Related to: Intellectual Hipsters, X-Rationality: Not So GreatThe Importance of Self-Doubt, That Other Kind of Status,

This is a scheduled upgrade of a post that I have been working on in the discussion section. Thanks to all the commenters there, and special thanks to atucker, Gabriel, Jonathan_Graehl, kpreid, XiXiDu, and Yvain for helping me express myself more clearly.


For the most part, I am excited about growing as a rationalist. I attended the Berkeley minicamp; I play with Anki cards and Wits & Wagers; I use Google Scholar and spreadsheets to try to predict the consequences of my actions.

There is a part of me, though, that bristles at some of the rationalist 'culture' on Less Wrong, for lack of a better word. The advice, the tone, the vibe 'feels' wrong, somehow. If you forced me to use more precise language, I might say that, for several years now, I have kept a variety of procedural heuristics running in the background that help me ferret out bullshit, partisanship, wishful thinking, and other unsound debating tactics -- and important content on this website manages to trigger most of them. Yvain suggests that something about the rapid spread of positive affect not obviously tied to any concrete accomplishments may be stimulating a sort of anti-viral memetic defense system.

Note that I am *not* claiming that Less Wrong is a cult. Nobody who runs a cult has such a good sense of humor about it. And if they do, they're so dangerous that it doesn't matter what I say about it. No, if anything, "cultishness" is a straw man. Eliezer will not make you abandon your friends and family, run away to a far-off mountain retreat and drink poison Kool-Aid. But, he *might* convince you to believe in some very silly things and take some very silly actions.

Therefore, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, I am writing a one-article attack on much of we seem to hold dear. If there is anything true about what I'm saying, you will want to read it, so that you can alter your commitments accordingly. Even if, as seems more likely, you don't believe a word I say, reading a semi-intelligent attack on your values and mentally responding to it will probably help you more clearly understand what it is that you do believe. 

Wishful Thinking

As far as I can tell, some of the most prominent themes in terms of short-term behavioral advice being given on Less Wrong are:  

1) Sign up for cryonics,

2) Donate to SIAI,

3) Drop out of any religious groups you might belong to, and

4) Take chemical stimulants

I don't mean to imply that this is the *only* advice given, or even that these are the four most important ones. Rather, I claim that these four topics, taken together, account for a large share of the behavioral advice dispensed here. I predict that you would find it difficult or impossible to construct a list of four other pieces of behavioral advice such that people would reliably say that your list is more fairly representative of the advice on Less Wrong. As XiXiDu was kind enough to put it, there is numerical evidence to suggest that my list is "not entirely unfounded."

The problem with this advice is that, for certain kinds of tech/geek minds, the advice is extremely well-optimized for cheaply supporting pleasurable yet useless beliefs -- a kind of wireheading that works on your prefrontal cortex instead of directly on your pleasure centers.

By cheaply, I mean that the beliefs won't really hurt's relatively safe to believe in them. If you believe that traffic in the U.S. drives on the left-hand-side of the street, that's a very expensive belief; no matter happy you are thinking that you, and only you, know the amazing secret of LeftTrafficIsm, you won't get to experience that happiness for very long, because you'll get into an auto accident by tomorrow at the latest. By contrast, believing that your vote in the presidential primaries makes a big difference to the outcome of the election is a relatively cheap belief. You can go around for several years thinking of yourself as an important, empowered, responsible citizen, and all it costs you is a few hours (tops) of waiting in line at a polling station. In both cases, you are objectively and obviously wrong -- but in one case, you 'purchase' a lot of pleasure with a little bit of wrongness, and in the other case, you purchase a little bit of pleasure with a tremendous amount of wrongness.

Among the general public, one popular cheap belief to 'buy' is that a benevolent, powerful God will take you away to magical happy sunshine-land after you die, if and only if you're a nice person who doesn't commit suicide. As it's stated, indulging in that belief doesn't cost you much in terms of your ability to achieve your other goals, and it gives you something pleasant to think about. This belief is unpopular with the kind of people who are attracted to Less Wrong, even before they get here, because we are much less likely to compartmentalize our beliefs.

If you have a sufficiently separate compartment for religion, you can believe in heaven without much affecting your belief in evolution. God's up there, bacteria are down here, and that's pretty much the end of it. If you have an integrated, physical, reductionist model of the Universe, though, believing in heaven would be very expensive, because it would undermine your hard-won confidence in lots of other practically useful beliefs. If there are spirits floating around in Heaven somewhere, how do you know there aren't spirits in your water making homeopathy work? If there's a benevolent God watching us, how do you know He hasn't magically guided you to the career that best suits you? And so on. For geeks, believing in heaven is a lousy bargain, because it costs way too much in terms of practical navigation ability to be worth the warm fuzzy thoughts.

Enter...cryonics and friendly AI. Oh, look! Using only physical, reductionist-friendly mechanisms, we can show that a benevolent, powerful entity whose mind is not centered on any particular point in space (let's call it 'Sysop' instead of God) might someday start watching over us. As an added bonus, as long as we don't commit suicide by throwing our bodies into the dirt as soon as our hearts stop beating, we can wake up in the future using the power of cryonics! The future will be kinder, richer, and generally more fun than the present...much like magical happy sunshine-land is better than Earth.

Unlike pre-scientific religion, the "cryonics + Friendly AI" Sysop story is 'cheap' for people who rarely compartmentalize. You can believe in Sysop without needing to believe in anything that can't be explained in terms of charge, momentum, spin, and other fundamental physical properties. Like pre-scientific religion, the Sysop story is a whole lot of fun to think about and believe in. It makes you happy! That, in and of itself, doesn't make you wrong, but it is very important to stay aware of the true causes of your beliefs. If you came to believe a relatively strange and complicated idea because it made you happy, it is very unlikely that this same idea just happens to also be strongly entangled with reality.


As for dropping out of other religious communities, well, they're the quintessential bad guys, right? Not only do they believe in all kinds of unsubstantiated woo, they suck you into a dense network of personal relationships -- which we at Less Wrong want earnestly to re-create, just, you know, without any of the religion stuff. The less emotional attachment you have to your old community, the more you'll be free and available to help bootstrap ours!

Why should you spend all your time trying to get one of the first rationalist communities up and running (hard) instead of joining a pre-existing, respectable religious community (easy)? Well, to be fair, there are lots of good reasons. Depending on how rationalist you are, you might strongly prefer the company of other rationalists, both as people to be intimate with and as people to try to run committee meetings with. If you're naturally different enough from the mainstream, it could be more fun and less frustrating for you to just join up with a minority group, despite the extra effort needed to build it up.

There is a meme on Less Wrong, though, that rationalist communities are not just better-suited to the unique needs of rationalists, but also better in general. Rationality is the lens that sees its own flaws. We get along better, get fit faster, have more fun, and know how to do more things well. Through rationality, we learn to optimize everything in sight. Rationality should ultimately eat the whole world.

Again, you have to ask yourself: what are the odds that these beliefs are driven by valid evidence, as opposed to ordinary human instincts for supporting their own tribe and denigrating their neighbors? As Eliezer very fairly acknowledges, we don't even have decent metrics for measuring rationality itself, let alone for measuring the real-world effects that rationality supposedly has or will have on people's wealth, health, altruism, reported happiness, etc.

Do we *really* identify our own flaws and then act accordingly, or do we just accept the teachings of professional neuroscientists -- who may or may not be rationalists -- and invent just-so stories 'explaining' how our present or future conduct dovetails with those teachings? Take the "foveal blind spot" that tricks us into perceiving stars in the night sky as disappearing when you look straight at them. Do you (or anyone you know) really have the skill to identify a biological human flaw, connect it with an observed phenomenon, and then deviate from conventional wisdom on the strength of your analysis? If mainstream scientists believed that stars don't give off any light that strikes the Earth directly head-on, would you be able to find, digest, and apply the idea of foveal blind spots in order to prove them wrong? If not, do you still think that rationalist communities are better than other communities for intelligent but otherwise ordinary people? Why?

It would be really convenient if rationality, the meme-cluster that we most enjoy and are best-equipped to participate in, also happened to be the best for winning at life. In case it turns out that life is not quite so convenient, maybe we should be a little humbler about our grand experiment. Even if we have good reason to assert that mainstream religious thinking is flawed, maybe we should be slower to advise people to give up the health benefits (footnote 15) of belonging, emotionally, to one or another religious community.


Finally, suppose you publicly declared yourself to have nigh-on-magical powers -- by virtue of this strange thing that few people in your area understand, "rationality," you can make yourself smarter, more disciplined, more fun to be around, and generally awesome-r. Of course, rationality takes time to blossom -- everyone understands that; you make it clear. You do not presently have big angelic powers, it is just that you will get your hands on them soon.

A few months go by, maybe a year, and while you have *fascinating* insights into cognitive biases, institutional inefficiencies, and quantum physics, your friends either can't understand them or are bored to tears by your omphaloskepsis. You need to come up with something that will actually impress them, and soon, or you'll suffer from cognitive dissonance and might have to back off of your pleasurable belief that rationality is better than other belief systems.

Lo and behold, you discover the amazing benefits of chemical stimulants! Your arcane insights into the flaws of the institutional medical establishment and your amazing ability to try out different experimental approaches and faithfully record which ones work best have allowed you to safely take drugs that the lay world shuns as overly dangerous. These drugs do, in fact, boost your productivity, your apparent energy, and your mood. You appear to be smarter and more fun than those around you who are not on rationally identified stimulants. Chalk one up for rationality.

Unless, of course, the drugs have undesirable long-term or medium-term effects. Maybe you develop tolerance and have to take larger and larger doses. Maybe you wear out your liver or your kidneys, or lower your bone density. Maybe you mis-underestimate your ability to operate heavy machinery on polyphasic sleep cycles, and drive off the side of the road. Less Wrong is too young, as a meme cluster, for most of these hazards to have been triggered. I wouldn't bet on any one of those outcomes for any one drug...but if your answer to the challenges of life is to self-medicate, you're taking on a whole lot more risk than the present maturity of the discipline of rationality would seem to warrant.


I've tried my best not to frontally engage any of the internal techniques or justifications of rationality. On what Robin Hanson would call an inside view, rationality looks very, very attractive, even to me. By design, I have not argued here that, e.g., it is difficult to revive a frozen human brain, or that the FDA is the best judge of which drugs are safe.

What I have tried to do instead is imagine rationality and all its parts as a black box, and ask: what goes into it, and what comes out of it? What goes in is a bunch of smart nonconformists. What comes out, at least so far, is some strange advice. The advice pays off on kind of a bimodal curve: cryonics and SIAI pay off at least a decade in the future, if at all, whereas drugs and quitting religion offer excellent rewards now, but may involve heavy costs down the road.

The relative dearth of sustainable yet immediate behavioral payoffs coming out of the box leads me to suspect that the people who go into the box go there not so much to learn about superior behaviors, but to learn about superior beliefs. The main sense in which the beliefs are superior in terms of their ability to make tech/geek people think happy thoughts without 'paying' too much in bad outcomes.

I hold this suspicion with about 30% confidence. That's not enough to make me want to abandon the rationalist project -- I think, on balance, it still makes sense for us to try to figure this stuff out. It is enough for me to want to proceed more carefully. I would like to see an emphasis on low-hanging fruit. What can we safely accomplish this month? this year? I would like to see warnings and disclaimers. Instead of blithely informing everyone else of how awesome we are, maybe we should give a cheerful yet balanced description of the costs and benefits. It's OK to say that we think the benefits outweigh the costs...but, in a 2-minute conversation, the idea of costs should be acknowledged at least once. Finally, I would like to see more emphasis on testing and measuring rationality. I will work on figuring out ways to do this, and if anyone has any good measurement schemes, I will be happy to donate some of my money and/or time to support them.

New Comment
162 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

I've tried my best not to frontally engage any of the internal techniques or justifications of rationality. On what Robin Hanson would call an inside view, rationality looks very, very attractive, even to me. By design, I have not argued here that, e.g., it is difficult to revive a frozen human brain, or that the FDA is the best judge of which drugs are safe.

To be honest, I think you should have. Meta-arguments for why the causes of our beliefs are suspect are never going to be as convincing as evidence for why the beliefs themselves are wrong.

Also, I think the parts about psychoactive drugs are somewhere between off-topic and a straw man. One of the posts you linked is titled "Coffee: When it helps, when it hurts"--two sides of an argument for a stimulant that probably a supermajority of adults use regularly. In another, 2 of the 18 suggestions offered involve substance use.

Thirdly, while rationality in the presence of akrasia does not have amazing effects on making us more effective, rationality does have one advantage that's been overlooked a lot lately: it results in true beliefs. Some people, myself included, value this for its own sake, and it is a real benefit.

Meta-arguments for why the causes of our beliefs are suspect are never going to be as convincing as evidence for why the beliefs themselves are wrong.

However, even if the beliefs are correct, many people will still accept them for the wrong reasons. These "meta-arguments" are powerful psychological forces, which affect all people.

I would suspect that LW has a small bunch of people who have arrived at LW:ish beliefs because of purely rational reasoning. There's a larger group that has arrived at the same beliefs ~purely because of human biases (including the factors listed in the post). And then there's a larger yet group that has arrived at them partially because of rational reasoning, and partially because of biases.

Maybe I should drop the stimulants! What other advice have you noticed on Less Wrong?
Not really. I have been saying the same as you, that a true belief is valueable in and of itself, even if you don't like the consequences. But I don't believe that to be true anymore. As Roko once wrote, "I wish I would have never learnt about existential risks".
I also used to feel very optimistic and excited about 'true beliefs', believing having more of them would represent such incredible progress, but now I only have the memory of valuing them, and continue to pursue them a little out of discipline and habit. Scientific belief is an exception, but regarding anything that I would call 'philosophical' (for lack of a better word), pursuing true belief seems empty after all. My reasons for this is that I thought 'true belief' (how I define it, as a collection of metaphysical/philosophical ideas) would reflect some kind of reality (for example, a framework of objective value) but since such ideas aren't entangled with reality, they don't matter. By the way, I consider 3^^^^3 years from now to be not entangled with reality. Having just read through your link and the helpful comments people made throughout, could you comment on which advice was most immediately helpful, or having you found any temporary or ameliorating patches since then?
I would have to read the replies again to give a definite answer, but mostly I now reason along the lines of this comment.

The advice, the tone, the vibe 'feels' wrong, somehow. If you forced me to use more precise language, I might say that, for several years now, I have kept a variety of procedural heuristics running in the background that help me ferret out bullshit, partisanship, wishful thinking, and other unsound debating tactics -- and important content on this website manages to trigger most of them.

To come up with a theory on the fly, maybe there are two modes of expansion for a group: by providing some service, and by sheer memetic virulence. One memetic virulence strategy operates by making outlandish promises that subscribing to it will make you smarter, richer, more successful, more attractive to the opposite sex, and just plain superior to other people - and then doing it in a way that can't obviously be proven wrong. This strategy usually involves people with loads of positive affect going around telling people how great their group is and how they need to join.

As a memetic defense strategy, people learn to identify this kind of spread and to shun groups that display its features. From the inside, this strategy manifests as a creepy feeling.

LW members have lots of positive affect arou... (read more)

we make outrageously bold claims about getting smarter and richer and sexier

I'd like to know where all this LW-boasting is going on. I don't think I hear it at the meetups in Mountain View, but maybe I've been missing something.

Darnit, I don't like being vague and I also don't like pointing to specific people and saying "YOU! YOU SOUND CULTISH!" so I'm going to have a hard time answering this question in a satisfying way, but...

Lots of people are looking into things like nootropics/intelligence amplification, entrepreneurship, and pick-up artistry. And this is great. What gives me the creepy vibe is when they say (more on the site than at meetups) "And of course, we'll succeed at these much faster than other people have, even though they are professionals in this field, because we're Rationalists and they weren't." Anything involving the words "winning", "awesomeness", or gratuitous overuse of community identification terms like "primate" or "utility".

Trying to look for examples, I notice it is a smaller proportion of things than I originally thought and I'm probably biased toward overcounting them, which makes sense since in order to justify my belonging to a slightly creepy group I need to exaggerate my opposition to the group's creepiness.

Nonetheless, perhaps we need to adopt a new anti-cultishness norm against boasting about the predicted success of rationalists; or against ascribing personal victories to one's rationality without having actually done the math to demonstrate the correlation between success and rationality. The cult attractor is pretty damn bad, after all, and ending up in it could easily destroy one hell of a lot of value.


norm against boasting about ... predicted success

This is a great idea!

One memetic virulence strategy operates by making outlandish promises that subscribing to it will make you smarter, richer, more successful, more attractive to the opposite sex, and just plain superior to other people - and then doing it in a way that can't obviously be proven wrong.

That similarity is the key to both the perceived creepiness factor and the signal:noise ratio on this site. Groups formed to provide a service have performance standards that their members must achieve and maintain: drama clubs and sports teams have tryouts, jobs have interviews, schools have GPA requirements, etc. By contrast, groups serving as vehicles for contagious memes avoid standards. Every believer, even if personally useless to the stated aims of the group, is a potential transmission vector.

I see two reasons to care which of those classes of groups LW more closely resembles: first, to be aware of how we're coming across to others; and second, as a measure of whether anything is actually being accomplished here.

Personally, I try to avoid packaging LW's community and content into an indivisible bundle. From Resist the Happy Death Spiral:

To summarize, you do avoid a Happy Death Spiral by (1)

... (read more)
* reminder that it wasn't always like this

I'm confused by the claim that those four are "the most prominent themes in terms of short-term behavioral advice" around here.

When I think of advice given here, "use drugs!" doesn't seem to be in my top seven. Most of the advice I've heard around here, both from the Sequences and others, seems to be in what might be considered "epistemic hygiene" or good practices with regards to discovering and recognizing truth. This would include being aware of cognitive biases, noticing confusion, and so on. And many of these are indeed "short-term" advice, at least in the sense that some of them can be implemented very quickly.

(They're certainly more "short-term" than dropping out of a religious group would be, for a person who's actually involved in religion.)

What I think you might have in your list of four, there, is not a list of the most prominent themes here, but rather a list of some themes that worry you. And, as you note, they're worth worrying about — to a certain extent, these are themes that, if taken in the wrong direction, might participate in a cult attractor.

Avoiding becoming a cult is a recurring theme here. And as we know, you... (read more)

I agree that "use drugs!" didn't seem to be on the list. For a little while, "be a vegetarian!" seemed to be in play, but it faded.

Honestly, I think the cluster of tech-savvy, young, smart-but-nonconformist types is really winning at the goal of being productive while happy. Not everybody makes it; but I've seen a lot of people have lives more satisfying than their parents ever could. People who've broken the conventional wisdom that you have to put up with a lot of bullshit because "that's life." Mainly, because instead of asking "What is the Thing To Do?" they've got the hang of asking "What is the best thing I could be doing?"

If cryonics is a bust, I'll grant that it's a genuine waste of money. The same is true for SIAI. (Though I'll mention that lots of otherwise fulfilled people donate to demonstrably inefficient charities that spend most of their money on employee salaries. Most middle-class people throw some money down the toilet and don't even notice it.) The other issues are not such a big deal. Leaving religious communities is not a blow to people who have figured out how to optimize life, because they aren't isolated any more. I don't even know if overuse of stimulants is that widespread -- I certainly know they aren't good for me.

As for having self-gratifying b... (read more)

Honestly, I think the cluster of tech-savvy, young, smart-but-nonconformist types is really winning at the goal of being productive while happy.

As a general rule, nonconformists aren't happy: they must choose between hiding their nonconformity and living a double life, which is never a happy situation, or being open nonconformists and suffering severe penalties for it. What you have in mind would probably be better described as people who know how to send off fashionable signals of officially approved pseudo-nonconformity, and to recognize and disregard rules that are only paid lip-service (and irrelevant except as a stumbling block for those not smart enough to realize it), but are perfect and enthusiastic conformists when it comes to things that really matter.

The key to successful non-conformity is to find your tribe later. If you look at people who've done this now, they seem like conformists, because they do what their peer-group does. But they've fit their peer-group to their personality, rather than trying to fit their personality to their peer-group. They've had to move through local minima of non-conformity.

Here are some examples of where I've made what have at the time been socially brave choices that have paid off big. This is exactly all about asking "what is the best thing I could be doing", not "what is the thing to do".

  • Decided to accept and admit to my bisexuality. This was very uncomfortable at first, and I never did really find a "home" in gay communities, as they conformed around a lot of norms that didn't suit me well. What accepting my sexuality really bought me is a critical stance on masculinity. Rejecting the normal definition of "what it means to be a man" has been hugely liberating. Being queer has a nice signalling perk on this, too. It's much harder to be straight and get away with this. If you're queer people shrug and put you in that "third sex" category of ne

... (read more)
We clearly disagree on the definition of "nonconformity." If you use this word for any instance of resisting social pressure, then clearly you are right, but it also means that everyone is a nonconformist except people who live their entire lives as silent, frightened, and obedient doormats for others. Any success in life is practically impossible if you don't stand up for yourself when it's smart to do so, and if you don't exploit some opportunities opened by the hypocritical distinctions between the nominal and real rules of social interactions and institutions. But I wouldn't call any of that "nonconformity," a term which I reserve for opposition to truly serious and universally accepted rules and respectable beliefs. Of course, it makes little sense to argue over definitions, so I guess we can leave it at that.
Thanks for the clarification. I tend to call what you call non-conformists "sole dissenters". I've never done this.
If it makes any difference to you, my definition of "nonconformist" was someone who exhibits some social courage. For example, someone who decides to leave college to pursue plans of his own. Many people don't stand up for themselves even a little. Or acknowledge to themselves that they don't desire what other people expect for them. I have a hard time with this myself, which is why I don't take this ability for granted. That's all I meant by "nonconformist." Don't take the terminology too seriously
None of these are non conformity: All of them are fashionable signals of officially approved affluent pseudo-nonconformity. For example, the vast majority of people who claim to vegetarians, are not, but claim to vegetarians for the status. And it simply absurd to suggest that Australian champagne socialists disapprove of hiring domestic help They are always one upping each other on how little housework they do.

Almost everything's fashionable to someone, somewhere. You can start with a certain in-group and non-conform by deciding to eat meat. You can non-conform out of the gay community by deciding you're actually straight.

The issue of conformity arose in this thread from SarahC's comment:

Honestly, I think the cluster of tech-savvy, young, smart-but-nonconformist types is really winning at the goal of being productive while happy. Not everybody makes it; but I've seen a lot of people have lives more satisfying than their parents ever could. People who've broken the conventional wisdom that you have to put up with a lot of bullshit because "that's life." Mainly, because instead of asking "What is the Thing To Do?" they've got the hang of asking "What is the best thing I could be doing?"

I think this really applies to me. My assessment of my life is that I'm much happier because of these moments where I've exercised even a little bit of courage in the face of social pressure. It wasn't a huge amount of courage, but it was non-zero --- which is more than many people are willing to do. I do believe that being utterly craven in the face of social opprobrium is a common failure mode, and it's an area where rationality pays dividends.

Got a cite for that? Vegetarianism might be a questionable indicator of nonconformity, but I'd be much more willing to believe that vegetarianism's become common enough in a broad spectrum of subcultures to be disqualified as such than that a vast, or even a simple, majority of professed vegetarians aren't actual vegetarians. Perhaps modulo some wiggle room for culturally mandated meat-eating, like Thanksgiving turkeys in the US. Now that I think about it, actually, it's a non sequitur either way. The hypocrisy/sincere profession ratio of a feature doesn't tell us much of anything about how acceptable it is in the mainstream: I'd expect many more people to claim to have Mafia ties than do in fact, but membership in a criminal fraternity is almost by definition nonconformist!
By the most naive rational appraisal, eating n% less meat than usual is fully n% as good -- say, for suffering animals -- as being a pure vegetarian. However, the social consequences of being a pure vegetarian seem to be entirely different than those of simply eating less meat. (I agree with sam0345 that those social consequences are largely positive.) It's interesting to think about why.
Also, a question about the "not vegetarians" thing. I'll grant you ahead of time that a great many vegetarians/vegans aren't doing it for any particularly rational reason. E.g., they think it's healthier (it's not), they think meat's gross (subjective --- but they're wrong anyway :p), they exaggerate the environmental case, etc. But I have a hard time believing they actually fail to eat little to no meat. What are you counting as "failing to be vegetarian"? If they eat meat once a month? Once a week? Once a day? I'd say that someone that eats meat once a day is not vegetarian. But I'd also say it's reasonable for someone who eats meat even once a week to call themselves vegetarian. Are you claiming that there are lots of people who call themselves vegetarian but eat almost as much meat as "normal" people? Even if vegetarianism were entirely status neutral, you need to communicate to people what you want to be eating. If you tell everyone "okay, I eat meat once a week", then chances are high two people per week are going to say "great, here's some meat". So you won't even be able to maintain this very liberal ratio. I sometimes eat certain types of seafood, such as oysters or prawns, because I don't believe this is actually cruel. An oyster is not a pig. It doesn't have much of a nervous system to speak of. So why should I avoid eating them, just to meet someone's definition? Similarly, if someone can't live healthily on a strictly vegetarian diet, but needs to eat some meat, why do they need to snap back to "no special diet" status? If they still think the meat industry is largely cruel, they can probably meet their health requirements by eating only a little meat. Why should this person not call themselves a vegetarian?
I personally eat very little meat. I don't consider myself to be vegetarian. I have never met a self-professed vegetarian that I've seen to eat meat. Not that this means there aren't any... but my experience suggest to me that meat-eating vegetarians are not "the majority" I can, however, conceive that some vegans might say that non-vegan vegetarians are not "really" vegetarian. I am also aware of a certain movement, sprung from the vegetarian community, to spruik the "eat less meat" philosophy. One of these may be where sam0345 is hearing about non-vegetarian vegetarians...
Of course this person can call himself a vegetarian. But that he is inclined to do so would indicate that vegetarianism is not non conformity.
I don't follow? Even if vegetarianism is highly negative starus, the word's useful as a way to communicate your pre-commitments. Again, imagine the person who eats meat once a week attending several events per week where they will be expected to eat meat. If they don't call themselves vegetarian, they won't be able to keep their commitment. This says nothing about how much status they are gaining or losing, or how much they are 'conforming'.
Academics are lower-status than lawyers where you are?
It sure seemed that way when I was 17.
Different things can be meant by the word 'nonconformist'. Is it someone who doesn't care about conforming or someone who cares about non-conforming? The first kind of person will act weird as long as it doesn't hurt them too much but they will not engage in any norm-breaking that could put them in actual danger. They will even signal their harmless weirdness if they feel like it. The second kind will set out to prove to themselves that they are truly different and unique. There are also people who feel strongly about being 'normal' and they also feel strongly about adhering to the cultural ideal of romantic rebelliousness that you talk about in your later comment so they will indeed seek cheap ways to signal nonconformist traits. I read SarahC's comment as referring to nonconformists of the first kind, while from your comment I got the impression that you divide the space of weird people into 'true nonconformists' who seek weirdness for its own sake and pseudo-conconformists who really want to fit in but at the same time try to give out a rebel vibe.
Examples of these categories would be helpful. (In general, I find your comments interesting and your perspective important, but have a hard time understanding you due to frequent oblique allusions like these. I know that some of the time you're trying not to step on landmines, which seems like a good idea, but this doesn't seem like one of those cases.) (On-topic, I agree with Mycroft65536.)

It seems to me that every human society has some romantic notion of heroic rebels and nonconformists, but for reasons that are interesting to speculate on, ours is obsessed with it to a very exceptional degree. (So much that people nowadays typically use the word "nonconformist" with a tone of approval, and rarely for those who fail to conform with norms and views that they themselves actually like.) This opens the way for people to gain status if they are capable of doing things that signal in a way that resonates with this heroic "nonconformist" image, while at the same time avoiding any really dangerous nonconformity.

Take for example all those artists and authors who get praised as "daring," "transgressive", "challenging taboos," etc., even though the things they do have been run-of-the-mill for many decades (or even much longer), the views they express (insofar as they express any) are entirely predictable for anyone familiar with the respectable intellectual mainstream, their high status is acknowledged by the mainstream media and academia, and some of them even get rich off of this "nonconformity." There are many ot... (read more)

Doesn't have to be as serious as bucking the law. It can even be as simple as telling your boss that his idea won't work (because of X, Y and Z). Or deciding to buck the corporate dress-requirements because you know you will never be put in front of a real customer and therefore should be allowed to be comfortable at work... etc etc
Only if you stretch the definition of "nonconformity" to the point of meaninglessness. If you define it so broadly to include things like these you mention -- polite disagreement with authority figures over technical matters and slight bending of rules to make things easier -- then practically every human being who has ever lived has been a "nonconformist."
Ah... by this I take it that you've never worked in a job where telling the boss what to do will end in your being disciplined for not toeing the company line. We're not talking "polite disagreement over technical matters" here. There are situations of this kind where you definitely suffer social stigma for speaking out. ...mostly when the company has become a cult... and it's much better to avoid this kind of company if you can - but that's very difficult in today's corporate culture.
Now I understand better what you're talking about. I have seen such examples of institutional mendacity, and I certainly agree that in some sorts of institutions it is so widespread that you may be faced with unpleasant trade-offs between your career (or other) interest and your integrity. So yes, I'd certainly count it as real nonconformity if you opt for the latter.

Here is fake nonconformist and here is real one.

Your real non-conformist still has buddies. That's why it's worth his while to get coded tattoos which have online explanations.
For a complete list of examples of officially approved pseudo non conformity, see "Stuff White People Like" Vegetarianism, or the pious pretense of vegetarianism, is pretty high on the list. Deep fry pork belly in smoking hot pig fat till light brown, then gently simmer on a slow heat. It will cure most people's foodie affectations. The slow simmer will produce some nice meat juices, which you should add to the roast potatoes.
I'm not sure about that. The world is big enough that you can live most of your life mostly in contact with other non-conformists in your particular cluster. I'm doing that right now.
The critical issue here is whether your nonconformist group has a truly independent status hierarchy and mechanisms of social support, i.e. if it really allows you to sever ties with the mainstream society and institutions so that you don't have to care about your status and reputation with them without severe negative consequences. I can hardly think of any such nonconformist groups except for some very insular religious sects -- the modern trend is almost uniformly towards strong consolidation of a single and universal status hierarchy whose rules apply to everyone.
Geeks, Scifi-fans, role-playing gamers....
Maybe in the 80's, when we were only a few Satan worshipping nuts, but we are now in 21st century where science fiction and fantasy decisively won and is The Mainstream Culture now. Of 10 biggest grossing movies of the year, all are F/SF and role playing games are worldwide multibillion industry. Someone who does not know who is Harry Potter and what is Warcraft is the crazy weirdo :P
Some SF movies have been popular of late - and most mainstream films have become more science-heavy... but people that watch these shows are in no way fans of the genre. I don't know of any Mainstream types who read SF books regularly or who avidly watch more than one or two of the most main of mainstream SF shows/series. By contrast, even the non-uber-geek SF fans will know a Ferengi from a Centari by sight, will understand what the odd-even rule is and can probably rattle of the three laws of robotics (plus the extra one) on the spot. These are the people I mean - and I still think there's a difference between them and people who may have just watched The Matrix, LOTR or one of the X-Men movies. Actually being part of the full on SF fandom culture is definitely non-conformist. Think trekkies (or trekkers if you prefer). And by role-playing gamers... I don't mean video games... I mean classic dice-rolling "your elven warlock spots three kobolds" kind of role-playing games. WoW is a different kettle of fish... but I know of nobody that thinks classic RPGs are "mainstream".
Awesome. I really like this position; it feels right. It was too stingy of me to say that all rationalism buys is a chance to conform, and it's too optimistic of certain LW cheerleaders to claim that rationality will promptly sweep the world or grant us superpowers. Your comment nails the middle path between these two extremes. :-)
Are you deliberately trying to invoke our Deep Wisdom alarms with an incredibly blatant golden mean fallacy?
[Grin] Guilty as charged. That said, I do really like SarahC's position.

The bit about drugs is just stupefying. Did you really, really, mean what came out?

"Lots and lots of people on Less Wrong love drugs that are outlawed in the U.S., use them all the time for the explicit purpose of intelligence stimulation, and refuse to hear anything about their harmful effects, because Less Wrongers are extremely quick to explain away evidence they don't want to believe in - especially when it's supported by "uncool" people and groups - and probably can't even contemplate any long-term effects due to their geekishness and hidden immaturity. Here's a wise, fatherly-sounding warning to them, full of ol' good common sense that those naive kids haven't learned to trust yet."

I'm not voting this down because I'm just feeling a flat what.

Hmm, is the intent behind LW's karma system really OK with me being cleared for main-level posting for a single comment along these lines (exploiting a silly mistake by the community's opponent while citing the community's values, as long as I maintain a solid image of fairness; yes, the sole true reason for not voting down was my hunger for karma)?
Yes. The karma barrier for posting is to prevent spammers, and maybe, maaaybe, n00bs who are about to post something very, very stupid. I mean, if you post something unsuitable in Main all it'll take is two downvotes and your posting privileges will disappear.

To be fair to LessWrong, although we do encourage quitting religion, we don't condemn attending. This post got 44 upvotes, and a decent chunk of the post was explaining how she went to church. I personally think the "don't attend church" mentality is more about the path being closed to us than anything against it.

these are four of the seven most important themes on the site in terms of immediate advice about what to do

What are the other three? And shouldn't there be an explanation why they are excluded from this outside view analysis? (EDIT: See Mass_Driver's explanation here.)

let's call it 'Omega' instead of God

Please call it something else? Using 'Omega' seems unnecessarily confusing given that there's already a convention for using that name to denote a powerful and trustworthy (but not necessarily Friendly) entity in decision theory problems.

An excellent point. Can you suggest a better title? I could call it the "Singularity" story, but that would be a bit unfair as well.
Question seconded. I'd also like to ask how you came to your conclusions as to the "themes of short-term advice" encountered on LW. What is most salient or most available for you may not be so for everyone else or even most of the readership.
I seem to have worded the bit about "four out of seven" poorly -- it's just meant to be a sort of confidence interval, but people seem to think I'm jealously hoarding my pile of three extra advice themes which I (for some reason) refuse to share with you all. I don't know what they are. If I had three more themes, I'd have listed them, and then said I had "seven out of twelve" or something like that. It's precisely because what's salient for me may not be so for others that I'm trying to be humble about how many of the top themes I've managed to identify.
I don't agree with the list of "most prominent themes in terms of short-term behavioral advice" mention in the original post, but I also don't think that it is completely unfounded: * 55 upvotes on a comment of someone donating the the current balance of his bank account. * 15 upvotes on a request for more discussions of general cognitive enhancing tools such as Adderall and N-Back. * 42 upvotes on a post that claims that you are a lousy parent if you don't sign up your kids for cryonics. * Eliezer telling people to put hope into cryonics and advanced nanotechnology rather than "Noble Lies".
Let me try to clarify what I mean. Right now, as I'm writing this, someone coming across the LW home page would have some grounds to conclude that LW is advising: * reading interesting books or articles with quotable material * attending meetups * introspective exercises on why we reject some actions * watching your thoughts and words * brainstorming exercises * measuring your aversions * writing (or maybe reading) horoscopes (I'm omitting posts which appear to be purely informational.) Over the course of the next few weeks, this list will change until new content has entirely replaced the old; at that point if you asked again the question "what is LW advising" you'd see something different, maybe with substantial overlap with the above list, maybe not. So that is one procedure to (attempt to) determine what are LW's major themes of short-term advice. My point is that different procedures may yield different results, for different readerships. Cryonics comes up every so often, but may or may not be perceived as a major theme - depending on how you read LW. ETA: if you're going to count all-time upvotes, then it would make more sense for me to do a systematic survey: rank all posts by number of upvotes, possibly normalize by how long ago the material has been posted (more recent material has had less time to accumulate upvotes), extract from each post what advice it gives if applicable. What seems to be going on for both you and the OP is that you rank as "major" the things that have struck you the most. They may have struck you the most precisely because they were most unconventional, in which case you will come to unsound conclusions.
* "artificial intelligence" = 30,700 results * rationality = 13,500 results * "Singularity" = 32,000 results * bias = 5,230 results * "cryonics" = 1,680 results * bayes = 1,660 results * "evolutionary psychology" = 804 results * "Bayes' theorem" = 689 results This doesn't prove anything, but I thought it was interesting. You can conduct your own searches, what results do you anticipate on a site like lesswrong if it cares most strongly about rationality and much less about topics like AI and cryonics?
[-]Bongo150 "artificial intelligence" = 30,700 results "Singularity" = 32,000 results

Thought this was because of the logo at the top of the page, so searched for "Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence" and got:

So something's weird. Also, if you move "" to the right side you get 116,000 instead.


Google's result counter is an estimate, and not a very good one. It's within 2 or 3 orders of magnitude... usually.

You're right.
Or maybe those result counts don't measure what you think they measure.
What is most salient or most available for you may not be so for everyone else or even most of the readership.

It would be really convenient if rationality, the meme-cluster that we most enjoy and are best-equipped to participate in, also happened to be the best for winning at life.

I think this is the strongest point in the whole argument.

Data point: I brought my parents to a Mountain View LW meetup. My parents aren't religious, and my dad is a biochemist that studies DNA repair mechanisms; they define themselves by their skepticism and emphasis on science. So the perfect target audience. But they seemed unenthusiastic, that it was by and for tech-savvy smart young adults but not really for the population as a whole.

This is the most coherent argument I\ve seen against memeticizing Less Wrong. Thank you.


You seem to be making the point that our[1] recommendation of cryonics facilitates an unfounded belief that one day there will be a benevolent superintelligence that will revive the corpsicle patients. I think that criticism could be appropriately aimed at zealous and silly transhumanists, but not at Less Wrong. Here you will be told that signing up for cryonics gives you only a 5% chance at living forever. You'll be told that there's a pretty good chance of superintelligence existing in the future, but there are at least even odds of it being not benevolent. And Eliezer, who came up with the Sysop scenario in the first place, explicitly warned against wasting time thinking about such things. You won't find that kind of shiny eschatology here.

[1] It's fair to say that Less Wrong advises signing up for cryonics, although there isn't a consensus on this point.


Drugs aren't a big part of this site; there may be a few members who recommend some chemical stimulants, but it's far from being a consensus. If you asked me to list important and useful ideas and advice from LessWrong, I don't think I would list "use drugs" except maybe in 100th position or so.

As for quitting religion, I recall seeing anybody actually recommend that people drop out of religious groups (though there may be some - any links?); it's just that some people have done so as a result of just not believing in religion any more.

If you believe we live in a universe where most things are possible, you will focus on the best things and how to achieve them, and the worst things and how to avoid them.

Separately, if you want to construct a highly viral religion meme, you will focus on the best things and how to achieve them, and the worst things and how to avoid them.

Taking the really awesome ideas of religions (God, afterlife) and figuring out the most plausible scientific explanation for them is exactly what we should be doing, since we want to maximize the probability of God and afterlife.


Enter...cryonics and friendly AI. Oh, look! Using only physical, reductionist-friendly mechanisms, we can show that a benevolent, powerful entity whose mind is not centered on any particular point in space and whose existence cannot presently be confirmed (let's call it 'Omega' instead of God) might someday be watching over us.

I see analogies with three religious tropes here: the omnipresence of god, religions claim to be non-disprovable and the tendency of religions to give their gods cool-sounding names. The last one is simply confused ('Omega' is the designation of a perfect and trustworthy predictor postulated in philosophical thought-experiments which are quite different from speculations about the possibility of building an artificial intelligence). The middle one vaguely misleading -- the presence of a powerful and benevolent entity of the AI persuasion in the vicinity of Earth can presently be thoroughly disconfirmed and I've never seen anyone claiming otherwise or hedging about it. The first one has some loose connection to the ways things have been discussed around here but I still wouldn't call it a good characterization of beliefs common on this site.

Seriously, why is it that people have to get all strawman-y and hyperbolic whenever they talk about the obvious similarities between transhumanist ideas and religious thought?


I hold this suspicion with about 30% confidence, which is enough to worry me, since I mostly identify as a rationalist. What do you think about all this? How confident are you?

I think the recent surge in meetups shows that people are mainly interested to group with other people who think like them rather than rationality in and of itself. There is too much unjustified agreement here to convince me that people really mostly care about superior beliefs. Sure, the available methods might not allow much disagreement about their conclusions, but what about doubt in the very methods that are used to evaluate what to do?

Most of the posts on LW are not wrong, but many exhibit some sort of extraordinary idea. Those ideas seems mostly sound but if you take all of them together and arrive at something really weird, I think some skepticism is appropriate (at least more than can currently be found).

Here is an example:

1.) MWI

The many-worlds interpretation seems mostly justified, probably the rational choice of all available interpretations (except maybe Relational Quantum Mechanics). How to arrive at this conclusion is also a good exercise in refining the art of rationality.

2.) Belief in th... (read more)

9Wei Dai
I sympathize with the overall thrust of this comment, that we should be skeptical of LW methods and results. I see lots of specific problems with the comment itself, but I'm not sure if it's worth pointing them out. Do the upvoters also see these problems, but just think that the overall point should be made? To give a couple of examples, take the first and last sentences: I don't see how this follows. If people were interested in rationality itself, would they be less likely to organize or attend meetups? Why? (I guess "interested" should be "disinterested" here.) Given that except for a few hobbyists (like myself), all researchers depend on others taking their ideas seriously for their continued livelihoods, how does this sentence make sense?
That is really a weak point I made there. It was not meant to be an argument but just a guess. I also don't want to accuse people of being overly interested to create a community in and of itself rather than a community with the overall aim to seek truth. I apologize for hinting at that possibility. Let me expand on how I came to make that statement in the first place. I have always been more than a bit skeptical about the reputation system employed on lesswrong. I think that it might unconsciously lead people to agree because even slight disagreement might accumulate to negative karma over time. And even if, on some level, you don't care about karma, each time you are downvoted it gives you a negative incentive not to voice that opinion the next time or to change how you portray it. I noticed that I myself, although I believe not to care much about my rank within this community, become increasingly reluctant to say something that I know will lead to negative karma. This of course works insofar as it maximizes the content the collective intelligence of all people on lesswrong is interested in. But that content might be biased and to some extent dishonest. Are we really good at collectively deciding what we want to see more of, just by clicking two buttons that increases a reward number? I am skeptical. Now if you take into account my, admittedly speculative, opinion above, you might already guess what I think about the implementation of strong social incentives that might be the result of face-to-face meetings between people interested to refine the art of rationality and learn about the nature of reality rather than their own subjective opinions and biases. I wasn't clear enough, I didn't expect the comment to get that much attention (which does disprove some of my above points, I hope so). What I meant by "interested researchers rather than people who ask others to take their ideas seriously" is the difference between someone who studies a topic due to academic
It is the rare researcher who studies a topic solely out of academic curiosity. Grant considerations tend to put on heavy pressure to produce results, and quick, dammit, so you'd better study something that will let you write a paper or two. Yes, you should watch out for bias in blog posts written by people you don't know potentially trying to sell you their charity. No, you should not relax that watchfulness when the author of whatever you're reading has Ph. D.
Yes, but lesswrong is missing the ecological system of dissenting, mutually exclusive opinions and peer review. Here we only have one side that cares strongly about certain issues while those that only care about other issues tend to keep quiet about it as not to offend those who care strongly. That isn't the case in academic circles. And since those who care strongly refuse to enter the academic landscape, this won't change either.
It doesn't follow, I was wrong there. I meant to provoke three questions 1.) Are people joining this community mainly because they are interested in rationality and truth or in other people who think like them? 2.) Are meetups instrumental in refining rationality and seeking truth or are they mainly done for the purpose of socializing with other people? 3.) Are people who attend meetups strong enough to withstand the social pressure when it comes to disagreement about explosive issues like risks from AI?
You can care about an issue and dissent.
I think "we should be skeptical of our very methods" is a fully general counterargument and "the probability of the conjunction of four things is less than the probability of any one of them" is true but weak, since the conjunction of (only!) four things that it's worth taking seriously is still worth taking seriously. Also, Seems just obviously false. They're examined all the time. (And none of these links are even to your posts!) Yes, the conclusions seem weird. Yes, maybe we should be alarmed by that. But let's not rationalize the perception of weirdness as arising from technical considerations rather than social intuitions.
You're right, I have to update my view there. When I started posting here I felt it was differently. It now seems that it has changed somewhat dramatically. I hope this trend continues without becoming itself unwarranted. Although I disagree somewhat with the rest of your comment. I feel I am often misinterpreted when I say that we should be more careful of some of the extraordinary conclusions here. What I mean is not their weirdness but the scope of the consequences of being wrong about them. I have a very bad feeling about using the implied scope of the conclusions to outweigh their low probability. I feel we should put more weight to the consequences of our conclusions being wrong than being right. I can't justify this, but an example would be quantum suicide (ignore for the sake of the argument that there are other reasons that it is stupid than the possibility that MWI is wrong). I wouldn't commit quantum suicide even given a high confidence in MWI being true. Logical implications don't seem enough in some cases. Maybe I am simply biased, but I have been unable to overcome it yet.
I think your communication would really benefit from having a clear dichotomy between "beliefs about policy" and "beliefs about the world". All beliefs about optimal policy should be assumed incorrect, e.g. quantum suicide, donating to SIAI, or writing angry letters to physicists who are interested in creating lab universes. Humans go insane when they think about policy, and Less Wrong is not an exception. Your notion of "logical implication" seems to be trying to explain how one might feel justified in deriving political implications, but that totally doesn't work. I think if you really made this dichotomy explicit, and made explicit that you're worried about the infinite number of misguided policies that so naturally seem like they must follow true weird beliefs, and not so worried about the weird beliefs in and of themselves, then folk would understand your concerns a lot more easily and more progress could be made on setting up a culture that is more resistant to rampant political 'decision theoretic' insanity.
Is thinking about policy entirely avoidable, considering that people occasionally need to settle on a policy or need to decide whether a policy is better complied with or avoided?
One example would be the policy not to talk about politics. Authoritarian regimes usually employ that policy, most just fail to frame it as rationality.
No. But it is significantly more avoidable than commonly thought, and should largely be avoided for the first 3 years of hardcore rationality training. Or so the rules go in my should world. Drawing a map of the territory is disjunctively impossible, coming up with a halfway sane policy based thereon is conjunctively impossible. Metaphorically.
This is an excellent point, and well stated. I don't have anything to add, but an upvote didn't suffice.

You know, I think a lot of this stuff really misses the mark. I would say that I agree with many of the LW "mainstream" beliefs, generally find my posts being upvoted, have attended meetups before and enjoyed myself, and so on-- but I've never tried nootropics, I think cryonics is an expensive way to buy optimism and signaling, I'm fairly sympathetic to religious groups, and I've said so explicitly several times without any real fear of retaliation or even downvoting.

As long as you express your opinions in a reasonable, self-reflective, and well thought out way, I've found you have nothing to worry about here, and that's really not the case in most other communities I've participated in. What are the "heresies" of the LW/human rationality community? It's hard to say.


Eliezer will not make you abandon your friends and family, run away to a far-off mountain retreat and drink poison Kool-Aid.

A post by Roko came to my mind (it all went down the road of insanity after that with other people suffering as a result):

I personally have suffered, as have many, from low-level punishment from and worsening of relationships with my family, and social pressure from friends; being perceived as weird. I have also become more weird - spending one's time optimally for social status and personal growth is not at all like spending one's time in a way so as to reduce existential risks. Furthermore, thinking that the world is in grave danger but only you and a select group of people understand makes you feel like you are in a cult due to the huge cognitive dissonance it induces.

Although if all works out well with those 'rationality camps', or whatever they are called, this might not be a problem anymore.

Given Less Wrong's size and demographics, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect at least one flaming wreck like the Roko situation (especially given his prior behavior patterns); can you think of an online community centered on ideas that doesn't occasionally have someone over-commit to an extreme version of one of their ideas? It's worth asking whether LW is doing a good job of keeping the potential for this low, though.
I take offence on Roko's behalf (and as someone who wishes to influence norm such that the above would not be accepted if directed at me at some time in the future). Over commiting to an extreme version of one of their ideas is an absurd thing to imply. Roko was not committed to an idea - it was casual speculation. The problem was entirely social. In this instance - and in the general case it is personal behaviours, particularly of leaders, that make all the difference.

I just want to say thank you for posting to /r/discussion.

This kind of posting workflow is something I've tried to encourage through advice on the IRC channel and hope more people adopt it because I see a lot of potential in it. Namely, people that might not be totally ready for front page posting can get good feedback, learn a lot, and then LW winds up with more high quality articles than it would have otherwise. The more quality writing for LW, the better.

This is what I'd like to see more of!

Thank you for your comment! I respect and admire your demonstrated ability to make a meta-comment without getting into the details of the article. (For me at least), that takes quite a bit of self-restraint.


The relative dearth of sustainable yet immediate behavioral payoffs coming out of the box leads me to suspect that the people who go into the box go there not so much to learn about superior behaviors, but to learn about superior beliefs. The main sense in which the beliefs are superior in terms of their ability to make tech/geek people think happy thoughts without 'paying' too much in bad outcomes.

Presumably there's at least some of this going on. But there's not an "either/or" dichotomy here. Some of the Less Wrong advice will turn out to fall into the above and other such advice will turn out to be solidly grounded.

For example, I think that more likely than not, focus on x-risk reduction as a philanthropic cause is grounded and that this is something that the LW community has gotten right but that more likely than not, donating to SIAI is not the best x-risk reduction opportunity on the table. I'm bothered by the fact that it appears to me that most SIAI supporters have not carefully considered the collection of all x-risk opportunities on the table with a view toward picking out the best one; a priori it seems that the one that's most salient initially is unlikely to be the best one altogether. (That being said, contingencies may point toward SIAI being the best possible option even after an analysis of all available options.)

4David Althaus
I'm really interested in this issue since I'm considering donating to x-risk-organizations. Which organization do you think is best suited for existential risk reduction? Besides SIAI I can only think of FHI. IMO they both are preferable to the Forsight Institute and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. I don't know of any other organizations whose main focus are x-risks. In another thread you said that the best way to contribute to x-risk-reduction is I agree! You added that Why do you think that this is the case? IMHO e.g. the Singularity Summit's have increased public interest in and prestige attached to the Singularity and x-risks.
I like your screen name! (Reference to Buddhism?) My impressions of SIAI and views on these things have evolved considerably since a year ago in when I commented in the thread that you wrote. I have a considerably more favorable impression of SIAI than I did at the time. But regarding: Increasing public interest in and prestige attached to the Singularity may increase the rush toward advanced technologies which could raise the probability of an unfriendly AI. I'm still in the process of gathering information on this topic and haven't come to a conclusion (not even a tentative one). Beyond the organizations that you list, there are organizations working against nuclear war, asteroid strike risk, global pandemics, etc. Friendly AI is the most important issue on the table but efficacy of working toward it may be less than that of working against other risks after time discounting for information uncertainty. Would you like to correspond? If you PM me your email address I'd be happy to talk about this some more.
2David Althaus
Yes! Actually it also involves LSD and The Doors;) Googling suggests your screen name has something to do with Dante or T.S. Eliot ? Anyway, you wrote: Good point, but it seems that SIAI has one of the most pessimistic Singularity-concepts (especially if you compare it to the views of, say, Ben Goertzel, Ray Kurzweil or Max More) and therefore advocates strong precautionary measures, which in turn reduce x-risks. True, in fact thinking about possible nuclear war made me realize how important x-risks are. My main arguments against working for organizations against nuclear war are: 1.They already have huge budgets ( e.g. from Warren Buffet) so my money doesn't make a big difference 1. Many people, indeed whole countries try to address those problems, so my efforts don't weigh much. 2. The problem has existed for almost 70 years. Folks like Einstein and Russell, which I greatly admire, have thought about these problem for years and, well to be frank, I don't know if their efforts did actually decrease or increase the risks! Maybe strategies like MAD are better than the ones proposed by Einstein and Russell. So why should I have any confidence in my strategies? Whereas with regards to AI-x-risks SIAI and in particular Yudkowsky seem to be way more competent than the other folks. ( Excluding Bostrom, Hanson, Omohundro and probably others that I don't know, but the ones I find competent usually work for or with SIAI.) 3. The whole issue involves too much politics ( for my taste) -> Rational argumentation is often frowned upon. 4. Are nuclear wars really existential risks? I think they are only Global Catastrophic Risks, i.e. they won't lead to human extinction. ( Of course, if you are a negative utilitarian this point is an advantage, but I'm not, at least I think so) You can apply these arguments, mutatis mutandis, to global pandemics, biotechnology, Super-volcanos, asteroid strikes, Global warming and ,to a lesser degree, nanotechnology. I think this greatly
Yes, it's from "The Hollow Men" But Goertzel and Kurzweil are speakers at the Singularity Summit! :-) I agree that the talks by SIAI staff at the Singularity Summit which address AI risk reduce x-risk, but it's not clear to me that the Singularity Summit is positive on balance. Even if nuclear deproliferation is overfunded on aggregate there may be particular organizations which are especially effective and in need of room for more funding (the philanthropic world isn't very efficient). I agree that a priori it looks as though SIAI has a stronger case for room for more funding thanorganizations working against nuclear war but also think that the matter warrants further investigation. I agree that uncertainty as to which strategies work drives the expected value down, but not to zero. I agree that the best people thinking about AI x-risk are at SIAI. This doesn't imply that their efforts are strong enough for them to make a meaningful dent in the problem (nature doesn't grade on a curve, etc.). I'm presently inclined to agree that the immediate effect of nuclear war is unlikely to be extinction (although I've heard smart people express views to the contrary). But plausibly nuclear war would leave humanity in a much worse position to address other x-risks (e.g. political & economic instability seem more likely to be conducive to unfriendly AI than political & economic stability). Furthermore, even if nuclear war doesn't cause human extinction it could still cause astronomical waste on account of crippling civilization to the point that it couldn't yield an intelligence explosion. Some of your arguments apply to some of the risks but not all of the arguments apply to all of the risks. In particular, none of the arguments seem to apply to asteroid strike risk. This is definitely a point in favor of focus on FAI but it's not clear to me that it's a strong enough. (a) The existence of any x-risk / catastrophic risk charity with room for more funding suggests that
Personally I gave up trying to take into account such considerations. Otherwise I would have to weigh the positive and negative effects of comments similar to yours according to influence they might have on existential risks. This quickly leads to chaos theoretic considerations like the butterfly effect which in turn leads to scenarios resembling Pascal's Mugging where tiny probabilities are being outweighed by vast utilities. As a computationally bounded and psychical unstable agent I am unable to cope with that. Consequently I decided to neglect small probability events.
Whoa- I've been parsing it as a chemical name all along (and subconsciously suppressing the second i). Eliot's one of my favorites, but I never made the connection.
1David Althaus
Good points, thx for the link to Carl Shulman's comment, I love his reasoning. Just for the record: The reason why I don't like the conclusion of working in finance to earn money in order to donate is that I guess I can't do it. I simply hate finance too much and I know I'm too selfish. Just wearing a suit is probably more I could bear;) I will respond to the rest of your comment in private.
1Simon Fischer
Please consider posting your reply here, I would be interested in reading it!
0David Althaus
I wrote you a PM.

I think some people expect too much too soon. Here's what I think it's reasonable to expect, short-term: (1) improved problem solving skills; (2) a clearer idea of what it will take to achieve your goals; and (3) worthwhile interaction with a community of peers. A lot of problems are hard. Psychology and sociology are difficult, unsolved subjects. I don't expect rationalists to become wealthy, highly accomplished and socially successful short-term, because systematically achieving those goals would require a high-level of knowledge about how the social world operates. I would expect them to have a better idea of how much work would be involved in achieving those goals and to be able to make progress on more modest goals.


What bugs me about your perception of this community is that you seem to conflate goals with beliefs. What I see on LessWrong is the idea that artificial general intelligence, if done properly, would be a powerful invention that could solve the most important problems of humanity and that therefore we should pursue the goal of inventing and building it.

What you seem to see is the idea that because we thougth of a way in which future could be awesome, therefore it will be awesome and we can feel good about it just like other people feel good about religion. I just don't see it. Maybe it's because I used to have that kind of vague feel-good transhumanist beliefs and then I stumbled upon Eliezer's writings and got convinced that no, I have no reason to relax and believe that powerful, abstract forces of technological progress will make everything work out in the end. So it's surprising to me that anyone could end up with that kind of overly enthusiastic beliefs because of LessWrong.

This discrepancy of perception extends to your depiction of community-building efforts. Once again there's the goal of doing everything better, having the most fun and being awesome and the belief that we are already there and can feel good about ourselves. But here I'm far less willing to trust my percepions. I don't really interact with the community beyond reading the website and I tend to ignore things that don't appeal to me so I might have filtered out this unfortunate aspect of the local memesphere.


The relative dearth of sustainable yet immediate behavioral payoffs coming out of the box leads me to suspect that the people who go into the box go there not so much to learn about superior behaviors, but to learn about superior beliefs.


Excellent analysis throughout, btw, but that bit hits it right on the head.

(In fairness, though, I think it should be pointed out that there's plenty of other good advice to be found on LW. It's only natural to expect that the most popular memes would be ones that have more going for them than mere truth or usefulness.)

It has always seemed like your ideas on how to learn superior behaviors are a pretty significant part of the LW memecluster.

Thanks for the post. Now I can pat myself on the back for reading and upvoting a post critical of my beliefs and then go back to doing what I was doing before. ;)

You're such a hipster. That's pretty lame; I'm a meta-contrarian, so I didn't upvote just because it was critical of my beliefs.

I'd be curious what you think now after many years to see the effects of things in practice

I think we're doing a little better than I predicted. Rationalists seem to be somewhat better able than their peers to sift through controversial public health advice, to switch careers (or retire early) when that makes sense, to donate strategically, and to set up physical environments that meet their needs (homes, offices, etc.) even when those environments are a bit unusual. Enough rationalists got into cryptocurrency early enough and heavy enough for that to feel more like successful foresight than a lucky bet. We're doing something at least partly right. That said, if we really did have a craft of reliably identifying and executing better decisions, and if even a hundred people had been practicing that craft for a decade, I would expect to see a lot more obvious results than the ones I actually see. I don't see a strong correlation between the people who spend the most time and energy engaging with the ideas you see on Less Wrong, and the people who are wealthy, or who are professionally successful, or who have happy families, or who are making great art, or who are doing great things for society (with the possible exception of AI safety, and it's very difficult to measure whether working on AI safety is actually doing any real good). If anything, I think the correlation might point the other way -- people who are distressed or unsuccessful at life's ordinary occupations are more likely to immerse themselves in rationalist ideas as an alternate source of meaning and status. There is something actually worth learning here, and there are actually good people here; it's not like I would want to warn anybody away. If you're interested in rationality, I think you should learn about it and talk about it and try to practice it. However, I also think some of us are still exaggerating the likely benefits of doing so. Less Wrong isn't objectively the best community; it's just one of many good communities, and it might be well-suited to your needs and quirks in particul

Does Less Wrong really recommend withdrawing from religious groups? I don't see that recommendation in any of the four links you give as support. Less Wrong will tell you that religions' supernatural claims are false wherever they're meaningful, and that a lot of religious beliefs are harmful as well as false. And it will tell you to be an atheist[1]. It's understandable that most of us who realized at some point that God isn't real decided to stop going to church. But some of us are involved with religious groups and it doesn't seem to be problematic.

[1] ... (read more)

On the outside view, this rationality community is very young, and most young organizations lack sophistication, easily repeatable methods, and proof of whatever they claim. Changing yourself takes lots of time (on the order of years), if it can be done at all (it can be, but it's not particularly easy).

On the outside view, any organization which dissolves for lack of proof in its methods takes a very very long time to arise and stay, or never gets off the ground.

I really think that the issue is more one of time and organization, and I'm not super surprised that Less Wrong isn't obviously able to deliver what it wants to over the internet.

Yes, of course. My argument isn't that Less Wrong should dissolve itself. If your inside view suggests that you have a good shot at a massive success in the medium-to-long term, and your outside view puts you in a reference class that includes some potential for big successes but many more failures, the thing to do is pursue the opportunity, but to do some humbly and carefully. Emphasize low-hanging fruit. Hedge. Warn. Some of us do those things, but others quit their jobs to work full-time for SIAI and then urge their friends to do the same. I'll try to make this clearer in the next version.
This behaviour of SIAI employees is extremely surprising. Please provide details.

The US Peace Corps prompted over 200,000 people to do something I consider even more extreme by committing to multiple years of service in foreign countries for very modest goals. I'd be surprised if something like Existential Risk didn't provoke such a reaction.

Ah. Yeah, looks like we pretty much agree then about what to do then. I'm considering trying to work for SIAI in the future though, but I also don't have an established job or lifestyle so the costs of doing so are fairly low for me. To the extent that my pre-LW heuristic for deciding what I'd like to do with my life was mostly based on what I'd find interesting, that's not too huge of a disruption for me.

Did you get the same bristling in live communication (minicamp/meetups)?

Minicamp, no, because it was so skills-focused. There was a real sense that we could apply the skills to any goals that seemed interesting to us. Meetups, yes. Many of the meetups I've been to have involved praise competitions, i.e., let's see who can all suck up to the SIAI more intelligently.

Really? Huh. I've now gone to ~10 meetups in 5 geographic areas, and the only one that might have fit that description (although I don't think it did) was the very first Overcoming Bias meetup in the Bay Area. It would probably be rude for me to ask which meetups felt that way to you.

As far as I can tell, the most prominent themes in terms of short-term behavioral advice being given on Less Wrong are:

1) Sign up for cryonics,

2) Donate to SIAI,

3) Drop out of any religious groups you might belong to, and

4) Take chemical stimulants.

If that's the case, then I find it worrying - and seeing how unacceptable to myself personally I find points 1, 2 and 4, it may just make me rethink about my presence here, and whether I'm trying to fit with the wrong crowd.

Could you elaborate on what you find unacceptable about 1 and 4? I personally never bothered about cryonics, but I don't see any fundamental problem with it. Same about chemical stimulants, if someone wants to take the risk, fine, I don't.
Well, that's what I said. I don't have a problem with people signing up for cryonics or using stimulants (as long as it the latter doesn't deteriorate their minds), it's just that I personally don't have faith in cryonics and refuse to touch anything mind-altering. (I'm sometimes mocked for the latter, which irritates me.) So I have a problem with it if it's something the majority of LW users is assumed or expected to do. Places me in a minority here.
I'm curious what you mean by mind-altering in this context. While there are actual drugs discussed, most of the substances discussed are both legal and exist in the human diet to start with. It seems pretty clear that many different foods impact cognition. For example, people with higher blood sugar are more trusting.{Citation needed} Most of the substances discussed in the cognitive enhancement threads are substances which occur naturally in most human diets anyways. A society that is not getting enough vitamin B12 will have people feeling a lot more fatigued. Simillarly, B6 deficiency is linked to insomnia, irritability, and other negative emotional and cognitive traits. In societies not getting enough of such vitamins, eating more of those foods might be considered to be taking congitively enhancing foods. So how one defines these terms seems important. (In that regard, the vast majority of discussion of cognitive enhancement here seems to be very distinct from what would normally be called mind-altering, e.g. marijuana and LSD which have short-term extreme effects). (Disclaimer: I have not experimented with any of the discussed supplements here primarily due to heuristics similar to those described by Mass Driver in his initial post. I do however think that that advocating the use of either drugs or other cognitive modifiers is less common here than Mass Driver describes.)
That's slightly surprising.

Yvain suggests that something about the rapid spread of positive affect not obviously tied to any concrete accomplishments may be stimulating a sort of anti-viral memetic defense system.

I think there is merit in this suggestion, or at least along the lines of "there's a (instrumentally rational in at least some circumstances) mimetic immune reaction going on". I've seen a fellow cryonics advocate (who I gather has a substantial amount of business experience) advancing the opinion that Eliezer and SIAI are phony. He's concerned that the whole t... (read more)

It would be really convenient if rationality, the meme-cluster that we most enjoy and are best-equipped to participate in, also happened to be the best for winning at life.

As I've seen it used here, "rationality" most commonly refers to "the best [memecluster] for winning at life" whatever that actual memecluster may be. If it could be shown that believing in the christian god uniformly improved or did not affect every aspect of believers lives regardless of any other beliefs held, I think a majority of lesswrongers would take every... (read more)

Unlike pre-scientific religion, the "cryonics + Friendly AI" Sysop story is 'cheap' for people who rarely compartmentalize. [...] It makes you happy!

AI makes me very very afraid, and sad.

I understand "afraid" (let be an Unfriendly AI go Foom, and poof, we're all dead, or worse). But I don't get "sad". Could you elaborate a bit?
Well, to use dramatic language, if you thought that everying that that was good and fine about humanity - about existence - had a reasonable chance of getting erased forever, wouldn't that make you sad?
Not yet. I'm just afraid for the moment. And certainly not because of AI. AI is an existential risk, but it also have potentially great benefits as well. Among them is the reduction of other existential risks. So, I'm not sure AI is a net increase in the existential risks. Yet. Of course, whatever is a net increase in existential risks might make me sad. But even then, I tend to be sad when I lost something, not when I think there's still a chance.
It makes me sad because it means smart people aren't doing things that are actually useful.

As for dropping out of other religious communities, well, they're the quintessential bad guys, right? Not only do they believe in all kinds of unsubstantiated woo, they suck you into a dense network of personal relationships -- which we at Less Wrong want earnestly to re-create, just, you know, without any of the religion stuff.

Churches have art. I like art.

There is a meme on Less Wrong, though, that rationalist communities are not just better-suited to the unique needs of rationalists, but also better in general...back off of your pleasurable belief

... (read more)
I think the "heavy costs" of quitting religion referred to are the documented differences in health outcomes based on membership (or lack thereof) of religious communities:

By cheaply, I mean that the beliefs won't really hurt's relatively safe to believe in them.

They don't seem too "cheap" to me. We are potentially talking about many thousands of dollars.


whereas drugs and quitting religion offer excellent rewards now, but may involve heavy costs down the road.

What long-term costs would quitting religion have?

ETA: The answer is presumably in the post:

maybe we should be slower to advise people to give up the health benefits (footnote 15) of belonging, emotionally, to one or another religious community.

I think the post was referring to the loss of friends and status that can sometimes result. The benefits may outweigh the costs sometimes, if one is faced with the choice between "staying in the closet" and living a lie, and leaving the church and losing friends. I have no direct experience with this, but many atheists unaffiliated with Less Wrong do come out and don't regret it, so I don't think this counts as a "weird belief" that LW pushes on its members. At any rate, it's not all that weirder than atheism itself.
Another example is loosing access to useful intersubjective truths that religions have accumulated over the centuries.
If we are to continue having access to the useful intersubjective truths stemming from the Enlightenment, I don't think we can wholely buy itnto the rival intesubjective truths of religion.
Burkean conservatism translated into modern philosophical jargon. This argument would apply only to religions that are at least centuries old. How many of these remain in unchanged form in modern Western world?
Wouldn't Burkean conservativism recommend being a member of any reasonably stable religion, perhaps preferably the one you were born into?

I think your "Partisanship" section is your strongest point. The question of whether our rationality shindig actually helps people is a good question. Similar points have been made before.

Stars twinkle because of the atmosphere's slightly fluctuating refractive properties (compare to mirages). I'm sure you can notice dim stars disappearing when you look straight at them, but I'm going to keep the atmosphere story for now - even though the only way I've tested it is to compare with planets (whose images are disclike rather than pointlike).

See any number of google hits on "why stars twinkle" e.g.

I take it you haven't spent much time star gazing? The "foveal blind spot" is how the fovea has a very high density of cones, which gives great acuity with color vision, but unfortunately almost no rods, so very poor performance under low-light conditions. To view faint stars, you look slightly off to the side while still concentrating on the object. This is called averted vision.
I've stargazed, though now only when I go camping (boo Los Angeles). You're right - I'd forgotten about the experience of averted vision. It's funny that I said "with one eye" - I was assuming that the (optic nerve) blind spot was off-center in each eye. Obviously parallax hardly applies to stars, so relative night blindness to stars in the center few degrees of your vision wouldn't depend on having only one eye open.
The optic nerve blind spot is off-center, toward the side away from your nose in your field of vision, and it's a total blind spot. The fovea is in the center of your field of vision and isn't really a blind spot, it's just specialized for higher resolution at the expense of sensitivity so it becomes like a second blind spot in dim conditions.
So the optic nerve blind spot wouldn't really be noticeable when stargazing with both eyes. That's what I was expecting or vaguely recalling.

Note: I'm typing this without looking at other comments because I judge that it would be really easy for one of the better-sounding argumants to hijack my train of thought, leaving my previous thoughts to be crushed under the wheels of the huge locomotive.

I'm going to do my own 'black box' treatment of rationality, trying to figure out what I've actually got from it in list form.

  1. I have a model of the world which allows me to suffer less emotional harm when other people are upset that I (to paraphrase) don't share their preference and/or utility function.
... (read more)
They're HTML lists, and you have paragraphs between each, meaning each becomes its own new list which naturally starts at 1.
Mind the amount of indenting. 1. One Space before the number. One space after. Total amound of indenting: 4 Paragraph indented by 4 spaces. In a fixed font width, it would be aligned with the previous paragraph of the same list item. 2. Same indentation as 1. Looks like it works.

This part is totally unfair:

1) Sign up for cryonics,

2) Donate to SIAI,

3) Drop out of any religious groups you might belong to, and

4) Take chemical stimulants.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Guess I don't have to worry then.

Everything here has been the opposite of cheap. I don't even have a memory of what it's like to have a goal other than sacrifice everything for making microscopic changes in the probabilities of distant abstract outcomes. I don't even remember what goals this brain used to have in the way of goals before being rewritten.

I disallow myself from thinking that kind of pleasurable though for exactly that reason, instead thinking of things I don't think could happen if I feel tempted.

Never had any religious group to drop out... (read more)

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

I'm an interesting data point in the context of this article. I accept the LW-mainstream cryonics analysis, but I am not signed up and I do not intend to do so. I also do not plan for events after the singularity in order to prevent excessive optimism from causing bias, though I started this because it is very difficult to form such plans and only later noticed this additional benefit.

What does redacted mean? I mean in this instance, not general terms.
The ability to delete comments was removed (though it is back now). This was the only way to remove the text of the comments.
Note that you can now delete comments with no children.

My perception of this advice is that it is general, and that it is the individual's responsibility to determine if in the context of their lives this advice will have more benefit than cost.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply