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When None Dare Urge Restraint

37 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 December 2007 11:09PM

Followup toUncritical Supercriticality

One morning, I got out of bed, turned on my computer, and my Netscape email client automatically downloaded that day's news pane.  On that particular day, the news was that two hijacked planes had been flown into the World Trade Center.

These were my first three thoughts, in order:

I guess I really am living in the Future.
Thank goodness it wasn't nuclear.

    and then
The overreaction to this will be ten times worse than the original event.

A mere factor of "ten times worse" turned out to be a vast understatement.  Even I didn't guess how badly things would go.  That's the challenge of pessimism; it's really hard to aim low enough that you're pleasantly surprised around as often and as much as you're unpleasantly surprised.

Nonetheless, I did realize immediately that everyone everywhere would be saying how awful, how terrible this event was; and that no one would dare to be the voice of restraint, of proportionate response.  Initially, on 9/11, it was thought that six thousand people had died.  Any politician who'd said "6000 deaths is 1/8 the annual US casualties from automobile accidents," would have been asked to resign the same hour.

No, 9/11 wasn't a good day.  But if everyone gets brownie points for emphasizing how much it hurts, and no one dares urge restraint in how hard to hit back, then the reaction will be greater than the appropriate level, whatever the appropriate level may be.

This is the even darker mirror of the happy death spiral—the spiral of hate.  Anyone who attacks the Enemy is a patriot; and whoever tries to dissect even a single negative claim about the Enemy is a traitor.  But just as the vast majority of all complex statements are untrue, the vast majority of negative things you can say about anyone, even the worst person in the world, are untrue.

I think the best illustration was "the suicide hijackers were cowards".  Some common sense, please?  It takes a little courage to voluntarily fly your plane into a building.  Of all their sins, cowardice was not on the list.  But I guess anything bad you say about a terrorist, no matter how silly, must be true.  Would I get even more brownie points if I accused al Qaeda of having assassinated John F. Kennedy?  Maybe if I accused them of being Stalinists?  Really, cowardice?

Yes, it matters that the 9/11 hijackers weren't cowards.  Not just for understanding the enemy's realistic psychology.  There is simply too much damage done by spirals of hate.  It is just too dangerous for there to be any target in the world, whether it be the Jews or Adolf Hitler, about whom saying negative things trumps saying accurate things.

When the defense force contains thousands of aircraft and hundreds of thousands of heavily armed soldiers, one ought to consider that the immune system itself is capable of wreaking more damage than 19 guys and four nonmilitary airplanes.  The US spent billions of dollars and thousands of soldiers' lives shooting off its own foot more effectively than any terrorist group could dream.

If the USA had completely ignored the 9/11 attack—just shrugged and rebuilt the building—it would have been better than the real course of history.  But that wasn't a political option.  Even if anyone privately guessed that the immune response would be more damaging than the disease, American politicians had no career-preserving choice but to walk straight into al Qaeda's trap.  Whoever argues for a greater response is a patriot.  Whoever dissects a patriotic claim is a traitor.

Initially, there were smarter responses to 9/11 than I had guessed.  I saw a Congressperson—I forget who—say in front of the cameras, "We have forgotten that the first purpose of government is not the economy, it is not health care, it is defending the country from attack."  That widened my eyes, that a politician could say something that wasn't an applause light.  The emotional shock must have been very great for a Congressperson to say something that... real.

But within two days, the genuine shock faded, and concern-for-image regained total control of the political discourse.  Then the spiral of escalation took over completely.  Once restraint becomes unspeakable, no matter where the discourse starts out, the level of fury and folly can only rise with time.

Addendum:  Welcome redditors!  You may also enjoy A Fable of Science and Politics and Policy Debates Should Not Appear One-Sided.

 

Part of the Death Spirals and the Cult Attractor subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Every Cause Wants To Be A Cult"

Previous post: "Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs"

Comments (118)

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Comment author: Doug_S. 08 December 2007 11:26:50PM 2 points [-]

I would like to give praise to express my agreement with the spirit of this post.

(Attacking Afghanistan made sense... but much of the rest of what was done, militarily and otherwise, was sheer overreaction.)

Comment author: TGGP4 08 December 2007 11:52:42PM 2 points [-]

I would argue that that our reaction to 9/11 was not a uniquely bad use of the military, but that most of our wars were mistaken (as were most domestic reactions like locking up dissenters in WW1 or Japanese in WW2). It saddens me that otherwise intelligent people see restraint as indications of being a crackpot.

Comment author: denis_bider 08 December 2007 11:53:17PM -1 points [-]

Despite your post being entirely correct, if for a moment we ignore the welfare of humanity and consider the welfare of the United States alone, there is a good chance that this irrational overreaction will be remembered, and that it will serve as deterrence to any aspiring attackers for a hundred years to come.

Sometimes irrational wrath pays, especially if you can inflict pain much more effectively than you need to endure it.

The cost to humanity is probably dominated by some 1,000,000 deaths in Iraq, but the cost to the U.S. at least in terms of deaths is comparatively smaller. The Iraq deaths are an externality.

Comment author: taryneast 18 February 2011 10:32:50AM 18 points [-]

As a non-US citizen, I can state that the irrational over-reaction was exactly the response that the terrorists were aiming for. Lots of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - lots of panic and mindless reaction... it has also greatly debilitated the effectiveness (and no doubt the profitability) of the entire world's air-transport system, without actually enhancing security thereby.

There is no deterrent here

IMO this would not in any way discourage future attackers - but encourage them.

Comment author: wedrifid 18 February 2011 11:33:51AM 16 points [-]

As a non-US citizen, I can state that the irrational over-reaction was exactly the response that the terrorists were aiming for.

I concur. Terrorists. Want terror. Got terror.

Comment author: christopherj 07 December 2013 08:38:29PM 4 points [-]

I remember when I heard "They hate us for our freedom" I immediately thought, "Don't worry, soon we'll have much less of those". Turns out they still hate us, probably for bombing their country and replacing their democracy with dictatorships in the name of democracy.

Comment author: Dojan 17 October 2011 02:12:49AM *  2 points [-]

If Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not have that effect...

As a non-US citizen, I estimate that the net effect for the US is quite negative, even internally as you put it, for the reason of other people and nations seeing the US in a negative light. Most of US commerce is international after all.

Also I don't see how the viewpoint of ignoring-the-humanitarian-and-welfare-cost-of-everyone-not-in-the-US is in any way an interesting one; Either people suffer and die, or they don't, their physical location and country of birth don't really change anything.

[Edit: Spelling]

Comment author: JoshuaZ 17 October 2011 03:29:10AM *  17 points [-]

Despite your post being entirely correct, if for a moment we ignore the welfare of humanity and consider the welfare of the United States alone, there is a good chance that this irrational overreaction will be remembered, and that it will serve as deterrence to any aspiring attackers for a hundred years to come.

On the contrary, this now teaches someone that if they want to do damage to the United States they can easily get it to engage in an autoimmune disorder along with a few oversea adventures.

Moreover, this isn't the only example. Look at how one of the most successful post 9/11 attacks terrorist in the last few years was by many metrics Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. In terms of lost time and productivity in responding to his unimpressive attempt, literally millions of people every day need to take off their shoes, run them through already busy x-ray machines, and then put them back on.

Comment author: christopherj 07 December 2013 08:46:53PM 2 points [-]

there is a good chance that this irrational overreaction will be remembered, and that it will serve as deterrence to any aspiring attackers for a hundred years to come.

All that means is that any terrorist who can do a memorable attack on the US and leave a trail leading to his target country, can effectively command the US to attack that country. And if it was the US they wanted to harm, they earn themselves countless recruits from that country.

Comment author: Nastunya 08 December 2007 11:56:11PM 1 point [-]

An unrelated but creepy thought: my first reaction to type in some sort of full-fledged assent was immediately dampened by a queasy post-Patriot-Act thought (of, admittedly, a very IT-illiterate person), "If I openly write something like this, will They know and will They care and will I ever come to regret it?" Or maybe it's not such an unrelated thought -- the not always irrational fear of Big Brother did, after all, turn out to be a significant part of the more-than-ten-times-worse assessment of things to come.

Comment author: g 09 December 2007 12:04:17AM 3 points [-]

denis bider, the people who perpetrated the 2001-09-11 attacks died, and knew they were going to die, so others like them won't be deterred by the likelihood that the USA will go after them personally. It doesn't seem like the US's overreaction to those attacks has been all that effective in harming al Qaeda (I mean, bin Laden is still alive so far as anyone knows). It doesn't seem like it's been all that effective in making people who might have been sympathetic to groups like al Qaeda less so.

So I'm wondering how you expect the overreaction to deter other people who might be considering similar attacks.

Comment author: RobinHanson 09 December 2007 12:04:46AM 8 points [-]

In the weeks after 9/11, my colleague Roger Congleton, who had some expertize on terrorism, did a number of radio and other interviews where he argued that 9/11 was a unlucky aberration, and warned against overreacting. It wasn't a message people wanted to hear then, and his being right early wins him nothing in today's media game.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 09 December 2007 12:19:11AM 0 points [-]

You're right, and the thing that depresses me is that we can see this and yet at least I have barely any notion of what to do about it. Actually... (Well, actually, the relevent thought belongs on the Open Thread, so I'll go there...)

Comment author: saifedean 09 December 2007 12:38:10AM 3 points [-]

g,

Or, one could do what noted Law scholar and hero of secular humanists Alan Dershowitz calls for, which is destroy the families, homes and towns of the attackers. He has explicitly argued that Israel should destroy the entire town of every Palestinian attacker.

The fact that Dershowitz can say something so obviously hateful and still be considered a sane member of society is another manifestation of the spiral of hate that has gripped this nation.

Comment author: TGGP4 09 December 2007 01:14:02AM 3 points [-]

It doesn't seem like the US's overreaction to those attacks has been all that effective in harming al Qaeda I disagree, if we count the invasion of Afghanistan in there. It seemed to have quite effectively smashed al Qaeda proper so that they could not pull off any attacks since (remember that they attacked the U.S.S Cole, two embassies in Africa and bombed the WTC in the years before) with the remaining terrorists who call themselves "al Qaeda" franchises being quite buffoonish.

Comment author: Daniel_Humphries 09 December 2007 01:39:16AM 1 point [-]

rukidding wrote: now you're claiming brainwashed (if not drug-induced) suicide of defenseless and unsuspecting people isn't the height of cowardice. Is there a reason you can't work on your OWN biases?

I agree with you on two points, ru, (1) that the overall thrust of this post by Eliezer is strong, and (2) that cowardice is a fair and accurate descriptor of the hijackers.

I understand Eliezer's point about the folly of tossing every kitchen-sink insult at the Enemy even when it's inaccurate. I think he just chose a bad example. The definition of cowardice doesn't seem very nuanced at all. A willingness to commit suicide does not necessarily entail bravery, and certainly not to the degree that the very idea of calling a suicide cowardly is laughable, as Eliezer implies.

However, this seems to come from a lack of nuance or accuracy in defining that word, not from some overlooked bias of Eliezer's. And the "Native American Genocide Day" thread derailer was misplaced humor (IMO). I fail to see some systematic political bias that you imply.

Also: it seems to me that there are a number of rather vocal people on this board that speak for some pretty conservative philosophical and economic positions. I have no problem with this. I share and understand your frustration with kneejerk liberal bias. But I think you might be burning straw men here. For a blog with an open comments policy, the level of discourse here is remarkably high. Are you sure this isn't leftover rage from some other board?

And to everyone, please: I would highly recommend that... you add a refusal to fall victim to anti-Bush propaganda. Certainly sound advice. But you are mistaken if you think "everyone" who posts to Overcoming Bias needs such an elementary reminder.

Comment author: Nominull2 09 December 2007 02:03:57AM 11 points [-]

Well, I wouldn't have the balls to hijack an airplane and crash it into a building. If they're cowards, what does that make me?

Comment author: AndyCossyleon 04 November 2010 06:27:49PM *  -3 points [-]

A soward. yah, lame. >.>

Comment author: Caledonian2 09 December 2007 02:12:21AM 3 points [-]

America has one of the largest and best-equipped armed forces in the world. Only an idiot would attempt to confront it directly and according to the "rules of war".

Reality check: when openly declaring war and restraining one's tactics will inevitably lead to defeat, breaking the conventions is not only canny but necessary. There is simply no branch of the contingency tree where playing by the rules leads to a benefit in such a scenario.

Comment author: James_D._Miller 09 December 2007 02:13:10AM 2 points [-]

I think that militarily President Bush under-reacted to 9/11. The U.S. faces a tremendous future threat of being attacked by weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, before 9/11 it was politically difficult for the President to preemptively use the military to reduce such threats. 9/11 gave President Bush more political freedom and he did use it to some extent. But I fear he has not done enough. I would have preferred, for example, that the U.S., Russia, China, UK, Israel and perhaps France announced that in one year they will declare war an any other nation that either has weapons of mass destruction or doesn't allow highly intrusive inspections to make sure they don't have weapons of mass destruction. After 9/11 Bush might have been able to negotiate this. Now it is probably too late.

Comment author: J_Thomas 09 December 2007 02:17:02AM 0 points [-]

"I'd say they were cowards. Suicide isn't an act of bravery."

R U Kidding, I agree in this particular case.

If they had lived, we would have caught them and slowly tortured them to death. They were taking the easy way out by dying. Similarly with palestinian suicide bombers. By dying they avoid the treatment they'd get as prisoners of the israelis -- they get off easy.

"I still remember a kid who hit me from behind on the street once, because he was too much of a pussy to come up to my face about it."

He was expressing his feelings. Did he tell you he was too scared to face you? You might have misunderstood his intentions. At any rate, modern war often involves a surprise attack. When your intention is that the other guy wind up dead and you wind up alive, why give him any advantages? Neither the USAF nor the israeli air force typically announce their airstrikes ahead of time.

If the kid you remember had intended to kill you, it would make perfect sense for him to attack you from behind and kill you as quickly as he could, rather than give you anything like an even chance to kill him instead. But he bravely left you alive to respond however you chose to. If he had killed you properly you wouldn't have found out who did it before you died. You owe your life to his courage.

"But to those who can't comprehend the possibility that the so-called overreaction might have saved lives, consider that Al Quaeda was escalating attacks until it got the desired response: war. And what, pray tell, do you think the next level of escalation would be, that would one-up the thousands killed on 9/11? Nuclear terrorism, maybe. Biological terrorism."

AQ had a number of guys trained as infantrymen, and about 10% as many trained for espionage. We rolled up their spies and saboteurs real fast. We maybe got a bunch of innocent arab-americans at the same time, but we got most of the ones we were looking for.

When we invaded afghanistan we got a lot of the infantry guys too. They could possibly have been a threat to saudi arabia -- trained dedicated infantry fighting saudis and mercenaries might have done a lot of damage -- so that's maybe a plus. There's no particular reason to think AQ could have "escalated" after our police and counterintelligence guys hit them. The army thing was more for US public relations than anything else -- the public wanted a war so the US government gave them one. We gave AQ what they wanted, against most strategic sense, because they persuaded the US public to want what AQ wanted, and Bush also saw the chance to gain US public approval.

I think. I can't be entirely sure what Bush was thinking. I assume he was rationally looking at his own advantage, but he may not have been thinking at all.

"You're letting your hatred of Bush prejudice your interpretation of events."

Well, no. My disgust at Bush came *from* the events. Not so much the other way round.

Comment author: Desrtopa 01 May 2011 05:51:10PM 8 points [-]

I know this comment is very old, but I'm a bit incredulous at this.

If they had lived, we would have caught them and slowly tortured them to death.

If they had lived, they would have been among the highest profile prisoners America has ever seen. Torture is officially illegal in the United States, and whatever we get up to out of sight and off our turf, the government doesn't like to show the public how we torment our hated enemies.

Timothy McVeigh got a lethal injection, one of the most painless methods of execution which we can contrive. This was, controversially, allowed to be witnessed on broadcast by those closest to the victims of his attack. Perhaps one might argue that torturing the bombers to death for preventative or retributive reasons would have been a good idea, but it's simply not realistic that we would have done it.

Comment author: Brandon_Reinhart 09 December 2007 02:34:40AM 2 points [-]

Some very vehement responses.

If you believe invading Afghanistan was a correct choice then I'm not sure how you could say Iraq was a complete mistake. The invasion of Afghanistan was aimed at eliminating a state that offered aid and support to an enemy who would use that aid and support to project power to the US and harm her citizens or the citizens of other western states. Denying that aid and support would hope to achieve the purpose of reducing or eliminating the ability of the enemy to project power.

Any other state that might offer aid and support to the enemy would enable the enemy to rebuild their ability to project power. Iraq was one possible source of aid and support. Any Sunni state with sufficient reason to wish harm upon the west, with the desire to support organizations that might bring about that harm, and with the ability to provide aid and support to that end was (or is) a threat.

al Qaeda is now largely holed up in regions that do not offer much by way of aid and support, at least for now. al Qaeda may still be able to project limited power, but its ability to strike at the US in such a coordinated way has been significantly hampered.

The harms of 9/11 cannot be measured by the harms of the event alone. The economic damage and the lives lost are only a small part of a complete justification for a vigorous response. If we merely rebuilt the towers and moved on, we would have done nothing to deny an enemy the power to strike again. We would have done nothing to deny the enemy their ability to develop their offensive capacity. Without our interference and no change in the demeanor of the enemy, a second attack would likely have been larger and more damaging, as the enemy would have continued to develop offensive capacity and support while we stood aside.

Additionally, toppling two governments sends a strong message to other states that might harbor the enemy that they will be pursued and punished. Although it did not serve Russia or China politically to openly support US actions in the Middle East, it seems likely that both states had reason to desire an outcome in which the extremist groups were heavily disrupted. Of course, their ideal outcome would also involve a significant loss of prestige, financial power, and influence by the US as well.

If you allow an enemy to batter your gates, you could sleep easily knowing that you built your gates to be strong and withstand such assaults. Eventually, however, your enemy will learn the weaknesses of your gates and batter them down or circumvent them. You would have failed: not in the construction of your defenses, but by failing to hunt down your enemy and deny them the opportunity of future assaults.

It is just as unfortunate for the strategists that hatred and emotional fervor clouded the discussion of response. No right minded military commander wishes to unnecessarily expend resources on a purposeless campaign. While it may be that a clearly reasoned discussion on response would not have led to as extensive a result, I believe that leaving the gates to attack those harboring the enemy would have been considered strategically sound.

Comment author: J_Thomas 09 December 2007 03:00:44AM 0 points [-]

"I would have preferred, for example, that the U.S., Russia, China, UK, Israel and perhaps France announced that in one year they will declare war an any other nation that either has weapons of mass destruction or doesn't allow highly intrusive inspections to make sure they don't have weapons of mass destruction."

James D. Miller, I think your idea has possibilities. However, it would be very hard for it to succeed with israel on the list of nations that has nukes but denies them to others. Israel would have to be one of the nations that would be destroyed if it keeps nuclear weapons or refuses highly intrusive inspections.

What about india? Shouldn't they be on the list? We don't want war with india, they haven't threatened anybody except, well, pakistan.

And what about pakistan? If we let india keep nukes it would be hard to invade pakistan over their nukes. Should pakistan be one of the nations of the alliance that will destroy anybody else who has nukes?

Now it looks like a hard problem. No, your idea does not look workable. Allow russia to have nukes but not china? No. Allow china to have nukes but not india? Hardly. Allow india to have nukes but not pakistan? Tempting, but no. Allow pakistan to have nukes but not israel? It would be a good idea but it won't fly. Allow israel to have nukes but not syria? A pleasant thought but not practical. Allow israel and arab nations both to have nukes? Not practical either.

There's a logic here that hasn't played out yet. It goes:

1. You don't need nukes unless you have enemies. 2. If you get nukes, after awhile your enemies will too, and you can't stop this. 3. If you and your enemies have nukes then you will be worse off than if neither you nor your enemies have nukes.

Therefore:

4. Don't get nukes.

The world as a whole hasn't recognised this logic yet because there haven't been any graphic examples. Probably after the second nuclear war, when the world sees what happens to the "winner", people will have a much clearer idea about it. But two nuclear wars will be hard on the world. Ideally these wars would involve small countries so they can be small nuclear wars.

So most of us will be better off if lebanon gets nukes. Then a nuclear war between lebanon and israel could be one of the smallest possible nuclear wars.

The next obvious choice is a war between libya and chad.

After 2 nuclear wars the world as a whole will be much more ready for disarmament then they are now, with nuclear war a threat that has not materialised for 62 years.

Ir'a much much easier to stop people from doing something they didn't want to do in the first place, than stop them from something they think can keep you from dominating them.

Comment author: Technologos 21 December 2009 12:33:53PM 1 point [-]

The 4-step logic you talk about may be difficult to implement--you describe a Prisoner's Dilemma, but suggest playing Cooperate. Empirically, this can be tough to maintain.

Comment author: Dojan 17 October 2011 02:46:23AM 0 points [-]

The way to not blow one self up seems to be to not equip oneself with the ability to in the first place.

Freely after Ian M Banks

Comment author: J_Thomas 09 December 2007 03:10:42AM 2 points [-]

"If you believe invading Afghanistan was a correct choice then I'm not sure how you could say Iraq was a complete mistake. The invasion of Afghanistan was aimed at eliminating a state that offered aid and support to an enemy who would use that aid and support to project power to the US and harm her citizens or the citizens of other western states. Denying that aid and support would hope to achieve the purpose of reducing or eliminating the ability of the enemy to project power.

"Any other state that might offer aid and support to the enemy would enable the enemy to rebuild their ability to project power. Iraq was one possible source of aid and support."

Brandon, your reasoning is compelling. However, it has a subtle flaw that I think will be easier to see when I rephrase the argument as follow:

We will be safer after we conquer every potential enemy.

The claim is obviously true, and yet....

Comment author: Caledonian2 09 December 2007 03:45:59AM 1 point [-]

Any other state that might offer aid and support to the enemy would enable the enemy to rebuild their ability to project power.

By that 'reasoning', invading Switzerland would have been a proper response to the 9/11 attacks.

Comment author: burger_flipper2 09 December 2007 04:03:58AM -1 points [-]

I've always used motorcycle fatalites as the yardstick to put it in perspective; 9-11 came up just short.

I suspected we might be in trouble when they floated the story that Bush didn't return to Washington because of a credible threat to Air Force One, a threat in which, the supposed terrorists were more concerned with establishing credibility than carrying out their attach and thus used some sort of code word that only someone with inside knowledge would have.

It was perfectly reasonable for Bush to put a half dozen states between himself and the most likely nuclear target (no one knew what might happen). But they were worried it looked bad, un-leaderlike, cowardly, when it was quite pragmatic. The fact they were willing to lie instead of telling even moderately tough truths did not bode well.

Consider all the loco 9/11 theories. There is one that almost doesn't sound loco. What if it had been necessary to shoot down a passenger jet to save some unknown target, but afterwards it was discovered that some on board had been mounting an assault on the cabin, and had called loved ones as well?

Comment author: Brandon_Reinhart 09 December 2007 04:15:21AM 0 points [-]

"We will be safer after we conquer every potential enemy."

There are limits on our physical and moral capacity for making war. My post was simply pointing out that failing to respond to someone who actually attacks you can have increasingly dangerous results over time. That enemy leeches at your resources and learns how to become better at attacking you, while you gain nothing. There are plenty of potential enemies out there who aren't attacking us and may never attack us. They aren't gaining actual experience at attacking us. Their knowledge is only academic. As long as they don't attack us and we don't attack them, we may find our mutual interests transforming us into allies.

So while we could launch a crusade against the world, it doesn't seem to make sense if it has no chance of succeeding and would likely cost us everything we value. At the same time, though, we have to defend ourselves from the potential of an attack and plan for potential responses. Once one of those enemies actively attacks us, we have to defend ourselves (obviously) and then respond by counter-attacking, if capable, to discourage future attacks.

Arguing that responding, violently, to an attack is not an argument for pre-emptively attacking all potential enemies. There are many lines in the sand: resource limitations, economic limitations, moral limitations, etc.

You do hit on the core question: when is it right to preemptively attack another state? Also: what do we mean by 'right'? Strategically correct? Morally acceptable? It seems to me that popular wars will be morally acceptable wars and those will be wars of defense and wars against aggressors. Wars of aggression against non-aggressors would rarely be popular, except in cases of "revanchism" or by non-liberal states that control their population through nationalism. You would expect liberal states to generally not pursue wars of aggression.

If we follow that we cast a bit of light on why the "spreading democracy" meme has been popular among some. "Democracy" as a system has been conflated with classical liberalism. The idea being: conquer non-liberal states and institute democracies. The world then becomes safer, because liberal states prefer to resolve differences in ways that aren't physically violent. The flaw being that simply creating a democracy doesn't guarantee that the values of classical liberalism will be ... ah ... valued.

So yeah. I don't support knocking down the walls of potential enemies "just because."

Comment author: burger_flipper3 09 December 2007 04:31:54AM 0 points [-]

And maybe suicide can be viewed as cowardly, but not many people are capable of slitting someone's throat with a boxcutter. See a MR blog (and the linked book chapter): http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2007/11/violence-a-micr.html

The one point where I think Eli goes off the rails is assuming the response would be completely disproportionate. I agree with those who've said that the Afghanistan campaign was just about right (from the perspective of the government). Unfortunately, this even happened when the New American Century crowd was in power, and it gave them the opportunity to fulfill an agenda they'd had in place well beforehand.

But then the bundle of biases I tote around in my bandana-on-a-stick wouldn't come up with "Never ever never for ever." Sometimes the symbolic will be answered with the tangible. Were the electorate and those they give power clinical and intelligent enough to put a building and a hamlet-sized loss in perspective, they likely would not have had to ever worry about one/

Comment author: Brandon_Reinhart 09 December 2007 04:35:28AM 2 points [-]

Comparing the lives lost in 9/11 to motorcycle accidents is a kind of moral calculus that fails to respect the deeper human values involved. I would expect people who die on motorcycles to generally understand the risks. They are making a choice to risk their lives in an activity. Their deaths are tragic, but not as tragic. The people who died in the WTC did not make a choice to risk their lives, unless you consider going to work in a high rise in America to be a risky choice. If you're doing moral calculus, you need to multiply in a factor for "not by known/accepted risk" to the deaths in the attack.

Tragedy of Death: (by Known / Accepted Risk) < (by Unknown Risk) < (by Aggressor Who Offers No Choice)

My last post, though, since The More I Post, The More I'm Probably Wrong.

Comment author: TGGP4 09 December 2007 05:00:56AM 1 point [-]

rukidding: And one of the possible ramifications of the Iraq invasion is an end to the escalation of terrorist actions. How does the causality work there?

childish and hateful number I have never read any of those two adjectives precede that noun.

how does anyone here know that there wouldn't have been more deaths if Saddam had remained in power? Look at a graph of deaths under Saddam, assume any current trends continue. It's not certain, but it's a reasonable guess.

Why is the board so determined to think that being anti-bias should only mean being anti conservative bias? All the while so easily duped by liberal bias? I don't think you've been reading this blog very long, it's often accused of right-wing bias. I don't think you can establish that what's been said demonstrates bias either.

To which, I know--let me save you all the trouble of a response Sounds like you don't even care what others actually believe because you'd rather have a strawman caricature to argue with.

James D. Miller: I think that militarily President Bush under-reacted to 9/11. What do you mean "militarily"? The rest of your post makes it sound like the failure was diplomatic, unless you wanted to threaten other nuclear countries to assist us in holding the line.

The U.S. faces a tremendous future threat of being attacked by weapons of mass destruction. What probability do you give for this happening within the next decade? Next two decades?

Unfortunately, before 9/11 it was politically difficult for the President to preemptively use the military to reduce such threats. I remember Clinton bombing Iraq because they weren't cooperating enough with inspections and everyone said it was a ploy to make him more popular since Congress was trying to impeach him. I agree that it got easier after 9/11 though.

J Thomas: If they had lived, we would have caught them and slowly tortured them to death. We didn't torture Khalid Sheik Mohammed to death. We tortured him, sure, but not to death.

By dying they avoid the treatment they'd get as prisoners of the israelis -- they get off easy. Terrorists in Israeli prisons are still allowed to have kids that they instruct their relatives to raise into terrorism. Doesn't sound too strict (or bright) to me.

Brandon Reinhardt: If you believe invading Afghanistan was a correct choice then I'm not sure how you could say Iraq was a complete mistake. It's very simple: IRAQ DID NOT ATTACK US

Any other state that might offer aid and support to the enemy would enable the enemy to rebuild their ability to project power. What's with that word "might"? So there has to be a probability of 0.0000000? If we don't have absolute proof a country isn't doing so we should invade them? And why haven't we invaded Saudi Arabia and Egypt?

Iraq was one possible source of aid and support. Except it wasn't.

Any Sunni state with sufficient reason to wish harm upon the west, with the desire to support organizations that might bring about that harm, and with the ability to provide aid and support to that end was (or is) a threat. Saddam had already gotten a bloody nose from the U.S once, he knew better than to try that again. His support for terrorism was limited to destabilizing his neighbors (Kurdistan Worker's Party in Turkey, Mujahedin al Khalk in Iran).

al Qaeda may still be able to project limited power, but its ability to strike at the US in such a coordinated way has been significantly hampered. That's because of the invasion of Afghanistan, not Iraq.

The harms of 9/11 cannot be measured by the harms of the event alone. I suppose then you agree with Eliezer, the main harms were in the overreaction.

If we merely rebuilt the towers and moved on, we would have done nothing to deny an enemy the power to strike again. I would have suggested restricting immigration as a much more sensible way to go about it, but Bush prevented a bill with that purpose from passing.

Additionally, toppling two governments sends a strong message to other states that might harbor the enemy that they will be pursued and punished. We punished a state, Iraq, that had NOTHING TO DO WITH ATTACKING US. Was Saudi Arabia or Egypt punished, since the 9/11 hijackers came from there? Was Pakistan punished for selling nuclear technology to other countries, or North Korea punished for making nukes? No.

it seems likely that both states had reason to desire an outcome in which the extremist groups were heavily disrupted. Invading Iraq did not accomplish that, it caused chaos and disruption for people who just wanted to continue with their lives.

You would have failed: not in the construction of your defenses, but by failing to hunt down your enemy and deny them the opportunity of future assaults. Solution: open the gates and invade countries that have NOTHING TO DO WITH ATTACKING US.

J Thomas: Allow israel to have nukes but not syria? Seems like Israel is implementing that plan itself.

If you and your enemies have nukes then you will be worse off than if neither you nor your enemies have nukes. No, you're both better off because you won't get invaded. Iraq: no nukes and got invaded. North Korea: nukes and not invaded. Now you're Iran, what do you think is the smart move?

The next obvious choice is a war between libya and chad. Are they angry at each other now? I know in Trevor Dupuy's "Future Wars" Libya was supposed to attack Egypt, but I forget if Chad was involved.

burger flipper: What if it had been necessary to shoot down a passenger jet to save some unknown target, but afterwards it was discovered that some on board had been mounting an assault on the cabin, and had called loved ones as well? Flight 93 still crashed, so then it would have just been a waste of a missile and nothing more.

Brandon Reinhardt: My post was simply pointing out that failing to respond to someone who actually attacks you can have increasingly dangerous results over time. We responded by invading Afghanistan. Iraq, let me repeat myself, HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH ATTACKING US.

when is it right to preemptively attack another state? When they are actually about to attack you, like in the Six Day War. Iraq was not about to attack us.

Wars of aggression against non-aggressors would rarely be popular The Iraq war was just that and popular for far too long.

Robin, Elizer or other moderators: if you are unhappy with how the thread has developed, make a note of it and I will move the discussion to my blog unless others would like to have it at their blogs.

Comment author: Leif 09 December 2007 05:13:11AM 0 points [-]

Well its more or less an empirical question isn't it? On the one hand maybe 9/11 was a fluke - in that case the best option would be to just rebuild and carry on, like Eliezer says. But maybe it wasn't - maybe the people behind it were/are both willing and capable to successfully launch more attacks. In that case it seems to make sense to wager, or at least consider wagering, some amount of lives to prevent greater losses in the future. It all depends on the information available: what are the resources/intents of your enemy? Would it be at all possible to eliminate them, and is the cost of such a possibility less than the cost of (reasonably predictable) future attacks? Skimming through blogs and newssites you can get hundreds of different answers to these questions - the problem is that theres no metric available with which they can be evaluated.

And heres the real kicker. Imagine you had perfect knowledge of 'terrorist' activities, and could formulate a prediction of how many future casualties would be sustained if these organizations were to be left alone. Pretend you come up with a figure of, say, roughly 10,000 dead over the next 20 years. Furthermore, you know (with omniscient precision) that you can eliminate the threat at the cost of a minimum 20,000 foreign lives (with minimal losses to your own side in the process). Such a scenario seems to reveal an insurmountable problem with running a nation state: reason seems to dictate that you suck up the losses on your own side (on the assumption that a life is a life and as many should be preserved as possible) but the workings of politics almost certainly dictate that you make the 'sacrifice' of at least double the amount of nondomestic lives.

So when I said that no metric is available to asses a given strategy, I meant that it cannot exist at all, period. There are fundamental differences in how people assign value to the lives of strangers - some Americans would sacrifice 100 Iraqis for one of their own (or even just the possibility of losing one of their own); others would sacrifice 0.

As long as you have nation-states you are going to have this dilemma, since the nature of war dictates that you occasionally must annihilate scores of foreigners to preserve your own sovereignty.

The most frustrating thing about our war is that it is (as far as I know) impossible for the layman to determine if the cost is worth the effort. Is there any definitive (minimally biased) source that we can go to and look up, say, the military strength of al-qaeda, in number and resources, and in both pre and post 9/11 eras? Not that I know of. We (yes, myself included) all seem to have the intuition that damage inflicted by ourstruly surpasses all potential damage that al qaeda could render. But who can really demonstrate that for sure? Are we just playing to the bouquet of biases against the unobservable? None of these questions are meant to be rhetorical, btw.

Comment author: bolo121 09 December 2007 05:45:27AM 0 points [-]

Afghanistan and iraq were stupid mistakes. The bush administration simply fed off the people's desire for revenge and gave them afghanistan, which in turn let bush build a case for plundering oil rich iraq. All this was exactly what al quaeda wanted, to show the infidel empire attacking the moslem lands. End result, massive polarisation of moslem opinion against america and the creation of a whole new herd of terrorists and sympathisers across the world. America should have gone after Osama and only Osama and avoided any impression of a crusade. Special forces and spies not armies and air strikes. Right now the US is in an unwinnable 4gw situation, where all those high tech gadgets and heavily armed soldiers are completely irrelevant. So yes poor judgement and greed led to overreaction by the government and the mess we are in now.

Comment author: Ian_C. 09 December 2007 05:53:41AM 1 point [-]

I don't believe in heaven, so for me it would take a lot of courage to commit suicide, but I don't know if it's the same for a devout religious person, because I can't get in to their head. Probably there would be some sort of fear response on the biological level, even for them, so at the very least they would have to achieve "mind over matter" and probably bravery also, but I can't say for sure the last.

As for 9/11, I think the correct response would have been to attack the organization "Al Qaeda," and to ask all other governments in the world who may have Al Qaeda operating from their territory to help you out. But what do you do when the governments in question refuse (for example the Taliban) is a moral question that's beyond my current abilities to reason out.

Comment author: bromine 09 December 2007 06:38:40AM -1 points [-]

Leif makes strong and good points.

From various readings and my own observations I do agree 'we'(meaning the Public and the government taken as a whole) have overreacted. On the other hand I wonder how many people think like me and think it's overblown but don't say it because they know it makes them look bad. It's almost assured that the better option is to keep mum rather than risk ire because voicing doubts about our specific reaction(was unpopular then but OK now) or expecially voicing doubts about the severity of the attack itself(still unpopular) is not going to change anyones mind. The cat is out of the bag.

Even in this post there are heated arguments taking place. This is no good from a truth seeking prespective. The whole idea is to look at events dispassionantly to get a clearer idea of what is happening and how what is ranks up compared to what might have been or what could be. It seems that even people that would be dispassionant in most areas will get worked up when some threat to their moral system is stated or when they preceive an attack on something else 'fundamental' to their image or their groups image.

I havn't actually done the following for the same reason I havn't tried to carefully and critically investigate a widely believed claim that is quite popular in the Public and more select groups like scientists such as Global Warming. I feel that, no matter what I found, the knowledge would not aid me much. If, let's say, I reviewed evidence carefully and found that the majority of claims/forcasts/proposed preventions are valid it would not allow me to personally do anything to aid the movement.

Note: The idea that we all 'do our part' and so on is good propaganda but it appeals to a sort of collective action fallacy. The fallacy presents itself when someone says "If I do X it will not make a noticible difference, even though if many do X it will make a difference." and someone replies "But what if everyone thought that way?" Logically it's irrelevent what everyone might or might not do - expecially if the person that dissents is in no position to change many other peoples actions.

This is why I don't vote. The vote is very very likely not to make any difference in the outcome. Voting has value but only to people that don't know this or possibly people could signal something by voting even though they know its unlikely to be useful but as the polls are private they might as well just go in and throw the level randomly and walk out to social rewards...

The above will serve as examples of the general idea of the collective action fallacy.

So, to go back to Warming, if I found the claims were mostly invalid it would not allow me to do anything much to stop actions and beliefs. If it was a mix the same thing applies. No matter what I find I will not have substancial resources to do anything and I don't have a burning need to actually find out. I'm content to just wait and see and adapt no matter what happens over time. So I hold a (private) agnostic view and a public 'lukewarm acceptance' view.

The time and effort involved in finding out facts in such a heated issue that I can trust is not worth it compared to the expected value of knowing the info.

I'm much more interested in the "meta" truth about these type of issues. That's why I am taking the time to write this post.

So back to the root of my little collapsable tree shaped comment:

I think a few things would be required to really have a good idea of what's up in the 9/11 and post 9/11(finally a valid use of this phrase) world:

Very good knowledge of the history of the attackers organization; its structure, history, goals, tactics, propaganda style, ext

A very good knowledge of how(in detail) this group is viewed by the rest of the world in the past and in the present. This would probably require extensive polling and would be subject to all sorts of problems as it's a sensitive topic.

A very good understanding of the specific groups that play an important role in the whole mess. People talk of the "Arab Culture" and how we must understand it but I think this is probably often applause lighting. Do we really understand our own culture so well that we can make accurate predictions of the social forces at work in decades long timeframes? Many people think the WoT will last that long and it seems that tensions have lasted for quite awhile in the Middle East. Could we, say, predict with good detail and accuracy the public reaction to the oft talked about human level AI in our own culture? Can we predict what the standard opinion polls will report in 10 years even? Perhaps people do have good models of these things and I just don't know about them but OTOH I think many people offhandedly say "oh of course I understand my own culture - I live in it!" and stop thinking. So if we don't understand ours very well it's little hope that we can understand one that is rather different in some ways.

A good knowledge of general history would be needed. It'd probably require info that the government doesn't share because many actions taken in 'hot' areas are sensitive. It's just these type of actions that effect the arab world that we don't know the full details and motivations for. A history of other parties actions and their motivations would be needed too. The general problem of getting an omniscient view of history seems to be a big setback for understanding of such a complicated event complex.

Basically I think people underestimate the complexity of a global sociopolitical issue with hundreds of thousands of major and minor players. I doubt one person can wrap their head around it well enough to say if an action taken is better than one not taken but still one that was possible. At least in anything but trivial cases. And what people take for obvious is probably less obvious than they think.

People are not equipped to think on such a grand scale without horribly oversimplification going on.

So I think that, assuming we can't really say one way or the other what actions are net positive and what ones are not(and too what degree the positive ones are compared to other possible actions) we can only look to easily seen effects of taken actions.

For example we can see ill will from many people and groups We can also see laws that many do not favor being passed

But people could easily argue that, even with such things going on, the net result will be positive.

Breaking this big problem down into tiny little areas might be helpful. For example scientists could do many careful polls on peoples reaction to 9/11 and continue to do them over time all over the world. People probably already do that but I think, with the correct gathering and examination, you could build a sort of opinion map of the world that would probably be better than nothing. You'd then do other polls to get baseline feelings and thoughts and see how they change in responce to mass media news. Hopefully you could get a good idea as to how people in various places react now and later to events of various types and what happens on 'fronts' where people that have different types of reactions interact. This would be done all over the world to get a map superimposed over the terra firma map that would show regions of likemindedness. This map might look very strange and have a lot of streaks and blotches running around overlapping and mingling. The whole point would be to have a good idea of what people feel and how they will react given you know their general location. With this tool planners could use it just like a map showing important terrain that may be useful or harmful depending on the goals.

Much more and different work would have too be done as well. I think the main problem is that its very hard to do controlled experiments on huge masses of people reacting to big world events.

Note: The above ideas are long and probably confused but I think my core idea is worth something at least

Comment author: AndyCossyleon 04 November 2010 06:45:56PM 2 points [-]

Note: The idea that we all 'do our part' and so on is good propaganda but it appeals to a sort of collective action fallacy. The fallacy presents itself when someone says "If I do X it will not make a noticible difference, even though if many do X it will make a difference." and someone replies "But what if everyone thought that way?" Logically it's irrelevent what everyone might or might not do - expecially if the person that dissents is in no position to change many other peoples actions.

This is why I don't vote. The vote is very very likely not to make any difference in the outcome. Voting has value but only to people that don't know this or possibly people could signal something by voting even though they know its unlikely to be useful but as the polls are private they might as well just go in and throw the level randomly and walk out to social rewards...

Ah... some classmates and I were just having this discussion. I agree with you.... BUT DON'T POST IT ONLINE! By doing so, you enter into a "position to change many other peoples actions." Shame, shame.

Comment author: mtraven 09 December 2007 07:14:59AM 2 points [-]

Susan Sontag pointed out that the 9/11 hijackers weren't cowards a week after the event, and took an enormous amount of shit for it. And in fact there were a great many people engaging in relatively sane, measured reactions after 9/11. But they were drowned out by the much louder negative death spiral.

Many conflicts are really formed out of two mutually reinforcing negative death spirals. In this case, our overreaction to 9/11 caused us to take actions that produced more hatred of us in the Islamic world, leading to more conflict, leading to further hatred on both sides. This is a very basic dynamic underlying war.

Comment author: gregory 09 December 2007 07:24:11AM -1 points [-]

ego in action, hard to stop, but in conscious circles, the outcomes were already known... ego-driven people are mostly unconcsious

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 09 December 2007 07:52:11AM 1 point [-]

An unrelated but creepy thought: my first reaction to type in some sort of full-fledged assent was immediately dampened by a queasy post-Patriot-Act thought (of, admittedly, a very IT-illiterate person), "If I openly write something like this, will They know and will They care and will I ever come to regret it?"

I see this "omnipotent government" bias all the time. I wonder why.

Comment author: Ryan2 09 December 2007 10:57:16AM -2 points [-]

I remember my initial reaction to the attacks of September eleventh. I hoped our country would do the right thing. Despite this tragic occurrence we would be leaders. We "would not let the terrorists win." We would clean up the mess and rebuild. We would learn from our mistakes. We would reinforce our national security structure, and possibly make a few key intel and military maneuvers.

By no means did I think that this was grounds for an endless full scale war on keyword Terror. If anything the lessons of September eleventh have extended beyond security and intel to the need to for more restraint and regulation of the "Executive Branch." How can one president be impeached for lying about his sexual conduct and another get a way with MURDER and torture right under our noses? How? Is there anyone left who is still for We The People? I vote Ron Paul for President.

Comment author: Ryan2 09 December 2007 10:59:02AM -2 points [-]

I remember my initial reaction to the attacks of September eleventh. I hoped our country would do the right thing. Despite this tragic occurrence we would be leaders. We "would not let the terrorists win." We would clean up the mess and rebuild. We would learn from our mistakes. We would reinforce our national security structure, and possibly make a few key intel and military maneuvers.

By no means did I think that this was grounds for an endless full scale war on keyword Terror. If anything the lessons of September eleventh have extended beyond security and intel to the need to for more restraint and regulation of the "Executive Branch." How can one president be impeached for lying about his sexual conduct and another get a way with MURDER and torture right under our noses? How? Is there anyone left who is still for We The People? I vote Ron Paul for President.

Comment author: comma_police 09 December 2007 11:01:25AM -2 points [-]

You abuse, commas when you, write your blog post. Stop abusing commas, because they make all, your sentences start sounding, just like this. Like William, Shatner. Only, without the, differing intensity levels, between pauses.

Comment author: Warren_Bonesteel 09 December 2007 11:03:22AM 1 point [-]

hmmm...

Happy Death Spirals, indeed.

No comments on the religious, social and cultural biases that caused a group of extremists to hijack passenger planes and kill as many people as they could.

That reveals a bias in itself, actually. (So much for the scientific method, eh?)

(Hint: They didn't hate us just because we're rich and happy and decadent, or because the last of the Ottoman Empire collapsed during WWI. They don't even hate us because of Western foreign policy.)

Culturally and socially, the world is still a dangerous place. There are still people who will find a reason to kill you, however nice a person or nation you happen to be. However much you share your possessions with others, there are still those among the beneficiaries of your philanthropy who will steal (or defraud you of) the rest of what you own. However nice you happen to be, or however good your communication skills, there are still those humans among you who will kill you, just because they can. Others will kill you simply because you are not them. That's simple reality.

No matter your appeasement, no matter how much you ignore them, some groups and people will hurt you and your families - and thereafter continue to harm you and others - if you don't stop them. Sadly enough, at times, violence must be used in order to prevent them from harming you. You ignore such realities at your own peril. Under our current paradigms, Always Nice is a losing strategy.

Although things are *beginning* to change culturally and socially, the world is still a dangerous place. For all practical purposes, it always will be. Don't play with matches. When the tide unexpectedly goes out, head for higher ground. When visiting a state or national park, don't sleep where bears eat and don't pet the American Bison - if you do, you might die. Don't hike on mountains with billowing flames, smoke and noxious gases. Hot coffee is hot. Knives are sharp. Dogs have sharp teeth. Guns and automobiles are not toys. Don't let your kids play where mountain lions sleep. If you climb a mountain, no matter how experienced and safety conscious you happen to be, you can still fall to your death and/or become a popsickle. Thermodynamics, the laws of physics, of tooth and claw, and of entropy, still apply. You also ignore such things at your own risk.

The world is not a 'nice,' quiet, middle-class, suburban neighborhood.

Happy Death Spirals, indeed.

Comment author: Ross 09 December 2007 11:48:34AM -3 points [-]

"If the USA had completely ignored the 9/11 attack - just shrugged and rebuilt the building - it would have been better than the real course of history."

The World Trade Center was comprised of several buildings -- doesn't everyone know that? The centerpiece was the twin towers, which is what the planes hit. The towers were each a city block square and over 100 stories tall. They were so huge and held so many people they had their own zip code. When they fell, the impact destroyed several other Trade Center buildings in the surrounding blocks, not to mention one of the region's major transportation centers underground.

I wouldn't even bother to reply, but A) your post is the number one item on Reddit and B) I was there that day. As far as I'm concerned, saying "just shrug and rebuild the building" shows a level of ignorance and immaturity that invalidates your entire post.

Comment author: Mike_K2 09 December 2007 12:52:23PM 2 points [-]

If you want to see an example of a measured response, take a look at the UK's after the London Underground bombings of 7th July 2005. Admittedly the bombings weren't of the same league as the September 11th attacks, but virtually nobody in the UK was saying "let's bomb the f***ers" And a month or two later (at the most) it was as if nothing had ever happened.

Comment author: J_Thomas 09 December 2007 01:06:00PM 0 points [-]

"If you want to see an example of a measured response, take a look at the UK's after the London Underground bombings of 7th July 2005. Admittedly the bombings weren't of the same league as the September 11th attacks, but virtually nobody in the UK was saying "let's bomb the f***ers" And a month or two later (at the most) it was as if nothing had ever happened."

Mike K, I tend to agree with you, but....

The fact is, the british empire is gone and the british are ex-colonialists. As a nation they're old and tired and wimpy. It's different for us -- you can't be the world's only superpower and let anybody get away with anything. If we let one terrorist group have the WTC they'll all want one.

So as the winners of the cold war we have to respond to any provocation -- we have no choice. Any little group of terrorists can tell us who to invade and we have to do it, or we let the terrorists win. Either we kill off every terrorist group that isn't under our direction, or we lose our special status and have to admit we aren't in control of the world.

Think about it.

Comment author: Mike_Stinnett 09 December 2007 01:09:16PM 0 points [-]

"The world is not a 'nice,' quiet, middle-class, suburban neighborhood."

Translation: a bellicose attitude is to be adopted when dealing with other nations. Preemptive wars, false insinuations about other countries, breaking alliances, CIA-meddling in other nation's affairs, disingenuous overtures of peace, torture, mass imprisonment, black-flag operations and shit-on-you diplomacy is what is called for.

None of us know to what future conflicts our whimsical meddling will lead... very unfortunate. Seeing the US's hopeless bumbling on the international stage is like watching someone perform brain surgery while wearing mittens. Oh, did we just alienate Turkey? alienate Russia? grant unprecedented powers to our executive branch? bankrupt ourselves by building enormous military bases which demand further commitment? see our currency fall to new lows? corrupt our political discourse into chest-pounding cretinism?

Friends, I entreat you to be lighthearted– none of these things could possibly ever have consequences!!

Comment author: John_R. 09 December 2007 01:42:12PM 0 points [-]

"The overreaction to this will be ten times worse than the original event."

Those were my thoughts that day too, except for the multiplier of ten. I don't think i put a number on it, but 50 to 500 times was probably close.

It'd give the current administration and all the hawks a blank-check excuse to do all kinds of fundamentally bad moves, that they'd had on their wish-list for a long time. Sadly they have made the most of this possibility and have hardly wasted any time ever since, making the world a worse place and squandering foreign support of the US.

I do so regret not having a blog at that time, as this would've been a 'told you so' so big it's scary.

Comment author: Woozle2 09 December 2007 02:23:12PM 2 points [-]

Okay, I'm totally not understanding the claim that the attackers were cowards. Either the people saying that are using a different definition of "cowardice", or perhaps they're thinking of the attack's mastermind(s) who stayed safely at home. m-w.com defines "coward" as "one who shows disgraceful fear or timidity" -- perhaps the hijackers timidly crept to the front of the plane, and killed or incapacitated the pilots with disgracefully shaking hands?

Or perhaps you mean fear of facing their enemies directly in fair combat, instead of behind the controls of a deadly projectile? It's a bit of a twist, but I might grant an argument along those lines. On the other hand, can it *ever* be cowardice if you know you're going to die, regardless of how defenseless your target is?

Or maybe you mean the hijackers were too cowardly to buck their religious/jingoistic upbringing, and say "wait a minute, this is just wrong"? That one seems a bit more of a stretch, but it's at least arguable.

Also: "Murdering the defenseless isn't an act of bravery." -- the US is hardly a defenseless target. (Or, rather, *would* have been hardly a defenseless target if the first response system hadn't been systematically hobbled... but I digress.) Under ordinary circumstances, the hijackers should have expected their planes to be shot down rather than being allowed to reach a densely-populated area. Insider theories aside, the hijackers had absolutely no guarantee of success and should have been up against quite steep odds. Furthermore, they saw the US as the invulnerable steel monster out to destroy their way of life (whether or not this is accurate). The people in the tower, left inexplicably defenseless that day, were just the monster's Achilles heel.

Calling them "cowardly" seems to me more like an emotional bandaid -- something to mitigate the overwhelming impact of what they did -- than it sounds like either of the possible nuanced interpretations I've suggested, but I'm prepared to hear further explanation.

Comment author: david2 09 December 2007 02:23:15PM 0 points [-]

I've been reading this blog in RSS for a while onw and I was happy to see it on the front page of Reddit!

In "The Fog of War" about McNamara's life, he discusses proportionality when dealing with your enemy. The fact that America invaded Iraq (that had nothing to do with 9-11), enacted the Patriot Act, and will have troops in Afghanistan for decades to come is not a proportional response to a small group of hijackers flying planes into three national symbols.

Many people wanted blood after 9-11 though. My neighbor was a vet student (so he's presumably smart) and he was ranting on 9-11 about the need to show everyone "who's boss." I guess that hasn't worked out so well in hindsight.

Comment author: burger_flipper2 09 December 2007 02:28:00PM 1 point [-]

So is the propensity to say, "I knew it instantaneously" a kissing cousin of the hindsight bias?

p=.02 the first 3 conscious thoughts were, sequentially: "I guess I really am living in the Future. Thank goodness it wasn't nuclear. and then The overreaction to this will be ten times worse than the original event."

I can see the utility in starting off the post with such a narrative (grabbing attention and establishing svengali authority), and don't doubt those 3 thoughts popped up fairly quickly, in one form or another.

I know it's effective, but I expect a little better.

Comment author: Forrest 09 December 2007 02:44:26PM 1 point [-]

I think this is the first blog post I have read in years that contains ONLY civil and intelligent response. It makes me hopeful!

Almost all of our responses to 9/11 seem irrational, most of them ineffective. It seems to me that fear informed almost all choices, whether it was fear from the 'terrorists', or fear from domestic political reactions. America became fearful of gels, liquids, underwire bras, breastmilk on airplanes, pocket knives, tshirt slogans, and remarkably, the disapproving eyes our our fellow citizens... we don't want to look unpatriotic or unsupportive of our troops. ALl this permitted unchecked action on the part of incompetent leaders and has left us in a very tenuous position regarding the viability of our democracy. We've begun to adopt memes that sacrificing the highest qualities of our civilization is permissible if we gain a scintilla of incremental safety.

I am in great despair regarding what WE have done and sad beyond measure for what we have done to the world and its hopes for a better future. We're now as bad as the worst of the lot.

A true leader... a true good man... a true christian would have salvaged something worthwhile from this disaster. Sadly, Bush is none of the above, and like a school yard bully egged on by his even more cowardly cohort, the damage he has done accrues to everyone... victim, bully, enablers, society. He has shown why we must insist on intellect, morality, engagement, and creativity in our next leader.

Comment author: TGGP4 09 December 2007 03:46:04PM 0 points [-]

Warren Bonesteel (is that seriously your last name?): No comments on the religious, social and cultural biases that caused a group of extremists to hijack passenger planes and kill as many people as they could. Eliezer discussed that here.

Eliezer never said the world was a nice place or that people wouldn't try to kill us. He said the reaction was foolish, and judging by the bodycounts we can say worse.

Mike K: If you want to see an example of a measured response, take a look at the UK Didn't they shoot a Brazilian electrician and pass all sorts of Big Brother-esque anti-terror legislation? They also helped us invade Iraq, I don't know who they would have invaded following the subway attacks? Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Carribean?

J Thomas: we have no choice Of course we do.

Either we kill off every terrorist group that isn't under our direction, or we lose our special status and have to admit we aren't in control of the world. I think you underestimate the ability to self-deceive, but the latter option still sounds preferrable.

david: You might like this from the Onion. Unfortunately after Counterpoint we went through with Point's plan.

Forrest: I think this is the first blog post I have read in years that contains ONLY civil and intelligent response. Even Zack?

Comment author: lance 09 December 2007 04:21:29PM 1 point [-]

I wish we could draw a distinction between the mess we're in now, as a country, and what was going on a few months maybe even a year after 9/11. But with everything becoming so muddled, it's really hard to accurately look back and understand what was going on, then.

But as rational people, we know that Iraq and 9/11 have nothing to do with each other - and regardless if 9/11 even happened or not, there is an educated chance that, knowing the Bush admin - that we'd end up in Iraq anyway.

To stand idly by though as terrorists blatantly attack and murder people though, is a bit much. What kind of response would be considered not over reacting? (and this is trying to not include the Iraq debacle - all that aside)

Although interestingly enough, when the terrorist attacks in London happened - Brittan didn't respond militarily.

I guess we can try to have a debate in the philosophies about appropriate response, but I know if some dude ran a plane into my house, I'd want to kick his ass.

Comment author: gideonfell 09 December 2007 04:47:02PM -1 points [-]

This is one of the truer things I have read since 9/11; I know that because it perfectly matches my own opinions. :) I also had more or less the same three thoughts in rapid succession in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the towers. A previous commentator, 'david', was skeptical about that kind of claim, i.e. that the mental event would have gone down precisely in that fashion. To david, I would concede that certainly in accounts such as this we omit some stray thoughts, such as: "Where's the remote control?" or "I bet nobody's going to get any work done today." But I think it is fair game to discount such unmemorable or tangential thoughts, just as I hope it is understood by all that our mental experience does not actually consist of crisp series of sentences in italics.

Quibbles about hyperbole aside, the more important question is how we bring about an America where citizens each have at least a p=.02 chance of having these level-headed thoughts when something like this happens again?

Comment author: steven 09 December 2007 04:52:27PM 4 points [-]

I tend to agree with Eliezer-February-2007:

"If you want to make a point about science, or rationality, then my advice is to not choose a domain from contemporary politics if you can possibly avoid it. If your point is inherently about politics, then talk about Louis XVI during the French Revolution. Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality - but it's a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational."

Comment author: Woozle2 09 December 2007 06:08:00PM -1 points [-]

"I guess we can try to have a debate in the philosophies about appropriate response, but I know if some dude ran a plane into my house, I'd want to kick his ass."

As I keep trying to explain to Bush Plan supporters: that is exactly what we are failing to do, and it is precisely because of the stupidity (or "inappropriateness" if you prefer) of our response to the attack that we are failing to do it.

To put it in terms that the unashamedly "WHUP ASS!!" crowd can understand: the perpetrators have probably become exhausted from rolling around on the floor laughing at us for the past few years, because we did *exactly* what they wanted.

The emotional reaction may be seductively appealing, but it is one through which you can be manipulated. Is that what you want?

Comment author: NYC_Survivor 09 December 2007 06:17:00PM 0 points [-]

NYC 9/11 Survivor. Generally during a gunfight, it is a bad idea to let the enemy know
he has hurt you. The voices of civilians placed at risk and even the voices of
civilian HEROES, including the building maintenance crew were NOT HEARD.

TV and media focus on Guliani, presidential candidate. His choice of 'command center'
was located at Ground Zero and could not be used. Confusion reigned, according to the
Village Voice.

Fury and folly together is dangerous. Many guys when lost, speed up I am angry I am late.
They rarely consider asking others for directions.

When you are in a hole (whether Ground Zero) stop digging.

History Channel on TV cable shows numerous traps set on the battlefield by
'enemy cowards' running away and luring the enemy into an ambush.

Car Theft has decreased in Canada since the 'bait car',www.baitcar.com.
Car theft is skyrocketing near the Mexican border. Thieves cannot
tell whether the 'bait car' means a trip to jail.

The key concept appears to be "fight enemy in the Middle East, BEFORE they
come to the U.S."
http://www.d-n-i.net/
Is this key concept flawed? Perhaps like Amory Lovins said,
decentralization of office space, transportation systems. Perhaps
movement of 'key infrastructure' like nuclear power plants located near
New York City AWAY FROM THE CITY.

PS. The reason why George Washington won against the British is that the British army was
trained to take orders from the very top. Some commands needed a COMMAND from
the English King, which took months by ship messenger. Colonists were very decentralized and so,
used 'guerrilla tactics.'
Colonists had no money, had to import all their gunpower supplies, had NO KING. They had no
military school.
Colonists came from different backgrounds, were tired of fighting the Indians,
lived in a new and strange land.
Some colonists remained loyal to the King and there were 'traitors like Benedict Arnold.'
General George Washington did not have formal military school. He was a wealthy landowner
and had a lot to lose by 'taking sides with the colonists.'
His wife begged him NOT to join the war. (pure speculation meant to be provocative).

What if George Washington had joined the British enemy or remained neutral?

Comment author: cerebus2 09 December 2007 06:47:00PM 1 point [-]

steven: I looked for that same quote. What's happened in comments was so predictable, and Yudkowsky must have known any abstract point about bias would be lost. Even got Truthers scuttling out from under their rock. Maybe he was trying to attract more eyeballs (reddit), fair enough if so, awfully close to trolling.

Comment author: Steve6 09 December 2007 06:52:00PM 0 points [-]

An personal observation: best for me to learn to address the way of thinking, not the thought.

With that in mind, I thought I'd address a thought or two...

Comment author: squanto 09 December 2007 07:06:00PM 0 points [-]

First, the discussion about "bravery" vs "cowardice" is dumb.
One can be brave and cowardly at the same time. You can bravely
perform a cowardly act. Easy.

Secondly, it occurs to me that a "real" war would require a draft.
If this is the Monumental Challenge of the Centuries (as we are told
it is), then why, OH WHY, don't we have conscription? Absolutely no
need for shortages of soldiers...!...draft everyone! Easy.
Of course if that happened, this phoney-baloney war would be over
in 10 minutes.

In essence, this entire worldwide situation is a new construct for the future -
being controlled by the most powerful, bloodthirsty elements of the international
business/intelligence community. The stage has been set to slowly extract and bewilder
our basic desire for representative democracy. Yahoo has practiced repressive censorship
in COMMUNIST CHINA, and will soon be plying the same trade in the US. But gradually,
so most people will neither notice...nor CARE.

Of course, I may be wrong. Fuck it, let's get a pizza. I'll buy.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 December 2007 07:10:00PM 1 point [-]

Burger flipper, as nearly as I can recall, those were literally my first three conscious reactions with no intervening thoughts. Could be retrospective distortion, but I think I summarized those three thoughts shortly after 9/11 (same day?) so it's not quite a first attempt to recall after years. As you say, though, retrospective distortion is subtle. I'd rate the probability higher than 0.02 though. (Doesn't alter the logic of the post either way, except to point up that the overreaction was foreseeable in advance, not just in hindsight.)

Steven and Cerebus, the point here was a very short distance from ones I'd already made in "Uncritical Supercriticality" and "Affective Death Spirals". At some point you have to apply the ideas... still, I confess I wasn't visualizing this result. Wasn't visualizing the #1 on Reddit either, but it raises interesting questions about whether rationality should be occasionally relevant in order to survive as a conversation.

Comment author: burger_flipper 09 December 2007 08:17:00PM 0 points [-]

Don't know if I can blame bad form on making 78 McSkillet Burritos.

That morning I was a fine display of generalizing from fictional evidence.
Most salient among my initial thoughts seeing the buildings on TV: that looks like the end of Fight Club.
Then on the drive in I was listening to NPR. A reporter was live on air and on site as the plane struck the Pentagon. From that I extrapolated (momentarily) the existence of a far larger plot.

Had this blog only existed back then.

However, the most impressive reaction I'm aware of came from an high school chum of my mother, a woman who (Mom not chum) has, with the onset of her dotage, taken up appeals to authority as a reaction to stressful scenarios. She emailed him within 2 or 3 days of the event with a simple, "what do you think will happen?"

He replied: "I think we'll invade Iraq."

Comment author: 09 December 2007 08:54:00PM 0 points [-]

"Thank goodness it wasn't nuclear."

Don't thank goodness just yet. It will be. Probably not in Palo Alto, but Washington DC is a good bet.

After that you'll see an "over reaction" to remember.

Rely upon it.

Comment author: Doug_S. 09 December 2007 09:11:00PM 1 point [-]

For the record, as far as my knowledge goes, the reasons George Washington won against the English are:

1) He avoided fighting battles that could lead to a decisive English victory; all he had to do was "not lose" and make the English keep spending resources to try to finish his forces off. Until...
2) Benjamin Franklin was able to persuade France to lend military support. France had a military as strong as England; it was basically the French army that won the American colonies their independence.

Wow, have I gotten off-topic...

Comment author: rukidding 09 December 2007 09:36:00PM 0 points [-]

A few points.

I also, on 9/11, thought, and in fact could see, that we'd overreact. I was in a bar where the average opinion was expressed as "just bomb'em, just bomb'em to pieces." I was there saying "bomb who?" I would have said "bomb whom" but it wasn't that kind of bar.

But the point of my post is that no one can calculate the ramifications of actions, or inactions. Did Hiroshima/Nagasaki cost lives, or save them? That's one of the clearest examples of "saving by killing" I can imagine, and I mean saving Japanese lives as well as American lives. Yet many auto-condemn the bombings. And they might be right. None of us can ever know.

The Iraq war isn't nearly so clearly correct, and my guess is that it costs more lives than it saves. But I recognize that I'm guessing. This blog is about bias. How many people are willing to say that they can only guess whether the war saves or costs lives, and further admit that their guess might be seriously biased? Even the "facts" are biased. The million civilian deaths, for example. No one short of God knows how many people have died in Iraq since the invasion. No one has the facts, we only have biased guesses labelled, for propaganda purposes, "facts." The same people who would never blindly accept a Bush Admin figure will blindly accept an anti-Bush figure. And, both sides will then forget, or guess on air, how many people whould have died, and it would have to be something of a time value calc, if Iraq had NOT been invaded. And all of this so far is without also weighing the relative value of lives, US vs Iraqi, peaceful vs. warmongering, educated vs ignorant, and so on. IOW, these are impossible calculations.

So, did we overreact to 9/11, or properly react? My point was and is that it isn't possible to know, it's only possible to--with bias--guess, claim, propagandize, lawyer, etc.

Comment author: rukidding 09 December 2007 10:00:00PM 0 points [-]

As to the separate "cowardice" debate in this thread--relevant to bias because the label is being rejected because of political bias--let me ask this.

A man loses his job, can't find another, can't support his family, and so kills himself. Bravery?
A woman gets divorced, fears being alone, kills herself. Bravery?

Now, that's "personal" suicide, you'll be saying. Not "political" suicide. As if mass murder of civilians changes it from cowardice to bravery. As if killing yourself in the attack, so that you don't face the consequences of your mass murder, changes it from cowardice to bravery. As if being deluded into thinking you'll be banging virgins later changes it from cowardice to bravery. As if causing the "million civilian deaths" your some people claim came later, changes it from cowardice to bravery. The terrorists, with arms, attacked the unarmed. With intent to war, attacked those with no such intent. With planning, attacked those without notice. If you don't know how incredibly cowardly all that is, be grateful for your prozac prescription.

If 20 Al Quaeda members gave notice they were going to attack, say, a US embassy or marine base, and thereupon did and died trying, as they surely would if they'd given notice, they would've have gotten respect, and their political message would have been heard. People would have to say "Wow, that was a suicidal attack, but, man, it took a lot of heart, so they must really believe in what they were saying...what were they saying?"

Comment author: Caledonian2 09 December 2007 10:08:00PM 0 points [-]

their political message would have been heard

I don't think you understand the nature of their message. They weren't trying to get themselves killed as a form of political protest, they were trying to get themselves killed in order to demonstrate that the US could be hurt, and badly, by people willing to risk their lives to do so.

As such, their strategy was quite brilliant.

Empires always sneer at the efforts of guerillas and people who won't fight by 'civilized' rules as cowards - see the British response to the Americans' refusal to adopt mass marching tactics during the Revolutionary War.

Comment author: TGGP2 09 December 2007 10:33:00PM 0 points [-]

The Americans DID adopt mass marching tactics during the Revolutionary War. We even won battles that way!

Here is Wikipedia on the mistaken idea that the American Revolution was won by guerrilla tactics.

Comment author: Silas 09 December 2007 10:59:00PM 1 point [-]

Wow, the cowardice thing again. To review:

1) Eliezer_Yudkowsky *just made* a post arguing that it's not very virtuous to do things at great person risk when you believe you're immortal, and when you believe you are doing it to get great things in the afterlife.
2) The 9/11 hijackers believed they would be greatly rewarded in the after life.
3) It does not take much courage to argue on the internet, or in public forums.
4) The 9/11 hijackers did not argue their point of view with their intellectual opponents.
5) But, the 9/11 hijackers were courageous.

I agree: let's not look for whatever flimsy pretense we can, for throwing a negative label at people we don't like. But "9/11 terrorist were cowards" is a bad example of that. Here are some better examples of wrong labels:

The 9/11 hijackers were...

-disloyal
-hypocritical
-short-sighted

Comment author: rukidding 09 December 2007 11:33:00PM 1 point [-]

Caledonian, joking in which way?

If you can't make the argument that the invasion is saving lives, and if you can't make the argument that it's costing lives, you don't belong in the argument.

Comment author: Tom_McCabe 09 December 2007 11:37:00PM 0 points [-]

"The same people who would never blindly accept a Bush Admin figure will blindly accept an anti-Bush figure."

Notice how you assume, without bothering to Google it, that the million-casualties figure was "anti-Bush". If it came from Clinton for President, or MoveOn, or the Democratic Party, you would have a case. In reality, the survey was conducted by Opinion Research Business, an independent polling agency which is not even US-based (their HQ is in London). The same group has published pro-Bush results in the past (eg, see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article1530526.ece).

"The terrorists, with arms, attacked the unarmed. With intent to war, attacked those with no such intent. With planning, attacked those without notice."

Uh, we do this all the time, and nobody here has called us cowardly. Air Force bombers, from thirty thousand feet, routinely drop bombs without prior warning on people who cannot possibly retaliate. Even assuming no civilians are killed (which is almost never the case), insurgents with AK-47s cannot realistically hurt B-52s.

Comment author: g 09 December 2007 11:43:00PM 0 points [-]

rukidding, it's obvious that it's saved some lives (of people who would have been killed by Saddam Hussein and his minions) and cost some lives (of people killed by US forces, or by the people opposing them, or as a result of the general state of lawlessness and civil war in Iraq, or because the chaos there has produced poverty, poor healthcare, etc.), and certainly someone who is unable to consider both doesn't belong in the argument.

But if you're saying that no one "belongs in the argument" who can't make both a serious argument that *on balance* lives have been saved by the invasion and a serious argument that *on balance* lives have been lost by the invasion ... well, that's only true if *in fact* the evidence is rather evenly balanced, and I see no reason to think it is.

Comment author: Caledonian2 10 December 2007 12:03:00AM 1 point [-]

The Americans DID adopt mass marching tactics during the Revolutionary War. We even won battles that way!

Okay, fine, let me rephrase: to the Americans' willingness to resort to nonstandard tactics.

Comment author: J.C. 10 December 2007 12:15:00AM 0 points [-]

It would seem to me we have all missed the point here. If we were not arrogant enough to presume we have a right to invoke military presence in their countries in the first place, they would not have felt the need to attack us. Simply put, if we had left them alone, they would leave us alone. PERIOD.

Comment author: J_Thomas2 10 December 2007 12:40:00AM -1 points [-]

R U Kidding, it seems to me that you are not serious and I mostly don't want to reply to you. However, you have said some things that look like they could lead to interesting conversation among actual commenters.

_But the point of my post is that no one can calculate the ramifications of actions, or inactions. Did Hiroshima/Nagasaki cost lives, or save them? That's one of the clearest examples of "saving by killing" I can imagine, and I mean saving Japanese lives as well as American lives. Yet many auto-condemn the bombings. And they might be right. None of us can ever know._

The biggest reason this is confusing is that when we look at consequences of our actions, we want to choose some alternative to compare against.

So to argue that we "saved lives" by nuking japan, the argument is basicly "If we hadn't nuked japan we would have done something even more stupid and even more murderous. Compared to the only alternative, nuking japan was better."

I say this is a stupid argument. If you choose the "only alternative" carefully you can argue that anything which has survivors has saved lives. For example, imagine we nuked the USSR in 1987 or so, destroying most of the russian nukes along with 85% of the population of the USSR. But they hit us back with 20 remaining missiles, killing 15% of the US population. The argument could be made, "The USSR was inevitably going to attack us and kill most of our population, and our second-strike capability would hit them just as hard; maybe everybody in the world would die from the radiation. So by killing hundreds of millions of people and getting 45 million americans killed, we saved lives." We know now that the USSR didn't attack us and nobody seems to be particularly worried that russia will do so in the foreseeable future. But if we'd made that first strike we wouldn't know that. You could argue that the only alternative was a bigger nuclear war, and there would be no proof you were wrong.

Is there any value in such comparisons? Sometimes we're choosing what to do. Then we need to accept our limitations, and choose the best plan we can actually choose. If there's a better way available but we aren't good enough people to try it, then that plan is no good. Choose the best plan you can actually carry out.

But sometimes we're arguing about how good we did in the past. And in that context we should compare against the best plan available to us, whether we were psychologically ready to try it or not.

When we're arguing about how good we are, it's stupid to count up the number of people we killed against the number of people the bad guys would have killed. The bad guys kill innocent people -- they're bad guys, that's what they do. If we go into competition with them to kill innocent people and we don't kill as many, that means we're bad guys too, just not as bad as they are. If we think we're killing a lot of people to *stop* them from killing even more, and the result is that we kill more people than they do, now who's the bad guys? We are. We only assumed they'd kill more.

These are all "the ends justify the means" arguments. "If we didn't kill those innocent people the enemy would have killed even more." Even worse, "If we didn't do it, somebody else would." Imagine the crimes you can justify with that argument!

Here's my moral argument. When you do something bad, and you argue that you had to do it to keep somebody else from doing something worse, or you argue that nobody knows what the hell would have happened otherwise so there's no way to tell how bad it was etc -- when you find yourself looking for such sophistries to justify your actions -- you're doing something bad.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 10 December 2007 12:51:00AM 1 point [-]

The terrorists don't have to be cowardly or courageous, you know.

rukidding, being biased doesn't mean we can't know anything.

Comment author: the_philosopher 10 December 2007 01:17:00AM 0 points [-]

Look at the amazing results of this poll: 68% out of more than 120 voters agree with this post
click here to see the poll

Comment author: Rolf_Nelson2 10 December 2007 01:42:00AM 1 point [-]

the overreaction was foreseeable in advance, not just in hindsight

To paraphrase what my brain is hearing from you, Eliezer:

In 2001, you would have predicted, "In 2007, I will believe that the U.S. overreacted between 2001 and 2007."

In 2007, your prediction is true: you personally believe the U.S. overreacted.

Not very impressive. (I know lots of people who can successfully predict that they will have the same political beliefs six years from now, no matter what intervening evidence occurs between now and then! It's not something that you should take pride in. :-)

I would suggest you join a prediction market if you believe you have an uncanny, cross-domain knack for consistently predicting the future, except that I don't want to distract you from your AI work.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 December 2007 01:56:00AM 0 points [-]

Rolf, I think I have a non-uncanny knack which is not more powerful than a prediction market, i.e., I don't think I can beat the most informed bettors out there. If you'd shown me a betting market predicting otherwise, I would have adjusted my own guess.

If you'd asked me to define "overreaction" in verifiable terms, I probably would have defined it as "Killing at least ten times as many people and costing at least ten times the property damage."

Comment author: JulianMorrison 10 December 2007 02:24:00AM 0 points [-]

This strikes me as an instance of a larger category: topics on which making group-acceptable statements is considered more important than making accurate ones.

Here's anther example, pulled off recent Reddit. Kiddy shagging. Do the children ever initiate and deliberately intend the proceedings? A sane analysis of human variability would say "some times, of course". Are children universally mentally incompetent to understand what sex means? Again, a sane analysis would say "in some cases, they're perfectly competent". But you can't say that. You don't just have to deny it, you have to immediately hate and attack the person who says it. Hesitation isn't permitted, nuance equals sympathy for the enemy. Unacceptable argument gets bullet.

Comment author: Dynamically_Linked 10 December 2007 03:45:00AM 1 point [-]

Eliezer, the US killed at least a million Japanese in World War 2, while the attack at Pearl Harbor killed less than 2500. Maybe it is true that the US response to 9/11 is "greater than the appropriate level, whatever the appropriate level may be" but I don't think you have showed that to actually be the case.

Comment author: TGGP2 10 December 2007 05:16:00AM -1 points [-]

Julian Morrison, William Saletan has suggested lowering the age of consent but states that people wouldn't think rationally about it. I discussed that here, and noted here a study showing that sex and pot don't screw kids up like people thought.

Comment author: Warren_Bonesteel 10 December 2007 05:30:00AM 1 point [-]

TGGP:

Yes. That is my real name. First Anglicized in nearly it's present form in 1715 at Three Forts in NY state (Bonnesteel). I understand that a small museum stands there, now. The etymology is from north of the Caucus Mountains prior to the 1400's; later "Germanicized" to Bohnenstielen and then Anglicized five years after the Paletine Immigration. ...learning the true meaning of the name requires learning about ancient Teutonic and Indo-European linguistics, archecology, the Human Genome Project ...and certain specialties in ancient history. ...which leads to philosohical, social, political, cultural and economic studies of the times in question.

...happy death spirals, indeed... ;)

(It would appear that my ancient ancestors were a part of an ancient queen's personal guard. Roughly translated: "The 'Green' Lady's Dagger/Castle." ...which fits, as seventeen generations of Bonesteels have worn the uniforms of colonial and American forces since 1715, and have been busily, if somewhat quietly, engaged in building this nation since our arrival.)

Comment author: Daniel_Humphries2 10 December 2007 05:43:00AM 0 points [-]

They screwed me up real good. ;)

Comment author: Daniel_Humphries2 10 December 2007 05:47:00AM 0 points [-]

(sex and drugs, that is... not the Bonesteels. The Bonesteels is cool with me.)

Comment author: anonymous3 10 December 2007 07:52:00AM 1 point [-]

A word about the terrorists being called cowards: when you take into consideration their complete certainty that they were going directly to paradise, the statement that they were cowards seems more reasonable. As a thought experiment, imagine that some person was faced with a choice between preventing the violent deaths of some 3000 people, or going directly to a paradise of eternal bliss. If this hypothetical person were to choose the former, I would consider that to be a brave decision. If they were to choose the latter, I would have to go with cowardly (and reprehensible, obviously). Put it this way: in their eyes at least, they were taking the easy way out, at least if my understanding of their radical doctrine is correct.

Comment author: J_Thomas2 10 December 2007 01:17:00PM 1 point [-]

"Eliezer, the US killed at least a million Japanese in World War 2, while the attack at Pearl Harbor killed less than 2500. Maybe it is true that the US response to 9/11 is "greater than the appropriate level, whatever the appropriate level may be" but I don't think you have showed that to actually be the case."

DL, let me put it this way. If the Rotary Club in canada declared war on somebody and did an atrocity, and that somebody in response killed ten million americans most of whom were not Rotarians, and mostly after they won the war against us and disbanded our surrendered army, would you perhaps consider that greater than the appropriate level?

Comment author: steven 10 December 2007 02:12:00PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer:

'the point here was a very short distance from ones I'd already made in "Uncritical Supercriticality" and "Affective Death Spirals"'

Perhaps the main point was, but statements like this:

"If the USA had completely ignored the 9/11 attack - just shrugged and rebuilt the building - it would have been better than the real course of history."

seem to me to require another month of steps of inference even if they're true. Tracking and comparing consequences in world politics is really really complicated.

Comment author: gator80 10 December 2007 07:07:00PM 1 point [-]

Maybe I missed it in the many, and often rambling, posts, but has anyone addressed why we haven't been attacked again since 9/11? If we're talking about predictions, I would guess there were VERY few of us who would have predicted that on 9/12.

Second, it's remarkable how much confidence people have defining alternative courses of history. (Of course, it's made Harry Turtledove a fortune.) I haven't seen the ability to predict events in advance that would lead to such confidence.

Comment author: J_Thomas2 10 December 2007 10:17:00PM 1 point [-]

gator80, I haven't noticed anybody saying why they thought the continental USA hasn't been attacked since 9/11.

Here are three possibilities:

1. In the days after 9/11 we rolled up the AQ network, that we had been watching before but not doing much about since after all they weren't doing much and the ones we let run sometimes led us to new agents and such. Once we eliminated the ones in the USA and our allies eliminated the ones in their own countries, new ones haven't really gotten a foothold.

2. AQ is following Napoleon's maxim which goes "Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.". They did 9/11 and we did what they wanted us to. If they attack us again we might stop doing what they want and do something else instead. It makes sense for them not to hit us again unless our will to be stupid starts to lapse.

3. It was an inside job and our own administration or their supporters or Mossad or whoever did it to get us to attack iraq and to get support for the Bush administration. They achieved their objectives. But after all the spending and chickenguano we've endured for the administration to stop terrorism, if we got an effective attack now the US public would decide that the current administration is a bunch of stumblebums who can't protect us from AQ no matter how much money they spend or civil rights they revoke. The first time we banded together behind Bush. The second time we wouldn't. So it would be stupid to pull the same trick again.

Our government might have information that would tend to disprove one or more of these alternative possibilities. But if they do, they're keeping it secret. I have no reason beyond sheer prejudice to discredit any of them.

Comment author: Assistant_Village_Idiot 10 December 2007 11:36:00PM 1 point [-]

(I link to this post and print my reply over at my own site. I actually have some pleasant things to say about you - which you might not readily guess from this comment.)

The longer I consider this post the more it troubles me. Your argument is "The American public was destined to overreact to the events of 9-11. Therefore, what they did do must be an overreaction." When I state it that way, you would of course rise in protest – “No, no. What the American response was to 9-11 can be demonstrated to be an overreaction in its own right. That goes without saying.”

Well, it did go without saying, because you didn’t say it. You provide no evidence for either half of the argument and are going in a circle. I could as well write “I woke up on the morning of 9-11 and just knew that even though we are under attack, those buffleheads at Overcoming Bias would underreact.” Then I could define whatever you did as underreacting and prove myself correct, at least in my own mind. Who would choose between us, then, whose actions were over…and whose under?

You may well have offered elsewhere why you believe our responses have been an overreaction, but it is not here or in the linked article that preceeds it. The entire focus of this essay was the groupthink of the public, and how difficult it is to counteract that, combined with (I am sorry to have to say it) your weary superiority. That simply isn’t enough. Worse, the mere fact that it was the focus suggests that this part of the equation predominates over the real question.

That one notices a bandwagon effect and deplores it does not in itself persuade me that it’s a bad bandwagon to be on.

I will note additionally that this is precisely the accusation that conservatives often make against progressives: that they are elitists who “just know” that GW Bush and the neocons are wrong because “everyone knows it,” but when pressed are unable to provide sustained arguments for the premise. You should thus be especially careful not to step in that whole if you hope to persuade. Many commenters on the thread demonstrate the same sloppiness. I don’t hold the host responsible for that, of course, but it may be significant that the same error occurs so frequently in the group.

Thus also with the discussion of courage, which you call the “best example” and wave off counterarguments dismissively. I grant that it takes a modicum of physical courage to face certain death, but let’s not overrate it. The hijackers faced no prospect of pain or even discomfort – they didn’t even deny themselves lap dancers the night before. In a state of excitement for what one believes to be a noble cause, even cowards can nerve themselves up for a few moments, especially under group pressure. That the network itself is cowardly is also easy to demonstrate: they sent a very few to kill many innocents who were unprepared. I take your point that there is a phenomenon by which we will hear no ill of our own and no good of our enemies, but if this is your best example then perhaps you overstate how important this is in group psychology.

Note two: Studies from evolutionary psychology, PTSD, depression, and personality disorders suggests that day-to-day civilization and cooperation is dependent on our wearing blinders. Life is far more painful and dangerous than we could endure if we did not delude ourselves slightly in an overoptimistic way. As events like 9-11 recede in time, we come to regard them as one-off events which should not rule our lives. Perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps those events are closer to human reality, and the receding of the fear is reentering the too-rosy narrative we call normalcy. Those who are not directly in harm’s way, then, would be especially likely to underestimate threats.

I doubtless noticed this because I do not believe America’s actions to have been an overreaction. Iraq is not much more than a police action, made outrageously expensive by our insistence on creating as few fatalities as possible, whether our own troops or semi-innocent bystanders. I approve of that insistence despite the expense because it is consonant with our values. But I have every recognition that this is a new way of waging war, made necessary by the impact of media and quick communication on our foreign policy.

Comment author: gator80 11 December 2007 03:52:00AM 0 points [-]

JT,

Pretty good summary. Scenario 3 is clearly ludicrous (unless you like totally inconsistent logic and a complete absence of evidence). Beyond that I tend to favor the Occam's Razor solution, which is number 1. I could be wrong, of course, but a plan to have the world's mightiest armed forces hunting you down, killing your followers and forcing you to live in caves hardly seems like one that would have survived the Al Qaeda brainstorming session.

I also have a hypothesis why scenario 1 is never mentioned - and which is consistent with the responses on this board. It would require giving credit to the administration, the most appalling scenario of all!

Comment author: J_Thomas2 11 December 2007 04:01:00AM 0 points [-]

Assistant Village Idiot, I sympathise with your desire to go over the old talking points again. I like to do that sort of thing myself sometimes. Like, I'll find people to argue with about Kerry and the swiftboating. I didn't like Kerry that much, he just turned into the only alternative to the Bush ongoing disaster, but he didn't deserve what he got from the Swiftboat liars who certainly didn't deserve nearly the media attention they got after their first lie was exposed. But the truth is, it's a dead issue. The swiftboat liars won and Kerry lost, and arguing it out now is mostly a waste of time.

We have no obligation to go over your talking points about how invading iraq and spending a trillion or so dollars to kill a million or so iraqis for no particular result was not actually a mistake. If we were to argue it with you we would be giving the impression that it was debatable, that there are two sides that could be valid, that you might perhaps have a point. But the fact is, your side lost that debate. You tried to argue with the facts and you lost. Get over it.

Eliezer was using a generally-known situation to illustrate his point. If you think that in this generally-known situation the public is wrong and we ought to listen to you and realise that you're right and the consensus is wrong, OK, good luck. I was facing exactly that situation after 9/11 and I lost hands down.

So when I don't tell you that you're a dirty neocon traitor, and if you want to talk that way you don't deserve to live in america and you ought to go somewhere the people are like you and want to destroy america the way you do, it's because I'm a nice guy and I don't play it hardball the way your guys did after 9/11. But that isn't something you are owed. If people treat you better than you treated them when the tables were turned, it's because they happen to be better people than you.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 December 2007 04:07:00AM 0 points [-]

I think that on the whole it would be wiser to close comments on this thread at this point. What's sayable has probably been said.

Comment author: brent 11 December 2007 06:06:00AM -2 points [-]

hi. i'm not going to use any capital letters because i come from a very small country. australia has no weapons of mass destruction. we promise. we promise promise promise. please don't invade australia like you did iraq - even though we do have an abundance of natural resources, mostly steel and uranium. we're on your side. really really.

Why are you all talking about the US's over-reaction to the 9/11 attacks? You all realise that the invasion of Iraq had _nothing_ to do with terrorism or nukes or polie-actions. You know this. It was about oil. From the very beginning America invaded Iraq in order to obtain a foothold in the upcoming struggle for the remaining dregs of Middle Eastern oil. Everyone knows this. Why are you wasting your time arguing about this as if the Iraq war were motivated by 9/11?

Comment author: Desrtopa 08 July 2011 06:25:19AM 3 points [-]

Initially, there were smarter responses to 9/11 than I had guessed. I saw a Congressperson - I forget who - say in front of the cameras, "We have forgotten that the first purpose of government is not the economy, it is not health care, it is defending the country from attack." That widened my eyes, that a politician could say something that wasn't an applause light. The emotional shock must have been very great for a Congressperson to say something that... real.

This may have been more of an applause light than you thought. This is an outlook I've heard expressed quite frequently by conservatives of a more libertarian bent, and the fact that congresspeople don't say such things more often is most likely because they're not offered many contexts in which it's an appropriate way to endear themselves to their constituents.

Comment author: kilobug 12 September 2011 06:08:52PM 5 points [-]

Interesting article, and I agree with most of it, but there is a point in which I fail to understand your reasoning, and which seems to contradict the rest of the article.

It's the « "We have forgotten that the first purpose of government is not the economy, it is not health care, it is defending the country from attack." » part. How is that not an applause light ? And how is that real ? When the country was just attacked, like after 9/11 or after Pearl Harbor, when everyone has in mind the fact the country is attacked and the horrors of violent death, but everyone forgets about the horror of diseases and the fact that half a million die from cancer in the US each year (according to cancer.gov), that is, one 9-11 every 3 days, that's definitely an applause light.

The first purpose of government is to maximize a very complex utility function, that contains factors about protecting people's life, factors about their (average, median, ...) economical well-being, factors about protecting personal freedom and safety, ... Maximizing this utility function requires investing resources into defending the country against external aggression - because external aggression comes with a very high cost in all those factors. But protecting the country against external aggression is not a goal in itself, it is only a secondary goal, because not doing so will lead to horrible things - death, lost of freedom, rapes, plunders, ...

What would have been saying something that was real, and not an applause light, would have been saying « yes, 9-11 is horrible and we need to keep some ways to defend ourselves, but much more people die from cancer than from terrorism, we should still, like before, invest much less in weapons and much more in cancer research ». Or, if you are libertarian, « yes, 9-11 is horrible and we need to keep some ways to defend ourselves, but much more people die from cancer than from terrorism, we should still, like before, give tax cuts and let the market assign those resources to what is more important. »

If you think government is bad at assigning resources, then arguing for tax cuts and shrinking the government can be a way to maximize the utility function. We can argue for long about how efficient is the government and the market for a given purpose and in a given situation. But whatever we think about that issue, it doesn't change the government purpose is to maximize that complex utility function - by investing in cancer research or by giving tax cuts, but not by focusing on defense and military as it did after 9-11. But that wouldn't get applause in the post-9-11 traumatic context. Which is why I really don't get that last part, because it goes totally to the opposite of the rest of the post.

Or maybe I misunderstood something ?

Comment author: lessdazed 12 September 2011 06:25:02PM *  2 points [-]

The private sector and non-profits can take care of health care, scientific and health research, education, etc. sometimes better than, sometimes worse than, the government. They currently do much of it now.

Not so for national defense, espionage, etc.

It's the "first purpose" not because every marginal dollar is best spent there, but because that is its irreplaceable function: the use of violent, coercive force.