I have another lesswrong account too, but this one is for when I don't want to use my real name.

Wiki Contributions


Speaking of Stag Hunts

Hmm, my two-sentence summary attempt for this post would be: "In recent drama-related posts, the comment section discussion seems very soldier-mindset instead of scout-mindset, including things like up- and down-voting comments based on which "team" they support rather than soundness of reasoning, and not conceding / correcting errors when pointed out, etc. This is a failure of the LW community and we should brainstorm how to fix it."

If that's a bad summary, it might not be Duncan's fault, I kinda skimmed.

Concentration of Force

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.

There's certainly something to that. But in the other direction, there's the Claudette Colvin vs Rosa Parks anecdote, where (as I understand it) civil rights campaigners declined to signal-boost and take a stand on a case that they thought the general public would be unsympathetic to (an unmarried pregnant teen defender), and instead waited for a more PR-friendly test case to come along. We can't know the counterfactual, but I see that as a plausibly reasonable and successful strategic decision.

The toxoplasma of rage dynamic is to go out of your way to seek the least PR-friendly test cases, because that's optimal for in-group signaling. I view that as a failure mode to be kept in mind (while acknowledging that sometimes defending scoundrels is exactly the right thing to do).

[Book Review] "The Bell Curve" by Charles Murray

I want to say loud and clear that I don't think the only two options are (1) "saying X in a way that will predictably and deeply hurt lots of people and/or piss them off" and (2) "not saying X at all". There's also the option of (3) "saying X in a way that will bring anti-X-ers to change their mind and join your side". And also sometimes there's (4) "saying X in a kinda low-key way where anti-X-ers won't really care or take notice, or at least won't try to take revenge on things that we care about".

My sense is that there's safety-in-numbers in saying "obviously Tiananmen Square is a thing that happened", in a way that there is not safety-in-numbers in saying "obviously TBC is a perfectly lovely normal book full of interesting insights written in good faith by a smart and reasonable person who is not racist in the slightest".

But still, if lots and lots of people in China believe Z, and I were writing a post that says "Here's why Z is false", I would try to write it in a way that might be persuasive to initially-skeptical Chinese readers. And if I were writing a post that says "Z is false, and this has interesting implications on A,B,C", I would try to open it with "Side note: I'm taking it for granted that Z is false for the purpose of this post. Not everyone agrees with me that Z is false. But I really think I'm right about this, and here's a link to a different article that makes that argument in great detail."

[Book Review] "The Bell Curve" by Charles Murray

we are talking about the book’s provenance / authorship / otherwise “metadata”—and certainly not about the book’s impact

A belief that "TBC was written by a racist for the express purpose of justifying racism" would seem to qualify as "worth mentioning prominently at the top" under that standard, right?

And it would be quite unreasonable to suggest that a post titled “Book Review: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is somehow inherently “provocative”, “insulting”, “offensive”, etc., etc.

I imagine that very few people would find the title by itself insulting; it's really "the title in conjunction with the first paragraph or two" (i.e. far enough to see that the author is not going to talk up-front about the elephant in the room).

Hmm, maybe another better way to say it is: The title plus the genre is what might insult people. The genre of this OP is "a book review that treats the book as a serious good-faith work of nonfiction, which might have some errors, just like any nonfiction book, but also presumably has some interesting facts etc." You don't need to read far or carefully to know that the OP belongs to this genre. It's a very different genre from a (reasonable) book review of "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", or a (reasonable) book review of "Mein Kampf", or a (reasonable) book review of "Harry Potter".

[Book Review] "The Bell Curve" by Charles Murray

Hmm, I think you didn't get what I was saying. A book review of "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is great, I'm all for it. A book review of "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" which treats it as a perfectly lovely normal book and doesn't say anything about the book being a forgery until you get 28 paragraphs into the review and even then it's barely mentioned is the thing that I would find extremely problematic. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't that seem like kind of a glaring omission? Wouldn't that raise some questions about the author's beliefs and motives in writing the review?

Do you view those facts as evidence that I’m an unreasonable person?


Do you ever, in your life, think that things are true without checking? Do you think that the radius of earth is 6380 km? (Did you check? Did you look for skeptical sources?) Do you think that lobsters are more closely related to shrimp than to silverfish? (Did you check? Did you look for skeptical sources?) Do you think that it's dangerous to eat an entire bottle of medicine at once? (Did you check? Did you look for skeptical sources?)

I think you're holding people up to an unreasonable standard here. You can't do anything in life without having sources that you generally trust as being probably correct about certain things. In my life, I have at time trusted sources that in retrospect did not deserve my trust. I imagine that this is true of everyone.

Suppose we want to solve that problem. (We do, right?) I feel like you're proposing a solution of "form a community of people who have never trusted anyone about anything". But such community would be empty! A better solution is: have a bunch of Scott Alexanders, who accept that people currently have beliefs that are wrong, but charitably assume that maybe those people are nevertheless open to reason, and try to meet them where they are and gently persuade them that they might be mistaken. Gradually, in this way, the people (like former-me) who were trusting the wrong sources can escape of their bubble and find better sources, including sources who preach the virtues of rationality.

We're not born with an epistemology instruction manual. We all have to find our way, and we probably won't get it right the first time. Splitting the world into "people who already agree with me" and "people who are forever beyond reason", that's the wrong approach. Well, maybe it works for powerful interest groups that can bully people around. We here at lesswrong are not such a group. But we do have the superpower of ability and willingness to bring people to our side via patience and charity and good careful arguments. We should use it! :)

[Book Review] "The Bell Curve" by Charles Murray

I don't think my suggestions are getting pushback; I think that my suggestions are being pattern-matched to "let's all self-censor / cower before the woke mob" and everyone loves having that debate at the slightest pretense. For example, I maintain that my suggestion of "post at another site and linkpost from here, in certain special situations" is next-to-zero-cost, for significant benefit. Indeed, some people routinely post-elsewhere-and-linkpost, for no reason in particular. (The OP author already has a self-hosted blog, so there's no inconvenience.) This seems to me like a prudent, win-win move, and if people aren't jumping on it, I'm tempted to speculate that people are here for the fun signaling not the boring problem-solving / world-optimizing.

Imposing restrictions on our prolific writers

That's not a useful framing. The mods have indicated that they won't impose restrictions. Instead, I am trying to persuade people.

[Book Review] "The Bell Curve" by Charles Murray

Sorry, what? A book which you (the hypothetical Person A) have never read (and in fact have only the vaguest notion of the contents of) has personally caused you to suffer? And by successfully (!!) “advocating for racism”, at that? This is… well, “quite a leap” seems like an understatement; perhaps the appropriate metaphor would have to involve some sort of Olympic pole-vaulting event. This entire (supposed) perspective is absurd from any sane person’s perspective.

I have a sincere belief that The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion directly contributed to the torture and death of some of my ancestors. I hold this belief despite having never read this book, and having only the vaguest notion of the contents of this book, and having never sought out sources that describe this book from a "neutral" point of view.

Do you view those facts as evidence that I'm an unreasonable person?

Further, if I saw a post about The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion that conspicuously failed to mention anything about people being oppressed as a result of the book, or a post that buried said discussion until after 28 paragraphs of calm open-minded analysis, well, I think I wouldn't read through the whole piece, and I would also jump to some conclusions about the author. I stand by this being a reasonable thing to do, given that I don't have unlimited time.

By contrast, if I saw a post about The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion that opened with "I get it, I know what you've heard about this book, but hear me out, I'm going to explain why we should give this book a chance with an open mind, notwithstanding its reputation…", then I would certainly consider reading the piece.

[Book Review] "The Bell Curve" by Charles Murray

My comment here argues that a reasonable person could find this post insulting.

[Book Review] "The Bell Curve" by Charles Murray

Suppose that Person A finds Statement X demeaning, and you believe that X is not in fact demeaning to A, but rather A was misunderstanding X, or trusting bad secondary sources on X, or whatever.

What do you do?

APPROACH 1: You say X all the time, loudly, while you and your friends high-five each other and congratulate yourselves for sticking it to the woke snowflakes.

APPROACH 2: You try sincerely to help A understand that X is not in fact demeaning to A. That involves understanding where A is coming from, meeting A where A is currently at, defusing tension, gently explaining why you believe A is mistaken, etc. And doing all that before you loudly proclaim X.

I strongly endorse Approach 2 over 1. I think Approach 2 is more in keeping with what makes this community awesome, and Approach 2 is the right way to bring exactly the right kind of people into our community, and Approach 2 is the better way to actually "win", i.e. get lots of people to understand that X is not demeaning, and Approach 2 is obviously what community leaders like Scott Alexander would do (as for Eliezer, um, I dunno, my model of him would strongly endorse approach 2 in principle, but also sometimes he likes to troll…), and Approach 2 has nothing to do with self-censorship.


Getting back to the object level and OP. I think a lot of our disagreement is here in the details. Let me explain why I don't think it is "plainly obvious to any even remotely reasonable person that the OP is not intended as any insult to anyone".

Imagine that Person A believes that Charles Murray is a notorious racist, and TBC is a book that famously and successfully advocated for institutional racism via lies and deceptions. You don't have to actually believe this—I don't—I am merely asking you to imagine that Person A believes that.

Now look at the OP through A's eyes. Right from the title, it's clear that OP is treating TBC as a perfectly reasonable respectable book by a perfectly reasonable respectable person. Now A starts scanning the article, looking for any serious complaint about this book, this book which by the way personally caused me to suffer by successfully advocating for racism, and giving up after scrolling for a while and coming up empty. I think a reasonable conclusion from A's perspective is that OP doesn't think that the book's racism advocacy is a big deal, or maybe OP even thinks it's a good thing. I think it would be understandable for Person A to be insulted and leave the page without reading every word of the article.

Once again, we can lament (justifiably) that Person A is arriving here with very wrong preconceptions, probably based on trusting bad sources. But that's the kind of mistake we should be sympathetic to. It doesn't mean Person A is an unreasonable person. Indeed, Person A could be a very reasonable person, exactly the kind of person who we want in our community. But they've been trusting bad sources. Who among us hasn't trusted bad sources at some point in our lives? I sure have!

And if Person A represents a vanishingly rare segment of society with weird idiosyncratic wrong preconceptions, maybe we can just shrug and say "Oh well, can't please everyone." But if Person A's wrong preconceptions are shared by a large chunk of society, we should go for Approach 2.

[Book Review] "The Bell Curve" by Charles Murray

I like the norm of "If you're saying something that lots of people will probably (mis)interpret as being hurtful and insulting, see if you can come up with a better way to say the same thing, such that you're not doing that." This is not a norm of censorship nor self-censorship, it's a norm of clear communication and of kindness. I can easily imagine a book review of TBC that passes that test. But I think this particular post does not pass that test, not even close.

If a TBC post passed that test, well, I would still prefer that it be put off-site with a linkpost and so on, but I wouldn't feel as strongly about it.

I think "censorship" is entirely the wrong framing. I think we can have our cake and eat it too, with just a little bit of effort and thoughtfulness.

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