A few thoughts on politics

“Before you can reason, you need to know.”

Razib Khan, in what is certainly one of his best posts this year. It also includes the related advice: “Whereof one does not know, one must be silent.” Go read the post if you haven’t already, there’s a lot of good stuff there.

Just for fun, I decided to very quickly run through a very reductionist version of my own views on politics as they are today:

i. Reality is what it is. Numbers are what they are. They ought to be relevant when it comes to peoples’ political views but most often they are not. Of course I agree with Razib’s quotes above.

ii. Anybody can make an implicit mental model of the world and through various processes fit the data at hand so that political ideas they like look optimal for people they like to convince, including themselves. Everybody do this.

iii. People almost never hold political opinions because they have thought long and hard about them; because they’ve read a lot of relevant stuff and know a lot about the subject matter. Political opinions are mostly just signalling mechanisms. Most people parrot what they assume to be the right answer given the social context. But the fact that they will often not utter a single original thought during the debate does not mean that they don’t care deeply about the subject; most people care a lot about political stuff. But few people care enough to use an at least semi-data-driven approach to manage their opinion-updating mechanism (if any updating takes place at all. People rarely change their opinion about political matters.).

iv. Political debates are not about sharing information and/or increasing knowledge. They are about winning. Winning is all that matters to almost everyone who voluntarily engage in such debates. Who is perceived to have won a debate and who has presented the strongest case, in terms of policy evaluation against the data, rarely correlate. Debating techniques matter a lot more than the strenghts of the specific arguments put forth.

v. Politics is in my mind the area of discourse containing the largest number of logical fallacies pr. argument.

vi. There are always some tradeoffs which apply/are relevant when political choices are made and evaluated. To repeat what I wrote in i.: They ought to be relevant when it comes to peoples’ political views but most often they are not.

I very rarely argue politics, and I’ve actually made an implicit ‘vow’ to not engage my little brother in debates because he thinks it’s more or less fine to ignore data and that makes me angry. I still slip sometimes, but it seems perfectly obvious to me that my mind is better engaged elsewhere. I understand the reasons why people think about politics the way they do, and the reasons why they behave the way they do when they do think about politics, a lot better than I used to do.

A slightly longer version of my views would require many posts, and most of you have read at least some of them (because I’ve already posted them). For people who have not read Eliezer Yudkowsky’s ‘Politics is the Mind-Killer‘ sequence of blogposts on lesswrong: You should follow that link and start reading. It’s a while since I read that and I’m sure I don’t agree with everything he says, but his approach is quite similar to my own (read: his approach impacted my approach) and you’ll probably learn something.

May 20, 2012 - Posted by | politics


  1. Perhaps u shud just become an advocate of ?

    Comment by Emil | May 23, 2012 | Reply

    • Reread the post. “Reality is what it is.”

      I don’t see how me advocating anything would change anything. It’s not rational for me to spend time dealing with political stuff; in the big picture, nobody cares about my political views and nobody cares about my metapolitical views. That’s just the way it is.

      Unless they happen during a revolution or similar circumstances, significant changes to how the political system works will have to be agreed upon by a majority of the politicians and other main stakeholders; they cannot be imposed upon them from the outside. This also means that such changes will generally make the lives of those politicians easier, will make them more powerful, or perhaps the changes will be implemented because a majority of the politicians believe that the changes will make them more likely to get elected.To use an evidence-based policy approach to problems would make the lives of the people in power more difficult and most voters don’t care much about it, so it’ll either never happen, or (perhaps more likely) it will happen in a strictly ‘policy-based evidence making‘-type setup.

      Comment by US | May 23, 2012 | Reply

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