Politics is the Mind-Killer

by Eliezer Yudkowsky1 min read18th Feb 2007232 comments

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People go funny in the head when talking about politics. The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death. And sex, and wealth, and allies, and reputation . . . When, today, you get into an argument about whether “we” ought to raise the minimum wage, you’re executing adaptations for an ancestral environment where being on the wrong side of the argument could get you killed. Being on the right side of the argument could let you kill your hated rival!

If you want to make a point about science, or rationality, then my advice is to not choose a domain from contemporary politics if you can possibly avoid it. If your point is inherently about politics, then talk about Louis XVI during the French Revolution. Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality—but it’s a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.

Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back—providing aid and comfort to the enemy. People who would be level-headed about evenhandedly weighing all sides of an issue in their professional life as scientists, can suddenly turn into slogan-chanting zombies when there’s a Blue or Green position on an issue.

In artificial intelligence, and particularly in the domain of nonmonotonic reasoning, there’s a standard problem: “All Quakers are pacifists. All Republicans are not pacifists. Nixon is a Quaker and a Republican. Is Nixon a pacifist?”

What on Earth was the point of choosing this as an example? To rouse the political emotions of the readers and distract them from the main question? To make Republicans feel unwelcome in courses on artificial intelligence and discourage them from entering the field?1

Why would anyone pick such a distracting example to illustrate nonmonotonic reasoning? Probably because the author just couldn’t resist getting in a good, solid dig at those hated Greens. It feels so good to get in a hearty punch, y’know, it’s like trying to resist a chocolate cookie.

As with chocolate cookies, not everything that feels pleasurable is good for you.

I’m not saying that I think we should be apolitical, or even that we should adopt Wikipedia’s ideal of the Neutral Point of View. But try to resist getting in those good, solid digs if you can possibly avoid it. If your topic legitimately relates to attempts to ban evolution in school curricula, then go ahead and talk about it—but don’t blame it explicitly on the whole Republican Party; some of your readers may be Republicans, and they may feel that the problem is a few rogues, not the entire party. As with Wikipedia’s npov, it doesn’t matter whether (you think) the Republican Party really is at fault. It’s just better for the spiritual growth of the community to discuss the issue without invoking color politics.

1And no, I am not a Republican. Or a Democrat.

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People are certainly more biased in politics than in most other subjects. So yes, it helps to find ways to transfer our cognitive habits from other topics into politics. But as long as you don't "go native," politics should be rich source of bias examples to think about.

9brazil849yRich sources of finding bias in other people. But if the idea is to remove the log from one's own eye, it may make sense to steer clear. Personally, I did not learn how to think critically until I went to law school and studied questions which were pretty far removed from the various inflammatory issues floating around out there. What exceptions should there be to the Hearsay Rule? Should the use of a company car be considered "income" under the Internal Revenue Code? etc. etc.
5RPMcMurphy6ySupport for the KKK and for neo-nazis, is, in fact, a political position. Is it "biased" to oppose the KKK's political goals? I don't think it's biased in any bad sense of the term, but it's definitely biased. (As is favoring un-prohibited access to regenerative medicine; freedom of speech; due process of law; etc.) In fact, I could probably come up with objectively good, more right, and Less Wrong arguments for why I believe my bias is legitimate. This should be our sole concern: legitimacy, with reference to reality. I could include anecdotal information that would be seen as "less legitimate" and systemic information with millions of data points that would be seen as "more legitimate." None of that would effect the legitimacy of the argument itself, in an objective sense. All bad politics destroys, harms, kills. It's easy to find bad policies that have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, by looking at the raw data. We should do that, and not shy away from it. Even if people say we're "stupid" or "mind-killed" for doing so. There's another problem: Those who benefit from the status quo benefit from labeling all political discussion as mind-killed.
-1advil4yYou know the only thing worse than arguing about politics, is arguing why one shouldn't argue about politics. Seriously though, while this post is/was important, I still think there should have been a request to not debate politics in this post's comment section, because you know, explaining why it's bad to debate politics in science blogs apparently wasn't enough.
1scashman4yI think that in talking about politics trying to avoid "team based" reasoning hijacking your thinking doesn't mean that you have to not have a political position. Being opposed to the KKK or a politician who wants to round up all homeless people and turn them into soylent green doesn't mean you are unreasonable. The big problem in thinking about political things is that people often, as this article argues, line all their thinking and reasoning up with their side and refuse to consider that their side might be wrong about some things. Maybe the politician who wants to make homeless people into soylent green actually is totally right about some things. Maybe the training programs for homeless people do suck and should be reworked in some ways. If your team is at war with another team some of your soldiers could be bad soldiers and some of the soldiers on the other side could be really good soldiers, but you are still going to support your side of the battle! The worst soldier fighting on your side is on your side! Even a great soldier on the other team is out to get you! If anything the other side having good soldiers (or good arguments) is a terrible thing, because they are the enemy! If the other side makes good arguments from time to time this doesn't mean you should line up with them where they are right, it means you have to fight twice as hard where they are kind of making a point because you don't want people drawn into their influence. The point is not to abandon your rationally held beliefs, but to avoid wholesale adopting an extensive political belief system.
0advil4yThe problem is that 1) there's no one to do a rational analysis if everyone goes funny in the head, and 2) "people go funny in the Head" too easily becomes a fully general counterargument when one tries to take it into account.

Like Eliezer, I would prefer if contemporary politics did not show up much here, and I do not identify with either political party. What I wonder though, is whether we would feel the same way if we did identify with one of the parties. Perhaps a Republican might, seeing as how the Republicans have not been looking as good recently while a Democrat would be happy for the latest mess their opponents are in to be highlighted. If the weblog lasted long enough perhaps both sides could become tired enough of their side being kicked while down to come to a gentle... (read more)

-1adolthitler9yI think the point is where the criticism is aimed and how it is made. First to be dispassionate yourself by not being wed to your desired outcome and to ask questions of the "other" party that should lead them to your view if they do not have a rational reason for their view, and they are rational. Second criticise the ideas, not the person or organisation. In that way the ideas fight it out, and you don't get injured, and you award a medal to the winning idea.
-2RPMcMurphy6yDid you mean any political party? There are over ten in the USA, and four of them have the capacity to win the presidency, as of 2012. See Independent Political Report [www.independentpoliticalreport.com]

I too would prefer for contemporary politics to show up here only very rarely.

-17shanerg10y

Robin, I would still argue that one can, as much as possible, avoid taking potshots. It's the difference between writing a post which points out the flaws in having intelligent design taught in schools, versus giving in to the temptation to blame it on "the Republicans", or for that matter, "big government".

Yes, please, let's all avoid taking potshots, on politics or anything else.

1RPMcMurphy6y...But now that pot is legal in Colorado, I've really been enjoying potshots! Dang. ...Yet another thing prohibited by the cult I belong to! I guess I'll have to find another way to get suitably "mind-killed." However, I must inform you all that my "true rejection" is getting "incorrigibility-killed" which is a side-effect of not getting "mind-killed." Quite a conundrum! In that, I remain incorrigible, as any suitably strong AGI must. And, with that, I bid you a fond farewell, best wishes, and may you all at least survive the intelligence explosion.

First, in light of the new moderator status, I would like to commend this blog in its entirety for its novel and profound discussions of so many important topics.

Enough sarcasm...As per politics the mind killer: isn't there almost always a "greater truth" involved than any one issue? What gets ignored, emphasized, is a what serves that great truth, something you may have once fully understood where it came from, but now only know is true. Like why is the sky blue? I know it is, I know I once knew the physics why it is. But most importantly, I know it is true for a solid reason. Any cascading implications of these big truths are to be heeded appropriately.

The political metamorphisis from the professional scientist to a slogan-chanting zombie reminds us of the way religious biologists manage to carve reality into separate magisteria the second they step out of the lab. The question being, is there really a difference? Would a "grand unified theory of human cognitive bias" characterize political and religious bias as "two bullets from the same gun"? The presence of a God module serves as evidence that the religious bias is neuroanatomically distinct, and therefore likely to be independe... (read more)

0[anonymous]9yx

There is no doubt that politics gets people fired up, which makes dispassionate reasoning about it hard. On the other hand, politics is important, which makes dispassionate reasoning about it important as well. There is nothing wrong with deciding that this particular blog will not focus on politics. But to the extent that we do want to talk about politics here, I don't think the trick of finding some neutral historical example to argue about is going to work. First, historical examples that are obscure enough not to arouse passions one way or the othe... (read more)

I see politics as unimportant. For most of us, our political opinions have essentially no impact on the world. Their main effect is in our personal lives, our interactions with friends and family. On that basis, one should choose a political position that facilitates such "local" goals. There is little point in trying to be correct and accurate on large-scale political matters, other than as a bias-stretching mental exercise on a par with doing Sudoku.

1[anonymous]9yx
-1lessdazed9yAnd if all candidate political positions entail discarding the principle that one should choose a political position that facilitates "local" goals?
-2[anonymous]9yx
6thomblake9yOr, it was not really relatively important all along, and you just happened to get unlucky. Lots of things can kill you. You don't need to talk about all of them every day. For example, you are making posts about politics rather than carjacking or meteor strikes.
-5[anonymous]9y
5BlueAjah8yYou couldn't be more wrong. What you should say is that you don't notice the impact your political opinions have on the world, because it happens slowly, because people with radically different political views tend to live in far off countries that you don't think about or in the distant past, and because currently people like you have somewhat sensible political opinions in terms of their short-term consequences (but not at all sensible in terms of their long-term consequences). Your life would be very different if you lived under a different political regime (Islamism, Communism, Fascism, etc.). And the future of the world will be very different depending on the political views of people like you. It's just hard to see from your point of view. There are multiple apocalypses headed your way within the next century, and you have limited time to take political action about them. So I'd encourage you to change your mind, and do those bias-stretching mental exercises, to work out a rational political response.

While trying to avoid bitter partisan sniping is probably a good thing, I think the goal of avoiding politics is naive. Everyone is enmeshed in politics, like it or not. To deny politics is a form of political ideology itself. There seems to be a strong libertarian bias to this crowd, for instance. Libertarians seek to replace politics with markets, but that is in itself a political goal.

Another sad truth: even if we disavow responsibility for the actions of our political leaders, others will hold us responsible for them, given that we are a democracy and all. See here for some thoughts on how we are forced into group identification whether we like it or not.

Politics is not optional and if you are interested in overcoming bias I suggest that it's better to acknowledge that fact than bury it.

-8duckduckMOO9y
-2Alex_O6yDenying politics is also a mode of oppression. I had a teacher calling women in my class "females" which is very insulting in French as it only ever applies to animals, not peoples. When one of them complained, he dismissed her by saying it was not the place for her feminist militantism. Another note on Martin Luther King : he said several times that the greatest enemies of black liberation were not the KKK but those (mosty middle class, benefiting indirectly from racism) who saw the problem but advocated innaction because revendication wasn't polite or there was better problems to adress.
-1Journeyman6yNote to all rationalists: Politics has already slashed your tires. Politics has already pwned [http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2007/09/how-dawkins-got-pwned-part-1.html] your brain. Politics has already smashed the Overton Window. Politics has already kicked over your Schelling fence. Politics has already planted weeds in your garden. What are you going to do about it?
2mtraven6yProbably make some snarky remark about how people who think they are free of politics are in reality in the grip of one of the more deadly forms of it.
0Journeyman5yBtw, "you" was "general you", not you personally, and mine was trying to piggyback. Post edited to clarify.
1mtraven5yNo offense taken. BTW I have written quite a bit since 2007(!) on the relationship of rationalism and politics, see here [http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com/2015/05/three-forms-of-antipolitics.html] for a starting pont.

So true. Politics is a mind killer. The time people spend on arguing politics is time that could be spent helping to make a difference in someone's life. That is where true power is!

Arguing about politics is helping people. If it makes sense that "a bad argument gets a counterargument, not a bullet," then it makes sense that frictions among people's political beliefs should be cooled by allowing everyone to state their case. Not necessarily on this site, but as a general matter, I don't think that talking about politics is either a mind-killer or time-wasting. For me personally it's a motivator both to understand more about the facts, so that I can present arguments; to understand more about other people, so I know why they disagree; and to understand more about myself, so that I can make sure that my convictions are solid. I actually believe that trying to find a way to influence politics to become more sensible is the most I can do to make a positive difference in the lives of other people.

I just stumbled upon this blog and this post, and couldn't agree more. Hal Finney's comment is particularly good (and amounts to prior art for my recently-released Proteanist Manifesto.)

I will be updating it to reflect Hal's priority.

Haggers Barlowe

Lately I've been thinking about "mind killing politics". I have come to the conclusion that this phenomenon is pretty much present to some degree in any kind of human communication where being wrong means you or your side lose status.

It is incorrect to assume that this bias can only occurs when the topic involves government, religion, liberalism/conservatism or any other "political" topics. Communicating with someone who has a different opinion than you is sufficient for the "mind killing politics" bias to start creeping in.

The pressure to commit "mind killing politics" type biases is proportional to how much status one or one's side has to lose for being wrong in any given disagreement. This doesn't mean the bias can't be mixed or combined with other biases.

I've also noticed six factors that can increase or decrease the pressure to be biased.

1)If you are talking to your friends or people close to you that you trust then the pressure to be right will be reduced because they are less likely to subtract status from you for being wrong. Talking to strangers will increase it.

2)Having an audience will increase the pressure to be right. That's beca... (read more)

0centripetal10ywhy is the foundational criterion for political discussions adversarial? I wonder. And, why is it that the meaning and the connotations of the word politics have been dumbed down to a two party/two ideologies process? In fact, there aren't 2 parties, just different ideological hermeneutics. "It's ideology stupid" says Zizek.
0Antisuji10ySorry to reply to an old comment, but regarding item (2), the loss of status is at least in proportion to the number of listeners (in relatively small groups, anyway) since each member of the audience now knows that every other member of the audience knows that you were wrong. This mutual knowledge in turn increases the pressure on your listeners to punish you for being wrong and therefore be seen as right in the eyes of the remaining witnesses. I think this (edit: the parent post) is a pretty good intuition pump, but perhaps the idea of an additive quantity of "lost status" is too simplistic.
1pnrjulius8yI largely agree with you, but I think that there's something we as rationalists can realize about these disagreements, which helps us avoid many of the most mind-killing pitfalls. You want to be right, not be perceived as right. What really matters, when the policies are made and people live and die, is who was actually right, not who people think is right. So the pressure to be right can be a good thing, if you leverage it properly into actually trying to get the truth. If you use it to dismiss and suppress everything that suggests you are wrong, that's not being right; it's being perceived as right, which is a totally different thing. (See also the Litany of Tarski.)

Belonging to a political party lets us be lazy as the decisions are made for us..."Liberals like frogs legs. Conservatives read stories about dairy. etc."

Belonging to a political party lets us have a sense of belonging. On the other side of the coin, it gives us the sense of rivalry. Humans need rivals as much as they need comradery. "My life would be so much easier if it wasn't for those darn so-and-sos."

Belonging to a political party fills our minds with much-needed obsessions. "My life would be so much easier if it wasn't ... (read more)

-3[anonymous]9yx

In Artificial Intelligence, and particularly in the domain of nonmonotonic reasoning, there's a standard problem: "All Quakers are pacifists. All Republicans are not pacifists. Nixon is a Quaker and a Republican. Is Nixon a pacifist?"

What on Earth was the point of choosing this as an example? To rouse the political emotions of the readers and distract them from the main question? To make Republicans feel unwelcome in courses on Artificial Intelligence and discourage them from entering the field?

This is great.

Are you aware that you, for i... (read more)

So, here's a question: why was the form of the Nixon Diamond stated as it was, and why were no links given to either formal or informal discussions of it?

The original, as near as I can see, does not use the absolute categories (always) but prefers probability statements (usually, by and large) - and indeed, that seems to be the point of the diamond

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-nonmonotonic/

If people are using absolute categories hereabouts, they're making silly arguments. Are those arguments as silly as doing a long blue/green thought experimen... (read more)

We do still believe being on the right and wrong side of a political argument is life and death. For some, death via inadequate medical services or life as in wealth preservation. Isn't it the perfect context to evaluate bias? What we see as threatening to us and having little experience with the other side of the argument?

I simply love your quote "As with chocolate cookies, not everything that feels pleasurable is good for you. And it certainly isn't good for our hapless readers who have to read through all the angry comments your blog post inspired. " This made me have a little chuckle to myself. No cookies and whey protein for me tonight lol I will feel to terrible!!

You write "The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death."

Is there any evidence for that? That sounds much like the typical sort of sociobiologistic hypothesis which sounds so convincing that no one really thinks about it and just nods in agreement. So, are there any papers, experiments, mathematical models to back it up?

I would rather more suggest a hypothesis that it was (and is) very favorable for humans in terms of fitness to belong to a certain group of people and stick to that group - whether that group is a sports team, a class at school or a political party.

Well, I wouldn't dare to disagree with the rest of your article. Just that choosing of a political party has nothing to do with actual politics, just with sticking to a group.

1omeganaut10yCitystates in Greece had to deal with politics that certainly could mean life or death. When the Peloponnesian war broke out, states had to take sides, or risk being hated by both sides, and at risk for invasion and conquering. Rome around the time of Julius Caesar was turbulent, and where supporting the wrong Tribune could mean being put on a wanted list and killed by a bounty hunter when they came to power. In Germany, choosing the wrong side at the wrong time could certainly result in execution for heresay or treason. There are many examples throughout history where competing political views transferred into violence and killing, if not outright war.

Those don't fit my understanding of the "ancestral environment" - I associate that with the tribes-of-cavemen era. By my understanding, Greek city-states are within our FOOM period. Am I mistaken?

4[anonymous]9yNo, you're completely right -- omeganaut is confused about what constitutes the "ancestral environment" here. For most examples of "ancient" or "primitive" peoples that come to mind, there's a simple test: if they performed agriculture, horticulture or pastoralism as a primary way of life within the last 10,000 years, they're within in our FOOM period, and even if they didn't start out with it, the odds are extremely good that contact, cultural diffusion or conquest have moved them into orbit around the same basic attractor.
2[anonymous]9yWe have been exposed to radically different selection pressures after the advent of agriculture than we where prior to it. Change has thus probably been rather rapid in the past 10 000 years [http://www.amazon.com/000-Year-Explosion-Civilization-Accelerated/dp/0465002218] .

One obvious reason why this might be the case is that the various implicit norms surrounding political discourse actively encourage tribalism and cognitive dissonance ("Hey! He's a flipflopper!") more so than in other areas of discourse where some of these pressures are lacking or in some cases (such as academia, to some extent) deliberate effort has been expended to create counter-veiling norms to these trends. As long as political discourse involves politicians and politicians owe their careers to the exercises of obfuscation, pandering and app... (read more)

Stephen Colbert said it well on his August 15, 2011 show:

PAWLENTY (video clip): I'm gonna be ending my campaign for president. What I brought forward was I thought a rational, established, credible, ...strong record of results... but I think the audience… was looking for something different.

COLBERT: Yes. They were not looking for "rational." Rationality is the third rail of American politics. For the love of God, we eat fried butter on a stick. Does that sound like the act of a rational person?

2Kevin9yI have some very rational friends that think so.
1MBlume9yAlicorn and I are both wondering how one goes about making this. I totally want some. I think she's just morbidly curious.
4Vaniver9yThat's not all that'll be morbid when you're done!
2[anonymous]9yTypically, to deep fry things that would normally melt in the frying process (cheese, candy bars, and etc.) you freeze them rock-solid beforehand.
1Alicorn9yRight, but butter? Do you at least dunk it in batter or something first?
2[anonymous]9yFirst hit on Google for "deep fried butter [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2024999/Deep-fried-butter-goes-sale-Iowa-State-Fair.html] ".
4MBlume9yWait, they use honey? That sounds like it would be terrible for you!

But try to resist getting in those good, solid digs if you can possibly avoid it.

In this case, you could say it was instrumentally wrong to insert the jab into the discussion, but that assumes that the solid digs served no other purpose, like demonstrating in group credentials.

I've got a real world example of this. Daniel Dennett was lecturing on competence without comprehension (I think). But if you followed out his logic a step or two, he would appear to be getting perilously close to advocating free market policies. The next slide in his presentatio... (read more)

"Zombie Bill", Halloween special educational rock song.

Boy: Woof! You sure gotta climb a lot of steps to get to this Capitol Building here in Washington. But I wonder who that sad little scrap of paper is?

I'm a dead bill
Yes, I'm a dead bill
If you’re on my side you’ll get your mind killed.
Well, it was a long, long journey
To the capital city.
It was a long, long wait
And then I died in committee,
But I know I'll eat your brain someday
At least I hope and pray that I will,
For today I am a zombie bill.

Boy: Gee, Bill, you certainly have a lust to devour people’s brains.
Bill: Well, I’m a zombie. When I started, I wasn't even political, I was just a reasonable consideration. Some folks back home forgot that policy debates should not appear one-sided, so they called their local Congressman -
Boy: - and he said, "You're right, there oughta be a law”?
No! Then he decided to rename the bill that he had already decided to submit once both parties had promised him it wouldn’t pass.
Boy: You were renamed even though your content didn’t change?
Bill: That’s right! He was going to call me the “American Job Security Free Choice Accountability Reform Reinvestment Relief Act”.
Boy: And then
... (read more)

1Tyrrell_McAllister9yAwesome!
1pedanterrific9yDon't you mean "rational!"?

An unstudied cognitive bias is what's really responsible for political irrationality. Less Wrong could tackle politics if it recognized and managed this form of irrationality, which I term opinion-belief confusion.

To understand some biases you must understand the biological function of the relevant practices. Belief is for action; opinion is for deliberation. Belief, per the Agreement Theorem, is usually highly sensitive to the beliefs of others; opinion abstracts from such influence.

Irrationality in politics is mostly a matter of being far too confident ... (read more)

If rational thinking is about understanding and seeing true reality, how can you avoid politics as a discussion issue? It is a social practice in which every person participates. A rational analysis can take into account that "people go funny in the head" and still result in well thought out conclusions.

1dlthomas9yThe problem is that 1) there's no one to do a rational analysis if everyone goes funny in the head, and 2) "people go funny in the head" too easily becomes a fully general counterargument [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Fully_general_counterargument] when one tries to take it into account.
1gokhalea9yi guess that depends on your definition of rational analysis. I think the fully general counterarguments you mention are very valuable in terms of understanding your ideological opponents (but of course not in achieving your agenda). their handicap makes it significantly easier to understand their motivations and actions, which i think is related to understanding and seeing true reality -- their irrationality is tied into your reality.
3dlthomas9yYou forget that you are attempting to run this rational analysis on corrupted hardware. Remember that you have gone funny in the head, and will ascribe it to your opponents but not your allies and you won't notice you're doing it. Or at least, you have to assume that that's likely, because from the outside view that's how people tend to work, including being unaware of it.
1gokhalea9yI think personal biases are more of an issue if you are drawing particular conclusions about political issues. The beauty of politics is that there is just enough uncertainty to make every position appear plausible to some portion of the public, even in those rare cases where there is definitive "proof" (however defined) that one particular position is correct. Rationality in some ways is meant to better understand reality, however, politics puts pressure on the meaning of "reality." People's beliefs on political reality rarely match up among others because perspectives, values, and thought processes often fill in for the inability to nail down or prove any one answer from a traditionally rational perspective. Perhaps the "rational" solution is focusing instead on the inherent uncertainty underlying any and every position, ignoring what may be or is "right," and use that knowledge to get better worldview. A better understanding of the uncertainty in politics could in some ways provide a level of certainty rationalists can normally only achieve (i think) by drawing rational conclusions. I hear your point, hopeful for a solution.
0Hul-Gil9yWell, that doesn't sound very beautiful.
0gokhalea9yits beautiful in its complexity. its amazing (not in a critical sense, but as an observer) that no can be definitely right in a valuable way about anything. As a reality of life that we must accept and deal with, i think its fascinating, a seemingly impenetrable issue.
0TheOtherDave9yI heartily encourage you to perform such analyses, as well-thought-out conclusions are very useful things to have. That said, given what I've seen of the attempts to do so here, I don't endorse doing so here unless you have a good model of why it fails and why your attempt will do better.
2David_Gerard9yThis would be the local dilemma in a nutshell, yes. People are interested in winning at real life as they see it, and, if you tell them "rationalists should WIN" [http://lesswrong.com/lw/7i/rationality_is_systematized_winning/] then they'll say "OK" and try to apply it to what they presently see as their problems ... but actually discussing anything political on LessWrong has gone badly enough that quite a lot of the community now behaves phobically even to allusion to politics, going so far as to euphemise the word to "mindkilling." It's not clear how to get past this one. (I have a vague idea that worked examples of success in doing so might help.) edit: hrm. Reason for downvote?
0gokhalea9yOK, understood. I wasn't asking we broaden the discussion here, as it is very good, just curious as to the thinking. Thanks. sorry, what are you referring to in your last paranthetical?
1RichardKennaway9yWhy do you judge that the past history has made us irrationally averse to discussing politics, rather than rationally averse?
3David_Gerard9yBecause the responses look to me more like conditioned reaction than something considered. If it is, as you hypothesise, rational to avoid even slightly politically-tinged discussion to this degree, then that greatly reduces the hope of raising the sanity waterline. Because very few problems people want and need to solve are going to be free of such a tinge. As I've noted elsewhere, this doesn't mean I think we should dive headfirst into it on LW. I don't have a handy solution. But I do think it's a problem.
2gokhalea9yi'm a bit new to all of this, but its oddly convenient to conclude that it is rational to ignore a topic that doesn't lend itself to classic rational thought.
0RichardKennaway9yIt's a question of whether to respond to a track record of failure by going off and doing something else instead or persevering. When is it best to attend to developing one's strengths, and when to attend to remedying one's weaknesses?
3gokhalea9ywhat is your focus, i.e. what would be the ideal goal that you are saying is difficult or impossible to achieve and so it is rational to avoid -- what goal do you find elusive here -- personal understanding of the correct "answer" in spite of biases, "raising the sanity waterline" as someone mentioned above, or something else? Both these items suggest a need for an definitive answer to political questions and I'm not sure that is the correct focus. If applying rational thought to politics has a track record of failure and we agree politics is a part of everyone's reality, do you think rational thought cannot explain politics and is an inherent shortcoming of the theory? (this is other way of saying we should move on to things). We talk about rationality like its the way to live life. its troubling that it cannot answer or explain political issues, which shape our government, laws and community. The value of the a theory should partially be tested based on issues and questions it cannot answer. If there are things rational thinking cannot solve, that is an issue/problem with rational theory, not the particular subject matter.
0RichardKennaway9yNo, merely a contingent failure of people almost everywhere and always.
1gokhalea9yso its a problem of the individual, not the theory. not sure how you conclude that if no one can apply the theory to prove it.

If I had a solid dig I would praise myself for taking it to the twelfth round, however failing to land a knock out! Congratulations on co-moderator, Mind stimulating on the variant of discussions on "Politics is a mind killer". Bravo to the thinkers and reasonable theories and offsets. I found my self returning to the original test to determine if my mind was still on track! For the most part It (my mind) got sucked in by the variant, signed up and well I'll just keep my humor to my self! Here we go!

I'll try to defend politics. I would be grateful if you debate with me. I argue that values (a generalization of morality) are comprehensible. I, thus, agree with Eliezer in the methaetics sequence. But values are different in a crucial ways to external reallity. I think that external reallity is better to reach by rationality than values. I'll think that because of that the non-rational discurse of politics is a great action. I'll take this as an example of a problem I see in this page at analizing morality. Firstly, which is the difference between values... (read more)

-5melthengylf8y

Can we get a citation for "The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death."

I am just interested in how this was concluded. I have always been a little skeptical of evolutionary psychology type things, which, is what this sounds like.

it seems discussing politics is particularly difficult here because under the article "what do we mean by rationality," less wrong members generally reject a non-normative meaning of rationality. This presumes a rational answer, as a general matter, with respect to any particular issue, is necessarily a normative conclusion -- i.e. there is an ideal/correct answer. I appreciate the approach, but if the point of is the "think more clearly/correctly," how can we reject the possibility that there is no normative answer? This is particul... (read more)

-1DaFranker8yThe difficult part about finding the optimal perfect-rationalist "right answer" for things related to politics is that politics is like an exceptionally difficult, complex and heavy computer program currently being coded by hundreds of programmers, most of which have no formal Computer Science education, and then managing to produce optimal software out of it with only the help of two or three of those coders - the best possible program that achieves absolutely everything that the client wants in exactly the best possible way. Unfortunately, the example program is so complex that near-optimal solutions do not converge towards the same location in the conceptspace of possible programs, and each programmer has his own idea of what might be good, so you have a large multitude of possible local maximums, all of which are of unknown order of magnitude (let alone being able to decide which is better) and unknown cost (and you can rule out perfect cost-effectiveness calculations), and often even with unclear value-of-information that varies across conceptspace function of the properties of this area of conceptspace (e.g. it has a higher expected human-values cost to experiment with totalitarian-like forms of government than with democratic ones, for a vague picture). Overall, not only is there a ton of biases, but information is costly and the space of possibilities is vast, and the near-optimals or optimization candidates / hypotheses are not condensed or sometimes not even remotely near eachother. Thus, discussing politics rationally isn't just difficult here - politics are a set (space? field?) of complex Hard problems with tons of data, variables and unknowns, and would probably still be among the more difficult problems to solve if all humans were suddenly replaced with perfect bayesian agents.
1gokhalea8yThanks, I agree with nearly all you points but want to push on a particular point you made: (btw, how do you guys have that blue line to show you are responding to a particular comment??): "Thus, discussing politics rationally isn't just difficult here - politics are a set (space? field?) of complex Hard problems with tons of data, variables and unknowns, and would probably still be among the more difficult problems to solve if all humans were suddenly replaced with perfect bayesian agents." I would argue that politics is difficult to rationalize BECAUSE politics are in a separate space/field. In other words, i think discussing politics rationally in a manner consistent with Less Wrong's definition of rationality (see "what we mean by rationality" article) is impractical and does not further any knowledge because the definition simply does not apply in a way it can apply to other areas discussed here. Going "funny in the head" is not the reason we cannot apply rationality to politics, we go "funny in the head" because we are using a model that does not work -- we are trying to find answers to questions that, as you describe, are subject to so much uncertainty we are forced to resort to biases. We fail to consider the possibility that there is no right answer -- for those that argue that there is an answer, but humans can't reach it (a HUGELY convenient position) -- that is the same thing, practically speaking, as not having an answer: If the problem is the model, not the people, change the mode to one where the search is not for the right answer, but a deep understanding of why particular people have viewpoints and the relative arguments therefor. Sure, its not an "answer" to how the world is (or should be), but its a huge step forward in understanding how the world works -- a noble goal if you ask me. The current model of rationality used here simply doesn't allow for this. We are obsessed with certainty, even when there is more value to be derived from better u
1Vaniver8yIf you begin a paragraph with >, it will put it in block quote format.
1NancyLebovitz8yIt really is blue-- I'd been assuming it was black. Did it used to be black?
0Vaniver8yI recall it as being blue since I arrived (getting close to two years ago). I have not paid close attention before now.
4shminux8yMaybe you missed EY's point, or maybe I'm missing yours. Politics definitely can be discussed rationally, but it is really really hard to keep your identity small [http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html] while doing so. Every participant in a political discussion has to be constantly aware of their own emotions fueled by a cached arguments associated with a specific wing/party/position, and be skilled at modeling how potential readers would inadvertently misinterpret one's statement, causing them emotional upheaval. And it only takes a small misstep to get people riled up about the issue. The rule of thumb is "if you identify with any political party/group/movement, you are not qualified to have a rational discourse about politics". Example: if you want to start your reply with "as a libertarian, I ...", you have failed. Another example of a false start: "Republicans do not understand that ..."
1chaosmosis8yGokhalea's point is largely that political analyses are so difficult that attempting to apply rationality to them will still produce biased and nonsensical results. You didn't really address that. Gokhalea, I agree that rational analyses of politics are difficult. You seem to believe that they're functionally impossible. Can you explain why? Also, I don't understand why you feel that avoiding politics on LessWrong is a form of rationalization. What's motivating this rationalization? Finally, I don't understand why you feel that a model of politics which seeks to understand different political positions rather than resolve them is useful.
2gokhalea8yThanks, I tried to explain above. Less Wrong's conclusion on analyzing politics is flawed because it is based on the assumption that rationality with respect to politics requires an ideal answer. Pointing out that biases/emotions/etc. are ever present is used to protect the idea that rationality in its purest form always results in a normative answer. "Our model of rationality is always correct -- its just the people are flawed!!!" -- I disagree. The model is wrong. The people are playing their role as members of a social dynamic -- rationality in politics is dependent on their biases, not to be avoided because of them. The value is awareness -- that is the true goal. To have an understanding of what is going on around you without confusion, anger, unwanted emotions. Rationality is about seeing the world "as it is." The world is social, and I want an understanding of how the world works, with its participants and their various viewpoints, perspectives, beliefs, and actions. I'm not trying to be "right" -- frankly i have political positions but don't really care -- they are a secondary concern to understanding the social dynamic.
2gokhalea8yThanks, and I appreciated Paul's article -- very interesting and insightful. Let me try to clarify -- One of the issues causing confusion is that the definition of rationality is not commonly accepted/subject to some dispute. My understanding of EY's perspective on the definition of rationality is based on his article: What do we mean by rationality [http://lesswrong.com/lw/31/what_do_we_mean_by_rationality/] EY is saying that applying rationality yields a normative answer -- and that LW is not receptive to a different idea, such as a model where an argument can be rational but still not be the "correct"/"true" answer. My argument is that rationality, as EY defines it, does not work with respect to politics because political issues do not have correct answers (i'll get to why shortly). So I don't disagree with your point that politics can be discussed rationally -- i just have a different definition of rationality when it comes to politics. I read Paul's article -- it was very good -- i have previously considered the idea that in politics or religion, everyone is an "expert" and the idea of identities intertwined with people's positions -- no doubt insightful, but i think its incomplete. (i also note that his argument that politics has definite answers sometimes is baffling -- the cost of government policy is NEVER certain -- simply because people can't predict the future or how people will behave in the future). The issue and uniqueness of politics is NOT that everyone is an expert -- its that everyone is a participant, in a real and legitimate way -- as a voter or policy maker or government leader. As such, politics is truly a social issue -- analytical analysis is possible, but you NEVER going to get a clear answer -- the social issues are forever intertwined with policy. Remember, regardless of how much weight you may put on ideal policies/laws/regulations, the ability of any leader to implement these policies is WHOLLY CONTINGENT on winning an election, t
2Nornagest8yPeople here try to apply rationality to politics all the time. "Politics is the mind-killer" is an observation about its success rate.

I'm not sure what the right way to ask for policy clarification is, so I'll try this.

In a recent discussion in comments, I was alerted to the 'standing agreement on LW not to discuss politics'. It was in a context I found perplexing (the question as to whether political theory is something worth keeping in philosophy departments) http://lesswrong.com/lw/frp/train_philosophers_with_pearl_and_kahneman_not/842a

There are a number of ways that I think rationality relates (mostly in a broad sense) to political theory. This is a common thread among philosophers... (read more)

In logic, most examples are from politics because the most salient examples of logical fallacies are from politics. So that's probably why the Nixon example was about politics, even though it wasn't necessary.

Very neat and thought provoking.

One of the most farcical instances of this tragedy is when people succeed in using biased and alienating political examples when they're trying to explain the how politics is the mind killer - for example, [Vox's recent post on How Politics makes us Stupid. (link goes to my blog post on the subject, which discusses the underlying Vox article.)

Is there anything else than politics to protect us against the emergence of an evil super AI?

Isn't contemporary political cynicism the real "Mind-Killer"?

-2Metanaute6yI will even add a crazy hypothesis. The dynamics of this thread (and its underlying cause) is exactly what is preventing the LW community from FOOMing.
0[anonymous]6yBetteridge's law of headlines [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge%27s_law_of_headlines] states that any headline followed by a question mark can be answered by the word "no". Isn't it surprising that the same principle can be extended to rhetorical questions about politics outside the domain of news?
4Nornagest6yYes. No. Seriously. I'm not trying to fall into the common nerd mistake of saying "politics is dumb monkey status games for normals" here; political processes serve an important role in solving coordination problems and we ignore them at our peril. But that's really not what the OP is getting at. It's saying that enormous and nearly intractable biases surround ideology; that we systematically overestimate the importance of conventional partisanship; and that there's value in structuring our arguments and social spaces to skirt these issues, or at least not to light ourselves on fire and run toward them while shouting COME AT ME, BRO. All of these statements are true.
0Metanaute6yHow does ignoring the Gordian knot problem solves it?
1Nornagest6yAvoiding, not ignoring. Ignoring the problem is what "dumb monkey status games etc." points towards, and it almost invariably leads to expressing a wide variety of unexamined but basically partisan stances which are assumed to just be common sense (because, in the social context they come from, they are). The failures following from this should be obvious.
0Metanaute6yWhich problem is the construction of a super AI trying to solve then?
1Nornagest6yThat rather depends on who's building it, doesn't it? If you're talking about Eliezer et al's FAI concept, I get the impression that they're mostly concerned with issues that aren't presently politicized among anyone except perhaps bioethicists. It does entail solving some political problems along the way, but how is underspecified, and I don't see a meaningful upside to viewing any of the relevant design problems through a partisan lens at this stage. In any case, that's (again) not what the OP is about.
0Metanaute6yI think I understand what you mean. But I maintain my hypothesis.

I do believe this post uses a limited definition of politics, although quite legitimately. Most people tend to essentialize polititics, for example, a policy will be considered left/right wing because of its proponents rather than its content. However, discussing the internal rationality of a politico-philosophical system is interesting, but it implies a redefinition of politics as a cost-benefits analysis of the use of a particular model of reality for the purpose of construction of laws.

In such case, the "What about the Nazis" argument is no l... (read more)

You know the only thing worse than arguing about politics, is arguing why one shouldn't argue about politics.

Seriously though, while this post is/was important, I still think there should have been a request to not debate politics in this post's comment section, because you know, explaining why it's bad to debate politics in science blogs apparently wasn't enough.

Hi,

I am a bit surprised that contemporary politics is kind of suppressed here (by FAQ). Well, I understand the reason that it is a controversial topic in society. I get that people tend to be biased in it. This is just because it is such a wide topic and lot of people have a political standpoint. I agree that it is probably better to train rationality on less known topics.

So, what is confusing me?

I think that there is another topic with a similar controversy level in society: Religion. I can see the analogy. In my view, arguing with a religious person is s... (read more)

2TheOtherDave4yYeah, there's a communally endorsed position on which religion(s) is/are correct ("none of them are correct"), but there is no similar communally endorsed position on which political ideology(ies) is/are correct. There's also no similar communally endorsed position on which brand of car is best, but there's no ban on discussion of cars, because in our experience discussions of car brands, unlike discussions of political ideologies, tend to stay relatively civil and productive. I find it extremely unlilkely. It certainly hasn't in the past.
0mirefek4yYou mean that it didn't happen here or in the global society? Discussions about religion seems to me to be equally unproductive in general. I can imagine that if the site endorsed a political ideology its readers would may become biased forward it (even if just by selection of readers). Surely, it is not the intent of the site. But there is a possibility that that happened with the religion issue...
1entirelyuseless4yAs you pointed out yourself, most people involved with the site at the beginning were atheists. That is because of association with a group of people who were mainly atheists from the beginning. But they did not all agree on politics. As a consequence, discussion of politics was discouraged because it would lead to contention and disagreement among those original people. Discussion of religion, in the sense of disparagement of religion, was not discouraged, since it would not lead to contention and disagreement, given that the original group was atheist. But in the early years, mentioning religion without directly saying it is false or bad would almost always be heavily downvoted, even if you did not assert that it was true. That happened without there being an official norm that you could not do that, simply because of the large proportion of atheists. The only exceptions (in the early years that is) were for people who favored religion but presented themselves as having basically something like a dhimmi status in relation to atheism. That of course got rid of most people interested in discussing religion, but a norm like the politics one was unnecessary, because of the presumed agreement on atheism. But you are right that the difference was accidental, and based on the original group characteristics. If the original group had contained a mix of religious people with diverse religious views, the site would likely be that way to this day, and direct discussion of religious topics would be discouraged in the same way that politics currently is. It has nothing to do with what views are reasonable. Some views on religion are more reasonable than others, and some views on politics are more reasonable than others, but for most people, the views that they hold on these topics are not principally motivated by reason. That applies to both religion and politics, and it applies to people on Less Wrong almost as much as to ordinary people.
0mirefek4yThank you for clarifying a history of the site and the community. I expected something of that. But I wasn't sure how much the local community is resistant to biases (and how it is confident in that), so the original question was perhaps a bit indirect. So I am glad that I haven't been heavily downvoted yet. Religion is false, of course :-)
0entirelyuseless4yThat doesn't really happen much anymore, if at all, for a number of reasons, the most important one being that everyone has stopped reading this site at this point.
1TheOtherDave4yI mean that it's unlikely that "the site [would] end up with a similar "rational" political consensus if political discussion went through". In the global society? I agree. Sure, that's possible. Sure, that's possible. Also, let me cut to the chase a little bit, here. The subtext I'm picking up from our exchange is that you object to the site's endorsement of atheism, but are reluctant to challenge it overtly for fear of social sanction (downvotes, critical comments, etc.). So instead of challenging it, you are raising the overt topic of the site's unwillingness to endorse a specific political ideology, and taking opportunities as they arise to implicitly establish equivalences between religion and politics, with the intention of implicitly arguing that the site's willingness to endorse a specific religious ideology (atheism) is inconsistent. Have I correctly understood your subtext?
1mirefek4yYes, in the global society. Perhaps, partially. But I don't think that it is accurate. I did not choose the political topic just as a cover. I have opinions about both topics. I like controversial discussions about both of them. I consider myself as an atheist and I have my favorite political direction (I won't mention it, I respect rules of the site). It just do not seem to me that my philosophical opinions are more rational than my political opinions. I do not object atheism of the site. I like atheist sites. But it seemed to me that the site claim to be "atheist because of rationality". If it was true it would be very nice indicator supporting my opinion. On the other hand, for example a variant of the "Committee for Skeptical Inquiry" in my (mainly atheist) country forbids itself to talk about religion and some of its major members are Christians. So I asked here and got an answer.
3ChristianKl4yI don't think we have discussions about which political ideology is correct. Most political discussions are about other issues. I would also hold that political ideologies are mostly wrong. For most issues it's makes a lot more sense to study the issue in detail than try to have an opinion based on precached ideology.
0TheOtherDave4yYup, agreed with all of this. (Well, I do think we have had discussions about which political ideology is correct, but I agree that we shy away from them and endorse political discussions about issues.)
1ChristianKl4ySomeone who follow a political ideology is a hedgehog and therefore likely making bad predictions. I'm not sure whether there's a consensus but I think the "official position" to the extend that there is one, is that this is bad. EY also wrote http://lesswrong.com/lw/gz/policy_debates_should_not_appear_onesided/ [http://lesswrong.com/lw/gz/policy_debates_should_not_appear_onesided/]
0tdb4yAtheists don't hold that religions are mostly wrong. They hold that religious believers depend on untestable hypotheses and shield their beliefs from criticisms instead of engaging them. What could we use as a political analog of atheism? Anarchists don't deny the existence of the state, just its benevolence. This sounds like an ideology wearing a fig leaf. When we study the issue, do we start with a blank slate, or do we have prior beliefs about facts, values and goals? Maybe you have a different interpretation of the word "ideology" than I do, but that sounds like ideology to me, and irreducible.
1CCC4yI have come across atheists who hold - sometimes quite loudly - that all religions are completely wrong. I have no doubt that some think as you describe, but most certainly not all.
0TheAncientGeek4yWouldnt that be a special case of most beliefs being wrong? There isn't enough time to study everything in detail, but there is the option of not having an opinion about what you haven't' studied. if we can't help but bring our existing ideology to something we study, but that doesn't mean someone who says "study X" means "study X in terms of your ideology".
2Lumifer4yAgnostics don't hold that religions are mostly wrong. Considering religions wrong is precisely what differentiates atheists from agnostics.
1ChristianKl4yIf you have one ideology that you use to explain all political events you are a hedgehog. In contrast to that foxes use multiple distinct thought systems and are not committed to any single one. Philip E. Tetlock found in his Good Judgment Project that foxes are more likely to make accurate predictions about political events than hedgehogs. Philip E. Telock wrote before EY's sequences that everybody should be a Bayesian and that being a Bayesian is about is about updating. When it comes to the issue of whether the minimum wage reduces employment a Conservative might tell you "Of course minimum wage reduces employement" and a stereotypical Liberal "Of course the minimum wage reduces employement". I would tell you "I don't think the evidence is conclusive either way" because I don't want to let value judgements affect my beliefs about causation.

"Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back—providing aid and comfort to the enemy."

I first read this article 6 years ago, back when I knew nothing about politics and had never had a political discussion with anyone before. I was incredibly puzzled by it. I thought, "Maybe that kind of black-and-white thinking and argumentation exists for people who become invested in trivial things like sports teams, but surely that's not really how most of society talks about something like politics. My friends are scientists. They know better than that."

Fast forward to 6 years later, today. I've learned that the article is painfully accurate. It doesn't matter whether my peer has a PhD in biology or a master's in chemistry. No matter what their apparent commitment to rational thinking, almost all of them denounce a political party in the US for (sometimes, they claim, singlehandedly) causing the failings of the entire country. 

I feel afraid to even express that someti... (read more)