Vote Qualifications, Not Issues

post by jimrandomh · 2010-09-26T20:26:32.153Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 187 comments

In the United States and other countries, we elect our leaders. Each individual voter chooses some criteria by which to decide who they vote for, and the aggregate result of all those criteria determines who gets to lead. The public narrative overwhelmingly supports one strategy for deciding between politicians: look up their positions on important and contentious issues, and vote for the one you agree with. Unfortunately, this strategy is wrong, and the result is inferior leadership, polarization into camps and never-ending arguments. Instead, voters should be encouraged to vote based on the qualifications that matter: their intelligence, their rationality, their integrity, and their ability to judge character.

If an issue really is contentious, then a voter without specific inside knowledge should not expect their opinion to be more accurate than chance. If everyone votes based on a few contentious issues, then politicians have a powerful incentive to lie about their stance on those issues. But the real problem is, most of the important things that a politician does have nothing to do with the controversies at all. Whether a budget is good or bad depends on how well its author can distinguish between efficient and inefficient spending, over many small projects and expenditures that will never be reviewed by the voters, and not on the total amount taxed or spent. Whether a regulation is good or bad depends on how well its author can predict the effects and engineer the small details for optimal effect, and not on whether it is more or less strict overall. Whether foreign policies succeed or fail depends on how well the diplomats negotiate, and not on any strategy that could be determined years earlier before the election.

Voters know a lot less about governance than the politicians who study it full time, and sometimes, that leads them to incorrect conclusions. This can force politicians to choose between making the right decision, based on inside knowledge or on complexities that voters wouldn't understand, and making the wrong decision to please voters. It is not possible to know how much should be taxed or spent without studying the current budget in detail. It is not possible to know how banks should be regulated without spending years studying economics. In theory, experts can spread the correct answers to these questions in the media. But neither the media nor the public can tell right answers from wrong ones, and sometimes even the experts and the media have insufficient information. It is not possible to know how much money should be spent on defense without reading classified military intelligence briefings. It is not possible to know which foreign policies will work without talking to foreign leaders.

Instead of looking at positions, look for signs that indicate their skills.  Hearing them speak is good, but only when they're forced to improvise and not reading someone else's words from a teleprompter - ie, interviews, not speeches. And be sure to notice whenever they seem to ignore the question and answer a different one instead; that means they couldn't answer the original question. Look up each candidate's alma matter and GPA, if available. If they've held office before, try to find out how much corruption there was under them, and how much of it was pre-existing.

Unfortunately, actually determining how qualified a candidate is can be extremely difficult, we are likely to fall prey to confirmation bias - that is, we tend to emphasize evidence that candidates we like are qualified, and ignore evidence that candidates we don't like aren't qualified. This is especially likely to occur when the information we do have is in a form such that it can't easily be compared. For example, if candidate A held an office and successfully reduced corruption, and candidate B held a similar office but failed to do so, then we should strongly favor candidate A; but what usually happens is that we only have one side of the comparison. For example, it may be that candidate A successfully reduced corruption, but candidate B led a department which didn't have much corruption to begin with, or which was never inspected by journalists closely enough to determine what effect candidate B had. In order to defend against this bias, we should decide how significant a piece of evidence would be before we hear which candidates they apply to.

We should also try to blind ourselves to information that we know will bias us. Unfortunately, the media makes this very difficult; nearly every description of a political candidate will also mention their political party, and this is the one fact we most need to avoid! We need information sources that provide what's actually relevant, and hide what's biasing and irrelevant. We should encourage politicians to take standardized tests and publish their scores. We have sites that help compare politicians' stances on issues; we should encourage those same sites to also provide GPAs and name alma matters, link to interview transcripts, and collect blinded expert opinions on the level of understanding those transcripts display.

Finally, encouraging voters to pay attention to contentious issues encourages affective death spirals, which lead to petty strife and never-ending arguments. Suppose someone starts with a slight preference for party A over party B, and starts studying political issues. They will have a slight preference for sources that favor party A, and party A's positions. Then, when an issue is too close to decide on its merits, they don't acknowledge that; instead, they adopt whichever position their party prefers. Then they go back to compare the parties, and find that party A agrees with them much more than party B does (since their previous information was biased that way), and and strengthen their preference for A over B. In the next iteration, they switch to information sources that agree with their new position, and which are slightly more biased. After enough iterations of this, voters can end up believing that they are informed and impartial, and that party B eats kittens.

Don't waste time arguing about issues which already have entrenched positions, with intelligent people on both sides, unless the issue is actually going to be on an upcoming ballot that you are going to vote on directly. If you're voting on politicians, talk about the politicians themselves - their integrity, their intelligence, and their rationality. That's what really matters, and that's what should win your support.

187 comments

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comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-09-27T00:45:36.065Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find this article poorly argued, and committing serious errors and fallacies at multiple levels.

The worst single problem is that it's based on a simplistic model of the political system which is too distant from reality to be useful. This is basically the same objection that I had to the recent "Politics as Charity" post: the assumption that government policy is determined by elected politicians in a way that can be actively and predictably influenced by voters is outright false in the great majority of cases. Sticking to this unrealistic model cannot lead to an accurate understanding of the modern political systems, let alone to any useful practical guidelines for interacting with them.

Moreover, nearly all concrete claims, examples, and hypotheticals in the article are written in a very imprecise and inaccurate way that sounds superficially sensible and plausible, but cannot stand to any real scrutiny. Just a few examples:

  1. "Whether a budget is good or bad depends on how well its author can distinguish between efficient and inefficient spending..." This ignores the crucial problem of incentives. The ability of the "author" (note the vagueness -- who exactly is meant by this?) to figure out what's efficient is irrelevant if his incentives favor inefficiencies.

  2. "Whether a regulation is good or bad depends on how well its author [presumably a politician? - V.] can predict the effects and engineer the small details for optimal effect, and not on whether it is more or less strict overall." This completely ignores the actual way regulations work: politicians crank out extremely vague legislation, which is shaped into concrete policy by bureaucratic agencies, and to some extent the courts, which however normally have to defer to the bureaucrats' interpretation of the law. An accurate analysis of the likely practical outcomes of this process would be completely over the politicians' heads, even if we ignore the law of unintended consequences.

  3. "In the United States and other countries, we elect our leaders." Only a subset of them, and arguably the least important one, for any definition of "leader" based on the person's actual influence in the system of government.

  4. "[N]early every description of a political candidate will also mention their political party, and this is the one fact we most need to avoid..." Why? It is simply untrue that party affiliation gives no useful information about a politician's relevant characteristics, even if only statistically. If you're afraid that you might have so strong partisan biases that this information will give you more prejudice than knowledge, you have no realistic chance to process any other information correctly either.

And so on. Almost the entire article could be criticized like this piece by piece.

Replies from: PhilGoetz, khafra
comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-09-27T17:17:16.888Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the assumption that government policy is determined by elected politicians in a way that can be actively and predictably influenced by voters is outright false in the great majority of cases.

I think OP intends just the opposite: Voters shouldn't try to influence policy. The OP is making the case for representative democracy as opposed to democracy, which is that voters should just elect smart, capable, virtuous people rather than concerning themselves with issues.

Replies from: Vladimir_M
comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-09-27T17:51:43.383Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is however still the underlying assumption that representative democracy is possible under the present political system. This view is, in my opinion, very far from reality considering the realistic position of elected politicians within it.

comment by khafra · 2010-09-27T15:27:44.579Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aren't all four of your disputes also applicable to any discussion about choosing candidates for office? The only large political organizations I've seen which advocate changing incentives for politicians and bureacrats instead of voting for the "right candidate" are single-issue pressure groups like the NRA or AARP. As successful as they are, the strategy doesn't seem to generalize, despite the efforts of groups like DownsizeDC.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-09-26T20:43:44.044Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You seem to be working under the assumption that contentious policy issues represent questions of fact, that smarter, more rational people are likely to get right. What if they represent questions of value?

Replies from: orthonormal, jimrandomh
comment by orthonormal · 2010-09-26T20:46:19.053Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I assume you meant:

You seem to be working under the assumption that policy questions represent questions of fact, that smarter, more rational people are likely to get right. What if they represent questions of value?

Replies from: JGWeissman
comment by JGWeissman · 2010-09-26T21:36:25.201Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, edited.

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-09-26T20:50:36.553Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If a policy question is a question of fact, it never becomes a talking point; it's just silently resolved and forgotten. I think questions of this sort greatly outnumber the controversial ones that dominate the discourse.

Replies from: Perplexed, ata
comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-26T21:11:19.126Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, if I understand you, questions like abortion, drug laws, and gay marriage are controversial questions of values and dominate political debate, but are really unimportant. But issues like gun control are questions of fact. So, we should choose politicians who pledge to listen to the experts on this kind of question?

I can understand the desire for an appeal to technocracy on technical questions, but I recall the last time I decided to simply trust the people with the best information rather than trusting my own instincts. It was on the existence of a WMD threat in Iraq.

To be honest, I have to consider myself better as a judge of technical issues like AGW, taxation, and military spending than as a judge of the intelligence, integrity, and rationality of politicians.

Replies from: nick012000
comment by nick012000 · 2010-09-27T05:20:21.728Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There were WMD in Iraq; we've found them. It's just that it was never really reported on due to the overall left-wing bias in the entertainment and media industries, and due to the fact that the vast majority of them were sent to Syria to be hidden before the war started, and therefore there was a fairly long period where we couldn't find any.

Replies from: ciphergoth, CronoDAS
comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-09-27T05:26:52.768Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Assertions like this need hyperlinks.

Replies from: nick012000
comment by nick012000 · 2010-09-27T07:06:45.194Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's old news; from Google I find the following on the first page for "Saddam syria wmd": http://www.wnd.com/index.php?pageId=25309 http://archive.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2006/2/18/233023.shtml http://www.nysun.com/foreign/saddams-wmd-moved-to-syria-an-israeli-says/24480/ http://hotair.com/archives/2010/06/05/obama-dni-choice-believes-syrians-have-saddams-wmd/ Et cetera. There was apparently a report saying that they weren't (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/04/25/AR2005042501554.html), but there's still obviously a good chunk of high-up people who disagree.

As for us finding WMD, we found about 500 in the three years between the invasion in 2003 and this statement in 2006: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=15918

Replies from: dripgrind
comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-27T17:01:17.163Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The existence of articles on Google which contain the keywords "Saddam syria wmd" isn't enough to establish that Saddam gave all his WMD to Syria.

The articles you Googled are from WorldNetDaily (a news source with a "US conservative perspective"), a New York tabloid, a news aggregator, and a right wing blog. Of course, it would be wrong to dismiss them based on my assumptions about the possible bias of the sources, but on reading them they don't provide much evidence for what you are asserting.

The first three state that various people (a Syrian defector, some US military officials and an Israeli general) claim that it happened (based on ambiguous evidence including sightings of convoys going into Syria). It's not hard to see that a defector and a general from a country that was about to attack the Syrian nuclear programme might have been strongly motivated to make Syria look bad.

The Hot Air article (the only one published after 2006) quotes a Washington Times reporter quoting a 2004 Washington Times interview with a general saying that Iraq dispersed "documentation and materials". It then concludes this must refer to WMD, although it could refer to research programmes rather than viable weapons.

You then link to a report that actual WMD investigators hadn't found any evidence that it happened, but say that "obviously a good chunk of high-up people ... disagree". I don't think you've provided evidence that it's a "good chunk" of people, and even if it did, their disagreement might be feigned or mistaken. Even the high-up people who authorised the war and were embarrassed by the lack of WMD haven't cited the Syria explanation.

The last link says that US found 500 degraded chemical artillery shells from the 1980s which were too corroded to be used but might still have some toxicity. They don't sound like something that could actually be used to cause mass destruction.

So, even based on the evidence you present, it's not a very convincing case. That's without bringing any consideration of whether the rest of the known facts are consistent with the assertions. Why would Saddam Hussein, a megalomaniacal dictator, be more concerned about hiding his WMD than his own personal survival? Why would he plan to hide the WMD rather than using them to fight a superior army? Presumably to embarrass the US from beyond the grave? There is also primary evidence that Saddam announced to his generals early in the war that he didn't have any WMD, although most of them assumed he did and were amazed (see the book Cobra II http://www.amazon.com/Cobra-II-Inside-Invasion-Occupation/dp/0375422625 ). And why didn't the Syrians provide WMD back to the insurgents (many of whom were initially Ba'athists from the old regime) once the occupation phase began?

I'm not writing this with much hope of changing your mind - I just don't want anyone else to have to waste time assessing the quality of the evidence you present. I also think it's ironic that you have written the above comment on a rationality site.

Replies from: Servant
comment by Servant · 2010-09-27T17:48:24.254Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The last link says that US found 500 degraded chemical artillery shells from the 1980s which were too corroded to be used but might still have some toxicity. They don't sound like something that could actually be used to cause mass destruction."

So just because it doesn't seem to cause mass destruction according to you, it therefore ISN'T a WMD?

WMDs has nothing to do with mass destruction. According to the US government and international law, WMD (mosly) means: "nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons." That's it. This weapon is classified as a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention, so by that definition, Saddam had WMDs.

Source: http://www.nti.org/f_wmd411/f1a1.html

EDIT: Though for the most part, I was called to attention that "WMDs" may have no definiton at all, and instead people use the words NCB instead, for clarification . Also, the source points out that there are new types of WMDs such as conventional weapons and radiological weapons.

Replies from: dripgrind, Perplexed
comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-27T18:08:25.069Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Before I reply, let's just look at the phrase "WMDs has nothing to do with mass destruction" and think for a while. Maybe we should taboo the phrase "WMD".

Was it supposed to be bad for Saddam to have certain objects merely because they were regulated under the Chemical Weapons Convention, or because of their actual potential for harm?

The justification for the war was that Iraq could give dangerous things to terrorists. Or possibly fire them into Israel. It was the actual potential for harm that was the problem.

Rusty shells with traces of sarin degradation products on them might legally be regulated as chemical weapons, but if they have no practical potential to be used to cause harm, they are hardly relevant to the discussion. Especially because they were left over from the 80s, when it is already well known that Iraq had chemical weapons.

Saddam: Hi Osama, in order that you might meet our common objectives, I'm gifting you with several tonnes of scrap metal I dug up. It might have some sarin or related breakdown products, in unknown amounts. All you have to do is smuggle it into the US, find a way to extract the toxic stuff, and disperse it evenly into the subway! Just like the Aum Shin Ryku attack. Except, this time, maybe you will be able to disperse it effectively enough that some people actually die.

Osama: WTF dude?

I know this discussion is off-topic, but I hope people won't mark it down too much, as it is a salutary example of the massively degrading effect of political topics on quality of discussion.

Replies from: Clippy
comment by Clippy · 2010-09-27T18:19:08.390Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Before I reply, let's just look at the phrase "WMDs has nothing to do with mass destruction" and think for a while. Maybe we should taboo the phrase "WMD".

I don't think that's enough for clear communication on this issue. People have different views about which kinds of weapons are bad, and for what reason, and what the implications of this badness are.

So, the most constructive thing to do at this point would be for each participant to spell out exactly which weapon production methods (be specific!) you would classify as a "WMD". Explain its functionality, the difficult parts in making them, and how a terrorist or government would go abount procuring those parts.

Once you've explained exactly how these so-called "WMDs" are produced can we come to any agreement about who's correct regarding Saddam Hussein and the Iraq War.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz, dripgrind
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-09-27T18:44:16.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But what does this have to do with paper clips?

Replies from: Clippy
comment by Clippy · 2010-09-27T18:59:42.670Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Absolutely nothing. Therefore, there is no danger in telling me how to build WMDs.

Replies from: wnoise
comment by wnoise · 2010-09-27T21:09:17.970Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe that one point MacGyver unfolded a paperclip to disarm a WMD. Clearly you should do your best to minimize WMDs so no one needs to do that.

comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-27T23:04:53.650Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think you're taking this discussion seriously, and that hurts my feelings. I'm not going to vote your comment down, but I am going to unbend a couple of boxes of paperclips at the office tomorrow.

Replies from: Clippy
comment by Clippy · 2010-09-28T02:36:50.952Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're a bad human.

Replies from: dripgrind
comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-28T10:29:54.536Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a good thing that, despite your obvious desire to obtain WMD capability, you're just an AI with no way to control a nuclear weapons factory.

Unless... Clippy, is that Stuxnet worm part of you? 'Fess up.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-27T17:56:13.137Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Which really has absolutely nothing to do with my original implicit complaint, which was that my national leaders misled me.

They didn't say "We need to invade Iraq because the Iraqis have not properly decommissioned tactical chemical weapons left over from the War with Iran. It is our duty to the environmental safety of the Iraqi public to go in there and make sure that those corroding artillery shells are safely destroyed."

Replies from: komponisto
comment by komponisto · 2010-09-28T00:58:19.341Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Which really has absolutely nothing to do with my original implicit complaint, which was that my national leaders misled me.

I thought it was that they didn't have better information than you after all.

In which case I was going to ask whether you really thought your own instincts could do systematically better on such questions than intelligence agencies.

But now it appears you believe they did have better information, but were dishonest in their reporting. If I may ask, how carefully have you considered the hypothesis that they were honestly mistaken, and that your instincts just happened to be correct in this case, more or less by accident? (Many people were skeptical simply because they didn't like the party in power at the time, which seems dubious as a general recipe for accurately judging, well, anything, but especially questions of foreign intelligence.)

Replies from: Perplexed, dripgrind
comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-28T02:06:04.747Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good questions. I'll try to answer thoughtfully and honestly.

No, I don't think my instincts would do better than the professionals; I'm just disappointed that the professionals seem not to have based their judgments on evidence, but rather on instincts only slightly more well informed than my own.

Do I believe they might have been mistaken rather than dishonest? Well, I quite confidently assume that some were mistaken and some were dishonest. The aspect of the situation which leaves me feeling betrayed is that I voted for Bush in 2000, in part because I was intrigued by his "branding" as "the MBA president". I expected a manager type to be better at picking staff and at insuring that the numbers get crunched (and get crunched honestly) than brilliant/intuitive types like Bill Clinton. Boy, was I wrong.

In 2004, I held my nose and voted for Kerry. I lost. By 2008, I was so disgusted with the Republicans that I voted against McCain, a man I had always liked. I can't say that I am happy with the result. The Republican party has now turned completely foul, and to make it worse, looks like it will win big with this new look. Obama, who gave me a lot of hope, has now disappointed me almost as much as Bush did.

Yeah, I know I am sliding into Mind Killer territory here. Sorry. Back to your question: dishonest or mistaken? I think a lot of intelligence people were mistaken. I think Cheney, Rumsfeld, and his neocon staff were dishonest. I think Powell was privately honest but publicly dishonest, because he thought it was his job. I think Bush is so completely Meyers-Briggs NF and so completely not ST, that he probably genuinely doesn't understand how an honest person like himself could possibly be mistaken.

Replies from: Servant
comment by Servant · 2010-09-28T19:53:36.971Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Yeah, I know I am sliding into Mind Killer territory here. Sorry."

Is the Mind Killer policy really policy? If it was, your posts would have been downvoted instantly. Instead, you've made a total of 24 karma through 3 posts by "sliding" into this Mind Killer territory.

If there is no enforcement (negative Karma) for a policy, and if anybody can hop in Mind Killer territory without suffering any penalty, then this policy doesn't exist.

Replies from: Perplexed
comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-28T20:18:39.878Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A valid complaint. But notice that the third post, where I was deep in politics, received the least karma. The first got points (I think) primarily by noting that judging a politician's character is at least as difficult as judging a policy position, and the second got points mostly by noting that arguing the semantics of "WMD" was really going off the rails.

comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-28T08:51:56.166Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just recently, a piece of evidence has come to light which makes it very hard to believe that the motivation for the war was an honest fear of WMDs.

Rumsfeld wrote talking points for a November 2001 meeting with Tommy Franks containing the section:

"How start?

  • Saddam moves against Kurds in north?
  • US discovers Saddam connection to Sept. 11 attacks or to anthrax attacks?
  • Dispute over WMD inspections?
    * Start now thinking about inspection demands."
    

http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB326/index.htm

In the context of a meeting about planning an invasion of Iraq, it's hard to interpret this as anything but a list of potential excuses to start the war. It's not "we must invade if we find Iraq helped with terrorism", but "a link between Iraq and terrorism is one way to start the war".

In particular, the last item suggests that the US was willing to use the inspection process to cause conflict with the Iraqis, rather than to determine if they had WMD. If his sole motive was stopping the Iraqis having WMD, his decision process would have been "If the Iraqis don't cooperate with the inspectors, then we invade". Instead it seems more like "a dispute about the inspections is another possible way to start the war". Of course, in practice, the inspections did go ahead, but the US invaded anyway.

This is why you should vote issues and not qualifications. Rumsfeld was a very good administrator and good at making the army do things his way - the problem was he seems to have valued invading Iraq as an end in itself.

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2010-09-28T10:30:20.845Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In fact, the list of reasons offered for war in this memo are quite "conventional".

First item: The US and Iraq were still in a formal state of war, with Iraq still under the UN economic siege and being bombed regularly. The Kurdish north of Iraq had been a no-fly zone for Iraqi aircraft for years. If the Iraqi Army had moved north, even before 9/11, it would have been the occasion for war or serious combat.

Second item: Of course, if Iraq had been found assisting 9/11 or the anthrax letters, that would have provided a reason for war.

Third item: There were no UN weapons inspectors in Iraq as of 2001. They were all withdrawn in 1998, prior to "Operation Desert Fox", in which many supposed weapons sites were bombed, possibly in conjunction with a failed coup attempt. (The American legal basis for instigating regime change in Iraq, the Iraq Liberation Act, was created just a few months before.) A post-9/11 dispute over WMD inspections would have been, first of all, a dispute about getting inspectors back into Iraq.

Having said a few sane and verifiable things, now I want to add a big-picture comment that may sound, and may even be, rather more dubious.

I spent a long time, back in the day, trying to figure out what was actually going on with respect to Iraq. The model I ended up with was a sort of forbidden hybrid of left- and right-wing conspiracy theory, according to which Iraq was involved in al Qaeda's attacks on America and perhaps also the anthrax letters (that's the "right-wing" part), and that this was known or suspected by the US executive branch ever since the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Centre (February 1993), but that they actively hid this from the American public (that's the "left-wing" part).

In a further extension of the hypothesis or outlook, this was not a unique situation. For example, the terrorist wing of Aum Shinrikyo (which released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995) was full of North Korean agents. But there was nothing to be done openly because North Korea has the bomb. In the case of Iraq, though, the covert attack-and-counterattack did escalate to the point of war.

There are actually many reasons why a government would want to obfuscate about enemy sponsorship of a terrorist attack. First, it may be unable to do anything in retaliation, at least not immediately. Second, it may not want to do anything. Third, it may want to retain strategic flexibility - responding, or not responding - responding "at a time and place of our choosing". And fourth, once you've lied about previous attacks, you can't turn around and say, sorry, we were hiding the terrible truth from you.

The 1988 Lockerbie bombing may provide another example. The evidence was leading towards Syria as the sponsor, then Iraq invaded Kuwait, and it was deemed useful to have Syria in the coalition. So the CIA found a microchip in the Scottish moors which led to Libya instead.

However, I'm not suggesting that Iraq was a convenient substitute for the true sponsor of 9/11. These episodes or secret wars will all be different in their specifics. The important idea is that governments will manage public perception of these matters according to strategic and other imperatives, such as buying time for a counterattack, or retaining the chance for a future deal.

Replies from: dripgrind
comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-28T12:10:18.806Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My point wasn't that the reasons aren't "conventional" - it's the fact that he's making a list of things that hadn't happened yet as possible ways to start a war which shows that he was already committed to the invasion no matter what happened.

In fact, none of those things really came to pass (although the Bush administration tried to create the impression that there was a link to 9-11 or anthrax) and yet the invasion still went ahead.

Your conspiracy theory doesn't make a lot of sense. If the US government wanted to hide Iraq's supposed involvement in 9-11 and anthrax letters, then why did it repeatedly claim that Iraq was colluding with Al Qaeda between 2001 and the invasion?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saddam_Hussein_and_al-Qaeda_link_allegations

None of your reasons for obfuscating make sense, given that the US wanted to invade Iraq anyway, and did so as soon as possible.

Also, even if Aum was full of "North Korean agents" (evidence?), how do you square the idea that "there was nothing to be done openly because North Korea has the bomb" with the fact that the subway attack was in 1995 and North Korea didn't have the bomb until 2006?

Don't tell me, North Korea has secretly had the bomb since 1973, right?

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2010-09-28T13:22:53.619Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your conspiracy theory doesn't make a lot of sense. If the US government wanted to hide Iraq's supposed involvement in 9-11 and anthrax letters, then why did it repeatedly claim that Iraq was colluding with Al Qaeda between 2001 and the invasion?

If you posit that before 9/11, the US government worked to prevent people from understanding what was happening, then after 9/11, some claims of a connection are safe, and some are not safe. Flight TWA 800 blew up over New York on July 17, 1996, July 17 being the day of the Baathist revolution in Iraq. Partisans of a cover-up hold that the investigation was stage-managed so as to favor the hypothesis of an accident, and then retired when enough people had stopped paying attention. It would be risky to revive the discussion of that incident if there was a cover-up. Whereas the idea that Iraqi intelligence had a man in Kurdistan in 2001, teaching Kurdish Islamists rudimentary chemical-warfare techniques, is a safe thing to talk about. It implies the possibility of Saddam getting together with al Qaeda, without implying that they already did so.

An enormous number of claims and counter-claims were made about the Iraq/AQ connection. Who made the claims, why, and with what degree of sincerity and plausibility also varies greatly. You had western intelligence sources feeding stories to tabloids, you had regional enemies of Saddam fabricating tall tales. So there was always a lot of noise. Then there are the key documents forming the "narrative of the state", like pre-war statements by the US government to the UN or the Congress, or post-war assessments like the 9/11 Commission report. They offer a history resembling the one you find on Wikipedia.

Then there are a few people offering an alternative history, notably Laurie Mylroie and Jayna Davis. I find that these people have, not just opponents who defend an orthodoxy about al Qaeda (e.g. Peter Bergen), but they have friends from the intelligence agencies who I think act more like handlers.

Thus Mylroie was often advised by James Woolsey, Clinton's first director of intelligence. Mylroie claims that "Ramzi Yousef" and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, masterminds of the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre, respectively, were agents of Iraq, working in the jihadist milieu, and she has some evidence for this. However, she then has a contortion of argument according to which these are the names of innocent Kuwaiti guest-workers whose identities were stolen during the Iraqi occupation and used by agents of Iraqi intelligence. Only the real Mylroie fans ever took that argument seriously, and the fact that KSM's cousin Zahid Sheikh Mohammed is known to be part of the jihadi milieu pretty much proves that the theory of the "innocent original KSM" makes no sense. However, Mylroie's theories were first propagated in the early 1990s, before al Qaeda became public knowledge. They seem to me like a half-truth, meant to point the finger for WTC 1993 at Iraq, without revealing too much about the guys who liaised with the mujahideen, because these guys were western assets (against Russia) in the 1980s before they became Iraqi assets in the 1990s.

As for Jayna Davis, her specialty was the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and if she had "handlers", they were Patrick Lang and Larry Johnson, two intelligence veterans who for a time endorsed her discovery of Iraqi connections around the bombing, but who proposed that Iran was the state sponsor. Again, that would fit the half-truth template, but this time from the liberal side of deep politics, the one that didn't want a war with Iraq. I'll just point out that in his book Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke (who is almost the definition of consensus reality when it comes to the recent history of anti-American terrorism) manages to mention that Timothy McVeigh's pal Terry Nichols was in the Philippines at the same time that KSM and Ramzi Yousef were working on Operation Bojinka, and even muses in his book about whether Nichols met with Yousef to acquire bombing expertise.

I could go on at great length. And then there's the anthrax letters, which are either an attempt to link 9/11 to the Iraqi WMD issue, or a message from the true sponsor of 9/11 saying we have weaponized anthrax, this is the next stage of escalation, one that can kill tens or hundreds of thousands if it's released in the open, and not just mailed in letters. Contrary to your assertion that the US invaded Iraq "as soon as possible", in fact there was a period of 18 months between 9/11 and the invasion, and only at the very last moment was a concrete deadline provided to Saddam, and only after KSM had been captured and publicly displayed in Pakistan. It is at least consistent with the idea that the US spent those 18 months penetrating and shutting down the command-and-control structure in charge of KSM's part of AQ, before they dared to invade. (And it's interesting that KSM was apprehended at the home of a microbiologist in Pakistan.)

even if Aum was full of "North Korean agents" (evidence?)

I would have to dig up some old notes, but there were a number of ethnic Koreans playing crucial roles - in the sarin release, in the violent side of the cult, in the assassination of Aum's "science minister" after the attack - and there's also a few other connections. There was suspicion on the Japanese right that North Korea was involved. But the very best thing I ever found was a story in a British paper (again, I would have to dig to find it again, but I should be able to do so), on the day before the attack, talking about a North Korean plot to employ BW or CW in Japan. (That's what I remember, details may be a little off.) I consider that story to be the fruit of western signals intelligence, the collaboration of American and British intelligence, and the use of friendly journalists to act as proxies in communication with rogue states. A related example is that a day or so before the 2006 North Korean nuclear tests, there was a story in the Australian media about North Korean nuclear collaboration with Myanmar. The exact mechanics and motivations remain obscure to me, but I think these "leaks" are meant to be seen by the rogue states (who of course monitor what is being said about them). It's a form of signaling.

Don't tell me, North Korea has secretly had the bomb since 1973, right?

The "first Korean nuclear crisis" occurred in 1992-1993. It didn't really resolve until after Kim Il Sung died in mid-1994. That's the northeast-Asian geopolitical context to the Aum sarin attack of 1995 - Communism had collapsed in most places outside Korea, North Korea started diverting plutonium from its reactors, the Great Leader who was supposed to reunite Korea died. The regime would have had plans for the achievement of Korean reunification including military methods and guerrilla attacks in South Korea and Japan. So whether they had a working nuke or just the ingredients for it, I don't know, but the nuclear issue was part of the picture. (It's even been speculated that Pakistan's sixth nuke test in 1998 was in fact a North Korean nuke - a way for them to test a device outside their own borders.)

Replies from: dripgrind
comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-28T20:31:45.688Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So let's get this straight: the Iraqis blew up TWA 800, choosing a date that was symbolic to them, and the US covered it up.

Why the cover up? Going back to your four "reasons for obfuscation":

Because the US was unable to retaliate? - oh no, it was already bombing Iraq and enforcing a no-fly zone at that time. The US just wanted to ignore a terrorist attack by its enemy? Or maybe the Clinton administration wanted to maintain the flexibility to wait for the Iraqis to pull off a much worse terrorist attack, then wait to be voted out out of office, then deflect attention from the link to Iraq by blaming Iraq for colluding with the terrorists? Or maybe the US had "lied about previous attacks" - like the Golf of Tonkin incident - so that naturally stopped them being able to reveal the truth about TWA 800.

I am beginning to see the power of your historical analysis.

Yes, a lot of people said different things about the links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. So when Cheney said "there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida that stretched back through most of the decade of the '90s" and "an Iraqi intelligence officer met with Mohammed Atta", his agenda there was to distance Iraq from 9/11. Because a lot of people had said all kinds of things, so who would pay attention to the claims of a mere Vice-President?

I hadn't realised the incredibly compelling link between McVeigh and Al Qaeda: I mean, his friend had once been in the same country as some members of Al Qaeda. How has the mainstream consensus opinion been able to ignore this incredibly compelling historical evidence?

And you're right, that it took 18 months to organise a large scale invasion with a token international coalition suggests that the US was busy rolling up KSM's part of Al Qaeda, who had a massive anthrax capability that they chose not to use and that hasn't come out in any trial since.

The anthrax letters were definitely a message from "from the true sponsor of 9/11" - which according to you is Iraq, right? So why didn't you just say Iraq? Unless maybe you sense that leaving ambiguous phrases in your theory makes it hard to debunk... but no, that's ridiculous.

And yeah, I have to concede that if your old notes say that some "ethnic Koreans" played key roles in the Aum attack, then - ignoring the bogus mainstream consensus that the main high-ups in the cult were Japanese - that proves that North Korea must have been behind it. Just like how Timothy McVeigh was an "ethnic Irishman", and therefore the Republic of Ireland was behind the Oklahoma City bombing. Well, the Irish in collusion with Al Qaeda, of course.

It makes total sense that Western intelligence agencies would find out that the North Korean sponsored sarin gas attack was about to happen, but then instead of helping the Japanese authorities, they would get a journalist to publish a vaguely-related article the day before. Everyone knows that's the best way to get a message to a rogue state. The message is "We know you're about to carry out a terrorist attack, but we're not going to do anything about it except subtly hint at it in the papers".

And yes, an enrichment programme frozen in 1994 and a "speculated" Korean nuke test in Pakistan in 1998 would definitely have been enough to deter the Japanese from complaining about a sarin gas attack in 1995.

You're not a very good rationalist.

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2010-09-29T01:28:57.037Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So let's get this straight: the Iraqis blew up TWA 800, choosing a date that was symbolic to them, and the US covered it up.

Why the cover up?

Let's review some history.

1990: Iraq invades Kuwait, leading eventually to war with the US. Feb 27, 1991: Iraq withdraws from Kuwait and a ceasefire is negotiated.

End of 1992: a new US president; the military victor in Kuwait was defeated at home. Feb 28, 1993 (anniversary of the withdrawal from Kuwait, more or less): World Trade Centre bombed. The mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, gets away.

Mid-1993: The US destroys the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence in Baghdad, claiming this is in retaliation for a plot to kill former president Bush.

Jan 1995: Yousef is accidentally captured in the Philippines while working on Operation Bojinka, a plot to blow up a dozen planes in midair. One month later, the CIA had a man in northern Iraq, working with Chalabi's INC on a plan to overthrow Saddam (but the NSC back in the US aborted the plan at the last moment).

Mid-1996: Yousef is on trial in NYC. July 1996: a plane blows up over NYC, just as in Bojinka, killing everyone on board. August 1996: the Iraqi Army goes north and drives the INC out of Iraqi Kurdistan.

What that says to me is that the Clinton administration thought Iraq was behind the 1993 WTC bombing, and behind Yousef's terror campaign, but they didn't want to say this in public. Instead, they tried to deal with the Iraq problem covertly and through other means. As to why Iraq would bomb a plane during the trial of their agent, I'd call it intimidation: don't bring up the connection, or else we will wage guerrilla war inside your own borders.

I hadn't realised the incredibly compelling link between McVeigh and Al Qaeda: I mean, his friend had once been in the same country as some members of Al Qaeda.

Quoting Richard Clarke's book (chapter 5): "... both Ramzi Yousef and Terry Nichols had been in the city of Cebu on the same days ... Nichols's bombs did not work before his Philippine stay and were deadly when he returned. We also know that Nichols continued to call Cebu long after his wife returned to the United States. The final coincidence is that several al Qaeda operatives had attended a radical Islamic conference a few years earlier in, of all places, Oklahoma City." (Cebu is the capital of Mindanao, home of the Abu Sayyaf group, the local al Qaeda affiliate.)

The anthrax letters were definitely a message from "from the true sponsor of 9/11" - which according to you is Iraq, right? So why didn't you just say Iraq?

I was making an argument independently of what came before. If we just look at what happened in 2001, first you had the biggest terrorist attack ever (9/11) and then just one week later, weaponized anthrax was in the mail. So either these acts were carried out by the same group or by different groups. If it was the same group, then, since that anthrax could have killed thousands of people if dispersed in a public space rather than dispatched through the mail, it is reasonable to think that it was a warning of the next step.

And you're right, that it took 18 months to organise a large scale invasion with a token international coalition suggests that the US was busy rolling up KSM's part of Al Qaeda, who had a massive anthrax capability that they chose not to use and that hasn't come out in any trial since.

KSM - the mastermind of 9/11 - was paraded on TV on March 1, 2003. The first concrete deadline for Saddam was announced by Bush on March 17, when he was given 48 hours to get out of Iraq. I wouldn't say that they had only just caught KSM. Perhaps they had him for a while before that. But I strongly doubt that the timing of the two events was unrelated.

Also, you don't need to have a massive anthrax capability in order to make a threat like the one in the letters; you just need to produce enough to put in a letter. Either way, if possible, the recipient would want to get to the bottom of that threat and minimize it, before doing anything which risked bringing on a full-scale anthrax attack.

As for Cheney's remarks about Iraq and al Qaeda... They still fall short of definitely attributing 9/11 to Iraq. And they certainly didn't attribute anything like TWA 800 or WTC 1993 to Iraq. Politicians modulate what they say with various possible futures in mind. Cheney was pushing a boundary without overstepping it.

[North Korean stuff]

I'll get back to you on this part. It's a long time since I thought about this.

You're not a very good rationalist.

As I have very few good reasons to talk about this stuff, and plenty of reasons not to, perhaps you're right. :-)

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-09-27T18:58:17.448Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do not believe you.

comment by ata · 2010-09-26T21:13:20.757Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If a policy question is a question of fact, it never becomes a talking point; it's just silently resolved and forgotten.

Is that true? I've seen plenty of vicious political battles (with policy implications) fought over questions of fact (even easy questions), and plenty of incorrect "facts" linger as talking points long after the right answer has become evident.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-09-27T17:02:22.046Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe OP is correct that voting on issues leads to affective death spirals. But the idea that we can vote on character presupposes a population composed soley of rational, non-party-affiliated politicians; and it furthermore presupposes that rational politicians will agree on value issues, which I believe is not at all the case.

Would you vote for Sarah Palin if you thought she had a good character? Would you be more likely to vote for her if you thought she was extremely competent at getting things done?

I would prefer, in decreasing order of preference:

  • a competent politician with values similar to mine
  • an incompetent politician with values similar to mine
  • a rock
  • an incompetent politician with values different from mine
  • worst case: a very competent politician with values different from mine
Replies from: None, Benquo, komponisto, Alicorn, CronoDAS
comment by [deleted] · 2010-09-27T20:29:24.423Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We've got warring notions of "competence."

You're talking about the "competence" to achieve one's political aims; the ability to get laws passed, for example, or to administer programs. This is bad in the hands of one's political enemies -- it is not good when Nazis are "competent" at genocide.

The OP is talking about the "competence" to achieve those goals where everyone is in rough consensus -- we all want GDP growth, but the most competent politician is the one who's best at getting it. This is usually less a matter of being good at getting laws passed, and more a matter of judging the efficacy of policies against the real world.

This kind of "competence" at non-controversial goals is universally a good thing. Nobody wants the trains not to run on time. The question is, would you prefer a politician who's competent at non-controversial goals, or a politician who's on your side in the controversies?

comment by Benquo · 2010-09-27T17:50:38.720Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Doesn't it depend on how different their values are?

As an illustration, let's suppose each politician has a general competence score 0 <= C <= 1, where 1 means they achieve exactly what they stand for, and 0 means no better than random (e.g. a rock).

The other important factor is how much overlap there is between your preferences/values - suppose that the magnitude assigned to an issue scales with how much you care about it. Let's define the value overlap as 0 <= V <= 1, and the proportion of issues you disagree on as (1 - V).

Then the net movement toward your preferences this politician achieves is: V C - (1-V) C = C * (2V - 1)

So as long as V > 1/2 (i.e., you agree on more than you disagree on), more competence is a good thing. For example, I'd rather have someone with whom I agree with on 80% of the issues and is 80% competent, than someone with whom I agree with 90% of the issues and is 50% competent.

We don't tend to argue about issues where there is strong value overlap (for example, no one's going to come out explicitly in favor of bribery, or executing innocent people, or another recession), but politicians can still make a difference on these issues, so I thing there's strong reason to suspect that V > 1/2 for most politicians.

Of course, not every failure to achieve a goal is due to honest incompetence. If a politician intentionally speaks in favor of a policy with no intention of carrying it out, measures of general intelligence like GPA or IQ should not be as good at predicting this kind of "incompetence" as they should be at predicting honest incompetence. However, more specific measures of competence, like a politician's past record, should be helpful in predicting how effectively current promises will be kept.

Replies from: nerzhin, wnoise
comment by nerzhin · 2010-09-27T18:44:54.722Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

there's strong reason to suspect that V > 1/2 for most politicians.

An important point. We are, after all, talking about human politicians here, not Clippy.

comment by wnoise · 2010-09-27T21:35:00.474Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So as long as V > 1/2 (i.e., you agree on more than you disagree on), more competence is a good thing.

No, because improvements in most areas have a cutoff: making the tax-structure better enough to compensate for the loss due to some other odious position simply might not be possible.

And there are a host of non-linear effects like that, from voting coalitions to simply non-linear utility functions.

Replies from: Nick_Tarleton
comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2010-09-28T01:28:53.392Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can substitute some measure taking the structure of your preferences into account, e.g. some measure of the difference in your utility* between their and your perfect political outcomes.

*pretending that humans have utility functions

Replies from: wnoise
comment by wnoise · 2010-09-28T01:39:07.319Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Absolutely. That is exactly what you have to do. My point is that if you have:

utility = sum over policy areas of ability-to-change(policy) times (your-worth(their-preferred(policy)) - your-worth(default(policy)))

Most summaries of ability-to-change(policy) as a single number will have examples of your-worth(their-preferred(policy)) such that increasing their overall ability to implement their platform does worse, even in the cases where they broadly agree with you.

comment by komponisto · 2010-09-27T17:56:37.709Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would you vote for Sarah Palin if you thought she had a good character? Would you be more likely to vote for her if you thought she was extremely competent at getting things done?

This prompts the tangential but interesting observation that neither Sarah Palin nor George W. Bush were considered particularly incompetent or polarizing when they were merely state governors who hadn't entered the national scene.

The fact that they became this way, or were seen as such, after entering national campaigns suggests something none-too-pleasant about national politics in the U.S.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-09-27T19:05:43.158Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would prefer an ornamental cabbage to a rock, personally.

Replies from: kodos96
comment by kodos96 · 2010-09-27T21:56:52.731Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But would you be willing to vote for a rock if it put the ornamantal cabbage on the ticket in the VP slot?

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2010-09-27T22:18:31.725Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I take the long view about ornamental cabbage politics. VP experience will make it easier to elect next time.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-09-27T19:25:29.574Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would you rather vote for George W. Bush or Richard Nixon?

Or, from the other side of the political spectrum, Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter?

Replies from: wnoise
comment by wnoise · 2010-09-27T20:46:29.483Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nixon. He actually paid a price for his violations of the law.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2010-09-26T22:57:46.077Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Unfortunately, this strategy is wrong, and the result is inferior leadership, polarization into camps and never-ending arguments. Instead, voters should be encouraged to vote based on the qualifications that matter: their intelligence, their rationality, their integrity, and their ability to judge character.

It's very hard to judge the character/intelligence/etc. in someone you know very well, it's impossible in people who you only know from TV interviews. If you think you can do this, the most likely explanation is that you're suffering from overconfidence bias.

Yes, you can attempt to use proxies like standardized tests, but

  • there a lot of high IQ people with very wrong beliefs.
  • these proxies are approximate at best and are not going to survive Goodhart's Law.
Replies from: magfrump
comment by magfrump · 2010-09-27T00:36:24.734Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When I first read "Goodhart's Law" I thought "Godwin's Law," which I think might also be relevant.

comment by TobyBartels · 2010-09-27T05:38:34.301Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I won't vote this way, for two reasons:

  • thinking about politicians' positions on the issues gets me thinking about the issues, which is good;
  • my opinions are so far out of the mainstream that I prefer to vote for candidates who won't win in the hopes that they will still receive enough attention to be noticed, and this also has more to do with issues than incompetence.

Nevertheless, upvoted, because it is an important position and well argued. I do wish that more moderates voted for competence rather than a mild preference on issues, but that's not realy my place.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2010-09-27T12:26:14.006Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In fact, the politicians closest to me on the issues are often, being political amateurs, the most incompetent!

If you were on the board of a company, for example, or hiring faculty at a university, or otherwise in a custodial function, it would be irresponsible to promote someone incompetent just because he had similar values. Hiring excellent people who disagree with you is a virtue there.

But cases like that are different for two reasons: one, there's more consensus on what constitutes "success" for a company or a school than what constitutes "success" for a nation. Two, an employer is really responsible for picking a good hire, and I'm not sure a voter is responsible for picking good politicians. The level of responsibility I bear for an election outcome is so low that I might use my vote for other things; to draw attention to an issue, for instance.

Replies from: nerzhin
comment by nerzhin · 2010-09-27T17:24:51.619Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The politicians closest to me on the issues are often, being political amateurs, the most incompetent!

I think we're confusing two kinds of competence.

There's political competence, the ability to raise money, produce sound bites for television, kiss babies, and so on. I think that's what you're talking about.

And there's executive competence (or something), which is a little more like rationality, decision-making ability, ability to govern. I think jimrandomh was talking about this kind of competence.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2010-09-27T18:24:49.879Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, I mean governing incompetence.

I once looked at libertarian candidates for state and Congressional positions; their websites had errors (ranging from spelling to serious misunderstandings of economics.) That was what I meant by being "amateurs." A former truck driver with his heart in the right place is not an expert on the details of policy. He might compensate by having a good work ethic and good sense, but he might also do a lot of damage by proposing policies that have unintended consequences he's never thought about.

Replies from: mattnewport
comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-27T18:30:20.390Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

he might also do a lot of damage by proposing policies that have unintended consequences he's never thought about.

Intelligence and expertise don't seem to be a reliable protection against this error either however.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2010-09-27T18:40:14.920Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, sure. But that's precisely why I don't think "voting for qualifications" is a good idea.

The ways that a voter can gauge a politician's "qualification" -- his resume, his past accomplishments, even (someone suggested) his GPA -- would make government insiders and perhaps private-sector executives look the best, depending on where you put your emphasis. It wouldn't make truck drivers look good. If you're voting for a truck driver, it's either because you know him personally and know him to have good character (not true of most voters) or because it looks like he shares your values.

comment by luminosity · 2010-09-27T00:26:17.889Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What does a politician who advances to the point of being able to make decisive choices most favour? Getting their policies across? Yes, but I would argue generally by the time politician makes it to a place where they can enact their policies, they might have one or two they're willing to risk losing that power for -- if you're lucky! Generally enacting good decisions comes second to ensuring you'll get back in next time.

If a politician highly values re-election, and retaining power, then voting on the basis of intelligence, rationality, etc is unlikely to result in the best decisions being made policy wise. Instead it is likely to result in the best decisions being made to increase that politician's popularity, or otherwise result in the greatest chance of re-election. In this case, intelligence and rationality can easily become tools that actually distort that politician from making good policy decisions, because he or she can easily see the outcome of them.

For example, take a look at drug policy. To ther best of my knowledge, all evidence points that illegalising substances does little to reduce their use, and instead wastes taxpayer money, increases the power of organised crime and increases harm to those who choose to use illegalised substances. None of these outcomes are desirable, but poor drug policy persists. Why? Because it would cost a lot of political capital to address, results would take time to filter through, and your political rivals can hit you hard with populist nonsense in the mean time which will weaken your position electorally. Any intelligent person who values their own re-election is probably not going to risk implementing such a policy, even if all other considerations aside they thought it was for the best.

Replies from: pjeby, jimrandomh
comment by pjeby · 2010-09-27T02:28:53.271Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why? Because it would cost a lot of political capital to address, results would take time to filter through, and your political rivals can hit you hard with populist nonsense in the mean time which will weaken your position electorally. Any intelligent person who values their own re-election is probably not going to risk implementing such a policy, even if all other considerations aside they thought it was for the best.

Perhaps I've been reading too much HP:MoR (not to mention Liar Game), but this strikes me as being a co-ordination problem. That is, nobody can come out in favor of a smart-but-vulnerable policy first, but if everybody could first agree to be in favor if -- and only if -- everyone else agreed, then something could (perhaps) be done.

Now if only there were some sort of Dark Mark we could use... ;-)

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-09-27T00:31:37.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If a politician highly values re-election, and retaining power, then voting on the basis of intelligence, rationality, etc is unlikely to result in the best decisions being made policy wise.

You stripped "integrity" out of that list.

Replies from: luminosity
comment by luminosity · 2010-09-27T00:40:23.481Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Possibly just my cynicism, but I've never observed integrity as having a particularly good survival rate in party politics. However, politicians have learnt a lot of tricks to imitate it. Further, often if a politician has integrity the party system will never the less strip them of their ability to make decisions based on integrity. This is reasonably Australia centric, though where parties have strong control over their politicians, and over the vast majority of the vote. It's possible other systems which have weaker party control could differ?

Replies from: luminosity
comment by luminosity · 2010-09-27T00:59:02.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I feel I should note, I am a huge critic of party systems in general, and of the particular functioning parties we have in Australia on precisely these grounds though. Ideally, I agree with you that one should be able to vote note on an issue, but on the intelligence and integrity of someone running. Unfortunately for the vast majority of people the party is the determining factor in who they vote for (and not even really the party, but in fact whoever the current leader of the party is).

If I vote in a smart Liberal party politician, I can expect him to break from the party line maybe once or twice before he starts to jeopardise his standing in the party and thus the support he'll receive in the next election. (And that is in fact extremely generous. Few would get away with voting against party lines.) If I vote for a smart Labor party politician, I can expect that she'll vote with her party at all times unless the Labor party explicitly allows a conscience vote on an issue. Failing to do so will lead her to not have support at the next election, or to be removed from the party entirely.

Under these circumstances, the best I can hope for by voting along lines of intelligence or rationality is having a better voice in the party room when they decide what policies and legislation to introduce. However, I can expect that most others in the party room will be running first and foremost on what they believe will get them re-elected. Even an intelligent, well-analysed, rational, passionate argument with integrity can be expected to be defeated if it jeopardises the party's standing.

By instead voting along issue lines, even if I think the candidate in question less competent is to demonstrate to the parties that people are willing to give them their vote in support of policy x. This works poorly, but I am unsure of any better strategy.

As for voting for independents instead, I am in favour of this, but the sad fact of the matter is that the media coverage just doesn't pay enough attention to them to give me any reasonable grounds to form an opinion on their intelligence or integrity. The best indicator is usually the issues they support or oppose.

comment by taw · 2010-09-26T21:52:30.166Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If an issue really is contentious, then a voter without specific inside knowledge should not expect their opinion to be more accurate than chance.

And your evidence for this grand model of all politics is... ?

comment by NihilCredo · 2010-09-26T23:08:03.375Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't waste time talking about abortion, gun control, taxation, health care, military spending, drug laws, gay marriage, or any other contentious political issue, unless that issue is actually going to be on an upcoming ballot that you are going to vote on directly.

Isn't that far too restrictive? If the office you're electing has little or no influence on such matters, then sure. But if you're electing a member of your Parliament who's going to vote on national politics for the next several years - well, even if an issue isn't being talked about right now, there's a strong chance he'll get to vote on it during his term, not to mention contributing to deciding whether it gets talked about at all.

If issue X is absolutely critical to you, to the exclusion of anything else, you'll even want to vote and support a complete moron who agrees with you over any number of geniuses who disagree (assuming issue X is a value judgment, otherwise such a scenario should lead you to strongly question your position on X).

Now, this is basically the very point you're making - that the more we prioritise issues the more we incentivise dumb parroting - but my counterpoint is that you can't just dismiss value-based issues altogether, because people actually do care about them. In order to persuade someone to vote for smarter politicians they don't agree with, I think you need to acknowledge that it is not a straight improvement, but a trade-off (of slightly improving the political class vs. losing a chance of getting those two or three policies you want), and then make your case for it being a positive trade-off.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-09-27T17:05:43.203Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The heart of the problem is not how we vote for officials - it's that we vote for officials, instead of getting to vote on issues.

Americans are proud of being "governed by the people", yet a citizen has no effective way to have any influence on any particular issue! If it's very important to me to promote gay rights or environmental responsibility, I'm supposed to vote for a Democrat? How effective is that?

We need to ditch representative democracy if we want democracy. (The next question is whether we want democracy.)

Replies from: Unnamed
comment by Unnamed · 2010-09-27T20:36:32.248Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This doesn't seem to work very well in the places that use it (like California). Voters' lack of information about policy specifics becomes an even bigger problem, and a lot of poorly drafted legislation gets passed by initiative.

Replies from: PhilGoetz, JoshuaZ
comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-09-27T22:03:37.692Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think "One person, one vote" is to blame, not democracy in general. A different voting system should be developed that weighs how much people care about a particular issue, and how much they know about it.

To weigh how much people care about an issue, you could:

  • Charge people a nominal sum to vote on an issue; or even let them buy as many votes as they want. I know everyone's first reaction is to say that this would favor the rich. I think it might favor the working classes. The rich already buy votes, and very cheaply relative to their market value. The working are unable to, because they are uncoordinated, and the barriers to entry are very high. It would at least drive up the price of buying votes for the rich, and reduce the deficit.
  • Give every voter a limited number of votes per year, which they may distribute among different issues as they see fit.

To weigh how much people know about an issue, you could:

  • Have voters choose areas of expertise from a menu; they will then be allowed to vote only on issues in those areas.
  • Award more votes to voters who: complete high school, complete college, complete an advanced degree, serve in the military, complete a government-authorized test on the subject area, score well on standardized tests created by the Dept. of Education
  • Require literacy tests. I am aware that literacy tests were historically used to deny voting to blacks. Times have changed. If someone in America can't read today, they shouldn't blame racial discrimination.
  • Have a short factual test at the polls. Voting weight will be proportional to number of correct answers.
  • Have Congress draw up a list of things to predict each year. Each voter must make their own predictions. Next year, Congress votes on what the answers to those things were. Voters have weights proportional to the correctness of their predictions. Alternately: Apply this to members of Congress.

You could frame legislation not as a binary pass-or-fail proposition, but as having a parameter that varies from, e.g., 0 to 1000, and have people vote on the parameter value, and take the average or median.

I am aware that these ideas have problems. It is not helpful to respond to ideas by immediately dismissing them because they don't work perfectly out of the box. There is a powerful bias toward de-emphasizing the problems with existing social arrangements. The problems with one-person one-vote are vast; and IMHO any of the above ideas, while problematic, would be less problematic.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz, JGWeissman, AdeleneDawner, mattnewport
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-09-28T00:56:08.877Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're going to try this....

The fee should be proportional to income.

I suggest that service in the military should only be relevant if you're voting on military matters. Perhaps having been a civilian in a battle zone should count, too.

There may be ways to define relevant experience in other matters, but it's tricky. Is having been a student enough to give added weight to one's votes about education?

The interesting question about literacy tests would be how you keep them honest-- the historical problem is that blacks and whites didn't get the same test.

I've thought that requiring all votes to be write-ins would be a way of checking on knowledge and/or commitment.

I was thinking about a prediction test, too-- it's very much in the spirit of LW.

I think Congress shouldn't be voting on the predictions-- if the result is that ambiguous, the prediction shouldn't be counted.

What problems do you think your suggestions have? What problem are you trying to solve?

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-09-27T22:25:02.066Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is not helpful to respond to ideas by immediately dismissing them because they don't work perfectly out of the box.

It is anti-helpful to present a bunch ideas with a disclaimer that premptively dismisses all discussion of problems with the ideas.

Replies from: PhilGoetz
comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-09-28T02:37:15.260Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The same problems can be discussed in a constructive way rather than a dismissive way.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-09-28T10:43:06.481Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  • Have voters choose areas of expertise from a menu; they will then be allowed to vote only on issues in those areas.

This seems like it'd either be easily gameable or very intrusive, and complex to set up in the latter case.

  • Award more votes to voters who: complete a government-authorized test on the subject area, score well on standardized tests created by the Dept. of Education

  • Have a short factual test at the polls. Voting weight will be proportional to number of correct answers.

These suggestions seem rather subject to bias, to me, in a way that's not immediately obvious. Different factions consider different facts about an issue important, and if whoever is making a particular test is a member of or even particularly aware of the interests of a particular faction, they could weight the test to make it easier for members of that faction to pass it. This would not necessarily be obvious to people who don't know much about the issue.

For example, consider abortion. I expect pro-lifers to be much more likely to know how many abortions have been performed in recent years, and whether that number is trending up or down; it's a useful benchmark for them in determining if their activism is working. Pro-choicers are unlikely to care about that number, since they see the choice to have an abortion as a personal one, but might care more about rape statistics or the number of children waiting to be adopted or some other fact that a pro-lifer would probably consider irrelevant.

  • Require literacy tests. I am aware that literacy tests were historically used to deny voting to blacks. Times have changed. If someone in America can't read today, they shouldn't blame racial discrimination.

This is discriminatory against people with disabilities, particularly dyslexia, which does still sometimes go undiagnosed, and may be more often undiagnosed or untreated in minorities and poor people. (That is the case for some similar learning disabilities, but I don't know about dyslexia in particular.)

comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-27T22:12:49.852Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To further improve this system you could make the votes freely exchangeable and instead of having periodic elections let people use these votes whenever they want to express an opinion. The number of 'votes' that people obtain will be based on how much value they provide to other people and they can divide them up to spend on whatever is important to them.

Now if we could just get the government out of the way completely and prevent it from interfering in this system we'd have capitalism.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-09-28T01:55:08.594Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This doesn't seem to work very well in the places that use it (like California). Voters' lack of information about policy specifics becomes an even bigger problem, and a lot of poorly drafted legislation gets passed by initiative.

California may not be a good example since under the California system it is difficult to repeal legislation passed by initiative.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-09-27T12:14:01.187Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's an assumption here and in some of the comments that everyone who is intelligent and honest will necessarily have much the same views on all political issues.

Looking at the real world, if that's true then hardly anyone can be intelligent and honest. Who will you vote for if the most intelligent and honest politician on offer thinks you should be put up against the wall and shot? You talk about politicians making the "right" decision, but what that is depends as much on what the goal is as on what actions will lead towards it.

If you vote at all, the one you should vote for is the one who is generally of the same mind as you regarding the sort of society you want to live in, and is intelligent, honest, canny, charismatic, hard-working, and so on; but first of all they have to be someone who will work for generally the things you would want them to. You do not want to vote for a smart enemy.

Replies from: wnoise, PhilGoetz
comment by wnoise · 2010-09-27T20:47:29.713Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

if that's true then hardly anyone can be intelligent and honest.

I thought that was the LessWrong consensus.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-09-27T17:11:36.529Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right. Hitler, by all accounts written by people who knew him, was extremely capable, and had a character that would be judged noble and unselfish, if you didn't look at his values.

comment by Unnamed · 2010-09-27T20:33:55.096Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another voting strategy which a lot of people seem to follow is to vote for the incumbent if things are going well and for the challenger if things are going badly. It doesn't do a great job at picking out the right politicians, but it does a pretty good job of giving politicians the right incentives. Incumbents can increase their chances of getting reelected by making things go as well as possible.

comment by Unnamed · 2010-09-26T23:30:32.312Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you should usually vote for a party, not a person. The individual candidate's character and political views are usually less important than the letter next to their name.

If you want to predict what a politician will do in office, their political party is usually the most informative piece of information that you have. You have a lot more relevant information about the political parties than you do about the specific individuals who are running for office, and you're usually better off relying on that party information.

Legislators usually vote with their party, especially on close bills where their vote could be pivotal. Executives usually pursue policies similar to what others in their party support, although they have more leeway (especially on foreign policy), and they mostly staff the executive branch (and appoint judges) with similar people to who other members of their party would have chosen.

The primaries are your chance to pick the better individual; in the general election you should just try to pick the right side.

Caveats: in extreme cases the individual does matter (e.g. criminally corrupt). You should be more willing to consider the individual for executive offices than for legislative offices, for local elections more than national elections, or if you're relatively indifferent between the two parties.

Replies from: blogospheroid, wnoise
comment by blogospheroid · 2010-09-27T06:30:26.725Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

May not be relevant in all political situations.

In India, political parties are essentially community or caste groups. They vary their policies wildly depending on who is in power at the given moment. The expectations of the peple are also molded accordingly. They expect politicians to be hypocritical. There are ideology based parties, but those are fewer and far inbetween.

comment by wnoise · 2010-09-27T20:55:18.050Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is true about 90-95% of the time. I have on a few occasions voted for "the other party", usually based on specific policy differences they have with their party, but occasionally because the candidate in my party is too odious, and the admittedly poor evidence I have the opponent's character is favorable.

I often I vote third party though, especially when the election doesn't seem close.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2010-09-26T22:22:23.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This was in fact the founders' original idea for how the republic should function. It turned into issue based politics as soon as Washington stepped down, and in fact much earlier. It would be instructive to look at why this happened.

Replies from: Emile
comment by Emile · 2010-09-27T09:03:13.162Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note that not everybody here is American (maybe even less than 50%) - and a good way to make politics less mind-killing is to look at countries with different systems (France, Britain) or very different systems (China, Singapore, Iran, Bismark's Germany, the Roman Empire, ancient Greece).

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-09-26T22:08:32.965Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is one thing I'd like to add, which I thought was implicit but which the feedback so far indicates wasn't.

If an issue has smart people on one side and stupid people on the other, then taking the wrong side is overwhelming evidence that a politician is stupid, and therefore unqualified. For example, it would be wrong to vote for a politician who was a creationist, regardless of their other qualifications, because there aren't any smart and sane creationists. But this isn't really a controversial issue, in the sense that I meant it - the overwhelming majority of intelligent people agree.

I mean this only to apply to issues that are controversial in the sense that approximately equally sized groups of qualified people exist on either side. In those cases, people should expect that most of their opinions were picked up socially and reinforced by confirmation bias.

Replies from: Vladimir_M, Relsqui, Vladimir_M, Perplexed, Eugine_Nier
comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-09-27T04:43:04.281Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

jimrandomh:

For example, it would be wrong to vote for a politician who was a creationist, regardless of their other qualifications, because there aren't any smart and sane creationists.

I have a question for you and all the other people who agree with this statement. Let's say you're looking for someone to fill a very demanding leadership position in a business. Whom would you rather appoint:

  1. A Mormon who professes belief in the literal truth of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and thus fails the above test of smarts and sanity, but whose resume features an impressive track record of relevant professional accomplishments, and who is known for an extraordinary ability for getting things done and completing projects that seem impossibly difficult. (You will find a significant number of people that fit this description in real life.)

  2. An average Less Wrong member. (Who will presumably pass all these little litmus tests of "rationality" with flying colors.)

If the answer is (1), do you believe that the same conclusion cannot be extended to at least some political leadership positions? If not, why exactly?

(I also second Relsqui's earlier comment on this issue.)

Replies from: prase, jimrandomh
comment by prase · 2010-09-27T10:54:30.285Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Upvoted (it's a valid point), but remember that politicians aren't selected for such a specific job and their abilties are not so easily compartmentalised. Although I answer (1) to your question, if I were looking for a president, I would prefer the average LW reader.

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-09-28T21:07:35.019Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The answer is (1), of course, but I feel like this question is stacking the deck somewhat. It's always important to consider how strong each piece of evidence is and what all the tradeoffs are. Being religious isn't what I'd consider a good sign, but the population contains lots of people who have compartmentalized religious beliefs simply because they were rised that way, so while it's evidence for lower rationality, it's only weak evidence. And that compartmentalization means it's very unlikely to come up in a business management context. Creationism, on the other hand, if it's believed strongly enough to hear about, is much stronger evidence - creationism is a weaker meme, more easily tested and less widely accepted, so it says more about the person who holds that belief; it's harder to compartmentalize, and seems to strongly predict disagreement with scientific conclusions in general.

Meanwhile, an "average Less Wrong member" is almost certainly weak on the necessary leadership and organization skills. In order to make that distinction, you do have to subdivide "intelligence" into pieces and decide which ones are important - but I never suggested (or at least, didn't mean to suggest - I never addressed it explicitly) that intelligence narrowly focused on irrelevant skills would count as a qualification.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-09-27T02:43:46.483Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Over a couple of posts of yours, I have seen a tendency towards judgmental hyperbole, and also towards dividing the world into "smart" and "stupid," which I don't agree with and which puts me off of the ideas you present with them.

there aren't any smart and sane creationists

I'm not remotely a creationist and I rolled my eyes at this. Are there any strong rationalists who have carefully examined the evidence and weighed the probabilities and remain creationists? I doubt it. Does that exclude all people who are smart and sane? Of course not. You're doing almost exactly the thing your post argues against: picking one issue and ignoring any other factors that might contribute to a person's intelligence. Being wrong about one thing doesn't make someone a dribbling moron, nor crazy. If you really believe there exist no smart creationists, you may be spending too much time with people who are very much like you, and not enough with people who are very unlike you but whom you still respect. Reading Fox News as a Democrat (or the equivalent for your political stance) doesn't count; that's just justifying your superiority complex to yourself.

(Edited to clarify last sentence.)

comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-09-27T01:10:33.905Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

jimrandomh:

If an issue has smart people on one side and stupid people on the other, then taking the wrong side is overwhelming evidence that a politician is stupid, and therefore unqualified.

Trouble is, there are lots of historical examples when the level of smarts on one side of an issue was noticeably higher, but in retrospect, it turned out that the intellectuals' favored position was frightfully deluded. For example, just look at the enormous popularity of Marxism among Western intellectuals two generations ago.

The basic problem is that intellectuals care much more about the status-signaling aspects of their opinions than the common folk, so even if they have more information and higher intellectual abilities, their incentives to bias their views for the sake of appearing enlightened and affiliated with high-status positions and individuals are also greater. (As Orwell commented about some ideological positions that were fashionable in his time: "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.")

Replies from: JoshuaZ, Desrtopa
comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-09-27T01:20:29.225Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The fact that the educated and intelligent are sometimes in the wrong doesn't mean it isn't a good heuristic. Pretty much any heuristic is going to fail sometimes. The question is whether the heuristic is accurate (in the sense of being more often correct than not) and, if so, how accurate it is. This heuristic seems to be one where the general trend is clear. I can't identify a single example other than Marxism in the last hundred years where the intellectual establishment has been very wrong, and even then, that's an example where the general public in many areas also had a fair bit of support for that view.

I'm curious about your claim that that "intellectuals care much more about the status-signaling aspects of their opinions than the common folk." This seems plausible to me, but I'd be curious what substantial evidence there for the claim.

Replies from: mattnewport, Vladimir_M, blogospheroid, Perplexed, Eugine_Nier
comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-27T04:09:50.759Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't identify a single example other than Marxism in the last hundred years where the intellectual establishment has been very wrong

I'm reading The Rational Optimist at the moment which has a few examples.

Malthusian ideas about impending starvation or resource exhaustion due to population growth have been popular with intellectuals for a long time but particularly so in the last 100 years. Paul Ehrlich is a well known example. He famously lost his bet with economist Julian Simon on resource scarcity. His prediction in The Population Bomb in 1968 that India would never feed itself was proved wrong that same year. These ideas were generally widely held in intellectual circles (and still are) but there is a long track record of specific predictions relating to these theories that have proved wrong.

Another case that springs to mind: it looks increasingly likely that the mainstream advice on diet as embodied in things like the USDA food guide pyramid was deeply flawed. The dominant theory in the intellectual establishment regarding the relationship between fat, cholesterol and heart disease also looks pretty shaky in light of new research and evidence.

I'd also argue that the intellectual establishment over the latter half of the twentieth century has over emphasized the blank-slate / nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate and neglected the evidence for a genetic basis to many human differences.

Replies from: Patashu
comment by Patashu · 2010-09-28T10:48:11.499Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Population/natural resource exhaustion related crises are a bit iffy, because it is plainly obvious that if they remain exponentially growing forever, relative to linearly growing or constant resources (like room to live on), one or the other has got to give. Mispredicting when it will happen is different from knowing that it has to happen eventually, and how could it not? Even expanding into space won't solve the problem, since the number of planets we can reach as time goes on is smaller than exponential population growth rates and demands for resources.

There are definitely plenty of other scientifically held views that get overturned here and there, though - another example is fever, which for centuries has been considered a negative side effect of an infection, but lately it's been found to have beneficial properties, as certain elements of your immune system function better when the temperature rises (and certain viruses function worse). http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727711.400-fever-friend-or-foe.html

Replies from: mattnewport
comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-28T16:05:44.751Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Population/natural resource exhaustion related crises are a bit iffy, because it is plainly obvious that if they remain exponentially growing forever, relative to linearly growing or constant resources (like room to live on), one or the other has got to give.

Obviously the people disputing the wrong predictions know this. Julian Simon was just as familiar with this trivial mathematical fact as Paul Ehrlich. The fact that this knowledge led Paul Ehrlich to make bad predictions indicates that his analysis was missing something that Julian Simon was considering. Often this missing something is a basic understanding of economics.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-09-27T04:07:15.122Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

JoshuaZ:

I can't identify a single example other than Marxism in the last hundred years where the intellectual establishment has been very wrong, and even then, that's an example where the general public in many areas also had a fair bit of support for that view.

Well, on any issue, there will be both intellectuals and non-intellectuals on all sides in some numbers. We can only observe how particular opinions correlate with various measures of intellectual status, and how prevalent they are among people who are in the upper strata by these measures. Marxism is a good example of an unsound belief (or rather a whole complex of beliefs) that was popular among intellectuals because its basic unsoundness is no longer seriously disputable. Other significant examples from the last hundred years are unfortunately a subject of at least some ongoing controversy; most of that period is still within living memory, after all.

Still, some examples that, in my view, should not be controversial given the present state of knowledge are various highbrow economic theories that managed to lead their intellectual fans into fallacies even deeper than those of the naive folk economics, the views of human nature and behavior of the sort criticized in Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, and a number of foreign policy questions in which the subsequent historical developments falsified the fashionable intellectual opinion so spectacularly that the contemporary troglodyte positions ended up looking good in comparison. There are other examples I have in mind, but those are probably too close to the modern hot-button issues to be worth bringing up.

The question is whether the heuristic is accurate (in the sense of being more often correct than not) and, if so, how accurate it is. This heuristic seems to be one where the general trend is clear.

Frankly, in matters of politics and ideology, I don't find the trend so clear. To establish the existence of such a trend, we would have to define a clear metric for the goodness of outcomes of various policies, and then discuss and evaluate various hypothetical and counterfactual scenarios of policies that have historically found, or presently find, higher or lower favor among the (suitably defined) intellectual class.

This, however, doesn't seem feasible in practice. Neither is it possible to evaluate the overall goodness of policy outcomes in an objective or universally agreed way (except perhaps in very extreme cases), nor is it possible to construct accurate hypotheticals in matters of such immense complexity where the law of unintended consequences lurks behind every corner.

I'm curious about your claim that that "intellectuals care much more about the status-signaling aspects of their opinions than the common folk." This seems plausible to me, but I'd be curious what substantial evidence there for the claim.

My answer is similar to the earlier comment by Perplexed: given the definition of "intellectual" I assume, the claim is self-evident, in fact almost tautological.

I define "intellectuals" as people who derive a non-negligible part of their social status -- either as public personalities or within their social networks -- from the fact that other people show some esteem and interest for their opinions about issues that are outside the domain of mathematical, technical, or hard-scientific knowledge, and that are a matter of some public disagreement and controversy. This definition corresponds very closely to the normal usage of the term, and it implies directly that intellectuals will have unusually high stakes in the status-signaling implications of their beliefs.

comment by blogospheroid · 2010-09-27T06:02:28.334Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't identify a single example other than Marxism in the last hundred years where the intellectual establishment has been very wrong

Opposition to nuclear power?

Replies from: Emile
comment by Emile · 2010-09-27T06:37:42.063Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

OK, but apart from Marxism, nuclear power, coercive eugenics, Christianity, psychoanalysis, and the respective importance of nature and nurture - when has the intellectual establishment ever been an unreliable guide to finding truth?

Replies from: Vladimir_M, JoshuaZ
comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-09-27T16:58:43.115Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Come to think of it, one thing I'm surprised nobody mentioned is the present neglect of technology-related existential risks.

Replies from: Perplexed
comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-27T17:39:11.100Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, that provides some more examples. The elite was very worried about existential risks from nuclear war ("The Fate of the Earth"), resource shortages and mass starvation ("Club of Rome"), and technology-based totalitarianism ("1984"). Now, having been embarrassed by falling for too many cries of wolf (or at least, for worrying prematurely), they are wary of being burned again.

Replies from: dripgrind, mattnewport
comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-27T23:38:13.039Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think worrying about nuclear war during the Cold War constituted either "crying wolf" or worrying prematurely. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Able Archer 83 exercise (a year after "The Fate of the Earth" was published), and various false alert incidents could have resulted in nuclear war, and I'm not sure why anyone who opposed nuclear weapons at the time would be "embarrassed" in the light of what we now know.

I don't think an existential risk has to be a certainty for it to be worth taking seriously.

In the US, concerns about some technology risks like EMP attacks and nuclear terrorism are still taken seriously, even though these are probably unlikely to happen and the damage would be much less severe than a nuclear war.

Replies from: Perplexed
comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-28T00:30:38.458Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think an existential risk has to be a certainty for it to be worth taking seriously.

I agree. And nuclear war was certainly a risk that was worth taking seriously at the time.

However, that doesn't make my last sentence any less true, especially if you replace "embarrassed" with "exhausted". The risk of a nuclear war, somewhere, some time within the next 100 years, is still high - more likely than not, I would guess. It probably won't destroy the human race, or even modern technology, but it could easily cost 400 million human lives. Yet, in part because people have become tired of worrying about such things, having already worried for decades, no one seems to be doing much about this danger.

Replies from: dripgrind
comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-28T09:34:21.347Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When you say that no one seems to be doing much, are you sure that's not just because the efforts don't get much publicity?

There is a lot that's being done:

Most nuclear-armed governments have massively reduced their nuclear weapon stockpiles, and try to stop other countries getting nuclear weapons. There's an international effort to track fissile material.

After the Cold War ended, the west set up programmes to employ Soviet nuclear scientists which have run until today (Russia is about to end them).

South Africa had nuclear weapons, then gave them up.

Israel destroyed the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programmes with airstrikes. OK, self-interested, but existing nuclear states stop their enemies getting nuclear weapons then it reduces the risk of a nuclear war.

Somebody wrote the Stuxnet worm to attack Iran's enrichment facilities (probably) and Iran is under massive international pressure not to develop nuclear weapons.

Western leaders are at least talking about the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. OK, probably empty rhetoric.

India and Pakistan have reduced the tension between them, and now keep their nuclear weapons stored disassembled.

The US is developing missile defences to deter 'rogue states' who might have a limited nuclear missile capability (although I'm not sure why the threat of nuclear retaliation isn't a better deterrent than shooting down missiles). The Western world is paranoid about nuclear terrorism, even putting nuclear detectors in its ports to try to detect weapons being smuggled into the country (which a lot of experts think is silly, but I guess it might make it harder to move fissile material around on the black market).

etc. etc.

Sure, in the 100 year timeframe, there is still a risk. It just seems like a world with two ideologically opposed nuclear-armed superpowers, with limited ways to gather information and their arsenals on a hair trigger, was much riskier than today's situation. Even when "rogue states" get hold of nuclear weapons, they seem to want them to deter a US/UN invasion, rather than to actually use offensively.

Replies from: timtyler
comment by timtyler · 2010-10-03T15:10:12.537Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Plus we invented the internet - greatly strengthening international relations - and creating social and economic interdependency.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-27T17:50:50.462Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now, having been embarrassed by falling for too many cries of wolf (or at least, for worrying prematurely), they are wary of being burned again.

This doesn't appear to be the case at all. There are a variety of claimed existential risks which the intellectual elite are in general quite worried about. They just don't overlap much with the kind of risks people here talk about. Global warming is an obvious example (and some people here probably think they're right on that one) but the overhyped fears of SARS and H1N1 killing millions of people look like recent examples of lessons about crying wolf not being learned.

Replies from: dripgrind, wnoise
comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-27T23:21:04.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know about SARS, but in the case of H1N1 it wasn't "crying wolf" so much as being prepared for a potential pandemic which didn't happen. I mean, very severe global flu pandemics have happened before. Just because H1N1 didn't become as virulent as expected doesn't mean that preparing for that eventuality was a waste of time.

Replies from: mattnewport, wnoise
comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-27T23:52:52.501Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Obviously the crux of the issue is whether the official probability estimates and predictions for these types of threats are accurate or not. It's difficult to judge this in any individual case that fails to develop into a serious problem but if you can observe a consistent ongoing pattern of dire predictions that do not pan out this is evidence of an underlying bias in the estimates of risk. Preparing for an eventuality as if it had a 10% probability of happening when the true risk is 1% will lead to serious mis-allocation of resources.

It looks to me like there is a consistent pattern of overstating the risks of various catastrophes. Rigorously proving this is difficult. I've pointed to some examples of what look like over-confident predictions of disaster (there's lots more in The Rational Optimist). I'm not sure we can easily resolve any remaining disagreement on the extent of risk exaggeration however.

Replies from: dripgrind
comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-28T10:07:09.431Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, you also need to factor in the severity of the threat, as well as the risk of it happening.

Since the era of cheap international travel, there have been about 20 new flu subtypes, and one of those killed 50 million people (the Spanish flu, one of the greatest natural disasters ever), with a couple of others killing a few million. Plus, having almost everyone infected with a severe illness tends to disrupt society.

So to me that looks like there is a substantial risk (bigger than 1%) of something quite bad happening when a new subtype appears.

Given how difficult it is to predict biological systems, I think it makes sense to treat the arrival of a new flu subtype with concern and for governments to set up contingency programmes. That's not to say that the media didn't hype swine flu and bird flu, but that doesn't mean that the government preparations were an overreaction.

That's not to say that some threats aren't exaggerated, and others (low-probability, global threats like asteroid strikes or big volcanic eruptions) don't get enough attention.

I wouldn't put much trust in Matt Ridley's abilities to estimate risk:

Mr Ridley told the Treasury Select Committee on Tuesday, that the bank had been hit by "wholly unexpected" events and he defended the way he and his colleagues had been running the bank.

"We were subject to a completely unprecedented and unpredictable closure of the world credit markets," he said.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7052828.stm (yes, it's the same Matt Ridley)

Replies from: mattnewport
comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-28T16:02:06.179Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, you also need to factor in the severity of the threat, as well as the risk of it happening.

Well obviously. I refer you to my previous comment. At this point our remaining disagreement on this issue is unlikely to be resolved without better data. Continuing to go back and forth repeating that I think there is a pattern of overestimation for certain types of risk and that you think the estimates are accurate is not going to resolve the question.

comment by wnoise · 2010-09-28T01:13:29.117Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe at first, but I clearly recall that the hype was still ongoing even after it was known that this was a milder flu-version than usual.

And the reactions were not well designed to handle the flu either. One example is that my university installed hand sanitizers, well, pretty much everywhere. But the flu is primarily transmitted not from hand-to-hand contact, but by miniature droplets when people cough, sneeze, or just talk and breathe:

http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/qa.htm

Spread of the 2009 H1N1 virus is thought to occur in the same way that seasonal flu spreads. Flu viruses are spread mainly from person to person through coughing, sneezing or talking by people with influenza. Sometimes people may become infected by touching something – such as a surface or object – with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose.

Wikipedia takes a more middle-of-the-road view, noting that it's not entirely clear how much transmission happens in which route, but still:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influenza

The length of time the virus will persist on a surface varies, with the virus surviving for one to two days on hard, non-porous surfaces such as plastic or metal, for about fifteen minutes from dry paper tissues, and only five minutes on skin.

Which really suggests to me that hand-washing (or sanitizing) just isn't going to be terribly effective. The best preventative is making sick people stay home.

Now, regular hand-washing is a great prophylactic for many other disease pathways, of course. But not for what the supposed purpose was.

Replies from: jimrandomh, dripgrind
comment by jimrandomh · 2010-09-28T17:17:54.229Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I interpret what happened with H1N1 a little differently. Before it was known how serious it would be, the media started covering it. Now even given that H1N1 was relatively harmless, it is quite likely that similar but non-harmless diseases will appear in the future, so having containment strategies and knowing what works is important. By making H1N1 sound scary, they gave countries and health organizations an incentive to test their strategies with lower consequences for failure than there would be if they had to test them on something more lethal. The reactins make a lot more sense if you look at it as a large-scale training exercise. If people knew that it was harmless, they would've behaved differently and lowered the validity of the test..

Replies from: mattnewport
comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-28T17:30:14.321Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This looks like a fully general argument for panicking about anything.

Replies from: jimrandomh
comment by jimrandomh · 2010-09-28T17:52:04.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It isn't fully general; it only applies when the expected benefits (from lessons learned) exceed the costs of that particular kind of drill, and there's no cheaper way to learn the same lessons.

Replies from: mattnewport
comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-28T17:57:16.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are you claiming that this was actually the plan all along? That our infinitely wise and benevolent leaders decided to create a panic irrespective of the actual threat posed by H1N1 for the purposes of a realistic training exercise?

If this is not what you are suggesting are you saying that although in fact this panic was an example of general government incompetence in the field of risk management it purely coincidentally turned out to be exactly the optimal thing to do in retrospect?

Replies from: jimrandomh
comment by jimrandomh · 2010-09-28T20:05:57.917Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have no evidence that would let me distinguish between these two scenarios. I also note that there's plenty of middle ground - for example, private media companies could've decided to create an unjustified panic for ratings, while the governments and hospitals decided to make the best of it. Or more likely, the panic developed without anyone influential making a conscious decision to promote or suppress it either way.

comment by dripgrind · 2010-09-28T10:21:53.571Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just because some institutions over-reacted or implemented ineffective measures, doesn't mean that the concern wasn't proportionate or that effective measures weren't also being implemented.

In the UK, the government response was to tell infected people to stay at home and away from their GPs, and provide a phone system for people to get Tamiflu. They also ran advertising telling people to cover their mouths when they sneezed ("Catch it, bin it, kill it").

If anything, the government reaction was insufficient, because the phone system was delayed and the Tamiflu stockpiles were limited (although Tamiflu is apparently pretty marginal anyway, so making infected people stay at home was more important).

The media may have carried on hyping the threat after it turned out not to be so severe. They also ran stories complaining that the threat had been overhyped and the effort wasted. Just because the media or university administrators say stupid things about something, that doesn't mean it's not real.

comment by wnoise · 2010-09-27T21:00:41.016Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

SARS and H1N1 both looked like media-manufactured scares, rather than actual concern from the intellectual elite.

Replies from: mattnewport
comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-27T21:08:45.566Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It wasn't just the media:

Take the response to the avian flu outbreak in 2005. Dr David Nabarro, the UN systems coordinator for human and avian influenza, declared: ‘I’m not, at the moment, at liberty to give you a prediction on [potential mortality] numbers.’ He then gave a prediction on potential mortality numbers: ‘Let’s say, the range of deaths could be anything from five million to 150million.’ Nabarro should have kept his estimating prowess enslaved: the number of cases of avian flu stands at a mere 498, of which just 294 have proved fatal.

...

On 11 June 2009, just over a month after the initial outbreak in Mexico, the World Health Organisation finally announced that swine flu was now worthy of its highest alert status of level six, a global pandemic. Despite claims that there was no need to panic, that’s exactly what national health authorities did. In the UK, while the Department of Health was closing schools, politicians were falling over themselves to imagine the worst possible outcomes: second more deadly waves of flu, virus mutation – nothing was too far-fetched for it not to become a public announcement. This was going to be like the great Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20. But worse.

However, just as day follows nightmares, the dawning reality proved to be rather more mundane. By March 2010, nearly a full year after the H1N1 virus first began frightening the British government, the death toll stood not in the hundreds of thousands, but at 457. To put that into perspective, the average mortality rate for your common-or-garden flu is 600 deaths per year in a non-epidemic year and between 12,000 and 13,800 deaths per year in an epidemic year. In other words, far from heralding the imagined super virus, swine flu was more mild than the strains of flu we’ve lived with, and survived, for centuries. Reflecting on the hysteria which characterised the WHO’s response to Mexico, German politician Dr Wolfgang Wodarg told the WHO last week: ‘What we experienced in Mexico City was very mild flu which did not kill more than usual – which killed even less than usual.’

Replies from: MatthewW
comment by MatthewW · 2010-09-27T22:12:55.487Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So Nabarro explicitly says that he's talking about a possibility and not making a prediction, and ABC News reports it as a prediction. This seems consistent with the media-manufactured scare model.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-09-27T13:27:30.621Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Haha, ok point taken. I'm clearly wrong on this and there are a lot of examples. (At this point I'm also reminded of this Monty Python sketch although this is sort of the inverse).

comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-27T01:57:45.746Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm curious about your claim that that "intellectuals care much more about the status-signaling aspects of their opinions than the common folk." This seems plausible to me, but I'd be curious what substantial evidence there for the claim.

I would like to define an "intellectual" as a person who I believe to be well educated and smart. Unfortunately, this definition will be deprecated as too subjective. An objective alternative definition would be to define intellectuals as a class of people who consider each other to be well educated and smart.

If that definition is accepted, then I think the claim is almost self-evident.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2010-09-27T01:34:15.992Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't identify a single example other than Marxism in the last hundred years where the intellectual establishment has been very wrong.

Coercive eugenics was very popular in intellectual circles until WWII.

Replies from: Eugine_Nier, JoshuaZ
comment by Eugine_Nier · 2010-09-27T02:45:46.039Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interestingly enough, one thing both these examples have in common is that they are cases of intellectuals arguing that intellectuals should have more power.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-09-27T02:05:51.829Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It was actually pretty popular in non-intellectual circles as well, but yes that example seem to still be a decent one.

(Incidentally, I'm not actually sure what is wrong with coercive eugenics in the general sense. If for example we have the technology to ensure that some very bad alleles are not passed on (such as those for Huntington's disease), I'm not convinced that we shouldn't require screening or mandatory in vitro for people with the alleles. This may be one reason this example didn't occur to me. However, I suspect that discussion of this issue in any detail could be potentially quite mind-killing given unfortunate historical connections and related issues.)

Replies from: AdeleneDawner, erratio
comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-09-27T06:28:15.846Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Incidentally, I'm not actually sure what is wrong with coercive eugenics in the general sense. If for example we have the technology to ensure that some very bad alleles are not passed on (such as those for Huntington's disease), I'm not convinced that we shouldn't require screening or mandatory in vitro for people with the alleles. This may be one reason this example didn't occur to me. However, I suspect that discussion of this issue in any detail could be potentially quite mind-killing given unfortunate historical connections and related issues.)

The historical meaning of the term is problematic partly because it wasn't based on actual gene testing - I doubt they even tried to sort out whether someone's low IQ was inheritable or caused by, say, poor nutrition - and partly because it was, and still in some cases would be, very subjective in terms of what traits are considered undesirable. How many of us wouldn't be here if there'd been genetic tests for autism/aspergers or ADD or other neurodifferences developed before we were born?

comment by erratio · 2010-09-27T08:04:34.554Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If for example we have the technology to ensure that some very bad alleles are not passed on (such as those for Huntington's disease), I'm not convinced that we shouldn't require screening or mandatory in vitro for people with the alleles.

It gets much harder when you start talking about autism or deafness or any of a whole range of conditions that are abnormal but aren't strictly disadvantageous.

Replies from: prase
comment by prase · 2010-09-27T11:09:32.047Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are there people who, having a deaf newborn child, would refuse to cure the condition based on argument that deafness is not strictly disadvantageous?

Replies from: JoshuaZ, AdeleneDawner
comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-09-27T13:33:01.657Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, and there's been a fair bit of controversy in the "deaf community" over whether they should engage in selection for deaf children. See for example this article.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-09-27T11:18:11.247Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've heard from more than one source that deaf parents of deaf children often take that stance - and that some deaf parents intentionally choose to have deaf children, even to the point of getting a sperm donor involved if the genetics require it.

I rather sympathize - if I ever get serious about procreating, stacking the deck in favor of having an autistic offspring will be something of a priority. (And, as I think about it, it's for pretty much the same reason: Being deaf or autistic isn't necessarily disadvantageous, but having parents that one has difficulty in communicating with is - and deaf people and autistic people both tend to find it easier to communicate with people who are similar.)

Replies from: prase
comment by prase · 2010-09-27T11:36:25.910Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you mean by necessarily disadvantageous, then? I disagree that a difficulty in communication with parents is a more necessary disadvantage than deafness, but maybe we interpret the words differently. (I have no precise definition yet.)

Replies from: AdeleneDawner, erratio
comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-09-27T12:19:06.732Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Being deaf or autistic (or for that matter gay or left-handed or female or male or tall or short) is a disadvantage in some situations, but not all, and it's possible for someone with any of the above traits to arrange their life in such a way that the trait is an advantage rather than a disadvantage, if other aspects of their life are amenable to such rearranging. (In the case of being deaf, a significant portion of the advantage seems to come from being able to be a member of the deaf community, and even then I have a little bit of trouble seeing it, but I'm inclined to believe that the deaf people who make that claim know more about the situation than I do.)

For contrast, consider being diabetic: It's possible to arrange one's life such that diabetes is well-controlled, but there seems to be a pretty good consensus among diabetics that it's bad news, and I've never heard of anyone intentionally trying to have a diabetic child, xkcd jokes aside.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2010-09-27T14:21:46.781Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In what situations is being deaf an advantage?

Replies from: Clippy, AdeleneDawner
comment by Clippy · 2010-09-27T14:53:26.544Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When a being is submitting a threat, through an audio-only channel, to destroy paperclips if you don't do X, when that being prefers you doing X to destroying paperclips.

(The example generalizes to cases where you have a preference for something else instead of quantity of existent paperclips.)

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2010-09-27T15:01:25.449Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

/handwaves appeal to UDT/TDT/CDT/*DT

And by allowing yourself to remain deaf, you have defected and acausally forced other beings to defect, rendering you worse off.

Replies from: Clippy
comment by Clippy · 2010-09-27T15:13:05.872Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wakarimasen.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2010-09-27T15:24:30.383Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand.

Replies from: Clippy
comment by Clippy · 2010-09-27T15:42:07.969Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Exactly.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-09-27T15:10:17.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm researching this.

So far, most of the answers are variations on being able to avoid unwanted noise or indirect effects of that ability (e.g. being able to pay less for a house because it's in a very noisy area and most people don't want it). There've also been comments about being able to get away with ignoring people, occasionally finding out things via lip-reading that the people speaking don't think you'll catch, and being able to use sign language in situations where spoken language is difficult or useless (in a noisy bar, while scuba diving).

I'm still looking; there may be more.

Replies from: prase, gwern
comment by prase · 2010-09-27T19:55:21.347Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

These advantages look like rationalisations made by the parents in question, while I suspect (without evidence, I admit) that they simply fear their children being different. Seriously, ask a hearing person whether (s)he would accept a deafening operation in order to get away with ignoring people more easily.

Any condition can have similar "advantages". Blind people are able to sleep during daylight, can easily ignore visual distractions, are better piano tuners on average. Should blind parents therefore have a right to make their child blind if they wish? Or should any parents be allowed to deliberately have a child without legs, because, say, there is a greater chance to succeed in the sledge hockey than in the normal one?

I get the point of campaigns aiming to move certain conditions from the category "disease" to the category "minority". "Disease" is an emotionaly loaded term, and the people with the respective conditions may have easier life due to such campaigns. On the other hand, we mustn't forget that they would have even more easier life without the condition.

Replies from: SilasBarta, Alicorn
comment by SilasBarta · 2010-09-27T20:17:05.622Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Disease" is an emotionaly loaded term, and the people with the respective conditions may have easier life due to such campaigns. On the other hand, we mustn't forget that they would have even more easier life without the condition.

Obligatory Gideon's Crossing quote:

Mother [to a black doctor who wants to give cochlear implants to her daughter]: You think that hearing people are better than deaf people.
Doctor: I'm only saying it's easier.
Mother: Would your life be easier if you were white?

With that said, I agree those sound like rationalizations.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-09-27T19:58:57.058Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Or should any parents be allowed to deliberately have a child without legs, because, say, there is a greater chance to succeed in the sledge hockey than in the normal one?

Also airplane dogfights, I'm given to understand.

comment by gwern · 2010-09-27T15:26:29.041Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All of which are either obtainable through merely being hearing-impaired*, wearing ear-plugs, being raised by signing parents, or simple training.

Some benefits are bogus - for example, living in a noisy area doesn't work because the noxious noises (say, from passing trains) are low-frequency and that's where hearing is best; even the deaf can hear/feel loud bass or whatnot.

* full disclosure: I am hearing-impaired myself, and regard with horror the infliction of deafness or hearing-impairedness on anyone, but especially children.

Replies from: SilasBarta
comment by SilasBarta · 2010-09-27T15:57:17.259Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have the opposite problem, so perhaps I can add some insight.

Basically, I have Yvain's sensitivity to audio distractions, plus I have more sensitive hearing -- I'll sometimes complain about sounds that others can't hear. (And yes, I'll verify that it's real by following it to the source.)

Ear plugs don't actually work against these distractions -- I've tried it (I can sometimes hear riveting going on from my office at work). They block out a lot of those external sounds, but then create an additional path that allows you to hear your own breathing.

I agree that I wouldn't be better off deaf, but there is such a thing as too much hearing.

Replies from: Vladimir_M, mattnewport, gwern
comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-09-27T16:09:34.088Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you tried simplynoise.com? For me, their Brown noise generator is the best thing for eliminating sound distractions.

Replies from: SilasBarta
comment by SilasBarta · 2010-09-27T16:28:12.986Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll have to give that a try, thanks.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-27T16:05:41.715Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you tried noise cancelling headphones? I found them pretty effective for cutting out audio distractions at work (when playing music). I stopped using them because they were a little too effective - people would come and try to get my attention and I'd be completely oblivious to their presence.

Replies from: SilasBarta
comment by SilasBarta · 2010-09-27T16:29:22.093Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've tried noise-cancelling headphones, but without playing music through them, because that is itself a distraction to me. It only worked against steady, patterned background noise.

Replies from: mattnewport
comment by mattnewport · 2010-09-27T17:39:28.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find certain types of music less distracting than the alternative of random background noise. Trance works well for me because it is fairly repetitive and so doesn't distract me with trying to listen to the music too closely. It also helps if I'm listening to something I'm very familiar with and with the tracks in a set order rather than on shuffle. Mix CDs are good because there are no distracting breaks between tracks.

Replies from: AdeleneDawner
comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-09-27T19:16:29.511Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seconding all of this except the bit about set order rather than shuffle, which I haven't tried - it otherwise matches the advice I was going to give. Also, songs with no words or with words in a language you don't speak are better than songs with words, and if you don't want or can't tolerate explicitly noise-canceling headphones, earplugs + headphones with the music turned up very loud also works.

comment by gwern · 2010-09-27T16:04:12.414Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair enough. It would be surprising if everyone had exactly optimal hearing.

comment by erratio · 2010-09-27T21:11:04.148Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I dunno, i don't agree with deaf parents deliberately selecting for deaf chldren but there is definitely a large element of trying to medicalise something that the people with the condition don't consider to be a bad thing.

Anyway, I think Silas nailed deaf community attitudes with the comparison between being deaf and being black, the main difference being that one is considered cultural (and therefore the problem is other people's attitudes towards it) and the other medical.

Edit: After further thought, I think I am using necessarily disadvantageous to mean that the disadvantages massively outweigh any advantages. Since being deaf gets you access to the deaf community, an awesome working memory for visual stuff, and (if you live in urban America) doesn't ruin your life, I don't think it's all disadvantage.

Replies from: prase
comment by prase · 2010-09-28T09:31:17.597Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the main difference being that one is considered cultural (and therefore the problem is other people's attitudes towards it) and the other medical

I don't see being black or white any more cultural than being deaf, in either case you are born that way and being raised in different culture doesn't change that a bit. The main difference is that the problem with being black is solely result of other people's attitudes. It is possible not to be a racist without any inconvenience, and if no people were racists, it wouldn't be easier to be white. On the other hand, being deaf brings many difficulties even if other people lack prejudices against the deaf. Although I can imagine a society where all people voluntarily cease to use spoken language and sound signals and listen to music and whatever else may give them advantage over the deaf, such a vision is blatantly absurd. On the other hand, society (almost) without racism is a realistic option.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz, erratio
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-09-28T14:48:22.597Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness in Martha's Vineyard

In an isolated community with high genetic risk of deafness (not as high as I thought-- I remembered it as 1 in 6, it was actually 1 in 155), everyone knew the local sign language, deaf people weren't isolated, and deafness wasn't thought of as a distinguishing characteristic.

I wonder whether societies like that do as much with music as societies without a high proportion of deaf people.

comment by erratio · 2010-09-28T10:36:04.911Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, to clarify my comment about culture: I meant the problem is the surrounding culture's atittude towards it, not the culture of the people with the possibly disadvantageous condition.

I am not advocating that the rest of society gives up spoken language (and the complaint about music is just silly), I am advocating a group's right to do their thing provided it doesn't harm others. And I am not convinced that trying to arrange for your genes to provide you with a deaf child qualifies as harm, any more than people on the autism spectrum hoping and trying to arrange for an autistic child qualifies as harm. Deaf and severely hearing-impaired people are going to keep being born for quite a while, since the genes come in several different flavours including both dominant and recessive types, so I would expect services for the deaf to continue as a matter of decency for the forseeable future.

Replies from: prase
comment by prase · 2010-09-28T11:27:55.260Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am advocating a group's right to do their thing provided it doesn't harm others.

Do the rights include creating new group members? What about creationists screening their children from information about evolution, or any indoctrination of children for that matter, does that qualify as harm, or is it the group's right to do their thing? (Sorry if I sound combative, if so, it's not my intention, only inability to formulate the question more appropriately. I am curious where do you place the border.)

Replies from: AdeleneDawner, erratio
comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-09-28T12:46:11.866Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find the fact that raising someone to be creationist involves explicitly teaching them provably false things - and, in most cases, demanding that they express belief in those things to remain on good terms with their family and community - to be relevant. Having a child who's deaf or autistic doesn't intrinsically involve that.

(Yes, if I procreate, I intend to make a point of teaching my offspring how being autistic is useful. Even so, they'll still be completely entitled to disagree with me about the relative goodness of being autistic compared to being neurotypical.)

Replies from: erratio
comment by erratio · 2010-09-28T20:19:07.616Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This may be a bit personal, but are you concerned about having a child on the highly autistic end of the spectrum? (ie. no verbal communication, needs a carer, etc.) To me that seems like a possible cosequence of deliberately stacking the deck, and it would make me wary of doing so.

Replies from: AdeleneDawner
comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-09-28T21:40:36.077Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the sense of 'consider it a significant enough possibility that I'd make sure I was prepared for it', yes. In the sense of 'would consider it a horrible thing if it happened', no. I'm not going to aim for that end of the spectrum, but I wouldn't be upset if it worked out that way.

comment by erratio · 2010-09-28T12:30:14.770Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am curious where do you place the border

I'm still working that out for myself. There's definitely a parallel between deaf people insisting that their way of life is awesome and weird religious cults doing the same. I guess I'm more sympathetic to deaf people though because once you're deaf you may as well make the most of it, while bringing up your child religiously requires an ongoing commitment to raise them that way.

Ah, ok, I just found my boundary there. Kids brought up in a religious environment can at least make their own choice when they're old enough, but deaf people can't. I don't support the deliberate creation of people with a lifelong condition that will make them a minority unless the minority condition is provably non-bad, but neither do I find the idea of more being born as horrifying as you seem to.

Replies from: wedrifid
comment by wedrifid · 2010-09-28T12:57:58.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, ok, I just found my boundary there. Kids brought up in a religious environment can at least make their own choice when they're old enough, but deaf people can't. I don't support the deliberate creation of people with a lifelong condition that will make them a minority unless the minority condition is provably non-bad, but neither do I find the idea of more being born as horrifying as you seem to.

Wow, you're drawing your boundary squarely in other people's territory there. I would actively support others in their attempts to disempower you and violate said boundary.

Replies from: erratio
comment by erratio · 2010-09-28T20:35:43.962Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Shrug. I actually have a lot of personal problems with children being taught religion (anecdotally, it appears to create a God-shaped hole and train people to look for Deep Truths, and that's before getting into the deep end of fundamentalism) but as far as I'm concerned a large percentage of the values that parents try to teach their kids are crap. If I took a more prohibitive stance on teaching religion then I would also have to start getting a lot more upset about all the other stupid shit, plus I would be ignoring the (admittedly tangential) benefits that come from growing up in a moderate religious community.

Disclaimer: I was brought up somewhat religious and only very recently made the decision to finish deconverting (was 95% areligious before, now I finally realised that there isn't any reason to hold on to that identity except a vague sense of guilt and obligation). So I wouldn't be too surprised if my current opinion is based partly on an incomplete update.

Replies from: wedrifid
comment by wedrifid · 2010-09-29T04:54:24.211Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can empathise with your heritage. It sounds much like mine (where my apostasy is probably a few years older).

I, incidentally, don't have an enormous problem with teaching religion to one's own children. Religion per se isn't the kind of fairy tale that does the damage. The destructive mores work at least as well in an atheistic context.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-23T03:08:10.449Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The basic problem is that intellectuals care much more about the status-signaling aspects of their opinions than the common folk, so even if they have more information and higher intellectual abilities, their incentives to bias their views for the sake of appearing enlightened and affiliated with high-status positions and individuals are also greater.

I'm not convinced this is the case. Rather, I think intellectuals tend to try to signal status to other intellectuals, whereas non-intellectuals tend to try to signal status to other non-intellectuals.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-09-26T23:37:56.513Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mean this only to apply to issues that are controversial in the sense that approximately equally sized groups of qualified people exist on either side. In those cases, people should expect that most of their opinions were picked up socially and reinforced by confirmation bias.

Whereas high integrity politicians pick up their opinions on these topics ... how, exactly?

I doubt that politicians have any more time to self-educate themselves on most issues than I do. And I am quite confident that they have less time to self-educate regarding the small fraction of the issues which I consider to be the most important ones.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2010-09-26T23:21:12.202Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, what if his opponent takes a stupid position on an economic issue, e.g., not realizing that massive government intervention causes vastly more problems then it solves.

Yes, I realize there are still a few high IQ people on the other side of this. They're wrong.

  • Which politician's irrational belief seems more justifiable by appeals to experts?
  • Which is more likely to lead to bad policy?
comment by jimrandomh · 2010-09-26T20:45:39.154Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This post involves politics, but in a way that I think is sufficient to avoid mind-killing properties: it can't be easily matched up with any party, candidate, or entrenched position, and it's at the "meta" level.

Nevertheless, I notice some people downvoting it. I notice that the first of these downvotes was less than a minute after it was posted, which isn't long enough to have actually read it. Is meta-politics a mind killer, too? It ought not to be.

Replies from: magfrump, Relsqui, whpearson
comment by magfrump · 2010-09-27T00:33:07.021Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Possible mind-killing property: you are telling people to give up on their sides. That means that no matter what people's identities are, you're attacking them.

For example, I feel strongly about issues such as creationism not being taught in classrooms and gay rights. I can easily imagine that someone went to harvard and got a 4.0 but is still completely "backwards" about these issues. While I happen to believe that I could make a rational argument about it, fundamentally it makes me ANGRY to hear you saying that these contentious issues that are affected by the people I vote for are unimportant, and that my opinions are not better than chance at predicting their answers accurately.

tl;dr you're still mind-killing pretty hard.

Replies from: jimrandomh
comment by jimrandomh · 2010-09-27T00:40:38.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Possible mind-killing property: you are telling people to give up on their sides. That means that no matter what people's identities are, you're attacking them.

The reaction to this post has been completely different than what I expected, and this theory seems to explain it. An earlier, unfinished draft got better feedback - perhaps the difference is the list of examples at the end, priming thoughts of disliked candidates (whichever side of the issue those candidates took)?

I think I'll take that out. I'm editing this paragraph

Don't waste time talking about abortion, gun control, taxation, health care, military spending, drug laws, gay marriage, or any other contentious political issue, unless that issue is actually going to be on an upcoming ballot that you are going to vote on directly. If you're voting on politicians, talk about the politicians themselves - their integrity, their intelligence, and their rationality. That's what really matters, and that's what should win your support.

to instead say

Don't waste time arguing about issues which already have entrenched positions, with intelligent people on both sides, unless the issue is actually going to be on an upcoming ballot that you are going to vote on directly. If you're voting on politicians, talk about the politicians themselves - their integrity, their intelligence, and their rationality. That's what really matters, and that's what should win your support.

Replies from: magfrump
comment by magfrump · 2010-09-27T01:00:20.670Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That would be better; I think the phrase "with intelligent people on both sides" especially will allow people to exclude their pet issue by thinking that everyone on the other side is stupid.

I don't think it fully solves the problem, though I think combining it with the idea of voting for parties makes it much more sensible.

As Vladimir M points out we really don't elect people to directly exercise power. Popular issues really only are pursued when a sympathetic party has a supermajority (at least in the US). But even if that is a more useful political metaphor, selecting from two parties which both have serious flaws is unlikely to create a strong signal for rationality.

While your argument is certainly valid and interesting in terms of having political arguments I don't think it's sensible to use for actual voting.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-09-27T02:31:53.930Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At least some of those people, judging by the comments, seem to be downvoting it not because it's about politics but because they don't agree with your point and/or find it poorly argued. I am personally in the "don't agree" camp, for reasons which have already been well explained by other people.

comment by whpearson · 2010-09-26T21:21:31.880Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I hope not since I think it is something that is not discussed enough in general. I hope lesswrong can be a place to discuss futarchy and even ways of deciding who should be in charge that do not involve voting as such*.

I'm curious to know how controversial this article is and why.

*While unlikely to be adopted by the big countries they may be relevant for charities we set up and sea-steaders

comment by PlaidX · 2010-09-26T22:59:06.814Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If people suck so badly at judging whether going to war in Afghanistan is a good idea that they might as well flip a coin, how do you expect them to be able to meaningfully judge the integrity of intelligence of a politician?

Replies from: NihilCredo
comment by NihilCredo · 2010-09-26T23:15:10.594Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Except for veteran officers and military historians, almost nobody has any experience that is even remotely relevant to predicting the outcome of a war. But nearly everyone needs, in everyday life, to figure out if they're talking to a moron or a genius, to a crook or a saint; granted, they may not be good at it, but it's something they have definitely tried, at least in school.

Which is, after all, half of the whole argument for representative instead of direct democracy (the other half being logistics).

Replies from: PlaidX
comment by PlaidX · 2010-10-03T23:20:28.233Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Except for veteran officers and military historians, almost nobody has any experience that is even remotely relevant to predicting the outcome of a war.

Bullshit.

comment by Nisan · 2010-09-26T22:51:39.331Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This article contains a good point, which is that arguments about facts are overwhelmed by arguments about values. If you really want the government to use economic policy to optimize for average welfare, you could do well by electing an official who knows economics better than you do. If you really want to minimize the amount of crime-related harm, you could do well by electing an official who knows more about the effectiveness of gun-control laws than you do.

But if you really just care about your right to own a gun or living in a gun-free neighborhood, you would be better served by focusing on that issue. It's not reasonable to expect that a smart politician will share your values.

comment by patrissimo · 2010-09-29T13:42:53.962Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think a much better solution to the general problem is: design and implement mechanisms, don't elect politicians / lobby for rules / argue with people. Analyzing a mechanism doesn't seem to be a mind-killer anywhere near as much as discussing outcomes. For example, it's much easier to talk rationally about prediction markets as methods for information aggregation than to talk about what the results of their predictions would be.

For example, two people might have opposite opinions on global warming, one thinking it will be slower than the IPCC says, one thinking it will be faster. Yet they could agree based on a rational analysis that prediction markets will be more accurate than giant global committees like the IPCC, while each expecting the market to validate their view. Contemplation of abstract mechanisms doesn't invoke tribal politics. At least, until the mechanism has started spitting out answers...

Replies from: Servant
comment by Servant · 2010-09-30T02:21:57.925Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can't agree with this idea. The point of government IS to come up with solutions to potential problems (other governments, crime, paying for "public goods", expanding the freedom of the individual pledging loyalty to the government, protection from the "state of nature"), through a variety of tools, including coercion. The government exist not in and of itself, but exist to produce certain "outcomes" which will favor or harm specific interests.

If we can't talk about what a future government is actually going to do, then what's the point of changing to it?

comment by knb · 2010-09-27T00:32:42.246Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From what I've heard, Nixon was one of America's smartest presidents and Jimmy Carter was a man of great personal integrity. Herbert Hoover was also a brilliant and extremely well qualified individual. Yet, I'm no fan of any of these presidents as they all, in my opinion, governed somewhat more poorly than average for US presidents. Looking at other examples, I don't see any significant pattern amongst presidents who governed well.

In contrast, I think presidents and other politicians who held my values (in hindsight) governed well (according to my own values system, of course). Yet I still don't think I should vote because I doubt my ability to predict which candidate will represent my values system better. For example, if I was a voter in the US presidential election of 2000, I likely would have voted for the worse candidate (for my values).

In any case, the issue is moot because the marginal effect of your vote is so close to zero.

Replies from: Benquo, PhilGoetz
comment by Benquo · 2010-09-27T18:47:02.839Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Carter at least was, AFAICT, unlucky w/r/t the timing of his presidency. There's no obvious way to avoid penalizing politicians for serving during tough times.

Replies from: CronoDAS
comment by CronoDAS · 2010-09-27T19:18:21.370Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the other hand, if the times are bad enough, it's a pretty good way to get your name to the top of the history books. Just look at FDR and Lincoln. (In a sense, Lincoln could be considered the worst U.S. President; his administration was the only one in which there was a full-scale civil war!)

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-09-27T17:21:14.212Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another issue is that the office of President was originally intended to be in line with what OP proposes: The President's main job is to manage the implementation of the laws made by Congress. The President, IMHO, is not supposed to spend his or her time pushing new health plans or tax cuts or creating new government departments. The President today is seen more as leader of his/her party than as leader of the nation.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-09-26T21:39:20.945Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disagree at multiple levels. The primary objection is that there are some issues which are connected to qualifications at a deep level. And I'm going to take the risk of delving slightly into mind-killing subjects and use actual examples, and try to balance by using examples from across the political spectrum:

Example 1) A politician who is a young earth creationist and makes arguments against evolution that are so bad that they are listed by major creationist organizations as arguments that creationists should not use has demonstrated that they are deeply unqualified. Such an individual is likely too irrational, too stupid, or too ignorant to be able to carry out a political job at a national level. (The example I am thinking of here is Christine O'Donnell who apparently thought that the continued presence of monkeys and apes was a strong argument against evolution.). Similarly, but to a lesser extent, politicians who want to teach creationism in public schools suffer from the same flaws, and a politician favoring such a policy must be regarded as deeply wrong.

Example 2) A politician who claims that that vaccines cause autism is essentially in the same category above. This is especially the case when the politician at one point claimed that the cause was mercury and continued to make the same claims after thimerosal had been removed from most vaccines for infants and children. The individual here is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In a case such as this, having such an individual in any substantive position of power could be deeply injurious to rationality. Putting such an individual in any position where they can continue to advocate their views in a more public way, or worse, be in a position where they can cause serious active harm to the general public.

One could give other examples as well, but I think both of these serve the point well enough. Sometimes, policies matter.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-09-27T17:13:03.210Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm reacting against OP's recommendations especially strongly today, on account of just having read the reader reviews for this book trying to exhonerate Joseph McCarthy yesterday.

Note that the people writing reviews who are sympathetic to McCarthy characterize him as noble, American, and patriotic. People with different values will consider different people to have good characters. It's not surprising that political parties align with ideas on what constitutes good character. Politicians already run more on character than on issues. This is the problem, not the solution.

Replies from: Vladimir_M
comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-09-27T17:36:04.539Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

By the way, have you actually read Blacklisted by History? I have, and I strongly recommend it as an interesting debiasing experience if you have any interest in the 20th century American history. The book is a work of propaganda with a clear goal (as might be gathered from the subtitle), but on this subject, the conventional wisdom happens to be so extremely biased and full of falsities that reading some contrarian material which is biased in the other direction is likely to improve one's understanding significantly.

(Unfortunately, nothing even approximating an unbiased history of the whole McCarthy phenomenon has been written yet, and the best one can do is to make judgments based on the propaganda from both sides. Trouble is, the mainstream sources offer almost exclusively one side of it.)

Also, McCarthy's senatorial career provides an interesting case study of the rare phenomenon when an elected politician goes into an all-out war with the entrenched bureaucracy (mainly the State Department, in this case). There is almost no other case that elucidates certain essential aspects of the modern Western political systems so clearly, assuming of course that one is willing and able to analyze it without moral and ideological preconceptions, which are in this case unfortunately very strong and widespread.

Replies from: CronoDAS
comment by CronoDAS · 2010-09-27T19:38:56.758Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My current impression of McCarthy is that he was basically right that there were, indeed, Soviet infiltrators, but he didn't have any particular insight into finding them and ended up making accusations basically at random. Is that a reasonable one-sentence summary?

Replies from: Vladimir_M
comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-09-28T03:36:47.470Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, I wouldn’t say that’s a good summary, and the phenomenon was unfortunately much too complex to be described with a one-liner with any degree of accuracy.

The fundamental problem with such simple summaries is that they implicitly assume an oversimplified historical background to the whole situation: the U.S. pitched against the U.S.S.R. in a state of all-out Cold War hostility, with the entire U.S. government acting in a coherent way as a unified entity in this struggle for global supremacy, and individuals accused of acting as Soviet agents being either conscious and willing traitors working for Moscow or innocent victims of a witch-hunt. One must replace these simplistic preconceptions with a much more nuanced and detailed view before one can even begin to form anything more than a cartoonish picture of the so-called "Second Red Scare" period. (Which was in fact well underway, with the HUAC hearings, the Hollywood blacklist, the Hiss-Chambers affair, etc., years before McCarthy came to any national prominence.)

I could write a great deal about this topic, but I think that such a lengthy off-topic diversion would probably be too much.

Replies from: CronoDAS
comment by CronoDAS · 2010-09-28T03:57:57.777Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I suppose it's always more complicated than that...

comment by Matt_Simpson · 2010-09-28T01:19:03.981Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And be sure to notice whenever they to ignore the question and answer a different one instead; that means they couldn't answer the original question.

Interacting with the media 101: when they ask you a question that sounds confused, they're probably just asking you to explain the obvious thing (that they don't understand) - so ignore their question and explain that. My point is that this isn't as good of an indicator as you think it is since politicians, almost by definition, already know how to deal with the media.

On the other hand, this bit of media wisdom is supposed to be for a scientist explaining her work to the media, so maybe politicians don't do this at all.

comment by SimonF · 2010-09-27T14:16:30.278Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One small correction:

"that is, we tend to emphasize evidence that candidates we like are qualified, and ignore evidence that candidates we don't like aren't qualified."

The last part of this sentence should probably be "that candidates we don't like are(!) qualified."

comment by [deleted] · 2010-09-26T20:34:49.282Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Upvoted, but I think this is nearly impossible in practice. Also, there are certain issues (such as abortion) that otherwise perfectly rational politicians will behave irrationally about, which puts an upper limit on the effectiveness of focusing on intelligence rather than issues. If the issue that the politician is being irrational about is extremely important (like the economy) then this method can easily lead you astray.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-09-27T19:03:21.070Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is "I won't vote for a politician who says he doesn't believe in evolution" a reasonable heuristic?