If I were an actor in an improv show, and my prompt was “annoying person who’s never read any economics, criticizing economists”, I think I could nail it. I’d say something like:
Economists think that they can figure out everything by sitting in their armchairs and coming up with ‘models’ based on ideas like ‘the only motivation is greed’ or ‘everyone behaves perfectly rationally’. But they didn’t predict the housing bubble, they didn’t predict the subprime mortgage crisis, and they didn’t predict Lehman Brothers. All they ever do is talk about how capitalism is perfect and government regulation never works, then act shocked when the real world doesn’t conform to their theories.
This criticism’s very clichedness should make it suspect. It would be very strange if there were a standard set of criticisms of economists, which practically everyone knew about and agreed with, and the only people who hadn’t gotten the message yet were economists themselves. If any moron on a street corner could correctly point out the errors being made by bigshot PhDs, why would the PhDs never consider changing?
A few of these are completely made up and based on radical misunderstandings of what economists are even trying to do. As for the rest, my impression is that economists not only know about these criticisms, but invented them. During the last few paradigm shifts in economics, the new guard levied these complaints against the old guard, mostly won, and their arguments percolated down into the culture as The Correct Arguments To Use Against Economics. Now the new guard is doing their own thing – behavioral economics, experimental economics, economics of effective government intervention. The new paradigm probably has a lot of problems too, but it’s a pretty good bet that random people you stop on the street aren’t going to know about them.
As a psychiatrist, I constantly get told that my field is about “blaming everything on your mother” or thinks “everything is serotonin deficiency“. The first accusation is about forty years out of date, the second one a misrepresentation of ideas that are themselves fifteen years out of date. Even worse is when people talk about how psychiatrists ‘electroshock people into submission’ – modern electroconvulsive therapy is safe, painless, and extremely effective, but very rarely performed precisely because of the (obsolete) stereotype that it’s barbaric and overused. The criticism is the exact opposite of reality, because reality is formed by everybody hearing the criticism all the time and over-reacting to it.
If I were an actor in an improv show, and my prompt was “annoying person who’s never read anything about rationality, criticizing rationalists”, it would go something like:
Nobody is perfectly rational, and so-called rationalists obviously don’t realize this. They think they can get the right answer to everything just by thinking about it, but in reality intelligent thought requires not just brute-force application of IQ but also domain expertise, hard-to-define-intuition, trial-and-error, and a humble openness to criticism and debate. That’s why you can’t just completely reject the existing academic system and become a self-taught autodidact like rationalists want to do. Remember, lots of Communist-style attempts to remake society along seemingly ‘rational’ lines have failed disastrously; you shouldn’t just throw out the work of everyone who has come before because they’re not rational enough for you. Heck, being “rational” is kind of like a religion, isn’t it: you’ve got ‘faith’ that rational thought always works, and trying to be rational is your ‘ritual’. Anyway, rationality isn’t everything – instead of pretending to be Spock, people should remain open to things like emotions, art, and relationships. Instead of just trying to be right all the time, people should want to help others and change the world.
Like the economics example, these combine basic mistakes with legitimate criticisms levied by rationalists themselves against previous rationalist paradigms or flaws in the movement. Like the electroconvulsive therapy example, they’re necessarily the opposite of reality because they take the things rationalists are most worried about and dub them “the things rationalists never consider”.
There have been past paradigms for which some of these criticisms are pretty fair. I think especially of the late-19th/early-20th century Progressive movement. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Le Corbusier, George Bernard Shaw, Marx and the Soviets, the Behaviorists, and all the rest. Even the early days of our own movement on Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong had a lot of this.
But notice how many of those names are blue. Each of those links goes to book reviews, by me, of books studying those people and how they went wrong. So consider the possibility that the rationalist community has a plan somewhat more interesting than just “remain blissfully unaware of past failures and continue to repeat them again and again”.
Modern rationalists don’t think they’ve achieved perfect rationality; they keep trying to get people to call them “aspiring rationalists” only to be frustrated by the phrase being too long (my compromise proposal to shorten it to “aspies” was inexplicably rejected). They try to focus on doubting themselves instead of criticizing others. They don’t pooh-pooh academia and domain expertise – in the last survey, about 20% of people above age 30 had PhDs. They don’t reject criticism and self-correction; many have admonymous accounts and public lists of past mistakes. They don’t want to blithely destroy all existing institutions – this is the only community I know where interjecting with “Chesterton’s fence!” is a universally understood counterargument which shifts the burden of proof back on the proponent. They’re not a “religion” any more than everything else is. They have said approximately one zillion times that they don’t like Spock and think he’s a bad role model. They include painters, poets, dancers, photographers, and novelists. They…well…”they never have romantic relationships” seems like maybe the opposite of the criticism that somebody familiar with the community might apply. They are among the strongest proponents of the effective altruist movement, encourage each other to give various percents of their income to charity, and founded or lead various charitable organizations.
Look. I’m the last person who’s going to deny that the road we’re on is littered with the skulls of the people who tried to do this before us. But we’ve noticed the skulls. We’ve looked at the creepy skull pyramids and thought “huh, better try to do the opposite of what those guys did”. Just as the best doctors are humbled by the history of murderous blood-letting, the best leftists are humbled by the history of Soviet authoritarianism, and the best generals are humbled by the history of Vietnam and Iraq and Libya and all the others – in exactly this way, the rationalist movement hasn’t missed the concerns that everybody who thinks of the idea of a “rationalist movement” for five seconds has come up with. If you have this sort of concern, and you want to accuse us of it, please do a quick Google search to make sure that everybody hasn’t been condemning it and promising not to do it since the beginning.
We’re almost certainly still making horrendous mistakes that people thirty years from now will rightly criticize us for. But they’re new mistakes. They’re original and exciting mistakes which are not the same mistakes everybody who hears the word “rational” immediately knows to check for and try to avoid. Or at worst, they’re the sort of Hofstadter’s Law-esque mistakes that are impossible to avoid by knowing about and compensating for them.
And I hope that maybe having a community dedicated to carefully checking its own thought processes and trying to minimize error in every way possible will make us have slightly fewer horrendous mistakes than people who don’t do that. I hope that constant vigilance has given us at least a tiny bit of a leg up, in the determining-what-is-true field, compared to people who think this is unnecessary and truth-seeking is a waste of time.