Any community which ever adds new people will need to either routinely teach the new and (to established members) blindingly obvious information to those who genuinely haven’t heard it before, or accept that over time community members will only know the simplest basics by accident of osmosis or selection bias. There isn’t another way out of that. You don’t get to stop doing it. If you have a vibrant and popular group full of people really interested in the subject of the group, and you run it for ten years straight, you will still sometimes run across people who have only fuzzy and incorrect ideas about the subject unless you are making an active effort to make Something Which Is Not That happen.

Or in other words; I have run into people at Effective Altruism meetups who were aghast at the idea of putting a dollar price on a human life, people at LessWrong meetups who did not know what Bayes Theorem was, and people at Magic: The Gathering meetups who thought the old lands tapped for two mana. (Because, you see, new lands don’t have a “T: Add [Mana Symbol] to your mana pool” ability, maybe the cards that do say that do something extra when you tap them?) Laughter and incredulity can come across as insulting and push people away. Instead, consider how to make sure the information you care about transmitting is regularly conveyed.

It can happen to you!

I.

As I understand it, the standard Jewish Synagogue service includes a reading from the Five Books Of Moses such that at the end of a year the books have been read in their entirety. Anyone attending every week for a year will have at least heard all of those words once, and if someone has been around for a couple of years it’s a reasonable assumption that if they missed a week here or a week there, they’d have heard it the next year. You can’t go to synagogue for years and accidentally not know about the slavery in Egypt.

I’m not Jewish, so my synagogue knowledge is mostly second hand. I was raised Christian, and while my family branch of Protestantism doesn’t have such an organized sequence as the Five Books Of Moses I can confirm that it would have been practically impossible to somehow attend three months of church services and not have been told Jesus loved you. If you skipped a week, that’s fine, it came up in other sermons too. If you zoned out at that bit, the first thing I remember being told about writing sermons was to repeat things about three times at different points in the speech. If you showed up with earplugs in, it was written in the program and sometimes in bright colours on the walls. 

I have on occasion been tempted to put that kind of redundant and overlapping effort into making people aware of such rationalist lessons such as “Zero And One Are Not Probabilities” or “Your Enemies Are Not Innately Evil.

Linear education systems play by an entirely different set of rules. A standard American student will go through first grade, second grade, third grade, and so on up to the end of high school. Many will then go to university, and the university can assume that new students already know how to write essays and do algebra. 

(Though they can’t safely assume this is true of every student! There was a college professor at my dinner table growing up, and I overheard complaints about how college freshmen were unable to do things such as, without loss of generality, reliably remember the difference between “their” or “there” in a written essay.)

Society as a whole does not get to make this assumption. The overt purpose of the entire education edifice is to deal with the fact that civilization has a constant influx of people who don’t know how the government works, how written language works, or how we wound up with this language or government in the first place. People understand that you can’t just assume a newborn child will know what skills they need and what norms they should follow. 

We talk about Eternal September, that point in time when new people started arriving on the internet faster than the existing users could acculturate them. It makes sense; adult society usually outnumbers its children decisively. Still at a certain point you have to realize that the incoming tide is not going to stop, and get down to the practical job of getting people to know what you want them to know.

II.

There’s a Scott Alexander post titled “Against Interminable Arguments.” In it, he points out that some communities can wind up having the same arguments again and again, and mentions that newcomers are a common source of this problem.

First, the influx of newbies is a big driver of this dynamic. Newbies are less likely to know the relevant arguments, won’t be bored of them yet, won’t want to steer clear of them, and may mistake somebody’s unwillingness to engage for the 9000th time as unwillingness to engage at all. People should be more tolerant of newbies, and newbies should be more tolerant of “look in the archives for the last time we discussed this issue, but seriously, don’t start up about this again”. This is what I think social justice people mean when they talk about “this is not a 101 space”.

The rationalist version of “this is not a 101 space” is probably “read the sequences” but I don’t exactly blame people for not taking us up on that suggestion. The ebook of Rationality From AI To Zombies is about two thousand pages, and that’s the smaller version of the sequences. The Sequences Highlights is a very useful document: It’s the size of a small book. When I’m suggesting the sequences, I usually point to the highlights these days and say if someone finds them useful or enjoyable that they should look up AI to Zombies.

Still, “go away and read a book in the corner” isn’t a great answer to give in the middle of a conversation, and it isn’t actually common knowledge. The analogy to a religious community is actually pretty spot on; it’s unwise to assume someone at church has read the whole bible. You can maybe assume they’ve read the Gospels, which are (abbreviating heavily) the subunit of the bible that talks about the life of Jesus, but you’ll be wrong a lot if you do. You have to put some actual effort into it to be confident people around you have read the thing the group is supposedly about. 

And that’s just talking about reading something once. I read the U.S. Constitution once, but I don’t actually remember all of it. That’s the foundational text of the government which I’ve lived under my entire life, I got tested on it multiple times in school, I wind up searching through it for particular lines about every other year because of one argument or another, and I still can’t tell you right now which details about the House and Senate are in the Constitution vs being in later rules. I remember the first five amendments, plus the thirteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth. That’s kind of embarrassing given that I once recited the first three chapters of Ender’s Game verbatim from memory. 

In hindsight, it’s kind of obvious why. I reread Ender’s Game a lot more than I reread the Constitution. The educational system was trying to get me to remember the basics of the Constitution, but it wasn’t especially good at it.

III.

Some would say that you get about five words.

I think that’s the wrong way to look at the problem. You, as a singular human being, probably don’t need to coordinate a vast and indistinct crowd of thousands. For getting along it’s sometimes enough to coordinate a hundred or so people. That doesn’t happen automatically, but it happens a lot more often if someone actually tries.

Newcomers are going to keep arriving. Especially if you run any kind of community, whether it’s an online forum or a board gaming group, you probably don’t want to slam the gates shut and bar the doors. That means you fundamentally have two options.

You can give up on having common knowledge apart from whatever the ambient society manages to impart.

Or you can try and make sure the common knowledge is imparted somehow.

Go back to the Scott Alexander quote and the phrase “this is not a 101 space.” If you find yourself wanting to say some variation of that phrase, ask yourself where the 101 space actually is. If the answer is “idk man, but not here” or “go google it and teach yourself” then you run a very real risk of people teaching themselves something wildly different than what you intended.

Apocryphal story which I nevertheless believe: someone got told “educate yourself” at a queer community space, obediently went and googled their question, and landed in a bunch of far right wing websites due to how the question was worded. Imagine someone asking a well meaning question on LessWrong, and getting pointed to Google only to wind up on RationalWiki. There’s always a 101 space somewhere, and if you don’t take care where that space is you may find you don’t like where it winds up.

I’m not saying that you, yes you in particular, need to create and maintain that space. The problem of being outnumbered in a deluge of Eternal September doesn’t go away just because we want it to. But if you or someone you like doesn’t maintain that space, it will probably wind up somewhere you don’t like. 

This is why I spend a lot of time trying to solidify the on-ramps and the explanations of the basics, and go out of my way to be welcoming to newcomers with only a vague and fuzzy idea of what a group is about. I want somebody to do it, and not enough people are. The AI Safety Quest people are one of many examples of putting active effort into maintaining an on-ramp, but they aren't the only ones.

To everyone who takes the time to explain the basics, you have my gratitude.

New Comment
20 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:29 PM

What do you think the 101 space should look like for Less Wrong?

I imagine an explanation that gets progressively longer. One-paragraph summary. One-screen explanation. One article containing the gist of the Sequences (with links to Read the Sequences), a brief history of the rationalist movement, frequently used concepts (with links to explanations), maybe a list of frequent myths.

Technically, all three could be at the same URL.

Upvoting for the multiple levels of summarization. Feels respectful of readers' attention too.

Wasn’t this tried with Arbital?

The general principle, yes. Not sure if there was an article specifically about the rationalist community.

Short answer: I think there should be more than one of them, but the pinned Open Thread are pretty good when combined with the New Users Guide and the Sequence Highlights.

There's an interesting problem in that the people who most need the entry level information are the people who least know how to find it, and the least likely to be used to whatever idiom the information is in. "Look in the archives for the last time we discussed this issue" is a lovely theory, but finding something new in the archives of a new place is harder than the locals think it is. Because of this issue, I think every point where someone new might show up (comments on a post, an ACX Everywhere meetup, in the replies to one of Yudkowsky's tweets, etc) would ideally be able to point the newcomer to a back and forth with someone patient and interested in helping. To be clear, that's a find wish of my heart, not something I think is practical to pull off.

Personally I spend more time and energy on the in-person meetups than I do for online spaces. In that context, making these spaces means having meetups that discuss things I'm already pretty sure the regulars know. I try to come up with ways to make going over the basics again interesting and work for multiple knowledge levels, but at least any topic that hasn't had a meetup in the last year is a topic I shouldn't try to build on. I make myself obvious and visible as the organizer and try to notice when someone is new or looks confused. Most of my meetups are Rationality 101 spaces, and that's a deliberate tradeoff I make knowing that there's other organizers in my city who can try to push a bit deeper.

Then again, I'm also the guy who wrote Write A Thousand Roads To Rome. If someone says they prefer youtube videos, I point them at Robert Miles and Rational Animations. If someone says they prefer spicy blog posts I point them at specific SlateStarCodex posts. If someone says they want to talk to someone in person, I try and point them at a meetup near them especially if I know the organizer. 

Like I said, I think the Open Thread is a good 80/20 on the problem. The thesis of this post isn't that I think Less Wrong is doing unusually badly here, it's pointing out that we never get to declare victory and stop answering the beginner questions.

Also, I think our Rationality Quotes threads (like this one) were pretty good for enculturation.

I miss those. When was the last quote thread anyway?

Kudos to the tag definitions. 2017 apparently, and it didn't have much commenting. Wonder if a revival would work. . .

I think something like 2015?

I would really like to recommend a process where we try to always be ready to provide a link to some approachable pre-written introductory materials instead of having to perform an oration (I think it's reasonable to expect members to read something). But I notice a huge difficulty with that: Often, the material that the most senior members of a movement have read and are familiar with is the worst rendition of the material that was ever written.

For instance, I'm pretty sure we should not be recommending the sequences over Scout Mindset, but I'm not completely sure, because I haven't read Scout Mindset, it's a wonder that I have even read a review of it, because, you see, I have already read the sequences and so the prospect of reading a refined phrasing of the same message is super boring to me.
(same with Brian Christian's The Alignment Problem over Superintelligence)

With textbooks, I imagine this problem is a lot worse. And all of this is exacerbated by the fact that one who's already deeply internalized the material can't read a new introductory textbook with fresh eyes and know how it would land for a newbie.

(You could probably find some really horrific examples of this in academic philosophy, where reading the original flawed renditions of the ideas is actually necessary to engage with the begged controversies of the contemporary discourse.)

What would you say to the academic solution to needing 101 spaces? AKA opening posts with a list of prerequisites and recommended prior readings, and setting a norm that pointing people to that list is acceptable if they make a comment that demonstrates lack of familiarity with same?

Just checking we're on the same page: academic programs usually have a clear track students move through, with a graph of prerequisites. The idiom "101 space" originates with the way University programs are numbered, with the 100s place denoting what year a uni student expects to take a class. If you don't have the prereqs or aren't able to handle a course, you don't take it/drop out and do the lower material. We're talking about that solution, right?

Seems decent for them, though obviously students sometimes wind up above or below their capacity. You can kind of approximate this with cohorts in some places. I like the norm of putting required/suggested readings at the top of posts expanding on material or pointing someone to a short, specific post that walks them through a mistake or gap. I kind of don't like a norm of "read this two thousand page tome" even as it can be tempting sometimes, mostly because I don't think people are going to take me up on it very often.

There's an is/ought distinction around here. Sometimes someone makes a reply that indicates they didn't read the whole tweet, you know? Whether or not your 101 space works (do people use it, do they come out knowing what you want) is relevant to whether it is functioning, even if we think they ought to use it.

  1. Yes we're talking about the same solution. However, academic institutions usually also have many options for elective courses, which still have prerequisites. That seems like a closer analogy that required courses for a major. Universities also have lectures/seminars/colloquiums that are nominally open to anyone, but that doesn't mean anyone will be able to actively participate in practice, though usually they'll be welcome as long as they're making an effort to learn and aren't disruptive.
  2. I agree very few people will take up the suggestion to read 2000 pages. That shouldn't usually be the standard, but sometimes, it really should. If I showed up to a conference of classicists and started asking who Zeus was I'd expect to either be shown the door or told to go study the basics first. Hopefully in a way that suggests everyone there really would like to see me learn, then come back and participate more. At the very least, people who earnestly are here to learn and want to participate should also be learning not to expect short inferential distances, such that suggestions to read specific background material are reasonable, and hopefully welcome.

But yeah, putting assumed prerequisites at the top is the extent of my practical suggestions here. Combined with basic politeness if you decide to engage with commenters who clearly didn't do the reading, without feeling like you need to explain everything right then and there.

I would also add: if you only have a single 101 space, that's probably a mistake, too. Universities, and societies, have all different kinds of 101 spaces for all kinds of purposes.

Re: on-ramps, see the New User's Guide to LessWrong and my main feedback on it. Though I'm not sure whether this guide is actually being used as a new user's guide by anyone, e.g. I don't know if any LW pages link to it.

If you aren't logged in and show up on the LessWrong homepage, the second post listed is (as far as I know) always Welcome to LessWrong. That links the New User's Guide in the first couple paragraphs, right after The Road To Wisdom and a three sentence explanation of the site.

If I was in charge I might make it the first post, but that trades off a bit against people showing up for something to read but never logging in. Having the first thing be a gradually rotating recommendation actually seems pretty good to me as well: I don't know how the first recommendation is picked but right now it shows LessWrong Political Prerequisites for me. If it does something like rotate through the top twelve things everyone should know, one a month, I'd call that a pretty good nudge towards having common knowledge actually!

Amusing sidenote: when I loaded up the page in an incognito browser to check, the third post suggested was Fucking Goddamn Basics of Rationalist Discourse and I have such mixed feelings. On the one hand, I really like having a snappy two hundred and thirty three word overview of the expectations for posting! That's way better than Read The Sequences, it's a numbered list of short guidelines with links to longer explanations of each part! On the other hand, it's the profane parody of a post I remember being kind of controversial when it was published and where the controversy was not so much "settled to consensus approval" as "turned into a Shiri's Scissor before the author mostly left the site." Like I said, mixed feelings if I imagine that being the third thing someone reads on LessWrong.

I love this post. I needed the reminder that sometimes I should spend more time explaining things to people.

Thank you for the compliment! I try to remind myself this too :)

imo it's a shame that the wiki isn't more fleshed out.

The LessWrong Review runs every year to select the posts that have most stood the test of time. This post is not yet eligible for review, but will be at the end of 2024. The top fifty or so posts are featured prominently on the site throughout the year. Will this post make the top fifty?