A Challenge for LessWrong

by simplicio 2 min read29th Jun 2010172 comments


The user divia, in her most excellent post on spaced repetition software, quotes Paul Buchheit as saying

"Good enough" is the enemy of "At all"!

This is an important truth which bears repetition, and to which I shall return.

"Rationalists should win"

Many hands have been wrung hereabouts on the subject of rationality's instrumental value (or lack thereof) in the everyday lives of LWers. Are we winning? Some consider this doubtful.1

Now, I have a couple of issues with the question being framed in such a way.

  • Benefits of rationality are often negative benefits - in the sense that they will involve not being stupid as opposed to being especially smart. But "Why I didn't take on that crippling mortgage" doesn't make a very good post.
  • Weapons-grade rationality à la LessWrong is a refinement to the reactor-grade rationality practiced by self-described skeptics - for most cases, it is not a quantum leap forward. The general skeptic community is already winning in certain senses (e.g., a non-religious outlook correlates strongly with income and level of education), although causal direction is hard to determine.
  • Truth-seeking is ethical for its own sake.
  • I, for one, am having a hell of a good time! I count that as a win.
However, these relatively minor considerations aside, surely we can do better. In order to win, rationalists should play.

Nonrandom acts of rationality

The LessWrong community finds itself in the fairly privileged position of being (1) mostly financially well-off; (2) well-educated and articulate; (3) connected; (4) of non-trivial size. Therefore, I would like to suggest a project for any & all users who might be interested.

Let us become a solution in search of problems.

Perform one or more  manageable & modest   rationally & ethically motivated actions between now and July 31, 2010 (indicate intent to participate, and brainstorm, below). These actions must have a reasonable chance of being an unequivocal net positive for the shared values of this community. Finally, post what you have done to this thread's comments, in as much detail as possible.

Some examples:

  • Write a letter on behalf of Amnesty International in support of their anti-torture campaigns.
  • Make an appointment to give blood.
  • Contact and harangue one of your elected representatives. For example, I may write to my Minister of Health about the excellent harm-reduction work being done in Vancouver by  Insite, a safe-injection site for IV drug users whose efficacy in decreasing public drug use and successfully referring patients to detox has been confirmed in published articles in the  Lancet and  New England Journal of Medicine. (Insite is controversial, with people like the previous minister opposing it for purely ideological reasons. Politics is the people-killer.)
  • Donate a one-time amount somewhere around 10% of your weekly disposable income to a reputable charity - I may go with  Spread the Net - or to an organization promoting our values in your own area (e.g., the  NCSE, or indeed the  SIAI).
  • Give your Air Miles  to the Amanda Knox Defense Fund.
(ETA: Some have suggested that these examples are terrible - a case of feel-good vs. effective actions. If you know more effective actions, for goodness' sake, please post them in the comments!)
Remember, "Good enough" is the enemy of "At all"! Even if your action is just to click on The Hunger Site and all its affilliates every morning while you sip your rooibos, that's better than nothing and is unequivocally praiseworthy - post it. Your action does not have to be clever, just helpful.
Bonus points for investigating the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of what you do (the suggestions above are not vetted with respect to this question).
Also, if you already do something along these lines, please post it in the comments.

What about LessWrong acting as a group?

I would  love to see a group-level action on our part occur; however, after some time spent brainstorming, I haven't hit upon any really salient ones that are not amenable to individual action. Perhaps a concerted letter-writing campaign? I suspect that is a weak idea, and that there are much better ones out there. Who's up for world-optimization?

Potential objection

These actions are mostly sub-optimal, consequentially speaking. The SIAI/[insert favourite cause here] is a better idea for a donation, since it promises to solve all the above problems in one go. These are just band-aids.

This may or may not be true; however, I am mostly asking people (myself included) to do this exercise instead of nothing or very little. If you already give to SIAI or something else that might save the world, and no disposable income or time is left over, then ignore this post (although I would be very interested to know the scope of your involvement in the comments).



1 Although by George, we have Newcomb's problem licked!