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Undiscriminating Skepticism

93 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 March 2010 11:23PM

Tl;dr:  Since it can be cheap and easy to attack everything your tribe doesn't believe, you shouldn't trust the rationality of just anyone who slams astrology and creationism; these beliefs aren't just false, they're also non-tribal among educated audiences.  Test what happens when a "skeptic" argues for a non-tribal belief, or argues against a tribal belief, before you decide they're good general rationalists.  This post is intended to be reasonably accessible to outside audiences.

I don't believe in UFOs.  I don't believe in astrology.  I don't believe in homeopathy.  I don't believe in creationism.  I don't believe there were explosives planted in the World Trade Center.  I don't believe in haunted houses.  I don't believe in perpetual motion machines.  I believe that all these beliefs are not only wrong but visibly insane.

If you know nothing else about me but this, how much credit should you give me for general rationality?

Certainly anyone who was skillful at adding up evidence, considering alternative explanations, and assessing prior probabilities, would end up disbelieving in all of these.

But there would also be a simpler explanation for my views, a less rare factor that could explain it:  I could just be anti-non-mainstream.  I could be in the habit of hanging out in moderately educated circles, and know that astrology and homeopathy are not accepted beliefs of my tribe.  Or just perceptually recognize them, on a wordless level, as "sounding weird".  And I could mock anything that sounds weird and that my fellow tribesfolk don't believe, much as creationists who hang out with fellow creationists mock evolution for its ludicrous assertion that apes give birth to human beings.

You can get cheap credit for rationality by mocking wrong beliefs that everyone in your social circle already believes to be wrong.  It wouldn't mean that I have any ability at all to notice a wrong belief that the people around me believe to be right, or vice versa - to further discriminate truth from falsity, beyond the fact that my social circle doesn't already believe in something.

Back in the good old days, there was a simple test for this syndrome that would get quite a lot of mileage:  You could just ask me what I thought about God.  If I treated the idea with deeper respect than I treated astrology, holding it worthy of serious debate even if I said I disbelieved in it, then you knew that I was taking my cues from my social surroundings - that if the people around me treated a belief as high-prestige, high-status, I wouldn't start mocking it no matter what the state of evidence.

On the other hand suppose I said without hesitation that my epistemic state on God was similar to my epistemic state on psychic powers: no positive evidence, lots of failed tests, highly unfavorable prior, and if you believe it under those circumstances then something is wrong with your mind.  Then you would have heard a bit of skepticism that might cost me something socially, and that not everyone around me would have endorsed, even in educated circles.  You would know it wasn't just a cheap way of picking up cheap points.

Today the God-test no longer works, because some people realized that the taking-it-seriously aura of religion is in fact the main thing left which prevents people from noticing the epistemic awfulness; there has been a concerted and, I think, well-advised effort to mock religion and strip it of its respectability.  The upshot is that there are now quite wide social circles in which God is just another stupid belief that we all know we don't believe in, on the same list with astrology.  You could be dealing with an adept rationalist, or you could just be dealing with someone who reads Reddit.

And of course I could easily go on to name some beliefs that others think are wrong and that I think are right, or vice versa, but would inevitably lose some of my audience at each step along the way - just as, a couple of decades ago, I would have lost a lot of my audience by saying that religion was unworthy of serious debate.  (Thankfully, today this outright dismissal is at least considered a respectable, mainstream position even if not everyone holds it.)

I probably won't lose much by citing anti-Artificial-Intelligence views as an example of undiscriminating skepticism.  I think a majority among educated circles are sympathetic to the argument that brains are not magic and so there is no obstacle in principle to building machines that think.  But there are others, albeit in the minority, who recognize Artificial Intelligence as "weird-sounding" and "sci-fi", a belief in something that has never yet been demonstrated, hence unscientific - the same epistemic reference class as believing in aliens or homeopathy.

(This is technically a demand for unobtainable evidence.  The asymmetry with homeopathy can be summed up as follows:  First:  If we learn that Artificial Intelligence is definitely impossible, we must have learned some new fact unknown to modern science - everything we currently know about neurons and the evolution of intelligence suggests that no magic was involved.  On the other hand, if we learn that homeopathy is possible, we must have learned some new fact unknown to modern science; if everything else we believe about physics is true, homeopathy shouldn't work.  Second:  If homeopathy works, we can expect double-blind medical studies to demonstrate its efficacy right now; the absence of this evidence is very strong evidence of absence.  If Artificial Intelligence is possible in theory and in practice, we can't necessarily expect its creation to be demonstrated using current knowledge - this absence of evidence is only weak evidence of absence.)

I'm using Artificial Intelligence as an example, because it's a case where you can see some "skeptics" directing their skepticism at a belief that is very popular in educated circles, that is, the nonmysteriousness and ultimate reverse-engineerability of mind.  You can even see two skeptical principles brought into conflict - does a good skeptic disbelieve in Artificial Intelligence because it's a load of sci-fi which has never been demonstrated?  Or does a good skeptic disbelieve in human exceptionalism, since it would require some mysterious, unanalyzable essence-of-mind unknown to modern science?

It's on questions like these where we find the frontiers of knowledge, and everything now in the settled lands was once on the frontier.  It might seem like a matter of little importance to debate weird non-mainstream beliefs; a matter for easy dismissals and open scorn.  But if this policy is implemented in full generality, progress goes down the tubes.  The mainstream is not completely right, and future science will not just consist of things that sound reasonable to everyone today - there will be at least some things in it that sound weird to us.  (This is certainly the case if something along the lines of Artificial Intelligence is considered weird!)  And yes, eventually such scientific truths will be established by experiment, but somewhere along the line - before they are definitely established and everyone already believes in them - the testers will need funding.

Being skeptical about some non-mainstream beliefs is not a fringe project of little importance, not always a slam-dunk, not a bit of occasional pointless drudgery - though I can certainly understand why it feels that way to argue with creationists.  Skepticism is just the converse of acceptance, and so to be skeptical of a non-mainstream belief is to try to contribute to the project of advancing the borders of the known - to stake an additional epistemic claim that the borders should not expand in this direction, and should advance in some other direction instead.

This is high and difficult work - certainly much more difficult than the work of mocking everything that sounds weird and that the people in your social circle don't already seem to believe.

To put it more formally, before I believe that someone is performing useful cognitive work, I want to know that their skepticism discriminates truth from falsehood, making a contribution over and above the contribution of this-sounds-weird-and-is-not-a-tribal-belief.  In Bayesian terms, I want to know that p(mockery|belief false & not a tribal belief) > p(mockery|belief true & not a tribal belief).

If I recall correctly, the US Air Force's Project Blue Book, on UFOs, explained away as a sighting of the planet Venus what turned out to actually be an experimental aircraft.  No, I don't believe in UFOs either; but if you're going to explain away experimental aircraft as Venus, then nothing else you say provides further Bayesian evidence against UFOs either.  You are merely an undiscriminating skeptic.  I don't believe in UFOs, but in order to credit Project Blue Book with additional help in establishing this, I would have to believe that if there were UFOs then Project Blue Book would have turned in a different report.

And so if you're just as skeptical of a weird, non-tribal belief that turns out to have pretty good support, you just blew the whole deal - that is, if I pay any extra attention to your skepticism, it ought to be because I believe you wouldn't mock a weird non-tribal belief that was worthy of debate.

Personally, I think that Michael Shermer blew it by mocking molecular nanotechnology, and Penn and Teller blew it by mocking cryonics (justification: more or less exactly the same reasons I gave for Artificial Intelligence).  Conversely, Richard Dawkins scooped up a huge truckload of actual-discriminating-skeptic points, at least in my book, for not making fun of the many-worlds interpretation when he was asked about in an interview; indeed, Dawkins noted (correctly) that the traditional collapse postulate pretty much has to be incorrect.  The many-worlds interpretation isn't just the formally simplest explanation that fits the facts, it also sounds weird and is not yet a tribal belief of the educated crowd; so whether someone makes fun of MWI is indeed a good test of whether they understand Occam's Razor or are just mocking everything that's not a tribal belief.

Of course you may not trust me about any of that.  And so my purpose today is not to propose a new litmus test to replace atheism.

But I do propose that before you give anyone credit for being a smart, rational skeptic, that you ask them to defend some non-mainstream belief.  And no, atheism doesn't count as non-mainstream anymore, no matter what the polls show.  It has to be something that most of their social circle doesn't believe, or something that most of their social circle does believe which they think is wrong.  Dawkins endorsing many-worlds still counts for now, although its usefulness as an indicator is fading fast... but the point is not to endorse many-worlds, but to see them take some sort of positive stance on where the frontiers of knowledge should change.

Don't get me wrong, there's a whole crazy world out there, and when Richard Dawkins starts whaling on astrology in "The Enemies of Reason" documentary, he is doing good and necessary work. But it's dangerous to let people pick up too much credit just for slamming astrology and homeopathy and UFOs and God.  What if they become famous skeptics by picking off the cheap targets, and then use that prestige and credibility to go after nanotechnology?  Who will dare to consider cryonics now that it's been featured on an episode of Penn and Teller's "Bullshit"?  On the current system you can gain high prestige in the educated circle just by targeting beliefs like astrology that are widely believed to be uneducated; but then the same guns can be turned on new ideas like the many-worlds interpretation, even though it's being actively debated by physicists.  And that's why I suggest, not any particular litmus test, but just that you ought to have to stick your neck out and say something a little less usual - say where you are not skeptical (and most of your tribemates are) or where you are skeptical (and most of the people in your tribe are not).

I am minded to pay attention to Robyn Dawes as a skillful rationalist, not because Dawes has slammed easy targets like astrology, but because he also took the lead in assembling and popularizing the total lack of experimental evidence for nearly all schools of psychotherapy and the persistence of multiple superstitions such as Rorschach ink-blot interpretation in the face of literally hundreds of experiments trying and failing to find any evidence for it.  It's not that psychotherapy seemed like a difficult target after Dawes got through with it, but that, at the time he attacked it, people in educated circles still thought of it as something that educated people believed in.  It's not quite as useful today, but back when Richard Feynman published "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" you could pick up evidence that he was actually thinking from the fact that he disrespected psychotherapists as well as psychics.

I'll conclude with some simple and non-trustworthy indicators that the skeptic is just filling in a cheap and largely automatic mockery template:

  • The "skeptic" opens by remarking about the crazy true believers and wishful thinkers who believe in X, where there seem to be a surprising number of physicists making up the population of those wacky cult victims who believe in X.  (The physicist-test is not an infallible indicator of rightness or even non-stupidity, but it's a filter that rapidly picks up on, say, strong AI, molecular nanotechnology, cryonics, the many-worlds interpretation, and so on.)  Bonus point losses if the "skeptic" remarks on how easily physicists are seduced by sci-fi ideas.  The reason why this is a particularly negative indicator is that when someone is in a mode of automatically arguing against everything that seems weird and isn't a belief of their tribe - of rejecting weird beliefs as a matter of naked perceptual recognition of weirdness - then they tend to perceptually fill-in-the-blank by assuming that anything weird is believed by wacky cult victims (i.e., people Not Of Our Tribe).  And they don't backtrack, or wonder otherwise, even if they find out that the "cult" seems to exhibit a surprising number of people who go around talking about rationality and/or members with PhDs in physics.  Roughly, they have an automatic template for mocking weird beliefs, and if this requires them to just swap in physicists for astrologers as gullible morons, that's what they'll do.  Of course physicists can be gullible morons too, but you should be establishing that as a surprising conclusion, not using it as an opening premise!
  • The "skeptic" offers up items of "evidence" against X which are not much less expected in the case that X is true than in the case that X is false; in other words, they fail to grasp the elementary Bayesian notion of evidence.  I don't believe that UFOs are alien visitors, but my skepticism has nothing to do with all the crazy people who believe in UFOs - the existence of wacky cults is not much less expected in the case that aliens do exist, than in the case that they do not.  (I am skeptical of UFOs, not because I fear affiliating myself with the low-prestige people who believe in UFOs, but because I don't believe aliens would (a) travel across interstellar distances AND (b) hide all signs of their presence AND THEN (c) fly gigantic non-nanotechnological aircraft over our military bases with their exterior lights on.)
  • The demand for unobtainable evidence is a special case of the above, and of course a very common mode of skepticism gone wrong.  Artificial Intelligence and molecular nanotechnology both involve beliefs in the future feasibility of technologies that we can't build right now, but (arguendo) seem to be strongly permitted by current scientific belief, i.e., the non-ineffability of the brain, or the basic physical calculations which seem to show that simple nanotechnological machines should work.  To discard all the arguments from cognitive science and rely on the knockdown argument "no reliable reporter has ever seen an AI!" is blindly filling in the template from haunted houses.
  • The "skeptic" tries to scare you away from the belief in their very first opening remarks: for example, pointing out how UFO cults beat and starve their victims (when this can just as easily happen if aliens are visiting the Earth).  The negative consequences of a false belief may be real, legitimate truths to be communicated; but only after you establish by other means that the belief is factually false - otherwise it's the logical fallacy of appeal to consequences.
  • They mock first and counterargue later or not at all.  I do believe there's a place for mockery in the war on dumb ideas, but first you write the crushing factual counterargument, then you conclude with the mockery.

I'll conclude the conclusion by observing that poor skepticism can just as easily exist in a case where a belief is wrong as when a belief is right, so pointing out these flaws in someone's skepticism can hardly serve to establish a positive belief about where the frontiers of knowledge should move.

Comments (1326)

Comment author: Emile 15 March 2010 10:56:45AM 37 points [-]

Another good indicator (as djbc said) is the level of certitude : if someone expresses more certitude on a complex topic like gun control than on a slamdunk like God - then I won't trust their confidence much.

Does that mean only hardcore atheists are worth listening to? Maybe, but some claims about religion are not that obvious - for example, is religion good or bad for society in terms of enforcing moral behaviour, facilitating cooperation, raising children, etc. ? I don't consider that question a slamdunk.

Another red flag for me is "clannish" language, presenting issues in terms of "group A vs group B" ("this is a victory for us", "hah, that shows them", etc.). It's a sign that the wrong part of the brain is being used.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 15 March 2010 10:25:08PM *  27 points [-]

There's an additional issue of subtlety that isn't addressed here. People will typically reveal "improper" views by starting small and seeing if their audience is sympathetic, not because they are irrational, but because they aren't stupid and they care about consequences.

That is, if I'm in some highly religious town, I'm not going to open my conversation with, "So, this whole God thing makes about as much sense as Santa Claus, am I right?" I'm going to open with, "You know, there's something about the story of Job that just doesn't sit right with me," or something else small, safe, and exploratory.

Comment author: Shae 16 March 2010 02:05:16PM 10 points [-]

Agreed. There's another reason why people might give religion the "respect" of treating it worthy of debate, while not doing so with astrology. One might feel that religious people are taking their agendas into politics and school classrooms to the detriment of society in a way that astrologists are not, and might therefore give religionists the respect necessary to engage them in debate and hopefully change their minds.

Comment author: djcb 15 March 2010 06:48:34AM 18 points [-]

I think it's also important to mention that not having a (strong) opinion on something may be the best (rational) thing to do, when things are not so clear.

For many things (say, the AGW controversy) it's not so clear-cut as to where to find the 'truth' (I do happen to find it more likely that there is a thing called AGW and that it really could lead to great problems... but to what extent? Hard to say). Saying that you don't know may sometimes be the best answer.

Now all we need is a test to separate 'I don't know' from ignorance to 'I don't know' because your epistemic error margins are too big...

(btw, I found this an excellent article)

Comment author: orthonormal 16 March 2010 01:12:41AM 45 points [-]

I think we've achieved a new record for "most distinct subthreads that would be flamewars anywhere else on the Internet, but somehow aren't yet".

The previous recordholder, I'm pretty sure, is also on Less Wrong.

Comment author: Jack 16 March 2010 01:57:13AM *  42 points [-]

A partial list to compare to future record breaking attempts: Global Warming, Meredith Kercher's murder, atheism, gun control, race and IQ, Pick-up artists, cryonics, Scandinavian social welfare, nuclear deterence, sweatshops, industry bailouts, immigration, UFOs, homosexuality, polyamory, bisexuality, pedophilia, necrophilia, cannibalism, rape, 2 girls 1 cup, sex change, generalizations about promiscuity, straight men like lesbians, masochism, incest, people getting off to cartoons, people getting off to cartoons of pre-teen girls, 9/11 was an inside job, and Communism.

Comment author: BenAlbahari 16 March 2010 02:09:16AM 21 points [-]

Don't forget the biggest of them all: "questioning our raison d'etre"; i.e. we debated the value of rationality, whilst remaining civil and keeping the discussion meaningful. For comparison, imagine suggesting that "tennis isn't all that great" on a tennis forum.

Comment author: Bill_McGrath 26 September 2011 10:44:29AM 5 points [-]

Eugenics; that ought to be a fun one as well.

Comment author: Laoch 14 November 2013 10:30:26AM *  3 points [-]

This reminds of the supposed spectre of "designer babies".

Non-sceptic rationalist: "Oh don't do that scientific research it'll end in designer babies!!!!"

Rationalist: "So what if it does?"

Comment author: ciphergoth 24 March 2010 12:50:30PM 4 points [-]

We should try gun control some time...

Comment author: simplicio 16 March 2010 01:22:59AM 4 points [-]

That is so true. & that is why I bloody love this site.

Still, I think to get the perfect compendium, somebody ought to mention fascism.

Comment author: CronoDAS 16 March 2010 02:16:49AM *  15 points [-]

Fascism was never a well-defined political philosophy, as far as I can tell. It seems that, today, it seems to be a synonym for "non-Communist government I don't like".

Comment author: Jack 16 March 2010 02:28:20AM *  5 points [-]

I'd say it became increasingly less well-defined after it's creation.

Comment author: CronoDAS 15 March 2010 03:43:49AM *  14 points [-]

To what extent does "ability to choose the right tribe" mitigate "undiscriminating skepticism"? There are lots of different tribes with different beliefs, and people often explicitly choose what tribe to affiliate with...

As far as I can tell, "not-mainstream" (for the right value of "mainstream") is almost always a huge hurdle to overcome...

Comment author: Yvain 16 March 2010 09:28:00PM 40 points [-]

Two more non-trustworthy indicators:

  • Ask the person in question which of the several ridiculous ideas they reject they find least ridiculous - for example "Which do you think is more likely to be true - astrology, or UFOs?" I've found people trying to signal affiliation have a hard time with this sort of question and will even be flustered by it, saying something along the lines of "They're both stupid" or "Is this some sort of trick to make me sound like I believe a crazy idea?". A rationalist will say something more like "Well, I don't believe either, but UFOs at least make sense with our idea of the universe, whereas astrology is just plain crazytalk" (or ze may refuse to answer on the grounds that you're wasting zir time; it's not a perfect test).

  • Observe the circumstances in which the person involved brings up the belief. If they just go to atheist forums and say "Man, those religious people sure are stupid," higher probability of signaller. If they actively talk to religious people, try to use atheism as a starting point for building new ideas, and don't bring it up much when it's not relevant, higher probability they believe it for the right reasons.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 17 March 2010 08:36:47PM 10 points [-]

A sufficiently good rationalist should probably decompose astrology and UFOs into different possible definitions and discuss both priors and the nature of the processes that probably produce the two beliefs.

Comment author: Strange7 27 June 2011 06:15:12AM 4 points [-]

I'd be willing to seriously consider astrology in the sense that what time of year someone was born, and thus the weather and food their mother was exposed to in utero or that they had to deal with during some early developmental window, could have consistent effects on personality.

I've heard enough conflicting explanations for "UFOs" that I think there probably is some real phenomenon to explain, even if it's just neurological.

Comment author: DanielLC 19 March 2012 12:11:13AM 5 points [-]

I've heard enough conflicting explanations for "UFOs" that I think there probably is some real phenomenon to explain, even if it's just neurological.

What makes you think there's only one?

Comment author: goodside 17 March 2010 12:44:37PM *  9 points [-]

I wouldn't answer the astrology/UFO question. Extraterrestrials visiting in flying human-vehicle-sized ships from human-visible distances is so horribly anthropomorphic as to make it immeasurably improbable. Both propositions are far less likely than me winning the lottery, and that's the best I can get from my wetware. Anything further is like asking, "Which are you more certain is a European country, France or Spain?"

Also, I'm inclined to avoid questions of this form on principle. It's like Yudkowsky's "blue tentacle" in Technical Explanation: Being able to find outs for a theory that doesn't fit evidence is anti-knowledge, and the more practice you get at it the crazier you become.

Comment author: RobinZ 17 March 2010 12:50:07PM *  16 points [-]

Spain is more Middle-Eastern than France and France was on the European front of both World Wars, so France. I can see your point, though.

Comment author: jhuffman 26 September 2011 09:03:43PM 8 points [-]

UFOs are possible given what we know of the universe. Unlikely, yes, but its possible to have them without us learning much new about the universe. Astrology, not so much. Astrology means we have totally whiffed on science and have to integrate all the contradictory information we have in ways that are unimaginable.

Comment author: RobbBB 24 April 2013 10:26:14AM 3 points [-]

I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'anthropomorphic' here. One way to think about framing the comparison is to note that if intelligent extraterrestrials have visited us, we have to update strongly in favor of their intelligence playing an important role in our intelligence. In any universe that isn't completely teeming with intelligent life, this will hold for anthropic reasons; two intelligences are immeasurably more likely to encounter each other if one had a causal role in the other's coming to existence (via panspermia and/or guided evolution). So some of the bizarre anthropomorphism here can be dispensed with.

But note that if we want to pull a similar trick regarding astrology -- and I think there's several orders of magnitude more reason to be inclined to do this in the astrology case than in the UFO case -- then we'll need to posit an intelligent designer for our entire universe, not just for our species. In the one case our understanding of the origin of life on Earth is wrong; that's not surprising as these things go, since most scientists have already noted their current and ongoing confusion about the timeline for life on Earth's origination. In the other case, however, our understanding of the fabric of the universe is completely wrong. We are not in the least bit confused, at this point, about how it is that our psychological dispositions sometimes correlate with astronomical phenomena. To discover that there is a causal connection would mean that Approximately Everything You Know Is A Lie. That's a bigger deal, I think.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 16 March 2010 10:54:40PM *  11 points [-]

Did anyone read this post and worry whether they're one of the poseurs and not one of the true-blooded rationalists?

I could believe I'm a poseur with respect to this group, i.e. adopting the opinions of the average Less Wrong reader without doing much thinking myself. But this might be rational in the case of issues where the average Less Wrong reader has done more thinking than me, right?

But I do propose that before you give anyone credit for being a smart, rational skeptic, that you ask them to defend some non-mainstream belief. And no, atheism doesn't count as non-mainstream anymore, no matter what the polls show. It has to be something that most of their social circle doesn't believe, or something that most of their social circle does believe which they think is wrong.

Maybe we should have a thread where we all do this? Heh, what a cult initiation ceremony that would be: loudly proclaim to the cult what they're wrong about.

Comment author: Nirgal 15 March 2010 01:36:55PM 11 points [-]

Poincare said: “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.”

Comment author: Rain 15 March 2010 03:40:35AM *  11 points [-]

I've used AI as a sniff test many times (>10 tests), along with better-than-human humans (posthumans) and engineered immortality (SENS). Very few people, even those who are smart and educated, are able to argue against them rationally. Every time I've been given more than 10 minutes to discuss the point with someone who disagrees they're possible, it comes down to some sort of mystical mysteriousness which humankind cannot fathom or recreate. Quite often (>20%), it's even revealed a religiosity in the person they don't express in any other way apparent to me (god of the gaps).

Comment author: Morendil 16 March 2010 12:57:17PM 9 points [-]

On reflection, polyamory really is just wrong. Count me as a skeptic on this unnatural alliance.

(Yes, yes, I can hear the comebacks already: "Playing with the use-mention distinction" isn't "everything in life, you know".)

Comment author: thomblake 16 March 2010 01:25:33PM 8 points [-]

Geh - It's the new "pun".

"polyamory" really is just wrong.

Really? Do you have the same problem with "television"? What about zoological binomial nomenclature?

Comment author: ciphergoth 16 March 2010 01:37:13PM 3 points [-]

Homosexuality is also wrong, as are many other things...

Comment author: RobinZ 16 March 2010 03:13:46PM 2 points [-]

C'mon - there's much worse than that. "Ombudsperson", for one.

Comment author: simplicio 15 March 2010 04:02:40AM 32 points [-]

I'll bite the bullet and say global warming is the perfect example here. It's pretty clear to me that many people hold their positions on this issue - pro and contra - for political/social reasons rather than evidential ones.

Unfortunately that often seems to be the case when there are vested interests in the answer going one way or the other.

The impact of genetics on behaviour is another example. Most of the educated people I know are ultra-behaviorists, so if I see somebody argue that genes matter (but aren't everything), they definitely get brownie points. Especially since such a view tends to be seen as vaguely quasi-racist.

Comment author: jimmy 16 March 2010 03:45:58AM *  24 points [-]

The problem with asking race related questions is that there's a much stronger social pressure to shut up if you believe something that comes off as racist.

If you support cryonics, the worst that happens is that you come off as having strange beliefs. Take most any factual claim about race and you're an asshole for even thinking about it.

Of course, once the person is confident that you won't attack them for holding politically incorrect views, you can start to get some information flow, but that takes time to develop comfort. That's actually my litmus test for how comfortable someone is with me- whether they'll actually say something that is really unPC.

Comment author: simplicio 16 March 2010 04:09:40AM 12 points [-]

The problem with asking race related questions is that there's a much stronger social pressure to shut up if you believe something that comes off as racist.

I'm at a loss as to what to do about that, because I do get where that pressure is coming from. In presenting such data, you can hedge and qualify all you want, but what many people are going to hear is just a lot of wonderful reasons why their prejudices were right all along, and how science proved it. What can anybody do? A remedial course in ethics ("moral equality does not require literal sameness")?

Sometimes I do think discussions of race and gender-related fact questions are best not done "in front of the goyim." It's a vexing question.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 16 March 2010 12:15:06PM 16 points [-]

There's an additional problem-- there's a social circle where the consensus is that believing in race and gender differences in ability is proof of rationality, so if you're trying to do a counter-tribe rationality check, you'd need to know which tribe has a stronger influence on a person.

If Africa has the most genetic variation for humans, does that imply it's likely that the smartest human subgroup is likely to be African?

Comment author: Strange7 27 June 2011 08:00:54AM 10 points [-]

All else being equal, yes. However, many regions of Africa have ongoing problems with public health, availability of education, etc. that would wash out any advantages in genetic predisposition for intelligence.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 15 March 2010 05:26:27PM 11 points [-]

Most of the educated people I know are ultra-behaviorists

I'm pretty sure you're misusing the word "behaviorist".

Comment author: simplicio 15 March 2010 05:32:45PM 11 points [-]

On reflection, you're right. It's a pars pro toto thing I guess, since behaviourism is associated with the idea that personality comes from the environment alone.

"Nurturist" is probably a better term.

Comment author: wedrifid 15 March 2010 04:40:55AM 11 points [-]

The impact of genetics on behaviour is another example. Most of the educated people I know are ultra-behaviorists, so if I see somebody argue that genes matter (but aren't everything), they definitely get brownie points. Especially since such a view tends to be seen as vaguely quasi-racist.

Are educated people really that badly informed? I would believe it but sometimes I overestimate how much my own knowledge is representative.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 15 March 2010 10:20:01PM 14 points [-]

I'm not sure people are that badly informed, so much as people are unwilling to admit beliefs that contradict the beliefs they are "supposed" to have.

Comment author: CronoDAS 15 March 2010 08:46:16PM 16 points [-]

I've found that, in general, yes, people really are that badly informed about basically everything.

Comment author: simplicio 15 March 2010 04:51:50AM *  2 points [-]

I went looking for polls to answer your question; the only one I could find was this outdated one. So on the basis of that one, I'm wrong. But there's no breakdown there for level of education.

However, I suspect based on my anecdotal experience that educated people might be worse than the general public.

Comment author: wedrifid 15 March 2010 05:05:17AM 7 points [-]

However, I suspect based on my anecdotal experience that educated people might be worse than the general public.

That wouldn't surprise me. Ignorance of bad information can be a good thing. There are political reasons to neglect genetic influence (easier to blame people while avoiding charges of racism and sexism). There are are also ideological motivations for such a preference (see pjeby's emphasis on learned responses rather than genetic influences).

Comment author: simplicio 15 March 2010 05:57:42AM 4 points [-]

Ignorance of bad information can be a good thing.

True. In that respect I think part of the problem might also be the Science News Cycle as it applies to genetics. The geneticists know what they mean by "a gene for X" - merely a shorthand, that the presence of the gene affects the expression of X along with umpteen other factors. But inevitably the news media report a "gene for intelligence" as though the gene was a switch to turn intelligence on or off. Probably that type of thing has undermined any & all innatist ideas.

Comment author: AlexMennen 16 March 2010 03:21:15AM 9 points [-]

"I'll bite the bullet and say global warming is the perfect example here. It's pretty clear to me that many people hold their positions on this issue - pro and contra - for political/social reasons rather than evidential ones."

I used to think that global warming was a poor example of this because while the right wing has plenty of reasons to oppose actions to fight global warming, and thus irrational reasons to force themselves to believe that global warming does not exist, the left wing does not have any reasons to support actions to fight global warming aside from evidence that global warming is a threat. Then it occurred to me that many people on the left actually do have alternate motives for pushing anti-global warming actions: other people on the left support it too (see Eliezer's The Sky is Green/Blue parable, and this article too, I suppose). This is even more irrational, but due to the stunning level of irrationality among humans on all sides of the political spectrum, is probably a factor for some.

Comment author: Jack 16 March 2010 03:40:59AM 14 points [-]

the left wing does not have any reasons to support actions to fight global warming aside from evidence that global warming is a threat.

The story conservatives usually tell here is that the left wants to fight global warming as a way to further their economic agenda and narrative: corporations are bad and the government needs to stop them and control them. You see slogans like "Green is the new red".

Comment author: Larks 19 March 2010 11:15:46AM 8 points [-]

Fighting global warming can be used to justify the creation of 'green' jobs, in a new spin on the old keynesian make work ideas.

Alternatively, it can be used to provide justification for 'green protectionism'.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 18 March 2010 05:38:40PM *  3 points [-]

the left wing does not have any reasons to support actions to fight global warming aside from evidence that global warming is a threat.

However, someone who believes that global warming is a threat, and who has a poor grasp of ethics, has a motive to exaggerate the evidence, to compensate for others having too strict evidential standards or not doing cost-benefit analysis correctly.

Also, the image of oneself as on the vanguard of saving the world is a strong motivation to believe the world is endangered (overlapping with but distinct from group identity).

(Disclaimer: I don't think this is most of what's going on with AGW believers. Not having studied the issue, I default (albeit tentatively) to believing the scientific consensus.)

This is even more irrational, but due to the stunning level of irrationality among humans on all sides of the political spectrum, is probably a factor for some.

It's absolutely a factor. People are crazy, the world is mad, you shouldn't be surprised by this or hesitant in calling it as you see it.

Comment deleted 15 March 2010 11:31:19AM [-]
Comment author: Jack 15 March 2010 07:32:14PM 23 points [-]

It isn't topical anymore but a couple years ago getting an American liberal's take on the Dubai Ports World controversy worked pretty well. Also, progressive criticisms of the Bush administration for not implementing more aggressive cargo inspections and airplane security were pretty much just about getting in shots at the administration and not based on evidence.

Last year's debates on bailouts for the automobile and banking sectors struck me as mostly consisting of political signaling with only a handful of people who actually had any idea what they were talking about. You'd see people arguing either side without actually making any reference to any of the economics involved. I.e. "We need to make sure these people don't lose their jobs!" versus "You're just trying to help out your fat cat friends!".

Getting someone on the center-left to admit certain advantages of free trade and market economies probably works as well. The brute opposition to "sweatshops" without offering any constructive policy to provide the people who work in such places with alternatives strikes me as another good example.

It's a little harder for me to do this for the American right-wing since a sizeable portion (definitely not all of it, just an especially vocal part) of it appears to hold their positions for exclusively non-evidential reasons. Some of these reasons don't event appear to have propositional content. (Maybe conservatives see the left this way, though. It might just be that I'm too far away from the right-wing to see this clearly).

A conservative's position on industry subsides- agriculture, textile, sugar etc. is a probably a decent indicator, though. I'd say immigration but the people who oppose it might have good reasons given their terminal values.

A lot of times you can tell when someone holds a position for political reasons just by their diction. It is a really bad sign If someone is using the same phrases and buzzwords as the candidates they support. This reminds me: A little over a year ago the college Democrats here held a debate for the Democratic Presidential Primary. Each candidate was represented by a student who was supporting that candidate. I thought it had potential since being unofficial representatives the students would be comfortable leveling some harsh criticisms and really diving into their reasons for supporting their candidate. The actual candidates are always too afraid of screwing up or alienating someone to diverge from their talking points. What actually happened isn't surprising once you think about the kind of people who are heavily involved in the college branches of political parties (especially at my university). If you haven't guessed it, what happened was this: Every student representative sat on the stage reciting the very same talking points their candidate was already using to dodge criticisms and spin issues in the real debates. It was like a horrifying training session where students learn to ignore evidence, reason in favor of political hackery and bullshit.

Comment author: simplicio 16 March 2010 01:55:17AM *  12 points [-]

It was like a horrifying training session where students learn to ignore evidence, reason in favor of political hackery and bullshit.

I can't quite summon up all the splenetic juices I need to hate that sort of thing the way it needs to be hated. I live in Canada, and crikey are our politicians langues-du-bois. You should have seen the candidates debate at the last election. Every one of them just hit their keywords, as I recall. The Conservative Harper tinkled the ivories about "tough on crime," "fiscal responsibility" and "liberal corruption" (mercifully not "family values"). The Liberal Dion played a crab canon about "environment" and "recession." And the NDP (Social-Democratic) Layton just did a sort of Ambrosian chant incorporating every word that has ever made a progressive feel warm and fuzzy inside: "rights" "working families" "aboriginals" "choice" "fat cats" and "social spending." It made me want to elect Silvio Berlusconi.

Comment author: magfrump 16 March 2010 03:46:19AM *  10 points [-]

I did not understand any of this post, but I enjoyed all of it.

ETA: I am now envisioning a Canadian man just chanting those phrases, over and over, clapping his hands and stomping his feet.

Comment author: Jack 16 March 2010 03:57:15AM 2 points [-]

Do you Canadians use liberal like we Americans use it or like Europeans use it?

Comment author: Emile 15 March 2010 09:51:04PM 8 points [-]

A lot of times you can tell when someone holds a position for political reasons just by their diction.

Very true. When I was fourteen years old, there were presidential elections after Mitterand's two terms (Did I tell you I was French? I'm French.). I remember a friend saying we needed change "after fourteen years of socialism", and at the time I thought there was no way that was his opinion, and that he was merely repeating what (most likely) his father said.

I guess it's even easier to recognize talking points in kids, because it's things they would never spontaneously say. I also remember my mom pointing out that a "letter to the editor" in a Children's newspaper was probably just the kid parroting a parent, because no child would write things like that - and I was mildly embarrassed because I hadn't noticed at first. Hmm, I'll have to point that kind of stuff to my kids too.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 15 March 2010 05:33:53PM 11 points [-]

For right-wingers, something like getting them to admit that Scandinavia is doing something right with its high tax system and consequent high happiness.

Is the causation really that clear?

Comment author: simplyeric 15 March 2010 09:24:47PM 9 points [-]

The phrasing might be better in a different direction:

"...getting them to admit that Scandinavia is not doing something inherently wrong with it's high tax system, given that they have relatively high happiness and quality of life."

(in that right-wing conservatives state that high taxes inherently will cause reduction of standard of living/happiness)

Comment author: simplicio 15 March 2010 01:43:59PM 4 points [-]

And I'll add that asking whether people support the renewal of the nuclear deterrent was a good one for centre/left people here in the uk.

Now this I would not have thought of. Nuclear energy perhaps...

Do you think the nuclear deterrent should be renewed or should not, & why is it a litmus test?

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 15 March 2010 05:29:00PM *  7 points [-]

Whether or not the nuclear deterrent should in fact be renewed, inability to see the point of (as opposed to mere considered disagreement with) "if you want peace, prepare for war" seems like valid proof of political derangement.

Comment author: simplicio 15 March 2010 05:38:29PM 12 points [-]

Oh, I see! You mean that a deranged liberal is likely to say "nuclear armament cannot possibly be a solution for anything in principle?" Yeah, that makes sense.

Come to think of it, the fear of anything nuclear, period, is probably a good predictor of irrationality on the left, as is a knee-jerk negative response to, i.a., GE crops.

Comment author: sketerpot 15 March 2010 11:55:54PM 5 points [-]

Come to think of it, the fear of anything nuclear, period, is probably a good predictor of irrationality on the left, as is a knee-jerk negative response to, i.a., GE crops.

Simple ignorance can confuse the issue; the real indicator is how they deal with argument (assuming you really know your stuff and can present a compelling argument).

Comment author: BenAlbahari 15 March 2010 02:24:23PM *  6 points [-]

For right-wingers, something like getting them to admit that Scandinavia is doing something right with its high tax system and consequent high happiness.

In reality you can make the bar even lower. Just ask the right wingers if they're even aware of an empirical study comparing the relative happiness of Scandinavians to others.

Comment author: FAWS 15 March 2010 11:35:13AM *  6 points [-]

I'll bite the bullet and say global warming is the perfect example here. It's pretty clear to me that many people hold their positions on this issue - pro and contra - for political/social reasons rather than evidential ones.

There seems to be plenty of motivated arguing on both sides. But even though climate science is complicated the basic mechanism for CO2 raising temperatures is really simple and well supported by basic science. No one is disputing CO2's absorption spectrum (that I know of). It's possible that CO2 might not have any such effect on aggregate in a complicated system, but that would be quite remarkable and I don't think any mechanism has been proposed (other than that global warming is miraculously balancing out a coming ice age).

Comment author: Hook 15 March 2010 12:46:20PM 9 points [-]

My litmus test for whether someone even has the basic knowledge that might entitle them to the opinion that anthropogenic climate change isn't happening is: "All other things being equal, does adding CO2 to the atmosphere make the world warmer?"

The answer is of course "yes." Now, if a climate change non-skeptic answers "yes" the follow up question to see if they are entitled to their opinion that anthropogenic climate change is happening: "How could a climate change skeptic answer 'yes' to that question?" The correct answer to that is left as an exercise for the reader.

Comment author: FAWS 15 March 2010 01:16:35PM *  6 points [-]

For example like this:

  • Yes, but the behavior of one component of the system doesn't necessarily determine the behavior of the system as a whole. It's the responsibility of those who propose an anthropogenic climate change to prove that it's happening, not the other way round.

Most of the actual scientific debate seems to be centered around the reliability of the temperature record (and of different proxies) and of climate models (I consider it very likely that the skeptics are right on many of these issues), not around the question whether an anthropogenic climate change of some level is happening at all. At least I'm not aware of any climate scientist making the argument that no anthropogenic warming effect could possibly exist due to X (where X is some [proposed] physical reality, not something of the sort "that would be human hubris").

Comment author: BenAlbahari 15 March 2010 01:55:10PM *  2 points [-]

It's a good habit to avoid the Appeal To Ignorance of an opposing view.

  1. Some skeptics do actually dispute the absorption effect of CO2.
  2. The proposed mechanism by which CO2 does not cause overall warming is a negative feedback loop.

I actually agree with your conclusion, but here's the evidence you need to back up the specific cases you brought up:

Does atmospheric CO2 cause significant global warming?
Do negative feedback loops mostly cushion the effect of atmospheric CO2 increases?

Comment author: FAWS 15 March 2010 02:33:12PM *  3 points [-]

Some skeptics do actually dispute the absorption effect of CO2.

That is, they claim that the spectrum of CO2 has been faked? Or deny that there is such a thing as a spectrum?

The proposed mechanism by which CO2 does not cause overall warming is a negative feedback loop.

I was aware of feedback loop proposals, but they seem to amount to arguing for a weaker AGW effect rather than none. I tend to mentally file them under squabbling about the exact models rather than AGW denial. Are there any such proposed loops that would result in zero or effectively zero warming? ITSM that all feedback loops that involve actual warming as a step would not qualify because to result in effectively zero warming the effect would have to be strong enough to drown out temperature changes from all other causes unless overwhelmingly strong.

Comment author: BenAlbahari 15 March 2010 03:20:00PM *  3 points [-]

The leading skeptics (e.g. Roy Spencer) claim that negative feedback loops (due to clouds that reflect heat back into space) will reduce the warming effect of CO2 to be within the fluctuations Earth naturally experiences. So it's a serious denial, rather than a minor squabble. And the views of the opposing experts (also in the link I sent) strongly indicate Spencer and his colleagues are mistaken (one such reason is that without a positive feedback, it's very hard to explain the rapid shift in temperatures we know occurred between glacials and interglacials).

The skeptics who deny CO2 actually has an effect at all are fringe. The link I sent has the most qualified expert I could find (Gerhard Gerlich) who holds that view. Given that even the NIPCC (Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change) hasn't subscribed to this position, I disregard its importance.

The arguments and experts are all summarized here (it's a wiki, so you can add to it yourself if you find something new):
http://www.takeonit.com/question/5.aspx

Comment author: [deleted] 26 September 2011 06:01:56AM *  3 points [-]

The leading skeptics (e.g. Roy Spencer) claim that negative feedback loops (due to clouds that reflect heat > back into space) will reduce the warming effect of CO2 to be within the fluctuations Earth naturally experiences.

I don't know as I'd find that comforting, considering that the Cretaceous climate was within fluctuations the Earth naturally experiences, and transitioning to that in such a short time would still be a pretty darn significant systemic shock to economy and ecology alike...

EDIT: To be clear, I'm not saying we're headed for a new Cretaceous, just that "fluctuations the Earth naturally experiences" could still allow for some pretty steep gradients between the last century and any plausible, randomly-selected point within the known range.

Comment author: dclayh 15 March 2010 01:57:48AM 7 points [-]

Huh, I had completely forgotten that P&T did an anti-cryonics bit. Disappointing. On the other hand, their basic point ("Why not spend that $125,000 on hookers?") reminded me of Reedspacer's Lower Bound.

Comment author: sketerpot 15 March 2010 07:54:31AM 8 points [-]

There's still hope for Penn and Teller; their last episode is going to be a bunch of miscellaneous retractions for the times they've been wrong on their show. Which is a good sign in itself.

Comment author: gwern 13 July 2011 01:14:43AM 2 points [-]

Bullshit! has apparently finished up. Did they do any interesting retractions?

Comment author: saturn 13 July 2011 01:31:18AM 6 points [-]

From Wikipedia:

During an interview on the January 31, 2007 episode of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, Teller claimed that the final episode of the show would be about "the bullshit of Bullshit!" and would detail all the criticisms that they themselves had of the show, however the series ended before such an episode ever aired.

Comment author: gwern 13 July 2011 01:48:11AM 2 points [-]

Oh. What a pity. I guess the network didn't think it was worth spending money on.

Comment author: Eoghanalbar 03 September 2010 03:31:16AM 6 points [-]

Awesome. =]

If say, "This isn't about a test of rationality itself, but a test for true free-thinking. All good rationalists must be free-thinkers, but not all free-thinkers are necessarily good rationalists", is that a good summary?

Comment author: CassandraR 15 March 2010 11:39:11AM 6 points [-]

Speaking as someone that has been going to a therapist off and on for the past three years I have come to be pretty skeptical of the idea. Pretty much all the progress I have made in coping with and solving my problems has been on my own. I currently see one mainly because it is required of me by my college and because of the entertainment value of talking about myself for an hour or so.

Comment author: orthonormal 16 March 2010 01:06:31AM 9 points [-]

Therapy has worked well for me, but usually as a more effective means of rubber ducking, i.e. getting to discuss out loud problems that I'd been ruminating unproductively on. This often makes it clear which parts of my internal monologue actually make sense, and which parts might be covering up for my real priorities. A good therapist can help in other aspects, but I'd say most of the benefit just comes from this phenomenon.

The main reason therapy works for this and talking with friends doesn't is that I'm much more likely to filter my thoughts when talking to a friend, lest it come back to hurt me socially.

(Take this all with a grain of YMMV; I'm not contradicting your experience.)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 16 March 2010 02:55:01PM *  7 points [-]

For the same reason, it helps a lot to honestly write up one's understanding of one's ideas where no one is supposed to see them.

Comment author: orthonormal 17 March 2010 03:32:00AM 2 points [-]

Yup, private journaling helps too; but having a listener is still better.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 16 March 2010 05:18:00PM 16 points [-]

Of course, once you pick a test you have to keep it secret - a well known test will be memorized as a shibboleth.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 18 November 2011 03:15:33PM 15 points [-]

No, I don't believe in UFOs either

Sometimes things are in flight and the observers can't identify them. What we don't believe in is paranormal or space alien explanations for UFOs.

I've seen undiscriminating skepticism applied to doubting the reports of slightly weird things in the sky.

Comment author: Liron 15 March 2010 07:26:57AM 5 points [-]

What are some questions without a standard LW in-group response that I could use to prove my own conclusion-reaching soundness?

I know the Meredith Kurcher murder case has been offered as an example "rationality test".

Comment author: CarlShulman 15 March 2010 01:20:54AM 5 points [-]

The "skeptic" tries to scare you away from the belief in their very first opening remarks: for example, pointing out how UFO cults beat and starve their victims (when this can just as easily happen if aliens are visiting the Earth). The negative consequences of a false belief may be real, legitimate truths to be communicated; but only after you establish by other means that the belief is factually false - otherwise it's the logical fallacy of appeal to consequences.

This can be legitimate for a reporter wanting someone to read the story, and to show why the subject of the story matters practically.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 15 March 2010 03:38:08AM 16 points [-]

I don't believe in UFOs.

To my own great embarrassment, I have experienced a "UFO sighting". It was in the late 1990s in Phoenix, Arizona. What I saw was 7 or 8 bright orbs in the shape of a triangle traveling very slowly over the Phoenix/Scottsdale area (which is why I thought it was a blimp at first). After about a minute and comparing it to a nearby mountain I decided that it couldn't possibly be a blimp. The length and width were way too large. Next, I thought that perhaps it was flares, but after watching it for about 10 more minutes was sure they they had either floated higher into the sky or stayed the same altitude and were still in the same configuration with respect to each other (an isosceles triangle).

Before my personal experience, I had assumed that the people on those ridiculous documentary shows on the Discovery Channel were simply fools or people suffering from a psychological illness. I wasn't the kind of person who believed in that stuff. The next day I started questioning if I even saw it (after all, I would probably has ridiculed someone who told me they saw such a thing the previous day). It must have been a mistake. A few months later, I rationalized it by telling myself that it had been a dream. This worked until my mother (who also saw it) reminded me about something that happened on that same day.

Comment author: JamesAndrix 15 March 2010 05:11:05AM 28 points [-]

Well, not believing in "UFOs" is just silly to start. They are definitely up there. The disagreement is usually over what they are.

You should certainly not be embarrassed. What you describe doesn't even rank as a sign of foolishness or psychological illness. Probably at worst it means you're not used to looking at aerial phenomena, so you couldn't identify it. On a bad day, it's taken me a little while to identify the Moon.

If you would have discounted as crazy someone who made a report like you just did, that was a rationalist error. Strangely moving lights in the sky are often reported by multiple witnesses and captured on videotape.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 March 2010 09:56:17AM *  9 points [-]

My father was once involved in an UFO sighting - he built the UFO, and did the sound effects too, when the other kids got close. Summer camp was involved.

Hope no one ever told those kids it was a flock of birds...

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 15 March 2010 07:46:33PM 23 points [-]

it is a grave mistake to believe that ultra-rationality means immediate dismissal of sensory experiences that (currently) have no good explanation.

Comment author: TimFreeman 08 May 2011 08:29:19PM 4 points [-]

Don't discount the possibility of a joke. Wouldn't it be fun to make an assembly of PVC pipe, lights, a motor, batteries, and a large balloon, launch it, and watch people make up excuses about what it is?

Actually, I remember where I first heard the idea, and if I recall correctly it was a triangle over Arizona somewhere. I don't recall whether the joke hypothesis was based on seeing the thing fly or seeing the thing be assembled or hearing reports from the people who assembled it. I'll forward a pointer to your article to the person I heard it from and see if he wants to share what he knows.

Comment author: Eneasz 18 March 2010 07:37:45PM 4 points [-]

I had a very similar UFO sighting, just a couple months ago. Fortunately I've been consuming rationalist media for a long time, and I was able to say "There is a non-magic answer to this question, just because I don't know the answer doesn't mean UFOs exist. My map is incomplete, but the territory isn't magic."

It doesn't make the creepy shiver-up-your-spine and cold-knot-in-your-stomach feelings go away, those are biological reactions. But it does let you accept them and ride them out, like the cramp you know will go away in a while that isn't ACTUALLY a knife in your leg, no matter how much it feels like it.

Comment author: CarlShulman 01 May 2010 09:21:26PM *  4 points [-]

Here's a discussion of this post at the James Randi forums. Reaction seems net negative with high variance: http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?p=5726673

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 16 March 2010 02:53:56PM *  4 points [-]

I can see that it would be useful to have a fast filter for rationality, but how possible is it?

There are some opinions which are irrational (frex, there doesn't seem to be any solid arguments for the idea that homosexuality is bad, and if it can't be eliminated, it should at least be kept out of public view), but that's not the same thing as having a positive test for rationality.

There comes a point when there's no substitute for actual knowledge, and in this case, it means looking at people's thinking rather than their opinions.

I suggest asking people what they've changed their mind about, and why. The opinion change could be tribal, too, but at least it's not a completely static view of the other person's mind.

One other test-- does the person judge the things they like by the most attractive examples, and the things they dislike by the least attractive examples? This test is faster than asking questions.

Comment author: Morendil 16 March 2010 03:08:56PM 4 points [-]

ISTM that we could summarize Eliezer's post, conclusions, subsequent discussion, and much previous LW material thus: "there are no reliable epistemic shortcuts".

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 16 March 2010 04:22:43PM 4 points [-]

I was wondering if there was a top level post explicitly about the need to have tools for checking the territory now and then because your map is necessarily incomplete.

The messy thing is that you need to have tools and habits for being able to notice it when reality is tugging on your sleeve or bashing you about the head and trying to find out what important thing you've missed -- but if you formalize that procedure, you're in a map again.

Comment author: DonGeddis 16 March 2010 10:06:06PM 26 points [-]

Proposed litmus test: infanticide.

General cultural norms label this practice as horrific, and most people's gut reactions concur. But a good chunk of rationality is separating emotions from logic. Once you've used atheism to eliminate a soul, and humans are "just" meat machines, and abortion is an ok if perhaps regrettable practice ... well, scientifically, there just isn't all that much difference between a fetus a couple months before birth, and an infant a couple of months after.

This doesn't argue that infants have zero value, but instead that they should be treated more like property or perhaps like pets (rather than like adult citizens). Don't unnecessarily cause them to suffer, but on the other hand you can choose to euthanize your own, if you wish, with no criminal consequences.

Get one of your friends who claims to be a rationalist. See if they can argue passionately in favor of infanticide.

Comment author: Morendil 17 March 2010 09:15:06AM 25 points [-]

Time of birth serves as a bright line.

Comment author: ciphergoth 17 March 2010 10:15:21AM 12 points [-]

Very much agreed. This is also why we place much more moral value in the life of a severely brain-damaged human than a more intelligent non-human primate.

Comment author: CronoDAS 16 March 2010 11:20:27PM *  22 points [-]

Basically, this is a variant on the argument from marginal cases; infants don't differ from relatively intelligent nonhuman animals in capabilities, so they ought to have the same moral status. If it's okay to euthanize your dog, it should also be okay to euthanize your newborn.

(The most common use of the argument from marginal cases is to argue that animals deserve greater moral consideration, and not that some humans deserve less, but one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.)

Comment author: Jack 17 March 2010 06:36:37PM *  22 points [-]

(The most common use of the argument from marginal cases is to argue that animals deserve greater moral consideration, and not that some humans deserve less, but one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.)

Cerca 1792 after Wollstonecrafts A Vindication of the Rights of Women a philosopher name Thomas Taylor published a reductio ad absurdum/ parody entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes which basically took Wollstonecrafts arguments for more gender equality and replaced women with animals. It reads more or less like an animal rights pamphlet written by Peter Singer.

Comment author: khafra 24 March 2010 06:12:36PM 5 points [-]

Professor Mordin Solus solves marginal cases by refusing to experiment on any species with at least one member capable of Calculus, which is a bit different from criticism, "argument from species normality."

Comment author: wnoise 24 March 2010 06:19:57PM *  9 points [-]

any species with at least one member capable of Calculus,

Any species with at least one member who has demonstrated to humans the capability of Calculus.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 24 March 2010 06:35:59PM *  13 points [-]

So it's perfectly acceptable to use a time machine to gather your experimental subjects from before the 17th century.

Also, once a human solves the problem of friendly AI, aliens will stop abducting us and accept us as moral agents.

Comment author: khafra 24 March 2010 07:26:58PM 4 points [-]

That sounds like a reasonable conclusion--compared to an intelligence capable enough of introspection and planning to make a friendly AI, the overwhelming majority of my actions arise purely from unreasoning instinct.

Comment author: Larks 18 March 2010 12:15:08AM 2 points [-]

(The most common use of the argument from marginal cases is to argue that animals deserve greater moral consideration, and not that some humans deserve less, but one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.)

This is a hand, this is an inviolate right to life...

Comment author: Alicorn 16 March 2010 10:19:07PM 22 points [-]

I like this test, with the following cautions:

The regrettability of abortion is connected to the availability of birth control, and so similarly, the regrettability of infanticide should be connected to the availability of abortion. A key difference is that while birth control may fail, abortion basically doesn't. I can think of a handful of reasons for infanticide to make sense when abortion didn't, and they're all related to things like unexpected infant disability the parents aren't prepared to handle, or sudden, badly timed, unanticipated financial/family stability disasters.

In either case, given that the baby doesn't necessarily occupy privileged uterine real estate the way a fetus must, I think it makes sense to push adoption as strongly preferred recourse before infanticide reaches the top of the list. Unlike asking a woman who wants an abortion to have the baby and give it up for adoption, this imposes no additional cost on her relative to the alternative.

Additionally, I think any but the most strongly controlled permission for infanticide would lead to cases where one parent killed their baby over the desire of the other parent to keep it. It seems obvious to me that either parent's wish that the baby live - assuming they're willing to raise it or give it up for adoption, and don't just vaguely prefer that it continue being alive while the wants-it-dead parent deal with its actual care - should be a sufficient condition that it live. I might even extend this to other relatives.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 17 March 2010 08:34:11PM 14 points [-]

A key point is that they don't need to advocate the legalization of infanticide, they just need to be able to cogently address the arguments for and against it. Personally, I think that in the US at this time optimal law might restrict abortion significantly more than it currently does and also that in many past cultural contexts efforts to outlaw or seriously deter infanticide would have been harmful. Just disentangling morality from law competently gets a person props.

Comment author: Jack 16 March 2010 11:41:52PM *  11 points [-]

I'll be the first to disagree outright.

First, when a woman is pregnant but will be unable to raise her child we do not force a woman to give birth to give up the baby for adoption. This is because bringing a child to term is a painful, expensive and dangerous nine-month ordeal which we do not think women should be forced into. In what possible circumstances is infanticide ethically permissible when the baby is born, the woman has already paid the cost of pregnancy and giving birth, and adoption is an option?

In general, I'm not sure it follows from the fact that persons aren't magic that persons are less valuable than we thought. Maybe babies are just glorified goldfish. Maybe they aren't valuable in the way we thought they were. But I haven't seen that evidence.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 March 2010 06:31:14PM 28 points [-]

Despite some jokes I made earlier, things that could arguably depend on values don't make good litmus tests. Though I did at one point talk to someone who tried to convert me to vegetarianism by saying that if I was willing to eat pork, it ought to be okay to eat month-old infants too, since the pigs were much smarter. I'm pretty sure you can guess where that conversation went...

Comment author: ata 17 March 2010 09:52:27PM 27 points [-]

I'm pretty sure you can guess where that conversation went...

You started eating month-old infants?

Comment author: ciphergoth 18 March 2010 09:00:14AM 9 points [-]

I'm imagining this conversation while you're both holding menus...

In seriousness, there are good instrumental reasons not to allow people to eat month-old infants that are nothing to do with greatly valuing them in your terminal values.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 19 March 2010 09:38:14PM 14 points [-]

Option zero: "There's an interesting story I once wrote..."

Option one: "Well then, I won't/don't eat pork. But that doesn't mean I won't eat any animals. I can be selective in which I eat."

Option two: "mmmmm... babies."

Option three: "Why can't I simply not want to eat babies? I can simply prefer to eat pigs and not babies"

Option four: "Seems like a convincing argument to me. Okay, vegetarian now." (after all, technically you said they tried, but you didn't say the failed. ;))

Option five: "actually, I already am one."

Am I missing any (somewhat) plausible branches it could have taken? More to the point, is one of the above the direction it actually went? :)

(My model of you, incidentally, suggests option three as your least likely response and option one as your most likely serious response.)

Comment author: Desrtopa 29 May 2011 04:22:56PM 11 points [-]

I actually did a presentation arguing for the legality of eating babies in a Bioethics class.

And I don't eat pigs, on moral grounds.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 19 March 2010 10:59:15PM 28 points [-]

Well, not quite option two, but yes, "You make a convincing case that it should be legal to eat month-old infants." One person's modus ponens is another's modus tollens...

Comment author: DanielLC 18 March 2012 11:54:26PM *  9 points [-]

Option six: "I was a vegetarian, but I'm okay with eating babies, and if pigs are just as smart, it should be okay to eat them too, so you've convinced me to give up vegetarianism."

This reminds me of the elves in Dwarf Fortress. They eat people, but not animals.

Comment author: kaiokan12 24 March 2010 01:09:42AM 3 points [-]

this is sounding like a copout....

Comment author: MugaSofer 05 November 2012 09:20:12AM 2 points [-]

That guy clearly asked you those questions in the wrong order.

  • Do you believe killing animals for food is OK?
  • Killing animals for food is the same as eating babies!
  • Do you believe killing babies for food is OK?

... is obviously going to activate biases leading to the defense of killing animals for food, whether by denying they are equivalent or claiming to accept killing children for food. Thus the chance of persuading someone eating babies is morally acceptable depends on how strongly you argue the second point.

However...

  • Do you believe killing babies for food is OK?
  • Killing animals for food is the same as eating babies!
  • Do you believe killing animals for food is OK?

... leads to the opposite bias, as if the listener cannot refute your second point they must convert to vegetarianism or visibly contradict themselves.

Comment author: simplicio 17 March 2010 04:03:57AM *  30 points [-]

Once you've used atheism to eliminate a soul, and humans are "just" meat machines, and abortion is an ok if perhaps regrettable practice ...

Kudos to you for forthrightness. But em... no. Ok, first, it seems to me you've swept the ethics of infanticide under the rug of abortion, and left it there mostly unaddressed. Is an abortion an "ok if regrettable practice?" You've just assumed the answer is always yes, under any circumstances.

I personally say "definitely yes" before brain development (~12 weeks I think), "you need to talk to your doctor" between 12 and 24 weeks, and "not unless it's going to kill you" after 24 weeks (fully functioning brain). Anybody who knows more about development is welcome to contradict me, but those were the numbers I came up with a few years ago when I researched this.

If a baby/fetus has a mind, in my books it should be accorded rights - more and more so as it develops. I fail to see, moreover, where the dividing line ought to be in your view. Not to slippery-slope you but - why stop at infants?

*(Also note that this is a first-principles ethical argument which may have to be modified based on social expedience if it turns into policy. I don't want to encourage botched amateur abortions and cause extra harm. But those considerations are separate from the question of whether infants have worth in a moral sense.)

Once you've used atheism to eliminate a soul, and humans are "just" meat machines...

This gave me a nasty turn, because probably the most annoying idea religious people have is that if we're "just" chemicals, then nothing matters. One has to take pains to say that chemicals are just what we're made of. We have to be made out of something! :) And what we're made of has precisely zero moral significance (would we have more worth if we were made out of "spirit"?).

I mean, I could sit here all day and tell you about how you shouldn't read "Moby Dick," because it's just a bunch of meaningless pigment squiggles on compressed wood pulp. In a certain very trivial sense I am absolutely right - there is no "élan de Moby Dick" floating out in the aether somewhere independent of physical books. On the other hand I am totally missing the point.

Comment author: wnoise 20 March 2010 05:42:30AM 11 points [-]

If a baby/fetus has a mind, in my books it should be accorded rights - more and more so as it develops. I fail to see, moreover, where the dividing line ought to be in your view. Not to slippery-slope you but - why stop at infants?

The standard answer is that at that point there is no longer a conflict with the rights of the women whose body the infant was hooked into. We don't generally require that people give up their bodily autonomy to support the life of others.

Comment author: kaiokan12 24 March 2010 01:19:04AM 4 points [-]

Seems like everyone comes up with the "first trimester yes, second maybe, third no"

About "fully functional brain" well, a baby brain is a really "bad" brain. It may develop into a relatively useful adult brain. It may not.

This " yes maybe no" is just a bright line.

Comment author: DonGeddis 17 March 2010 05:56:29PM 14 points [-]

Is an abortion an "ok if regrettable practice?" You've just assumed the answer is always yes, under any circumstances.

Sorry, you have a point that my test won't apply to every rationalist.

The contrast I meant was: if you look at the world population, and ask how many people believe in atheism, materialism, and that abortion is not morally wrong, you'll find a significant minority. (Perhaps you yourself are not in that group.)

But if you then try to add "believes that infanticide is not morally wrong", your subpopulation will drop to basically zero.

But, rationally, the gap between the first three beliefs, and the last one, is relatively small. Purely on the basis of rationality, you ought to expect a smaller dropoff than we in fact see. Hence, most people in the first group are avoiding the repugnant conclusion for non-rational reasons. (Or believing in the first three, for non-rational reasons.)

If you personally don't agree with the first three premises, then perhaps this test isn't accurate for you.

Comment author: Rain 19 March 2010 06:47:35PM *  5 points [-]

Real world test of human value along similar lines: Ashley X.

Comment author: lispalien 16 March 2010 11:32:29PM 8 points [-]

My mother made this argument to me probably when I was in high school. Given my position as past infanticide candidate, it was an odd conversation. For the record, she was willing to go up to two or six years old, I think.

And let us not forget the Scrubs episode she also agreed with: "Having a baby is like getting a dog that slowly learns to talk."

Comment author: wnoise 17 March 2010 06:27:02AM *  13 points [-]

I have said before "I'm a moderate on abortion -- I feel it should be okay up to the fifth trimester." While this does shock people into adjusting what boundaries might be considered acceptable, I no longer think it is something useful to say in most fora. Too much chance of offending people and just causing their brains to shut off.

Comment author: khafra 24 March 2010 05:50:19PM 3 points [-]

It should be safe to use on Philip K. Dick fan forums.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 March 2010 06:37:03PM 19 points [-]

My mother made this argument to me probably when I was in high school. Given my position as past infanticide candidate, it was an odd conversation.

Hey, now you know you were kept around because you were actually wanted, not out of a dull sense of obligation. It's like having a biological parent who is totally okay with giving up children for adoption - and stuck around!

Comment author: lispalien 25 March 2010 05:47:09AM *  6 points [-]

That's an interesting take. She clearly loves me and my siblings and has never hurt anyone to the best of my knowledge, besides. So, it wasn't an uncomfortable topic--only a bit of an odd position to be in.

Although, I also have to point out adoption does not carry the death penalty, so I can imagine a situation in which my hypothetical parent opts not to kill me because they think the fuzz will catch them.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 17 March 2010 08:29:54PM 6 points [-]

Sounds like it would be interesting to have your mother make some comments on LW, if you think she would be interested.

Comment author: lispalien 25 March 2010 05:37:04AM 2 points [-]

That's very unlikely, I think. She's not interested in rationalism.

Comment author: taw 23 July 2011 10:51:07AM 13 points [-]

That's an amusing example because infanticide was extremely common among human cultures, so all good cultural relativists should be fine with this practice.

Usually there was a strong distinction between actually killing a baby (extremely wrong thing to do), and abandoning it to elements (acceptable). I'm not talking about any exotic cultures, ancient Greece and Rome and even large parts of Christian Medieval Europe practiced infant abandonment. There are even examples of Greek and Roman writers noting how strange it is that Egyptians and Jews never kill their children - perfect stuff for any cultural relativists. It was only once people switched from abandoning infants to elements to abandoning them at churches when it ceased being outright infanticide.

Anyway, pretty much the only reason babies are cute is as defense against abandonment. This shows it was never anything exceptional and was always a major evolutionary force. By some estimates up to 50% of all babies were killed or abandoned to certain death in Paleolithic societies (all such claims are highly speculative of course).

Infant abandonment is normal, and people should have the same right to abandon their babies as they always had. Especially since these days we just put them into orphanages. Choosing infanticide over abandonment is pretty pointless, so why do it?

A lot of sources can be easily found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infanticide

Comment author: byrnema 16 March 2010 11:13:29PM 3 points [-]

Don't unnecessarily cause them to suffer,

Aren't abortions unnecessarily painful? This is as strong an argument pro-life as pro-infanticide.

I agree there a continuum between conception and being, say, 2 years old that is only superficially punctuated by the date of birth. Yet our cultural norms are not so inconsistent...

General cultural norms label [infanticide] as horrific, and most people's gut reactions concur.

For example, many of these same people would find it horrific to kill a late-stage fetus. And they might still find it horrific to murder a younger fetus, but nevertheless respect the mother's choice in the matter.

Comment author: wedrifid 19 March 2010 11:16:00PM 8 points [-]

Don't unnecessarily cause them to suffer, but on the other hand you can choose to euthanize your own, if you wish, with no criminal consequences.

Yes, I should also be allowed to kill adults. Especially if they have it coming. After all, the infant still has a chance to grow up to make a worthwhile contribution while there are many adults that are clearly a waste of good oxygen or worse!

Comment author: Strange7 18 March 2010 12:51:48AM 5 points [-]

I'd say the primary value of an infant is the future value of an adult human minus the conversion cost. Adult humans can be enormously valuable, but sometimes, the expected benefits just can't match the expected costs, in which case infanticide would be advisable.

However, both costs and benefits can vary by many orders of magnitude depending on context, and there's no reliable, generally-applicable method to predict either. No matter how bad it looks, someone else might have a more optimistic estimate, so it's worth checking the market (that is, considering adoption).

Comment author: FAWS 16 March 2010 10:15:07PM 5 points [-]

Voted up, but I think abortion shouldn't be legal once the fetus is old enough to have brain activity other than for medical reasons (life of the mother), and I'm an unrepentant speciesist.

Comment author: taryneast 27 June 2011 01:42:48PM 2 points [-]

As I recall (I haven't gone to check), fetuses have "brain activity" about the same time they have a beating heart... ie about one week after conception. The brain activity regulates the heartbeat.

The problem with your definition is that it's very vague - it doesn't carve reality at the joints.

I myself prefer the "viability" test. If a foetus is removed form the mother.... and survives on it's own (yes, with life support) then it is "viable" and gets to live. If it's too undeveloped to live... then it doesn't. This stage is actually not very far prior to birth - somewhere around 34-36 weeks (out of 40) (again as I recall without having to look it up).

This is very similar to (but gives just a bit more wiggle room) to the "birth" line... ie it disentangles the needs of the mother from the needs of the child, and can be epitomised by the "which would you choose to save" test.

If you had to choose between the life of the mother or the life of the child: if the child is not viable without the mother - then there is no choice necessary: you choose the mother, because choosing the child will result in them both dying. But if the child is viable - then you actually have to choose between them as individual people.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 June 2011 01:48:34PM 2 points [-]

This stage is actually not very far prior to birth - somewhere around 34-36 weeks (out of 40) (again as I recall without having to look it up).

Actually a good bit earlier than that. Like 24, 25 weeks I think is the age where you get 50% survival (with intensive medical care, but you seem to say that's ok).

Comment author: Clippy 17 March 2010 11:20:32PM 11 points [-]

Infanticide and abortion are okay, as long as doing so increases paperclip production.

However, infanticide and abortion are obviously not alone in that respect.

Comment author: mattnewport 17 March 2010 11:25:54PM 24 points [-]

How do you feel about the destruction of a partially bent piece of steel wire before it has been bent fully into paperclip shape?

Comment author: Clippy 17 March 2010 11:29:20PM 24 points [-]

Is that some kind of threat???

Comment author: clarissethorn 15 March 2010 02:23:54AM 11 points [-]

Sorry if this is overly tangential, but as a sex educator I'm interested to know what you all think are your tribal beliefs around sexuality, and what kind of sexuality-related arguments would lead you to consider someone to be defending a non-mainstream belief.

Comment author: RobinZ 15 March 2010 02:33:19PM 10 points [-]

Emotionally, I feel I have two tribes: the meatspace upper-middle-class collegiate culture and my Internet circle of acquaintances.

In the meatspace tribe, vanilla heterosexuality or homosexuality are considered normal and unremarkable, things like 2 girls 1 cup, goatse, etc. are considered disgusting/gross-out material - and I cannot remember anyone acknowledging anything else.

In the Internet tribe, sexual relations of any kind between consenting adults are considered fine provided that they are carried out in private, sexual intercourse between teenage minors is considered normal (fine or not may vary), and crossing the line ... well, I haven't heard Snape/Hermione strongly condemned, but pedophilia is definitely out. I note that no-one I know talks about anything involving permanent damage, however.

Comment author: rwallace 15 March 2010 02:37:04PM 7 points [-]

Almost every tribe tacitly accepts the assumption that it is healthy and appropriate to have a passionate interest in the sex lives of complete strangers. Disagreement with that assumption would lead me to consider someone to be defending a non-mainstream belief.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 March 2010 02:42:44AM 17 points [-]

Heh. My tribal beliefs are from reading Spider Robinson books as a teen. Ciphergoth is an example of the sort of person I grew up thinking of as normal, and I've always felt a little guilty about not being bisexual. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to go outside that mainstream, which is one reason I went to the lengths of postulating legalized rape in Three Worlds Collide.

Comment author: clarissethorn 15 March 2010 10:42:04AM *  7 points [-]

Ah, Spider Robinson. I remember buying a stack of his books at Borders around age 12 and having the clerk give my mother an alarmed look. Mom just waved her hand ....

I think it's pretty normal for science-fiction-reading middle- to upper-middle-class kids to think that alternative sexuality is "normal" and to feel guilty for being vanilla/monogamous/whatever. (I used to feel a lot of pressure to be polyamorous.) Interestingly, though, there still seems to be a lot of internalized stigma about certain forms of sexuality, as demonstrated for example in my coming-out story. I would imagine that most people here fit that tribal group.

Still, within that tribal group I still encounter a lot of people with assumptions I'd call weird and/or irrational, which is why I asked specifically what kind of sexuality-related arguments would lead you to consider someone to be defending a non-mainstream belief. I think your legalized rape post (it was forwarded to me last year, actually, and I still haven't decided how I feel about it) is a definite example of defending a non-mainstream belief, but I wonder if there are less dramatic ones.

Comment author: Multiheaded 16 March 2012 10:02:05AM *  5 points [-]

I'm adamant that none of us should use the messed-up word "Rape" to point to a benevolent social practice of a made-up libertarian utopia, where that term and its implications are not just forgotten but can hardly be understood. Something like "meta-consensual sex" would be way better. This alone would've allowed us to avoid half the controversy about this relatively minor point.

Comment author: ciphergoth 15 March 2010 08:43:44AM 8 points [-]

*smiles* I'm sure you know this, but I don't think it makes any sense to think you should enjoy X. And I agree, alt-sex is not a useful discriminator here. I've been having a lot of arguments about cryonics with my friend David Gerard who is also an alt-sex community member, and this article could have been written specifically with him in mind (as well as other contributors to the "RationalWiki" article on cryonics).

There's a warning flag you don't mention: the logical rudeness of the skeptical Gish Gallop. I have over and over again begged David to pick one counter-argument to cryonics and really press it home. Instead he insists on picking up everything that looks to him like shit and flinging it as fast as he can, and it appears to give him no pause at all when one argument after another turns out to be without merit.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 March 2010 08:47:51AM 16 points [-]

I'm sure you know this, but I don't think it makes any sense to think you should enjoy X.

Why doesn't it make sense? If there were a pill to turn me bisexual, I'd take it, modulo the fact that in general I take almost no pills (it'd have to be really really safe, but I hold all mind-affecting substances to that standard, don't drink etcetera, it's not a special case for the bisexuality pill).

Comment author: ata 15 March 2010 09:13:00AM *  14 points [-]

I'm somewhat sympathetic to that idea (I haven't felt guilty about being straightish, but I've wished I were more bisexual once in a while, and succeeded in pushing myself in that direction in some cases), but I'm curious now: is gender the only dimension you'd apply that to? Would you also take a pill (again assuming it's really really safe) that would make all outward physical attributes irrelevant to how attractive you find someone? Would you take a pill that would make you enjoy every non-harmful sexual practice/fetish (not necessarily seeking them out, but able to enjoy it if a partner initiated it)?

(I originally started writing this comment thinking something like "hmm, I'd take the bi-pill, but let's take that reasoning to its vaguely-logical conclusion and see if it's still palatable", but now I'm actually thinking I'd probably take both of those pills too.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 March 2010 10:25:38AM 11 points [-]

Well, to ask the non-mainstream-relative-to-this-community version of the question, ask "Would I take the loli pill?"

Comment author: CronoDAS 15 March 2010 07:40:49PM 18 points [-]

How about the anti-Westermark effect pill? ;)

Comment author: Jack 15 March 2010 07:53:28PM 3 points [-]

I can't believe I had never heard of that before. Fascinating.

A question if you can answer it. Wikipedia says:

When close proximity during this critical period does not occur—for example, where a brother and sister are brought up separately, never meeting one another—they may find one another highly sexually attractive when they meet as adults

The addition of "highly" seems to suggest that separated brothers and sisters find themselves especially or unusually attracted to one another. Is that the case or is Wikipedia just adding unnecessary adjectives?

Comment author: thomblake 15 March 2010 08:01:40PM 5 points [-]

There are clearer language and relevant citations at (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_sexual_attraction)

Comment author: CronoDAS 15 March 2010 08:00:55PM 4 points [-]

There is a hypothesis that claims that, but the evidence is dubious.

Comment author: FAWS 15 March 2010 12:10:06PM *  4 points [-]

Does "loli" mean non-persons and emotionally mature persons who look like a child, or are actual children (of average or below average emotional maturity) included by the effect?

Comment author: sketerpot 15 March 2010 09:28:48PM *  19 points [-]

If it meant the former, I would take the loli pill if the (unlikely) circumstances called for it. Why not? If it meant the latter, then you would have to tell your libido "no" a lot, but it wouldn't necessarily lead to doing bad things. I doubt it would be worth the hassle, though, except in very special circumstances.

Actually, the biggest drawback to either version of the loli pill would probably be how society would react if they ever found out. It probably wouldn't matter if the one you're sleeping with is really 700 years old; you'd still get put on every sex offender registry out there, and shunned vigorously, at the very least. People are damn tense on this subject. Just look at how much trouble Christopher Handley got in for his manga collection.

Edit: I felt pretty uncomfortable writing this post, even though I know I shouldn't be. Looks like this really is a good question.

Comment author: MBlume 24 September 2011 09:09:30PM 4 points [-]

Upvoted for noticing discomfort

Comment author: ata 15 March 2010 09:28:11PM *  3 points [-]

The two pills I proposed are mainstream relative to this community?
I'm surprised yet not surprised. Good to know, anyway.

(So, alright, would you take the loli pill?)

Comment author: Strange7 15 March 2010 04:16:39PM 4 points [-]

There is a well-established mechanism within the transformation fetish subculture making use of devices which work a bit like temporary tattoos, altering the subject's body and/or personality in ways both profound and fully reversible. Like most magic intended to make a story possible rather than to make it interesting, the patches in question are entirely without negative side effects.

As demonstrated with Clippy, I would be willing to provide further information even if doing so does not serve my long-term interests in any obvious way.

Comment author: clarissethorn 15 March 2010 10:43:50AM 6 points [-]

I'd definitely take all three of the above pills. In fact, I wonder how much harm such pills would have to do for me not to take them.

Comment author: Bindbreaker 16 March 2010 06:15:02AM 2 points [-]

Would it be reversible?

Comment author: ata 16 March 2010 06:30:29AM *  6 points [-]

You can just answer it for each case. Would you take either pill if they were irreversible? If they were reversible?

Comment author: Bindbreaker 16 March 2010 06:48:19AM 6 points [-]

Yes in all cases, but absolutely only if reversible.

I am asexual and thus have not experienced any of the romantic/sexual emotions. I feel as if doing so would almost certainly help my understanding of others, as well as broaden my emotional range. However, I seem to do quite fine without these emotions, and they seem to cause more problems than they are worth in many of the people around me. Therefore I would only take such pills if they were reversible, as my present state is quite happy and the alternative could certainly be worse.

Comment author: Jack 16 March 2010 08:08:58AM *  4 points [-]

However, I seem to do quite fine without these emotions, and they seem to cause more problems than they are worth in many of the people around me.

No kidding.

Do people remember that guy who was here at the very beginning and wouldn't shut up about how the key to being rational was castration? I doubt that troll would have had much to say would have been helpful but the position has a certain intuitive plausibility to me. To begin with, I'm pretty sure the ebb and flow of sexual arousal would be really easy to money pump.

Comment author: wedrifid 16 March 2010 08:23:49AM 5 points [-]

To begin with, I'm pretty sure my the ebb and flow of sexual arousal would be really easy to money pump.

Buying and selling bulk cupons for the service of prostitutes?

Comment author: Morendil 16 March 2010 08:33:23AM 2 points [-]

Easy enough to find by searching. ;)

Those contributions were... interesting. I'm somewhat tempted to doubt the disclosure. While researching permanent forms of contraception, in particular vasectomy, I learned that the procedure was illegal in France up until a few years ago: it was considered "self-mutilation". I'd be rather surprised to learn about someone getting elective castration, unless some plausible details substantiated that story.

Comment author: ciphergoth 15 March 2010 09:25:25AM 6 points [-]

Why would you take such a pill? So that you can have more fun, or for some other reason?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 March 2010 10:22:41AM 16 points [-]

So I wouldn't miss out on half the fun.

Comment author: ciphergoth 15 March 2010 12:15:45PM 23 points [-]

How do you distinguish the sort of fun it's worth changing your values to enjoy from the sort of fun (like wireheading) it's worth not having access to?

Of course, it's nothing like half the fun you're missing. Adding a gender would increase your fun by less than 100% since it's not that different in many ways. Adding all the sexual variation in the world would be a humongous amount of fun, but you'd start to hit diminishing returns after a while.

Comment author: CronoDAS 15 March 2010 07:26:26PM 12 points [-]

Technically, given that most people are heterosexual, Woody Allen's quote - "The good thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chance of a date on a Saturday night." - is inaccurate. It only increases your chances by the percentage of people of your gender who are open to same-sex encounters.

Comment author: Jack 15 March 2010 07:41:33PM 22 points [-]

I think I have enough evidence to say this confidently without unfairly stereotyping: On balance, gay men are so much more promiscuous than straight women that being bisexual really might double or triple the opportunities for a man to have sex. But your point is well taken and certainly applies to chances for a monogamous relationship.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 March 2010 09:27:46PM 15 points [-]

Point of curiosity if anyone knows the answer: How promiscuous are bisexual men and do they tend to have more m-m than m-f sex because the m-m sex is much easier to obtain? If not, why not?

Comment author: Kevin 15 March 2010 11:00:30PM *  8 points [-]

I'm a 1 on the Kinsey scale but I have only had sex with women, not men. I don't identify as bisexual.

I suspect that the median bisexual man has more m-m sex because the median person willing to identify as bisexual is not a 3 on the Kinsey scale but leans towards the homosexual side of the scale. Also, especially for young people just coming to terms with their sexuality, identifying as bisexual is often a path towards identifying as gay, and such people are likely to have more sex with their true preferred type of partners.

There is a negative perception in the gay community that bisexual people are more promiscuous, but this probably isn't true. I'm pretty sure the reason bisexual men tend to have sex with men more often than women is not because getting gay sex is as easy as posting a "Hey, who wants to come over, blow me, and leave right away without talking?" on Craigslist, but because most people that identify as bisexual are just more gay than straight.

Btw, if anyone was intrigued by the possibility of making such a Craigslist post, if you say you're straight you'll get at least twice as many replies! :D

Comment author: Jack 15 March 2010 10:50:34PM 5 points [-]

Bisexual males often don't identify as 50-50 which complicates the matter.

Comment author: CronoDAS 16 March 2010 01:37:24AM *  4 points [-]

Is someone who is what might be called "prison gay" bisexual? (That is, someone who will engage in homosexual acts as a substitute for masturbation, but is not physically attracted to members of the same sex. Yes, it's probably a bad/loaded term, but I don't know what a better one is.)

Comment author: Psychohistorian 15 March 2010 11:03:10PM 7 points [-]

My understanding is that bisexuality rarely endures past one's twenties, and that bisexuals of both genders tend to end up choosing men. Of course, that may stem from the fact that publicly displayed bicuriousity is far less ostracized when it occurs amongst women, so more straight-leaning women are tempted to fool around than straight-leaning men, resulting in most bisexuals settling with men.

Of course, there are people who remain bisexual past that, and my data is not exactly rigorously gathered - I have some friends who study psychology and sexuality, and I've heard it from them.

Comment author: CronoDAS 15 March 2010 07:57:40PM 3 points [-]

But what if you're female?

Comment author: FAWS 15 March 2010 08:10:06PM 6 points [-]

I think I have enough evidence to say this confidently without unfairly stereotyping: On balance, straight men are so turned on by the idea of girl on girl sex that being bisexual really might double or triple the opportunities for a woman to have sex.

Well, not really. The having enough evidence part at least.

Comment author: Jack 15 March 2010 08:00:40PM *  4 points [-]

I think I have enough evidence to say this confidently without unfairly stereotyping: On balance, straight men are so much more promiscuous than gay women that being bisexual really might double or triple the opportunities for a woman to have sex.

:-)

Edit: On reflection, this might not be right. But yeah, my point doesn't exactly apply to straight women.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 March 2010 09:26:26PM 2 points [-]

Actually, what you really need is the sexchange pill, but that's a lot harder than it sounds.

Comment author: CronoDAS 16 March 2010 02:49:18AM *  7 points [-]

I'll settle for the bisexuality pill, an attractive female-shaped body (including the "vagina-shaped penis"), some time to get used to moving around in it, and the capacity for having multiple orgasms. "Gay man in a woman's body" is close enough for my purposes. ;)

Comment author: wedrifid 15 March 2010 11:02:19AM 3 points [-]
Comment author: CronoDAS 15 March 2010 04:01:06AM 8 points [-]

Hi Clarisse, and Welcome to LessWrong! I've seen your blog, and I'm happy to see you commenting here. (I comment as "Doug S." on various feminism-related blogs - I'm not very prolific, but you may have seen a couple here and there.)

Comment author: clarissethorn 15 March 2010 10:30:13AM *  4 points [-]

Hi Doug! Yes, I remember you. I've actually read a number of posts here, and I've commented once here before, but I was too angry and irrational and in feminist-community mode during that little fracas, so I decided to give myself lots of time to cool off before posting again. (Note that the original post has been edited to the point where it is no longer clear what pissed me off.) (I also discussed some of the cultural differences between this site and the feminist blogosphere that contributed to that blowup in the comments here.)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 15 March 2010 03:12:58PM *  10 points [-]

Someone who believes that homosexuality is not immoral, but believes it is a dysfunction.

Actually I have more answers, but this question is just too toxic. So I'll go meta: Anyone who responds to this question either by saying that rationality is indicated either by signalling acceptance of more-outlandish sexuality, or by signalling intolerance, is indicating their own irrationality; they are turning this question into a tribal test.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 15 March 2010 03:24:55PM 6 points [-]

How far can you judge a person's rationality by what sort of evidence they use to support their beliefs about sexuality?

Comment author: Morendil 15 March 2010 03:26:06PM 4 points [-]

I'm having difficulty parsing your meta observation.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 15 March 2010 03:33:52PM *  17 points [-]

There's a large community where you are expected to be open to anything except sex with children; and a large community where you are expected to not be open to anything except sex between a monogomous man and woman.

I'm not arguing whether either of these points of view is valid. But both have enough adherents that no position that can be characterized entirely as more liberal or less liberal can identify its holder as rational. Therefore, anyone who says that such a position (for instance, being open to polyamory) indicates rationality, is merely stating their tribal affiliation. The fact that they think that such a stance demonstrates rationality in fact demonstrates their irrationality.

I can think of a few possible exceptions (sexual practices that are far enough beyond the pale that even tongue-pierced goths disclaim them, yet which have no rational basis for being banned), but they're too toxic for me to mention.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 15 March 2010 11:18:46PM *  15 points [-]

Therefore, anyone who says that such a position (for instance, being open to polyamory) indicates rationality, is merely stating their tribal affiliation.

"Merely" is incorrect. If people are employing consistent justifications for their beliefs, that indicates rationality. If their beliefs rely on inconsistent justifications, then they are not.

Suppose I believe polyamory is OK, because I believe that sex between consenting parties will make people happier. If you provided me with overwhelming evidence that most people who practice polyamory are especially miserable specifically because they practice polyamory, that would test my rationality. If I continue to be OK with it, I have an inconsistent belief system. If I cease being OK with it, I am consistently adhering to my beliefs.

Conversely, suppose I believe, "Homosexual sex is wrong because two men can't procreate." If you point out, "Post-menopausal women can't procreate," then, if I say, "Well, they shouldn't have sex either!" then I may be a bit crazy, but I'm consistent. If I say, "Well, that's different" without providing a very specific "that's different" principle, my beliefs are inconsistent, and I am irrational. If I say, "Homosexuality is wrong because the bible says so," then I'd better not be wearing clothing made from both cotton and wool while I burn oxen for the Lord.

I think most of what you see in the "internet crowd" is approval of any sexual activity between consenting adults, which is (usually) a highly consistent principle. I am not aware of any such consistent principle among the married hetero-only crowd. I'm not saying there aren't consistent principles that support a married hetero-only lifestyle, only that it is not my understanding that a large group of people embrace such principles.

If this observation is correct, beliefs about sexuality can be a very strong indicator of rationality if inconsistent, or (at least) a weak indicator if consistent. If they remain consistent through difficult or unusual hypotheticals, that is a strong indication of rationality.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 March 2010 11:28:06PM 17 points [-]

If this observation is correct, beliefs about sexuality are a very strong indicator of rationality.

The problem is if the supposedly rational beliefs also happen to be the tribal belief system of a large, pre-existing tribe. Then someone was rational, sometime back in the history, but it isn't necessarily the person you're talking to right now.

A better test would be to ask them to defend a sexual view of theirs that they see as unconventional, or at least, not a typical view of their tribe as yet.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 15 March 2010 11:45:47PM 6 points [-]

A better test would be to ask them to defend a sexual view of theirs that they see as unconventional, or at least, not a typical view of their tribe as yet.

This is absolutely true and I've changed the last paragraph to reflect that.

Comment author: Morendil 15 March 2010 04:03:51PM *  5 points [-]

Therefore, anyone who says that such a position (for instance, being open to polyamory) indicates rationality, is merely stating their tribal affiliation.

I wouldn't suppose that "being open to polyamory" per se indicates rationality. But I would consider someone rational who, having thought about the matter, and concluded on the basis of sound reasoning that there is no valid reason to condemn polyamory, decided to adopt that lifestyle even in the face of some cultural opposition.

And I would consider someone irrational who, having no sound reasoning behind that position, would act in such a way as to deny others the enjoyment of a non-straight-monogamous lifestyle.

Controversies involving third parties are a valid matter of debate, for instance, I'd concede that there is some grounds to ask whether gay couples should adopt. But to assert, without argument, an interest in what consenting adults do behind closed doors, and that doesn't cause anyone lasting harm, just because it concerns sex - that does strike me as irrational.

Comment author: FAWS 15 March 2010 03:17:14PM *  3 points [-]

It's just as dysfunctional as non-vaginal straight sex is.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 15 March 2010 03:23:14PM 3 points [-]

Your position may be valid; but in the context of the current distribution of opinions on sexuality, it does not in itself signal rationality to me. And that's what we're discussing.

Comment author: Morendil 15 March 2010 10:16:32AM 5 points [-]

Cultural norm for me is "sexuality is a matter of choice between consenting adults".

Non-mainstream beliefs around sexuality that I'm currently curious about include PUA lore, and this interesting site.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 15 March 2010 01:54:15PM 7 points [-]

I agree about what my cultural norm is.

I disagree with it on two points. I'm pretty sure the legal age of consent is set considerably too high, though I'm not sure where it should be, or whether there should be a legal age of consent.

I think the "enthusiastic consent" standard in Yes Means Yes makes sense.

Comment author: steven0461 15 March 2010 03:03:07AM 4 points [-]

Sorry if this is overly tangential

open thread

Comment author: christopherj 14 October 2013 06:37:27PM 3 points [-]

Want to know if someone is a good rationalist? Ask them what the best arguments are for a belief he strongly opposes on a complex issue. See if the arguments he gives are the strongest ones, or the weak ones. To strongly oppose a belief on a complex issue, requires hearing the best arguments from both sides. Being unaware of the best opposing arguments, or being unwilling to speak them, is pretty good evidence that he let his biases get in the way of his reasoning.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 14 October 2013 07:08:06PM 4 points [-]

It helps if, prior to using this technique, I've given them reason to trust me to be primarily interested in something other than scoring points off of them by "winning" arguments.

Comment author: Hook 17 March 2010 08:24:50PM 3 points [-]

Another test:

Could smoking during pregnancy have a benefit? Could drinking during pregnancy have a benefit? It's not necessary that someone know what the benefit could be, just acknowledge the nicotine and alcohol are drugs that have complex effects on the body.

As for smoking, it's definitely a bad idea, but it reduces the chances of pre-eclampsia. I don't know of any benefit for alcohol.

Comment author: bluej100 08 May 2012 10:39:20PM 2 points [-]

I'll reply two years later: Light drinking during pregnancy is associated with children with fewer behavioral and cognitive problems. This is probably a result of the correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and iq and education, but it's interesting nonetheless.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 15 March 2010 07:55:21PM 6 points [-]

Democracy is my litmus test.

Comment author: FAWS 15 March 2010 08:04:25PM 6 points [-]

Do you mean being willing to consider the possibility that some other form of government might be better at pursuing the interests of a society as a whole?

People also value democracy simply for being democratic, so saying that democracy is best is to some extent just stating your values.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 15 March 2010 08:27:05PM *  6 points [-]

Yeah, but even just in people's reaction to the topic. I try to avoid framing the issue and just feel people out. For example I would take someone responding to the subject like you did to be a very positive sign. Someone immediately jumping to the possibility of alternatives followed by a reasoning on how normative statements work is not exactly a common reaction.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 24 March 2010 08:30:17PM *  5 points [-]

If you disagree with your tribe, you get rationality points for independent thinking; but you lose rationality points for failing to update. Is the total positive or negative?

Comment author: Jiro 23 April 2013 07:40:20PM 2 points [-]

If a lot of crazy people believe in UFOs, it's probably not because every crazy person picked a random page in the dictionary and said "I'll have a crazy belief about that". Rather, it's probably because the human mind has intrinsic flaws for which characteristics of the UFO meme happen to be a good match. If I conclude that UFOs exist, it is more likely that my reasoning process was corrupted by these intrinsic human flaws and therefore that my argument has an unnoticed flaw than if I conclude something else which isn't a subject of cult behavior. Of course, if I assume that my mind is unflawed, this doesn't apply, but I really shouldn't go around assuming that my mind is unflawed.

And even if I assume that my mind doesn't contain any UFO-leaning flaws, I can't assume the same about other people. Any evidence they provide is more likely to be biased. Even if I just try to analyze the arguments made by other people for UFOs, that set of arguments will contain a larger proportion of bad arguments than a similar set of arguments for a non-cultish proposition. Assuming that I am equally good at detecting bad arguments for UFOs and for the non-cultish proposition, it is then more likely overall that a bad UFO argument will slip by my filters than a bad argument for the non-cultish proposition. Again, if I assume that I'm perfect at reasoning and never let bad arguments of any type pass my filters, this doesn't apply, but I can't assume that.