Edgelord Energy. with Rory from The Violet Hour
Hi, Robin. Hi, Rory.
We have a guest today. Our guest is …
I’m Rory. I blog at The Violet Hour and we I think are going to talk about
edgelords and edgelord energy.
Can I with a question? So a couple of days ago, Robin, I emailed you this
paper about truth bounties. It would be like you could say something on the
internet and then you put like, “I’ll pay a thousand dollars if I’m proved
wrong.” And then people are then incentivized to prove me wrong. But more
significantly, people are going to be more likely to believe me because I was
willing to put that out there. And you retweeted it or tweeted it. I hadn’t
tweeted it. You tweeted it and then you are like, “Yeah, this would be a good
solution to fake news if readers actually cared.” Right?
That’s what I said I think.
That’s what you said. Yes.
Robin. OK. Sorry. I thought you were talking to Rory.
No, I was talking to you, Robin.
And so like sometimes you’re in kind of policy proposal mode where you propose
things like prediction markets and vouchers and et cetera. And then at other
times, you seem to be in like, I don’t know what the right word to call it is,
cynicism mode or something where you’re just like, “Nobody actually cares
about the truth.” And how do you see those two things as fitting together?
I see a space of possible institutions, a space of possible things we could
do, and then I see particular proposals to consider and some proposals more
make idealistic assumptions about the world in order for them to work. And if
those assumptions are unrealistic then those are less attractive proposals.
That is, we should design proposals to work in the actual world even if it’s
not the world that we wish we had and even if we could reasonably complain
about the world we are in and it should have been the other world that we had
something else designed for. So this – if you think people should care about
the truth and you can be irate that they don’t and then be irate that that
solution isn’t sufficient, but once you’re done being irate, if you want to
still solve the problem, you have to think of some other way to deal with it,
because of god space on accessibly idealistic assumption that you can either
find a way to make that assumption true or find a way to work around it.
And so like your vouchers proposal is like a way to deal better with crime,
right? Would you say it’s like the main goal of that proposal?
And so, I don’t know if Rory has seen these things but, the main goal of the
vouchers proposal would be to actually be more cost-effective in reducing
crime. That is, crime is costly and it’s costly to berate crimes or there’s a
trade-off between allowing crime and preventing it and you want to be able to
do the most preventing while spending the least on doing so.
And so like what if people just say to you, “Well, that’s really idealistic.
Nobody actually cares about that. People don’t want to be cost-effective in
Well, I would want to hear more details about their evidence for that claim. I
mean it’s possible that merely claiming it wouldn’t be sufficient and I would
be happy to elaborate on the claim about the news proposal, although I’m not
sure how we want to connect us back soon to Rory’s discussion.
Yeah. So like – but your thought is, well, it’s not obvious whether people
care about cost-effectiveness in the reduction of crime but it is obvious that
people care about fake news – sorry. It’s obvious – the first one is obvious
and the second one isn’t.
I have more data on the other one. So I’ve been working on promoting
prediction markets for a long time and in that process, learning a lot about
people’s preferences regarding the truth because prediction market is an
excellent mechanism for getting at truth and I’ve realized that it’s not
enough merely to appeal to the fact that it produces truth. That’s not a
sufficient motivation in most cases. But there are other things people care
about and truth can be instrumental in getting to things. So, the challenge is
to focus people’s attention on the other things they want and then seeing if
one can convince them that this particular truth will get them the other
things. So for example, I was told an anecdote that I believe, but I didn’t
directly verify, that a major Washington-based media outlet had a project
where they went and studied pundits for their accuracy. That is, they looked
at what pundits have said, tried to code them as something they could verify,
tred to verify whether it’s true or not, and tried to create an accuracy
record for these pundits. And apparently, some review board looked at this
project and said, “Well, look, our most popular pundits, they’re not actually
the most accurate ones here. And if we release this information, what we are
going to do is just decrease people’s interest in reading pundits in general.
And that’s against our interest as a media outlet.” So they killed the
project. So that’s a claim that, in that context, they weren’t especially
interested in that. So for example, if they tried to push their most popular
pundits to back their claims with these bonds, truth bonds, they would
probably back off and say, “I’ll go work for somebody else because you’re
asking me to do a lot here and even if you push that, the readers would find
out that the most popular pundits weren’t willing to put very big truth bonds
on their claims. And that would make them discouraged by seeing those pundits
and not being interested in reading them as much and then the demand for media
would go down and that would be against the interest of the media outlets
considering these policies.
OK. So let’s take a step back and this idea that like people want to think of
themselves as caring about the truths. That is, that’s import into our
self-conception and that’s just going to be true for everyone. Everyone wants
to think of themselves as caring about the truth. And you come along and you
say, “Yeah, but people don’t care about the truth.” And so maybe Rory, can you
tell us a little bit about like why – I thought you captured very well in your
essay why someone like me find this disturbing and then maybe also talk a
little bit about why someone like you sees the kind of promise in it?
So I am not sure my essay actually did all that much to say or help explain
why someone like you might be disturbed by this proposal or this like
particular proposal. So, take a setback. So I wrote this essay called Therapy
for Edgelords because I was confused by some of Agnes’ previously slightly
playful but insulting remarks for Robin in his ?? And there I heard Agnes to
be saying something like, “You’re breaking down people’s self-conception and
not offering them anything in return. That’s a cost. You need to like make it
a less cost. So if we are to connect to it here, I guess Agnes’ objection
would be something like, “Look, Robin, you’re saying all this stuff to people
like, “they don’t care about the truth as much as you think you do.” And if
you find Robin, in general to be picking apart people’s self-conceptions in an
objectionable away, then you will probably going to find Robin’s remarks here
also objectionable. So that’s the pitch. I’m not sure why this is like an
especially concerning case or an especially kind of like …
Well, I have a – I would like to pursue elaborating what is this concept of
giving people a self-conception, or letting them keep a self-conception, and
how it plays out in just some much more mundane examples. So, for example, we
are at an event. We are leaving the event. There’s a coat place and you are
taking my coat and I say, “Excuse me. But that’s my coat. You’ll see my name
inside.” And ask them for my coat. Now, do I need to give them a
self-conception of how they could have possibly taken the wrong coat? Because
this might – they might have perhaps seen themselves as a sort of person who
doesn’t take the wrong coat and I might be disturbing that by asking for my
coat. Or another example; you’re a colleague and I ask you for a date and you
say no. Now, I might have thought I was sort of person you would say yes to.
How much responsibility do you have to help me see that I’m the wrong person,
that I’m not the sort of person you should say yes to, as oppose to just
saying no? We can elaborate more examples. Say, you published a math proof and
I show you a mistake on page 3. How much do I need to help you have a
self-conception of the sort of person who could have made a mistake on page 3,
because you probably don’t think you made a mistake? So, these are just –
clearly, we can multiply these examples but it seems to me in ordinary
personal interactions, we often don’t hold a standard that in order to correct
someone or inform ssomeone of something they might not want to know that we
need to go out of our way to give them a way to reconstruct their self.
Yeah. So I agree that the coat example is unobjectionable. And so my initial
first pass for why that seems so clearly unobjectionable is that firstly, most
people don’t have a conception of themselves as always taking the right coat
and they don’t hold that as like a strong part of their self-identity. And
also like, even if there is a kind of minor cost involved, there’s this
benefit you getting your coat? But it might be more objectionable if for
example, we imagine this person, let’s imagine they’re severely schizophrenic
and they become really hurt by kind of anything that goes against their
current world model and any kind of like minor reversions to their
self-conception world model, within which they are operating will be really,
really distressing to them. Now, you’re like, “That’s not your coat.” But I do
think in this case, you owe someone like a larger duty to kind of say it in a
polite way because in some sense, this person is more fragile. And to some
degree, we all have thoughts of our self-identity that are a little fragile
and I am at least sympathetic to the idea that we owe people something when we
talk about these things.
Yup. Can I modify that coat example so that we get something in between, not
quite all the way up to schizophrenia? So, this has happened to me where
somebody takes the wrong of something and – or somebody is in your seat on the
plane or something. And I guess I think that pretty often, the way the
interaction goes is that the couple in fact does work through what happened
like, “Oh, my coat looks just like yours,” or, “Oh, both of our tickets are
the same seat,” or, “Oh, I thought it said 53A but it says 50A.” And like if
you are just very brusque about it and you were insistent like, “It says my
seat. I’m not talking to you any further. This is my seat. Get out of my
seat.” That would be in fact be rude. That is, it is in some sense, at least
there’s a convention that in that situation, you are open to the conversation.
And the goal of that conversation is kind of restoring understanding of what
went wrong here.
Being open is different than initiating and even constructing it, right? Do I
really need to find out why they are in my seat before I can tell them they
are in my seat and have a story ready for them or can I just be open to their
Well, I think the open isn’t, its neither of most things. It’s neither like,
“Look, it’s on you if you want to do it,” that’s not what I mean by open. What
I mean by open is kind of like you are initiating those proceedings to the
same degree that they do. So you too want to know what went wrong here or
something like that. And you are in that sense an equal …
I think it would actually be rude to say, “You’re in my seat. How could you
have made such a mistake?” I think that would be adding insult to injury.
Right. No. I think that would sound like an accusation. But I think that there
are ways of saying you’re in my seat where it’s sort of like – where you’re
sort of like saying – you’re implying like, “Look, something has gone wrong
here and like the two of us will figure it out,” by contrast with, “You’re in
my seat. Get out of my seat.” Where it’s hard for people …
A lot of people don’t want to have a discussion about why they made a mistake,
and you want to give them that option. You want to let them – if they want to
discuss why they made the mistake, you should let them, but if they don’t want
to discuss it, you should also let them.
Right. And I mean this gets to like Rory’s point about OK, maybe it’s just
such a trivial part of their self-conception that they just want to move on or
something. And so, the degree to which you want to be open to having the
conversation is probably going to be a function in the degree to which it’s
part of their self-conception. My thought was just even get – taking their own
coat it’s so little bit part of people’s self-conception. It’s a just very
OK. But pick something bigger like I’m auditioning for a movie and you reject
me, right? It’s a big of my conception. I really wanted this part and you say
no. I mean how much do you have to explain why you said no as opposed to
saying, “No, we didn’t give you the part”?
I mean I don’t know what the conventions are with turning people down for
parts for movies.
The convention is they don’t say much of anything.
Yeah. I mean maybe we do just have a – we know that is going to hurt – it
probably hurts people’s feelings, right? And we are just sort of OK with it.
But that’s not to say that there’s no cost. That is, the question is whether
there’s a cost.
Well, the question is, what size of costs are we expecting people to bear?
That’s the question. I mean the analog here is an academic writes an academic
book about a topic about humans and you as a human hear about this book and
you say, “Hey, why didn’t you have letter specifically to me, explaining to me
how I could see my life in the light of your abstract book about humans.” Is
that a reasonable thing to ask of an author of a book? I mean that’s the
analog we are discussing here, right?
No, I don’t think that’s right. That is, that wasn’t my demand. My demand
wasn’t that you have a letter specifically to me. My demand was something like
you help the reader reconstitute it themselves. And I don’t think that has to
happen in a one-on-one personal level.
But what if there isn’t a general answer? There isn’t a general answer to why
you got rejected for the part in the movie. An answer would have to be
specific to you. There is no general letter we could give all rejectees to a
movie part to help them see it.
Right. Well, that would be – I mean that would be an interesting – so I wonder
what Rory thinks about this. Rory, do you think like in effect, if the thing I
were asking for were impossible then that would be a reason not to do it? And
then the question would just be, is the cost so great that the activity is
still worthwhile? And I probably would acknowledge that the answer to that is
yes. Sorry, and no, that you should still write the book, but yeah.
OK. So I think if I heard your initial question rightly or something like if
something is impossible, is that a reason for me not to do it? I don’t know if
there’s a general answer to that question. It’s going to depend like pretty
heavily on like what you think the corresponding benefits are. And I think one
thing that I felt during this mini discussion here, Robin, was that I was
unclear of whether you acknowledged that there was a genuine cost to the way
you present it signaling and you were just saying, “Gosh! There’s a cost. How
unfortunate, but I can’t do anything about it. And there’s some good that’s
presented by my book.” Is that your view or are you also doubtful as to
whether there’s a cost at all?
I’m happy to acknowledge a cost. It’s less clear whether it’s a net cost. That
is, telling people true things has multiple consequences for them, some of
which are unpleasant feelings, others of which can be learning in the long
run, or growth, or an opportunity to get a warning, something you should be
looking at figuring out. It’s not clear whether there’s a net harm but I
certainly agree that telling somebody – I mean telling a person that their
math paper has a failure on page 3 of the proof is – I mean they are not going
to like that right there. There’s going to be this emotional reaction. But we
might say, still all things considered good to tell them about the mistake in
the proof, and even them personally.
Sure. So OK, so that’s helpful for further questions. So one thing I was
thinking when you gave this example of somebody being rejected for a movie,
you said something like, there might not just be any general thing we can say
as to why this applicant was rejected or a wide class of applicants were
rejected. But I’m not sure that’s quite right. So I think people would find it
less insulting even if they received some rote email like many super talented
people apply for roles of this type. So again, if you receive rejection,
please be assured that life just doesn’t really mean anything about the fact
that you can’t be a talented actor in the future or something like that. This
is very general in some ways, I know people complain that it’s trite, but it
is true and I think would do something to soften the blow, which makes me,
getting into this with your example, skeptical about the idea that there’s
nothing very general you could say in the signaling case.
Well, I mean obviously, there are general things you can but that just aren’t
very useful. I mean most rejection letters do come with some general
platitudes like that. And most people after they’ve seen the first 3 such
letters, they aren’t really learning anything more from the next dozen, but we
all – it’s like wearing a suit to an interview. We all considered it polite to
do that, to give a – and if they reject you for a part, they will just say,
“Sorry, you weren’t right for the part,” or something like that. But I mean
the question is, is that enough? I mean I could just have a quick general
platitude at the beginning of my book about how, “Gee, I’m sorry. This might
deflate you and we don’t really mean it personally.” And go on from there. And
in fact we have some language like that. The question is whether that’s
I want to go back to this idea of its being like whether it’s a net cost. And
I guess like you say the people that your book is in some sense oriented
towards our policymakers who might be able to put this knowledge to use, and
you use less see individuals as able to put it to use. Is that correct?
We identify a number of communities that might find value of it and we
describe which ones we think we felt the book was more motivated for writing.
But we are somewhat I guess libertarian in the sense of if we warned you about
the book and then you want to read it then, we are not going to want to stop
you. And we are not going to deny that people might get value and let them
make that choice. But when we try to justify the book, we say policymakers
would be one of the biggest categories we might point to as justification that
we can say, at least this looks like, and social scientists rationale. But we
also say maybe managers and salespeople and nerds and some other groups we can
maybe identify. But obviously, we sell the book to everybody and as long as
everybody can get proper warning about how it might not be good for them, let
them make the choice.
I guess I am skeptical about that warning like whether – suppose that you
thought you couldn’t warn people, suppose you thought the warning was
impossible, you could put words in that sounded like warning words but it
would be a little bit like the words of – it will be about as useful as the
words that say all the applicants were talented, right? The warning words are
going to wash right over people that people don’t respond differentially to
warning words of that kind. Would you feel very differently about the book and
about the legitimacy of putting it forward?
I might think I would let people audition for my movie, and knowing that I
would reject most of them, and most of them will be hurt a bit by being
rejected, but they made the choice to audition. And I might think I want to
let them make that choice. Or even you might want to let somebody ask you for
a date and knowing that you might say no and it’s OK if you say no. You
wouldn’t want to put up a sign that says, “Nobody ever ask me because I might
So I wonder Rory, whether you think like somehow it does – at the very bottom
of this, does there a lie a disagreement about whether people’s pains are
their own problem or other people’s problems?
So I was thinking as you were talking about how to diagnose the disagreement,
and that wasn’t the thing that came to my mind. So listening to you, Agnes, I
got the sense that you thought the cost was graver than Robin seems to think.
And to be honest, I think. And that’s why I think you are asking these
questions about, well, look, suppose it was impossible to ever assuage anyone
from the pain let’s say that they would get from reading Robin’s book, would
that be enough? And I’m sympathetic to the idea that it can feel a bit maybe
wounding reading the book but I guess my sense is that the book doesn’t come
with a very grave cost, and I think there are, as I think you agree, some
benefits to that kind of research. And so I was not so concerned whether –
what to do if there was no way of preventing people from it.
But it seems to me that your essay and Agnes’ comments, initially, I guess you
were responding to her, are focused less on sort of the overall cost, than
they are on sort of an incremental cost of going from some overall negative
sign to some sort of internal explanation or resolution of it. That is, the
case of being rejected for the movie, you get this overall negative sign of
being rejected and then you might try to understand why you were rejected and
you might say, “I was too nervous or this part was wanting somebody that’s a
little more somber. I’m not somber.” You might try to think it through to come
to a personal understanding of why, or why I took the coat. I guess I was not
paying to attention. I was too distracted in a conversation. I was sad about
something. So there are all these ways that we might be able to reasonably
take some negative news and try to work with it to try to help us understand
it and help us integrate it into our framing. And the question is, how
appropriate is it to put that responsibility on the person who gives you the
bad news to help you work through how to understand it? So that seems to me a
different issue that it’s not just about the overall giving you bad news, that
would be about just how costly will it be for you to work through it. I mean
how bad will it be after you worked through it? It will be some bad. But the
proposal here was it’s all right to tell you the bad news as long as I help
you work through it and that could end up still being pretty bad harm. You
still might – once you’ve worked through it, you may still might not like it
at all. So this doesn’t seem a primarily harm-based analysis. It’s not about
how bad is it for you to hear this and work it through. The claim was, a
person telling you the bad news needs to help you work it through, so that you
figure out a better way of understanding why it happened and that it’s OK.
That seemed to be the claim.
So I think that that’s not quite what I meant to say though I see that might
be what I actually did say. I think that – the thing that I encounter
repeatedly with your book, which I read now a few years ago, and then I
reread, and I recently heard you presented it, is just that, my mind goes
like, here are your arguments and then it wants to take the next step like it
wants to be like, OK so, and then it just can’t. I feel like there is no next
step from here. I feel like this leads you nowhere. And I think that many
people can make contributions that might be dispiriting but that you could do
something with, and it wouldn’t be their job to tell you how to do it if you
could do it on your own or something. But it somehow feels to me like with
this book in particular, I just don’t know where to go next with it. I don’t
even know what kinds of policies you would – if you were a policymaker, what
this would motivate you to do. And so that’s the bit that bothers me. It’s
like that there’s nowhere to go with it.
And that sounds to me a lot like the person who asked for a date saying, “How
could have I asked different and gotten a different answer?” And there just
may not be such an answer that you could give them about how they could have
done it different. That doesn’t meant they aren’t giving you useful
information by telling you no, or that it wasn’t appropriate to tell you no.
So I do think there are many ways to integrate my book into how you live your
life and see the world. I’ve done that and I know other people who have done
that. But maybe it’s just not the kind of answer you wanted. You wanted to
know how could have I asked you on a date such that you would have said yes,
and I’m not telling you that.
I mean if learning that you are not interested in me is necessarily practical
information because now I can go and ask somebody else, right? So I think just
turning me down is giving me useful information. And what I am not as much
seeing is how the information in your book is useful information. That is,
what would I do otherwise? I’ve actually tried to think about how do I live my
life differently now that I’ve read this book? And I have no sense of it. I
have no sense even that I should pursue less healthcare than I did before
because what if I really should be signaling how much I care about myself and
my associates too then? Maybe that’s super important and I got to keep doing
that. So yeah, I mean I think it is – the thing that makes it feel like
trolling to me is just the not knowing what the next step is supposed to be.
So Agnes, do you think the book undermines all possible value claims you might
form? So here’s one example of like how I might think you would use Robin’s
book to do something in your interpersonal life. So Robin is like conversation
is primarily about signaling your ability to use all sorts of fun and fancy
totes. And you might independently have this value where you’re like, “No, I
want to communicate information or I want to engage with people or emotionally
understand them.” And I mean I read Robin’s book and I have – sometimes have
been in conversation or something where it’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s the thing
I was doing. I was not serving my broader set of ends. I was doing something
that looks a bit like signaling.” And I don’t see what your objection is to me
reasoning in that way.
There’s a line from your blog post, let me read it. So you say, “You may lead
people deeply astray without any firm ground for which to navigate their
resulting sense of feeling lost. You may lead people with nothing to grasp on
to, where they may worry that any attempt to gain traction on their
motivations would themselves be a form of signaling.” OK. So like that example
where you interrupt yourself and you say, “Oh, wait a minute. I was just
signaling the fact that I know French instead of inquisitively conducting this
conversation or something.” It’s like – I mean you could take at face value or
you could say, “Ah! I am like here I am trying to signal to myself that I’m
better than other people and that I conduct conversations in this information
even though I know that in fact, I am just like everybody else.” So I guess I
think it works so long as you don’t apply it too much, or something like that,
and you don’t apply it too consistently and frequently.
Isn’t that all skepticism? I mean as a professional philosopher, you know that
philosophers often take students and they show them that they can’t draw
inferences unless they make some assumptions. If there’s an evil demon, they
could be fooling them about everything and then they have no firm place to
stand in order to prove that they know anything. And that’s something you do
to students. And isn’t that a similar kind of thing you are complaining about
The most famous skeptical text in the world is Descartes’ meditations and he
does start by saying, “Wait a minute. What if everything wrong? I wonder if
there’s an evil demon.” And then he is like, “We better now reestablish all
the foundation and show and give people a grounding to set them back up in
reality, otherwise this thing would be super disruptive and horrible.” And I
guess I think that – so like now, you might just be a skeptic, right? That is,
you might think – well, Descartes isn’t one, right? But you might think it’s
impossible to know anything. And then you might try to put that argument
before people, and then someone like me might come along and say, “Well,
that’s very destructive.” And I guess I care about the details of the
skepticism and how the conversation is supposed to go but I don’t think it’s
crazy for somebody with skeptical impulses to also have the thought, “I am
beholden to people for reestablishing the foundations if I can,” in the way
that Descartes did.
If for medicine I tell you what you want is mainly is to reassure people that
you care about them and let them show they care about you, this is a new
foundation. You just don’t like it. It’s a completely coherent, logical
foundation, that’s something you can embrace. You can see directly. You can
apply it to your personal life. You just don’t like it. That’s your complain,
not that it’s incoherent or it wouldn’t let you see things.
No. It’s my sense that you don’t like it. That is – it’s like if you said
that’s the foundation and then you’re like, “Let’s double down on medicine so
that we can do more showing that we care.” But you want us to cut medicine
like cut it in half.
Why can’t that be a coherent position? Why can’t that be the conclusion of the
analysis? Why reject that? It seems like you’re rejecting – you just want to
reject particular conclusions, not that you are saying, “I’m throwing you this
skeptical line,” where there’s no possible conclusions to draw. You just don’t
like my conclusion.
I don’t think that’s right. So my initial read on Agnes’ response to you and
her initial response to me is that it feels like she takes your book maybe
more seriously than anyone I’ve ever encountered. So the thing that allowed me
to, from my perspective, notice that I was engaging in signaling conversation
and then do something else, is that I didn’t take your book that seriously. I
do have some sense when I reflect. I’m like, “No, I feel confident that this
is what I’m doing for this particular reason.” And I found your book helpful
on an individual level to the extent that it created a twinge in me but held
me look inside myself and see, “Oh yeah, I’m doing something that’s a bit
signaling.” And I think the thing that Agnes is saying is maybe something
like, the move that I just stated is not allowed within your framework because
it is meant to apply to everything, and that’s why I think she is saying that
it’s incoherent because she is saying, “Look, I’m the only one who is taking
your book really, really seriously.” And pushed to its limit, there’s nothing
you can say.
But I don’t push it to the limit. That is, I explicitly say, look, all human
behavior has many relevant motivations. When I talk about a hidden motive,
it’s the most – the strongest motive that you’re not admitting compared to the
other motives you like to admit. It’s not the only motivation. It doesn’t
explain everything but it’s important to point out that you’re not admitting
that there’s this big motivation there. So it applies to a lot of things, not
to everything, and that therefore means, when you explain your behavior, you
won’t be using it only to explain all your behavior. That would be not right.
I guess in order to be motivated like to move forward in doing anything, you
have to I think you have the main reason for doing what you’re doing in view.
I think that’s almost just the definition of what it is to be motivated or at
least to be something.
In each case and it doesn’t have to be the same in each case.
Right. And maybe there is just a kind of problem like, if that’s what
motivation is, if motivation is a kind of self-awareness – includes or
involves a kind of self-awareness about the goal, then maybe you are just
saying that like all motivation is illusory in a certain way. We can’t have
awareness. And not just we can’t have a hundred percent awareness, right? But
that we are like basically mostly wrong. That is, the thing that we think is
the biggest motive that’s most salient to us isn’t.
Whoa! You were mostly wrong. But after you hear me and believe me, you’re no
longer mostly wrong because now you can know.
So this was Rory’s point I think. I think it’s not true. That is, that it’s
just that we find new ways of covering it up and put forward a new version
that looks safe but isn’t safe, right? Rory could be like, “Oh, now I know it.
Now, I can avoid it. Now, I’ll make sure not to mention that I knew French or
something.” But that’s not like he has gotten around that he’s signaling. It’s
just he found a new way to signal.
Signaling is a motive you can just directly embrace. It’s coherent. You can
understand it. You can see the mechanisms and the microparts of it. You can
understand how it applies to your world. You can just say, “Yes, this is
substantially what I want. I will do this for that reason.”
Yeah. So like I think that when you say like – when I say like, what I wanted
this book to be, in some way, that there had been a part of this book where
you’re just like, “Signaling is really great. Let me tell you why.” It’s like
human beings are awesome because we did this great thing and we are not aware
that we are doing it but we should all become more aware and then we can do it
better. I actually think there was a case to be made that that’s just true.
OK. But I can have a lot of it and know what it is without saying it’s great.
I mean some people know they have many motives that they are not too proud of,
right? And they don’t want to say they’re great but they still often admit,
“Yeah, this is motive even if it’s not so great.” And that’s more of the tone
we are taking here.
OK. I want to – actually, I want us to take a step back because I feel like –
well, let’s just take a step back more broadly to the edgelord issue like not
necessarily just particularly this book or particular you, right? And where –
I want to hear Rory say something about what’s valuable about having edgelords
in our intellectual ecosystem.
Yeah. So to defend this case, I think you have to have some sympathy for the
idea that sometimes there’s a real active good in breaking down people’s
self-conceptions. And you could give really morally-laden historical examples,
but one that just about come to mind, references this earlier example where
you – somebody takes your coat unknowingly. Now, if I imagine this person
behaving really indignantly at the thought that they made a mistake, I can
really sympathize with this urge to kind of break down their current
self-conception and maybe even do it in a way that’s more along the pathway of
the truthful troll. And why? I think it’s because for the reason I just don’t
like it. I don’t think it’s good for the world for people to have
self-conception so they’re like, “Well, I could never be wrong and whatever I
think is right is right and whatever I do is great.” And I think to the
extent, I like what I see as edgelord energy, I think it might stem from the
fact that I think people are already a bit too much along this direction. They
need a few Hansonians to knock them down a bit.
That’s very interesting. I actually didn’t quite get that from your piece. So
I want to just restate it and then see what Robin thinks about it. But this
thought is like there are just people who are inflated like too self-inflated
with ego and ready to become indignant and those people need to be taught a
lesson. And so it’s good if they feel a little bit of pain because they needed
to be taken down a peg. And the value of these edgelords is that they target
those people and take them down a peg. Robin, your response?
I might rephrase it in terms of saying the world often has self-reinforcing
arrogance. That is, there are lies out there that are protected and reinforced
by indignation and sort of the sense that people couldn’t possibly be wrong
about that. And if we are ever going to figure out the truth then yeah, they
need to be slapped a bit to feel the pain of being visibly wrong when they
are, and maybe they can then learn to deal with more cautious about the other
Yeah. So like I guess maybe this is helpful for me in terms of the question,
is teaching someone a lesson or taking them down a peg compatible with
inquiring with them? A phrase you used Rory in your essay is you say, “I think
edgelord energy can motivate you to inquire into why your peers aren’t
undertaking comparatively trivial cost in order to save the lives of others –
at least once they’re informed of the relative cost.” OK. Do they do inquire
into why your peers aren’t – your effective altruist peers aren’t undertaking
these trivial cost to save lives of others. Now, I could imagine two different
ways like that could go like this. You’re basically want to be like showing
people, “Ha ha ha look! You’re not a real effective altruist. Here are these
trivial costs you can take and they would create lots of benefits for other
people,” where if that’s sort of your goal, that to me doesn’t look like an
inquiry. I mean we can say you inquired into it, but it looks like the end
product of that is taking people down a peg, which I’m not saying is not how
these may not have some value. But it seems to be very different if you wanted
to know like why don’t we take these costs where the answer wasn’t – there
wasn’t a kind of presumed answer of like, “Because you’re not a real effective
altruist or because you don’t care.” But actually, there’s a real question
there. That seems like a different process and it seems to me that the
edgelord – I wonder if the edgelord can do the second thing. I wonder if the
edgelord is reduced to doing the first thing.
So what do I think? OK. So then I said, inquire into why your peers aren’t
taking comparatively trivial costs, I took this notion of inquiring to be
primarily like an individual sense of inquiry where you look at the
consequences of the stated commitments of other people like of consequence
morality, and then you tried something that looks surprising. And this is a
kind of inquiry. It’s not inquiring with some but it is inquiring let’s say,
about them and about some class of people.
Yeah, fair enough.
So I think you can do that. I think – and my claim there was something like,
there’s this thing, edgelord energy, and you are more likely to do this kind
of investigation if you have edgelord energy. I think someone who is only
edgelord and nothing else, probably can’t do the other thing you’re just
bringing up, which is really inquire with someone and help them see from their
own perspective what exactly is going on.
So I might say, one of the things you can do in a world of people with lots of
ideas and opinions is just point out contradictions, so point out conflicts.
And if you can convince people there are contradictions r conflicts, you can
be pretty sure that it will have consequences and it will propagate somehow.
But you don’t necessarily know exactly how. And maybe it’s not your job to
know exactly how. I mean you might think if you were in the building and you
saw a water leak like the ceiling was getting wet over some hallway. You might
think the right thing to do was go tell somebody about the water leak. And you
don’t know how they are going to fix that. You don’t know if the are going to
change the pipe or reroute it or whether they are going to wait until the
weekend. But it’s not necessarily your job to have to know how they are going
to fix it in order to report the problem. I guess another example might be
just in the capitalist world, you see a product nobody is offering that is
profitable and you are supposed to go out and offer it, make some money, and
that will disrupt the whole world, that people will – new product – old
products will decay and people will change jobs and property prices will
change. And you’re not supposed to need to know how all those consequences
will play out in order to take the most concrete action you see, which is to
take this profit opportunity. So I might say, in the world of ideas, finding a
contradiction or a conflict at least is a thing to notice and is valuable
especially when it’s on something important and you should just point that out
in as clear way as you can, and follow some of the consequences through, but
it’s not your job to figure most of them out, and you shouldn’t be asked to do
I think that that’s a little too – that softens the edgelord too much. That
is, OK, here is another paragraph that I’m going to read from Rory’s essay,
“The edgelord’s behavior relies on their being in some way responsive to their
concerns of others, although responsive in a quite specific way. The edgelord
is responsive when opportunities to highlight potential cracks in the held
self-conception of others, while placing less emphasis on aiding their
interlocutor in an attempt to construct coherent ...” OK. But the point of
that first part, it’s like, you’re not just looking out for contradictions.
You are looking out for the contradictions that will be in some sense like a
logically disruptive because your goal in some way is to create these large
cracks in the self-conceptions, the ones that will really disturb people, to
sort of make a crack in their arrogance. And so it’s not just like, oh, you’re
just doing stuff and being helpful and like, oh, accidentally it happens that
like someone got offended or insulted. In some sense, your goal is their being
offended or insulted, in the sense that to have your self-conception be broken
just is to be offended or insulted in some way. But we might agree, I think
like, if the question is, should there be edgelord? I think the answer is
probably yes. I would agree with that but I would add, and there should be
snowflakes like me who are like hypersensitive to the destructiveness of the
edgelords. And we are going to come out and say like, “Stop hurting us.” You
also want them as people in your ecosystem. So it’s not obvious to me that
even if we say, “Yeah, there should be edgelords,” there might also be – we
might also want to say, “Yeah, and there should be people who complain about
them too.” Because the edgelord is maybe like going to be in a way, less
attuned to the unintended consequences of bursting people’s self-conceptions.
So let’s consider the example of the town busy boddy, or even government
trouble maker. So these persons say, they are retired, they don’t have many
friends, so they wander around town looking for illegally parked cars. They
look for ways in which the government is not following its rules, workers who
are taking an extra-long lunch break, et cetera. And maybe they have a
vendetta against the Fire Department and they especially look for the Fire
Department and see when they are breaking the rules. Then we might say – and
the fire people might say, “Why are you all over my case? Go look for problems
in somebody else.” But we might say, “Well, look, it doesn’t that much matter
what this person’s motivation is, or what personality type inclined them to
this.” The key question, is this a legitimate activity? If they find an
illegally parked car, do we want to know about that? Should we – if their
motivation is poor, does that mean we shouldn’t listen to them about illegally
parked cars, or maybe embezzled government property, because they are not the
right sort of a mental state that we want?
I find that – OK, Rory, do you have some immediate reaction to that case?
I don’t have an immediate reaction.
Do you see it as analogous?
I guess I think like there are versions of that story where I would say we
should not pay attention to them and then there are versions of that story
where I would say we should. So for instance, supposed they only targeted like
suppose like say, 50% of the people in government were in their family
somehow, right? But then the other 50% weren’t, and they already targeted the
50% that were and they did it to get them out of office so that more of their
family members could be elected. And that systematically as the corruption of
those people is exposed and like other people are also just as corrupt, but
their corruption is never exposed and this is what is allowing this family to
get a bigger and bigger foothold until it will have control of the whole
government. In that case, I might say like, “Look, we actually don’t. We want
to correct our corruption less by not listening to this guy because it’s not
actually a net positive.” I can imagine versions of the story where the answer
would be, “No, don’t listen to the guy.” But I can certainly imagine many
versions of it where the answer would be, “Listen to the person.”
Wouldn’t you want to just tell the other family, “Hey, if you guys are losing,
go search for violations yourself?”
Suppose you live in the real world and not the ideal world and you’ve done
that a lot of times and they never do it and so this is the situation you are
encountering. I mean I’m not saying there are – I supposed it’s not
inconceivable to me that there’s a version of this story in which the answer
would be, “Don’t listen to the crank.” I don’t think, a priori, always listen
to the crank even if they are truthful. Can I slightly change – can we change
the topic. Let’s go back to – we haven’t touched on Socrates. You talked about
Socrates as the kind of healing troll. What’s interesting to me about the idea
that you see Socrates as the healing troll which is also how I see him is that
that’s not how most people see him. That is, most people really would identify
the ways in which I’m describing Robin as what they see Socrates is doing. So
they would say, “Wait, aren’t you objecting to Socrates?” And I think it’s
because they have a two state – most people have a 2-stage of you of Socratic
inquiry, where like step one is you have to prove that you’re interlocutor
doesn’t know the things that they say they know, and Euthyphro doesn’t really
know what piety is or Alcibiades doesn’t know what justice is. Laches doesn’t
know what courage is, et cetera, et cetera. And then once you have like a
clean slate then you could begin to inquire with them into the nature of
justice and piety and courage. So they are imagining that Socratic inquiry has
these two stages, let’s say the destructive stage and the constructive stage.
And I almost feel like Robin too is imagining that, and he is just doing the
destructive stage and the constructive stage can happen later. In my own view
about Socratic inquiry is just that Socrates doesn’t think these are two
stages. That he thinks that they are the same thing. They are the same
activity. There’s just one activity and it is inquiry, and inquiry goes by –
works by pointing out that someone had said something false, but that’s just
what inquiring is. It’s not a question. It’s just like a statement to hear
your guys react to.
So I think that fits my understanding of Robin too. And in fact, the way like
at least my initial reading of Robin basically had him saying that, “Look, I
just – I do my thing. I’m good at the disruptive stuff. I am a nerd, whatever.
The constructive stuff, leave that to the snowflakes. We have a good epistemic
ecosystem here. I can disrupt and then I’ll do a podcast with you and you can
construct the snowflake vision in my wake.” That seems right. I guess one
thing I was a bit curious about when you said that was – so do you think you
can decompose inquiry in this way even if you think the Socratic idea is the
best way of doing inquiry because you were just doing both of these things at
once? You might think that it’s at least possible to do the other thing given
that we are not all Socrates.
Yeah. So that’s a great question. I think the answer is no, you can’t
decompose it at all. That is, you can’t do the one unless you’re also – so
that you’re not really doing constructive inquiry if you are not also in every
moment challenging what the other person is saying. And you are not doing a
real and genuine destruction unless you’re sort of having in view what’s going
to come in the wake. Those are not always jobs of the same person. That is, in
the conversation, there are two people – like in a Socratic conversation,
there’s sort of the constructive person and the destructive person and
Socrates is the destructive person. But I think he can’t operate unless his
interlocutor is continually coming up with some new way, which actually they
do know about piety. Even in the – the Euthyphro which is as destructive a
dialogue as you get, Socrates has to at some point help you and be like, “OK,
maybe you think this,” and Euthyphro is like, “Yeah, yeah, let’s go with
that.” There needs to be something.
Take more recent examples, again, I find the mistake in your math proof or you
did a lab experiment and I do replication and my replication fails to
replicate your experiment. You might say in those two cases, am I obligated to
show how you went wrong in your proof or to show you where experiment failed
to do what I think it should have done because mine doesn’t replicate yours.
Or can I just show you these things and have that be my immediate contribution
and just have us all wait to see what the world does with those afterwards?
Yeah. I mean like I guess I think that if I don’t see where I went wrong in
the proof ...
I can show you where you went wrong but I don’t – I haven’t shown you how you
Right. And then like I guess in terms of like a Socratic refutation is the
person coming to see – having to understand their own error and I wouldn’t
have done that and so in effect, your destruction is incomplete. You can do
that. You can just show the error. It’s just that, there, you haven’t
completed even the task of destruction.
Maybe we never need to complete it. Maybe it’s just enough that we know your
proof is wrong. We will never figure out how you went wrong.
I mean if like when you say we, like if I’m to construct a new proof and I’m
going to need to avoid making that exact error then I probably do need to know
how I went wrong. But if you don’t care about what I do and someone else is
going to construct a new proof, I mean you wouldn’t even have to show me the
But I needed to show you and everybody that your proof is wrong. But knowing
that your proof is wrong means we don’t believe your proof anymore and we
don’t use it as a premise to other arguments. But knowing how your proof went
wrong, that would be – knowing the process by which – most people don’t show
the process by which they make proofs when they published a proof. They just
show the proof. So the process by which you went is a private process that we
weren’t – didn’t get to see and you would have to know more about your private
process in order to reason about where you went wrong in the proof. And we
don’t really even have much data to work with to help you with that.
Yeah. OK. So this is helpful because I got thinking maybe I want to revise my
answer to Rory’s question earlier. It’s like maybe what I think is that the
claim that I made earlier is true for like a subset of human pursuits and
inquiries namely; the ones that we are not capable of thinking about on our
own. That is – and that’s all the conversations Socrates has, I think he has
about those sorts of things, maybe we don’t want to make that claim about
math. That is, maybe math is something you can think about on your own. You
can privately have your proof and work it out and someone can point it out to
you or you can see the error yourself. That is, you didn’t need there to be
other people in the first place. But if this thing is the sort of thing where
people can only think about it together then yeah, they haven’t shown you the
relevant thing until they have gotten you to the point where you could start
So let’s say it’s something you can only do together with someone, does that
someone have to be me, the one who showed you your mistake? Say, you have some
other partner you usually discuss this with. Say, you can do math proofs
without a partner and you in fact did this math proof with a partner but that
partner isn’t me. I’m the one who found the mistake in your proof and I’m
telling you about that.
Right. Yeah. Sorry. I’m smiling because when I was in grad school, I was like
teaching myself a bunch of advanced logic and I would like try to get my
roommate who was a logician to help me with it but it was so easy for him that
he couldn’t help me because he was just like made these jumps. It was
incredibly frustrating because I’m like, here I am living with a logician. He
should be able to clarify these things for me but, it was just like he didn’t
know how to slow down his mind to my speed. So I think – I mean I guess the
way you frame this question which is like, well, aren’t I allowed to just do
this much and no more? And I sort of – I’m not sure how to answer that
question. It’s like, yeah, but I might be annoyed at you for that, is sort of
the response that I am inclined to give. Yes, you are allowed to do that but
I’m allowed to get annoyed about it I guess.
So when you are liable to get annoyed by it, I guess I think you can feel
annoyed in a sustained way when you genuinely think somebody has done
something wrong, right? So that makes it sound like you’re not convinced about
the benefits of this epistemic ecosystem consisting of edgelords and
snowflakes because if you thought like Robin was just doing his edgelord thing
and that was a valuable contribution and snowflakes would come along
afterwards, you wouldn’t be annoyed or it doesn’t seem like you can coherently
hold on to that annoyance over an extended period of time, unless you think
that by holding on to the annoyance what you are in fact like doing as a
research project is constructing this post-Hansonian vision of why signalling
is actually a primary motive and that’s great.
Yeah, I kind of think it is that. That is – so first of all, I think being
annoyed is just the motive being of a snowflake. So if you say we are allowed
to have snowflakes, what you are saying is we are allowed to have annoyed
people. And then I think if – what is the annoyance and expression of, I think
it really is just like “Help. You are supposed to help me”, right? That is,
here’s the thing and you’re not helping me enough and I need you to help me
and I’m just going to keep telling you that you need to help me like forever
until you help me.
Is that why you started the podcast?
In order to answer yes to that, I would have to sort of psychoanalyze a little
bit. We started the podcast – we were talking on Zoom and then I think it was
Robin who was like, “There should be like a product of this. Can we record
these?” So, we were already talking before we started the podcast. But at our
very first conversation, I brought up Elephant in the Brain, and this exact
issue. So it’s sort of like if you ask why are we talking then I think yeah,
this was like a big part of it.
But we are about out of time so I’ll just end with first, I think in some
sense, the answer you want may not exist like the person asking you for a date
who wants to know how they could have gotten you to say yes or the person who
did the audition who wants to know how could they have gotten the part. And
I’m saying, well, there is an answer to understand here, but that’s just not
apparently in the space you want to look at. You want to answer it in a
different place and that may not be where the answer is. And I also – I mean I
think this edgelord accusation, I mean I guess it would have to sort of be
explained by someone’s persistent focus on topics that in fact did bother
people. And then that would be evidence that they were substantially motivated
by trying to bother people. But if they just pursue a lot of different topics
and some of them happen to bother people but they aren’t especially focused on
those, I think the evidence for their bothering people motive is weak.
I would say one – I would say the last thing and then Rory gets the last word.
I feel like this is a therapy for me and Robin because I think that was very,
just, insightful, that in some way may be this is like from my side, maybe not
from Robin’s side but from my side kind of the goal of the podcast is that we
are supposed to try to produce something positive where I think something
positive should be and then Robin doesn’t necessarily think there is anything
that goes there. So that’s also what we are squabbling over. But anyway, I
want to make that observation. OK, Rory, last words.
OK. Well, I’ll respond to Robin’s final thought on the edgelord accusation. So
Robin said something like, “Look, the edgelord accusation is fair to the
extent that you are insistently focusing on very narrow glass of controversial
topics, but to the extent that you write about different things like aliens
for example, then maybe you can’t be accused of being an edgelord.” And maybe
I would just say in response that there aren’t that many topics that really
annoy people because the world is very big and most people don’t care about
most things. So just telling people that we care don’t really care about being
healthy, you are never allowed to disagree with anyone, then maybe we can make
some kind of inference from that.
Thank you for coming on our show, Rory.
Yes, thank you.