Great Product. Lousy Marketing.

The product of Less Wrong is truth. How­ever, there seems to be a re­luc­tance of the per­son­al­ity types here—my­self in­cluded—to sell that product. Here’s my ev­i­dence:

Yvain said: But the most im­por­tant rea­son to ar­gue with some­one is to change his mind. … I make the anec­do­tal ob­ser­va­tion that a lot of smart peo­ple are very good at win­ning ar­gu­ments in the first sense [(logic)], and very bad at win­ning ar­gu­ments in the sec­ond sense [(per­sua­sion)]. Does that cor­re­spond to your ex­pe­rience?
Eliezer said: I fi­nally note, with re­gret, that in a world con­tain­ing Per­suaders, it may make sense for a sec­ond-or­der In­former to be de­liber­ately elo­quent if the is­sue has already been ob­scured by an elo­quent Per­suader—just ex­actly as el­e­gant as the pre­vi­ous Per­suader, no more, no less. It’s a pity that this won­der­ful ex­cuse ex­ists, but in the real world, well...
Robin Han­son said: So to pro­mote ra­tio­nal­ity on in­ter­est­ing im­por­tant top­ics, your over­whelming con­sid­er­a­tion sim­ply must be: on what top­ics will the world’s sys­tems for de­cid­ing who to hear on what listen sub­stan­tially to you? Your efforts to pon­der and make progress will be largely wasted if you fo­cus on top­ics where none of the world’s “who to hear on what” sys­tems rate you as some­one worth hear­ing. You must not only find some­thing worth say­ing, but also some­thing that will be heard.

We ac­tu­ally la­bel many highly effec­tive per­sua­sive strate­gies that can be used to mar­ket our true ideas as “dark arts”. What’s the jus­tifi­ca­tion for this nega­tive brand­ing? A nec­es­sary evil is not evil. Even if—and this is a huge if—our fu­ture utopia is free of dark arts, that’s not the world we live in to­day. Choos­ing not to use them is analo­gous to a peacenik want­ing to rid the world of vi­o­lence by sug­gest­ing that po­lice not use weapons.

We treat our dis­like of dark arts as if it’s a sim­ple corol­lary of the ax­iom of the virtue of truth. Does this mean we as­sume the ends (more peo­ple be­lieve the truth) doesn’t jus­tify the means (per­sua­sion to the truth via ex­ploit­ing cog­ni­tive bi­ases)? Or are we just wor­ried about be­ing hyp­ocrites? What­ever the rea­son, such an im­pact­ful as­sump­tion de­serves an ex­pla­na­tion. Speak­ing prac­ti­cally, the suc­cess­ful prac­tice of dark arts re­quires the psy­cholog­i­cal skill of switch­ing hats, to use Ed­ward de Bono’s ter­minol­ogy. While post­ing on Less Wrong, we can avoid and are in fact praised for avoid­ing dark arts, but we need to switch up in other en­vi­ron­ments, and that’s difficult. Frankly, we’re not great at it, and it’s very tempt­ing to ex­ter­nal­ize the prob­lem and say “the art is bad” rather than “we’re bad at the art”.

Our dis­taste for rhetor­i­cal tac­tics, both aes­thet­i­cally and morally, profoundly af­fects the way we com­mu­ni­cate. That dis­taste is tightly cou­pled with the men­tal habit of always in­ter­pret­ing the value of what is said purely for its in­for­ma­tional con­tent, log­i­cal con­sis­tency, and in­sight. I’m bas­ing the fol­low­ing ques­tion on my own in­tro­spec­tion, but I won­der if this al­most re­li­giously en­trenched men­tal habit could make us blind to the value of the art of per­sua­sion? Let’s imag­ine for a mo­ment, the most con­vinc­ing para­graph ever writ­ten. It was truly a world-won­der of per­sua­sion—it con­verted fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­ti­ans into athe­ists, suicide bombers into diplo­mats, and Ann Coulter-4-Pres­i­dent sup­port­ers into Less Wrong syco­phants. What would your re­ac­tion to the para­graph be? Would you “up-vote” this work of ge­nius? No way. We’d be com­pet­ing to tell the fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tian that there were at least three ar­gu­ment fal­la­cies in the first sen­tence, we’d ex­plain to the suicide bomber that the rhetoric could be used equally well to jus­tify blow­ing us all up right now, and for com­plete­ness we’d give the Ann Coulter sup­porter a brief overview of Bayesi­anism.