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.
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.
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)
I too would prefer for contemporary politics to show up here only very rarely.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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
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.
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?
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:
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)
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.
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!
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)
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.)
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)
Supporting evidence for this is in the news this week
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.
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)
"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)
It's just a means to an end for most people. The end is solidarity and gaining social status and self-esteem within their solidarity circle. Are they really making any real impact through their participation? Even if they do "research," they are just extracting results that others have gathered. They don't actually have any access to the institutions directly related to those issues, whether it's CDC or DoD. If they did have a role in those institutions, they wouldn't be participating in layman discussion outside of their profession in the first place. Do you really see professional politicians or medical researchers directly engaging the public regarding their job or research on social media outside of a few instances of Reddit AMA?
Public layer of Politics is not rational in any way, its designed to be deceptive. In my opinion you cannot expect a rational political conversation as a voter. All the rational talks are happening behind the closed doors, while general public indulges into irrational political conversations.
Maybe its not ideal, but this is what it is in current state of the world. One way or another we will evolve through it.
In war, this manifests as a Pascal's Mugging.
Is there a name for the following paradox:
Country A says "We have to fight Country B. Yes some people will die. But if we do nothing, Country B will attack us and 10 times more people will die!"
Country B says "We have to fight Country A. Yes some people will die. But if we do nothing, Country A will attack us and 10 times more people will die!"
Even though both countries seem to want as few deaths as possible, their actions combine (and escalate) to cause more deaths.
The more immediate reason for why politics is the mind-killer is because politics is still a matter of life and death today. Even if it weren't, so many people still believe it is and that causes them to act in hostile ways to protect themselves from each other. And that, ironically, causes politics to become a matter of life and death for real even if it weren't already.
To clarify in case that's not clear, people are angry at and scared of each other over RECENT traumatic experiences in their personal lives which they systematically inflicted upon each ot... (read more)
But how should one deal with the desire to publicly disagree with political speakers who are biased? I feel a big urge to criticize and maybe even shame people for wrong reasoning. I'd like to note that I often don't mind the conclusion they came to, but if the reasoning is vulgarly wrong, I really feel I want to tell them and everyone else they're an idiot.
What is the difference between studying Politics and studying History?
Some people with certain identities are actively politicized throughout history, not understanding politics and thus not understanding the memetics of the social world which has the power to enforce rules upon you is not advisable if you're a person with one such identity.
Should I attack the anti-trans legislature attacking many in my community today, in the year 2023? Should I defend the rights and freedoms of undocumented workers given their productivity per capita when adjusted for wa... (read more)