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Scissor Statements: Sort by Controversial (slatestarcodex.com)
217 points by paulsutter 14 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 132 comments



Now that I've actually read it rather than starting with the comments, as we're all prone to do, I think it's an interesting little piece of fiction that reminds me of two things.

One is the Monty Python weaponised joke sketch: the premise of the sketch is that the joke is so funny that anyone who reads or hears it promptly dies from laughter, so it is carefully divided into pieces and translated into German for use as a weapon.

The other is the Dreyfuss affair, and its notorious ability to fragment French society for years.


It reminds me of a CGP Grey video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rE3j_RHkqJc. In that video (okay I'm interpreting a bit...) society itself acts as Scissor, "breeding" some ideas to become maximally controversial.

Which, if you take SA's story too seriously, is actually good news: it implies that we've probably already seen just about the worst scissors possible, because society's been trying to produce them all along!


> Which, if you take SA's story too seriously, is actually good news: it implies that we've probably already seen just about the worst scissors possible, because society's been trying to produce them all along!

I don't think we did. SA's machine learning based scissor generator is to what you described what engineered bioweapons are to natural evolution. The latter can produce nasty stuff over time, the former is about taking the latter, refining it, and improving on it much faster.


Like any invention, not everything that can be invented has been invented. The current culture war has only been going for around 5 years. Things can change and new divides erupt all the time.

5 years? Lots of it can be traced directly all the way back to the Vietnam war, surely? Certainly abortion has been a scissor issue since at least 1973.

Yes, and a lot of commenters are falling into the scissor, metaphorically, arguing that your analogy to the Dreyfuss case is wrong because, damn it, Dreyfuss was {innocent, guilty}.

I think that's in part because, if you're societally oppressed, you're less buffered, so you become understandably hyper-vigilant about what might be used against you. E.g a if you're rich, you may not like a certain tax law change passed out of the Senate committee, but you still have chances to reduce its impact by lobbying for the full Senate vote, the House vote, Presidential veto, IRS implementing regulations, and how your tax attorney goes to bat for you. If you're poor and dependent on certain subsidies which the Senate committee has voted to eliminate, you have fewer points of leverage between you and doom (and "doom" is much worse for you.)

All that said, I think the interesting thing about a scissor statement is that it generates tunnel vision in both sides at the same time that it's generating great passion in both sides. Losing = death, death is imminent, so this is the hill you've got to die on.

But losing is generally not death and complete losing is generally a few more steps away, even if you're on the "oppressed" side I sketched out above.

Consider the Kavanaugh confirmation. I was against it (disclaimer: I'm not personally the target of what he's likely to cause through his votes, so...). But his confirmation is not the last word - a battle not the war. Other Justices will be nominated. Legislation could increase the number of court seats. Grassroots efforts through the states can make Federal decisions less important. He might even be impeached.

And there may be positive consequences in the long term. The spectacle of the hearings may have strengthened long term support for "my side".

If you've fallen into the scissor, you see it as the war, and with no possibility of good consequences to losing.

You also -- just as in the story -- see the other side as a monolith. That works against perceiving their humanity, and it works against good negotiation tactics. Some Senators voted for Kavanaugh enthusiastically; everything about him was good. Some Senators held their noses and voted for him, because they feared their base or like some of Kavanaugh's positions. Some pro-K Senators may even have collected significant IOUs which may become handy later. Not seeing those possibilities leads to myopic strategy.

(And please please please don't fall into the scissor re the Kavanaugh fight if you respond to this comment.)


Great phrase, "fall into the scissor". I think the brilliance of this story is not whether it represents a truly plausible scenario, but that it creates a meme that is anti-divisive. These kinds of things have real power. I hope your phrase about not falling into the scissor catches on. It would do a lot of forum discussions a lot of good.

The Dreyfuss affair is a perfect example, reading the Wikipedia article made it immediately clear in the first few paragraphs where I would side, and made everyone who would disagree with me seem like an un-thinking, un-principled mob.

For others' convenience:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_affair

(I was ignorant)


The Monty Python sketch is exactly where my mind went, too, and this idea goes farther back, about the power of ideas (meta!): the pen is mightier than the sword. What force has compelled so many throughout history to face the sword and die by it, if not ideas? I think that skit masterfully short-circuits the concept.


The idea that words have enormous power over human minds is taken to fantasical extremes in a (sf? f?) thriller "Lexicon", by Max Barry[1].

My own view is that "truth" means something different to some people. For example, a charismatic narcissistic leader might mean "confident belief" when he says "truth". This definition define his statements to be truth! I suppose the last backstop for these kinds of structures are nature itself, and it's tendency to allow problematic structures to crumble.

1 https://www.alibris.com/Lexicon-Max-Barry/book/24166116


I mean the entire society is organized around abstract concepts: corporation, nation, state, money, God, duty/obligation, human rights. None of these things are real (physics does not care about, say, debt), those are just programs running on the human brain. Natural language is the dispersal protocol of those programs.


It turns out, if you let people define words however they want to, they're never wrong.

who knew!

The solution is to reject those redefinitions.


Well, this is “fiction”, but he described his method precisely: get the publicly available Reddit comments archive, sort by controversial, set up the GAN generating and scoring texts according to controversy (the comments that cause the most schism and/or initiate discussions), train it, then try to generate new controversial comments. Seems doable.

I presume that everyone with a spark of scientific mindset and even a slight interest in the field now warming up their OpenGPT-2 instances and trying to reproduce the effect.


There's been lots of news about weaponized fake news, but is there any research being done with loading up NN/GANs with the OPPOSITE of scissors? Statements or speeches designed to unite groups, show commonalities? I'm sure it's been done jokingly to fluff like r/aww and might seem a bit hokey or insincerely feel-good, but... have to at least wonder what the polar opposite might be.


That's about what I'd expect at the current level of GPT-2. It is very good in some dimensions, but terrible in others, e.g., right there at the beginning: "Blacks make up 1/8 of the world's population, but they account for only a 3/10 of global economic power." - GPT is very bad at math [1], it gets the structure of arguments involving math or numbers but doesn't understand the numbers, so right off there's a massive unforced error in this controversial statement in which it complains that 12.5% of the world's population has "only" 30% of the power, undercutting the whole thing from the getgo and making something that was a good start to a "controversial" statement completely fall apart into farce due to a simple error. It does this sort of thing pervasively. It's clear that GPT-2 is touching controversial topics but it's failing to put together controversial sentences.

I suspect that the sort of thing that Scott discusses in this story isn't quite possible, at the full described power... but certainly if AI gets better than GPT-2, it'll get better at this too.

[1]: Read some of https://www.reddit.com/r/SubSimulatorGPT2/search/?q=math&res...


AI is already better (just not evenly distributed). The small GPT-2s are bad at math, but they're not trained for that in the first place; we know Transformers are capable of doing excellent things with math because they do in other papers which tackle more specialized problems like theorem proving. The shallowness of the GPT-2s is definitely part of it (it gets only a few sequential steps of computation to 'think'), as is lousy sampling procedures, and just a general of parameters: 'coherency' in general seems to improve drastically as you scale up to Megatron levels. If you combined all of the SOTA pieces and polished it for a while and plugged it into social media for RL, you'd get something much better than this...

Funny thing though - I could see that statement being particularly enraging once a large enough and random enough group got behind debating it. These statements don't have to make logical sense, they only have to trigger people into instinctive camps.

"The math doesn't even make sense, and is making my point, that there's no problem here"

"You're saying there's not a problem? Believe me, there's a problem..."

etc.


True enough, but I think one with accurate math is more likely to focus more people on the more enraging substance rather than the mere fact of a math error. It may be enraging to some people but I don't think it's anywhere near optimally enraging.

Yeah, I think the more general problem is people can only get so enraged if they realize it's a bot. So the sentences have to be good enough to pass a perfunctory Turing test. The math is only one of several tells in these.

The part I don't understand is, how would the scissor statements be made real?

E.g. The Russian scissor statement machine spits out a statement about a bakery refusing to make a cake for a gay couple.

What happens next? They somehow identify real people who fit the role and nudge them towards ordering a cake?

Or would everyone involved be paid actors?

Or real people who are bribed / coerced?

I know we're in fictional territory, I'm just curious about how this would work in the story's 'universe'. (And in real life, I guess, considering that some of it seemed dangerously plausible).


None of that matters. Haven't you been following any of these social media hate crime hoaxes and wars? Or watched _Ghost in the Shell_? It doesn't matter if there is no real bakery. Or a real bakery will be distorted by a game of Telephone by unscrupulous activists or journalists into something which vaguely looks right. And even if there is no such bakery, it may create a bakery: a real bakery will announce it's standing up for its principles and not baking for gay people, or a spat between a bakery and a gay couple (for completely other reasons unrelated to being gay) will be recycled, or heck, someone may step up to claim to be the bakery in question and to be fighting the good fight for Christianity. You might think, who would be so weird as to do that, as they must know what they are doing, but there are a lot of weird people out there and you only need one ( https://www.gwern.net/Littlewood ).

In the cake example - find a bakery that won't make a cake for a gay wedding. Probably by correlating gay hate posts on social media and baking.

Start directing traffic from social media of LGBTQ communities, perhaps even wedding orientes, towards that bakery. For example false accounts on facebook wedding groups who say that bakery is really good or something.

Wait until something happens.



The story defined scissor statements as ones that simply make two ideologically incompatible groups realize the "other" is hiding amongst "them".

Close contact and narcissism of small differences means fighting will naturally ensue.

For example the statement that "You should wipe your butt standing up" (or sitting down). Neither side knew the other group exists, and once they do they will automatically start ridiculing each other: you're doing it wrong, weren't you raised properly, etc.

A more serious recent example is "feelings matter in open source". Coworkers you previously respected can instantly become enemies because you didn't realize they were monsters.

Unlike the short story, I think these scissors are somewhat healthy. I have faith that people are drawn to controversy because deep down they want to resolve the dissonance. So eventually one side will win and the fighting will stop.


The way I interpreted it is that Scissors just are. For a given group, at any given point in time there are maximally controversial statements, "edge cases" that can collapse communities. They are not obvious to anyone involved, and they may change over time.

(Imagine this as fuzzying communities. Crafting inputs that trigger worst performance of an algorithm, hit a point of numerical instability, or straight out exploit it as a security vulnerability.)

In the example of wedding cake, at some point in time, for a large group of people one of such "maximally controversial statements" was a statement about a bakery refusing to make a cake for a gay couple. The US is large, so things like this just happen. And one of such cases happened at this particular point in time where statements about it are Scissors, people started talking about it to each other, and the whole thing exploded into a national scandal.

What I believe the protagonist of the story had is a Scissor predicting machine. A social fuzzer. The difference between using it and waiting for a Scissor to be generated organically is that the event need not actually happen. All that matters is that a controversial idea is posted.

Think about it for a moment. Did that story with bakery really happened? If you're only causally made aware of it through social media, would you be able to tell if it was just a fabricated story spread by a bunch of folks on Twitter? Do you think people involved in the drama on both sides of the issue actually verified it? (And no, mainstream news outlets aren't good at checking their sources either.). The point of a Scissor is that after a while, it doesn't really matter what the statement is about, it's simply a catalyst of group division.

In the real world, I would hope a Scissor based off fake news would have less impact than one that grew organically out of a real story. Within the story world, I think Scott Alexander makes the point that a computer-generated Scissor is just as much if not more effective.

So, to answer your questions: the Russian Scissor Machine generates a statement about a bakery refusing to make cake for a gay couple. They post it on-line on US social media. People start getting at each other's throats. Maybe it so happened that there was a bakery that at roughly that time refused to make a cake for a gay couple. If so, someone finds it and it becomes the object of the Scissor statement. If not, no big deal, someone in their zeal fabricates a story, and it's not like either side actually has time to verify facts between retweeting and downvoting. At no point anyone is paid or bribed or otherwise aware of what's going on. The Russians just post a statement and watch the US people tear each other apart.


"Scissors just are."

I think this is profound. I wrote a few minutes ago that scissors generate passion and tunnel vision, and you've stated that more elegantly.

If you fallen into a scissor, shades of grey don't matter. In particular, the factualness (or not) of the scissor doesn't matter.


I took the sentences as being not necessarily literal sentences. I thought it was smart that he left the words vague. Maybe they weren't even really words? In the same spirit as the basilisks from "BLIT" and "Different Kinds of Darkness".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BLIT_(short_story)


One of Alexander's better stories. However, I'd say it reeks of what I'd call Alexanderness:

-The idea that arguments and debates are the most important thing in the world and everyone should do it as much as possible (possibly due to his being terminally online). In real life if you say something other people find abhorrent they'll first go "that's wrong wtf", then if you insist "sure alright go off" then "please stop talking to me". Most people are not, in fact, in a perpetual crusade to prove opppnents wrong. That's because the real world isn't Twitter.

-The idea that both sides have a point and trying to rule out one side is anathema to a well-functioning society. In other words, why can't everyone just get along? Well guess what, sometimes one side is unambigiously right and the other unambiguously wrong. Some disagreements can't be resolved other than through power struggles, such as e.g. when one side's position implies the negation of the other side's rights, identity or existence. We can't have a rational, dispassionate debate about whether I should have rights. I can't argue for my existence, I want it.

-Equivocating all controversial statements as equally controversial. For instance, design decisions about a codebase vs. religion issues vs. presumably something even deeper ('so hateful and disgusting'). Some fights are worth having, some are not.


> -The idea that both sides have a point and trying to rule out one side is anathema to a well-functioning society. In other words, why can't everyone just get along? Well guess what, sometimes one side is unambigiously right and the other unambiguously wrong. Some disagreements can't be resolved other than through power struggles, such as e.g. when one side's position implies the negation of the other side's rights, identity or existence. We can't have a rational, dispassionate debate about whether I should have rights. I can't argue for my existence, I want it.

If that's the framing you want to choose, then you have to accept the possibility that its a power struggle you may lose. The point of debating things is that the most justifiable side should win. In a power struggle, the side that wins may or may not be the correct one. If you think your position is correct, you should prefer the debate to the power struggle.

It's only people that fear they may not be able to justify their view that prefer to struggle for power.

> -Equivocating all controversial statements as equally controversial. For instance, design decisions about a codebase vs. religion issues vs. presumably something even deeper ('so hateful and disgusting'). Some fights are worth having, some are not.

That's all context-dependent, though. Design decisions about a codebase are a fight absolutely worth having in the context of a startup, as in the story.


> If that's the framing you want to choose, then you have to accept the possibility that its a power struggle you may lose. The point of debating things is that the most justifiable side should win.

Is there actual evidence that it works this way? Because as far as I can tell, "debates" about anything important mostly just get both sides fired up and more convinced of their own views. And I know for a fact that there are some arguments that are bad, but do well in debates, and other arguments that are good, but don't convince people. I've self-censored and said things that I don't really believe for this reason.

> In a power struggle, the side that wins may or may not be the correct one. If you think your position is correct, you should prefer the debate to the power struggle.

Sure, but you don't have a choice. There's always going to be power struggles going on, and your only real choice is whether you participate. If one side is regimented and ready to grab for power whenever they can, and the other side is constantly debating whether it's right to even try, I'm pretty sure I know which side's going to win.

> It's only people that fear they may not be able to justify their view that prefer to struggle for power.

The most important views fundamentally cannot be justified, because they're about basic values. For instance, I believe that all lives have equal value. However, I've met people who think that American lives are more valuable than all others. I don't know of any way that I could "justify" my position to these people: it's an axiom in my system of morality. The best thing I can think of would be to try and get them to meet more non-Americans, or show them sad pictures of children starving in Africa, and hope that they change their mind.


>Some disagreements can't be resolved other than through power struggles, such as e.g. when one side's position implies the negation of the other side's rights, identity or existence. We can't have a rational, dispassionate debate about whether I should have rights. I can't argue for my existence, I want it.

This statement is an example of one that could be seen as insidious as a scissor. The idea of the scissor is really interesting, as there are ideas I think people are easily seduced by, which produces these kind of statements.

In my house, where politics was dinner discussion from as soon as we could all talk, we have a way to recognize when the discussion switches from comparing interests and experiences, to artifacts of personal experience that are not mutually reconcilable, and that the only remaining interesting topic is how to navigate alien experiences.

It's not always smooth, but it mitigates feuding and using politics as a proxy in relationships with precedents that were set when we were all children.

Of course, for this to even be possible, you need to believe in something greater than your own experience, and have what people now call an "internal locus of control," which is itself a high bar, but we've managed.


> Well guess what, sometimes one side is unambigiously right and the other unambiguously wrong. Some disagreements can't be resolved other than through power struggles, such as e.g. when one side's position implies the negation of the other side's rights, identity or existence. We can't have a rational, dispassionate debate about whether I should have rights. I can't argue for my existence, I want it.

this may well be the case, but it's still probably worth avoiding resorting to power struggles whenever possible. winning a power struggle is orthogonal to actually being right. you might win on an issue that's particularly important to you (where you consider yourself to be "unambiguously right") this way, but it's worse for everyone the more things are decided this way.

as an aside, "rights" are some of the most subjective things that exist. as a US citizen I have the right to bear (certain) arms (in certain situations). this right only exists because it's enshrined in law and not enough people have yet organized in opposition to it. it's an inherently controversial topic where the only answer is whatever people can mostly agree to.


"Orthogonal to being right" might actually be too optimistic here. For whatever reason, people who want to resolve disagreements this way often hold positions which rely on their own supposed lack of power as justification. So to some extent, winning the power struggle is actually correlated with being wrong.

Via capitulation, it's always possible to avoid a power struggle. Game theoretically, this has some pretty obvious suboptimal outcomes for the capitulating player. I think it's an interesting question to figure out when the power struggle is worth it, and when it isn't. But I think necessarily this is going to be a question that boils down to values that every person is going to have to evaluate for themselves.

of course it's rational for an individual or subset of society to fight for something that's very important to them, if they can't get it through persuasion. but if most things are settled this way, it's not going to end well for the less powerful members of society.

Capitulation is not avoiding a power struggle. It is an outcome.

I meant it in this sense:

> Capitulate v. to surrender often after negotiation of terms

It is possible to surrender without a fight. In so doing, one avoids a power struggle, by yielding the ground the other side was demanding.


What a strange lack of curiosity. Framing the conversation of controversy around an anecdotal one involving someone arguing against someone else's right to exist seems like missing the forest for a very specific tree, and in a way, that's sorta the point of the whole story. Relying on the emotive power of anecdotes to derail individuals and groups in discussions from being skeptical of when they're being goaded into a reaction is a key part of media strategy -- so much that the story uses the operative noun "scissor" to describe it. I read the article (not my first stay in Alexander-land although I'm no frequent guest) and came away with a thoroughly different conclusion.

1) Arguments and debates, far from being the most important thing in the world, are a sadly spectacular (in the Debord sense) form of the social human condition.

2) While it's not the case that both sides have a point, it's almost always exploitable that both sides can be provoked, and the synthesis of provocative headlines and content while remaining just on the side of centrism is the core of the media industry. To your example, it's true that there are certain people that argue against your right to exist, but they are beyond the pale, or dressing their bloodlust in irony. My opinion is that the more dangerous kinds of bigots attempt to shroud or reframe their views into more marketable and respectable packages, and they usually "ride" or incite controversy to get there. Is it the mark of a well-functioning society to tolerate this speech without becoming intolerant, or is it the mark of a naive one which is doomed to an eventually authoritarian and surveillance state? Where ought the lines be drawn?

3) Controversial statements, if generable, imply something fascinating and thought-provoking about what controversy is. Generating controversy gets you one step further towards generating clickbait. Generating clickbait gets you one step further to ... what?

That's the million-dollar question. If anyone can generate clickbait for free, will everyone continue to consume it? Will we begin to look at clickbait the way we look at nicotine and alcohol -- cheap thrills with long term deleterious effects that we need to regulate? What's the trade-off between a minimal oversight and regulatory capture or authoritarianism here; is it inevitable that we must trade things off?


> What a strange lack of curiosity. Framing the conversation of controversy around an anecdotal one involving someone arguing against someone else's right to exist seems like missing the forest for a very specific tree, and in a way, that's sorta the point of the whole story.

The story mentions Kavanaugh, and coincidentally today the Supreme Court happens to be hearing one such existential case: whether it's legal for employers to fire their employees for being gay or trans.

I guess there's a certain sense of curiosity that's satisfied by debates about issues like this. But I imagine that the people entertained by it aren't the ones who have a stake in the outcome. If you're gay, you don't want to have to endlessly convince people that you shouldn't be fired for just being yourself. You just want to be able to exist in society like everyone else.


I get what you're saying here. It's certainly true that the people who have a stake in the outcome aren't per sé entertained by it, nor even remotely okay with having to spend time and energy being dragged into it -- as you said, you just want to be able to exist in society like everyone else.

But the flip side of it is what makes it interesting. What you'll find about folks who do have a stake in the outcome and who do explore their curiosity to the root have an astonishing amount of insights into the human condition. I think that much of the greatest art and music was written from the margins, and accomplishes more for creating bridges towards understanding than many (though not all) activists. Speaking for myself, even outside art and music, I have gotten a lot of mileage out of learning what makes someone believe that I shouldn't date their child or have a specific job because of stereotypes they associate with my race. It's less that I know they're wrong than at some deep level, they perhaps know that they're wrong, and the process of me (or others) having conversations that bring out what they truly fear can help you get to the bottom of things.

When we get pass to the actions that we directly do and get to the things we aid and abet, I think that modern existence in industrial society consists of aiding and abetting quite a few unsavory supply chains that could be fixed and made a lot better for the good of society. It's a lot more palpable when it comes to things like food and clothing. But perhaps we're in the middle of a shift towards society being able to find that palpable when it comes to media. I think a precondition of that would this sort of curiosity, and moreover awareness.

You just want to be able to exist in society like everyone else...but you're increasingly aware of what structures stand in your way. You disagree with others who think it's okay to fire you for just being yourself...but if you talk to them, you begin to understand the fears they're running away from towards "uncertain bedfellows" that even they feel are almost certainly not trustworthy. Maybe they start to get their curiosity piqued too. Maybe they'll ask you for a couple of places to start, if you don't mind. Or maybe they're scared of being embarrassed, but they'll go home and google some of the stuff you brought up. These are all hypotheticals, but they're things I've seen happen enough times and frequently enough to wonder if they're more than just anecdota.


> What a strange lack of curiosity.

That's kind of a rude thing to say, and not really necessary to the rest of your comment.

> Framing the conversation of controversy around an anecdotal one involving someone arguing against someone else's right to exist seems like missing the forest for a very specific tree

Depending on where you stand in the forest, some trees are larger than others. For example, if you are LGBTQ, the LGBTQ tree is going to tend to be more important to you. It is also sadly a continuing source of national controversy in the United States. Because that group is still fighting for equal treatment in many respects.

I think the GP's point is that the question of whether something is a "scissor statement" is secondary, for certain important issues. Coding style is probably not one of those issues, and it's probably better to avoid being too caught up on one answer versus another. Fundamental rights are a different category.

I mean, you're right, it is a fascinating piece of fiction! Indeed, if controversial statements are indeed generable as suggested, that would be a fascinating observation on the human condition. The comment you're responding to even acknowledged that, but with reservation. I don't think it's right for you to make rude accusations because someone stated their reservations.


I think it speaks volumes that your comment is more about a "rude" tone than substance -- neither you nor GP directly address the lede of the story, which is the fictitious construct of "Scissor statements" and what they mean. The whole idea of some trees being bigger than others or that the question of whether something a "scissor statement" being secondary is the whole idea behind using "Scissor statements" to turn identity politics into a lucrative media business, and it's an idea as old as time. The Southern Strategy, at least, is at least as old as the 60s.

How do you defeat the Southern Strategy? Well, it's not by calling it rude, or talking about how one of the parties pitted against the other is fighting for equal treatment. That's playing right into the strategy itself, which is to talk about the same things from different perspectives, or micro analyze perceived slights so you can never have class consciousness or coordination.


> neither you nor GP directly address the lede of the story

I didn't intend to address the lede of the story. I intended to address what I viewed as an important, common, and contextually incorrect viewpoint in your comment. :) If I wanted to address the story as a whole, I would have engaged in the form of a top-level comment.

> your comment is more about a "rude" tone than substance

This characterization of what I wrote is factually inaccurate. I addressed the rude tone in a single sentence, and the substance of (a specific part of) your comment in multiple paragraphs.

Also, from newsguidelines.html:

"When disagreeing, please reply to the argument instead of calling names. "That is idiotic; 1 + 1 is 2, not 3" can be shortened to "1 + 1 is 2, not 3."

The specific applicability of this to your comment is to delete the first, rude sentence. Your whole message is conveyed much better without it!


What is the first principle from the guidelines?

> On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting. That includes more than hacking and startups. If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity.

When I say "what a strange lack of curiosity" I meant it literally -- it goes against the spirit of this forum, and furthermore I find it intellectually dangerous. I find that as dangerous as your own admission that you "didn't intend to address the lede of the story." Curiosity, as pertains to these stories (and I would say regarding most dystopian fiction in general) allows you to fully engage with the world that is being constructed.

Its opposite, which is a reactionary kind of incuriosity, allows you to project a presumption into a full response without fully engaging with what it's trying to say. To cherry-pick broad "Alexanderisms" that could equally apply to any other elements of Alexander's work is to risk missing specific details or the point of the specific piece. Sadly, your admission that you didn't intend to address the lede of the story indicates that this might be exactly what's happened.


> Sadly, your admission that you didn't intend to address the lede of the story indicates that this might be exactly what's happened.

Here, and throughout, I think you're confusing two different things. One is choosing a specific, objectionable point to discuss. The other is being unable to engage with the story as a whole. You are assuming, as far as I can understand what you've written, that because I disagreed and focused on a specific thing you said, I was unable to engage with, understand, or appreciate the story as a whole. I don't think that assumption is well-founded.

Dystopian fiction often serves as a critique of the real world. In this case, it's pretty obvious what's being critiqued, and there is certainly some merit to questioning aspects of cancel culture, furious debates over ever more marginal aspects of identity politics, etc. On the other hand, critique invites response. It's totally in bounds to respond negatively to aspects of a given critique. That's part of what comment sections are for. As far as I can tell, you accused someone of incuriousity essentially for responding to a critique with further critique.

As for how you meant that first sentence, I can only tell you how it came across to me. (As an unnecessary, insulting interjection.) That's all I have to say about it.


Thanks for clarifying what you mean. That's helpful.

> Here, and throughout, I think you're confusing two different things. One is choosing a specific, objectionable point to discuss. The other is being unable to engage with the story as a whole. You are assuming, as far as I can understand what you've written, that because I disagreed and focused on a specific thing you said, I was unable to engage with, understand, or appreciate the story as a whole. I don't think that assumption is well-founded.

I don't think I'm assuming you're unable to engage with the story, but more that your actions and what you choose to discuss are placing emphasis in one area, and your lack of actions or discussion are conversely placing no emphasis there. You've placed a ton of energy into responding to this entire thread. Why put that energy into responding to this thread but put so little into responding to the topic post itself?

> Dystopian fiction often serves as a critique of the real world. In this case, it's pretty obvious what's being critiqued, and there is certainly some merit to questioning aspects of cancel culture, furious debates over ever more marginal aspects of identity politics, etc. On the other hand, critique invites response. It's totally in bounds to respond negatively to aspects of a given critique. That's part of what comment sections are for. As far as I can tell, you accused someone of incuriousity essentially for responding to a critique with further critique.

I don't think it's at all obvious what is being critiqued, and that delightful ambiguity is part of what I like about it. The scissor statement is a Pandora's box -- who is being critiqued, exactly? The characters who stumbled on to it? The ones that understood what it was capable of and enriched themselves from it? Society within the story for being so easy to game? The colonel that unleashed it on Mozambique? One could make a compelling case for some or all of them. It feels much more open to interpretation than I think you may be giving it credit for.

> As for how you meant that first sentence, I can only tell you how it came across to me. (As an unnecessary, insulting interjection.) That's all I have to say about it.

It's ironic that you say that it's "all you have to say about it", because you expounded upon it for an entire thread, while still spending comparably little time commenting on the ideas in the topic post. My question is, why not engage with the topic post? Is it really the case that you're getting more out of critiquing someone's tone than by offering your own thoughts about scissor statements, what they mean, and their suitability as a metaphorical vehicle for digital media in society? I find it puzzling, but also ironic -- again, isn't that exactly kind of derailment the story is trying to point out and warn against?


You are clearly right that responding to you was unproductive. I had hoped that you would simply see that what you had written was unhelpful, and acknowledge the same. I didn't intend a long discussion. But I can see that my hopes were in vain. I will not make this particular mistake again. :-/

Well, we'll have to agree to disagree there. Whereas you find what I had written unhelpful and I found it useful in communicating specific details, you found what you wrote a helpful critique and I found it the very opposite. I would say that the unproductive part was the presumption, but your mileage may vary.

> We can't have a rational, dispassionate debate about whether I should have rights.

Nobody has 'rights'. It's an artificial construct.

Nobody can do what they want, they are constrained by others - whether through a system of law, or simply other people intervening.

Everything is a negotiation.

If somebody wanted to kill you - you could fight - or you could become useful to the person with the power to kill you.

It's a negotiation where both sides weight the risks of different approaches.

Democratic systems of government and the law simply are an agreement by the majority that it's a pragmatic way of doing stuff - negotiate once nationally rather than constant negotiations with everyone we meet.

So maybe what's missing in a system like reddit is the recording of decisions - ie a vote at the end of every thread.


> Nobody has 'rights'. It's an artificial construct.

Whether “rights” are an artificial construct is not germane. A twelve-month lease is an artificial construct, but I have one of those. So is a Twitter account, gender, and my favorite pancake recipe. I have all of these things. I also have rights.


In the context of a certain society, sure. But those are “rights within that society”, just like your lease is “a lease within that society.” (The pancake recipe is a pancake recipe anywhere; whether or not you can get the ingredients is a separate issue.) Having rights enforced by treaty across most of the world doesn’t mean you have rights if you e.g. crash-land your private plane into a North Korean military base. Or if you get hijacked by pirates in international waters.

In both cases, it’s not really some airy universal human rights that’ll protect you; instead, you have “being the subject of a powerful sovereign nation that has made a promise to its citizens to retrieve them from such peril, probably ultimately because of that nation’s perception of your granted rights as a citizen of that country.” (And, if you’re stateless, you don’t even have that—which is a big reason many nations don’t let you renounce citizenship without already being a citizen of somewhere-else.)

And, more to the GP poster’s point, your rights don’t exist if you wander into the wilderness, get chased by a bear, get backed into a corner, and want to convince the bear not to eat you. The bear will not stop because “you have rights”; those are, at their widest, a “human civil-society” thing. At that moment, you need something else. Something negotiated, probably. (Maybe you can throw him a sandwich and leave while he’s distracted? That’s a negotiation.)


And then can be revoked, cancelled, traded, stripped etc.

My point isn't they don't exist as some inalienable thing on their own, they are result of negotiations. Hence the argument that 'rights' are something that can't be debated or negotiated is a mistake.


Declaring something to be artificial is a useless dismissal. Names are artificial, but we don't say that nobody has a name.

> If somebody wanted to kill you - you could fight - or you could become useful to the person with the power to kill you.

This is the "everything is a power struggle view", and a particularly simplified version of it too. Primitive societies added the "establish a norm of revenge or blood feud by your relatives" as another resolution. This developed upwards into "official" retribution from the king as proto-state, and thence into law as we know it today.

> recording of decisions - ie a vote at the end of every thread.

They're not debates with motions and resolutions. If they were, you'd also need a process for "this motion is not well formed or decidable".


Hmm that's what I said.... that 'rights' are an outcome of negotiation, not some inalienable thing not open to negotiation.

The argument for universal rights is not a dismissal of reality, but rather a tool for creating a reality that is better than a harsh state of nature where you have to bargain for your very existence.


That's what I said.... I was replying to somebody that said the 'rights' were how somehow none negotiable - when they are in fact the outcome of negotiations!

Are principles not also a social construct? Would you say that “no one has principles”?

People absolutely do have rights, my government ensures that I do have a right to vote. It may be intangible but that doesn’t mean it’s not real, saying “no one has rights” is at best a platitude, people demonstrably do have rights all over the world.


> People absolutely do have rights, my government ensures that I do have a right to vote.

Except when you are prison ( depending on your country ) or below a certain age.

It's all semantics - back to the meaning of my reply - the person I was replying to suggested that some things are non-negotiable ( like rights ). This is simply not true.

Note I think a system of government with universal 'rights' is a good system. Not dismissing that concept - quite the converse - these exist because people have had an adult negotiation with each other.


>the person I was replying to suggested that some things are non-negotiable ( like rights ). This is simply not true.

Fair enough, I missed this context and I do agree with the statement.


this isn't a hot take. we already live in a society that obligates us to abide by a social contract. so yes people do have rights. it's as real as the fact that you and I speak the same language. looking around and imagining that because some people somewhere sometimes are in breach of contract means that contracts don't exist is stupid. they do. we all signed them and resign them when we use any cooperative produced object (that includes language, science, public roads, etc)


Hmm.. reread the full thread again. I think the mistake here is my lack of clarity about the word 'rights'.

My point was there is no such thing as an inalienable rights. 'Rights' are a negotiated social contract - so it makes no sense to say they are not negotiable!


>negotiated social contract

the bill of rights was ratified December 15, 1791. in what sense is it still being negotiated?


That's basically what the supreme court does. The words remain the same, but the interpretation makes all the difference. Even strict constructionists have to negotiate the acceptance of their view.

Excellent point.

I'm not an expert on the US system, but I believe ratification implies some sort of agreement.

I also believe there is an amendment process - ie it has changed over time and each of those changes is through some sort of democratic process...

So the debate and negotiation still goes on, even if it changes slowly.


The Enlightenment-era view is opposite. According to philosophers of that era like Hobbes, everybody has natural rights. According to Locke, these rights are life (everyone is entitled to live), liberty (everyone can do what they want, unless it conflicts with #1), and property (everyone is entitled to what they create and what they own, unless it conflicts with #1 and #2). We agree to forego and suppress some of our natural rights, enjoying all of the fruits of our labor, imprisoning lawbreakers who haven't broken any of these, allowing killing of people in some circumstances, penalties for certain types of speech, etc., and allow ourselves to be governed for our mutual benefit. Those rights are constantly being re-negotiated (for example: the USA's founding documents specifically enshrine the right to own guns, but there is a national discussion about whether we should continue to have this right. Also, we have historically had freedom of speech, and that has been adjudicated not to include credible threats or speech that would directly and intentionally cause physical or financial harm, according to natural rights #1 and #3, and some would like to adjudicate that further to ban speech that would cause emotional harm) If any group of people disagrees too strongly with the status quo, civil disobedience happens. Civil disobedience is people exercising their natural rights in opposition to the state.

It's important to note that the recognition of natural rights was critical in the argument against monarchy, if this concept of natural rights is eroded or replaced in government, the concept of negotiating rights and/or civil disobedience becomes very different in philosophy, because it would mean that rights are granted by whoever's in charge of the government, rather than being an emergent property of humanity that the people agree to limit for the greater good. If you surrender the concept of natural rights, you lose all of your negotiating power, as citizens.


> If you surrender the concept of natural rights, you lose all of your negotiating power, as citizens.

That's not true; under the constitution of my country, which is a republic, rights are based on the sovereignty of the people.

A more relevant issue is: does it matter? My country didn't transition from a monarchy to a republic because the king was convinced by strong reasoning to abdicate; there was a coup d'état, and he was forced into exile.


I'd agree, the concept of 'universal rights' is useful in the sense you are basically saying 'hey pretty much everyone agrees with this, nothing to see here'. A useful rhetorical tool.

However as you point out - using 'sanctity' type special status cut's both ways - what pretty much every other country sees as sensible action - control of lethal weapons - is blocked in the US, partly by, by pointless debates on 'rights'.

> If you surrender the concept of natural rights, you lose all of your negotiating power, as citizens.

True power comes from collective action - the Baron's ganged up on the king to force the Magna Carta - it wasn't the power of the philosophical argument - that's a cover to allow face saving ( though, of course, face saving is essential to non-violent progress ).


I think people who claim that their side is above argument are often being a bit hypocritical, since they rarely dismiss arguments for their side.


There are no rational arguments for my cause if it involves whether I should exist or have rights. I want rights because I want them. How would a rational argument even work?


This line of reasoning is utterly ruined for me by people who equate the mildest form of criticism with "people are saying insert group shouldn't exist".


How can you "mildly criticize" what people are? By definition debating about people's identity implies there's a possibility said identity doesn't exist/can't exist. There's no rational argument that's going to change a person's gender or sexuality for example.

Once we're there it's an impossible juncture. There's no answer to the sceptic's demand "how do you know?" without some how sharing our subjective experience. Might as well spend your days asking a bat what it means to be a bat.


I see you haven't spent any time in the 'rationalist' community.

"people are saying insert group shouldn't exist" is a good-faith and sober characterization of much of that group. Human Bio-Diversity (HBD, i.e. 'scientific' racism) is a very popular topic in the community.

Scott doesn't go there, obviously, but somehow the rhetoric wends it's way there over and over and over and over and over again in the 'community'.


All moral/ethical debate is of this form, at least for a broad-enough definition of "rights". Since moral debate does seem to exist in the real-world, the argument that it cannot would seem to be quite wrong. And in fact moral debate might even be strategically useful, if only as a way of searching for shared Schelling points (i.e. focal/coordination points) that can be more easily defended even in a stricter 'political' sense.


"if you help defend my existence and rights, I'll help defend yours".

The idea that it's irrelevant and that we needn't know or care what motivates other people when presenting an argument is a pervasive issue with the public conversation. It reduces opportunities for compromise and lessens our chance of learning when we're wrong.


Well, clearly there are classes of people we do think shouldn't exist. I think there shouldn't be any murderers for instance and I support policies of putting people who commit murder in jail so as to stop it. I'm also entirely fine with people having gay sex and I'd strongly oppose laws against that. But between those two there are gray zones where we really do need to have rational arguments about whether some groups should exist or not.


> There are no rational arguments for my cause if it involves whether I should exist or have rights. I want rights because I want them. How would a rational argument even work?

This is a pretty important question, although I don't know how well it applies to specific causes. On the other hand, there are reasonable questions we can ask about rights themselves whose answers are not easily reconcilable. For example:

1. Are rights discovered or invented?

2. If discovered, where do they come from?

3. If invented, can you "uninvent" them?

4. If invented, by what process?


I read a bit about postmodernism recently. I think the difference between yourself/Scott and the 'X studies' traditions is that they're not into classically philosophical arguments like you're making here. It's all about implied power relationships, the identity of speaker and listener are as important, maybe more important, than the content.

Whereas for you and Mr SSC, the identity is to be studiously ignored in favor of only focusing on the argument, to treat it fairly.

So everyone is using wildly different metrics and then wondering why their interlocutors seem crazy.


Rights are mostly won in a power struggle. For that, the idea of the rights has to be conceived first, and made the point of the struggle. This can be seen as "invention".

Then rights can be rationalized and tweaked a bit so that parties with comparable power do not step on each others' toes, and become allies. This can be seen, more roughly, as "discovery".

Rarely rights are granted by the more powerful to a less powerful because of moral / religious reasons. E.g. the anti-slavery movement in the US had a significant religious component, based on the idea that God created people equal.

More often a more powerful party gives a less powerful party some rights because they need an ally and want to prevent a full-on power struggle. I think women's suffrage had a significant component of this in many places.

Powerful and oppressive parties can definitely "uninvent" rights; look at any totalitarian regime for examples. Say, communist regimes often revoke the right to freely trade. Most oppressive regimes gladly uninvent the right to congregate, and usually the right to free speech. They tend to frame these activities as harmful and unnatural. Regaining them usually involves a power struggle; see above.


Frederick Douglass pithily summed it all up with “no struggle, no progress” / “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”


This assumes acceptance of a few premises that are not stated, significantly, that "all of group X disregards all opposing arguments as [a priori] irrational". I reject that premise holds true for all X.

I am always suspicious, initially, of either/or questions. They are frequently "loaded" in such a way.


> sometimes one side is unambigiously right and the other unambiguously wrong

Certainly you can try to pick some objective criteria for determining who is right, but that is beside the point that these questions ideally split a target population 50/50. If you have a philosophical theory of everything that allows you to always have an objective answer then that is awesome for you, but thinking that everyone else will share your views is naive to say the least.


> possibly due to his being terminally online

I mean, Scott is a practicing psychiatrist. Whether or not he’s online, he spends most of his time listening to people trying to justify (usually irrational, mental-illness-borne) positions, and then trying to give arguments powerful enough to actually change their minds (i.e. convince them to inculcate a sub-self who wants to change the mind of the rest of them.) Or drugs, if the sub-self who would “do the right [i.e. ego-syntonic] thing” exists but is overpowered by some other sub-self.


I sure hope not, that sounds like an ineffective way to help anyvody. (Not to mention that it would only work on dumb or unimaginative people.)

You can't argue someone out of a mental issue. If you really think it would be helpful for them to realize they're wrong, the best you can do is be a mirror so they can convince themselves.

But generally, the fixation on whether something is right or wrong is a distraction, a mechanism for avoiding facing the real issue.


It’s called cognitive behavioural therapy. You help the person better arm themselves with arguments to convince themselves. But to do that, you have to convince them on the value of the arguments, such that they adopt them.

I find your first bullet odd. If anything, the point of the story is that debate is not good. It makes me wonder if he's having a serious change of heart about it, in fact.

On the third point, I don't think those issues are being presented as actually equally controversial, particularly not as being equally worthy of fighting over, but as things that people are equally likely to fight over anyway.


>We can't have a rational, dispassionate debate about whether I should have rights. I can't argue for my existence, I want it.

Effective rhetoric, but that's about it. In practice, people take their self-serving policy preferences and enshrine them into their identity and then proclaim that any attack on their policy preference is attack on their right to exist


The community that these discussions take place in are a sort of "safe space" for those who want to discuss things rationally. Nobody is claiming that subtle logical arguments are effective in the real world against anyone who isn't already in that crowd.

One problem is that emotional rhetoric is often dressed up to look like rational argument, thus sucking people into a debate about arguments instead of a power struggle. When faced IRL with a fallacious argument designed to force them to say something factually correct but distasteful sounding, rational people definitely need to develop the habit of laughing in the attacker's face instead of responding with argument. I agree that not doing this is a problem they have (one that their enemies exploit). But I think you're reading into it if you think Alexander consciously endorses answering emotional attacks with reason (he might be tricked into it, but would agree it was a mistake if it were pointed out). He's talking to his own audience here.


I didn't see it doing any of those things. I saw it as a pretty straightforward story about a social conflict equivalent of a BLIT-style basilisk picture.


I don't know the author, but I had a similar thought, that was about the very immediate emotionality of his characters. It doesn't have to be that way - the "radical compassion" he mentions is only one small step away from nipping that kind of angry/passionate response in the bud.


This hits the nail on the head. Alexander has a horror of power struggles and wants to believe they can all be rplaced with debate, but that simply doesn't work.

He addresses this somewhat meta-level issue in his posts on Conflict vs. Mistake: https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/01/24/conflict-vs-mistake/

(and I try and tear it apart here: http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com/2018/03/conflict-theory.h... )


> Some disagreements can't be resolved other than through power struggles

Exactly this.

The "nerd" position that everything is a debate should be contrasted with with the Marxist position that everything is a power struggle. Both can easily become stopped clocks, but both have validity if correctly applied.

Moreover, it looks to me that a large problem with present politics is people who are fed up with rational cost-benefit analysis and want to wreck their perceived enemies, even at a cost to themselves.


> people who are fed up with rational cost-benefit analysis and want to wreck their perceived enemies

I've been thinking this for a while, and it seems to be creating some nasty feedback loops.

At least some of the support for politicians like Trump and Boris Johnson comes from the fact that they continually piss off people who are liberal/progressive/left-wing/anti-Brexit (delete as applicable depending on who is 'the enemy').

In the same way, I've seen things written about progressive politicians to the effect of "he is upsetting a lot of angry old white men, so he must be doing something right".

"How much do they piss off the other team" has become something that many voters use as a metric. Perhaps even the only metric, for some people.


Yes - and this is partly due to the media, who absolutely love a two-sided punchup because it's clickbait to both sides and generates lots of furious refreshing of the comments section to show ads. It's basically a fancier version of professional wrestling.

It's very prisoner's dilemma. First side to back down from the partisanship loses. So it just keeps escalating. Traditionally the media and other institutions have leant on the left to back down and "be reasonable"; this has become a losing strategy, so people are starting to get unreasonable again.


And the root of the problem here is again that media are funded by advertising, so they need to stir outrage and pit everyone against each other to maximize profits.

The idea that the discussion of a supreme court nominee being a rapist is what is dangerous, and not the fact that a supreme court nominee is a rapist, is frankly sickening. So is reducing Kaepernick to a political meme, complete with invocation of Putin as scary mastermind.

Acting like everything is some kind of abstract theater designed to divide people on internet forums shows a disturbing detachment from the real effects that real events have on real people.


> The idea that the discussion of a supreme court nominee being a rapist is what is dangerous, and not the fact that a supreme court nominee is a rapist, is frankly sickening.

Not in general. There's damage, and there's collateral damage. Sometimes discussions do more damage than their topic. For instance, a journalist writing an article in a popular newspaper that some doctors are considering violating patient confidentiality in cases of admission of crime, and people reading and reposting it, is much more dangerous than the ultimate decision of those few doctors.


> The idea that the discussion of a supreme court nominee being a rapist is what is dangerous, and not the fact that a supreme court nominee is a rapist, is frankly sickening.

I see what you did there.


This is cute. Creepypasta for grownups.


A little less cute when it's so common.

I remember 2011's scissor statement in the online Atheism community: "Guys, don't do that".

I really enjoyed this - are there any other places online that host “tech thriller” fiction similar to this?

The idea is interesting, but everyone is a caricature of their role (marketing people have no morals, programmers are clueless about business). I guess there may be some "intentional" hyperbole but overall it's a badly written but interesting idea.

If, for the sake of argument, a traditional story involves plot, setting, and characters, short stories are considered to be doing pretty well if they can come out swinging on all three. When you add "ideas" to the mix, it is inevitable that something else is going to suffer. Optimizing on that many dimensions is just not a reasonable request.

It's part of why science fiction has so frequently had such flat characters... there just isn't room with the complicated plots, the uniquely-demanding settings (you can't just say "Bob banged open the saloon doors" if the equivalent of "Bob", "saloon", and "doors" have to be explained to the reader), and the introduction of "ideas" into the mix. Insisting that they all also be character studies would be asking for the moon.


(2018), but still very relevant!


I guess it did partially come true. The GPT-2 model by OpenAI (2019) trained on reddit links did tear some communities apart. :)

https://openai.com/blog/better-language-models/


Ugh. A brilliant insight into how people don't actually work. I read the first third hoping for an example, then the rest just hoping that anything would happen. My opinion of slatestarcodex was significantly higher an hour ago than it is now.


Well, it's memetic warfare fiction, but I don't feel it's that far off the mark. The other day I've been in a discussion where some of the people disagreeing with me were - in my eyes - failing at reading comprehension, seemingly unable to parse the simple English statements of the source material that somehow became quoted by both sides of the argument. I left that discussion with worrying feeling that those others, most of them smart techies, couldn't possibly be that dumb, so there must be something else going on. I find this story uncanny because within its universe, it hints at what that "something else" is.

(Oh, and my opinion of SSC went up a bit.)


Having been in many arguments that seem like that[0], I think the answer is actually quite simple: sometimes it's just hard to communicate with other human beings. Communication can only convey understanding with shared context, and sometimes our contexts line up enough to make it seem like we're conveying understanding but each of us is consistently misunderstanding the other. Between the frustration and our tendency towards viewing attacks against our arguments as attacks against our being, you sometimes wind up with the kind of behavior discussed in this story.

The story itself is effective because it constructs a malevolent purpose to explain everyday phenomena we don't normally think too much about. John Dies at the End used Baader-Meinhof to similar effect.

[0]If I'm honest with myself about it, arguing is one of my favorite pastimes.


I think a lot of divides are because people have different assumed axioms, and in many cases cannot even declare what those axioms are.

Example:

I know pro-life people who cannot understand how someone could simultaneously hold the belief that aborting fetuses with congenital defects is okay, but rounding up the severely handicapped and killing them is not; there is nothing magical about birth that changes a life from not being valuable to being valuable.

Simultaneously I know pro-choice people who cannot understand how someone could simultaneously vouch for reducing or eliminating social welfare services to single mothers but also vouch for making abortions illegal; clearly the pro-life people don't care about babies after they are born!

Since the other side holds inconsistent views, they are wrongheaded hypocrites and all of their arguments can be dismissed without further thought. No compromise is possible because to compromise with hypocrites is to enable their hypocrisy.


Funny how this story is itself a scissor. I loved it and thought that, although exaggerated, it did a really good job of being a piece of hard science fiction. Relatively plausible but somewhat future technology (better RNN implementations that have been forthcoming in response to the story) and its somewhat exaggerated implications to show off the danger to society of that general direction of technology.

> Funny how this story is itself a scissor.

Heh, this analogy. It's so tempting to make but nah I don't think it's even 1% as contentious. I just think it's too drawn out even though the idea is cute, I'm not going to fight over it.


"A brilliant insight into how people don't actually work" describes almost everything Scott Alexander writes outside of psychopharmacology, and really should also be the epigraph for Less Wrong-style rationalism as a whole.


Well, that's the point, isn't it? LessWrong, SlateStarCodex, The Last Psychiatrist- all blogs that say "here's how people work; it's bad; here's how we think they should work instead".

This is a chilling, very well written story!


Story would be much more readable if he had actually stated the offending Scissor and cut it short by half.


That would be missing the point. He’d have to commit to a specific statement as being a scissor. But if someone doesn’t already get the point, they’d fall into the same trap as the people in the story “what? They must misunderstand the claim. Obviously it’s true/false.”

The story’s point requires identifying the psychological state state that scissor statements put you into, where you feel reality is actually bending against you (eg “he turned her against me”).

If you think there is an explicit scissor statement Alexander could have committed to, then I think you might not appreciate the core thesis.


I'm with you. We see in this discussion that it's difficult even to raise some potential scissors as examples without a lot of commenters falling into them.

SSC's point is not "X is a near-universal scissor", it's that there's a scissor or ten for almost everyone, and that some scissors are likely to ensnare a lot of people.

If you've never found yourself arguing vehemently and extensively, to the death, about something and sometime later wondered what that was about, you may be a counterexample, someone who is scissor-immune.

I sure am not.


The point, though, was that a scissor statement is irrelevant to an individual. To any one person, each statement is either obviously, trivially true, or obviously, trivially false. It only becomes an argument when you start discussing it with somebody who sees it the opposite way as you do.

The scissor effect can't apply to an individual. And I suppose if most everyone falls on one side of the question, even with lots of passion, there's no scissor.

But I'm arguing (SSC may not be) that effective scissor statements create both passion and tunnel vision in people, even one at a time. And so when there are people with passion and tunnel vision on both sides, voilà, scissor. (It's a little bit like "drunken mob". You can't have a mob with just one person, but each person, arguably, gets drunk on their own.)


It is either a story or a theory. Telling a story without naming the characters ranges from cumbersome to infuriating. Telling a theory, is another story


I just explained why the specifics of the story require the scissor statement not be made explicit.


This is a great Scissor Statement!


I think it's like that AI Box experiment. The idea is that just because you can't imagine a sequence of words that will cause you to free a dangerous AI it does not mean the sequence does not exist.

If you don't find the AI Box thing convicting, you won't be able to suspend disbelief for a fictional story about a sequence of words that can make you hate your friends and family.


That would only be possible if the story weren't fiction. The same problem occurs with science fiction with faster-than-light travel: they can't actually include the design for a workable Alcubierre drive in the book because designing it involves scientific breakthroughs that nobody knows how to make, or even if they are possible.

The genius of this approach is that each reader will fill in the blank of what the statement could be, and therefore the story is more relatable to a more widely diverse audience. If it was made explicit, it would only resonate with the people who agree it is a scissor.

Consider this quote: “Books are mirrors. You only see in them what you already have inside of you.” -Carlos Zafon. This isn't the quote I was actually searching for but I think gets the sentiment across: a blank mirror lets you see yourself much more clearly than the Mona Lisa.

This type of rhetorical device is constantly used by politicians. Donald Trump frequently says things like "you know what they're saying about..." without ever actually saying what is being said. Then the audience fills in the blank with their preconceived notions and boom: what he said is right in _all_ of their minds.


Nah, if he did, it would tear SSC, HN and God knows what else apart.


Alexander is known for being a bit...chicken. There are very few positions to which he's willing to firmly commit beyond "don't get mad" and "don't be mean", for fear of antagonizing his rather...politically diverse audience. The charitable interpretation is that as a psychiatrist, he's been daily confronted to some of the worst aspects of human life, society and personnality and still learned to sympathize with his patients whatever they might have done. The less charitable interpretation is that he's terrified of conflict in general.


I think it's more that he is afraid of being misunderstood, and rightly so.

It is also unclear to me how one could find a true scissor statement and know it until one unleashed it and saw the effects. It would just seem obviously true or obviously false.




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