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Attention Filtering and Debate

I quit the Effective Altruism forum due to a new rule requiring posts and comments be basically put in the public domain without copyright. More info. I had a bunch of draft posts, so I’m posting some of them here with minimal editing.

People skim and filter. Gatekeepers and many other types of filters end up being indirect proxies for social status much more than they are about truth seeking.

Filtering isn’t the only problem though. If you have some credentials – awards, a PhD, a popular book, thousands of fans – people often still won’t debate you. Also, I certainly get through initial filtering sometimes. People talk with me some, and a lot more people read some of what I say.

After you get through filters, you run into problems like people still not wanting to debate or not wanting to put in enough effort to understand your point. We could call this secondary filtering. Maybe if you get through five layers of filters, then they’ll debate. Or maybe not. I think some of the filters are generated ad hoc because they don’t want to debate or consider (some types of) ideas that disagree with their current ideas. People can keep making up new excuses as necessary.

Why don’t people want to debate? Often because they’re bad at it.

And they know – even if they don’t consciously admit it – that debating is risky to their social status, and the expectation value for their debating result is to lose status.

And they know that, if they lose the debate, they will then face a problem. They’ll be conflicted. They will partly want to change their mind, but part of them won’t want to change their mind. So they don’t want to face that kind of conflict because they don’t know how to deal with it, so they’d rather avoid getting into that situation.

Also they already have a ton of urgent changes to make in their lives. They already know lots of ways they’re wrong. They already know about many mistakes. So they don’t exactly need new criticism. Adding more issues to the queue isn’t valuable.

All of that is fine but on the other hand anyone who admits that is no thought leader. So people don’t want to admit it. And if an intellectual position has no thought leaders capable of defending it, that’s a major problem. So people make excuses, pretend someone else will debate if debate is merited, shift responsibility to others (usually not to specific people), etc.

Debating is a status risk, a self-esteem risk, a hard activity, and they maybe don’t want to learn about (even more) errors which will lead to thinking they should change which is a hard thing they may fail at (which may further harm status and self-esteem, and be distracting and unpleasant).

Elliot Temple on December 6, 2022


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