Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Are the rationals dense?

There's an interesting food-fight between some of the GMU bloggers and the "rationality community". Tyler Cowen called the community a "religion" (not necessarily an insult, but probably not something rationalists like to be called), and chided the community for depicting itself as having an "objective vantage point". Julia Galef defended the community, saying it's more likely than others to question its own way of thinking. Bryan Caplan criticized the community for being too committed to utilitarianism, and for spending too much time thinking about sci-fi scenarios like A.I. and brain emulation.

I was surprised at this food-fight, since these folks normally get along quite well, and all read each other's stuff. But I can kind of see why the "rationality community" might rub some people the wrong way. Here are my hypotheses:

1. The name

The members of the "rationality community" call themselves that because they spend a lot of effort trying to be more rational. But to an outsider, the name sounds like a claim that the community has already attained perfect rationality. If that were true, it would imply that the community's conclusions should be treated with extra reverence, or even as received wisdom - kind of like we take physicists' word on physics results. In other words, the very name of the "rationality community" makes its members' pronouncements automatically feel a little like argument from authority, even if they don't intend them as such.

A lot of people bristle at the notion that anyone is telling them what to think, especially on philosophical matters (which many people think they can figure out for themselves). "Hey," the listener thinks, "I'm not part of your community, but I'm rational too, dammit!" Indeed, this is true - there are plenty of people who try very hard to think rationally, but have never even been to LessWrong.

Also, lots of people just aren't interested in A.I. risk, or effective altruism, or the other stuff people in the "rationality community" like to talk about. They might resent the implication that in order to be a "rational" person you have to care about these things.

Ironically, I'm not sure if the "rationality community" even gave itself that name in the first place, or wants to keep it, which is why I put it in quotes. Anyway, anger at a name seems to plague a lot of communities and movements, either unfairly (Black Lives Matter), fairly (the pro-life movement), or just plain ludicrously (the "reality-based community").

2. The "leaders"

For whatever reason, humans tend to look at any movement or community and pick out some individuals who seem to be the leaders. In the case of the "rationality community", those leaders are generally perceived as being Eliezer Yudkowsky, Scott Alexander, Julia Galef, and Robin Hanson. This is through no fault of their own - they never claimed leadership as far as I know. But human perception is what it is.

Every individual rubs some people the wrong way (except Noah Smith, obviously, who is beloved by all!). Yudkowsky probably strikes some people as a dreamer obsessed with sci-fi. Alexander has clashed with a number of Social Justice people, and generally tends to be a detractor of feminism. Hanson has on occasion gone out of his way to say things he knew would offend people. (I doubt Galef has pissed anyone off.)

So there is probably some personality-friction with these "leaders" of the community. Also, smart people tend to be a contentious bunch, not without their own egos.

3. The fans

Every community and every thinker has fans eager to go to bat for them in online arguments. I'm sure there are some Noahpinion fanbois and fangurlz out there waiting to pounce on my detractors. Anyway, these fans tend not to be a representative random sample of the population - Krugman fans will tend to be liberal, Rod Dreher fans will tend to be conservative Catholics, etc. "Rationality community" fans tend to be libertarian types, in my experience, and especially techno-libertarian types.

I like techno-libertarians (I live in Silicon Valley, don't I?). But not everyone does. Epithets like "techbro" and "brogrammer" are relatively common, They do tend to be men, I guess, though I've met about as many female LessWrong readers as male. Anyway, American society is an especially divided one, and dislike of the social groups from which the "rationality community" tends to be drawn will naturally predispose some people negatively toward the community.

Also, online interactions tend to be negative, contentious ones, meaning that people outside the "rationality community" will tend to have fights with its members. I can remember a time when I got into an argument with (I think?) Eliezer on Twitter, and I made some joke, and some LessWrong dude jumped in and yelled "Monkey dominance tactic!" at me. It made me laugh, because that was such a monkey dominance tactic. But if I were more prone to group attribution error, I would have thought "Fer chrissake, those LessWrongers are annoying!". Kind of like when someone cuts you off in traffic and you look to see what race and gender they are before deciding who to hate. ;-)

Anyway, those are my hypotheses for why a seemingly innocuous online community mostly populated by shoegazing nerds might annoy some people out there. It certainly doesn't annoy me, though.


  1. Anonymous7:13 PM

    Good post. Just fyi, you refer to the three male leaders by their last names and Julia Galef as "Julia". I think this is unintentional but comes off a bit sexist.

    1. Ahh, thanks. Fixed. I accidentally did that because she's a personal friend.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Anonymous9:48 PM

    I don't claim that my experience is representative, but as a programmer, a disproportionate fraction of the most arrogant and obnoxious people I know are fans of one of the people you mention.

    Back when LessWrong was more central to the community, every time I met an incredibly arrogant and obnoxious programmer I'd ask if they read LessWrong and the answer would usually be "yes". I'm not sure why this should be the case (I doubt that LessWrong and the rationality community at large cause people to become more obnoxious), but it's definitely left an impression on me.

    1. Anonymous4:03 PM

      "every time I met an incredibly arrogant and obnoxious programmer I'd ask if they read LessWrong and the answer would usually be "yes"

      Ironically I would say that this was an error of rationality. One hypothesis that would explain this observation is that *most* programmers, obnoxious or not read lesswrong.

      You should have been asking *all* programmers what they read. Not just the obnoxious ones.

    2. Buahahaha, score one for rationalism! :D

    3. Anonymous4:23 PM

      Based on the Alex rank of LessWrong (compared to blogs maybe 1% of programmers read, like codinghorror), that seems highly implausible.

      It's true that I don't ask literally every programmer I know what they read, but given the reading habits of people I know (most programmers I know haven't even heard of LW, let alone read it), it also seems highly implausible.

      This is, of course, exactly the sort of obnoxious thing I'm referring to. Even with no data whatsoever, the idea that most programmers read LW is an incredible stretch.

  4. "(I doubt Galef has pissed anyone off.)"

    Yet...just wait...

  5. Anonymous11:32 PM

    I can confirm that you have at least one fanboi.

  6. Anonymous2:47 AM

    They also have a tendency to turn any community into an AI risk community, which is pretty annoying when you don't think AI risk is that important. Even their own spin-off, CFAR (which was spun off to separate tools for thinking rationally from AI risk) got re-eaten by AI risk.

  7. I was hoping to get some math post with the title about the density of the rationals. :( maybe you'll post about analysis another day.

    1. Buahaha.

      Yes, the rationals are dense in the reals. It's quite easy to prove by construction... :-)

    2. Yeah, I initially thought this post might be about that as well, although indeed the matter is largely resolved, although there are some oddities about that when one drags measure theory in...

    3. Sure, but the irrationals are dense in the reals too.

      I guess we should be asking every set whether it's dense in the reals? Cf anonymous 4:03.

    4. GrueBleen11:46 PM

      Yep, especially the integers. But most of all, the transfinite cardinals ... err, no, sorry, that's a class.

  8. TIL ITT: people with different views may not agree on everything

  9. Anonymous5:02 PM

    I think one of the things you didn't mention is the fact that a lot of them are self-taught on many things. Not that it is particularly bad or anything, but imagine being "mansplained" on your field by a "rational" autodidact (that happens to misinterpret basic concepts).

  10. Anonymous8:48 PM


    Upon reading: NOAH SMITH MISLEAD ME!

  11. Main objection with the rationalist community is the frequency with which one runs into race realists. I try to be tolerant about politics, but there are fucking limits.

  12. Regarding this matter debate being a "food fight," I note that some of the participants are not only in the same department (economics at George Mason) but even go to lunch together sometimes. I am thinking of Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan, and Robin Hanson in particular.

    1. Oh, and add to that the fact that Tyler famously does the Washington Ethnic Dining Guide, really the man for a good food fight, whether at lunch with erstwhile colleagues or elsewhere.

      And while I am at it, how is that we are all supposed to know you live in Silicon Valley, Noah? First I have heard of it. You were on East Coast, as are many doing Bloomberg stuff. Did you make some big public announcement of your move west that we were all supposed to see because we are following your every word on all media and outlets?

  13. 16 years ago, I penned a brief rant about the word rationality. I think it does a good job of explaining why anything called the "rationality community" should raise hackles.

    "Ask your average person what rationality is, and they will inevitably come up with a charicature, like Spock from Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Mentor of Arisia, or some other fictional character. Political and philosophical arguments are full of claims about rationality of postions, all contradicting each other. What do we really mean by the word rational?
    Usually, "rationality" is a Humpty-Dumpty word, that means whatever the user finds is convenient to club his oponents with. Either by defining rationality to specifically disclude an opponent's methods (as objectivists do) or by making rationality so diffuse that all the users methods are included (much the same way new-agers use the term "energy".)"

    Read the rest at: Skepticism of Rationality.

    BTW, great selection of a picture from one of my favorite movies. The young Uma Thurman as Venus is not to be missed.

  14. "Tyler Cowen called the community a "religion""

    Basilisk-fearing psiontologists, apparently.