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

Comment author: tristanm 20 March 2017 10:54:00PM 4 points [-]

Should we expect more anti-rationalism in the future? I believe that we should, but let me outline what actual observations I think we will make.

Firstly, what do I mean by 'anti-rationality'? I don't mean that in particular people will criticize LessWrong. I mean it in the general sense of skepticism towards science / logical reasoning, skepticism towards technology, and a hostility to rationalistic methods applied to things like policy, politics, economics, education, and things like that.

And there are a few things I think we will observe first (some of which we are already observing) that will act as a catalyst for this. Number one, if economic inequality increases, I think a lot of the blame for this will be placed on the elite (as it always is), but in particular the cognitive elite (which makes up an ever-increasing share of the elite). Whatever the views of the cognitive elite are will become the philosophy of evil from the perspective of the masses. Because the elite are increasingly made up of very high intelligence people, many of whom with a connection to technology or Silicon Valley, we should expect that the dominant worldview of that environment will increasingly contrast with the worldview of those who haven't benefited or at least do not perceive themselves to benefit from the increasing growth and wealth driven by those people. What's worse, it seems that even if economic gains benefit those at the very bottom too, if inequality still increases, that is the only thing that will get noticed.

The second issue is that as technology improves, our powers of inference increase, and privacy defenses become weaker. It's already the case that we can predict a person's behavior to some degree and use that knowledge to our advantage (if you're trying to sell something to them, give them / deny them a loan, judge whether they would be a good employee, or predict whether or not they will commit a crime). There's already a push-back against this, in the sense that certain variables correlate with things we don't want them to, like race. This implies that the standard definition of privacy, in the sense of simply not having access to specific variables, isn't strong enough. What's desired is not being able to infer the values of certain variables, either, which is a much, much stronger condition. This is a deep, non-trivial problem that is unlikely to be solved quickly - and it runs into the same issues as all problems concerning discrimination do, which is how to define 'bias'. Is reducing bias at the expense of truth even a worthy goal? This shifts the debate towards programmers, statisticians and data scientists who are left with the burden of never making a mistake in this area. "Weapons of Math Destruction" is a good example of the way this issue gets treated.

We will also continue to observe a lot ideas from postmodernism being adopted as part of political ideology of the left. Postmodernism is basically the antithesis of rationalism, and is particularly worrying because it is a very adaptable and robust meme. And an ideology that essentially claims that rationality and truth are not even possible to define, let alone discover, is particularly dangerous if it is adopted as the mainstream mode of thought. So if a lot of the above problems get worse, I think there is a chance that rationalism will get blamed as it has been in the framework of postmodernism.

The summary of this is: As politics becomes warfare between worldviews rather than arguments for and against various beliefs, populist hostility gets directed towards what is perceived to be the worldview of the elite. The elite tend to be more rationalist, and so that hostility may get directed towards rationalism itself.

I think a lot more can be said about this, but maybe that's best left to a full post, I'm not sure. Let me know if this was too long / short or poorly worded.

Comment author: satt 24 March 2017 02:18:56AM 1 point [-]

I think a lot more can be said about this, but maybe that's best left to a full post, I'm not sure. Let me know if this was too long / short or poorly worded.

Writing style looks fine. My quibbles would be with the empirical claims/predictions/speculations.

Is the elite really more of a cognitive elite than in the past?

Strenze's 2007 meta-analysis (previously) analyzed how the correlations between IQ and education, IQ and occupational level, and IQ and income changed over time. The first two correlations decreased and the third held level at a modest 0.2.

Will elite worldviews increasingly diverge from the worldviews of those left behind economically?

Maybe, although just as there are forces for divergence, there are forces for convergence. The media can, and do, transmit elite-aligned worldviews just as they transmit elite-opposed worldviews, while elites fund political activity, and even the occasional political movement.

Would increasing inequality really prevent people from noticing economic gains for the poorest?

That notion sounds like hyperbole to me. The media and people's social networks are large, and can discuss many economic issues at once. Even people who spend a good chunk of time discussing inequality discuss gains (or losses) of those with low income or wealth.

For instance, Branko Milanović, whose standing in economics comes from his studies of inequality, is probably best known for his elephant chart, which presents income gains across the global income distribution, down to the 5th percentile. (Which percentile, incidentally, did not see an increase in real income between 1988 and 2008, according to the chart.)

Also, while the Anglosphere's discussed inequality a great deal in the 2010s, that seems to me a vogue produced by the one-two-three punch of the Great Recession, the Occupy movement, and the economist feeding frenzy around Thomas Piketty's book. Before then, I reckon most of the non-economists who drew special attention to economic inequality were left-leaning activists and pundits in particular. That could become the norm once again, and if so, concerns about poverty would likely become more salient to normal people than concerns about inequality.

Will the left continue adopting lots of ideas from postmodernism?

This is going to depend on how we define postmodernism, which is a vexed enough question that I won't dive deeply into it (at least TheAncientGeek and bogus have taken it up). If we just define (however dodgily) postmodernism to be a synonym for anti-rationalism, I'm not sure the left (in the Anglosphere, since that's the place we're presumably really talking about) is discernibly more postmodernist/anti-rationalist than it was during the campus/culture wars of the 1980s/1990s. People tend to point to specific incidents when they talk about this question, rather than try to systematically estimate change over time.

Granted, even if the left isn't adopting any new postmodern/anti-rationalist ideas, the ideas already bouncing around in that political wing might percolate further out and trigger a reaction against rationalism. Compounding the risk of such a reaction is the fact that the right wing can also operate as a conduit for those ideas — look at yer Alex Jones and Jason Reza Jorjani types.

Is politics becoming more a war of worldviews than arguments for & against various beliefs?

Maybe, but evidence is needed to answer the question. (And the dichotomy isn't a hard and fast one; wars of worldviews are, at least in part, made up of skirmishes where arguments are lobbed at specific beliefs.)

Comment author: Lumifer 21 March 2017 06:22:03PM *  0 points [-]

capital is a rather vacuous word. It basically means "stuff that might be useful for something"

Um. Not in economics where it is well-defined. Capital is resources needed for production of value. Your stack of decade-old manga might be useful for something, but it's not capital. The $20 bill in your wallet isn't capital either.

Comment author: satt 24 March 2017 12:55:43AM 0 points [-]

Um. Not in economics where it is well-defined. Capital is resources needed for production of value.

While capital is resources needed for production of value, it's a bit misleading to imply that that's how it's "well-defined" "in economics", since the reader is likely to come away with the impression that capital = resources needed to produce value, even though not all resources needed for production of value are capital. Economics also defines labour & land* as resources needed for production of value.

* And sometimes "entrepreneurship", but that's always struck me as a pretty bogus "factor of production" — as economists tacitly admit by omitting it as a variable from their production functions, even though it's as free to vary as labour.

In response to comment by satt on Am I Really an X?
Comment author: Viliam 10 March 2017 05:51:11PM 0 points [-]

One important difference: The linked article is a description of its author's experience. This article proposed a general explanation.

When someone provides a personal data point, as long as I don't suspect that person of lying, I have no reason to disagree. (Unless the person would conclude "everyone else is just like me", which would be the sin of generalisation from one example.)

Here, Gram_Stone provides one hypothesis, Zack_M_Davis provides another... and there are many people who believe to be experts in the topic and support one or the other... unless of course they merely want to support their tribe. None of these dozens of experts provides a scientific reference for their side; apparently doing so is superfluous because the matter is settled.

Historically, we also had the downvote button.

In response to comment by Viliam on Am I Really an X?
Comment author: satt 24 March 2017 12:23:00AM *  0 points [-]

I recognize the difference, but I don't think it's an important one for the purposes of deciding whether to oppose a type of discussion. (I wouldn't expect, in general, a person's honest report of their experience to be much more valuable than someone else's honest attempt to sketch a general model of some phenomenon.) It's also a different objection to Dagon's, which is basically "boo political/social identity, because identity is hard to talk about!".


Edit to add:

Historically, we also had the downvote button.

Yep, if we still had the downvote button, I probably would've just downvoted Dagon's comment and left it at that.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 20 March 2017 09:49:08PM 2 points [-]

A) the audit notion ties into having our feedback cycles nice and tight, which we all like here.

B) This would be a little more interesting if he linked to his advance predictions on the war so we could compare how he did. And of course if he had posted a bunch of other predictions so we could see how he did on those (to avoid cherry-picking). That would rule out rear-view-mirror effects.

Comment author: satt 24 March 2017 12:13:17AM 1 point [-]

This would be a little more interesting if he linked to his advance predictions on the war so we could compare how he did. And of course if he had posted a bunch of other predictions so we could see how he did on those (to avoid cherry-picking).

We may be able to get part of the way there. I found the following suspiciously prediction-like (and maybe even testable!) statements by Ctrl-Fing the pre-invasion posts on D-Squared's blog.

From October 21, 2002:

On the other hand, I am also convinced by Max Sawicky’s argument that Iraq is likely to be the first excursion of an American policy of empire-building in the Middle East, which is likely to be disastrous under any possible performance metric.

But, I retain my original belief that improvement in Iraq is politically impossible unless there is some sort of shooting war in the area culminating in the removal of Saddam Hussein. I don’t set much score by “national-building”, and don’t really believe that what the Gulf needs is more US client states, and I never believed any of the scare stories related to the “WMD” acronym which is currently doing such sterling duty in picking out weblog authors who don’t have a fucking clue what they’re talking about. [...]

So, how can we square these beliefs a) that something has to be done and b) that if something is done, it will be a disastrous imperial adventure by George Bush.

February 20, 2003:

But apparently, having given up on the bin Laden connection and the Saddam-has-nukes idea, we are now going to be emotionally blackmailed into a war. In my experience, good ideas don’t usually need quite so many outright lies told to support them, but what the hey.

This February 26, 2003 post doesn't explicitly make predictions, but it's clearly written from the premise that the Bush administration would "completely fuck[] up" "the introduction of democracy to Iraq". Compare the end of the footnote on this February 5, 2003 post.

There might be empirical claims relating to WMD in later posts. Such might still count as predictions because the amount of WMD to be found in Iraq remained contentious for some time after the invasion.

Comment author: bogus 23 March 2017 10:25:11AM 4 points [-]

Home appliances have improved on measures other than durability

Older home appliances were also a lot more expensive in real terms (that is, controlling for inflation). Today, that same expense will generally buy you a "heavy-duty/professional use" version of the appliance that will be just as durable as the decades-old version was, and provide all of these other benefits for free. If anything, the real mystery is why these cheap, throwaway home appliances have gotten so popular all of a sudden. The general technological improvement you point to is actually a plausible candidate here - why buy an appliance that's optimized for durability, when in five or ten years you'll probably be shopping for a new model in order to get those other benefits?

Comment author: satt 23 March 2017 10:02:59PM *  2 points [-]

Older home appliances were also a lot more expensive in real terms (that is, controlling for inflation).

A point brought home to me by the MetaFilter discussion of the article linked in our OP:

Part of it is that the appliances are also literally cheaper. It looks like a full size fridge cost about $500 in the 60s, which works out to $3500 adjusted for inflation.

The example I was going to use was washers and dryers, which cost about $385 for the set in 1959, or about $3200 in current money.

I found a stash of business records from 1913, for a company that sold quality socks.

Adjusting to today's money, a pair of these socks cost $70. But they were really nice socks, apparently. The kind you would mend with your darning kit.

My grandmother paid roughly $7 for it [a Westinghouse oscillating fan] in 1938, which was a lot for a blue-collar family to spend in the Depression, and which amounts to $117 in 2017 dollars.

Makes sense when I think about it. As Yvain documents, enough big-ticket items have become so much more expensive in the US that a bunch of other goods or services must've become much cheaper — otherwise the US inflation rate would always be massive.

Comment author: michaelkeenan 13 March 2017 06:02:49PM 1 point [-]

I hope someone can help me find a blog post or webpage that I've seen before but can't find: it's someone describing a power law of scientists. There's a top level who have drastically more output than the level below, who are drastically more productive than the level below that. There's only a few at the top level, and a few hundred at level 2, and a few thousand at level 3. I think he mentions one scientist being level 0.5 - notably more productive than almost anyone else. It was on a relatively unstyled website, maybe Scott Aaronson's.

Anyone familiar with that?

Comment author: satt 13 March 2017 07:50:25PM 5 points [-]
In response to Am I Really an X?
Comment author: Dagon 05 March 2017 01:06:28AM 18 points [-]

Gah. Given we can't even measure or answer "is this what it's like to be another human?", let's not bring political/social identity into this forum.

In response to comment by Dagon on Am I Really an X?
Comment author: satt 08 March 2017 12:42:39AM 1 point [-]

I strongly disagree. (This is a special case of my general disagreement with strong forms of Politics-is-the-Mind-Killer-type objections to discussing capital-P Political topics.) I also want to amplify Gram_Stone's observation that this kind of topic was historically acceptable on LW.

Comment author: Lumifer 23 February 2017 01:29:50AM 1 point [-]

We do not have the level of political sanity necessary to deal with disruptive technologies

We never had and yet we all are here.

Comment author: satt 25 February 2017 03:51:15PM 0 points [-]
Comment author: Viliam 22 February 2017 01:12:30PM 4 points [-]

Something in your comment changed my... not exactly opinion, more like feeling... about comparing social life at school and at job.

Until now, I was thinking like this: At school you are thrown together with random kids from your neighborhood. But when you grow up, you choose your career, sometimes you even choose a different city or country, and then you are surrounded with people who made a similar choice. Therefore... not sure how to put this into words... your social environment at job is a result of more "optimization freedom" than your social environment at school.

But suddenly it seems completely the other way round: Sure, the job is filtering for people somehow, but maybe it doesn't filter exactly by the criteria you care about the most. For example, you may care about people being nice and rational, but you career choice only allowed you to filter by education and social class. So, more optimization, but not necessarily in the direction you care about. And then at the job you are stuck with the colleagues you get on your project. However, at school, you had the freedom to pick a few people among dozens, and hang out with them.

I guess what I am trying to say that if your criteria for people you want to associate with have a large component of education and social class, you will probably find the job better than school, socially; but if your criteria are about something else, you will probably find the job worse than school. (And university probably gives you the best of both worlds: a preselection of people, among whom you can further select.)

Comment author: satt 22 February 2017 08:08:49PM 2 points [-]

Yep.

The school → university transition might be the most interesting one WRT tristanm's question, because although it theoretically offers the best opportunity to select for rationality, in practice a lot of people can't or won't exploit the opportunity. I imagine even quite nerdy students, when deciding where to apply to university, didn't spend long asking themselves, "how can I make sure I wind up at a campus with lots of rationalists?" (I sure didn't!)

Comment author: skeptical_lurker 22 February 2017 01:00:28PM *  1 point [-]

Well, in one comment a friend was advocating violence against perhaps the most right wing 10-15% of the population.

Comment author: satt 22 February 2017 07:29:03PM 0 points [-]

!

That clarifies things somewhat.

View more: Next