Don't You Care If It Works? - Part 2

by Jacobian 5 min read30th Jul 20153 comments


Part 2 – Winstrumental

 Part 1 is here.

The forgotten fifth virtue

Remember, you can't be wrong unless you take a position. Don't fall into that trap.

-- Scott Adams, Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook

CronoDAS posted this in a reply to my poem, and I dismissed him because my typical mind is typical. I would never make that mistake, so I didn’t think it’s a big deal. But it is. In the comments to part 1 a lot of people are heartily disagreeing with everything I wrote. I admire and respect them.  I already made a correction to a part of the post which was wrong. Unfortunately, a lot of people reading this couldn’t disagree if they wanted to, because they don’t have an account. I get that lurking is fun, but if you’re spending hours and hours on LessWrong and not posting anything I think you’re doing yourself a disservice.

In part 1 I speculated a lot about what goes on in Eliezer’s mind, knowing full well that Eliezer could read this and say that I’m wrong and I will have no comeback but pure embarrassment. What kind of foolhardy dunce would risk such a thing? Let me answer with another question: how else could I possibly change my mind? After reading them for a year, I have strong opinions on the goals and lessons of the sequences, and the only way to find out if I’m right or wrong is to open myself up to challenge. Worst case: people agree with me and I get sweet sweet karma. Best case: I become wiser. Am I at risk of sticking to an opinion too long just because I wrote it down? Yes, but I know I have that bias, anything known is something I can adjust for. If I don’t argue I don’t know what I don’t know.

If you want a chance to change your opinions, you have to put them where they can hurt you.  Or to use an Umeshism:  if you’ve never been proven an idiot on the internet you’re not learning enough from the internet.

Back to Harvard

Why don’t the psychologists at Harvard switch to reviewing nameless CVs? Well, why would they? They are tenured Harvard professors, they already won!  There was no bias shown for assessing stellar CVs, only those on the margins. So they’re not missing out on any superstars, at worst they hire some gentleman who would be their 32nd strongest faculty member instead of a lady who would be 29th. Would you cause a fuss if you were there?

In “Thinking Fast and Slow” Kahnemann writes that he noticed suffering from the halo effect when grading student exams. If a student did well on herfirst essay Kahnemann gave her the benefit of the doubt on later questions. He switched to grading all the answers to question 1, then all the answers to question 2 and so on. It took more time, but the grades were more accurate and fair. What’s my point? I guess it’s possible to “win at rationality” without a strong incentive, just maybe it takes a Nobel-level rationalist to do so.

Winning isn’t everything?

Vince Lombardi said that “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Aren’t you jealous of him? It’s so simple! I think the most common question asked of our community, mostly by our community, is why we don’t “win” as much as we think we are supposed to. In a rare display of good sense, I’m not going to speculate about why any of you don’t win, I’ll talk about myself.

My job isn’t as interesting, meaningful and full of potential as I would hope for. Why don’t I apply rationality to win at building a better career? Because when I think about it I remember that my job is also decently paying, secure, and full of decent people. My job is easy, and winning is hard. When I read about Nate Soares trying to save the world I feel a little inspired and a little ashamed that I’m not. Nate is almost certainly a better mathematician that I am, but I don’t think there’s a gargantuan gap between us. The big gap between Nate and me is in the desire to win. In my heart of hearts, I just don’t want to save the world as much as he does.

Love wins

What could I possibly want more than saving the world?

There are two ladies, let’s call them Rachel and Leah since my username is reminiscent of the Biblical Jacob. I met Rachel at the desert well (OKCupid) and we went on a few dates and at the same time Leah also replied to me on OKCupid and we also went on a few dates.  Then there were some situations and complications and my desire not to be an asshole so I decided that I had to choose one. The basic heuristic I would normally use pointed slightly to Rachel, but I kept vacillating back and forth for a few days, they were both much more attractive than any other girl I ever met through the site. Suddenly it hit me like Chuck Norris: this is an important decision, with huge stakes, one that I would have to make based on incomplete information with my brain biology trying to trip me up every step of the way. Might not this call for some EWOR?

I got to work. I introspected on past relationships and read the relevant science literature to come up with a weighted list of qualities I am looking for to maximize my chances of a happy long-term relationship. I wrote down all the evidence that could affect my assessment each quality for each lady, and employed every method I could think of to debias myself and give my best guess at the ratings. Then I peeked for the first time at the final score, and it was very surprising. My gut expected Rachel to be slightly ahead, but Leah won handily. I stared at the numbers for a while. Maybe I was too critical here? Overweighted this category there? No! The ghost of Eliezer wouldn’t let me change the bottom line from a formula to a value cell. And then, after 30 minutes of staring at the numbers, my intuition started catching up. For example, my impression from the first date was that Leah wasn’t very funny, and it stuck. When I actually wrote down the evidence, I remembered that she cracked me up once on our second date and a couple of times on our third date as she was slowly beginning to open up and trust me. I gave her a higher rating on humor-compatibility than I thought I would. I closed the spreadsheet and went to sleep. Two days later I broke up with Rachel.

Was I accurate in assessing Leah? Not exactly. She’s above and beyond anything I could’ve guessed. If I don’t “win” a single thing more from my rationality training than the few months I have gotten to spend so far with her, I’ve won enough.

Did I just praise disagreement?

I told this story about Leah to someone at a rationalist gathering. I thought he might  congratulate me on my achievement in rationality or denounce me as a cold and heartless robot. His actual reaction caught me completely by surprise: he just flat out didn’t believe me. He said that I probably used a spreadsheet to justify after the fact a decision that my gut had already made. The idea of someone applying something like EWOR that belongs on internet forums, to something like picking a woman to date was so foreign to him that he rejected it outright. I could almost hear him screaming separate magisteria!

Getting to the points

I’m no good at writing pithy summaries.  If you saw a good point anywhere in those two posts, grab it. I can’t help you. For what it’s worth, here’s Jacobian’s guide to actually using rationality to win:

1.     If you don’t believe you can, Luke, don’t bother. But if you’re not sure whether it works, wouldn’t it be interesting to find out?

2.     Taking ideas seriously requires work, maybe even *gasp* doing math. If you disagree with Eliezer or anyone else on a matter of math or science, sit down and figure it out. Don’t just read stuff, write stuff. Write a bit of code that simulates a probability problem. Derive something from Shrodinger’s equation on a piece of paper. Reading stuff is useful, but it’s not work; rationality is work.

3.     If there’s an opinion that you’re afraid you may be irrationally attached to and you have a real desire to find out the truth, post it on LessWrong. Don’t post things that are 99.999% true, they probably are. Post what you’re 80% sure about, that’s a 20% chance to really learn something. People will call you an idiot online, that’s what the internet is for. Losing karma is how you become smarter, it’s quite a thrill.

4.     Rationality will not change your entire life at once. Pick one thing that you want to win at and apply rationality to it. Just one, but one where you’ll know if you won or lost, so “being wiser” doesn’t count. Getting laid counts. If you take an L, you’ll learn a lot. If you win, you’ll know that the force is yours to command.

Who knows, maybe in a few years you’ll think you’re strong enough to save the world or something.