A Voting Puzzle, Some Political Science, and a Nerd Failure Mode

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.

Notes

  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 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exit,_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?

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.

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.

To summarize the summary: people are a problem.

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 redstate.com 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 of the space, the gains from introducing additional dimensions for voters to puzzle over are potentially enormous. All they need to do is introduce a single issue which breaks the pairwise symmetry of the existing median-voter-favoured equilibrium - some issue where the degree to which people care is deeply asymmetric. If it 'sticks', then they are assured of a victory. If it doesn't, then all you've lost is some advertising budget.

So that's what politicians do: they try to find issues which, at least for a while, don't align cleanly along the predominant axis. Most issues won't stick, because the possibility space is enormous.

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.

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 elected politicians, be aware that this is likely because there are many other voters whose views you might find even more aberrant.
A 'nerd' failure mode observed in the sequence is to notice sub-optimal behaviour and just pointing at it saying "do not do this". But unless you understand better why the sub-optimal behaviour is in place, it is very unlikely that that suggestion would be helpful/effective. MVT is clearly a case of this.

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.

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.

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, not an instruction manual on how to change a nation's voting structure.

1st order: Act (behave optimally yourself.)

2nd order: Influence the Acts of others: ("Please behave optimally! You get candy if you do.")

3rd order: Alter prevailing methods of influencing the Acts of others ("This is how you lay out the incentive structure. This is the message you broadcast.")

What you call "nerd failure mode" was simply a 2nd order action. What you are doing now is a 3rd order action. It doesn't make sense to conceive of them in opposition (unless you think E.Y.'s solution of explaining his point of view was unhelpful in achieving his end, taking into account how little it cost).

In this specific case, if you think strategic voting is sub-optimal, you can't go up to a voter who is voting strategically and tell them "Hey, let's figure out why people vote strategically so we can change it" because you haven't yet convinced them of the premise that voting strategically is bad in the first place. A 2nt order strategy is necessary in this scenario.

So if this is in fact a failure mode, then the 3rd order phrasing of this "failure mode" is "Attempt to convince people, using reason, that there is a more optimal way to behave".

But I don't think that you are claiming that this is ineffective, right? Instead I gather that your point was more that strategic voting really isn't the problem here. But if that's the issue, then the failure wasn't "believing that telling people to be optimal works" - rather, the failure is "being mistaken about the cause of nincompoops in office". Which is a rather different sort of failure.

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:

If I'm addressing you, it makes sense to simply suggest that you behavior more optimally.

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.

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 the average member of their party.

  1. You want someone who's as close to your views as possible. (Which would tend to pull the candidates to the far left or far right, from a general election standpoint, since the median primary voter is far more extreme in their views then the median voters as a whole)

  2. You want someone who has the best chance possible to win the general election, since the other side's candidate would be even farther from your views then a moderate from your own party (this tends to pull the candidates more towards the center, since centrists tend to have an advantage over extremists in the general election).

These two forces tend to fight it out in internal party politics in every primary season; you tend to get the "I'm the real conservative/the real liberal" candidate running against the "I'm the more electable" candidate in most races. It's also worth noting that in races where one party has historically dominated a state or a congressional district, force #1 tends to be much stronger, since the other party has very little chance of winning anyway; on the other hand, in races that are expected to be close (Governor races in moderate states, presidential races, ect), force #2 tends to be a higher priority for voters, and you get much more centrist candidates from both sides.

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 does a disappointingly poor job at discussing voting systems in general. It doesn't even touch on other voting system proposals and their possible effects on collective rationality; nor the theorems which put limits on those effects.

I tend to geek out on these matters. I've even accumulated some "expert" credentials: I'm on the board of directors of the Center for Election Science, as well as being currently engaged in conducting a behavioral study of motivated human strategy under 8 different voting systems. I have been mulling whether to write a post on this for Less Wrong. The success of this post makes me more likely to do so. Upvotes on this comment would too. Responses to this comment mentioning recent donations to CES of $60 or more would make it certain that I'd do so.

(Obviously, you could figure out my real name from the above info; that's fine, but please don't post it here.)

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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.

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.

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.

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.

how careless everyone involved was

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.

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).

...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 both are awesome. Or read The American Conservative, a pretty great and high-quality magazine.

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

Nuance matters.

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.

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.

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 instrumental rationality.

" 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.

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.

But I have this unfortunate habit of treating people as people, and not internal combustion engines to be optimized.

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).

"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.

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.

having the belief of conservative Christian leads you to acts that are inefficient for reaching your goals

I would submit that it rather depends on your goals.

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:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

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.

then if Jesus didn't exist, it would be of prime importance for you to know that

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.

I am sure the fellow considered that possibility and rejected it :-)

Which is exactly the matter which, as Wedrifid pointed out, bears on the individual's intelligence and/or rationality.

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.

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.

Nobody in this conversation made such a claim that I'm aware of.

I read wedrifid's post as stating that, in a bit more polite terms.

religious conservatism would be counterevidence to the overlap of intelligence and rationality.

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 read wedrifid's post as stating that, in a bit more polite terms.

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.

How do you tell that she "looks intelligent and rational?"

By talking to her.

you adjust your probability estimate that she falls into the overlap of "intelligent" and "rational" downwards.

Would the downgrade from 99.999999% to 99.999998% be satisfactory? :-)

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."

OK, let's change the numbers to 70% and 69.9999999% -- is that good?

Let's leave "intelligent" aside and focus on the "rational" necessary condition for being "intelligent and rational." Also, let's dig down past the label "conservative Christian" (or "conservative Catholic," as Chris actually said) to some of the beliefs that constitute conservative Christianity and conservative Catholicism. For example, in the American context, a conservative Christian who isn't Catholic is probably some variety of creationist, and quite likely a young-earth creationist. Finding out that a person is a YEC would reduce my probability estimate that that person is rational to effectively zero, regardless of what else they had said up to that point; in my experience, it is not possible for a person to know enough about rationality to practice it, and simultaneously be ignorant enough of the natural sciences to believe that the Earth was created in essentially its present form with its present biota less than 10,000 years ago.

Being a conservative Catholic, as I understand that phrase, necessarily entails believing that homosexuality and contraception are morally wrong according to "natural law" which can supposedly be derived without recourse to divine revelation, and also believing that the College of Cardinals, a group of men who conspired to conceal the sexual abuse of children on a massive scale and thus enable it to continue for decades, are the best possible arbiters of morality for the rest of us. (If you don't believe those two things, you may still be a liberal Catholic, but you are not a conservative one.) Those beliefs are likewise not ones that someone can both hold and be a rational person. They do not, however, preclude intelligence; I would note Justice Antonin Scalia as an excellent example of a highly intelligent, deeply irrational conservative Catholic who uses his intelligence in the service of his irrational beliefs and goals.

Probably not, no. In general, it's just not that weak evidence.

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"..?

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.

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 does he need truth for? He is at his destination, his map was sufficient to reach it. How can truth improve his attending of church, or his time at the bar with his buds, or help him play with his kids? Its superfluous to his life.