Focus on rationality

post by Oscar_Cunningham · 2012-06-02T19:25:37.362Z · score: 14 (17 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 17 comments

(This is my view in the recent debate about posts giving a "rational" discussion of some random topic. It was originally at comment level but I've extended it and posted it in discussion because I want to know if and where people disagree with me, and for what reasons.)

 

 

I come to Less Wrong to learn about how to think and how to act effectively. I care about general algorithms that are useful for many problems, like "Hold off on proposing solutions" or "Habits are ingrained faster when you pay concious attention to your thoughts when you perform the action". These posts have very high value to me because they improve my effectiveness across a wide range of areas.

Another such technique is "Dissolving the question". Yvain's "Diseased thinking: dissolving questions about disease" is valuable as an exemplary performance of this technique. It adds to Eliezer's description of question-dissolving by giving a demonstration of its use on a real question. It's main value comes from this, anything I learnt about disease whilst reading it is just a bonus.

To quote badger in the recent thread "Rational Toothpaste: A Case Study"

I claim a post on "rational toothpaste buying" could be on-topic and useful, if correctly written to illustrate determining goals, assessing tradeoffs, and implementing the final conclusions. A post detailing the pros and cons of various toothpaste brands is for a dentistry or personal hygiene forum; a post about algorithms for how to determine the best brands or whether to do so at all is for a rationality forum.

But we don't need more than one or two such examples! Yvain's post about question-dissolving was the only such post I ever need to read.

Posts about toothpaste, house-buying, room-decoration, fashion, shaving or computer hardware only tell me about that particular thing. As good as many of them are they'll never be as useful as a post that teaches me a general method of thought applicable on many problems. And if I want to know about some particular topic I'll just look it up on Google, or go to a library.

It's not possible for LessWrong to give a rational treatment of every subject. There are just too many of them. Even if we did I wouldn't be able to carry all that info around in my head. That's why I need to learn general algorithms for producing rational decisions.

Even though badger makes it clear in the quote I gave that the post is supposed to about the algorithms used, the in the rest of the post almost all the discussion is on the object level (although the conclusion is good). That is, even though badger talks about which methods he's using and why, the focus is still on "What can these methods teach us about toothpaste?" and not "What can optimising toothpaste teach us about our methods?". I'd prefer it if posts tried to answer questions more like the latter. The comments exhibit the same phenomenon. Only one of the comments (kilobug's) is talking about the methods used. Most of the rest are actually talking about toothpaste.

So what I'm suggesting is that LessWrong posts (don't forget there's a whole internet to post things on) should focus on rationality. They can talk about other things too, but the question should always be "What can X teach us about rationality?" and not "What can rationality teach us about X?"

17 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2012-06-02T20:29:44.946Z · score: 28 (32 votes) · LW · GW

You don't need to carry them in your head. Having a collection of recommendations for everyday tasks is highly valuable as the signal to noise ratio here will be through the roof compared to google. You might consider it a waste of time, but many of us do this kind of research when we decide to optimize some corner of our lives. Sharing it doesn't take that much additional time and saves everyone else quite a bit of time. If lots of people do it we collectively save huge amounts of time.

comment by magfrump · 2012-06-03T00:03:32.460Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

This, this, this.

If I think of a computer science metaphor, I like having good standards and agreements in notation and implementation for writing code. But I also like (and often even prefer) having big libraries of code already written for me.

comment by knb · 2012-06-02T23:58:54.375Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I don't have a problem with the way things are right now, but if a lot of people are annoyed, one solution might be to create a "life-hacks" section for Less Wrong. This would have the effect of removing the posts you dislike from the discussion area (improving the signal : noise ratio from your perspective), while also improving the experience for people who like reading these "life-hack" things. This would have the added bonus of creating a new draw to Less Wrong, of people who just want learn some practical thing (like bedroom-design or whatever) might be impressed by the quality of the analysis, (much better here than at lifehacker or ehow, IMO) and be attracted to the rest of the site. This would help achieve the core Less Wrong goal of "raising the sanity waterline" by growing the community and spreading LW memes to that group.

I'm just suggesting a possible utility-raising Coasian bargain here. Which way the "property rights" should be structured is a matter for LWs owners and mods. But if they decide that these "life-hacks" posts should have no place on LW whatsoever, I hope a new site can be created for those of us who like life-hacks, but find the quality to be lower on the current sites for the topic.

comment by grouchymusicologist · 2012-06-02T21:06:46.206Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Basically, I disagree with this. A few thoughts:

(1) Even if we were all perfectly rational, it'd still take time to research the optimal answer to every question. Why shouldn't I outsource that research to people who are interested in doing it and whose basic viewpoints I trust? [Edit: RomeoStevens already made this point above.]

(2) What's the harm to you from posts on "applied rationality" topics being posted on LW? Don't read or comment on what you aren't interested in. If you prefer posts on the theory and practice of rationality itself, just read, comment on, and write those kinds of posts. LW Discussion is currently nowhere near being such a firehose that you can't quickly sift through what's been posted recently and decide which threads you're likely to be interested in.

(3) As we improve as rationalists, it's vital to repeatedly apply those skills in various contexts in order to practice them. Why shouldn't that practice take place in a quasi-social arena where others can point out flaws or gaps? If I think I've learned some skill of rationality (such as researching the optimal product to buy for some purpose), the odds of my continuing to apply it successfully with no further input from other interested people are not very good. I guess in this bullet point I'm arguing that even seemingly very object-level discussions are, in the LW context, actually functioning in part as discussions of rationality.

comment by badger · 2012-06-03T02:34:03.499Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

My goal was to show a "rational toothpaste" post could be worthwhile. I'm also slightly disappointed that the discussion was primarily on the object-level, although the post itself was too heavily about toothpaste per se. Not that object-level comments should have been avoided, but more higher-level comments would have been nice.

But we don't need more than one or two such examples! Yvain's post about question-dissolving was the only such post I ever need to read.

One or two examples are sufficient to make you aware of a technique, but further examples, case studies, or applications help it sink in further. Posts (particularly in discussion) can illustrate methods rather than present or analyse them.

Of course, practice is better than reading examples. Research done during practice or deliberate application might as well be publicly shared though. I would find posts framed as field reports (i.e. here's my problem, how I approached it, the research/experiments I did, tentative conclusions/decisions, request for advice) much more palatable than advice columns (i.e. 10 low hanging fruit about car purchases) or generic recommendation requests.

Thoughts on a [Field Report] tag in discussion?

comment by Vaniver · 2012-06-03T18:26:11.360Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thoughts on a [Field Report] tag in discussion?

I would love to see more field reports in discussion.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-06-04T04:04:53.489Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm also slightly disappointed that the discussion was primarily on the object-level

Gah! Object level is awesome! More object level!

You made your point, we get it and more meta crap is far less useful than some object level discussion. In fact, if you just ended up prompting meta discussion you would not have supported your point.

comment by erratio · 2012-06-04T00:39:21.034Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

'field report' gives me an icky PUA vibe. Right idea, but possibly bad choice of terminology.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-06-04T20:50:02.913Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I associated it with PUA as well, though I didn't get an icky vibe from the association.

comment by erratio · 2012-06-04T21:10:47.437Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My 'ickiness' is probably a direct function of recently meeting someone who'd spent some time reading LW and found the level of PUA acceptance offputting enough that she hasn't come back.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-06-04T03:58:41.445Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thoughts on a [Field Report] tag in discussion?

Appropriate and useful.

comment by MinibearRex · 2012-06-03T04:28:20.719Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The sense I've gotten from people who want to have discussions on LW about particular topics is that they don't want to go to, e.g. a dentistry forum, because the level of discourse there is much lower than on LW. I can't say that I have ever posted on a dentistry forum, but I suspect that if I start talking about resources being fungible and discussing the value of information in dollars, the first response I'd get is someone asking what the hell I'm talking about.

It seems like there are a couple of different models we can go with. We can either have less wrong be a forum for learning rationality, and then have people practice rationality somewhere else, or we can do both here. The second option sounds better to me. At Austin LW meetups, we spend far more time in our discussions applying rationality than we do talking about rationality itself. People talk about personal projects, puzzles, questions that they've been thinking about, things that they're reading about, things they're working on, etc. When we actually discuss something in pure rationality, it tends to be because we are having trouble using rationality. I do like this arrangement. Yes, there needs to be places to discuss and learn pure rationality, but at least in the Austin group, all of us have a grip on the basics (the fact that one of our members has what is essentially a master's degree in the field helps a lot). But it does seem like it would be useful to have, somewhere, a place to practice rationality online.

And LW seems like a pretty reasonable choice.

comment by lsparrish · 2012-06-04T05:47:28.953Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Seems to me that lesswrong has produced a very valuable product in terms of a community that doesn't bicker (at least not when they recognize what they're doing) and balances skepticism and openness reasonably well. There should be a way to capitalize on that. My thought is there should be yet another subreddit.

In fact, I could see there being several:

  • Low hanging fruit. Example: How to improve your dental hygiene.
  • Self improvement. Example: Reducing ugh fields with regards to personal finances.
  • Interesting projects that need attention. Example: Server Sky.
  • Far topics. Example: Boltzmann Brains.
  • Fiction and media: Example: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

We can continue to roll these all into Discussion. But Discussion was originally supposed to be for regular LW articles that are not good enough quality for Main yet. There is such thing as good content that is not especially focused (at least on the surface) on learning to improve rationality skills -- and arguably this usually does not belong in Main as currently conceived.

Less Wrong is a content producing website. Content is king on the web. And we are all becoming better content creators (i.e. writers) the more we publish and critique.

Another option (and this might help prevent dilution of the main message) would be spawning more sister sites. Lesswrong source is forkable on github. If logins could be transmitted between the different sites more or less seamlessly, that would probably be best.

comment by VincenzoLingley · 2012-06-02T20:27:49.992Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

We already have separate Main and Discussion. Any reason not to add more? With separate feeds (and perhaps separate karma) for each, I just don't see the downsides.

LessWrong may have started as a blog about rationality, but now it is a community of like-minded people. It is natural that some members of the community want to discuss less on-topic topics with the rest of the community.

comment by gjm · 2012-06-03T13:40:22.264Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Nitpicky correction: The rational-toothpaste link is actually a link to Yvain's diseased-thinking post.

comment by Oscar_Cunningham · 2012-06-03T14:45:46.774Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Fixed.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-02T20:10:09.558Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I simultaneously want to agree and disagree with your post. I, too, find LW useful for the reasons you laid out. I get a lot of value from posts the posts that teach question dissolving, righting wrong questions, holding off on proposing solutions, etc. I can take these skills and apply them to real world situations.

On the other hand, I'm not at the level where I can reliably apply these tools to the most important decisions I face in my life. There are some situations/choice that I need help from others to solve; I need help applying the instrumental rationality I learned from the aforementioned posts. I feel that posts on how to apply instrumental rationality can be germane to LW discourse. When I have done them, they have been very helpful. I've also gotten positive feedback from others.

Right now, I'm visually imagining of linear spectrum of possible LW posts. On the left end, there is the type of post you talked about, such as Yvain's diseased thinking. On the right end, there's completely unsuitable posts for LW. Porn, politics, etc. Between these two ends there is a vast span of posts that are germane to varying degrees.

Obviously (?), those on the right side of the spectrum I don't want to see at all on LW. Like you say, there's the whole wide internet to use. We need to help a well kept garden.

Maybe the "rational toothpaste thread" is only 60% appropriate for LW. (That's more or less a number I pulled out the air based on my feelings.) It's somewhere on the left side of the spectrum, but close to the center. I wouldn't want to see numerous posts like that all the time, but I don't mind seeing a few in discussion every once in a while.

More appropriate to LW is a post about applying instrumental rationality to choosing a major, college, or career. I'd say these questions fall between the left end of the spectrum and the "rational toothpaste" type threads. Unlike toothpaste, these are very important questions that are harder to solve than what toothpaste to buy. I would actually like to see a bit more of these.

So all that said, I think your criteria is too strict for my tastes. Yes, LW should definitely have a focus on learning epistemic/instrumental rationality. But I'd also like to posts on applying rationality to important topics. I think both can compliment each other nicely, and both are useful.

Edit: Just to be clear, the criteria I'm refering to is this:

LessWrong posts [...] can talk about other things too, but the question should always be "What can X teach us about rationality?" and not "What can rationality teach us about X?"