Demand For Intellectual Discussion

Demand for rational discussion with public intellectuals is near zero. Therefore, public intellectuals can talk with the public without being overloaded with demands on their time.

People find this claim implausible.

I have tested it. I offer rational discussion at my forum. I’ve also sought it out extensively elsewhere. There is pretty much none available anywhere. No one wants to participate in it. Demand for it is near zero.

That’s because people don’t like me, you say? True. Yes. That’s the point. They don’t like me … but don’t point out any ways that I differ from a rational public intellectual. Also, if the issue was me then they’d be able to point to discussions they (or anyone) had with someone else that they think were rational and productive. But I’ve repeatedly asked for links to example discussions like that and people don’t provide them. Also, I have pointed out ways that other alleged public intellectuals differ from a rational public intellectual – e.g. they don’t do Paths Forward or do any alternative that they think is a better way to solve similar problems.

Would the current U.S. president get too much attention if he was available for public discussions? Yes but he’s not an intellectual. Too many people want to talk with him because he has political power. People want those conversations in order to influence law, policy and hiring, not to truth-seek.

Would Tim Cook get too much attention? Yes, but that’s because he can do billion dollar business deals. People – especially businessmen who could do deals with Apple – want to influence the use of vast sums of money.

What about intellectuals like scientists and philosophers? Most of them are obscure – because hardly anyone wants to talk with them. Most professors find most of their students aren’t interested in coming to office hours unless they need homework help or want a higher grade. You can actually email most professors and get responses, including ones who have written an interesting book or paper, and who work at a famous university. I’ve tried it. Response rates are good from people that the general public has never heard of. That doesn’t mean they are open to unbounded discussion or debate, but getting some response is common.

Some intellectuals are better known. Richard Dawkins could easily get flooded with questions for an AMA (an “ask me anything” involves a high status person responding to a bunch of questions from the public). People would want to ask him stuff. I imagine he could do daily AMAs for a month without running out of questions and interest. He could also get people to sign up to debate him. But someone equally smart/wise, who is less famous, could not get similar attention. I think that says a lot – people want to interact with fame not with smarts. Do you doubt that any such smart, non-famous people exist? Do you think the famous/popular intellectuals are the best and have a noticeable lead – at smarts and knowledge – over all the non-famous ones? Many (but not all) of the famous ones have a lead over the average. Some of them are well above average in their field. But few famous public intellectuals are significantly better than their best non-famous peers. Dawkins is good at writing books and communicating ideas to the public, and he’s good at understanding evolution, but I don’t think he’s way better at understanding evolution than all the other scientists in his field.

So what’s going on? Lots of people claim they want to communicate with Dawkins, Harris, Pinker, Peterson, Shapiro, etc. This creates a misleading appearance of demand for rational, intellectual discussion when it’s mostly just a demand to associate with famous people.

Here are two more major factors:

  1. Dawkins (or any other famous public intellectual) is too accommodating instead of critical when he talks with people. He’s too focused on getting along with people instead of pointing out their errors and mercilessly pursuing truth. He doesn’t do much of the stuff people dislike about rational discussion: criticism, arguments they have trouble answering, etc. His standards and expectations are too low or he currently relies on pre-screening. If he’d screen people during discussion instead of gatekeeping to avoid them, they wouldn’t want to face the screening. If he’d ask them why they think they offer value or what they want from the conversation or expect to happen in it, most would leave. If he openly said he had a policy of talking with people who offer value, and discussed the problem when there were signs of low value, most people wouldn’t want to talk anymore.
  2. Dawkins is famous because he put effort into being famous. That’s different than putting effort into rationality. He’s a social climber who didn’t get such a high social status by accident. Too many people want to talk with him precisely because he spent his time attracting people to want to talk with him. How? By showing off in public. By looking clever. Not by actually doing rational intellectual stuff.

I’m not trying to express any strong opinion about how rational Dawkins personally is. He’s just an example. I think that if you take a bunch of people with reputations sort of like his, and then investigate them all really thoroughly (while hypothetically being super good at spotting rationality and irrationality, so your investigations reach correct conclusions) – you’ll find that most of them are not very rational. But this article is not about which of the famous intellectuals are the good ones and which aren’t.

How many people want to talk with Dawkins because they saw him have high quality conversations and wanted to do that too? How many people who submit AMA questions would even want to have a one on one chat with Dawkins for an hour where he was critical instead of going easy on them and taking on more of a teacher role? How many fans want to find something they disagree with Dawkins about and debate that disagreement pretty persistently to try to actually figure out which ideas are wrong in a clear, organized way? How many want Dawkins to ask them questions about evolution, review and evaluate their understanding, and then argue with them about why they’re wrong? Basically hardly any of Dawkins’ fans would want to do unbounded, public discussions, with Paths Forward, with him, once they knew what those are like (he’s famous enough that a few people would try it, many more would read the results, and interest would decline dramatically though not to zero – some arrogant people would think they could do better and would really want a chance at impressing him or getting famous by winning a debate). This is contingent on Dawkins actually winning the debates and being way better than his conversation partners. If the conversations were more even then people would be much happier with them. People dislike losing, and they especially dislike losing really badly. Non-adversarial discussion doesn’t fix this because people also dislike criticism of their ideas, life, discussion methodology, etc. – they don’t know how to just be neutral and analyze all that stuff dispassionately.

People want attention and validation from their friends and social circle, and they see public figures as part of their extended social circle. Dawkins is part of their conversations, he’s seen as high status, and his approval would impress people’s buddies.

But if people actually knew what rational discussion was, they’d soon find out they don’t like it. Dawkins – if he knew how to have a rational conversation effectively – could speak with anyone who wanted to and would find that the vast majority were not waiting in line to talk anymore after a few weeks of demonstrations. If he couldn’t get most people to lose interest with a few weeks of demonstrations – of conversations that harm the social status of participants instead of being careful to protect people’s social status – then that means he isn’t actually a very good intellectual – it would mean he’s not way better than the general public. That wouldn’t get demand for his time down to zero but it’d get it much lower. And if he wasn’t famous, it’d get demand down to a manageable amount that is near zero. There is some demand for talking with famous people even if the conversation is unpleasant, but that is different than demand for rational intellectual discussion.

Put it this way: each person who wants to talk with Dawkins is either rational or not. If they are rational and high quality and all that, talking with them is good and should be done regularly. Dawkins would benefit from having rational conversations. He doesn’t already have too many or enough of those. The main excuse for not talking with fans regularly – which is totally reasonable but people don’t want to say out loud – is that most fans are not very smart, wise or reasonable. Most discussion available from the public does not meet Dawkins’ quality standards. OK, so what happens in a rational discussion when someone’s statements are too low quality? Do you put up with it and play nice and humor them? Is that rational? No! You criticize the errors and suggest ways they can fix it. You point out why this isn’t offering value to you, and how their errors are making their life way worse, and suggest plans for self-improvement. You talk again if and only if they have objectively met some standards, e.g. read some books and written about them and followed some guidelines for that writing. If you know how to be rational and they want to learn and will do the work, that’s good. And what happens if there are too many people like that? I don’t think there are, but you can tier it. Set up a pyramid. You talk with the top ten, and they each talk with ten who aren’t as good, etc. And you talk publicly so many other people can do the same practice and learning that your conversation partners are doing since most of the issues that come up will be common.

Why does a system with tiered access work well? It’s not rational to ask for Dawkins’ personal time in discussion when what you need to do is read some books and there are adequate sorts of help available like talking with other people who are going through the same process but are further along than you. What good will talking with Dawkins personally do at that point?

People want to talk with Dawkins to posture like they are already smart and competent, not to get tips on how to start learning to think. They want to talk with Dawkins as a peer. He’s famous enough that people would take him as a teacher because they want the social status of being one of the few hand-picked Dawkins disciples. But they mostly don’t go back to university to learn from some professors nor do they go to the library on a regular basis. People aren’t held back by the lack of Dawkins giving them a custom learning plan.

If Dawkins would share a generic learning plan, or a handful of plans, it’d be fine. I guess either he doesn’t know how to or he doesn’t want to alienate fans by suggesting they should be better than they are.

BTW, Richard Feynman got way more people showing up to his lectures after he won a Nobel Prize. Did he get smarter when he won the prize? Did he become a better lecturer? No. He didn’t like the change and complained that the Nobel people didn’t give him the opportunity to decline the prize in private. He felt pressured to make his lectures more accessible to the laymen who kept showing up. But this kind of thing rarely happens to people who aren’t seeking it. Most famous people were trying to get famous as a significantly higher priority than trying to do good work.

Rationally Ending Discussions

One of the key issues regarding rational discussion is: how can it rationally end? On the one hand, people have limited time/energy/etc. and have other things to do. On the other hand, you don’t want people to just stop discussing to dodge arguments when they don’t have an answer. You want to reach conclusions, not stop in the middle.

One way to reach a conclusion is by agreement. If you both agree with a conclusion and an end point, that’s fine. You might both be wrong but the way of ending is fine. You could add in a checklist of common screwups and you could both agree to end a discussion while also reviewing the screwups list to help check that you aren’t screwing up. (That list of screwups is like unit tests that programmers use. It’s a library/archive of criticism.)

But sometimes people don’t agree on a discussing ending. So then what?

How else can a rational conversation rationally end besides mutual agreement? There have to be other ways out. There have to be ways to unilaterally end the conversation in case the other guy is being unreasonable. But you don’t want to just enable anyone to end a conversation at any time by calling the other guy unreasonable. That’d enable in bias and dodging arguments and refusing to consider conclusions that you have no criticisms of.

So what restrictions can be put on rationally ending a conversation unilaterally? How could we allow it in good ways but not bad ways? A good policy should enable us to point out some of the times people are irrationally refusing to think, and to hold ourselves to high standards and not let ourselves stay wrong due to bias.

It’s hard to answer this. It’s a hard problem. But has Dawkins considered this question? What public intellectual has? Which of them have developed any theory of rational conversation? Who has an article about it on their website? (That’s a real question. If you’ve found an article like that, please send me a link. I’d like to see it.) Before you can judge the demand for rational conversation you need to know what it is. Figure out what it is and then I think you’ll find that fewer people want it. Most people are irrational and don’t like discussion following written rules about what is rational or not. They want things to be vague so they can always make excuses.

My proposed theory for how to rationally end a conversation unilaterally is by using an impasse chain. It’s not a perfect answer. It doesn’t guarantee anything. But I believe it’s adequate to make things way better than having no system. It means if you want to get out of a conversation, then you have to try to explain why, explain what the problem is, and deal with objections. Not unlimited objections, but enough to get e.g. a length five chain of impasses. You have to make a case that the discussion is stuck, within the discussion, that you think a reasonable, neutral observer would find convincing, and you have to do it in an interactive way where the other person can respond to stuff. You have to engage with what they’re saying not just say your own thing. This gives a procedure for ending a bad conversation that can be done in a reasonably small amount of time.

People are used to objections mostly being about a debate topic instead of at meta levels. Suppose we’re talking politics and I say I think we should stop because you made errors X and Y, so it’s not productive and you need to work on your basic skills a bunch. That’s a level one objection (first meta level). If you respond to this with another criticism of the president (a level zero, object or non-meta comment), you aren’t engaging with what I just said. All I have to say there is you were non-responsive and now I have a length two impasse chain. And now if you say anything but why you were non-responsive, that would be non-responsive too. You can’t continue speaking about any earlier conversation level because higher levels are a new topic that, if it’s an impasse, takes logical priority. The basic form is “Talking about X won’t work because of Y.” It’s illogical to keep talking about X in response to that – Y is now the priority topic. Using techniques like this controls conversations in ways that people aren’t used to and don’t like. In other words, they don’t know what rational discussion is like, aren’t used to it, and won’t like or want it once they find out what it is.

People find rational discussion pushy and controlling. They’ll do things like try to retract a statement that led to an impasse. But take backs are not automatic. You’d have to ask for a take back and give a reason. Why was your previous comment a mistake? Why did you do it? Did you really just learn it’s bad in the last 10 seconds, so it was an innocent mistake but now you know better and it’ll never happen again? Really? And why do you think you’re done learning about your mistake already, with no need to post mortem it and look for underlying causes that might cause other mistakes? And shouldn’t you automatize your new knowledge before moving on? And find ways to objectively test its quality before automatizing it? You said the mistake for reasons which should be addressed not ignored, and pretending that you learned better in a few seconds is irrational, and if you have more to learn about this then you shouldn’t just retract it and forget it ever happened – you should do the rational thing and try to use your mistake as a learning opportunity. If that takes you weeks, that’s OK, I’ll wait.

Closing Thoughts

Demand for rational discussion is near zero. Hardly anyone wants it.

A fair amount of people think they want it, but they’d realize they don’t after seeing some demonstrations of what a rational discussion actually is.

Discussions that use Paths Forward techniques, and pivot to relevant meta issues like methodology and prerequisite skills, are widely unwanted. I’ve tested this out a bunch. Organize a critical discussion effectively and it threatens people’s social status and they hate it. They don’t really want to deal with their problems. They see information about their problems as making them look bad, not as valuable help fixing stuff. They don’t think they’re like this but they act like it when challenged.

Most discussion behavior by popular people is designed to avoid challenging others too much and harming their status. Even in adversarial debates, they usually pull lots of punches and don’t seriously challenge each other. This is partly due to ingrained socialization habits, partly due to not knowing more effective ways to debate, and partly due to bad debate formats that limit interaction between participants. People can do a whole debate that lasts an hour or more without ever getting basic clarifications about the other guy’s position. Most debates are really bad at constructing or clarifying the tree of arguments on the topic. They aren’t about organized truth-seeking. And no one demands that they should be. No one says “instead of posturing in front of an audience, let’s try to work together to make a diagram showing where/why/how we disagree”. People broadly don’t expect objective progress in their discussions and don’t seriously aim for it or demand that other people act rationally (or even know what would be rational/productive and how to explain that and ask for it or do it themselves).

This is not an “other people” problem. Many people interpret criticism about irrationality as applying to most people but not to themselves. That is not what I mean. You should start with self-improvement and work on your own rationality. Instead of reading this and thinking “Ah, that is why (other) people are so dumb.”, you should read it and be motivated to better yourself.

Also, demand for discussion goes way down if you’re really good at it. People don’t like losing. If you get stuff wrong regularly, people are more interested in talking with you. What people find even worse than losing once is feeling like they never win. That feels unfair to people even though they can’t and won’t point out any subtree of the discussion that they thought they should have won but didn’t. See my article Claiming You Objectively Won A Debate. That’s a good example of the kind of idea people dislike when it’s applied to them in a discussion (but they might like it as an abstract idea or when they imagine using it on someone else). If e.g. Dawkins brought ideas like that into his discussions, way fewer people would want to talk with him.