Asymmetric Weapons Aren’t Always on Your Side

Some time ago, Scott Alexan­der wrote about asym­met­ric weapons, and now he writes again about them. Dur­ing these posts, Scott re­peat­edly char­ac­ter­izes asym­met­ric weapons as in­her­ently stronger for the “good guys” than they are for the “bad guys”. Here is a quote from his first post:

Log­i­cal de­bate has one ad­van­tage over nar­ra­tive, rhetoric, and vi­o­lence: it’s an asym­met­ric weapon. That is, it’s a weapon which is stronger in the hands of the good guys than in the hands of the bad guys.

And here is a quote from his more re­cent one:

A sym­met­ric weapon is one that works just as well for the bad guys as for the good guys. For ex­am­ple, vi­o­lence – your moral­ity doesn’t de­ter­mine how hard you can punch; they can buy guns from the same places we can.
An asym­met­ric weapon is one that works bet­ter for the good guys than the bad guys. The ex­am­ple I gave was Rea­son. If ev­ery­one tries to solve their prob­lems through figur­ing out what the right thing to do is, the good guys (who are right) will have an eas­ier time prov­ing them­selves to be right than the bad guys (who are wrong). Find­ing and us­ing asym­met­ric weapons is the only non-co­in­ci­dence way to make sus­tained moral progress.

One prob­lem with this con­cept is that just be­cause some­thing is asym­met­ric doesn’t mean that it’s asym­met­ric in a good di­rec­tion.

Scott talks about weapons that are asym­met­ric to­wards those who are right. How­ever, there are many more types of asym­me­tries than just right vs. wrong—phys­i­cal vi­o­lence is asym­met­ric to­wards the strong, shout­ing peo­ple down is asym­met­ric to­wards the loud, and airing TV com­mer­cials is asym­met­ric to­wards peo­ple with more money. Violence isn’t merely sym­met­ric—it’s asym­met­ric in a bad di­rec­tion, since fas­cists are bet­ter than vi­o­lence than you.

This in turn means that var­i­ous sides will all be try­ing to pull things in di­rec­tions that are asym­met­ric to their ad­van­tage. In­deed, a ba­sic prin­ci­ple in strat­egy is to try to shift con­flicts into ar­eas where you are strong and your op­po­nent is weak.

For in­stance, peo­ple who are good at vi­o­lence benefit from things get­ting vi­o­lent. Peo­ple who are lo­cally pop­u­lar benefit from pop­u­lar­ity con­tests. Peo­ple who have lots of free time benefit from time-con­sum­ing pro­cesses. Peo­ple who are bet­ter at keep­ing their com­po­sure benefit from dis­course norms that pun­ish dis­plays of emo­tion.

Devel­op­ing asym­met­ric pro­cesses that point to­wards truth is a good idea, and I’m all for it. But in prac­tice there are also asym­met­ric pro­cesses that point to­wards er­ror, or merely asym­met­ric pro­cesses that point to­wards what’s cur­rently pop­u­lar or fad­dish. Those pro­cesses are, if any­thing, just as likely to have peo­ple try­ing to pro­mote them than the pro-truth ones—per­haps more likely!

That doesn’t make the peo­ple pro­mot­ing those ideas “anti-truth” or what­ever—they may not even be aware of what they’re do­ing—but even so, peo­ple tend to re­spond to in­cen­tives, and those in­cen­tives may well pull them to­wards norms and meth­ods that are asym­met­ric in their fa­vor in­de­pen­dent of whether those norms and meth­ods pro­mote truth.