[This is part of a series I’m writing on how to convince a person that AI risk is worth paying attention to.] 

tl;dr: People’s default reaction to politics is not taking them seriously. They could center their entire personality on their political beliefs, and still not take them seriously. To get them to take you seriously, the quickest way is to make your words as unpolitical-seeming as possible. 

I’m a high school student in France. Politics in France are interesting because they’re in a confusing superposition. One second, you'll have bourgeois intellectuals sipping red wine from their Paris apartment writing essays with dubious sexual innuendos on the deep-running dynamics of power. The next, 400 farmers will vaguely agree with the sentiment and dump 20 tons of horse manure in downtown Bordeaux. (This happened last Monday.) 

Le foin et le fumier sont répandus devant la route et la préfecture.
The ground is horse manure. I bike through this spot every morning to go to school. 

Take one of my classmates: he has an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure French philosophers, a high g factor, and a fantastic written ability. He also wears only black, calls himself a trotskyist, and doesn’t know the barest basics of Economy 101. 

He and his teenage friends want to topple the French government (a common ambition in France). When I asked him what he wanted to do after they succeeded, he told me he “didn’t have the arrogance to know how he would lead". I am blown away by his wisdom. What humility! Surely, a modest leader like himself couldn't screw things up. [1] This man has read over 1 million words' worth of Hegel, and has led a protest which consisted of waking up at 6AM to build an improvised barricade out of garbage cans at the school entrance. (They cooked barbecues and played cards for the rest of the day.) It's all a game to him: he aims to become a high school teacher, which isn't instrumentally useful to his revolutionary ends at all. 

The rest of my classmates aren't much better. Politics are a category labeled "serious adult things" for them: but since they're not adults, what they're really doing is theater. It's fascinating to observe them in the wild. They'll be going about their day as usual, and then someone will pronounce all 6 syllables of the name of He Who Pushed Retirement Age Forward by Two Years.[2]  They'll proceed to stop, drop, and pick the right shade of red out of the PantoneTM deck for their face before launching into a tirade involving slippery slope fascism. After the counter-spell is cast, the day will resume as before. This is politics, and it's easily circumscribed to a little box. It's not like there's more to it?

We haven't even gotten to the tip of wild French politics (I'll share some anecdotes in the comments). Sure, crazy stuff happens on American culture war battlegrounds too. But having lived both in the US and France, I can tell you there's some sort of vibe specific to France where politics—the wild version of it—is a national sport.[3] And the thing about sports is that while we get tribal about them—wear colors, chant, and argue loudly—we all know, deep down, that sports aren't that serious.

I think this generalizes. If you approach someone on the basis that you want to affect their politics, they'll systematically label the conversation "level of seriousness: politics". Now, when you tell them about AI x-risk, they'll be searching mindspace for political counterarguments. They'll say "ah but that will detract from the true risks, like algorithmic bias or job loss", instead of directly addressing your claim. This is how you get strange results where one side of the conversation is playing a different game than the other, and they have totally differing levels of seriousness. From your perspective, they'd have to be insane to answer "real chance of human extinction" with "algorithmic bias"; but for them, they're just playing the politics game. 

If you approach the conversation more bluntly like "hey, your kids have a real chance of dying in the next decade", you'll make it clear the conversation is to be taken more seriously than mere politics. 

  1. ^

    Another one of his plans was to plant a pride flag in the middle of a park (planting flags in public spaces is technically illegal) and wait for cops to arrest him so he could prove they were homophobic. 

    Such genius is simply hard to grasp for the average person.

  2. ^


  3. ^
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"hey, your kids have a real chance of dying in the next decade"

Yes, every four years, if the good guys don't win the next (US) presidential election. Or if people don't switch to/away from nuclear power. Or they're killed by immigrants/cops. Or they die of a fentanyl overdose. Or in a school shooting. Or if the Iraqis/Russians/Chinese invade. Or if taxes are lowered/raised.

Perhaps telling people they or their children are going to die imminently isn't a standard tactic of "mere politics" where you are; you did say you're not American.

Concept creep is a bastard. >:(

Interesting, and very well written. Because you have access to particularly funny examples, you show very well how much politics is an empty status game.

I should probably point out that five years ago, I was a high school student in France, felt more or less the way you do, and went on to study political science at college (I don’t even need to say which college I’m talking about, do I?). It is a deep truth that politics is very unserious for most people, and that is perhaps most true for first-year political science students (or, god forbid, the sort of people who teach them introductory political science classes). I studied political science precisely because I agreed with the sentiment you describe here, and expected something a little more serious. 

I definitely did not get it. The average political science undergraduate is very much like your friends—not least because they’re actually the same people a year older—and, while many professors are great, some are scarcely better than their students. 

You gave your funny sad stories, here’s one of mine (carefully selected to be the most egregious I’ve seen, but 100% true): first year sociology class, taught by respected specialist of Jewish life in Soviet-era Poland. Me, really curious about why sociology doesn’t dialogue more with some apparently contradictory results in social psychology. I try my best to ask "how does sociology react to that kind of stuff, even though it’s a completely different discipline and all?" in the least offensive way I can. 
Teacher’s face suddenly turns dark blue, she jumps off her chair, yelling "THIS IS SCIENCE! THIS IS SCIENTIFIC SCIENCE!". It takes me a few seconds to gather that she’s not blaming psychology for being science. Her brain registered something which kinda sounded like an attack against her discipline, and she’s defending the science-ness of her job. And not, certainly, doing anything like answering my question. In fact, she’s running around the room ("science! Science!"), and has forgotten about me entirely. After five or ten minutes, she eventually goes back to her chair, visibly exhausted ("well… where was I? Ah yes…") and resumes the class.

But the reason I’m writing this comment is exactly because I don’t want you to start seeing the whole lot of them as a bunch of crazies (as I myself did…). It’s really true that everyone who doesn’t end up working in politics, and even most of those who do, when they’re young, treat it as a deeply unserious status game (but, given what LW has to say about politics, I’d be really surprised if it was worse in France than in the US, or basically anywhere else?). It is also true that wanting to work on politics and decision-making doesn’t come with a specific knowledge of rationality. So, yeah, most people who think about politics do so in a very irrational way, because politics is a status game (not to mention being the mind-killer). But if you think that this is not a strong enough description and that the ones you know are really more crazy than that, I think the difference is because they’re high-schoolers :-) It does get a little bit better with age, but you might miss that if you brand them as crazies and forget to change your mind when most of them have grown enough to be a little less crazy :-)

Re: sociology. I found a meme you might enjoy, which would certainly drive your teacher through the roof: https://twitter.com/captgouda24/status/1777013044976980114 

Certainly I would expect people to grow up relatively normal, even in a crazy climate. What I see for religion, I expect to see here. Beyond the natural "immunity" I think my peers will develop over time, I imagine that whatever revolutionary fervor they get from youth will fade as well. My communist friend is going to be a high school philosophy teacher soon enough; by then his "glorious revolution" won't stretch much further than in a few academic dissertations (read by literally no one). 

That story with the sociology teacher is certainly crazy. I think I've learned the relevant lesson though, to avoid anything with "sociology" written on it like it's the plague. You may correct me, but it seems like a generally icky and imprecise discipline built up on a mountain or rationalization to the point that teachers have to explode into desperate fits in an attempt to hopelessly recover some semblance of a connection to reality. 

Parcoursup admissions close in a few days, and I've applied to Sciences Po as well. If I get in, I plan to start a rationality association as well as an existential risk one. However chaotic and facepalmingly pointlessly political the campus might be, I hear the associations are great, so hopefully that will work out all right. 

I've already started working on the project: tinyurl.com/biais-cognitifs

I’m not 100% sure the relevant lesson is to avoid sociology (or some other social sciences) entirely. The way I see it, it’s about as reliable as psychology if there had never been anything like a replication crisis: loads of nonsense at the very core of the field, and that everyone seems to think is gospel, but with a few good insights and useful approaches hidden in it—okay, maybe sociology has significantly more people who have been made actually crazy by politics, though. Then, either you avoid it entirely, or you engage with it knowing that you’re on a quest to find as much actually useful things in it as you can. If you do what I did as a 1st year student and engage with them only for your brain to immediately conflate the misunderstood, the immature, and the many genuinely crazy beliefs into "everyone’s completely nutty in that school!", you might make yourself more miserable than needed :-) 

Really cool projects, though! Good luck with those! I’m not in SciencesPo currently, but I’ve heard that some folks had started an EA association which seems to be growing pretty fast, and the (pre-existing) cybersecurity association seems to be moving a little toward AI risk, and to do it well (they’re often in touch with the main people working on AI safety here).

edit: if I had wanted to summarise my comments above in one sentence (I might have wanted to do that, right? ;-) ), it would be something like: SciencesPo is weird because it’s a great place to work on X-risk governance and policy, and quite a few folks in EA/rationalist circles do just that, but the vibes of the place  are just completely opposed to LW-style rationality. Not throwing the baby with the bathwater, then, is surprisingly hard. 

This is all great news

More French stories: So, at some point, the French decided what kind of political climate they wanted. What actions would reflect on their cause well? Dumping manure onto the city center using tractors? Sure! Lining up a hundred stationary taxi cabs in every main artery of the city? You bet! What about burning down the city hall's door, which is a work of art older than the United States? Mais évidemment!

"Politics" evokes all that in the mind of your average Frenchman. No, not sensible strategies that get your goals done, but the first shiny thing the protesters thought about. It'd be more entertaining to me, except for the fact that I had to skip class at some point because I accidentally biked headfirst into a burgeoning cloud of tear gas (which the cops had detonated in an attempt to ward off the tractors). There are flagpoles in front of the government building those tractors dumped the manure on. They weren't entirely clean, and you can still see the manure level, about 10 meters high. 

My guess would be that one difference of French politics compared to US politics is that offline actions like protests where people take physical actions are a bit more central to French politics than in US politics.

I think that's fair. Public transport is a lot more important in France than in the US, for example, and is usually the first casually in political upheavals. As with the retirement age debacle a few months ago, railway and bus operators (along with other public services like garbage collectors and school administration) went on mass strikes. It's easier here to make big, daring political actions than in the US where eg cars are the default mode of transport. 

Even when it comes to cars, there are plenty of French protests where tractors are used to block roads. You don't see similar blockages in the US and when you saw it in Canada their premier was essentially claiming dictatorship powers for himself to fight the protests.