Zero Agents and Plastic Men

[Note: this post is mainly anecdata and speculation, so don’t expect academic citations and regression models. My epistemic status on this is, accordingly, speculative. I’m sure that many people discussed similar themes, but I arrived at these conclusions independently. Also, since the anecdotes are personal, the names and identifying details of all people in this post have been changed. ]

This post is about sociology. I never actually studied sociology.

The closest I got was a sociology book I once received as a birthday gift from Maya, my Israeli ex-girlfriend who majored in sociology. She told me the book was about patience. I read the first three pages: the book turned out to be about gift-giving. Coincidentally, the two words are spelled the same in Hebrew (המתנה). Maya admitted that she never actually read it, but it was recommended by her sociology professor. And besides, she hinted, I could use to learn about patience anyway. I wasn’t sure how to learn patience from a book about gifts, so I never opened it again.

As for Maya, after we broke up I introduced her to a very patient friend of mine. They recently got married after eight years of patient dating.

So what do I know of sociology? All I know comes mainly from three sources. The first is the video of Stanley Milgram’s experiments on authority and obedience. The second is Scott’s post about the outgroup. And the third is Scott’s post about the ingroup.

The ingroup post is titled “The Ideology Is not the Movement”. It explains that extant tribes of people rarely stay concerned for long with the official reason for the tribe’s formation. Whatever else Sunni and Shia Muslims are killing each other over in 2016, the choice of rightful caliph to succeed Muhammad in 632 AD ain’t it. “Gamergate” isn’t the movement of people who think that “Depression Quest” is a crappy game that got unfairly positive reviews. Ali Ibn Abi Talib and Depression Quest were just rallying flags, the nuclei around which people with preexisting similarities coalesced. Once a tribe is established, the ideological rallying flag can be discarded or even controverted. Did you know that the US Democratic Party started as the small-government opposition to federalism, and drew its support from Southern planters?

Sometimes, a movement does have an obvious uniting ideology. For example, the Hasidic Jews who live in the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights and attend the Hasidic synagogues there would seem, if nothing else, to be united by the ideology of Hasidic Judaism.

An old colleague of mine, Shmuel, lives in Crown Heights around the corner from establishments with names plucked from a shtetl like “Raskin’s Fish Market” and “Getzel’s Shul”. He wears a black coat and black kippa. Shmuel’s four kids go to Jewish schools.

I ran into Shmuel a couple of weeks ago, he told me that he enjoys reading Putanumonit. He particularly enjoyed reading A Conversation With GoD. I asked him what he thought of my 1:1,000,000 credence for the existence of God as described in the Old Testament. He said that number seemed a bit low. When he worked through the numbers himself some years ago, he arrived at 1:10,000.

I remarked that 0.01% is a rather low God-credence for a religious man, perhaps Shmuel took the divine bet with Pascal’s wager? No, Shmuel said, he did some math on Pascal’s Wager too and decided to reject it. He showed me a comprehensive document of arguments and calculation in support of atheism and rejection of Pascal’s wager. The document reads like a Putanumonit post, except less arrogant and better researched.


So why does Shmuel appear outwardly to live a pious Hasidic life? Crown Heights is close to Manhattan but the rent is still cheap, the schools are fine and the streets are safe. His wife is happy with the lifestyle and his parents are happy with their social standing. The price to pay for this comfort is a limited choice of wardrobe and having to show up in synagogue for prayer, 45 minutes during which Shmuel zones out and thinks about math.

“It sound like a great bargain”, I said. “I wonder how many men praying in the seats alongside you zone out as well.”

“Probably a lot of them”, Shmuel replied. “But unlike most of these guys, I don’t have to feel guilty about it.”

According to Scott, the rallying flag of the rationalist community was the belief that Eliezer Yudkowsky is the rightful caliph. As the Muslim caliphs stood against the infidels, so does Eliezer stand against the fidels. It’s not even that LessWrong spends that much time arguing for atheism, atheism is almost assumed as a precursor to studying rationality the same way arithmetics is required for calculus.

With that in mind, it’s a bit of a surprise that over 11% of LessWrongers are theist, up from 8% in 2014. And when these 11% show up at Solstice, or a CFAR workshop, or any rationalist hangout, you mostly wouldn’t be able to tell who it is.

So: forget about the ideology not being the movement. Even when the movement has a clear ideology, a bunch of people will reject that ideology outright while happily hanging out with the movement and broadcasting their movement loyalty for all to see. These aren’t saboteurs looking to undermine the tribe, they love the tribe. They’re not double agents either, they’re zero agents. I would bet that at least 10% of every tribe is made up of zero agents who reject the tribe’s stated beliefs but enjoy the company and the snacks too much to say anything.

The man taking his family to Sunday mass? I’d give a 10% chance that he isn’t Catholic but just thinks it’s a good experience for the kids. The woman in the Cowboys (Barcelona) jersey? I’d give 10% she can’t name a single football player but has friends that do and she thinks the jersey fits her hair color. You really can’t be sure what people believe in until they say it.

And even when they say what they believe, don’t be so quick to believe them.

At first, I thought that Hadia hates the Israelis. I didn’t think so just because she’s Syrian. I thought so because when we met at a mutual friend’s party in North Carolina, she said “I hate the Israelis”. After we bacame Facebook friends (I don’t entirely remember what happened at that party and how much we drank), Hadia shared a “news” story claiming that Bashar Assad was revealed as a Mossad agent sent to kill Syrian children. Hadia’s comment on the link was “Ugh, I hate the Israelis”.

As an Israeli, my curiosty was piqued.

Not everyone can handle a cleanse

Surely, I inquired of Hadia, she didn’t really believe that Assad is literally a Mossad spy. She didn’t, Hadia admitted, she just thought it was a good article detailing all the atrocities commited by Assad against the Syrian people. Why then muddle the issue with Mossad conspiracy theories and comments about Israelis? “Mossad” is more of a literary device, Hadia replied, like saying that something is “from the Devil” but it sounds hip to Arab ears. And mentioning how much she hates Israelis always gets more “likes” on Facebook, so why not? Any more than an American hates some distant bogeymen like North Korea, Hadia doesn’t hate hate Israelis. Mostly, she likes “likes”.

I came to two realizations. First, that I have no idea what Hadia’s social group is like, what signals and codes they share, how loyalty is measured and status is regulated. Perhaps, as a Syrian living in the US, Hadia is facing extra pressure to prove her loyalty to the Syrian people by constantly mentioning the Mossad and her hatred of Israelis in casual conversation. If Hadia had heard my friends and I discussing paperclip-maximizing computers she would likewise conclude that we are insane.

My second realization was that this isn’t a unique case, and that a lot of arguments that I hear that sound crazy can only be understood in the context of signalling within groups that I’m blind to. For any tribe whose “secret language” we don’t speak we can’t presume anything about their actual beliefs with certainty.

In Rationality, to steel man an argument is to come up with the most sensible version of it, the interpretation that could reasonably be held by an intelligent arguer. Steel manning is achieved only rarely, by the wise Bayesian sages in their secret mountain dojo. Steel manning stands in opposition to straw manning, taking a weak and distorted version of your opponent’s argument that is fun to be outraged about. That is achieved by 99% of media and your Facebook wall.

To these two I would add: plastic-manning. A plastic man isn’t genuine. It stands for something, but you’re not sure what. It’s a mannequin, advertising something to someone, but not to everyone. A plastic argument isn’t there to be dealt with on literal terms, strengthened or weakened. It’s signalling, you either get it or shrug and move on.

Example: people involved in Social Justice talk a lot about oppressors and the oppressed, and there’s a case that SJ people and liberals in general see every social issue as a conflict on the oppression axis.

The strawman version of the “oppression axis” is that “oppression” is a vacuous slogan used to attack white men and grasp at political power. The steelman version is that “oppression” means structural imbalances of power that let some groups profit at the expense of others, and that fighting oppression is the best (although not unique) way to achieve equality.

I’ll let my friend, much deeper steeped in SJ discourse than I am, explain the plastic man version of talking about oppression:



Basically, the plastic-man version of most arguments is “I said it for the likes”.

It’s hard to know if an argument is plastic or not, but you can look for hints in how the intended audience react to it. If my SJ friend has posted something contrarian that his SJ friends disagreed with, that could be a true belief. But no one did, they reacted as they would to an applause light, which is itself a narrower category of plastic man arguments.

Why is noticing a plastic argument important? Because it will never make sense to you. There’s no way to logically steelman “Assad is an Israeli spy”. Any engagement with such an argument makes you stupider by the minute, and inoculates you against respecting better arguments from the same people via the cowpox of doubt.

The existence of plastic men doesn’t mean that you should never take people at their word when they say weird shit. It just means that you need to keep the plastic possibility in mind, especially when the argument may involve layers of group signalling you’re unaware of.

A social group whose layers of signalling I’m really unaware of are Trump supporters. But I think I can plastic man one of Trump’s main arguments, namely his argument that immigrants, particulary those from Mexico, are a danger to America.

Mexican immigrants, Trump says, are criminals. And when they’re not commiting crimes, they’re lazily idling on welfare instead of building American business. And when they’re not being lazy, they’re destroying conservative American culture. And when they take breaks from subverting America culturally they go to the polls to vote Democrat, which is why Democrats keep hauling them in by the truckload over the Rio Grande.

Coincidentally, every single part of it is factually wrong.

Immigrants, including Hispanics, are less likely than natives to commit violent crimes or be in jail. Hispanics have 4% higher labor participation rate than non Hispanics. Immigrants are more likely to start a business. Latinos are more religious and socially conservative that the average American. Finally, the rate of net immigration from Mexico has nearly halted under Barack Obama after exploding under George W Bush.

Even without researching statistics, are Trump supporters so clueless that they don’t notice any of the above?

Yes, 71% of Hispanics did vote for Obama over Romney but Asians and blacks voted for Obama at higher rates than that. In places like the Bronx, Obama won by a 92%-8% margin. Speaking of the Bronx, did you know that it suffers from remarkably high crime rates and that a large portion of Bronx residents receive government welfare? It seems quite remarkable that Trump never mentions the Bronx, his contempt is almost exclusively reserved for immigrants and foreigners.


Strawman Trump is a nationalistic bigot who spews malicious slander regarding immigrants. Steelman Trump is a nationalistic bigot who raises legitimate concerns regarding immigrants. Plasticman Trump isn’t talking about immigrants at all: he’s talking about blacks in the Bronx. After all, Trump had undocumented immigrants building his towers, but none of these towers were built north of the Harlem River. His mouth says “immigrants” because in the US media it’s more acceptable to be racist towards immigrants than towards African Americans.

If it’s true that Trump riles against blacks and doesn’t mind immigrants, I suspect that most of his supporters are aware of this while most big city-based liberal media is ignorant. A glance at the New York Times confirms that, although to be fair the New York Times is ignorant of most things.

One group that clearly isn’t fooled are blacks, a mere 2% of whom support Trump compared to 20%-30% of Hispanics. 2% is unprecedented. It’s unfathomable. Trump is polling fourth among blacks, behind not just Hillary but also Johnson and Stein. If someone had added “shape-shifting reptilian people” to the list of candidates, Trump would be polling fifth, behind the lizardmen’s 4%.

You can never be confident when plasticmanning an argument, it requires guessing the secret signals of a group you’re not a part of and that’s hard. But you have to admit, Trump’s talk about immigrants makes much more sense if he isn’t actually talking about immigrants at all.

23 thoughts on “Zero Agents and Plastic Men

  1. I really liked this one. I’ve been hesitant to believe that Trump is racist (despite accusations of saying racist things, he mostly seems to restrict himself to xenophobia), but this provides both a believable mechanism by which he would be racist, and explains why black people oppose him more than they supported Obama, so I’m inclined to believe you.

    Two points of disagreement:
    a) “SJ people and liberals in general see every social issue as a conflict on the oppression axis.” – I don’t think liberals in general is right – this seems like the defining difference between liberals and SJWs.
    b) “Coincidentally, the two words are spelled the same in Hebrew (המתנה). ” – Nothing is ever a coincidence, (I can’t figure out how to make that a link here, but you can probably guess).


    1. a) The idea that oppressor-oppressed is the main “language” of all liberal politics is Arnold Kling’s, not mine. I think he means that this theme is implicit in liberal thinking, whereas SJ are more likely to explicitly talk about it.

      b) Patience and gift giving are kabalistically two sides of the same coin. Biblical Jacob worked patiently for 14 years for Lavan, and was rewarded for his patience with lavish gifts of flocks (and wives). Maya’s book was about gifts and not patience, so I was impatient with her gift. The two things come together, or are both missing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think plastic man is a good term for the phenomenon you’re describing. A straw man (or steel man) is your way of portraying the other’s views. “Plastic man” is you doing that to yourself. Since you are already familiar with LW-isms, what you’re describing already seems adequately covered by belief-in-belief/belief as attire.


    1. I’m not sure “belief as attire” covers it, since the plastic isn’t even a belief, it’s a signal. For steelmanning, you ask yourself: “could there be a reasonable version of this argument that makes sense in the speaker’s head?” For plasticmanning, you ask yourself: “could this argument be an instance of signaling I don’t understand and not an actual belief”. You can do both to under what people mean when they say something. Steelmanning is useful when you’re in a conversation. Plasticmanning is useful when someone says something dumb on various media.


  3. Enjoyed reading it. I came to similar conclusions about signalling long ago (talking to a British lady about americans) and since then it saved me from many unnecessary discussions and improved my social interactions enormously. The hypothesis on Trums seems plausible, would be interesting to understand if anti-black hispanics get the message. And last: attire is a signal, so both terms work equally well.


    1. The problem is that “beliefs as attire” also covers the natural human tendency to actually believe things because a lot of their friends do. I think the two things are distinct enough to merit different terms.


  4. You should also be skeptical of claims that, “I said it for the likes.”

    Most groups have norms about making strong assertions without sufficient justification and admitting that you really do believe (or worse did believe but now realize you weren’t justified) opens one up to criticism and embarrassment. More broadly many people simply don’t want to have to defend their views, particularly if defending those views might anger their interlocutor. Saying “Ehh, I just said it far kicks etc..” is often just a way to back down or avoid confrontation. Of course, sometimes it is true but one can’t simply take it at face value.

    On a broader point this brings up what we really mean when we credit someone with a particular belief. For instance, take many apparently committed Christians who convincingly claim to believe in hell and not even ones in your 10% of zero agents but ones who animatedly try and convince others of their beliefs. Despite their assertions these people’s actions rarely resemble what one would expect if someone believed in hell. They don’t take even a fraction of the care/effort people in repressive states who face 5 years in prison and perhaps torture do to avoid that outcome. Indeed, even these animated proponents of a literal hell are often more deterred from acts they themselves believe to increase the chance of their damnation by laws than by their religious beliefs and will let themselves be deterred from good works by light social pressure.

    Ultimately, I think this kind of thing points out that belief is only an approximate idealization to human behavior. Human motivations are complex and don’t neat fall into nice belief/non-belief categories but into a broad range. One can be a strong believer in a concept as far as inclination to discourse or fervent affirmation but not be motivated to behave as if the claim was true (belief in hell) and one can also even be a conscious denier of a claim while acting exactly as if it was true (prayer doesn’t effect outcomes seems to be how most westerners act regardless of what they say).


    1. I think there’s a valid space between something said off-the-cuff or for laughs (or likes) and what someone would actually say when considering an issue carefully, or when judging a particular set of facts. Even if they do, in the moment as they say it, believe the off-the-cuff remark.


    2. Most groups have norms about making strong assertions without sufficient justification

      I think when you said “most groups” you meant to write “one group”. Do you really feel that “most” groups outside the rationalist tribe are so concerned with demanding justification for belief? Do you imagine Christians asking each other “how do you know that hell is like you say it is?”

      The “belief in hell” is exactly what I’m talking about. You might be tempted to steelman it into “this person doesn’t avoid all sin because he really means that hell is for unbelievers and he feels strong enough in his faith to be safe”. I think it’s more sensible to plasticman it into “I’m talking about hell to show my Christian friends how seriously I take our church.”


      1. “Do you imagine Christians asking each other ‘how do you know that hell is like you say it is?'”

        Not speaking for anybody else but I know plenty of Christians who ask this and plenty who don’t. There’s a lot of ways to be Christian. I would also say that almost all established Christian denominations have made efforts in answering this question.

        There are issues about measuring the strength of an assumption and what justification counts as sufficient. You will require more justification to believe in a literal hell then someone raised to be a Young Earth Christian just as that person will require more justification to believe in evolution then you do.

        I’m not talking about how to find what’s correct, I’m talking about how people think (as your post does). I don’t know if “most groups have norms about making strong assertions without sufficient justification” but it seams reasonable as long as one respects what the group would consider a strong assertion and what it considers a valid way of justifying something.

        What’s so special about the damn “rationalist tribes” anyways that they would be the only group that would care about justification? Are you really saying that no one came up with the idea of argument until Yudkowsky did? Do you think that no group, except for those who accept the things he says, cares about epistemology? Do you even think that the methods “rationalists” use to evaluate their knowledge were created by them?

        The hate you show for other groups in such a statement requires sufficient justification. I eagerly await it.


        1. I don’t have hate for anyone, that’s entirely projection on your part. “One group” was hyperbole, I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear. However, while different tribes have different attitudes towards epistemology and evidence, rationalists stand out quite apart from any groups I have come across or have been part of in the commitment to proper epistemology, even when it goes against common etiquette.

          Most people admire confidence, rationalists admire calculated uncertainty. Most people see “how do you know what you know?” as confrontational, among rationalists it’s the first question asked. Most groups reward conformity, rationalists reward constructive disagreement: the highest rated comment on many a post in the sequences is one explaining in detail why Eliezer is wrong.

          Ask a non-rationalist conservative how they know that guns make Americans safer or a liberal how they know the opposite, and they’ll get angry. Ask a rationalist how they know that AI is dangerous, and they’re more likely to go over the evidence. That is not to say that rationalists always adhere to these norms, but at least we explicitly strive to, and in doing so arrive closer (on average, and admitting a wide range of individual in-group variation) to good epistemology in practice than most groups.


          1. Do Nnon-Rationalist groups include scientists, philosophers, mathematicians and logicians? How are they managing with terrible epistemology? There seems to be a background assumption that “group” means a culturally or ideologically defined group, Christian Marxist or whatever, rather than an a professional or academic group.


  5. You still single out a specific group: “Do you imagine Christians asking each other ‘how do you know that hell is like you say it is?'” after stating that “rationalists” are the only group to “have norms about making strong assertions without sufficient justification.” Several people close to me would take offense to the clear implication that no Christian group has these norms and the possible implication that no Christian would do such a thing.

    Furthermore, I belong to a group which most “rationalists” would find anathema to be a part of but which cares a lot about epistemology. Your statement was also deeply offensive to me. Now to be clear, the methods of arriving at knowledge are different but just because a group doesn’t use the method you favor, does not mean that such a method does not exist.

    I will grant that you didn’t intend your statement to be hateful but there is hate there even if you are unaware of it.

    Most groups reward conformity in certain ways and diversity in others. Rationalists are no different in this. Your hyperbolic criticism of Christianity fits in with the insistence that religious belief is irrational. You said something you didn’t believe in order to signal conformity with a group’s beliefs. If only there was a term for this.

    In the end through the group you belong to does not appear to be as different as you seam to think it is. There are lots of Christians who care deeply about epistemology and there are Christian groups that have spent considerable efforts on it. Also, there are rationalists who will not be able to justify all of their beliefs. There may be differences in degrees but my guess is not so much as you think there to be.


  6. OK, let me start by apologizing for my original comment. I only mentioned Christians because Peter Gerdes’ comment was about their belief in hell. I didn’t mean to offend anyone, but I do realize that the way I wrote that comment makes it seem like I’m singling out Christians for being irrational. I’m responsible for how people perceive what I write, and what I wrote was poor.

    I was actually planning a while ago to write a post about Eliezer’s intolerance of religious people, which I personally disagree with. For example, Eliezer (and many rationalists) are horrified by religious scientists. I think that of the sins against rationality each and every one of us is guilty of, religiosity is one of the least. In the realm of science, I have much more respect for Robert Aumann than for Amy Cuddy or Susan Fiske who continue to defend thoroughly discredited scientific claims for the sole sake of confirmation bias and personal status.

    Finally: regarding the rationalist community. Did you see the part in my previous comment about “admitting a wide range of individual in-group variation”? That means I’m not an idiot, and I realize that some people who call themselves rationalists are horribly biased, and even the brightest rationalists are exceeded by the best thinkers from other groups. However, I think that reason and proper epistemology are still on the minds for the rationalist community, they aren’t a discarded rallying flag. And I do think that on average, the rationalist community exhibits better epistemic norms both as individuals and in group endeavors. And the average can be quite important.


    1. I appreciate your apology and I think we understand each other now. I apologize for whatever overreaction I might have had. I do not think that you are an idiot. I may have gotten caught up in argument mode.

      I do like reading and interacting with rationalists even though I don’t consider myself one. One of at-least a few reasons is the greater emphasis on epistemology and acceptance of disagreement then most groups have. I have been in situations in all sorts of settings, including religion, where the particular group had similar standards though I will agree that a good majority do not.

      I also apologize for not using proper comment section hierarchy (starting a new comment thread). I blame the poor browser on my phone.


      1. Just speaking of the comment hierarchy, Jacob, is there a way you could make the threading a little clearer? I have trouble following it even on my laptop (chromium on awesome on arch).


        1. Unfortunately I don’t think I can. Benjamin posted his comment as a new thread instead of a reply by accident, and I can’t do much about it other than copy pasting all the comments into the old thread.

          As for modifying how comments look like in general, I haven’t found a way to customize that. I have the premium WP package (to keep you guys from seeing ads) but I’m still using their built in themes and not writing the HTML myself. Unless you know of a quick fix, I don’t plan on spending effort on that (or looking for other themes) unless the number of comments explodes and threading becomes a big issue.


          1. Well, this page points to a plugin that numbers comments by thread and subthread, which might be nice. That post is almost five years old, though, so I don’t know if it still applies. Otherwise, yeah, it’d probably mean changing the theme somehow.


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