Why I was Wrong to Demonize Rationalism

E. Glen Weyl

October 5, 2021

Over the past months, I have singled out the “Rationalist” community for opprobrium. The Rationalists are a cluster of people who read blogs like Slate Star Codex (now Astral Codex Ten), Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong. They are strongly associated with but distinct from other communities and research programs, such as Effective Altruism and long-termism, with which I have sometimes conflated them. I gradually realized that doing so has been against my principles and driven by feelings of guilt and shame, primarily my recognition of the limitations of the pattern of thought in the community I am embarrassed that I used to fall into.

There are many communities that I have important differences of opinion from, such as religious fundamentalists, ethno-nationalists, etc. I have not singled any of these out as I did the Rationalists. There are also many communities that I have deep respect for and personal connections to, but whom I have come to differ from and critique, such as technocrats, nationalists, socialists, capitalists, and even adherents of my book with Eric Posner, Radical Markets. I generally try to form alliances and collaborations with these communities, not to attack them. What, then, could possibly justify the way I have treated the rationalist community?

My rationale/ization at the time was that I believed the technology industry, and especially Silicon Valley (SV), has become the greatest unaccountable concentration of power in the world today and is thus a fundamental threat to self-government. It is socially, epistemologically, demographically and in a range of other ways disconnected from the societies it is meant to serve. I viewed the rationalist community and its attitudes as a kind of epitome/metastasis/synecdoche of this threat. I viewed the role of the community in fostering this threat as underappreciated by the public. And I viewed the potential of this threat replicating itself within the RadicalxChange community as serious. I thus thought/told myself that it was reasonable in this case to violate my general distaste for targeted opprobrium.

Silicon Valley

On many of the issues here, my views have only grown stronger. I see the technology industry as ever more concerning. My distaste for the great majority of the writing within rationalist blogs has only grown. I continue to believe in the general reasonableness of many of the substantive arguments in the pieces critical of the community I posted. However, what has changed significantly is my views of the sociological role of the rationalist community within the technology industry.

Specifically, I have come to see my conflation/synecdoche of SV and Rationalism as confused, along with (to a lesser extent) other conflations I made (such as Rationalism with Effective Altruism). Fundamentally, Rationalism is (loosely) grounded in blogs, meet-ups and quasi-intellectual gatherings/education institutions like the Center for Applied Rationality. SV and the tech industry more broadly are (loosely) grounded in physical locations, commercial enterprises and financial institutions (especially venture capital). The communities have an important intersection: Rationalist blogs and activities have a strong foundation in SV and are widely read there and issues in the technology industry are a strong focus within Rationalism. However, there are many things beyond this intersection within both communities.

Rationalism, for example, has helped foster (though is not identical with) an “effective altruist” community with significant appeal on university campuses–even among those with only a limited engagement with technology. SV, on the other hand, is on average far less intellectual and ideological than the Rationalist community, filled with many pursuing their personal enrichment with ruthless pragmatism.

Even in places where SV intersects with Rationalism, one must carefully interpret the social and intellectual dynamics. Rationalism often seems, roughly, to aspire to become a sort of official ideology and point of social cohesion for especially a younger generation in SV. Yet one should not overstate the extent to which it has or is likely to achieve this. There are other aspirants to this role, including both the SV left (roughly symbolized by Logic magazine) and the cluster of ideas loosely associated with Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen and Balaji Srinavasan (sometimes called Neo-reaction or NRx), which focuses explicitly on the superiority of the technological perspective over others and seeks for technologists and those who admire them to separate themselves from the rest of society and/or rule it.

While there are obviously close social links between these different contenders despite implausible claims by defenders of Rationalism to the contrary), and I believe also some important intellectual ones, these linkages might better be understood like those that exist among competitors in a niche sport rather than those among teammates. That is, we may see surprising social overlap between NRxers and Rationalists because Rationalists are afraid of losing their audience to NRxers not because they sympathize with them.

In that spirit, one must understand Rationalism in relation to other ideologies it vies for supremacy within the SV milieu, as well as the role it plays in connecting those in its SV core to like-minded others around the world and in a range of social sectors. Seeing it in that light makes many of the features of the community less surprising/disturbing. Its focus on analytic philosophy, economics, STEM, optimization, engineering, etc. are mostly reflections of the pre-existing idioms of SV. Its demographic homogeneity is similarly explicable. The very specific type of SV-external audience it networks to must be held up against not a representative sample of the world, but the extreme insularity of SV that pre-existed it.

Admittedly, even against this backdrop I am not very sympathetic to the community’s goals or accomplishments. My general impression from reading a few dozen of the most cited blog posts is that the diversity of influences is well below, for example, those one would be exposed to in the typical required curriculum of a university like Stanford where many people in SV are trained. Similarly, my impression is that the Rationalist community is less demographically diverse even than the technology industry. On the other hand, it is more concerned with the potential risks of technology in a salutary way that makes them potential checks on the dangerous techno-optimism that pervades SV. Furthermore, its lack of epistemological diversity is balanced by a general openness to a range of ideas if they are expressed in the dominant community epistemology. Both characteristics make the community a potential ally in shifting certain worrying trajectories in SV.

In this, Rationalists are like most of the ideological groups I interact with. They are allies in important projects, such as limiting the race for massive investments in “AI” capabilities and engaging in governance experimentation. In other projects, such as limiting the social power/hubris of SV and diversifying it along a variety of dimensions they are more likely adversaries or at least unlikely allies. As with those other ideological groups, focused and unbalanced attacks undermine the capacity to harness these alliances and exaggerations of the group’s power and conspiratorial allusions are basically hateful and fundamentally opposed to my belief system.

For these reasons, whatever the intellectual merits or demerits of any one of the articles or snide comments I tweeted, I was wrong to pick on this community in the disproportionate way I did. Even when I find their arguments preposterous on the logical grounds so prized within the community, they deserve the same thoughtful engagement I try to bring to every conversation with a variety of elements, emotive and logical. I failed to bring this. I do not expect this essay to do anything significant to undo these mistakes or to repair relationships in that community, but I do hope it will be a caution to some in the RadicalxChange community who might feel tempted to imitate my misbehavior. It is more a confession and warning than an apology.