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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

Sep 21, 2020

[Epistemic status: something I’ve been thinking about recently. There’s a lot of complication around these issues and this is more to start a discussion than to present any settled solution]

There’s a scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye is describing his peaceful little town. He says they never fight – except that one time about a horse some people thought was a mule. Someone interrupts him to say it was really a mule some people thought was a horse, and then everyone in town starts shouting “MULE!” or “HORSE!” at each other until they get drowned out by the chorus.

The town is happy and peaceful as long as nobody brings up the horse/mule thing. As soon as somebody brings it up all of the old rancor instantly resurfaces and everybody’s at each other’s throats. And the argument itself never gets more sophisticated than people yelling “HORSE!” or “MULE!” at each other. Maybe it would be worth it to create a norm around never bringing it up?

The rationalist/EA/etc community has a norm that people must be able to defend their beliefs with evidence, and a further norm that people shouldn’t be confident in their beliefs unless they’ve sounded them off others and sought out potential counterarguments. These are great norms. But their failure mode is a community where dredging up interminable horse/mule style arguments is seen as a virtue, and avoiding them is seen as a cowardly refusal to expose one’s own beliefs to challenge.