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Have epistemic conditions always been this bad?

by Wei_Dai4 min read25th Jan 2020106 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.

So the 80s-00s was a time when the old establishment mellowed down, while the new movement hadn't taken power yet? Essentially a golden age for epistemics (relatively speaking) that we didn't realize was one until it was over?

Any thoughts on whether the new establishment will mellow down, and how long that will take?

To answer that one needs to see the endgame of the current upswell. Looking back at a those before this one might be useful. Also, at least in the US, there is a lot of polarization going on, and the forces you have described are not the only ones around. It is not clear that the woke cancel culture will prevail, but quite likely, given that they are the newest force.

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.

The first thing that comes to mind is that there was more campus violence in the past (1960s-70s).

This seems to be true, but:

  1. There is violence today as well, for example see Middlebury incident where one professor was injured.
  2. There may be less violence today overall because the non-violent chilling effects are stronger (due to potential for things like social media and search engines to permanently ruin one's reputation) and that silences people before conflicts become violent.
  3. I think there was little or no violence in the 80s-00s? If so, the most r
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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.

But the younger generation actually believes it all.

I recognize that there are a lot of novel and interesting trends in the last decade or so. But as I've said before, I'm unsure why you think that this type of stuff is unprecedented. Every generation grows old having to accept that the younger generations are embracing different moral truths. The new generation grows up seemingly unaware that the moral truth is even controversial to begin with (except of course that evil old people don't believe it). This process mirrors Douglass Adam's observation of technology,

I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Replace "technology" with the appropriate phrases for moral norms, and I think what you are describing is not too dissimilar from th... (read more)

6Wei_Dai1yNot sure if this is a crux, but many of the "fanatical beliefs" described in the quoted email are not about morality, but are ideologically-driven empirical beliefs [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/jAixPHwn5bmSLXiMZ/open-and-welcome-thread-february-2020?commentId=HJTMeuztizDD4z52r] , which tend to be even worse than fanatical moral beliefs, because they cause a deadly spiral in which wrong beliefs cause wrong policies, which cause bad outcomes, which cause more activism/purity and more bad policies. (I'm seeing this play out IRL in my area.) (Until a couple of generations pass and people finally get fed up, as mentioned by the email writer.) Of course older generations also had ideologically-driven empirical beliefs (e.g., in the form of religion) but as I mentioned in the linked comment [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/RasFpce3fNZ8xp2T4/open-and-welcome-thread-november-2019#QSc7oRnr2kY8a3jJf] , we had built countermeasures to contain the damage from religious beliefs.
8Matthew Barnett1yTo some extent, I agree. But I think a good general rule is that people don't take their ideologically-driven empirical beliefs as seriously [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/nYkMLFpx77Rz3uo9c/belief-as-attire] as you or I might aim to (including with religion). We could analyze the beliefs cited one by one, and analyze to what extent they are actually empirical My understanding is that this belief is more about ensuring that transpeople feel respected, in the sense that they are reaffirmed and told that they are allowed to identify with their chosen gender. This stance has been defended by eg. Scott Alexander here [https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/21/the-categories-were-made-for-man-not-man-for-the-categories/] as compatible with empirical reality. I seriously doubt that this belief has a worse grounding than the beliefs that prior generations have had about races in the past. If you disagree here, then I'd be surprised, but I'll move on. These definitely seem like moral beliefs, though particularly extreme ones (and in many cases strawmen). That makes sense, but I don't think you have to go back to religion to find similarly ideologically driven beliefs. The civil rights movement of the 1960s could be seen as a shift in moral opinion (that carried some empirical undertones), and most people now consider the movement to have been good, probably because most of the opponents are now dead. Do you think what we're experiencing is really different now?
7Wei_Dai1yProbably? My knowledge of that period of history isn't great, but I'm not aware of 1960s academic environment being compared to the Cultural Revolution, or an entire generation of academics being compared to early Communism true believers. I'm not aware of any widespread ideologically-driven empirical beliefs in the 1960s civil rights movement that are as egregious as what I'm seeing today being publicly espoused by everyone around me in my local community. (I'd like to avoid the object-level discussion please.) In any case, even if what we're experiencing is comparable to 1960s, that seems to imply that this is the worst epistemic environment in 60 years (and seemingly getting worse), which would be quite alarming already.
4Matthew Barnett1yI think this is a reasonable norm, so I'll refrain from picking apart specific parts of the quote. Well, there could have been comparable belief shifts between 1960 and now that aren't as well understood because they had no leaders. Though, I'll admit I'm ignorant of the history too.
8Wei_Dai1yOk, I guess I feel relatively safe (both personally and for this forum) in citing this example [https://globalnews.ca/news/6472679/ontario-school-board-coronavirus-racism/]: I don't live in Ontario myself, but see something very similar around here (except that nobody would dare to circulate such a petition in the first place). Every time someone makes a post about COVID-19 in the FB group for the local school system (including me, when I tried to give some early warning a few weeks ago), even if it has nothing to do with any countries, races or ethnicities, someone would reply about the need to fight racism related to the virus, and that response often gets more "likes" than the original post (including mine).
9Matthew Barnett1yRemember that my objection is whether epistemic conditions "have always been this bad" as per the title of the post. The most convincing thing for me would be some sort of comprehensive analysis of how this era's epistemic conditions are worse than prior eras. Otherwise, I could just respond by pointing to an area where we have better epistemic conditions now. For example, there was a big stigma against gay people, and this caused people to have incorrect views about how HIV was spread throughout the 1980s. Does that count as evidence that our epistemic conditions have improved?
2Wei_Dai1yI guess it would, if the incorrect views were nearly universal among the intellectual elites (at least in public), and if anyone dared to speak up against those incorrect views they'd be "canceled" from elite institutions. If you think that was the case, please cite a source?
7Matthew Barnett1yI mean, what happened wasn't isomorphic to the canceling thing going on right now, but I'm not sure if that's necessary. I'd recommend watching this video [https://www.vox.com/2015/12/1/9828348/ronald-reagan-hiv-aids] (it's from a biased source but it just plays audio from the 1980s). I am honestly quite shocked with the way elites reacted to HIV at the time, based on what I've seen, and this makes me think that conditions haven't actually gotten worse -- perhaps they've just gotten different?
4Wei_Dai1yFrom Wikipedia [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domestic_policy_of_the_Ronald_Reagan_administration#Response_to_AIDS] : So there was a taboo against the subject but it was broken relatively quickly ( Joan Rivers [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Rivers] publicly supported an AIDS charity in 1985, just 4 years after AIDS was discovered), and sane people could overcome politics/ideology to make their voices heard. This seems to compare quite favorably with the current situation. (Also keep in mind the medical science was in a much more primitive state so we can perhaps also excuse some of the craziness as just plain ignorance rather than bad epistemic norms/conditions.)
7Matthew Barnett1yUnless I'm reading it incorrectly, quickly refers to "years"? I expect the epistemic dam to break on the coronavirus within months, in the sense that people will stop treating the main issue as one of racism. Why do you think that "This seems to compare quite favorably with the current situation."?
6Wei_Dai1yIt's hard to directly compare AIDS with COVID-19 since the latter moves so much faster and will quickly and obviously affect a majority of people. I was thinking of other taboos related to race (which I can't make explicit for obvious reasons) which have persisted for at least a decade, have negative effects on policy comparable to early 80s AIDS, and are only getting stronger. ETA: The fact that epistemic conditions make it very difficult for two otherwise seemingly sane people to discuss how bad epistemic conditions actually are seems uniquely bad. How far would we have to go back to see something similar? (And it's not entirely because we're doing this in public. Even in private, in today's environment I'd be afraid to talk about some of the object-level things because I can't be sure you're not a true believer in some of those issues and try to "cancel" me for my positions or even my uncertainties.)
7Matthew Barnett1yAt the time, it wasn't clear whether AIDS was moving fast either. Given that the reporter said (IIRC) something like 600 people were infected and a third of them had died, and the other people in the room just laughed and dismissed him, don't you think that's really actually worse than what's going on right now? Another thing is that your evidence came from a school board, and personal Facebook interactions. But my evidence came from the executive branch of the United States, which is the official body that is supposed to take these things seriously. I imagine if Facebook existed in the 1980s you'd also be getting some pretty epistemically horrendous replies from people about what to do about AIDS. We just don't have that type of evidence, but it's easy to see that things could have been that bad. It's again important to remember that the thesis is that things are worse now. In order to convince me that epistemic conditions are worse now, you'd need to explain that whatever is going on, it's worse than what I just showed you. Now it's possible I've been misled because the clip I linked was cherrypicked or something, and maybe their outright dismissal was warranted given their primitive state of science, but that's just not clear to me right now.
7Wei_Dai1yBut that was a direct reflection of them not caring about (or actively hating) gays, not an error of empirical fact. Also laughter/dismissal is better than taboo/sanction because you're still free to speak out (like that reporter did) and slowly change people's minds. With strong enough taboo/sanction we can be stuck in a bad equilibrium for much longer. Again what's different now is that nobody dares to speak up against the social consensus, because they'd risk being "canceled" or suffer other strong sanctions (in part due to social media). I think that's a key difference from 1980s. (See for example Joan Rivers and that reporter, neither of whom got canceled.) There's going to be wrong beliefs in every decade, but by "bad epistemic conditions" I mean social mechanisms that keep those wrong beliefs frozen or move them in even worse directions. (Perhaps I didn't make this clear enough?)
2steven04611yThis seems like a problem we could mitigate with the right kinds of information exchange. E.g., I'd probably be willing to make a "no canceling anyone" promise depending on wording. Creating networks of trust around this is part of what I meant by "epistemic prepping" upthread.
7Zack_M_Davis1yA "no canceling anyone" promise isn't very valuable if most of the threat comes from third parties—if you're afraid to talk to me not because you're afraid of attacks from me, but because you're afraid that the intelligent social web [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/AqbWna2S85pFTsHH4/the-intelligent-social-web] will attack you for guilt-by-association with me. A confidentiality promise is more valuable—but it's also a lot more expensive. (I am now extremely reluctant to offer confidentiality promises, because even though my associates can confidently expect me to not try to use information to hurt them, I need the ability to say what I'm actually thinking when it's relevant [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/GSz8SrKFfW7fJK2wN/relevance-norms-or-gricean-implicature-queers-the-decoupling] and I don't know how to predict relevance in advance; there are just too many unpredictable situations [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/wyyfFfaRar2jEdeQK/entangled-truths-contagious-lies] where my future selves would have to choose between breaking a promise and lying by omission. This might be easier for people who construe lying by omission more narrowly [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/MN4NRkMw7ggt9587K/firming-up-not-lying-around-its-edge-cases-is-less-broadly] than I do.)
4Matthew Barnett1yI also want to point out that the epistemic conditions displayed in the linked video I sent are much worse than what I would expect from either the Trump administration or a Sanders administration regarding coronavirus, even in early days. Of course, it's difficult to compare these situations, but I'm not sure if you think that people talking about racism being a big issue is comparable to the outright dismissal that happened in the clip, or whether you are arguing some other claim.

This was really important for me to read. Thanks for sharing.

Very tempted to just say- yes! But the reasonable understanding of epistemology has always also put forth the condition of the limitation of mind to understand itself.

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 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.

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.

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).

Do you think that epistemic conditions were better in the 90s/00s? If yes, maybe it's just that I spent most of my teenage/adult life in that period and think of it as normal, when it was actually a rare golden age? If no, any idea why things feel so much worse to me recently?

I’m not interested in getting deeply into this conversatio

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1Jameson Quinn1yI spent the 00s in Guatemala and Chiapas, so I'm probably not the best judge of that question. As for writing this more deeply... frankly, it's unlikely to make it above the threshold on my to-do list.

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.

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.

Were people in the USSR getting barred from their constitutional duty to work? I grew up there and it sounds weird. You can say many other bad things but not this one.

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.

Has anyone ended up poor or homeless due to cancel culture?

Were people in the USSR getting barred from their constitutional duty to work? I was born there and it sounds weird. You can say many other bad things but not this one.

"Remove them from the ability to work" is hyperbole or exaggeration, and literally it's more like "ability to work at a high-status or high-paying job", which was definitely true in China and presumably in the USSR. This is better than being unemployed/homeless but still quite terrible especially for someone used to the high status and income, enough to drive a significant fraction of people facing the prospect to commit suicide.

Has anyone ended up poor or homeless due to cancel culture?

I'm not aware of anyone driven to absolute poverty or homelessness by cancel culture, but loss of status and income seems true for most "canceled" people (except for a few who managed to leverage it into becoming a minor celebrity) and there have been suicides linked to being canceled. 1 2 3

5cousin_it1yI think the status risk is real, but also a bit overblown, because polite society isn't the whole world. If needed, you can make money outside it, have a social circle, and lead an interesting life. When people commit suicide after being canceled, I think it's more because none of their polite society friends would stand by them rather than signal morality. But if you already know that about polite society, and have friends and family independent from it, you should be fine for the foreseeable future.
2Wei_Dai1yThis post is about trying to figure out and/or explain recent trends in epistemic conditions, for which it's not the real status risk that matters, but the perceived risk. So this response doesn't seem directly relevant. (Talking about something tangential here is fine with me, but I just want to make that clear.) ETA: On second thought I guess this could be part of the explanation for why people have high perceived risk so it is relevant after all. :) Can you explain more about this? For example if you're a professor and you get canceled, what are you supposed to do to regain comparable income/status/perks?
2cousin_it1yFor income, maybe try to get a job in industry. For status, if nobody spoke up against the canceling, I'm not sure such status is worth regaining.
Were people in the USSR getting barred from their constitutional duty to work?

You could be fired from your job and then put into prison for violating your constitutional duty, and no one would care.

But in practice, you were supposed to find a job that was sufficiently low-status, or was dangerous for health, or something like that. Such jobs were allowed to hire even "politically unreliable" people. (Refusing to take one of those jobs, that would be a violation of your constitutional duty.)

7DanArmak1yThe immediate example that comes to mind is when Richard Stallman was canceled in October, some people feared he was or was in danger of being homeless. I remember reading a post about this on Eric Raymond's personal blog, which he has since apparently deleted or hidden. Part of the info was in posts on Stallman's own blog stallman.org, which seems to be down, also referenced in this [https://www.reddit.com/r/stallman/comments/dapaut/dr_richard_stallman_20190928_i_hereby_step_down/] reddit thread. I would like to think that RMS didn't end up homeless, or not for more than a few days, since there must be many people who would give him donations if it came to that (and if he would accept them). But there has been no (very) public announcement of him being alright, for understandable reasons. The list of people and organizations who denounced him was impressively long, regardless. (I mean the ones like GNU and MIT, not the professional denouncers who decided to attack him.)

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.

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 looked at the Loyalty Oaths that people were compelled to sign in the 1950s and honestly they don't seem that bad by comparison to today's equivalent:

Typically, a loyalty oath has wording similar to that mentioned in the U.S Supreme Court decision of Garner v. Board of Public Works:[6]

I further swear (or affirm) that I do not advise, advocate or teach, and have not within the period beginning five (5) years prior to the effective date of the ordinance requiring the making of this oath or affirmation, advised, advocated or taught, the overthrow by force, violence or other unlawful means, of the Government of the United States of America or of the State of California and that I am not now and have not, within said period, been or become a member of or affiliated with any group, society, association, organization or party which advises, advocates or teaches, or has, within said period, advised, advocated or taught, the overthrow by force, violence or other unlawful means of the Government of the United States of America, or of the State of California. I further swear (or affirm) that I will not, while I am in the service of the City of Los Angeles, advise, advocate or teach, or be

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1ryan_b1yYes, I think it was comparably serious, although because the landscape was different the consequences were also different; in general I expect modern events to be higher variance. The first similarity is the primacy of cultural products, in particular media and the arts. This was the period when there was a concerted effort to destroy the fantasy genre, and pressure was brought to bear to cancel tv shows and concerts which were deemed too occult. The influence on academia was negligible as far as I can tell, but I suggest taking another look at government: among other things it seriously distorted a fraction of the justice system because it became common for the public to worry about whether there was a satanic cult present, which diverted resources into investigating things that weren't there (like cults) or focused attention on suspects for nonsensical reasons like whether they owned metal albums. This was also the same period that gave us the modern system of censorship, like film ratings, adult content warning stickers on CDs, etc. While censorship wasn't driven solely by the panic, the people swept up in it did work hard to capitalize on these mechanisms to further their aims. I find it helps to view this kind of cultural event from the perspective of the institutions that make up its center of gravity. For example, one way to make sense of the differences between these movements is that the Red Scare was centered on the federal government and national media outlets; the Satanic Panic was centered on local churches and local government institutions like law enforcement, schools, and libraries; and the social justice movement is centered on universities and the internet. That being said, your point about communism being a real thing that made sense to be concerned about is a good one: there never was a nation-spanning web of devil-worshipping cults that conducted ritual murder and sought to brainwash the youth of America. By contrast there is a nation-spann
9Said Achmiz1yWait… what?
-1ryan_b1yThat's what the KKK is, along with a handful of other neo-nazi and white supremacy groups. This article from Politico [https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/11/03/greensboro-massacre-white-nationalism-klan-229873?utm_source=pocket-newtab] does a pretty good job of describing when when they turned into a loose network instead of a bunch of isolated groups in the wake of the Greensboro Massacre [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greensboro_massacre].

The KKK’s membership does not even approach five figures, even in the most generous estimates of a group little-disposed to underestimate such things (the Southern Poverty Law Center). (The Anti-Defamation League puts nationwide KKK membership at a mere 3,000.) The ADL’s list of active KKK organizations (which includes all those mentioned in the linked article) lists a half-dozen chapters, localized to a handful of Southern states.

The Politico article you link doesn’t mention this. It talks a lot about individual people and specific incidents, but doesn’t talk about the fact that none of it adds up to anything like a “nation-spanning network of terrorist organizations”. What’s more, none of these people have any power or any serious connection even to state, much less federal, authorities.

In comparison, the Soviets had spies in (among many other places) the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Manhattan Project—and at the highest levels of these organizations, to boot. These spies were backed by one of the world’s two great superpowers; vast sums of money and resources, and a literal army of trained personnel, supported them.

Nothing even rem

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6ryan_b1yI think you have lost the thread here. We are talking about different degrees of *bad epistemics* - nowhere did we suddenly shift gears into saying this is actually secretly good epistemics. Communists were real and a threat, but it remained bad epistemics to for Congress to form a committee whose function was blacklist people from working in television for supporting labor unions. Devil worshippers, by contrast, were not: there were *literally zero* groups of devil worshippers undertaking child sacrifice. Censorship and police investigations were being driven by utter fiction. This was a thing happening in the 1980s that was in no epistemic sense different from the Salem Witch Trials. Racial/sexual/religious oppression are real and were formal government policy during my parent’s childhood, but it remains bad epistemics to insist that every restaurant have 26 bathrooms to accommodate some list of sexual identities. This then is our continuum of badness. Social justice is clearly north of Satanic Panic, but will also clearly never form a House Unawoken Activites committee to blacklist Curtis Yarvin from working in tech.

Communists were real and a threat, but it remained bad epistemics to for Congress to form a committee whose function was blacklist people from working in television for supporting labor unions.

Can you give a reference for people being blacklisted for supporting labor unions? I skimmed/searched the Wikipedia article on Hollywood Blacklist and while it's overall quite sympathetic to those who got blacklisted, there is no mention of anyone being blacklisted because they supported unions. I think at least officially only members of the Communist Party and those who refused to cooperate with the committee were supposed to be blacklisted.

What do you think of the argument that blacklisting members of the Communist Party is actually justified on epistemic grounds, which I read from the paper Communists, McCarthy and American Universities by Sidney Hook (a prominent Marxist expert on Marxist philosophy turned anti-communist). (I can't strongly endorse Hook's argument as I'm not an expert on the history myself, but it seems at least plausible to me. Also, the paper is about blacklisting of Communist professors and I'm not sure how much of the argument carries over to blacklisting elsewher

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8Zvi1yI love this line. It could not have come more straight out of Moral Mazes.
2ryan_b1yThe specific example I was thinking of was Dalton Trumbo [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalton_Trumbo]. Now to be clear, he was in fact a Communist sympathizer and member of the Communist Party. But the thing that brought him to the attention of the blacklisters and HUAC, as I understand the sequence of events, was his support of the 1945 Black Friday strike. In 1946 he was fingered as a Communist and blacklisted, and in 1947 summoned to HUAC because he was on the blacklist. Although reviewing the Wikipedia article I see that he reported Nazi sympathizers to the FBI in 1941 or 42; it is possible that this caused him to be prioritized for coming before Congress, though it isn't mentioned specifically. Re: Communists have bad epistemics: in general the criticism is correct, the problem is that it isn't exclusive to communism. Political parties in general are doctrinal organizations that communicate by propaganda, communists are just more aggressive (worse) about it. I see a twofold problem with blacklisting them: one, it doesn't follow that because the communists have terrible epistemics that the people who are blacklisting them have good epistemics (the blacklist is based on the beliefs of the MPAA or Congress); two, we have a strong meta-reason for tolerating bad epistemics, which is to ensure we allow for good epistemics. This is because the enforcement mechanisms are orthogonal to values, so the same thing that muzzles the Communists can also muzzle the Democrats and Republicans. I firmly expect all such mechanisms to be used by every group with access to them, so I want them kept to a minimum. Re: intensity: I should have been more clear here, I apologize. The underlying intuition is that these movements are things which start, grow, peak, and then wither; the reason I was talking about the different centers of gravity and whether the concern had a real basis or not is because I think these are important variables in where the peak is. The more powerful the i

I see a twofold problem with blacklisting them:

I think we may still disagree about this a bit but it's not so important at this point so I'll put it aside and focus on a more important question.

I expect things to get worse before they get better

So, how much will things get worse, and how long will it take to get better? I'm tempted to analogize to religion before separation of church and state and communism in Communist countries (i.e., we'll see, are starting to see, an interlocking system of ideological indoctrination and enforcement, consisting of MSM=church, K-12 education=Sunday/religious school, university=seminary, social media=religious police/inquisition/witch hunts), which suggests that it's going to get a lot worse, last for at least decades if not centuries, with occasional horrible dips below the already bad average, like the equivalent of the Cultural Revolution. (Obviously we can't be very certain about this, but I'm having trouble seeing a scenario that breaks us out of the self-reinforcing dynamics that is moving epistemic conditions towards a negative direction. ETA: I mean a scenario that seems likely to occur by default.)

Any thoughts on this? From what yo

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2ryan_b1yThe cost was bad before, too. We simply forgot, because it is our collective nature to forget. It is worth remembering that this community is at the vanguard of x-risk concern; no major cultural movement is likely to take into account new x-risks. I agree that that centers of gravity is the more important feature; it is also what gives me confidence that it cannot get as bad as religion used to be. The most important factor is that because the center of gravity for social justice doesn't include local or federal government they won't control law enforcement or the military. This means that they won't be able to deploy systematic, institutional-grade violence against their enemies, which is what was involved in the worst damage done under Communism or religion and was further core to retaining their position. The second thing that gives me confidence it won't get as bad as religion or Communism is that the institutional changes involved in moving away from those things remain in place. I believe in both cases the theme of the changes can be reduced to "decentralization" although it is worth pointing out this looked very different between them; but the mechanism is that their dominion failed when they weren't able to maintain control over all centers of power. There are two other smaller points that color my perceptions. The first and simplest is that I have a general sense that culture changes faster now than it did previously; the whole start-grow-wither cycle seems to be accelerated on the strength of cheap and ubiquitous communication ability. This weighs against any sort of movement lasting even as long as decades, never mind centuries. The second is that when we look at the circumstances of religion and Communism coming to power, what I see is that it requires the decay or collapse of the previous order. Specific examples are that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was a prerequisite for the dominion of the Catholic Church, and the decay of Russia under

The cost was bad before, too. We simply forgot, because it is our collective nature to forget.

What are you referring to here? Red Scares?

It is worth remembering that this community is at the vanguard of x-risk concern; no major cultural movement is likely to take into account new x-risks.

I'm not sure what this is in response to. EDIT: I wasn't expecting a new major cultural movement to make x-risk one of their central concerns, but was expecting epistemic conditions more like the 90s-00s to continue, i.e., large corporations like Google did not have any obvious major ideological commitments/blindspots, schools weren't doing extensive indoctrination, and groups like us doing thing not directly related to the cultural war weren't at serious risk of being attacked or taken over by cultural warriors. Do you agree that if the conditions of the 90s-00s had continued, the outlook on x-risks would be significantly better?

I agree that that centers of gravity is the more important feature; it is also what gives me confidence that it cannot get as bad as religion used to be. The most important factor is that because the center of gravity for social justice doesn’t include local or fe

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2ryan_b1yCertainly - you are doing a great job of pointing out areas where I have a lot of implicit assumptions, and having to articulate them is useful all by itself, so I'm getting a lot out of this too. In general any large cultural movement, so while I am including the Red Scares I am also including things like Civil Rights and the Labor Movement. Also, I implicitly count the total cost, so the cost of both the movement's activity and also the responses to it are included. I read a review of Days of Rage [https://status451.com/2017/01/20/days-of-rage/], which I came to through the SlateStarCodex review of Ages of Discord [https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/09/02/book-review-ages-of-discord/]; the scale of conflict there was prodigious, with hundreds of bombings and a high rate of police assassination. Rolling back earlier to the time of the first Red Scare, in 1921 the Battle of Blair Mountain was fought [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Blair_Mountain], with ~10,000 miners and unionists on one side and ~3,000 lawmen and strike breakers on the other, armed with machine guns and aircraft (early ones, mind you). The President had to call in the Army. These are things which we muddled through, and which also had a high human cost, which we have collectively since forgotten. I am not sure that I do. I see that the infrastructure and community surrounding x-risks have done very will during the 2010s, and I'm not familiar with any significant setbacks driven by social justice. The most important thing of which I am aware is the sense that the Bay Area is not a friendly space for inquiry anymore, but that mostly seems to imply that expanding the x-risk institutions there will be less profitable. If we were to constrain ourselves to conditions in California, then I would probably agree. The short answer is because that isn't where it originated. My model for how this works is basically imperial: the center of gravity for a cultural movement is like the core for imperial

If we were to constrain ourselves to conditions in Southern California, then I would probably agree.

Expanding away from the Bay Area is very costly (in terms of lost opportunities or higher cost for coordination) and many suitable places (e.g., with high tech industry or good universities) already have similar conditions. I personally do not live in Southern [Edit: Northern] California and I'm seeing similar things here, which is what started to alarm me in the first place.

k-12 is all about test results

Look up "opt out movement" and "standardized testing is racist". They're gaining ground pretty quickly around here.

My immediate thought is that I have trouble distinguishing social justice from any other form of fad in the areas it has occupied

None of those achieved interlocking, mutually-reinforcing control over most of our epistemic institutions.

The decay of the old order here means of old ideas

Oh I see, I thought by "order" you meant "political order" which were the examples you gave. In terms of decay of old ideas I'd cite religion, communism, and liberalism (the last was in large part motivated by tribal opposition to communism and therefore is not as interesting

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2ryan_b1yThis is a crux of the issue, in my view. It's worth considering that this isn't happening in independently of other major developments in academia: since 1950 we saw the development of publish or perish culture, a shift towards administrative activities at the expense of instruction and research, and most recently the replication crisis. The great shock of the replication crisis to me was that there was a group of scientists who sincerely believed that replication was not important. That is such a fundamental part of the story of science that even laypeople know about it. I would be extremely surprised if that decay was not at least mirrored in things like principles of political noninterference. STEM is vulnerable to political takeover because the time STEM professors spend defending the spirit of free inquiry is time taken away from churning out the next paper and writing grant applications, just like everyone else. I think this is the mechanism by which movements fade. In order for a norm to work, people have to make continuous, active investments in it. This mostly means doing things that reflect them, spending money on them, or taking time to advocate for them specifically. Out of curiosity, what do you think the specific harms are from how the left will administer universities? From the example you cited for STEM fields, it looks to me like two things: 1) systematically take a hit on the talent-level of its professors (in their areas of expertise); 2) they will redirect some fraction of research dollars in every field to diversity and inclusion. From my other exposure to the rhetoric, I suspect they will cripple genetics research, which is indeed a big deal and also reminiscent of Communism.
2Wei_Dai1yYou make good points here. Any ideas why those other shifts happened and how can we help reverse them or prevent them from happening elsewhere? Aside from what you mentioned, I see: 1. strengthening of the information bubble for students, making it harder to reverse the mutually-reinforcing ideological takeover of epistemic institutions 2. redirecting attention/effort of scientists and future politicians (educated under the system) away from x-risks / long-term concerns and towards near-term SJ concerns 3. if it takes over philosophy departments (which seems to be happening), it will hurt philosophical inquiry, reduce the number/quality of future EA leaders, affect AI alignment in so far as it depends on correctly solving philosophical problems 4. economics departments will output increasingly bad ideas, causing economic stagnation or collapse, and further ripple effects from that 5. education departments will output increasingly bad ideas, with obvious consequences 6. the Right will distrust academia even more than it already does and disregard or oppose even the best ideas coming out from it, making it very difficult for society to coordinate to address current and future problems
2ryan_b1yMostly it looks to me like a series of unrelated changes built up over time, and the unintended consequences were mostly adverse. An example is the War on Cancer and the changes that came with it to funding. It had long been the case that funding was mostly handed out on a project-by-project basis, but in order to get the funding dedicated to cancer research it was necessary to explain how cancer research would benefit. The obvious first-order impact is an increase in administrative overhead for getting the money. Alongside this science sort of professionalized. I expect that when the sense of how important something is permeates, professionalization is viewed as a natural consequence, but it seems to have misfired here. Professionalization, like other forms of labor organization, isn't about maximizing anything but about ensuring a minimum. This means things like more metrics, which is why our civilization formally prefers a lot of crappy scientific papers to a few good ones, and doesn't want any kind of non-paper presentation of scientific progress at all. Science jobs become subject to Goodharting, because people start thinking that the right way to get more science is just to increase the number of scientists, on account of them all being interchangeable professionals with a reliable minimum output. The university environment also got leaned on as a lever for progress; the student loan programs all grew over this same period, which seems to have driven a long period of competition for headcount. This shifted universities' priorities from executing their nominal mission towards signalling desirability among students/parents/etc. I am certain at least part of that came at the expense of faculty, even if only by increasing the administrative burden still further by yet more metrics. On the fixing side, I am actually pretty optimistic. A few simple things would probably help a lot, two examples being funding and organization. Example: Bell Labs and Xerox PARC ha
2ChristianKl1yThe replication crisis is about scientists finally waking up and thinking replication is important. Psychology never had a culture that valued replication.
6DanielFilan1yFYI the SF Bay Area is in Northern California.
2ryan_b1yOops! Fixed.
3Said Achmiz1yFirst of all, it can’t possibly be bad epistemics for Congress to form the House Un-American Activities Committee[1] [#fn-J7PhEfSCyMZsosywr-1]. Whatever you think was bad about this, it wasn’t epistemics, since epistemics is about having correct beliefs. Taking an ill-advised action isn’t bad epistemics (no matter how bad it may be in other ways). In any case, I was responding to the part of your comment which I quoted in mine. There is, perhaps, some very literal and very generous interpretation of the words “nation-spanning network of terrorist organizations that target minorities/homosexuals/etc” under which the KKK (and associated groups) qualifies. But under any common-sense reading of the words, the claim just does not fit the facts. Insofar as there is a continuum of how justified is the response to some threat, judged only on the basis of how serious the threat itself is, the justification of social justice by the alleged threat of the KKK is, indeed, more plausible than the justification of the Satanic Panic by the alleged threat of child-sacrificing devil worshippers, since, as you say, there were none at all of the latter. Yet compare both of these things to the justification of HUAC by the threat of Soviet espionage, and it’s clear that both of the former pale into utter insignificance; if one is “actually entirely unjustified” and the other is “almost entirely unjustified”, that is a distinction such as makes no difference. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1. It’s worth noting that “blacklist[ing] people from working in television for supporting labor unions” was not HUAC’s function; the blacklist [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollywood_blacklist] was a measure taken by the Hollywood film studios, and had no legal force whatsoever. ↩︎ [#fnref-J7PhEfSCyMZsosywr-1]
8Wei_Dai1yIn all of of the cases of silencing/canceling I've seen/read (with the caveat that I may have a faulty memory), including the 4 that I gave in the OP, none of the people being silenced/canceled have any remotely plausible connection to white supremacy groups or domestic terrorism, nor did those doing the silencing/canceling even accuse them of any such connections. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems very different from what I've read about the Red Scares. (An actually common accusation is "upholding white supremacy culture [https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/white-supremacy-culture-characteristics.html] " but this "white supremacy" is very different from the "white supremacy" in "white supremacy groups".)

I'm a little shocked reading the comments here, as I come to LessWrong to find people who are hyper rational and meta-critical.  Yet nearly every comment seems to have accepted at face value that this is a real phenomena that is happening. 

I'm not suggesting it's not happening, but I am unconvinced it is.  To make the claim that "A distributed culture of leftists are destroying open dialogue in a free society", I have to evaluate that hypothesis against every other possible hypothesis which explains the data I'm seeing.

For example, an alternative hypothesis is that "Partisan actors are motivated to signal boost certain events which conform to a partisan message they're trying to promote causing it to seem like a huge problem"

Again, I'm not suggesting that this alternative hypothesis is correct either, though there is definitely some evidence for it as well. There's an entire multidimensional distribution of hypotheses that could potentially explain the data.

To evaluate whether this is even happening, a good epistemic approach would be to find a way to create a set of binary or interval questions which when combined captures the hypothesis space.  Then to evaluate each independently.  For example you could first identify how credible it is that a given individual sharing a "cancelling" meme is actually a leftist (age of account, network with well known and established metrics).  Then use the same criteria to find non-cancelling leftists and derive a ratio.  Then find the ratio under which leftists call for cancelling versus the rate at which those on the right report cancelling.

Part of the problem with evaluating this is that there's a ton of feedback loops and it's a complex system.  Which is why it's important to try finding actual data instead of relying on news articles that are asserting that something is happening.  Formulate hypotheses that match the actual known data, and aggressively discount the certainty of the hypotheses to account for your own unknown biases and lack of concrete information.

As far as moderated discussions. Bad actors (typically on the right) seem to intentionally try to find low moderation forums with the explicit intent of crowding out voices they disagree with.  A lot of this has resulting in extreme moderation forums that only allow group think.  Try to avoid both types of groups, and instead try contributing to groups that only enforce open discussion and civility.  If you can't find one, start one.  There are a ton of people who are finding themselves trapped in this dichotomy, and starving those other groups of people is the best way to counteract them.

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.

I didn't forget about Christianity but think we'd have to go back pretty far to see as much influence from it in journalism, academia, K-12 education (our main epistemic institutions) as we see today from leftist ideology. Curious if you have a different take on this.

"blacklisting communists" was in response to a rather obvious real threat, and I'd be worried if the same or similar dynamics is now happening absent such a threat (as that implies the bad dynamics and epistemic conditions it imposes might never go away or might keep recurring for no good reason).

think the next step is “actually go do real empiricism” before trying to Do Something About It.

Sure, and I'm hoping that someone has ideas about how to do such empiricism, for people in our positions (i.e., not an academic who might be able to apply for a grant to study this).

0Raemon1yMy understanding is that Texas is still printing textbooks that do ‘evolution is just a theory’ and don’t mention the age of the universe (and that this has been consistent for the past few decades, and Texas is a large enough market that it distorts overall textbook trends)
2Wei_Dai1yHere's the latest story [https://www.texastribune.org/2017/04/19/texas-education-board-evolution-standards-/] I found about Texas schools and evolution. After reading it, I think the religious influence described is trivial compared to what's happening in "progressive" school districts. (I'm not going to link to or describe in detail what I'm seeing, for fear of drawing unwanted attention, but I'll send it to you via PM.)
3ChristianKl1yThe fundamental difference seems to be that most biology teachers have not signed up for teaching religious fundamentalism and their university training didn't teach them that ideal but critical theory is deep in the university curriculum for teachers.

To be fair, ’ask questions and get bearings’ seems like what this post is doing, but since it’s harder to actually go check for things vs share hot takes I’m worried about where things‘d go by default 

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.

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I believe that the main reason why this hasn't been discussed in any depth on Less Wrong is a) the norm set up by Elizier Yudkowsky in Politics is the Mindkiller b) The Motte has become the default rationalsphere adjacent location for this kind of discussion. That said, it's plausible that the situation has reached the point where this topic can no longer be avoided.

a) the norm set up by Elizier Yudkowsky in Politics is the Mindkiller

Yeah, this is what I was referring to by "don’t feel that they have as much leeway to talk about politics-adjacent issues here as I do". However, to clarify in case people get the wrong impression about current norms, one of the LW 2.0 admins has stated that it's fine to post about politics here, they'll just stay as "personal blogposts" (unfortunately I can't find that comment now).

Today I am more worried about political talk attracting adversaries who will attack either individual members or LW as a whole (much like Scott Alexander was attacked/doxxed for being associated with Cultural War threads on Reddit), than being "mind-killed".

b) The Motte has become the default rationalsphere adjacent location for this kind of discussion

The user base for The Motte seems mostly distinct from LW? At least I don't recognize any names when I browse there.

Do you know of any relevant Motte posts on the question posed by the OP here?

That said, it’s plausible that the situation has reached the point where this topic can no longer be avoided.

I think so. I'm afraid that by avoiding talking about politics for so long and implicitly or explicitly encouraging people to not pay much attention to political news, we've caused many LWers who don't come into contact with politics in their own lives often (like me until a few months ago) to have little idea how much worse things have gotten in the last few years. I'm especially worried about AI risk people who started with (what I think is) an already overly rosy picture of how sane the wider world is, and based their strategy on that.

I didn't know the norm was different here. I like the old norm, for reasons that are a little hard to express. I guess political discussion is much more engaging than the stuff we usually talk about, so if it's allowed I fear it will become a large proportion of overall discussion, to the cost of other topics. I don't want people for whom Politics is their main hobby to feel like this place is of any interest at all to them. If such a person wanders across this place and finds a lot of discussion of theoretical computer science and decision theory, they will keep wandering. Having a load of discussions about what may or may not be wrong with people's Politics feels to me like calling up something that we don't know how to put down.

(I was waiting for a mod to chime in so I don't have to, but ...)

If such a person wanders across this place and finds a lot of discussion of theoretical computer science and decision theory, they will keep wandering.

I believe this is one of the reasons for confining political topics to "personal blogposts" which are not shown by default on the front page. My understanding is that they're prepared to impose further measures to reduce engagement with political discussions if they start to get out of hand. I guess (this is just speaking for myself) that if worst comes to worst we can always just impose a hard ban on political topics.

(By "worst comes to worst" I mean in the sense of political discussions getting out of hand on LW. A worse problem, that I worry more about, is LW getting "canceled" by outsiders, in which case even banning political topics may be too late. I think we may want to pre-emptively impose more safeguards for that reason, like maybe making object-level political posts only visible to users over some karma threshold?)

Oops, looks like we commented at the same time. You basically said the same thing I did, so I am glad we're on the same page.

one of the LW 2.0 admins has stated that it's fine to post about politics here, they'll just stay as "personal blogposts" (unfortunately I can't find that comment now).

That's roughly correct. The important caveat is that we do want to avoid the site being dominated by discussion of politics, and so are likely going to reduce the visibility of that discussion somewhat, in order to compensate for the natural tendencies of those topics to consume everything (I am not yet really sure how precisely we would go about that, since it hasn't been an issue so far), and also because I really want to avoid newcomers first encountering all the political discussion (and selecting on newcomers who come for the political discussion). 

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.

I think Scott put it best when he said:

No, you don’t understand. It’s not just the predictable and natural reputational consequences of having some embarrassing material in a branded space. It’s enemy action.

Every Twitter influencer who wants to profit off of outrage culture is going to be posting 24-7 about how the New York Times endorses pedophilia. Breitbart or some other group that doesn’t like the Times for some reason will publish article after article on New York Times‘ secret pro-pedophile agenda. Allowing any aspect of your brand to come anywhere near something unpopular and taboo is like a giant Christmas present for people who hate you, people who hate everybody and will take whatever targets of opportunity present themselves, and a thousand self-appointed moral crusaders and protectors of the public virtue. It doesn’t matter if taboo material makes up 1% of your comment section; it will inevitably make up 100% of what people hear about your comment section and then of what people think is in your comment section. Finally, it will make up 100% of what people associate with you and your brand. The Chinese Robber Fallacy is a harsh master; all you need is a tiny number of cringeworthy comments, and your political enemies, power-hungry opportunists, and 4channers just in it for the lulz can convince everyone that your entire brand is about being pro-pedophile, catering to the pedophilia demographic, and providing a platform for pedophile supporters. And if you ban the pedophiles, they’ll do the same thing for the next-most-offensive opinion in your comments, and then the next-most-offensive, until you’ve censored everything except “Our benevolent leadership really is doing a great job today, aren’t they?” and the comment section becomes a mockery of its original goal.

So let me tell you about my experience hosting the Culture War thread.

(“hosting” isn’t entirely accurate. The Culture War thread was hosted on the r/slatestarcodex subreddit, which I did not create and do not own. I am an honorary moderator of that subreddit, but aside from the very occasional quick action against spam nobody else caught, I do not actively play a part in its moderation. Still, people correctly determined that I was probably the weakest link, and chose me as the target.)

People settled on a narrative. The Culture War thread was made up entirely of homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazis. I freely admit there were people who were against homosexuality in the thread (according to my survey, 13%), people who opposed using trans people’s preferred pronouns (according to my survey, 9%), people who identified as alt-right (7%), and a single person who identified as a neo-Nazi (who as far as I know never posted about it). Less outrageous ideas were proportionally more popular: people who were mostly feminists but thought there were differences between male and female brains, people who supported the fight against racial discrimination but thought could be genetic differences between races. All these people definitely existed, some of them in droves. All of them had the right to speak; sometimes I sympathized with some of their points. If this had been the complaint, I would have admitted to it right away. If the New York Times can’t avoid attracting these people to its comment section, no way r/ssc is going to manage it.

But instead it was always that the the thread was “dominated by” or “only had” or “was an echo chamber for” homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the subreddit was dominated by homophobic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the SSC community was dominated by homophobic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that I personally was a homophobic etc neo-Nazi of them all. I am a pro-gay Jew who has dated trans people and votes pretty much straight Democrat. I lost distant family in the Holocaust. You can imagine how much fun this was for me.

People would message me on Twitter to shame me for my Nazism. People who linked my blog on social media would get replies from people “educating” them that they were supporting Nazism, or asking them to justify why they thought it was appropriate to share Nazi sites. I wrote a silly blog post about mathematics and corn-eating. It reached the front page of a math subreddit and got a lot of upvotes. Somebody found it, asked if people knew that the blog post about corn was from a pro-alt-right neo-Nazi site that tolerated racists and sexists. There was a big argument in the comments about whether it should ever be acceptable to link to or read my website. Any further conversation about math and corn was abandoned. This kept happening, to the point where I wouldn’t even read Reddit discussions of my work anymore. The New York Times already has a reputation, but for some people this was all they’d heard about me.

Some people started an article about me on a left-wing wiki that listed the most offensive things I have ever said, and the most offensive things that have ever been said by anyone on the SSC subreddit and CW thread over its three years of activity, all presented in the most damning context possible; it started steadily rising in the Google search results for my name. A subreddit devoted to insulting and mocking me personally and Culture War thread participants in general got started; it now has over 2,000 readers. People started threatening to use my bad reputation to discredit the communities I was in and the causes I cared about most.

Some people found my real name and started posting it on Twitter. Some people made entire accounts devoted to doxxing me in Twitter discussions whenever an opportunity came up. A few people just messaged me letting me know they knew my real name and reminding me that they could do this if they wanted to.

Some people started messaging my real-life friends, telling them to stop being friends with me because I supported racists and sexists and Nazis. Somebody posted a monetary reward for information that could be used to discredit me.

One person called the clinic where I worked, pretended to be a patient, and tried to get me fired.

Many of the users on LW have their real names and reputations attached to this website. If LW were to come under this kind of loosely coordinated memetic attack, many people would find themselves harassed and their reputations and careers could easily be put in danger. I don't want to sound overly dramatic, but the entire truth seeking and AI safety project could be hampered by association.

That's why even though I remain anonymous, I think it's best if I refrain from discussing these topics at anything except the meta level on LW. Even having this discussion strikes me as risky. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't discuss these topics at all. But it needs to be on a place like r/TheMotte where there is no attack vector. This includes using different usernames so we can't be traced back here. Even then, the reddit AEO and the admins are technically weak points.

I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but the entire truth seeking and AI safety project could be hampered by association.

I think I addressed your points already in an earlier comment and would be interested if you could read that and give any further thoughts. But to elaborate on this point, I'm quite worried about this risk as well, but decided that it's worth having this discussion here anyway due to countervailing risk of not discussing it here (as described in above linked comment). I did bring up the topic in various comments first to give people a chance to push back if they thought we should avoid talking about it altogether, and nobody did or even expressed disapproval via downvotes as far as I can tell. The mods here also seem to think that limiting political talk to "personal blogposts" is sufficient safeguard (but I actually think that's probably not enough for discussing object-level political topics so I'm trying to avoid that as much as possible).

This includes using different usernames so we can't be traced back here.

I just wanted to note here: Wei_Dai, in the past, you've noted that having to keep track of usernames vs real names is fairly cognitively intensive. But I do think having separate and deliberately obfuscated usernames is one of the important things for maintaining more independent thinking here. (I suspect someone brought that up last time, but you might have a different vantage point on the subject now)

Wei_Dai, in the past

A bit off topic, but does LW have username pinging?

Not right now, although we may add it after switching to a new editor.

I did say "unless they’re deliberately trying to keep their physical identities secret", which covers this? Or are you suggesting that having something in between just using real names and maintaining full separation between online and physical identities is useful?

The update I was suggesting was something like: 

"In that post, it seemed like you were thinking of 'keep identities secret' as a rare thing some people might want to do', and I think the framing of this post suggests something more like 'keeping identities secret is in fact a sensible default, and whether our culture nudges you towards or away from it is a pretty high level decision, and if you're worried about LW as a whole being safe from political machines, it probably makes sense to default harder to anonymity."

I think this is a kind of question where our intuitions are quite weak and we need empirical studies to know. It is very easy to get annoyed with poor epistemics and to conclude, in exasperation, that things must have got worse. But since people normally don't remember or know well what things were like 30 years ago or so, we can't really trust those conclusions.

One way to test this would be to fact-check and argument-check (cf. https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/k54agm83CLt3Sb85t/clearerthinking-s-fact-checking-2-0 ) opinion pieces and election debates from different eras, and compare their relative quality. That doesn't seem insurmountably difficult. But of course it doesn't capture all aspects of our epistemic culture.

One could also look at features that one may suspect are correlated with poor epistemics, like political polarisation. On that, a recent paper gives evidence that the US has indeed become more polarised, but five out of the other nine studied OECD countries rather had become less polarised.


First, as someone who just (class of 2019) graduated college at a very liberal, highly regarded, private U.S. institution, the description above definitely does not match my experience. In my experience, I found that dissenting opinions and avid discussion were highly encouraged. That being said, I suspect Mudd may be particularly good on that axis due to factors such as being entirely STEM-focused (also Debra Mashek was one of my professors).

Second, I think it is worth pointing out that there are definitely instances where, at least in my opinion, “canceling” is a valid tactic. Deplatforming violent rhetoric (e.g. Nazism, Holocaust denial, etc.) comes to mind as an obvious example.

Third, that being said, I do think there is a real problem along the lines of what you're pointing at. For example, one thing I saw recently was what's been happening to Natalie Wynn, a YouTuber who goes by the name “ContraPoints.” She's a very popular leftist YouTuber who mainly talks about various left-wing social issues, particularly transgender issues (she herself is transgender). In one of her recent videos, she cast a transgender man named Buck Angel as a voice actor for part of it, and people (mostly on Twitter) got extremely upset at her because Buck Angel had at one point previously said something that maybe possibly could be interpreted as anti-non-binary-people. I think that Natalie's recent video responding to her “canceling” is probably the best analysis of the whole phenomenon that I've seen, and aligns pretty well with my views on the topic, though it's quite long.

There are a lot of things about Natalie's canceling that give me hope, though. First, it seemed like her canceling was highly concentrated on Twitter, which makes a lot of sense to me—I tend to think that it's almost impossible to have good discourse in any sort of combative/argumentative setting, especially when it's online, and especially when everyone is limited only to tiny tweets, which lend themselves particularly well to snarky quippy one-liners without any actual real substance. Second, it was really only a fringe group of people canceling her—it's just that the people who were doing it were very loud, which again strikes me as exactly the sort of thing that is highly exacerbated by the internet, and especially by Twitter. Third, I think there's a real movement on the left towards rejecting this sort of thing—I think Natalie is a good example of a very public leftist strongly rejecting “cancel culture,” though I've met lots of other die-hard leftists who think similarly while I was in college. There are a lot of really smart people on the left and I think it's quite reasonable to expect that this will broadly get better over time—especially if people move to better forms of online discourse than Twitter (or Facebook, which I also think is pretty bad). YouTube and Reddit, though, are mainstream platforms that I think produce significantly better discourse than Twitter, so I do think there's hope there.

As a counterpoint to the 'cancelling is mostly online' paragraph (or really to [EDIT:] a conclusion that would be natural to draw from it), I think it's worth noting that the University of California (UC) system seems to be moving more towards a system where academic hiring is predicated on holding "social justice"-ish views on demographic diversity in academia. For evidence of this, see:

  • this blog post about pilot programs run in the UC system where significant majorities of applicants seem to have been rejected purely based on the contents of their diversity statements.
  • this tweet thread linking to this opinion piece in the Notices of the AMS about how the UC system is ensuring that central administrators can filter applications for math faculty jobs before math departments see them, administrators who appear to be invested in promoting demographic diversity.
  • in the same twitter thread, a discussion of the backlash to this opinion piece in the Notices of the AMS (by the same author, Abigail Thompson, as the one above) opposing the use of diversity statements to screen candidates, leading to a professor of mathematics to write this blog post advocating a letter-writing campaign to push for the removal of Thompson from her position at UC Davis.

(Note that I am currently employed at UC Berkeley)

Second, I think it is worth pointing out that there are definitely instances where, at least in my opinion, “canceling” is a valid tactic. Deplatforming violent rhetoric (e.g. Nazism, Holocaust denial, etc.) comes to mind as an obvious example.

If the people who determine what is cancel-able could consistently distinguish between violent rhetoric and non-violent rhetoric, and the boundary never expanded in some random direction, I would agree with you.

In practice, what often happens is that someone is cancelled over accusations of being a Nazi (or whatever), even when they aren't. Since defending a Nazi tends to make people think you are secretly also a Nazi, the people being falsely accused tend to get little support from outsiders.

Also, given that many views that EA endorse could easily fall outside of the window of what's considered appropriate speech one day (such as reducing wild animal suffering, negative utilitarianism, genetic enhancement), it is probably better to push for a blanket acceptance of free speech rather than just hope that future people will tolerate our ideas.

Also, given that many views that EA endorse could easily fall outside of the window of what’s considered appropriate speech one day (such as reducing wild animal suffering, negative utilitarianism, genetic enhancement), it is probably better to push for a blanket acceptance of free speech rather than just hope that future people will tolerate our ideas.

I think it was better to push for a blanket acceptance of free speech, but now that we're already in the process of sliding down the slippery slope, I'm pretty skeptical this makes sense now. Not sure if you also meant "was", but if not, can you explain more? For example would you endorse making LW a "free speech zone" or try to push for blanket acceptance of free speech elsewhere?

For example would you endorse making LW a "free speech zone" or try to push for blanket acceptance of free speech elsewhere?

I think limiting free speech for specific forums of discussion makes sense, given that it is very difficult to maintain a high-quality community without doing so. I think that declaring that a particular place a "free speech zone" tends to invite the worst people to gather in those places (I've seen this over and over again on the internet).

More generally, I was talking about societal norms to punish speech deemed harmful. I think there's a relevant distinction between a professor getting fired for saying something deemed politically harmful, and an internet forum moderating discussion.

Aside from Daniel Filan's example, I gave four examples in my post, all of which occurred mostly or substantially in the real world as opposed to online. If cancel culture was confined to Twitter I would be less worried, except that Twitter seems to be winning over every other discussion platform (aside from maybe YouTube, but YouTube is inherently limited to hosting oral as opposed to written debates). From what I've seen, all journalists and academics who participate online at all are on Twitter. I really don't understand the attraction myself, but it seems to be extremely attractive to many. Even Eliezer has moved from LW to FB and now to Twitter.

Looks like Eliezer Yudkowsky and Robin Hanson are starting to get alarmed about this. Eliezer just retweeted this tweet by Robin:

Wow, this really is scary: https://johnhcochrane.blogspot.com/2020/01/wokeademia.html

(I don't think I've seen either of them express something like this before.)

The follow-up post has a public-choice-esque model of what's going on that I think is plausible:

I started this series impressed by the obvious political and free speech ramifications. There is a much simpler economic explanation however. As the quotes from the UC system make clear, the central requirement of the diversity statements is to document past active participation in, and require future approval and participation in all the programs produced by the diversity staff...

Some quotes from the UC post, what gets you a good score

Participation in workshops and activities that help build multicultural competencies and create inclusive climates....Supporting student organizations that serve underrepresented groups....Participation with professional or scientific associations or meetings that aim to increase diversity or address the needs of underrepresented students, staff, or faculty. Serving on university or college committees related to equity and inclusion... Clear and detailed ideas for what existing programs they would get involved with

Universities have created a huge diversity equity and inclusion staff. The faculty regard this sort of thing with something in between horror and annoyance. Even super left wing faculty, especially in the sciences, want to hire good people and get back to work without too many diversity activities. They'll happily look hard and promote "diverse" candidates informally, but don't waste their time.

The diversity staff have a problem. By forcing these statements, and the staff ability to grade them before anyone gets a job, and to follow up when you ask for a raise or promotion, they create a great device to coerce participation in and support of their programs, their ever increasing staff, their budgets, their jobs. Disagree and you're branded a racist!

I started this series impressed by the obvious political and free speech ramifications. There is a much simpler economic explanation however.

I'm confused by the "however" here. It shouldn't be surprising that political phenomena often have economic explanations. (That's what public choice theory is all about, right?) Why would having such an explanation make one less "impressed by the obvious political and free speech ramifications"?

Why would having such an explanation make one less "impressed by the obvious political and free speech ramifications"?

I wouldn't read too much into the "forever". Later in the post:

I like economic explanations for behavior. You don't need politics or morality, just good old self-interest. That's why I became an economist. At least they are acting "as if" this is the motivation, which for explaining behavior is all that matters. That doesn't make the actions any less coercive, nor the grab of power over academic appointments any less revolutionary. [emphasis DanielFilan's]

So the author is equating "economics" with "behavior driven by self-interest" but that seems like too narrow a view of economics to me, since many ideas from "traditional" economics can be useful for analyzing genuinely moral/altruistic behavior as well. (E.g., moral trade, moral public goods, etc.)

Aside from that, only the most proximate cause of the situation can be explained purely by self-interest, because why were the diversity staff hired in the first place and given so much power? A significant faction of the coalition (contra "don't need politics") that supported that must have done so out of real moral concern. (I think this fact should be explicitly stated, or at least not negated, so that they and we can learn from the consequences of their decisions. Otherwise I fear that the lesson will be "self-interest is the bad guy here, I'm acting out of real moral concern so I don't have to worry about causing this kind of problem.")

(Sorry if I'm being too pedantic here and going off on a tangent...)

I think it makes sense to take an "epistemic prepper" perspective. What precautions could one take in advance to make sure that, if the discourse became dominated by militant flat earth fanatics, round earthers could still reason together, coordinate, and trust each other? What kinds of institutions would have made it easier for a core of sanity to survive through, say, 30s Germany or 60s China? For example, would it make sense to have an agreed-upon epistemic "fire alarm"?

What kinds of institutions would have made it easier for a core of sanity to survive through, say, 30s Germany or 60s China?

I don't see how any such institutions could themselves survive, since they'll be among the highest priority targets for those regimes. It seems that sanity survived in the past only because of (1) privacy / lack of sufficiently advanced surveillance technology and (2) decentralization / lack of global coordination ability. But these are the exact things we need to develop to prevent future tech-driven x-risks. So far I don't see a way out of this catch-22 (except low probability scenarios like it turns out to be really easy to build an Aligned Sovereign Singleton aka Friendly AI).

Probably it makes more sense to prepare for scenarios where ideological fanaticism is widespread but isn't wielding government power.

In that case, it's not really prepping anymore, but more like catch-up, since ideological fanaticism is already widespread? But along these lines, someone (who didn't want attribution) PM'ed me the idea of “social media shaming insurance” or “cancellation insurance”, and I just came across Free Speech Union, which was apparently created just a few days ago and is offering something like this kind of insurance. Interview with founder of Free Speech Union

Speaking for myself, I mostly don't comment on such things for two related reasons

1. The sorts of people it attracts are often not arguing in good faith anyway.

2. Certain kinds of discourse are less about the contents of the discourse and instead are winning whenever they convince people to pay attention to them. Since the attention of researchers is scarce I try to avoid polluting it.

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.

This isn't an answer to your historical question, but I would like to point out that an EA recently wrote up his thoughts on speech policing here on the EA Forum, and I recall some previous relevant discussions as well (example).

I was at the University of Washington from the beginning of 2013 to the end of 2014 and noticed almost none of this. I was in math and computer science courses, and outside of class mostly hung out with international students, so maybe it was always going on right around the corner, or something? But I really don’t remember feeling anything like the described. I took a Drama class and remember people arguing about... Iraq...? for some reason, with there being open disagreement among students about some sort of hot-button topic. More important, one of the TAs once lectured to the whole entire class of a couple hundred students about racism in theater, and at times spoke in sort of harsh “if you disagree, you’re part of the problem” terms... and some students walked out! Walking out is a pretty strong signal, and not the kind of thing you do if you’re afraid of retribution.

This is all an undergraduate perspective. Any effect like this could be a lot stronger among people trying to actually make a career at the school.

I don't how well these to thought will fit but over the past 12 or 15 years my views on political dynamics, for the USA but perhaps they can apply elsewhere, are:

1) The median voter theorem is not quite right. The parties will tent to force the candidates towards the ends resulting an a barbell form of policies rather then having them move to the middle (and so become largely indistinguishable). The level MVT might work at is with party formation rather than candidates when existing parties are well established. I'm of the mind we are seeing a dynamic that will result in new parties -- be they major shifts under the same label or one or both major parties fracturing, a new party emerge and the old party go the way of the Whigs.

2) While I think Title VII, Civil Rights Act, was probably necessary to break the existing structure its on going existence has created the groundwork for what those arguing against a Bill of Rights feared: only if you are a protected class will you enjoy the protections. Ideally, in my view (hindsight), the Civil Rights Act should have been temporary and expired. The goal would have been to firmly establish the general principle of non-discrimination and establish the standard of irrelevant criteria cannot be the a deciding criteria in employment (or other admission within the public scope of social interactions). That general principle would then be applied over time as various classes found themselves to be discriminated against -- which would be dependent on the larger society agreeing that the factor was in fact irrelevant.