Appropriateness of Discussing Rationalist Discourse of a Political Nature on LW?

by Evan_Gaensbauer1 min read12th Mar 201824 comments

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There was recently a back-and-forth between Slate Star Codex and Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs, a major national news magazine on the political left in the United States. It didn't end well. I think it would serve as a good example in how I think rationalist diaspora members could better think and go about publicly engaging those outside the community on topics of common interest. I wouldn't publish it without running it by Scott first. But I don't want to waste the time to write a draft if it wouldn't be appropriate content for LW anyway.

I could post the write-up on my own blog and submit it as a community post. It wouldn't have any relevance to people outside the rationalist diaspora, so I'd prefer to post it to LW, but my own blog would be fine. If submitting it as a link/community post would be frowned up as well, that'd be fine with me too. I just want to know what the expected norms are here. If the answer to these questions would depend on the content of my write-up, that's also fine. I can drum something up, come back here, and then get feedback. Anyway, if the moderators or anyone else wants to give me their two cents, that'd be great.

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Posting them as a community/personal blog post seems best to me. We might moderate a bit more strongly than usual and maybe limit future things like this if we find that LessWrong is becoming too filled with politics. As you describe it here, I think discussing the meta-level of what happened seems totally reasonable, and maybe add a sentence that the purpose of your post is not to hash out the underlying political disagreement, but to discuss on the meta-level what happened and what we might learn from it.

I'll post it as a community/personal blog post if I write it up. I'll probably ask for some proofreading before I publish if I intend to do so, to ensure the tone isn't the kind which will rile up needless discontent. As the rationality community expanded into diaspora, filters loosened, and the rationality community started a lot more dialogue with other communities. Anna was right we need LessWrong as a singular conversational locus, but so much of what Slate Star Codex is stems from rationalists branching out. I think Scott is much more adept than others, but recent events show familiarity with others who don't value the same meta-level norms in discourse as our community are likelier to become belligerent. What's important is rationalists may underestimate the extent to which meta-level norms matter, and so they start conversations constantly expecting interlocutors to act in better faith than they ever do in practice. For the future as the rationality community interacts more on shared projects with others like effective altruism, AI safety, cryptoeconomics, etc, I think we'll do better to be more cognizant of the differences in perceiving dialogue between ourselves and interlocutors. I think we can learn lessons from what's happened between Slate Star Codex and Current Affairs.

I appreciate that you're asking at a very "high level of meta" about a controversial topic.

Also, I appreciate that you helped me to know that something had even happened. I read Scott's original article back when it was fresh, but the Robinson piece wasn't on my radar until I searched for Scott's rebuttal on the basis of the question and found a link back to it.

I'm still not sure if I understand all the ins and outs here, but I will say that this is a complex topic which I personally avoid writing about because in many ways I'm sort of a coward...

However Scott reads to me as grappling with complicated ideas, in public, against his own interests, in a basically admirable way, while Robinson reads to me as having had to push some content out on a deadline (with a larger goal of trying to get his readers to buy the topmost book in the image at the end of his article).

I sympathize with Scott having been dissed in a magazine whose name suggests falsely that it has a long history and thus having been put in a position to either (1) defend himself and give the upstart that is insulting him the attention which was probably point of the attack or (2) not defend himself.

I think Scott's move of not putting his rebuttal on his own main page, but just putting it where it can be searched for (so it comes up as a defense if people search for the topic specifically, but doesn't move a lot of eyeballs) and running the URL through donotlink.it was quite smart. He appears to understand how he's being trolled and is responding in a way that navigates it pretty well :-)

That seems like an unfair criticism of Current Affairs. All magazines with a long history started out with a short history at some point, and presumably they do not generally change their names when the history is long enough. Also, how seriously you should take a magazine is not particularly well correlated with age: Cosmopolitan magazine is more than a hundred years old and played a key role in the passing of the Seventeenth Amendment, but that does not mean we should care deeply about the deep psychological insight of the Manthropology section.

All magazines with a long history started out with a short history at some point, and presumably they do not generally change their names when the history is long enough.

But these magazines mostly took names typical of their own time instead of names typical of times before their own time, so when they were young magazines, readers weren't misled into thinking they were old magazines. (In other words, the argument isn't that magazines should be named so as to suggest the right age, but that they should be named so as to suggest the right date of birth.)

I really don't understand how the name "Current Affairs" misleads people about the age of the magazine??

Uh... I can try to unroll the context and thinking I guess..

I think in my head I initially associated the name with childhood memories of a vaguely Investigative TV News Program that was apparently founded in 1986.

Also, it appears to be the name of an entire genre of magazines that includes things like New Statesmen which makes it a bit tricky to google for details about the thing itself, rather than the category of the same name.

It seemed plausible to me, given the general collapse of the journalism industry, that the old 1990's brand still existed, had moved to the Internet, mutated extensively, and was now reduced to taking potshots at people like Scott in order to drum up eyeballs?

(Plausibly the website could be co-branded with a TV version still eking out some sort of half life among the cable TV channels with 3 or 4 digit numbers, that could trace its existence back to 1986?)

None of what seemed plausible to me is actually true.

The old thing named Current Affairs apparently died in 1996, and was briefly revived in 2005 and then died again. The new thing started in 2015, and has nothing to do with the old thing.

Since I was surprised by the recency of the founding of the new incarnation of "something named Current Affairs" it seemed to me that other people might be confused too, so I linked to the supporting evidence.

Also, when Scott speaks indirectly of the callout, he makes a "request not to be cited in major national newspapers". But the name here is so maddeningly generic that I have difficulty even Googling my way to reliable circulation numbers.

Is it actually major? Do they even have a paper print format? I'm still not sure, and don't really care. Maybe Scott was fooled into thinking they matter too at first?

Basically, my model at this point, given the paucity of hard data, is that this new Current Affairs could easily be nothing like a "major national newspaper" but rather it could just be like two or three yahoos in a basement struggling to be professional journalists in an age when professional journalism is dying, and finding that they have to start trolling virtuously geeky bloggers to stir up drama and attract eyeballs to their website to make ends meet.

The circulation numbers and actual ambient reputation potentially matter, because if they are very low then who cares if some troll hasn't read Scott's old essay very carefully, but if many high quality eyeballs were reading the inaccurate summary and criticism, then the besmirching insinuations could hurt Scott.

In the meantime, maybe this will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. When strangers get into fights in real life, it isn't totally uncommon for them, years later, to end up great friends who know each other's true measure :-)

tl;dr this is in fact kinda a big deal and there is more context I'll put in another post

I wanted to feel like you did. But tcheasdfjkl is right. They aren't a few yahoos in a basement. They're an online and print magazine with nine permanent staff and offices in London and New York. And their editor violated tacit discussion norms in the rationality community when debating Scott online. And they regularly publish critical opinion pieces on topics of interest to the rationality community, such as anti-ageing, effective altruism, and technology companies. And Scott was thrust onto a national stage which got him cited in the New York Times, and one way or another he received enough hate mail for the near future it appears he won't be going out of his way to challenge journalistic coverage in major national online/print publications. Correcting misinformation like Scott does is a public service. It's the sort of thing which demonstrates the public the value of this whole "rationality" things and could draw them in. Slate Star Codex meetups are a big deal too now. And Scott has been shut down because all pretense of collaborative truth-seeking was pulled out like a rug from under Scott's feet. Nathan Robinson of CA is the first journalist with a bigger audience than Scott's to do something like this, so this could be a lot of people's introduction to SSC. It's the sort of thing the rationality community isn't used to, and we can learn lessons from it to become savvier. I think we can learn more than just debating politics for public-facing projects out of the rationality community, e.g., how do we build a working trust-based relationship with other communities focused on AI safety/alignment with very different cultural/communication norms than us?

London, New York, and nine full time employee in the NYT media orbit... updated!

Huh, I didn't know about the older TV program or the generic term "current affairs magazine". Thanks for explaining the context that made you feel you were misled! That said, I still think that's really a stretch and I don't think the magazine's name is meant to mislead.

I think also throughout your comment you generally disparage Current Affairs unfairly ("two or three yahoos in a basement", "trolling", "taking potshots", "fooled into thinking they matter"). I don't think they're taking potshots any more than Scott is taking potshots when he quotes people he think are being obtusely wrong. I think there's a legitimate disagreement here between Scott and Nathan Robinson which gets snarky but also is substantive and reasonable.

Re: "major national newspapers", it looks like that's referring to this: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/08/opinion/student-mobs.html

(I didn't know that when I saw this phrase on SSC, but just now I finally looked up the exchange between Scott and Nathan Robinson, and it actually all started with Robinson critiquing a David Brooks column.)

Seems fine as an experiment worth running. I think old LW took "politics is the mindkiller" and ran with it a little too much; turns out there are plenty of other mindkillers and banning one doesn't make the other ones go away. We can also assess our ability to manage what happens when a person is being mindkilled in a comment thread; if we can't handle it in a political discussion then we probably can't handle it elsewhere either. (I'm also mentally synonymizing "mindkilled" with "triggered," if anyone wants a more palatable term.)

This is lowish-value pedantry, but: for me at least "mindkilled" and "triggered" have usefully distinct meanings.

Reading something triggers you if (canonically, by reminding you of traumatic past events) it sets off mental processes in you that you find distressing and can't easily stop.

Reading something mindkills you if (canonically, by encouraging a frame of mind in which opinions are more a mark of group affiliation than a consequence of rational thought) it makes you unable or unwilling to think clearly and honestly about the topic at hand.

Mindkilling but not triggering: An American of leftish views reads an article saying that the economy has consistently performed more strongly, and almost everyone has become better off financially, under Democratic administrations than under Republican ones. Reading it makes them feel happy to be on the right side, increasingly confident that their preferred party is the best one, etc. Of course they don't check whether the numbers are right, whether a better explanation is that when the economy starts doing badly voters tend to elect Republicans, how much influence the executive branch actually has over the economy, etc.

Triggering but not mindkilling: Someone who has been raped reads an article about rape. Over the next day or so, every few minutes their memory kindly provides them with a vivid memory of being raped. This is a thing that happens to them every now and then, and they have learned not to let their distress muddle their thinking, but it's still acutely unpleasant.

The mindkilled person is made irrational but not necessarily distressed. The triggered person is distressed but not necessarily made irrational.

(Note: whether something is mindkilling or triggering is largely independent of whether what it says is correct. You would be ill advised to draw any inferences from the above regarding my opinions of either politics or rape.)

I actually think the pedantry was important and was going to say the same thing.

Based on my experiences circling, I think these two experiences are much more similar than they might at first appear, and for that reason I use "triggered" (and "trauma") in a pretty broad way, including to cover things you might describe as being mindkilled.

My tentative hypothesis is that being mindkilled by politics in the way "politics is the mindkiller" was intended to avoid is about being triggered by the possibility of an attack on your tribe, and you don't need to have had any traumatic experiences of your tribe being attacked to be triggered in this way. Another very familiar example is when a person with anxious-preoccupied attachment gets triggered about their romantic partner leaving them.

They certainly have features in common. I wouldn't be surprised if they have a common cause. But ... so what?

Imagine that someone discovers that two distinct-seeming psychological phenomena -- let's say depression and paranoia -- actually have the exact same neurological cause. Too high a ratio of dopamine to serotonin in the left striatal gyrus complex (note: this is deliberate nonsense; I am not at all attempting to describe a realistic or plausible theory here), and people with one sort of brain become depressed and people with another sort become paranoid. People whose brain anatomy is intermediate get a bit of both. In this scenario, depression and paranoia would be "much more similar than they might at first appear". But would that mean we ought to use the same name for both phenomena?

I say no. We might want to find a name for the single underlying cause, and use it in both cases. But the consequences are different enough that they're worth distinguishing: depressed people and paranoid people have quite different typical behaviours, after all.

Why isn't the same true for "triggering" and "mindkilling"? Perhaps there is a lot of common structure; perhaps more than meets the eye. But they feel different from inside (being triggered feels like acute distress, flashbacks, etc.; being mindkilled feels like being Obviously Right while They -- those awful people on the Wrong Side -- are Disgustingly Wrong), they have different consequences viewed from outside (triggered people get upset; they may go off in a huff, or complain of being abused, or burst into tears; mindkilled people don't usually do those things, though sometimes they get angry, but they ignore or deflect reasoned criticism and make bogus arguments, which triggered people don't necessarily do), and I don't see why we should ignore those differences. Even if it also turns out to be useful to have a word for the common underlying failure mode.

Meta: I am uncomfortable about "Based on my experiences circling ...", which feels like a claim to authority but offers precisely nothing that anyone else can evaluate. Nullis in verba! (For the avoidance of doubt: I'm not saying that circling can't produce genuine psychological insights; I expect sometimes it does and have no idea what fraction of apparent psychological insights from circling are real. Nor am I saying that you shouldn't talk about your experiences circling. Just that until such time as it's demonstrated that "X feels that Y, as a result of their experiences circling" is strong evidence for Y, offering "Based on my experiences circling" as a premise is a sort of logical rudeness: it puts others in the uncomfortable situation of having to choose between accepting something you've given them no actual evidence for, and saying things that might offend you by invalidating your experiences.

One thing we take for granted when getting mindkilled in North America is for a lot of people tribal conflicts might be limited to skirmishes on the internet. Being triggered as a result of past trauma is often because of how real the threat posed by the original event was. The experience of someone who has been physically attacked in some way reliving that in their memory probably feels comparatively worse from the inside than how someone feels after their political tribe is attacked. There are a lot of parts of the world, including in North America, where political or tribal conflicts pose more of a threat of facing physical violence, than is typical. The more palpable and probable the threat of facing actual trauma as a consequence of political or tribal conflicts, the more similar I'd expect the experience of becoming 'mindkilled' to the experience of being 'triggered'. If someone were to do this kind of research, one thing to keep in mind in what will determine people's experience in politics is the perception of likelihood and degree of a threat will vary a lot depending on the person.

That's fair.

which feels like a claim to authority but offers precisely nothing that anyone else can evaluate.

I didn't intend it that way, I just want people to know where my evidence comes from in case they're curious about acquiring it too. Would you have preferred that I deleted that phrase?

I thought you quite likely didn't intend it so. I'm not sure my preferences are what matters -- but for what it's worth I would prefer either (1) just saying what your opinion is, and letting others ask where the opinion comes from if they want, or (2) saying where it comes from in a way that actually shares evidence with others, or at least is explicit about what evidence you're intending to claim. (So e.g. you could maybe say something about what circling experiences led you to that opinion; or maybe those experiences led you to introspect in an informative way on your own experience of being triggered and/or mindkilled; or maybe they led you to talk with other people in those states about what was happening to them; or, for that matter, maybe it would be more like "While circling, I experienced a sudden rush of conviction that triggering and mindkilling are really the same thing, and now they look just the same to me, though I can't put my finger on just why".)

All the options in #2 are substantially more effort than just saying "Based on my experiences circling", of course. But I think that extra effort may be what it takes to actually provide more information than just stating your opinion would.

While circling, I experienced a sudden rush of conviction

Wanted to respond more fully to this. This is really not how I learn things from circling (not new beliefs, anyway). In the LW frame, circling is an unusually good opportunity to collect training data about how humans respond to other humans in real time; you get to see interactions and probe people's reactions to those interactions in a way you mostly don't get to do otherwise.

The repeated experience of seeing a person react in a certain way, then having the circle dive into that reaction and reveal the layers and layers of motivations underneath it (e.g. "I reacted angrily because I was afraid you were attacking me because I hate myself and think I have no redeeming qualities because..."), can teach you a lot (about, among other things, metacognitive blindspots) if you're open to it, especially if that person is you, in much the same way that you'd learn a lot about businesses by just spending a lot of time watching people run a business, or learn a lot about carpentry by spending a lot of time watching carpenters carp. The learning process I run in circles is the same one I run for learning about anything else from direct experience (and watching experts), it's just that the substrate on which the learning process acts is unusual levels of detail regarding other humans' internal experience (so there's some interesting messing around with meta levels that spices things up, but LW isn't a stranger to such things).

There's some stuff that's hard to communicate verbally about what you can pick up using body language in a circle, but in the same way that it'd be hard to communicate what you learned about dancing by spending a lot of time watching dancers dance. (But, to give an idea of the sort of thing I mean: you can learn to pick up from body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. how deep in the stack of a person's motivations they're aware of and talking from. There's a huge difference between being near the top of the stack and being near the bottom.)

Yup, your other reply made it clear that that guess was a long way off. Thanks for the further clarification.

That's fair.

The experiences were generally of the form, person A says a thing, person B responds in a way that sounds like they're mildly mindkilled / defensive, and the circle dives deeper into that experience until it starts to look more like person B was mildly triggered by what person A said, as the circle gets more clarity about what person B feels like they're defending themselves from. My sense is that being mindkilled is being mildly triggered without conscious awareness of it, or something.

But back to meta: it feels to me like there's something weird going on here, like a milder version of what happened in the Kensho and circling threads. Something like the Copenhagen interpretation of ethics, but for epistemics? Like I tried to give an ambiguous partial description of my evidence and that was worse than either no description or a fuller description.

I also don't feel like I'm trying to get anyone to accept anything. I regard most of what I write on LW about my beliefs as offering hypotheses for people to evaluate however they want, using e.g. the evidence from their own lives. Maybe I'm not signaling this sufficiently well; I'm not sure what to add beyond the "I think" and "my tentative hypothesis" above.

Okay, thinking more, it seems to me like the discomfort has consistently been about explanations that you're worried that someone else will accord more weight than you think they deserve. Does that sound right?

Edit: also I feel like I (the generic "I," this is a general observation about the LW epistemic game) am being accorded a weird level of trust. You trust me to accurately report my experiences (as in, I don't expect you'll be worried I lied about my description of my circling experiences above) but you don't trust me to write down accurate partial summaries of why I believe what I believe, or something? I can't quite pin it down yet.

The description of your circling experiences is much more informative than what you wrote before; thanks very much. I agree that what you describe seems like evidence that in at least some cases mindkilling and triggering share some mechanism, and at least some cases of mindkilling are the result of something very like triggering; again, though, this doesn't seem like enough reason to treat them as synonyms, not least because what you describe seems perfectly compatible with only some mindkilling being the result of anything triggery.

Meta again: I think the Copenhagen-interpretation thing (slightly related XKCD) is unavoidable: doing a thing makes it possible for people to question or criticize how you did it, whereas not doing a thing is harder to notice. But I think I stand by my opinion that the middle option really is worse than the more extreme ones -- of course for different reasons in the two cases. (The "short" option is better because it's shorter; the "long" option is better because it gives more information; the "middle" option doesn't get enough benefit for the cost in length, and also has this slightly weird trying-to-advocate-something-controversial vibe about it that may simply be a consequence of the recent Discourse about Circling And All That on LW.)

I don't think I'm particularly worried that people will give more weight to your opinions than they deserve, no. (If anything, the reverse seems more likely on balance.) And no, I don't think you're likely to be lying about why you believe what you do. If I try to unpack my concerns, they're more like this: It isn't yet clear (at least to those of us not experienced in such things) to what extent circling produces genuine insight and to what extent it produces pseudo-insight; given that, it's somehow improper to treat it as if it's a reliable source of insight; given the general skepticism of the LW readership, treating it as one probably doesn't make what you say more likely to believed, so that's not a big concern, but even so it feels like a conversational move that oughtn't to be be being made; it also has a kinda proselytizing feel to it, a bit like that of a religious convert who insists on telling people that he's doing whatever-he's-doing because he knows God wants him to do it. And, finally, if (in this case, or in general) circling really is yielding genuine insights, then you're missing an opportunity to explain something helpful -- an opportunity that in this case you've now taken, and as I said above what you say is much more enlightening as a result.

(Perhaps to those more familiar with circling it would have been obvious that that's the sort of way in which you might have come to the opinion you did: maybe that sort of thing is fairly frequent and other kinds of circling-derived insight -- e.g., finding more about one's own thought processes by introspection in an intense but comfortable context -- are much rarer. In which case maybe it's only for the very ignorant that the more detailed description adds much. But I guess there are quite a lot of the very ignorant among your readers.)

turns out there are plenty of other mindkillers and banning one doesn't make the other ones go away

I don't understand this argument. The claim was never that banning politics would drive out most or all mindkill; just that it would drive out politics-related mindkill and that this was worth the cost.

LW discouraged politics, but didn't ban it in any consistent way. Consequences included David Gerard's hate campaign, Eugine_Nier's long-running sockpuppet voting abuses, and (as far as I can tell mostly false) associations in the public mind with neoreactionaries.

We can also assess our ability to manage what happens when a person is being mindkilled in a comment thread; if we can't handle it in a political discussion then we probably can't handle it elsewhere either.

Plenty of political threads already exist in the LW archives. We do have different commenters and a different karma system now (though if the site migrates, the commenter base might return more to what it used to be), so maybe that's not a good reason not to have another such thread.

I do worry that many harms from political mindkill would be subtle. Political discussion might draw in commenters with different interests from the site, might be divisive in that it creates awareness of people being on different "sides", might create grudges even if we succeed at downvoting needless hostility, and would take up people's time and attention. None of those would necessarily be visible in a train wreck kind of way.

The main point I want to make is that politics is an area where we already go in expecting mindkilling to happen, so it's a good opportunity for us to test our ability to handle it. If it goes poorly then we should be suspicious that similar things are going on in non-politics discussions as well. Also I phrased it as running an experiment for a reason; if it goes really poorly then that's our experimental result.