Pretending to be Wise

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-02-19T22:30:22.000Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 77 comments

The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral.

Dante Alighieri, famous hell expert

—John F. Kennedy, misquoter


Belief is quantitative, and just as it is possible to make overconfident assertions relative to ones anticipations, it is possible to make under confident assertions relative to ones anticipations. One can wear the attire of uncertainty, or profess an agnosticism that isn’t really there. Here, I'll single out a special case of improper uncertainty: the display of neutrality or suspended judgment in order to signal maturity, impartiality, or a superior vantage point.

An example would be the case of my parents, who respond to theological questions like “Why does ancient Egypt, which had good records on many other matters, lack any records of Jews having ever been there?” with “Oh, when I was your age, I also used to ask that sort of question, but now I’ve grown out of it.”

Another example would be the principal who, faced with two children who were caught fighting on the playground, sternly says: “It doesn’t matter who started the fight, it only matters who ends it.” Of course it matters who started the fight. The principal may not have access to good information about this critical fact, but if so, the principal should say so, not dismiss the importance of who threw the first punch. Let a parent try punching the principal, and we’ll see how far “It doesn’t matter who started it” gets in front of a judge. But to adults it is just inconvenient that children fight, and it matters not at all to their convenience which child started it. It is only convenient that the fight end as rapidly as possible.

A similar dynamic, I believe, governs the occasions in international diplomacy where Great Powers sternly tell smaller groups to stop that fighting right now. It doesn’t matter to the Great Power who started it—who provoked, or who responded disproportionately to provocation—because the Great Power’s ongoing inconvenience is only a function of the ongoing conflict. Oh, can’t Israel and Hamas just get along?

This I call “pretending to be Wise.” Of course there are many ways to try and signal wisdom. But trying to signal wisdom by refusing to make guesses—refusing to sum up evidence—refusing to pass judgment—refusing to take sides—staying above the fray and looking down with a lofty and condescending gaze—which is to say, signaling wisdom by saying and doing nothing—well, that I find particularly pretentious.

Paolo Freire said, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”1 A playground is a great place to be a bully, and a terrible place to be a victim, if the teachers don’t care who started it. And likewise in international politics: A world where the Great Powers refuse to take sides and only demand immediate truces is a great world for aggressors and a terrible place for the aggressed. But, of course, it is a very convenient world in which to be a Great Power or a school principal. So part of this behavior can be chalked up to sheer selfishness on the part of the Wise.

But part of it also has to do with signaling a superior vantage point. After all—what would the other adults think of a principal who actually seemed to be taking sides in a fight between mere children? Why, it would lower the principal’s status to a mere participant in the fray!

Similarly with the revered elder—who might be a CEO, a prestigious academic, or a founder of a mailing list—whose reputation for fairness depends on their refusal to pass judgment themselves, when others are choosing sides. Sides appeal to them for support, but almost always in vain; for the Wise are revered judges on the condition that they almost never actually judge— then they would just be another disputant in the fray, no better than any mere arguer.2

There are cases where it is rational to suspend judgment, where people leap to judgment only because of their biases. As Michael Rooney said:

The error here is similar to one I see all the time in beginning philosophy students: when confronted with reasons to be skeptics, they instead become relativists. That is, when the rational conclusion is to suspend judgment about an issue, all too many people instead conclude that any judgment is as plausible as any other.

But then how can we avoid the (related but distinct) pseudo-rationalist behavior of signaling your unbiased impartiality by falsely claiming that the current balance of evidence is neutral? “Oh, well, of course you have a lot of passionate Darwinists out there, but I think the evidence we have doesn’t really enable us to make a definite endorsement of natural selection over intelligent design.”

On this point I’d advise remembering that neutrality is a definite judgment. It is not staying above anything. It is putting forth the definite and particular position that the balance of evidence in a particular case licenses only one summation, which happens to be neutral. This belief, too, must pay rent in anticipated experiences, and it can be wrong; propounding neutrality is just as attackable as propounding any particular side.

Likewise with policy questions. If someone says that both pro-life and pro-choice sides have good points and that they really should try to compromise and respect each other more, they are not taking a position above the two standard sides in the abortion debate. They are putting forth a definite judgment, every bit as particular as saying “pro-life!” or “pro-choice!”

It may be useful to initially avoid using issues like abortion or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for your rationality practice, and so build up skill on less emotionally charged topics. But it’s not that a rationalist is too mature to talk about politics. It’s not that a rationalist is above this foolish fray in which only mere political partisans and youthful enthusiasts would stoop to participate.

As Robin Hanson describes it, the ability to have potentially divisive conversations is a limited resource. If you can think of ways to pull the rope sideways, you are justified in expending your limited resources on relatively less common issues where marginal discussion offers relatively higher marginal payoffs.3

But then the responsibilities that you deprioritize are a matter of your limited resources. Not a matter of floating high above, serene and Wise.

In sum, there’s a difference between:

1 Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1985), 122.

2 Oddly, judges in the actual legal system can repeatedly hand down real verdicts without automatically losing their reputation for impartiality. Maybe because of the understood norm that they have to judge, that it’s their job. Or maybe because judges don’t have to repeatedly rule on issues that have split a tribe on which they depend for their reverence.

3 See Hanson, “Policy Tug-O-War” ( tugowar.html) and “Beware Value Talk” (


Comments sorted by oldest first, as this post is from before comment nesting was available (around 2009-02-27).

comment by TGGP4 · 2009-02-19T23:00:36.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral." -- Dante Alighieri, famous hell expert Wrong.

comment by Will_Pearson · 2009-02-19T23:19:19.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

With international affairs, isn't stopping the aggression the main priority? That is stopping the death and suffering of humans on both sides? Sure it would be good to punish the aggressors rather than the retaliators but if that doesn't stop the fighting it just means more people are dying.

Also there is a difference between the adult and the child, the adult relies on the law of the land for retaliation the child takes it upon himself when he continues the fight. That is the child is a vigilante, and he may punish disproportionately e.g. breaking a leg for a dead leg.

comment by TGGP4 · 2009-02-19T23:34:15.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think the teacher being punched by a parent is a good analogy. Here are two possible other scenarios that differ from the original in a small way:

  1. The teacher sees one student punch another student.
  2. Two parents are fighting (this does happen). The teacher does not know who started it.

Regarding judges, we consider it necessary for them to pass judgment but they can gain greater respect sometimes by practicing "judicial minimalism", or saying as little as possible while resolving the specific dispute.

comment by Paul_Gowder2 · 2009-02-19T23:49:13.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hold on. Neutrality can also be, and often is, a meta-value judgment about the importance of the considerations that would lead to non-neutrality. The international relations case is a precise example of this.. Sometimes it really doesn't matter who started it. It's not just laziness to say that it doesn't matter who comitted the first Israel-Palestine atrocity: both have committed so many atrocities that the additional moral opprobrium that comes from having started it is just rounding error. And raising "they started it" as a defense of the next atrocity is just a distraction from the fact that the atrocities are indefensible. Same for the Hutus and the Tutsis, and the Hindus and Muslims in India, and so forth. The moral importance of assigning blame for generations and generations of back-and-forth atrocities when both sides have megagallons of blood on their hands pales in the face of the moral importance of stopping the killing.

On a smaller scale, this holds for the schoolchildren too. If two kids are fighting on the schoolyard, sometimes it matters who started it (one kid is a bully), but often it doesn't - if one kid insults then thr other pushes then the other punches and the other stabs, both are so guilty that "he started it" is nothing more than a distraction to get out of warranted punishment.

On political issues, neutrality too can be a principled position, either because one has very low confidence in one's evidence or simply because one thinks the question isn't one that is appropriate to be resolved by politics.

comment by Richard4 · 2009-02-19T23:52:00.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"propounding neutrality is just as attackable as propounding any particular side."

Indeed. (I hope Robin is reading.)

comment by Buck_Farmer · 2009-02-19T23:52:29.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A variation of this that I am very guilty of is only fighting my arguments on the other party's territory.

Instead of taking a position myself I just "try to understand" the other party's argument and in the process lead them down the garden path to a contradiction. When pressed on what I think, I usually reply "I don't know" or "I'm not sure."

Socrates seems to have fathered this tactic. He never claimed to be wise (but we call him wise).

Respectfully, I don't think he ended up all that wise, and neither am I when I argue this way. It does make me seem very wise, if only because it confounds my counterparties and I leave no target for counter-attack.

Replies from: wizzwizz4
comment by wizzwizz4 · 2020-02-23T11:02:33.834Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's usually easier to prove others wrong than prove yourself right. Showing that their beliefs are contradictory is winning, even if their belief is that the sky is blue because blue light is scattered the most due to Rayleigh scattering. Showing that this (only slightly wrong, but nonetheless contradictory) belief is contradictory does not prove the sky to be mauve, or in any way not blue.

comment by Yvain2 · 2009-02-20T00:32:24.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[sorry if this is a repost; my original attempt to post this was blocked as comment spam because it had too many links to other OB posts]

I've always hated that Dante quote. The hottest place in Hell is reserved for brutal dictators, mass murderers, torturers, and people who use flamethrowers on puppies - not for the Swiss.

I came to the exact opposite conclusion when pondering the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Most of the essays I've seen in newspapers and on bulletin boards are impassioned pleas to designate one side or the other as Evildoers and the other as the Brave Heroic Resistance by citing who stole whose land first, whose atrocities were slightly less provoked, which violations of which cease-fire were dastardly betrayals and which were necessary pre-emptive actions, et cetera.

Not only is this issue so open to bias that we have little hope of getting to the truth, but I doubt there's much truth to be attained at all. Since "policy debates should not appear one-sided" and "our enemies are not innately evil", it seems pretty likely that they're two groups of people who both are doing what they honestly think is right and who both have some good points.

This isn't an attempt to run away from the problem, it's the first step toward solving the real problem. The real problem isn't "who's the hero and who's the terrorist scumbag?" it's "search solution-space for the solution that leads to the least suffering and the most peace and prosperity in the Middle East" There is a degree to which finding out who's the evildoer is useful here so we can punish them as a deterrent, but it's a pretty small degree, and the amount of energy people spend trying to determine it is completely out of proportion to the minimal gains it might produce.

And "how do we minimize suffering in the Middle East?" may be an easier question than "who's to blame?" It's about distributing land and resources to avoid people being starved or killed or oppressed, more a matter for economists and political scientists then for heated Internet debate. I've met conservatives who loathe the Palestinians and liberals who hate all Israelis who when asked supported exactly the same version of the two-state solution, but who'd never realized they agreed because they'd never gotten so far as "solution" before.

My defense of neutrality, then, would be something like this: human beings have the unfortunate tendency not to think of an issue as "finding the best solution in solution-space" but as "let's make two opposing sides at the two extremes, who both loathe each other with the burning intensity of a thousand suns". The issue then becomes "Which of these two sides is the Good and True and Beautiful, and which is Evil and Hates Our Freedom?" Thus the Democrats versus the Republicans or the Communists versus the Objectivists. I'd be terrified if any of them got one hundred percent control over policy-making. Thus, the Wise try to stay outside of these two opposing sides in order to seek the best policy solution in solution-space without being biased or distracted by the heroic us vs. them drama - and to ensure that both sides will take their proposed solution seriously without denouncing them as an other-side stooge.

A "neutral" of this sort may not care who started it, may not call one side "right" or "wrong", may claim to be above the fray, may even come up with a solution that looks like a "compromise" to both sides, but isn't abdicating judgment or responsibility.

Not that taking a side is never worth it. The Axis may have had one or two good points about the WWI reparations being unfair and such, but on the whole the balance of righteousness in WWII was so clearly on the Allies' side that the most practical way to save the world was to give the Allies all the support you could. It's always a trade-off between how ideal a solution is and how likely it is to be implemented.

Replies from: JohnH, velisar, Nisan, gwern
comment by JohnH · 2011-04-28T19:16:10.715Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"how do we minimize suffering in the Middle East?" may be an easier question than "who's to blame?"

The quickest way to minimize suffering is to nuke the Middle East into a sea of glass with the nukes spaced such that every person is vaporized instantly without feeling a thing. As they feel nothing from their instant vaporization, they are no longer suffering and no longer are capable of suffering or causing suffering.

Somehow I don't see this as a viable solution.

Replies from: None, Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-28T19:21:49.104Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why not double down when you're already so far in and just nuke the whole world?

EDIT: I want to point out, just in case Poe's law kicks in, that this was not a serious suggestion.

Replies from: CuSithBell
comment by CuSithBell · 2011-04-28T19:35:15.520Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

While that's not strictly in the utility function, it'd be important to eliminate all things capable of A) suffering and B) traveling into the Middle East, or to eliminate the Middle East itself (physically or politically).

Replies from: JoshuaZ
comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-28T19:37:18.219Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Better just destroy everything in the lightcone to be sure.

Replies from: CuSithBell, Miller
comment by CuSithBell · 2011-04-28T19:40:13.098Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I concur.

comment by Miller · 2011-04-28T19:53:03.948Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can't make that decision. You're just a grunt. No offense.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2013-03-08T04:08:38.293Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah yes, the Scorched Earth Party foreign policy.

Replies from: JohnH
comment by JohnH · 2013-04-10T15:18:11.796Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you are confused, this is the Solitudinem Party foreign policy, the Scorched Earth Party involves only the destruction of all non-Jews in the Middle East (facebook) and a lot of lead pipes. We of the Solitudinem Party do agree on some points with the Scorched Earthy Parties foreign policy but feel it doesn't go far enough in ensuring an end to suffering and world peace. We take as our party motto and guiding principle this sound advice:

ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant - Tacitus

It has a proud and honored history of effectively working. We feel we can more effectively implement that advice today leading to a perpetual world peace for at least the next few million years. It causes us deep physic pain to think that anyone (or anything) will ever experience the horrors of pain and suffering and our candidates promise to do everything in their power to eliminate these and all other social ills instantly.

Donations to our PAC are greatly appreciated and show your support for lasting world peace and a world free from all crime.

comment by velisar · 2012-02-13T23:47:45.139Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(thanks for the - negative - feedback, I edited my answer to make it clearer)

Biases are data compression mistakes.

Talking about a neutrality bias as a laziness of the rational mind, I think Eliezer hurried up a bit when choosing the examples: he intended to point out some bad consequences in situations with a high difference in complexity. The school director is tasteless in not putting the smallest effort because of "eh, they are just kids". For them it is important. Injustice is intense at all ages; primates feel it. And the 'wise' school director is disgusting, yes. Easy answer to simple situation. Also a pacifist who dances for peace is ridiculous. And Yvain's polarized example characters (those journalists who emotionally cherry-pick to convince you) are, well, negative. Easy answer to complex situation.

But the common theme here is that they share the fact that they are simplistic. We are biased when we feel disgust, a conclusion is strongly formed and maybe there to stay. Cherry picking/ selective observation at work here, those images jump into your eyes or at the surface of your memory. So if the examples are a bit off we may see distorted pictures of the idea - that is, we make wrong conclusions out of very partial examples. My point is that Yvain and Eliezer probably have the same take on the concept if they are to judge the same example. There are lazy 'wise' and lazy opinionated.

I'd risk saying that we can use a rule of thumb for complex situations such: Is the situation really complex and with unknown unknowns? If yes, then reset to the wise posture (as if being profound is some sort of attitude). Otherwise you'll take one position too quickly and there is a great chance to became opinionated.

Those we legitimately call wise are always flirting with complexity. The wise equidistant attitude is like a joke, in the sense that it reveals the contrary, the imposture of the simplistic.

comment by Nisan · 2013-03-10T17:44:53.629Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have become slightly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian activism sphere on campus. I tried to square the reasonable and obviously correct comment above with the reasonable and obviously correct position of the pro-Palestinian side that maintaining neutrality in the conflict is the same as supporting the status quo. In fact, most people don't realize that problem-solving is even an option. To them, the choice is between {pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, neutral}.

Well, to be fair, I expect lots of people believe that they see both sides and just want to solve the problem. But parts of their minds just want to take sides. And I can't really blame those parts, because taking sides can have significant social payoffs to them, and insignificant expected payoffs in the Middle East, and if they have somewhat egoistical values then taking sides might be a somewhat good deal for them.

comment by gwern · 2013-03-11T03:32:15.521Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've always hated that Dante quote. The hottest place in Hell is reserved for brutal dictators, mass murderers, torturers, and people who use flamethrowers on puppies - not for the Swiss.

The Dante quote is particularly interesting in light of "James Burnham’s Dante: Politics as Wish".

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2009-02-20T00:44:11.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Paolo Freire said, "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."

Consequences-wise, yes. But many people may not realize this fact, not realize its importance, or actually be working on something more important; and while pointing this out to them is good, doing so less than extremely carefully, I think, comes off as "you're with us or you're against us", and is alienating. (Especially if they think they do have something more important.)

Replies from: ABranco
comment by ABranco · 2010-03-30T03:52:33.447Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is a very similar quote from Ayn Rand as well:

It is not justice or equal treatment that you grant to men when you abstain equally from praising men’s virtues and from condemning men’s vices. When your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither the good nor the evil may expect anything from you—whom do you betray and whom do you encourage?

Your point is good. Sometimes it's just a matter of allocation of resources -- and yes, may sound like "you're with us or you're against us" depending on the tone.

comment by ascholl · 2009-02-20T00:49:19.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regarding courtroom judges:

I suspect that the big reason why they don't lose their reputation for impartiality simply by passing judgment is because in their situation, passing judgment ends the argument. Authoritatively.

comment by TGGP4 · 2009-02-20T00:51:52.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yvain, the most murderous dictator the world had ever seen and the biggest imperialist power of the day were on the side of the Allies and if our country had gone to war with his (and been as succesful) I am sure you would be talking about how lopsided the scales were in the other direction, having had it drummed into you through school and popular culture.

comment by Paul_Gowder2 · 2009-02-20T02:17:42.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Buck Farmer, but surely revealing the tensions in the other party's argument contributes to the discovery of truth?

comment by Ian_C. · 2009-02-20T02:58:32.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Religion is possibly to blame for the idea that suspended judgment = superiority. Only God is omniscient, so only He knows things for sure, everyone else must act unsure and tentative.

Priests are allowed to pass judgment and still retain their authority, because they are the voice of God on earth. Maybe the idea of judges evolved from priests and retained that immunity.

comment by Phil_Goetz2 · 2009-02-20T05:10:16.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good post. Nick's point is also good.

When parents say they don't care who started it, it may also be a strategy to minimize future fighting. Justice is not always optimal, even in repeated interactions.

comment by michael_vassar3 · 2009-02-20T06:12:04.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Taking a hint from the babyeaters, I can say that the pro-life people are doing what's right' and what's right''', the pro choice people are doing what's right'' and what's right'''', Israel, what's right''''' and right''''''' and Hamas what's right'''''' and right''''''''. Then I can also say that if they wanted to switch to doing what was right, all groups would turn their efforts to FAI plus sustaining their actual existence. However, it seems that there may be many situations where fairly intelligent and well intentioned SL1 political commentators in the US, who may identify as broadly conservative or liberal, agree about what is right^, where right^ is closer to right than most actions or preferences are. In this case it often seems to me that the conservative political commentators emphasize opposition to those who are right''' and right''''' because those perspectives are farther from their own thus more wrong^, while liberal commentators emphasize the imperfections of those who are right'' and right'''' because they treat those who are right'' and right'''' as subject to reasons, as moral agents, and thus as subject to correction/criticism while those who are trying to do what's right''' and right''''' are merely seen as moral subjects beneath reproach. Victims. Children deserving sympathy and protection but not blame.

Of course, this was more the case back when there were fairly intelligent and well intentioned conservative SL1 political commentators in the US, e.g. before about 2004.

comment by Sideways2 · 2009-02-20T06:28:28.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The principal's "I don't care who started it" can be a poorly-phrased "both of you started it." In every case, each kid will put full blame on the other--how often do you expect to hear "he started most of it, but I'm responsible for some of the trouble as well?" Often, both kids will even believe what they're saying. But in almost every case (perhaps excluding the playground bully), both contributed to escalating the conflict. Anyone who has shepherded groups of children can confirm this, and it holds just as true for adults, tribes, and nations.

comment by Kakun2 · 2009-02-20T06:44:53.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To add to the other points made, the example of Israel v. the Gazans seems to be cherry-picked to me, as there are plenty of conflicts where the Great Powers have taken sides- i.e. basically any UN intervention, since they require the US's support. Even so, the Great Power pretty clearly has chosen aside in the Gazan conflict, since the US Senate passed a resolution officially endorsing Israel's side.

More generally, I think people, at least part of the time, do realize that being neutral is effectively the same as endorsing the stronger side, and simply remain neutral in order to deliberately pick sides- that is, they side with the stronger side, without having to pay any real cost for their decision. To give a real life counterexample to your examples, it's congressfolk voting 'present' instead of yes or no, which is effectively the same as voting no, but without the cost of signaling your disapproval, and so convincing people to dislike you.

comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2009-02-20T10:50:33.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I should try and stay neutral in this, but what the hell :-)

I have to say I think this is a very weak point, Eleizer, and the examples reflect this. Sure, fetishising neutrality is a bad thing, and a bias - but as biases go, it doesn't make the top ten, or even the top hundred, and is closely related to a very sensible idea (see next paragraph). Others have pointed out how the headmaster/great powers are probably making the right decision in the examples you mention, and how they often don't stay neutral in many similar situations.

And though there's no good reason to never pick sides, there are many good reasons to not proclaim yourself as taking a Side(TM); "I am a libertarian" closes off conversation (and is often intended to do so), but saying "there are good arguments on both sides; however, I feel we should at least consider individual autonomy issues" opens up conversation. Proclaiming "I am neutral" at the very start, and then building gradually towards your position, is often the best way to go (would you start conversations with religious inclined AI-interested people with "God doesn't exist; get over it; now, let's talk?") In my experience, conversations that start with "you're both equally to blame!" generally end up with one side being assigned more blame than the other.

Replies from: ABranco
comment by ABranco · 2010-03-30T03:57:54.149Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seems like two separate issues: one thing is what you essentially think about the matter under discussion (whether if you make it explicit to the others or not); how you approach influencing the other side is something else.

Replies from: Stuart_Armstrong
comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2010-03-30T11:26:41.229Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are habits of presentation; you can't appear consistently as X without starting to be a little like X.

comment by Anonymous55 · 2009-02-20T10:53:00.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[T]rying to signal wisdom by refusing to make guesses - refusing to sum up evidence - refusing to pass judgment...

Do you think this is involved in the general reluctance to assign probabilities in the absence of scientific frequency data (e.g., to assign probabilities to nuclear risks so that one can attempt expected value calculations)?

comment by Laertius · 2009-02-20T11:12:39.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Pyrrhonians and Epicureans aspired to an emotional state of studied equivalence, 'epoche', attained by the diligent and conscientious elucidation of equally excellent argument (isothenia) which in perfect equipoise persuaded you of the contingency of all positions. Skepticism, in that classical sense, is profoundly humbling, requires care and effort, and counsels against precipitous action. Granted that's not especially worldly, but then maybe good philosophy never is.

I'd hesitate to dismiss that approach as 'pretentious'. If anything there's something rather appealing about its asceticism. And far from a being a pretence of wisdom, at least so long as you have gone to the trouble of evaluating both sets of arguments, the recognition that some disputes are irresolvable, even scholastic, and that strong preference in such debates is more often contingent on circumstance or a desire by what you call 'participants' to minimize cognitive dissonance than to discover the truth, sounds quite a lot like genuine wisdom to me.

comment by Thom_Blake · 2009-02-20T15:03:56.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure about the judges example. There have been certain judges who've taken sides on high-profile issues (like abortion or gay marriage) and consequently their reputation turned to mud amongst those on the other side of the issue.

comment by metahacker2 · 2009-02-20T18:20:27.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So what you're saying is, "Neutrality is a position"?

comment by j2 · 2009-02-20T19:26:46.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regarding Egyptians and Jews, why the Egyptians left no records of the Jews, I answer you with a question: Why you cannot find anything related to the Jews in the stettl I was born in, Jaszbereny, Hungary? No one in Jaszbereny has any idea that half of the population used to be Jewish, that there were three large synagogues, that it had been a center of Jews scholarship. It appears that neither the Egyptian wanted to remember the Jews.

comment by John_Maxwell_Old (John_Maxwell) · 2009-02-21T01:46:33.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Paolo Freire said, "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."

If the outcome of their conflict is not being affected by your existence, it can be said that you are neutral. If you disagree with me, I would be interested to hear what definition of "neutral" you are using.

comment by John_Maxwell_Old (John_Maxwell) · 2009-02-21T02:13:33.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

OK, I get it.

comment by Yvain2 · 2009-02-21T02:28:19.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Darnit TGGP, you're right. Right. From now on I use Lord of the Rings for all "sometimes things really are black and white" examples. Unless anyone has some clever reason why elves are worse than Sauron.

Replies from: eshear, AnthonyC
comment by eshear · 2010-09-29T07:15:16.516Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The elves are totally worse than Sauron. See for the details.

comment by AnthonyC · 2015-03-02T21:45:04.054Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not worse than Sauron, no, but certainly culpable for a lot. For example, they refused to share their knowledge with humans or even with the part-elven Numenoreans Aragorn is descended from - and it was that refusal that got the Numenoreans listening to Sauron in the first place. Of course, the gods are on the elven side, which is even worse, though I fail to see how it absolves the elves.

comment by yters · 2009-02-21T02:46:52.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's why in the old days gentlemen were financially independent. If you are financially independent then there is little material incentive to compromise one's principles. Today, we're taught to become heavily financially dependent, and so people don't take hard stands.

comment by yters · 2009-02-21T04:00:22.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Eliezer's post is also a good example of the dangers of refusing neutrality with regard to ID. Since choosing to be neutral is a position, choosing to take sides is also a position, and not necessarily the correct one.

With intelligent design, everyone thinks it comes down to whether I accept God created the world or not. It doesn't, it is about whether intelligent design (by humans, animals, aliens, whatever) is empirically distinguishable from the products of mechanical processes (computer algorithms, geological forces, quantum physics, etc). Many very successful and important disciplines are based on this principle (forensics, archeology, literature analysis, network intrusion detection, and so on). Those who are creating the theory behind ID, such as Dembski, make this point clear.

Therefore, I think ID has substance as a theory, and deserves to be studied. No scientists should be threatened and dismissed from their posts for thinking ID has merit.

Then someone asks me "So, you think God created the world in 6 days?"

I say, "Maybe, but that's a seperate issue."

Response: "No it isn't, you're just trying to remain neutral in a non neutral matter. Science has clearly shown the earth and universe are all very old, and came into being through a very lengthy process. You obviously take the side of fuzzy religious obscurantists over hard headed scientists due to existential concerns about meaning. Therefore, your rational processes are suspect and you are another data point demonstrating ID is just a political tool. End of discussion."

Since there is a big side taking issue (Creationism vs Darwinism) that is related to ID, it completely derails any possibility of getting at the actual ideas and whether they are any good. As I stated at the beginning, it is important to realize that just as neutrality is a position, taking sides is also a position. Thus, as it is a position, it may be the wrong position.

comment by yters · 2009-02-21T04:01:05.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now that I've made this argument, some probably have the nagging suspicion that the argument is just more intellectual obscurantism and I'm trying to muddy a clear choice between Creationism and Darwinism. To counteract your nagging suspicion here is a series of links to show you that while many experts claim Dembski is wrong, when you only accept their claims in their areas of expertise and aggregate them, they actually agree with Dembski:

  1. Demski is a good mathematician, but doesn't use the No Free Lunch Theory (NFLT) correctly

Good math bad math

"In my taxonomy of statistical errors, this is basically modifying the search space: he's essentially arguing for properties of the search space that eliminate any advantage that can be gained by the nature of the evolutionary search algorithm. But his only argument for making those modifications have nothing to do with evolution: he's carefully picking search spaces that have the properties he want, even though they have fundamentally different properties from evolution."

  1. Dembski uses the NFLT correctly, but doesn't fill in all the details to show that it applies to biological coevolution

Wolpert, one of the originators of the NFLT

"Indeed, throughout there is a marked elision of the formal details of the biological processes under consideration. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is that neo-Darwinian evolution of ecosystems does not involve a set of genomes all searching the same, fixed fitness function, the situation considered by the NFL theorems. Rather it is a co-evolutionary process. Roughly speaking, as each genome changes from one generation to the next, it modifies the surfaces that the other genomes are searching. And recent results indicate that NFL results do not hold in co-evolution."

  1. The NFLT applies to biological coevolution (see example 4 and conclusion)

Wolpert and Macready on coevolutionary free lunches (example on page 2, but doesn't state the evolution finding in the conclusion) (example on page 5, contains statement in conclusion)

"On the other hand, we have also shown that for the more general biological coevolutionary settings, where there is no sense of a “champion” like there is in self-play, the NFL theorems still hold."

If you want to respond to this comment, please email me that you've responded, or email me your response.

comment by yters · 2009-02-21T04:44:53.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Email address is here:

comment by TooManyItalics · 2009-02-21T05:09:06.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This article has too many cases of italicized words. I had to give up reading it.

comment by yters · 2009-02-21T06:28:20.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Argh, it seems to be not possible to write about ID without coming across as an ideologue. This is a good blog and I do not want to pollute it. Before anyone complains about those comments, I give the mods full permission to delete them if they don't pass the well written/interesting threshold.

comment by hvkhln · 2009-02-21T17:37:10.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

@yters: that's awfully good of you to give the moderators permission (with an if) to delete your posts

i believe this is the same principle behind our system of taxation

Replies from: Luke_A_Somers
comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-03-06T14:55:19.183Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh come on - the 'if' basically amounted to 'if you want to'.

comment by Joshua_Fox · 2009-02-21T20:33:29.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Why does ancient Egypt, which had good records on many other matters, lack any records of Jews having ever been there?"

Of course the words "Jews" isn't used, but it is well-documented that West-Semites lived in Egypt. (They even ruled it for a while as the Hyksos dynasty.) There is also the Mernepthah Stele, with a small mention of "Israel."

Though we do have written records from ancient Egypt, they are nowhere near complete or consistent enough for the absence of evidence to be treated as useful evidence of absence.

Not that I'm claiming to be wise or anything.

comment by Jeffrey_Soreff · 2009-02-22T03:56:19.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yvain "anyone has some clever reason why elves are worse than Sauron." Brin has some interesting comments, including "Now ponder something that comes through even the party-line demonization of a crushed enemy -- this clear-cut and undeniable fact: Sauron's army was the one that included every species and race on Middle Earth, including all the despised colors of humanity, and all the lower classes."

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-02-22T04:19:16.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jacqueline Carey's The Sundering ("Banewreaker" + "Godslayer") has convinced me that this was what actually happened during the Third Age, and The Lord of the Rings was written centuries later by the victors.

comment by Eamon · 2009-02-22T05:26:31.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Q: But then how can we avoid the (related but distinct) pseudo-rationalist behavior of signaling your unbiased impartiality by falsely claiming that the current balance of evidence is neutral?

1a. If it is possible to be neutral, state that you have no opinion, and leave it at that. 1b. If it is not possible to neutral, state your bias, as completely as is possible.

Consider what motivates "false claims" of neutrality.

It is essentially a hedge against the risk/cost of bias.

Why is such a hedge necessary? It is an artifact of a "nuanced" or counter balanced situation. (The rope, essentially.)

What is pseudo-rationalist behavior, and why is it undesirable? This is the first I've heard the term, but I am assuming that refers to that noxious brand of fakery, which purports to be reason, when in fact, it is not.

To apply all this to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The neutral position of "human rights" is inferior to the nuanced position of "political desire for reconciliation", which is actually a status quo position. This can be determined simply by the relative sums of money towards each effort. The nuanced position presumes not to take sides on the big picture. The human rights approach would have to 1) take one side, for the people and 2) be empowered enough to compete with alternate dynamics present in the region.

A: I assert that an "authentically wise" position, would assert radical non-neutrality.

By analogy, radical non-neutrality, would be to assert a position, drawn from first principles, that automatically requires concessions from both sides to accommodate the viewpoint. (The alternative is both sides would assert that part be non-involved.)

Iff, the United States wanted to adopt this viewpoint, (Which is unlikely, since it's budget for FY 2008 for Israel was 2.42B), it would have to assert some viewpoint, which undermines both or supports both in some sort of fashion. Something like, free health care, education and retirement for everyone in the region, and ask Palestinian supported nations to contribute, and then have the fund distribute the resources on an equal level to individuals.

If the straw man that resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict were valid, we would have adopted a grass roots strategy in support of Palestine long ago, it is the obvious tipping point.

Solomon cutting the baby in half.

comment by Robin_Hanson2 · 2009-02-22T16:59:47.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is functional for leaders to be more reluctant than most to "take sides" in common disputes. Our leaders do this, and so one can in fact signal high status by being "above" common disputes. Our leaders are in fact wiser than the average person, and in addition we want to say they are even wiser, so it makes sense to call people who signal high status as "wise." Furthermore, on average across human disputes with near equal support on the two sides the middle position is in fact the more correct position. So in this sense it does in fact signal wisdom to take a middle position.

comment by GeorgeNYC · 2009-02-22T20:03:45.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is some incredible insight hovering in the background here but I cannot put my finger on it.

I am am trained as a lawyer and therefore "disputes" are my livelihood. That being said, I have engaged in all sorts of "dispute" resolutions over the years from jury trials to bench trials to arbitrations to mediations to just simply getting people together and trying to work things out.

The schoolyard fight example is intriguing. We speak of many things when dealing with dispute resolution. I think, if asked, most people would claim that one of the prime goals would be justice or fairness. You are correct that the goal of the teacher is to end the fight. However, in that circumstance, he or she is merely playing "cop" as opposed to "judge." I think it is fair to say that if a fight is occurring we want our police to stop it and not really worry about blame. Likewise, if there is a genocide occurring I would think that the initial priority of our government is to stop it.

However, therein lies some of the insight. We would probably be outraged if the police suddenly started "judging" on the spot and were not trying to merely "stop" the fight but perhaps assist those in the "right" as it may be.

The issue of "judging" is therefore different from the initial policing of an event.

Interestingly enough, I think that we would not actually want the policeman to also be the judge. While we would insist on "neutrality" in responding to the fight, we would probably not be happy that the policeman also judged the "fault." You would think that this person would be in the best position. However, in fact, he or she may not be. This person may have come along at a time when the victim appeared to be the aggressor. This makes he/she now a partial witness and therefore comes to the dispute with a predisposed "bias."

This now poses the question of what kind of "judge" do we want.

What is interesting is the social status involvement. I had not really thought about it that way. While judges are (as you point out) willing to make decisions (within constraints as I will discuss in a bit), I have noticed that arbitrators (ostensibly private judges) are somewhat less willing to do that. They sometimes try to play the "wise neutral" and come down with decisions that are ambiguous. Mediators are arguably there to "mediate" and therefore should be neutral. Nevertheless, that "neutrality" seems to get in the way sometimes. The best mediators sometime resort to tricks to get agreements. They give the appearance of leaning your way in order to get you to agree.

What I can say is that getting to a decision in our system is a long and difficult task. Even in situations where both parties are eager to get a decision, any decision, at times judges may try to dodge the decision. There are, in fact, constraints on judges that are separate and distinct from those on layers or lay people. Judges are worried about being overturned by appellate courts. They have their own reputation for efficiency to consider. They also have judicial precedent to consider. These are al "other" outside factors that serve to limit their decisions or provide some other basis aside from just personal whim. (A "proxy" for neutrality?).

This is a bit of a meandering discussion. However, the insight that an individual does not want to appear to "lower" themselves to the level of the disputants is an interesting insight that bears further thought. The "false" neutrality based on consideration of social standing could be a bar to achieving optimal dispute resolution. Perhaps there are situations where attempts to achieve resolution have failed not because the involved individual were not "high" level enough but maybe they were, in fact too high up the social scale and that we can expect their reaction to be "neutral."

After all, the concept of a jury trial originates as a jury of our "peers" not our overlords or those less than us. I had always thought that this was concerned with "bias" or perhaps knowledge of similar circumstances. I thought it was a system designed to "protect" those being judged. However, maybe it is really more than a "fairness" issue. Maybe it intuitively recognizes the inefficiency of having those higher (or lower) than us make decisions? Those higher than us may be less inclined to really appreciate the importance of those decisions and thereby default to "neutrality." Those lower than us may be too eager to make decisions to establish their standing in society.

Replies from: velisar, Desrtopa
comment by velisar · 2012-02-14T14:11:31.273Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

you could morph this point into an article for the discussion part of the site. More people would read an interesting take. (if you read this after so much water has flowed down the river)

comment by Desrtopa · 2012-02-14T14:28:54.260Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it is fair to say that if a fight is occurring we want our police to stop it and not really worry about blame.

I don't think that's fair to say at all. If one person clearly is in the wrong (committed assault, hate speech or so on,) we have laws that say that they're responsible and are to be punished, and we do this to discourage people from engaging in these kinds of acts in the first place.

We might want the police to stop fights first and only worry about who to blame afterwards if they think something serious was going on, but I don't think we'd want to live in a society where police either broke up conflicts without issuing punishment or charged everyone involved in conflicts. Policemen aren't judges, but we do entrust them with the responsibility of working out who to charge with crimes. This is analogous to a teacher, say, coming upon an altercation between students, rendering a judgment of who's responsible, and sending only the person or people who they think are responsible to the principal to work out what if anything is an appropriate punishment.

comment by Yvain2 · 2009-02-22T23:24:46.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

facepalm And I even read the Sundering series before I wrote that :(

Coming up with narratives that turn the Bad Guys into Good Guys could make good practice for rationalists, along the lines of Nick Bostrom's Apostasy post. Obviously I'm not very good at it.

GeorgeNYC, very good points.

Replies from: WhySpace_duplicate0.9261692129075527
comment by WhySpace_duplicate0.9261692129075527 · 2017-02-11T18:55:46.103Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nick Bostrom's Apostasy post

For anyone who comes this way in the future, I found Nick Bostrom's post through a self-critique of Effective Altruism.

comment by yters · 2009-02-23T15:09:25.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


I said that just incase they had any empathetic qualms. I know they don't really need my permission.

comment by Tim5 · 2009-02-24T00:54:27.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Try the neutrality sex position? Even missionaries are known to recommend it.

comment by Edward2 · 2009-02-24T10:09:34.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How much does it matter today who started the first world war? Daniel Kahneman says something to the effect that it isn't particularly fruitful to look for which party to blame in a dispute as each party will be biased to believe that it is right, that it was injured,that the others are to blame. Taking sides would then just be the equivalent of entering into the fray, rather than trying to pull the combatants apart. In a second stage, which is the stage of trying to resolve the causes of the conflict, discussion of the merits of the situation may be relevant, but typically we just need to move on because its hard to get people to accept they have been wrong. Its much easier for them to accept they have been defeated.

comment by Isak · 2009-02-26T05:02:37.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is Robin Hanson "pretending to be wise" when he says:

"My core politics is "I don't know"; most people seem far too confident in their political opinions."?

comment by KIWIJARED · 2009-07-22T13:12:15.305Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Trying to signal wisdom by refusing to make guesses - refusing to sum up evidence - refusing to pass judgment."

I use this non-committal stalling defense when I have not concluded which response will gain the most / cost the least, or when the question is one I don't want to answer for fear it will diminish my status, or for which I have not yet devised a rationalisation.

comment by beriukay · 2010-04-05T12:21:09.576Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I remember being guilty of this insidious neutrality, consciously aware that my stance was on very shaky ground, and yet was still prepared to stand my ground. It definitely didn't have the status elevating payoff I would have expected, which is good, because I've never said I was completely neutral about abortion since then. More importantly, it helped catalyze a slow revolution where I began to analyze my cached thoughts, resulting in some surprising reversals so far.

comment by gintasm · 2010-09-24T07:36:37.589Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This argument reminds me heavily of Ronald Dworkin's paper "Objectivity and truth" , although he constrains his argument to the domain of moral decisions.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2010-09-24T09:27:07.825Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let me stevenkaas this one for you:

"The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who [disagree with my politics]." -- John F. Kennedy, misquoter

comment by JohnH · 2011-04-28T19:18:01.803Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The last time the Great Powers got involved in taking sides on minor disputes WWI happened.

Replies from: Eugine_Nier
comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-04-29T01:44:23.089Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, there have been many instances since WWI that didn't spiral out of control and are therefore less available.

Replies from: JohnH
comment by JohnH · 2011-04-29T04:25:43.435Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This would be a debatable point but I will concede it as the world still exists intact instead of having large chunks of the northern hemisphere be uninhabitable waste lands.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2011-06-21T15:09:43.210Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let's not bicker and argue over who killed who.

comment by TheArcanist · 2013-01-29T10:35:24.382Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disagree completely.

There is a deeper wisdom in inaction that you don't seem to bring up, or else not value. Neutrality seems like taking side with the powerful, but so long as that's how limited your terminology is. Powerful and powerless are not at all different without the difference of powerlessness. One only happens to wield the power. One is greedy because yes, I do want that last piece of pizza, god damn it!.

We all yield for more life - if we didn't, we'd kill ourselves anyway. But to yield more life is also to terminate other life. So long as you want to live, you have to make a choice of how far are you willing to kill, and so long as the nature of this question is environmental, this cycle will continue to favors to who's willing to go further.

comment by Epictetus · 2015-03-02T15:41:18.793Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Neutrality can be an important strategy. Let's take international affairs. A neutral country that seldom takes a side in a dispute can end up being valuable as a go-between. It provides neutral grounds for peace talks can can broker deals between belligerents. A party trusted by both sides of a dispute can smooth the peace process.

Similarly with leaders. To be effective, a leader needs to be trusted by the tribe. The leader's job is to resolve disputes (note that kings used to have supreme judicial authority). Joining the fray should generally be avoided. There are obvious exceptions where the leader needs to take a stand, but for the most part he should focus on conflict resolution over partisanship.

Some people also just have a personal style wherein they sit back and watch the argument unfold while carefully weighing it in their minds. Like the Ents, they take a long time to decide anything, but when they do they have a well-reasoned position that they're not afraid to put forth and defend. They only appear to stay above the fray.

As the article points out, neutrality is often abused by people who don't have anything to say or are too timid to pass judgment. There are several good reasons for being neutral, but appearing wise isn't one of them.

Note: Dante had a special place outside of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven devoted to those who never took a stand.

comment by DreamFlasher · 2017-02-01T08:15:36.042Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My main take-away message: There is a difference between: Passing neutral judgement, declining to invest marginal resources, pretending that either of these is a mark of deep wisdom. Sometimes being neutral is wise, sometimes just lazy. Not taking a side is taking the stronger side.

comment by Liam Goddard · 2019-04-29T02:15:33.982Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Argument is of course a good thing among rational people, since refusing to argue and agreeing to disagree solves nothing- you won't come to any agreement and you won't know what's right.. But I think the reason many people see argument as a bad thing is because most people are too stubborn to admit they are wrong, so argument among most people is pointless because one or both sides is unwilling to actually debate. If people admitted they were wrong, argument wouldn't be treated as such a bad thing, but as it is, with no one willing to see truth, it often ends up accomplishing nothing.

comment by toothpaste · 2021-01-30T02:36:55.220Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Paolo Freire

You mean Paulo Freire!