The High-Information Jerk

It prevails upon you to forswear censoring others but not yourself. One test of tolerance is provocation. When you sit down to dinner with your disagreeable relations, or comrades who bask in their rectitude and compassion, you have a civic duty to annoy them.”

– Wendy Kaminer, A Civic Duty to Annoy

“Trolling is a art.”


People argue to learn, and people argue to win. You can’t separate the two: when you win, you learn that your views were persuasive. When you lose, you either learn that you’re wrong or learn what counterarguments to address. And either way, arguing combines a personal good (the feeling of being right) with a public good (other people are less wrong, or at least less willing to spread their incorrect views).

This framework gives the arguer a lattice of positive and negative responsibilities. Do cite sources (you can reuse them). Don’t resort to ad hominem (you’ll end up arguing with a different hominem one of these days). Do practice the principle of charity. Don’t be excessively arrogant.

Or, do. Arrogance is tricky. In one sense, it correlates with being wrong—the best way to be confident is to be so mired in confirmation bias that you can’t imagine any reasonable person would disagree with you. But another way to be arrogant is to be highly confident that you’re right.

And if you’re wrong, being an overconfident jerk is a massive public service to the forces of truth! The most glorious comeback in human history that didn’t involve Winston Churchill or Oscar Wilde was almost certainly this exchange. Normally, this would just be a conversation between two people who each think they’re pretty smart. Only thanks to the obnoxious setup can cperciva tactfully establish himself as the overwhelmingly more credible source.

Robin Hanson thinks people should bet on beliefs. It’s a little socially awkward to put money down, but it’s comparatively easy to stake reputation. And within a given social group, reputation is fungible: someone good at outwitting the overconfident gets more reputational capital to bet.

But confidence doesn’t just affect the results of a discussion—it also affects who participates, and why. If people are generally humble and cautious about their views, there isn’t a strong incentive to disagree. After all, they’re just throwing an idea out there. If people are excessively sure of themselves, it’s practically a challenge to anybody who disagrees. (Cf. Cunningham’s Law.)

Taking the outside view, it’s good for people to be embarrassed when they’re wrong. In the same way that, taking the outside view, it’s good for poor capital allocators to have less capital.

Well-calibrated arrogance is a good way to correct your own misconceptions, and a good way to ensure that reputation more closely tracks correctness. And that’s the only way for humanity to collectively clear out obsolete ideas so we can advance our collective understanding of the world.

Being a jerk on the Internet isn’t a character flaw. It’s a public good.

| February 19th, 2015 | Posted in internet culture |

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