Getting Elliot’s Attention

How do I allocate attention? Here are some things I look for.

I prefer public, asynchronous, unmoderated, text discussion with permanent archives and no editing messages. This is available on my curi website and Fallible Ideas email discussion group. Discord, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and personal emails don’t qualify. This facilitates discussion over time. I don't want recency biases or discussions that automatically end in a day or two.

I prefer non-parochial discussion. That means I’m writing something of general interest. It’s best if the topic is general interest and what I say about the topic is easy to share, or easy for someone else to read, rather than mixed up in a bunch of back-and-forth discussion. I prefer discussion formats where I can easily link to things I wrote and can easily copy/paste parts of the discussion without the formatting being screwed up.

I prefer productive discussion with people who are making an honest, friendly, serious effort over time (e.g. 2+ months of regularly working on learning something and sharing what they’re doing so I can see the effort for myself and can critically comment on it).

I prefer discussing with high-initiative, independent people who have their own motor. I prefer people who are going to learn whether I help or not, and who will guide themselves. Then my help or comments are an extra bonus. I dislike helpless behaviors.

I prefer people who will brainstorm a bunch of ways of making progress, and try them. I don’t like people who get stuck easily and don’t have any ideas to get unstuck. It’s best if you’re self-sufficient enough that my comments can help you do better at what you’re already doing (and sometimes reconsider it and change projects), rather than my comments needing to somehow get you unstuck. It’s OK if you’re getting low on great ideas about how to proceed and starting to try some more marginal ideas and you want help. It’s bad if you have no ideas for proceeding on your own and gave up.

I prefer paying attention to people who have a significant writing or discussion history, e.g. a blog or dozens of past, reasonable, effortful messages. If you’re posting anonymously and have no past reputation, you should put some extra effort into making your message clearly worthwhile and nice to engage with. I also generally like people with websites, and people who write public things which are meant to still be read years in the future.

If you want to post anonymously, I prefer that you pick a pseudonym and use it for at least an entire conversation, preferably longer.

I prefer people who use quotes effectively (such as including relevant context so that their message is self-contained, while also excluding irrelevant text), format their posts well, respond to what I actually said, don’t talk past me, don’t put words in my mouth, don’t misquote me, don’t respond to something different than what I said, don’t straw man me, and don’t reply with non sequiturs.

I prefer talking with people who don’t do social pressure behaviors. I dislike people who treat discussion as a popularity contest and pander to the non-participating audience.

I prefer good questions which talk about what you already did to solve your own problem and where/how/why you got stuck. I prefer questions which build on something that’s already written (e.g. by me or Rand). I don’t like vague questions. I generally like questions that explain your perspective.

If you don’t ask a question, I can write about a topic without you. I can create my own generic writing prompts and questions without you. Your questions, to be useful, need to have an advantage over that. They need to add some upside for me. There are two main ways to do that. First, you can include information about your perspective, what you tried, how you got stuck and your own experience with the problem. Suppose you have a question about capitalism. You can e.g. tell me which specific sentences you didn’t understand from one of my articles about capitalism, and what’s confusing about them for you. That’s more useful to me than the question “So, how does capitalism work?”, which I already thought of myself and wrote about. Second, you can write a high effort, detailed, organized question. You can e.g. write about the current state of the field, what are the open questions, what is already answered and how, etc. You can do research or think about the best way to approach the issues. In that case, the upside for me is that you put work into the topic. So, to make a good question, give me information I don’t already have – either info related to your personal learning or info from doing some good thinking about the issue.

I don’t like questions which essentially ask me to start over and explain the issue from scratch in cases where I (or someone else like David Deutsch) already wrote a one-size-fits-many, generic explanation addressing the matter from scratch.

I don’t like being asked questions that I preemptively answered in an article or in a previous discussion message. I understand that you had trouble understanding, but be more specific than “I don’t get it” or “How does X work?”. It’s important to give me some information about what you don’t get – which part of my explanation don’t you get, what’s the problem, what do you think it says in your words, what’s your best guess at what it means, what seems wrong about it to you, what criticism of it do you see no way to deal with, something.

I prefer cooperative discussion. Adversarial debates are overrated. The main benefit of them is that they’re better than no discussion at all.

If you want an adversarial debate, it helps if you communicate your background and why you think you have the skill to keep up and potentially win. Even better, bring up stakes or tests – e.g. if you’re wrong about X (something relatively easy to objectively evaluate the correctness of, e.g. a factual matter), then you’ll do Y (concede some points, read and comment on some books and FI articles, be extremely appreciative, impressed, surprised, pay me money, behave differently in your career, whatever – the more the better). It’s important to have clear criteria for what’d satisfy you in a debate, to have clarity about what it’d take for you to concede, and to have ways to objectively test who is right instead of it all being evaluated with freeform judgment. And it’s important that there be consequences to the debate, something actually happens if a conclusion is reached (it should be something that has value for me if I’m right). It’s also good to say why the issue you want to debate is important, why it matters, why it’s worth debating. And tell me how I would benefit from being corrected about this.

For all discussions, and especially debates, I prefer people who are persistent about reaching a conclusion. And people who will slow down and stop skipping steps or jumping to conclusions, will clarify things, will put effort into making the discussion organized, and will deal with tangents and sub-issues.

Communicate goals you have that I’ll appreciate, e.g. to debate to a conclusion, or to learn philosophy. If your question is the first of 20+ questions you plan to ask over a period of months, that’s a good thing, tell me that. I don’t like the people who ask one question, get their answer, and leave with no comment. I prefer helping people with bigger goals than to get one answer to one thing. (The one thing is almost never very important on its own, it’s just good as a step towards bigger stuff.)

Don’t try to have it both ways with being a beginner who wants leeway and also an expert who is challenging my ideas and expects to win debates with me. You can’t simultaneously be both. And, in general, pick one and say which it is. If you think you’re my peer or intellectual equal, say so, and then I’ll hold you to the same standards I hold my own work to. If you don’t think you’re my peer and don’t want to be held to the standards for my own work, say that. If your thinking and claims are not being held to the same quality standards as mine, and it looks to you like I’m wrong, your default assumption should be that you’re missing something (or, at least, there was a misunderstanding), because your ideas are less rigorous than mine. If you don’t have a comparable amount of learning and studying activity in your past (compared to me), including public writing exposed to criticism, then you shouldn’t expect that the criticism or critical question you just thought of is new to me. It’s not literally impossible, but it’s a bad default assumption because I’ve already heard or thought of so many ideas before.

I like talking to reasonable, smart, knowledgeable people. And honest, especially honest. I dislike talking with people who assume I don’t have enough information to make judgments about them that I’ve made. I have a lot of knowledge about how to judge discussion statements which have been exposed to a lot of critical commentary and tested extensively. Lots of your behavior, which you’re blind to, is expressed in your words and is easy for me to judge as e.g. dishonest.

I like when people talk to people other than me and have discussions that I can comment on. I don’t like being a major participant in 90% of discussions at my forums. Practice discussing with others (both on my forums and elsewhere), try things out, share what happened, and ask for help with problems.

I prefer people who answer my questions or, in the alternative, say why they aren’t answering. It’s hard to deal with people who ignore direct questions. I also dislike ambiguous answers, including giving one answer to three questions (and not even specifying which one is being answered). I also want direct answers like “yes” or “no” when possible – if you want to explain your answer with nuance, you should generally give a direct answer as the first sentence of your answer, then give extra information after.

I also prefer people who ask clear, direct questions. If you say some stuff with no question, I’m less inclined to answer. Tell me what you want. Don’t imply them or hint. Don’t think a key part of your message goes without saying. Even a generic comment like “Does anyone have criticism of this?” or “I’d like criticism of this.” (which is fine despite not being a question or request) is much better than nothing. It takes away wiggle room (both honest and dishonest) where you could later say you didn’t actually think what you said was true, or weren’t looking for criticism, or some other excuse for why you don’t appreciate the criticism you received. Even better is to say something less generic about what you think or want.

I like people who care about errors instead of making excuses about why those errors aren’t important. I find people dramatically underestimate what errors matter and don’t understand how they matter, and mostly don’t ask or want to know, either.

If you value my attention, say so explicitly and act accordingly. Or pay for it (contributions, consulting, digital educational products). Money is good. Money is actually a lot easier to come by and provide to me than high-quality discussion messages are. I don’t mind helping some people who are bad at stuff, and paying customers have priority there (as do friendly, cooperative, honest people who appreciate the help).

It’s good to share your goals, intentions and plans for a discussion or for your learning. And how much do you care? What will you do about it? What resources are you allocating to this project and what will you do with them? What resources do you estimate the project needs to succeed? How hard a project is it? What have you done to build up to being ready to do it by doing a series of easier project successfully and sharing the results publicly on your blog? These are areas you should be interested in critical feedback on. Many learning projects fail because of project planning errors, e.g. people think something is a much smaller project than it is. Many people start discussions and quickly drop out. They weren’t really interested in the topic they asked about, don’t want to think or talk about it much, don’t want to take actions to learn more such as reading an article, and don’t want to discuss and learn from their error either.

I dislike when people ask for my help with a project which is already in progress and they won’t share or revisit the project planning. They want my help with goals they already decided, using an approach they already decided, but they want to exclude me from discussing or criticizing that stuff. Lame!

The more you do the above things, the more attention you’ll get. If you don’t do them, don’t expect much attention.

I wrote this post partly to help people deal with me better and partly to clarify this for myself. I’m trying to change to better follow these guidelines. Expect me to be less responsive than I’ve been in the past if you don’t follow the above advice. I plan to ignore more stuff that I think is low value.

But what if I make a mistake and ignore something important? What if I’m biased? What about Paths Forward? My Paths Forward Policy is still in effect as a backup so that mistakes can be corrected – it can be used if I don’t allocate attention to something that you think I should. And, along with this post, I’ve just written introductory questions people can use, made a How To Discuss blog post category, written an explanation of how debates and impasses work and how to conclude a debate, and written a new debating policy.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (31)

Discussion Trees With Example

When you have a discussion, it’s important to understand what is a reply to what, and what didn’t receive a reply (especially direct questions that aren’t answered).

To track this, draw a tree diagram. Put the initial thing someone said on top, then connect replies below it. Then for the each reply, put replies to it below it and connect them. And so on. It looks like this (real discussion, then tree):

Use abbreviated versions of what was said. Treat this like an overview, outline or notes. Make it condensed so it’s easier to see the whole discussion at once. Notes (text that doesn’t represent what someone said) can be put in square brackets. The tree helps show the structure of the discussion while having only short notes about what was said.

If it gets too complicated, you can split it into multiple diagrams. Write “subtree [name]” as a reply, then make a second diagram with that name which represents that part of the tree. It’s just the same as if you had one giant diagram except you took a part of it and moved it to a separate piece of paper or computer document. You can make documents that zoom in on specific parts of the overall discussion tree. You can also make an extra-abbreviated summary tree which leaves a lot out, then make some more detailed trees for some parts.

You should do something to indicate who said what, e.g. put their initials or use different colors.

It’s good to mark what didn’t get a reply and non sequiturs (comments that aren’t responsive, don’t engage with what they reply to). You could also mark direct questions, or at least direction questions that weren’t answered.

In my example, a green outline is Jack Dorsey, red is me, and black is an anonymous poster named A. Bold indicates a direct question (I paraphrased some things as questions but only bolded if it was a question in the original text). Dotted lines are non sequiturs. Ovals are statements that were replied to and rectangles are statements that were not replied to.

You can keep a tree in chronological order if you extend the lines between replies. Each row can be a message someone sent. If someone replies to an old point, draw a long line from it down to the current row. You can draw horizontal lines the show the rows. This will help with complicated discussions. Look at how my example tree is organized in rows. You never see claims from the same person in the same row, and every row corresponds to a specific message (I wrote three messages in the discussion and I have three rows, same for A).

Trees help you understand the discussions you have. Practice making trees for many of your discussions until it’s easy. Also practice doing it with other people's discussions. (If other people's discussions are easier because you're less emotionally involved or biased, start there; if it's harder because you understand what's being said less, start with your own.) Mentally keeping track of trees like this is what people who are good at discussions do (except when they actually write notes). If you write them down a bunch of times, you’ll get way better at remembering them.

When you have a difficult discussion with someone, if you both share your tree diagrams, you can compare and see where you view the discussion differently. This helps clear up misunderstandings and other problems.

Tree Analysis

The tree diagram makes it easy to see that A wasn’t responding to most of what I said (look for the red rectangles and the dotted lines). You can also see the two things from A that I didn’t reply to. And you can see what happened with direct questions: first, no real answer, just a vaguely implied answer that doesn’t make sense (I asked the point of what he was saying and he implied no point) and then a non sequitur reply, that does not answer the question, to my followup question trying to ask the same thing again.

It’s hard to perfectly represent discussions as summary trees but you can represent a lot of information this way. It’s useful even if it’s not 100% complete. In this case, the tree leaves out an issue that helps explain why I didn’t reply to the claim that debates are irrational.

I said:

You haven't given reasons nor any way for me to learn that you're right and change my mind.

And A replied criticizing me for mentioning debate, saying:

learning from each other is what matters.

I had just complained about the lack of any opportunity to learn from him, and then he criticized me because, allegedly, I wanted to debate in a non-learning way. That’s unreasonable and it’s part of a pattern where he didn’t engage with any substantive thing I said (look at all the square rectangles, plus what happened with my direct questions).

Discussion trees are literally and technically equivalent to bullet point outlines with nesting (indenting). You nest/indent replies under what they reply to. That represents the identical information as a tree with lines indicating what is a reply to what. If you don’t understand this, practice creating both the tree and the outline until you do understand.

Making Trees

You can make tree diagrams with pencil and paper, art apps (FYI vector art apps like Affinity Designer make more sense than pixel or photo based apps like Photoshop, and more basic tools can work too, and there are mind mapping and diagramming apps), OmniGraffle, or Graphviz. For info on generating tree diagrams from s-expressions, see my email reply to Justin (who found a website which does it), sharing my Ruby script which converts s-expressions to Graphviz files. Here’s the s-expression I used to create the example tree:

("No political ads on Twitter"
    ("social status, favors, friends, pull"
        ("money shouldn't buy influence"
            "no info that could change my mind")
            "no reasons"
                "debates are irrational, aren't you a Popperian?")
                ("[implied] there is no point"
                    ("purpose of contradicting me?"
                        "opinions are allowed here")))))
    "Less upward mobility"
    "Can't put money where mouth is"
    "Read Atlas Shrugged")

It’s worth learning to write trees as s-expressions. s-expressions are a general purpose intellectual tool. They’re a way of representing structured information/data.


See the Discussion Trees blog category for more tree examples.

See Mind Map software review for software choices.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (44)

Tracking Discussions

Tips for tracking discussions well:

  1. Write down a tree diagram (or, equivalently, a bullet point outline with nesting).
  2. Whenever you write stuff and get a reply, note down anything you’d written which the reply didn’t address. Also note down stuff the other guy said which you didn’t answer. With this method, the open issues are the things on your list plus the stuff in the latest post. (This is simplest in a two person discussion where you take turns writing one message at a time.)
  3. Get better at remembering stuff in discussions.

More on (1) and (3) below.

Trees and Outlines

Here’s an explanation of discussion tree diagrams with an example. And here’s another explanation below (actually written first, even though posted second):

Here’s an example tree diagram:

You can create tree diagrams with pen and paper or with various software options (some are mentioned in my other post on discussion trees).

Trees like this are always equivalent to outlines with nesting. Nesting X under Y in an outline is the same as drawing a line from X to Y in a tree (with Y below or to the right of X, depending on whether it’s a top-to-bottom or left-to-right tree). You can do both trees and outlines to get comfortable with how they’re the same. Both represent parent/child relationships (that’s standard terminology) where some things are attached underneath others. For discussion trees, replies are the children which you put under the thing they reply to. The “parent comment”, like on Reddit, is the thing being replied to.

Example outline which is equivalent to the tree:

  • Family Thanksgiving
    • Plan Meals
      • Pintrest
      • Web Search
      • Old Favorites
        • Mashed Potatoes
        • Stove Top brand stuffing
        • Cranberry sauce
      • Traditions
        • Deep Fried Turkey
    • Go Shopping
      • Food Shopping
        • Turkey
        • Ham
      • Other Shopping
        • Table settings
        • Chairs

To outline well, you need to be able to write short summaries. E.g. take a three paragraph argument and condense it to one sentence for your outline. This is a skill you can practice by itself.

Remembering Stuff

With practice you can remember more stuff without writing it down. This isn’t automatic. It’s something you can work on or not. It helps to try to remember stuff, and to reread the conversation to look up stuff you did not remember. And it helps to consider it important when someone refers to something you’d forgotten, and go reread it and take note of your memory error (try to find patterns and causes for your memory errors).

A related thing to practice is remembering what you say or read in general. You can quiz yourself on this. After reading something, try to write down what it said without looking at it. Start with shorter stuff (or break longer things into parts, like reading one paragraph at a time). If you get good at this and find it easy, do it with longer stuff and/or do it after a delay (can you remember it 5 minutes later without rereading? 20min? 3 hours? 3 days? 3 weeks?). And do it with your own stuff too. After you write something, try to write the same thing again later. See how accurate you can be for longer stuff and after longer wait times. You can do this with spoken words that you hear or speak, but you won’t be able to check your accuracy unless they were recorded.

People often don’t clearly know what they just read, or can’t keep it in their head long enough to write a reply (e.g. if you spend 30min writing a reply, you need to either remember the text you’re replying to that long or reread it at least once to refresh your memory). People often partially forget, partially remember, and don’t realize the accuracy loss happened (and don’t realize they should selectively reread key parts to double check that they remembered those accurately).

It’s also good if you can clearly remember what you said 1-3 days ago, which someone just replied to. You’ll often get replies the next day after you write something. And to the extent you don’t remember, it’s important to realize you don’t remember, recognize you don’t know, and reread. It’s also good if you can remember details from earlier in the conversation, which could be a week or more ago – and if you don’t, you better review relevant parts of the conversation back to the beginning if you want to write high quality comments which build on prior discussion text.

It’s easier to remember, especially for older material, if you have notes. If you keep an outline, tree and/or notes on what was said (including copy/pasting key quotes to your notes file), it’s easier to remember. If you do that for a while, it’ll be easier to remember without the notes. The notes are partly like training wheels that help you learn to remember stuff (it helps you break the remembering down into parts – instead of remembering everything, you partly read your notes and partly remember stuff that isn’t in your notes, so this way you have less to remember, so it’s easier, which makes good practice because you’re working on part of the skill instead of the whole skill at once).

However, notes and outlines aren’t just like training wheels, they are also good things which you shouldn’t expect to ever entirely stop using. They’re useful for practice but also just useful. With practice, you may learn to use them less but still use them. Or you might use them more with practice as you get better at creating and using them. Remembering everything in your head, instead of using tools, is not necessarily a good thing. Remembering some stuff is useful but there is some stuff you shouldn’t be trying to remember. Remembering basically means temporarily memorizing. The anti-memorization ideas you already know about have some relevance.

Also, notes, trees and outlines are useful for communicating with others. You can use them in the discussion. If the other person gets lost and confused, or there is a disagreement about what happened in the discussion, you can share your outlines/trees/notes to communicate your view of what happened. This can remind the person and help them, or it can be compared with their outlines/trees/notes to figure out specifically where you differ (find somewhere your outline is different than theirs, go reread the original text, find and fix someone’s error).

Sharing discussion trees/outlines is a good way to help figure out what’s going on in difficult discussions that become chaotic. Most people don’t have the tree in their head, didn’t try to keep notes, and also can’t (don’t know how to) go back and create the tree for the current discussion. Sadly, people also commonly don’t want to review a discussion and create a tree. That’s because it’s work and people are lazy and/or think discussion should be much easier than it is. People have incorrect expectations about what it takes to discuss well, so if it’s not working with ease they blame the other person or they blame bad luck and incompatibility, but they don’t usually seem to think the thing to do is increase their skill and put in more effort.

Many people avoid resuming conversations after the first day – they want to talk a bunch at once (e.g. talk for an hour) and then never continue later. This is a really common way trying to discuss issues with people sucks and fails. It’s hard to get anywhere with people like this. A major cause of this problem is their bad memory skill. They don’t want to continue the discussion the next day because they forgot most of what was said. To be good at truth seeking, you need to be able to discuss things over time, which requires both memory and willingness to review some stuff sometimes.

More Complicated Discussions

This section is some more advanced and optional material.

A discussion tree can actually be a directed acyclic graph (DAG), not a tree, because one argument can reply to 2+ parents. In that case, a bullet point style outline won’t represent it. However, you usually can make a good, useful discussion tree without doing that.

Directed means the connections between nodes go in a particular direction (parent and child) instead of being symmetric connections. Nodes are places on the graph that can be connected, they are parents or children – specifically they are discussion statements. E.g. “Go Shopping” and “Cranberry Sauce” are nodes. Acyclic means the graph isn’t allowed to go in circles. You can’t have node A be a child of B which is a child of C which is a child of A.

A DAG can always be put in a topological ordering (linear order, 1-dimensional order, similar to an outline or list) which could maybe be useful. Cycles ruin that ordering but aren’t allowed because no statement in a discussion can be a child of a statement that was made at a later time. A child of node N is a reply to N. Because statements don’t reply into the future (and we can treat all statements as being added one at a time in some order), cycles are avoided.

Statements do reply into the future in a sense. Sometimes we preemptively address arguments. One way to handle this is to add a new argument, C, “A already addressed B preemptively”, as a child of B. This gets into the “last word” problem. Even if you preemptively address stuff, people just ignore you or make tiny changes to try to make a new comment required. The big picture way to deal with this is by criticizing their methodology – they are creating a pattern of errors which need to be addressed as a pattern instead of individually.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)

Claiming You Objectively Won A Debate

When people end debates, they usually don’t even try to make an objective claim that they won (or, impersonally, that particular arguments were adequate to reach particular conclusions). Here’s a standard form for an initial impasse statement which is worth knowing:

Here is my understanding of the situation: My arguments, X, Y and Z, were adequate to objectively establish my conclusion, C. Those arguments were conclusive. I said enough that you should be persuaded. A rational, unbiased observer would agree that those arguments won the debate and would tentatively accept the conclusion C. You gave no substantive replies to X, Y or Z (except for one reply to X, which was refuted by my reply X2, which you did not substantively respond to). You made no substantive arguments about C that I didn’t address. There are currently no open questions left. So you should concede, change your mind, and start learning about C. Or else, say something new to change the situation. But you won’t do any of those, which is an impasse.

Most people end discussions with less than this. Not an abbreviated version of it (which could be fine) but less content. They don’t even claim to have won the debate. If you can’t even make a statement like this, you have no business giving up on the discussion.

To have won a debate, you have to be able to claim to have won the debate. That’s necessary but insufficient. It’s required but it’s not enough. Your claim could be wrong. But if you don’t even have a claim like that, you didn’t win. That means making a claim like “In [quote] and [quote2] I gave compelling arguments. I tried several times to get you to engage with them. You didn’t. They were adequate that they should have persuaded a reasonable person.” Making a claim like that is the bare minimum needed to think you won the debate. Actually checking whether that claim is true is a more advanced step but most people don’t even make the claim. They don’t realize that’s the sort of thing that would indicate you won a debate. They don’t know that’s the goal.

Your goal in a debate is to objectively establish some claims. Make adequate arguments for why those claims are correct. Adequate means they should be persuasive to an intelligent, objective, neutral observer. People can easily be wrong about what’s objective or adequate but they should at least try to do this. But most people, in most debates, won’t even claim to have done it and seem to be unaware they were supposed to. People quit discussions without ever saying something like “I thought my argument X was adequate and your responses were missing the point. You’re not listening, dumb or biased or something so I’m going to move on.” That’s not great but it’s better than what people commonly do.

People usually stop discussing without even any claim to have provided information adequate to change the other person’s mind or help them learn better ideas. That’s irrational.

People usually end discussions without even claiming the other person did something specific wrong, was unreasonable about a particular issue, was irrational in a way they’ve stated (rather than just irrational in general), incorrectly judged any particular argument (with reasons the judgment is incorrect), or anything like that. Pointing out a specific, impersonal flaw with the discussion (rather than the person’s ideas) would also work. If you won’t point out any problem with the discussion or with the person, you’re in no position to end the discussion in your favor. And if you have no rational claim that you won, you should consider that you lost and you’re leaving to avoid facing superior ideas.

People often make general, non-specific comments about how bad the other person is or how dumb their arguments are. These do not attempt to rationally and objectively establish any particular claims about what happened in the discussion. They don’t provide a case for why they’re right which they could honestly think was conclusive.

When debating, you should try to make an objective case for some conclusions. You should get to a point where you can claim (in your own opinion) that your arguments were objective, rational and conclusive and the debate should now be over. If you don’t do that, don’t claim you conclusively won the debate. There’s a lot more needed, but this is a basic starting point that people often don’t even reach.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (9)

Written and Unwritten Rules In Discussions

If you don’t have a debate policy, you have an unwritten, biased, inconsistent debate policy. Just like if you don’t have a philosophy, you still do, it just hasn’t been given much study or conscious consideration.

Public intellectuals use unwritten rules for who they talk to (gatekeeping, filtering) and how they talk during a discussion (how they think rational, productive discussion works).

Unwritten rules are confusing to others. They’re not predictable. If an intellectual had written gatekeeping rules, I could know “If I do X, Y and Z, I’ll get a discussion.” With unwritten rules, it’s unclear what’s even relevant (what helps at all), let alone what’s adequate, what’s enough.

Unwritten rules are usually applied inconsistently. They let people be biased and prevent accountability. They let people easily lie about the reasons for decisions (like not discussing with a critic).

Bias and dishonesty are hard problems. Instead of being confident we’re great at them, we should make it easier on ourselves. Written rules help keep us honest and prevent bias from affecting our discussions. We should be happy to find ways to combat bias and dishonesty rather than being so arrogant as to think that’s unnecessary. (Some people seem to think that doing anything about bias is like an admission of weakness, and admission that maybe they aren’t fully rational, so they’d rather take no anti-bias actions in order to deny they have any problem with bias.)

During discussions, people have unwritten rules for what they think should be replied to, what questions should be asked and answered, how much effort to use, whether links should be read or ignored, how conclusions are reached about sub-issues, in what circumstances the overall discussion should end. People who try to have discussions usually disagree about some of these things. Because neither side writes down or explains how they think this stuff works, it’s an ongoing source of conflict and misunderstanding. And then at some point someone gets frustrated and ends the discussion. Or they just end it because they’d rather do something else and that’s that – and then they also claim they’re really open to discussion and interested in ideas (just not that time, apparently, though they often make excuses like saying the other guy’s messages were low quality without providing conclusive specifics).

Going from unwritten, ad hoc, “I know it when I see it” type rules/behavior, to written, documented, policies procedures, methods and rules is a huge upgrade. It’s similar to going from “whatever the dictator says goes” (unwritten rules) to a system of law and order. The way intellectuals behave is really primitive compared even to governments (and I have a lot of criticisms of governments).

This is the unexamined life. People don’t know why they do things. They don’t know how they choose which discussions to have, what to do in the discussions, or when to end them. They don’t understand themselves. Writing down their discussion methods and policies is how they could both discuss better (figure out what their goals are, what they think is good discussion, share the idea with others, and try to do it) and also better examine their life, understand themselves, learn what they actually do (take some of their intuitions and whims and turn them into considered, written statements).

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Discussions Should Use Sources

People think you should debate or explain stuff yourself, not cite books or articles. But the truth doesn’t depend on what ideas are in my head or what I remember. So they aren’t using a truth-seeking approach.

The proper way to deal with complex topics is to look at what’s already been figured out. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Try to research and understand the state of the debate. If you find something missing you can make an original contribution, add something new, but mostly you don’t do that for well-developed topics.

E.g. take economics and political philosophy. That’s a big, hard topic. Even most of what Rand, Mises or Reisman said about it wasn’t new. Partly they organized existing ideas and figured out which ones are important and how they fit together. They did add in some new ideas too. Most people add a lot less than that. And it’s harder today after them. Anyway, the point of debate/discussion isn’t really to add new ideas to the field. If you have a new idea, write it down. Then when you debate someone, your idea is a book or article that you can cite. So it’s just like citing a Mises book, it’s pointing at the existing literature and trying to figure out what the discussion tree looks like, what is answered and unanswered, refuted or not, etc. If you have an original idea and write it down so it’s part of the literature, then the general project of evaluating the literature is going to include evaluating your idea. Nothing changes.

People object to citations in discussion to address some practical problems. They include:

  • Citing stuff you don’t understand or haven’t read.
  • Citing a million things to overwhelm someone.
  • Citing a new thing every time one is refuted.
  • Judging cites by the author’s name or what his conclusion is.

The main problems here are appeals to authority and argument quantity over quality. The proper way to use cites is only to cite your best material on each issue, and if it’s refuted you don’t cite second best then third best, you start reconsidering. If your evaluation of the best material (in your opinion) was incorrect, your evaluation of other material is also suspect. Your way of evaluating needs to be reconsidered.

Discussion should be kind of like a research project where you each help the other guy look through the literature for your side. If I talk with a socialist, he can tell me the key chapters in Marx that, as a Mises-advocate, are relevant to me and he thinks Mises didn’t answer. There’s a ton of socialist literature and a socialist is a good person to help guide me to the best stuff and also, simultaneously, to the key stuff to criticize (or cite criticism of) to change his mind.

This does depend on your goal in discussion. Are you trying to figure out what’s true? Are you acting the part of scholar, researcher, intellectual trying to reach some conclusions? Then don’t do a literature-independent discussion. Alternatively, you might be practicing talking about ideas and practicing debating. If you’re just trying to practice explaining stuff, not actually trying to reach a conclusion in the field, then using little or no literature can make sense.

People routinely mix these two things up. They debate like it’s unserious practice, won’t consider literature, but also think, at the same time, that they are reaching conclusions and this is a reasonable way to form their opinions. They think it’s a serious debate that can figure out the right economics while, at the same time, that they don’t want to read Mises, don’t know of any refutations of Mises by anyone, etc. You can’t figure out the truth of economics in that manner.

Rewriting published material doesn’t make sense in general. Books are carefully written and edited. What I say in a discussion is going to be lower quality (unless it’s about a position lacking good literature).

So for well-developed topics (like economics but not AGI), most of your comments should be about how the literature fits together, how it applies to particular cases that come up, stuff like that. Like if Mises wrote a general principle and a guy has a question that it answers, usually what Mises wrote is not a direct answer to that exact question. So I can write 3 sentences explaining how Mises’ principle relates to the question and then cite what Mises wrote. Those 3 sentences by me help customize the general purpose material to a particular case. Those kinds of sentences are generally missing from the literature, but they’re very important because people have particular questions and don’t always see how the one-size-fits-many general statements in the literature answer their questions. Even if they’re good at that, maybe they figure it out 9 out of 10 times, but it’s still a big deal if I can help relate the literature to the remaining cases.

And there’s a lot of literature, so a socialist might not know which Mises book to look in to get an answer to a particular question, and maybe I can find the answer and find some key quotes a lot faster than him because I’m more familiar with Mises’ writing. So that’s something useful I can contribute to discussion, it’s a way I can be helpful. And similarly, he can help point me at socialist literature that addresses some specific questions I have because he knows where to find that better than I do.

Cites also improve discussion by providing more targets to criticize. If I cite a Mises book, now you have plenty of details about my position that you can point out errors in. In literature-excluding discussions, people will bring up their ideas and never give you enough details about what they mean. They aren’t rigorous enough about explaining, piece by piece, how their claims work. They often change their position mid discussion. Literature is a fixed target that’s suitable for critical analysis.

And how do you get your own position, alone, on a complex topic like economics? You learn some parts of the field and, for other parts, you don’t investigate it beyond a summary level. You don’t have time to go into everything because it’s such a big field. Even professional economists specialize and can’t cover everything. For someone like me who has read a lot of economics but it’s not my specialty, it’s not even close – there are tons of issues where I believe it’s been covered by Austrian economics, and I could look it up if it came up, and I have some kinda summary info about it which makes sense to me and fits with other ideas and principles I have, but I haven’t carefully checked all the details. That’s how it’s gotta be. It takes many people working together and writing books and so on to develop all the complexity and detail that goes into a position in economics. The field’s standards are so high that it’s too much for one person to cover it all. You can understand the main principles as one person, you can think rationally, you can investigate areas you think may be problematic, you can investigate areas that discussion and debate partners bring up, but you can’t just go step by step through every last thing in the field, detail by detail, there’s been too much thinking about economics done. So to get a position I look for a body of work that I think gets stuff right. Ideally I find one I’m 99% happy with and my position can be “Austrian economics + X, Y and Z” and just make a few changes based on my own ideas (as long as the changes are isolated, that’s OK. If I want to change some major economic principle, it’d end up changing hundreds of conclusions, so it’d be a big issue.)

Less ideally (it’s more work), I might use the ideas of one school of thought for one big part of the field and another school of thought for another big part. That’s what I do in philosophy. I have Critical Rationalism for the majority of epistemology but not all of it, and I have Objectivism for some other parts of epistemology and for several other major areas of philosophy, and I also have David Deutsch for some other stuff like jumps to universality. To do this, one has to create more supplemental material explaining what’s used for what. It’s more complicated than just agreeing with one school of thought (even with some minor customizations). It’s still far less work than developing all the ideas from scratch.

Developing ideas from scratch is, in general, bad. It’s like rewriting software from scratch. You end up creating a bunch of new bugs. The existing stuff has been exposed to a lot of critical thinking. Many errors/bugs have been fixed. If you start over, you might think you’re fixing all the problems, like now you know what you’re doing and will get everything right, but what actually happens is making tons of mistakes including tons of mistakes that were already made and fixed in the past.

If the existing ideas are inadequate, in general you should help improve them instead of just ignoring them and trying to develop new ideas. This is especially true for complicated, established fields like economics or philosophy. It’s less true for a very new field like AGI, but even then you shouldn’t be e.g. reinventing algorithms, data structures, or programming languages – there’s lots of existing stuff that’s worth using (even an imperfect programming language is generally far better than trying to make a new one).

It’s kinda like existing human knowledge is a million points but has flaws, and if you help get it up to a million and 500 points, you improved things. But if you start over, you aren’t actually helping for the first 999,999 points, you’re still behind, so you have to do so much work before starting over is useful. Yeah maybe if you reinvent 100,000 points from scratch there will be a big chunk there someone could use and combine with some existing knowledge, but if that’s what’s going to happen you might as well do that yourself (develop in, from day 1, as an improvement on some existing knowledge – as something that can be added to some existing knowledge and/or some changes to some existing ideas with problems – rather than ignoring existing knowledge and leaving it to someone else to convert your work to be relevant to other ideas humanity has).

It’s hard enough to work with existing knowledge and improve it. Most attempts actually make it worse. It’s hard to understand how existing knowledge works, what the problems are, and how you can make changes without breaking things. It’s much worse, though, to just take the field itself and try to solve it yourself without all the help and guidance of existing knowledge. Then you’re trying to outcompete thousands or millions of people’s cooperative efforts by yourself.

Most people trying to build up intellectual systems from scratch don’t know much about the literature. It’s related to the cliche that you need to know the rules (e.g. of English) before breaking them. If you don’t understand what’s already known and what’s good about it, you aren’t in a position to do things differently and do a good job. But once you do understand the literature well, and get a good grasp on what’s already known, then you’re in a good position to improve it. A lot of why people want to start over, instead of adding to existing knowledge, is specifically to skip the step of learning much about what’s already known. They’ll never accomplish much.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

Potential Debate Topics

These are brief statements of some controversial ideas I believe. They are mostly unexplained conclusions. I’m not trying to argue my case here (just a little bit here and there). You can search my writing and discussion archives for explanations and reasoning. You can use this list to help find something you disagree with me about, which you could then research, ask questions about, or debate.

It’s possible and desirable to raise children without doing anything to them against their will. No punishments, no force, nothing that’d be illegal to do to an adult neighbor, no manipulative guiding, no agendas, no curriculums, no assumption that, in a disagreement, the parent is correct.

Objectivism is the best philosophy in general. Critical Rationalism offers improvements re refuting induction and replacing it with a fallibilist evolutionary epistemology.

I favor abortion. Only intelligent beings are moral agents, not fetuses. Abortion should not be “safe, legal and rare”, nor is it something to personally disapprove of. It’s either murder or it’s not. If it’s murder, it should be illegal. If it’s not murder, what’s to disapprove of? If you’re unsure, you should want abortion to be illegal because we should err on the side of caution when murder is at stake. For the sake of being careful, I’m fine with banning third trimester abortions (except e.g. when medically necessary to save the mother). I’m confident there isn’t an intelligent being until a while after there is a brain with electric signals. I don’t think that’s an ambiguous gray area. I’ve read the earliest brain activity that (very conservatively) starts to plausibly resemble consciousness starts around the start of the third trimester, but I haven’t researched an exact cutoff date. I don’t think birth corresponds to gaining intelligence, and I think it’s conceivable that a baby isn’t an intelligent being for a few weeks after birth.

Animals aren’t intelligent so they don’t have moral rights. The word “intelligent” has two related meanings. Sometimes it’s used to refer to degrees of intelligence – Joe is smarter than Bob. But it’s also used to refer to a distinction between intelligent or non-intelligent, e.g. a rock is not intelligent. The mainstream view is that animals are intelligent but to a lesser degree than humans (some people even claim that some animals are more intelligent than a 2 year old child). I claim animals are fundamentally different than human beings because humans can learn anything that can be learned (including by aliens or artificial intelligences) while animals don’t learn at all. Animals are robots which are controlled by software (developed by evolution) which is like a more complicated version of a computer-controlled video game character. It’s like an advanced Roomba.

I’m an atheist. I also reject superstitious ideas like luck, karma, reincarnation, the afterlife, ghosts, angels, devils, demons, voodoo, spoon bending, ESP, telepathy, telekinesis, fortune telling, astrology, talking to dead people (mediums), etc.

U.S. Christians and Jews are no more irrational, superstitious or unreasonable than atheists on average. Of major groups, Christians do the best job of understanding and promoting important, traditional American values like freedom. They’re more resistant to socialism, environmentalism, and other evil ideologies which violate common sense. They’re more willing to disagree with the assertions of human authorities like “scientists” or government officials.

Christianity was barbaric originally but improved along with civilization. It’s civilized now, at least in the English speaking countries. Islam is uncivilized today.

I favor pure laissez-faire capitalism. I will debate for “minarchy” (aka “nightwatchman state”) – a minimal government providing law, order, courts, police, military but leaving the economy alone. I’m open to anarchist ideas but generally don’t advocate them because minarchy is the correct goal for the foreseeable future.

I favor classical liberalism which advocates freedom (including free markets) and limited government power. As violence is irrational and destructive, no one should initiate force (including threat of force or fraud). Defensive force is OK. To learn more about liberalism and (Austrian) economics the main authors to read are Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, Ayn Rand and George Reisman.

Parents torture children for twenty plus years and destroy their rationality. Teachers are no better. Parenting needs to be reformed with rational epistemology – Critical Rationalism – so that parents and teachers are primarily helpers rather than leaders or guiders of children. People should manage their own learning and pursue their own goals, not have goals and conclusions imposed on them by authority. Parents should interpret all disobedience, misbehavior and not-listening as disagreements where the fallible parent may well be mistaken and rational truth seeking is the way forward. In the event of failure to reach agreement, the parent should follow liberal principles like leaving people alone instead of using force.

Romantic relationships are broken and irrational rather than a wonderful good idea. Relationships should be more varied instead of everyone following the same model. “Love” is a bad, ambiguous idea. Positive emotions are overrated and in this case often come from conformity to static memes. Jealousy is bad. In the long run, most marriages that don’t end in divorce are unhappy or merely OK. The fear of rejection, the stress of asking a girl out, the waiting and hoping a boy will notice you, the lipstick, the dancing, the partying, etc., are bad things. The heavy reliance on stereotyped interactions like dates and saying “sweet nothings” are bad.

Polyamorous people generally especially like and value love and sex. I think those are overrated. And they’re naive about how hard it is to interact closely with other human beings. It’s hard enough to have one romantic partner without fighting. More partners makes it harder because it’s more complicated and non-traditional.

When in doubt, follow traditions. By default, follow traditions. There are two main reasons to go against tradition. First, you can pick a small number of things to try to improve in your life. You can’t change everything but you can make a few improvements if you study and research what you’re doing a ton (which people rarely do). Second, you have to violate some traditions when they contradict each other. Contradictions between traditions give one no choice but to (partially) go against a tradition and are the main reason to do that.

Genes (or other biology) don’t have any direct influence over our intelligence or personality. We have free will. What kind of person someone grows up to be depends on the ideas they’re exposed to and accept, and their own choices. Genes play fairly non-controlling indirect roles, e.g. if you’re tall more people will encourage you to play basketball. All people are born with essentially equal intellectual capacity. Dumb people are people with bad ideas about how to think.

Human minds aren’t a collection of modules or compartments (for e.g. language, math, art, science, visual-spatial thinking, etc.). We have a single, general purpose, universal intelligence.

Environmentalism is evil. The basic idea is to reject human values and what’s good for humans and instead use nature as the standard of value. Global warming is a scare story to justifying oppressive government intervention in the economy. The “science” is shoddy. Environmentalism has some appeal because it’s confused with reasonable stuff like e.g. having clean lakes, but that is something generally favored and provided by non-environmentalists once there is enough wealth to afford it. The actual goal of the green movement is to shut down industry, not to encourage reasonable reforms and improvements when they become cheap enough to be worth it.

Unions, minimum wage, rent control and many other allegedly pro-worker and pro-poor-people policies harm everyone including workers and poor people.

There are no conflicts of interest between rational men. Self-interest is harmonious with the general welfare. Marxist class warfare is unnecessary and irrational. Workers and employers both benefit by cooperation (and, in the freer countries, people reasonably often change groups in both directions).

The vast majority of studies in the social “sciences”, like psychology, are low quality and should be ignored. The most common problem is they find a correlation and pretend they studied causation.

The government shouldn’t fund science, education, healthcare or retirement.

The vast majority of “intellectuals” and academics are social climbers who are faking being smart.

People lie all the time – primarily to themselves with lying to others as a secondary consequence – and are wrong about many of their claims about themselves. People are often wrong about why they want something, what they meant by a statement, or why they did an action. Being wrong about those things is often due to lying to themselves. People are often mistaken or lying (to themselves) about what their intentions were (e.g. they say they had good intentions but didn’t). People are often mistaken about whether they are angry, emotional or upset.

The laws of epistemology, computation and logic technically depend on the laws of physics. They aren’t a priori. (They are mostly autonomous. It’s generally OK to study them directly without studying physics.) Nothing is a priori. You can’t get away from physics and our understanding of physics is connected to observation of reality (experience).

Induction is an error and myth. No one has ever learned anything by induction. Induction doesn’t describe a physically possible series of actions.

A successful alternative to induction was offered by Karl Popper.

Men have more to gain by peace than war. Peace is strictly better.

Overall, I support president Trump. He was my second choice after Ted Cruz. My main complaints are that he has done much less than he promised. No wall, no dramatic reduction in immigration, no end to anchor babies, no end to Obamacare, and he’s worked with the GOP establishment a fair amount instead of draining that part of the swamp. Obama was the worst, most destructive president for a long time (maybe since the New Deal), and has anti-American values.

Infallible proof is impossible. Whatever arguments you make, whether a formal deduction, a mathematical proof, or claiming 2+2=4, you had to evaluate whether that’s true with a physical process like thoughts in your brain, and the correctness of your conclusion is dependent on your understanding of the properties of that physical process, and your understanding of the laws of physics is certainly fallible. (This argument was originated by David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality chapter 10.)

Most arguments are not inductive, deductive nor abductive. They aren’t equivalent to any of those. They’re just regular arguments. They don’t even have a special name. The main purposes of argument are to criticize and explain.

The French Revolution was evil and destructive.

People make choices about their interests, personality, sexual orientation and gender identity. Some choices are made in early childhood, forgotten about, and very hard to figure out how to change later. And choices are made while externally pressured. That doesn’t make something a biological non-choice, though.

Over 90% of the pleasure people feel during sex is due to ideas and mental interpretations, not biology or physical sensations. Sense data, including nerve data relating to pleasure or pain, is open to interpretation. As Karl Popper says, all observation is theory laden. Raw data doesn’t have an inherent meaning. Our ideas give it meaning and direct our attention selectively to the aspects we consider important.

All finite data sets are logically compatible with infinitely many explanations, patterns or conclusions. There is no such thing as which claims “better fit” the data – the data contradicts some claims and does not contradict others.

Correlation does not hint at causation.

Evolution is replication with variation and selection. That’s the origin of life on Earth. Evolution of memes (ideas, not joke images) is literally evolution, not an analogy.

Morality is objective. Everything is objective. We live in physical reality. It’s one single, shared reality for all people. Truths about this reality do not depend on who is inquiring. There are objective facts about how foods taste to you, which foods you should buy given your physical tastebuds, ideas, budget, etc. And there are truths about what ideas you have and what tastebuds you have and your bank account balance and income, all of which are parts of physical reality.

Solipsism, relativism, nihilism, and skepticism are false.

Cognitive biases, qualia and mirror neurons are confusions.

We live in a multiverse. There are trillions or infinite versions of you. The multiverse is local (no faster than light motion or communication). This is the best current understanding of physics. People who disagree are almost all ignorant or irrational, rather than innocently mistaken.

If you’re wrong about that idea, by what process can someone who knows you’re wrong correct you? Intellectuals should have good general-purpose answers to this in writing.

Arguments don’t have degrees of strength. There aren’t weak and highly compelling arguments. Arguments are conclusive or non-conclusive. If all arguments are non-conclusive, instead of tiebreaking between options without any conclusive way to decide, one can and should create a conclusive argument related to how to proceed.

One can always act on non-refuted ideas. Not merely as a theoretical possibility but as a practical, rational option that one should do. There’s never any good reason to act on a refuted idea.

All correct positive arguments (arguments in favor of something) can be translated into negative arguments (arguments against stuff). If it can’t be translated, it’s incorrect. The negative argument version is the more rigorous and formal version of the argument. Arguments refute. They only support as a loose statement, an approximation.

No Partial Universality: There are no classical computers that can compute 90% of what can be classically computed. (Classical computation is what Macs, Windows PCs, iPhones and Androids do. It excludes quantum computation which is related to quantum physics.) When adding features to a simple classical computing system, it jumps straight from near-zero functionality to universality. Universality and jumps to universality also come up in other areas, e.g. with ability to learn. There are no learners that can learn 90% of what can be learned. Learning systems jump from near-zero to universality.

Serious debates should be done publicly online, in writing, over days/weeks, with no editing or deleting messages, with written methodology for how to reach a conclusion or end the debate.

Intellectuals who are too busy to talk with everyone should have written policies for who they talk to, how much, etc., so it’s all predictable and people who believe they have something important to say can meet the policy requirements and get to discuss it. A major design goal of these policies should be combatting bias (so the policies don’t biasedly suppress certain ideas from being discussed).

The “burden of proof” idea is a misconception.

Don’t ignore “small” errors. You can’t reliably tell how small an error an idea is without correcting it. Once you have a solution, you can say in retrospect that it turned out to be a small, easy, quick fix. But knowing that in advance would be predicting the future growth of knowledge which is impossible.

Rational thinkers address every criticism of their ideas. They never ignore criticism. People who don’t know how to do this in an adequately time efficient manner need to learn how rather than make excuses. In particular, you can criticize patterns or categories of arguments at the same time, as a group, rather than addressing criticisms one by one. You should write down your arguments so that you can reference them in response to repeat criticisms, thus allowing the critic to learn why he’s mistaken and/or share an additional criticism about your argument.

Psychiatry is the modern inquisition. They aren’t doctors or scientists, they are a mechanism of social control. They suppress deviants, heretics, “misbehavior” (behavior unwanted by by those with more power and social status). Psychiatric diagnostic criteria are vague and non-objective because they’re judgment calls about conformity to largely-unwritten social rules.

Standard ideas about what foods are healthy to eat are full of fads and myths. Diets affecting energy levels and mood is primarily placebo. Balancing individual meals is dumb – better to balance what you eat during a whole day or a week. But the food groups and balancing methods are dumb too.

Current AGI (artificial general intelligence) research is working on dead ends. AGI workers should learn Critical Rationalism to make progress. Also non-AGI work called “AI”, such as software to play chess or drive cars, is useful but isn’t substantial progress towards AGI. An AGI won’t be created by combining a bunch of non-general modules like those.

Anti-semitism is wrong. The U.S. political left and media are broadly anti-semitic. Israel and Zionism are good. Anti-Israel political views are due to anti-semitism. The IDF is the world’s kindest military. (I would say most moral except I think they sacrifice too many Israeli lives, both military personnel and civilians, to prevent collateral damage. Plus they have conscription.) The Israel and the IDF doesn’t mistreat or abuse Muslims, they bend over backwards to be fair, generous, peaceful, reasonable, etc.

The USA is by far the best and most important country. It’s the leader of the civilized world.

Slavery isn’t in the rational self-interest of the slavers. And USA wasn’t built on slavery. Slavery is economically inefficient, not a source of industrial-age wealth.

If someone was really strongly motivated by greed, they’d learn economics and choose not to be a slaver, thief, fraudster, etc. Greed would motivate them to produce and trade, not to hurt anyone. The most effective way to get rich in a free country is by mutually beneficial social cooperation. But the more the government interferes in the economy, the more opportunities it creates for men to get rich by oppression and tyranny instead.

“Pickup Artist” (PUA) ideas are broadly correct about how dating works and what women want. Search “Dating and Social Dynamics” on the FI book recommendations for sources. Disclaimer: other sources may be bad. The PUA materials I respect are standard, popular ones connected to the original discussion forums, but there’s also a lot of other stuff which is crap.

All women are like that (AWALT).

Social metaphysics, altruism and second-handedness (see Objectivism for details) are evil.

Death, disease and weakness due to aging are a solvable medical problem. If ignored, aging will harm and kill every single person alive today along with all of our great grandchildren. It’s a big, urgent problem – far more important than global warming even if that were correct. It merits much more medical research than it receives. Arguments for not trying to solve aging (e.g. overpopulation, people getting bored with living, divine punishment) are wrong.

Many discussions fail because people are too impatient and intolerant about disagreement. People largely don’t understand how different another person’s ideas can be than their own, and aren’t interested in learning about ideas their prejudices say are unreasonable (but which they haven’t refuted and can’t cite any refutation of by anyone that they’d endorse).

Keynesian economics was refuted by Hazlitt’s Failure of the 'New Economics’. This is one of many examples showing intellectual culture is broken: often the right ideas are more ignored than responded to. Intellectually, in terms of objective truth-seeking, Keynes and his fans lost the debate (substantially by refusing to debate, refusing to study and engage with rival ideas). But they remain much more influential than the superior ideas which out-argued them. The primary issue is people ignoring ideas, not people learning the ideas but then coming to a different, reasonable evaluation of their merits. Most intellectuals are unreasonable, irrational, ignorant, uncurious, dishonest and aren’t truth seekers.

Steelmanning and the principle of charity are overrated approximations. They don’t involve substantial understanding of epistemology which reveals many limitations. They’re fairly commonly used to make discussions worse rather than better.

Ideas rule the world.

Everyone/anyone can contribute to truth seeking and ideas. Each person who chooses not to is individually guilty of refusing to think much and choosing not to participate significantly in the key issues affecting the fate of civilization. You should care about ideas instead of leaving it to alleged experts. You should read, study, debate, etc., in a patient, curious, serious way.

A key separator of rational truth seekers and dishonest frauds is unbounded pursuit of truth. Most people have some limits beyond which they won’t think.

Making progress effectively requires managing your error rate. Do things easy enough to keep your weighted error rate plus a buffer (to handle variance) below your error correction capacity. If you want to do harder or more complex things, build up to them. Learn more so they’re easier for you (can be done with fewer errors). And increase your error correction capacity. Doing stuff early is inefficient at best and often leads to failure.

If you want to do a project, consider what prior projects of a similar nature you’ve done successfully. Have you already succeeded at one or several projects with 80% or more of the difficulty and complexity of the one you want to do now? You should have. E.g. if you want to debate or study a complex intellectual topic, you should have a history of success doing that kind of activity. If you don’t, start simpler and get it right.

Learning effectively works by getting things right first and dealing with other aspects like speed, memory, forming habits or increasing complexity second. E.g. when learning typing, focus on correctness first and speed up second. If you speed up first, then try to fix your errors, you’re trying to fix the errors at high speed; it would have been easier to fix them earlier on at lower speed. Similarly, figure out how to have a simple rational, productive conversation successfully and correctly before trying for hard ones. Don’t try to learn everything at once. Try to isolate what you’re learning and learn a few things at a time.

Deplatforming is a major problem. It’s not simply the right of private tech companies to have whatever moderation policies or algorithms they want. They advertise fraudulently about how they are unbiased. They lobby for and get special government favors and privileges. The alternatives aren’t either to oppose deplatforming on statist grounds or to accept it (regretfully? but I don’t see many expressions of regret). One can make a classical liberal case against it.

We should go back to a gold standard for money. Prices are directly related to the supply of money. When the government prints money, it raises prices (which lowers the value of savings, so it’s like a wealth tax). The single best feature of a gold standard is that the government can’t print gold.

Bitcoin and cryptocurrency are worthless investment frauds. As investments they’re similar to a Ponzi scheme where earlier investors are paid by newer investors and it falls apart when people stop buying in. The software is terrible from a technical perspective, the companies involved are incompetent, and the main use case is to facilitate money laundering and crime.

Immigration should be restricted as part of defense against violence, because our welfare state gives big handouts to anyone here, and because our government has many oppressive powers – it’s not properly limited – so it’s dangerous to allow people to vote who don’t have civilized Western values.

Fossil fuels are great. Nuclear power is even better for electricity, though not for gasoline or plastic.

Affirmative action is racist. America is an especially non-racist country – except the leftist political activists who bring up race so much.

You have no right to make demands about what pronouns I use to refer to you. I’ll normally use “he”, “she” or maybe “they” at people’s request, but not any arbitrary words, and I’m not obligated to, it’s just a courtesy. My speech, my choice. It’s also OK to use previous names of public figures.

Grammar is useful to learn.

Being economically literate is roughly as important and useful as being scientifically literate. Fewer than 1% of people have basic economic literacy – e.g. they couldn’t correctly figure out the economic consequences of minimum wage laws (on their own without looking it up – it’s a simple enough issue that you should be able to do that) and they can’t reliably, consistently avoid all variations of the broken window fallacy.

“Picky” and “pedantic” arguments often matter. Ask people why they think the issue matters (often it’s a clarity issue – and clarity should be one of your main goals in writing or speaking about ideas) or fix it. It’s such a minor issue, correct it. A good policy is to ask what the point is if a person makes three arguments in a row that seem pointless to you, not one. Bring up problematic patterns but react initially, the first time, with some patience, tolerance, and willingness to consider a different person’s perspective. Don’t assume bad faith immediately. Good faith means they think it’s important for some reason or they wouldn’t be saying it. Also it’s possible they don’t understand how to discuss/debate properly and rationally but would appreciate finding that out and discussing what kinds of arguments are important or productive to make and why (this is different than them making dumb arguments on purpose to derail the conversation).

Reading (or skimming) until the first disagreement/problem/criticism is a good way of dealing with sources, articles, books, etc. that come up in discussions/debates. Refusing to look at them is a bad way.

Knowing foreign languages is overrated. (So are many other ways of being “cultured”). Learning to code is better than learning a second natural language. The exception is that English is the most important language, so people who don’t know it should learn. If you want to study philosophy and other good ideas, English is a crucial tool. Setting aside its widespread use, English is also superior to the world’s other major languages for communicating ideas.

People wear shoes that are too narrow due to dumb fashion preferences. Pinky toes aren’t supposed to be squished. Shoes actually change the shape of their feet. It’s so widespread it’s hard to get reasonable shoes. A substantial portion of parents fight with their kids to make them wear shoes. Kids often want to take their shoes off because the shoes are uncomfortable because they’re deforming the kid’s feet. It takes a long time, but being forced to wear uncomfortable shoes for years eventually causes permanent deformation.

Male circumcision is genital mutilation. People should stop doing it. People should have to jump through some sort of hoops to get it done (e.g. saying it’s important to their religion and signing a form). People who don’t care that much shouldn’t be able to carelessly or casually get it done. Female genital mutilation should be entirely illegal, no exceptions.

There should be no laws requiring children to go to school, e.g. no truancy laws. If a parent wants to force his kid to go to school, that’s his business, but the police and government shouldn’t help him do it. Compulsory school attendance is imprisonment without trial. Children may be ignorant of many things, but they are experts on whether they personally like or dislike school, whether they find it tolerable or intolerable, etc.

Serious, truth seeking discussion/debate should be done publicly, in writing, online, using block quotes liberally, over days/weeks/months.

The goal of a rational discussion/debate is to understand and add to the current, objective state of the debate. For complex issues, understanding what arguments already exist and how they interact (what questions are unanswered, what refutes what, etc.) is important to be able to productively add to the debate. Clarifying the existing situation is what many fields need more than they need new arguments to be chaotically added to the mix.

There is a single objective truth. For empirical issues it corresponds to objective reality (which exists). There are also truths for other issues like epistemology and morality (which, though technically connected to empirical reality, we study in a mostly independent way, so we call them non-empirical as an approximation.)

Rational people can quickly reach agreement in discussion. We don’t have all the answers but we can agree that some knowledge is inconclusive. When a range of views are reasonable, people can agree on what that range is (rather than bickering over their intuitions about which of the reasonable views, which it’s narrowed down to, is the best current guess). When someone is missing a bunch of background knowledge, agreement can be reached that, given their ignorance, they shouldn’t reach conclusions about certain issues until they know more. Inconclusive, unproductive discussions/debates are an indication of irrationality by at least one participant.

In the comments below, please post links (with one sentence saying what they are) to other controversial ideas I have which would make good debate topics. You can also share links to my writing about the topics above or debate them.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (17)

Dear Lurkers

I wrote this privately in Feb 2009. I've made minor edits.

Dear Lurkers (yes, you),

Figuring things out is hard. And fooling ourselves is easy. (This is a paraphrase of Feynman, one of the best philosophers of the 20th century.)

A truly wise man knows how ignorant he is. (This is a theme of Socrates.)

I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth. (Popper)

Through seeking we may learn, and know things better... (Xenophanes)

If you think you know how to parent without hurting your children, and haven't written a thousand posts about it, then you are probably violating these quotes.

It certainly took me a lot more than a thousand posts to figure out what I know today. David Deutsch too. Do you think you're a lot smarter than us, and a much faster learner?

If you are, that's great, please go invent something better than quantum computers and TCS. Then write a better book than The Fabric of Reality. If you're taking requests, start by defeating aging.

Back to parenting: what I know today is, in my view, insufficient. Parenting and education is a hard problem in the mundane sense of needing a lot of practical knowledge. And it's a hard problem in the sense that most people fail badly. And it's a hard problem in the sense that commonsense gets a lot of things about it wrong and advanced philosophy is required to correct those errors. And it's a hard problem because many mistaken ideas about it are entrenched traditions and seem obviously true. And it's a hard problem in the sense that many people see some of these dangers, and think they can do better, but fail to; it's very common to think you are different and still fail. There are also misconceptions about education built into the English language. And there is also constant pressure from your own parents, and friends, and neighbors, and sometimes Government officials, and school teachers, and well everyone, to do a wide variety of things that your children won't like. Also, sometimes these people will try to coerce your children, so there is the added problem of protecting children.

Parenting is also a hard problem because our own parents hurt us in such a way as to make us bad at parenting, and irrational at thinking about parenting and evaluating our knowledge of it. If your instinct is to deny this, that is a major indication that you will be a bad parent. If you intellectually will admit this, but still have the emotional instinct to deny it, then again you should expect to hurt your children. Just changing intellectual theories, but not intuitive reactions, emotions, and how you live life on autopilot by default, and thus being a person always in conflict, simply isn't good enough.

Fully non-coercive parenting is a harder problem. How many people here could even explain what coercion is accurately and answer questions? Hardly anyone. Few people have been interested enough to think about it a lot and ask lots of questions about it and try to talk about it frequently over the course of years. I also think it's implausible that someone who never tried to write an essay on it actually understands it.

It's easy to think you agree with and understand something. It's easy to miss things and not notice you missed anything. It's easy to fool ourselves. What's harder is to take the knowledge you think you have and apply it, and also explain it to others, and persuade people who disagree. If you really understand morality and epistemology well, you should be able to actually do things in real life that normal people can't do, such as change your emotional makeup from whatever it is to what you actually think is a good idea, or break your bad habits (bad in your view) without feeling bad, and many more things which, if you can't think of them yourself, you still have a lot more to learn.

(If you think some of these things are not desirable, then you definitely ought to post at least a little more. Why don't you write a post to try to settle the disagreement? To be confident in your view, and not feel an urgent need to learn more about our disagreement, you better have some significant and clearly thought out criticisms of my view. So post those, just to make sure I'll concede, and won't have anything to say that you hadn't thought of. If you don't feel the need to post ideas to be criticized, just in case others know something you don't, then you are not respecting the difficulty of finding things out.)

Maybe you are all having wonderful conversations IRL where you learn a lot. But I doubt it (I mean you probably have some, but not enough). Non-coercive parenting is extremely unpopular. It's hard enough to find any conversations about it on the whole internet, let alone in your neighborhood. And that's any serious conversation with interested people at all. Finding people who also know something about Popper and philosophy -- enough to have thoughts about education that actually engage with important questions -- is much harder.

Parenting is of course not the only issue. For example, non-coercive adult to adult relationships are very important as well. You will coerce your spouse unless you have quite a lot of knowledge of how to avoid doing so. I needn't list any more. Try to rattle off a dozen more danger areas in a couple minutes. If you can, you've listed them for me. If you can't, then certainly you don't know enough to avoid harming and wronging people you interact with. (What? You thought you could be a decent, peaceful, nice person without knowledge?).

If you'd like to post, but don't know what to post, then you have a problem. So ask a question about that. Or consider a common problem and try to figure out if you have it and how it can be solved. Or take a post and try to understand it, and if you don't get all of it, then ask a question, and if you think you do get all of it, then post some further implications, or even better ideas on the same topic, or something like that.

If you're bad at writing, don't worry, everyone is born that way. You just need a combination of practice, thinking about it, and educational resources. Here are some guidelines to get you started:

  • focus on expressing one idea at a time, very clearly
  • short sentences
  • no fancy words
  • short paragraphs
  • simple sentence structure
  • content matters more than form or style
  • don't try to impress anyone
  • omit anything unnecessary
  • avoid meta discussion
  • include an example
  • when in any doubt about the meaning of a word, check the dictionary or don't use it
  • short is better, but harder. don't try for length, but don't worry if it ends up long
  • misunderstandings are very common, and will happen, so don't get discouraged or pessimistic. if someone misunderstands then try to clarify
  • if someone says something abstract that's hard to understand, ask for a simple, practical example
  • above all, never write a list

PS Join the Fallible Ideas discussion group.

FYI, the last item on the list is a joke. Jokes frequently cause miscommunications, and this joke was misunderstood by at least one person who actually said so (people usually don't tell you when they don't understand you). A better tip is to avoid jokes if you want to be understood.

Although this post focuses mostly on parents, the issues apply to everyone. Knowledge helps you hurt yourself and others less. Choosing not to seek knoweldge means choosing to hurt people, including yourself. (I think you should especially care about hurting yourself, but many people think they care more about hurting others. Anyway both matter.)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (5)

Fallible Ideas Learning Plan

Lots of people tell me they like Fallible Ideas (FI), they're interested, they think it's good, etc. Some of them try to learn more about FI, or think they're trying, or something like that, but then they don't learn much about FI philosophy. Others like FI and vaguely plan to do something about it, but never do much.

This is sad because learning FI philosophy can improve people's lives. Applied to problems people have, it can help provide solutions.

People often have reasons in their head which justify not doing much about FI. Or they do things that seem like learning FI to them, but which don't create visible results which could be criticized if incorrect. Most typically, ineffective FI engagement involves non-interactive content consumption: watching, listening, reading but without writing or discussing. Relying on self-criticism is inadequate, especially at first.

If you want to learn FI, consider a learning plan. Here's an example:

  • Try to work on FI every day, but missing 1 or 2 days per week is OK.
  • Working on FI means at least 15 minutes that day. But for the first month, two days per week can be 5 minute days. In the second month, you can do one 5 minute day each week.
  • Once a week, do at least an hour of FI stuff (30 min in the first month, 45 min in the second month).
  • Every day you do FI work, share what you did. The requirement is to write it down and share it on the same day you did it, and the recommendation is to do that immediately afterwards. This is just a basic overview like "I read X" which will keep records of what you do.
  • Starting after 3 months, at least once a week, share some work product publicly. This means sharing an idea, explanation, argument ... something people could discuss, debate, and criticize.
  • Once a month, consider the bigger picture, e.g.: what are your goals and your progress on them, what topics are you working on, why, are you satisfied with your progress over the last month, what progress has been exposed to criticism successfully, what progress has been exposed to what objective tests to check for errors, what are your goals for the next month?
  • The first day of the week is Saturday. (You're welcome to pick a different day. I like Friday or Saturday so you don't procrastinate stuff for the weekend. Depending on your sleep cycle you may also want to specify e.g. that days start at 5am.)
  • Be at least 90% consistent about following the plan. Write down every time you miss doing a plan requirement (which requirement was missed and the date). Keep counts of successes and failures so you can compare the percentage. I suggest a spreadsheet. Keep notes about why you miss stuff and what happens (they can be private if you prefer) and watch out for patterns, bad habits and problems. Share your miss counts and consistency percentage weekly until you succeed every week for 3 months in a row, then share it monthly.
  • If you fall a bit short in the early months, keep trying. But if you don't actually do the plan, the consequences are: don't tell yourself, or anyone else, that you're learning FI philosophy. The point here isn't to discourage people, it's to help you. That's because pretending you're learning FI, when you aren't, is a common thing that prevents or sabotages learning FI.

This can be done in around 10 hours per month minimum, but involves doing something on most days.

If some part of this plan wouldn't work for you, or it's just too hard, make a different plan. Change some things to what will work for you. You could e.g. start with a lower consistency target, but don't go under 66% – if you can't even be that consistent, make your plan easier so that you can actually do it. If the example plan sounds too hard, think about why it would be hard for you. You can discuss your plan ideas to get tips and feedback.

In general, you should place a low value on progress which has not been exposed to external criticism and objective tests.

In general, you should place a high value on finishing things. After doing an FI learning plan for a while, you should have a list of accomplishments instead of just 50 things you started and then stopped halfway through. It's fine to stop some things partway through and to look at a variety of stuff and be selective, but you should also finish some. That can be small things like finishing reading an essay, or bigger things like finishing a book or finishing a project to learn about an essay by writing notes about it and discussing one idea related to it (and having some goal which the discussion reaches).

It'd be a good idea to hire curi or ingracke to talk with you for an hour a month regarding your monthly review.

If you take FI seriously, it'd be a good idea to be a paying customer in some way, especially on a regular basis. E.g. contributing any amount per month is significantly better for you than zero. (Don't worry about it if you're actually too poor or can't do online payments to the US, especially if you're a kid. But if you can spend $20+/month on luxuries and can pay US dollars online, you could afford at least $2/month for FI, and you should if you genuinely care about it.)

Decide on your own learning plan and write it down and put it somewhere with a permalink. I suggest putting it on a website you control where you can edit it with updates in the future. I suggest everyone have a website they control even if you mostly post directly to curi and FI (directly as opposed to putting stuff on your own site and sharing a link, which is fine too).

Some people want to do freeform, unscheduled, unstructured learning. They think it's more rational or fun. Most people are bad at that. Anyway, it's fine to do that if you get results which clearly surpass those of the example learning plan above. Otherwise, you should do a plan. You can do all the extra learning you want in addition to the plan. Since the plan only takes around 10 hours a month minimum, just stick to the minimum when you're doing extra learning and you should still have time for more. But the plan doesn't dictate what you learn, anyway.

If you can do more and better learning, great. But don't let those aspirations get in the way of doing something concrete like the learning plan above. At least do that. If you can't or won't even do that, you shouldn't pretend to yourself that you're involved with FI. IMO, you should be happy if you can do this, and be happy with progress that looks kinda small to you. It's far better than no progress. And keep in mind that people in general in our culture (like you) are bad at judging how good/effective philosophy progress is or where it will lead. Our culture doesn't understand philosophy learning projects well and doesn't adequately respect the important early-stage work to achieve mastery over the relatively basic skills related to rational, critical thinking.

You don't have to be very ambituous at the start, and probably shouldn't be. If you read some stuff and write down what you read, that's enough to follow most of the plan. At first, get used to doing the plan itself and solve the problems you have with making the plan part of your life. Later you can worry more about saying your opinions of ideas, explaining concepts yourself, or debating issues (you're allowed to do those things early on, you're just not being asked to). More broadly, the goal is to get something working; you can add whatever you want after it's already working consistently and reliably.

Note: One of people's biggest problems with FI, besides the hard stuff (e.g. dishonesty, evasion, disliking criticism, refusing to try, static memes, irrationality), is dealing with people in writing instead of voice (and also there being a time delay, often hours, between saying something and getting a response, which is different than an IRL or phone conversation where people respond in a few seconds). Some people also broadly prefer listening to video or audio over reading. It's important to learn to deal with this stuff well and get used to using text. It's a valuable skill and should be one of your main goals early on. But if you find that hard, you can start by learning from videos and podcasts, and you could say what you did that day in a short video or audio recording, or do that in writing but say your more complicated thoughts with your voice. Try to start with something you can do and expand from there.

Note: Sometimes people do FI work and think that the time they spent doesn't count for some reason. Creating a gmail account and signing up to FI counts as working on FI stuff. Figuring out how to send a plain text email counts, including watching a video about it. Finding mind map software and learning to use it counts. So does spreadsheet, text editing or blogging software as long as you plan to use it for FI stuff. Watching a video someone from FI linked counts too. Reading novels to get more used to reading regularly (even using audio books or text-to-speech initially with e.g. a plan to do text reading for your 4th book) is relevant to FI too. You don't have to be reading or writing philosophy to count the time you spend. Be inclusive by default about what counts as FI time, and make some adjustments if you see a recurring pattern that you want to change. (The minimum for a problematic pattern is three times, but it's often better to first become concerned with it after somewhere between five and a dozen times.)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (20)

Discussion Points of View and Mutual Benefit

A discussion needs to make sense simultaneously from both people’s points of view (povs). That means each person gets all his requirements met. (More than two people is harder and I won’t address that specifically.)

If my requirements for the discussion aren’t met, then we don’t have mutual benefit from the discussion. If yours aren’t meant, then we don’t have mutual benefit. The discussion should only happen if there is mutual benefit.

This means you can use my discussion methodology, or propose an alternative that I find acceptable, or you shouldn’t expect a conversation with me.

If someone refuses debate and also wants to be some sort of public intellectual – rather than leaving ideas and truth seeking to others – then he ought to say why. I do say why. I’ve written about my discussion methodology and I’m responsive to critical discussion about it.

Sharing one’s reasoning means that mistakes on either side can be potentially fixed. It leaves a path open for progress to happen, regardless of who is mistaken. And I try to be extra tolerant of methodology and framework differences when people try to discuss my methodologies and frameworks themselves. Demanding someone fully use my approach to discussion before discussing/criticizing my approach to discussion would be problematic. But I do expect people, even in those conversations, to try to use an approach that makes sense and is productive from my point of view. If they can’t or won’t tell me how it should make sense or offer value from my perspective, and I don’t see it (after trying some), then it’s not going to work. If I can’t see how their comments will lead to progress, and they won’t tell me in a way that addresses my concerns, questions, criticisms, etc., then it’s not going to lead to progress for me.

There are aspects of discussion that I’m flexible about. Some things I prefer one way but I can deal with them being another way. They aren’t dealbreakers. I see how progress can be made even if something is a bit inconvenient or non-optimal.

There are other aspects of discussion which I’m inflexible about. I don’t want to meet people half way or compromise. E.g., I don’t think it’s productive to criticize things I don’t think I said and refuse to use quotes. I don’t see value in having a discussion of that nature. Similarly, I don’t see value in people saying things I consider unclear or ambiguous, and then not being very responsive to clarification requests. People often say unclear things faster than then clarify any. If you won’t or can’t tone down the unclear, “sophisticated” or “advanced” statements to the point where communication is working, then I don’t know how to have a productive conversation with you.

I can be flexible about the occasional statement I have a problem with, and drop or ignore it without clarification. But if it’s a frequently recurring problem affecting the main points of the conversation, then either initial communication or clarification needs to be working reasonably well.

I also want reasonably organized discussions. There is lots of flexibility here but it can’t just be mass chaos. People who won’t cooperate with attempting to organize things make bad discussion partners.

I require that people respond to me. If people won’t answer my questions, then I don’t know how to have a mutually beneficial discussion. I am responsive to direct questions. Often people don’t use or respond well to direct questions or requests, and this makes discussion hard. They want me to respond to things they don’t say, and I want them to respond to things I do say, and neither of us is getting what we want. I won’t switch styles without my concerns being addressed, but the people who want to operate by unwritten rules and social hints don’t want to discuss that system itself and acknowledge what they’re doing, so my concerns don’t get addressed. Often instead they agree to use my system of saying things in words but then don’t. They haven’t practiced it and don’t really know how to do it, and don’t acknowledge their beginner status and work on learning, so then discussion fails. I don’t know what to do about that besides either not discuss or they try to learn and work their way up at rational, explicit discussion. I’m open to alternatives if someone can offer one that offers mutual benefit and makes sense from my pov.

I don’t know how to have a conversation that benefits me when people are doing a bunch of unacknowledged social dynamics, passive aggressively sniping at stuff, being dishonest, and refusing to (or more often incapable of) analyze text literally. And people get offended if I express problems like this. They also get offended if I question their competence. But what am I to do? Refuse to discuss and refuse to say why? Dishonestly take the blame for the discussion’s failure? Present myself as unwilling to discuss? No. I would discuss but have certain concerns. If people don’t want me to name concerns like those, they shouldn’t converse with me in the first place. I’m not going and doing this to random people who never signed up for it. I run forums aimed at rational, critical discussion. If people don’t want criticism they should go elsewhere. People come to me and I’ve written a ton to try to warn them about what to expect. And I’ve been open to suggestions on how to better warn people but no one seems to know any fixes. It’s hard to fix by writing different warnings since in general people don’t read much before discussing, and even if they do they usually don’t understand much of it. I occasionally do go to other forums but I pick ones that claim to be focused on rational discussion and I’m less assertive or pushy there and I much more often will drop conversations without explanation. I think it’s OK for me to stop responding there because anyone who cares can come to my forums and debate me, or can make an explicit request that I explain why I left. (I do make some effort to let people know those options exist.)

One of the things I commonly want in discussion is persistence. I’ve already had a lot of discussions. I don’t want to go over old ground at the start of the discussion … and then stop there. I understand that may be new ground for others, but if that’s going to be the whole discussion then I often don’t want it. I’m more interested in unbounded discussions that try to reach conclusions about important issues. Lots of people think their opinions and ideas don’t really matter. That is their privilege but it isn’t what I’m looking for.

A common discussion problem is people make statements that rely on premises that I don’t share. Either I disagree with some of their premises or I’m unfamiliar with some, or both. This is a reasonable and expected thing to happen some. But people should understand the issue and be willing to discuss the premises instead of continuing on the original topic. And they should start building up a mental model of me and should get better at saying things that don’t read to me as skipping steps (using premises I don’t know) or building on stuff I disagree with instead of speaking to the disagreement.

People are bad at lots of this stuff. Most people are pretty incompetent at discussion. But most of them won’t admit it. I won’t simultaneously treat you like a beginner, give you leeway and help you learn to discuss better while also treating you as a peer who is seriously challenging my ideas. People often want both – they e.g. want me to go easy on them while pretending I’m not going easy on them, so that they look good. And they want me to do that without being asked. It’s dishonest and doesn’t benefit me. And their sometimes implied offer to do the same for me in return is not appreciated. You can’t have it both ways and the excuse “I have great ideas; I’m not just great at debating” is not going to fix it. If you want help figuring out how to have a productive discussion, say that. If you think you’re in a position to correct me on stuff, say that. But don’t try to have it both ways at once. If you really think you can do both at once, say so, and try to explain why and how.

It’s hard for me to help people who refuse to present themselves as learners. When I try to help them learn, they often find it condescending and threatening to their implicitly claimed status as experts. A lot of people should be trying to learn but instead try to debate, and are really bad at learning from/during debate, and so it doesn’t work, and the discussion can easily shift to the issue of them doing a bunch of stuff they’re incompetent at, and so they ought to figure out a course of study to become competent first, and people often hate that and find it threatening to their self-esteem and social status. But there’s no benefit from my pov to ignoring recurring patterns of incompetence that are preventing the original topic from making progress. And I don’t want to quit the discussion without saying why. Again, all I want is a way to continue that offers value from my perspective. And you should have a way of continuing that offers value from your perspective. And that may not happen, in which case we need not talk. Lots of people just don’t want to be judged, and don’t want anyone to talk openly about problems discussing with them. If that’s you, don’t start a conversation with me, because I do judge and I do talk about my judgments and reasons.

If you present yourself as a beginner/student/learner who’s trying to improve and isn’t very good at stuff yet, you won’t find me very judgey. That’s fine and I’m sympathetic to that.

If you present yourself as an expert who knows I’m wrong about important issues, then that’s not something I want to ignore; it’s something I want to reach a judgment about. Can and should my judgment be impersonal? The short summary is that people mostly consist of ideas, so impersonal criticism of ideas is often threatening and scary to people, and feels personal. And also there are often patterns of error in ideas someone shares – e.g. they try to argue that I’m wrong about several things and make recurring mistakes – and speaking about those patterns and their causes is personal. Saying those ideas (that Joe said) contain patterns of error caused by specific thinking methods (the ones that Joe uses) is not going to to make Joe happy. That kind of wording change doesn’t address the real issue, which is that part of Joe’s identity is connected to the ideas being criticized.

If you want to be treated like a beginner every time you’re wrong, but also to spend most of your time trying to argue that I’m wrong instead of trying to learn anything, it’s not going to work. Learning via debate as a primary mechanism is hard and most people have no idea how to do it. It’s not taught effectively anywhere. People don’t go to classrooms, debate their teachers, and learn a bunch by doing it. That is not a common or standard way to learn. If you’re trying to learn in a way that’s dramatically different than all the learning that happens from interacting with parents, teachers or books, you should have some sort of plan and explanation of what you’re doing, how you developed the skill, why it’ll work, etc. If you don’t have that, don’t assume you know how to multitask debating and learning. Try doing one thing at a time, and only maybe do two at once if you’ve gotten both of those things to work well multiple times individually.

People often want to talk about sophisticated, advanced stuff with me, but they don’t know the medium stuff that builds up to it. That doesn’t work well and they usually don’t want to hear about the gaps in their knowledge. But it doesn’t work well from my pov to try to fill in those gaps as short tangents to an advanced debate. Learning those medium things is hard enough when it receives full focus for weeks.

If you don’t like any of this, or want something else, say so. Ask for what you want and we can discuss my concerns, if I have any. I’m open to other stuff as long as you can tell me the benefit from my pov or I can figure that out myself.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)