Rationalist Role in the Information Age

by byrnema 2 min read30th Apr 200919 comments


In response to Marketing rationalism, Bystander Apathy, Step N1 in Extreme Rationality: It Could Be Great, and Rationality: Common Interest of Many Causes.

The problem that motivates this post is:
 “Given a controversial question in which there are good and bad arguments on both sides, as well as unreliable and conflicting information, how do you determine the answer when you’re not yourself an expert in the subject?”

Well into the information age, we are still not pooling our resources in the most efficient way to get to the bottom of things. It would be enormously useful to develop some kind of group strategy to answer questions that have solutions somewhere in there.

The idea I'm presenting is a way to apply our intellectual (and rational) resources in a niche way, that I will shortly describe, to facilitate public (non-expert) understanding of real world problems.

The Niche and the Need

Science, obviously, does the best job of solving problems. I'm confident that epidemiologists are effectively and efficiently working on the best models for pandemics as I write this post.

And journalists do a pretty good job of what they do: providing information about what the scientists are doing. What's best about how journalists do that is that they always provide the source of the information, so that a rational person can judge the truth-value of that information. A qualified and rational person can then put the information in perspective.

Alas, people are not so good at interpreting the information: they are neither rational in weighting the information nor qualified to put it in perspective. (Presumably, the epidemiologists are too busy to do this.)

Interpreting information correctly is a service that rationalists could provide.

How we could do it:

1. Information culled from various sources would be posted in the first half of a post titled P and updated continuously.

2. As a rational group, within threads, we would discuss interpretations and implications of the available information.

3. Only consensus views would be presented in the second half of the post P, updated continuously to prioritize the most relevant information on top.

Why we would do it

1. It would be objectively and enormously useful to cull useful and consensus interpretations. It is a time-consuming task even for a qualified person, as a group we would be effective.

2. It would be a good demonstration of the usefulness of rationality.

3. I would strongly recommend against any kind of advertisement, but if people from the general public happened to come there and happened to find the information exceptionally useful, rationality would be considered a useful and practical thing (and they would be inclined to fund the organization that provided this service).

I'm motivated to do this because I feel like this is exactly what is missing in the information age. We have science and we have journalism but we need something more. Blogs are doing it, but not effectively because they are doing it as individuals (with comments, which is helpful), and they're not generally responsive to feedback and new information. I think LW has the intellectual resources and the correct problem solving paradigm to be successful.

Small Scale verses Large Scale

On a small scale, it could be done here, just among ourselves. If on a large scale, eventually, it would be done somewhere else. There, I see Huge Opportunity.

Large Scale Idea:

A library of posts. Each post would address a different problem and would be mediated by a particular individual. If someone in the general public is interested in a particular problem, they will go to that post for information. More important and relevant topics will have more activity.

There would be interaction between the post and the public via threads, and between the post and other blogs on the internet via people navigating back and forth and sharing information.

A post is mediated by a person or group concerned about that topic. There will be limitations associated (the mediator may not be rational enough, the mediator might be biased), so we would allow competition by allowing several posts on one topic. Here, the karma scoring would be enormously useful to help people decide which post is worth going to.

Popular and relevant posts would get traffic and funding.

The reason why this has a chance of working, if it isn't obvious, is because of the karma system. The problem in the information age is TMI (too much information), and the karma system solves that. We would have to instruct people, until it becomes the ethical standard, that noise and errors get down-voted, new information and plausible dissenting views get upvoted.

Small scale idea:

If there is interest in this idea, either small scale or large scale, I would like to suggest beginning with a post on swine flu. Volunteers to mediate the post could submit credentials and we would choose a team. We would open a new LW account to be shared by the team so that they can mediate the post collectively.