Human Evil and Muddled Thinking

Followup toRationality and the English Language

George Orwell saw the descent of the civilized world into totalitarianism, the conversion or corruption of one country after another; the boot stamping on a human face, forever, and remember that it is forever.  You were born too late to remember a time when the rise of totalitarianism seemed unstoppable, when one country after another fell to secret police and the thunderous knock at midnight, while the professors of free universities hailed the Soviet Union's purges as progress.  It feels as alien to you as fiction; it is hard for you to take seriously.  Because, in your branch of time, the Berlin Wall fell.  And if Orwell's name is not carved into one of those stones, it should be.

Orwell saw the destiny of the human species, and he put forth a convulsive effort to wrench it off its path.  Orwell's weapon was clear writing.  Orwell knew that muddled language is muddled thinking; he knew that human evil and muddled thinking intertwine like conjugate strands of DNA:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification...

Orwell was clear on the goal of his clarity:

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.

To make our stupidity obvious, even to ourselves—this is the heart of Overcoming Bias.

Evil sneaks, hidden, through the unlit shadows of the mind.  We look back with the clarity of history, and weep to remember the planned famines of Stalin and Mao, which killed tens of millions.  We call this evil, because it was done by deliberate human intent to inflict pain and death upon innocent human beings.  We call this evil, because of the revulsion that we feel against it, looking back with the clarity of history.  For perpetrators of evil to avoid its natural opposition, the revulsion must remain latent.  Clarity must be avoided at any cost.  Even as humans of clear sight tend to oppose the evil that they see; so too does human evil, wherever it exists, set out to muddle thinking.

1984 sets this forth starkly:  Orwell's ultimate villains are cutters and airbrushers of photographs (based on historical cutting and airbrushing in the Soviet Union).  At the peak of all darkness in the Ministry of Love, O'Brien tortures Winston to admit that two plus two equals five:

'Do you remember,' he went on, 'writing in your diary, "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four"?'

'Yes,' said Winston.

O'Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended. 

'How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?'

'Four.'

'And if the party says that it is not four but five —then how many?'

'Four.'

The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston's body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O'Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased. 

I am continually aghast at apparently intelligent folks—such as Robin's colleague Tyler Cowen—who don't think that overcoming bias is important.  This is your mind we're talking about.  Your human intelligence.  It separates you from an ape.  It built this world.  You don't think how the mind works is important?  You don't think the mind's systematic malfunctions are important?  Do you think the Inquisition would have tortured witches, if all were ideal Bayesians?

Tyler Cowen apparently feels that overcoming bias is just as biased as bias:  "I view Robin's blog as exemplifying bias, and indeed showing that bias can be very useful."  I hope this is only the result of thinking too abstractly while trying to sound clever.  Does Tyler seriously think that scope insensitivity to the value of human life is on the same level with trying to create plans that will really save as many lives as possible?

Orwell was forced to fight a similar attitude—that to admit to any distinction is youthful naïveté:

Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?

Maybe overcoming bias doesn't look quite exciting enough, if it's framed as a struggle against mere accidental mistakes.  Maybe it's harder to get excited if there isn't some clear evil to oppose.  So let us be absolutely clear that where there is human evil in the world, where there is cruelty and torture and deliberate murder, there are biases enshrouding it.  Where people of clear sight oppose these biases, the concealed evil fights back.  The truth does have enemies.  If Overcoming Bias were a newsletter in the old Soviet Union, every poster and commenter of this blog would have been shipped off to labor camps.

In all human history, every great leap forward has been driven by a new clarity of thought.  Except for a few natural catastrophes, every great woe has been driven by a stupidity.  Our last enemy is ourselves; and this is a war, and we are soldiers.

 

Part of the Politics Is the Mind-Killer subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "The Affect Heuristic" (start of next subsequence)

Previous post: "False Laughter"

138 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:37 PM
Select new highlight date
Moderation Guidelines: Reign of Terror - I delete anything I judge to be annoying or counterproductiveexpand_more

Summary: if they can make you believe absurdities, they can make you commit atrocities.

Eliezer, you seem to say that trying to reduce hypocrisy is good for people who are trying to overcome their biases. That seems a tautology...

"The sort of human being who makes a continual effort to overcome hypocrisy, and who manages to do so, will probably set the slaves free." I don't quite see how this is tautological...

Stalin and Hitler did not suffer from lack of clarity.

Hitler certainly did. Stalin... maybe not, I don't know his case in as much detail. But it is their followers, and the rest of the world, who they managed to confuse. This is what Orwell opposed. He was not speaking to Stalin, but to the people who tried to excuse Stalin.

Helping people to open their eyes and see human suffering, raising children to be compassionate, will do far more to get rid of the Hitlers and Castros than logic and writing classes.

I'm supposed to applaud now, right?

Opening eyes is what I do. It's a lot more complicated than telling your kids, "Suffering is bad, m'kay?"

There's a long, long distance between being told by your parents not to murder, and learning how to actually see a "murder" taking place rather than an "alternative justice process". Morality without logic will be flushed down a toilet by self-deception.

There's a long, long distance between being told by your parents not to murder, and learning how to actually see a "murder" taking place rather than an "alternative justice process".

Or an ordinary justice process, for that matter.

I feel you exaggerate the case here Eliezer. Overcoming bias will not solve all the problems in the world. There's even a chance it could make them worst. Let's look at hypocrisy, for instance:

This is the great case against hypocrisy, that hypocrisy allows us to act contrary to our ideals, and at times our ideals could have prevented holocausts. I suppose on the other side of the ledger must go the various "social graces" where hypocrisy supposedly smooths social interactions and lets us save face. Is there a way to weigh these two sides against each other, or is there a way to distinguish them, so we could have the good hypocrisy without excessive risk of the bad slipping in too?

There's a huge positive chunk of hypocrisy that we're missing there - hypocrisy allows us to have ideals higher than we can (and do) attain in our actions. It can have a tremendously aspirational effect. The phrase "all men are created equal" was written by rich, white slaveowners. Eliezer feels that if hypocrisy had been banned, they would have written the same phrase, and set all their slaves free. I fear that if hypocrisy had been banned, they would have kept their slaves and instead written "all rich, white men are created equal". And future progress would have been ruled out.

To summarise: hypocrisy is the distance between ideals and actions. Erasing that distance does not tell us whether our actions will rise or if our ideals will fall - especially over several generations. Without hypocrisy, people may just become more tolerant of those "arguments which are too brutal for most people to face".

There's a huge positive chunk of hypocrisy that we're missing there - hypocrisy allows us to have ideals higher than we can (and do) attain in our actions. It can have a tremendously aspirational effect. The phrase "all men are created equal" was written by rich, white slaveowners. Eliezer feels that if hypocrisy had been banned, they would have written the same phrase, and set all their slaves free. I fear that if hypocrisy had been banned, they would have kept their slaves and instead written "all rich, white men are created equal". And future progress would have been ruled out.

Ah, now there's a powerful argument.

But at the same time, if hypocrisy had not decreased, we would still have rich white slaveowners.

It should be assumed by default that when I talk about the benefits of overcoming bias, I am talking about the sort of human being who comes into existence when they set out to overcome their own biases by acts of mental will and training. Not, necessarily, the sort of entity that you get if you do neurosurgery on a human; nor the sort of entity that would have evolved if deception and self-deception had not been part of the ancestral environment.

The sort of human being who makes a continual effort to overcome hypocrisy, and who manages to do so, will probably set the slaves free.

(Claiming that "ideal Bayesians" would not have sponsored an Inquisition obscures this point, since it launches too great a counterfactual; this was probably a mistake of writing, if not of fact.)

J, that's Tyler quoting a summary of Hanson, not Tyler himself.

Robin, I think it'd be pretty silly to trade off social graces against the Inquisition, especially when some creative thinking could devise alternative social graces.

Seriously, we're trading off social graces against what?

This is the great case against hypocrisy, that hypocrisy allows us to act contrary to our ideals, and at times our ideals could have prevented holocausts. I suppose on the other side of the ledger must go the various "social graces" where hypocrisy supposedly smooths social interactions and lets us save face. Is there a way to weigh these two sides against each other, or is there a way to distinguish them, so we could have the good hypocrisy without excessive risk of the bad slipping in too?

Hypocrisy is a protection against bad ideals as well as an impediment to achieving good ideals.

If religious people we not hypocrites, we would all be burned at the stake.

If religious people we not hypocrites, we would all be burned at the stake.

This depends how the counterfactual is constructed - ie. when they stopped being hypocrites and whether the non-hypocrisy is prevented from causing the no-longer-hypocritical people to lose their religion. I mean - we might win and kill all the religious people!

The assumption is that people start doing things that match with their stated beliefs- so, for instance, people who claim to oppose genocide would actually oppose genocide in all cases, which is the whole point of thinking hypocrisy is bad. Causing people to no longer be hypocrites by making them instead give up their stated beliefs would just make for a world which was more honest but otherwise not dramatically improved.

Incidentally, on the joking side: If atheists did win the religious war, they could then use this statement in a completely serious and logical context: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmmQxXPOMMY

Granted. We might hope that they would stop being hypocrites not by abandoning their behavior-motivating beliefs (e.g. "it is wrong to murder someone for being an atheist") but instead by abandoning their professed "beliefs" (e.g. "nonbelievers will suffer in Hell for eternity"); but it's hard for me to say which would actually happen. We do know that under certain circumstances, human beings definitely will burn other humans to death in the name of religious belief.

Well, professed beliefs and behavior-motivating beliefs are often integral. However, usually conversion rather than immolation is the goal of a believer who believes that atheists will burn in hell for eternity. Generally, the goal is to get everyone to heaven, and most people realize that by burning an atheist, they are not being rational about their faith, and secondly not making it look good. In fact, rarely in any religious text (perhaps excluding the Koran - correct me if I'm wrong) does one find an instruction to kill atheists.

That rather depends on what tenets of their religion they choose to be hypocritical about.

That depends on the religion. Not all religions have a strong concern with heresy or other sorts of non-belief, and not all religions permit violence.

Most religions do not dictate that heretics be burned at the stake. And if all religious people were non-hypocritical to the basic tenets of a religion (see Ten Commandments, Five Pillars of Islam, etcetera) rather than to specific instructions that are open to interpretation, the world would probably be a much better place.

Ten Commandments are just a part of a larger whole. Why would non-hypocritical people accept this part, and reject the parts about "if you see someone doing this or that, kill them"? Both parts come from the same book.

I assume that what you are referring to are some of the laws encountered in the Old Testament, which were part of a legal structure designed to apply to the Israelite nation (and no one else, point of interest). From a Judaism perspective, the law is supposed to apply only to Jews - those who are part of the religion and the race. Only Jews are affected, unless people attack the Jews and the Jews fight back (see most of the Israeli conflicts). From a Christian perspective, there is an explanation about the relevance of the Law to Christianity, explaining that as Christianity replaced Judaism, for obvious reasons sacrifices did not need to be carried out anymore. For similar reasons, the whole of the Mosaic Law did not need to be adhered to; the important things according to Jesus were to 'love God, and love your neighbour as yourself'. So, those are the operatives on which Christians are supposed to base their behavior. I think you would agree that Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism, along with most of the minor religions and cults do not pose much of a threat to humanity in terms of the instructions contained within them. Islam, granted, is a whole other story. There are a number of contradictions in the Koran for which complicated rules have been devised to find out the 'correct' interpretation, based on which part was written first and whether the Hadith applies, etcetera. There is particular conflict over whether to act on Surat At-Tabwah 9:5 ('kill the Polytheists wherever you find them... and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush') or Surat Al-Baqarah 2:256 ('Let there be no compulsion in religion'). The Hadith has even more to say on the issue. Most moderate Muslims place the latter Surat over the former, many Shiites however interpret it a different way.
In any case, the number of non-hypocritical people who would be doing massive amounts of good would outweigh the number of non-hypocrites doing evil - although the definitions of 'Good' and 'Evil' have to be looked at in the context of - wait for it! religion. However if, as I assume (please correct me if I'm wrong) you are basically a Utilitarian, it can be deduced that the net amount of human suffering would decrease if people were non-hypocritical about their religion. Of course, interpretation will always play a part. I hope that answers your comment/question.

I assume that what you are referring to are some of the laws encountered in the Old Testament, which were part of a legal structure designed to apply to the Israelite nation (and no one else, point of interest). From a Judaism perspective, the law is supposed to apply only to Jews - those who are part of the religion and the race.

Yes, because murder and genocide make perfect sense as long as you restrict them to a particular place and time! And there are such things as "races" and it makes sense for them to be units of moral analysis. And obviously "she must marry her rapist" (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) is a totally sensible rule for an ancient culture, and neither the Greeks nor the Chinese had figured out anything even remotely better by that time period. Yes, obviously, it was totally fair for Moses to be talking about slaughtering the Amalekites (and their children, and their cattle; Deuteronomy 20:16-17) at the same time in history when Demosthenes and Epicurus were debating about the proper form of democratic government. And no one today takes those ideas seriously, and certainly there aren't millions of Americans who use passages from Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) to argue against gay marriage.

And of course Jesus came to change the rules; that's why he put it so plainly in Matthew 5:17-19:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

\end{sarcasm}

Witness what religion does to a human mind; it makes an otherwise intelligent and reasonable person defend the obviously indefensible, because they cannot bear to accept the obvious fact that what they were told isn't true. Suddenly genocide becomes "a different time" and rape becomes "their culture", because the thought that so many people's precious beliefs are false is simply too much to bear. Contradictions in holy books are somehow seen as a good thing, because they let you take whatever meaning you want and declare the result infallible (when it's obvious from basic logic that contradictions in beliefs are always bad).

Of course no religion is harmless. Delusions are never a good thing. Some religions are more harmful than others, I'll grant you that; but if you want to know why Islam is particularly bad, it's because it actually follows the book. Jews and Christians have largely given up on the crazy evil books, and so they can behave (mostly) like reasonable human beings. Muslims haven't, and that's why they do things like hang gay people and keep women covered head to toe. Confucians are an interesting case, in that their books contain falsehoods, but are not genocidally insane, so that counts for something. Jain are also crazy, but crazy in a way that makes them relatively harmless---like the Amish. So if I could make every Muslim in the world suddenly turn Jain, I would; but I'd rather turn them atheist. What's more, I find it's easier to make people atheist, because the rational part of their brains already wants to.

As for what evil means, no, it has nothing to do with religion (other than the obvious fact that religion makes assertions about it, just as religion makes unfounded assertions about literally everything). Evil is found in human suffering, particularly when it could be easily prevented. It is found in death and destruction, especially when we are in a position to avoid them. Am I a utilitarian? Yes, I suppose I am---if you are not, you must be saying that your decisions can't be made to fit a Von Neumann-Morgenstern decision utility... and isn't that a lot like saying your decisions are irrational? If you meant to say that human beings rarely engage in intentional evil (accidental and negligent evil is far more common), that's actually a very good point; but then, this is just one more problem with religion, because religion often asserts that our enemies are servants of demons whose only goals are pure evil.

The net amount of human suffering would be decreased if people abandoned religion altogether. If they continued to believe in religion and stopped being hypocrites, no... I stand by my previous claim. They would burn people like me and most of the rest of Less Wrong at the stake. The war between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland would flare up once again, and really if theology is as important as people say, even Baptists and Methodists should be torturing each other over doctrinal differences. It is only a lack of religious fervor that defends civilization as we know it; and if given the choice between fanaticism and hypocrisy I wholemindedly express my preference for hypocrisy.

Worth elaborating: If all religious people were non-hypocritical and do exactly what the religion they claim to follow commands, there would probably be an enormous initial drop in violence, followed by any religions that follow commandments like "thou shalt not kill" without exception being wiped out, with religions advocating holy war and the persecution of heretics getting the eventual upper hand (although imperfectly adapted religions might potentially be able to hold off the better-adapted ones through strength of numbers- for instance, if a large area was controlled by a religion with the burning of heretics and defensive, cooperative religious wars, they could hold off smaller nations with religions advocating offensive wars).

One good thing about hypocrisy is that it makes a massive buffer against certain types of virulent memes. On the other hand, a world where everyone took a burn-the-heretics interpretation of Christianity or Islam 100% seriously would certainly have some advantages over ours, and especially over our middle ages- things like no un-sanctioned killing, most notably, no wars against others of the same religion, etc. Probably lots of things that would be decent ideas if you could get everyone to follow them, at the cost of an occasional burnt heretic (and possibly constant holy wars, until one religion gains the upper hand and overwhelms the others).

On the other hand, a world where everyone took a burn-the-heretics interpretation of Christianity or Islam 100% seriously would certainly have some advantages over ours, and especially over our middle ages- things like no un-sanctioned killing, most notably, no wars against others of the same religion, etc. Probably lots of things that would be decent ideas if you could get everyone to follow them, at the cost of an occasional burnt heretic (and possibly constant holy wars, until one religion gains the upper hand and overwhelms the others).

Sounds like the history of Europe and the Islamic world. Except that no-one ever did get the upper hand, neither for Christianity vs. Islam, nor the splits within those faiths.

Anyone want to go back to the time of the Crusades?

Probably lots of things that would be decent ideas if you could get everyone to follow them

If the only thing in favour of an idea is how wonderful the world would be if everyone followed it, it's a bad idea.

If the only thing in favour of an idea is how wonderful the world would be if everyone followed it, it's a bad idea.

Almost entirely agreed. The one class of exceptions are cases where a single standard avoids some severe problem with a mix. "Elbonia will switch from driving on the left to driving on the right. The change will be made gradually."

a single standard avoids some severe problem with a mix

In a bit more general case, you would like to standardise things with a huge network effect. Like TCP/IP, for example.

Is it correct to say that he who is not coherent is hypocritical? I'm used to think of hypocrisy as someone who does not apply to himself the criteria he wants to apply to others. I can think of some reasons why it is not plausible that there can be found people completely coherent:

  • people are not aware of all their ideas at the same time;
  • people change their minds;
  • people can hold inconsistent ideas, at least when they are not aware of it;

Another thought: human minds are the environment where memes develop, but one should notice that memes are also the environment in which humans act. That means that even firmly believing something to be wrong someone can still decide to do it, and vice-versa.

I observe that the cases where hypocrisy is beneficial are usually cases where a negative action is recommended and cases where hypocrisy has negative value are usually cases where a positive action is recommended.

I wonder if hypocrisy is simply a patch on reasoning to include risk aversion - or even inaction!

If we are in a situation which necessitates hypocrisy with regard to our current ideals in order to maintain 'social graces', we have to ask ourselves whether the integrity of our ideals is more important than preserving said social graces. Hypocrisy is more often a way for us to evade the more onerous parts of our ideals than it is a way to preserve 'social graces'; in these cases we have no excuse for our hypocrisy, and must see it as negative. If 'preservation of social graces' is the purpose of the said hypocrisy, then 'preservation of social graces' has become an ideal for us, and we must decide whether our former ideological system will throw out this new ideal, or whether we pin our life on our social interactions. If we include the concept of 'ideals', we must see new ideals as ideals and measure them against each other. Of course, this can be a circular process and often relies on a gut feeling, but if something is an 'ideal', we cannot allow hypocrisy, because if we think that the hypocrisy in a situation is a good thing, our ideals have changed without us knowing it and we should revise, and make a conscious decision regarding this.

tl;dr: Hypocrisy is compartmentalization of ideals for preserving 'social graces'.

In this way it is similar to democracy, which was (in the U.S. among other places) originally intended to, and certainly does now prevent the government from accomplishing much of anything, on the logic that one black-swan period of tyranny is worse than considerable amounts of efficient authoritarian development. Consider the idea of the "separation of powers": it cannot be called anything other than a handicap on all activities and conscious long-term sabotage (except that I am told that it affects little in practice, for good or ill).

I don't really endorse that line of thinking - anyways, the vast majority of tyranny operates in a rather "democratic" grass-roots way and starts in the family (see The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke, an excellent film) - but it certainly has many proponents.

In all human history, every great leap forward has been driven by a new clarity of thought. Except for a few natural catastrophes, every great woe has been driven by a stupidity. Our last enemy is ourselves; and this is a war, and we are soldiers.

Amazing quote.

Copy of my post defending Stalin and Mao from Hopeanon.

Hello, my defense of Stalin and Mao are simple and the links can be found here on the Entitled To an Opinion blog. My argument is simple. Stalin saved far more lives than he took. In fact, Czarism was three times more deadly on a per capita basis than the average for the Stalin years. Plus, Stalin set a world record for the fastest doubling of life expectancy in any land. This amazing feat was only broken by Mao in 1976. Therefore, based on those records, I hold that Stalin and Mao were two of the greatest humanitarians that the world has ever known.

There are plenty of ways to kill a man. You can do it with a bullet, work him to death, or you can kill him with hunger and disease. Dead is dead, one way or another. I liken Stalin and Mao to vaccines that, say, kill 50 people every year, but without the vaccine, 1000 would die. Or the death rate of abortions versus childbirth.

Further, the notion of the worst killers of all time is simply insane. Over his time, Stalin killed maybe 4 million. Yet he saved so many lives that at the end, he had saved a net 35 million lives, NET. In contrast, the transition to capitalism with its collapsing life expectancy may have killed up 15 million, NET. I suggest we look at net losses and gains of life when making lists of these "killers". Increase in life expectancy is not a given. Near the end of Stalin's rule, life expectancy was still about 35 in both Albania and China. There are places now that have life expectancy that low.

Let us look at China and India. They had similar figures in 1949. Since India took the capitalist road over the socialist one, we can compare nations by life expectancy and death rate. India is killing 4 million Indians per year, compared to China. That is the penalty for India not taking the Chinese path to development. Further, 14 million starve to death every year in the world, mostly in South Asia - India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan. I do not understand why killing 14 million a year is not chalked up to the worst killers of all, but S and M are? Figuring over time, we can see that compared to China, Indian capitalism has killed about 170 million Indians. And that comparison INCLUDES all of those killed by Mao (maybe 20 million).

I will also argue that there were really no deliberate famines in Ukraine or China. China's famine in 1958 was caused by gross stupidity. The one in the Ukraine had many causes, but deliberate starvation was not really among them.

Stalin's victim toll has been exaggerated. It is really 4 million instead of 20 or 40 or 60 or 120 or however many million.

Mao's looks the same - maybe 20 million as opposed to 40, 60, 80 or however many million.

Indian capitalism kills 4 million a year, minimum. I would argue that replacing it with a killing system that killed a lot less people would be a net good.

I really do not support most of the killing that Stalin and Mao did, but many of those killed by Stalin had taken up arms against the state, or were trying to overthrow the government, so they were not totally innocent. The initial killing of 3 million landlords, not by Mao, but by the outraged peasants themselves, was not a killing of innocents either. Almost of those landlords were serious criminals with a ton of blood on their hands.

David Brin has a nice analysis in his book The Transparent Society of what makes open societies work so well (no doubt distilled from others). Essentially it is the freedom to criticize and hold accountable that keeps powerful institutions honest and effective. While most people do not care or dare enough there are enough "antibodies" in a healthy open society to maintain it, even when the "antibodies" themselves may not always be entirely sane (there is a kind of social "peer review" going on here among the criticisms).

Muddled thinking affects this process in several ways. It weakens the ability to perform and react to criticism, and may contribute to reducing the signal-to-noise ratio among whistleblowers by reducing the social "peer review". This is how muddled thinking can promote the loss of openness, democracy and accountability, in the long run leading to non-accountable leaders that have little valid feedback or can just ignore it.

But are biases the main source of muddled thinking? I think muddle is the sum of many different factors: biases, lack of knowledge, communications problems etc. In any situation one or a few factors are the most serious causes of muddle, but they may differ between issues - the biases we have discussed relating to new technology are different from the biases in conspiracy theory or everyday political behavior. To reduce muddle in a situation we ought to reduce the main muddling component(s), but that may be very different in different situations. Sometimes biases are the main problem, sometimes it might just be lack of communication ability. It might be more cost-effective giving people in a developing country camera cellphones than teaching them about availability biases - while in another country the reverse may be true. But clearly overcoming biases is a relevant component in attacking many forms of societally dangerous muddle.

:The German text of the taped police examination, each page corrected and approved by EIchmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist - provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny. Some of the comedy cannot be conveyed in English, because it lies in Eichmann's heroic fight with the Germna language, which invariably defeats him. It is funny when he speaks, passim, of "winged words" (geflugelte Worte, a Gemran colloquialism of famous quotes from the classics) when we means stock phrases, Redensarten, or slogans, Schlagworte....

Dimly aware of a defect that much have plagued him even in school, he apologized, saying "Officialese [Amtssprache] is my own language. But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliche...

Eichmann's mind was filled to the brim with such statements.....his memory proved to be quite unreliable about what had actually happen; the [reason], of course, was that Eichmann remembered the turning points in his own career rather well, but they did not necessarily correspond to the turning points in the Jewish extermination or, as a matter of fact, with a lot of the turning points in the history....

But the point of the matter is that he had not forgotten a single one of his sentences that at one time or another had served to give him 'elation'. Hence, whenever, during the cross-examination, the judged tried to appeal to his conscience, they were met with 'elation,' and they were outrage and disconcerted when they learned that at his disposal he had a different elating cliche for each period of his life and each of his activities..." (Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt, Chapter III)

Tiiba, I've always considered this bible quote

"I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

to be a paradigm of bad writing. The nasty trick it exemplifies is using a paradox to get one up on the reader without committing to a specific meaning.

If the race is not to the swift, who does win? The lucky? Contrast two aphorisms "the race is to the swift" and "the race is to the lucky". The second of these is useless. You cannot assess some-one's luck ahead of time, you have to discover who is lucky by waiting to see who wins and then say smugly "see I told you the lucky one would win."

This passage irritates me because the writer forces the reader to create the meaning of the passage from nothing and then the writer appropriates the readers efforts. There is something important to be said on this theme:

The race is to the swift and the battle to the strong, but the odds are never quite so short as the book maker offers and the greatest number are drowned when the sea takes the unshinkable ship with no lifeboats.

I've no doubt that the author of Ecclesiastes would say "that's it, you have got my meaning exactly" but that would be a lie; it is my meaning, I said it and he didn't.

Confucius on the Rectification of Names written some 2500 years ago.

"Tzu-lu asked 'If the Lord of Wei entrusts the government to you, what will you do first?"

"Correct names, surely!" the Master said.

"How can you stray so far from the point! What would that correct?"

"Tzu-lu, you are a boor. On matters of which he is ignorant a gentleman expresses no opinion. If names are incorrect, it is impossible to speak. When it is impossible to speak, work is not done. When work is not done, society breaks down and punishment is misapplied. When punishment is misapplied, the people do not know how to act. Therefore what the gentleman names is sure to be accurate, and what he says is sure to be actionable. It is simply that the gentleman is never careless in what he says."

Analects 13/3. Adaptation of A.C. Graham's translation in Disputers of the Tao.

"Helping people to open their eyes and see human suffering, raising children to be compassionate, will do far more to get rid of the Hitlers and Castros than logic and writing classes."

'Cause no one ever thought that Che Guivera or Lenin were acting out of a compassionate desire to end suffering. Nobody EVER claimed that.

"persist as subjective conscious entities. What actions that the 4 of us take will maximize our persistence odds? I think every ideal should be subordinated to that."

I'm not entirely sure I know what that means, but it SOUNDS like "each of us wants to be different -- it's more important than anything else that we be different from each other."

If my reading is correct, I fail to see why I would want to consider that my overriding priority. Particularly in placing over, say, the truth.

And Eliezer, it just keeps getting better and better. I had to stop reading Marginal Revolution precisely because, brilliant as Tyler is, he really does try to be too clever for his own good. It becomes frustrating to watch.

I really dislike this post. It is essentially propaganda. It claims (without providing any kind of evidence based assessment!) that all the good things in human history are the result of rational thinking, while all the bad things in human history are the result of stupidity. I think that's quite clearly false.

First, most deaths in human history could not have been avoided, only delayed at best. No one person could have created an industrial society on their own, no matter how clever they might have been. If Da Vinci couldn't save the world and stop death, then no one else should be perceived as having failed. They did what they could, mostly, even if their lives were not lived perfectly.

Second, stupidity has caused some good things. Many humans are prone to naivety. They trust strangers to handle their wealth, or decide to cooperate in one shot instances of the prisoner's dilemma even when there are large rewards that might await them. The effect of such stupidity is on the whole good for our society. Rational, highly intelligent beings cannot take the same kinds of shortcuts that more limited beings can. Thus, they can sometimes face heightened transaction costs.

Third, intelligence has caused some bad things. The United States would never have atomically bombed Japan if no scientist ever invented nuclear weapons, for example. Every major evildoer in history was only able to do evil due to certain ideas which entered their minds. Ultimately, knowledge is simply power, and power is neither totally safe nor totally dangerous. We are not soldiers in a war against evil irrationality; we are human beings simply trying to live and evil is hard to identify or fight without looking at specifics and context.

Of course, there is an imaginable utopia in which every single human being is perfectly rational and everyone cooperates and there is perfect happiness. But envisioning utopias is a bad way to decide which causes to support, as utopias of all types are very easy to imagine. A conservative might claim that if everyone perfectly adhered to conservative principles the world would be better off, and a progressive might claim that if everyone perfectly adhered to progressive principles the world would be better off, but such assumptions of perfection are so unrealistic that they don't help us to decide which principles we should actually believe in or support.

Vague aesthetic insight I've just had upon rereading this comment of mine, which I don't want to forget:

"Trust, then verify" works much better for building good social systems than "verify, then trust".

Clearly, Winston was just an actor, and O'Brien was being tested by a researcher at Miniluv, whose name was Stanley Milgram.

mtraven, You're ignoring concepts like inquiring empirically whether situationally employed torture can reduce net torture in the world. I brought it up in the torture thread and I think every commenter ignored the concept. Also, I'm unconvinced that the desire to label indivuduals as "good" and "evil" comes from a good faith attempt to accurately model reality, or even optimally solve existential challenges we face. It seems to come more from a desire to use morality to create status heirarchies, although in some cases it could also create representational heirarchies privileging both the people framed as "good" and as "evil", to the detriment of those that embody neither archetypes.

I'm surprised no one else in engaging me on these ideas of moral and representational heirarchies as ends in and of themselves.

"For example, if he used it as a way to illustrate a point, clarifying his meaning, then it was not improperly used. If he used it as evidence of Orwell's own well-thought-out views on the subject, then again, it was not improperly used. There are many ways to use fiction that are not improper."

What his intentions were doesn't matter; what matters is the expected reaction of the audience, which in this case is going to see a vivid example supporting Eliezer's claim that human evil sets out to muddle thinking. This happens to be true, but it doesn't have anything whatsoever to do with Winston Smith or O'Brien, both of whom were made up by Orwell with (I suspect) one of Orwell's intentions being exactly that their fake historical authority would be used to support Orwell's (true) opinions. I wish we could all just agree on a norm banning references to fiction from any serious discussion about the real world. People seem completely incapable of handling the stuff.

Flynn, HA is a near-total egoist who wants to live forever.

So let us be absolutely clear that where there is human evil in the world, where there is cruelty and torture and deliberate murder, there are biases enshrouding it. Where people of clear sight oppose these biases, the concealed evil fights back.
Funny, I seem to recall some leading anti-bias advocates promoting torture right here on this blog. Apparently one can be comfortably against bias and for torture without losing a moment's sleep about it.

The artist is not the Art. Many an artist will fail, but the Art does not.

There isn't much known about Hopefully Anonymous, but I'm fairly certain he does not consider himself a post-modernist.

New Speak always chilled me. To limit the abilities of population by limiting their vocabulary seems like a sneaky and underhanded thing to do that should never be attempted by any government. Needless to say the idea of 1984 being real freaks me out.

Douglas Knight: for me, thinking of "bias" (as used on this blog) as a result of heuristic processing is moderately useful 'cos (a) mainly, it just gives a general framework, a set of very concrete metaphors and therefore heuristics (and therefore biases) that I've worked with over the years; (b) it suggests that the problem of bias can be ameliorated but not solved, because you'll never get perfect heuristics and you'll never be able to do all the computing that's required to do without heuristics; (c) ah, well, I forget what (c) was gonna be. But it's useful for me, and I wanted to know if anybody here would point to a reason why I shouldn't use it. Nobody did, yet.

When you speak of the cost/value of "overcoming" heuristics, that's interesting...it jars slightly, which is good. I'm used to ideas of balancing out heuristics, of using meta-heuristics (i.e., explicit knowledge of the bias introduced by a particular heuristic) and such for overcoming the bias of a heuristic, but overcoming heuristics...strange. I'm not sure why that jars, but I thank you.

My mention of people-shredders was merely to distinguish that kind of torture, punitive/deterrent torture, from interrogative torture. The distinction matters because when I see people (say, Max Boot) defending practices which others class as torture, they aren't defending punitive/deterrent torture (or confession-inducing torture) at all; they're defending "interrogation techniques". Posts such as this one, I believe, lose some of their impact because they don't go as far as they could in achieving clarity; the people who might be criticized will, if exposed to this post, think of it as a straw-man argument: "That's not me at all". BTW, the people-shredders specifically may never have existed; if I'd remembered that as I typed, I'd have used Saddam's deterrent amputations instead:

nine Iraqi men whose right hands were amputated in 1995 on orders of Saddam Hussein as punishment for their alleged crime of dealing in American dollars.
In any case, I don't think it's worth attacking this kind of torture except in a context where someone's defending it; if Joe Schmoe defends an interrogator who tries to track down a house where IEDs are being made, Joe is not going to recognize himself in this criticism (nor should he.) It might be relevant in a discussion of the US prison system and its acceptance of prison rape, but even then, I don't think that a defender of that system (I'm not one) would recognize his own motives in O'Brien's. Having made that distinction, I would then drop the term "torture", as I said, because it does not help clarity; "pro-torture" and "anti-torture" have non-empty intersections. And my proposal may well be too detailed...but our current attempts to regulate interrogation are even more detailed, and I think they're detailed the wrong way. Whatever. The principle, I thought, was pretty simple: everything done by X should be documented, X must have voluntarily had it done to him first, and the documents should after some time-lapse be public so that X and his commanders are accountable. And I thought it an interesting kind of principle, in that it avoids the current kind of detail. Okay, probably not.

Yes, of course Winston "survives", in a sense. He's not executed. I was remembering, quite probably misremembering (can't find my copy, I think my eldest son took it years ago) a passage in which execution is represented as too easy: first he has to Love Big Brother, and then after that it doesn't matter if he's executed or not. Something about dominance, as I tried to say. (But is the Winston at the end...hmm. Is that survival? Maybe HA would consider it so; personally I felt that Winston the person had been destroyed. The politics of personal destruction, as it were. Unless I'm misremembering quite drastically, which is always possible.)

Douglas, with regard to systematic but unexplained errors, would you agree that we can (usually) describe these as due to unidentified heuristics? I'm feeling very unsure about that, but I would like to have some fairly concrete way of thinking about this blog's subject matter, and at least this way it's something I've taught. :-) I'm not about to insist that all thought can be modeled with symbol-processing. It may even be that the most fundamental errors are those that arise without any symbol-processing -- I've just been reading a dog-trainer's book which emphasizes the errors we make in dealing with our dogs, simply because we automatically do what other primates do even when we've verbally worked it out. Still, by the time you get to correcting a bias found in less-obviously-symbolic process, say a neural net or genetic learning-algorithm, I think you're describing that bias and its correction via rules on patterns of symbols -- and that's the way I've been seeing this blog. (Is everybody asleep yet? Well, I suspect this thread was drying up anyway -- as you can see, I have a bias in favor of mixed metaphors.)

Douglas and g both respond in terms of cost, apparently agreeing that the value of bias-correction (in any given context) will be limited, and it may not be the best use of whatever resources you've got...this again seems Cowenesque to me, and I'm reasonably happy with it; we have few absolutes showing except for (a) HA's survival (which I tentatively rate as a rhetorical position, unlikely to show itself in HA's real-world behavior), and (b) anti-torture.

I was going to leave the torture theme strictly alone because I've never seen it come to any good end, but maybe it's worth saying: when you say you're "against torture", you haven't actually told me much at all because too many people mean too many things by "torture". In a blog post apparently dedicated to clarity, I think that's extraordinarily important.

Let me clarify: consider a long interrogation under bright lights when you want to sleep; is that torture? Some will very sincerely say yes, some will very sincerely (I believe) say no, and some will draw the line at some specific number of hours of sleep-deprivation. If someone opposes more than 10 hours as "torture", and you oppose more than 5 hours as "torture", you can class them as "pro-torture" but it strikes me as an anti-clarity sort of rhetorical move. Is (fake? real?) menstrual blood-smearing torture? Again, apparently sincere disagreement exists. Is (some specific kind of) fraternity hazing torture? Is boot camp torture? Do I have an opinion on any of those? Not really: my primary torture stance is not anti-torture or pro-torture, it's pro-clarity.

Specifically, I would focus on interrogation -- trying to get leave out O'Brien and Winston, just as I would leave out Saddam's people-shredders, on the grounds that the purposes involved are not obviously those of "enhanced interrogation" -- O'Brien isn't at that point looking for information, he's destroying Winston prior to execution for reasons I've never understood, but which I suspect the pyramid-of-prisoners people understood perfectly well; it has something to do with dominance. (Yes?) And I would not start out with rules that say "10 hours yes, 11 hours no" or "uncomfortable chair yes, stress position no". I would not even start out with a rule against waterboarding. I would start out with a rule that says that (1) interrogation should always be on video, that (2) any sequence of interrogation techniques (insults? lights? Madonna videos? waterboarding?) should be precisely described, that (3) any interrogator should have previously undergone any technique he or she applies on a publicly-available "licensing video", that (4) the interrogation video should immediately begin a chain of viewings and authorizations which ends with actual publication no more than N years (10?) later. I could go on about what I mean by "precisely described" and how the authorizers would be authorized and all that, but I suspect that (a) most people who describe themselves as "anti-torture" are, by now, angry, even though (b) any such pro-clarity rule would end up ruling out whatever it is that ordinary people think of as torture, while allowing the anti-torture people a maximal opportunity to explain specifically what they meant and why all of these (or all but X, Y, and Z) should be outlawed. So...gee. Am I biased in favor of clarity? Yes, but only to a limited extent. And I'm glad to learn from people who are biased against bias more than I am, especially if I can figure out what they mean.

Tom Myers,
I think the convention on this blog, among the small set of people who have such a precise definition, is that not every heuristic is a bias, that only heuristics whose errors are worth overcoming should be called biases. I don't like this usage. For one thing, it's really hard to know the cost of overcoming particular biases. It's easy to look at an isolated experiment and say: here's a procedure that would have been better, but that doesn't cover cost of actually changing your behavior to look out for this kind of error.

Also, there are other people on this blog that use bias to refer to systematic, but unexplained errors, where it's hard to call them heuristics. Without a mechanism, it's probably hard to overcome these, although not always impossible.

HA, this is not the forum for it but perhaps somewhere else you might explain where you stand.

The way US law used to work, you or anybody else got to torture whenever you thought it was a good idea, and then you could expect to stand trial. If the police thought you did the right thing they might choose not to investigate, if the DA thought you did the right thing he might not prosecute, if the grand jury thought you did the right thing they might not continue, if the jury thought you did the right thing they might not convict, if the judge thought you did the right thing he might give a suspended sentence, and then if the governor or president thought you did the right thing he might pardon you.

The new way, the Bush administration gets to torture you if they sort of imagine you might fit some sort of criteria, with no oversight by anybody but them, and then if it turns out they were wrong and you don't fit their criteria they suffer no consequences, they don't owe you any money or apology or even an oops, in many cases they don't even have to let you go.

Somewhere along the continuum between those two is the approach that maximises your survival. I wonder where along that line it is. But as I understand it this blog is devoted to studying bias and not to a straightforward study of what's good for you. Maybe somewhere else....

Carl Sagan (I think) said we should be open-minded, but not so open that our brains fall out. It's even more important when discussing issues as morally fraught as torture, that we don't open our minds so far that our souls fall out.

Well said.

To me, that sounds a lot like saying "We should be rational, but we should stop before it feels too unintuitive or against social norms".

HA, you may have your personal single life goal worked out but I'm not sure why the rest of us should be interested. My goal is emphatically not persisting my subjective reality as far forward in time as possible, let alone yours. I have other people I care about, I probably care more about the quality of my life than quantity, I do have memes that I place a great deal of value on. Most other normal people feel the same way, I suspect.,

Robin, what evidence has been brought forth to support the proposition that torture may be a good idea? I have cited books that study the history and deployment of torture, and groups that work with actual torture victims and would be happy to supply you with data. There's some evidence for you. It may not be objective, but objectivity about such issues is unobtainable even in theory -- you can't even define torture without taking a stance about what constitutes torture as opposed to "harsh treatment".

You say I certainly hope that when issues arise here people here are willing to set aside what they think they know enough to imagine being uncertain and then trying to evaluate which way the evidence and analysis leans.. Carl Sagan (I think) said we should be open-minded, but not so open that our brains fall out. It's even more important when discussing issues as morally fraught as torture, that we don't open our minds so far that our souls fall out.

I'm puzzled, as usual, but perhaps more so: this post has helped clarify the lack of clarity in my understanding of "bias" as the word is used here. You see, I don't in general see an a priori distinction between "bias" and other kinds of heuristics; we are talking about computational shortcuts, ways to save on reasoning, and all of them go wrong sometimes. I'm glad to have scope insensitivity pointed out to me, and having seen the discussion on this blog may even keep me from some error at some time, but my reasoning will always be incomplete, my models will always fall short of being "isomorphic with reality." (A modeler's joke, along the lines of using a territory as its own map.) I am tempted to think of "bias" as a label for the systematic errors introduced by any given heuristic, such as valuation by prototype; is this fair?

If so, "overcoming bias" is one of those journey-rather-than-destination unattainables that at any given moment faces me with an economic sort of choice: I can spend more resources trying to overcome the bias introduced by each heuristic I use, i.e. in meta-inference, or I can spend more resources actually carrying out inferences by those heuristics -- expanding and pruning nodes in my actual current search-graph, so to speak, and coming to conclusions even though I know that some of them will turn out to have been wrong.

Is this an obviously bad way to think? Probably so -- because it leans me in Tyler's direction. Well, I dunno. This comment is an extremely imperfect representation of what I want to say...but I post it, on the grounds that I have to go listen to Dougie MacLean, a Scottish singer and songwriter, and achieving a more perfect (but never actually perfect) representation of what I want to say has a finite value, which at the margin somewhere loses out to getting on with the next thing. I thought that was true for everybody.

that reads as deliberate bait to me. Presenting 2 options as if they're the only options seems to be preying on a dualistic/binary bias common in most people, and that I think stems from our primate roots.

Everything we do stems from our primate roots. I don't know you well enough to deliberately bait you, but using that expression (which comes from ) is meant to signify that at some point, when dealing with politics, you have to stop spouting hot air, choose which side of an issue you are on, and fight for it. That attitude seems somewhat antithetical to the prevaiing ethos of this blog, but I'm a contrarian.

If you like, you can see it as a dominance battle between two large coalitions of primates, with Amnessty International, other anti-torture groups, the authors of the 8th amendment, and those who have some measure of respect for basic human rights on one side, with the other side consisting of various shadowy govenment organziations (parts of the CIA and military), fans of 24, Alan Dershowitz, and the hopelessly authoritarian. Which side are you on? Which band of primates do you think deserves to win this battle, which side do you want to associate yourself with?

I think what I am most opposed to is the epistemologically naive idea that you can talk about matters like this in an objective, apolitical way. So -- I have a bias against torture, I have no desire to overcome it. Orwell is not around to ask, but I think he'd feel the same way.

J Thomas, I really like your last paragraph "Still, sometimes the language is central. When we say the US military is in iraq "protecting iraqis", it might work better to reduce the level of abstraction and say we're there "killing people and blowing things up". Or maybe we're "killing people that we think are about to kill the ones we don't want killed". When we say "train the iraqi army" we might say "train selected iraqis to kill people and blow things up under our direction". The clearer we say what we're doing, the easier it might get to create a better strategy."

I'm sure TGGP will agree with my request to you: Start a blog!

Clear thinking is a necessary but insufficient condition for avoiding evil. Eichmann is a paradigmatic case of local rationality in the pursuit of evil ends. And right here on this blog, we see proudly rational thinkers advocating what most normal people would think of as evil, namely the employment of torture as a judicial punishment. I've argued against them, but perhaps my arguments aren't any good. Maybe it is more rational to apply shocks to the genitals or waterboarding than to lock someone in a cell. Maybe we don't have anything better than instinctive revulsion to keep us from evil. In which case, we should not be overcoming our biases, but listening closely to them.

Ah, it's good to see that even in OB's early days there were people who saw the ugliness of naive utilitarianism and "rationality"-worship, who plainly spoke out against this blight.

I want to persist as a subjective conscious entity, forever, and everything else is subsidiary to that. To the degree torture (of myself or others) maximizes my persistence odds, then I perceive it to be in my interest to welcome it. To the degree torture (of myself or others) reduces my persistence odds, I oppose it.

Just look at how in-your-face this crap used to be. It's subtler now, of course... I'd say that the community has progressed in ethics and spirit, yet this proportion of people that I fear has not been wasting time either, probably.

This is a pretty interesting discussion. While the overall topic of this blog is the worthwhileness of overcoming bias, I think how that relates to "evil" is a pretty important facet of what we should talk about. Some of the comments on this post reminded me of a passage from a novel (a fantasy novel if you must know) on the nature of evil. I found it to be very profound and I think everyone here might find it sort of interesting. You'll have to excuse the use of some of the plot specific names, the beginning of each chapter of the book opens with a few paragraphs from the point of view of a historian who lives several thousand years after the events in the story take place.

"What is the nature of evil? Evil is mistakenly portrayed as a unified force. Tresserhorn, Stromgald, the Adnates of Soldevi, Varchild, all of these, we are told, were cut from the same cloth and share that same corrupted fabric. Yet these forces have battled each other as often as they have fought the forces of “good” and so can hardly be considered members of the same side. Some researches state that all who bear the stamp of evil are imperfect or faulty beings from the onset. The more generous scholar might classify them as being merely weak, corrupted by potent forces that poisoned them. Yet in the end, the historians label them all as “evil,” as if that state were a disease that could be contracted through mere proximity. So goes traditional thought. In reality, the various “forces of evil” all chose their paths for reasons that sounded good, even beneficial, at the time. They might have chosen their paths for personal advancement, for a particular belief or religion, for the desire of power, or even for patriotism or devotion. What unified them all, from Lim-Dûl to the Adnates, was usually the belief that they had “the answer” to whatever problem beset them. This answer often had the advantage of requiring minimal sacrifice on the part of the solver. Further, when the solution did require some degree of sacrifice, that sacrifice would be on the part of others who were unaware of a need for sacrifice in the first place. These other people, the ones making the sacrifices, often took umbrage when they learned of their situation. As a result, such unpleasant information was kept from them until the last moment. In this fashion, the first steps of deception, regardless of the reason, was evil born."

I tend to agree with what the author of that passage said about evil. When you look at people like Hitler, Mao, and Stalin it is clear they believed they had "the answer" or "the solution" to the problems they faced. But they lacked the ability to objectively see that their plans called for suffering on levels few people alive today can fathom (I know I certainly can't). They let their biases close their eyes to the deaths they caused because they simply had to be right in their own mind. Teaching everyone to be compassionate and to empathize with others will certainly help people become less cruel, but overcoming our biases is no less important a step.

I think the recent 1984 quotes are close to encouraging generalization from fictional evidence. Bias and totalitarianism are not more connected because Orwell wrote a work of fiction connecting them; you may understand this on a gut level, but many readers probably don't. If there's a duty to make history available, isn't there a converse duty to make fiction unavailable?

Anyway, here are my thoughts on whether it's a good idea to choose bias.

In my post here you can find links to defenses of Stalin and Mao. They do not deny that both killed a huge amount of people, or that a great many of those people were completely innocent and it was tragic that they were killed. The author instead states that Stalin and Mao gave enough benefits to people, who had previously been faced with even worse rule, that those unfortunate deaths should be viewed as cons outweighed by the pros. I can't do an effective job of presenting his case (for one thing I completely disagree with it and think the two were among the worst people in history) but I would like if he could explain more here, including why our view of them is so off.

Eliezer, do you see the distance between how you are discussing this topic and how Anders is? Invoking "Good and Evil", with Stalin and Mao (losers of conflicts with the anglosphere?) being "evil" seems to me to me to be an appropriation of the overcomingbias space more so than a good faith effort to intelligently expand that space. Anders approach in general and in this post in particular serves as a good contrast, in my opinion.

Stalin and Mao (losers of conflicts with the anglosphere?)

I'm also bothered that all of the villains cited are enemies of the Anglosphere (although these two actually won). B.H. gives a long list which is quite biased in this way. Even Orwell seems to reference Churchill and Truman, and any list ending with Osama and Saddam practically begs for a reference to Bush.

Nevertheless, it's clear to me that all of the people on B.H.'s list (as well as the others that I mentioned) committed great evils that have been (and still are) defended with hypocrisy and other forms of muddled thinking. And I agree with Orwell's and Eliezer's indictment of this.

I regret that I have to disagree with the post, even though I am a great fan of Orwell.

Stalin and Hitler did not suffer from lack of clarity. They knew exactly what they were doing, knew why they were doing it, and were glad of the outcome. More logic and better writing would simply have helped them be even more effectively evil. Teaching clear thinking is important; but it will not stop evil people from having evil intentions or acting evil. Evil emerges from the heart and soul, not the head. Intellectuals who supported, and support, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Osama, Saddam, and so forth, knew what they doing. They got a vicarious thrill from the results, even if they did not get their hands dirty. Yes, they may have used wretched writing to hide the consequences from others, but they knew what they wanted. I might add that Orwell's hands were not clean; he fought with the Communists in Spain, he advocated hard-line total socialism in England of a type that would make George Mason economists gag.

Maybe you suffer from "intellectualist bias." Academics commonly do. That is a bias, that might go all the way back to Socrates, that the world only needs education to be good. A few courses in logic, rhetoric, and good writing, and everthing will be okay. So, sorry, but intellectualist bias may be the hardest to overcome.

So, in a sense, I am with Tyler on this one. It is good to overcome confirmation bias, or attribution bias, and so forth, but they are not at the top of my list.

Helping people to open their eyes and see human suffering, raising children to be compassionate, will do far more to get rid of the Hitlers and Castros than logic and writing classes. Maybe that is just my bias.

Stalin and Hitler did not suffer from lack of clarity. They knew exactly what they were doing

Yes, hypocrisy is not the problem with them.

Intellectuals who supported, and support, Lenin, […], and so forth, knew what they doing.

No, I don't think that they did or do! Orwell was writing to intellectuals who were in denial about what Stalin was doing and why. Here is where hypocrisy causes problems.

One might say that, in a general sense, Stalin and Hitler were in possession of 'cold logic', much like 'cold empathy'. One can know both how to, and how not to, steal the cookie, and the effects that will have, and the moral consequences of that, but in the end, if one's intent is evil, then one's actions will be evil, especially if one knows all the consequences of their actions. Logic is blind; in the end, it is subservient to the will of the wielder, and merely amplifies the actions of the individual, whether good or evil. In the same way, hypocrisy is only a 'good' or 'evil' thing when it contradicts 'evil' or 'good' ideals. One can think one's way into and out of any situation one wishes; who here has read Donne's poetry?

Stalin and Hitler did not suffer from lack of clarity. They knew exactly what they were doing, knew why they were doing it, and were glad of the outcome.

Hitler had a plausible argument that doing dreadful things was urgent, right, and necessary. Stalin had a plausible argument that he was not doing evil things. The overwhelming majority of American intellectuals before 1956 believed that Stalin was saintly, superhuman, and distinctly godlike, and if they doubted, were careful not to express such doubts, therefore it is probable that Stalin plausibly believed himself at least somewhat saintly.

Pol Pot clearly believed that he was a saint, and everyone who had personal contact with him, as a child or as an adult either believed in his saintliness, or believed that he suffered from delusions of saintliness.

If it is so obvious that Stalin was consciously and intentionally evil, why is it that no respectable person in the US could express this view before 1946, and no respectable properly academic public intellectual could express this view before 1956?

Stalin and Hitler did not suffer from lack of clarity. They knew exactly what they were doing, knew why they were doing it, and were glad of the outcome.

I disagree. They managed to convince themselves that the people they were killing weren't really people.

Helping people to open their eyes and see human suffering, raising children to be compassionate, will do far more to get rid of the Hitlers and Castros than logic and writing classes.

Helping people open their eyes means making them stop lying to themselves. People lying to themselves is one of the largest causes of bias. That is a very good example of why overcoming bias is important.

They managed to convince themselves that the people they were killing weren't really people.

How do you know that to be true? Especially as I'm not sure which German word you are referring to when you speak of 'people' if you are referring to any at all.

You have an attractor for "rube" and "blegg". If something is "really a blegg", that means that, once you know everything about it, you'd sort it as a blegg. You might currently sort it as "unknown", but since you would sort it as a blegg, it's really a blegg.

You also have an attractor for "person". You feel empathy for people. You care if they die. If you know everything about a human, they are sorted into "person". It's not really rational. They obviously have a name, and every name sorts them into "person", but somehow they only get sorted into there if you know what it is. Nonetheless, since everyone would get sorted into "person" if you knew enough about them, they're all people.

If Hitler personally knew the people he was killing, he wouldn't be okay with killing them.

If Hitler personally knew the people he was killing, he wouldn't be okay with killing them.

??? Knowing people doesn't mean you like them.

If Hitler personally knew the people he was killing, he wouldn't be okay with killing them.

I think that's wrong for Hitler. It's my impression that Hitler was willing to kill anyone he considered a traitor whether or not he knew the person personally. He didn't killed as much people he knew personally as Stalin but I think he was capable of that feat.

I generally don't like "taboo this word" but you could make a good case for tabooing "people" here.

If by "people", DanielC meant "entities which have rights and whose rights deserve to be respected", then of course Hitler thought he wasn't killing people, but that is just vacuously true.

That assumes that Hitler believed in the principle of respecting rights in the first place. I don't think that's true.

It's imaginable that Hitler might have discovered that Jews are people after all, if he had been just slightly more rational and spotted a flaw in his racist ideology. It's also imaginable that Hitler might have been tricked into believing that his racial ideas were wrong, if he had been just slightly less rational and unable to spot the fallacy in the ideas of someone who objected to his racist policies.

It's important that we recognize both of these as realistic possibilities.

If someone is insufficiently rational to spot the problems in an argument against genocide, they'll also be insufficiently rational to spot the problems in an argument in favor of genocide.

How does that follow? Certainly, "if someone is insufficiently rational to spot the problems with an argument for ~X, they are insufficiently rational to spot the problems with an argument for X" is not true in the general case.

It's possible that being more intelligent will make you go from a true position to a false position, but it's not something that will happen consistently. If you want someone to be more likely to believe a true thing, it's better to make them smarter rather than stupider.

I agree with this, but this is a more nuanced position than what Yudkowsky's above words express.

Stalin and Hitler did not suffer from lack of clarity.

Having read dozens autobiographies, memoirs, and other primary sources (including translations, I don't read German, Russian, etc.), as well as many more secondary sources about the Second World War (and the Spanish Civil War, and the Winter War, etc.), I can only wonder as to what you might mean by "clarity", "logic", and the other terms you use and/or how you came to your conclusions, and what sources were the input you interpreted.

Orwell's hands were not clean; he fought with the Communists in Spain

This is misleading. Wikipedia.

Teaching clear thinking is important; but it will not stop evil people from having evil intentions or acting evil.

Good intentions do not stop people from acting evilly.

This is misleading.

It is indeed misleading to describe Orwell's Catalonian comrades-in-arms as capital-C "Communists," since this would imply that they were controlled from Moscow, which they weren't. (They were a mix of local independent communists and anarchists.) However, in Homage to Catalonia, there are several passages where Orwell presents clear evidence of their terror, murder, vandalism, and forcible suppression of all opposition, which he however excuses and rationalizes away, never toning down his utterly idealistic appraisal of them. His general comments about the war are also clearly remote from reality and biased in the pro-communist (small-c) direction, and on occasions he obviously relays the communist propaganda as a complete dupe. On the whole, as a propagandist for his favored side, he commits pretty much all the sins for which he would later bitterly excoriate the orthodox Stalinists, if perhaps in a less blatant manner.

So on the whole, I wouldn't say that his hands are that clean. He certainly didn't deserve the place in intellectual history he was eventually awarded, in the sense of being remembered as the unwavering fighter for truth, clear thinking, intellectual honesty, and opposition to political lies and gangsterism. Certainly some of his contemporaries were far more deserving of such description, and yet hardly anyone remembers them today.

I would say that he's remembered as the writer of two of the most influential books opposing tyranny, rather than as an unwavering fighter against truth, clear thinking, intellectual honesty, and opposition to political lies and gangsterism.

Homage to Catalonia came out in 1938. 1984 came out in 1949. Is it possible that his experiences (perhaps including realizing what he'd been excusing) had something to do with 1984?

I would say that he's remembered as the writer of two of the most influential books opposing tyranny, rather than as an unwavering fighter against truth, clear thinking, intellectual honesty, and opposition to political lies and gangsterism.

Well, the article that started this discussion describes him in these terms. It is true that most people who have heard of him know him only as the writer of these two books. But among people who know more about him, as far as I've seen, he typically has this illustrious image.

Homage to Catalonia came out in 1938. 1984 came out in 1949. Is it possible that his experiences (perhaps including realizing what he'd been excusing) had something to do with 1984?

As far as I can tell, he never ceased admiring the "revolutionary" regime that ruled over Catalonia before the Communists took over. However, even regardless of that particular issue, his views have definitely never been particularly free of ideological bias -- and here I'm not comparing him with some unreachable ideal, but with other people who lived and wrote at the same time. Yes, he was certainly much better than the typical Stalinist intellectual of the time, but that's an awfully low bar to clear, and some other people managed to clear much higher ones.

Orwell was still something of a totalitarian to the day he died, but that is what made him great. He understood totalitarianism from the inside, and so condemned it in an accurate and insightful way that no outsider could condemn it.

In "Nineteen eighty four" Orwell whitewashes Trotsky's disagreement with Stalin as merely a matter of technical details, represented by the windmill, but in actual fact, it was over terror, torture, and mass murder. Trotsky complained that Stalin was not tough enough on the peasants, and objected to torture and murder being slowed down and obstructed by bureaucracy and red tape. But we do not look to the book for an accurate history of Russia. We read the book to understand how totalitarians think.

No one who had not been well and truly totalitarian could have written such a book.