Two Kinds of Mistake Theorists

by AllAmericanBreakfast3 min read11th Jun 20207 comments


World Modeling

Conflict theorists default to blaming a bad guy. Entrenched power is exploiting others for selfish gain. Explaining away the problems in the world as the result of mistakes only gives the oppressor/barbarian/authoritarian cover. This description is brief and reductive only because I'm trying to focus on mistake theory. It's not intended as a straw man, just a brief summary.

Opposed to them are mistake theorists. There are two kinds.

Object-level mistake theorists reject the idea that evil will, "isms," or conspiracies are to blame for object-level disagreement between groups. Chalk it up to coordination, communication, or motivation challenges; the scarcity of some key resource; or the fact that some problems are just really hard. But it's almost certainly not due to evil intentions.

I call them "object-level" mistake theorists because they use their theory to interpret the sorts of controversies you'd read about in the news. They don't use it to interpret the meta-controversy between conflict or mistake theorists. Object-level mistake theorists see conflict theorists as sophisticated intellectuals who are acting on a theory they happen to disagree with.

Here is how an object-level mistake theorist might model various kinds of conflict theorist take on some contemporary American political issues:

  • ANTIFA is angry about institutional racism, and think the best way to fix that problem is by burning cop cars. They think power gives up nothing without a demand. Or else, police unions are angry that ANTIFA deliberately downplay the gritty realities of the world to have a bad guy for their political narrative.
  • The battle between the Discovery Institute and evolutionists isn't about science. It's a political battle for or against a step toward American Christian theocracy. Both sides know that taking each others' arguments seriously would be a fatal mis-step.
  • Socialists are trying to use an expanded safety net as a prelude to full-on class warfare and ever-escalating demands for more entitlements. Or, conservatives are opposed to simplifying the IRS because they want to make interacting with the government as hateful as possible, so that people won't trust it to do anything else right.

The object-level mistake theorist thinks all these arguments are wrong, but sincerely held. They assume that conflict theorists are familiar with mistake theory and have rejected it, just as they have rejected conflict theory.

Evangelistic mistake theorists, on the other hand, explain not only object-level controversies, but the meta-controversy between conflict and mistake theory, in terms of mistake theory. To them, conflict theorists are simply mistake theorists who happen to have a poor understanding of mistake theory. Here's how an evangelistic mistake theorist might model the takes of conflict theorists on the same issues:

  • Deep down, ANTIFA knows the cops are necessary, and they really just want moderate reform. But they're so caught up in their lefty tribe that they've forgotten that the police are good, reasonable people. So they burn police cars, say the cops are all in the KKK, and call to abolish jails, making the factionalism even worse.
  • Deep down, police unions know that ANTIFA are well-intentioned, and they really just want to see peaceful protests and get some support in doing their difficult and dangerous job. But they get so much criticism and bad publicity that they're on the defensive all the time, and don't know how to explain the challenges they face in a way that ANTIFA would understand. So they defend cops at all costs and shy away from open dialog, entrenching themselves further.
  • Deep down, the Discovery Institute wants to seek the truth, just like mainstream evolutionary theorists. Both sides want to resolve their disagreements through reasoned debate. But there are so many complex points to the argument, and the experiments are so difficult to conduct, that they resort to the courts and battling over curriculums.
  • Deep down, "socialists" just want an expanded social safety net and to fix regulations around some negative externalities. They want social democracy, not a centrally planned economy. But they're so uneducated about the terms they're using, because they build their worldview around social media shares, that they don't realize how threatening their labels sound to mainstream liberals and moderate conservatives. Alternatively, deep down, wealthy "conservatives" are just frustrated that socialist rhetoric makes them feel bad about earning money. If "socialists" could just tone it down a bit and advocate for the social democracy they actually want, we could find a middle ground.

If evangelistic mistake theorists are correct, then all that's needed is to educate ANTIFA, police guilds, the Discovery Institute, and socialists about how to interpret their conflicts through the lens of mistake theory. The people who are the most partisan are likely to have given the least thought to their views. They want to spread the light of mistake theory to the confused and flailing factions.

The object-level mistake theorists might be annoyed or curious about the viewpoints of conflict theorists. Either way, they acknowledge that the disagreement is between two equal minds, even if they find it annoying to have to listen to the other side jabber on about white supremacists or the Hollywood liberal elite.

Evangelistic mistake theorists sometimes portray themselves as the bearers of good news. In fact, they say, once those conflict theorists really understand our ideas, they'll come around to our side, and we can have peace, love, and factual logical debate to resolve all our issues.

That vision is not as hopeful-sounding to me as it seems to be for them. It suggests that a huge number of people are just dumb. There's nothing to do but educate them, fill them up with mistake theory to replace the void inside. They have nothing to teach us except to reveal how better to convert the next one. Fortunately, once they grasp mistake theory, they'll be so happy that we showed it to them!

By contrast, object-level mistake theory suggests that conflict theorists are also smart people, and they might have something important to teach us. They are a worthy debate opponent. If we pick berries in their wood, many of them will make us sick to our stomach, but some will cure the vitamin deficiency we suffer from only eating the fruits of our own forest.


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A while ago, I made this twitter comment


Are you a conflict-mistake theorist, who believes that the world is being deliberately pushed towards hard to shift equilibria by elites who want to keep power? Or a mistake-conflict theorist, who believes factions are inevitable due to impersonal game theory?

As you can see, there are more stances than just the ones above.  You can believe that being pushed into conflicts is deliberate, or it is unescapable.  Notice that this is a mistake theory, but it fits into neither your evangelical nor object level categories, it's a different meta-level version of mistake theory.

Personally, I think having a sweeping theory of change like any of these stances is almost always pathological. Different problems have different effects, and the same problem can have aspects of both conflict and mistake, sometimes mutually reinforcing.

When, I'm babbling/creating ideas for how to approach a problem, I'll view it through the lens of both conflict and mistake theory.  When I'm then pruning, I'll try to figure out the actually causality, and which parts are conflict-based and which parts are mistake based. 

Then, when actually acting and communicating, I'll try to frame the parts of the problem around either conflict or mistake, based on the audience and other context.

There might be many types of mistake theorists and conflict theorists!

My post was more about mistake theorists who implicitly deny the existence of conflict theory, who model the minds of conflict theorists as though they were just confused mistake theorists. It's not so much about all the different ways we could assess object-level problems. More that mistake theorists should debate conflict theory as conflict theory, not reframe it as a badly-thought-out mistake theory.

I still haven't read a good steelman of conflict theory(and I doubt I can offer one, though I'll try), but I think it's a bit deeper than just misguided mistake theory.

First of all, conflict theory seems a better fit for 0-sum games:

  • slaves want to be free, slaveholders want to keep their property
  • mongols want territory, current inhabitants don't want to become skull pyramids
  • privileged group wants disadvantaged group policed ruthlessly, since they are not affected by the police brutality but do benefit from the police catching more criminals on the margin. In other words police false positives don't affect the privileged group, but false negatives do.

It's a sort of unstated rationalist dogma that all 0-sum games can sort of be twisted into positive-sum games. I don't think that's true in principle, but it's certainly not true given practical constraints(people are fallible, defect from agreements etc).

Conflict theory might also function better in practice, even though it has worse theoretical upside. For instance, worker unions are not an optimal solution to managers abusing employees, lack of profit sharing, lack of workplace safety rules, they do solve a coordination problem(in particular an imbalance in workers' ability to coordinate vs managers). In an ideal world managers understand that unions are net bad and take measures to alleviate worker concerns so that they don't unionise, thus creating a somewhat redundant and sometimes adversarial parallel management structure.

But a simple, comprehensible conflict theory based solution might be stable, whereas the ideal mistake theory solution might be plagued by defection risks or just super hard to implement.

A lot of mistake theory also seems to suffer from conceptual explosion. Like there are no real sides, every person has their own interests, we need to maximise utility for individuals that actually exist not statistical average individuals. Which is true, but also incredibly hard to turn into a workable social contract vs here's 5 categories, their votes create an average statistical avatar, please those 5 avatars.

Finally, when people run on different axioms, you can't really use mistake theory, you're essentially in an ideological 0-sum game. If I believe in Biblical literalism, young earth creationism, there's no meaningful compromise to have with Darwinist evolution. I can surrender my axioms, and essentially become a new person, or not. The mistake theory answer to this is probably something like... people don't really care about axioms that much they care about the myriad outcomes(like you're a YEC because you like the community of church or you don't want to argue with your parents). But I just don't think that's true. People seem to care a lot more about their axioms and core theories than about end-outcomes and often do weird causal origami to help maintain their axioms in the face of apparently undesirable consequences.

Sorry, seemed to have gone on the tangent and not actually addressed the post enough. Here's a short comment directly on the post:

I don't think socialists are merely misguided social democrats. I think they fundamentally make different predictions than social democrats. They don't think a socialist state will devolve into soviet or Chinese style horrors, therefore they see milque-toast socialism as unnecessarily compromising with capitalist exploitation. There's a, somewhat, plausible defence of that position: Soviet Russia and communist china weren't radically different from their pre-communist forms, just moreso. You wouldn't expect socialist USA or UK to suddenly open up gulags and have the secret police hunting people down. You'd probably expect it to be a local homeowners association or tedious government bureaucracy writ large. Statist socialism doesn't really transform society as much as it would like to believe, just look at how Russia has reverted to a tsarist/aristocrat system and how China is reverting to a pseudo-imperial bureaucracy.

It's a sort of unstated rationalist dogma that all 0-sum games can sort of be twisted into positive-sum games.

In the formal maths of game theory, a zero sum game is one where one players utility is precisely minus the other players utility. This is a very special case and almost never happens in the real world. The alternative is a non-zero sum game, utilities are isomorphic up to scaling and adding a constant. Take the slave and slave owner game. If you add a third option where they both kill each other, then both parties prefer the other two states over both killing each other. The game is no longer zero sum. That doesn't stop it being a conflict in the sense that both parties want to take actions that harm the other. It just isn't pure 100% conflict.

I wrote a defence of conflict theory here, in case that's of interest. (Also crossposted to LessWrong here). It has some similarities to your 0-sum/positive-sum framing (which I like) but more focused on historical examples.

This is great, just the kind of conflict theory defense that I wanted to read. Thank you.

Here's a short comment directly on the post

The post was about the differences between object-level and evangelistic mistake theory. The examples I gave are just illustrative of that difference. They're not meant as particularly strong arguments in themselves; just examples of two different lines of thinking.