Friday, February 28, 2014

Why I don't read Less Wrong

I've never been part of the "rationalist" community (that is, the one orbiting the website Less Wrong), but I have some pretty obvious rationalist leanings.  My primary and longest-lasting interest in modern skepticism has mainly to do with the general method of thinking about things.  Understanding fallacies and biases, emphasizing empirical knowledge, all that stuff.  As such, I appreciate Less Wrong, and enjoy the times where I occasionally come across one of their articles.

But whenever I look at their blogs all I can think is that that's way too much to read about things that are too far away from application.  I think this is a mark of true excess, because as a long-time reader of blogs, I'm already an outlier in how willing I am to read walls of text on the internet.  What makes Less Wrong especially inaccessible is that they have a dense slang language.  It's comparable to TVTropes in that they have a bunch of cute names and phrases for various patterns that were defined at one point in the community.  Slang is a cool thing to have but it does not enhance accessibility.

I liked Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, written by Eliezer Yudkowsky of Less Wrong.  That was entertaining, and therefore more readable.  Although it also suffered from sections that were way too long and overwrought--the wizarding battles in that fanfic are way worse than Quidditch ever was.

If you're asking "so what?" there is no "what".  There isn't any reason that people on Less Wrong should care.  I'm sure plenty of people think I'm too verbose or otherwise don't like my writing style, and I don't care about them.


Chris Hallquist recently covered some criticism of Less Wrong by Arthur Chu (who is a recent Jeopardy celebrity and also two degrees away from me on Facebook).  Scott Alexander responded to the same criticism, but with a completely different interpretation of what Arthur said.  I wouldn't know exactly what Arthur was trying to say, but some of that criticism resonated with me:
"I don’t want to win if I’m wrong.”

Well congratulations, you won’t ever have to worry about that, because endless self-criticism about whether your values are in fact right or wrong guarantees that you will lose and someone else’s values will win anyway. You’ll be spared the anguish of knowing whether you made the right decision because that power will be taken away from you.
Surely some time should be spent on self-criticism about whether our values are right or wrong.  But at some point it costs you more than it benefits you.  If there is any human community that goes beyond that point, it is the rationalist community, which invests more time in self-criticism than any other group.  Their over-investment in precision and accuracy makes them inaccessible to most people, and thus greatly reduces any social impact they have.

I run the risk of severe hypocrisy here because I have a marginal blog with too many words on it.  But the reason I blog is for myself.  If someone criticized me for not having any social impact and instead "pussyfooting around with debate-team nonsense" (Arthur's words), I would accept that as a valid complaint.  After all, this blog does not have much social impact and is mostly filled with nonsense.  I don't know if people on Less Wrong feel the same way.