(Disclaimer: this is an exploration of possibilities of one simple model. Scott Aaronson's story is merely a starting point, merely a motivating example. This post does not claim to somehow reveal some kind of "true motivation" behind people's actions)

Recently Scott Aaronson stated that he is "97% on board with the program of feminism". This post is neither about Scott Aaronson, nor about feminism. It is a post about what does being 97 percent on board even mean. In this particular case it was probably just a figure of speech, I don't think there was anything more than that. But I think the question itself is still interesting. What does "x% agreeing" with another person or movement (let's use the word "movement" quite loosely even for things that wouldn't be called "movements" using everyday language) mean? What does "mostly agreeing" mean? This post presents one (not necessarily the only) possible model of what might be behind statements like these. The model is very simple and, if correct, could shed some light onto one particular aspect of how movements might work.

For the sake of simplicity, in this post I will assume that given a specific concrete question, person1 either agrees, or disagrees with a person2, and, similarly, person1 either agrees or disagrees with a specific point in a movement's program. Then "person1 agreeing with someone about something" is a function that outputs either 0 or 1. The arguments of this function are (person1, person2, question/statement) or (person1, movement, question/statement). Now, given person1 and person2 (or person1 and movement) one can take a list of questions/statements, and calculate the percentage of agreement for this questionnaire. If a movement has a list of statements (in other words, a list of yes/no questions) "what this movement is all about", then we can similarly calculate person1's percentage of agreement with this movement.

For the sake of simplicity, I am talking specifically about concrete and specific yes/no questions and statements. In this case, very broad statements should be understood as being shorthands for long lists of specific statements (i.e. "X should always do Y" should be understood as a shorthand for the list "X should do Y in a situation1", "X should do Y in a situation2", etc.).

The point I am trying to make is this. The length of these lists of questions/statements is usually not very well defined and you can increase the percentage of agreements by stuffing the list with questions and statements with near universal agreement (common sense statements) or you can decrease the percentage of agreement by cutting uncontroversial questions out from the list ("this is common sense, you don't need a movement for that"). And when you lengthen or shorten the list of question, various things happen.

It is my impression that if a person identifies with a movement, then they are likely to see common sense as a part of the program of the movement. The unwritten list of questions and statements is long and it is very easy to get high percentage of agreement. If a person doesn't identify with a movement, they are unlikely to see common sense as a part of "what this movement is all about" (they don't think they need movement1 where common sense is enough). To them, the things movement1 is all about are the things where the movement1 differs from common sense or tries to go beyond common sense. In this case, the list of questions is much shorter since uncontroversial common sense questions aren't included in the list.

For the sake of simplicity, let's assume that you cannot easily drop controversial questions out of the list, as it is beyond the scope of this model.

If, for some reason, a person wants to see himself/herself as agreeing with a movement, but, at the same time, does not want to change their yes/no answers to specific questions, they may try to lengthen the list by including many "easy questions" which are hardly unique to the movement. If a person's views about a movement are unfavourable, then in their minds it is the controversial questions that the movement is all about, in their minds the list is much shorter.

On the other side of the coin, movements often try to attract new people by lengthening their lists by stuffing them with various slogans and platitutes and claiming that they are very important part to their identity.

Suppose person A says that he/she 90% agrees with movement1, and person B says that he/she 40% percent agrees with it. As you can see, it does not necessarily mean that they must disagree about any given concrete question. It is possible that their respective lists of questions are simply different in length, that is, their opinions whether certain common sense statements belong to the discussion about movement1 are different.

However, if you are designing a list for a movement, you cannot add just any question you want to any given list. It is my impression that there must be at least some (real or perceived) disagreement with someone (who is again, real or perceived) about it, otherwise people will not think about that question as a part of your movement. For example, you cannot add support for the law of gravity to the list of things your movement supports and expect that people will actually include this question calculating their percentage of agreements.

Threats, both real and imaginary, are often helpful for movements, because they enable them to add uncontroversial questions and portray them as controversial, thus making it easier to reach high percentages of agreement with people.

If a question stops being controversial over the time, it becomes rarely included into the people's lists of questions, which might lead to decreases in their respective percentages of agreement with movement1, even if it was movement1's supported position that prevailed and became common sense. In this case, movement1 may try to talk a lot about the past and emphasize the small remnants (again, both real or imaginary) of dissent. If a movement no longer has positions that haven't dropped out of the list, it probably stops being considered a movement. At the same time, movements (theoretically) try to win and making your position common sense is a victory in some sense.

It is interesting to think what dynamics this might lead to. It seems that if most movement's positions are becoming common sense, perhaps it has to introduce controversial statements in order to stay a movement. If a movement is too much disagreed with, it may either have to try to distance themselves from controversial questions somehow, or try to stuff their list with a lot of statements that aren't very controversial by trying to emphasize that common sense is part of their identity. Another interesting dynamics might be introduced by geography, where different questions belong to common sense or are controversial in different parts of the world, yet those different parts know about each other.

To sum up, the lists of questions/statements are not strictly defined. People who identify with a movement (but not necessarily agree with every statement) seem to be likely to think of the list as much longer and contain a lot of common sense statements. People who perceive themselves as outsiders are likely to think that uncontroversial common sense statements do not belong to the list.

(feel free to correct mistakes, both grammatical and those related to the content of the post itself, advice on the presentation itself, comments about what was unclear are also appreciated)


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15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:35 PM

Imagine we're looking at an obscure group called the Axiom of Choice which has the following policy agenda and weights them with the following relative importances:

  • Anthropogenic global warming is real and dangerous: weight 20
  • Jesus is the reason for the season: weight 30
  • Farms should be collectively owned: weight 15
  • Monopoly should be played with no house rules: weight 12
  • The Beatles are overrated: weight 20
  • Yogic flying is real: weight 3

If I'm on board with everything but the yogic flying, then I'd refer to myself as being 97% in agreement with them.

Now, of course, exact numbers of this sort are practically impossible to come up with. But with sufficient interaction with a group, you can get a sense of what they're about and what's really important to them, and come up with a fairly decent approximation. (Then of course you halve the distance between that and 100%, to add rhetorical weight to your discussion of your differences with them)

Suppose it is 2015 and there is a movement X with a policy agenda:

  1. Murder should be illegal

  2. Slavery should be illegal

  3. Duels to the death should be illegal

  4. Personal income tax rate should be changed from x% to y%.

Suppose you do not belong to the movement X. I guess that when you read items 1-3, your reaction is likely to be "basically everyone agrees with these. I don't need movement X for that", and whether or not you will feel compelled to support the movement X will depend solely on the item 4, since items 1-3 do not distinguish the movement X from other movements. And you can't say that items 1-3 are unimportant to the movement - of course they would be against legalizing random killings. But, at the same time, only the items that distinguish a movement from other movements are useful in comparisons. Sometimes movements have incentives to claim that items 1-3 are more controversial than they really are, to increase the number of items which are used to calculate the percentage of agreements. Or they can use, for example, motte position (which nearly everyone supports) to attract supporters and the existence of people who do not support bailey position in order to be able to claim that the question is controversial and therefore you should add it when you calculate your percentage of agreement.

The point I tried to make was that if you allow all questions, then you would get everyone mostly agreeing with everyone else. But while we do observe that most people agree about certain uncontroversial things, we rarely observe people claiming to be mostly in agreement with their opponent movement.

In your example, if, during the course of history, playing Monopoly with house rules would became rarer and rarer until it all until they all but disappeared, then including it in a policy agenda would become pointless as it would fail to distinguish the movement from the alternatives. In other words, while dueling was a hot issue in 17th century France, nowadays political parties cannot run on anti-dueling-to-the-death platform, because most people's reactions would be something like "are you trying to attract followers by supporting that? Almost everyone already supports that". There must be at least some people who would support that. Therefore, sometimes movements might to exaggerate the power of opposition. If they succeed, more issues are made to look "contentious", and that helps to increase the percentage of agreement. For example, if there is someone somewhere (real or imaginary) who is pro-murdering people, then the movements who are against murder gain additional support.

I am sorry that my writing skills seems to be so atrocious that I completely fail to get my point across (of course, maybe people simply did not find it interesting). Now I think if I should delete this discussion post and (maybe) try to rewrite it completely if I ever had time, an idea how to present it more clearly and enough enthusiasm. Whether this model adds any insight or merely rewrites a few old ones without adding anything, is a different question.

Fair point. I think I just mentally filed that under the weighting algorithm - nobody talks about banning murder, so it'd have a low weight for just about any group out there.

As a ballpark algorithm, weight = importance * controversialness?

The small percent that people say they don't agree with is almost always the most controversial opinions. I suspect that such a weighting isn't what people have in mind when they say they agree with a group 9X%.

Fair, but most controversial doesn't always mean most important. Usually, the narrative is something like "All the hard slogging that this movement has done has been awesome - it's changed society for the better. But now they're overreaching" - I can see that aligning(seriously, not just for rhetorical weight) with a belief that the group is really about the sloggy stuff, and the goes-too-far stuff is just a novel addition that isn't core to its beliefs. That seems to be what Aaronson meant, and also most others I've seen use similar phrasing.

You can measure this by looking at the spoken or written works of the group. When talking to an Axiomist of Choice, you would on average agree 97% of the time with what they are saying, since the other 3% they are talking about yogic flying.

Of course in real life people also make a lot of smalltalk, which is probably not ideological at all. This is less of an issue when looking at writing.

If you want to know what Scott Aaronson means by it, well, you could ask him or read the rest of his writings on the subject.

I don't expect this particular rhetorical flourish to have as consistent a meaning as you seem to want it to have.

In this particular case it was probably just a figure of speech, I don't think there was anything more than that.

Scott Aaronson's statement was simply a starting point. I don't think all people (not necessarily Scott Aaronson himself) who say "I mostly agree with them" mean the same thing. This post is speculative, it is about one possibility. It merely asks a simple question "If we assume this very simple model, what could be its implications?" [Edit: added this to the post itself]. As you can see, this post is of "what if" type, not "well researched" type. In this post I merely try to explore one possible answer to the question "how is it that some people disagree with particular statements yet say that they mostly agree with the movement, whereas other people seem to disagree with nearly exactly the same particular sentences yet claim they disagree with the movement?".

Also in certain circles it may be mandatory to show support for certain movements, e.g., if you were living in the Holy Roman Empire in the 17th century it was mandatory to show support for the ruler's religion, if you were a professor at a university in the Soviet Union it was mandatory to show support for communism.

Application of this to Scott Aaronson's statement is left as an exercise to the reader.

I find myself very put off by this comment, and I am not sure if I fully understand why it is bothering me. (or if it is good that it is bothering me) My immediate reaction is that it is rude for you to accuse someone of dishonesty about his own preferences. Instead I feel that you should assume honesty (about statements of personal preferences) and try to cultivate a society where honesty is the optimal strategy.

I am not sure if I am willing to take on all of the consequences of adopting this strategy, and am I not sure if is really well defined as there is a grey area between "preferences" and "beliefs" (Here I mean beliefs as falsifiable claims/probabilities)

Well, people are sometimes bad at introspection. And there are ideas that bring you social reward if you profess believing in them, and social punishment if you profess disbelief (unless you are trying to get points for being contrarian, which complicates things). So it would be reasonable to expect that our introspection is biased towards what is socially rewarded.

On the other hand, how strong can such bias be? (If someone reports "97%", should we expect the real value to be somewhere around 95%, 90%, 70%, 50%, 30%, or 10%?) Are there things that make this bias stronger or weaker? (Such as anonymity, age, profession, introversion, intelligence, etc.) Because then the accusations of bias could suggest a presence or absence of such traits.

I don't want this to develop into a fully general counterargument to anything people say about their preferences. But social pressure is real.

On the other hand, how strong can such bias be?

It depends on the strength of the social pressure.

I think this issue is all about identifying clusters in a list of points in a large vector space. In particular, you want a method to identify these clusters which is independent of linear transformations on the space. (Replacing one questions with n^2 questions corresponds to multiplying the weight of that question by n) I do not know much about this, but this seems like it is doomed to fail. In particular, it seems like if the points are in any kind of general position, then the whole thing looks like a large simplex, and there is no way to tell the difference between points. You will probably always be able to change the "clusters" by sdding whatever questions you want.

I think the way past this is to allow each individual to choose their own weighting on the questions signifying how "important" that issue is to them. I think there is an important difference between two people who agree on all issues but prioritize them differently, and it is not a problem that they can agree with a movement to different degrees.

Are there examples of movements that intentionally restrict their set of positions?

I'm thinking perhaps of groups that want to distance themselves from a less popular group, even when that group would support the more popular group; e.g. advocates for a single-payer health care system in the US might try to avoid making too many general claims in order to not appear socialist.

Also: I realize this is separate from what you're analyzing, but it seems clear that these claims mostly serve to prepare the audience for an upcoming critique, and fend off certain negative responses and misidentification that can easily be triggered by criticism. So in Scott's post, you see a few sections of overt (over-the-top?) support for in-group positions on different issues, even when those issues aren't (logically) very related to his main point.

person1 either agrees, or disagrees with a person2

What's wrong with calling them Alice and Bob like everyone else?

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