Politics is the Mind-Killer

Peo­ple go funny in the head when talk­ing about poli­tics. The evolu­tion­ary rea­sons for this are so ob­vi­ous as to be worth be­la­bor­ing: In the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment, poli­tics was a mat­ter of life and death. And sex, and wealth, and al­lies, and rep­u­ta­tion . . . When, to­day, you get into an ar­gu­ment about whether “we” ought to raise the min­i­mum wage, you’re ex­e­cut­ing adap­ta­tions for an an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment where be­ing on the wrong side of the ar­gu­ment could get you kil­led. Be­ing on the right side of the ar­gu­ment could let you kill your hated ri­val!

If you want to make a point about sci­ence, or ra­tio­nal­ity, then my ad­vice is to not choose a do­main from con­tem­po­rary poli­tics if you can pos­si­bly avoid it. If your point is in­her­ently about poli­tics, then talk about Louis XVI dur­ing the French Revolu­tion. Poli­tics is an im­por­tant do­main to which we should in­di­vi­d­u­ally ap­ply our ra­tio­nal­ity—but it’s a ter­rible do­main in which to learn ra­tio­nal­ity, or dis­cuss ra­tio­nal­ity, un­less all the dis­cus­sants are already ra­tio­nal.

Poli­tics is an ex­ten­sion of war by other means. Ar­gu­ments are sol­diers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must sup­port all ar­gu­ments of that side, and at­tack all ar­gu­ments that ap­pear to fa­vor the en­emy side; oth­er­wise it’s like stab­bing your sol­diers in the back—pro­vid­ing aid and com­fort to the en­emy. Peo­ple who would be level-headed about even­hand­edly weigh­ing all sides of an is­sue in their pro­fes­sional life as sci­en­tists, can sud­denly turn into slo­gan-chant­ing zom­bies when there’s a Blue or Green po­si­tion on an is­sue.

In ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence, and par­tic­u­larly in the do­main of non­mono­tonic rea­son­ing, there’s a stan­dard prob­lem: “All Quak­ers are paci­fists. All Repub­li­cans are not paci­fists. Nixon is a Quaker and a Repub­li­can. Is Nixon a paci­fist?”

What on Earth was the point of choos­ing this as an ex­am­ple? To rouse the poli­ti­cal emo­tions of the read­ers and dis­tract them from the main ques­tion? To make Repub­li­cans feel un­wel­come in courses on ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence and dis­cour­age them from en­ter­ing the field?1

Why would any­one pick such a dis­tract­ing ex­am­ple to illus­trate non­mono­tonic rea­son­ing? Prob­a­bly be­cause the au­thor just couldn’t re­sist get­ting in a good, solid dig at those hated Greens. It feels so good to get in a hearty punch, y’know, it’s like try­ing to re­sist a choco­late cookie.

As with choco­late cook­ies, not ev­ery­thing that feels plea­surable is good for you.

I’m not say­ing that I think we should be apoli­ti­cal, or even that we should adopt Wikipe­dia’s ideal of the Neu­tral Point of View. But try to re­sist get­ting in those good, solid digs if you can pos­si­bly avoid it. If your topic le­gi­t­i­mately re­lates to at­tempts to ban evolu­tion in school cur­ricula, then go ahead and talk about it—but don’t blame it ex­plic­itly on the whole Repub­li­can Party; some of your read­ers may be Repub­li­cans, and they may feel that the prob­lem is a few rogues, not the en­tire party. As with Wikipe­dia’s npov, it doesn’t mat­ter whether (you think) the Repub­li­can Party re­ally is at fault. It’s just bet­ter for the spiritual growth of the com­mu­nity to dis­cuss the is­sue with­out in­vok­ing color poli­tics.

1And no, I am not a Repub­li­can. Or a Demo­crat.