Signalling with T-Shirt slogans

post by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-21T11:37:03.333Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 32 comments

It kind of started when I got this T-shirt as a present two years ago:

Don't Drink and Derive T-Shirt

It is not just a slogan that is quickly filtered out under the heading 'generic ad-like content'. It invites checking where the error is. It is kind of a challenge - at least for suitably minded persons. Exactly that kind of person I'd like to get in touch with more. This T-shirt signals: "I'm a nerd and proud of it." And the positive feedback I got from this was part of the reason I chose to signal this more. Maybe you'd like to signal this too. Please remember the T-shirt alone will not do it. You still have to talk to people. For the introverted among us (me included) I recommend active listening.

The remainder of this post lists some slogans I have tried, some I will likely try shortly and other related resources.

Obviously I'm not the only one using this signalling approach. T-shirt dealers have lots of these in stock. Thus some I just ordered online. But the most effective shirt I 'designed' myself. It is a black shirt suitable for business purposes and such a shirt with a small slogal on it stands out. I chose

That which can be

destroyed by the

truth should be.

— P.C. Hodgell

which I'm delighted to also find recommended by EY here.

One year ago MIRI linked to Rational Attire but the store appears to be broken right now. And then there is Pretty Rational which at least contains some promising slogans.

I also have this T-shirt about the Map-Territory correspondence:

The sentence

"This T-shirt is black"

is true if

This T-shirt is black.

-- Tarski

(I had this printed on a dark blue T-shirt thus adding a gradual truth aspect).

Other slogans of this type to be found on my T-shirts:



 I plan to print more of my own design shortly. The next one will be

"Everyone generalizes

from one example.

At least, I do."

-- Vlad Taltos

You can find out more about this quote here. What I like most about this one is that it is a bit self-deprecating which if combined with otherwise high status signalling (stance and gaze) I take comes across as approachable.

More ideas I might or might not print:

The enemy's gate is down.

-- Ender


"Two people acting 

 rationally [] and with

 common knowledge 

 [] cannot agree to 


 -- R. J. Aumann


"When you have eliminated the

impossible whatever remains

however improbable must be the truth."

-- Sherlock Holmes


"truth resists simplicity"

-- John Green


"Those who do not move,

do not notice their chains.”

--  Rosa Luxemburg, 1906

World domination

is such an ugly phrase.

I prefer world optimisation.

-- Harry Potter-Evans-Verres


So this is my personal approach to rationality signalling, but maybe you are inspired by it. You may use the comments to propose other such slogans, discuss these, question or laud the whole approach or propose other avenues for such signalling.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Username · 2014-12-21T17:42:27.192Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

These might be good for signalling in-group membership, but graphic tees (especially quotes, equations, and 'witty' ones, but really any graphic tees) are not in the least fashionable and you'll lose social points with everyone outside of the in-group. You might get "I like your shirt" comments, but I almost guarantee you won't get "you look good in that shirt" comments.

Replies from: Error, Fluttershy, Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Error · 2014-12-22T16:30:37.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Depends on where you are. I don't wear geek shirts to work (even though the dress code here is lax enough to get away with it), but I do wear them to conventions, for example. Sometimes, discovering fellow in-group members is exactly what you're trying to do. Tees of this sort are pretty good for that.

For introverts it has the added bonus of signaling passively, so you don't have to work up the nerve to start conversations with unknown factors as part of the search process.

comment by Fluttershy · 2014-12-22T03:21:18.585Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is quite correct-- even if the graphic is well-designed, as Gunnar's is, that doesn't mean that graphic t-shirts are fashionable. My opinion is that the larger the graphic on a t-shirt is, the less fashionable the t-shirt is. Wearing solid-color clothes is a great go-to option, though I bet that it would be possible to design shirts with less flashy graphics that could signal intelligence while still being fashionable.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-23T07:12:06.662Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That flashy truth graphic wasn't on my shirt (I just linked to it for illustration). Mine is indeed plain text on a black shirt (no 'T').

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-21T19:24:18.749Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't get "you look good in that shirt" comments in any case and that is not what I aim for anyway. But do you think that the in-group is that small? Maybe I should avoid strict in-group quotes like the HPMOR or Aumann ones.

Replies from: Username
comment by Username · 2014-12-22T19:59:25.075Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't get "you look good in that shirt" comments in any case and that is not what I aim for anyway.

One of the failure modes of nerds is not putting any value on their own personal level of attractiveness. Which is a mistake, given that better looking people are seen as more likable and trustworthy, are more persuasive, and earn more money. There are good references in the bottom of the post on the halo effect.

Anyone can improve their level of attractiveness, through decoration by dressing well and keeping themselves groomed, being healthier by exercising and eating well, and working on intangibles like improving posture and exhibiting confidence. If you're looking to improve yourself and gain personal advantages, it's worth investing time and money into these areas. In this instance, by primarily buying a well-fitting, fashionable wardrobe. You only need one or two tees for in-group signalling.

This doesn't exactly respond to what you're saying, but I'm seeing a lot of an 'I don't care what I look like' attitude in these comments and this was a good place to address it.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-23T07:17:43.758Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see what you are getting at. I'm aware of the status and otherwise signalling of good looks. I slowly moved toward serious looking clothing and otherwise acceptable looks (beard, haicut). But if I'm not completely mistaken I'm of very average attractiveness physically (which is sufficient).

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-12-22T01:40:52.780Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"When you have eliminated the
impossible whatever remains
however improbable must be the truth."

There's a big problem with that. Eliminating the impossible does not ensure that you have thought of everything that is possible. This is classic "proof by lack of imagination".

Jaynes "something else" hypothesis in multiple hypothesis testing can keep you from this error.

comment by Ixiel · 2014-12-21T14:43:48.968Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know people here don't love Rand, but one big miss was my "who is John Galt shirt. Sure, for the people who got it it worked as intended, but it generated so many stupid questions from people who didn't get it I never wear it anymore. The D'Anconia Copper and Rearden Steel shirts work perfectly.

Long story short, consider the people who don't get it as well as the people who do.

Replies from: buybuydandavis, Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-12-22T02:05:00.813Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What you want is the dog whistle shirt, that means something comprehensible and positive to most, but with a meaning that only the "right" people will recognize.

The Pioneer Plaque above seems like a great one.

For the recent Atlas Shrugged movies, I put little gold dollar stickers on my lapel. Not ideal for the general signal, but a good dog whistle. The movie "events" were quite laughable. For the last I thought I was going to get an entire large theatre to myself. I took a picture of the empty theatre before the movie started. Maybe a half dozen people finally showed up for the movie.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-21T19:35:35.403Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. I guess that is the reason the "this T-shirt is black" works - because it is (moderately) funny even without the Tarski background.

comment by Sherincall · 2014-12-21T14:05:21.167Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a T-Shirt with the Pioneer Plaque drawing and I sometimes go out of my way to wear it when I know I'll be meeting new people. To most people, it's just a nice drawing, and is filtered out quickly. A few that do recognize it always make a comment, and it's a great conversation starter. Would definitely recommend something like that.

I also have a few nerdy ones like you mentioned, but the "nerd and proud of it" can be perceived as obnoxious, so I try not to wear them in settings where that is likely to happen.

Replies from: buybuydandavis, Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-12-22T01:42:20.876Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good signaling on the face of it, and a great dog whistle for the initiated.

I've been working on framing an Apollo picture with the quote:

And someday when the descendants of humanity have spread from star to star, they won’t tell the children about the history of Ancient Earth until they’re old enough to bear it; and when they learn they’ll weep to hear that such a thing as Death had ever once existed!

A little long for a t-shirt, and maybe a little too bold.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-21T19:19:23.648Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is a nice compromise and avoids the down-sides mentioned by this comment.

comment by alienist · 2014-12-23T01:12:32.896Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Careful with the Aumann agreement theorem, it doesn't state what EY seems to think it states and I've yet to see an example of the process being used correctly.

Note in particular that the final estimate need not even be between the initial two estimates. If the "Aumann process" looks like two people incrementally updating their beliefs towards each other, they're doing it wrong.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-23T07:18:11.772Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. That's why I thought about quoting that 'verbatim'. But it gets ugly that way. And the simplified form is admittedly oversimplified. In the same way as the sherlock quote is misleading.

comment by Dustin · 2014-12-21T20:23:33.687Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


I've never liked the Holmes quote as anything other than a neat fictional device. While it's strictly true, I suspect that you can not eliminate the impossible in a large portion of real life situations where the idea could be most useful. On top of that, I think the idea is seductive in a way that you can fool yourself into thinking you've eliminated the impossible.

So the quote sits in this odd place where its true, it makes sense, it feels good to read and say and believe, and yet it is dangerous to live by.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-21T21:34:35.419Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So the quote sits in this odd place where its true, it makes sense, it feels good to read and say and believe, and yet it is dangerous to live by.

Looks like you have identified a certain dangerous class of anti-memes - esp. for rationalists. Could call it a rationalists trap. Related to nerd-sniping.

comment by palladias · 2014-12-22T14:58:44.368Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wear a bunch of nerdy shirts (from xkcd, webcomics, thinkgeek) when I'm not at work (where I have to be business casual) and I'm really pleased by the effect! I've gotten into conversations with people who recognized the source, discounts on coffee from the nerdy barista, and I try to hold up my end of the bargain by saying "Nice shirt! I love [X]" to other people wearing similar shirts.

comment by dhoe · 2014-12-21T15:15:49.142Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Drinking has surprisingly little impact on those parts of mathematics where you just mechanically apply a couple of rules, btw. Just mentioning this in case others didn't try to solve integrals as teenagers as a sort of self-check - it totally doesn't work. Your ability to walk is a better indicator of drunkenness.

On topic: don't wear these shirts if you aim at anything more than signalling affiliation with a particular tribe. It's also inefficient if you accept the existence of interesting people outside this very small tribe.

Replies from: VAuroch, Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by VAuroch · 2014-12-22T06:52:48.599Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I retain my ability to walk after losing my ability to not throw up. What things you lose in what order is highly idiosyncratic.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-21T19:29:27.015Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Drinking has surprisingly little impact on those parts of mathematics ...

I performed an experiment regarding this and at least for me the ability to do mathematics was the first that suffered. Long before balance or speech. This has been recorded by a non-drunk non-biased outside observer. It may be that this is due to the way math was checked, namely by relatively simple calculation on-the-fly. I started to make small slips or oversights. And I didn't do routine calculations. I don't do boring calculations by rote but by doing more or less clever short-cuts and these failed.

comment by michaelkeenan · 2014-12-21T12:15:41.909Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Please note that Rational Attire was not run by MIRI. It was always completely separate from MIRI.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-21T19:20:23.759Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then I misread the press notice. Corrected wording.

comment by Username · 2014-12-21T17:38:50.569Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Downvoted because I don't want people pitching specific products on lw.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-21T19:18:09.344Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I understand your point. I'm not affiliated with any of these shirts and might as well have removed the links. I thought it added value but I guess that any real product linking is questionable here.

comment by TsviBT · 2014-12-21T15:38:36.111Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's a shirt I made, stating that PA is consistent in mysterious looking symbols. Not directly rationality related, but could be a conversation starter.

comment by SilentCal · 2014-12-30T19:46:28.929Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I for one benefited from this post as a reminder of the potential virtues of signalling.

After reading the title I assumed the post would be disparaging the signalling in question. I don't believe that signalling is always bad, but apparently I alieved it.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-30T22:07:50.010Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can't not signal. The question is rather which details you signal and which not. How authentic the signal is and how explicit.

comment by fortyeridania · 2014-12-23T03:37:26.082Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The implicit claim that Tarski said "'This T-shirt is black' is true if this T-shirt is black" is true iff Tarski said "'This T-shirt is black' is true if this T-shirt is black."

comment by Jiro · 2014-12-22T01:20:15.649Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you are the type of person who would solve puzzles like the one on the T-shirt in the original post, you're also someone who would have run across the same puzzle in the past. I find it very unlikely that anyone who sees that and cares about it would not have already run across it.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-22T07:26:08.066Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find it very unlikely that anyone who sees that and cares about it would not have already run across it.

Hm yes. That is indeed likely. It can still be sufficiently funny or noteworthy to comment on it.