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Is LessWrong a "classic style intellectual world"?

by G Gordon Worley III1 min read26th Feb 20196 comments


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Robin Hanson just published a post titled "Classic Style Intellectual World". It's short, so I recommend reading it, as it sets up this question, but in short it suggests that many intellectual activities are organized in a way similar to the way paintings on the walls of Renaissance churches are. That is, small spaces are allocated to lower-status artists where they are rewarded mainly for blending in well with architecture and surrounding context and only already high-status artists are asked to be more creative by giving them large spaces where they might do something less conforming (but not too non-conforming!). The parallel he draws is that lower-status intellectuals are expected to talk within the frame society and other intellectuals have already set up for them within a frame sized to match their status, while higher-status intellectuals are allowed a larger frame in which they may be more creative, the point being that status drives permitted creativity (that is, creativity that will not be ignored in obscurity) rather than creativity and innovation (or whatever traits are ostensibly sought in intellectuals) being what confers high status.

So the question I pose here is, how much does LW look like this picture Robin has painted? Specifically, is it that high readership, karma, post scores, etc. accumulates to authors who are the best at whatever it is you think the values of LW are or do those things go to those who best work "within the system" with LW value satisfaction as secondary concern?

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I think this question is framed slightly off. I agree with the general observation that "some authors get status effects that results in their stuff getting more upvoted", and/or "karma is awarded for writing style more than insight."

But, the question here is "what are the large structures within the rationalsphere, and who gets to establish those structures." Who has constructed a paradigm that others worked within? Who has attempted to construct a paradigm but failed to garner attention?

Some observations:

  • LW began because the existing academic/industry structure didn't accommodate the paradigms Eliezer was thinking in. Eliezer was writing on Overcoming Bias, which had something of its own paradigm that gave him some space to talk about it. I wasn't actually there at the time so I don't know how that felt. But eventually Eliezer broke off to create LW, and by dint of having created it, having a lot of mostly coherent ideas, and being a good writer, established a new structure, that included substructures relating to rationality, meta-ethics, AI, etc.
  • CFAR eventually was born. It mostly created its own internal structure, and mostly did not publish. The current state is that CFAR-style-rationality is notably different from traditional LW-style rationality, and only some of this content has been back-ported over to LW. (However, I think there is some recent work, esp. by Kaj Sotala, that is starting to bridge this backwards)
  • Some cluster of people found that they either weren't getting traction on LW (or maybe already existed outside LW?) and started calling themselves postrationalists.
  • Scott started writing a bunch of stuff. His original stuff fit within the default LW paradigm. Eventually he started talking more politics-y, which didn't fit as well within the LW structure, and he went off to his own space. I'm not sure how much "structure" or "paradigm-ness" Scott has, but there's at least some things like "the archipelago model" that I think of as his.
  • EA solidified as a concept. It began in a few different places, including LW, Givewell and academia. It eventually carved out it's own infrastructure where it could focus on its thing.
  • Within LW, especially recently, there are a couple different paradigms relating to AI. Perhaps tellingly, I think of them as "the MIRI paradigm" and "the Paul paradigm", and maybe the "vaguely mainstream ML paradigm".
  • Zvi/Benquo sort of (accidentally?) co-created the "Slack and Sabbath" paradigm and some clusters of things surrounding that.
  • Zvi/Benquo/SarahConstantin often reference each other and have something of a structure relating to organizations, integrity and out-to-get-you-ness.
  • Duncan established something of a paradigm, and then withdrew to his own blog for reasons.
  • By now, after a year+ of LW2.0, there's a structure here that's subtly different from the structure when Eliezer was the primary curator of LW.

So this points at a few key questions/points:

1. Some people seem to have an easier time establishing new structures. Is the active ingredient here "status", "writing skill?", or, perhaps most optimistically, "insight?".

2. I think the minimum you need to establish a structure is at least a couple other people to start linking to your stuff. I think this requires some minimum threshold of insight and writing skill, but can be bootstrapped by a couple people who think the same way. Early Givewell seems like a prime example of "had a minimum threshold of writing skill, and mostly gained status by virtue of legibly good insights."

3. Empirically, even highish status people tend to go off and establish their own fiefdom where they don't need to chafe slightly against the default culture on LW. This doesn't seem intrinsically bad. While a bit sad, it makes sense that people in different structures want the freedom to run with the ideas in their structure, and not obviously wrong that the way new major "rooms in the sistine chapel" get added is by someone going off and creating a new wing on a different website.

(Incidentally, this empirical observation is why I currently still hold out hope for LW eventually moving towards an internal Archipelago model, so that people can more easily fork off into their own subfield while still having the best ideas bubble up into a central location. I don't think we ended up doing enough work to fully support that, and the team is currently focusing on the Questions structure, but do think we'll come back to it eventually)

I posted this as a question because, although I have my own thoughts on this, I'm not very confident in them because I'm too deep inside LW to be able to see this well, so I want to find out what others think about this. That said, it'd be dishonest if I didn't at least give what I think is the answer, since if nothing else it motivated me to ask the question!

Here's the evidence that jumps to mind when I think about this:

  • certain authors seem to get disproportionately high post scores relative to what I perceive to be the value of what they're saying
    • those authors tend to be authors who I perceive to have high status on LW, often drawn from several sources, such as in person connections, other work they are doing, and previous posts they have published
      • yes, i'm somewhat among this set of people, although it's (thankfully?) often offset by my being so weird that a few people downvote me
      • contra: maybe these people always have something valuable to the LW community to say
    • those authors sometimes write posts they say they think are low quality within the post, yet they still receive higher post scores than average
      • contra: maybe they misassess the quality of their posts
      • contra: maybe they say that for other reasons, like to feel like they've protected themselves from potential rejection if the post is poorly received
  • new authors sometimes write very insightful things that are largely ignored (receive very few votes and have lost post scores)
    • most often i notice this when they fail to conform in some way to LW style expectations
      • contra: maybe writing style is a secretly cherished LW value that isn't held up as explicitly as others like insightfulness and accuracy
    • contra: new people join all the time and some of them gain high status

None of this is perfectly explained by LW being a "classic style intellectual world", but it seems quite suggestive to me that it has tended in that direction, arguably right from the beginning. Maybe the answer will offer other explanations of this evidence that fit it better, or offer other evidence to suggest I have a skewed view of what LW is like (that's why I say I'm too deep inside LW to see it clearly).

I think there are large differences between LessWrong and classical artistic-display style, and even between LessWrong and the academic evaluation and display that Robin analogizes in his piece.

The status effect Robin describes is positioning within a very constrained set of possible display locations, for a fairly long period of time. This doesnt describe LessWrong posts very well - there's room for a lot more than we have, and they can cycle through much faster than the domains Robin's comparing.

I don't deny that there _are_ status effects within LessWrong - popular authors are that way because they've shown good capacity to write in ways that are receptive to the audience, and (partly due to correct expectations, but partly due to halo effect) they also get a little more leeway than others when they take a risk that doesn't pan out. But I don't think the fractal/spacial metaphor is particularly apt for what happens here.

Different people write with different goals. Writing is useful for forcing me to think, and to the extent I want attention I want it from a fairly small group. On the other hand, high readership and karma naturally accrues to people who write the sorts of things that get high reader counts.

I have literally zero problems with this natural scale of karma-numbers as long as it's not actively interfering with my goals on the site. Maybe if I was a reader who wanted to use karma-number to sort posts, I would be inconvenienced by the stratification by topic.

2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:35 PM

I suppose the most damning thing would be if high status people were making obvious mistakes in their posts and no one was mentioning that.

I would guess that working on a big church painting felt like more responsibility before people and God, not more license for creativity.