The Craft and the Community: Post 11 – 15

11. Church vs. Taskforce

Yudkowsky elaborates on the last post and advocates the establishment of rationalist task-forces and communities. (With task-forces he means small and maybe only short-lived communities that were created for a specific reason.)

Yeah, a genuine rational community would be awesome, no doubt. The first problem is of course, that there aren’t many Lesswrongers around (definitely under 100 in Germany) and the second big problem is that rationality is a rather broad topic. There are many rationalists with whom I wouldn’t want to become friends, although most Lesswrongers are of course significantly more interesting than the average human.

Nevertheless, what’s the purpose of a Lesswrong meetup? Discussing some ideas and rationality techniques? You could also do that on the internet, probably even more efficient. And just creating a community for its own sake, feels kinda awkward. That’s a big problem, and I don’t know how to solve it.

But I would love to find some/more like-minded people in real life. And the best strategy for finding folks with similar interests is of course “creating” them, namely through  propaganda meme-spreading.

So what are the best strategies for doing so?

At first, I thought about infiltrating atheistic communities, but this constant religion-bashing is kinda boring and the average atheist is probably only a little bit more rational than the average believer, especially in Germany, where the majority is already atheistic.

Then I thought about infiltrating psychedelic communities like “Land der Träume”, a german drug-forum. Those people are interesting, although a bit insane, but I find that somewhat attractive. But convincing hippies that rationality is awesome is probably pretty hard.

Another way is finding interesting people at your university, which is also rather difficult and I lack the motivation to speak with hundreds of people til I find someone with potential. (I don’t only mean IQ of 120+. That’s really not that hard. Problem is, most intelligent people are just plain boring. They are interested in e.g. computational models for cell migration in three-dimensional matrices but don’t have a clue about philosophy, drugs, evolutionary psychology or cosmology… )

And the only German transhumanistic organization that I know of, ( is also quite lame. Seems like all of the member are first generation transhumanists and nobody mentions Yudkowsky, Bostrom or Hanson.

Maybe I should try it with Science fiction conventions. I’ve never been at one, so I don’t know how cool the typical attendees are, but it’s probably worth a shot.

But as much as I want to spread the word I should be wary of evangelism; Here’s a good discussion between cousin_it and cyphergoth:

cousin_it: “You’ve nailed exactly what worries me in your comment and the original post. You see, belief systems that aim for self-propagation are prone to turn really icky over time. A scientist doesn’t want above all else to spread the scientific worldview, a painter doesn’t set out to make everyone else paint, even a pickup artist has no desire to make all males alphas – they all have other, concrete goals; but religious or political views have to be viral. There’s any number of movements whose adherents have a priority of spreading the word, and right now I can’t think of a single such movement I’d want to be associated with.”

cyphergoth: “Like violence, there are understandable reasons to be squeamish about evangelism, but if you forswear it, you hand victory to those who do not.

Rather than not talk about it, we should analyse the bad consequences we fear from evangelism, and try to figure out how to get the good things while avoiding the bad things. This may not have been done before, but it would be a mistake to be so stuck on the outside view that you come to believe that only what has already been done is possible.”

cousin_it: “My examples indicate it’s not necessary to hand victory to others. Science didn’t spread due to evangelism, science spread because it works. Art spreads because people love it. This is the standard we should be holding ourselves to.

Evangelism is the equivalent of proactive sales with an inferior product. A good evangelist/salesman can push through negative-sum deals, actually destroying total value in the world. If you’ve spent time in the IT industry, you recognize this picture.

Eliezer said repeatedly that rationalists should WIN. Great, now won’t anyone take this phrase seriously? I don’t want a rationalist technique to make myself pure from racism or somesuch crap. I want a rationalist technique to WIN. Fo’ real. Develop it, and the world will beat a path to your door.

Right now you (we) have no product, and preaching is no substitute.”

True, most of my self improvements were either produced through quantified self techniques which are at best a subset of rationality or are intangible (like changes in my world view).

12. Rationality: Common Interest of Many Causes

It is a non-so-hidden agenda of this site, Less Wrong, that there are many causes which benefit from the spread of rationality—because it takes a little more rationality than usual to see their case, as a supporter, or even just a supportive bystander.  Not just the obvious causes like atheism, but things like marijuana legalization—where you could wish that people were a bit more self-aware about their motives and the nature of signaling, and a bit more moved by inconvenient cold facts.  The Institute Which May Not Be Named was merely an unusually extreme case of this, wherein it got to the point that after years of bogging down I threw up my hands and explicitly recursed on the job of creating rationalists.

…. Atheism has very little to do directly with marijuana legalization, but if both atheists and anti-Prohibitionists are willing to step back a bit and say a bit about the general, abstract principle of confronting a discomforting truth that interferes with a fine righteous tirade, then both atheism and marijuana legalization pick up some of the benefit from both efforts.

Yeah, a bit more sanity would help a lot of my pet causes.

13. Helpless Individuals

Yudkowsky argues that most people don’t donate to specific scientific projects because e.g. “studying the genetics of trypanotolerance in cattle” doesn’t generate as much fuzzy feelings as saving a cute puppy from a rare disease.

>Science gets funded, but not by individuals.

14. Money: The Unit of Caring

In our society, this common currency of expected utilons is called “money”.  It is the measure of how much society cares about something.

This is a brutal yet obvious point, which many are motivated to deny.

With this audience, I hope, I can simply state it and move on.  It’s not as if you thought “society” was intelligent, benevolent, and sane up until this point, right?

I say this to make a certain point held in common across many good causes.  Any charitable institution you’ve ever had a kind word for, certainly wishes you would appreciate this point, whether or not they’ve ever said anything out loud.  For I have listened to others in the nonprofit world, and I know that I am not speaking only for myself here…

Many people, when they see something that they think is worth doing, would like to volunteer a few hours of spare time, or maybe mail in a five-year-old laptop and some canned goods, or walk in a march somewhere, but at any rate, not spend money.

Yeah, working a bit overtime and donating the additional money helps your favorite cause more than volunteering whole days. But working overtime sucks and volunteering makes you feel good.

There is this very, very old puzzle/observation in economics about the lawyer who spends an hour volunteering at the soup kitchen, instead of working an extra hour and donating the money to hire someone to work for five hours at the soup kitchen.

There’s this thing called “Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage”.  There’s this idea called “professional specialization”.  There’s this notion of “economies of scale”.  There’s this concept of “gains from trade”.  The whole reason why we have money is to realize the tremendous gains possible from each of us doing what we do best.

This is what grownups do.  This is what you do when you want something to actually get done.  You use money to employ full-time specialists.

Of course, these principles only hold true, if you really want to help your cause. This is however seldom the case. Charity is about signaling virtue, not about helping.

15. Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately

Another great post, just two quotes:

I recommend that you purchase warm fuzzies and utilons separately.  Not at the same time.  Trying to do both at the same time just means that neither ends up done well.  If status matters to you, purchase status separately too!

If I had to give advice to some new-minted billionaire entering the realm of charity, my advice would go something like this:

  • To purchase warm fuzzies, find some hard-working but poverty-stricken woman who’s about to drop out of state college after her husband’s hours were cut back, and personally, but anonymously, give her a cashier’s check for $10,000.  Repeat as desired.
  • To purchase status among your friends, donate $100,000 to the current sexiest X-Prize, or whatever other charity seems to offer the most stylishness for the least price.  Make a big deal out of it, show up for their press events, and brag about it for the next five years.
  • Then—with absolute cold-blooded calculation—without scope insensitivity or ambiguity aversion—without concern for status or warm fuzzies—figuring out some common scheme for converting outcomes to utilons, and trying to express uncertainty in percentage probabilitiess—find the charity that offers the greatest expected utilons per dollar.  Donate up to however much money you wanted to give to charity, until their marginal efficiency drops below that of the next charity on the list.

….But the main lesson is that all three of these things—warm fuzzies, status, and expected utilons—can be bought far more efficiently when you buy separately, optimizing for only one thing at a time.  Writing a check for $10,000,000 to a breast-cancer charity—while far more laudable than spending the same $10,000,000 on, I don’t know, parties or something—won’t give you the concentrated euphoria of being present in person when you turn a single human’s life around, probably not anywhere close.  It won’t give you as much to talk about at parties as donating to something sexy like an X-Prize—maybe a short nod from the other rich.  And if you threw away all concern for warm fuzzies and status, there are probably at least a thousand underserved existing charities that could produce orders of magnitude more utilons with ten million dollars.  Trying to optimize for all three criteria in one go only ensures that none of them end up optimized very well—just vague pushes along all three dimensions.




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