In grade school, I read a series of books titled Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar, who you may know as the author of the novel Holes which was made into a movie in 2003. The series included two books of math problems, Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School and More Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School, the latter of which included the following problem (paraphrased):

The students have Mrs. Jewl's class have been given the privilege of voting on the height of the school's new flagpole. She has each of them write down what they think would be the best hight for the flagpole. The votes are distributed as follows:

  • 1 student votes for 6 feet.
  • 1 student votes for 10 feet.
  • 7 students vote for 25 feet.
  • 1 student votes for 30 feet.
  • 2 students vote for 50 feet.
  • 2 students vote for 60 feet.
  • 1 student votes for 65 feet.
  • 3 students vote for 75 feet.
  • 1 student votes for 80 feet, 6 inches.
  • 4 students vote for 85 feet.
  • 1 student votes for 91 feet.
  • 5 students vote for 100 feet.

At first, Mrs. Jewls declares 25 feet the winning answer, but one of the students who voted for 100 feet convinces her there should be a runoff between 25 feet and 100 feet. In the runoff, each student votes for the height closest to their original answer. But after that round of voting, one of the students who voted for 85 feet wants their turn, so 85 feet goes up against the winner of the previous round of voting, and the students vote the same way, with each student voting for the height closest to their original answer. Then the same thing happens again with the 50 foot option. And so on, with each number, again and again, "very much like a game of tether ball."

Question: if this process continues until it settles on an answer that can't be beaten by any other answer, how tall will the new flagpole be?

Answer (rot13'd): fvkgl-svir srrg, orpnhfr gung'f gur zrqvna inyhr bs gur bevtvany frg bs ibgrf. Naq abj lbh xabj gur fgbel bs zl svefg rapbhagre jvgu gur zrqvna ibgre gurberz.

Why am I telling you this? There's a minor reason and a major reason. The minor reason is that this shows it is possible to explain little-known academic concepts, at least certain ones, in a way that grade schoolers will understand. It's a data point that fits nicely with what Eliezer has written about how to explain things. The major reason, though, is that a month ago I finished my systematic read-through of the sequences and while I generally agree that they're awesome (perhaps moreso than most people; I didn't see the problem with the metaethics sequence), I thought the mini-discussion of political parties and voting was on reflection weak and indicative of a broader nerd failure mode.

TLDR (courtesy of lavalamp):

  1. Politicians probably conform to the median voter's views.
  2. Most voters are not the median, so most people usually dislike the winning politicians.
  3. But people dislike the politicians for different reasons.
  4. Nerds should avoid giving advice that boils down to "behave optimally". Instead, analyze the reasons for the current failure to behave optimally and give more targeted advice.

Advance warning for heavy US slant, at least in terms of examples, though the theory is applicable everywhere.

The median voter theorem

The median voter theorem was first laid out in a paper by Duncan Black titled "On the Rationale of Group Decision-Making," which imagine's a situation very much like Mrs. Jewls' class voting on the flagpole height: a committee passes a motion by majority vote, and then it considers various motions to amend the original motion, each of which itself needs a simple majority to pass. Each member of the committee has preferences over the range of possible motions, and furthermore:

While a member’s preference curve may be of any shape whatever, there is reason to expect that, in some important practical problems, the valuations actually carried out will tend to take the form of isolated points on single-peaked curves. This would be particularly likely to happen were the committee considering different possible sizes of a numerical quantity and choosing one size in preference to the others. It might be reaching a decision, say, with regard to the price of a product to be marketed by a firm, or the output for a future period, or the wage rate of labor, or the height of a particular tax, or the legal school-leaving age, and so on.

Or, for that matter, the height of a flagpole. Black shows that on his assumptions, the committee will eventually settle on the version of the motion favored by the median committee member.

Again, you may be asking, so what? Most people don't care about understanding the behavior of committees, especially not compared to their passion for national presidential elections. And elections for political office don't use a tether ball-like system of having head-to-head matchup after head-to-head matchup until you've finally found the candidate the median voter wants. There's one election with two (or if you're lucky, three) major candidates and that's it.

The relevance to electoral politics comes in when you allow for the possibility of candidates shaping themselves and their platforms to appeal to the median voter. The candidate who does this should be invincible - at least, until the other candidate does the same thing, at which point the election becomes a closer call. The idea of candidates shaping themselves to voter preferences is key; I started off this post with the flagpole example partly to emphasize that. And there are other assumptions you have to make to get to the conclusion that candidates will actually behave this way.

But before we get in to that, let's compare the median voter picture to the picture Eliezer put forward in the posts linked above:

Forget that Congresspeople on both sides of the "divide" are more likely to be lawyers than truck drivers.  Forget that in training and in daily life, they have far more in common with each other than they do with a randomly selected US citizen from their own party. Forget that they are more likely to hang out at each other's expensive hotel rooms than drop by your own house.  Is there a political divide - a divide of policies and interests - between Professional Politicians on the one hand, and Voters on the other?

Well, let me put it this way.  Suppose that you happen to be socially liberal, fiscally conservative.  Who would you vote for?

Or simplify it further:  Suppose that you're a voter who prefers a smaller, less expensive government - should you vote Republican or Democratic?  Or, lest I be accused of color favoritism, suppose that your voter preference is to get US troops out of Iraq.  Should you vote Democratic or Republican?

One needs to be careful, at this point, to keep track of the distinction between marketing materials and historical records.  I'm not asking which political party stands for the idea of smaller government - which football team has "Go go smaller government!  Go go go!" as one of its cheers.  (Or "Troops out of Iraq!  Yay!")  Rather, over the last several decades, among Republican politicians and Democratic politicians, which group of Professional Politicians shrunk the government while it was in power?

And by "shrunk" I mean "shrunk".  If you're suckered into an angry, shouting fight over whether Your Politicians or Their Politicians grew the government slightly less slowly, it means you're not seeing the divide between Politicians and Voters. There isn't a grand conspiracy to expand the government, but there's an incentive for each individual politician to send pork to campaign contributors, or borrow today against tomorrow's income.  And that creates a divide between the Politicians and the Voters, as a class, for reasons that have nothing to do with colors and slogans.

Eliezer observes that there doesn't seem to be much difference between the two parties, and concludes that they are colluding (albeit probably not by explicit agreement) to advance their own interests at the expense of the voters'. The politicians don't offer the voters any real choice, but get voters to vote for them anyway though misleading party labels and the argument that, if they don't vote for a major-party candidate, they're "throwing their vote away."

However, the observation that there doesn't seem to be much difference between the two parties can also be explained by the hypothesis that politicians are shaping themselves to appeal to the median voter. This fact alone doesn't show that the median voter model is right... but it does show that the mere fact of there not being much difference between the two parties doesn't show the "colluding politicians" model is right either.

So how well does the median voter theorem capture reality? One problem for the model is that it potentially breaks down if the choices don't fit onto a nice, linear spectrum. Suppose, for the sake of a simplified example, that only three people vote in a particular presidential election. Suppose, furthermore, that the three voters have the following set of preferences:

  • Alice prefers Obama to Romney, and Romney to Ron Paul
  • Bob prefers Romney to Ron Paul, and Ron Paul to Obama
  • Carol prefers Ron Paul to Obama, and Obama to Romney

Given this set of voters and their preferences, in an Obama vs. Romney contest, Obama will win; in a Romney vs. Ron Paul contest, Romney will win; but in a Ron Paul vs. Obama contest, Ron Paul will win.

However, the median voter theorem seems to be a pretty good model in practice in spite of such problems. Roger Congleton, in an article in the Encyclopedia of Public Choicewrites:

Although theoretical arguments suggest that the applicability of the median voter model may be very limited, the empirical evidence suggests otherwise. There is a large body of evidence that suggests median voter preferences over policies are (largely) of the sort which can be mapped into a single issue space while retaining "single peakedness" Poole and Daniels (1985) find that 80-90% of all the recorded votes in the US Congress can be explained with a one dimensional policy space. Stratmann (1996) finds little evidence of cycling across Congressional votes over district specific grants.

Moreover, the median voter model has a very good empirical track record in public finance as a model of fiscal policy across states and through time. Recent studies show that the median voter model can explain federal, state, and local spending, as well as international tariff policies. Congleton and Shughart (1990) Congleton and Bennett (1995) suggest that the median voter model provides a better explanation of large scale public programs than comparable interest group models. This is not to suggest that the median voter always exercises the same degree of control over public policy irrespective of political institutions. Holcombe (1980) and Frey (1994) report significant policy difference between representative and direct forms of democracy that would not exist unless significant agency problems exist within representative government. Moreover, statistical tests can never prove that a particular model is correct, only that it is more likely to be correct than false. However, in general, the median voter model appears to be quite robust as a model of public policy formation in areas where the median voter can credibly be thought to understand and care about public policy.

The empirical evidence suggests that the median voter model can serve as a very useful first approximation of governance within democratic polities. As a consequence, the median voter model continues to function as an analytical point of departure for more elaborate models of policy formation within democracies in much the same way that the competitive model serves the micro economics literature.

In the American political system, the effect of the median voter theorem is blunted somewhat by the primary system. It's a commonplace among American political commentators that politicians must appeal to the "base" during the primaries, then swing towards the center for the general election. Of course, politicians can't suddenly become perfectly centrist once they secure their party's nomination; their swing towards the center has to be done in a way that's at least superficially consistent with their previous pandering to their base. These observations suggest that, while reality doesn't perfectly match the idealized model, there's still a lot of truth to it. 

(Note: a site search for previous discussion of the median voter theorem on LessWrong turned up a comment by Carl Shulman that mentioned "the need to motivate one's base to vote/volunteer/contribute the ideological lumpiness" as probably having an effect similar to the effect of primaries. I wouldn't have thought they were as important as primaries but I can believe Carl here.)

The tendency of politicians to position themselves wherever the center of public opinion is currently at can be striking on specific issues. For example, public support for gay rights has increased greatly in the past two decades. In that time period, positions which once got Bill Clinton demonized by the religious right as an agent of the homosexual agenda (like Don't Ask Don't Tell) became the "conservative" position. Progress, but in terms of the public stances of politicians, it's progress that came not in the form of dramatic shifts but cautious adjustments.

By the time of the 2008 campaign, Republican nominee John McCain was voicing vague support for "legal agreements" between same sex couples, while rejecting same-sex marriage. At the same time, he suggested the issue could be punted to the states. Meanwhile, Obama's position was only slightly more liberal: clearer support for civil unions (but again not full marriage equality), and similar suggestions that the issue could be left to the states.

Four years later in 2012, Obama finally mentioned in an interview that he'd changed his mind and now supported same-sex marriage. By that time, figures from Rick Santorum to Rick Warren to Sarah Palin had begun telling the press that they, too, have gay friends. Since that time, the Obama administration has only taken modest concrete steps to support gay marriage: a narrowly-worded brief opposing California's Proposition 8, a decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, and that's about it.

From the point of view of the median voter model, the way to explain both the behavior of liberals like Obama and conservatives like McCain and Santorum is that both groups are trying to avoid straying very far from the position of the median voter, so as to not alienate them and lose their vote. It's significant that in 2008, the polls showed that public opinion was roughly divided into thirds on gay marriage, with about a third totally opposed, a third supporting civil unions, and a third supporting full marriage equality. Obama's announcement that he supported gay marriage came after numerous polls showed 50-some percent of Americans supporting gay marriage.

Some readers may be wondering how this analysis fits with the current polarization in Congress. The answer is, "perfectly." The median voter theorem leads us to expect that politicians running against each other should adopt similar views, but even in its most idealized form, it says nothing about members of the same legislature should have similar views. In fact, it predicts polarized legislatures in situations where (1) members of the legislature are elected by geographic region and (2) the electorate itself is polarized by geographic region.

This is what we see in the US, where a big-city congressional district can be much more liberal than a rural one. Many members of the House of Representatives probably have more to worry about from a more-extreme primary challenger within their own party than from a general election challenger from the other party. Caveat: I've tried looking up data on the voting records of various House members, and while there's clearly a correlation between the tendencies of their respective districts, the correlation is not as strong as I expected. I'd be curious to hear if anyone out there knows more about this issue of polarization and geography. 

Voting systems, voting strategies, and knowing your fellow voters

So elections in the US may not offer voters much choice, but that's better explained by the median voter theorem than by politicians colluding against voters. Political science also provides a second objection to Eliezer's analysis of the two-party system in America: Duverger's Law, which says that in a system like ours (where everyone votes for one candidate and whoever gets the most votes wins), the system will tend to converge on having two main political parties, due to standard reasoning about not throwing your vote away. A corollary is that you can get a multiparty system by using proportional representation, which is used in many countries around the world including Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, and Israel.

There are some apparent exceptions to Duverger's Law, such as Canada, which has long had a multiparty system in spite of using a voting system similar to that of the US. However, a friend of mine who follows Canadian politics tells me that what really happens in Canada isn't that far from what you would expect given Duverger's Law. Currently, the three largest parties are the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), and the Liberal Party. It used to be that the NDP was a relatively small party with positions well to the left of the Liberals, but this is no longer true. Instead of offering Canadian voters two different flavors of liberalism, the current situation is that in any given election for any given seat in parliament, the NDP candidate and the Liberal candidate put a lot of effort into arguing over who has the best chance of beating the Conservatives.1

So suppose you're an American or Canadian or British voter, looking at the major-party candidates in the next election, and finding that none of them are a good fit for your political views, what you should conclude? First, given that the median voter theorem is a pretty good model of how elections actually work, you should probably take your as evidence that your views are a good ways away from those of the median voter. And if the views of the voters are sufficiently varied, a majority of voters could find themselves in the same position as you.

In the flagpole problem at the start of this post, the only one student originally wanted the height that ends up winning. Actually, there's a subtle joke I left out of my paraphrase: the student who wanted 65 feet was Kathy, who elsewhere in the series was established as hating everyone and loving to see bad things happen. Or, to use the gay marriage example: in the 2008 election, the ~1/3 of voters who supported gay marriage didn't have a major party candidate who supported their views (and voters totally opposed to gay marriage and civil unions may not have been terribly happy with their choices either).

To throw off the yoke of the existing major parties, it isn't enough for most voters to reject their platforms. They need to reject their platforms in more or less the same direction. In "Stop Voting for Nincompoops," Eliezer mentions having anti-interventionist foreign policy views, and based on that, maybe he would say Obama is a nincompoop for being too interventionist, too willing to kill foreigners in the name of fighting terrorism. If so, I'd be sympathetic. But even if a majority of Americans agreed that Obama is a nincompoop, it wouldn't follow that they agree he is a nincompoop for being too willing to kill foreigners in the name of fighting terrorism. Many of them probably think he's a nincompoop for not doing nearly enough to fight terrorism, and maybe even being secretly on the side of the terrorists.2

That's because median voter analysis suggests that if none of the main candidates in an election are a good fit for your views, this is a sign that your views are a good ways from those of the median voter, and as a corollary there must be people out there whose views differ from the median voter's in the opposite direction, and therefore would seem even more repugnant to you. (Never forget that half the population is below average.)

In "Stop Voting for Nincompoops," Eliezer quotes from Douglas Adams' novel So Long And Thanks For All The Fish:

"The leaders are lizards.  The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."

"Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."

"I did," said Ford, "It is."

"So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't the people get rid of the lizards?"

"It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."

"You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"

"Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."

"But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"

"Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?"

In light of all the above, let me suggest a modified allegory: the people hate the lizards, and have thought of getting rid of them, but there's disagreement about what to do after getting rid of the lizards. Many people favor self-rule, but a very nearly equal number of people favor replacing the lizards with the Demon Acolytes of Yog-Sothoth. Since a few people actually like the lizards, and almost everyone agrees lizards are better than what those other people want, lizards are what they get. 

Of course, since very few people consider themselves villains, to make the story as realistic as possible, we should imagine that the partisans of Demon Acolytes believe the demons are actually Angels of the Light, and that anyone prideful enough to think autonomy is better than being ruled by angels must be profoundly wicked. Either way, the point is that widespread dislike of the current political situation does not imply widespread support for any particular alternative.

Moving back to the real world again, here's an explanation for US foreign policy under both Bush II and Obama, which I suspect Eliezer would think too cynical, but which I'll mention anyway: maybe the reason the US government is so quick to kill foreigners in the name of fighting terrorism is because the median voter fears terrorism more than they care about the lives of foreigners. I suppose you could argue it isn't so, and the real reason is the median voter doesn't know what impact US foreign policy has on foreigners, but if they cared to know, couldn't they start paying less attention to CNN and more to Al-Jazeera?

Given all this, how should you vote? Well, you shouldn't vote for a third party candidate because you think a lot of our problems could be solved if everyone just simultaneously resolved to never vote for (anyone they believed to be) a nincompoop. If somehow you actually manage to persuade people to everyone to adopt that policy, don't be surprised if disagreements about who the nincompoops are result in nothing really changing, or worse result in a bunch bizarre elections decided by small pluralities.

Beyond that though, I'm not actually sure what the proper strategy is. In spite of everything I've said, maybe the "vote third party to send a message" argument is (sometimes) right. Or maybe there's something to be said for the argument that your vote isn't going to make a difference anyway so you may as well do whatever makes you feel good. So far in my relatively short time as a voter, I've adopted a mixed approach, protest-voting in my two presidential elections but voting for major-party candidates otherwise. But I'm honestly not sure what I'll do in the future. Maybe a seemingly-infinitesimal chance of affecting the election outcome is worth it.

That is not a very exciting way to end an essay this long. Which is why I'm happy to report that that is not how I'm ending this essay, and in fact have been building up to a different general point.

A nerd failure mode regarding human affairs

So at last, I'm ready to explain what I think the broader nerd failure mode here is: they have a tendency to notice that people are failing to behave optimally and then propose, as a solution to this problem, that people switch to behaving optimally.

This is related to, if not quite the same as, the problem Randall Munroe pokes at here. The problem is that if you don't first make a serious effort to figure out why people are failing to behave optimally, that can get in the way of figuring out what a better course of action would be. And it makes it almost impossible to figure out how to get people to actually follow the better course of action.

If the reason people elect bad leaders is that half the people have views even crazier than those of the leaders they elect, you will not make much progress changing things if you think the problem is a two-party conspiracy against the voters. Or, if you to get people to stop voting for nincompoops, convincing them they should never vote for nincompoops may give you a very different result than you were expecting if they have different ideas from you about who the nincompoops are and what it is about them that qualifies them as nincompoops.

Many readers of LessWrong will have heard of Chesterton's fence already, but let me quote Chesterton's original words at somewhat greater length than is usual:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road.  The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think.  Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there.  It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep.  It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody.  And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served.  But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

In spite of being a conservative Catholic apologist, what Chesterton is saying here isn't crazy. Certainly it helps to know what people's reasons for something were before trying to judge whether they were good ones. I wouldn't go quite as far as Chesterton, since sometimes there's such good evidence something's a bad idea that you can reject it without knowing what people were originally thinking.

But even on much weaker assumptions than Chesterton's, something in the vicinity turns out to be good advice. Even if the fence was built by lunatics, that's worth knowing. It's especially worth knowing whether they're still out there, and whether they're likely to try to rebuild the fence after it's been taken down. If they are likely to try that, you need to know so they can be recaptured before taking the fence down, so that the lunatics don't just rebuild it, making the taking-down a waste of effort.


  1. Someone might read this and conclude that, since the two-party system is so awful, and Duverger's Law implies it's a necessary result of our voting system, shouldn't we switch voting systems to something like proportional representation? I'm willing to believe that other systems might be slightly better than what we have in the US. Countries that use proportional representation tend to have higher voter turnout, though it's unclear whether the one causes the other. But does anyone think that proportional representation and more major parties makes, say, Germany's government that much better than the UK's? For more on voting systems, see Yvain's summary of why no voting system is perfect.
  2. Some people reading this might be skeptical of the idea many people would believe something as crazy-sounding as "Obama is secretly on the side of the terrorists." While I think we should be careful about phantom lizardmen and partisan media selectively reporting on the other side's crazies to gin up outrage, sadly, from what I can tell there genuinely are a large number of people out there who believe such right-wing conspiracy theories about Obama. I'm not trying to make a partisan point here, and say this with full awareness of things like 9/11 conspiracy theories on the left. 

    Remember, first, that hardly any of us come into contact with a random sampling of our fellow voters on a daily basis. Furthermore, I grew up in a smallish (pop. ~60k), conservative-leaning town, and occasionally people I barely interacted with in high school will friend me on Facebook, I'll accept because why not, and then I'll start getting their thoughts on politics in my Facebook feed. That may give me a somewhat clearer perspective on this than the averge resident of a liberal big city. I remember when the NSA scandal broke and one girl posted a status update which, while containing civil-libertarian thoughts that I approved of, also contained references to Obama being an illegal president (because, as far as I could tell, birtherism), as well as a reference to Obama's "terroristic ways," whatever that means.

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There's the classic economic textbook example of two hot-dog vendors on a beach that need to choose their location - assuming an even distribution of customers, and that customers always choose the closest vendor; the equilibrium location is them standing right next to each other in the middle; while the "optimal" (from customer view, minimizing distance) locations would be at 25% and 75% marks.
This matches the median voter principle - the optimal behavior of candidates is to be as close as possible to the median but on the "right side" to capture "their half" of the voters; even if most voters in a specific party would prefer their candidate to cater for, say, the median Republican/Democrat instead, it's against the candidates interests to do so.

Life makes so much more sense now.

Seriously, I always wondered why I always see a Walgreens and a CVS across the street from each other. Or why I see the same with two competing chains of video stores (not that I see video stores much anymore, in this age of Netflix.)

Actually, that's probably a different phenomenon. Stores of a similar type tend to cluster, because that's where the customers (and, to some extent, suppliers) cluster. If you were opening a new flower stall, then 1% of the 10K potential customers in the flower market is still a better deal than 100% of the 10 potential customers on some random street corner.
Gotta agree with that. I live about 5 minutes away from 3 different supermarkets within metres of each other.
That's true only if the voters/buyers have only exactly these choices. But in general they have more: They can also Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (,_Voice,_and_Loyalty ). That is customers can refuse to buy at all (Exit) and voters can protest instead of silent voting (Voice). Or they can support a side actively (Loyalty). Taking this into account changes the simple economic result to one overlayed with longer term Exit/Voice trends.

Promoted immediately (reason: math with substantive application to real human action, informed criticism of earlier posts)

Needs a TL;DR:

  1. Politicians probably conform to the median voter's views.
  2. Most voters are not the median, so most people usually dislike the winning politicians.
  3. But people dislike the politicians for different reasons.
  4. Nerds should avoid giving advice that boils down to "behave optimally". Instead, analyze the reasons for the current failure to behave optimally and give more targeted advice.

That may be better than anything I would come up with on my own. Mind if I cut-and-paste?

Not at all! Go for it!

When Jandila offered a succinct summary of part of one of my posts, I just added it to the OP (w/ proper credit) without asking for permission.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky11y
Since lavalamp hasn't responded my interpretation of netiquette is that you can just do it anyway (with attribution). I don't think I'd even have asked; a comment on one of my posts is always fair game for attributed inclusion into the text, just like the post itself is fair game for inclusion into comments.

The problem of not realizing the existence of vast numbers of people "whose views you would find even more repugnant" seems to be very general. Progressive activists tend to see elected Democratic leaders as hopelessly timid, watered-down centrist sellouts while they see elected Republicans as ruthlessly efficient hard-right zealots, beholden to the most extreme elements of their party. And conservative activists have a very similar view of their own leaders as centrist sellouts while they see Democratic leaders as hard-left fanatics.

I'm not sure why this is so but part of the reason probably is the general tendency to have a more nuanced understanding of stuff which is close to oneself. So the difference between various flavors of your own ideology are salient to you while the differences between various flavors of the evil opposing ideology are not. In the same mundane way that the differences between Florida and Ohio may be more salient to you than the differences between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

It's worth explicitly noting that both liberal and conservative activists are right about their own leaders being centrist sellouts, just barely worth voting for. This is the natural order of things, as admirably explained by Chris in his post. The part they are wrong about is in not seeing the difference between the opposing side's elected leaders and their base.

I think that's an oversimplification. Michele Bachman is not a centrist sellout. Dennis Kucinich is not a centrist sellout. They may be centrist within the regions that elected them, though. (Chris explicitly pointed out this distinction.) It's only the politicians with serious prospects nationally who have to look like sellouts to their activists at large. And of course most activist-minded people will find that the politicians they can actually vote for are centrist sellouts. I bet Bachman doesn't look like a sellout to Republicans in, say, Massachusetts, but the Republicans who can actually vote for Bachman may think she's a wishy-washy compromiser, and the Republicans in New Jersey are stuck with the likes of Scott Brown.
Yup, it's a big old simplification - reality is pretty messy. As to your specific examples, Kucinich was, indeed, quite an outlier and is no longer in congress. Bachmann's views are probably quite a bit closer to that of the median voter. Even just yesterday she was making wishy-washy statements on the debt limit fight and over at you can read Erick Erickson denouncing Republican leaders for "caving on everything".

Note: "the MVT is a good empirical first approximation" is not the same as "the MVT is a good predictor of politician behaviour".

This is because of two things: first, the MVT does not necessarily hold when issues are multidimensional. Plott (1967)'s AER article demonstrates that when voter preferences are multidimensional, then the requirements for a stable majority vote to exist at all are quite stringent and unlikely to obtain in reality. The usual voting problem issues crop up. The winner is ultimately the agenda-setter, who can control the final vote and therefore the outcome.

It is however true that most contemporary issues are observed to align along a single axis. But this is the second issue: the more true the MVT is as an empirical first approximation, the more similar politicians will be, and the more they will need some way to distinguish themselves from their competitors! All that the MVT tells you is that over the vast majority of the policy possibility space, politicians will have similar views. And so they do. We could fund programs to search for the Lost City of R'lyeh, but we don't, etc.

Because politicians are so similar over the vast majority... (read more)

The first Google hit I found for "plott 1967 majority vote" was a article with 44 reported citations beginning with the claim that Plott had established sufficient conditions for an equilibrium to exist but had then been repeatedly misinterpreted as having established necessary conditions. Is this the case?
Hmm. The article is technically correct but irrelevant. The case where necessity fails relies on three conditions: (1) the number of voters is even (2) the number of voters is small (3) at least one voter has their optimal preferences exactly identical to the proposed equilibrium; not merely 'very close' but exactly. All three (plus some additional, complicated conditions) must hold for Plott's conditions to be sufficient but not necessary. (2) is obviously not a concern here, for nation-state electorates. (3) is implausible: just introduce a suitably fine-grained continuum of possible policies. If you still have an ideal voter at the equilibrium, it's not fine-grained enough. On (3), in particular: in general, mainstream economics ignores degenerate cases in utilitarian analysis. That's why the additional conditions are not mentioned: it requires that of a (finite) number of voter ideal points, at least one of them must fall on the equilibrium. But in a multidimensional phase space, the set of equilibrium points is a set of measure zero! Why would you care about that case?
(3) is guaranteed, assuming that a politician running for office will vote for himself.

There are some apparent exceptions to Duverger's Law, such as Canada, which has long had a multiparty system in spite of using a voting system similar to that of the US. However, a friend of mine who follows Canadian politics tells me that what really happens in Canada isn't that far from what you would expect given Duverger's Law. Currently, the three largest parties are the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), and the Liberal Party. It used to be that the NDP was a relatively small party with positions well to the left of the Liberals, but this is no longer true. Instead of offering Canadian voters two different flavors of liberalism, the current situation is that in any given election for any given seat in parliament, the NDP candidate and the Liberal candidate put a lot of effort into arguing over who has the best chance of beating the Conservatives.

Note that the Conservative Party is the outcome of a merger of two conservative parties (which were themselves split from a previous union). When the two parties were separate, neither could win, but after uniting they were able to take government (since the left was vote-splitting more than the right).

Knew about the merger, did not know it significantly improved conservative electoral success. Good detail to know.
The details are irrelevant, however, as Canada is still one of the many exceptions to the Duverger's law (which is not a law, but a silly generalization from one example). Plurality voting does indeed result in small or spread out parties being at a disadvantage, but it does not result in a convergence to some magic number, like 2.

So at last, I'm ready to explain what I think the broader nerd failure mode here is: they have a tendency to notice that people are failing to behave optimally and then propose, as a solution to this problem, that people switch to behaving optimally.

Mild objection: It depends on who is being addressed. If I'm addressing you, it makes sense to simply suggest that you behavior more optimally. When I am telling you how to change the behavior of others, it's a different story. Eliezer's post is a direct appeal to the reader to change their voting strategy, ... (read more)

I admit I may not have phrased that the best way, I was going out of my way to make the initial description of the nerd failure mode sound superficially reasonable. While doing so, I tried to hint at a cluster of subtle mistakes without spelling them out. You write: That might be true if you're addressing me, but not true if you're addressing someone else. One issue is that what makes sense for talking to rationalists who know how to take the kind of advice you're giving, or are merely a short inferential distance from you, may not make sense for talking to the general public. What I was really getting at, though, was the mistake of not not realizing what the hard part of the problem is, not even asking yourself that question, and acting as if noticing sub-optimal behavior was the hard part. But since reversed stupidity is not intelligence, realizing something is sub-optimal is often not enough to identify a better alternative. And other times, identifying the better alternative is easy--so easy, in fact, that the only reason there is a problem at all is because of the difficulty of getting people to follow it.

Great post. Any way we could at least get a link to this from within the sequences? Sometimes I wonder if LW will discover things in the sequences that are wrong/incomplete/etc. (looks like this may be the case here), but new users won't figure this out because the sequences themselves aren't getting patched.

I second this suggestion if and only if Chris's argument is correct, or more correct than the post he's criticizing. If something in the Sequences turns out to be wrong it should either link to the correction or be removed from the sequence in question. Maybe with an explanation of why; errata for the Sequences, perhaps.
5Ben Pace11y
I don't think it needs to be proven right, it simply needs to be a well written, informed critique. You don't only publish an academic critique of someone if they're definitively wrong.

My attempt at a TL;DR:

Studies shows that median voter theorem is a better model of the current political situation - in US and other countries with a similar voting system - then Eliezer's model of politicians colluding with one another.
Notice that the median is not the mode, so it is very possible that who gets elected has conformed to views that are quite distant from the majority of his/her electors. That is, MVT shows that usually who gets elected is not the 'best', but the 'less worse'.
In light of this, if you find yourself disliking the currently ele... (read more)

This post does a decent job at describing how plurality (and single-member districts) makes political problems more intractable than they look. However, it doesn't describe some of the more pathological failure modes of these voting systems (hint: was Bush or Gore closer to the median? How about Clinton or Bush Sr? What did those elections have in common?). Note that as with many strategic situations, pathology doesn't have to actually manifest as in the examples above in order to have a substantial effect.

Because it fails to mention these things, the post... (read more)

I'm not American, so I could be wrong about this. But at first glance it seems to me that Republicans have to run two vastly different campaigns, one in the primaries and the other in the general election, while Democrats could run pretty much the same campaign in the primaries as well as the general election. It seems to me that people like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz would have to get called flip-flops if they were to run for presidency in 2016 while Hillary Clinton would be able to run just one campaign.

Am I wrong, or is the Democratic party just larger than the Republican party and therefore more mainstream?

Generalizing over the whole nation, the higher the voter turnout, the better the Democrats do. This is part of why the two parties like to accuse each other of tolerating voter fraud or illegal voting (Republicans accuse Democrats of this) and of suppressing voter turnout through tricks such as voter caging and inconveniences such as short polling hours (Democrats accuse Republicans of this). Equivalently, Republican affiliation is more common in sectors of the population that are more likely to vote — e.g. the retired elderly.
Democrats in fact differ between the primary and the general election. Off the top of my head, consider Obama's shift on FISA from 2007 (voted against) to post-primary 2008 (voted for telecom immunity).
I'm not sure that's supported by the evidence. Gallup polls show Republican party as smaller than the Democratic party (23% v 28% in 2013), but that difference is made almost entirely of 'leaners'. Other polls that track solely identification rather than lean don't show this disparity, and the Gallup numbers have little predictive power over primary turnout trends. Is it that Hillary Clinton is less likely to be considered a 'flip-flop' than Ted Cruz, or that voters likely to vote for Hillary Clinton are less likely to care if someone calls her a 'flip-flop'? Conservatives are not likely to wait before pointing out her positions on the gas tax, on gay marriage, on several health care related matters, on several foreign policy matters, et all. Progressives are unlikely to do so, but progressives also have historically found it useful to portray Republican Presidential candidates as far-right stalwarts as possible. The specific complaints and criticisms are going to reflect the values of the folk professing them, and different political affiliations often have different values. To some extent, weathervaning is just a natural result of any system that includes primary elections. You've got more tools to excuse it when it's your side, but that's doesn't mean it doesn't happen.
Depends what you mean by "mainstream". The Democrats are "mainstream" in that the institutions that tend to define mainstream, e.g., most newspaper, the universities, Hollywood, etc., are heavily Democratic. On the other hand polls consistently show more people willing to define themselves as "conservative" than "liberal".
On the other hand, polls that ask about, say, health-care reform without mentioning partisan affiliation tend to show that most American citizens support fairly social-democratic positions on many issues. In other words, partisan self-identification has detached itself from actual policy preferences.
I'd caution that this can be a misleading data point. Polls on universal coverage requirements or single-payer score higher than actual implementations of universal coverage or single-payer or the advocates of either position, but actual implementations or advocates are actually and meaningfully different. They're attached to things like insurance purchase mandates (which poll terribly) or drastically change the insurance market and almost all policies on it now (which poll even worse). Other polls can be misleading because people will voice, but not vote, on a topic. The political polls on a number of matters related to gun control overwhelmingly support certain ideas(1). But the majority of the populace doesn't care about -- and in many cases, doesn't even understand -- what they're aiming to require or prohibit. It won't actually drive votes for any specific politician, and excepting where the topic can be covered by a clear ballot initiative at a time where voter turnout, won't even drive votes for a specific regulation. (1) the exact number is usually overstated due to polling methodology, but exists.
Could you separate the difference between polling and voting on specific issues from the difference between polling on specific issues and turning out for party politicians? It sounds like there probably is a real difference, but it may be smaller than you're saying after we account for the dysfunction of the current American electoral system in specific.
I'm not sure it's possible to do so entirely, if only because the party a politician joins can itself be information about the sort of matters they'll be able to put forward. You can almost always find better proxies than the first reported by media sources, though. Simple averaging together the various individual components of health care reform is a really stupid and obviously inaccurate tool -- people don't value individual components equally -- but it shows a far more interesting picture of the full system. And you probably have other complicated variables to deal with. People don't generally know the details of any specific law. Again, using health-care reform since has some of the best research, there's pretty clear evidence that one in four people have never been aware of even the most popular parts of the law. If you start with an assumption of massive electoral dysfunction, that can explain a pretty large number of things -- but it seems to have explanatory power, rather than predictive power.
The again, in states that have them ballot initiatives frequently produce results to the right of what the legislature is willing to pass.
Allow me to correct myself in a way that renders us both correct, in-context: The American populace generally seems to be further to the left on economic issues but further to the right on cultural/social issues than the government they elect. The simplest explanation has already been given: a unitary government over extremely heterogeneous regions.

fvkgl-svir srrg, orpnhfr gung'f gur zrqvna inyhr bs gur bevtvany frg bs ibgrf. Naq abj lbh xabj gur fgbel bs zl svefg rapbhagre jvgu gur zrqvna ibgre gurberz.

I have confirmed this via programming.

In the future, when you want to share code to elucidate a point, please consider using Pastebin or another means of sharing text as text, rather than screenshots. Doing so will allow others to run your code without retyping or OCRing it.

Needs a summary at the top.


Quick comment.

I can muster an easy Marxist objection to Chesterton's Fence: the fence was put there by a very powerful person who nobody else liked very much, and now that he's out of power, everyone else wants to remove the fence, because we never wanted it in the first place.

The thing is, that's just kicking the can down the road; why did the powerful person want it there badly enough to build it? While people do occasionally go mad with power, the groups which keep power in the long run are usually those who know how to preserve and increase it so there is some logic behind their actions. A good example, involving actual fences no less, might be the Fence Cutting Wars in the late-nineteenth century Southwestern US. Landed ranchers put up barbed wire fences which often blocked off roads, prevented landless cowboys from easily grazing their cattle, and sometimes hemmed in public land in addition to their own property. So, seeing them as senseless and unjust, the cowboys went about cutting them en masse and burning the pastures of ranchers who tried to rebuild them. Of course, the ranchers hadn't went through the effort of buying miles of barbed wire and planting tens of thousands of stakes in prairie sod out of spite; there was a drought on, and overgrazing of their land by trespassers meant risking losing their herds as well as the value of the land they had bought and worked. The seemingly senseless fences were there to prevent people with no stake in maintaining their property from using it up for their own profits, which the cowboys immediately started doing as soon as they cut the fences. Estimates at the time put damage due to the Fence War at $30 million (~$728 million in today's money) in property value just in Texas, as well as numerous lives lost fighting. Congress's solution was something I think Chesterton would approve of; cutting fences was made illegal, while fences were required to only enclose one's own property and have gates where they crossed roads. Acknowledging the reason behind the fences construction and continued presence, while also making sensible changes to help them meet that goal with minimum disruption to others.
From the way you describe it here, it also sounds like the landed ranchers were violating the Chesterton's Fence (or in this case, Chesterton's Public Road) principle.
Yeah, the thing that really bugs me about that whole conflict was how careless everyone involved was. It really shouldn't have had to happen in the first place, and if the two sides had bothered to take other people's motives into account I suspect it wouldn't have. You shouldn't have to be told not to block off Churches and roads with barbed wire, or not to graze and water your cattle on another cattleman's land in a drought without asking the landowner permission. That's part of why Chesterton's Fence seems like a valuable mental exercise to me, because it encourages thinking about why other people might be doing what they're doing before jumping in to change them.
I don't see much carelessness -- I see a struggle for power that involved "teaching lessons". P.S. The whole scenario seems to be a pattern that recurs in history -- see e.g. Enclosure.
Part of the issue is that those social norms weren't established, at that point. The open range system pretty much required random folk to put up fences across most every road (cattle grids weren't common until the 1920s), and there were actually pretty big incentives to build and maintain property on public federal land. Property and trespassing concepts get very complex even today in that part of the country, and before the Fence Wars they were even less settled. In some places, ranchers and fence-cutters were able to actually meet up and agree on new rules similar to the norms you've described. But more often, the conflict was more fundamental. Much of the fighting occurred where ranchers were not blocking off public roads. The cowboys and their employers had spent decades with access to these water supplies and grazing lands, and had their livelihoods dependent on that remaining the case. The ranchers, meanwhile, were spending years of their time trying to establish and develop portions of land, under circumstances that encouraged them to select the very water supplies cowboys valued and use as much of those resources as possible. And the economics of the time encourage both groups to nearly or completely overgraze land. There aren't always easy solutions.
If you know why the fence is there, Chesterton's point doesn't apply.
Chesterton's point isn't that you should never remove the fence, it's that you shouldn't remove it until you know why it's there.
Yes, this is true. However, within the social context of his own times, "the powerful guy wanted it there and we don't!" is such a common reason (in fact, it's fairly common today) that you should expect it before even studying the fence.
One big objection I have to the Chesterton's Fence argument is that it makes it much easier to remove a barrier if is a rational and obvious reason exists for that barrier (if we consider that reason to be too weak to justify it) then if the reasons for the barrier were completely irrational and therefore basically incomprehensible to us. We may not be able to figure out why certain ancient religions required male circumcision in all cases, but the fact that we can't figure out why that's a rule shouldn't be a reason for us to continue to follow that rule.
Actually, there's a good reason why: because a religion having rituals for group membership that require commitment (including commitment on the part of parents) survive better than religions that don't.
Sure, that's a plausible explanation. I'm sure we could come up with plausible explanations for almost anything. That's not really the same thing as "knowing why the fence was built", though. I've heard half a dozen plausible explanations for it, and at this point we're only guessing as to which one of them (or all of them, or none) was responsible for those religious rules to be written in the first place. Anyway, my point was more that it's a good idea to try to find out why "the fence was built", but not being able to find that out or find a rational explanation for it should not be a reason to leave the fence there, which the Chesterton's Fence rule seems to imply. There may not be a rational explanation, or if there is there might be nobody alive who can know for sure. The Chesterton's Fence rule, if applied literally, would tend to lead to a very heavy bias in favor of the status quo, and especially a bias in favor of status quo rituals or conventions of fairly mysterious or ancient origin (which is probably what the inventor of the idea had in mind).

Regarding geography and polarization, have a look at the Cook Partisan Voting Index.

Good, substantive post, explaining (if in a bit many words) some important insights that give a quite interesting view of the whole situation. Good work.

However, similar to what lukeprog and shminux pointed out, this is quite the long essay, and it would be nice if it was tightened up a bit, at least in the form of providing a summary at the beginning.

However, similar to what lukeprog and shminux pointed out, this is quite the long essay, and it would be nice if it was tightened up a bit, at least in the form of providing a summary at the beginning.

To be honest, I didn't mind the length. It's nicely witten and it builds up a narrative of some sort, making it worth the read. A summary won't hurt, of course, but otherwise I see no need to shorten the essay.

5Eliezer Yudkowsky11y
I agree. I wish LW had enough content like this to publish it daily.
Value of breaking this into multiple posts?
First, I thought this was a great post! That said, I would shorten this by deleting the paragraph about whether or not proportional representation is better, since it's not really relevant for this post. Also, the three paragraphs starting from "I'm sorry if that sounds like a dig at Republican voters" seemed to be rather low on information content - e.g. one of them says basically only "there exists this one girl who's a birther and thinks Obama engages in terroristic ways (whatever that means)". They're also distracting because it feels like you're slipping from a general argument to taking shots at people whose political opinions you disagree with (and to subtly imply that anyone who disagrees with LW's consensus is crazy and stupid - maybe not your intention, but that's how it comes off as). I'd delete them as well.
Hmmm... the things you complain about are all me anticipating objections to this post, namely: 1. Given Duverger's law and how bad the two-party system is, shouldn't the conclusion be not, "accept the two-party system" but "get proportional representation"? (Response: proportional representation might be slightly better, but seems implausible that it makes a huge difference.) 2. Skepticism about whether many people really buy the Obama conspiracy theories / "I'm a libertarian Romney voter and I'm offended!" But maybe re-word and turn into footnotes? Edit: footnote-ized!
I find the conclusion that the US would be better off with some form of proportional representation pretty compelling actually, and I don't think it's so implausible that it would make a positive difference. The difference it makes in Europe (compared to the UK for example) seems to be that the smaller parties with agendas the median voter doesn't care much about still get a voice in parliament. It's worth it for the Greens or the Pirate party to campaign for another 1% of the vote, because they get another 1% of the seats, instead of nothing. It should be a better marketplace of ideas; although a few major parties still keep most of the power, they have more incentive to accommodate or adopt new ideas. I suppose the presence of the minor parties increases the visibility of multiple policy axes, forcing the major parties to compete for the median voter along each axis. Having said that, it still isn't very relevant to the thrust of the post, so the decision to footnote it was probably correct.
fyi, the "terroristic ways' was probably a reference to assoication with marxist bombers rather than muslim ones.
I guess no. It would solve the article length, but not the density of information. If you could make some parts shorter without losing information, do it. Otherwise, just add the summary. I guess it's not technically possible now, but it would be nice to make the quotes collapsed, opening after a click; because the quotes are 20% of the article.

He mentioned the primaries briefly, but to go into a little more detail, there are two big rational factors at pull in opposite for the (largely very partisan) voters who vote in primary elections. To clarify, the average Republican tends to be farther right then the average person in the general population, independents sometimes can't vote in primaries depending on state law, and since primary elections tend to see low voter turnout, most of the voters who do show up tend to be very politically focused and have much stronger views on average then even ... (read more)

I actually think of Chesterton's fence argument as a rhetorical move. I imagine that some hypothetical "Alice" says, "I can't see any reason for this", in order to force their opponent to justify something which was historically justified by values which are considered obsolete -- for instance, "I can't see any reason why same-sex couples should not marry". Well, Alice probably can see reasons, but if Alice gives those reasons, she is doing her opponent's job. If she instead says, "The only reason for this is bigotry,&... (read more)

...the ranks of US liberals have included 9/11 Truthers, Marxists, etc., etc.

In spite of being a conservative Catholic apologist, what Chesterton is saying here isn't crazy...

Withholding my upvote until you rephrase that. People can be highly intelligent and rational not "in spite" of being a conservative Christian - indeed, they can take some good ideas characteristic of classical conservatism and Christianity while avoiding the bad stuff. E.g. from what I know, cousin_it here on LW is a conservative, and Will Newsome is Catholic (?), and bot... (read more)

People can be highly intelligent and rational not "in spite" of being a conservative Christian

This seems false as a matter of plain fact. It isn't especially different to being highly intelligent and rational despite believing Pi=4. It may be a rude thing to say, or unnecessary or inflammatory but it isn't an incorrect thing to say.

"Intelligent" doesn't mean "cares about the truth", anymore than "intelligent" means "moral/ethical". Intelligent more than likely just means maximizes goals while expounding the least effort. I've known quite a few intelligent religious people, and their goals simply aren't to find "the truth". To them, religion is more like cheesecake.

The original specified "and rational".

Affirm this reply. It certainly wasn't the intelligent part that prompted my objection.
Well, the whole point of instrumental rationality is that you need a correct map of reality (ie, to care about the truth) in order to be able to reach your goals whatever they are. There is a strong signaling issue, appearing to be a conservative Christian can give a lot of political/social benefits in some circles, and it's easier to appear being one when you truly are one, but apart from that, having the belief of conservative Christian leads you to acts that are inefficient for reaching your goals, from rejecting your gay grandson to wasting time in prayer to not going to cryonics because you believe in afterlife. Having a flawed map of a city means you'll not reach your goal efficiently (but either completely miss it, or use much more time/resources to finally reach it), and that's true whatever your goal is. The same is true with a flawed map of reality and navigating your life. Even if you do not care about the truth for its own sake (if curiosity and preference for truth aren't in your terminal values), if you're intelligent, you should care about the truth as an instrumental value to reach whatever goal you truly have.
I would submit that it rather depends on your goals.
This is true in as much as the No Free Lunch theorem is true. As for the relevance to the beliefs and preferences of actual Christians, the testimony of the relevant religious texts, expressed beliefs of Christians and emphasis of Christian apologetics arguments do much to affirm that "long life of positive experience" is a goal that is in general shared by Christians. The "carrot" presented to reward belief is "eternal life". John 3:16 is the most famous quote from the Bible and the one used to express the core of Christian doctrine concisely: People, including Christians, tend to prefer long life---either in their physical body or after that body has been destroyed. If the beliefs of the Christian are false then the actions they choose when attempting to achieve this goal will fail.
That might be true, but you wouldn't be in much of a position to know whether it was true until you could conduct an unbiased analysis of your own motivations given a state where it was false versus a state where it was true.
But the same is true for everyone, isn't it? What's special about conservative Christians here? Also, consider the goal "I want to be resurrected by Jesus and live forever".

Well, if it were really your goal to be resurrected by Jesus and live forever, and not just to be comforted by the belief that you were going to be resurrected by Jesus and live forever, then if Jesus didn't exist, it would be of prime importance for you to know that, since for there to be any chance of it happening at all, someone would have to make him.

I am sure the fellow considered that possibility and rejected it :-) Or maybe he likes the Pascal's Wager. In any case, getting back to the original issue, it was, to put it crudely, that Christians are necessarily stupid. That seems to be false on its face as there are a lot of people who believe in Jesus and are highly intelligent by all the usual measures of intelligence.
Which is exactly the matter which, as Wedrifid pointed out, bears on the individual's intelligence and/or rationality. Nobody in this conversation made such a claim that I'm aware of. The point of contention originally raised in Wedrifid's comment was that religious conservatives may be intelligent and rational in spite of, rather than regardless of, their religious conservatism. That is, religious conservatism would be counterevidence to the overlap of intelligence and rationality.
I read wedrifid's post as stating that, in a bit more polite terms. So what does this actually mean? You see a girl, she looks intelligent and rational, you learn that she's a conservative Christian and you go "Oh, she isn't intelligent at all, my mistake"..?
I affirm Desrtopa's interpretation, as well as Eliezer's reminder about how conjunction works. To reiterate: When you encounter "!(A AND B)" it does not mean "Let X equal whichever of !A and !B is most objectionable and claim that !(A AND B) is equivalent to X".
How do you tell that she "looks intelligent and rational?" If you have some other information that already screens off the evidence from knowing that she's a religious conservative, it doesn't adjust your probability, but if you don't, then you adjust your probability estimate that she falls into the overlap of "intelligent" and "rational" downwards. If you know a particular human is three feet tall, but do not have access to other personal information about them, then it's possible they're an adult, but your best guess should be that they're probably not.
By talking to her. Would the downgrade from 99.999999% to 99.999998% be satisfactory? :-)
Depends how much information you already have. I would say it would be awfully hard to get enough information to raise the probability of someone having both high intelligence and high general rationality to 99.999999% in the first place without finding out whether the person was a religious conservative or not, so I would say "possibly, but not in realistic formulations."
Not a very charitable interpretation. How about this instead: If someone is a conservative Christian then that fact makes it less likely that person is rational. Similarly: If someone is deaf then it is less likely that they are a great pianist. I can affirm that statement and still believe that Beethoven existed, without implying any insult to Beethoven.
This is a good point, and holds in the majority of cases, although there are other considerations which should also be mentioned. Since all maps are 'flawed' by definition, an important question is whether the flaws in your map actually interact with your goals, and if they do whether they are beneficial or harmful. It's usually not a good use of your energy to fine tune areas of your map which don't have any impact on your life and actively wasteful to "fix" them in ways which make it harder to achieve your goals. Incorrect beliefs can be useful in the aggregate even if they fail in certain situations, as long as those situations are rare or inconsequential enough. I can be utterly wrong in my belief that there are no tigers in New York City (there are several in the Bronx Zoo, not to mention that more might well be kept illegally as pets) but it's completely orthogonal to my daily life and thus not important enough to spend effort investigating. And if I had a pathological fear of tigers, I would gain a pretty significant advantage from that same false belief; I would do well to maintain it even if presented with genuine counter-evidence. I think that most religions are wrong to harmful degrees, but it's not an ironclad rule of rationality that beliefs must be maximally accurate. A pessimist is actually more accurate in their assessments of people, but optimists are happier and more successful; if your rationality insists you cannot be optimistic, then it is not useful and should be ignored.
I agree that having a correct map of reality is needed if you care about arriving at some (I hate this word) "materialist" goal, but not everyone can live in a more liberal area of the US/world. Areas where not fitting into the local community creates more burdens than necessary. For example, when I was in the military, I identified as an atheist pretty openly, barely concealing my contempt for religion. One of my last Enlisted Performance Reports, my supervisor said I would do better if I were a Christian. I wasn't sure if that was a threat, or him implying that I was immoral and thus not quite a fit in the military community, but nevertheless I was penalized (in his eyes) for not being religious. There's the map of reality, the map of the physical roads and buildings, but there's also the map of human interactions. One can signal consciously, but what I gather is that most people signal unconsciously and then generate a cached version of themselves that eventually becomes the real them (belief in belief and all that). While I might say I had an accurate map of reality when I was in the military, I didn't have, nor did I want to even accept, that there was another map of social situations that would also have helped me reach my goals more efficiently if I had an accurate map of it.
Hmm, its true that your map needs to be correct (in the sense that it corresponds to reality) in order to reach your destination, but it need not be wholly so. Let's say I'm a firm believer that I must obey the laws written on a sheet of paper somewhere. I think they were written there by all powerful alien forces, obedience to whose dictates is the sole criteria for determining virtue. Any evidence to the contrary (say, the fact that no one has seen the sheet of paper) is part of the alien's test. Could you work with me? It depends on what I think is on the paper. If I believe that something approaching your, I dunno, call it ethics, are written on there, then it doesn't really matter to you too much why this is the case. The two of us ought to be able to cooperate (you holding your nose at my fundamentalism, me rolling my eyes at your relativism.). My map of reality is wildly inaccurate at the edge of my neighborhood, but the two of us are only going to the drug store (voting on an issue we agree on). I guess what I'm trying to say is that having a flawed map of a city only means you won't reach your goal if the flaws manifest themselves on the route between you and your goal. Flying Saucer Cult members still tie their shoes just fine (maybe, if you think they don't please substitute a task you believe that they routinely accomplish, perhaps donning their cult attire). I believe that what you say about caring about truth as an instrumental value to reach my goal is true IFF my goal is essentially discovery-related. I need an accurate map when I venture beyond my neighborhood. But what if my goal is pretty much local? I have a brother who is happily married, works to support his family, regular church goer, roots for his local sports teams, etc. He's pleasant and friendly to his many friends and associates, well respected. He learned what he needs to know for his job long ago, and is uninterested in improving at it (there's not much room to do so). What doe
You may be fine with a flawed map, sure, if you're lucky. But then you're at a risk. Take your brother, what will happen if his kids end up gay or lesbian or polyamorist ? If he's really a conservative Christian, he'll believe his kids will burn in hell, you think that will make him "be at his destination" ? Or (and I really don't wish that to happen) if his wife ends up being pregnant again, but with a child having a severe disability that is detected at the early stages of pregnancy, will they abort ? Yes, if your map is flawed in a location you never go, it doesn't matter much. But you're always at risk of potentially catastrophic failure if you do so. Now, you may argue the risk of failure is low, and the cost of having an accurate isn't worth it... maybe, but there is no way to know that, to make that estimation, with a flawed map. You can't rationally chose to be biased, for to make that decision you've to know the truth already.
"Or (and I really don't wish that to happen) if his wife ends up being pregnant again, but with a child having a severe disability that is detected at the early stages of pregnancy, will they abort ?" Is it the "rationalist" position that it is advantageous or obligatory to do so?
So what would you conclude about someone to whom "pi=4" was more like cheesecake?
7Eliezer Yudkowsky11y
I would conclude a deficit of general appreciation of why beliefs are not like cheesecake, a specific deficit of mathematics, and various other algorithmic deficits.
Pi=4: (Sadly, Vi Hart rejects the obvious proof.)
Intelligent religious person here. I've got several different things to say on the subject. Firstly, GK Chesterton lived almost a hundred years ago. It's simply unreasonable to demand that a dead man retroactively conform to every belief confirmed, falsified, or nonindicated by modern science. As it was, he held fairly sophisticated and well-grounded opinions for his time. Now, on to the subject of religion and intelligence or rationality today. The first issue is to dissolve the word "religion", and find out what we are really talking about. Let's say: spirituality, theology, and practice form an ad-hoc deconstruction of religion. Well then, in what circumstances are these different attributes of religion rational to exercise? Spirituality: I see no reason that a rational person shouldn't have spiritual beliefs, in the sense of overarching notions or narrative (summoning Terry Pratchett and his pan narrans view of Man here) regarding the universe, how it works, what forces are at work in it, and our place in it. It is entirely plain to anyone with eyes that powerful, eldritch forces run the universe, and the only way people manage to miss that simple fact is by not noticing that we're made of those forces. Life and evolution, as processes which self-organize and optimize the world of matter towards lower-entropy states by spending energy (currently: from the sun, by and large), are themselves far larger forces than you would expect in a universe of mathematical laws and subatomic particles. What reveals the "eldritch force" at work is looking at ontology separately from our current matter substrate and noticing that any ontology with a potential for self-replicating things or patterns will become subject to evolution. Theology: As separate from spirituality, theology is largely about believing the spiritual and material universe has a specific arrangement as dictated by some story, text, or leader. This is usually the least-rational component of religion, and
People aren't objecting to particular scientific opinions held by Chesterton, but to how Chesterton's standards lead one along bad paths in general. Some things have fences for no reason than bigotry. As far as I can tell, "something that you would only do if God cannot exist" refers to an empty set. "Something that you would only do if the Christian God cannot exist", of course, is not an empty set, but that's very different and it's very hard to justify why you wouldn't do that but you'd do the equivalent with some god other than the Christian one.
It may be, since I gave a declarative definition rather than a constructive one. I actually gave my own objection to the Fence thing in my own comment, namely that fences are often there simply because some powerful tyrant wanted them, and nobody else wants them.
It may indeed be impossible to be a believer if you have very high levels of epistemic rationality, but it's compatible with very high levels of instrumental rationality combined with moderately high levels of epistemic rationality.
Agree. (Or at least I agree about the instrumental rationality compatibility. The "moderately high levels of epistemic rationality" would depend on the design of the metric.) Edit: Other replies reminded me I may have been hasty in my agreement. Perhaps put the instrumental rationality compatible in with "depending on the standard of measurement". Simply because that belief puts some hard limits on how instrumentally rational the individual can be. Unless the belief is so compartmentalised that they do things like still actively work to combat existential risk, at least as it applies to themselves or otherwise act as if they are taking such concerns into account in their decision making. I maintain my endorsement with your general sentiment.
" very high levels of instrumental rationality combined with moderately high levels of epistemic rationality"? And in a world where other agents are the most important powers you deal with, social instrumental rationality is more relevant to evolutionary fitness and personal success than epistemic rationality. I worry that me and my kind are going the way of the dodo.
Yeah. Fixed, thanks.
Apply your epistemic rationality to the society and the agents around you as well -- they are part of reality, too.
Yes, one can. But I have this unfortunate habit of treating people as people, and not internal combustion engines to be optimized. Even more unfortunately, it's not just a habit, it's a preference. I have a strange compulsion towards honesty, and respecting the autonomy of others, and something of an aversion to people who don't have that strange compulsion.
Read more carefully -- I'll bold the relevant part: "Apply your epistemic rationality to the society..."
And what does apply mean to you when it comes to epistemic rationality? Just to know, or to do something with that knowledge?
"Apply" means "learn" in this context. Applying epistemic rationality means you try to make your map match the territory as well as you can. What you do with this map is an entirely separate question (which is, largely, a function of your goals and instrumental rationality).
More like "People can be conservative Christians in spite of being highly intelligent and rational".
See also RationalWiki's articles on engineers and woo and the Salem Hypothesis. People can be highly intelligent and rational within a domain where their judgments are strongly tested while believing all sorts of wacky crap in other domains where they can get away with it. (All the usual caveats about RW do apply. Exactly what counts as "wacky crap" is, of course, highly disputable.)
I'm assuming that there exists a g factor of generalized intelligence; how to measure that and what the cutoff for 'highly intelligent' is are undefined, and 'highly rational' is too complicated to begin to define. With two undefined terms, the area between the goalposts is either negative or imaginary, so I won't suggest that there are no counterexamples or leap into the 'no true rationalist' fallacy. That said, your confusion comes from asserting that 'intelligent' and 'rational' are behaviors rather than traits. If someone regularly engages in irrational behavior, I adjust my belief in their rational nature downward; if they profess belief in something that I consider stupid, I also adjust my opinion of their intelligence downward. Membership in the "Conservative Christian" club appears to require a large amount of stupid, irrational behavior, and seems incompatible with being highly intelligent and rational. However, there are people who manage to provide enough signs of intelligence and/or rationality while approaching conservative Christianity for me to give up and cry. That's stream of consciousness explanation of what I think my thoughts were, which might help resolve any confusion you have. I doubt that it will convince anybody of anything substantive, but it might help people who disagree with my conclusions find the pivot.
That way does seem slightly better. At least it is certainly more clear what the claim means, even if I would personally put a qualifier of some kind before 'rational' or perhaps append 'compared to their peers'.
"People can be conservative Christians compared to their peers in spite of being highly intelligent and rational"? Or "There exist conservative Christians who are highly intelligent and rational compared to their peers"? I'm going to step away from the definition discussion on whether 'Conservative Christian' is mutually exclusive with 'intelligent and rational'. I have a specific person in mind who is Christian, very intelligent, and mostly rational (all beyond any reasonable argument), but there exists a reasonable argument that this person is not conservative, or that 'conservative Christian' means something other than "possess the quality 'conservative' and the quality 'Christian'"
This. I have several people in mind (immediate family members) who meet this criteria too. "Mostly" is the kind of qualifier I had in mind. (So any disagreement we may have about categorisations here must not be fundamental.)
I wish I could make the fundamental categorization, but the world provides a counterexample from which the only escape is a weak cry of 'not conservative enough to count?'. The weaker form of 'Conservative Christianity is a negative predictor of intelligence and rationality' is roughly equivalent to the same thing that we've been agreeing about.
That doesn't seem to be a counterexample to anything here. It seems to be a somewhat sad failure of thinking by an individual. If it is a failure that occurs frequently then it would be worth exploring just which human biases are involved in the decline.
Are you confusing an observation with a conclusion? I think the only reason I or you disagree with the conclusion is that we don't share the same observation; everything from there on is either logically sound or high-probability.
No, not from what I can see.
What is the failure of thinking that you see, then? "Morality loves me" implies "theism is correct".
No, it is not. It may be false as a matter of your definition of "highly intelligent and rational", but I don't see facts involved here. It's pretty easy to convincingly demonstrate that that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is not 4. I haven't seen anyone convincingly demonstrate that God (or some god) does not exist.

All those proofs you supposedly saw that pi was not 4 could have been flawed, we have to remember that there are two sides to every story. Besides, it's okay to believe that pi = 4 if it brings you joy.

And frankly, my belief that pi = 4 is irrelevant to my opinion on philosophy; no philosophy paper hinges on what the exact value of pi is. You should evaluate my philosophical work on its own merits, not on your prejudices about people who believe in pi=4.

Proofs? I can just measure myself. If you want to argue that I can't believe the evidence of my own senses, well, then we're getting into quite different territory. To your opinion maybe, to my opinion about your opinion it's quite relevant :-P
All the great scientists are aware that there is always some error in measurement. With real knowledge comes humility, because the more we know, the more we realize we don't know enough. There are many optical illusions, biases, etc. Your eyes may be telling you that the Sun rotates around Earth, but that doesn't necessarily make it true. Once you learn more about math and life in general, you will realize that pi is greater than 3. Maybe then you will feel ashamed about what you wrote now. Just have an open mind and keep learning. PS: My grandfather was fired from university for teaching that pi = 4, and I will not allow you to stain my loving memory of him. He was a good person; much more loving that most of the mathematicians I know, including the assholes that fired him. (jokingly pattern-matching some religious arguments)
Given that this is an observation straight out of Stats 101, yes, I suppose all the great scientists are aware... Do note that this error is often quantifiable. Actually my eyes don't tell me what rotates around what. My eyes tell me that there is a very bright ball moving across the sky. In any case, are you really arguing that I should accept the opinion of authority over my personal experience (assuming reasonable intelligence on my part)?
It may help to re-read the last line of V_B's comment.
Ah. I applied it only to the last two paragraphs. I may have been hasty about that :-)
(Can you please confirm that this is intended to be satire? That seems to be the intent but I'm unsure because some of the other replies say things more bizarre while evidently intended to be literal.)
Yes it's satire, and it's telling that you can't tell :-)
Poeslaw, the side dish of champions!
It could also be trolling.
Specifically it says something about wedrifid's understanding (to lack thereof) of other people's positions.
Thanks, I am now free to upvote!
You regularly disbelieve in things without requiring someone to convincingly demonstrate their falsehood, on the basis that there isn't reason to suspect that they're actually true. Religious conservatism comes down to a number of empirical claims which are either right or wrong, and the fact that we cannot now demonstrate which is correct does not mean that some people are not getting the answer right and some getting it wrong on the basis of the same available evidence.
At best I can concede that if one can redefine "rational" to mean something different to rational then the quote in question can be said to be 'true'. But that isn't how words are supposed to work and such conversation ceases to be relevant. You have convincingly demonstrated that people can be as intelligent and rational as Lumifer while still believing that a god from a popular mainstream religion exists. Nothing more.
Different people will attach quite different meanings to the word "rational". For example, I don't think the standard LW idea of what "rational" means matches the common mainstream usage. I am sorry, your rationality is broken :-P I do not believe a god from a popular mainstream religion exists. You seem to have fallen into the common trap of "Why is she not condemning the enemies from tribe X? She MUST be from tribe X herself!"
No, you're just wrong. That is the extent of what your "have not seen convincing" claim implies. A problem with your "be convinced" algorithm. It certainly doesn't demonstrate that believing wholeheartedly in the specific "Daddy in the sky" fantasy of Yahweh 2.0 is epistemically sane. No, you are saying something wrong because you are saying something wrong. Most Christians wouldn't make the particular mistake you are making. Basic reasoning failures like this are not a property of Christianity, they are a property of Lumifer's comments in this thread. Incidentally, most of my tribe is Christian. This includes most of my family and friends and among them some of the people I most respect intellectually. So while I cannot happen to call their epistemic practice rational I still claim offence on their behalf at your equivocation between accusation of specific reasoning failure and accusation of Christianity.
We seem to disagree about that. Naked assertions are not particularly effective arguments. Ah, well then, of course! :-D By the way, the "accusation of a specific reasoning failure" is aimed pretty specifically at your heavy-handed implication that I am a Christian.
The claim was not naked until you stripped it of clothing by selectively quoting it out of the context of a paragraph of explanation. Your move is not 'effective' unless aimed at users who approve of disingenuous rhetoric. I repeat the contradiction of this claim that I spent paragraphs explaining in the previous comment.
It seemed the discussion turned into a spat. I apologize for my role in this transformation and bow out.
A piece of well-intentioned advice: When you're involved in a disagreement, responding to someone's argument with "LOL" or a smiley emoticon signals dismissiveness and borderline hostility. It seemed to me in places that you were actively trying to turn the discussion into a spat. Since it appears that this was not actually your intention, you might reconsider that particular (easily-adjusted, I think) rhetorical tic.
I use “Are you fucking kidding me” for that. (I only feel the need to do that once every couple of years, though.)
That is (for me) a considerably stronger version which would generally imply that I consider the poster beyond the hope of redemption and am about to get medieval on his ass :-D
In my usual vocabulary, it does signal dismissiveness, but not hostility. Unrolled, it says "Your point/argument/position does not pass the laugh test, I consider your assertion ridiculous, either reconsider it or provide strong support". As to smileys in my posts, they are "adjectives" for my own words and usually serve to soften the impact (e.g. explicitly show lack of hostility).
Sometimes interaction strategies are not mutually beneficial. In such cases non-engagement is a practical and all to often neglected option. Wise move.

Withholding my upvote until you rephrase that. People can be highly intelligent and rational not "in spite" of being a conservative Christian...

Intelligent, yes, rational, color me extremely skeptical. My reason for the comment about Chesterton was also partly because the fence quote trips my "this sounds like someone trying to come up with a clever justification for their knee-jerk prejudices" alarm. Until the second paragraph, it seems a bit fuzzy on whether Chesterton acknowledges there are no good reasons for some social institutions.

And my model of an educated American Marxist would certainly have her dislike 1) liberals and 2) "truthers" of all kinds. I'm puzzled.

"US liberals" changed to "the American left," in recognition of the fact that "liberal" can be read as "left-of-center." But I don't know why you'd be reading me as necessarily suggesting overlap between Marxists and 9/11 Truthers. The idea is that Marxists can be found within the American left, and 9/11 Truthers can be found within the American left, while being non-committal about whether there are (many) Marxist 9/11 Truthers.

the fence quote trips my "this sounds like someone trying to come up with a clever justification for their knee-jerk prejudices" alarm

I don't think Chesterton says there are necessarily good reasons for the fence. What he says is that some reasons exist and until you know what they are you can't evaluate whether they are good or bad.

FWIW, I would unpack "conservative Catholic apologist" not as an apologist who happens to be a conservative and happens to be Christian, as you seem to be reading here, but rather as someone who regularly engages in apologetics for conservative Catholicism.

I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the Catholic Church. "I found folly everywhere, but there were grains of wisdom in every stream of it. No doubt there was much more wisdom that I failed to recognize." Vladimir_M could perhaps be called a Catholic reactionary, and he's one of the very best contributors to this site. Well, probably ex-contributor now.
Where did Vladimir_M say he was Catholic?
In the comments to Yvain's salmon post:

Thanks for identifying Duverger's Law. I had never heard of it, but I had informally grasped its application in UK politics.


and a third supporting full marriage equality

I think you are being unfair here. Those against gay marriage also consider themselves to be in favor of full marriage equality; both straights and gays have equal right to marry anyone they like, so long as that person 1) consents 2) is unmarried 3) is of age 4) is of the opposite sex 5) etc. Indeed, if my sexual orientation flipped tomorrow, the set of people I could legally marry would not change at all.

This is not to say that this argument is correct. However, you are making a mistake by using the termino... (read more)


Too long, lost interest after one pagefull. Your narrative style is pretty poor, consider using the more standard and clear business writing format. I tried to summarize it here a couple years back. Downvoted until then.

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There's a solution I always thought of since young, that is instead of letting voters vote for a single candidate of their choice, let them assign each candidate a score and the representation will be defined by the total score of a party's candidates.

Perhaps it would be better to let voters rank the candidates instead, and assign each rank a well-defined score, if directly assigning a score is to arbitrary.

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If, off the top of your head, you thought of a solution to a problem that's existed for hundreds of years and had lots of smart people look at it, it probably was thought up by someone else already and found wanting. Ranking is subject to Arrow's impossibility theorem. Having voters assign candidates a score is still covered by the Gibbert-Satterthwaite theorem.
According to Warren "Range Voting" Smith, Gibbard-Satterthwaite only applies when what voters provide is a ranking rather than a scoring. [EDITED to put the link on a slightly better choice of words.]
Yeah, sorry, I don't know what I was thinking.

Is the Duncan Black who wrote the article cited ("On the Rationale of Group Decision-Making") the same Duncan Black who writes "" (the very liberal blog)? It seems unlikely, but how many politically interested Duncan Blacks can there really be?

Two, apparently. The cited article was published in 1948.
Muchas gracias. Probably should have been able to figure that out myself.
Consider yourself lucky I didn't use a link. ;-)

This just further makes me think that I should have no interest in politics, because I am incapable of doing anything with any large effect towards what I care about.

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I don't know if I missed the point of the section on "Voting Systems, voting strategies and knowing your fellow voters" but could it be summed as:

People don't vote for politicians because they agree with them, rather they vote for the politicians who are better than the next best alternative. The politician who satisfies this characteristic appeals to the median voter. Moreover people on either side of the median voter will vote for the very same politician for different reasons.

Other than that, I thought the section on the Median Voter theorem was fascinating. It does seem to elegantly explain the data. Now I want to know why the US is polarized by geography.

Part of this is historical reasons, that is true of nearly all countries (there's a great map that overlays German election results with both the Thirty Years War truce line and the line between East and West Germany). Also there are reports that this is becoming self-reinforcing, i.e., people moving to regions of the country with similar beliefs to theirs.

I find this argument convincing, but I also found the subsequence he's criticizing convincing. I'm having difficulty working out which one is actually correct. I was predisposed to believe the nincompoops argument at the time (still am, really), so maybe I should apply bias correction in favor of this one. Or maybe it's just that there's an element of truth in both.

I'd be really interested to see a response from Eliezer to this essay.


I'd expect that in a single-round winner-takes-all election candidates try to adapt to the mode of the voter distribution, not to the median. However, if voters' positions on many issues are approximately distributed according to a Gaussian, mode and median will coincide.

Nope. Imagine an asymmetric voter distribution (just skewed is enough, we don't have to care about multimodal ones). If you stand at the mode, I'll choose to stand just to the side of you in the direction of the median and I'll get more votes.
There's the possibility that staking out a position too close to the mode (but not close enough to take those votes) will alienate a significant bloc of voters who will punish you by voting for someone else, or not at all. There's a threshold for a lot of voters where it doesn't matter that you're the "best available" candidate - for them it's like being asked to choose between a fatal dose of cyanide and one of arsenic. The fact that you're going to get one or the other is no incentive for complicity.
In reality the median-voter theorem sometimes works, sometimes doesn't work, and sometimes works partially. Reality is complicated and has a lot of extraneous forces and factors which are abstracted away in models. It's easy to construct plausible scenarios where the best strategies would be very very different.
You are right. Thanks for the correction.