Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

The noncentral fallacy - the worst argument in the world?

146 Post author: Yvain 27 August 2012 03:36AM

Related to: Leaky Generalizations, Replace the Symbol With The Substance, Sneaking In Connotations

David Stove once ran a contest to find the Worst Argument In The World, but he awarded the prize to his own entry, and one that shored up his politics to boot. It hardly seems like an objective process.

If he can unilaterally declare a Worst Argument, then so can I. I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: "X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us a certain emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that emotional reaction to X, even though it is not a central category member."

Call it the Noncentral Fallacy. It sounds dumb when you put it like that. Who even does that, anyway?

It sounds dumb only because we are talking soberly of categories and features. As soon as the argument gets framed in terms of words, it becomes so powerful that somewhere between many and most of the bad arguments in politics, philosophy and culture take some form of the noncentral fallacy. Before we get to those, let's look at a simpler example.

Suppose someone wants to build a statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. for his nonviolent resistance to racism. An opponent of the statue objects: "But Martin Luther King was a criminal!"

Any historian can confirm this is correct. A criminal is technically someone who breaks the law, and King knowingly broke a law against peaceful anti-segregation protest - hence his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

But in this case calling Martin Luther King a criminal is the noncentral. The archetypal criminal is a mugger or bank robber. He is driven only by greed, preys on the innocent, and weakens the fabric of society. Since we don't like these things, calling someone a "criminal" naturally lowers our opinion of them.

The opponent is saying "Because you don't like criminals, and Martin Luther King is a criminal, you should stop liking Martin Luther King." But King doesn't share the important criminal features of being driven by greed, preying on the innocent, or weakening the fabric of society that made us dislike criminals in the first place. Therefore, even though he is a criminal, there is no reason to dislike King.

This all seems so nice and logical when it's presented in this format. Unfortunately, it's also one hundred percent contrary to instinct: the urge is to respond "Martin Luther King? A criminal? No he wasn't! You take that back!" This is why the noncentral is so successful. As soon as you do that you've fallen into their trap. Your argument is no longer about whether you should build a statue, it's about whether King was a criminal. Since he was, you have now lost the argument.

Ideally, you should just be able to say "Well, King was the good kind of criminal." But that seems pretty tough as a debating maneuver, and it may be even harder in some of the cases where the noncentral Fallacy is commonly used.


Now I want to list some of these cases. Many will be political1, for which I apologize, but it's hard to separate out a bad argument from its specific instantiations. None of these examples are meant to imply that the position they support is wrong (and in fact I myself hold some of them). They only show that certain particular arguments for the position are flawed, such as:

"Abortion is murder!" The archetypal murder is Charles Manson breaking into your house and shooting you. This sort of murder is bad for a number of reasons: you prefer not to die, you have various thoughts and hopes and dreams that would be snuffed out, your family and friends would be heartbroken, and the rest of society has to live in fear until Manson gets caught. If you define murder as "killing another human being", then abortion is technically murder. But it has none of the downsides of murder Charles Manson style. Although you can criticize abortion for many reasons, insofar as "abortion is murder" is an invitation to apply one's feelings in the Manson case directly to the abortion case, it ignores the latter's lack of the features that generated those intuitions in the first place2.

"Genetic engineering to cure diseases is eugenics!" Okay, you've got me there: since eugenics means "trying to improve the gene pool" that's clearly right. But what's wrong with eugenics? "What's wrong with eugenics? Hitler did eugenics! Those unethical scientists in the 1950s who sterilized black women without their consent did eugenics!" "And what was wrong with what Hitler and those unethical scientists did?" "What do you mean, what was wrong with them? Hitler killed millions of people! Those unethical scientists ruined people's lives." "And does using genetic engineering to cure diseases kill millions of people, or ruin anyone's life?" "Well...not really." "Then what's wrong with it?" "It's eugenics!"

"Evolutionary psychology is sexist!" If you define "sexist" as "believing in some kind of difference between the sexes", this is true of at least some evo psych. For example, Bateman's Principle states that in species where females invest more energy in producing offspring, mating behavior will involve males pursuing females; this posits a natural psychological difference between the sexes. "Right, so you admit it's sexist!" "And why exactly is sexism bad?" "Because sexism claims that men are better than women and that women should have fewer rights!" "Does Bateman's principle claim that men are better than women, or that women should have fewer rights?" "Well...not really." "Then what's wrong with it?" "It's sexist!"

A second, subtler use of the noncentral fallacy goes like this: "X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us an emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that same emotional reaction to X even if X gives some benefit that outweighs the harm."

"Capital punishment is murder!" Charles Manson-style murder is solely harmful. This kind of murder produces really strong negative feelings. The proponents of capital punishment believe that it might decrease crime, or have some other attending benefits. In other words, they believe it's "the good kind of murder"3, just like the introductory example concluded that Martin Luther King was "the good kind of criminal". But since normal murder is so taboo, it's really hard to take the phrase "the good kind of murder" seriously, and just mentioning the word "murder" can call up exactly the same amount of negative feelings we get from the textbook example.

"Affirmative action is racist!" True if you define racism as "favoring certain people based on their race", but once again, our immediate negative reaction to the archetypal example of racism (the Ku Klux Klan) cannot be generalized to an immediate negative reaction to affirmative action. Before we generalize it, we have to check first that the problems that make us hate the Ku Klux Klan (violence, humiliation, divisiveness, lack of a meritocratic society) are still there. Then, even if we do find that some of the problems persist (like disruption of meritocracy, for example) we have to prove that it doesn't produce benefits that outweigh these harms.

"Taxation is theft!" True if you define theft as "taking someone else's money regardless of their consent", but though the archetypal case of theft (breaking into someone's house and stealing their jewels) has nothing to recommend it, taxation (arguably) does. In the archetypal case, theft is both unjust and socially detrimental. Taxation keeps the first disadvantage, but arguably subverts the second disadvantage if you believe being able to fund a government has greater social value than leaving money in the hands of those who earned it. The question then hinges on the relative importance of these disadvantages. Therefore, you can't dismiss taxation without a second thought just because you have a natural disgust reaction to theft in general. You would also have to prove that the supposed benefits of this form of theft don't outweigh the costs.

Now, because most arguments are rapid-fire debate-club style, sometimes it's still useful to say "Taxation isn't theft!" At least it beats saying "Taxation is theft but nevertheless good", then having the other side say "Apparently my worthy opponent thinks that theft can be good; we here on this side would like to bravely take a stance against theft", and then having the moderator call time before you can explain yourself. If you're in a debate club, do what you have to do. But if you have the luxury of philosophical clarity, you would do better to forswear the Dark Arts and look a little deeper into what's going on.

Are there ever cases in which this argument pattern can be useful? Yes. For example, it may be a groping attempt to suggest a Schelling fence; for example, a principle that one must never commit theft even when it would be beneficial because that would make it harder to distinguish and oppose the really bad kinds of theft. Or it can be an attempt to spark conversation by pointing out a potential contradiction: for example "Have you noticed that taxation really does contain some of the features you dislike about more typical instances of theft? Maybe you never even thought about that before? Why do your moral intuitions differ in these two cases? Aren't you being kind of hypocritical?" But this usage seems pretty limited - once your interlocutor says "Yes, I considered that, but the two situations are different for reasons X, Y, and Z" the conversation needs to move on; there's not much point in continuing to insist "But it's theft!"

But in most cases, I think this is more of an emotional argument, or even an argument from "You would look silly saying that". You really can't say "Oh, he's the good kind of criminal", and so if you have a potentially judgmental audience and not much time to explain yourself, you're pretty trapped. You have been forced to round to the archetypal example of that word and subtract exactly the information that's most relevant.

But in all other cases, the proper response to being asked to subtract relevant information is "No, why should I?" - and that's why this is the worst argument in the world.

 

Footnotes

1: On advice from the community, I have deliberately included three mostly-liberal examples and three-mostly conservative examples, so save yourself the trouble of counting them up and trying to speculate on this article's biases.

2: This should be distinguished from deontology, the belief that there is some provable moral principle about how you can never murder. I don't think this is too important a point to make, because only a tiny fraction of the people who debate these issues have thought that far ahead, and also because my personal and admittedly controversial opinion is that much of deontology is just an attempt to formalize and justify this fallacy.

3: Some people "solve" this problem by saying that "murder" only refers to "non-lawful killing", which is exactly as creative a solution as redefining "criminal" to mean "person who breaks the law and is not Martin Luther King." Identifying the noncentral fallacy is a more complete solution: for example, it covers the related (mostly sarcastic) objection that "imprisonment is kidnapping".

4: EDIT 8/2013: I've edited this article a bit after getting some feedback and complaints. In particular I tried to remove some LW jargon which turned off some people who were being linked to this article but were unfamiliar with the rest of the site.

5: EDIT 8/2013: The other complaint I kept getting is that this is an uninteresting restatement of some other fallacy (no one can agree which, but poisoning the well comes up particularly often). The question doesn't seem too interesting to me - I never claimed particular originality, a lot of fallacies blend into each other, and the which-fallacy-is-which game isn't too exciting anyway - but for the record I don't think it is. Poisoning the well is a presentation of two different facts, such as "Martin Luther King was a plagiarist...oh, by the way, what do you think of Martin Luther King's civil rights policies?" It may have no relationship to categories, and it's usually something someone else does to you as a conscious rhetorical trick. Noncentral fallacy is presenting a single fact, but using category information to frame it in a misleading way - and it's often something people do to themselves. The above plagiarism example of poisoning the well is not noncentral fallacy. If you think this essay is about bog-standard poisoning the well, then either there is an alternative meaning to poisoning the well I'm not familiar with, or you are missing the point.

Comments (1736)

Comment author: SisterY 27 August 2012 07:07:14PM 15 points [-]

Since we think largely in words, pointing out similarities between Thing We Think Is Bad and Thing We Think Is Good requires us to examine the connotations of the words we use. We should be doing that all the time. Just as this alleged "worst argument in the world" can be used to sneak in connotations, it can also be used to force examination of connotations that have previously been sneaked in.

Comment author: Yvain 27 August 2012 11:33:49PM 19 points [-]

I agree. I'm not saying that this form can't be used as a means of examining our intuitions. For example, "meat is murder" is a snappier way of asking "Why, given that we're so worried about harming humans, are we so callous about harming animals?"

But then once the other person answers you with something like "It's because animals have no natural rights" or "Because animals don't have sophisticated enough nervous systems to suffer" or whatever it is they say, the debate has to shift to whether or not that objection is valid. So "but meat is murder!" shouldn't be used as a counterargument to "Animals don't have sophisticated enough nervous systems to suffer", because this latter statement is already answering the question the former was intended to ask.

Comment author: SisterY 29 August 2012 04:28:48AM 4 points [-]

From that example, it sounds like mindless repetition (non-responsiveness) is the worst argument in the world, whether or not it contains an analogy. What is the special harm of analogy that makes it worse than other kinds of mindless repetition? (Worse than, say, other kinds of seductive, poetic language like rhyming words, a la "if it doesn't fit you must acquit.") And is an analogy still "the worst argument in the world" if it's NOT mindlessly repeated?

Comment author: Yvain 30 August 2012 02:48:19AM 8 points [-]

I don't think it's precisely about mindless repetition. For example:

A: I think eating meat is morally okay, because animals have simple nervous systems and can't feel pain.

B: But meat is murder!

Here even though A spoke first and there is no repetition involved, I still think B's response is inadequate, because B is accusing A of double standards after A has explained the double standard away. The reason why this is more dangerous than (if not worse than) "If the glove won't fit, you must acquit" is that B looks like she is making a novel and nontrivial point and it's not immediately obvious that this is a non-argument already addressed by A's statement (whereas hopefully no one takes the glove argument seriously as an argument)

Comment author: SisterY 30 August 2012 06:28:30PM 7 points [-]

Again, the objection seems to be more about the particular USE of the argument than the nature of the argument itself (what I call above "non-responsiveness"). I would genuinely like to understand why analogies of the kind you call the Worst Argument in the World are so harmful (and I appreciate your engaging on it). Is it your claim that people are particularly likely to take analogies seriously as arguments, more than other arguments? Is it their very power that makes them so bad?

Rhyming and other poetic tricks, like showing a picture, make statements feel more true to hearers; are those tricks less dangerous than analogy because we (think we) are immune to them? I can kind of intuitively understand what you mean by something being a real argument or not ("as an argument"), but I'm not sure why things taken seriously as arguments are more dangerous than sneaky, non-argument cues that make things seem true.

I wonder if what you really want to destroy are "things effectively masquerading as arguments that aren't really arguments." That class is not exhausted by inexact analogies (which is to say all analogies), nor are all inexact analogies members of that class.

I think metonymy (association, like eugenics --> Hitler) is a much more harmful cognitive sin than metaphor (which at least requires a theory of why things are similar).

Comment author: TGM 27 August 2012 08:41:53PM 6 points [-]

If I wanted to do that, I would phrase things differently, to avoid the connotation issues (of, for example, Taxation is Theft!):

"We think burglary is bad, but tax is good, yet they have some similarities. Are we right to judge them differently?" or even "I think the things that make burglary bad are X Y and Z, but X is shared by taxation, and Y is partly shared by taxation. I conclude that taxation is not as bad as burglary, but still a bit bad"

Comment author: SisterY 27 August 2012 09:53:56PM 10 points [-]

Great, clear statement of the position. Wouldn't the "worst argument in the world" taboo apply just as strongly to any use of figurative language in the context of an argument? Instead of making an analogy, for instance (e.g., "X is the mindkiller"), why not just use literal language? No danger of connotative contamination, then. Instead of making a joke, why not just explain what you mean, rather than requiring your audience to grasp for the insight it contains? (Apparently hyperbole is allowed, as it's incorporated into the NAME of the argument - why is hyperbole okay, but not metaphor?)

I understand the ideal here. But I think cutting off our own linguistic balls, so to speak, gives us only the illusion of cognitive cleanness - and much is lost. We are not motivated by pure logic to engage logically with an idea. We are motivated by "epistemic emotions" like curiosity and confusion. A title like "Should Trees Have Standing?" is emotional and poetic and could be literally replaced with "Should our legal system treat inanimate objects as ends in themselves for social reasons not entailed by property rights?" But I don't think the former is cheating, and I don't think the latter would have been as successful in motivating cognition on the topic.

I would even defend good old "Meat is Murder!" as a compact little ethical puzzle for beginners, rather than the Worst Argument in the World!

Comment author: TGM 27 August 2012 10:04:06PM 2 points [-]

I think the salient point here is whether we are talking about a theft close to the archetype, such as mugging or burglary, or one further from it, such as Robin Hood enacting his redistribution scheme, or the government taxing.

So when we have "X is the mindkiller", that's okay if "X" happens to be party politics, or factions disagreeing in a fricticious boardroom meeting. A fringe example of mind-killing might be a recurring disagreement between spouses over whether to buy skinned or unskinned milk (you can still have entrenched positions, but it doesn't really reach the same level).

Not sure I'm being too clear. What I'm saying is that words refer to a cluster of things, with varying strength, and we use the WAITW when we talk about things on the fringe of that cluster as if they were in fact slap bang in the middle.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 28 August 2012 05:42:58PM 25 points [-]

I love the article, but this is a bad name for a fallacy, as it hinders neutral discussion of its relative badness compared to other fallacies.

If I could pick a name, I'd probably choose something like "tainting categorization".

Comment author: prase 28 August 2012 06:44:42PM 17 points [-]

it hinders neutral discussion of its relative badness compared to other fallacies

Not only that, but it is also non-descriptive.

Comment author: Patrick 31 August 2012 10:12:55PM 4 points [-]
Comment author: chaosmosis 29 August 2012 03:28:59AM 2 points [-]

I'd choose something like "the fallacy of naive deduction" because it reminds me of those awful proofs that the Greeks used to write which were essentially just the premises that contained their hidden assumptions, and then extremely simple deductions which followed straightforwardly from the premises.

Comment author: shokwave 28 August 2012 01:23:21PM 7 points [-]

If we must use an acronym to refer to this, could it be WAitW or WAW instead of WAITW? My delicate sensibilities thank you in advance.

Comment author: joshkaufman 27 August 2012 06:11:34AM 54 points [-]

I just registered http://worstargumentintheworld.com - it redirects to this post, and should be available shortly. Much easier to mention in conversation when other people use this argument, and don't believe it's a "real thing."

Great piece of work, Yvain - it's now on my list of all-time favorite LW posts.

Comment author: wedrifid 27 August 2012 06:55:14AM 30 points [-]

I just registered http://worstargumentintheworld.com - it redirects to this post, and should be available shortly. Much easier to mention in conversation when other people use this argument, and don't believe it's a "real thing."

"Real things" have their own domain. I registered this domain, therefore...

Comment author: joshkaufman 27 August 2012 02:10:05PM *  22 points [-]

Hahaha, nice.

I was imagining a situation in which someone makes an argument of this type, you say something along the lines of "that's a great example of the 'Worst Argument in the World'," and the person replies "you just made that up..." or "that's just your opinion..."

Providing a pre-existing URL that links to a well-written page created by a third-party is a form of evidence that shifts "Worst Argument in the World" from something that feels like an opinion to the title of a logical fallacy. That can be quite useful in certain circumstances.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 August 2012 07:25:48PM 20 points [-]

Exactly! Logical fallacies are bad, and the Worst Argument in the World is a logical fallacy!

(Actually valid because it's a typical, central logical fallacy, not an edge case. If you'd asked me to list the most common logical fallacies even before I saw this post, I'd hope that I'd remember to put argument-by-categorization-of-atypical-cases into the top 10.)

Comment author: prase 27 August 2012 07:41:33PM 4 points [-]

When in the discussion under the well-written page created by a third party the first party openly admits registering the domain in order to use it as argumentum ad verecundiam, the whole thing loses much of its power.

Comment author: kilobug 28 August 2012 08:31:20AM 10 points [-]

If I debate with someone, he tells me something like "abortion is murder", I point him to http://worstargumentintheworld.com/ and he takes the pain to read the article AND the discussion and sees why/how the domain was registered, I would claim victory in "raising the sanity waterline".

The argument authority of having a domain pointing to may (I hope it'll) increase the chance the person does at least read a bit of the page instead of discarding it, but I doubt it'll do anything into making him/her accepting that the argument is wrong behind that.

Comment author: prase 28 August 2012 04:17:32PM 2 points [-]

OK, that sounds reasonable.

Comment author: fallaciousd 19 September 2012 09:38:48AM 17 points [-]

Long time ago, me and my sockpuppet lonelygirl15, we was scrollin' down a long and boring thread. All of a sudden, there shined a shiny admin... in the middle... of the thread.

And he said, "Give a reason for your views, or I'll ban you, troll."

Well me and lonely, we looked at each other, and we each said... "Okay."

And we said the first thing that came to our heads, Just so happened to be, The Worst Argument in the World, it was the Worst Argument in the World.

Look into my brain and it's easy to see This A is B and that B is C, So this A is C. My heuristic isn't justified But I know it's right 'cause of how it feels From the inside...

Comment author: The_Duck 27 August 2012 06:57:34PM 6 points [-]

I think this should be explicitly connected to "policy debates should not appear one-sided". The incorrect response to the worst argument in the world results from forgetting this and trying to deny the downside to your position that your opponent has pointed out. The correct response is to acknowledge the downside but argue that the upsides outweigh it.

Comment author: TGM 27 August 2012 09:47:09AM 15 points [-]

We can reflectively apply our intuition - we can use the phrase "Capital punishment is murder" to remind other people that capital punishment does share some of the same disadvantages that all other murders have

More generally, it is worth noting that a very tempting class of bad arguments is those which are slightly true, such as this.

Comment author: kilobug 27 August 2012 10:37:40AM 8 points [-]
Comment author: lukeprog 27 August 2012 12:47:57AM 14 points [-]

Maybe also link: Sneaking in Connotations.

Comment author: lukeprog 27 August 2012 12:47:04AM 14 points [-]

You should probably mention at the top that this is cross-posted from your personal blog. I am glad you posted here; it's an excellent post.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 August 2012 03:36:06AM 10 points [-]

I requested the crosspost.

Comment author: Yvain 29 September 2012 05:17:00AM 5 points [-]

I've edited this in a way that hopefully removes some of the controversy. Thanks to everyone who voted in the poll here. Actually, wait, no, the opposite of that. The two options ended out perfectly balanced, plus a bunch of people wanted me to make it even snarkier, and it was super confusing.

Anyway, I decided to respect the split poll by making a combination of the two drafts. The name has been changed to "the marginal fallacy", credit to James_G (sorry, Konkvistador, but I really do think that the fallacy of accident is something slightly different), but I kept Worst Argument In The World as a subtitle.

I deleted the euthanasia example, both because it was overkill on the "X is murder" examples and to exactly balance the liberal and conservative examples at three each. Then I heavily edited most of the others, and added to the end a paragraph about how maybe this pattern could be useful in sparking conversation. Then I added some footnotes and just a tiny bit of snark to satisfy the pro-snark contingent.

Hopefully this will be a less than entirely unsatisfactory compromise.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 September 2012 05:32:01AM 4 points [-]

Er... "marginal fallacy" sounds like it should involve failure to think on the margins. Sorry I'm late, but how about "the noncentral fallacy" or "the categorization fallacy"?

Comment author: buybuydandavis 29 August 2012 07:21:43PM *  5 points [-]

Consistent with Korzybski and General Semantics, you're objecting to the is of identity and the is of predication. Also, in GS terminology, all your examples use highly intensional terms, as opposed to extensional terms - racist, theft, murder, sexist.

Korzybski and the general semantics crowd go on and on about this issue. And often do.

Reading Korzybski can be a little tedious for his messianic tone and verbose writing style, so I recommend articles from General Semantics groups to get a background in their analysis, which I consider highly rewarding for the semantic hygiene it provides. For Korzybski himself, I highly recommend the usually neglected sections on math and science at the end of Korzybski's "Science and Sanity".

EDIT: A more concise characterization of the fallacy, garnered from Max Stirner, is the mistake of valuing according to your categories, instead of categorizing according to your values.

Comment author: Yvain 05 September 2012 07:00:18AM *  12 points [-]

I want to respond to James G's critique of this post. First because it was pretty intense, second because I usually enjoy reading his blog, and third because maybe other people have the same objection. I'm doing it here because his blog is closed to comments.

There is no basis to allege that everyone who says, “affirmative action is racist” is trying to position “affirmative action” in the very heart of the “racism” cluster. Clusters-in-thingspace, especially nebulous ones like “racism”, are huge volumes. That affirmative action belongs somewhere in this volume, rather than well outside, is a claim worth making even if affirmative action isn’t a central member...Affirmative action is racist!” draws attention to a cartographic error. “Affirmative action” shouldn’t be remote from “racism”; it is a marginal member of the racism cluster.

I would ask James why exactly we're trying to create a "racism" cluster to begin with. Are we ontologists who place things in categories for fun in our spare time? If so, his cartographic metaphor is apt; we're just trying to draw a map of conceptspace and we should be politely reminded that "affirmative action" is in the wrong part.

But in fact, our real reason for drawing a "racism" cluster is to make hidden inferences (see the section titled "Hidden Inferences" here). Most people see Hitler, the KKK, and South Africa, and decide racism is bad. Therefore, anything in the "racism" cluster is bad. Therefore, most people who want to draw maps of racism are not disinterested cartographers but people trying to convince others that something is bad because it is in that cluster.

To give an example, suppose a mapinguary is trying to lure you into the Amazon jungle to eat you. "Come to the city of Cayenne", it says. "It's in France, so you'll be perfectly safe." You reflect that France is in fact way up in Europe and not covered in jungle at all. So you go to Cayenne and it turns out you're in French Guyana and the mapinguary eats you.

The advice that you should place Cayenne in France is useful for cartographers but dangerous for people who don't want to be eaten by mapinguaries. While I agree with the philosophical point that not all French territories must agree with our archetypal example of France and that Cayenne is a perfectly acceptable marginal example of Frenchness, the practical point is that on the only criterion we're interested in, safety from mapinguaries, Cayenne defies all the inferences we could be expected to make from its Frenchness. Furthermore, the whole reason it was brought up was the hope you would make these bad inferences. It is not always bad and irrational to note that Cayenne is in France, but this particular example was, and there are some things that are such marginal category members that one can in practice be pretty sure the reference is motivated.

I think I agree with you that sometimes "affirmative action is racism" can be useful as a slogan if you believe many of the same features that make the KKK bad also make affirmative action bad; I guess it would be sort of an opener for the discussion "List the reasons you don't like the KKK; now look and you'll see that many of those same things are true of affirmative action." This seems legitimate to me if it's true.

On the other hand, I think there are a lot of people who hate the KKK for reasons that don't apply at all to affirmative action, yet who might still feel they have to dislike affirmative action merely because it's in the category "racism". Trying to trick them into this is the Worst Argument in the World.

This is kind of tricky since in a lot of cases maybe there are ten reasons someone dislikes the KKK, and affirmative action shares only one of these reasons. So it's not completely dishonest, as it may be an honest attempt to point out the one feature both genuinely share. But it's hardly advisable either, especially if we don't expect the person to be able to keep in working memory that nine of the ten reasons they dislike racism don't apply to affirmative action.

I want to eventually retitle this "Guilt by Association Fallacy" (or something) and rewrite it a bit (with that eighth anti-liberal example I promised sewing-machine) but I'll wait for all the criticism to come in, especially Konkvistador's.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 05 September 2012 09:13:16AM 16 points [-]

I want to eventually retitle this "Guilt by Association Fallacy" (or something)

Please do! Please do! "The Worst Argument in the World" is the Worst Name for an Argument in the World. It's like someone describing a film as "the best film ever made", when all it is is the most recent one they saw that made a big impression.

And while I'm on the subject, "Fundamental Attribution Error" is just as bad. Could people practice calling it the Trait Attribution Error instead?

Comment author: Vaniver 05 September 2012 08:19:36AM 5 points [-]

I want to eventually retitle this

The cat's sort of out of the bag on that one.

On the other hand, I think there are a lot of people who hate the KKK for reasons that don't apply at all to affirmative action, yet who might still feel they have to dislike affirmative action merely because it's in the category "racism". Trying to trick them into this is the Worst Argument in the World.

Not quite. Oftentimes, this sort of argument is deployed to point out contradictions or hypocrisy in the other person's position.

For example, I know a number of people who call themselves anti-racists. I have been unable to find a difference between their "anti-racism" and "racism against whites," and so the statement "affirmative action is racist" highlights that hypocrisy of the name more than it is a fervent appeal against their dislike of racism. (If they actually disliked the practice of judging by racial membership, I expect they wouldn't be racist against whites.)

Comment author: cousin_it 05 September 2012 08:05:44PM *  4 points [-]

Is the argument "refusing to donate to Africa is like refusing to rescue a drowning kid" an instance of the WAITW?

Comment author: [deleted] 05 September 2012 09:11:40PM 4 points [-]

I don't think it's a case of the WAITW as Singer lays it out, though it's easy to see how the argument would go if it were. All the work of Singer's argument is to adress and argue against the idea that there are important differences between those two cases. The WAITW characteristically tries to skip that work.

Comment author: cousin_it 05 September 2012 10:57:03PM *  3 points [-]

That's a great answer, but did Singer eliminate all the potentially important differences? Carl Shulman has a nice post pointing out one such difference, and there may be others. It looks like detecting instances of WAITW can be difficult and controversial.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 September 2012 11:16:05PM *  2 points [-]

Well, I think the fact that Singer explicitly tries to tackle the problem of 'important differences' takes him out of range of the WAITW. At that point, if he fails, then his argument doesn't work. But he's not therefore doing something like 'abortion is murder'.

Edit: I just read Shulman's argument, and I think it's invalid. The fact that the drowning child and distant starving child cases differ in those respects relevant to various 'selfish' ends isn't strictly relevant to the question of their moral relationship.

Comment author: Konkvistador 10 September 2012 10:59:54AM 3 points [-]

James_G responded to this here.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 04 September 2012 09:17:47AM 9 points [-]

I've seen an even worse argument: Imagine the worst possible consequences of the other side's policies. Assert that the other side (or at least its leaders) intend those consequences.

Comment author: Konkvistador 02 September 2012 08:36:56AM *  16 points [-]

Related to: List of public drafts on LessWrong

Draft of a critical response to this article

  1. The worst argument in the world already has a different name. Philosophers call it the logical fallacy of Accident.

  2. Calling out the worst argument in the world is not useful in practice. It is really hard to stop it from being a fully general counterargument against any high level abstract argument. The article seems to hold that for communication to work properly all statements must refer to “archetypes”, central members of a cluster in thing space. If so, this conflicts with the very idea of parsing reality into clusters-in-thingspace, which is inevitable. Every cluster, being a cluster and not a point, has more and less central members. If arbitrarily marginal members of clusters are invalid members, arbitrarily many things said by humans are The Worst Argument In The World. To banish statements that don’t locate one cluster-in-thingspace right into the centre of another cluster-in-thingspace is faulty, especially when the statements are slogans and the words highly abstract. To use it properly you have to come up with an argument that shows that either the rule or generalization you are attacking is wrong or the case considered is sufficiently exceptional that it no longer applies. I wouldn't trust myself to use that line of reasoning against an argument I already dislike to discount it. And if this really is a way to defend oneself from the dark arts as it presents itself doing, it should be good for precisely that! The article seems much more well made as a weapon to add to that arsenal but then it should be marked as such.

Comment author: satt 02 September 2012 06:30:38PM 2 points [-]

Minor wording point: labelling point 2 as "The worst argument in the world is not a useful argument in practice" sounds like you're about to attack the WAitW, when you're actually warning against labelling things as the WAitW. It might be less ambiguous to relabel point 2 as "Calling out the worst argument in the world is not useful in practice" or something similar.

Comment author: Konkvistador 02 September 2012 08:39:41PM 2 points [-]

Obvious fix. Thank you!

Comment author: siodine 02 September 2012 05:03:48PM *  2 points [-]

I think the most critical response to the worst argument in the world is that so many people are misunderstanding it (it was better explained on Yvain's blog where he didn't speak in LessWrongese). However, you are right that it is the logical fallacy of accident (as it is probably a form or child or parent of various other types of fallacies), but it's been put in LessWrong's clothes like Yudkowsky has done with other existing biases and fallacies, as such it assumes the LWian worldview and thus imports some nuances which kilobug partly noted.

To your second point, no line is ever drawn on what thing inside cluster-space is outside of the cluster for a given argument. Instead, the entire cluster is banished. Instead, you must argue for the tautology of which the cluster represents (e.g., murder cluster = tautologically bad), and even that's assuming the cluster should be noncontinuous tautologies (shouldn't things farther away from the center of the murder cluster be less bad?). This is no different than the philosophical process of unpacking statements to avoid begging the question.

Comment author: Emile 27 August 2012 11:40:03AM 14 points [-]

And okay, a tiny fraction of the time people are just trying to use words as a Schelling fence.

I'm not sure it's that tiny, especially once you're using the "steel man" version of the arguments; i.e. things like "Schelling fences" do not often appear in the reasons given for the disagreement, but that can still be what it boils down to.

People who object to abortion may be objecting to a weakening of the social stigma against the murder of innocents - that social stigma performs a useful function in society, so allowing anything that could be described as "murder of innocents" is perceived as bad, regardless of whether that thing is in itself bad.

In other words, even if words are hidden inferences with leaky generalizations etc. - social norms are still defined in terms of words, and so "pointless" debates over definitions still have their place in discussions of morality. Questions that shouldn't be morally relevant ("is abortion murder?") become so because of the instrumental value of social norms.

So yes, sometimes pulling out a dictionary in the middle of a moral argument may be justified. The discussion can then turn to something more useful, like "is it worse if the norm against murder is slightly weakened, or if women have to keep children they don't want?".

Comment author: Emile 28 August 2012 07:21:20PM 8 points [-]

I just thought of another good illustration: "Marijuana is a drug!"

This fits perfectly under Yvain's description (it associates Marijuana with the worse kinds of hard drugs that turn you into a skinny toothless zombie willing to sell his grandmother for his next fix), and a concern of some opponents to legalization is that making one form of recreational drug will lower the taboo on drugs as a whole. And that is a legitimate concern, considering the damage hard drugs can cause! (though of course it's to weigh against the damage caused by marijuana trafficking, which would be significantly reduced if it was legal - and if it was legal it would cluster less naturally with the hard drugs).

Comment author: Yvain 27 August 2012 09:47:56PM 9 points [-]

Even if that is true (and I stick to my guess that it's only a tiny fraction of the time) I still think deconstructing the argument is valuable. If people's true rejection of abortion is Schelling fences, then let's talk Schelling fences! I would ask why birth doesn't also work as a Schelling fence, and I would get to hear their response, and maybe one of us would change our mind.

But if their true rejection is based on Schelling fences, and instead they're just saying that abortion is murder, there's not much we can do except play Dueling Dictionaries. And the reason that has no chance of working ("Really? Merriam-Webster defines murder as killing a human after birth? Guess I'll go NARAL!") is directly related to it not being their real issue.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 28 August 2012 08:19:49AM 6 points [-]

there's not much we can do except play Dueling Dictionaries.

There are real-world examples that could be described as getting the "dictionary" changed — for instance, the successful campaign to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association's "dictionary" (as it were) of mental illnesses.

Comment author: Emile 28 August 2012 08:01:14AM *  2 points [-]

I agree that talking Schelling fences is usually more productive, and that it's probably not people's true rejection on abortion (norms around sexuality and fertility probably play a bigger role). Note also that unlike you, I never saw an "abortion is murder" sign in real life, and don't remember the topic ever coming up in real life.

Schelling fences probably play a bigger role for "justifiable killing" (like self-defense, the death penalty, euthanasia), where having a strong norm against killing in general discourages revenge killings (anti-abortion seem to be trying to hijack that norm to cover a case that doesn't fall under "killing" nearly as naturally). "Racism is bad" is another case where the norm is pretty valuable and useful in itself, and acknowledging that "non-bad cases of racism are not bad" would weaken it.

I stick to my guess that it's only a tiny fraction of the time

Eh, it probably depends of the reference class you're picking, and how charitable you're willing to be in interpreting people's reasons. when deconstructing a WAitW, it may be worth directing the discussion to one on Schelling Fences / norms etc., both as a way of raising the quality of the discussion, and of leaving a line of retreat.

Comment author: Unnamed 28 August 2012 09:32:37AM 2 points [-]

The "a fetus is a person" attempt to frame the abortion debate actually seems like it would weaken the norm against killing innocents. Most people agree with the rule that it's generally wrong to kill an innocent person, which is a relatively clear bright-line rule. If pro-abortion people can just say "well, a human fetus doesn't count as a person so the rule doesn't apply there" then the rule against killing a person remains relatively clear and simple for them. But if they have to count a human fetus as a "person" then the rule against killing a person becomes messy and complicated for them - they have to say "well, it's often wrong to kill a person, but there are various exceptions and factors to weigh."

Anti-abortion people might like having the abortion debate take place on those grounds, with a human fetus counting as a "person" by definition, because of the rhetorical advantage it gives them within that particular debate. But for the broader goal of establishing shared support for the "sanctity of life" it is counterproductive to cast the abortion debate in those terms. If you use a dictionary to remove the flexibility/disagreement in defining the domain where the rule applies, then that flexibility/disagreement gets shifted into the content of the rule.

Comment author: David_Gerard 28 August 2012 11:27:59AM 22 points [-]

You know who else made arguments? Hitler.

Comment author: gwern 28 August 2012 04:53:27PM 19 points [-]

No, Hitler didn't make arguments, he made assertions; and you know what else was an assertion? Your comment!

Comment author: TGM 28 August 2012 11:59:54AM 10 points [-]

Apple uses the WAITW when commenting on the Apple vs Samsung case:

"In a statement the firm [apple] thanked the jury for sending 'a loud and clear message that stealing isn’t right' "

Source: http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter/2012/08/apple-versus-samsung?spc=scode&spv=xm&ah=9d7f7ab945510a56fa6d37c30b6f1709

Comment author: Sewing-Machine 27 August 2012 04:37:42PM 32 points [-]

Yvain, here is a challenge. Many of your examples are weak versions of strong right-wing arguments that you do not accept. (by your remark about Schelling fences, it seems you're aware of this). I challenge you to replace each of these examples with a weak version of a strong left-wing argument that you do accept. Since policy debates should not appear one-sided, there should be no shortage of weak arguments "on your side." And it would be an interesting kind of ideological Turing test.

Perhaps I'm wrong about "what side you're on" and you already accept the strong right-wing arguments. In which case you got me, well done!

Comment author: J_Taylor 28 August 2012 02:35:51AM *  31 points [-]

"X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain features. Therefore, we should judge X as if it also had those features, even though it doesn't."

This is the original definition given for TWAITW. Note that the examples Yvain gave all had the form of: "X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain negative features. Therefore, we should judge X as if it also had those features." However, working with the explicit definition outlined by Yvain, as opposed to the implicit definition used by Yvain, we can easily conjure liberal examples:

  • Abortion is a medical procedure.
  • Pornography is art.
  • Welfare is charity.

Other liberal examples, using Yvain's implicit definition:

  • Homophobia is hatred.
  • The War on Drugs is Prohibition.
  • Pornography is sexist.

However, I am not entirely sure if our capacity to conjure examples matters.

Edit: Changed the free speech examples.

Comment author: Kindly 28 August 2012 02:58:08PM *  16 points [-]

I very much like "Abortion is a medical procedure". It's actually a believable WAitW to make, and has the admirable feature that it completely ignores every aspect of abortion relevant to the debate.

I think the "free speech" examples don't quite have the right form: the central question probably is whether or not pornography or flag burning is free speech, and the conclusion "Flag burning is free speech, therefore it should be legal" is valid if you accept the premise.

Comment author: dspeyer 29 September 2012 02:23:44PM 7 points [-]

I really like "Abortion is a medical procedure". I suspect that we could remove some of the mind-killing by presenting the examples in pairs:

  • Abortion is murder
  • Abortion is a medical procedure
  • Evopsych is sexist
  • Evopsych is science

Hmm, creating these pairs is harder than I thought.

Comment author: Benito 16 July 2014 07:29:48PM 2 points [-]

Evopsych is science

No problem here. Not even non-central.

Comment author: wedrifid 28 August 2012 03:13:46AM 6 points [-]

Flag burning is free speech.

Someone uttering this may claim that they are not using the worst argument in the world as defined:

If he can unilaterally declare a Worst Argument, then so can I. I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: "X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain features. Therefore, we should judge X as if it also had those features, even though it doesn't."

They claim that it does have the critical features in question. Even the person they are arguing against may agree that it is equivalent to shouting out loud "My country is a @#$% disgrace! Screw my country!". The disagreement seems to be whether one should be permitted to do that kind of thing.

Comment author: evand 28 August 2012 02:29:58PM 2 points [-]

How would you say the War on Some Drugs is different than Prohibition?

Comment author: prase 27 August 2012 07:18:54PM 10 points [-]

What is the strong version of "taxation is theft", for example? I can recall arguments against taxation stronger than this, of course, but none of them I would consider a version of the "taxation is theft" argument.

As for the arguments mentioned in the OP, "taxation is theft", "abortion is murder" and "euthanasia is murder" are typically right-wing, "affirmative action is racist" is also probably right-wing (although general accusations of racism fit better into the left wing arsenal) while "capital punishment is murder", "ev-psych is sexist" and "genetic engineering is eugenics" sound quite leftist to me. Not sure about "M.L.King was a criminal", but the examples seem balanced with respect to the stereotypical left/right division. With respect to Yvain's opinions the choice might be less balanced, of course.

Comment author: Swimmy 28 August 2012 07:59:23PM *  6 points [-]

What is the strong version of "taxation is theft", for example?

Simple: "taxation is theft and is also just as wrong as mugging because 1) the supposed benefits of government programs aren't really there and 2) majority voting doesn't make mugging any better than theft by a gang of robbers is better than theft by a single robber." All of these arguments can be made stronger by specifying the reasons you should ignore the major differences between the moral issue in question and the archetypal example's.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 27 August 2012 08:53:13PM 3 points [-]

Agreed that the anti-capital-punishment stance exemplified by "capital punishment is murder" is more attached to the American left than the American right, as are accusations of sexism in general (including but not limited to those applied to evo-psych).

"Genetic engineering is eugenics" seems trickier to me.

In the U.S. at the moment, I'd say Republican voters are more likely to endorse a "science can't be trusted" argument than Democratic ones, and Democratic voters are more likely to endorse a "corporations can't be trusted" argument than Republican ones. "Genetic engineering is eugenics" can be spun both ways, I think.

That is, if I wanted to convince a randomly selected Democratic voter to vote against genetic engineering, I could use rhetoric along the lines of "evil corporations want to use genetic engineering techniques to breed a so-called superior race of food crops, which will eradicate the food crops ordinary consumers know and trust and leave us at their mercy. Don't let them get away with it!" pretty effectively. (Though less effectively than they could have 30 years ago.)

If I wanted to convince a randomly selected Republican voter, I could use similar rhetoric with "corporations" replaced by "scientists" and "consumers" replaced by "ordinary people".

Both of those, I think, would be invoking the spectre of eugenics, the only change would be how the eugenicists are characterized... that is, are they elite academic eugenicists, or greedy corporate eugenicists?

All of that said, I endorse eugenics, so I'm probably not a reliable source of information about the rhetorical charge of these words for the mainstream.

Comment author: prase 27 August 2012 09:53:03PM 3 points [-]

Different perspectives, probably. In most European countries, I dare to say, everything associated with genetics is suspect to the left and the left also more often sides with the anti-science rhetoric in general. This is partly because the European right-wingers are less religious than in the U.S. (although I have heard creationism had become political issue in Serbia few years ago) and perhaps somehow related to the differences between Continental and analytic philosophy, if such intellectual affairs have real influence over practical politics.

Comment author: Sewing-Machine 27 August 2012 08:12:51PM 4 points [-]

What is the strong version of "taxation is theft", for example? I can recall arguments against taxation stronger than this, of course, but none of them I would consider a version of the "taxation is theft" argument.

Well I can give you one example. Neoclassical economics makes a pretense of being neutral about how resources are distributed. The focus is instead on the absolute amount of resources. As I think Steven Landsburg puts it, taxes are no fun to pay, but they are fun to collect. The problem is that taxes can be avoided, and that resources put into avoiding taxes (and collecting them) are wasted. There is an identical economic argument against theft: the issue isn't that the thief deserves to have the painting less than the museum, it's that resources the museum puts into defending the painting (and that the thief puts into procuring it) are wasted.

Naturally that is a criticizable line of reasoning, but it gave me a lot to think about the first time I heard it.

Comment author: kilobug 28 August 2012 08:07:00AM 3 points [-]

But private property also requires resources to defend it (which are wasted like the ones to collect taxes), so in fact, neoclassical economics agree with Proudhon that "property is theft" ? :)

Comment author: SilasBarta 08 September 2012 09:07:13PM 2 points [-]

I think the standard rejoinder is that private property incurs greater benefits than the general cost of securing it, owing to true "tragedy of the commons" type situations it attempts to avoid.

Comment author: Yvain 27 August 2012 09:38:42PM *  27 points [-]

The challenge is an interesting exercise, and I will try to think up some examples, but your comment also contains an implied accusation which I'd like to respond to first.

By my count, this post includes critiques of four weak right-wing arguments (abortion, euthanasia, taxation, affirmative action) and three weak left-wing arguments (eugenics, sexism, capital punishment). As far as I know, neither side thinks MLK was a criminal. That means I'm 4-3, ie as balanced as it's mathematically possible to get while seven remains an odd number.

And I think the responses I see below justify my choice of examples. Shminux says the pro-choice converse of "abortion is murder" would be "forced pregnancy is slavery"; TGM suggests below it "denying euthanasia is torture". These would be excellent examples of TWAITW if anyone ever asserted them which as far as I know no one ever has. Meanwhile, I continue to walk past signs saying "Abortion Is Murder!" on my way to work every day. I don't know who exactly it would be helping to give "Forced Pregnancy Is Slavery" equal billing with "Abortion Is Murder" here and let my readers conclude that I'm arguing against some fringe position irrelevant to the real world.

If you can think of left-wing WAITWs that are as well-known and catchy as "abortion is murder!", I will happily edit the post to include them (well, to include one of them; otherwise it'll be 5-4 and the leftists will start complaining). The best I can do at the moment is anti-war arguments that seem to equate for example humanitarian intervention in Rwanda with invading your next-door neighbor to steal their land because they're both "war", but that one doesn't come in convenient slogan form as far as I know.

Comment author: pragmatist 30 August 2012 06:00:35AM 13 points [-]

As a leftist, this seems like a useful exercise. Here are a few claims I've heard more than once from fellow leftists that might qualify.

  • A fetus is a clump of cells.

  • Corporations are not people.

  • Money is not speech.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 August 2012 10:01:03PM 6 points [-]

I agree with all three examples as WAITW even if the last two are negative. It's also very rare that you can settle policy questions through the negation of a categorization. Corporations aren't typical people and money isn't typical speech, but neither of those observations settle the policy question or even debate it - these are just slogans.

Comment author: kilobug 30 August 2012 07:44:46AM 5 points [-]

The first one is a good leftist example of the WAitW... and with a bit of shame I've to admit I used it in the past.

I wouldn't say the other two qualify because they are negatives. "X is not Y" is quite different from a rethorical perspective than "X is Y".

Comment author: Konkvistador 28 August 2012 06:33:56AM *  11 points [-]

"Profiling is discrimination"

"Racial profiling is racist."

While I can see this argument apply as a sort of justifiable use when humans are doing such profiling, though even in that case I think it should be used sometimes, I find it a bit absurd when applied to say data mining systems. Are we to apply Bayesian reasoning to everything except predictors tied to certain sacralized human traits like gender, dress, class, race, religion and origin? Why don't we feel averse applying it to say age?

"Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell."

To avoid nitpicking that cancer cells have no ideology, I will point out that if they did, they would share the ideology with all life forms on the planet.

"Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of life!"

Doesn't sound as evil no?

Comment author: RobertLumley 27 August 2012 11:22:13PM 8 points [-]

I think the difference is that the right wing examples are examples of core beliefs that many stereotypical conservatives believe. Thus leftists feel like they are scoring points when they read it. The left examples, however, aren't really core beliefs of the Democratic party. Democrats may lean against capital punishment, but no presidential candidate in my memory has made that a core tenant of eir campaign.

I also think it's wildly generous to suggest eugenics as a leftist issue. I can't remember ever hearing someone seriously suggest that genetic engineering is eugenics. And typically, it's conservatives who are opposed to genetic engineering, generally on the grounds of playing God.

And when I was reading it, MLK got lumped in with conservatives for a number of reasons. First, the strong conservative examples primed me to put it there. Second, the civil rights act was largely pushed for by a Democratic legislature and president. Lastly, African Americans tend to line up with democrats in modern demographics.

The best leftist example I could come up with is "Meat is murder". I think that merits including. Or mixing in with the abortion one.

Comment author: Konkvistador 28 August 2012 06:34:40AM *  7 points [-]

As far as I know, neither side thinks MLK was a criminal.

Of course not!

MLK was a Communist philanderer. That's worse. ;)

Comment author: RichardKennaway 30 August 2012 03:15:46PM *  6 points [-]

Buying a laptop is murder.

ETA: For those who may not know, the article I linked is by Yvain himself; that's his blog.

Comment author: wedrifid 31 August 2012 01:35:51AM 5 points [-]

Do we ever succumb to the worst argument in the world in non-moral issues?

Excellent example. This kind of equivocation on 'murder' is used---and even accepted---on lesswrong with distressing frequency.

Comment author: DaFranker 30 August 2012 03:54:16PM 3 points [-]

Oooooh. Thanks! <runs off to make a currency conversion spreadsheet>

I'm surely going to find a use for this.

Comment author: Konkvistador 28 August 2012 07:06:05AM *  6 points [-]

By my count, this post includes critiques of four weak right-wing arguments (abortion, euthanasia, taxation, affirmative action) and three weak left-wing arguments (eugenics, sexism, capital punishment)

I was surprised people didn't notice that both the sexism and eugenics arguments where somewhat "right wing". I think a key thing might be that perception of "right" and "left" are tied to the current American political landscape. The important role of religion in it means that conservative politicians don't often make arguments for their policies based on evolutionary psychology or the high heritability of IQ or conscientiousness. The America right seems almost as invested in blank slate notions as the left.

Comment author: TGM 27 August 2012 09:47:47PM *  15 points [-]

If you can think of left-wing WAITWs that are as well-known and catchy as "abortion is murder!", I will happily edit the post to include them

"Property is theft"

Is an example of the left using the WAITW.

Comment author: MixedNuts 28 August 2012 07:46:27AM 7 points [-]

American liberals aren't that kind of left. And Proudhon did mean "property is wrong for the same class of reasons theft is".

Comment author: Vaniver 28 August 2012 08:48:01PM 6 points [-]

Arguments that your stereotypical leftist and stereotypical rightist will both see as bad are the sort of thing that would, ideally, dominate the article.

Comment author: MixedNuts 16 October 2012 03:30:05PM 4 points [-]

"Arguing against homosexuality is hate speech!". Many anti-queer statements are hate speech, e.g. promotion of murder, but others are along the lines of "People shouldn't act on same-sex attraction because...". Quite a few conservatives complain that the latter form of argument is dismissed as "hate speech", even though "People shouldn't drive SUVs because..." is never taken to mean you hate SUV drivers.

Comment author: MixedNuts 27 August 2012 09:44:14PM 8 points [-]

seven remains an even number

Either this is a joke or you mean "odd".

Comment author: Yvain 27 August 2012 09:49:52PM 17 points [-]

You saw nothing!

Comment author: Yvain 30 August 2012 02:52:48AM *  3 points [-]

So this may be more complicated than I thought, in that all of the examples below seem really bad to me, but that might just be an example of my personal bias. I think if any of them get, let's say, more than ten upvotes I'll assume they're generally agreed to be a good argument and I'll put them in - does that sound like a reasonable bar? That means upvote them if you think they're worthy of inclusion.

I was trying to think of further liberal examples, and I think some references to "human rights" might qualify - for example, "health care is a human right". The meaning of "human right" that allows us to assert this seems very poorly defined, whereas the meaning of "human right" that allows us to say that negative rights like free speech are human rights seems well-defined, even though I don't agree with it. So calling health care (or housing, or something) a "human right" might be a way of trying to claim that we should view health care as exactly like free speech, free religion, etc, even though it is quite different in that it requires positive action by other people.

I'm not quite willing to include that one just because the total ambiguity in the definition of "human right" makes it pretty hard to pin down exactly how the argument is being made.

EDIT: Just saw "Property is theft" has 15 upvotes. Do people think this one should be added?

Comment author: shokwave 28 August 2012 04:55:15PM 2 points [-]

It might be easier to come up with examples if you go back to your original definition and note that it allows for categories with positive qualities lending their positive qualities to category members who lack those physical qualities. (Leftist arguments as a rhetorical class are usually phrased in terms of including things in positive categories, whereas rightist arguments are more well-known for including things in negative categories.)

Comment author: Vaniver 28 August 2012 09:10:39PM 2 points [-]

For example, something like "we should support racial diversity because of the benefits of ideological diversity"?

Comment author: benelliott 27 August 2012 06:42:33PM 5 points [-]

The boundaries are inherently fuzzy and ill-defined, but I count 5 right wing arguments and 3 left wing arguments. Doesn't seem too unbalanced.

Comment author: shminux 27 August 2012 06:34:39PM 4 points [-]

I have tried constructing a pro-choice example similar to "Abortion is murder!" ("Forced pregnancy is slavery!"???), but it ended up pretty unconvincing. Hopefully someone can do better:

Leaving rape cases aside, the archetypal example is an unwanted teenage pregnancy due to defective or improperly used birth control or simply an accident. Forcing her into letting the embryo develop into a fetus and eventually into a human baby would likely make the woman significantly worse off in the long run, financially, physically and/or emotionally, so she should have an option of terminating the pregnancy.

An example a pro-life person thinks of: aborting a healthy fetus, possibly in the second trimester, as a habitual birth control method.

Comment author: lizmw 04 September 2012 06:29:14PM 4 points [-]

It seems to me that the left-wing slogan "My body, my choice!" and its variations are a version of the WAitW. Although the slogan itself doesn't follow the "X is a Y" format, its underlying argument does: it asserts something like, "This fetus is a part of my body; I am entitled to do whatever I choose with any part of my body; therefore, I am entitled to do whatever I choose with this fetus."

This version of the WAitW emphasizes the similarity between a fetus and other parts of a woman's body (the part in question is inside her; the part in question is made up of her cells; etc.) while ignoring the relevant differences (most of her body parts, if left to their own devices, will not go on to have their own life outside her body, while the fetus will; most of her body parts have no potential for sentience or moral agency, while the fetus does; etc.) By equating the fetus with her body parts, the argument implies that the fetus is MERELY a part of a woman's body. While most people will agree that a fetus is technically part of its mother's body, I think most people will also agree that a fetus is not morally equivalent to a woman's liver, kidneys, or small intestine. "My body, my choice!" conceals this inequivalence.

Comment author: TGM 27 August 2012 06:59:05PM *  3 points [-]

"Denying euthanasia is Torture!"

Given the majority of legislators are male, for abortion: "Forced pregnancy is mysogyny!" though that may be too tenuous.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 August 2012 07:22:51PM 9 points [-]

I find "Forced parenthood is slavery!" to be pretty convincing, actually. Though I may be prejudiced by having grown up around a Libertarian father (now, alas, more Republican(!??)) who went about proclaiming that jury duty was slavery.

Comment author: shminux 28 August 2012 07:18:42AM 2 points [-]

Does this qualify as "a weak version of a strong left-wing argument that you do accept"?

Comment author: Konkvistador 27 August 2012 05:35:06PM *  8 points [-]

Excellent idea. It would be beneficial to how the community deals with politics, something that I've been very concerned about recently, to see this written out.

Comment author: gjm 27 August 2012 09:45:55PM 7 points [-]

I don't understand how you get from "policy debates should not appear one-sided" to "there should be no shortage of weak arguments 'on your side'". Especially if you replace the latter with "there should be no shortage of weak arguments of this sort on your side" -- which is necessary for the challenge to be appropriate -- since there could be correlations between a person's political position and which sorts of fallacies are most likely to infect their thinking.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 August 2012 08:22:49PM 4 points [-]

Shouldn't there never be a shortage of weak arguments for anything? Strong arguments can always be weakened.

/

Isn't there enough chance of finding a weak argument to at least make it worth trying? You never know, you might find a weak argument somewhere.

Comment author: Yvain 27 August 2012 11:35:26PM 9 points [-]

In particular, I predict WAITW use to be correlated with explicit endorsement of sanctity-based rather than harm-based moral values, and we've recently been talking about how that might differ between political groups.

Comment author: Larks 27 August 2012 11:48:27PM 7 points [-]

I think this is because of the way you're deconstructing the arguments. In each case, the features you identify which supposedly make us dislike the arcetypal cases are harm-based features. Someone who believed in sanctity instead might identify the category as a value in itself. Attempts to ascribe utilitarian-style values to them, which they supposedly miss the local inapplicability of, risks ignoring what they actually value.

If people genuinely do think murder is wrong simply because it is murder, rather than because it causes harm, then this is not a bad argument.

Comment author: Yvain 28 August 2012 12:32:47AM *  6 points [-]

Absent any reason to do so, disliking all murders simply because they are murders makes no more sense than disliking all elephants simply because they are elephants. You can choose to do so without being logically inconsistent, but it seems like a weird choice to make for no reason. Did you just arbitrarily choose "murder" as a category worthy of dislike, whether or not it causes harm?

At the risk of committing the genetic fallacy, I would be very surprised if their choice of murder as a thing they dislike for its own sake (rather than, say, elephants) had nothing to do with murder being harmful. And although right now I am simply asserting this rather than arguing it, I think it's likely that even if they think they have a deductive proof for why murder is wrong regardless of harm, they started by unconsciously making the WAITW and then rationalizing it.

But I agree that if they do think they have this deductive proof, screaming "Worst argument in the world!" at them is useless and counterproductive; at that point you address the proof.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 29 August 2012 07:29:20PM 2 points [-]

Why should a preference have to "make sense"?

Comment author: Larks 28 August 2012 01:08:54AM 5 points [-]

Absent any reason to do so, disliking instances of harm simply because they are instances of harm makes no more sense than disliking all elephants simply because they are elephants.

I don't want to assume any metaethical baggage here, but I'm not sure why "because it is an instance of harm" is an acceptable answer but "because it is an instance of theft" is not.

Comment author: Yvain 28 August 2012 01:13:16AM 13 points [-]

Keeping your principle of ignoring meta-ethical baggage, dis-valuing harm only requires one first principle, whereas dis-valuing murder, theft, elephants, etc require an independent (and apparently arbitrary) decision at each concept. Further, it's very suspicious that this supposedly arbitrary decision almost always picks out actions that are often harmful when there are so very many things one could arbitrarily decide to dislike.

Comment author: Larks 28 August 2012 06:43:20PM 6 points [-]

This sounds like the debate about ethical pluralism - maybe values are sufficiently complex that any one principle can't capture them. If ethical pluralism is wrong, then they can't make use of this argument. But then they have a very major problem with their metaethics, independant of the WAitW. And what is more, once they solve the problem - getting a single basis for their ethics - they can avoid your accusation, by saying that actually avoiding theft is the sole criteria, and they're not trying to sneak in irrelivant conotations. After all, if theft was all that mattered, why would you try to sneak in connotations about harm?

Also, I think you're sneaking in conotations when you use "arbitrary". Yes, such a person would argue that our aversion to theft isn't based on any of our other values; but your utilitarian would probably claim the same about their aversion to harm. This doesn't seem a harmful (pun not intended) case of arbitrariness.

Contrariwise, they might find it very suspicious that your supposedly arbitrary decision as to what is harmful so often picks out actions that constitute theft to a libertarian (e.g. murder, slavery, breach of contract, pollution, trespass, wrongful dismissal...) when there are so very many things one could arbitrarily decide to dislike.

Comment author: DaFranker 29 August 2012 08:04:43PM 2 points [-]

This line of argument seems to err away from the principle that you can't unwind yourself into an ideal philosopher of perfect emptiness. You're running on hardware that is physically, through very real principles that apply to everything in the universe, going to react in a certain averse manner to certain stimuli to which we could assign the category label "harm". This is commonly divided into "pain", "boredom", etc.

It is much more unlikely (and much more difficult to truly explain) that a person would, based on such hardware, somehow end up with the terminal value that some abstract, extremely solomonoff-complex interpretation of conjointed mental and physical behaviors is bad - in contrast with reflective negative valuation of harm-potentials both in self and in others (the "in others" being reflected as "harm to self when harm to other members of the tribe").

Then again, I feel like I'm diving in too deep here. My instinct is to profess and worship my ignorance of this topic.

Comment author: dspeyer 28 August 2012 02:00:03AM 3 points [-]

Thorium reactors are a nuclear technology.

OK, I don't accept that one, but it's left wing.

Comment author: kilobug 28 August 2012 08:19:11AM 2 points [-]

Support/opposition to nuclear technology seems pretty orthogonal with left/right to me. The anti-nuclear left tend to be more pro-solar/wind/hydro instead, while the anti-nuclear right more pro-oil/coal/gas instead, but there are pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear is both "sides". Even in a country like France where we have like a dozen of significant political parties, all the parties but one (the greens) have internal disagreement about nuclear energy in general.

That said, yes, "thorium is nuclear" is a good example of TWAITW.

Comment author: ciphergoth 29 August 2012 04:33:55PM 3 points [-]

It feels to me that until recently the pro-nuclear left was a very small faction, but growing with the likes of George Monbiot passionately switching over.

Comment author: kilobug 29 August 2012 04:46:37PM 3 points [-]

Depends where, here in France, of the 4 left-wing parties (PS, PCF, Les Verts and PG) two (PS and PCF) are mostly in favor of nuclear energy, the two others (Les Verts and PG) mostly against it, while all but Les Verts are internally split.

But that may also be because France has a strong nuclear industry, and the left-wing parties tend to be friendly with the unions, and the unions defend nuclear energy because it creates jobs (both for our own energy and because we export nuclear technology).

Comment author: gjm 27 August 2012 10:00:10PM 10 points [-]

I have the impression that (1) when people post things in LW that are politically leftish, it's quite common for them to get a response along these lines -- complaining about leftward bias and suggesting that it should be addressed by a deliberate injection of rightward bias to compensate -- whereas (2) when people post things in LW that are politically rightish, they basically never receive such responses.

I have no statistics or anything to back this up, and it's not clear that there's any feasible way to get (or informatively fail to get) them, so I'd be interested in other opinions about whether this asymmetry is real.

If it is real, it seems to me quite interesting.

(One possible explanation, if it's real, would be that leftish views are much more common here than rightish ones, so that people with rightish views feel ill-treated and want the balance redressed. Except that I think I see distinctly more rightish than leftish political commentary here, and the rightish stuff more often gets large numbers of upvotes. I suppose it's possible that what we have here is a lot of slightly leftish people and a smaller number of rightish ones who feel more strongly. Again, this is probably hard to get a good handle on and I'd be interested in others' impressions.)

Comment author: Konkvistador 28 August 2012 06:43:32AM *  19 points [-]

Well right wing people are almost certainly a minority here, but don't forget that makes such positions convenient for hipster fun. Some LWers who argue for right wing positions have stated that they feel more and more unwelcome in the past few months. Not only that I think they make a good case for pro left bias being very prevasive on LessWrong. I think what you are seeing is some users trying to correct for it.

I find the fact that both people who see themselves as left leaning and those who see themselves as right leaning suddenly feel there is favouritism for those who disagree with them is a much more worrying sign. I think this is what being on one side of a tribal conflict looks like from the inside.

Comment author: cousin_it 27 August 2012 10:36:37PM 18 points [-]

The most popular political view, at least according to the much-maligned categories on the survey, was liberalism, with 376 adherents and 34.5% of the vote. Libertarianism followed at 352 (32.3%), then socialism at 290 (26.6%), conservativism at 30 (2.8%) and communism at 5 (.5%).

-- Yvain's 2011 survey

Comment author: buybuydandavis 29 August 2012 08:14:27PM 8 points [-]

I've posted such complaints about left wing bias, so I'll elaborate on my impressions.

I perceive the left wing comments come with much more of an implicit assumption by the poster, and the respondents to it, of the moral superiority of left wing positions, and that all attending will see it the same way.

Most of the non left wing views don't seem to me to come with that presumption on the part of the speaker that everyone here shares their moral evaluation. If anything, the tone is of someone who expects to be taken as a crank.

The liberals are more generally accustomed to being in an ideologically homogeneous environment while the libertarians are accustomed to being in the minority, and both speak with a tone appropriate to the general environment, and not to the particular environment here, where liberals and libertarians are equally represented.

For my part, I also find instances where the absent conservatives are caricatured and snickered at, again with the presumption that all right thinking folk agree, and the bile rises in the gorge, and I feel the need to respond.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 August 2012 09:06:06PM *  15 points [-]

I have the impression that (1) when people post things in LW that are politically leftish, it's quite common for them to get a response along these lines -- complaining about leftward bias and suggesting that it should be addressed by a deliberate injection of rightward bias to compensate -- whereas (2) when people post things in LW that are politically rightish, they basically never receive such responses.

My explanation of this perception is that posters, in general, know better than to post rightish things at LW unless they are correct. Every now and then you get a new Objectivist who gets downvoted because they aren't discussing things at a high enough level.

Lots of beliefs that are common on LW are uncomfortable for the stereotypical leftist- like human biodiversity in general. To see someone brazenly state that, yes, there is a difference in measured IQ between the races and that reflects reality rather than our inability to design tests properly, or that men and women are actually neurologically distinct, will seem like a "not my tribe" signal to the stereotypical leftist- but people here don't hold that opinion (as far as I can tell) because of racial or sexual enmity, but because they put evidence above wishful thinking and correct beliefs above politeness.

But now imagine that for the stereotypical rightist. How big of a "not my tribe" signal is atheist materialism and evolution?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 29 August 2012 07:53:32PM *  10 points [-]

I am thinking that one possible asymetry between "the left" and "the right" is that the former is a rather homogenous group, while the latter is heterogenous. The left generally means socialist(-ish), and the right generally means non-socialist. The left is a fuzzy blob in the concept-space, the right seems like a label for points outside of this blob.

As an example, both Ayn Rand and Chesterton would be examples of "the right". What exactly do they have in common? (Religion: the best thing ever, or the worst thing ever? Individual or community? Mystery or reason? The great future or the great past? Selfishness or selflessness? Should women be allowed as leaders? Etc.) The common trait that classifies them both as "the right" is the fact that neither of them is a socialist.

Well, I could also says that neither of them "considers hinduism the best thing ever"... but why should that information be used to classify them? Well, for a hinduist that would be an important information. Then it follows that classifying many diverse views under one label of "the right" makes sense to you mostly if you are a socialist. (Or if being versus not-being a socialist is the dominant question in your political paradigm.) An "Ayn-Rand-type" non-socialist and a "Chesterton-type" non-socialist would otherwise feel uncomfortable under the common umbrella.

I am not saying there are no differences among "the left", but to me they seem more like a matter of degree. This observation may be culture-dependent. I am from eastern Europe, where "the left" basically either wants "what communists did" or "something similar to what communists did, just less, and if possible without all the violence". -- I suppose in USA the diversity of "the left" is greater, because there is no such attractor. Actually, the Republican party may serve as a similar (though weaker) attractor for "the right".

OK, what I tried to say was this: suppose that the leftist opinions are pretty similar, and the rightist opinions are very diverse. Assuming that both sides are about equally mindkilled (believe in about the same proportion of true statements, and the same proportion of false statements), for most statements the left will probably have either true believes or false beliefs as a whole, while the right will internally disagree -- therefore even if each specific right political group has the same chance to have true beliefs, there is a very high chance that at least one of the right political groups will have a true belief.

For clarity, here is a model: There are true beliefs A, B, C, D; and every political group is correct only about one of them, and incorrect about three of them. There are three left groups, but all of them believe in A. There are three right groups, first of them believes in B, second in C, third in D. -- Now if we make a per-group statistics, we find that each party is 25% correct and 75% incorrect. However, if we make a per-true-belief statistics, we find that 25% of true beliefs are associated with the left (A), and 75% of true beliefs are associated with the right (B, C, D). -- In this model, if a group of people could succeed to hold all true beliefs (A, B, C, D), an external observer would judge they are mostly right (despite they happen to disagree with every individual right group in majority of beliefs).

Back to the beginning -- we disagree with Ayn Rand about simplicity of values, or about importance of community; we also disagree with Chesterton about religion. That alone does not give us a political label. On the other hand, disagreeing with a socialist political idea is sufficient to get the label of political right, because any point outside of the socialist concept-space is called "the right".

Comment author: Unnamed 30 August 2012 02:44:49AM 15 points [-]

I am thinking that one possible asymetry between "the left" and "the right" is that the former is a rather homogenous group, while the latter is heterogenous. [...] The left is a fuzzy blob in the concept-space, the right seems like a label for points outside of this blob.

Beware the out-group homogeneity effect. People tend to see their own group as more heterogeneous than other groups, as differences that look small from far away look bigger up close.

With left and right, I have also heard the exact opposite claim: that the "right" represents a narrower, more coherent group. In the US, the "right" is based in the dominant, mainstream social group (sometimes called "real America"), drawing disproportionately from people who are white, male, Christian, relatively well-off, straight, etc., while the "left" is a coalition of the various groups that are left out of "real America" for one reason or another. Alternatively, conservatives are the people who support the existing social order and want to keep things roughly how they are; liberals are the ones who want change - and there are more degrees of freedom in changing things than in keeping things the same.

Comment author: prase 29 August 2012 09:59:12PM *  6 points [-]

This is an interesting point, that one about the left being more homogeneous than the right. I am not sure whether to believe it, so let me present some objections that I can think of, without evaluating their merit.

A) Assuming the left is indeed more homogeneous, isn't it true just because of greater variability of right between different countries, with a typical single country's right being as homogeneous as the same country's left? (The objection hasn't a particularly strong bearing on the perceived LW left/right imbalance, but may be relevant to the more general question of how the categories of left and right are defined.)

The left generally means socialist(-ish), and the right generally means non-socialist.

B) This may not be accurate; beware availability heuristics.

Environmentalists aren't necessarily socialists as their opinions about the optimal economic order aren't the defining part of their ideology and may differ. Yet the environmentalists are usually classified on the left. Anarchists aren't necessarily socialists; many of them oppose any form of organised society, while archetypal socialism is a very organised society, from many points of view more than market capitalism. Feminists rarely dream about socialist utopias as they have a different fish to fry. Yet both feminists and anarchists are usually considered standing on the left. In fact I could use the examples of these groups to make a mirror argument of yours, namely, that the right is capitalist(-ish) while the left is everything opposed to capitalism. I don't think this is a good definition since there are counter-examples to it too (e.g. the nazis who are against capitalism but still "right-wing") but at least I don't immediately see this description being less reasonable than yours.

Of course this all hinges on the definitions of socialism or capitalism, discussions about which might better be avoided for their pointlessness. It is not clear whether there is a sensible definition of left and right other than "arbitrary convention set up by historical accident", but if there is, I suppose it would go along the lines of social status: the right are those who side with the elites and wish the present distribution of power preserved, the left are those who side with the underclasses and therefore wish to shift the balance towards more egalitarianism, from which would the lower status people profit (in terms of relative status increase, not necessarily materially). This definition has several advantages: for one thing, it has no problems with the fact that in the late 18th century the market liberals were considered left.

As an example, both Ayn Rand and Chesterton would be examples of "the right". What exactly do they have in common?

C) Both Jacques Derrida and Lenin would be examples of "the left". What do they have in common? Or Pol Pot and Bertrand Russell? Neither of them was a big fan of free markets (or hinduism, for that matter), but that doesn't guarantee much ideological homogeneity.

I am from eastern Europe, where "the left" basically either wants "what communists did" or "something similar to what communists did, just less, and if possible without all the violence".

D) When I still thought that "left" and "right" were more than two rather arbitrary labels, I considered myself a leftist and "something similar to what communists did, just less, and if possible without all the violence" wasn't the way I would summarise my political preferences. Of course, there is a sense in which any government intervention into the markets is "what communists did, just less", but it is a sense on such a level of vagueness and generality that it lacks significant information value. In any case, for ideologically oriented both social democrats and greens communism is primarily a negative example rather than an attractor. (I don't claim deep knowledge of the contemporary left in Slovakia, but feel quite certain to object to your statement being formulated as valid for the whole Eastern Europe).

Comment author: Emile 30 August 2012 11:12:53AM 6 points [-]

It is not clear whether there is a sensible definition of left and right other than "arbitrary convention set up by historical accident", but if there is, I suppose it would go along the lines of social status: the right are those who side with the elites and wish the present distribution of power preserved, the left are those who side with the underclasses and therefore wish to shift the balance towards more egalitarianism, from which would the lower status people profit (in terms of relative status increase, not necessarily materially).

I don't think that quite described the US, or Western Europe - the stereotypical redneck is low-status but on the right (same for ploucs here in France), and buying organic food seems to be more common with the rich, but is associated to the left.

A better description of the left/right gap may be that each represents a status ladder, and that people support the status ladder on which they have the best relative position. The details of what counts tend to vary with time and place, but on the left you tend to get status for being educated, open-minded, environmentally aware, original, etc., and on the right you tend to get status for being rich, responsible, having a family, being loyal to your country, etc.

At least, that angle of approach seems better than looking at policies; if you compare the policies of the French left and the American left, the policies might seem so different that they don't deserve the same label; but if you compare the kind of people who support either parties, the similarities are much more apparent.

Comment author: Peterdjones 30 August 2012 09:33:47AM 3 points [-]

But there are any number of sub-varieties of socialism, so it is itself a fuzzy blob. Moreover, the non-right in many countries, particularly the US, barely has a whiff of classical socialism, Who is advocating a centrally planned economy or worker control of production in the US? It's a standing joke in Europe that the US has two parties of the right. That's "perception" of course. It's also a US perception that public healthcare "is" socialism -- the idea is seen as mainstream and cross-party elsewhere. What is going on is that the right have this convenient label "socialist" to lambast the non-right with, and the non-right don't have a corresponding term to hit back with. That doesnt mean anything about ideaspace.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 27 August 2012 05:21:12PM 5 points [-]

Off the top of my head:

Economic inequality is an unequal distribution of resources. The most salient example of this is an unequal distribution of resources that all have equal claim to, like a pie a parent bakes for their children. But [various convincing arguments in favor of at least some economic inequality.]

War is killing, which is bad because murder is bad. (Or eating meat, or capital punishment.)

Gay marriage is good because it's a right, and the most salient rights are good.

Welfare is good because it's a form of helping people, and helping people in ways that don't produce bad incentive effects and without taking from anyone else is good.

Processed food is bad because putting the most salient synthetic chemicals in food would be a really bad idea.

Note that "genetic engineering to cure diseases is eugenics" and "evolutionary psychology is sexist" are probably left-wing viewpoints, though not ones Yvain agrees with.

Comment author: DaFranker 27 August 2012 06:17:54PM 4 points [-]

ISTM that categorizing many of those as "Left-wing viewpoints" or "Right-wing viewpoints" is a strong category error, one that we should attempt to reduce rather than redraw or blue boundaries. "Evolutionary psychology is sexist" is, afaict, a word error. It is not a position, but an implicit claim: "Because evolutionary psychology is sexist, it is bad, and thus evolutionary psychology is wrong!" - this is usually combined (in my experience) with an argument that the world is inherently good and that all humans are inherently equal and so on, which means that theories that posit "unfair" or "bad" circumstances are wrong; the world must be "good" and "fair". Stereotypicalism would call for a reference to religion here.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 August 2012 07:12:01PM 17 points [-]

It may be a word error - I don't think it is, "Evolutionary psychology is riddled with false claims produced by sexist male scientists and rationalized by the scientists even though the claims are not at all well-supported compared to nonsexist alternatives" is a coherent and meaningful description of a way the universe could be but isn't, and is therefore false, not a word error - but if so, it's a word-error made by stereotypically left-wing people like Lewontin and Gould who were explicitly political in their criticism, not a word-error made by any right-wing scientists I can think of offhand.

In general, we should be careful about dismissing claims as meaningless or incoherent, when often only a very reasonable and realistic amount of charity is required to reinterpret the claim as meaningful and false - most people are trying to be meaningful most of the time, even when they're rationalizing a wrong position. Only people who've gotten in a lot more trouble than that are actively trying to avoid letting their arguments be meaningful. And meaningless claims can be dismissed immediately, without bringing forth evidence or counterobservations; meaningful false claims require more demonstration to show they're false. So when somebody brings a false claim, and you dismiss it as meaningless, you're actually being significantly logically rude to them - putting in less effort than they're investing - it takes more effort to bring forth a meaningful false claim than to call something 'meaningless'.

Comment author: cousin_it 27 August 2012 07:30:29PM *  14 points [-]

I dislike accusations of sexism as much as the next guy, but in the last year or two I have started to think that ev-psych is way overconfident. The coarse grained explanation is that ev-psych seems to be "softer" than regular psychology, which itself is "softer" than medicine, and we all know what percentage of medical findings are wrong. I'd be curious to learn what other LWers think about this, especially you, because your writings got me interested in ev-psych in the first place.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 27 August 2012 09:17:21PM 3 points [-]

I have started to think that ev-psych is way overconfident.

As in about the likelihood of certain kinds of explanations?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 August 2012 03:49:47AM 2 points [-]

Can't think anything without a concrete example.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 28 August 2012 11:24:23AM 3 points [-]

I am going to rehearse saying this in a robotic voice, while spinning round and round flailing my arms in a mechanical fashion.

Comment author: moocow1452 28 August 2012 01:41:19PM 3 points [-]

Can you put it up on Youtube when you're done?

Comment author: J_Taylor 28 August 2012 10:38:28PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: NancyLebovitz 30 August 2012 02:23:06PM 5 points [-]

So far as I know, the association of pink with girls and blue with boys is a western custom which only goes back a century or so.

Comment author: J_Taylor 30 August 2012 11:18:08PM 3 points [-]

Precisely.

Comment author: ciphergoth 29 August 2012 04:31:32PM 3 points [-]

This is a worthy steel-manning when trying to reach an accurate conclusion about ev-psych, but I think you give the typical person who claims "ev-psych is sexist" too much credit here.

Comment author: coffeespoons 30 August 2012 03:38:07PM *  2 points [-]

Natasha Walter makes the argument that Eliezer refers to in Living Dolls (not really about ev-psych, but about the idea of innate differences between genders in abilities), and I'm sure there are other examples (I haven't actually read all that much feminist writing). However, I have also encountered people who won't even discuss the issue with anyone who is pro-ev psych because they think that they're so morally appalling. Not sure how typical the people I'm encountered are though - I suspect they may be more extreme than most, and the most extreme people are the loudest.

Comment author: ciphergoth 31 August 2012 07:56:12PM 6 points [-]

There's definitely a temptation to identify a belief we agree with with its best advocates, and a belief we disagree with with its typical advocates. I definitely see this when people talk about how stupid eg "the left/right" is. I may be encouraging that error...

Comment author: cousin_it 27 August 2012 06:35:29PM *  3 points [-]

Thanks for the link to Caplan's post, it's a very nice thought experiment. How about a thread where right-wing folks can give their strongest versions of left-wing arguments and vice versa, all the while quietly laughing about each other's misconceptions but not stepping in to correct? I could give it a try, as a right-winger imitating a left-winger, but I'd probably just embarrass myself.

Comment author: CronoDAS 27 August 2012 05:25:15AM 12 points [-]

And George Washington was a traitor. ;)

Comment author: wedrifid 27 August 2012 06:50:25AM 16 points [-]

And George Washington was a traitor. ;)

I'm pretty sure the definition of 'traitor' includes "and lost" in there somewhere!

Comment author: RichardKennaway 27 August 2012 09:49:02AM *  31 points [-]

"Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason."

Sir John Harington

Comment author: JStewart 28 August 2012 12:12:12PM 6 points [-]

Judging from the comments this is receiving on Hacker News, this post is a mindkiller. HN is an audience more friendly to LW ideas than most, so this is a bad sign. I liked it, but unfortunately it's probably unsuitable for general consumption.

I know we've debated the "no politics" norm on LW many times, but I think a distinction should be made when it comes to the target audience of a post. In posts aimed to make a contribution to "raising the sanity waterline", I think we're shooting ourselves in the foot by invoking politics.

Comment author: David_Gerard 28 August 2012 01:32:06PM 6 points [-]

Reading that HN thread, the problem appears to be a troll (who also showed up on Yvain's original blog post).

Comment author: Bruno_Coelho 29 August 2012 06:57:32PM 2 points [-]

Calling something 'worst' before conversations is bad sign.

Comment author: Furslid 31 August 2012 07:43:18AM *  8 points [-]

All of the arguments are of the form A is an X, when A is not a typical example of X. Here are some arguments that are of that form.

-"Having sex with an passed out stranger is rape."
-"Sleep deprivation/sensory deprivation/stress positions is torture."
-"Writing and cashing bad checks is theft."

Are these all instances of the worst argument in the world? If they aren't examples of the worst argument in the world, why not?

If the main reason that these arguments are acceptable is our disapproval of A, then your worst argument in the world is not a valid. It is just a way to discount rhetoric you don't like.

Comment author: kilobug 31 August 2012 08:18:01AM 8 points [-]

Consider a X that is bad for reasons R1, R2 and R3. R1 and R2 are really strong, while R3 is quite minor.

Consider an atypical case of X, A, which has only the reasons R1 and R2. Saying "A is X" doesn't do much harm. The real reasons for which you reject X (R1 and R2) are present in A, so saying "A is X so A is wrong" is acceptable.

Now consider another atypical case of X, B, which only share R3. Saying "B is X so B is wrong" is using the emotional power of the horror of R1 and R2, which B doesn't have, against B, just because B can be said to be part of a cluster in which the typical elements have it. That's a really fishy argumentation. That's what Yvain called "the worst argument in the world", because it's wrong but convincing, and very hard to counter in a debate (it requires deconstructing "why is X is bad", extracting R1, R2, R3, showing that B only shares R3, so may be slightly bad, but not nearly as much a typical X).

Let's analyze the first one : "Having sex with an passed out stranger is rape."

Rape is very bad, I hope we all agree with that. Why is rape bad ? It's bad for many reasons. Some of the reasons (that it violates people's freedom of choice, that there are risks of pregnancy and STD, that it humiliates the victim, ...) hold for "having sex with a passed out stranger". Some other of the reasons against the typical rape (that it involves violence and threats, inflicts pain and fear on the victim, ...) may not apply for "having sex with a passed out stranger". Depending which of the two sets of reasons are you true rejection of rape, it's the WAitW or not.

But the main point is that "Having sex with an passed out stranger is rape." is not the reason why "having sex with a passed out stranger" is a bad thing to do. The reasons why it's a bad thing is because it doesn't respect the person's freedom of choice, because it risks exposing her (or him) to danger of STD/pregnancy without her consent, because it's likely to humiliate her, ... Those are the real justifications of why it's wrong.

If you state your position as "Having sex with an passed out stranger is rape." it's very to argue if you're right or wrong about saying it's bad thing to do. First we are stuck with the emotional weight of seeing a woman crying of fear and pain while her rapist rapes her violently a knife under her throat, which is not how "having sex with an passed out stranger" occurs, and then we'll end up engulfed into a debate about the definition of "rape" which is completely barren. If you give the real reasons then we can argue for each of them how bad they are, and we can end up knowing how bad "having sex with an passed out stranger" is.

"A is an X" is a valid argument for a lawyer in court, because law has to be written in words. But it's not a valid argument (and can lead to people making wrong conclusions) in a moral/political debate.

Comment author: Desrtopa 01 September 2012 03:02:25AM 2 points [-]

Are these all instances of the worst argument in the world? If they aren't examples of the worst argument in the world, why not?

I would say that they are all examples. Just because they would fly in typical discourse doesn't mean that they aren't very bad arguments, it's just that they're very bad arguments in favor of reasonable positions.

Comment author: MileyCyrus 27 August 2012 09:57:36AM *  13 points [-]

It's bad when people use the dictionary to make political arguments, but it's worse when they write their own dictionary. For example:

  • Normal people define "selfishness" as "taking care of oneself, even if that means hurting other people." Objectivists define "selfishness" as "taking care of oneself, but never hurting other people." Hence, selfishness can never morally objectionable.

  • Normal people define "sexism" as "unfair treatment of a person based on their sex." Feminists define "sexism" as "unfair treatment of a person based on their sex, but it only counts if their sex has been historically disadvantaged." Hence, men can never be victims of sexism.

  • Normal people define "freedom" as "the ability to do a lot of stuff." Catholics define freedom as "the ability to do as God wishes." Hence, laws enforcing Catholic norms are pro-freedom.

Comment author: prase 27 August 2012 07:35:08PM 11 points [-]

Objectivists define "selfishness" as "taking care of oneself, but never hurting other people."

Not to mention that they define "hurting" as "damaging or destroying other's life, health or property by direct action" where normal people understand the word much more broadly.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 27 August 2012 09:39:40PM *  10 points [-]

Normal people define "true" as "good enough; not worth looking at too closely". Nerds define "true" as "irrefutable even by the highest-level nerd you are likely to encounter in this context." Hence more or less all of Western philosophy, theology, science, etc.; and hence normal people's acceptance that contradictory things can be "true" at the same time.

(Yes, I'm problematizing your contrast between various groups you dislike and "normal people".)

Comment author: folkTheory 28 August 2012 07:50:28AM *  8 points [-]

and hence normal people's acceptance that nerd-contradictory things can be normal-"true" at the same time.

Namespaced that for you.

Comment author: SilasBarta 08 September 2012 09:43:52PM 2 points [-]

People need to do that more often!

Comment author: mwengler 30 August 2012 04:57:53PM 4 points [-]

Reading through this and most of the comments, it occurs to me that virtually all the discussion is around MORAL argument. Do we ever succumb to the worst argument in the world in non-moral issues?

"How can we fix this light bulb?" "Use a hammer. A hammer is a tool and tool's fix things."

There it seems like an incomplete argument. And then somebody comes along and nails a few pieces of wood together with a hammer producing something stable enough to stand upon, and then proceeds to stand on it to reach the lightbulb, which just turned out to be loose so they tighten it, fixing it.

Staying out of the moral sphere, what is the worst argument in the world? Some of the first bad arguments that come to mind are 1) Because it's in the bible, 2) God said so, 3) My professor said so, (and to a much lesser extent) 4) Because Feynman said so.

I might vote for "Because X said so" as the worst argument in the world. For moral and non-moral questions, actually.

Comment author: wedrifid 31 August 2012 01:31:09AM 3 points [-]

Do we ever succumb to the worst argument in the world in non-moral issues?

"Rapture of the nerds".

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 01 September 2012 03:49:14PM 2 points [-]

I'm confused about how to interpret your comment. Do you mean that people saying "Singularitarianism has some of the features of belief in a religious apocalypse, and believers in apocalypses are crazy, therefore Singularitarianism is crazy" is an instance of the worst argument in the world, or something else?

Comment author: wedrifid 01 September 2012 04:01:58PM 2 points [-]

Do you mean that people saying "Singularitarianism has some of the features of belief in a religious apocalypse, and believers in apocalypses are crazy, therefore Singularitarianism is crazy" is an instance of the worst argument in the world

Yes.

Comment author: shminux 29 August 2012 10:57:15PM *  4 points [-]

Guilt by association, as has been mentioned before, is probably a better name.

Comment author: metaphysicist 30 August 2012 08:13:13PM *  3 points [-]

The association fallacy is indeed what Yvain invokes: "An association fallacy is an inductive informal fallacy of the type hasty generalization or red herring which asserts that qualities of one thing are inherently qualities of another, merely by an irrelevant association."

Key to demonstrating the association fallacy is identifying the intended association because only then can you go on to argue that it's irrelevant. Ignore this step and you are likely to fall into another fallacy: the straw-man argument.

Comment author: OrphanWilde 27 August 2012 05:23:00PM 4 points [-]

I'm not sure "This specific example has something to recommend it" saves the example from being legitimately described in terms of the category. I'm minded of "Yeah, I killed him, but he deserved it" - that is, everybody thinks their example has something to recommend it, something that makes it distinct from the categorical description, that's why they support it/did it to begin with.

Comment author: wallowinmaya 25 November 2013 06:30:02AM 2 points [-]

I think there are two cases where you forgot to type the word "fallacy" after the word noncentral.

But in this case calling Martin Luther King a criminal is the noncentral.

This is why the noncentral is so successful.

Comment author: KnaveOfAllTrades 20 December 2012 06:22:27AM *  2 points [-]

Then there's another half--when the wrongness of something is missed because it does not (technically by an approximate dictionary definition) fall into a pre-existing category in the 'Wrong Cluster'. Examples: Forced consent, dishonesty that's 'technically not lying', extortion that's 'technically not stealing' getting a free ride.

So we have a general 'linguistic ethical determinism' (better name anybody?) fallacy, wherein something is considered wrong if and only if it comes under an existing Category of Wrong according to a pedantic definition. (This is itself, of course, a corollary of human obsession with linguistic categories, which I gather is covered in A Human's Guide to Words.)

Comment author: Sengachi 20 December 2012 12:27:58AM 2 points [-]

I like this article very much, and I think it's an important fallacy to take note of. I do not however, think it is the worst fallacy. I think the worst fallacy is: I don't need a reason/argument to believe what I believe.

Comment author: SilasBarta 08 September 2012 08:46:42PM *  2 points [-]

One thing I don't understand here is that you seem to inconsistently classify these "X is Y" type arguments. What I mean is:

"MLK was a criminal" -> Worst argument in the world, obviously this doesn't mean MLK was a typical criminal.

"Black people are human" -> Wow, what an insightful point that challenges racists to explain how black people deviate from the typical human and thus warrant different treatment!

Why not interpret all "X is Y" arguments as challenges to explain how X is an atypical Y, and thus insightful?

Comment author: metaphysicist 30 August 2012 07:00:05PM *  5 points [-]

Almost 400 comments but not a word of discussion of the parsing Yvain provides for his seven examples! But if Yvain's parsing is wrong—as I think it is—then his analysis will serve to further bias our understanding of positions we disagree with and to forsake any charity in understanding these positions.

The question that is fairly asked of Yvain is what distinguishes his "worst argument" ("X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain features. Therefore, we should judge X as if it also had those features, even though it doesn't.") from any form of rule-governed reasoning in ethics (whether deontological or rule-utilitarian). When the examples are expanded and recast in those terms, they do not express Yvain's "worst argument"; they rather simply express moral premises subject to disagreement.

Taxation is theft. I'm no libertarian, but the argument isn't that taxation shares features with "archetypal" theft but that any taking of unearned property is wrong for the same basic reasons as "archetypal" theft is wrong, whether natural law or utilitarian calculus.

Abortion is murder. The claim almost always comes from a fundamentalist religious direction. Abortion is said to be murder not because it shares features with prototypical murders but because it is the same in the essential respect that it involves killing an innocent possessed of a soul. It's stupid enough as it stands; no reason to misrepresent it.

King is a criminal. If the psychologist-of-morality Kohlberg is believed, most adults in the U.S. identify morality with authority. Many believe it is immoral to break a law enacted through democratic procedures. Those who reason this way are indeed philistines, but their problem isn't with some formal fallacy in reasoning but with their premises.

Evolutionary psychology is sexist People who argue in these terms usually think it is wrong to "reinforce sexual stereotypes" even if they're true.

And so on. If you were arguing with someone defending their position in the ways Yvain summarizes, would you point out, say, that the archetypical murder is a lot different from abortion; or would you point out that souls don't really exist (or point to similar defective assumptions)? The first would miss the point. An answer to the antiabortion argument has a similar form to the "worst argument," but I think the answer is sound: Compelling women to remain pregnant is involuntary servitude. (More popularly, No forced labor.) The question is whether the essential features of abortions, relative to a well-chosen framework, are best captured by analogy to murder or slavery. We always reason by some sort of analogy; the question is whether the given analogy is adequate. Yvain's proscriptions consistently carried out would toss analogical reasoning in ethics.

Comment author: shminux 30 August 2012 07:14:40PM *  3 points [-]

Yvain's proscriptions consistently carried out would toss analogical reasoning in ethics.

It is perfectly reasonable to first identify the category and its archetypal example, no one seems to argue against it. The issue is tossing out the step where the reasons the archetypal example gives the category a negative connotation are checked against the example under consideration. Thus analogical reasoning survives as a first step, but its validity is subsequently questioned, not simply negated.

Comment author: metaphysicist 30 August 2012 07:50:28PM 2 points [-]

The issue is tossing out the step where the reasons the archetypal example gives the category a negative connotation are checked against the example under consideration.

And my claim is that, in typical uses of the example arguments, the reasons that make the category negative—for the arguer—are precisely the reasons the arguer intends to advance. So, Yvain hasn't made a case that submergence in a verbal archetype is an important fallacy. And thinking that it is the key fallacy involved in these arguments promotes superficiality when considering arguments like the exemplars.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 27 August 2012 11:09:36AM 6 points [-]

And okay, a tiny fraction of the time people are just trying to use words as a Schelling fence.

[citation needed]

Comment author: MagnetoHydroDynamics 29 August 2012 11:29:41AM 4 points [-]

This is a special case of Agree Denotatively, Object Connotatively.

Comment author: CarlJ 27 August 2012 07:20:33PM 4 points [-]

A second, subtler use of the Worst Argument In The World goes like this: "X is in a category whose archetypal member is solely harmful. We immediately reject this archetypal X because it is solely harmful. Therefore, we should also immediately reject X, even though it in fact has some benefit which may outweigh the harm."

Theft is however not solely harmful, obviously one party gains.

For most people I know, that is in the swedish libertarian community, theft is theft whether or not it has socially beneficial effects, because we use the definition that you gave; theft is taking from others without their consent. The implication is not that "As theft is always bad, it should be dismissed without a thought", because some libertarians do favor theft and are explicit about it, because they believe it's necessary. The moral breach of treating others as mere means to one's own goals can be (hypothetically for most) mended if it has other good consequences (or such). The point is that taxation is bad, which doesn't mean it should be dismissed out of hand, but it shouldn't be adopted out of hand! That is, taxation should be considered a bad, until it is proven necessary or otherwise positive.

Comment author: Sewing-Machine 27 August 2012 02:13:04PM 5 points [-]

Is it always illegitimate to bring up the facts that abortion ends a life, that taxes are not paid voluntarily, and that affirmative action benefits some races at the expense of others? If someone with right-wing views on these policies does weave one of these facts into his arguments on less wrong, will he be adoringly referred to this page as though it were a drop-dead refutation?

If in the course of an argument you become frustrated by the other party mentioning true things, perhaps he is making the worst argument in the world. And perhaps there is another explanation.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 August 2012 07:39:46PM 16 points [-]

Taxes are not paid voluntarily and affirmative action benefits some races at the (immediate) expense of others, I agree. But note that in saying "abortion ends a life", you described things on somewhat of a higher level and used a more value-laden word than in the other two cases - like saying "Taxes are stolen" or "Affirmative action discriminates". "Abortion ends a life" is still sneaking in connotations, since we imagine ending a human life, rather than a cat's life or an ant's life, and the other person may well object that the embryo's life hasn't quite reached the ant level yet. In general, there's no license to bring up a categorization like 'life', as an unquestionable assumption or 'fact', if the other person is going to disagree with the connotations of the categorization, like "life is precious".

You can bring up as a fact that the embryo has 256 cells capable of metabolism but not capable of surviving outside the uterus. Calling it a 'life' is an attempt to Sneak in Connotations and establish a value judgment, because we all know that life is precious, even though we don't care very much about accidentally inhaling a dust mite. Perhaps you think an embryo is more precious than this because of the (likewise lower-level and harder to dispute) fact that if left in the uterus the embryo will probably become a human baby. But if you merely attempt to enforce the connotation of preciousness by pulling out a dictionary and looking up the definition of 'life', see the fallacy of the Argument from Common Usage; dictionary editors can't settle moral arguments.

As a general rule, whatever you wanted the other person to conclude from hearing the word 'life', such as that an embryo is precious, is something that you need to address directly - not try to establish by looking at other qualities which don't immediately establish preciousness, such as cell metabolism (which also appears in dust mites), and then pulling out a dictionary to try to establish that whoever edited the dictionary wrote a definition of 'life' that matches that.

Or as I would've written then, if I'd known then what I'd known now about training skills instead of conveying insights:

The counterpattern to Sneaking in Connotations is to Directly Argue the Connotation!

I think it's fair to say that on LW, anyone who tried to indignantly take a "But X is a Y!" stance, whether liberal or conservative or libertarian or transhumanist, would be referred to the Human's Guide to Words sequence. It's in one of the first core sequences and lots of commenters will recognize it on sight.

Comment author: Emile 28 August 2012 08:55:34AM 4 points [-]

But if you merely attempt to enforce the connotation of preciousness by pulling out a dictionary and looking up the definition of 'life', see the fallacy of the Argument from Common Usage; dictionary editors can't settle moral arguments.

M, they may be able to argue some, though it's a minority; for example if I promised to my grandmother on her deathbead to never eat fish on Tuesdays, than the morality of certain actions may hinge on the common usage definition of "fish".

Similarly, the morality of saying "I did not have sex with that woman" may depend on what is understood exactly by "sex" (not that a dictionary is necessarily the final arbiter!).

And more generally, rules and norms and laws may refer to words, and while the rules themselves should be evaluated on consequentialist grounds, judging whether one followed the rules may depend on common usage definitions.

For example, it's a nearly universal norm in western societies that racism is wrong. With the way humans are now, it's probably better than a situation where there was no norm against racism itself, but rather acts and beliefs were judged individually as right or wrong - that would leave too much leeway for rationalization. So instead we have the lesser evil of the definition of "racism" becoming overly broad and contested.

(Overall I mostly agree with you; definitions are totally useless on settling empirical disagreements, and mostly useless for moral disagreements)

Comment author: thomblake 27 August 2012 03:39:35PM 10 points [-]

Is it always illegitimate to bring up the facts that abortion ends a life, that taxes are not paid voluntarily, and that affirmative action benefits some races at the expense of others?

No. If you didn't get that, you should reread the post. The point is to discuss the relevant features of the subject in question, not say "murder" or "theft" and stop thinking.

Comment author: Sewing-Machine 27 August 2012 04:23:17PM 7 points [-]

That is the author's stated intention. But what he's created is an easily referenceable refutation of weak versions of strong arguments. You're concerned about someone crying "murder" or "theft" instead of thinking. I'm concerned about someone linking to this very popular article instead of thinking, or anyway instead of grappling with a strong argument.

Comment author: Yvain 27 August 2012 09:43:15PM 9 points [-]

As Alex Mennen brought up on my blog, the problem you're worrying about is that someone will say "That's an example of the Worst Argument In The World, which is typically a weak argument", even though that particular version of the argument is actually quite strong.

Luckily, I hear there's a new post addressing exactly that error!

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 27 August 2012 07:38:57PM 3 points [-]

There is no general way to make people think. Everything can be misused.

Comment author: DaFranker 27 August 2012 07:56:21PM *  4 points [-]

...therefore, we should not be concerned when well-intentioned articles risk generating new Fully General Counterarguments and having other possible negative effects on rationality. Even if the net expected utility is negative.

Comment author: DaFranker 27 August 2012 03:36:40PM 5 points [-]

No and no (hopefully) and yes and yes.

The examples you give bring up specific points of those, the specific facts that are negative. The Worst Argument In The World is when you don't state the particular negative fact, but instead (truthfully) proclaims that X is part of larger set Y which notoriously also contains that one specific negative fact (which X really does have), but also many others which give Y a large net negative value, making X have a large net negative value (to uninformed audiences) by virtue of being part of Y.

Bring up the specific fact, not an arbitrary large subgroup which also contains both X and the specific fact and is known to have a massive net connotation.

In Lesswrong discussion, I've seen similar arguments made, and the most frequent response was "Taboo X and Y", followed closely by a more elaborate reduction.

Comment author: Larks 27 August 2012 09:08:36PM 3 points [-]

How else is one meant to categorise instances, other than by noting that they share features with training data?

Just because (e.g.) archetypal cases of theft have other things wrong with them doesn't mean that theft also isn't wrong qua theft. I think you're just choosing to favour some categories (e.g. benefit/harm) over others.

When you say,

Therefore, even though he is a criminal, there is no reason to dislike King.

I think you bed the question against those who oppose criminality qua criminality.

It's true that you should also consider the advantages of this specific case of theft. But individual exclaimations aren't meant to be complete arguments.

Comment author: siodine 28 August 2012 01:14:11AM *  4 points [-]

You miss the point. There's the denotation of criminal which includes King, and the connotation of criminal which very rarely includes King. By categorizing King as a criminal, most people will take it to mean "King has committed unlawful acts (denotation) and King is bad (connotation)." People using the worst argument in the world count on this (most of the time probably unknowingly), because without the connotation their argument has no force (or at least not the desired amount) behind it. I.e., the worst argument in the world has the same effect as arguing King is bad even though that was never actually argued.

Comment author: DaFranker 27 August 2012 09:15:26PM *  5 points [-]

This implies that there is an intrinsic "wrongness" somewhere inside "theft" itself. Where, then, does the human hand reach into the vast void of existence to retrieve this wrongness to which theft is associated?

"Theft", the word, does not have any wrongness. Otherwise, we could use "Borbooka" instead. Let's do that. Does Borbooka have inherent wrongness? Well, what is Borbooka?

Borbooka is, apparently, when an item, which some animals apparently say verbally and apparently implicitly mutually agree is for the exclusive use of "one particular" animal, is moved from one point in spacetime to another point in spacetime such that another animal gains implicit exclusive use of this item without there being an apparent verbal exchange between animals that would apparently make them all understand that both animals "wanted" this item to be displaced thus.

Where, in the Borbooka defined above, is this mystical "wrongness" you insinuate? Are these not all simple conventions and agreements between said animals? Does Borbooka somehow create or destroy matter, or anything at all? If these conventions were not there and all the animals never had the implicit agreement that one item "belonged" to one animal, would Borbooka still be wrong? Would it still even exist?

I thought this was completely covered by a conjunction of the Metaethics and Guide to Words sequences.

Comment author: The_Duck 28 August 2012 12:00:07AM *  2 points [-]

He's not implying that theft is intrinsically wrong, but rather that some people really might have something like "all theft is bad, period" as a terminal value. In this case it may not help to point out the differences between taxation and archetypal theft. Probably your best bet in trying to get such a person to support taxation would be argue to them that the benefits of taxation should outweigh the negative utility they assign all instances theft.

Comment author: DaFranker 28 August 2012 12:17:14AM 2 points [-]

I didn't understand his message like that. What you're saying is exactly the core problematic that makes this the Worst Argument In The World. People will assign terminally bad value to something, simply because it is part of X and in their model all X is bad, despite that something only having part of X's "badness".

I have a strong urge to reject the "all theft is bad" terminal value as being stupid, incomplete, unworthy, etc., but this urge is Type 1 and I have no idea where the intuition comes from. I don't have enough information, but I'm confident that, in some way, assigning terminal value to such a virtual concept and social norm is either detached from reality, a "floating node" so to speak, or otherwise generates net negative utility somehow, including for the person holding this value. I'll have to think and learn more on this.

Comment author: CharlieSheen 27 August 2012 06:04:09PM *  4 points [-]

"Affirmative action is racist!" True if you define racism as "favoring people based on their race", but though the archetypal case of racism (white people keeping black people down) has nothing to recommend it, affirmative action (possibly) does. In the archetypal case, decisions are made based on race, success is completely decoupled from merit, and disadvantaged groups are locked into a cycle of poverty with little to no escape. Affirmative action keeps the first disadvantage, arguably escapes the second disadvantage depending on the setup of the particular program, and positively subverts the third. The question then hinges on the relative importance of these disadvantages. Therefore, you can't dismiss affirmative action without a second thought just because it's racist and you can dismiss most cases of racism without a second thought. You would also have to demonstrate that the unique advantages of affirmative action which other forms of racism lack fail to outweigh the disadvantages affirmative action shares with racism in general.

I think most contemporary invocations of "That's racist!" are examples of the worst argument in the world so I'm not so sure about that.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 28 August 2012 04:56:02AM 3 points [-]

I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: "X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain features. Therefore, we should judge X as if it also had those features, even though it doesn't."

Note, however that "X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain features", is strong evidence that X does in fact have those features. Thus the burden is on the person arguing otherwise to show that it doesn't.

Keep in mind that your brain's corrupted hardware is designed to fail in just this kind of "special pleading" situation. Or to put it another way there's a reason ethical injunctions exist.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 28 August 2012 07:41:12AM 4 points [-]

Note, however that "X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain features", is strong evidence that X does in fact have those features.

Until some other bozo comes up with a different category. Then we get to play tennis.

Comment author: Carinthium 30 August 2012 03:03:43AM 2 points [-]

Many people who use the arguments mentioned would have different philosophical reasons for believing the claims. The Christian groups that claim abortion/euthansia is murder would appeal to it being wrong because only God has a right to kill, and the libertarians who argue that taxation is theft would appeal to the right to property. Both would refuse to argue on utilitarian grounds.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 September 2012 04:03:58AM 2 points [-]

Meta-note: Right now, as I check the top comments for today, all the top comments for today are replies to heavily downvoted comments. This is the behavior the downvoted-thread-killer was meant to prevent, but we don't yet have "troll-toll all descendants" feature. Noting this because multiple people asked for examples and how often something like it happened.

Comment author: Bugmaster 13 September 2012 04:18:30AM 2 points [-]

Let's say that I post comment B in response to comment A. Comment A has 0 karma, so I suffer no karma penalty. Five minutes afterward, however, various other users downvote comment A to -5. Would I be karma-taxed retroactively ? How would this affect comment B's rating ? If the answers are "no" and "it wouldn't", that could explain the present situation.

Comment author: shminux 13 September 2012 08:42:20PM *  9 points [-]

I wonder if there can be a race condition, when a comment is started before its parent is downvoted to -3, but submitted after, resulting in an unexpected karma burn.

Comment author: Nornagest 13 September 2012 08:45:03PM *  6 points [-]

Yes. That happened to me yesterday; not only does it produce karma loss, but the warning message doesn't pop up.

Comment author: shminux 13 September 2012 09:44:26PM 2 points [-]

I guess a workaround would be to open the parent in another window and check its vote before hitting "comment"... And if it is already at -2, maybe think a bit first :)

I hope that this half-assed mis-implementation gets fixed eventually. Incidentally, my earlier suggestion to only apply karma burn when the offending comment's author has negative monthly karma would largely take care of the race condition as well, if the warning message pops up based on the monthly karma. Something along the lines of "do you really think it's a good idea to reply to someone with negative karma?"

Comment author: thomblake 13 September 2012 08:46:37PM 2 points [-]

A related note: You can sometimes get around the karma burn by upvoting a comment that's at -3, commenting, and then reversing your upvote after.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 14 September 2012 06:03:51AM 4 points [-]

The eridu-generated threads show that the direct reply toll doesn't seem to work, or at least it didn't in this case. I still don't like the idea of the indiscriminate whole-thread toll, but I'm no longer expecting the current alternative to be effective.

I've thought of another option: maybe prohibit a user from posting anywhere in a subthread under any significantly-downvoted comments of their own? This is another feature of all bad threads that could be used to automatically recognize them: the user in a failure mode keeps coming back to the same thread, so if this single user is prohibited from doing so, this seems to be sufficient.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 14 September 2012 05:49:44PM 4 points [-]

I still don't like the idea of the indiscriminate whole-thread toll

It looks like that idea has already been replaced with hiding subthreads rooted on comments that are -3 or lower from recent and top comments.

I like the idea of hiding bad subthreads, but wish it's a manual moderator action instead of based on votes. A lot of discussions that descend from downvoted comments are perfectly fine and do not need to be hidden.

I've thought of another option: maybe prohibit a user from posting anywhere in a subthread under any significantly-downvoted comments of their own?

I don't think that's a good idea. What if its a non-troll user who just made a bad comment? They wouldn't be able to come back and admit their mistake or clarify their argument. An actual troll on the other hand could just make a new account and keep going in that thread.

Comment author: shminux 14 September 2012 05:58:18PM *  2 points [-]

What if its a non-troll user who just made a bad comment?

A trivial low-cost solution, roundly ignored by EY and the rest of the forum management.

A related quote:

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken

Comment author: wedrifid 17 September 2012 06:15:16AM *  2 points [-]

I've thought of another option: maybe prohibit a user from posting anywhere in a subthread under any significantly-downvoted comments of their own?

I'd prefer the subthread to be outright locked than this. (I only very mildly oppose the latter but the former would be abhorrent.)

Comment author: DanArmak 13 September 2012 08:22:54PM 3 points [-]

I was one of those who asked for examples. This is indeed a good example, and I take it to heart. I am still uncertain what the effect of the new and planned rules will be (troll feeding fee etc.). But it's now less a case of "what problem are you trying to solve?" and more "how should we solve this problem?"

In more detail: I missed this thread, but skimming the remaining comments, I think it would have been a waste of time to participate. But since many others did participate (while saying in many comments that eridu was quite irrational and/or wrong), it's possible I would have been drawn in if I had the opportunity. So I'm glad you stopped it.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 September 2012 01:47:24PM 1 point [-]

I've banned all of eridu's recent comments (except a few voted above 0) as an interim workaround, since hiding-from-Recent-Comments and charge-fee-to-all-descendants is still in progress for preventing future threads like these.

I respectfully request that you all stop doing this, both eridu and those replying to him.

Comment author: fezziwig 13 September 2012 03:35:52PM 14 points [-]

I think Eridu's downvotes were mostly well-deserved.

I don't think this is a good idea.

I wonder if we could solve this problem from another direction. The issue from your perspective, as I understand it, is that you want to be able to follow every interesting discussion on this site, in semi-real time, but can't. You can't because your only view into "all comments everywhere" is only 5 items long, so fast-moving pointless discussions drown out the stuff you're interested in. An RSS feed presumably isn't sufficient either, since it pushes comments as they occur and doesn't give the community a chance to filter them.

So if I've reasoned all this out correctly, you'd prefer a view of all comments, sorted descending by post time and configurably tree-filtered by karma and maybe username. But we haven't the dev resources to build that, and measures like the ones you describe are a cheap, good-enough approximation.

Do I have that right?

Comment author: Konkvistador 13 September 2012 04:35:51PM *  12 points [-]

I've banned all of eridu's recent comments (except a few voted above 0) as an interim workaround

Is "ban" meaning "delete" a reddit-ism?

When I hear "ban" I think "author isn't allowed to post for a while".

Comment author: Wei_Dai 13 September 2012 04:50:32PM *  12 points [-]

"Ban" here means "make individual posts and comments invisible to everyone except moderators". (I agree "ban" is confusing.)

Comment author: anon895 14 September 2012 02:39:58AM *  9 points [-]

I (and any other casual visitor) now have only indirect evidence regarding whether eridu's comments were really bad or were well-meaning attempts to share feminist insights into the subject, followed by understandable frustration as everything she^Whe said was quoted out of context (if not misquoted outright) and interpreted in the worst possible way.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 14 September 2012 05:14:10AM 9 points [-]

Agreed. I would prefer that a negative contributor be prospectively banned (that is, "prevented from posting further") rather than retrospectively expunged (that is, "all their comments deleted from the record"), so as to avoid mutilating the record of past discussions.

For precedent, consider Wikipedia: if a contributor is found to be too much trouble (starting flamewars, edit-warring, etc.) they are banned, but their "talk page" discussion comments are not expunged. However, specific comments that are merely flaming, or which constitute harassment or the like, can be deleted.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 September 2012 06:26:44AM 5 points [-]

Agreed. In this case, what I read of the discussion which included eridu indicated that they weren't worth engaging with, but I'm actually rather impressed with what I saw of the community's patience.

Comment author: komponisto 13 September 2012 02:28:11PM 8 points [-]

charge-fee-to-all-descendants is still in progress

Once again, please don't do that. (Hiding-from-Recent-Comments is totally okay, however.)