Dominus' Razor

post by badger · 2011-05-26T01:05:49.558Z · score: 44 (48 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 27 comments

You are probably familiar with Hanlon’s Razor, the adage that you should never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity. In Bayesian terms, stupidity is sufficiently abundant that even fairly strong evidence of harmful intent can’t overcome the base rate. However, there is something of a converse, which to my knowledge doesn’t have an eponymous name. In honor of a recent post by Mark Dominus, I propose Dominus’ Razor: Never attribute to complete stupidity what can adequately be explained by ordinary stupidity and a good reason.

Dominus, well-known as a Perl programmer, found that astonishingly bad code looks better (if still bad) after hearing the reasons for its development. For instance, one program passed data between functions by writing it to a temporary file, only to read it back again. It turns out the programmer did this for debugging purposes, an admirable goal, even if done in non-standard ways.

The Razor is one more explanation for the frequent failure of other-optimization. People and institutions usually have some reason for doing what they do, even if they’ve since forgotten or never knew in the first place. “Evolution is cleverer than you are” (Orgel’s Second Rule) and “Free markets are cleverer than you are” are two related rules of thumb. Something that looks obviously stupid was probably implemented to meet some non-obvious need or constraint.

In the end, this is another way of saying to not expect short inferential distances. Based on personal observation, this community does a good job anticipating inferential jumps when playing the role of the sender, but not quite as well when acting as the receiver. Even if someone is wrong, be careful not to dismiss them entirely.

27 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-05-26T01:57:19.801Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Horoscope version: Today, when you're frustrated at someone for doing something that seems foolish, try to figure out why they started doing it. Even if it turns out that their reason is based on a need that no longer exists, this will help you avoid misjudging people as more foolish than they are.

comment by gjm · 2011-05-26T22:05:17.032Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I have always found another variant on Hanlon's Razor useful when dealing, e.g., with governments and telecommunications companies: Never attribute to benevolence what can adequately be explained by stupidity.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2011-05-27T09:23:15.204Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

A version I use is: Never attribute to stupidity what can be adequately explained by intelligence.

comment by RobinZ · 2011-05-27T22:37:41.203Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This is a much pithier wording, but without explanation I think the listener will see it as a rejection of Hanlon's Razor, rather than an unrelated remark.

comment by thomblake · 2012-05-03T15:46:06.773Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's actually just a more general form - stupidity is a value of the 'intelligence' property.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-05-26T05:49:29.155Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

People and institutions usually have some reason for doing what they do, even if they’ve since forgotten or never knew in the first place. “Evolution is cleverer than you are” (Orgel’s Second Rule) and “Free markets are cleverer than you are” are two related rules of thumb.

Related essay by Nick Szabo applying this principal to memetic evolution.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2011-05-30T08:11:24.486Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Just don't use the same supposed good reason to explain every instance of stupidity

comment by endoself · 2011-05-26T17:19:57.997Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In Bayesian terms, stupidity is sufficiently abundant that even fairly strong evidence of harmful intent can’t overcome the base rate.

I interpreted this as both this effect that you described and that the harm of a false assumption of malice is greater than that of a false assumption of stupidity, so expected utility favours acting as if people were stupid rather than evil.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2011-05-26T10:41:13.799Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

G.K. Chesterton's version.

Full text here.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-05-26T09:14:23.689Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

. “Evolution is cleverer than you are” (Orgel’s Second Rule)

Backward retinas. Ice cream. Sex with condoms.

I don't buy it.

comment by Oligopsony · 2011-05-28T13:47:03.528Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"Cleverer," I think, is the right way of phrasing things. Evolution isn't wise; as Eliezer said, "evolutions are dumb." If there was a person who came up with the same sort of responses as evolution did, we'd regard her as wasteful, callous, and myopic - but extremely, extremely clever. We might even imagine that her main objective was to show us how clever she was.

Likewise, free markets are generally more clever than wise, although they are much wiser than evolution.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-05-28T14:53:18.407Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"Cleverer," I think, is the right way of phrasing things.

If you find it useful to tell yourself that evolution is cleverer than you then by all means go ahead. But if you are telling me that evolution is cleverer than me then I'm telling you that you are wrong. Evolutions are stupid. I would grant you 'more patient'. I would not necessarily object to "know better than you" either, even if I wouldn't use the line myself. It would at least apply to those areas where evolution and I have similar optimisation goals and inputs.

We might even imagine that her main objective was to show us how clever she was.

That is... the totally wrong way to go about worshipping her. If evolution had a goal to show of cleverness it'd look entirely different to what we see.

Likewise, free markets are generally more clever than wise, although they are much wiser than evolution.

Markets are way more clever than me. I expect them to be as clever as the cleverest trader and then some. The best I can expect to do is to provide the market with insider information on the rare occasion that I have access to it.

comment by rwallace · 2011-05-26T10:00:50.896Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Ice cream and condoms didn't exist in the ancestral environment; using them as criticism of evolution is like using a screwdriver to pound nails and then blaming it for being a poorly designed hammer.

The backward retina may be an interesting case in point here: I've seen an article (years ago, don't remember the link) claiming it makes maintenance easier; an important advantage if so, considering that unlike your cell phone camera, this is a piece of hardware that has to operate without replacement for a timescale on the order of a century. I don't know whether it's a good trade-off on balance, but even if it's not the optimal design, it might still make the retina a relevant example of something that actually makes more sense than it would seem at first glance.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-05-26T10:55:59.032Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Ice cream and condoms didn't exist in the ancestral environment; using them as criticism of evolution is like using a screwdriver to pound nails and then blaming it for being a poorly designed hammer.

No, it is precisely the point. I am cleverer than a hammer. Evolution is dumb enough to have gone ahead and created its usurper. Evolution really will go ahead and evolve itself to irrelevance. By the time it figures out that the current state of it's cleverest creations isn't one where they optimise their response to future selective pressures it'll be too late. We'll have solved the relevant cooperation problem or we'll have messed up evolution's existing creations and resources beyond all recognition.

The backward retina may be an interesting case in point here: I've seen an article (years ago, don't remember the link) claiming it makes maintenance easier; an important advantage if so, considering that unlike your cell phone camera, this is a piece of hardware that has to operate without replacement for a timescale on the order of a century. I don't know whether it's a good trade-off on balance, but even if it's not the optimal design, it might still make the retina a relevant example of something that actually makes more sense than it would seem at first glance.

I consider that an example of human cleverness. If there is one thing we are good at it is creating arguments for things that are caused by something completely irrelevant. Take that Urist McHatedRival!

comment by Leonhart · 2011-05-26T13:04:48.465Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Shouldn't that have been Urist McHatedRival?

comment by wedrifid · 2011-05-26T13:20:37.424Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Shouldn't that have been Urist McHatedRival?

True. Fixed. :)

comment by zaogao · 2011-05-27T18:31:01.172Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

/ "Evolution is dumb enough to have gone ahead and created its usurper. Evolution really will go ahead and evolve itself to irrelevance. "

Not every possible set of genes or every possible consciousness can be expressed, but (barring annihilation) there will be some subset expressed. And there will be some historical path that got us there, and reasons why certain traits exist while others do not. So I fail to see how evolution can ever be irrelevant. Perhaps nerd/early adopter traits will be selected rather than the historical bigger/stronger/faster, but this is still evolution.

/ "By the time it figures out that the current state of it's cleverest creations isn't one where they optimise their response to future selective pressures it'll be too late"

I'm not sure I understand what you are saying here. Organisms have never optimized their response to future selective pressures, they have merely executed their current adaptations. If you are saying that, as a human, I can wear a condom to enjoy sex without reproduction, I agree. But this is not overcoming evolution. This is merely how I express the traits that evolution has given me (ie sexual desire + desire not to ruin life with infant.) I think one should be careful about anthropomorphizing evolution, as it leads to murky reasoning. Evolution is not clever or stupid, it merely is.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-05-27T19:04:05.895Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Inferential Distance Out Of Bounds Exception: Fundamental premises and expectations about probable future outcomes incompatible.

So I fail to see how evolution can ever be irrelevant.

Off the top of my head the options include

  • Everything is dead
  • Things stop dying
  • Things solve the critical cooperation problem.
  • Somebody just wins.
  • Grey goo (doesn't die/mutate fast enough to evolve. Consumes all resources)
  • Paperclipping. It'll self replicate probably but there will be no incremental changing based on the whim of selective pressure.
  • AGI of any other kind (FAI or otherwise).
  • Any other scenario in which the earth becomes a non-viable habitat without first seeding to somewhere else.
comment by zaogao · 2011-05-27T19:33:17.517Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Can you lay out explicitly what you mean by that? I'm not sure I understand.

If you are saying that the singularity will fundamentally change alter evolution, sure. Perhaps evolution will no longer proceed through proteins in a flesh covered body. But barring some stasis, there will be changes in the make up of a population. I don't think it is that big of an assumption to say these changes will be more than random. Perhaps it is Dr. Evil who copies his consciousness n times, or people who undergo cognitive enhancement, but I don't foresee the current mix of traits remaining constant.

comment by khafra · 2011-05-26T12:58:13.092Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If creating a better optimizer than yourself makes you dumb, what does that say about people trying to build GAI?

comment by wedrifid · 2011-05-26T13:18:54.604Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If creating a better optimizer than yourself makes you dumb, what does that say about people trying to build GAI?

By analogy it would seem to imply that they are dumber than the GAI they are trying to create. I think that's the point of creating it. Now, let's see if we can create one that doesn't obliterate its masters!

comment by MixedNuts · 2011-05-26T10:54:40.247Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That's exactly why it's not cleverer than us - we live in an environment with ice cream and condoms. Among the !Kung, the saying might make sense (except that an explicit understanding of evolution didn't exist in the ancestral environment, either). We've been handed a better screwdriver than we could make, but so what? We need a better hammer, and we can make one.

comment by Armok_GoB · 2011-05-30T15:51:53.901Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"clever" not being the same as smart or rational is relevant here. Evolution is very stupid and very clever.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-05-30T16:08:20.097Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"clever" not being the same as smart or rational is relevant here. Evolution is very stupid and very clever.

I don't just reject the literal meaning. I do think defining 'clever' in any way that makes evolution clever is a terrible definition but that isn't important. The meaning, connotation and intent behind making the exhortation "Evolution is cleverer than you are" to yourself is just entirely undesirable and not at all the profound wisdom that it presents itself as. It's misleading self sabotage.

comment by Armok_GoB · 2011-05-30T16:17:35.520Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm pretty sure I'm using the standard definition of "clever" that most everyone use.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-05-30T17:04:54.459Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm pretty sure I'm using the standard definition of "clever" that most everyone use.

Whereas my position is that you are incorrect about the cleverness but that the far more important problem with the pithy quote is that the connotations are all wrong. In terms of being an inspirational quote conveying some insight it has negative value. (Which is probably as far as we can take this. I disapprove and disagree with the Rule while you agree. Hardly important.)

comment by [deleted] · 2016-01-27T13:57:57.995Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Listen. I don't like to preach, but here's some advice. You'll meet a lot of jerks in life. If they hurt you, remember it's because they're stupid. Don't react to their cruelty. There's nothing worse than bitterness and revenge. Keep your dignity and be true to yourself. Everything will be all right. No tears. Think of your future.

...

"everyone has a choice, there is always a choice"

...

Fun eye of the tiger montage satirising the Iranian revolution!

from Persepolis