Frankly, Rationalists Should Be Less Aspirational…

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”.

Later adding:

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.

About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
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7 Responses to Frankly, Rationalists Should Be Less Aspirational…

  1. Simon says:

    I used to read Slate Star Codex and company religiously back in college, but today I only check sporadically in on the LessWrong-centric “rationalist community” and now I definitely take their output with some grains of salt. The rationalist subculture definitely can introduce you to some interesting ideas and worthwhile insights, but a lot of their commentary on sociological issues in general and politics in particular seems optimized for theoretical coherence over how well it actually matches up. Reading a typical political analysis from that crowd, I find that the argumentation is usually airtight on the formally logic level and very well thought out, but the description of nuts-and-bolts situations often comes across as slightly off.

    The fact that the subculture is disproportionately right-libertarian in political loyalties also tends to influence its assumptions about how the world functions even when it doesn’t come to explicit politics, sometimes for the worse. The entire obsession with setting abstract ideals and philosophical coherence on the theoretical view ahead of practical concerns seems to be the number one failure mode of both LW rationalism and libertarian politics. (as your old blogpost about Murray Rothbard goes into detail about)


    • bsixsmith says:

      Oakeshott said that nobody would claim to be an expert cook after reading recipes so why should someone be an expert in politics after reading theory? There’s something in that.

      I agree about the right-libertarianism as well. A lot of individualist, universalist assumptions sneak in.


      • Simon says:

        Another lingering remnant of right-libertarian ideology in the overall cultural background noise of the rationalist community is the tendency to often assume the worst possible motivation from anyone left-of-centre while regarding conservatives as misguided but well intentioned, even though there’s very little support for actual conservative policies among the LWers and very much for a lot of stereotypically left-wing proposals – on other issues than economics, that is. Often when signalling “politics is the mindkiller” and pointing out the dangers of ingroup bias and political tribalism.

        That said, I do remember there being a surprisingly large vocal minority of paleoconservatives in the Slate Star Codex comments section – perhaps an artifact of the well-documented but poorly studied phenomenon of right-libertarians turning into paleocons with age and cynicism. (see also Peter Thiel)


      • bsixsmith says:

        I think it’s because rationalists come from communities where thought policing is the domain of the left, especially with regards to genetics, demographics and representation.

        I’m not sure libertarians turn into paleocons. Murray Rothbard drifted in that direction but NRx was capitalist authoritarianism without the nationalistic and protectionist impulses of paleos.


      • Simon says:

        “I’m not sure libertarians turn into paleocons.” <- The only of my exes who's politically right-wing went more or less that conversion route, as few and far between as women paleoconservatives are. If you hang around the comments section in libertarian-leaning blogs or Facebook groups devoted to political debate you'll also find plenty of people with that background. I get the impression it's something to do with the rough outlines of the political programme remaining somewhat similar but the underlying ethos doing a 180-degree turn from utopian idealism to world-weary pessimism.

        Notice also how many of the people who backed Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012 have now jumped on board the Trump train.


      • bsixsmith says:

        Yeah, fair points. You could throw in Justin Raimondo and Lew Rockwell too. Must check out and see how they dealt with it.


    • Simon says:

      The right-libertarian webzine The Mitrailleuse also actually backed Trump over either Gary Johnson or Rand Paul because they thought he’d be more genuinely committed to an isolationist foreign policy than the other two! Now that Rand Paul’s the one vocal Republican critic of the Syrian airstrikes, the writers at that zine must be totally taking a bath…


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