comment by More_Right ·
2014-04-26T08:05:47.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
"how generalization from fictional evidence is bad"
I don't think this is a universal rule. I think this is very often true because humans tend to generalize so poorly, tend to have harmful biases based on evolution, and tend to write and read bad (overly emotional, irrational, poorly-mapped-to-reality) fiction.
Concepts can come from anywhere. However, most fiction maps poorly to reality. If you're writing nonfiction, at least if you're trying to map to reality itself, you're likely to succeed in at least getting a few data points from reality correct. Then again, if you're writing nonfiction, you might be highly adept at "lying with facts" (getting all the most granular "details" of a hierarchical structure correct, while getting the entire hierarchical structure wrong at greater levels of abstraction).
As one example of a piece of fiction that maps very closely to reality, and to certain known circumstances, I cite "Unintended Consequences" by John Ross. It's a novel about gun rights that is chock-full of factual information, because the man who wrote it is something of a renaissance man, and an engineer, who comprehends material reality. As an example of a piece of fiction that maps poorly to reality in some of its details, I cite "Atlas Shrugged," by Ayn Rand (the details may be entertaining, and may often illustrate a principle really well, but they often could not happen, --such as "a small band of anti-government people are sheltered from theft by a 'ray screen'"). The "ray screen" plot device was written before modern technology (such as GPS, political "radar" and escalation, etc.) ruled it out as a plot device.
John Ross knows a lot more about organizational strategy, firearms, and physics than Rand did. Also, he wrote his novel at a later date, when certain trends in technological history had already come into existence, and others had died out as possible. Ross is also a highly logical guy. (Objectivist John Hospers, clearly an Ayn Rand admirer, compares the two novels here.)
You can attack some of the ideas in Unintended Consequences for not mapping to reality closely, or for being isolated incidences of something that's possible, but highly unlikely. But you can attack far fewer such instances in his novel than you can in Rand's.
Now, take the "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" books. Such books are "nonfiction" but they are low in hierarchical information, and provide a lot of obvious and redundant information.
So "beware using non fiction as evidence, not only because it's deliberately wr ong in particular ways to make it more interesting" but more importantly "because it does not provide a probabilistic model of what happened" (especially if the author is an idiot whose philosophy doesn't map closely to reality) "and gives at best a bit or two of evidence that looks like a hundred or more bits of evidence."
I think nonfiction written by humans is far more damaging than fiction is. In fact, human language (according to Ray Kurzweil, in "The Singularity is Near" and "The Age of Spiritual Machines," and those, such as Hans Moravec, who agree with him) is "slow, serial, and imprecise" in the extreme. Perhaps humans should just stop trying to explain things to each other, unless they can use a chart or a graph, and get a verbal confirmation that the essential portions of the material have been learned. (Of course, it's better to have 10% understanding, than 0%, so human language does serve that purpose. Moreover, when engineers talk, they have devised tricks to get more out of human language by relying on human language to "connect data sets." --All of this simply says that human language is grossly sub-optimal compared to better forms of theoretically possible communication, not that human language shouldn't be used for what it's worth.)
In this way, STEM teachers slowly advance the cause of humanity, by teaching those who are smart enough to be engineers, in spite of the immense volumes of redundant, mostly-chatter pontification from low-level thinkers.
Most nonfiction = fiction, due to the low comprehension of reality by most humans. All the same caveats apply to concepts from fiction and nonfiction both.
In fact, if one wishes to illustrate a concept, and one claims that concept is nonfiction, then that concept can be challenged successfully based on inessentials. Fiction often clarifies a philosophical subject, such as in Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" that "right is independent of might, and nothing rules out the idea that those who are right might recognize that they have the right to use force, carefully considered as retaliatory only" and "simply because the government presently has more might than individuals, the majority vote doesn't lend morality to the looting of those individuals." The prior philosophical concepts could be challenged as "not actually existing as indicated" if they appeared in a book that claimed to be "nonfiction."
But, as concepts, they're useful to consider. Fiction is the fastest way to think through _likely implications.
The criticisms of basing one's generalizations from fictional evidence here are valid. Unfortunately, they are
(1) less valid when applied to careful philosophical thinkers (but those careful philosophical thinkers themselves are very rare)
(2) equally applicable to most nonfiction, because humans understand very little of importance, unless it's an expert talking about a very narrow area of specialization. (And hence, not really "generalization.")
Very little of reality is represented, even in nonfiction in clean gradations or visual models that directly correspond to reality. Very little is represented as mathematical abstraction. There's a famous old line in a book "Mathematical Mysteries" by Calvin Clawson, and Pi by Petr Beckmann that claims "for every equation in a book, sales of the book are cut in half." This is more of a commentary on the readership than the authorship: a tiny minority of people in the general domain of "true human progress" are doing the "heavy lifting."
...The rest of humanity can't wait to tell you about an exciting new political movement they've just discovered...
...(insert contemporary variant of mindless power-worshipping state collectivism).
Just my .02.