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February 10, 2009


yes, the easiest way to spot scientism is to look for value statements being conflated with factual statements. This is done unintentionally in many cases, the persuaders can't help it because they can't distinguish between the two.
1) you falsify the data that someone thought was factual that they used to support their values. They take this as an attack on said values.
2) you point out errors in the train of logic between factual statements and values, and/or point out that there *is* no valid logic train between their values and facts.
3) you make a factual statements and it is confused for a value statement. This happens because we're taught to value truth and this valuation occasionally glitches. People assume that because you say something is true that you are also saying that it is good.
4) vice-versa of the above. you make a value statement and people take it as a factual statement. this is the goal of a persuader.

I'm sure there are other common examples.

Actually, there does seem to be at least one area of academia that at least partially looks kinda like this. Specifically, crypto research. I have an on and off interest in it, so have read a couple crypto papers and descriptions here and there, and many do seem to take a combination informal (even playful) and technical and formal mixture style of writing.

I mean, heck, think of even the way algorithms are discussed, the whole cast of characters... Alice and Bob, Eve the passive eavesdropper, malicious Mallory who manipulates the messages, and so on.

Psy-Kosh, this is a fascinating point if true, considering that cryptography is a field with

(a) math with proofs

(b) lots of people trying to poke holes in the math

(c) strong real-world consequences

Eliezer: I'm not saying it's perfect informers, but plenty (not all, but plenty (of that which I've seen, at least)) of the writings include a more informal and playful "feel" to them.

Really, near as I can make out, it relates to the historical facts with regards to public crypto research having an almost "naughty" feel to it, specifically with gov'ts trying to originally discourage that sort of work, etc. But for whatever the reason, the net effect is, well, as I said, the standard "cast of characters" for one thing.

Some other examples may be, say, an annonymous communication protocal that is presented in a paper called "The Dining Cryptographers", and a later version that is meant to be resistant to interference/noise/troublemakers called "The Dining Cryptographers in the Disco"

And the implementations of these protocols are actually referred to as DC nets, which can either mean, well, the title, or be a reference to the author, David Chaum.

Oh, I just remembered something. Now this I have rather less familiarity with, but I seem to recall hearing or seeing mentioned somewhere that graph theory writings tend to have a different feel, that graph theory proofs tend to feel more like "stories being told" as opposed to formal proofs. But this is just something I've heard, and so I don't really know how true that is.

nazgulnarsil: the easiest way to spot scientism is to look for value statements being conflated with factual statements

And if you read something where you can't tell whether the writer is trying to make a value statement or a factual statement, the writer probably doesn't appreciate the difference between the two.

If most writers are using long words and convoluted sentences to convey authority, then a high-status academic could deliberately use simple language, using the handicap principle to convey "people take me seriously as an authority even though I use simple language".

And if lots of people start doing this, others might imitate them.

Another possibly relevant aspect of crypto is that it is fantastically, painfully difficult; due partly to the real world consequences, and partly to the inherent challenge of the maths involved.

As a first hypothesis, perhaps the degree of difficulty makes the entire field exclusive enough that people have less need to hide behind obfuscating verbiage and let their ability to handle the maths speak for itself; i.e., they feel they have less to prove, in the same manner as high-status academics in other fields.

This would imply some degree of inverse correlation between the inherent rigor and difficulty of a field and the formality expected from the average researcher. Are, say, physicists or engineers typically more informal than, say, psychologists or economists? (disclaimer: this is not an attack on practicioners of the latter fields, just an observation that they are more removed from easily tested real world consequences, meaning it's easier to bluff)

Two other examples of sciences where the vocabulary is less formal than is typical:
Astronomy: "star", "black hole" (as compared to e.g. deoxyribonucleic acid)
Genetics: names of genes have included "fruity", "shaven baby" and "killer of prune"

Eliezer, why so reluctant to analyze an actual equilibrium, rather than first order strategies ignoring so many important effects? My claims were about real equilibrium behavior, not some hypothetical world of clueless caricatures. And why so emphasize a few "writing" experts you've read over vast numbers of teachers of writing styles in law, engineering, accounting, academia, etc.?


there will be those who write with an utterly pure and virtuous love of the truthfinding process; they desire solely to give people more unfiltered evidence and to see evidence correctly added up, without a shred of attachment to their or anyone else's theory.
They're implicitly attached to the theory that this process really does find the truth, and they may be attached to the idea that it is the best or one of the best processes for doing so. On a slightly more abstract level, is there a difference between Informers and Persuaders?

For example, a Keynesian and an Austrian economist may not be at all attached to their theories, but are attached to their very different truth-seeking methodologies (though perhaps the term 'truth-seeking' is giving them too much credit).

As an aside, I find Robin's posts to be much easier to understand and follow than Eliezer's, and I don't think this has anything to do with the complexity of the arguments. Robin's style seems to just be simpler and more concise, making it easier for me to spot the premises and logic of his arguments. I think this is a benefit of more formal types of arguments in general, at least to my brain.

Maybe part of why crypto is less formal is that it's a new field, and formality takes time to build up.

As for the general point, Root-Bernstein talks about how scientists who make major breakthroughs are fascinated by their instruments. I bet that Informers will write more-- and more clearly-- about why they chose a hypothesis, how they chose to do a particular experiment, and the physical and theoretical obstacles to getting a conclusive result.

As for eloquence, if I'm right that the researcher's mental states are a part of the story, then there's room for Informers to use language which is vivid as well as clear.

I've read countless papers on crypto, and they mostly seem pretty formal to me - what are people comparing them to? Is it really worse in other fields? There is some variation - DJB's style is distinctly less formal than other authors - but my perception is that papers on for example network engineering seem a lot less formal than crypto papers. I think there's plenty of room to improve the readability of crypto papers by encouraging less formality.

One trivial example of signalling here is the way everyone still uses the Computer Modern font. This is a terrible font, and it's trivial to improve the readability of your paper by using, say, Times New Roman instead, but Computer Modern says that you're a serious academic in a formal field.

There seems to be an implicit idea here that being a persuader is a *bad* thing.

But even the informer is persuading people of *something*.

After all, to communicate at all, you MUST induce some sort of state transition in the recipient's brain.

And both the informers and the persuaders in your presentation are attempting to induce such a state transition; they differ only in *what* state they're attempting to induce, *who* they're trying to induce it in, or how *effective* they're willing to be at inducing that transition.

If the informer is uncertain and wishes to convey that uncertainty, great! Then they should use every available persuasive tool to persuade people to be uncertain! (As opposed to half-heartedly persuading them to be certain.)

However, if they are NOT uncertain, but are instead just trying to be "fair" or "evenhanded", then they're wasting their time on status-signalling.

Of course, it doesn't *feel* like status signaling, it just feels like it would be "unfair" of them to "trick" people into agreeing... because people *should* just "rationally" end up agreeing with them, not be *persuaded*.

In other words, the problem is viewing persuasion as evil from the outset... which then leads to conscientious (i.e. low-status!) people bending over backwards *not* to do it.

Thus, only high-status people end up persuading. And those who persuade, end up high-status. I expect that this isn't a coincidence: persuasion works better from high-status to low-status, and low status probably inhibits persuasive ability (under the guise of being "fair" or "not manipulative"). In order to become more effective at persuasion, I had to de-inhibit myself from assuming status in places where I didn't previously have it.

So, my suggestion: if you're in the least bit worried about whether you should use every possible tool of persuasion at your disposal... don't. It's merely an indication that you haven't updated your self-perception of status!

(Mind you, it's best to go the *opposite* way when taking information IN... because high status also inhibits the intake of contrary information.)

Paul Crowley:

One trivial example of signalling here is the way everyone still uses the Computer Modern font. This is a terrible font, and it's trivial to improve the readability of your paper by using, say, Times New Roman instead, but Computer Modern says that you're a serious academic in a formal field.
I don't think that these people are signaling. Computer Modern is the default font for LaTeX. Learning how to change a default setting in LaTeX is always non-trivial.

You might argue that people are signaling by using LaTeX instead of Word or whatever, but switching from LaTeX to some other writing system is also not a trivial matter.

Why wouldn't the Informers inform the public what he Persuaders are trying to do (i.e. they're not providing unbiased information, they just want you to believe them)?

The "completely alternate universe where nothing is about status" is called 4chan (in b4: 4chan != /b/, also other chans), you can observe thousands of people posting on various subjects, and one thing they don't care about is social status because they're all anonymous (other than tripfags, pseudonimity combines worst of both worlds) so you cannot even have social status on chans.

You should try it Eliezer, full anonymity removes many of the biases you see in every other place in the world. Certainly chans have all kinds of other problems, but different a very bias profile is something that you might appreciate. Some of it is obvious, some effects are rather subtle and take time and participation to notice and appreciate. One thing I noticed is that people weren't significantly less truthful on chans - there is a total lack of concern for truth so outright making things up is a fair game, but all the coloring of reality to protect social status goes away, I think it pretty much evens out.

Go lurk and post a bit, not because chans are a better mode of communication, but because they're very different in a way that you will have a hard time finding anywhere else.

I'm pretty sure Eliezer is familiar with 4chan, given his explicit reference to it a couple weeks ago...

The weird hive mind culture and memetic cesspit that is /b/ is actually interesting as well, in its own way, if one can tolerate looking at it (I heard that "lieking mudkipz" helps).

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