BAYESIANISM IS THE MIND-KILLER
Many critics of the Singularity Institute focus on its cult-like nature: the way it presents itself as the only protection against an absurdly unlikely doomsday scenario; the way its members internalise a peculiar voculabulary that betrays itself when they step outside the cult confines; the way they keep pushing the work of their idolised cult guru on unwilling readers. (In particular, they keep cheerleading for Yudkowsky's endlessly dire Harry Potter fanfic, Mary Sue and the Methods of Rationality.) While all these criticisms are legitimate, and the cultish aspects of the Singularity Institute are an essential part of its power structure, I'm more concerned about the political views it disseminates under the guise of being stridently non-political.
One of Yudkowsky's constant refrains, appropriating language from Frank Herbert's Dune, is "Politics is the Mind-killer". Under this rallying cry, Lesswrong insiders attempt to purge discussions of any political opinions they disagree with. They strive to convince themselves and their followers that they are dealing in questions of pure, refined "rationality" with no political content. However, the version of "rationality" they preach is expressly politicised. The Bayesian interpretation of statistics is in fact an expression of some heavily loaded political views. Bayesianism projects a neoliberal/libertarian view of reality: a world of competitive, goal-driven individuals all trying to optimise their subjective beliefs. Given the demographics of lesswrong.com, it's no surprise that its members have absorbed such a political outlook, or that they consistently push political views which are elitist, bigoted and reactionary.
Yudkowsky believes that "the world is stratified by genuine competence" and that today's elites have found their deserved place in the hierarchy. This is a comforting message for a cult that draws its membership from a social base of Web entrepreneurs, startup CEOs, STEM PhDs, Ivy leaguers, and assorted computer-savvy rich kids. Yudkowsky so thoroughly identifies himself with this milieu of one-percenters that even when discussing Bayesianism, he slips into the language of a heartless rentier. A belief should "pay the rent", he says, or be made to suffer: "If it turns deadbeat, evict it."
Members of Lesswrong are adept at rationalising away any threats to their privilege with a few quick "Bayesian Judo" chops. The sufferings caused by today's elites -- the billions of people who are forced to endure lives of slavery, misery, poverty, famine, fear, abuse and disease for their benefit -- are treated at best as an abstract problem, of slightly lesser importance than nailing down the priors of a Bayesian formula. While the theories of right-wing economists are accepted without argument, the theories of socialists, feminists, anti-racists, environmentalists, conservationists or anyone who might upset the Bayesian worldview are subjected to extended empty "rationalist" bloviating. On the subject of feminism, Muehlhauser adopts the tactics of an MRA concern troll, claiming to be a feminist but demanding a "rational" account of why objectification is a problem. Frankly, the Lesswrong brand of "rationality" is bigotry in disguise.
Lesswrong cultists are so careful at disguising their bigotry that it may not be obvious to casual readers of the site. For a bunch of straight-talking rationalists, Yudkowsky and friends are remarkably shifty and dishonest when it comes to expressing a forthright political opinion. Political issues surface all the time on their website, but the cult insiders hide their true political colours under a heavy oil slick of obfuscation. It's as if "Politics is the mind-killer" is a policy enforced to prevent casual readers -- or prospective cult members -- from realising what a bunch of far-out libertarian fanatics they are.
Take as an example Yudkowsky's comments on the James Watson controversy of 2007. Watson, one of the so-called fathers of DNA research, had told reporters he was "gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours -- whereas all the testing says not really". Yudkowsky used this racist outburst as the occasion for some characteristically slippery Bayesian propagandising. In his essay, you'll note that he never objects to or even mentions the content of Watson's remarks -- for some reason, he approaches the subject by sneering at the commentary of a Nigerian journalist -- and neither does he question the purpose or validity of intelligence testing, or raise the possibility of inherent racism in such tests. Instead, he insinuates that anti-racists are appropriating the issue for their own nefarious ends: "Race adds extra controversy to everything; in that sense, it's obvious what difference skin colour makes politically" Yudkowsky appears to think that racism is an illusion or at best a distraction. He stresses the Bayesian dogma that only individuals matter: "Group injustice has no existence apart from injustice to individuals. It's individuals who have brains to experience suffering. It's individuals who deserve, and often don't get, a fair chance at life. [...] Skin colour has nothing to do with it, nothing at all." Here, he tells the victims of racial discrimination to forget the fact that their people have been systematically oppressed by a ruling elite for centuries, and face up to the radical idea that their suffering is their own individual problem. He then helpfully reassures them that none of it is their fault; they were screwed over at birth by being simply less intelligent that then creamy white guys at the top: "Never mind the airtight case that intelligence has a hereditary genetic component among individuals; if you think that being born with Down's Syndrome doesn't impact life outcomes, then you are on crack."
Yudkowsky would reject the idea that these disadvantaged individuals could improve their lot by grouping together and engaging in political action: politics is the mind-killer, after all. The only thing that can save them is Yudkowsky's improbable fantasy tech. In the future, "intelligence deficits will be fixable given sufficiently advanced technology, biotech or nanotech." And until that comes about, the stupid oppressed masses should sit and bear their suffering, not rock the boat, and let the genuinely competent white guys get on with saving the world. Social Darwinism is a background assumption among the lesswrong faithful. Cult members have convinced themselves the world's suffering is a necessary consequence of nature's laws, and absolved themselves from any blame for it. The strong will forever triumph over the weak, and mere humans can't do anything to change that. "Such is the hideously unfair world we live in", writes Yudkowsky, and while he likes to fantasise about eugenic solutions, and has hopes for "rational" philanthropy, the official line is that only singularity-level tech can solve the world's problems.
In common with many doomsday cults, singularitarians both dread and pray for their apocalypse; for while a bad singularity will be the end of humanity, a good singularity is our last best hope. The good singularity will unleash a perfect rationalist utopia: from each according to his whim, to each according to his IQ score. Death will be no more, everyone will have the libido of a 16-year-old horndog, and humankind will colonise the stars. In fact, a good singularity is so overwhelmingly beneficial that it makes all other concerns irrelevant: we should dedicate all our resources to bringing it about as soon as possible. Lesswrong cultists are already preparing for this event in their personal and private lives, by acting like it has already happened.
Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
Bayes As Bane
Friend of Blog "JimF" has directed my attention to a very seriously right on with your right on critique of the Yudkowskian Singularitarian sect of the Robot Cult by Stephen Bond, one section of which I am quoting here in the hope that it will encourage folks to follow the link and read the whole thing.