August 17, 2021

You can take my thinking keys from my cold, dead hands

Seen on HN: Why Is It So Hard to Be Rational?

It’s not a terrible essay, but the author gets quite a few things wrong. Some of these things I can overlook; the shallowness of it all, the fnords, the clichéd references to Spock. I can even forgive the sophomoric explanation of “Bayesian reasoning” …


… because the “rationalist community” (AKA LessWrong diaspora) is also guilty of that. But those things are unimportant. The real problem with the essay is this idea right here:

[A] rationalist must also be “metarational,” willing to hand over the thinking keys when someone else is better informed or better trained.

This “metarationality” idea is just something the author made up, and it doesn’t even make sense. When you defer to someone else’s judgement, that’s (hopefully) because you have good reasons for doing so. Which means it’s just regular old rationality at work—nothing “meta” about it. So what’s the big deal? Why even bring this up at all?

A person can drone on about base rates with which he’s only loosely familiar, or say that he’s revising his priors when, in fact, he has only ordinary, settled opinions. Google makes it easy to project faux omniscience. A rationalist can give others and himself the impression of having read and digested a whole academic subspecialty, as though he’d earned a Ph.D. in a week; still, he won’t know which researchers are trusted by their colleagues and which are ignored, or what was said after hours at last year’s conference.

Apparently the author thinks the most noteworthy difference between a dilettante and an expert is … access to gossip. Leaving that aside, I think this is why the author is pushing his “metarationality” meme: it’s easy to fool people into thinking you know more than you really do, so poseurs are replacing experts, and experts aren’t trusted at all.

[P]eople around the world, having concluded that the bigwigs in our colleges, newsrooms, and legislatures were better at appearing rational than at being so, had embraced a nihilist populism that sees all forms of public rationality as suspect.

As for me, I’d like to know where I can find some of this “public rationality.” I know of only a few worthwhile people who might (charitably) be called public intellectuals. None of them are bigwigs in newsrooms or legislatures. Granted, some of them can be found in colleges. But if you wanted to find more people like them, the best place to search would be the rationality community, not a college campus.

And with that said, the author’s message here really rubs me the wrong way. People don’t trust experts anymore, so what they should do is … what? Trust them anyway? That’s not going to happen. People will trust you when you earn their trust. You can’t short-circuit that process by telling them to “hand over the thinking keys” like they’re ten beers deep and making for their car.