Shoo Freethinkers

Five years ago I wrote:

On average people who support odd ideas are less desirable as associates, and less discriminating in which ideas they endorse. If people only endorsed odd ideas when they had new information suggesting such ideas were promising, we should be eager to hear of such news, and eager to associate with such people. But in fact the main task faced by those with good news on odd ideas is to distinguish themselves from freethinkers who just pretend to have such news. Contrary to their self-image, undiscriminating freethinkers are our main obstacle to innovation. (more)

While giving a talk today on futarchy, I noticed how often freethinker fans are an obstacle to my innovation in particular. Mentally sloppy freethinkers tend to be attracted to radical proposals, just because such proposals are radical. They don’t focus much on the detailed arguments, but instead substitute simple arguments based on broad crude analogies, more suited to their style of thinking. And they usually make sure to insinuate that opposition to the idea is mainly from excess conformity or entrenched interests. Others hear such sloppy arguments, reject them, and then reject the idea as well.

For example, some say they like prediction markets because such things are markets, and all markets are good. This of course tempts others to reject them as based on knee-jerk free-market ideology. Some say they like prediction markets because they emphasize the wisdom of crowds, too long slighted by self-serving over-rated elite experts. Which elicits rejections from those who know just how often experts know better than crowds. Today someone even said futarchy was good because it is just like cost benefit analysis, which is obviously good.

Most big changes are bad ideas. So if a big change is a good idea, it must be because of some rather specific detailed reasons. When I make a radical proposal, I offer such specific detailed reasons in support, and those are the reasons I want skeptics to consider. For example, I argue for the information aggregation advantages of subsidized speculative markets, not for all possible advantages of all possible markets.

So when sloppy thinkers, eager to affirm their liberality by supporting radical proposals, latch on to my idea, and then substitute their own arguments based on vague analogies, they get in my way. Others see their support, and their sloppy thinking, and naturally want to distance themselves from the whole thing. Yes indeed, undiscriminating freethinkers are one of our main barriers to innovation.

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  • David Quintero

    There is an element of “laziness” involved in spawning fresh ideas since little is required conventionally in their nomination.   Which explains why the occasional free-thinking lottery winner is epitomized without regard to, and in ignorance of, those who shot wildly hoping they’d hit the target.  And failed 🙂 

  • Cyan

    I find this discussion of analogy versus detailed argument oddly reminiscent of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s view of RH’s thoughts on FAI (third paragraph here). (I don’t mean to imply that RH is an undiscriminating freethinker.)

  • gwern0

    Suppose all freethinkers became discriminating in exactly the way you preferred.

    Would this be a stable equilibrium? Say, a Nash equilibrium against predators?

  • Sam Dangremond

    Could the “conservative” mindset be viewed as a defense against sloppy freethinks?

    • TerjeP

      Absolutely. And there is good reason to be conservative in areas where you are not well informed. Staying close to the status quo and sticking with the herd (often the same thing) confer strong survival benefits. Contrary to political labels however there is plenty of conservative thinking across the political spectrum. Old ideas are not easily dispensed with even when they have been failures repeatedly. Sometimes ideas that are packaged as radical and new are just old and worn.

  • Mark M

    I agree wholeheartedly. Nothing discredits a revolutionary or controversial idea faster than adoption by known conspiracy theorists.

    Every once in a while I like to do a quick investigation of a conspiracy theory, because I don’t like to dismiss theories out of hand just because I heard it from a loon. I may eventually tire of this game.

  • LR

    I worked for the Ron Paul campaign a bit back in 2008 and I felt the same way. Almost all the volunteers had a negative impact on the movement overall.

    To be fair, the vast majority of supporters for any particular idea are uninformed sloppy thinkers just rooting for the home-team.

  • bergsonian time relativity

    complexities can be non reducible.

    • Richardsilliker

       complexities are non reducible

      • bergsonian time relativity

        you mean that in the way that reducible complexities are risk factors and not “real” complexities?

      • Richardsilliker

         Trick question.  However, to understand the complex you need to start from the simple.  “Why”.  Novelty.

  • portabella

    So is there a strategy to actually harness the actions of these lesser endowed free thinkers? I don’t think just complaining about them is going to do it.

    I submit that one such strategy, used successfully, is to make your own ideas sound much less radical, but with a “dog whistle” for those attuned. “He who has ears, let him hear!”

  • Pingback: Mentally sloppy freethink… « Figural Effect

  • Philo

    But if you (the genius radical visionary) didn’t get the
    support of sloppy, undiscriminating freethinkers, you’d have almost no
    supporters at all!  (By the way, most of
    those who reject your ideas are also sloppy and undiscriminating thinkers, as
    are most of those who pay no attention to you.)

  • Doug

    It would seem to me that in an “efficient” market for ideas sloppy freethinkers should have no effect.

    If there’s a radical proposal than everyone should take it as a given that sloppy freethinkers will attach to it. Radical ideas with underlying good arguments as well as those with underlying weak arguments will have a cadre of sloppy freethinkers defending the idea poorly.

    Thus the presence of existence of a sloppy freethinker advocating an idea should have no statistical discrimination power to tell us whether the idea is ultimately good or bad. And rational truth-seekers will recognize this, and ignore sloppy free thinkers, waiting to hear the actual arguments behind the idea.

    So I think, Robin, that your complaint is over-dramatized. Sloppy freethinkers are not barriers to innovation, nor do they help it, their effect is neutral.

    • arch1

      Doug, I like your start but part ways before the end. Oversimplifying to make the point:

      The “freethinkers mum” world is one in which each bad
      radical idea is surrounded by a cloud of (say) x bad arguments and 0 good arguments (there being no good argument for a bad idea), and each
      good radical idea is surrounded by a cloud of x bad arguments and 1 good argument.*

      The “freethinkers rampant” world you have described – our world, alas – is one in which each bad radical idea is surrounded by a cloud of 100x bad arguments and 0 good ones, and each good radical idea is surrounded by a cloud of 100x bad arguments and 1 good one.

      In which world would you find it easier to distinguish good radical ideas from bad ones, thus enabling faster innovation?

      *x > 0 because even careful thinkers make mistakes (note also that the 2nd x could arguably have been x/2, since careful thinkers are also quicker to recognize valid arguments)

      • Anto

        You are both right I presume ;).
        I’m afraid it’s up to the rational free thinker with the good idea, to back it up with good arguments. He/she also have to grasp and recognize a badly advocated good idea from a sloppy free thinker, to explain why is it good, even if he made the possible to make it sound silly. And in short I don’t believe in a majority of stupid people, anyway, it’s very complex describing how they could have become seemingly stupid or mediocre-medium thinkers, let’s say obtusely conservative or sloppily radicals or freethinkers or indifferent, I believe some of them, not all, obviously could have let their genius ensue much more under certain conditions.

  • justin

    Sloppy thinking will fail to persuade good thinkers, but it could still be persuasive to other sloppy thinkers? And since most people are sloppy thinkers, maybe spreading sloppy thinking could still aid ideas like futarchy.  After all, the people who advocated futarchy because markets are good and because the wisdom the crowds is good were persuaded by those sloppy arguments.

    To put it a different way, would you say the most popular political ideologies today became popular because of sound thinking or appealing generalizations? I think the latter.

    • Anto

      Unfortunately, in fact this way of thinking led me to believe libertarians believe that market is good 🙂 or the “invisible hand”, or that they think rich or poor people are like that always because they deserved it.
      I’m another kind of libertarian, lets, say, for equality but not through State invasion in our lives, through taxes and the like (the infamous “nanny state”), lets say and for individual freedom. I also have the odd idea of a sort of welfare as part of the free exchange system not as an extra-charity. Obviously it needs many people to participate at this idea of marked, and that is the problem, it will need good ass arguments :).

  • Vlad

    I hate to be the defender of soppy thinking, but here it goes: There are many historic examples of thinkers getting to the right conclusion via the wrong detailed arguments. These conclusions get to be accepted only once it is  realized that their particular detailed arguments aren’t necessary. So, having a multitude of arguments, even sloppy ones and even contradictory ones, in support for a conclusion is good because we don’t know beforehand which particular path to the conclusion is truly the best or the correct one. 

    I remember for instance reading a biography of Boltzmann. Apparently one of the reasons why it took so long for his ideas to be accepted was that he wrote very long papers with elaborate philosophical arguments in favor of his position, and he didn’t have a proper counter-argument for Loschmidt. It was only when Gibbs simplified the whole thing – and you could say he was perhaps sloppy as he set aside completely the discussion about the ergodic hypothesis as well as about Loschmidt’s paradox – that people started to get it.

    As far as your arguments for prediction markets, I’m not sure whether they are indeed correct, but suppose there is some error in your arguments, and yet prediction markets
    are nonetheless a good idea – you wouldn’t want the idea to be rejected just due to some unfortunate mishap. It’s good to have a larger pool of people getting at an idea from a multitude of directions, even if some of their arguments are not as rigorous. 

    So, perhaps a better way to put it is that there is a *trade-off* between the benefits of one-sided rigor (which creates the cost of being more difficult to get the idea and creates a larger probability for error) and the benefits of approaching the problem from a multitude of directions (which creates the costs you mentioned – vague thinking, jumping to unwarranted conclusions and reputation effects due to being associated with enthusiastic crack-pots).

    • Anto

      Ops, you are also right :).
      Indeed the receiver of the new ideas must be open minded in this case and it is up to him/her to help in the evaluation of a proposition, held as possibly true. Let’s say the good argument theory is more valid in front of a heterogeneous crowd, not as expert as the (let’s say an engineer, a scientist, a producer or the like) one whom the proposer of the badly argumented good idea is directed to. (sorry, no native English)

  • Siddharth

    I think your public image (blogger, part of the singularity community) is contributing in attracting sloppy freethinkers because these communities don’t select very well for skepticism but instead select better for ‘radical ideas’.

    If you want to stop that from happening, do you think you should stop publicizing your work through blogs and public talks but instead restrict yourself to more academic and corporate environments?

    • Anto

      Elitistic closure and presumption of stupidity of readers? I don’t think it is a good idea. Smart thinkers are going to evaluate his ideas regardless (to some extend I may grant) of how many sloppy thinkers are here. Otherwise how can ideas be discussed?
      No offence, you have your points, i get it, but I’m just worried of uncorrect or too much of assumed implication of it.

  • ya obviously

    since when are detailed logical arguments the best way to change the average reader’s beliefs and values? you have to convince the average reader, or at least suggest ways the average reader may be convinced (hint: sloppy thinking and crude analogies), before you’ll ever convince the politically powerful to support you publically.

    • Martin-2

      But these shortcuts can’t elevate your idea above all the lousy ideas with equally clever advertising. Rationality is the only separator (or good results, if you can set up a convincing test).
      Also, if someone wants to make an unfavorable change to your idea and backs up their proposal with the same bad logic you’ve been using, how do you refuse?

  • GNZ

    Does one want futarchy to occur anywhere in the near future – or does one want to just create a template that will be available in the future?
    In case 1 – it is a matter of hitting a certain amount of support (which will be mostly sloppy thinking support) at a critical moment and enacting change.
    In case 2 – one might want to keep a pure idea then quietly refine it until it is rediscovered in an unquestioning manner by the sloppy thinking community.

  • Alexei Sadeski

    Futarchy is like crowdsourcing… crowdsourcing 2.0! And in the Cloud! With social networking and apps!

  • David Gerard

    Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking people who reject your ideas must just be practicing the wrong sort of skepticism.

  • decius

    Can the idea of a sloppy supporter being bad for an idea, and use that against ideas we oppose? By becoming a rabid and vocal supporter with a clearly invalid reason, can we weaken opposing positions?

    Is that why mainstream politics is the way it is?

  • Peter St. Onge

    This is perhaps why genius and movement-builder are often different people. The genius may have trouble finding the best arguments that the sloppies can grasp.

  • OhioStater

    You touched on some of this in your connections vs insight post ( That post is one of my favorites.

    At this simplest, freethinkers are pessimists. That a big idea is needed presupposes something is wrong; therefore, if the freethinker is incorrect, then nothing is wrong. That’s invalid logic, but there’s always room for irrationality.

    • Anto

      I’m not pessimist, assuming, obviously that I’m a free thinker, I’m not so sure, if you want I’ll discuss why, but that’s part of me being free thinking ;).
      That something is wrong is fairly obvious, if he/she is wrong doesn’t certainly mean, not only that nothing is wrong, but also doesn’t mean that the specific problem doesn’t exist, but just that what he/she thought was not a solution.
      But that invalid logic was clearly intentional ;), as you admitted. 

  • efalken

    This is pretty obvious on call-in shows like talk radio and C-Span. The speaker has some ax to grind, and the callers trying to support him or her are usually in his camp for totally absurd reasons, and the speaker then is forced to try and make the caller’s argument more logical, which encourages confabulations that go nowhere.

  • Stephen Diamond

    Most big changes are bad ideas. So if a big change is a good idea, it must be because of some rather specific detailed reasons.

    Non sequitur?

    • Anto

      Not sure what a non sequitur exactly is, but I think I can agre that while not necessarily incorrect this may be a rethorical license or simply an intuitive claim, not exactly measurable with which I ,also intuitively, tend to disagree, in short there is good share of both and probably many bad changes were due to failure to address the overall spiritual disposition of men toward exploitation, that led to a bad use of new technology.
      I’ll stop here as the scope is so large about this subject, that I’m getting sloppy, and that sentence is so vague that I doubt I’m answering that very concept of big changes – bad ideas controversy.
      The second sentence is probably an assumed consequence, with doubting formula, of his first sentence, meaning that as there are so many bad new ideas, according to him, there is a justified skepticism and a sort of protection against so many bad new ideas, therefore demanting a damn good scientific demonstration of its goodness :D.
      The second phrase taken alone, obviously would be patently logically flawed, as good idea is good regardless of how it’s explained. Obviously this given the ease and simplicity of use of the idea, otherwise the explanation is vital for the idea to be working right.

  • Zachary David

    If our government is in State A and you are arguing why it should be in State B, you need to persuade people. The path you choose to take people through and the rhetoric you use obviously needs to be carefully chosen.

    I think you even wrote on that subject a while back with a utility curve for rhetoric.

    If you’re trying to appeal ad populum then you would choose a populist argument, if you need to appeal to bureaucrats then you would choose an argument that appeals to them.

    It’s possible to appeal to multiple groups through multiple arguments. Hence why “talking points” arise out of very complex legislation (e.g. Obamacare)

    If you do not provide the talking points for people who can not understand your detailed argument, they will use heuristics to make their own—which is how you end up with the problem you currently have.

  • Alejandro Patagnan

    utarchy is a form of government proposed by economist Robin Hanson, in which elected officials define measures of national welfare and prediction markets are used to determine which policies will have the most positive effect.[1]  That is socialism, communism or fascism. Government managing the economy, or market is nothing but  socialism and fascism.

  • oldoddjobs

    Robin holds his opinions for the right reasons. People who also hold those opinions but aren’t college professors “get in the way”.

    There are freethinkers and then there is Lord Hanson.