"Science" as Curiosity-Stopper

Followup to: Semantic Stopsigns, Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions, Say Not 'Complexity'

Imagine that I, in full view of live television cameras, raised my hands and chanted abracadabra and caused a brilliant light to be born, flaring in empty space beyond my outstretched hands.  Imagine that I committed this act of blatant, unmistakeable sorcery under the full supervision of James Randi and all skeptical armies. Most people, I think, would be fairly curious as to what was going on.

But now suppose instead that I don't go on television.  I do not wish to share the power, nor the truth behind it. I want to keep my sorcery secret.  And yet I also want to cast my spells whenever and wherever I please. I want to cast my brilliant flare of light so that I can read a book on the train—without anyone becoming curious.  Is there a spell that stops curiosity?

Yes indeed!  Whenever anyone asks "How did you do that?", I just say "Science!"

It's not a real explanation, so much as a curiosity-stopper. It doesn't tell you whether the light will brighten or fade, change color in hue or saturation, and it certainly doesn't tell you how to make a similar light yourself. You don't actually know anything more than you knew before I said the magic word. But you turn away, satisfied that nothing unusual is going on.

Better yet, the same trick works with a standard light switch.

Flip a switch and a light bulb turns on.  Why?

In school, one is taught that the password to the light bulb is "Electricity!"  By now, I hope, you're wary of marking the light bulb "understood" on such a basis.  Does saying "Electricity!" let you do calculations that will control your anticipation of experience?  There is, at the least, a great deal more to learn.  (Physicists should ignore this paragraph and substitute a problem in evolutionary theory, where the substance of the theory is again in calculations that few people know how to perform.)

If you thought the light bulb was scientifically inexplicable, it would seize the entirety of your attention.  You would drop whatever else you were doing, and focus on that light bulb.

But what does the phrase "scientifically explicable" mean?  It means that someone else knows how the light bulb works.  When you are told the light bulb is "scientifically explicable", you don't know more than you knew earlier; you don't know whether the light bulb will brighten or fade.  But because someone else knows, it devalues the knowledge in your eyes.  You become less curious.

Since this is an econblog, someone out there is bound to say, "If the light bulb were unknown to science, you could gain fame and fortune by investigating it."  But I'm not talking about greed.  I'm not talking about career ambition.  I'm talking about the raw emotion of curiosity—the feeling of being intrigued.  Why should your curiosity be diminished because someone else, not you, knows how the light bulb works?  Is this not spite?  It's not enough for you to know; other people must also be ignorant, or you won't be happy?

There are goods that knowledge may serve besides curiosity, such as the social utility of technology.  For these instrumental goods, it matters whether some other entity in local space already knows.  But for my own curiosity, why should it matter? 

Besides, consider the consequences if you permit "Someone else knows the answer" to function as a curiosity-stopper.  One day you walk into your living room and see a giant green elephant, seemingly hovering in midair, surrounded by an aura of silver light.

"What the heck?" you say.

And a voice comes from above the elephant, saying, "SOMEBODY ALREADY KNOWS WHY THIS ELEPHANT IS HERE."

"Oh," you say, "in that case, never mind," and walk on to the kitchen.

I don't know the grand unified theory for this universe's laws of physics.  I also don't know much about human anatomy with the exception of the brain.  I couldn't point out on my body where my kidneys are, and I can't recall offhand what my liver does.  (I am not proud of this.  Alas, with all the math I need to study, I'm not likely to learn anatomy anytime soon.)

Should I, so far as curiosity is concerned, be more intrigued by my ignorance of the ultimate laws of physics, than the fact that I don't know much about what goes on inside my own body?

If I raised my hands and cast a light spell, you would be intrigued.  Should you be any less intrigued by the very fact that I raised my hands?  When you raise your arm and wave a hand around, this act of will is coordinated by (among other brain areas) your cerebellum.  I bet you don't know how the cerebellum works.  I know a little—though only the gross details, not enough to perform calculations... but so what?  What does that matter, if you don't know?  Why should there be a double standard of curiosity for sorcery and hand motions?

Look at yourself in the mirror.  Do you know what you're looking at?  Do you know what looks out from behind your eyes?  Do you know what you are?  Some of that answer, Science knows, and some of it Science does not.  But why should that distinction matter to your curiosity, if you don't know?

Do you know how your knees work?  Do you know how your shoes were made?  Do you know why your computer monitor glows?  Do you know why water is wet?

The world around you is full of puzzles.  Prioritize, if you must.  But do not complain that cruel Science has emptied the world of mystery.  With reasoning such as that, I could get you to overlook an elephant in your living room.


Part of the sequence Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

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Great writing again Eliezer. I'm afraid, however, that most people may respond by concluding that they are not in fact very curious about most things. I think we want to distinguish ordinary mysteries from grand mysteries, and be more curious about the grand ones. In practice, grand mysteries seem to be those that have more implications, and yes, those that other people have struggled and so far failed to answer.

I think the issue is that science tells us that there is a certain kind of explanation, not just that there is some explanation.

Most people (at some level) want to believe in something bigger than themselves that cares about human concerns. The reason that magic is exciting so long as it doesn't have a scientific explanation is that it holds out the possibility that is responds to human concerns.

Think for a moment about the differences between a science fiction book and fantasy book. Both of them endow their major characthers to accomplish astounding feats through essentially unexplained means but the the hyperdrive button or the transporter has a very different feeling to it than the spell. Why? Because the scifi gadgets presumably work on micro-physical laws that are indifferent to people's emotions while spells are depicted as responding to human emotions like hate, love and need. People want to believe in a universe that cares about these human level concerns and that's why they believe in ghosts, god, psychics etc...

Now I think that if you said 'science' that would dispel the interest from most folk but wouldn't do much to dispel the interest of scientists. I mean why should common folk be curious about this since saying 'science' means it's going to be just another of the innumerable technologies they don't really understand but see every day. By making the phenomena seem like magic you held out the hope for a second of something that would be much more interesting to them (they are rationally sure they won't understand any scientific explanation anyway).

In short I think this is just a complex way of illustrating the fact that many people would like to believe in something other than materialism.

This is a very good psychological explanation, and perhaps we should be spending more time explaining to people why they don't need the world to respond to human concerns at quite so deep a level. (After all, humans respond to human concerns, and thanks to technology, humans are getting pretty powerful; why isn't that enough?)

For it really doesn't make a lot of sense to say that the universe could be ultimately mindful of human concerns. Even if we were living in a simulation run by an alien who loves us very much, the alien is still made of atoms in his universe. Even if Thor were real, he'd still be made of stuff.

And I agree that I've never heard the word 'science' used as a curiousity stopper.

Not the word, the concept. If I meant the word, I'd have said "Science!" rather than "Science" - though, come to think of it, no one had any logical way of knowing that... studies show we communicate much more ambiguously than we think we do.

No one is actually walking around pointing to light switches and saying, "Why does it work?" and hearing someone else respond "Science!" Rather, they fail to ask the question at all, because of the concept that it belongs to "science", the scientific magisterium, and therefore, should be marked as "understood" rather than "mysterious". Even though, in fact, they don't know why the light switch works.

If anyone is going to ask for a real-world example of someone who does not know how a light switch works, I can't provide one off the top of my head, but I'd suggest looking at this, which is even more dreadful.

What I am trying to do - to fulfill HA's request of coming out and saying everything bluntly - is reawaken the delight in a world full of mysteries, which has been sapped by the notion that they are already understood, and therefore, no longer important. It's not a verbal belief, but a way of seeing the world, which I am trying to bring into clear focus with parables. If I just said, "Hey, I saw a guy pass a light switch the other day, and he didn't look at it curiously," this would be true real-world example but it would not make the point.

There is a tremendous demand for mysteries which are frankly stupid. I wish this demand could be satisfied by scientific mysteries instead. But before we can live in that world, we have to undo the idea that what is scientific is not curiosity-material, that it is already marked as "understood".

it's fine for you to say that your purpose here is to focus on writing speed without worrying about quality

I did not say that, as you should be well aware if you are going to debate subtle and fine points. I certainly worry about quality. But there are specific things which take up a lot of time, such as finding a good illustrative real-world example, which I can't do once a day. I do them whenever I have a good example ready to hand, e.g. as in "Say not 'Complexity'", but if not, then I can compose a parable in my head in bounded time because it draws only on internal resources. The Net is infinitely deep - for all practical purposes - and if a Google search fails once, I'll give up and compose a parable. I will, of course, try to make it as high-quality a parable as possible.

"If anyone is going to ask for a real-world example of someone who does not know how a light switch works, I can't provide one off the top of my head, but I'd suggest looking at this, which is even more dreadful."

--- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HV9gRFv5Kgc

Eliezer: Parables are more like stories, so they fit into the mind more easily. Please don't let the critics get you down. This is great stuff. The difference between explanation, citation, and verbal mumbo-jumbo should be taught in elementary science classes as soon as kids can comprehend it.

michael vassar: An even better film example of passwords, curiosity-stopping, and nonexplanation appears in the film "Idiocracy".

There everyone drinks gatorade because they have been inculcated with the marketing slogan that "It's got electrolytes -- what your body craves!" They proceed to irrigate the crops with gatorade, causing a famine. A critic tries to point out that crops need water. Then the mob responds that gatorade is better since it has elecrolytes. But what are electrolytes, he asks? "They're what plants crave!" they answer. But why do plants crave them? he asks. "Because they're electrolytes!" the mob responds, slowly seeing that the critic is moron who can't understand basic logic.

I was reminded of this when my friend commented that creatine is the greatest bodybuilding supplement because it gives your muscles extra "bursting power". It didn't seem to trouble him that the idea of "bursting power" did not exist in his mind before he had heard about creatine, or that it had no meaning in his mind apart from it being the thing creatine gives your muscles.

I think the gibberish supporting exercise supplements is a goldmine for peeople seeking real-world examples of password nonexplanations.

What is interesting is that the rhetoric for exercise supplements apes the verbal style of science to usurp its legitimacy. These supplements are marketed at fairly literal-minded sporty guys. And if you walk down to the next shelf in your health-food store, you will find other supplements marketed with a rhetoric based on the magic power of nature, crystals, love, mother earth, etc.. These are targeted at hippy-dippy types, and ape the verbal style of magic for its legitimacy with them.

I think the fundamental difference in the rhetorics is what logicnazi said: science is based on materialism, and magic is based on a romantic faith in the significance of human feeling. Magic appeals to people more. It is only the institutionalization of science that gives it enough prestige that many people will credit pseudo-scientific nonexplanations they don't really understand over blatantly magical thinking that makes no sense.

Also, you can sell magic to a modern audience by dressing it up in "science." From an 'autopathy' (homeopathy using patient's own bodily secretions) site that I recently found: "Today, isopathy is used to treat, among other things, people whose health has suffered as a result of a certain type of vaccination. They are given the same vaccine, but this time homeopathically diluted. The potentised poison of a viper can be used isopathically to treat a viper’s bite. Nevertheless, this understanding of isopathy has some drawbacks – it ignores certain central aspects of homeopathy, primarily its holistic concept. And it goes against what Hahnemann said about Homeopathy: that it is treatment on the principle of “like cures like”. Isopathy thus ceases to be homeopathy. Opinions on this matter, however, varied. In The Medical Advance, volume XXXII, no. 2, 1894, p. 59, the well-known homeopathic doctor J.H. Allen from Indiana wrote: “I will give proof that I think will be fully convincing to most minds that so called Isopathy is but the highest phase of similia in the highest sense.” "

IMO, this is a brilliant example of "cargo cult science." It looks and sounds like science, but it has no content whatsoever. The system it refers to is in fact a form of sympathetic magic. The author slips by including one falsifiable statement, but it is not one that anyone is ever likely to test experimentally.

I found this comment particularly useful, since Yudkowsky's description seemed a little broad for my taste. If he is only referring to cases like those you describe, than I agree. (Not just because they look unscientific, but because they are unscientific.) If he did intend his statements more generally, I might take fault. To illustrate my point, here are some examples along a spectrum:

  1. If I come across some claim I have reason to be suspicious of, I shouldn't pay the claim any more heed if it starts with "scientists say" than if it starts with "Simon says". After all, "scientists say" that we only use 10% of our brain, but that meme and hundreds just like it has been proven false many times.

  2. If I don't have any reason to suspect the information, however, my actions will depend on the circumstances. If I question the source, and the answer I get is "it was this scientific study", I will take that to mean that the person read it in a headline or a short article on a real study. That will have the same effect as a curiosity stopper on me, since I won't exactly get any more information out of that person. If I'm curious enough about it, I will of course google it later. If not, I’ll effectively mentally mark it with a [citation needed] tag. (For some reason, I tend to be better at remembering where I heard something than remembering the things themselves, so I don’t think I have too many untagged false facts rattling around between my ears.)

  3. If I'm reading a reputable publication, and I see them cite one or more source on a surprising fact, that generally will act as a curiosity stopsign for me. I would have to be especially suspicious or especially curious to ask "wait, but why" and track down an answer. If I'm trying to learn a new discipline, I will generally scribble out a note in the margins of the book, so that I can google it later if the author doesn't provide a sufficient explanation by the end of the book. (In fact, I've been making exactly the same sorts of notes in the LW comments as I work my way through The Sequences. :D)

Unfortunately, I have only limited time, and I can’t check every vague or incomplete explanation I hear or read. Therefore, unfortunately, we do have to let some things act as curiosity stoppers on some matters. This can lead to things like confirmation bias if we aren’t careful, so it’s important to track down a full explanation of things which might fundamentally challenge our understanding.

After all, scientists "say" that we only use 10% of our brain

Which scientists, when? My impression is that for a long time the people saying that have consistently not been scientists.

You are correct. That was actually my point, even if I apparently worded it poorly. People keep repeating the myth, even though it has been proven false many times. I was trying to use it as an example of popular misconceptions.

OK. (Perhaps After all, "scientists say" that ... might have been clearer to me than "After all, scientists "say" that ...* but I'm not sure.)

Eliezer: have you really never heard the "10% of the brain" myth? Here's a link. You can get more by googling the phrase "ten percent brain."

Lots of people who believe in psychic phenomena will make arguments like, "studies show we only use ten percent of our brains. People with psychic powers are probably the ones who've figured out how to use more," or something like that.

And I agree that I've never heard the word 'science' used as a curiousity stopper. It doesn't make sense in context (as opposed to something like "this nifty gadget." Have you ever heard anyone answer a question with the word 'science!'?). The lightbulb was a better example, but also I think wrong: when I say electricity makes it work, I'm referencing a culturally understood bundle of information. And really, no one does ask that question in the way you mean, in our culture; everyone's seen lightbulbs before. The only way this makes sense is if you're talking to someone who's never seen electricity in action before, the answer 'electricity' is highly unlikely to satisfy them.

The general problem I have with this series of posts is that you seem to conflate three different phenomena, two of which are useful. The first is actual non-answers, a la Feynman's Wakalixes. The second is brief answers that are actually placeholders for larger discussions; 'electricity' is a good example of this. If your response about the light is "LEDs and batteries," that's just two words but it serves as an actual explanation if you know what those two things are. And third is rational ignorance; as I said earlier, you ask questions until either you understand or you decide that further understanding isn't worth the effort.

And finally, to be blunt, it's fine for you to say that your purpose here is to focus on writing speed without worrying about quality, and therefore our complaints that the quality isn't very high are beside the point; but it doesn't really give us any reason to hang around.

The recent move "Inception" includes the 10% of the brain myth. I cringed, since it has been so soundly busted.

If you could ignore that particular flaw, it was a really good movie. Unfortunately it is the foundational premise of the movie, so if you couldn't ignore it chances are you'd hate the movie.

Unfortunately it is the foundational premise of the movie

Only foundational in the sense that it would be necessary if you were to recreate the movie in reality. For the actual plot of the movie, it was not foundational. The idea that subjective speed-ups in time perception can stack multiplicatively is a foundational premise of the movie.

In practice, grand mysteries seem to be those that have more implications, and yes, those that other people have struggled and so far failed to answer.

More implications - certainly. Those that other people have struggled and failed to answer - yes indeed! It's that term so far that I object to. If Science struggled for over a century to answer a question, such as "What is life?" or "What is fire?", then it should always be a grand mystery, forever and amen, to all who do not know it.

The problem is, of course, that between guessing the teacher's password, a general training-out of noticing one's own confusion, fake causality, a tendency to think of mysteries as "inherently understood" once someone else understands them, and, perhaps, too much pride to admit ignorance of what someone else knows, people don't realize that the grand mysteries are still mysterious unto them.

I think you may be placing too much emphasis on curiosity as a terminal value here rather than a means of acquiring other terminal values--not that I think it has no value in and of itself, but that's not its only use and not its biggest in most respects.

If I know that a light switch/bulb's properties are fully explained by science and nothing else about it, that DOES tell me things I didn't know beforehand. It tells me that it is much less of a priority to figure out how the light bulb works than it would have been if nobody had a clue. If there is any situation in which knowledge of how it works is necessary there's already someone who knows, and if there is a situation in the future in which I decide it would be to my benefit to learn how it works I will have little trouble learning it at that time, rather than needing to arm myself with that knowledge well in advance because I can't predict how long it will take to acquire (this ignoring the issue of how long it would take for me to wrap my head around the concepts if I tried; it's easier to learn if it's already known, no matter where the baseline difficulty is set). And if there is some incredibly useful piece of low hanging fruit which could be derived from just knowledge about the light bulb, I could be confident that somebody else had found it (and if it's not low hanging fruit, well, others have at least had as much of a shot at it as I would; unless I have reason to believe that there is something I could learn from the knowledge that others would have missed so far, in which case skip to the next paragraph). Even knowing that the keyword involved is "electricity", which does not even begin to count as understanding, tells me SOMETHING (though not enough that a science teacher should feel justified stopping there)--it tells me which section in the phone book to look at if I need someone to fix my lightswitch, or which section of the library to look in to learn about it myself. The former is all some people will need to know about lightswitches for their entire lives.

Of course I know a good deal more about it than that, and in fact some of my knowledge will be useful to me in a real way in my real life. But the knowledge about what organ X does and where it is, is not directly useful to me in the same way--for all practical purposes it's good enough that I can ask a doctor or search certain trustworthy portions of the internet for the answer to any question about what I should do from a medical perspective in most situations. Yes, knowledge of medicine being more immediately on hand might help me react faster to a problem and a situation may come up where I personally ought to know CPR and don't, but my situation isn't as bad as if nobody knew this information. And I can teach myself most of the useful things that you can/must do immediately and with no equipment or pills, without ever needing to know how the inside of my body really looks.

This only applies to things unrelated to the fields you do care about. If you care about or expect to be involved in making AI, knowledge of all things computer and how electricity works and how modern computer chips are built and anything you can learn about existing intelligences is valuable. Knowledge of what your liver does, however, isn't just somebody else's problem; it's not a problem. If you feel curious about the liver that's great, but if not you don't really have to.

The example with the elephant isn't great, because that is a situation in which I would care about the knowledge, and would seek to either ask the person who knows about it to explain to me or, if the explanation turns out to be far more difficult and/or long than I am willing to accept, will ask him all the predictive questions I would've been able to answer if I knew about it, such as "Is this going to get worse if I ignore it until a more convenient time", "How do I make it leave", "Is my house in danger" or even the almighty "Is there anything else important I should know about this" (because it is a human being who knows about it, not a genie, and he can predict what facts I'd consider important even if I don't know what to ask for). Or if even that was too hard (or he was unwilling to tell me), at least to remove it from the room for me.

The example of you waving your hands to create light and calling it science would also not stop me until I became convinced that significantly more people than just you knew it and that some of these people would be willing to tell me if I asked. But that's because my curiosity about the light as a whole would stem as much from mistrust of another person to apply that knowledge to humanity's general benefit as from real curiosity. You can't hold out on me with the knowledge that that light can also cure cancer if I also understand what you do about the light, or if I know that a number of other people unlikely to share a stake with you in any enterprise know it.

The real danger would be if that elephant had been in my room since the day I was born and I didn't know enough to be curious about it.

There is a tremendous demand for mysteries which are frankly stupid. I wish this demand could be satisfied by scientific mysteries instead. But before we can live in that world, we have to undo the idea that what is scientific is not curiosity-material, that it is already marked as "understood".

I think one of the biggest reasons for this is that most of us are satisficers when it comes to explanations of the world. An implication that some scientists know what is going on with a certain phenomenon and are not radically reinterpreting all their theories and designing flurries of experiments means essentially "This phenomenon does not need to radically disturb my map of understanding about the world".

Suppose the answer to the elephant in the room is that God definitely exists and can overturn or modify physical "laws" at whim, and starting today, is willing to provide independently replicable external proof to any willing skeptical observer of that fact, -- this silvery-green elephant is the first salvo in the project.

Now if I know this I could certainly claim that "Somebody else understands why this elephant is here", but it would be a pretty radical stretch to say "Science" even though in some sense, it would be. But when people say/imply that it was explainable by "science", what I believe they mean is that it is explainable in terms that do not render the current common understandings of some major scientific field moot.

Now, in practice, all people's internal maps of understanding are so severely limited that studying any deep scientific problem (solved or not, as long as they didn't already understand it) would, in fact, radically change their understanding of the world, even if they were not learning anything in the process that scientists in the field don't already know backwards and forwards. I'm a geek and read lots of science, so I've known all sorts of things about the effects of quantum mechanics on how I should understand the world since I was 14, but the moment when I finally got the math of the wave equation (after finally deciding to bang my head on the math as long as necessary) was nonetheless transformative.

So I agree with you completely. The fact that something is understood, if it was once a deep mystery, is no reason for anyone to treat it as trivial.

I completely disagree with your portrayal of curiosity and curiosity-stoppers. Our curiosity generally has to do with our familiarity (or lack of it!) when encountering a phenomenon.

If I saw you cast a bizarre light that hovered over your book on the train, "Science!" would surely NOT diminish my curiosity, b/c I'd never seen anything like it ever. When I see David Blain (sp?) perform, I am amazed (and curious) about how he does "street magic." Do I think it's magic? Of course not. In fact, I presume that there is a rational scientific explanation to it. But, that does not make me less curious. In fact, I'm curious to know the explanation.

Conversely, when I walk into someone else's house and they flip on a light, I do not stop to be sure that their lights work the same as mine (even though I have no experience with their lights), because the phenomenon is not new to me. I've been a good Bayesian and simply applied my experience with thousands of light switches to this new light switch.

Curiosity is a function of (1) our familiarity with the phenomenon, and (2) the intensity (or magnitude) of the phenomenon (is that a little flame coming from your fingertips or a 100' flare?). It has little to do with Science! or Magic! as curiosity-stoppers.

"to pump out one a day"

Is that what you intend to do - pump out one a day?

"Real-world examples have two unfortunate properties."

Yes, but they have fortunate properties as well. One property is that if you use them and you are wrong about them, then you can be refuted. That is a good thing. Falsifiability is not a liability, but a strength. Failure to ground your assertions in examples has the tendency to make it rather more difficult to check them one way or the other. Moreover, the art of identifying bias is surely a key element of any program of overcoming bias, and merely talking about bias in the abstract without actually identifying examples neglects that element.

Moreover there are ways of going about it which do not make enemies. One unwise thing to do is to identify a conclusion as biased, or a position as biased, or even worse, a person as baised. It is much less hackle-raising to identify a particular argument or move as succumbing to a bias. The more narrowly you focus your discussion, the less chance you have of bruising anyone's ego. On the contrary, when you make broad and sloppy generalizations about whole classes of people you are much more likely to offend. If you make a generalization about Alabama bar patrons then you have not really learned the art of avoiding offense. Part of why you may feel you make enemies if you deal with specific examples may be that you simply do not do people justice. Your solution is simply to retreat to an abstract level, but another solution may be to do people justice, to rein in the accusations which you make quietly in your head. It might have the salutary effect of making your own assessments a bit more fair and circumspect.

Is there a spell that stops curiosity?

Yes indeed! Whenever anyone asks "How did you do that?", I just say "Science!"

When people ask "How did you do that?", their intention isn't usually to understand.

They may want to know "What is going on?" meaning "Is this an unusual situation - am I in danger?"

They may want be interests in acquiring the capability to do the same 'trick', just like they'd ask Penn and Teller; hoping for an answer along the lines of "You use a foobar arm motion detection device; you can buy them from apple.com"

They may have several other agendas for asking such a question. Their 'curiosity' wanes at the point your responses stop matching their mental script, the point at which it eliminates the branch they're interested in. If they have a hard coded belief "Science is difficult, I'm not interested in stuff that might have equations in", then by answering "Science!" rather than presenting the same info but using different wording, you're sending them a 'stop' cue.

I think that the movie "Men in Black" actually made Eliezer's point quite nicely. Absurd things happen to people and then the "Men in Black" show up, dazzle people with a magical gadget, and give absurd scientific sounding explanations as to why the people shouldn't be surprised or think they need to investigate.

"""I apologize if I've been unfair to you, Tiiba. I was just trying to point out that I was giving parables for the same reason that you said, correctly and validly, "studies show that we use only 10% of our brains", as an example, instead of actually spending an hour looking it up on Google. I'm not sure how else I might have offended you."""

You didn't get it. :(

I don't ask that you spend an hour looking for twenty-year studies of the way the word "complexity" is used. All I want to know is "what brought this on?" The vaguest paraphrase of someone using "Science!" as a curiosity stopper would satisfy me. Who, when -- I'll trust you.


I apologize if I've been unfair to you, Tiiba. I was just trying to point out that I was giving parables for the same reason that you said, correctly and validly, "studies show that we use only 10% of our brains", as an example, instead of actually spending an hour looking it up on Google. I'm not sure how else I might have offended you.

I would never write a blog post that I thought was "under-researched bullshit". All my non-parable examples are drawn from things that I remember people saying to me, even though I don't have enough time to look them all up. My parables are clearly labeled as parables.

I'm not trying to offend anyone, but so long as I'm being honest to the best of my ability, I really don't see what moral duty I've failed in. These are free blog posts. You didn't pay for them and I didn't promise them. If you think it's possible to do better, write your own blog posts! I mean that very sincerely, and I would be honored to have started anyone down that pathway.

Understand, I'm perfectly happy to entertain criticisms of the form, "There's an actual flaw in your logic, point X", but not criticisms of the form, "You could have written a better post if you were willing to spend an hour doing Y." I only have so many hours. Write your own blog post and spend your own hour doing Y. (Here, Y is "using researched real-world examples instead of abstract parables to make the same valid point".)

Now I've got to get back to preparing my talk for the Singularity Summit. Ciao.

I would like your posts to include concrete real-world examples, rather than parables.

Real-world examples have two unfortunate properties. First, they tend to be complicated, using up space in the blog post and obscuring the core point. Second, real-world examples name specific targets and thereby make enemies; who may not even deserve the criticism, because people do sometimes change their minds in the three years since I last had a mailing-list conversation with them.

studies show that you use 10% of your brain

Anyone who uses that curiosity-stopper is lying or mistaken; no such studies exist.

So why didn't you give us a real real-world example, Tiiba...? It would have taken a bit of time to find one, right?

These are blog posts, I've got to write them quickly to pump out one a day. While the real-world examples are there in my memory, actually looking them up in the vastness of the Net, when I don't recall exactly when or where it happened, might take a lot of time.

On the other hand, I can't recall any examples of anyone using science, complexity or emergence as curiocity stoppers or passwords. It might just be me, I might be stupid, but this has been bothering me.

If you really want an example, go to the archives of the Artificial General Intelligence mailing list and click around at random. Soon you'll find one.

Ah, so the source and inspiration for your negative examples is a pool of AI geeks, would-be AI geeks, and philosophers who disapprove of the whole enterprise.

That explains a lot. Your examples no longer strike me as artificial. Merely a bit parochial.

But it is a great series, regardless of the personal history that has engendered it. I hope I can make use of some of the ideas and heuristics I have learned here.

Hey Brandon, I hear you. I think you'll find is fascination to see this Google Video Presentation by Thomas Metzinger:

"Being No One: Consciousness, The Phenomenal Self, and First-Person Perspective"


He tries to do exactly what you suggest. He reviews what we know empirically about self-awareness, and constructs a philosophical model of self that accounts for those phenomena. I got a lot out of it.

He even complains about certain Kantians who have taken the bold step of denying certain kinds of mental illness, because their world view can't account for them.

At some point it maybe helpful to define curiosity. My sense of the meaning of curiosity is that it's an urge to learn something that you suspect maybe important to know at some point, even if it may not matter now. A paper I read recently (http://www.idsia.ch/~juergen/curioussingapore/curioussingapore.html) defined curiosity more formally, as a special kind of search strategy that focuses on places that your experience shows have a higher than average probability of teaching you something useful. This doesn't seem too far from my definition.

It seems to me that stopped curiosity is not necessarily a big problem.

In my terms, what you seem to be talking about is an inquiry stopper, which is a bigger deal. If you think that it's actually important to know how a lightbulb works-- if you need to know about light bulbs-- it's a process of inquiry, not merely curiosity.

Stopping curiosity is an interesting issue in itself, but the dynamics are likely to be a bit different from stopping inquiry, although there is significant overlap.

We all live in a world of bounded rationality. We use satisficing strategies, controlled by a variety of stopping heuristics, to learn enough about the world to get by (and curiosity is part of that strategy, by giving us some kind of good enough cover in the event that the models we might otherwise have turn out to be too simple or too wrong). That we stop before learning everything possible is hardly remarkable. But I enjoy how you are getting us to think about certain specific stopping heuristics that might be insidiously impairing us.

Last night I looked over some philosophical writing I did twenty years ago, and I'm impressed by how much I took for granted, and how little I questioned. It's full of unabashedly sweeping statements based on what I now realize were very naive assumptions. I found myself reading it and yelling at my younger self "Why did you stop there? Keep opening the black boxes! Continue the questioning!"

If an explanation known by other people implies that other beliefs we hold are false, then word will sometimes get around, so really novel knowledge can be expected to have a greater impact on our beliefs. A light spell that could be replicated and used to claim the Randi Prize would force us to massively increase our estimates of the likelihood that we are living in a simulation and revise numerous other beliefs.

It may be because we are evolutionarily wired to be curious about our surroundings so that we could feel 'safe', so if something is known, then that may mean that is 'safe', if something isn't known then there may be a 'danger' there. Just a thought.

Maybe humans do this because if we know that someone else knows the answer to the question, it's not our problem anymore, we can safely ignore it and work on other things. Maybe if there were an elephant trainer standing next to the elephant in your living room (maybe not your living room, otherwise you'd be worried about property damage and such) holding an elephant leash and saying "Don't worry, I got this," you'd be content to walk on by if you'd seen green elephants before and had something else that you needed to be doing.

I suppose that in the "ancestral environment", if someone else already knows how to solve the problem, you can safely ignore it.

On what I suspect to be a related side note, I notice that while in math class, I quickly lose interest in solving a problem if I already know that I know how to solve it.

A thought experiment for you:

Imagine that tomorrow, the folks at LHC find the Higgs boson and presumably solve the universe by discovering and proving the Theory of Everything.

Would your curiosity about it be diminished?

For me, the answer is yes, and I suspect you'll find the same of yourself. If you're not convinced, you only need to look towards history. Right now, you aren't curious as to the chemical composition of water. If it was the year 1700, you probably would be. However, since the concept of H20 has entered into our collective cognition, we aren't curious about it anymore. It is not so egregious to think the same would happen with the Theory of Everything. The question remains: why does this happen?

I think it's got to do with an evolutionary mechanism for the collective progress of humanity. A limit on natural curiosities per human streamlines the discovery process. It works like this: a curiosity for the unknown burns in many humans, but only for things that no human knows. This burning drive allows a large amount of minds to actively work towards the truth.

Now, once one mind figures it out, the flame is extinguished. After all, it would be inefficient for the flame to keep on burning. It would be inefficient for the same large amount of people to continue slaving away towards a hopeful discovery of the answer when a much easier way presents itself: learning it from those who know.There is no need to reinvent the wheel, as they say.

Instead, it's more advantageous for people to occupy themselves with other unsolved curiosities. The more people working on a particular problem, the higher the chance the problem will be solved, and the sooner humanity can move on and solve the next problem.

The mechanism is simple. We identify with the people who actually know by proxy. It is enough that they are human. We consider "humanity" to have solved the problem, and we (most of us) consider ourselves to be a part of "humanity." In that way, it's almost like we ourselves know the answer.

Welcome to Less Wrong!

I think it's got to do with an evolutionary mechanism for the collective progress of humanity.

I'm afraid evolution doesn't care about the collective progress of humanity. Whatever adaptations give rise to our peculiar sense of curiosity had to each contribute in some way to the survival and reproduction of the individuals who had them— and bear in mind that they may not have had the same sort of effects in the ancestral environment that they do in the modern one!

It was incorrect of me to imply that "evolution" is an entity with a plan. Allow me to take this in another direction.

First, we can reduce the problem further. In terms of individuals, each individual may frame his curiosity for the sake of bettering his peers. After all, intensely curious researchers tend to make great discoveries. In terms of ancestry, this is analogous to being the alpha male, in order to win life and pass on his genes (by "win life," I mean get dates, eat food, and otherwise survive to the best of each individual's ability). Thus understood, no human is actually curious for the sake of being curious, but for the sake of 1. being better than other humans, which generally leads to 2. surviving. There is a more in-depth discussion of this here. (pardon me, I can't get the link to embed) http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2010/02/wearing-rationality-badges-popularizing-neutrality-and-saying-i-dont-know-to-politics-colin-marshall.html

By the way, a shameless example would be my posting this to regain some degree of pride. Do I actually want to answers to my questions, or do I just want to be better than other people? It's hard to say, but I lean to the latter.

As for the phenomenon of diminishing curiosity, it can be attributed to the fact that only one person can be the best. In sports, that's ok - the Superbowl is held every year and you get many chances to be the best. In science, something awesome can only be discovered once. There'd be no point in trying to discover the nature of lightning, because Ben Franklin already did that. He already won.

If I want to win, I have to discover something of my own (or do something awesome). Curiosity is cultured by the scientist to win, to beat his peers. The most curious scientist probably works the hardest, and has the greatest chance of winning.

And now, you'll try to post a response that critiques my own, but not for the sake of a greater truth. It'd be for the sake of beating me. Humans aren't very mature, are they?

Unfortunately, the Higgs-Boson would not do any of that.

From what I've read, most physicists dislike the term "God Particle", because it imparts far too much importance onto the particle. It's just another particle that should be present under the right conditions.

There are a few theories that require the Higgs-Boson to exist, and it would be really convenient if it did. They might be able to fix big things like the current theories of Gravity and Dark Matter if they find it. There are also a whole group of theories that do not predict the particle and so would be falsified if it is found.

Finding it where expected or not finding it, either answer leads closer to reality.

In either case it probably won't lead to a Grand Unified Theory of Everything, except as just another stepping stone along the way.

It's not as big a deal as it is made out to be in the media, though it is still a big deal if found, certainly.

Closer, but not quite.

Most theories require a Higgs boson. Almost all theoretical physicists would be shocked if it were not found eventually. Finding the Higgs boson would not tell us much about gravity or dark matter. The best we could hope for is finding multiple types of Higgs bosons, which are required by supersymmetry, though the LHC won't necessarily find find more than one, even if supersymmetry is true. Supersymmetry provides a possible explanation for dark matter and it is required by string theory.

Finding the Higgs boson would not tell us much about gravity or dark matter.

Indeed, that's what I meant by "might", without it though there isn't a whole lot of hope for the current theories as I understand them.

The Higgs boson is predicted by the Standard Model as well, isn't it? It could really cause a lot of trouble if it isn't found. That would be interesting!

I'm shocked that you linked to that YouTube clip about the sun and the moon going around the earth. The reason is that this question tests precisely password-style knowledge. You can assume the sun goes around the earth and make the exact same calculations that you can if you assume the earth goes around the sun. The reason is that "goes around" is not a physically meaningful concept (by relativity if you wish). The question is as meaningful as asking whether countries in the north are above those in the south, and knowing the answer says more about your educational history than it does about whether you actually know something real about the world.

I love this: "studies show we communicate much more ambiguously than we think we do." :D

I also agree with this: "reawaken the delight in a world full of mysteries, which has been sapped by the notion that they are already understood, and therefore, no longer important."

But, I would add that there are mysteries that are understood, and mysteries that are not understood. So, if I'm going to spend my time discovering answers to mysteries, I'm going to choose the less-understood variety, so that I can get published, or the well-understood ones that are practical at the time (how does this #$%! toilet work again?). I, also, have limited time during any given day.

(That doesn't stop me from spending the odd day trying to re-discover why the units for joules should be able to be expressed as distance-squared-mass units; I'm not a physicist.)

I'm loving Eliezer's transparency. I think the strongest criticism on this blog should be reserved for the contributors making the least effort to be internally transparent and responsive to the readers/commenters. Eliezer seems to be making the most effort.

"to pump out one a day"

Is that what you intend to do - pump out one a day?

Yes. One of the primary purposes of this exercise is to teach me to overcome my writer's molasses - which is like writer's block, only instead of not writing, you write very sloooowly. So far, this exercise has been a smashing success.

The most important observation I have ever heard about writer's block is that it doesn't stem from being unable to write, but from holding yourself to too high a standard. You can always write a sentence - if necessary you could type gibberish - if you lower your standards far enough; thus all writer's block stems from having standards higher than you can type at.

Yes, there are all kinds of wonderful effects of using real-world examples instead of parables. But these would take more words, and as you can see, commenters already think my posts are too long. And furthermore, it would take more time, and the whole reason I'm writing blog posts is because - for some strange reason - I can write blog posts much faster than I can write anything else. Probably because I can bring myself to lower my standards, and because I can pump a post out the door, get it published, instead of tweaking it for months.

If anyone wants to write about rationality differently, they are, of course, welcome to do so; it's a big Internet, and who knows, maybe you could even get it published on Overcoming Bias. Meanwhile, I am here, above all, to teach myself speed. I don't intend this to excuse me from such requirements as good grammar, good structure, good spelling, or even brevity. But when it comes to things like using parables instead of carefully looking up and explaining examples from the real world, I plead guilty and will go right on doing it.

Also, I mentioned "studies show" because it has been a curiosity stopper for me in the past. I read in a middle-school textbook that smoking a cigarette removes [x] days from your life expectancy. I took this as gospel, not caring WHICH studies show this, how they did their math, or whether there are other studies that show something else.

I still haven't researched this... But at least I realize that the question exists.

There, a REAL real-world example.

"Anyone who uses that curiosity-stopper is lying or mistaken; no such studies exist."

That's the point.

Eliezer: I think another factor is that different kinds of answers are differently useful. If you cast your spell on the train, I might come over and ask you how you did it. I can guarantee that "science" or "technology" wouldn't satisfy my curiousity (partly, I'm sure, because I'm a nerd and enjoy technology). But if you said, "It's this cool device I ordered from Sharper Image for $10,000," that would probably satisfy me, because it answers the relevant question. I can come up with mechanisms by which you could do things like that, though it would be expensive; if you tell me you bought a very expensive item, that both tells me "it fits into the types of explanation you're familiar with" and "if you want to do this too, here's how."

I think that in a lot of cases, the inquiry stopper is the answer that convinces us of one of two things: either that we now know what we need to know to use the phenomenon, or that any further explanation would go over our heads and/or confuse us.

Why should your curiosity be diminished because someone else, not you, knows how the light bulb works? Is this not spite?

Why should it be more appealing to the 1st to climb a mountain, instead of the 43528672nd? Once you've discovered that someone else has already solved the problem, you've solved it for yourself as well. When you feel the need to know, you can ask.

The bias seems to be think, think, and think again. Obsessive compulsive thinking isn't really all that preferable to obsessive compulsive vacuuming. Probably more useful if brought under control, but more debilitating if not.

OK, I admit it -- I am not sure what you're getting into. (Between reading this post, and writing this comment I did not open any web site nor discuss this with anyone, for the record).

Lightbulb -- I'm not a physicist. I got a degree in math, and studied some high school physics. But certainly "electricity!" is not a semantic stop-sign for me -- it surely tells me some things to expect. I expect that if I take out the bulb, and stick my finger in there, I will suffer a shock (and perhaps die, though AC takes quite a bit to kill you -- and I expect it's AC unless I see a convertor, though again, nothing I would try to check with my life at stake). I expect that if I slowly took the bulb out, at some point between being in and being out, it would dim (because insulation of the air is linear, but high -- and so I would expect this mid-point to be fairly small). I expect that if I took a fuse, and connected it instead of the light-bulb, it would burn out -- and that after burning out, my meter would stop running (unless I'm running other appliances). If you did any of these experiments, and the result is not as I expected, I would be surprised, and look for how you cheated (did you flip a second switch when I wasn't looking or something?). If I can't find how you cheated, I will be confused, and say "either it runs on not-electricity, which I do not understand, or my understanding of electricity is imperfect".

I clicked on on the "evolutionary theory" and didn't find any direct predictions you're asking about, so I will invent one -- "if I show you a rabbit, and ask you why it's here, and you say 'evolution', what would it lead you to expect?" Well, any number of things. I expect that if I put a large number of rabbits in a significantly different environment than the one they inhabit, many of them will die [because evolution is not predictive, and any gene not useful in the natural environment will suffer deterioration]. I expect that any complex adaptation I find in the rabbit (for example, any "clever" way it evades foxes) will be largely similar for other rabbits [because rabbits reproduce sexually, and so on]. If I see any of those things not happening, I will assume I am wrong about some detail (perhaps what I thought was "clever" behavior can be accomplished by a simple mutation, based on another complex adaptation? perhaps the rabbits inhabited the other environment in recent enough times so they had the opportunity to adapt?) or that you tricked me (you designed that rabbit with extra fun genes from scratch, and now you're enjoying confusing me, and I'll update my probabilities that you're lying to me).

And if I see the elephant in the room, and you tell me science, I'll say (a) get it out of my freakin' living room, please and (b) fascinating, do you know of any reasonable laymen intro to the "Greenelephantology" science? Nothing too technical, but I'd like to understand the basics...if it's too new for a book, is there a nice article in some pop-sci magazine?

If I know something, I'm probably not thinking it at the moment. It's in my brain somewhere, where I can look it up if it comes up, but it doesn't effect what I'm currently experiencing.

If someone else knows something, I'm not thinking it at the moment. It's on the internet somewhere where I can look it up if it comes up, but it doesn't effect what I'm currently experiencing.

Eliezer said: "These are blog posts, I've got to write them quickly to pump out one a day."

I am curious what motivated this goal.

I'm lost for words.

Now, you think it's fair that you're practicing "speed" while I, as a result, am lost for words? It's a small world. Don't be greedy.

And if that's your goal, shouldn't you write actual fiction instead of pumping out intentionally under-researched bullshit?

(No offense)

Well, my point in response to your point is that Google turns up no hits on "studies show that you use 10% of your brain", so you didn't actually pick a real-world example to illustrate the concept "real-world example". I'm sure someone has said this, at some point or other, but you didn't show a real-world example of it.

And my more general thesis, applied to your valid example, is not that: When people say "studies show", there often isn't any actual study. But that: Even when the studies are real, "studies show" doesn't tell you anything about them.

I would like your posts to include concrete real-world examples, rather than parables. For example, a major curiosity stopper in the real world is "studies show": studies show that you use 10% of your brain... Now, THAT is a curiosity stopper that's common and dangerous. I suggest it as a post topic.

On the other hand, I can't recall any examples of anyone using science, complexity or emergence as curiocity stoppers or passwords. It might just be me, I might be stupid, but this has been bothering me.

Also, one reason why I might stop caring about light bulbs after learning that somebody understands them is that this knowledge suggests that 1) they don't hold countless unforeseeable dangers, and 2) if a light bulb breaks, I can rely on "somebody else" to supply me with another.

If scientists tell me that a mini black hole will not consume the earth, that's all I need to know to sleep at night. Now, if they can't say that with certainty, that's a problem for everyone who plans to outlive the launch of the LHC.

NE1, I think "electricity" can function as both password and citation. Often in pedagogical settings, answers like that do function literally as passwords -if you say or write it, you can proceed, whether or not you are aware it's "a citation of the studies and laws that the teacher claims are relevant". I'm not sure if it's important for non-experts to know more than passwords that allow for general literacy, though.

However, I also think it would be helpful to this audience for Eliezer to relate his insights clearly rather than through parables, etc.

Great post overall and I love the honesty in these lines: "I don't know the grand unified theory for this universe's laws of physics. I also don't know much about human anatomy with the exception of the brain. I couldn't point out on my body where my kidneys are, and I can't recall offhand what my liver does. (I am not proud of this. Alas, with all the math I need to study, I'm not likely to learn anatomy anytime soon.)"

Where is the science in Philosophy? I have recently been reading commentary on one philosopher's account of an epistemology based in perception, conceptualization, and abstraction. This commentary is paired with a critical analysis of the epistemologies of other philosophers, based on the Aristotelian foundations. While reading it, I thought "but there must be one true way the mind comes to terms with reality, a way based in the biology of the brain." A biology whose workings I don't understand and I suspect most philosophers do not understand. After all, one person can only learn so much. Still, it seems that any bold explanation of why we know what we know must be based on some understanding of the inner workings of the brain.

How much of philosophy is just another kind of curiosity-stopper? Or rather are philosophers often building bridges out of "non-knowledge". "Non-knowledge" being a made up word to describe complicated explanations that lack truth value. Philosophers often test their theories by quizzing each other, one attempting to convince the other of a particular position. This kind of test doesn't seem sufficiently rigorous to be considered scientific.

I find general science interesting and I know enough to recognize technology I've not heard of before. Your protestation of "it's science" would draw more curiosity from me, not less, because science is something I know I can learn. (Not, mind you, in full expert detail. Nobody could know ALL of science. Even having a wide specialty makes a person a bit of a dabbler.)

I think the reason people switch off hearing "science" is because it means not so much "someone else knows", but rather "as it is written in the books of Dogma and Creed". It's an indicator that this effect is "permitted magic", and need attract no further corrective attention. If you had said your glowy thing was caused by "invocations to the dead god Fnargle", that would be non-permitted magic. They don't care about the reason, but they are determined to ferret out the heresy. They would try to find an explanation in terms of the dogma - "He's got some gadget up his sleeve". And then they would be happy, because you are no longer a scary priest of Fnargle whose magic works, but a pitiable charlatan secretly using invocations to Science.

I think logicnazi is closer. "Electricity" is not the password, but a citation of the studies and laws that the teacher claims are relevant. The only reason why this answer might eliminate curiosity is because either a) you already learned all about "electricity" and merely forgot to apply it here b) you have decided that the category of studies labeled "electricity" shall interest you no longer, and are content to let the wizards and nerds deal with it or c) as long as it makes sense to some trusted agents, you are content enough to avert an existential breakdown. Curiosity is either inapplicable, denied, or under your threshold. The rest of your essay is then just more blathering.

I tell my little brother to try to tell stories using half as many words as he usually does. Maybe if you finally think of something worth saying you should try that.