The rational rationalist's guide to rationally using "rational" in rational post titles

by Vaniver1 min read27th May 201253 comments

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(Update: link display problem fixed.)

Counterexamples (promoted/high-karma/high-status author):

(I began with the first one and ended with the last one for a reason. I am entirely in favor of applause lights and positive-affect words as long as they serve their purpose -- community-building, making humans feel good -- and don't substitute for argument where the latter is appropriate.)

Of that list the following the following make the kind of usage that the OP would target if it was not being flippantly general.

  • Rational Romantic Relationships
  • Rational Reading
  • A Rational Education
  • Rational Home Buying

The remainder use the word where it needs to be used, or at least provides information about the subject. With these examples the title need only convey the subject that is being analyzed or strategized about. We can assume (or hope) that the analysis and strategies provided are rational because they are on flipping lesswrong. The inclusion of "Rational" in the title is not necessarily a problem in all these cases but the general class of posts following this format does start to look ridiculous when used excessively or taken to extremes.

I notice that one of the examples is mine. I would use a different title were I to make that post today. I don't want to be associated with "Rational Toothpaste" vibes!

[-][anonymous]8y 1

“Rational Reading” is particularly bad, as I would expect a post with that title to be about reading about rationality.

Right. "Rational" is perfectly fine to use when it refers to the set of behaviors and strategies for making choices that best advance goals and forming beliefs that are true-- typically characterized by fields like heuristics and biases literature, Bayesian epistemology, akrasia and executive functioning etc. It is also acceptable as one of the less unfortunate ways of referring to Less Wrong projects and individuals/ people inspired by the above concept of rationality, in general, at a meta-level. What it is not suitable for is as a substitute for words like "optimal", "best", "ideal", "true", "good" or "moral" on object-level, narrow-domain questions. While "rational" might be denotationally synonymous with these words it carries an additional connotation which suggests the post would have something to do with the aforementioned conception of rationality as understood by Less Wrong. A post about the best way to cook a chicken should not be called "Rational Poultry Cooking". I'd add to your target list "Exterminating life is rational" as I think that post should simply be called "...is moral" or "...maximizes utility".

The fact that the post itself is high-quality doesn't imply that it has the optimal title.

Why "Feeling Rational" has to have r-word in title; "Rational Romantic Relationships" would not lose much by changing to "Designing Better Romantic Relationships".

It would lose a perfectly good alliteration.

You mean an absolutely awesome alliteration?

I can't currently see your counterexamples (I would check the formatting of the hyperlinks- that tends to be what kills them for me), but one of the things to consider is the time when they were posted. There was a rash of these posts within the last six months, I think, which turned community opinion against using the word like this, and so if most of those counterexamples are from before that period then they may not be effective counterexamples. (It's difficult to create a list of posts which are examples of this, because many of them edited their titles in response to comments.)

I can't currently see your counterexamples (I would check the formatting of the hyperlinks- that tends to be what kills them for me)

It's now been fixed.

one of the things to consider is the time when they were posted. There was a rash of these posts within the last six months, I think, which turned community opinion against using the word like this, and so if most of those counterexamples are from before that period then they may not be effective counterexamples

I don't follow that logic at all. If recent posts using the word were bad, but previous posts were good, then the bad ones obviously aren't bad because of the word.

I don't follow that logic at all. If recent posts using the word were bad, but previous posts were good, then the bad ones obviously aren't bad because of the word.

Word associations can change. "Rational" in a post title might have implied "strategic" before but not do so now.

"Rational Home Buying" discusses how knowing about and counteracting biases can have a huge impact on life outcomes when applied to buying a house (invest heavily in making big decisions well!). "Rational toothpaste," the fictional example, should really be "toothpaste suggestions?", which suggests another difference- it may be more appropriate to use the word "rational" when making a suggestion (especially about a process) than when asking for advice.

As well, when asking for advice, one of the big inputs you should provide is your objective, which "rational" seems like it's doing but isn't actually doing. "Tastiest toothpaste?" is very different from "cheapest toothpaste?" is very different from "highest tech toothpaste?".

Don't misunderstand. I'm not disagreeing with your judgement of recent bad uses of "rational". I'm disagreeing with your post, which is a glib one-word statement to the effect of "don't use the word 'rational' in post titles". The examples I cited show that this is inappropriate advice.

What you should have said instead was this.

What you should have said instead was this.

A word to the wise is sufficient.

I agree that lsparrish's post is more communicative and general (I upvoted it); I disagree that I should have written it instead of this post.

The OP's joke works better when your examples don't show up.

(Edited for phrasing)

I hope you'll clarify what you mean by this; it currently sounds somewhat like a snarky insult.

(Cf: Me: "I can't get my comment to display." You: "Good.")

Sorry, that isn't at all what I meant!

What I meant was that, in the context of the original post, suggesting that you will present counterexamples and then failing to present any was in keeping with the joke of the thread.

I'll try to rephrase my comment.

[-][anonymous]8y 1

OK, a more accurate guide would be “Don't, unless you're discussing rationality itself (as opposed to an application thereof) or in other unusual circumstances.” But still.

It is almost always used as a redundant jargon term either as an applause light or as an attempt to justify an irrelevant subject as a legitimate subject for discussion.

Most instances of "A rational X of Y" can be replaced with "X of Y".

I agree with you I just don't like articles with a one-word command and no explanation.

To further explain the joke: note the contrast between the title, which crams in more words than can comfortably fit, with the body, which neatly expresses the advised course of action. An explanation that is more communicative but less literary would go as follows:

The word "rational," particularly when in the phrase "most rational," is seen as contentless and will cause downvotes and highly upvoted complaining comments. If you want advice on what toothbrush to buy, shoes to wear, or diet to eat, ask for advice and state your objectives. A 'rational' toothbrush is one that best acquires some value- and so just target that value. If you write a post asking for advice on improving your oral heath, you might get a recommendation for a flosser which could do more than getting a slightly better toothbrush.

See also the particularly rational brand of cigarettes.

Low Quality Video if you'd prefer. I think it loses something in text.

A joke? Well I feel stupid now!

On top of everything everyone else said, it also sounds a bit... what's the word I'm looking for here... cultish, maybe? Imagine Objectivists with a forum asking "What's the most Objective toothbrush?" or "How should an Objectivist deal with situation X?" Or "How should a Scientologist deal with situation X?" The connotation here is cult like - "How should my in-group, which you and I are a part of but everyone else out there isn't part of, deal with situation X?"

This doesn't mean using the words "rational" or "rationalist" in this fashion is actually cult like, but it's good general policy to avoid looking like a cult - especially when the cost is low.

Well, if a word is overused in titles and a one-line guide can convince you not to use it, the problem of overuse has just avoided being increased...

Reminds me of Schmidhuber. 'In this paper we present the optimally optimal optimizer, which optimizes optimally across all meta levels and also optimizes its own optimization optimally.' [ETA: I'm not actually quoting Schmidhuber, merely parodying him. I was for some reason under the impression that single quotes were commonly used to paraphrase people.]

I thought to myself for a little while whether you were quoting an actual quote or just made it up, since optimal optimization really does sound like something Schmidhuber might write about, and concluded it felt like a real quote at 40%.

Then Googling, I think you made it up.

Don't single quotes normally indicate paraphrasing?

Gwern is apparently familiar with more quoting styles than I, because no style I'm familiar with allows quote marks of any kind for something that isn't a direct quote.

Don't single quotes normally indicate paraphrasing?

No. Quotes, single or double, normally indicate quotation, or a few other things such as the use-mention distinction, but never paraphrasing.

Under some quoting styles, yes, they do. But no quoting style is so prevalent that this alone decides the question.

I was taught that single quotes are nested inside double quotes and vice versa, the default being double, but that they're otherwise equivalent.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

Maybe you're thinking of scare quotes or glosses, but they're normally restricted to single words or short phrases.

[-][anonymous]8y 7

I strongly dislike the word rational / rationality as labels for what we try to do here, because of its unfortunate Straw Vulcan connotations. Strangely, it seems to me that despite the very similar etymology, those connotations are much weaker in the words reasonable and reason. (For example, I would never think of telling someone I'm giving advice about romance “the most rational thing for you to do is [bla]”, but I have no problem with saying “the most reasonable thing” or “the thing that would make most sense”.)

I'd suggest to replace the last word in LessWrong's tagline from rationality to reason; would that have any drawbacks I can't think of?

Different connotations than those of "rational," but still some unfortunate ones: Reasonable means amenable to common sense, not absurd or shocking, not extreme, not controversial, etc.

[-][anonymous]8y 1

EY does use “sane”/“crazy” to mean ‘LW::rational’/‘LW::irrational’ somewhat often, which has those connotations to a much larger extent.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

Well, if we wanted something with no connotations at all, we should go with something like “Bayesian decision-theoretical”, but a tagline like “A community blog devoted to refining the art of applied Bayesian decision theory” wouldn't sound as good. :-)

I know this is tongue-in-cheek, but I'm reminded of the twelfth virtue:

You may try to name the highest principle with names such as “the map that reflects the territory” or “experience of success and failure” or “Bayesian decision theory”. But perhaps you describe incorrectly the nameless virtue. How will you discover your mistake? Not by comparing your description to itself, but by comparing it to that which you did not name.

"applied Bayesian decision theory" seems to be a particularly bad case of not capturing what rationality is about.

thinking that them sciency sounding words carry no connotations of status, oh the folly of youth. :p

"Reason" and related words also have unfortunate connotations. I actually feel much better about "rationality" than "reason".

[-][anonymous]8y 1

Downvoted because without specifying what those unfortunate connotations are (as khafra did), that comment isn't very informative.

I was actually going to mention khafra's comment first, then thought it was redundant. I just wanted to voice my objection so I didn't end up in a silent majority.

Downvoted because, while I agree with the content of the message [1], I object to the way it was delivered, which seems to me to imply that an acceptable reaction to those who make the mistake is, "That was so stupid, I'm not even going to explain why you're wrong. Just do what I say." That they're worth little enough to the community as to be acceptable targets of ridicule. If I had been publicly admonished in this way, I would feel alienated.

[1] Frivolous use of the word "rationality" and its conjugates in post titles needs to be curtailed and prevented.

Edited to clarify. (Thanks, wedrifid!) Original text follows for context, but please disregard.

Downvoted for status signalling at the expense of newcomers who can reasonably be expected to not have read A Human's Guide to Words yet, without at least linking to an accessible explanation for those who might misinterpret the joke.

for those who might misinterpret the joke.

People are remarkably good at inferring the context and intended message about social norms from the sparse information in a joke. Most people reading this title would be able to understand the sentiment and infer the approximate context that caused it.

Oh, wait. Is that just me?

Is the temporary amusement of some at the sniping of those others' status worth potentially alienating them from the community, even if they number less than "most"? I do not want such "ridicule of the less socially experienced and/or quick to read sequences" norms to become prevalent here.

Is the temporary amusement of some at the sniping of those others' status

This wasn't done. "My enemy is status signalling" is a moderately effective general purpose attack against positions one doesn't like but doesn't apply here (except in the Hansonian "Everything is Signalling" sense.)

I do not want such "ridicule of the less socially experienced and/or quick to read sequences" norms to become prevalent here.

And this isn't relevant. In fact, familiarity with the sequences would be in some ways negatively useful in the context (given that it may give the assumption that such usages of Rational in titles was the endorsed norm.)

This wasn't done. "My enemy is status signalling" is a moderately effective general purpose attack against positions one doesn't like but doesn't apply here (except in the Hansonian "Everything is Signalling" sense.)

I don't consider Vaniver an enemy, but will forgo brevity and taboo "status" to better show where I think I disagree with you:

  1. I agree with the content of the message; that frivolous use of the word "rationality" and its conjugates in post titles needs to be curtailed and prevented.

  2. I object to that message's delivery, which seems to me to imply that an acceptable reaction to those who make that mistake are, "That was so stupid, I'm not even going to explain why you're wrong. Just do what I say." That they're worth little enough to the community as to make them acceptable targets of public ridicule. If I had made the mistake, I would feel alienated by this.

And this isn't relevant. In fact, familiarity with the sequences would be in some ways negatively useful in the context (given that it may give the assumption that such usages of Rational in titles was the endorsed norm.)

You're right. What I meant was closer to, "insufficiently exposed to those portions of the sequences that warn against improper uses of words as to have internalized a certain level of caution about how they communicate," but I hadn't recalled the confounding counterexamples you reference (as mentioned here) at the time.

I also notice that "misinterpreting the joke" has little to do with my actual objection and will amend the great-grandparent accordingly. Thank you for prompting me to clarify.

I object to that message's delivery, which seems to me to imply that an acceptable reaction to those who make that mistake are, "That was so stupid, I'm not even going to explain why you're wrong. Just do what I say." That they're worth little enough to the community as to make them acceptable targets of public ridicule. If I had made the mistake, I would feel alienated by this.

That is one reason to be short. I also use brevity when I trust someone to understand a short message, because in that case a long message implies that they couldn't understand the short message.

I hoped that the title would serve as the explanation, as it's a reductio ad absurdum.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

The title of this post didn't remind me of that of that sequence, but I still got the point.

[-][anonymous]8y 5

[I've just mentally replaced all instances of the r-word in the title of this post (including that within the quotation marks) with the f-word. It's hilarious.]

This post was very rational.

A comment about the kind of post that regularly disobeys this rule:

I have found that putting the question to your local LessWrong meet up group is fun. An example: someone wanted to buy a car. We thought this was an interesting problem, so we helped him work on it. This involved roughly determining his utility function and actually calculating several options. Interesting solutions came up, such as renting an expensive, pleasurable car instead of purchasing a cost-effective but discomfiting car.

This is amusing.

[-][anonymous]8y 0
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