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chaosmage comments on How to talk rationally about cults - Less Wrong Discussion

6 Post author: Viliam 08 January 2017 08:12PM

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Comment author: chaosmage 08 January 2017 11:01:16PM 4 points [-]

Since downvoting is disabled, I'll criticize you instead.

You're presenting the classic anti-cult narrative that is being repeated since the eighties and that is available on the web in thousands of places. In fact, I would not be surprised if it turned out you copied and pasted much of this. This has no obvious relevance to LessWrong and your attempt to restate this outdated narrative in LW lingo does not change that.

A few more substantial criticisms: Jonestown, your only actual example has always been the extreme exception (in modern times), the 9/11 of cults. There are a few other much smaller examples of cults violence, but most cults are very different from that and much less extreme than you describe. They are really mostly a waste of time that people stay in because of the sunk costs fallacy. Since this narrative you copied was created, the number of cults has gone down noticably and their members' average age has gone up. The ones that remain perpetuate themselves mostly by having children, rather than "brainwashing" new members, much like other religions do. And leaving is generally easy, except if you have other family members inside.

Comment author: The_Jaded_One 09 January 2017 09:02:04PM 7 points [-]

Since downvoting is disabled, I'll criticize you instead.

This sentiment indicates to me that LW needs a bit of a culture change. It's a decent article, I feel informed by having read it. Probably not perfect and not a Yvain level insight about the world. But why do you want to downvote it? Couldn't you just not upvote it?

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 January 2017 10:52:31AM 3 points [-]

It's a decent article, I feel informed by having read it.

Many propaganda pieces make a person feel informed by reading them.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 11 January 2017 03:45:52AM 3 points [-]

They write propaganda, you spread awareness, I fact-check. Is it possible to rigorously define the difference between these, or do they mainly vary by connotation? If the latter, perhaps it'd be better to stick to labels like "true" and "false".

Comment author: ChristianKl 11 January 2017 03:39:35PM 0 points [-]

There's writing that makes a person felt informed after reading it by giving the person easy answers to complex questions and there's writing that tries to communicate complex facts about reality. Both can be right or wrong.

The standard of "feeling informed" is bad for judging the quality of a political argument. Plenty people feel informed after watching Zeitgeist.

You can make people feel informed when you tell them it's all due to the Jews, but that's no justification for the political speech and the created feeling in no way justifies the political speech that's used for persecution. And this political narrative in the OP is used presently in France for persecution of organisations like the Landmark forum.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 11 January 2017 04:03:58AM 0 points [-]

It's possible to fool people's sense of "feeling informed".

For instance, LSD seems to often induce a sense of insight and significance ... including sometimes attributing cosmic meaning to the patterns perceived in the pebbles in a concrete wall.

Or, for that matter, as some of the psychological studies described in Cialdini's Influence or Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow appear to have failed to replicate, what is there to say about the sense of feeling informed that accrued to many of us who took them to be insightful?

Comment author: chaosmage 10 January 2017 02:37:02PM *  2 points [-]

I want to downvote it because it lazily rehashes outdated clichés.

This type of description of "cults" has always had a bunch of problems. Let's be generous and disregard the "cult" label (although it is entirely discredited in the scientific study of what is now referred to as New Religious Movements) because we can replace it with some other word. Still, this does not look at actual existing cults at all. People's Temple self-destructed almost 40 years ago. There are thousands of other cults (tens of thousands if you include Asia) and this description disregards all of them. It has no basis of data whatsoever.

What it has is a "checklist" of criteria that are very fuzzy and offer no clarity on what is or isn't a cult. All these do is provide a lot of threatening language to reinforce the idea that cults are dangerous. Which is not a proven fact. There's solid evidence certain specific group have certain specific dangers - Scientology is the big one. But "cultishness" in general, i.e. basically religiosity with heightened tribalism, is not established to be dangerous. [Edit: Not established to be more dangerous than mainstream religion.] And this type of "cult checklist" narrative distracts from this simple fact by just piling vague threatening assertions onto vague threatening assertions.

I would downvote this anywhere, but on LW, where we're supposed to think critically, check our sources and believe only what we have good reason to believe, it seems particularly inappropriate.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 10 January 2017 04:38:53PM 0 points [-]

I agree with your definition of "cultishness" as "religiosity with heightened tribalism." I think it is very, very obvious that this is more dangerous than mainstream religion and not something that needs some special method to "establish."

Comment author: bogus 10 January 2017 05:14:46PM 0 points [-]

"religiosity with heightened tribalism." I think it is very, very obvious that this is more dangerous than mainstream religion

Well, that depends what you mean by "mainstream religion" then, doesn't it? I mean, obviously Taoism, Buddhism (most varieties thereof, at least) and even Sufi Islam are not particularly dangerous, but some mainstream religions are in fact intensely tribal.

Comment author: Viliam 09 January 2017 12:24:25AM *  7 points [-]

I made a summary of what is written out there; didn't try to invent anything new, other than using words that felt more natural to me. Maybe it's too obvious and well-known, but I don't remember it being mentioned here in the past, when it was debated whether LW or solstice celebration or whatever was cultish.

I know a few people who got involved with cults by having their boss converted to a cult, and then receiving an option to either convert too, or lose the job. Happened about a decade ago.

These days, I believe political cults are the most popular among young people. SJWs have all the red flags, including the disfellowshipping of former friends who disagree with their sacred beliefs. I believe it is useful to remind people that what they see is actually just another instance of an old pattern.

Comment author: bogus 09 January 2017 12:30:56AM *  2 points [-]

These days, I believe political cults are the most popular among young people.

Maybe in the West. But Da'ish and other varieties of militant Islam are basically doomsday cults, and have all the usual marks of same. Note that there are in fact flavors of "strict religion", even in Islam (consider the "quietist sects"), that are not nearly as dangerous in practice, either to the individual or to the surrounding community - and the "red flags" seem to make all the difference there. A "quietist" Muslim might know that he's supposed to "pray five times a day every day, no matter what you were doing at that time" and "shun the infidels" at some level, but he won't take these things nearly as seriously as someone who's actually dangerous - the "cult" is not totalizing for him and real-world concerns will obviously take over at some point.

Comment author: niceguyanon 09 January 2017 03:58:05PM 4 points [-]

Is your objection really that the topic has no relevance to LW or that because the information is found in so many other places that it has no relevance?

I appreciate summaries on LW even if they are found elsewhere because it provides for comments and discussion from a very particular group whose input which I prioritize(over other internet strangers). I often do a quick search on LW for new ideas I am exposed to, to get the LW spin. Say you just discovered this forum and you decided you like how everyone aspires to be a rationalist, but you have gaps in your knowledge about cults, this article might be far more informational than what you can find on a Google search. A Google search on cults leads to lots of websites on christian apologetics, not exactly the places I would encourage people to go to find truth. The information can be found in thousands of places but the places matter– a rationality oriented forum vs a website you are not quite sure of it's motives.

Comment author: chaosmage 10 January 2017 02:39:01PM 2 points [-]

That's exactly my point. The information posted here is a reformulation of exactly the type of material at Christian apologetics sites. It does not deserve to be in a place where you would encourage people to go to find truth.

Comment author: niceguyanon 10 January 2017 03:54:21PM 0 points [-]

I understand your criticism much better now.

Comment author: The_Jaded_One 09 January 2017 08:58:45PM 2 points [-]

You're presenting the classic anti-cult narrative that is being repeated since the eighties and that is available on the web in thousands of places.

I appreciate it when people take the time to read and summarize material for me.

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 January 2017 10:59:25AM *  3 points [-]

I appreciate it when people take the time to read and summarize material for me.

To me this article doesn't feel like an attempt to summarize the views of different authors. It only refers to the criteria put forward by one author (Robert Jay Lifton).

The last good article on this topic on LW was written by Gwern. In it he writes:

Researching this was very difficult because the relevant religious studies area, while apparently completely repudiating most public beliefs about the subject [...]

Viliam presents the old narrative as the rational way to think about the subject when the prior art on LW happens to be that the beliefs associated with the narrative have been debunked by studies. Viliam doesn't attempt to reference any empiric evidence for why we should accept the narrative but simply presents it uncritically.

Comment author: bogus 10 January 2017 05:07:49PM *  1 point [-]

The last good article on this topic on LW was written by Gwern. In it he writes:

Researching this was very difficult because the relevant religious studies area, while apparently completely repudiating most public beliefs about the subject [...]

I'm not sure how Gwern's article is supposed to be taken as a criticism of this post. Its main thrust seems to be that the bulk of "New Religious Movements" do not actually share the "red flags" and "brainwashing" that OP is discussing here - that these are mostly "outdated clichés" as someone else said. And this may well be right, but when we do see groups that clearly use these mechanisms in the real world, it seems quite justified to regard these as exploitative, even when most "new religions" are not.

Comment author: VAuroch 09 January 2017 04:50:14AM *  1 point [-]

What LW lingo did he use? I didn't see it.

Also, I know at least one person who wasn't born when the Jonestown cult panic ended and got into (and thankfully out of) a cult very much like the one described.

Comment author: Viliam 10 January 2017 09:39:21AM 1 point [-]

What LW lingo did he use?

Things I am aware of:

Guided by an intelligence higher than you

In original it's called "mystical manipulation", but it felt to me not obvious enough, especially if we talk about non-religious groups. Members of those groups would probably object that there is nothing "mystical", only someone being super smart. I tried to provide a description that a member of the group would have a chance to recognize.

Map over the territory

In original it's "doctrine over person", but the meaning is similar; or maybe 'group map over individual map' would be better in some situations.

Comment author: Elo 08 January 2017 11:17:43PM 0 points [-]

Viliam is a long time member. Which strikes me as odd that he would bring such a topic.