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Vote Qualifications, Not Issues

10 Post author: jimrandomh 26 September 2010 08:26PM

In the United States and other countries, we elect our leaders. Each individual voter chooses some criteria by which to decide who they vote for, and the aggregate result of all those criteria determines who gets to lead. The public narrative overwhelmingly supports one strategy for deciding between politicians: look up their positions on important and contentious issues, and vote for the one you agree with. Unfortunately, this strategy is wrong, and the result is inferior leadership, polarization into camps and never-ending arguments. Instead, voters should be encouraged to vote based on the qualifications that matter: their intelligence, their rationality, their integrity, and their ability to judge character.

If an issue really is contentious, then a voter without specific inside knowledge should not expect their opinion to be more accurate than chance. If everyone votes based on a few contentious issues, then politicians have a powerful incentive to lie about their stance on those issues. But the real problem is, most of the important things that a politician does have nothing to do with the controversies at all. Whether a budget is good or bad depends on how well its author can distinguish between efficient and inefficient spending, over many small projects and expenditures that will never be reviewed by the voters, and not on the total amount taxed or spent. Whether a regulation is good or bad depends on how well its author can predict the effects and engineer the small details for optimal effect, and not on whether it is more or less strict overall. Whether foreign policies succeed or fail depends on how well the diplomats negotiate, and not on any strategy that could be determined years earlier before the election.

Voters know a lot less about governance than the politicians who study it full time, and sometimes, that leads them to incorrect conclusions. This can force politicians to choose between making the right decision, based on inside knowledge or on complexities that voters wouldn't understand, and making the wrong decision to please voters. It is not possible to know how much should be taxed or spent without studying the current budget in detail. It is not possible to know how banks should be regulated without spending years studying economics. In theory, experts can spread the correct answers to these questions in the media. But neither the media nor the public can tell right answers from wrong ones, and sometimes even the experts and the media have insufficient information. It is not possible to know how much money should be spent on defense without reading classified military intelligence briefings. It is not possible to know which foreign policies will work without talking to foreign leaders.

Instead of looking at positions, look for signs that indicate their skills.  Hearing them speak is good, but only when they're forced to improvise and not reading someone else's words from a teleprompter - ie, interviews, not speeches. And be sure to notice whenever they seem to ignore the question and answer a different one instead; that means they couldn't answer the original question. Look up each candidate's alma matter and GPA, if available. If they've held office before, try to find out how much corruption there was under them, and how much of it was pre-existing.

Unfortunately, actually determining how qualified a candidate is can be extremely difficult, we are likely to fall prey to confirmation bias - that is, we tend to emphasize evidence that candidates we like are qualified, and ignore evidence that candidates we don't like aren't qualified. This is especially likely to occur when the information we do have is in a form such that it can't easily be compared. For example, if candidate A held an office and successfully reduced corruption, and candidate B held a similar office but failed to do so, then we should strongly favor candidate A; but what usually happens is that we only have one side of the comparison. For example, it may be that candidate A successfully reduced corruption, but candidate B led a department which didn't have much corruption to begin with, or which was never inspected by journalists closely enough to determine what effect candidate B had. In order to defend against this bias, we should decide how significant a piece of evidence would be before we hear which candidates they apply to.

We should also try to blind ourselves to information that we know will bias us. Unfortunately, the media makes this very difficult; nearly every description of a political candidate will also mention their political party, and this is the one fact we most need to avoid! We need information sources that provide what's actually relevant, and hide what's biasing and irrelevant. We should encourage politicians to take standardized tests and publish their scores. We have sites that help compare politicians' stances on issues; we should encourage those same sites to also provide GPAs and name alma matters, link to interview transcripts, and collect blinded expert opinions on the level of understanding those transcripts display.

Finally, encouraging voters to pay attention to contentious issues encourages affective death spirals, which lead to petty strife and never-ending arguments. Suppose someone starts with a slight preference for party A over party B, and starts studying political issues. They will have a slight preference for sources that favor party A, and party A's positions. Then, when an issue is too close to decide on its merits, they don't acknowledge that; instead, they adopt whichever position their party prefers. Then they go back to compare the parties, and find that party A agrees with them much more than party B does (since their previous information was biased that way), and and strengthen their preference for A over B. In the next iteration, they switch to information sources that agree with their new position, and which are slightly more biased. After enough iterations of this, voters can end up believing that they are informed and impartial, and that party B eats kittens.

Don't waste time arguing about issues which already have entrenched positions, with intelligent people on both sides, unless the issue is actually going to be on an upcoming ballot that you are going to vote on directly. If you're voting on politicians, talk about the politicians themselves - their integrity, their intelligence, and their rationality. That's what really matters, and that's what should win your support.

Comments (185)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 27 September 2010 05:02:22PM *  18 points [-]

I believe OP is correct that voting on issues leads to affective death spirals. But the idea that we can vote on character presupposes a population composed soley of rational, non-party-affiliated politicians; and it furthermore presupposes that rational politicians will agree on value issues, which I believe is not at all the case.

Would you vote for Sarah Palin if you thought she had a good character? Would you be more likely to vote for her if you thought she was extremely competent at getting things done?

I would prefer, in decreasing order of preference:

  • a competent politician with values similar to mine
  • an incompetent politician with values similar to mine
  • a rock
  • an incompetent politician with values different from mine
  • worst case: a very competent politician with values different from mine
Comment author: [deleted] 27 September 2010 08:29:24PM *  8 points [-]

We've got warring notions of "competence."

You're talking about the "competence" to achieve one's political aims; the ability to get laws passed, for example, or to administer programs. This is bad in the hands of one's political enemies -- it is not good when Nazis are "competent" at genocide.

The OP is talking about the "competence" to achieve those goals where everyone is in rough consensus -- we all want GDP growth, but the most competent politician is the one who's best at getting it. This is usually less a matter of being good at getting laws passed, and more a matter of judging the efficacy of policies against the real world.

This kind of "competence" at non-controversial goals is universally a good thing. Nobody wants the trains not to run on time. The question is, would you prefer a politician who's competent at non-controversial goals, or a politician who's on your side in the controversies?

Comment author: komponisto 27 September 2010 05:56:37PM 6 points [-]

Would you vote for Sarah Palin if you thought she had a good character? Would you be more likely to vote for her if you thought she was extremely competent at getting things done?

This prompts the tangential but interesting observation that neither Sarah Palin nor George W. Bush were considered particularly incompetent or polarizing when they were merely state governors who hadn't entered the national scene.

The fact that they became this way, or were seen as such, after entering national campaigns suggests something none-too-pleasant about national politics in the U.S.

Comment author: Benquo 27 September 2010 05:50:38PM 6 points [-]

Doesn't it depend on how different their values are?

As an illustration, let's suppose each politician has a general competence score 0 <= C <= 1, where 1 means they achieve exactly what they stand for, and 0 means no better than random (e.g. a rock).

The other important factor is how much overlap there is between your preferences/values - suppose that the magnitude assigned to an issue scales with how much you care about it. Let's define the value overlap as 0 <= V <= 1, and the proportion of issues you disagree on as (1 - V).

Then the net movement toward your preferences this politician achieves is: V * C - (1-V) * C = C * (2V - 1)

So as long as V > 1/2 (i.e., you agree on more than you disagree on), more competence is a good thing. For example, I'd rather have someone with whom I agree with on 80% of the issues and is 80% competent, than someone with whom I agree with 90% of the issues and is 50% competent.

We don't tend to argue about issues where there is strong value overlap (for example, no one's going to come out explicitly in favor of bribery, or executing innocent people, or another recession), but politicians can still make a difference on these issues, so I thing there's strong reason to suspect that V > 1/2 for most politicians.

Of course, not every failure to achieve a goal is due to honest incompetence. If a politician intentionally speaks in favor of a policy with no intention of carrying it out, measures of general intelligence like GPA or IQ should not be as good at predicting this kind of "incompetence" as they should be at predicting honest incompetence. However, more specific measures of competence, like a politician's past record, should be helpful in predicting how effectively current promises will be kept.

Comment author: nerzhin 27 September 2010 06:44:54PM 5 points [-]

there's strong reason to suspect that V > 1/2 for most politicians.

An important point. We are, after all, talking about human politicians here, not Clippy.

Comment author: wnoise 27 September 2010 09:35:00PM 1 point [-]

So as long as V > 1/2 (i.e., you agree on more than you disagree on), more competence is a good thing.

No, because improvements in most areas have a cutoff: making the tax-structure better enough to compensate for the loss due to some other odious position simply might not be possible.

And there are a host of non-linear effects like that, from voting coalitions to simply non-linear utility functions.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 28 September 2010 01:28:53AM *  1 point [-]

You can substitute some measure taking the structure of your preferences into account, e.g. some measure of the difference in your utility* between their and your perfect political outcomes.

*pretending that humans have utility functions

Comment author: wnoise 28 September 2010 01:39:07AM *  0 points [-]

Absolutely. That is exactly what you have to do. My point is that if you have:

utility = sum over policy areas of ability-to-change(policy) times (your-worth(their-preferred(policy)) - your-worth(default(policy)))

Most summaries of ability-to-change(policy) as a single number will have examples of your-worth(their-preferred(policy)) such that increasing their overall ability to implement their platform does worse, even in the cases where they broadly agree with you.

Comment author: Alicorn 27 September 2010 07:05:43PM 4 points [-]

I would prefer an ornamental cabbage to a rock, personally.

Comment author: kodos96 27 September 2010 09:56:52PM 1 point [-]

But would you be willing to vote for a rock if it put the ornamantal cabbage on the ticket in the VP slot?

Comment author: Alicorn 27 September 2010 10:18:31PM 3 points [-]

Yeah, I take the long view about ornamental cabbage politics. VP experience will make it easier to elect next time.

Comment author: CronoDAS 27 September 2010 07:25:29PM *  0 points [-]

Would you rather vote for George W. Bush or Richard Nixon?

Or, from the other side of the political spectrum, Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter?

Comment author: wnoise 27 September 2010 08:46:29PM 0 points [-]

Nixon. He actually paid a price for his violations of the law.

Comment author: JGWeissman 26 September 2010 08:43:44PM *  17 points [-]

You seem to be working under the assumption that contentious policy issues represent questions of fact, that smarter, more rational people are likely to get right. What if they represent questions of value?

Comment author: orthonormal 26 September 2010 08:46:19PM 2 points [-]

I assume you meant:

You seem to be working under the assumption that policy questions represent questions of fact, that smarter, more rational people are likely to get right. What if they represent questions of value?

Comment author: JGWeissman 26 September 2010 09:36:25PM 0 points [-]

Yes, edited.

Comment author: jimrandomh 26 September 2010 08:50:36PM 1 point [-]

If a policy question is a question of fact, it never becomes a talking point; it's just silently resolved and forgotten. I think questions of this sort greatly outnumber the controversial ones that dominate the discourse.

Comment author: Perplexed 26 September 2010 09:11:19PM 12 points [-]

So, if I understand you, questions like abortion, drug laws, and gay marriage are controversial questions of values and dominate political debate, but are really unimportant. But issues like gun control are questions of fact. So, we should choose politicians who pledge to listen to the experts on this kind of question?

I can understand the desire for an appeal to technocracy on technical questions, but I recall the last time I decided to simply trust the people with the best information rather than trusting my own instincts. It was on the existence of a WMD threat in Iraq.

To be honest, I have to consider myself better as a judge of technical issues like AGW, taxation, and military spending than as a judge of the intelligence, integrity, and rationality of politicians.

Comment author: nick012000 27 September 2010 05:20:21AM *  -1 points [-]

There were WMD in Iraq; we've found them. It's just that it was never really reported on due to the overall left-wing bias in the entertainment and media industries, and due to the fact that the vast majority of them were sent to Syria to be hidden before the war started, and therefore there was a fairly long period where we couldn't find any.

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 September 2010 05:26:52AM 14 points [-]

Assertions like this need hyperlinks.

Comment author: nick012000 27 September 2010 07:06:45AM 0 points [-]

It's old news; from Google I find the following on the first page for "Saddam syria wmd": http://www.wnd.com/index.php?pageId=25309 http://archive.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2006/2/18/233023.shtml http://www.nysun.com/foreign/saddams-wmd-moved-to-syria-an-israeli-says/24480/ http://hotair.com/archives/2010/06/05/obama-dni-choice-believes-syrians-have-saddams-wmd/ Et cetera. There was apparently a report saying that they weren't (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/04/25/AR2005042501554.html), but there's still obviously a good chunk of high-up people who disagree.

As for us finding WMD, we found about 500 in the three years between the invasion in 2003 and this statement in 2006: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=15918

Comment author: dripgrind 27 September 2010 05:01:17PM *  16 points [-]

The existence of articles on Google which contain the keywords "Saddam syria wmd" isn't enough to establish that Saddam gave all his WMD to Syria.

The articles you Googled are from WorldNetDaily (a news source with a "US conservative perspective"), a New York tabloid, a news aggregator, and a right wing blog. Of course, it would be wrong to dismiss them based on my assumptions about the possible bias of the sources, but on reading them they don't provide much evidence for what you are asserting.

The first three state that various people (a Syrian defector, some US military officials and an Israeli general) claim that it happened (based on ambiguous evidence including sightings of convoys going into Syria). It's not hard to see that a defector and a general from a country that was about to attack the Syrian nuclear programme might have been strongly motivated to make Syria look bad.

The Hot Air article (the only one published after 2006) quotes a Washington Times reporter quoting a 2004 Washington Times interview with a general saying that Iraq dispersed "documentation and materials". It then concludes this must refer to WMD, although it could refer to research programmes rather than viable weapons.

You then link to a report that actual WMD investigators hadn't found any evidence that it happened, but say that "obviously a good chunk of high-up people ... disagree". I don't think you've provided evidence that it's a "good chunk" of people, and even if it did, their disagreement might be feigned or mistaken. Even the high-up people who authorised the war and were embarrassed by the lack of WMD haven't cited the Syria explanation.

The last link says that US found 500 degraded chemical artillery shells from the 1980s which were too corroded to be used but might still have some toxicity. They don't sound like something that could actually be used to cause mass destruction.

So, even based on the evidence you present, it's not a very convincing case. That's without bringing any consideration of whether the rest of the known facts are consistent with the assertions. Why would Saddam Hussein, a megalomaniacal dictator, be more concerned about hiding his WMD than his own personal survival? Why would he plan to hide the WMD rather than using them to fight a superior army? Presumably to embarrass the US from beyond the grave? There is also primary evidence that Saddam announced to his generals early in the war that he didn't have any WMD, although most of them assumed he did and were amazed (see the book Cobra II http://www.amazon.com/Cobra-II-Inside-Invasion-Occupation/dp/0375422625 ). And why didn't the Syrians provide WMD back to the insurgents (many of whom were initially Ba'athists from the old regime) once the occupation phase began?

I'm not writing this with much hope of changing your mind - I just don't want anyone else to have to waste time assessing the quality of the evidence you present. I also think it's ironic that you have written the above comment on a rationality site.

Comment author: Servant 27 September 2010 05:48:24PM *  0 points [-]

"The last link says that US found 500 degraded chemical artillery shells from the 1980s which were too corroded to be used but might still have some toxicity. They don't sound like something that could actually be used to cause mass destruction."

So just because it doesn't seem to cause mass destruction according to you, it therefore ISN'T a WMD?

WMDs has nothing to do with mass destruction. According to the US government and international law, WMD (mosly) means: "nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons." That's it. This weapon is classified as a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention, so by that definition, Saddam had WMDs.

Source: http://www.nti.org/f_wmd411/f1a1.html

EDIT: Though for the most part, I was called to attention that "WMDs" may have no definiton at all, and instead people use the words NCB instead, for clarification . Also, the source points out that there are new types of WMDs such as conventional weapons and radiological weapons.

Comment author: Perplexed 27 September 2010 05:56:13PM 10 points [-]

Which really has absolutely nothing to do with my original implicit complaint, which was that my national leaders misled me.

They didn't say "We need to invade Iraq because the Iraqis have not properly decommissioned tactical chemical weapons left over from the War with Iran. It is our duty to the environmental safety of the Iraqi public to go in there and make sure that those corroding artillery shells are safely destroyed."

Comment author: komponisto 28 September 2010 12:58:19AM 1 point [-]

Which really has absolutely nothing to do with my original implicit complaint, which was that my national leaders misled me.

I thought it was that they didn't have better information than you after all.

In which case I was going to ask whether you really thought your own instincts could do systematically better on such questions than intelligence agencies.

But now it appears you believe they did have better information, but were dishonest in their reporting. If I may ask, how carefully have you considered the hypothesis that they were honestly mistaken, and that your instincts just happened to be correct in this case, more or less by accident? (Many people were skeptical simply because they didn't like the party in power at the time, which seems dubious as a general recipe for accurately judging, well, anything, but especially questions of foreign intelligence.)

Comment author: dripgrind 27 September 2010 06:08:25PM *  11 points [-]

Before I reply, let's just look at the phrase "WMDs has nothing to do with mass destruction" and think for a while. Maybe we should taboo the phrase "WMD".

Was it supposed to be bad for Saddam to have certain objects merely because they were regulated under the Chemical Weapons Convention, or because of their actual potential for harm?

The justification for the war was that Iraq could give dangerous things to terrorists. Or possibly fire them into Israel. It was the actual potential for harm that was the problem.

Rusty shells with traces of sarin degradation products on them might legally be regulated as chemical weapons, but if they have no practical potential to be used to cause harm, they are hardly relevant to the discussion. Especially because they were left over from the 80s, when it is already well known that Iraq had chemical weapons.

Saddam: Hi Osama, in order that you might meet our common objectives, I'm gifting you with several tonnes of scrap metal I dug up. It might have some sarin or related breakdown products, in unknown amounts. All you have to do is smuggle it into the US, find a way to extract the toxic stuff, and disperse it evenly into the subway! Just like the Aum Shin Ryku attack. Except, this time, maybe you will be able to disperse it effectively enough that some people actually die.

Osama: WTF dude?

I know this discussion is off-topic, but I hope people won't mark it down too much, as it is a salutary example of the massively degrading effect of political topics on quality of discussion.

Comment author: Clippy 27 September 2010 06:19:08PM 3 points [-]

Before I reply, let's just look at the phrase "WMDs has nothing to do with mass destruction" and think for a while. Maybe we should taboo the phrase "WMD".

I don't think that's enough for clear communication on this issue. People have different views about which kinds of weapons are bad, and for what reason, and what the implications of this badness are.

So, the most constructive thing to do at this point would be for each participant to spell out exactly which weapon production methods (be specific!) you would classify as a "WMD". Explain its functionality, the difficult parts in making them, and how a terrorist or government would go abount procuring those parts.

Once you've explained exactly how these so-called "WMDs" are produced can we come to any agreement about who's correct regarding Saddam Hussein and the Iraq War.

Comment author: CronoDAS 27 September 2010 06:58:17PM 1 point [-]

I do not believe you.

Comment author: ata 26 September 2010 09:13:20PM 11 points [-]

If a policy question is a question of fact, it never becomes a talking point; it's just silently resolved and forgotten.

Is that true? I've seen plenty of vicious political battles (with policy implications) fought over questions of fact (even easy questions), and plenty of incorrect "facts" linger as talking points long after the right answer has become evident.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 26 September 2010 10:57:46PM *  13 points [-]

Unfortunately, this strategy is wrong, and the result is inferior leadership, polarization into camps and never-ending arguments. Instead, voters should be encouraged to vote based on the qualifications that matter: their intelligence, their rationality, their integrity, and their ability to judge character.

It's very hard to judge the character/intelligence/etc. in someone you know very well, it's impossible in people who you only know from TV interviews. If you think you can do this, the most likely explanation is that you're suffering from overconfidence bias.

Yes, you can attempt to use proxies like standardized tests, but

  • there a lot of high IQ people with very wrong beliefs.
  • these proxies are approximate at best and are not going to survive Goodhart's Law.
Comment author: magfrump 27 September 2010 12:36:24AM 2 points [-]

When I first read "Goodhart's Law" I thought "Godwin's Law," which I think might also be relevant.

Comment author: luminosity 27 September 2010 12:26:17AM 11 points [-]

What does a politician who advances to the point of being able to make decisive choices most favour? Getting their policies across? Yes, but I would argue generally by the time politician makes it to a place where they can enact their policies, they might have one or two they're willing to risk losing that power for -- if you're lucky! Generally enacting good decisions comes second to ensuring you'll get back in next time.

If a politician highly values re-election, and retaining power, then voting on the basis of intelligence, rationality, etc is unlikely to result in the best decisions being made policy wise. Instead it is likely to result in the best decisions being made to increase that politician's popularity, or otherwise result in the greatest chance of re-election. In this case, intelligence and rationality can easily become tools that actually distort that politician from making good policy decisions, because he or she can easily see the outcome of them.

For example, take a look at drug policy. To ther best of my knowledge, all evidence points that illegalising substances does little to reduce their use, and instead wastes taxpayer money, increases the power of organised crime and increases harm to those who choose to use illegalised substances. None of these outcomes are desirable, but poor drug policy persists. Why? Because it would cost a lot of political capital to address, results would take time to filter through, and your political rivals can hit you hard with populist nonsense in the mean time which will weaken your position electorally. Any intelligent person who values their own re-election is probably not going to risk implementing such a policy, even if all other considerations aside they thought it was for the best.

Comment author: pjeby 27 September 2010 02:28:53AM 5 points [-]

Why? Because it would cost a lot of political capital to address, results would take time to filter through, and your political rivals can hit you hard with populist nonsense in the mean time which will weaken your position electorally. Any intelligent person who values their own re-election is probably not going to risk implementing such a policy, even if all other considerations aside they thought it was for the best.

Perhaps I've been reading too much HP:MoR (not to mention Liar Game), but this strikes me as being a co-ordination problem. That is, nobody can come out in favor of a smart-but-vulnerable policy first, but if everybody could first agree to be in favor if -- and only if -- everyone else agreed, then something could (perhaps) be done.

Now if only there were some sort of Dark Mark we could use... ;-)

Comment author: jimrandomh 27 September 2010 12:31:37AM 4 points [-]

If a politician highly values re-election, and retaining power, then voting on the basis of intelligence, rationality, etc is unlikely to result in the best decisions being made policy wise.

You stripped "integrity" out of that list.

Comment author: luminosity 27 September 2010 12:40:23AM 5 points [-]

Possibly just my cynicism, but I've never observed integrity as having a particularly good survival rate in party politics. However, politicians have learnt a lot of tricks to imitate it. Further, often if a politician has integrity the party system will never the less strip them of their ability to make decisions based on integrity. This is reasonably Australia centric, though where parties have strong control over their politicians, and over the vast majority of the vote. It's possible other systems which have weaker party control could differ?

Comment author: luminosity 27 September 2010 12:59:02AM 3 points [-]

I feel I should note, I am a huge critic of party systems in general, and of the particular functioning parties we have in Australia on precisely these grounds though. Ideally, I agree with you that one should be able to vote note on an issue, but on the intelligence and integrity of someone running. Unfortunately for the vast majority of people the party is the determining factor in who they vote for (and not even really the party, but in fact whoever the current leader of the party is).

If I vote in a smart Liberal party politician, I can expect him to break from the party line maybe once or twice before he starts to jeopardise his standing in the party and thus the support he'll receive in the next election. (And that is in fact extremely generous. Few would get away with voting against party lines.) If I vote for a smart Labor party politician, I can expect that she'll vote with her party at all times unless the Labor party explicitly allows a conscience vote on an issue. Failing to do so will lead her to not have support at the next election, or to be removed from the party entirely.

Under these circumstances, the best I can hope for by voting along lines of intelligence or rationality is having a better voice in the party room when they decide what policies and legislation to introduce. However, I can expect that most others in the party room will be running first and foremost on what they believe will get them re-elected. Even an intelligent, well-analysed, rational, passionate argument with integrity can be expected to be defeated if it jeopardises the party's standing.

By instead voting along issue lines, even if I think the candidate in question less competent is to demonstrate to the parties that people are willing to give them their vote in support of policy x. This works poorly, but I am unsure of any better strategy.

As for voting for independents instead, I am in favour of this, but the sad fact of the matter is that the media coverage just doesn't pay enough attention to them to give me any reasonable grounds to form an opinion on their intelligence or integrity. The best indicator is usually the issues they support or oppose.

Comment author: TobyBartels 27 September 2010 05:38:34AM 10 points [-]

I won't vote this way, for two reasons:

  • thinking about politicians' positions on the issues gets me thinking about the issues, which is good;
  • my opinions are so far out of the mainstream that I prefer to vote for candidates who won't win in the hopes that they will still receive enough attention to be noticed, and this also has more to do with issues than incompetence.

Nevertheless, upvoted, because it is an important position and well argued. I do wish that more moderates voted for competence rather than a mild preference on issues, but that's not realy my place.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 September 2010 12:26:14PM 5 points [-]

In fact, the politicians closest to me on the issues are often, being political amateurs, the most incompetent!

If you were on the board of a company, for example, or hiring faculty at a university, or otherwise in a custodial function, it would be irresponsible to promote someone incompetent just because he had similar values. Hiring excellent people who disagree with you is a virtue there.

But cases like that are different for two reasons: one, there's more consensus on what constitutes "success" for a company or a school than what constitutes "success" for a nation. Two, an employer is really responsible for picking a good hire, and I'm not sure a voter is responsible for picking good politicians. The level of responsibility I bear for an election outcome is so low that I might use my vote for other things; to draw attention to an issue, for instance.

Comment author: nerzhin 27 September 2010 05:24:51PM 1 point [-]

The politicians closest to me on the issues are often, being political amateurs, the most incompetent!

I think we're confusing two kinds of competence.

There's political competence, the ability to raise money, produce sound bites for television, kiss babies, and so on. I think that's what you're talking about.

And there's executive competence (or something), which is a little more like rationality, decision-making ability, ability to govern. I think jimrandomh was talking about this kind of competence.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 September 2010 06:24:49PM *  4 points [-]

No, I mean governing incompetence.

I once looked at libertarian candidates for state and Congressional positions; their websites had errors (ranging from spelling to serious misunderstandings of economics.) That was what I meant by being "amateurs." A former truck driver with his heart in the right place is not an expert on the details of policy. He might compensate by having a good work ethic and good sense, but he might also do a lot of damage by proposing policies that have unintended consequences he's never thought about.

Comment author: mattnewport 27 September 2010 06:30:20PM 0 points [-]

he might also do a lot of damage by proposing policies that have unintended consequences he's never thought about.

Intelligence and expertise don't seem to be a reliable protection against this error either however.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 September 2010 06:40:14PM 2 points [-]

Well, sure. But that's precisely why I don't think "voting for qualifications" is a good idea.

The ways that a voter can gauge a politician's "qualification" -- his resume, his past accomplishments, even (someone suggested) his GPA -- would make government insiders and perhaps private-sector executives look the best, depending on where you put your emphasis. It wouldn't make truck drivers look good. If you're voting for a truck driver, it's either because you know him personally and know him to have good character (not true of most voters) or because it looks like he shares your values.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 27 September 2010 12:45:36AM *  26 points [-]

I find this article poorly argued, and committing serious errors and fallacies at multiple levels.

The worst single problem is that it's based on a simplistic model of the political system which is too distant from reality to be useful. This is basically the same objection that I had to the recent "Politics as Charity" post: the assumption that government policy is determined by elected politicians in a way that can be actively and predictably influenced by voters is outright false in the great majority of cases. Sticking to this unrealistic model cannot lead to an accurate understanding of the modern political systems, let alone to any useful practical guidelines for interacting with them.

Moreover, nearly all concrete claims, examples, and hypotheticals in the article are written in a very imprecise and inaccurate way that sounds superficially sensible and plausible, but cannot stand to any real scrutiny. Just a few examples:

  1. "Whether a budget is good or bad depends on how well its author can distinguish between efficient and inefficient spending..." This ignores the crucial problem of incentives. The ability of the "author" (note the vagueness -- who exactly is meant by this?) to figure out what's efficient is irrelevant if his incentives favor inefficiencies.

  2. "Whether a regulation is good or bad depends on how well its author [presumably a politician? - V.] can predict the effects and engineer the small details for optimal effect, and not on whether it is more or less strict overall." This completely ignores the actual way regulations work: politicians crank out extremely vague legislation, which is shaped into concrete policy by bureaucratic agencies, and to some extent the courts, which however normally have to defer to the bureaucrats' interpretation of the law. An accurate analysis of the likely practical outcomes of this process would be completely over the politicians' heads, even if we ignore the law of unintended consequences.

  3. "In the United States and other countries, we elect our leaders." Only a subset of them, and arguably the least important one, for any definition of "leader" based on the person's actual influence in the system of government.

  4. "[N]early every description of a political candidate will also mention their political party, and this is the one fact we most need to avoid..." Why? It is simply untrue that party affiliation gives no useful information about a politician's relevant characteristics, even if only statistically. If you're afraid that you might have so strong partisan biases that this information will give you more prejudice than knowledge, you have no realistic chance to process any other information correctly either.

And so on. Almost the entire article could be criticized like this piece by piece.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 27 September 2010 05:17:16PM *  6 points [-]

the assumption that government policy is determined by elected politicians in a way that can be actively and predictably influenced by voters is outright false in the great majority of cases.

I think OP intends just the opposite: Voters shouldn't try to influence policy. The OP is making the case for representative democracy as opposed to democracy, which is that voters should just elect smart, capable, virtuous people rather than concerning themselves with issues.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 27 September 2010 05:51:43PM *  2 points [-]

There is however still the underlying assumption that representative democracy is possible under the present political system. This view is, in my opinion, very far from reality considering the realistic position of elected politicians within it.

Comment author: khafra 27 September 2010 03:27:44PM 2 points [-]

Aren't all four of your disputes also applicable to any discussion about choosing candidates for office? The only large political organizations I've seen which advocate changing incentives for politicians and bureacrats instead of voting for the "right candidate" are single-issue pressure groups like the NRA or AARP. As successful as they are, the strategy doesn't seem to generalize, despite the efforts of groups like DownsizeDC.

Comment author: NihilCredo 26 September 2010 11:08:03PM 9 points [-]

Don't waste time talking about abortion, gun control, taxation, health care, military spending, drug laws, gay marriage, or any other contentious political issue, unless that issue is actually going to be on an upcoming ballot that you are going to vote on directly.

Isn't that far too restrictive? If the office you're electing has little or no influence on such matters, then sure. But if you're electing a member of your Parliament who's going to vote on national politics for the next several years - well, even if an issue isn't being talked about right now, there's a strong chance he'll get to vote on it during his term, not to mention contributing to deciding whether it gets talked about at all.

If issue X is absolutely critical to you, to the exclusion of anything else, you'll even want to vote and support a complete moron who agrees with you over any number of geniuses who disagree (assuming issue X is a value judgment, otherwise such a scenario should lead you to strongly question your position on X).

Now, this is basically the very point you're making - that the more we prioritise issues the more we incentivise dumb parroting - but my counterpoint is that you can't just dismiss value-based issues altogether, because people actually do care about them. In order to persuade someone to vote for smarter politicians they don't agree with, I think you need to acknowledge that it is not a straight improvement, but a trade-off (of slightly improving the political class vs. losing a chance of getting those two or three policies you want), and then make your case for it being a positive trade-off.

Comment author: taw 26 September 2010 09:52:30PM 9 points [-]

If an issue really is contentious, then a voter without specific inside knowledge should not expect their opinion to be more accurate than chance.

And your evidence for this grand model of all politics is... ?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 27 September 2010 05:05:43PM 8 points [-]

The heart of the problem is not how we vote for officials - it's that we vote for officials, instead of getting to vote on issues.

Americans are proud of being "governed by the people", yet a citizen has no effective way to have any influence on any particular issue! If it's very important to me to promote gay rights or environmental responsibility, I'm supposed to vote for a Democrat? How effective is that?

We need to ditch representative democracy if we want democracy. (The next question is whether we want democracy.)

Comment author: Unnamed 27 September 2010 08:36:32PM 2 points [-]

This doesn't seem to work very well in the places that use it (like California). Voters' lack of information about policy specifics becomes an even bigger problem, and a lot of poorly drafted legislation gets passed by initiative.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 27 September 2010 10:03:37PM *  9 points [-]

I think "One person, one vote" is to blame, not democracy in general. A different voting system should be developed that weighs how much people care about a particular issue, and how much they know about it.

To weigh how much people care about an issue, you could:

  • Charge people a nominal sum to vote on an issue; or even let them buy as many votes as they want. I know everyone's first reaction is to say that this would favor the rich. I think it might favor the working classes. The rich already buy votes, and very cheaply relative to their market value. The working are unable to, because they are uncoordinated, and the barriers to entry are very high. It would at least drive up the price of buying votes for the rich, and reduce the deficit.
  • Give every voter a limited number of votes per year, which they may distribute among different issues as they see fit.

To weigh how much people know about an issue, you could:

  • Have voters choose areas of expertise from a menu; they will then be allowed to vote only on issues in those areas.
  • Award more votes to voters who: complete high school, complete college, complete an advanced degree, serve in the military, complete a government-authorized test on the subject area, score well on standardized tests created by the Dept. of Education
  • Require literacy tests. I am aware that literacy tests were historically used to deny voting to blacks. Times have changed. If someone in America can't read today, they shouldn't blame racial discrimination.
  • Have a short factual test at the polls. Voting weight will be proportional to number of correct answers.
  • Have Congress draw up a list of things to predict each year. Each voter must make their own predictions. Next year, Congress votes on what the answers to those things were. Voters have weights proportional to the correctness of their predictions. Alternately: Apply this to members of Congress.

You could frame legislation not as a binary pass-or-fail proposition, but as having a parameter that varies from, e.g., 0 to 1000, and have people vote on the parameter value, and take the average or median.

I am aware that these ideas have problems. It is not helpful to respond to ideas by immediately dismissing them because they don't work perfectly out of the box. There is a powerful bias toward de-emphasizing the problems with existing social arrangements. The problems with one-person one-vote are vast; and IMHO any of the above ideas, while problematic, would be less problematic.

Comment author: JGWeissman 27 September 2010 10:25:02PM 6 points [-]

It is not helpful to respond to ideas by immediately dismissing them because they don't work perfectly out of the box.

It is anti-helpful to present a bunch ideas with a disclaimer that premptively dismisses all discussion of problems with the ideas.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 28 September 2010 02:37:15AM 1 point [-]

The same problems can be discussed in a constructive way rather than a dismissive way.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 28 September 2010 12:56:08AM 4 points [-]

If you're going to try this....

The fee should be proportional to income.

I suggest that service in the military should only be relevant if you're voting on military matters. Perhaps having been a civilian in a battle zone should count, too.

There may be ways to define relevant experience in other matters, but it's tricky. Is having been a student enough to give added weight to one's votes about education?

The interesting question about literacy tests would be how you keep them honest-- the historical problem is that blacks and whites didn't get the same test.

I've thought that requiring all votes to be write-ins would be a way of checking on knowledge and/or commitment.

I was thinking about a prediction test, too-- it's very much in the spirit of LW.

I think Congress shouldn't be voting on the predictions-- if the result is that ambiguous, the prediction shouldn't be counted.

What problems do you think your suggestions have? What problem are you trying to solve?

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 28 September 2010 10:43:06AM 3 points [-]
  • Have voters choose areas of expertise from a menu; they will then be allowed to vote only on issues in those areas.

This seems like it'd either be easily gameable or very intrusive, and complex to set up in the latter case.

  • Award more votes to voters who: complete a government-authorized test on the subject area, score well on standardized tests created by the Dept. of Education

  • Have a short factual test at the polls. Voting weight will be proportional to number of correct answers.

These suggestions seem rather subject to bias, to me, in a way that's not immediately obvious. Different factions consider different facts about an issue important, and if whoever is making a particular test is a member of or even particularly aware of the interests of a particular faction, they could weight the test to make it easier for members of that faction to pass it. This would not necessarily be obvious to people who don't know much about the issue.

For example, consider abortion. I expect pro-lifers to be much more likely to know how many abortions have been performed in recent years, and whether that number is trending up or down; it's a useful benchmark for them in determining if their activism is working. Pro-choicers are unlikely to care about that number, since they see the choice to have an abortion as a personal one, but might care more about rape statistics or the number of children waiting to be adopted or some other fact that a pro-lifer would probably consider irrelevant.

  • Require literacy tests. I am aware that literacy tests were historically used to deny voting to blacks. Times have changed. If someone in America can't read today, they shouldn't blame racial discrimination.

This is discriminatory against people with disabilities, particularly dyslexia, which does still sometimes go undiagnosed, and may be more often undiagnosed or untreated in minorities and poor people. (That is the case for some similar learning disabilities, but I don't know about dyslexia in particular.)

Comment author: mattnewport 27 September 2010 10:12:49PM 2 points [-]

To further improve this system you could make the votes freely exchangeable and instead of having periodic elections let people use these votes whenever they want to express an opinion. The number of 'votes' that people obtain will be based on how much value they provide to other people and they can divide them up to spend on whatever is important to them.

Now if we could just get the government out of the way completely and prevent it from interfering in this system we'd have capitalism.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 28 September 2010 01:55:08AM 1 point [-]

This doesn't seem to work very well in the places that use it (like California). Voters' lack of information about policy specifics becomes an even bigger problem, and a lot of poorly drafted legislation gets passed by initiative.

California may not be a good example since under the California system it is difficult to repeal legislation passed by initiative.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 27 September 2010 12:14:01PM 8 points [-]

There's an assumption here and in some of the comments that everyone who is intelligent and honest will necessarily have much the same views on all political issues.

Looking at the real world, if that's true then hardly anyone can be intelligent and honest. Who will you vote for if the most intelligent and honest politician on offer thinks you should be put up against the wall and shot? You talk about politicians making the "right" decision, but what that is depends as much on what the goal is as on what actions will lead towards it.

If you vote at all, the one you should vote for is the one who is generally of the same mind as you regarding the sort of society you want to live in, and is intelligent, honest, canny, charismatic, hard-working, and so on; but first of all they have to be someone who will work for generally the things you would want them to. You do not want to vote for a smart enemy.

Comment author: wnoise 27 September 2010 08:47:29PM 4 points [-]

if that's true then hardly anyone can be intelligent and honest.

I thought that was the LessWrong consensus.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 27 September 2010 05:11:36PM 2 points [-]

Right. Hitler, by all accounts written by people who knew him, was extremely capable, and had a character that would be judged noble and unselfish, if you didn't look at his values.

Comment author: Unnamed 26 September 2010 11:30:32PM 7 points [-]

I think you should usually vote for a party, not a person. The individual candidate's character and political views are usually less important than the letter next to their name.

If you want to predict what a politician will do in office, their political party is usually the most informative piece of information that you have. You have a lot more relevant information about the political parties than you do about the specific individuals who are running for office, and you're usually better off relying on that party information.

Legislators usually vote with their party, especially on close bills where their vote could be pivotal. Executives usually pursue policies similar to what others in their party support, although they have more leeway (especially on foreign policy), and they mostly staff the executive branch (and appoint judges) with similar people to who other members of their party would have chosen.

The primaries are your chance to pick the better individual; in the general election you should just try to pick the right side.

Caveats: in extreme cases the individual does matter (e.g. criminally corrupt). You should be more willing to consider the individual for executive offices than for legislative offices, for local elections more than national elections, or if you're relatively indifferent between the two parties.

Comment author: blogospheroid 27 September 2010 06:30:26AM 3 points [-]

May not be relevant in all political situations.

In India, political parties are essentially community or caste groups. They vary their policies wildly depending on who is in power at the given moment. The expectations of the peple are also molded accordingly. They expect politicians to be hypocritical. There are ideology based parties, but those are fewer and far inbetween.

Comment author: wnoise 27 September 2010 08:55:18PM 0 points [-]

This is true about 90-95% of the time. I have on a few occasions voted for "the other party", usually based on specific policy differences they have with their party, but occasionally because the candidate in my party is too odious, and the admittedly poor evidence I have the opponent's character is favorable.

I often I vote third party though, especially when the election doesn't seem close.

Comment author: PlaidX 26 September 2010 10:59:06PM 6 points [-]

If people suck so badly at judging whether going to war in Afghanistan is a good idea that they might as well flip a coin, how do you expect them to be able to meaningfully judge the integrity of intelligence of a politician?

Comment author: NihilCredo 26 September 2010 11:15:10PM 8 points [-]

Except for veteran officers and military historians, almost nobody has any experience that is even remotely relevant to predicting the outcome of a war. But nearly everyone needs, in everyday life, to figure out if they're talking to a moron or a genius, to a crook or a saint; granted, they may not be good at it, but it's something they have definitely tried, at least in school.

Which is, after all, half of the whole argument for representative instead of direct democracy (the other half being logistics).

Comment author: PlaidX 03 October 2010 11:20:28PM -1 points [-]

Except for veteran officers and military historians, almost nobody has any experience that is even remotely relevant to predicting the outcome of a war.

Bullshit.

Comment author: Nisan 26 September 2010 10:51:39PM 6 points [-]

This article contains a good point, which is that arguments about facts are overwhelmed by arguments about values. If you really want the government to use economic policy to optimize for average welfare, you could do well by electing an official who knows economics better than you do. If you really want to minimize the amount of crime-related harm, you could do well by electing an official who knows more about the effectiveness of gun-control laws than you do.

But if you really just care about your right to own a gun or living in a gun-free neighborhood, you would be better served by focusing on that issue. It's not reasonable to expect that a smart politician will share your values.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 26 September 2010 10:22:23PM *  6 points [-]

This was in fact the founders' original idea for how the republic should function. It turned into issue based politics as soon as Washington stepped down, and in fact much earlier. It would be instructive to look at why this happened.

Comment author: Emile 27 September 2010 09:03:13AM 6 points [-]

Note that not everybody here is American (maybe even less than 50%) - and a good way to make politics less mind-killing is to look at countries with different systems (France, Britain) or very different systems (China, Singapore, Iran, Bismark's Germany, the Roman Empire, ancient Greece).

Comment author: Unnamed 27 September 2010 08:33:55PM 5 points [-]

Another voting strategy which a lot of people seem to follow is to vote for the incumbent if things are going well and for the challenger if things are going badly. It doesn't do a great job at picking out the right politicians, but it does a pretty good job of giving politicians the right incentives. Incumbents can increase their chances of getting reelected by making things go as well as possible.

Comment author: jimrandomh 26 September 2010 08:45:39PM *  5 points [-]

This post involves politics, but in a way that I think is sufficient to avoid mind-killing properties: it can't be easily matched up with any party, candidate, or entrenched position, and it's at the "meta" level.

Nevertheless, I notice some people downvoting it. I notice that the first of these downvotes was less than a minute after it was posted, which isn't long enough to have actually read it. Is meta-politics a mind killer, too? It ought not to be.

Comment author: Relsqui 27 September 2010 02:31:53AM 5 points [-]

At least some of those people, judging by the comments, seem to be downvoting it not because it's about politics but because they don't agree with your point and/or find it poorly argued. I am personally in the "don't agree" camp, for reasons which have already been well explained by other people.

Comment author: magfrump 27 September 2010 12:33:07AM 7 points [-]

Possible mind-killing property: you are telling people to give up on their sides. That means that no matter what people's identities are, you're attacking them.

For example, I feel strongly about issues such as creationism not being taught in classrooms and gay rights. I can easily imagine that someone went to harvard and got a 4.0 but is still completely "backwards" about these issues. While I happen to believe that I could make a rational argument about it, fundamentally it makes me ANGRY to hear you saying that these contentious issues that are affected by the people I vote for are unimportant, and that my opinions are not better than chance at predicting their answers accurately.

tl;dr you're still mind-killing pretty hard.

Comment author: jimrandomh 27 September 2010 12:40:38AM 4 points [-]

Possible mind-killing property: you are telling people to give up on their sides. That means that no matter what people's identities are, you're attacking them.

The reaction to this post has been completely different than what I expected, and this theory seems to explain it. An earlier, unfinished draft got better feedback - perhaps the difference is the list of examples at the end, priming thoughts of disliked candidates (whichever side of the issue those candidates took)?

I think I'll take that out. I'm editing this paragraph

Don't waste time talking about abortion, gun control, taxation, health care, military spending, drug laws, gay marriage, or any other contentious political issue, unless that issue is actually going to be on an upcoming ballot that you are going to vote on directly. If you're voting on politicians, talk about the politicians themselves - their integrity, their intelligence, and their rationality. That's what really matters, and that's what should win your support.

to instead say

Don't waste time arguing about issues which already have entrenched positions, with intelligent people on both sides, unless the issue is actually going to be on an upcoming ballot that you are going to vote on directly. If you're voting on politicians, talk about the politicians themselves - their integrity, their intelligence, and their rationality. That's what really matters, and that's what should win your support.

Comment author: magfrump 27 September 2010 01:00:20AM 4 points [-]

That would be better; I think the phrase "with intelligent people on both sides" especially will allow people to exclude their pet issue by thinking that everyone on the other side is stupid.

I don't think it fully solves the problem, though I think combining it with the idea of voting for parties makes it much more sensible.

As Vladimir M points out we really don't elect people to directly exercise power. Popular issues really only are pursued when a sympathetic party has a supermajority (at least in the US). But even if that is a more useful political metaphor, selecting from two parties which both have serious flaws is unlikely to create a strong signal for rationality.

While your argument is certainly valid and interesting in terms of having political arguments I don't think it's sensible to use for actual voting.

Comment author: whpearson 26 September 2010 09:21:31PM 3 points [-]

I hope not since I think it is something that is not discussed enough in general. I hope lesswrong can be a place to discuss futarchy and even ways of deciding who should be in charge that do not involve voting as such*.

I'm curious to know how controversial this article is and why.

*While unlikely to be adopted by the big countries they may be relevant for charities we set up and sea-steaders

Comment author: knb 27 September 2010 12:32:42AM *  4 points [-]

From what I've heard, Nixon was one of America's smartest presidents and Jimmy Carter was a man of great personal integrity. Herbert Hoover was also a brilliant and extremely well qualified individual. Yet, I'm no fan of any of these presidents as they all, in my opinion, governed somewhat more poorly than average for US presidents. Looking at other examples, I don't see any significant pattern amongst presidents who governed well.

In contrast, I think presidents and other politicians who held my values (in hindsight) governed well (according to my own values system, of course). Yet I still don't think I should vote because I doubt my ability to predict which candidate will represent my values system better. For example, if I was a voter in the US presidential election of 2000, I likely would have voted for the worse candidate (for my values).

In any case, the issue is moot because the marginal effect of your vote is so close to zero.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 27 September 2010 05:21:14PM 3 points [-]

Another issue is that the office of President was originally intended to be in line with what OP proposes: The President's main job is to manage the implementation of the laws made by Congress. The President, IMHO, is not supposed to spend his or her time pushing new health plans or tax cuts or creating new government departments. The President today is seen more as leader of his/her party than as leader of the nation.

Comment author: Benquo 27 September 2010 06:47:02PM 2 points [-]

Carter at least was, AFAICT, unlucky w/r/t the timing of his presidency. There's no obvious way to avoid penalizing politicians for serving during tough times.

Comment author: CronoDAS 27 September 2010 07:18:21PM 2 points [-]

On the other hand, if the times are bad enough, it's a pretty good way to get your name to the top of the history books. Just look at FDR and Lincoln. (In a sense, Lincoln could be considered the worst U.S. President; his administration was the only one in which there was a full-scale civil war!)

Comment author: JoshuaZ 26 September 2010 09:39:20PM 4 points [-]

I disagree at multiple levels. The primary objection is that there are some issues which are connected to qualifications at a deep level. And I'm going to take the risk of delving slightly into mind-killing subjects and use actual examples, and try to balance by using examples from across the political spectrum:

Example 1) A politician who is a young earth creationist and makes arguments against evolution that are so bad that they are listed by major creationist organizations as arguments that creationists should not use has demonstrated that they are deeply unqualified. Such an individual is likely too irrational, too stupid, or too ignorant to be able to carry out a political job at a national level. (The example I am thinking of here is Christine O'Donnell who apparently thought that the continued presence of monkeys and apes was a strong argument against evolution.). Similarly, but to a lesser extent, politicians who want to teach creationism in public schools suffer from the same flaws, and a politician favoring such a policy must be regarded as deeply wrong.

Example 2) A politician who claims that that vaccines cause autism is essentially in the same category above. This is especially the case when the politician at one point claimed that the cause was mercury and continued to make the same claims after thimerosal had been removed from most vaccines for infants and children. The individual here is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In a case such as this, having such an individual in any substantive position of power could be deeply injurious to rationality. Putting such an individual in any position where they can continue to advocate their views in a more public way, or worse, be in a position where they can cause serious active harm to the general public.

One could give other examples as well, but I think both of these serve the point well enough. Sometimes, policies matter.

Comment author: patrissimo 29 September 2010 01:42:53PM 3 points [-]

I think a much better solution to the general problem is: design and implement mechanisms, don't elect politicians / lobby for rules / argue with people. Analyzing a mechanism doesn't seem to be a mind-killer anywhere near as much as discussing outcomes. For example, it's much easier to talk rationally about prediction markets as methods for information aggregation than to talk about what the results of their predictions would be.

For example, two people might have opposite opinions on global warming, one thinking it will be slower than the IPCC says, one thinking it will be faster. Yet they could agree based on a rational analysis that prediction markets will be more accurate than giant global committees like the IPCC, while each expecting the market to validate their view. Contemplation of abstract mechanisms doesn't invoke tribal politics. At least, until the mechanism has started spitting out answers...

Comment author: Servant 30 September 2010 02:21:57AM 0 points [-]

I can't agree with this idea. The point of government IS to come up with solutions to potential problems (other governments, crime, paying for "public goods", expanding the freedom of the individual pledging loyalty to the government, protection from the "state of nature"), through a variety of tools, including coercion. The government exist not in and of itself, but exist to produce certain "outcomes" which will favor or harm specific interests.

If we can't talk about what a future government is actually going to do, then what's the point of changing to it?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 27 September 2010 05:13:03PM *  3 points [-]

I'm reacting against OP's recommendations especially strongly today, on account of just having read the reader reviews for this book trying to exhonerate Joseph McCarthy yesterday.

Note that the people writing reviews who are sympathetic to McCarthy characterize him as noble, American, and patriotic. People with different values will consider different people to have good characters. It's not surprising that political parties align with ideas on what constitutes good character. Politicians already run more on character than on issues. This is the problem, not the solution.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 27 September 2010 05:36:04PM *  5 points [-]

By the way, have you actually read Blacklisted by History? I have, and I strongly recommend it as an interesting debiasing experience if you have any interest in the 20th century American history. The book is a work of propaganda with a clear goal (as might be gathered from the subtitle), but on this subject, the conventional wisdom happens to be so extremely biased and full of falsities that reading some contrarian material which is biased in the other direction is likely to improve one's understanding significantly.

(Unfortunately, nothing even approximating an unbiased history of the whole McCarthy phenomenon has been written yet, and the best one can do is to make judgments based on the propaganda from both sides. Trouble is, the mainstream sources offer almost exclusively one side of it.)

Also, McCarthy's senatorial career provides an interesting case study of the rare phenomenon when an elected politician goes into an all-out war with the entrenched bureaucracy (mainly the State Department, in this case). There is almost no other case that elucidates certain essential aspects of the modern Western political systems so clearly, assuming of course that one is willing and able to analyze it without moral and ideological preconceptions, which are in this case unfortunately very strong and widespread.

Comment author: CronoDAS 27 September 2010 07:38:56PM 3 points [-]

My current impression of McCarthy is that he was basically right that there were, indeed, Soviet infiltrators, but he didn't have any particular insight into finding them and ended up making accusations basically at random. Is that a reasonable one-sentence summary?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 28 September 2010 03:36:47AM *  2 points [-]

No, I wouldn’t say that’s a good summary, and the phenomenon was unfortunately much too complex to be described with a one-liner with any degree of accuracy.

The fundamental problem with such simple summaries is that they implicitly assume an oversimplified historical background to the whole situation: the U.S. pitched against the U.S.S.R. in a state of all-out Cold War hostility, with the entire U.S. government acting in a coherent way as a unified entity in this struggle for global supremacy, and individuals accused of acting as Soviet agents being either conscious and willing traitors working for Moscow or innocent victims of a witch-hunt. One must replace these simplistic preconceptions with a much more nuanced and detailed view before one can even begin to form anything more than a cartoonish picture of the so-called "Second Red Scare" period. (Which was in fact well underway, with the HUAC hearings, the Hollywood blacklist, the Hiss-Chambers affair, etc., years before McCarthy came to any national prominence.)

I could write a great deal about this topic, but I think that such a lengthy off-topic diversion would probably be too much.

Comment author: CronoDAS 28 September 2010 03:57:57AM 0 points [-]

Yeah, I suppose it's always more complicated than that...

Comment author: jimrandomh 26 September 2010 10:08:32PM 6 points [-]

There is one thing I'd like to add, which I thought was implicit but which the feedback so far indicates wasn't.

If an issue has smart people on one side and stupid people on the other, then taking the wrong side is overwhelming evidence that a politician is stupid, and therefore unqualified. For example, it would be wrong to vote for a politician who was a creationist, regardless of their other qualifications, because there aren't any smart and sane creationists. But this isn't really a controversial issue, in the sense that I meant it - the overwhelming majority of intelligent people agree.

I mean this only to apply to issues that are controversial in the sense that approximately equally sized groups of qualified people exist on either side. In those cases, people should expect that most of their opinions were picked up socially and reinforced by confirmation bias.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 27 September 2010 04:43:04AM *  23 points [-]

jimrandomh:

For example, it would be wrong to vote for a politician who was a creationist, regardless of their other qualifications, because there aren't any smart and sane creationists.

I have a question for you and all the other people who agree with this statement. Let's say you're looking for someone to fill a very demanding leadership position in a business. Whom would you rather appoint:

  1. A Mormon who professes belief in the literal truth of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and thus fails the above test of smarts and sanity, but whose resume features an impressive track record of relevant professional accomplishments, and who is known for an extraordinary ability for getting things done and completing projects that seem impossibly difficult. (You will find a significant number of people that fit this description in real life.)

  2. An average Less Wrong member. (Who will presumably pass all these little litmus tests of "rationality" with flying colors.)

If the answer is (1), do you believe that the same conclusion cannot be extended to at least some political leadership positions? If not, why exactly?

(I also second Relsqui's earlier comment on this issue.)

Comment author: prase 27 September 2010 10:54:30AM 5 points [-]

Upvoted (it's a valid point), but remember that politicians aren't selected for such a specific job and their abilties are not so easily compartmentalised. Although I answer (1) to your question, if I were looking for a president, I would prefer the average LW reader.

Comment author: jimrandomh 28 September 2010 09:07:35PM 0 points [-]

The answer is (1), of course, but I feel like this question is stacking the deck somewhat. It's always important to consider how strong each piece of evidence is and what all the tradeoffs are. Being religious isn't what I'd consider a good sign, but the population contains lots of people who have compartmentalized religious beliefs simply because they were rised that way, so while it's evidence for lower rationality, it's only weak evidence. And that compartmentalization means it's very unlikely to come up in a business management context. Creationism, on the other hand, if it's believed strongly enough to hear about, is much stronger evidence - creationism is a weaker meme, more easily tested and less widely accepted, so it says more about the person who holds that belief; it's harder to compartmentalize, and seems to strongly predict disagreement with scientific conclusions in general.

Meanwhile, an "average Less Wrong member" is almost certainly weak on the necessary leadership and organization skills. In order to make that distinction, you do have to subdivide "intelligence" into pieces and decide which ones are important - but I never suggested (or at least, didn't mean to suggest - I never addressed it explicitly) that intelligence narrowly focused on irrelevant skills would count as a qualification.

Comment author: Relsqui 27 September 2010 02:43:46AM *  16 points [-]

Over a couple of posts of yours, I have seen a tendency towards judgmental hyperbole, and also towards dividing the world into "smart" and "stupid," which I don't agree with and which puts me off of the ideas you present with them.

there aren't any smart and sane creationists

I'm not remotely a creationist and I rolled my eyes at this. Are there any strong rationalists who have carefully examined the evidence and weighed the probabilities and remain creationists? I doubt it. Does that exclude all people who are smart and sane? Of course not. You're doing almost exactly the thing your post argues against: picking one issue and ignoring any other factors that might contribute to a person's intelligence. Being wrong about one thing doesn't make someone a dribbling moron, nor crazy. If you really believe there exist no smart creationists, you may be spending too much time with people who are very much like you, and not enough with people who are very unlike you but whom you still respect. Reading Fox News as a Democrat (or the equivalent for your political stance) doesn't count; that's just justifying your superiority complex to yourself.

(Edited to clarify last sentence.)

Comment author: Vladimir_M 27 September 2010 01:10:33AM *  16 points [-]

jimrandomh:

If an issue has smart people on one side and stupid people on the other, then taking the wrong side is overwhelming evidence that a politician is stupid, and therefore unqualified.

Trouble is, there are lots of historical examples when the level of smarts on one side of an issue was noticeably higher, but in retrospect, it turned out that the intellectuals' favored position was frightfully deluded. For example, just look at the enormous popularity of Marxism among Western intellectuals two generations ago.

The basic problem is that intellectuals care much more about the status-signaling aspects of their opinions than the common folk, so even if they have more information and higher intellectual abilities, their incentives to bias their views for the sake of appearing enlightened and affiliated with high-status positions and individuals are also greater. (As Orwell commented about some ideological positions that were fashionable in his time: "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.")

Comment author: JoshuaZ 27 September 2010 01:20:29AM 5 points [-]

The fact that the educated and intelligent are sometimes in the wrong doesn't mean it isn't a good heuristic. Pretty much any heuristic is going to fail sometimes. The question is whether the heuristic is accurate (in the sense of being more often correct than not) and, if so, how accurate it is. This heuristic seems to be one where the general trend is clear. I can't identify a single example other than Marxism in the last hundred years where the intellectual establishment has been very wrong, and even then, that's an example where the general public in many areas also had a fair bit of support for that view.

I'm curious about your claim that that "intellectuals care much more about the status-signaling aspects of their opinions than the common folk." This seems plausible to me, but I'd be curious what substantial evidence there for the claim.

Comment author: mattnewport 27 September 2010 04:09:50AM *  12 points [-]

I can't identify a single example other than Marxism in the last hundred years where the intellectual establishment has been very wrong

I'm reading The Rational Optimist at the moment which has a few examples.

Malthusian ideas about impending starvation or resource exhaustion due to population growth have been popular with intellectuals for a long time but particularly so in the last 100 years. Paul Ehrlich is a well known example. He famously lost his bet with economist Julian Simon on resource scarcity. His prediction in The Population Bomb in 1968 that India would never feed itself was proved wrong that same year. These ideas were generally widely held in intellectual circles (and still are) but there is a long track record of specific predictions relating to these theories that have proved wrong.

Another case that springs to mind: it looks increasingly likely that the mainstream advice on diet as embodied in things like the USDA food guide pyramid was deeply flawed. The dominant theory in the intellectual establishment regarding the relationship between fat, cholesterol and heart disease also looks pretty shaky in light of new research and evidence.

I'd also argue that the intellectual establishment over the latter half of the twentieth century has over emphasized the blank-slate / nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate and neglected the evidence for a genetic basis to many human differences.

Comment author: Patashu 28 September 2010 10:48:11AM 1 point [-]

Population/natural resource exhaustion related crises are a bit iffy, because it is plainly obvious that if they remain exponentially growing forever, relative to linearly growing or constant resources (like room to live on), one or the other has got to give. Mispredicting when it will happen is different from knowing that it has to happen eventually, and how could it not? Even expanding into space won't solve the problem, since the number of planets we can reach as time goes on is smaller than exponential population growth rates and demands for resources.

There are definitely plenty of other scientifically held views that get overturned here and there, though - another example is fever, which for centuries has been considered a negative side effect of an infection, but lately it's been found to have beneficial properties, as certain elements of your immune system function better when the temperature rises (and certain viruses function worse). http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727711.400-fever-friend-or-foe.html

Comment author: mattnewport 28 September 2010 04:05:44PM *  3 points [-]

Population/natural resource exhaustion related crises are a bit iffy, because it is plainly obvious that if they remain exponentially growing forever, relative to linearly growing or constant resources (like room to live on), one or the other has got to give.

Obviously the people disputing the wrong predictions know this. Julian Simon was just as familiar with this trivial mathematical fact as Paul Ehrlich. The fact that this knowledge led Paul Ehrlich to make bad predictions indicates that his analysis was missing something that Julian Simon was considering. Often this missing something is a basic understanding of economics.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 27 September 2010 04:07:15AM *  11 points [-]

JoshuaZ:

I can't identify a single example other than Marxism in the last hundred years where the intellectual establishment has been very wrong, and even then, that's an example where the general public in many areas also had a fair bit of support for that view.

Well, on any issue, there will be both intellectuals and non-intellectuals on all sides in some numbers. We can only observe how particular opinions correlate with various measures of intellectual status, and how prevalent they are among people who are in the upper strata by these measures. Marxism is a good example of an unsound belief (or rather a whole complex of beliefs) that was popular among intellectuals because its basic unsoundness is no longer seriously disputable. Other significant examples from the last hundred years are unfortunately a subject of at least some ongoing controversy; most of that period is still within living memory, after all.

Still, some examples that, in my view, should not be controversial given the present state of knowledge are various highbrow economic theories that managed to lead their intellectual fans into fallacies even deeper than those of the naive folk economics, the views of human nature and behavior of the sort criticized in Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, and a number of foreign policy questions in which the subsequent historical developments falsified the fashionable intellectual opinion so spectacularly that the contemporary troglodyte positions ended up looking good in comparison. There are other examples I have in mind, but those are probably too close to the modern hot-button issues to be worth bringing up.

The question is whether the heuristic is accurate (in the sense of being more often correct than not) and, if so, how accurate it is. This heuristic seems to be one where the general trend is clear.

Frankly, in matters of politics and ideology, I don't find the trend so clear. To establish the existence of such a trend, we would have to define a clear metric for the goodness of outcomes of various policies, and then discuss and evaluate various hypothetical and counterfactual scenarios of policies that have historically found, or presently find, higher or lower favor among the (suitably defined) intellectual class.

This, however, doesn't seem feasible in practice. Neither is it possible to evaluate the overall goodness of policy outcomes in an objective or universally agreed way (except perhaps in very extreme cases), nor is it possible to construct accurate hypotheticals in matters of such immense complexity where the law of unintended consequences lurks behind every corner.

I'm curious about your claim that that "intellectuals care much more about the status-signaling aspects of their opinions than the common folk." This seems plausible to me, but I'd be curious what substantial evidence there for the claim.

My answer is similar to the earlier comment by Perplexed: given the definition of "intellectual" I assume, the claim is self-evident, in fact almost tautological.

I define "intellectuals" as people who derive a non-negligible part of their social status -- either as public personalities or within their social networks -- from the fact that other people show some esteem and interest for their opinions about issues that are outside the domain of mathematical, technical, or hard-scientific knowledge, and that are a matter of some public disagreement and controversy. This definition corresponds very closely to the normal usage of the term, and it implies directly that intellectuals will have unusually high stakes in the status-signaling implications of their beliefs.

Comment author: blogospheroid 27 September 2010 06:02:28AM 10 points [-]

I can't identify a single example other than Marxism in the last hundred years where the intellectual establishment has been very wrong

Opposition to nuclear power?

Comment author: Emile 27 September 2010 06:37:42AM *  28 points [-]

OK, but apart from Marxism, nuclear power, coercive eugenics, Christianity, psychoanalysis, and the respective importance of nature and nurture - when has the intellectual establishment ever been an unreliable guide to finding truth?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 27 September 2010 04:58:43PM 5 points [-]

Come to think of it, one thing I'm surprised nobody mentioned is the present neglect of technology-related existential risks.

Comment author: Perplexed 27 September 2010 05:39:11PM 0 points [-]

Yeah, that provides some more examples. The elite was very worried about existential risks from nuclear war ("The Fate of the Earth"), resource shortages and mass starvation ("Club of Rome"), and technology-based totalitarianism ("1984"). Now, having been embarrassed by falling for too many cries of wolf (or at least, for worrying prematurely), they are wary of being burned again.

Comment author: dripgrind 27 September 2010 11:38:13PM 8 points [-]

I don't think worrying about nuclear war during the Cold War constituted either "crying wolf" or worrying prematurely. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Able Archer 83 exercise (a year after "The Fate of the Earth" was published), and various false alert incidents could have resulted in nuclear war, and I'm not sure why anyone who opposed nuclear weapons at the time would be "embarrassed" in the light of what we now know.

I don't think an existential risk has to be a certainty for it to be worth taking seriously.

In the US, concerns about some technology risks like EMP attacks and nuclear terrorism are still taken seriously, even though these are probably unlikely to happen and the damage would be much less severe than a nuclear war.

Comment author: Perplexed 28 September 2010 12:30:38AM 3 points [-]

I don't think an existential risk has to be a certainty for it to be worth taking seriously.

I agree. And nuclear war was certainly a risk that was worth taking seriously at the time.

However, that doesn't make my last sentence any less true, especially if you replace "embarrassed" with "exhausted". The risk of a nuclear war, somewhere, some time within the next 100 years, is still high - more likely than not, I would guess. It probably won't destroy the human race, or even modern technology, but it could easily cost 400 million human lives. Yet, in part because people have become tired of worrying about such things, having already worried for decades, no one seems to be doing much about this danger.

Comment author: dripgrind 28 September 2010 09:34:21AM 1 point [-]

When you say that no one seems to be doing much, are you sure that's not just because the efforts don't get much publicity?

There is a lot that's being done:

Most nuclear-armed governments have massively reduced their nuclear weapon stockpiles, and try to stop other countries getting nuclear weapons. There's an international effort to track fissile material.

After the Cold War ended, the west set up programmes to employ Soviet nuclear scientists which have run until today (Russia is about to end them).

South Africa had nuclear weapons, then gave them up.

Israel destroyed the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programmes with airstrikes. OK, self-interested, but existing nuclear states stop their enemies getting nuclear weapons then it reduces the risk of a nuclear war.

Somebody wrote the Stuxnet worm to attack Iran's enrichment facilities (probably) and Iran is under massive international pressure not to develop nuclear weapons.

Western leaders are at least talking about the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. OK, probably empty rhetoric.

India and Pakistan have reduced the tension between them, and now keep their nuclear weapons stored disassembled.

The US is developing missile defences to deter 'rogue states' who might have a limited nuclear missile capability (although I'm not sure why the threat of nuclear retaliation isn't a better deterrent than shooting down missiles). The Western world is paranoid about nuclear terrorism, even putting nuclear detectors in its ports to try to detect weapons being smuggled into the country (which a lot of experts think is silly, but I guess it might make it harder to move fissile material around on the black market).

etc. etc.

Sure, in the 100 year timeframe, there is still a risk. It just seems like a world with two ideologically opposed nuclear-armed superpowers, with limited ways to gather information and their arsenals on a hair trigger, was much riskier than today's situation. Even when "rogue states" get hold of nuclear weapons, they seem to want them to deter a US/UN invasion, rather than to actually use offensively.

Comment author: mattnewport 27 September 2010 05:50:50PM 4 points [-]

Now, having been embarrassed by falling for too many cries of wolf (or at least, for worrying prematurely), they are wary of being burned again.

This doesn't appear to be the case at all. There are a variety of claimed existential risks which the intellectual elite are in general quite worried about. They just don't overlap much with the kind of risks people here talk about. Global warming is an obvious example (and some people here probably think they're right on that one) but the overhyped fears of SARS and H1N1 killing millions of people look like recent examples of lessons about crying wolf not being learned.

Comment author: dripgrind 27 September 2010 11:21:04PM 5 points [-]

I don't know about SARS, but in the case of H1N1 it wasn't "crying wolf" so much as being prepared for a potential pandemic which didn't happen. I mean, very severe global flu pandemics have happened before. Just because H1N1 didn't become as virulent as expected doesn't mean that preparing for that eventuality was a waste of time.

Comment author: mattnewport 27 September 2010 11:52:52PM 1 point [-]

Obviously the crux of the issue is whether the official probability estimates and predictions for these types of threats are accurate or not. It's difficult to judge this in any individual case that fails to develop into a serious problem but if you can observe a consistent ongoing pattern of dire predictions that do not pan out this is evidence of an underlying bias in the estimates of risk. Preparing for an eventuality as if it had a 10% probability of happening when the true risk is 1% will lead to serious mis-allocation of resources.

It looks to me like there is a consistent pattern of overstating the risks of various catastrophes. Rigorously proving this is difficult. I've pointed to some examples of what look like over-confident predictions of disaster (there's lots more in The Rational Optimist). I'm not sure we can easily resolve any remaining disagreement on the extent of risk exaggeration however.

Comment author: wnoise 28 September 2010 01:13:29AM 0 points [-]

Maybe at first, but I clearly recall that the hype was still ongoing even after it was known that this was a milder flu-version than usual.

And the reactions were not well designed to handle the flu either. One example is that my university installed hand sanitizers, well, pretty much everywhere. But the flu is primarily transmitted not from hand-to-hand contact, but by miniature droplets when people cough, sneeze, or just talk and breathe:

http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/qa.htm

Spread of the 2009 H1N1 virus is thought to occur in the same way that seasonal flu spreads. Flu viruses are spread mainly from person to person through coughing, sneezing or talking by people with influenza. Sometimes people may become infected by touching something – such as a surface or object – with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose.

Wikipedia takes a more middle-of-the-road view, noting that it's not entirely clear how much transmission happens in which route, but still:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influenza

The length of time the virus will persist on a surface varies, with the virus surviving for one to two days on hard, non-porous surfaces such as plastic or metal, for about fifteen minutes from dry paper tissues, and only five minutes on skin.

Which really suggests to me that hand-washing (or sanitizing) just isn't going to be terribly effective. The best preventative is making sick people stay home.

Now, regular hand-washing is a great prophylactic for many other disease pathways, of course. But not for what the supposed purpose was.

Comment author: wnoise 27 September 2010 09:00:41PM 1 point [-]

SARS and H1N1 both looked like media-manufactured scares, rather than actual concern from the intellectual elite.

Comment author: mattnewport 27 September 2010 09:08:45PM *  2 points [-]

It wasn't just the media:

Take the response to the avian flu outbreak in 2005. Dr David Nabarro, the UN systems coordinator for human and avian influenza, declared: ‘I’m not, at the moment, at liberty to give you a prediction on [potential mortality] numbers.’ He then gave a prediction on potential mortality numbers: ‘Let’s say, the range of deaths could be anything from five million to 150million.’ Nabarro should have kept his estimating prowess enslaved: the number of cases of avian flu stands at a mere 498, of which just 294 have proved fatal.

...

On 11 June 2009, just over a month after the initial outbreak in Mexico, the World Health Organisation finally announced that swine flu was now worthy of its highest alert status of level six, a global pandemic. Despite claims that there was no need to panic, that’s exactly what national health authorities did. In the UK, while the Department of Health was closing schools, politicians were falling over themselves to imagine the worst possible outcomes: second more deadly waves of flu, virus mutation – nothing was too far-fetched for it not to become a public announcement. This was going to be like the great Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20. But worse.

However, just as day follows nightmares, the dawning reality proved to be rather more mundane. By March 2010, nearly a full year after the H1N1 virus first began frightening the British government, the death toll stood not in the hundreds of thousands, but at 457. To put that into perspective, the average mortality rate for your common-or-garden flu is 600 deaths per year in a non-epidemic year and between 12,000 and 13,800 deaths per year in an epidemic year. In other words, far from heralding the imagined super virus, swine flu was more mild than the strains of flu we’ve lived with, and survived, for centuries. Reflecting on the hysteria which characterised the WHO’s response to Mexico, German politician Dr Wolfgang Wodarg told the WHO last week: ‘What we experienced in Mexico City was very mild flu which did not kill more than usual – which killed even less than usual.’

Comment author: JoshuaZ 27 September 2010 01:27:30PM 4 points [-]

Haha, ok point taken. I'm clearly wrong on this and there are a lot of examples. (At this point I'm also reminded of this Monty Python sketch although this is sort of the inverse).

Comment author: Perplexed 27 September 2010 01:57:45AM 4 points [-]

I'm curious about your claim that that "intellectuals care much more about the status-signaling aspects of their opinions than the common folk." This seems plausible to me, but I'd be curious what substantial evidence there for the claim.

I would like to define an "intellectual" as a person who I believe to be well educated and smart. Unfortunately, this definition will be deprecated as too subjective. An objective alternative definition would be to define intellectuals as a class of people who consider each other to be well educated and smart.

If that definition is accepted, then I think the claim is almost self-evident.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 27 September 2010 01:34:15AM 4 points [-]

I can't identify a single example other than Marxism in the last hundred years where the intellectual establishment has been very wrong.

Coercive eugenics was very popular in intellectual circles until WWII.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 27 September 2010 02:05:51AM *  8 points [-]

It was actually pretty popular in non-intellectual circles as well, but yes that example seem to still be a decent one.

(Incidentally, I'm not actually sure what is wrong with coercive eugenics in the general sense. If for example we have the technology to ensure that some very bad alleles are not passed on (such as those for Huntington's disease), I'm not convinced that we shouldn't require screening or mandatory in vitro for people with the alleles. This may be one reason this example didn't occur to me. However, I suspect that discussion of this issue in any detail could be potentially quite mind-killing given unfortunate historical connections and related issues.)

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 27 September 2010 06:28:15AM 9 points [-]

(Incidentally, I'm not actually sure what is wrong with coercive eugenics in the general sense. If for example we have the technology to ensure that some very bad alleles are not passed on (such as those for Huntington's disease), I'm not convinced that we shouldn't require screening or mandatory in vitro for people with the alleles. This may be one reason this example didn't occur to me. However, I suspect that discussion of this issue in any detail could be potentially quite mind-killing given unfortunate historical connections and related issues.)

The historical meaning of the term is problematic partly because it wasn't based on actual gene testing - I doubt they even tried to sort out whether someone's low IQ was inheritable or caused by, say, poor nutrition - and partly because it was, and still in some cases would be, very subjective in terms of what traits are considered undesirable. How many of us wouldn't be here if there'd been genetic tests for autism/aspergers or ADD or other neurodifferences developed before we were born?

Comment author: erratio 27 September 2010 08:04:34AM 5 points [-]

If for example we have the technology to ensure that some very bad alleles are not passed on (such as those for Huntington's disease), I'm not convinced that we shouldn't require screening or mandatory in vitro for people with the alleles.

It gets much harder when you start talking about autism or deafness or any of a whole range of conditions that are abnormal but aren't strictly disadvantageous.

Comment author: prase 27 September 2010 11:09:32AM 2 points [-]

Are there people who, having a deaf newborn child, would refuse to cure the condition based on argument that deafness is not strictly disadvantageous?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 27 September 2010 01:33:01PM 8 points [-]

Yes, and there's been a fair bit of controversy in the "deaf community" over whether they should engage in selection for deaf children. See for example this article.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 27 September 2010 11:18:11AM *  5 points [-]

I've heard from more than one source that deaf parents of deaf children often take that stance - and that some deaf parents intentionally choose to have deaf children, even to the point of getting a sperm donor involved if the genetics require it.

I rather sympathize - if I ever get serious about procreating, stacking the deck in favor of having an autistic offspring will be something of a priority. (And, as I think about it, it's for pretty much the same reason: Being deaf or autistic isn't necessarily disadvantageous, but having parents that one has difficulty in communicating with is - and deaf people and autistic people both tend to find it easier to communicate with people who are similar.)

Comment author: prase 27 September 2010 11:36:25AM 1 point [-]

What do you mean by necessarily disadvantageous, then? I disagree that a difficulty in communication with parents is a more necessary disadvantage than deafness, but maybe we interpret the words differently. (I have no precise definition yet.)

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 27 September 2010 12:19:06PM 2 points [-]

Being deaf or autistic (or for that matter gay or left-handed or female or male or tall or short) is a disadvantage in some situations, but not all, and it's possible for someone with any of the above traits to arrange their life in such a way that the trait is an advantage rather than a disadvantage, if other aspects of their life are amenable to such rearranging. (In the case of being deaf, a significant portion of the advantage seems to come from being able to be a member of the deaf community, and even then I have a little bit of trouble seeing it, but I'm inclined to believe that the deaf people who make that claim know more about the situation than I do.)

For contrast, consider being diabetic: It's possible to arrange one's life such that diabetes is well-controlled, but there seems to be a pretty good consensus among diabetics that it's bad news, and I've never heard of anyone intentionally trying to have a diabetic child, xkcd jokes aside.

Comment author: erratio 27 September 2010 09:11:04PM *  1 point [-]

I dunno, i don't agree with deaf parents deliberately selecting for deaf chldren but there is definitely a large element of trying to medicalise something that the people with the condition don't consider to be a bad thing.

Anyway, I think Silas nailed deaf community attitudes with the comparison between being deaf and being black, the main difference being that one is considered cultural (and therefore the problem is other people's attitudes towards it) and the other medical.

Edit: After further thought, I think I am using necessarily disadvantageous to mean that the disadvantages massively outweigh any advantages. Since being deaf gets you access to the deaf community, an awesome working memory for visual stuff, and (if you live in urban America) doesn't ruin your life, I don't think it's all disadvantage.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 27 September 2010 02:45:46AM 7 points [-]

Interestingly enough, one thing both these examples have in common is that they are cases of intellectuals arguing that intellectuals should have more power.

Comment author: Desrtopa 23 January 2011 03:08:10AM 2 points [-]

The basic problem is that intellectuals care much more about the status-signaling aspects of their opinions than the common folk, so even if they have more information and higher intellectual abilities, their incentives to bias their views for the sake of appearing enlightened and affiliated with high-status positions and individuals are also greater.

I'm not convinced this is the case. Rather, I think intellectuals tend to try to signal status to other intellectuals, whereas non-intellectuals tend to try to signal status to other non-intellectuals.

Comment author: Perplexed 26 September 2010 11:37:56PM 7 points [-]

I mean this only to apply to issues that are controversial in the sense that approximately equally sized groups of qualified people exist on either side. In those cases, people should expect that most of their opinions were picked up socially and reinforced by confirmation bias.

Whereas high integrity politicians pick up their opinions on these topics ... how, exactly?

I doubt that politicians have any more time to self-educate themselves on most issues than I do. And I am quite confident that they have less time to self-educate regarding the small fraction of the issues which I consider to be the most important ones.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 28 September 2010 01:19:03AM 2 points [-]

And be sure to notice whenever they to ignore the question and answer a different one instead; that means they couldn't answer the original question.

Interacting with the media 101: when they ask you a question that sounds confused, they're probably just asking you to explain the obvious thing (that they don't understand) - so ignore their question and explain that. My point is that this isn't as good of an indicator as you think it is since politicians, almost by definition, already know how to deal with the media.

On the other hand, this bit of media wisdom is supposed to be for a scientist explaining her work to the media, so maybe politicians don't do this at all.

Comment author: SimonF 27 September 2010 02:16:30PM 1 point [-]

One small correction:

"that is, we tend to emphasize evidence that candidates we like are qualified, and ignore evidence that candidates we don't like aren't qualified."

The last part of this sentence should probably be "that candidates we don't like are(!) qualified."

Comment author: [deleted] 26 September 2010 08:34:49PM 1 point [-]

Upvoted, but I think this is nearly impossible in practice. Also, there are certain issues (such as abortion) that otherwise perfectly rational politicians will behave irrationally about, which puts an upper limit on the effectiveness of focusing on intelligence rather than issues. If the issue that the politician is being irrational about is extremely important (like the economy) then this method can easily lead you astray.