Joshua Rothman writes about rationality in The New Yorker, and various recent bestsellers written about the concept. He makes reference to the Tyler Cowan/Less Wrong/Effective Altruism circles, surveys the way that different social science disciplines think about it, and explores the value a good rational friend can have on your decision making.

I often feel pulled toward these web communities. I love exploring ideas with people who get excited by ideas, and by people who share my attitude that many things are knowable, and the only reason to give up on curiosity is when you discover exactly what is still unknown. Unfortunately, these communities also frequently have blind spots around race and gender that end up pushing me away, and I was disappointed to not find anything in this article that touched on those issues.

One of the disciplines championed by these intellectual internet communities is spotting cognitive biases and putting our on ideas to the test. They struggle to recognize and respond to this pattern: the more an internet community values rational argument, debate, an “anything goes” intellectual freedom, and an appeal to “honor” to mediate interpersonal conflict, the more its social hierarchy looks like a white supremacist heteropatriarchy.

One could imagine that on the internet, considering its global reach and English’s status as a global lingua franca, if you create a community centered around the value of rational intellectual discourse, you would bring together the members of myriad groups of people that are most interested in that value. Earlier in the history of the internet, when access required computer equipment that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, perhaps you could believe that the demographics skewed white and male because that’s who had access, and diversity would come as more people gained access to the network. That’s not an excuse any more, and it hasn’t been for a couple decades. 

Here’s my two cents: in my time on the internet, I’ve seen many communities fracture when some part of its membership brings a social inequality present in the community to light. There’s a little dance the defenders do, some mixture of these steps. The pushback goes like this:

  • There’s no inequality.
  • All right, here’s the unbiased, pragmatic reason why there’s inequality, it has nothing to do with prejudice.
  • OK, sure we have prejudice but who doesn’t? It doesn’t have anything to do with the core mission of this community.
  • So, it seems like this bias has always been deeply intertwined with the foundational history of this community, but isn’t this all a distraction?.
  • Why are you trying to destroy this community?

Anybody from a group that experiences discrimination is well familiar with this pattern, and if you are a highly educated knowledge worker from such a group you deal with this shit all the time and are not seeking it out for fun. There are spaces on the internet that have done social engineering to disempower the default to white straight male experience. I like the Metafilter comments sections and Learned League, and Andy Baio and the XOXO team developed a lot of good ideas for facing these dynamics head on and being willing to experiment with fundamental assumptions

I’m still looking for that great space, though. For every narrow, well moderated group I come across, there are many others that make room for social reactionaries. If you’ve found a community you like, I’d love to hear about it. 

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