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Have epistemic conditions always been this bad?

by Wei_Dai4 min read25th Jan 2020104 comments


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In the last few months, I've gotten increasingly alarmed by leftist politics in the US, and the epistemic conditions that it operates under and is imposing wherever it gains power. (Quite possibly the conditions are just as dire on the right, but they are not as visible or salient to me, because most of the places I can easily see, either directly or through news stories, i.e., local politics in my area, academia, journalism, large corporations, seem to have been taken over by the left.)

I'm worried that my alarmism is itself based on confirmation bias, tribalism, catastrophizing, or any number of other biases. (It confuses me that I seem to be the first person to talk much about this on either LW or EA Forum, given that there must be people who have been exposed to the current political environment earlier or to a greater extent than me. On the other hand, all my posts/comments on the subject have generally been upvoted on both forums, and nobody has specifically said that I'm being too alarmist. One possible explanation for nobody else raising an alarm about this is that they're afraid of the current political climate and they're not as "cancel-proof" as I am, or don't feel that they have as much leeway to talk about politics-adjacent issues here as I do.)

So I want to ask, have things always been like this, or have they actually gotten significantly worse in recent (say the last 5 or 10) years? If they've always been like this, then perhaps there is less cause for alarm, because (1) if things have always been this bad, and we muddled through them in the past, we can probably continue to muddle through in the future (modulo new x-risks like AGI), and (2) if there is no recent trend towards worsening conditions then we don't need to worry so much about conditions getting worse in the near future. (Obviously if we go back far enough, say to the Middle Ages, then things were almost certainly as bad or worse, but I'm worried about more recent trends.)

If there are other reasons to not be very alarmed aside from the past being just as bad, please feel free to talk about those as well. But in case one of those reasons is "why be alarmed when there's little that can be done about it", my answer is that being alarmed motivates one to try to understand what is going on, which can help with (1) deciding personal behavior now in expectation of future changes (for example if there's going to be a literal Cultural Revolution in the future, then I need to be really really careful what I say today), (2) planning x-risk strategy, and (3) defending LW/EA from either outside attack or similar internal dynamics.

Here's some of what I've observed so far, which has led me to my current epistemic state:

In local politics, "asking for evidence of oppression is a form of oppression" or even more directly "questioning the experiences of a marginalized group that you don't belong to is not allowed and will result in a ban" has apparently been an implicit norm, and is being made increasingly explicit. (E.g., I saw a FB group explicitly codifying this in their rules.) As a result, anyone can say "Policy X or Program Y oppresses Group Z and must be changed" and nobody can argue against that, except by making the same kind of claim based on a different identity group, and then it comes down to which group is recognized as being more privileged or oppressed by the current orthodoxy. (If someone does belong to Group Z and wants to argue against the claim on that basis, they'll be dismissed based on "being tokenized" or "internalized oppression".)

In academia, even leftist professors are being silenced or kicked out on a regular basis for speaking out against an ever-shifting "party line". ("Party line" is in quotes because it is apparently not determined in a top-down fashion by people in charge of a political party, but instead seems to arise from the bottom up, which is even scarier as no one can decide to turn this off, like the Chinese Communist Party did to end the Cultural Revolution after Mao died.) See here for a previous comment on this with links. I don't recall reading this kind of stories before about 5 years ago.

The thing that most directly prompted me to write this post was this (the most "recommended") comment on a recent New York Times story about "cancel culture":

Having just graduated from the University of Minnesota last year, a very liberal college, I believe these examples don't adequately show how far cancel culture has gone and what it truly is. The examples used of disassociating from obvious homophobes, or more classic bullying that teenage girls have always done to each other since the dawn of time is not new and not really cancel culture. The cancel culture that is truly new to my generation is the full blocking or shutting out of someone who simply has a different opinion than you. My experience in college was it morphed into a culture of fear for most. The fear of cancellation or punishment for voicing an opinion that the "group" disagreed with created a culture where most of us sat silent. My campus was not one of fruitful debate, but silent adherence to whatever the most "woke" person in the classroom decided was the correct thing to believe or think. This is not how things worked in the past, people used to be able to disagree, debate and sometimes feel offended because we are all looking to get closer to the truth on whatever topic it may be. Our problem with cancel culture is it snuffs out any debate, there is no longer room for dissent or nuance, the group can decide that your opinion isn't worth hearing and - poof you've been canceled into oblivion. Whatever it's worth I'd like to note I'm a liberal, voted for Obama and Hillary, those who participate in cancel culture aren't liberals to me, they've hijacked the name.

I went to the University of Washington (currently also quite liberal, see one of the above linked "professor" stories which took place at UW) in the late 90s, and I don't remember things being like this back then, but some of the replies to this comment say that things were this bad before:

@Cal thoughtful comment, however, i grew up in the late 60s-70s and what you described was going on then also. the technology of course is different today, and the issues different. we never had a name ("cancel") for it, but it existed.

This sounds a lot like my college experience in the late 80s and early 90s. I think when people get out into the “real world” and have to work with people of varying ages and from varying backgrounds, they realize they need to be more tolerant to get by in the workplace. I remember being afraid to voice any opinion in liberal arts classes, for fear it would be the wrong one and inadvertently offend someone.

So LW, what to make of all this?


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it feels that things are getting worse indeed, and maybe they are, but I suspect that we are witnessing one of the classic patterns, where a grassroots movement that starts by speaking truth to power and punching up eventually gains enough momentum to become the power, and gradually shifts to punching down, while still believing that they are an underdog fighting the oppression. Eventually they become a part of the entrenched power structure. Christianity, Lutheranism, Communism etc. are classic examples of that.

During this transition from disenfranchised into the establishment, while the movement still uses the old radical tactics, things generally get worse for basically everyone, because no one is safe from their vicious attacks and these attacks pack all the power of the established structures. Eventually, though not always, the new establishment gets more secure about their position and mellows down in their methods. The weaponized marginalization fades away, only to be employed by the next truly marginalized group, only for the cycle to begin again.

The first thing that comes to mind is that there was more campus violence in the past (1960s-70s). e.g. Paris in May '68, the Zenkyoto riots, Students for a Democratic Society, internal Black Power murders, and so on.

When, at the 1966 SDS convention, women called for debate they were showered with abuse, pelted with tomatoes.

(Though one of the most notable student movements, the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, was actually about lifting institutional restrictions on discussion specifically Vietnam War protest.)

I don't have data, but this fear was maybe a stronger chilling effect than of being called names and disapproved of. Ideas for operationalising the culture:

  • How many admin restrictions on acceptable speech? How many expulsions for speech?
  • How many protests at lectures? How many successful no-platforms?
  • How many students left college after cancelling?
  • some measure of polarisation, of people self-sorting into their tribe's college.

Seems like the answer is no, judging by this email from a "Soviet-born scholar who teaches in an American public university", as quoted in Rod Dreher's Postcard From Pre-Totalitarian America. TLDR, what he is seeing is worse than post 1970s USSR:

I know from your blog that the work on your new book is going well and I’m glad because, boy, it’s so needed. I’m observing some disturbing developments on my campus, and we are really not one of those wokester schools for spoiled brats one normally associates with this kind of thing.
This academic year I’ve had an opportunity to work with some early-career academics. These are newly-minted PhDs that are in their first year on the tenure-track. What’s really scary is that they sincerely believe all the woke dogma. Older people – those in their forties, fifties or sixties – might parrot the woke mantras because it’s what everybody in academia does and you have to survive. But the younger generation actually believes it all. Transwomen are women, black students fail calculus because there are no calc profs who “look like them,” ‘whiteness’ is the most oppressive thing in the world, the US is the most evil country in history, anybody who votes Republican is a racist, everybody who goes to church is a bigot but the hijab is deeply liberating. I gently mocked some of this stuff (like we normally do among older academics), and two of the younger academics in the group I supervise actually cried. Because they believe all this so deeply, and I’d even say fanatically, that they couldn’t comprehend why I wasn’t taking it seriously.
The fanatical glimmer in their eyes really scared me.
Back in the USSR in the 1970s and the 1980s nobody believed the dogma. People repeated the ideological mantras for cynical reasons, to get advanced in their careers or get food packages. Many did it to protect their kids. But nobody sincerely believed. That is what ultimately saved us. As soon as the regime weakened a bit, it was doomed because there were no sincere believers any more. Everybody who did take the dogma seriously belonged to the generation of my great-grandparents.
In the US, though, the generation of the fanatical believers is only now growing up and coming into its prime. We’ll have to wait until their grandkids grow up to see a generation that will be so fed up with the dogma that it will embrace freedom of thought and expression. But that’s a long way away in the future.
I’m mentoring a group of young scholars in the Humanities to help them do research, and I’m starting to hate this task. Young scholars almost without exception think that scholarship is entirely about repeating woke slogans completely uncritically. Again, this is different from the USSR where scholars peppered their writing with the slogans but always took great pride in trying to sneak in some real thinking and real analysis behind the required ideological drivel. Every Soviet scholar starting from the 1970s was a dissident at heart because everybody knew that the ideology was rotten.
All of this is sad and very scary. I never thought I’d experience anything worse, anything more intellectually stifling than the USSR of its last two decades of existence. But now I do see something worse.

It seems like while we were busy trying to "raise the sanity waterline" (which BTW kept talking about religion, in retrospect a completely wrong target), others have managed to unplug the drain hole.

I believe what you describe is something that arises from internet dialogues and how generations that grew up 'digitally native' use culture techniques learned on the internet to shape dialogue.

The internet and social media also makes dialogue and monologue that would've been fringe positions more visible, and lead to electronic screaming matches between bipartisan opinions. In the real world, positions and party lines are drawn in part by physical separation - bars that are frequented by a certain clientele, neighborhoods that draw specific types and occupations, and so on. Those are the Facebook groups and sub-reddits of today. Banning and not allowing counter-arguments are the internet equivalent of not beeing welcome and social pressure to conform to group standards. Cancel culture is the modern equivalent of booing someone from stage or kicking them out of the social group. The only thing that changed are visibility and scale.

'Epistemic conditions', as you call it, have always been bad in informal settings between people that weren't experts in their field. Classical print/TV journalism led to some standards what of what the broad public saw as legitimate arguments and opinions - in the form of what has been covered and which expert were invited. That information monopoly disappeared as a result of the rise of internet, as well.

Argumentation in-between bipartisan groups has almost always been name-calling and sub-complex trains of argumentation even in the past, end even with journalism as a filter. Argumentation between members of a group has been a kind of self-affirmation and agreeing to each other. German (my native language) has a word for that which is enlightening (and quite old): "Stammtischgelaber", meaning the conversations of people who regularly meet in a pub and talk drunken bullshit about things they really don't know about.

Im my opinion, what you seen in Facebook groups is modern Stammtischgelaber which is highly visible and far-reaching. Because information isn't curated anymore, everyone can add their 2 cents to the debate, which heats up more and more because bipartisan groups openly meet each other. The heated, angry debates on the internet need containment strategies which spill over into real life debate culture.

Scott Alexander wrote a piece about internet conversations a while ago fur further reading: https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/05/08/varieties-of-argumentative-experience/

I went to Oberlin College for undergrad; my in-laws are Central American communists; I live in Cambridge, MA, where my daughter goes to high school; and much of my internet activity is on left-leaning political blogs. So I think I have a reasonably broad experience of PC culture.

I'm not interested in getting deeply into this conversation here; it would take pages of writing to say everything I think, and that writing would be relatively slow because I'd have to measure my words in various ways to make it through this minefield. However, I do think that at least from my perspective, this concern is overblown. Yes, there are definitely people who self-righteously try to silence opposing views, and they do have some power; but in my experience, their power is limited in most places, and the capacity for reasonable dissent is still present.

As for the exceptions, I see no reason to believe they're particularly more widespread now than in the past (for instance, my parents have stories of weaponized conformity in EST meetings they briefly attended in the 70s). Furthermore, "dissent is illegitimate here" seems to me more often a symptom than a cause of toxic spaces.

So, sorry I don't have time to show my work on this, but for what it's worth, that's my opinion.

I think much of it can be attributed to the eternal September. The quality of discussion on the internet has declined steadily since it's inception. The barriers to entry have steadily lowered, and I think those barriers selected for people who valued better epistemic conditions. Now that anyone can participate, the overall quality of discussion has gone down the drain. Furthermore, I think platforms have adapted to appeal to the general population that does not value good epistemic conditions. (Compare the reddit redesign to the old reddit with custom CSS turned off.)

A look at history will show that people have always had terrible epistemic practices. The major abrahamic religions all had components that encouraged their members to spread the religion using violence and required unquestioning faith from their believers. Communist Russia had lysenkoism. All the propaganda posters during world war 2 from all sides we're straight-forward appeals to emotion.

So things have probably always been around this bad, however, I don't know how the presence of the internet and social medial will change things compared to before.

Comparing epistemic conditions over time is very hard because different communities have different epistemic conditions.

I found the Robert Moses biography The Power Broker by Robert Caro very informative when it comes to understanding how an epistemic environment was shaped in the past. Robert Moses effectively collaborated to get any opposition to himself censored while he build parks and bridges in New York.

He had his bloodhunts that digged out dirt on his critics and ended up without anybody speaking up against him for decades. Of course Robert Moses only cared about a more narrow area and didn't prevent people from speaking outside of that field but it still impressive how much power he managed to weld in the supposedly democratic New York in the middle of the last century.

Caro writes that being against Moses and being against parks was like being against motherhood. It wasn't a tenable position even when it might have made more sense to build other infrastructure then parks with the same money.

Being against parks is a bit like being against equality in our times. Parks are nice and equality is valuable, but it's always a question of the price that's payed.

The notion of Straussian knowledge that can't be expressed directly is older then this recent debate but it's hard to accept for previous times because the official narrative of a time conveniently leaves it out. It's very hard to reason about it.

One great feature about our times it's that it's much easier to get the knowledge of what happens. The internet gives us a way to reason about what's happening with us that wasn't available in the same way for someone dealing with Moses in the 40's or 50's.

I believe the major change is that now people lose their jobs due to online mobbing and rage mobs can cancel someone's entire ability to avoid homelessness through Twitter assaults and Facebook campaigns. It is very much like a decentralized version of the soviet thought police. In the Soviet Union when someone said or thought something wrong, the local party leaders would advice their employers who would then remove them from the ability to work. Now a decentralized yet digitally coordinated mob does it. The only solution that I can see is regulations barring employers from punishing people for what they say off the clock. North Dakota in the United States has such a regulation, but I am not sure how it has held up under online conditions designed to create economic pariahs. In the old days that you speak of the issues were localized. Now one is permanently ruined and could have difficulty ever finding work again. Social media's ability to amplify the mob and the willigness of the leaders in business to go along with mob rule have created this horrible dynamic. For example, I don't like online communities with the alt-right as they call it, but that's the only place I can voice my data driven points without fear of never working again and ending up homeless, despite my political alignment matching Noam Chomsky's.

Epistemic conditions have been this bad (or worse) for as long as we have had the bandwidth to think outside of physical necessity. Coordinating to implement bad epistemology has been this bad before in the US, but usually isn't.

The salient examples, and speaking to your does-this-exist-on-the-right question, are the Red Scares. There we see many of the same mechanisms at work, in particular the influence of political affiliation on employment.

You can also consider the Satanic Panic of the 1980s the same kind of problem, and probably a better match because it too was bottom up and lacked the coordinating government interest that is usually a factor in a Red Scare.

From where I sit it looks like we are at Satanic Panic levels of intensity, but well short of McCarthyism.

I have an hypothesis, but first I'll write what i see.

I don't live in the US (i live in Israel, which is a cultural mimic of the US in many ways, with some delay), so for what it's worth, i have an outsider perspective. most of the media i consume and the online forums i participate in are in English, so in that sense i hear a lot of what's going on there. I am aware it means i might have a biased view since normality is rarely reported, but with that it seems that the US is far more extreme in this ideology then Israel, including the epistemic conditions. So yes, i think what happens now in the US is something special, and you're not being an alarmist.

My hypothesis is this:

instead of seeing a degradation of epistemic conditions we've seen a polarization. Whether or not the epistemic conditions of the far left are some new low, there are also much more rationalists/skeptics and people who have a strong sense of epistemic and epistemic arguments.

Maybe part of the explanation is that since this new ideology had to fight far better epistemic then other ideologies in the past, they simply had to throw epistemics out of the window.

The process is similar to a "backfire effect". whenever they got objections that were of an epistemic nature, then to keep their beliefs intact they had to polarize against those epistemic intuitions. since this sort of opposition was strongest in this time, the backfire was strongest in this time.

On the other end of the spectrum, their degrading epistemic conditions might have pushed the other side's developing of better epistemics (see the IDW's focus on norms of conversation and reasoning for example).

Hopefully this side of epistemology wins at the end.

P.S I recall seeing some graph/article that showed that in campuses, these problem aren't of an equal distribution around the US, but very much centered around certain geographic areas (which if i was living in the US i would surly remember, but you can probably even guess.)

I think a lot of the other comments about communications technology and social media to amplify the loudest voices, without any institutional gatekeepers, are a big part of the problem. The ability to discern what sources are worth trusting is rarer and harder now than ever before. As with the Chinese Robber Fallacy, anyone can now convince a substantial number of people (often including themselves) of almost any even remotely plausible conjecture, and show what looks to most people like a lot of evidence in its support. I see myself still falling for this from time to time, and the only reason I ever catch it feels like some kind of memetic inoculation as a result of reading Scott Alexander's writings for so long.

Also, since reading the Meaningness post "A bridge to meta-rationality vs. civilizational collapse" a few years ago I've started thinking this describes a lot of why people seem to constantly be talking passed each other when it comes to news and politics, instead of to each other. Most of the things we hear on any topic are coming from people who mostly operate in Stage 3 (pre-rational), but know they have been told in many ways not to trust people who try to argue from a stage 4 perspective (rational, systematic). That doesn't really leave many reliable tools to form a better understanding. Also, this community is one of a very small number of places I've ever encountered a significant fraction of people able to operate at stage 5 (meta-rational), which I think is my target for what "raising the sanity waterline" should mean. Without that, there's no real way to apply even correct rational thinking to the messiness of society.

I observe a radicalization that is driven by what I call the concept of "counter crazy". It let to Trump but I have been aware of it for longer on the left. The idea is that by being more radical in the way, that you think the world needs to be, you could achieve that. It is compounded by the tribalism and identity culture.

The idea of "you can not speak on this because you are not a woman / ..." is recent to me. But has been expressed by the most intelligent female I know. It is a scary idea.

The idea of cushioning life is a generational thing and related to U.S. product liability law. No matter how dumb, misinterpreting, interpreting in bad faith or sensitive you are, others are responsible for your feelings no matter how unjustified. The Snowflake generation can not surprise anyone, we were watching as they were raised to be what they have become.

There is much more awareness of the issue thanks to the members of the "intellectual dark web" and comedians such as Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher, Joe Rogan.

The PC culture is nothing new. It has been impossible to talk about many topics for four decades. And obviously there are "good" reasons. People are unable to talk about these issues without confusing separate issues, values, preferences. To me it is painful to listen to the arguments because they are so confused and old. Most (including scholars and journalists) are simply unable and should indeed not talk on these issues because it does lead nowhere. What we have now is a result of not having talked about important topics for decades, massive preference falsification/concealment and having generations growing up in that environment.

It seems important to remember, like, I dunno man previously we just had Christianity et all telling us what to think, blacklisting communists, etc. 

There are some changes re: attention span that seem real, and it's a plausible hypothesis that the internet has interacted with tribalism in newly-bad ways, but I don't see a strong reason to assume this is the case, and think the next step is "actually go do real empiricism" before trying to Do Something About It.

Leftist U.S. politics (and maybe leftist politics elsewhere) has for at least the past 100 years been hyper-partisan and abused every method to silence dissent. Even the classic leftist whataboutism to distract from leftist censorship, McCarthyism, is itself some of the best evidence of leftist censorship. Senator McCarthy headed investigations into state department officials to find soviet spies and communist sympathizers. He listed names of officials for whom there was reasonable suspicion of being a soviet spy or communist sympathizer and recommended the state department to investigate. The large majority of suspected officials he forwarded to the state department were fired. McCarthy was then consistently slandered in the senate and in the news media with provable lies until he was unable to even perform his senatorial duties.

No leftist will actually argue the historical accuracy of the prevailing McCarthy myth, rather they do nothing but assert that McCarthy never discovered any communists and that even if he did he was somehow wrong to do so.

The main difference in modern times is that a much larger portion of the populace has the power to successfully use the tactics of slandering and canceling their enemies. There are more journalists than ever before, many more people with the ability to publish slander in the public sphere. And because of this the rate of canceling has gone up.

The left and it's relation with proper epistemics hasn't changed, the only thing that's changed is the amount of people with the ability to use their poor epistemics to harm others.