On LessWrong/Rationality and Political Debates

by sophia_xu1 min read20th Mar 202112 comments

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Epistemic status: rough ideas. Very open to criticism and will try to respond to every reply.

 

First and foremost, I, like many people here, agree with the sentiments and rationales of Politics is the Mind-Killer. A central reason why I like this place is that discussions are not just bogged down to blind tribalism like most places on the internet - and I'm satisfied with the current way things are.

What motivated me to post this is my reflection on this comment. It leads to realization departing from the Politics is the Mind-Killer article 14 years ago:

  • People in the English world has appearing to be more and more divided. This can be a positive - at least I believe the appearance of increasing divisiveness means that our range of accepted debates have been increasing: we have previously-fringe ideas like UBI or decentralized journalism (?) being put out in the open, and I believe that most people would consider it a net positive.
  • However, being more divided would also unfortunately mean people can agree on less and less common priors in discussions. This is problematic because we can't not talk about politics since we can't just start a discussion with common knowledge expecting the readers would agree anymore - the best we can do is to not explicitly talk about politics, but even if we aren't talking about politics, our System 1 still process these information (like wording or the way one choose examples) and apply internal tribalistic biases to them (a context would be the comment linked above). 
  • In the American (or North American if you count Canada, which is pretty polluted by the US as well) context, the past couple of years has caused a lot of things to change drastically, but I feel the most important change is that the line between political and non-political debates have become more and more fuzzy: one less triggering example is the handling of the pandemic (although not as good as evidence since the last time the US had a pandemic was a hundred years ago), or the connotations of this very community by the recent NYT article.

This begs the question: when should we talk (and not talk) about politics in a place that discourages tribalism?

I've read previously about a heuristic to only talk about politics when absolutely necessary and use historical or culturally insulated examples when doing so, but I still wonder what can be done in the receiving end of a potentially political debate:

  • One thing I'm doing to actively combat tribalism is by giving the other participant the maximum benefit of the doubt, and try assuming them to be from the same tribe as I am firstly - I know this is probably not the most "aesthetic" way, and I fear this might actually reinforce my inner tribalistic attribution.
  • Another possibility is to mentally set my account on mute on all topics that can be correlated with politics in any form. This still feels unsatisfactory as I am actively not seeking new information through updating my priors.

Any ideas/suggestions?

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Thanks for this post! This is an important topic.

I've read previously about a heuristic to only talk about politics when absolutely necessary and use historical or culturally insulated examples when doing so, but I still wonder what can be done in the receiving end of a potentially political debate:

Just to make sure I understand, your question is what to do when object-level politics is in some sense necessary to discuss? (E.g. because someone is directly talking to you about it, or because in this case it's actually quite relevant to something you and your community wants to do, or... [insert other examples here if you had any in mind, e.g. being on the receiving end of a debate, what does that mean?]) Or is your question more like "In what circumstances is it necessary (i.e. worth it) to discuss politics?"

Brainstorming some ideas, not sure if any of them are good:

1. Protective words: When you decide to engage in discussion (or even thinking?) about a political topic, notice when you are doing so, and take a quick break to run through various rituals that hopefully will help your mind stay in the right frame of mind: Confess the Litany of Tarski applied to the topic of debate, maybe read or remember this short story to prime your mind to be self-suspicious in the appropriate ways and engage your emotions to help out... Other things along these lines: "Let us be guided by the beauty of our weapons," "What am I thinking about and why am I thinking about it?" "If you attend only to favorable evidence, picking and choosing from your gathered data, then the more data you gather, the less you know." "Almost no one is evil, almost everything is broken."

2. Protective words for the group: Like the above, except you do it as the beginning of the conversation and you ask the other interlocutors to do it too, or at least approve of your choice to do it. If they don't understand, explaining all this "politics is the mind-killer" stuff is probably more important than what you were about to talk about anyway. If they do understand but refuse, that's probably a bad sign and it's valuable info for you going into the conversation.

3. Agree to (or at least resolve that you will) talk entirely about the probabilities of various consequences of the various proposals under consideration, rather than e.g. talking about non-consequentialist concepts like fairness, appropriateness, justice, offensiveness, honesty, etc. To be clear I'm not a consequentialist and think that those concepts are important, but I suspect that political discussions would nevertheless go a lot better on average if people followed this rule, especially if people FIRST had a conversation following this rule before gradually relaxing this rule.

4. Discover who your interlocutor's outgroup is and then gleefully bash them for a few minutes to signal tribal loyalty (or at least non-enemy status) as a warm-up to the actual conversation. [I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, obviously. It seems icky to me. But it seems like it might work. Another version is the classic "say what you like about their ingroup; this seems less icky to most people but I think it's icky too, just in a different way.]

I do like the classic heuristic you mentioned. I try to follow it myself. It helps to know lots of history. I know some history but not as much as I'd like. In a pinch one can use fantasy/sci-fi examples but those are less trustworthy because less realistic.

Thanks for this post.

Another point that I would add is that one of the downsides of ignoring politics is that it increases the extent to which opinions from this community are ignored in politics. Given the expansion of what is considered political, I wonder how long attempting to be apolitical is viable, especially since being apolitical is increasingly being slammed as political in and of itself.

However, to be honest, I don't think we should be trying to settle debates on this side, but rather attempting to figure out how we can best have these discusssions.

Given the expansion of what is considered political, I wonder how long attempting to be apolitical is viable, especially since being apolitical is increasingly being slammed as political in and of itself.

The core topics of this website are already potentially politically controversial, depending on whom you ask:

  • whether human intelligence exists;
  • whether rational thinking is the right thing to do;
  • whether avoiding mindkilling is the right thing to do;
  • whether science is a valuable thing;
  • atheism.

(Ironically, the quantum physics sequence is probably the least controversial thing from this perspective.)

And that's before we get to administrative questions like "which opinions should be banned in the debates" or "what should be done to address the gender imbalance in the community".

Yeah, we use our definition of politics like "just avoid tribalism, try considering things impartially, and things will be okay", but that itself invites a response: "that's just your (political) opinion, man".

However, to be honest, I don't think we should be trying to settle debates on this side

Wholeheartedly agree. For one I don't think debates among major political camps now can be "settled" - maybe people here tends to be more open and we can settle some debate to some extent, I don't think there's more values other than practicing rationality skills.

especially since being apolitical is increasingly being slammed as political in and of itself.

I happen to be one of those people who believe this is true - but that doesn't mean we can't be apolitical anywhere: we do have the entirety of the internet at our disposal, just go to Twitter for these stuff or something. (I'm also willing to have my mind changed on this one)

I happen to be one of those people who believe this is true

 

The frame of neutrality being political definitely has some truth in it, but it becomes limiting when it's the only frame through which someone engages with the world.

Isn't there something to be said for recognising members of other tribes and not trying to convert or kill them? 

You don't have to be carbon copies and you don't have to agree, you just have to figure out how to be in proximity without bloodshed.

I have accepted that irreconcilable differences exist. All that is required after that is to figure out how to share territory. Physical territory. The space to be free from the impositions of the other.

Isn't there something to be said for recognising members of other tribes and not trying to convert or kill them? 

Yeah, I mean, what else can we do? I don't think a lot of people want to convert or eliminate people from other tribes, I'm more talking about standalone arguments here: how can we give the maximum benefit of doubt to arguments from (presumably) people from the other tribe? 

how can we give the maximum benefit of doubt to arguments from (presumably) people from the other tribe? 

Treat their ideology as evolutionarily adapted for the niche they occupy. Their thoughts faced the selective pressures they did and those in their head that reflect that process. 

If you can understand how they can believe what they do then at the very least you can identify the root of disagreement.

At the very least...

If we allow political debates on LessWrong, participating in them should give people no positive karma. (Like, in theory, it is possible to get upvoted for dispassionate objective consideration and summary of all relevant facts. In practice though...) Negative karma, on the other hand, should count. To avoid karma assassination of political opponents, maybe with an extra rule that downvoting someone in a political debate also burns your karma?

The political debates should only be available to people already having some minor but not trivial amount of karma. 100 points maybe? Otherwise, they probably should not even be visible; that would certainly discourage linking from outside and creating new accounts.

Downvoting the political debate itself, i.e. on the article level, should get the debate closed, like no more commenting possible. Though here I would hope that people would downvote political debates only on the merit of their actual contents, not as a blanket rule against political debates in general.

...none of which means that it is a good idea to have political debates on LessWrong. Just thinking what might be the best rules, conditional on allowing such debates.

Of course it should be possible to invite LessWrong readers to debate politics outside the website, using any rules you choose.

"To avoid karma assassination of political opponents, maybe with an extra rule that downvoting someone in a political debate also burns your karma?" - Well, someone can flood the comments with poor quality content in ordert to drain their opponents.

Of course it should be possible to invite LessWrong readers to debate politics outside the website, using any rules you choose.

This is a good point - or like how the SSC substack has a more political comment section for people who want to debate politics within the aspiring rationalist community.

I think the worst way to have a political discussion is to discuss the actions or proposed actions of any political actor. Politics exists because we need collective solutions to particular problems, so I think the best way to approach politics is discuss a particular problem that needs a political solution. As always, best to discuss the nature of the problem in detail before thinking about an solutions and gentling re-routing any solution-type discussion back to the problem. Solutions need discussion of consequences first and foremost. Pushing discussions towards those in the best way to get any value at all out of your time. We recently had referendums on legalising dope and euthanasia and I thought some of the material presented for discussion by electoral commission was exemplary. 

Inevitably though, peoples judgement on the pros and cons of various consequences is going to be based on their values. I've seen some evidence that this might be partly genetic. I seriously doubt any discussion will change a persons internal value system (what they would instinctively  judge good/bad before any reason cut in), but discussion can/will shape how a law is framed. Ie, don't even bother trying to change someone from Right to Left or vice-versa, focus on effective solution for a problem that doesn't offend their values or yours instead.

It would be a pretty quiet house here if we couldn't discuss politics. I should admit that I am in part of world where I think political tribal divisions are still not too bad - in a small country, it is hard for media to survive at all, so outlets do not want to alienate audience by showing any obvious political bias. Global media however is having an unwelcome influence.