I often seem to run into problems when I use the de facto label for this group. For example, when I say, "I've been hanging out with rationalists lately," I notice that many people immediately go on the defensive. They might ask why you need a group in order to be rational, or they might say that they don't believe that people are inherently rational. Of course, I made none of those claims, I simply indicated that I was hanging out with rationalists.
You might think that "rationalist" is simply a descriptive label, but it carries positive connotations -- and what people tend to hear is "I'm a superior thinker to you," or maybe "I'm a part of this group, which ascribes the label 'rationalist' to itself, to make ourselves seem higher status than we really are."
Why does this matter?
The community doesn't exist in a vacuum; how the community is viewed from the outside matters. As the community grows and as people gain awareness of it, branding becomes important. People talk to each other, and communities gain reputations. Even if you believe that we are a loose collection of individuals, as soon as you assign a name to yourself, that is sufficient to form a group identity.
The people we interact with tend to share similar interests. The population of New York may be in the millions, and yet I run into the same people at different functions without coordination.
The more negative perceptions associated with a group, the more rapidly evaporative cooling of groups will occur.
What to do?
It's far better to talk about good things that you've gained from being in the group. It's better to say what the group does, not what the group is.
But beyond that, it's about time the community picked a better label to use. I have one idea, but I'll hold off on proposing solutions.
"Critical thinking" is a useful phrase sometimes. It's a real term, and people usually have good associations with it. Saying "we need to teach people better critical thinking skills" usually elicits nods; "we need to teach people to be more rational" is more likely to get them grabbing their guns and heading to the hills.
"Rational" and its cognates are weapon words: rarely used in a descriptive sense, more often to hammer your interlocutor into submission: "but that isn't rational". I suspect this accounts for a large part of the defensiveness.
Here is a good example in my own field: Parnas and Clements' "A rational design process: How and why to fake it" (pdf).
Note how the word "rational" is used - to imply that anyone who doesn't assent to the author's otherwise unsupported assertion that "information [about what we must do] should be recorded in a work product known as a requirements document" is to be considered irrational. You're irrational if you prefer to communicate "what we must do" orally; or are comfortable with not starting out knowing everything you must do to succeed.
I always call you all "LessWrongians" or "the people at LessWrong" sometimes also using the word "dudes".
A somehow arbitrary name is good, because it allows better compartmentalization.
Just like "Mensa" is better than "people more intelligent than you", or "Toastmasters" is better than "people who can speak better than you", also "LessWrongians" is better than "people who are more rational than you".
Of course we usually don't say "people who are more rational than you"; we say "rationalists" instead... but saying it differently does not prevent the audience from decoding the (real or percieved) original meaning.
Being a member of a group with arbitrary name is a hobby. Being a member of a group with some property X in the name suggests that your environment is somehow non-X or not-enough-X, otherwise you would not need such group.
People who join Mensa usually do it for signalling. People who criticize Mensa usually do it for signalling. Both groups enjoy the idea of being better than the other group. You could join Mensa and criticize it, for double signalling. I did. :D
I have met a few interesting people there, but the organization is mostly disappointing. It does not have a goal. Well, officially it does: the goal is to study intelligence and provide a stimulating environment for its members. But most members just meet and talk about whatever and also how intelligent they are and how the world does not reward their intelligence. I am afraid than any pseudoscience or conspiracy theory would be more welcome than rationality.
But if Mensa in your country is large enough, perhaps you could use it as a filter, find rational people inside Mensa, and start a local Bayesian conspiracy. Mensa can preselect intelligent people who search for something new. If Mensa will disappoint you, it will probably disappoint many new members too -- these people are already preselected for intelligence and searching for something new, just collect their contacts soon and send them to LW.
- Sindarin, the Noble Tongue
Rationistas ostracise you if you deal with numbers that can not be represented by the ratio of two integers.
I don't see why you have to use the same term when talking to different people. Just use whatever term best gets the point across to your listeners. Occasionally this means that you can't use a one or two word label and have to explain what LessWrong is, but from then on you can use a shorter codeword (with that particular audience).
Sufficient (maybe), but not necessary, and thus possibly irrelevant.
Okay, to summarize the brainstorming so far:
LessWrong (ers) / (ians) / (ites) / (irim)
Critical thinkers, people who will stop misinterpreting you if you explain, hardcore rationalists, rationality geeks, aspiring rationalists, anticipators, mental cartographers
Ranging from other to very other:
Illuminati, L-dubs, fashionalists, rationistas, Bayes-users, Bayesian conspirators, Yudkowskians
Isn't that the point? We aren't inherently and automatically rational, so we're trying to get better at it.
Thinking about evolution has driven it home for me. You can explain evolution to a third grader, but it took all of humanity tens of thousands of years to come up with the theory. We're really pretty damn stupid, for all our airs about being able to push around all the other animals. I've been reading a book:
Wh... (read more)
Some people are already using the term "aspiring rationalist".
Because "I'm a member of the Bayesian Conspiracy" isn't going to cause ANY problems with other people, right?
Don't forget to mention that lots are also members of the cult of the frozen decapitated head and that nearly all of us hope to understand the universe better so we can make something like God but better.
I like the naming convention where you wait until your community is important enough for it to develop enemies who have a sinister epithet specifically for it, and then you get that label.
We need to attract ire in a unique way that distinguishes us from atheists, transhumanists, materialists, libertarians, singularitarians, pick-up artists, social progressives, polyamorous people, Asperger's-spectrum people, and drug-positive people. What irritating thing can we do that no one else does?
We tell people to read Sequences a lot. Maybe we will be "sequencedorks" :-|
Well, if the Singularity is "the Rapture for nerds" then some aspects of Less Wrong could well be "the Prosperity Gospel for nerds".
My housemates made plans to be elsewhere the night I told them I had invited some rationalists to dinner. My household clearly needs a different term for people I meet at Less Wrong meetups.
Was this intentional?
Edit: Because it's awesome.
One of my least popular comments on Less Wrong was that nobody was a "decent rationalist." Perhaps now is the time to explain what I meant by that.
Rationality is an ideal. Whether or not it's a particularly good ideal, it's definitely not a good description of any actually existing people, which proposition is approximately what this entire site is about. To me, being a "decent rationalist" would entail being decently rational: not perfectly rational, but at least mostly rational. It's clear that nobody approaches that state.
When people... (read more)
Seems to me that the label "rationalist" is one that facilitates a group bias. It lends weight to the view that those who aren't "rationalists" can't be rational.
Seems to me that it is reasonable to be less firm in holding to rationalism than stating... "I am a rationalist". For that's about all that the person is, it demands a total commitment to rational thinking and feeling and thence sets one up for failure. How high must the bar of rationalism be set?
We should be careful in labelling ourselves as "rationalists" rather than just thinking rationally, for even the very wise cannot see all ends.
I say that I hang out with people who are "into hardcore rationality" immediately followed up with "studying reasoning, that sort of thing." I think the nerdishness sound of that balances it out slightly.
If you're worried about the reaction to group labels, then why not:
"I've been hanging out with some interesting people lately," ?
Of course, it's possible that whoever it is you're talking to will decide that you've just said that they're boring...
I meet a few people who apparently wilfully and repeatedly misinterpret what I'm saying, even when told that wasn't what I meant at all and I don't know how to deal with that.
Idea: "mental cartography/cartographer". People will say, "what is that?" and the answer would be "we attempt to make the map in our head match the territory of reality".
Pros: no one will have heard of it (it has about 2000 hits on google), so we get to define it.
Cons: somewhat unwieldly.
I have started referring to myself as a dark wizard, where my powers have to do with learning about the world, interacting with people, and doing mathematics. It is nice in that it is a little too ridiculous to seem like bragging, makes people curious sometimes and doesn't really stick me into a group except for "nerds," and my loyalties there are already so solid I can't do much about it.
I usually refer to LessWrongers as LessWrongians, or to the site as "My little corner of the Internet where there are constructive discussions and citations on everything."
I can attest to a similar reaction.
When I ask myself why I am hanging around you guys, the answer is mostly "to learn more about why people think what they think and do what they do, even when it seems to make no sense" and "How do I avoid being like that?". Not sure how to effectively summarize it into a catchy soundbite.
So, what is it that we do? And please don't say refining the art of human rationality.
I feel like the most apt term for people here (or, more accurately, people who identify themselves as being part of some community inaugurated by this website) would be "Yudkowskian."
Doesn't quite solve the problem, but I'm pondering this as a catchphrase: "Better Decision Making through Science!"
Communicates what we're about, and also distinguishes us from people who just like critical thinking without cognitive science to help them out.
I strongly support the suggestion implied in one thread here of officially adopting the term "Lessath", the lesser folk.
Not really on topic, but, "Women are irrational," is the best way I have found to neg the girlfriend.