What topics are appropriate for LessWrong?

by tog1 min read12th Jan 2015107 comments

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For example, what would be inappropriately off topic to post to LessWrong discussion about?

I couldn't find an answer in the FAQ. (Perhaps it'd be worth adding one.) The closest I could find was this:

What is Less Wrong?

Less Wrong is an online community for discussion of rationality. Topics of interest include decision theory, philosophy, self-improvement, cognitive science, psychology, artificial intelligence, game theory, metamathematics, logic, evolutionary psychology, economics, and the far future.

However "rationality" can be interpreted broadly enough that rational discussion of anything would count, and my experience reading LW is compatible with this interpretation being applied by posters. Indeed my experience seems to suggest that practically everything is on topic; political discussion of certain sorts is frowned upon, but not due to being off topic. People often post about things far removed from the topics of interest. And some of these topics are very broad: it seems that a lot of material about self-improvement is acceptable, for instance.

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It should be noted that the FAQ was largely written by a person (me) and should not necessarily be considered authoritative... if the LW community thinks something in the FAQ should change they should feel free to change it.

Some time ago I posted a poll about topics typical for LessWrong.

There was just an astonishingly civil examination of the most mindkilling topic I could think of in Discussion. I've criticized people for violating the LessWrong politics taboo in the past, but I'd be happy to chat about anything from particular elections to the merits of Marxism if it was always done so painstakingly in the articles and so thoughtfully in the rebuttals.

I'm not sure how to achieve that, though. "Everybody can talk about politics carelessly" isn't any better an idea than it was before, and trying to enforce "only talk abou... (read more)

7Alejandro16yAbortion is a strongly mindkilling topic for society in general, but it is not one for Less Wrong. According to Yvain's survey data [http://lesswrong.com/lw/lhg/2014_survey_results/] on a 5-point scale the responses on abortion average 4.38 + 1.032, which indicates a rather strong consensus accepting it. As a contrast, the results for Social Justice are 3.15 + 1.385. This matches my intuitive sense that discussions of social justice on LW are much more mindkilling than discussions of abortion.

From eyeballing the survey results, we might expect the worst ideological conflicts on LW to be those current among libertarians, liberals, and moderate-to-mainline socialists, and especially those that're interesting to nerds with those affiliations: not, for example, abortion or immigration, where one camp's almost exclusively conservative. And indeed, the most heated political arguments on LW that I remember have dealt with radical feminism, fat acceptance, the treatment of women in nerd culture, and anything vaguely associated with pick-up artistry. Nothing economic, which is a bit of a surprise, but maybe it's easier to cast those issues in consequential terms -- or maybe taxes just aren't sexy.

The ethno-nationalist wing of neoreaction has also caused problems, but I think that had less to do with the subject matter and more to do with the poster: long-time SSC readers may remember him as Jim.

3roystgnr6yIf a "pro-choice" essay had been under discussion, then "LessWrong is already pro-choice, of course it's not going to be a mindkilling discussion" would have been my conclusion as well. But the thesis of the essay was strongly "pro-life", and it still got a good reception, with rebuttals mostly of the form "here's what's wrong with your assumptions and numbers" rather than "go away you woman-enslaving theocrat". It could just be that the survey questions don't distinguish between different reasons for various stances? There may be a big practical difference between "I'm strongly pro-choice because analysis of this complicated moral question heavily tips that way, so I'm open to reconsidering if my reasoning is weaker than I thought" and "I'm strongly pro-choice because there's no good more-moderate Schelling point, so any attempt to undermine my position must be fought like a camel's nose in the tent."
0Unknowns6yThis could either show that the topic isn't mindkilling, or that it is very mindkilling, if the Less Wrong consensus happens to be simply mistaken.
5Alejandro16yMy understanding of the use of "mindkilled" is that people who can be so described are incapable of discussing the relevant issue dispassionately, acquiring an us-vs-them tribal mentality and seeing arguments just as soldiers for their side. I really don't think that this applies to the topic of abortion on LW, which can be discussed dispassionately (much more so than in other places, at least). This is quite compatible with the possibility that the LW consensus is biased and wrong, which is what you are suggesting.

"rationality" can be interpreted broadly enough that rational discussion of anything would count

"Rational discussion" is not rationality. You can very rationally discuss politics. You can very rationally discuss the life cycle of the cicada.

Truly "on topic" is content that helps the user to become more rational. Multiple definitions of rational apply: Being more practically effective counts. Being better able to sort through evidence counts. Meta-understanding on the meaning of rationality counts. Modelling what a rational... (read more)

0tog6yThat seems quite a bit more restrictive than what currently gets posted, no? (I ask because I don't follow the site that closely.)
0someonewrongonthenet6yYup. That was normative advice, not a descriptive statement. In actual fact you should post whatever strikes your fancy and upvotes/downvotes will give you descriptive feedback. I often upvote things myself that are off topic by my standards if I actually learn something.

Anything, as long as 1) it's chosen, written, and formulated in a way that shows alignment with the values of the community, taken in a broad way; 2) doesn't make LW look bad to outsiders. (There have been cases of mods stepping in, or the community shutting down certain insistent debaters, when it came to certain discussion topics, for reasons of it being very bad PR.)

The first condition in fact could be generalizable to pretty much any human group (deviations from this norm might be taken to be, basically, trolling), and is more restrictive than it may l... (read more)

"Here's an idea that can make you go crazy (and lose all your money) if you think about it too hard, let's write it up and give people nightmares for the next 4 years and counting".

I have this heuristic which states, if a bunch of smart people get excited about something, you should check it out. There's no obligation to also get excited about it (a lot of smart people get excited over classical literature, which does less than nothing for me, but I'm sure this is a product of my draw in the lottery of fascinations and not sloth.)

At this point, "anything that you find interesting and doesn't get downvoted into oblivion because nobody else finds it interesting" seems a reasonable criteria for "appropriate for LW". ... (read more)

-1polymathwannabe6yBeware. That's exactly how people show up for every horrible Transformers movie in enough numbers to fund the next one.
[-][anonymous]6y 2

Things I think should be treaded upon carefully if not avoided altogether:

  • jokes (a lot of people may think you're serious)
  • the act of sex (and associated fetishes)
  • violence
  • politics
  • illegal activities
  • pop culture
  • art (this I'm weak in my opinion of; I'm guessing art discussion would be quite welcome under certain conditions, but I'm highly uncertain what those conditions are)
  • auditory, written, and performance art (in case you thought I was only referring to visual art)
  • pro-religious arguments (personal opinion: there is a lower threshold for anti-religi
... (read more)
6NancyLebovitz6yA lot of this is material which is well accepted at LW. Humor is commonly upvoted. It's possible that you have a different concept than I do, and mean something specific by jokes. There's a certain kind of hostile humor which may be more trouble than it's worth, but if so, we're going to need to be a lot clearer about what it is. I'm not sure how much explicit talk about sex there's been here (as distinct from, say, talk about orientation or polyamory), but I don't think a discussion of how to improve sexual experiences would be out of place. I personally wish torture wasn't so casually used in philosophical arguments-- I'm not convinced that detaching from my revulsion against torture would be an improvement in how I relate to the world. However, I don't think this is a point of view I'm likely to convince people about. We do have a norm against recommending illegal violence, especially against named targets. We've got a weak norm against politics. I wouldn't mind seeing strong norms of pushing people to say how they have come to their conclusions about the outcomes of various political policies and structures. I suspect a great many opinions have much weaker justifications than their holders believe. We have a monthly media thread [http://lesswrong.com/lw/lgl/january_2015_media_thread/] which includes art of many kinds, and this hasn't caused any problems that I can think of. Also, HPMOR is extremely popular at LW. We're pretty cautious about discussing activities which are illegal in first world countries. "Anything that goes on in your bathroom"? I believe we've had some discussions of flossing which have not been a problem, and also a mention or two of how often to bathe or whether shampoo is useful, but that isn't what you meant. I've run across something which I believe is valuable for [bathroom activity redacted], and I've been hesitant to post about it-- I've gotten at least one weird reaction for mentioning it in person, and feel some embarrassmen
4JoshuaZ6yThis seems like an unfortunately broad list especially because some of them are closely connected to areas where easy improvement would exist were it not for cultural taboos. To use just one example: Yet, due essentially to this taboo in the general population there are massive problems with bathroom design and how we use them [http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jul/15/why-modern-bathroom-wasteful-unhealthy-design] and there are real health and efficiency issues. And that article doesn't even begin to discuss the simple and very minor change of having a curbless shower which can easily save lives. It seems like a lot of your list comes down to "there's already a taboo here so let's keep it for LW also."
1[anonymous]6yWell, the whole point of the discussion is to create a FAQ for new users to make it easier for them to get started using LW. While there probably are ways to approach those topics in a thoughtful and considerate way, I certainly would be hesitant to want to try and figure out how to do so, and I would certainly encourage new users to avoid broaching them as well. It seems like the consensus of the community comes down to "we know there's a taboo here but taboos are a bias so let's just not say anything, and let's not give anybody guidance on how to deal with these taboos; instead wait until somebody triggers this bias in us, and downvote them." They can then rely on guess and check even though we know this is an incredibly inefficient way to learn. And yes, I think people who broach these taboos will have a more difficult time getting positive comments in these areas than in more traditional areas of LessWrong discourse. It's possibly incorrect to discourage certain forms of discussion; the present tact seems to be to encourage certain forms of discussion. But this has its own drawbacks as well.
2gjm6yThe parent comment seems to be on +1 -3, and I'm not sure why. (Perhaps because it's a mere list of unjustified preferences, but it seems to me that that's roughly what the OP is actually asking for.)
1[anonymous]6yI'm wondering that too. My best guess is they disagree with either treading carefully about jokes or treading carefully about pro-religious comments. But it's hard to say because very few people seem to be engaging the discussion topic. Downvoting because you disagree with two items out of eleven isn't very helpful.
4Lumifer6yI downvoted because I disagree with pretty much every item.
4gjm6yDo you hold that pretty much anything of interest and importance to a substantial number of smart people is (potentially) on topic here, or do you have narrower preferences that just happen not to exclude any of the things FrameBenignly is suggesting don't belong?
4Lumifer6yThe former.
-8Dahlen6y