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Don't call yourself a rationalist.

16 Post author: KenChen 14 October 2011 08:26PM

I often seem to run into problems when I use the de facto label for this group. For example, when I say, "I've been hanging out with rationalists lately," I notice that many people immediately go on the defensive. They might ask why you need a group in order to be rational, or they might say that they don't believe that people are inherently rational. Of course, I made none of those claims, I simply indicated that I was hanging out with rationalists.

You might think that "rationalist" is simply a descriptive label, but it carries positive connotations -- and what people tend to hear is "I'm a superior thinker to you," or maybe "I'm a part of this group, which ascribes the label 'rationalist' to itself, to make ourselves seem higher status than we really are."

Why does this matter?

The community doesn't exist in a vacuum; how the community is viewed from the outside matters. As the community grows and as people gain awareness of it, branding becomes important. People talk to each other, and communities gain reputations. Even if you believe that we are a loose collection of individuals, as soon as you assign a name to yourself, that is sufficient to form a group identity.

The people we interact with tend to share similar interests. The population of New York may be in the millions, and yet I run into the same people at different functions without coordination.

The more negative perceptions associated with a group, the more rapidly evaporative cooling of groups will occur.

What to do?

It's far better to talk about good things that you've gained from being in the group. It's better to say what the group does, not what the group is.

But beyond that, it's about time the community picked a better label to use. I have one idea, but I'll hold off on proposing solutions.

Comments (118)

Comment author: Yvain 15 October 2011 11:09:32AM 16 points [-]

"Critical thinking" is a useful phrase sometimes. It's a real term, and people usually have good associations with it. Saying "we need to teach people better critical thinking skills" usually elicits nods; "we need to teach people to be more rational" is more likely to get them grabbing their guns and heading to the hills.

Comment author: ciphergoth 16 October 2011 10:18:42AM 3 points [-]

This rings true, but how odd? Why is "critical thinking" good but "rationality" bad?

Comment author: [deleted] 16 October 2011 11:03:34PM *  5 points [-]

Perhaps groups that identify with rationality generally settle on one set of beliefs, and then go about rehearsing their arguments, double counting their evidence, and building up unjustified positive affect, while groups that identify with critical thinking try to admit what they don't know and focus their efforts on finding out?

Like the difference between between "The Brethren of Totally Pure Chastity" and "Inexpert supporters of the very difficult struggle to be effective and not evil".

Comment author: ciphergoth 17 October 2011 10:34:48AM 1 point [-]

What real examples are you thinking of?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 17 October 2011 02:20:03PM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure specifically which examples Hamlet is thinking of, but Objectivists would be an obvious example of a group that tried to be rational and through the problems Hamlet listed as well a handful of other problems like evaporative cooling settled on a single set of beliefs across a wide-variety of different issues and haven't updated much in the last fifty years.

Comment author: prase 17 October 2011 09:43:09AM 0 points [-]

Words often earn their connotations at random.

Comment author: ciphergoth 17 October 2011 10:52:51AM 1 point [-]

Even if randomness plays a big role, it feels as if this shouldn't exhaust what we can learn from the story behind the different connotations of these phrases.

Comment author: Hyena 15 October 2011 12:58:47AM 10 points [-]

I always call you all "LessWrongians" or "the people at LessWrong" sometimes also using the word "dudes".

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 15 October 2011 01:11:46PM 9 points [-]

A somehow arbitrary name is good, because it allows better compartmentalization.

Just like "Mensa" is better than "people more intelligent than you", or "Toastmasters" is better than "people who can speak better than you", also "LessWrongians" is better than "people who are more rational than you".

Of course we usually don't say "people who are more rational than you"; we say "rationalists" instead... but saying it differently does not prevent the audience from decoding the (real or percieved) original meaning.

Being a member of a group with arbitrary name is a hobby. Being a member of a group with some property X in the name suggests that your environment is somehow non-X or not-enough-X, otherwise you would not need such group.

Comment author: atorm 15 October 2011 03:37:47PM 8 points [-]

Mensa has negative connotations in the minds of some people. I considered joining Mensa but decided against it when all of my friends said that people in Mensa are all arrogant, self-impressed jerks. Note that as far as I know, none of my friends know anyone in Mensa, they just have a pre-conceived idea of what Mensans are like.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 15 October 2011 09:01:15PM 13 points [-]

I considered joining Mensa but decided against it when all of my friends said that people in Mensa are all arrogant, self-impressed jerks.

People who join Mensa usually do it for signalling. People who criticize Mensa usually do it for signalling. Both groups enjoy the idea of being better than the other group. You could join Mensa and criticize it, for double signalling. I did. :D

I have met a few interesting people there, but the organization is mostly disappointing. It does not have a goal. Well, officially it does: the goal is to study intelligence and provide a stimulating environment for its members. But most members just meet and talk about whatever and also how intelligent they are and how the world does not reward their intelligence. I am afraid than any pseudoscience or conspiracy theory would be more welcome than rationality.

But if Mensa in your country is large enough, perhaps you could use it as a filter, find rational people inside Mensa, and start a local Bayesian conspiracy. Mensa can preselect intelligent people who search for something new. If Mensa will disappoint you, it will probably disappoint many new members too -- these people are already preselected for intelligence and searching for something new, just collect their contacts soon and send them to LW.

Comment author: Desrtopa 15 October 2011 07:11:03PM 4 points [-]

Personally, I was somewhat insulted when my mother suggested to me that I should join Mensa; I couldn't see any way that being a member could be beneficial for me status-wise.

Comment author: atorm 15 October 2011 07:25:29PM 2 points [-]

Also, really? No benefit? It's a very obvious mark of intelligence, so anyone who is impressed by that and doesn't have any negative connotations associated with the organization is going to see being a member as high-status.

Comment author: Desrtopa 15 October 2011 08:06:09PM 3 points [-]

Yes, but it's not like I have difficulty signalling high intelligence without Mensa membership, without having to bring in the frequently negative connotations of being one.

Comment author: Rubix 19 October 2011 05:18:17AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: atorm 15 October 2011 07:12:53PM 1 point [-]

Their claimed benefit is the opportunity to hang out with people of a similar intelligence.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 15 October 2011 04:47:57PM 5 points [-]

This is a bit of a Red Queen's Race: as the "arbitrary" proper noun becomes associated with property X, people start to respond to it as a generic referent to property X. If I want to avoid those responses by this strategy, I end up having to discard one term after another after another, always looking for a term that people don't have a referent for. It's kind of the opposite of clear communication, and gets tedious after a couple of decades.

It's also possible to turn this around. I was a member of an aphasics support group for a while (while recovering from brain damage) and in general this got framed, not as "my environment is insufficiently supportive of aphasics" but "I need more support for dealing with my aphasia than my environment provides." The difference is at best subtle, but it's frequently the difference between people feeling accused of inadequacy and not.

For what it's worth: I've been to a few Mensa gatherings (a coworker of mine was an active member and invited me regularly) and tend to think of Mensa, not as "people more intelligent...", but people who care more about being intelligent. I was a Toastmasters member for several years, I tend to think of Toastmasters as people who care more about speaking well. I've been intermittently active here for a while, and tend to think of the folks here as people who care more about rationality (and in some cases about behaving rationally). If that perception were more ubiquitous it might help... being implicitly accused of not caring enough about positive trait X is less of a challenge than being implicitly accused of lacking X.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 15 October 2011 09:10:07PM 2 points [-]

This is a bit of a Red Queen's Race: as the "arbitrary" proper noun becomes associated with property X, people start to respond to it as a generic referent to property X.

This depends on how widely the name is known. "Mensa" is known enough, so many people have associations with it. When a random person on a street will know who "LessWrongians" are, then... well, hopefully at that time the waterline of sanity will be higher than today. But until then, "LessWrongians" means nothing to most people; and if necessary, you can always reframe it as a group of Yudkowsky's fanfic fans.

Comment author: steven0461 20 October 2011 08:00:37PM *  3 points [-]

Just like "Mensa" is better than "people more intelligent than you", or "Toastmasters" is better than "people who can speak better than you", also "LessWrongians" is better than "people who are more rational than you".

It's easy to start seeing "LessWrong" as an arbitrary label if you're used to the name, but it totally does have a confrontational meaning in the way that "Mensa" and "Toastmasters" don't and in the way that "more rational than you" does.

Comment author: atorm 15 October 2011 03:38:26PM 4 points [-]

I think we should call people at Less Wrong the Illuminati. There's no way that could have any negative connotations, right?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 October 2011 03:34:59AM 4 points [-]

I tend to think of y'all as the Lessiath (no relation) or LessWrongenath but it doesn't work as well in verbal conversation.

Comment author: pedanterrific 15 October 2011 05:12:55AM *  2 points [-]

Lessirim seems more euphonious, but I get why you wouldn't like the connotation.

Edit: Goodness, "Lessoth" is practically canon! And the self-deprecatory implications... my new favorite word.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 16 October 2011 01:53:40AM 1 point [-]

Google is not turning up much for "lessoth" or "lessiath". Can you explain?

Comment author: pedanterrific 16 October 2011 02:28:03AM *  9 points [-]

... Tolkien states that "the suffix -ath (originally a collective noun-suffix) was used as a group plural, embracing all things of the same name, or those associated in some special arrangement or organization. So elenath (as plural of êl, [irregular] pl. elin) meant 'the host of the stars' ...

Yet another ending is -hoth "folk, host, horde", ... The Silmarillion Appendix (entry hoth) states that this ending is "nearly always used in a bad sense" ... The one who first called the Snowmen of Forochel Lossoth (for *Loss-hoth, loss = "snow") evidently did not like them.

- Sindarin, the Noble Tongue

Comment author: Nisan 16 October 2011 05:16:58PM 5 points [-]

Relevant username is relevant.

Comment author: [deleted] 15 October 2011 08:02:46PM *  1 point [-]

Yay we're an Eldritch Abomination!

Comment author: pedanterrific 16 October 2011 12:05:59AM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Manfred 16 October 2011 04:47:31AM *  6 points [-]

Okay, to summarize the brainstorming so far:

LW-based labels:
LessWrong (ers) / (ians) / (ites) / (irim)

Descriptions:
Critical thinkers, people who will stop misinterpreting you if you explain, hardcore rationalists, rationality geeks, aspiring rationalists, anticipators, mental cartographers

Ranging from other to very other:
Illuminati, L-dubs, fashionalists, rationistas, Bayes-users, Bayesian conspirators, Yudkowskians

Comment author: [deleted] 16 October 2011 06:44:40PM *  1 point [-]

I use lwers.

Comment author: Manfred 16 October 2011 07:16:27PM 1 point [-]

How would that be pronounced? ell-double-u-ers? Or just less-wrongers again?

Comment author: shminux 16 October 2011 07:47:23PM 1 point [-]

Like Elwerz, yes.

Comment author: juliawise 15 October 2011 10:00:56PM 5 points [-]

My housemates made plans to be elsewhere the night I told them I had invited some rationalists to dinner. My household clearly needs a different term for people I meet at Less Wrong meetups.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 15 October 2011 10:34:16PM *  2 points [-]

In that sort of context any word other than "friends" would probably get that sort of reaction. Even "internet friends" would work better than a specific label.

Comment author: Craig_Heldreth 17 October 2011 11:46:47PM 1 point [-]

I have a friend off another web site who uses "nerd friends from the internet" in this context; she has used it dozens of times and continues to use it. Also: she is a librarian and has lexicography skills well above the mean.

Comment author: Morendil 14 October 2011 11:03:53PM 11 points [-]

"Rational" and its cognates are weapon words: rarely used in a descriptive sense, more often to hammer your interlocutor into submission: "but that isn't rational". I suspect this accounts for a large part of the defensiveness.

Here is a good example in my own field: Parnas and Clements' "A rational design process: How and why to fake it" (pdf).

An excerpt:

If we are to be rational designers, we must begin knowing what we must do to succeed. That information should be recorded in a work product known as a requirements document.

Note how the word "rational" is used - to imply that anyone who doesn't assent to the author's otherwise unsupported assertion that "information [about what we must do] should be recorded in a work product known as a requirements document" is to be considered irrational. You're irrational if you prefer to communicate "what we must do" orally; or are comfortable with not starting out knowing everything you must do to succeed.

Comment author: Nisan 14 October 2011 08:43:26PM 4 points [-]

Some people are already using the term "aspiring rationalist".

Comment author: DanielLC 14 October 2011 11:13:50PM 2 points [-]

I consider "rationalist" to mean "one who aspires to become more rational", so aspiring rationalist is redundant.

Comment author: atorm 15 October 2011 03:42:51PM 2 points [-]

Does that mean that a perfectly rational agent is not a rationalist?

Comment author: shminux 16 October 2011 07:46:04PM 1 point [-]

Given that "a perfectly rational agent" is an idealization, absolutely.

Comment author: KenChen 14 October 2011 08:56:20PM 3 points [-]

Personally, I don't like this because it's awkward. What do you call the community?

"The aspiring rationalist community"?

Plus, people are liable to drop the "aspiring" part anyway, because it's a pain to say.

Comment author: Vaniver 18 October 2011 07:05:27PM 3 points [-]

Just shorten it to something catchy like asprats.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 18 October 2011 07:15:13PM 4 points [-]

Snake/rat chimeras? Rats with Asperger's? People who are as rational as prats?

Comment author: Vaniver 18 October 2011 11:41:40PM 1 point [-]

The last interpretation can get a little spicier: ass-prats! (But yes, I intended for it to be a terrible idea.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 October 2011 03:35:35AM 4 points [-]

Bayes-users and the Bayesian Conspiracy.

Comment author: atorm 15 October 2011 03:41:35PM 7 points [-]

Because "I'm a member of the Bayesian Conspiracy" isn't going to cause ANY problems with other people, right?

Comment author: [deleted] 15 October 2011 08:08:22PM *  16 points [-]

Don't forget to mention that lots are also members of the cult of the frozen decapitated head and that nearly all of us hope to understand the universe better so we can make something like God but better.

Comment author: juliawise 15 October 2011 10:03:45PM 3 points [-]

Yeah, I'm pretty sure my housemates would still flee if I told them I was inviting the Bayesian Conspiracy to dinner.

Comment author: Fergus_Mackinnon 17 October 2011 10:00:50AM 1 point [-]

I suppose that you could joke about the Weird Ideas and signal you didn't take yourself too seriously to them, which might put them at ease if it convinces them that you aren't implying you're better than they are, and so their status isn't being threatened... but that might kind of defeat the purpose by not doing anything to reduce the bias against non-conventional ideas, I'm not very good at modeling people.

Comment author: Raemon 15 October 2011 03:46:56AM 6 points [-]

I have yet to apply Bayes in any kind of formal manner that I didn't prior to finding Less Wrong. My mental framework has still shifted significantly, and the NYC community has benefited me even though there has not been any central focus on Bayes.

Much as I love the phrase "Bayesian Conspiracy", I don't think it's actually descriptive of what I've been participating in.

Comment author: khafra 17 October 2011 12:47:06PM 0 points [-]

I though "Bayesian Conspiracy" was a wonderful name for the LW contingent that did Burning Man, but I'm not sure that it works that well in other contexts.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 15 October 2011 10:48:24AM 5 points [-]

Bayes-users and the Bayesian Conspiracy.

Since I found this place from reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, I've always thought of this place as the Bayesian Conspiracy.

And I'm dying for another chapter!

Comment author: shminux 16 October 2011 07:44:28PM 0 points [-]

And I'm dying for another chapter!

Hopefully not from old age

Comment author: buybuydandavis 17 October 2011 03:54:48AM 3 points [-]

I'm already slowly dying from that, but I'm working on it.

Comment author: Alejandro1 15 October 2011 05:13:04AM 4 points [-]

I think of the core ideal of LW as "getting better at thinking, understanding the world, and acting effectively on it". "Rationalism" and "Rationality" are good summaries of this idea, though they do have some PR problems as the post says. "Bayes" is just too restrictive: not only it leaves out a lot of things as Raemon says, it also ties our identity too much to a particular epistemology, however powerful. If it turned out that a different epistemology is better than Bayesianism, this should not destroy LW.

Comment author: shminux 20 October 2011 08:01:51PM 3 points [-]

BUGs for short (Bayesian Users Group)

Comment author: DanielLC 14 October 2011 11:14:34PM 2 points [-]

You'd call the community whatever that community is called. For example, you'd call Less Wrong "Less Wrong". There's no one community of rationalists.

Comment author: lessdazed 14 October 2011 11:30:09PM 18 points [-]

I like the naming convention where you wait until your community is important enough for it to develop enemies who have a sinister epithet specifically for it, and then you get that label.

Comment author: Nisan 15 October 2011 04:42:43AM 8 points [-]

We need to attract ire in a unique way that distinguishes us from atheists, transhumanists, materialists, libertarians, singularitarians, pick-up artists, social progressives, polyamorous people, Asperger's-spectrum people, and drug-positive people. What irritating thing can we do that no one else does?

We tell people to read Sequences a lot. Maybe we will be "sequencedorks" :-|

Comment author: fubarobfusco 15 October 2011 05:38:23AM 9 points [-]

Well, if the Singularity is "the Rapture for nerds" then some aspects of Less Wrong could well be "the Prosperity Gospel for nerds".

Comment author: katydee 16 October 2011 10:51:13PM 0 points [-]

That would be a good term if you were trying to insult it, since the "Prosperity Gospel" is an ultra-heresy...

Comment author: JoshuaZ 16 October 2011 11:28:46PM *  1 point [-]

One person's heresy is another person's strongly held beliefs. (Although some heresies are more high-status than others. Prosperity Gospel is a pretty low-status one as heresies go.)

Comment author: katydee 17 October 2011 05:55:54AM 0 points [-]

Most heresies don't overtly contravene canon text, though (see for instance Matthew 19:21-30, the tale of Lazarus, and so on).

Comment author: lessdazed 15 October 2011 11:00:34AM 3 points [-]

"Anticipators". I want to cheat and get someone to call us that.

Comment author: AnthonyC 15 October 2011 06:06:40PM 2 points [-]

We are among (aka "with" aka "con-") those those who have read the Sequences, so maybe... Consequentialists?

Oops, already taken.

Comment author: katydee 16 October 2011 10:46:22PM 1 point [-]

"Sequencers"

Comment author: [deleted] 14 October 2011 09:59:08PM 8 points [-]

I don't see why you have to use the same term when talking to different people. Just use whatever term best gets the point across to your listeners. Occasionally this means that you can't use a one or two word label and have to explain what LessWrong is, but from then on you can use a shorter codeword (with that particular audience).

Comment author: [deleted] 15 October 2011 04:32:36PM *  7 points [-]

L-Dubs.

Hangers-on such as myself who don't use Bayes at all should be called "fashionalists."

Comment author: Pavitra 15 October 2011 05:59:12PM 6 points [-]

Now I want "rationistas" to mean something.

Comment author: sketerpot 15 October 2011 07:42:48PM 8 points [-]

Rationistas ostracise you if you deal with numbers that can not be represented by the ratio of two integers.

Comment author: pedanterrific 14 October 2011 11:10:48PM *  3 points [-]

... and what people tend to hear is "I'm a superior thinker to you," or maybe "I'm a part of this group, which ascribes the label 'rationalist' to itself, to make ourselves seem higher status than we really are."

[picture of an arrogant asshole]

Was this intentional?

Edit: Because it's awesome.

Comment author: KenChen 17 October 2011 03:47:53PM *  3 points [-]

Yes. I paid for the perfect stock photo to make this joke, so I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Comment author: Manfred 15 October 2011 12:05:14AM *  2 points [-]

Yeah, the stock photo is a bit much, I think. In general the article could have been written in a more matter-of fact way. "You might think 'rationalist' is..." replaced with "'Rationalist' isn't..." for example.

Comment author: atorm 15 October 2011 03:49:19PM 6 points [-]

I'm tired of matter-of-fact articles. The reason my wife is so reluctant to read the things I send her is because the finds the writing boring. I'm all in favor of rhetorical devices that spice up the writing, as long as they don't confuse the reader as to what's actually being said. You know what website writes about errors in thinking and gets a lot more traffic than Less Wrong? Cracked.com. I'm not saying that Cracked does as good or as complete a job of talking about biases, but they do keep people interested in coming back to read about things they're mistaken about, and they do it by being funny.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 15 October 2011 04:08:21PM *  3 points [-]

Yes! The amount of rational awareness that people seem to pick up from Cracked is astounding. But the majority of their material is simply humor that has little to do with rationality and is only marginally educational.

Comment author: atorm 15 October 2011 07:17:09PM *  5 points [-]

Agreed. I'm certainly not advocating that we abandon LessWrong and count on Cracked to raise the sanity waterline, nor am I advocating that LW posts be filled with profanity, pop-culture references, and humorously-captioned photos (maybe a FEW photos). I just wouldn't mind seeing posts that took themselves a LITTLE less seriously and were a little less stuffy and a little more accessible. Maybe some of the Sequences should have humorous summaries written so that casual readers can absorb the rough outline of the ideas and hopefully be pulled in gently.

Comment author: Manfred 15 October 2011 07:47:42PM 1 point [-]

Ah, I see. "Matter of fact," in my post, was code for not making unwarranted assumptions about the reader and eliminating all the beating around the bush. I didn't mean "try to be as boring as possible."

Comment author: MixedNuts 02 November 2011 03:27:02AM 2 points [-]

I learnt more history from Cracked than from all other sources put together, and my country thinks it's very important to make all kids sit through twelve years of history classes.

Comment author: atorm 02 November 2011 03:04:36AM 1 point [-]

Not trying to rebut you, just thought this was very relevant and might interest you. http://www.cracked.com/article_19468_5-logical-fallacies-that-make-you-wrong-more-than-you-think.html

Comment author: JoshuaZ 02 November 2011 03:12:03AM *  0 points [-]

Yes Robert made a subthread about it here.

Comment author: pedanterrific 16 October 2011 03:16:19AM 0 points [-]

I seem to have been misinterpreted. I'm actually with atorm on this one - I burst out laughing when I made that connection myself, and it only occurred to me afterwards that it might not have been intentional, which could have been bad.

Comment author: Manfred 16 October 2011 04:27:46AM 0 points [-]

Oh, huh. Yeah, I totally misinterpreted :D

Comment author: lessdazed 15 October 2011 12:34:15AM *  -1 points [-]

You might think that "rationalist" is simply a descriptive label, but it carries positive connotations

You might have thought, labels inherently carry connotations. It lets us hear, that's the mind projection fallacy.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 14 October 2011 09:09:22PM *  6 points [-]

as soon as you assign a name to yourself, that is sufficient to form a group identity.

Sufficient (maybe), but not necessary, and thus possibly irrelevant.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 15 October 2011 11:17:30AM 4 points [-]

They might ask why you need a group in order to be rational, or they might say that they don't believe that people are inherently rational.

Isn't that the point? We aren't inherently and automatically rational, so we're trying to get better at it.

Thinking about evolution has driven it home for me. You can explain evolution to a third grader, but it took all of humanity tens of thousands of years to come up with the theory. We're really pretty damn stupid, for all our airs about being able to push around all the other animals. I've been reading a book:

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?: 23 Questions from Great Philosophers, Leszek Kolakowski.

Lots of tiny, bite sized chapters, with the "important questions" raised by philosophers over time. Perfect for a bathroom read. But I'm struck by the nonsense and gibberish that has passed for philosophical thought through the centuries. What a load of crap.

On the bright side, when we do figure something out, we can explain it to third graders. Understanding good ideas isn't hard. Coming up with them is. There is huge mileage in applying the most basic of ideas.

If I start getting confused about an inference problem, I just start writing it out in Jaynes notation. Poof. Technical problems evaporate. Apply indexing or think about orders of abstraction per Korzybski, and poof, problems disappear. There are plenty of great ideas that a third grader can understand that I don't know about yet. That's why I'm here.

Comment author: kragensitaker 21 December 2011 12:38:18AM 2 points [-]

One of my least popular comments on Less Wrong was that nobody was a "decent rationalist." Perhaps now is the time to explain what I meant by that.

Rationality is an ideal. Whether or not it's a particularly good ideal, it's definitely not a good description of any actually existing people, which proposition is approximately what this entire site is about. To me, being a "decent rationalist" would entail being decently rational: not perfectly rational, but at least mostly rational. It's clear that nobody approaches that state.

When people describe themselves as "rationalists", perhaps some of them mean that they aspire to the ideal of rationality. But it sounds like they believe that they actually practice rationality. At best, this would be dishonest boasting; at worst it would be self-delusion.

So perhaps that's why people react negatively to the label: they hear it as a claim of an implausible achievement, not a belief system or social group.

(It gets worse when you use the term to identify the social club rather than a rather broad set of beliefs, because then you end up saying that someone is not a "rationalist" or an "objectivist" or a "libertarian". It's sort of like how certain academics now use the term "philosopher" to mean "person teaching philosophy at a university" or "person submitting papers to philosophy journals", by which standard Socrates wasn't a philosopher.)

In the years that I've been watching this social group, I've struggled with the question of what to call it when talking about it to other people. "Eliezer's cult" seems unnecessarily derogatory, as does the tongue-in-cheek "Bayesian Conspiracy". "Yudkowskians" is accurate and not derogatory but perhaps unnecessarily limiting, and surely oversimplified. "Less Wrong" is the best label I have, which would make individuals "Lesswrongers".

There's another possible reason people might react negatively: in the 20th century, any number of atrocities were justified on the basis of being "scientific", "modern", or "rational": dialectical materialism, Levittown, indiscriminate use of pesticides, Mutually Assured Destruction, Schelling's losing strategy in the Vietnam war, low-cost housing developments, childbirth under anesthesia, radium water treatments, lobotomies, electroshock, The Projects, razing neighborhoods to run interstate highways through downtown, IMF neoliberal economic policies, eugenics, and so on.

It turns out that conflating your position with knowledge and rationality, and your opponent's position with ignorance and insanity, is such an effective rhetorical strategy that you can use it to ram through all sorts of terrible ideas. Perhaps because of this, a lot of people have developed a sort of memetic allergic reaction to explicit claims of rationality.

Comment author: Peacewise 24 October 2011 04:11:40AM *  2 points [-]

Seems to me that the label "rationalist" is one that facilitates a group bias. It lends weight to the view that those who aren't "rationalists" can't be rational.

Seems to me that it is reasonable to be less firm in holding to rationalism than stating... "I am a rationalist". For that's about all that the person is, it demands a total commitment to rational thinking and feeling and thence sets one up for failure. How high must the bar of rationalism be set?

We should be careful in labelling ourselves as "rationalists" rather than just thinking rationally, for even the very wise cannot see all ends.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 15 October 2011 05:51:52AM 2 points [-]

I say that I hang out with people who are "into hardcore rationality" immediately followed up with "studying reasoning, that sort of thing." I think the nerdishness sound of that balances it out slightly.

Comment author: Lapsed_Lurker 14 October 2011 10:19:31PM 2 points [-]

If you're worried about the reaction to group labels, then why not:

"I've been hanging out with some interesting people lately," ?

Of course, it's possible that whoever it is you're talking to will decide that you've just said that they're boring...

I meet a few people who apparently wilfully and repeatedly misinterpret what I'm saying, even when told that wasn't what I meant at all and I don't know how to deal with that.

Comment author: kragensitaker 21 December 2011 12:57:16AM 0 points [-]

I meet a few people who apparently wilfully and repeatedly misinterpret what I'm saying, even when told that wasn't what I meant at all and I don't know how to deal with that.

You mean like this?

"Man, that guy looks so gay, I just want to bash his fucking head in."

"My brother is gay."

"I didn't mean gay, I meant, like, gay."

Maybe you need to win their trust and improve your communication skills.

Comment author: Lapsed_Lurker 21 December 2011 01:31:20AM 0 points [-]

Not like that, at least not that I can generally detect - but I do agree that my communication skills could do with some improvement - which is odd, since I've had a 'public-facing' job for over 10 years and get a fair amount of practice talking to people and it seems that it hasn't helped :(

Comment author: kragensitaker 25 December 2011 04:46:39PM 1 point [-]

It could be that even if it doesn't seem like that to you, it sounds like that to them. Surely almost everyone has gone through lots of experiences where they interpret someone correctly to have said something offensive, at which point the offender attempts to weasel out of it; perhaps that's the template you're matching in their mind, even if it's not what you're doing. By comparison, the number of interactions where someone is trying to explain a difficult concept is pretty small, outside of certain small groups.

Comment author: lessdazed 14 October 2011 11:20:21PM 0 points [-]

I've been hanging out with some interesting people lately

equals zero minus the following:

I meet a few people who apparently wilfully and repeatedly misinterpret what I'm saying, even when told that wasn't what I meant at all and I don't know how to deal with that.

equals:

"I've been hanging out with some people lately who almost never misinterpret what I'm saying, and they change their minds when told something wasn't what I meant."

Comment author: [deleted] 17 October 2011 05:08:23PM 0 points [-]

Clever, but that category also includes people with good listening skills who are not rationalists.

Comment author: shminux 14 October 2011 08:42:40PM *  2 points [-]

I can attest to a similar reaction.

When I ask myself why I am hanging around you guys, the answer is mostly "to learn more about why people think what they think and do what they do, even when it seems to make no sense" and "How do I avoid being like that?". Not sure how to effectively summarize it into a catchy soundbite.

Comment author: lessdazed 14 October 2011 08:57:41PM *  1 point [-]

"A group that talks about human motivations to make sure we're not ignoring any important reasons people do what they do."

"Not ignoring" means it isn't a group where everything that ever happens is best explained as being primarily due to a single cause: "because of government interference with the market", "because of failing to appreciate our inner potential", "because of the patriarchy" or similar narrow single-explanation nonsense groups.

Comment author: magfrump 15 October 2011 03:29:28AM 2 points [-]

I have started referring to myself as a dark wizard, where my powers have to do with learning about the world, interacting with people, and doing mathematics. It is nice in that it is a little too ridiculous to seem like bragging, makes people curious sometimes and doesn't really stick me into a group except for "nerds," and my loyalties there are already so solid I can't do much about it.

I usually refer to LessWrongers as LessWrongians, or to the site as "My little corner of the Internet where there are constructive discussions and citations on everything."

Comment author: atorm 15 October 2011 03:44:40PM 2 points [-]

You just said "LessWronger" and "LessWrongian". Using one nickname to refer to another nickname seems... weird. It seems you actually refer to them as "LessWrongers".

Comment author: magfrump 15 October 2011 06:59:55PM 0 points [-]

I use both, the differing nicknames was intentional. I get the impression that LessWrongers is more common but I think LessWrongians sounds better, so I intended to use the more common label to refer to the more me-specific label; please excuse my illusion of transparency.

I am guessing you made that conclusion based on my use in the post, however another hypothesis occurs to me that you looked through my old comments and saw which was more common. If that is the case, and I'm wrong about my own usage, I'd be curious to know, but only curious enough to hear if you'd already looked it up, I don't think it's worth the trouble.

Comment author: atorm 15 October 2011 07:11:46PM 1 point [-]

I will forgive your illusion of transparency if you will forgive my assumption that you were so lacking in self-awareness. I had recently read a number of sub-par comments and had forgotten that the majority of the posts/people on this site are well thought out/not typical blithering internet commenters.

My conclusion that you call them (us?) "LessWrongers" came from you using it first, which may actually have been foolish. If I think of a hypothetical person saying "I refer to 'X' as 'Y'," I expect "X" to be the common term and "Y" to be the nickname. I suppose I should have interpreted that in your writing, but I think I was thrown off by you using the word "LessWrongers" when the naming of that group is already what's in discussion.

If, on a forum discussing whether facial tissue (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facial_tissue) should be called "tissues" or "Kleenex", someone said "I usually refer to Kleenex as Puffs", I would probably assume that they actually call them "Kleenex", since until that point everyone had been using "facial tissues" except when suggesting the actual name they preferred.

Comment author: magfrump 15 October 2011 07:47:19PM 1 point [-]

Well, hopefully everything is cleared up now and no harm no foul. Your point is taken and I agree that my original phrasing was odd.

Comment author: antigonus 17 October 2011 02:58:57PM 1 point [-]

I feel like the most apt term for people here (or, more accurately, people who identify themselves as being part of some community inaugurated by this website) would be "Yudkowskian."

Comment author: Desrtopa 17 October 2011 03:56:16PM *  3 points [-]

I disagree. If we're trying to pursue an art that anyone can learn and add refinements to beyond what they were taught, the last thing we want to do is hang a single person's name on it.

Comment author: antigonus 17 October 2011 05:02:21PM 0 points [-]

I agree that "Yudkowskian" isn't a great label politically. And looking back on it, KenChen's post is about thinking of good political descriptors and not just "apt" ones, so I think I'm probably going off-topic here. However, I do think that the term "Yudkowskian" most accurately and succinctly summarizes the cluster of views tying the members of the community based around this website together. (Then again, I don't really know anyone here, so maybe my impression is unjustified.) For instance, talking of rationality as an art to be refined feels very Yudkowskian to me. This isn't meant to be pejorative.

Comment author: Desrtopa 18 October 2011 01:58:58AM 1 point [-]

"Baconian" aptly describes the methodology and outlook of scientists (or at least, most scientists,) but science has come so far because it's built out of ideas that have demonstrable worth irrespective of the people who came up with them.

Comment author: Bugmaster 17 October 2011 05:37:36PM *  1 point [-]

Hmm, to me the label "Yudkowskian" sounds less like, "a person who enjoys refining the art of rationalism", and more like, "the follower of our great enlightened master, Yudkowskiy". That's a bit over the top. It's edging into Great Leader territory, IMO.

(Edit: typo)

Comment author: antigonus 17 October 2011 05:52:49PM 3 points [-]

I'm not sure about the Great Leader bit, but I do think lots of people here could be accurately classified as followers of Yudkowsky's thinking. Again, that's not to suggest it's bad to be such a person. But "being interested in refining the art of rationalism" both 1. builds in theory-laden terms the mere adoption of which already marks one as a member of the community, and 2. doesn't capture the range of interests, opinions and lingo widely shared across the site.

Comment author: Bugmaster 17 October 2011 09:00:04PM 3 points [-]

but I do think lots of people here could be accurately classified as followers of Yudkowsky's thinking

Maybe I'm biased due to my personal background, but I find this phrasing rather creepy. It's one step away from saying, "... lots of people here could be accurately classified as followers of Yudkowsky personally, glory be unto him" (that last bit being optional). I don't think that Yudkowsky has any kind of a special property which automatically imbues his thinking with wisdom and significance. Instead, people accept his ideas because they are well thought out and interesting. If Yudkowsky started spouting ideas that were stupid and boring, presumably people here would stop "following" them... right ?

I put the word "following" above in scare quotes because it, too, scares me. As I understand it, a rational person subjects every idea to stringent criticism before deciding whether to accept it or reject it. That's kind of the opposite of what "followers" do.

Comment author: antigonus 17 October 2011 09:45:22PM *  0 points [-]

I guess I'm using the word "follower" here in the sense that one would describe someone as, e.g., a follower of Ayn Rand. That is, someone who has passionately assimilated an extremely far-reaching set of beliefs that originates largely from a single, high-status thinker, and who seeks to establish novel communities or institutions inspired by/based around that thinker's thoughts. I'm sure most Objectivists would disavow Ayn Rand of any magical wisdom and insist that they came to their beliefs through critical reflection, but I would happily label the more serious of them followers.

Comment author: Nornagest 17 October 2011 10:18:13PM *  5 points [-]

I'm sure most Objectivists would disavow Ayn Rand of any magical wisdom and insist that they came to their beliefs through critical reflection...

Not sure that's actually true, at least if you read "magical" as "special; privileged". Mainline Objectivism is a closed system: it explicitly disavows thinking that builds on, expands, or (especially) critiques Rand's work, treating it as a self-contained totalizing philosophy. As far as I'm concerned that immediately puts it fairly high up on any scale of founder-worship, roughly on par with Scientology and higher than most strains of Marxism. It's also the sort of criterion that should be accessible from an inside or an outside view, which is convenient if you're asking questions about groups you belong to.

Comment author: antigonus 18 October 2011 12:34:47AM 1 point [-]

I understand there was a big rift in Objectivism over precisely this, with one group led by David Kelley splitting off because they were for a more intellectually tolerant Objectivism.

Comment author: Bugmaster 17 October 2011 10:15:40PM 1 point [-]

That is, someone who has passionately assimilated an extremely far-reaching set of beliefs that originates largely from a single, high-status thinker, and who seeks to establish novel communities or institutions inspired by/based around that thinker's thoughts.

Ok, so in the case of Yudkowdky, are we more interested in his thoughts, or his person ? I understand that it's the person who originally voiced the thoughts, but which is more important -- the thoughts or the person ? And what do we do with those thoughts ? Do we pore through them searching for bits of revealed wisdom, or do we discuss and critique them freely, discarding those we deem insufficiently well-supported ? Is it even hypothetically possible for someone to come up with even better ideas than Yudkowsky did ? What will we call ourselves when that happens ?

All these questions are easy to answer in a satisfactory fashion if you call yourself a "rationalist" or a "skeptic" or something of the sort, but they become somewhat difficult to answer if you call yourself a "follower of Yudkowsky's thoughts". It's a matter of emphasis.

In addition, I should point out that I'm not really interested in "establishing... institutions inspired by/based around [Yudkowsky]'s thoughts" -- thought perhaps others might be. The closest thing to such an institution that I can think of would be SIAI, but its mission statement is to develop a friendly transhuman AI, not to follow anyone's thoughts in particular.

Comment author: antigonus 18 October 2011 01:12:20AM *  3 points [-]

I understand that it's the person who originally voiced the thoughts, but which is more important -- the thoughts or the person ?

The point is that the thoughts are so diverse that the main thing they have in common is their original promotion by a single individual. But it really isn't just Yudkowsky's beliefs that have become currency here. Lots of his idioms pop up everywhere, for example. There was recently a Chuck Norris-inspired thread about how amazingly intelligent he is - tongue-in-cheek, but still telling. And there does seem to be an implicit agreement by many that he's likely to be an important player in saving the world from a certain looming existential threat if anyone is.

I'm a newly-arrived outsider and am doubtless missing tons of context and information. But from the perspective of an outsider like me, it sure looks like there's this one guy who most directly shapes thought and language, who's held in esteem beyond all others and whose initiative provided the glue that holds the whole thing together. That's not to say no one can or does question him. "Yudkowskian" still feels like the single word that best captures all of this.

Also, I'd like to reiterate that I'm not trying to provoke or offend.

Comment author: Alejandro1 18 October 2011 12:18:16AM 1 point [-]

It is interesting to contrast the negative reactions to this suggestion (which I instinctively share) to academic philosophy. It is normal to talk about Cartesians, Kantians or Hegelians without any connotations of cultism. Even for contemporary philosophy, someone who agrees with Dennett on consciousness or with Derrida on deconstructionism would be, I think, happy to call herself a Dennettian or a Derridean. Why, then, do we react against being called Yudkowskians?

The difference seems to be that the philosophical labels do not imply acceptance of a whole worldview. Context or explicit distinction usually makes clear that one is e.g. "a Dennettian about intentionality" or "a Kantian about morality", not someone who accepts everything or even most that Dennett or Kant said. The Sequences, on the other hand, present something close to a whole worldview, which most people here share in a great measure, so calling ourselves Yudkowskians without qualification brings up the suggestion that we slavishly follow the wordlview someone else has put forward -- something much more cult-like. I think the same happens for "Randian/Objectivist"; compare the connotations of "I am an Objectivist" with those of "I am a Randian on objective value".

Comment author: lavalamp 17 October 2011 04:07:36PM 1 point [-]

Idea: "mental cartography/cartographer". People will say, "what is that?" and the answer would be "we attempt to make the map in our head match the territory of reality".

Pros: no one will have heard of it (it has about 2000 hits on google), so we get to define it.

Cons: somewhat unwieldly.

Comment author: [deleted] 17 October 2011 05:01:12PM *  1 point [-]

I really like the idea of using a new label that triggers curiosity and prompts the listener to ask followup questions, but I think this one is a little too unwieldy because the map-territory analogy takes a while to explain.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 August 2015 04:39:47AM 0 points [-]

So, what is it that we do? And please don't say refining the art of human rationality.

Comment author: Raemon 17 October 2011 03:14:17AM 0 points [-]

Doesn't quite solve the problem, but I'm pondering this as a catchphrase: "Better Decision Making through Science!"

Communicates what we're about, and also distinguishes us from people who just like critical thinking without cognitive science to help them out.

Comment author: kragensitaker 21 December 2011 12:43:48AM -2 points [-]

I strongly support the suggestion implied in one thread here of officially adopting the term "Lessath", the lesser folk.