be anonymous than otherwise" (that's poor wording but it gets the point across).

  4. Possibly, the "participation" and "anonymity" parts of the third poll should also be split up, or more combinations of these should be allowed.

  5. The final poll asks two questions, to which the answers may well be different, and allows only one response.

  6. The question of the final poll is too complicated, and as a result people who disagree entirely may end up giving the same answer, making the results meaningless.

All of these questions have an "Other (Please elaborate.)" option, which is good, but it doesn't really save bad polls: if too many people are forced to the "Other" option because of problems with the question, the results of the poll are meaningless and misleading, and you have no way of comparing the reasons for choosing "Other".

P.S. Due to the poll resetting bug, I'm going to post a raw data summary here for convenience (as of 10 total votes); the votes are split 1:3:6:0 for the first question, 3:5:1:1 for the second, 2:1:2:0:4:1 for the third, 8:1:1 for the fourth.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-21T03:44:06.677Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Wow, what a devastating criticism, Kindly. You did a good job. I feel a sense of reverence.

This was what I was hoping to get out of joining this site - to be shown that I am not perfect, to see the beauty of another mind.

Thank you.

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2012-09-24T11:19:52.251Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Why on earth would people who think elitism can be a good thing always automatically think they themselves are elites?

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-24T17:59:39.653Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think you're critiquing the question about participating in a group that is described as "elite" and what you're saying is basically that some people who identify as non-elitist may choose not to participate because they feel intimidated / don't fit in or similar, and this will generate irrelevant results because my question intends to find out whether they are put off by it because they have some moral disagreement with it or feel that it makes a bad impression socially. Do I interpret this right?

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2012-09-24T19:38:39.282Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

No. The problem is that you gave the elitist nothing but lines where they think they themselves are the elite, giving no option but an uncharitable self-serving justification for why someone would be elitist. People who don't think elitism is something the evil mutant enemies do might, for example, just think that there's nothing wrong with paying much more attention to people with a history of displaying a very high level of skill and achievement, even though they don't think they are much anything like such people themselves, and hence think themselves as elitist.

When you try to engage with people who actually hold an opinion and give them a poll that only has uncharitable justifications for the opinion, you end up with a downvoted poll.

comment by Unnamed · 2012-09-20T18:47:38.077Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Do not make another elitism poll. You are continuing an unproductive discussion.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-23T20:29:28.229Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What do you think would make the discussion productive?

comment by Epiphany · 2012-09-24T00:18:20.812Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Poll Responses at 19 votes:

Are you an "elitist", and, if so, how do you use the word? (poll id 32)

  • 3 (16%) - Yes, better than / entitled to special treatment or exceptions to rules.
  • 4 (21%) - Yes, but not by the first definition.
  • 11 (58%) - No.
  • 1 (5%) - Other.

"Elitists": 37%

Non-"Elitists": 58%

How do you think most people perceive groups that describe themselves as "elitists"? (poll id 33)

  • 11 (58%) - Likely to make a bad impression regardless of presentation.
  • 6 (32%) - There is a way of presenting it.
  • 1 (5%) - It's unlikely to make a bad impression regardless.
  • 1 (5%) - Other.

Do you feel inhibited about participating in a group that is described as as "elitist"? (poll id 36)

  • 5 (26%) - I will participate fully, but only if I can be anonymous.
  • 1 (5%) - I will participate partially.
  • 4 (21%) - I will consider quitting or not participating in the first place.
  • 0 (0%) - I will participate fully, without anonymity but I hope certain people don't find out.
  • 8 (42%) - I will participate fully, without anonymity and I don't care who knows it.
  • 1 (5%) - Other.

Inhibited: 26% - 52% (Some of these may prefer anonymous posting regardless.)

Uninhibited: 42%

If LessWrong had a method that you thought was good to ensure you can still experience flow* in discussions while also maintaining quality on the blog, would you welcome beginners who are interested in becoming more rational and refrain from using the word "elitist" to describe LessWrong? (poll id 35)

  • 15 (79%) - Yes.
  • 2 (11%) - No.
  • 2 (11%) - Other.

Conclusion:

Most people taking the poll don't identify as "elitists" and think it is likely to make a bad impression to call ourselves "elitists". About 21% of people feel strongly enough about this that they would consider quitting or not joining in the first place. Up to 52% feel inhibited about participating in a group that is described as "elitist". An overwhelming majority (79%) would welcome beginners to the site and refrain from using the word elitist to describe the site if there were a good way to ensure that they still experience flow in discussions and maintain quality on the blog (or some combination of those).

See Also:

Kindly's criticism of my poll.