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Downvotes Are Evidence

I also posted this on the Effective Altruism forum.

Downvotes are evidence. They provide information. They can be interpreted, especially when they aren’t accompanied by arguments or reasons.

Downvotes can mean I struck a nerve. They can provide evidence of what a community is especially irrational about.

They could also mean I’m wrong. But with no arguments and no links or cites to arguments, there’s no way for me to change my mind. If I was posting some idea I thought of recently, I could take the downvotes as a sign that I should think it over more. However, if it’s something I’ve done high-effort thinking about for years, and written tens of thousands of words about, then “reconsider” is not a useful action with no further information. I already considered it as best I know how to.

People can react in different ways to downvotes. If your initial reaction is to stop writing about whatever gets downvotes, that is evidence that you care a lot about social climbing and what other people think of you (possibly more than you value truth seeking). On the other hand, one can think “strong reactions can indicate something important” and write more about whatever got downvoted. Downvotes can be a sign that a topic is important to discuss further.

Downvotes can also be evidence that something is an outlier, which can be a good thing.

Downvoting Misquoting Criticism

One of the things that seems to have struck a nerve with some people, and has gotten me the most downvotes, is criticizing misquoting (examples one and two both got to around -10). I believe the broader issue is my belief that “small” or “pedantic” errors are (sometimes) important, and that raising intellectual standards would make a large overall difference to EA’s correctness and therefore effectiveness.

I’ll clarify this belief more in future posts despite the cold reception and my expectation of getting negative rewards for my efforts. I think it’s important. It’s also clarified a lot in prior writing on my websites.

There are practical issues regarding how to deal with “small” errors in a time-efficient way. I have some answers to those issues but I don’t think they’re the main problem. In other words, I don’t think many people want to be able to pay attention to small errors, but are limited by time constraints and don’t know practical time-saving solutions. I don’t think it’s a goal they have that is blocked by practicality. I think people like something about being able to ignore “small” or “pedantic” errors, and practicality then serves as a convenient excuse to help hide the actual motivation.

Why do I think there’s any kind of hidden motivation? It’s not just the disinterest in practical solutions to enable raising intellectual standards (which I’ve seen year after year in other communities as well, btw). Nor is it just the downvotes that are broadly not accompanied by explanations or arguments. It’s primarily the chronic ambiguity about whether people already agree with me and think obviously misquotes are bad on the one hand or disagree with me and think I’m horribly wrong on the other hand. Getting a mix of responses including both ~“obviously you’re right and you got a negative reaction because everyone already knows it and doesn’t need to hear it again” and ~“you’re wrong and horrible” is weird and unusual.

People generally seem unwilling to actually clearly state what their misquoting policies/attitudes are, but nevertheless say plenty of things that indicate clear disagreements with me (when they speak about it at all, which they often don’t but sometimes do). And this allows a bunch of other people to think there already are strong anti-misquoting norms, including people who do not actually personally have such a norm. In my experience, this is widespread and EA seems basically the same as most other places about it.

I’m not including examples of misquotes, or ambiguous defenses of misquotes, because I don’t want to make examples of people. If someone wants to claim they’re right and make public statements they stand behind, fine, I can use them as an example. But if someone merely posts on the forum a bit, I don’t think I should interpret that as opting in to being some kind of public intellectual who takes responsibility for what he says, claims what he says is important, and is happy to be quoted and criticized. (People often don’t want to directly admit that they don’t think what they post is important, while also not wanting to claim it’s important. That’s another example of chronic ambiguity that I think is related to irrationality.) If someone says to me “This would convince me if only you had a few examples” I’ll consider how to deal with that, but I don’t expect that reaction (and if you care that much you can find two good examples by reviewing my EA posting history, and many many examples of representative non-EA misquotes on my websites and forum).

Upvoting Downvoted Posts

There’s a pattern on Reddit, which I’ve also observed on EA, where people upvote stuff that’s a negative points which they don’t think deserves to be negative. They wouldn’t upvote it if it had positive votes. You can tell because the upvoting stops when it gets back to neutral karma (actually slightly less on EA due to strong votes – people tend to stop at 1, not at the e.g. 4 karma an EA post might start with).

In a lot of ways I think this is a good norm. Some people are quite discouraged by downvotes and feel bad about being disliked. The lack of reasons to accompany downvotes makes that worse for some types of people (though others would only feel worse if they were told reasons). And some downvotes are unwarranted and unreasonable so counteracting those is a reasonable activity.

However, there’s a downside to upvoting stuff that’s undeservedly downvoted. It hides evidence. It makes it harder for people to know what kinds of things get how many downvotes. Downvotes can actually be important evidence about the community. Reddit is larger and many subreddits have issues with many new posts tending to get a few downvotes that do not reflect the community and might even come from bots. I’m not aware of EA having this problem. It’s stuff that is downvoted more than normal which provides useful evidence. On EA, a lot of posts get no votes, or just a few upvotes. I believe getting to -10 quickly isn’t normal and is useful evidence of something, rather than something that should just be ignored as meaningless. Also it only happens to a minority of my posts. The majority get upvotes not downvotes.)

Elliot Temple on November 30, 2022


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