Related to: Leaky Generalizations, Replace the Symbol With The Substance, Sneaking In Connotations

David Stove once ran a contest to find the Worst Argument In The World, but he awarded the prize to his own entry, and one that shored up his politics to boot. It hardly seems like an objective process.

If he can unilaterally declare a Worst Argument, then so can I. I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: "X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us a certain emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that emotional reaction to X, even though it is not a central category member."

Call it the Noncentral Fallacy. It sounds dumb when you put it like that. Who even does that, anyway?

It sounds dumb only because we are talking soberly of categories and features. As soon as the argument gets framed in terms of words, it becomes so powerful that somewhere between many and most of the bad arguments in politics, philosophy and culture take some form of the noncentral fallacy. Before we get to those, let's look at a simpler example.

Suppose someone wants to build a statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. for his nonviolent resistance to racism. An opponent of the statue objects: "But Martin Luther King was a criminal!"

Any historian can confirm this is correct. A criminal is technically someone who breaks the law, and King knowingly broke a law against peaceful anti-segregation protest - hence his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

But in this case calling Martin Luther King a criminal is the noncentral. The archetypal criminal is a mugger or bank robber. He is driven only by greed, preys on the innocent, and weakens the fabric of society. Since we don't like these things, calling someone a "criminal" naturally lowers our opinion of them.

The opponent is saying "Because you don't like criminals, and Martin Luther King is a criminal, you should stop liking Martin Luther King." But King doesn't share the important criminal features of being driven by greed, preying on the innocent, or weakening the fabric of society that made us dislike criminals in the first place. Therefore, even though he is a criminal, there is no reason to dislike King.

This all seems so nice and logical when it's presented in this format. Unfortunately, it's also one hundred percent contrary to instinct: the urge is to respond "Martin Luther King? A criminal? No he wasn't! You take that back!" This is why the noncentral is so successful. As soon as you do that you've fallen into their trap. Your argument is no longer about whether you should build a statue, it's about whether King was a criminal. Since he was, you have now lost the argument.

Ideally, you should just be able to say "Well, King was the good kind of criminal." But that seems pretty tough as a debating maneuver, and it may be even harder in some of the cases where the noncentral Fallacy is commonly used.

Now I want to list some of these cases. Many will be political1, for which I apologize, but it's hard to separate out a bad argument from its specific instantiations. None of these examples are meant to imply that the position they support is wrong (and in fact I myself hold some of them). They only show that certain particular arguments for the position are flawed, such as:

"Abortion is murder!" The archetypal murder is Charles Manson breaking into your house and shooting you. This sort of murder is bad for a number of reasons: you prefer not to die, you have various thoughts and hopes and dreams that would be snuffed out, your family and friends would be heartbroken, and the rest of society has to live in fear until Manson gets caught. If you define murder as "killing another human being", then abortion is technically murder. But it has none of the downsides of murder Charles Manson style. Although you can criticize abortion for many reasons, insofar as "abortion is murder" is an invitation to apply one's feelings in the Manson case directly to the abortion case, it ignores the latter's lack of the features that generated those intuitions in the first place2.

"Genetic engineering to cure diseases is eugenics!" Okay, you've got me there: since eugenics means "trying to improve the gene pool" that's clearly right. But what's wrong with eugenics? "What's wrong with eugenics? Hitler did eugenics! Those unethical scientists in the 1950s who sterilized black women without their consent did eugenics!" "And what was wrong with what Hitler and those unethical scientists did?" "What do you mean, what was wrong with them? Hitler killed millions of people! Those unethical scientists ruined people's lives." "And does using genetic engineering to cure diseases kill millions of people, or ruin anyone's life?" "Well...not really." "Then what's wrong with it?" "It's eugenics!"

"Evolutionary psychology is sexist!" If you define "sexist" as "believing in some kind of difference between the sexes", this is true of at least some evo psych. For example, Bateman's Principle states that in species where females invest more energy in producing offspring, mating behavior will involve males pursuing females; this posits a natural psychological difference between the sexes. "Right, so you admit it's sexist!" "And why exactly is sexism bad?" "Because sexism claims that men are better than women and that women should have fewer rights!" "Does Bateman's principle claim that men are better than women, or that women should have fewer rights?" "Well...not really." "Then what's wrong with it?" "It's sexist!"

A second, subtler use of the noncentral fallacy goes like this: "X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us an emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that same emotional reaction to X even if X gives some benefit that outweighs the harm."

"Capital punishment is murder!" Charles Manson-style murder is solely harmful. This kind of murder produces really strong negative feelings. The proponents of capital punishment believe that it might decrease crime, or have some other attending benefits. In other words, they believe it's "the good kind of murder"3, just like the introductory example concluded that Martin Luther King was "the good kind of criminal". But since normal murder is so taboo, it's really hard to take the phrase "the good kind of murder" seriously, and just mentioning the word "murder" can call up exactly the same amount of negative feelings we get from the textbook example.

"Affirmative action is racist!" True if you define racism as "favoring certain people based on their race", but once again, our immediate negative reaction to the archetypal example of racism (the Ku Klux Klan) cannot be generalized to an immediate negative reaction to affirmative action. Before we generalize it, we have to check first that the problems that make us hate the Ku Klux Klan (violence, humiliation, divisiveness, lack of a meritocratic society) are still there. Then, even if we do find that some of the problems persist (like disruption of meritocracy, for example) we have to prove that it doesn't produce benefits that outweigh these harms.

"Taxation is theft!" True if you define theft as "taking someone else's money regardless of their consent", but though the archetypal case of theft (breaking into someone's house and stealing their jewels) has nothing to recommend it, taxation (arguably) does. In the archetypal case, theft is both unjust and socially detrimental. Taxation keeps the first disadvantage, but arguably subverts the second disadvantage if you believe being able to fund a government has greater social value than leaving money in the hands of those who earned it. The question then hinges on the relative importance of these disadvantages. Therefore, you can't dismiss taxation without a second thought just because you have a natural disgust reaction to theft in general. You would also have to prove that the supposed benefits of this form of theft don't outweigh the costs.

Now, because most arguments are rapid-fire debate-club style, sometimes it's still useful to say "Taxation isn't theft!" At least it beats saying "Taxation is theft but nevertheless good", then having the other side say "Apparently my worthy opponent thinks that theft can be good; we here on this side would like to bravely take a stance against theft", and then having the moderator call time before you can explain yourself. If you're in a debate club, do what you have to do. But if you have the luxury of philosophical clarity, you would do better to forswear the Dark Arts and look a little deeper into what's going on.

Are there ever cases in which this argument pattern can be useful? Yes. For example, it may be a groping attempt to suggest a Schelling fence; for example, a principle that one must never commit theft even when it would be beneficial because that would make it harder to distinguish and oppose the really bad kinds of theft. Or it can be an attempt to spark conversation by pointing out a potential contradiction: for example "Have you noticed that taxation really does contain some of the features you dislike about more typical instances of theft? Maybe you never even thought about that before? Why do your moral intuitions differ in these two cases? Aren't you being kind of hypocritical?" But this usage seems pretty limited - once your interlocutor says "Yes, I considered that, but the two situations are different for reasons X, Y, and Z" the conversation needs to move on; there's not much point in continuing to insist "But it's theft!"

But in most cases, I think this is more of an emotional argument, or even an argument from "You would look silly saying that". You really can't say "Oh, he's the good kind of criminal", and so if you have a potentially judgmental audience and not much time to explain yourself, you're pretty trapped. You have been forced to round to the archetypal example of that word and subtract exactly the information that's most relevant.

But in all other cases, the proper response to being asked to subtract relevant information is "No, why should I?" - and that's why this is the worst argument in the world.



1: On advice from the community, I have deliberately included three mostly-liberal examples and three-mostly conservative examples, so save yourself the trouble of counting them up and trying to speculate on this article's biases.

2: This should be distinguished from deontology, the belief that there is some provable moral principle about how you can never murder. I don't think this is too important a point to make, because only a tiny fraction of the people who debate these issues have thought that far ahead, and also because my personal and admittedly controversial opinion is that much of deontology is just an attempt to formalize and justify this fallacy.

3: Some people "solve" this problem by saying that "murder" only refers to "non-lawful killing", which is exactly as creative a solution as redefining "criminal" to mean "person who breaks the law and is not Martin Luther King." Identifying the noncentral fallacy is a more complete solution: for example, it covers the related (mostly sarcastic) objection that "imprisonment is kidnapping".

4: EDIT 8/2013: I've edited this article a bit after getting some feedback and complaints. In particular I tried to remove some LW jargon which turned off some people who were being linked to this article but were unfamiliar with the rest of the site.

5: EDIT 8/2013: The other complaint I kept getting is that this is an uninteresting restatement of some other fallacy (no one can agree which, but poisoning the well comes up particularly often). The question doesn't seem too interesting to me - I never claimed particular originality, a lot of fallacies blend into each other, and the which-fallacy-is-which game isn't too exciting anyway - but for the record I don't think it is. Poisoning the well is a presentation of two different facts, such as "Martin Luther King was a plagiarist...oh, by the way, what do you think of Martin Luther King's civil rights policies?" It may have no relationship to categories, and it's usually something someone else does to you as a conscious rhetorical trick. Noncentral fallacy is presenting a single fact, but using category information to frame it in a misleading way - and it's often something people do to themselves. The above plagiarism example of poisoning the well is not noncentral fallacy. If you think this essay is about bog-standard poisoning the well, then either there is an alternative meaning to poisoning the well I'm not familiar with, or you are missing the point.

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I just registered - it redirects to this post, and should be available shortly. Much easier to mention in conversation when other people use this argument, and don't believe it's a "real thing."

Great piece of work, Yvain - it's now on my list of all-time favorite LW posts.

I just registered - it redirects to this post, and should be available shortly. Much easier to mention in conversation when other people use this argument, and don't believe it's a "real thing."

"Real things" have their own domain. I registered this domain, therefore...

Hahaha, nice.

I was imagining a situation in which someone makes an argument of this type, you say something along the lines of "that's a great example of the 'Worst Argument in the World'," and the person replies "you just made that up..." or "that's just your opinion..."

Providing a pre-existing URL that links to a well-written page created by a third-party is a form of evidence that shifts "Worst Argument in the World" from something that feels like an opinion to the title of a logical fallacy. That can be quite useful in certain circumstances.

Exactly! Logical fallacies are bad, and the Worst Argument in the World is a logical fallacy!

(Actually valid because it's a typical, central logical fallacy, not an edge case. If you'd asked me to list the most common logical fallacies even before I saw this post, I'd hope that I'd remember to put argument-by-categorization-of-atypical-cases into the top 10.)

Is not the "Worst Argument in the World" itself a form of categorization (by form of argument), and how can you be sure any given instance of it is not itself an atypical case, that ought not to be compared against the obviously bad =murder or =hitler cases?

and how can you be sure any given instance of it is not itself an atypical case, that ought not to be compared against the obviously bad =murder or =hitler cases?

By checking.

When in the discussion under the well-written page created by a third party the first party openly admits registering the domain in order to use it as argumentum ad verecundiam, the whole thing loses much of its power.

If I debate with someone, he tells me something like "abortion is murder", I point him to and he takes the pain to read the article AND the discussion and sees why/how the domain was registered, I would claim victory in "raising the sanity waterline".

The argument authority of having a domain pointing to may (I hope it'll) increase the chance the person does at least read a bit of the page instead of discarding it, but I doubt it'll do anything into making him/her accepting that the argument is wrong behind that.

OK, that sounds reasonable.
Anyone who visits this page can judge the merits themselves: there's no argument from authority involved. No one is claiming this form of argument is invalid because it's on LW, or because Yvain wrote it, or because it has a catchy name that's published on a website, or because it now has an easy-to-remember URL. I made a simpler citation, nothing more.
"Argumentum ad verecundiam" translates to "argument from authority" in sounding-smart-speak (saving effort of googling for those who come after me) And he doesn't appeal to authority, he's correctly addressing the points made by the theoretical opponent: "you just made that up..." and "that's just your opinion..."
6Eli Tyre5y
The link seems broken? : (
Yeah, I also noticed this a while ago and was quite sad.
I was writing an article and trying to refer to but it appears to be down. Is the registration still valid and/or going to be renewed?

I strongly recommend not punishing people for saying that it's taken them time to learn something.

That's... probably a good idea.


Yvain, here is a challenge. Many of your examples are weak versions of strong right-wing arguments that you do not accept. (by your remark about Schelling fences, it seems you're aware of this). I challenge you to replace each of these examples with a weak version of a strong left-wing argument that you do accept. Since policy debates should not appear one-sided, there should be no shortage of weak arguments "on your side." And it would be an interesting kind of ideological Turing test.

Perhaps I'm wrong about "what side you're on" and you already accept the strong right-wing arguments. In which case you got me, well done!

"X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain features. Therefore, we should judge X as if it also had those features, even though it doesn't."

This is the original definition given for TWAITW. Note that the examples Yvain gave all had the form of: "X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain negative features. Therefore, we should judge X as if it also had those features." However, working with the explicit definition outlined by Yvain, as opposed to the implicit definition used by Yvain, we can easily conjure liberal examples:

  • Abortion is a medical procedure.
  • Pornography is art.
  • Welfare is charity.

Other liberal examples, using Yvain's implicit definition:

  • Homophobia is hatred.
  • The War on Drugs is Prohibition.
  • Pornography is sexist.

However, I am not entirely sure if our capacity to conjure examples matters.

Edit: Changed the free speech examples.

I very much like "Abortion is a medical procedure". It's actually a believable WAitW to make, and has the admirable feature that it completely ignores every aspect of abortion relevant to the debate.

I think the "free speech" examples don't quite have the right form: the central question probably is whether or not pornography or flag burning is free speech, and the conclusion "Flag burning is free speech, therefore it should be legal" is valid if you accept the premise.

I really like "Abortion is a medical procedure". I suspect that we could remove some of the mind-killing by presenting the examples in pairs:

  • Abortion is murder
  • Abortion is a medical procedure
  • Evopsych is sexist
  • Evopsych is science

Hmm, creating these pairs is harder than I thought.

2Ben Pace10y
No problem here. Not even non-central.
Someone uttering this may claim that they are not using the worst argument in the world as defined: They claim that it does have the critical features in question. Even the person they are arguing against may agree that it is equivalent to shouting out loud "My country is a @#$% disgrace! Screw my country!". The disagreement seems to be whether one should be permitted to do that kind of thing.
"Flag burning is freedom" should be a legitimate example along the same lines.
How would you say the War on Some Drugs is different than Prohibition?
Unlike the other examples, this one doesn't really fit the pattern: it's "X is like Y" and not "X belongs to category Y". The difference is that "X is like Y" does not sneak in any connotations; it's well understood that "The War on Drugs is Prohibition" is a rhetorical way of saying "The War on Drugs is very similar to the Prohibition of the 1930s". "Affirmative action is like hanging people just because they're black!" doesn't carry the same sneaky rhetoric as "Affirmative action is racist!"

The challenge is an interesting exercise, and I will try to think up some examples, but your comment also contains an implied accusation which I'd like to respond to first.

By my count, this post includes critiques of four weak right-wing arguments (abortion, euthanasia, taxation, affirmative action) and three weak left-wing arguments (eugenics, sexism, capital punishment). As far as I know, neither side thinks MLK was a criminal. That means I'm 4-3, ie as balanced as it's mathematically possible to get while seven remains an odd number.

And I think the responses I see below justify my choice of examples. Shminux says the pro-choice converse of "abortion is murder" would be "forced pregnancy is slavery"; TGM suggests below it "denying euthanasia is torture". These would be excellent examples of TWAITW if anyone ever asserted them which as far as I know no one ever has. Meanwhile, I continue to walk past signs saying "Abortion Is Murder!" on my way to work every day. I don't know who exactly it would be helping to give "Forced Pregnancy Is Slavery" equal billing with "Abortion Is Murder" here and let my readers conclude that... (read more)

If you can think of left-wing WAITWs that are as well-known and catchy as "abortion is murder!", I will happily edit the post to include them

"Property is theft"

Is an example of the left using the WAITW.

American liberals aren't that kind of left. And Proudhon did mean "property is wrong for the same class of reasons theft is".

Arguments that your stereotypical leftist and stereotypical rightist will both see as bad are the sort of thing that would, ideally, dominate the article.

As a leftist, this seems like a useful exercise. Here are a few claims I've heard more than once from fellow leftists that might qualify.

  • A fetus is a clump of cells.

  • Corporations are not people.

  • Money is not speech.

The first one is a good leftist example of the WAitW... and with a bit of shame I've to admit I used it in the past. I wouldn't say the other two qualify because they are negatives. "X is not Y" is quite different from a rethorical perspective than "X is Y".
Let Y = (Not Z) X is Y. Using this, I'd argue that "Corporations are not people" is somewhat valid as an example of the WAitW, since the idea is to put the emphasis on people, and everything else is just property, things. It puts Corporations in some abstract, undefined category of not-people things that, when phrased appropriately, can carry a strong connotation. I fail to see the connotation in the "not-speech" for the third example though, and I don't quite see how one would use that example to argue against or for money - the label / categorization doesn't seem like it would sway anyone either way.
The money is not speech argument is used (just like the corporations are not people argument) to protest against the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. The claim is that although speech is constitutionally protected, this does not mean that wealthy individuals have the right to spend large amounts of money to get their poltiical views heard (by, say, contributing to SuperPACs). The idea is: although it's true that the government should not be allowed to prevent people from expressing their opinions, the government should be allowed prevent people from spending money to buy ads expressing their opinion because in that case the regulation is on the person's expenditure of money, and money is not speech (or, if you prefer, money is not-speech). I think this is an example of the WAitW. The first amendment gives Americans the right to free speech. Wealthy people claim that this means they can spend their considerable wealth in order to broadcast their opinions. After all, if the government can't restrict my speech, surely that means the government can't prevent me from utilizing my own resources as a medium for that speech. But, the leftist responds, the government can totally prevent wealthy people from doing this, because the wealthy people are spending money in order to get their opinions broadcast, and hey, money is not-speech, so like many other examples of not-speech, restricting its use is not a violation of the Bill of Rights.
Buckley v. Valeo disagrees. More conveniently, it prohibits Congress from regulating the freedom of the press, i.e. the printing press, i.e. the technological means of reproducing ideas so that others may consume them, as in television ads. Which is why I found the Citizens United decision so baffling- the reasoning they used to reach their conclusion was not at all the reasoning I would have used. (But, then again, I would rule the vast majority of laws Congress outputs unconstitutional, which is one of the many reasons I have not been nominated to the Supreme Court.)
7Eliezer Yudkowsky12y
I agree with all three examples as WAITW even if the last two are negative. It's also very rare that you can settle policy questions through the negation of a categorization. Corporations aren't typical people and money isn't typical speech, but neither of those observations settle the policy question or even debate it - these are just slogans.
The negative examples are different because they don't suggest an argument, only a counterargument. If X is an apple then various conclusions (typically/intuitively) follow, for instance, that X is edible. But if X is a non-apple then nothing much follows from that; it only serves to block the apple-->edible argument (and suggest that X is not necessarily edible). "Money is speech" implies that all of the protections that get applied to speech should be applied to spending. If money is not speech, then who knows? Nothing much follows directly from that (it's not as if there's some general principle that things which are non-speech should be banned); it just suggests that we don't necessarily have to apply the speech protections to spending. It's more similar to the "MLK was not a criminal" counterargument than to the "MLK was a criminal" argument (note that being a non-criminal doesn't make someone especially admirable), but it doesn't fall into the trap of being obviously false.

"Profiling is discrimination"

"Racial profiling is racist."

While I can see this argument apply as a sort of justifiable use when humans are doing such profiling, though even in that case I think it should be used sometimes, I find it a bit absurd when applied to say data mining systems. Are we to apply Bayesian reasoning to everything except predictors tied to certain sacralized human traits like gender, dress, class, race, religion and origin? Why don't we feel averse applying it to say age?

"Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell."

To avoid nitpicking that cancer cells have no ideology, I will point out that if they did, they would share the ideology with all life forms on the planet.

"Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of life!"

Doesn't sound as evil no?

seven remains an even number

Either this is a joke or you mean "odd".

You saw nothing!

I think the difference is that the right wing examples are examples of core beliefs that many stereotypical conservatives believe. Thus leftists feel like they are scoring points when they read it. The left examples, however, aren't really core beliefs of the Democratic party. Democrats may lean against capital punishment, but no presidential candidate in my memory has made that a core tenant of eir campaign.

I also think it's wildly generous to suggest eugenics as a leftist issue. I can't remember ever hearing someone seriously suggest that genetic engineering is eugenics. And typically, it's conservatives who are opposed to genetic engineering, generally on the grounds of playing God.

And when I was reading it, MLK got lumped in with conservatives for a number of reasons. First, the strong conservative examples primed me to put it there. Second, the civil rights act was largely pushed for by a Democratic legislature and president. Lastly, African Americans tend to line up with democrats in modern demographics.

The best leftist example I could come up with is "Meat is murder". I think that merits including. Or mixing in with the abortion one.

I was surprised people didn't notice that both the sexism and eugenics arguments where somewhat "right wing". I think a key thing might be that perception of "right" and "left" are tied to the current American political landscape. The important role of religion in it means that conservative politicians don't often make arguments for their policies based on evolutionary psychology or the high heritability of IQ or conscientiousness. The America right seems almost as invested in blank slate notions as the left.
Of course not! MLK was a Communist philanderer. That's worse. ;)
"Arguing against homosexuality is hate speech!". Many anti-queer statements are hate speech, e.g. promotion of murder, but others are along the lines of "People shouldn't act on same-sex attraction because...". Quite a few conservatives complain that the latter form of argument is dismissed as "hate speech", even though "People shouldn't drive SUVs because..." is never taken to mean you hate SUV drivers.
4Scott Alexander12y
So this may be more complicated than I thought, in that all of the examples below seem really bad to me, but that might just be an example of my personal bias. I think if any of them get, let's say, more than ten upvotes I'll assume they're generally agreed to be a good argument and I'll put them in - does that sound like a reasonable bar? That means upvote them if you think they're worthy of inclusion. I was trying to think of further liberal examples, and I think some references to "human rights" might qualify - for example, "health care is a human right". The meaning of "human right" that allows us to assert this seems very poorly defined, whereas the meaning of "human right" that allows us to say that negative rights like free speech are human rights seems well-defined, even though I don't agree with it. So calling health care (or housing, or something) a "human right" might be a way of trying to claim that we should view health care as exactly like free speech, free religion, etc, even though it is quite different in that it requires positive action by other people. I'm not quite willing to include that one just because the total ambiguity in the definition of "human right" makes it pretty hard to pin down exactly how the argument is being made. EDIT: Just saw "Property is theft" has 15 upvotes. Do people think this one should be added?
I'm not fond of any, either. See if you can find something you like here.
It might be easier to come up with examples if you go back to your original definition and note that it allows for categories with positive qualities lending their positive qualities to category members who lack those physical qualities. (Leftist arguments as a rhetorical class are usually phrased in terms of including things in positive categories, whereas rightist arguments are more well-known for including things in negative categories.)
For example, something like "we should support racial diversity because of the benefits of ideological diversity"?
Not quite any wing: the jailed Pussy Riot members should stay behind bars because a killer requested their release. There are similar Western examples with Wikileaks/Anonymous.
Judith Jarvis Thomson? (Well, she didn't use the word slavery but still.) As for the euthanasia-is-torture one, I heard that a lot on the media at the time of Terri Schiavo and similar cases. (Maybe none used the word torture but still.)

I have the impression that (1) when people post things in LW that are politically leftish, it's quite common for them to get a response along these lines -- complaining about leftward bias and suggesting that it should be addressed by a deliberate injection of rightward bias to compensate -- whereas (2) when people post things in LW that are politically rightish, they basically never receive such responses.

I have no statistics or anything to back this up, and it's not clear that there's any feasible way to get (or informatively fail to get) them, so I'd be interested in other opinions about whether this asymmetry is real.

If it is real, it seems to me quite interesting.

(One possible explanation, if it's real, would be that leftish views are much more common here than rightish ones, so that people with rightish views feel ill-treated and want the balance redressed. Except that I think I see distinctly more rightish than leftish political commentary here, and the rightish stuff more often gets large numbers of upvotes. I suppose it's possible that what we have here is a lot of slightly leftish people and a smaller number of rightish ones who feel more strongly. Again, this is probably hard to get a good handle on and I'd be interested in others' impressions.)


Well right wing people are almost certainly a minority here, but don't forget that makes such positions convenient for hipster fun. Some LWers who argue for right wing positions have stated that they feel more and more unwelcome in the past few months. Not only that I think they make a good case for pro left bias being very prevasive on LessWrong. I think what you are seeing is some users trying to correct for it.

I find the fact that both people who see themselves as left leaning and those who see themselves as right leaning suddenly feel there is favouritism for those who disagree with them is a much more worrying sign. I think this is what being on one side of a tribal conflict looks like from the inside.

The most popular political view, at least according to the much-maligned categories on the survey, was liberalism, with 376 adherents and 34.5% of the vote. Libertarianism followed at 352 (32.3%), then socialism at 290 (26.6%), conservativism at 30 (2.8%) and communism at 5 (.5%).

-- Yvain's 2011 survey

I have the impression that (1) when people post things in LW that are politically leftish, it's quite common for them to get a response along these lines -- complaining about leftward bias and suggesting that it should be addressed by a deliberate injection of rightward bias to compensate -- whereas (2) when people post things in LW that are politically rightish, they basically never receive such responses.

My explanation of this perception is that posters, in general, know better than to post rightish things at LW unless they are correct. Every now and then you get a new Objectivist who gets downvoted because they aren't discussing things at a high enough level.

Lots of beliefs that are common on LW are uncomfortable for the stereotypical leftist- like human biodiversity in general. To see someone brazenly state that, yes, there is a difference in measured IQ between the races and that reflects reality rather than our inability to design tests properly, or that men and women are actually neurologically distinct, will seem like a "not my tribe" signal to the stereotypical leftist- but people here don't hold that opinion (as far as I can tell) because of racial or sexual enmity, but because they put evidence above wishful thinking and correct beliefs above politeness.

But now imagine that for the stereotypical rightist. How big of a "not my tribe" signal is atheist materialism and evolution?

I am thinking that one possible asymetry between "the left" and "the right" is that the former is a rather homogenous group, while the latter is heterogenous. The left generally means socialist(-ish), and the right generally means non-socialist. The left is a fuzzy blob in the concept-space, the right seems like a label for points outside of this blob.

As an example, both Ayn Rand and Chesterton would be examples of "the right". What exactly do they have in common? (Religion: the best thing ever, or the worst thing ever? Individual or community? Mystery or reason? The great future or the great past? Selfishness or selflessness? Should women be allowed as leaders? Etc.) The common trait that classifies them both as "the right" is the fact that neither of them is a socialist.

Well, I could also says that neither of them "considers hinduism the best thing ever"... but why should that information be used to classify them? Well, for a hinduist that would be an important information. Then it follows that classifying many diverse views under one label of "the right" makes sense to you mostly if you are a socialist. (Or if being ver... (read more)

I am thinking that one possible asymetry between "the left" and "the right" is that the former is a rather homogenous group, while the latter is heterogenous. [...] The left is a fuzzy blob in the concept-space, the right seems like a label for points outside of this blob.

Beware the out-group homogeneity effect. People tend to see their own group as more heterogeneous than other groups, as differences that look small from far away look bigger up close.

With left and right, I have also heard the exact opposite claim: that the "right" represents a narrower, more coherent group. In the US, the "right" is based in the dominant, mainstream social group (sometimes called "real America"), drawing disproportionately from people who are white, male, Christian, relatively well-off, straight, etc., while the "left" is a coalition of the various groups that are left out of "real America" for one reason or another. Alternatively, conservatives are the people who support the existing social order and want to keep things roughly how they are; liberals are the ones who want change - and there are more degrees of freedom in changing things than in keeping things the same.

This is an interesting point, that one about the left being more homogeneous than the right. I am not sure whether to believe it, so let me present some objections that I can think of, without evaluating their merit.

A) Assuming the left is indeed more homogeneous, isn't it true just because of greater variability of right between different countries, with a typical single country's right being as homogeneous as the same country's left? (The objection hasn't a particularly strong bearing on the perceived LW left/right imbalance, but may be relevant to the more general question of how the categories of left and right are defined.)

The left generally means socialist(-ish), and the right generally means non-socialist.

B) This may not be accurate; beware availability heuristics.

Environmentalists aren't necessarily socialists as their opinions about the optimal economic order aren't the defining part of their ideology and may differ. Yet the environmentalists are usually classified on the left. Anarchists aren't necessarily socialists; many of them oppose any form of organised society, while archetypal socialism is a very organised society, from many points of view more than market ca... (read more)

I don't think that quite described the US, or Western Europe - the stereotypical redneck is low-status but on the right (same for ploucs here in France), and buying organic food seems to be more common with the rich, but is associated to the left. A better description of the left/right gap may be that each represents a status ladder, and that people support the status ladder on which they have the best relative position. The details of what counts tend to vary with time and place, but on the left you tend to get status for being educated, open-minded, environmentally aware, original, etc., and on the right you tend to get status for being rich, responsible, having a family, being loyal to your country, etc. At least, that angle of approach seems better than looking at policies; if you compare the policies of the French left and the American left, the policies might seem so different that they don't deserve the same label; but if you compare the kind of people who support either parties, the similarities are much more apparent.
I have a notion that in the US, left-wingers tend to focus on defection by high-status people and right-wingers tend to focus on defection by low-status people.
But there are any number of sub-varieties of socialism, so it is itself a fuzzy blob. Moreover, the non-right in many countries, particularly the US, barely has a whiff of classical socialism, Who is advocating a centrally planned economy or worker control of production in the US? It's a standing joke in Europe that the US has two parties of the right. That's "perception" of course. It's also a US perception that public healthcare "is" socialism -- the idea is seen as mainstream and cross-party elsewhere. What is going on is that the right have this convenient label "socialist" to lambast the non-right with, and the non-right don't have a corresponding term to hit back with. That doesnt mean anything about ideaspace.
About as big as "human biodiversity" is for a leftist. I think you are severely underestimating the strength of conviction among people whose beliefs disagree with your own, or the extent to which these are moral disagreements, rather than exclusively factual.

I've posted such complaints about left wing bias, so I'll elaborate on my impressions.

I perceive the left wing comments come with much more of an implicit assumption by the poster, and the respondents to it, of the moral superiority of left wing positions, and that all attending will see it the same way.

Most of the non left wing views don't seem to me to come with that presumption on the part of the speaker that everyone here shares their moral evaluation. If anything, the tone is of someone who expects to be taken as a crank.

The liberals are more generally accustomed to being in an ideologically homogeneous environment while the libertarians are accustomed to being in the minority, and both speak with a tone appropriate to the general environment, and not to the particular environment here, where liberals and libertarians are equally represented.

For my part, I also find instances where the absent conservatives are caricatured and snickered at, again with the presumption that all right thinking folk agree, and the bile rises in the gorge, and I feel the need to respond.

Isn't that reasonable though? If you're a X-winger, isn't the whole point that X-wing positions are in fact morally superior?

Isn't that reasonable though? If you're a X-winger, isn't the whole point that X-wing positions are in fact morally superior?

Morally superior perhaps, but they lack the hull plating and durability to survive ongoing combat and the offensive payload pales in comparison to what the Y-wing can deliver.

The Y-wing was an outdated piece of junk even by the Battle of Yvain; that's why the Rebels had it at all. The X-wing's proton torpedoes deliver the hurt when necessary (just ask Tarkin or Ysanne Isard), and if you want more than that, well, that's what the B-wings are for... Between them and the A-wing, there is simply no role for Y-wings at any point - except cannon bait!

Shouldn't that be spelled "canon bait"? Heh.
Assuming that everyone would see it the same way when manifestly they do not is just an empirical mistake. Yes, everyone think's their position is right, but not everyone speaks to audiences who disagree with them expecting them all to agree.

What is the strong version of "taxation is theft", for example? I can recall arguments against taxation stronger than this, of course, but none of them I would consider a version of the "taxation is theft" argument.

As for the arguments mentioned in the OP, "taxation is theft", "abortion is murder" and "euthanasia is murder" are typically right-wing, "affirmative action is racist" is also probably right-wing (although general accusations of racism fit better into the left wing arsenal) while "capital punishment is murder", "ev-psych is sexist" and "genetic engineering is eugenics" sound quite leftist to me. Not sure about "M.L.King was a criminal", but the examples seem balanced with respect to the stereotypical left/right division. With respect to Yvain's opinions the choice might be less balanced, of course.

Simple: "taxation is theft and is also just as wrong as mugging because 1) the supposed benefits of government programs aren't really there and 2) majority voting doesn't make mugging any better than theft by a gang of robbers is better than theft by a single robber." All of these arguments can be made stronger by specifying the reasons you should ignore the major differences between the moral issue in question and the archetypal example's.
Well I can give you one example. Neoclassical economics makes a pretense of being neutral about how resources are distributed. The focus is instead on the absolute amount of resources. As I think Steven Landsburg puts it, taxes are no fun to pay, but they are fun to collect. The problem is that taxes can be avoided, and that resources put into avoiding taxes (and collecting them) are wasted. There is an identical economic argument against theft: the issue isn't that the thief deserves to have the painting less than the museum, it's that resources the museum puts into defending the painting (and that the thief puts into procuring it) are wasted. Naturally that is a criticizable line of reasoning, but it gave me a lot to think about the first time I heard it.
But private property also requires resources to defend it (which are wasted like the ones to collect taxes), so in fact, neoclassical economics agree with Proudhon that "property is theft" ? :)
I think the standard rejoinder is that private property incurs greater benefits than the general cost of securing it, owing to true "tragedy of the commons" type situations it attempts to avoid.
Agreed that the anti-capital-punishment stance exemplified by "capital punishment is murder" is more attached to the American left than the American right, as are accusations of sexism in general (including but not limited to those applied to evo-psych). "Genetic engineering is eugenics" seems trickier to me. In the U.S. at the moment, I'd say Republican voters are more likely to endorse a "science can't be trusted" argument than Democratic ones, and Democratic voters are more likely to endorse a "corporations can't be trusted" argument than Republican ones. "Genetic engineering is eugenics" can be spun both ways, I think. That is, if I wanted to convince a randomly selected Democratic voter to vote against genetic engineering, I could use rhetoric along the lines of "evil corporations want to use genetic engineering techniques to breed a so-called superior race of food crops, which will eradicate the food crops ordinary consumers know and trust and leave us at their mercy. Don't let them get away with it!" pretty effectively. (Though less effectively than they could have 30 years ago.) If I wanted to convince a randomly selected Republican voter, I could use similar rhetoric with "corporations" replaced by "scientists" and "consumers" replaced by "ordinary people". Both of those, I think, would be invoking the spectre of eugenics, the only change would be how the eugenicists are characterized... that is, are they elite academic eugenicists, or greedy corporate eugenicists? All of that said, I endorse eugenics, so I'm probably not a reliable source of information about the rhetorical charge of these words for the mainstream.
Different perspectives, probably. In most European countries, I dare to say, everything associated with genetics is suspect to the left and the left also more often sides with the anti-science rhetoric in general. This is partly because the European right-wingers are less religious than in the U.S. (although I have heard creationism had become political issue in Serbia few years ago) and perhaps somehow related to the differences between Continental and analytic philosophy, if such intellectual affairs have real influence over practical politics.
Yeah, that's been a significant shift over the last few decades in the U.S. There's still a significant anti-scientific religious faction within the American left (New Agers and such) but they've been increasingly joined by factions that thirty/forty years ago would have been considered right, making the coalition as a whole a lot more secular than it was. Meanwhile the right's power base has increasingly moved towards more rural states, and the . anti-scientific religious faction within the American right (evangelical Christians and such) have gained more relative power within it. Three or four decades ago I think were were more aligned with the European model. I have no idea whether the distinctions between continental and analytic philosophy have anything to do with it, and am inclined to doubt that the philosophical schism is causal if so, but I'd love to hear arguments supporting the idea.
I would tend to put "Genetic engineering is eugenics" in as a left-wing argument, because the left seems more likely to compare the right to Nazis, call them racist, etc. (with the right, of course, comparing the left to Stalin). But on the other hand the American Right seems to have been up in arms about "Death Panels" or something, so I gotta admit I'm uncertain; I don't follow the minutiae of politics on your side of the Atlantic.
Yeah, I think in a global context I would agree with you. The U.S. Left and Right are at this point their own beasts. Also, at this point in the U.S., pretty much everyone compares everyone else to Hitler, and pretty much nobody remembers exactly who Stalin was. Actually, I suspect that >60% of the population, if asked whether the Soviet Union was allied with the U.S. or with Nazi Germany during WWII, would state confidently that it was allied with Nazi Germany.
But it was, for a time at least!
I would say that "USSR was an ally of Nazi Germany for a time" is an example of WAitW. They had a non-aggression pact for a while, but both side knew it was just a matter of time before they will fight each other, and they didn't do anything to actually help the other - USSR mostly used all the bought time to prepare itself for war against Nazi Germany. For borderline values of "ally" you can call them allies, but that's sneaking in the usual connotation of being allies (actively helping each others) which was just not present.
I thought the standard left-wing argument against genetic engineering was that only the rich will be able to afford it, with an implication that the rich will be able to unfairly stabilize their advantages.

I don't understand how you get from "policy debates should not appear one-sided" to "there should be no shortage of weak arguments 'on your side'". Especially if you replace the latter with "there should be no shortage of weak arguments of this sort on your side" -- which is necessary for the challenge to be appropriate -- since there could be correlations between a person's political position and which sorts of fallacies are most likely to infect their thinking.

In particular, I predict WAITW use to be correlated with explicit endorsement of sanctity-based rather than harm-based moral values, and we've recently been talking about how that might differ between political groups.

I think this is because of the way you're deconstructing the arguments. In each case, the features you identify which supposedly make us dislike the arcetypal cases are harm-based features. Someone who believed in sanctity instead might identify the category as a value in itself. Attempts to ascribe utilitarian-style values to them, which they supposedly miss the local inapplicability of, risks ignoring what they actually value.

If people genuinely do think murder is wrong simply because it is murder, rather than because it causes harm, then this is not a bad argument.

9Scott Alexander12y
Absent any reason to do so, disliking all murders simply because they are murders makes no more sense than disliking all elephants simply because they are elephants. You can choose to do so without being logically inconsistent, but it seems like a weird choice to make for no reason. Did you just arbitrarily choose "murder" as a category worthy of dislike, whether or not it causes harm? At the risk of committing the genetic fallacy, I would be very surprised if their choice of murder as a thing they dislike for its own sake (rather than, say, elephants) had nothing to do with murder being harmful. And although right now I am simply asserting this rather than arguing it, I think it's likely that even if they think they have a deductive proof for why murder is wrong regardless of harm, they started by unconsciously making the WAITW and then rationalizing it. But I agree that if they do think they have this deductive proof, screaming "Worst argument in the world!" at them is useless and counterproductive; at that point you address the proof.
Absent any reason to do so, disliking instances of harm simply because they are instances of harm makes no more sense than disliking all elephants simply because they are elephants. I don't want to assume any metaethical baggage here, but I'm not sure why "because it is an instance of harm" is an acceptable answer but "because it is an instance of theft" is not.

Keeping your principle of ignoring meta-ethical baggage, dis-valuing harm only requires one first principle, whereas dis-valuing murder, theft, elephants, etc require an independent (and apparently arbitrary) decision at each concept. Further, it's very suspicious that this supposedly arbitrary decision almost always picks out actions that are often harmful when there are so very many things one could arbitrarily decide to dislike.

This sounds like the debate about ethical pluralism - maybe values are sufficiently complex that any one principle can't capture them. If ethical pluralism is wrong, then they can't make use of this argument. But then they have a very major problem with their metaethics, independant of the WAitW. And what is more, once they solve the problem - getting a single basis for their ethics - they can avoid your accusation, by saying that actually avoiding theft is the sole criteria, and they're not trying to sneak in irrelivant conotations. After all, if theft was all that mattered, why would you try to sneak in connotations about harm? Also, I think you're sneaking in conotations when you use "arbitrary". Yes, such a person would argue that our aversion to theft isn't based on any of our other values; but your utilitarian would probably claim the same about their aversion to harm. This doesn't seem a harmful (pun not intended) case of arbitrariness. Contrariwise, they might find it very suspicious that your supposedly arbitrary decision as to what is harmful so often picks out actions that constitute theft to a libertarian (e.g. murder, slavery, breach of contract, pollution, trespass, wrongful dismissal...) when there are so very many things one could arbitrarily decide to dislike.
This line of argument seems to err away from the principle that you can't unwind yourself into an ideal philosopher of perfect emptiness. You're running on hardware that is physically, through very real principles that apply to everything in the universe, going to react in a certain averse manner to certain stimuli to which we could assign the category label "harm". This is commonly divided into "pain", "boredom", etc. It is much more unlikely (and much more difficult to truly explain) that a person would, based on such hardware, somehow end up with the terminal value that some abstract, extremely solomonoff-complex interpretation of conjointed mental and physical behaviors is bad - in contrast with reflective negative valuation of harm-potentials both in self and in others (the "in others" being reflected as "harm to self when harm to other members of the tribe"). Then again, I feel like I'm diving in too deep here. My instinct is to profess and worship my ignorance of this topic.
5Eliezer Yudkowsky12y
Shouldn't there never be a shortage of weak arguments for anything? Strong arguments can always be weakened. / Isn't there enough chance of finding a weak argument to at least make it worth trying? You never know, you might find a weak argument somewhere.

I have tried constructing a pro-choice example similar to "Abortion is murder!" ("Forced pregnancy is slavery!"???), but it ended up pretty unconvincing. Hopefully someone can do better:

Leaving rape cases aside, the archetypal example is an unwanted teenage pregnancy due to defective or improperly used birth control or simply an accident. Forcing her into letting the embryo develop into a fetus and eventually into a human baby would likely make the woman significantly worse off in the long run, financially, physically and/or emotionally, so she should have an option of terminating the pregnancy.

An example a pro-life person thinks of: aborting a healthy fetus, possibly in the second trimester, as a habitual birth control method.

I find "Forced parenthood is slavery!" to be pretty convincing, actually. Though I may be prejudiced by having grown up around a Libertarian father (now, alas, more Republican(!??)) who went about proclaiming that jury duty was slavery.

Does this qualify as "a weak version of a strong left-wing argument that you do accept"?
"Denying euthanasia is Torture!" Given the majority of legislators are male, for abortion: "Forced pregnancy is mysogyny!" though that may be too tenuous.
It seems to me that the left-wing slogan "My body, my choice!" and its variations are a version of the WAitW. Although the slogan itself doesn't follow the "X is a Y" format, its underlying argument does: it asserts something like, "This fetus is a part of my body; I am entitled to do whatever I choose with any part of my body; therefore, I am entitled to do whatever I choose with this fetus." This version of the WAitW emphasizes the similarity between a fetus and other parts of a woman's body (the part in question is inside her; the part in question is made up of her cells; etc.) while ignoring the relevant differences (most of her body parts, if left to their own devices, will not go on to have their own life outside her body, while the fetus will; most of her body parts have no potential for sentience or moral agency, while the fetus does; etc.) By equating the fetus with her body parts, the argument implies that the fetus is MERELY a part of a woman's body. While most people will agree that a fetus is technically part of its mother's body, I think most people will also agree that a fetus is not morally equivalent to a woman's liver, kidneys, or small intestine. "My body, my choice!" conceals this inequivalence.
The boundaries are inherently fuzzy and ill-defined, but I count 5 right wing arguments and 3 left wing arguments. Doesn't seem too unbalanced.
Excellent idea. It would be beneficial to how the community deals with politics, something that I've been very concerned about recently, to see this written out.
Off the top of my head: Economic inequality is an unequal distribution of resources. The most salient example of this is an unequal distribution of resources that all have equal claim to, like a pie a parent bakes for their children. But [various convincing arguments in favor of at least some economic inequality.] War is killing, which is bad because murder is bad. (Or eating meat, or capital punishment.) Gay marriage is good because it's a right, and the most salient rights are good. Welfare is good because it's a form of helping people, and helping people in ways that don't produce bad incentive effects and without taking from anyone else is good. Processed food is bad because putting the most salient synthetic chemicals in food would be a really bad idea. Note that "genetic engineering to cure diseases is eugenics" and "evolutionary psychology is sexist" are probably left-wing viewpoints, though not ones Yvain agrees with.
ISTM that categorizing many of those as "Left-wing viewpoints" or "Right-wing viewpoints" is a strong category error, one that we should attempt to reduce rather than redraw or blue boundaries. "Evolutionary psychology is sexist" is, afaict, a word error. It is not a position, but an implicit claim: "Because evolutionary psychology is sexist, it is bad, and thus evolutionary psychology is wrong!" - this is usually combined (in my experience) with an argument that the world is inherently good and that all humans are inherently equal and so on, which means that theories that posit "unfair" or "bad" circumstances are wrong; the world must be "good" and "fair". Stereotypicalism would call for a reference to religion here.

It may be a word error - I don't think it is, "Evolutionary psychology is riddled with false claims produced by sexist male scientists and rationalized by the scientists even though the claims are not at all well-supported compared to nonsexist alternatives" is a coherent and meaningful description of a way the universe could be but isn't, and is therefore false, not a word error - but if so, it's a word-error made by stereotypically left-wing people like Lewontin and Gould who were explicitly political in their criticism, not a word-error made by any right-wing scientists I can think of offhand.

In general, we should be careful about dismissing claims as meaningless or incoherent, when often only a very reasonable and realistic amount of charity is required to reinterpret the claim as meaningful and false - most people are trying to be meaningful most of the time, even when they're rationalizing a wrong position. Only people who've gotten in a lot more trouble than that are actively trying to avoid letting their arguments be meaningful. And meaningless claims can be dismissed immediately, without bringing forth evidence or counterobservations; meaningful false claims require more demonstration to show they're false. So when somebody brings a false claim, and you dismiss it as meaningless, you're actually being significantly logically rude to them - putting in less effort than they're investing - it takes more effort to bring forth a meaningful false claim than to call something 'meaningless'.

I dislike accusations of sexism as much as the next guy, but in the last year or two I have started to think that ev-psych is way overconfident. The coarse grained explanation is that ev-psych seems to be "softer" than regular psychology, which itself is "softer" than medicine, and we all know what percentage of medical findings are wrong. I'd be curious to learn what other LWers think about this, especially you, because your writings got me interested in ev-psych in the first place.

As in about the likelihood of certain kinds of explanations?
3Eliezer Yudkowsky12y
Can't think anything without a concrete example.
I am going to rehearse saying this in a robotic voice, while spinning round and round flailing my arms in a mechanical fashion.
Can you put it up on Youtube when you're done?
Off the top of my head:
So far as I know, the association of pink with girls and blue with boys is a western custom which only goes back a century or so.
Response to old post: Appears to be an urban legend. Summary: Checking Google Books shows lots of references to pink for girls/blue for boys, and no references to the opposite, going back to the 19th century. Note: Wikipedia links to this article, but summarizes it in a way which makes it sound much weaker than it really is.
This seems like a qualitative argument, when a quantitative argument would be more interesting. Who is the John Ioannidis of evolutionary psychology? Or, what research has been published that has later turned out to be false? (Also, why do you dislike accusations of sexism? Shouldn't you only dislike false accusations of sexism?)
I dislike accusations of sexism for the same reason I dislike accusations of any other negative behavior. Those accusations signal either sexism or false accusations of sexism, both of which are net negatives to me.
4Paul Crowley12y
This is a worthy steel-manning when trying to reach an accurate conclusion about ev-psych, but I think you give the typical person who claims "ev-psych is sexist" too much credit here.
Natasha Walter makes the argument that Eliezer refers to in Living Dolls (not really about ev-psych, but about the idea of innate differences between genders in abilities), and I'm sure there are other examples (I haven't actually read all that much feminist writing). However, I have also encountered people who won't even discuss the issue with anyone who is pro-ev psych because they think that they're so morally appalling. Not sure how typical the people I'm encountered are though - I suspect they may be more extreme than most, and the most extreme people are the loudest.
8Paul Crowley12y
There's definitely a temptation to identify a belief we agree with with its best advocates, and a belief we disagree with with its typical advocates. I definitely see this when people talk about how stupid eg "the left/right" is. I may be encouraging that error...
Thorium reactors are a nuclear technology. OK, I don't accept that one, but it's left wing.
Support/opposition to nuclear technology seems pretty orthogonal with left/right to me. The anti-nuclear left tend to be more pro-solar/wind/hydro instead, while the anti-nuclear right more pro-oil/coal/gas instead, but there are pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear is both "sides". Even in a country like France where we have like a dozen of significant political parties, all the parties but one (the greens) have internal disagreement about nuclear energy in general. That said, yes, "thorium is nuclear" is a good example of TWAITW.
3Paul Crowley12y
It feels to me that until recently the pro-nuclear left was a very small faction, but growing with the likes of George Monbiot passionately switching over.
Depends where, here in France, of the 4 left-wing parties (PS, PCF, Les Verts and PG) two (PS and PCF) are mostly in favor of nuclear energy, the two others (Les Verts and PG) mostly against it, while all but Les Verts are internally split. But that may also be because France has a strong nuclear industry, and the left-wing parties tend to be friendly with the unions, and the unions defend nuclear energy because it creates jobs (both for our own energy and because we export nuclear technology).
Thanks for the link to Caplan's post, it's a very nice thought experiment. How about a thread where right-wing folks can give their strongest versions of left-wing arguments and vice versa, all the while quietly laughing about each other's misconceptions but not stepping in to correct? I could give it a try, as a right-winger imitating a left-winger, but I'd probably just embarrass myself.

You know who else made arguments? Hitler.

No, Hitler didn't make arguments, he made assertions; and you know what else was an assertion? Your comment!

I purposefully use this version of worst argument in the world when talking about homosexuality/homophobia or atheism, etc.: You know who else didn't like gay people / atheists / Communists? Hitler
Time for the meta: You know who else uses versions of the worst argument in the world when talking about relevant topics? Dark Lords.

I love the article, but this is a bad name for a fallacy, as it hinders neutral discussion of its relative badness compared to other fallacies.

If I could pick a name, I'd probably choose something like "tainting categorization".

it hinders neutral discussion of its relative badness compared to other fallacies

Not only that, but it is also non-descriptive.

The philosophers beat you to it:
I don't think that name is very descriptive and is also hard to say. On the other hand I like the initial example use on Wikipedia, regarding surgeons, because it's an apolitical one that nobody actually believes. (or at least it is today. It could be that Artistotle was writing at a time when surgery was very new and not widely accepted, and many people made derogatory comments like calling surgeons butchers. Especially considering that surgery in those days was probably super-dangerous so a lot of people would die on the operating table and the increased survival rates would be hard to see. But for the present day it works great.) On the other hand, the Wikipedia page fails to give any indication of how prevalent the fallacy is, which political examples are probably required for, as Yvain pointed out. But the surgery one might be optimal as a replacement for the MLK example in the first section, pointing out how absurd the fallacy is, before going into political examples to show how common it is.
I'd choose something like "the fallacy of naive deduction" because it reminds me of those awful proofs that the Greeks used to write which were essentially just the premises that contained their hidden assumptions, and then extremely simple deductions which followed straightforwardly from the premises.

I don't see what this has to do with "loss aversion" (the phenomenon where people think losing a dollar is worse than failing to gain a dollar they could have gained), though that's of course a tangential matter.

The point here is -- and I say this with all due respect -- it looks to me like you're rationalizing a decision made for other reasons. What's really going on here, it seems to me, is that, since you're lucky enough to be part of a physical community of "similar" people (in which, of course, you happen to have high status), your brain thinks they are the ones who "really matter" -- as opposed to abstract characters on the internet who weren't part of the ancestral environment (and who never fail to critique you whenever they can).

That doesn't change the fact that this is is an online community, and as such, is for us abstract characters, not your real-life dinner companions. You should be taking advice from the latter about running this site to about the same extent that Alicorn should be taking advice from this site about how to run her dinner parties.

Do you have advice on how to run my dinner parties?

Vaniver and DaFranker have both offered sensible, practical, down-to-earth advice. I, on the other hand, have one word for you: Airship.

Not plastics?
Consider eating Roman-style to increase the intimacy / as a novel experience. Unfortunately, this is made way easier with specialized furniture- but you should be able to improvise with pillows. As well, it is a radically different way to eat that predates the invention of the fork (and so will work fine with hands or chopsticks, but not modern implements).
Consider seating logistics, and experiment with having different people decide who sits where (or next to whom). Dinner parties tend to turn out differently with different arrangements, but different subcultures will have different algorithms for establishing optimal seating, so the experimentation is usually necessary (and having different people decide serves both as a form of blinding and as a way to turn up evidence to isolate the algorithm faster).

signal your outgroup hatred with a downvote and move on.

Downvoted because I don't find it appropriate to uncharitably interpret the meaning of any downvotes one receives, and certainly not out loud and in advance.

It's bad when people use the dictionary to make political arguments, but it's worse when they write their own dictionary. For example:

  • Normal people define "selfishness" as "taking care of oneself, even if that means hurting other people." Objectivists define "selfishness" as "taking care of oneself, but never hurting other people." Hence, selfishness can never morally objectionable.

  • Normal people define "sexism" as "unfair treatment of a person based on their sex." Feminists define "sexism" as "unfair treatment of a person based on their sex, but it only counts if their sex has been historically disadvantaged." Hence, men can never be victims of sexism.

  • Normal people define "freedom" as "the ability to do a lot of stuff." Catholics define freedom as "the ability to do as God wishes." Hence, laws enforcing Catholic norms are pro-freedom.

Objectivists define "selfishness" as "taking care of oneself, but never hurting other people."

Not to mention that they define "hurting" as "damaging or destroying other's life, health or property by direct action" where normal people understand the word much more broadly.

Normal people define "true" as "good enough; not worth looking at too closely". Nerds define "true" as "irrefutable even by the highest-level nerd you are likely to encounter in this context." Hence more or less all of Western philosophy, theology, science, etc.; and hence normal people's acceptance that contradictory things can be "true" at the same time.

(Yes, I'm problematizing your contrast between various groups you dislike and "normal people".)

and hence normal people's acceptance that nerd-contradictory things can be normal-"true" at the same time.

Namespaced that for you.

People need to do that more often!
This is relevant to the discussion below of the second bullet point--however it resonates well regardless and I wouldn't change it unless you had something else that felt like part of the same tribe.

Long time ago, me and my sockpuppet lonelygirl15, we was scrollin' down a long and boring thread. All of a sudden, there shined a shiny admin... in the middle... of the thread.

And he said, "Give a reason for your views, or I'll ban you, troll."

Well me and lonely, we looked at each other, and we each said... "Okay."

And we said the first thing that came to our heads, Just so happened to be, The Worst Argument in the World, it was the Worst Argument in the World.

Look into my brain and it's easy to see This A is B and that B is C, So this A is C. My heuristic isn't justified But I know it's right 'cause of how it feels From the inside...

I want to respond to James G's critique of this post. First because it was pretty intense, second because I usually enjoy reading his blog, and third because maybe other people have the same objection. I'm doing it here because his blog is closed to comments.

There is no basis to allege that everyone who says, “affirmative action is racist” is trying to position “affirmative action” in the very heart of the “racism” cluster. Clusters-in-thingspace, especially nebulous ones like “racism”, are huge volumes. That affirmative action belongs somewhere in this volume, rather than well outside, is a claim worth making even if affirmative action isn’t a central member...Affirmative action is racist!” draws attention to a cartographic error. “Affirmative action” shouldn’t be remote from “racism”; it is a marginal member of the racism cluster.

I would ask James why exactly we're trying to create a "racism" cluster to begin with. Are we ontologists who place things in categories for fun in our spare time? If so, his cartographic metaphor is apt; we're just trying to draw a map of conceptspace and we should be politely reminded that "affirmative action" is in the wrong pa... (read more)

I want to eventually retitle this "Guilt by Association Fallacy" (or something)

Please do! Please do! "The Worst Argument in the World" is the Worst Name for an Argument in the World. It's like someone describing a film as "the best film ever made", when all it is is the most recent one they saw that made a big impression.

And while I'm on the subject, "Fundamental Attribution Error" is just as bad. Could people practice calling it the Trait Attribution Error instead?

Agreed. For me it brings to mind Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" segment, which is not a good sign. It's not so bad if it's done with a wink in a one-off blog post, but I wouldn't want it to stick or be used more widely. "Worst Argument in the World" seems like a particularly inappropriate label here, because it's generous to even call these sorts of slogans "arguments." Saying "Abortion is murder!" or "Evolutionary psychology is sexist!" is, at best, a vague gesture in the direction of an argument. There may be a coherent argument somewhere in that approximate direction, but if all you're doing is attaching a one-word label ("it's murder!") and leaving the rest implicit then you're probably just talking to System 1 (activating emotions and associations). As a dismissive put-down of this tactic, "that's not even an argument" seems more apt than "that's the worst argument in the world."
Is the argument "refusing to donate to Africa is like refusing to rescue a drowning kid" an instance of the WAITW?
I don't think it's a case of the WAITW as Singer lays it out, though it's easy to see how the argument would go if it were. All the work of Singer's argument is to adress and argue against the idea that there are important differences between those two cases. The WAITW characteristically tries to skip that work.
That's a great answer, but did Singer eliminate all the potentially important differences? Carl Shulman has a nice post pointing out one such difference, and there may be others. It looks like detecting instances of WAITW can be difficult and controversial.
Well, I think the fact that Singer explicitly tries to tackle the problem of 'important differences' takes him out of range of the WAITW. At that point, if he fails, then his argument doesn't work. But he's not therefore doing something like 'abortion is murder'. Edit: I just read Shulman's argument, and I think it's invalid. The fact that the drowning child and distant starving child cases differ in those respects relevant to various 'selfish' ends isn't strictly relevant to the question of their moral relationship.
The cat's sort of out of the bag on that one. Not quite. Oftentimes, this sort of argument is deployed to point out contradictions or hypocrisy in the other person's position. For example, I know a number of people who call themselves anti-racists. I have been unable to find a difference between their "anti-racism" and "racism against whites," and so the statement "affirmative action is racist" highlights that hypocrisy of the name more than it is a fervent appeal against their dislike of racism. (If they actually disliked the practice of judging by racial membership, I expect they wouldn't be racist against whites.)
James_G responded to this here.

Related to: List of public drafts on LessWrong

Draft of a critical response to this article

  1. The worst argument in the world already has a different name. Philosophers call it the logical fallacy of Accident.

  2. Calling out the worst argument in the world is not useful in practice. It is really hard to stop it from being a fully general counterargument against any high level abstract argument. The article seems to hold that for communication to work properly all statements must refer to “archetypes”, central members of a cluster in thing space. If so, this conflicts with the very idea of parsing reality into clusters-in-thingspace, which is inevitable. Every cluster, being a cluster and not a point, has more and less central members. If arbitrarily marginal members of clusters are invalid members, arbitrarily many things said by humans are The Worst Argument In The World. To banish statements that don’t locate one cluster-in-thingspace right into the centre of another cluster-in-thingspace is faulty, especially when the statements are slogans and the words highly abstract. To use it properly you have to come up with an argument that shows that either the rule or generalization you ar

... (read more)
I think the most critical response to the worst argument in the world is that so many people are misunderstanding it (it was better explained on Yvain's blog where he didn't speak in LessWrongese). However, you are right that it is the logical fallacy of accident (as it is probably a form or child or parent of various other types of fallacies), but it's been put in LessWrong's clothes like Yudkowsky has done with other existing biases and fallacies, as such it assumes the LWian worldview and thus imports some nuances which kilobug partly noted. To your second point, no line is ever drawn on what thing inside cluster-space is outside of the cluster for a given argument. Instead, the entire cluster is banished. Instead, you must argue for the tautology of which the cluster represents (e.g., murder cluster = tautologically bad), and even that's assuming the cluster should be noncontinuous tautologies (shouldn't things farther away from the center of the murder cluster be less bad?). This is no different than the philosophical process of unpacking statements to avoid begging the question.
2Scott Alexander11y
Can you explain what part on my blog you thought was better, so I can maybe replace it here?
Inference and context are annoyingly important in communication; you start off on the blog by making your definition more personal while on LW it's more abstract and thereby it doesn't convey your intention as well (although, it should be inferred from the rest of the post). It's kinda the same throughout the LessWrong post. Blog: "If we can apply an emotionally charged word to something, we must judge it exactly the same as a typical instance of that emotionally charged word." LW: "X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain features. Therefore, we should judge X as if it also had those features, even though it doesn't." Suggestion: Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend about slavery. My friend said, "you know, capitalism is evil." I replied, "Why is that?" He said, "You see, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines slavery as 'submission to a dominating influence' which clearly includes working for a wage, so therefore capitalism is slavery!" I said, "you mean like slavery-slavery? Whips and shackles?" He said, "sure, see working for a wage is clearly submitting to a dominating influence, so it's slavery all the same. But let's not get into semantics..." If David Stove can unilaterally declare a Worst Argument, then so can I. I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: "X is in a category whose prototypical member has certain features. Therefore, let's presuppose X has all of those same features."
A pretty bad argument is this widespread idea that one should never "get into semantics", even if that is what is causing problems. Many even use "semantics" to mean something like "pointless pedantry". I can remember when semantics was a respectable academic discipline...
Amen to this. Indeed, I fear that an actual majority of "people out there" may have no idea that "semantics" means anything other than "pointless pedantry". Actually, though semantics is perhaps the hardest hit, this is a general phenomenon, afflicting many unfortunate disciplines. You might call it the Argument from Circumscription of Subject Matter, or the "...But That Would Get Us Into X" Fallacy. Essentially, it goes like this: "that line of inquiry can't possibly be relevant, because it comes under the heading of a different academic discipline from the one our discussion falls under". It is particularly common (and insidious) when the "other" discipline has some kind of "bad" reputation for some reason (as in the case of semantics, which is evidently regarded as "pointless pedantry"). As a fictional (yet particularly illustrative) example of this fallacy, one could imagine EY and his colleagues at SIAI a decade ago saying "Well, we could worry about making sure future AI is Friendly, but....that would get us into philosophy [which is notoriously difficult, and not techno-programmer-sounding, so we won't]." To which the response, of course, is: "So it would. What's your point?"
I have even been in a conversation (with some MENSAns) where the primary subject was actually the meaning of a particular word. One person tried to support his position by retorting that the other person's argument was "just semantics". Well, obviously, yes. But that's a literal description of the subject matter, not an excuse to use "Hah! Semantics!" as a general counterargument! (Not that I endorse the conversation itself as especially useful, just that "Semantics! My side wins!" is very different to "Semantics! Let's not have this conversation".)
Minor wording point: labelling point 2 as "The worst argument in the world is not a useful argument in practice" sounds like you're about to attack the WAitW, when you're actually warning against labelling things as the WAitW. It might be less ambiguous to relabel point 2 as "Calling out the worst argument in the world is not useful in practice" or something similar.
Obvious fix. Thank you!
I see a (subtle but significant) difference between Aristotle version and Yvain version. In Aristotle version, it goes like "doing A is X", "B does A" so "B is X". That's wrong, because (but Aristotle didn't know it) words are not precise definitions but fuzzy clusters. That's the main for which the "fallacy of accident" is a fallacy. And surgeons are not criminals. The Yvain version is much more subtle. It acknowledges that words are fuzzy clusters, not fixed definitions. And that you can, without it being a fallacy (unlike in the first case) make claim like "abortion is murder" or "death penalty is murder". But that even if that claim can be make (even if we can consider them to be part of the fuzzy cluster) it's still a fallacy to use it as an argument, because while they are part of the cluster, they only share some of the problems that a typical member of the cluster has. Now, if you consider my own point of view on those issues (but it could symmetric) : I'm pro-choice and against the death penalty. The WAitW idea is that I shouldn't argue for the right to abortion by trying to prove "abortion is not murder" and against the death penalty by trying to prove "death penalty is murder", being stuck in a definition match which is pointless, but that I should look deeper, dissolve what "murder" is and what it's assumed to be wrong, and show that most of what make us reject murder doesn't apply to abortion, and most of what make us reject it applies to death penalty. Or even completely discard the "murder" concept, and just look from a consequentialist point of view about the good and bad consequences of both.

My sarcastic "trigger warning" was a darkly humorous prediction of this rather predictable outcome to voicing feminist thought on this website.

Your "darkly humorous prediction" falls under a pattern we've seen lots and lots of time, where some radical something - some radical reactionaries (e.g. monarchists, racists, etc), some of them radical progressives like yourself, judge in advance about how close-minded we'll be to their ideas, just because we dare to disagree with aspects of their own particular brand of politics. Nothing new here.

They also all tend to judge our downvotes much like you have. In advance, and cynically. Because Politics is the Mind-Killer, and therefore anyone disagreeing with you politically must be The Evil Enemy, deprived of any sincerity whatsoever

Since you downvoted anyway, apparently you do care more about signalling that you are part of the anti-feminist ingroup rather than being a good rationalist.

It's not I but you who argued on consequentialistic grounds in favour of scientists not speaking with honesty. Therefore it's your comments that I now find suspect: Do you really believe what you're saying, or are you just finding ... (read more)

Since we think largely in words, pointing out similarities between Thing We Think Is Bad and Thing We Think Is Good requires us to examine the connotations of the words we use. We should be doing that all the time. Just as this alleged "worst argument in the world" can be used to sneak in connotations, it can also be used to force examination of connotations that have previously been sneaked in.

I agree. I'm not saying that this form can't be used as a means of examining our intuitions. For example, "meat is murder" is a snappier way of asking "Why, given that we're so worried about harming humans, are we so callous about harming animals?"

But then once the other person answers you with something like "It's because animals have no natural rights" or "Because animals don't have sophisticated enough nervous systems to suffer" or whatever it is they say, the debate has to shift to whether or not that objection is valid. So "but meat is murder!" shouldn't be used as a counterargument to "Animals don't have sophisticated enough nervous systems to suffer", because this latter statement is already answering the question the former was intended to ask.

From that example, it sounds like mindless repetition (non-responsiveness) is the worst argument in the world, whether or not it contains an analogy. What is the special harm of analogy that makes it worse than other kinds of mindless repetition? (Worse than, say, other kinds of seductive, poetic language like rhyming words, a la "if it doesn't fit you must acquit.") And is an analogy still "the worst argument in the world" if it's NOT mindlessly repeated?

I don't think it's precisely about mindless repetition. For example:

A: I think eating meat is morally okay, because animals have simple nervous systems and can't feel pain.

B: But meat is murder!

Here even though A spoke first and there is no repetition involved, I still think B's response is inadequate, because B is accusing A of double standards after A has explained the double standard away. The reason why this is more dangerous than (if not worse than) "If the glove won't fit, you must acquit" is that B looks like she is making a novel and nontrivial point and it's not immediately obvious that this is a non-argument already addressed by A's statement (whereas hopefully no one takes the glove argument seriously as an argument)

Again, the objection seems to be more about the particular USE of the argument than the nature of the argument itself (what I call above "non-responsiveness"). I would genuinely like to understand why analogies of the kind you call the Worst Argument in the World are so harmful (and I appreciate your engaging on it). Is it your claim that people are particularly likely to take analogies seriously as arguments, more than other arguments? Is it their very power that makes them so bad? Rhyming and other poetic tricks, like showing a picture, make statements feel more true to hearers; are those tricks less dangerous than analogy because we (think we) are immune to them? I can kind of intuitively understand what you mean by something being a real argument or not ("as an argument"), but I'm not sure why things taken seriously as arguments are more dangerous than sneaky, non-argument cues that make things seem true. I wonder if what you really want to destroy are "things effectively masquerading as arguments that aren't really arguments." That class is not exhausted by inexact analogies (which is to say all analogies), nor are all inexact analogies members of that class. I think metonymy (association, like eugenics --> Hitler) is a much more harmful cognitive sin than metaphor (which at least requires a theory of why things are similar).
2Scott Alexander12y
This sounds like a fair summary. I stick to my assertion that what you're calling analogies (and which I would specify are analogies that are not phrased in analogy form and which the overwhelming majority of people never recognize as analogies) are more common and more convincing than most other members of this class.
In grade school we learn that "X is like Y" is a simile, and "X is Y" is a metaphor, and that there is some crucial difference between the two. Perhaps there is, but I haven't seen an argument to that effect. Mainly, we call both of these "analogy" or "metaphor." So the argument for tabooing The Worst Argument in the World is that, since many analogies are unusually powerful and people may not recognize that they're analogies rather than perhaps identities, every analogy is The Worst Argument in the World. Even though many analogies are admittedly productive, the class of argument is tabooed because many of its members are problematic. Doesn't that make the taboo on The Worst Argument in the World itself a species of The Worst Argument in the World?
3Scott Alexander11y
I'm not trying to taboo everything of the form "X is Y". Consider an analogy to the argumentum ad hominem fallacy. I think it's correct to dub this a fallacy and say it's not a legitimate move in argument. However, some people are stupid, some people are evil, and it may be correct and proper to mention that they are stupid and evil. It just can't be doing the heavy lifting in an argument. Certainly calling people stupid and evil is useful as a slogan, it's useful for introducing evidence against them, it's even valid in some kinds of arguments (For example, "Bob is stupid, so we probably don't want to let him design the nuclear plant.") I think Worst Argument in the World is the same way. There are some legitimate uses for statements of the "X is in category Y!" form, but actually doing the heavy lifting in a philosophical argument is not one of them. I'd be pretty happy if people just stopped doing it entirely, but I admit that it's possible (although I think unlikely) to keep using it and always be responsible with it.

If I wanted to do that, I would phrase things differently, to avoid the connotation issues (of, for example, Taxation is Theft!):

"We think burglary is bad, but tax is good, yet they have some similarities. Are we right to judge them differently?" or even "I think the things that make burglary bad are X Y and Z, but X is shared by taxation, and Y is partly shared by taxation. I conclude that taxation is not as bad as burglary, but still a bit bad"

Great, clear statement of the position. Wouldn't the "worst argument in the world" taboo apply just as strongly to any use of figurative language in the context of an argument? Instead of making an analogy, for instance (e.g., "X is the mindkiller"), why not just use literal language? No danger of connotative contamination, then. Instead of making a joke, why not just explain what you mean, rather than requiring your audience to grasp for the insight it contains? (Apparently hyperbole is allowed, as it's incorporated into the NAME of the argument - why is hyperbole okay, but not metaphor?)

I understand the ideal here. But I think cutting off our own linguistic balls, so to speak, gives us only the illusion of cognitive cleanness - and much is lost. We are not motivated by pure logic to engage logically with an idea. We are motivated by "epistemic emotions" like curiosity and confusion. A title like "Should Trees Have Standing?" is emotional and poetic and could be literally replaced with "Should our legal system treat inanimate objects as ends in themselves for social reasons not entailed by property rights?" But I don't think the former is cheating, and I don't think the latter would have been as successful in motivating cognition on the topic.

I would even defend good old "Meat is Murder!" as a compact little ethical puzzle for beginners, rather than the Worst Argument in the World!

I think the salient point here is whether we are talking about a theft close to the archetype, such as mugging or burglary, or one further from it, such as Robin Hood enacting his redistribution scheme, or the government taxing. So when we have "X is the mindkiller", that's okay if "X" happens to be party politics, or factions disagreeing in a fricticious boardroom meeting. A fringe example of mind-killing might be a recurring disagreement between spouses over whether to buy skinned or unskinned milk (you can still have entrenched positions, but it doesn't really reach the same level). Not sure I'm being too clear. What I'm saying is that words refer to a cluster of things, with varying strength, and we use the WAITW when we talk about things on the fringe of that cluster as if they were in fact slap bang in the middle.

We can reflectively apply our intuition - we can use the phrase "Capital punishment is murder" to remind other people that capital punishment does share some of the same disadvantages that all other murders have

More generally, it is worth noting that a very tempting class of bad arguments is those which are slightly true, such as this.

I have about 15 responses to this comment or other comments I've made in this subthread, and all of them are disgustingly antifeminst.

Many of the immediate responses disagreed with you. That's the structure of this type of forum. Agreement = silent upvote. Disagreement can lead to responses (or silent downvotes).

  • Not all the responses have been equally hostile to your position. Distinguishing between them is good advocacy.

  • People have written comments supportive to your position in the discussion of this topic.

  • You are engaging in radical advocacy. Receiving negative feedback from the supporters of the status quo should be expected. Noting that you expect negative feedback is not good advocacy. Specifically, it increases (NOT decreases) the frequency of negative feedback.

As Foucault shows, there is no conflict between being a good empiricist and advocating for changes to social norms. But you aren't being very effective in advocacy right now. As I said elsewhere, there are substantial reasons not to trust current Ev. Psych. But those reasons are not obvious because of status quo bias. If you continue advocating as if those problems are as obvious to everyone as they are to you and me, your advocacy will fail.

You should probably mention at the top that this is cross-posted from your personal blog. I am glad you posted here; it's an excellent post.

I requested the crosspost.

since you're lucky enough to be part of a physical community of "similar" people

Was Eliezer "lucky" to have cofounded the Singularity Institute and Overcoming Bias?

The causes of his being in such a happy situation (is that better?) were clearly not the point here, and, quite frankly, I think you knew that.

But if you insist on an answer to this irrelevant rhetorical question, the answer is yes. Eliezer_2012 is indeed quite fortunate to have been preceded by all those previous Eliezers who did those things.

EY owns LessWrong

Then, like I implied, he should just admit to making a decision on the basis of his own personal preference (if indeed that's what's going on), instead of constructing a rationalization about the opinions of offline folks being somehow more important or "appropriately" filtered.

And George Washington was a traitor. ;)

And George Washington was a traitor. ;)

I'm pretty sure the definition of 'traitor' includes "and lost" in there somewhere!

"Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason."

Sir John Harington)

And okay, a tiny fraction of the time people are just trying to use words as a Schelling fence.

I'm not sure it's that tiny, especially once you're using the "steel man" version of the arguments; i.e. things like "Schelling fences" do not often appear in the reasons given for the disagreement, but that can still be what it boils down to.

People who object to abortion may be objecting to a weakening of the social stigma against the murder of innocents - that social stigma performs a useful function in society, so allowing anything that could be described as "murder of innocents" is perceived as bad, regardless of whether that thing is in itself bad.

In other words, even if words are hidden inferences with leaky generalizations etc. - social norms are still defined in terms of words, and so "pointless" debates over definitions still have their place in discussions of morality. Questions that shouldn't be morally relevant ("is abortion murder?") become so because of the instrumental value of social norms.

So yes, sometimes pulling out a dictionary in the middle of a moral argument may be justified. The discussion can then turn to something more useful, like "is it worse if the norm against murder is slightly weakened, or if women have to keep children they don't want?".

Even if that is true (and I stick to my guess that it's only a tiny fraction of the time) I still think deconstructing the argument is valuable. If people's true rejection of abortion is Schelling fences, then let's talk Schelling fences! I would ask why birth doesn't also work as a Schelling fence, and I would get to hear their response, and maybe one of us would change our mind.

But if their true rejection is based on Schelling fences, and instead they're just saying that abortion is murder, there's not much we can do except play Dueling Dictionaries. And the reason that has no chance of working ("Really? Merriam-Webster defines murder as killing a human after birth? Guess I'll go NARAL!") is directly related to it not being their real issue.

there's not much we can do except play Dueling Dictionaries.

There are real-world examples that could be described as getting the "dictionary" changed — for instance, the successful campaign to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association's "dictionary" (as it were) of mental illnesses.

I agree that talking Schelling fences is usually more productive, and that it's probably not people's true rejection on abortion (norms around sexuality and fertility probably play a bigger role). Note also that unlike you, I never saw an "abortion is murder" sign in real life, and don't remember the topic ever coming up in real life. Schelling fences probably play a bigger role for "justifiable killing" (like self-defense, the death penalty, euthanasia), where having a strong norm against killing in general discourages revenge killings (anti-abortion seem to be trying to hijack that norm to cover a case that doesn't fall under "killing" nearly as naturally). "Racism is bad" is another case where the norm is pretty valuable and useful in itself, and acknowledging that "non-bad cases of racism are not bad" would weaken it. Eh, it probably depends of the reference class you're picking, and how charitable you're willing to be in interpreting people's reasons. when deconstructing a WAitW, it may be worth directing the discussion to one on Schelling Fences / norms etc., both as a way of raising the quality of the discussion, and of leaving a line of retreat.

I just thought of another good illustration: "Marijuana is a drug!"

This fits perfectly under Yvain's description (it associates Marijuana with the worse kinds of hard drugs that turn you into a skinny toothless zombie willing to sell his grandmother for his next fix), and a concern of some opponents to legalization is that making one form of recreational drug will lower the taboo on drugs as a whole. And that is a legitimate concern, considering the damage hard drugs can cause! (though of course it's to weigh against the damage caused by marijuana trafficking, which would be significantly reduced if it was legal - and if it was legal it would cluster less naturally with the hard drugs).

I like this version; it also applies to modafinil ("modafinil is a drug!") and you can swap out 'drug' for more convincing versions (since 'drug' seems to me to be losing its negative connotations), like "nicotine is a toxin!"
"Alcohol and tobacco are drugs!" The 'drug' aspect isn't an argument, it's a distraction from the real reasons.
The "a fetus is a person" attempt to frame the abortion debate actually seems like it would weaken the norm against killing innocents. Most people agree with the rule that it's generally wrong to kill an innocent person, which is a relatively clear bright-line rule. If pro-abortion people can just say "well, a human fetus doesn't count as a person so the rule doesn't apply there" then the rule against killing a person remains relatively clear and simple for them. But if they have to count a human fetus as a "person" then the rule against killing a person becomes messy and complicated for them - they have to say "well, it's often wrong to kill a person, but there are various exceptions and factors to weigh." Anti-abortion people might like having the abortion debate take place on those grounds, with a human fetus counting as a "person" by definition, because of the rhetorical advantage it gives them within that particular debate. But for the broader goal of establishing shared support for the "sanctity of life" it is counterproductive to cast the abortion debate in those terms. If you use a dictionary to remove the flexibility/disagreement in defining the domain where the rule applies, then that flexibility/disagreement gets shifted into the content of the rule.
I want a Generalized Emergency Taboo button for just such cases; press the button and everyone is banned from using the word "murder" when talking about "abortion". That way, in the future, we could talk about abortion using "abortion", and murder in general using "murder", whether abortion is murder or not, without weakening social norms in the process. Or maybe Beisutsukai already have such a button? Perhaps they need a high enough level to unlock the skill? I had an idea of some third option we could use here to counter the social norm issue when I first read this, but got distracted and forgot it before I could follow up. Anyone else got any such ideas?
That's not really generalized, since it's specific to abortion and murder. A generalized emergency taboo button would be a custom where it's considered polite to ask people to taboo a word (if you think this might help the discussion), and impolite to ignore this request. I think Less Wrong is pretty decent about this, at least compared to the rest of the world. It's the only place where I've ever seen such a request succeed. For most people it's far from onvious what the point of tabooing a word would be, and it's hard to give a compelling justification for it in a quick sound-bite that you can drop into an in-person discussion.

In the rest of the world, when I find it necessary to invoke the concept, I generally ask people to clarify what they mean by a word and then echo back the phrase they used the word in, substituting their explanation.

Generally speaking, people respond to this as though I'd played some dirty rhetorical trick on them and deny ever having said any such thing, at which point I apologize and ask them again to clarify what they mean by the word.

Among conversations that continue past this point, it works pretty well. (They are the minority.)

I observe that wedifrid has taken advantage of this particular opportunity to remind everyone that he thinks I am belligerent, whiny, condescending, and cynical.

I notice that my criticism was made specifically regarding the exhibition of those behaviors in the comments he has made about the subject he has brought up here. We can even see that I made specific links. Eliezer seems to be conflating this with a declaration that he has those features as part of his innate disposition.

By saying that wedrifid is reminding people that he (supposedly) believes Eliezer has those dispositions he also implies that wedrifid has said this previously. This is odd because I find myself to be fairly open with making criticisms of Eliezer whenever I feel them justified and from what I recall "belligerent, whiny, condescending, and cynical [about the lesswrong community]" isn't remotely like a list of weaknesses that I actually have described Eliezer as having in general or at any particular time that I recall.

Usually when people make this kind of muddled accusation I attribute it to a failure of epistemic rationality and luminosity. Many people just aren't able to separate in their min... (read more)

Agreed that science journalism is a cesspool and we need to fix that. That said, I wouldn't say quantum mechanics is woo, nor complain about people discussing it before checking if they're talking about the real thing or a bastardization. Ditto for evpsych and sexism.

feminism (the social movement to destroy gender)

You're the first feminist I've read who promotes this. I'd like to hear more about your position (PM? I don't want to discuss politics on LW.), but please don't claim it's universal among feminists

Some feminists want men and women to be equal (and believe it's possible without destroying gender), some want everyone to be equal but still care about being called "he" or "she" or "zie" and go to men- or women- or genderqueer-only spaces (and believe it's possible), some want women to do male-coded things with no social cost but don't care about the reverse, some want everyone to conform to gender roles but want to change the roles a bit so they don't include standing barefoot in the kitchen with no vote, some want women to rule over men and use good feminine things like intuition and not bad masculine things like science (and I wish they would stop writing bad fantasy novels).


But now that you've stated this, you have the ability to rationalize any future IRL meta discussion...

This has traditionally been a very divisive point within radical feminism, and it typically divides the discussion into transphobic social-constructionist radical feminists (like the source of my original infographic) and neo-essentialist post-feminists.

No. If I can't be happy until everything is good, then I can't expect to feel happy ever. At that point, I give up on trying to make things better because I hate anyone who'd try to make me that unhappy.

Willie Nelson: How much oil is a human life worth?

Economist: Well, in the United States workers value their lives at about $7 million. With current crude oil prices at around $100 a barrel, a human life is worth about 70,000 barrels of oil.

This is the subjective value of one's own life. The market value of human life, i.e. the price for which one life can be saved, should be much lower.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky12y
If only 100 barrels of oil ends up being worth a human life, clearly we ought to invade Iran. Or Equatorial Guinea if we can only scrape up a couple of million dollars for the coup. Incidentally, there appears to be an important list of unsung humanitarian heroes here.
I'd quibble about "clearly," even in context. Wars are just too damn random. Nothing against cost-benefit analysis in the abstract, but, in practice, invading a country seems like one of those very complicated choices that may inherently risk some major, major unintended consequences. I'm mostly thinking negative, but I suppose this would go both ways -- unexpected ultimate positive consequences might be possible as well, but still hard to calculate at all.
I am not entirely convinced that a foreign-backed violent coup, even against a truly heinous dictator, is necessarily a good idea. This seems like one of those cases for ethical injunctions, because the visible upside is so clear (the dictator is gone), but the downside is more complicated: violent coups, for whatever reason, very rarely end up producing good governments.
By the same logic, doesn't everyone who steals X money, where X happens to be higher than the value of life, become a humanitarian hero? By which I mean that I don't understand your point. You seem to indirectly accuse me of commiting a fallacy, yet I don't know which one.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky12y
Nope, wasn't accusing you of anything. I was just amused by the point that anyone who wants to save as many lives as possible, but has only a finite amount of oil, must be able to state some consistent value of human life in terms of barrels of oil, since otherwise you could rearrange the oil to save more lives.

If that bothers you, you may consider that whining that people find you whiny might not be the optimal strategy for making them change their mind.

Feminism holds that gender is a social construct

And if feminism happens to be factually false in that particular respect? Even partly false, so that gender is 90% a social construct, and 10% a result of biology?

The existence of gender identity dysphoria indicates that people can have "genders" which they were not assigned to socially -- the dysphoria arising from the discrepancy between their "real" genders, and their societally assigned genders.

I've not studied if/how feminism (as you describe it) can be reconciled in this respect with pro-transgender thought -- do you have any thoughts on the subject?

Gender != sex. I support the position that all social roles that are totally uncorrelated with physical facts should be re-examined (and probably eliminated). Where to draw the line between physical difference and pure social construct is a difficult empirical question. Ev. Psych asks the right questions, but I don't trust its answers.
I know that gender != sex, but people are societally assigned the gender corresponding to their biological sex (or more accurately the gender corresponding to their genitalia). So if gender is a wholly social construct, there would probably not exist such a thing as gender identity dysphoria. I don't trust the particular answers of Ev. Psych either, but I also mistrust any claim of psychological equality in biologically different groups. It smacks of a mind-body duality that doesn't exist: The brain is a physical organ like any other; psychology is a biological function -- culture and society shape it, but so does biology. Therefore there's no physical law requiring its average characteristics to be completely the same between males and females. That would be privileging the theory we would prefer to be true as egalitarians.
There are historical ideologies that seem to repeatedly be wrong for essentially the same reasons. * Mind-body dualism. * Essentialist "scientific" theories to explain then existing social norms. Which is more powerful in this case? Hopefully we can find out. As for gender identity dysphoria, I don't doubt there is a phenomena out there. But for it to support your position seems to require that the DSM-IV cut the world at its joints. I think we agree that this is a laughable assertion. In particular, I distrust the current descriptions because I suspect that the distinction between gender and sex is not being sufficiently respected by those making the diagnostic definitions. Lots of mental illness is defined explicitly or implicitly in terms of fit into current social norms.

It is not as if we have no half-baked evopsych theorizing here; and there's Hanson, who is particularly guilty. Who can read some of his wilder posts and not regard it was a wee bit discrediting of evopsych?

Genetic engineering to cure diseases is eugenics. And eugenics has more wrong with it than guilt by association. It's inherently a dangerous activity, potentially far more dangerous than anything Hitler did.

That's the worst argument in the world.

Its danger is contextually expanded due to our dearth of understanding of the processes we engineer

And that is closer to discussing the substance instead of the archetypal example in the category, so might as well skip the first part.

I'm guessing it's more likely to work out when it's the partner of a LessWronger who initiates it, than when it's the partner of a nonLessWronger.

Your current worldview seems to be unfalsifiable without very expensive experiments. (How would you even know if patriarchy had been destroyed anyway?) Maybe we're doing this backwards. What caused you to become a feminist? What evidence could you have encountered that would have made you a non-feminist?

At a first glance your type of feminism seems to seek to put both men AND women in smaller and darker cages, as it seems to seek to ban more and more behaviors for both genders, instead of permit more and more.

Seriously "penis-in-vagina sex"? I don't think there's ever been a society so oppressive to both genders as to ban even that.

Seriously "penis-in-vagina sex"? I don't think there's ever been a society so oppressive to both genders as to ban even that.


Ah, true. And they were rather egalitarian-minded too.
It's not often one sees single-word comments this insightful on the Interwebz. Kudos!

What sort of language and tone have you used while doing so? Have you ensured that you did this in a way so as to be non-condescending and helpful, or were you being a man who explains things? Did you consider that there are harmful social consequences to a man "teaching" a woman anything about feminism? Did you at least feel intensely conscious and uncomfortable around this issue, knowing as a good feminist that you were in dangerous territory?

To answer this in particular because I think they're all valid points you probably have more experience with than I do, I used the same text with the women as I used with men to whom I taught the same thing, and it was done through an impersonal text-only chat interface, and no I did not "know as a good feminist" all that much because I was merely, in my mind, correcting a behavior reinforcing unfairness. I had not learned to think more than four steps of causality forward in counterfactuals, at the time, nor of how to compute recursive not-exclusively-self-reinforcing social trends.

No, I did not feel intensely conscious and uncomfortable about these things, because ceteris paribus, it is better to feel good about doi... (read more)

Rationalism itself does not preclude "treating arguments as soldiers" within an adversarial debate (most political debates are adversarial). It just cautions aganst doing this within individual deliberation or public deliberative-like processes, where truth-seeking efficiency is an instrumental goal. Nevertheless, the social norms of LessWrong do discourage (1) political discussion, as well as (2) "treating argument as soldiers" in any discussion, be it political or otherwise.

One interpretation of TimS' behavior is that he places a higher value on following LW's established social norms than he does on promoting his political cause. Alternately, he may believe that flaunting the norms of LW would be mostly unhelpful to his political advocacy.

I've seen an even worse argument: Imagine the worst possible consequences of the other side's policies. Assert that the other side (or at least its leaders) intend those consequences.

All of the arguments are of the form A is an X, when A is not a typical example of X. Here are some arguments that are of that form.

-"Having sex with an passed out stranger is rape."
-"Sleep deprivation/sensory deprivation/stress positions is torture."
-"Writing and cashing bad checks is theft."

Are these all instances of the worst argument in the world? If they aren't examples of the worst argument in the world, why not?

If the main reason that these arguments are acceptable is our disapproval of A, then your worst argument in the world is not a valid. It is just a way to discount rhetoric you don't like.

Consider a X that is bad for reasons R1, R2 and R3. R1 and R2 are really strong, while R3 is quite minor.

Consider an atypical case of X, A, which has only the reasons R1 and R2. Saying "A is X" doesn't do much harm. The real reasons for which you reject X (R1 and R2) are present in A, so saying "A is X so A is wrong" is acceptable.

Now consider another atypical case of X, B, which only share R3. Saying "B is X so B is wrong" is using the emotional power of the horror of R1 and R2, which B doesn't have, against B, just because B can be said to be part of a cluster in which the typical elements have it. That's a really fishy argumentation. That's what Yvain called "the worst argument in the world", because it's wrong but convincing, and very hard to counter in a debate (it requires deconstructing "why is X is bad", extracting R1, R2, R3, showing that B only shares R3, so may be slightly bad, but not nearly as much a typical X).

Let's analyze the first one : "Having sex with an passed out stranger is rape."

Rape is very bad, I hope we all agree with that. Why is rape bad ? It's bad for many reasons. Some of the reasons (that ... (read more)

Apple uses the WAITW when commenting on the Apple vs Samsung case:

"In a statement the firm [apple] thanked the jury for sending 'a loud and clear message that stealing isn’t right' "


Figure out if what is the case ?

I did read through Intercourse in college, but it was a long time ago, and, knowing my past self, I probably only skimmed it. My main impression of it at the time was that Dworkin a). really dislikes men, and b). dehumanizes women. IMO (b) is even worse than (a); at least she recognizes that men are people, albeit unpleasant ones.

Anyway, that was a bit off topic. What is it that I'm supposed to be figuring out by reading Dworkin ? And what happens if I do read the relevant passages, but still conclude that she is wrong ?

She talk about women's wants a lot less than I expected. About cis women who want intercourse with cis men, she writes:

Women have wanted intercourse to work and have submitted--with regret or with enthusiasm, real or faked--even though or even when it does not. [...] Women have also wanted intercourse to work in this sense: women have wanted intercourse to be, for women, an experience of equality and passion, sensuality and intimacy. Women have a vision of love that includes men as human too; and women want the human in men, including in the act of intercourse. Even without the dignity of equal power, women have believed in the redeeming potential of love. There has been--despite the cruelty of exploitation and forced sex--a consistent vision for women of a sexuality based on a harmony that is both sensual and possible.

She might be saying "Women only ever want intercourse with men they love". Even if you count any kind of liking and desire for intimacy as "love", this rules out cruising for casual sex.

She also says things about women wanting very gentle intercourse without thrusting, whereas men go poundy-poundy. This is quite unlike the reports of sex blogg... (read more)

There does seem to be a bit of a trope of certain sorts of scholars (the early Wilhelm Reich comes to mind) developing strong and specific opinions on what kind of sex other people are supposed to have — down to specific positions and motions! — in order to be enlightened, liberated, rational, or holy. One wonders by what means a person could arrive at such knowledge, and what other hypotheses were raised to attention and dismissed by evidence.

This isn't just about sex, of course. There are all sorts of claims that people don't really want what they say they want, and they don't want what they seek out, either.

This essay introduced me to the idea that such claims are pervasive. Anyone have a more general overview?

Even at Less Wrong-- you won't really like that shiny toy so much, give the money to SI instead!

This is one of my favorite essays on libertarianism, by the way.
And yet people here, apparently with a straight face, have made analogous arguments about alcoholic beverages. If I claim I like Amaro Montenegro then I must have been brainwashed and/or be (consciously or subconsciously) lying for signalling reasons or something. How could I demonstrate that I actually enjoy its taste?
Blind taste test. Preferably several, where you don't know if Amaro Montenegro is among the drinks you're tasting in any particular test. If you can't single out for a high rating the one that you profess to like the taste of, then you've falsified the hypothesis that you like it for the taste. If you can single it out for a high rating in blind taste tests, and want to further test whether you actually enjoy it, or merely recognize it and assign a high rating for signalling purposes, get an MRI during the blind taste test.
MRI wouldn't help. If you can recognize amaro, you'll go "Oh, that's amaro, I'm supposed to like this" and produce a pleasure response, the same way wines believed to be expensive do to identical wines believed to be cheap.
Good point. I think you could get somewhere by doing a taste test of several different amaros (which are not actually wine,) where rather than a blind test, the subject is incorrectly told that they're all, say, privately brewed and distributed at a liqueur festival, or something along those lines, but one of them is really Amaro Montenegro.
That one doesn't sound quite so bad; get MRId while drinking, and you can prove you really feel pleasure. That doesn't disprove the brainwashing assertion (wines genuinely taste better with a price hike) but you can still answer "So what if I like it because of that? I like it. And it doesn't even support a culture where 12% of the population has had amaro slipped into their drink."