Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.

Definitional Creep and Psychological Salient

Recognizing Harms Without Eroding Our Terms

This nytimes article made salient a certain harmful dynamic that often occurs in liberal circles.

There is some class of behavior like domestic abuse or sexual assault which has a relatively clear cut and highly salient definition, e.g., domestic abuse (unmodified) is physical violence by an intimate partner or family member and sexual assault is sexual touching despite a clear lack of consent.

Then people (correctly!!) observe that some related behavior which doesn’t quite fall under the existing definition can be just as bad and harmful and start using the existing word to describe that behavior. For instance, in the article below using digital smart devices to harass, intimidate and stalk ex-partners and calling it domestic abuse. Or calling situations where an older man puts a young impressionable woman in a situation she feels uncomfortable and unsafe and applying substantial pressure (or legal but unsavory social threats) to coerce her into sexual activities sexual assault.

Individuals who then protest that such behavior isn’t domestic abuse or sexual assault are often accused of not taking the suffering of such related behavior seriously and this creates a strong social pressure to expand the category. When those on the right stand up and mock such expansions as not really being domestic abuse or sexual assault it further cements the narrative that this is all about whether or not one takes the suffering of victims seriously.

This is unfortunate because measuring harm is not the only, or even primary, purpose served by such categorizations. Rather, such categorizations serve to clearly delineate certain kinds of blameworthy activity which can be clear adjudicated to provide deterrence (legal or social) as well as creating a clear, psychologically salient bright line which people will be reluctant to cross.

For instance, while having someone grab your ass without permission or tear off an item of clothing is obviously sexual assault it is almost surely less harmful and traumatic than being tricked into a sexual relationship with someone based entirely on lies and finding out they were mockingly journaling the entire course of their deception online. Yet the former is sexual assault, in part, because we can clearly define the offense while it is hard to draw useful lines about how much deception in a relationship or how much sharing unflattering details with friends justifies punishment. It’s deeply unfortunate but the sad truth is that the lack of clear standards means we can’t use punishment to deter all kinds of deeply harmful behavior.

When we use the fact that some kinds of non-violent behavior perpetrated by intimates are just as harmful as physical abuse or that some types of technically consensual relationships have, via lies or pressure, the same kinds of harms as sexual assault to justify expanding the terms we erode the deterrent barriers that make negative behavior less likely.

Yes, there are ways to hurt people we can’t yet deter well but every time social norms and fear of legal consequences cause someone to refrain from hitting their spouse or touching someone without permission that’s a victory. The more we blur those lines that are being crossed the more we imperil those victories. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to introduce new terms that characterize other classes of behavior we also wish to deter but there is no cause to undermine the terminological clarity of the words we already have. Respecting such terminological clarity doesn’t deny the suffering of victims who don’t fall under the description. It’s just a recognition the world is far from perfect and we need to preserve our partial victories.

Gay Cakes And Conservative Hens

No, It's Not Ok Because It's Partisan Identity

So in all the discussion about denying Sara Huckabee Sanders service at the Red Hen I’ve seen several places argue that it wasn’t a big deal to deny her service because they were very polite about the incident. While it’s surely better to be asked to leave politely this fails to grasp what’s upsetting about it and is completely inconsistent with our attitude about the harm in Masterpiece Cakeshop where the customers were denied service because they were gay1. Whether or not you think it’s warranted any honest analysis should admit that it is still likely very upsetting and, should it spread, has the potential to be a very big deal.

Don’t get me wrong. The long history of discrimination against homosexuals and their status as a vulnerable minority in much of the country makes it much worse to deny someone service based on sexual orientation. Also, I firmly believe it should be legal to deny someone service because of their partisan affiliation2. However, just because it’s less bad doesn’t mean it isn’t still plenty unpleasant. Note that I also think Sara Huckabee Sanders is a pretty awful person and spokespeople are surely different than random Trump supporters but I’ve seen many people defend such partisan denials of service generally not just for high ranking officials and that is what I feel deserves comment.

Humans are acutely sensitive to exclusion. It’s bad enough not to be invited to a party or know that you aren’t attractive or cool enough to be waived into a club. It’s much worse to be overtly told you don’t belong and asked to leave. This is especially true when you are asked to leave a place of public accommodation such as a restaurant and doubly true when one is there with family (especially children who might not understand).

Of course there isn’t the same history of discrimination as with race, sexual orientation or religion but surely the immediate emotional response of feeling hurt, confused and angry will share a fair bit in common. If you are skeptical imagine a Bedouin who has lived his entire life out of the reach of modern technology or history on his first visit to the United States who is politely asked to leave a restaurant because of his race or his religion. Do you doubt the very real pain and humiliation that will cause — even though that diner’s lack of contextual knowledge means that our fraught racial and religious history can’t play a causal factor?

At this point I’m sure that many liberals are marshaling reasons why it’s not at all similar. Partisan affiliation is a belief not an immutable characteristic, they aren’t a minority almost half the country is on their side, it doesn’t have the same potential to normalize harmful discrimination.

But religion is every bit as much a belief people choose (in both cases many people simply believe what their peers do) and people do identify very strongly with their partisan affiliation. Whether or not it is objectively different in some sense being excluded for partisan affiliation feels like being excluded for who you are to many people.

It’s certainly true that Trump supporters are hardly a minority in America but they are very much a minority in many areas (including large parts of DC). It’s also true that there are large swaths of the country where there is strong, vocal support for homosexual equality but we don’t feel that merely knowing that this would never happen in San Francisco obviates the harm to the couple denied service in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Nor would this intuition change if 40 of the 50 states were strong and vocal defenders of homosexual equality. Besides, you don’t really think the question turns on the fact that Trump supporters are 40 some percent of the population rather than 15% (the percentage of African-Americans in the US) and you’d surely never accept the response in the racial case.

Moreover, in terms of normalizing harmful discrimination, it is surely far more likely that (as many people openly suggested following the incident) people wearing MAGA hats will be denied service in a wide range of establishments in blue parts of the country sometime in the near future than homosexuals will face similar widespread denial of service (if for no other reason than the stronger norm against such discrimination). Note that if you want to argue this isn’t truly harmful discrimination you need to challenge one of the points above about this being a very painful and unpleasant experience.

Again, it’s not as bad as discrimination based on sexual orientation but we’re being hypocrites if we don’t recognize that it’s still a pretty intense and humiliating experience which we should avoid inflicting on people unless we have a very good reason.


  1. Ok, technically because they planned to use the cake at a gay wedding. 
  2. I’m unsure about legal protections based on gender identity since that turns on tough questions about how fast norms are changing versus the long term harms from such legislation but this uncertainty doesn’t stem from any doubt about the degree of pain imparted by such denials of service but merely from concern about the long term costs of such legislation and the hopeful belief that such denials of service will quickly become the kind of silly extremism (like refusing to sell to people with bare knees in the US) that is so rare as to no longer be seen as a threat. 

Wrong About Me Too

Not Ideal But I Was Way Off

In an earlier post I was very critical of the form the me too movement took predicting that simply conveying me too in the absence of any clear agreement on what was being claimed (did someone once ask you out in a way you found creepy or did your boss threaten to have you blacklisted from the industry if you didn’t sleep with him) would do more harm than good. I didn’t believe that merely expressing vague pro-social feelings of unknown intensity on social media would do much to persuade anyone to change their ways nor would it do much to change anyone’s justified belief in the prevalence of any particular kind of behavior. To be clear, I always supported the goal of eliminating the impunity with which many powerful men harassed I just thought it would require sharing emotionally detailed accounts of actual harassment to shift people’s beliefs.

Now I still believe I was right about many of the unimportant issues. MeToo didn’t directly do much to change people’s estimates of the incidence of harassment and I do think that the temptation for those who wouldn’t have otherwise judged their experiences as qualifying to participate (with the best of motives) might have lead some people to see harassment as less serious1 but all these effects were trivially small if real at all and I totally missed the real importance of the movement it created common knowledge that there was widespread condemnation of sexual harassment and that many people were finally willing to take accusations against powerful and admired figures seriously. Note, that conveying common knowledge didn’t require shifting belief in any particular frequency (of incidence or of people willing to stand up) and I totally missed this possibility[^facebook].

Was MeToo the optimal vehicle to accomplish this? I don’t know but it seems to have worked quite well and there is a good chance any little tweak I might have preferred would have undermined it. So I was totally, extremely wrong about all the parts that mattered and I believe in owning up to that. Indeed, I even vaguely remember someone mentioning the theory I endorse here on facebook at the time but I wasn’t convinced.

In retrospect I let my annoyance that people seemed to be just doing things because they felt emotionally satisfying rather than having any particularly good justification biased me so even when someone made the right argument I missed it.


  1. For instance, someone assumed that those posting mostly just to be supportive were the extent of harrassment with rare exceptions. 

Social Control and The Principle Agent Problem

The Chinese Example And The Dangers Of Restricting Free Speech

This interesting post reminded me of my suspicion that a lot of the censorship in China isn’t the result of Xi Jinping’s crazed desire to be repressive. Almost certainly Xi would benefit from far less censorship and may indeed benefit from reports in the media exposing misbehavior by low level party officials but the incentives of those with the power to control expression (both to show off their loyalty and hide embarrassing events) means that far more censorship gets implemented than Xi would ideally want.

I think this is an important lesson for those who want to limit our free speech (or academic freedoms) when it comes to issues of race, gender harassment and the like. Even though the speech that one intends to ban may not have much value and impose great harms one needs to keep in mind the risks posed in delegating the practical authority to determine what speech qualifies.

Ambiguity, Silence and Complicity

How Good People Make It Impossible To Discuss Race, Gender and Religion

Listening to the Klein-Harris discussion about the Charles Murray controversy affected me pretty intensely. I was struck by how charitable, compassionate and reasonable Klein was in his interaction with Harris. Klein honestly didn’t think Harris was a bad guy or anything just someone who was incorrect on a factual issue and, because of the same kind of everyday biases we all have, insufficiently responsive to the broader context. Indeed, it seemed that Klein even saw Murray himself as merely misguided and perhaps inappropriately fixated not fundamentally evil. How then to square this with the fact that Klein’s articles (both the ones he wrote and served as editor for) unquestionably played a huge role in many people concluding that Harris was beyond the pale and the kind of racist scum that right thinking people shouldn’t even listen to?

Unlike Harris I don’t think Klein was being two-faced or deliberately malicious in what he wrote about Harris. Indeed, what Klein did is unfortunately all too common among well-intentioned individuals on the left and academics in particular (and something I myself have been guilty of). Klein spoke up to voice his view about a view he felt was wrong or mistaken about race but then simply choose to keep silent rather than explicitly standing up to disclaim the views of those who would moralize the discussion. This can seem harmless because in other contexts one can simply demure from voicing an opinion about controversial points which might get one in trouble but key ambiguities in how we understand notions like racist/sexist/etc and accusations of bias or insufficient awareness of/concern for the plight of underprivileged groups has the effect of turning silence into complicity.

The danger is that someone in Klein’s position faces strong pressure from certain factions on the left not to defend Murray’s views and those of his supporters as being within the realm of appropriate discussion and debate. Indeed, as Klein thinks that not only is Murray wrong but wrong in a dangerous and potentially harmful way it’s understandable that he would see no reason to throw himself in front of the extremists who don’t merely want to say Harris is mistaken but believe he should be subject to the same ostracism that we apply to members of the KKK. So Klein simply presents his criticisms of Harris and Murray and calls attention to the ways in which he thinks their views are not only wrong but actively harmful in a way that resonates with past racial injustices but doesn’t feel the need to step forward and affirmatively state his belief that Harris is probably just making a mistake for understandable human reasons not engaging in some kind of thought crime.

In other contexts one could probably just stand aside and not engage this issue but when it comes to race and racism there is a strong underlying ambiguity as to whether one is saying a claim is racist in the sense of being harmful to racial minorities or in the sense that believing it deserves moral condemnation. Similarly, there is a strong ambiguity between claiming that someone is biased in the sense of having the universal human failing of being more sympathetic to situations they can relate to or is biased in the sense of disliking minorities. These tend to run together since once everyone agrees something is racist, e.g., our punitive drug laws, then only those who don’t mind being labeled racists tend to support them even though there are plenty of well-intentioned reasons to have those beliefs, e.g., many black pastors were initially supportive of the harsh drug laws.

Unfortunately, the resulting effect is that failing to stand up and actively deny that one is calling for moral condemnation for having the wrong views on questions of race (or gender or…) one ends up implicitly encouraging such condemnation.

Harris and Klein

Double Charity Failure

I’m generally a defender of Harris and I believe Vox (under Klein) was uncharitable to Murray and Harris. Even in this interview I think he (probably unintentionally) suggests that we should take Murray’s arguments less seriously because of his political aims and implied motivations.

However, Klein is dead on the nose when he accuses Harris of not being willing to extend the same charity to others he wants extended to him. Disagreements are hard and understanding other people is very difficult and Harris (like all of us) does have trouble extending charity when it feels near something that’s a personal attack on him or understanding how other people’s errors may be motivated by similar emotional response to prior unfairness.

My sense is the Klein’s real position is a reasonable view that Murray is very wrong on the science in a way that is harmful and that Harris gets it wrong because of the issue above. However, I think Harris is absolutely right in criticizing Klein for speaking in ways he should know are likely to lead to extreme moral condemnation.

Klein should know that the way his articles (and the articles in Vox while he was editor) will be interpreted by the public as going far beyond a mild criticism that Harris makes the same kind of unremarkable mistake we all do talking about tough political issues. I don’t think Klein is being malicious here and Harris is uncharitable in assuming this but I think he should be faulted for not being much more clear to his readers that he isn’t suggesting Harris is beyond the realm of reasonable disagreement…merely that he thinks he is well-intentioned, but wrong, in a way that happens to be harmful.

In short Harris and Klein both fall short of the ideal of charity and they both could do a great deal more to communicate that well-intentioned good people can disagree intensely and even think another person’s views are harmful without having to think they are a bad person.

Waking Up Podcast #123 – Identity & Honesty | Sam Harris

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Ezra Klein, Editor-at-Large for Vox Media, about racism, identity politics, intellectual honesty, and the controversy over his podcast with Charles Murray (Waking Up #73).

More Confusion About Gender Equality

It's Never Been About Numerical Equality

So apparently the Swedish government is going to pay women to edit Wikipedia out of concern that wikipedia contribution is heavily biased in favor of men. This misunderstands what’s desirable about gender equality in a serious way. While this may be nothing more than harmless idiocy it provides an important warning about the importance of taking a hard look at programs designed to increase gender equity.

There is no intrinsic good to having the same number of women editing Wikipedia (or engaged in any particular career or activity) as men. Rather, there is a harm when people are denied the ability to pursue their passion or interest on account of bias or stereotypes about their gender.

Now, if one believes that some activity discriminates against interested women one might think that artificially inducing women to participate (affirmative action, or even payment) is an effective long term strategy to change attitudes, e.g., working with women will change the attitudes of men in the field and place women in positions of power so future women won’t face the same discrimination. However, wikipedia actively encourages using unidentifiable user names, doesn’t require gender identification and there is no evidence of a toxic bro-culture among frequent editors. Thus, there is no reason to think injecting more female editors into wikipedia will reduce the amount of discrimination face by women in the future. Indeed, even if you believe that women are underrepresented on wikipedia because of discrimination or stereotyping, e.g., women aren’t techie or women aren’t experts, then paying women to edit wikipedia is wasting money that could have been used to combat this actual harm.

Moreover, there is no particular evidence that the edits made by frequent editors to wikipedia are particularly likely to be somehow slanted against women or otherwise convey a bias that this kind of program would be expected to rectify. Indeed, paying members of particular groups to edit wikipedia is an assault on wikipedia’s reliability. While I’m not particularly concerned about Swedish women the underlying principle that no one should be able to pay to ensure wikipedia is more reflective of the views of a certain identity group is important. I mean what happens to information about the Armenian genocide if Turkey decides that it should pay Turks to increase their representation on Wikipedia?

But why care about this at all? I mean so what if the Swedes blow some money stupidly? It’s not like men are suffering and need to be protected from the injustice of it all.

The reason we should care is that it’s shows in a clear and uncontrovertible fashion how easily well intentioned concern about gender equity can go off the rails. Given the potential blowback and murkiness of the issues there is a tendency to just take for granted the fact that programs which claim to be about improving gender equity are at least plausibly targeted at that end. However, this proves that even in the most public circumstances its dangerously easy for people to conflate ensuring numerical equality with increasing gender equality. Given that in many circumstances the risk isn’t merely wasting money but, as in affirmative action and quota programs, actively making things worse (e.g. by making people suspect female colleagues didn’t really earn their positions) we need to be far more careful that such programs are doing some worth those costs.

Not Enough Women at Wikipedia? | EconLog | Library of Economics and Liberty

by Pierre Lemieux …women need state encouragement to do some of the one million edits that are made on Wikipedia every day. Presumably, this will promote the liberation of women. The Swedish government, or at least its foreign minister, wants…

AI Bias and Subtle Discrimination

Don't Incentivize Discrimination To Feel Better

This is an important point not just about AI software but discussions about race and gender more generally. Accurately reporting (or predicting) facts that, all too often, are the unfortunate result of a long history of oppression or simple random variation isn’t bias.

Personally, I feel that the social norm which regards accurate observation of facts such as (as mentioned in the article) racial differences in loan repayment rate conditional on wealth to be a reflection of bias is just a way of pretending society’s social warts don’t exist. Only by accurately reporting such effects can we hope to identify and rectify the causes, e.g., perhaps differences in treatment make employment less stable for certain racial groups or whether or not the bank officer looks like you affects likelihood of repayment. Our unwillingness to confront these issues places our personal interest in avoiding the risk of seeming racist/sexist over the social good of working out and addressing the causes of these differences.

Ultimately, the society I want isn’t the wink and a nod cultural in which people all mouth platitudes but we implicitly reward people for denying underrepresented groups loans or spots in colleges or whatever. I think we end up with a better society (not the best, see below) when the bank’s loan evaluation software spits out a number which bakes in all available correlations (even the racial ones) and rewards the loan officer for making good judgements of character independent of race rather than the system where the software can’t consider that factor and we reward the loan officers who evaluate the character of applications of color more negatively to compensate or the bank executives who choose not to place branches in communities of color and so on. Not only does this encourage a kind of wink and nod racism but when banks optimize profits via subtle discrimination rather than explicit consideration of the numbers one ends up creating a far higher barrier to minorities getting loans than a slight tick up in predicted default rate. If we don’t want to use features like the applicant race in decisions like loan offers, college acceptance etc.. we need to affirmatively acknowledge these correlations exist and ensure we don’t implement incentives to be subtly racist, e.g., evaluate loan officer’s performance relative to the (all factors included) default rate so we don’t implicitly reward loan officers and bank managers with biases against people of color (which itself imposes a barrier to minority loan officers).

In short, don’t let the shareholders and executives get away with passing the moral buck by saying ‘Ohh no, we don’t want to consider factors like race when offering loans’ but then turning around and using total profits as the incentive to ensure their employees do the discrimination for them. It may feel uncomfortable openly acknowledging such correlates but not only is it necessary to trace out the social causes of these ills but the other option is continued incentives for covert racism especially the use of subtle social cues of being the ‘right sort’ to identify likely success and that is what perpetuates the cycle.

 

A.I. ‘Bias’ Doesn’t Mean What Journalists Say it Means

In Florida, a criminal sentencing algorithm called COMPAS looks at many pieces of data about a criminal and computes the probability that they will commit new crimes. Judges use these risk scores in criminal sentencing and parole hearings to determine whether the offender should be kept in jail or released.

It’s All In Good Fun

I think something that is missing in recent conversations about sexual harassment is the fact that this is part of a larger phenomena in which those with power can genuinely believe that their harassing behavior is ‘just good fun’ and that their victim doesn’t really mind.

It is the same thing we see when bullies (of either sex) tease their victims or when more popular friends denigrate the social failings of their less popular friends. Indeed, we see this in any number of contexts.

I think its important to understand this for a couple of reasons. First, if we want to actually fix the problem we need to understand that this isn’t just a matter of being a good person. Unless good people actively watch for this phenomena it seems they are psychologically vulnerable to thinking they are behaving appropriately despite causing real pain.

It’s also important because we need to recognize this kind of bullying and mean treatment causes pain regardless of whether it has sexual overtones. There are extra concerns when sexual issues are thrown into the mix but the basic problem remains the same. Also, by recognizing it as part of a larger non-gender specific problem helps remove the distracting gender war aspect from the problem and let people of both genders focus on what makes things better rather than how to demonize and blame the other sex.
Also, personally I’d love to know what underlies this tendency. Despite being someone who has been very much the victim of this kind of behavior its disgustingly easy to slip into it myself without noticing. Its like there is a kind of intoxication of social status that inclines one to ignore the feelings and concerns of those with less status than ourselves.

But if all the recent social changes accomplish is to raise the relative social status of women as a group without engaging in systematic change to make this behavior less common all we will achieve in the long run is changing who is treated badly rather than actually making the world a substantially better place….and the next group on the bottom may not have the kind of internal cohesion and social power to bring the issue to public attention again.

Moral Badness vs. Punishment

Just Because You Didn't Demand Sex Doesn't Make It Better

The (now confessed) allegations against Louis CK are certainly awful behavior and shouldn’t be tolerated but they raise an interesting issue about the distinction between appropriate punishment and moral harm.

For instance, we set the penalty so high for some crimes (cheating on taxes or insider trading) not necessarily because those crimes are such atrocious moral infractions but because we need sufficiently high penalties to deter that behavior effectively. I’d argue that a similar thing is going on when someone uses their power over someone’s career to extort sexual favors.

Obviously, its morally unacceptable to ruin someone’s career for your own selfish reasons. However, we often tolerate people with power harming the careers of others out of pure pique, spite or other selfish reason. Now the individual moral harm of offering someone a choice (sleep with me or I hurt your career) is no more1 than the harm of simply hurting their career out of spite or pique.

However, this doesn’t mean we should reserve the same level of punishment (and here public condemnation is a form of punishment) for those two behaviors. The unfortunate fact of the situation is that without serious and strong punishment (legal or social) for, even implicitly, conditioning (non-sexual, porn-stars and prostitutes are hard cases) career success on sexual favors we risk creating an environment in which succeeding in an industry requires providing sexual favors. In contrast, when someone with power hurts a career out of spite, pique or on a lark we don’t face the same danger of creating an environment in which some people are systematically disadvantaged (we still face some risk of that). But, at least in an environment where demands for sexual favors aren’t the norm that doesn’t make the harm of the individual act greater.

Anyway, this is all a very long way of pointing out that while we appropriately punish people who condition career advancement on sex more it’s just as morally wrong to harm someone’s career for no reason or because you have some kind of personal or political disagreement with them. No, this is not an attempt to minimize the harm of behavior like that of Louis CK but, rather, to point out its no better when you screw over someone’s career because you dislike their politics, find their voice annoying or any other random (job unrelated) reason.


  1. I realize this claim is arguable but I think it’s true on reasonable psychological assumptions.