Inflated Bubbles

What makes people who hold an extreme opinion think that they represent the majority?

[After 3,000 words on statistics, I deserve a condescending politics / culture war post. I have put these posts under the “hedgehog alert” category because if that’s not your cup of bitter acid rain, you should enjoy this hedgehog instead.]

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Minority Retort

I made a claim in Climbing the Horseshoe that even Sarah Constantin misunderstood, which means that I wrote it poorly. I’ll try to spell it out again, and set it apart from other arguments.

My point was that it’s important to recognize when you’re holding an unpopular opinion and to change your tactics accordingly. Even if normatively you are right and everyone is wrong, instrumentally you should pursue your goals one way if 5% share your goals and worldview and another way if 80% do. For example, shaming others and calling them names (e.g. bigot or traitor) works (sometimes) if you’re part of the majority and doesn’t work if you’re part of the fringe.

Even if your entire social circle shares your views, you have to be cognizant of the amount of support your position has in the broad public. It’s not quite what outside view is, but it requires a similar mental process of stepping outside your immediate surroundings. Here are a couple of examples from my own life:

  1. I’m an atheist, and many of my friends are atheist, but I realize that on a national scale atheists are a tiny minority (~4%). If I want to promote atheism, I should be able to tell the difference between ardent religious zealots and the median American who believes in God and goes to church every other week but isn’t a talking snake-ist. When I talk with the latter about atheism, I politely explain for example how an atheist can share the intuition that murder is wrong with a holy book. I don’t tell anyone who believes in a deity that they’re a deluded fanatic.
  2. I’m a left-libertarian, and I engage intellectually with many left libertarians. For example, I think that regardless of how much welfare we have raising the minimum wage will hurt the poor because it dminishesthe employability of the 102 million adult Americans who don’t have a job and increases the prices they pay. I also think that regardless of where the minimum wage is, we should have more unconditional welfare to help the poor (whether food stamps or basic income). And yet, I’m aware that “abolish the minimum wage but raise taxes to implement basic income” is an extreme position. When I talk to liberals about the minimum wage or to conservatives about welfare I try to gently convince them with stats and numbers, I don’t call them heartless monsters who hate the poor.
  3. On the other hand, homophobia has finally become a minority position and it’s not counterproductive to shame homophobes.

This seems like common sense to me – you fight differently when you’re outnumbered than when you’re dominating. I thought it would be obvious for example to Jamelle Bouie that calling the NY Times racist for encouraging dialogue with Trump voters is a minority opinion.

It may not have been obvious at all.

No True Liberal

A Facebook friend of mine shared the NY Times op-ed “Liberal Zionism in the Age of Trump“.

Consider Hillary Clinton’s words from the second presidential debate: “It is important for us as a policy not to say, as Donald has said, we’re going to ban people based on a religion.” […] Here Clinton establishes a minimum standard of liberal decency that few American Jews would be inclined to deny. […] Yet insofar as Israel is concerned, every liberal Zionist has not just tolerated the denial of this minimum liberal standard, but avowed this denial as core to their innermost convictions. Whereas liberalism depends on the idea that states must remain neutral on matters of religion and race, Zionism consists in the idea that the State of Israel is not Israeli, but Jewish.


Palestinians in fact do not demand a “right of return” to their pre-1967 homes, but to their pre-1948 homes. In other words, the issue isn’t the occupation, which many liberal Zionists agree is a crime, but Zionism itself. Opposition to the Palestinians’ “right of return” is a matter of consensus among left and right Zionists because also liberal Zionists insist that Israel has the right to ensure that Jews constitute the ethnic majority in their country.
The following years promise to present American Jewry with a decision that they have much preferred to avoid. Hold fast to their liberal tradition, as the only way to secure human, citizen and Jewish rights; or embrace the principles driving Zionism.

The article explicitly states that opposing the right of Palestinians to move to Israel proper (right of return) is beneath a minimum standard of liberal decency, and thus Zionism is incompatible with liberalism. I commented that regardless of your normative opinion on Zionism, the right of return, as a matter of fact, has very little support among Jews. The article itself agrees that this is a consensus. Israel has 4 million more Jewish citizens than Muslim citizens, allowing 5 million Palestinian refugees to immigrate will immediately end Jewish majority in Israel and the character of the country as we know it. Even if one thinks that it’s the moral thing to do, it’s a very unpopular opinion among Jews, on par with the percentage of Americans who would be in favor of allowing 300 million Muslim immigrants into the US.

I wrote that if you present Jews with the dilemma of accepting the right of return or not being a “liberal”, this sort of “liberalism” will not attract many Jews. This is the immediate response I got:

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So far, nothing out of the ordinary. The argument I make requires separating normative claims and factual claims which is an unusual and difficult exercise. It’s predictable that at least one person will try to insult me out of the conversation instead of trying to address the argument itself.

Then came the first warning sign:


This absurd accusation that rationalists are sympathetic to Trump is from the friend who originally defended me. The meme that the sun is a hummingbird is based on zero evidence. The meme that rationalists like Trump is based on negative evidence.

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote at length about how Trump is terrible.

Scott Alexander wrote at length about how Trump is terrible.

Julia Galef, Rob Wiblin and other prominent Effective Altruists debated back in the spring whether donating to Clinton’s campaign may be better than saving kids from malaria. Yes, many rationalists admire Peter Thiel. They were all pretty confused when Thiel endorsed Trump.

Truth seeking, charity and concern for the future of humanity are anathema to Donald Trump. He’s the rationalist Antichrist. So how could anyone believe that rationalists are sympathetic to Trump?


I’m not sure what to do when people straight up tell me I’m lying. I assumed they’re just confused by the math, so I explained the math: let’s imagine again that we put all Americans on a single axis from least liberal (1st percentile) to most liberal as defined by current political affiliation (100th percentile). The 50th percentile American barely chose Trump over Clinton, and I imagine that I’m about as far to the left of the marginal Trump voter as I am to the right of a 90th percentile leftist. Thus, 70th percentile liberal.

But people were not in the mood to do math.

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Hey, math is hard, I get it.

Inflated Bubbles

Why did these liberals react so venomously to the suggestion that I’m more liberal than the average American? Why do they think that rationalists, a group of strange but certainly left-of-center people, are enemies of liberalism?

My first hypothesis was that they’re trying to make their ideas unpopular on purpose, by insulting and bullying outsiders who try to engage with them. Collectively this makes “liberalism” lose, but individually they gain status by signalling the extremity of their faith in the true cause. I wondered if Mr. Bouie doesn’t mind that his tactics are counterproductive to fighting racism, I would wager that Slate‘s ratings are higher with Trump in office than they would have been had Clinton won.

I realized that this is too cynical. Organizations never solve the problem they were created to solve (as that would put the organization out of work), but it’s hard for people to be so explicitly hypocritical. It’s easier to convince others that you’re a fighter for liberalism / against racism if you actually believe this as well. I had to admit that these people really believed that they are helping the spread of liberalism as they see it.

My second hypothesis is this:

Theory of inflated bubbles – When your ideological bubble becomes small and tight enough, you start thinking that almost everyone outside the bubble agrees with you. In your mind, your bubble has inflated to encompass the entire world.

I work hard to make holes in the bubbles I live in. I have neoreactionary friends, Marxist friends, anti-Semitic friends and apparently a friend who thinks that rationalists are villainous freaks. I engage all the time with people who strongly disagree with me, I know that they’re out there in great numbers.

But once you slide down the horseshoe into extremism and attack anyone who disagrees with you, the heretics to your worldview evaporate out of your bubble. If you live in a very liberal city (these three guys are from D.C., New York and Silicon Valley), consume very liberal media, and tell everyone who isn’t very liberal to choke on a dick, your entire world becomes exclusively made up of very liberal people. All perspective is lost. Availability bias and confirmation bias will then work tirelessly to convince you that those who disagree with you are an extremist fringe minority.

If  you think that the NY Times or Bay Area rationalists are terribly bigoted, you will start thinking that the NY Times and the rationalists are part of the conservative minority even thought they’re both more liberal than the vast majority of the United States. No one can handle the cognitive dissonance of imagining that they live in a world that is 90% monster.

This is a self-reinforcing phenomenon: you think that those who disagree with you are a small minority and thus their views are extreme, and if their views are extreme they must be a  small minority.

This explains why so many leftists blame this election on the alt-right (who are a tiny minority on the right that most Trump voters don’t care about) and rightists blamed Obama on groups like liberal university professors (who are a tiny minority on the left that most Obama voters don’t care about). They believe that anyone who voted against them is part of a small cult that somehow got lucky. How can merely losing an election convince anyone that they’re a minority when three of the fiercest biases a brain can employ work to convince them otherwise?

This is a half-baked hypothesis. I don’t know how likely it is to be true (that many extremists think the majority agrees with them) and how to precisely define the phenomenon. It’s not charitable and it’s not scientific and it’s very condescending. But, it really makes a lot of what I’ve been seeing since the election make a lot more sense.

The only question that remains is: what crazy ideas do hold that I deludedly think most people agree with? I hope it’s not my faith that every human has the capacity for reason and kindness.

We Hold These Truths

This blog lives by a two-part creed:

  1. You can put a number on anything if you try hard enough (number quality not guaranteed, see store for details).
  2. Once you put a number on something, you improve your understanding and decision making (even if the number isn’t of prime quality).

At the core of this belief is the idea that the world we live in is made of math, however literally you decide to take that statement. Whenever a field of science achieves any useful knowledge of that world, it is usually in form of precise mathematical equations or careful statistics. Every science is an exact science, or trying to be. Darwin discovered evolution and himself had no doubt that the theory is true, but it’s the mathematical accuracy of results such as Price’s equation of natural selection that give it the predictive and explanatory power that make it an unassailable bedrock of life sciences. Even in soft fields like personality psychology, models like the Myers-Briggs and Big-5 Traits rise and fall on correlation tables and statistical measures of validity.

Biology can be seen as applied chemistry and physics, and the math that would be needed to describe all of it in detail is much more complex. As a result, the equations we currently have in each field gives rougher approximations in biology than in physics. Psychology can be seen as applied biology, with the same relationship. The life of real humans on this planet is applied psychology, biology, economics, linguistics… we can scarcely hope to arrive at bulletproof mathematical statements. And still, that’s the way truth lies. Quoth the sages: “If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.”

In this world, “putting a number on it” doesn’t mean spelling out 10 digits of precision. Vague ranges, guesstimates and anecdata are all tools that can take us a few steps closer to the truth if wielded with appropriate care.

A demonstration in action is in order: let’s put a number on the value I place on my own left pinky finger.

I have spent three decades both enjoying the use of my finger and regularly placing it in harm’s way, wood shop classes and volleyball matches. Here’s one thing I haven’t tried yet:

knife game

Playing the knife game as fast as I could, I estimate a 10% chance of losing a finger permanently. I think I wouldn’t play if you paid me $100, but I definitely would if you paid me $1,000,000. This translates to a range of finger values between $1,000 (\frac{\$100}{10\%}) and $10,000,000 (\frac{\$1,000,000}{10\%}).

We can put the finger on a more precise amount by examining the components of my finger’s value, such as the economic benefit. My career involves programming and writing, it’s likely that at least for the next 20 years that would require typing on a physical keyboard. Losing my finger will impair my ability to work by 2%. My work is valued at my average salary over the next two decades, let’s round it off optimistically to $100,000. This rough guesstimate values my finger as an income generating asset at 20 \, years \times 100,000 \, \frac{\$}{year} \times 0.02 \, impairment = \$40,000.

Fortunately, losing a finger isn’t unfixable: I can get a snazzy looking bionic replacement for $70,000. I use my finger for more than typing and a digital digit isn’t as good (yet) as my original one, so I can adjust both numbers up a bit and appraise my left pinky at $200,000, give or take an order of magnitude. It’s amazing what a combination of Googling, calculation and sensible guessing can do! Email me privately for offers into acquiring my finger; serious inquiries only.

finger one

Even a facetious example like my little finger has utility in allowing me to make informed decisions about my life. The X-ray on the right is the state of my actual pinky after mistiming a jump for a rebound in a basketball game. And yet, I keep playing basketball since you’d have to pay me more to quit the game than the expected harm to my finger. On the other hand, I avoid boxing and tackle football even though I think I would enjoy both sports because the value I place on my brain and the concussion statistics present a compelling case against them.

People arrive at these two decisions by intuition alone, and yet many others refuse to play volleyball or basketball because of hand injury risk while a million Americans play high school football. Many football players have different assessments of risk and reward than I do, but I’d wager that many don’t even think to evaluate and compare the two. Our brains are often ridiculously horrible at giving correct or reasonable answers on questions that can be solved with a simple computation. Intelligence won’t help you. Reading about biases won’t help you.

“Does this outfit make my butt look fat?” is the one query the correct answer to which is not arrived at by mathematics. For all other questions (at least the ones that this blog will explore), putting a number on it makes you more objective and less biased, illuminates the errors in your thinking, and brings you closer to the truth.

Footnote 1

No, I don’t compute the net present value of brushing my teeth every day, and I didn’t mean to say that literally everything in life must be calculated. I believe that in general people apply actual numbers on such a tiny minority of occasions that encouraging everyone to do it more often is strictly helpful.

Footnote 2

This is such an excellent exploration of the same idea that I didn’t want to hide it in a text-embedded link: If it’s worth doing it’s worth doing with made up statistics.