Guarding Against the Postmodernist Failure Mode

by AspiringRationalist2 min read8th Jul 2014No comments

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The following two paragraphs got me thinking some rather uncomfortable thoughts about our community's insularity:

We engineers are frequently accused of speaking an alien language, of wrapping what we do in jargon and obscurity in order to preserve the technological priesthood. There is, I think, a grain of truth in this accusation. Defenders frequently counter with arguments about how what we do really is technical and really does require precise language in order to talk about it clearly. There is, I think, a substantial bit of truth in this as well, though it is hard to use these grounds to defend the use of the term "grep" to describe digging through a backpack to find a lost item, as a friend of mine sometimes does. However, I think it's human nature for members of any group to use the ideas they have in common as metaphors for everything else in life, so I'm willing to forgive him.

The really telling factor that neither side of the debate seems to cotton to, however, is this: technical people like me work in a commercial environment. Every day I have to explain what I do to people who are different from me -- marketing people, technical writers, my boss, my investors, my customers -- none of whom belong to my profession or share my technical background or knowledge. As a consequence, I'm constantly forced to describe what I know in terms that other people can at least begin to understand. My success in my job depends to a large degree on my success in so communicating. At the very least, in order to remain employed I have to convince somebody else that what I'm doing is worth having them pay for it.

 - Chip Morningstar, "How to Deconstruct Almost Anything: My Postmodern Adventure"

The LW/MIRI/CFAR memeplex shares some important features with postmodernism, namely the strong tendency to go meta, a large amount of jargon that is often impenetrable to outsiders and the lack of an immediate need to justify itself to them.  This combination takes away the selective pressure that stops most groups from going totally crazy.  As far as I can tell, we have not fallen into this trap, but since people tend to fail to notice when their in-group has gone crazy, this is at best weak evidence that we haven't; furthermore, even assuming that we are in fact perfectly sane now, it will still take effort to maintain that state.

Based on the paragraphs quoted above, having to use our ideas to produce something that outsiders would value, or at least explain them in ways that intelligent outsiders can understand well enough to criticize would create this sort of pressure.  Has anyone here tried to do either of these to a significant degree?  If so, how, and how successfully?

What other approaches can we take to check (and defend) our collective sanity?

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