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A Parable On Obsolete Ideologies

109 Post author: Yvain 13 May 2009 10:51PM

Followup to:  Yudkowsky and Frank on Religious Experience, Yudkowksy and Frank On Religious Experience Pt 2
With sincere apologies to: Mike Godwin

You are General Eisenhower. It is 1945. The Allies have just triumphantly liberated Berlin. As the remaining leaders of the old regime are being tried and executed, it begins to become apparent just how vile and despicable the Third Reich truly was.

In the midst of the chaos, a group of German leaders come to you with a proposal. Nazism, they admit, was completely wrong. Its racist ideology was false and its consequences were horrific. However, in the bleak poverty of post-war Germany, people need to keep united somehow. They need something to believe in. And a whole generation of them have been raised on Nazi ideology and symbolism. Why not take advantage of the national unity Nazism provides while discarding all the racist baggage? "Make it so," you say.

The swastikas hanging from every boulevard stay up, but now they represent "traditional values" and even "peace". Big pictures of Hitler still hang in every government office, not because Hitler was right about racial purity, but because he represents the desire for spiritual purity inside all of us, and the desire to create a better society by any means necessary. It's still acceptable to shout "KILL ALL THE JEWS AND GYPSIES AND HOMOSEXUALS!" in public places, but only because everyone realizes that Hitler meant "Jews" as a metaphor for "greed", "gypsies" as a metaphor for "superstition", and "homosexuals" as a metaphor for "lust", and so what he really meant is that you need to kill the greed, lust, and superstition in your own heart. Good Nazis love real, physical Jews! Some Jews even choose to join the Party, inspired by their principled stand against spiritual evil.

The Hitler Youth remains, but it's become more or less a German version of the Boy Scouts. The Party infrastructure remains, but only as a group of spiritual advisors helping people fight the untermenschen in their own soul. They suggest that, during times of trouble, people look to Mein Kampf for inspiration. If they open to a sentence like "The Aryan race shall conquer all in its path", then they can interpret "the Aryan race" to mean "righteous people", and the sentence is really just saying that good people can do anything if they set their minds to it. Isn't that lovely?

Soon, "Nazi" comes to just be a synonym for "good person". If anyone's not a member of the Nazi Party, everyone immediately becomes suspicious. Why is she against exterminating greed, lust, and superstition from her soul? Does she really not believe good people can do anything if they set their minds to it? Why does he oppose caring for your aging parents? We definitely can't trust him with high political office.

It is four years later. Soon, the occupation will end, and Germany will become an independent country once again. The Soviets have already taken East Germany and turned it Communist. As the de facto ruler of West Germany, its fate is in your hands. You ask your two most trusted subordinates for advice.

First, Colonel F gives his suggestion. It is vital that you order the preservation of the Nazi ideology so that Germany remains strong. After all, the Germans will need to stay united as a people in order to survive the inevitable struggle with the Soviets. If Nazism collapsed, then people would lose everything that connects them together, and become dispirited. The beautiful poetry of Mein Kampf speaks to something deep in the soul of every German, and if the Allies try to eradicate that just because they disagree with one outdated interpretation of the text, they will have removed meaning from the lives of millions of people all in the name of some sort of misguided desire to take everything absolutely literally all the time.

Your other trusted subordinate, Colonel Y, disagrees. He thinks that Mein Kampf may have some rousing passages, but that there's no special reason it has a unique ability to impart meaning to people other than that everyone believes it does. Not only that, but the actual contents of Mein Kampf are repulsive. Sure, if you make an extraordinary effort to gloss over or reinterpret the repulsive passages, you can do it, but this is more trouble than it is worth and might very well leave some lingering mental poison behind. Germany should completely lose all the baggage of Nazism and replace it with a completely democratic society that has no causal linkage whatsoever to its bloody past.

Colonel F objects. He hopes you don't just immediately side with Colonel Y just because the question includes the word "Nazi". Condemning Nazism is an obvious applause light, but a political decision of this magnitude requires a more carefully thought-out decision. After all, Nazism has been purged of its most objectionable elements, and the Germans really do seem to like it and draw a richer life from it. Colonel Y needs to have a better reason his personal distaste for an ideology because of past history in order to take it away from them.

Colonel Y thinks for a moment, then begins speaking. You have noticed, he says, that the new German society also has a lot of normal, "full-strength" Nazis around. The "reformed" Nazis occasionally denounce these people, and accuse them of misinterpreting Hitler's words, but they don't seem nearly as offended by the "full-strength" Nazis as they are by the idea of people who reject Nazism completely.

Might the existence of "reformed" Nazis, he asks, enable "full-strength" Nazis to become more powerful and influential? He thinks it might. It becomes impossible to condemn "full-strength" Nazis for worshipping a horrible figure like Hitler, or adoring a horrible book like Mein Kampf, when they're doing the same thing themselves. At worst, they can just say the others are misinterpreting it a little. And it will be very difficult to make this argument, because all evidence suggests that in fact it's the "full-strength" Nazis who are following Hitler's original intent and the true meaning of Mein Kampf, and the "reformed" Nazis who have reinterpreted it for political reasons. Assuming the idea of not being a Nazi at all remains socially beyond the pale, intellectually honest people will feel a strong pull towards "full-strength" Nazism.

Even if the "reformed" Nazis accept all moderate liberal practices considered reasonable today, he says, their ideology might still cause trouble later. Today, in 1945, mixed race marriage is still considered taboo by most liberal societies, including the United States. The re-interpreters of Mein Kampf have decided that, although "kill all the Jews" is clearly metaphorical, "never mix races" is meant literally. If other nations began legalizing mixed race marriage in the years to come, Party members will preach to the faithful that it is an abomination, and can even point to the verse in Mein Kampf that said so. It's utterly plausible that a "reformed" Nazi Germany may go on forbidding mixed race marriage much longer than surrounding countries. Even if Party leaders eventually bow to pressure and change their interpretation, the Party will always exist as a force opposing racial equality and social justice until the last possible moment.

And, he theorizes, there could be even deeper subconscious influences. He explains that people often process ideas and morals in ways that are only tangentially linked to specific facts and decisions. Instead, we tend to conflate things into huge, fuzzy concepts and assign "good" and "bad" tags to them. Saying "Jews are bad, but this doesn't apply to actual specific Jews" is the sort of thing the brain isn't very good at. At best, it will end out with the sort of forced politeness a person who's trying very hard not be racist shows around black people. As soon as we assign a good feeling to the broad idea of "Nazism", that reflects at least a little on everything Nazism stands for, everything Nazism ever has stood for, and every person who identifies as a Nazi.

He has read other essays that discuss the ability of connotations to warp thinking. Imagine you're taught things like "untermenschen like Jews and Gypsies are people too, and should be treated equally." The content of this opinion is perfectly fine. Unfortunately, it creates a category called "untermenschen" with a bad connotation and sticks Jews and Gypsies into it. Once you have accepted that Jews and Gypsies comprise a different category, even if that category is "people who are exactly like the rest of us except for being in this category here", three-quarters of the damage is already done. Here the Colonel sighs, and reminds you of the discrimination faced by wiggins in the modern military.

And (he adds) won't someone please think of the children? They're not very good at metaphor, they trust almost anything they hear, and they form a scaffolding of belief that later life can only edit, not demolish and rebuild. If someone was scared of ghosts as a child, they may not believe in ghosts now, but they're going to have some visceral reaction to them. Imagine telling a child "We should kill everyone in the lesser races" five times a day, on the assumption that once they're a teenager they'll understand what a "figurative" means and it'll all be okay.

He closes by telling you that he's not at all convinced that whatever metaphors the Nazis reinterpret Mein Kampf to mean aren't going to be damaging in themselves. After all, these metaphors will have been invented by Nazis, who are not exactly known for choosing the best moral lessons. What if "kill all lesser races" gets reinterpreted to "have no tolerance for anything that is less than perfect"? This sounds sort of like a good moral lesson, until people start preaching that it means we should lock up gay people, because homosexuality is an "imperfection". That, he says, is the sort of thing that happens when you get your morality from cliched maxims taken by drawing vapid conclusions from despicably evil works of literature.

So, the Colonel concludes, if you really want the German people to be peaceful and moral, you really have no choice but to nip this growing "reformed Nazi" movement in the bud. Colonel F has made some good points about respecting the Germans' culture, but doing so would make it difficult to eradicate their existing racist ideas, bias their younger generation towards habits of thought that encourage future racism, create a strong regressive tendency in their society, and yoke them to poorly fashioned moral arguments.

And, he finishes, he doesn't really think Nazism is that necessary for Germany to survive. Even in some crazy alternate universe where the Allies had immediately cracked down on Nazism as soon as they captured Berlin, yea, even in the absurd case where Germany immediately switched to a completely democratic society that condemned everything remotely associated with Nazism as evil and even banned swastikas and pictures of Hitler from even being displayed - even in that universe, Germans would keep a strong cultural identity and find new symbols of their patriotism.

Ridiculous, Colonel F objects! In such a universe, the Germans would be left adrift without the anchor of tradition, and immediately be taken over by the Soviets.

Colonel Y just smiles enigmatically. You are reminded of the time he first appeared at your command tent, during the middle of an unnatural thunderstorm, with a copy of Hugh Everett's The Theory of the Universal Wave Function tucked under one arm. You shudder, shake your head, and drag yourself back to the present.

So, General, what is your decision?

Comments (230)

Comment author: Aaron 14 May 2009 02:17:48PM *  25 points [-]

As someone who grew up hearing countless sermons comparing the conquest of Canaan and other Old Testament battles to the spiritual victories we should have in our lives, I can really appreciate this. For example, when the walls of Jericho fall down, this means that the "walls" that keep us from spiritual blessings need to fall down. Of course, the actual writers meant the destruction of real, stone-and-mortar walls and the death of real, flesh-and-blood people. (1)

As a child the true implications of killing every man, woman, and child in a city were lost on me. Rethinking the Bible stories as an adult, especially after seeing real footage of the aftermath of war, has a very different effect. It is interesting to note the rationalizations people use to try to reconcile the cognitive dissonance: http://epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=63&ap=1

(1) I think this is what the writers of the Old Testament had in mind, regardless of whether or not the specific battles actually took place.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 14 May 2009 07:02:58PM 20 points [-]

This reminds me of a rather interesting argument I foolishly got into on an internet forum that had no connection to religion. First mistake.

Anyhow, it involved someone saying Christianity was a religion of peace, and I couldn't help but quote:

"Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father..." (full quote here)

His response, with what I assume was a completely straight face, was, "I'm glad you quoted that. Christ is just encouraging spirited debate within the household."

This would be hilarious if it weren't so terrifying.

Comment author: CronoDAS 14 May 2009 09:23:30PM 13 points [-]

My own view of that and similar statements is that Jesus was clearly expecting world-changing divine intervention to occur during his lifetime - he was basically the leader of a "the end is near" cult, waiting for God to go all Old Testament on the Roman Empire, much like he did to the Egyptians in the book of Exodus. The "Kingdom of Heaven" was to be a Jewish nation-state on Earth, which would be established after Rome was defeated by the hand of God. (Yes, indeed, embrace pacifism and endure your suffering, because God is coming to smite the wicked. And he's coming any day now!)

The religion that we now know as Christianity owes at least as much to Paul of Tarsus than to a certain wandering preacher that pissed off the local authorities and ended up nailed to a piece of wood.

Comment author: PhilosophyTutor 18 December 2011 10:23:58AM 4 points [-]

There is no meaningful historical evidence that "Jesus" ever existed. The arguments for the existence of that figure boil down to "I don't think Paul would have made all that stuff up, it's too awesome", and I don't think they merit a high degree of belief in the historicity of Jesus (although plenty of career academics would argue vociferously that this argument does indeed merit belief in a historical Jesus).

Comment author: wedrifid 18 December 2011 10:37:47AM 10 points [-]

There is no meaningful historical evidence that "Jesus" ever existed.

Not even a rather bland carpenter who got slightly popular, enough for folks like Paul to make stuff up?

Comment author: PhilosophyTutor 18 December 2011 12:29:47PM *  10 points [-]

No, just as there is no evidence for Russell's teapot.

There is only one historical document from the time of Jesus' supposed life which even resembles evidence of a teacher called Jesus (or Yeshua or whatever), and that is just a reference to a rabbi with the right name who had one brother with the right name. Given that Jesus supposedly had four named brothers and multiple sisters, at least one of whom is also named, there's plenty of scope for that to be a false positive. Taking it as strong evidence would be like taking the discovery of a journalist named Clark who worked with a journalist named James in the 1920s as strong evidence that those two were the historical basis for the story of Superman.

There could have been a historical Yeshua so boring that none of his contemporaries, including the Romans, wrote anything about him during his life or for decades after he died. Or the character could have been entirely made up. Evidence to differentiate these two possible universes does not currently exist.

Comment author: MixedNuts 18 December 2011 12:55:57PM 4 points [-]

There are passages in Flavius Josephus that talk about him but are clear fakes. The untampered versions might have been about a real guy named Jesus, but more likely they were reports of Christians beliefs, or just nonexistent. I don't know of any other evidence for the existence of a carpenter turned rabbi who disliked Romans.

Comment author: Tsujigiri 18 December 2011 02:26:29PM 2 points [-]

No, just as there is no evidence for Russel's teapot.

As the word evidence is commonly used, there is evidence for Russell's teapot -- just not evidence that you or me believe in. If someone says "Russell's teapot exists! I've seen it!", that is anecdotal evidence for its existence. Anything that suggests something is true or false is evidence, no matter how flawed that evidence may be.

It is by considering all the evidence, for and against our beliefs, that we progress towards truth.

Comment author: PhilosophyTutor 18 December 2011 11:25:28PM 4 points [-]

I think I might have to write something specifically addressing this misconception because a few people seem to have picked it up.

It's only evidence for the existence of Russell's teapot if more people say they have seen it than you would expect in a universe where Russell's teapot does not exist.

(That's ignoring the fact that Russell's teapot is by stipulation non-observable and hence in that artificial situation we can skip Bayesian updating and just go straight to p=1 that anyone claiming to have observed it is lying or deluded).

Comment author: Tsujigiri 19 December 2011 12:15:44PM *  1 point [-]

I think I might have to write something specifically addressing this misconception because a few people seem to have picked it up.

I think our disagreement is to do with our differing usage of "evidence", not a misconception. I'd say that a sole anecdote of someone seeing Russell's teapot can be considered evidence for its existence, even though it's not credible evidence.

It's only evidence for the existence of Russell's teapot if more people say they have seen it than you would expect in a universe where Russell's teapot does not exist.

I would add that different situations require different standards of evidence, depending on how willing we are to accept false positives. The fire service only requires one phone call before they respond.

Comment author: PhilosophyTutor 19 December 2011 12:59:21PM 3 points [-]

I think our disagreement is to do with our differing usage of "evidence", not a misconception. I'd say that a sole anecdote of someone seeing Russell's teapot can be considered evidence for its existence, even though it's not credible evidence.

Perhaps a less abstract example would help. Uri Geller used to claim he was projecting his psychic powers over the TV or the radio and invite people to phone in if something "spooky" happened in their home. Inevitably people phoned in to report clocks stopping or starting, things falling off shelves and so on. It was pretty convincing stuff for people who believed in that sort of thing, but it turned out that when skeptics with no psychic powers whatsoever pretended to be psychic on the radio and invited people to phone in they got exactly the same flood of calls. Odd things happen all the time and if you get a large enough sample of people looking about the house for odd things to report you get a fair number of calls.

What would have been evidence for Uri Geller having psychic powers is if he got more calls than normal people when he did that stunt. Just getting the base rate of calls anyone else would proves nothing. As you said yourself, you have to look at all the evidence.

You might be thinking "I read this Bayes theorem essay, and it said evidence for X was whatever was more likely to be true in a universe where X was true. In a universe where Russell's teapot existed I'd be more likely to hear someone say they saw Russel's teapot, right? So it's evidence! Bayes says so". That line of reasoning only works if you don't have all the evidence to look at so you can't determine the base rate. If you can determine the base rate then it's probably going to turn out that the number of claimed teapot-sightings is consistent with the base rate of stupid noises humans make.

If all you have is the one anecdote then it does count as evidence, but only in a strictly philosophical or mathematical sense. Not in any practical sense though since the shift in the relevant p value isn't going to be visible in the first twenty or thirty decimal places and I doubt anyone alive has that level of precision in their decision-making. (The odds of someone having seen Russell's teapot could be said, very conservatively, to be lower than the odds of someone winning the lotto twice in a row).

Comment author: DanArmak 18 December 2011 07:55:12PM 2 points [-]

If someone says "Russell's teapot exists! I've seen it!", that is anecdotal evidence for its existence.

But nobody is saying that... er, right?

Comment author: CronoDAS 19 December 2011 09:23:58AM 0 points [-]

Even "Jesus the Bible character" shows signs of this.

Comment author: gwern 16 February 2013 05:25:56AM *  16 points [-]

Truth can be as strange as fiction. From Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project: A Study in German Culture, Rose 1998:

What explains the strange violation of common sense so often encountered in the postwar recollections and excuses offered by major cultural figures of the Nazi period? To any Western European or American viewer, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will is a blatantly political film, both for its choice of a Nazi Nuremberg Rally as subject matter and for its treatment of the subject in a style glorifying Nazism, Hitler, and the German race. Yet Riefenstahl herself has always claimed that Triumph of the Will was an apolitical work of art, not propaganda but merely the artistic documentary filming of an event: "Work and peace are the only messages of Triumph of the Will ," she recently declared — not the glorification of Hitler.[4] Few Western critics — including modern German critics — have been convinced by these almost pro forma justifications, since the Western mind finds it hard to comprehend how politics and art can be separated in such a self-contradictory and indeed absurd way.

The same may be said of the notorious case of Heidegger. The philosopher claimed to be "apolitical," but to an outside observer he seems to have been mired in practical Nazi politics in 1933–34, seeking to Nazify the German university system, making rectorial speeches at Freiburg in favor of the Nazi revolution, and proclaiming Hitler as the embodiment of German history, past and future. Yet for Heidegger, who thought in German categories, his unshaken faith in the "inner truth and greatness" of Nazism was not a "political" attitude, but rather an unpolitical existential commitment. After the war, of course, even Heidegger recognized that these outspoken remarks needed some glossing if they were to pass the scrutiny of his Western readers, though some of these postwar justifications of his Nazi involvement in themselves must strike a Western reader as bizarre. His depiction of his conduct during the Nazi years as having even been a clear declaration of "spiritual resistance" to the regime — even though he remained a Nazi party member until 1945 — seems almost laughable when viewed in the crisp light of Western common sense. Nevertheless, even if Heidegger's various efforts at self-justification are permeated with the sort of half-truths and evasions that are so characteristic of German apologies, they still acquire a certain logic, reasonableness, and consistency when interpreted through the preconceptions of German mentality: Supporting Hitler and wearing a Nazi badge are not really expressions of political belief, but rather of a moral inner closeness to the deepest apolitical ideals of the Nazi regime — work, peace, authenticity, humanity.[5]

The same kind of puzzle is found when we turn to figures who were less tarred with Nazism than Riefenstahl and Heidegger. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler had held serious doubts about the Nazi regime, attempting (unsuccessfully) in 1933–34 to defend Jewish musicians and declining to conduct "officially" (though willing to do so in a "freelance" capacity) in occupied France. Yet how is one to close one's eyes to the active and uncritical collusion with Nazism so vividly to be seen in those famous photographs of Furtwängler conducting for a row of Nazi dignitaries

...But so profound was the conditioning of the apolitical that even [Thomas] Mann could slip back, in that same essay, into peculiar habits of German thinking (e.g., the idea of the "two Germanies," one artistic and innocent, the other political and evil), which outraged his American readers of the time. Even in his "liberal" period and despite his wife's being of Jewish ancestry, Mann could also evince — like Heisenberg — a peculiarly German antisemitism. After the war, of course, Mann was never forgiven in Germany by those literary colleagues who had stayed on to profit from the patronage of the Nazi regime. Their view, uttered without a tinge of shame, was that by becoming an "outer" political emigrant Mann had betrayed the Germany of art and inner freedom, whereas they, by staying on, had effectively emigrated "innerly," preserving the inner freedom of art and so actually "resisting" Nazi tyranny: Mann had spent his years abroad in comfort, while they had suffered the mental agony of being successful protégés of the Nazi regime! Faced with this incredibly immoral foolishness, Mann refused to live in Germany after the war.

...But to believe that terror alone forced the German people to support Hitler is historically naive. The Gestapo was statistically only a small force; Hitler counted instead on his appeal to profoundly respectable elements of German mentality and tradition to attract the German people and win their consent, if not enthusiasm; the traditional elements that Hitler invoked were military and civic obedience, self-sacrifice, respectability, dignity, and so forth — all virtues in a liberal system, but debased when they served an evil system. As to the excuse that one was not "political," this is persuasive because a Western listener has grown up in a system that actually assumes that everyone is political, in the sense that all have a civic duty that obliges them to act politically whenever moral standards are violated. But in the German context, this is not so. Of Zivilcourage , as one German pastor who did resist Hitler put it, "we Germans have no concept, and indeed no authentic German word for it," only a Germanized French term. ...This explains the frequently encountered circular sequence of passing the buck of "conscience" in the Nazi period: The Church passes the duty of resistance on to the politicians, who then pass it on to the military, who return it to the Church, and so on.

...The mundane liberal-democratic ideals of the Weimar Republic lacked appeal — and legitimacy. It was hardly more than a dispensable interregnum between the German past and the German future, an imposition of victor's justice after the unmerited defeat of 1918, something lacking truly German roots and reality, and as such destined to pass away. To Westerners, of course, this inclination for an old authoritarian empire or a new revolutionary one, and the associated aversion to Weimar democracy, appear as political points of view. But to Heisenberg and many others, their support of such illiberal states remained distinctly "apolitical": Their support was spiritual, patriotic, social, national, cultural, moral, natural—indeed, anything but the detested "political" behavior that defense of the Weimar Republic represented. "Politics" was participation in Weimar and illicit, whereas sympathy for anti-Weimar sentiments was defended as a decently "apolitical" stance....Already in 1922 Heisenberg had been so converted to the ideal of German salvation through the spread of German culture that he was simply unable to understand why his patronizing visits as an emissary of victorious Nazi Germany twenty years later should give offense to Dutch or Danish scientists (any more than Martin Heidegger could understand why wearing a Nazi badge during his visit to Rome in 1936 should injure the feelings of an exiled former student he met there). [16]

...Another comforting self-deception that paralyzed any meaningful reaction to Hitler was the notion of the "good side of Nazism." This "good side" was spring-cleaning the tired and decadent life of Germany and restoring a sense of dignity and honor to it. In October 1933 Heisenberg sagely observed that "much that is good is now also being tried and one should recognize good intentions."[4]

Comment author: Nisan 26 April 2011 05:19:20AM 40 points [-]

Reading this article is one of the things that caused me to become an atheist.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 14 May 2009 10:01:56PM *  8 points [-]

Excellent. You might also look at the historical discussion over what to do with the Japanese emperor after WW2.

Comment author: Alicorn 14 May 2009 12:14:24AM *  32 points [-]

This is beautiful. My only problem with it is that I can't show it to anyone who'd be able to directly benefit from the cognitive dissonance, because they would be too offended about being compared to Nazis to glean anything useful.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 14 May 2009 12:25:45AM 23 points [-]

I think you, perhaps, miss the ideal target audience of this post. What Yvain presents here is in effect a counterargument against people who argue that religion isn't all that bad, even if it's false, because of the other benefits it gives people. Anyone who is reduced to defending religion on these grounds is likely not a typical theist.

This isn't an argument against theism, it's "opiate of the masses" vs. "just say no to drugs".

Comment author: Alicorn 14 May 2009 12:33:11AM 4 points [-]

Sure. But I wouldn't be inclined to try to convince those people because I'm inclined to tolerate tolerance of religion.

Comment author: steven0461 14 May 2009 12:54:37AM 6 points [-]

Hmm... I think the argument against objecting when people don't dislike religion enough is a lot stronger than the argument against objecting when people actually spread false statements minimizing the harm from religion.

Comment author: ciphergoth 14 May 2009 07:19:12AM *  16 points [-]

I think it's bad to punish people for their tolerance, but it has to be OK to try to change their mind?

Comment author: MBlume 14 May 2009 12:17:36AM 7 points [-]

Yeah, I think I'm just going to link it anyway. See what happens.

Comment author: Alicorn 14 May 2009 12:25:30AM 1 point [-]

I'd be interested to see what kinds of results you get, from brittle and less brittle recipients of the link.

Comment author: MBlume 14 May 2009 12:27:24AM *  2 points [-]

Posted to my personal journal here, so we'll see if any angry comments turn up.

Besides, these comments are (currently) at the top of the page -- if they've read all the way through, there's no reason they couldn't self-report =)

Comment author: Document 24 January 2011 10:10:23AM *  4 points [-]

The Wikiquote link should point to a specific revision, in case the page layout there is changed.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 14 May 2009 01:29:44PM 10 points [-]

Your point feels right, but situations close to Colonel F's approach actually happened in history, so we should probably look at such evidence. For example, it isn't a million miles away from the approach taken in postwar Japan, which actually involved a religion.

Comment author: thomblake 14 May 2009 02:34:57PM 5 points [-]

But Shinto was repurposed to be about worshiping the emperor just a short time before the war - it had a long history and didn't have any bad ideology really tied up with it. Nazism, by contrast, was a political party that didn't really stand for anything other than getting into power, and didn't have any long history or strong cultural roots.

Comment author: gwern 23 March 2011 03:56:27PM 6 points [-]

But Shinto was repurposed to be about worshiping the emperor just a short time before the war - it had a long history and didn't have any bad ideology really tied up with it.

Hm? The central role of the Emperor in Shintoism goes back at least to the Heian era, and Shintoism was a critical tool of state power (witness the appointment of royalty to the most influential position in Shintoism, running the Ise Shrine). Or do you mean something else?

Comment author: army1987 07 February 2014 07:33:28AM 0 points [-]

I think he meant “wasn't”.

Comment author: Jack 16 May 2009 05:51:23PM 4 points [-]

Yeah. Don't we think though that Christianity has a long history, strong cultural roots and doesn't have an evil ideology tied up with it? (At least no ideology much worse than a lot of popular political movements).

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 May 2009 02:27:39AM 13 points [-]

It's a fine parable but if I might request - give the Colonels different names, albeit perhaps names beginning with 'F' and 'Y'? I do generally prefer to have only me speaking for myself, and Frank may well feel the same way. That's why while I sometimes use similar names in my dialogues, I don't go so far as to use directly identical names.

Comment author: komponisto 15 May 2009 04:11:49PM 15 points [-]

Ah, now I understand where the letters F and Y came from!

Comment author: cousin_it 14 May 2009 08:37:25AM *  5 points [-]

In our reality Americans built military bases in Germany to prevent Soviets from taking over. As of 2009 those bases are still there and operational. A lot of American personnel live there: varying accounts say from 50000 to 100000 doing duty, and their families. Germany pays America about 1 billion dollars each year for base maintenance.

If you think Germans today are strongly patriotic and have invented new symbols, I encourage you to go to Berlin and try finding indications of that.

Comment author: thomblake 14 May 2009 02:37:39PM 10 points [-]

strongly patriotic and have invented new symbols

Being 'patriotic' (or nationalistic) is arguably what started the world wars. Germany definitely has a strong cultural identity and fortunately has stayed away from the horrors of nationalism. Places where people wave flags are scary.

Comment author: cousin_it 14 May 2009 02:56:14PM *  5 points [-]

This might sound blasphemous here, but nationalism doesn't seem to me singularly harmful compared to other belief systems like religions or global ideologies. For example, the Cold War was a conflict between two explicitly internationalist visions of the world and resulted in tens of wars around the globe. If you want to find the root of humanity's woes, dig deeper.

Comment author: JGWeissman 14 May 2009 05:53:20PM 5 points [-]

I think that nationalism, religion, and global ideology are different aspects of the same problem, that they create an in group and an out group which can have conflicts.

And these aspects feed on each other. The Cold War era global ideology that is referred to as "democracy" seems to really be a sort of reversed communism (for example, the Russian government suppressed religion, so the American government violates its founding democratic principals to promote religion) that gained enthusiasm from American nationalism.

Similarly, in the so called "War on Terror", the conflict is portrayed as between Christianity and Islam, to feed the nationalism of those who believe "America is a Christian nation".

Comment author: PhilGoetz 14 May 2009 09:55:39PM 4 points [-]

Similarly, in the so called "War on Terror", the conflict is portrayed as between Christianity and Islam, to feed the nationalism of those who believe "America is a Christian nation".

So, if I interviewed people in the middle east, they wouldn't see it as a conflict between Christianity and Islam?

Comment author: JGWeissman 14 May 2009 11:12:56PM 1 point [-]

Honestly, I don't know. I have a better handle on what politicians and pundits say, and how people react, in America than in the Middle East. Given how many Americans believe that Iraq was involved in destroying the World Trade Center, we have a problem. People are actually thinking "Our enemies are Muslims, therefore Muslims are our enemies."

Comment author: askelon 01 November 2012 02:51:14PM 0 points [-]

No, if you went to the Middle East they would not see it as a conflict between Christianity and Islam. They see it as a conflict between America and terrorist groups.

Comment author: fortyeridania 01 November 2012 03:46:16PM 1 point [-]

Evidence, please.

Comment author: askelon 20 November 2012 03:30:53PM -1 points [-]

How about personal experience?

Comment author: thomblake 20 November 2012 04:26:46PM 4 points [-]

"Personal experience" is not particularly informative. Most people think they have a much better handle on what most people think than they actually do. I know this from personal experience.

Comment author: conchis 14 May 2009 03:24:33PM 3 points [-]

Places where people wave flags are scary.

As a counterexample, Danes seem to enjoy flag-waving quite a lot, but are IMHO pretty unscary.

I agree with your general point though.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 14 May 2009 09:44:56PM 8 points [-]

You've obviously never watched a flotilla of longboats approach your shore.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 14 May 2009 10:01:49PM 2 points [-]

Nor looked up the etymology of the word "danegeld".

Comment author: army1987 07 February 2014 07:37:01AM 0 points [-]

They do, but other than that when I was there I didn't get the impression that “Danish” is as much of an applause light there as, say, “Irish” is in Ireland, “American” is in the US, or “Argentine” is in Argentina.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 14 May 2009 01:14:11PM 2 points [-]

But they have kept a strong cultural identity, and within a generation became one of the richest nations on the planet.

Comment author: cousin_it 14 May 2009 02:36:15PM *  0 points [-]

Yes.

Comment author: Kisil 14 May 2009 04:40:27AM 5 points [-]

An excellent parable! The argument against the Nazism meme is quite well laid out, though Colonel Frank comes off a bit like a straw man.

Unfortunately, I think this argument misses the main difficulty the General faces. It's easy to see that it would be better to replace the movement with something more sound. But policy makers cannot simply decide whether to preserve the Nazism meme. Actually changing dominant cultural ideas is a tremendously difficult problem, especially when the belief framework includes a sense of persecution. You cannot simply make it disappear by banning swastikas and slapping pro-democracy slogans on public transit vehicles.

The demise of the Nazi ideology may hold important lessons about effecting cultural change. There is still tremendous guilt about the Nazi movement in the German psyche - they even avoid the word, preferring the abbreviation NS. What happened to cause such a rapid and thorough reversal? Was it simply the revelation of the massive atrocities? I don't know, but I don't think this cause is by itself sufficient. Clearly many factors influenced the fall of Fascism; I would be curious to see this reversal studied in depth.

On a related note, all discussions of religion are now over, and we have lost. Does it make it better that Yvain knew it going in?

Comment author: MBlume 14 May 2009 06:21:36AM *  5 points [-]

Actually changing dominant cultural ideas is a tremendously difficult problem, especially when the belief framework includes a sense of persecution.

Agreed.

On a related note, all discussions of religion are now over, and we have lost. Does it make it better that Yvain knew it going in?

All discussions where? Who are 'we'? What did Yvain know, precisely?

This last remark could be somewhat clearer...

Comment author: whpearson 14 May 2009 10:41:32AM 8 points [-]

He is referring to the link to Godwin's Law in the post. From the wiki.

For example, there is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically "lost" whatever debate was in progress.

Comment author: MBlume 14 May 2009 10:57:41AM 2 points [-]

Thank you! That makes so much more sense =)

Comment author: CronoDAS 14 May 2009 09:33:04PM 1 point [-]

Actually changing dominant cultural ideas is a tremendously difficult problem, especially when the belief framework includes a sense of persecution.

Seconded.

Religions are notoriously difficult to eradicate by force. Considering all that's happened, it's rather amazing that Judaism managed to survive. Similarly, neither the Roman Empire nor the Soviet Communists were successful at eliminating the influence of Christianity.

Comment author: Bugmaster 30 November 2011 08:22:36AM 6 points [-]

On the other hand, Christianity was quite successful at eliminating some competing religions, by utilizing the direct approach: physically eliminating all of their adherents.

Comment author: CronoDAS 30 November 2011 09:29:33AM 0 points [-]

The usual defense against that kind of thing is to pretend to convert while practicing your religion in secret. But yes, that does work if you know who to kill.

Comment author: Bugmaster 30 November 2011 10:07:06AM 1 point [-]

The problem is that many, if not most, religions impose two very strongly valued goals on their followers: 1). in-group and out-group separation, and 2). evangelism. These goals conflict directly with this new goal of 3). staying hidden so that you don't get burned at the stake. Many religions also devalue the follower's life on this Material Plane, which drives the utility of (3) even further down. As the result, heretics don't get the chance to survive in secret nearly as often as one might think.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 November 2011 11:08:02AM 3 points [-]

The problem is that many, if not most, religions impose two very strongly valued goals on their followers: 1). in-group and out-group separation, and 2). evangelism.

At least the religions that still exist do. Fancy that!

Comment author: Bugmaster 01 December 2011 02:06:20AM 0 points [-]

I would argue that the majority of religions that no longer exist also fit this pattern, however.

Comment author: Strange7 18 December 2011 06:05:50AM 0 points [-]

There are religions which don't virulently evangelize, you just don't hear about them as much. It's like the difference between kudzu and orchids.

Comment author: Prismattic 18 December 2011 07:47:26AM 2 points [-]

Actually, you hear about some of them all the time. Notably Judaism and Hinduism. Or perhaps more accurately, they online evangelize internally (and then only Lubavitchers and Hindu nationalists, respectively)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 30 November 2011 07:49:04AM 1 point [-]

On the other hand, a number of polytheistic religions were pretty much eliminated by monotheistic religions.

I assume that any religion that's more than a few centuries old is a very resilient set of memes (so are some younger religions, of course, but it's harder to predict with them) and isn't going away any time soon, unless, of course, there's a singularity or something extraordinary in the way of new religious ideas comes along.

Comment author: mwengler 12 March 2013 02:44:24PM 0 points [-]

Once we have artificial intelligence, can artificial deity be far behind? Indeed a fooming AI will have many of the amazing aspects typically attributed to a god.

Comment author: CronoDAS 30 November 2011 08:35:35AM 0 points [-]

On the other hand, a number of polytheistic religions were pretty much eliminated by monotheistic religions.

Indeed; when that same Roman Empire became officially Christian, they eventually did end "paganism" within its borders, although it took them a long time to get serious about it.

Comment author: cleonid 14 May 2009 08:20:13PM 7 points [-]

To promote rational rather than emotional discussion, one should avoid argumentum ad Hitlerum. The general point seems to be unrelated to Nazism, so I propose rewriting the post using a more neutral background story. Something like

“You are General Grant. It is 1865. Colonel Y proposes to outlaw Democratic Party for its support of slavery...”

Comment author: ciphergoth 14 May 2009 09:11:40PM 8 points [-]

I would normally agree, but I don't see a good solution in this instance.
The example must be relatively uncontentious which I don't think this one is, and the symbols and such have got to be well known, which isn't true of Pol Pot. I do appreciate the problem you're talking about, but sadly I can't see a good substitute.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 14 May 2009 09:52:07PM 1 point [-]

But do we actually have an emotional discussion now? I hope the community is sufficiently immune to the standard mind-killers.

Comment author: Annoyance 15 May 2009 12:51:18AM 1 point [-]

We demonstrate our vulnerability every time someone stresses rationality without actually meaning rationality.

Any discussion in which the points are not made explicitly is an emotional one, because logic and reason are not being engaged.

Comment author: smijer 15 July 2012 02:33:24AM 4 points [-]

Oh - this is a veiled critique of conciliatory attitudes toward religion? I though it was a direct critique of conciliatory attitudes toward political ideologies - and I was going to disagree with it. I think I detect a dark side to lumping all political ideologies together under the category of "poltitical ideology" and ignoring the specific reasons why political ideologies can become harmful or anti-rational.

Now that I see that this was a veiled critique of religion (or a specific religious grouping?) I think my reservations still stand.

What would it look like if we neglected the fundamental differences between religions - or even between sects of a "single" religion, such as Christianity? How would that distort our view of sects that never adopted doctrines like Biblical inerrancy and instead focused on an altruistic message embedded in an ancient narrative? Would we make the simplistic assumption that these sects viewed the Bible in the same way as the more reactionary sects except that certain passages were to be taken as "metaphorical"?

Would we have any hope of coping constructively with the bewildering array of beliefs, epistemologies, ethics, meta-ethics, values, emotional responses and activities that can loosely be regarded as "religious"?

Worse yet, would we fail to notice the mechanisms by which some religious (or political ideologies) become especially prone to bad belief and bad behavior? Will we believe that something magical about the name "church" or the activity of counting a rosary has some sort of harmful essence of itself? Will we be unable to constructively suggest to people who find value in religion that they are better served to divorce religion from dubious orthodoxies and to reconsider any rules they may be following which limit the freedom to inquire critically?

Comment author: hamnox 29 October 2013 05:30:19AM *  0 points [-]

I read your post multiple times, and yet I almost missed the point.

Lumping is dangerous, yes. In the case of this parable, I think (though I might be wrong) that you noticed it was dangerous to lump everything related to Nazis together in one group. Blanket condemnation for supporting Nazism loses us the opportunity to examine what makes the difference between direct harm and harms that can be redirected. The lumping happens anyways, positive associations made by the typical human brains of the general populace, and this is the darkness seen by the original poster. That doesn't mean there aren't other dark corners to be seen.

It occurs to me that science has had some pretty dark patches in its past. Especially with experimentation. Probably going a few questionable directions in the current day too. The march of reason is not marched at a uniform pace, even with a pretty agreed upon creed of "the scientific method". I wonder, have we differentiated ourselves enough? Do we still carry the baggage of our forbearers?

Comment author: Bugmaster 30 November 2011 08:19:52AM 2 points [-]

So, General, what is your decision?

My decision is, do not mess with a Planeswalker unless you are, at the very minimum, a Planeswalker yourself, and probably not even then. Heh.

Anyway, Colonel Y's policies are far less harmful, but still suboptimal (assuming I understand him correctly). Suppressing ideas by force -- even harmful ideas -- never works out well in the wrong run. It is far better (though, admittedly, harder) to discredit them.

Comment author: orthonormal 14 May 2009 07:43:23PM *  8 points [-]

Shouldn't we, of all people, be most respectful of Godwin's Law, knowing as we do the dangers of affective analogy in human argument? I know you're trying to shock people out of their Cached Deep Thoughts, but that doesn't justify Dark Side Epistemology.

Generalized Godwin's Law: You should not score points simply by drawing analogies between the topic under consideration and a topic that everyone present feels morally obligated to applaud/boo when mentioned.

ETA: I understand that the point is a reductio ad absurdam of Frank's argument, but placing it in this context has a side effect of affective analogy which we ought to strongly avoid.

Comment author: Annoyance 15 May 2009 04:15:47PM 5 points [-]

I know you're trying to shock people out of their Cached Deep Thoughts, but that doesn't justify Dark Side Epistemology.

Can we avoid buzzwords, please, and try to discuss actual ideas?

Comment author: JulianMorrison 14 May 2009 01:25:12AM 5 points [-]

Original Naziism was very tied to a historical milieu. The conditions of Weimar Germany won't exactly recur. But by interpreting it as a suite of metaphors, it becomes somewhat immune to context, more able to bridge the centuries - while continually enticing its adherents to drag the world back to 1935, which is the era in which the metaphors make sense.

Comment author: apsec112 14 May 2009 12:03:51AM 8 points [-]

I realize that you're not very concerned with the details of the situation here and that this is a metaphor and whatnot, but I'm a stickler for factual accuracy.

"You are General Eisenhower. It is 1945. You have just triumphantly liberated Berlin. As the remaining leaders of the old regime are tried and executed,"

General Eisenhower did not liberate Berlin; it was liberated by the Russians per inter-Allied agreement, as it was east of the Elbe River and thus fell into the Soviet zone of occupation. The Nuremberg defendants were not executed until late 1946.

"Soon, "Nazi" comes to just be a synonym for "good person". If anyone's not a member of the Nazi Party, everyone immediately becomes suspicious."

Germany was already like this in 1940. The main exception was the military (hence the July 20 plot), although even they were expected to be loyal to a much higher degree than is common nowadays.

"Good Nazis love real, physical Jews! Some Jews even choose to join the Party, inspired by their principled stand against spiritual evil."

This would never, ever, ever actually happen. Germans were already anti-Semitic before Hitler, and had been subjected to more than a decade of relentless propaganda (Der Sturmer and the like). Needless to say, no Jew would ever associate themselves in any manner whatsoever with an organization that had just killed most of the Jewish population. Nazi symbols (the swastika and the like) are still illegal in Germany, sixty-five years later, largely for this reason.

"Today, in 1945, mixed race marriage is still considered taboo by most liberal societies, including the United States."

There was definitely stigma against it, but it was legal in many states (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-miscegenation_laws#Anti-miscegenation_laws_repealed_until_1887); many more states than gay marriage is legal in today, actually.

"even in that universe, Germans would keep a strong cultural identity and find new symbols of their patriotism."

Germans today seem to be generally antagonistic to overt nationalism largely because of their history (Germany didn't even have a national anthem until 1952, despite the obvious difficulties that caused).

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 14 May 2009 05:31:56AM 6 points [-]

Germany didn't even have a national anthem until 1952

Yet, when they finally got around to choosing an anthem, they went with one that had been banned as Nazi-tainted.

Comment author: Servant 07 October 2010 07:09:52PM 3 points [-]

"Germany should completely lose all the baggage of Nazism and replace it with a completely democratic society that has no causal linkage whatsoever to its bloody past."

General Y is advocating for an absolute bastardization of history as much as General F. You cannot deny the past, because the past shaped your country and what your country did. There is a difference between interpreting the "real" meaning of Nazism, and actually erasing Nazism from history, as General Y wants.

General Y also want to place all blame on the the Nazi regime, thereby excusing the rest of the German population for actually supporting the National Socialists to begin with! You aren't dealing with "militant nationalism" here at all. You're dealing with HUMAN BEINGS.

Finally, General F could argue that de-Nazification could get out of control, leading to the rise of left wing terrorist groups who argued you haven't done enough de-Nazification and the only way to remove the "Nazi taint" is to destroy capitalism entirely and surrender to the Soviet Union.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denazification#The_radical_left_in_Germany_during_the_1960s.E2.80.9370s_and_Nazi_allegations

Comment author: Multiheaded 18 December 2011 08:25:57AM *  0 points [-]

I do understand how extreme it must sound to the average LW reader, but I do support some of the Red Army Faction's rhetoric and actions, particularly the Schleyer assassination. The post-war West German society's acquiescence and its desire to forget the past while abandoning all sense of historical responsibility needed a good shock.

It's unfortunate that innocents were hurt, but I feel that the moral cleansing that the RAF declared as its goal was a just and necessary cause. The manipulative and sociopathic side of Baader and his group's backing by the East German regime are a somewhat different story.

Comment author: AndySimpson 16 May 2009 10:38:06AM 3 points [-]

Colonel F suggests the worst kind of compromise between the optimal and the real. Political actors must not overlook reality, as many of the great revolutionaries of history did, but neither should they bend their agendas to it, as Chamberlain, Kerensky, and so many tepid liberals and social democrats did. To do so is to surrender without even fighting. This is especially true for political actors with a true upper hand, like Eisenhower or MacArthur after World War II. They must control the conversation, they must push the Overton window away from competing ideologies and towards their own, because all advantages are tentative. There is no sense compromising with a broken enemy.

That said, it is clearly unwise to be overtly punitive after a victory because punishment suggests weakness on the part of the victor, it suggests an order that can only be maintained by retaliation and fear. This is why the Emperor remained on the throne in Japan and initiatives like the Morgenthau Plan were discarded. The Emperor was not the enemy, Germany was not the enemy: the ideologies of militant nationalism were the enemy.

To me, Colonel Y is obviously correct. I guess this is because I don't buy the analogy. Religion is emergent, pervasive, and broadly well-intentioned. Nobody ever defeated it in the field of battle, because it never waged open war against civilization. On the contrary, it has cemented itself as part of civilization. Nazism, however, was transient, antagonistic to civilization, and destructive. Even if it were rendered metaphorical, it would make more problems than it would ever solve. There was a German identity before the Nazis and, as we've seen, there is one afterward.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 14 May 2009 02:02:51PM 0 points [-]

I hope when you guys get done beating up on theism, you'll take on a real challenge and go up against the SWPL bloc. That religion is far more dangerous and far more powerful than poor old Judeo-Christianity, which isn't even able to order scientists around anymore. Maybe Eliezer can debate Nancy Hopkins?

Comment author: cousin_it 14 May 2009 03:22:54PM *  5 points [-]

I sympathize with your sentiment, but guess you'll have a hard time persuading LW/OB rationalists to act up against SWPL - great name for the phenomenon btw, I will use it from now on. First, such actions would greatly harm the stated goal of outreach to intelligent/educated demographics. Second, on sober thought SWPL per se hasn't yet caused as much hurt in the world as competing ideologies have (I'm not counting spiritual ancestors, this would be unfair). Third, a lot of us here are SWPL followers.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 14 May 2009 03:41:00PM 7 points [-]

Perhaps we could make some progress if we employed a divide and conquer strategy. The agendas of the SW and PL blocs are not entirely consonant. Generally speaking, the SW position is somewhat more amenable to the techniques of rationality discussed on this site. The PL worldview, however, is more deeply committed to dark side epistemology (though I imagine that that could be a controversial position even here).

Seriously, though, what is SWPL?

Comment author: Multiheaded 29 March 2012 07:38:06PM 0 points [-]

:D

This is some of the best short political satire I've ever read!

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 14 May 2009 09:59:39PM 2 points [-]

Second, on sober thought SWPL per se hasn't yet caused as much hurt in the world as competing ideologies have.

Agreed, the subculture in question seems fairly innocuous in itself. It needs infiltration and purging of dangerous aspects, not external opposition (fortunately, we seem to already have many inside agents).

Comment author: ciphergoth 14 May 2009 03:30:40PM 1 point [-]

You seem to have deciphered the initialism, what does it refer to?

Comment author: cousin_it 14 May 2009 04:39:31PM *  3 points [-]

Stuff White People Like - steven0461 got it right.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 14 May 2009 10:12:45PM 8 points [-]

That religion

Please taboo religion. If you want to argue that a certain cluster of beliefs commonly held by upper-middle-class white American liberals is systematically mistaken in ways analogous to religious beliefs, and that this has harmful consequences, do come out and say this explicitly, and maybe we could have a productive discussion about the actual issues at hand. But gratuitous misuse of the world religion to describe positions you dislike just functions as a semantic stopsign. Actual religions have things like deities, and prayers, and rituals.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 14 May 2009 10:56:52PM 3 points [-]

Wiki articles for Rationalist taboo and Semantic stopsign.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 14 May 2009 10:44:59PM 3 points [-]

Assuming a charitable interpretation, I think he was being somewhat tongue-in-cheek with the use of "religion" there.

Comment author: Annoyance 15 May 2009 04:26:56PM 2 points [-]

Actual religions have things like deities, and prayers, and rituals.

No, not necessarily. The usage you've criticized is perfectly compatible with the correct definition of the word. Please familiarize yourself with that definition before offering further criticism.

Taking a word and re-defining it into a 'semantic stopsign' doesn't help anything or anyone, except confusion and causes that can be aided by confusion.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 14 May 2009 09:42:10PM *  7 points [-]

Why has this been voted up 4 times without anybody explaining what he's talking about?

(Downvoted, for being hiply, intentionally obscure.)

The Wikipedia entry on Nancy Hopkins is a clue, but I still have no idea what SWPL stands for.

Comment author: Annoyance 15 May 2009 04:29:18PM 7 points [-]

Stuff White People Like.

It's a term often used by razib and people at the Gene Expression blog, derived from the satirical website of the same name, used to refer to the cultural and political choices favored by upper-middle-class-to-rich Caucasians, including political correctness and the modern connotations of 'liberalism'.

Comment author: Alicorn 14 May 2009 09:58:13PM 1 point [-]

It's been deciphered, although not confirmed by the original commenter.

Comment author: Alicorn 14 May 2009 03:11:43PM 2 points [-]

The top Google result for "SWPL" is the blog "Stuff White People Like". I'm pretty sure that they have nothing to do with Nancy Hopkins - what SWPL are you talking about?

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 14 May 2009 10:33:55PM -3 points [-]

There's no point in spending time addressing controversial questions that don't matter. I contend that the question of systematic variation in ability is one of these.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 16 May 2009 06:06:47AM 11 points [-]

If it really, truly didn't matter to us, then it wouldn't be a sensitive subject in the first place. When someone makes a wildly inaccurate estimate of the price of tea in China, no one gets outraged or asserts in boldface that the price of tea in China really doesn't matter.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 17 May 2009 03:15:13PM -2 points [-]

People care a lot about the private lives of celebrities, but that doesn't mean the private lives of celebrities matter. The reason people care about systematic racial differences (and systematic gender differences) is because they're concerned about whether they measure up, or they're wondering whether their group is doing better than some other group, or something frivolous like that. The solution to the problem is not to find the answer. Folks have already tried that, and there's no consensus. The solution is to get people to stop caring so much.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 17 May 2009 04:39:51PM 6 points [-]

In a reductionist universe, nothing can be said to matter except with respect to someone who cares about it. Why are you reading a frivolous site like this, when you could be catching up on the latest news about Brooke Shields's mother? Why are the people reading about Brooke Shields's mother doing that, when they could be sorting pebbles into correct heaps?

Comment author: cousin_it 15 May 2009 10:47:55AM *  11 points [-]

"Don't matter" sounds to me like a cop-out akin to religion's "retreat to faith". A lot of evidence for absence of systematic variation in ability gets noticed and promoted by SWPL followers, indicating the question's importance to the belief system.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 15 May 2009 01:34:02PM *  5 points [-]

It's more that it really doesn't matter. Noise from individual variation swamps group variation in almost every practical case, and other outward cues of ability (i.e., hard-to-fake signals) are more informative.

The main reasons to make a big deal out of group variation are, in order of how common they are:

  1. You're a member of some group that dislikes the SWPL bloc and need more "soldiers" for your side of the argument
  2. You have "prejudice against group X" on your bottom line and are filling in the blanks above
  3. You're the kind of person who operates under some sort of weird categorical imperative to announce the truth of all propositions, regardless of instrumental value

We have a lot of epistemic rationalists here in the third category, but in most cases if you talk about the reality of group variation people will assume you are one of the first two types, which probably isn't helpful for anyone.

Comment author: cousin_it 15 May 2009 01:57:43PM *  6 points [-]

To first paragraph: the variables "variation within group" and "difference of means between groups" should be regarded as belonging to different statistical data types, not yielding any significant insight when compared. For example, variation of physical strength among men is greater than the difference between mean strengths of men and women, but that doesn't imply the latter is insignificant. Same holds for many traits of many real-world ensembles, e.g. most behavioral differences within/between dog breeds.

To the rest: ad hominem and Bulverism fallacy. But if you really insist on knowing my reasons, I'm irritated by hearing popular falsehoods.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 15 May 2009 03:04:24PM *  2 points [-]

To first paragraph: the variables "variation within group" and "difference of means between groups" should be regarded as belonging to different statistical data types, not yielding any significant insight when compared. For example, variation of physical strength among men is greater than the difference between mean strengths of men and women, but this doesn't imply the latter is insignificant. Same holds for many traits of many real-world ensembles, e.g. most behavioral differences within/between dog breeds.

Well, yes, we all know this. But you miss the point--difference of means are almost never relevant. If I need someone to help me carry something, I need a strong person, and I'd do better looking at more useful cues ("does this person look fit and healthy?") rather than thinking about group means ("oh, I'll ignore this female athlete and get the scrawny nerd to help me").

This is why it "doesn't matter".

To the rest: ad hominem and Bulverism fallacy. But if you really insist on knowing my reasons, I'm irritated by hearing popular falsehoods.

In other words, you assign intrinsic value to truth independent of instrumental value, which is exactly what I said. This is fine! We like truth here. But, outside of LW, this can lead to people making uncharitable assumptions about your motivations, which is all I was saying.

Comment author: cousin_it 15 May 2009 03:21:02PM *  5 points [-]

When you have more relevant information you're better off using that. When you don't, e.g. when using a dating site, you're better off following justified stereotypes than ignoring them.

One particularly controversial such case is police stop-and-frisks. I read somewhere that NYC blacks get stop-and-frisked disproportionately more often than whites, but black criminals have a lower chance of getting stop-and-frisked than white criminals due to PC backlash. The different concepts of fairness seem hard to reconcile in low-information situations like that. Or take racial profiling in airports: if you call for using using more relevant information in that case, rather than less as the SWPL crowd desires, you'll need an Orwellian level of knowledge about the passengers which causes new morality problems.

Another example would be having to make decisions concerning large groups of people. Would you or wouldn't you allow unsupervised immigration from a certain country based on the average IQ there? What if it's 50? As you make your decision, keep in mind that people from this country will try harder to get into yours because they're worse off than other potential donor countries, so you might get a self-selection effect on your hands.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 15 May 2009 03:29:11PM *  6 points [-]

Yes, but such low-information situations are fairly rare.

One particularly controversial such case is police stop-and-frisks.

This is possibly a case where group means actually are relevant, yes, modulo a lot of assumptions about how people are selected for the stop-and-frisk.

Or take racial profiling in airports:

Again, not objectionable on the surface, However, given the stunningly ineffective nature of airport security (cf. Bruce Schneier and the "security theater" concept) I doubt this actually provides a benefit, for reasons wholly unrelated to race.

As an aside, in adversarial situations you need to be careful that weighted targetting based on superficial cues doesn't merely give the enemy information on how to disproportionately avoid scrutiny.

EDIT: Either I missed this part or you added it while I was replying, but:

Would you or wouldn't you allow unsupervised immigration from a certain country based on the average IQ there?

Assuming you want to filter applicants based on IQ, testing individuals seems vastly more helpful than assuming based on population mean, especially given that the demographics of applicants will not be the same as the total population. Also, if you admit all immigrants from any country you're likely to get a self-selected group of people who are less successful at home.

Comment author: Vaniver 18 December 2011 12:37:37AM *  9 points [-]

As an aside, in adversarial situations you need to be careful that weighted targetting based on superficial cues doesn't merely give the enemy information on how to disproportionately avoid scrutiny.

Typically, this works to your advantage. If you scrutinize middle eastern travelers more, terrorist groups might decide to recruit white hijackers. But where are they going to find them? Wherever you think they might look, you can have CIA undercover agents trying to be hired.

The primary strength conspiracies have is small, close-knit groups. Anything you can do to force them to become larger or more diverse can help.

Comment author: MixedNuts 18 December 2011 11:22:08AM 3 points [-]

This probably works for terrorist groups. And actually explains why they recruit so many children of diplomats. (This suggests the CIA should try to recruit agents among them more, but that's a problem if they're already terrorists.)

But for groups that can be a lot more diverse, here's a note to cops: If you see a group of high school students, most of whom are dark-skinned boys with long hairs and marijuana-related T-shirts, and one of whom is a prim-and-proper white girl with her nose constantly buried in a textbook, stop carding and searching the boys all the time. The girl has the weed, and thinks you're insulting their intelligence.

Comment author: cousin_it 15 May 2009 03:45:38PM 6 points [-]

Yes, your arguments sound pretty convincing. I'll have to reconsider my position on the frequent applicability of stereotypes.

Comment author: CaveJohnson 17 December 2011 11:44:41PM 3 points [-]

Assuming you want to filter applicants based on IQ, testing individuals seems vastly more helpful than assuming based on population mean, especially given that the demographics of applicants will not be the same as the total population.

The problem is you can't use IQ tests. You see IQ tests are clearly racist and insidiously so since culturally loaded sub-tests like vocabulary seem to actually show smaller ethnic differences.

No matter. We'll find out how the tests are racist some day!

Comment author: Prismattic 18 December 2011 07:54:40AM *  1 point [-]

Your mockery, at least as concerns standardized testing in general, is misplaced

A good item was not one that discriminated between ignorance and knowledge, but one that discriminated between good students and poor students. Therefore, if everybody selected the same distractor, good and poor students alike, the item was discarded, even if it was important stuff to know, even if it was right. And no matter how important, if the good students didn't get the right answer, the item was thrown out.

That is in reference to a firm that produces standardized tests deciding to abandon a particular question because inner city kids did better on it than suburban kids did.

Comment author: DSimon 18 December 2011 12:19:49AM 1 point [-]

I haven't heard about the sub-test discrepancies, that sounds interesting. Do you have a link?

Comment author: conchis 15 May 2009 03:49:14PM *  4 points [-]

You're the kind of person who operates under some sort of weird categorical imperative to announce the truth of all propositions, regardless of instrumental value

This can get kind of interesting if what is assumed to be true affects what is actually true.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 15 May 2009 04:16:08PM *  0 points [-]

Why was this voted down? It's a good point.

Comment author: CaveJohnson 17 December 2011 11:39:19PM 4 points [-]

Because many people are sceptical of stereotype threat.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 15 May 2009 02:48:27PM 5 points [-]

If all of science agreed that members of one race really were slighty smarter on average than members of another race, that could be extremely demoralizing for the people of the slightly-dumber race. See stereotype threat. This seems like a high price to pay to eliminate a popular falsehood--I imagine their are other falsehoods that would be easier to eliminate for a smaller price. And unlike religion, there's no long-term benefit associated with its removal.

Comment author: CaveJohnson 17 December 2011 11:29:20PM 7 points [-]

See stereotype threat.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Comment author: thomblake 15 May 2009 04:54:07PM 16 points [-]

It's mentioned below to some extent, but if you start with the assumption that there's no systematic variation between groups, then if you see a statistical difference in how groups are treated, that's evidence of a systematic bias. If it turns out that there is systematic variation between groups, the data can be explained without the bias. It's the difference between "Harvard is racist" and "Harvard accepts bright people regardless of race".

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 17 May 2009 03:19:25PM *  1 point [-]

Harvard has two responses to these claims: they can continue getting called racist, or they can unfairly admit minorities who don't deserve to get in. Both of these alternatives are preferable to telling a large group with normal human psychology that they are inferior.

Edit: I tend to think it's OK for Harvard to admit too many minorities because I think having the upper class be made up of people from a variety of backgrounds is valuable. But I could see how this could be a problem in other domains, such as cousin_it's mortgage example.

Comment author: Konkvistador 22 February 2011 12:19:13AM *  9 points [-]

You do realize the top universities (and especially the Ivy Leagues) systematically discriminate against Asian students right?

Its really hard to fight or talk about something like that if one can't just point out that East Asians have higher average IQs than say Europeans.

Comment author: cousin_it 15 May 2009 02:57:29PM *  3 points [-]

Science makes a lot of vastly more demoralizing conclusions like Darwinism or the possibility of nuclear weapons. If you really believe what you say you believe, you should focus on debunking those first.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 17 May 2009 03:12:33PM -3 points [-]

But Darwinism and the possibility of nuclear weapons are important to know about.

Let's say that there is systematic variation between races. What's the benefit of knowledge about this being disseminated? So colleges will stop giving preferential treatment to minorities? If that's the case, I think the costs outweigh the benefits.

Comment author: cousin_it 17 May 2009 04:32:26PM *  12 points [-]

What's the benefit of knowledge about this being disseminated?

For one, a lot of people would find their accurate reasoning no longer denounced as racist by others. Example: before the crisis SWPL popular opinion blamed bankers for discriminatory mortgage lending to blacks. Government went in and fixed this by fiat. Today the same crowd turns around and blames bankers for disproportionate foreclosures among blacks, not realizing the implicit admission that outlawed lending practices must've been fair.

In short, you didn't succeed in impressing upon me the costs of truth.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 17 May 2009 05:04:07PM *  3 points [-]

Yes, alright, I see how incorrect egalitarian views could be a problem in scenarios unrelated to college admissions.

Comment deleted 17 May 2009 05:18:24PM *  [-]
Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 17 May 2009 05:20:57PM 0 points [-]

Sorry, I edited my comment a bunch of times, and I'm unsure which version you're replying to.

In any case, if that's really your view, I'm not sure I like you very much.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 30 April 2013 06:48:45PM *  1 point [-]

But the outlawed lending practices weren't fair. My next door neighbor took forever to get a business loan even though he was an excellent risk. The new system was also broken, but the old one wasn't good.

Edited to Add: To be more specific, his white wife handled the application and it was all smooth sailing until he walked in to sign the bottom line, and then the offer was unceremoniously retracted with no explanation.

Incidentally, when these lending rules came into effect and he did get a loan, his business boomed and he paid it off without incident. So...

Comment author: gwern 30 April 2013 09:43:14PM 5 points [-]

"You say X on average, but a friend of mine did ~X, so you must be wrong!"

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 01 May 2013 01:48:54PM 1 point [-]

It was often enough that it got to be a nationally known problem that needed a solution, right? That the solution was terrible doesn't change that.

Comment author: hrishimittal 15 May 2009 03:13:52PM 5 points [-]

there's no long-term benefit associated with its removal.

The first step in solving a problem is to recognise it. If I discovered I have cancer I would be demoralised immensely but I'd prefer that and take a shot at recovering rather than die unknowingly.

Denial is not a path to improvement.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 16 May 2009 06:40:48AM 7 points [-]

Strongly seconded. I speak from experience: when evidence starts mounting for some horrible, nightmarish proposition that you're scared of, it is tempting to tell yourself that even if it were true, it wouldn't really matter, that there would be no benefit to acknowledging it, that you can just go on acting as you've always done, as if nothing's changed. But on your honor as an aspiring rationalist, you must face the pain directly. When you get a hint that this world is not what you thought it was, that you are not what you thought you were--look! And update!---no matter how much it hurts, no matter how much your heart may cry for the memory of the world you thought this was. Do it selfishly, in the name of the world you thought you knew: because once you have updated, once you see this hellish wasteland for what it really is, then you can start to try to patch what few things up that you can.

Suppose you really don't like gender roles, and you're quietly worried about something you read about evolutionary psychology. Brushing it all under the rug won't help. Investigate, learn all you can, and then do something. Maybe something drastic, maybe something trivial, but something. Experiment with hormones! Donate a twenty to GenderPAC! Use your initials in your byline! But something, anything other than defaulting to ignorance and letting things take their natural course.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 17 May 2009 03:31:13PM 0 points [-]

As soon as you start talking about your "honor as an aspiring rationalist", you're moving from the realm of rationality to ideology.

Like I said, I don't think this question matters and I'm mostly indifferent to what the answer actually is. I'm just trying to protect the people who do care.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 18 May 2009 02:07:00AM 14 points [-]

As soon as you start talking about your "honor as an aspiring rationalist", you're moving from the realm of rationality to ideology.

Well, sure, but the ideological stance is "You should care about rationality." I should think that that's one of the most general and least objectionable ideologies there is.

Like I said, I don't think this question matters and I'm mostly indifferent to what the answer actually is. I'm just trying to protect the people who do care.

But I do care, and I no longer want to be protected from the actual answer. When I say that I speak from experience, it's really true. There's a reason that this issue has me banging out dramatic, gushy, italics-laden paragraphs on the terrible but necessary and righteous burden of relinquishing your cherished beliefs---unlike in the case of, say, theism, in which I'm more inclined to just say, "Yeah, so there's no God; get over it"--although I should probably be more sympathetic.

So, why does it matter? Why can't we just treat the issue with benign neglect, think of ourselves as strictly as individuals, and treat other people strictly as individuals? It is such a beautiful ideal--that my works and words should be taken to reflect only on myself alone, and that the words and works of other people born to a similar form should not be taken to reflect on me. It's a beautiful ideal, and it seems like it should be possible to swear our loyalty to the general spirit of this ideal, while still recognizing that---

In this world, it's not that simple. In a state of incomplete information (and it is not all clear to me what it would even mean to have complete information), you have to make probabilistic inferences based on what evidence you do have, and to the extent that there are systematic patterns of cognitive sex and race differences, people are going to update their opinions of others based on sex and race. You can profess that you're not interested in these questions, that you don't know---but just the same, when you see someone acting against type, you're probably going to notice this as unusual, even if you don't explicitly mention it to yourself.

There are those who argue--as I used to argue--that this business about incomplete information, while technically true, is irrelevant for practical purposes, that it's easy to acquire specific about an individual, which screens off any prior information based on sex and race. And of course it's true, and a good point, and an important point to bear in mind, especially for someone who comes to this issue with antiegalitarian biases, rather than the egalitarian biases that I did. But for someone with initial egalitarian biases, it's important not to use it---as I think I used to use it---as some kind of point scored for the individualist/egalitarian side. Complex empirical questions do not have sides. And to the extent that this is not an empirical issue; to the extent that it's about morality---then there are no points to score.

It gets worse---you don't even have anywhere near complete information about yourself. People form egregiously false beliefs about themselves all the time. If you're not ridiculously careful, it's easy to spend your entire life believing that you have an immortal soul, or free will, or that the fate of the light cone depends solely on you and your genius AI project. So information about human nature in general can be useful even on a personal level: it can give you information about yourself that you would never have gotten from mere introspection and naive observation. I know from my readings that if I'm male, I'm more likely to have a heart attack and less likely to get breast cancer than would be the case if I were female, whereas this would not at all be obvious if I didn't read. Why should this be true of physiology, but not psychology? If it turns out that women and men have different brain designs, and I don't have particularly strong evidence that I'm a extreme genetic or developmental anomaly, then I should update my beliefs about myself based on this information, even if it isn't at all obvious from the inside, and even though the fact may offend me and make me want to cry. For someone with a lot of scientific literacy but not as much rationality skill, the inside view is seductive. It's tempting to cry out, "Sure, maybe ordinary men are such-and-this, and normal women are such-and-that, but not me; I'm different, I'm special, I'm an exception; I'm a gloriously androgynous creature of pure information!" But if you actually want to achieve your ideal (like becoming a gloriously androgynous creature of pure information), rather than just having a human's delusion of it, you need to form accurate beliefs about just how far this world is from the ideal, because only true knowledge can help you actively shape reality.

It could very well be that information about human differences could have all sorts of terrible effects if widely or selectively disseminated. Who knows what the masses will do? I must confess that I am often tempted to say that I have no interest in such political questions--that I don't know, that it doesn't matter to me. This attitude probably is not satisfactory for the same sorts of reasons I've listed above. (How does the line go? "You might not care about politics, but politics cares about you"?) But for now, on a collective or political or institutional level, I really don't know: maybe ignorance is bliss. But for the individual aspiring rationalist, the correct course of action is unambiguous: it's better to know, than to not know, it's better to make decisions explicitly and with reason, then to let your subconscious decide for you and for things to take their natural course.

Comment author: steven0461 18 May 2009 09:22:06AM *  15 points [-]

that it's easy to acquire specific about an individual, which screens off any prior information based on sex and race

I think people may be overapplying the concept of "screening off", though?

If for example RACE -> INTELLIGENCE -> TEST SCORE, then knowing someone's test score does not screen off race for the purpose of predicting intelligence (unless I'm very confused). Knowing test score should still make knowing race less useful, but not because of screening off.

On the other hand, if for example GENDER -> PERSONALITY TRAITS -> RATIONALIST TENDENCIES, then knowing someone's personality traits does screen off gender for the purpose of predicting rationalist tendencies.

Comment author: conchis 18 May 2009 10:42:47AM *  5 points [-]

I agree with the overall thrust of this, but I do have some specific reservations:

It's tempting to cry out, "Sure, maybe ordinary men are such-and-this, and normal women are such-and-that, but not me; I'm different, I'm special, I'm an exception.

The temptation is real, and it's a temptation we should be wary of. But it's also important to realize that the more variation there is within the groups, the more reasonable it may be to suppose that we are special (of course, we should still have some evidence for this, but the point is that the more within-group variation there is, the weaker that evidence needs to be). It's difficult to know what to do with information about average differences between groups unless one also knows something about within-group variation.

But for the individual aspiring rationalist, the correct course of action is unambiguous: it's better to know, than to not know, it's better to make decisions explicitly and with reason, then to let your subconscious decide for you and for things to take their natural course.

Again, I'm very sympathetic to this view, but I think you're overselling the case. If (correctly) believing your group performs poorly causes you to perform worse then there's a tradeoff between that and the benefits of accurate knowledge. Maybe accurate knowledge is still best, all things considered, but that's not obvious to me.

Beyond the context of this specific debate, the theory of the second-best shows that incremental movements in the direction of perfect rationality will not always improve decision-making. And there's a lot of evidence that "subconscious" decision-making outperforms more explicit reasoning in some situations. Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide, and pretty much all of Gerd Gigerenzer's books make this argument (in addition to the more anecdotal account in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink). I tend to think they oversell the case for intuition somewhat, but it's still pretty clear that blanket claims about the superiority of more information and conscious deliberation are false. The really important question is how we can best make use of the strengths of different decision-strategies.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 18 May 2009 03:22:30AM 1 point [-]

One day, I started looking at the people around me, and I began to realize how much they looked like apes. I quickly stopped doing this, because I feared it would cause me to treat them with contempt. And you know what? Doublethink worked. I didn't start treating people with more contempt as a result of purposely avoiding certain knowledge that I knew would cause me to treat people with more contempt.

If you think that my efforts to suppress observations relating the appearance of humans with the appearance of apes were poorly founded, then you have a very instrumentally irrational tendency towards epistemic rationality.

Comment author: CronoDAS 30 November 2011 08:47:34AM 9 points [-]

Maybe the lesson to draw is that you don't respect apes enough?

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 18 May 2009 03:52:08AM 6 points [-]

[...] then you have a very instrumentally irrational tendency towards epistemic rationality.

Guilty as charged! I don't want to win by means of doublethink---it sounds like the sort of thing an ape would do. A gloriously androgynous creature of pure information wins cleanly or not at all. (I think I'm joking somewhat, but my probability distribution on to what extent is very wide.)

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 30 November 2011 09:15:29AM *  5 points [-]

Wouldn't your efforts be better directed at clearing up whatever confusion leads you to react with contempt to the similarity to apes?

I can maybe see myself selling out epistemic rationality for an instrumental advantage in some extreme circumstance, but I find abhorrent the idea of selling it so cheaply. It seems to me a rationalist should value their ability to see reality higher, not give it up at the first sign of inconvenience.

Even on instrumental grounds. Just like theoretical mathematics tends to end up having initially unforeseen practical application, giving up on epistemic rationality carries potential of unforeseen instrumental disadvantage.

Comment author: Multiheaded 29 March 2012 08:08:11PM *  1 point [-]

If it turns out that women and men have different brain designs, and I don't have particularly strong evidence that I'm a extreme genetic or developmental anomaly, then I should update my beliefs about myself based on this information, even if it isn't at all obvious from the inside, and even though the fact may offend me and make me want to cry.

Might be just mind projection on my part, but it seems to me that in those accursed cases, where various aspects of an "egalitarian" way of thought - that includes both values, moral intuitions, ethical rules, actual beliefs about the world and beliefs about one's beliefs - all get conflated, and the entire (silly for an AI but identity-forming for lots of current humans) system perceives some statement of fact as a challenge to its entire existence... well, the LW crowd at least would pride themselves on not being personally offended.

If tomorrow it was revealed with high certainty that us Slavs are genetically predisposed against some habits that happen to be crucial for civilized living and running a state nicely, I'd most definitely try to take it in stride. But when something like this stuff is said, I tend to feel sick and uncertain; I don't see a purely consequentialist way out which would leave me ethically unscathed.

Ah, if only it was so easy as identifying the objective state of the world, than trying to act in accordance with (what you've settled on as) your terminal values.* But this would require both more rationality and more compartmentalization than I've seen in humans so far.

  • "You come to amidst the wreckage of your own making. Do you stay there, eyes squeezed shut, afraid to move, hoping to bleed to death? Or do you crawl out, help your loved ones, make sure the fire doesn’t spread, try to fix it?" - Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
Comment author: conchis 17 May 2009 03:48:43PM *  0 points [-]

Denial is not a path to improvement.

I agree that denial usually seems like a bad idea, but the problem with things like stereotype threat is that they suggest (and more importantly provide evidence) that sometimes it might actually be useful (a path to improvement, even if not necessarily the first-best path).

The trick, presumably, is to distinguish the situations when this will hold from those when it doesn't.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 17 May 2009 03:21:42PM -1 points [-]

Yes, but there is a long-term benefit associated with the removal of your cancer. On the other hand, if you had a blemish on your shoulder, you'd be better off not noticing it.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 15 May 2009 05:20:58AM 0 points [-]

That's Frank's position, right?

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 15 May 2009 02:31:36PM 0 points [-]

Not sure; I have not watched the bloggingheads debate.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 15 May 2009 02:57:56PM 2 points [-]

Me, neither. I'm just guessing based on, say, this post.

What I meant is that is that religion is a controversial question that doesn't matter, either. As Daniel Burfoot said, religion has been banished to a separate magisterium in which it barely gets to talk about the world, while political correctness is largely focused on talking about the world. This says nothing about the absolute importance of dealing with either.

Elsewhere on the thread, you say that the costs outweigh the benefits, which is a very different claim than saying it doesn't matter. If the costs and benefits are small, then everyone should agree it doesn't matter, but if the costs and benefits are large, you should expect disagreement over whether it's worth it.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 17 May 2009 03:27:59PM 2 points [-]

I personally don't believe it matters, but my cost-benefits analysis panders to those who do. And I disagree that religion doesn't matter. Sam Harris' argument:

I am terrified of what seems to me to be a bottleneck that civilization is passing through. On the one hand we have 21st-century disruptive technology proliferating, and on the other we have first-century superstition. A civilization is going to either pass through this bottleneck more or less intact or it won't. And perhaps that fear sounds grandiose, but civilizations end. On any number of occasions, some generation has witnessed the ruination of everything they and their ancestors had built. What especially terrifies me about religious thinking is the expectation on the part of many that civilization is bound to end based on prophecy and its ending is going to be glorious.

Comment author: ciphergoth 14 May 2009 03:15:12PM 1 point [-]

This comment is the only hit on SWPL "Nancy Hopkins" - please expand the acronym. I'm guessing it doesn't refer to "Stuff White People Like".

Comment author: steven0461 14 May 2009 04:27:51PM 6 points [-]

It does refer to "Stuff White People Like", which is a perceived cluster of beliefs and behaviors that includes political correctness, hence Nancy Hopkins.

Comment author: MrHen 14 May 2009 02:48:05PM 0 points [-]

Interesting. Part way through this switches to a narrower focus but the general concept applies to obsolete philosophy or discarded theories or anything else that has essentially been "overruled" by later works. One could even make the case that Newtonian physics is an obsolete ideology.

Philosophy in particular has great deal of old stuff that sticks around because it was first, even though large parts of it are now irrelevant. While it makes an interesting historical study, it now borders on bad philosophy. I have no specific examples to share, however, this is just an impression.

Comment author: JGWeissman 14 May 2009 06:59:38PM 12 points [-]

One could even make the case that Newtonian physics is an obsolete ideology.

Newtonian physics successfully makes precise predictions that approximate reality much closer than the precision of human perception for a large domain of problems that includes most of human experience, with far less computational cost than the more exact theories, and the more exact theories explain why the approximations are so good. While it is important to remember it is an approximation if you are going to investigate phenomena outside the domain that it works, the approximation is useful.

Conversely, religious morality is perceptibly wrong except in very narrow domains, and more complicated than secular morality.

Comment author: MrHen 14 May 2009 07:13:53PM 0 points [-]

Agreed. I am not making the case against Newtonian physics, but I can see how someone would start.

Also, is it just me, or are my examples just causing more confusion? If I switched to the word "illustration" would it be easier? I keep using small examples to help convey a point but people jump on a problem with the example and completely ignore the point.

Something is amiss but I cannot see what it is.

Comment author: JGWeissman 14 May 2009 07:50:16PM 2 points [-]

I am not making the case against Newtonian physics, but I can see how someone would start.

I did not mean to imply that you were. I meant to demonstrate that this concept of obsolete ideology can discriminate between old theories that are just wrong and old theories that are still useful. The best way I know to show that Newtonian physics could be defended against the charge of being an obsolete ideology is to actually defend it against the charge.

Perhaps I could have been clearer about my central point, that the concept of obsolete ideology is not a fully general counter argument against any use of old theories that are inconsistent with newer theories.

Comment author: MrHen 14 May 2009 09:02:45PM 0 points [-]

I did not mean to imply that you were. I meant to demonstrate that this concept of obsolete ideology can discriminate between old theories that are just wrong and old theories that are still useful.

Ah, okay. I think that the distinction you make is very good point.

[T]he concept of obsolete ideology is not a fully general counter argument against any use of old theories that are inconsistent with newer theories.

This in particular is good to keep in mind. "Old" does not mean "bad" and even if something comes along and supersedes an older ideology, the older ideology can have its uses. Approximation is the current example. Are there any others?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 14 May 2009 09:32:57PM 8 points [-]

There is some old stuff that sticks around because, even though it turned out to be wrong, it was worth a try; and if you didn't keep it (and its critique) around, people would just keep re-inventing it. Platonic realism, Aristotelian necessary-and-sufficient definitions of categories, Marxism, and attempts to make quantum mechanics Newtonian are examples.

Comment author: thomblake 14 May 2009 02:52:49PM *  1 point [-]

I have no specific examples to share, however, this is just an impression.

In my experience, this is a common position to be in. I've heard a lot of blanket statements about the problems with academic philosophy, without much evidence to back it up.

Actual philosophers tend to be either good philosophers who know the good old stuff from the bad old stuff, or bad philosophers who write utter nonsense. Someone who actually cares shouldn't have too much of a problem telling one from the other, even though they're both acceptable in the academy. Compare Dennett and Derrida.

Comment author: mattnewport 14 May 2009 06:25:39PM 13 points [-]

Academic philosophy differs from science in that it seems to place much higher value on the personalities and the original works relative to the ideas. When I studied physics at university we didn't learn physics from the original works or papers of the pioneering scientists. Newton is rightly recognized for his huge contribution to physics but no physics course will use the Principia to teach mechanics. The core ideas have been refined and are now presented in ways that are easier for students to grasp, without extraneous or incorrect extra detail present in the original works or problems of language.

When I studied philosophy at university however, great import was placed on reading the original texts from great philosophers. In many cases reading these works I was struck by the amount of confused and wrong ideas and the lack of clarity of presentation - Descartes is a prime example. It seemed to me at the time that if philosophy was the pursuit of truth in any sense then it would be better served by a model of instruction more like science: where the key ideas are presented in a refined and clarified modern text. My experience of academic philosophy was that it couldn't quite decide if it wanted to be science or literary criticism.

Comment author: Annoyance 15 May 2009 04:22:08PM 4 points [-]

It seemed to me at the time that if philosophy was the pursuit of truth in any sense then it would be better served by a model of instruction more like science

The fact that philosophy hasn't adopted such a model strongly suggests that it's not concerned with truth.

There are people who can do good philosophy - contrary to thomblake's assertion, I've found that they're virtually never people called 'philosophers'. They're usually scientists.

Comment author: thomblake 15 May 2009 05:11:15PM 4 points [-]

As a data point, it should be noted that in the past 3 or so discussions of this problem, I've used Dan Dennett as my sole example of a good contemporary philosopher that anyone's heard of. If I'm going to keep talking about this, I really should find at least one or two more.

Comment author: Annoyance 15 May 2009 04:31:25PM -1 points [-]

I would be fascinated to know why the above comment garnered two downvotes so quickly.

Comment author: thomblake 15 May 2009 04:37:52PM 3 points [-]

My guess would be that people aren't aware of the discourse you've been involved in regarding "philosophy" vs "academic philosophy". As stated, it seems like you're expressing something contradictory. Compare:

"philosophy...[is] not concerned with truth"
"people who can do good philosophy...[are] usually scientists"

You seem to be equivocating. In the first sense, I think you mean "academic philosophy" (the institution), while in the second, you mean... well, philosophy (love of wisdom / pursuit of truith).

Though I'd be surprised if anyone actually thought it through that clearly before downvoting.

Comment author: MrHen 15 May 2009 05:55:42PM 1 point [-]

My downvote was because I consider this sentence to be noise and inflammatory:

The fact that philosophy hasn't adopted such a model strongly suggests that it's not concerned with truth.

... And this sentence is anecdotal and coming from what I judge to be a biased position:

There are people who can do good philosophy - contrary to thomblake's assertion, I've found that they're virtually never people called 'philosophers'. They're usually scientists.

I downvoted but did not comment because any direct response in the lines of argument seem likely to delve into semantics on the definitions of philosopher, philosophy, scientist, and science. Also, on a more personal note, I have yet to get any meaningful value from a conversation with you. For whatever reason, my fault or yours, it is not worth my time.

Comment author: Annoyance 16 May 2009 02:02:55AM 1 point [-]

My downvote was because I consider this sentence to be noise and inflammatory:

'Inflammatory' I could understand, although I submit that simple truth assertions ought not to be evaluated by looking at their social acceptability.

But calling it noise is just silly.

For whatever reason, my fault or yours, it is not worth my time.

Then stop replying to me, please. And voting on my posts as well.

Comment author: PhilosophyTutor 18 December 2011 10:11:37AM 1 point [-]

There's an element of truth to this critique, and I have felt for a long time that what is usually taught as "Introduction to Philosophy" should be taught as "Introduction to the History of Philosophy".

However it's also totally off-base in that philosophy, when it's not being a total waste of time, is the examination of problems which are important but which can't be solved by science alone. As such philosophical conclusions aren't "true" and there is no "truth" to pursue or teach.

There are competing views with no truth value, like deontological and utilitarian ethics, but neither is "true" or "false" and it's a category error to try to put them into those boxes.

Done well it's neither science nor literary criticism, but rather the search for mental constructs which are useful or internally consistent.

Comment author: MrHen 14 May 2009 06:11:12PM 5 points [-]

In my experience, this is a common position to be in. I've heard a lot of blanket statements about the problems with academic philosophy, without much evidence to back it up.

Agreed; I made the disclaimer with the intent that this comment was meant to filed under "Hmm, interesting" not "Arguments against Philosophy". I was not specifically targeting academic philosophy but old philosophy. Quick potential examples from the top of my head:

  • Descartes' suggestions about the purpose of the pineal gland
  • The various Greek philosophers who tried to reduce all matter into combinations of Fire/Air/Water/Earth
  • Early psychology?

Anyone reading Descartes and translating "pineal gland" into something other than "pineal gland" so they can continue claiming Descartes was right is another example of the parable above. Translating "Fire/Air/Water/Earth" into "Plasma/Gas/Liquid/Solid" is doing the same thing. The Greeks were not saying "Plasma/Gas/Liquid/Solid". They were saying "Fire/Air/Water/Earth".

Actual philosophers tend to be either good philosophers who know the good old stuff from the bad old stuff, or bad philosophers who write utter nonsense. Someone who actually cares shouldn't have too much of a problem telling one from the other, even though they're both acceptable in the academy. Compare Dennett and Derrida.

Agreed. I focused on Philosophy because I have enough experience to think of potential examples. The reason I did not put them in the first comment is because I am not in a position to defend my examples and did not consider them particularly relevant to the point. Also, my experience with "bad" Philosophers is that they seem to attach Truth to specific People and then try to turn anything said by those People into Truth using method like those in the parable. Most of these bad Philosophers were encountered during the few classes I took to get a Philosophy minor. I assume that most of these people are weeded out by the time they get to upper-level classes and beyond.

So, anyway, to wrap it up, I agree with you completely. I extended my points to try bringing a little more clarification to my original comment not to argue against your comment.

Comment author: jscn 14 May 2009 08:29:16PM 0 points [-]

Most of these bad Philosophers were encountered during the few classes I took to get a Philosophy minor.

Initially I thought you were talking about professional Philosophers, not students. This clears that up, but it would be better to refer to them as Philosophy students. Most people wouldn't call Science undergrads "Scientists".

My experience with Philosophy has been the opposite. Almost all the original writing we've read has been focused on how and why the original authors were wrong, and how modern theories address their errors. Admittedly, I've tailored my study to contain more History and Philosophy of Science than is usual, but I've found the same to be true of the standard Philosophy classes I've taken.

In summary, it probably varies from school to school and I don't think it's entirely fair to tar the whole field of Philosophy with the same brush.

Comment author: Annoyance 15 May 2009 04:18:29PM 0 points [-]

One could even make the case that Newtonian physics is an obsolete ideology.

That would be a difficult case to make. At most, you might be able to argue that it was founded on certain assumptions that were later recognized as not being necessarily true.

Comment author: jacoblyles 18 July 2012 08:04:55AM *  0 points [-]

Certain self-consistent metaphysics and epistemologies lead you to belief in God. And a lot of human emotions do too. If you eliminated all the religions in the world, you would soon have new religions with 1) smart people accepting some form of philosophy that leads them to theism 2) lots of less smart people forming into mutually supporting congregations. Hopefully you get all the "religion of love" stuff from Christianity (historically a rarity) and the congregations produce public goods and charity.

Comment author: Tasky 18 July 2012 02:27:27AM 0 points [-]

thank you for this great article.

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