Science: Do It Yourself

by alyssavance5 min read13th Feb 2011207 comments


Practice & Philosophy of ScienceCareersCuriosityEmpiricismPractical

In the nerd community, we have lots of warm, fuzzy associations around 'science'. And, of course, science is indeed awesome. But, seeing how awesome science is, shouldn't we try to have more of it in our lives? When was the last time we did an experiment to test a theory?

Here, I will try to introduce a technique which I have found to be very useful. It is based on the classical scientific method, but I call it "DIY Science", to distinguish it from university science. The point of DIY Science is that science is not that hard to do, and can be used to answer practical questions as well as abstract ones. Particle physics looks hard to do, since you need expensive, massive accelerators and magnets and stuff. However, fortunately, some of the fields in which it is easiest to do science are some of the most practical and interesting. Anyone smart and rational can start doing science right now, from their home computer.

One of the key ingredients of DIY Science is to discard the more useless trappings of university science, for these frequently do more harm than good. Science doesn't need journals and universities. Science doesn't need beakers and test tubes. Science doesn't need p < 0.05, although I have found p-tests to be occasionally useful. The point of science is not to conform to these stereotypes of academia, but to discover something you didn't know before. (To our detriment, this is the opposite of how science is taught, as noted by Paul Graham: "So hackers start original, and get good, and scientists start good, and get original.")

Instead, as an simple first example, consider this question:

 - I want to get rich, or to be specific, have a net worth of over $100M USD. How do people get rich?

Here, we have an opportunity: We don't know something, and we want to find out what it is. To answer this question, our first intuition might be to Google "how do people get rich?". This isn't a horrible method, but by just asking someone else, we are not doing any science. Googling or asking a friend isn't the scientific method; it's the medieval method. (In medieval times, we would just have gone to the Church and asked, and the Church would have replied, "Pray diligently to the LORD and have faith, and you will be prosperous." Different people, same thing.)

In fields like physics, where lots of science is already being done by others, this will probably be OK. However, what if the question isn't about physics, like most questions people ask? Then, when you ask Google or a friend, you wind up with complete nonsense like this, which is the first Google result for "how do people get rich". Most people don't know how to use science, so that sort of nonsense is what most people believe about the world, which is why Western civilization is in such a mess right now.

Instead of Googling or asking someone else, we can apply the scientific method of actually looking at the data, and seeing what it says. Who are some rich people? How did they get rich? Where can we find information on rich people? The simplest technique, the one that I used when answering this question, is:

- Google the list of the Forbes 400.

- Go through each of the biographies for people on the list (or the first 200, or the first 100, or whatever is a large enough sample).

- Write down how they got rich.

- Summarize the data above: How do most rich people get rich?

Actually looking at data is simple, easy, and straightforward, and yet almost no one actually does it. Here's another one: Adjusted for inflation, what is the average, long-term appreciation of the stock market? Here's the historical Dow Jones index, and here's an inflation calculator. Try it and see!

The underlying principle here is very simple: Want to know whether something is true? Go look at the data and see. Look at the numbers. Look at the results. Look at a sample. JFDI.

For another simple example, one that I haven't done myself: It is a common perception that lottery players are stupid. But is it actually true? Is stupidity what causes people to play the lottery? It's easy enough to find out: look up a bunch of lottery winners, and see how smart they are. What jobs do they work in? What degrees do they have? What about compared with the average American population? What do they have in common?

There are an infinite number of these sorts of questions. How accurate are food expiration dates? How important is it to wear a helmet on a bike? How likely are STD infections? How many Americans are college graduates? Dropouts? What about high-income Americans?

Unlike most university science, DIY Science can actually make you happier, right here and now. One particularly useful group of questions, for instance, concerns things that people worry about. How likely are they, really? What are the expected consequences? What does the data say? For example, when I was younger, when I got a cold, I used to worry that it was actually some serious disease. Then, I looked up the numbers, and found out that virtually no one my age (10-25) got sick enough to have a high chance of dying. Most people worry too much - what things do you worry about that make you unhappy? What do the data say about them?

Or, suppose you want to save money to buy something expensive. The usual way people do this is, they take their income, subtract all of their necessary monthly expenses, and then figure that whatever is left over is how much they can save. Trouble is, people's necessities grow to match whatever their income is, even if their income is $2,000,000. If you get used to something, you start seeing it as "necessary", because you can't imagine life without it. How do you know if you really do need something? Use science! Try, just for a day, not using one thing with those monthly payments attached- electricity, phone, Internet, car, cable TV, satellite radio, what have you.

Of course, it isn't always easy, because sometimes people try to fool everyone. For instance, intelligence is distributed on a bell curve. Everyone knows that... right? As it turns out, the only reason IQ scores fit a bell curve, is because IQ is defined as a bell-curve-shaped statistic! Now, after the lie has been exposed, come the interesting questions: How is intelligence actually distributed? How could we find out? What measurements could we use?

Sometimes, questions get so politically loaded that you have to get tricky. To name a perennial favorite: Is global warming happening, and if it is, how much damage will it cause? It doesn't matter how much funding the NSF or some other agency gives this question, because the answers are already pre-determined; "yes" and "a lot" if you're a Blue, and "no" and "not much" if you're a Green. Peter Thiel, SIAI's largest donor, sums it up very nicely:

"There’s a degree to which it is just a status and political-correctness issue. The debates are for the most part not about the policies or about the ideas, but what is cool, what is trendy. Take something like the climate-change debate. I think it’s an important question, and I think it’s actually quite hard to figure out what the science is. It might be something for us to worry about. But I think there’s actually no debate at all — there’s no attempt to understand the science. It’s mostly moral posturing of one form or another.

Beyond the posturing, it’s a form of cowardice that’s very much linked to political correctness, where it’s not fashionable or not cool to offer dissenting opinions."

So, how do we really find out? Which evidence can we use? Where can we find it?

In exploring DIY Science, we ought to question everything, even things that we know (or think we know) to be true. "Common knowledge" is such a bad guide that false things float around for decades, all the time. Consider Wikipedia's List of Common Misconceptions. Reading through the whole thing, how many did you think were true? And these are the small set of things for which we have undeniable proof!

To name something which I do believe to be true: do men and women have the same average intelligence? They do, but how do we know that? Present studies can't be trusted, because the field is too politicized. You have to also look at pre-1970 studies, which indeed show agreement with modern ones. (Of course, past studies aren't always right, but agreement across many different time periods is fairly strong evidence.)

Or, to look at the subject of this blog: is rationality an effective means of achieving goals? To what extent? How do we know that? Well, on one side, what statistics I can find show that atheists make more than Christians. But they also show that Jews have higher incomes than atheists. Should we all convert to Judaism? Or, to take historical cases, Franklin was far more rational than average, but Hitler was far less. Clearly, more analysis is needed here.

One idea might be to look at what top chess players do: chess is a very objective metric, the players all have the same goals (to win the game), and the game is purely about mental decision-making. How rational are Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fisher? What about the top few hundred players worldwide? I don't have any clue what this will find, just a wild guess. 

I say all this on this blog, to some extent, because thinking about the data is not the only component of rationality; in order to have rational beliefs, one must also gather lots of data, and specifically, data about the problem one is trying to solve. No one in ancient Greece, no matter how well they thought, could have a good understanding of particle physics, because they didn't have any data on how particles behaved. Fortunately, with the Internet and online ordering of everything under the sun, data is very easy to collect. So- forward, in the name of Science!


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DIY science seems to ignore prior work. You claim using google is a medieval way of doing science. On the contrary, its a very modern way of science. Medieval science relied on polymaths discovering things for the first time. Gallileo needed his thought experiments to determine such things as the inverse square law and that mass did not impact the acceleration of a falling object (he also reasoned that light was instantaneous, but given the tools at the time it wasn't such an unreasonable conclusion). Nowadays scientists make progress by building on the progress of others, so while it can be useful to develop a critical mind to figure out from first principles how one's fridge functions, you'd be better off using your critical facilties to assess the evidence someone else has collected.

Note that the critical assessment of scientific literature is a non-trivial skill, but a far more valuable one. By myself, doing some work on how to become rich, I might make some decent conclusions, but I have neither the man power nor training to necessarily come to the correct conclusions. If I can accurately assess scientific papers, however, I should be able to discern which papers are closest to reflecting the evidence.

[-][anonymous]10y 29

Put it another way: looking up other people's research is scholarship, not science. Scholarship isn't bad. In most fields scholarship is useful, and in technical fields it's a prerequisite to doing science. But -- people should also look at the data directly. If the literature isn't useful (and "how to get rich," for instance, doesn't have an obvious body of sound literature behind it) then unless you look at the data, you'll never know.

And is the literature accurate on more explicitly scientific topics, like global warming? Well, I don't know. To know the answer, I'd have to know more about geophysics myself, be able to assess the data myself, and compare my "DIY science" to the experts and see if they match. Or, I'd have to know something about the trustworthiness of peer-reviewed scientific studies in general -- how likely they are to be true or false -- and use that data to inform how much I trust climate scientists. Either way, to have good evidence to believe or not believe scientists, I'd need data of my own.

The phrase "DIY science" makes it sound like there's some virtue in going it alone. All alone, no help from the establishment. ... (read more)

1Mass_Driver10yTop level post, please!
8alyssavance10y"DIY science seems to ignore prior work." Yes, because most of the 'prior work' that floats around on the Internet and in books is terrible, and it's a lot more difficult to figure out which parts are good than to just do simple empiricism yourself. "You claim using google is a medieval way of doing science." The important thing isn't the act of using Google (a tool), but where you're getting your information from. If you simply Google X and click on the first result, this is basically equivalent to just asking the person who wrote the web page what they think about X. The distinction is: medievalism: go to someone who seems like they're an expert, and ask them about X rationalism: look at the data, see what the data says about X This also applies if you're reading books or whatever. "Nowadays scientists make progress by building on the progress of others," You don't provide evidence that this actually works well. In physics this seems to genuinely be the case, and in a few other sciences to varying degrees, but for the sorts of questions I'm considering here the "progress of others" is largely gibberish.
3thakil10yI'm not saying that doing science oneself in areas where problems are genuinely unsolved is un-useful, I'm saying the first instinct of the scientist would be to see what work others have done, and then, if that proves useless, do it oneself. Usually discovering what others have done is instructive because it allows you to see things they've missed. I'm not particulary interested in the question of how one becomes wealthy, but I'd be surprised that there aren't useful answers out there if one searches hard enough. Certainly clicking the first link on google is basically medieval, but using google as it is meant to be used, a tool which allows you to discover information as efficiently as possible, will usually be better than finding the answers oneself. On an investigation into wealth, I might critisise your work [note, this is a guess because you do not (understandably) give your results and I have no interest in repeating them myself] by supposing that the top 400 may not be a terribly useful sample, being rather exceptional, and might not provide useful insights: I'd much rather look at the aggregate of the thousands of millionares, for example, and think about that. I'm not necessarily dismissing this post, using your mind to solve these kind of problems is often very instructive, but I'm not sure its the best way to acheive results.
[-][anonymous]10y 11

Upvoted because data really is important.

People that are above two sigma and have studied relevant math would I think have real gains by taking some of academia with a grain of salt and checking the data to see what they think it says.

An added bonus is that it is also the only way to be rational about things that perhaps our society isn't rational about due to status and moral posturing, a incentive to deceive or just simple widely held biases.

Generally I think the topic could potentially get a better treatment, not because the article is bad, but because it really is that important.

Unlike most university science, DIY Science can actually make you happier, right here and now.

Really? Even if I'm already in the libertarian-atheist-countercultural-hacker-intellectual cluster? I checked two statistics in high crashes were high enough that I chose to drive conservatively, and STI rates were high enough that I chose to make a big deal about condoms, although not so high that I took arguments from STDs for abstinence or monogamy seriously. Since then, I just haven't felt the need to go look at the data as I make personal life choices. I feel like I'm surrounded, socially, by the kind of weirdos who also looked up a couple of statistics in high school, and together we all bring each other's factual assumptions about lifestyle risks and rewards into something approaching the reality zone.

There are, of course, some questions to which I don't know the answer and that would interest me because the answer could help me make choices. But these questions tend to be narrow enough that there's no "Forbes 100" list to use as an objective reference -- I have to go and compile the data myself, which is both more annoying and less reliable. E.g., I don't... (read more)

[-][anonymous]10y 11

I do care about how one becomes a successful solo practitioner in the field of California consumer law, but they don't exactly have databases about that.

Here's what I do:

Look at the job type you want. Look at professional websites of the people who have the jobs you want. Look at their CV's and see how they got there. If any of that info is expressible in a quantitative form (e.g. percent who went to top ten law schools) tabulate that.

You might notice "Oh, wait, most people who have the job I want have background X that I don't have!" (Different college major or whatever.) That might be evidence that you can't get that job; but before you start worrying, send someone an email and ask "How likely is it for me to get a job like yours with background Y instead of X?" It may be that your background is unusual but not a handicap.

Is it less rigorous than a scientific study? You bet. Is it better than nothing? Much.

If you have access to the attention of lots of professionals, a homemade poll can be very illuminating even if it's informal. For example, this survey about how novelists get published is more informative than most "how to be a writer" advice out there.

0waveman4yIt would also be worthwhile to look at people who did those things and see how they ended up i.e., look from the other side. For example if you look at rock musicians you are likely to find they neglected their studies and focused entirely on their music. But this seems to be a strategy with a pretty low expectation and very high variance in outcomes.
0ChristianKl4yHow do you practically do that?

With regards to investigating how people become rich, if you want results that are meaningful and useful, I think you would want to examine, not just what rich people did which resulted in them becoming rich, but what people in the general population are doing, and whether people doing those things in general tend to become rich. If doing the same things doesn't tend to lead to the same results, you can look to see if there are other factors that reliably occur in conjunction with people becoming rich. You need to go this far to be able to predict, not jus... (read more)

1Wakebright9yGreat point. In the author's description he only discussed how to establish a correlation. However it's important to point out that in those types of studies you are not manipulating any variables in the equation which means it's very difficult to tease apart the different interactions in the system. If you really wanted to do DIY science you would need to change something and determine whether there was a change in the outcome with appropriate controls to make sure that your changes only produced an effect in the variable you wanted. This is the really fun part of science!!

Or, to take historical cases, Franklin was far more rational than average, but Hitler was far less.

Nonsense. Hitler was far more rational than average - especially before he overused the meth for too long. I suggest your definition of 'rational' is broken.

5NancyLebovitz10yIn re Hitler being far more rational than average, are you deducing this from the facts that Hitler was far more efficacious than most people (got control of a country and had many of his policies adopted) or do you have specifics about how Hitler was thinking about what he was doing?
4alyssavance10yWhat's your evidence? Nazi Germany's government was tremendously dysfunctional, and the Nazis believed many things considered insane even by the average Joe's lowly standards, like "mass-murder is a good thing". Hitler himself was sufficiently dysfunctional that he pretty much failed at everything before going into politics.

the Nazis believed many things considered insane even by the average Joe's lowly standards, like "mass-murder is a good thing".

I'm not sure they considered it a good thing, maybe they would have preferred to just ship off all the Jews to Madagascar, the Final Solution was a second-best solution that happened to be cheaper and more practical.

And the "average Joe" you're talking about would have to be a Western one - I suspect in many countries, mass murder of some ethnic groups wouldn't be considered insane by everybody's standards, especially in a war situation - either because they're sitting on some land that's "rightfully ours", or they're more economically successful, or they're not-very-well integrated immigrants, etc.

By the way, Hitler isn't always seen as a Big Bad Guy by the non-Western world, sometimes he's just considered a pretty bad-ass leader like Stalin or Napoleon. When a german friend of mine met her new colleagues at a Chinese univiersity's biology lab, one of them said "Oh, you're German! Like Hitler! Cool! thumbs up". And the Chinese find that the Westerners don't seem that aware of how nasty the Japanese were.

9Vladimir_M10yEmile: I've read about some hilarious examples of non-Westerners who perceive Hiter as a distant and exotic historical figure, completely oblivious to how Westerners are apt to react to his mention. Like for example the parents of this Indian politician: []

That's nothing, I once saw a restaurant called Genghis Khan's Mongolian BBQ.

I see people running around with Che Guevara T-shirts.

There is also a group "Sons of Korah" who sing remixes of the Psalms. Including Psalm 137. Which builds up to:

Yes, a reward to the one who grabs your babies and smashes their heads on the rocks!

The Sons of Korah version makes it sound a little better:

Blessed is he who destroys your progeny

Still, it is a recent band singing joyously about genocide. (It is a little better given that the Psalm was written by people at a time when they had just been conquered and the same atrocities done to them, crying out to a power for vengeance.)

They are actually really catchy, and most of their songs (and the Psalms themselves) are reasonably poetic.

8NancyLebovitz10yThe comedian looks young enough to not remember the extent to which there's been a big campaign to take rape seriously. Earlier, (and to a lesser extent still) it could be presented with enough distance to be a subject of humor. For example, I can remember when a boss chasing a secretary around a desk was considered funny. More recently, prison rape was a reliable joke in general. Now there are social circles where such jokes aren't welcome but I wouldn't say it's a sort of joke you absolutely can't get away with. With the recent research on the effects of concussion, I don't think the old cartoons (with the character looking dazed and the little birds chirping as they circle his head) are going to look quite the same as they used to. To some large extent, people notice what they're told to notice. This doesn't mean I think it's all signaling, but I think perception is very much shaped by social pressure.
5orthonormal10yHe hits the nail on the head: "At the point when everyone who fought in [the World Wars], and everyone who remembers anyone who fought in them, has died, surely they'll become as comic as the Vikings." After all, the purpose of moral disapproval of atrocities is simply to avoid offending anyone who could be personally connected to them†. Even when people acknowledge that there's nothing besides length of time separating ancient genocides from modern ones, there's just no way to spark the same feeling of outrage. † Of course, longstanding cultural divides can keep offense alive even when the secondhand witnesses are gone; the Armenian genocide shows no sign of becoming funny, because the acknowledgment of it is a continuing rift between Armenians and Turks.
7NancyLebovitz10yPersonal connection is in the mind, as you say later. I've been looking at the "It would have been me" aspect of the past, and I think it's mostly trained in. A major reason that the Holocaust is taken very seriously is that there are people who believe that doing so will make a repetition less likely. I don't know how long it would take for that to fade out. I also don't know how close we are to longevity tech, but when such exists, the past is presumably going to fade more slowly. On the relativity of what is considered serious-- I think there's been a bit of a shift lately, but when you think about Hitler's atrocities, you probably mostly think about the Holocaust. He was also responsible for tens of millions of deaths as the result of WWII, but that doesn't get the same publicity, probably because building an empire is viewed as sort of normal behavior. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Shaka Zulu, and Napoleon aren't usually counted as mass murderers.
8wedrifid10yAlexander the Great, Shaka Zulu and Napoleon were 'just' empire builders. Genghis Khan, on the other hand, make Hitler look like a fluffy puppy in every way except temporal and social proximity.
5[anonymous]10y-Part of a speech allegedly made by Adolp Hitler on August 22, 1939 at Obersalzberg Its interesting since this quote seems to show: * a) Hitler having values very different from the postChristian West, rather than disagreeing on how to live up to those values. * b) The genocides of WW2 helped to rekindle interest and even an air of seriousness around what was 70 years ago not considered an important event (Armenian genocide). Also Hitler has a point. Might does (eventually) make right to as much as our value systems can be influenced by upbringing (and after genetic engineering that won't be a limiting factor either). What does anyone truly care about what the weak or a weak tired civilization thinks of you beyond signalling concerns?
0NancyLebovitz10yThat the Jews were slaves in Egypt [1] has been commemorated every year for at least 2500 years-- possibly 3000 years or so. I wouldn't expect it to fade quickly. [1] This is disputed-- there doesn't seem to be any solid evidence of it.
5ArisKatsaris10yThat's absurd. When I disapprove of Serbs (and Greek volunteers) massacring civilians in Srebrenica, it's not because I want to avoid offending people, it's because I want to offend them into shame, so that they stop supporting policies and parties in my own nation (Greece) that will make a repetition of the butchery and support of such butchery, likely. You talk as if all discussion of politics is a signalling of status, rather than a sometimes hopeless attempt to influence the future into a better direction.
0orthonormal10yYou're right, of course- my comment needs modification. I'm just talking about the case where one isn't really angry about an old atrocity, but would still hesitate to make a joke about it. I'm not made of Hansons all the way down.
2MartinB10yBut this time we got video.
5orthonormal10yAssuming a non-Singularity future where all the second-order witnesses have died, one would not expect many people to go and watch video of 20th-century atrocities. I mean, first-hand accounts of the Spanish Inquisition and the genocide of the Americas exist. How much of them have you read? (In high school, we read a few excerpts at most; I did read this book [] in college, thanks to its Great Books focus. Of course, I read plenty in high school about slavery, but that's because the Civil War is still tied to current cultural divides in the U.S.)
5wedrifid10yNone. Now I'm anticipating learning about the world wars via "Age of Empires IX".
0CronoDAS10yYou mean this hasn't happened already? []
7orthonormal10yAs noted in the Mitchell video, there are comical pieces set in the World Wars, but one has to be careful how one writes it. Catch-22 is a black comedy, as are Blackadder Goes Forth, Life is Beautiful and most of the other comedies set in 20th century wars. The simplest way to put it, perhaps, is to note that Mel Brooks could do the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution in straightforward screwball style, but had to do Hitler as a musical-within-a-movie.
0CronoDAS10yBugs Bunny did it... []
8orthonormal10yThat's comedy as wartime propaganda, which has its own rich history. Note that WB has basically refused to show it since the war. If you want a real exception, Hogan's Heroes [] might qualify.
6wedrifid10yThe fascinating thing is that the actors who played the major Nazi roles were all Jews. Two of which spent time in concentration camps and had their families butchered. That impresses me.
5NancyLebovitz10yThe actor who played Colonel Klink had it written into his contract that the Nazis would never win.
2wedrifid10y:) I like it.
0Sniffnoy10ySo did Donald Duck, and quite a few others. IIRC Hitler was generally viewed pretty comically (at least in America? I don't remember) before the Holocaust and its scale became widely known after the war.
0orthonormal10yAw crap, Godwin's Law.
3MartinB10yThat really used to be a problem []
0NancyLebovitz10yIt's been a while since I've read it, but I think all the viewpoints were in the military and about the treadmill of being trapped into flying unlimited bombing missions. There was nothing from the point of view of the people on the ground who were being bombed, was there?
1Swimmer96310yI've seen that plenty of times. Seems to be a fairly common university-campus phenomenon, especially for students in the humanities.
7TobyBartels10yI didn't realise that Genghis was an actual genocide (worse than any other conqueror), but apparently he was []. But if history is written by the victors, then of course we'll see him more positively than we do Hitler. It'll be a while until they rename the main airport [] in Berlin!
[-][anonymous]10y 11

I've heard estimates that put the total death toll of aftermath of the various wars Genghis Khan waged at ~40 million people. The estimates for all the Mongol conquests go from a low of ~30 to a high of 60 million.

Its mind-boggling to consider that isn't that much better than WW2 (low estimates 40, high estimates 72 million). It just gets ridiculous once we remember that population at that time was somewhere in the 300 to 400 million range.

We would probably have had to go nuclear or biological to get the death toll anywhere near 7,5 to 17% of global population!

4MartinB10yWith distance the atrocities get forgotten. Many well known leaders in the past did pretty bad stuff. I am usually surprised how kings and queens still get items named after them while dictators usually get institutionally forgotten and purged.
0Paul Crowley10ys/Berlin/Ulaanbaatar/
0wedrifid10y(Works without substitution.)
0Paul Crowley10ySay more?
4wedrifid10y(The Ulaanbaastar airport has been renamed for the famous Mongolian conquerer but...) it'll be a while until they rename the main airport in Berlin (after Adolf Hitler, because Hitler is a loser and Genghis Khan is a winner).
3TobyBartels10yYes, that was what I meant, where ‘a while’ means something significantly longer than 800 years (such as infinity). So it is quite an understatement, really.
0MartinB10yThe airport in Berlin is named after its location, and I expect it will stay that way. (My family lives right around the corner.) There is no need to give people names to such installations, that only confuses tourists.
0wedrifid10yYou have that right. I was playing a Trivial Pursuit betting game and the question was asking where Tom Hanks was trapped. I had 'the airport in New York'. JFK, well, that is just some guy.
0MartinB10yAnd imagine the hassle renaming everything when the name giver goes out of fashion.
0Paul Crowley10yAll the airports in Berlin are named after their locations, although there's a proposal to give the forthcoming Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport [] the subtitle Willy Brandt [].
7jacob_cannell10yI dated a Mongolian for a bit, and apparently in that culture Genghis Khan is still highly regarded as a founding figure.
3Vladimir_M10yI'm not sure if there are any cultures whose folk historical memory of Genghis Khan involves the same visceral horror as the present-day Western reaction to Hitler. So while this is an accurate historical parallel, it might not be one in terms of unintentional hilarity.
6Emile10yIf Hitler had ended up winning the war, there may not be that much memory of visceral horror either by now. Though according to Wikipedia [], there are some places where Genghis is still a very bad memory, for ending the Islamic Golden Age and all that.

And note that there isn't general visceral horror about the Soviet Union, even though it committed mass murder on a grand scale. You can wear or display Soviet stuff without it being taken nearly as badly as if you were wearing or displaying Nazi stuff.

7HughRistik10yAlthough not Soviet himself, Soviet fanboy Che Guevara [] is another example. I'm not an expert on Latin American history, but some things I've read make me never want to buy a Che T-shirt. [] [] [...] "I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why" is a scary testament to the power of social proof [], and the double standards applied to the perpetrators of atrocities based on sympathy towards their ideology.
2NancyLebovitz10yDo you think people wearing Che shirts without knowing why increases the risk of massively destructive political choices?
3HughRistik10yAt this point, using that symbol without knowing the meaning is rather benign and driven by social proof and the artistic qualities of the image. It's similar to people wearing Gandhi T-shirts. I once saw a mural of Che alongside Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, and Mother Teresa (once of these things is not like the others). The fault lies with the members of the leftist* intelligentsia who knew what Che did, but who continued to promote him as a positive symbol of revolution and liberation. It is disturbing, and yes, potentially minorly risky that they are trendsetters. Yet the risk is pretty low, because they are mainly followed out of ignorance. It is a particular sort of leftist consequentialism** promoted by some leftist leaders, intellectuals, and activists that's the real risk. *Only some people on the left actually support Che as an icon while knowing what he actually did. This sort of attitude is hardly confined to the left. **Leftists aren't all consequentialists, nor are all consequentialists leftists. It's a particular brand of leftism that I am criticizing.
0[anonymous]10yI know people downvote mind-killers. But is it really a mind-killer to say that Stalin and the Soviet system under him was not clearly better than Hitler? * Aggression against other Sovereign states in the hopes of territorial gain (sometimes with revanchist justification) * Confinement relocation and extermination of inconvenient ethnic and ideological groups Frack considering Stalin was only beat by death from organizing a Pogrom on a massive scale because of his paranoia, and that Atheist Jews no longer where a powerful faction in the Soviet Union circa 1930 to 1950 and that Jews tended to be a bit better off than was appropriate in the age of forced egalitarianism (and disdain for the bourgeois and hunts for kulaks), its not that clear that if say Communists had beaten the Nazis in the struggle for power in Weimar Germany there wouldn't have been a Shoah anyway. Communism overall has been historically a pretty terrible system. Mao's China and North Korea are also data points. The only time Communism was a sort of ok system to live in (NEP period of the Soviet Union, China after Deng, Tito's Yugoslavia) is when it didn't really follow its ideology and allowed some economic freedom. And even then it was clearly totalitarian when it came to intellectual liberty (see the use of psychiatric institutions and sluggish schizophrenia as a diagnosis of dissidents or the constant witch hunt for wreckers and contra-revolutionaries). If one considers National Socialism to be a kind of Fascism (which I don't think it is, I think its distinct ideologically) then one could also add at this point that its arguable that mellow watered down Fascist regimes actually come out looking better than mellow watered down Communist regimes of the same era (1945-1990). I give people who claim that those people that their brand of Communism would never turn out like that a fair hearing if they don't seem kooky or clearly irrational, but the same would be true if I ever met
3HughRistik10yI've also been confused about the blind eye turned to certain Communist excesses. Mass murder isn't cool just because it's your own population... even if your heart is in the right place.
4wedrifid10yExcesses? Interesting word choice. So, um, how much murder is the right amount?
-2[anonymous]10yKonkvistador: To be fair to Stalin, under him there was never any campaign of all-out extermination on a purely ethnic basis. There were mass expulsions, relocations, and other projects targeted at various ethnic groups that intentionally and cold-bloodedly inflicted death rates well into double-digit percentages, but the goal was breaking resistance, looting, exploitation of slave labor, preemptive liquidation of potential rebels, etc., never a genocide in the true sense of the term. (Even if the stories about Stalin's planned anti-Semitic purge are true, it would never have been anything close to a real genocidal campaign.) The Nazis' absolute determination to exterminate an entire ethnic group as defined by ancestry down to the very last person at all costs, spending vast resources just to ensure not a single one of its members gets away, is to the best of my knowledge really unique historically. Otherwise, except for this particular fact, about whose relevance I'd say reasonable people may disagree, one would really have to stretch one's case to argue that the Bolsheviks were significantly more benign than the Nazis. In fact, the very concept of "Stalinism" and the tendency to heap all blame on Stalin is a propagandistic sleight of hand; his fellow political gangsters like Lenin and Trotsky weren't much different except in what they were able to get away with. One source of pro-communist bias here is the common belief that communists, bad as they were, persecuted only dissenters and rebels, and left alone those who conformed obediently -- in contrast to the horror of being on the Nazis' extermination list, where nothing at all would help you, not even the most abject submission. This is however completely wrong: if you found yourself among the intended casualties of a Bolshevik plan, it was no different, except that in fairness these were never plans for all-out extermination on ethnic basis. In the present predominant opinion, the Nazis occupy the absol
-1[anonymous]10yDo you think a child scribbling a swastika graffiti without knowing why (or even what the symbol is associated with) increases the risk of massively destructive political choices?
1NancyLebovitz10yI don't know. I'd discourage it for the sake of the children's reputations and as a kindness to those who don't want to see swastikas, but that's a different issue. What do you think?
5[anonymous]10yNot by very much, but yes. Che and the hammer and sickle being cool on T-shirts spills over due to the halo effect []. However like you seem to imply overall I agree it isn't something worth too much concern or attention.
5NihilCredo10yIt could be because, while the Soviet Union was generally oppressive, it severely toned down the murderin' during the last ~40 years of its eight-decade history, whereas Nazi Germany spent over half of its brief history conquering Europe and conducting genocide, and then collapsed while it was right in the middle of such activities.
5wedrifid10yThe Soviet Union also wasn't in a desperate war for survival with the people with whom those with the most power to declare things offensive closely identify.
1MartinB10yDepends on the country. In hungary some symbols from the SU are outlawed atm.
0Mercy10yA more important reason I suspect is that communism as a whole is bigger and Soviet iconography can be indicative of loyalty to some harmless local brand. A british trotskyist waving a hammer and sickle is emphatically not a big fan of the USSR. There may be places where nazi iconography mostly signals loyalty to some local band of fascists but those local nazis are probably associated with or are violent thugs, not reformist presidential candidates.
1NancyLebovitz10yNow that you bring it up, I realize I don't know why people wear Soviet stuff. I'd assumed it was a combination of liking the art style (it's at least distinctive and not much like anything being done currently) and the wish to be a little edgy, but there are other possibilities.
2Mercy10yI've seen two main groups, socialists who'll have something like that "pyramid of workers holding up the aristocracy" poster because they like the message and don't care about the source*, and people in stereotypically first-against-the-wall jobs who'll have a poster about killing bankers for kitsch value. People who like the style tend to go in for Polish movie posters. *like, I imagine quite a few less wrongers would have no problem hanging this one on their wall: []
2Sniffnoy10yWhat is that from?
7ata10yA Soviet children's book [] .
0katydee10yIronically, the equivalent exists too, [] or at least it did at one point.
0NancyLebovitz10yAnd the Dark Horde in the SCA was a reference to killing on the grand scale long enough ago that it could be considered just slightly edgy, I think.
2[anonymous]9yStalin is seen as a Big Bad Guy where I am. I had no idea this is not the case throughout the Western world.
1[anonymous]10yI think Stalin is seen as a big bad guy in the West at least among the more educated. But people like Napoleon and Genghis Khan do get a free pass. Especially the latter should be a source of cognitive dissonance even though Napoleon is far from a innocent little lamb either.
0rabidchicken10yOn top of that, an unfortunately large number of americans were disappointed that japan surrendered when it did, and wanted to drop the rest of the usa's arsenal anyway. You would be hard pressed to find a society where everyone is actually as nice as they want people to believe.
0wedrifid10yBecause Australia was already taken...
8[anonymous]10yYou are right that the Nazi run government, despite popular opinion, was very inefficient and dysfunctional from several points of view. However it seems to have done a pretty good job of: * a) Keeping the various fractions and individuals under Hitler too busy fighting each other to challenge Hitler * b) Keeping the public happy and moulding public opinion * c) Allowing innovation in warfare and hence pretty good at waging war (by modern standards they weren't good, however compared to say the Soviet Union they did a pretty good job) * d) Killing off large numbers of certain other ethnicities Arguably these where all primary objectives Hitler had in mind. You also seem to be too quick to dismiss the IQ and instrumental rationality needed to rise to the rank of top politician or world leader. As well as underestimate the tendency of high IQ people to have more radical political positions. While top Nazis don't seem to have been particularly brilliant (especially the lower half is disappointing, cost of ethnic and ideological nepotism I suppose), Hitler was probably in the upper half of the group [] (warning slight mind-killer danger in the commentary). My guesstimation would perhaps put him a bit below three sigma above the Austrian average.
4alyssavance10yI think Hitler was more intelligent than average, and a great deal more instrumentally rational. He just didn't have more accurate beliefs about the world.
[-][anonymous]10y 16

This might get me down voted, but I don't think Hitler hated Jews because he had a misconception or two about them or was a result of a honest mistake, I think he would have at least disliked them strongly anyway. This is probably however not true of most German National socialists at the time.

I also don't think he was ok with getting rid of those tiresome Slavs in the East because he had misconceptions about them, he wanted to get rid of them because they where sitting on land that could be used by his tribe. This particular bit is generally part of a very ancient and in humans very viable value system.

A good way to remind yourself of why indifference of a AI god would be horrifying is the realization that its perfectly possible the Hitler had no real ill will towards Russians or Poles once controlled for his dislike of Communism but that the moral worth of them in his value system just happened to be zero.

Humans can and do have very different value systems.

8[anonymous]10yThinking Mass-murder is a good thing is not insane as in being irrational its insane as in "these values make as much sense as baby eaters to me!".
5randallsquared10yI believe the word for "goals which fundamentally clash with my goals" is not "insane" or "irrational", but "evil". Someone who has goals I consider evil may well be quite intelligent, sane, and rational.
2TheOtherDave10yI don't think "goals which fundamentally clash with my goals" is quite what you mean, here. For example, if I want the last cookie, and you also want the last cookie, our goals clash, but neither of us is necessarily evil (nor insane, nor irrational). It sounds to me like the word konkvistador wants is "alien."
0randallsquared10yPerhaps "fundamentally" was too opaque. We both want a cookie, but it's not a top level goal for either of us. Given that, either of us might be argued out of wanting a cookie by rational means. If acquiring a cookie were a top level goal for both of us, and there were no other ways to acquire cookies than to take the last cookie, then we would each be evil in the value system of the other. I hope I've been clearer. :)
1ArisKatsaris10yA paperclipper has a top level goal that clashes with my own, but I wouldn't call it evil. If there was a species of aliens whose top level goal was the extermination of all happiness in the universe, I would call that evil. Evil is not just the clashing of goals. I would probably define it as "the intentional pursuit of disutility". Or if you want an even more technical description, evil is "a utility function that incorporates a negative factor for the utility of others". As the paperclipper cares zero for mankind, that's not innately evil. Hatred of others is evil, sadism is evil, spitefulness is evil.
0[anonymous]10yEvil has the unfortunate baggage of implying that there is something "objectively" wrong with what the "evil" guys are doing, not just wrong as judged by say my or your values. I'm perfectly satisfied with pursuing my values even when they are as arbitrary as my opponents, I don't need to consider my value set something special beyond it being mine. BTW This topic made me reread: Are your enemies innately evil? []
4randallsquared10yIt only implies "objectively wrong" if you believe in objective morality. But even if you do, the term "evil" also implies that your top goals and theirs conflict, so it works even then. The alternative, it seems, is to have "evil" be a term we can't use under any circumstances, which just means some other word or phrase will come to mean what "evil" meant before we stopped using it, and it looks like you're using "alien" for that purpose in the other branch of this thread. The 19 hijackers (or Hitler, as originally mentioned) were not (necessarily) irrational, stupid, insane, or otherwise mentally damaged. Nor were their motivations completely opaque or untranslatable, as "alien" implies -- any human could understand their position given the effort to do so, unpleasant though it might be. Their goals were just incompatible with our goals, and only one set of goals could win. It seems to me that evil is exactly what that means.
1TheOtherDave10yI wouldn't have a problem with describing a system whose motivations I understand, but which lead it to make decisions I can't imagine myself ever making or endorsing, as "alien." But I agree that this has nothing to do with whether our goal-systems motivate mutually exclusive states of the world. (For which I usually use the word "opponent.")
0ArisKatsaris10yThat definition doesn't work, because for starters it deprives you of the possibility to declare some of your own goals as evil. Also the way I normally use the word, 'evil' goals certainly conflict with my own (I want to think), but not all goals that conflict with my own are evil. 'Evil' can be much more precisely defined in a way customarily understood if you consider it to be "the intentional pursuit of disutility". If I'm doing something that incidentally hurts someone else, that may be wrong but it's not evil. If I'm doing something that hurts someone else, because I want them hurt, so that if they stop hurting by this action I'll have to find some other way to hurt them, that's evil. If you want to destroy a beautiful forest in order to build a powerplant, that's not evil. If you want to destroy a beautiful forest because you want people to stop loving its beauty, that's evil. If you don't believe evil exists, you've never heard of sadistic and spiteful people.
-1[anonymous]10yBut most people do work with a implicit belief in objective morality even if they seldom do stop to think about it. Isn't it a bit misleading to use it in another sense without clarification? Though of course the kind of person who typically visits LW would probably not be confused. Also let me point out that "evil [] " has a whole host of associations in Western popular culture and especially in fiction, saying something is evil can in certain circumstances be like saying something is Elvish. Sure most of these don't ever make it into serious thinking, but they are there and can be employed in say propaganda. Well baby eaters aren't really that hard to understand. Looking back it seems that I may have affirmed the use of alien to describe this without thinking about it too much, a tendency to complete patterns in familiar ways I suppose .
0randallsquared10yI don't think the question of whether one's top goal(s) rely on an objective morality would really change the sense of "evil" for most people. It's unclear to me whether your second paragraph was intended as disagreement, since evil in fiction is often even more relative than I would argue. :)
6gwern10yThe Nazis also believed many sane things, like exercise and the value of nature and animal welfare [] and the harmful nature of smoking. Possible rationalist exercise []: 1. Read The Nazi War on Cancer 2. Assemble modern demographic & mortality data on cancer & obesity. 3. Consider this hypothetical: 'If the Nazis had not attacked Russia and negotiated a peace with Britain, and remained in control of their territories, would the lives saved by the health benefits [] of their policies outweigh the genocides they were committing?' 4. Did you answer yes, or no? Why? 5. As you pondered these questions, was there ever genuine doubt in your mind? Why was there or not?
1NancyLebovitz10yI'm a very bad rationalist. I have a strongly preferred answer to those questions. Of course, it's hard to predict what the amount of murder would have been-- they wanted to wipe out the Poles, but didn't have enough time. I do think you've just given a argument for why measuring in terms of lives isn't good enough if it treats suffering as irrelevant. It's completely obvious why there is no doubt in my mind-- I've spent a lot of years believing that if I'd been there, I'd be one of the corpses. I don't think I have an obligation to be that abstract about the happy healthy people who might have resulted if Nazism had been unopposed.
3NancyLebovitz10yI've slept on this, and here are a couple of more angles. I've read a fair amount of argument about racism, sexism, and related topics, and have been considerably influenced as a result-- and not always in the ways anyone in the arguments intended. I'm still sorting the thing out. Two of the things I took away is that power isn't given, it's taken, and that I'm not obligated to be polite or neutral when I'm advocating for my right to exist. These played into my response. I suspect I would have reacted more calmly if the question had been raised as "What do you think?" rather than as a test of rationality. The thing is, I don't think that approach is entirely right or entirely wrong. After I'd posted, I was getting into what I think is a trained response of wondering whether Less Wrong was worth bothering with if things like gwern's comment could be said here. I believe that sort of purity-driven reaction is actually unwise, especially when it's other people's ideas about purity, but I still have to dig past other people's status issues that I've picked up. I don't think the privilege model is entirely false-- look at what happened when Eliezer brought up his problems with exercise and weight loss. Most of the people who replied didn't notice what he actually said, and just rolled forward with the usual advice. Eliezer's situation is in a blind spot which is highly socially supported, and even people who are quite intelligent and working on rationality got snagged by the blind spot. The result was harder on Eliezer than it was on them. At the same time, I don't want to tell people that they should have known better, though it's very tempting. I'm sensitized to that particular issue because I've been fascinated by it. Not everyone is. Tying the two topics back together, I was fascinated by the fact that Nazis were the first to connect smoking and lung cancer. You mean "health Nazi" isn't just a random metaphor? What can happen when utilitarianism meets obesity
0[anonymous]10yI at first had a similar reaction to yours, but perhaps more severe. I was somewhat humbled and even slightly ashamed to be honest by how reasonable your response was. After thinking about it in a dispassionate sense I realized that especially considering the context there is nothing worth getting upset over. I mean there are discussions about baby eaters where people didn't get upset over billions of hypothetical alien teenagers dying painfully because of their parents preferences in the baby-eater civilization. This scenario: Isn't really any less hypothetical unless someone comes up with a time machine or we where posting on a site that was actively hostile to the groups that would suffer dis-utility in such a scenario (where it would serve as fantasy). gwern really highlighted a blind-spot of mine (mind-killing conditioning) with her questions and while I can't judge what effect this has on other people, particularly the net effect, I am very grateful for the personal insight. I'm impressed how status signaling resistant LW community is, at least it seems resistant to the kinds of signaling that get a strong conditioned response from me. It does have some blind-spots but these don't seem to be exactly the same as those of the man on the street or society at large.
2[anonymous]10yLeast convenient world. National socialism limiting itself to a fair chunk of Europe results in a net gain in life, and perhaps even say net gain in happy productive pain free years by say the current date. Even in this scenario I don't think anyone here expects people to cheer-lead a system that would most likley lead to their death or the death of their family regardless of its utility (or dis-utility). Grudging acceptance is the most one can reasonably demand of a person. But here I'm going to go on a limb and flat out say it that when the difference between being selfish and not being selfish is survival I think it inhumane (in the sense of being out of sync with most of humanities values, despite what Christianity tries to convince a good 2 billion) to punish it if the gain is only marginal. The localized suffering needs to be significantly smaller than the globalized gains. I'll come out and admit bias here since I and all my family and many of my friends would also be most definitely dead in this scenario (or better said our grandparents would most definitely be dead). My number is a profit of 30 million happy productive man years (in other words a scenario where the suffering just balances out the grains has disutlitly compared to the present, I do have other values than people being generally well off and yes some are selfish.
0MartinB10yone question I pondered at times is if the experiments done on prisoner by Mengele and others actually lead to anything interesting. In theory the lack of ethics would allow for more research with less effort. But it seems they did not, and actually worked rather sloppy. I guess that is preferably, because otherwise the ethics people would have a hard time keeping eager researchers in check.

There are interesting data on hypothermia based on Nazi human experimentation, which are especially interesting because it's impossible to replicate these measurements for obvious reasons. The ethics of using and citing those have been a matter of controversy for decades:

Otherwise, however, the human experiments done by Nazi doctors seem to have been scientifically worthless. Mengele in particular was just a particularly cruel dilettante.

6Alicorn10yPoll: what studies would you do if ethics were not a constraint?
5Vaniver10yThere's a lot of stuff involving patient secrecy that would be convenient to not worry about. Conglomerating everyone's medical records could result in dramatic gains in knowledge on efficacy of treatment. But it should be possible to do that in a way that respects patient secrecy, and I don't think ethics is the true rejection there. There are a number of cases where people consider it unethical to use controls. AZT is a famous example, where they stopped the study midway through because AZT was so effective for the experimental group, but then some nasty side effects started showing up- and it was unclear how much was due to the AZT, because there wasn't a control group to compare to anymore.
3DSimon10y(Assuming that not only institutional ethics but my own sense of morality is not a constraint.) A lot of the really interesting things we know about broad-scale human neurology, particularly some tricky stuff about the nature of consiousness, are due to the study of people who have suffered brain damage []. If there were no ethical constraints, I would deliberately induce carefully controlled forms of brain damage on humans and observe the results.
2gwern10yI'm afraid I have no citations handy for this, but I seem to recall reading that a number of Nazi medical experiments, such as the ones simulating (fatal) high altitude exposure, were in fact quietly studied and used by the occupiers, in addition to the more famous rocketry and other research. (Probably the more bizarre experiments, like Mengele's torture of twins, did not attract the military's interest.) I also read once that Japanese intelligence agencies made a deal with the Americans to turn over the results from their biowarfare units in exchange for them being quietly overlooked and not included in the war crimes tribunals that executed the likes of Hideki Tōjō.
4wedrifid10yThis was the kind of thing I had in mind when I suggested a broken definition of 'rational'. Hitler was more rational than average, not more all round virtuous.
1MartinB10yWhen suggesting exercises I have two in cache. I) Compare the antisemitic policies of the 3rd Reich with those of other 1st world nations from the same time. Also see what policies where used regarding treatment of permanently ill. II) take a look into what their view of the world was actually based on. Try to understand what made a person of sound mind subscribe to that belief. Also interesting to do with current interest groups.
0wedrifid10yOne more exercise: spot the excess 'h'.
1MartinB10yThe question deserves at least a thorough looking at. Something happened that made the unsuccessful painter into a dictator of one of the most developed countries in the middle of europe. That might be that he did something right, or maybe he got lucky. But probably both. For fellow dictatorship researchers it might be good to know that there are others with similar stories that also deserve to be looked at.
4NancyLebovitz10yHard to test, but there's Alice Miller's theory in For Your Own Good. She researched the advice about child-rearing which was popular among the parents of the generations that wanted Hitler. The advice was for the parents to demand extreme obedience starting at six months old, and Miller's claim is that those generations were primed to want an authoritarian leader. I recommend the book for rationalists-- even if Miller is wrong about Hitler's rise, it's still important to have examples of how much authoritative sounding advice is just people making things up. One of the hard questions for understanding extreme success is figuring out how much of a success is a matter of generalizable traits like hard work, and how much is happening to have a personality which fits well into a particular situation. There's also the intermediate possibility of having a personality which is a pretty good fit plus the generalizable trait of being perceptive and flexible enough to make a pretty good fit into an excellent fit. More theory about fit: The Money Game, which claimed that a lot of stock market success was happening to have a personality which fit the condition the market was in for a few years.
9[anonymous]10yParenting advice of earlier generations is terrifying. They used to tell people not to cuddle their babies! That they'd be actively harming the kids by encouraging dependence! Fortunately, it seems that in practice caregivers (read: mothers) largely ignored this advice. They still cuddled their babies; they just felt weak and ashamed as they did so.
2Emile10yFor all we know, it's not that unlikely that they were right, or at least that cuddling isn't strictly better than not cuddling (either it doesn't make a difference, or each has consequences we would consider as beneficial and consequences we would consider harmful). (disclaimer: I cuddle my baby. So far he hasn't killed millions of jews, but he's only a few months old, so it may not be a significant datapoint)
[-][anonymous]10y 12

For all we know, it's not that unlikely that they were right, or at least that cuddling isn't strictly better than not cuddling (either it doesn't make a difference, or each has consequences we would consider as beneficial and consequences we would consider harmful).

No, actually, we have substantial evidence now that babies need skin-to-skin contact to thrive. Because the maternal instinct is very strong in this direction (for a good reason) the data about what happens to babies who are not cuddled mostly comes from orphanages. It's a very sad answer.

4Emile10yOK, that probably should have been "for all I know" :P
1Alicorn10yWell, not touching babies will cause serious issues; I don't know if cuddling per se is required.
1MartinB10yI read lots of Miller, and also some of the Psychohistory stuff (Basically the history of child raising and its influence on the society of the next generation) It is however important to notice that both are highly controversial, and maybe simplify complicated issues. In case you want to raise a dictator it is not enough to severely abuse the kid and let it grow in absolute despair. I would expect there is something else that plays a role. And I am curious to know what it is.
2NancyLebovitz10yThe point wasn't about how to raise a dictator, it was about how to raise a population which would want a dictator.
0[anonymous]9yThis doesn't necessarily mean they weren't rational, only that if they were their utility function was very different from yours. (Though Hanlon's razor -- and this [] which is a pretty good argument for it -- makes me assign a higher prior probability for the former than for the latter. I haven't looked for evidence which would raise or lower that prior, though.)
0[anonymous]10yI think people who disagree aren't really thinking about what exactly the average level of rationality was at his time. I first wanted to downvote this until I realized that Hitlers policies probably weren't the result of a honest mistake in a utility calculation based on values similar to my own. No his values where probably significantly different.

For the record, I heard that, outside of chess, Bobby Fisher was a grade-A nutcase.

4Vladimir_M10yYou heard it well. On a related note, Garry Kasparov comes off as a very reasonable man (or at least he did in a few of his TV interviews I saw), but a few years ago, I was shocked to find out that he has some extremely bizarre crackpot ideas about history. Specifically, he appears to have a serious interest in the theories of Anatoly Fomenko [\_Chronology\_\(Fomenko\]), and although he's not a full supporter of Fomenko's "New Chronology," he does believe that the conventional chronology of historical events is completely wrong [], and the mainstream historians are naive for believing it. There has even been some direct collaboration between the two: Kasparov wrote a friendly preface [] to one of Fomenko's books, and Fomenko credits him [] for "valuable discussion." For what that's worth, Fomenko himself appears to be an accomplished academic mathematician in his day job.
4bogdanb10yOn this subject, a hypothesis (I didn’t do the science yet!) that I favor is that one should look at people who are successful in several very different subjects, rather than just one. Even if a subject is intellectual, like chess or even, say, physics, someone may be successful at it because of “local optimization”; it’s useful to look at them to figure out how to do good at that subject, but not necessarily in general. Given the constraints of a human life, however, it’s very hard to become an expert (i.e. specialize) in more than one or two unrelated subjects. This suggests that being successful in several is evidence of having good general skills (presumably rational ones when the subject is intellectual), rather than specialized ones. Another point: computers are really good at chess, but it doesn’t seem that looking at chess programs is a good way to learn rationality. Thus, looking at people that do chess well is also not likely to be a good way to learn rationality.
7MichaelVassar10yIt looks to me like chess is an excellent way to learn a rare and important part of rationality, but becoming a chess grandmaster is a terribly irrational life decision for almost everyone due to the intense competition and low rewards. Also, at world champion levels, many skills, especially intellectual skills, probably rely on biological abnormalities which correlate highly with autism, psychosis, etc. Also, extreme privilege and fame, especially at a young age, is very often a cause of functional insanity. I suspect that this includes the privilege of growing up with modern 'magical and opaque' technologies.
4Wei_Dai10yPlease explain. I wonder if I'm missing something important by not playing chess.
7wnewman10yWei_Dai writes "I wonder if I'm missing something important by not playing chess." I am a somewhat decent chess player[*] and a reasonable Go player (3 dan, barely, at last rated tournament a few years ago). If you're inclined to thinking about cognition itself, and about questions like the value of heuristics and approximations that only work sometimes, such games are great sources of examples. In some cases, the strong players have already thinking along those lines for more than a century, though using a different vocabulary. E.g., Go concepts like aji and thickness seem strongly related to Less Wrong discussions of the relative value of conjunctive and disjunctive plans. There might also be some rationalist value in learning at the gut level that we're not on the primordial savannah any more by putting a thousand or so hours or more into at least one discipline where you can be utterly unmistakably crushed by someone who scores a zero on the usual societal/hindbrain tags for seriousness (like a bored 9 year old Ukrainian who obliterates you in the first round of the tournament on the way to finishing the tournament undefeated with a rating provisionally revised to 5 dan:-). That said, I think you will probably get much more bang for your rationalist-wins-the-world buck from studying other things. In particular, I'd nominate (1) math along the usual engineering-ish main sequence (calculus, linear algebra, Fourier analysis, probability, statistics) and (2) computer programming. History and microeconomics-writ-large are also strong candidates. So it's not particularly worth studying chess or go beyond the point where you just find it fun for its own sake. [*] highwater mark approximately 60 seconds before I abandoned my experiment with playing chess somewhat seriously: forced threefold repetition against a 2050ish-rated player who happened to be tournament director of the local chess club minitournament, who had told me earlier that I could stop recording when

Empirically, we have more impressive instrumental rationalists, such as Peter Thiel, Tyler Cowen and Demis Hassabis coming from the much smaller field of chess than from the much larger field of math (where I think there's only James Simmons). There's also Watizkin, who seems very interesting. It seems to me that math emphasizes excess rigor and a number of other elements which constitute the instrumental rationality equivalent of anti-epistemology, and possibly also that the way in which it is taught emphasizes learning concepts prior to the questions that motivated their creation, which never happens in games. Fischer was probably more insane than any famous insane mathematician I can think of though, and Kasparov does claim the following though given his Soviet education, e.g. education in a system which actually did teach a blatantly false version of history, this is more understandable.

At the elite PhD level, the mathematical community encourages a level of rigor, and the analytical philosophy community a level of pseudo-rigor that may even qualify as epistemic anti-epistemology for the typical student, (hence the anomalo... (read more)

9komponisto10yAm I missing something? Is Tyler Cowen famous for something other than being a moderately high-status academic economist with a blog? Otherwise, why are you more impressed with him than with leading academic mathematicians, such as Terence Tao?
1MichaelVassar10yTyler has a regular New York Times column and is part of society in a way that no mathematician I know of is. He can influence influential people in a way that Terry can't. He also very clearly has a life that is optimized to meet his values. Terry does what lots of other people do, he just does a hundred times more of it moderately better than they would. Once again, apparent disagreement on this point seems to me to be an instance of academics and those with academic aspirations simply not seeing status other than academic status. Not doing so is part of their training of course, but it leads to a very confused picture of the world.

He also very clearly has a life that is optimized to meet his values

That is every bit as true of Terry as Tyler, and probably more so: Tyler would probably like to be Larry Summers, Milton Friedman, or Paul Krugman, while Terry Tao is pretty much exactly who Terry Tao wants to be.

My interpretation of the disagreement is different: an unwarranted assumption on the part of some that those with academic high status would really prefer something else, but are willing to "settle" for academia; as opposed to academia simply being the best place society currently offers for their values to be pursued. (And yes, academia is "part of society".) I would argue that any picture of the world on which "instrumental rationality" is synonymous with "financial/political success" is more confused than mine.

As for influence, see the USQ affair. Terry Tao can influence when he wants. I'm sure he could get a NY Times column (or certainly a LA Times column) if he wanted one.

1MichaelVassar10yI just doubt that you are correct, about the Times column or anything else above. Academia, and especially math, seems to me to exist to not be part of society, to be literally descended from monastic orders, etc. It indoctrinates people to claim what you are saying, and even believe it, but people's values are pretty objective and not so measurable by such claims. How impactful was his involvement in the USQ affair? Terry may have more fun than Tyler, since he's smarter and can access more fun, but I think it's VERY unlikely that after spending a year like Tyler does he'd go back to his life. Financial/political success isn't 'instrumental rationality'. Maslow's 'self-actualization' is. Tyler and Terry both do pretty well in that respect, but in my assessment, not comparably well.

Terry may have more fun than Tyler, since he's smarter and can access more fun, but I think it's VERY unlikely that after spending a year like Tyler does he'd go back to his life.

Even if that was true (and I think komponisto is more likely to be correct here), I'm not sure it would support your conclusion, since Terry might also not want to go back to his life after being wireheaded for a year but that doesn't mean not wanting to be wireheaded is a miscalculation.

Overall I'm surprised that you are so confident about what goals/values other people would have if they didn't miscalculate, when I'm not even sure what goals/values I should have. If you think you have some real insights that others are missing, you probably need to give a systematic explanation to bridge the inferential gaps, instead of arguing via these comments.

2MichaelVassar10yThe short version is that I can observe the gradient of change in people's values and I see what look like clear attractors. Also, if learning is central to fun, the activities that maximize rate of learning have a good prior on being most fun. Hyperspecialization pulls away from such activities, while cultivating basic competence in and awareness of domains with evolutionary support maximizes speed of learning. Cross-disciplinary insight can even make this the best way to maximize effectiveness in a specialized discipline, simply by developing new neural regions which offer hardware support for concrete metaphors. The long version is that I think I have a very detailed and basically correct model of human psychology. By basically correct, I largely mean wrong, e.g. good enough that it can and does make wrong predictions and be partially falsified and incrementally refined through the creation of high generality mechanisms to correct specific errors. This is, as opposed to most psychological theories, which aren't even wrong.
5Wei_Dai10yI don't get it. Putting one's entire life into abstract pursuits like math is also an attractor. Why do you think that one is a miscalculation, while other attractors represent true values? What is this model? Is it your own invention, and if so, have you written it down somewhere, or are you expecting people to take you at your word?
6MichaelVassar10yAttractors which lead to people being unable or afraid to attempt other activities are much less credible as values than those which leave one with many options. This is strictly analogous to Aristotle's claim that intellectual pursuits were best, as is clear because they are chosen by almost everyone who appreciates them and other sorts of activity. He's right, but its broad personal development with a strong focus on intellectual pursuits of a polymathic nature which seems to actually be chosen by those who can choose it, reliably. I expect people who are used to interacting with me to take it at my word that it is periodically falsified on details and revised. The closest that's been written down is in Lakoff, but his model isn't that far off.
6[anonymous]10yAlso -- Terence Tao has pretty broad interests already within mathematics. And I'm starting to suspect that the category "mathematics" is like the category "single-celled organisms." It's a convenient notation to lump together a class of objects that most humans ignore, but that are intrinsically much more variable than all the other objects that are more salient to most humans' lives. Two single-celled organisms can be more different from each other than you are from an oak tree. Commutative algebra and non-commutative algebra can be more different, separated by a wider gulf of background knowledge, than genetics and economics. (That's a little hyperbolic but I think some statements of that kind are actually true.) So I think people with broad mathematical interests are really more "polymathic" than we tend to realize from the outside. Math is diverse. Terence Tao may in fact be more of a polymath than Tyler Cowen, if we're talking about expertise in radically varied fields that are rarely studied together by one person.
1Manfred10yThe caveat is that lots of categories are like the category "single-celled organisms," from what I can tell. I would guess that you are familiar with mathematics, so you can look at math and go "wow, there are so many sub-fields. Other fields aren't like that!" Meanwhile someone familiar with biology might think "wow, there's so much to study within biology; math doesn't seem like that!" Edit: on the other hand I could be wrong - if you're not particularly familiar with mathematics research compared to biology research my story is inaccurate.
5Wei_Dai10yI think I see what you're saying here. Attractors that are irreversible dead ends are more likely to represent miscalculations. But still, that doesn't rule out the possibility that some people really like working on abstract math, really value academic status, and/or have a large comparative advantage in doing math, and therefore for them going into math is a rational choice. Furthermore, it seems likely that such people would be more concentrated among the top mathematicians. I think your other argument is that according to your model of human psychology, most people would find it more fun to be a polymath than to specialize in one area. That makes some sense to me, but obviously it's hard to put a lot of credence in it without seeing some strong empirical evidence. Based on these two arguments, it seems to me there's a reasonable chance that Terrance Tao went into math by mistake, but your level of confidence still seems unjustified. Did I miss anything else?
3MichaelVassar10yI'm sure that there are many people who really like abstract math. Your right about my claim about polymaths. My best guess is that Tao was right to go into math but would be best served by staying in math but broadening his focus somewhat now. The fact that he doesn't seem to be driven by any particular problem strengthens it, but I'm still not all that confident of it. I'm a lot more confident that he should put a bit of effort into becoming a multimillionaire in a small part of his spare time, simply by selling very expensive consulting services, and less effort into housekeeping, driving his own car, and whatever else he spends his time on other than math, but it's possible to me that he has done so and possible that he has relatives and/or friends who would envy him and make it a net loss. One can simply see if people produce less or different stuff after tenure as one measure.
0[anonymous]10ySo the claim is that anybody who could become a polymath, does? And that people who specialize narrowly do so because they lack the capacity to be broader? I don't know how you would look at someone who works in a specialized area and conclude that he could, or couldn't, have been a polymath if he had tried. One imperfect proxy, I guess, would be if our specialist has well-developed skills outside his profession. Are mathematicians below average in outside skills, compared to the amount of focus needed for their work? I've known or encountered a sizable minority who could have been musicians or writers instead; I have the anecdotal impression that mathematicians don't do too badly on that score. Of course, mathematicians do tend to be less casually conversant with non-math stuff than average. Or maybe you're talking about something different. Maybe the capacity to be a polymath is not just plenty of innate abilities at different things, but the will and desire to set up a self-designed, varied life instead of a fixed one. Some people with varied abilities choose to give up all their skills but one; some people refuse, and insist on blending or simultaneously using their different skills. In that case, it's probably even harder to test the "capacity to be a polymath," because it seems kind of tautological -- but I would instinctively agree that very specialized people probably don't have it.
0MichaelVassar10yBy can I mean see themselves as having the option, that's all.
2Dr_Manhattan10yI you have this you have a near-obligation to publish it outside of forum comments section :)
0Barry_Cotter10yWhat are those attractors?
8komponisto10yLikewise, I doubt that you are correct when you write: Think about what this entails: you're essentially saying that the fact that Terry Tao spends his time solving math problems rather than hobnobbing with east-coast social and policy elites is the result of a miscalculation on his part with regard to his own values. As opposed to a selection effect where Tao happens to be in the small group of people who actually do prefer math to schmoozing and affecting government policy. Now I do find it plausible that there exists a class of people for whom what you say is true -- that there are successful mathematicians who in their heart of hearts would rather be the Jim Simons of today than the Jim Simons of the 1970s, or even today's Terry Tao. But for your claim to be true as stated, there would essentially have to exist nobody in the entire human population with the opposite preference (because if there were, Tao, Wiles, etc. would surely be among them), and given the psychological diversity of our species this strikes me as absurd. As for monastic orders, that's exactly where I would want to be if I had to live in the Middle Ages. You may say that they were "outside of society", but the fact is that most of the people we remember today from that period were monks. (The others being kings and popes.)
7MichaelVassar10yYou're positing a very strong selection mechanism connecting math interest with math jobs. I'm sure Terry likes solving math problems, but miscalculations like that are the norm, not the exception, in human affairs. I'd rather be a monk than a peasant too, but I'd much rather be Chaucer, and I think that most monks would too. The difference between monks and professors is that one works a LOT harder to become a professor. If you are going to work that hard, you may as well make something of yourself.
2Vladimir_M10yMichaelVassar: Undoubtedly so, but based on your comments, I'd say you might be suffering from a too narrow and perhaps also somewhat biased view of the different modes of self-actualization. By this I mean that you're not taking into account the full scope of the potential modes, and you're also underestimating the differences in the optimal modes for people of different personalities. In my opinion, you're also underestimating some downsides of being a senior member of the modern-day academic nomenklatura (and especially one who is not at its top tier), particularly those that are more pronounced the further a field is from the exactness and meritocracy that is least imperfectly embodied by math. Though you've probably met more concrete people from this social class than me, so your judgment may in fact be more accurate than mine.
2MichaelVassar10yI think I account for varied personalities well, but treat supposed personality differences which are basically the fear of doing things not in accordance with an established identity as bad motivations and see those as accounting for a significant fraction of supposed personality differences though not for the majority. I'm confused about "In my opinion, you're also underestimating some downsides of being a senior member of the modern-day academic nomenklatura ". What makes you say that?
7Vladimir_M10yMichaelVassar: Basically, I have in mind the required level of conformity with the respectable opinion. This is admittedly somewhat speculative on my part since I have neither personal experience nor close friends in such positions, but it seems to me that the standards of conformity expected from a public intellectual with prestigious academic and media affiliations have nowadays reached a level where it's doubtful whether a genuinely curious and open mind can satisfy them without a great deal of self-censorship and possibly also dishonesty about one's true beliefs. This seems to me like a significant barrier to true self-actualization by any reasonable definition of the term. Clearly, assuming the problem exists, it will be worse the further one's interests are from strictly technical and non-ideological topics. Perhaps it will be clearer if I illustrate it with a more extreme example. Imaging you were an elite member of some intellectual profession in the former U.S.S.R. -- would you rather be a mathematician or an economist? As a mathematician, you could do all the mathematics you liked, with only some rare and minimal lip-service to the system; as an economist, on the other hand, you would have to constantly mold your views according to a reigning ideology clearly remote from reality. Now of course, the modern-day Western world is far from even late-period U.S.S.R., but the difference is in my opinion one of degree, not essence. The position of a high-status intellectual still comes with very severe restrictions on your intellectual freedom.
1MichaelVassar10yI'm not sure that the situation of graduate students today in most academic fields is better than that of late period USSR academics. Tenured academics have it much better, but by that far into one's career most real interest has already been squeezed out.
2Miller10yIs this akin to Paul Graham's [] He has also formulated your other ideas (i.e. polymathism) as I interpret it of planning life in a bottom-up manner of improving flexibility and options, rather than top-down from a precise end goal (which extreme specialization would suggest).
1rhollerith_dot_com10yThat might be part of it, but I am pretty sure Vassar also refers to the fact that a lot of young men with the ambition and curiosity to do better spend the vast majority of their time getting more skilled at their strongest skill because that is what they perceive as the optimal path to economic security and status and the fact that academics are encouraged in this severely non-optimal path (in part because it is convenient for academic institutions and advantageous for ambitious academic bureaucrats to divide human knowledge into specialties and subspecialties). If these young men could relax more and not worry so much about their own status and economic security, they would tend to heed more their natural human sense of curiosity or their more playful social impulses (including perhaps altruism), which are probably all better guides to what to learn next than the desire to advance in the academic status hierarchy. In other words, a burning desire for status, particularly status that comes from a reputation for having some refined skill or expertise, is not as reliable a guide to self-actualization as it was in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Well, that might not always be true: for example, not working towards the right kind of status can prevent one from having access to the kind of friends and mentors who can best help one to learn. But it is certainly true that a lot of young men (and perhaps women, too, but I tend to think that the fear of social disapproval is a bigger problem there) do not take advantage of the social opportunities for learning that they already have (and limit their educations in other ways) out of a fear of not having enough status or income out of not having a good enough reputation for skill or expertise.
0MichaelVassar10yAgreed again.
2wnewman10yI don't have enough data to compare such gaming outcomes very well, but I'll pass on something that I thought was funny and perhaps containing enough truth to be thought-provoking (from Aaron Brown's The Poker Face of Wall Street): "National bridge champion and hedge fund manager Josh Parker explained the nuances of serious high school games players to me. The chess player did well in school, had no friends, got 800s on his SATs, and did well at a top college. The poker and backgammon set (one crowd in the 1970s) did badly in school, had tons of friends, aced their SATs, and were stars at good colleges. The bridge players flunked out of high school, had no friends, aced their SATs, and went on to drop out of top colleges. In the 1980s, we all ended up trading options together." Also, FWIW, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are apparently in the bridge camp, though I dunno whether they played in high school.
1Alicorn10yWho do the chess and bridge players play bridge and chess with if they don't have friends?
2rhollerith_dot_com10yI've never become friends with any of the dozens of people with whom I've played chess in person (see below for why the qualifier "in person" is relevant) excepting one high-school classmate. A chess player is pretty much forced to suppress any natural human cooperative instincts like reciprocal altruism, instincts that are probably very important in the establishment of friendships. Also, sharing small pleasures seems important in starting friendships, and in chess the pleasure of one party coincides with pain in the other party. Also, since the early 1990s anyone logging on to the Free Internet Chess Server can with an expected wait of less than a minute be matched up with another chess player of whatever skill level (more precisely, Elo rating, which is calculated automatically by the server) one desires. There is no need to remember the identity of who one has previously played against (although doing so will tend to increase one's rating a little since individual players have styles that can be learned and exploited in the game).
2wnewman10yOf course there could well be some exaggeration for dramatic effect there --- as David Friedman likes to say, one should be skeptical of any account which might survive on its literary or entertainment value alone. But it's not any sort of logical impossibility. In Dallas near UTD (which had a strong well-funded chess team which contributed some of the strong coffeehouse players) ca. 2002 I was able to play dozens of coffeehouse games against strangers and casual acquaintances. One can also play in tournaments and in open-to-all clubs. Perhaps one could even play grudge matches against people one dislikes. Also today one can play an enormous number of strangers online, and even in the 1970s people played postal chess.
0MichaelVassar10yI didn't mention bridge because I think of it as a game people take up later in life and transfer skills to, not as a game people learn as kids and transfer skills from. I could easily be wrong about this.
0RichardKennaway10yOther members of the chess and bridge clubs.
1NancyLebovitz10yI don't suppose you've considered having a blog? It would increase the odds of what you write getting seen. Would the love of pure math for its purity count as part of the anti-epistemic epistomology? More generally, the subject of anti-epistomology (ideas so bad that they're crippling) seems worth exploring, especially if it's grounded in knowledge about the ways people actually think rather than guessing about the mistakes that people one disagrees with must be making. (Not a swipe at you-- I'm thinking more about the way atheists seem to overestimate how irrational religious people are.) I don't know if I've got enough for a top level post there, but I'll seriously consider it. Meanwhile, if anyone else has ideas about anti-epistolomology, please write about it.
1Dr_Manhattan10yHe wrote a book specifically about transference of chess training to instrumental rationality [] I found it quite good, and parts of it sound much like Waitzkin. He talks a lot about psychology, self-control and management of (one's own) computational resources, all of which should be quite useful for instrumental rationality.
7Kevin10yI think there's probably more to learn by playing poker... it seems that most advanced rationalists still fail at poker and are aware enough to attribute their losses to irrational failings of emotion. Being aware of why you fail at poker seems to be a valuable life lesson. And of course, learning that you do not fail at poker is an even more valuable lesson.
4Nornagest10yI'm honestly a little surprised that poker hasn't gotten more attention here. Half the game is managing emotional bias and modeling others' internal state, and the other half is pure statistics. It's like a beautiful little microcosm of applied rationality.
0Cosmos10yFWIW, the LW NYC group holds regular game nights, and uses poker specifically as a rationality training ground. If you make the correct EV decisions, the pure statistics really will get you a long way. The rest, well...
0gwern10yHow much attention should it get? [] We discuss an awful lot of topics here so it makes sense that anyone's pet topic has only been minimally discussed.
0Nornagest10yOh, I'm not calling for it to be covered; its absence doesn't leave a gap in our knowledge, except insofar as our knowledge applies to poker night. But it's surprising to me that Kevin's post was the first time I'd seen it used, given how widely known the rules are and how attractive it is as an example.
4JGWeissman10yChess teaches you to carefully consider the consequences of your available actions and choose the action with the best consequences. Becoming a grand master involves increasing your ability to do this in the domain of chess when you should be generalizing the skill to other applications. I expect that you in particular managed to learn this skill from other sources.
0Wei_Dai10yMaybe, or perhaps Michael meant the importance of cultivating a competitive spirit [], or a habit of studying and practicing [], or something else?
0MichaelVassar10yHe got it right, though The Art of Learning is VERY interesting on those topics.
2Dr_Manhattan10yPlease unpack this term. My kids have a Wii; should I be scared?
1MichaelVassar10yScared? Definitely not. However, I think its almost certainly the case that if they could be as motivated to play a musical instrument or paint as they probably are to play the Wii, or at least half as motivated to dos so, that would be a good thing to encourage.
0Hook10yBobby Fischer, and a chess playing computer, highlight the difference between rationality and talent. Talent is simply the ability to do a particular task well. I tend to think of rationality as the ability to successfully apply one's talents to achieving one's reasonably complex goals. ("Reasonably complex" so the computer doesn't score very high on rationality for achieving it's one goal of winning chess games.) Someone with limited talent could still be rational if he was making the best use of what strengths he did have. In a very real sense, we are all in that situation. It's easy to imagine possessing particular talents that would make achieving our goals much more likely. That said, certain talents will be correlated with rationality and it's an interesting question to see to what extent chess is one of those talents.

" Google the list of the Forbes 400.

  • Go through each of the biographies for people on the list (or the first 200, or the first 100, or whatever is a large enough sample).

  • Write down how they got rich.

  • Summarize the data above: How do most rich people get rich?

Actually looking at data is simple, easy, and straightforward, and yet almost no one actually does it."

Won't that incur in the "not seeing the cemetery" fallacy?

3Not-A9ySo to make myself clear, maybe I'll get some responses. If 100000 people use strategy A which gives results 10% of the time, and 100 people use strategy B which gives results 50% of the time (results as in they get rich), you will have 10000 people that got rich trough A and only 50 trough B. If you wanted to get rich you'd be better served using strategy B, but you cannot see the cemetery of strategy A only looking at the Forbes 400. So isn't this strategy not only not optimal, but actually harmful?

This is a nice essay as it may inspire people to think about their thinking and that getting useful answers to questions is in fact possible.

Now, how could we test that?

(Perhaps atucker could print out copies for his class ...)

Yes -- I agree, though the article focused a bit more on somewhat intangibles[1] for me. Try to apply science to daily life. Rather than wondering and walking away or leaving it in the realm of unknowable -- try to figure out how you might find out.

While the article does cultivate a similar approach, I think just applying these sorts of things to immediate daily life might be a more immediate way to visualize how the scientific method (and rationality in general) can be effective. Some that have happened to me:

  • What's wrong with my garage door? It keeps stopping on the way down Inspect various components, form a hypothesis (unlubricated bearings) and test (lubricate bearings and raise/lower door several times). Begin again.
  • The insulation in my attic seems less than adequate (MN suggest a R-60 and I have about R-20). Calculate cost (~$200 for enough bags of blowing insulation + $50 for machine rental - energy tax credit of %30 off). Seems reasonable. Blow insulation (done) and compare energy bills (in process).
  • Disagreement with wife about which path is fastest. Form hypothesis and then next time we drive separately, agree to both drive the speed limit and see who gets home first
... (read more)

What's wrong with my computer? How can I fix x?

Oh, man. Just getting people to think of their computer as being a constructed device amenable to prediction, rather than a malevolent box of evil out to make their life a misery, would be a major advance.

(As a sysadmin, I know that computers are actually in fact malevolent boxes of evil out to make your life a misery, and dealing with them is mostly a matter of who has the bigger spanner. But we want to start the masses gently.)

Perhaps we could shoot for "malevolent boxes of evil amenable to prediction"?

4David_Gerard10yPerhaps we could shoot the malevolent boxes of evil amenable to prediction! This is a variety of bigger spanner. The secret sysadmin art is to understand the machine sufficiently well that you can glare at it, have it understand that you can and will strip it down to the case if it doesn't behave, and have it start behaving. This is why when you call your sysadmin over about a problem, your PC starts working again. It strikes me that "malevolent boxes of evil amenable to prediction" applies to many humans as well.
5TheOtherDave10yHumans are better approximated as malevolent tubes of evil.
5DSimon10yMalevolent Hot Pockets (tm) of evil? Or maybe more of a nefarious calzone...
7TheOtherDave10yNefarious Calzone is a totally awesome name for a melodrama villain.
0wedrifid10yWell said!

Sometimes, questions get so politically loaded that you have to get tricky. To name a perennial favorite: Is global warming happening, and if it is, how much damage will it cause? It doesn't matter how much funding the NSF or some other agency gives this question, because the answers are already pre-determined; "yes" and "a lot" if you're a Blue, and "no" and "not much" if you're a Green.

At this point, I have to object... the one thing that guarantees lasting fame to a scientist is to successfully overthrow a wid... (read more)

7alyssavance10y"At this point, I have to object... the one thing that guarantees lasting fame to a scientist is to successfully overthrow a widely believed theory." Yes, but essentially no one wants to be famous in fifty years at the expense of having their funding pulled tomorrow.
2[anonymous]10yAlso note the Matthew effect [].
5Jordan10yHow many scientists are really banking on lasting fame? The vast majority of scientists are well aware they'll never be famous, that grant money is hard to come by, and that getting tenure is damn hard.
3Manfred10yThere are three-ish reasons why lasting fame wouldn't be too hard if global warming was a hoax or a mistake. One is that it's actually extremely easy to expose a gigantic error of the sort that would be required to create "global warming" from thin air. A bigger difference from the truth just makes it a bigger target. All it takes is for one person to stumble upon something anomalous and think that there's a research topic there. Another is that there's this thing called "ethics." Now, not everyone may have this magic, but to assume all, or even a sizable minority of research scientists are in it for the money is (edit) inconsistent with their histories or payscales. Last is that you don't get refused a grant for being a "contrarian." You get refused a grant for proposing bad science. It may make it harder, yes, but look at all the stochastic models of climate (as opposed to the physical models, which are the ones that use CO2's absorption properties to predict warming) of climate funded by grant money. EDIT: I suppose on issues like this, if nobody's displeased then you're doing it wrong.
3Jordan10yNot so. Climate science is not cut and dry like physics. The confidence levels are necessarily smaller. There is a lot more room for a person to be irrational and get away with it, doubly so for groups. First off, the payscales in academia really aren't that horrible once you escape the lower level of the pyramid scheme. On top of that there are lots of perks which don't show up just by looking at salary: job security, time off, setting your own hours, status. I know many graduate students who told me the main reason they went to grad school was to avoid getting a real job. Academia is a way of life, and that way of life is very valuable to most people in it. Second, ethics may have nothing to do with it. Just because a scientist genuinely believes in a theory doesn't mean she arrived at that belief in a rational manner. It is unethical to consciously allow money/status to color your public beliefs; it is a common human failing to let money/status color your actual internal beliefs. I wouldn't call it unethical. You get refused a grant for proposing something the grant issuer is not interested in. There is a lot of good science that goes unfunded because those with the purse strings have a particular idea in mind as to what they want funded. This isn't always unethical -- sometimes you have to choose between good science and good science -- but it is my fairly unfounded opinion that in many cases a very real factor in the decision is money and interest groups (in those cases where there are interest groups, namely health, food, climate, etc). I'm not a "climate skeptic", but I am skeptical. I'm a mathematician, not a climatologist, so I defer to their expertise. If I had to bet money, I'd bet on climate change. I am skeptical, however, that they have legitimately reached the level of confidence they claim to have reached.
2Manfred10yMost of the case for global warming is based on physics. Climate models are numerical solutions to a physics problem. If they were all sufficiently wrong, it would be simple to demonstrate. Or an energy-budget type analysis could convincingly show that it was one cause instead of another as long as it also identified where current energy-budget type analyses are wrong. I mean, obviously there's a ton of evidence, and you don't overturn a ton of evidence overnight. But if you were really, testably right, you could show where existing evidence went wrong. True, but it makes it a lot harder to explain things through mass deception if everyone's adhering to scientific ethics. That's a lot of the point of having them. Fun link: [] . And if the grant issuer is interested in furthering our knowledge of the climate? I think you're far too quick to imply that any project that challenged conventional wisdom would be left unfunded because of bias, or groupthink, or whatever. Lots and lots of climate research could be construed as tests of global warming, where if global warming failed the test it would be "bad," and it gets funded just fine. The grant-funded stochastic models I mentioned go against what other modelers are doing. If global warming is overturned, it will probably be by someone who just went out and did good science, with a project description a lot like that of everyone else who went out and did good science.
3Jordan10yUnderstanding the low level physics does not mean your high level models are right. Simplifying assumptions must be made and key physical components may be overlooked entirely. That's not to say that models are worthless, far from it. What it means is that you need additional evidence before placing very high confidence in them. Namely, your model must make successful predictions. In the case of climate science we don't have the luxury to wait and see if our models are successful. Even if we only had 75% confidence in our models, it would still be imperative to effect policy change. Nonetheless, the models are unverified, and I believe skepticism is warranted when someone claims very high confidence.
0Manfred10ySuccessful predictions, you say? [] But back on the topic of physics, it's true that there are conditions under which simplifying assumptions (let's go with the single-object simplification of Arrhenius) are and are not safe even to get an order of magnitude estimate. Do small forcings get amplified or damped by more than 10x by feedbacks (like water vapor or cloud cover)? To what extent do other conditions (like... water vapor or cloud cover) affect the greenhouse effect from CO2? The second one is fairly straightforward, since in the upper atmosphere (the part that radiates to space, at least in the wavelengths where the atmosphere absorbs) there's not much competing with CO2 (since water precipitates out miles below), and so we can treat a change in CO2 as a change in energy flux and ignore some complicated stuff. The first bit is more complicated, maybe the clearest way is to look at non-CO2-caused variation in temperature: if there were too much damping or amplification we'd expect things to look different when the sun dimmed by a known amount (e.g. around 1700). We can tell from that that there's a bit of amplification, but definitely less than 10x. So Arrhenius' estimate should be fairly good.
1Jordan10yI would certainly consider that positive evidence, but it's not knock out evidence. It's not even 90% confidence evidence, in my opinion. The data is just too noisy to draw high confidence conclusions after only a handful of years.
0Manfred10yThe IPCC must agree with you that that's not 90% confidence evidence, because there's a whole heck of a lot more evidence and they (well, several years ago) only gave human-caused global warming 95% certainty. That's just a good example of a prediction, compared to all the inference from physics and historical data.
1CronoDAS10yOn the other hand, "more money for research" isn't going to get rid of the evolution "controversy" either...

Is global warming happening, and if it is, how much damage will it cause? It doesn't matter how much funding the NSF or some other agency gives this question, because the answers are already pre-determined.

I don't care if a lot of people want to form opinions on the question for stupid reasons. That doesn't mean that science can't be done. I'm not sure if you disagree. If you're just being fatalistic about the likelihood of political policy being correctly influenced by science in this case, then I sympathize.

Actually looking at data is simple, easy, and straightforward, and yet almost no one actually does it. Here's another one: Adjusted for inflation, what is the average, long-term appreciation of the stock market? Here's the historical Dow Jones index, and here's an inflation calculator. Try it and see!

Be careful here:

  1. The DJIA index excludes dividends, which historically produce about half of the total return.

  2. The US market was the top performing stock market of the 1900s. So you are looking at a very unrepresentative sample of 1.

  3. Several markets we

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Generally a good idea. Doing science yourself and focusing on data instead of intuition seems likely to yield results but there are serious limitations.

Instead of Googling or asking someone else, we can apply the scientific method of actually looking at the data, and seeing what it says. Who are some rich people? How did they get rich? Where can we find information on rich people? The simplest technique, the one that I used when answering this question, is:

  • Google the list of the Forbes 400.
  • Go through each of the biographies for people on the list (or
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is rationality an effective means of achieving goals?

Yes, by definition. (Maybe you want an 'epistemic' in there.)