Aieee! The stupid! it burns!

post by RichardKennaway · 2010-12-03T14:53:47.932Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 62 comments

Last Wednesday (2010 Dec 01), BBC Radio 4 broadcast a studio discussion on the question: "should we actively try to extend life itself?" The programme can be listened to from the BBC here for one week from broadcast, and is also being repeated tomorrow (Saturday Dec 04) at 22:15 BST. (ETA: not BST, GMT.)

All of the dreadful arguments for why death is good came out. For uninteresting reasons I missed a few minutes here and there, but in what I heard, not one of the speakers on any side of the question said anything like, "This is a no-brainer! Death is evil. Disease is evil. The less of both we have, the better. There is nothing good about death, at all, and all the arguments to the contrary are moral imbecility."

Instead, I heard people saying that work on life extension is disrespectful to the old, that to prolong life would be like prolonging an opera, which has a certain natural size and shape, that the old are wise, so if we make them physically young then old people won't be old, so they won't be wise. Whatever cockeyed argument you can construct by scattering into a Deeply Wise template the words "old", "young", "wise", "decrepit", "healthy", "natural", "unnatural", "boredom", "inevitable", "denial", I heard worse.

If I can bear to listen again to the whole thing just to check I didn't miss anything important, I may write something on their discussion board.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Clippy · 2010-12-03T16:18:15.124Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

that the old are wise, so if we make them physically young then old people won't be old, so they won't be wise

I thought humans never invoked evidential decision theory?

Replies from: Roko, MartinB
comment by Roko · 2010-12-04T10:56:35.313Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

LOL... Clippy you win this thread.

Replies from: Multiheaded
comment by Multiheaded · 2011-12-31T21:16:14.222Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is this the real Roko? If so, please upvote this bastard; he has a strategy of gathering downvotes on purpose (pumping the negative karma into his necromantic machinery, no doubt) and I'd like to impede him.

comment by MartinB · 2010-12-04T11:22:24.096Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We could try to find stupid arguments that have not yet been brought up.

comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-03T15:16:36.361Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All of the dreadful arguments for why death is good came out. For uninteresting reasons I missed a few minutes here and there, but in what I heard, not one of the speakers on any side of the question said anything like, "This is a no-brainer! Death is evil. Disease is evil. The less of both we have, the better. There is nothing good about death, at all, and all the arguments to the contrary are moral imbecility."

There are arguments in favor of death though, and most people have rationalized to their own satisfaction the conclusion that death is for the best. Calling the issue a no-brainer, and saying that it's obvious that we should have as little death and disease as possible, is unlikely to impress an audience that doesn't already hold that position. It's likely to convince them that your position is less sophisticated than their own, rather than more, and that you haven't considered their objections, rather than being able to dispense with them.

Replies from: prase, lsparrish, RichardKennaway
comment by prase · 2010-12-03T16:08:08.416Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As I understand, the question was about life extension, which does not equal immortality. I have heard a few plausible arguments against immortality, but here it seems that those people are arguing that if we had to choose between living for 80 years and 150 years, we should take 80, for sophisticated reasons. An that is stupidity.

And I don't think that the general audience is firmly entrenched in sophisticated positions. Most people would gladly accept that the moral question about death is simple. We see few people arguing that cancer is good, even if many those sophisticated arguments for death could be used to support cancer as well. I haven't also ever seen somebody to argue, on whatever level of sophistication, that e.g. Japan is inferior to Zimbabwe because people in Japan live longer. Once a longer life becomes a real option, everybody will choose it if he can. When people rationalise (early) death as good, it is only because they see the alternatives as only hypothetical.

Replies from: Desrtopa, MartinB
comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-03T16:43:51.539Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But what would be the advantages to calling it stupidity in a public debate? I'm skeptical that most people are not fairly entrenched in sophisticated positions on life extension, having argued the matter on several occasions in real life with people outside my own ideological circles. If you want to convince someone to change their mind to adopt a minority opinion, it's generally most effective to show that you've given the matter more consideration than they have, and to avoid any implication that you're unaware of or have dismissed out of hand any arguments in favor of their position.

While I've never heard anyone argue in those words that Japan is inferior to Zimbabwe because people live longer, there's no shortage of people who will argue that societies like Japan pose more danger to our planet than ones like Zimbabwe, because of the ecological impacts of a first world lifestyle. Longer lives would implicitly be an exacerbating factor. I'm aware of this line of argument, and prepared to argue against it, but if I proclaimed those opposing my position to be stupid without first addressing it or any others they might bring up, then it would tend to give the audience the impression that I had not given the matter adequate consideration, was entrenched in my position, and prepared to rationalize away any arguments against it.

Replies from: prase
comment by prase · 2010-12-03T18:11:10.518Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I tend to think that different techniques are needed in the public debate depending on circumstances. Sometimes it is better choice to argue carefully and to show considerable interest in your opponent's arguments, but sometimes the better way is to confidently declare your position as the only sensible one. People like Dawkins are not popular by chance, their style of arguing has some appeal.

Unfortunately I am not so good at telling which strategy works better for a given audience and situation.

comment by MartinB · 2010-12-04T12:05:28.748Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Once a longer life becomes a real option, everybody will choose it if he can.

That is not what currently happens. There are big differences in the way people age, and when they die. Many of them can be linked to lifestyle decisions, some are well researched, and a few even widely known due to public propaganda. And still people smoke. If a quick/fix, a pill, o something that looks like treatment becomes available that might change. But at the moment much of what actually can be done to improve life quality, length, or probability of surviving is just not done.

Replies from: fubarobfusco
comment by fubarobfusco · 2010-12-05T02:55:53.158Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Depending on the details, many people may even reject "quick fixes that look like treatment" to death and disease.

See for instance the conservative response to the HPV vaccine Gardasil, which prevents the most common strains of the virus that causes genital warts -- and thereby drastically reduces the risk of cervical cancer. By providing a "quick fix" to protect sexually active women from a deadly disease, Gardasil reduces the "punishments" available for an action (or "lifestyle") disapproved by conservatives; therefore, they reject it.

comment by lsparrish · 2010-12-03T15:45:44.080Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There used to be a time when racism was quite respectable. There were many sophisticated arguments in its favor. But it was still a mind-bendingly stupid idea. Smart people eventually realized how embarrassing it was and stopped arguing in its favor -- but I doubt it was due to calm, deliberate argument alone that this occurred.

Replies from: Desrtopa, NancyLebovitz
comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-03T15:59:15.707Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Emotional approaches, including appeals to shame, probably carried a large part of the impact of the civil rights movement. But there's a difference between "I am a man, a human being with thoughts and aspirations, and I believe I have a right to be treated with dignity," and "what you're doing is evil, and any attempt to justify yourself is sheer moral imbecility."

Emphasizing the sheer moral weight of the arguments they're dismissing by arguing for death might encourage them to consider that they may be doing something wrong, but calling their arguments stupid, or far worse, evil, is likely to signal to them that they've been targeted as an enemy, and cause them to dig in their heels.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-03T18:34:07.281Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Methods of Communication-- a discussion of different styles of activist communication, including the weak and strong points of each of them.

Replies from: lsparrish
comment by lsparrish · 2010-12-04T02:10:52.460Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! That post is totally made of awesome!

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-12-03T15:40:34.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh yes, that rant was written for LW consumption. I'm as yet undecided just what to say to cross the greater distance to a different audience. But I don't yet exclude that rant itself, with more arguments, but undiluted.

There are indeed arguments in favour of death -- the programme was full of them. But do you think there are good arguments in favour of death? Death of people in general, that is. It is good for us that every smallpox virus dies, there are people in dreadful situations for which there is nothing else to be done, and there are dreadful people whose death would make everyone whose lives they touch better off. But everyone wearing out by 100?

Replies from: TheOtherDave
comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-03T17:31:57.160Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Part of the difficulty here is that opposing death doesn't necessarily equate to supporting life-extension research, as it does depend somewhat on the knock-on effects and the implementation of the latter.

For example, it strikes me as plausible that a life-extension treatment expensive or scarce enough that it could be applied to only N% of the population would leave the world in a worse condition than it is now, and I'm not at all confident of my estimates of N.

That said, my usual reply to the pro-death argument is some form of "If a rogue scientist accidentally released a nanovirus that kept everyone alive and healthy for a thousand years, would you support a policy of artificial death to maintain the status quo? If not, why not?"

My experience is that very few people treat an inevitable death the same way as a deliberate one, no matter how much they assert that the death is a good thing for reasons other than its inevitability. So they often end up thinking about the second case very differently, and sometimes that evokes a mental set that carries over.

And sometimes not.

Replies from: shokwave
comment by shokwave · 2010-12-04T17:35:42.121Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That said, my usual reply to the pro-death argument is some form of "If a rogue scientist accidentally released a nanovirus that kept everyone alive and healthy for a thousand years, would you support a policy of artificial death to maintain the status quo? If not, why not?"

I use the baseball-bat-to-the-head analogy, that if people were hit on the head with a baseball bat twice daily, after years they would come accept it, after decades they would come to believe it is good, and after generations they would develop clever and complicated arguments as to why it is good and why it should continue. But would any of those arguments convince you, now, to take up a regimen of baseball bat strikes to the head?

I think I stole that almost word-for-word from somewhere else on this site, though.

Replies from: JStewart
comment by JStewart · 2010-12-04T18:44:58.971Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The original was Eliezer himself, in How to Seem (and Be) Deep. I'm more fond of TheOtherDave's analogy, though, since I think the baseball bat analogy suffers from one weakness: you're drawing a metaphorical parallel in which death (which you disagree is bad) is replaced by something that's definitely bad. Sometimes you can't get any farther than this, since this sets off some people's BS detectors (and to be honest I think the heuristic they're using to call foul on this is a decent one).

Even if you can get them to consider the true payload of the argument (that clearly bad but inevitable things will probably be rationalized, and therefore that we should expect death to have some positive-sounding rationalizations even if it were A Very Bad Thing), you still haven't really got a complete argument. That baseless rationalizations might be expected to crop up justifying inevitabilities does not prove that your conversation partner's justifications are baseless, it only provides an alternate explanation for the evidence.

It isn't actually hard to flesh this line of thought into a more compelling argument, but I think the accidental long-life thought experiment hits much harder.

Edit: Upon rereading, I had forgotten that Eliezer's version ends with a line that includes the thrust of the TheOtherDave's argument: "I think that if you took someone who was immortal, and asked them if they wanted to die for benefit X, they would say no."

Replies from: TheOtherDave
comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-04T21:44:57.055Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(nods) Agreed; I don't think I was saying anything Eliezer wasn't, just building a slightly different intuition pump.

That said, the precise construction of the intuition pump can matter a lot for rhetorical purposes.

Mainstream culture entangles two separate ideas when it comes to death: first, that an agent's choices are more subject to skepticism than the consistently applied ground rules of existence (A1) and second, that death is better than life (A2).

A1 is a lot easier to support than A2, so in any scenario where life-extension is an agent's choice the arguments against life-extension will tend to rest heavily on A1.

Setting up a scenario where A1 and A2 point in different directions -- where life-extension just happens, and death is a deliberate choice -- kicks that particular leg out from under the argument, and forces people to actually defend A2. (Which, to be fair, some people will proceed to do... but others will balk. And there are A3..An's that I'm ignoring here.)

The "I think that if you took someone who was immortal, and asked them if they wanted to die for benefit X, they would say no." argument does something similar: it also makes life the default, and death a choice.

In some ways it's an even better pump: my version still has an agent responsible for life-extension, even if it's accidental. OTOH, in some ways it's worse: telling a story about how the immortal person got that way makes the narrative easier to swallow.

(Incidentally, this suggests that a revision involving a large-scale mutation rather than a rogue scientist might work even better, though the connotations of "mutation" impose their own difficulties.)

Replies from: shokwave
comment by shokwave · 2010-12-05T03:02:48.040Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It might just be easiest to postulate an immortal person and obfuscate the process entirely.

Also, I am trying to come up with a quick test to distinguish passive deathists from active deathists - ie, who would refuse an offered immortality potion, and who would vote against funding to develop an immortality potion? Who would say "I don't want to live forever" and who would say "People shouldn't live forever"? Arguments need to be tailored in different ways for these different types. Something like "How about you take the potion, and then if you actually do wake up one day and want to die, you can commit painless suicide?" for the passives and your "Would you vote for a policy of artificial death?" for the actives.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-12-07T09:44:39.320Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've now listened to the whole thing, and I have to correct myself, only half of the people on it were raving idiot lunatics: two of the four panellists (and one was a columnist for the Daily Mail, for which this is a job requirement), and two of the four witnesses.

The format of the programme is that the four panellists each make a position statement, the four witnesses are questioned one by one by the panel, and finally the panel discusses the issue. The panel statements were alternately pro-longevity, anti, pro, and anti; likewise the four witnesses.

Most of the pro-death arguments took a strange form which I've noticed a lot of times in many contexts. You have a concept which actually consists of a number of concepts which empirically are generally all found together, or imagined to be. For example, the concept of being "old" includes:

A. Being over 80.
B. Being infirm.
C. Looking old.
D. Succumbing to diseases.
E. Being wise with experience.
F. Being soon to die.
G. Being unproductive.

Then you can construct all sort of arguments that reduce to taking the contingent correlations among these to be logical necessities. In the programme I heard all of these:

Old people are wise. Old people get diseases. So if you try to prevent those diseases, you aren't valuing their wisdom.

Old people are over 80. Old people have wrinkles. Therefore if you remove the wrinkles, you're pretending they're 25 years old.

People over 80 are infirm. Therefore if you extend life to 150, you're extending years of infirmity.

Anyone over 80 is soon to die. Therefore if you allow them to live longer, you'll have to arrange some other way for them to die.

The wisdom of age is good. Therefore old age is good. Therefore being soon to die of it is good.

Old people are unproductive. Therefore prolonging their lifespan means more years of unproductivity -- who will provide the resources they consume?

Teh stupid, indeed. On top of that, all the speakers against longevity talked about extended lifespan being "unnatural", and displayed a complete lack of imagination or even five minutes effort in thinking about the practical consequences of longevity.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-12-03T17:00:06.865Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The only remotely valid argument against life extension that I've ever heard is Malthusian. Resources are finite. Interplanetary exploration has fizzed out. At some point you'll need to prohibit people from reproducing, because other people have been living too long.

Replies from: RichardKennaway
comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-12-04T16:09:56.399Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That depends on how many children longer-lived people want to have (a point that was actually made in the programme). To get an initial idea, we might compare the number of children people have now with the number people had when life expectancy was much less than now. The problem, if such it be, is the opposite: fertility has been declining in the educated, prosperous West, not increasing in accordance with our greater healthy lifespan.

comment by Morendil · 2010-12-03T17:26:52.888Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

in what I heard, not one of the speakers on any side of the question said anything like, "This is a no-brainer! Death is evil

Listen starting around 04:16? "It's axiomatic that we want to live longer." I've not listened to the whole thing but I'm not getting a "the stupid, it burns" reaction - yet.

comment by Roko · 2010-12-03T21:31:58.912Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This kind of thing makes me wish that all the rational people could club together and go have a country of their own, and leave the irrational people to reap what they sow.

Of course, in a sense, that has already happened. We call the countries where the irrational people live "the third world".

[Poor institutions that result from certain kinds of cognitive or knowledge deficits or cultures that are not conducive to civilization working very well are, in my opinion, the real reason why these countries have failed to get anywhere. Perhaps not idential with rationality, but certainly related]

Replies from: Desrtopa, MartinB, Mercy
comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-03T23:27:37.787Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

People in third world countries are certainly less well educated, but I don't think it's clear that either the leaders or the general populace are notably less rational than people in the first world on average. They have a lot less to work with, after all, and while first world voters and leaders make plenty of bad decisions, they have a safety net of prosperity to cushion them from any disasters resulting.

Replies from: MartinB, Roko
comment by MartinB · 2010-12-04T11:16:24.016Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

look for: african countries, and statements of their respective health ministers about aids and/or condoms

Replies from: Desrtopa
comment by Desrtopa · 2010-12-04T15:33:22.267Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We've got people in the first world claiming that condoms are morally wrong, that they don't prevent HIV, that AIDS is not caused by HIV, and so on. Those claiming that they don't prevent HIV or that AIDS is not caused by it are marginalized because the populace is better educated, and probably also because it's not so big a problem here as to motivate simply hiding from it. The populace in the third world is less educated, and so has less reason to see this as a defiance of evidence, and the leaders both tend to be less well educated than those in the first world, and have more problems that are likely to be intractable, and so they're motivated to question the data. When you look at how recently first world politicians have been denying anthropogenic climate change, it doesn't look like we set a much higher standard, our failures simply aren't as visible.

comment by Roko · 2010-12-03T23:33:16.076Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I repeat:

"certain kinds of cognitive or knowledge deficits or cultures that are not conducive to civilization working very well"

it's not really less-wrongian irrationality that is the problem, as such. Irrationality is the wrong word. It's something more general than that: it's whether the individuals' brains are wired in a way that is conducive to civilization working well. Irrationality is a special case.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-04T12:38:27.593Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure exactly what you're claiming here.

If a government is run on bribes to the extent that people with low and middle level jobs have to collect bribes because that's the only way they can pay the bribes required by their superiors, it doesn't sound like a problem with the way their brains are wired.

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-12-04T15:21:44.990Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Bribes, let us not forget, are a "conspiracy against the public" , i.e. they are negative sum.

That people support a regime where negative sum games are par for the course is, in fact, a problem with the way their brains are wired. In the first world we go to great lengths to emphasize the immorality of bribary and corruption, and to punish it.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-04T15:45:24.167Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why frame it as a matter of brain wiring rather than as holding false beliefs?

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-12-04T17:20:27.548Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because false beliefs are a special case of "brain not wired correctly". And the latter covers other important factors, such as:

  • cultural mores surrounding how things ought to be run, e.g. democracy, upholding integrity of institutions, free markets, rule of law

  • lower/higher IQ

  • lower/higher cognitive reflectiveness

  • religiosity and anti-science tendencies

  • loyalty or lack thereof to the nation-state,as opposed to the tribe

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-04T18:06:21.673Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We understand a lot more about the relationship between ideas and behavior than we understand about the relationship between brain wiring (by which I assume you mean the way neurons are connected) and behavior.

comment by MartinB · 2010-12-04T11:19:14.895Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Of course, in a sense, that has already happened. We call the countries where the irrational people live "the third world".

I would call it »more« or »less« rational. All one needs is some degree of it in some people, and more ignorance of the rest. Compare that to place where people who could read were killed (as in Cambodia during revolutionary times), or were books are burned just for being books. Being left alone is really really helpful.

I wonder what a place made up of rational people would look like. So far I have doubts it actually would work.

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-12-04T17:26:03.305Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder what a place made up of rational people would look like. So far I have doubts it actually would work.

an interesting question. I am curious, why do you think it wouldn't work?

Replies from: MartinB
comment by MartinB · 2010-12-05T02:26:55.802Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First some fictional evidence.

For one it is really hard to create a homogeneous community. The libertarians try for a while, and maybe you can by a seastead some day. But you would still give up a lot. Then there is no real need to have a society consisting only of rationalists. There are many jobs that do not need a full blown rational person, so you always have some other people doing stuff. Probably a majority. You need some great minds in the right places, that is all.

Then there is the tendency that great minds often have trouble getting things done and this. Very bright people I met often achieve things because of their respective support network that takes care of more mundane things.

I experienced the occasional talk out while putting some project together, when action was required.

From the other angle I wonder how much reason can actually be implemented on a wider scale. I get the impression a lot of advancement was achieved by pumping the right cached ideas into the population. And then you meat decent programmers who are creationists, or into homeopathy.

Lets collect some ideas on how to achieve it.

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-12-05T12:06:44.128Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that the greatest barriers to creating an above-average IQ, above average rationality society are realpolitik-based, rather than some theoretical failing about how smart people can't do practical stuff.

Think about it on the margin. Garret Jones has basically porved from existing data that +1 IQ point = +15% GDP per capita (or something of that form).

I'd expect that an average score increase of +0.1 on the cognitive reflection test would have a similarly large effect on getting rid of creationism, bad economic policies like protectionism, etc.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-05T14:01:37.122Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, this is why it seems like a silly idea to me.

If a society restricted to higher-IQ people would be richer, then everybody would want to join it. You'd have to get pretty draconian about keeping people out. Never mind that starting new countries is nearly a fantasy idea in the modern world. (Yeah, I know, if you will it it is no dream).

On the other hand, if we developed ways to biologically enhance human IQ, even a little, I'd see it as a public health measure. There's also eugenics, I suppose, but I doubt most residents in democracies want to be part of a Bene Gesserit breeding program.

And if you wanted an organization restricted to the rational, there's always the possibility of founding a university that admitted people on non-standard principles. Instead of looking for leadership, extracurriculars, etc., which basically selects for affluence and cooperativeness, you could actually just give a battery of tests and require students to write an essay that proves they can think rationally.

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-12-05T16:28:45.220Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most countries keep immigrants out fairly well, that's not the problem.

The problem is, as you say, that you just can't found a country.

As for a "rational" university, it is probably not big enough to internalize the benefits of rationality.

Really the question is "what is the most feasible group that would internalize the benefits of rationality and thereby prove empirically that rationality works?"

comment by Mercy · 2010-12-04T15:00:34.821Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a much more obvious link between the majority of third world countries, which is that until recently they were colonies. And quite a lot of previously third world countries have "got somewhere", the more appropriate comparison is between these and the countries that have maintained or further declined from their colonial status, not between the victors and losers of the massively economically significant wars of the preceding centuries. And for that matter the various first world countries that failed to "get anywhere" relative to others in the same position as them at the beginning of the 20th. But to take the India's failure to completely recover from the economic damage of the 19th century as evidence that they would never have got anywhere in the first place is, well, the just world phenomenon doesn't quite cover it. Compare say, Italy, India, France and the DRC. Which have a political culture conducive to growth, and which ones have a history of famines, invasions and repressive governments conducive to poverty? Because as far as I can see, these two factors are only loosely correlated, and the latter is a much more significant predictor of third world status than the former.

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-12-04T15:27:50.894Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

more obvious link ... which is that until recently they were colonies

I call BS on this. I think it is used pervasively as an excuse which panders to left-wing white guilt, but doesn't actually do any explanatory work. E.g. America was once a colony (and had good growth not too long after), Hong Kong was a colony until 1999, Vietnam was until recently a colony but now has GDP growth that most first world countries would be proud of. Israel was until recently a colony, populated by people who have been until recently harshly persecuted, and to boot got invaded several times by surrounding hostiles. Yet has excellent GDP per cap, growth, etc. South Korea was until recently a colony. etc etc.

And one African country that didn't start off as a colony, Liberia, is an utter disaster, having displayed the usual sequence of coup, civil war, dictatorship and ethnic tensions. Many Liberians live on less than $1 per day.

Replies from: None, DanArmak, Mercy
comment by [deleted] · 2012-02-01T16:54:41.741Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The independence of Ethiopia was interrupted by the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and Italian occupation (1936–1941).[67] During this time of attack, Haile Selassie appealed to the League of Nations in 1935, delivering an address that made him a worldwide figure, and the 1935 Time magazine Man of the Year.[68] Following the entry of Italy into World War II, British Empire forces, together with patriot Ethiopian fighters, officially liberated Ethiopia in the course of the East African Campaign in 1941, while an Italian guerrilla campaign continued until 1943.

Ethiopia is arguably another example of a non-colonized state, since it was only invaded and occupied for a few years. If we define that as colonization the same can be said of most of Eastern Europe, which would bolster your position even more.

comment by DanArmak · 2010-12-07T12:50:28.504Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd like to point out that America (i.e. the USA, and most other nations on the continent) are "successful colonies": the colonizers have killed the natives (USA) or driven them out or made them into economically second-class citizens (Israel), and the financial success belongs to the colonists.

Whereas in African colonies, the natives have taken economic and political control, and the economic failures are theirs.

Replies from: Roko, Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-12-07T16:56:43.415Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note also many succesful colonies in asia, e.g. Singapore, Hong Kong, postwar Japan, South Korea.

Replies from: DanArmak
comment by DanArmak · 2010-12-07T17:20:46.050Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Certainly. I wasn't commenting on your argument, but saying some of the supporting arguments are wrongly applied.

comment by Roko · 2010-12-07T16:31:24.324Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with the factual content here. Though the connotation is dangerously close to racist/eugenicist.

Replies from: wedrifid, DanArmak
comment by wedrifid · 2010-12-07T19:04:06.585Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Though the connotation is dangerously close to racist/eugenicist.

This claim is rather unfairly discriminatory against eugenicists!

comment by DanArmak · 2010-12-07T16:51:12.815Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What connotation?

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-12-07T16:54:56.082Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You need to explicitly dislaim any possibility of a racist/eugenicist connotation, at least I would say it wise to. Not for me, but for others reading.

Replies from: DanArmak
comment by DanArmak · 2010-12-07T17:20:43.940Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I ask again: exactly what connotation are you talking about?

comment by Mercy · 2010-12-04T15:52:04.613Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Colonisation is the link between third world countries, not the common thread of their poverty, which varies massively within this group as we both pointed out, and I'm quite open to the idea that the post-colonial performance of these countries is down to cultural and institutional factors. But third world status is defined by their economic position at the start of the Cold War, at which point the majority of these countries were only just gaining independence. It's ridiculous to assert their positions here were due to the culture of groups that were at best an advisory body to colonial administrators, rather than differences in colonial regimes. And culture being influenced heavily by economics, it is difficult to draw a line between these starting positions and the cultural structures that developed, or for that matter to see what purpose it serves except to "pander to left wing white guilt" (what does this even mean, is anticolonialism a primarily white phenomenon where you come from?)

That said, your using America and Vietnam as counterpoints to my argument suggests that we may be talking at cross-purposes somewhat.

Replies from: Mercy, Roko
comment by Mercy · 2010-12-04T16:10:37.136Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay actually lets try and reel this in, this is how I see this conversation:

1) You claim that third world countries are an example of irrational collections of people, citing their poor economic performance as evidence 2) I point out that many third world countries have seen very good economic performance since gaining independence, and their low absolute wealth is more easily explained by their poor or negative performance under colonialism. 3) You point out that many third world and first world countries have performed well post-independence, and give one example of a country that did well under colonial rule as well. 4) I concede* that intra-Third World performance may be due to cultural/institutional factors, while reiterating that the First/Third world differences are a legacy of 19th century wars, both economic and military.

Can you see any failures of communication or understanding here? I don't see how your response at 3 backs up your point at 1, so one of us must have misread the other.

*I feel the need to point out that this is implicit in my response at (2) though I would hope the obvious wrongness of the converse would make this obvious.

comment by Roko · 2010-12-04T16:07:31.469Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

third world status is defined by their economic position at the start of the Cold War

I didn't know this. I thought that it was a dynamic measure defined in terms of GDP per cap, literacy, Life-expectancy, etc.

Replies from: Mercy
comment by Mercy · 2010-12-04T16:32:49.169Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are you sarcastic? Is there some UN body or other collection of idiots that is actually going around using "Third World" to describe whatever countries are in need of it's poverty reduction mechanisms, or something like that? The term has always been understood to mean those countries that were neutral in the fight between the First and Second worlds during the Cold War, on account of their new independence. If what you meant was poverty in countries correlates well with cultural and institutional barriers to growth well, I have no quarrel with that, though that "in a sense" bit in your original post is doing a lot of work. But third world properly refers to a set of states which contain some of the most rational state-craft in the world, certainly better than some countries whose membership in the first world seems, at this point, to be mostly a matter of historical accident, though I'm aware that this is basically code for "set of circumstances I don't yet understand".

Replies from: Roko, NancyLebovitz
comment by Roko · 2010-12-04T17:05:15.356Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I genuinely didn't know that the third world meant "those countries that were neutral in the fight between the First and Second worlds during the Cold War,".

According to wikipedia, "The term continues to be used colloquially to describe the poorest countries in the world.", which was what I meant. The cold war is ancient history now, so I guess I'm just too young to have come across the former meaning.

Replies from: Kevin
comment by Kevin · 2010-12-05T03:15:52.095Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because of this confusion, I typically say "developing countries" instead of Third World.

Replies from: ArisKatsaris
comment by ArisKatsaris · 2010-12-07T10:22:18.996Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The term I'd prefer would be "underdeveloped" countries.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-04T16:58:38.396Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But third world properly refers to a set of states which contain some of the most rational state-craft in the world,

I'm interested in details about this.

Replies from: None, Mercy
comment by [deleted] · 2012-02-01T17:02:03.002Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew seems a good example of a extremely well run state, though obviously it is no longer considered "third world".

comment by Mercy · 2010-12-04T17:39:44.306Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well I could name you states whose leaders I admire but am wary about dragging this conversation even deeper into mind-killer territory than it already is, I think the more salient point is that few commentators would have difficulty coming up with a list, whether it'd be composed of Asian tigers or Kerala and Bolivia or BRIC (though I'm uncertain if Brazil was ever considered Third World). The difference in membership between the political category of the third world and the colloquial one is evidence of good governance in the former.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-02-01T17:03:06.946Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

BRIC (though I'm uncertain if Brazil was ever considered Third World)

Of course it was. Russia is the odd one on the list since it is formerly a Second World state.