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Nydwracu’s Fnords

I.

The fnords first appear in Anton-Wilson and Shea’s book Illuminatus. Educators, operating as tools of the titular conspiracy, hypnotize all primary school children to have a panic reaction to the trigger word “fnord”. The children, who remember nothing of the sessions when they wake up, are incapable of registering the word except as an unexplained feeling of unease.

This turns them into helpless, easily herded adults. Every organ of the media – newspapers, books, cable TV – contains a greater or lesser number of fnords. When some information is counter to the aims of the conspiracy – maybe a communist party organizing in a state where the conspiracy wears a capitalist hat – the secret masters don’t bother censoring or suppressing it. Instead, the newspaper reports it on the front page, but fills the article with fnords. Most people read partway through, become very uncomfortable and upset without knowing why, and decide that communists are definitely bad people for some reason or other and there’s no reason they need to continue reading the article. Why should they worry about awful things like that when there’s the whole rest of the paper to read?

According to the book, the only section of the newspaper without any fnords at all is the advertisements.

II.

Last week, some Internet magazine published the latest attempt at the genre of Did You Know Neoreaction Exists You Should Be Outraged. A couple of reactionaries wrote the usual boring “actually, nothing you said was true, why would you say false things?” responses. Nydwracu, a frequent commenter on this blog, did something I thought was much more interesting. He wrote a post called Fnords where he removed all of the filler words and transitions between ideas and thin veneer of argument until he stripped the essay down to the bare essentials. It looked like this:

Mouthbreathing Machiavellis Dream Of A Silicon Reich strange and ultimately doomed stunt flamboyant act of corporate kiss-assery latest political fashion California Confederacy total corporate despotism potent bitter Steve Jobs Ayn Rand Ray Kurzweil prominent divisive fixture hard-right seditionist aggressively dogmatic blogger reverent following in certain tech circles prolific incomprehensible vanguard youngish white males embittered by “political correctness” Blade Runner, but without all those Asian people cluttering up the streets like to see themselves as the heroes of another sci-fi movie “redpilled” The Matrix “genius” a troll who belches from the depths of an Internet rabbit hole frustrated poet cranky letters to alternative weekly newspapers preoccupations with domineering strongmen angry pseudonym J.R.R. Tolkien George Lucas typical keyboard kook archaic, grandiose snippets cherry-picked from obscure old lack of higher ed creds overconfident autodidact’s imitation fascist teenage Dungeon Master most toxic arguments snugly wrapped in purple prose and coded language oppressive nexus teeth-gnashing white supremacists who haunt the web “men’s rights” advocates nuts disillusioned typical smarmy, meandering (Sure. Easy!) Incredible as it sounds, absolute dictatorship may be the least objectionable tenet espoused by the Dark Enlightenment neoreactionaries. Chinese eugenics impending global reign of “autistic nerds These imaginary übermensch sprawling network of blogs, sub-Reddits old-timey tyrants basically racism scientific-sounding euphemism familiar tropes of white victimhood perhaps best known for his infamous slavery apologia poor, persecuted Senator Joe McCarthy. Big surprise. pseudo-intellectual equivalent of a Gwar concert, one sick stunt after another, calculated to shock the attention he so transparently craves “silly not scary” “all of these people need to relax: P.G. Wodehouse football get drunk Internet curio “sophisticated neo-fascism” must be confronted “creepy” future-fascist dictator sadly Koch brothers no matter how crazy your ideas are, radicalism neoreactionaries flatter the prejudices of the new Silicon Valley elite enemies patchwork map of feudal Europe Forget universal rights; signposts of the neoreactionary fantasyland anti-democratic authoritarianism bigotry blue-sea libertarian dream extreme libertarian advocacy Ted Cruz libertarian a small and shallow world a dictatorial approach mythical “god-kings” Stupid proles! They don’t deserve our brilliance! shockingly common would never occur to other people precisely because they’ve refused to leave that stage of youthful live forever escape to outer space or an oceanic city-state play chess against a robot that can discuss Tolkien fantasies childhood imagination perhaps too generous the fundamental problem with these mouthbreathers’ dreams of monarchy. They’ve never role-played the part of the peasant.

That…sure gives one a different perspective on political discourse. I am reminded of those Renaissance artists who secretly cut up cadavers to learn what was inside people, and from then on all of their human figures would be a little bit creepy because you could almost see how the internal bones and muscles were animating the flesh.

Since no one is meta and everyone only pays attention to things when it’s their own opinions under threat, I suppose I have to do the same thing with an article from some website on the right:

socialism completely government run pure single-payer “an island of socialism in American healthcare” that won’t change a thing in fact it’s a distraction excessive delays tragically predictable bureaucratic rationing price controls, inefficiencies, and the inevitable cover-ups bureaucratic incentives statist VA healthcare system mirrors the government-run healthcare problems slip-shod failure run-amok bureaucrats don’t tell me the problem is not enough government money the Paul Krugmans of the world and their leftist allies socialist medicine socialism doesn’t work who opposed market choice and competition Senator Harry Reid and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi Obamacare job-destroying tax and regulatory provisions

Interestingly, both of those came out to between 13 and 14% of the length of the original article. I wonder if that’s some kind of iron law.

III.

I don’t know if he ever read Illuminatus or whether it was just one of those coincidences, but Jonathan Haidt did the thing with the fnords in real life.

(Warning: a tangentially related study by the same group has recently failed to replicate)

He wanted to test the role of disgust in moral judgments. So he hypnotized a bunch of people to feel disgust at a trigger word – “takes” for half the participants, “often” for the other half – and hypnotically instructed them to forget all about this. Then in an “unrelated study” he asked them to rate the morality of different ethically controversial vignettes. For example:

“A brother and sister fall in love with each other. They frequently take vacations together where they have sex. Both are freely consenting and she is on very careful birth control.”

or

“A brother and sister fall in love with each other. They often go on vacations together where they have sex. Both are freely consenting and she is on very careful birth control.”

The participants hypnotized to hate the word “take” found the behavior more objectionable with the “take” version of the vignette than the “often” version, and the participants hypnotized to hate the word “often” displayed the opposite pattern. When they asked subjects to explain their judgment, they gave perfectly reasonable explanations, which could be anything from “incest is just wrong” to “what if they have a child and it’s deformed, yeah, I know it said they were on birth control, but it still bothers me.”

Then Haidt and his team presented the following story:

“Dan is student council president. It is his job to pick topics for discussion at student meetings. He frequently takes suggestions from students and teachers on which topic to choose.”

or

“Dan is student council president. It is his job to pick topics for discussion at student meetings. He often accepts suggestions from students and teachers on which topic to choose.”

Participants were asked to judge how evil a person Dan was. And when their trigger word was in the sentence, their answer was: pretty evil! When asked to explain themselves, they came up with weird justifications like “Dan is a popularity-seeking snob” or “It just seems he’s up to something”

IV.

A few weeks ago, I noticed something strange.

Every time someone complaints about climate denial, they make extraordinary efforts to get the name of the Koch brothers in. Like it’s never just “Why do so many people believe climate denialism?” it’s more “Why do so many people believe climate denialism, as funded by people like the Koch brothers?”

This is strange because it seems to me that they are acting like associating climate denialism with the Koch brothers will lower its credibility or make it sound vaguely evil.

But this shouldn’t work. The only thing the average person knows about the Koch brothers is that they are people who fund climate change denial. So if you already don’t like climate change denial, this will make you dislike the Koch brothers. But mentioning “Koch brothers!” won’t make you dislike climate change denial more, it will just remind you of one of the downstream effects of your disliking climate change (not liking the Kochs). On the other hand, if you’re still neutral on climate change denial, then you have no reason to dislike the Kochs, and mentioning them won’t help you there either. And if you actively support climate denial, you probably think the Koch brothers are heroes, so associating them with the movement won’t be a good way of discrediting it.

Basically, since your opinion of the Koch brothers should equal your opinion of climate denial, trying to tar climate denial by association with the Kochs is trying to make people dislike an idea by linking it to itself. It shouldn’t work.

But I think it does. When you read articles on the other side, they always mention Al Gore. In fact, there are a lot of these people who get brought up as bogeymen every so often.

I have two boring hypotheses and an interesting one.

The first boring hypothesis is that the Koch brothers are white male billionaires. This is enough to make them suspicious. Therefore, global warming skepticism is tarred by association with them, even though we know nothing else about them.

The second boring hypothesis is that it doesn’t matter who the Koch brothers are, what matters is the claim that there is some figure funding the movement, that it’s not a grassroots upswelling of people genuinely doubtful of global warming, but just one guy (well, two guys) trying to inflict their own weird contrarianism on everyone else.

The interesting hypothesis is that the brain is going loopy, having one of those rare experiences where it forgets not to condition on itself.

Imagine that you don’t like climate denialism. You hear that the Koch brothers support climate denialism. You use that information to decide you don’t like the Koch brothers very much.

Then a month passes and you forget exactly why you don’t like the Koch brothers. You just have a very strong feeling that “it just seems like they’re up to something.”

Then someone tells you the Koch brothers support denialism. And you say: “If those bastards support it, then I hate it even more!”

In other words, you have undergone a two step process to ratchet up your dislike of climate denialism by associating it with itself.

I wonder if this is part of what makes politics so divisive. You start off with a weak preference in one direction. Gradually, certain words like “Koch brothers” or “Exxon Mobil” become fnords, reservoirs of your negative feelings, and then every time you read about climate change, even if there’s no real argument, you get triggered and become pretty sure denialists are up to something, in the same way Dan the student council president is up to something. And the other side gets different fnords – “Climategate”, “hockey stick graph”, and they go through the same process. And finally you get totally incomprehensible arguments: “But how can you be a climate change denier when that associates you with the Koch brothers?! Did you know climate change denialism is literally sponsored by the Heartland Institute?!” And the other side is just nodding their head and going “Oh, yeah, my sister used to work there.”

V.

IF YOU DON’T SEE THE FNORD IT CAN’T EAT YOU

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113 Responses to Nydwracu’s Fnords

  1. Oligopsony says:

    Going for the obvious meta joke would take much more effort than I care to write, so you’ll have to apply your imagination.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Don’t worry, Nydwracu’s commenters already took care of it.

      • jast says:

        I think he means the one where the fnords in this article are extracted.

        • Oligopsony says:

          fnords Anton-Wilson Illuminatus Educators tools of the conspiracy hypnotize primary school children trigger word “fnord” remember nothing incapable unexplained feeling of unease helpless, easily herded adults Most people become very uncomfortable and upset without knowing why and there’s no reason they need to continue reading the articlesome Internet magazine published the latest attempt at the genre of Did You Know Neoreaction Exists You Should Be Outraged “actually, nothing you said was true, why would you say false things?” frequent commenter on this blog I thought was much more interesting thin veneer of argument different perspective on political discourse a little bit creepy Since no one is meta and everyone only pays attention to things when it’s their own opinions under threat I suppose I have to Illuminatus trigger warning failed to replicate of disgust in moral judgments hypnotized trigger hypnotically forget in an “unrelated study” Every time someone complaints about it’s never just “” it’s more “” strange to me sound vaguely evil shouldn’t work. The only thing the average person knows downstream effects bogeymen the brain you forget just have a very strong feeling I wonder if this is part of what makes politics so divisive fnords reservoirs of your negative feelings even if there’s no real argument you get triggered you get totally incomprehensible arguments literally

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          @Oligosony

          Thanks for the hard work. This creates a new test of how political/mindkilled a piece is. Condense the article then see how many of the words are Fnords. Scott is doing pretty well. Compare:

          “Bitter, White supremacist, teeth gnashing, haunting, fantasyland”

          With Scott’s:

          “remember, nothing, continue, wonder, trigger”

          The article form the right also isn’t doing too bad by this metric.

        • Oligopsony says:

          lol

    • anon says:

      It doesn’t really work. Here’s my attempt. Mostly it is nonsense and doesn’t say anything interesting. A lot of Scott’s post is simply summarizing the views of others. Admittedly I could have done a marginally better job on this, but I was trying to do it quickly.

      I. fnords Educators tools of the titular conspiracy hypnotize panic reaction trigger word “fnord” incapable an unexplained feeling of unease.

      helpless, easily herded adults. Every organ of the media – newspapers, books, cable TV – the secret masters censoring or suppressing it. fnords. become very uncomfortable and upset communists are definitely bad people there’s no reason they need to continue reading the article. Why should they worry about awful things like that

      advertisements.

      II.

      some Internet magazine attempt at the genre of Did You Know Neoreaction Exists You Should Be Outraged. boring “actually, nothing you said was true, why would you say false things?” responses interesting. filler words thin veneer of argument

      [quote omitted]

      no one is meta everyone only pays attention to things when it’s their own opinions under threat the same thing with an article from some website on the right:

      [Omitted.]

      III.

      fnords in real life.

      (trigger warning: tangentially related failed to replicate)

      disgust moral judgments hypnotized to feel disgust trigger word hypnotically forget an “unrelated study” ethnically controversial vignettes.

      “A brother and sister fall in love they have sex.”

      “A brother and sister fall in love they have sex.”

      hypnotized to hate more objectionable hypnotized to hate perfectly reasonable explanations “incest is just wrong” “birth control, but it still bothers me.”

      judge how evil a person trigger word pretty evil! weird justifications “Dan is a popularity-seeking snob” or “It just seems he’s up to something”

      IV.

      something strange.

      someone complaints climate denial, extraordinary efforts Koch brothers in. it’s never just “Why believe climate denialism?” it’s more “Why believe Koch brothers?”

      This is strange acting climate denialism Koch brothers lower its credibility sound evil.

      But this shouldn’t work. Koch brothers fund climate change denial. dislike the Koch brothers. But “Koch brothers!” won’t make you dislike climate change denial more, just remind you disliking climate change (not liking the Kochs). climate change denial, no reason to dislike the Kochs support climate denial, you probably think the Koch brothers are heroes, the movement discrediting it.

      tar climate denial by association make people dislike an idea by linking it to itself. It shouldn’t work.

      Al Gore a lot of these bogeymen

      boring hypotheses interesting one.

      Koch brothers white male billionaires. suspicious. global warming skepticism is tarred by association even though we know nothing else

      boring hypothesis it doesn’t matter Koch brothers some figure funding it’s not a grassroots upswelling genuinely doubtful just one guy (well, two guys) inflict their own weird contrarianism on everyone else.

      interesting hypothesis brain is going loopy

      climate denialism. Koch brothers support climate denialism. that information you don’t like the Koch brothers

      you forget exactly why you don’t like the Koch brothers “it just seems like they’re up to something.”

      someone tells you the Koch brothers support denialism. those bastards I hate it

      two step process to ratchet up your dislike of climate denialism by associating it with itself

      politics so divisive certain words like “Koch brothers” or “Exxon Mobil” become fnords, reservoirs of negative feelings, you read about climate change even if there’s no real argument, you get triggered pretty sure denialists are up to something, the other side fnords – “Climategate”, “hockey stick graph”, the same process. totally incomprehensible arguments: “But how can you be a climate change denier when Koch brothers?! climate change denialism sponsored by the Heartland Institute?!” the other side just nodding their head

      [Edit: now that I read through it all at once, I think that if someone did another pass through this version, they might be able to restrict Scott’s argument to making disparaging remarks about the intelligence of other people and valuing interestingness more than accuracy. He uses hypnotism metaphors a lot – that’s giving extremely low credit to the discernment abilities of the common folk. Maybe something else is a better explanation than stupidity, like signalling. Or maybe we could avoid pessimism altogether.

      I don’t think this tool is useful for evaluating arguments. It is generally too easy to reduce an opponent’s argument into gobbledygook fearmongering no matter what that argument is.]

      • suntzuanime says:

        I feel like Scott Alexander is at best an active control. We would want some actual neutral prose to analyze. Perhaps a Wikipedia article?

        • Thasvaddef says:

          Wikipedia: Reactionary, first 2 sections of. (length 52%)

          Reactionary political viewpoints return to previous state (status quo ante) society. adjective such viewpoints or policies. Reactionaries one end political spectrum opposite pole radicalism, reactionary ideologies themselves radical. not considered positive reactionary adopted self-description Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Gerald Warner Craigenmaddie, Nicolás Gómez Dávila John Lukacs.

          French Revolution politically descriptive words anti-progressive politics: reactionary, conservative and right. French word réactionnaire (late eighteenth-century coinage réaction, “reaction”), conservative conservateur, monarchist parliamentarians opposed to revolution. French usage, reactionary “movement towards reversal of existing tendency ” “return previous condition.” Oxford English Dictionary English-language usage 1799 translation Lazare Carnot’s letter Coup of 18 Fructidor.

          French Revolution, conservative forces (Roman Catholic Church) organized opposition progressive sociopolitical economic changes revolution, fight to restore temporal authority Church Crown. nineteenth-century European politics, reactionary class Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy— clergy, aristocracy, royal families, royalists— national government sole domain Church and state. France, supporters traditional rule direct heirs House of Bourbon dynasty legitimist reaction. Third Republic, monarchists reactionary faction, renamed conservative. forces “reaction” legitimate response often rash “action” French Revolution; nothing inherently derogatory reactionary, principle of waiting opponent’s action take part general reaction. Protestant Christian societies, reactionary supporting tradition against modernity.

          nineteenth century, idealised feudalism pre-modern era—before Industrial Revolution French Revolution— economies agrarian, landed aristocracy dominated society, hereditary king ruled Roman Catholic Church society’s moral center. reactionary favored aristocracy middle class working class. Reactionaries opposed democracy parliamentarism.

        • nydwracu says:

          http://nithgrim.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/more-fnords/

          Would be interesting to do a polisci paper and then a ThinkProgress article, but I don’t have any lying around and haven’t had any coffee yet.

        • James James says:

          Dude, you ought to get off the coffee. Maybe buy a bag of decaf or some caffeine-free diet coke?

  2. Carl Shulman says:

    “The first boring hypothesis is that the Koch brothers are white male billionaires.”

    The Koch/Gore “puzzle” seems like an artifact of your throwing away the information about general political alignments. The Kochs are libertarian Republicans who support many libertarian and conservative causes. Invoking the Kochs mainly says “this is another plot from the right, who you don’t/shouldn’t trust” not “this is another denialist claim from those climate deniers.” In general people get a lot of their policy views by deferring to trusted elites from their political tribes: people change their expressed views about many policies when you say that major figures of their party or a rival party endorse the view.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “The Koch brothers are conservative” seems like a much less widely known fact than “not believing in global warming is a conservative position”. As such I’m not clear what you’re thinking is going on.

      • Carl Shulman says:

        So what? It’s better known than their opposition to global warming, and in talking about invocations of the Kochs one should consider people’s perceptions of the Kochs.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          I’m in agreement with Carl regarding what the Koch brothers are known for. It’s been a while since I’ve kept track of these things, but I seem to recall George Soros being the equivalent liberal bogeyman for the conservatives.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Really? I actually have no idea of the Koch brothers’ political affiliation except as it relates to climate change. I assumed they were conservative only because it fit with their billionaire climate change denier image.

        • gattsuru says:

          I’d expect this sort of self-reinforcing behavior to be most common among folk with at least above-average association with political discussions on these topics. I’d /also/ expect that your method of knowledge is not typical, albeit probably more typical than mine, simply by artifact on not liking to read fnordy-left-wing stuff and as a result seeing more of the very-high-quality and very-low-quality ends of left-wing discussion.

          At least among the parts of the left that discuss these matters, the Koch Brothers are pretty readily tied to a variety of right-wing matters, including during my last look, fighting against minimum wage increases, Citizen’s United and its progeny, patent law, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, public transporation, and the Tea Party. At a deeper level, there’s a certain tendency toward outgroup homogenization : I’ve seen a number of folk assume that the Kochs are classical social conservatives, despite their funding of Reason Magazine.

        • anon says:

          My impression also is that Koch brothers are more known for conservativism than climate denialism specifically. Even more than conservativism, they’re known for being rich and greedy. The idea in associating them with denialism is to claim that they’re trying to lie in order to make more money by avoiding regulations.

          Also, I just birthed a crude mental model of Alone from TLP. He says that people talk about the Koch brothers because they need a scapegoat so they can ignore their own overconsumption.

        • nydwracu says:

          My impression also is that Koch brothers are more known for conservativism…

          Don’t they back a lot of open-borders stuff?

        • mtraven says:

          Really? I actually have no idea of the Koch brothers’ political affiliation except as it relates to climate change.

          Really really? This sort of is disqualifying, since their political role is hardly a secret, especially in the libertarian world. They are major funders of George Mason University where Robin Hanson is based and Less Wrong spun out of, for instance.

          The reason why climate change articles reference the Kochs is ridiculously simple — it is easier to hate or love something with a face than an abstraction. “The coalition of various moneyed interests and wingnuts denying climate change” is a hard thing to get emotional over, but if it has a rich pasty white face, it’s easier.

          You may think this is illegitimate; I think it’s a fact of life.

      • Actually, I mostly had them filed just as ‘conservative’.

        More interestingly, this article mentions that they funded a climate change study … that said “yep, global warming is real”.

        So my mental model of them isn’t so much as climate deniers but as true capitalists willing to work with reality as it is to maximise profits.

    • Zathille says:

      Yeah, pretty much, a mixture of deferring to ‘authorities’ on the subject, mixed with tribal affiliations. At least that is the impression I’ve gotten from my experience.

      Also, I think the idea of Fnords is a very nice one for analysing phenomena such as euphemism treadmills and whatnot.

  3. Multiheaded says:

    STALIN STALIN STALIN STALIN STALIN STALIN STALIN STALIN STALIN STALIN

    Also, Nydwracu obviously hasn’t fnorded the last sentence, it still makes a (banal) point! Hehehe.

  4. Vaniver says:

    So, the Kochs being fnords sometimes leads to hilarious results, because along with supporting libertarian institutions they support things like ballet and hospitals. Every now again I see a primate discover this fact, and it visibly does not compute- “but why would the Kochtopus care about ballet?” Why indeed.

    • Oligopsony says:

      Are there billionaires who don’t support ballet and hospitals? I mean, it’s a big world, I’m sure there are, but.

      • Vaniver says:

        Are there billionaires who don’t support ballet and hospitals?

        Turns out my go-to example of an uncharitable billionaire–Steve Jobs–seems to just have been silent about his charitable giving (the example I’m seeing is ~$50M to a children’s hospital). But ballet is the kicker, and I would expect that many billionaires do not donate to ballet institutions.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Obviously a brilliant meta-plot to use their own fnordhood to make people uncomfortable about ballet and hospitals to pave the way for ending government spending on healthcare and arts.

  5. Kaminiwa says:

    Nydwracu removed filler and transitions and veneer of argument until he stripped the essay to bare essentials: a different perspective on political discourse.

    I do the same thing with an article from the right. both came out 14% of the length of the original article.

    Every time someone complaints about climate denial, they make efforts to name the Koch brothers, like associating climate denialism with the Koch brothers will lower its credibility.

    your opinion of the Koch brothers should equal your opinion of climate denial. It shouldn’t work.But I think it does.

    I have boring hypotheses and an interesting one. interesting hypothesis is that brain forgets not to condition on itself. You forget why you don’t like the Koch brothers, someone tells you the Koch brothers support denialism. you say: “If those bastards support it, I hate it more!”

    you have undergone a two step process to ratchet up your dislike of climate denialism by associating it with itself.

    I wonder if this is what makes politics divisive. Gradually certain words become fnords

    174 words vs 2042 originally = 8.5%

    I went for preserving the point instead of the rhetoric and there were a ton of quotes, but it is interesting having a vivid example of how much verbosity is required to achieve one-to-many communication. I doubt the terse version would get a lot of followers, although *I’d* love to read it someday :))

  6. pwyll says:

    Somewhat offtopic, but the increasing use of “trigger warning” in a humorous sense that I see around the internet puts me in a good mood.

    (My apologies if the above triggered you.)

    • anon says:

      It irritates me a bit, because I think the idea of trigger warnings in general has some merit. Depending on how broad you extend the idea, even labelling something as NSFW qualifies.

      If cognitohazards were a real thing, you can bet that we’d label those. Trigger warnings seem to have similar ideas behind them, and might make a good predecessor of sorts for them in case Science Goes Too Far.

      I don’t like when people mock the arguments of other people behind their backs, and that’s what it feels like when people use “trigger warning” sarcastically. It is very strawmannish. I would prefer that if someone doesn’t like trigger warnings then they simply not talk about them unless someone else initiates the conversation.

      That said, I understand it’s somewhat natural to want to mock the arguments of those you disagree with. But I think that’s a natural tendency that we should try to check whenever possible, even when dealing with terrible arguments, because we want to avoid poor thinking habits.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I did not mean to “mock” trigger warnings in the sense of “hold them up as stupid”, nor do I agree with that.

        The text originally said “warning: study has not been replicated”, but that made me think of trigger warnings and I decided to change it to that because I liked the thought of someone who went into a rage or a panic at unreplicated studies (I only sort of do).

        If it’s going to be misinterpreted as mockery and get me in trouble, I’ll switch it back to just “warning”.

    • suntzuanime says:

      I wish people would say “content warning” instead of “trigger warning” and then it wouldn’t even be a joke. Content warnings are good for everyone, and shouldn’t be limited to things that people assume might trigger people with PTSD (especially given that what actually triggers people with PTSD can be unpredictable).

      One of the things they taught me in engineering school is that it’s often worth trying to figure out accommodations for disabilities in your designs, because they often lead you to general principles that can improve the experience of all users. I think content warnings are like this, because there’s way more people who maybe don’t want to read your graphic rape metaphor than have PTSD that will trigger from it.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Yeah, I’m a little confused as to why Scott switched back to “trigger warning” from “content warning”.

        • Oligopsony says:

          Scott is trending towards NRx, ergo “Tumblr” is The Enemy, ergo making fun of tumblr-associated phrases is more attractive and virtuous

        • Jake says:

          Is he really? That’s so sad. Even more than other political ideologies, neoreactionary ideas are just so obviously and banally stupid, above and beyond their obvious mean-spiritedness.

          What do the fnords look like for that statement?

        • D says:

          Maybe Scott made a typo.

        • AG says:

          What do the fnords look like for that statement?

          “Is he really? That’s so sad. Even more than other political ideologies, neoreactionary ideas are just so obviously and banally stupid, above and beyond their obvious mean-spiritedness.”

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Because I forgot I switched to content warning.

        • Oligopsony says:

          In that case I apologize for the calumny.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          Ah OK. That makes sense. In that case you might want to fix the previous post as well.

        • nydwracu says:

          Here is a story.

          I got assigned to cover the National Policy Institute conference for Theden last year, and ended up arguing with a white nationalist over lunch. There was a reporter there, who either didn’t realize or didn’t care that my name-tag said ‘media’, and so it got spun in the Salon article as some wacky separatist thing. (I was talking about the culture war, which I did not think was so controversial.) Anyway, the reporter made a big deal of my appearance, someone in the comment section said something about female journalists making too big a deal of appearance, and this was followed by many replies insisting that, no, actually, it really did have some sort of cosmic significance that I’d worn black jeans to the thing.

          The cosmic significance was that I’d gotten the call at around midnight the previous night, and hadn’t had time to do laundry.

      • Darcey Riley says:

        Hmm, interesting, can you give an example where accomodating a disability improves the experience of the average user also? I ask because I can’t think of any, and can only think of cases where disability accomodations annoy me. (I’m mostly thinking of noisy things that help the blind: I selfishly wish that street crossings didn’t beep constantly, and I wish even more that the train didn’t announce its location every five minutes while I’m trying to read.)

        • Levi Aul says:

          If you design a website for the screen-readers used by blind users, you’ve incidentally made it accessible to search-engines as well.

        • Khoth says:

          A computer example rather than a physical-thing example: Displaying actual text instead of a picture of text.

        • nydwracu says:

          Beeping street crossings could be an example — it’s easier to read while you’re walking (or do anything that involves not paying attention) if you don’t have to keep looking up at the thing. It would also be useful for when the light breaks, if not for the fact that that seems to be much more common in places where the crossings don’t beep.

        • AJD says:

          Also, the train announcing its location is useful for non-blind passengers who wish to know what the location of the train is.

        • ozymandias says:

          Subtitles.

        • Army1987 says:

          Here’s another sighted person who finds the noisy things that help the blind useful.

        • drethelin says:

          wheelchair accessible bathroom stalls tend to be WAY more comfortable

        • a person says:

          I wish even more that the train didn’t announce its location every five minutes while I’m trying to read.

          What? This is a terrible example. If the train announces its location regularly, then I don’t have to constantly pay attention to the signs and keep a mental map of how far away I am from my destination, I can just listen for my stop to be called. If it bothers you that much, you can always put in headphones.

        • Darcey Riley says:

          Hmm, I’m surprised that I’m the only one bothered by trains announcing their locations! To clarify, the trains I ride on also have nice digital signs that show the next stop, as well as scrolling through the list of stops after that. In light of that, the audio announcements seem superfluous and annoying. But anyway, if everyone else likes the announcements, then I will try to be less grumpy about them.

        • suntzuanime says:

          In general if a device provides redundant feedback in multiple senses, that makes it accessible for those lacking a sense, but it also means I can choose which sense I want to pay attention with. So the example of the bus is, if it chirps out the stops, I can choose whether I want to listen to music and watch for my stop or read a book and listen for it. A lot of things work the same way.

          Another example is handles on doors and the like that are designed to be operable by people with substantial physical disabilities, but this also makes them easier to operate if my hands are full or I’m otherwise encumbered.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Hm, so I guess LW’s “applause lights” and “boo lights” are special cases of ideographs? (Or do they cover it entirely?)

      • nydwracu says:

        I hadn’t heard the term ‘applause lights’ when I read that. I think the original term might be identical to it. But the emphasis is different: the LW post is about applause lights as things you drop in the background to sound Wise, whereas what I was talking about was the use of ideographs to replace argumentation. (Is that the one that talks about that Scruton article? Roger Scruton wrote an article attempting to split the concept of ‘liberty’ into ‘liberty’ and ‘license’, because ‘liberty’ has a positive connotation and ‘license’ has a negative connotation. Anyway, a more common example: if you can successfully associate something with the term ‘racist’, the negative connotations will transfer and the audience will take that as an argument against the thing.)

        I think I said somewhere that ‘ideograph’ should include both ‘applause light’ and ‘fnord’, but now it seems more like ‘applause light’ should include both ‘ideograph’ and ‘fnord’ — both are uses of connotational/exosemantic load, but ideographs are the point of the argument, whereas fnords set the background.

        In a movie, when ominous music plays during a character’s introduction, you don’t think “there is ominous music playing during this character’s introduction”; you think “this must be the bad guy”. That’s like the fnords this post is talking about. But when the good guys say we have to kill Darth Hitler or Stalinzilla or whoever because he “hates our freedoms”, the point of the phrase isn’t to mean anything, but to sound nasty enough that everyone agrees that Stalinzilla must be killed, so that’s an ideograph.

        • Alrenous says:

          Unfortunately, ‘there’s ominous music playing’ is exactly what I think. Then, ‘the writers must want me to think this is a bad guy.’ Yes, I know I’m supposed to turn that off, but I can’t.

  7. suntzuanime says:

    For an illuminating look at the exact opposite, try http://www.objectivegamereviews.com/

  8. Ryan Reich says:

    Your length reduction is broadly similar to the Shannon entropy of English in bits per character (= 8 bits), which is between 0.6 and 1.3, i.e. 7.5% and 16.2%.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Would you mind putting content warnings on images where things hold people’s eyes open or go into people’s eyes, like the link under V.?

  10. Ialdabaoth says:

    You may as well label the whole thing ‘Trigger warning: Moral and epistemological nihilism’.

    You once described (I cannot currently find the link) a feeling when people hammer you with well-reasoned, well-described positions, where you just want to close your ears and say “SHUT UP I’M NOT KNOWLEDGABLE ENOUGH TO KNOW WHY YOU’RE WRONG BUT I CAN’T TELL WHETHER YOUR ARGUMENT IS SOUND OR NOT SO I DON’T WANT TO LISTEN”.

    I’m starting to feel that way more and more. I think I may not be cut out for all this Rationality / Reality crap.

    • Nick says:

      I think you’re thinking of epistemic learned helplessness: http://squid314.livejournal.com/350090.html

      Though I wouldn’t say the problem is with well-reasoned, well-described positions so much as positions for which it is very easy to construct the veneer of a good argument and throw a bunch of evidence behind it. I don’t know where I read this, but someone said recently that conspiracy theorists are hard to deal with, because of course they always have more evidence. It doesn’t mean they’re right, or even have a stronger position, but they will always go to the trouble of marshalling many more arguments as soldiers than almost anyone else.

      • drethelin says:

        epistemic actual helplessness

      • Ialdabaoth says:

        That would be the one, yes. I’m slowly developing this as my default state. I WANT to have convictions, but I have no idea what they even inhere anymore.

    • Alrenous says:

      Err, that’s not irrational.

      Looks like the conflict being the idea you ‘should’ be open to arguments and the fact that you don’t actually care enough for it to be worth the effort. That, plus awareness that you’re likely to be convinced against your will/judgment under certain conditions, means you must ignore the arguments physically rather than merely mentally.

      Looks to me like you’re Accepting your Ignorance.

      As long as you don’t have any dependents whose welfare hinges on the facts in these cases, then you should indeed ignore them.

      But, you want to have convictions. About what? For what purpose?

    • Drake. says:

      A justification for your point of view: I think the concept of “fnords” can be quite easily extended to positively-connotated words, really. It’s trivial to imagine an equivalent “Illuminatus” dystopia wherein the population is hypnotized to feel comfortable/pleasant when they read text with certain words in it, and conspiracy-aiding news is filled with them (wouldn’t make for quite as compelling a read, though).

      In fact, we might as well classify /every/ word with a connotation as a “fnord”, because writing filled with them would give someone a strong emotional reaction without any real logical source. But if we accept that, isn’t essentially every piece of writing, for which the subject is something the author has an opinion on, full of “fnords”? If we can dismiss arguments for containing fnords, it leads to an inability to make points about harmful ideas (eg, anti-vaxxing, w/e) without adding a thin veneer of neutrality.

      Really, the criticism being made of the subject magazine article is that it’s not really making an argument at all, it’s just vomiting out empty negative phrases. Do we actually need a lingo term for “you’re not actually saying anything”? I don’t think so. (On second thought, a lingo term makes the concept more available. Still not really a worthwhile tradeoff for clarity)

      With regards to the more book-related fnords, like “Koch brothers”, the comparison would probably be more apt if there were an actual conspiracy that chose phrases. As it is, they just sort of arise naturally (if they do, in fact, exist), as so are a subset of “words people use to inject emotion without basis”.

      so yeah, i wouldn’t say that the post is *wrong*, par se, it’s just stating the obvious in a misleading way

      • nydwracu says:

        Yes, rhetoric will always be with us; that doesn’t mean it’s not important to understand how it works. Certainly it is more informative than the bizarre and arbitrary list of Informal Fallacies one is forced to memorize in critical thinking classes.

        If nothing else, think of the dark arts applications.

      • Anthony says:

        If we were to ban all reporting with a Connotation Index > 2.0, how much of most “news” media would be left?

  11. Pthagnar says:

    Lloyd de Mause calls this ‘Fantasy Analysis’, and finds it a useful adjunct to his Grand Unified Theory.
    http://www.psychohistory.com/htm/p172x200.htm go down to ‘A FANTASY ANALYSIS OF THE NIXON TAPES’

    He is more explicitly psychoanalytic about it and says:

    One technique I have found useful over the past few years is to go through the historical document, be it a newspaper article, a Presidential speech or a Congressional committee transcript, and pick out only the metaphors, similies, body terms, strong feeling words, repetitive phrases and symbolic terms, and then examine them for thematic content. This technique, which I term Fantasy Analysis, becomes rather easy to do when one realizes that one must first read the original material for overt content, in order to satisfy one’s conscious desire to find out what the person is intentionally saying about “real” events. Then, in a different mind set entirely, the same document must be reread for fantasy content alone. This fantasy content is rarely much more than one percent of the content of the document and can be elicited by following these eight rules:

    Emphasis added. Here’s a Fantasy Analysis he gives in the same book:
    Q: deterioration… collapse?
    A: deterioration…. rapidly increasing… rapidly increasing… deterioration
    A: deadlock
    Q: Dead?
    Q: strains?
    A: over-armed to the teeth… tensions… linked
    Q: action… action?
    A: act… act immediately… tremendous pressure… crisis

    Interestingly, he thinks it has oracular power, and that a trained Psychohistorical adept who pays close attention to both the big news stories *and* the fluffy news stories —

    the “Section Three” portion, which is supposed to contain “lighter” content, but which I have usually found is used to convey hidden group-fantasy messages about the opening news event. On this particular day it showed a mother gorilla giving birth to a premature baby, and kept zooming the camera in on her as she picked up the baby, considered whether she should nurse it, and then put it down again. Wondering at the ease with which we all accept the notion that millions of television dollars are spent to take pictures of nursing gorillas which are then transmitted to tens of millions of people as “entertainment,” I waited expectantly for the next day’s decision by Carter.

    …can predict whether crises will blow up into full wars.

    • Oligopsony says:

      Hey, I have an hypothesis to test. Are you NRx? Because your handle instinctively “sounds” like one, in the way “peradonini” “sounds” Italian.

      (My entryizing persona is going to be “gholkros,” you heard it here first, folks.)

      • Pthagnar says:

        A little bit in, or more realistically, peripheral to neoreaction. I am a little friendly with some of the people in it, and I am kind of sort of *with* Nydwracu in his branch of it, the one with the surrealist names like ‘dextromaoist’ and ‘anarcho-fascist’.

        Pthagnar is a recent modification of a name I have been using since 1998 or so, and is intended to sound vikingy and all that, so you are not wrong. I have written a couple of things for his propaganda organs, though, [one on Laissez Faire: I remember you, or at least your avatar] so you might also just be remembering the name.

      • Oligopsony says:

        You remember correctly. It’s strange what a radially radicalizing thing that forum was.

        • Pthagnar says:

          4sure

          I hope somebody who was more involved in it [and has an appropriate set of intragroup grievances and alliances [and doxxing notes]] than I was writes a better history of it some day.

      • peterdjones says:

        And mine, sirrah, shalt be Dorklicious the Uberuncool, for so I sayeth and thuswise mote it be!

  12. BenSix says:

    It would be interesting, if dishonest, to make up people, associate them with controversial ideas and see if they become part of the arguments against them. “Oh, well, if Edward Q. Barnbolt is involved we know it’s trouble…”

    • Darcey Riley says:

      Oh man this sounds like a ridiculous amount of fun. It would also be a really good way to watch how ideas percolate through the internet; all you’d have to do is keep track of who used the name and when. (Fortunately for humanity, I am way too lazy to actually try this.)

  13. Daniel Armak says:

    This kind of analysis appears in Asimov’s *Foundation*. They analyze a long and flowery international treaty, and reduce it to a few words, which are contrary to what fans of the treaty assumed it said. They even have professional semanticists to do this analysis. (Sounds a bit Raikothian, perhaps?)

    • Pthagnar says:

      haha, i forgot about the meaningless treaty from Anacreon — wonder if that’s where demause got it from. Psychohistory and psychohistory are more alike than usually thought.

      • anon says:

        I’m hoping there’s no typo and you’re a mysteriously wise old man.

        • Pthagnar says:

          Psychohistory is a fictional theory about predicting the future in broad themes, which yields prudent advice, based on applying statistical mechanics to sociology.

          Psychohistory is a fringe theory about retrodicting the past in broad themes, which yields prudent advice, based on applying Freudian psychoanalysis to history.

          be careful not to confuse the two

    • peppermint says:

      Yeah, that’s an applause line. The idea that the people negotiating that treaty didn’t know what it meant is not to be believed.

    • Nornagest says:

      Don’t remember it in Foundation, but I do remember a similar scene in Illuminatus, appropriately enough. And another in Watchmen.

  14. Handle says:

    Having seen a little of how the political-media sausage is made, I can tell you that the repeated use of this terms in association is a result of conventional focus group polling and a little bit of the RCT web-magic version where you spit a lot of possible combinations at people and see which pages gets the eyeball time and clicks.

    So it’s not fully a guilt-by-association conspiracy, there is an evolutionary feed-back discovery process in the influence industry looking for the most effective phrases and combinations to produce whatever effect one is going after. The tendency to respond viscerally to certain fnord messages is already hard-wired in a lot of people.

    • nydwracu says:

      a little bit of the RCT web-magic version where you spit a lot of possible combinations at people and see which pages gets the eyeball time and clicks

      I have no idea where it is, but I remember seeing an article about the inner workings of Upworthy, in which it is mentioned that this is how they test their headlines before finalizing them.

    • Paul Torek says:

      Sure. But there’s still room for hypotheses about why people care about the Koch brothers.

      And I really, really like Scott’s second boring hypothesis:

      what matters is the claim that there is some figure funding the movement, that it’s not a grassroots upswelling of people genuinely doubtful of global warming

      This works perfectly for Al Gore too (substitute drum-beating for funding). This is why, even when the wings are trying to convince the center, they bring in the bogeymen.

  15. drethelin says:

    Scott Adams often writes about deliberately using techniques he has learned from hypnosis in his writing to create certain emotions and associations in readers. I think this is probably something that happens unconsciously for people who are naturally “persuasive” writers. It might also be something that self-propagates as people repeat phrases to each other.

  16. F says:

    One of the strangest things is that in the supposedly market loving American culture, “corporate” and “corporation” are fnord words; they are used make anything sound sinister.

    Example: Lex Luthor heads a corporation. He’s a corporate head. Bruce Wayne is more like a captain of industry.

    The Italian equivalents of big corporation have a positive ring; there is no equivalent fnord word in Italian. How can this be, when America is known for being so much more capitalistic and market loving than Italy? I don’t get it.

    • Oligopsony says:

      At the level of ideology, the US romance is with the single proprietorship: small business, entrepreneur, and successful (=high income) are all applause lights. Americans dislike “big business” and “big government” (again, at the level of ideology, and engaging in a lot of generalization) as deviations from the autonomous petit bourgeois ideal.

    • Steve Johnson says:

      xNR argues that the reason for this is “America is a communist country”.

  17. CaptainBooshi says:

    A few weeks ago, I noticed something strange.

    Every time someone complaints about climate denial, they make extraordinary efforts to get the name of the Koch brothers in. Like it’s never just “Why do so many people believe climate denialism?” it’s more “Why do so many people believe climate denialism, as funded by people like the Koch brothers?”

    You really need to start enforcing higher quality control on what you read, Scott. I’ll take your word that people do this as often as you say, even though I never really see it myself, but I will argue that this means you need to start seeking out better environments, where they don’t feel the need to do this. These and other weak arguments really seem to frustrate you, as well, so it would probably be healthier for you, too.

  18. Anthony says:

    According to the book, the only section of the newspaper without any fnords at all is the advertisements.

    They certainly got that wrong.

  19. Pingback: Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » Fnord Prefect

  20. peppermint says:

    hey, there’s a word for this! Some day, NRx will descend into cant, and probably sound like “socialism completely government run pure single-payer… slip-shod failure run-amok bureaucrats don’t tell me the problem is not enough government money… socialism doesn’t work who opposed market choice and competition”.

    Honestly, I would accuse the techno-commercialist strand of NRx of sounding like that today.

    I wonder what The Latter-day Pamphlets would sound like with this filter.

    Vox Day would reply that rhetoric is meaningless without dialectic, and dialectic is more forceful with rhetoric.

    • Pthagnar says:

      That day has been and gone already. Perhaps eventually, for better or worse, neoreaction will become *more* than cant, but it seems unlikely.

  21. Lesser Bull says:

    I’m not gonna lie. That was pretty depressing.

  22. Hillary Clinton seems like another example– or at least my casual reading of conservatives tells me that they think she’s Just Awful, but they never explain why.

    • Piano says:

      > she
      That should explain it.

      • Matthew says:

        Clearly not sufficient explanation. Sarah Palin was genuinely popular among conservatives at a particular moment in time. Margaret Thatcher much more broadly so.

        • Do conservatives tend to hate liberal women more than they hate liberal men?

        • Zathille says:

          This question seems to pressupose it’s a matter of hatred rather than disagreement and political rivalry.

          Consider a symmetrical question: “Do progressives hate conservative men more than conservative women?” I hope this explicitates the stereotyping implicit in the question.

          • I think it’s fair to talk about hatred when I can’t tell what they’ve got against Hillary Clinton.

            It’s possible that I’m not reading the right things, but it wasn’t hard to find out what left-wingers had against GW Bush.

        • Zathille says:

          Just thought that the question of why conservatives object to Hillary Clinton could be asked without such negative valence, which i think would improve the chances of it not being taken as an insult.

          Edit: when one advises another to try avoiding unnescessary negative-connotation wording, one should be sure to check if they’re following the same advice. Sorry.

        • Anthony says:

          “Do progressives hate conservative men more than conservative women?”

          No, they hate conservative women far more than conservative men. Observe progressive reactions to Ann Coulter vs Rush Limbaugh, or Sarah Palin vs Paul Ryan (or even Dan Quayle!), or Ayn Rand vs Freidrich Hayek, or Michelle Bachman vs John Boehner, or Phyllis Schlafly vs Jerry Falwell.

          • That’s remarkably hard to calibrate. I’d say the response to Limbaugh and Coulter has been fairly similar, and Rand and Hayek were doing sufficiently different things (high emotional charge novelist vs. medium intensity economist) that I wouldn’t put them in the same category even if their conclusions were similar.

        • blacktrance says:

          A lot of the people in those comparisons differ in style, substance, or both, and I think those differences are more explanatory than the differences in gender. Also, from what I’ve seen, Falwell got more negative reactions than Schlafly did – probably because he was more prominent.

          (Also, Hayek is only vaguely conservative, while Rand isn’t conservative at all.)

          I think the negative reaction to Hillary Clinton has less to do with her as a woman and more with her as a Clinton. Bill Clinton was a successful Democratic president and remains popular today – popular in a way that Obama isn’t. I suspect a large proportion of opposition to her is based on fear.

  23. Matthew says:

    Holy cow, Weinersmith has had the process automated: nurble, nurble