More Right

by adamzerner3 min read22nd Jul 202029 comments

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Before I came across LessWrong, I felt like I was the only sane person in the world. This excerpt from HPMOR illustrates those feelings well:

Harry didn't quite know how to describe in words the sense of kinship he felt with Professor Quirrell, except to say that the Defense Professor was the only clear-thinking person Harry had met in the wizarding world. Sooner or later everyone else started playing Quidditch, or not putting protective shells on their time machines, or thinking that Death was their friend. It didn't matter how good their intentions were. Sooner or later, and usually sooner, they demonstrated that something deep inside their brain was confused. Everyone except Professor Quirrell. It was a bond that went beyond anything of debts owed, or even anything of personal liking, that the two of them were alone in the wizarding world.

Here's an example. I have a friend who I study poker with. When we analyze hands, we dive deep into probabilities and expected values and game theory. We've done this hundreds and hundreds of times, and he's really good at doing it. He also seems quite sane overall.

The other day I tried something different with him. I told him that I estimate that the risk of dying from the coronavirus costs $6/hr in EV for someone playing live poker and asked what his estimate is. It's just probabilities and expected values, not radically different from when we analyze a poker hand together. I also said that as you value life more (yours and other peoples), it becomes more and more costly, and that I personally am hoping for some sort of life extension (anti-aging, cryonics, AI takeoff, etc).

His response was that too long of a life is a curse, because you'll eventually learn all you can learn, and because you stop the evolution of your consciousness when you unnaturally extend this life. Instead, you should be moving or cycling to whatever is next.

It caught me off guard. I genuinely wasn't expecting that from him. But alas:

Sooner or later, and usually sooner, they demonstrated that something deep inside their brain was confused.

This has been discussed many times before.

Outside The Laboratory:

Now what are we to think of a scientist who seems competent inside the laboratory, but who, outside the laboratory, believes in a spirit world?  We ask why, and the scientist says something along the lines of:  "Well, no one really knows, and I admit that I don't have any evidence - it's a religious belief, it can't be disproven one way or another by observation."  I cannot but conclude that this person literally doesn't know why you have to look at things.

Changing the Definition of Science:

Nobel laureate Robert Aumann, who first proved that Bayesians with the same priors cannot agree to disagree, is a believing Orthodox Jew.

Doctor, There are Two Kinds of "No Evidence":

So then I asked him whether by "no evidence" he meant that there have been lots of studies directly on this point which came back with the result that more chemo doesn’t help, or whether he meant that there was no evidence because there were few or no relevant studies... And good people, maybe I’m being unfair and underestimating this guy, but I swear to you that this fancy oncologist in this very prestigious institution didn’t seem to understand the difference between these two types of "no evidence."

I've always been really frustrated by this. And this frustration has lead me to sort people into two different buckets: smart, and stupid. You're smart if you don't have any of these ridiculous beliefs. Otherwise, you're stupid.

Well, I guess I can give you a pass if you are truly open minded about your ridiculous belief and genuinely demonstrate virtues like humility. For example, if the doctor in the above example said, "Huh, maybe I'm wrong about the way I'm thinking this. Let's discuss it.", I'd give that a pass and put him in the smart bucket. But most people who have ridiculous beliefs aren't humble about them. They might be humble about other things, but not about the ridiculous beliefs. They're usually not interested in the idea that these beliefs may be wrong.

This is a pretty low bar in my opinion. You don't have to be knowledgeable, creative, insightful, skilled, etc. As long as you avoid ridiculous beliefs, or are at least open-minded about them, I categorize that as being in the smart bucket. But still, even with this low bar, too few people are sane enough to reach it.

Sooner or later, and usually sooner, they demonstrated that something deep inside their brain was confused.

Imagine that we take someone who has a bunch of ridiculous beliefs and we remove them one by one. And suppose that we say that this person is becoming Less Wrong. I don't think this is what the name "Less Wrong" was really intended to mean, but let's run with it anyway. With this idea in mind, what would it mean to become More Right?

Well, what is it that made Robert Aumann successful? What about the doctor? What made him successful, despite his not understanding what evidence is? Maybe the answer to these questions is the process of becoming More Right.

I'm not sure how to get more precise about this distinction, or about what exactly the implications are, but it seems useful to distinguish between becoming Less Wrong and becoming More Right.


Footnotes:

1) I suspected that there were others and that I just hadn't come across them yet. Particularly some of the Nobel Prize intellectual types, but I didn't know enough about them to be able to tell whether they'd eventually "demonstrate that something deep inside their brain was confused".

2) Of course I don't mean to imply that this is the way to draw the line between smart and stupid. Part of it is that it helps me quell my frustration, but the bigger part of it is that I think it's a useful way to draw the line. People in one bucket behave in importantly different ways from the people in the other bucket. Again, there are certainly other useful ways to draw lines.

3) I was going to make a stronger statement and require that other virtues be present as well, but maybe they aren't needed. Imagine someone who has the virtue of humility but not empiricism. You could explain empiricism to them, and then they'll have that virtue (to some extent anyway), almost like a character adding a badge in a video game. Even if they don't have the virtue of lightness or curiosity, if they are truly humble, maybe you can explain lightness and curiosity as well. Maybe humility is the seed that everything else can grow from.

4) I agree with Ruby's interpretation that the name is trying to point at the fact that no human is anywhere close to being right about everything. That we all have a long ways to climb on the intelligence staircase.

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