One of the motivations for You have about five words was the post Politics is the Mindkiller. That post essentially makes four claims:
- Politics is the mindkiller. Therefore:
- If you're not making a point about politics, avoid needlessly political examples.
- If you are trying to make a point about general politics, try to use an older example that people don't have strong feelings about.
- If you're making a current political point, try not to make it unnecessarily political by throwing in digs that tar the entire outgroup, if that's not actually a key point.
But, not everyone read the post. And not everyone who read the post stored all the nuance for easy reference in their brain. The thing they remembered, and told their friends about, was "Politics is the mindkiller." Some people heard this as "politics == boo". LessWrong ended up having a vague norm about avoiding politics at all.
This norm might have been good, or bad. Politics is the mindkiller, and if you don't want to get your minds killed, it may be good not to have your rationality website deal directly with it too much. But, also, politics is legitimately important sometimes. How to balance that? Not sure. It's tough. Here's some previous discussion on how to think about it. I endorse the current LW system where you can talk about politics but it's not frontpaged.
But, I'm not actually here today to talk about that. I'm here to basically copy-paste the post but give it a different title, so that one of the actual main points has an clearer referent.
I'm not claiming this is more or less important than the "politics is the mindkiller" concept, just that it was an important concept for people to remember separately.
Avoid unnecessarily political examples.
The original post is pretty short. Here's the whole thing. Emphasis mine:
People go funny in the head when talking about politics. The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death. And sex, and wealth, and allies, and reputation . . . When, today, you get into an argument about whether “we” ought to raise the minimum wage, you’re executing adaptations for an ancestral environment where being on the wrong side of the argument could get you killed. Being on the right side of the argument could let you kill your hated rival!
If you want to make a point about science, or rationality, then my advice is to not choose a domain from contemporary politics if you can possibly avoid it. If your point is inherently about politics, then talk about Louis XVI during the French Revolution. Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality—but it’s a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational.
Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back—providing aid and comfort to the enemy. People who would be level-headed about evenhandedly weighing all sides of an issue in their professional life as scientists, can suddenly turn into slogan-chanting zombies when there’s a Blue or Green position on an issue.
In artificial intelligence, and particularly in the domain of nonmonotonic reasoning, there’s a standard problem: “All Quakers are pacifists. All Republicans are not pacifists. Nixon is a Quaker and a Republican. Is Nixon a pacifist?”
What on Earth was the point of choosing this as an example? To rouse the political emotions of the readers and distract them from the main question? To make Republicans feel unwelcome in courses on artificial intelligence and discourage them from entering the field?1
Why would anyone pick such a distracting example to illustrate nonmonotonic reasoning? Probably because the author just couldn’t resist getting in a good, solid dig at those hated Greens. It feels so good to get in a hearty punch, y’know, it’s like trying to resist a chocolate cookie.
As with chocolate cookies, not everything that feels pleasurable is good for you.
I’m not saying that I think we should be apolitical, or even that we should adopt Wikipedia’s ideal of the Neutral Point of View. But try to resist getting in those good, solid digs if you can possibly avoid it. If your topic legitimately relates to attempts to ban evolution in school curricula, then go ahead and talk about it—but don’t blame it explicitly on the whole Republican Party; some of your readers may be Republicans, and they may feel that the problem is a few rogues, not the entire party. As with Wikipedia’s npov, it doesn’t matter whether (you think) the Republican Party really is at fault. It’s just better for the spiritual growth of the community to discuss the issue without invoking color politics.
I think there's one more piece to the story of how the Politics Is the Mindkiller post morphed into the distorted four-words version of itself, which is: sometimes someone wants to talk about politics but they're clearly not ready, rationality-wise. Telling them "politics is the mindkiller" (in general, across all people) is more polite than saying "you-in-particular are not rational enough to talk about politics". Unfortunately, I suspect this sort of doublespeak reduced the amount of attention people paid to other peoples' skill levels, and contributed to some failures of gatekeeping.
This brings up a broader issue of "good norms for telling someone 'you aren't smart enough', 'you are lacking key skills' are a key missing coordination tool."
I am curious about the specifics of the dynamics you're thinking of. Can you think through a few examples and what concretely was going wrong?
From time to time we get users that come to LessWrong and only post about politics. Those users usually are not skilled to rationally discuss politics and there a need to dissuade them by downvoting their posts.
That seems true, but doesn't seem (obviously) directly connected to the specific take: "doublespeak reduced the amount of attention people paid to people's skill levels, and contributed to some failures of gatekeeping."
Would you please briefly define what you consider to be politics? I would assume that posts calling for the "delenda" of the WHO or using wordings like "Second-worst person New York Mayor DeBlasio" or affirmatively citing this tweet are political. And these posts seem to be frontpaged.
I decided that Zvi's content is bypassing the usual frontpage guidelines for now, in an effort strike a balance between informing people of important and urgent developments, while not overwhelming the whole site with political and coronavirus-related content again.
Here is the relevant comment where I announced this policy: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/vkvaAXHN2zPXhDjJC/covid-12-3-land-of-confusion?commentId=dR8FYiztgL4pzwpCs
To make it easier to read, the full text:
After some reflection, I still do not understand the reasoning why the new rule is that Covid-19 content is forbidden except for Zvi's? Why are more level-headed posts banned from the frontpage, making spicing up articles with a certain rhetorics a necessary condition for Covid-19 frontpage posts?
I am pretty confident we don’t want the vast majority of news-driven COVID content on the frontpage. Happy to hear alternative proposals for a relatively simple and clear rule. Since Zvi does these weekly and they tend to be by far the most popular, consistent and comprehensive content, having just these weekly updates and associated posts on the frontpage seems like a reasonable and simple rule to me. If you have a different suggested one, happy to consider that one instead.
I guess I can't suggest a rule here; I seem to misunderstand the rules that are valid on LessWrong. With respect to the more-or-less explicit ones ("unusually high standards of discourse" etc, and "explain not persuade"), my understanding seems to be different from yours. There are also implicit rules which I thought existed as a standard or as an ideal, but they would not fit the preferences revealed by frontpaging or by popularity.
Sorry, just to be clear, Zvi's posts are definitely violating the frontpage guidelines, as are basically all news-driven COVID posts. But we are making an explicit exception to our guidelines in order to make sure that people who follow LessWrong have at least basic guidance and advice during the most crucial phases of this whole coronavirus pandemic. Having the rule of frontpaging Zvi's updates in particular seems like a decent middle-ground of not completely breaking our guidelines while also giving people basic orientation during these critical periods.
I like the idea of front-paging Zvi's weekly updates. (No opinion on whether other COVID-19 content should be barred from the frontpage.)
LessWrong isn't run by consequentialist calculus but by utilitarian calculus.
FYI I don't think this distinction makes sense here, or at least it doesn't feel like the cruxy bit explaining the current disagreement. (I'd say that's more "being rigidly rule based" vs "making tradeoffs sometimes on rule flexibility.")
There is something we can frame in two different ways, either "What is it that the mods make exceptions for?" or "What are the real rules?" I assume this comes down to the same question, but the second version is more explicit.
I think the implicit rule that I perceived was, more or less: "Posts should be about important/useful insights (whatever that means). They should try to explain, be based on and provide evidence when talking about the real world, be written in a level-headed way, avoid sneery comments about outgroups (and be timeless, even though that's sometimes a vague concept). Because the things we want to avoid correlate with politics, we discourage politics in posts."
Now, steelmanning, one could argue that the new rule is the same is before but augmented by "However, if a post contains expectionally important/useful insights (e.g. emergency information), all other criteria can be overruled. If the mods find the main points of a post convincing, other statements in the post then do not have to be rigorously argued for or be backed up by evidence, rants can take the place of level-headed writing, sneery comments about outgroups are ok (timelessness is not a criterion in an emergency anyway), and politics in general is not a problem anymore, including if that essentially means that LessWrong effectively endorses political demands that are not implied by being a rationality community." (I am not saying Zvi's posts are completely like that; instead I am trying to describe a potential rule that would potentially put them in the set of posts allowed for the frontpage, without saying that they are at the extreme border of that set.)
Is that the reasoning?
If so, I'll note that I think it still damages the culture of the forum, but of course that may be justified. But then only the net effect is the justification. And the posts would therefore have to be really exceptionally important. Another possibility would be that the true rule should better be thought of as some function of the listed criteria? Then the more the other criteria are violated the more exceptional the main contant would have to be. However, that would not fit the "exception" reasoning. In any case, I think that it damages the culture more if it's just left as a vague "We'll make an exception", combined with the implicit claim that Zvi's post are very similar to other COVID posts (like this?).
Moreover, I am a bit suspicious of the claims about the unique value of these posts ("to make sure that people who follow LessWrong have at least basic guidance and advice during the most crucial phases of this whole coronavirus pandemic", as habryka wrote above), which would fit the first dimension of the "exception criteria". But as I am not in the US and do follow a different country's media (including social media), it is of course possible that all other sources of information in the US are basically useless.
What I also don't see is why this is "a decent middle-ground of not completely breaking our guidelines"; exceptions do break rules, otherwise they would not be exceptions, right?
habryka thinks that the value that Zvi's post provide means that utilitarian value of making an expection for them from the general rules is positive.
I still don't fully understand what you are saying, so: 1) What does the word "utilitarian" add to this explanation? 2) What would LessWrong run by "consequentialist calculus" look like, in contrast to "run by utilitarian calculus"? 3) Do you equate "habryka thinks" with the utilitarian calculus that is supposed to run LW?
I did not mind the amount of "coronavirus-related content" in April, and I do not remember the site being overwhelmed with political content.
We got a lot of complaints about it, and one of the first things we did was to add ways to filter out coronavirus related stuff from the frontpage. Of course not everyone minded, but I very distinctly had a sense that it was difficult to talk about anything else. It was also all very news-focused, which is something I care a lot about avoiding with LessWrong, because I think becoming news-focused is a very strong attractor for online communities that usually has pretty bad effects on overall intellectual progress.
Hm, in writing out a response to your comment, I noticed that we've not written up the reasoning for frontpaging Zvi's covid updates when we've done it (because it is an exception to the rules). Habryka wrote in March about why we were going to encourage a lot of covid content, and when we've curated Zvi's covid posts (twice) we've written about why we're making the exception in the curation notice. But not for frontpaging. [Edit: I stand corrected, see Habryka's reply to your comment, he did write it.]
For the record, the history of frontpaging here is that we largely stopped frontpaging covid content in May, including Zvi's content. Since then, we frontpaged one of his updates in October, and have consistently been frontpaging them since December. We also curated two of his posts, a general update on safety and precautions in May, and the piece about the new strain in December.
Briefly, I want to do this because I think many in the LessWrong community do not have good information sources during this crisis, and I am concerned about their health and safety, and because I think Zvi's updates are high-quality, honest, readable, and trustworthy. It's a judgment call, and it's costly to the norms around politics. I recognize once you make enough exceptions then the rule is lost. I don't think we're close to that, and I think that especially the covid model curation and the new strain curation were worth it.
Edit: Cut out a paragraph about planning to write an account of why frontpaging Zvi's stuff. Though I still would like to address some of the political stuff.
If I recall the old days and my memory does not fail me, back in the era of the first wave, LessWrong had a a lot of useful Covid-19 content, a bit like an wiki and newsfeed for understanding the situation and getting some tips for self-care. In the comment by Habryka you link to, he explains that it's "Player vs. Environment" and therefore seemingly not as political; in any case, I would understand that description as a normative call. (Of course, putting it in a World War 2 / Manhattan Project context is a bit risky, and at some point some historic explanations for the desire to take action may also be used to summon, say, a taskforce against certain anti-American foreign powers; but I think as of now that is hypothetical.)
At some (relatively early) point of time, the systematic covid-19 coverage was discontinued. Among some other posts, there were Zvi's (personal blog) posts. For these, Habryka's explanations are not valid because they are to a large degree political in the ordinary sense; nonetheless, as you note, one was curated. In my opinion, there would not be much of a need for explaining the reasons for frontpaging if the reasons for curating were clear.
In the linked comment by Habryka and the comments around it, it is claimed that LW's corona coverage has a lot of influence. If that is correct, then calling for the dissolution of the WHO may have had an impact, who knows. But in any case, it seemed and seems to me that LessWrong as a website/community/brand or whatever you may call it embraces the political conclusions when such posts are curated.
For the record, when the first Zvi covid-post curation took place, the explanation was this. I noted my discomfort with the curation. Zvi shrugged. Rob seems to have agreed that Zvi's post was full of "heated rhetoric" but stated that it would probably be fine to people with a lot of insider knowledge and/or deeper insights. At this point, it seemed to me that the criteria for what constitutes an exemplary lesswrong post are applied in a somewhat subjective manner. Rob then said that in a utopian world, politics would be standard LW content; I had no idea what to do with that. The discussion ended. Meanwhile, jacobjacob also saw long-run costs even if he explicitly felt the need to note that he somehow disagreed with me.
I would like to note that the justification for encouraging/frontpaging covid content and the discussion about whether political texts should be encouraged and frontpaged are two very different animals. I welcome covid posts (e.g. this, this, this). I don't even mind politics-related posts very much if they try to be factual, objective, neutral, explanatory, open and avoid to be one-sided, straw-manning, sarcastic, and pandering to insider opinion and requiring club knowledge. I do not say that I never enjoy one-sided, sarcastic essays, or that Zvi's posts are all like that and not useful; and this is not statement about the extent to which I agree with Zvi. But I feel discomfort when rules are applied to everybody except the gold-star club members. I'm not sure I agree with the claim that "once you make enough exceptions then the rule is lost"; I'd rather say "once you make an exception then the understanding of the word 'rule' changes". The previous behavior may have been compatible with a strict understanding of the word, but once you make an exception the meaning changes. I would have preferred a regime of "topics that may have political implications: yes; gray tribe op-eds on American politics: no". (After all, AI safety stuff is also politics-related.)
And let me note that those "in the LessWrong community" who "do not have good information sources during this crisis" and agree that "Zvi's updates are high-quality, honest, readable, and trustworthy" usually see them whether they are frontpaged or not, and whether they are curated or not. I assume frontpaging and curation is more about presentation of the website to the outside. (Though currently, this display window is constituted by curated and shortform posts...)
So, I am in fact pretty wary of the fact that we've been frontpaging these. They do pretty clearly violate our frontpage guidelines (even after chatting with Zvi a bunch and toning down the most obvious stuff). I think we at least should have written up an explanation that we re-link to each time.
I share this discomfort, and think we're currently trying to make some tradeoffs given the (current) implementation of the site, but I think this situation is pretty strong evidence to me that we just need a better system that is less reliant on judgment.
The current problem is that even many longterm members don't realize there's a bunch of non-frontpaged content that they might want to see. We got complaints about people not having known about the Zvi covid posts, and wishing they had seen it.
We've chatted with Zvi about this a bunch, and he's toned down / removed some of the more overt/extreme politicization. But, it's like 10x easier for him to write the essays the way they currently are than to translate them into non-gray-tribe-op-eds that nonetheless make the points he thinks are important. (I think this is a fairly common problem among writers – they have a natural way of thinking/writing and enforcing rules too rigidly ends up killing the golden goose).
I am currently thinking about a couple possible solutions to all this.
I'm interested in what people think about those options (and in any third ideas people have)
I'd go with number 2, because my snap reaction was "ooh, there's a "show personal blogposts" button?"
EDIT: Ok, I found the button. The problem with that button is that it looks identical to the other tags, and is at the right side of the screen when the structure of "Latest" draws your eyes to the left side of the screen. I'd make it a bit bigger and on the left side of the screen.
Another way you can follow the new posts of all kinds is the RSS button on the frontpage (together with an RSS feed reader). You can also select to see all kinds of posts above a certain threshold of "karma", e.g. this. (I think that is independent of whether it's just a personal blogpost, but I currently have a technical problem and cannot really check that.)
Those are the reference category of counter-examples to the current system and some of us are uncomfortable with them as-is. (I'm mostly fine with them overall, all things considered.)
Calling for the "delenda" of the WHO, or the FDA, seem obviously different than the 'original' usage, e.g. "Carthago delenda est!". Zvi is calling for radical reform, or possibly (?) abolishment, of government organizations – not the literal destruction of their leaders or employees.
Referring to DeBlasio as a "worst person" is also pretty narrowly restricted to his pandemic-related actions.
On second thought – you're right that there's pretty overt politicization, but maybe not in the 'standard' (prototypical) U.S. left-versus-right – it's more a 'pandemic-emergency versus business-as-usual' pair of coalitions (as I understand it). This seems – to me – pretty orthogonal to the standard left-versus-right conflicts. But they are overtly political.
I'm still inclined to give those posts a pass on that kind of thing given the enormous value those posts otherwise have. (I also share the general 'delenda est' sentiment towards the referenced organizations and administrations – as organizations and administrations, not as groups of individual people. So I'm definitely biased.)
I did not interpret Zvi's delenda calls as calls for killing people. However, the usage of historical phrases is not innocuous. When you do that, you explicitly refer to the context, including the modern usage. I think it's not useful to make up new interpretations of words on the fly, otherwise we might end up in a Humpty-Dumpty usage of language.
Moreover, I know that the LW community, like every community, likes to use a lot of insider language (which may be signalling, which I explicitly note here also to include an example). But then you should expect that outsiders do not understand it, and give it a different interpretation.
This is kind of reasonable, but I think it should be rounded-off to ignored – in this case.
In general, language is 'merely reasonable' – it's always a bit Humpty-Dumpty.
I don't think the use of any phrase, historical or not, could be considered explicit reference of its "context".
Even words like 'family', historically, sometimes referred to the 'servants' (and slaves) of a household. But it seems reasonable to continue using 'family' – the common agreement of English speakers/listeners/writers/readers is that's perfectly okay and unobjectionable.
Or maybe you're right? 'delenda est' is very different from 'family'. There really aren't any other uses or interpretations beyond, at most, metaphorical violence. I certainly don't like (some) other violent words or phrases (sometimes), even when they're obviously metaphorical. And it's not obviously wrong to think that avoiding 'violent' language might be net-good anyways.
But this post was cross-posted from the author's personal blog and is a (mildly) contentious exception to the kinds of posts that are normally considered worth listing on the 'front page' of the site. Because of that, I'm still inclined to let this pass.
But I've definitely changed my mind about the phrase being entirely innocuous.
Upvoted. This is a very interesting direction for distillation to go; it seems eminently worthwhile to me to pull out sections of older essays to refresh the public memory, and then perhaps refine them independently. This provides the opportunity to approach the same point from a different level of group development, which feels necessary from time to time.
This is a useful thing that's often done on Stack Overflow too – 'duplicate' questions are closed and linked to the 'original' question but not deleted. That allows multiple 'vectors' (e.g. via different web searches) to converge on canonical info.
What you pointed out is different – approaching "the same point from a different level of group development" – but seems broadly similar and, I'd guess, would be similarly useful.
A bit off topic maybe, but when I read the original post, the part that resonated the most with me, and is now always in the back of mind during political discussions with my friends, is this:
I've seen the first part condensed elsewhere on the site to "debate is war; arguments are soldiers", which is the phrasing I generally use in conversation. This sets the stage for the key insight "you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side". When I say that, the message often seems to get through, and people seem to think a little more reflectively. The tone of the conversation can soften and it can lead to a more nuanced and less combative discussion. I've even had people say, "Yeah, my side might be wrong about a few things, even though they're still way better than that other side."
Which, in general, I consider a huge win.
That's good data – thanks!
I agree that "debate is war; arguments are soldiers" is probably a better rhetorical tactic than "politics is the mindkiller". The latter's much more of an 'insider' phrase.
Happy to give an 'outsider' viewpoint!
It's funny, at the point where I had only read the post and not discussed it with anyone, I never parsed "politics is the mindkiller" as any of "politics=boo" or "you are not smart/rational enough to debate politics with me" or even "your mind has been so killed by politics that we can't have a conversation where we understand each other". I always thought of it as "politics kills everybody's mind, like it or not, especially if they're not aware of it", and felt mostly sympathy for all of us that this is the case. In conversations, I only use "politics is the mindkiller" in the sense of "look what this is doing to all of us, no matter what side you're on!" and always after we have shared examples of how both sides have behaved badly. I think doing it this way can help them start to see through the "must support our arguments, must attack theirs" pattern, which is probably so hardwired into people that they never realize it exists. I know I never did, until I read this post.
Reminder that "avoiding politics" does not mean taking a neutral position or casting equal shade on both (primary) sides of a current issue. No issue has two equally worthy sides, and the question of how to even measure "worthiness" is, itself, political.
Recommendation 0: Find another site/forum to express your opinions/insights. If it's not about applied nor theoretical rationality, nor about AI, this probably isn't the place for it.
An easy test - if you can boil your post down to "I notice I am confused", it's probably good here (also "I was confused, and here's what clarified it for me"). If, instead, it boils down to "I notice other people are confused", maybe not here. I recommend this whether you're following up with "people are crazy and the world is mad" or with "let's raise the sanity waterline by un-confusing these people who aren't listening to us".
I... think I disagree with this as worded, but not sure.
I probably disagree with some interpretations of that wording, too. I do wish there were less current-event politics on the site (even on personal blogs), and I do think there's something in the "other people's rationality" idea about what is mind-killing and annoying about discussing politics. But I don't think it's quite the natural divider that would make a good rule. I give it as a pointer and a guideline about when to think twice (and thrice) before posting.
Yeah that seems more reasonable.
Actually, I think the rule I try to follow is "if I want to complain about other people are confused, check and see if I am also confused in that way, and then write the post about that personal experience." (This is what I did for Schelling Choice is Rabbit)
"And what about very old friends?"
I think this is also a good place for making better maps, or is that what you meant by "applied rationality"?
Improving your own maps and describing how, I'm totally in favor. That's awesome. Improving the maps of LessWrong readers, by refining or correcting ideas discussed here, also great. Improving the maps of people who aren't reading LessWrong? I think that's an error to undertake as a LessWrong post.
Not sure about your "very old friends" question. I don't recognize the quote, and don't know what you're referring to.
I find it strange that our response to "politics is the mindkiller" has been less "how can we think more rationally about politics?" and more "let's avoid politics". If feasible, the former would pay off long-term.
Of course, a lot of more general ideas pertaining to rationality can be applied to politics too. But if politics is still the mindkiller, this may not be enough -- more techniques may be needed to deal with the affective override that politics can cause.
I think the idea is that you can learn rationality techniques that can be applied to politics much more easily by using examples that are not political.
That's the idea behind the post, yeah. I am referring more to the general culture of the site, since it is relevant here.