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

You have a set amount of "weirdness points". Spend them wisely.

15 peter_hurford 27 November 2014 09:09PM

I've heard of the concept of "weirdness points" many times before, but after a bit of searching I can't find a definitive post describing the concept, so I've decided to make one.  As a disclaimer, I don't think the evidence backing this post is all that strong and I am skeptical, but I do think it's strong enough to be worth considering, and I'm probably going to make some minor life changes based on it.


Chances are that if you're reading this post, you're probably a bit weird in some way.

No offense, of course.  In fact, I actually mean it as a compliment.  Weirdness is incredibly important.  If people weren't willing to deviate from society and hold weird beliefs, we wouldn't have had the important social movements that ended slavery and pushed back against racism, that created democracy, that expanded social roles for women, and that made the world a better place in numerous other ways.

Many things we take for granted now as why our current society as great were once... weird.


Joseph Overton theorized that policy develops through six stagesunthinkable, then radical, then acceptable, then sensible, then popular, then actual policy.  We could see this happen with many policies -- currently same-sex marriage is making its way from popular to actual policy, but not to long ago it was merely acceptable, and not too long before that it was pretty radical.

Some good ideas are currently in the radical range.  Effective altruism itself is such a collection of beliefs typical people would consider pretty radical.  Many people think donating 3% of their income is a lot, let alone the 10% demand that Giving What We Can places, or the 50%+ that some people in the community do.

And that's not all.  Others would suggest that everyone become vegetarian, advocating for open borders and/or universal basic income, theabolishment of gendered language, having more resources into mitigating existential riskfocusing on research into Friendly AIcryonicsand curing death, etc.

While many of these ideas might make the world a better place if made into policy, all of these ideas are pretty weird.


Weirdness, of course, is a drawback.  People take weird opinions less seriously.

The absurdity heuristic is a real bias that people -- even you -- have.  If an idea sounds weird to you, you're less likely to try and believe it,even if there's overwhelming evidence.  And social proof matters -- if less people believe something, people will be less likely to believe it.  Lastly, don't forget the halo effect -- if one part of you seems weird, the rest of you will seem weird too!

...But we can use this knowledge to our advantage.  The halo effect can work in reverse -- if we're normal in many ways, our weird beliefs will seem more normal too.  If we have a notion of weirdness as a kind of currency that we have a limited supply of, we can spend it wisely, without looking like a crank.


All of this leads to the following actionable principles:

Recognize you only have a few "weirdness points" to spend.  Trying to convince all your friends to donate 50% of their income to MIRI, become a vegan, get a cryonics plan, and demand open borders will be met with a lot of resistance.   But -- I hypothesize -- that if you pick one of these ideas and push it, you'll have a lot more success.

Spend your weirdness points effectively.  Perhaps it's really important that people advocate for open borders.  But, perhaps, getting people to donate to developing world health would overall do more good.  In that case, I'd focus on moving donations to the developing world and leave open borders alone, even though it is really important.  You should triage your weirdness effectively the same way you would triage your donations.

Clean up and look good.  Lookism is a problem in society, and I wish people could look "weird" and still be socially acceptable.  But if you're a guy wearing a dress in public, or some punk rocker vegan advocate, recognize that you're spending your weirdness points fighting lookism, which means less weirdness points to spend promoting veganism or something else.

Advocate for more "normal" policies that are almost as good.   Of course, allocating your "weirdness points" on a few issues doesn't mean you have to stop advocating for other important issues -- just consider being less weird about it.  Perhaps universal basic income truly would be a very effective policy to help the poor in the United States.  But reforming the earned income tax credit and relaxing zoning laws would also both do a lot to help the poor in the US, and such suggestions aren't weird.

Use the foot-in-door technique and the door-in-face technique.  The foot-in-door technique involves starting with a small ask and gradually building up the ask, such as suggesting people donate a little bit effectively, and then gradually get them to take the Giving What We Can Pledge.  The door-in-face technique involves making a big ask (e.g., join Giving What We Can) and then substituting it for a smaller ask, like the Life You Can Save pledge or Try Out Giving.

Reconsider effective altruism's clustering of beliefs.  Right now, effective altruism is associated strongly with donating a lot of money and donating effectively, less strongly with impact in career choice, veganism, and existential risk.  Of course, I'm not saying that we should drop some of these memes completely.  But maybe EA should disconnect a bit more and compartmentalize -- for example, leaving AI risk to MIRI, for example, and not talk about it much, say, on 80,000 Hours.  And maybe instead of asking people to both give more AND give more effectively, we could focus more exclusively on asking people to donate what they already do more effectively.

Evaluate the above with more research.  While I think the evidence base behind this is decent, it's not great and I haven't spent that much time developing it.  I think we should look into this more with a review of the relevant literature and some careful, targeted, market research on the individual beliefs within effective altruism (how weird are they?) and how they should be connected or left disconnected.  Maybe this has already been done some?


Also discussed on the EA Forum and EA Facebook group.

Meetup : Warsaw December Meetup

0 m_k 27 November 2014 03:34PM

Discussion article for the meetup : Warsaw December Meetup

WHEN: 05 December 2014 04:00:00PM (+0100)

WHERE: Warsaw

When? On the first week of December. Vote and choose the exact date: http://doodle.com/53ak3yaadmtux9vf

Where? To be agreed later.

Join our Facebook group for details: https://www.facebook.com/groups/lwwarsaw/

Discussion article for the meetup : Warsaw December Meetup

Meetup : Urbana-Champaign: Seeking advice

0 Manfred 27 November 2014 12:58AM

Discussion article for the meetup : Urbana-Champaign: Seeking advice

WHEN: 30 November 2014 02:00:00PM (-0600)

WHERE: 206 S. Cedar St, Urbana, IL

Sometimes, one might even say usually, other people know more than me. This is great, because then they can give me advice.

Let's talk about how to evaluate advice resources, and how to ask, and reinforce how useful this can be.

Discussion article for the meetup : Urbana-Champaign: Seeking advice

The Hostile Arguer

19 Error 27 November 2014 12:30AM

“Your instinct is to talk your way out of the situation, but that is an instinct born of prior interactions with reasonable people of good faith, and inapplicable to this interaction…” Ken White

One of the Less Wrong Study Hall denizens has been having a bit of an issue recently. He became an atheist some time ago. His family was in denial about it for a while, but in recent days they have 1. stopped with the denial bit, and 2. been less than understanding about it. In the course of discussing the issue during break, this line jumped out at me:

“I can defend my views fine enough, just not to my parents.”

And I thought: Well, of course you can’t, because they’re not interested in your views. At all.

I never had to deal with the Religion Argument with my parents, but I did spend my fair share of time failing to argumentatively defend myself. I think I have some useful things to say to those younger and less the-hell-out-of-the-house than me.

A clever arguer is someone that has already decided on their conclusion and is making the best case they possibly can for it. A clever arguer is not necessarily interested in what you currently believe; they are arguing for proposition A and against proposition B. But there is a specific sort of clever arguer, one that I have difficulty defining explicitly but can characterize fairly easily. I call it, as of today, the Hostile Arguer.

It looks something like this:

When your theist parents ask you, “What? Why would you believe that?! We should talk about this,” they do not actually want to know why you believe anything, despite the form of the question. There is no genuine curiosity there. They are instead looking for ammunition. Which, if they are cleverer arguers than you, you are likely to provide. Unless you are epistemically perfect, you believe things that you cannot, on demand, come up with an explicit defense for. Even important things.

In accepting that the onus is solely on you to defend your position – which is what you are implicitly doing, in engaging the question – you are putting yourself at a disadvantage. That is the real point of the question: to bait you into an argument that your interlocutor knows you will lose, whereupon they will expect you to acknowledge defeat and toe the line they define.

Someone in the chat compared this to politics, which makes sense, but I don’t think it’s the best comparison. Politicians usually meet each other as equals. So do debate teams. This is more like a cop asking a suspect where they were on the night of X, or an employer asking a job candidate how much they made at their last job. Answering can hurt you, but can never help you. The question is inherently a trap.

The central characteristic of a hostile arguer is the insincere question. “Why do you believe there is/isn’t a God?” may be genuine curiosity from an impartial friend, or righteous fury from a zealous authority, even though the words themselves are the same. What separates them is the response to answers. The curious friend updates their model of you with your answers; the Hostile Arguer instead updates their battle plan.[1]

So, what do you do about it?

Advice often fails to generalize, so take this with a grain of salt. It seems to me that argument in this sense has at least some of the characteristics of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Cooperation represents the pursuit of mutual understanding; defection represents the pursuit of victory in debate. Once you are aware that they are defecting, cooperating in return is highly non-optimal. On the other hand, mutual defection – a flamewar online, perhaps, or a big fight in real life in which neither party learns much of anything except how to be pissed off – kind of sucks, too. Especially if you have reason to care, on a personal level, about your opponent. If they’re family, you probably do.

It seems to me that getting out of the game is the way to go, if you can do it.

Never try to defend a proposition against a hostile arguer.[2] They do not care. Your best arguments will fall on deaf ears. Your worst will be picked apart by people who are much better at this than you. Your insecurities will be exploited. If they have direct power over you, it will be abused.

This is especially true for parents, where obstinate disagreement can be viewed as disrespect, and where their power over you is close to absolute. I’m sort of of the opinion that all parents should be considered epistemically hostile until one moves out, as a practical application of the SNAFU Principle. If you find yourself wanting to acknowledge defeat in order to avoid imminent punishment, this is what is going on.

If you have some disagreement important enough for this advice to be relevant, you probably genuinely care about what you believe, and you probably genuinely want to be understood. On some level, you want the other party to “see things your way.” So my second piece of advice is this: Accept that they won’t, and especially accept that it will not happen as a result of anything you say in an argument. If you must explain yourself, write a blog or something and point them to it a few years later. If it’s a religious argument, maybe write the Atheist Sequences. Or the Theist Sequences, if that’s your bent. But don’t let them make you defend yourself on the spot.

The previous point, incidentally, was my personal failure through most of my teenage years (although my difficulties stemmed from school, not religion). I really want to be understood, and I really approach discussion as a search for mutual understanding rather than an attempt at persuasion, by default. I expect most here do the same, which is one reason I feel so at home here. The failure mode I’m warning against is adopting this approach with people who will not respect it and will, in fact, punish your use of it.[3]

It takes two to have an argument, so don’t be the second party, ever, and they will eventually get tired of talking to a wall. You are not morally obliged to justify yourself to people who have pre-judged your justifications. You are not morally obliged to convince the unconvinceable. Silence is always an option. “No comment” also works well, if repeated enough times.

There is the possibility that the other party is able and willing to punish you for refusing to engage. Aside from promoting them from “treat as Hostile Arguer” to “treat as hostile, period”, I’m not sure what to do about this. Someone in the Hall suggested supplying random, irrelevant justifications, as requiring minimal cognitive load while still subverting the argument. I’m not certain how well that will work. It sounds plausible, but I suspect that if someone is running the algorithm “punish all responses that are not ‘yes, I agree and I am sorry and I will do or believe as you say’”, then you’re probably screwed (and should get out sooner rather than later if at all possible).

None of the above advice implies that you are right and they are wrong. You may still be incorrect on whatever factual matter the argument is about. The point I’m trying to make is that, in arguments of this form, the argument is not really about correctness. So if you care about correctness, don’t have it.

Above all, remember this: Tapping out is not just for Less Wrong.

(thanks to all LWSH people who offered suggestions on this post)

  1. I’m using religious authorities harshing on atheists as the example here because that was the immediate cause of this post, but atheists take caution: If you’re asking someone “why do you believe in God?” with the primary intent of cutting their answer down, you’re guilty of this, too.  ↩

  2. Someone commenting on a draft of this post asked how to tell when you’re dealing with a Hostile Arguer. This is the sort of micro-social question that I’m not very good at and probably shouldn’t opine on. Suggestions requested in the comments.  ↩

  3. It occurs to me that the Gay Talk might have a lot in common with this as well. For those who’ve been on the wrong side of that: Did that also feel like a mismatched battle, with you trying to be understood, and them trying to break you down?  ↩

Meetup : Frankfurt

0 Falstofe 26 November 2014 02:31PM

Discussion article for the meetup : Frankfurt

WHEN: 07 December 2014 02:00:00PM (+0100)

WHERE: Heerstraße, Frankfurt

Our next meetup will be on Sunday, December 7, in Heerstraße.

Phone: +49 151 42321157

Preliminary agenda:

  • 14:00–15:00 Arrivals, Unstructured Time
  • 15:00–15:30 Living Luminously
  • 15:30–16:00 CFAR Workshops
  • 16:00–16:30 Lightning Talks
  • 16:30–17:30 Strategic Planning
  • 17:30–18:00 Goal Setting
  • from 18:00 Dinner, Socializing

Join us on our mailing list: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/less-wrong-frankfurt

Discussion article for the meetup : Frankfurt

Meetup : Utrecht: a critique of effective altruism

0 immasix 22 November 2014 07:10AM

Discussion article for the meetup : Utrecht: a critique of effective altruism

WHEN: 04 January 2015 02:00:00PM (+0100)

WHERE: La Place, Utrecht, Rijnkade 5

For details, see meetup.com: http://www.meetup.com/LWEANL/events/218834877/ , which is supposed to be up-to-date.

Discussion article for the meetup : Utrecht: a critique of effective altruism

Meetup : Utrecht

0 immasix 22 November 2014 07:09AM

Discussion article for the meetup : Utrecht

WHEN: 21 December 2014 02:00:00PM (+0100)

WHERE: La Place, Utrecht, Rijnkade 5

For details, see meetup.com: http://www.meetup.com/LWEANL/events/218834861/, which is supposed to be up-to-date.

Discussion article for the meetup : Utrecht

Meetup : Utrecht: Rationality Games

0 immasix 22 November 2014 07:07AM

Discussion article for the meetup : Utrecht: Rationality Games

WHEN: 14 December 2014 02:00:00PM (+0100)

WHERE: La Place, Utrecht, Rijnkade 5

For details, see meetup.com: http://www.meetup.com/LWEANL/events/218834660/, which is supposed to be up-to-date.

Discussion article for the meetup : Utrecht: Rationality Games

Weekly LW Meetups

0 FrankAdamek 21 November 2014 06:22PM

New meetups (or meetups with a hiatus of more than a year) are happening in:

Irregularly scheduled Less Wrong meetups are taking place in:

The remaining meetups take place in cities with regular scheduling, but involve a change in time or location, special meeting content, or simply a helpful reminder about the meetup:

Locations with regularly scheduled meetups: Austin, Berkeley, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, Buffalo, Cambridge UK, Canberra, Columbus, London, Madison WI, Melbourne, Moscow, Mountain View, New York, Philadelphia, Research Triangle NC, Seattle, Sydney, Toronto, Vienna, Washington DC, Waterloo, and West Los Angeles. There's also a 24/7 online study hall for coworking LWers.

continue reading »

Meetup : West LA—The Relativity of Wrong

1 OpenThreadGuy 21 November 2014 01:48PM

Discussion article for the meetup : West LA—The Relativity of Wrong

WHEN: 26 November 2014 07:00:00PM (-0800)

WHERE: 11066 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

How to Find Us: Go into this Del Taco. We will be in the back room if possible.

Parking is free in the lot out front or on the street nearby.

Discussion: Human ignorance is vast, so human knowledge is often understated. The domains of our ignorance keep getting smaller and further away from the decimal point. We will be discussing Isaac Asimov's important essay The Relativity of Wrong.

Recommended Reading:

No prior exposure to Less Wrong is required; this will be generally accessible. In fact, this is a 101-level topic, only a touch more advanced than basic map and territory. While I'm at it, I want to mention that a few of us habitually show up early, so you should feel free to.

Discussion article for the meetup : West LA—The Relativity of Wrong

View more: Next