[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.
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.