Rationality Quotes Thread April 2015

Another month, another rationality quotes thread. The rules are:

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted separately. (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments. If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
  • Provide sufficient information (URL, title, date, page number, etc.) to enable a reader to find the place where you read the quote, or its original source if available. Do not quote with only a name.
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No, Mr. Shepard, with respect, (that) is not the moral of the story. The moral of the story is that, if you have grounds to believe there is a ferocious predator at large, don't appoint as your sole watchman a twelve-year-old child whom you have resolved to ignore.

  • Mitchell and Webb prosecuting attorney, from the sketch, "The boy who cried wolf"

When I was in law school, I devised my own idiosyncratic solution to the problem of studying a topic I knew nothing about. I'd wander into the library stacks, head to the relevant section, and pluck a book at random. I'd flip to the footnotes, and write down the books that seemed to occur most often. Then I'd pull them off the shelves, read their footnotes, and look at those books. It usually took only 2 or 3 rounds of this exercise before I had a pretty fair idea of who were the leading authorities in the field. After reading 3 or 4 of those books, I usually had at least enough orientation in the subject to understand what the main questions at issue were - and to seek my own answers, always provisional, always subject to new understanding, always requiring new reading and new thinking.

--David Frum

The oldest (non-dead) source I could find was this 2008 post by someone else quoting Frum.

Related to: Update Yourself Incrementally and For progress to be by accumulaton and not by random walk, read great books

Or you can just google it, and let PageRank do all that for you.

In Silicon Valley, [...] many of the more successful entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s where it’s like you’re missing the imitation, socialization gene... It happens to be a plus for innovation, and creating great companies, but I think we always should turn this around as an incredible critique of our society. We need to ask, what is it about our society where those of us who do not suffer from Asperger’s are at some massive disadvantage because we will be talked out of our interesting, original, creative ideas before they are even fully formed?

Peter Thiel on the Future of Innovation, in conversation with Tyler Cowen.

Science has this in common with art, that the most ordinary, everyday thing appears to it as something entirely new and attractive, as if metamorphosed by witchcraft and now seen for the first time. Life is worth living, says art, the beautiful temptress; life is worth knowing, says science.

Nietzsche, Homer and Classical Philology, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Homer_and_Classical_Philology

To teach students any psychology they did not know before, you must surprise them. But which surprise will do? Nisbett and Borgida found that when they presented their students with a surprising statistical fact, the students managed to learn nothing at all. But when the students were surprised by individual cases—two nice people who had not helped—they immediately made the generalization and inferred that helping is more difficult than they had thought. Nisbett and Borgida summarize the results in a memorable sentence:

Subjects’unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular.

This is a profoundly important conclusion. People who are taught surprising statistical facts about human behavior may be impressed to the point of telling their friends about what they have heard, but this does not mean that their understanding of the world has really changed. The test of learning psychology is whether your understanding of situations you encounter has changed, not whether you have learned a new fact. There is a deep gap between our thinking about statistics and our thinking about individual cases. Statistical results with a causal interpretation have a stronger effect on our thinking than noncausal information. But even compelling causal statistics will not change long-held beliefs or beliefs rooted in personal experience. On the other hand, surprising individual cases have a powerful impact and are a more effective tool for teaching psychology because the incongruity must be resolved and embedded in a causal story. That is why this book contains questions that are addressed personally to the reader. You are more likely to learn something by finding surprises in your own behavior than by hearing surprising facts about people in general.

--Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

There may be room for a few pure theorists... In my life I’ve met a few brilliant geniuses, very few, who could sit in an office and think great thoughts and contribute to the world. It’s a very small number, by the way. Then I’ve met lots of people who generalize, which doesn’t move me because I don’t find it helpful. I find it distracting, confusing, misguided, or misplaced.

For most of us mortals, I think the deep engagement in real problems is crucial. I wouldn’t want to train doctors without the medical students walking the wards with their mentors. I don’t like training economists without them grappling with real problems in real places and learning the complexity of the interacting physical, technological, political, economic, natural systems.

Jeffrey D. Sachs on the Future of Innovation, in conversation with Tyler Cowen.

Question for readers: Jeffrey Sachs is best known for two things - shock therapy for former communist countries trying to modernize, and the Millennium Village projects. Are these examples vindication or refutation of his quote here?

What is the difference between describing 'how' and explaining 'why'? To describe 'how' means to reconstruct the series of specific events that led from one point to another. To explain 'why' means to find causal connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series of events to the exclusion of all others.

--Yuval Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

In a lot of cases, 'why' can hide a lot of different questions, and needs to be properly reduced.

“What's up, Sarge? Do you want to live for ever?”

“Dunno. Ask me again in five hundred years.”

  • "Guards! Guards!", Terry Pratchett

Truth only looks like trolling when it is sufficiently uncomfortable.

Vox Day

Or because it's delivered offensively.

Or because it's phrased tendentiously.

Or because it's irrelevant.

Or because it's false by implicature.

And so on.

For example, the following statement is true:

Human beings have a degree of Neanderthal genetic admixture.

However, if, during an argument about politics and science fiction, this were phrased as:

You are not fully human.

This would be offensive trolling, for all of the above reasons. Especially if the victim were a member of a racial minority historically treated badly. "Haha all I meant was Neanderthal DNA, you hate science," doesn't save the statement, it just extends the troll. This is not because people are upset about an "uncomfortable truth," but because the speaker is being a jackass.

And indeed, that quote is itself trolling. It is a favourite troll tactic to claim to be just a persecuted truth-teller! And surely if you know anything about Vox Day, you would know that he is one of the Internet's leading trolls, who takes great delight in upsetting his ideological enemies, and no, not merely by "speaking truth to power." Which makes me suspicious of your motives in posting this here.

However, if, during an argument about politics and science fiction, this were phrased as:

Well, but that's not true, since Neanderthals are human.

Your link goes to the page for the genus "homo", not to the page for "human," which starts:

Modern humans (Homo sapiens primarily ssp. Homo sapiens sapiens)...

i.e. neanderthals are not normally included. The word can have different shades of meaning, but it is quite standard to use "human" to refer to homo sapiens sapiens. I didn't want to quote the precise bile spewed by Mr. Beale, as it doesn't seem relevant, but you can find what he actually wrote in the link above.

But look, in what sense is that relevant? Beale's remark is offensive and trollish regardless of whether the word "human" fairly encompasses neanderthals. It's not the technical truth-value of the claim that causes objections, it's that it's phrased offensively, tendentiously, is irrelevant to the question, is false by implicature (and other objections too). That's what makes it trolling.

Your link goes to the page for the genus "homo", not to the page for "human," which starts:

But, of course, if you go to the disambiguation page), it points to the genus (that I linked) as another use of the word.

That's what makes it trolling.

I agree that "trolling" describes a person's intention more cleanly than it describes a claim's truth, but the claim's truth remains more important to me than whether or not the claim-maker is trolling.

I didn't want to quote the precise bile spewed by Mr. Beale, as it doesn't seem relevant, but you can find what he actually wrote in the link above.

So, I went and looked it up. You do realize that he is complaining that she doesn't have enough Neanderthal admixture, right? (But even then, I don't think species-level distinctions capture his true point, so much as the selective pressures of living in civilization / the slow change of cultures.)

What great causes are deeply unpopular?

Peter Thiel 50m into the interview. He only wants to fund unpopular causes because he assumes popular causes are relatively well funded.

I dunno, much of the popularity of certain causes is just slacktivism.

Also, non-popular causes deserve to be considered before leaping all the way to the other end of the spectrum.

What if you only have time to consider a small number of charities. Might it be reasonable to only look at those for unpopular causes?

I mean, sure. But it's not as though this scenario much resembles such a case.

There are causes people like, and there are causes people want to signal liking as it makes them look good. The second tends to attract slacktivism.

Now on what condition is the use of hypothesis without danger?

The firm determination to submit to experiment is not enough; there are still dangerous hypotheses; first, and above all, those which are tacit and unconscious. Since we make them without knowing it, we are powerless to abandon them. Here again, then, is a service that mathematical physics can render us. By the precision that is characteristic of it, it compels us to formulate all the hypotheses that we should make without it, but unconsciously.

Henri Poincaré, "The Foundations of Science".

On the contrary, this is what the Litany of Tarski states.

But by the Litany of Tarski, I want to desire the truth, I want the truth to be desirable.

The quotation (I take it) means:

The truth need not be, and we shouldn't demand that it be, something that we find desirable aside from its being the truth. (1)

What you are saying (I take it) is:

Once we know the truth for what it is, we should desire it on that account (2)

or maybe

Our desires should be such that they lead us to desire what is true (3)

neither of which is the same as what the quotation deplores. And neither of these is in fact the same as what the Litany of Tarski recommends, which is

We should desire that our opinion match the truth. (4)

Perhaps a few specific examples may help to clarify the distinctions.

2,3 versus 4: I desire to believe that I will be dead in a week if in fact I will be dead in a week (4). But I don't see any reason why I should want to be dead in a week (3), nor would I be glad of being dead in a week if I learned I would be (2).

2 versus 3: Perhaps there is something to be said for an attitude of acceptance, whereby once I know I will be dead in a week I adjust my mental attitudes so as to be accepting, or even glad (2). But that doesn't mean that ahead of time I should prefer being dead in a week to not being dead in a week, even if at that point it happens that I already have the aneurysm that's going to kill me (3).

1 versus 2: (Almost identical to 2 versus 3, above.) Perhaps, if I find that I shall be dead in a week, I should adopt a positive attitude to that fact. But that doesn't mean that being dead in a week should be something I find desirable if I don't know it's going to happen.

1 versus 3: These are both commenting on the question of whether our desires should match up with how the world is. But they have different focuses. #1 is saying that because they don't always match, we shouldn't use our desires as a guide to how the world is. But #3 is saying that we should use how the world is to help form our desires. Those are not necessarily in conflict.

"Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged." -- ''Grice, Paul (1975). "Logic and conversation". pp. 41–58.''

Conversation is an art. The above is the 'well-known' Cooperative Principle.

Magnificent phrases like 'inductive reactance' flow effortlessly from the lips of guys who can't cook hotdogs or find the flashing blue light in a K-mart store. That's important to keep in mind. It doesn't take a lot of brains to learn a few words. Parakeets and my a birds do it all the time. You can, too. It's not work, it's a game.

  • Kenn Amdahl "There are no Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings"

Yet another variant on the difference between words and understanding.

If you can't feed your baby, then don't have a baby.

-Michael Jackson (Wanna be starting something)

Right, just the thing they should have told those irrational pregnant women who ran away from the Eastern part of Ukraine.

Even if we're willing to take it out of context like this, we might still consider it ethically undesirable to have kids in a time and place where military conflict or politically caused poverty is likely.

we might still consider it ethically undesirable to have kids in a time and place where military conflict or politically caused poverty is likely.

Applying this, humanity would have quietly died out a few thousand years ago...

2 responses:

  1. It is possible that this would have been better overall.
  2. Even if we reject 1, humanity was no where near extinction for thousands of years now.

You can easily augment the underlying harm avoidance principle with a condition that it should not result in the extinction of intelligent life (assuming that intelligent life doesn't cause even more harm in the long run).

It is possible that this would have been better overall.

That makes no sense to me at all.

humanity was no where near extinction for thousands of years now.

Because it did not follow the ethical guideline that you suggested.

Because it did not follow the ethical guideline that you suggested.

This statement, if true, only shows that not following the guideline back then was the correct choice. What about today?

This statement, if true, only shows that not following the guideline back then was the correct choice. What about today?

What, do you feel, is the relevant difference between back then and today?

It's as HedonicTreader said: humanity is nowhere near extinction today.

His ethical guideline has nothing to do with how close humanity is to extinction.

However, if practiced diligently, it can bring humanity to extinction in a few generations from any population size.

However, if practiced diligently, it can bring humanity to extinction in a few generations from any population size.

This is a questionable claim. Do you have any evidence to support it?

It's a hypothetical -- there is no evidence for or against it as it never happened and is highly unlikely to happen.

But let me point out that it sets up a downward feedback loop.

It's a hypothetical -- there is no evidence for or against it as it never happened and is highly unlikely to happen.

AI's never been developed before either, but that hasn't stopped people from trying to forecast the future, or at least enumerate likely scenarios. You were making a claim about a causal link: "following HedonicTreader's guideline will cause humanity to go extinct." Either this link exists or it does not, and you don't get to back out of providing evidence just because the situation is a hypothetical.

But let me point out that it sets up a downward feedback loop.

What's the loop?

(EDIT: Upon reflection, I feel I should clarify that I'm not actually disagreeing with you here. I'm slightly more sympathetic to HedonicTreader's position than yours at the moment, but with some convincing, that could easily change. My questions should be interpreted more as requests for information than as rhetorical challenges.)

you don't get to back out of providing evidence just because the situation is a hypothetical.

I use the word "evidence" to mean empirical evidence, that is, evidence from reality. Such does not exist in this case. Arguments from analogy, logic, etc. are not evidence.

What's the loop?

The worsening of conditions triggers a major contraction of population which worsens the conditions further (contemporary economies take contraction badly and at sufficiently low population numbers and densities advanced technology becomes problematic) which triggers further contraction of the population...

His ethical guideline has nothing to do with how close humanity is to extinction.

Except I already wrote:

You can easily augment the underlying harm avoidance principle with a condition that it should not result in the extinction of intelligent life (assuming that intelligent life doesn't cause even more harm in the long run).

You don't even have to apply the principle of charity, you could just look at what I had literally written.

However, if practiced diligently, it can bring humanity to extinction in a few generations from any population size.

Nonsense. Most humans don't live in a warzone at any time now. And followed in extreme poverty, this principle would reduce local malthusian traps and probably reduce poverty; at least the suffering of children from poverty.

I personally wouldn't decide to have kids in a warzone... But what context are you referring to? Is there any context outside of sudden, subjectively unlikely disaster where the quote is meaningful?

I personally wouldn't decide to have kids in a warzone...

...but it's okay if others do it? How is that different from saying, "I personally woudn't decide to abuse children..."

Is there any context outside of sudden, subjectively unlikely disaster where the quote is meaningful?

It was written by Michael Jackson. I don't think he was referring to sudden, subjectively unlikely disasters, but the personal material means of people deciding to become parents.

How is that different from saying, "I personally woudn't decide to abuse children..."

It's impossible to have children and do no actions whatsoever which are less than optimal for the children. Rather, people make--and have to make--tradeoffs between things being bad for the children and other considerations. There is an acceptable range of such tradeoffs. Having kids in a warzone falls in that range and abusing kids does not. And even if you think people making other tradeoffs are actually wrong rather than just making the tradeoffs based on different circumstances, there are degrees of being wrong and abuse is wrong to a greater degree.

The dominating distinction between our perspectives is that I don't think having kids in a warzone is an acceptable tradeoff, where you think it is.

This is probably just an intuitive disagreement about the relative harm and benefit of being born into a warzone.

I think it is clearly a very bad deal for the child, and to do it recklessly or out of selfishness in fact constitutes a form of child abuse. Of course, if you would actually rather be born into poverty or war, than not be born, you will disagree where the acceptable range lies.

We do not disagree about the rest of the argument.

Is it the same to die without ever abusing children and to die childless?

But what if I can get taxpayers to feed my baby?

Af first I thought you doing that Redditesque sarcasm, in which you argue a straw man of the outgroup in a mocking way, which made me disappointed since the goal is signaling rather than discourse.

However perhaps you are being serious? Are social services a valid means of feeding a baby, rendering the original quote not applicable in countries where social services exist? I think the answer is obviously yes, in that if social services are available, people are going to use them. Whether the should exist is a separate discussion.

I was being serious. Abstractly, if my doing X requires Y, but I don't have Y but I'm confident that if I do X the government will give me Y, then my lack of Y isn't much of a reason to forgo X.

I think it's a law that if you fund something you get more of it. Serious discussion of safety nets, etc. already assumes some parasite response from the "ecosystem," takes it into account, and argues safety nets are still a good thing on net.

I think "unintended consequences" is a better analysis framework than "parasite response from the ecosystem".

And speaking of, there is a recent paper discussed on MR which claims to show how safety nets drive down the decline in labor force participation and, in particular, that "the Clinton-era welfare reforms lowered the incentive to work".

I think "unintended consequences" is a better analysis framework than "parasite response from the ecosystem".

It certainly sounds less cynical, unless we use strong charity and see it in the most technical way possible.

I think the most plausible use case for government-funded incentives to have extra kids is a wide consensus that a society doesn't have enough of them at the time, according to some economical or social optimum.

But even this requires a level of cynicism in seeing kids as a means to an end.

Can you also get them to pay for cryonics? I don't know if you consider cryonics worthwhile, but the point is that "feed" generalizes easily.

When you counter, don't let them cut you. When you protect someone, don't let them die. And when you attack, KILL!

  • Urahara Kisuke

The difference is that babies suffer if they starve, but not if they don't have cryonics.

The badness of making an extra life comes from its suffering (+ negative externalities) [- positive externalities]

Interesting... can you say more about why you include a term in that equation for internal negative value (what you label "suffering" here), but not internal positive value (e.g., "pleasure" or "happiness" or "joy" or "Fun" or whatever label we want to use)?

I suppose it was because the original quote started with a negative framing, the assumption that the baby might not be fed.

I think both birth and death are stressful experiences that are not worth going through unless there are compensating other factors. I don't think infants have enough of those if they die before they grow up.

Also I suspect human life is generally overrated, and the positives of life are often used as an excuse to justify the suffering of others. I do not trust people to make a realistic estimate and act with genuine benevolence.

Compassion and denial, mixed together, can be a lethal cocktail.

Daniel Falush

It would have been wiser for the English governing class to have called upon some other god. All other gods, however weak and warring, at least boast of being constant. But science boasts of being in a flux for ever; boasts of being unstable as water.

GK Chesterton, Heretics

(for "god" read "moral principles")

So raise your glass if you are wrong in all the right ways!

  • Pink, virtually alone among the pop-singer community in her early endorsement of the post-rationality movement.

(Epistemic status: frivolous wordplay on the different meanings of "wrong.")

Jim Raynor: You think he's right? That I'm just gonna run out on you all?

Ajendarro Ybarra: You got us working for the Dominion now, Commander. Taking us back to Char. It's like you're gone already.

Jim Raynor: This ain't about the Dominion. Our war has always been about saving lives. If the Zerg wipe everyone out, it's all been for nothing. So I'm going back to Char. If you're with me, it's your choice. Just like it's always been.

--Jim Raynor, Starcraft