Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

April 8, 2017

“Rationalists” are the worst, except for all the alternatives

Filed under: Culture,Less Wrong,Rationalists — Razib Khan @ 9:41 pm

A slight controversy about the “rationalist” community has surfaced on the internet recently. Scott Alexander can point you to the appropriate places to bone up on what’s going down, as well as a relatively short apologia for his community.

First, the self-description of the community as “rationalists” is in my opinion a big problem. It’s rather like the aught era attempt to redefine the atheist “community” as “brights”. No one thinks of themselves as a “dim,” and unless you are a little too into your Nietzsche there aren’t that many self-described irrationalists.

I became socially close to many people in the Bay area rationalist community in the late 2000s. Many I still consider friends. I won’t belabor my differences with them in terms of optics and marketing, as well as substantive critiques of the role of group-think in any human community, as well as strong disagreements in relation to inferences made about what is and isn’t “rational” (there was for some time a vogue for polyamory in this subculture, which some justified as the rational position; I was skeptical).

At the end of the day I put less emphasis on reflective analysis in dictating the course of my life at any given moment than self-described rationalists. Reasonable, even rational, people may disagree on these issues.

But I do have to say that you don’t get a good sense of the community from blog posts or media reports. Meeting together in social situations the group dynamic is far different than most other congregations of humans you’ll encounter. The rationalists I know are some of the most open-minded and non-judgmental people you could meet. They are less likely than the average bear to write up screeds on the internet. They entertain alternative hypotheses with the appropriate level of cold-bloodedness, while attempting to work out the implications of their utilitarian ethics to their logical conclusions.

This does not mean that rationalists are not horrible people. They are people, so many are horrible. They are simple less horrible, in my experience. They may not achieve the state of “less wrong,” but in general they achieve the state of less unhinged and less emotive.

Some of this is due to striving toward a particular set of values and community norms. But some of this is I believe because the community attracts a particular personality profile. In Simon Baron Cohen’s classic typology the rationalist community is highly enriched for systemizers. The rationalists entertain ideas which might strike normal people as bizarre, but that’s part of the method to their madness. Because their personality profiles are sharply differentiated from normal distributions many of the social dynamics that any behavioral economic game would find in other test populations might not apply among the rationalists.

Note: I believe rationalists do engage in less “signalling” dynamics than you’d expect, because they’re less keyed in to cues from other humans, including those in their own community.

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