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Lying for the Cause

February 23rd, 2014
discussion, ism

The quality of statistics post ended up generating a lot of discussion, mostly not about the data I collected in the post. Which makes me sad, because I put a bunch of work into that (graphs!), but the discussion was interesting enough that I don't mind. The jumping-off point was a comment by Arthur:

That post is exactly my problem with Scott. He seems to honestly think that it's a worthwhile use of his time, energy and mental effort to download evil people's evil worldviews into his mind and try to analytically debate them with statistics and cost-benefit analyses.

He gets *mad* at people whom he detachedly intellectually agrees with but who are willing to back up their beliefs with war and fire rather than pussyfooting around with debate-team nonsense.

Scott has now responded, but I think his post is long enough that people who don't find his writing enjoyable for itself may not get through all of it. [1] So here's an imaginary discussion, what I think you might get if versions of Scott and Arthur that valued being very terse sat down to talk. [2]

In this post the author makes math error and concludes that being accused of rape is way less likely than it actually is. Can't people get their facts right?
Facts aren't what matter here. This is a war of ideas, and our side needs to win. Sensationalistic buzzfeed posts may seem slimy to you but they work. While you write thousands of words on the minutiae of statistics, calling out your own allies for minor missteps, people are being hurt and oppressed by a corrupt system. We have to play to win.
There's a long history of people adopting better means of resolving disputes. First we stop killing each other for our beliefs, then we stop using the government to restrict the speech of our opponents, then we stop passing off as fact things we know are false. With each step we reduce the costs and collateral damage of our fighting and improve the ability of our society to get to the truth. This is an incredibly beneficial process, and your approach is a step backwards.
Whether or not I use certain weapons has zero impact on whether or not those weapons are used against me, and people who think they do are either appealing to a kind of vague Kantian morality that I think is invalid or a specific kind of "honor among foes" that I think does not exist.
We have these social norms against making up facts, and while we don't entirely know how we ended up with them our best guess is a combination of cooperating with people who cooperate with you and groups with better norms attracting converts. Adopting underhanded tactics works against both of these, trading minor short term gain for major long term loss.

This is definitely not the whole conversation but I think it's about where the discussion has gotten to. The core disagreement: how much do our choices of tactics affect those of our opponents? If you think, like Scott, that we're building a shared discourse then when you hear your side promoting something you don't want your opponent to use you object. [3] Instead if you think, like Arthur, that this cooperation among ideological enemies basically doesn't exist then you see this objecting as weakening your side to basically no benefit. These views give radically different ideas about the style of discourse we should encourage our side to use.

(I suspect you actually want something between these two views, and while I lean much more toward Scott's view here it's frustrating that we don't have a good sense of the effect of various choices.)

[1] I'm staying with friends in SF this week, and when I recommended it to my hosts they both started reading it but stopped before finishing on account of length. This demonstrates both Arthur's point about "debate-team nonsense" (writing so much people get bored and stop) as well as a different kind of (unintentional) incivility (writing so much your intellectual opponents don't have time to read the whole thing, which stops them from responding because it's disrespectful to ignore your points).

[2] I'm trying to do this fairly; if any of this feels like a misrepresentation to you, please let me know!

[3] This also applies to the disagreement about what to do when people make reasoned arguments for extreme positions like racism, sexism, or oppression. Do you shun them and shout them down as beyond the pale of reasonable discourse (Arthur) or do you treat them as intellectual equals and explain why they're wrong (Scott)? If you see maintaining a healthy discourse as an important enough goal I think you have to go with Scott's approach when people come to you arguing in good faith, as distasteful as it seems. Alternatively if you think discourse maintenance just isn't that helpful then Scott's approach needlessly legitimizes dangerous and harmful ideas.

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