One criticism of LessWrong as an intellectual community is that it reinvents ideas "in-house" that already exist in academia. What are some examples of this?

I'd also be interested to see comments about whether you agree with this impression and what the examples tell us about how to improve the community.

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Steven Byrnes


I didn’t read but I heard (maybe Vanessa Kosoy was saying this?) that it has a lot of ideas that people around here would attribute to logical induction.

While I’m here, I’ll echo several other commenters in pushing back against the insinuation that reinventing ideas is a sign of something going wrong. There are only so many hours in a day, and they trade off between

  • (A) “try to understand the work / ideas of previous thinkers” and
  • (B) “just sit down and try to figure out the right answer”.

It’s nuts to assert that the “correct” tradeoff is to do (A) until there is absolutely no (A) left to possibly do, and only then do you earn the right to start in on (B). People should do (A) and (B) in whatever ratio they expect to be most effective for figuring out the right answer. I often do (B), and I assume that I’m probably reinventing a wheel, but it’s not worth my time to go digging for it. And then maybe someone shares relevant prior work in the comments section. That’s awesome! Much appreciated! And nothing went wrong anywhere in this process! See also here.

Very cool! Thanks for linking the book.

Charlie Steiner


If you dig through the SolidGoldMagikarp post, you can find earlier citations for this class of tokens, but sometimes people omit that earlier work when talking about the phenomenon.

Stephen Casper gives the example of "superposition" as a reinvented concept.

The way to reduce the rate of stuff like this is obviously more scholarship and humility. But I think most of the time, it's not a big deal, and only people doing active research or outreach should really worry about it. If a student calls it "superposition" and thinks it's a LW-sphere thing to work on, they're not doing any material harm.



Reinventing something and making it better is good.

Parker Conley


Situating the Contributions of LessWrong to the Philosophy of Language by @Suspended Reason seems to address this topic in a pretty thorough fashion.

Daniel V


Confounders - This post took some vivid examples and turned them into solid recommendations, even referring to the concept that already exists outside the post. But it mints new laws where none are needed, not really addressing other things that contribute to the internal validity of experiments or the inferences from full programs of research that might counteract the call to measure every single thing you possibly can; in my estimation, it led to a minor weakness in the post. It's not an egregious reinvention because it has the intellectual humility to interact with previous scholarship, one cannot expect any individual post to cover all the pieces of what can be a broad domain, and the point seemed to be more of presenting preferred operating procedures rather than (re)introducing a concept.

Also pretty confident John knows about confounders. You may think he should have connected the idea with the wikipedia page, but he has probably taken a statistics class.

Daniel V


Comparative advantage - and even worse, EY didn't even fully reinvent it. He just lined up a bundle of things that fall under the umbrella and called it a job well done. This particular instance also checks the boxes for arrogance and lack of rigor. That post was a fun read, but the embedded disdain for economics textbooks was particularly galling since economics textbooks handle the concept just fine.

I'm willing to bet at really good odds that Eliezer knew perfectly well about comparative advantage while writing that post.

1Daniel V
That's wonderful for him. I wish he had translated that knowledge into the post then! The reader shouldn't have to come away from a post titled "the point of trade" with simply a list of reasons why trade might be nice when those reasons can actually be brought together in a unifying explanation, one that is already well-explained in Econ 101, no less. Here he talks about his understanding of the textbook explanation, and you can judge for yourself whether it conveys comparative advantage or not: "[sometimes people get different amounts of value from things, so they can get more value by trading them] is the horrible explanation that you sometimes see in economics textbooks because nobody knows how to explain anything ... All right, suppose that all of us liked exactly the same objects exactly the same amount.  This obliterates the poorly-written-textbook's reason for "trade"." He also explains his thesis:  "I claim that the reason we have more stuff has something to do with trade. I claim that in an alternate society where everybody likes every object the same amount, they still do lots and lots of trade for this same reason, to increase how much stuff they have." Of course, that is comparative advantage adjacent, so we'll talk about it right? Wrong, the point of trade is to leverage an assortment of the sources of comparative advantage (but we won't even attempt to link these together in their unifying concept): "So now let us suppose identical fruit tastes, perfect task-switching, Star Trek transporters, identically cloned genetics, and people can share expertise via Matrix-style downloads which are free.  Have we now gotten rid of the point of trade?" The organizing/umbrella concept (comparative advantage) is still absent at the end of this. Maybe concrete examples like these, delineating specific sources by which comparative advantage can arise, are a useful didactic tool. But I don't think the point was to illuminate a key concept (indeed, it was never nam
2Garrett Baker
I mean, you can argue the post is badly written, but I don't think it counts as a reinvention is my point.
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To push back a bit: it seems like "reinventing ideas" comes with a negative connotation. In actuality, scientists and other intellectuals reinvent ideas all the time, sometimes in the same field, sometimes in related fields, sometimes in completely different ones. Often the "old" ideas are distilled and explained better, without the original fluff, and generalized to a wider applicability. LW is not unique or special in that regard, the only two differences I see are:

  • Occasional general tone of LW as superior due to obviously "rational" and "Bayesian" enlightened thinking,
  • Sneering by credentialed professional researchers at obviously amateurish know-it-alls.

Neither of those is completely without merit, but it is definitely counterproductive. Fortunately, some of the more prominent contributors after Eliezer are more familiar both with the fields they talk about and the appropriate tone of discourse in order to be taken seriously. 

Goodharting - on the other side of things, LessWrong also has posts like this that are designed to review rather than reinvent ideas. There is value in explaining old ideas in new ways or finding previously-unconsidered applications for old ideas.