Fashionable or Fundamental Thought in Communities

There’s a couple interesting things about the 2011 LessWrong post, “Approving reinforces low-effort behaviors.

The post itself is fascinating to re-read — there’s some valuable and profitable ideas in there.

But two sentences also stood out to me on more of a meta-level, and prompted some interesting thought —

>”Unlike the first class of behaviors, we expect to experience akrasia when dealing with this latter sort.”

>”This process is especially important to transhumanists.”

Reading that post made me remember what LessWrong was like in 2011 — discussions on akrasia (“acting against one’s better judgment”) and transhumanism were much more common.

Both of these concepts have, to some extent, cycled out of the common discussions on rationality. They still happen, sure, but much less frequently.

On the other hand, certain lines of thought and concepts seem to have become part of the fundamentals of LessWrong and the broader rationalist community. When I mean by “fundamentals” here is more like in sports than in religion — dribbling is a fundamental skill in basketball, and gets practiced by all basketball players.

It’s interesting to reflect on why this might happen with a given set of concepts in a community. Akrasia certainly seems like it could become a fundamental area of constant study for people in this space, and yet it did not to the extent that, say, cognitive biases did.

Cognitive biases became a fundamental piece of the rationalist community and has been stably so, whereas it seems like akrasia was more of an intellectual fashion for a time.

I started thinking on why. Here’s a few reasons I came up with —

  1. “Solved Problems” are more likely to become fundamentals than areas with disputed or inconsistent solutions. This seems obvious. The Conjunction Fallacy is a cognitive bias that’s very common. With some (very basic) statistics and probability theory, it’s very clearly proven why one’s natural intution in that area is mistaken. After learning it, you make those mistakes less often going forwards. Compare to akrasia which has been around thousands of years — we’re using the Ancient Greek word for it, after all — and which hasn’t been anywhere close to fully solved.

  2. Ideas that are at the “bottom of tech trees” are more likely to become fundamentals. Game theory has many practical applications for individual decisionmaking, group coordination, predicting the behavior of others, incentives, etc. So game theory becomes a fundamental, similarly to how arithmetic is a fundamental in mathematics. These are necessary to build upon. Whereas ideas at the “top of a tech tree” are more likely to be explored in a cyclical fashion — a topic like, say, designing cities from scratch could conceivably become popular for a while but is rather unlikely to become a core fundamental area of study here, even if there were some “solved problems” in that branch of study.

  3. Current events likely drive some topical interest. It seems politics and communication are both more fashionable here than in the past, which is probably because we’re in a somewhat strange and surprising political climate.

  4. We’re possibly more likely to entertain certain ideas in optimistic or pessimistic periods, and that drives some fashionability of discussions. Transhumanism is an inherently very optimistic idea. I think it’d be fair to say that much of the world at large is in a slightly more pessimistic environment right now than it was in 2011. That might make it harder to get mainstream traction and positive feedback loops on transhumanism, but might make it easier to get traction and discussion on AI Safety and Existential Risk.

  5. Randomness and variance. A great post goes up on a day that a lot of people are logged into LessWrong for some reason, a lot of people read it and comment and go on to write on that subject too, and it becomes a popular subject for a while. Some randomness might drive ideas into fashionability for a while, or not, just due to unpredictable chance around who is logged in and reads a given post or not, independent of the post’s quality. Even if an idea was more tangential and not really critically fundamental, perhaps if it had a few “randomly boosted” cycles of importance, maybe it’d get a lot of thought and interest and become a fundamental topic. This last point is particularly interesting and perhaps even a little scary to behold — how much of what becomes an intellectual lineage is dominated by randomness? Maybe moreso than we’d think. Survivor’s bias and all that, too.

That’s not a comprehensive list, but I think it might kick off an interesting conversation.

Why do some ideas in a community — like ours, and other communities — merely cycle through fashionablity and unfashionablity, while other ideas become a fundamental and enduring part of the discussion that all new members are encouraged and generally expected to learn?

An interesting topic, no? Your thoughts?