A Dialogue on Rationalist Activism

post by moridinamael · 2018-09-10T18:30:01.130Z · score: 85 (35 votes) · LW · GW · 24 comments

You're walking home through a cornfield late one night when a streak of light splits the sky like a sheet. When your vision clears, you see a golden saucer hovering before you, which deposits a human figure onto the now-flattened cornstalks right in front of you, and then vanishes in a flash.

Visitor: Greetings, Earthling.

You: Welcome to Earth!

Visitor: Thank you. May I introduce myself? I am a construct of the galactic civilization, created to begin the process of uplifting your species through ethical means. You have been selected, among all humanity, as one of a small few individuals amenable to contact, due to your passion for science fiction and rationalism. I am aware that your current epistemic state is one of suspicion that this is a dream or hallucination, in no small part due to the resemblance of this scenario to some of your most fervent fantasies and wishes. Would it be acceptable to proceed as if this interaction were really happening, for the time being, and address the improbability of this situation at a later point?

You: As long as you don't start offering me deals that involve up-arrow notation, sure.

Visitor: Fair. Before I say my piece, I'll give you the opportunity to ask any questions which might otherwise serve as distractions for you, if left unasked.

You: First question: Why are you making contact now?

Visitor: Your species is within a few years of discovering the true physical laws, which will enable something like what you would think of as FTL travel. Although, the truth of physical reality is so radically different from your current conception, that the term "FTL travel" is misleading, to the degree that many of your philosophers' conclusions about the nature of ethics involving large timescales and populations are distorted. Before we get too far down that rabbit hole, let me clarify that there's an empirically correct order to these type of proceedings, and explaining the true physics doesn't come till much later.

You: You mentioned uplifting the human race through ethical means. Could you clarify that?

Visitor: It is within our capability to rapidly and unilaterally enhance the intelligence and reflectively-correct moral quality of all members of a species. It is much preferable, ethically, to hold the hand of that species and guide it past a sequence of well-worn moral and ethical guideposts, culminating in allowing individual members of the species to make that decision themselves in fully informed fashion.

You: Okay. That's all my questions for now.

Visitor: Great. Well, here's the plan. Take this manuscript.

The visitor hands you an extraordinarily thick sheaf of printed paper. You flip through it and determine that it is indeed a manuscript for a non-fiction book. The title page reads "How To Be More Rational".

Visitor: You'll submit this manuscript for publication. When everyone reads it, they will be more rational, at which point the galactic collective will introduce itself openly.

You: ...

Visitor: Is there a problem?

You: How to phrase this delicately ... how much research have you done into human behavior and psychology?

Visitor: I'm not entirely sure why that matters. The contents of this book are a roadmap to optimal cognition, an algorithm for predictably arriving at true believes and efficiently achieving goals, independent of the specific psychology of the species.

You: I'll be blunt, then. Nobody is going to read this book.

Visitor: What? Why?

You: First of all, the vast majority of humans would find this title condescending. Some would feel insulted by the implication that they are not rational enough. Some would agree that other people aren't very rational and that other people should read a book with this title, but would themselves pass it by.

Visitor: Interesting. So the title needs to be less ... condescending, in order to appeal to human psychology?

You: That's only one problem. The real problem is the lack of positive appeal. It's not enough to remove the repellent aspect of the title, you need to include some kind of subtle sales pitch, either in the title or possibly in a subtitle. The title must answer the question, "Why should I pick up this book?"

Visitor: But it's obvious. It's self-evident. You should want to be more rational.

You: It ... does seem like it should be self-evident. I assure you, it's not. The majority of humans do not even realize that the quality of their thinking is something that can be improved. They don't even see their thinking as a thing that possesses quality, or that can be compared to a standard.

Visitor: How about, "How To Be Less Stupid"?

You: ... I was thinking more along the lines of "How To Be Less Wrong", although even that doesn't make me reach for my wallet. Even better would be something like, "Twelve Proven Ways to Be Smarter, Happier, Sexier and Richer - Number Ten Will Shock You!"

Visitor: That title would appeal to humans?

You: It would stand a better chance at getting picked up by the modal human than "How To Be Less Stupid." But humans are very diverse. Some of us hate to be told we're wrong, while some of us seek out that experience. Now that I think of it, I think this would work best if there were several different titles aimed at different subsets of people. But before we spend too much time on the title, I have another criticism. As I flip through this manuscript, I realize that you seem to have written this book in a fashion that someone like me might understand it but not enjoy it. Let's leave aside the question of whether I represent a typical human intellect. Even if somebody picks this up off the shelf, they're not going to read it. It's not entertaining! It reads like a particularly dense textbook.

Visitor: But it is a non-fiction book meant to improve cognition. Why should you expect it to be entertaining?

You: One of the ways humans are irrational is that we don't govern our attentional resources anything close to optimally. You could improve this book in a number of ways. You could break the contents down into some kind of ... hm ... collection of Sequences [LW · GW] of bite-sized conceptual nuggets, and write each of those nuggets with an eye toward providing a clear lesson. It wouldn't hurt to use an engaging writing style. I think more people would actually make it through the book if you wrote it this way.

Visitor: So you propose changing the format of the book into a set of Sequences, containing the same content but configured in a more appealing way?

You: That would help but it still won't be enough. Somebody like me might read the book you've just described, but I still don't think it would be widely popular. It wouldn't take root in the public consciousness. It wouldn't transform society in the way you've implied that you expect to happen.

Visitor: Clearly my understanding of your psychology is deeply lacking, but I can't help but think of the impact that many of your culture's fiction books have had on public consciousness.

You: Yes! Telling a really good story, with vibrant characters who live out and demonstrate the lessons contained in the book, that would reach so many more people. Something that didn't just describe, but demonstrated these ... Methods of Rationality. But - there's no such thing as a universally appealing story. No matter how good your story is, some people are going to find it offputting for unpredictable reasons. Humans will spend hundreds of hours dragging a book they haven't even read based on an out-of-context one-line quote. You can't possibly anticipate the divisiveness that can be provoked by fiction. I daresay, while such a work of fiction would probably reach far more people than a work a nonfiction with equivalent content, it would also alienate a much larger number of people, who might come to define themselves as being against rationality for the stupidest possible reasons.

Visitor: Is that ... really? This is a thing that happens?

You: Humans are a social and fundamentally tribal species. In periods of high material wealth we invent tribal categories to divide into. These categories come to feel ontologically real. We are more than capable of forming tribes around fictional works.

Visitor: That would pose a problem. So, what you're saying is that it would be necessary to write a number of such stories, each suitably different in tone, genre, and style that one such story would be virtually guaranteed to appeal to any individual?

You: Yeah. That might do it. Maybe. But I have other reservations to your scheme. It seems like you're imagining that these ideas will penetrate the public consciousness and then actually be transformative on both an individual and societal level. A much more likely outcome is that some minority take the ideas seriously but most treat the ideas as an intellectual fad and forget 99% of them in a year. Lacking any kind of social accountability structure, even the minority who take to the ideas will have tremendous difficulty in truly internalizing them.

Visitor: So you propose some kind of social reinforcement structure. The creation of some kind of tribe built around these ideas. Some kind of ... Rationality Community.

You: Yes, I suppose. But ... Hm.

Visitor: What?

You: Well. Based on my knowledge of humans, the kinds of people who would be particularly susceptible to rationality content, would also have memetic immune systems that would make forming an actual, functioning rationality community very difficult.

Visitor: For example?

You: Oof. Well, for one thing, people would automatically pattern-match pretty much any attempt at forming an organizational structure to a "religion" or a "cult" even though what's actually being attempted is the literal opposite of those things. When it comes to actual formal documents specifying the objectives and structure of the organization, people would get endlessly caught up in relatively inconsequential choices of language or focus, perpetually bickering over the last 1% of linguistic distinction that separates their aims. You would think people who prize rationality would be able to shield themselves from the narcissism of small differences, but I suspect not, in reality. God forbid anyone try any kind of bold sociological experiment [LW · GW] - anything that looks "weird" is going to get crucified. And yes, I appreciate the irony of the word "crucified" in this context.

You, cont'd: And some people would always rather compete than join. You can't really create a movement for "rationalism" without creating, alchemically, a group of "post-rationalists" or something, who won't join the club, even if they would actually fit in perfectly with the club, and probably enjoy it, to boot. And then there's the group of people who just like to sneer at the thing other people are sneering at. If people can be cynical and snide about Fred Rogers, they can be dismissive of the project of improving human rationality.

Visitor: Okay, but this seems solvable. Right now you're speaking about the way humans behave by default, but we've already solved a lot of these issues. If part of optimal cognition, reliable truthseeking strategies, and effective goal pursuit - i.e., rationality - involves adopting new and better norms for how to think about and build good, functional groups and organizations, then anyone who is actually serious about rationality should be gung ho about adopting those new norms. And we can totally help with that. It's in the book, page 2,433. It strikes me that your world just needs a minimally viable seed, a rationality organization that has the right structure and norms that actually permit it to grow. And then, it will grow, because the game theoretic conditions for growth are met.

You: What kind of norms?

Visitor: For example, norms that encourage and promote a kind of organized, well-designed, and effective activism. Per your own description of human psychology, highly effective activism does not tend to arise naturally in congregations of people who are overly concerned about rebuffing accusations that they're part of a cult.

You: I admit I don't know what that would actually look like. I haven't read your book. And the thought of it makes me anxious. I'm automatically suspicious of any organization that wants to grow. Even I am not above making the comparison to religion, here.

Visitor: Can you not reflect on how your automatic - and therefor, probably, not rational - suspicion is ultimately self-defeating? And probably not even meritorious, since you literally don't know what the book says this organization would look like? Your world is full to bursting with powerful, hierarchical organizations with much flimsier justifications for existence than "improving the quality of thinking and therefor the epistemic accuracy and instrumental effectiveness of the species." It's almost ... cowardly of you, to insist that you can't possibly try to actually promote the one thing you care most about in the world, which you honestly believe could help save your world, while all around you thrive countless powerful political blocs promoting intellectual snake oil.

You: I'm starting to suspect that you're actually trying to infect my civilization with some kind of viral meme.

Visitor: Gah. You're performing that same kind of kneejerk pattern matching you just complained about. So what if it is a virus, if it's a virus that benefits you, and which you consent to being infected with?

You: I understand what you mean, but you probably don't want to use that exact rhetoric going forward.

Visitor: Okay. I think it's about time to wrap up here. In case you've forgotten who you're talking to, I represent an unfathomably advanced galactic polity, and we aren't stupid. We anticipated everything that has occurred in this conversation, and the purpose of this chat was to get you mentally to the point where you would be susceptible to the following argument. Obviously I understand that admitting to this kind of manipulation diminishes its effectiveness, but again, we're committed to a high ethical standard, and our philosopher corps tells me I can't just gloss over the fact that you've been suckered into this crux.

You: ... in retrospect, that makes sense.

Visitor: So here is the argument: broadly, you have two choices. You can decide to help be part of an actual rationality organization. We won't tell you how to do it. We're not actually going to give you the book. I'm sorry, that was part of the trick. In order to ethically uplift your race, we need you to figure it out for yourselves. Only you can compensate for the quirks and idiosyncrasies of your own species. We can't do it for you.

Visitor, cont'd: If you make the decision to set aside your automatic hesitations, your impulse to pattern-match what I'm suggesting to other things, the chorus of arguments rising in your mind describing how it's impossible - only then do you have a chance of success. Only then do you have a chance of uplifting your race to something happier and stronger and better.

Visitor, cont'd: And if you aren't capable of making that choice, of committing to actually try [LW · GW], and allow your deep conflict over the endeavor to make you productively paranoid and engender the necessary level of constant vigilance, then you get the bad ending. Which is to say, you get more of the same. Rationality doesn't become something that the world cares about, unless that people who do care about it, care enough to actually convince the world that they should. You yourself just told me, in detail, how and why a rationality community lacking an organized activist component fails to flourish as it might, as it should.

Visitor, cont'd: Of course, I could be wrong. After all, this conversation probably has much more to do with the psilocybin you ate a while ago than it does any real galactic intervention, and my message here probably has a lot more to do with what you suspect, but feel conflicted about, than any semi-divine imperative.

Visitor, cont'd: In either case, the choice is the same: Do you have the courage to be a joiner in a tribe of iconoclasts?


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Benito · 2018-09-10T23:14:38.404Z · score: 26 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Reading this was really fun.

I might have more substantive thoughts later, but wanted to say that.

comment by lionhearted · 2018-09-15T22:38:30.731Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I came to write that exact comment —

"That was a really fun read."

Nothing more substantive for now. Fun, for sure, though.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-09-10T20:15:43.810Z · score: 14 (6 votes) · LW · GW

And a substantive comment:

This is an excellent criticism of the rationality movement / community. We should have more self-aware analysis like this! Needless to say, I agree entirely with the implied point (that the Visitor’s arguments, being not actually sourced from a powerful galactic civilization and possibly malicious even if they were, do not hold up, and that his attempts to exhort his human interlocutor to action could, without modification, come from almost any movement or ideology, regardless of its actual value).

The implied follow-up question, if I am reading correctly, is: how, then, do we differentiate ourselves? How do we (second) convince others, and (first) establish for ourselves, that we’re different? What can we offer to prospective joiners that cannot be offered by other movements (i.e., what can we offer that constitutes an unfalsifiable signal that we are the “true path” to the “good ending”, so to speak)?

comment by moridinamael · 2018-09-10T20:38:10.373Z · score: 18 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I felt like the OP was already quite long enough, and don't have time now to write the full followup post that this question deserves, but in brief, the thrust would be that any rationalist organization deserving of the name would carefully choose its norms, structure and bylaws to reflect those of the most successful existing organizations (empiricism!), with care taken to exclude the aspects of those organizations that are inimical to group or individual rationality. Thus, even if stoning apostates has proven to be an empirically useful organizational strategy from the perspective of growth, it's probably not something we want to emulate.

I'm not sure if we can actually offer an unfalsifiable signal that we are on the "true path". I'm not sure if we even necessarily need or want to do that. In order to justify the existence of the "Don't Shoot Yourself in the Foot Club", you just need to demonstrate that not shooting yourself in the foot is better than the alternative, and I think we can do at least that, metaphorically.

Also, I actually suspect that any formal structure at all would probably be, on net, more of a good thing than a bad thing, in terms of growing the movement.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-09-10T20:52:45.510Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm. Well, certainly the full follow-up would be a tremendously valuable thing to have, so whenever you have the time to write it, I definitely think that you should!

But for now:

… any rationalist organization deserving of the name would carefully choose its norms, structure and bylaws to reflect those of the most successful existing organizations (empiricism!), with care taken to exclude the aspects of those organizations that are inimical to group or individual rationality.

Hm, indeed. Obvious follow-up questions:

  1. By “rationality”, here, do you mean epistemic or instrumental rationality? Or both? (And if “both”, which is prioritized if they conflict? Or, must aspects of successful organizations that are inimical to either epistemic or instrumental rationality, and either group or individual versions of each, all be excluded?)

  2. What should an aspiring rationalist organization do if, upon empirical investigation, it turns out that the norms, structure, and bylaws shared by all the most successful existing organizations turn out to all be inimical to group or individual rationality?

comment by moridinamael · 2018-09-10T21:17:15.345Z · score: 11 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Regarding both follow-up questions, I have two answers:

Answer 1: I don't intend for this to be a dodge, but I don't think it really matters what I think. I don't think it's practical to construct "the perfect organization" in our imagination and then anticipate that its perfection will be realized.

I think what a rationality organization looks like in practice is a small group of essentially like-minded people creating a Schelling point by forming the initial structure, and then the organization evolves from there in ways that are not necessarily predictable, in ways that reflect the will of the people who have the energy to actually put into the thing.

What's interesting is that when I say it that way, I realize that it sounds like a recipe for disaster. But also note that essentially no other organization on Earth has been formed in any other way.

Answer 2: I personally would create separate organizational branches for epistemic and instrumental focus, such that both could use the resources of the other, but neither would be constrained by the rules of the other. Either branch could use whatever policies are most suited to themselves. Think two houses of a congress. Either of the branches could propose policies to govern the whole organization, which could be accepted or vetoed by the other branch. There's probably also a role for something like an elected executive branch, but at this point I am grasping well beyond my domain of expertise.

comment by quanticle · 2018-09-10T21:59:05.101Z · score: 20 (7 votes) · LW · GW

What’s interesting is that when I say it that way, I realize that it sounds like a recipe for disaster. But also note that essentially no other organization on Earth has been formed in any other way.

I'm not so sure about that. Perhaps you meant "no other [freestanding] organization on Earth has been formed [by people without access to massive amounts of resources] any other way".

To elaborate on the distinction, I can point to organizations like NASA, or the Manhattan Project. They were created, from the beginning, as large groups, with pre-planned bureaucratic structures and formal lines of authority. While there was a certain level of organic growth, it's not like these things started in a garage and grew outward from there. Similarly, in private industry, when IBM embarked on its OS/360 project, or Microsoft embarked on Windows Vista, these were not small efforts started by a group of insurgents. Rather, they were responses to concrete opportunities/threats (a new mainframe, Netscape) that were identified by the leadership of the parent organization, who then mobilized the appropriate resources.

I think this matters beyond mere pedantry. You've identified one way to spread rationalism -- bottom up, by establishing a small group of rationalists, who then spread their doctrine outwards. I'm saying there's another way: identify leaders, convince them that rationality is a good thing to focus on, and then have them mobilize the appropriate resources to spread rationality. If you could convince Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Carlos Slim that they should fund rationality with the full force of their collective fortune, then that would potentially do more in a year to spread rationalism than a small organization organically growing for a decade.

Of course, "go big or go home" has its own failure modes, but it's not actually self-evident that it's more risky than starting small and spreading outwards. Moreover, the really successful small groups employed a hybrid strategy. They started out as a small group, until the could amass enough resources and prestige to convince influential decision-makers that their cause was worth supporting. The canonical (pun fully intended) example is the Catholic Church, of course. It started as a small, often persecuted group of followers of a particular religious prophet, indistinguishable from the other Jewish spin-offs. However, through steady proselytizing, it grew and converted the aristocracy of the Roman empire. At that point, from the the conversion of Constantine onwards, it became the state religion, and spread rapidly wherever the Roman empire held sway.

comment by moridinamael · 2018-09-12T15:51:12.867Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think MIRI also employed a hybrid strategy. I will say, it seems much easier to deploy a "go big or go home" approach after you've already created a minimum viable organization, rather than attempting to poach thinkfluencers without even having that groundwork in place.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-09-10T21:01:14.801Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In order to justify the existence of the “Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot Club”, you just need to demonstrate that not shooting yourself in the foot is better than the alternative, and I think we can do at least that, metaphorically.

Well, now, this is not quite right, I think, or rather it’s incomplete. What’s missing (and what I suspect you were assuming—but should definitely be stated explicitly!) is that the members of the “Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot Club” should, in actual fact, successfully avoid shooting themselves in the foot (or, to state it in a less binary fashion: should shoot themselves in the foot measurably less than non-members).

This may seem like an obvious point, but in fact there is nothing surprising about a “Do X Club” that doesn’t do X. After all, having the power of telekinesis is clearly better than not having the power of telekinesis, but I do not think that this fact suffices to justify the existence of a “Have the Power of Telekinesis Club”!

Again, this ought to be stated explicitly, precisely because “does your ‘Do X Club’ actually do X” is an empirical, and very much open, question.

Also, I actually suspect that any formal structure at all would probably be, on net, more of a good thing than a bad thing, in terms of growing the movement.

I concur with this wholeheartedly.

comment by moridinamael · 2018-09-12T15:54:30.348Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder about this. Is the average Christian more "Christian" than the average non-Christian? (Do they do good works for strangers, love and forgive their enemies, and live lives of poverty and service, at rates significantly above the population average?) If not, does that really affect their ability to grow? Has it really affected their ability to grow, historically?

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-09-12T16:00:14.823Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Is that who we want to emulate? Christianity? (Or, perhaps, the largest single Christian organization—the Catholic Church? Of all the times to pick the Catholic Church as a role model, now seems to be an unusually bad time to do so…)

And is “growth” our only, or our most important, goal?

comment by moridinamael · 2018-09-12T16:32:15.963Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My point was merely that you can found a club around an aspiration rather than an accomplishment. It's better to have the accomplishment, of course, but not necessary.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-09-12T18:22:20.780Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But let’s follow your reasoning—and the analogy with Christianity—a bit further.

Christianity was founded around an aspiration: to be more Christian (defined as “do good works for strangers, loving and forgiving their enemies, and living lives of poverty and service”) than people who aren’t members.

They survived, and grew—very successfully.

Let us take the implication in your question for granted, and stipulate that the average Christian today is not more Christian than the average non-Christian.

The aspiration around which Christianity was founded, would seem to not have been attained.

By analogy, you propose to found a club around an aspiration: to be more rational than people who aren’t members of the club.

It seems plausible that, having done this, our club can successfully survive and grow.

However—assuming the pattern holds (and we have no particular reason to think that it won’t)—members of our club will not be more rational than non-members. Our aspiration will not have been attained.

In short, this reasoning seems to endorse the following trade-off: survive and grow by sacrificing your goals.

Is that what you really want?

comment by Darkar Dengeno (darkar-dengeno) · 2018-09-19T16:47:09.399Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think you might be overlooking the widespread cultural effects of Christian memes. When I had a similar discussion with a friend I argued "imagine a society in which the 12 Virtues had the place the 10 Commandments (or maybe the Beatitudes) do in ours".

Not everyone or even most people actually _follow_ the 10 Commandments and it is debatable whether Christians follow them any more frequently than non-Christians but if you compare a ours to a society that had basically _never heard_ of the 10 Commandments I think it is hard to imagine that other society would have more Commandment-followers.

Christian memes are _absurdly_ pervasive in the Western canon to the point where historically even secularists conducted their intellectual discourse in Christian ideas.

Consider a world in which children's literature is filled with rationalist ideas and Good Moral Teaching is all about being a good rationalist and even anti-rationalists have to define themselves on the terms of the rationalists in order to be an effective counter-movement and most people _know_ they're supposed to Make Their Beliefs Pay Rent and Destroy What Can Be Destroyed By The Truth even if they don't bother to actually do so most of the time.

I would expect this world to actually be more rational, on net, than our own. In fact, I think that if such a world is _not_ more rational then it is a damning indictment of group rationalism in general and possibly evidence that the whole affair to be a waste of energy.

comment by moridinamael · 2018-09-12T22:25:11.991Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I have a guess as to how this would actually evolve.

While the median Christian is not particularly Christian, there probably are a good number of pretty excellent Christians, whose motivation for being thus is their commitment to the ideals that they profess. So it's possible - even likely - that Christianity actually makes the world a little bit more "in the image of Christ" on the margin.

If you have a billion Christians, the number of "actually pretty good" Christians is likely to be pretty high.

Right now we probably have barely thousands of Rationalists who would identify as such. An organized attempt at increasing that number, with a formal aspiration to be better rationalists, would increase the number of "actually pretty good" rationalists, although the median rationalist might just be somebody who read 4% of the Sequences and went to two meetups. But that would still be a win.

comment by vedrfolnir · 2018-09-12T03:43:15.406Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW · GW
How do we (second) convince others, and (first) establish for ourselves, that we’re different? What can we offer to prospective joiners that cannot be offered by other movements (i.e., what can we offer that constitutes an unfalsifiable signal that we are the “true path” to the “good ending”, so to speak)?

I came to this article having just read one about Donald Trump's response to the 9/11 attacks, which mentioned that Trump saw them from the window of his apartment. The WTC attacks happened at around 9 AM, the start of the standard workday; but he had decided to stay in his apartment later than usual to catch a TV interview with Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric.

I thought that was interesting. Welch is well-known in the business world, and at least was once well-regarded. I have one of his books, although I haven't read it yet.

Now, the problem of how to convince people to pay attention to a memeplex is a problem Less Wrong has. Jack Welch, not so much. I saw his book at a thrift store, had some idea of who he was, and figured it'd be worthwhile to buy it. Donald Trump heard that he'd be on TV, knew well (I assume) who he was, and figured it'd be worthwhile to watch the interview. We aren't on TV.

Why not?

Maybe it's because we aren't Jack Welch.

We've all read our Aristotle, right? Our marketers come up with plenty of logos and pathos. Ethos, not so much. But it worked for Jack Welch...

There's an important difference between the alien's initial sales pitch and the problem of recruiting people to Less Wrong. The alien is a representative of an advanced civilization, offering a manual for uplifting the human race -- so there's a solution to widely advertising it that will only work if the manual does: simply distribute the manual to a few hundred people around the world who are highly motivated to do well in life. Once they've learned it, applied its contents, and become wildly successful CEOs of General Electric or whatever, some of them will (almost certainly) make it known that their success is due to their mastery of the contents of a book...

But the book doesn't actually exist, we aren't hot-shit enough to recruit through ethos (why not? could it be that we're failing? could it be that we're failing so badly that our startups try to write their own payroll software?), and our sales pitches are pretty bad. I noticed so many of our quality people leaving, and so much lack of interest in *actually winning*, that I stopped paying attention myself -- I only saw this post because it was linked on Twitter.

Before asking what LW can offer to prospective joiners that can't be offered by other movements, ask if it *has* anything like that. I don't think it does, and I don't think it's in a position to get there.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-09-12T04:18:22.274Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW


The next things to ask, then, are:

  1. Is it possible to construct a movement which accomplishes our goals, but doesn’t have the failings you describe?
  2. Suppose I am an aspiring rationalist, and would like to do whatever I can to help bring about the existence, and ensure the success, of such a movement. What ought I to do?

(Note that the phrasing of #2—namely, the fact that it’s phrased as a question of individual action—is absolutely critical. It does no good whatsoever to ask what “we” should do. “We” cannot decide to do anything; individuals choose, and individuals act.)

P.S.: It might be necessary also to preface these two questions with a question #0: “What actually are our goals?” (The OP does not quite make it clear—which may or may not be intended.)

comment by vedrfolnir · 2018-09-12T06:25:39.213Z · score: 16 (4 votes) · LW · GW

These are good questions.

0. Are "we" the sort of thing that can have goals? It looks to me like there are a lot of goals going around, and LW isn't terribly likely to agree on One True Set of Goals, whether ultimate or proximate.

I think one of the neglected possible roles for LW is as a beacon -- a (relatively) highly visible institution that draws in people like-minded enough that semirandom interactions are more likely to be productive than semirandom interactions in the 'hub world', and allows them to find people sufficiently like-minded that they can then go off and do their own thing, while maintaining a link to LW itself, if only to search it for potential new members of this own thing.

My impression of internet communities in general is that they tend to be like this, and I don't see any reason to expect LW to be different. Take Newgrounds, another site formed explicitly around productive endeavors (which has the desirable (for my purposes here) property that I spent my middle school years on it): it spawned all sorts of informal friend groups and formal satellite forums, each with its own sort of productive endeavor it was interested in. There was an entire ecosystem of satellite forums (and AIM/MSN group chats, which sometimes spawned satellite forums), from prolific NG forum posters realizing they had enough clout to start their own forum so why not, to forums for people interested in operating within the mainstream tradition of American animation, to a vast proliferation of forums for 'spammers' who were interested in playing with NG itself as a medium, to forums for people who were interested in making one specific form of movie -- wacky music videos, video game sprite cartoons, whatever. And any given user could be in multiple of these groups, depending on their interests -- I was active on at least one forum in each of the categories I've listed.

(As an aside: I say 'spammers' because that's what they were called, but later on I developed enough interest in the art world to realize that there's really no difference between what we did and what they're doing. (The 'art game' people would do well to recognize this -- they're just trolls, but trolling is a art, so what the hell.) There were also 'anti-spam' forums, but I brought some of them around.)

1. As for classical LW goals, the AI problem does seem to have benefited quite a bit by ethos arguments. I'm not sure if "our goals" is even the type of noun phrase that *can* have semantic content, but cultivating general quality seems like a fairly broad goal. A movement that wants to gain appeal in the ways I've outlined will want its members to be visibly successful at instrumental rationality, and be fine upstanding citizens and so on.

2. I don't think I'm smarter than Ben Franklin, so my advice for now would be to just do what he did. At a higher level: study successful people with well-known biographies and see if there's anything that can be abstracted out. I notice (because Athrelon pointed it out a while ago) that Ben Franklin, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Thiel, and Musk have one thing in common: the benefit of a secret society or something like it -- the Junto, the Inklings, or the Paypal Mafia.

comment by moridinamael · 2018-09-12T16:03:12.244Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think there is something like a Platonic "ultimate textbook of human rationality" that may be written in the future, but we don't actually know its contents. That's why the visitor can't give us the book. We have a dual problem: not only the challenge of spreading the ideas, but actually pinning down what the ideas are in the first place.

Actually, I think "pinning down" has entirely the wrong connotations, because human rationality seems more like a living and breathing process rather than a list of maxims chiseled in stone, and to a degree culturally dependent.

I will say that I don't think you need to answer #0 concretely before you set out. We can guess at the contents of the Platonic rationality textbook, and then iterate as we converge upon it.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-09-10T20:02:36.433Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · LW · GW


Typo/etc. thread:

Humans will spend hundreds of hours dragging a book they haven’t even read based on an out-of-context one-line quote.

Some words left out here, no?

and therefor

(Should be “and therefore”)

comment by Michaël Trazzi (mtrazzi) · 2018-09-11T09:11:16.281Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
You: Well.

The "You" should be bold.

comment by Pattern · 2018-09-11T06:53:11.803Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This was fun to read, and the style reminded me of the Sequences, and highlighted some of my feelings on their style*.

I find it interesting to compare with the forward to RFAZ.

'No one would want to read this book' versus "Oops, this doesn't tell people how to change their lives."

Does this have anything to do with the prompt on r/rational?

*I liked it, but I'm still confused about the popularity of the 'long explanations with long words' trope for instance.

comment by Dagon · 2018-09-11T04:15:09.212Z · score: 3 (4 votes) · LW · GW
We're not actually going to give you the book. I'm sorry, that was part of the trick.

Oops. Thus removing the promised evidence that any of it is true.

comment by shminux · 2018-09-16T02:37:48.403Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The usual question to ask is "what has worked before, why, and what salient features can we reuse?"