Politics is the Mind-Killer

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?  (And no, before anyone asks, I am not a Republican.  Or a Democrat.)

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.  And it certainly isn't good for our hapless readers who have to read through all the angry comments your blog post inspired.

I'm not saying that I think Overcoming Bias 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.

(Now that I've been named as a co-moderator, I guess I'd better include a disclaimer:  This article is my personal opinion, not a statement of official Overcoming Bias policy.  This will always be the case unless explicitly specified otherwise.)


Part of the Politics Is the Mind-Killer subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

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"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 he decided to just call you “William”, and your nickname became “Bill”?
Bill: No, after hearing his constituents’ opinions, he decided to call me the “Aumann's Rational Bayesian Utility Anti-Bias Act!” And I became a bill, and I’ll kill your mind even though my content has some merit.

I'm a dead bill
Yes, I'm a dead bill
And I got as far as Capitol Hill.
Well, I died stuck in committee
And I'll sit here and wait
Though no one will honestly discuss or debate
Whether they should let me be a law.
Of human minds I’ll eat up my fill,
For today I am a zombie bill.

Boy: Listen to those people arguing! Is all that discussion and debate about you?
Bill: Yeah, I'm one of the lucky ones. Most bills are entirely ignored. I hope they decide to take me seriously as one argument against an army, otherwise I may starve.
Boy: Starve?
Bill: Yeah, from not eating brains. Oooh, but they’re not updating incrementally! It looks like I'm gonna eat! Now I go to the House of Representatives; they talk about me.
Boy: When they talk, then what happens?
Bill: Then I go on various media and gorge myself on the minds of the audience.
Boy: Oh no!
Bill: Oh yes!

I'm a dead bill
Yes, I'm a dead bill
They’ll never vote for me on Capitol Hill
Well, I'm off to the White House
Where I'll wait in a line
As a speech applause light
And then on some brains I’ll dine
With luck they’ll try to argue facts away.
How I hope and pray that they will,
For today I am a zombie bill.

Boy: You mean even if everyone has enough information to know you shouldn’t and won’t become a law, people still sacrifice their brains to you?
Bill: Yes! They’re debating politics as if their opinion was influential and admitting being wrong was catastrophic, using heuristics that used to work in the ancestral environment. If the content described by my label becomes political…
Boy: By that time it's very likely that you'll devour lots of minds, whenever either your content or your label is mentioned. It's easy to eat a human mind, isn't it?
Bill: Yes!

And how I hope and I pray that I will,
For today I am a zombie bill.

Congressman: Your name has become a synonym for “good” among some people, Zombie Bill! Now people won’t be able to dispassionately consider your content ever again!
Bill: BRAINS!!!

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.

Denying 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.

Note to all rationalists:

Politics has already slashed your tires.

Politics has already pwned 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?

Probably 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.

Btw, "you" was "general you", not you personally, and mine was trying to piggyback. Post edited to clarify.

No offense taken.

BTW I have written quite a bit since 2007(!) on the relationship of rationalism and politics, see here for a starting pont.

"To deny politics is a form of political ideology itself." yeah and not thinking about clothing is a fashion choice, not making a decision is a decision bla bla bla.

cool meme.

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 because the loss of status for being wrong is multiplied by the number of people that see you lose(each weighted for how important it is for them to consider you as having a high status).

3)If someone is considered an 'expert', the pressure to be right will be enormous. Thats because experts have special status for being knowledgeable about a topic and getting answers about it right. Every mistake is seen as reducing that expertise and proportionatly reducing the status of the expert. Being wrong to someone considered a non expert is even more painful then being wrong to an expert.

4)It is very hard psychologically to disagree with authority figures or the group consensus. Therefore "mind killing politics" biases will be replaced by other biases when there is disagreement with authority figure or the group consensus but will be amplified against those considered outside the social group.

5)People will easily spot "mind killing politics" biases in the enemy side but will deny, not notice or rationalize the same biases in themselves.

6)And finally, "mind killing politics" biases can lead to agitation(ei. triggering of the fight or flight response) which will amplify biased thinking.

I 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.)

Sorry 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.

why 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.

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.

Citystates 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?

No, 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.

We 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.

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.

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 independent psychologically. On the other hand, the obvious overlap between religious and political causes seems to suggest that the psychological underpinnings proceed from the same source.

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".

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.

Rich 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.

Support 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.

I 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.

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. http://www.fordycespots.xyz

The 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.SCH




Tragus Piercing

I do agree with you but it is matter of fact that politics always ends up with something bad! Rx Drugs

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 appealing to vested interests it is doubtful this trend can be corrected. As a general rule you should examine your own attitudes and if you find your view entail that those of an opposing political conviction to yourself must be actively scheming to cause damage to the country (as opposed to simply being mistaken or biased) you have probably made a mistake somewhere.

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 gentleman's agreement. In Washington this could be described as "Bipartisanship: When the Stupid Party and the Evil Party get together to do something truly stupid and evil", as it not in the interests of the citizens for incumbents to be shielded from criticism, but provided no political figures are here it seems positive-sum for everyone.

I 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.

and I do not identify with either political party

Did 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

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 other are exactly those things that most people don't know much about. Second, it's usually pretty obvious which side in the "neutral" example corresponds to the arguer's preferred side in the contemporary example, so the arguer is likely to just adopt that position, and then claim to have derived it from first principles based on a neutral example. I agree that neutral exercises can have some usefulness as they might be helpful in uncovering subtle biases in people who are sincerely trying to avoid them, but it won't get rid of the flamers.

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.

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.

This 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" 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?

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

Why do you judge that the past history has made us irrationally averse to discussing politics, rather than rationally averse?

i'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.

It'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?

what 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.

do you think rational thought cannot explain politics and is an inherent shortcoming of the theory

No, merely a contingent failure of people almost everywhere and always.

so 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.

Because 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.

OK, 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?

The 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.

i 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.

You 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.

I 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.

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. [emphasis added]

Well, that doesn't sound very beautiful.

its 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.