Why Our Kind Can’t Cooperate

From when I was still forced to attend, I remember our synagogue’s annual fundraising appeal. It was a simple enough format, if I recall correctly. The rabbi and the treasurer talked about the shul’s expenses and how vital this annual fundraise was, and then the synagogue’s members called out their pledges from their seats.

Straightforward, yes?

Let me tell you about a different annual fundraising appeal. One that I ran, in fact; during the early years of a nonprofit organization that may not be named. One difference was that the appeal was conducted over the Internet. And another difference was that the audience was largely drawn from the atheist/​libertarian/​technophile/​sf-fan/​early-adopter/​programmer/​etc crowd. (To point in the rough direction of an empirical cluster in personspace. If you understood the phrase “empirical cluster in personspace” then you know who I’m talking about.)

I crafted the fundraising appeal with care. By my nature I’m too proud to ask other people for help; but I’ve gotten over around 60% of that reluctance over the years. The nonprofit needed money and was growing too slowly, so I put some force and poetry into that year’s annual appeal. I sent it out to several mailing lists that covered most of our potential support base.

And almost immediately, people started posting to the mailing lists about why they weren’t going to donate. Some of them raised basic questions about the nonprofit’s philosophy and mission. Others talked about their brilliant ideas for all the other sources that the nonprofit could get funding from, instead of them. (They didn’t volunteer to contact any of those sources themselves, they just had ideas for how we could do it.)

Now you might say, “Well, maybe your mission and philosophy did have basic problems—you wouldn’t want to censor that discussion, would you?”

Hold on to that thought.

Because people were donating. We started getting donations right away, via Paypal. We even got congratulatory notes saying how the appeal had finally gotten them to start moving. A donation of $111.11 was accompanied by a message saying, “I decided to give **** a little bit more. One more hundred, one more ten, one more single, one more dime, and one more penny. All may not be for one, but this one is trying to be for all.”

But none of those donors posted their agreement to the mailing list. Not one.

So far as any of those donors knew, they were alone. And when they tuned in the next day, they discovered not thanks, but arguments for why they shouldn’t have donated. The criticisms, the justifications for not donating—only those were displayed proudly in the open.

As though the treasurer had finished his annual appeal, and everyone not making a pledge had proudly stood up to call out justifications for refusing; while those making pledges whispered them quietly, so that no one could hear.

I know someone with a rationalist cause who goes around plaintively asking, “How come the Raelian flying-saucer cult can get tens of thousands of members [probably around 40,000] interested in complete nonsense, but we can’t even get a thousand people working on this?”

The obvious wrong way to finish this thought is to say, “Let’s do what the Raelians do! Let’s add some nonsense to this meme!” For the benefit of those not immediately stopped by their ethical inhibitions, I will observe that there may be a hundred failed flying-saucer cults for every one that becomes famous. And the Dark Side may require non-obvious skills, which you, yes you, do not have: Not everyone can be a Sith Lord. In particular, if you talk about your planned lies on the public Internet, you fail. I’m no master criminal, but even I can tell certain people are not cut out to be crooks.

So it’s probably not a good idea to cultivate a sense of violated entitlement at the thought that some other group, who you think ought to be inferior to you, has more money and followers. That path leads to—pardon the expression—the Dark Side.

But it probably does make sense to start asking ourselves some pointed questions, if supposed “rationalists” can’t manage to coordinate as well as a flying-saucer cult.

How do things work on the Dark Side?

The respected leader speaks, and there comes a chorus of pure agreement: if there are any who harbor inward doubts, they keep them to themselves. So all the individual members of the audience see this atmosphere of pure agreement, and they feel more confident in the ideas presented—even if they, personally, harbored inward doubts, why, everyone else seems to agree with it.

(“Pluralistic ignorance” is the standard label for this.)

If anyone is still unpersuaded after that, they leave the group (or in some places, are executed)—and the remainder are more in agreement, and reinforce each other with less interference.

(I call that “evaporative cooling of groups”.)

The ideas themselves, not just the leader, generate unbounded enthusiasm and praise. The halo effect is that perceptions of all positive qualities correlate—e.g. telling subjects about the benefits of a food preservative made them judge it as lower-risk, even though the quantities were logically uncorrelated. This can create a positive feedback effect that makes an idea seem better and better and better, especially if criticism is perceived as traitorous or sinful.

(Which I term the “affective death spiral”.)

So these are all examples of strong Dark Side forces that can bind groups together.

And presumably we would not go so far as to dirty our hands with such...

Therefore, as a group, the Light Side will always be divided and weak. Atheists, libertarians, technophiles, nerds, science-fiction fans, scientists, or even non-fundamentalist religions, will never be capable of acting with the fanatic unity that animates radical Islam. Technological advantage can only go so far; your tools can be copied or stolen, and used against you. In the end the Light Side will always lose in any group conflict, and the future inevitably belongs to the Dark.

I think that one’s reaction to this prospect says a lot about their attitude towards “rationality”.

Some “Clash of Civilizations” writers seem to accept that the Enlightenment is destined to lose out in the long run to radical Islam, and sigh, and shake their heads sadly. I suppose they’re trying to signal their cynical sophistication or something.

For myself, I always thought—call me loony—that a true rationalist ought to be effective in the real world.

So I have a problem with the idea that the Dark Side, thanks to their pluralistic ignorance and affective death spirals, will always win because they are better coordinated than us.

You would think, perhaps, that real rationalists ought to be more coordinated? Surely all that unreason must have its disadvantages? That mode can’t be optimal, can it?

And if current “rationalist” groups cannot coordinate—if they can’t support group projects so well as a single synagogue draws donations from its members—well, I leave it to you to finish that syllogism.

There’s a saying I sometimes use: “It is dangerous to be half a rationalist.”

For example, I can think of ways to sabotage someone’s intelligence by selectively teaching them certain methods of rationality. Suppose you taught someone a long list of logical fallacies and cognitive biases, and trained them to spot those fallacies in biases in other people’s arguments. But you are careful to pick those fallaci