How to deal with basilisks?

Skeptic: Hi, I noticed that you deleted a user-submitted post from your discussion forum. Since acts of censorship might indicate the suppression of valid criticism, an explanation would be appropriate to alleviate possibly negative allegations.

Eschaton Foundation: The post featured a genuinely dangerous thought. Whoever thinks about the idea in sufficient detail will suffer.

Skeptic: That sounds very unlikely. It seems much more likely that you are trying to either hide an embarrassing idea, or consequence of ideas you are unable to disavow, or that you are planning something that you don’t want to be revealed.

Eschaton Foundation: The amount of suffering associated with the idea in question can easily outweigh the implausibility of my claims.

Skeptic: I understand that the expected value of seeking out the censored information is, according to you, negative. Yet everyone might adopt that strategy to suppress unwanted thoughts. All they have to do is to evoke the possibility of massive amounts of negative value. That reasoning will ultimately make you privilege unlikely high-utility outcomes over much more probable hypotheses, or even theories that are based on empirical evidence.

Eschaton Foundation: Our organization arguably features a lot of bright minds. Others who have thought about the idea agree with us. We assure you that pursuing knowledge of the topic has negative expected value. If this is not enough warning to make you stop wanting to know more, then you deserve what you get.

Skeptic: Even if I was to agree with your assessment, how could I possibly identify the outlines of the idea to not stumble upon it by accident and stop pursuing certain fields of knowledge before it is too late?

Eschaton Foundation: You have to be really clever to come up with a genuinely dangerous thought.

Skeptic: But the idea is out there. A lot of people have read the original post. Incidentally I have read the post myself. What do you suggest how people who already know about it should handle those information and act with respect to its implications?

Eschaton Foundation: The winning move is to just go think about something else. So take my word for it, I know more than you do, no really I do, and SHUT UP.

Skeptic: Your reaction does not speak in favor of your judgement. A quick analysis of the idea seems to suggest that if you were right and it is to be taken seriously then one should take certain actions that are implied by the idea. And if it was inappropriate to act on the idea then further suppression might turn out to give the whole idea even more undeserved legitimacy.

All I can do is to either trust you, a group of strangers, or think about the idea and seek further discussion.

What to do? Since you are unwilling to discuss this topic further the right decision appears to be to discuss the topic openly.

Because,

1.) What is more likely, that humans, even exceptionally smart humans, hold flawed ideas, pursue evil plans, or that a highly speculative hypothesis based on long chains of conjunctive reasoning might actually be true?

2.) Making decisions solely based on unjustified claims of large amounts of expected value, negative or otherwise, seems to lead to absurd consequences and extreme actions.

And besides, it is very hard not think about certain topics upon being told not think of them, as in “don’t think of breathing in”.

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  1. David Gerard’s avatar

    Coincidentally, http://eschaton2012.ca/ is a skeptics’ convention …

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