From Julian Sanchez, a brilliant idea unlikely to be implemented:

American politics sometimes seems like a contest to see which group of partisans can take greater umbrage at the most recent outrageous remark from a member of the opposing tribe.  As a mild countermeasure, I offer a modest proposal for American universities. All freshmen should be required to take a course called “Offense 101,” where the readings will consist of arguments from across the political and philosophical spectrum that some substantial proportion of the student body is likely to find offensive. Selections from The Bell Curve. Essays from one of the New Atheists and one of their opponents, and from hardcore pro-lifers and pro-choicers. Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” monograph. Defenses of eugenics, torture, violent revolution, authoritarianism, aggressive censorship, and absolute free speech. Positive reviews of the Star Wars prequels. Assemble your own curriculum—there’s no shortage of material.

For each reading, students will have to make a good faith, unironic effort to reconstruct the offensive argument in its most persuasive form, marshaling additional supporting evidence and amending weak arguments to better support the author’s conclusion. Points deducted if an observer can tell the student doesn’t really agree with the position they’re defending.

Only after this phase is complete will students be allowed to begin rebutting the arguments. Anyone who thinks it’s relevant to point out that the argument is offensive (or bigoted, sexist, unpatriotic, fascistic, communistic, whatever) will receive a patronizing look from the professor that says: “Yes,  obviously, did you not read the course title? Let’s move on.” Insofar as these labels are shorthand for an argument that certain categories of views are wrong and can be rejected as a class, the actual argument will have to be presented. 




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That would be an amazing class. Even dropping the "offensiveness" billing and just advertising it as a class that would expose you to as many new and unconventional ideas as possible would be pretty neat.

While we're asking for the impossible, I'd kind of like to scrap the entire current primary/secondary school curriculum and replace it entirely with rationality. You'd learn math on the way to being able to use Bayes' Theorem. You'd learn English while writing counter-attitudinal essays. You'd learn history because your assignment is to point out what cognitive biases led Napoleon to make the mistake of invading Russia, and how you would have done better in his shoes. And then you'll play a game of Diplomacy (or Civilization IV, or whatever) to prove it. All exams are calibration tests.

People will complain that it might not give people the same breadth of knowledge. But our current curriculum is entirely about signaling breadth of knowledge. I learned about Sargon of Akkad in sixth grade and I have >90% confidence I'm the only person in the class who remembers his name, and that entirely because I'm the sort of person who would read about people like Sargon anyway outs... (read more)

I'm supportive of this idea, but I wonder if people (including me) who make proposals such as "let's scrap the primary school curriculum and fill it with learning that's actually useful" underestimate the amount of useful things that they've learned in primary school, because they no longer remember the origins of that knowledge and have filed it under "those obvious things that everyone knows".

Looking at a primary school curriculum could help with this.

In Italy, the ‘official’ syllabuses include topics that few teachers actually get around to doing, and I wouldn't be terribly surprised if that was the case elsewhere, so I'd consider those curricula as mere upper bounds.
Personally, watching slideshow clips in the "Strangers Like Me" musical sequence in Disney's Tarzan always makes me think "Wow... I know a lot of shit." Because I can give at least a basic description of the things appearing in every single clip, and it gives me a hint of the scope of all the motley stuff I know that would be completely alien to me if I had grown up, say, in an isolated tribal village in Africa. How much of it is actually useful is another matter, but there are certainly occasions where I find myself drawing on knowledge like, say, which is the country of origin of sumo wrestling, which I wouldn't predict in advance to be especially useful.

Yesterday I was thinking about how expensive education is, and why human capital seems to be so important, as I knelt down to tie my shoes and I suddenly thought - "I had to be taught how to tie my shoes! In school, for that matter, we had little shoe boards we could practice tying laces on. Wow, how did I forget that?"

You have the Encyclopedic Knowledge merit from World of Darkness. But, yeah, random knowledge has more uses than merely impressing people. However, please note that your African would have specialized knowledge and skills related to his own environment, not to mention cultural lore. He has probably memorized thousands of verses of poetry, for example.
Some Africans surely have - a specialist like a griot presumably would. But is that really comparable? Desrtopa presumably isn't a professional singer, storyteller/raconteur, comedian, or actor. He is, as far as I know, an ordinary person albeit a geeky and intelligent one.
4Scott Alexander11y
Good point, but I am not sure one way or the other. Compare Sargon of Akkad vs. Julius Caesar. I don't think we spent more time in school on one than the other. I think people know about Caesar because he has permeated into the culture. I'm not sure how many of the impressive interesting things all of us know are because of school versus because of cultural exposure.
(Napoleon didn't invade Russia because of cognitive bias. He'd already defeated Russia several times and "invaded" in 1912 with the object of forcing Russia to keep out of Poland and remain in the Continental System. Logistics killed Le Grand Armee.... Napoleon was actually above average height for his time period... the rumor that Napoleon was short is due to a perhaps-intentional failure to convert French measurement height units into British units of the same name, and so there's no basis for a "Napoleon Complex".) A more interesting question would be "What cognitive biases through history have led us to think of Napoleon as a short person?"
0Scott Alexander11y
I was thinking more of overconfidence bias and planning fallacy: "I'll just waltz in here and conquer Moscow in a few months...99% chance it works fine."
[+][comment deleted]12y170
I second the idea of scrapping primary school for rationality training. I catch myself idly contemplating parenthood for the express purpose of trying this. I feel positively betrayed by the system for not being this way already, because now I need to take remedial classes to catch up on what-I-should-have-learned.
Now you've got me imagining combining this sort of curriculum with the rigor one reads about in the histories of martial arts masters of yore--being required to do Tai Chi forms in the snow before breakfast until steam rose from their bodies, that sort of thing. I wonder what sort of homeschool curriculum and training rigor would maximize the chances of raising your own Jeffreyssai vs. getting the kid taken away by social workers or having it grow up into a maladjusted psychopath or something.

The same universities where speakers with certain types of controversial ideas are routinely shouted down if they try to speak, the same universities with campus speech codes against offensive ideas, are now supposed to make studying those ideas part of the curriculum? If that had a snow ball's chance in hell, it wouldn't be so desperately needed in the first place.

He should start small and give the Pope a call to suggest that he make an honest discussion of the Koran part of Mass.

I've just noticed that Daniel Dennett proposed mandatory courses in World Religions, but not World Ideologies. Funny how that works out.

I'm pretty sure the words "a modest proposal" indicate that he is aware this is not a realistic suggestion. But if an adventurous (and well-regarded) professor seriously proposed teaching such a course as an experiment, I am not sure it would be rejected out of hand at all universities. (IMO it would work better with more advanced students than freshmen--they need to be preacquainted with the academic style of reading and arguing.)

Probably no. Some universities would only fire him after the course. Assuming he would really bring some offensive material, instead of something harmless, such as... uh, something. Actually, this is an interesting exercise: Imagine that a university orders you to teach "discussing offensive topics", inspired by this article. But you also know that if someone gets really offended for some content of your lessons, they will fire you (despite any previous promises and guarantees). But if you refuse to teach such course, or teach something else instead, they will fire you for disobedience. Your only goal is to minimize the chance of being fired. Which topics would you discuss? In other words, which topics can be best described as "offensive" while actually being almost safe (in a university environment).
Aren't you exaggerating a bit? The professor will clearly not be endorsing these texts, in fact s/he would have picked them explicitly for being offensive. And I doubt studying texts that are offensive/unPC is a no-no in universities, if it is done in a way that makes clear that they are not being endorsed. I would imagine that history students may be exposed to Mein Kampf, students of gender/race studies may be exposed to sexist/racist texts, etc.
How can you credibly make clear that the texts are not being endorsed, if you ask your students "to make a good faith, unironic effort to reconstruct the offensive argument in its most persuasive form, marshaling additional supporting evidence and amending weak arguments to better support the author’s conclusion". Remember that people will not judge your efforts rationally, but merely by connotations and opportunity to express outrage. The mere fact that you teach this course means that you already skipped an opportunity to signal your disagreement with the texts by refusing to teach the course. Sometimes not screaming "NO!!!" loud enough is interpreted as an evidence of secretly thinking "yes".
A law professor can't require reading and understanding the doctrines at play in Plessy, Schenck, or (obviously wrongly decided case of your choice)?
Geez, this experiment should only be attempted by tenured professors.

My old economics professor ran an experimental class where everyone was forced to defend only those opinions they disagreed with. At the beginning of the class, he said, people would issue lots of caveats ("obviously this is ridiculous, but since I'm being forced to defend this anyway..."). By the end, this no longer happened. Also, apparently it was very common for students to change their political orientation, sometimes radically, in the course of taking the class.

I think this could fly in at least some universities. But I'm also sure it'd be tremendously controversial -- not just for its content, though I'm sure "students made to defend Nazism" would make a wonderful headline, but for its goals.

A preference for emotionally unentangled discussion of controversial issues is not itself uncontroversial, even if we're not talking about sacred values. It now seems fashionable in some circles to believe that offense carries an irreplaceable contribution to the ecosystem of ideas: the theory seems to be that ce... (read more)

A preference for unbiased discussion of controversial issues is not itself uncontroversial


Once my students started a discussion about religion, so for the sake of discussion I told them that this discussion is allowed to continue only if both of them agree to switch their roles and defend the other position best they can.

The religious student said that this manner of discussion would be interesting generally, with a different topic; but specifically when speaking about religion, defending the other position, even jokingly, would be a sin or at least something dangerously close to a sin.

I had no good answer to that; mostly because I realized that even if I could come with some clever explanation that would convince the student, there is a good chance their parents would see it otherwise, and I did not wish this kind of a conflict.

This idea would have a chance if universities were actually detached, disinterested, apolitical promoters of objective truth. But in fact they are just as partisan and political as any other organization or special interest; perhaps more so.

As my father, a professor, remarks, it's hard enough fitting enough material into a four year engineering curriculum already...

This statement is somewhat unclear. Do you mean there's too much material or too little for the 4 year time alotted?
I meant that there's too much material to fit it all.

I am worried that for someone who might not hold very strong beliefs, you may have to ask them to engage anti-natalism or nihilism or some such really strong memeplex. I do wonder if someone who has not done this kind of thing before, may stare too long at the abyss and break.

One safeguard against this would be doing it with more advanced students instead of freshmen, as I suggested elsewhere on the thread, so that they are already somewhat used to evaluating arguments and claims in a detached, academic way. Another one would be pairing opposite views: white nationalism and black liberation theology, extreme radical feminism and conservative Catholic theology, etc. Then people with weak preexisting convictions are unlikely to be swayed to one side.
The thing is, in both those cases the two positions have more in common than either would be willing to admit. For example, both white nationalism and black liberation theology state that people of different races shouldn't live together. Both extreme radical feminism and conservative Catholic theology have similar positions on pornography for reasons that are actually remarkably similar once one unpacks their jargon.
Dworkin doesn't speak for all feminists, and asserting that she does is a bit of a strawman / boo light.
"extreme" doesn't really add anything to the label. I think this lady is pretty radical / far from the mainstream on gender issues. And she doesn't seem to agree with Dworkin about the value of sex and sexuality.

How about Offending People 101?

No, not what you think; rather ...

It seems to me that some folks highly value a self-image of not offending others — to the extent that when they are informed that they have offended someone, they respond as if a scandalous accusation has been made against their honor, for which they are entitled to demand satisfaction. And so they react by complaining about being censored, and political correctness, and "you're wrong, that word isn't offensive because so-and-so says it isn't!" as if offense were a one-place functio... (read more)

Being labelled offensive is to experience a reputation attack. Being offended at said attack is not different in nature to being offended at anything else. Whether the attacks in question are legitimate depends on the details and depends on the preferences of the people in the social group and allegiances among them. Further, conveying that something is offensive (for example, by signalling that they feel comfortable declaring "I feel offended") also amounts to either claiming status or rights for a group or asserting control over the local social rules. It can be expected that this will sometimes be countered. And it should be (sometimes). Otherwise people are encouraged to be offended at all the time as a means of control. See also: children throwing tantrums. Adults too, for that matter.
Excellent points. However, many people when saying "That is offensive" don't just mean they are offended; they are implying that all decent people would be similarly offended, that what the other party said was beyond the pale. So it is used, in these cases, as a sort of one-place function and an attack (sometimes personal) against the speaker. It is still true that escalating with complaints of censorship, PC thought police, etc, is not a good strategy for making the situation better and more conducive to a reasoned discussion (though it might be a good one for the purpose of rallying one's side against the Enemy).
Or for the purposes of not giving one's opponents veto power over what one can say.
So what you're saying is that people should give, anyone who claims to be offended veto power over what they say. With these kinds of incentives the winning strategy is to be offended at everything.
Sure, being offended (like being harmed) is somewhat under the offended person's control. And PC speech codes (like all speech codes) exist to persecute undesired messages. Nonetheless, the right to freedom of speech is not the right not to be criticized. Treating all complaints like they are without merit does reduce the frequency of criticism, but it doesn't make any particular criticism wrong. That's a discussion on the merits, which your suggested strategy never allows to occur.
I wasn't talking about criticism, I was talking about offense in the sense fubarobfusco seems to be using the word: i.e., offense is a two place function, thus the person offended is by definition correct, so you by definition should not say the thing that offended them.
No, Tim is correct and you are not about what I was trying to say. I'm not sure how to explain this differently ... It isn't that "you by definition should not say the thing that offended them" — rather, that it is bootless to get in arguments about whether they should be offended. Communication is a two-way street; it's up to the speaker to find out whether the words they are using actually have the intended effect on the listener. If I am consistently misunderstood, I could conclude that I'm surrounded by morons — or that I need to communicate differently.
So, they are offended at people being offended at them? That's going to end well.
Yes, but keep in mind that one function of the behavior is to decrease the frequency of the original complaints by making complaints costly because DRAMA.
The question is whether there is a rational basis for this feeling.
Do you think the frequency of the behaviors documented here is sufficient be a rational basis for feeling unsafe? Do you think the phenomena described here is a rational basis for feeling unhappy?
I don't have time to look at your examples, and in any case your question isn't very relevant. What I'm objecting to is fubarobfusco's claim that it makes no sense to debate whether something is offensive and that the word of the offended is final.
Indeed. I'm offended at fubarobfusco's claim that one cannot be offended by declarations of offense. It actually does literally "make me feel unsafe and unhappy" because that kind of social dynamic is, in my experience, rather toxic.
Yes, talk about offense is cheap. False claims suck. Speech codes are terrible.
You said that the key issue was whether there was a rational basis for the feelings. I agree with you that we can't force people to have different feelings than the ones they have. But our reaction to those feelings can vary based on the reasonableness of the feelings. I don't think fubarobfusco's claim is that claimed offense ends the discussion in favor of the claimant. Although you correctly note that false claims are cheap, the proper use is intended to begin a discussion about the proper reaction - and the proper reaction might be to do nothing. Put slightly differently, Bob claiming to be offended by some statement is slight evidence in favor of the hypothesis that the statement caused him harm, of a kind that should not be allowed. Talk is cheap, so the evidence can easily be overcome by contrary evidence. But your position appears to be that Bob's statement is no evidence at all. ---------------------------------------- I'd like to put in another good word for my second link. It's a five minute video, made by someone far more moderate than you or I. I think it is a reasonable description of the outside view of the archetypal dispute of which this exchange is but one of many examples. If you are really pressed for time, skip to about two minutes in.
In that case I recommend you reread fubarobfusco's post. His whole point is that if someone objects to the offense claim that means the person doing the objecting has psychological issues. Your repeated strawmanning of my position is not conducive to reasonable debate.
Um. No, it's not. It's that offense is not a one-place function any more than sexiness is — but that it is possible to learn what a particular person finds offensive (or, for that matter, sexy) and apply that knowledge to improve your social relations with that person. Moreover, that doing so is probably more useful than whining about someone calling your actions offensive (or, for that matter, unsexy).
Belief is also a two place function; however, if someone says that they believe that there is an invisible dragon in their garage, it is perfect reasonable to challenge them since their belief isn't rational. Similarly, the feeling of being offended can also be irrational and should similarly be challenged in such circumstances.
Have you noticed yet that you were in error about the meaning of my earlier comment, and that it was irrational for you to respond in the way that you did (claiming that it was about "psychological issues")? Or ... maybe I didn't manage to get across what I intended to say, given that you interpreted it that way. I wouldn't want to assume that you were deliberately misconstruing it in order to make a status play or something. (But if I use your approach, I get the result that blames you here. If I use my approach, it's my job to communicate my point in a way that succeeds with my audience, e.g. by not misleading you into thinking that I'm mocking anyone for having psychological problems. Which result do you prefer?) Yes, people can misconstrue what someone meant by a communication. But if you notice that your ways of saying things are systematically misconstrued by a certain sort of people, that's equivalent to saying that you are not communicating effectively to that part of your audience.
Would you mind explaining how something like: isn't talking about psychological issues.
Hmm ... it's possible that I misunderstood you, too. I took "psychological issues" as a possibly-mocking euphemism for "mental illness" — as in "You know, he has psychological issues." Self-image is surely a fact about personality — is that what you meant?
Absolutely. The expansion of "offense" to include things that are not harmful is bad, and should stop.
That's because in today's world having a reputation as being "offensive"/"insensitive" can have a very negative effect on one's life and livelihood.
Having a reputation as smelly and unwashed can have a very negative effect on one's life and livelihood, too — but if someone points out that you smell bad, you are better served to update on that (and take a shower) rather than responding as if it is a slur. I don't think we want a social world in which people respond to negative feedback with overwhelming retaliatory defensiveness.
Depends, if people frequently used accusations of smelliness as universal counter-arguments, they way they use accusations of offensiveness, it would make sense to question accusations of smelliness.
Hmm ... from what I can tell, people frequently use accusations of "political correctness" as universal counter-arguments against requests that they moderate their offensive behavior towards others. Would you agree that those should be treated with the same disdain?

Taking a well-implemented "Offense 101" course would have clear positive externalities, because it would create a more informed citizenry, but is such study instrumentally useful to the individual? If so, how?

In other words, what sub-optimal actions are people likely to take because the alternative offends them?

This sounds like a great idea, but that is because we value honest discussion and truth-seeking highly. Most people, if they participated in such a class, would end up offending half the other students, and maybe the teacher and graders too. It would expose deep rifts between students and they would distrust and dislike each other in the future.

I think national politics in the US has gotten disgusting enough that this is a great idea. I'd like to see it in high school as part of the civics or history curriculum. The US has already tried to address some of the issues embedded here: we do have freedom of religion and speech embedded in about the most prominent place possible in our founding documents (the first rebuttal, so to speak). However, the connection between tolerance of people who disagree with you, and actually FEELING some respect for the intelligence of the people you disagree with s... (read more)

Would be useful if someone create a rationality training curriculum who could be taught in a elementary school. Normally, critical thinking classes are taught to undergraduates. But critical thinking makes people disbelief weird things, and I suppose don't have a "instrumental rationality module".

Teach debate in 5th grade and make sure the student's grade is an average of their debate performance on BOTH sides of a contentious issue. This actually strikes me as a really good idea at the moment...

I feel uneasy when someone suggests that people should (for practice or whatever) argue for something that they don't believe. If you can argue for anything your words mean nothing.

There are two opposing effects of "devil's advocacy":

  • a negative effect that you point: it makes you good at becoming a "clever arguer", good at rationalizing any position, and does not substitute for genuine open-minded curiosity, as Eliezer argues.

  • a positive effect: for high-profile, genuinely controversial in society issues that raise emotional reactions, like the ones Sanchez discusses, the practice of devil advocacy can make you less prone to mind-killing, better at seeing that (two quote two LW memes) your enemies are not intrinsically evil and policy debates are not one-sided.

I think the benefit from the second effect outweighs the harm of the first one. But anyway, I think the main feature of the course Sanchez imagines is to force students to engage with "offensive" viewpoints in a cool, intellectual way, to reduce their propensity for mind-killing reactions. The specific mechanism of making them actively argue for the offensive viewpoints is not essential and could be easily modified.

I'd feel more uneasy about being genuinely unable to argue for a position I disagree with. If I don't understand the reasons for why my "opponents" would come to believe in what they do, then I have a hopelessly one-sided view of the topic and my opinion on it means nothing.
If you cannot construct a model of a smart person who genuinely believes a certain non-fringe point of view that is radically different from your own, your rationality has a gaping hole in it. And by "smart" I mean your own level of intelligence, since we cannot go smarter than that, and if you aim lower, you are not trying hard enough.
The scary thing is when you can win the debate whichever side you choose, even though YOU can tell what the correct side is. Also, since the other side being pure evil is a rare phenomenon, perhaps a better cultural understanding of psychopathy would help some people to understand that 98% of the people they debate will be just as sane as they are and thus to stay open.
I don't see why Devil's Advocacy is necessarily any more encouraging of rationalization than arguing for what you already believe. In both cases you're writing the conclusion first. With Devil's Advocacy, though, you can write two bottom lines, create two different arguments, and at the end you may find that what you initially believed isn't as strongly supported by evidence as you though. Of course, it's still not ideal rationality.
But you can argue for anything. You might refuse to do so but the possibility is always there. The problem with being able to argue for anything is that people use that ability to rationalize their preferred conclusions. But if someone finds a conclusion offensive, then they have the opposite problem that they're unable to acknowledge valid arguments. I don't think practicing that would make people more prone to rationalization. Well, maybe except that part: Understanding someone doesn't have to involve pretending that you're them.
Presumably one would wand to define "strong argument" in such a way that tend to to be more available for true things than for false things.
It involves you honestly being them for the duration of the discussion.
Well, startng from vastly different priors and interpreting the evidence according to the intermediate posterior probabilities at the moment of evaluation could reasonably lead to different conclusions. Especially in the areas where controlled experiments are hard to do, and so the evidence may be relatively weak.
If you can argue for anything, you can choose to argue for what matters to you. If you can't create arguments and understand the structure of arguments and the valid points inherent in any perspective, including those which you don't believe, then all you can do is parrot the arguments you've heard before.
I think the point is trying to argue from a perspective other than your own, and then find the least objectionable model for the people arguing against you. Of course, showing anything but hatred to the OutGroup is often seen as betrayal, and therefore unacceptable. Similarly, any step outside the InGroup ideology may seem unacceptable too, even as an exercise.
You should be able to argue for anything, i.e., you should be able to find the best argument against your position.

Downside(?): this will likely cause people to actually believe those propositions more.

I would not consider it a downside. When society labels an idea "offensive," it almost certainly biases people against that idea, so making people believe such ideas more would, on average, probably push them closer to the truth.
I'm not sure this is correct. Let us consider a toy model (emphasis in toy, which should be read as "baby-toy"): There are three opinions: Center, Left and Right (C, L, R). Almost everyone believes C; positions on L are deemed offensive by people believing C and R, and likewise those on R by people on C and L. However, there is actually a 1/3 chance that the true position on any issue is on either of C, L or R. So there is a strong bias against "offensive" positions, as you say. Now say you are on C and take the course, which gives you a certain probability of switching to L or R. Staying on C, you expect to be right 1/3 of the time and only "one slot away" from the truth 2/3s of the time. If you switch, you would expect again to be on the right position 1/3 of the time, but 1/3 of time "one slot away" and 1/3 of the time "two slots away", i.e. on the complete opposite of truth. This is clearly worse. The key assumption here was that your chances of switching to L vs R are equal, uncorrelated with which one is true. You might think that this is not so when you are exposed to the best arguments for all positions. But I'm afraid this is an optimistic view: it is at least equally likely which way you switch is determined by hidden pre-existing dispositions to react to propaganda in a given direction, or by other psychological and social factors uncorrelated with truth. I'm somewhat surprised to see that my baby-toy model implies you should be a mushy centrist on all issues, expect when you have strong evidence that you know better than other people. On reflection, this seems correct.
I don't think you're looking at the right quantity. You're right that if what matters is how close you are to truth, but you have no clue what the truth is, then you should stick to the center of mass. But I think that having a population distribution that's closer to the probability distribution of the truth is more useful than individual beliefs. If 99% of people believe C, then positions L and R are not going to get any traction even if they are true. However, if 33% of people believe each of L, C, and R, then at least the true position has lots of supporters, whatever it is, and so arguments for the truth are more likely to be discovered.
[+][comment deleted]12y30