Scott Alexander writes with some frustration on smug critics of the “rationalist” movement, who, for him, criticise its supposed utopianism and arrogance without acknowledging its efforts to avoid such errors. I think there is value in their attempts to objectively analyse data and investigate the biases that make such efforts difficult. Even so, I remain critical. He writes:
…consider the possibility that the rationalist community has a plan somewhat more interesting than just “remain blissfully unaware of past failures and continue to repeat them again and again”.
We’re almost certainly still making horrendous mistakes that people thirty years from now will rightly criticize us for. But they’re new mistakes. They’re original and exciting mistakes…
The word “exciting” does not excite me here. Mistakes can be exciting in the science lab, where errors in experiments do not have significant adverse implications. Mistakes in the wider world can be calamitous, and leave people too poor, sick and, well, dead for excitement.
My problem with rationalists is less that they repeat mistakes than they put themselves into positions where they unnecessarily risk inventing new ones. Advocacy for everything from open borders to polyamorous relationships strike me as being examples of this inclination towards offering grand ideas to solve problems that did not need solutions. (If someone wants to be polyamorous that is their business, but the comment you can find through the link is an obnoxious example of the tendency of some rationalists to act as if it is the most desirable condition. I do wonder if they know how badly it can be tried.)
More Oakeshottian acceptance of the familiar and sufficient helps us to avoid the most egregious errors of overanalysis and optimism. But to learn this rationalists might have to stop being so consciously and ambitiously “rational”; to stop abstracting, questioning and deconstructing and engage with their surroundings at the risk of indulging those tribal and presentist biases that often make life worthwhile. Most of them do this already but they should learn to love it.