Brian_Tomasik

1041Joined Aug 2014

Comments
229

I see. :) I would think people would consider biological differences much more plausible in the gender case than the race case. I've heard several people say that when you're a parent to both a boy and a girl, the differences between them are unmistakeable even in the first ~2 years. I think many American adults at least privately understand that there are big biological differences between the brains of men and women, while most American adults probably expect no non-trivial biological racial brain differences. But yeah, any particular gender difference, such as the language gap, could be mostly or all environmental.

Thanks. :) I feel somewhat bad about spending time on this topic rather than my usual focus areas, especially since many of my points were already made by others. Plus, as I mentioned and as Bostrom learned, anything you say about controversial topics online is fodder for political enemies to take out of context. But I have a (maybe non-utilitarian) impulse to stick up for what I think is right even if some people will dislike me for doing so. (For a time, my top-level comment here had a net agreement of -10 or so. Of course, maybe the downvoters were correct and I'm wrong.)

Interesting! I admit I didn't go and read the original discussion thread, so thanks for that context. To the extent that Bostrom was arguing against being needlessly shocking, he was kind of already making the same point that his critics have been making: don't say needlessly shocking things. He didn't show enough sensitivity/empathy in the process of presenting the example and explaining why it was bad, but he was writing a quick email to friends, not a carefully crafted political announcement intended to be read by thousands of people.

Some notes on the last paragraph in my above comment:

When I used the phrase "SJWs", I intended it to have either neutral valence or a valence of friendly teasing. I agree with some amount of the SJW agenda myself. However, Wikipedia says that since 2011, the term is primarily used as an insult and is associated with the alt-right, which was not an implication I had in mind. Like Bostrom's 1996 email and 2023 apology, this example is an illustration that it can be difficult to realize exactly how a given word or statement may be perceived, especially if people are reading it as if it were a dog whistle.

Part of my reason for using the term "SJW" was that I didn't want to say merely "leftist" or "progressive". I was a strong leftist and progressive in the early aughts, and back then, people with that ideology were, in my experience, generally more focused on trying to improve people's welfare via economic and other government-level policy. Progressives didn't spend as much time as they do now on shaming individual people or groups. I think the woke-ward shift of the last decade, while it raises some important issues that were less highlighted in the past, is plausibly overall less useful for improving total human welfare than the earlier economic and policy focus was. So I don't like conflating "woke" with "progressive". (That said, I think some progressive economic policy positions, such as against outsourcing American jobs to developing nations, may be net bad for short-term human welfare.)

A more neutral phrasing than "SJW" could have been just "social-justice activist".

As far as the other part of my phrasing, when I said that most social-justice activists "think it's fine to enslave and murder" non-human animals, I was in part being deliberately provocative to make a point. Bostrom is right when he says in his apology: "I do think that provocative communication styles have a place". If I had instead written that most social-justice activists "think it's acceptable for farmers to raise and slaughter livestock", the use of those conventional euphemisms would have dulled what I was trying to convey, which is that this practice is actually really awful. (BTW, I should also acknowledge that I myself pay for some amount of enslavement and murder of dairy cows, via eating cheese and ice cream. However, I think the total amount of harm this causes is much lower than the harm caused by eating meat from smaller farm animals.)

Provocation can shock people out of their normal way of seeing the world into looking at some fact in a different light. This seems to be roughly what Bostrom was saying in the first paragraph of his 1996 email. However, in the case of that email, it's unclear what socially valuable fact he was trying to shock people into seeing in a new way.

One function of comedy is to do roughly the same thing: stating some true fact in an unconventional way in order to make people see the world through a new lens. However, an important principle in comedy is the distinction between "punching up" and "punching down", and if we interpret Bostrom's 1996 statement as analogous to provocative humor, it would clearly be punching down.

It's fairly common and even celebrated in modern Western society to hear statements like "women are more productive than men" or "girls are smarter at language than boys". Many of these statements are made in fairly blunt language, similar to Bostrom's 1996 statement. I assume most people think these statements about female superiority are pretty harmless, both because they're seen more as "punching up" (given the history of men dominating women in much of the world until the late 20th century) and because the hypothesis of biological gender differences is less taboo and more scientifically established. But I do think the contrast in people's reactions between saying "boys are worse at language than girls" versus Bostrom's 1996 statement is interesting, and it shows that the degree of outrage a statement provokes is often not obvious unless you have a lot of experience with a specific culture's norms.

I do worry a bit that the casual misandry that society often seems to celebrate may be detrimental to the self-esteem of boys, though I'm also not interested in trying to police such language. It's plausible to me that some amount of humorous mocking between different groups is actually helpful, by showing people that we can laugh together, rather than priming ourselves to interpret any offensive statement as an act of aggression.

Good list. :)

I think school is vastly less bad than, say, slavery, with some possible exceptions like if there's extreme bullying at the school.

You're right that the violence children endure from each other (and sometimes from their own parents) would be unacceptable if done to adults. If one adult hits another, that's criminal assault/battery. If a kid hits another kid, that's just Tuesday.

Children are also subject to the arbitrary whims of their parents, and are made to do unpaid labor against their will, though usually parents don't treat their own children extremely badly. (Of course, some parents do horrifically abuse or neglect their children.)

In any case, as you said, to some extent the lack of freedom for children is inevitable. (Actually, there is a way to avoid it entirely: don't have children, which is the antinatalist solution. If sentient beings didn't exist, none of the problems we're discussing here would be problems anymore.)

We ought to move back to the attitude that it is an ideal to not care about race, sex, gender, sexual orientation etc rather than that we need to always be thinking about these things.

I plausibly agree. There are times and places to bring up racism and sexism, their historical contexts, and instances where they still exist today. But I also get the sense that people would generally be happier (plausibly even many minorities(?), though I'm not at all sure about that) if they ruminated on these ideas less often. Rumination can both exacerbate the pain of actual injustices and make one perceive injustices where they may not actually exist or don't exist much (manspreading, Shirtgate, etc). Note that this point can also apply to anti-woke people: focusing a bit less on the perceived wrongs of cancel culture might make them happier.

Believers in genetic racial IQ gaps often say their viewpoint is needed in cases like affirmative action, to show that it's not necessarily discriminatory if the demographic composition of some elite group doesn't match the demographic composition of the whole population. But if we were more race-blind and didn't think much about demographic composition to begin with, then talking about the possibility of genetic racial IQ gaps would also be less relevant. In order for this to work, society would also have to improve on providing better education, nutrition, income, etc to poorer parts of society, because otherwise not thinking much about the demographic composition of elite groups could lead to not noticing the substantial environmental and cultural causes of inequality that definitely still remain and that affirmative action aims to overcome. OTOH, maybe it's naive to expect significant improvement in society's motivation to actually raise the living standards of poor people, in which case the "kludge" of affirmative action might be better than nothing.

I think having a few visible examples of minorities in powerful positions, such as the first black or female president of the USA, can be pretty valuable as inspiring role models. It may also be the case that people would be deterred from entering workplaces where there are too few "of one's own kind" (race, gender, etc), such as because of fearing harassment. Maybe most humans are actually too tribalistic to pull off race-blindness, gender-blindness, etc. IDK.

In any case, I suspect it's generally more fruitfuil to focus on helping poor people (of all races) economically than to focus on, say, discrimination in hiring, because I think economic and cultural inequalities drive a lot of the inequality in outcome that we observe. In elite settings, my experience is that hiring discrimination is often in the direction of favoring black, women, gay, etc candidates, though I'm sure discrimination against such groups still happens somewhat too.

Even fewer probably think it is acceptable to commit acts of violence against a group because they are a member of a groups with a lower than average level of cognitive ability. I really never see these attitudes.

I imagine those attitudes were common during slavery and colonization. For example, the Europeans who arrived in the New World in the centuries after 1492 probably considered the indigenous people inferior and therefore didn't feel as guilty about enslaving or murdering them.

In the contemporary West, I agree that the view you mention seems rarer. Society tends to take less action against violence or hardship endured by very poor people, and poverty correlates with lower cognitive ability, but this isn't an intentional part of society's ideology so much as a byproduct of apathy.

In the case of non-human animals, even most SJWs think it's fine to enslave and murder them, and probably a main reason SJWs would cite for this is that non-human animals have different brains than humans do, though it's unclear how much this reason is about intelligence per se versus sentience.

I hadn't thought of that, but it's an excellent point and probably is a big part of the explanation. There are a few cases where it might not apply, such as if a mother stays at home with her kids during her 20s and 30s, enters the workforce in her 40s, and faces ageism because she's not as sharp as the younger people. In that case, she never once was a sharp young person in the workplace. But these kinds of cases also tend to be ones where people feel that ageism is more of a problem.

It's a great point, and not at all aggressive. :)

I said that 23-year-olds should demonstrate "a track record of unusual maturity" in order to have important positions, not that they should always be denied them. In some cases, such as becoming the president of the USA, a minimum age requirement may make sense because the stakes are so high, although one could say that we should just let voters decide if any given person is qualified.

But you're right that I support a strong prior against, say, tasking a 23-year-old to run a major organization -- a prejudice that needs to be overcome with strong enough evidence of maturity and competence -- in a way that it would be abhorrent to do for a member of a particular racial group.

It's interesting to ponder the reasons for different attitudes toward racism vs ageism. My two main guesses are:

  1. Average differences in traits based on age are sometimes quite large, enough that the value of using the prejucide for making predictions can exceed the unfairness downsides of stereotyping people. For example, my impression is that young men are on average much riskier drivers than older men, so there's not a ton of society-level outrage about charging 16-year-old men several times more for car insurance than 55-year-old men, although I imagine that many individual young men who are cautious drivers are rightly annoyed by this situation.

  2. Historical context leads us to treat racial / sexual / etc discrimination more seriously than discrimination based on age, height, extroversion, etc. As far as I know, there hasn't been a lot of genocide against short people of the same race, or enslavement of them, or forcing them to use separate bathrooms, etc. A main argument for caution about racial stuff is a slippery slope concern that there's some small chance that allowing more callousness on these issues could actually lead to a new genocide, so the expected value of worrying about it is nontrivial, even if the risk of the genocide is very low. (That said, excessive mob punishment of people for not following ever-more-demanding requirements regarding proper speech and conduct may itself pose a very small risk of genocidal outcomes, and it's non-obvious whether this risk is smaller or larger than the racial genocide risk in the modern West. It may also be the case that the hostility between the extreme woke and extreme anti-woke camps makes both of them stronger, at the expense of moderate voices, thereby increasing both types of genocide risk at once.)

There are some types of discrimination that receive surprisingly little sympathy despite the lifelong trauma they can cause people, such as favoritism toward attractive people. Even woke Hollywood -- despite extraordinary efforts to introduce diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on -- rarely casts unattractive actors for leading roles. Maybe this is understandable, because those movies would usually perform poorly at the box office, and for whatever reason, there's not enough social outrage about discrimination against unattractive people to offset that. (To the extent that one point of watching a movie is to see attractive people, maybe one could argue that unattractive people are genuinely less qualified for the job, and no amount of new evidence could overcome that fact. This would make attractiveness discrimination unfortunate but not stereotyping. OTOH, there's some chance that if the unattractive person were given the leading role, s/he would charm audiences to a degree that the movie's creators didn't expect, in which case it could be similar to the case of a surprisingly wise 23-year-old.)

Interesting point! I hadn't even heard of "stating one's pronouns while introducing oneself", although maybe that's because I rarely meet anyone in person.

As you said, there's a tension between young people having the cutting edge of norms versus older people knowing a greater quantity of norms, even though some may be stale.

I think the obsession among young people with political correctness increased dramatically in the last 10 years, and it was barely a discussion topic when I was in pre-college school. Usually it seemed to be teachers and administrators trying to inculcate anti-bullying lessons into the students. At the anti-bullying workshops, students often rolled their eyes. So I'm not sure how true it would have been to say that students were at the vanguard of social norms in my school. (I went to a pretty liberal public school in upstate New York.)

I may also be generalizing too much from my own past self, since I was often called "oblivious" at Bostrom's 23-year age and wasn't that well informed about scandals, maybe because I thought they were too gossip-y and not as important as "serious" topics. (Now I realize that gossip is actually very important.)

If Bostrom learned anything -- and indeed, he apologized within 24 hours -- it was that saying something like that can be inadvisable even among friends.

Yeah. He also said he only "recently" began to believe that speaking flippantly is unsuccessful, which I think jibes with my hypothesis of him being fairly oblivious. Many people would consider the ineffectiveness of speaking flippantly so obvious as to not be worth mentioning as any kind of realization.

Thanks. :) I mainly had in mind something more like wisdom, rather than intelligence. Social norms on particular topics are often not what you would expect by armchair reasoning. In many cases, you have to directly encounter people expressing those norms, or see news stories / hear gossip about people who have run afoul of those norms, to know what they are. Nerds who are very interested in science/math/theoretical things may be less likely to learn about these norms than the average person, despite having high fluid intelligence. (BTW, this is one reason I've updated toward thinking reading some amount of news is important.) I imagine that people told Bostrom that what he said in 1996 wasn't cool, and if so, that was a useful learning experience for him. The only problem was that it was written down for posterity to see.

I think cultural context is also relevant to judging these things. Most young people today (even most nerds) know that what Bostrom said (even though it was in the context of giving an example of what you shouldn't say) would elicit strong negative reactions, given how much media attention these things receive. I assume this was less obvious to nerds in the 1990s (though it was probably fairly predictable even back then).

For what it's worth, my fifth-grade class was assigned to read The Great Gilly Hopkins, which includes a tasteless joke about the N-word (though in the context of suggesting the person making it was being an asshole). And in high school, in 2005, when reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we used the N-word in relation to Jim without any problems, because that's the word Twain used. The degree of sensitivity around these things has changed a lot in the last 10-20 years.

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