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The Eighth Meditation on Superweapons and Bingo - Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

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The Eighth Meditation on Superweapons and Bingo [Sep. 17th, 2012|05:29 pm]

I usually blog about a mix of philosophy, medicine, and random things that go on in my personal life. According to my LiveJournal Statistics page, a typical blog post of mine from last month when I was blogging every day and about writing really interesting stuff like meeting a guy possessed by demons got eight hundred page views per day by about a hundred fifty LiveJournal users a day. As soon as I started writing about gender, it shot up to about twenty-five hundred page views by three hundred fifty users a day. On the one hand, I like popularity as much as anyone else. On the other hand, I feel like by writing on a hot-button issue and taking a side on the object-level debate, I'm kind of doing something sort of dirty; like now I'm only one or two levels above those blogs that write "The Democrats suck, because they love Big Government! LOL!" and get a million subscribers a day. So I will make one final object-level post today, a meta-level post tomorrow, and then try to limit myself to at absolute most one culture war per week from now on.


Sometimes people complain that it's scary how oblivious the other side is to their arguments. But I know something scarier.

On r/atheism, a Christian-turned-atheist once described an "apologetics" group at his old church. The pastor would bring in a simplified straw-man version of a common atheist argument, they'd take turns mocking it ("Oh my god, he said that monkeys can give birth to humans! That's hilarious!") and then they'd all have a good laugh together. Later, when they met an actual atheist who was trying to explain evolution to them, they wouldn't sit and evaluate it dispassionately. They'd pattern-match back to the ridiculous argument they heard at church, and instead of listening they'd be thinking "Hahaha, atheists really are that hilariously stupid!"

Of course, it's not only Christians who do that. I hear atheists repeat the old "I believe the Bible because God said it was true. We know He said it was true because it's in the Bible. And I believe the Bible because God said it is true" line constantly and grin as if they've said something knee-slappingly funny. I've never in my entire life heard a Christian use this reasoning. I have heard Christians use the "truth-telling thing" argument sometimes (we should believe the Bible because the Bible is correct about many things that can be proven independently, this vouches for the veracity of the whole book, and therefore we should believe it even when it can't be independently proven) many times. If you're familiar enough with the atheist version, and uncharitable enough to Christians, you will pattern-match, miss the subtle difference, and be thinking "Hahaha, Christians really are as hilariously stupid as all my atheist friends say!"

Sometimes even the straw-man argument is unnecessary. All you need to do is get in a group and make the other side's argument a figure of fun.

There are lots of good arguments against libertarianism. I have collected some of them into a very long document which remains the most popular thing I've ever written. But when I hear liberals discuss libertarianism, they very often head in the same direction. They make a silly face and say "Durned guv'mint needs to stay off my land!" And then all the other liberals who are with them laugh uproariously. And then when a real libertarian shows up and makes a real libertarian argument, a liberal will adopt his posture, try to mimic his tone of voice, and say "Durned guv'ment needs to stay off my land! Hahaha!" And all the other liberals will think "Hahaha, libertarians really are that stupid!"

Many of you will recognize this as much like the Myers Shuffle. As long as a bunch of atheists get together and laugh at religious people who ask them to read theology before criticizing it, and as long as they have an easily recognizable name for the object of their hilarity like "Courtier's Reply", then whenever a religious person asks them to familiarize themselves with theology the atheist can just say "Courtier's Reply!" and all the other atheists will crack up and think "Hahaha, religious people really are that stupid!" and they gain status and the theist loses status and at no point do they have to even consider responding to the theist's objection.

This tendency reaches its most florid manifestation in the "ideological bingo games". See for example "Skeptical Sexist Bingo", feminist bingo, libertarian troll bingo, anti-Zionist bingo, pro-Zionist bingo, and so on. If you Google for these you can find thousands, which is too bad because every single person who makes one of these is going to Hell.

Let's look at the fourth one, "Anti-Zionist Bingo." Say that you mention something bad Israel is doing, someone else accuses you of being anti-Semitic, and you correct them that no, not all criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic and you're worried about the increasing tendency to spin it that way.

And they say "Hahahahahhaa he totally did it, he used the 'all criticism of Israel gets labeled anti-Semitic' argument, people totally use that as a real argument hahahaha they really are that stupid, I get 'B1' on my stupid stereotypical critics of Israel bingo!"

You say "Uh, look, I'm not really sure what you're getting at. I recognize that there is real anti-Semitism and I am just as opposed to it as you are but surely when when see the state excusing acts of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank we..."

And they say "Hahahhaha G1, I got G1, he pulled the old 'I abhor real anti-Semitism' line this is great, guys come over here and look at what this guy is doing he's just totally parroting all the old arguments every anti-Semite uses!"

So it may be scary when your opponent is unaware of your arguments, but it is much scarier when your opponent has a sort of vague dreamlike awareness of your arguments, which immediately pattern-match cached thoughts about how horrible a person you would have to be to make them.

But this is still not the scariest thing.

Because if your opponent brings out the Bingo card, you can just tell them exactly what I am saying here. You can explain to the pro-Israel person that they are pattern-matching your responses, that you don't know what strawman anti-Zionist they're thinking of but that you have legitimate reasons for believing what you do and you request a fair hearing, and that if they do not repent of their knee-slapping pattern-matching Bingo-making ways they are going to Hell.

No, the scariest thing would be if one of those bingo cards had, in the free space in the middle: "You are just pattern-matching my responses. I swear that I have something legitimate to tell you which is not just a rehash of the straw-man arguments you've heard before, so please just keep an open mind and hear me out."

If someone did that, even Origen would have to admit they were beyond any hope of salvation. Any conceivable attempt to explain their error would be met with a "Hahahaha he did the 'stop-pattern matching I'm not a strawman I'm not an inhuman monster STOP FILLING OUT YOUR DAMN BINGO CARD' thing again! He's so hilarious, just like all those other 'stop-pattern matching I am not a strawman' people whom we know only say that because they are inhuman monsters!"

But surely no one could be that far gone, right?


"I'm not racist, but..."

If you are like everyone else on the Internet, your immediate response is "Whoever is saying that is obviously a racisty racist who loves racism! I can't believe he literally used the 'I'm not racist, but...' line in those exact words! The old INRB! I've got to get home as fast as I can to write about this on my blog and tell everyone I really met one of those people!"

But why would someone use INRB? It sounds to me like what they are saying is: "Look. I know what I am saying is going to sound racist to you. You're going to jump to the conclusion that I'm a racist and not hear me out. In fact, maybe you've been trained to assume that the only reason anyone could possibly assert it is racism and to pattern-match this position to a racist straw man version. But I actually have a non-racist reason for saying it. Please please please for the love of Truth and Beauty just this one time throw away your prejudgments and your Bingo card and just listen to what I'm going to say with an open mind."

And so you reply "Hahahaha! He really used the 'look I know what I'm saying is going to sound racist to you you're going to jump to the conclusion that I'm a racist and not hear me out in fact maybe you've been trained to assume...' line! What a racist! Point and laugh, everyone! POINT AND LAUGH!"

And of course "sexist" works just as well as "racist" here, even though the latter is more familiar.

This is what I mean by "conceptual superweapon". This is what it looks like to stare into the barrel of a gigantic lunar-based death ray and abandon all hope. This is why I find feminism and the social justice community in general so scary.


Let's switch topics. Let's switch to medical testing. Although Medical Testing For Biochemists is complicated and involves scary words like "pharmacokinetics", Medical Testing for Doctors is much easier and goes like this:

A Magic Mystery Box fell to Earth during an eerie thunderstorm. If we wave the Magic Mystery Box over a patient, it beeps and displays a number from one to one hundred. Now sometimes low-numbered patients have cancer, and sometimes high-numbered patients are healthy, but in general the higher the number the more likely the patient is to have cancer. Sometimes.

Suppose the doctor has two choices. She can refer the patient to surgery, where surgeons will cut him open, look to see if there really is a cancer, and if so try to take it out. This surgery is expensive, unpleasant, and there's always the chance the surgeon's hand will slip and cut something important and the patient will die.

Or the doctor can say "Oh, you don't really have cancer" and do nothing.

If she tells a patient who has cancer that he's healthy, the patient will die, sue the doctor, or both. If she tells a patient who is healthy that he needs to go to surgery for further cancer investigation, she makes the patient needlessly terrified, wastes the surgeon's time, risks complications from the surgery, and costs the health system thousands of dollars.

So she waves the Magic Mystery Box over the patient, and it beeps and says "22". Now what?

In practice, doctors establish a threshold. The threshold will be a number like "40". If the test is above 40, the patient gets surgery. If the test is below 40, they send the patient home.

How does one choose the right threshold? A low threshold means means that doctors will catch almost all cancer, but they'll also end up sending a lot of healthy people for dangerous unnecessary surgery. A high threshold means that few healthy patients will ever suffer the risks of unnecessary surgery, but probably a lot of cancer will go undetected.

If the surgery is really dangerous but the cancer isn't that bad, the doctors will choose a high threshold. If the surgery is quick and safe but the uncaught cancer would be fatal, the doctors will choose a low threshold. But no matter what number they choose, all they can do is minimize the harm. Unless they sent every single patient of theirs to surgery, there will always be a few cancers that are uncaught. Unless they never send anyone to surgery, there will always be a few false alarms. As long as the test itself is imperfect, the doctors' decision will always unfairly harm a few patients. They just need to figure the threshold that harms as few as possible.

(If you're familiar with statistics, you already recognize this situation as Type I and Type II errors. If you're familiar with utilitarianism, you already recognize the solution as setting the threshold to maximize total utility across all patients. I'm not saying anything new here.)

If a doctor uses the established thresholds and refers a patient to surgery that turns out to be unnecessary, there are laws preventing that patient from suing her. The same is true if all the tests came back below the threshold, she said he was fine, and he later turned out to be super unlucky and have a totally undetectable form of cancer. The doctor did everything right. She just got unlucky. Those laws are really good. If they didn't exist, it would either be impossible to practice medicine, or else doctors would be optimizing for not being sued rather than for doing good medicine even more than they already are. If they only existed in one direction (eg doctors who did unnecessary surgeries couldn't be sued, but doctors who missed cancer could), that would be even worse - any doctor not heroic enough to go against her own self-interest would refer every patient to surgery.

Politics is nowhere near as rational as medicine. Politicians don't think in terms of thresholds. No one ever says "The more regulations we put on businesses, the fewer customers will get scammed by shady con men. But also the more likely it is that we unnecessarily penalize honest businesses. So we need to find the threshold value that minimizes the total unfairness to businesses and customers." Instead they say either "We need to fight for more regulations and anyone who says otherwise is in the pay of Big Business!" or "We need to cut through all the red tape and anyone who says otherwise is in the pay of Big Government!"

No one ever says "The more restrictions we place on welfare, the more certain we'll be that no one is abusing the system. But the more restrictions we place on welfare, the more certain we will be that some poor people who desperately need it can't get it. Therefore, we should determine the relative disutilities of people defrauding us and of needy people not being able to use the system, and act to maximize total utility." Instead they say "Anyone who opposes tight welfare restrictions is a welfare queen trying to scam you!" or "Anyone who wants any welfare restrictions hates poor people!"

Gender issues also involve thresholds.

A man who wants to know whether it is okay to ask a woman out can try to read her social cues and appeal to lists of known social norms. This is his Magic Mystery Box. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. He needs to set a threshold for action: how open to an advance does she has to look before he asks her or flirts with her or whatever. If the threshold is too low, he will be a creep and she will feel harrassed. If the threshold is too high, no one will ever ask anyone else out and everyone will die alone and unloved.

Another man is in love. He wants to know if he can express his love to a woman without worrying that it is "creepy" or "coming on too strong". Again social cues give him a Magic Mystery Box. Again he must set a threshold. If the threshold is too low, he will end up creeping people out. If the threshold is too high, then no one can ever be in love and all couples must be formed by deciding the other person is good-looking and so you will settle for them.

We need to dismantle social structures that favor men aka patriarchy. It's kind of hard to figure out which ones those are - is the preponderance of male math professors because of the patriarchy, or something else? We can run studies and surveys of women in the math field and try to get some preliminary conclusions - our Magic Mystery Box. But we need some threshold for intervention like fixing a quota of 50% women mathematicians in every college. If our threshold is too low, we end up with tokenism and promoting unqualified people. If our threshold is too high, we end up perpetuating the patriarchy.

Some men (and women!) express political positions whose consequences could hurt women. It's unclear whether they support those positions because they honestly believe they are good for society, or because they are evil people who deliberately aim at misogyny. We can psychoanalyze them - our Magic Mystery Box - but we must decide a threshold. If the threshold is too low, evil misogynists can get away with their evil misogyny and no one will call them on it. If the threshold is too high, we will end up demonizing a bunch of random people, giving feminism a reputation as "those people who go around demonizing innocents", and totally destroy any chance at friendly political discourse.

No threshold should ever be set at zero. If a doctor sets the Magic Mystery Box threshold to zero, then she will end up referring every single patient for dangerous surgery. "Doctor, I've been having a bit of a sore throat these past few....SURGERY! NOW!"

But if one side has a superweapon, it's impossible to argue for the other. If the threshold starts at forty, and one doctor says "But we can't be the sorts of monsters who would refuse a potential cancer patient live-saving surgery!", and this argument is a deeply-ingrained part of medical culture and the other doctors don't want to be tarred as cancer-sympathizers, then the threshold goes to 30. Then another doctor brings up the same argument, and the threshold goes to 20. Soon the threshold is at zero and they're referring rashes and hay fever for surgery and no one can protest because they don't want to look Pro-Cancer.

If it is impossible to ever say "You know, the social justice people make some good points, but on this issue here they've gone too far," then the threshold on all of those questions above just keeps inching downward until it hits zero.

And if people are punished for their results rather than their actions - if you can get called a creep even though you did your best to take her hints and followed all the rules - then that's like only suing the doctors who miss cancer. It's going to bring the threshold down to the zero "operate on everyone" level even faster.


When I Googled for good examples of those bingo games to post above, it was pretty hard to find the Zionism ones and so on. Almost every ideological bingo game out there was feminist. This is not a coincidence.

For those who have absorbed the associated memes, feminism is a fully general conceptual superweapon. It has attempted and probably completed the task of making every possible counterargument so unthinkable that any feminist can refute it just by reciting the appropriate bingo square, then pointing and laughing.

If a man thinks women are less oppressed than she claims, she can say "male privilege!" and point and laugh.

If a man thinks there are some areas where the threshold has moved too far toward women, she can make a grave expression and intone "What About Teh Menz?" (now the name of a major blog, which is actually pretty good) and point and laugh.

If a man thinks parts of the reason why some men are jerks toward women is because women actually are more likely to date jerks than people who are respectful, she can gleefully declare "You're a Nice Guy (TM) and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM)!" and point and laugh.

If a man tries to explain his own perspective to her or provide any alternative theory to men-being-horrible, she can say he's "mansplaining again!" and point and laugh.

If a man asks not to be immediately pattern-matched to the nearest hostile cliche when he tries to present his opinion, she can say he's using a variant of the old "I'm not sexist, but..." line. And point. And laugh.

During the past few days, some people have criticized me for nonstandard use of terms. They have tried to tell me that the legitimate definition of a feminist term isn't a bingo-square demonization that can be used to shut down debate, but [complex legitimate reasonable definition]. Well, okay. I agree all of these words have possible legitimate definitions and uses and were created for good reasons. The same is true of the word "Communist". It means a person who supports a classless society with common ownership of all goods. This has nothing to do with "communist" the way it is used in actual American political discourse eg "Obama is a communist because he wants universal health care!" If I criticize the Republicans for using the word "communism" as a debate-stopper, saying "But in this here dictionary Communist has a legitimate and useful meaning" is not a response. People created the word because it was useful and meaningful. Then it got picked up and placed into the fuel chamber of a superweapon. Now it is ten million degrees and radioactive and bears no resemblance to its former self. You might not find the terms above used in exactly the way above in the Official Oxford Dictionary Of Gender Relations, but I did check Google and urbandictionary.com to make sure that I wasn't completely generalizing from my own experience here.

My view on feminism isn't really driven by my view on gender relations or women or men or society. It's driven by my view on applause lights, on inability to urge restraint, on death spirals, on anti-charity, on zero-threshold medical testing, on superweapons, and most of all on epistemic hygiene. I don't care how righteous your cause is, you don't get a superweapon so powerful it can pre-emptively vaporize any possible counterargument including the one asking you to please turn off your superweapon and listen for just a second. No one should be able to do that.

I apologize for this post being so long. I wanted to make sure it wouldn't fit on a bingo board.

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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-09-18 01:37 am (UTC)
I agree thoroughly.

But...I think you believe in discourse too much. You really believe you should be able to talk to, and find common ground with, a whole lot of people -- the feminists, the Republicans, the Democrats, the Catholics, etc. And sometimes I have to wonder why.

I used to argue with Catholics. They were smart, considerate people, good debating partners. But it wore me out and made me miserable and in the end I decided there was no point to it. I'm *not* a Catholic and I'm never going to be, so why have any truck with their beliefs?

I'm not a feminist either. Or a Republican, or a Democrat. The people who run the world are going to run it in their own way, and I'm just going to try to stay out of their hair. I don't really care if they play nice or not. I don't really care if discourse about this sort of thing is intellectually honest. It's talk about society and law and culture, and I don't have any way to *affect* those things, so who gives a damn what's *said* about 'em?
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[User Picture]From: olegvolk
2012-09-18 03:30 am (UTC)
That's also why I don't bother hiding any aspects of my views and actions. People who do not like them can self-select out of my social group early and save me the trouble of dealing with them. Works great for dating. Probably less well for the work world, though I find that even there self-selection for compatibility works.
I also find that people who hold strong beliefs (Puritan separatists, for example) can interact with others just fine and so succeed. People who are rabid atheists, feminists, fundamentalists, etc. tend to marginalize themselves and so aren't in positions of authority very often. As with diseases, less virulent strains survive more than the extremes.
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-09-18 01:40 am (UTC)
"I believe the Bible because God said it was true. We know He said it was true because it's in the Bible. And I believe the Bible because God said it is true"

I've heard that from more than one person at the University of Delaware in the 1970s. I kept arguing with them until I realized they really thought like that, at which point I concluded there was no hope of my convincing them of anything. I wonder if this example of reasoning in a very small circle was taught by the Campus Crusade for Christ-- they were active on campus at the time.

I'm not claiming that they were typical Christians, just noting that they existed.
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[User Picture]From: nullc
2012-09-18 07:05 am (UTC)

No surprise—

Stereotypes are conceptually powerful because there is some truth to them. This doesn't make them any more fair and right, nor does it make using them as predictors a useful way to go about _discourse_. (And there is no end to the ethics debates you can get into when you talk about using them in other contexts, but fortunately we're talking about talking here.)

A bingo phrase that is no persons's argument is just a pure strawman, I'm sure they exist, but they're unless they're unusually believable they won't persist as well as bingo with basis.

Edited at 2012-09-18 07:10 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: Adom Hartell
2012-09-18 01:42 am (UTC)

Re: Disclaimer

I really enjoy your blog, whatever you write about, but please don't restrict yourself from writing about controversial topics when you have insights to contribute. I would not have been able to articulate what you've written in this most recent series, I haven't seen what you wrote here anywhere else, and it's a perspective to which I think people should be exposed. If you had decided not to write this because a few months ago you decided not to participate in culture wars, or if you had spaced it out or abstracted it further, something valuable would have been lost.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-18 02:00 am (UTC)

Re: Disclaimer

Seriously, this. I get it might feel a bit weird attracting new viewers with this, but trust me, the views are well-deserved. You're providing the best analysis I've seen in a long time on a topic that seems to have most corners of the internet flinging bile.
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[User Picture]From: avva
2012-09-18 02:16 am (UTC)
A great post, and I particularly enjoyed the excellent critique of the, well, creepy bingo-card phenomenon.

I disagree with your take on the INRB debut, however. In theory it seems like it could bear the "please don't pattern-match me, oh please don't bingo-card me" meaning you're giving it. But in practice, it's become such a famous meme with such heavy baggage attached to it that in my experience no one uses it this way. That is, no one who wants to convey that meaning (and must therefore already be familiar with the basic race-debates arguments, with pattern-matching, etc.) will use that particular phrase; they'll say something more complicated, but less memetic.

In my experience, people who actually say INRB use it "naively": even if they're aware it's a phrase, they don't know that there's a tradition of mocking and deriding it. They go on to either say something actually racist or, more often, express an opinion that has to do with some particular race in some way. Or both.

Similarly, people don't say "Some of my best friends are Jews" to mean "Hey, I know I'm saying something that may look anti-semitic to you and I know that the line about friends is a famous cop-out, but I don't mean it in its cliche way, I actually do have Jewish people among my best friends and not because they're Jews but because they're awesome and I know that doesn't prove anything by itself but I'm just offering it as indirect evidence of my complete lack of any conscious anti-Jewish bias, and that's quite an important part of my personal ideology and I hope you can believe that."
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-18 10:41 am (UTC)
Similarly, people don't say "Some of my best friends are Jews"

I was thinking that. Some of my best friends are Jews. As are many of my family members. I regularly[1] go to shul. I can quote chunks of talmud[2]. If anything, I'm way too prone to assume jewish people are just like me, and have difficulty seeing things from the point of view of someone from a predominantly arab/muslim country. But if I ever need to say "I don't know much about this, but I think I know more than you, so maybe you should rethink what you're saying", I know I have no way of saying any of that without sounding like I'm playing a "more jewish than you" game for the sake of it.

I think you're right, that people saying something racist say "I'm not a racist but" much much more than anyone else. But Scott's right that that's very annoying if you're trying to have an actual conversation and hoped the person you're talking to would have time to explain what was actually wrong with what you were saying, if anything.

[1] OK, not frequently, but still :)
[2] Generally the bits like "and then the Rabbi glared at them and great destructive beams came out of his eyes and they all vaporized"[3], but still :)
[3] I cannot stress hard enough how I am not making this up :)
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From: siodine
2012-09-18 03:06 am (UTC)
Ah man, this is too good for the ephemeral nature of a livejournal blog post. You really should set up something like what gwern and muflax have.

Edited at 2012-09-18 03:07 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: fiddlingfrog
2012-09-18 03:31 am (UTC)
Really? This series is getting more pageviews than the terribly implausible World War II did? I figured that had to be the most perfect internet bait ever. Hell, it's linked twice from TvTropes.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-18 03:55 am (UTC)
No, that one is still a unique gigantic spike on my statistics page. I think this is higher than everything else, though.
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[User Picture]From: ipslore
2012-09-18 03:41 am (UTC)
I'm not racist, but I do like pancakes.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-18 03:55 am (UTC)
I almost mentioned that quote, but I couldn't figure out how to fit it in!
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-18 04:32 am (UTC)

You're getting a ton of pageviews because...

...this is some of the best stuff you've done. Really. It is awesome. Don't stop.

You could make an awesome book out of this. I am quite sure it would sell a LOT of copies. But, of course, you'd never get laid again...
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[User Picture]From: alicorn24
2012-09-18 05:39 am (UTC)

Re: You're getting a ton of pageviews because...

I haven't even *threatened* to dump him!
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From: captainbooshi
2012-09-18 05:09 am (UTC)
There's a lot here I don't really agree with, but I only see one glaringly wrong thing here, and that's the whole "I'm not racist, but..." section. If you think about it, you should actually expect that most of the people who say something like this will be racist, or at least saying racist things. There will, of course, be people who use it in the manner you mention, but they will be overwhelmed by people using it in bad faith.

The reason for this is rather simple, too, which is why it's so annoying that you're overlooking it. Once it is no longer socially acceptable to say racist things, that does not mean that the people who think that way have changed their minds. They will still believe they are right, and want to contribute to the conversation. Since they don't want to be face the social consequences of saying things everyone acknowledges are racist, they have to find some way of deflecting that criticism. The easiest way of doing that is to say "I am not a racist, but...," so this will be what most people who want to say something considered racist, but face no consequences for it, will resort to.

This does indeed cause a problem for the people who have a genuine issue they want to bring up. There is no easy way to establish you are not actually a racist, but you have something problematic to discuss. There is always the hard road of establishing trust over time with an audience who will then give you a chance, but even that won't help when your words spread to people who don't know you. I agree this is a problem, but I don't think that there is any good way to deal with it beyond what we have now, given the incredibly low signal-to-noise ratio in INRB statements. You appear to be completely ignoring that issue in your post, which is very frustrating.

Regarding the popularity comment, you should remember that your Livejournal Statistics are going to be really skewed by posts that generate a lot of discussion. I've been reading your blog via RSS since someone linked me to the WWII History Channel entry, but I almost never click through to the actual Livejournal page unless I want to comment, and if I do, I will check back at least a couple of times for responses. Even though I'm not a new reader, I probably look like one to Livejournal Statistics, and I'm probably not alone in that. Personally, I'm really looking forward to when you get off this topic, I like your other stuff much more.
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[User Picture]From: jannytruant
2012-09-18 06:54 am (UTC)
the incredibly low signal-to-noise ratio in INRB statements
Yeah, this was what I was thinking for most of the post. It's really really great to talk to someone that can add valuable nuance to a widely-debunked viewpoint thoughtfully and knowledgeably, but on some cases it just doesn't happen that often, and the language used is a good indicator.

Drawing from direct experience - I'm currently really distressed by the ire directed at poor people in my own country right now. We're still in a recession, the government's (rightly) said "don't blame us for the sudden drop in employment", yet they're blaming beneficiaries, and demonising them through sheer repetition. Their attacks - mostly punitive straw man policy proposals, coupled with soundbites about "encouraging" people to take responsibility for their "choice of lifestyle" - tend to coincide with introducing unrelated and unpopular policies (to be fair, there are quite a lot of those right now). Our social development minister has been brazen enough to say she doesn't have to rely on evidence for things that are "obvious" (of drug-testing for beneficiaries).
..so, after a while it gets really really sickening listening to other people parrot the stern opinion they continually read in the paper, that "people need to get off their lazy arses and stop expecting the government to bail them out" over and over again, and establishing that they have precisely zero basis for that belief outside of its truthiness and this one lazy guy they know (also regularly followed by "you can throw facts and figures at me all you like, it won't change my opinion" - possibly one of the most headsmackingly reactionary statements ever). So... basically if someone puts that opinion forward (and they'll do so pretty much verbatim), yes, the chances they'll have anything illuminating to share with me are virtually nil. Corollary is the chances they're open to any opinion I put forward is also virtually nil.

I can get on board with the issue that the bingo card slippery-slope can be unfairly used to shut down potentially useful debate - but just, after a while there are particular statements that very strongly signal that someone's being an ass, to the extent that it's not worth knocking my faith in humanity yet again to engage them on the offchance. Granted, I'll usually ask them if they have some evidence before walking away.

Conclusion: I have an internalised bingo card, and it's there to preserve my sanity. I assume the actual bingo card meme came about as a way of letting off steam.

Scott: I think it's really important to highlight that you've put forward an argument that you believed was at high risk of being shut down, and it's certainly a controversial one, but it's resulted in some really good and (from what I've seen) good-faith discussion in the comments; there have been people that agree and disagree, and there have been lots of different experiences described and lots of different tangents. So... there are platforms for more advanced discussion where it won't be nuked; QED, good on you for establishing one. Probably it helps to be able to create one's own, given that one can then outline a few policies about what kind of interaction is encouraged/tolerated.

Edited at 2012-09-18 06:57 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: Roy Stogner
2012-09-18 05:20 am (UTC)

Decision theory changes in the presence of other agents

We can (relatively) easily optimize for Type I vs Type II errors with cancers, because mindless cancer cells don't make decisions like "Doctors are the least paranoid about colon symptoms - let's forget about the lungs and head down there!"

With an infectious evolving opponent like bacteria, things get more difficult. Optimal use of antibiotics based on a short-term utility function isn't the same as based on an integration over time, because one of the biggest negative consequences of excessive antibiotic use doesn't start to manifest itself until many generations of bacteria have been given opportunity to adapt and develop antibiotic resistance.

When dealing with people, you don't just have replicators that can evolve over generations to fit their environments, you have thinkers that can anticipate and immediately react to their environments. So even a time-integrated expected utility calculation is insufficient. You need a decision theory that takes into account how other agents will react to how your theory takes into account how they will react...

The discussion of welfare brought this to mind: decisions which are obviously short-term utility-increasing like "poor single mothers need to be given more money than poor married parents" may have contributed to long-term utility-decreasing trends like "more children are raised by poor single mothers", not due to fraud but simply due to people's straightforward reactions to changed incentives.

My point may apply at a meta-level to this entire discussion. Suppose I'm sure an optimal metaphorical test tolerance is 30. And suppose you think it's 60. I believe that if we could do the proper u-maximizing calculation we'd all see du/dt=0 at t=30, but clearly we *can't* do that calculation precisely or there would be fewer deluded people walking around believing t=60. If we partitioned decisions to let us each control our own lives then you could use t=60 and I could use t=30 and we'd both be happy, but again suppose this is practically or politically impossible. Now what do I do? I can tell you my beliefs and we can come to a bargain at (60+30)/2=45... but I'm not a dumb disease, I'm a sneaky thinking person, so I realize that if I *claim* to believe in t=0, then our bargain hits 30 and I'm (secretly) happy!

But wait - you're one of those cunning sentients too, so you've already realized that you can claim a belief of 100, so you'll at least get our bargain point back up to 50. In the short run we've now hit Nash equilibrium where we both think we're using utility maximizing strategies... even though in the long run we're now throwing disingenuous claims at each other, polarizing debate, and perhaps even persuading future generations that they actually *should* hold one of our professed beliefs and become a part of the glorious 0-or-100 team keeping those evil 100-or-0 people in check. A few iconoclastic blogs may try to spoil our fun, but unsuccessfully: "100" and "0" are well-specified enough to be Schnelling points, but "moderation" and "sanity" are not.

...on the other hand, "100" or "0" supporters might not always be confused or conniving; often optimal values really are on interval endpoints. Any decent optimization software isn't just going to look for critical points, it's going to check domain boundaries as well. If medical experience suggests otherwise, that's an unsurprising selection bias, because there's no point in wasting med students' time studying the many cases where there's zero false negatives (no matter how creepy the little girl is acting, don't call an exorcist) or zero false positives (if there's blood spurting out, take care of it now).

But with politics and sociology, even if such clear-cut cases exist we'd never know for sure, because those fields haven't passed the "patient died? you must not have done enough bloodletting!" stage yet. We're finally wise enough to consider cultural changes or laws demanding that medicine be double-blind tested against placebos, but we don't demand any such rigorous controlled testing of cultural changes or laws themselves.
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[User Picture]From: cousin_it
2012-09-18 08:19 am (UTC)
Oh my god. You're right.

There's a standard argument about "efficient charity" that says you should concentrate all your donations on one charity, because presumably you have preferences over the total amounts of money donated to each charity (not just your individual donations), so choosing something like a 50/50 split would be too sensitive to minor changes in other people's donations.

I just realized that the argument applies in equal force to politics. If you're not using "beliefs as attire" but actually care about politics, your participation in politics should be 100% extremist. This is troubling.
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From: captainbooshi
2012-09-18 05:39 am (UTC)
I spent too long on my last comment, and I will not have the time tomorrow to really do justice on why I disagree with much of what you say here(since as I said in my last post, it is not obviously wrong), so I'm just going to sum my feelings up as best I can now before going to bed. I apologize if I'm unclear and don't address specific points.

I feel like there are valid points in some of the things you say, but you don't give any credit for why things are the way they are now. You talk about the negative influences feminism has on healthy conversation, but discount the negative influences it is counterbalancing. You ignore the context of things in a way that makes them sound worse than they are.

Mostly, when I look at most of your suggestions, they all seem to put way more burden on feminists so that things will be easier for you, and that makes me just feel... tired is the best way I can put it.
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[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-09-18 06:22 am (UTC)
You talk about the negative influences feminism has on healthy conversation, but discount the negative influences it is counterbalancing. You ignore the context of things in a way that makes them sound worse than they are.

Mostly, when I look at most of your suggestions, they all seem to put way more burden on feminists so that things will be easier for you, and that makes me just feel... tired is the best way I can put it.

Yes, this is exactly how I feel as well.
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[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-09-18 07:44 am (UTC)
Awesome post (even if I agree with some of the commenters that you're maybe being a little too uncharitable on feminism). This if anything deserves to be on LW.

Also, I support the suggestion that you should consider making this series of posts into a book.
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-09-18 07:49 am (UTC)
I think a large part of bullying is stigmatizing ordinary human reactions-- for example, people getting defensive when they're attacked.

The particular application is that when a contentious subject has been around for a while, people keep repeating the same arguments. This is ordinary human behavior, but bingo cards are a way of saying it's only ridiculous when the other side does it.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-09-18 11:17 am (UTC)
Relevant to bingo cards, thresholds, and a lot of comments above:

Something that seems underdiscussed in the rationality community* is that people need semantic stopsigns badly. Or, to unload that term, people need heuristics that allow them to terminate cognition, because cognition is a limited resource. Why do people resist having their heuristics challenged? For the same reason people don't want to be told that the dog puked all over the couch: it means unpleasant work in an area they thought was safe.

*: I don't follow LW diligently so perhaps this has been worked over, but I see a lot of attention to why cognition terminators are bad and a lot of confusion as to why people should want to hold on to them.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-09-18 11:22 am (UTC)
Speaking as someone who hates libertarians less than other political denominations, your post on libertarianism is gold.
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