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.
I felt it was worth another post just to clarify that my [last post] (https://rejectingrationality.org/blog/gay-cakes-and-conservative-hens/) doesn’t indicate that I’m joining up with Sara Huckabee Sanders and Trump in this recent civility fight. Their behavior in calling out incivility and trying to use it as a political weapon (and lying about it) is worse than anything the Red Hen did to her and these are small potatoes relative to the normal harms they inflict.
I just tend to see them as beyond the moral pale and there is no use to excoriate them once again. And just because they are bad actors isn’t any reason for us to lose sight of the fact that denying people service is a big deal even when it’s merely based on partisan affiliation and we need a good justification to do it. Nowhere near as good a justification as separating families at the border or enacting a Muslim ban and the like but we don’t have to sink.
We Can Be Civil Without Letting Trump Tell Us What That Means
I’m really disappointed by the responsesfromthe left to the recent kerfufle about Sara Huckabee Sanders being denied service in a red hen restaurant. These responses all seem to have the following structure:
If we let those in power define what is civil and uncivil we allow them to silence protest.
Historical protests like the civil rights movement we now revere were often seen as uncivil.
Trump and his supporters are deeply uncivil and have no respect for these norms.
Therefore we should accept or even cheer incivility towards Trump voters.
But this makes two big logical errors.
Just because we shouldn’t let Trump and those in power dictate a self-serving standard of civility doesn’t mean that the concept itself is flawed or that it’s an inappropriate ideal to aspire towards. It just means we should apply the concept correctly not let those in power dictate a self-serving conception of civility.
It conflates the desirability of showing civility and respect with the appropriateness of criticizing people for not doing so. There are plenty of things, e.g., chewing with your mouth open, that it’s both inappropriate to do as well as to call others out for doing.
Now a valid takeaway from this argument is that overly mechanistic rules of civility (e.g. never mention a politician’s personal life) shouldn’t be followed blindly but that’s not the same as the conclusion that it should be seen as appropriate or even desirable to simply abandon civility all together.
Just Don’t Be A Dick
The right answer here is pretty simple. All we need to do is treat people, even those whose political views we see as harmful, as if they are human beings who we, ceterus parabus, don’t want to suffer.
This doesn’t mean we place their feelings ahead of the welfare of the country. If the next democratic president finds the best way to respond to Trump’s personal attacks is in kind then they shouldn’t let their concern about hurting Trump’s feelings stand in the way (though I suspect the voters who aren’t already deep in Trump’s camp are more likely to be swayed by statesman like restraint). If the same congressmen and staffers who are working to undermine a woman’s right to choose are having abortions themselves we shouldn’t let the personal impact stop us from exposing such facts.
What it means is that we shouldn’t be mean to them or refuse them service just because it makes us feel good or because they somehow deserve it. Refusing to serve Ms. Sanders doesn’t score any political points, it risks losing them. Even those on the left skeptical that such behavior will galvanize Trump supporters admit it’s a possible risk while identifying no corresponding benefit.
The right definition of civility doesn’t require rolling over and showing your belly it merely demands we refrain from needless petty antagonism and rudeness.
However, just because that’s what we aspire to doesn’t mean we should excoriate those on the left who fall short. That risks giving the misleading impression that their behavior is somehow worse than that of the administration. It isn’t. Ms. Sanders behaves plenty badly herself and any discussion of the restaurant’s choice not to serve her should keep that firmly in focus. However, just because she behaves even worse doesn’t mean we can’t urge our own side to take the high road and avoid unnecessary rudeness and incivility.
Real World Applications
Now this still leaves open two big questions.
When are we simply being rude and mean to satisfy our emotional desires as opposed to engaging in a necessary form of protest which unfortunately might hurt some Trump supporters.
At what point does the harm from violating norms about civility outweigh the short term tactical gains from some kind of protests that might be seen as uncivil.
While these are hard questions in the abstract in practice I think they are actually pretty damn easy.
Regarding 1, I think deep down we know the answer in 99% of cases if we just take a step back and think about it. Just imagine the person you are about to be rude to or insult is an old friend from High School who fell in with a bad crowd in college. Would you still do it? Or better yet imagine the person you’re attacking is actually a liberal from a parallel universe who just switched places with their double in this universe. Just put yourself in a position where you see the harm you’re doing to the Trump supporter as a negative (like it would be for anyone else) and ask if the benefit outweighs the harm. If your too emotionally involved to step back like this your probably also too compromised to know if you’re actually helping or making the situation worse so you probably shouldn’t do it anyway.
Point 2 is a serious concern when it comes to civil rights movements demanding recognition for groups that society has seen as unworthy. In such cases there is a real tradeoff between the moral potency and enthusiasm offered by making it clear that the equality or moral worth of your group isn’t up for debate and engaging in civil dialog with norms that call that into question. For instance, advocates of LGBT rights had (have) to choose between being seen as being deliberately provocative and uncivil by forcing their sexuality into the public square in ways that were seen as inappropriate and putting it in people’s faces even though the analogous heterosexual conduct wasn’t. One choice risked jeopardizing the support of moderates while the other risked undermining the momentum and moral force of the movement,
However, in the Trump context it’s Trump supporters who are pushing aside existing cultural norms while it’s the left who are desperately trying to defend (what was previously) the mainstream. When Trump’s trying to break up families at the border, eliminate Obamacare or undermine Roe. v. Wade we don’t gain anything by pushing positions which make mainstream Americans feel insulted or uncomfortable. Now isn’t the time to suggest, however true it might be, that normal everyday behaviors make one a racist or transphobic. It’s time to talk about how taking children from their parents is wrong and unamerican and that the rich don’t deserve more tax cuts and in this context there’s just no real payoff to insulting or alienating the moderates we need to persuade to stop Trump.
If you want understand the Facebook hearings it’s useful to think not about privacy or technology but about what politicians want. In the Peltzman model of regulation, politicians use regulation to tradeoff profits (wanted by firms) and lower prices (wanted by constituents) to maximize what politicians want, reelection.
Reading Reich’s book (Who We Are And How We Got Here) really drives home to me just how tempting it is to collapse into tribal based cheering (e.g. cheering on your genes/genetic history/etc as the best) and how important our norms against racism are in limiting this.
It makes me wonder if we couldn’t develop similarly strong norms about not cheering on your political/social tribe in the same manner. It’s a more delicate situation since we need to preserve the ability to disagree and offer useful criticism. However, it still seems to me that we might be able to cultivate a norm which strongly disapproved of trying to make the other side look bad or implying they are improperly motivated/biased.
I mean, of course, we won’t actually get rid of hypocrisy or self-serving beliefs but if it required the same kind of extreme caution to allege bad faith to the other ideologies that we require to make claims about racial differences it might make a big difference.
So I see people posting this vox article suggesting Trump, but not Clinton, supporters are racist and I want to advise caution and urge people to actually read the original study.
Vox’s takeaway is,
All it takes to reduce support for housing assistance among Donald Trump supporters is exposure to an image of a black man.
Which they back up with the following description:
In a randomized survey experiment, the trio of researchers exposed respondents to images of either a white or black man. They found that when exposed to the image of a black man, white Trump supporters were less likely to back a federal mortgage aid program. Favorability toward Trump was a key measure for how strong this effect was.
If you look at the actual study its chock full of warning signs. They explicitly did not find any statistically significant difference between those Trump voters given the prompts showing black or white aid recipients degree of support for the program or degree of anger they felt or blame they assigned towards those recipients. Given that this is the natural reading of Vox’s initial description its already disappointing (Vox does elaborate to some extent but not in a meaningfully informative way).
What the authors of the study did is asked for a degree of Trump support (along with many other questions such as liberal/conservative identification, vote preference, racial resentment giving researchers a worryingly large range of potentially analysises they could have conducted). Then they regressed the conditional effect of the black/white prompt on the level of blame, support and anger against degree of Trump support controlling for a whole bunch of other crap (though they do claim ‘similar’ results without controls) and are using some dubious claims about this regression to justify their claims. This should already raise red flags about research degree of freedom especially given the pretty unimpressive R^2 values.
But what should really cause one to be skeptical is that the regression of Hillary support with conditional effect of black/white prompt shows a similar upward slope (visually the slope appears on slightly less for Hillary support than it did for Trump) though at the extreme high end of Hillary support the 95% confidence interval just barely includes 0 while for Trump it just barely excludes it. Remember, as Andrew Gelman would remind us the difference between significant and non-significant results isn’t significant and indeed the study didn’t find a significant difference between how Hillary and Trump support interacted with the prompt in terms of degree of support for the program. In other words if we take the study at face value it suggests at only a slightly lower confidence level that increasing support for Hillary makes one more racist.
So what should we make of this strange seeming result? Is it really the case that Hillary support also makes one more racist but just couldn’t be captured by this survey? No, I think there is a more plausible explanation: the primary effect this study is really capturing is how willing one is to pick larger numbers to describe one’s feelings. Yes, there is a real effect of showing a black person rather than a white person on support for the program (though showing up as not significant on its own in this study) but if you are more willing to pick large numbers on the survey this effect looks larger for you and thus correlates with degree of support for both Hillary and Trump.
To put this another way imagine there are two kinds of people who answer the survey. Emoters and non-emoters. Non-emoters keep all their answers away from the extremes and so the effect of the black-white prompt on them is numerically pretty small and they avoid expressing strong support for either candidate (support is only a positive variable) while Emoters will show both a large effect of the black-white prompt (because changes in their opinion result in larger numerical differences) and a greater likelihood of being a strong Trump or Hillary supporter.
This seems to me to be a far more plausible explanation than thinking that increasing Hillary support correlates with increasing racism and I’m sure there are any number of other plausible alternative interpretations like this. Yes, the study did seem to suggest some difference between Trump and Hillary voters on the slopes of the blame and anger regressions (but not support for the program) but this may reflect nothing more pernicious than the unsurprising fact that conservative voters are more willing to express high levels of blame and anger toward recipients of government aid.
However, even if you don’t accept my alternative interpretation the whole thing is sketchy as hell. Not only do the researchers have far too many degrees of freedom (both in terms of the choice of regression to run but also in criteria for inclusion of subjects in the study) for my comfort but the data itself was gathered via a super lossy survey process creating the opportunity for all kinds of bias to enter into the process not to mention. Moreover, the fact that all the results are about regressions is already pretty worrisome as it is often far too easy to make strong seeming statistical claims about regressions, a worry which is amplified by the fact that they don’t actually plot the data. I suspect that there is far more wrong with this analysis than I’m covering here so I’m hoping someone with more serious statistical chops than I have such as Andrew Gelman will analyze these claims.
But even if we take the study’s claims at face value the most you could infer (and technically not even this) is that there are some more people who are racist among strong Trump supporters than among those who have low support for Trump which is a claim so unimpressive it certainly doesn’t deserve a Vox article much less support the description given. Indeed, I think it boarders on journalistically unethical to show the graphs showing the correlation between increasing support for Trump and prompt effect but not the ones showing similar effects for support of Hillary. However, I’m willing to believe this is the result of the general low standards for science literacy in journalism and the unfortunate impression that statistical significance is some magical threshold.
All it takes to reduce support for housing assistance among Trump supporters is exposure to an image of a black man. That’s the takeaway from a new study by researchers Matthew Luttig, Christopher Federico, and Howard Lavine, set to be published in Research & Politics.
This is an interesting piece but I couldn’t disagree more with the title or the author’s obvious feeling that there must be a cynical explanation for techie’s distrust of government regulation.
Silicon valley types are simply classical pragmatic libertarians. They aren’t Ayn Rand quoting objectivists who believe government intervention is in principle unacceptable. Rather, they, like most academic economists, simply tend to feel that well-intentioned government regulation often has serious harmful side effects and isn’t particularly likely to accomplish the desired goals.
I think this kind of skepticism flows naturally from a certain kind of quantitative results oriented mindset and I expect you would find the same kind of beliefs (to varying degrees) among the academic physicists, civil engineers and others who share the same educational background and quantitative inclination as silicon valley techies. I’m sure that the particular history of poorly understood tech regulation like the original crypto wars in the 90s plays a role but I suspect it just amplified existing tendencies.
But by the 1990s, with the advent of the World Wide Web and the beginning of the tech industry’s march to the apex of the world’s economy, another Silicon Valley political narrative took root: techies as unapologetic libertarians, for whom the best government is a nearly nonexistent one.
I generally sympathize with the liberal contingent on the supreme court but I think this [defense](https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/05/26/citizens-united-media-corporations-and-other-corporations/ of Citizen’s United is right) on.
Now I’m open to arguments against Citizens United but if you are going to criticize the opinion the burden is on you to identify a good bright line rule (to prevent gradual erosion of rights) that provides newspapers and other journalism with the kind of protection we think they deserve without handing the government the ability to distinguish responsible journalists from mere non-profits/pacs/etc..
I’ve long supported Citizens United but what this post very helpfully pointed out is the extent to which every justification to restrict Citizens United style corporate speech has applied to restrictions on journalism/editorials. Cities with a single large newspaper surely had as much reason to worry about that newspaper using it’s power in a last minute attempt to sway the election than we have to worry about corporate money in politics.
Now, I agree that responsible journalists have a special role to play in the electoral process. I’m NOT worried about the New York Times doing something dastardly. However, I most certainly do not want Trump’s administration deciding who is a journalist as opposed to an advocate of some corporate interest, Yes, as the Citizens United dissent points out we sometimes adopt balancing tests for constitutional rights and we could adopt one here. But balancing tests tend to follow the political wind and if free speech is to serve as a bulwark against tyranny and patriotic group think that’s not good enough for core political speech.
Moreover, think about what would happen if Citizens United was overturned and one adopted some kind of test to distinguish media companies or genuine journalism from other corporate speech. I think the natural response to such incentives would be to further obscure whether or not you were engaged in journalism. In other words companies would cloak themselves in the trappings of a media company/genuine journalist to avail themselves of the greater free speech rights further worsening the problem of fake news. The courts would then have to either accept the trappings of media/journalism as valid on their face (encouraging such deception) or engage in a dangerous substantive investigation of whether a company counts as a `real’ journalism company.