Look for Lone Correct Contrarians
(Content note: Explicitly about spreading rationalist memes, increasing the size of the rationalist movement, and proselytizing. I also regularly use the word ‘we’ to refer to the rationalist community/subculture. You might prefer not to read this if you don’t like that sort of thing and/or you don’t think I’m qualified to write about that sort of thing and/or you’re not interested in providing constructive criticism.)
I’ve tried to introduce a number of people to this culture and the ideas within it, but it takes some finesse to get a random individual from the world population to keep thinking about these things and apply them. My personal efforts have been very hit-or-miss. Others have told me that they’ve been more successful. But I think there are many people that share my experience. This is unfortunate: we want people to be more rational and we want more rational people.
At any rate, this is not about the art of raising the sanity waterline, but the more general task of spreading rationalist memes. Some people naturally arrive at these ideas, but they usually have to find them through other people first. This is really about all of the people in the world who are like you probably were before you found this culture; the people who would care about it, and invest in it, as it is right now, if only they knew it existed.
I’m going to be vague for the sake of anonymity, but here it goes:
I was reading a book review on Amazon, and I really liked it. The writer felt like a kindred spirit. I immediately saw that they were capable of coming to non-obvious conclusions, so I kept reading. Then I checked their review history in the hope that I would find other good books and reviews. And it was very strange.
They did a bunch of stuff that very few humans do. They realized that nuclear power has risks but that the benefits heavily outweigh the risks given the appropriate alternative, and they realized that humans overestimate the risks of nuclear power for silly reasons. They noticed when people were getting confused about labels and pointed out the general mistake, as well as pointing out what everyone should really be talking about. They acknowledged individual and average IQ differences and realized the correct policy implications. They really understood evolution, they took evolutionary psychology seriously, and they didn’t care if it was labeled as sociobiology. They used the word ‘numerate.’
And the reviews ranged over more than a decade of time. These were persistent interests.
I don’t know what other people do when they discover that a stranger like this exists, but the first thing that I try to do is talk to them. It’s not like I’m going to run into them on the sidewalk.
Amazon had no messaging feature that I could find, so I looked for a website, and I found one. I found even more evidence, and that’s certainly what it was. They were interested in altruism, including how it goes wrong; computer science; statistics; psychology; ethics; coordination failures; failures of academic and scientific institutions; educational reform; cryptocurrency, etc. At this point I considered it more likely than not that they already knew everything that I wanted to tell them, and that they already self-identified as a rationalist, or that they had a contrarian reason for not identifying as such.
So I found their email address. I told them that they were a great reviewer, that I was surprised that they had come to so many correct contrarian conclusions, and that, if they didn’t already know, there was a whole culture of people like them.
They replied in ten minutes. They were busy, but they liked what I had to say, and as a matter of fact, a friend had already convinced them to buy Rationality: From AI to Zombies. They said they hadn’t read much relative to the size of the book because it’s so large, but they loved it so far and they wanted to keep reading.
(You might postulate that I found a review by a user like this on a different book because I was recommended this book and both of us were interested in Rationality: From AI to Zombies. However, the first review I read by this user was for a book on unusual gardening methods, that I found in a search for books about gardening methods. For the sake of anonymity, however, my unusual gardening methods must remain a secret. It is reasonable to postulate that there would be some sort of sampling bias like the one that I have described, but given what I know, it is likely that this is not that. You certainly could still postulate a correlation by means of books about unusual gardening methods, however.)
Maybe that extra push made the difference. Maybe if there hadn’t been a friend, I would’ve made the difference.
Who knew that’s how my morning would turn out?
As I’ve said in some of my other posts, but not in so many words, maybe we should start doing this accidentally effective thing deliberately!
I know there’s probably controversy about whether or not rationalists should proselytize, but I’ve been in favor of it for awhile. And if you’re like me, then I don’t think this is a very special effort to make. I’m sure sometimes you see a little thread, and you think, “Wow, they’re a lot like me; they’re a lot like us, in fact; I wonder if there are other things too. I wonder if they would care about this.”
Don’t just move on! That’s Bayesian evidence!
I dare you to follow that path to its destination. I dare you to reach out. It doesn’t cost much.
And obviously there are ways to make yourself look creepy or weird or crazy. But I said to reach out, not to reach out badly. If you could figure out how to do it right, it could have a large impact. And these people are likely to be pretty reasonable. You should keep a look out in the future.
Speaking of the future, it’s worth noting that I ended up reading the first review because of an automated Amazon book recommendation and subsequent curiosity. You know we’re in the data. We are out there and there are ways to find us. In a sense, we aren’t exactly low-hanging fruit. But in another sense, we are.
I’ve never read a word of the Methods of Rationality, but I have to shoehorn this in: we need to write the program that sends a Hogwarts acceptance letter to witches and wizards on their eleventh birthday.