Rationalist Politicians

by Bound_up3 min read21st Dec 20178 comments


Personal Blog

The following ideas significantly overlap in my mind:

  1. Humans as political animals
  2. Normies
  3. Social Thinkers
  4. Non-nerds
  5. Subcommunicators
  6. Homo Hypocriticus (the kind of hypocrisy everyone's secretly okay with)
  7. Ribbonfarm "Losers"
  8. Tribalists

The following contrasting ideas also overlap:

  1. Nerds
  2. Literal/propositional thinkers
  3. Straightforward, forthright, open communicators
  4. 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?

The Solution

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.


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I may have a better background in this than I realize. Having been exposed to the ins and outs of city and smaller state campaigns, I've seen what it takes to win and been unimpressed with the difficulty of it. Winning even a state office of some significance will require beating opponents who are only sometimes even moderately interesting to speak or listen to (even for their constituents).

While not trivial, the strategy of running for a smaller office and then just knocking on a few thousand (of the right) doors over the months leading up to the election (and being sufficiently versed in social graces and political talk to make that exposure a boon rather than a curse) is sufficient to probably win over half the time.

My general sentiment on winning smaller offices is "It's just not that hard." But I may have underestimated how much my experience gives me; perhaps those who haven't spent their time this way assume that the to-them-black box of political campaigning holds something rather more involved.

I guess my general advice would be to look at some local, or small state offices, and check who your opponents would be in each as the campaign season comes around. You may be surprised at how un-formidable the competition is, and at how often that's the case, and come to feel, as I do, that it could probably be achieved by any old smart person willing to put in the necessary practice and work, provided they were blessed to start out with (or otherwise develop) a reasonably favorable dispensation of social ability, and can parrot (without feeling too repulsed) the necessary slogans and incoherencies.

In don't think you have an accurate idea about politicians. The fact that someone choses to project a certain public image doesn't mean that he doesn't care about listening to nerds. https://keithhennessey.com/2013/04/24/smarter/ is a nice article about Bush.

You can't write policy or laws without thinking through the details in a nerdy way. A politician who doesn't actually care about details might give the task of policy writting to a staffer but that still means that the actual policy gets written by a person who cares about details.

I don't think getting listened to is a matter of a speaking a different language. Let's imagine you are a nerd who cares about net neutrality and you are in space where open conversation is possible with Ajit Pai. You tell him that's it's bad that Comcast wanted money from Netflix and that this breaks net neutrality.

Then Ajit Pai tells you that the solution that Netflix favors where all major ISPs will host a Netflix Open Connect server for free doesn't exactly result in neutrality between Netflix and other video upstarts (Pai considers those servers to effectively give the Netflix fast lanes). Most nerds won't be able to respond meaningfully because everything the kind of debate they have read about net neutrality hasn't discussed Netflix Open Connect.

This means that the average nerds will seem uninformed to Pai and that's a more likely reason why Pai won't listen then issues about speaking a different language.

The nerd who today knows everything about D&D may tomorrow know everything about social grace and charm, if they so choose.

Knowing things about social grace and charm is not the same thing as actually having the corresponding skills. Most people won't reached Obama level public speaking skills even if they train a lot.

That said I also don't want to discourage anybody from our community who thinks a political career would be a match for him to persue it.

You can't write policy or laws without thinking through the details in a nerdy way.

Why would a nerd even want to be Arthur, when they are so suited to being Merlin?

Even when it comes to Muslims, Trump isn't good at that. Trump isn't ready to say the obvious things like: "We shouldn't sell weapons to governments who have supported ISIS finanically in the past. " He rather makes a big deal about selling them weapons.

One of the big reasons for the Iraq war is that the CIA actually managed to believe that Iraq certainly has weapons of mass destruction. Tetlock writes over the case in Superforcasting and advocates that they need to make actual changes to be better at finding the truth.

Designing incentive structures to incentive the right behavior needs rational thought or you end up with the military who rewards it's members for killing a lot of enemy which turns the relatives of the killed into enemies as well or policemen who are incentived by the number of arrests who then go on and arrest people don't have to be arrested.

Have a look at 80K's (very brief) career profile for party politics. My rough sense is that efective altruists generally agree that pursuing elected office can be a very high-impact career path for individuals particularly well-suited to it, but think that even with an exceptional candidate succeeding is very difficult.

Do you have examples? Each time I heard concrete examples of those supposedly numerous things, they were things they weren't glaringly obvious at all.

Also, as a rationalist, knowing that it's glaringly obvious to any person looking up each day that the Sun goes around the earth, and that, last I checked, this glaringly obvious belief is shared by 1/6th of the French, 1/4th of the Americans and 1/3rd of the Russians, I am exceptionally wary of anything supposedly obvious.

I agree that it is a problem, but I think even bigger problem is that no one cares about what is actually true. Even the true things that are appropriate to mention won't get implemented.

If a nerd won the presidency, it wouldn't be great because they would say "true" things. It would be great because they would actually be concerned with figuring out what is true. They might actually change their minds if they realized they were wrong.

If you agree with Trump, then let's allow that he "says true things." That doesn't mean that he embodies what would be great about a nerd in the Oval Office. If Trump says true things, it's because it gets him the support of certain segments of the population. If he had evidence that one of his beliefs was false, but his base still believed it, I'm quite certain he would go on professing the false belief. Now I don't actually think Trump would even recognize his belief to be wrong in the presence of evidence, and I think a substantial fraction of politicians are little better than he.

The article didn't claim that Obama was — rather, it claimed that Obama's path to the presidency could be emulated by nerds.