Don't You Care If It Works? - Part 1

by Jacobian 4 min read29th Jul 201560 comments



Part 1 - Epistemic

Prologue - other people

Psychologists at Harvard showed that most people have implicit biases about several groups. Some other Harvard psychologists were subjects of this study proving that psychologists undervalue CVs with female names. All Harvard psychologists have probably heard about the effect of black names on resumes since even we have. Surely every psychology department in this country starting with Harvard will only review CVs with the names removed? Fat chance.

Caveat lector et scriptor

A couple weeks ago I wrote a poem that makes aspiring rationalists feel better about themselves. Today I'm going to undo that. Disclaimers: This is written with my charity meter set to 5%. Every other paragraph is generalizing from anecdotes and typical-mind-fallacying. A lot of the points I make were made before and better. You should really close this tab and read those other links instead, I won't judge you. I'm not going to write in an academic style with a bibliography at the end, I'm going to write in the sarcastic style my blog would have if I weren't too lazy to start one. I'm also not trying to prove any strong empirical claims, this is BYOE: bring your own evidence. Imagine every sentence starting with "I could be totally wrong" if it makes it more digestible. Inasmuch as any accusations in this post are applicable, they apply to me as well. My goal is to get you worried, because I'm worried. If you read this and you're not worried, you should be. If you are, good!

Disagree to disagree

Edit: in the next paragraph, "Bob" was originally an investment advisor. My thanks to 2irons and Eliezer who pointed out why this is literally the worst example of a job I could give to argue my point.

Is 149 a prime? Take as long as you need to convince yourself (by math or by Google) that it is. Is it unreasonable to have 99.9...% confidence with quite a few nines (and an occasional 7) in there? Now let's say that you have a tax accountant, Bob, a decent guy that seems to be doing a decent job filing your taxes. You start chatting with Bob and he reveals that he's pretty sure that 149 isn't a prime. He doesn't know two numbers whose product is 149, it just feels unprimely to him. You try to reason with him, but he just chides you for being so arrogant in your confidence: can't you just agree to disagree on this one? It's not like either of you is a numbers theorist. His job is to not get you audited by the IRS, which he does, not factorize numbers. Are you a little bit worried about trusting Bob with your taxes? What if he actually claimed to be a mathematician?

A few weeks ago I started reading beautiful probability and immediately thought that Eliezer is wrong about the stopping rule mattering to inference. I dropped everything and spent the next three hours convincing myself that the stopping rule doesn't matter and I agree with Jaynes and Eliezer. As luck would have it, soon after that the stopping rule question was the topic of discussion at our local LW meetup. A couple people agreed with me and a couple didn't and tried to prove it with math, but most of the room seemed to hold a third opinion: they disagreed but didn't care to find out. I found that position quite mind-boggling. Ostensibly, most people are in that room because we read the sequences and thought that this EWOR (Eliezer's Way Of Rationality) thing is pretty cool. EWOR is an epistemology based on the mathematical rules of probability, and the dude who came up with it apparently does mathematics for a living trying to save the world. It doesn't seem like a stretch to think that if you disagree with Eliezer on a question of probability math, a question that he considers so obvious it requires no explanation, that's a big frickin' deal!

Authority screens off that other authority you heard from afterwards

 Opinion change

This is a chart that I made because I got excited about learning ggplot2 in R. On the right side of the chart are a lot bright red dots below the very top who believe in MIRI but also read the quantum physics sequence and don't think that MWI is very likely. Some of them understood the question of P(MWI) to be about whether MWI is the one and only exact truth, but I'm sure that several of them read it the way I did, roughly as: 1-P(collapse is true given current evidence). A lot of these people are congratulating themselves on avoiding cultishness. In the comments they mention other bloggers (or maybe even physicists!) who think that collapse is totally Beatles and MWI is Bieber.

Hold on, why did Eliezer even take all this time to write a huge quantum physics sequence? Here's how I see it: It's not to settle a point about some scientific dispute. It's to show that a person with some spare time and a little above average IQ can figure out something beyond people of massive authority, on the very subject of their authority, even if that subjects is as scary as QM. You know what’s the median IQ of the dots on above chart? 139 points! 139!!! And you know who has spare time? Someone who read 100% of the sequences!

Why should you even care about this? Because Eliezer does. He's so fanatically confident about MWI not for its own sake, it's because he's saying (at least to my ears): "This is my EWOR epistemology. It may not make you skinny and rich, but if it will do just one thing for you it will prevent you from being very very confident in beliefs that could be proven wrong. So if I'm very very confident about a question of science or math, I'm sticking my neck out and betting my entire epistemology on being right, so you can check it for yourself". In fact, Eliezer will totally judge your epistemology based on your belief in MWI. You won't do the same to him when he asks you to?

I'm a bright red dot on the chart above. Here are two statements I believe from authority because it is beyond my cognitive powers and domain knowledge to assess them as arguments: "strong AI will break out of any box humans can design", "CEV is the best basis for programming morality in AI". I believe them because I tested Eliezer on stopping rules and MWI and 20 other things, and came away convinced each time. My confidence of 98% in MWI is an upper bound on my confidence in whatever Eliezer tells me about anything. If I became convinced that collapse is correct or that stopping rules affect Bayesian inference I'll email Nate Soares at once and ask for a refund on my MIRI donation.

By the way, this would be a good time to stop reading and give MIRI some money. That’s OK, I'll wait.

The good book

A man comes to you with a book and says that it will grant you the only wisdom worth having, and as a side effect it may save your eternal soul. You read the book cover to cover and decide that the ideas you thought are nice are probably true, the ones that you didn't aren't, and you really like the bit with horses. Everyone on LW makes fun of you for claiming to take seriously something you don’t. Y’all see where this is going, don't you? Yes, it's fun to read the sequences for the "insight porn". It's also fun to read the Old Testament for the porn porn. But, maybe it could be more? Wouldn't it be kinda cool if you could read a book and become an epistemic superman, showing up experts wrong in their own domains and being proven right? Or maybe some important questions are going to come up in your life and you'll need to know the actual true answers? Or at least some questions you can bet $20 on with your friends and win?

Don't you want to know if this thing even works?


To be continued

Part 2 is here. In it: whining is ceased, arguments are argued about, motivations are explained, love is found, and points are taken.