Note:  After writing this post, I realized there's a lot I need to learn about this subject.  I've been thinking a lot about how I use the word "elitism" and what it meant to me.  I was unaware that there are a large number of people who use the word to describe themselves and mean something totally different from the definition that I had.  This resulted in my perception that people who were using the word to describe themselves were being socially inept.  I now realize that it's not a matter of social ineptness, that it may be more of a matter of political sides.  I also realized that mind-kill reactions may be influencing us here (myself included).  So, now my goal is to make sure I understand both sides thoroughly to transcend these mind-kill reactions and explain to others how I accomplished this so that none of us has to have them.  I think these sides can get along better.  That is what I ultimately want - for the gifted population and the rest of the world to understand one another better, for the privileged and the disadvantaged to understand one another better, and for the tensions between those groups to be reduced so that we can work together effectively.  I realize that this is not a simple undertaking, but this is a very important problem to me.  I see this being an ongoing project in my life.  If I don't seem to understand your point of view on this topic, please help me update.  I want to understand it.


TLDR: OMG a bunch of people seem to want to use the word "elitist" to describe LessWrong but I know that this can provoke hatred.  I don't want to be smeared as an elitist.  I can't fathom why it would be necessary for us to call ourselves "elitists".


I have noticed a current of elitism on LessWrong.  I know that not every person here is an elitist, but there are enough people here who seem to believe elitism is a good thing (13 upvotes!?) that it's worth addressing this conflict.  In my experience, the word "elitism" is a triggering word - it's not something you can use easily without offending people.  Acknowledging intellectual differences is a touchy subject also, very likely to invite accusations of elitism.  From what I've seen, I'm convinced that using the word "elitism" casually is a mistake, and referring to intellectual differences incautiously is also risky.

Here, I analyze the motives behind the use of the word elitism, make a suggestion for what the main conflict is, mention a possible solution, talk about whether the solution is elitist, what elitism really means, and what the consequences may be if we allow ourselves to be seen as elitists.

The theme I am seeing echoed throughout the threads where elitist comments surfaced is "We want quality" and "We want a challenging learning environment".  I agree that quality goals and a challenging environment are necessary for refining rationality, but I disagree that elitism is needed.

I think the problem comes in at the point where we think about how challenging the environment should be.  There's a conflict between the website's main vision: spreading rationality (detailed in: Rationality: Common Interest of Many Causes) and striving for the highest quality standards possible (detailed in Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism).

If the discussions are geared for beginners, advanced people will not learn.  If the discussions are geared for advanced people, beginners are frustrated.  It's built into our brains.  Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of "Flow: The psychology of optimal experience" regards flow, the feeling of motivation and pleasure you get when you're appropriately challenged, to be the secret to happiness and he explains that if you aren't appropriately challenged, you're either going to feel bored or frustrated depending on whether the challenge is too small or too great for your ability level.

Because our brains never stop rewarding and punishing us with flow, boredom and frustration, we strive for that appropriate challenge constantly.  Because we're not all at the same ability level, we're not all going to flow during the same discussions.  We can't expect this to change, and it's nobody's fault.

This is a real conflict, but we don't have to choose between the elitist move of blocking everyone that's not at our level vs. the flow killing move of letting the challenge level in discussions decrease to the point where it results in everyone's apathy - we can solve this.

Why bother to solve it?  If your hope is to raise the sanity waterline, you cannot neglect those who are interested in rational thought but haven't yet gotten very far.  Doing so would limit your impact to a small group, failing to make a dent in overall sanity.  If you neglect the small group of advanced rationalists, then you've lost an important source of rational insights that people at every level might learn from and you will have failed to attract the few and precious teachers who will assist the beginners in developing further faster.

And there is a solution; summarized in one paragraph:  Make several areas divided by their level of difficulty.  Advanced learners can learn in the advanced area, beginners in the beginner area.  That way everyone learns.  Not every advanced person is a teacher, but if you put a beginner area and an advanced area on the same site, some people from the advanced area will help get the beginners further.  One-on-one teaching isn't the only option - advanced people might write articles for beginners and get through to thousands at once.  They might write practice quizzes for them to do (not hard to implement from a web developer's perspective).  There are other things.  (I won't get into them here.)

This brings me to another question: if LessWrong separates the learning levels, would the separation qualify as elitism?

I think we can all agree that people don't learn well in classes that are too easy for them.  If you want advanced people to improve, it's an absolute necessity to have an advanced area.  I'm not questioning that.  I'm questioning whether it qualifies under the definition of elitism:


1.  practice of or belief in rule by an elite.
2.  consciousness of or pride in belonging to a select or favored group.


Spreading rationality empowers people. If you wanted to take power over them, you'd horde it.  By posting our rational insights in public, we share them.  We are not hoarding them and demanding to be made rulers because of our power.  We are giving them away and hoping they improve the world. 

Using rationality as a basis for rule makes no sense anyway.  If you have a better map of the territory, people should update because you have a better map (assuming you overcome inferential distances).  Forcing an update because you want to rule would only amount to an appeal to authority or coercion.  That's not rational.  If you show them a more complete map and they update, that isn't about you - you should be updating your map when the time comes, too.  It's the territory that rules us all.  You are only sharing your map.

For the second definition, there are two pieces.  "Consciousness of or pride in" and "select or favored group".  I can tell you one thing for certain: if you form a group of intellectual elitists, they will not be considered "select or favored" by the general population.  They will be treated as the scum on the bottom of scum's shoe.

For that reason, any group of intellectual elitists will quickly become an oxymoron.  First, they'll have to believe that they are "select and favored" when they are not, and perhaps justify this with "we are so deserving of being select and favored that no one can see it but us" (which may make them hopelessly unable to update).  Second, the attitude of superiority is likely to provoke such anti-intellectual counter-prejudice that the resulting oppression could make them ineffectual.  Powerless to get anywhere because they are so hated, their "superiority" will make them into second class citizens.  You don't achieve elite status by being an intellectual elitist.

In the event that LessWrong was considered "select" or "favored" by the outside population, would "consciousness" of that qualify the members as elitists?  If you use the literal definition of "consciousness", you can claim a literal "yes" - but it would mean that simply acknowledging a (hypothetical) fact (independent market research surveys, we'll say) should be taken as automatic proof that you're an arrogant scumbag.  That would be committing Yvain's "worst argument in the world", guilt by association.  We can't assume that everyone who acknowledges popularity or excellence is guilty of wrongdoing.

So let's ask this: Why does elitism have negative connotations? What does it REALLY mean when people call a group of intellectuals "elitists"?

I think the answer to this is in Jane Elliot's brown eyes, blue eyes experiment.  If you're not familiar with it, a school teacher named Jane Elliot, horrified by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to teach her class a lesson about prejudice.  She divided the class into two groups - brown eyes and blue eyes.  She told them things like brown eyed kids are smarter and harder-working than blue eyed kids.  The children reacted dramatically:

"When several of the brown-eyed kids who had problems reading went to their primer that morning, they whizzed through sentences"

"A smart blue-eyed girl, who had never had problems with her multiplication tables, started making all kinds of mistakes."

"During afternoon recess, the girl came running back to Room 10, sobbing. Three brown-eyed girls had ganged up on her, and one had hit her, warning, “You better apologize to us for getting in our way because we’re better than you are."

When people complain of elitism, what they seem to be reacting to is a concern that feeling "better than others" will be used as an excuse for abuse - either via coercion, or by sabotaging their sense of self-worth and intellectual performance.

The goal of LessWrong is to spread rationality in order to make a bigger difference in the world.  This has nothing to do with abusing people.  Just because some people with advanced abilities choose to use them as an excuse to abuse other people, it doesn't mean that anybody here has to do that.  Just because some of us might have advanced abilities and are also aware of them does not mean we need to commit Yvain's "the worst argument in the world" by assuming the guilt that comes with elitism.  We can reject this sort of thinking.  If people tell you that you're an elitist because you want a challenging social environment to learn in, or because you want to make the project that is the LessWrong blog as high quality as it can be, you can refuse to be labeled guilty.

Refusing to be guilty by association takes more work than accepting the status quo but what would happen if we allowed ourselves to be disrespected for challenging ourselves and striving for quality?  If we agree with them, we're viewing positive character traits as part of a problem.  That encourages people to shoot themselves in the foot - and they can point that same gun at all of humanity's potential, demanding that nobody seeks the challenging social environment they need to grow, that nobody sets any learning goals to strive for because quality standards are elitist.  To allow a need for challenges and standards to be smeared as elitist will only hinder the spread of rationality.

How many may forgo refining rationality because they worry it will make them look like an elitist?

These are the reasons I choose to be non-abusive and to send a message to the world that non-abusive intellectuals exist.

What do you think of this?



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LW started out as a site where rationality itself was the main topic of discussion. It has since devolved somewhat, into a site dominated by open-ended discussion, but in which certain rational practices still dominate. The danger of a policy of anti-elitism, at a time when the original mission of the site has been somewhat obscured by all the diverse enthusiasms of the community, is that it could complete the devolution of the site into a forum where rationality dominates neither in content nor in practice. The "elitist" current may just be the selfishness of people who don't want to share a good thing, but it does serve to prevent that final dilution.

I have decided to try and understand other people's ideas about elitism, because I realized that I don't know enough about them. Would you like to explain yours to me?

The flow of this post is very strange. You are starting with extensive use of a word without clarifying its intended sense, then proceed to enumerate its possible dictionary senses. The problem that you get to eventually seems to be the fact that in at least some of the legitimate senses, "elitism" is a denotationally correct characterization of some of the LW-related behaviors, but there are associated negative connotations, possibly incorrect ones. Yet the post doesn't seem to address this problem, and its end is a collection of calls to shift in attitude whose content and motivation remain unclear.

Thanks. I've realized that I have a different way of ordering information in my mind than most LW readers do. I tend to organize things in interconnected systems, when what is expected seems to be a straight line of ideas. I accidentally assume other people see the same connections I do (hindsight bias?) and that causes confusion. I'm working on predicting where I'm going to make that mistake so I can avoid it.

Is the plan to make the advanced area password protected and only give the password to the worthy? Will people be able to read but not comment unless they have enough karma?

Also, any time you want to use a dictionary definition to make your point, don't. It's obnoxious and unhelpful. It skews your argument from being about reality to being about words.

You talk about elitists getting treated like scum, and yet all over the world people earn high salaries and are treated like princes for being "elite" in dozens of fields. Being elite is being awesome. We WANT people who want to be awesome, and don't want people who think that being awesome sucks.

Using rationality as a basis for rule makes no sense anyway. If you have a better map of the territory, people should update because you have a better map (assuming you overcome inferential distances). Forcing an update because you want to rule would only amount to an appeal to authority or coercion. That's not rational. If you show them a more complete map and they update, that isn't about you - you should be updating your map when the time comes, too. It's the territory that rules us all. You are only sharing your map.

I can't even figure out what you mean by this quote. If people aren't rational, and don't update, then the rulers should be the ones who DO.

I have decided to try and understand other people's ideas about elitism, because I realized that I don't know enough about them. Would you like to explain yours further?

Who is with me?

Apparently you are still not getting that this is a wrong question to ask here. Try something less polarizing, like "what do you think of this suggestion?"

Additionally, feel free to work on your writing style. Like, creating a reasonable summary upfront is generally not a bad idea. Having a title that reflects your main point often works. Reviewing what other people here wrote about the same topic (multiple tiers) and quoting them also strikes me as sensible, though maybe a bit advanced for a new participant.

Well I tried your ideas. Thanks Shminux. I guess you really do want to improve me. That's very nice of you. I wasn't sure, because of your harsh style before. I'm sorry I haven't gotten back to your other comments yet. As you can see I've barely written anything for the last few days. I was so horrified by the elitism that I kept seeing ... I lost the will to write here. This discussion may be my last one.

I guess you really do want to improve me.

No, not really. I just want to enjoy reading this forum, and your posts interfere with this enjoyment, probably because your ego/skills ratio is too high, at least in my opinion. You are clearly intelligent enough to produce quality contributions (maybe not as good as Yvain's, but few here can match him). Unfortunately, your inflated estimate of how good you are gets in the way. Plus your combative style could use some improvement.

ego/skills ratio is a huge problem on LW, imo. Founder bias, perhaps.

That explains your behavior. The way it looks to me is that I don't predict this audience very well at all. I admit, I'm lost when it comes to figuring out how to present to you guys. I don't think the problem is my ego. Mostly because I can admit that I can't figure out in advance how LessWrong is going to react. I'll keep your criticisms in mind. Thanks again, Shminux. P.S. I don't know who downvoted you but I liked that you were being so honest, so I put you back up to zero.

I don't think the problem is my ego. Mostly because I can admit that I can't figure out in advance how LessWrong is going to react.

Of the 6 posts you've submitted so far, 5 were meta-discussion, and 4 were calls to change Less Wrong. My hunch is that the overall response you're seeing is mostly determined by that. Try sticking to writing only about substantial issues for a while.

Okay. That's a good point. Though I'd like to ask you to take a moment to understand where I'm coming from: I find LessWrong, and go "A clearing of sanity in this jungle of irrationality? Great!" I see that the clearing of sanity wants to improve it's website in John's proposed rewrites thread. (I thought he had been chosen to do this task but evidently, he just up and started a thread.) As a web professional who knows things about web marketing, I could see that if LW wants to grow, they're doing it wrong. I say so in John's thread. This doesn't get anywhere, so I make a chart, and I post about it. This becomes one of the top 30 discussions of all time. I volunteer to help LessWrong grow, and I'm given access to the LessWrong Google Analytics account. A bunch of people commented with concerns about how growth could destroy the culture in the discussions, including a link to the wiki on the Eternal September phenomenon. I discovered a comment that I found upsetting about "keeping out the intellectual riff-raff" and told Luke about it. I mention in an email that "my ethics do not allow me to do work for an organization that allows elitism." I assumed he did not want LessWrong to have a reputation for "elitism" (regardless of how it's defined internally, the external world will most likely think it looks bad) so I figured he'd do something about it. Now I'm in a pickle. I do not want to destroy the nice clearing of sanity by deluging it in newbies, but I have volunteered to help it grow. Being a responsible person, I can neither forget the volunteer offer or just risk destroying the culture without even thinking it through. Instead of giving up, I think of solutions to the problem and invite the group to criticize these and share their wisdom with me in my Preventing "endless September" discussion. Luke says he's not very worried about endless September even though Eliezer is definitely worried about discussion quality and a whole bunch of people posted concern

The word "elitism" is vague and affect-laden. In order to have a productive conversation about the set of topics that the label "elitism" vaguely points towards, it is necessary to set aside that term and get into specifics, rather than letting the conversation revolve around the word "elitism".

Before you started posting on Less Wrong, the word "elitism" (and its variants) rarely appeared on the website. You introduced the word to the conversation (e.g., here), and you have used it again and again (over a hundred times, according to your comment history). That is why some people have expressed their opinions in terms of the word "elitism" (where their opinion, roughly, is that they want Less Wrong to have high quality content). So if you just want people to stop using the word "elitism", you should be able to accomplish that (for the most part) by not using the word "elitism."

You let yourself get sidetracked from your goal of growing Less Wrong and decided to lead a largely irrelevant side conversation centered on the word "elitism" (what it means, whether it applies to Less Wrong, whether people mi... (read more)

I don't think you understand the very bad reaction I had to elitism. I feel that it is very important not to contribute to elitism (by some definitions like this one, which are not the same as the more popular interpretations here from what I can tell, though I didn't know that before) and that it is also very important to avoid being judged as an elitist (by that definition). I feel so strongly about this that I wanted to quit. According to my poll, 20% have the same strong feelings I do. Based on the fact that you didn't seem to realize I was willing to quit over this and didn't see further interaction as worthwhile unless it was determined that most people here do not support elitism (by the particular definition), I would have to guess that you have a radically different idea of what elitism is from the definition that I was using. I have realized that I need to learn a lot more about other people's ideas of elitism. This is an important topic to me. Would you be interested in explaining your ideas about elitism?
Thanks for the obviously thought-out response. This, perhaps, is where you missed an opportunity to apply a lesson from the Sequences. There is no urgency to solving the problem, the urgent task is to understand it, and it is this task that requires time. You might also have missed subtle cues that you were violating tacit norms of behaviour, for instance when Luke said "we could debate in this comment thread" and you ignored that in favor of making a new post. This stands out a bit from the rest of your comment: it suggests you are idealizing the community, rather than acknowledging the consequences of its being made up of human beings equipped with standard issue human brains. The reason I suggest you write about substantive topics is that this will give you more of a chance to get acculturated into the thinking tools that are the cause of your perceiving this as "a clearing of sanity in a jungle". Even for the most acculturated among this community, best performance consists of applying some of these thinking tools some of the time, somewhat competently. Rationality remains the exception rather than the rule - this is implied in the very name "Less Wrong". Play a round of Rationalist Taboo for yourself (i.e. don't try to second-guess what anyone else means by that term) on "elitist". Spell out what it is exactly that your ethics does not allow you to support or be seen as supporting. Approach this question lightly, with an open mind and no bottom line already filled in. Now relate this specific question to the way this community approaches ethical questions - you do not have to agree with the community, but you have to grasp what the approach is. Are you willing to do the above? If you can steer clear of any meta-discussion (including even allusions to meta topics), this could even be good material for a post.
This was so sane, Morendil. Thank you. I don't know why I didn't realize that I needed to understand this better before I jumped in. I was ignorant of my own ignorance. Sometimes when you don't realize you're missing a piece of information, there is nothing to warn you. Other times, I see that things are going to be complex. (Which is why I took the time to think it out and wrote something like ten pages on different solutions to Eternal September and their consequences). I also do that at work - I clarify what the purpose of the project is before I code it. For some reason, that little flag was missing here. Now I get to try and guess why. I think you're right that I don't pick up on hints enough. I really don't get why people hint. That seems dysfunctional to me. I wish they'd just be clear. The problem isn't that I idealized the community, the problem is ... how do I explain this. I am extremely prone to a particular bias. I know I have it, I just don't know the word for it. I give people too much credit. It's something I do over and over again. Not sure how to stop it. I seem to need to learn about each group's flaws individually. I started challenging my ideas and using logic at 17, and I've been pretty hard core about it since then. I'm already using a lot of the thinking tools. Apparently I still am not perfect. I feel like I really needed to be part of a group of people capable of pointing out my flaws and giving me ideas I would not have thought of. I am so grateful for this. I will have a chance to find any unseen problems now. Thank you for that. I feel better about not being perfect. (: Still going to aim for perfection though. (: I decided to take your and Alicorn's suggestion on this. At first I didn't know what that meant but I have since found the correct reading materials. I would love to do that. I've been thinking that if I can learn enough about the political sides that seem to be triggered here, I can transcend thinking inside that dichot
I don't speak for all of Less Wrong here, but spending two years at Cambridge has already primed me to have an instinctive tribal urge to attack anyone who attacks elitism, because they tend to be Guardian comment section class warfare types, aka "the other side". It is a mindkill topic for me, so it's probably a mindkill topic for a lot of people here. It might even be a mindkill topic for you, I don't know. But it does mean you need to tread really carefully when you talk about it. There's a reason I need to consciously shrug off Guardian articles, and make myself not read through 10 pages of comments that will make me angry. Guardian commenters are at least the more intelligent face of "the other side"; I understand there are many more people in both the US and the UK who share those views but are much less eloquent about them. The way you use the word "smear" is telling my System 1 that you are on "the other side", which makes it hard to sympathise with you at all. In fact I can physically feel the indignant mindkill response rising in myself right now, so I'm going to stop talking, but I hope I've made my point.
I admire how you've identified your reaction as a mindkill response. I don't know whether this is a mindkill topic for me. I am not even sure that we disagree. I care specifically that people do not abuse or take advantage of each other verbally or otherwise, that people should not feel owed something by strangers, and that people should not make excuses to dominate one another. Class and intellect are not excuses for any of these things to me. Aside from those specifics, I don't feel any tenacious urges to rend anyone's ideas asunder. Are we in agreement about this? Because I have barely read any of the writing by "Guardian comment section class warfare types" I have very little idea what these two sides are like. Your post brings me into an awareness of the fact that there are groups of people who identify as "elitists". Other than one specific (Mensa, which I view as a place where people who are lonely due to the differences that giftedness causes go to meet kindred spirits, and where people who are suffering from boredom go to alleviate ennui because they have a greater need for a challenge) and a vague sense that there must be overbearing jerks somewhere who call themselves elitists (I've met a few abusive intellectuals and I figure they must form groups somewhere) I was not aware that any groups actually identified as "elitists" or would want to defend that. I have observed though, that mentioning intelligence differences is likely to trigger anger and the word "elitism" appears during those times. I hate this reaction, so I try to be careful with phrasing. Would you mind explaining these two sides?
It's not that hard. If you feel adrenaline/indignance/anger at a Less Wrong comment and/or a compulsive urge to reply then the prior should be that you've been mindkilled, since when one takes the outside view people on LW tend to be a pretty reasonable bunch. I am in agreement with your points as I interpret their statement. I am not sure my interpretation of the statements agrees with yours. For example, what do you mean by "not make excuses to dominate one another"? There are many situations (governments, chain-of-command in workplaces, employers) where people can legitimately dominate one another, if that's what you mean by dominate. Sure. I'll PM you, since I don't think a detailed description of British politics is very relevant. :) The point that is relevant is that I'm not defending what you're calling elitism, nor do I frequently call myself elitist, I'm just opposing people who oppose elitism, since when they use that word the definition tends to include me.
What I meant was just that it's pleasant to see that someone else was doing that. I didn't expect it. I know I'm capable of doing that, too. I am beginning to wonder about my response to the elitism thing. I'm asking myself questions like "Would I have responded differently if I was not upset?" and "If so, why did I let being upset influence my reaction to this specifically, when I know I can prevent it from influencing me on other things?" Oh. I didn't think of the possibility of you being lumped into that outside of your control. That's a good point and makes the situation more complex. Back to the "two sides" - I don't really want to be on one side or the other. I want to understand both. There's got to be a way for both sides to get along with each other. It's a problem worth solving. Do you think a lot of LessWrongers would agree with these statements, or do you think they're too entrenched in mindkill?
There's no such thing as "the other side". There are a variety of arguments for anti-intellectualism, some of which may be more compelling than others.
I meant "the other side" in a blue vs green sense, hence the link. I didn't claim it was a well-defined political stance, merely that perceived membership of it provoked a reaction in my system 1 and that fact was probably worth pointing out. ETA: While the first half of the article you linked was interesting and informative, the rest of it plus the comments was precisely a demonstration of the kind of rhetoric that happens when people are motivated by what I referred to as "mindkill". This time it's surrounding the word "intellectual" rather than "elitism", but my point still stands.
I'm quite surprised by your use of "smear". I'm aware that "elitist" has negative connotations, but not nearly as bad as "sexist" or "racist". To clarify the connotations you're seeing, would you agree that MIT is "elitist"? Do you think saying that is a slur? I consider LessWrong to be "elitist" in the same way that MIT is - if anything, LessWrong is much less elitist than mainstream academia. Neither LessWrong not MIT would use "elitist" in their self-description, but both would answer "yes" if asked whether they are elitist.
I find this confusing too. Maybe Epiphany is coming from somewhere like the American place where a prosecutor will always remember to address a defendant with a PhD. as 'doctor' in order to turn the jury against them.
Thanks for theorizing that - my situation was different from the situation most of you guys probably had growing up, I was disadvantaged. That might be the cause for the differing viewpoints. I have realized I'm pretty ignorant about other points of view on elitism. Care to explain yours? I want to understand them.
I probably internalized something like this growing up: * There are people who are really good at something, * this is a good thing, * I'm not one of them, * but if I work very hard I could be. I haven't been very aware of social class issues or using 'elitism' as an actual term. So my quick association with someone calling out elitism as a bad thing is that they're saying that people shouldn't try to be very good at anything. People who grew up more social class aware might have quite different instant associations.
Hmm. That's interesting. What's interesting is that I relate with you completely about knowing that there are people who are good at things and wanting to work to become one, and not seeing anything wrong with it. I even want to defend the right to work to become good at things. But I don't call that elitism. Why do you?
Because that's what I think the people who say LW should be more elitist are saying.
I did not attend MIT but I am really curious about other people's ideas about elitism and I realize now that I was ignorant about them before. Would you mind explaining your ideas on elitism please?
I don't really have well thought-out ideas on elitism, but I think there are places like MIT that have high standards that everybody accepts as normal, and I'm not sure of what distinguishes situations where the high standards are accepted, and situations where those standards would give rise to accusations of "elitism". Overall I don't consider "elitism" a very useful word because it's vague and can describe many different things: "my group has more qualities than other groups", "you should grand me special respect just because of this group I belong to", "some people are more skilled or more gifted than others", etc. - add to that a general negative connotation, and it seems like a multi-purpose boo light, along with "fascist", "anti-American", "defeatist", "terrorist", "cult", "fanatic", etc. (have you read the sequence on words? It's very relevant here, especially the bit on sneaking in connotations )
By the way, in the line of emotive conjugations like (from various sources) ... you could add Debating over whether "elitist" is the right word or not doesn't seem much more useful than it does in those other cases.
The word "elitist" has political connotations. It is often used in right wing political discourse as a slur against liberals. For example the phrase "intellectual elite" is used a great deal in this article defending Sarah Palin. Some of these upvotes may be made by people who interpret "do you think elitism is bad" as asking "Do you hate university professors and would you vote for Sarah Palin?"
Thank you for pointing this out. I don't bother with politics, (I quit being interested a long time ago when I realized that nothing was being solved and no one was looking for solutions that would get to the root of the problem because they seemed to prefer squabbling) so I didn't know that. I see now that it's something I really need to learn more about if I want to understand elitism better. And I do. Would you mind explaining more or, if you know of good reading materials, direct me?
I think it's more useful to first better understand the reasons for wanting to understand "elitism" better. (I expect you are wrong in believing that it's a project worth working on.)
On the political use, see here: I bring up the political connotations because I don't think Less Wrong is particularly snobbish or exclusionary, and I think there are more flattering reasons why someone might choose to label themselves as "elitist". Personally, I think the word "elitist" is too politically charged and emotionally laden to be of much use. There are a few different questions that the word lumps in together, I outline them below and my opinion of them. Question 1. Should this site be hostile towards new members? (No) Question 2. Should this site praise intelligence and rationality? (Yes) Question 3. What privileges should those regarded as particularly rational receive? (No formal privileges) Question 4. How concerned should we be with trying to preserve the current culture? (Somewhat, but not to the extent of making people feel small)
It's interesting that "elitist" doesn't strike me as being politically charged - I would even be hard-pressed to tell whether it seems more left-wing or right-wing (if it wasn't for your comment, I'd tend to call it slightly right-wing). Maybe it's because elitism vs. anti-intellectualism isn't as much of a hot political issue here in France; maybe French people (or French politicians?) are less hung-up about seeming elitist than people in lesser countries. This article seems to indicate a clear cultural difference between at least France and the US on the issue of elitism.
Wow that's interesting. Thank you for the article. Do the French find it horrible when intelligent people end up on the wrong educational tier? What is thought about those who are unhappy because they're brighter than their tier allows them to be?
Eh, I don't know enough to answer you with much confidence on that, sorry. There are some significant differences between the French and American educational sytems: we have the bac, a national standardized exam everybody takes at the end of high school, and getting a good grade at that can open a lot of doors, so is often a "way out" for a smart kid in a bad environment. Also, there are many good colleges with nearly free education, so French students typically graduate with waaay less debt than American ones, and you don't often hear of people who cut their education short because they were poor. Socialism: it works, bitches :D (disclaimer: I don't identify as a socialist and don't want to start a flame war, I just like poking fun at Americans). Also, from what I've heard of Americans, I got the impression that smart kids would feel "held back" because the system cared more about not preventing the dumb kids from being left behind than about stimulating the smart kids, resulting in some smart kids getting bored out of their minds. I think that's less of a concern in France, it seems to be more of an American thing. Overall I have a pretty low opinion of the American system, and concerns about my kid's education is one reason why I am reticent to move to the US (despite all the things that the US does better than France). And I get the impression that concerns of "elitism" may be partly behind the low quality of the American system. But then, I haven't researched the topic in much depth (prior to this conversation, I wasn't aware that "elitism" sounded all that bad to Americans); it would be interesting to look at the British system, that is probably a bit closer to the French system than to the American one. The Chinese system is probably even more extreme than the French one, and Chinese people coming to France have a bit of the same reaction that I have when hearing about the American system - those people are crazy and lazy!

This post is currently tied for eighth most downvoted of all time (-22), while your original post on growing LW is tied for 25th most upvoted post of all time (+49). If you could figure out how to induce those responses at will, you could play us like a yoyo. :-)

Thank you so much for this. It was encouraging. I have decided to do just that - figure out how to present to this audience. (: Though, I do not plan to write intentionally unpopular posts. (:

As far as I can tell, you're trying to use standard arguments and appeals to emotion and group membership. LWers, as a general rule, come here because it's a community that mostly ignores those appeals. LW is one of very few places I've come across where this is the case.

In general, the most effective thing I think you could do to improve your posts and comments would be to use more specific claims and back them up with specific evidence. You're doing a great job of creating outlines before you post, and with translating your ideas into simple language (really, we do appreciate that). You could work a bit on being concise: there's no need to write an essay just to ask if we should have more areas than just Discussion and Main.

Another, specific thing relating to this post: taboo "elitist" and all synonyms. You already started to reduce elitism to the parts that were bad, and I think you could benefit by going a bit further with that thread.

Finally, we kind of do have a third level: the biweekly open threads. This probably belongs there.

Oh, was that what the post was about? Right, thanks.
Thank you, Wedrifid. (:
My intent was to say, basically "We look really bad, let's not look bad" which, I realize, is different from a scientifically provable or mathematically verifiable point, but it's interesting you went so far as to interpret this as "appeals to emotion". Maybe you meant something else was wrong with it? I am working on being concise, thanks for the suggestion. I did work out what I mean by "elitism" that's here. Also, I've decided to investigate what other people mean by elitism. Do you care to explain your point of view?
In this case, it's easy to predict how LessWrong is going to react. Your initial posts were well-received because you pointed out a potential problem, LW's high bounce rate, and even created some nice graphs. But when a consensus started to emerge that reducing the bounce rate would actually be a net negative, instead of accepting this or refuting it, you made a long series of posts mostly reiterating the same unconvincing points. Doing that will result in a poor reception.
Weird that you interpreted it that way. I thought I was working on solving the problem. This post would be an exception. I had a mind kill reaction surrounding "elitism" and, like 20% of the people who took my poll, was trying to decide whether or not I should quit LessWrong. How did you end up with the perspective that I was wasting time reiterating unconvincing points?

I don't think people who feel comfortable posting average youtube comments are going to be welcome or useful at LessWrong, I don't think this is a problem, and there are a lot of people like that.

Raising the sanity waterline on a grand scale should affect the comments on youtube, but we're a long way from that.

This being said, I'd like to see more rationality materials for people of average intelligence, but that's another long term possibility. Not does there not seem to be huge interest in the project, figuring out simple explanations for new ideas is work, and it seems to be be a relatively rare talent.

I only recently ran into a good simple explanation for Bayes-- that the more detailed a prediction becomes, the less likely it is to be true. And I got it from a woman who doesn't post on LW because she thinks the barriers to entry are too high. (It's possible that this explanation was on LW, and I didn't see it or it didn't register--- has anyone seen it here?)

There's some degree of natural sorting on LW-- I'm not the only person who doesn't read the more mathematical or technical material here, and I'm not commenting on that material, either.

I don't think having separate ranked areas is going to solve the problem of people living down to expectations.

That looks like part of the definition of probability. Bayes would be more like 'If you've got two ideas about what's going on, and one of them says one thing's going to happen, and the other says a different thing, but in the event it's the first thing that happens, then you should believe the first idea more and the second idea less'. Or to get a bit less abstract, say you're playing dungeons and dragons, and and orc hits you with a sword, and you're pretty sure that orcs do either 1D12 or 2D6 of damage, then if the orc does 2 damage, you should think 'probably 1D12', but if she does 7 damage, you should think 'probably 2D6'. Does anyone know of any games that normal human beings play that could be used in this sort of example? I mean, apart from, you know, life.
Actually, search for "Center for Modern Rationality" and a post along the lines of "Name new Rationality Inst." - the latter describes an organization Eliezer is making as a spinoff and explains that it's going to have materials for high school students. They ARE trying to branch out to the rest of the population! This is exciting! (: I wonder how far they've gotten. As for your other suggestions, I've begun talking about that again in my preventing endless September thread. You're invited to check out the cliff notes version and request new pros and cons be added.
That looks like a good way of explaining the conjunction and narrative fallacies, too. They could easily be looked at as adding details to a simpler argument. I wonder what other fallacies could be "generalized" similarly? One thing I think we should be working on is a way of organizing the mass of fallacies and heuristics. There are too many to keep straight without some sort of organizing principles.
Can you give a link to that explanation?
It was an in person conversation. Her phrasing may actually have been tighter. My extension to her explanation is that if you have probabilities for aspects of a prediction, then there's math so that you can derive a probability for the whole prediction. Her specific problem is that she'd like to post articles, but she's put off by having to make sufficiently upvoted comments to do so. I've told her that if she writes an article I'll post it with attribution for her. I don't have a general problem with the 20 karma requirement for posting articles.

I'm not really sure what your point is with this post.

These are the reasons I choose to be non-abusive and to send a message to the world that non-abusive intellectuals exist.

If it's just that, I think the post would benefit from better focus. More likely, it would be better to conclude with something more related to the content of the post itself.

Also, I'm not sure how this

I have noticed a current of elitism on LessWrong.

jives with this

If people tell you that you're an elitist because you want a challenging social environment to learn in, or

... (read more)
Thanks for your thoughts, Ahartell. (:

I don't think the beginner / advanced distinction covers why many here are fine with being called "elitist" (I know I am!). There's also a good attitude / bad attitude distinction. If someone is intellectually lazy , or only wants to rant about one topic (politics or racism or open source or religion ...), or enjoys getting into fights, or just wants to make dumb jokes, then I'd rather they go post somewhere else. And yes, such people will invariably complain about elitism when made felt unwelcome, so the mere presence of accusations of elitism d... (read more)

That's a fair point, but I don't see many people on LW who are productive in math discussions but trollish in psychology discussions, or vice versa. Poster quality may be multidimensional, but seems to have a strong primary component.
I pretty much agree (though am a bit surprised by your use of "trollish" - I don't think we would want trollish comments in any section, "advanced" or "beginner").
The problem might not be trollishness, it might be that if there's are sections based on level of difficulty, then people will be reluctant to read and/or comment outside their self-perceived level (which might be too high or too low).
(Try adding an additional newline before the first bullet point.)
Fixed, thanks.

I don't think it's useful to argue about the word "elitism" any longer. I think most people already agree with most of the points in your post about "elitism" except for the actual actions we should take as a result.

I think that the problem with making a beginner and advanced section is basically shame. In lieu of a quantifiable metric that classifies people into the two sections (not likely) it's going to be very hard for people in the "lower" section to admit that the people in the "higher" section are actually b... (read more)

You are grossly over-simplifying anti-intellectualism, some streams of which are extremely valuable. Your claim only fits the "thalamic anti-intellectual", one of at least five broad types Eric Raymond discusses. The most important and useful to society is the "epistemic-skeptical anti-intellectual. His complaint is that intellectuals are too prone to overestimate their own cleverness and attempt to commit society to vast utopian schemes that invariably end badly." Of course lefties who want to change society to fit their theories try to smear them with claims like yours, but: And:
You sound like you've researched this. If I wanted to get a really good idea of what both sides mean by elitism and understand the problem better, is there some reading you could recommend for that?
Interesting link, however, this looks like a tangent. If this is more related than I realize, please point out the connection.
Thanks for this link. I think it just boils down to more arguing about words -- as far as I can tell, I agree with what you and he are actually saying, but I was using "intellectual" more sloppily to refer to people who interact with culture via argument, ideas, and art, regardless of whether they dabble in politics, perform what Eric criticizes as "ceaseless questioning," or whether they have an inclination toward "vast utopian schemes." It was sort of a throwaway remark and not very well thought-through.
That's an interesting point, and I added that to the cliff notes version of my endless September idea list. I'm currently taking more suggestions for pros and cons to add to the list, or new ideas.
Actually, I've had multiple responses (to other threads) where people confidently state that the other people think this or that, and they're completely, verifiable wrong. I've got people saying stuff in this thread like many here are fine with being called "elitist" which is a fundamental disagreement with my stance - I'm not fine with it and I think it makes LessWrong look bad. I think there's some confusion over what my main point is. I made a lot of points, so that may be why. For these reasons, I created an elitism poll which I hope will help me understand what people think on the most important points. I suggested a test in Preventing discussion from being watered down by an "endless September" user influx Some would be motivated to barrel through it even though they're not good at rational thought, but at least then they'd probably begin to get an idea of what an advanced rationalist is like. I think a lot of people would choose to hang back because such a questionnaire would make it seem too challenging to those who haven't developed their abilities yet. If you'd like to criticize that idea, I'd appreciate it, but it will be much easier for me to find that criticism later if it's on the endless September thread.

Rationalist taboo style explanation of how my perceptions of "elitism" developed:

I started out in life with disadvantages that I had to overcome. I am also gifted, but didn't know that until my mid twenties. I lived in a rich, privileged town and there were a majority of rich, privileged children in my school. Because I was disadvantaged, I never made friends with privileged children or teens. They were wearing Gap while I was wearing resale shop finds. If they ever used the word "elite" to describe themselves, I didn't know it. W... (read more)

When a concept is used, it draws attention to its connotations, the way people associate them with it. The role of a concept in an argument is to bring forth relevant inferences. A misleading concept might suggest incorrect or unintended conclusions, as is the case when it doesn't describe the situation very well or when you are relying on nonstandard connotations not shared by other people. To taboo a concept is to screen off implicit reliance on its ability to activate connotations in an argument, instead naming them and motivating their relevance explicitly. If the argument is valid, it will go through in this more explicit form as well (if it doesn't, there might be an actual problem with the argument). The main focus of this procedure are particular arguments, not the concept that was causing trouble. So it is the arguments that you are trying to make that should be clarified, communicated in a way that doesn't rely on your understanding of the concept, while the use of the concept itself in communication and persuasion should be avoided.
I appear to be doing it wrong. Thank you Vladimir. The wiki on rationalist taboo is pretty short. Is there an article somewhere with good instructions for playing rationalist taboo?
As I recommended before, read the sequence on words and some of Yvain's posts (Diseased Thinking, Studies on Excuses, Schelling Fences, Worst Argument in the World). My comment works as a summary, if you follow what it's describing (which is where all those posts might help).
Okay thank you. I've read more random sequences than I can count and Worst Argument in the World and I'm systematically working my way through the major sequences right now. I will check these other ones out, too. Wait, I assume you mean "A Human's Guide to Words" when you say "sequence of words"? Ironic place to have this confusion, isn't it. ;)
(Yes, should be "sequence on words", sorry, fixed.)
Elite - a group of people who are considered the best in a certain category. It's a descriptive term. Usage - Power elite are the most powerful. Intellectual elite are the smartest. The Navy SEALS are an elite team of soldiers - they are the best at what they do. Elitism - the view that their exists an elite class which aught to be given some privilege or consideration which is not given to non-elite members. This is a normative term - note the word "aught". Usage - Obama is an elitist because he doesn't think the opinions of people like Joe the Plumber are important. He is dismissive of them because they cling to guns and religion. So, putting this in context: The users of lesswrong (rightly or wrongly) believe themselves to constitute an intellectual elite. Thanks to the lesswrong polls, they reason to believe that the average user has an IQ that is two to three standard deviations above the mean. A self described intellectual elitist may believe that this group (as defined by education, high IQ, and rationality skills) is best suited to make decisions for the rest of society. An ideal political system in the view of such a person would be one that brings these intellectual elite to power. There are in fact quite a few people on lesswrong who hold this opinion - that politicians aught to be high IQ individuals with a scientific and "rational" approach to life. Additionally, people who come to lesswrong and write comments that fall short of what the users judge to be intelligent are generally not welcomed - letting non-elites participate in the discussion makes it more difficult for the elites to interact and make each other smarter. The common theme here is that those who are not part of the elite need to get out of the way so that the elite can carry out their tasks/discussions more effectively. The charge of elitism against lesswrong implies that these individuals believe that the opinions of other people (in particular the religious, the conservative, ot
Thanks for taking the time to elaborate on these ideas. I agree that people use the word in the ways that you describe, but I have a specific issue with one of these definitions. I am not sure whether you hold the following view or mine or some other one, but since you are offering to express your views, I decided to accept your offer and to share mine as well: View I disagree with: "When intellectuals / gifted people / nerds hang out with each other and don't want non-intellectuals / non-gifted people / non-nerds around, they're elitists." If you've ever talked to a vegetarian, you'll know that they prefer to eat with other vegetarians. If you've talked to a hunter, you can guess that they would not appreciate a vegetarian coming along on a hunting trip. If you know everything about basketball, it's going to be really boring to have a basketball conversation with someone who hates sports. If you've ever talked to a single mom, she'll probably tell you that sometimes she just needs to be with the adults for an evening - the children can't talk about the same topics and there are a lot of things you can't say around them. Gifted adults often have different views that mix with mainstream views about as well as hunters and vegetarians. They're not able to talk about all of their ideas with everyone, just like people from different religions or political groups often can't. They tend to accumulate an unusual amount of knowledge in areas they're interested in, making conversations pretty one-sided. Everybody wants to talk to people at their own level - it's not spite, that's a phenomenon called "flow" - put simply, the brain rewards you for doing things that are challenging but not frustrating. For many gifted adults, especially in the upper ranges, having conversations with dissimilar people is either frustrating (because they can't get their ideas across or are misunderstood) or tedious (because all the work involved in explaining everything and presenting it just r
So, IRL I have exactly one good friend that I'd consider extremely intelligent. That's not to say that my other friends are stupid...but, they aren't like me, and that's a peculiar kind of loneliness. Before I met my friend, most of my intellectual conversations were, as you say, one sided. It was almost like I was trying to provoke people into intellectual conversation, gently steering them into a frame of mind where they could engage me. People thought that I was argumentative and enjoyed debate - but I wasn't really, it's just that taking a stance that someone disagrees on is one of the best ways to force them into an intellectual conversation. This is really not a healthy way to interact with people, since it often triggers emotional outbursts and leaves hard feelings behind...but I did it anyway for my own amusement. What was the point of having friends, I reasoned, if you couldn't talk to them? As I grew older and discovered better outlets for my intelligence, I stopped feeling the need to do this to people. Even when people were willing and happy to engage intellectually however... after knowing them long enough I felt like a cat batting around a piece of string...or perhaps untying a knot. I was often able to predict what they would say and they rarely came up with arguments I hadn't already considered. Imagine playing the same game with an NPC, over and over again. It was amusing, but not fulfilling. I can't improve myself this way. (Although, every once in a while, these conversations help them...and when that happens it is pretty fulfilling, actually.) Though I'm an extrovert and have many friends, I've gradually became socially withdrawn because most people cannot hold my interest. On the other hand, I need companionship to be happy. And my friends do provide most of the important facets of interaction ... they care for me and will look out for me, they are willing to listen to me even if they can't understand... and more importantly I can care for t
Have you ever experienced alienation? I'm not talking about feeling a little bit annoyed. I'm talking about: Half the time when you express your feelings, people misunderstand you. Half the time when you explain an idea, it's too complicated and they either stop listening or misunderstand. You start to learn not to express certain thoughts and feelings. After a while, these add up, until you're barely expressing yourself at all. Then you start to feel like life itself is boring, something very important is missing. Your friends say they care, but you can't escape the fact that they have no idea who they care about. You try and try to find people who can understand, with any amount of explaining, and they never do. You feel like you're from a different planet. For some people, the amount of loneliness or alienation they experience due to being gifted is very small, or they don't notice it at all. I've noticed, however, that a lot of people with very high IQs are frequently alienated, settle for a social life that isn't satisfying, or give up on ever finding anyone. It's not just that they feel that social enjoyment could be improved, it's that they feel exhausted from being different. I'm talking about burnout. Some people are different enough that they literally burn out from having to interact with people who misunderstand them, who they can't explain things to without frustrating themselves, who can't truly care about them because they never understand their feelings, who don't share their interests, etc. Maybe you have never experienced this burnout. My whole life is that burnout. Some people really do have a need to get away and be with people who are like minded. It's not about power, it's not about ego, it's not a game. The need is real and I'm sick and tired of it being misunderstood and politicized.
I do not often feel that, but sometimes I do. It might be due to my young age (early 20s, although I suspect that's the lesswrong median) or because I happen to have an unusually happy disposition. And though both are just an accident of biology, I take pride in having a happy disposition, much as I take pride in being intelligent. But I recently had what I believe was an adverse reaction to a medication which triggered a period of depression for a couple months. I'm still in the recovery phase from that, but I'm getting much better. During that period, I found it much more difficult to put up with the company of ordinary people ... the only thing that would cheer me up was intellectual conversation with an intellectual equal. I didn't realize what immense reserves of emotional energy a happy disposition gives you until I was robbed of it. Depleted of emotional energy, it was much harder to maintain a conversation with ordinary people, and I would burn out and retreat to my room after a while. Before my period of depression, when my emotional reserves were virtually unlimited, I actually enjoyed talking to almost worst, I'd get bored and move on to talk to someone else. What you are describing sounds a lot like the "need for cognition" which I was talking about earlier, but it goes a step deeper because you also want to be understood by others. It also sounds like your emotional reserves are generally at the low end of the spectrum, which makes it hard for you to find enjoyment among dull company - although I may be extrapolating too much from my own case. For me, what drove the "burnout" for me was an immense feeling of cynicism. I'd talk to people, and every word would show me the weakness, laziness, and foolishness that makes up the nature of most ordinary people. And because I was depressed at the time, I saw a lot of that weakness in myself as well, which troubled me. The happy, high emotional reserve me cared about understanding how other
Thanks for making the effort to try and understand. You've thrown one more variable into the equation - emotional energy. I don't know if you've considered how these other variables would affect things, but: Other Variables Involved in Gifted Alienation Ability to communicate is something that will increase or decrease frustration / alienation / misunderstanding, depending on whether it's low or high. Unfortunately, not all gifted people get the gift of communication, and gifts come in different sizes so they may not get enough of a gift in communication to compensate for the difficulty of communicating ideas and feelings that are as different as theirs. Age of the person matters a lot. Supposedly, the speed at which you learn doesn't change, but if you're learning at say, twice the average speed, you'll be much further ahead of your age peers at 30 than at 20, and so on. The gap seems to have grown as I have aged (I'm in the ballpark of 30 myself). It has become harder and harder to find stimulating intelligent conversation. Make sure to value your sources of intelligent conversation, you may need them more later on. Amount of intelligence. If your IQ is 130, you'll notice a difference between yourself and others but if it is over 160, you may feel like a complete alien. One interesting characteristic of the people I've met who have IQs in the profoundly gifted range is that they feel so very different that it's like being stranded on a planet full of aliens. It can be very stressful for them. I don't know what your IQ is, but it sounds to me like you can understand a little bit what this sort of problem would be like for them. You keep saying "need for cognition" but firstly, that's a trait that's more common to gifted people (it fuels the gift!) and not as common to non-gifted people. Secondly, have you ever been asked a lot of "why" questions by a little child and gotten burned out on answering them? Or can you imagine going a year without having a conversat
On NFC - NFC is moderately correlated with IQ, it's true. But personality traits turn out to be equally accurate predictors. I'll also point out that the loose correlation between NFC and intelligence is an implicitly made assumption underlying the worry that the quality of posts at Lesswrong will deteriorate with the new user influx...if it were true that NFC has an extremely strong relationship with intelligence, unintelligent people would simply would not be interested in participating in the discussion on the site, and there would be nothing for the older-user base to fret about. We observe in everyday life that NFC doesn't imply giftedness...there are lots of people who have extremely complicated but stupid opinions. Ever spend time on a white nationalist forum? Or argued with an intellectual fundamentalist christian? They write long sentences and cite academic papers, while simultaneously lacking even a basic understanding of how the world works. I don't know whether people like this would score low or high on an IQ test - it's possible that this faulty reasoning results from deficits which does not influence IQ scores - but it can't be disputed that they've put a lot of thought into it. On existential depression - This will naturally be correlated with intelligence, since you need to ponder philosophy in order to be identified as having this issue. However, is a social life really the cure for that? It seems to be like introspection is the only solution to existential depression ... the issue arises via faulty philosophy in the first place. would be really easy for someone suffering normal depression to attribute it to existential problems. We often feel emotions and then look around for the source afterwords. Naturally, only intelligent people would think to attribute the sadness to a philosophical issue. On social life - I agree that smart people are more socially fulfilled when they are around other smart people. In my earlier post, I w
That's a rather quick dismissal. Maslow's hierarchy is a "most people are mostly like this" type of argument. I'd think you'd need something stronger to argue for "no people are ever unlike this".

Y'know, you don't even begin to compete with the lowest-rated post. Not that that's an invitation to try.

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