Rationality quotes: May 2010

post by ata · 2010-05-01T05:48:10.694Z · score: 3 (6 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 301 comments

This is our monthly thread for collecting these little gems and pearls of wisdom, rationality-related quotes you've seen recently, or had stored in your quotesfile for ages, and which might be handy to link to in one of our discussions.

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be voted up/down separately.  (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments.  If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.

301 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by knb · 2010-05-03T03:06:59.827Z · score: 44 (44 votes) · LW · GW

From Thomas Macaulay's 1848 History of England.

[W]e are under a deception similar to that which misleads the traveler in the Arabian desert. Beneath the caravan all is dry and bare; but far in advance, and far in the rear, is the semblance of refreshing waters... A similar illusion seems to haunt nations through every stage of the long progress from poverty and barbarism to the highest degrees of opulence and civilization. But if we resolutely chase the mirage backward, we shall find it recede before us into the regions of fabulous antiquity. It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.

.................................

We too shall in our turn be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that laboring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they are now to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty workingman. And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendor of the rich.

comment by MichaelHoward · 2010-05-01T10:11:56.844Z · score: 32 (36 votes) · LW · GW

The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at and repair.

-- Douglas Adams

comment by MichaelGR · 2010-05-01T17:50:44.001Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

In that same vein:

Rank beliefs not according to their plausibility but by the harm they may cause.

-Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan p.203

It does not matter how frequently something succeeds if failure is too costly to bear.

-Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness

comment by JulianMorrison · 2010-05-04T10:40:43.887Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Fear invasion from Mars!

comment by ata · 2010-05-04T10:45:05.134Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Better: Rank beliefs according to their plausibility multiplied by the harm they may cause.

comment by Larks · 2010-05-06T10:40:45.892Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Unless you're risk averse.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-05-01T15:46:47.567Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I've had 2 Japanese cars. They're reliable; but when something does break, it's often hidden deep inside the engine so you need to have a mechanic pull the engine out and charge you $700 to replace a $10 part.

comment by Nanani · 2010-05-07T04:47:21.599Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is this not true true of most modern cars, not only Japanese ones?

Decades ago, drivers could and did repair engines themselves, but today's cars require more knowledge, training, and tools than the hobbyist is likely to have.

The expense of repair says little about reliability. Mean time to failure would be better.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-05-07T18:24:09.579Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Expected cost per year, including purchase cost, repair cost, and cost of time spent dealing with failures, would be better.

BTW, cars from heavy snow country last somewhere between 2/3 and 1/2 as long as cars down south (no official statistics, just my observation). This is due to just a few days per year when the roads are salted. Do the math, and you'll find it's probably cheaper to take leave without pay and stay home from work on days after it snows - even before taking into account the time saved by not working.

comment by Liron · 2010-05-03T07:48:08.489Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That is inconsistent with what I imagined the well-known fact of "Japanese reliability" to mean.

comment by MichaelHoward · 2010-05-03T11:42:30.259Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Here's some context...

The quote's from Mostly Harmless, the fifth book in the Hitchhikers Trilogy. Buy here, read online here.

"All mechanical or electrical or quantum-mechanical or hydraulic or even wind, steam or piston-driven devices, are now required to have a certain legend emblazoned on them somewhere. It doesn't matter how small the object is, the designers of the object have got to find a way of squeezing the legend in somewhere, because it is their attention which is being drawn to it rather than necessarily that of the user's."

Considering the source, I was surprised and a little disturbed when I noticed this legend didn't seem to be well known in the Singularitarian community.

comment by anonym · 2010-05-02T03:06:51.167Z · score: 22 (22 votes) · LW · GW

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.

-- Bertrand Russell

comment by Oscar_Cunningham · 2010-12-20T16:20:30.796Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

As it turns out, it is perfectly rational to inspect evidence that contradicts your beliefs more closely than evidence that confirms them. If evidence goes against your beliefs it is more likely to be fake evidence. As the saying goes, your strength as a rationalist is your ability to detect fabricated evidence.

EDIT: As Ben Elliot points out in this post this argument really only applies if you happen to be a perfect Bayesian (and you aren't). In real life you're biased toward confirmatory evidence, and so often you really should check it over disconfirmatory evidence. However, it is worth keeping track of which things you're doing to compensate for a human bias, and which things you're doing because they're optimal for Bayesians.

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-12-20T17:32:10.226Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

No. This is an easy mistake to make, but it has bad consequences. Detecting fake evidence is only an instrumental goal, in service to the more important goal of maximizing the accuracy of your beliefs. There is a common trap, where all the evidence you see, on both sides, would fall if you challenged it, but you only challenge the pieces you disagree with; and then you add up the remaining, also-invalid evidence, and conclude that you were right all along. It is theoretically possible to counter this bias directly, by discounting confirmatory evidence that you haven't taken the time to challenge according to a well-calibrated prior probability that it's invalid. However, I don't know if anyone can actually do this in practice, and it seems like it would be very difficult to do without carefully formalizing and writing down everything.

comment by Oscar_Cunningham · 2010-12-20T17:51:20.850Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I was worried by my own conclusion, so I built a mathematical model to check it*:

Suppose that there is an urn with 100 balls. You're 99% sure that there are 99 white balls and 1 black, but there's a 1% chance that there are 99 black balls and 1 white.

You're about to be scored on the probability you assign to the correct state of the urn, using a logarithmic scoring method, but before that happens your friend takes a ball from the urn, looks at it, and puts it back. Your friend then tells you what colour it was.

Your prior that your friend would lie is 10%.

Suppose you are given the chance to check the colour of the ball your friend drew. How much are you willing to pay for this knowledge? Will you pay more or less if your friend said that the ball was black?

By my calculations** the expected utility

if your friend said "white", and you don't check is -0.013581774

if your friend said "white", and you check is -0.0037359

if your friend said "black", and you don't check is -0.391529169

if your friend said "black", and you check is -0.155101993

So your you will pay 0.0098 to check if your friend said "white" but 0.2364 if they said "black".

You try harder to investigate unexpected evidence!

If you're really sure of your conclusion, my maths is probably wrong somewhere. If you think the model itself is inappropriate, please point out how.

EDIT: Of course, if your friend lies 50% of the time, you care just as much about checking confirmatory evidence as disconfirmatory evidence, but then your friend isn't really "offering you a fact".

*And if I wasn't worried, I wouldn't have built a mathematical model!

**Using base 2 logs.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-26T02:55:03.413Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I dig what you've done, but as a mathematician, my instinct would be to do calculations like this with variables instead of made-up numbers... that way you can be sure that your results hold In General.

comment by Oscar_Cunningham · 2010-12-29T17:17:32.815Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, I just couldn't be bothered. If you ignore the complicating factor of having black balls in the white urn and vice-versa (i.e. we look at the problem where the urn is 100% white or 100% black). then the maths is easier, and we can quickly see that this always holds whatever variables we put in.

In fact, it also works for many different scoring algorithms. If our scoring algorithm is f(x) then it the proof works whenever xf(x)+(1-x)f(1-x) is increasing on [0.5,1].As far as I can tell this happens all of the time that f(x) is increasing on [0,1].

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-29T18:01:07.439Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

jimrandomh's point might have been that you don't try at all to investigate expected evidence. So you'd pay 0.2364 to check if they said 'black', but if your friend said 'white' you wouldn't pay to check anything, you'd scoff at the suggestion.

Your result is important, though. Equal checking is wrong, lopsided checking is wrong. Only checking exactly as much as is required by the mathematics is okay.

comment by sark · 2010-12-20T15:19:32.494Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But do keep in mind that that instinct is often strong evidence, especially in Near domains.

comment by Kutta · 2010-05-01T06:36:57.175Z · score: 22 (30 votes) · LW · GW

Forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

comment by ata · 2010-05-01T06:59:48.270Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

A fun quote, but not an especially rational one, I think. Just as I can't stand people who try to recast mysticism in the language of science (Deepak Chopra, etc.), I think we should avoid recasting science in the language of mysticism. Who's going to better understand stars after hearing them compared to Jesus? It won't even increase people's appreciation of science; it'll increase their appreciation of some other unrelated thing that they'll learn to refer to by the word "science".

comment by Kutta · 2010-05-01T09:41:40.331Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I agree. But, as a slight tangent, I think that after we've dealt with basic problems of rationality - that cause much confusion when poetic language is mixed with science - there is still the fact that science has undeniable aesthetic and emotional effects on people familiar with it. Those things are part of the fun, apart from doing science strictly in order to win, which may have gave Eliezer the idea of weirdtopia with secretive science. Also, I think that being artistically refined and poignant about science differs greatly from plain mysticism. The latter is often a vacuous and cheap trick to invoke a warm fuzzy feeling. The real feat would be to be artistic with the purpose of making people feel emotions that fit the facts.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-05-01T07:07:32.666Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

There have been martyrs for conscience, though.

That's a better model than stars, which, not to press a point, are inanimate.

comment by Nominull · 2010-05-01T06:46:48.745Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Stars don't die on purpose though, it's not as impressive.

comment by HumanFlesh · 2010-05-01T08:21:23.981Z · score: 12 (16 votes) · LW · GW

Are you implying that Jesus' crucifixion was an example of suicide via cop?

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2010-05-01T20:01:08.911Z · score: 21 (23 votes) · LW · GW

The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space. It was thus that Plato left the world of the senses, as setting too narrow limits to the understanding, and ventured out beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of the pure understanding. He did not observe that with all his efforts he made no advance—meeting no resistance that might, as it were, serve as a support upon which he could take a stand, to which he could apply his powers, and so set his understanding in motion.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (trans. Norman Kemp Smith), p. A5/B8.

comment by MBlume · 2010-05-14T18:45:07.687Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm, this would be cooler if not for the fact that light does move faster in a vacuum.

comment by Manfred · 2011-09-29T03:54:35.213Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"the light dove." :P

comment by MBlume · 2011-09-29T06:25:55.288Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Oh wow, I completely missed the point. Thanks =)

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2010-05-01T20:51:41.504Z · score: 20 (22 votes) · LW · GW

(In a thread where people were asked whether or not they had a religious experience of "feeling God"):

I had something similar to feeling God, I suppose, except it was in essence the exact opposite. I was in a forest one summer, and I looked up at the sunlight shining through the leaves, and suddenly it felt like I could see each and every individual leaf in the forest and trace the path of each photon that poured through them, and I remember thinking over and over, in stunned amazement, "the world is sufficient. The world is sufficient."

I'd never thought much about religion before that, but that experience made me realize that the material world was entire orders of magnitude more beautiful than any of the tawdry religious fantasies people came up with, and it felt unspeakably tragic that anyone would ever reject this, our most incredible universe, for spiritual pipe-dreams. In a way, you might say I felt the lack of god, and it felt like glory.

-- Axiomatic

comment by steven0461 · 2010-05-10T21:33:13.656Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Is this really different from the mentality that says people permanently dying is a good thing because it's a feature of atheism, which is a good belief system because it's true?

comment by Tiiba · 2010-05-01T23:56:03.597Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I would question that this is a rationality quote. It's a quote about how atheism is better for aesthetic reasons.

comment by wnoise · 2010-05-02T00:20:41.409Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

On the surface, yes.

It's an anecdote that the "numinous" feelings that the religious sometimes cite as evidence of God can equally well be interpreted the opposite way. We can pull out Bayes' Theorem to show that these numinous feelings really don't make belief in God more rational. This isn't a hugely controversial point here, but I think what this says about seizing on how evidence supports one's side without considering the ramifications for the other is worth remembering.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2010-05-02T00:15:08.990Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

True, but I had the feeling that some readers here would like it anyway. (I view this as more of a "quotes LW readers would like" thread than a literal "rationality quotes" thread.)

Also, it does fit into the joy in the merely real ethos, which in turn makes it emotionally easier to accept rationalism and reductionism.

comment by xamdam · 2010-05-02T15:47:45.437Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In spirit of full disclosure, not all religions were possessed by tawdry fantasies. Some embraced the regularity and beauty physical law as a sign of Bog's greatness. Unfortunately this little glitch contributed to me getting stuck thinking that Judaism is actually was rational for 20 years. I stopped thinking too early.

"R. Simeon b. Pazzi said in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi on the authority of Bar Kappara: He who knows how to calculate the cycles and planetary courses, but does not, of him Scripture saith, but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither have they considered the operation of his hands." (Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 75, about 1700 years back)

comment by [deleted] · 2010-05-02T15:57:42.303Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Right, and this is what I was used to as well, though I wasn't familiar with that quote. ("Bog" is handy. I like that.)

As for the "glory" -- yes, I've felt it too. Exactly, exactly the same way. "The world is sufficient." But that sense of joy can't be enough to keep you going, because sometimes the world is horrible, and it is not sufficient, not for me, not as long as I have the capacity to love people and worry for them. Joy is there, but it's not the whole story.

comment by xamdam · 2010-05-02T16:17:44.182Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Got Bog from Heinlein. I nice positive side effect of shedding mental handcuffs is that I restarted my sci-fi reading career, and being out for 20 years left me with a huge green pasture ;)

I also think my own break with religion started with an emotional experience, or perhaps the experience just broke the dam of all the mental incoherence I have piled up under the carpet. I saw pics from Haiti of medical workers piling up children's bodies; I 'knew' then that if god exists he does not give a crap about things I care about; I was never 'religious' enough to think that me and my children are any 'better' than what I saw in front of me. The rest was a trivial exercise in comparison (mostly historical research and some logic).

In general the problem with religion that it's a web of beliefs, and people cannot extricate themselves one strand at a time, the strands simply tend to regrow (though weaker, I think). You need a powerful emotional experience to pull enough threads all at once.

Incidentally, this is a big benefit on the something to protect emphasis here.

comment by simplicio · 2010-05-04T00:41:58.126Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Got Bog from Heinlein.

You probably know this, but Bog is the Russian (similar in other Slavic languages) word for God.

comment by xamdam · 2010-05-04T02:20:26.589Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Funny, of course I know it - Russian was my first language, but somehow I parsed it as being a whimsical made up word; I knew I was out of practice, but not this much!

comment by sketerpot · 2010-05-03T20:10:55.850Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Got Bog from Heinlein. I nice positive side effect of shedding mental handcuffs is that I restarted my sci-fi reading career, and being out for 20 years left me with a huge green pasture ;)

The exact opposite happened to me: I read a bunch of sci fi, and since very few of the authors I read were religious, I was essentially getting an atheistic worldview through books. That conflicted with my religious beliefs, and God lost.

comment by Liron · 2010-05-03T08:01:19.364Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Mr. Axiomatic is fortunate to have exercised Original Sight to arrive at the realization that mere reality is worthy of joy. I was oblivious to this until I started reading all the popular atheists saying how reality is great, and then when Eliezer handled it in a series with the utmost clarity and depth.

comment by mwengler · 2010-05-10T21:26:15.590Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Its a shame the idea that "god" is a person with a personality has competed-out other ways of thinking of god. Is there a deep mystery that our own consciousness even exists? Are we connected in that mystery with the billions of other consciousnesses around us? In ignorance of what even consciousness is, are we sure it inheres in our bodies and not somewhere else?

If god is the label for consciousness beyond your own consciousness, AND you admit the probability that god is not an angry-father-like personality that wants to help some people, hurt other people, and COULD fix everything if he wanted to, the world gets a lot more interesting.

In my opinion, the experience described in this quote is a classic mystical experience. That it leads you away from the god-as-angry-father picture of god is likely true of every other mystic, especially the famous ones.

comment by ata · 2010-05-10T21:41:10.566Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Its a shame the idea that "god" is a person with a personality has competed-out other ways of thinking of god. Is there a deep mystery that our own consciousness even exists? Are we connected in that mystery with the billions of other consciousnesses around us? In ignorance of what even consciousness is, are we sure it inheres in our bodies and not somewhere else?

Read the Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions sequence and the Twelve Virtues (especially that of Curiosity). We can't be "connected in that mystery" because the feeling of mysteriousness is a type of ignorance, and ignorance of some phenomenon is a fact about our minds, not about the phenomenon. When something seems mysterious to us, the proper thing to do is to think about how to solve it, not to worship our ignorance.

If god is the label for consciousness beyond your own consciousness, AND you admit the probability that god is not an angry-father-like personality that wants to help some people, hurt other people, and COULD fix everything if he wanted to, the world gets a lot more interesting.

If God means all that, then you've just changed the definition so much that there's no point in calling it "God" anymore. To make sure you're not just sneaking in connotations, try describing whatever it is you're calling "God" but giving it a different label — say, "spruckel". "Spruckel is the consciousness beyond your own consciousness". Does that feel different to you than "God is the consciousness beyond your own consciousness"? If so, you need to consider what the word "God" is doing in your mind when you hear it, and specifically notice that it's something the word is doing rather than anything about what you claim to be defining it as. If not, then... well, then you won't mind henceforth using the word "spruckel" for this thing you're describing instead.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-05-10T22:09:16.175Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Spruckel" is my new go-to nonsense word. It sounds like it should be a three-inch-tall woodland creature of some kind.

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2010-05-11T03:48:44.195Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

According to Richard Verstigan's Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (1605), the ancient Saxons called the month of February "Sprout-kele":

by kele meaning kele-wort, which we now call the colewort, the greatest pot-wort in time long past that our ancestors used, and the broth made therewith was thereof called kele. It was the first herb that in this month began to yield out wholesome sprouts. During 600 years that Rome was without physicians, the people used to plant great store of these worts. February is yet in the Netherlands called Spruckel.

comment by Rain · 2010-05-01T14:22:03.143Z · score: 18 (20 votes) · LW · GW

We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life's meaning.

-- Carl Sagan

comment by Rain · 2010-05-01T14:21:41.874Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

I've always believed that the mind is the best weapon.

-- John Rambo, Rambo: First Blood Part II

comment by [deleted] · 2010-05-02T02:42:14.071Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Rambo

Hell yeah.

comment by sketerpot · 2010-05-03T19:52:24.352Z · score: 16 (16 votes) · LW · GW

"I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to misattribute it to Voltaire."

-Voltaire

(The phrase was written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall as a summary of Voltaire's attitude toward free speech. Since then, people started attributing it to Voltaire himself, and the myth has spread far and wide, as nobody really checks to see if he actually said that. Hearing something somewhere is plenty of evidence for most people, most of the time, and the conviction gets more solid over time. Which brings me to my second rationality quote, from Winston Churchill: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.")

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-03T20:57:28.897Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

An older version: A lie is halfway round the world before the truth can get its boots on.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-03T23:27:13.959Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I looked up the book "Gems from Spurgeon" cited in that link. Here's the whole book.

comment by simplicio · 2010-05-19T04:28:23.402Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There is an excellent Terry Pratchett book, "The Truth," which features that phrase as a major plot point.

comment by utilitymonster · 2010-05-08T16:18:43.327Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey..., without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

--Samuel Johnson

comment by pricetheoryeconomist · 2010-05-09T16:44:30.172Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Is Samuel Johnson's quote a valid or true statement? I understand your central thrust--the inability to do something personally (such as control one's sexual urges) and the disposition to encourage others to overcome that inability are not necessarily contradictory--indeed, they may fall together naturally.

However, in Samuel Johnson's world, and the world in which this "issue" comes up the most, politics, we might imagine that there exist two types of people: sociopathic individuals hungry for power, and individuals who are sincere.

If sociopathic individuals hungry for power are more often hypocrites, then we might, as an efficient rule of thumb (not being able to distinguish the two save through their observable actions!) condemn hypocrites because they are likely to be power-hungry individuals.

As a bayesian update, in the world of politics, we expect that hypocrites are more likely to be power hungry or sociopathic. I see Samuel Johnson's quote as potentially true, but ignoring a world of imperfect information and signaling.

comment by utilitymonster · 2010-05-10T12:47:51.080Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough. Maybe it is typically reasonable to charge people with hypocrisy when they neglect to follow their professed ethical codes.

I still like the quote, even if it is hyperbolic. It is useful to be reminded that there are important cases where failure to live up to one's professed code does not warrant this kind of criticism. Being overly concerned with hypocrisy can make you be unconcerned with living up to a meaningful ethical code. This is especially important in the context of consequentialist morality. This is just a hunch, but I think there are a fair number of intelligent people who shy away from a demanding code for fear of being charged with hypocrisy. But there need be no genuine hypocrisy, at least in any deeply regrettable sense, in professing a demanding ethical code and failing to live up to it. Better to try to live up to a demanding code and fail than meet the demands of an uninspiring and mundane one. (In this kind of case, of course, you aren't just professing the code to curry political favor.)

comment by thomblake · 2010-05-10T13:59:53.895Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey..., without having courage or industry to undertake it

This seems at odds with our notion of subjective probability, where we assume that significant lingering doubt after confidently assigning a 99%+ probability is evidence that your calibration is poor, and your estimate should have been lower.

Does the man really believe the voyage is, all things considered, a good one?

comment by utilitymonster · 2010-05-11T00:37:23.913Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you say

This seems at odds with our notion of subjective probability, where we assume that significant lingering doubt after confidently assigning a 99%+ probability is evidence that your calibration is poor, and your estimate should have been lower.

The most confusing part about this is the part about poor calibration.

As for the rest, I don't deny that the fact that the man is unwilling to undertake the voyage is evidence that he doesn't think it is worthwhile, at least in ordinary contexts. But I think there is little to recommend the view that acting against your best reflective judgment is impossible or even extremely rare.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-02T11:02:28.149Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Discussion of how not to get lost in the woods

Arg, this post is bringing back memories of all kinds of backcountry stupidity (including a fair amount of my own stupidity), so I can't resist adding a comment about GPS devices. Any navigation tool -- GPS device, map, compass, sextant, whatever -- only works if you are using the navigation tool to relate yourself to the surrounding landscape. And you should never trust maps, GPS devices, compasses, or any tool if it contradicts what you're seeing in the surrounding landscape. I own a top-notch brand of GPS device, I got a top-quality map to go inside it, and when I checked the map against a landscape I knew well, I found error after error (which is true with all maps, by the way; one of the reasons I like paper maps is that I can make notations on it when I find errors).

comment by RobinZ · 2010-05-02T17:59:39.744Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Only slightly less interesting in the same comment:

I used to hike a fair amount in the White Mountains in northern New England, and I made a point of reading the accident reports in Appalachia, the annual mountaineering journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club (see www.outdoors.org/publications/appalachia/index.cfm). Every fatality of the year is presented as a case study, and analyzed in terms of what went wrong. Reading those accident reports helped me to learn that people die in the mountains at all times of the year. Knowing how to get out of the woods before hypothermia sets in could in fact save one's life. Appalachia is a great learning tool.

This matter of case studies is intensely valuable.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-05-01T13:21:51.732Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Edit: DUPLICATE

"Then the one called Raltariki is really a demon?" asked Tak.

"Yes—and no," said Yama. "If by 'demon' you mean a malefic, supernatural creature, possessed of great powers, life span, and the ability to temporarily assume virtually any shape—then the answer is no. This is the generally accepted definition, but it is untrue in one respect."

"Oh? And what may that be?"

"It is not a supernatural creature."

"But it is all those other things?"

"Yes."

"Then I fail to see what difference it makes whether it be supernatural or not—so long as it is malefic, possesses great powers and life span and has the ability to change its shape at will."

"Ah, but it makes a great deal of difference, you see. It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy—it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either."

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light. (h/t zhurnaly)

comment by JamesPfeiffer · 2010-05-02T20:40:55.436Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

http://lesswrong.com/lw/mx/rationality_quotes_3/

comment by RobinZ · 2010-05-02T20:49:19.061Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, this is ironic.

comment by JamesPfeiffer · 2010-05-02T21:06:36.486Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Most of yours wouldn't come up in a search though.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-05-02T21:16:35.401Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Which raises the question of what is an acceptable failure rate.

comment by anonym · 2010-05-02T03:09:37.412Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable.

-- John Stuart Mill

comment by anonym · 2010-05-02T03:08:13.983Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch.

-- Alfred North Whitehead

comment by MichaelGR · 2010-05-01T17:48:07.936Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW · GW

By definition, all but the last doomsday prediction is false. Yet it does not follow, as many seem to think, that all doomsday predictions must be false; what follow is only that all such predictions but one are false.

-Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response, p. 13

comment by Gavin · 2010-05-02T04:00:15.993Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Most "doomsday predictions" do not actually predict the total annihilation of the human race.

It might be postulated that we don't have records of most correct doomsday predictions because the predictor and anyone listening met with doom.

comment by billswift · 2010-05-01T19:25:30.539Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

He is assuming that there will be a doomsday - also known as begging the question (http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/skeptic/arguments.html#begging). It is also quite possible that no doomsday predictions are true. This is one of my gripes with existential risk theories, all I have read depend on the assumption that eventually there will be an end.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2010-05-01T20:21:41.550Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

He is assuming that there will be a doomsday - also known as begging the question

No, I don't think so. He is making a claim about what implications follow from a certain fact. That fact is the definition of "a doomsday prediction". All that follows from that definition is that all but one will be false. Of course, even that last one (so to speak) might be false, but, even if this is so, it doesn't follow from the definition.

This is not a case of begging the question. It is just being clear about what implies what.

comment by Rain · 2010-05-01T23:27:27.895Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Couldn't all the doomsday predictions be true if they put an accurate percentage probability at the end?

comment by Rain · 2010-05-01T14:22:14.320Z · score: 11 (17 votes) · LW · GW

As a species we're fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?

-- Ollie, The Mist, 2007

comment by billswift · 2010-05-01T18:59:23.991Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately the classic essay "Understanding Neurotypicality" is gone, the owner's web pages removed. But there are similar pages still available, for instance, this from Greg Egan

I said, if autism is a lack of understanding of others... and healing the lesion would grant you that lost understanding -"

Rourke broken in, "But how much is understanding, and how much is a delusion of understanding? Is intimacy a form of knowledge - or is it just a comforting false belief? Evolution is not interested in whether we grasp the truth, except in the most pragmatic sense. And their can be equally pragmatic falsehoods. If the brain needs to grant us exaggerated sense of our capacity for knowing each other - to make pair-bonding compatible with self-awareness - it will lie, shamelessly, as mush as it has to, in order to make the strategy succeed."

In http://wlug.org.nz/GregEganOnNeurotypicalSyndrome

And more indexed here: http://www.neurodiversity.com/neurotypical.html

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-02T09:45:23.996Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately the classic essay "Understanding Neurotypicality" is gone, the owner's web pages removed.

Copy here.

comment by grendelkhan · 2014-02-04T23:29:01.965Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Bitrot marches on; a copy at The Wayback Machine should be more durable.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-05-06T15:02:24.143Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"If the brain needs ... to make pair-bonding compatible with self-awareness - it will lie, shamelessly, as mush as it has to, in order to make the strategy succeed."

Neat typo: it preserves the meaning of the passage. If you don't see how, read it as "If the brain needs you to feel romantic love, it will lie -- as mush, it has to -- in order to succeed."

comment by Blueberry · 2010-05-01T15:48:22.177Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I love this one. I don't really understand why it got downvoted, yet bizarre mystical religious quotes from nutcases in the Ouspensky/Gurdjieff tradition got upvoted...

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-01T17:31:28.211Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I have many questions.

Would you have balked at the idea that we are all, metaphorically, in prison and must seek above all else to escape, if I had quoted a known rationalist?

Do you rate any differently the idea that the task is to understand things so completely that the single right course of action is unmistakable, now that Yvain has quoted Eliezer to that same effect?

Do you think the context of a horror story confers a better aura of rationality on Rain's quote?

Why do you love the idea that we are all insane homicidal maniacs, and dislike the idea that there is a way to follow, whether we like it or not, and that the fundamental question in life is whether one makes the only possible choice, or turns away from it? Is your response entangled with whether these things are true or false?

When Eliezer appears to you in a clown suit, will you laugh and turn away?

comment by Rain · 2010-05-01T19:03:17.939Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

When Eliezer appears to you in a clown suit, will you laugh and turn away?

Taken in the context of a general probe attack, this attempt at humor seems out of place.

Probe attack... yes, that's one reason I find quite a few of the questioning responses here agitating or frustrating. Just like a port scan, they have all the patterns of an attack, are used to discover weaknesses and flaws, and can be generally invasive and exhaustingly thorough, even though they're part of the standard toolkit and even more often used for troubleshooting. Enlightenment++

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-01T19:30:49.357Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I take your point about a "probe attack" and now I find what I wrote unsatisfactory. I'll try again:

Blueberry loves the idea that we're all insane homicidal maniacs, and doesn't like the other ideas, apparently on the grounds that the latter appear in a religious context. This looks like a classic example of judging the truth by the clothes it appears in.

comment by Rain · 2010-05-01T20:59:29.511Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe I should have posted it like this:

As a species we're fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?

comment by djcb · 2010-05-01T13:56:11.089Z · score: 11 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain comes joy, delights, laughter, and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear and know what are foul and what are fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet, and what are unsavory. ... And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us. ... All these things we endure from the brain. ...In these ways I am of the opinion that the brain exercises the greatest power in the man.

-- Hippocrates, On the sacred disease (ca. 4th century BCE).

[ In this and other of his writings, Hippocrates shows such an incredible early sense for rationality and against superstition that was only rarely seen in the next 2000 after that -- and in addition, he was not just a armchair philosopher, he actually put these things is practice. So, hats off for Hippocrates, even when his medicine was not without faults of course...]

comment by toto · 2010-05-01T17:03:04.006Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know, to me he's just stating that the brain is the seat of sensation and reasoning.

Aristotle thought it was the heart. Both had arguments for their respective positions. Aristotle studied animals a lot and over-interpreted the evidence he had accumulated: to the naked eye the brain appears bloodless and unconnected to the organs; it is also insensitive, and can sustain some non-fatal damage; the heart, by contrast, reacts to emotions, is obviously connected to the entire body (through the circulatory system), and any damage to it leads to immediate death.

Also, in embryos the brain is typically formed much later than the heart. This is important if, like Aristotle, you spent too much time thinking about "the soul" (that mysterious folk concept which was at the same time the source of life and of sensation) and thus believed that the source of "life" was also necessarily the source of sensation, since both were functions of "the soul".

Hippocrates studied people more than animals, did not theorize too much about "the soul", and got it right. But it would be a bit harsh to cast that as a triumph of rationality against superstition.

comment by thomblake · 2010-05-03T00:38:58.536Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

it can't be ineffable if you're effing it.

-Vorpal

comment by Nic_Smith · 2010-05-03T03:26:41.482Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A rationality quote from Space Battles? Really?

(I regard many posts in Non-sci-fi as examples of politics as a mind killer. Edit: I'm pretty sure even most of the denizens there wouldn't claim it's really about debate, at any rate. But... the quote is Actually pretty funny)

comment by ShardPhoenix · 2010-05-03T06:03:07.972Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I used to post a fair bit on Space Battles years and years ago as a teenager, but in retrospect the vast majority of debates there (both the Star Trek vs. Star Wars type stuff and the political stuff) were about trying to "win" the argument high-school-debate style, rather than trying come to a reasonable conclusion or discover something new. It was fun until I realized that everyone was just arguing around in circles though :).

ps Star Trek > Star Wars 4 lyfe

comment by neq1 · 2010-05-01T11:29:24.836Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

"History is like the weather. Themes do repeat themselves, but never in the same way. And analogies became rhetorical flourishes and sad ex post facto justifications rather than explanations. In the end, they explain nothing."

-Errol Morris

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-05-01T15:43:57.034Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This sounds like a claim that rationality is hopeless.

comment by neq1 · 2010-05-01T16:59:19.510Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Here is what he said prior to making the statement I quoted (to give you some context):

Take historical analogies. I believe that historical analogies are always wrong. This a long discussion, but, to me, the most dangerous thing about Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler at Munich is not the fact that Munich happened and it led to further Nazi aggression and so on and so forth, but that the example of Munich has been used to support thousands upon thousands of bad policies and inappropriate decisions. LeMay called JFK’s recommendation for a “quarantine” (that is, a blockade) in the Cuban Missile Crisis “worse than Munich”. Would nuclear war have been a better alternative? But nuclear war was averted by Kennedy’s policies. And thirty years later the Soviet Union collapsed without the need for nuclear war. Was LeMay right? I don’t think so. But again, the example of Munich was invoked to justify the invasion of Iraq. Appeasing Saddam, appeasing Hitler. The use of the Munich analogy does not clarify, it obscures.

comment by Jack · 2010-05-01T20:29:25.360Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Munich is notorious in this respect. But this instance does not prove the rule.

Edit: In fact, it's pretty clear that if there are lessons from history we shouldn't assume we know them until after we see the pattern. And one event does not make a pattern. Appeasement has worked really well in lots of times and places.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-05-02T03:07:22.288Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There's a sample bias - People are likely to try appeasement when they are powerless, which makes appeasement unlikely to work.

comment by Jack · 2010-05-02T03:40:23.369Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It's also the kind of thing that gets forgotten when it works but remembered forever when it fails. See Appeasement in international politics.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-05-01T16:19:11.817Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The quote dismisses argument by analogy, not rationality. Weather forecasts are not made by metaphor.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-01T16:07:00.159Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe just a claim that rationality about history is hopeless.

comment by gwern · 2010-05-01T17:17:00.790Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"It must be recognized that the real truths of history are hard to discover.
Happily, for the most part, they are rather matters of curiosity than of real importance."

--Napoleon Bonaparte

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2010-05-01T20:09:28.056Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Or maybe just so hard that you should not expect that you have achieved it, even if your story about why something had to happen seems really compelling.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-05-01T11:25:47.684Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.

Aldous Huxley

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-05-02T22:05:03.193Z · score: 8 (16 votes) · LW · GW

If scientists do believe that they are ethically bound to improve the lot of ordinary people, or at least to decrease violence and increase possibilities for the pursuit of happiness, as I do, then perhaps the greatest challenge — and one that has been wholly overlooked here — is "how do we as scientists advance reason in an inherently unreasonable world?" This is a very difficult issue and one that cannot be seriously addressed by simply trying to muscle science and reason into everyday or momentous human affairs. I am privy to hostage negotiations, and be assured that simply telling hostage takers their beliefs are bullshit will get you the opposite of what you want, like the hostage's head delivered on a platter. Of course, that's an extreme case; but reason by backward induction towards the less extreme cases in the actual political and social conditions of our present world and you will find that the tactics proposed at the conference for an unlikely strategic shift in humankind's thinking will most probably blowback and backfire. And I almost thank God that even the best of our scientists are not prominent political negotiators or policymakers.

-- Scott Atran

comment by Furcas · 2010-05-03T05:13:41.425Z · score: 2 (14 votes) · LW · GW

I am privy to hostage negotiations, and be assured that simply telling hostage takers their beliefs are bullshit will get you the opposite of what you want, like the hostage's head delivered on a platter. Of course, that's an extreme case;

That's not an 'extreme' case, it's a misleading one. What kind of idiot tries to make a point about the means used to achieve the goal of "Advancing reason" by pointing out that the same means won't work for rescuing a hostage?

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2010-05-03T05:32:05.492Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You have not made the case that the point is idiotic. Are you under the impression that the idiocy is self-evident to this audience?

comment by Furcas · 2010-05-03T16:24:56.437Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Um, yes. That action A is bad for goal X isn't evidence that it's bad for goal Y, unless Y is very similar to X. "Saving the hostage" and "Advancing reason" aren't similar goals.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2010-05-03T17:42:58.895Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Leaving aside your claim that Atran's analogy is idiotic, the evidence seems to point away from your claim that this idiocy is self-evident to this audience. The Atran quote stands at 7 votes, while your comment stands at –2 votes.

That isn't proof, of course. Upvoting doesn't necessarily imply agreement, though the upvoters—and I am one—probably consider the quote to be at least non-idiotic. And your comment's downvotes (none of which are mine) may be due more to its strong language than to disagreement. But still, isn't this strong evidence that the quote's idiocy is not self-evident to the rest of this audience?

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2010-05-28T18:38:57.731Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That quote is valued for more than its objectively shoddy analogy. Its larger point is plausible and potentially useful. However, I'd like to see some experimental evidence that shows how well mocking+shaming people with dumb beliefs works; polite persuasion is definitely pretty ineffective.

Also, on average, more people read and vote on a parent comment than its reply. Without seeing the number of total (approximate) views and downvotes, you can't be sure what people think of it.

Furcas is right: the only way in which the hostage-takers are an extreme case is: suppose they have especially irrational beliefs, and that your goal is to make them more rational with high-rudeness persuasion/shaming; then they are more likely to become extremely angry (decapitating a hostage) than to be persuaded. If that's what Atran intended, he communicated it unclearly. Likely, it's just illogical emotional rhetoric.

It's definitely obvious upon weighing that the "extreme case" analogy is flawed; still, Furcas could have saved the world (but not himself) time by laying out the case before being challenged.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2010-05-28T19:42:25.353Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

However, I'd like to see some experimental evidence that shows how well mocking+shaming people with dumb beliefs works; polite persuasion is definitely pretty ineffective.

I agree that such experimental evidence would be valuable. My guess is that the effectiveness is determined primarily by the respective statuses of the mocker and the mockee within the mockee's own tribe. If the mockee doesn't consider the mocker to be sufficiently high-status in that tribe, then the mockee will elect to gain status within the tribe by counter-mocking the mocker.

The problem with mocking religious extremists is that we are low-status in their tribes. To get our mocking to work, we need to gain status in their tribes first. By starting off with the mocking, we are just giving the extremists opportunities to gain status, and lessen our own, by mocking us.

It's useful to remember that mocking is a very cheap signal. Pretty much anyone with a certain minimum of free time and verbal wit can do it. Even successful mocking (that is, mockery that increases your status and decreases the mockee's within your tribe) doesn't correlate strongly with being right in most tribes. This is especially the case in the tribes where religious extremism has a lot of purchase.

comment by anonym · 2010-05-02T03:05:01.536Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Science is not ’organized common sense'; at its most exciting, it reformulates our view of the world by imposing powerful theories against the ancient, anthropocentric prejudices that we call intuition.

-- Stephen J. Gould

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-01T08:10:26.480Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

"This is the first test of a gentleman: his respect for those who can be of no possible value to him."

-- William Lyon Phelps

comment by AndyWood · 2010-05-01T16:16:59.361Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This seems impossible. If you respect those who "can be of no possible value" to you, and this causes others to hold you in higher regard, and if the esteem of others confers any value to you, then those you respected were valuable to you in that way.

comment by Gavin · 2010-05-02T04:13:19.689Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It might be more accurately rephrased as "can confer no interpersonal advantage on him."

Or perhaps ". . . no possible worth to him other than the satisfaction of having upheld his values."

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-05-01T15:48:15.324Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Therefore, gentlemen are irrational. QED.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-05-01T16:04:33.271Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Only if niceness, or the welfare of others, or any of the many possible reasons to value people you don't find personally useful, are irrational terminal values.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-05-02T03:03:32.539Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Yes - but the original quote said "of no possible value", not "of no possible use". :)

comment by Rain · 2010-05-01T16:13:20.225Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I thought values were arational?

comment by Alicorn · 2010-05-01T16:35:46.590Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Exactly.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-01T08:08:39.922Z · score: 8 (14 votes) · LW · GW

"If a man could understand all the horror of the lives of ordinary people who are turning around in a circle of insignificant interests and insignificant aims, if he could understand what they are losing, he would understand that there can be only one thing that is serious for him---to escape from the general law, to be free. What can be serious for a man in prison who is condemned to death? Only one thing: How to save himself, how to escape: nothing else is serious."

P.D. Ouspensky, "In Search of the Miraculous", ch.17

comment by Thomas · 2010-05-01T06:10:52.986Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Science must have originated in the feeling that something was wrong.

-Thomas Carlyle

comment by djcb · 2010-05-02T11:31:46.649Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's a nice quote, but I would rather think that science originated from the fact that people noticed correlations between things, and then some exceptionally bright people noticed increasingly non-obvious correlations, say in medicine or planetary positions.

I can see the 'something is wrong' part in more recent science, i.e., people experimenting, wondering 'hmm, that's funny,.. not what I expected'. Many scientist might discard such findings, but sometimes some lucky soul found something that is both 'wrong' and not an error of measurement, and discover something new.

comment by knb · 2010-05-02T18:40:37.911Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Do you know what text that quote is from? I just started reading the Latter-Day Pamphlets.

comment by Seth_Goldin · 2010-05-04T02:15:40.416Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Albert Einstein

This relates well to my earlier frustration about the cop-out of vaguely appealing to life experience in an argument, without actually explaining anything.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-05-04T02:23:08.042Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

Right on. I'm thinking about writing an "explain yourself" series that shows how you can overcome the supposed barriers to explaining your position if there's actual substance to it to begin with.

ETA: 5 upvotes so far -- sounds like a vote of confidence for such an article.
ETA2: Message heard loud and clear! I'm working on an article for submission, which may expand into a series.

comment by matt · 2010-05-05T09:10:44.176Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Does the length of his sequences imply that Eliezer doesn't understand their subject matter, or that the universe is sometimes actually complicated?

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-05-05T10:09:09.075Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe this detracts from my previous agreement with the quote, but there's a difference between explaining in person, vs. explaining in writing for a general audience. With the former, you can get immediate feedback as to which parts you're not explaining well and appropriately redirect your focus, while in the latter you have to cover all the possible confusions.

This phenomenon was revealed most starkly in one of the articles in the quantum physics sequences, when I replied to the article by saying,

So, decoherence is a valid scientific theory because it makes the same, correct predictions as the one involving collapse, but is simpler.

There, that didn't take 2800 words, now, did it?

And Eliezer Yudkowsky said in response:

Silas: I've tried just saying that to people, it doesn't work. Doesn't work in academic physics either. Besides which, it may not be the last time the question comes up, and there's no reason why physicists shouldn't know the (epistemic) math.

The fact that something can be explained simply doesn't deny the problem of inferential distance, in my view; it just means that each step is simple, not that there won't be many steps depending on how much of the listener's knowledge you can build on.

comment by ata · 2010-05-05T09:52:47.128Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW
  1. "Simply" doesn't necessarily mean "concisely" (outside of mathematical formalizations of Occam's Razor). Conciseness is preferable when possible, but being too terse can start impacting comprehensibility. (Think of three programs that all do the same thing: a 1000-line C program, a 100-line Python program, and a 20-line Perl program. The length decreases with each one, but readability probably peaks with the Python program.)

  2. The quote says "If you can't explain it simply", not "If you don't explain it simply". In this case, even if we do switch to "concisely" I think it checks out. Indeed, most of the major points Eliezer makes in the sequences could be stated much more briefly, but I get the sense that his goal in writing them is more than just transmitting his conclusions and his reasoning. No, it seems he's writing with the goal of making his points not just intellectually comprehensible but obvious, intuitive, and second-nature. (Of course any intuition-pumpery, analogies, and anecdotes are used to complement good reasoning, not to replace it.) But I have little doubt that, if he really wanted to, he could he boil them down to their essential points, at the potential cost of much of the richness of his style of explanation.

(In any case, I'm not convinced that this quote is specific enough to serve as a usable norm. How simple? How much is "well enough"? Everyone will automatically assign their own preferred values to those variables, but then you're just putting words in Einstein's mouth, or rather, putting meanings in his words; you're taking whatever rule you already follow and projecting it onto him. Fittingly, this is a case where a longer explanation would have been simpler (i.e. more understandable).)

Edit: I think I remember Eliezer once writing something like "Generally, half of all the words I write are superfluous. Unfortunately, each reader finds that it's a different half." That seems relevant as well. (Anyone remember the source of that?)

comment by DanielVarga · 2010-05-05T09:44:21.611Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The latter. On the other hand, the sequences could greatly benefit from some ruthless editing.

EDIT: 5 minutes after I wrote this comment, I googled a part of it, because I was not sure about my English. (I'm Hungarian.) This comment was already indexed by google.

comment by ata · 2010-05-05T10:02:17.752Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This comment was already indexed by google.

I've noticed that things on LW get indexed by Google really quickly. Wonder why that is. Maybe because LW uses a Google Custom Search, Google pays especially close attention to changes on it?

comment by kpreid · 2010-05-05T12:52:57.064Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think Google pays close attention to anything with a feed (maybe "Anything Google Reader users have subscribed to", since they're necessarily processing the data anyway?). Whenever I post to my own blog, not particularly notable in an absolute sense, the post shows up nearly instantly in Google Alerts.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-05-06T12:22:18.632Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, especially as soon as one person has added the feed to Google Reader, the bot stops by a few times a day. I imagine, the more often updates occur, and the more people are waiting for the feed on Google Reader, the more often the bot will stop for a coffee here.

comment by DanielVarga · 2010-05-05T10:49:14.344Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think it is a combination of the Digg engine's Recent Posts feature directly interfaced by Google, and LW's high page rank.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-07T10:07:15.850Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Simplicity and concision are independent. I don't find Eliezer's sequences complicated. They are long, but simple all the way through.

Simplicity and grandmother-explainability are also not the same thing. I'd reject the grandmother quote, but this one I don't have a problem with, even if Einstein never said it.

Something I tell students when I'm teaching programming is "What is not clearly said was never clearly thought."

comment by ata · 2010-05-07T05:48:36.175Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

By the way, Eliezer has already explicitly rejected a similar quote attributed to Einstein.

They're both of dubious authenticity anyway. (I searched around for this version too, and the earliest mention of it I could find was in a 1977 Reader's Digest, and that's only according to a citation in a 2006 book.) That has nothing to do with whether it's true, of course — if a vague maxim like this can count as a rationality quote at all, then that is independent of whether or not Einstein said it.

comment by ValH · 2010-05-04T17:19:50.892Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This is something I actually struggle with a lot. I read something that strikes me as profound, and that I agree with, but as soon as I try to explain it it's all gone, and I'm left with bits and pieces that don't make much sense to anyone else.

I'm not sure if this is a failure on my part to understand, simplify an idea, or explain it.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-05-04T17:46:05.162Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

It means that you had a deep understanding for a few seconds, and then lost it. Or that you got trapped in the same confusion as the author, absorbed what made it seem appealing, and then "corrected away" the confusion.

To determine which one happened, try the following:

  • reading it again
  • rephrasing it in your own words as many different ways as you can
  • seeing how the thesis connects to other topics, and if that connection can be independently verified

Eventually, you should be able to either gain the understanding, or recognize where the error is.

comment by Seth_Goldin · 2010-05-04T20:37:44.319Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is an excellent diagnosis, and those are excellent suggestions for really learning the material.

comment by Seth_Goldin · 2010-05-04T20:36:36.571Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Excellent!

comment by nhamann · 2010-05-07T05:14:21.502Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Whenever I'm reading things that I want to actually learn and retain, I read with pencil and notebook and write down all the important points in my own words. I've found this to be helpful because it forces me to slow down and think about what I'm reading and how each new piece of information relates to everything that came before it. I've also found that having pencil and paper close at hand encourages picture drawing, which is often helpful when learning something (though it depends on what you're reading).

comment by Theist · 2010-05-04T18:33:15.454Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I had a similar problem when I read Feynman's QED. His explanation felt so simple and easy to understand when I read it, but when I tried to explain it to someone else I couldn't make it make sense.

comment by Thomas · 2010-05-01T16:26:54.931Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Q: How much does the smoke weight?

A: Subtract from the weight of the wood that was burned the weight of the ashes that remain, and you will have the weight of the smoke.

--Immanuel Kant

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-05-01T20:49:11.952Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

He left out the weight of the air...

comment by Thomas · 2010-05-01T22:58:03.650Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I agree, of course. But don't be too harsh on Immanuel Kant, who had no knowledge of modern chemistry but was able to understand, that Aristotle was essentially wrong in his views about "natural places of light things up on the sky and heavy things down here on Earth".

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-05-05T17:56:35.299Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

People understood that Aristotle's understanding of natural place didn't work long before Kant. As early as the 1300s, Oresme laid out problems with this view. The work of Galileo and others made it clear that it didn't make sense. Newton removed any remaining doubts about this. And Newton died about when Kant was born. That Kant knew that Aristotle was wrong is no credit to Kant.

As to the chemistry matter, I'm not completely sure but I think that idea also was around before Kant. Robert Boyle wrote The Skeptical Chemist about 70 years before Kant was born and he touches on the idea of conservation of mass. Hooke also died before Kant was born and did work involving mass loss in chemical reactions. I don't think this can be substantially credited to Kant either.

comment by Thomas · 2010-05-05T18:28:48.901Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Kant "quoted a philosopher" in his book. An unnamed philosopher, who answers the described way.

Kant promoted the idea of his predecessors and contemporaries against the still popular views of Aristotle, in his time.

Even today, you can hear a lot of "five elements" and "the fifth element" and so forth. An Aristotelian myth, very much alive even today.

comment by thomblake · 2010-05-05T19:03:30.611Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Even today, you can hear a lot of "five elements" and "the fifth element" and so forth. An Aristotelian myth, very much alive even today.

What?

Is this another non-US thing? I never hear talk of the "four elements" except in mocking of how foolish the ancients must have been to think that (for instance) wood contains fire. And it was hardly an Aristotelian original.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-15T14:55:49.477Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I recall being taught them (as in, the teacher said "these are the 4 elements: earth, fire, wind, and water" and had us each make a full page drawing to plaster on the wall; no mention that it was an antiquated Greek model or anything) in kindergarten and/or elementary school in Peru. Aether was also mentioned as the 5th element, but it was handwaved as being too advanced for us or something. Frankly, I don't think they had any idea what the hell they were talking about; somebody just told them that those were the elements and they passed it on.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-12-19T03:50:22.222Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That is one of the most deeply fascinating and frightening anecdotes I have ever heard on LW.

comment by HonoreDB · 2010-12-19T09:33:21.611Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I had a science teacher in about 5th grade who told us that

The difference between inorganic and organic matter is that inorganic matter is made of atoms while organic matter is made out of cells.

She was surprised and skeptical when I told her that cells were made of atoms.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-12-19T09:06:04.179Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Not quite as extreme, but I had a science teacher (iirc, in junior high (that's 7th through 9th grade) who said very firmly that the sun is not a star, the sun is the sun.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-22T21:42:54.685Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Could you please elaborate on why you regard it as such? I can think of a couple of things to take away from it that would be frightening (that people will repeat "earth, fire, wind, and water" as easily as they will "carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and fluoride", for instance), but I feel like I must be missing something because I wasn't expecting that kind of response.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-12-23T21:45:37.292Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Part of it is that. But it also that someone could be so divorced from modern science that it wouldn't occur to them that earth varies in nature. Or that they hadn't heard that water is hydrogen and oxygen. Or if they have heard that, they didn't try to reconcile it at all with the claim about water being elemental. The notion that there are people out there who are that uncritical not for any motivated reason (as some religious individuals are) but out of simply humdrum everyday lack of thinking. And that such people would then go on to teach other people?

I guess I shouldn't have found this as disturbing as I did. But I generally have a low opinion of humans, and it seems like no matter how cynical or pessimistic I am, I'm sill surprised by their behavior.

comment by Jack · 2010-05-05T20:05:11.579Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The four elements is still really popular in new-agey circles. I believe my element is "air" and it has something to do with my birthday or astrological sign. The four element thing is really central to Wiccan practice, or it least it was in middle school when I learned this stuff (doing spells and shit was at that time very popular among 14-year-old girls and I was a 14-year-old boy).

I had never heard of quintessence until I studied Aristotle, though.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-05T20:18:57.734Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm a somewhat casual Neo-pagan-- I enjoy the rituals.

As far as I can tell, the four elements are viewed as a convenient source of symbolism, but not believed in literally.

I don't know about Wiccans, but Neo-paganism is a community of practice, not belief. Neo-pagans cover the range from atheism to literal belief.

comment by Jack · 2010-05-05T20:25:47.637Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I shouldn't speak for actual Wiccans, my experience was mostly love spells and giggling. I did sit in a circle once and "call" the air element after which people did the same for fire, earth and water. Then someone stole some of my hair to make me fall in love with them and we all smoked cinnamon sticks.

comment by arundelo · 2010-05-05T20:49:08.693Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Another example: I don't know if Eric Raymond would self-describe as atheist, but he is a neopagan with, as far as I can tell, a naturalistic worldview.

Edit -- a key quote:

One great virtue of this dual explanation is that it removes the need for what William James, in his remarkable "The Varieties of Religious Experience", called the "objective correlative". By identifying the Gods with shared features of our psychological and inter-subjective experience, but being willing to dance with them on their own terms in the ritual circle, we can explain religious experience in respectful and non-reductive ways without making any anti-rational commitments about history or cosmology. Scientific method cannot ultimately be reconciled with religious faith, but it can get along with experiential mysticism just fine.

comment by arundelo · 2010-05-05T20:48:15.206Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Doreen Valiente talks about the four elements and Spirit as a fifth element in An ABC of Witchcraft (1973); see for example the "Pentagram" entry. (I was into Wicca when I was a 14-year-old boy too!)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-05T20:27:15.458Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In what sense did the Wiccans believe in the four (or five) elements?

comment by Jack · 2010-05-05T20:49:38.731Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Wikipedia is more trustworthy than I am (they same the same about it being more about ritual than belief). I don't remember anything about the 5th element but wikipedia says that is there too. What we did was apparently "casting the circle" and I sat on the east side (or facing the east, I can't remember) and read something about wind and slyphs. I recall thinking that being born with air as my element should imply that I had more control over the air/wind, but that's probably the 14-year-old version.

comment by thomblake · 2010-05-05T20:19:51.041Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry, I was automatically not counting the Wiccans as 'serious' which is probably unfair.

comment by Thomas · 2010-05-05T19:18:14.941Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And it was hardly an Aristotelian original.

Really?

comment by thomblake · 2010-05-05T19:19:41.002Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ah. I didn't realize you were speaking of Aether specifically.

comment by Jack · 2010-05-05T20:54:06.626Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Also, the kids are pretty into Avatar: The Last Airbender.

(Though I realize you were talking about serious belief)

comment by Thomas · 2010-05-05T19:13:34.449Z · score: -5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Is this another non-US thing?

I wouldn't say so. America (as Europe and Asia) is full of this shit. See this!

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-05-05T19:22:20.683Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Is that functional evidence of anything at all? Most of those refer to the title of a campy but fun movie. No one takes that idea at all seriously. Scientists certainly didn't take this idea at all seriously by even the early 1700s (Becher's work was in the 1660s and 1670s). Between Becher and Boyle, this was well-settled by the time Kant came around. (Point of fact as early as 1620 or so people realized that Copernican system wreaked havoc with the 5 element model although many tried to replace it with a four element model.)

The only times today I ever see this myth are in things like Dungeons and Dragons, or occasionally when dealing with extreme New Age nonsense.

Edit: Also compare for example this search to yours which makes it clear that when one is looking for the fifth element meaning aether there are very few hits and most are either deliberate historical references or websites explaining the history.

comment by thomblake · 2010-05-05T19:20:21.965Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Those are all related to the sci-fi movie. I thought your claim was that people were taking it seriously.

ETA: And the 'fifth element' in that movie is certainly not Aether.

comment by sketerpot · 2010-05-03T20:24:16.084Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's a reasonable hypothesis that Kant came up with, but until he's tested it -- or at least thought of a way to test it -- he should have been more tentative about it.

comment by benelliott · 2010-12-15T09:54:17.049Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Really? Why is the fact that you've thought of a way to test something a reason to be more confident of it?

I agree that if he had actually tested it that would have been reason for more confidence, but intention to experiment is not Bayesian evidence.

comment by JamesPfeiffer · 2010-05-03T20:41:15.986Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm. What do we mean by weight? Mass * g?

comment by Jack · 2010-05-01T23:04:57.382Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Huh?

Edit: Never mind. Googled.

comment by Rain · 2010-05-01T14:22:28.384Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Dedication, absolute dedication, is what keeps one ahead -- a sort of indomitable, obsessive dedication and the realization that there is no end or limit to this because life is simply an ever-growing process, an ever-renewing process.

-- Bruce Lee

comment by lukstafi · 2010-05-01T17:39:59.524Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This statement is only partly true: under narrow view, an irrational position. It seems to steer people into irrationality. But people already are irrational. It says "let every your action follow from your asserted values. Let every moment be such an action."

comment by Rain · 2010-05-01T17:42:46.130Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

So long as one of your values is to improve your value function, you should be okay.

comment by Kazuo_Thow · 2010-05-02T06:47:05.287Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

[...] but we have no guarantee at all that our formal system contains the full empirical or quasi-empirical stuff in which we are really interested and with which we dealt in the informal theory. There is no formal criterion as to the correctness of formalization.

-- Imre Lakatos, "What Does a Mathematical Proof Prove?"

ETA: When I first read this remark, I couldn't decide whether it was terrifying, or just a very abstract specification of a deep technical problem. I currently think it's both of those things.

comment by gwern · 2010-05-02T16:21:50.512Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

'102. One can't proceed from the informal to the formal by formal means.'

--Alan Perlis, Epigrams in Programming

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-05-02T20:48:14.813Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Cox's theorem seems to reduce the gap between the formal and the informal, by deriving probability theory from axioms that seem easier to informally assess.

comment by gwern · 2010-05-03T13:41:56.978Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, and that is to me one of the main attractions of Bayesianism; but nevertheless, there is still a jump there between our informal considerations and formal means, and that ineradicable jump is what Perlis is talking about.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-05-04T13:58:57.708Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Link appears to be broken.

comment by Kazuo_Thow · 2010-05-04T16:47:19.033Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Fixed, thanks.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2010-05-02T00:56:48.173Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Skeptic, n. One who doubts what he does not want to believe and believes what he does not want to doubt.

-L. A. Rollins, Lucifer's Lexicon

comment by [deleted] · 2010-05-02T01:04:52.196Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was disappointed to find that Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary didn't have such a term. I had thought it would be a similar definition, and an ironically close name, though searching again showed me that the Lexicon is based on the Dictionary.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2010-05-03T05:01:43.448Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

That what you were thinking of?

comment by [deleted] · 2010-05-03T13:38:48.304Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I was looking for skeptic specifically, but that's a close second.

comment by mwengler · 2010-05-10T21:29:05.037Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Vote this up! What could be more rational than to be skeptical about skepticism?

comment by steven0461 · 2010-05-10T21:32:11.393Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Being skeptical about skepticism about skepticism?

comment by Thomas · 2010-05-01T16:42:23.084Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking.

--Voltaire

comment by Sticky · 2010-05-07T04:49:03.489Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Someone just threw you off the Golden Gate Bridge.

There's one problem thinking won't much help with.

But then again, to make that point I had to reach for a problem nothing could be done about.

comment by simplicio · 2010-05-07T04:52:25.760Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Alas, rigorous truth is the constant enemy of the aphorism.

comment by Thomas · 2010-05-07T05:36:21.605Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The thinking how to fall to get a minimal possible damage is still a potential way out.

At least, the thinking increases your odds to survive in any situation you are thrown into.

How many people died needlessly of chocking, when they could invent the auto Heimlich - but they failed to do so?

comment by Sticky · 2010-05-07T05:48:41.696Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, unless I've remembered it wrong, only two or three people have ever survived that fall. If I'm wrong, substitute a plane. Or a personal unprotected atmospheric re-entry.

Sometime there really are problems that can't be helped.

comment by Thomas · 2010-05-07T06:00:47.412Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Falling toward a black hole would do. No way out, except in the form of Hawking radiation, much later in your death.

But don't give up even then! Schwartzshild coud be wrong. Think hard in any circumstances!!

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-07T10:27:54.561Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are problems which happen so quickly that you can't do sustained thinking while you're in the middle of them, but sustained thinking might help install good reflexes for the general case.

For example, I fell safely on ice for the first time this past winter. I'm reasonably sure that the Five Tibetans (a sort of cross between yoga and calesthenics) strengthened the muscles around my knees and possibly had other good effects such that I didn't twist my knee.

comment by soreff · 2010-05-01T15:08:52.838Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

We live in an age of uncertainty, complexity, and paranoia. Uncertainty because, for the past few centuries, there has simply been far too much knowledge out there for any one human being to get their brains around; we are all ignorant, if you dig far enough. Complexity multiplies because our areas of ignorance and our blind spots intersect in unpredictable ways - the most benign projects have unforseen side effects. And paranoia is the emergent spawn of those side effects; the world is not as it seems, and indeed we may never be able to comprehend the world-as-it-is, without the comforting filter lenses of our preconceptions and our mass media.

-- Charles Stross (Afterword: Inside the Fear Factory)

comment by gwern · 2010-05-01T17:14:46.134Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

"Society is composed of persons who cannot design, build, repair, or even operate most of the devices upon which their lives depend...
In the complexity of this world people are confronted with extraordinary events and functions that are literally unintelligible to them.
They are unable to give an adequate explanation of man-made phenomena in their immediate experience.
They are unable to form a coherent, rational picture of the whole. Under the circumstances, all persons do, and indeed must, accept a great number of things on faith...
Their way of understanding is basically religious, rather than scientific; only a small portion of one’s everyday experience in the technological society can be made scientific...
The plight of members of the technological society can be compared to that of a newborn child. Much of the data that enters its sense does not form coherent wholes. There are many things the child cannot understand or, after it has learned to speak, cannot successfully explain to anyone...
Citizens of the modern age in this respect are less fortunate than children. They never escape a fundamental bewilderment in the face of the complex world that their senses report. They are not able to organize all or even very much of this into sensible wholes...."

--Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-Of-Control (1989), Langdon Winner

comment by billswift · 2010-05-01T19:12:50.075Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Quoting myself, but since this is a reply maybe I can get away with it. I left this as a comment several months ago about a danger in the current recession that most commentators seem to miss:

You can see the same kinds of problems with people being unable to do basic home repair, like fixing a faucet or a porch railing. I remember in the late 1970s there were a lot of people doing their own remodeling and stuff, partially because of the sucky economy at the time.

If the economy doesn't really start to improve, we could be looking at a situation worse than the Great Depression, even if none of the financial indicators get as bad, simply because people are much more dependent on buying services through the economy and less able to do for themselves than any previous "hard times".

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-05-01T20:48:35.654Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

At least we have the Internet, so we are better able to find directions on how to do something we've never done by ourselves before.

comment by billswift · 2010-05-02T04:48:28.782Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The Internet sucks for learning. See my short post http://williambswift.blogspot.com/2009/04/web-is-still-not-adequate-for-serious.html . Plus what you need for actually doing things are skills which you cannot pick up by reading, even with decent sources.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-05-02T07:14:12.311Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Two comments:

1) Magic: the Gathering strategy was developed and refined almost entirely through the Internet. If you want to be a competitive Magic player, you need the Internet.

2) If you need narrow advice - "how to fix a broken faucet" is pretty narrow - than the Internet works pretty well. If you want to learn to be a plumber, yeah, the Internet kinda sucks, but if you have relatively limited needs, it works.

comment by gwern · 2010-05-01T20:10:44.948Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, it's an interesting topic. I find interesting the general phenomenon that economic development seems to make economies ever more fragile and liable to collapse; http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/ is the best source I know of for this kind of thinking.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2010-05-01T21:51:04.478Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/04/the-collapse-of-complex-business-models/ discusses some of this.

In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

comment by taw · 2010-05-04T09:29:07.699Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This is not at all accurate description of what happened to Romans, and I find it rather dubious that he knew enough about Mayas or Chaco inhabitants to make such claims as opposed to pulling it out of his ass.

comment by Bo102010 · 2010-05-02T00:16:29.823Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure if economic development actually makes economies more fragile and prone to collapse - if a very undeveloped economy collapses, do we not notice it because we label it something else, e.g. famine or civil unrest?

comment by gwern · 2010-05-02T00:24:04.025Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The theory goes that less developed economies almost by definition have wasteful redundancies and lack of hyper-specialization.

As we've seen with the Green Revolution and the last few centuries, the freeholding small farmer is highly inefficient - they produce far less food with far more human input than our farming system. But! The small farmers are highly resilient: if a bomb takes out one Afghani village, the others are unaffected. On the other hand, if a bomb takes out a country's only refinery or port, all its farms are soon going to grind to a halt because they're mechanized and need gas.

So it's a trade-off: efficiency versus resiliency/redundancy. Market economies seem to be biased towards efficiency and against redundancy - efficiency pays off now, resiliency much later if ever. (If I really wanted to be trendy, here's where I'd bring up black swans.)

comment by taw · 2010-05-04T09:34:04.540Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Modern systems are highly resilient and redundant in places where this is likely to pay off. Look at the power system. Look at the Internet. They are capable of working in spite of big localized failures.

comment by gwern · 2010-05-04T12:46:36.958Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The Internet is sometimes capable of working. It can go down and has; the Morris worm wasn't even malicious (according to Morris). Designs for 'Warhol worms' which do the same thing in just a few minutes have been floating around since the mid-nineties - it's just that botnets are more profitable. And even inadvertent mistakes can cripple lots of functionality.

"It has been proved that the scale-free network is robust to random failures but vulnerable to malicious attacks."

In the real world, malicious attacks are just as valid a source of failure as randomness. (It doesn't matter why the patient dies if he dies.)

comment by taw · 2010-05-04T14:06:10.831Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Neither Morris worm nor any other worms caused long term damage to the Internet.

comment by gwern · 2010-05-04T15:03:24.831Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Neither societal collapse nor any other economic failure caused long term damage to the Humanity.

comment by taw · 2010-05-04T15:26:33.822Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This is also true, but Internet worms have particularly little effect of any kind, even for definition of "long term" being a "month or more".

comment by billswift · 2010-05-02T04:42:59.067Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, I think modern economies have more redundancy and are less prone to a catastrophic collapse than more primitive ones. My point was that people seem to have become lazier, especially intellectually, over the last few decades, which could cost them dearly in a prolonged economic contraction.

comment by gwern · 2010-05-02T13:08:26.356Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, I think modern economies have more redundancy and are less prone to a catastrophic collapse than more primitive ones

More redundancy? I don't see that at all.

Where's the redundancy in your water supply? 'Bottled water at my local Walmart' doesn't count. Where's the redundancy in your shelter? You don't know how to build one, even if you had the saws and whatnot to make use of the trees in your yard (assuming you have a yard with trees in it and aren't - like millions - an apartment dweller). There's no redundancy in your food supply; even rural dwellers might no longer have some chickens in the yard which could be eaten, or a solid vegetable garden. And so on.

And 'lazier' is a cop-out. If modern economies lead to mental laziness, and that reduces resiliency/redundancy, modern economies reduce resiliency-redundancy! The exact mechanism doesn't matter - the ultimate result does. 'The operation was a success; unfortunately, the patient died.'

comment by mattnewport · 2010-05-02T18:21:08.440Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

More redundancy? I don't see that at all.

They have more redundancy at least to the extent that they operate with a greater surplus of wealth above subsistence. The greater interconnectedness and surplus wealth of modern economies also allows for resources to be quickly re-allocated across large geographical distances in response to a localized disaster.

In primitive economies the majority of the population are often living very close to a subsistence level and are able to accumulate little in the way of savings or capital to fall back on in hard times. In wealthier modern economies a disruption may cause dramatic swings in relative wealth but starting from a much higher level means there is a considerable cushion before facing a life threatening situation.

How do you propose to measure redundancy? One possible way to attempt to quantify redundancy might be to look at how modern vs. primitive economies cope with natural disasters. Modern economies usually see greater damage in dollar terms than primitive economies but much less loss of life as a percentage of the affected population. The lower casualty rates can be attributed to a number of properties of modern economies that derive from their greater wealth and interconnectedness. This includes things like higher quality, more robust buildings; greater stocks of non-perishable food, clean water and medicine; better trained, funded and equipped emergency services; quicker and better resourced rescue efforts from outside the worst affected area; a population that is not starting out in a state of malnourishment or ill health and greater individual resources enabling many to get out of the worst affected area.

Another possible test of redundancy would be to look at how modern economies cope with large scale warfare. Both Japan and Germany were more advanced pre-WWII than many poor countries today. Both countries lost a major military conflict which involved extensive destruction of infrastructure and massive civilian and military casualties. Both countries recovered over time and there are few if any examples of countries which started out with less modern economies, suffered comparable levels of damage due to warfare and demonstrated greater resiliency by recovering faster.

So in what sense are primitive economies more resilient than modern economies? You might argue that they suffer less dramatic swings in wealth in response to disruption than wealthier modern economies but in a disaster situation I would suggest the really important thing is not the magnitude of the change in wealth but whether it takes you 'below zero' and leads to individual deaths or total societal collapse. On this measure the historical record suggests to me that modern economies are more robust than primitive ones.

Another possible meaning might be that while no individual primitive economy is more robust than a modern one they are less interconnected and so failure in one does not cause a cascade to others. This sounds plausible in theory but I don't see strong historical evidence in this direction.

Finally I suppose you may be claiming that modern economies are more vulnerable to some black swan event beyond anything that appears in the historical record. This is obviously a hard theory to test. My feeling however is that a disaster of unprecedented type or scale would not be qualitatively different to previous disasters. You might see greater swings in 'dollar damage' or even relative wealth but the modern economies would still do better in absolute terms before and after such an event than primitive economies.

comment by gwern · 2010-05-02T19:41:03.421Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

They have more redundancy at least to the extent that they operate with a greater surplus of wealth above subsistence.

This is obvious; but it seems like little of the surplus is devoted to distributing infrastructure and resources or defending against rare contingencies like a highly specialized and interdependent society must. Let's say that America is per capita $20,000 higher than subsistence thanks to specialization and interdependence; what fraction of that goes to the previous listed needs? FEMA, for example, is a few billion a year or ~17$ per capita; even adding in all the other disaster-preparedness services such as the strategic petroleum reserves, does it compensate enough?

How do you propose to measure redundancy?

I don't. That's far above my pay-grade. It's an interesting area of thinking and like most interesting areas, doesn't have all the answers rigorously worked out - any more than SIAI has all the details of AI worked out, and much of which thinking relies on us finding certain propositions plausible.

Both Japan and Germany were more advanced pre-WWII than many poor countries today. Both countries lost a major military conflict which involved extensive destruction of infrastructure and massive civilian and military casualties. Both countries recovered over time and there are few if any examples of countries which started out with less modern economies, suffered comparable levels of damage due to warfare and demonstrated greater resiliency by recovering faster.

Rare examples of nation-building gone right. How's Haiti working out? Or Argentina? Both used to be among the richest countries in the world. I've heard Iran was depressed for centuries after the Mongols destroyed their extremely elaborate agricultural systems. Primitive places like Afghanistan just keep on trucking.

And then there are examples of highly advanced economies sabotaging themselves. The Mayans come to mind, as does the 'Fertile Crescent' - thanks to salinization caused by millennia of agriculture, not so fertile any more!

Another possible meaning might be that while no individual primitive economy is more robust than a modern one they are less interconnected and so failure in one does not cause a cascade to others. This sounds plausible in theory but I don't see strong historical evidence in this direction.

The Great Depression. The Asian currency crisis. Recent events.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-05-02T22:19:32.314Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

FEMA, for example, is a few billion a year or ~17$ per capita; even adding in all the other disaster-preparedness services such as the strategic petroleum reserves, does it compensate enough?

I think we need to clarify a lot of our underlying assumptions and terminology if we are to bridge the yawning epistemic gap that appears to lie between us. Let me try and clarify my interpretation of some of the terms we are using and see if we are on the same page.

You originally said: "I find interesting the general phenomenon that economic development seems to make economies ever more fragile and liable to collapse". There's at least three terms we could be disagreeing on here: economic development, fragile and collapse. By economic development I understood 'a trend towards greater complexity, interdependence and specialization'. By fragile I understood 'easily broken or destroyed' rather than merely volatile or erratic. By collapse I understood 'cease to function due to a sudden breakdown' rather than merely impaired function. I dispute the strong interpretation of this sentence implied by the definitions I give here but do not necessarily dispute a weaker interpretation.

The other area that needs clarification is covered by your question 'does it compensate enough?'. I certainly think that economic development will tend to make societies better off in absolute terms under essentially all disaster situations that we have a historical precedent for. If you measured volatility of wealth by some measures you might find modern economies more volatile but in the context of concern for 'collapse' or existential risk it is not volatility in itself that is dangerous but the potential for going 'below zero' - being wiped out in investment terms. If you are at subsistent level a 10% drop in wealth (in the broadest sense) could be fatal. In a modern economy losing 50% of your wealth is painful but completely survivable for most people. In other words it is possible for modern economies to be both more volatile from some perspectives and less prone to collapse because of the much greater buffer provided by the extra wealth they create.

How do you propose to measure redundancy?

I don't. That's far above my pay-grade.

I feel that if you are going to make the claim and wish to defend it then it is incumbent upon you to at least attempt to propose some measure by which the truth of your claim might be judged. Otherwise you are merely engaging in wordplay and not rationality.

Rare examples of nation-building gone right. How's Haiti working out? Or Argentina? Both used to be among the richest countries in the world.

Haiti's problems are deep rooted. It has nothing that can be described as a modern economy and that is part of its problem. Argentina is a very different case. It has had a history of economic mismanagement and financial crises but it is in a completely different league to Haiti (10x GDP per capita and vastly better off by any measure of economic or social development). Argentina is actually something of a success story in Latin America at the moment after its troubles at the turn of the century and Buenos Aires is considered a 'hot' destination.

But we could get into a long and involved discussion of history and debate interpretations and how they support or contradict your theory. I'd rather hold off on that until we can establish the exact nature of any disagreement we have.

The Great Depression. The Asian currency crisis. Recent events.

I consider these support for my view in that all were examples of great volatility but not of anything approximating collapse. They in no way canceled out the benefits of the periods of economic growth that preceded them (and followed in the first two cases).

I actually think people tend to underestimate the frequency and severity of crises of various kinds but overestimate the long term impact. I am much more pessimistic than average about the current economic situation (see my New Year's predictions here for example) but much more optimistic about how things will ultimately turn out than most people would be if they expected the same level of disruption.

comment by gwern · 2010-05-03T13:46:48.959Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I feel that if you are going to make the claim and wish to defend it then it is incumbent upon you to at least attempt to propose some measure by which the truth of your claim might be judged. Otherwise you are merely engaging in wordplay and not rationality.

All I was doing was raising an interesting theory and linking to those who do defend it.

I feel as if I had mentioned that the sky looked kind of blue today and wasn't that kind of interesting, and the person standing next to me immediately said, 'oh, blue - physiologically or by wave-length? Are you taking into account Rayleigh scattering? For that matter, is it blue by absorption or reflection? Let's see your numbers, chap, I think you may be having me on.'

You ask some interesting questions, but I see now that any reply is just going to lead to an in-depth argument/discussion which I am not equipped for and don't really feel like having now. If you want to argue about, I've already pointed to a relevant forum.

EDIT: To the downvoters: consider what you're saying by downvoting - 'I disapprove of someone explicitly withdrawing from a conversation, and would rather that one side simply never reply and leave the other person hanging.' Is that really what you would prefer?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-02T18:57:32.437Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is bad government a sort of disaster which should be considered in this discussion?

West Germany bounced back a lot more than East Germany.

More primitive societies don't have centralized government, so they don't have the risk of government going bad on a grand scale.

comment by gwern · 2010-05-02T19:24:04.923Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

More primitive societies don't have centralized government, so they don't have the risk of government going bad on a grand scale.

The canonical example here is, I think, China. Going from the impressive Renaissance-like period of 100 Schools of Thought during the Warring States period, to Zheng He, then to stultification.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-05-02T19:18:02.714Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Is bad government a sort of disaster which should be considered in this discussion?

Possibly. I wasn't considering it because I took 'modern economies' to imply (more or less) liberal democracies with (more ore less) free markets. I interpreted the original comment to be in reference to the theory that the increasing interconnectedness, globalization and specialization we observe within such economies is making them more vulnerable to catastrophic collapse. Bad government is certainly a problem but I hadn't seen it as a major component of this line of thinking.

More primitive societies don't have centralized government, so they don't have the risk of government going bad on a grand scale.

It is an interesting question whether more complex economies (in the sense I describe above) must necessarily go hand in hand with more centralized government. I don't think that is the case and I certainly hope it is not the case (because it implies that complex economies must inevitably self-destruct) but it is a disturbing possibility.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-02T19:24:40.397Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The Soviet Union or the Third Reich were more like a "modern economy" than they're like hunter-gatherers or primitive agriculturalists, and (though it doesn't seem likely so far), a modern economy is more likely to have a government that goes bad than it is to turn into h-g or p.a.

When I was talking about centralized government, I didn't mean central economic planning. (Did you?) I just meant that modern governments have well-defined centralized control over (usually) a good-sized region and population.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-05-03T04:31:05.109Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When I was talking about centralized government, I didn't mean central economic planning. (Did you?) I just meant that modern governments have well-defined centralized control over (usually) a good-sized region and population.

I see centralized government as implying more central economic planning as well as more pervasive state intervention in all areas of life. I contrast it to a more federalized or devolved allocation of political power. I believe a complex economy is compatible with government that is more federal and less centralized than the modern United States and even less centralized than the European Union. I don't believe that the stability, security and free movement of trade and labour that are foundations of a complex modern economy require ever more centralized political power, although historically both have tended to increase alongside one another more often than not.

comment by meisey · 2010-05-02T21:16:59.298Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not to mention that if all but a few were destroyed and there was a need to rebuild technology and set up society again basic skills needed to do this would be non existent in the general public things like chemistry, electronics and mechanics, things we base our lives on today, are not common knowledge and we wouldnt be able to rebuild what we have today

comment by Nanani · 2010-05-07T05:00:35.499Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

What -are- you talking about?

We have massively literate societies and a culture in which all the knowledge is shared massively. After a crisis, the remaining few would have to pick up a lot of skills they lack before crisis, but they would have the means to do so in said stores of knowledge, plus the immense advantage of knowing that the things destroyed are possible. The general public -is- capable of learning.

Hunter-gatherers had no knowledge of chemistry, electronics, and mechanics, nor any concept that the things we do with them were possible.

comment by roland · 2010-05-10T21:39:06.416Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

But the sense of understanding no more means that you have knowledge of the world than caressing your own shoulder means that someone loves you.

-- Michael Bishop(50 Years of Successful Predictive Modeling Should Be Enough: Lessons for Philosophy of Science).

comment by FelixM · 2010-05-06T10:39:52.149Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"Jews don't read books: We study them." (Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf)

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-05-02T21:41:25.077Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Scientists spend an extraordinary amount of time worrying about being wrong and take great pains to prove others so. In fact, science is the one area of discourse in which a person can win considerable prestige by proving himself wrong.

-- Sam Harris (emphasis in original)

comment by Morendil · 2010-05-02T22:15:36.489Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I would love to agree with the sentiment in that quote, but offhand, I can't think of any examples.

Certainly the day-to-day job of the scientist is to prove himself or herself wrong in as many ways as possible, so as not to leave that job to others. But what eventually yields prestige is being right.

One possible counter-example I can think of is the Michelson-Morley experiment, the "most celebrated null experiment in the history of science" to quote one short-breathed biographer. But by several accounts I have read it only became "the most celebrated" thirty-odd years later, once the significance of Einstein's work had sunk in. Before that it seems to have been possible at least to regard it as an anomaly to explain away, for instance via "ether drag" theories.

So even this attempt to prove myself wrong doesn't reach as far as I should hope.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-05-03T02:25:22.546Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

The first person to come to mind for me was Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege who is famous for basically inventing symbolic logic (specifically, predicate logic with quantified variables). He spent an enormous amount of time working on the thesis that the results of mathematics flow rather directly from little more than the rules of logic plus set theory. He aimed to provide a constructive proof of this thesis.

Bertrand Russell discovered a logical flaw (now called Russell's paradox) in Frege's first book containing the constructive proof when the second book in his series was already in press and communicated it to Frege. Russell wrote of Frege's reaction in a bit of text I recall reading in a textbook on symbolic logic but found duplicated in this document with more details from which I quote:

As I think about acts of integrity and grace, I realise there is nothing in my knowledge to compare with Frege's dedication to truth. His entire life's work was on the verge of completion, much of his work had been ignored to the benefit of men infinitely less capable, his second volume was about to be published, and upon finding that his fundamental assumption was in error, he responded with intellectual pleasure clearly submerging any feelings of personal disappointment. It was almost superhuman and a telling indication of that of which men are capable if their dedication is to creative work and knowledge instead of cruder efforts to dominate and be known.

I don't think science generally lives up to its own ideals... but as I grow older and more cynical I find myself admiring the mere fact that it has those ideals and that every so often I find examples of people living up to them :-)

comment by Jack · 2010-05-02T22:38:50.384Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Also, my understanding is that neither Michelson nor Morley ever stopped believing in a luminiferous aether and spent much of their remaining careers trying to show there was one.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-05-02T20:51:26.324Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

You can’t prescribe decently for something you hate. It will always come out wrong. You can’t prescribe decently for something you despair in. If you despair of humankind, you’re not going to have good policies for nurturing human beings. I think people ought to give prescriptions who have ideas for improving things, ought to concentrate on the things that they love and that they want to nurture.

Jane Jacobs

comment by ata · 2010-05-03T01:45:45.384Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Reminds me of non-atheists who try to give advice to those of us who would like to make atheism into a significant movement ("New Atheists" etc.) under the implausible pretense that they're just trying to help us be more effective.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-05-03T04:52:50.039Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Your point seems to have a valid core, but perhaps making the observation right next to this quote is not... um... is not what one might do after reflecting for a while about moral symmetry and the content of the message that suggests that we should generally try to focus on positive outcomes and the unrealized potential in things we already love?

comment by ata · 2010-05-03T05:36:53.312Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

You're right.

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2010-05-02T19:23:07.527Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

He drew a deep breath, closed his eyes, drew old lessons to his mind. “What is, is. No loss is made better by dwelling on it; no pain is cured by the mind’s eye regarding it. Accept the casualties. Assess your capabilities. Continue the mission.” The recitation made him feel a little better; a cold clarity came to him.

And Rumours of War, time-travel story on the Ynglinga Saga blog.

comment by gwern · 2010-05-04T12:59:19.553Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was deeply confused for a moment, since I know that no such passage appears in the Ynglinga Saga and that the Icelandic prose style means no such passage ever could; perhaps clarify that that is something entirely different?

comment by RolfAndreassen · 2010-05-04T17:04:29.271Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Good point. Clarified.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-01T07:59:00.478Z · score: 5 (15 votes) · LW · GW

"You pride yourself on freedom of choice. Let me tell you that this very freedom is one of the factors that most confuse and undermine you. It gives you full play for your neuroses, your surface reactions and your aberrations. What you should aim for is freedom from choice! Faced with two possibilities, you spend time and effort to decide which to accept. You review the whole spectrum of political, emotional, social, physical, psychological and physiological conditioning before coming up with the answer which, more often than not, does not even satisfy you then. Do you know, can you comprehend, what freedom it gives you if you have no choice? Do you know what it means to be able to choose so swiftly and surely that to all intents and purposes you have no choice? The choice that you make, your decision, is based on such positive knowledge that the second alternative may as well not exist."

-- Rafael Lefort, "The Teachers of Gurdjieff", ch. XIV

comment by [deleted] · 2010-05-01T15:35:35.977Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

This reminds me of something I read in C.S. Lewis which is quite rational: the purpose of curiosity is finding answers. It's not dithering for the sake of dithering, or debate for the sake of debate. The goal is to find out what the right answer is, as accurately as possible, not to eternally keep all the options open. That's how I understand the quote.

Of course, real curiosity can look like dithering and endless debate because people are being very careful not to get things wrong.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-05-01T15:57:22.348Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Reminds me of something Jesus said: "The truth will set you free." By which I think he actually meant something very Buddhist, and sinister: Stop being attached to people and things.

comment by cupholder · 2010-05-02T15:37:32.998Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Later amended by David Foster Wallace to 'The truth will set you free, but not until it's done with you.'

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2010-05-01T14:21:42.030Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This is a deep idea and should get more air time on LW.

The crux of the issue is: if you have 4 bits of information, you can only choose between 16 alternatives. The problem is to quantify how much information you really have (it may seem like you have a lot of info, but most of it is probably noisy, so shouldn't be weighted at full value) and the size of the set of choices from which you need to select a single element. If the choice class is too big, you should randomly shrink it - bite the bullet, tie yourself to the mast and throw away choices for no reason other than that you have too many.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-01T14:40:06.273Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"The choice that you make, your decision, is based on such positive knowledge that the second alternative may as well not exist."

Dumping information if you're simply swamped may well be a good strategy, but the quote is about understanding what you're doing so well that you know what the best choice is.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-05-01T15:26:27.358Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see that in the quote. It sounds to me like a justification for imposing religious thought-boundaries.

Wikipedia says: "The Teachers of Gurdjieff (ISBN 0-87728-213-7) is a book by Rafael Lefort that purports to describe a journey to the middle east and central Asia in search of the sources of Gurdjieff's teaching, and culminates in the author's own spiritual awakening, by meeting and "opening" to the teachings of the Naqshbandi Sufis."

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-01T19:10:17.771Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see that in the quote. It sounds to me like a justification for imposing religious thought-boundaries.

Do you see that in the quote? Or only in the frame?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-05-03T17:55:15.789Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not able to interpret the quote without fitting it into some pre-existing frame.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-01T16:03:31.955Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

As I understand it, Gurdieff and such are claiming it's possible to have sufficiently reliable knowledge such that basing action on anything else obviously isn't attractive.

That kind of certainty does exist in some realms-- if someone claims to have trisected the angle or built a perpetual motion machine, you can be sure there's a mistake or fraud somewhere, and you also aren't going to spend your time trying to achieve those projects yourself.

Whether such knowledge is possible for more complex situations isn't obvious, but I do think that's where he's pointing.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2010-05-01T16:35:56.518Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Reading the quote and your explanation, I thought of this:

Through my mind flashed the passage:

"Do nothing because it is righteous, or praiseworthy, or noble, to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do, and which you cannot do in any other way."

Doing what it seemed good to do, had only led me astray.

So I called a full stop.

And I decided that, from then on, I would follow the strategy that could have saved me if I had followed it years ago: Hold my FAI designs to the higher standard of not doing that which seemed like a good idea, but only that which I understood on a sufficiently deep level to see that I could not do it in any other way.

-- My Bayesian Enlightenment

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-05-01T20:41:13.748Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"Do nothing because it is righteous, or praiseworthy, or noble, to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do, and which you cannot do in any other way."

If I took that advice literally, I wouldn't do much of anything at all.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-05-02T03:40:06.484Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm resisting googling this... Ursula K. Le Guin, right? Though it sounds like something out of the Dhammapada.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-05-02T06:24:35.446Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, the Farthest Shore. here or here

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2010-05-18T08:53:38.959Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You've been wrong about every single thing you've ever done, including this thing. You're not smart. You're not a scientist. You're not a doctor. You're not even a full-time employee. Where did your life go so wrong?

---Portal (emph. mine)

Relevance: rationalists should win, importance of saying "Oops"

comment by mattnewport · 2010-05-18T17:42:40.515Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record. Followed by death. Good luck!

Makes me think of the FAI problem... As does this:

Good news. I figured out what that thing you just incinerated did. It was a Morality Core they installed after I flooded the enrichment center with a deadly neurotoxin to make me stop flooding the enrichment center with a deadly neurotoxin. So get comfortable while I warm up the Neurotoxin Emitters.

comment by MBlume · 2010-05-03T19:03:18.696Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The new CEO of Coca-Cola in the 1980s had a problem with his senior vice-presidents who thought the company was doing well because they had 45 percent of the soft drink market. He asked them, "What proportion of the liquid market - not just the soft drink market - do we have?" That turned out to be only two percent. The resulting change in the world view of the company led Coca-Cola to increase sales revenue by thirty-five times in just over ten years.

--Review of The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar

comment by Nanani · 2010-05-07T04:33:57.761Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

All liquids, not just drinks? ...I wonder when Coca-Cola will start making liquid soaps, fuel, and lubricants.

comment by simplicio · 2010-05-07T04:57:10.637Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

One thing is for sure, Coca-Cola corp is definitely losing the overall fermion market to more streamlined business models.

comment by Unnamed · 2010-05-04T22:20:37.011Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That should be "Iyengar" with an i.

comment by MBlume · 2010-05-05T06:35:03.607Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks =)

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-05-02T20:33:41.199Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes, which can be made, in a very narrow field.

Niels Henrik David Bohr (1885-1962)

comment by AlanCrowe · 2010-05-01T16:51:53.885Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I got nothing from my tracking system until I used it as a source of critical perspective, not on my performance but on my assumptions about what was important to track.

-- Gary Wolf

comment by [deleted] · 2010-05-01T11:27:36.410Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away while scientists debate rival theories for explaining them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air pending the outcome.

Stephen Jay Gould

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-01T08:10:54.474Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"I don't believe important statements just because someone makes them. Even if I make them."

-- William T. Powers

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-09T15:08:24.943Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"71-hour Ahmed was not superstitious. He was substitious, which put him in a minority among humans. He didn’t believe in the things everyone believed in but which nevertheless weren’t true. He believed instead in the things that were true in which no one else believed. There are many such substitions, ranging from ‘It’ll get better if you don’t pick at it’ all the way up to ‘Sometimes things just happen."--Terry Pratchett, Jingo

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-09T15:36:35.643Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Any ideas for other substitions along the same lines? I came up with these:

  • Your first impressions of people are frequently wrong.

  • You should buy low and sell high, instead of the opposite.

  • Random things are random, even when the same number comes up three times in a row.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-25T11:15:25.291Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What many people believe to be concentration is merely the act of thinking about concentration. A student who is told to concentrate probably will instinctively express a serious countenance and then reflect on the need to concentrate.

--Eliot Z. Cohen, The Four Emotions of Tai Chi, The Ultimate Guide to Tai Chi.

comment by Alexandros · 2010-05-18T10:06:12.792Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

“They must find it difficult… Those who have taken authority as the truth, rather than truth as the authority.” – Gerald Massey

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-05-24T09:26:30.973Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Wikiquote has this as:

They must find it hard to take Truth for authority who have so long mistaken Authority for Truth.

comment by Alexandros · 2010-05-24T12:28:11.274Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. Given that most sources I found referenced the 'documentary' Zeitgeist, I am inclined to believe any other source above it. Provenance aside, I thought the quote deserved a mention.

comment by roland · 2010-05-10T21:39:57.773Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"Expert" claims originating in subjective evaluation can be safely ignored for what they are: sentimental autobiography.

-- Michael Bishop(50 Years of Successful Predictive Modeling Should Be Enough: Lessons for Philosophy of Science).

comment by roland · 2010-05-10T21:37:20.782Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Scientific thinking,which is analytic and objective, goes against the grain of traditional human thinking, which is associative and subjective. Far from being a natural part of human development, science arose from unique historical factors.

-- Allan Cromer

comment by Morendil · 2010-05-09T09:07:42.315Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesome return of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

-- Mark Twain

comment by baiter · 2010-05-02T20:57:01.879Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life."

-Baruch Spinoza

comment by ata · 2010-05-03T01:54:07.552Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A free man thinks of death least of all things

Does that mean "a free person thinks that death is the worst of all things" or "a free person thinks less often about death than about any other thing"?

(The former doesn't seem to have that much to do with freedom, so I'm guessing he meant the latter... in which case I agree with him, but probably not in the way he intended: yes, we won't think about death very often once we're free from it.)

comment by baiter · 2010-05-03T10:41:54.135Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think he means that it is irrational to ponder death when those moments can be spent living life productively. Not sure if I agree -- doesn't the thought of one's death often propel us to great action, while lack of such thoughts leads to complacency? Anyways here is the the proof from the Ethics:

Proof.— (67:1) A free man is one who lives under the guidance of reason, who is not led by fear (IV:lxiii.), but who directly desires that which is good (IV:lxiii.Coroll.), in other words (IV:xxiv.), who strives to act, to live, and to preserve his being on the basis of seeking his own true advantage; wherefore such an one thinks of nothing less than of death, but his wisdom is a meditation of life.

comment by Sly · 2010-05-02T10:32:15.404Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"He remembered the pride filled glow that had swamped Gyoko's face and he wondered again at the bewildering gullibility of people. How baffling it was that even the most cunning and clever people would frequently see only what they wanted to see, and would rarely look beyond the thinnest of facades. Or they would ignore reality, dismissing it as the facade. And then, when their whole world fell to pieces and they were on their knees slitting their bellies or cutting their throats, or cast out into the freezing world, they would tear their topknots or rend their clothes and bewail their karma, blaming gods or kami or luck or their lords or husbands or vassals—anything or anyone—but never themselves."

-Shogun

comment by anonym · 2010-05-02T03:02:31.276Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs. Self-conceit often regards it as a sign of weakness to admit that a belief to which we have once committed ourselves is wrong. We get so identified with an idea that it is literally a “pet” notion and we rise to its defense and stop our eyes and ears to anything different.

-- John Dewey

comment by Rain · 2010-05-01T14:23:03.438Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.

-- Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle, 1863

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-05-01T15:30:02.930Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I disagree with this one. Listening to yourself is not as good a way to have new insights as listening to other people.

He says,

We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor;

and concludes that the alternative is to get news by listening to yourself. Actually, newspapers and neighbors are better sources of new information than yourself; and observing the external world can be even better.

The notion is not that information "from yourself" has useful content, but that it has some special spiritual value attached to it. This could be parsed out in a meaningful way to be talking about maintaining personality integrity (say, just for instance, by reducing conflicts between your beliefs). But I have a prior around .95 that says that when you hear someone talking about your "inward life", they're talking religion.

comment by Rain · 2010-05-01T15:52:32.939Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I debated whether to post this, considering the likelihood he was talking about mystic goodness of self, but I feel the core content is important, regardless of its "hidden meanings."

We did have an entire series on luminosity (contrast with "inward life"), many other articles on self-examination techniques, and we shy away from gossip and politics, which most certainly were the news articles of the day to which he referred.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-01T08:09:54.050Z · score: 3 (11 votes) · LW · GW

"The happiest people are those who think the most interesting thoughts. Those who decide to use leisure as a means of mental development, who love good music, good books, good pictures, good company, good conversation, are the happiest people in the world. And they are not only happy in themselves, they are the cause of happiness in others."

-- William Lyon Phelps

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-05-01T15:54:31.930Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Like Marcus Aurelius, Beethoven, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche?

comment by Alan · 2010-05-03T02:00:14.060Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Leisure? Happiness? Aurelius, the emperor, was always on the move with his army trying to preserve his empire and worried about his conniving son, Commodus. Beethoven was a reclusive single man, who grew ill and deaf in later years. Schopenhauer was a self-absorbed and misogynistic single man (though he supposedly enjoyed walking his poodles). Nietzsche was a precocious and convalescent single man. Why not add Wittgenstein to the list? Selection bias?

comment by phaedrus · 2010-05-28T21:58:05.023Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise"

  • Bertrand Russell, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism” (Part of the full sentence)
comment by RobinZ · 2010-05-28T22:17:23.511Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ooh, ignore my note about duplication - yours has a better citation than the previous appearance of the quote.

comment by Bindbreaker · 2010-05-04T21:16:46.888Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"He who dies with the most toys is nonetheless dead." --anonymous

comment by ata · 2010-05-05T07:42:36.017Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Unless one of the toys in question is a cryostat. Then there's still hope.

comment by SirBacon · 2010-05-02T19:23:39.697Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"Society begins to appear much less unreasonable when one realizes its true function. It is there to help everyone to keep their minds off reality." Celia Green, The Human Evasion.

http://deoxy.org/evasion/4.htm

comment by anonym · 2010-05-02T02:45:54.648Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Breaking out of bad habits, rather than acquiring new ones, is the toughest aspect of learning.

-- Edsger Dijkstra

comment by StarkLocality · 2010-05-01T22:47:39.062Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ultimately, a carefully-maintained lack of self awareness is the only bulwark standing between any of us and the depths of madness.

-- Kwi Jung

comment by MichaelGR · 2010-05-01T18:52:26.091Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.

--Bertrand Russell

comment by RobinZ · 2010-05-01T18:58:14.507Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Duplicate.

It's wise to make a habit of hitting the search bar before posting quotes.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-11-02T21:43:01.510Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The fact that I have no remedy for all the sorrows of the world is no reason for my accepting yours. It simply supports the strong probability that yours is a fake.

H.L. Mencken, Minority Report.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-05-19T04:58:58.365Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.

-- André Gide

comment by RobinZ · 2010-05-19T13:54:29.914Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Duplicate.

comment by ata · 2010-05-16T09:00:19.551Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My definition of a stupid person: A stupid person is a person who treats a smart person as though they're stupid.

Errol Morris

(Clearly this isn't an actual definition, but it works pretty well if you reframe it as evidence rather than as a necessary or sufficient condition.)

comment by [deleted] · 2010-05-04T00:25:59.499Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

.

comment by ata · 2010-05-04T06:29:27.805Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How is that related to rationality?

comment by Nanani · 2010-05-07T05:04:23.600Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Probably the close similarity to this site's oft-quoted "Shut up and multiply."

comment by Apprentice · 2010-05-02T21:55:10.940Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

And that is the way of the world, that some men put errors into circulation and others afterwards try to eradicate those same errors. And so both sorts of men have something to do.

Árni Magnússon

comment by Nic_Smith · 2010-05-03T03:37:44.576Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are people who do both, unintentionally or not. And the last line strikes me as cynicism for cynicism's sake.

comment by StarkLocality · 2010-05-01T23:01:14.365Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Truth is context dependent. It happens that there are some contexts we all share.

-- Kwi Jung

comment by MichaelGR · 2010-05-01T17:49:46.310Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance.

--Charles Darwin, "The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals", ch.3.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-01T18:42:16.496Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Duplicate.

comment by MichaelGR · 2010-05-01T18:51:12.999Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry about that.

comment by MichaelGR · 2010-05-01T17:48:40.882Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The great advances in science usually result from new tools rather than from new doctrines.

--Freeman Dyson

comment by RobinZ · 2010-05-01T18:58:49.741Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Duplicate.

comment by MichaelHoward · 2010-05-01T10:11:16.426Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at and repair.

  • Douglas Adams
comment by RobertLumley · 2011-10-03T15:39:42.002Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The engineer does not believe in black magic, voodoo, or rain dances. The engineer believes in scientific truth, that is, truth that can be verified by experiment.

Samuel Florman

comment by RobertLumley · 2011-10-03T15:50:35.179Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Whoops, posted this in the wrong quotes thread.