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jimrandomh comments on The Value (and Danger) of Ritual - Less Wrong

29 Post author: Raemon 30 December 2011 06:52AM

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Comment author: jimrandomh 31 December 2011 07:57:59AM *  15 points [-]

I like the idea of having rituals, if only because they're fun. ... However, I also agree that it's possible for this to go horribly wrong. What does it going horribly wrong look like? What failsafes can we put in place? I think it would be helpful to have some "if you're doing this, something went wrong" heuristics so that we can notice ahead of time that something undesirable is happening, and stop it.

Good idea. I don't think the people in this community would actually let things go badly awry, but demonstrating that we've thought about it and having a list of well-thought-out meta-rules should reassure people and head off objections. There should eventually be a formal document somewhere, blessed by symbolic proceedings of some sort.

Here are my proposed safeguards (with catchy summaries), all inspired by things that have actually gone wrong in other communities. Certainly not an exhaustive list of failure modes, but it hits some big ones.

Truth above all. People should never be pressured into saying, singing, or symbolically supporting things that they suspect are wrong or untrue. When someone is speaking, they always have the right to break script to avoid speaking a falsehood, or to insert an important truth. When people sing, chant or speak in unison, they always have the right to stay silent through some or all parts, if necessary to avoid falsehood. Statements about good and bad are falsehoods if they contradict the speaker's values. When people break script or refuse chants this way, it shouldn't be held against them, and they are not obligated to defend their statements or their silence. If a script is broken frequently, it should be changed.

Beliefs can change. While a ceremony can be used to mark your present state of belief, that does not mean you stop updating on evidence, and it does not mean you can't renounce the belief on new evidence or on reanalysis of old evidence. It is not possible to use ceremony to lock a belief in place. If beliefs affirmed in ceremonies are maintained, it should only be because they are still true.

No abuse of power. And no excuses for it.

No mandatory intoxicants. Especially alcohol. It should be easy to refuse anything psychoactive without calling attention to having done so. Any meeting that has a drug or intoxicant as a central theme should be irregularly scheduled, so that attendance is not the default for people who come on a regular schedule.

Reality over symbolism. Do not blur the line between acts with real-world consequences, and acts taken symbolically. The direct consequences of a symbolic act should be small. A stupid act remains stupid, no matter how symbolically appropriate. As a corollary, rituals may not contain significantly dangerous acts (but illusion of danger is fine.) If a symbolic act suddenly takes on consequences - for example, if someone shows up with an allergy to the symbolic food - then reality wins.

Comment author: Raemon 31 December 2011 06:06:48PM 1 point [-]

This is a good starting point.

My biggest flag is going to be if we find ourselves saying something like "we need to acquire more members" for a purpose OTHER than improving the community (i.e. to get their money, or because we have decided "get more members" is a metric we just arbitrarily care about)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 31 December 2011 06:24:11PM 3 points [-]


It seems to me that "get more members" is already a metric some people have decided they care about. A great deal of discussion of what the emotional tone of this site ought to be (including, but not limited to, some discussions about why group rituals are good to have) is predicated on the assumption that getting more people to participate here is good in and of itself.

Another way of saying this is that some of us are allowing our attention to be focused on community for the sake of community, rather than focusing our attention on something external and allowing community to develop (or not) based on shared interest in that external thing.

And I agree with you: this is a big flag indicating a problem exists.

Comment author: Raemon 02 January 2012 04:01:11PM 9 points [-]

This is a complex issue. It probably deserves its own post, but I'll give it a go here.

Here's a few relevant beliefs which have traction in the community, which I don't necessarily agree with. Related ideas vaguely clustered together:

1) The world would be better if people were more rational 2) People can be taught to be more rational 3) Less Wrong's brand of rationality is (at least among the) best examples we have

4) Less Wrong, as a website, benefits from having more quality members posting more (and more varied along certain axis) quality content 5) There are people on the internet who already have something close to the Less Wrong mindset, but who don't know about Less Wrong.

6) Real Life Communities (of some sort) are in general valuable for increasing quality of life 7) Communities are also useful for fighting akrasia, and rationalist communities in particular are valuable for encouraging people to maintain rational practices in their daily lives. 8) Putting together a rationalist community in your area can be hard if you don't know any rationalists there.

9) Acquiring more members online is one method by which to allow real life rationality communities to form, as members from given areas start to reach critical mass. This works especially well for large cities. 10) Less Wrong, both the online and associated meat-space (meet-space?) communities, suffer somewhat from groupthink (and related issues stemming from a narrow target demographic). One way to fix that is to acquire new members with a more diverse range of opinions and interests. 11) Individuals in both the online and meet-space communities benefit from being able to find other individuals with similar interests. Partly because they can just be friends, but also so they can begin working together on bigger projects.

I agree with most of these. The only two that I have issue with is 2 and 3. There's a range on how much people can be taught to be rational. I know people whose brains are simply wired differently than ours. Maybe they could have been shaped differently during childhood, but I suspect there are fundamental biological differences as well.

I also think there are plenty of smart, left-brained people for whom the Less Wrong brand is not well suited.

The upshot to all of this is that I DO think there are lots of good reasons for us to strive for the following:

1) Less Wrong (the blog) should make an effort to reach people who would particularly benefit from it, or might rapidly self-modify into the sort of person who would particularly benefit from it. But Less Wrong's value as a community also depends on a certain focus and quality of discourse. We'd prefer people who can contribute to that focus, or at least don't detract from it too much.

(I'm a little on the fence about how to target people like me, in particular. I do not have the interest nor particular aptitude to contribute meaningfully to decision-theory posts, although I derive value from them. I've ended up posting about art-related things a lot, partly because I think there are useful, rationality-related things to say about them and partly because they are a heretofore low-supply-medium-demand subject that I'm able to contribute regarding. I'd like there to be more artist-types on Less Wrong, but if we all continued posting in the volume that I've been recently it would drown out the more traditional content.)

2) Meet-space rationality communities should be encouraged, and these can have wider range of members. Meetspace communities need inspirational organizers, a category of person that the blog doesn't need as much, and there's a much greater benefit there if individuals sharing a particular interest (art, politics, programming, etc) can meet up and start collaborating.

3) In both cases, we should not be trying to convert EVERYONE to our cause, we should be identifying people who would particularly benefit from our community and who we would benefit from including. This is harder to do in a targeted fashion online - you put advertisements on websites that are similar and you get whoever naturally shows up. In meet-space you can find particular people and just invite them.

"Get more members" is a crude metric that doesn't address the nuance of what we want. This is particularly dangerous because we DO want more members, and it's hard to do so with the nuance required to do so safely and productively. So we need to be hovering near the razor-edge that separates hollow-self-perpetuating organizations and actual good quality organizations, and actively remaining on that edge requires a lot of diligence and effort.

I have more thoughts but they're less fully formed.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 02 January 2012 04:41:47PM 5 points [-]

I agree with most of what you say here.

One exception: I disagree that identifying individuals whose association with LW would be mutually beneficial and encouraging that association is particularly hard to do in a targeted fashion online... I can find particular people and invite them to an online community, just as I can to a "meetspace" community. You seem to have jumped from "online" to "advertisements on websites" and I don't really understand why.

Another exception: you say "we need to be hovering near the razor-edge that separates hollow-self-perpetuating organizations and actual good quality organizations, and actively remaining on that edge requires a lot of diligence and effort" I'm not sure we actually do need to be hovering near that edge. It might be OK for us to simply seek to be an actual good quality organization, and not devote much time or attention to self-perpetuation at all.

Regardless... in particular, I agree that it's very easy for "we should behave in ways that cause people we want to be associated with to want to associate with us" to turn into "we should behave in ways that cause people to want to associate with us" -- for nuance to get lost, as you say. Indeed, I think it's happening: a non-negligible amount of recent discussion on related topics seems to me to fall in the latter category.

Comment author: Raemon 02 January 2012 10:29:19PM 0 points [-]

I was sort of rushing my conclusion and yeah, I agree with your assessment of my assessment. I think.

For the online thing, my brain leapt immediately to "most cost effective ways to recruit large numbers of people," which wasn't necessary. However, I didn't just mean advertisements. I found Less Wrong though HP:MoR, but I was originally linked to THAT by a public discussion on a community forum. And I would have taken longer to make the transition if there hadn't been additional discussion of Less Wrong itself on that forum.

This is more targeted than advertisements but less targeted than an individual recommendation. I also post particularly good articles on social media, which are in some ways even closer to advertisements. I don't think a dedicated effort is required here, I think this kind of word-of-mouth is what would happen naturally.

It might be OK for us to simply seek to be an actual good quality organization, and not devote much time or attention to self-perpetuation at all.

Up until recently this is what I've been in favor of, and I think it's a good default position. (In particular for the online community, with whatever linking people are motivated to do on their own). But I did just list several advantages of having more people in meetspace, and the NYC group at least has hit the upper limit on how many people it is practically to get together regularly.

There is still more advantage to be had by getting a wider variety of members, but we can't do that unless we make a double-pronged effort: finding larger meeting spaces (which cost money) and ensuring enough people that the larger meeting spaces are justified. Either one by itself doesn't really work.

"we should behave in ways that cause people we want to be associated with to want to associate with us" to turn into "we should behave in ways that cause people to want to associate with us"

The additional issue is that there are people that we wouldn't necessarily explicitly want to come join us, but whom would be totally willing to come to our blog/club if we weren't doing [X random easily changeable thing that we didn't mean to do or don't care that much about], and who would turn out to be valuable if we weren't doing X thing. And I think that's what a lot of the discussion has been about.

The "We Look Like a Cult" issue is contentious because people disagree on how many people are actually turned off by it, and how easily changed or valuable the characteristics that look cult-like are.

Comment author: arundelo 02 January 2012 11:51:22PM 1 point [-]

I don't know if you're intentionally introducing a new spelling here, but the standard one is "meatspace".

Comment author: Raemon 03 January 2012 12:10:14AM *  2 points [-]

The spelling was intentional. (I initially used both of them to clarify that I knew what I was doing, but perhaps it was still not obvious enough. I'm not sure I consider that a tragedy though)