Mandatory Obsessions

Cross-posted from Pu­tanu­monit.

The Worst is to Care a Little

At a party the other day, a woman ex­pressed her dis­plea­sure at men who “pre­tend to be al­lies of gay rights but don’t re­ally care about it”. Did she mean men who pro­claimed their pro­gres­sive at­ti­tudes on LGBTQ but voted Repub­li­can on Tues­day any­way? Yes, she told me, but not only those. She re­served spe­cial scorn for those who vote in sup­port of im­mi­gra­tion from Mus­lim coun­tries, not re­al­iz­ing how Mus­lim im­mi­grants make the coun­try less safe for gays.

I re­marked that she’s set­ting quite a high bar for these men. Gay rights hardly seem like a cen­tral is­sue in the up­com­ing elec­tions. In fact, even my gay friends are split among many poli­ti­cal views and party alle­giances. Con­sid­er­ing the sec­ond-or­der im­pact of ev­ery poli­ti­cal de­ci­sion on the lives of gays is a stan­dard that few sen­a­tors or poli­ti­cal pun­dits meet, let alone guys who have other day jobs and other in­ter­ests.

“Not good enough,” the woman replied, “if you don’t care enough about gay rights to think it all through you’re not an ally.”

But the other other day, a man at an Effec­tive Altru­ism meetup ex­pressed his dis­dain for peo­ple who don’t care enough about cli­mate change to vote based on cli­mate policy and said that he doesn’t want them in EA.

And the other other other day, a woman ex­pressed her baf­fle­ment at peo­ple whose poli­tics aren’t driven by a con­cern for women’s re­pro­duc­tive rights. She said she doesn’t want to be friends with peo­ple who don’t think that abor­tion is the most im­por­tant is­sue to­day in the US to­day.

How about some­one who is pro-choice but voted for Hillary Clin­ton just be­cause she shares a con­cern for AI safety? “That just shows you don’t re­ally care about women,” she an­swered. Not car­ing enough is just as bad as hav­ing the wrong po­si­tion.

Since I’m an alien, I don’t get to vote at all (check your priv­ilege, cit­i­zens, and stop microa­gress­ing against me by shar­ing ex­hor­ta­tions to go out and vote on Face­book). Even if I could vote in New York, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t. And if I had to, I’d prob­a­bly vote for An­drew Yang even though I didn’t check what his po­si­tions are on gay rights, cli­mate change, and abor­tion. I can guess what Yang’s po­si­tions on these three is­sues are, and I guess they’re very similar to my own po­si­tions, but I wouldn’t care enough to check.

Here’s a list of other top­ics I was re­cently crit­i­cized for not car­inge­nough about by peo­ple who, for all their car­ing, didn’t dis­cover any­thing new and be­lieve pretty much ex­actly what I be­lieve on each topic: Rus­sian med­dling in the elec­tions, wild an­i­mal suffer­ing, male cir­cum­ci­sion, free speech on cam­pus, Kanye West, Brett Ka­vanaugh, Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, anti-Semitism, LeBron James sign­ing with the Lak­ers.

I’m get­ting a bit pissed about be­ing told that I’m a bad per­son for not shar­ing in some­body’s manda­tory ob­ses­sions, es­pe­cially since ev­ery­one has differ­ent ones. I’m also con­fused – I per­son­ally am very much in fa­vor of those around me be­ing di­verse in what they care about. So why doesn’t ev­ery­one else?

In Praise of Di­verse Obsessions

This chart of pri­ori­ties from the Effec­tive Altru­ist sur­vey makes me very happy:

Of the 9 EA cause ar­eas, I care deeply about three of them, care a bit about an­other three, and care not at all about the fi­nal three. But ev­ery cause area has many peo­ple who are ob­sessed with it and also many peo­ple who don’t give a crap.

This is a di­ver­sity of pri­ori­ties, not of opinions. I agree that fac­tory farm­ing and the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem are ter­rible – it’s bet­ter in gen­eral to have fewer sen­tient be­ings in cages. I just care about AIand ra­tio­nal­ity more. And yet, I strongly pre­fer this sort of EA com­mu­nity to one where the ma­jor­ity cares only about AI and ra­tio­nal­ity.

The first benefit of fas­ci­na­tion di­ver­sity is breadth of cov­er­age. I am not very in­ter­ested in an­i­mal welfare be­cause it strikes me as quite in­tractable at the mo­ment, and I’m very skep­ti­cal of the im­pact of ve­gan ad­vo­cacy. But with all the ve­gan EAs around I know that I’ll quickly learn if any­thing ex­cit­ing hap­pens in the space, like in­no­va­tions in meat re­place­ment tech­nol­ogy. Hang­ing out in a com­mu­nity where 10% of peo­ple are ob­sessed with a topic is a much bet­ter way to stay on top of it than ded­i­cat­ing 10% of my own time to it.

Another ex­am­ple: a small part of the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity has re­cently be­come fas­ci­nated with auras, tarot, chakras and other as­sorted es­o­ter­ics. This has got­ten to the point where we can’t be 100% sure if they’re still sane or not. I hold si­mul­ta­neously both of the fol­low­ing:

  1. Look­ing for wis­dom in chakras is a bad idea. What­ever as­pects of chakra the­ory cor­re­spond to re­al­ity are hope­lessly pol­luted by mys­ti­cal hog­wash, and the epistemic harm of hang­ing around chakra be­liev­ers is greater than the benefits of hid­den chakra knowl­edge.

  2. As long as it’s a small part of the com­mu­nity that’s ob­sessed with chakras, I’m happy to have them around and I think that they benefit the group as a whole.

Another benefit of di­ver­sity is spe­cial­iza­tion. The first per­son to be­come ob­sessed with a topic is some­one who’s a good fit for it and will con­tribute a lot of origi­nal think­ing. The two hun­dred and first per­son, not so much. Even in a small com­mu­nity there are diminish­ing re­turns to ev­ery­one piling into the same ob­ses­sion.

This also al­lows the com­mu­nity to di­ver­sify sta­tus hi­er­ar­chies. More fas­ci­na­tions mean more op­por­tu­ni­ties to gain re­spect as a con­trib­u­tor in the com­mu­nity. If only one thing is al­lowed to be im­por­tant, Girar­dian ter­ror en­sues.

I make a point of di­ver­sify­ing in­ter­ests in com­mu­ni­ties I help or­ga­nize, like the New York ra­tio­nal­ist meetup. We make sure to al­ter­nate statis­tics work­shops with mind­ful­ness ex­er­cises, and dis­cus­sion of botany with deep dives into some ab­struse LessWrong post. This in­vites many more peo­ple to get in­volved, con­tribute, and feel like they’re im­por­tant mem­bers of the group. This keeps the group strong, vibrant, and less de­pen­dent on a hand­ful of lead­ers.

Fi­nally, di­ver­sity of both opinions and lev­els of car­ing pro­tects from group­think. If we all care deeply about X it be­comes so­cially treach­er­ous to ques­tion the group’s X-ex­pert on any­thing. Go­ing back to Effec­tive Altru­ism, there are peo­ple whose main EA ob­ses­sion is keep­ing EA hon­est, and they’re in­dis­pens­able.

Of course, if a group’s pur­pose is to be ob­sessed with a sin­gle topic, en­forc­ing this ob­ses­sion is benefi­cial to the group. Every­one at Planned Par­ent­hood should care about re­pro­duc­tive rights, ev­ery­one at MIRI about AI, etc. But if the group’s telos is some­thing else, whether it’s purely so­cial or just a broader range of is­sues, en­forc­ing manda­tory ob­ses­sions is harm­ful to the group.

Given the benefits of fas­ci­na­tion di­ver­sity, why do peo­ple fight so hard against it in the com­mu­ni­ties they’re part of? I am go­ing to pre­sent two the­o­ries. This in­volves me spec­u­lat­ing about the minds of peo­ple very differ­ent from me, so take both with a salt shaker.

Thought Leaders

Han­lon’s Ra­zor says: Never at­tribute to mal­ice that which is ad­e­quately ex­plained by stu­pidity. But Han­son’s Ra­zor in­verts it: Never at­tribute to stu­pidity that which is ad­e­quately ex­plained by un­con­scious mal­ice self­ish­ness.

Peo­ple who ex­hort you to care more about Is­sue X rarely fol­low it up by ad­mit­ting that they per­son­ally don’t know much about X, it’s just im­por­tant to in­ves­ti­gate. And not only do they know a lot about the is­sue we all have to care about, but they’re also quite con­fi­dent about how to ad­dress it. No one says: “We need to fo­cus on cli­mate change to find out if we’re wildly over­re­act­ing or un­der­re­act­ing to the is­sue.” They usu­ally have a spe­cific re­ac­tion in mind.

An in­evitable out­come of the group shift­ing fo­cus to Is­sue X is that the per­son with strong opinions on Is­sue X gets a mas­sive boost in sta­tus. If the is­sue be­comes a sa­cred value, an unas­sailable mat­ter on which no com­pro­mises can be made, the sta­tus of the sa­cred value’s guardians also be­comes unas­sailable.

Ex­cept for a few Machi­avel­lian types, I sus­pect that this de­sire isn’t ex­plicit or nec­es­sar­ily con­scious. You no­tice that when the group’s con­ver­sa­tion turns to Is­sue X you have a lot to say and ev­ery­one listens and nods in agree­ment. This feels good. You start try­ing to have more con­ver­sa­tions about X, and re­sent peo­ple who turn the con­ver­sa­tion to Y in­stead.

Once you’re the ex­pert on X, if some­one says out­right that Y is more im­por­tant you get per­son­ally offended. This isn’t always wrong. “Let’s shift some fo­cus away from such-and-such” is of­ten a poli­ti­cally savvy way to say “let’s shift some re­spect and pres­tige away from so-and-so”.

Of course, a sin­gle is­sue thinker can point out that I get a sta­tus boost from groups hav­ing di­verse fo­cus. I’m try­ing to es­tab­lish a rep­u­ta­tion as a pur­veyor of nuggets of wis­dom on dozens of varied top­ics. But I’m not an ex­pert, let alone a moral leader, on a sin­gle one. This wouldn’t be un­fair. The point of Elephant in the Brain isn’t that other peo­ple do things sub­con­sciously for sta­tus and poli­ti­cal gain, it’s that we all do.


The more char­i­ta­ble view of peo­ple who feel strongly about feel­ing strongly is that these peo­ple are pos­sessed by a mind virus. The fault, dear Bru­tus, is not in our­selves, but in our memes.

Zor­baTHut ex­plains:

I’ve started to see big ar­gu­ments, not as ar­gu­ments over facts, but ar­gu­ments over whether spe­cific con­cepts should be wor­thy of con­trol­ling your mind; ar­gu­ments over which im­mu­ni­ties we shouldn’t have. Con­sider “won’t some­one think of the chil­dren”, and in­ter­pret it as “why are you im­mune to the ‘chil­dren’ meme, you should al­low it to take con­trol of your life”; now re­place “the chil­dren” with “free speech” or “minori­ties” or “self-defense” or “trans­gen­der peo­ple” or “the law” or “hu­man rights”.
The right an­swer to “which im­mu­ni­ties should we have” is “all of them”. Every ar­gu­ment is wor­thy of mea­sure; no ar­gu­ment is wor­thy of in­stant and perfect obe­di­ence.

In my brain sits the meme: cli­mate change is scary, but there’s lit­tle I can per­son­ally do about it and there’s no point dis­cussing it ad nau­seam be­cause none of my friends im­pact Chi­nese en­ergy policy.

For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, my ver­sion is a lot less viru­lent than the meme: cli­mate change is scary, and we should all talk about it ad nau­seam. The sec­ond ver­sion con­tains the means of its own repli­ca­tion, like the flu virus caus­ing a sick per­son to sneeze on ev­ery­one around them.

If you’re hear­ing about cli­mate change for the first time, you’re al­most cer­tainly go­ing to hear the self-repli­cat­ing ver­sion, not the quiet one. This is sim­ply be­cause those in­fected with it are the ones do­ing 99% of the talk­ing about cli­mate change. Shift­ing to the quiet ver­sion re­quires build­ing a gen­eral im­mu­nity to memes that con­tain the im­po­si­tion to breath­lessly pros­ely­tize them.

No ar­gu­ment is wor­thy of in­stant and perfect obe­di­ence, and no ar­gu­ment is worth re­peat­ing un­til your friends are sick of hear­ing it.

Ul­ti­mately, con­vinc­ing peo­ple to be­lieve a cer­tain po­si­tion is difficult enough, con­vinc­ing them to care more about it than they do is damn near im­pos­si­ble. Com­mu­ni­ties like Effec­tive Altru­ism have, for the most part, figured this out. The EA mes­sage is: “Hey, if you’re already vaguely util­i­tar­ian and you like an­i­mals, check out this cool book. You may get some­one to care more about util­i­tar­i­anism and an­i­mals by tel­ling them oc­ca­sional cool facts and sto­ries and the sub­ject, not by sham­ing them for not car­ing enough.

I hope that Pu­tanu­monit gets you to care more about ra­tio­nal­ity, eri­sol­ogy, and the proper use of statis­tics in so­cial sci­ence re­search. But if that doesn’t hap­pen, the fault is mine, not yours.

For more: Car­ing Less by eu­kary­ote.