Rational Politics Project

Brief Sum­mary: There have been a num­ber of con­cerns ex­pressed in the EA Fo­rum fol­low­ing the re­cent elec­tion about the role of EA in poli­tics, such as about fun­da­men­tal re­search on poli­tics and policy as an EA is­sue, as well as spe­cific con­cerns about Trump’s elec­tion, es­pe­cially in terms of Trump as a Global Catas­trophic Risk (though see this re­but­tal). Re­cently, a num­ber of EAs have joined with a num­ber of peo­ple from out­side the move­ment to form the Ra­tional Poli­tics (RAP) pro­ject, an ex­plic­itly non-par­ti­san effort to gather thought­ful cit­i­zens of all poli­ti­cal stripes de­voted to spread­ing ra­tio­nal think­ing and wise de­ci­sion-mak­ing in the poli­ti­cal arena, We see the lack of these prac­tices as one of the worst prob­lems for our global so­ciety in terms of how im­por­tant, ne­glected, and tractable it is. To ad­dress this fun­da­men­tal is­sue, we aim to use best prac­tices in com­mu­ni­cat­ing and mar­ket­ing to con­vey to the cit­i­zenry the vi­tal role of eval­u­at­ing re­al­ity ac­cu­rately us­ing re­search-based meth­ods to help peo­ple make wise poli­ti­cal de­ci­sions to im­prove our so­ciety.

Note that while this pro­ject is mo­ti­vated by EA con­cerns for do­ing the most good to im­prove the world in a cost-effec­tive way, it is NOT ex­plic­itly an EA pro­ject. We see sig­nifi­cant dan­gers in taint­ing the EA move­ment in po­ten­tially poli­ti­cally bi­ased ac­tivism. It so hap­pens right now that con­ser­va­tives are us­ing lies and de­cep­tions more than liber­als. There is cer­tainly no in­her­ent rea­son why this needs to be so, but it is the cur­rent poli­ti­cal re­al­ity. We thus an­ti­ci­pate that RAP will draw some heat from con­ser­va­tives, and do not want to risk any back­lash on the EA move­ment as a whole. Like­wise, note that the or­ga­ni­za­tion that is mo­bi­liz­ing this pro­ject, In­ten­tional In­sights, has drawn some crit­i­cism in the EA move­ment and has pub­li­cly dis­tanced it­self from the EA move­ment, while still con­tin­u­ing to op­er­ate in­formed by EA con­cerns. For any­one in­ter­ested in the pro­ject, a sum­mary fol­lows. I wel­come any­one in­ter­ested to get in­volved as in­di­vi­d­u­als, re­mem­ber­ing that this is not ex­plic­itly an EA pro­ject.

Brief Description

Why Is the Lack of Ra­tional Think­ing and Wise De­ci­sion-Mak­ing one of the Worst Prob­lems?

  • Im­por­tant:

    • Suc­cess in the poli­ti­cal arena, as in any other area of life, de­pends on one’s abil­ity to eval­u­ate re­al­ity ac­cu­rately and make wise de­ci­sions. This abil­ity is called ra­tio­nal­ity in psy­chol­ogy and be­hav­ioral eco­nomics—the in­te­gra­tion of rea­son with in­tu­itions and feel­ings to make wise de­ci­sions. For poli­tics, this means en­sur­ing that one is poli­ti­cally en­gaged in a way that will im­prove our so­ciety as a whole.

    • 2016 has been a tes­ta­ment to the cur­rent in­abil­ity of many cit­i­zens to as­sess re­al­ity cor­rectly. In­stead of com­bin­ing rea­son with in­tu­ition, many peo­ple rely ex­ces­sively on their gut re­ac­tions to de­ter­mine the truth. They get in­for­ma­tion that they feel good about be­cause it matches their cur­rent be­liefs, re­gard­less of whether it is true. Such in­for­ma­tion of­ten comes from the quickly-grow­ing num­ber of fake news sources. Th­ese cit­i­zens then ra­tio­nal­ize their con­clu­sions when faced with con­trary ev­i­dence, re­gard­less of ob­jec­tive re­al­ity. This over-re­li­ance on feel­ings, in­stead of com­bin­ing the heart with the head, re­sults in think­ing er­rors, which lead to bad poli­ti­cal de­ci­sions that harm our so­ciety. In ad­di­tion, peo­ple of­ten fail to con­sider the effect of their in­di­vi­d­ual poli­ti­cal de­ci­sions on oth­ers. As a re­sult, it is in­creas­ingly easy for charis­matic poli­ti­cal figures to sway the masses away from an ac­cu­rate un­der­stand­ing of what would best serve our so­ciety’s in­ter­ests, and in­stead to­ward the in­ter­ests of these poli­ti­ci­ans.

    • This sep­a­ra­tion be­tween ob­jec­tive re­al­ity and the poli­ti­cal de­ci­sions of the elec­torate is dev­as­tat­ing for democ­racy in the US and around the world, as it re­lies on the cit­i­zenry’s abil­ity to make poli­ti­cal de­ci­sions for the great­est good. This prin­ci­ple has now been un­der­cut at the root: too many cit­i­zens have been ma­nipu­lated into be­liev­ing lies. This re­sults in ex­tremely harm­ful poli­ti­cal out­comes, in terms of the health of the poli­ti­cal sys­tem it­self, the kind of lead­ers we elect, and the kind of poli­cies we pur­sue.

    • Without in­ter­ven­tion, these out­comes will most likely grow worse over time, as fu­ture poli­ti­ci­ans learn from the re­sults of the 2016 elec­tion sea­son and dou­ble down on this strat­egy of lies and ma­nipu­la­tion. This is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of a tragedy of the com­mons, where a com­monly-shared re­source is de­stroyed by in­di­vi­d­u­als act­ing in their own self-in­ter­est and against the col­lec­tive in­ter­est. In this case, the com­monly-shared re­source is trust in our poli­ti­cal sys­tem and a ba­sic ex­pec­ta­tion of truth-tel­ling, to­gether with a strong ex­pec­ta­tion that poli­ti­ci­ans will back away from lies when called out. We have seen this re­source gob­bled up in the 2016 elec­tion sea­son by the Trump cam­paign. This in­valuable, though in­tan­gible, re­source is be­ing fur­ther eaten up by the post-elec­tion lack of truth-tel­ling. Un­less we act force­fully now, we are very prob­a­bly bound for a down­ward spiral, where the win­ners of poli­ti­cal elec­tions will be the most ca­pa­ble liars. This will, in turn, lead to the end of our demo­cratic sys­tem as we know it. The RAP pro­ject was cre­ated to pre­vent this fu­ture from be­com­ing a re­al­ity.

  • Ne­glected:

    • De­spite the like­li­hood of this bleak fu­ture, the need to ac­cu­rately as­sess re­al­ity is mostly treated with in­differ­ence by cur­rent play­ers in the poli­ti­cal arenaeven those who we might ex­pect to be mo­ti­vated to do so, such as liber­als. After all, con­ser­va­tives have re­lied much more (1, 2, 3) on lies dur­ing this elec­tion to mis­lead the pub­lic in­ten­tion­ally, al­though liber­als used some mis­lead­ing tac­tics as well, es­pe­cially in in­tra-party strug­gles. Partly due to their suc­cess in ap­peal­ing to vot­ers with these de­ceit­ful tac­tics, con­ser­va­tives won the elec­tion. Yet sur­pris­ingly, liber­als have gen­er­ally over­looked the op­por­tu­nity to make these lies a ma­jor as­pect of their post-elec­tion eval­u­a­tion. Although in re­cent years liber­als have come to be as­so­ci­ated with sci­ence and rea­son, there is noth­ing in­her­ent in ei­ther con­ser­va­tive or liberal per­spec­tives to make one side fa­vor lies more than the other. Still, given the ma­jor role that de­ceit played in the 2016 elec­tion, with many, though far from all, of those vot­ing for Don­ald Trump hav­ing been mis­led, we would think that the Democrats should pay more at­ten­tion to these lies.

    • Un­for­tu­nately, the Demo­cratic eval­u­a­tion of their loss in this elec­tion fails to ad­dress in any sig­nifi­cant way this is­sue of cam­paign­ing through de­cep­tion. More­over, their plans for their fu­ture cam­paign­ing in­cludes adopt­ing Trump’s own mes­sag­ing and pop­ulist style! By do­ing so, they are be­ing short-sighted and failing to ori­ent them­selves to­ward the long-term needs of Amer­ica and its poli­ti­cal sys­tem. Like­wise, Repub­li­cans are mak­ing short-term gains at the ex­pense of the long-term fu­ture—both in terms of the coun­try and their party.

    • Like clean air and wa­ter, truth is a pub­lic com­mon good: pol­lu­tion of the truth will dev­as­tate all of us in a tragedy of the com­mons. Yet very few are in­di­vi­d­u­ally mo­ti­vated to clean it up. For­tu­nately, some rare and wise peo­ple have the fore­sight to re­al­ize that pro­tect­ing it is in the end a non­par­ti­san is­sue which benefits vir­tu­ally all cit­i­zens in the long run.

  • Tractable:

    • For­tu­nately, once ed­u­cated about this re­al­ity in an effec­tive and emo­tion­ally en­gag­ing man­ner, many can rec­og­nize that wise de­ci­sion-mak­ing by the cit­i­zenry is benefi­cial to all but a few in­ter­est groups de­voted to de­ceiv­ing the pub­lic. This com­mon recog­ni­tion makes the prob­lem of failing to eval­u­ate re­al­ity ac­cu­rately much more amenable to solu­tion than par­ti­san is­sues that only af­fect one side of the poli­ti­cal spec­trum.

    • While some may dis­miss the pos­si­bil­ity of the elec­torate be­com­ing more ra­tio­nal in its poli­ti­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing, the idea that cit­i­zens are in­her­ently ir­ra­tional is a myth. Re­search shows that peo­ple can train them­selves to be more ra­tio­nal—more ac­cu­rately eval­u­at­ing re­al­ity and, thus, mak­ing wise de­ci­sions. How­ever, this can only hap­pen if peo­ple are mo­ti­vated to put the time and effort into do­ing so. It is much eas­ier to get peo­ple to agree that truth in poli­tics is im­por­tant than to get peo­ple to act in ac­cor­dance with their stated agree­ment to this prin­ci­ple when do­ing so takes the cog­ni­tive effort of adopt­ing new habits. Th­ese in­clude sys­tem­at­i­cally fact-check­ing poli­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion, wel­com­ing learn­ing new in­for­ma­tion that goes against their cur­rent per­spec­tive and up­dat­ing their be­liefs, and many oth­ers.

    • Here, we can learn from the suc­cesses of the an­other so­cial move­ment tack­ling a ma­jor tragedy of the com­mons—en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion through hu­man ac­tion. The en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment started with an ini­tially-small group of mo­ti­vated and in­formed ac­tivists pur­su­ing ed­u­ca­tion and later ad­vo­cacy. As a re­sult of their efforts, grow­ing num­bers of reg­u­lar cit­i­zens in­creas­ingly changed their habits through re­cy­cling and com­post­ing, and pushed poli­ti­ci­ans to pass pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal leg­is­la­tion such as pol­lu­tion reg­u­la­tion. We as ac­tivists for ra­tio­nal­ity in poli­tics similarly need to un­der­take ed­u­ca­tional and ad­vo­cacy efforts to mo­ti­vate reg­u­lar cit­i­zens and poli­ti­ci­ans al­ike to ad­dress the pol­lu­tion of truth in the poli­ti­cal arena.

    • The only way this can hap­pen is through a con­certed effort by ded­i­cated ac­tivists to plan out and im­ple­ment a course of ac­tion that will raise aware­ness of and deal with this prob­lem. RAP unites that small group of ad­vo­cates who want to change the world by bring­ing ra­tio­nal think­ing and wise de­ci­sion-mak­ing to poli­tics. In similar­ity to the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment, we en­vi­sion that af­ter we ini­tially raise aware­ness of this tragedy of the com­mons, more and more peo­ple will in­ter­nal­ize the need for the pro­tec­tion of truth in the poli­ti­cal sys­tem. How­ever, we an­ti­ci­pate that we will not face nearly such strong head­winds from fi­nan­cially-mo­ti­vated in­ter­est groups who op­pose the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment, which makes it much eas­ier to build mo­men­tum be­hind ra­tio­nal­ity in poli­tics.

A full de­scrip­tion is available in this doc­u­ment. You can con­tact me at gleb [at] in­ten­tion­al­in­sights [dot] org if you are in­ter­ested in get­ting in­volved.