Comment by ricketson on April Coronavirus Open Thread · 2020-04-17T12:11:41.907Z · LW · GW

Hi all. I haven't been to LessWrong in a while...but the mess in the world has reminded me how important it is for us to strive for clear thinking as a community. With that, I'd like to share a Coronavirus pandemic information site that has really good analysis for tracking the progress of the pandemic. It's here:

(it seems that I cannot embed or add images)

<iframe src="" style="width: 100%; height: 600px; border: 0px none;"></iframe>

Comment by ricketson on Voting is like donating thousands of dollars to charity · 2013-02-14T06:08:55.667Z · LW · GW

"One can reasonably conclude that in politics, as with math, the "average person" is ignorant and their opinion is not based on any sort of expertise."

Even if you limit the population to those who are well informed, that population is still rather evenly split and so his points still hold.

Comment by ricketson on A brief history of ethically concerned scientists · 2013-02-09T20:38:45.767Z · LW · GW

Good points, but it was inappropriate to question the author's motives and the attacks on the SI were off-topic.

Comment by ricketson on A brief history of ethically concerned scientists · 2013-02-09T20:36:10.886Z · LW · GW

If I were to downvote, it would be because of the unfair/inaccurate description of particle physics (existential threats, not that important, arbitrary conclusions)

Comment by ricketson on A brief history of ethically concerned scientists · 2013-02-09T20:26:58.254Z · LW · GW

Especially in the modern environment with many thousands of scientists, there won't be much delay caused by a few scientists witholding their results. The greatest risk is that the discovery is made by someone who will keep it secret in order to increase their own power.

There is also a risk that keeping secrets will breed mistrust, even if the secret is kept without evil intent.

Comment by ricketson on A brief history of ethically concerned scientists · 2013-02-09T20:23:40.108Z · LW · GW

Scientific discoveries are a form of information with great relevance to the public. Sharing such information is democratic; keeping such information secret is authoritarian. I propose that keeping scientific information secret has all the same ethical and practical problems as authoritarian/autocratic political regimes.

Scientists have to ask themselves two questions along these lines: 1) Do you trust humanity? 2) What does humanity need to understand?

I suggest that scientist research issues that are important for humanity and then share their findings, rather than researching things that are frivolous and then keeping secrets.

Comment by ricketson on Voting is like donating thousands of dollars to charity · 2012-11-05T05:01:19.321Z · LW · GW

"any other belief"

This invites us to look at why beliefs differ. First we have to acknowledge that we are talking about differences between people with comparable levels of expertise, so this isn't the same as the disagreements that exist between experts and novices.

For elections, I think we can say that people disagree in large part because the situation is incredibly complicated. It it hard to know how government policies will affect human welfare, and it is hard to know how elected officials will shape government policy.

The only interesting factor that I can think of is differences in our scope of altruism -- one voter may feel altruistic towards their city, while another focuses on the nation, and a third focuses on all of humanity.

Comment by ricketson on How to Fix Science · 2012-03-04T05:52:08.467Z · LW · GW

Thanks for putting this together. There are many interesting links in there.

I am hopeful that Bayesian methods can help to solve some of our problems, and there is constant development of these techniques in biology.

Scientists should pay more attention to their statistical tests, and I often find myself arguing with others when I don't like their tests. The most important thing that people need to remember is what "NHST" actually does -- it rejects the null hypothesis. Once they think about what the null hypothesis is, and realize that they have done nothing more than reject it, they will make a lot of progress.

Comment by ricketson on How to Fix Science · 2012-03-04T05:45:42.854Z · LW · GW

Saying that people should be better is not helpful. Like all people, scientists have limited time and need to choose how to allocate their efforts. Sometimes more observations can solve a problem, and sometimes more careful thinking is necessary. The appropriate allocation depends on the situation and the talents of the researcher in question.

That being said, there may be a dysfunctional bias in how funding is allocated -- creating a "all or none" environment where the best strategy for maintaining a basic research program (paying for one's own salary plus a couple of students) is to be the type of researcher who gets multi-million dollar grants and uses that money to generate gargantuan new datasets, which can then provide the foundation for a sensational publication that everyone notices.

Comment by ricketson on How to Fix Science · 2012-03-04T05:41:02.461Z · LW · GW


Comment by ricketson on How to Fix Science · 2012-03-04T05:25:03.665Z · LW · GW

As a biologist, I can say that most statistical errors are just that: errors. They are not tricks. If researchers understand the statistics that they are using, a lot of these problems will go away.

A person has to learn a hell of a lot before they can do molecular biology research, and statistics happens to be fairly low on the priority list for most molecular biologists. In many situations we are able to get around the statistical complexities by generating data with very little noise.

Comment by ricketson on The Allais Paradox · 2012-01-15T19:37:24.686Z · LW · GW

But such psychological stress arises from your perception of reality. If it is caused by an erroneous perception of reality, then the rational thing to do is correct your perception, not take the error for granted. If you are certain that you made the right decision, then you shouldn't feel stressed when you "lose".

Comment by ricketson on The Allais Paradox · 2012-01-15T19:28:45.682Z · LW · GW

I initially chose 1A and 2B, but after reading the analysis of those decisions, I agree that they are inconsistent in a way that implies that one choice was irrational (in the context of this silly little game). So I did some introspection to figure out where I went wrong. Here's what I found:

1) I may have misjudged how small 1/34 is, and this only became apparent when the question was phased as it is in example 2.

2) I think I assumed an implicit costs in these gambles. The first cost is a delay in learning the outcome of these gambles; the second is the implicit need to work to earn this money. I think that these assumptions are reasonable because there is essentially no realistic condition in which I would instantly see the results of a decision that might earn me $27,000; there would probably be a delay of several months (if working) or years (if investing) between making the decision and learning whether I got the money or not. This prolonged uncertainty has a negative utility, since I am unable to make firm plans for the money during that interval. This negative utility would apply to all options except 1A. Furthermore, earning $24,000 would realistically require several months of work on my part. However, a project that had a 1/3 chance of paying out $24,000 might only take a month. The implicit difference in opportunity cost between scenario 1 and scenario 2 has implications for the marginal utility of money in each scenario (making me more risk-averse in scenario 1, which implicitly has a higher opportunity cost).

These implicit costs are not specified in this game, so it is technically "irrational" to incorporate them into my decision-making. However, in any realistic scenario, such costs will exist (regardless of what the salesman says), so it is good that I/we intuitively include them in my/our decision-making.

Comment by ricketson on Raise the Age Demographic · 2011-08-06T17:32:27.644Z · LW · GW

These are good insights on how communities function... but I'm a bit lost.

What is the purpose of a "rationalist community?"

I'm a bit new here, and often the essays seem to rest upon some prior understanding that I do not have. For this particular article, there seems to be some previous discussion about rationalist communities and why they are desirable... but I don't see it in the linked articles or on the main page.

So can you tell me why I would want to participate in a "rationalist parenting club" rather than a regular one. Why not engage with mainstream institutions and try to make them as pro-reason as possible?

Comment by ricketson on Simpson's Paradox · 2011-01-18T03:16:29.133Z · LW · GW

Randomization of test subjects...

I've had this in the back of my mind for the past week, and finally put my finger on how this problem is solved in most experimental sciences. Sorry if I've overlooked part of the discussion, but the typical solution to this problem is to randomly assign subjects to the two groups in the experiment. That way, it is very unlikely that some underlying variable will distort the outcome in the way that the sex of the subjects did in the above example, where the women were concentrated in the A group and men in the B group.

Of course, you can't always randomize assignment to the control and treatment group, but you could in the example given (testing a medical intervention).

Comment by ricketson on Welcome to Less Wrong! (2010-2011) · 2010-08-13T01:44:44.474Z · LW · GW

Hi. I just joined the site yesterday to post a comment. I've been tracking the feed for about a week, having recently decided to re-engage with the Internet. I learned of the site about three months ago, by way of a blogger who was blogging about social issues. I disagreed with him very strongly on those issues, but I checked out his other posts and he mentioned a discussion over here (I think he's a participant).

I think that the post that originally attracted my attention was something relating to the singularity idea. Being a geek myself, I'm kinda interested in the "geek rapture", but haven't gotten a good sense of how people approach it (I know there's a book).

Anyway, I checked out the site: i liked the mission statement and the structure. Probably most importantly, the name stuck in my head. "Less Wrong" has a nice, calmly optimistic ring to it (kinda like Marginal Revolution, another blog I like). I really like how the site relies on user ratings. I've been a big fan of systems that have the community act as the gatekeeper, and have always jumped on board such projects (Wikipedia and Daily Kos, for example). I even once tried to set up a Wiki for debates, but it was very clunky and never got critical mass.

I've been participating in on-line political debates for about 15 years now. I think I've learned a lot, but I ofter get sick of the debates -- especially when they involve mainstream activists who just repeat the same tripe over and over again. I've also become rather cynical towards our political institutions. I don't really think that it matters what I think about politics -- if I'm not willing to make a career out of it, I'm not going to impact anything. I've decided to make my career as a scientist instead.

All of these futile political debates lead me to ask why people are so bad at thinking (or at least, expressing rational thoughts). I've always viewed politics as a means to an end -- that end being human happiness-- and I'm increasingly thinking that it is irrelevant to promoting that end. I'm thinking that the real issue is in how people think and solve problems. If people think right, the politics will sort itself out. So, I'm hoping that Less Wrong can provide a more productive discussion.

Comment by ricketson on Five-minute rationality techniques · 2010-08-12T01:44:17.514Z · LW · GW

Hi. I'm new here. Great blog. Great post.

One maxim that I rely on for acting rationally is "know what your time is worth". In my first real job, I was on a one-week project with a scientist who told me that my time is valuable (I think he was implying that my boss was wasting my time). This really opened up my eyes. My first application of this idea was professionally -- I can get more out of my job than just a paycheck. I can learn skills and make contacts and list accomplishments that will advance my career. I can also enjoy what I do (I'm a researcher, so that's assumed in my profession). It's sad to see colleagues who think that their time is worth no more than some measly paycheck.

The second application of this rule was in my "home economy". I used to be very cheap. Now that I've placed a $ value on my time, it puts a lot of activities in perspective and I am much freer spending money when it frees up time for more worthwhile pursuits (it helps that my cheap habits assure that I always have a nice cushion of cash around. This way, I am able to spend money when needed, without reworking my budget -- which would be a real waste of my precious time). It's sad to see people earning $70,000 a year fretting over a dollar. It's also sad to see someone who has something big to contribute to society (such as a teacher or researcher, for example) worrying about how to recycle 1/10 ounce of plastic.

This rule ties in with the "comparative advantage" rule mentioned above.

The other maxim that I like is "question reality". It is basically a directive to question your own beliefs, ask "is this real?" It applies to everything, and it subsumes the traditional "Question authority" maxim, because unjust authority typically depends upon people being indoctrinated with a particular view of reality.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to participating in this site!