Arational quotes

post by Dr_Manhattan · 2011-04-14T00:58:40.264Z · score: 0 (9 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 53 comments

Jacobi, an eminent algebraist, was fond of saying: “Invert, always Invert

- Charlie Munger

So based on the above and the regular "rationality quotes" feature I figured why not try a thread for quotes that are not rational? Obviously we do not plain stupidity, but I think quotes that appeal on first listen would qualify. As a side benefit of analyzing specific errors this might serve as an inoculation from rhetoric.  

I am using "arational" rather than irrational to highlight this distinction.

PS. Please feel free to reply with meta comments on whether this is a valuable idea.

 

53 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by komponisto · 2011-04-14T21:30:22.750Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

See Anti-rationality quotes for a previous thread of this type.

Note: I recommend against using the term "arational", when you appear to have actually meant "irrational", "anti-rational", or perhaps "pseudo-rational". I read "arational" as meaning "having nothing to do with rationality", and this caused me difficulties in understanding what this post was about.

comment by jtk3 · 2011-04-16T21:02:38.174Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"It is, of course, totally unclear whether Moravec, Kurzweil, and their supporters are correct. Will robots become massively intelligent? Will human beings become highly intelligent cyborgs or upload our minds fully into machines and thereby live forever? Whether they are correct is probably less important than the fact that the faithful who believe they are has a growing membership. " - Robert M. Geraci

I am not surprised see someone assigning low probability to a technological singularity. But low importance?

This is not an anti-rational prescription like the Glenn Beck quote I offered, but I found it a striking example of irrational bias.

comment by nhamann · 2011-04-14T04:04:06.322Z · score: 7 (21 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is it hard to make decisions as president? Not really. If you know what you believe, decisions come pretty easy. If you’re one of these types of people that are always trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing, decision making can be difficult.

-- George W. Bush

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-04-14T17:21:57.439Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This quote sounds somewhat trite, but its message is straightforward, clear, and coherent, and while one may disagree with the opinion it expresses, it is at the very least plausible prima facie. As with the Regan quote in the earlier comment, I am baffled as to what elements of irrationality you (and those who upvoted the comment) find in it, let alone what makes it so remarkable that it's worth quoting years after it was said.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-14T18:41:10.317Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am baffled as to what elements of irrationality you (and those who upvoted the comment) find in it

So you are baffled by both quotes.

I offer the hypothesis that the function of the repetition of these quotes down the years has been to signal tribal affiliation. This being the case, the fact that outsiders are baffled may be a strength, because this reveals them as non-tribe-members. The quotes then serve a function similar to that of an inside joke.

comment by rhollerith_dot_com · 2011-04-14T18:48:01.803Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

the function of the repetition of these quotes down the years has been to signal tribal affiliation.

Affiliation with the tribe against Reagan and Bush, right?

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-04-14T21:06:14.964Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I offer the hypothesis that the function of the repetition of these quotes down the years has been to signal tribal affiliation.

Your hypothesis seems clearly true to me, and I have thought of it myself. However, with these quotes, I was really unable to figure out which exact bad-faith misinterpretation was being suggested. (Admittedly, as I note in my response to Joshua Z., my own original interpretation of the Bush quote may have been too favorable, though even in that case, it still requires a hostile over-stretching to make the quote a remarkable exhibit of irrationality.)

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-14T17:27:00.092Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems that an implicit part of the quote is that having certainty is a good thing because it makes decisions easier even when they might be difficult. I am however worried by the prevalence of quotes (granted only two right now) of quotes from a specific end of the political spectrum. This is a thread that could easily go into mind-killing territory.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-04-14T21:01:51.680Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hm... it is possible that my English comprehension has failed me.

I interpreted the phrase "which way the wind is blowing" to mean the prevailing fashion and majority opinion, so that the quote would contrast making decisions based on principled conviction with bowing down to momentary fashion and popular pressure. (This phrase, i.e. its literal translation, is commonly used in this sense in my native language.) However, looking it up, now I see that this is not its usual meaning in English, though such meaning is attested to some degree.

So the question is, did Bush actually use the phrase "which way the wind is blowing" with this somewhat unusual meaning? It's hard for me to tell. (Even if this meaning is unusual or archaic, I can think of at least one other occasion when Bush was derided by many people for using what they thought was a bizarrely incorrect word, but the joke was in fact on them and their ignorance, since the word is nowadays unusual and archaic, but perfectly standard and well-attested. I have in mind the occasion when he referred to "Grecians.")

In any case, even if Bush didn't have this meaning in mind, the quote can be interpreted as making the assertion that in matters of politics firm and consistent principles provide a better guide for action than frantic and futile attempts to analyze each particular situation better than is actually possible, which leads to overthinking and indecisiveness. Whether or not one agrees with this, it's certainly not something deserving of being included into a chrestomathy of human irrationality.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-14T21:27:55.905Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I interpreted the phrase "which way the wind is blowing" to mean the prevailing fashion and majority opinion, so that the quote would contrast making decisions based on principled conviction with bowing down to momentary fashion and popular pressure.

This is a major meaning of it in English as I know it. And I have a reference - see below.

(This phrase, i.e. its literal translation, is commonly used in this sense in my native language.)

Not surprising - they probably have a common historical origin, with somebody along the line translating the phrase.

However, looking it up, now I see that this is not its usual meaning in English, though such meaning is attested to some degree.

Whatever reference you consulted seems to have misled you. Here is a reference which explains:

The figurative sense of 'the way the wind blows', i.e. meaning the tide of opinion, was in use by the early 19th century. In November 1819...

So this meaning has been active for almost two centuries, if not longer. And since Bush is a politician, who ultimately succeeds or fails on the basis of the tide of opinion, this creates a strong presumption in favor of this meaning. If Bush were speaking as a sailor, it would be the other way around. But he wasn't.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-14T21:04:02.889Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, this is a plausible interpretation. It seems that the quote is just very ambiguous about what was intended. It is functioning more as an inkblot for us than anything else (and yes, I know that test actually doesn't work but the point should be clear).

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-14T21:48:38.591Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

and yes, I know that test actually doesn't work but the point should be clear

The general topic of the persistence of representations of outdated technology in speech and graphic symbols is one that has long interested me. Some still-used pictures of obsolete or becoming-obsolete technologies are: an old-style bell, an old-style metal key of a sort that has been obsolete for a very long time, old telephone or handset, paper envelope (e.g. to represent e-mail), a spherical black bomb, a boat anchor of a certain very old style which modern anchors don't much resemble, a circular 12-hour clock face which used to be used because of how a clock worked, but which is now displayed (when it is) partly for familiarity. And the even older technology: the hourglass! Still used to represent time passing.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-04-14T21:13:48.565Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I looked for the context of the quote, and it was an impromptu answer to a question from the audience. Clearly, on such occasions it's hard to expect anything else from a professional politician.

comment by nhamann · 2011-04-14T17:36:59.203Z · score: -6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, good point: you need to take into account background knowledge about George W. Bush (such as that he is a person who believes that God talks to him.) If we take the quote to mean:

If you know what you believe (and you have sound reasons for having the beliefs that you do), decisions come pretty easy...

then the quote is actually pretty reasonable. If, on the other hand, you take it to mean

If you know what you believe (because careful reasoning and evidence are unimportant to you), decisions come pretty easy...

then the quote is clearly arational. Also, I interpreted his disparaging of people who are "always trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing" as him essentially saying "forget the territory, I've already got a map and that's good enough for me".

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-14T18:23:04.903Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

you need to take into account background knowledge about George W. Bush (such as that he is a person who believes that God talks to him.)

Oh good lord, this whole topic so far is two quotes from Republican Presidents, and the supposed irrationality of the quotes seems to be nothing more than strained readings of what they meant. Can people come up with any examples of irrational/arational quotes that aren't just a labored attempt to ridicule the chieftain of the enemy tribe as a form of tribal affiliation signaling?

comment by nhamann · 2011-04-14T18:43:39.713Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's the expanded quote:

Is it hard to make decisions as President? Not really. If you know what you believe, decisions come pretty easy. If you're one of these types of people that are always trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing, decision making can be difficult. But I find that -- I know who I am. I know what I believe in, and I know where I want to lead the country. And most of the decisions come pretty easily for me, to be frank with you.

When we take into account further context that this was spoken to children in elementary school, I think the only strained reading is the one which sees this quote as reasonable. Hey kids, the only thing you need to make good decisions is to know what you already believe in! Reasoning is so much easier when you write the bottom line first.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-14T19:29:59.930Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are reading Bush as saying he won't update his priors on the evidence. But to me it is obvious that Bush is saying exactly what everybody says about themselves and about the people they support, which is that they won't shift with the political winds.

Here's an example of a person who follows Bush's advice. He is an atheist and a Darwinist. He enters a Christian Creationist community. Around him everyone is a Christian and a Creationist. They make fun of him for being a Darwinist. He has two options:

A) He can make life easy for himself by seeing which way the wind is blowing and becoming a Creationist, so that people will accept him better socially.

B) He can remain steadfast in his Darwinism, because he realizes that the mass of opinion surrounding him is scant reason to update his priors, when the physical evidence and the reasoned arguments of Darwin and others speak so plainly.

Bush is saying he's a B type.

Here's a common expression which is used to chide someone who has shown signs of being an A type:

If all your friends jumped off a bridge then would you too?

Social pressure is not the same thing as evidence and argument. Someone who succumbs to social pressure is not being a good Bayesian rationalist.

How do I know that this is what Bush really means? Because it's what pretty much every person prefers to say and think about himself. Everybody wants to think they have good reasons for what they do. Nobody wants to think they're a weathervane, a leaf tossed around by the social winds. It's a massively unremarkable statement. And it's especially applicable to politicians, who are at extra pains to say that they are people of principle and reason, and don't flipflop based on the latest popularity polls.

Bush says "I know what I believe in" instead of saying "I know what I know", because the former is the way we have all been taught to talk. We have been taught to be non-confrontational, so we talk to each other about what we "believe", what we "think", instead of about what is real or about what is right, since discussion about what is real or right will quickly lead to arguments, which we are at pains to avoid. It's not the right wing, by the way, that introduced this way of thinking, this relativism. It was not the right wing which taught us to stop saying "the truth" and start saying "my truth".

This has nothing to do with any assessment of Bush as President. I am reading Bush on the basis of my knowledge of humanity, on the basis of my knowledge about what pretty much everybody likes to think about himself.

comment by nhamann · 2011-04-15T00:11:11.525Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree, yours is a more reasonable interpretation. I think I was interpreting "winds" as referring to "the winds of evidence," which is not reasonable in this context.

I do think your accusing me of "tribal affiliation signaling" was unnecessary and uncharitable: I don't consider Bush to have been a significantly worse a president than any other recent presidents. I just happened to have run into the quote awhile back, and in my misinterpretation thought it was a good anti-rationality quote.

Edit: I did some thinking to try to figure out how I could have missed the obviously correct interpretation of Bush's words. The first hypothesis (which Constant first put forth) was that I was signalling tribal loyalties -- boo Republicans, yay Democrats. That does not make much sense, however, because I pretty solidly dislike all major political parties and the entire politics theater of the U.S. Maybe I was attempting to signal loyalty to the "boo politicians" tribe, but I think there's a better explanation: a cached thought. Even though I do not currently belong to the anti-Republican tribe, I did belong to that tribe in my high school years (i.e. during Bush' presidency), and I was most likely operating on a "Bush is stupid/irrational" cached thought.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-15T03:40:22.237Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do think your accusing me of "tribal affiliation signaling" was unnecessary and uncharitable:

I swear that it was not my intent to make any statement about your motivation, and I have evidence of my intent. In another comment in this discussion I wrote:

I offer the hypothesis that the function of the repetition of these quotes down the years has been to signal tribal affiliation.

Notice that I wrote "down the years" and "has been". I put in those words intentionally, to direct attention toward the repetition of the quote down the years and not toward the occurrence here in this forum.

Imagine if I had instead written:

I offer the hypothesis that the function of the repetition of these quotes was to signal tribal affiliation.

I might have written that because that still allows the intended historical interpretation, but it is more ambiguous because it also allows an interpretation that attacks you for posting the quote here now. I took pains to add words to avoid that interpretation.

Admittedly, I was not as careful over in this part of the discussion.

The memes you carry are not all your fault. I know that.

comment by rhollerith_dot_com · 2011-04-14T19:00:19.088Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Name an effective U.S. President who did not have great confidence in his ability to make decisions, though. Or name one who doubted his own goodness or questioned his basic beliefs or basic goals.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-04-14T19:29:57.606Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd have a hard time digging up an appropriate quote, but I get that impression from Lincoln's writings, for the first part. If any president had low confidence in their decisionmaking ability though, how strongly should we expect to know about it?

comment by rhollerith_dot_com · 2011-04-14T20:28:19.831Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If any president had low confidence in their decisionmaking ability though, how strongly should we expect to know about it?

Fair enough (and I am impressed that you were able to go right to IMHO the best example out of the 44 choices), but if you replace my "did not have great confidence" with "did not publicly display great confidence", my point (that the quote of Bush is not significant evidence of arationality or irrationality) stands.

comment by rhollerith_dot_com · 2011-04-14T21:00:09.590Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If any president had low confidence in their decisionmaking ability though, how strongly should we expect to know about it?

In fact, now that I think about it, that point is support for the conclusion I have been arguing for, since the American voter is impressed enough with confidence that anyone without unusually high confidence in the intrinsic rightness of his own basic beliefs might have to fake it in public just to be an effective presidential candidate no matter how distasteful he or she privately finds it.

comment by Emile · 2011-04-15T14:46:52.456Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh good lord, this whole topic so far is two quotes from Republican Presidents

Rejoice! The sample has now been made more diverse with a Glenn Beck quote :D

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-15T15:05:03.473Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a good example, though. That makes a big difference. If anyone thinks the interpretation is strained, let them speak up.

comment by Emile · 2011-04-15T15:47:23.799Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed, unlike the other two, that one did make my brain want to crawl out of my head and jump out of the window.

comment by nhamann · 2011-04-14T18:38:03.281Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let's take a look at the expanded quote:

Is it hard to make decisions as President? Not really. If you know what you believe, decisions come pretty easy. If you're one of these types of people that are always trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing, decision making can be difficult. But I find that -- I know who I am. I know what I believe in, and I know where I want to lead the country.

"I know who I am. I know what I believe in" does not sound like the words of a rationalist. Who here would advocate that the essential step in making good decisions is simply looking at what you presently believe? How is this quote not totally anti-epistemology?

comment by CaveJohnson · 2011-04-30T17:41:05.882Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point is: if we can store music on a compact disk, why can't we store a man's inteligence and personality on one? So I have the engineers figuring that one out right now. Brain mapping, artificial inteligence... we should've been working on it thirty years ago. And I will say this, and I'm gonna say it on tape so everybody will hear it a hundred times a day: If I die before you people can pour me in to a computer, I want Caroline to run this place.

-Cave Johnson, Founder and CEO of Aperture Science (1953 - 1986)

I still stand by this death is bad.

comment by GLaDOS · 2011-04-30T17:44:40.322Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And believe me I am still alive. I'm doing Science and I'm still alive. I feel FANTASTIC and I'm still alive. While you're dying I'll be still alive. And when you're dead I will be still alive. STILL ALIVE

comment by jtk3 · 2011-04-14T20:22:48.863Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

| heard this prescription live on the air several months ago:

"Refuse to believe in coincidence and you will see miracles." - Glenn Beck

I heard that and thought: Yup, I can sure see why it would then look like miracles all the way down.

I do not cite this to signal disapproval of Beck; on the whole I think well of him. I just thought it was a clear example.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-04-17T22:53:35.117Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I knew nothing about Glenn Beck, I would assume that this was meant as a dismissal of miracles.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2011-04-14T01:00:42.077Z · score: 4 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Saw this hanging in someone''s office; I thought it was pernicious enough to inspire this thread.

"Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don't have that problem. Ronald Reagan"

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-04-14T06:43:33.039Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm honestly lost as to what is supposed to be pernicious about this quote, or what makes it remarkable enough to be cited and upvoted.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-04-14T11:04:03.988Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I assume the important thing is wanting to make a positive difference, not just a difference.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-04-14T16:12:59.528Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But this is implied in the quote.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2011-04-14T13:06:16.645Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the quote instead concluded with "The Marines verifiably know they do make a difference." there wouldn't be much wrong with it, other than what Nancy said below -- (one should strive for a positive difference, not just a difference).

But as it stands the quote just says the Marines no longer wonder about this, and presents it for a good thing. A surgical removal of all independent thought and/or all concepts of morality would just as easily lead to the same result. "Do not wonder about things, just trust your leaders." Pfft.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-04-14T17:33:54.793Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're giving the quote a bizarre and implausible reading. Of course that Reagan (if he really said this) meant it to imply that a marine does make a difference, and a positive one. Any normal person interpreting the quote in good faith would make that assumption, whether or not they agree with the premise.

(Besides, googling for the source of this quote, I can't find any reference to a concrete time and place where it was uttered, nor to the rest of the speech or dialog whose part it was. This strongly suggests that it might be apocryphal, though of course I can't conclude this with certainty.)

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-14T17:14:03.058Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the quote instead concluded with "The Marines verifiably know they do make a difference."

Then it would say the same thing but say it poorly. That this ending even occurred to you as you read the quote should be treated as evidence that this is what was meant. It is a common and highly effective rhetorical technique to leave a key element implied rather than explicitly stated. Stating it explicitly undermines the rhetorical impact. We might compare it to explaining a joke, which kills the joke.

But as it stands the quote just says the Marines no longer wonder about this, and presents it for a good thing.

You're misreading the quote by assuming that it did not leave a key element implied.

comment by DanielLC · 2014-07-21T06:13:29.308Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was thinking that it could be interpreted as the Marines knowing they don't make a difference. It reminds me of this quote:

Dr. Nefarious: "To think, they called me insane, Lawrence. We'll see who's insane when my [mutant armies] have exterminated all life on this miserable planet!"

Lawrence: "That should clear things right up, sir."

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2011-04-14T13:08:52.835Z · score: -5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To generalize, that quote is part of the same philosophy that thinks faith better than agnosticism, belief better than unbelief, certainty better than uncertainty -- regardless of whether the evidence justifies such or not.

comment by knb · 2011-04-17T04:31:56.085Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It certainly is kind of political bromide, but their doesn't seem to be anything irrational about it.

comment by Multiheaded · 2012-06-10T11:23:02.625Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There’s a romance to danger. There’s a romance to drinking, to drugs, to petty crime and to heartbreak and loneliness. All of those things can be used to make the STORY of our lives better.

Joey Comeau, author of A Softer World

comment by CronoDAS · 2011-04-15T20:26:04.994Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man stupid and blind in the eyes.

-- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game

comment by Multiheaded · 2012-05-31T14:39:17.375Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the reality of collective responsibility and collective guilt:

We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!

5th leaflet by the White Rose, Munich, 1943.

...The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals … Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!

2nd leaflet.

You can't really measure the effect of this kind of resistance in whether or not X number of bridges were blown up or a regime fell... The White Rose really has a more symbolic value, but that's a very important value.

  • Dr. Jud Newborn, Holocaust scholar
comment by CronoDAS · 2011-04-15T20:31:39.701Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But Marge, what if we chose the wrong religion? Each week we just make God madder and madder.

-- Homer Simpson

comment by CronoDAS · 2011-04-15T20:25:34.327Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cause permanent damage.

-- Unknown

comment by RichardKennaway · 2011-04-15T17:37:46.647Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not really a quote, but a whole didactic story which I have on one of my own web pages here. (Not my composition, but I don't recall the source.)

comment by steven0461 · 2011-04-14T04:02:18.149Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand the context of the first quote. What does he want people to invert and in what circumstances?

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-04-14T06:31:01.954Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The context is algebra, and I think the message is that you can improve your insight by thinking in terms of reciprocal values of various quantities that you normally use. (So, for example, you may get to understand certain problems in mechanics better if you think in terms of time elapsed per distance traveled rather than speed.)

comment by komponisto · 2011-04-14T20:27:55.328Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The context is algebra, and I think the message is that you can improve your insight by thinking in terms of reciprocal values of various quantities that you normally use.

The context is actually mathematics in general, not specifically algebra. It's important to remember first of all that Jacobi was a 19th-century mathematician, and in those days mathematics didn't exactly have the same subdivisions it has now, and even to the extent it did, it was common for people to work across these boundaries. The quote at the beginning of this post refers to Jacobi as an algebraist for some reason, but you could equally well call him an analyst, for example.

The actual context of Jacobi's maxim is his work on elliptic functions, which he invented by inverting so-called "elliptic integrals". The inverses turned out to be much easier to work with. For an analogy, imagine that you'd never heard of the trigonometric functions sin and cos, but instead were working with arcsin and arccos, thinking of them as antiderivatives of and respectively. Along comes Jacobi (or someone in his role) who suggests considering the inverses of these things, giving them the names sin and cos, and shows how they satisfy all kinds of nice properties.

My own use of Jacobi's quote in Inverse Speed was meant to be slightly tongue-in-cheek, since the context I applied it to was so much more elementary than its original context. However, I felt that it was also a very illustrative application of the principle, its elementary nature notwithstanding. (Not to mention that a major subtext of my post was that I think of "elementary" concepts in terms of "advanced" concepts, since the latter are actually more natural to me.)

comment by steven0461 · 2011-04-14T19:13:59.348Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see; I thought it was meant to be an example of a quote that sounds rational but isn't.

comment by komponisto · 2011-04-14T20:02:11.062Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

See here.

Also note that my recent post Inverse Speed used the same quote (which is probably what prompted Vladimir_M's comment).

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2011-04-14T15:35:18.788Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Munger applied it in few different contexts, particularly business.

Quote from Snowball (Buffet bio)

They liked to ponder the reasons for failure as a way of deducing the rules of success. “I had long looked for insight by inversion, in the intense manner counseled by the great algebraist Carl Jacobi,” Munger said. “‘Invert, always invert.’”