Have no heroes, and no villains

by PhilGoetz1 min read7th Nov 201074 comments


Affect HeuristicTribalismBiology

"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"

When Edward Wilson published the book Sociobiology, Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould secretly convened a group of biologists to gather regularly, for months, in the same building at Harvard that Wilson's office was in, to write an angry, politicized rebuttal to it, essentially saying not that Sociobiology was wrong, but that it was immoral - without ever telling Wilson.  This proved, to me, that they were not interested in the truth.  I never forgave them for this.

I constructed a narrative of evolutionary biology in which Edward Wilson and Richard Dawkins were, for various reasons, the Good Guys; and Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould were the Bad Guys.

When reading articles on group selection for this post, I was distressed to find Richard Dawkins joining in the vilification of group selection with religious fervor; while Stephen J. Gould was the one who said,

"I have witnessed widespread dogma only three times in my career as an evolutionist, and nothing in science has disturbed me more than ignorant ridicule based upon a desire or perceived necessity to follow fashion: the hooting dismissal of Wynne-Edwards and group selection in any form during the late 1960's and most of the 1970's, the belligerence of many cladists today, and the almost ritualistic ridicule of Goldschmidt by students (and teachers) who had not read him."

This caused me great cognitive distress.  I wanted Stephen Jay Gould to be the Bad Guy.  I realized I was trying to find a way to dismiss Gould's statement, or at least believe that he had said it from selfish motives.  Or else, to find a way to flip it around so that he was the Good Guy and someone else was the Bad Guy.

To move on, I had to consciously shatter my Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative, and accept that all of these people are sometimes brilliant, sometimes blind; sometimes share my values, and sometimes prioritize their values (e.g., science vs. politics) very differently from me.  I was surprised by how painful it was to do that, even though I was embarrassed to have had the Good Guy/Bad Guy hypothesis in the first place.  I don't think it was even personal - I didn't care who would be the Good Guys and who would be the Bad Guys.  I just want there to be Good Guys and Bad Guys.


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No-one is a villain in their own mind, of course.

I've spent several years deep in the bowels of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation. (It's jolly good and I'm very proud to have had some small part in what we've achieved and continue to achieve.) Wikipedia has the rule "assume good faith", which is of course a restatement of Hanlon's razor, "never assume malice when stupidity will suffice." Wikimedia is 100% made of sincere people who really believe in what they're doing. Per Dumas' razor, "I prefer rogues to imbeciles, as rogues sometimes rest," this means that when one of these sincere, smart, dedicated people is doing something that's actually blitheringly stupid, it's ten times as hard to get across to them that they are in fact having a towering attack of dumbarse.

Every politician I've ever met has in fact been a completely sincere person who considers themselves to do what they do with the aim of good in the world. Even the ones that any outsider would say "haha, leave it out" to the notion. Every politician is completely sincere. I posit that this is a much more frightening notion than the comfort of a conspiracy theory.

There are few, if any, villains. There are people being stupid and foolish. These are frequently us. LessWrong's catalogue of cognitive biases is to remind you that you, yes you, are in fact an idiot. As am I.

The hard part is to set the bozo bit on people in parts, rather than over the whole person. And allow for the notion of cluifiability.

This is simply not what I observe to be the case from my experience with politicians and high-level business people.
People quite consciously play and want to play varied parts in life, some of which are villain parts.

There are certainly a fairly large group of people who are inclined to refer to others as "do-gooders" but I think this usually this is a consequence of not thinking of things in terms of wrong and right, but in terms of winners and losers. They adopt stereotypically villainous traits mockingly, to display their contempt for people they think are inferior to them. I know and see a lot of businessmen and commentators like that, but not many politicians, at least above the level of the president of the Young Tory or Debating society.

Similarly people who decide that the most important thing to do is to smash some "the other side" they can't credibly be cast as oppressive tend to adopt villainous traits.

5MichaelVassar10yOK, that sounds about right. I suspect that one difference is that we treat politicians as meaning different things. You may mean "candidates" while I'm also including lobbyests and other party organizers and influencers.
7David_Gerard10yI would need actual examples of people who thought of themselves as villains here. (I realise this request may involve mindreading.) Some do appear to be running through the Cool Villain pages on TVTropes, but would think of themselves as doing so to achieve an end. Some seem to have talked themselves into a position of moral ambiguity, where you can't do just one thing and someone will always get hurt and they might as well be the ones trying to make the least hash of it and achieve something better than bad. And the Xanatos gambits [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/XanatosGambit]! It's quite dazzling having a party apparatchik describe to you their ridiculous gambit that they then seem to pull off. And wonder if the bit where they tell you about it was part of the gambit. Anything involving politics is a thirty Xanatos pileup [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ThirtyXanatosPileup] every day anyway. (It's not a counterexample to what you've said, but I think of Pol Pot's last recorded words, "Everything I did, I did for my country" and marvel at humans' power not to paint themselves as villains. Though that quote could arguably show slight awareness sneaking in.)

Here is a This American Life episode about just such a real-life group of people: a collection of various chemical company executives arranging and implementing an international price fixing scheme that lasted years.

The episode focuses on an informant, a junior executive with one of the companies, who captured an enormous amount of footage of the executives jovially discussing the various ways and means they'd be using to knowingly screw over their customers and, in turn, a great deal of the agricultural and industrial economies that depended on their products. The footage is justly described as "probably the most remarkable videotapes ever made of an American company in the middle of a criminal act".

Everyone has reasons for the things they do, post-hoc or otherwise; I think what distinguishes a villian is a callous acceptance of their own selfishness and a pointed indifference to, or even enjoyment of, the suffering inflicted upon others due to their actions.

8David_Gerard10yO_O Okay. Mostly there's just sincere stupidity.
5Paul Crowley10yI'd want to see a lot more examples of covert villany footage to be confident that this footage was atypical.
1David_Gerard10yEr, I don't understand. Do you mean "was typical" or "wasn't atypical", or have I misparsed?
2shokwave10yAmusingly, I misparsed your sentence, and was about to point out that "was typical" is the same as "wasn't atypical". I parsed ciphergoth's comment as saying "I would want a lot more footage before I said that this footage is an exception to the rule of 'mostly sincere stupidity'."
2Paul Crowley10yYes, that's what I meant.
4Nornagest10yI've met a few people on TVTropes who claim to be playing a villain role or something roughly cognate to one in real life, without having any particular higher-level reason for doing so in mind; the infamous Troper Tales [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TroperTales] pages are a particularly fruitful source of examples, although it's likely that a lot of the more extreme ones come out of attempts at trolling. Even if we discount active attempts at deception, that site selects for people who spend a lot of time thinking about character types, and additionally has the right demographics for many of them to put an excessively high priority on looking cool; it's wise to take this sort of character identification with several grains of salt. As best I can tell the motivations involved aren't usually all that villainous relative to most external observers, but it's self-image that's at issue here.
0icarusfall10yA fictional example of someone wanting to be a villain might be Shakespeare's Richard III. In the opening soliloquy in the play: I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion, Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, And that so lamely and unfashionable That dogs bark at me as I halt by them; Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, Have no delight to pass away the time, Unless to spy my shadow in the sun And descant on mine own deformity: And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/richardiii/full.html [http://shakespeare.mit.edu/richardiii/full.html] Of course, the real Richard III probably wasn't that bad a chap, just poorly treated by Tudor propaganda (arguably)...
1TobyBartels10yAnd it is so argued [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ricardian_%28Richard_III%29].

Every politician is completely sincere. I posit that this is a much more frightening notion than the comfort of a conspiracy theory.

Hear, hear.

I think of self-deception and ill will as lying on a continuum with no bright line separating them. Bad Jackie in slacktivist's "Jackie at the crossroads" is a "bad person", or at least a person who does a clearly bad thing and does not repent, but she will be quite upset with herself if she ever realizes this.

7MarkusRamikin10yThis is patently, staggeringly false. Politics isn't Wikimedia. There are completely different motivations, rewards and therefore different people get into it. There is money, power, status involved and it's a competitive setting. What do you think politicians think of themselves when they deceive, become corrupt, sacrifice the interest of the state for that of their own or their party, or go into the pocket of another nation/businessman/organised crime? Calling them "sincere" and acting for the good of the world sounds naive, like you don't believe in the existence of cynical people. As long as the interest of someone else than the voter is being served, and the voter is being deceived about that, that's not sincerity. EDIT: the amount of upvotes the parent comment got is a bit scary. Either I'm missing something important, or there's a lot of very innocent readers around...
5Craig_Heldreth10yYour idea is one of the principles of Dale Carnegie's How to win friends and influence people. He goes on at length on the specific case of Al Capone, notorious 20th century American gangster.
4Mercy10yIn his autobiography, Blair relates that during the buildup to the Iraq war he used to tell anti-war Labour cabinet memebers and MPs "it's worse than you think, I really believe in this". Though as that episode shows, being a true believer isn't the same thing as being honest or transparent in your justifications. I had a brief relapse on this realisation recently, during the assault on Gaza, when it was revealed that (some) Israeli supporters on the net were coordinating and disseminating talking points using software released by PR firms (can't remember if they were offficial gov't agencies or just overenthusiastic), similar to what some AGW defenders have set up on twitter. Anyway this was briefly comforting, since I felt some of the arguments they were using were callous, and it was nice to think that they didn't really mean them, but then it was pointed out that they weren't being paid.
5David_Gerard10yDude. Arguments are soldiers [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Arguments_as_soldiers]. Of course they meant them. There are people who sincerely - as far as you, I or themselves could ever tell - believe things because they think they should.
2Mercy10yThis was what I realised when I found out they were volunteers. I think I ended that sentence a bit too abruptly to make that clear...
3false_vacuum10yI don't know much about politicians, really, but I don't find it difficult to imagine that many of them could believe they are doing neither good nor harm on any significant scale--perhaps that they could not do significant good or harm--, but by means of some combination of seeking benefit for their allies and doing what they feel is necessary to be politically successful are in fact doing more harm than they imagine, at least by comparison with a hypothetical replacement of greater intelligence/integrity/courage/rationality/etc. I'm just speculating, though, and I'm not sure what could be offered in response except anecdotal (and indirect) evidence.
3mindspillage10yFancy seeing you here. As someone somewhere along the same place in the Wikimedia alimentary canal, I agree entirely with this post.
4Relsqui10yI find your metaphor unsettling for reasons I'm having trouble putting my finger on.
2gwern10yWell, what goes into the alimentary canal is very nice, and what comes out is... not so nice. Wikipedia articles have problems with degrading over time when the creators leave and the deletionists take over.
2Jotto9998yWhat does cluifiability mean? It is neither in the dictionary, nor recognized by Google.
2Desrtopa8yAbility to get a clue.
4Jotto9998yAh! Well I had no cluifiability until you posted, thanks.
-2Kawoomba8yAbility to make a clu [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YYqnw4nm-c].

The thing is there are people who are more or less likely to be worth listening to. Even if no one is actually evil, some people don't have ideas that are generally worth listening to. They might occasionally have a good idea. And even people with generally good ideas might have a few really bad ones. The question that needs to be asked is not "is this person good or evil" or even "is this person smart or dumb" but rather "what is the probability that I will learn something interesting and correct from listening to this person?"

Given what I know about Gould I suspect he likes group selection for the same reason he dislikes sociobiology. Namely, because group selection is moral.

As for your main point while I agree that it's dangerous to get into affective death spirals around your heroes and anti-affective death spirals about your villains, it is also true that the fact that someone doesn't care about the truth of a theory because he finds it immoral is Bayesian evidence that his other statements aren't necessarily reliable. After all he might only be making them because he finds them moral.

the fact that someone doesn't care about the truth of a theory because he finds it immoral is Bayesian evidence that his other statements aren't necessarily reliable.

True. I don't want to go overboard and say that we shouldn't accumulate evidence about what people have done in the past. But I was not being a rational Bayesian. I wanted to be a Good Guy and feel righteous.

I find this also hard with acquaintances. One who has done some really awful things but is also in many ways an interesting and sometimes very selfless and generous person. There's pressure to either say "oh, they're all right really" or "oh, they're not really generous". Ultimately for all that they deny it, people want to know what side you're on.

9Vive-ut-Vivas10yAnd on an equally depressing note, I've run into this with significant others. Sadly, I've found that my inability to subscribe to the Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative hasn't resulted in optimizing relationships.
0Carinthium10yWhy not simply lie and pretend to subscribe to whatever Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative is socially convienient?
3Vive-ut-Vivas10yAs a general rule, I try not to lie to myself. I wasn't referring to the social convention of picking a side to cheer for, but the internal conflict that occurs when you love someone and they turn around and hurt you; for instance, your SO makes a huge mistake, but you're reluctant to let that outweigh all of the good qualities that they have. It then turns into a situation where you have to determine where exactly that moral event horizon lies that then makes them unsuitable as your partner. (If anybody has an algorithm for this, please, help me out!)
0Carinthium10yI meant lying to other people, not yourself- but that's probably irrelevant given I misunderstood you.
0RichardKennaway10yDo you want a significant other that you need to lie to? Or who needs to lie to you?
0Carinthium10yI could tolerate a significant other that I might need to lie to (it would mean they were somewhat irrational, but most people are and I'm not an attractive mate anyway so I can't afford to be picky), but not one who would need to lie to me. (I don't like being lied to, don't like self-delusion, and would have more of a sense of power and control if my spouse was honest with me but not the other way around- with a matter such as a spouse's self-delusions, I would be unlikely to be caught and would suffer less repurcussions anyway)
3David_Gerard10yThis is roughly what I mean when I say "I love everyone." Some get tougher love than others, of course.

I remember distinctly having the same discrete epiphany, and it is indeed incredibly frustrating. But take heart--this way, you get more than two markers with which to color in your map. :)

6DanielLC10yIf you have good, bad, lawful, and chaotic guys then you have four colors [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_color_theorem]. That's enough to color a map, right?

If you assume the world has very simple topology, yes.

3TobyBartels10yYou also have to assume that each territory is connected, which is what really makes this theorem inapplicable so often.
0[anonymous]10yYou could say that it's the topology that matters, since you could easily give the globe a topology such that every nation is connected.
0TobyBartels10yYou could (as with the indiscrete topology), but in this case I think that it makes more sense to think of the topology as fixed before the particular territories. Historically, the latter have proved to be far more variable.

Gould turned Goldschmidt's "hopeful monster" hypothesis from pariah to mainstream with his theory of punctuated equilibrium - which has been well-borne-out in every good, gene-level-detailed computer simulation of evolution that I've seen.

That is simply bizarre. I'm going to have to ask for references. Two references, in fact.

One would be a quote from any mainstream evolutionary biologist other than Gould which uses the phrases "hopeful monster" and "punctuated equilibrium" in the same paragraph. If you cannot find one, a quote from Gould would do. According to wikipedia, the association of the two ideas is a creationist distortion. Googling the two phrases seems to bear that out.

The second would be a link to any paper reporting a good, gene-level-detailed computer simulation of evolution which backs up your claim.

It appears that you're right about my misstating the connection between hopeful monsters and punctuated equilibria. I'm not familiar with Goldschmidt's work, and inferred (and overstated) the similarity with punctuated equilibrium based on my spotty understanding of it. I removed that sentence.

About simulations reproducing punctuated equilibrium: By "gene-level" I only mean that they simulate organisms with many genes, not that they're accurate to the level of genes. The presence of other organisms in the simulation will also suffice. One good reference is "Co-evolution to the edge of chaos: Coupled fitness landscapes, poised states, and co-evolutionary avalanches", by Stuart Kauffman & Sonke Johnson, in Artificial Life 2, 1991. I stopped following this literature about 15 years ago, so maybe things have changed.

Approaches such as Jonnal & Chemero ("Punctuation Equilibrium and Optimization: An A-life Model") are fundamentally incorrect. The mechanism shown in simulations is not that the mutation rate changes; it is that the size of "avalanches" released in an equilibrium state where different genes and/or species are co-adapted has a power-law distribution.

3EchoingHorror10yFor the first, this [http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_fact-and-theory.html] paper by Gould agrees with Wikipedia. Creationists are a silly folk.

Amorality is a lovely way to protect science from ideology. All the heroes subscribe to it nowadays.

Great post, thanks.

I try to remember my heroes for the specific heroic act or trait, e.g. Darwin's conscientious collection of disconfirming evidence.

3Relsqui10ySo if, as Aristotle claimed, excellence is not an act but a habit, perhaps heroism is not a habit but an act?
[-][anonymous]10y 9

Computer geeks have a term for this: "flipping the bozo bit".

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply
3Strange710yMaybe the solution is not to avoid flipping that particular bit at all, but rather, to have it reset periodically. Always give someone another chance, even if you have to wait a year first.
3Relsqui10yOr, as as David pointed out [http://lesswrong.com/lw/31i/have_no_heroes_and_no_villains/2xc2?c=1], treat it as a bozo byte.
2kpreid10yI'm reminded by the mention of byte-instead-of-bit and resetting after time of an algorithm for switch debouncing [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Switch#Contact_bounce] I heard about: Keep a state of some number of bits (the word size of the microcontroller you're implementing it on, say), which are regular samples of the state of the switch (that is, state ← (state << 1) | (current_input ? 1 : 0)). Then consider the switch to be logically pressed if any of the bits are 1 (that is, the entire state is not zero) or perhaps if all of them are (whatever fits the application better). This produces a minimum pulse width of sample rate × number of state bits; it's just a nicely simple way of filtering the digital signal using CPU primitives.

Related: The Trouble With "Good".

I think seeing Bad Guys should especially be avoided. Nobody's an evil mutant; as a first approximation, prominent scholars have good intentions and are not stupid. So seeing Stephen J. Gould as a villain or a fool is as wrong as Stephen J. Gould seeing Edward Wilson as a villain or a fool.

Accepting that fact of many people who loudly disagree with each other can be difficult, but I think the proper response isn't to decide that one particular subgroup is right and one subgroup is wrong (a decision often made with... (read more)

How about no villains after a certain age?

If I had no heroes and no villains in my wild and reckless youth, I would not be able to have pre-cognitions which stopped me from ever reading the bible, the Quran, Freud, and Skinner.

Nowadays, after reading the sequences, after grasping bayes, After having sharper ideas about how we cluster objects into categories in our minds, I consider myself somewhat vaccinated.

Now, as a grown man, I am able to stop having villains and heroes. But when I was younger and had chosen my three heros (Dennett, Russell, and Bost... (read more)

0[anonymous]10yBut you were required to tell the wheat from the chaff when you were 16: you had to determine who was a hero and who was a villain.
0diegocaleiro10yYes, but not bit by bit. I knew Dennett's view on evolution was genious, so I thought the bits of his writing about the mind were worth reading. I attributed value to the arguments based on other bits, I didn't fight every bit of information, I just took a cluster, called it Hero, and suffered the (good) consequences. ¨bit by bit¨ above, Enphasis added.
2MarkusRamikin10yI don't know. Since when is bias good? In my own wild and reckless youth I read all sorts of stuff, including religious scriptures, occultism stuff, philosophers of all kinds. I don't regret it, and I wouldn't want to have not considered some idea because of having it already established as a "villain" idea. It was interesting and promising at the time, and now I have the experience of what it feels like to have (or at least be dabbling in) other worldviews than my current one. To use Professor Quirrel's words, if I could go back in time and remove the desire to do that from my younger self, my present self would not benefit from it. The problem with the heroes and villains heuristic is that if you happened to initially choose your allegiance wrongly, you'd suffer that much stronger bad consequences; you'll get stuck somewhere stupid. If your judgement were good enough to reliably choose well, you'd not need heroes and villains anyway, just use that judgement. Heroes and villains happen automatically, anyway, it's avoiding it that takes effort. Whenever a searching young person manages to do that, that's a virtue, not a problem. The way I see it, the age of 16 is pretty much for exploring ideas. And I can't imagine why we'd prefer a closedminded approach to an openminded one, at any age. Or why you'd think not having read things you disagree with is a boast.

Ah yes, haha, I used to have the same hypothesis with the Dawkins vs Gould camp, but I shattered it some time ago.

Incidentally, does anyone else here feel the same narrative with respect to the Democrats vs Republicans? I frequently have to refrain from thinking of the Republicans as "bad guys", even though they sometimes do have legitimate economic policies.

I loved reading Stephen Jay Gould as a kid, and later I had to learn that, no, he wasn't right about everything. I still feel a knee-jerk pull to trust him over Dawkins or Wilson, which I have to consciously resist.

I know someone who knew Gould. She said he was absolutely brilliant. Not flawless; absolutely brilliant. I always thought the spandrel tale was interesting. Not compelling; but very interesting.

(I do have heroes though; I try not to project infallibility upon them.)

This post, which concentrated on people's commentary about a field of inquiry, could have been improved by including some summary of the field being commented on.

1PhilGoetz10yFrom past experience, I'm pretty sure that would have led to people ignoring the intent of the post, and instead having flamewars over the content of the summary.
1Relsqui10yI see what you mean, but I think that would have distracted from the point of the post, which had nothing to do with the fields being used as examples.
0gerg10yPossibly, yes; but reading a discussion about a topic I don't know anything about is hard, so I'm less likely to get anything out of it, despite the fact that it is there in what you wrote. I'm claiming that the additional "distracting" material would actually serve as a hook to get the reader interested in putting effort into understanding the point of the post.
0Relsqui10yYeah, I can see that. In this particular case it wouldn't have been true for me, but in others it might have been, and I believe that it is for you here.
[-][anonymous]8y 0

I don't think it was even personal - I didn't care who would be the Good Guys and who would be the Bad Guys. I just want there to be Good Guys and Bad Guys.

I have difficulty with this, too. I see the problem as related to correspondence bias.

In a single situation, you observe one person as being the Good Guy, and the other being the Bad Guy. This judgement gets locked into place as how they should always act. It gives you the false expectation for the same guy to be good, and the same guy to be bad. It doesn't matter who, individually, plays which role... (read more)

We are all imperfect and we all have good stuff and bad stuff. If we focus on the good, then that is what we will tend to receive in our personal relationships. It doesn't make us perfect. And it's all perspective sine the majority if us choose which side of the fence we will be on.

Actually, EY has me as a villain.

think good guys and bad guys, like good guys and bad guys in long tv shows or even worse.. like in professional wrestling.. they keep changing roles.. not to any extent of actually thinking along those terms, but just to make the point that the roles keep on changing.. at any rate, there are and most probably always will be categories of people whose interests/beliefs/motivations are aligned with ours and those categories of people whose interests/beliefs/motivations will be diametrically opposite..

[-][anonymous]9y -4

There are no Good guys and Bad guys, only Smart guys and Dumb guys.

The problem is discerning the two, for to a human mind there is no Truth and Falsehood, only Normal beliefs and Strange beliefs.

So in order to have a fighting chance you must study to align Normality with Reality. Practice Lightness and Scholarship.