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A Suite of Pragmatic Considerations in Favor of Niceness

78 Post author: Alicorn 05 January 2010 09:32PM

tl;dr: Sometimes, people don't try as hard as they could to be nice.  If being nice is not a terminal value for you, here are some other things to think about which might induce you to be nice anyway.

There is a prevailing ethos in communities similar to ours - atheistic, intellectual groupings, who congregate around a topic rather than simply to congregate - and this ethos says that it is not necessary to be nice.  I'm drawing on a commonsense notion of "niceness" here, which I hope won't confuse anyone (another feature of communities like this is that it's very easy to find people who claim to be confused by monosyllables).  I do not merely mean "polite", which can be superficially like niceness when the person to whom the politeness is directed is in earshot but tends to be far more superficial.  I claim that this ethos is mistaken and harmful.  In so claiming, I do not also claim that I am always perfectly nice; I claim merely that I and others have good reasons to try to be.

The dispensing with niceness probably springs in large part from an extreme rejection of the ad hominem fallacy and of emotionally-based reasoning.  Of course someone may be entirely miserable company and still have brilliant, cogent ideas; to reject communication with someone who just happens to be miserable company, in spite of their brilliant, cogent ideas, is to miss out on the (valuable) latter because of a silly emotional reaction to the (irrelevant) former.  Since the point of the community is ideas; and the person's ideas are good; and how much fun they are to be around is irrelevant - well, bringing up that they are just terribly mean seems trivial at best, and perhaps an invocation of the aforementioned fallacy.  We are here to talk about ideas!  (Interestingly, this same courtesy is rarely extended to appalling spelling.)

The ad hominem fallacy is a fallacy, so this is a useful norm up to a point, but not up to the point where people who are perfectly capable of being nice, or learning to be nice, neglect to do so because it's apparently been rendered locally worthless.  I submit that there are still good, pragmatic reasons to be nice, as follows.  (These are claims about how to behave around real human-type persons.  Many of them would likely be obsolete if we were all perfect Bayesians.)

  1. It provides good incentives for others.  It's easy enough to develop purely subconscious aversions to things that are unpleasant.  If you are miserable company, people may stop talking to you without even knowing they're doing it, and some of these people may have ideas that would have benefited you.
  2. It helps you hold off on proposing diagnoses.  As tempting as it may be to dismiss people as crazy or stupid, this is a dangerous label for us biased creatures.  Fewer people than you are tempted to call these things are genuinely worth writing off as thoroughly as this kind of name-calling may tempt you to do.  Conveniently, both these words (as applied to people, more than ideas) and closely related ones are culturally considered mean, and a general niceness policy will exclude them.
  3. It lets you exist in a cognitively diverse environment.  Meanness is more tempting as an earlier resort when there's some kind of miscommunication, and miscommunication is more likely when you and your interlocutor think differently.  Per #1, not making a conscious effort to be nice will tend to drive off the people with the greatest ratio of interesting new contributions to old rehashed repetitions.
  4. It is a cooperative behavior.  It's obvious that it's nicer to live in a world where everybody is nice than in a world where everyone is a jerk.  What's less obvious, but still, I think, true, is that the cost of cooperatively being nice while others are mean is in fact very low.  This is partly because human interaction is virtually always iterated, (semi-)public, or both; and also because it's just not very hard to be nice.  The former lets you reap an excellent signaling effect:
  5. It signals the hell out of your maturity, humility, and general awesome.  If you spend as much time on the Internet as I do, you read a few online content publishers who publicly respond to their hate mail.  It can sometimes be funny to read the nasty replies.  But I generally walk away thinking more of the magnanimous ones who are patient even with their attackers.
  6. It promotes productive affect in yourself and others.  The atmosphere of a relationship or group has many effects, plenty of which aren't cognitively luminous, and some of which can spill over into your general mood and whatever you were hoping to use your brain for.
  7. It is useful in theoretical discussions to draw a distinction between being mean to someone and doing something that's seriously morally wrong, but this line is fuzzier or completely absent in human prephilosophical intuitions.  If you are ever troubled by ethical akrasia, it may be easier to stave off if you try to avoid delivering small slights and injuries as well as large violations.
  8. It yields resources in the form of friendly others.  Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, other people can be useful to have around, and not even just for companionship.  Compared to indifferent or actively hostile neighbors, it's an obvious win to be nice and win what goodwill you can.
  9. It can save time - often yielding a net benefit, rather than wasting time as is sometimes complained.  For instance, if a miscommunication is made, a mean response is to interpret the misstatement at face value and ridicule or attack - this can devolve into a time-consuming fight and may never resolve the initial issue.  A nice response is to gently clarify, which can be over in minutes.

Comments (180)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 07 January 2010 02:49:31AM 20 points [-]

In a community of people who could potentially work together to reason about possible world futures, being disrespectful - which is a more endemic sin here than being "mean" - causes people to change their LW goal set from, say, "save the universe from rogue AIs", to "save the universe from rogue AIs, and discredit person X at any opportunity." And it's not even being trite or irrational. If you know that someone has a low opinion of you, and shares it freely with others; then advances in that person's career may hinder your advance in your own. In a small world of people doomed to encounter each other over and over at different conferences and events, displaying open contempt is stupid. It hurts the entire community.

Comment author: MatthewB 07 January 2010 05:00:21AM 2 points [-]

being disrespectful - which is a more endemic sin here than being "mean" - causes people to change their LW goal set from, say, "save the universe from rogue AIs", to "save the universe from rogue AIs, and discredit person X at any opportunity."

I have noticed a little bit of this attitude. It struck me as very curious.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 07 January 2010 01:33:30AM 15 points [-]

I want to ask, why are people mean in the first place? I think before we try to "fix" some behavior we should make sure we understand it first. Otherwise we might be like the social reformers who try to fix "broken" institutions without understanding their reasons for existing.

To a first approximation, meanness seems to be the deliberate cause of offense. (Although I wonder if I'm suffering from the man-with-a-hammer syndrome here.) Anyone have other ideas?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 January 2010 02:07:20AM 8 points [-]

I second the question. In the ancestral environment, there was some individually fit balance between meanness and niceness. If niceness is supposed to pay off individually and selfishly, what changed between now and then? Why is our factory-default impulse toward niceness too weak, if niceness is such an advantage? The question is not meant to be unanswerable, but it ought to be answered.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 07 January 2010 02:12:04AM 7 points [-]

If niceness is supposed to pay off individually and selfishly, what changed between now and then?

The way that you wrote seems to confuse reproductively fit with fit for getting me what I would want on reflection. Nothing needs to have changed since the ancestral environment. We just don't necessarily care that much about maximizing the number of our offspring.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 January 2010 02:13:26AM 3 points [-]

So niceness has individual hedonic benefits but results in fewer offspring?

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 07 January 2010 02:22:39AM 4 points [-]

So niceness has individual hedonic benefits but results in fewer offspring?

That seems plausible to me. I find it easy to imagine that being nicer than the reproductive optimum could make one happier, even in the ancestral environment. Of course, there are stupid ways to be nice that wouldn't make one happier. And I'm sure that one can be too nice. But why would we expect that the hedonic and reproductive optima were ever the same?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 08 January 2010 05:24:50AM 3 points [-]

Sounds right. Of all practical purposes that I can casually think of, niceness seems bad only for getting sex (as a man) and for leadership of large groups, especially direct leadership of groups of more than a dozen extreme social inferiors.

Comment author: ciphergoth 08 January 2010 10:53:18AM 3 points [-]

Niceness really is compatible with, and indeed conducive to, getting lots of sex with lots of people. It is sex-negativity that makes the two incompatible.

Comment author: Blueberry 08 January 2010 05:39:13AM 2 points [-]

I have to strongly disagree with this. First, you seem to be conflating "reproducing" with "getting sex". Maximizing the number of your offspring has less to do with having sex and more to do with obtaining resources to raise your offspring to maturity. If you give away too many of your resources, you won't have enough to raise your offspring.

Second, there are several different notions of niceness here. The one this post discusses has to do with phrasing communication, a form of social skills. This is different than giving away resources or not looking out for your own interests. Niceness in the sense of possessing social skills, maintaining allies and friends, and not being "miserable company" is exactly what helps get sex and lead large groups.

Comment author: Alicorn 07 January 2010 02:10:27AM 9 points [-]

It may not be too weak. In the ancestral environment, everybody you could consider being mean to was probably in the room with you at the time. They could hurt you, and if you were frequently mean, the other people in the vicinity would back them up. All we need to explain why people are mean, on the Internet and in civilized societies where assault is fairly uncommon, is a mechanism that ties the disposition to be nice to the power of the other person to do you harm.

Comment author: orthonormal 07 January 2010 03:16:38AM *  3 points [-]

This hypothesis makes good predictions in general, although I think it's a subconscious phenomenon and therefore subject to cues and priming as well as the other's actual power to retaliate.

I can't find it now, but I read a study where some form of antisocial behavior (perhaps it was keeping everything in a one-shot trustee game) became less common when the victims could see the perpetrator, even when no retaliation was in fact possible (and the perp knew it). So joining a faceless and pseudonymous community should be a perfect recipe for disregard of niceness and other cooperative instincts.

Like I said, the hypothesis makes good predictions.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 07 January 2010 04:21:52AM 3 points [-]

Indeed, and is hardly a novel observation. For instance, a well-regarded--though slightly more informal--presentation of the hypothesis was published here (Holkins & Krahulik, 2004).

Comment author: MBlume 08 February 2010 08:33:47PM 1 point [-]

I can't find it now, but I read a study where some form of antisocial behavior [...] became less common when the victims could see the perpetrator [...]. So joining a faceless and pseudonymous community should be a perfect recipe for disregard of niceness and other cooperative instincts.

So should we add avatars to LW?

Comment author: Alicorn 08 February 2010 08:50:07PM 7 points [-]

I think they'd be visually distracting; LW isn't otherwise full of pictures. Additionally, a lot of people using avatars on the internet apart from Facebook do not use their own faces, or even real faces that don't belong to them; if I attached a little picture of a unicorn to my name, would that have the same effect?

Comment author: komponisto 08 February 2010 08:44:05PM 4 points [-]

So should we add avatars to LW?

Please, please, no!

Comment author: thomblake 08 February 2010 08:46:36PM 0 points [-]

So should we add avatars to LW?

Absolutely. At least support Gravatar.

Comment author: ciphergoth 07 January 2010 10:32:40AM 1 point [-]

I think to be complete we need a more detailed exposition of the payoffs of meanness.

Comment author: Alicorn 07 January 2010 02:24:44PM 7 points [-]

It's a signal that you aren't scared of being retaliated against. Which can be a pretty powerful signal. It means you're too valuable to lose and don't think you'll be attacked, or that you're very good at defending yourself and can afford to get into an altercation.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 07 January 2010 07:56:40PM 6 points [-]

This and this suggest to me that one purpose (meta-purpose?) of meanness is cheap signaling - if you already have a reputation (deserved or not) as an authority figure, you can use it to quickly designate something as 'bad' without having to spend time and energy justifying yourself.

Comment author: Morendil 07 January 2010 08:46:40AM 6 points [-]

One hypothesis is, they feel offended in the first place, and are reciprocating. There is good evolutionary justification for Tit-For-Tat.

Other than that, I'm uncomfortable discussing the topic purely in abstract. My inclination would be to analyze actual online exchanges where someone is presumed to be "mean", and study the pragmatics, context, and outcomes.

Actually, an even better starting point would be to start with a single-blind test where we pick one such exchange and verify that more than one person, in a group of non-involveds, agrees on who is being mean.

(There is one person in particular who stands out in my memory as a smart meanie who I extensively engaged with, on my home turf as it were, who may provide good material for analysis; but since I was personally involved I'm loath to use that.)

The hard question is, what is the intended purpose of the presumed meanie ? It's hard to think of a way to ascertain that - what independent source of information would we have ?

There are cases were the context provides this information: if you analyze the transcript of a teacher's class, you can work from the assumption that the teacher intends to convey some knowledge. If you run into instances of "mean" (I'm sure this would turn up for some teachers) it is empirically testable whether these behaviours make appropriate contributions to the teacher's intent.

A big issue with most Internet exchanges is that people don't, most of the time, declare a well-defined intent. They're just passing the time, or so it appears. Possibly "mean" behavior is adaptive with respect to that intent, possibly not, it's hard to tell. Perhaps this lack of definite purpose is in fact a contributing cause of "mean" behavior.

My extended exchanges with the person I refer to above came to an end when, after a lot of back-and-forth, I asked them point-blank: "What is your purpose in having these discussions ? How well are they working out for you ?" That was the last I heard of them.

Comment author: Alicorn 07 January 2010 01:44:23AM *  6 points [-]

Some hypotheses (I suspect actual cases of meanness are more complex than any of these):

  • It signals power and a lack of fear of repercussions (both to the person one is being mean to and to witnesses).

  • It is efficient at achieving certain results, like making people for whom the interaction is optional go away.

  • It can serve aesthetic or intellectual purposes, especially in the form of things like sarcasm.

  • It is sometimes employed as a defense mechanism to prevent unwanted closeness with others.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 07 January 2010 02:07:36AM 2 points [-]

To a first approximation, meanness seems to be the deliberate cause of offense.

I think that that definition captures a lot of meanness. And it probably nails the root cause of meanness.

But, if we're using "meanness" to mean something like "egregious not-niceness", your definition misses something, I think.

If niceness were just the opposite of meanness as I understand your definition, then niceness would be something like "the deliberate implication that someone has or should have high status." But I don't think that that is what Alicorn is talking about.

Here's my attempt to define niceness. I am nice to you if I show that I care about and empathize with your happiness or unhappiness. Furthermore, I must show this in a way that wouldn't normally cause you distress. (This caveat is to rule out things like "tough love", or stalkers who think that their attention makes their stalkees happy.)

That seems to me to be the kind of niceness that greases the wheels of social interaction.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 06 January 2010 11:40:19PM 11 points [-]

I VERY strongly agree with this post in general. I do have one objection though.

Most importantly, in my experience, fully recognizing that people are in general crazy and stupid has been the major enabler of positive interaction with them. The members of our community are prone to judging and condemning most people for behaving badly, and most people will continue to behave badly if judged, but if accepted as stupid and crazy and treated kindly they will be more likely to improve.

To me, of the other points 7 and 8 seem particularly important.

Comment author: Gavin 06 January 2010 05:47:43AM *  10 points [-]

Good question to ask yourself: When have you thought "that would have ended better if only I'd been a more mean?"

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 January 2010 10:24:03AM 14 points [-]

I've seen many situations where I've thought "that would have ended better if only they'd been prepared to act in a more mean way", but I can't think if I've ever thought "that would have ended better if meaner words had been used".

So it's OK to do the mean thing and tell someone who travelled to your party that they weren't invited and they can't come in if circumstances warrant, but you'll get the best results if you tell them so firmly but as nicely as possible.

I've mentioned my motto here before: as polite as possible, as rude as necessary.

Comment author: MBlume 08 February 2010 08:36:24PM *  8 points [-]

My last relationship.

ETA: Like most snappy retorts, this isn't precisely true. My last relationship would've gone a lot better had I stood up for myself, which could have been done nicely, but which my predisposition to be nice still prevented.

Comment author: Nominull 06 January 2010 07:02:45AM 5 points [-]

If you've ever tried to lead a group, you've probably encountered such a situation. Ruling by fear is not nice, but it is effective.

Comment author: Gavin 06 January 2010 07:18:07AM 4 points [-]

I've certainly been in situations where I wished I'd been more vocal, but there's a difference between being assertive--even commanding--and being mean.

Like anything, nice can certainly be taken too far.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 06 January 2010 11:48:18PM 2 points [-]

I have honestly never seen it done by a person, though I have seen it done in a situation and I have seen people pretend cowardice is niceness.

Comment author: MrHen 06 January 2010 08:37:48PM *  10 points [-]

I am successfully mean all the time. When goals are things like, "I want that person to stop talking and go away," mean works wonders. This isn't even like ciphergoth's "Do a mean thing nicely." I mean blatant, over-the-top sarcasm and public status attacks.

Of course, the best of all worlds is to be mean to your target while appearing nice to the environment. It is sort of like lying with factual truths.

EDIT: Oops, I forgot the actual point. There are times when I stop and think, "I will be nice this time and try more tact." Later, after a night of tiptoeing around the fool, I realize that I should have just been mean.

Comment author: Zebramaedchen 06 January 2010 11:08:09AM 3 points [-]

I'd like to be nice, really. If only there wasn't that fear that has been bothering me … don't nice people have bad sex?

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 January 2010 11:41:37AM 6 points [-]

I think there is some truth to this, but it's because mainstream culture is so screwed up about sex. If you can get onboard the sex-positive train, being nice and having great sex becomes compatible - indeed, being nice becomes a positive advantage, or at least I'm pretty confident it is for me. Start with Greta Christina.

Comment author: MBlume 08 February 2010 08:37:28PM 2 points [-]

Greta Christina is amazing, and I've actually been thinking lately I'd love to get her on board here.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 06 January 2010 12:50:17AM 25 points [-]

It helps you hold off on proposing diagnoses. As tempting as it may be to dismiss people as crazy or stupid, this is a dangerous label for us biased creatures. Fewer people than you are tempted to call these things are genuinely worth writing off as thoroughly as this kind of name-calling may tempt you to do.

Yes, this parallels why I've been finding hostility in argument increasingly disturbing lately. Insofar as people are rational and honest, they should expect to agree on questions of simple fact, and insofar as they differ on questions of value, then surely they should be able to reach some sort of game-theoretic compromise superior to the default outcome. If you can anticipate disagreeing even after extended interaction, something has gone horribly wrong. I read people's snarky swipes at the psychological motivations of their opponents, and it almost hurts---don't they see the symmetries of the situation? Instead of rushing to call the other mad, why don't they just jump to the meta level and ask, What do I (think I) know that they don't? What do they (think they) know that I don't?

Really, it should all be so simple. Figure out what questions you want to investigate, and update your model of the world based on incoming evidence, including the arguments of others. If you end up disagreeing with someone, just say: I think you're mistaken about these-and-such specific issues because of such-and-these specific reasons. That's it. That's all you have to do. Anger and indignation aren't helping you acquire the map that reflects the territory, so what would be the point?

I suppose I've lost a little bit of my humanity along the Way. What could be more traditionally wholesome than a delicious bout of righteous anger? But on reflection ... it's just not worth it. The sanctity of my map is too important. I'll get my kicks some other way.

Comment author: timtyler 06 January 2010 12:43:42PM 4 points [-]

"Insofar as people are rational and honest, they should expect to agree on questions of simple fact, and insofar as they differ on questions of value, then surely they should be able to reach some sort of game-theoretic compromise superior to the default outcome. If you can anticipate disagreeing even after extended interaction, something has gone horribly wrong."

Why would people with different motives agree? Surely they should signal holding opinions consistent with their aims, and frequently fail to update them in response to reasoned arguments - in order to signal how confident they are in their views - thereby hoping to convince others that they are correct - and to side with them.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 06 January 2010 08:19:02PM 2 points [-]

Why would people with different motives agree?

Notice that I did say "rational and honest."

opinions consistent with their aims

But what does this mean? Beliefs are about the world; goals are about what you would do with the world if you could rewrite it atom by atom. They're totally different things; practically any goal is compatible with any belief, unless you're infinitely convinced that some goal is literally impossible. Perhaps you're saying that agents will dishonestly argue that the world is such that their goals will be easier to achieve than they are in fact? I can think of some situations where agents would find that useful. For myself, I care about honesty.

Comment author: timtyler 06 January 2010 08:46:23PM 0 points [-]

The way I read it 'rational' and 'honest' referred to the first clause of the sentence only.

For an example of an opinion consistent with an aim, consider a big tobacco sales exec who believes that cigarettes do not cause cancer.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 06 January 2010 08:49:44PM *  0 points [-]

We probably don't actually disagree.

Comment author: Nominull 06 January 2010 07:06:35AM 2 points [-]

It's probably a bad idea to get so caught up in trappings of rationality that you lose your ability to empathize with humans and understand why, for example, they have pointless arguments.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 06 January 2010 07:44:08AM 4 points [-]

You give me far too much credit.

Comment author: clockbackward 09 January 2010 09:52:49PM 8 points [-]

Being mean to someone who is not themselves being mean or manipulative is often not just counterproductive and self destructive (due to the reasons you mentioned), but also the result of personal weakness and lack of control. Meanness usually results from one of the following situations:

  1. We feel angry and speak impulsively, entranced by our emotion.
  2. We speak carelessly and don't realize the potential emotional consequences of what we are saying.
  3. We are consciously and knowingly trying to hurt another person.

In case 1, our anger reflects a personal weakness in that our emotion prevents us from behaving level headily and making sure that what we say really promotes our interests. In case 2 we are speaking without awareness of the consequences of our actions, and hence again put our interests at risk. Only case 3 has a shot of being (at certain times) a good strategy, but in that case we must ask why we are consciously and knowingly choosing to hurt another human being, and whether such an action is ethical and justified.

Comment author: RichardChappell 06 January 2010 03:36:16AM 7 points [-]

The dispensing with niceness probably springs in large part from an extreme rejection of the ad hominem fallacy and of emotionally-based reasoning.

Another possibility is The Grim Aesthetic -- an aversion to certain attitudes and practices that might be associated with cultures of deliberate "niceness".

(Though even if those excesses are distasteful, that's no reason not to be nice in the ordinary sense.)

Comment author: alexflint 11 January 2010 01:41:56PM *  6 points [-]

Also, niceness is infectious. An individual entering a community is inclined to take on the tone and demeanour of established members. Even an established member may alter their demeanour to reflect that of others.

Comment author: JRMayne 05 January 2010 10:16:16PM 15 points [-]

I believe "nice," makes an excellent default, and I think these arguments are good ones, well-presented. Not-niceness is sometimes an effort to signal intelligence, I think; it's not particularly effective at that.

It's important, too, though, to recognize when niceness doesn't pay the utilitarian bill:

  1. Trolls. In any environment, people interested in reactions occasionally wander in. These people should be banned and ignored. Shunning is not a particularly nice thing, but even polite feedback is feedback. Do not feed these.

  2. The ineducable. Suppose a person asserts that the Monty Hall problem results in a 50-50 chance of switching or not switching. One or two efforts to educate nicely is good. Additional efforts are wasted and unproductive.

  3. Evil. Deliberately dishonest people are far rarer than alleged on internet fora generally, but it happens. Shaming people who are genuinely bad actors is fine with me, thanks.

  4. I've probably missed several. Assistance welcomed.

Overall, I'd say LW is a particularly civil corner of the internet, and I've spent time at some uncivil places. The other side of pro-niceness posting is that assuming unkindness or bad motives is not a good default for the reader; assume the other person's directness isn't not-nice.

I'd also say that I think niceness is more important for persuasion on the net than it is in person; people who know you personally might assume more internal niceness even you're sometimes a condescending, sarcastic, know-it-all. (Really.) That sort of instinctive goodwill towards one's fellow man is tougher to generate without a handshake.

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 January 2010 10:18:04AM *  13 points [-]

1 and 2 are both examples where the correct response is not being not-nice, but saying nothing.

This also applies in case 3, except where you have evidence of deliberate dishonesty that you think other honest participants may not already be aware of and need brought to their attention.

In general, if you think someone isn't worth being nice to, don't address them at all. It's OK to talk about trolls, but never talk to them.

In other words, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything :-)

Comment author: Alicorn 05 January 2010 10:25:48PM 13 points [-]

Trolls. In any environment, people interested in reactions occasionally wander in. These people should be banned and ignored. Shunning is not a particularly nice thing, but even polite feedback is feedback. Do not feed these.

Agreed - but the process of determining trollhood should probably be nice.

The ineducable. Suppose a person asserts that the Monty Hall problem results in a 50-50 chance of switching or not switching. One or two efforts to educate nicely is good. Additional efforts are wasted and unproductive.

There are nice ways to give up on teaching people. Some of these go by names that sound horrendous to our collective project here ("agreeing to disagree"); some may be more palatable ("changing the subject"). Only if the person is hotly intent on mis-educating you (or others whom you feel are themselves educable) does this quality warrant discarding niceness, and it's probably just a special case of trolling anyway.

Comment author: Jack 06 January 2010 12:15:17AM *  18 points [-]

Some of these go by names that sound horrendous to our collective project here ("agreeing to disagree"); some may be more palatable ("changing the subject").

I like "agreeing to postpone agreement".

Comment author: bogus 05 January 2010 10:57:50PM *  5 points [-]

I think you need to add a fourth option: People with a blatant conflict of interest--most often a political affiliation. Even Wikipedia (which thrives on niceness and NPOV-seeking, if not truth-seeking) assumes bad faith when people try to edit their own articles, with its WP:COI policy. The legal system assumes bad faith about prosecutors and lawyers, which is why its standard of evidence is so extreme. And while the scientific method does not assume bad faith about scientists, it still protects against their naive errors of rationality, which is just as important.

Of course, we already know that prediction markets excel at integrating people with bad faith in a rational, truth-seeking institution; finding a way to do the same thing in a deliberative forum comparable to Less Wrong would be an extremely useful development. My hunch is that it would be useful to steal a page from the playbook of politics and support clearly-defined factions with different points of view and perhaps different policy proposals or decisions or what have you. But all of this is largely speculation.

tl;dr: I think Alicorn's post is definitely cogent when it comes to LessWrong as we know it. But there's a huge design space to be explored for more resilient institutions.

Comment author: Breakfast 06 January 2010 04:49:04PM 4 points [-]

Hrm. Well, if politics itself is any example to judge by, that may make for a resilient institution -- but the mess of allegiances and biases created by splitting people into well-defined factions probably entails that the institution would be much worse off in terms of truth-finding, because devoting too much of its energies to internecine squabbling.

I suppose you need to strike a balance between unproductive antagonism, and ending up as a group of like-minded folks just patting each other on the back. Thankfully, LW seems to have a strong dose of "Let's get to the bottom of this"-type norms, and the appropriately rigorous/persnickety personalities, to stop it from getting too back-patty.

Comment author: Jack 06 January 2010 05:37:32PM 2 points [-]

Still I think we'd need some measure to prevent becoming permanently entrenched into factions. Maybe have an artificial time-limit for clearly defined factions. Every two weeks we tell everyone to give up factional loyalties and consider the evidence given. Then after a couple days re-form the factions along new boundaries.

Comment author: Breakfast 06 January 2010 09:55:47PM *  1 point [-]

That sounds pretty confusing. You might as well just not have officially sanctioned factions in the first place, right? People who agree on a given issue will naturally band together on it, but they won't be so afflicted with the bias or the pressure that comes of being on a well-defined Side, to have their whole range of opinions cohere with those held by the group. There are already de facto 'factions' on any issue we might discuss, and everyone is already felt to be continually obliged to examine the rationality of their positions, so it kind of seems like we're already there!

Comment author: Jack 06 January 2010 10:15:50PM 2 points [-]

I took bogus's point to be that we can avoid some of the harms of bad faith arguments if we make motivations explicit with clearly defined factions. That would be a reason to prefer official factions to de facto factions.

But my proposal might be too convoluted a solution for a problem that I haven't really noticed here. And I'm not sure how much officially sanctioned factions actually would prevent bad faith arguments.

Comment author: bogus 07 January 2010 12:20:18AM *  0 points [-]

But my proposal might be too convoluted a solution for a problem that I haven't really noticed here.

You haven't noticed this problem here because political debates are expressly discouraged at LessWrong. But we can easily imagine LW-like sites with the mission of making policy decision-making more rational and transparent: there is a fairly large literature on open politics, open source politics (a pun on two different usages of "open source"!), open source governance, e-democracy etc.

It's the same problem Robin Hanson wants to address with his decision markets, though his solution is to avoid all the issues with deliberation by just deferring to the output of a betting market.

Comment author: ciphergoth 07 January 2010 10:19:22AM 1 point [-]

This isn't Hanson's position at all. Decision markets don't solve the problem "how do we make a good decision" - they just improve incentives by deferring it to the investors. The investors still have the problem of what decision would be best, and deliberation mechanisms could still play an important role.

Comment author: STL 06 January 2010 05:01:41AM 5 points [-]

Another reason is the Meta-Golden Rule: "Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors."

Comment author: [deleted] 07 January 2010 01:17:29AM 3 points [-]

I'm guessing that's "as you would like to be treated", not "as they would actually treat you".

Comment author: Morendil 06 January 2010 08:26:38AM 4 points [-]

Agree, second, and applaud.

I've mostly thought of this as a matter of economy. To quote something I wrote quite a while ago, elsewhere:

In general, the things we don't like, don't want, won't tolerate vastly outnumber the things we do like, do want, do find acceptable. To enumerate them all would be a huge waste of time. And to name, for instance, only one thing we don't like - that is just getting started on the enumeration.

So, we communicate more efficiently by saying what we like, what we want, what we prefer, how we'd change things for the better, and so on.

Being rude is essentially being negative, with an additional effort to deliberately violate the conditions of felicity of whatever form of conversation is being used.

You could also cite (though I can't dig up a link right now) those studies recently published claiming that feeling rejected lowers people's IQ by a substantial amount.

Not an appropriate thing to do when you're trying to leverage collective intelligence; and if your aim isn't to leverage collective intelligence, why are you wasting your valuable time and talents posting on a public forum ?

Comment author: Corey_Newsome 06 January 2010 11:32:37AM 1 point [-]

If you do happen upon that link, please reply to this comment so I can check out the study.

Comment author: Morendil 06 January 2010 11:55:25AM 2 points [-]

Here is a news story: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2051-rejection-massively-reduces-iq.html - I haven't tracked down the actual papers.

"Recently published" turns out to be false memory, but I'm sure I saw the story pop up somewhere recently.

Comment author: magfrump 06 January 2010 08:58:53PM 2 points [-]

From http://www.psy.fsu.edu/faculty/baumeister.dp.html

Baumeister, R.F., Twenge, J.M., & Nuss, C. (in press/2002). Effects of social exclusion on cognitive processes: Anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~baumeistertice/pdfmail.php Is his site which allows you to get pdfs of his papers e-mailed to you.

I'm hoping that's the right study that you're talking about?

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 January 2010 10:49:28PM 0 points [-]

pdfs of his papers e-mailed to you.

Aside: What? Why? That is very odd.

Comment author: bentarm 06 January 2010 11:58:36PM 3 points [-]

Kinda makes sense in a way. Usually authors are forbidden from putting the 'final' version of a journal paper on their website* but are more than willing to email you a copy if you ask nicely. I don't see why automating the emailing process should cause any legal problems. Of course, I'm only speculating, there might be other reasons.

*one woman in our department always refuses to correct 'color'/'colour' in publications for american journals so that she has an draft she can put on her website which is almost identical to the final version

Comment author: Morendil 06 January 2010 09:33:26PM 0 points [-]

Yep. Thanks.

Comment author: MatthewB 06 January 2010 07:01:46AM 3 points [-]

I have been trying to inculcate this same trend on another forum I frequent (Richard Dawkins' Forums). Most of the respondents are horrible crass toward the ideas and beliefs of others on that forum (well, the crass towards the ideas and beliefs of theists), when it might be the case that the theist is there to try to figure out whether he/she should give up their faith.

Although, since adopting a be nice to strangers policy on that forum, I have noticed that the vast majority of theists who come to Richard Dawkins' forums are simply out to preach and tarnish Richard's scientific works.

I still maintain that we should remain nice (at the very least polite) to these people, as it will not give them further ammo to charge atheists with being "Mean, grumpy people who have no morals because they don't believe in God"

On this forum, I have made an effort to use the same strategy, mostly because I am here to learn from others who seem to have more knowledge than I, and I don't wish to step on others' feet.

I do understand however, that when in a group of intellectuals of copious skill and knowledge that social graces can be neglected due to an intense focus upon the information and knowledge in question. I have learned to grow a thicker skin when I am told that an idea of mine is wrong, because it might well be wrong, and the faster I learn why it is wrong, the faster I may replace the inaccurate knowledge with accurate knowledge. I think it is this latter piece of information that most people forget when in crowds of highly intellectual effective people.

And, because of this, I always try to take into account that another person may not be thinking this way when I make an attempt to correct or query them about a fact or knowledge that may be in error.

Comment deleted 06 January 2010 02:36:06PM [-]
Comment author: Corey_Newsome 06 January 2010 03:52:48PM 7 points [-]

Not for us 'average accuratarians'.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 06 January 2010 10:11:03PM 7 points [-]

Why are you assuming that being nice must decrease accuracy? Several of the points that Alicorn mentioned increase accuracy.

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 January 2010 10:52:28PM *  20 points [-]

Strongly agreed. It's been observed elsewhere on LW that sarcasm can hide gaping logical flaws in an argument that straightforward statement would immediately reveal. I have more than once found that I have been forced to be more intellectually rigorous when I'm unable to cover the gaps in my argument with dripping scorn.

Consider P Z Myers' scorn for transhumanists - I'd love to hear his "being nice" argument against us, and I think he'd have a much harder time sounding convincing.

Comment deleted 07 January 2010 10:16:35AM *  [-]
Comment author: ciphergoth 07 January 2010 10:42:32AM 3 points [-]

It's possible that this is a disagreement on the meaning of "effortful niceness". As I've said, I find that it is often more effort to express a point straightforwardly than to express it meanly, because I'm forced to think through the argument more carefully. I'm guessing that doesn't fall under the banner of "effortful niceness" for you, even though it involves effort and makes the comment nicer? Could you give an example of counterproductive effortful niceness?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 January 2010 06:32:12PM 2 points [-]

If it's literally 99%, then maybe maybe. If it's actually more like 95%, then hell no.

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 January 2010 08:02:06PM 11 points [-]

I can't extract any meaning from these percentages. Well over 99% of an ordinary person's beliefs are true, because they are about prosaic, uncontroversial things like "I have fingernails".

Comment author: MichaelVassar 06 January 2010 11:42:44PM 1 point [-]

I can't either, but my basic reaction is simply that in practice purity is critical here. If, in order to act correctly, a person needs to do more than 70 cognitive things correctly, their expected value falls by half for every 1% that they are wrong.

Comment author: dansmith 07 January 2010 12:19:13AM 0 points [-]

Assuming any action anywhere short of optimal results in zero value, sure. In practice?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 07 January 2010 01:05:19AM 0 points [-]

In practice, if you are only talking about the 70 most important steps that people are prone to messing up, that could easily be correct. Not to mention the probability of doing harm. Certainly there are a lot more than 10 steps that people are prone to messing up which reduce value by more than 80% in practice.

Comment author: dansmith 07 January 2010 01:27:11AM 1 point [-]

I suppose it depends what kinds of decisions you're talking about making. (eg keeping AIs from destroying humanity.) I was thinking along the lines of day-to-day decision making, in which people generally manage to survive for decades in spite of ridiculously flawed beliefs -- so it seems there are lots of situations where performance doesn't appear to degrade nearly so sharply.

At any rate, I guess I'm with ciphergoth, the more interesting question is why 99% accurate is "maybe maybe" okay, but 95% is "hell no". Where do those numbers come from?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 January 2010 02:09:34AM 1 point [-]

Someone who gets it 99% right is useful to me, someone who gets it 95% right is so much work to deal with that I usually don't bother.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 07 January 2010 02:51:50AM *  3 points [-]

No one gets it 99% right. (Modulo my expectation that we are speaking only of questions of a minimal difficulty; say, at least as difficult as the simplest questions that the person has never considered before.)

When I was a cryptographer, an information source with a .000001% bulge (information content above randomness) would break a code wide open for me. Lack of bias was much more important than % right.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 07 January 2010 03:30:14AM *  1 point [-]

When I was a cryptographer, an information source with a .000001% bulge (information content above randomness) would break a code wide open for me.

In that case, a second information source of that quality wouldn't have been that much use to you.

The first person who gets it 95% right would be very valuable. But there are diminishing returns.

Comment author: Cyan 07 January 2010 03:04:47AM 1 point [-]

From a curious non-cryptographer: what size of corpus are you talking about here?

Comment author: bentarm 06 January 2010 11:54:19PM 0 points [-]

I was thinking exactly the same thing. I have literally no idea what 'percentage' of the things I believe are true, and certainly wouldn't be willing to put a figure on what percentage is acceptable.

Comment author: Bongo 06 January 2010 04:41:32PM *  0 points [-]

Repugnant conlusion: 3^^^3 people with 0.00001% accurate beliefs is worth more than 100000 people with 100% accurate beliefs?

Comment author: Dahlen 14 August 2012 04:45:14AM *  2 points [-]

My experience with a forum that has adopted this policy to an extreme in the last couple of years was that whenever local social norms strongly prescribe against any behavior that falls short of active niceness, the result is a suffocating atmosphere accompanied by a severe decline in content quality (because attempts to set higher standards are perceived as "rude" towards the people lowering the standard). (If that matters, the forum was themed around game graphics creations.) "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything" was probably their most oft-cited slogan. There were multiple suggestions of basically making it socially taboo to post your stuff in a picture thread without praising recently posted creations, and some posters made it a habit of theirs to make entire posts consisting of thanking 15-20 people individually and telling them how much they loved their creations. The overall group rationality could have benefited from moving away from this extreme of niceness, in my estimation.

Fortunately, LW is in no danger of ending up like that any time soon. In fact, what is most refreshing about discussion going on here is that it's low in both active niceness and active meanness. There's this third category, entirely distinct from the other two (in fact, in a way, completely off the spectrum), that is characterized by neutrality, or reluctance to make either positive or negative general assessments of the other users or to express either appreciation or contempt. It is my belief that, overall, it is better to strive for this sort of neutrality than to try to move the community in the direction of either niceness or meanness (particularly when neutrality approximates the initial state).

The dangers of a tendency towards meanness are obvious, so I'm not going to bother with those; my main concern is that excessive pressure towards active niceness makes for a bad user experience for the less naturally empathetic folks (the kind experienced by people required to plaster a big smile on their face for the customers) and shoves completely unrelated things into the discussion, especially things that have the potential to stir up drama.

A lot of what we consider to be polite behavior is really just a series of strategies for assuring the other party that yes, we come in peace; no, we're not trying to claim higher status; yes, their needs, desires, and fundamental rights as a human being are taken into consideration, their contributions are valued and their emotional needs are attended to, plus an inordinate number of similar claims. If the goal at hand is to send forward a purely factual message on an unrelated topic in the most efficient way possible, all of this becomes diplomatic filler which can and should be cut down upon. Honestly, I can't see why we'd bother with all that unless the priors for the other party being hostile are abnormally high.

(Disclaimer: Again, I'm not suggesting that LW has any chances of ending up so far along the "niceness as community norm" axis. My perception of this community is that it is very balanced in that regard, and has thus reached an optimum (although I will not contradict any experienced member who says otherwise). The main point of this post was to elaborate on the problems of warm-fuzzy-prioritizing communities in general.)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 06 January 2010 03:59:51AM 4 points [-]

That was a very nice post.

Comment author: AndyWood 06 January 2010 05:08:23AM 4 points [-]

Strongly agree. I, for one, would probably come out of the woodwork a little more often if the commonsense ideas contained in this post gained some traction. It's nice that it was well-said, and even better that it was said at all. Thanks.

Comment author: magfrump 06 January 2010 08:54:14PM 0 points [-]

Point in case, then.

Comment author: Alicorn 06 January 2010 04:02:36AM 1 point [-]

Aw, thank you! And what a nice comment ;)

Comment author: Nominull 06 January 2010 06:37:06AM 3 points [-]

But being mean is a lot of fun.

(Speaking of which, browsing the comments is less enjoyable since the karma changes left me unable to downvote.)

Comment author: RichardKennaway 06 January 2010 10:25:31PM 4 points [-]

But being mean is a lot of fun.

So are pigging out on Big Macs and Twinkies, going out for a bevvy and a fight every Friday night, beating up your girlfriend, and watching TV and cracking six-packs all day.

For some.

If someone finds it fun to be mean, well, maybe they shouldn't?

Comment author: wedrifid 13 January 2010 06:40:22AM 2 points [-]

The dispensing with niceness probably springs in large part from an extreme rejection of the ad hominem fallacy and of emotionally-based reasoning.

Another part is that the norm 'be nice' can be used to mean ends far more effectively than crude rudeness. Rejecting the norm and then actually being nice (for reasons along the lines of your 9) tends to be a lot, well, nicer.

Comment author: Furcas 05 January 2010 11:37:10PM 2 points [-]

In my experience, people who are particularly nice in debates and discussions (as opposed to mere conversations) are usually those whose opinions are either the bland dogmas that everyone accepts without thinking, or the ridiculous nonsense that only crackpots believe. In both cases, niceness is used as a defense against criticism: No one wants to be the strident jerk who has to tell the nice person how wrong he is.

Comment author: orthonormal 06 January 2010 02:27:45AM *  13 points [-]

In my experience, people who are particularly nice in debates and discussions (as opposed to mere conversations) are usually those whose opinions are either the bland dogmas that everyone accepts without thinking, or the ridiculous nonsense that only crackpots believe.

I strongly beg to differ. I haven't found niceness to be correlated with depth of thought; however, I have found that (ceteris paribus) I prefer reading exchanges between nicer people.

Comment author: Furcas 06 January 2010 02:47:55AM 6 points [-]

Aw, but here on Less Wrong we barely ever have to deal with idiots and crazies, so it's easy to be nice if you want to. Go to the richarddawkins.net or randi.org forums and look at who's being extra-nice.

Comment author: bogus 06 January 2010 03:35:01AM 8 points [-]

Is "idiots and crazies" really the best description of such users? It seems to me that these are mostly users who self-identify with some well-defined clusters of views, and that any 'idiocy' woud be well explained by their factional identity. This would be a political divide masquerading as simple disagreement: a difficult issue and well outside LW's scope.

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 January 2010 10:28:02AM *  5 points [-]

Have a look at the way one of the world's top cryptographers, David Wagner, talks to the crazies on sci.crypt. It makes me tear my hair out sometimes - these people are rude and dismissive towards him, seeming to have no idea how fortunate they are that someone of his caliber has deigned to pay their ideas any attention at all, let alone the patient and helpful explanations of why they may not advance the art as much as they hope.

(at least, that was my experience many years ago - I haven't read it for a long time)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 05 January 2010 11:57:19PM 5 points [-]

Also holders of Deep Wisdom who sort-a in-a-sense agree with anything (and thus avoid falsifiability but imply universal expertise) play "nice".

Comment author: Alicorn 06 January 2010 12:01:36AM 11 points [-]

A negative feature of people you have observed to deploy niceness is not a good reason to eschew niceness.

Comment author: Furcas 06 January 2010 12:08:03AM 6 points [-]

It kind of is: I wouldn't want to be mistaken for one of those people.

Also, I wouldn't want anyone to refrain from criticizing me for fear of sounding like a strident jerk.

Comment author: Alicorn 06 January 2010 12:53:58AM *  14 points [-]

I have hesitated to criticize you beyond a certain point in the past because you have often come across as mean, and because I expected such criticism to result in that being aimed at me. If you do not want people to hesitate to criticize you, perhaps you should be nice.

Comment author: bogus 06 January 2010 12:24:02AM *  6 points [-]

Also, I wouldn't want anyone to refrain from criticizing me for fear of sounding like a strident jerk.

You can declare "Crocker's rules" and officially free other debaters from the burden of taking your fragile ego^H^H^Hfeeeeeeeelinggggs into account. [1] [2]

Tolerating 'official' trollishness (the option I proposed in my reply), while extremely effective, is a far more radical policy which should be reserved for blatant errors, obvious bad faith and the like. (It's much better than the default policy, which involves authoritarian warnings followed by adminstrative deletions and bans)

[1] That's the way it works in theory; in practice, declaring Crocker's Rules is all too often seen as a trollish and unpolite strategy. So your orignal post still has some merit.

[2] ETA: It should be noted that declaring Crocker's rules does not entitle you to be mean to other commenters. Most importantly, it does not entitle you to challenge the norm of being generally nice to one another. IMHO, your exchange with Alicorn shows the superiority of CR properly understood over the naïve symmetrist approach.

Comment author: Jack 06 January 2010 12:20:57AM -1 points [-]

Alicorn was recommending niceness as a less wrong norm. We all know you're not one of those people and we won't refrain from criticizing your for fear of sounding like a jerk.

Comment author: Furcas 06 January 2010 12:31:44AM *  5 points [-]

Alicorn was recommending niceness as a less wrong norm.

I thought she was recommending niceness to LWers and people from "communities similar to ours" no matter where we are.

We all know you're not one of those people and we won't refrain from criticizing your for fear of sounding like a jerk.

My own spotless reputation aside, I've noticed that discussion forums where everyone tries to be "nice" tend to degenerate into places where all criticism has to be phrased meekly and thus forthright criticism becomes impossible.

Sometimes, a spade has to be called a spade, and a moron has to be called a moron.

Comment author: thomblake 06 January 2010 02:35:27PM 7 points [-]

a spade has to be called a spade, and a moron has to be called a moron

These rules are not of a kind. In the former case, you have something that's indisputably a (shovel|playing card suit) and call it by its name. In the latter case, you likely don't have very solid grounds for identifying a person as a 'moron' (we're talking about Internet exchanges, right?) and the term isn't very well-defined in the first place.

If you're administering early 20th-century IQ tests then you have good reason to be calling people morons; otherwise, no.

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 January 2010 10:37:49AM 7 points [-]

A spade has to be called a spade, but when does a moron have to be called a moron?

Either other people are convinced by Moron's arguments, in which case you have to actually address them, and calling them a moron will only stand in the way. Or, no-one is, in which case if you've written off convincing Moron themselves, then there is simply no point in addressing them.

The role that you write for yourself is one I find very appealing - the guy who Tells It Like It Is - but I'm a long way from being convinced that it will maximise our tendency towards accurate conclusions.

Comment author: radical_negative_one 06 January 2010 11:20:36AM 11 points [-]

In my experience very few people will listen to an argument after the person presenting the argument has called them stupid. When you call somebody a moron, then i expect that you've drastically reduced the chances that this person will listen to you.

In other words, the action of calling someone a moron takes convincing the target off of the table, if you haven't done that already.

My guess is that, when you call you're in a debate and you call your opponent stupid, it's mainly for the benefit of the people who already agree with you; the main purpose is probably designating "which side you're on" rather than convincing anyone who disagrees. This reminds me of the line of retreat idea -- it's easier for people to change their minds if they can do so without calling themselves stupid.

Comment author: Corey_Newsome 06 January 2010 11:43:35AM 2 points [-]

I wonder what effects being imaginary has on how you deal with the simulation hypothesis.

Comment author: Morendil 06 January 2010 11:20:05AM 10 points [-]

Calling a particular remark or behavior moronic seems sometimes necessary; I fail to see how it is helpful to characterize a person as a moron.

Most of the time this type of insult is false to fact: your interlocutors are not, in fact, mentally retarded, they are merely wrong. Sometimes obstinately wrong, sometimes wrong in ways actively harmful to themselves and others; but experience proves beyond doubt that this happens to people of average and higher intelligence.

Calling someone a moron is designed to provoke them, and signal something to other readers; it serves no useful discursive purpose.

Comment author: Furcas 06 January 2010 05:46:59PM *  1 point [-]

Either other people are convinced by Moron's arguments, in which case you have to actually address them, and calling them a moron will only stand in the way. Or, no-one is

That no one is convinced by Moron's arguments doesn't mean that everyone has realized the true nature of Moron and his arguments. For example, there are many people who accept evolution but who see creationists as reasonable people whom they disagree with, rather than as the deluded ignoramuses that they usually are. Being too nice to idiots and crazies gives the impression that they are merely mistaken, rather than idiotic or crazy.

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 January 2010 07:44:45PM 13 points [-]

It's still counterproductive. The trouble is, creationists are not crazy - not in the way that most people you might like to persuade would recognise. Creationism is crazy. Many people have trouble grasping that sane people can believe crazy things - and by calling the people crazy, you blur that understanding. This is in addition to the general bad effects documented in the post from calling people crazy.

The same applies to calling them stupid, only even more so.

Comment author: Furcas 06 January 2010 08:22:57PM *  6 points [-]

I don't think you've understood my comment.

I agree that sane people can believe crazy things, because everyone makes mistakes. The point expressed in the comment you've replied to is that, at least for adults living in the West, creationism is not merely a mistake.

In other words, I'm not saying that creationists are crazy because they believe something that's contradicted by the evidence and is therefore very, very unlikely to be true. I'm saying they're crazy because the thought processes that have kept them from rejecting creationism (after going off to college, say) are profoundly anti-rational. Isn't having profoundly anti-rational thought processes a common definition of insanity?

I guess you could argue that creationists are only crazy in one part of their lives, not in all of it. Well, okay. I might point out that some mafiosi are only evil in one part of their lives, but are perfectly nice people the rest of the time, and yet we still consider them evil.

Most creationists (and tasseomancers, spiritual healers, and so forth) are crazy, not just mistaken, and pretending otherwise for the sake of niceness is what's counterproductive, at least in the long run.

Comment author: Jack 06 January 2010 08:49:31PM 2 points [-]

For example, there are many people who accept evolution but who see creationists as reasonable people whom they disagree with, rather than as the deluded ignoramuses that they usually are. Being too nice to idiots and crazies gives the impression that they are merely mistaken, rather than idiotic or crazy.

In these cases a rationalist has to choose between trying to convert the creationist (extremely unlikely, especially with onlookers) or demonstrating to onlookers that the creationist is an idiot and his views should be ignored. In most situations I would prioritize the latter. In these cases whether to be nice or not just depends on whether or not the on lookers will be okay with it. If they respect you already then being mean and insulting might make a lot of sense. If you are still trying to win the onlookers over being mean could turn them off.

Related: Is arguing for the audience instead of your interlocutor a dark art?

Comment author: sketerpot 07 January 2010 04:11:32AM 7 points [-]

The only way you can reasonably hope to accomplish much by publicly arguing with a creationist is to go for the audience, not the creationist with whom you're arguing. A lot of people don't seem to realize this, and they see arguing with creationists as pointless because the creationist won't be convinced. My experience suggests that you can sway the peanut gallery by making creationists look stupid.

The key to making creationists look stupid in public seems to be remaining calm and ostensibly polite (but making your comments increasingly barbed) while the creationist loses his cool and becomes more and more unhinged, and the audience cringes at the now-obvious lunacy and ignorance. You score points if you can do this without profanity or direct insult, which is surprisingly easy on the internet, where you can look up facts and work on your phrasing. I'm not sure where this fits on the spectrum of niceness; it's not rude, per se, but it's sure ugly.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 07 January 2010 04:49:45AM 3 points [-]

That would be the fine art of being simultaneously meticulously polite and not at all nice, and is a subtle yet brutally effective way of tilting an audience in your favor completely independently of the soundness of your argument. Being good at reading someone well enough to figure out how to push their buttons without the audience noticing helps, as does having an opponent predisposed to being obnoxious/deranged/etc.

It's worth noting that professional creationists (and other intelligent people out promoting ideologies) tend to be very good at this, because it is effective, and acting angry/rude to them is a good way to "lose" an argument even when correct.

Comment author: Jack 06 January 2010 05:32:02PM 5 points [-]

Are we really not capable of being nice and forthright when possible and forthright when we can't be nice?

Comment author: Furcas 06 January 2010 06:02:14PM 2 points [-]

I'm not sure what you mean. We can always be nice. You could compliment your torturer on his technique until you draw your last breath. When should we stop sacrificing forthrightness for niceness, in your opinion?

Comment author: Jack 06 January 2010 06:12:21PM *  2 points [-]

Oh, I see what happened. There is an implicature you missed. But you're right, it's kind of confusing. How about this: "Are we really not capable of being nice and forthright when possible and forthright when we can't be both?"

Comment author: Furcas 06 January 2010 06:29:21PM 0 points [-]

Sorry, I still don't understand.

Do you mean that we should be more generous with true compliments, but not hold back criticism that could hurt our interlocutor's feelings?

Comment author: Jack 06 January 2010 06:43:19PM 1 point [-]

You can often give criticism and be nice. We should do that whenever possible. If it isn't possible to share the criticism without being mean then, by all means, be mean. Being nice is a good thing. But it isn't as important as sharing criticism. So don't sacrifice the latter for the former.

Comment author: bogus 06 January 2010 01:29:38AM *  4 points [-]

I've noticed that discussion forums where everyone tries to be "nice"tend to degenerate into places where all criticism has to be phrased meekly and thus forthright criticism becomes impossible.

I won't deny that this particular attractor exists; that's why I think some degree of trollishness cannot be avoided. It would be enough if a fraction of members voluntarily adopt Crocker's Rules and serve as free targets for vigorous debate. These users would have to be largely uninterested in conventional status, since low status would be integral to their role.

However, we could take this idea to the extreme and award the lowest status to people with the best truth-seeking record and to the people who technically control the site; these people would be the "lowest troll(s)" and 'officially' heckle misguided and dishonest commenters who could not be discouraged by nicer means. The idea is that a ban (as a last resort) could afterwards be considered "fair", since it would be less affected by ostracizing, ingroups/outgroups and other spurious "community" dynamics.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 January 2010 01:51:12AM 7 points [-]

One of the reasons I take the front line against trolls is a sense that no one else would dare to do so. I'm not sure what you're talking about above, but it sounds similar.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 06 January 2010 02:27:10AM 5 points [-]

One of the reasons I take the front line against trolls is a sense that no one else would dare to do so.

No one else has the technical capability to do so. Even with timely downvoting, there is still some air time and responses, and the worst cases so far were taking advantage of that. The situations resolved themselves only after comment-deleting, not after determination that the person is a troll.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 06 January 2010 01:38:31AM 2 points [-]

It would be enough if a fraction of members voluntarily adopts Crocker's Rules and serve as free targets for vigorous debate. These users would have to be largely uninterested in conventional status, since low status would be integral to their role.

I'd be tempted to volunteer, if we decided to go that route, but I don't think I want to (or would be able to, without sacrificing in other areas) devote that kind of energy to the site.

However, we could take this idea to the extreme and award the lowest status to people with the best truth-seeking record and to the people who technically control the site; these people would be the "lowest troll(s)" and 'officially' heckle misguided and dishonest commenters who could not be discouraged by nicer means.

I used to be a member of a forum that basically used that method - one of the moderators had a well-deserved reputation for being very willing to get into fights and not at all concerned with politeness, and she'd generally jump into a given situation after at least one of the other mods had commented on it. It seemed to work very well, and was definitely entertaining and educational. (The forum is here if anyone's curious; I don't remember the name of the mod, and I'm actually not sure she's still there; it's been about 5 or 6 years since I was there.)

Comment author: bogus 05 January 2010 11:45:56PM *  2 points [-]

Very good point! There seems to be a continuum between pure trollishness (where supposedly all you care about is to stir up a strong reaction) and pure politeness (when it is used as a defense against strident disagreement and debunking). So tolerance for mildly trollish debate (as in 'radical honesty' perhaps) may be the best defense against this kind of passive-aggressive niceness.

Comment author: SilasBarta 05 January 2010 11:45:09PM 3 points [-]

No one wants to be the strident jerk who has to tell the nice person how wrong he is.

No one except me, maybe ...

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 January 2010 10:41:02AM 13 points [-]

The fact that you want to be that person should give you tremendous pause. You've written yourself a rather heroic role - I urge you to consider carefully whether this is really accuracy-maximizing behaviour.

Comment author: sketerpot 07 January 2010 04:14:35AM 2 points [-]

I would want to be the nice person who tells the other nice person how wrong he is. One can be blunt without being unkind.

Comment author: mattnewport 06 January 2010 08:46:37AM *  0 points [-]

I really am confused by your 'commonsense notion' of niceness. Nice in common usage is very close to being a synonym for boring. Describing someone or something as nice usually sounds like damning with faint praise. I'm afraid I don't feel I've learnt anything from your post.

Comment author: Morendil 06 January 2010 05:28:11PM *  13 points [-]

We can taboo "nice", and say instead "thinking about how my comment will make people feel, and revising it before I post it if the tone seems antagonistic or otherwise likely to distract from the underlying point".

The salient features are: a) thinking about feelings and b) acknowledging that form matters as well as content.

Your comment is a good example of "nice". You said you interpreted "nice" in such a way that you didn't get much from Alicorn's post, but you said that with some regard for her feelings. Let me attempt to rephrase it in a "mean" tone, attempting to preserve the content, and please tell me if the difference is apparent:

Last time I looked, "nice" was politically correct bullcrap for plain old "boring". "Nice" is what my mom calls old ladies and their doggies. Can we get back to discussing rationality now, or are you going to waste more of everyone's time ?

Comment author: Jack 06 January 2010 05:39:30PM 0 points [-]

We can taboo "nice", and say instead "thinking about how my comment will make people feel, and revising it before I post it if the tone seems antagonistic or otherwise likely to distract from the underlying point".

Instead of tabooing a perfectly good word, how about we just agree to define "nice" as "thinking about how my comment will make people feel, and revising it before I post it if the tone seems antagonistic or otherwise likely to distract from the underlying point"?

Comment author: ciphergoth 06 January 2010 07:53:06PM 1 point [-]

Taboo in this sense, I think.

Comment author: Morendil 06 January 2010 06:06:57PM 0 points [-]

I meant taboo in that sense, yes.

Comment author: Jack 06 January 2010 06:13:33PM 0 points [-]

Erm, I see. Sorry :-)

Comment author: Alicorn 06 January 2010 02:37:11PM 0 points [-]

Does it make sense if you substitute "kind"?

Comment author: mattnewport 06 January 2010 05:11:01PM 3 points [-]

Not really I'm afraid. Kindness generally implies a status differential. People are kind to children, animals, the sick, the poor or the old. It is a gesture of charity to those of lower status and not a stance that makes much sense in a context of an intellectual discussion between equals. Being 'kind' in that context sounds dangerously close to condescension. The word that makes the most sense to me is 'polite' but you stated that politeness is not what you mean.

The one definite point I take away from your post is that people won't like you if you are a dick to them. That is true but not particularly enlightening. Implicit in your post is the idea that Less Wrong as a community is insufficiently nice/kind. I'm not sure if you actually think that but I don't believe it is true. Beyond that, I don't find anything in the post that persuades me I should try to be more nice/kind and even if I were convinced that I should the post does not give any concrete steps I could take to become so. That is why I don't feel I've learnt anything from the post.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 06 January 2010 05:22:21PM *  5 points [-]

Not really I'm afraid. Kindness generally implies a status differential. People are kind to children, animals, the sick, the poor or the old. It is a gesture of charity to those of lower status and not a stance that makes much sense in a context of an intellectual discussion between equals. Being 'kind' in that context sounds dangerously close to condescension. The word that makes the most sense to me is 'polite' but you stated that politeness is not what you mean.

We seem to have a pretty universal norm here for considering people who we think are wrong about something that we think we're right about to be temporarily/contextually slightly lower-status than ourselves. 'Kind' might be more accurate than you're giving it credit for. (Alternately, I could be misreading the group's norms; I'm fairly sure I'm not, in this case, but it wouldn't be the first time I've been wrong about such things without realizing it, if I am.)

Comment author: zero_call 06 January 2010 03:52:21AM *  1 point [-]

Good post because it's so relevant to this kind of forum. I also really appreciate your initial admission that actually niceness or kindness may have some degree of logical irrelevance in a forum of this nature.

Your list of positives associated with being nice I find a little bit unsatisfactory because I'm not sure how much the core idea really stands up to rational argument. For example, your list is quite un-axiomatic. Many of the items could be categorized or framed under one of the coexistent items, for example, 4 into 3, 1 into 5, and so on. As another example, it seems like niceness in popular society largely derives from religious influences and cultural tradition. IMO this is an indication of the kind of morality philosophy which goes into niceness, which has very little to do with any kind of hard rationalistic analysis. Of course it's good to be nice... I think this is obvious to most human beings, and forms a kind of staple ingredient for all cooperative societies. But if you can't see that, is it really the sort of thing that can be logically justified?

It's a bit like logically justifying that evil is bad... it's more a matter of moral philosophical definition and interpretation, not as much of an empirical or rationalistic justification.

Comment author: Nanani 07 January 2010 12:11:50AM 1 point [-]

Reason five has got to be the best one.

However, you have to remember a few basic things, like the fact that being nice can be a waste of time (I love the fact that this community doesn't entertain "thank you" and "good job" as comments on their own), and that not everyone's definition of nice is the same. Monosyllables really -are- confusing when too much goes non-unpacked (un-unpacked? disunpacked?) inside.

Finally, re the aside on spelling, if there were an automatic "niceness checker" available the situation might be different, but as things stand poor spelling is a signal for laziness.

Comment author: Emily 07 January 2010 02:56:40PM 2 points [-]

"packed"?

Comment author: Dustin 06 January 2010 10:11:36PM 1 point [-]

There's another side of this coin.

Something I've been thinking about lately is that it seems like in most situations you are better off interpreting other people's actions and statements charitably.

React to comments as if the emotional content was meant in the best possible interpretation.

I find that I generally do this without thinking about it. Thus, the reason I was a little surprised to find this post on LW.

Comment author: MatthewB 06 January 2010 06:48:11AM 1 point [-]

Fewer people than you are tempted to call these things are genuinely worth writing off as thoroughly as this kind of name-calling may tempt you to do. Conveniently, both these words (as applied to people, more than ideas) and closely related ones are culturally considered mean, and a general niceness policy will exclude them.

I am having a hard time parsing this passage. Particularly the beginning:

Fewer people than you are tempted to call these things are genuinely worth writing off as thoroughly as this kind of name-calling may tempt you to do.

And, when you refer to "Both of these words," are you referring to *crazy and stupid?

Comment author: Alicorn 06 January 2010 02:43:27PM 1 point [-]

It is kind of an awkward sentence. Here's a less concise translation:

You are probably tempted to call people "crazy" and "stupid" pretty frequently, with a fair number of people. Fewer people than that are completely worth writing off. Since you are imperfectly rational, using "crazy" and "stupid" to describe people will tend to make you write them off. But, as just explained, this will result in you writing off people you shouldn't.

Comment author: MatthewB 07 January 2010 04:49:55AM 1 point [-]

Thank you. This is almost what I expected.

I have been trying to use this sort of method (not writing people off as stupid or crazy, when they have beliefs that are less than perfectly rational) for some time now, and it can be confoundedly difficult.

However, I have noticed that by not just writing people off, often I am capable of finding some crack in the wall between us with which to make some sort of communication possible.

Comment author: abigailgem 06 January 2010 10:40:44AM 0 points [-]

I think the meaning is, that on reading something unpalatable, one may be tempted to write it off as "crazy" or "stupid" quickly, and then ignore it, and trying to see the good in it may be more useful; and calling the writer crazy or stupid will make further communication more difficult. So when someone uses those words too readily, that person is called "mean", and seen as not "nice".

Comment author: MatthewB 07 January 2010 04:55:51AM 1 point [-]

Yes... This is the exact sort of problem of which I am trying to make people (the atheist faction) on the Richard Dawkins website aware. The site is obviously a haven for atheists, yet most of them are aggressively hostile to any theistic (or even deistic) beliefs, which in turn, makes communication almost impossible. In many cases, it even turns a person or two away who might have been teachable in terms of rationality (I advocate teaching of critical skills rather than the assault of their beliefs).

Although, even doing this (teaching critical/rational skills) can be incredibly hard when the core of a person's belief is based upon the very irrationality that one is trying to correct. This creates a very obvious Catch-22 situation.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 10 January 2010 06:12:13AM *  0 points [-]
Comment author: pdf23ds 10 January 2010 06:28:38AM 1 point [-]

Yeah, it goes a lot more into the "how" than into the "why".

Comment author: Morendil 06 January 2010 09:39:57AM *  0 points [-]

Your parenthetical point about spelling deserves longer development; otherwise I'd delete it, for fear of distracting.

EDIT: I turned the bulk of this comment into a top-level post, hoping for a broader response to a question that's important to me.

Comment author: Liron 06 January 2010 07:03:08AM *  0 points [-]

This reminds me of the early Less Wrong "agreement movement".

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 06 January 2010 07:16:49AM *  1 point [-]

It's an attention conservation notice. (ETA: Liron's comment originally referred to the tl;dr at the start of the article. That's what I'm talking about.)