Less Wrong’s political bias

by Sophronius 3 min read25th Oct 2013354 comments


(Disclaimer: This post refers to a certain political party as being somewhat crazy, which got some people upset, so sorry about that. That is not what this post is *about*, however. The article is instead about Less Wrong's social norms against pointing certain things out. I have edited it a bit to try and make it less provocative.)


A well-known post around these parts is Yudkowski’s “politics is the mind killer”. This article proffers an important point: People tend to go funny in the head when discussing politics, as politics is largely about signalling tribal affiliation. The conclusion drawn from this by the Less Wrong crowd seems simple: Don’t discuss political issues, or at least keep it as fair and balanced as possible when you do. However, I feel that there is a very real downside to treating political issues in this way, which I shall try to explain here. Since this post is (indirectly) about politics, I will try to bring this as gently as possible so as to avoid mind-kill. As a result this post is a bit lengthier than I would like it to be, so I apologize for that in advance.

I find that a good way to examine the value of a policy is to ask in which of all possible worlds this policy would work, and in which worlds it would not. So let’s start by imagining a perfectly convenient world: In a universe whose politics are entirely reasonable and fair, people start political parties to represent certain interests and preferences. For example, you might have the kitten party for people who like kittens, and the puppy party for people who favour puppies. In this world Less Wrong’s unofficial policy is entirely reasonable: There is no sense in discussing politics, since politics is only about personal preferences, and any discussion of this can only lead to a “Jay kittens, boo dogs!” emotivism contest. At best you can do a poll now and again to see what people currently favour.

Now let’s imagine a less reasonable world, where things don’t have to happen for good reasons and the universe doesn’t give a crap about what’s fair. In this unreasonable world, you can get a “Thrives through Bribes” party or an “Appeal to emotions” party or a “Do stupid things for stupid reasons” party as well as more reasonable parties that actually try to be about something. In this world it makes no sense to pretend that all parties are equal, because there is really no reason to believe that they are.

As you might have guessed, I believe that we live in the second world. As a result, I do not believe that all parties are equally valid/crazy/corrupt, and as such I like to be able to identify which are the most crazy/corrupt/stupid. Now I happen to be fairly happy with the political system where I live. We have a good number of more-or-less reasonable parties here, and only one major crazy party that gives me the creeps. The advantage of this is that whenever I am in a room with intelligent people, I can safely say something like “That crazy racist party sure is crazy and racist”, and everyone will go “Yup, they sure are, now do you want to talk about something of substance?” This seems to me the only reasonable reply.

The problem is that Less Wrong seems primarily US-based, and in the US… things do not go like this. In the US, it seems to me that there are only two significant parties, one of which is flawed and which I do not agree with on many points, while the other is, well… can I just say that some of the things they profess do not so much sound wrong as they sound crazy? And yet, it seems to me that everyone here is being very careful to not point this out, because doing so would necessarily be favouring one party over the other, and why, that’s politics! That’s not what we do here on Less Wrong!

And from what I can tell, based on the discussion I have seen so far and participated in on Less Wrong, this introduces a major bias. Pick any major issue of contention, and chances are that the two major parties will tend to have opposing views on the subject. And naturally, the saner party of the two tends to hold a more reasonable view, because they are less crazy. But you can’t defend the more reasonable point of view now, because then you’re defending the less-crazy party, and that’s politics. Instead, you can get free karma just by saying something trite like “well, both sides have important points on the matter” or “both parties have their own flaws” or “politics in general are messed up”, because that just sounds so reasonable and fair who doesn’t like things to be reasonable and fair? But I don’t think we live in a reasonable and fair world.

It’s hard to prove the existence of such a bias and so this is mostly just an impression I have. But I can give a couple of points in support of this impression. Firstly there are the frequent accusations of group think towards Less Wrong, which I am increasingly though reluctantly prone to agree with. I can’t help but notice that posts which remark on for example *retracted* being a thing tend to get quite a few downvotes while posts that take care to express the nuance of the issue get massive upvotes regardless of whether really are two sides on the issue. Then there are the community poll results, which show that for example 30% of Less Wrongers favour a particular political allegiance even though only 1% of voters vote for the most closely corresponding party. I sincerely doubt that this skewed representation is the result of honest and reasonable discussion on Less Wrong that has convinced members to follow what is otherwise a minority view, since I have never seen any such discussion. So without necessarily criticizing the position itself, I have to wonder what causes this skewed representation. I fear that this “let’s not criticize political views” stance is causing Less Wrong to shift towards holding more and more eccentric views, since a lack of criticism can be taken as tacit approval. What especially worries me is that giving the impression that all sides are equal automatically lends credibility to the craziest viewpoint, as proponents of that side can now say that sceptics take their views seriously which benefits them the most. This seems to me literally the worst possible outcome of any politics debate.

I find that the same rule holds for politics as for life in general: You can try to win or you can give up and lose by default, but you can’t choose not to play.