Decoupling vs Contextualising Norms

by Chris_Leong2 min read14th May 201851 comments

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Decoupling vs ContextualizingConversation (topic)
Curated

One of the most common difficulties faced in discussions is when the parties involved have different beliefs as to what the scope of the discussion should be. In particular, John Nerst identifies two styles of conversation as follows:

  • Decoupling norms: It is considered eminently reasonable to require the truth of your claims to be considered in isolation - free of any potential implications. An insistence on raising these issues despite a decoupling request are often seen as sloppy thinking or attempts to deflect.
  • Contextualising norms: It is considered eminently reasonable to expect certain contextual factors or implications to be addressed. Not addressing these factors is often seen as sloppy or an intentional evasion.

(ht prontab. He actually uses low decoupling/high decoupling, but I prefer this terminology. Both John Nerst and prontab passed up the opportunity to post on this topic here)

Let's suppose that blue-eyed people commit murders at twice the rate of the rest of the population. With decoupling norms, it would be considered churlish to object to such direct statements of facts. Sure it's unfortunate for anyone who is blue-eyed, but the truth is the truth. With contextualising norms, you could potentially be criticised for reinforcing the stigma around blue-eyed people. At the very least, you would be expected to have issued a disclaimer to make it clear that you don't think blue-eyed people should be stereotyped as criminals.

John Nerst writes (slightly edited): "To a contextualiser, decouplers’ ability to fence off any threatening implications looks like a lack of empathy for those threatened, while to a decoupler the contextualiser's insistence that this isn’t possible looks like naked bias and an inability to think straight"

For both these norms, it's quite easy to think of circumstances when expectations for the other party to use these norms would normally be considered unreasonable. Weak men are superweapons demonstrates how true statements can be used to destroy a group's credibility and so it seems entirely reasonable to demand contextualisation if you suspect this is the other person's strategy. On the other hand, it's very easy to start painting every action you dislike to be part of someone's agenda (neo-liberal agenda, cultural marxist agenda, far right agenda, ect. take your pick). People definitely have agendas and take actions as a result of this, but the wide usage of universal counter-arguments should rightly be frowned upon.

I agree with the contextualisers that making certain statements, even if true, can be incredibly naive in highly charged situations that could be set off by a mere spark. On the other hand, it seems that we need at least some spaces for engaging in decoupling-style conversations. Elizier wrote an article on Local Validity as a Key to Sanity and Civilisation. I believe that having access to such spaces is another key.

At the same time, I don't want to fall for the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle and assume that both perspectives are equally valid. While there is truth in both, I feel that at the current time society needs to shift more towards Decoupling Norms. Zack Davis writes that he is afraid that "the concept of "contextualizing norms" has the potential to legitimize derailing discussions for arbitrary political reasons by eliding the key question of which contextual concerns are genuinely relevant, thereby conflating legitimate and illegitimate bids for contextualization". I agree that is possible in theory, but it seems that people who want to derail discussions can already do that without a need for further justification. Further, contextualising norms are widespread enough at this point that we can't really avoid dialog across these boundaries, which is what this concept enables.

Zack also wants to emphasise how contextual these factors are. That talking about the higher rate of blue-eyed people who are murderers is relevant when discussing the the higher number of blue-eyed people in prison, but irrelevant when someone mentions they are going to date someone with blue-eyes because the base rate is too low. This is a good point, but it's always the case that we can shift from viewing a phenomenon as a binary at the lowest resolution, then a spectrum, then contextual. Zack worries that a spectrum wouldn't be a useful model as there isn't a general factor of contextualising. I disagree with this - it seems that social scientists lean very heavily toward contextualisation norms and mathematicians towards decoupling norms.

These complexities mean that there isn't a simple prescriptive solution here. Instead this post merely aimed to describe this phenomenon, as at least if you are aware of this, it may be possible to navigate this.

Further reading:

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AAAAAAAAA THIS THING IT HAS A NAME AT LAST!

(ahem.)

Decoupling, orthogonality, unbundling, separation of concerns, relevance, the belief that the genetic fallacy is in fact a fallacy, hugging the query.... :)

Not a new idea, but an important one, and worth writing explicitly about!

Any links to where this has already been discussed?

I mean, it's kind of implicit in lots of the stuff on Less Wrong, isn't it?

Question: is there any reason to use the words "decoupling" rather than "coupling"? It seems to me that "low decoupling" is logically equivalent to "high coupling" and "high decoupling" is logically equivalent to low coupling. So in the spirit of simplification, would it not be better to state the distinction as being between "high coupling" people and "low coupling"?

To me, (1) "coupling" suggests specifically joining in pairs much more strongly than "decoupling" suggests specifically detaching pairs and (2) "coupling" suggests that the default state of the things is disconnection, whereas "decoupling" suggests that the default state is connection.

The usual scenario here is that (1) you have lots of things that all relate to one another, and that (2a) most people find it difficult to disentangle, or disapprove of disentangling, and that (2b) all really truly are connected to one another, so that considering them in isolation is a sometimes useful and effective cognitive trick rather than any sort of default.

For all those reasons I think "decoupling" is a better term than "coupling" here. (I also like the opposition decoupling/contextualizing, as found in some of the earlier things Nernst links to, rather than more-decoupling/less-decoupling. When faced with a pile of interrelated things, sometimes you want to decouple them and sometimes you want to pay special attention to the interrelations. It's not as simple as there being some people who are good at decoupling and some who aren't. Though of course most people are bad at decoupling and bad at contextualizing...)

Actually, I like Decoupling vs. Contextualising more too, especially as they become single words.

Yeah I like those quite a bit more, actually (I actually thinking using them in the conversations on this post would make them easier to follow)

I definitely think Nerst has things the right way round, but I'm having trouble making explcit why. One reason though that I can make explicit is that, well, tangling everything together is the default. Decoupling -- orthogonality, unbundling, separation of concerns, hugging the query -- is rarer, takes work, and is worth pointing out.

The core of this post seems to be this

  • Decoupling norms: It is considered eminently reasonable to require your claims to be considered in isolation - free of any context or potential implications. An insistence on raising these issues despite a decoupling request are often seen as sloppy thinking or attempts to deflect.
  • Contextualising norms: It is considered eminently reasonable to expect certain contextual factors or implications to be addressed. Not addressing these factors is often seen as sloppy or even an intentional evasion.

As Zack_M_Davis points out in his review, one of the issues with this definition is that there are infinite variations of "context" that can be added in any given situation "I'm wearing a hat while saying this", and there are infinite implications that any given thing you say can have "this implies that the speaker has a mouth and could therefore say the thing.

However, I do think that there is an actual, useful, real distinction here that's both important and doesn't have another thing to describe. The thing I think this is pointing at is "How much you and others are willing to think about the consequences of what is said seperate from its' truth value."

This split is quite important in a community that cares strongly about truth, and strongly about the outcomes of the world, and being able to say "we're in a decoupling space" or "this is a contextualzing conversation" or "I generally support decoupling as an epistemic norm" is quite an important shorthand to point at that thing.

I'd love to see the post cleaned up to make it clear that you're talking about "contextualizing as understanding how your words will have an effect in the context that you're in" and decoupling as "decoupling what you say from the effects it may create."

I'd love to see the post cleaned up to make it clear that you're talking about "contextualizing as understanding how your words will have an effect in the context that you're in" and decoupling as "decoupling what you say from the effects it may create."

I don't think there's a general consensus that this post does, or should, mean that. For example, Raemon's review suggests "jumbled" as an antonym to "decoupled", and gives a description that's more general than yours. For another example, you described your review of Affordance Widths as a decoupled alternative to the contextualizing reviews that others had already written, but the highest-voted contextualizing review is explicitly about the truth value of ialdabaoth's post -- it incorporates information about the author, but only to make the claim that the post contains an epistemic trap, one which we could in principle have noticed right away but which in practice wasn't obvious without the additional context of ialdabaoth's bad behavior. This is clearly contextualizing in some sense, but doesn't match the definition you've given here.

I think this post is fundamentally unfinished. It drew a distinction that felt immediate and important to many commenters here, but a year and a half later we still don't have a clear understanding of what that distinction is. I think that vagueness is part of what has made this post popular: everyone is free to fill in the underspecified parts with whatever interpretation makes the most sense to them.

I think this is valid.

It occurs to me that "free speech", "heterodoxy", and "decoupling vs contextualising" are all related to intelligence vs virtue signaling. In particular, if you want to do or see more intelligence signaling, then you should support free speech and decoupling norms. If you want to do or see more virtue signaling, then you should support contextualising norms and restrictions on free speech. Heterodox ideas tend to be better (more useful) for intelligence signaling and orthodox ideas better for virtue signaling. (Hopefully this is obvious once pointed out, but I can explain more if not.)

Curated for succinctly creating some useful handles for two concepts that have implicitly been coming up a lot. i think this has already been helpful to me when thinking about some confusing/challenging conversations.

This post seems to be making a few claims, which I think can be evaluated separately:

1) Decoupling norms exist
2) Contextualizing norms exist 
3) Decoupling and contextualization norms are useful to think as opposites (either as a dichotomy or spectrum)

(i.e. there are enough people using those norms that it's a useful way to carve up the discussion-landscape)

There's a range of "strong" / "weak" versions of these claims – decoupling and/or contextualization might be principled norms that some people explicitly endorse, or they might just be clusters of tendencies people have sometimes. 

In the comments of his response post, Zack Davis noted: 

It's certainly possible that there's a "general factor" of contextualizing—that people systematically and non-opportunistically vary in how inferentially distant a related claim has to be in order to not create an implicature that needs to be explicitly canceled if false. But I don't think it's obvious, and even if it's true, I don't think it's pedagogically wise to use a politically-motivated appeal-to-consequences as the central case of contextualizing.

And, reading that, I think it may actually the opposite – there is general factor of "decoupling", not contextualizing. By default people are using language for a bunch of reasons all jumbled together, and it's a relatively small set of people who have the deliberately-decouple tendency, skill and/or norm, of "checking individual statements to see if they make sense."

Upon reflection, this is actually more in line with the original Nerst article, which used the terms "Low Decoupling" and "High Decoupling", which less strongly conveys the idea of "contextualizer" being a coherent thing. 

On the other hand, Nerst's original post does make some claims about Klein being the sort of person (a journalist) who is "definitively a contextualizer, as opposed to just 'not a decoupler'", here:

While science and engineering disciplines (and analytic philosophy) are populated by people with a knack for decoupling who learn to take this norm for granted, other intellectual disciplines are not. Instead they’re largely composed of what’s opposite the scientist in the gallery of brainy archetypes: the literary or artistic intellectual.

This crowd doesn’t live in a world where decoupling is standard practice. On the contrary, coupling is what makes what they do work. Novelists, poets, artists and other storytellers like journalists, politicians and PR people rely on thick, rich and ambiguous meanings, associations, implications and allusions to evoke feelings, impressions and ideas in their audience. The words “artistic” and “literary” refers to using idea couplings well to subtly and indirectly push the audience’s meaning-buttons.

To a low-decoupler, high-decouplers’ ability to fence off any threatening implications looks like a lack of empathy for those threatened, while to a high-decoupler the low-decouplers insistence that this isn’t possible looks like naked bias and an inability to think straight. This is what Harris means when he says Klein is biased.

Although they're interwoven, I think it might be worth distinguishing some subclaims here (not necessarily made by Nerst or Leong, but I think implied and worth thinking about)

  • There exist a class of general storytelling contextualists
  • There exist PR-people/politicians/activists who wield contextual practice as a tool or weapon.
  • There exist "principled contextualizers" who try to evenly come to good judgments that depends on context.

My Epistemic State

Empirical Questions

There's a set of fairly concrete "empirical" questions here, which are basically "if you do a bunch of factor analysis of discussions, would decoupling and/or contextualization and/or any of the specific contextual-subcategories listed above be major predictive power?"

The experiments you'd run for this might be expensive but not very confusing. 

I would currently guess:

  • "Decoupling factor" definitely exists and is meaningful
  • Storytelling contextualists exist and are meaningful (though not necessarily especially useful to contrast with decouplers)
  • PR-ists who wield context as tool/weapon definitely exist (and decoupling is often relevant to their plans, so they have developed tools that allow them to modulate the degree to which decoupling fits into the conversational frame)
  • I think I could name a few people at least attempting to be "fair, principled contextualists", at least in some circumstances. I am less confident that this is a real thing because the alternative "secretly they're just really effective or subtle PR-ists, either intentionally or not" is a pretty viable alternative

Conceptual Question

I have a remaining confusion, which is something like "what exactly is a contextualizer?". I feel like I have a crisp definition of "decoupling". I don't have that for contextualizers. Are the three subcategories listed above really 'relatives' or are they just three different groups doing different things? Is it meaningful to put these on a spectrum with decouplers on the other side?

mr-hire suggests:

"How much you and others are willing to think about the consequences of what is said separate from its' truth value."

Which sounds like a plausibly good definition, that maybe applies to all three of the subcategories. But I feel like it's not quite the natural definition for each individual subcategory. (Rather, it's something a bit downstream of each category definition)

"Jumbled" vs "Contextual"

"High decoupling" and "low decoupling" are still pretty confusing terms, even if you get rid of any notion of "low decoupling" being a cogent thing. It occured to me, writing this review, that you might replace the word "contextual" with "jumbled".

Contextual implies some degree of principled norms. Jumbled points more towards "the person is using language for a random mishmash of strategies all thrown together." (Politicians might sometimes be best described as "jumbled", and sometimes as "principled" [but, not necessarily good principles, i.e. 'I will deliberately say whatever causes my party to win']).

...

That's what I got for now. 

I really don't like the term jumbled as some people would likely object much more to being labelled as jumbled than as a contextualiser. The rest of this comment makes some good points, but sometimes less is more. I do want to edit this article, but I think I'll mostly engage with Zack's points and reread the article.

The OP comment was optimizing for "improving my understanding of the domain" more than direct advice of how to change the post. 

(I'm not necessarily expecting the points and confusions there to resolve within the next month – it's possible that you'll reflect on it a bit and then figure out a slightly different orientation to the post, that distills the various concepts into a new form. Another possible outcome is that you leave the post as-is for now, and then in another year or two after mulling things over someone writers a new post doing a somewhat different thing, that becomes the new referent. Or, it might just turn out that my current epistemic state wasn't that useful. Or other things)

Re: "Jumbled"

I think there's sort of a two-step process that goes into naming things (ironically, or appropriate, which map directly onto the post) – first figuring out "okay what actually is this phenomenon, and what name most accurately describes it?" and then, separately, "okay, what sort of names are going to reliably going to make people angry and distract from the original topic if you apply it to people, and are there alternative names that cleave closely to the truth?"

(my process for generating names in that risk offending is something like a multi-step Babble and Prune, where I generate names aiming to satisfice on "a good explanation of the true phenomenon" and "not likely to be unnecessarily distracting", until I have a name that satisfies both criteria)

I haven't tried generating a maximally good name for Jumbled yet since I wasn't sure this was even carving reality the right way.

But, like, it's not an accident that 'jumbled' is more likely to offend people than 'contextualized'. I do, in fact, think worse of people who have jumbled communication than deliberately contextualized communication. (compare "Virtue Signalling", which is an important term but is basically an insult except among people who have some kind of principled understanding that "Yup, it turns out some of the things I do had unflattering motives and I've come to endorse that, or endorse my current [low] degree of prioritizing changing it.")

I am a conversation consequentialist and think it's best to find ways of politely pointing out unflattering things about people in ways that don't make them defensive. But, it might be that the correct carving of reality includes some unflattering descriptions of people and maybe the best you can do is minimize distraction-damage.

I think this article is a considerable step forward, but it could benefit from some examples. I think I have a pretty good idea what this is about (and share the horror of being called out by a low-decoupler for being some kind of ism), but still.

Hmm, well the article has an example, but it is super long and I'm trying to avoid this becoming political. Any suggestions for examples?

The example you use is already CW-enough that high-decouplers may be suspicious or hostile of the point you are trying to make.

Then again, maybe anything elsewould be too far removed from our shared experience that it wouldn't serve as a quick and powerful illustration of your point.

Here are some suggestions made with both of these points in mind:

--The original example Scott uses about a Jew in future Czarist Russia constantly hearing about how powerful Jews are and how evil Israel is.

--Flipping the script a bit, how about an example in which someone goes around saying "86% of rationalists are straight white men" (or something like that, I don't know the actual number).

--Or: "Effective Altruists are usually people who are biased towards trying to solve their problems using math."

Come to think of it, I think including one of those flip-script examples would be helpful in other ways as well.

Reply: "Relevance Norms; Or, Gricean Implicature Queers the Decoupling/Contextualizing Binary" (further counterreplies in the comment section)

I argue that this post should not be included in the Best-of-2018 compilation.

I wish John Nerst could be convinced to crosspost here.

Agreed with quanticle, but otherwise think this is a very helpful dichotomy to have a handle for.

Two years later, the concept of decoupled vs contextualizing has remained an important piece of my vocabulary.

I'm glad both for this distillation of Nerst's work (removing some of the original political context that might make it more distracting to link to in the middle of an argument), and in particular for the jargon-optimization that followed ("contextualized" is much more intuitive than "low-decoupling.")

This post has been object-level useful, for navigating particular disagreements. (I think in those cases I haven't brought it up directly myself, but I've benefited from a sometimes-heated-discussion having access to the concepts).

I think it's also been useful at a more meta-level, as one of the concepts in my toolkit that enable me to think higher level thoughts in the domain of group norms and frame disagreements. A recent facebook discussion was delving into a complicated set of differences in norms/expectations, where decoupled/contextualizing seemed to be one of the ingredients but not the entirety. Having the handy shorthand and common referent allowed it to only take up a single working-memory slot while still being able to think about the other complexities at play.

This post has been object-level useful, for navigating particular disagreements.

Can you give specific examples? I've basically only seen "contextualizing norms" used as a stonewalling tactic, but you've probably seen discussions I haven't.

The most recent example was this facebook thread. I'm hoping over the next week to find some other concrete examples to add to the list, although I think the most of the use cases here were in hard-to-find-after-the-fact-facebook-threads.

Note that much of the value add here is being able to succinctly talk about the problem, sometimes saying "hey, this is a high-decoupling conversation/space, read this blogpost if you don't know what that means".

I don't think I've run into people citing "contextualizing norms" as a reason not to talk about things, although I've definitely run into people operating under contextualizing norms in stonewally-ways without having a particular name for it. I'd expect that to change as the jargon becomes more common though, and if you have examples of that happening already that'd be good to know. 

(Hmm – Okay I guess it'd make sense if you saw some of our past debates as something like me directly advocating for contextualizing, in a way that seemed harmful to you. I hadn't been thinking there through the decoupled/contextualized lens, not quite sure if the lens fits, but might make sense upon reflection)

It still seems like having the language here is a clear net benefit though.

as the jargon becomes more common

If the jargon becomes more common. (The Review Phase hasn't even started yet!) I wrote a reply explaining in more detail why I don't like this post.

Cool! I found your new post pretty helpful. Will probably have more thoughts later.

My nomination seconds the things that were said in the first paragraphs of Raemon's nomination.

Isn't it just the distinction between how facts are used in scientific discourse (you state a fact, expect it to be confirmed or challenged) vs. how they are used in political discourse (carefully select other fact to augment it and suit your political narrative)? I guess Umberto Eco would have had something to say about that.

At the same time, I don't want to fall for the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle and assume that both perspectives are equally valid.

Minor possible quibble: based on the definition in the link given, I think Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle doesn't refer to assuming a the deep wisdom position that two sides of a debate each have merit.

The fallacy of the undistributed middle (Lat. non distributio medii) is a formal fallacy that is committed when the middle term in a categorical syllogism is not distributed in either the minor premise or the major premise. It is thus a syllogistic fallacy.)

This is one of the Major splits I see in norms on LW (the other being combat vs. Nurture). Having a handy tag for this is quite useful for pointing at a thing without having to grasp to explain it.

I can see the models usefulness but I think you are impling they are equal. This seems wrong. Decoupling required more specific knowledge and concentration and is more analogous to Kahneman's slow thinking. Obvious context can be thought of in a rich way but only after the individual ideas have been richly defined (often in previous thoughts). We cycle between the two approaches but I feel decoupling required the greater focus and is lacking when we discuss topics we are unfamiliar with (and a possible link with the Dunning Kruger effect). My understanding of cognitive load theory from education (limited working memory) also seems relavent. By limiting context we can more intensely analyse each aspect, repackage them efficiently and accurately before returning contextual information the whole problem. This seems to me the classic method of enlightenment thinking. Obviously understanding why other people might misunderstand d this is important however that is an argument around politics, rhetoric and persuasion not about clarity of thought.

Finally pure contextualisation is only about outcomes and decoupling only about process. Without understanding alternate approaches (which requires specialist knowledge) our assessment of the best method to achieve our outcome is likely flawed.