Better Communication

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 9, 2011 in How-To

An underappreciated post from Paul Christiano:

Hopefully [] trains its readers to be aware of personal failures of rationality and to correct them over time.

Whenever a small group (all the way down to 2) of rationalists communicate, they should make an equal effort to be aware of failures of their collective rationality (I definitely have failed at this so far in life). In particular: time is valuable, and you can hope to actually learn things from other people. Here are some remarks about communication intended to help you optimize (as opposed to communication intended to help you be happy).

1. Communicate information precisely. I have strong beliefs that contradict the beliefs of other rationalists. I need a better way to express precisely what the disagreement is and my confidence in my beliefs, particularly with people I don’t know well. Right now I feel like I have no hope of correctly updating on the beliefs of others or sharing information in a productive way. To this end, I think making precise testable claims about the future and backing them up with probability estimates (as a regular feature of discussion) would be a good idea, even when your probability estimates are horribly miscalibrated. This would help me much more quickly learn about my own miscalibration, evaluate the miscalibration of others, and at least have a definite scale to make precise communication possible.

2. Communicate preferences precisely. Groupmembers often have strong preferences which they fail to coordinate well. I think groups I have been in would have done better if they consistently used any precise semantics for expressing preferences; for example, assigning monetary values or using some other fixed reference commodity. A bigger problem is that statements of preference carry way to much additional meaning in normal communication. I’m not sure how to divorce statements of preference from this other meaning, but its worth thinking about.

3. Explicitly think about the point of communication. There are important things to talk about, and the marginal benefits of spending 10 minutes on one topic versus another can be quite different. There are a lot of free moments in a day, and I think this calculus is worth spending some of them on. I would like to start directing my conversations towards high value topics much more reliably, especially in conversations with rationalists. This may involve doing things like making explicit notes to structure my conversation.

4. Talking about procedure is OK. Improving your rationality is worth spending time on, and I think improving the quality of your communication and a community’s ability to communicate is worth spending time. Entertain some discussion of process without feeling irresponsible for not moving forward on the meat of whatever issue you are discussing. Perhaps make rational communication the meat of discussion more often.

5. Acquire a lot of data. The effectiveness of strategies for communication or group rationality is a really easy thing to gather data on, at least in principle. Share data (doing this effectively requires improvements in communication).

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Zeb December 10, 2011 at 1:48 am

I have $2 worth of preference that this article had been written following the guidelines it names. I’d estimate a 30% chance that adoption of these principals would drive Less Wrong further into jargony Newspeak, which would increase the communication barrier between insiders and outsiders. I estimate a 20% chance such isolation is an either implicit goal or unconscious trend in LW that leads it to have cult-like characteristics now and a drive toward an Orwellian future. I have a $50 preference that LW move away from those cult-like characteristics, and while I estimate the probability of LW moving society toward and Orwellian future to be less than 1% I have a life-time’s earnings preference that it not succeed in any program that would bring about such a future.

Am I doing that right?


kovacsa December 10, 2011 at 2:12 am

Am I doing that right?

Not really. You peppered your post – that contains only assertions – with faux-precise numbers in order to be “ironic” about the matter you wanted to criticize.


zaybu December 10, 2011 at 5:34 am



Thanks for the laugh.


Zeb December 10, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Not really. You peppered your post – that contains only assertions – with faux-precise numbers in order to be “ironic” about the matter you wanted to criticize.

The OP also contains only assertions and it lacks the faux-precise numbers that it prescribes. However while my assertions are only about the strength of my own beliefs and values, the OP is making assertions about a better, more rational way to communicate. It’s true I was being intentionally ironic by using the writing advice that I was criticizing, but that was to highlight the irony I saw in the OP not using the writing advice that it was advocating.


antiplastic December 10, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Zeb wins a virtual internet drink from me.

(especially liked the Freudian typo slip of the omitted space in “Groupmembers” in the OP)


joseph December 10, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Swearing in Less Wrong terminology seems fun!

I have a $1,000,000,000 preference that your insert a male reproductive member into yourself, at a suitable point of ingress, though I predict a 99% chance that this will not help you as I have calculated a 90% prior probability that your mother was a hamster and a 87.3% prior probability that your father smelt of elderberries. I have not yet corrected for my own bias.


freddy December 10, 2011 at 11:12 pm

is he only talking about when at least two rationalists communicate? he makes no claim about the rest of us – whatever we are.

i’m supossin’, by the context, that rationalists are folks who have accepted the teachings, or read a substantial amount of the scriptures (aka “sequences”), of the prophet eliezer.

i don’t believe that eliezer endorses any other pathway to the rationalist family, other than through the lesswrongian porthole.

so, paul’s post is just some proposed club rules about how club members should talk to each other. pretty dry stuff, and properly underappreciated by his fellow club members.


Stephen R. Diamond December 12, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Luke seems to belong to the bureaucratic wing of Less Wrong. He appreciates a post long on directive, short on argument.


Colin December 12, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Who’s… Paul Cristiano? I’d probably underappreciate him less if I knew him from Eliezer.


Colin December 12, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Or spelled his name properly.


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