Only You Can Prevent Your Mind From Getting Killed By Politics


Follow-up to: "Politics is the mind-killer" is the mind-killerTrusting Expert Consensus

Gratuitous political digs are to be avoided. Indeed, I edited my post on voting to keep it from sounding any more partisan than necessary. But the fact that writers shouldn't gratuitously mind-kill their readers doesn't mean that, when they do, the readers' reaction is rational. The rules for readers are different from the rules for writers. And it especially doesn't mean that when a writer talks about a "political" topic for a reason, readers can use "politics!" as an excuse for attacking a statement of fact that makes them uncomfortable.

Imagine an alternate history where Blue and Green remain important political identities into the early stages of the space age. Blues, for complicated ideological reasons, tend to support trying to put human beings on the moon, while Greens, for complicated ideological reasons, tend to oppose it. But in addition to the ideological reasons, it has become popular for Greens to oppose attempting a moonshot on the grounds that the moon is made of cheese, and any landing vehicle put on the moon would sink into the cheese.

Suppose you're a Green, but you know perfectly well that the claim the moon is made of cheese is ridiculous. You tell yourself that you needn't be too embarrassed by your fellow Greens on this point. On the whole, the Green ideology is vastly superior to the Blue ideology, and furthermore some Blues have begun arguing we should go to the moon because the moon is made of gold and we could get rich mining the gold. That's just as ridiculous as the assertion that the moon is made of cheese.

Now imagine that one day, you're talking with someone who you strongly suspect is a Blue, and they remark on how irrational it is for so many people to believe the moon is made of cheese. When you hear that, you may be inclined to get defensive. Politics is the mind-killer, arguments are soldiers, so the point about the irrationality of the cheese-mooners may suddenly sound like a soldier for the other side that must be defeated.

Except... you know the claim that the moon is made of cheese is ridiculous. So let me suggest that, in that moment, it's your duty as a rationalist to not chastise them for making such a "politically charged" remark, and not demand they refrain from saying such things unless they make it perfectly clear they're not attacking all Greens or saying it's irrational to oppose a moon shot, or anything like that.

Quoth Eliezer:

Robin Hanson recently proposed stores where banned products could be sold.  There are a number of excellent arguments for such a policy—an inherent right of individual liberty, the career incentive of bureaucrats to prohibit everything, legislators being just as biased as individuals.  But even so (I replied), some poor, honest, not overwhelmingly educated mother of 5 children is going to go into these stores and buy a "Dr. Snakeoil's Sulfuric Acid Drink" for her arthritis and die, leaving her orphans to weep on national television.

I was just making a simple factual observation.  Why did some people think it was an argument in favor of regulation?

Just as commenters shouldn't have assumed Eliezer's factual observation was an argument in favor of regulation, you shouldn't assume the suspected Blue's observation is a pro-moon shot or anti-Green argument.

The above parable was inspired by some of the discussion of global warming I've seen on LessWrong. According to the 2012 LessWrong readership survey, the mean confidence of LessWrong readers in human-caused global warming is 79%, and the median confidence is 90%. That's more or less in line with the current scientific consensus.

Yet references to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in posts on LessWrong often elicit negative reactions. For example, last year Stuart Armstrong once wrote a post titled, "Global warming is a better test of irrationality than theism." His thesis was non-obvious, yet on reflection, I think, probably correct. AGW-denialism is a closer analog to creationism than theism. As bad as theism is, it isn't a rejection of a generally accepted (among scientists) scientific claim with a lot of evidence behind it just because the claim clashes with your ideological. Creationism and AGW-denialism do fall under that category, though.

Stuart's post was massively down voted—currently at -2, but at one point I think it went as low as -7. Why? Judging from the comments, not because people were saying, "yeah, global warming denialism is irrational, but it's not clear it's worse than theism." Here's the most-upvoted comment (currently at +44), which was also cited as "best reaction I've seen to discussion of global warming anywhere" in the comment thread on my post Trusting Expert Consensus:

Here's the main thing that bothers me about this debate. There's a set of many different questions involving the degree of past and current warming, the degree to which such warming should be attributed to humans, the degree to which future emissions would cause more warming, the degree to which future emissions will happen given different assumptions, what good and bad effects future warming can be expected to have at different times and given what assumptions (specifically, what probability we should assign to catastrophic and even existential-risk damage), what policies will mitigate the problem how much and at what cost, how important the problem is relative to other problems, what ethical theory to use when deciding whether a policy is good or bad, and how much trust we should put in different aspects of the process that produced the standard answers to these questions and alternatives to the standard answers. These are questions that empirical evidence, theory, and scientific authority bear on to different degrees, and a LessWronger ought to separate them out as a matter of habit, and yet even here some vague combination of all these questions tends to get mashed together into a vague question of whether to believe "the global warming consensus" or "the pro-global warming side", to the point where when Stuart says some class of people is more irrational than theists, I have no idea if he's talking about me. If the original post had said something like, "everyone whose median estimate of climate sensitivity to doubled CO2 is lower than 2 degrees Celsius is more irrational than theists", I might still complain about it falling afoul of anti-politics norms, but at least it would help create the impression that the debate was about ideas rather than tribes.

If you read Stuart's original post, it's clear this comment is reading ambiguity into the post where none exists. You could argue that Stuart was a little careless in switching between talking about AGW and global warming simpliciter, but I think his meaning is clear: he thinks rejection of AGW is irrational, which entails that he thinks the stronger "no warming for any reason" claim is irrational. And there's no justification whatsoever for suggesting Stuart's post could be read as saying, "if your estimate of future warming is only 50% of the estimate I prefer you're irrational"—or as taking a position on ethical theories, for that matter. 

What's going on here? Well, the LessWrong readership is mostly on-board with the scientific view on global warming. But many identify as libertarians, and they're aware that in the US many other conservatives/libertarians reject that scientific consensus (and no, that's not just a stereotype). So hearing someone say AGW denialism is irrational is really uncomfortable for them, even if they agree. This leaves them wanting some kind of excuse to complain, one guy thinks of "this is ambiguous and too political" as that excuse, and a bunch of people upvote it.

(If you still don't find any of this odd, think of the "skeptic" groups that freely mock ufologists or psychics or whatever, but which are reluctant to say anything bad about religion, even though in truth the group is dominated by atheists. Far from a perfect parallel, but it's still worth thinking about.)

When the title for this post popped into my head, I had to stop and ask myself if it was actually true, or just a funny Smokey the Bear reference. But in an important sense it is: the broader society isn't going to stop spontaneously labeling various straightforward empirical questions as Blue or Green issues. If you want to stop your mind from getting killed by whatever issues other people have decided are political, the only way is to control how you react to that.