Declare your signaling and hidden agendas

byKaj_Sotala10y13th Apr 200921 comments

19


Follow-up to: It's okay to be (at least a little) irrational

Many science journals require their authors to declare any competing interests they happen to have. For instance, if you're submitting a study about the health effects of tobacco, and you happen to sit on the board of directors of a major tobacco company, you're supposed to say that out loud. 

The process obviously isn't perfect, as most journals don't have the resources to ensure their authors do actually declare all competing interests. On the whole, though, it helps protect both the readers and the authors. The readers, because they'll know to be more careful in evaluating the reports of researchers who might be biased. The authors, because by declaring any competing interests upfront, they're protected from later accusations of dishonesty. (That's the theory, at least. In practice, authors often don't declare their interests, even if they should.)

Signaling has been discussed a lot on Overcoming Bias, though a bit less on Less Wrong. A large fraction of people's behavior is actually intended to signal some qualities to others, though this isn't necessarily a conscious process. On the other hand, it often is. As seasoned OB/LW readers, it seems to me like many would instinctively try to avoid giving the impression of excess signaling. We're rationalists, after all! We're trying to find the truth, not show off or impress others of our worth!

As if we even could avoid trying to make a good impression on others, or avoid having other kinds of hidden agendas. We're not any less human simply because we have rallied our rationality's banner. (Not to mention that signaling isn't a bad thing, by itself - humanity would be in a very poor state if we didn't have any signals about what others were like.) So, in the interest of self-honesty, I suggest we all begin explicitly declaring our (conscious) hidden agendas and signaling intentions when writing posts. As with the policy of scholarly journals, this will help both readers and writers, and in this case also serve a third and fourth function - making us more honest to ourselves, and make people realize that it's okay to have hidden agendas, and that they don't have to pretend they don't have any. I'll start out with mine.

I have roughly classified my hidden agendas at three different levels of severity. A "mild" agenda had a small impact on the behavior in question (for instance, writing a particular post), but I would have done it either way. A "strong" agenda means the behavior probably wouldn't have happened without the hidden agenda. A "moderate" agenda means that I'm not able to say either way - the behavior could have happened anyway, or then it might have not. I recognize that these are merely my conscious estimates of the different strengths and agendas, which are likely to be mistaken. They are, however, better than nothing.

Posting here in general - A desire to seek fame and respect in a community of rationalists, and to prove my worth as one (moderate). A desire to indicate that I have read and internalized the previous postings on OB, by linking to any relevant previous articles mentioning related concepts (moderate when it comes to linking, but mild when it comes to writing the articles - without the desire I might not have thrown in so many links, but I'd probably have written the posts anyway).
Does blind review slow down science? - Uncertain, as I don't remember my exact motivations for writing this post anymore.
The Golem - A mild desire to indirectly promote polyamory (by linking to a book about it as the source of the quote).
The Tragedy of the Anticommons - A mild to moderate desire to signal scholarship. My previous posts cited two books and some research articles and now I cited a third book, to give the (mostly accurate) impression that I read a lot and survey the research literature when I want to form an opinion of something. Mild desire to nudge people in the direction of a resource pointing out the harms of patents and copyright in their current form (declaration of possibly competing interest: I'm a board member of the Finnish Pirate Party).
Deliberate and spontaneous creativity - Mild to moderate desire to signal scholarship, again.
Rationalists should beware rationalism - Looking over the post, I'm not certain of any of my motives anymore, be they overt or covert. Perhaps a mild to moderate desire to signal resistance to groupthink.
Too much feedback can be a bad thing - None that I can remember.
It's okay to be (at least a little) irrational - Mild desire to signal support for the Institute Which Shall Not Be Named. Mild desire to signal altruism by bringing up my regular donations.
This post - Strong desire to signal honesty. Mild desire to more effectively promote my previous hidden agendas, by stating them out loud.

What are yours?