Applied art of rationality: Richard Feynman steelmanning his mother's concerns

post by shminux · 2013-06-04T17:31:24.675Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 26 comments

First, imagine your parents disapproving of your first love. Imagine your mother inventing a whole whack of reasons why you shouldn't marry him/her. Now imagine being rational enough to acknowledge and address all her concerns while remaining a loving and caring son/daughter. If you can imagine, let alone do all that, you are better person than I am. But then I am not Feynman, who did just that in the following excerpt from the book Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track. It is also a great example of Luminosity. Now, if you think that you can be that good, look through your replies on LW to people whose comment irk you in the worst way. How charitable were you? Granted, you probably don't care about anonymous online posters nearly as much as Feynman cared about his mother, but I suspect that caring about someone makes you more emotional, not less in your reply.

Comments by the book's author:

The following letter is in response to one from Lucille, Richard’s mother, in which she lovingly but forcefully outlined her concerns about Richard’s intent to marry Arline. Arline’s illness, she feared, would compromise not only his own health but his career. She was also concerned about the high cost of treatment (for oxygen, specialists, hospitalization, and so on).

Lucille suggested that his desire to marry stemmed from his desire to please someone he loved (“just as you used to occasionally eat spinach to please me”) and recommended that they stay “engaged.”

The letter itself:

With regard to (1) and (2) I went to see Prof. Smyth at Pop’s suggestion and the doctor here at the university.The doctor said I have less chance of getting T.B. in the sanatorium when visiting her than when I am walking around in the street. I think he was exaggerating (all this is in detail in a letter to Pop, so I won’t repeat it all here). He said T.B. is infectious but not contagious—I didn’t understand the distinction he made, however. Ask Dr. Sarrow. He said in sanatoriums the patients take care of their sputum by cups or Kleenex for the purpose, but on the streets people are careless and just spit all around and when it dries the germs float into the air. He said the germs are not floating around in the air in a sanatorium. He said a lot has been found out about this in the last 25, and in particular the last 10, years. I would be no danger to my students. Prof. Smyth didn’t see any objection from his point of view to hiring me if my wife is sick.

(3) If no one can make a budget for illness, how can I ever make enough to pay for it? How much is enough? Some guesses must be made and I guess I have enough. How much would you guess would be necessary?

(4) I wouldn’t be satisfied being engaged any longer. I want the burden and responsibility of being married.

(5) It really wasn’t hard at all.While I was out to lunch while waiting for somebody to come back to the courthouse in Trenton, I found myself singing—and I realized then that I really was very happy arranging things. It was, I suppose, the pleasure of arranging things for our life together—before she was sick we used to talk of the fun it would be going around ringing doorbells looking for a place to live—I guess it was similar to that idea.

I am not afraid of her parents—and if they don’t trust me with their daughter let them say so now. If they get sore at my mistakes later, it’s too late and it won’t bother me.You are right about my lack (4) of experience—I have no answer to that.

(6) The cost here again is a guess. I want to take the chance, however, that it will be sufficient. If it isn’t I’ll be in difficulty as you suggest.

(7) I’ve already been employed at Princeton for the next year. If I must go elsewhere, I’ll go where I’m needed most.

(8) I do want to get married. I also want to give someone I love what she wants—especially because at the same time I will be doing something I want. It is not at all like eating spinach—(also you misunderstood my motives as a small boy—I didn’t want you angry at me)—I didn’t like spinach.

(9) This is the problem we are discussing—I mean whether marriage is worse than engagement.

(10) I’m honestly sorry it makes you feel so bad. I bet it won’t be too heavy.

Why I want go get married;

It is not that I want to be noble. It is not that I think it’s the only right, honest and decent thing to do, under the circumstances. It is not that I made a promise five years ago—(under entirely different circumstances)—and that I don’t want to “back out” of the promise. That stuff is baloney. If anytime during the five years I thought I’d rather not go thru with it—promise or no promise I’d “back out” so fast it would make your head spin. I’m not dopey enough to tie up my whole life in the future because of some promise I made in the past—under different circumstances.

This decision to marry is a decision now and not one made five years ago.

I want to marry Arline because I love her—which means I want to take care of her.That is all there is to it. I want to take care of her.

I am anxious for the responsibilities and uncertainties of taking care of the girl I love.

I have, however, other desires and aims in the world. One of them is to contribute as much as to physics as I can.This is, in my mind, of even more importance than my love for Arline.

It is therefore especially fortunate that, as I can see (guess) my getting married will interfere very slightly, if at all with my main job in life. I am quite sure I can do both at once. (There is even the possibility that the consequent happiness of being married—and the constant encouragement and sympathy of my wife will aid in my endeavor—but actually in the past my love hasn’t affected my physics much, and I don’t really suppose it will be too great an assistance in the future.

Since I feel I can carry on my main job, and still enjoy the luxury of taking care of someone I love—I intend to be married shortly.

Does that explain anything?

Your Son.

R.P.F. PH.D.


P.S. I should have pointed out that I know I am taking chances getting married and may get into all kinds of pickles. I think the chances of major disasters are sufficiently small, and the gain to me and Putzie great enough, that the risk is well worth taking. Of course, this is just the point we are discussing—the magnitude of the risk—so I am saying nothing but simply asserting I think it is small. You think it is large, and therefore I was particularly anxious to have you tell me where you thought the pitfalls were—and you have pointed out a few new ones to me. I still feel the risk is worth taking—and the fact that we differ is due to our difference in background, experience and viewpoint. Please don’t worry that, by explaining your viewpoint, you have in any way pushed us further apart—you haven’t. I only hope that my marrying directly in the face of your disapproval and your better judgment won’t alienate you from me—because honestly, our judgments differ and I think you’re wrong. I honestly believe we (Putzie and I) will be better off married and nobody will be hurt by it.



Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by cody-bryce · 2013-06-04T18:08:47.447Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I need to start signing letters to my mom "Cody Bryce, Ph.D"

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-06-04T18:47:16.617Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do not see how this is steelmanning. It seems to be replying carefully, but I do not see him improving her arguments. If we saw the original, perhaps I would perceive deficiencies he shored up.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2013-06-04T19:39:09.608Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do not see how this is steelmanning.

Here is an example. She apparently suggested that he or his students can contract TB. Feynman took it seriously, discussed it with his father, considered a way to check the validity of this suggestion and:

With regard to (1) and (2) I went to see Prof. Smyth at Pop’s suggestion and the doctor here at the university.

Now, a "normal" person in his place would take it as "my mom certainly doesn't care about some random students, she is just throwing everything she can think of at me in a hope that some of it sticks". Because that's almost certainly what it was. Yet he turned this random throw into a real valid argument and took pains to investigate it fully, then refute it.

If this is not steelmanning, I don't know what is.

Replies from: Luke_A_Somers
comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-06-04T20:55:13.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As far as I can tell, that's simply taking a facile objection seriously.

Steelmanning would be if she said that he could get, say, bubonic plague from her - and then he addressed not only that but also concerns about tuberculosis.

Replies from: shminux, SilasBarta
comment by shminux · 2013-06-05T21:21:19.227Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am surprised by how high the parent is upvoted, given that my reading of the situation is quite different: RPF interpreted his mom's argument charitably (as in, "she may well care about random students, and if she doesn't, I certainly ought to, and I didn't think it about it until she pointed it out", the latter being admitted to in the P.S.) and then steelmanned it by carefully investigating the conditions of when TB is likely to be transmitted, then refuted it by determining that the danger of transmission to Feynman or his students would not go up from the contact as described.

Admittedly, he probably took pains to go an extra mile in addressing the argument because it was his mother's, but that does not change anything.

Replies from: Desrtopa, Luke_A_Somers
comment by Desrtopa · 2013-06-06T01:03:18.040Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

and then steelmanned it by carefully investigating the conditions of when TB is likely to be transmitted

I don't see how this constitutes steelmanning.

If his mother's allegation is "You'll be at risk of tuberculosis," then a refutation of her argument as she presented it demands that he assess the risk of tuberculosis he'd be subjecting himself to, and demonstrate that it is in fact low.

A steelmanning of her argument would, as Luke indicated, entail addressing not only her concerns about the risk of the disease that she mentioned, but also address other hypothetical risks which would appear plausible.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-06-06T18:54:53.539Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am surprised by how high the parent is upvoted

I surprised too, both it and its grandparent. I think I'm right, but wow.

comment by SilasBarta · 2013-06-07T20:12:37.912Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think steelmanning would instead be if you listed more realistic dangers of that place rather than more extreme dangers: for example, "TB is not a threat, but let's look at what the biggest danger would be, and see if the concern is still justified. How about the danger that people may not want to be around you if you go there too much [probably closer to what she actually had in mind] ..."

Replies from: thomblake, Luke_A_Somers
comment by thomblake · 2013-06-10T18:53:25.768Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think steelmanning would instead be if you listed more realistic dangers of that place rather than more extreme dangers

I think you missed what was going on there. In the hypothetical, Feynman's mom was concerned about the plague and for the steelman Feynman corrected it to TB. The assumption there is that TB is a more realistic threat than the plague.

Replies from: SilasBarta
comment by SilasBarta · 2013-06-10T21:15:01.488Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see that now. It didn't help that Luke_A_Somers, in defending what he did as steelmanning, kept insisting that he was "making the original argument worse".

(In any case, I don't think TB was the "steelest" man you could make here, nor the mother's real rejection.)

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-06-07T22:20:48.445Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That would work too. Note that I was making what he did steelmanning by way of making the original argument worse - we're working on opposite ends but I think we agree on definition.

Replies from: SilasBarta
comment by SilasBarta · 2013-06-07T23:43:38.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think we're agreeing on definition: I thought steelmanning was necessarily making the argument better, not worse.

Replies from: Luke_A_Somers
comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-06-08T12:54:34.673Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We're talking about Feynman steelmanning, not me.

Feynman would have been steelmanning if she had made a worse argument to begin with yet he responded to it and a better one.

Replies from: SilasBarta
comment by SilasBarta · 2013-06-08T20:13:33.143Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, and we're talking about what true steelmanning would be in this case, right?

Replies from: Luke_A_Somers
comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-06-09T02:36:42.973Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. We both tweaked matters so that the example became a steelmanning. You changed what Richard said. I changed what his mom said. We both changed something, and after either or both of our changes, it was an example of steelmanning.

Replies from: SilasBarta
comment by SilasBarta · 2013-06-09T02:48:16.860Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, except yours missed out on the whole "make it a better argument that you're refuting" thing.

Replies from: Luke_A_Somers
comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-06-09T11:50:13.893Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't see how the following conversation is NOT an example of Richard steelmanning.

Mom: You could get bubonic plague!

Richard: (refutes that concern, and then...) A more reasonable concern would be my getting Tuberculosis. Here are the reasons I can't...

As I said above, I'm not doing steelmanning here, so comparing this to what they actually said is irrelevant.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-06-05T10:25:07.790Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Feymann cares about making a rational choice. I think he not only wants to show his mother that he's acting rational but he also wants to show it to himself.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2013-06-05T14:49:21.996Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Definitely. This is the reason to steelman to begin with.

comment by iDante · 2013-06-04T20:05:31.066Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would've liked to see the letter that he's responding to.

comment by Thomas · 2013-06-04T18:05:51.953Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Arline Feynman was one of those for whom the penicillin came a little too late.

Replies from: ITakeBets
comment by ITakeBets · 2013-06-04T19:15:20.675Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see someone here has downvoted Thomas. I sincerely hope it was because that person knew penicillin is not effective against M. tb. If so, high five, downvoter! (Thomas: streptomycin.)

Replies from: Thomas, shminux
comment by Thomas · 2013-06-05T06:50:33.681Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've brought it up not because of the antibiotic's name, but because of the tragedy of dying just before the remedy has been found.

It was a small prelude of what may happen in the 21st century on a much bigger scale.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2013-06-05T14:50:58.861Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, I had that thought, too. Though your time frame seems a bit optimistic to me. Of course, the local thinking is that freezing your head off is an out.

Replies from: Thomas
comment by Thomas · 2013-06-05T16:24:50.797Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought about Ghandi in this context, too. He persuaded his wife NOT to take the (newly discovered) medicine and she died.

Years later, when he was in the same situation, he behaved less conservatively.

comment by shminux · 2013-06-04T19:54:30.104Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't downvote it, and I didn't know about which antibiotic would be effective, but I was surprised that it was made, given how it is irrelevant to the post and has little to do with rationality.