Hide table of contents

Linkposting, tagging and excerpting in accord with 'Should pretty much all content that's EA-relevant and/or created by EAs be (link)posted to the Forum?'.

Scott Alexander's writing is always entertaining, but sometimes, for me, it can be overly long and poetic, with the key message less crisp amongst all the other words. This is one of those times.


My attempt at distilling Alexander's ~2,500 words to ~100:

The problem is when someone chooses to apply philosophical rigor selectively.

[emphasis added]


But if he only applies his new theory when he wants other people’s cows, then we have a problem. Philosophical rigor, usually a virtue, has been debased to an isolated demand for rigor in cases where it benefits Heraclitus.

[For context, Heraclitus was an ancient Greek character who Alexander uses as a case study.]

A fair use of philosophical rigor would prevent both Heraclitus and his victims from owning property, and thus either collapse under its own impracticality or usher in a revolutionary new form of economic thinking. An isolated demand for philosophical rigor, applied by Heraclitus to other people but never the other way around, would merely give Heraclitus an unfair advantage in the existing system.


Alexander discusses ethical rigor as well as philosophical rigor, though in fact, when it comes to isolated demands, I see nothing overly special about philosophy or ethics: one can make isolated demands of any flavour of rigor. Another noteworthy flavour—experimental rigor.

For me, an isolated demand for rigor as fundamentally the same mental motion as motivated skepticism. Compare:

Applied inconsistently, you’re just stealing cows again, coming up with a clever argument against the programs you don’t like while defending the ones you do.


Motivated skepticism is the mistake of applying more skepticism to claims that you don't like (or intuitively disbelieve), than to claims that you do like.


Here follow three examples of "isolated demand for rigor" used out in the wild, which I think do a good job of further illustrating the concept:

I want to register a gripe: when Eliezer says that he, Demis Hassabis, and Dario Amodei have a good "track record" because of their qualitative prediction successes, Jotto objects that the phrase "track record" should be reserved for things like Metaculus forecasts.

But when Ben Garfinkel says that Eliezer has a bad "track record" because he made various qualitative predictions Ben disagrees with, Jotto sets aside his terminological scruples and slams the retweet button.


It already sounded a heck of a lot like an isolated demand for rigor to me, but if you're going to redefine "track record" to refer to  a narrow slice of the evidence, you at least need to do this consistently, and not crow some variant of 'Aha! His track record is terrible after all!' as soon as you find equally qualitative evidence that you like.

Bensinger (2022)

  • I think I'm confused about the quality of the review process so far. Both the number and quality of the reviewers John contacted for this book seemed high. However, I couldn't figure out what the methodology for seeking reviews is here.
    • To be clear, I'm aware that this is an isolated demand for rigor. My impression is that very few other EA research organizations have a very formal and legible process for prepublication reviews.
    • However, I think for a report of this scope, it might be valuable to have a fairly good researcher sit down and review the report very carefully, in a lot of detail.

Zhang (2022)

I'm pretty confused about the argument made by this post. Pascal's Mugging seems like a legitimately important objection to expected value based decision theory, and all of these thought experiments are basically flavours of that.


Is your complaint that this is an isolated demand for rigor? 

Nanda (2022)




No comments on this post yet.
Be the first to respond.
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities