Informers and Persuaders

by Eliezer Yudkowsky5 min read10th Feb 200921 comments


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Suppose we lived in this completely alternate universe where nothing in academia was about status, and no one had any concept of style.  A universe where people wrote journal articles, and editors approved them, without the tiniest shred of concern for what "impression" it gave - without trying to look serious or solemn or sophisticated, and without being afraid of looking silly or even stupid.  We shall even suppose that readers, correspondingly, have no such impressions.

In this simpler world, academics write papers from only two possible motives:

First, they may have some theory of which they desire to persuade others; this theory may or may not be true, and may or may not be believed for virtuous reasons or with very strong confidence, but the writer of the paper desires to gain adherents for it.

Second, there will be those who write with an utterly pure and virtuous love of the truthfinding process; they desire solely to give people more unfiltered evidence and to see evidence correctly added up, without a shred of attachment to their or anyone else's theory.

People in the first group may want to signal membership in the second group, but people in the second group only want their readers to be well-informed.  In any case, to first order we must suppose that none of this is about signaling - that all such motives are just blanked out.

What do journal articles in this world look like, and how do the Persuaders' articles differ from the Informers'?

First, I would argue that both groups write much less formal journal articles than our own.  I've read probably around a hundred books on writing (they're addictive); and they all treated formality as entropy to be fought - a state of disorder into which writing slides.  It is easier to use big words than small words, easier to be abstract than concrete, easier to use passive -ation words than their active counterparts.  Perhaps formality first became associated with Authority, back in the dawn of time, because Authorities put in less effort and forced their audience to read anyway.  Formality became associated with Wisdom by being hard to understand.  Why suppose that scientific formality was ever about preventing propaganda?

Both groups still use technical language, because they both care about being precise.  They even use big words or phrases for their technical concepts:  To carve out ever-finer slices through reality, you need new words, more words, hence bigger words (so you don't run out of namespace).

However, since neither group has a care for their image, they use the simplest words they can apart from that, and sentences as easy as possible apart from the big words.  From our standpoint, their style would seem inconsistent, discongruous.  A sentence might start with small words that just anyone could read, and then terminate in an exceptionally precise structure of technically sophisticated concepts accessible to only advanced audiences.

In this world it's not just eminent physicists who - secure in their reputation as Real Scientists - invent labels like "gluon", "quark", "black hole" and "Big Bang".

Other aspects of scientific taboo may still carry over.  A Persuader might use vicious insults and character assassination.  An Informer never would.  But an Informer might point out - evenhandedly, wherever it happened to be true - that a supposedly relevant paper came from a small unheard-of organization and hadn't yet been replicated, or that the author of an exciting new paper had previously retracted other results...

If Persuaders want to look like Informers, they will, of course, restrain their ad-hominem attacks to sounding like the sort of things an Informer might point out; but this is a second-order phenomenon.  First-order Persuaders would use all-out invective against their opponents.

What about emotions in general?

Suppose that there were only Informers and that they weren't concerned about preventing invasion by Persuaders.  The Informers might well make a value-laden remark or two in the conclusions of their papers - after balancing the probability that the conclusion would later need to be retracted and that the emotion might interfere, versus the importance of the values in question.  Even an Informer might say, in the conclusion of a paper on asteroid strikes, "We can probably breathe a sigh of relief about getting hit in the immediate future, but when you consider the sheer size of the catastrophe and the millions of dead and injured, we really ought to have a spacewatch program."

But Persuaders have an immensely stronger first-order drive to invoke powerful affective emotions and lade the reader's judgments with value.  To second order, Persuaders will try to disguise this method as much as possible - let the reader draw conclusions, so long as they're the desired conclusions - try to pretend to abstract dispassionate language so that they can look like Informers, while still lingering on the emotion-arousing facts.  Formality is a very easy disguise to wear, which is one reason I give it so little credit.

Informers, who have no desire to look like Informers, might go ahead and leave in a value judgment or two that seemed really unlikely to interfere with anyone's totting up the evidence.  If Informers trusted their own judgment about that sort of thing, that is.

(Persuaders and Informers writing about policy arguments or moral arguments would be a whole 'nother class of issue.  Then both types are offering value-laden arguments and dealing in facts that trigger emotions, and the question is who's collecting them evenhandedly versus lopsidedly.)

How about writing short stories?

Persuaders obviously have a motive to do it.  Do Informers ever do it, if they're not worried about looking like Persuaders?

If you try to blank out the conventions of our own world, and imagine what would really be useful...

Then I can well imagine that it would be de rigueur to write small stories - story fragments, rather - describing the elements of your experimental procedure.

"The subjects were admininistered Progenitorivox" actually gives you very little information, just the dull sensation of having been told an authoritative fact.

Compare:  "James is one of my typical subjects.  Every Wednesday, he would visit me in my lab at 2pm, and, grimacing, swallow down two yellow pills from his bottle, while I watched.  At the end of the study, I watched James and the other students file into the classroom, sit down, and fill out the surveys on each desk; as they left, I gave each of them a check for $50."

This, which conveys something of the experience of running the experiment and just begs you to go out and do your own... also gives you valuable information: that the Progenitorivox or placebo was taken at regular intervals with the investigator watching, and when and where and how the survey data was collected.

Maybe this is the most efficient way to communicate that information, and maybe not.  To me it actually does seem efficient, and I would guess that the only reason people don't do this more often is that they would look insufficiently Distant and Authoritative.  I have no trouble imagining an Informer writing a story fragment or two into their journal article.

Robin says:  "I thus tend to avoid emotion, color, flash, stories, vagueness, repetition, rambling, and even eloquence."

I would guess that, to first order and before all signaling:

Persuaders actively seek out emotion, color, flash, and eloquence.  They are vague when they have something to hide.  They rehearse their favored arguments, but not to where it becomes annoying.  They try to avoid rambling because no one wants to read that.  They use stories where they expect stories to be persuasive - which, by default, they are - and avoid stories where they don't want their readers visualizing things in too much detail.

Informers avoid emotions that they fear may bias their readers.  If they can't actually avoid the emotion - e.g., the paper is about slavery - they'll explicitly point it out, along with its potential biasing effect, and they'll go to whatever lengths they can to avoid provoking or inflaming the emotion further (short of actually obscuring the subject matter).  Informers may use color to highlight the most important parts of their article, but won't usually give extra color to a single piece of specific evidence.  Informers have no use for flash.  They won't avoid being eloquent when their discussion happens to have an elegant logical structure.  Informers use the appropriate level of abstraction or maybe a little lower; they are vague when details are unknowable or almost certainly irrelevant.  Informers don't rehearse evidence, but they might find it useful to repeat some details of the experimental procedure.  Informers use stories when they have an important experience to communicate, or when a set of details is most easily conveyed in story form.  In papers that are about judgments of simple fact, Informers never use a story to arouse emotion.

I finally note, with regret, that in a world containing Persuaders, it may make sense for a second-order Informer to be deliberately eloquent if the issue has already been obscured by an eloquent Persuader - just exactly as elegant as the previous Persuader, no more, no less.  It's a pity that this wonderful excuse exists, but in the real world, well...