When an LW contributor is in need of an example of something that (1) is plainly, uncontroversially (here on LW, at least) very wrong but (2) an otherwise reasonable person might get lured into believing by dint of inadequate epistemic hygiene, there seems to be only one example that everyone reaches for: belief in God. (Of course there are different sorts of god-belief, but I don't think that makes it count as more than one example.) Eliezer is particularly fond of this trope, but he's not alone.

How odd that there should be exactly one example. How convenient that there is one at all! How strange that there isn't more than one!

In the population at large (even the smarter parts of it) god-belief is sufficiently widespread that using it as a canonical example of irrationality would run the risk of annoying enough of your audience to be counterproductive. Not here, apparently. Perhaps we-here-on-LW are just better reasoners than everyone else ... but then, again, isn't it strange that there aren't a bunch of other popular beliefs that we've all seen through? In the realm of politics or economics, for instance, surely there ought to be some.

Also: it doesn't seem to me that I'm that a much better thinker than I was a few years ago when (alas) I was a theist; nor does it seem to me that everyone on LW is substantially better at thinking than I am; which makes it hard for me to believe that there's a certain level of rationality that almost everyone here has attained, and that makes theism vanishingly rare.

I offer the following uncomfortable conjecture: We all want to find (and advertise) things that our superior rationality has freed us from, or kept us free from. (Because the idea that Rationality Just Isn't That Great is disagreeable when one has invested time and/or effort and/or identity in rationality, and because we want to look impressive.) We observe our own atheism, and that everyone else here seems to be an atheist too, and not unnaturally we conclude that we've found such a thing. But in fact (I conjecture) LW is so full of atheists not only because atheism is more rational than theism (note for the avoidance of doubt: yes, I agree that atheism is more rational than theism, at least for people in our epistemic situation) but also because

  • the readership of LW (and, earlier, of OB) is drawn disproportionately from communities that have long been atheistic (and not just because their members are supremely rational);
  • theism has been used so often (here, and earlier on OB) as a canonical example of Wrongness that any theists who might have participated have either deconverted or gone away;
  • any theists who remain are keeping quiet about it because they don't want to get jumped on.

Does any of this matter? I think it might, because

  • it would be a shame to fool ourselves into thinking that rationality (or x-rationality) is more powerful than it really is;
  • we may be scaring away people who (despite their obstinate clinging to irrational superstitions, etc., etc., etc) would be valuable here. As Eliezer has pointed out a few times, Robert Aumann is an Orthodox Jew; whatever mental contortions he may have to go through to maintain that, it seems fairly clear that if he turned up at LW wanting to contribute we would be ill-advised to drive him away. I bet he isn't the only person who manages to remain religious despite knowing a thing or two about rationality;
  • we may be annoying and upsetting some readers, which is a (minor) pity in itself;
  • perhaps there are other equally good (or better) Awful Examples that we aren't availing ourselves of because the habit of using god-belief for that purpose has become so ingrained.

So. Is theism really a uniquely awful example? If so, then surely there must be insights aplenty to be had from seeing what makes it so unique. If not, though ... Anyone got any other examples of things just about everyone here has seen the folly of, even though they're widespread among otherwise-smart people? And, if not, what shall we do about it?

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Yes, theism is really a uniquely awful example.

Oversimplifying a little, let's divide the factors that lead to memetic success into two classes: those based on corresponding to evidence, and those detached from evidence. If we imagine a two-dimensional scattergram of memes rated against these two criteria, we can define a frontier of maximum success, along which any idea can only gain in one criterion by losing on the other.

Religion is what you get when you push totally for non-evidential memetic success. All ties to reality are essentially cut. As a result, all the other dials can be pushed up to 11. God is not just wise, nice, and powerful - he is all knowing, omnibenificent, and omnipotent. Heaven and Hell are not just pleasant and unpleasant places you can spend a long time in - they are the very best possible and the very worst possible experiences, and for all eternity. And so on; because all of these things happen "offstage", there's no contradictory evidence when you turn them up, so of course that's where they're going to end up.

This freedom is theism's defining characteristic. Even the most stupid pseudoscience is to some extent about "evidence": peo... (read more)

No - I think this comment just makes my earlier point, that we have such a negative impression of religion because we categorize anything irrational as "religion".

Consider Scientology. I think we can agree it's a religion. But it doesn't presuppose a spiritual realm which can cause effects in the natural world and yet not be investigated. It doesn't disclaim evidential reasoning; it actually relies on evidential reasoning. Just not very good evidential reasoning, which is designed primarily to have good stagecraft.

Consider Hinduism. It doesn't have much dogma. It isn't about making claims about the world the way Christianity or Islam is. It's more like a catalog of Jungian archetypes and models for thinking about the world. A Hindu "God" isn't a cause of events in the world, it's more like a manifestation of patterns of events.

Consider Buddhism. It doesn't have any "offstage" place for events that impact our world.

Consider animism. It also is very brief on dogma. It's very evidential. The volcano erupted; therefore, the volcano god is angry.

Consider Unitarianism. Brief on dogma. It's mainly about community.

So why do we call these things religions? Because "religion", the way most non-LW people (can we call them MW people?) use it, has to do with providing explanations, perspectives, guidelines, and community.

I don't categorize everything irrational as religion. But moving from irrationality to religion is merely a matter of emphasis and systemization.
Just to suggest another belief (and belief system) that at least approaches that frontier: "There has not been one tax increase in history that actually raised revenue. And every tax cut, from the 1920s to Kennedy’s to ours, has produced more." -Ronald Reagan to David Stockman and Martin Feldstein. (It is perhaps only coincidental that the year was 1984.) http://books.google.com/books?id=dBlELVvaj4cC&pg=PA43&lpg=PA43&dq=%22There+has+not+been+one+tax+increase+in+history%22+reagan+stockman&source=bl&ots=MbAlKL-1Xt&sig=FXF-KfDngpgcArtRX5ERD7gvlic&hl=en&ei=oaYFSqL_PKG8tAPXiKn3AQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1
I remember Reagan claiming that a nuclear test ban treaty couldn't be enforced because underground tests couldn't be detected. I had recently learnt in physics class how to do just that with an ordinary seismograph.
4Eliezer Yudkowsky
Deserves its own post.
1Paul Crowley
Thanks! Not sure how to put any more meat on it than that - is there any point that either of you (or anyone else) thinks could benefit from being expanded upon in a top-level post?
7Eliezer Yudkowsky
There's nothing wrong with a short but good top-level post.
Your second sentence begins with "Oversimplifying a little...". Perhaps oversimplifying the memetic taxonomy a bit less would be a reasonable start? I'm not sure how much more you could really say usefully about theism. Expanding on the bit about the drug war might work.
Can you explain why you think that there is a bound to success (implying a frontier and a tradeoff along that frontier of evidential/not)? I don't think that changes your essential point though, that religion is a zero on the ratio. But I'm not sure that's so. Religions claim evidence, and used to claim it as matter-of-factly as a history textbook, before they learned the need to dodge. The big ones also base their case on the claimed evidence - pure gnostic mysticism has proven a memetic loser.
Seconding Eliezer. This is insightful.
You're right. Religion really is distilled, purified essence of bullshit.

The 'war on drugs' is the obvious example that sprang to mind and has already been mentioned. It has cropped up a number of times without objection.

I suspect that one of the reasons theism has 'special status' is that it requires little domain specific knowledge to recognize its irrationality. Basic scientific and historical knowledge and experience of the world are enough to throw up serious doubts for anyone who starts down the path of rationality. Other examples that spring to mind require a little more specialist knowledge.

An example: there is some overlap between the 'economist blogger' community and the OB readership. Economics bloggers have on occasion discussed the fact that there are certain uncontroversial truths accepted within economics that are not uncontroversial amongst non-economists. Examples are the benefits of free trade over protectionism, the ineffectiveness of price controls, the general efficiency benefits of markets and the net benefits of relatively open immigration policies. I had to learn a bit about economics and be presented with the results of studies to be fully persuaded by some of these arguments - unlike atheism it was not obvious to me from my dir... (read more)

8Eliezer Yudkowsky
Underrepresentation is not lack of representation.
True, and I did mean underrepresentation, I know there is not a complete lack of representation. Thanks for pointing out the distinction.
One problem with economists is this lazy tendency to describe economic solutions as "efficient" or having "benefits" without describing the goals with respect to which they are efficient, or who and what they benefit. Also, most of the standard derivations of the benefits of market solutions have multiple flaws: 1. They assume a level of competition among producers and consumers which doesn't arise in practice 2. They assume a level of rational decision making among actors which doesn't arise in practice 3. They assume that the rules of the game (laws, taxes, spending decisions, standards, property rights including IPR etc) are neutral and so put everyone on a level playing field from the start. They don't. The consequences of this are quite well known. Strong countries demand "free trade" from weak countries (and get it) while maintaining barriers to trade for their own products (agriculture, weapons etc.) which - very mysteriously - never go away. Corporations preach the wonders of competition, while carefully managing (or reducing) competition in their own sectors through mergers, IPR, brand protection, standards, licensing and a whole host of other tricks. (Regulators, even formal competition authorities, often help them). Financial institutions demand de-regulation (which they get) but then grow too big to fail, and subsequently demand bailouts when they make collosal mistakes threatening the whole system (and they get those too). Then they put all the blame on governments for over-spending, and demand huge spending cuts to maintain national credit ratings (and amazingly that happens as well). Economists acknowledge that externalities (like pollution, global warming impacts from fossil fuels) should be priced in (via taxes or tradeable quotas), but then that never happens (taxes are too unpopular, or the price is deliberately kept too low by giving out excessive quotas). And so on.
That was great. Why was it downvoted?
Yeah, except when they don't. Yeah, except when they don't. Yeah, except when they don't.
Oh dear. I said that "most of the standard derivations of the benefits of market solutions" make these assumptions; not that most economists make these assumptions. Please read what I wrote. Clearly working economists don't all make these assumptions, or the critiques you link to wouldn't exist (and neither would my post). Indeed Nobel prizes in economics have been won by disproving central assumptions of classical economic theory. My point remains: you cannot demonstrate benefit from "free market" systems as they actually exist by the classical economic arguments. There is no general principle that an imperfect, rigged or politicised market must ipso facto be more efficient, or bring greater benefit, than a non-market solution, particularly if you don't define "efficiency" or "benefit" carefully in the first place.
Sorry for having misread your comment. Agreed; (actually existing) markets cannot be shown to be necessarily efficient using realistic assumptions (nor can "public policy"). On the other hand, the empirical record of capitalism being more efficient (with respect to common measures of welfare such as income, life-expectancy, education, etc...) than the known alternatives seems quite strong.
I checked out Peter Leeson's paper "Two cheers for capitalism?". It's potentially interesting, and at least based on some real-world data (good). Unfortunately it reads more like a polemic than a piece of serious science (bad). There is not a null hypothesis,control group, p-value, or confidence interval to be found anywhere in the paper. No Bayesian statistics either. Nor are there any formal references, just a list "for further reading" (a lot of them being self-references). Initially I found it hard to believe that this got through peer review, but it appears that Society accepted it http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1438364 Now it's not a bad idea to use comparative method, and there are some interesting possible conclusions from the data. But I would expect a more robust analysis than Leeson gives. In particular to explore a causal relationship you need to look at confounding factors, and the 5 countries which became "less" capitalistic by his measure (Myanmar, Rwanda, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe) had a heck of a lot of confounding factors. You certainly can't pin their problems purely on the loss of a point or two of "economic freedom". And in any case a sample size of 5 is likely too small to conclude anything. Leeson should really have compared the countries which became more capitalist against the countries which stayed roughly the same on his scale (an obvious control group). My prediction is that both groups grew in average welfare (by his indicators) over the period in question. So we have to check whether the difference in welfare growth was significant between the groups against the null hypothesis that it wasn't. Leeson doesn't do that comparison though... I wonder why not? Also, eyeballing Leeson's static cross-section graphs on page 17 suggests some fairly good welfare correlations up to 7 points of capitalism on his scale (at least in 1995), but beyond that it's pretty much a random scatter plot. The rich countries all hav

Anyone got any other examples of things just about everyone here has seen the folly of, even though they're widespread among otherwise-smart people

The idiocy of the drug war tends to be my own favourite example.

The so-called terrorism threat? I did a count the other day on how many civil liberties had been removed by the terrorists vs those removed by the government.

Nationalism in general?

I guess you'd claim that things like forwarding chain letters, belief in homoeopathy or healing crystals or orgone guns, the 'nature is good' fallacy and whatnot aren't common enough.

I think that marijuana legalization in particular can be used as an example we all agree about. (Does anyone reading this actually disagree about that? Leave a comment if so.)

Drug prohibition works rather well in Singapore. With efficient enforcement and minimal collateral damage, a ban on marijuana could fit in a class with bans on cigarettes and alcohol, all of which I could endorse for human societies. Also, decriminalization (fines instead of felony convictions and jail) could reduce the collateral damage while retaining the norm-setting effects.
Do we have any randomized trials of the effects of weed legalization? I was considering proposing the near zero average health value of marginal medical spending as something nearly as clearly wishful thinking as atheism, but many have complaints about the randomized trial and other studies I point to. Yet the evidence against weed bans seems even less rigorous. My best guess is that we'd be better off without weed bans, but I find it very hard to be very confident of this judgment.

"Modern man is so committed to empirical knowledge, that he sets the standard for evidence higher than either side in his disputes can attain, thus suffering his disputes to be settled by philosophical arguments as to which party must be crushed under the burden of proof."

Thank you, that's the reply I was looking for. We know of a lot of harm caused by marijuana criminalization and very little harm caused by marijuana. Controlled experiments would be very hard to do. In such a state of evidence the sum is unambiguous: revoke the law.

Do we have any data supporting marijuana criminalization? It looks like a simple mistake that ought to be rewound. That summation of the current evidence seems unambiguous, even if we don't know the actual effects of decriminalizing down to the last decimal place - especially considering that decriminalization is in principle reversible after gathering more information.

That summation seems quite ambiguous to me. Only if you presumed that any law without clear supporting evidence should be rescinded could you conclude lack of clear evidence supporting weed bans implies that ban should be rescinded.
I would also take the position that any law without clear supporting evidence should be rescinded, on the basis that all else being equal a simpler legal system would be a better legal system. I don't believe it is necessary to take that position to conclude that drug prohibition should be rescinded however.
I'm actually pretty okay with that principle, at least under common law.
The stronger arguments for me are those that point to the manifest failure of prohibition to achieve its own stated ends. The experience of alcohol prohibition is strongly indicative of the general failure of prohibition. The failure of price controls also seems related - full out prohibition is in some sense a special case of price controls with the government attempting to set the price astronomically high (with jail time being the price the government attempts to set for consumption). Given the lack of evidence for prohibition being an effective strategy, the burden of proof should be on the maintenance of the existing regime. That's even without looking at the clear harm caused by the current approach. The recent CATO report on the success of decriminalization in Portugal is a recent piece of good supporting evidence for the failure of criminilization. Given the political climate, asking for randomized trials is demanding unrealistically high standards of evidence. Isn't one of the goals of this whole rationality project to be able to make the best possible decisions under uncertainty?
Did alcohol prohibition in the US actually fail? We have much lower levels of alcohol use, and thus presumably of alcohol abuse, in the US than in Europe. Perhaps this is the legacy of Prohibition.
If memory serves me, the US actually has a higher rate of alcohol abuse vs. use relative to most other countries. Or possibly it was a higher rate of death/injury/illness due to alcohol. At any rate, Europeans seem to drink more than Americans do (on average), but do not suffer appreciably higher rates of alcohol-related problems.
Did it succeed? Presumably the explicit intent of prohibition was to eliminate alcohol consumption in the population and the implicit intent was to do so without paying an unreasonably high cost due to intended or unintended consequences. The law clearly failed to eliminate alcohol consumption - it continued to be made, sold and consumed in illegal underground establishments. It also produced unreasonably high social costs (higher than those caused by alcohol when legal) through increased deaths and blindness due to high levels of methanol and through a huge increase in violent organized crime. It's hard to see any evidence of success there. You seem to be suggesting that perhaps the intent of the ban was also to send an official message of disapproval, and thus influence society to disapprove of alcohol more and so reduce consumption through self limiting behaviours. You also suggest without any evidence that this may have lead to lower levels of alcohol use (only a benefit if you hold the opinion that alcohol consumption is inherently a negative even in the absence of negative side effects) and make a further unsupported leap to suppose that lower levels of use correlate with lower levels of abuse. Even if it is the case that the US has lower levels of alcohol use and abuse than Europe, how do you propose to establish direction of causality from a country with a sufficient tradition of religious disapproval of alcohol to allow a ban on alcohol to pass? Is it not equally plausible that the same social attitudes that made a ban feasible in the first place also explain lower levels of use before and after the ban?
What evidence makes you think the US has lower levels of alcohol abuse than Europe? The US has relatively high rates of alcohol-caused liver disease and has more teenage drinking than many countries in which alcohol is more freely available and partaken of. Contrast the US with the United Kingdom on these two charts: current national alcohol consumption per capita alcoholic liver disease per capital
Prohibition worked.
IAWTC but as a general principle is it a good idea to reward people for making laws they don't like costlier to enforce? I'm sure some prohibitions are more harmful than others for no other reason than that the prohibitees behave worse.
It doesn't seem to be an unreasonable assumption that a lack of supporting evidence (of both necessity and effectiveness) should in fact be reason to rescind a law. Do you disagree with this, or are you just looking for hidden assumptions in Eliezer's comment? If you do disagree I would be genuinely interested to hear your reasoning for it.
The word "clear" is important. The vast majority of laws lack clear evidence for or against them. Perhaps it would be good to rescind all such laws, but the confidence one could reasonably have in such a position isn't remotely like the confidence one could reasonably have in mild atheism.
My confidence in the claim that it would be good to rescind all laws that do not have clear evidence in favour of them stems from my own personal mental analogy of the legal system (something I have a layman's knowledge of) with software engineering (something I have a professional knowledge of). I see both as a complex system of interacting rules that can often produce unintended consequences (bugs in software). It is a general principle of good software engineering that all else being equal, simpler is better. Duplication of functionality is bad and should be removed. Code that exists for no apparent purpose is often best removed. By analogy, laws that duplicate functionality should be removed and laws that do not seem to have benefits should be removed. This is clearly an imperfect analogy, and analogical reasoning in general is something to be wary of, but I find it instructive to see the ever-growing complexity and inefficiency of the legal system (where laws are far more often added than removed) with the very common phenomenon in software engineering of systems over time becoming unmaintainable and inefficient due to a tendency to add and never remove code. The flawed nature of analogical reasoning clearly sets the level of confidence I can derive from this way of thinking well below confidence in atheism but there are other supporting arguments for the position to be made from other directions and overall I have a moderately high level of confidence that the legal system would be improved by a rebalancing of the rate of accretion of new laws and the rate of pruning of old laws.
5Paul Crowley
That's an unreasonably high bar - there is very little I am as confident of as atheism.
Can you name any evidence supporting the necessity of, to pick a moderately troublesome example off the top of my head, copyright? I'm not aware of any alternatives being tried (successfully or otherwise) in modern countries, so there's no actual evidence for its necessity. Shall we abolish governmental protection of intellectual property? That's a somewhat tenable position (donation-based profit, etc.), but I'm guessing most people here don't hold it. I suspect that if your suggestion's consequences were carefully inspected, it would turn out to be more or less indistinguishable from a very extreme form of libertarianism. I'm aware of no clear evidence that prohibiting civilian possession of assault helicopters and anti-tank missiles is beneficial. Are you? Perhaps they'd be primarily used to resist oppressive governments. It's also worth observing that plenty of professed rationalists take the exact opposite approach to you. They follow the precautionary principle: ban anything unless we have evidence it's not harmful. I don't think much of either approach. Suggesting that we should have a hard-and-fast rule of what we have to do in the absence of clear evidence is a bad idea. Humans have capacities for intuition and logic in addition to our capacity to gather empirical evidence. If evidence is lacking, we need to take a best guess, not just say "let's permit/ban it".
You seem to be expecting a much higher standard of evidence than I had in mind. Perhaps necessity was too strong of a word. Utility? Benefit? Something like that. All I ask is that laws have 1) a clearly defined goal of solving a problem that society wants to solve, and 2) empirical evidence (gathered after the fact, if needed) that they are doing what they were intended to do with acceptable side-effects. Marijuana criminalization seems to badly fail at least the latter, and the former depending on what problem you think it's solving. The examples you use both have straightforward utility (compensating positive externalities, reducing death rates), and mixed evidence of effectiveness (lots of art created but copyright terms of infinity minus epsilon inhibit building shared culture, misuse of legal firearms suggests more powerful weapons would also get misused for greater potential damage but firearm crime correlates poorly to ownership rates). Prohibiting by default strikes me as untenable on practical grounds, as well as being morally dubious in the extreme. As an aside, however, I actually would support abolishing intellectual property as weakly superior to the current scheme, but I doubt either is optimal.
How can you gather the evidence after the fact without experimentation? You have to try out alternative copyright schemes, for instance, to test whether it's actually working well. Otherwise I don't know what you'd consider empirical evidence for success. How can you tell? What would the actual effects of decriminalizing it be? What would widespread marijuana use do to traffic accidents, the intelligence of the general public, etc.? You can argue that it's surely better than alcohol and tobacco, but the obvious counterargument is that those are too entrenched to do away with (especially alcohol) and therefore have to be grandfathered in for pragmatic reasons. Who's right? Maybe you're right, but the only way to tell is to experiment. I'd be all in favor of more experiments in things like criminal law, to be sure, but I don't think the evidence in favor of a marijuana ban at present is much worse than that in favor of copyright.
As mentioned previously, decriminalization in Portugal serves as a pretty good experiment, and the outcome was much less harm.
1Дмитрий Зеленский
While admitting to be ignorant of most of the current evidence, I have to note my priors are currently strongly in favor of criminalization (at least for traders and for free use; using in hospitals and in research may or may not be different). Marijuana use, from what I know, lowers IQ by several integer points for some time, causing this (by being a trader or as in the next sentence) is a crime by itself (arguably worse than, say, breaking someone's toe which is clearly criminal). Decriminalization would cause a temporary spike in its use, and for that see above. De-decriminalization is likely to cause turmoil because people are opposed to change. And the possibly-strawman argument against criminalization I just adapted from somewhere in my head that you can implant "trading quantities" of a drug to frame someone does not work: you can likewise implant any substance which is forbidden to be kept freely, like, say, an explosive.
I don't think such a trial is possible; laws have to be uniform over large geographic areas to function, so noise from demographic effects drown out the data, and no government would allow its laws to be determined randomly for study purposes, anyways.
I have often thought new laws at the federal level should be treated much like new drugs are treated by the FDA. They should go through rigorous testing according to clear criteria. The proposer of a new law should specify in advance what effect they hope this law would have on the world and how we might measure this effect. Then when the law gets passed, a few small states (or perhaps counties) are initially chosen as the test group - the law only takes effect in those areas. To control for the placebo effect, we should also have a few regions in which the law is announced to take effect but is not, in practice, enforced. Then after ten years we look at the data and see whether the states with the new law are better off than they were before and better off than the states without it - better off specifically according to the previously-specified metric to a statistically significant degree. Only after it passes that test, is the law extended to the entire nation. Remember: "if it saves one life, it's worth it."
Not all things can be measured practically, and testing of politically-loaded topics (including most laws that have serious opposition) would be inherently biased. Also, as mentioned upthread, many laws would have no effect or drastically different effect when true at only the local level from the effect if national; for example, dry counties (counties with local prohibition) do not resemble the national-scale effects of Prohibition.
What do you mean by "marijuana legalization"?

Marijuana should be freely obtainable from licensed merchants. It would probably be taxed at a high rate, and there should be laws against operating machinery while under its influence. There would also probably be some licensing mechanism to guarantee its purity.

If possible, all individuals currently in prison for marijuana-related offenses should immediately be released.

The resulting savings in law enforcement resources and prison space, and the accompanying increase in tax revenue would be tremendous. In addition, patients in extreme pain would be able to manage that pain at minimal expense using plants which are easy to cultivate, rather than paying exorbitant amounts to pharmaceuticals.

Biologists would be free to research the effects of THC on the human body, which they are currently forbidden from doing. There have been some indications that THC my have tumor-destroying properties -- not nearly strong enough that I should immediately recommend cancer patients start lighting up as often as possible, but certainly strong enough that if not for the legal issues, follow-up studies would have been performed by now.

That is what I, at least, mean by "marijuana legalization". From my epistemic vantage-point it is an easy win and it is astounding that our government continues to get it so blatantly wrong.

As long as tobacco is legal, anything less harmful should also be legal. (This is more of an argument in favor of banning tobacco than legalizing other substances, though.)

Just curious: Why did at least 2 people vote CronoDAS' comment down?
Presumably because of the implicit assumption that banning harmful things is inherently a good idea. We haven't really discussed that issue because it is not necessary to hold the position that banning people from making choices harmful to themselves is not justified to argue against drug prohibition. Drug prohibition clearly fails on its own terms without needing to convince proponents of the fact that even if it worked it would still be immoral. Many people here would probably take that fact for granted however and so people were presumably voting down the implicit assumption in the statement. They would expect further justification for the claim.
Isn't that pretty much what CronoDAS said, though? The stated premise of banning certain drugs is that they are harmful (either individually or socially). So, again, drug prohibition fails on its own terms, because they are not even choosing the most harmful substances to ban. A serious attempt to ban harmful substances would start with things like rat poison and cocaine, and work its way down as far as things like tobacco and alcohol and cheesecake, but probably leave out things like psilocybin and THC. But of course I'm presuming there is a serious attempt to ban harmful substances. In reality there is a serious attempt to ban getting high, which is not the same thing at all.
(Responding to old post.) A serious attempt to ban harmful substances would not necessarily start with rat poison because while rat poison is more harmful than other substances, it's less harmful relative to how people use it. The fact that eating rat poison causes more damage to you than smoking weed is irrelevant; eating rat poison is an unusual use case for rat poison, but smoking is a typical use case for marijuana.
Also, legalizing marijuana would help stabilize the Mexican government. Legalizing opium would cripple Al-Qaeda and help us get out of Afghanistan. Afghanistan's economy depends on opium-growing. In our plans to pull out of Afghanistan, we currently have the preconditions both of building and of destroying their economy. Note: I don't advocate legalizing opium.
2Paul Crowley
Well, I would guess that most politicians know perfectly well that the illegality of marijuana is ridiculous, but they can't say so.
I fear you give politicians too much credit. The implication of this is that politicians are more rational on average than voters. I don't see much evidence to support that theory. The facts seem more easily explained by politicians being on average no more rational than the population as a whole.

I suspect that for large numbers of politicians -- probably the maqjority -- the question of whether a proposition is true doesn't really interest them all that much. They are more interested in whether a proposition will win or lose them votes. If they think it'll lose votes, they won't agree with it, and most lack the intellectual curiousity to care whether it is true.

More rational, no. More informed, yes, necessarily; they receive a constant supply of information relevant to their political decisions, largely from lobbyists and think tanks. It is biased information, but so is most of what the general public receives.
I wouldn't say they can't say so - just that they (correctly) estimate that if they came out in favor of legalisation, there are more people who would stop voting for them (not only people who are against legalization, but also those who would subconsciously tag a politician like that as a "weirdo" or "pothead"), then there are people who would start voting for them. So it's up to us non-politicians to do the job of repeatedly and loudly pointing out that marijuana doesn't deserve harsher treatment than alcohol and tobacco - not because we're morally superior to politicians, but because we aren't subject to the same constraints.
6Paul Crowley
By "can't say so", I mean "can't say so and retain any power", which to a politician's ears is pretty much the same thing. It's another example of anti-silly bias. Cannabis legalisation has roughly the same support as banning abortion, but anti-abortionists are treated as proper participants in a live debate, but people who oppose drug prohibition are still treated as silly stoners. No-one seriously tries to answer the arguments against these laws; they just fulminate about "irresponsibility" and "our children" and play the silly card. If the very slow shift of demographics hits a tipping point on this issue, we could see some fairly rapid change.
Yes. Sometime in the 1990s. Whoops! Didn't happen!
Support for legalizing marijuana is negatively correlated with age. I could not find statistics by age, but I would imagine that older Americans, being generally more conservative, are more likely to oppose abortion. Voter turnout increases with age, so although legalizing marijuana and banning abortion have similar overall levels of support, banning abortion has higher support among people whose opinions politicians care about (voters).
Does it really decline with age, or did older people form their values in a different culture? It's possible people's values are stable over time but people born a long time ago were more likely to form different values from the ones formed by people born more recently. Has anyone tried to distinguish between these possibilities?
Pardon my sloppy phrasing. I did not intend to imply causality one way or another, merely the correlation. I edited the original comment to reflect my intent.
Robert Altemeyer reports a correlation between a likely-related attitude (support for 'traditional' authority) and -- not age, but having children. Continued education has a stronger apparent effect in the opposite direction. But I don't think he directly addresses this question.
6Paul Crowley
I still have that I must be missing something feeling about that one. It seems so obvious that terrorism is very low down on the chart of public health problems, and that little would do more to defeat their aims than treating it as such; but when someone like Hitchens takes it seriously, I really want to know if there's an argument I haven't considered.
6Scott Alexander
One of my smarter friends supports the War on Terror. His rationale, which I find at least worth consideration, is that left alone, there's a decent chance terrorists will steal a nuclear weapon from Pakistan or the former USSR or somewhere and nuke a major city. Considering how much damage that could do, and how not-really-unlikely this is, the expected damage really is greater than that from a lot of other problems. Although we should be putting extra resources into fighting this specific problem (like securing nukes better) a large part of the strategy has to be an all-out war on terror. I'm pretty sure he doesn't think the war on Iraq is very helpful, but he thinks that wiretaps, detention camps, the war in Afghanistan, and vastly increased border security are all part of this effort.
The biggest issue with the "War on Terror" is that it involves a lot of hazy handwaving, amibguous goals, and very little practical evaluation of what gets results--i.e., it shows all the signs of being a political power grab masquerading as the solution to a (potentially real) problem. You're probably already familiar with him, but Bruce Schneier has written at some length about ill-considered counterterrorism efforts on his blog.
The security theater embodied in most of the TSA's budget, and the violence it does to civil rights of travelers is directly opposed to vastly increased border security. The money and attention that goes to frisking nuns distracts from the possibility of developing border security that actually works. I'm not convinced that vastly increased border security or wiretaps or detention camps are actually valuable tools in combating a merely plausible (to me) threat from terrorists, but it's clear that the actual spending is making the situation worse, not better.
How about astrology? I had a physics teacher in high school who believed in horoscopes!
So did Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo.
And it's actually sort of difficult to show that the Mars effect isn't anything spooky. [ETA: "spooky" was poor word choice, I just mean "not a statistical artifact", not necessarily anything "supernatural".] That said, I have little idea to what extent modern astrology is descended from legitimate traditions.
I don't see anything particularly spooky... there's a zillion of things to correlate Mars with, and consequently, assuming null hypothesis there will be things correlated with Mars with supposedly high confidence. After you wait and re-test with new data, you reduce number of those things but the few that remain, you are even more confident in. Also, one mars year is approximately 2 earth years, and the Mars is in approximately same position relative to Earth (and relative to sun in the sky, i.e. the height for the people born at whenever most people are born) on every second year. The Olympic games are every 4 years. So short term it is even plausible that there might be some actual weak correlation very indirectly caused by this.
And today, an Italian TV news programme stated, with a straight face, that people with water or fire astrological signs are more likely to be obese than people with earth or air signs (or vice versa, or something like that). (That wouldn't be completely a-priori-absurd if it was a division of the year in two consecutive six-month periods, as I could buy some kind of story on why (say) people who spent the first few months of extra-uterine life in winter are more likely to be obese, if there were some kind of evidence for it; but Wikipedia tells me that the elements of signs are interleaved around the year, so I can't imagine any explanation whatsoever on how such an effect could be possible.)

For what it's worth, I've recently started reading this site and am an Orthodox Jew. I have no particular plans to stop reading the site for the time being, because it's often rather interesting.

It may be worth considering that while rationalists may feel they don't need religion, almost all religious people would acknowledge the need for rationality of some kind. If rationality is about achieving your goals as effectively as possible (as some here think), then does it suddenly not work if your goals are "obey the Bible"? No -- your actions will be different from someone with different goals (utilitarianism, etc.), but most of the thought-process is the same.

Suppose you have an extremely high prior probability for God sending doubters to Hell, for whatever reason. Presumably the utility of going to Hell is very, very low. Then, as a rational Bayesian, you should avoid any evidence that would tend to cause you to doubt God, shouldn't you? I certainly don't know much of Bayesian probability, but I can't see any flaw in that logic.

The question seems rather similar to that of Omega. The winners are those who can convince themselves, by any means, that a particular beli... (read more)

This is a preference over rituals of cognition, choosing not just decisions, but the algorithms with which you arrive at those decisions. It is usually assumed that only the decisions matter, not the thought process. If you did live in such a world, I agree, you should avoid getting into a doubt-state, although it might be the case that you'd benefit from building an external reasoning device that would resolve the problem for you, not being hindered by limitations on the allowed cognitive algorithms. Also, I guess that an altruistic person should still undergo a conversion to rationality, on the chance that the evidence points out that the inborn priors are incorrect, thus sparing his fellow people living under such limitations on thought.
Well, if you're altruistic in the sense you describe, you don't have the utility function I gave in my scenario, so your result will vary. If you don't really mind going to hell too much, comparatively, then the argument doesn't work well.
Of course.
This is a deep and important topic -- if I lived in the middle ages then if there exists any rationality principle that in practice would have allowed me to deconvert from medieval christianity despite hell threats, I'm not sure what exactly that principle is, though it seems like there should be one.

In the Middle Ages, I'm not sure atheism would be too much more rational than theism, in any sense. To the average European in the year 1000, being an atheist would probably be about as rational as being a heliocentrist, i.e., not at all. We know all the arguments in favor of atheism and heliocentrism, but they didn't. No amount of rationalism is going to let you judge things based on evidence you don't know about.

The average person back then could probably have given you plenty of evidence for God's existence. The evidence would be weak by modern standards, but not by medieval standards. No one was conducting scientific studies then: almost any assertion not directly checkable was supported by pretty weak evidence. Theism might make few predictions and test them rarely, but the same was true of all the alternatives. On the other hand, theism at least had coherent and consistent answers to a slew of basic questions like "How did life arise?", which atheism did not.

So I think the answer is that the only rational principle that would have allowed you to deconvert in medieval times would be "single-handedly reconstructing modern science".

7Paul Crowley
Theism has never provided answers to these questions, only curiosity-stoppers.
The question "Where did people come from?" is one that you'd expect to be answerable, and therefore a reasonable question to ask. We might, in principle, be able to do research in the physical world to figure out where we came from, since physical events (such as the appearance of a new species) leave traces in the physical world that we might be able to detect long after the fact. Likewise, intuition suggests that everything in the physical world comes from somewhere, and so an answer of "We were always here" seems intuitively unlikely. On the other hand, if you ask "Where did God come from?", you're talking about an entity that (in the case of a Jewish-style God) predated all physical existence. There's no reason to expect us to be able to figure out where God came from, if a God exists. And since God doesn't have to play by the rules of the physical world, "God always existed" sounds much more palatable than "humans always existed": God isn't something we expect to obey our intuition. God is supposed to be inherently perfect and unchanging, so "God always existed" fits in nicely with our picture of God. Now, you can fairly say that this is all completely unverifiable and can be matched up to any facts you feel like by altering details. You'd be totally right. But there are real reasons for why many people ask "Where did humans come from?" and don't ask "Where did God come from?" It's not just because they're "not allowed" to ask those questions -- the people who came up with the answers sure were allowed to ask them! It's because the idea of an eternal God is intuitively more satisfactory than the idea of eternal humans, even if this breaks down upon closer inspection.
8Paul Crowley
No, it's still just a curiosity-stopper. Deferring a philosophical question to God is no more than shoving it underneath His great philosophical carpet of confusion.
A theoretical person using scientific techniques to investigate with Stone Age knowledge would have no reason to rule out a nature spirit, god etc or to assume that the universe was explainable. If (in the actual or a hypothetical world) the evidence did appear to point to a conscious entity, the rational thing to do would be to try and investigate it's properties. However, it would be possible that after effort he still couldn't comprehend it for some reason.
You can only see this because you are not confused. All wrong answers act as curiosity stoppers to a degree, but you can accuse an answer of ruining curiosity only to the extent you know that it's accepted more than it deserves. Every mistake is inherently wrong, but not every mistake is apparent.
The idea that God did something is not a logically impossible answer- some hypothetically possible sets of evidence would lead to the rational conclusion a God was likely. In such a world, however, genuine rational investigation in the nature of such. (And of course, one shouldn't leap to the conclusion of it being a god just because it's a conscious entity at work)
Yes it did and does, though you're left having to handwave away the question of "how did God arise?"
Yup, but those seem less troubling if anything than the questions atheism would be unable to answer at the time.

Here's an obvious one: investing in actively managed mutual funds when one could invest in index funds instead. (Investing in index funds is not always an option - if your organization's pension plan hires an idiot money manager, what can the average worker do about it?)

Anyone got any other examples of things just about everyone here has seen the folly of, even though they're widespread among otherwise-smart people?

Naïve free will, and moral realism. Related to religion, but, I think, distinct.

Good call, but comments on OB posts dealing with these subjects suggest far from "just about everyone here" has seen through them.
It's not even clear that "just about everyone here" has abandoned theism. I suspect the theists in our midst keep their mouths shut.
Who has regularly made comments on OB and is still a moral realist, Nick?
I'm a moral realist and a compatibilist about free will. I know others who are elimnitavists about free will. Does that count?
Sure does. Thanks.
FW and MR are defensible in non naive forms, and just about any naive theory is wrong. So why was pick on MR and FW?
ETA: Retracted this as it was based on a typo in the parent. My understanding of Eliezer's positions on both of these in that they fall under the umbrella of non-naive forms of FW and MR. So they are in fact defended, and not only by Eliezer, but by many prominent intellectual figures. You need only look up the usual encyclopedic sources for a list of names. So as a matter of empirical fact, serious people take them seriously, whether to agree or disagree. That is, they are defensible. Perhaps what you mean is not "indefensible" but merely "wrong"?
I meant defensible. Edited.
My recent post on average utilitarianism lends support to moral realism. That's why I found it surprising, and why I found it surprising that (presumably non-moral-realist) people here could read it, give it some credence, yet not consider it important.

In the realm of politics or economics, for instance, surely there ought to be some.

An obvious hypothesis: a substantial number of people on LW hold ideas about politics or economics that a substantial number of other people on LW think are roughly as rational as theism, we're at least implicitly aware of this, and we avoid the topic because we think that our rationality is too weak to get past the "mind killer" effect at this point.

For instance: I suspect that most of economics is total bunk and think that libertarian political positions are tragically naive. There's certainly a chance that I'm wrong, but I don't expect that starting a debate over either topic on LW would produce useful results.

Theism is safe because it's fairly obviously irrational, requires little specialized knowledge to see past, and we know we already mostly agree on it.

"libertarian political positions" are all over the map, so I have to agree (though I'm a libertarian: 100x100 on the WSPQ about that one. I wonder whether it wouldn't be productive for a sceptic to pick out one or a few of the positions that are generally agreed on by economists (mattnewport's list above is a reasonable starting point: free trade, price controls, open immigration; I'd add taxes reduce productivity) and start a discussion of what you think the weak points are. edited to use proper LW linking Of course, it would only work if one or a few people who disagree with the majority position were committed to making their best argument and sticking to the discussion even as they get (predictably) piled on by others. Perhaps we need a better way to manage such discussions by reducing the number of participants so a few people can have time to consider all of the points being made.
Well, I score 90x60, the left-wing side of Libertarian, so it's not like I disagree strongly. ...most of which I also agree with. It's the points where economists frequently disagree that I am left to assume that most of them have no idea what they're talking about (As for taxes, that's a much more complicated question than just wanting "more" or "less" of them). And this is the real problem, because my views differ enough from most standard positions that I'd be arguing with a lot of people, but don't differ enough to make it feel worth arguing because collecting and organizing supporting references properly is a lot of work.

I don't think this is at all true that theism is a uniquely awful example.

What about Ayn Rand's Objectivism? I just ctrl-f'd for that on this page and I'm AMAZED to report that no one else seems to have mentioned this obvious example yet.

Things like dualism are right out, but also non-mystical things like homeopathy.

Seems to me there are lots of simply referencable ideas or schools or thought that rationality cleans up.

Secondly, though, I think that rationality often leads reliably to positions that are just a bit less easy to squirt out in a name or phrase like that. Take... free trade, for instance.

The popular common positions are to argue for or against it (mind-killing politics), but I'd think a person using rationality should reliably come to the more nuanced position that free trade is mathematically proven to be the most optimal, but there are problems in the details of switching to it that need to be addressed (ie, what happens when the safety standards between two areas are different? And while yes, everyone will be better off on average afterwards, what about those people who will be negatively affected by the transition? Do we want some policy for helping them through or... (read more)

I re-found this yesterday and I'm just gonna link it. Empirical data against libertarianism!
How is one small movement of amateur philosophers dissing another going to play? It's like the Mormon saying the seventh day Adventist are wrong, (Agree that Objectivism sucks BTW)

Someone on OB (Michael Vassar?) once said that religion is the main reason they know not to be a majoritarian, or something to that effect.

There are other examples of near society-wide apparent rationality failures that seem obvious to many here -- and sure enough, they receive a significant amount of discussion. I'm thinking in particular of cryonics/transhumanism, as well as certain Unnamed Things.

I don't think we should be squeamish about using theism as an example where it applies. This is, after all, an advanced rationality forum -- one expects folks... (read more)

This is, after all, an advanced rationality forum -- one expects folks here to either be well beyond giving serious consideration to the claims of religion, or at the very least interested enough in epistemology to be able to stomach critiques of theism.

I'm glad to know that we are so much more advanced at being Bayesian rationalists than silly folks like Robert Aumann or, uh, the Reverend Thomas Bayes.

Yes, I'm being snide, but this sounds a bit too self-congratulating. Are we really in a position to be all but saying "these specific beliefs are a prerequisite for posting"?

There is a big difference between being a scholar of something like Bayesian probability or game theory and desiring to apply rationality in your life. Thus, there is no contradiction between believing that Aumann could run rings around anybody here when it comes to the relevant mathematics and that he might be far less rational in his everyday life than the average LW reader. It's wrong in general to assume that somebody who researches a topic is influenced in their day-to-day activities by their research. They usually just find it an intellectually stimulating topic that they enjoy working in, and the only effect it has on their non-academic life is that they sometimes think about it outside of the university. Expecting Aumann to be extremely rational is like expecting philosophers of ethics to be extremely ethical.
I think it's fair to say that if Aumann were a poster here and wrote in support of theism, Eliezer and friends would come down on him like a (very respectful) ton of bricks and he would either de-convert or switch to a non-rationalist mode under pressure. It's not he's a good rationalist and a theist. He's a good rationalist xor a theist, at any one time.
6Paul Crowley
You should worry when you say something that doesn't advance your argument if you take out the snide - I have to guard against this myself. It's not that we are "so much more advanced" at being Bayesian rationalists - it's that we are applying those techniques to a domain that they compartmentalised away. It's not because we're meanies, or self-congratulatory, that theists are extremely irrational about something that touches on many parts of their thinking - it's a fact that we have to live with. There's just no way that someone can be religious and on board with what we are trying to do here, because being on board would inevitably mean opening the compartment, breaking the spell, and losing those beliefs.
I agree, on the whole. What I was trying to get at is that it seems likely to me that most of us here probably have at least one irrational belief, and that there's a fine line between "we agree that this is irrational" and "you must reject this belief to participate here". The latter is harmful even if the belief is factually incorrect. That is to say, the only reason we should want theists to avoid this site is because they've observed that other theists participating here deconvert suspiciously often. EDIT: Fixed some tpyos that seriously screwed up a point I was making.
1Paul Crowley
I know one theist who deconverted at least in part because of OB, and there are others who have posted here to say the same. That's pretty strong testimony that we've got some good stuff here, although it could plausibly be sampling bias.
And religious message boards often have a few converts they can trot out to demonstrate the power of their content. If you're trying to be a rationalist, why reach a conclusion about the effectiveness of OB's content to induce deconversion if you don't know how many theists have come across it and failed to deconvert? You're not in possession of the information needed to reach a rational conclusion.
I agree in regards to OB. I am concerned that LW will fail to maintain that standard.
Does anyone here think otherwise?
Regarding the good Reverend, we stand on the shoulders of giants that came after him, and are lucky enough to find ourselves in a more tolerant environment. And Laplace independently went further than Bayes not that much later, and had no need of that hypothesis. Did komponisto say that? I read "expect" as descriptive, not normative.
The bit about Rev. Bayes was something of a cheap shot, I admit. My impression has actually been that Bayes himself was a mostly unremarkable scholar (compared to someone like Laplace, that is!) and quite possibly would not even agree with modern Bayesian statistics. I read it as a bit of both. If I was incorrect to do so, mea culpa and apologies to komponisto.

Just reminding everyone of one more sad thing - every good cause to rally people under generally needs an enemy. And if there isnt one, it usually develops or is found. People somehow just want to be against things rather than for them..

Also, atheism seems to be one of the few things most of us here have in common so Matt Newports post hits a nail there. We have a tradition of bashing theism. Traditions go a long way towards cementing a sense of community, so they do have a positive side. But the fact is that once a tradition has developed, people who break it are usually viewed as outsiders in some sense so it makes sense for people to stick to the traditons.

In my (admittedly not immense) experience, intelligent theists who commit to rationality (and stay theists indefinitely) either engage in some heavy-duty partitioning of their beliefs - that is, they commit only partially to rationality, and consider part of their belief network exempt - or cover the gaps in their communicable rationality with incommunicable religious experience. In the first case, it's a clear case of not being wholly rational; if we can talk about those people as a convenient, accessible example of not-wholly-rational individuals with a... (read more)

I'm in an ongoing conversation with a couple of LDS missionaries, and those incommunicable experiences seem to be their primary argument. They say they can't convince me Mormonism is true on their own, but if I read, and I pray, and I work, I'll just have that experience myself and I'll know it. And if I had more spare time, I would do all those things, primarily to give them Bayesian evidence that it's actually not true (I keep meaning to pick up my Book of Mormon, but, well, particle physics to read, LW posts to write, root documentation to go through, etc etc etc) The primary argument that I have given back, though, is that religious experiences of this stripe simply aren't unique to Mormonism. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics, and ravers taking E have all had similar transcendent experiences. It is naive to take it as Bayesian evidence of mormonism.true.
I don't think Mormonism is true. I'm not even sure I should consider my friends' experiences evidence in favor of the proposition that Mormonism is true, especially given that I know other religions have similarly experience-laden representatives and "Alicorn's friends" isn't a group representative of the population as a whole. I do, however, suspect that they should consider it evidence - even strong evidence - to exactly that effect.
Why? Unless the experience displays obvious entanglement with external facts they couldn't have known at the time, "it's all in my head" is a perfectly good explanation. Also, I agree that some experiences are incommunicable in practice, but it still seems that enough information is available that your friends should conclude (with a touch of Outside View reasoning) that other people who claim incommunicable evidence for their religions are probably experiencing about the same thing they are.
Unfortunately, there's a slippery slope from "it's all in your head" to "it doesn't matter"/"you're making it up". Look at the history of psychiatry and mental health for examples. Not saying you're wrong, just that there may be layers of complicated cultural biases preventing people from accepting that answer.
A human mind is a physical object in the universe, mine as well as yours. An experience that you have should not produce a qualitatively different update in beliefs to an experience I report. In either case, the fact of the matter is, on such and such date and time, a human brain under such and such circumstances underwent such and such experiences. To take it to an extreme case, no one has access to information which a scientist with a super-MRI machine observing the excitation of each individual neuron does not, in principle, have.
Yes, of course - but I don't have a super-MRI. I can't access the content of my friends' experiences; I can't take it into account the way I could entertain a communicable proposition, because they can't even describe their experiences. If someone tells me a piece of evidence that would be excellent evidence for proposition P, but they say it in Swahili, I have no such evidence for P.
Intelligent theists who commit to rationality also seem to say that their "revelatory experience" is less robust than scientific, historical, or logical knowledge/experience. For example, if they interpret their revelation to say that God created all animal species separately, then scientific evidence proves beyond reasonable doubt that that is untrue, then they must have misinterpreted their revelatory experience (I believe this is the Catholic Church's current position, for example). Similarly if their interpretation of their revelation contradicts logical arguments; logic wins over revelation. This seems consistent with the idea that they have had a strange experience that they are trying to incorporate into their other experience. For me personally, I have a hard time imagining a private experience that would convince me that God has revealed something to me. I would think it far more likely that I had simply gone temporarily crazy (or at least as crazy as other people who have had other, contradictory revelations). So I don't think that such "experiences" should update my state of information, and I don't update based on others' claims of those experiences either.
4Paul Crowley
The argument I use on incommunicable experiences is this: how do you go about working out if a sensation is internally or externally generated? Obviously to think that all of your sensations are internally generated is just to deny the useful distinction between inside and outside, but it's clear that some experiences do come from inside, so how do you tell? Are you tuning in to the Great Ringing, or is it just tinnitus?
You need to define "fundamentalist" for us, then. Originally, it meant a liberal interpretation of Christianity that would admit anyone who subscribed to a short list of (then nearly-universally-held) fundamental doctrines.
It never meant a liberal interpretation of Christianity. It was defined by adherence to a shortish list of allegedly fundamental alleged truths, but the whole reason for its existence was that liberal Christians were starting to doubt or deny them. (But "fundamentalist" these days is a term whose connotation matters more than its denotation, and I agree that anyone using it for any serious purpose needs to say what they mean by it.)
I run into a common wall with rationality applied to religious experience: Examining the details of their objections to materialistic hypotheses for their experience. Rationality demands doubt, however small. In my experience, this doubt is forcefully rejected in a noticeably irrational manner. But my sample is not large.

Maybe "religion" is like "schizophrenia". We don't know what schizophrenia really is, so we tend to call anything that makes someone really crazy "schizophrenia".

Religion is not a well-defined category. There are things in it that don't have much in common with other things in the category (Buddhism), and things not in it that have a lot in common with other things in it (Marxism, other 'isms', political affiliations)

Right. It's basically a family association; different religions will share different things in common, but there's no real core concept. If anything, I'd suggest "a system of principles and beliefs for living one's life," in which case, yes, rationalism would be a religion as well.

There are so many...

The obvious ones:
• Any sort of pseudoscience (homeopathy, astrology)
• Conspiracy theories (9/11, moon landing)
• Expensive magic pills that make you slim
• Racism, fascism

Less obvious, subtle:
• "You can't judge other people's opinions"
• Any inadequate or naive view on free will (as far as I can see, the amount of naive free willers is far bigger than that of theists)
• Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (maybe not anymore?)

Probably still controversial or hard to avoid even with good epistemic hygiene:
• Rejection of cryonics
• Tabooing human sexuality

Most of them are held by very few people, so they're bad examples. A few of them are not obviously wrong so they're also bad examples - for example polygraph might as well be an useful truth finding device, there's just zero evidence for it; or psychoanalysis might as well be useful as therapeutic device; or some races might be "superior" to others in some meaningful sense like intelligence etc. I'm not saying any of that is likely to be true, just on completely other level of wrongness than God and marijuana criminalization.

So. Is theism really a uniquely awful example?

It is for Christianity and Islam, and their reliance on magic books taken as dogmatic truth. Maybe others could speak to Islam, but the major strains of Christianity specifically exalt Faith as superior to Reason for the important questions in life.They're not just wrong on the facts, their metawrong on the best means to obtain facts, and ideologically committed to that mistake. That makes them uniquely awful.

Racism and sexism are pretty good candidates as well. Prejudice in general would be even more inclusive; one could even consider religion to be a special case of prejudice against reality.

Ha ha, this comment shows up on the Recent Comments feed at right as: " Racism and sexism are pretty good by SeanMCoincon on The uniquely awful example of theism | 0 points " THAT certainly couldn't be misconstrued against me in any way! I think I'll run for Congress.

Many smart people are more likely to believe a fact to be true if they want the fact to be true. This is something we should all see the folly of.

I doubt many would affirm that they should do this, though, and we're looking for explicitly held beliefs.

There are so many...

The obvious ones:

  • Any sort of pseudoscience (homeopathy, astrology)
  • Conspiracy theories (9/11, moon landing)
  • Expensive magic pills that make you slim
  • Racism, fascism

Less obvious, subtle:

  • "You can't judge other people's opinions"
  • Any inadequate or naive view on free will (as far as I can see, the amount of naive free willers is far bigger than that of theists)
  • Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (maybe not anymore?)

Probably still controversial or hard to avoid even with good epistemic hygiene:

  • Rejection of cryonics
  • Tabooing human sexuality
[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

I was going for a bit of this post's point in my post. I actually can think of a good example in economics that I've applied specific principles from OB to argue against, but I'm wary about setting off people's political minds, so I prefer not to bring it up.

2Eliezer Yudkowsky
I think I'd like to hear it.
Agreed. To be honest, I'm also curious what would be stirred up, here, by a bit of politics. Are people who are trying really hard to be rational, more willing to say "I was wrong"?
0Paul Crowley
We are going to have to dip a toe in that water at some point. I just hope it's something a little more novel than the great Internet standbys of g*n c*ntr*l or some such...

I'd suggest objective morality, essentialism, and various folk psychology ideas like the "self" and "freedom." Perhaps more controversially, "the sanctity of life."

No doubt I'll be voted down for this.

But I (for one) think theism can be a rational position, and the apparent consensus here is just an example of your group-think.

Likewise with the drug-war. I imagine legalizing marijuana is a libertarian position, not necessarily held by a rationalist.

I disagree with byrnema's opinions; but that isn't a reason to downvote byrnema in this context. We are not discussing whether theism & drug war are rational; we're discussing whether they are uncontroversial on LW. gjm claimed the badness of theism is uncontroversial on LW; others claimed the badness of the drug war is uncontroversial on LW. byrnema provided a datapoint that disproved them both. Hence, I upvoted byrnema, even though the disconfirmation of our consensus disappointed me. I also would rather encourage bravery than discourage it. This is not cut-and-dried, since we can also display our degree of consensus by upvoting and downvoting things we agree and disagree with. I guess I'm making a special exception for someone who provides us with datapoints on issues that we already know there is a general consensus on here on LW; while continuing to use up/downvoting to indicate my opinion of other topics (eg global warming). For instance, when NeedleFactory says he thinks there is consensus here that humans don't cause global warming, that's astonishing, and I should perhaps downvote it to show there is no such consensus. The prediction "No doubt I'll be voted down for this" proved correct. Is it rational to downvote someone for making a correct prediction?
"No doubt I'll be voted down for this" often does correlated with being voted down (or voted up a lot) but that doesn't make it any less whiny!
5Paul Crowley
As I have commented once already today, I vote down all comments that start "No doubt I'll be voted down for this, but..." If I had another downvote to give for asserting that theism can be rational with not a word to defend it and a third for the inevitable cheap accusation of groupthink, you'd get those too.
I voted you down for that. Seems like you're trying to prevent people from suggesting the existence of groupthink. The first rule of groupthink is: Don't talk about groupthink! ADDED: Is it rational for you to downvote someone for making a correct prediction?
2Paul Crowley
It's not that you're not allowed to suggest it, it's that if you're going to, you should have better evidence than that you anticipate a lot of disagreement. Preferably, you should suggest a way for us to distinguish us suffering from groupthink from you being wrong. And please can we have less of this stuff about rules and what you're allowed to say? We are not The Man who's Holding You Down. Voted down comments are not removed; if you don't care what other people think of a contribution then set your threshold to -1000.
Oh no, you misunderstand. Let's take it for granted that I am wrong. I disagree with the consensus of the group, and the group is based on rational (correct) thinking, so it is actually likely that I am wrong. I was only making the point that not everyone agrees with a purportedly uncontroversial position. Myself and anyone else who holds the view that theism can be rational may ALL be wrong, that is neither here nor there. UNLESS... do you want to say that if we're wrong, we're not rational, we're not members of the group? This is an important point because we are discussing whether anti-theism is uncontroversial in this group. That is the only reason why I was trying to see if you would qualify my membership in the group. (Of course it was a trap ... I wanted to see how and to what extent the group-think is asserted here.) Your comment about "please can we have less of this stuff about rules and what you're allowed to say? " seemed emotional to me, or at least projected inappropriate emotion on myself. The Man Holding Me Down is not part of my world view.
I have noticed that people who express negativity tend to get voted down; but I attributed it to the instinct to crush the omega wolf. I didn't imagine it was a conscious decision. So I also dislike your downvoting-rule because of my instinct to support the underdog. I don't know how to reconcile the instinct to crush the omega wolf with the instinct to support the underdog. They're both real. I didn't downvote this comment that I'm replying to. I try to downvote only the topmost comment in a series. Downvoting every comment in a series of responses discourages people who disagree from engaging with each other.
0Eliezer Yudkowsky
I voted you down because I'm annoyed by people who suggest that suggesting the existence of groupthink is forbidden. Of course, I'm sure I'll be... um... actually, I'd better not finish that sentence.
I didn't vote you down because I'm engaging in status signalling by rejecting peer pressure to vote people down for silly reasons. So there.
I voted you up because I like feedback about my posts, and I like your writing style and tone. I'm not defending theism because that's not the point of this post. The point of my comment is that someone (me) would defend theism. Groupthink is not such a cheap accusation, because gim asserted that theism is "uncontroversially wrong, at least here on LW". But if it is controversial, then the apparent consensus here is groupthink. The question is; does thinking theism can be rational automatically exclude me from membership at LW?
4Paul Crowley
Heh, thanks! The consensus here is simply because theism and uncompartmentalized rationalism are completely incompatible. But that's not to say that theists are barred from posting here; no-one's set out any conditions of membership.
"Theism" is too loose to really argue about it being rational or irrational with providing specific examples. If I just choose a random theism from a list, the odds are high it will be pretty irrational. Is it theoretically plausible to create a rational theism? Probably, but getting it qualified as... a) Theistic b) Rational c) Religious ... may find you stuck in a war of semantics.