Asymmetric Weapons Aren't Always on Your Side

post by Davis_Kingsley · 2019-06-08T08:47:49.675Z · score: 37 (22 votes) · LW · GW · 20 comments

Some time ago, Scott Alexander wrote about asymmetric weapons, and now he writes again about them. During these posts, Scott repeatedly characterizes asymmetric weapons as inherently stronger for the "good guys" than they are for the "bad guys". Here is a quote from his first post:

Logical debate has one advantage over narrative, rhetoric, and violence: it’s an asymmetric weapon. That is, it’s a weapon which is stronger in the hands of the good guys than in the hands of the bad guys.

And here is a quote from his more recent one:

A symmetric weapon is one that works just as well for the bad guys as for the good guys. For example, violence – your morality doesn’t determine how hard you can punch; they can buy guns from the same places we can.
An asymmetric weapon is one that works better for the good guys than the bad guys. The example I gave was Reason. If everyone tries to solve their problems through figuring out what the right thing to do is, the good guys (who are right) will have an easier time proving themselves to be right than the bad guys (who are wrong). Finding and using asymmetric weapons is the only non-coincidence way to make sustained moral progress.

One problem with this concept is that just because something is asymmetric doesn't mean that it's asymmetric in a good direction.

Scott talks about weapons that are asymmetric towards those who are right. However, there are many more types of asymmetries than just right vs. wrong - physical violence is asymmetric towards the strong, shouting people down is asymmetric towards the loud, and airing TV commercials is asymmetric towards people with more money. Violence isn't merely symmetric - it's asymmetric in a bad direction, since fascists are better than violence than you.

This in turn means that various sides will all be trying to pull things in directions that are asymmetric to their advantage. Indeed, a basic principle in strategy is to try to shift conflicts into areas where you are strong and your opponent is weak.

For instance, people who are good at violence benefit from things getting violent. People who are locally popular benefit from popularity contests. People who have lots of free time benefit from time-consuming processes. People who are better at keeping their composure benefit from discourse norms that punish displays of emotion.

Developing asymmetric processes that point towards truth is a good idea, and I'm all for it. But in practice there are also asymmetric processes that point towards error, or merely asymmetric processes that point towards what's currently popular or faddish. Those processes are, if anything, just as likely to have people trying to promote them than the pro-truth ones - perhaps more likely!

That doesn't make the people promoting those ideas "anti-truth" or whatever - they may not even be aware of what they're doing - but even so, people tend to respond to incentives, and those incentives may well pull them towards norms and methods that are asymmetric in their favor independent of whether those norms and methods promote truth.


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comment by Unnamed · 2019-06-07T21:42:12.177Z · score: 29 (8 votes) · LW · GW

When Scott used the term "asymmetric weapons", I understood him to mean truth-asymmetric weapons or weapons that favor what's good & true. He was trying to set that particular dimension of asymmetry apart from the various other ways in which a weapon might be more useful in some hands than in others.

I think it's an important concept, and I wish we had better terminology for it.

comment by shminux · 2019-06-08T01:57:24.492Z · score: 14 (7 votes) · LW · GW
the good guys (who are right) will have an easier time proving themselves to be right than the bad guys (who are wrong)

Scott lost me there. Isn't good vs bad guys just a common narrative with the good/bad assignment that depends on the person expressing it? One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter and all that. Yet right and wrong are supposed to be somewhat more universal concepts. You seem to be using good and bad in the same way, as some kind of an objective measure.

comment by clone of saturn · 2019-06-08T03:37:08.229Z · score: 13 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Violence isn’t merely symmetric—it’s asymmetric in a bad direction, since fascists are better than violence than you.

This seems like a strange opinion to have, given that the fascists were in fact the losers of the most violent conflict in history, and their name became the default metonym for pure badness as a direct result of that loss.

comment by dxu · 2019-06-08T07:27:03.188Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Did you read the linked post? It directly addresses this (potential) objection:

One might point out that the fascists and Nazis lost World War II, and certainly they did – but it took World War II, a giant military conflict of as yet unprecedented scale, to get people unified enough against fascism to put up a credible response, and there was certainly a lot of ground lost beforehand!
comment by clone of saturn · 2019-06-08T09:37:14.017Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

See my other reply [LW · GW].

comment by Davis_Kingsley · 2019-06-08T07:13:50.177Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Fascists punched well above their weight in that conflict and lost only after massive industrial advantages from the US and manpower advantages from the Soviet Union were brought to bear against them. While they were ultimately defeated, one should not take that to mean that they were ineffective.

comment by clone of saturn · 2019-06-08T09:36:23.732Z · score: 16 (4 votes) · LW · GW

My problem with this is that human history is heavily saturated with violent conflict; most places on earth have been violently conquered not just once but many times. If violence were really asymmetric in a bad direction, goodness ought to have been very thoroughly eliminated by now!

comment by John_Maxwell_IV · 2019-06-09T07:33:27.514Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Big armies tend to defeat smaller ones, and supporting a big army requires large-scale cooperation?

comment by clone of saturn · 2019-06-09T09:44:07.688Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Right, and also the ability to do science and engineering, the ability to frankly discuss strategy without too much political backstabbing, etc. tends to favor less-hellish societies.

comment by Raemon · 2019-06-08T16:41:17.050Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think all this talk of ‘good’ is making things more confusing.

Davis said: Violence is asymmetric in favor of violence.

comment by jessicata (jessica.liu.taylor) · 2019-06-08T20:50:35.381Z · score: 19 (7 votes) · LW · GW

He said:

Violence isn’t merely symmetric—it’s asymmetric in a bad direction, since fascists are better than violence than you.

So "Violence is asymmetric in favor of violence" is a misinterpretation; Davis is making a claim about it being asymmetric in a bad direction, and also claiming that fascists are better at violence than "you".

comment by Raemon · 2019-06-08T23:29:28.574Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, fair. I did not read or re-read his post carefully, appreciate pointing out the error.

I stand by my own claims, which I think are weaker. I am not quite sure about the claims Davis made since history is complex, but it’s definitely a stronger claim that I’d want to look into more.

comment by Raemon · 2019-06-08T19:35:07.230Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A particular lens on this:

Awhile, there was a thing about women who get cat-called pepper spraying the cat-caller. And there was an initial round on social media of "yeah! fight back!"

But a concern someone brought up in that discussion was "we've put _massive_ amounts of effort into punishing physical violence as a way to solve problems and as a tool it's acceptable to use (generally, and in the domain of sexuality).

"If you move the battlefield back into the domain of violence, aggressive men (who are on average stronger) will be more likely to apply physical force, and even if locally you get to win some fights due to surprise, or social narratives being on your side... in the long run, it makes the world less safe for physically weaker people."

(I think this domain is complicated there's a lot of nuance left out of the above paragraph, but sort of gets across the idea)

comment by clone of saturn · 2019-06-09T10:32:40.007Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Of course, I completely agree with this, especially this part:

“we’ve put massive amounts of effort into punishing physical violence as a way to solve problems and as a tool it’s acceptable to use (generally, and in the domain of sexuality).

Punishing physical violence. With more efficient violence. What we've done is brought a very large coalition into extremely precise agreement about who it's acceptable to do violence to ("criminals" for short), who must do it, and how it must be done. Not only will uninvolved bystanders intervene to ensure these violent norms are followed, but we even have a class of professional violent bystanders (the police).

The sort of spontaneous lashing out that you brought up is exactly the kind of thing highly organized violence excels at suppressing. Lack of such violence, overall, tends to make life much worse for physically weaker non-criminals, even if it might let them get away with occasionally pepper-spraying a catcaller.

comment by Raemon · 2019-06-09T17:59:57.802Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Okay, that's a good point that updates my models a bit. I think my half-formed opinions had more to do with... I think mostly vigilante violence (i.e. the guy who punched the neo-Nazi on the street), which operates outside of the well defined coalition.

comment by Pattern · 2019-06-09T16:39:20.342Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That last sentence didn't make sense:

Lack of such violence, overall, tends to make life much worse for physically weaker non-criminals, even if it might let them get away with occasionally pepper-spraying a catcaller.

How does lack of violence make life worse for 'physically weaker non-criminals'? Are you talking about 'violence directed at those who use violence unacceptably'? ('Meta-violence.')

comment by TAG · 2019-06-09T14:29:31.429Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The good can resort to violence if it comes to that, and good can come out of violence.

comment by jessicata (jessica.liu.taylor) · 2019-06-08T20:59:19.767Z · score: 14 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Note, having industrial advantages is quite related to being "good" (in the sense of having productive coordination among individuals to produce usable material and informational goods). Having lots of manpower is also related to being "good" (in the sense of having a system that has enough buy-in from enough people that they will fight effectively on your side, and not depose you). These correlations aren't accidental, they're essential.

(It is, however, true that military power is not identical with goodness, and that there are "bad" ways of getting industry and manpower, although (I claim) their "badness" is essential to their disadvantages)

comment by Raemon · 2019-06-09T18:31:15.441Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that various advantages in power depend on productive coordination. And I think productive coordination is an important facet of being good. But I'm pretty wary of conflating them.

[epistemic status – not very well read on the history, and I haven't thought about this too seriously since I was more proto-typical Blue Tribe member]. It seemed like a significant chunk of US industrial might depended on having lots of resources, which depended on expansion across the continent, which dependent on invasion of Native American land. Which also required lots of cooperation/coordination within the US.

The overall strategy (over centuries) seemed to be "gain lots of territory and resources via tactics that look pretty straightforwardly evil, and then come up with a new narrative afterwards where you sort of wring your hands and be like 'eh... well, what's done is done but now might as well use this for good'"

[epistemic status – more recent thoughts] I feel very confused about how to think about empires.

It seems like empires in general look straightforwardly evil, if the word evil is going to mean anything. it also seems like empires are a pre-requisite to doing most things that seem like 'deeper Good according to Raemon', and the default world without empires sure seems like it's missing out on some important things. But, also, the people at the time didn't know that.

comment by Thrasymachus · 2019-06-09T20:49:16.174Z · score: 10 (3 votes) · LW · GW

(Very minor inexpert points on military history, I agree with the overall point there can be various asymmetries, not all of which are good - although, in fairness, I don't think Scott had intended to make this generalisation.)

1) I think you're right the German army was considered one of the most effective fighting forces on a 'man for man' basis (I recall pretty contemporaneous criticism from allied commanders on facing them in combat, and I think the consensus of military historians is they tended to outfight American, British, and Russian forces until the latest stages of WW2).

2) But it's not clear how much the Germany owed this performance to fascism:

  • Other fascist states (i.e. Italy) had much less effective fighting forces.
  • I understand a lot of the accounts to explain how German army performed so well sound very unstereotypically facist - delegating initiative to junior officers/NCOs rather than unquestioning obedience to authority (IIRC some historical comment was the American army was more stiflingly authoritarian than the German one for most of the war), better 'human resource' management of soldiers, combined arms, etc. etc. This might be owed more to Prussian heritage than Hitler's rise to power.

3) Per others, it is unclear 'punching above one's weight' for saying something is 'better at violence'. Even if the US had worse infantry, they leveraged their industrial base to give their forces massive material advantages. If the metric for being better at violence is winning in violent contests, the fact the German's were better at one aspect of this seems to matter little if they lost overall.