Meta-discussion from "Circling as Cousin to Rationality"

post by Raemon · 2020-01-03T21:38:16.387Z · score: 12 (5 votes) · LW · GW · 163 comments

A lot of the discussion on this post [LW · GW] ended up being about LessWrong norms. I've moved that particular thread over to the comments here, and left a comment there pointing over here.

(Some of those comments, including the initial one, were object-level relevant to this post. I apologize for moving all of them indiscriminately. Our comment-moving-features are a bit janky and it's easier to move an entire thread than individual subthreads. I also apologize for breaking a lot of the comment-permalinks in that thread, and we'll look into fixing those. Meanwhile, you can actually still hover-over the comments in question on LW to see a preview of the comment, and you can also copy the comment-hash from the link and apply it to the new post to get a working link)

163 comments

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comment by Raemon · 2020-01-03T23:41:56.544Z · score: 14 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Quick note that the LW team is still processing this thread (different team members had different takes on different aspects of it). Sometime next week I expect us to have something more substantive to say, but it seemed better to take some time away from it to gather our thoughts and get in sync about it.

comment by shminux · 2020-01-04T07:21:54.676Z · score: 22 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That was an interesting read, not in terms of reading the discussion of the obvious object level or the meta level, but simply observing the attempts at pretend-rational behavior. Both Said and habryka clearly got triggered and exasperated, probably due to their past experiences in similar situations, yet acted as if they were not. I suspect they didn't even admit their emotional state to themselves, instead taking pride in keeping the conversation "civil". I am not sure whether this approach was productive or counterproductive.

A standard advice in this situation is to take a breather from a discussion whenever you feel that your emotional state is not where you want it to be. Sadly, noticing one's emotional state is not a natural skill, even less so for those with more "logical" mind, which comprise the majority of this forum's participants.

My guess would be that trying to change the norms of discourse to address the passive aggressive yet overtly polite swipes at each other that are the hallmark of this thread is unlikely to be productive, since they do not address the root of the issue: PWE (posting while exasperated). I hope that the LW team spends some time talking about this particular issue, as well.

One hopeful sign is the decision that "it seemed better to take some time away from it to gather our thoughts" and to presumably have the time to cool down and process one's feelings, as well.

comment by Viliam · 2020-01-04T23:54:26.146Z · score: 21 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I may offer my opinion, it seems to me that this debate was a proxy for a long-term problem, which I would roughly describe as "how much exactness should be the norm on LW?".

When Eliezer was writing the Sequences, it was simple: whatever he considered right, that was the norm. There were articles with numbers and equations, articles that quoted scientific research, articles that expressed personal opinion or preference, and articles with fictional evidence. And because all those articles came from the same person, together they created the style that has attracted many readers.

But, now that it is a community blog, there are people with preference for numbers and equations, and people with preference for personal opinion. It's like they speak different languages. And sometimes they disagree with each other. And when they do, it is difficult to resolve the situation, because each of them expects different norms of... what kind of argument is valid, and what kind of content belongs here.

If we limit ourselves to things we can define and describe exactly, the extreme of that would be merely discussing equations. Because the real world is messy and complicated, and people are even more messy and complicated. And there is nothing wrong with the equations -- the articles on math or decision theory are great and definitely a part of the LW intellectual tradition -- but we also want to use rationality in real life, as humans, in interaction with other humans, and we want to optimize this, even if we cannot describe it exactly.

The opposite extreme, obviously, is introducing all kinds of woo. Meditation feels right, and Buddhism feels right, and Circling feels right, and... dunno, maybe tomorrow praying will feel right, and homeopathy will feel right. (And even if they won't, the question is what algoritm will draw the line. Is it "I was introduced to it by a person identifying as a rationalist" vs "I have already seen this done by people who don't identify as rationalists"?)

I would like this community to retain the ability to speak both languages. But it doesn't work well when different people specialize in different languages. At best, it would be a website that hosts two kinds of completely unrelated topics. At worst, those two groups would attack each other.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T03:51:31.808Z · score: 10 (27 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you mean by ‘authentic’, ‘authenticity’, etc.? I don’t think I’ve seen these terms (as you use them) explained on Less Wrong.

EDIT: … why in the world is this being downvoted?!

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T05:17:39.165Z · score: 35 (20 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I (weakly) downvoted this. It's [LW(p) · GW(p)] pretty [LW(p) · GW(p)] common [LW(p) · GW(p)] for [LW(p) · GW(p)] you [LW(p) · GW(p)] to ask for clarification on words, phrases or concepts that feel like they have pretty straightforward meanings to me, and I can't remember a single of the (at least a dozen) threads in which you asking questions of that type resulted in a conversation that I thought was worth the time of the author, or was net-positive for my experience on LessWrong. 

I have some detailed models of why exactly that's the case that I don't have the time to go into right now, but for now I think I should just downvote threads that I expect to reliably result in wasted effort by both readers and the author, without appreciable gain. 

Of course, other people can upvote your comment if they do get value out of the resulting threads.

I think many of your contributions to LessWrong are great, but the specific pattern of "repeatedly ask for definitions of lots of terms, without putting forward a plausible interpretation, and/or a concrete problem with the standard usage of a term" seems quite negative to me (and from my interactions with many authors and commenters, this appears to be a relatively frequent experience). 

I wouldn't downvote this comment for most users, but since I've seen a lot of threads of this type that were started by you played out, I am more confident than usual about whether I expect the resulting conversation to be valuable, and so feel more comfortable downvoting based on that.

comment by quanticle · 2020-01-01T06:18:13.356Z · score: 41 (22 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the things I try to be careful of, as a rationalist, is to note when the "standard definitions" are importing connotations that go beyond the textual meaning of the word. In this case, like Said Achmiz, I've noticed that "authentic" and "authenticity" are often used as applause lights, serving to engender vaguely positive feelings in the mind of the person reading the text, without actually adding any data or predictions.

Specifically, I'm pointing at the following paragraph:

Why should “that which can be destroyed by the truth” be destroyed? Because the truth is fundamentally more real and valuable than what it replaces, which must be implemented on a deeper level than “what my current beliefs think.” Similarly, why should “that which can be destroyed by authenticity” be destroyed? Because authenticity is fundamentally more real and valuable than what it replaces, which must be implemented on a deeper level than “what my current beliefs think.” I don’t mean to pitch ‘radical honesty’ here, or other sorts of excessive openness; authentic relationships include distance and walls and politeness and flexible preferences.

What are "authentic" and "authenticity" doing here? It seems to me that they could easily be replaced by "healthy" and "health". And if they were, I think it would be entirely justified for someone less familiar with the context to ask what that word means to the person writing here.

So let me put it plainly: what is an "authentic" relationship? How does one distinguish an authentic relationship from an inauthentic one? The text clearly states that an authentic relationship can still include "distance and walls and politeness and flexible preferences". So given that inauthentic relationships can also be characterized as including those very same elements, what sorts of distances, walls, politeness and flexible preferences distinguish an authentic relationship from an inauthentic one?

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T06:27:24.714Z · score: 50 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this is a great comment (I strong-upvoted it), and is exactly the type of comment that I wish Said would make, instead of the ones he tends to make. It includes concrete pointers to why the term used appears to be inadequate, it suggests some plausible interpretations of the term as synonymous with "health" and then correctly points out problems with the text, if that interpretation is correct. It then also asks some concrete follow-up questions that Vaniver can engage with to help people more clearly understand what he is pointing at, and that you highlighted as potentially clarifying.

I think from the perspective of an author, I am glad to get a comment like this, and I expect the resulting thread to be much better than if the author had tried to respond to Said's original comment. 

comment by clone of saturn · 2020-01-01T06:31:25.808Z · score: 40 (21 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My experience has been that the usual reason these threads are unproductive, when they are, is simply because the author doesn't have a sensible answer. Unpleasant as it may be for the rest of us, Said is doing us a great service by revealing this fact.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T17:45:27.622Z · score: 42 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, I at least partially agree with this, and do indeed think that this is often a valuable service. But my sense is that if the goal of these comments is to reveal ignorance, it just seems better to me to argue for an explicit hypothesis of ignorance, or a mistake in the post. 

As is it, these threads conflate between asking questions because the commenter is curious about the answer, and the author being asked to defend themselves from a critique. This is something that would usually be obvious in in-person interactions, but is hard to figure out with just online comments like this. And so a frequent experience that many (probably around a dozen) authors have relayed to me is that they see a comment from Said, interpret it to be someone being genuinely curious about their post, respond with something that is aimed at helping them, but then later on (many comments into the thread) realize that Said was actually asking them to publicly defend their reasoning, which usually tends to require a very different response and that they've just been talking past each other for two hours. 

They then often feel that they could have successfully defended their reasoning if they had known that's what they were asked to do, but since the text as written was only questions, there was no way for them to know. 

All of this seems like it could reliably be avoided by just clarifying these comments to either be concrete critiques, or concrete questions for clarification. And again I think many other commenters in this thread have successfully done that, so I don't think that is a particularly difficult request. 

comment by nshepperd · 2020-01-02T09:11:08.564Z · score: 13 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But my sense is that if the goal of these comments is to reveal ignorance, it just seems better to me to argue for an explicit hypothesis of ignorance, or a mistake in the post.

My sense is the exact opposite. It seems better to act so as to provide concrete evidence of a problem with a post, which stands on its own, than to provide an argument for a problem existing, which can be easily dismissed (ie. show, don't tell). Especially when your epistemic state is that a problem may not exist, as is the case when you ask a clarifying question and are yet to receive the answer!

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T20:00:39.893Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

if the goal of these comments is to reveal ignorance, it just seems better to me to argue for an explicit hypothesis of ignorance, or a mistake in the post

The goal of my initial comment was exactly what it looked like: to inquire about the meaning of a term (as used, and as intended to be understood, by the author)—nothing more.

As it happens, Vaniver didn’t have all that much trouble responding to the inquiry [LW(p) · GW(p)][1], and even agreed that an explanation was necessary [LW(p) · GW(p)]. So, in the case of this post, all the hand-wringing about my purported comment patterns turned out to be quite unnecessary.

Of course, this is not what has happened in many other cases, as you rightly note. But here’s the thing: if I ask a simple, straightforward question about a post—like “what does [term X] mean?”, or “what are some examples of [described phenomenon Y]?”, that’s not an argument for “an explicit hypothesis of ignorance”, nor a claim of any mistake—it’s just a question! My expectation, in each such case, is that the author easily provides a response, and perhaps (if particularly conscientious) says “thanks for pointing out that this wasn’t clear from the post”, edits the post to include the explanation / definition / examples / whatever, and we all move on with our lives.

If the author cannot do this, then this is surprising—and, indeed, evidence of ignorance, a mistake, or whatever other flaw. A question like “what do you mean by [term X]” is only a critique if you can’t answer it!

In short, what you say here—

they see a comment from Said, interpret it to be someone being genuinely curious about their post, respond with something that is aimed at helping them, but then later on (many comments into the thread) realize that Said was actually asking them to publicly defend their reasoning

All of this seems like it could reliably be avoided by just clarifying these comments to either be concrete critiques, or concrete questions for clarification.

—is entirely a false dichotomy. There is nothing to clarify. There is no need to “defend” anything, because a question of this sort is not an attack. If an author can’t answer it, then that fact is what does, indeed, require defending. But how can I know this, before I’ve asked the question?


  1. Whether the explanation he provides makes sense, or is satisfactory, etc., is a different story. ↩︎

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T20:20:08.581Z · score: 15 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I sadly don't have the time to respond to all of this, so I will just make the points that I can make quickly: 

So, in the case of this post, all the hand-wringing about my purported comment patterns turned out to be quite unnecessary.

To be clear, I think your comment was still net-negative for the thread, and provided little value (in particular in the presence of other commenters who asked the relevant questions in a, from my perspective, much more productive way). So I don't think the hand-wringing was unnecessary, and if it has any chance of resolving the broader pattern, I think it would be a major improvement to LessWrong, since I think that pattern is one of the major reasons people do not participate more on the site (and is literally the single most frequent complaint I receive from authors about trying to write on LessWrong).

A question like “what do you mean by [term X]” is only a critique if you can’t answer it!

What this de-facto means is that there is always an obligation by the author to respond to your comment, or otherwise be interpreted to be ignorant. Many people don't have the time, or find engaging with commenters exhausting, and this creates a default expectation that if they do not engage extensively with your comments in particular (with higher priority than anything else in the comment thread) there will be a public attack on them left unanswered. 

This is worsened, because (I think) many, if not most, people who upvote your questions are doing so not because they think the author is by default ignorant, but because they would appreciate a bit more clarification, though they still see the overall point of the post. As such your questions often end up highly upvoted (and your later interactions frequently downvoted, as people perceive you to have set up some kind of "gotcha"). 

Again, this is a problem that would easily be resolved by tone-of-voice in the real world, but since we are dealing with text-based communication here, these kinds of confusions can happen again and again. I think it is important to err on the side of clarity in this case. In voice-based communication people can easily distinguish between a question that is intended as a critique when left unanswered, and one that is an optional request for clarification. 

comment by nshepperd · 2020-01-01T22:14:51.962Z · score: 13 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To be clear, I think your comment was still net-negative for the thread, and provided little value (in particular in the presence of other commenters who asked the relevant questions in a, from my perspective, much more productive way)

I just want to note that my comment wouldn't have come about were it not for Said's.

Again, this is a problem that would easily be resolved by tone-of-voice in the real world, but since we are dealing with text-based communication here, these kinds of confusions can happen again and again.

To be frank, I find your attitude here rather baffling. The only person in this thread who interpreted Said's original comment as an attack seems to have been you. Vaniver had no trouble posting a response, and agreed that an explanation was necessary but missing.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T23:01:51.325Z · score: 16 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just want to note that my comment wouldn't have come about were it not for Said's.

That's good to know. I do think if people end up writing better comments in response to Said's comments, then that makes a good difference to me. I would be curious about how Said's comment helped you write your comment, if you have the time, which would help me understand the space of solutions in better.

The only person in this thread who interpreted Said's original comment as an attack seems to have been you.

I am quite confident that is not the case. I don't think anyone else has made it the object of discussion except me, but I can guarantee you that many people reading this thread perceived Said's original question as an attack. This is also evident from the fact that Said's top-level comment received many downvotes, not just from me, even if it is currently at a reasonable karma level (when I downvoted it it was at 2 karma, and an hour later it was at -4, I think).

This is also evident by clone of saturn's comment, which I think clearly suggests that a lack of response to these comments is usually interpreted (by him and others) to be strong evidence of the author being incapable of giving a proper response, and to be clear evidence of the top-level post being confused or mistaken. 

My guess would also be that Vaniver perceived the comment as at least somewhat of an attack, though I am not super confident, though he could chime in and give clarification on that. I would currently take a bet at even odds that he did, though the precise definitional question might make that bet hard to settle. 

As I mentioned in many other places, I am also very confident that dozens of authors have perceived Said's comments to primarily be social attacks, and have found them to be major obstacles to engaging with LessWrong. Obviously basically all of these comments were on past threads, and not this specific thread, so there is a good chance that I am misunderstanding what precisely is causing their discomfort, but I am reasonably confident that I am identifying this instance as a correct example of the pattern that these authors point me to. 

comment by Vaniver · 2020-01-02T00:02:59.308Z · score: 48 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My guess would also be that Vaniver perceived the comment as at least somewhat of an attack, though I am not super confident, though he could chime in and give clarification on that.

The history was as follows:

  1. Look at the earliest reply [LW(p) · GW(p)] in my inbox, agree with it (and Raemon's comment), and edit the post.
  2. Scroll up and see a large comment tree.
  3. In finding the top of the large comment tree, see another comment [LW(p) · GW(p)]; decide "I'll handle that one first."

So my view of Said's comment was in the context of nshepperd's comment, at which point I already saw the hole in the post and its shape.

This splits out two different dimensions; the 'attack / benign' dimension and the 'vague / specific' dimension. Of them, I think the latter is more relevant; Said's comment is a request of the form "say more?" and nshepperd's is a criticism of the form "your argument has structure X, but this means it puts all its weight on Y, which can't hold that much weight." The latter is more specific than the former, and I correspondingly found it more useful. [Like, I'm not sure I would have noticed that I also don't define truth from just reading Said's comment, which was quite helpful in figuring out what parts of 'authenticity' were relevant to describe.]

However, this is because nshepperd made a bet that paid off, in that they were able to precisely identify the issue with the post in a way that could be easily communicated to me. If nshepperd had made a similarly precise but incorrect guess, it easily could have been worse off than a vague "say more?". That is, there's not just the question of where the 'interpretive labor' burden falls, but also a question of what overall schemes minimize interpretative labor (measured using your cost function of choice).

I interpreted both of them as benign; if anything nshepperd's is more of an attack because it directly calls "authenticity" an applause light.

Also, related to a thread elsewhere, on 'obligations' to respond to comments: I mostly don't worry about outstanding 'attacks' on me of this type, because of something like socially recognized gnosis [LW(p) · GW(p)]. That is:

  • In worlds where "everybody knows" what authenticity is, and Said is the lone ignoramus, I lose very few points by not responding to Said saying "but what is authenticity?", because most of the audience views the question as a tiresome distraction.
  • In worlds where I want to believe or want to enforce [LW · GW] that "everybody knows" what authenticity is, then I lose many points by not responding to Said saying "but what is authenticity?", because the audience views the question as a pertinent point, or at least evidence that others don't know also.
  • In worlds where some people know lots about authenticity, and others know little, then when Said says "but what is authenticity?", I can respond with "this post is for people who know what I mean by that, and I'm not holding it to the standards of people who don't know what I mean by that" and both groups can continue satisfied (the former, discussing among a group that shares vocabulary, the latter, knowing that the post is openly not up to their standards). Which should generally be a thing that I'm willing to be open about, altho it sometimes generates some social awkwardness.
  • And in worlds where I just forgot [LW · GW] that not everybody has 'authenticity' as a shared label, then the question "but what is authenticity?" is a welcome pointer towards more that has to be written.

So some things that I think would be nice:

  • It is permissible to respond to clarifying questions with "sorry, that's a prerequisite that I won't explain here," which is taxed according to how ludicrous it is to impose that as a prerequisite.
  • Authors have well-placed trust in the audience's ability to assess what observations are germane, and how seriously to take various 'criticisms,' so the tax from the previous point seems accurate / ignoring comments that seem bad to them is cheap instead of expensive.
  • "The Emperor Has No Clothes" objections have a place, tho it might not be every post.
  • Everyone gets better at interpretative labor in a way that makes communication flow more easily.
comment by clone of saturn · 2020-01-02T00:05:45.879Z · score: 23 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To be clear, I don't interpret a lack of any response as anything other than a sign that the author has a busy life. What I take as strong evidence of the author being incapable of giving a proper response is when there's a back-and-forth in which the author never directly responds to the original question.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-02T00:27:28.741Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I am glad to hear that. Am I correct in interpreting you to disagree with Said on this point, given this paragraph of his? 

There is always an obligation by any author to respond to anyone’s comment along these lines. If no response is provided to (what ought rightly to be) simple requests for clarification (such as requests to, at least roughly, define or explain an ambiguous or questionable term, or requests for examples of some purported phenomenon), the author should be interpreted as ignorant.

comment by clone of saturn · 2020-01-02T01:22:08.070Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I disagree with that as stated, although I would agree with a slightly softened version that replaced "the author should be interpreted as ignorant" with "the post should be regarded as less trustworthy".

comment by [deleted] · 2020-01-02T02:20:05.789Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Am I the only one who thinks that we shouldn’t be calculating points for and against based on commentary, but instead read the content (article and commentary) and think for ourselves?

comment by clone of saturn · 2020-01-02T02:33:37.678Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Probably? Commentary is useful because most of us aren't smart enough to anticipate all possible criticisms and responses to those criticisms.

comment by [deleted] · 2020-01-02T02:39:58.236Z · score: 12 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That’s not what I’m saying. If someone posts a comment along the lines of “what about X?” and it goes unresponded to by the OP, that is not a point against the original article. Arguments are not soldiers. Leaving an argument undefended is not a surrender of territory to the enemy.

Rather you the reader should consider X, and decide for yourself its relevance.

comment by clone of saturn · 2020-01-02T03:07:35.611Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, I see. Yes, I was assuming in the context of this discussion that X is something you hadn't already thought of, and do find relevant.

comment by [deleted] · 2020-01-02T04:23:35.584Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, I see the confusion. By “content” I meant both the article and it’s comments. I edited my comment to say as much.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-02T01:27:43.281Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! And I think I also agree with the "the post should be regarded as less trustworthy" assessment, though my guess is we probably disagree some about the effect size of that. 

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-02T00:42:34.260Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I want to again draw your attention to this comment of mine [LW(p) · GW(p)]. You are, it seems to me, interpreting the given quote much too narrowly (which was reasonable when I had just posted it, but is not reasonable now that I’ve clarified).

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-02T00:46:58.313Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

While I do agree that comment clarified some things, my sense is still that clone of saturn would disagree with that comment as written (though I am not confident, which is why I am asking for clarification). 

In particular, in the absence of the two alternatives that you list that involve someone else answering the question at hand, you maintain that it is the obligation of the author to engage in any of the other four solutions you outline, all of which strike me as roughly equally costly to writing a response. So I don't think it changes my perspective much.

comment by philh · 2020-01-08T21:56:46.646Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As I mentioned in many other places, I am also very confident that dozens of authors have perceived Said’s comments to primarily be social attacks, and have found them to be major obstacles to engaging with LessWrong.

I'm a bit surprised that no one in this comment chain (as far as I can see) has mentioned the possibility of these users deleting such comments on their posts, or even blocking Said in general.

It's not a perfect solution, and maybe not all these users have enough karma to moderate their own posts (how much karma does that need?), and I believe blocking is a relatively recent feature, but... it seems like it could meaningfully lessen these obstacles?

comment by philh · 2020-01-08T23:31:48.616Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Separately: given that Said's comments are often perceived as social attacks, it seems to me that this is most of the problem[1]. If a thread turns out to be a giant waste of everyone's time, then that's also bad, of course... but I would be surprised if that happened to nearly the same extent, without the percieved-social-attack thing going on.

You propose elsethread that Said could try to generate plausible interpretations to include in his comments. But if we take the main goal to be defusing perceptions of social attack, we should remember that there are other ways to achieve that goal.

For example, the following seems less social-attack-y to me than Said's original comment in this thread[2]; I'd be curious how you'd have felt about it. (And curious how Said would have felt about writing it, or something like it.)

What do you mean by ‘authentic’, ‘authenticity’, etc.? I don’t think I’ve seen these terms (as you use them) explained on Less Wrong.

I might be able to come up with a guess about what you mean, but I don't think it would be a very good one. The terms seem pretty central to the argument you're making here, so I think it's important that we avoid illusion of transparency regarding them.

[1] I do think it matters whether or not this perception is accurate, but it might not matter for the question of "what effect do these comments have on the social fabric of LW".

[2] And FWIW, I don't expect the original comment was intended as a social attack in the slightest. But I do think it felt like one, to me, to some degree.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-09T00:53:26.213Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And curious how Said would have felt about writing it, or something like it.

I have no idea why your proposed alternative version of my comment would be “less social-attack-y”. Of course, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why my actual comment would be “social-attack-y” in the first place, unless we assume something extremely unflattering about Vaniver (which I was not assuming) (but note that even in that scenario, your proposed edit seems to me to change nothing).

What’s more, I suspect that no possible version of my comment would change anything about this “perceived social attack” business.

In this, as in so many things, we can look for guidance to esteemed philosopher John Gabriel, who puts the matter concisely in this Penny Arcade strip:

Gabe: If all I could say was “nice,” I would mean it ironically.

Were someone else to write exactly the words I wrote in my original comment, they would not be perceived as a social attack; whereas if I write those words—or the words you suggest, or any other words whatsoever, so long as they contained the same semantic content at their core[1]—they will be perceived as a social attack. After all, I can say something different, but I cannot mean something different.

The fact is, either you think that asking what an author means by a word, or asking for examples of some phenomenon, is a social attack, or you don’t. If I ask a question along such lines, no reassurances, no disclaimers, will serve to signal anything but “I am complying with the necessary formalities in order to ask what I wish to ask”. If you think my question is a social attack without the disclaimers, then their addition will change nothing. It is the question, after all, that constitutes the social attack, if anything does—not the form, in other words, but the content.

Best to minimize such baroque signaling. There is a certain baseline of courtesy that ought to be observed, but it is mostly negative—no name-calling, no irrelevant personal attacks, etc. Almost anything beyond that only adds noise. Better to be clear and concise.

I do not think that anyone can argue that my comments violate any sensible standards of basic politeness or courtesy; beyond that, let the content stand on its own. If it’s viewed as a social attack, then that says quite a bit more about those who view it thus, than it does about my intentions (which, as any reasonable person can see [LW(p) · GW(p)], are free of any personal hostility). Trying to disguise the matter with elaborate disclaimers is pointless.


  1. Note that your proposed addition conveys no new information; everything within it is already entailed by the original comment and its context. That I can’t come up with any good guess about the meaning of the word is implicated by me asking the question in the first place. That the term is central to the argument is obvious once the question is asked. That we should avoid the illusion of transparency is little more than an applause light for a locally shared (and publicly known to be shared) value. ↩︎

comment by philh · 2020-01-09T21:58:46.804Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have no idea why your proposed alternative version of my comment would be “less social-attack-y”.

Nevertheless, I do think it feels that way to me, and I also think it would feel that way to others.

I don't have a good explanation for why. I do think that signaling "I am complying with the necessary formalities in order to ask what I wish to ask" is part of it. Similar to how the word "please" signals nothing more than "I wish to signal politeness", and that seems sufficient to actually be polite. Even though it's a costless signal.

It does feel to me like there's a risk here of a euphemism treadmill. If we can't get away without adding tedious formalities, then everyone adds those formalities by default, and then they stop signalling the thing they used to signal.

I'm not fully convinced this won't happen, but I do think it's relevant that there's a broader culture outside of LW which will exert some influence pulling us towards whatever signalling norms it uses.

Were someone else to write exactly the words I wrote in my original comment, they would not be perceived as a social attack; whereas if I write those words—or the words you suggest, or any other words whatsoever, so long as they contained the same semantic content at their core[1]—they will be perceived as a social attack.

This doesn't strike me as literally true, and I do think you could appear less social-attack-y than you do, without changing the core semantic content of what you write.

But I do feel like it's the case that your speech style is more likely to be perceived as a social attack coming from you than from someone else.

I wish it weren't so. It's certainly possible for "the identity and history of the speaker" to be a meaningful input into the question "was this a social attack". But I think the direction is wrong, in this case. I think you're the single user on LW who's earned the most epistemic "benefit of the doubt". That is, if literally any other user were to write in the style you write, I think it would be epistemically correct to give more probability to it being a social attack than it is for you.

And yet here we are. I don't claim to fully understand it.

That I can’t come up with any good guess about the meaning of the word is implicated by me asking the question in the first place.

I don't think this is true. It might be that you think you probably could come up with a good guess, but don't want to spend the cognitive effort on doing so. It might be that you think you have a good guess, but you want to confirm that it's right. I've sometimes asked people to clarify their meaning for a reason along the lines of: "I'm pretty sure I have a good idea what you mean. But if I give my own definition and then reply to it, you can say that that wasn't what you meant. If you give your own definition, I can hold you to it." (Implicit to this is a mistrust of their honesty and/or rationality.)

That the term is central to the argument is obvious once the question is asked.

I don't think this is true, either. Someone might ask this question about a term that isn't central, perhaps just because they're curious about a tangent.

That we should avoid the illusion of transparency is little more than an applause light for a locally shared (and publicly known to be shared) value.

This does seem true.


I feel like I may well be using the term "social attack" to refer to a group of things that should ideally be separated. If I am doing that, I'm not sure whether the confusion was originally introduced by myself or not. I'm not sure what to do with this feeling, but I do think I should note it.

Although I don't think you're performing social attacks - in this case, I don't think I even feel-them-but-disendorse-that-feeling - I do think this is the kind of conversation that has potential to eat up lots of time unproductively. (Which, I guess that points against my "I would be surprised" from two comments up.) So by default, after this comment I'm going to limit myself to two more posts [LW · GW] on this topic.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-09T23:28:32.173Z · score: 1 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even though it’s a costless signal.

But of course it’s not costless.

In the case of “please”, it’s certainly very close to being costless—almost indistinguishable, really. This is because “please” is a very, very common signal of politeness—so common as to be universally understood, and not just in our culture but in many others. Many people say “please” reflexively. It still costs something, but very little.

But the sorts of disclaimers we’re talking about cost much more. They cost time to type (and energy, and stress on one’s hands, etc.). They cost cognitive effort—the need to recall just what sorts of disclaimers and reassurances are required, in this particular community, with its particular, idiosyncratic ideas about what constitutes politeness. They cost yet more effort, to figure out which of those norms apply in this case, and how to navigate this particular situation—what aspects of one’s question may be perceived as a “social attack”, and what meaningless words, precisely, one must use to defuse that perception. None of these things are costless.

And, as you say, there’s a treadmill. If it’s mandatory to say these things, then they mean nothing. And if it’s mandatory for me (only) to say these things, then they mean nothing coming from me. (Rather, they don’t mean the things they say, and instead only mean “I am complying with the necessary formalities …” etc.)

EDIT: I listed costs to the writer, but in my haste I entirely forgot what is probably an even more important point: that there is a cost to the reader, of such disclaimers and reassurances! Just look at every proposed modification to my original comment, that has been put forth in this giant comment thread. Each one makes a comment of two short sentences (short enough to have fit into a tweet, even before the doubling of Twitter’s character limit) balloon to at least thrice that length, if not much more—and the density of information / insight / message plummets! This wastes the time of every reader—in aggregate, a cost orders of magnitude more severe than the costs to the writer.

I think you’re the single user on LW who’s earned the most epistemic “benefit of the doubt”. That is, if literally any other user were to write in the style you write, I think it would be epistemically correct to give more probability to it being a social attack than it is for you.

Thank you for the kind words. I am not sure if I quite deserve this praise, but if I do, it is certainly my intention to continue deserving it.

That the term is central to the argument is obvious once the question is asked.

I don’t think this is true, either. Someone might ask this question about a term that isn’t central, perhaps just because they’re curious about a tangent.

To be clear, I meant that this is obvious in this case, not necessarily in the general case.

comment by philh · 2020-01-11T16:28:17.939Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But of course it’s not costless.

To be clear, I meant only that "please" is costless (and you're right that it's only nearly so). This seemed relevant because we might therefore expect it to have devolved into meaninglessness, but this doesn't seem to have happened.

I agree with the costs that you list, with the caveat that as I mentioned I'm unsure about the treadmill. I just also think commenting in that style has benefits as well, and I'm legitimately unsure which side dominates.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T21:09:39.940Z · score: -12 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What this de-facto means is that there is always an obligation by the author to respond to your comment, or otherwise be interpreted to be ignorant.

There is always an obligation by any author to respond to anyone’s comment along these lines. If no response is provided to (what ought rightly to be) simple requests for clarification (such as requests to, at least roughly, define or explain an ambiguous or questionable term, or requests for examples of some purported phenomenon), the author should be interpreted as ignorant. These are not artifacts of my particular commenting style, nor are they unfortunate-but-erroneous implications—they are normatively correct general principles.

Many people don’t have the time, or find engaging with commenters exhausting

Then they shouldn’t post on a discussion forum, should they? What is the point of posting here, if you’re not going to engage with commenters?

this creates a default expectation that if they do not engage extensively with your comments in particular (with higher priority than anything else in the comment thread) there will be a public attack on them left unanswered.

This is only because most people don’t bother to ask (what I take to be) such obvious, and necessary, clarifying questions. (Incidentally, I take this fact to be a quite damning indictment of the epistemic norms of most of Less Wrong’s participants.) When I ask such questions, it is because no one else is doing it. I would be happy to see others do it in my stead.

distinguish between a question that is intended as a critique when left unanswered, and one that is an optional request for clarification

Viewing such clarifications as “optional” also speaks to an unacceptable low standard of intellectual honesty.

Once again: there is no confusion; there is no dichotomy. A request for clarification is neither an attack nor even a critique. The normal, expected form of the interaction, in the case where the original post is correct, sensible, and otherwise good (and where the only problem is an insufficiency in communicating the idea), is simply “[request for clarification] -> [satisfactory clarification] -> [end]”. Only a failure of this process to take place is in need of “defending”.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T21:47:53.200Z · score: 32 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is always an obligation by any author to respond to anyone’s comment along these lines. If no response is provided to (what ought rightly to be) simple requests for clarification (such as requests to, at least roughly, define or explain an ambiguous or questionable term, or requests for examples of some purported phenomenon), the author should be interpreted as ignorant. These are not artifacts of my particular commenting style, nor are they unfortunate-but-erroneous implications—they are normatively correct general principles.

Where does that obligation come from? Eliezer has historically only responded to a very small fraction of comments, and has very rarely responded to comments of the type that we are discussing. Should we interpret him as ignorant? I don't think so, and I don't think Eliezer has any particular obligation to respond to comments of that type. 

Indeed, the perception that he is obligated to respond is (from what I can tell from my conversations with him) the primary reasons why he has stopped engaging with LessWrong and most other places on the internet in which there aren't very clear norms that he is not obligated to respond to every commenter. 

We have also discussed this topic at length when engaging with curi [LW · GW], a past commenter who made the claim that authors (and LessWrong at large) have an obligation to respond to questions and criticisms. He was met with almost universal rejection, and is currently one of the most-downvoted users in the history of LessWrong. Here are some quotes from relevant threads: 

By gjm: 

Correct. There is no Pope of LW, we don't all agree about everything, and no one has any obligation to answer anyone else's objections. That may be inconvenient for some purposes, but that's how it is.

By jimrandomh: 

Please, stop. This has gone on long enough. You don't have to respond to everything, and you shouldn't respond to everything. By trying to do so, you have generated far more text than any reasonable person would be willing to read

The idea of authors being obligated to respond to questions or comments also has a long history of being dismissed by a very large fraction of long-time members of LessWrong. Just to give some examples: 

By Thrasymachus [LW(p) · GW(p)]: 

(in contrast, there's no obligation that I 'should' respond to every critical comment on a post I write)

By Phil Goetz [LW(p) · GW(p)]: 

And of course Eliezer has no moral obligation to respond to you (unless you've given him time or money).

By Scott Alexander [LW(p) · GW(p)]: 

I've responded to you four or five times over several days. I don't feel an obligation to continue forever, especially when you don't seem to be understanding my points, and I definitely do not want to clog Less Wrong with it.

In general, no. No one on LessWrong has an obligation to respond to anyone else's comments. Obviously if someone makes an objection it is up to the other readers to judge whether the they think the objection is valid, but at no point should people assume that because an author is not responding to all questions, that they are engaging in a moral failing, and should be presumed to be ignorant.

The attitude that people are obligated to respond to every question and every objection is one of the primary things that is driving people away from this site. It is the primary complaint we get about LessWrong in user interviews. It is an attitude that makes posting on LessWrong much much more stressful than it needs to be, and for our top contributors, it is (from what I can tell), one of the primary reasons why they are not currently engaging with the site. I don't know whose judgement you would trust on this, but if I drag Eliezer into this thread, and have him say decisively that the norms of LessWrong should not put an obligation on authors to respond to every question, and to be presumed wrong or ignorant in the absence of a response, would that change your mind on this? Because it matters a lot for the future of the site. 

comment by nshepperd · 2020-01-03T15:51:34.901Z · score: 17 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Where does that obligation come from?

This may not be Said's view, but it seems to me that this obligation comes from the sheer brute fact that if no satisfactory response is provided, readers will (as seems epistemically and instrumentally correct) conclude that there is no satisfactory response and judge the post accordingly. (Edit: And also, entirely separately, the fact that if these questions aren't answered the post author will have failed to communicate, rather defeating the point of making a public post.)

Obviously readers will conclude this more strongly if there's a back-and-forth in which the question is not directly answered, and less strongly if the author doesn't respond to any comments at all (which suggests they're just busy). (And readers will not conclude this at all if the question seems irrelevant or otherwise not to need a response.)

That is to say, the respect of readers on this site is not automatically deserved, and cannot be taken by force. Replying to pertinent questions asking for clarification with a satisfactory response that fills a hole in the post's logic is part of how one earns such respect; it is instrumentally obligatory.

On this view, preventing people from asking questions can do nothing but mislead readers by preventing them from noticing whatever unclearness / ambiguity etc the question would have asked about. It doesn't release authors from this obligation, but just means we have to downgrade our trust in all posts on the site since this obligation cannot be met.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T22:53:57.246Z · score: 17 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Where does that obligation come from?

I should clarify, first of all, that the obligation by the author to respond to the comment is not legalistically specific. By this I mean that it can be satisfied in any of a number of ways; a literal reply-to-comment is just one of them. Others include:

  1. Mentioning the comment in a subsequent post (“In the comments on yesterday’s post, reader so-and-so asked such-and-such a question. And I now reply thus: …”).

  2. Linking to one’s post or comment elsewhere which constitutes an answer to the question.

  3. Someone else linking to a post or comment elsewhere (by the OP) which constitutes an answer to the question.

  4. Someone else answering the question in the OP’s stead (and the OP giving some indication that this answer is endorsed).

  5. Answering an identical, or very similar, question elsewhere (and someone providing a link or citation).

In short, I’m not saying that there’s a specific obligation for a post author to post a reply comment, using the Less Wrong forum software, directly to any given comment along the lines I describe. What I’m saying is that, in the discussion as a whole, which is constituted by the post itself, plus comments thereon, plus related posts and comments, etc., an author has an obligation to respond to reader inquiries of this sort.

As for where said obligation comes from—why, from the same place as the obligation to provide evidence for your claims, or the obligation to cite your sources, or the obligation not to be logically rude, or the obligation to write comprehensibly, or the obligation to acknowledge and correct factual errors, etc., etc.—namely, from the fact that acknowledging and satisfying this obligation reliably leads to truth, and rejecting this obligation reliably leads to error. In short: it is epistemically rational.

Eliezer has historically only responded to a very small fraction of comments, and has very rarely responded to comments of the type that we are discussing. Should we interpret him as ignorant?

In most cases, no—because the other things I list above were done instead. In some cases, however? Yes, absolutely.

Indeed, the perception that he is obligated to respond is (from what I can tell from my conversations with him) the primary reasons why he has stopped engaging with LessWrong and most other places on the internet in which there aren’t very clear norms that he is not obligated to respond to every commenter.

Quite right.

This transition also divides the period when Eliezer was writing the Sequences, and the rest of his corpus of Less Wrong writing, which even today stand as some of the clearest and most valuable writing I have ever had the great fortune to encounter, from the period (continuing, as far as I can tell, to this day) when Eliezer has been writing incomprehensible ramblings on his Facebook page, the contents of which can hardly be dignified by the label of ‘argument’.

Perhaps this is a coincidence. But I rather think not.

And, so, of course (to answer the question you ask at the end of your comment), Eliezer would be one of the last people whose opinion on the matter would change my mind. I have great respect for Eliezer, but his decision to leave Less Wrong (especially to leave Less Wrong for this reason) was a mistake. I know that he thinks otherwise; I know, even, that he believes that he has heard all such views as mine, and taken them into account. I remember well the arguments about this, back then, and what he said. I found those arguments plausible, then. I sympathized entirely with Eliezer’s views, and the reasons for them.

The experience of the last decade has shown him, quite decisively, to be wrong.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T23:22:20.415Z · score: 13 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This transition also divides the period when Eliezer was writing the Sequences, and the rest of his corpus of Less Wrong writing, which even today stand as some of the clearest and most valuable writing I have ever had the great fortune to encounter, from the period (continuing, as far as I can tell, to this day) when Eliezer has been writing incomprehensible ramblings on his Facebook page, the contents of which can hardly be dignified by the label of ‘argument’.

Perhaps this is a coincidence. But I rather think not.

I mean, I think Inadequate Equilibria is on-par with all of Eliezer's other writing (I actually think in terms of insight-per-page it is much denser than the average section of the sequence) and that that writing was produced completely without any ongoing input from online discussion, so I find this argument not that convincing. 

It seems to me that Eliezer mostly burned out on writing publicly, due to the demands that were put on him, and that if he were to continue writing at similar volumes as he did in the past, we would get similar value from his writings as we did for sequences (discounting the fact that Eliezer has probably picked up a bunch of the low-hanging fruit in the paradigm he has stacked out). 

I agree with you that there is value in comments, but I don't the comments that you are advocating for had much to do with Eliezer's ability to produce good writing and insights, and I trust Eliezer's introspection when he says that those comments, and the associated expectations, were a major drain on his motivation and ability to write more, ultimately resulting in by far our best writer leaving the site. Yes, we can judge his reasons, but independently of his reasons, his absence is obviously a major loss for the site. 

And importantly, this isn't an isolated judgement. Almost every long-term and historically prominent LessWrong author I have ever talked to shares Eliezer's experience. While I agree with you that models of collective intellectual progress are important here, we do not make progress by enforcing norms on our site that cause almost all of our historically best authors to leave. When dozens of people straightforwardly report about the psychological costs of an action, I am at least tempted to believe them, and take action to remedy the situation. 

So, going back, is there anyone else who you would trust to settle the issue of norms on this reasonably decisively? How about Vaniver, or lukeprog, or Kaj Sotala, or Anna Salamon, or Jacobian, or Zvi, Raymond, or So8res? I am happy to set up some kind of board, or court here that helps us settle this issue, but I think it being unresolved is causing massive ongoing costs for the site. 

comment by [deleted] · 2020-01-02T00:02:07.286Z · score: 17 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The author could just choose to ignore questions they haven’t the time to answer. It’s not the job of the questioner to self-censor. It is especially not their job to turn a simple question into an essay on truth in order to satisfy some moderator. That wastes everyone’s time by having us read repetitive fluff instead of a single, sharp question.

If this were moderator policy, then I can’t see LW being of value and I know I’d leave. My time is not worth that BS.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-02T00:22:04.053Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am definitely not arguing for this as moderator policy, and and at no point was suggesting that it should become one. I think this is something that seems best settled at the culture level, and not at the norm-enforcement level. 

The author could just choose to ignore questions they haven’t the time to answer.

Note that at least as I understand Said [LW(p) · GW(p)], he would consider ignoring those questions to be a violation of a norm, and (from what I can tell) would prefer authors to not post at all to LessWrong, over posting but not responding (either via a comment or a follow-up post) to inquiries of this type. It is that judgement that I am trying to argue against. A world where authors can simply ignore questions like this without significant negative social consequences is also the world that I would prefer the most, though I think we are currently not in that world, and getting there requires some shift in norms in culture that I would like to see. 

To provide the relevant quote: 

There is always an obligation by any author to respond to anyone’s comment along these lines. If no response is provided to (what ought rightly to be) simple requests for clarification (such as requests to, at least roughly, define or explain an ambiguous or questionable term, or requests for examples of some purported phenomenon), the author should be interpreted as ignorant. These are not artifacts of my particular commenting style, nor are they unfortunate-but-erroneous implications—they are normatively correct general principles.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2020-01-04T08:52:09.323Z · score: 13 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A world where authors can simply ignore questions like this without significant negative social consequences is also the world that I would prefer the most, though I think we are currently not in that world, and getting there requires some shift in norms in culture that I would like to see.

I occasionally ignore questions and comments and have not noticed any significant negative social consequences from doing so. Others have also sometimes ignored my questions/comments without incurring significant negative social consequences that I can see. It seems to me that the current culture is already one where authors can simply ignore questions/comments, especially ones that are not highly upvoted. (I'd actually like to switch to or experiment with a norm where people have to at least indicate why they're ignoring something.)

Given this, I'm puzzled that other authors have complained to you about feeling obligated to answer questions. Can you explain more why they feel that way, or give some quotes of what people actually said?

Oh, I do recall someone saying [LW(p) · GW(p)] that they feel obligated to answer all critical comments, but my interpretation is that it has more to do with their personal psychology than the site culture or potential consequences.

comment by [deleted] · 2020-01-04T09:01:25.638Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This illustrates one of the problems with the LW2 upvote system. It only takes 1-2 string upvotes to give a comment a sense of “strong agreement,” which provides social pressure for a response. The bar should be much higher imho.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-04T18:45:34.993Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

[Accidentally submitted something, will probably respond sometime early next week]

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-04T19:06:01.894Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let me just note here that I entirely reject the dichotomy between “requests for clarification” and “requests for justification”, as you describe it. I disagree with everything you say about the difference between these things, and I think that this may be one of the most important disagreements I have with your views on this whole matter.

I do, in fact, (think that I) understand the source of the perceived dichotomy—but in my view, it is not at all what it is claimed (or, perhaps, seen) to be. (I am, of course, happy to elaborate on this if requested, though perhaps this deep comment thread is not the place for it.)

EDIT: AGH! You edited/removed your comment as I was posting my response! :(

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-04T19:20:34.487Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry for editing it! I accidentally hit the submit button before the comment was ready (the thing I posted was a first draft). I will make sure to edit back some version of the comment next week, just so that your comment here doesn't end up lacking necessary context.

comment by Duncan_Sabien · 2020-01-03T16:39:55.792Z · score: 4 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I note that we, as a culture, have reified a term for this, which is "sealioning."

Naming the problem is not solving the problem; sticking a label on something is not the same as winning an argument; the tricky part is in determining which commentary is reasonably described by the term and which isn't (and which is controversial, or costly-but-useful, and so forth).

But as I read through this whole comment chain, I noticed that I kept wanting Oliver to be able to say the short, simple sentence:

"My past experience has led me to have a prior that threads from you beginning like this turn out to be sealioning way more often than similar threads from other people."

Note that that's my model of Oliver; the real Oliver has not actually expressed that [edit: exact] sentiment [edit: in those exact words] and may have critical disagreements with my model of him, or critical caveats regarding the use of the term.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2020-01-03T21:54:29.524Z · score: 39 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I note that we, as a culture, have reified a term for this, which is "sealioning."

Perhaps in your culture. In my culture, use of the term "sealioning" is primarily understood as an expression of anti-intellectualism (framing requests for dialogue as aggression).

In my culture, while the need to say "I don't expect engaging with you to be productive, therefore I must decline this and all future requests for dialogue from you" is not unheard of, it is seen as a sad and unusual occasion—definitely not something meriting a short codeword [LW · GW] with connotations of contempt.

comment by Duncan_Sabien · 2020-01-04T01:44:19.783Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What I meant by the word "our" was "the broader context culture-at-large," not Less Wrong or my own personal home culture or anything like that. Apologies, that could've been clearer.

I think there's another point on the spectrum (plane?) that's neither "overt anti-intellectualism" nor "It seems to me that engaging with you will be unproductive and I should disengage." That point being something like, "It's reasonable and justified to conclude that this questioning isn't going to be productive to the overall goal of the discussion, and is either motivated-by or will-result-in some other effect entirely."

Something stronger than "I'm disengaging according to my own boundaries" and more like "this is subtly but significantly transgressive, by abusing structures that are in place for epistemic inquiry."

If the term "sealioning" is too tainted by connotation to serve, then it's clearly the wrong word to use; TIL. But I disagree that we don't need or shouldn't have any short, simple handle in this concept space; it still seems useful to me to be able to label the hypothesis without (as Oliver did) having to write words and words and words and words. The analogy to the usefulness of the term "witchhunt" was carefully chosen; it's the sort of thing that's hard to see at first, and once you've put forth the effort to see it, it's worth ... idk, cacheing or something?

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2020-01-04T02:48:08.538Z · score: 33 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What I meant by the word "our" was "the broader context culture-at-large," not Less Wrong or my own personal home culture or anything like that. Apologies, that could've been clearer.

No, I got that, I was just using the opportunity to riff off your "In My Culture" piece[1] while defending Said, who is a super valuable commenter who I think is being treated pretty unfairly in this 133-comment-and-counting meta trainwreck!

Sure, sometimes he's insistent on pressing for rigor in a way could seem "nitpicky" or "dense" to readers who, like me, are more likely to just shrug and say, "Meh, I think I mostly get the gist of what the author is trying to say" rather than honing in on a particular word or phrase and writing a comment asking for clarification.

But that's valuable. I am glad that a website nominally devoted to mastering the hidden Bayesian structure of cognition to the degree of precision required to write a recursively self-improving superintelligence to rule over our entire future lightcone has people whose innate need for rigor is more demanding than my sense of "Meh, I think I mostly get the gist"!


  1. This is actually the second time in four months [LW(p) · GW(p)]. Sorry, it writes itself! ↩︎

comment by ESRogs · 2020-01-04T08:21:16.366Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
while defending Said, who is a super valuable commenter

Just wanted to note that, as a person who often finds Said's style off-putting, I appreciate reading this counterpoint from you.

EDIT: In my ideal world, Said can find a way to still be nitpick-y and insistent on precision and rigor in a way that doesn't frustrate me (and other readers) so much. I am unfortunately not exactly sure how to get to there from here.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-03T22:09:42.460Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note that at least from the little I have read about the term, this seems like a reasonable stance to me, and my guess (as the person who instigated this thread) is that it is indeed better to avoid importing the existing connotations that term has. 

My guess is that the term is still fine to bring up as something to be analyzed at a distance (e.g. asking questions like "why did people feel the need to invent the term sealioning?"), but my sense is that it's better to not apply it directly to a person or interlocutor, given its set of associations. 

This is a relatively weakly held position of mine though, given that I only learned about that term yesterday, so I don't have a great map of its meanings and connotations.

Edit: I do want to say that the summary of "I don't expect engaging with you to be productive, therefore I must decline this and all future requests for dialogue from you" doesn't strike me as a very accurate summary of what people usually mean by sealioning. I don't think it matters much for my response, but I figured I would point out that I disagree with that summary. 

comment by jimrandomh · 2020-01-08T20:22:22.812Z · score: 11 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There was a mention of moderation [LW(p) · GW(p)] regarding the term sealioning, so I'm addressing that. (We're not yet addressing the thread-as-a-whole, but may do so later).

In general, it's important to be able to give names to things. I looked into how the term sealioning seems to be defined and used on the internet-as-a-whole. It seems to have a lot of baggage, including (if used to refer to comments on LessWrong) false connotations about what sort of place LessWrong is and what behavior is appropriate on LessWrong. However, this baggage was not common knowledge. I see little reason to think those connotations were known or intended by Duncan. So, this looks to me look a good-faith proposal of terminology, but the terminology itself seems bad.

comment by jimrandomh · 2020-01-08T20:23:40.627Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Sealioning" is attempting to participate in "reasoned discourse" in a way that is insensitive to the appropriateness of the setting and to the buy-in of the other party. (Importantly, not "costs" of reasoned discourse; they are polite in some ways, like "oh sure, we can take an hour break for breakfast".) People who have especially low buy-in to reasoned discourse use the word to paint the person asking for clarification as the oppressor, and themselves the victim. Importantly, they view attempting to have reasoned discourse as oppression. Thus it blends "not tracking buy-in" and "caring about reasoning over feelings" in a way that makes them challenging to unblend.

The part of sealioning that's about setting can't really apply to comments on LW. In the comic that originated the term, a sealion intrudes on a private conversation, follows them around and trespasses in their house; but LessWrong frontpage is a public space for public dialogue, so a LessWrong comment can't have that problem no matter what it is.

So, conversational dynamics are worth talking about, and I do think there's something in this space worth reifying with a term, preferably in a more abstract setting.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-03T18:02:40.497Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Huh, I am confused. I have expressed that sentiment multiple times. Here are the quotes: 

My very first comment in the thread: 

I wouldn't downvote this comment for most users, but since I've seen a lot of threads of this type that were started by you played out, I am more confident than usual about whether I expect the resulting conversation to be valuable, and so feel more comfortable downvoting based on that.

Other occurrences: 

As I mentioned in many other places, I am also very confident that dozens of authors have perceived Said's comments to primarily be social attacks, and have found them to be major obstacles to engaging with LessWrong. Obviously basically all of these comments were on past threads, and not this specific thread, so there is a good chance that I am misunderstanding what precisely is causing their discomfort, but I am reasonably confident that I am identifying this instance as a correct example of the pattern that these authors point me to. 

And: 

What it demonstrates is that you, and specifically you, do not understand the concept, and that explaining it to you specifically is difficult. Your confusions do very rarely generalize. Your bafflement is not usually reflective of other people's bafflement, and you not agreeing with a point is only very minor evidence that other people do not agree.

And: 

The usual pattern of Said's comments as I experience them has been (and I think this would be reasonably straightforward to verify): 

  1. Said makes a highly upvoted comment asking a question, usually implicitly pointing out something that is unclear to many in the post
  2. Author makes a reasonably highly upvoted reply
  3. Said says that the explanation was basically completely useless to him, this often gets some upvotes, but drastically less than the top-level question
  4. Author tries to clarify some more, this gets much fewer upvotes than the original reply
  5. Said expresses more confusion, this usually gets very few upvotes
  6. More explanations from the author, almost no upvotes
  7. Said expresses more confusion, often being downvoted and the author and others expressing frustration

As I said in my first comment on this thread, I don't think the original comment is where a lot of the problem lies (and I wouldn't usually downvote it from most users). The problems usually arise in the follow-up discussion, and in the case of Said, enough authors and users have experienced those follow-up discussions that the problems have backpropagated into a broader aversion to questions like Said's top-level question. 

And to say it very explicitly here. Yes, I am arguing that contextless questions specifically from Said turn out to waste a lot of people's time and cause a lot of frustration in a highly predictable way. 

I don't have enough context about how "sealioning" is used to judge whether that's a good fit for this situation, or how politicized that term is, so I don't think I want to use that term (I had not actually encountered it until yesterday). Though the basic description on Wikipedia seems to relatively accurately describe at least the experience of people engaging with Said (independently of whether it describes the intentions of Said himself). 

comment by Duncan_Sabien · 2020-01-03T18:12:30.830Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that you've said this multiple times, in multiple places; I wanted you to be able to say it shortly and simply. To be able to do something analogous to saying "from where I'm currently standing, this looks to me like a witchhunt" rather than having to spell out, in many different sentences, what a witchhunt is and why it's bad and how this situation resembles that one.

My caveats and hedges were mainly not wanting to be seen as putting words in your mouth, or presupposing your endorsement of the particular short sentence I proposed.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-03T18:19:08.074Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

nods Cool, that clarifies it. 

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-03T20:54:58.094Z · score: 2 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

… “sealioning”?

This is what Less Wrong is, now? Accusing people of ‘sealioning’? This is permitted, and receives neither massive downvotes nor moderator censure?

I said before that I disagreed with namespace’s view of the site [LW(p) · GW(p)]. I was wrong; he was right.

comment by jimrandomh · 2020-01-04T01:07:27.766Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Moderator hat on.

In general, I don't think we're going to have a moderator response time of ~4 hours (which is about how long Duncan's comment had been up when you wrote yours). However, seeing a call for moderator action, we are going to be reviewing this thread and discussing what if anything to do here.

I've spent the last few hours catching up on the comments here. While Vaniver and Habryka have been participating in this thread and are site moderators, this seems like a case where moderation decisions should be made by people with more distance.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-03T21:34:53.367Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, my guess is you are misunderstanding the comment? I don't think the above accuses you or anyone else of sealioning (I am also not super familiar with the term, as I said below, so I don't think I know its full connotations).

It is bringing into the discussion a term that other people might have found useful, and from what I can tell opening up a discussion of whether that term makes sense to use in this context. In particular the comment explicitly says: 

Naming the problem is not solving the problem; sticking a label on something is not the same as winning an argument; the tricky part is in determining which commentary is reasonably described by the term and which isn't (and which is controversial, or costly-but-useful, and so forth).

I mean, I think I agree with you that (from the few minutes of reading I've done about that term) I very likely don't want us to use the term in the way it is used in most of the rest of the internet. I do think it's pointing at a real cluster of people's experiences, so I don't think I want to ban mention of that term completely from LessWrong. It seems valid for people to look at that term and see whether it helps them makes sense of some experiences, and in any case its use is at least a valid sociological phenomenon that people can analyze.

Edit: I think my feelings here are somewhat similar to Nazi comparisons or something like that. I think sometimes someone actions are indeed somewhat similar to the historical activities of nazis, and it's sometimes fine to bring that up as a comparison, but I in the vast majority of cases I prefer others to use a less loaded and less-frequently-misused comparison. Again, I don't know to what degree sealioning falls into that category, but your reaction suggests that you perceive it to have a similar history of misuse, so I think there might be a good argument here to avoid using that term unless really necessary. Though other users and moderators who have more context might want to chime in on what rules we want to have here.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-03T22:20:53.190Z · score: 26 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’m sorry, but it is entirely implausible to construe Duncan’s comment as not being an accusation. I no longer have any interest in doing the usual song-and-dance about how he didn’t literally say the specific sequence of words “Said is sealioning”, and so what he actually meant was something very nuanced and subtle and definitely, absolutely didn’t mean to actually accuse me, etc., etc.

(As for the word itself, and the concept behind it—I have found that its (unironic, non-quoted) use is an infallible indicator of bad faith. Zack’s characterization of the term [LW(p) · GW(p)] is much too charitable.)

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-03T22:29:15.855Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought the comment was pretty clear that it was trying to give a summary of my comments, and a suggestion for how I should phrase my comment in order to better get my point across. A suggestion which (at least for the case of the use of "sealioning") I disagreed with. 

I agree with you that there was an implicature in Duncan's comment that he thought the term was an accurate characterization, though I am actually and honestly not that confident Duncan actually believes that the term accurately describes your commenting patterns (in addition to it accurately describing my model of your commenting patterns). I would currently give it about 75% probability, but not more. 

In general, I think implicatures of this type should be treated differently than outright accusations, though I also don't think they should be completely ignored. 

On a more general note, since the term appears to be a relatively niche term that I haven't heard before, it seems to me that the correct way for us to deal with this, would be for people to say openly what connotations the term has to them, and if enough people agree that the term has unhelpful connotations, then avoid using the term. I don't think we should harshly punish introducing a term like this if there isn't an established precedent of the connotations of that term.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-01-03T22:38:39.713Z · score: 24 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it would be a mistake for us to use that term here; I think as well as describing a pattern of behavior it comes with an implied interpretation of blameworthiness that we really don't want to import.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-02T00:06:56.354Z · score: 15 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mean, I think Inadequate Equilibria is on-par with all of Eliezer’s other writing (I actually think in terms of insight-per-page it is much denser than the average section of the sequence)

I do not concur with your evaluation. (But there is not much point in discussing this further, so we can leave it at that.)

Yes, we can judge [Eliezer’s] reasons, but independently of his reasons, his absence is obviously a major loss for the site.

Is it?

Here’s the thing: the loss of Eliezer, the author of the ~2007–2011 era Less Wrong posts (and comments) is, indeed, a major one. But it’s futile to bemoan that loss, as it was inflicted only by time. The loss we must examine instead is the counterfactual loss. Eliezer could be writing on Less Wrong right now (and for the last decade or so), but is not, and has not been; is that a major loss?

Suppose (as seems to be the implication of your comments) that Eliezer would write for Less Wrong if, and only if, the environment (both technical and social) were comparable to that which now exists on Facebook (his current platform of choice). It seems reasonable to conclude that Eliezer’s writings, therefore, would also be more or less the things he now is (and has been) writing on Facebook; the only difference would be that those very same writings would be hosted here—and the same discussion, too, would take place here—instead of on Facebook.

That we do not have these things—is that a great loss?

As I have alluded to earlier, I think the answer is “no”. In fact, I think that such writings, and (especially! emphatically!) the sorts of discussions that I have seen taking place in the comments on Eliezer’s Facebook posts, would substantially lower the average quality of Less Wrong.

There is some value to (counterfactually) having Eliezer’s stuff here, instead of on Facebook: accessibility, searchability, linkability, archiving, etc.—all the things I’ve noted, in the past. But would it be worth the corruption, the dismantling, of Less Wrong’s epistemic standards? I think not.

So, going back, is there anyone else who you would trust to settle the issue of norms on this reasonably decisively? How about Vaniver, or lukeprog, or Kaj Sotala, or Anna Salamon, or Jacobian, or Zvi, Raymond, or So8res? I am happy to set up some kind of board, or court here that helps us settle this issue, but I think it being unresolved is causing massive ongoing costs for the site.

There is no need to go that far (though of course I’ll participate if you feel it’s necessary). But I am happy to take your word for the views of any of these people; I certainly don’t disbelieve you when you say that such-and-such Less Wrong regular (or historical regular) has expressed to you such-and-such a view.

But what is the value in that? If, let us say, Zvi (to pick an author whose posts I’ve certainly found to have a lot of value, in the past) says “I don’t comment on Less Wrong because I don’t like responding to comments that challenge me to justify my claims, or provide examples, or explain my terms”, should I take this to mean that such comments are detrimental—or should I instead downgrade my assessment of Zvi’s posts, ideas, etc.? “One man’s modus ponens…”, after all…

You write as if an author’s posts simply have value, because of who the author is, on the basis of past performance, and regardless of any actual qualities of the actual (new) posts! But surely this is an absurd view? I have written things in the past, that are useful and good; and yet suppose that I were invited to write for a venue where my ideas would never be challenged, where my writing were not subjected to scrutiny, where no interested and intelligent readers would ask probing questions… shouldn’t I expect my writing (and my ideas!) to degrade? Shouldn’t I expect the proportion of dross and nonsense in my output to increase? Why should I expect to maintain whatever previous level of quality (modest as it may have already been) my writing had possessed? (Think of all the popular authors who, having “made it” in the literary world, gained the proverbial “immunity from editors”, and proceeded to write, and to publish, piles of of mediocre-at-best scribblings…)

In any case, it’s a moot point… you’ve asked me to abstain from commenting on posts like this, and in ways like this, and so I will. No further action is necessary.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2020-01-06T08:22:13.474Z · score: 18 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Suppose (as seems to be the implication of your comments) that Eliezer would write for Less Wrong if, and only if, the environment (both technical and social) were comparable to that which now exists on Facebook (his current platform of choice).

I want to note that Eliezer now seems to spend more time on Twitter than on Facebook, and the discussion on Twitter is even lower quality than on Facebook or simply absent (i.e., I rarely see substantial back-and-forth discussions on Eliezer's Twitter posts). This, plus the fact that the LW team already made a bunch of changes at Eliezer's request to try to lure him back, without effect, makes me distrust habryka's explanations in the grandparent comment.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-02T00:25:03.156Z · score: 12 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I do want to again say that I do appreciate a lot of your contributions to LessWrong. 

To clarify one more thing: 

You write as if an author’s posts simply have value, because of who the author is, on the basis of past performance, and regardless of any actual qualities of the actual (new) posts! But surely this is an absurd view?

I am not trying to argue that an author's posts simply have value, only that the author writing at all is a necessary requirement for their posts to exist and therefore have value. A world in which all of our best authors leave the site, is one in which we see little to no progress. However, a world in which they stick around is definitely not sufficient for making real progress, and I agree with that, though I would guess that we have significant disagreements about what kind of interaction with the site will be sufficient for progress. 

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-01-02T02:21:14.074Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's a problem that you don't see how this comment thread exemplifies a form of communication that people often interpret as hostile rather than attempting to clarify. You've also admitted in the past that you consider some of how you comment to be policing the standards you think LW should uphold. Obviously not everyone agrees with you as evidenced by the difference between what you strongly upvote and what the rest of LW strongly upvotes. I don't find it surprising or bad that some people choose to interpret you as sealioning in light of this.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-02T03:13:45.832Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You’ve also admitted in the past that you consider some of how you comment to be policing the standards you think LW should uphold.

What a bizarre thing, to use the word “admitted” here!

As if it is a bad thing, that users should help to enforce the norms of a community! As if it is a bad thing, that users should hold a forum to good and beneficial standards! As if it is—somehow, improbably—a bad thing, to speak up in defense of the norms of good discourse and good thinking—on Less Wrong, of all places!

Should I take this to be an admission that you do not do these things? And if so—why in the world not?

as evidenced by the difference between what you strongly upvote and what the rest of LW strongly upvotes

I do not have access to this information. Do you? How?

sealioning

If ever there was a strong signal of bad faith, using such terms as ‘sealioning’ is definitely it.

comment by Hazard · 2020-01-02T03:33:05.735Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
[...] and yet suppose that I were invited to write for a venue where my ideas would never be challenged, where my writing were not subjected to scrutiny, where no interested and intelligent readers would ask probing questions… shouldn’t I expect my writing (and my ideas!) to degrade?

I'm not completely swayed either way, but I want to acknowledge this as an important and interesting point.

comment by Viliam · 2020-01-02T17:40:01.687Z · score: 14 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe there is a possible middle way between two extremes:

1) There are no questions, ever.

2) When someone writes "today I had an ice-cream and it made me happy", they get a comment: "define 'happiness', or you are not rational".

As Habryka already explained somewhere, the problem is not asking question per se, but the specific low-effort way.

I assume that most of has some idea of what "authentic" (or other words) means, but also it would be difficult to provide a full definition. So the person who asks should provide some hints about the purpose of the question. Are they a p-zombie who has absolutely no idea what words refer to? Do they see multiple possible interpretations of the word? In that case it would help to point at the difference, which would allow the author to say "the first one" or maybe "neither, it's actually more like X". Do they see some contradiction in the naive definition? For example, what would "authentic" refer to, if the person simply has two brain modules that want contradictory things? Again, it would help to ask the specific thing. Otherwise there is a risk that the author would spend 20 minutes trying to write a good answer, only to get "nope, that's not what I wanted" in return.

comment by [deleted] · 2020-01-03T14:03:59.944Z · score: 20 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Asking a short question is not necessarily low effort. Asking the right question can actually take a lot of mental work, even if it ends up being a single sentence long. It takes a sharp knife to cleanly cut at the joints of an argument.

As mentioned elsewhere, I really, really don't have an understanding of what an "authentic relationship" means in this context, and therefore it was an astute question to ask. It helped clarify the qualms I had about the article as well.

And it took all of 2 seconds to read, which I really appreciate.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2020-01-01T22:27:13.936Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with your main point that authors are not obligated to respond to comments, but—

I don't know whose judgement you would trust on this, but if I drag Eliezer into this thread, and have him say decisively that the norms of LessWrong should not put an obligation on authors to respond to every question, and to be presumed wrong or ignorant in the absence of a response, would that change your mind on this?

Why would this kind of appeal-to-authority change his mind? (That was a rhetorical question; I wouldn't expect you to reply to this comment unless you really wanted to.) Said thinks his position is justified by normatively correct general principles. If he's wrong, he's wrong because of some counterargument that normative general principles don't actually work like that, not because of Eliezer Yudkowsky's say-so.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T22:44:11.088Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Said has in the past many times expressed an interest in following the rules of different spaces, even if he disagrees with them, out of a general consideration that it's good for spaces to establish their own rules and have their own local norms. At least that's the sense I've gotten from him in the discussions we've had about Archipelago. 

I agree that one way to resolve this discussion would be to come to agreement on the underlying normative principles (which would be great, but might take a lot of time), but I think another plausible path (which strikes me as more likely to succeed in a timely manner), is to get agreement on what kind of norms the users on LessWrong would generally prefer, in combination with a general argument that it's usually better to have slightly worse norms that people agree on, than to be in constant dispute and limbo between different sets of norms. 

In addition to that, I think a lot of users on LessWrong trust Eliezer to be a person to set a lot of the norms and culture of the site, so I expect his opinion to be a lot (though by no means decisive) evidence of what norms people would want for the site (and I also assign significant probability that Said would broadly agree that Eliezer would be a relatively fair person to decide on the norms). 

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T23:04:01.376Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Said has in the past many times expressed an interest in following the rules of different spaces, even if he disagrees with them, out of a general consideration that it’s good for spaces to establish their own rules and have their own local norms. At least that’s the sense I’ve gotten from him in the discussions we’ve had about Archipelago.

Yes, I endorse this (and your second paragraph).

Re: the third paragraph—see my other comment.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T23:15:31.667Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

By the way, Phil Goetz’s comment (of those you linked to) is, far from being an example of your thesis—despite the quoted bit—a perfect illustration, and explanation, of what I am talking about. Phil is arguing for the same thing that I am!

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T23:28:45.290Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think I understand your claim here. After the quoted bit, Phil seems to then go on and say that it is important that people try less hard to just understand Eliezer's ideas and instead develop our own ideas independently of Eliezer, since most conversations in which we just asked Eliezer for clarification tend to not go super well, and seem to clog up his time, and actively prevent independent intellectual progress from happening. 

I do agree there is some similarity between the pattern that Phil describes of someone "trying to give their interpretation of what Eliezer is saying" and Eliezer responding negatively to that, which I do think is evidence against the specific fix I suggested for your comments, though I don't think the conversations would go any different if you were to just ask Eliezer the questions you tend to ask of people currently on LessWrong. So it's more evidence of the difficulty of the problem, than evidence against the damage of the thing that I am trying to point to as damaging. 

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2020-01-01T22:08:34.228Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is always an obligation by any author to respond to anyone's comment along these lines. [...] What is the point of posting here, if you're not going to engage with commenters?

Can you clarify what you mean by "along these lines"? Not all comments or commenters are equally worth engaging with (in terms of some idealized "insight per unit effort" metric).

I think I agree that simple questions like "What do you mean by this-and-such word?" are usually not that expensive to answer, but there are times when I write off a comment or commenter as not worth my time, and it can be annoying when someone is being unduly demanding [LW(p) · GW(p)] even after a "reasonable" attempt to clarify has been made.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T22:17:19.404Z · score: -1 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

“Along these lines” refers to the types of comments I have been referring to in multiple comments on this post, namely: inquiries as to the meaning of some term / concept, and requests for examples. (The category might perhaps include other members, but those are what I have had in mind, have been explicitly referring to, and which define the implicit category in question.)

EDIT: Yes, bizarrely demanding interlocutors do exist. I think they can be fairly easily distinguished from the regular sort. The example you linked to is fairly clear, it seems to me.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T22:52:31.547Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, bizarrely demanding interlocutors do exist. I think they can be fairly easily distinguished from the regular sort.

I do think the relevant question is whether your comments are being perceived as demanding in a similar way. From what I can tell, the answer is yes, in a somewhat lesser magnitude, but still a quite high level, enough for many people to independently complain to me about your comments, and express explicit frustration towards me, and tell me that your comments are one of the major reasons they are not contributing to LessWrong. 

I agree that you are not as bizarrely demanding as curi was, but you do usually demand quite a lot.

So I don't think "they" can be fairly easily distinguished from the "regular sort". I think there is a matter of degree here, and you are inflicting a lot of the same costs on authors that curi was, only to a lesser degree. 

comment by namespace (ingres) · 2020-01-01T23:42:19.846Z · score: 32 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have this intuitive notion that:

I do think the relevant question is whether your comments are being perceived as demanding in a similar way. From what I can tell, the answer is yes, in a somewhat lesser magnitude, but still a quite high level, enough for many people to independently complain to me about your comments, and express explicit frustration towards me, and tell me that your comments are one of the major reasons they are not contributing to LessWrong.

I agree that you are not as bizarrely demanding as curi was, but you do usually demand quite a lot.

When people talk about "demanding" in this sense what they're actually doing is a very low level reasoning mistake EY talks about in his post on Security Mindset:

AMBER: That sounds a little extreme.

CORAL: History shows that reality has not cared what you consider “extreme” in this regard, and that is why your Wi-Fi-enabled lightbulb is part of a Russian botnet.

AMBER: Look, I understand that you want to get all the fiddly tiny bits of the system exactly right. I like tidy neat things too. But let’s be reasonable; we can’t always get everything we want in life.

CORAL: You think you’re negotiating with me, but you’re really negotiating with Murphy’s Law. I’m afraid that Mr. Murphy has historically been quite unreasonable in his demands, and rather unforgiving of those who refuse to meet them. I’m not advocating a policy to you, just telling you what happens if you don’t follow that policy. Maybe you think it’s not particularly bad if your lightbulb is doing denial-of-service attacks on a mattress store in Estonia. But if you do want a system to be secure, you need to do certain things, and that part is more of a law of nature than a negotiable demand.

Where, there is a certain level of detail and effort that simply has to go into describing concepts if you want to do so clearly and reliably. There are inviolable, non-negotiable laws of communication. We may not be able to precisely define them but that doesn't mean they don't exist. We certainly know some of their theoretical aspects thanks to scholars like Shannon.

I think a lot of what Said does is insist that people put in that effort, that The Law be followed so to speak. Unfortunately there is no intrinsic punishment for not following the law besides being misunderstood (which isn't really so costly to the speaker, and hard for them to detect in a blog format). That means they commit a map/territory error analogous to the Rust programmer who insists Rust makes things much harder than C does. There's probably some truth to this, but a lot of the thing is just that Rust forces the programmer to write code at the level of difficulty it would have if C didn't let you get away with things being broken.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T23:57:49.922Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are inviolable, non-negotiable laws of communication. We may not be able to precisely define them but that doesn't mean they don't exist. We certainly know some of their theoretical aspects thanks to scholars like Shannon.

I don't think any of my concerns run up against any of the things that Shannon has talked about. This feels similarly to me to the common misuse of Aumann's Agreement Theorem for the case of conversation between humans. Obviously Shannon can give us lower bounds on how much information we have to transmit between each other in order to get basic ideas across, but we are so far away from any of those lower bounds that I don't think I know how to apply those insights to the question at hand. 

I don't see how the law of "people are obligated to respond to all requests for clarifications", or even "people always have to define their terms in way that is understood by everyone participating" is somehow an iron law of communication. If anything, it is not an attribute that any existing successful engine of historical intellectual progress has had. Science has no such norms, and if anything strongly pushes in the opposite direction, with inquiries being completely non-public, and requests for clarification being practically impossible in public venues like journals and textbooks. Really very few venues have a norm of that type (and I would argue neither has historical LessWrong), even many that to me strike me as having produced large volumes of valuable writing and conceptual clarification. As I said, Science itself actually operates almost solely on positive selection, with critiques usually being either extensive and long, but most of the time completely absent from public discourse, and uncompelling ideas simply get dropped without getting much exposure (and with no measurable back-and-forth in public about the definitions of various terms).

This doesn't mean I can't imagine a case for an iron law of communication of this type, but I don't find myself currently compelled to believe in such a law, or at least don't know the shape of the law that you are pointing at (if you are pointing at something that specific). 

comment by namespace (ingres) · 2020-01-02T00:22:10.144Z · score: 53 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don’t see how the law of “people are obligated to respond to all requests for clarifications”, or even “people always have to define their terms in way that is understood by everyone participating” is somehow an iron law of communication. If anything, it is not an attribute that any existing successful engine of historical intellectual progress has had. Science has no such norms, and if anything strongly pushes in the opposite direction, with inquiries being completely non-public, and requests for clarification being practically impossible in public venues like journals and textbooks. Really very few venues have a norm of that type (and I would argue neither has historical LessWrong), even many that to me strike me as having produced large volumes of valuable writing and conceptual clarification.

Some thoughts.

I don’t see how the law of “people are obligated to respond to all requests for clarifications”

I feel like Said is either expressing himself poorly here, or being unreasonable. After all, the logical conclusion of this would be that people can DDoS an author by spamming them with bad faith requests for clarification.

However I do think there is a law in this vein, something more subtle, more nuanced, a lot harder to define. And its statement is something like:

In order for a space to have good epistemics, here defined as something like "keep out woo, charlatans, cranks, etc", that space must have certain norms around discourse. These norms can be formulated many different ways, but at their core they insist that authors have an obligation to respond to questions which have standing and warrant.

Standing means that:

  • The speaker can be reasonably assumed not to be bad faith
  • Is an abstract "member of the community"
  • It is generally agreed on by the audience that this persons input is in some way valuable

There are multiple ways to establish standing. The most obvious is to be well respected, so that when you say something people have the prior that it is important. Another way to establish standing is to write your comment or question excellently, as a costly signal that this is not low-effort critique or Paul Graham's infamous "middlebrow dismissal".

Warrant means that:

  • There are either commonly assumed or clearly articulated reasons for asking this question. We are not privileging the hypothesis without justification.

  • These reasons are more or less accepted by the audience.

Questions & comments lacking either standing or warrant can be dismissed, in fact the author does not even have to respond to them. In practice the determination of standing and warrant is made by the author, unless something seems worthy enough that their ignoring it is conspicuous.

I think you would be hard pressed to argue to me in seriousness that academics do not claim to have norms that peoples beliefs are open to challenge from anyone who has standing and warrant. I would argue that the historical LessWrong absolutely had implicit norms of this type. Moreover, EY himself has written about insufficient obligation to respond as a major bug in how we do intellectual communication.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-02T00:43:33.308Z · score: 22 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a great comment, thanks!

I think you would be hard pressed to argue to me in seriousness that academics do not claim to have norms that peoples beliefs are open to challenge from anyone who has standing and warrant.

So, I am actually honestly confused about this dimension. My sense is that there is very little academic apparatus, or even social norm enforcement, for scientists responding to critiques or requests for clarification of their work. See for example the answers to Ben's question a while ago on "How did academia ensure papers were correct in the early 20th Century? [LW · GW]", which was a question that was direct result of me and Ben wondering about how science is implementing the relevant mechanisms here. 

The top-voted answer on there says:

So, to sum things up, I think the process you are looking for is the one done under less official interactions. Theories are confronted in [private] meetings and such. Less accurate theories are simply ignored in future discourse.

Which mostly updated me towards "science really has surprisingly weak norms in this space, and operates primarily on positive selection of theories that achieve traction, and does very little in terms of weeding out bad theories". Obviously my interpretation here might be wrong, and I actually find this state of affairs quite confusing, so any further evidence would be appreciated.

However, overall I like your model a good amount and think that my concerns fit into it reasonably well. 

Concretely, in your model, I think am arguing that Said does not currently have good standing in terms of the requests for clarifications and implicit associated critiques that he has a tendency to make on many user's posts. I think this could be remedied by him sending costly signals of his comments not being low-effort critique of the type that you point to, and/or more clearly putting in interpretative labor proportional to the effort of the author. 

In addition, I think I am making a claim that the audience often gets confused about the warrant of the content of those comments, since to many they just seem like optional requests for clarification which is something that has broadly accepted warrant, whereas a request for an extensive defense (which often ends up being requested in multiple rounds of follow-up) has less warrant. This is then what often results in Said's comments getting downvoted further into the thread, as people realize that the requests that Said is making do not have the relevant warrant. 

I am not confident whether this fully fits all of my concerns, but it is a start, and I appreciate the model. 

comment by Hazard · 2020-01-01T22:39:53.339Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very useful comment, in that I have not previously imagined that this was your, or anyone else's, normative view on responding to comments.

comment by philh · 2020-01-08T22:51:01.824Z · score: 16 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It’s pretty common for you to ask for clarification on words, phrases or concepts that feel like they have pretty straightforward meanings to me, and I can’t remember a single of the (at least a dozen) threads in which you asking questions of that type resulted in a conversation that I thought was worth the time of the author, or was net-positive for my experience on LessWrong.

I'm surprised at the examples you give.

What they all have in common is Said asking for clarification on a word or phrase. In 4/5, someone gave a definition that Said either accepted or didn't follow up on. All of these cases seem positive to me. (I can't judge how much time they cost, but one was just a link to a definition, one was quoting wikipedia and the others were fairly brief, so I'd guess not prohibitively much.) In the exception, there was no answer at all; if that's not positive, it's certainly not very negative either. They also have this in common with the specific comment that started this thread.

Two of them have more going on than that, and one of them seems much more like an example of the thing you seem to be pointing at, where much back-and-forth is had, much time is spent, and not much gets resolved. (The other was the one that got no reply.) They do not have this in common with the specific comment that started this thread.

When I think back to other examples of this thing happening, the one I came up with was on "zetetic explanation" [LW(p) · GW(p)], and I don't see Said doing "ask for clarification on a word or phrase" there. (Certainly if he does, then by that time things are already well underway.)

So just judging by these examples, I wouldn't expect Said's comment in this case to cause the thing you're worried about.

(Forgive me if someone has already made this point. I read almost the whole thread and skimmed the rest, and I don't remember anyone doing so. But I wouldn't be shocked to see that I just missed it.)

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T05:53:15.140Z · score: 13 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

repeatedly ask for definitions of lots of terms, without putting forward a plausible interpretation, and/or a concrete problem with the standard usage of a term

Is there a “standard usage” of ‘authentic’ or ‘authenticity’? It seems to me that the term is used in a variety of widely different ways, depending on context; and many of those usages are heavily laden with connotations, associations, etc., that encode a variety of value assumptions and aspects of world-view, which one typically cannot decode without knowing the author’s views on many things.

So… I really don’t know what Vaniver meant by this. I don’t even have a “standard usage” I could assume. I don’t have a “plausible interpretation”, either; that’s the whole point of the question! And, notably, it’s exactly the sort of term and usage the meaning of which one cannot infer from context, because it carries the bulk of the context’s meaning.

If asking for a clarification of this sort of thing is downvote-worthy, then I cannot but conclude that I am deeply confused about what Less Wrong is even for.

EDIT: Also, having re-read the comments of mine which you linked to, I find I am confused; the idea that the terms in question have “straightforward meanings”, as used in the linked contexts, is entirely baffling. The ‘counterfactual donation’ one is an exception—unlike the others, that was a straightforward enough term and concept, just one that I happened to have been unfamiliar with. But the others? How can you possibly assign straightforward meanings to them? (And if you could… why not respond with a comment where you give that straightforward explanation?! In two of the linked cases, the term in question wasn’t ever defined, even after I asked!)

EDIT 2: By the way, what is the “standard usage” of ‘authentic’ and ‘authenticity’? (And is said usage the one that Vaniver had in mind?)

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T06:23:14.486Z · score: 20 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To be clear, the reference class of asking for clarifications is great, and I think generally quite valuable. But my sense is that you would agree that when someone repeatedly inquires about aspects of posts that seem quite straightforward to you, in a way that results in lots of wasted effort of the author from your perspective (and associated complaints of perceiving to have wasted effort from the author), then it would be appropriate to downvote those comments after a certain number of iterations? In particular if you the question-asker seems to rarely be satisfied with the answers from the author, and as such not even you seem to get value out of the resulting threads.

To give an object-level answer to your question: I am quite confident that if you sit down for 5 minutes, with a timer, and generate potential meanings, you can find a plausible interpretation of what Vaniver meant by "authenticity" in that context, and I would take even odds that your plausible interpretation would hit pretty close to the intended meaning of what Vaniver meant. 

I also generally think asking for clarifications is good, but in my experience as an author, it helps a lot for you to give any hint of what aspect of the use of the word 'authenticity' you find confusing, or to lead with any plausible interpretation. If you really cannot come up with one that seems even remotely plausible, then I do suggest not commenting, and would leave asking those clarifying questions to others who tend to go about doing so in a way that seems to much more frequently result in good threads (and usually are able to come up with plausible interpretations, as well as specific problems with the usage of a word).

I am also confident that if we choose random other commenters, and similarly ask them to set a five-minute timer, they will also come up with a decent interpretation of what is meant by "authenticity" in this context. I don't think they will all give exactly the same answer, but they will all be quite similar, and usually hit pretty close to the intended meaning by Vaniver. If you want, we can even run that test here, and ask others to come up with plausible interpretations of what Vaniver meant, and then have him judge how close their guesses got to reality. 

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T06:40:50.950Z · score: 16 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But my sense is that you would agree that when someone repeatedly inquires about aspects of posts that seem quite straightforward to you, in a way that results in lots of wasted effort of the author from your perspective (and associated complaints of perceiving to have wasted effort from the author), then it would be appropriate to downvote those comments after a certain number of iterations?

That depends on the following:

  1. Are the aspects in question of the given posts important, or peripheral? (“What does this term, which seems to be referring to a concept that is at the very core of your argument, mean?” would be an important aspect of a post, for example.)

  2. Are these inquiries routinely answered, straightforwardly and quickly, with clear, sensible answers?

  3. Do the answers consist of things that were already in the post in the first place, or could easily be derived from the post (and/or trivial web searching, perhaps)?

For instance, suppose that, for example, you, repeatedly inquired about, let us say, the statistics used in this or that post on Less Wrong. Let us say that these inquiries were usually not answered—either not at all, or not satisfactorily. And now imagine that someone started downvoting these inquiries of yours. I would be quite annoyed at the downvoters! Wouldn’t you?

In short, my answer to your question is “no”.

To give an object-level answer to your question: I am quite confident that if you sit down for 5 minutes, with a timer, and generate potential meanings, you can find a plausible interpretation of what Vaniver meant by “authenticity” in that context, and I would take even odds that your plausible interpretation would hit pretty close to the intended meaning of what Vaniver meant.

Regardless of whether I agree with your claim here (about which you are “quite confident”), I must point out that, in fact, this is not an object-level answer! I still don’t have an answer to my question, in fact!

To be blunt: the reason I ask such questions is precisely because I usually do not get an answer (sometimes at all; other times, nothing remotely resembling a satisfactory one).

It would be the simplest thing in the world to simply respond with an explanation of what ‘authentic’/‘authenticity’ means. Vaniver could do it; or you (or anyone else) could do it, and he could then respond with a quick “yep, that’s exactly what I meant”. (If absolutely nothing else, it would help anyone else who read the post, was confused by the term/usage, but decided not to comment. Or do you think there are no such people?) That’s all. But instead we have this whole thread, now. Is it worth anyone’s time? Is it net-positive? Probably it’s less of either of those things than simply answering the question would be—don’t you think?

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2020-01-01T17:28:34.111Z · score: 20 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let us say that these inquiries were usually not answered—either not at all, or not satisfactorily. And now imagine that someone started downvoting these inquiries of yours.

Maybe we should write a post about this kind of conversational dynamic![1]

Alice asks Bob a question. Bob can't answer, either for legitimate or illegitimate[2] reasons, but doesn't want to straightforwardly say, "Sorry, I can't answer that because ..." for fear of losing face in front of the audience, so instead resorts to more opaque stonewalling tactics [LW · GW]. Usually, Alice will eventually take a hint and give up. But if she doesn't, we have a high-stakes battle of wills adjudicated by the audience—will Bob be exposed as being phony, or will Alice be derided as a pedant?!


  1. Where by "dynamic", I mean "thingy". ↩︎

  2. A legitimate reason for not being able to answer might be: the question is an isolated demand for rigor, where Bob doesn't have a rigorous formulation of his point, but thinks the non-rigorous version is good enough and should be conversationally "admissible." ↩︎

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T07:05:52.512Z · score: 14 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regardless of whether I agree with your claim here (about which you are “quite confident”), I must point out that, in fact, this is not an object-level answer! I still don’t have an answer to my question, in fact!

Sorry, I meant this in the "more object-level than your general commenting patterns" sense. I will note that you asked why your comment was being downvoted, and since I was one of the people who had downvoted it, I figured I would explain. It doesn't seem like the right call for me to go into a response to your original question, given that I am replying to the part of your comment that's about voting patterns. 

It would be the simplest thing in the world to simply respond with an explanation of what ‘authentic’/‘authenticity’ means.

No, it isn't the simplest thing in the world, and the implicit assumption that anything that isn't extremely straightforward to explain is assumed to be contendless, or in some sense problematic, is I think a major reason for why the resulting threads tend to reliably go badly. 

We have to deal with the reality that sometimes a concept can be pointed at by a bunch of related concepts, in a way that still allows someone to comprehend a broader point, without it being easy or low-effort to write a precise explanation of what exactly was meant by every term. 

To be clear, I don't think that it's usually prohibitively difficult, but in my experience, producing an answer that you consider sufficient requires at least 30 minutes of effort, and is usually accompanied by multiple spread-out back-and-forths that spread out over multiple days, since you do not give sufficient pointers to the shape of your uncertainty to resolve your confusion on the first try, often resulting in at least an hour of time spent by an author.

I am probably not going to respond further to this thread, since I don't really expect to make much progress on it (and since we have had many similar threads in the past). It might make sense to figure this out in more detail some other time, or maybe in a separate thread in the Open Thread, or a separate post. 

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-01-01T17:32:06.368Z · score: 32 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meta: sometimes to get somewhere interesting you have to travel fast. Sometimes to get somewhere interesting you have to travel carefully. I think this disagreement comes up quite a bit in rationalist circles especially because of founder effects: the tension exists in Eliezer's writing as well.

In the tradition of What is Seen and What is Not Seen: Said doesn't see the posts that aren't written because people feel like they would have to write a sequence justifying themselves carefully for the thing they really want to talk about.

I think it is also quite valuable to slow down on aspects of status quo thinking and communicating that are usually quickly glossed over. Indeed, this is the heart of Buddhism. My own frustration isn't with method but that Said seems to choose non central examples often. What's interesting is that in this case authenticity does seem to be pretty central.

Anyway, I'm writing this partially in appreciation for what habryka is trying to communicate here, since it is high effort and in expectation low reward.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T07:40:26.838Z · score: 19 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wait a minute. You said [LW(p) · GW(p)] that the concept in question (‘authenticity’) has a “pretty straightforward” meaning, to you. (This, allegedly, was the problem with my question: that the term, and concept, I asked about, was straightforward, and its meaning obvious and known, or easily inferred.)

But now you’re saying that it’s not straightforward to explain, and is “pointed at by a bunch of related concepts”, and it’s not “easy or low-effort” to write an explanation—and that this is the problem with my question (that answering it would take too much effort).

So which is it? Is my question too obvious and simple to bother answering it? Or is it too hard and complicated and time-consuming to answer? Or are you suggesting that it could be, somehow, both?

Let me ask you this: do you think I’m the only one who read this post, and thought “Hmm, ‘authentic’? ‘authenticity’? What does he mean by that…?” I mean, I’m no genius, but I’m not stupid, either; if I had trouble understanding what’s meant here, probably at least some others did, too. (Or do you disagree?)

And I’ve read a whole lot of Less Wrong stuff; do you think there might be other readers, who are, perhaps, even less immersed in the whole Less Wrong memeplex, who are even less sure that the know what any of these terms and concepts mean? (I mean, it would be one thing if the term was hyperlinked, like a Sequence post. Someone comes along and asks “Hold on, now, what in the gosh-darn heck is an ‘affective death spiral’?!”—you say “click the link, man”, and you’re done; or you respond with a hyperlink, at the worst. But that’s not the case here!)

Would you say that I’m below-average in willingness to post comments asking for clarifications, or above-average? And what do you think the answer implies, about how many other readers have similar questions, but say nothing?

Finally (as noted by someone I discussed this post with elsewhere), Vaniver, in the OP, analogizes ‘authenticity’ to truth. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the entirety of the post’s rhetorical force comes from this analogy. Yet recall how much effort Eliezer dedicated, in the Sequences and later, to explaining just what in the world he meant by ‘truth’! However much effort it takes to explain ‘truth’—Eliezer applied that effort, because it was necessary.

Does ‘truth’ deserve extensive, laborious explanation, but ‘authenticity’—only a breezy dismissal?

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T17:29:00.638Z · score: 15 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, so, I think you might have misunderstood my suggestion. My argument was not that in this and other cases standard usage is sufficient. My argument was that in order to actually bridge the inferential gap, it is a massive help to the author and the other commenters, if you point out a concrete problem with a plausible interpretation that comes to mind. I think generating that plausible interpretation takes about 5 minutes, is pretty straightforward, and is something that I would ask you to do. 

However, in order to then actually bridge the gap, significant additional time is likely going to be required in people responding to each other. However, I would argue that how much time is required for that exchange will drastically change depending on how much you as a commenter will have given the author to work with.

This is something that both nshepperd's [LW(p) · GW(p)] and quanticle's [LW(p) · GW(p)] comments successfully do in this thread. 

comment by Vaniver · 2020-01-01T16:39:55.399Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Finally (as noted by someone I discussed this post with elsewhere), Vaniver, in the OP, analogizes ‘authenticity’ to truth. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the entirety of the post’s rhetorical force comes from this analogy. Yet recall how much effort Eliezer dedicated, in the Sequences and later, to explaining just what in the world he meant by ‘truth’! However much effort it takes to explain ‘truth’—Eliezer applied that effort, because it was necessary.

Does ‘truth’ deserve extensive, laborious explanation, but ‘authenticity’—only a breezy dismissal?

I wanted to note here that I think this is right; that the analogy between truth and authenticity is what gives this post rhetorical force (and is a huge chunk of why I think rationality and Circling are cousins), that it was good to give truth an extensive, laborious explanation, and that it would also be good to give 'authenticity' an extensive, laborious explanation.

Furthermore, I think one of the ways in which Eliezer is an exceptional writer is that he notices dependencies and serializes them; "ah, in order to explain C, I must first explain B, and for B I must first explain A." I often find myself [LW(p) · GW(p)] in the opposite approach; "explain C, figure out what was missing, and then explain B, figure out what was missing, and then explain A." (Tho I think [LW · GW] this happens to Eliezer too.) Pushback of the form "but what do you mean by B?" is an integral part of this process.

---

That said, sometimes there's a post intended to explain C to people who already have B, or B grounds out in experience; we talk about color without feeling a need to explain color to the blind. I think that's not the case here; I am hoping to make the thing I like about Circling legible to the highly skeptical, systematic thinkers who want to compile the thing themselves and so want me to provide the dependency chain.

But also I'm not convinced that I can succeed, as parts of it may end up depending on experience, but at least we can figure out which parts and what experience. 

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T07:44:11.581Z · score: 1 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

a precise explanation of what exactly was meant by every term

Incidentally, this is a strawman; I did not ask, in my initial comment, for a precise explanation of what exactly is meant—even by one term, much less every term. Any explanation at all, even a rough, approximate, or extensional one, would be much better than nothing (which is what we currently have), and it would be a good starting point for any further discussion that might be called for.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-01-01T16:02:00.100Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
I (weakly) downvoted this. It's [LW(p) · GW(p)] pretty [LW(p) · GW(p)] common [LW(p) · GW(p)] for [LW(p) · GW(p)] you [LW(p) · GW(p)] to ask for clarification on words, phrases or concepts that feel like they have pretty straightforward meanings to me

In some sense authenticity has a bunch of straightforward meanings. On the other hand authenticity!CirclingEurope has likely a few features that might not be obvious. In particular it's about embodiment in a way for which Said likely lacks concepts to fit it into his worldview.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T17:34:47.155Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

nods I agree with this and might have communicated my suggestion somewhat badly. See my response here [LW(p) · GW(p)].

I actually agree with Said that 'authenticity' is underdefined in the post, but I don't think that this will be most easily fixed, or even revealed, by asking for a contextless definition of "authenticity". Instead, what I expect to go much better, is to suggest an interpretation of the words as written, and highlight what might be wrong about them (something that other commenters have done successfully in this thread). This allows the author to actually build a model of the shape of the confusion, and try to address it, or for the author to just admit that the interpretation as given is correct and that the post contains a mistake, or for the author to argue that the interpretation as given is correct, but the reasoning that leads to the supposed mistake is wrong, all of which strike me as much more productive than trying to provide a definition of a term without many specific things to go on. 

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-01-01T22:38:31.440Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me like a good portion of the LessWrong audience is not going to know well what's meant by the term authenticity in the Circling context.

It seems to me like the intention of this post is to explain why Circling is important to people who aren't yet understanding Circling well and that target audience is not going to have a good insight into what authenticity means in the Circling context.

I don't see how this is asking for a context-less definition either.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T19:36:43.497Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

asking for a contextless definition of “authenticity”

Again this is a strawman. I didn’t ask for a “contextless” definition; the entire point of my initial question was to ask how ‘authenticity’ was being used in this post; what Vaniver meant by it! Far from being “contextless”, that is, rather, as contextualized as it gets!

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T19:59:27.468Z · score: 2 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, you did ask within the context of the post, but that still covers a really broad spectrum of possible confusions. It is definitely not as "contextualized as it gets", since again, both nshepperd and quanticle's comments succeed in contextualizing much more than your comment does, and give much more concrete pointers to where their problems and confusion with the post might lie. 

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T19:37:57.987Z · score: -1 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

suggest an interpretation of the words as written

I didn’t have an interpretation of the words as written, nor could I have come up with one. If I had, or could’ve, I would’ve written a different initial comment, instead of the one I did write.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T19:55:49.131Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Given that other commenters seem to have little problem generating such an interpretation (however simple or inadequate that interpretation might be) and putting it forward, I do think in that case you should abstain from commenting. Again, I am not asking for a perfect guess of what the words mean, just any guess that has any internal structure and plausibility. 

Like, quanticle's comment here does this straightforwardly: 

What are "authentic" and "authenticity" doing here? It seems to me that they could easily be replaced by "healthy" and "health".

In this sentence, he is proposing a concrete interpretation, and is then critiquing it. If you are unable of generating the same, then I am surprised, but if so, then it does seem to me that you should likely not engage with posts in this reference class, and leave the commenting to other people. 

comment by quanticle · 2020-01-01T21:21:15.390Z · score: 13 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I should clarify that my substitution of "health" for "authenticity" was meant as an example only. I didn't think that's what Vaniver actually meant. The point I was trying to make is roughly the same one that Said is making: I didn't know know what concept the word "authentic" was pointing at in this case. To me, "authentic", as an adjective, is something that usually applies to things or people, not relationships. An authentic item is one that's of known provenance. An authentic person is one who is generally regarded as being honest and straightforward (i.e. not resorting to clever but technically true arguments). I could guess what an authentic relationship would be, but it would have be a guess, and the further clarification from Vaniver is certainly appreciated.

In general, I do not endorse proposing interpretations and then critiquing them. It's far too easy to put your words in the other person's mouth in those cases. I would actually claim that Said's original query, "What do you mean by authenticity here?" is superior to mine, because it leaves the question open-ended, and allows Vaniver to reply with further details rather than boxing them into a "Yes, I agree"/"No I disagree" set of alternatives.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T21:54:43.618Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I should clarify that my substitution of "health" for "authenticity" was meant as an example only. I didn't think that's what Vaniver actually meant. The point I was trying to make is roughly the same one that Said is making: I didn't know know what concept the word "authentic" was pointing at in this case. To me, "authentic", as an adjective, is something that usually applies to things or people, not relationships. An authentic item is one that's of known provenance. An authentic person is one who is generally regarded as being honest and straightforward (i.e. not resorting to clever but technically true arguments). I could guess what an authentic relationship would be, but it would have be a guess, and the further clarification from Vaniver is certainly appreciated.

That was also roughly how I interpreted it. I did not mean to suggest that your interpretation was particularly plausible, I meant to highlight the importance of providing any pointer at all to the shape of the problem you have with the term (indeed, I've been trying to stress that the interpretation you put forward does not have to be particularly plausible, just that it actually points at the shape of the confusion or critique you have of the post). You made it clear that you were worried about the term being used like an applause light, and so gave Vaniver a way to respond to that (to which he indeed responded with "Yes, I do think I kind of used that word as an applause light", in his comment to nshepperd).

"What do you mean by authenticity here?" is superior to mine, because it leaves the question open-ended

My sense is that that open-endedness is quite bad, mostly for the reasons I described in many other comments.

It's far too easy to put your words in the other person's mouth in those cases 

I agree that this is a real risk, though one that I think can be relatively straightforwardly avoided by just saying "the best interpretation I could come up with is X". Or "the first interpretation that came to mind of this was Y", either of which seem to create enough distance between you and the author that I am not too worried about putting words into other people's mouths. 

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T22:23:47.765Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You keep using this term “shape of the confusion”. I assumed at first that it was just a curious figure of speech, and assigned it no significance, but now I am no longer sure. What do you mean by it?

For example, you talk about…

the importance of providing any pointer at all to the shape of the problem you have with the term (indeed, I’ve been trying to stress that the interpretation you put forward does not have to be particularly plausible, just that it actually points at the shape of the confusion or critique you have of the post)

But how is “I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say ‘[some term]’” insufficient as a pointer? What more could I say? That’s the confusion, in such a case—that I don’t know what you mean by some word—and there’s no critique beyond “you wrote a post where you used the word ‘[whatever]’, but I, a reader, don’t know what you mean by ‘[whatever]’”.

Could you elaborate on this “shape of the confusion” business? Because I genuinely don’t have any idea what you’re asking me to do, or suggesting that I should have done.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T23:43:49.503Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alas, I do not think I have the time or the energy to do that at least today, at least to a level that I expect you to be satisfied with. Maybe a different commenter can chime in and fill my place. 

Again, I would find replying much easier if you were to give me a possible interpretation that I might be able to correct. In a weirdly circular fashion, I do not know enough about your confusion to give you an answer that would take me less than half an hour to write, and I don't expect other people to share your confusion particularly much. 

comment by T3t · 2020-01-02T02:27:17.614Z · score: 27 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I can take a stab at this; timing myself out of curiosity.

@Said: let me draw an analogy to a fictional online interaction (without implying that comment that started all of this is analogous in *all* relevant ways to the fictional one):

Author Andy: "...a destructive mode of communication."

Commenter Cody: "What do you mean by destructive in that context?"

If Andy had written something like "a tangerine mode of communication," it would be understandable if Cody (and most other readers) had *literally* no referents for "tangerine" which would cause that sentence to parse at all. If Andy had instead written something like "...a mode of communication harms the ability of conversational participants to reach agreement on the definition of terms [x, y, and z]," and Cody asked what "harms" meant in that context, as an outsider, it would be very difficult to understand where the communication had broken down, because "harms" is a widely-used term with referents that map relatively cleanly to the concepts at play, even if it is not the most common use for the term. "Destructive" is a more interesting case, because it is rarely used as a modifier to "mode of communication", but if Cody were to claim that there was no "plausible interpretation" or "standard usage" he could assume, it would be difficult to understand how to help him construct the mental machinery to map the dictionary definition (as, for example, a "standard usage") of "destructive" as an adjective to another concept. "Destructive" has a widely-known and well-accepted definition, and while Cody is not claiming that he does not know that definition (or any others), he is claiming that *none* of the definitions he knows produce coherent output when used to modify "mode of communication".

This is what this looks like, from the outside. You are claiming that you have no referents for "authentic" which produce a coherent-in-context (note: no claim about whether it is justified) interpretation for the given sentence(s). Authentic has a dictionary definition of "genuine"; if we replace "authenticity" with "being genuine" in

Similarly, why should “that which can be destroyed by authenticity” be destroyed? Because authenticity is fundamentally more real and valuable than what it replaces, which must be implemented on a deeper level than “what my current beliefs think.”

...it seems to be a coherent claim (though, again, no claim on whether it is sufficiently justified). If you have the same problem with "genuine", then perform another substitution: "truthful self-representation" (that substitution tied together the external context with the modifier, which is maybe a sign that it's a clearer way of communicating the mapping? Need to think about that...). It is difficult to understand what kind of answer you are looking for when you ask "what is the standard usage of authenticity", because this is a query that is trivially resolved by a dictionary lookup/google search. If the answer that procedure provides is insufficient to provide a mapping to the broader context the term is used in, then repeating it back to you won't help; it's clear that your confusion is elsewhere (this is gesturing the direction of a definition for "shape of confusion"). If you don't see any way in which any plausible definition/referent for "authentic", set in that context, allows you generate expectations from the resulting sentence(s) (for example, being able to come up with hypothetical situations which would *not* be accurately described as such), then there's either incompatible mental machinery, or a more subtle misunderstanding. I don't think that's the case, though. I believe you know (or could look up) the definition of "authentic", and I believe that if you ran the iterated procedure of substituting synonyms (or sufficiently close referents in concept-space, accounting for the surrounding context), you would quickly find an interpolation that was sufficiently coherent. It is possible that you ran this procedure and decided that the predictions that could be generated by the result were very "fuzzy" (the distribution of possible expectations would be extremely wide; you would have trouble cleaving reality at a sensible set of joints). If so, this is the point where I would describe to the author of the original post what my interpretation of the claim was, with some hint as to what shape the distribution of generated expectations my interpretation would imply, so that the author could help me narrow the boundaries of that distribution (or point me to another spot on the map entirely, if my interpretation was completely wrong rather than insufficiently well-specified).

...almost an hour, and I don't think I did a great job, but maybe this crosses some inferential distance.

comment by [deleted] · 2020-01-02T03:05:02.073Z · score: 17 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe there is a dialectal difference here? Because for me “authentic relationship” is more in the category of “tangerine mode of communication.” It is an applause light that can be used by a speaker to mean whatever they want, with no fixed meaning across contexts and speakers. It’s like calling something “morally good,” which is a meaningless statement unless you also specify the speaker’s morality. To me it stood out as just as obvious that “authentic relationship” was not sufficiently precise a phrase to use and deserved calling out for clarification, and so I was equally dumbfounded at the response Said got for asking the obvious question.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-02T03:31:36.190Z · score: 5 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

maybe this crosses some inferential distance

I’m afraid not, though I thank you for the attempt.

As I noted in this comment [LW(p) · GW(p)], and as Mark Friedenbach notes in a sibling comment [LW(p) · GW(p)], I don’t think ‘authentic’ has any standard usage I could substitute in. I think the standard usage is just an applause light. I didn’t think that Vaniver was using ‘authentic’ merely as a contentless applause light (and, as it turned out, I was right [LW(p) · GW(p)]). Therefore there was no way for me to substitute in any meaning, nor to generate any interpretations.

(Substituting ‘genuine’ does not make the relevant bits any more comprehensible.)

It is difficult to understand what kind of answer you are looking for when you ask “what is the standard usage of authenticity”, because this is a query that is trivially resolved by a dictionary lookup/google search.

I always find it suspicious when someone says “you can easily find this via a search”, but then doesn’t actually provide the allegedly-easy-to-find answer.

So let’s actually try this exercise. Here’s the first result I get, searching for ‘authentic’ on DuckDuckGo:

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/authentic

Definitions 1, 2, 4 and 5 are inapplicable. Definition 3 is just a rephrasing as a contentless applause light.

The next several search results are nearly identical.

And searching for ‘authenticity’ just redirects to definitions of ‘authentic’.

I believe you know (or could look up) the definition of “authentic”, and I believe that if you ran the iterated procedure of substituting synonyms (or sufficiently close referents in concept-space, accounting for the surrounding context), you would quickly find an interpolation that was sufficiently coherent.

As you see, this does not actually work.

If so, this is the point where I would describe to the author of the original post what my interpretation of the claim was

As you see, no such interpretation could’ve been generated.

My confusion was very simple: what did Vaniver mean by ‘authentic’? (He has now made what I consider a reasonable attempt at answering the question, and an entirely reasonable promise of further explication, so no object-level response is needed, anymore; I am only restating for the record.)

I still don’t know what more I could’ve said about its “shape”.

comment by T3t · 2020-01-02T04:28:44.804Z · score: 11 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find it surprising that you find definitions 1,2, 4, and 5 inapplicable. "Authentic" is used three times in the original post, and "authenticity" is used twice. "Authentic" is used as a modifier for "expression", "relationships", and "reaction".

Definition 1a from MW:

worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact

"Conforming to or based on fact" feels very similar to "the map corresponds to the territory".

Performing the substitution: "An expression that is worthy of acceptance or belief, as the expression (map) corresponds to the internal state of the agent that generated it (territory)."

This is not necessarily the most trivial possible leap, but to draw in another analogy... if we consider concept-space to a multidimensional space with connected nodes, the weight of the connection between "authentic" and "honest" is much stronger than between "authentic" and "tangerine". I don't know if you're agreeing with this part of Mark's claim:

It is an applause light that can be used by a speaker to mean whatever they want, with no fixed meaning across contexts and speakers.

But if so, that is the part that I am explicitly disagreeing with (moreso along the axis of prescriptivism, but also for descriptivism, just to a lesser degree). That is, ignoring context, "authentic" has a set of definitions and connotations which are relatively tightly clustered, and rule out the possibility of using it as a substitute for, say, "dishonest". Do you disagree, that in both the sense of its formal definitions, and actual in-practice usage, "authentic expression" is much closer to "honest expression" than "dishonest expression"?

The same analysis seems to apply equally well to "authentic reaction"; "authentic relationship" does seem to require linking together slightly more divergent concepts, though "relationship" has enough interfaces with "honesty" that coming up with a better-than-random (or better-than-tangerine) interpretation does not seem difficult.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-02T05:26:58.118Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find it difficult to follow most of what you’re saying here. There seem to be several layers of speculation, analogy, inference, etc. I am skeptical that taking any such approach to interpreting an author’s words is ever productive—especially when you can, instead, just ask.

But let me try using the definition of ‘authentic’ which you suggest using, namely—

worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact

So, from the OP, we have:

That is, he didn’t trust that expression which is worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact will predictably lead to success according to his current goals, but rather that a methodological commitment to putting himself out there and seeing what happens would lead to deeper understanding and connection with others, even though it requires relinquishing attachment to specific goals.

I have no idea what this could mean. Is the hypothetical author of this hypothetical sentence saying that the person in question didn’t think that telling the truth works well, or… what? No, that seems quite bizarre, based on context. It doesn’t fit.

Next up:

Why should “that which can be destroyed by the truth” be destroyed? Because the truth is fundamentally more real and valuable than what it replaces, which must be implemented on a deeper level than “what my current beliefs think.” Similarly, why should “that which can be destroyed by *something which is worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact *” be destroyed? Because the quality of being worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact is fundamentally more real and valuable than what it replaces, which must be implemented on a deeper level than “what my current beliefs think.”

This doesn’t make any sense; it seems to just be redundant. The structure of these statements sets up a comparison between things (truth and ‘authenticity’), but then (by to the candidate definition) it’s just restating the same thing twice: that truth is good.

I don’t mean to pitch ‘radical honesty’ here, or other sorts of excessive openness; relationships which are worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact include distance and walls and politeness and flexible preferences.

This is obvious nonsense; relationships aren’t the kind of thing which can be conforming to or based on fact.

if you reveal an intense emotion, I let it land and then share my reaction which is worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact, allowing you to see what actually happens when you reveal that emotion, and allowing me to see what actually happens when I let that emotion land

I have no idea what this could mean, either. Is this simply saying that one doesn’t lie in the given situation? But that makes very little sense, based on context…


It doesn’t work, as you see.

And, again, I don’t understand why you would advocate for this sort of highly speculative, effortful, highly error-prone decryption work, which is most likely to confuse you even more, when the alternative is simply to ask.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-02T06:44:41.819Z · score: 24 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Please don't call it "simply ask", in particular in a framework where you are setting up a lack of response as something that is socially punishable. As a concrete illustration of this effect, T3t did spend an hour trying to explain the relevant concept to you, with basically no apparent success. You asking just the one question above resulted in at least 1.5 hours of effort from me and T3t. Your question was not free, do not treat it as such. 

This appears to be the default of what happens when you ask the questions that you are asking, in the way that you are asking them. People spend literally dozens of hours of engaging with you, only to feel like they end up having completely wasted their and your time. The primary thing that you are doing when you are asking things like this, instead yourself contributing interpretative effort to the comment section, is to offload the interpretative labor on others, usually unsuccessfully and with a large multiplier on the actual costs due to misunderstandings, miscommunications and underspecified questions.

The thing you are doing doesn't work. It is not sustainable, and it does not seem to result in any way, shape or form, in you reliably getting what you want either. 

I am sorry, I am tired and I am going to tap out of this, but please don't treat the questions that you are asking as free. They are not, and people put real effort into answering them, and even if your internal experience is that "just asking the question is much easier", it does not result in total, in reduced cognitive effort, it instead results in many other commenters and authors putting in a lot of unnecessary work. 

Even in this situation, I expect that when Vaniver gets around to writing his more extended explanation of authenticity, he will try engaging with you, and then he will give up after a few hours, and you will say you will have gotten very little value from both his posts, and his additional explanations, even after he will have put multiple hours of effort into an explanation that is in significant parts specifically tailored to you. 

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-02T07:50:13.088Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I ask for an explanation of a term or concept, and the result is a lengthy answer, or multiple lengthy answers, and yet a lack of understanding—why do you treat this as a failure, or somehow an undesirable result?

To the contrary, it seems quite valuable, to me. It clearly demonstrates that the concept (which was, by assumption, used in the OP without explanation) is not obvious, and not easy to explain. It signals, both to the author and to readers, that here lie complications; that here, hidden behind this term, lurking within this concept—used, and not explained, in the author’s post—are depths, which are not obvious. It shows unambiguously a need to go back, and think carefully about how to communicate the concept; quite probably to write a post about it, or maybe more. It shows to readers that they are not to assume that anything simple and obvious is being referred to. For any readers who are similarly confused as I am, it helps them to articulate their confusion. For the author, it shows what aspects of his thinking isn’t clear, or isn’t clearly communicated; it draws out his assumptions. The result of taking heed of such a discussion is clarity in thought and writing. The result of ignoring it is confusion and error.

This, to you, is a waste? How can it be? You say it “doesn’t work”—what do you think is supposed to be happening?

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-02T08:38:18.967Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It clearly demonstrates that the concept (which was, by assumption, used in the OP without explanation) is not obvious, and not easy to explain.

No, it does not clearly demonstrate that. What it demonstrates is that you, and specifically you, do not understand the concept, and that explaining it to you specifically is difficult. Your confusions do very rarely generalize. Your bafflement is not usually reflective of other people's bafflement, and you not agreeing with a point is only very minor evidence that other people do not agree. And you being confused or unable to understand a point appears to have very little relation to when an argument actually allows others to make better predictions, and to make use of it to achieve things in the world. 

What is supposed to be happening is that authors spend their effort and time on resolving confusions that have any chance of being adequately resolved, and responding to people who have any chance of benefiting from their explanations. The whole thread above with T3t is a perfect example of a confusion that I think very few other people will have, and where the explanations that are being provided are going to be of almost no value (and why I declined to try to give them, since that was a completely predictable outcome of you asking for clarification). 

comment by Vaniver · 2020-01-02T17:43:11.857Z · score: 22 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, it does not clearly demonstrate that. What it demonstrates is that you, and specifically you, do not understand the concept

Also quanticle [LW(p) · GW(p)], also nshepperd [LW(p) · GW(p)], and presumably lurkers who upvoted their comments.

that explaining it to you specifically is difficult.

I think it'd be fair to read the first paragraph of my post as implicitly setting my hopes for this post as "explaining it to Said." (In the second paragraph I say I'm not going to fully explain Circling, but if the core analogy that I'm trying to make is missing a crucial detail, that seems quite relevant.)

In a different recent post [LW · GW], I explicitly set my bar as "I ~80% expect this to seem like nonsense." I don't know how much of that post seemed like nonsense to Said, but I'd guess 'a lot', and nevertheless he left a detailed comment [LW(p) · GW(p)] that struck me as a solid example of "yes, and" or "this fuzzy thing seems like it rhymes with the fuzzy thing you said."

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-02T19:25:58.588Z · score: 18 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also quanticle [LW(p) · GW(p)], also nshepperd [LW(p) · GW(p)], and presumably lurkers who upvoted their comments.

Hmm, I am not sure of this. I agree that both quanticle and nshepperd shared Said's original question about the meaning of authenticity, but my guess is that they would not share his assessment that the explanation that has been provided by T3t above is completely inadequate or basically provides no further clarification of the pattern at hand, nor do I expect them to agree with Said's assessment after multiple rounds back and forth with you on the topic of authenticity.  

The usual pattern of Said's comments as I experience them has been (and I think this would be reasonably straightforward to verify): 

  1. Said makes a highly upvoted comment asking a question, usually implicitly pointing out something that is unclear to many in the post
  2. Author makes a reasonably highly upvoted reply
  3. Said says that the explanation was basically completely useless to him, this often gets some upvotes, but drastically less than the top-level question
  4. Author tries to clarify some more, this gets much fewer upvotes than the original reply
  5. Said expresses more confusion, this usually gets very few upvotes
  6. More explanations from the author, almost no upvotes
  7. Said expresses more confusion, often being downvoted and the author and others expressing frustration

As I said in my first comment on this thread, I don't think the original comment is where a lot of the problem lies (and I wouldn't usually downvote it from most users). The problems usually arise in the follow-up discussion, and in the case of Said, enough authors and users have experienced those follow-up discussions that the problems have backpropagated into a broader aversion to questions like Said's top-level question. 

comment by Vaniver · 2020-01-03T01:12:41.480Z · score: 24 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

my guess is that they would not share his assessment that the explanation that has been provided by T3t above is completely inadequate

This worries me because of double illusion of transparency [LW · GW] concerns. That is, one frame we could have here is that Said is virtuously refusing to pretend to understand anything he doesn't understand. Suppose the version of "authentic" that is necessary to make this post work is actually quite detailed and nuanced, in ways that T3t's guess don't quite get at; then it seems like T3t and I might mistakenly believe that communication has taken place when it actually hasn't, whereas Said and I will have no such illusions.

If there are problems with this situation, I think they come from differing people having different expectations of how bad it is to not have communicated something to Said, and I think we fix that by aligning those expectations.

The usual pattern of Said's comments as I experience them has been (and I think this would be reasonably straightforward to verify)

This lines up with a model where Said is being especially rigorous when it comes to dependencies, and the audience isn't, and the audience has some random scattering of dependencies where each further reply is only useful to a smaller fraction of the population. It also is explained by people becoming more and more pessimistic that communication will happen, and so not tuning in to the tree to follow things.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-01-02T21:33:48.515Z · score: 23 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
enough authors and users have experienced those follow-up discussions that the problems have backpropagated into a broader aversion to questions like Said's top-level question

Just want to provide one data point: that I agree with this.

I have not personally had many back-and-forths with Said, but I've read enough of them to have built up a sense of frustration with Said's communication style.

I find that he sometimes makes good points, but they're often (usually?) wrapped in a style that I personally find unpleasant.

I'm not sure if I can quickly or exhaustively describe what the problem is -- it's not that the comments are rude, per se. He's not calling people names or anything so blatant as that. But there's an attitude that I perceive in them, combined with a set of rhetorical moves that to me seem like bad form.

Maybe a term for the attitude / rhetorical move that I find frustrating would be: "weaponized bafflement". Said often expresses that he has no idea what someone could mean by something, or is totally shocked that someone could think two things are similar (e.g. grouping both reading the sequences and attending CFAR as rationality training), when to me it seems pretty easy to at least generate some hypotheses about what they might mean or why they might think something.

Of course, noticing confusion is great. Asking for clarification is helpful. But the thing that Said does often strikes me as attempting to pull a "The Emperor has no clothes" move all the time, without being explicit that that's what he's doing, or allowing for the possibility that perhaps the emperor does have clothes. I find it tiresome.

I find myself thinking: if you're so consistently unable to guess what people might mean, or why people might think something, maybe the problem is (at least some of the time) with your imagination.

I think that if requests for clarification or expressions of surprise more consistently seemed to acknowledge that the interlocutor might have a good point that Said is just missing, that would be fine. Instead, the common pattern seems to be an expression of surprise, combined with an implication that the interlocutor is an idiot.

Maybe that's not what Said means to communicate, but I would find his comments more pleasant to read if they gave a wider berth to such interpretations.

comment by FeepingCreature · 2020-01-02T23:00:18.735Z · score: 21 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find myself thinking: if you’re so consistently unable to guess what people might mean, or why people might think something, maybe the problem is (at least some of the time) with your imagination.

Who cares who "the problem" is with? Text is supposed to be understood. The thing that attracted me to the Sequences to begin with was sensible, comprehensible and coherent explanations of complex concepts. Are we giving up on this? Or are people who value clear language and want to avoid misunderstandings (and may even be, dare I say, neuroatypical) no longer part of the target group, but instead someone to be suspicious of?

The Sequences exist to provide a canon of shared information and terminology to reference. If you can't explain something without referencing a term that is evidently not shared by everyone, and that you don't just not bother to define but react with hostility when pressed on, then ... frankly, I don't think that behavior is in keeping with the spirit of this blog.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-01-03T00:13:14.309Z · score: 16 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let me restate my core claims:

1) I think "I am having trouble understanding what you mean, the best guess I can come up with is X." is far more conducive to getting to clarity than "I have no idea what you mean." even when X feels quite unlikely to be what the person actually meant.

I am not asking the reader to read the mind of the author. I am asking them to generate at least one hypothesis about what the author might mean.

Do not forget the lesson of the Double Illusion of Transparency [LW · GW] -- just as the author will think they have communicated clearly when they have not, someone asking a question will also think the question is clear when it has not in fact been understood.

2) Asking for clarification as a form of criticism is bad form (or at lease is a move that should be used sparingly).

Perhaps you suspect the author's thoughts are muddled and that shining the light of clarification on what they've written will expose this fact. You can say, "What do you mean by X?" And perhaps you will catch them in an error.

However, doing this all the time is annoying! Especially if it's unclear to the author whether you in fact are trying to work towards mutual understanding, or are simply playing gotcha.

If you think the author might have something meaningful that they are saying, then offering your best hypothesis will work far better for finding out what it is.

And if you don't think there's anything to what they're saying, it's a bit disingenuous to state your criticism in the form of a question.

I'm actually having a little trouble expressing this second point, because I do think there's a place for Socratic questioning, which can be very helpful. I just think there are ways to do it that are more collaborative, polite, illuminating, and other ways that are unpleasant and adversarial.

The best rule I can come up with at the moment is: If you're going to be in collaborative mode, offer hypotheses, and if you're going to be in adversarial mode, don't pretend to be in collaborative mode.

comment by FeepingCreature · 2020-01-03T01:44:54.296Z · score: 19 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this once again presupposes a lot of unestablished consensus: for one, that it's trivial for people to generate hypotheses for undefined words, that this is a worthwhile skill to begin with, and that this is a proper approach to begin with. I don't think that a post author should get to impose this level of ideological conformance onto a commenter, and it weirds me out how much the people on this site now seem to be agreeing that Said deserves censure for (verbosely and repeatedly) disagreeing with this position.

And then it seems to be doing a lot of high-distance inference from presuming a "typical" mindset on Said's part and figuring out a lot of implications as to what they were doing, which is exactly the thing that Said wanted to avoid by not guessing a definition? Thus kind of proving their point?

More importantly, I at least consider providing hypotheses as to a definition as obviously supererogatory. If you don't know the meaning of a word in a text, then the meaning may be either obvious or obscured; the risk you take by asking is wasting somebody's time for no reason. But I consider it far from shown that giving a hypothesis shortens this time at all, and more importantly, there is none such Schelling point established and thus it seems a stretch of propriety to demand it as if it was an agreed upon convention. Certainly the work to establish it as a convention should be done before the readership breaks out the mass downvotes; I mean seriously- what the fuck, LessWrong?

comment by ESRogs · 2020-01-03T02:34:43.899Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
that it's trivial for people to generate hypotheses for undefined words
I at least consider providing hypotheses as to a definition as obviously supererogatory. If you don't know the meaning of a word in a text, then the meaning may be either obvious or obscured

I want to clarify that asking about the meanings of particular words is not the main thing I'm talking about (even though that was the example at the top of this whole thread).

Said expresses bafflement at all sorts of things that people say. If it was always, "what do you mean by this specific word?" that would be a very different pattern.

Or if it was always expressing genuine curiosity, as opposed to making a rhetorical point, that would also be a very different pattern.

I am particularly complaining about the pattern of expressing surprise / confusion in a way that seems to be making a rhetorical point rather than seeking genuine understanding.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-01-03T03:04:00.715Z · score: 12 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

However, on the topic of words in particular, I do think that simply asking, "What does X mean?" is usually not the best path forward.

Consider three cases:

  • X is a term you're not familiar with (and you haven't looked it up yet)
  • X is a term you're not familiar with, so you've looked it up, but the definitions don't seem to match the way it's being used
  • X is a common term that seems to be used in a weird way

For which of these cases does it make sense to just write, "What do you mean by X?"

1) For case 1, it seems most respectful of others' time to just google the term. If that answers your question, consider also leaving a comment saying, "For others who weren't familiar with X, it means ..."

2) For case 2, I'd recommend saying that you've looked it up and the definitions don't seem to match. Otherwise you might just get one of the standard definitions back when someone replies to your comment and still be confused. Also this lets others know that you're extending them the courtesy recommended in case 1.

3) For case 3, I think it depends on the specific case, and how non-standard the usage is.

3A) If you're confident that the usage is as a technical term of art, such that when it's pointed out, the author will say, "Ah, you're right, I'm using that in a non-standard way. I mean ..." then just asking how it's being used seems like a fine way to go. (However, I do think it's easy to overestimate the odds that the author will understand why you find it confusing. They may be in a bubble where everyone uses that term in that way all the time.)

3B) In a case where the author might not realize that everyone wouldn't be familiar with the particular usage, then I think it's helpful to say something specific about how you interpret the word and what seems off about the usage. That way they'll have a better idea what to say to resolve the confusion.

The particular case of "authentic" at the top of this thread seems like kind of a border case between 3A and 3B. Everyone reading this should be familiar with what "authentic" means in a variety of contexts. And it's not exactly being used as a non-standard term-of-art, but it is doing a lot of work in the post, so it does seem reasonable to poke at it for a clearer picture.

I think the ideal version of Said's question would be the one that mentioned applause lights and "healthy" as a possible substitute. That one made it a lot clearer what the issue with the usage of a fairly common term was.

But I would agree that generating that level of comment instead of a short question is supererogatory, and I wouldn't downvote Said's original question. (Though since Said was the one asking it, I might find myself wondering if the discussion following the comment was going to fit the pattern of rhetorical bafflement that I've been annoyed by before.)

comment by FeepingCreature · 2020-01-04T02:03:42.652Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think it's so implausible for some people to be significantly more baffled by some things that we must interpret it as an attack. An unusually large imposition of costs is not inherently an attack! May as well blame the disabled for dastardly forcing us to waste money on wheelchair ramps.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-01-04T07:46:44.442Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
May as well blame the disabled for dastardly forcing us to waste money on wheelchair ramps

I do not believe that Said is unable to generate hypotheses in all the cases where he expresses bafflement / indignation. I believe it is (at least partially) a rhetorical move.

If people pretended to need wheelchairs to prove a point, we'd be right to blame them for forcing us to spend resources on them.

comment by [deleted] · 2020-01-04T07:51:00.881Z · score: 12 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I remind readers to review the “Taboo your words” posts of the Human’s Guide to Words sequence. Asking for the meaning of words, even common words, is a rationalist’s truth finding technique. It’s not something to be persecuted.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-01-04T08:02:46.757Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree, but as I put it in the great-grandparent comment:

I want to clarify that asking about the meanings of particular words is not the main thing I'm talking about (even though that was the example at the top of this whole thread).

It's more a pattern of expressing surprise / indignation as a rhetorical move. Here is an example [LW(p) · GW(p)], where he's not asking for clarification, but still doing the surprise / indignation thing.

You might think that comment is perfectly fine, and even from my perspective in any one single comment, it's often no big deal. But when surprised indignation is basically your tone in seemingly almost every thread, I eventually find it annoying.

comment by [deleted] · 2020-01-04T08:45:32.383Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You’re right, I do find that comment to be fine. But then I have a similar approach to truth seeking myself, and I find it tremendously effective.

Part of the background I bring to this is that some of the best rationalist thinkers and mentors I’ve met in my own life had a profound impact on me simply because they asked the necessary pointed questions and let me figure out the answer, or were willing to unabashedly share a contrasting opinion. Everyone’s learning styles are different, but for me this worked remarkably well. Said is doing something similar, so I see it as a valuable contribution.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-01-04T09:32:58.835Z · score: 30 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Said is doing something similar, so I see it as a valuable contribution.

I appreciate hearing this counterpoint.

I wish there was a way to get the benefit of Said's pointed questioning w/o readers like me being so frustrated by the style. I suspect that relatively subtle tweaks to the style could make a big difference. But I'm not exactly sure how to get there from here.

For now all I can think of is to note that some users, like Wei Dai [LW · GW], ask lots of pointed and clarifying questions and never provoke in me the same kind of frustration that many of Said's comments do.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2020-01-04T17:05:40.492Z · score: 16 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why should Said be the one to change, though? Maybe relatively subtle tweaks to your reading style could make a big difference.

A "surprised bafflement" tone is often seen as a social attack because it's perceived as implying, "You should know this already, therefore I'm surprised that you don't, therefore I should have higher status than you." But that's not the only possible narrative. What happens if you reframe your reaction as, "He's surprised, but surprise is the measure of a poor hypothesis—the fact that he's so cluelessly self-centered as to not be able to predict what other people know means that I should have higher status"?

comment by ESRogs · 2020-01-04T19:03:03.333Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Why should Said be the one to change, though?

Good question. When there are conflicts over norms, it's not obvious how to resolve them in general. I suppose the easy, though less preferred, solution would be some kind of appeal to the will of the majority, or to an authority. The harder, but better, way would be an appeal to a deeper set of shared norms. I'm not sure how tractable that is in this case though.

What happens if you reframe your reaction as, "He's surprised, but surprise is the measure of a poor hypothesis—the fact that he's so cluelessly self-centered as to not be able to predict what other people know means that I should have higher status"?

This is in fact often my reaction. But I will note that neither social attacks nor the writings of clueless self-centered people are particularly fun to read. (Especially not when it seems to be both.)

That may be stating it overly harshly. I do think Said is an intelligent person and often has good points to make. And I find it valuable to learn that others are getting a lot of value from his comments.

The signal to noise (not exactly the right term) ratio has not seemed particularly favorable to me though. But perhaps there's yet some different reframing that I could do to be less frustrated (in addition to whatever changes Said might make).

comment by [deleted] · 2020-01-05T00:19:25.900Z · score: 12 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why should we have one set of norms at all? Should we really be driving towards cultural unity? Isn't it okay for there to be subsets of people who drive differently? Just learn to ignore what you don't find useful.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2020-01-04T21:05:17.167Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When designing norms, we should take into account an asymmetry between reading and writing: each comment is only written once, but read many times. Each norm imposed on writers to not be unduly annoying constrains the information flow of the forum much more than each norm imposed on readers to not be unduly annoyed.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-01-04T23:37:00.493Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Driving away other writers with annoyingness also constrains the flow of information. Trade-offs abound!

comment by mr-hire · 2020-01-03T00:43:31.516Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Maybe a term for the attitude / rhetorical move that I find frustrating would be: "weaponized bafflement". Said often expresses that he has no idea what someone could mean by something, or is totally shocked that someone could think two things are similar (e.g. grouping both reading the sequences and attending CFAR as rationality training), when to me it seems pretty easy to at least generate some hypotheses about what they might mean or why they might think something.

To me this particular move is part of a broader pattern used by Said and a few other common posters on here of using the Socratic method to make their point, which is frequently time consuming, annoying to answer, and IMO a bad tool for finding the truth.

Whenever I detect someone using the Socratic method in the comment section of my posts I ask them to more directly make their point, and in fact may add it to my author commenting guidelines.

comment by nshepperd · 2020-01-03T00:57:30.346Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

T3t's explanations seem quite useless to me. The procedure they describe seems highly unlikely to reach anything like a correct interpretation of anything, being basically a random walk in concept space.

It's hard to see what "I don't understand what you meant by X, also here's a set of completely wrong definitions I arrived at by free association starting at X" could possibly add over "I don't understand what you meant by X", apart from wasting everyone's time redirecting attention onto a priori wrong interpretations.

I'm also somewhat alarmed to see people on this site advocating the sort of reasoning by superficial analogy we see here:

“Conforming to or based on fact” feels very similar to “the map corresponds to the territory”.

Performing the substitution: “An expression that is worthy of acceptance or belief, as the expression (map) corresponds to the internal state of the agent that generated it (territory).”

So, overall, I'm not very impressed, no.

comment by T3t · 2020-01-03T04:19:58.856Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To reiterate, I don't explicitly use anything like the procedures I described in my posts to do any sort of interpretation. I came up with them to use as levers to attempt bridging the inferential distance between Said and I; I agree that in practice trying to use those models explicitly would be extremely error-prone (probably better than a random walk, but maybe not by much).

More salient to the point at hand: you understood (to a sufficient degree) the models I was describing, and your criticisms contain information about your understanding of those models. If for whatever reason I wanted to continue discussing those models, those two things being true would make it possible for me to respond further (with clarifications, questions about your interpretations, etc).

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-03T01:17:17.868Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alas, then that guess of mine was probably wrong, but thank you for clarifying your position. In that case I will have to admit that I am arguing for a change in norms that you will also likely perceive to be worse. 

To be clear though, you have given an argument against the procedure that T3t has described. The question at hand was whether their explanation helped you come to better understand the procedure (independently of whether you agree with it). It seems to me that you did indeed come to better understand the procedure in question, though my guess is there are still significant misunderstandings left. Is your sense that your model of the kind of procedure that me and T3t are advocating for has stayed the same after reading their comment? 

comment by T3t · 2020-01-02T07:16:11.765Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I read "authentic relationship", "a relationship which is built on honest premises and communication (i.e. neither party has lied or misled the other about their background, motivations, or relevant personality characteristics)" is my first guess as to what that would mean. My question is: are you incapable of performing this sort of "decryption work" (as in, the examples you generated are your best effort), or is your chief complaint that it's effortful and error-prone (as in, you could have extrapolated something similar to what I did, but you believe that doing so is epistemically unjustified)?

I am advocating for this because, in practice, this seems to minimize the amount of time and communication necessary to make sure both parties are on the same page w.r.t. the definitions of terms used and the intent behind what is being communicated. The way you ask questions reveals almost nothing about the state of your mental map of the subject of discussion (what you think the boundaries are, how you think it corresponds to the surrounding context, etc). This increases the amount of communication required to answer your question much more than linearly - you know "where" you are confused much better than the author. The author can guess, but the author is dealing with the entire possibility space of things you can be confused about; the amount of work that can go into resolving that confusion is unbounded. However, if you put forth your interpretation, then ask for clarification/correction, the author has a much more constrained space to explore to attempt to diagnose where your map is insufficiently well-specified/pointing at the wrong thing/has some other conflict with the author's map. ~Linear time for you to come up with the most straightforward possible interpretation (contingent on you actually being able to do so - still not clear to what degree this is a disagreement in the allowable degree of inference), + ~linear time for the author to identify mistakes, vs 0 time for you + unbounded time for the author.


The problem I'm having with trying to respond to the rest of your post (and the previous one in the thread) is that I don't feel like I have a better sense of your position on the more critical underlying issues now than when I first replied.

I will try to be more specific still, though I will be leaning on concepts similar to those in ML, such as embeddings, vectors, dimensionality, etc. I can try to find another set of concepts if this doesn't translate well enough. (I already tried to come up with an analogy with interfaces & generics in the software engineering sense, but couldn't actually come up with a coherent model without bringing in intersection types, at which point I gave up. Maybe that gives you some idea of what I was going for anyways.) When you performed the substitutions for "authentic", it looks like you traveled the smallest possible distance away from the "authentic" node, and not in the direction of any cluster of nodes that would be closer to (or have higher connective weight with, if you prefer) "relationship" (or "expression", or "reaction"). Naturally, the node you landed on fit the surrounding context about as well as a square peg in a round hole.

Now, to be absolutely clear, when you say that "authentic" has no standard meaning, are you claiming that "authentic" is equidistant from every other node in your graph (of all possible concepts)? I feel like we've ruled that out, but I'm not 100% sure; if that is the case then the direction I'm going in with the rest of this is probably fruitless.

If not, if you do indeed have a graph with concepts that are much closer to "authentic" than other concepts, then some of the concepts in the "authentic"-adjacent cluster will likewise be much closer to the "relationship" node along many dimensions than most of the others. What are those dimensions? Relationships have many properties and embedded concepts: participants, duration, style, etc. The dimensions we could say are relevant for linking together "authentic" and "relationship" would be more granular, likely describing the terms on which the participants engaged in the relationship, and the style of communication they use. If you refuse to traverse the graph to any appreciable degree (and make public where you landed; ideally also the path you followed), it's much harder for anybody else to help you. It's not clear at which level of linguistic abstraction the disconnect is - you could be missing the "authentic" node altogether (solved by dictionary), you could be missing connections from "authentic" to "honest" to "honesty about self" (don't think this is the problem; not clear how to solve this if it is), you could be asserting that those connections in your graph have equal weights to, say, the connections from "authentic" to "tangerine" to "random number generator", so there's literally no way for you to privilege the first set when trying to trace a path from "authentic" to "relationship", because you have no idea which direction to go looking in (don't think this is the problem either), or you could be asserting that the first set of connections do indeed have heavier weights, but not to a sufficient degree (if there is any such degree) that you would feel justified in traversing those nodes.


EDIT: I want to note that I started writing this comment well before Habryka posted his response. It strikes me that he hit on some very similar things (at one point I edited out a sentence that called your initial question "underspecified"; it's not that it wasn't an accurate description of my feelings on the subject, but I decided to taboo that word because I thought of a better way to explain what I thought the problem was).

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-02T08:00:23.108Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I read “authentic relationship”, “a relationship which is built on honest premises and communication (i.e. neither party has lied or misled the other about their background, motivations, or relevant personality characteristics)” is my first guess as to what that would mean. My question is: are you incapable of performing this sort of “decryption work” (as in, the examples you generated are your best effort), or is your chief complaint that it’s effortful and error-prone (as in, you could have extrapolated something similar to what I did, but you believe that doing so is epistemically unjustified)?

I don’t know how you generated that guess, so my answer can only be the former.

As for the rest of your comment, I find it baffling. Nothing resembling what you describe is how I think when interpreting people’s writing (nor, as far as am aware, does anyone else I know think like this). In any case, if this is the type and amount of thought necessary to interpret a term used in a post, then I must say, even more emphatically, that such interpretation attempts are ill-advised. There is just no way such efforts can be justified.

But there is an even simpler response to make. Namely: suppose that your guess (quoted above) had been right; suppose that Vaniver, when he said “authentic relationship”, had indeed meant “a relationship which is built on …” (etc.).

Would it not be easy for him simply to say that? Wouldn’t that have been the easiest thing in the world? Why would he have needed to know anything about the “shape of my confusion”, or my mental models, or any such thing?

(Now, as it turns out, the actual meaning of ‘authentic’, as used in the OP, was rather more complicated. But that is a separate matter entirely!)

comment by T3t · 2020-01-02T08:48:50.140Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was not describing the process I use to interpret novel linguistic compositions such as "authentic relationship" - my brain does that under the hood, automatically, in a process that is fairly opaque to me; despite that, the results are sufficiently accurate that I don't spend hours trying to resolve minutiae, even in highly complex technical domains.

I was attempting to use an analogy with word embeddings in multi-dimensional space to explain why the way you approach information-gathering has asymmetrical costs. I can't come up with another analogy, because your response is totally non-informative with respect to how/why/where my first analogy failed to land. Did you notice that you didn't even tell me whether you're familiar with the concepts used? I have literally zero bytes of information with which to attempt to generate a more targeted analogy.

Would it not be easy for him simply to say that?

This doesn't really seem material to the point I was trying to discuss, but (I imagine) it's because there can be a trade-off between density and precision when trying to convey information. (And, also, how is he supposed to know which parts of his post are going to be incomprehensible to which people? Again, one could put in an unbounded amount of effort into specifying with ever more clarity and precision exactly what they mean by every word.)

Your response to Habryka also seems to not materially respond to his main points (the grossly asymmetrical effort involved, and the fact that the time spent is not free, it is traded off against other pursuits).

You list certain outcomes you consider beneficial, but "things are not easy to explain and have hidden complexities" is true for literally everything given a sufficient level of desired precision. It is a fully general argument in favor of asking arbitrarily vague questions.


EDIT: I did want to thank you for your straightforward answer here:

I don’t know how you generated that guess, so my answer can only be the former.

That, at least, would let me move the conversation forward with a tentative conclusion for that question, but unfortunately that answer seems to imply sufficiently different mental machinery that I'm a bit stuck regardless. I'll come back to this if I come up with something exceptionally clever to try to solve that problem, I suppose.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-01-02T20:54:30.398Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
I still don’t know what more I could’ve said about its “shape”.

Just want to point out that I think that simply adding the following to your original comment would have been a marginal improvement:

I think the standard usage is just an applause light.

That is, if your comment had been, "'Authentic' seems like it's often used as an applause light to me. Can you say more about specifically what you mean by it in this context?" I think that would have been an improvement over the original comment.

I agree with others that just saying, "What do you mean by X?" When X is a common, well-known word can often be insufficient for making it easy for the author to figure out what to say in reply.

It's Double Illusion of Transparency [LW · GW] all the way down. :P

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-02T02:51:10.643Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you! At least I endorse this as a pretty accurate summary of what I am trying to point to. 

comment by nshepperd · 2020-01-01T21:20:44.401Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

FWIW, that wasn't my interpretation of quanticle's comment at all. My reading is that "healthy" was not meant as a proposed interpretation of "authentic" but as an illustrative substitution demonstrating the content-freeness of this use of the word -- because the post doesn't get any more or less convincing when you replace "authentic" with different words.

This is similar to what EY does in Applause Lights itself, where he replaces words with their opposites to demonstrate that sentences are uninformative.

(As an interpretation, it would also be rather barren, and not particularly 'concrete' either: obviously "'authentic' means 'healthy'" just raises the question of what 'healthy' means in this context!)

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T21:58:09.393Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, to be clear, I agree with this. I would count that substitution as a possible interpretation of the word (in particular an interpretation of it being basically just an applause light), but I don't care too much about quibbling about words here. 

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-01-01T20:04:30.037Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meaning no offense to quanticle (and casting no aspersions on the rest of his comment), but I have no idea what the heck he meant with the quoted bit. That substitution seems to me to be entirely out of left field. I don’t see it as plausible even in retrospect.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-01-01T20:24:10.399Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

nods I am surprised to hear that, but in that case I do sadly see little way of making progress on this, and can only continue to request you to leave the relevant commenting and question-asking to people in the reference class of quanticle then. 

comment by Vaniver · 2020-01-02T17:28:17.955Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think your broader position in this tree is a incorrect hypothesis that's pointing towards correct observations [LW · GW], in approximately the same vein as how, according to Google, people start complaining about the strictness of code reviews when reviewers take too long to respond.

I have a hypothesis of my own, but I'm both not very certain of it yet and it relies on some Circling jargon, and so I want to privately check some things (with both you and Said and maybe other observers) before going to the trouble of explaining the generator of the hypothesis.

comment by Viliam · 2020-01-01T16:16:51.307Z · score: 25 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let's try: "Authenticity" is an opposite of "pretending".

There are situations where it is useful to pretend to have thoughts or feelings, to manipulate other people's perception of us. This can be relatively straightforward, such as signaling loyalty to a group by displaying positive emotions to things associated with the group, and negative emotions to enemies of the group. Or more complicated, such trying to appear harmless in order to deceive opponents, or pretending to be irrational about something as a way to signal credible precommitment.

As a first approximation, "authenticity" means communicating one's thoughts and feelings as one feels them, without adding the thoughts and feeling made up for strategic purposes.

This is complicated by the fact that humans are not perfect liars; they do not have a separate brain module for truth and another brain module for deception. Sometimes deception is best achieved by self-deception, which raise the question what "authenticity" means for a self-deceiving person. But going further, self-deception is also often imperfect, and requires some kind of active maintenance, for example noticing thoughts that contradict the projected image, and removing them. In this case, "authenticity" also includes abandoning the maintenance, and acknowledging the heretical thoughts.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-01-01T17:34:53.843Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As a first approximation, "authenticity" means communicating one's thoughts and feelings as one feels them, without adding the thoughts and feeling made up for strategic purposes.

To elaborate on this, a common move in Circling is to notice the thoughts and feelings made up for strategic purposes and explicitly name the strategic purposes. That is, when I notice "I want to be closer to you," I might directly say "I notice I want to be closer to you" instead of saying a sentence designed to have the effect of making us closer.

That is, just like I don't think authenticity involves "saying everything you think," I don't think authenticity means "giving up on goals and strategies." 

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2020-01-01T15:49:28.232Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I looked for definitions of the word "authentic", but that only turned up synonyms like "genuine", and the meaning it has in speaking of the authenticity of an antique (i.e. it is what someone is selling it as).

So I searched for /authentic relationships/, which turned up a whole world of fluff and reversible advice.

About the least fluffy but informative thing in the first page of Google results was this. But I am not sure there is any more to this than in a horoscope. Can those who know what they mean by "authenticity" rate that description of it?

If I pick up a mathematics textbook and leaf through it, I can easily determine where I and it are relative to each other on the map of mathematical knowledge. I will know if I'm already familiar with what it covers, or am slightly acquainted, or would have to do a lot of other study to get to where it starts from. But with the cited link and all the others, I cannot really tell. And it is the same with descriptions of Circling.

BTW, something which puts me off "Circling" is the name. It suggests to me the image of a pack of wolves circling their prey. Or "self-criticism sessions" in the Cultural Revolution. Especially so with "Birthday Circling", where one member of the group gets circled by all the others.

BTW2, the least fluffy but uninformative things were these:

"Authenticity in business relationships is more than a trend, it is increasingly becoming a requirement for those who want to succeed BIG in today’s business world."

“I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier.” Oprah Winfrey (unsourced)

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-01-01T17:19:27.442Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The term is also legally protected and I think there would be benefit in generating an open source alternative term. This comes with its own problems of course.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-01-01T17:29:57.987Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Indeed, I hear that "Circling" may itself become legally protected to refer to a specific style (probably the Circling Institute's), rather than the umbrella term for related styles, in a way that will further complicate things if that happens. 

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-01-01T23:24:28.679Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like there was a trademark application filed last months by the Circling Institute. I think it's unlikely that the trademark will be granted given that the term gets used by a variety of different people.

Filing a trademark application in this way is a way to get the government to create a binding ruling that a term is not owned by anyone in a relatively cheap way.

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-01-02T02:22:56.475Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd also note there's a difference between legal enforcement and 'expectation of getting hassled' especially with scrupulous people.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-01-02T11:45:37.502Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a reason to get a government to publish a document that says: "We found that Circling is a general term used by multiple organizations and can't be trademarked because it's a general term".

Afterwards if someone tries to hassle you, you can point them to the official government document that says that it's fine to use Circling however you want.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-01-01T16:18:43.871Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I saw nsheppard's comment first, and gave a partial response there [LW(p) · GW(p)].

comment by [deleted] · 2020-01-04T00:21:00.022Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This comment, and the on-topic replies should be in the other thread.

comment by Raemon · 2020-01-04T00:27:03.602Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I may be able to get to that sometime over the weekend, as noted in my comment on the original post (and now in the OP here), it's much easier (technically) to move whole threads than a bunch of individual comments. I agree it's probably worth fixing but there are some other deadlines I'm trying to meet right now.

comment by mr-hire · 2020-01-04T16:46:59.033Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This comment of mine (also available on my user page) seems to have disappeared completely in the move. I'm unsure if other comments and subthreads dissappeared.

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/pC74aJyCRgns6atzu/meta-discussion-from-circling-as-cousin-to-rationality [LW · GW]

comment by Raemon · 2020-01-04T17:23:32.505Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

i think you have to expand a couple collapsed threads. (I apologize for collapsed threads being a bit finicky)

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2020-01-04T00:57:34.022Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also apologize for breaking a lot of the comment-permalinks in that thread

It looks like the post comment-counter is also broken. (The header for this post says "4 comments".)

comment by Raemon · 2020-01-04T01:22:45.226Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, I thought to check the comment counter for the original post, but not this new post. Will fix it at some point over the weekend.

comment by jimrandomh · 2020-01-04T01:56:03.929Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I fixed it.