Social Insight: When a Lie Is Not a Lie; When a Truth Is Not a Truth—Pt. 2

‘”If people have a right to be stupid, the market will respond by supplying all the stupidity that can be sold.”’ People misinterpret this as indicating that I take a policy stance in favor of regulation. It indicates no such thing. It is meant purely as guess about empirical consequences.”—EY (http://​​​​lw/​​h2/​​blue_or_green_on_regulation/​​)

Try this a few times, and you’ll stop thinking you can make “guess[es] about empirical consequences” (or say anything about empirical consequences (or say anything about empirical anything)) and have people hear anything except you showing off your policy stances. Showing off whom you associate with and what virtues you possess.

Once your eyes open to how hard it is to convince people that your sentences about how markets function are meant to describe how markets function, you give up and stop trying.

Well, if you have the time to convince people you’re actually trying to say something about how the world works and not just proudly waving a verbal banner in favor of the home team, and you have the ability to make interesting a subject so much less accessible and exciting than politics (we’ve all seen it, haven’t we, how little they care once they realize that we really are trying to describe market functions?), and the time to actually do it properly, all without alienating important people in the process...

Then, yeah, maybe. And those sets of circumstances absolutely happen and I’m glad that we do teach each other things.

But, I really, really understand why most politicians can’t do anything remotely like this, and thus, say the words “If people have a right to be stupid, the market will respond by supplying all the stupidity that can be sold” only if they want people to hear “I am taking a policy stance in favor of regulation.”

If you do want people to hear that, then this is a very effective way of communicating that. If you know that saying this will lead people to holding that belief about your stance, then saying it is honest, even if you don’t believe that markets work that way. You’re not saying/​they’re not hearing anything about markets, so none of your beliefs about markets can be misrepresented by saying these words. You believe something, you want to honestly communicate that belief, so you use symbols. We think of words as our symbols, but whole sentences can be symbols, too. A sentence has no “true” meaning any more than a word does. And if we define that sentence according to the common usage...

Think through some other possibilities. Maybe you don’t believe there’s a market for stupidity, but you do take a stance in favor of regulation. If you say you don’t believe there’s a market for stupidity, you’ll knowingly deceive a large group of people (the social thinkers) whom you know will hear “I oppose regulation” when you say there’s no market for stupidity. In contrast, if you say you do believe there’s a market for stupidity, you’ll communicate your endorsement of regulation to that group, but will be interpreted as saying something untrue by another group of people who think that you’re saying something about market functions and only about market functions and that you’ve said nothing about your stance on regulation, so wouldn’t we be jumping to conclusions to assume anything either way (nerds/​empirical thinkers)?

Most people aren’t empirical thinkers (and those that are often aren’t when it comes to politics), so as a matter of practicality, politics is spoken in the language of social reasoning. Knowing this, you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you listen to these people’s words as a way of modeling their beliefs. You have to listen to their sentences, and understand their definition according to the common usage. “Blah blah market for stupidity blah blah” is defined as “I endorse regulation” according to the common usage (no matter what you substitute in place of the blah blah’s).

There’s a whole music to this social language, and if you start to catch the rhythm, you may find that the absolute garbage that is presidential debates (I use to marvel that the apparently top candidates for president never had anything new or interesting to say, surely such people should be a fountain of insight and formidable competence) resolves itself into something interesting after all.

Ah, yes, now I see. First he waves the flag for group X, then he waves the flag for group N. Many people are members of both tribes and feel really connected, while those people who belong to only one are quite tolerant of this particular outgroup. And the members of X who actively oppose group N are disproportionately single-issue voters, so this comes out as an effective appeal as measured by vote-grabbing...

It’s also interesting to hear new ways of saying “I’m with them” over and over again about the commonest groups to appeal to (“God bless America”) or compete over (How can they say “I support our troops” more strongly than their opponent? It’s a real exercise in creativity). And, of course, amid the majority of people, this is the language of power, and you may find it useful to know how to move within this world, to act upon it, to make yourself respected, and to move people.

Most people (citation needed) talk and think like this all the time. They are social thinkers, not empirical thinkers. Everything they “know” about the minimum wage is how to use it as a vehicle for talking about social things, their own status, their group status, and their virtues. Except they don’t do so consciously, but automatically. Humans are social creatures, and to think socially, and not in terms of abstract propositions about the function of the world is their first and natural instinct. Always remember, we’re the weird ones. Possessors of an inhuman power with a price.

Find some non-nerdy types you may not usually associate much with. Go clubbing and ask all the people wearing something you find appalling their opinions on the minimum wage. After their initial summary of “I’m with them,” whichever “them” they might happen to be with, inquire a bit more deeply. Go a little Socratic on them and ask about their reasoning, and ask them to confirm your guesses about which observations they would take as evidence for and against their position. You might want to personally note all the times they (it seems to you) change the subject, contradict themselves, or use any of a thousand flavors of fallacy.

Now, review the conversation (which you carefully recorded, of course), but this time, ask yourself if there’s any way to interpret each of their statements (which sound like propositions about the function of markets and the nature of human rights) instead as signals about tribal loyalty, personal status, and personal virtue. Write down what these statements might say about the tribe and the person. Incredibly, you may find that what once was a cacophony of contradiction has resolved itself. In another key, it was all perfectly mainstream, run-of-the mill, straightforward, vanilla, dry, unremarkable clarity. Seen this way, the mystery dissolves into something so ordinary as to face-palmingly obvious in retrospect.

They’re just saying how great they are and how great their people are and how awesome they all are and what good people they are. Charming.

My last discussion of this found many respondents thinking that it was mean to think such lowly things of other people. It is curious to me that they seem to take it for granted that it is lowly. Humans are naturally political; why call our native tongue lowly? There are a thousand stories about the plucky hero who cares about the work, and it’s all about the work, and they have to jump over the hurdles that are the regular humans who are into office politics and are so shameful as to not care about the work for its own sake (who do they think they are, not being fascinated with blood spatter analysis or awesome architecture?). Why fetishize this work-over-politics bit? Oh, sure it’s responsible for everything lasting that humanity has ever created and all, but...well, as hobbies go, politics is humanity’s first and natural choice. People enjoy it; they optimize for it. I’m nerdy and happen to fancy the romance of abstract propositions about reality, but I don’t begrudge those who don’t feel the same way.

Perhaps more importantly, I need to learn their language, the language of social power, if I am to get them to do what is needful regarding reality despite their native disinterest. Tim Urban’s the best speaker our community has, probably, and it still takes all of 2 minutes before it’s completely obvious he’s a nerd and proud of it. Julia Galef’s up there, too, but with a similar weakness when it comes to getting non-nerds to get on board with important political movements. Robin Hanson’s alright...

But we need a proper Draco. As galling as it is, there is very much a place for a Trumpesque speaker who can get a certain kind of person participating in important things that they...really aren’t naturally inclined to care about. We need Steve Harvey and Barack Obama and MLK and someone who can talk to anybody. Or at least who can talk to somebody other than the nerds who are already half-way on our side (and will be more and more as consensus consolidates around the correct answer).

A good map of reality, Knowledge, is power, to bind the universe to our service. But status, respect, prestige. That is the power to move humans. It is, of course, contained within knowledge itself. But the time has come to train the versatile laser focus of knowledge upon social Homo Sapiens and learn how we’re really going to get them, all of them (not just the nerds), to save the world.