Vladimir_M

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LessWrong could grow a lot, but we're doing it wrong.

Things are good as long as most interactions have at least one side familiar with existing site culture, but once you start getting outside users talking with other outside users in volume, there's not much left maintaining the older culture.

Worse yet, the new users may comply with the culture in form but not in spirit. In the concrete case of LW, this means new users who are polite and non-confrontational, familiar with the common topics and the material covered in the classic OB/LW articles, making appeals to all the right principles of epistemology and logic, etc., etc., but who nevertheless lack the ability and commitment for truly unbiased and open-minded discussion at the level that used to be the standard. I think this is indeed what has been happening, and I don't see any way an open-access forum could prevent this course of events from taking place eventually.

(It's hard to make a point like this without sounding arrogant and conceited, so I should add that in retrospect, I believe that when I joined LW, at the time it probably caused a net lowering of its standards, which were higher back then.)

[Link] Social interventions gone wrong

Failing all this I think we really should consider if the overly-strictly interpreted no mindkillers rule that was prevalent as little as a few months ago that much reduced political discourse wasn't a good thing that should be restored.

I used to be excited about the idea of harnessing the high intellectual ability and strong norms of politeness on LW to reach accurate insight about various issues that are otherwise hard to discuss rationally. However, more recently I've become deeply pessimistic about the possibility of having a discussion forum that wouldn't be either severely biased and mind-killed or strictly confined to technical topics in math and hard sciences.

It looks like even if a forum approaches this happy state of affairs, the way old Overcoming Bias and early LessWrong arguably did for some time, this can happen only as a brief and transient phenomenon. (In fact, it isn't hard to identify the forces that inevitably make this situation unstable.) So, while OB ceased to be much of a discussion forum long ago, LW is currently in the final stages of turning into a forum that still has unusual smarts and politeness, but where on any mention of controversial issues, battle lines are immediately drawn and genuine discussion ceases, just like elsewhere. (Even if the outcome may still look very calm and polite by the usual internet standards.)

The trouble is, the only way a "no-mindkillers" rule can improve things is if it's done in an extreme form and with ruthless severity, by reducing the permissible range of topics to strictly technical questions in some areas of math and hard science and consistently banning everything else. The worst possible outcome is to institute a partial "no-mindkillers" rule, which would work under a pretense that rational and unbiased discussion of a broad range of topics outside of math and hard sciences is possible without bringing up any controversial and charged issues, and without giving serious consideration to disreputable and low-status views. This would lead to an entrenched standard of cargo-cult "rationality" that incorporates all the biases, delusions, and taboos of the respectable opinion wholesale, under a pretense of a neutral, pragmatic, and unbiased restriction of irrelevant and distracting controversial topics.

Thus, it seems to me like the only realistic possibilities at this point are: (1) increasing ideological confrontations and mind-killing, (2) enforcement of the above-described cargo-cult rationality standards, and (3) reduction of discussion topics to strictly technical questions, backed by far stricter, MathOverflow-type standards. Neither of these looks like a fulfilment of LW's mission statement, but (2) seems to me like the worst failure scenario from its point of view.

[Link] Social interventions gone wrong

If I remember correctly, you replied to several of my comments on fairly controversial topics recently, but for the record, I didn't downvote any of them. I downvote direct replies to my comments only if I believe that someone is arguing in bad faith, or when I'm annoyed with some exceptionally bad failure of basic logic or good manners.

[Link] Social interventions gone wrong

It seems like you're losing focus of my point. I am merely trying to demonstrate that it's wrong to consider studies of this sort as solid and conclusive evidence about the overall effects of the social interventions under consideration. I mentioned this scenario only as one plausible way in which one of these studies could be grossly inadequate, not as something I'm trying to prove to be the case.

[Link] Social interventions gone wrong

I'm not sure what exactly you're trying to imply with this comment. You have complained that I was reading your comments too uncharitably in the past, so I'm trying to interpret it as something other than a taunt, but without success.

[Link] Social interventions gone wrong

As it usually happens in the social "sciences," it's very naive to believe that in any of these cases we have anything like solid evidence about the total effect of the programs in question. Even ignoring the intractable problems with disentangling all the countless non-obvious confounding variables, there is still the problem of unintended consequences -- which may be unaccounted for even if the study seemingly asks all the relevant questions, and which may manifest themselves only in the longer run.

Take for example this nurse-family partnership program. Even if the study has correctly proven that these positive outcomes have occurred in the families covered by the intervention, and that they are in fact a consequence of the intervention -- a big if -- we still have no way of knowing its total long-run effect. For one, it may happen that it lowers the cost of having children for poor unmarried women, both by providing assistance and by lowering the stigma and fear of such an outcome, so that in the new long-term equilibrium, more children are born to such women, especially the least responsible, resourceful, and competent ones, eventually increasing the total measure of child poverty, neglect, abuse, etc. Of course, this may or may not be the case, but there's no way to know it based on these studies that purport to give a definitive evaluation of the program's success.

What is moral foundation theory good for?

Clearly it's a very complex topic, but generally speaking, I do believe that Haidt's recent work is more or less on the right track in this regard.

That said, much of his insight is not very original, and can be found in the work of other, often much older thinkers, some of whom Haidt cites. Haidt's significance is mainly that he's trying to pull off a "Nixon in China," i.e. to leverage his own liberal beliefs and credentials to formulate these insights in a way that's palatable to liberals, who would be instantly repulsed and incensed by the other authors who have presented them previously. (I'm not very optimistic about his chances, though, especially since he has to dance around some third-rail issues that might destroy his reputation instantly. Similar can be said for other modern authors who delve into social theory based on evolutionary insight, like e.g. Geoffrey Miller.)

Also, I think there are many other crucial pieces of the puzzle that Haidt is still missing completely, so he still strikes me as very naive on some issues. (For example, I don't know if he's familiar with the concept of Schelling points, but he definitely fails to recognize them on some issues where they are crucial. He also apparently fails to grasp what virtue ethics is about.)

Competence in experts: summary

It's hard to tell, but if they have been influenced by that post, then considering the lack of adequate reception of the post in the first place, this probably didn't improve their understanding of my comments, and has perhaps even worsened it.

Also, I don't claim to be anywhere near the ideal of optimizing for feedback in practice. After all, "When vanity is not prompting us, we have little to say." But I would certainly change my posting patterns if I were convinced that it would improve feedback.

I also don't think that low returns from top-level posts are a general rule -- it's probably mainly due to my lack of writing skills (particularly in English) that results in more readable and cogent writing when I'm confined to the shorter space and pre-established context of a comment.

(Although, on the other hand, one general problem is the lack of any clear and agreed-upon policy for what is on-topic for LW, which makes me, and I suspect also many other people, reluctant to start discussions about some topics, but ready to follow up when others have already opened them and found a positive reception.)

What is moral foundation theory good for?

Most of the points relevant to your comment are covered in this reply to Tyrrell McAllister, so to avoid redundancy, please follow up on that comment if you think it's not an adequate answer.

What is moral foundation theory good for?

How do you reduce autonomy to sacredness? I think of sacredness as something that inheres in some single object of veneration towards which a group of people can genuflect, such as a family shrine, a flag, a saint, or (for the left) "the environment". I would also extend the notion of a "single object" to slightly more abstract things, such as a single holy text (which might exist in multiple copies) or a single ritual way of eating (which might be enacted on multiple occasions).

One way in which sacredness commonly manifests itself is through sacred boundaries that serve as strong Schelling points. In fact, I am convinced that any large-scale human social organization depends to a significant degree on Schelling points whose power and stability rests on the fact that the thought of their violation arouses strong moral intuitions of sacrilege. (Even though this might be non-obvious from their stated rationale.)

Take for example the ancient Roman pomerium, the boundary of the city of Rome that was explicitly held as sacred. In particular, bearing arms within the pomerium was considered as sacrilege, and this norm was taken very seriously during the Republican period. Of course, a norm like this can easily be given a practical rationale (preventing coups, assassinations, etc.), and it seems plausible that it indeed had a practical effect of this sort, contributing to the long-standing stability and competitive success of the republican institutions. However, it was in fact the sacredness aspect that gave the norm its power, since a consequentialist rationale for any norm can always be rationalized away, thus making it a weak Schelling point, easily pushed down a slippery slope. And indeed, when the reverence for this traditional norm of sacredness started fading in the late Republic (along with many others), it was a good sign that the Republic had indeed gone to the dogs, and soon the state was torn by constant civil wars between competing generals who had no problem finding justifications and support for their plans to conquer Rome and seize power by armed force.

Similarly, intuitions of sacrilege can be associated with non-physical boundaries. Take for example the modern norms against euthanasia, even in cases where it's voluntary and in fact strongly desired by the patient, and the alternative is nothing but a prolonged suffering. People are horrified by the thought of euthanasia because it violates the perceived sacredness of human life. And again, one can make a cogent Schelling point/slippery slope argument in favor of such norms, but this is not what gives them their power.

Now, it seems quite plausible to me that this is in fact a common state of affairs for all sorts of norms that deal with the prohibition of crossing certain boundaries. Not all such norms are based on sacredness intuitions, of course -- they can also rest on a basis of fairness, harm, liberty, or some mix of those -- but in that case, their violation causes different and lesser kinds of outrage, and it's also easy to convince people to make exceptions based on concerns for fairness, harm, or liberty. For example, the norms about private property rights seem to be typically in this category: their violation causes nothing similar to the visceral feelings of sacrilege, and it's easy to convince people that some violations and curtailing of property rights are OK if you can convince them that it reduces harm and increases fairness or liberty.

With this in mind, I think it should be reasonable to ask whether the liberal intuitions of personal (and particularly sexual) autonomy are in fact a sort of pomerium backed by moral intuitions of sacrilege triggered by the perceived violations of this autonomy. (Whether or not we end up agreeing on the answer to this question.)

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