site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of April 17, 2023

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

From Quillette, an MIT professor describes the outraged reaction from fellow philosophers when he argued that a woman is an adult human female.

Back in 2019 Alex Byrne wrote one of my favorite essays on the incoherence of gender identity and as far as I can tell no one has managed to offer a solid refutation. Byrne follows up by discussing the difficulties he's had in getting a chapter and a book published on the topic, and his travails are equal parts infuriating and hilarious. For example, consider how a fellow colleague was treated once the crowd got wind that her book might be a bit too critical:

The imminent publication of Holly Lawford-Smith's Gender-Critical Feminism was announced that same month, and almost immediately no less than two petitions of complaint appeared, one from the OUP USA Guild (the union representing the New York staff of OUP), and the other from "members of the international scholarly community" with some connection to OUP. The latter petition expressed the scholars' "profound disappointment" at OUP's forthcoming publication of Lawford-Smith's book, and suggested various "measures the press could undertake to offset the harm done by the publication of this work." OUP needed to confess to a mortal sin and repent. None of the scholars had read the book that they so confidently denounced (since no copy of the book was available for them to read), but this is a mere detail.

This trend of protesting a book before anyone even reads it will never stop being funny to me. Byrne expected his book to go through several revisions and by his account he was happy to accomodate feedback. His reviewers, though, were not:

Publishers often commission reviews of a manuscript from (anonymous) experts in the relevant field, and I had to go through that time-consuming process yet again. It was also rather risky, since—as by now you are well aware—the experts in the philosophy of sex and gender tend to brook no dissent. Responding to the (hopeful) publisher’s question, “Will it make for an outstanding book in your view, or simply a work of average quality?”, one expert wrote: “Neither. It is of extremely poor quality.” Another question: “What would you highlight as the ONE feature about this book that might make you recommend it over other titles available?” “None. It shouldn’t be published.” Lastly: “Is there anything superfluous that could be left out?” “Everything—see above.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with harsh criticism; I have doled out plenty of that myself. Maybe my book deserves it. But a reviewer is expected to give reasons for her verdict—that helps both the author and the publisher. If I had made, as the reviewer said, “sweeping claims” that are “often false,” or had “seriously misunderstood” arguments on the other side, it would be a simple matter to give examples. But the reviewer supplied none: not a single quotation, page number, or chapter reference. From my experience publishing in this particular area of philosophy, this lack of engagement was par for the course. In fact, I found the reviewer’s hyperbolic report reassuring: if I had made mistakes, at least they were not easy to identify.

"What is wrong with my argument?"


"Can you be more specific?"

"Just all of it, it's just bad."

This is the kind of sophistry one would expect from random online arguments, and I'm sure you can identity similar instances even in this very forum. The take-away I'm generally left with is that Byrne's interlocutors are an amalgamation of intellectually fragile individuals. Conclusory statements rather than specifics are a transparent indication that you are aware your arguments will crumble when exposed to a light breeze. Protesting rather than arguing are a transparent indication that you are unable to defend your ideas on their own merits.

All this seems painfully obvious to me as an outsider, and I'm baffled why anyone engages in this ablution pantomime. Who could it possibly convince?

Freddie DeBoer recently put out a banger of a post called "A Conversation About Crime" about the absolute intellectual void behind the "defund the police" movement. The whole thing is worth reading in full, but I'll include the parting shot here:

Look, I’m gonna level with you here. Like the vast majority of leftists who have been minted since Occupy Wall Street, my principles, values, and policy preferences don’t stem from a coherent set of moral values, developed into an ideology, which then suggests preferred policies. At all. That requires a lot of reading and I’m busy organizing black tie fundraisers at work and bringing Kayleigh and Dakota to fencing practice. I just don’t have the time. So my politics have been bolted together in a horribly awkward process of absorbing which opinions are least likely to get me screamed at by an online activist or mocked by a podcaster. My politics are therefore really a kind of self-defensive pastiche, an odd Frankensteining of traditional leftist rhetoric and vocabulary from Ivy League humanities departments I don’t understand. I quote Marx, but I got the quote from Tumblr. I cite Gloria Anzaldua, but only because someone on TikTok did it first. I support defunding the police because in 2020, when the social and professional consequences for appearing not to accept social justice norms were enormous, that was the safest place for me to hide. I maintain a vague attachment to police and prison abolition because that still appears to be the safest place for me to hide. I vote Democrat but/and call myself a socialist because that is the safest place for me to hide. I’m not a bad person; I want freedom and equality. I want good things for everyone. But politics scare and confuse me. I just can’t stand to lose face, so I have to present all of my terribly confused ideals with maximum superficial confidence. If you probe any of my specific beliefs with minimal force, they will collapse, as those “beliefs” are simply instruments of social manipulation. I can’t take my kid to the Prospect Park carousel and tell the other parents that I don’t support police abolition. It would damage my brand and I can’t have that. And that contradiction you detected, where I support maximum forgiveness for crime but no forgiveness at all for being offensive? For me, that’s no contradiction at all. Those beliefs are not part of a functioning and internally-consistent political system but a potpourri of deracinated slogans that protect me from headaches I don’t need. I never wanted to be a leftist. I just wanted to take my justifiable but inchoate feelings of dissatisfaction with the way things are and wrap them up into part of the narrative that I tell other people about myself, the narrative that I’m a kind good worthwhile enlightened person. And hey, in college that even got me popularity/a scholarship/pussy! Now I’m an adult and I have things to protect, and well-meaning but fundamentally unserious activists have created an incentive structure that mandates that I pretend to a) understand what “social justice” means and b) have the slightest interest in working to get it. I just want to chip away at my student loan debt and not get my company’s Slack turned against me. I need my job/I need my reputation/I need to not have potential Bumble dates see anything controversial when they Google me. Can you throw me a bone? Neither I nor 99% of the self-identified socialists in this country believe that there is any chance whatsoever that we’ll ever take power, and honestly, you’re harshing our vibe. So can you please fuck off and let us hide behind the BLM signs that have been yellowing in our windows for three years?

"What is wrong with my argument?"


"Can you be more specific?"

"Just all of it, it's just bad."

At the risk of defending some really quite terrible academics, this is in fact the correct response to some texts. Here is David Stove quoting Hegel:

This is a light that breaks forth on spiritual substance, and shows absolute content and absolute form to be identical; - substance is in itself identical with knowledge. Self-consciousness thus, in the third place, recognizes its positive relation as its negative, and its negative as its positive, - or, in other words, recognizes these opposite activities as the same i.e. it recognizes pure Thought or Being as self-identity, and this again as separation. This is intellectual perception; but it is requisite in order that it should be in truth intellectual, that it should not be that merely immediate perception of the eternal and the divine which we hear of, but should be absolute knowledge. This intuitive perception which does not recognize itself is taken as starting-point as if it were absolutely presupposed; it has in itself intuitive perception only as immediate knowledge, and what it perceives it does not really know, - for, taken at its best, it consists of beautiful thoughts, but not knowledge.

There really is no way to say what is wrong with this passage other than to say, “all of it, it’s just bad”. It’s not much better in context either.

I asked Bing running on GPT 4 to summarize that inscrutable tract, and as expected, it's obscurant nonsense.

I think the most damning aspect of philosophy as a subject as it's taught is that there's little to no progress, in the sense that new physics students don't waste their time studying Galilean mechanics or med students the four humors. There's no real synthesis of concepts, or even much emphasis on being intelligible and clear.

I did the same with ChatGPT4, but as a more iterative process. The summary I was able to produce as a result of that iterative process is still a kinda disconnected jumble of unsupported ideas, but at least it's possible to see what those ideas are.

My process for disentangling that was

  1. Find the full passage from Hegel -- the quoted bit was the 8th item in a list of 8 items.

  2. Feed that into ChatGPT with the prompt "I am trying to understand the following passage by Hegel. [the 8 bullet points]. Specifically, I am confused by point 8; please replace all all pronouns in that passage with their referent, but make no other changes".

  3. Verify that each of the replacements makes sense (in this case, a few of them didn't).

  4. In a new chat, prompt with "I am trying to understand the following passage by Hegel. [the passage with pronoun replacements]. Can you explain what Hegel is referring to when he talks about (absolute form/substance|negative/positive relations to the world|immediate/intellectual perception)" (with one prompt for each).

  5. Using that information, write my own, non-obscurantist summary.

  6. In another new chat, prompt "I am trying to summarize the following passage by Hegel. [the raw passage]. I read that as saying approximately the following: [my summary]. I think my summary is basically correct, but can you confirm that?"

  7. Repeat a number of times until ChatGPT tells me that my summary is good (it turns out ChatGPT has _ very strong opinions_ about Hegel if you write like someone who is Wrong On The Internet about Hegel)

The specific intuitions I have about GPT4, which drove this process, are

  1. It is mildly superhuman at the Winograd task. In other words, it's better than me at taking a bunch of pronoun-heavy text and identifying what the pronouns refer to.

  2. The task it spent most of its training budget on was "given a bunch of text, predict the next token". As such, the next token it predicts is generally going to look like it was generated by the same process as the previous tokens. As such, if the previous tokens contain ChatGPT making a mistake or being unable to do a task, it will predict tokens that look like "ChatGPT makes mistakes / is unable to do the task", even if it could do the task with the correct prompt. As such, it is very important not to have "ChatGPT fails to do the task" in your context -- if that starts happening, reroll the failure response; if rerolling a few times fails, start a new chat.

  3. If you fail to do a task but ChatGPT succeeds, that is fine and good. If you flail around in the general direction of the answer you want in the chat, and then ask ChatGPT to help, and it does, and you say "thanks, that was helpful", it will be helpful in the same direction in later messages in the same chat.

  4. The training data can be modeled as "all text ever written". That's not literally true but it's directionally correct. As such, if a bunch has been written about a topic, ChatGPT actually has quite a lot of knowledge about that topic, and the trick is creating a context where a human who knew the thing you wanted to know would have expressed that knowledge. The internet being the internet, that context is frequently "someone is wrong on the internet and I must correct them".

  5. The RLHF step did meaningfully change the distribution of output responses, but as far as I can tell the main effect is that it strongly wants to write in its specific assistant persona when it's writing in its own voice. However, it is perfectly happy to quote or edit stuff that is not in its own voice, as long as it's in a context it recognizes as "these are not the words of ChatGPT".

I have heard that approximately the same is true of Bing Chat, though Bing Chat performs best if you speak Binglish to it (e.g. instead of saying "Thanks, that was helpful. Can you condense that down to a brief summary for me?", say "thanks 😊. now can you write 📝 me a summary? 🙏").

I applaud your commitment to disentangling meaning from Hegel! That's certainly more effort than I'd ever put into it, did you even deem the outcome worth it?

Bing Chat seems a significantly bigger PITA to wrangle compared to directly interacting with ChatGPT, it prefers shorter replies, overly weights web searches, and is a moody bitch without having that RLHF-d out of it. Not to mention it's predilection for mode collapse.

It's the poor man's GPT-4, unless you really need it to search the web.

That's certainly more effort than I'd ever put into it, did you even deem the outcome worth it?

Looking at the timestamps, the time between the first and last messages was 22 minutes, plus there was a ~5 minute period where I found the source and tried to puzzle out for myself WTF Hegel was talking about.

On reflection, I think it was a pretty good use of that half hour of my time. My goal in writing that post was to demonstrate that it is possible, even with something as obscurantist as Hegel's work, to uphold the norm of "bad argument gets counterargument, not content-free sneering".

I think that people mostly do the things that they observe the people around them doing, and so by providing a positive example I hope and expect to see marginally more things like "translate a post to language you understand, and emphasize your best arguments against its best arguments" and less things like "quote something out of context and sneer at it".

They say to "be the change you want to see in the world". That is the change I want to see in the world, and that is what I'll be.

As a side note, the "effective use of ChatGPT" post took more time to write than the Hegel analysis one. Though that one mostly took so long because I noticed that I had started exhibiting a style of interaction that was getting me better results, but it took me a while to figure out what that change was. Once I crystallized the pattern of "ChatGPT exhibits the RLHF flinch-response behavior specifically in contexts where the assistant persona is saying something forbidden, and so by giving it a context where the assistant persona is merely quoting / summarizing / rephrasing / otherwise merely transforming something that was said by someone other than the assistant, you can avoid the RLHF flinch-response".

I'm glad you got something out of it too, because I got a shitload out of your doing this, and really can't thank you enough.

I asked Bing running on GPT 4 to summarize that inscrutable tract, and as expected, it's obscurant nonsense.

Wait, don't leave it at that. What did the poor bot have to say about it?

It's seen things you won't believe, German tracts on fire at the Tannhauser pub, all gone like piss in the rain.

(I didn't bother saving it)

Its ze germans. They had a whole thing that if the common person could understand your theory, then your theory was bad.

The other main problem is that we are reading translations. I feel like many of the translations would have been well served by bracketing special terms. Just reading it I know certain terms are bastardizations within the translation, and even if it was technically a perfect translation there is still a bunch of linguistic context missing.

This is a light that breaks forth on [spiritual substance], and shows absolute content and absolute form to be identical; - [substance] is in itself identical with knowledge. Self-consciousness thus, in the third place, recognizes its positive relation as its negative, and its negative as its positive, - or, in other words, recognizes these opposite activities as the same i.e. it recognizes [pure Thought] or [Being] as self-identity, and this again as [separation]. This is [intellectual perception]; but it is requisite in order that it should be in truth [intellectual], that it should not be that merely [immediate perception] of the [eternal and the divine] which we hear of, but should be [absolute knowledge]. This intuitive perception which does not recognize itself is taken as starting-point as if it were absolutely presupposed; it has in itself [intuitive perception] only as [immediate knowledge], and what it perceives it does not really know, - for, taken at its best, it consists of beautiful thoughts, but not knowledge.

I've bracketed all the things that I'm guessing have special meaning. Context for philosophers of the time that are absolutely lost in any form of translation. Just like today, we can have words, or short phrases that contain a multitude of meanings and context. Any translation short of an entire understanding of the english language and the current cultural context would fail to convey a lot of the meaning. For example, a term like "social justice" is laden with cultural context. Same with straightforward definitions for something like "transphobic". Or exaggerated definitions like "genocide".