Stanislav Petrov Day

by gwern1 min read26th Sep 2011167 comments

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Petrov Day
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A reminder for everyone: on this day in 1983, Stanislav Petrov saved the world.

It occurs to me this time around that there's an interesting relationship here - 9/26 is forgotten, while 9/11 is remembered. Do something charitable, and not patriotic, sometime today.

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The research commented on and linked to in some threads below don't pass the sniff test. It claims that 50 air-burst Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons would cause a terrible nuclear winter and a new ice age. Yet neither the 3 weapons at Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, nor the 528 air and ground-burst nuclear weapons set off over the next 35 years, most having more explosive power than 50 Hiroshima-sized bombs, had observed effects on the weather. Neither did the many German and Japanese cities that the Allies burned at least as thoroughly via conventional weapons. Much more area burned in Tokyo and Dresden than in Hiroshima.

If they were talking about ground bursts of high-yield weapons, I just might give them some credibility... but 50 15-kt air-bursts?

The Castle Bravo test was a ground-burst test with a yield of 15 Mt, 1000 times the yield of the bomb used on Hiroshima. A ground burst throws much, much more dust into the air than an air burst. I'm not aware that any effect on weather was observed. Perhaps this is explained by there not having been a lot of combustible material at the site of the explosion.

"Heavy fire damage was sustained in a circular area in Hiroshima... (read more)

2buybuydandavis9yHas no one put those 500+ nuclear winter causing blasts into the atmospheric models for historical global warming? What of the burning of the Amazonian rain forests? That could make for some interesting arguments.
8lessdazed9yWhen it comes to damaging the environment, bet on destructive systems to do more harm than countable events. This includes invasive species, urban sprawl, and overfishing in one group and volcanoes, tidal waves, nuclear tests and oil spills in the other. I think it's more important than the natural/man-made dichotomy that is the way I am instinctively inclined to think of these things.
-3wedrifid9yOn the other hand when damaging the environment bet on living humans doing more harm than dead humans. The best thing for the environment would be the utter annihilation of humanity - a rather destructive process. Mind you I'm not going to make bets about that...
2TobyBartels9yI don't know what it means for something to be good for an environment in the absence of people living in that environment. Perhaps you mean that wild animals (say mammals) would be better off. Many domesticated animals arguably have lives not worth living so would be better off. However, many partially domesticated animals would be worse off; think of the rats in New York City, for example.
0wedrifid9yWhy ever not? It means the same thing as it does when humans are there. Good for the environment isn't conventionally defined purely by what is seen by the local humans. No. I mean the environment [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_environment].
0TobyBartels9yIt isn't??? An environment is something that surrounds something else. Many environmentalists are so precisely for the benefits that a good environment gives to humans, although others also care about other animals (and even plants, although I don't really know what it means for something to be good for plants in themselves other than just helping them to grow). I'm not trying to be cute here, I really don't understand what you mean! That links helps a bit; it suggests that you mean that nature would be better off without humans, which is along the lines of what I was thinking. (I focussed on mammals simply because it's most clear to me what it means for something to be good for them in themselves.) However, it doesn't really explain how we know what's good for the natural environment. Please tell me what you mean! Possibly you mean these items in bullet points [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_environment#Challenges]. In my opinion, these things are good only because they are good for humans or (at least some) other animals. Obviously, your values may differ. If you mean, for example, that high biodiversity is good in its own right (or at least good for some reason not dependent on humans), then that's fine; please confirm or say instead what you do mean.
3lessdazed9yIn my experience this tends to be a fake justification, though it is sometimes true.
1dlthomas9yI'm an environmentalist because I don't want mercury poisoning from my sushi...
9JoshuaZ9yAssuming minimal to no regulation what do you estimate would be the probability of getting mercury poisoning from your sushi?

The probability that there is many times more mercury in your sushi than there would have been 100 years ago, is 1.0 unless that sushi came from a fish farm. Whether it's enough to call it "poisoning" is open to debate. The EPA and FDA recommend you do not eat swordfish, shark, or king mackerel, ever, because of mercury.

We've already seen minimal to no regulation, in the 1970s. WRT mercury contamination of freshwater fish it was very bad. Perhaps some of you are too young to remember when American scientists used to debate whether the recommendation to eat fish no more than once a week was conservative enough or not. Fishermen in many areas are still advised not to each the fish they catch.

It's a bit of a moot point, since without regulation, the major freshwater and saltwater fish stocks would have crashed by now anyway. This doesn't always have to be government regulation. Maine lobstermen have regulated themselves for many years - not just outside the government, but illegally (because the punishments they imposed on violators were illegal).

Harvesting of freshwater fish in the US is, so I hear, switching over to fish farming. Not so much because of poison, but because there just aren't enough wild fish.

0JoshuaZ9yUpvoted. This makes dlthomas's statement seem very reasonable.
1wedrifid9yHigh biodiversity is a necessary but not sufficient component of what it means for 'the environment' to be in a state labeled commonly referred to as 'good'. Other requirements are that it maintains many or most of those things which are aesthetically or ideologically pleasing and that these things for most part exist in relatively stable equilibrium. Note that 'aesthetically pleasing' does not constitute a reference to local human preferences but rather refers to another fuzzy concept that has its own inherent meaning. Concepts like "good for the environment" represent a lot of information but given that most people within the same subculture will understand what you mean when you use them they serve their intended purpose well. Yes. And my philosophy of knowledge.
3TobyBartels9yH'm, now it sounds like by "good for the environment" you didn't necessarily mean anything that you would consider good for anything at all, but just what a fairly unreflective person off of the street would mean by "good for the environment" in that context. In that case, I agree that the absence of humanity would be "good for the environment", although I don't particularly care what's "good for the environment", which is merely an instrumental value that would largely no longer apply. (That's just me, however.) So thanks for explaining!
1wedrifid9yI cannot accept that as representative of my position.
0TobyBartels9yYou don't seem to be very interested in explaining your position, so I'll just drop it now.
-3[anonymous]9yDisclaimer for any observer: I do not consider TonyBartels words to be representative of any position I hold now or have ever expressed.
0buybuydandavis9yIf you unpack what most people mean by good for the environment, they mean how the environment would be if humans weren't around, or more particularly, if humans never developed reason. Both of the bullet points in the wiki summary for Natural Environment explicity exclude effects of human activity - "without massive human intervention" and "not originating from human activity."
-4MugaSofer8yOr did they?! Dun dun duun!

Talking of Russians who saved the world, is October 27 the Vasili Arkhipov Day?

3wedrifid9yAnd if that is the case it seems appropriate that we also 'honour' the Americans who almost destroyed the world. "Oooh, ooh, let's surround a nuclear sub and drop charges at it. That's bound to end well!"

Anyone else get hit with a sense of sheer terror as they figured the connection between this story and the anthropic principle?

This is a good opportunity to introduce your friends to LessWrong: "Hey, did you know today is the day Stanislav Petrov saved the world? http://lesswrong.com/lw/jq/926_is_petrov_day/" Chance are, they will click around.

8gwern9yI actually did submit a link to EY's post to Hacker News, where it seemed to do well: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3039221 [http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3039221]

Could 'not starting nuclear armageddon' be considered "...the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, ..." ?

If he qualifies by virtue of the above, then a campaign to give him a Nobel Peace Prize seems the thing to do.

4wedrifid9yDefinitely. And until such time as he is granted the Nobel Peace Prize the whole system should be ridiculed as an utter farce.

I agree with your sentiment but respectfully disagree with the details. First, Yasser Arafat got a Nobel Peace Prize so the system is already an utter farce. And second, if it wasn't an utter farce, you could make a good case for Petrov getting an honorable mention rather than the main prize, because there are people who've spent decades working hard for peace.

A non-farce award should base its judgment on results, not effort. A peace activist who spends his entire career digging and refilling a hole, for example, should not be anywhere near the Peace Prize shortlist. Despite the little time he spent, Petrov did more for world peace than many others who have been working longer -- not that his decision was easy, anyway.

8Vaniver9yIf prizes exist to incentivize people, there will be cases where you get superior effects from incentivizing effort rather than results.

Maybe. It still comes at the cost of reduced emphasis (at the margin) by activists on thinking clearly about what results they'll actually get -- a kind of thinking definitely in short supply.

Like with FAI, world-changing activism is not a case where you want to play "A for effort", as that tends to reward groups like Bolsheviks, who undoubtedly threw a lot of effort into a world peace strategy.

3[anonymous]8yBTW, that appears to be how the Nobel Prize in Physics is achieved: for being shown to be right, with relatively little regard to how you came to be right.
0DanielLC8yThis sounds like the Superhero Bias [http://lesswrong.com/lw/lk/superhero_bias/] . Stanislav Petrov refrained from doing something and saved the world. This shows that he values the world more than a few seconds worth of working. If someone spends decades working hard on something that creates significantly less peace, then that shows that they value that smaller amount of peace to be worth decades worth of work. If they spend their career digging and refilling a hole, which they know very well does not cause peace, that shows nothing about how much they value peace.
2SilasBarta8ySo you would reward them for having deluded themselves into believing that the digging/reflling holes project would bring world peace? There's no reward for making your beliefs conform to reality in this quest for peace? And could you elaborate the connection to superhero bias? I'm just not seeing it.
0DanielLC8yI reward someone who works their whole life on the best cause they find. I don't reward the guy who got lucky. I also won't reward someone for being ridiculously stupid, but it's not as if Petrov got into that situation by intelligence. Who shows more heroism: someone who can annihilate bullets on contact giving some of his time to save 200 children, or someone who risks his life to save three prostitutes? Who shows more heroism: someone who risks their job to save the world, or someone who spends their entire career when they have an opportunity for a smaller amount of good?
2SilasBarta8yOkay, but what makes you think that it was an easy decision in the first place? It sounds like hindsight bias, to act like, because we now know that it was a false alarm, it must have been obvious without the later knowledge. Also, disobeying orders with so much at stake requires significant courage. Right, I understand. I read the article. I was not asking for a summary, but for you to explain how that applies to the specific argument I made. Are you saying that Petrov had superhero level powers, and so his act was relatively trivial? Again, how does my claim here fit the superhero bias template?
1DanielLC8yI guess his intelligence was involved somewhat. Also, I'm not sure why I thought that was all that relevant. I wouldn't reward someone for doing something that they convinced themselves would save the world. That doesn't really apply to Petrov. It was luck instead of powers, but basically. It wasn't that he's a superhero per se. It's just the same sort of extreme version of the halo effect. He was in a situation where he could do extreme good at extremely low cost, which makes him seem really heroic without actually being very heroic at all.
2Larks8yWe should encourage people to be more lucky, especially as much 'luck' is simply skill that the uninitiated aren't capable of observing.
7satt9yWouldn't be the first time [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Prize_controversies#Peace] they dropped the ball, either.
-3wedrifid9yGandhi didn't get a Nobel Peace prize? I now feel personally insulted on the behalf of my species by the entire Nobel Peace prize institution.
8gwern9yWhy does Gandhi deserve a Peace prize? Would that be for telling the Jews to offer themselves to Hitler to be executed and saying "Hitler is not a bad man", or for responding to the Indian massacres (millions dead) with fasting, or perhaps some still other meritorious action?
3Vaniver9yUm, millions? Do you mean massacres by the British, or Hindu-Muslim violence?
4[anonymous]9yIt's probably not accurate to say more than one million people were killed during partition, but some 10 or 20 million people were forcibly moved from their homes, long distances. That's a lot of lamentable suffering, even if it's short of genocide. Post-partition Hindu-Muslim violence, and other kinds of sectarian violence, probably do not approach one million dead.
0gwern9yThe latter, obviously. The British, being squishy Western types, would never have gotten anywhere near massacring millions.

Both the French and Germans massacred millions contemporaneously, which suggests that Westerners were willing to massacre millions, so long as they have a reason. It seems likely that the British would have done the same if India had sought independence through war, and thus Gandhi's push for nonviolent tactics averted a potentially tremendous loss of human life.

As for the partition, not only is a single million the highest estimate of the death toll, Gandhi was opposed to it, worked to reduce violence during it, and was assassinated in part because of his friendliness towards Muslims and desire to improve Pakistan-India relations. I do not understand why you deride his fasting, as it appears to have been the most effective tactic available to him, and did actually influence those around him rather than just accrue karma.

I agree with you that Gandhi's letter to the Jews was probably bad advice, but will also point out that Denmark had a positive experience with nonviolent resistance (whether or not that worked against the Nazis because Danes were Aryan is unknown). However, prizes must be given to humans, and thus people are judged on net rather than for lack of blemishes. I am sure you are aware of reasons for Gandhi to be given the prize, and in the spirit of ahimsa plead you to perform a calming activity then return to this discussion with a clear heart.

3wedrifid9yYou left out "the greatest inspiration for manipulative passive-aggression that the world has ever seen!" I consider your question disingenuous, inappropriate and not nearly as clever as it is intended. That Ghandi had a positive influence towards peacefulness in the civil disobedience in his immediate environment is clear. He also had a powerful influence in making the British look like dicks for being the aggressive ones which is an even greater win for 'peace' and gave his side the moral high ground. That he was ineffective in dealing with Hitler is worse than irrelevant. It's a peace prize and World War II wasn't a time for being peaceful. Peaceful strategies were contraindicated. I don't tend to have much respect for rhetorical questions for which the literal answer to the question refutes the intended point.
2gwern9yAm I missing a joke here to the effect that the Peace prize should be awarded even, or especially, to those who promoted peaceful efforts despite the horrific consequences of such peacefulness (in both examples I gave, the Holocaust and the megadeaths accompanying Indian independence - which might not have happened at all without Ghandi and so can be laid at his door)? Which is exactly what Ghandi suggested, yet the inclusion of this point suggests you think that it somehow makes Ghandi look good. ??? Again, I suspect I'm missing some subtle joke you're making.

I consider blaming the Holocaust on Ghandi to be utterly absurd. I don't know what the cause of your problem with Ghandi is but that claim is just... odd. Ghandi couldn't have pulled that off if he tried.

Which is exactly what Ghandi suggested, yet the inclusion of this point suggests you think that it somehow makes Ghandi look good. ???

No, it is just part of what makes your ridicule look petty. Ghandi recommending others do what worked for him is an example of misplaced other optimising. Given that he was just a popular figure in an entirely unrelated country and the advice he gave was no more futile than anything else they could have tried to prevent the Nazi's doing what they did the advice he gave is not especially relevant.

5[anonymous]9yClose to a million people were horribly murdered in partition. Indian independence, like American independence, was a mixed bag. But It's not clear that the British could have prevented it, they were dead broke at the end of WW2. Of course that leads one to wonder how influential Gandhi and Quit India actually were [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quit_India_Movement#Contributions_towards_Indian_independence] .
5NancyLebovitz8yOn the other hand, salt starvation has consequences [http://www.rmoxham.freeserve.co.uk/salt%20starvation.htm], especially in a hot climate where diarrheal diseases are common. The salt tax was ended as soon as India became independent.
2[anonymous]8yThere is a lot I don't know about this, but I'm sure you're right that the salt taxes cost lives. But at independence the taxes had been deeply unpopular for more than a hundred years, so it's not clear to me whether to credit Gandhi for ending them. I had thought that it would be interesting to know whether they had been phased out in Pakistan as well, where Gandhi is not so popular, but it seems that Nehru ended them a few months before partition.
2SilasBarta9yGandhi was the prime pick right before he got shot. All the other times he was on the shortlist, the Committee claims there were serious reservations [http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/articles/gandhi/] about his commitment to peace. A mistake on the part of the Nobel Committee, sure, but not as bad as you're suggesting.
2Vaniver9yThe Nobel Prize is generally for longevity; Gandhi died only a few years after independence. They essentially awarded him the prize posthumously, which is an honor I believe only given to him. Keep your identity small!
2SilasBarta9yIt's my understanding that the Peace Prize is the one case where that doesn't hold, because it's often given [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Peace_Prize#Reaction] to grant support to a nascent, positive movement: (And there was certainly no wait for longevity in the 2009 award to the recently-elected Obama, even if he did deserve it.)
2Vaniver9yThis is true; the explanation you posted in another part of this thread was a superior explanation of why he wasn't going to get it until 1948. People dying before they receive any Nobel prize is common, however, though you are right that it is less so for the Peace prize.
3lessdazed9yPeople killing before they receive Nobels other than the Nobel Peace prize is less common, however, so it balances out.
0wedrifid9yIs that a typographical error of some kind? Gandhi never got the prize. Excuse me? Apart from being an instance of bullshit [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Bullshit] in its own right, a farcical peace prize awarded for the wrong reasons can be expected to have an instrumentally negative influence on the world. Resolving such an institution to negative emotional association is an entirely appropriate extrapolation from the core of my identity. Including an exception for farcical peace prizes would introduce complexity to my identity that I don't desire. Please refrain from telling me what my identity should be. It's, um, mine.
9Vaniver9yThe prize was not awarded in 1948 because "there was no suitable living candidate." It was not clear whether or not the committee was allowed to award prizes posthumously and they decided they were unable to, but would do it symbolically. Ok. Instead of advice, I'll give you a statement: being offended about something you insufficiently researched makes you look bad. Being offended on the behalf of Gandhi makes little sense- why would he want more conflict because of him?- and being offended on the behalf of your species makes less sense. The Nobel Prize committee is beholden to Alfred Nobel and none other. There are good reasons to consider the Nobel Peace Prize farcical, but their treatment of Gandhi is not a good one.
4wedrifid9yYou are certainly trying hard to make me look bad but regardless of whether you are successful in persuading your audience I reject your claim. I have more than enough evidence to conclude that I would prefer a peace prize that is awarded to Stanislav Petrov and Gandhi than one awarded to Yasser Arafat and Al Gore. Or Barack Obama for that matter. That's like awarding little Johnny US the Encouragement Award because he punched and stole the lunch money of slightly fewer of his classmates this week. Is there anything I have ever said or done on lesswrong that gives the impression that I have anything like Ghandi's philosophy for dealing with conflict? Gandhi's tactics are highly situational and work only for those particularly adept at judging and manipulating public opinion and for those who are too helpless to do anything to improve their circumstances. No, my advice for the most practical and ethical way of dealing with oppressors is to not protest at all, not let them know that you oppose them and systematically assassinate all their leaders until they leave. I further suggest that if you don't think Gandhi's example would be consistent with getting offended by things then you totally missed the point of what he did. The guy did hunger strikes and silly walks to fetch salt as a way to broadcast how offensive things are. He wasn't nice, he just wielded offense and public opinion as his weapons. Again, you miss the point. The Nobel Prize committee is beholden to Alfred Nobel. The rest of the world, including myself, are not. The rest of the world are free to make it, as wikipedia puts it [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Peace_Prize], "a highly regarded award, recognised internationally" or to marginalise it as a bad joke by a meaningless institution. We as individuals can then evaluate the aesthetic appeal and expected consequences of the 'Peace' prize awarded as it is. We can also consider how public opinion of the prize as a respected institution reflects o

The Peace Prize has a very poorly defined mission.

Some third world activist who leads a social movement earns a lot of warm fuzzies, but probably doesn't affect the world very much (let's say Maathai).

Someone who pursues a naturally partisan and controversial goal peacefully probably produces a lot of conflict, but less conflict than they would have if they were violent about it. (Gandhi)

Some dictator or lunatic who mellows out and murders less than usual probably has a very large beneficial effect on the world, compared to his usual murder rate (Arafat and the Israelis).

The leader of a very large country, like the United States or the Soviet Union, can have a greater positive influence on the world just by being a fraction of a percent nicer than the average person, than the leader of a small country, or a private individual, can have by being an amazing saint (Obama).

And some random person in the right place at the right time may have a very large effect in terms of sheer scale, but be questionable in terms of genuine virtue (Petrov).

If about 60% of people, in Petrov's situation, would have done what he did, is it better to give the prize to him, or to some activist who has spent her whole life tirelessly struggling for freedom despite adversity?

I'm not a big fan of the Nobel committee's decisions, but given the pressures they face and the confusion of their task I don't think they've done a ridiculously inadequate job.

I'm not a big fan of the Nobel committee's decisions, but given the pressures they face and the confusion of their task I don't think they've done a ridiculously inadequate job.

Hypothetically, if Nobel had been a sociopath and instituted a "Nobel War Prize" or "Nobel Deadly Conflict Prize" with an equally poorly defined mission, how inadequately would you judge their work had they given the award to exactly the same recipients as were actually awarded the Peace Prize?

The 2004 prize went to Wangari Maathai "for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace". She was reported by the Kenyan newspaper Standard and Radio Free Europe to have stated that HIV/AIDS was originally developed by Western scientists in order to depopulate Africa.

The 1989 prize was awarded to the 14th Dalai Lama. This wasn't well-accepted by the Chinese government, which cited his separatist tendencies. Additionally, the Nobel Prize Committee cited their intention to put pressure on China.

The 1945 prize was awarded to Cordell Hull as "Former Secretary of State; Prominent participant in the originating of the UN". Hull was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's

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4wedrifid9yI don't imagine China thinks much of last year's prize either. That guy is a current Chinese political prisoner!
1Scott Alexander9yWHAT? It's an OUTRAGE that they passed over both Hitler and Stalin! An OUTRAGE! Who do these people think they are? More seriously, I don't see this as a deal-breaker. If I asked a bunch of people for the people with the greatest positive effect on human history, and the people with the greatest negative effect on human history, the same names would probably appear on both lists several times (Mohammed, for example). Certainly he'd be higher up than Bob Q. Random.
9lessdazed9yIf a list of people is indistinguishable from a shoddily done list of worst person of the year and a shoddily done list of best person of the year, it's mostly of psychological interest for telling us about the award givers, rather than anything about the recipients. Perhaps we could calculate what a list of people would look like relative to the Nobel Peace Prize recipient list if the only criteria was influence. We could then compare the lists.
9lessdazed9yYou forgot my favorite case [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Prize_controversies#Peace]!
7TheOtherDave9yDigressing somewhat... I suspect you mean "...a fraction of a percent nicer than the average candidate for that leadership position." Though perhaps it should be "...a fraction of a percent nicer than whoever would have otherwise held the position." Or perhaps not? Perhaps the right comparison is actually between the results of what they did do (take the position and act as nicely as they did) and what they could have done (act more nicely, or less nicely, or abdicate in favor of someone better qualified, or whatever). I'm genuinely uncertain, here. It's difficult, when comparing actualities to counterfactuals, to establish clear criteria for what counterfactuals to use.
5Nornagest9yAdditionally, it seems unclear whether the Peace Prize is primarily meant to reward or to encourage efforts toward global... let's say "altruism", since "peace" seems too narrow. There have been controversial awards falling into both categories (Kissinger's was unambiguously the former), but controversy over the latter seems to make the news more consistently.
2wedrifid9yPerhaps the peace prize is primarily meant to maximise the use of the word 'Nobel'. Ambiguous wording is perfect for achieving that goal. It allows the prize to maintain the credibility it borrows from the Nobel science awards while also promoting controversy. An ideal execution of posthumous PR strategy (assuming getting crucified while founding a religion is out of the question).
0TheOtherDave9yGetting crucified a few centuries before founding a religion works pretty well, also.
3wedrifid9yOn the other hand Robin Hanson will vote against Obama even in a simple election because he, in Hanson's judgement, started a war unjustifiably [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2011/03/war-is-bad.html]. The "slightly less of a warmonger than you used to be" prize? I don't think the mission is quite that poorly defined! That said, he shared that year's prize with some Israeli folks so it was more a bipartisan honor for a specific act than in honor of the person. That is perhaps justifiable.
4NancyLebovitz9yI used to think that, but I no longer find it plausible. The premise seems to be that leaders are detachable pieces. In fact, assassination has a risk of making leaders more frightened and forceful. Additionally, a good many people may be loyal to a leader, so that assassination registers as an outside threat rather than a favor. A sequence of assassinations is hard. Are you expecting enough of your group to survive and continue? Other groups to take up the project?
0wedrifid9yNot having a significant power base is rather a limiting factor when it comes to just about any political campaign. I suggest that it takes less surviving members to arrange assassinations than it requires to perform a rebellion via conventional tactics.
6NancyLebovitz9yHas the sequence of assassinations tactic ever worked?
6wedrifid9yThe Center for Economic Policy Research says yes [http://www.cepr.org/pubs/new-dps/dplist.asp?dpno=6298.asp].
4gwern9yFull text: http://ipl.econ.duke.edu/bread/papers/working/150.pdf [http://ipl.econ.duke.edu/bread/papers/working/150.pdf]
4NancyLebovitz9yThanks for the links, but what it actually says is that while successful assassination can significantly increase the chance of a move from autocracy to democracy, the odds of a successful assassination are sufficiently low that the net effect of trying to change things with an assassination attempt is close to zero. Assassination has some effect on wars, though.
3gwern9yIf I may say so, those odds seem a lot better than the usual options like 'write letters to the newspaper' or 'start a political party'.
1NancyLebovitz9yOn the other hand, the risks and costs of the letter are much lower than an assassination. The monetary costs of starting a political party are probably comparable or higher, but the personal risks are probably lower unless you're in a country where ending autocracy is a really good idea. Is working within an existing party just too disgusting to think of? Risking your life to get less war probably makes sense on utilitarian grounds unless the war is likely to get rid of a very bad government.
0gwern9yNo, my point was the recorded odds of success for assassins is much much better than conventional politics, by like several percent. How many hundreds of thousands of eager young people have enlisted in the Republican Party and associated conventional routes over the past 50 years, dedicating their lives and aspiring to change things? How many changed things as much as, say, Sirhan Sirhan or Lee Harvey Oswald?
3Vaniver9yEr, the US still supports Israel, and the US still opposes communism. Again, there's a difference between changing things and fulfilling your aspirations.
1gwern9yThe Kennedy political dynasty disappeared, though, which is something to gladden the hearts of Republicans.
5Eugine_Nier8yAs a Republican I have to disagree with you. We lost one of the most conservative Democrats in recent memory and got LBJ instead. Also JFK the martyr probably did a lot more for the liberal cause than JFK the president ever did or would do.

As a Republic

I'm imagining your various organs in line for the polls. Most of 'em vote for your brain.

ETA: aw, you changed it.

4TimS8yVisiting the JFK Museum in Dallas just reinforces the huge dissonance between Kennedy-the-man and Kennedy-the-myth. If the presentations are to be believed, Kennedy would have pulled the US out of Vietnam, ended racial strife, and generally achieved liberal utopia. Those assertions are incredibly laughable given what we know about (a) Kennedy's politics and (b) what actually happened in the decades after his death.
3shminux8yI'm surprised that a forum regular would identify with either of the two major US political parties. Keep your identity small and all that.
-2Eugine_Nier8yNote: it's "keep your identity small" not "have no identity".
3[anonymous]8yStill disappointed that people's identity is so big that that of Greens or Blues fits in it. (Especially when “Greens” are teal and “Blues” are cyan [http://www.politicalcompass.org/uselection2012].)
3Vaniver9yI don't see evidence that Sirhan Sirhan was Republican, and Oswald was definitely a communist. It's not clear to me how that supports your point. (As well, you may have heard of this guy, goes by the name of Ted.)
1gwern9yTed never came anywhere near the presidency and then he sealed the deal with his little car accident; JFK was hoping for two terms, of course, to be followed by RFK, since they were the gifted ones. Killing Ted would be useful from the Republican POV, of course, since Ted did a lot of good work in the Senate, but Robert and John were the threats. The point is that each had a vastly greater impact on the political process than they ever could have had by non-assassination routes. That the impact was not in the direction of their goals is immaterial, because all that means is one needs slightly better planning and then one will have both vast impact on politics and do so in the direction of one's goals. The need for tweaks does not refute the basic point about marginal advantage. (I just said this in my other comment.)
9Vaniver9yI thought we were talking about success, not impact.
0TobyBartels9yOK, so what we're learning here is that, while Sirhan and Oswald didn't achieve their goals (which after all were far fetched and which nobody else has achieved since), the Republican Party would have achieved its goals (which were rather modest and much closer at hand) quite well by assassination. (And of course, that's the basis from which many conspiracy theorists start: qui bono and all that. Even if you don't buy their specific theories, which are usually nonsense, you can agree with them that such conspiracies would have been effective if they were real.)
2TheOtherDave9yIt seems odd to compare cherry-picked assassins to run-of-the-mill politicians. Surely the proper comparison to the hordes of eager young party members is the hordes of eager young killers? (Admittedly, someone who picks up a gun and starts shooting with the intention of changing things but is ineffectual may not earn the title "assassin" in popular consciousness, but it's not clear to me that that matters.)
1gwern9yWhat is cherry-picked about them? There aren't very many real American attempts to begin with, of course a discussion will include Sirhan or Oswald. One of the two had military experience, yes, but nothing especially relevant and long-gun experience is easy to pick up (heck, I probably shoot as well as he did). Further, I would think the recent example of Jared Loughner demonstrates that you don't have to have to be very good to be a good assassin - by sheer bad luck he may not have actually killed Giffords but he did manage to pretty much kill her career inasmuch as she can barely vote and I doubt she'll ever do anything of political significance again, I would not be surprised if she doesn't even run for re-election. (And what if you are serious about it and plan things out? Then you'll be an Anders Breivik!) Again. The fraction of assassins that had significant political effects is much much larger than the fraction of people working through conventional channels having significant political effects. I don't see how one can dispute this, and would appreciate people being explicit about how they think the fractions are not hugely different or even in favor of conventional channels. (Once you have power, engineering it to predictably accomplish what you want to accomplish is detail-work.)
7Vaniver9yI don't think this is detail work; I think this is a serious point of contention. There are hosts of single-issue, small-time politicians who manage to achieve their goals. Assassins rarely achieve any goals beyond killing their targets. Hinckley didn't get Jody Foster; Sirhan didn't prevent Israel from getting military support from the US; Loughner didn't stop women from holding positions of political power. Breivik appears to have hurt his cause more than helped it, but it's too soon to judge the full effects. What are the broader goals that assassins have successfully accomplished?
3Paul Crowley9yI'm under the impression that Yitzhak Rabin's assassination was a political success, though I'm willing to be corrected.
1JoshuaZ9yNot really. At the time negotiations were already quite problematic. And if anything it had the opposite effect. The extreme right became discredited for a few years. They only made a gradual move back into something resembling respectability when negotiations didn't achieve peace for another decade or so.
2TheOtherDave9ySo, I don't have any expertise in political assassination (either practical or historical), but I assume that for every would-be assassin who by skill, resources, or luck manages to even injure their target there are a hundred who never get that close... and that for a target as well-defended as a sitting American President, I assume the ratio is even larger. If I'm right, then picking Oswald as an example is obvious cherrypicking. It's not as bad as, say, looking at lottery winners to argue that buying a lottery ticket is as legitimate a way to make money as getting a job, but it's an error of the same type. Pointing to how lottery winners are no more educated or qualified than I am doesn't really help that argument. That said, I seem to have misunderstood your point. Sure, it seems likely that a significantly larger fraction of sufficiently dedicated assassins have significant political effects than of equally dedicated politicians... agreed.
0TheOtherDave9yThe idea of someone trying to decide between writing a letter to their newspaper, starting a political party, and attempting an assassination is really entertaining me right now. I suspect I need sleep.
4wedrifid9yIt's a good thing I'm not politically active. Those first two options sound horrible. ;)
4prase9yPlease, don't write "Ghandi" instead of Gandhi.
0wedrifid9yIck. I wonder why chrome didn't pick that up for me!
2Vaniver9yI am not out to get you. I am out to correct your view of historical fact. I apologize for acting such that the latter was mistaken for the former. I agree with you. I do not think Gandhi would have organized a fast, walk, or strike over not receiving a prize.
2Desrtopa9yThat sounds likely to fail disastrously.
6Vaniver9yIt has worked once: the Ismailis managed to win freedom from Persia using this method. I do not know how often it has been tried.
-2wedrifid9yI would bet against you heavily in most relevant counterfactual scenarios.
2Desrtopa9yIt requires quite a lot of things to go right. If your group is generally opposed, you need some authority that they'll respond to that will stop them from protesting, either keeping the message secret from the authorities you're trying to oppose, or without telling them the real reason in the first place. The assassinations have to be successful, without the assassins being caught, and present day assassinations frequently fail or are so difficult that they are not attempted in the first place. The authorities have to realize that pulling out would put an end to the deaths, but not decide to retaliate by further victimizing locals with an ultimatum that they'll continue until the assassinations stop.
2wedrifid9ySuccessful obviously. Failing to assassinate people is a terrible strategy. But the 'without being caught' is by no means required. In fact for that group that gave the role it's name [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassins#Military_tactics] getting away was not even a high priority. It was far more important to make the killing public and visible so as to best demoralize the enemy leaders. Which of course moves things along to guerrilla warfare against an occupying force with terrible morale and weakened leadership. If your people are not in a position to overthrow the occupying force when they have that much motivation then you are pretty much screwed. My only advice is "don't be you".
2Desrtopa9yIt's one thing for the assassins to die executing their missions like the Hashishin, another for them to be captured, at which point they become liabilities. Besides, if your group is revealed to be associated with assassinations, your opposition won't stay secret. The occupying force has a strong motive not to back down against weaker foes who show willingness to target their leaders, otherwise they give everyone else they might occupy the incentive to do the same. Besides pulling off repeated assassinations is hard. The Hashishin installed sleeper agents years, sometimes decades in advance, and improved documentation in the present day makes this even more difficult to do without getting caught.
4wedrifid9yYes, monolithic entities obviously have a strong motive to not submit to power moves by other monolithic entities. This applies to peasants going on hunger strikes, silly walks and fighting conventional battles just as well. But occupying forces are not monolithic entities. If a general has 1,000 of his soldiers killed in a battle with resistance then he has a strong personal incentive to send another 2,000 so that he does not look weak to his superiors. If a general and his household is killed then the replacement has a personal incentive to let the other general in the occupying force be the one who orders the next massacre. Or, better yet, he has an incentive to not vie so hard for the promotion and instead pull whatever strings he can to be reassigned as a lieutenant general back in a different province. (Downgrade the respective ranks as appropriate to the extent of the occupying force.) Point is: If it comes a time to resist an enemy with violence target leaders with extreme prejudice. Don't play by unwritten rules of polite warfare. Those favor the oppressor.
0Desrtopa9yYou also have a strong personal incentive not to assassinate if it most likely leads to capture, torture, and having your entire neighborhood purged. I think you're dramatically overestimating how easy it is to pull off a string of assassinations. Sure, you can keep attempting assassinations with force that's not capable of effective resistance in a straight military conflict, but you're likely to keep failing.
2Vaniver9yThe Ismailis (assassins) would often wait around, explicitly to be captured and tortured. If you are expecting to lose the asset, it isn't a significant liability. This is the more significant concern, especially since most conflicts today are inter-ethnic rather than inter-religious. Convincing a Persian Muslim to join a different sect of Islam and then assassinate another Persian is very different from getting a Palestinian suicide-bomber within range of an Israeli politician.
2Vaniver9yModern examples of a similar strategy- terrorists- seem to not be terribly effective at enacting their political goals. That may be because targeting leaders is more effective than targeting civilians or symbols, but it's not clear to me that that is the case.
3wedrifid9yThat's far from the truth. Leaders seem to give them exactly what they want and the terrorists have success beyond anything they could have hoped for. At the rationalist boot camp we had some fun calculating the amount of economic damage caused by one attempted act of terrorism with a shoe bomb that failed. The extra time spent every day by Americans at airports waiting in lines to take off their shoes is hilarious (to anyone for whom costs measured in dollars do not have the instinctive salience that costs in pain and death do when multiplied out). Then there are the effects that 9/11 had on instilling fear (overt goal!), undermining legal rights and causing about a billion dollars worth of expenditure on war per 9/11 victim [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2011/09/forget-911.html]. You obviously consider terrorism to not be successful and so we have a significant disagreement there but probably not one that we need to get into. Because 'terrorism works' is so incredibly political and it isn't something I am trying to claim here. I would concede the point for the sake of the argument because I am not advocating terrorism (of the kind you describe). Blowing up the oppressor's civilians is terribly impractical. It just costs far too much in terms of lives of your people. Reserve blowing up the enemy's civilians unless you have a way to make it look like it was the doing of a rival of your enemy - then it is just about perfect! No, you kill whichever enemy leader is the most hostile to your people. If the situation has escalated such that the enemy is making reprisals against civilians then you probably should expand the assassination to "leaders who ordered civilians killed plus their family if convenient". Whatever it takes to make the replacement figure of power desperate to make the other guy be the one to take the initiative on the tyranny front. It's not always going to work - some fights can't be won no matter what you do. Some fights aren't worth fighting at
3Vaniver9yBy "political goals" I meant things like "remove American soldiers from Saudi Arabia" not "divert American effort towards protection," as we were originally discussing independence efforts rather than destructive efforts. I agree with you that terrorism is very effective at getting people to spend money on defense. What I am looking for, and do not see, is many terrorist groups that make the transition from oppressed minority to political leadership. The Tamil Tigers were crushed after 9/11 made funding terrorism passe, the IRA managed to get a truce with Britain but then turned on itself in a civil war. Palestine doesn't seem much of a success story, given the dominance of Israel. To the best of my knowledge, no contemporary group has tried the Ismaili strategy you advocate. I don't know enough to say why.
0lessdazed9yNot sure if intentional. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqhlQfXUk7w]
0wedrifid9yI'm not sure whether it would have helped or not but I'm sure that if Gandhi's followers used silly walks while fetching salt they would have had a whole lot more fun!

Thanks for the reminder! In honor of this, I donated to the "Against Malaria Foundation". Not all of us have the chance to save the world, but every human life saved is precious! :)

In honor of Stanislav Petrov, today, I will avoid escalating all potential conflicts.

Edit: Oops, already failed.

I don't know whether to upvote you as being absolutely hilarious or downvote you for shameless trolling.

1SilasBarta9yI realized I failed the goal after I submitted the initial post, so the failure wasn't deliberate.

The instructions on donating on that page are dead, but they seem to have pointed to the Association of World Citizens, which takes checks by mail for Petrov. Unfortunately, their site is dead and I see little in google for the past month, so I'm not sure it's possible any more to donate to Petrov.

Thank you for the reminder.