Reexamining The Dark Arts

post by Bob Jacobs · 2020-06-01T14:11:47.647Z · score: 7 (10 votes) · LW · GW · 17 comments

Contents

  Graphic Design
  A New Schelling Fence
None
17 comments
Dark Arts is a colloquial term for techniques or methods which involve deception and/or manipulation of others or oneself. Some use the term to refer more narrowly to techniques that work equally well to compel both true and false beliefs, i.e., they are symmetric weapons [LW · GW].

Scott Alexander writes [LW · GW]:

Its study is forbidden to rationalists, and its tomes and treatises are kept under lock and key in a particularly dark corner of the Miskatonic University library. More than this it is not lawful to speak.

The message is clear: The Dark Arts are evil and you shouldn't use them. Here’s why I don’t agree with this.


Graphic Design

When I made the updated hierarchy of disagreement [LW · GW] I spend a lot of time working to make it aesthetically pleasing. Why? Well people have a beauty bias, things that are more beautiful tend to be trusted more. There are several studies that show that the thing that makes people trust the validity of a website the most is not it’s content, but rather it’s design.

This is of course an extension of the halo effect [LW · GW], where things with some positive traits will be more easily associated with other positive traits (e.g. sleek design and truthfulness). I wanted this guide to spread around the internet, so I made sure it looked professional. In other words: I exploited peoples biases to realize my personal preference. Why isn’t this evil? Because studies have also shown that beauty makes people happy. And I want people to be happy.

I know that in practice most of you aren’t actually unequivocally opposed to using the Dark Arts. If I said: ‘manipulate someone or else I will dunk a billion babies into vats of acid’, you would have no problem doing so. The point is that ‘The Dark Arts are evil and should never be used’ is a schelling fence [LW · GW]. A symbolic rule we can coordinate around. And if I make an exception for graphic design I am weakening the schelling fence. "What about a marketer that boosts someone’s ego ridiculously high in order to sell them something?" you might say "That ego boost also makes people happy, but we don’t think that’s okay." I might also not be the best source for this argument since I already care about design and am quite good [LW · GW] at it. It would be convenient for me if this talent of mine wasn’t evil. So maybe this whole argument is just a rationalization.


A New Schelling Fence

Unfortunately we are already breaking our own rules, because I'm not the only one who cares about design. The LessWrong website has beautiful [LW(p) · GW(p)] UX and we aren’t above having logo competitions [LW · GW] for our projects. So how do we rectify this discrepancy? Well let me propose a new (hopefully intuitive) schelling fence. Instead of never using the Dark Arts we ask ourself: 'Can we universalize this behavior?' I think this site severely undervalues Kant (and continental philosophy in general), but his principle of universalizability is truly one of the best tools for building schelling fences out there. Kant's ethics amounted to saying: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."
If you’re not familiar with universalizability I recommend you either read Kant’s work or (more realistically) Scott’s summary.

To put it in practice: If everyone made sure their arguments looked visually pleasing, would that be sustainable? Yes, in fact the world would look more beautiful so it's totally allowed. In contrast, conventional manipulations techniques like 'gaslighting' and 'negging' aren't. But what about the edge-case where everyone propped up each others ego to sell them stuff, would that be allowed? No, everyones ego would go through the roof making people more unpleasant and permanently shifting the ego baseline making it a self-defeating strategy. What about being friendly? Aren’t you exploiting the halo-effect to make your arguments seem more acceptable than they potentially are? Yes, but a world where everyone is friendly is both possible and would be a better place to live in, so Kant would actually recommended it. This ‘Kantian Dark Arts’ schelling fence lifts the discrepancy in our own behavior and allows us to use the Dark Arts some of the time, without ruining the world.

17 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Dagon · 2020-06-01T16:08:50.782Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
The message is clear: The Dark Arts are evil and you shouldn't use them.

If that's the message someone takes, then it applies to them. It only takes a slightly more esoteric reading to see the message as: The Dark Arts are dangerous to users and to targets, most people shouldn't use them, and only those willing to sacrifice some of their simplicity and clarity of belief can make the necessary risk/reward calculations about the unlawful knowledge. It's an infohazard warning. Or a version of the old alt.hackers self-moderation trick.

It turns out there are a _LOT_ of behaviors that are prosocial when only a few undertake them, and antisocial if everyone does them. The dream of universal behavioral rules denies diversity and specialization. The dream of universal terminal goals (with flexible or at least multiple routes toward them) may or may not be feasible, but it definitely doesn't imply shared capabilities and therefore does not imply shared behaviors.

This Schelling Fence idea still works, though, you just need to replace "universal" with "usable without harm by hobbyists and beginners".

comment by Bob Jacobs · 2020-06-01T16:19:29.985Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's complicated because I see the idea of a schelling fence as a heuristic in itself. So when I say 'universal' I really mean 'super duper quadruple highly recommended'. (EDIT:) Yes, even for "elites", since I'm extremely uncomfortable making exceptions for certain people without being able to quantify why these people are the exception.

comment by jimmy · 2020-06-01T19:27:55.278Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If your website looks like this people don't need to read your content in order to tell that you're a crazy person who is out of touch with how he comes off and doesn't have basic competencies like "realize that this is terrible, hire a professional". Just scroll through without reading any of it, and with your defense against the dark arts primed and ready, tell me how likely you feel that the content is some brilliant insight into the nature of time itself. It's a real signal that credibly conveys information about how unlikely this person is to have something to say which is worth listening to. Signalling that you can't make a pretty website when you can is dishonest, and the fact that you would be hindering yourself by doing so makes it no better.

When you know what you're doing, there's nothing "dark" about looking like it.

comment by bbleeker · 2020-06-02T11:03:31.549Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure that sites like that look that way because they just don't know any better. I think they may be signaling they're not an 'establishment' site, and so *increase* their trustworthiness in the eyes of their target audience.

comment by jimmy · 2020-06-06T19:39:22.403Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's an interesting hypothesis, and seems plausible as a partial explanation to me. I don't buy it as a full explanation for a couple reasons. One is that it is inherently harder to read and follow rather than being an equally valid aesthetic. It may also function as a signal that you are on team Incoherent Thought, and there may occasionally be reasons to fake a disability, but generally genuine shortcomings don't become attractive things to signal. Even the king of losers is a loser, and generally the impression that I get is that these people did wish they had more mainstream acceptance and would take it in a heartbeat if they could get it at the level that they feel like they deserve. That doesn't mean that they won't flout it when they can, but the signs are there. They spend a lot more time talking about "the establishment" than the establishment spends talking about them, for example.

The main point holds though. If your target audience sees formal attire as a sign of "conformism and closed mindedness" rather than a sign that you are able to shave and afford pricey clothing, then the honest thing to do is to show that you don't have to conform by not wearing a suit when you meet with them. When you're meeting the people who do want to make sure you can shave and put on fancy clothes, it's honest to show that you can do that too.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-06-10T19:58:06.530Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't call the clean design of LessWrong either involving deception or manipulation and I don't think that's what most rationalists mean when they say "dark arts". The same goes for chosing logos via a competition.  

There might be some logo designs that many people would call deceptive because they might be confused with certain existing logos but it's not what most people consider as dark arts. 

comment by FactorialCode · 2020-06-02T07:57:02.408Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If everyone made sure their arguments looked visually pleasing, would that be sustainable? Yes, in fact the world would look more beautiful so it's totally allowed.

Here's a frequent problem with using the dark arts, they very frequently have higher order effects that hurt the user and the target in ways that are difficult to immediately foresee.

In the above proposal, there are frequently times when the most effective method of communication is to be blunt, or one argument is going to inherently be more ascetically pleasing than another. In these circumstances, if you start optimizing for making arguments pretty, then you will very likely sacrificing accuracy or effectiveness. Do this too much and your map starts to disconnect from the territory. From there it becomes easy to start taking actions that look correct according to your map, but are in fact suboptimal or outright detrimental.

comment by Bob Jacobs · 2020-06-02T09:41:14.542Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So this schelling fence doesn’t say that you can’t be blunt, only that you’re sometimes allowed not to be. Designing also has diminishing returns so in reality people will not only optimize aesthetics. I’m not sure what you mean by effectiveness, but me giving my guide certain colors or shapes did not hinder the argument being made. But let’s say for the sake of argument that you are forced to make a choice between accuracy and aesthetics. This schelling fence says that you should choose accuracy since you couldn’t trust any argument if everyone sacrifices accuracy, making it self defeating. Kantian Dark Arts still work.

comment by Pattern · 2020-06-01T20:22:10.629Z · score: -3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
To put it in practice: If everyone made sure their arguments looked visually pleasing, would that be sustainable? Yes, in fact the world would look more beautiful so it's totally allowed.

These are two different things.

comment by Bob Jacobs · 2020-06-01T20:36:24.844Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why do you say that? Not only does it not self-contradict, it also fills the world with more visually pleasing stuff, making it more beautiful? Does your comment say I shouldn't point these things out? Or would you like me to edit it to say that it's 'doubly allowed' since it does two things? I'm not sure what you're trying to say :(

comment by Pattern · 2020-06-02T03:33:55.022Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

'Are visually pleasing arguments sustainable?'

is different from

'Are beautiful things allowed?'

comment by Bob Jacobs · 2020-06-02T07:12:08.041Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So things are allowed if they’re sustainable. Visually pleasing things are beautiful. I already said earlier that beautiful things make people happy. I said that the answer resolved positively because it is sustainable. I honestly still don’t understand your criticism. If you were my editor before I posted this, what would you have liked to add or subtract from this sentence?

comment by Pattern · 2020-06-03T17:00:58.328Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your piece argues that the good outweighs the bad. This seems reasonable (particularly in this case).

The "Dark Arts"* argument (applied to this context) is that beautiful means have distortionary effects. Can it be argued that everyone investing time into beauty and truth isn't sustainable? Yes. Selecting for a) produces good material, and b) makes it beautiful, seems individually easier than c) selecting for both.

Are there solutions? Perhaps:

  • The argument itself is "beware goodharting".
  • Collaboration can help ideas develop, reach a larger audience, be more beautiful..**
  • Effort can be invested in beauty for it's own sake. (Embrace the Dark Arts!)
  • At times both may be 'aligned' - if simple ideas are more likely to be true, then a simple illustration that summarizes effectively may be useful for both 'truth-seeking' and 'aesthetic appreciation', etc.

In sum, I felt your piece didn't address what it might look like if things 'went bad with Dark Arts'. I agree that 'beauty is bad' seems wrong. I thought 'Dark Arts' was more about stuff like rhetoric. 'Art as a Dark Art'*** wasn't taken seriously, but seems resolvable if it is.

Your early post you referenced - I don't think it's not bad that it's beautiful because of an abstract argument. It's more intuitive/a judgement. It looks good, and by conveying the idea effectively and simply, if anything it seems more open to use, testing, and even criticism - all of which seem to improve truth-seeking rather than harm it. If 'Bright Arts' end up being a problem, it probably won't be addressed by dismissing the issue, but by responding to a tangible instance of it that has arisen, and recognizing there is a tangible negative impact in play. Your earlier post is a bad example of that because it doesn't seem harmful (it seems beneficial).

*Bright arts might be more accurate in this context. **A good grounding for being worried about something might be empirical. This is more difficult to produce though. ***Or 'Beauty as a Dark Art'.

comment by Bob Jacobs · 2020-06-04T16:24:46.912Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
In sum, I felt your piece didn't address what it might look like if things 'went bad with Dark Arts'.

Yeah I've always wondered if I should write about this. A sequence on 'defense against the dark arts' might sound like a good idea in theory but in practice you have write out a lot of dark arts techniques to point out how you can defend yourself against them and I'm afraid people will just start using those techniques. If you look at the karma-vote discrepancy of the posts with the 'dark arts' tag you will see how controversial this topic is. I don't blame people for downvoting me and the others because even talking about it brings risk, but I think that's sometimes worth it. But even if a 'defense against the dark arts' sequence ever gets written, I don't think it should be me but rather someone with more expertise in this field.

comment by Zachary Robertson (zachary-robertson) · 2020-06-02T05:16:39.401Z · score: 0 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is out of context, perhaps even nitpicking. It’s clear they’re talking about universality. In that context, sustainable implies allowable.

comment by Pattern · 2020-06-02T06:07:41.271Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, sustainability implies allowable - but allowability was established*, not sustainability.

*asserted

comment by Bob Jacobs · 2020-06-02T09:45:18.055Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I immediately answered that question with ‘yes’, didn’t I? Meaning I asserted that it was sustainable.