The following ideas significantly overlap in my mind:
- Humans as political animals
- Social Thinkers
- Homo Hypocriticus (the kind of hypocrisy everyone's secretly okay with)
- Ribbonfarm "Losers"
The following contrasting ideas also overlap:
- Literal/propositional thinkers
- Straightforward, forthright, open communicators
- Ribbonfarm "Clueless"
I'm trying to hint at a dichotomy, or more likely, a spectrum that I've been thinking about. Most of us on LW are probably on one side; normal people are on the other. Politicians are also on the other side.
Nerds think in terms of propositions about reality. Is X true or not? Does it correspond to reality or not? This question often overrides other instincts like "Is this okay to say or not?" "Is this rude to express or not?" "Will people understand what I mean by this or not?"
This nerdy kind of propositional thinking is so natural to me, that it hardly needs explanation. It means exactly what it sounds like. At least, the way it sounds to other nerds is very clear. Now we're going to review the non-nerdy "social thinkers," to whom this may sound like a series of jumbled signals, poorly constructed, revealing both an socially inept mind, and a very rude one to suggest such faux pas so openly.
Social thinkers, in contrast, hear a bunch of signals because that's their vocabulary, their conceptual palette, the visible spectrum of their mental landscape. Social thinkers see a social reality. Their idea of "true" is strongly tied to their sense of "in-group acceptable to profess." If something affords status to them, it's well on the way to seeming "true" to them in as strong a sense of the word as they ever use.
(On some deeper level, they know which things they'd bet their survival on if they had to, but the word "truth" does not evoke such ideas to them. The word "truth" activates in their concept-space a cluster of ingroup-specific concepts that they need to profess)
Now, I'm getting to a point here. Politicians are overwhelmingly social thinkers. They have a natural sense of social status, how to get it, and how to use it that all rests on a foundation of perceiving with clarity the "social truth" of a statement, ie, the effects on social standing of saying it. These are the same people who rule the world; they rule the world on the strength of their social skill, and the political clout that comes from it.
I don't know if nerds really tend to have better ideas about what politicians ought to do, but I think rationalists do. Rationalists are just a subsection of nerd, though, and nerds are perceived instinctively as low on the totem pole by the social thinker, hence, by the politician. Politicians correctly believe that they can get away with ignoring nerds and their ideas (without losing their social and political status; the consequences of poor policy choices are inescapable (also mostly irrelevant in the social world)). For social thinkers, that's very nearly the same thing as it being "true" that nerds don't have anything worth listening to.
So, nerds want to give politicians the valuable things they have learned, but nerds don't speak the language properly, and their words do not activate in the minds of politicians a vision of social engineering moves that offer marvels and wonders, but rather the vivid sense of a series of feet, inserted into an oral cavity with remarkable rapidity.
In short, the ideas are not where the power is, the power lives in a world seperated by a vast valley from the ideas it ought to implement. Inadequecy results. How to solve?
One of the great advantages of the nerd mindset is how wonderfully flexible it is. The ability to think in terms of truth, to gradually piece together the puzzle of reality, to seek out and destroy falsity, to predict results and learn from mistakes, it is a great power. And versatile. That laser focus can be turned upon the social and political worlds. The nerd who today knows everything about D&D may tomorrow know everything about social grace and charm, if they so choose.
Barack Obama is a striking example of an exponential rise to power on the strength of ability, the kind of ability that some not insignificant section of nerddom could learn. He was one of the best speakers in many years in American politics. With ability alone, he ran for a fairly small state office, and won it. Within his first term, he ran for a significant national office, on the power of his speaking, and on the attention he could garner as a holder of a state office. He won that. And less than two years later, he ran for the largest office on the nation, on the basis of ability and the platform that his national office afforded him. He won again. Voila, immense power.
‘Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king.’
Frankly, at the levels below President and Prime Minister, the level of oratory we are delighted with is an uninspiring, mud-like thing. There are, of course, a great many more things to learn, but, as with oratory, so with politics: the whole of it. With dedication and study, I am confident that many rationalists could make of themselves figures of some useful power.
Such official positions provide one with the ear of the press and public, as also whatever goes on in terms of trading favors and consolidating power in political bodies.
It's just an idea, but maybe rationalists should consider conventional politics. As it has been said, if you don't know what you want, choose power, and on every step of the vast stretch that lies between what we have now and the achievement of perfect political power, there lie many lessons and lesser blessings worth the effort of obtaining.