Rationalist Sport

by MathiasZaman1 min read17th Jun 201458 comments


Personal Blog

This post is a bit of an experiment; Most of the time, Discussion post lay out an idea and this idea then get commented upon. This post, on the other hand, will be purely about discussion on a topic. If this works out well, I'll might post more of these in the future.

On to the meat of this post:



I got this idea from a reddit post on /r/LessWrong.

To quote:

I remember my sociology textbook explaining that sports often show what a group values. Bowling was popular with machinists and factory workers who valued repeated precision, while American football was watched and played by a culture that valued extreme specialization of individuals, but able to work as a team.

So I've been thinking about what we would value in a sport, and what sport we could create that exemplifies those values (not interested in picking an existing sport).

So have at it.

I only ask for one thing and that is to hold off on proposing solutions for 24 hours before giving suggestions for actual sports. In the first 24 hours, please discuss what makes current sports unappealing to rationalists and what aspects a sports designed for aspiring rationalists should have.

Edit: The 24-hour window has closed and solutions and suggestions can now be given.

58 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:43 PM
New Comment

I remember my sociology textbook explaining that sports often show what a group values.

Of course that's what the sociology textbook will say. Otherwise what's the point of sociology?

In particular I think that being a rationalist means that you can choose a sport based on it's merits instead on the values it's projects.

What do we want?
-A low rate of accidents
-Cardiovascular benefits
-Muscle development
-Coordination and control over muscles.
-Social interaction
-Developing confidence

That calls for a poll. I take the freedom to add some points to your list.

In the poll below don't assume that all attributes must fit to a single sport but instead might be matched by a set of sports. Best not to imagine a specific sports idea but rather what you require of proposals here.

Rationalist sports should...

have a low rate of accidents [pollid:707]

have cardiovascular benefits [pollid:708]

aid muscle development [pollid:709]

train muscle and motion control [pollid:710]

include social interaction [pollid:711]

help develop confidence [pollid:712]

include mental tasks [pollid:713]

be easy to learn [pollid:714]

be fun [pollid:715]

improve balance [pollid:716]

train reflexes [pollid:717]

useful for self-defense [pollid:718]

train spatial navigation [pollid:719]

use multi tasking [pollid:720]

be pleasant for spectators [pollid:721]

contain pauses [pollid:722]

have a duration of X minutes [pollid:723]

And for the sceptics:

The whole idea of a physical rationalist sport is bullshit [pollid:724]

The whole idea of a mental rationalist sport is bullshit [pollid:725]

[-][anonymous]8y 9

Maybe we're trying to solve too many problems at the same time. In analogy with Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately, I'd guess that the activity that best promotes physical fitness isn't the activity that best trains transferable skills isn't the activity that is the most fun, so spending some time on something intended to improve physical fitness, some time on something intended to train transferable skills and some time on something intended to be fun is probably better than spending a lot of time on something that haphazardly tries to achieve all three. (Also, which activity is best for a given goal is likely to vary from person to person, so beware of other-optimizing.)

Training in organized sport often gives you the benefit of increasing physical fitness, even if it isn't the core of that particular sport. I play baseball and some part of our training is increasing our general fitness, even if we don't particularly need that in the field.

Apart from that, I think you might be on to something.

I couldn't vote on any of these because it's going to depend on each individual and what they need from sports. I might want to play sports for the exercise value, but others might already have an exercise routine in place and they'd want it e.g. for the relaxation value. I might need it to be fun and easy to learn or I won't end up doing it, while the more competitive amongst us might require lots of competition and/or lots of spectators to cheer them on.

I hate to sound machiavelian here, but i think an important criterion for a good sport missing from this discussion is "gain friends, respect, and a conversational topic with people who don't identify as rationalists".

A lot of us are going to be short on opportunities to achieve these goals. So the most instrumentally rational sport may be the one which happens to be popular in your immediate social environment.

I think the skill of holding a conversation is much more important than having conversational topics.

If I wanted to optimize for that goal I would do Improv Comedy as a hobby.

So the most instrumentally rational sport may be the one which happens to be popular in your immediate social environment.

A lot of sports give you a new social environment when you practice them. You don't have to optimize for your existing social environment.

discuss what makes current sports unappealing to rationalists

(1) Like CronoDAS, I dispute your assumption that current sports are unappealing to rationalists. To the list of counterexamples already furnished, I add American football (with its astoundingly sophisticated strategizing) and baseball (with its well-developed culture of betting and probability calculations).

(2) Yet it does seem to me that aspiring rationalists are less interested in athletic sports than your average person. But even if this is true (and even if it remains true after controlling for education and income), it doesn't entail that the fault lie in sports. A more plausible explanation is that rationalists turn up their nose toward sports because of the kind of people who shout about sports at bars. In other words, aspiring rationalists actually just dislike sports enthusiasts, and the sports themselves get the hate spattered on them by association.

The real answer is: Whatever you can get yourself to do regularly.

If you don't exercise regularly, deciding on a sport is like a picking a programming language before you've learned even one of them. There is no one-size-fits-all sport or exercise. It really depends on your interests, physical abilities, social circle, the weather, what's near you, etc. This discussion might help give people ideas, but so could a list of sports. The most important thing is to get out there and do something.

Also, your quoted example sounds like a just-so story. I thought bowling and football were popular because they're an excuse to drink with friends.

Of course, motivation is an important issue in choosing a sport. If you start running, it might be boring and not very satisfying, so it is hard to practice regularly.

But I think from a huge extensive list of sports, a lot of them can be discarded for being too risky (maybe soccer or mixed martial arts?), having no physical/mental health benefits (maybe most e-sports?) etc. So I do not think that "Whatever you can get yourself to do regularly" provides a sufficient condition for finding out whether a sport is rational, even though it is definetely a necessary condition.

e-sports would provide no mental benefit? Here is an article with some studies that disagree: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/video-gaming-can-increase-brain-size-and-connectivity

Thank you, apparently my question mark and 'maybe' were very approriate. ;-)

Chess-boxing! Cultivates the ability to think while under stress.

Chess-Judo seems like it would require very similar abilities with less chance of diminishing your reasoning ability over the long-term.

Boxing is a great sport on almost all of the above criteria. Unfortunately, it's not an option for those with a preference for keeping their blood and their spinal fluid separate.

Fair point. Chess-sprinting?

Could prasara yoga be made into a sport? Should it be?


I believe Alan Turing was a keen (and good?) player of one version of this game, where you have to run around the house between moves. (Of course this is really several different games, parameterized by the size of your house and what there is in the way when you try to run around it.)

While yoga seems like a salutary way of spending time, I woudn't call that sport. Clear win-states and competition seems crutial to sport.

And that's why sport for rationalists is someting so hard to come up with and so valuable - it needs to combine the happiness from the effort to be better than others, while battling the sense of superiority, which often comes with winning.

Sense of group superiority is to me the most revolting thing about most sports.

I'd give it a shot.

I don't think that Yoga is the way to go. Yoga lives from doing certain things because they are traditions instead of having good reasons for doing them.

Feldenkrais would be an example of more modern body work that actually has a robust theory base behind itself.

Prasara yoga seems to provide advantages over completely traditional yoga but be phrased in way that's still target at New Agey people. Feldenkrais having been created by a physicist should be more accessible to people who see themselves as rationalists.

I lately discovered Contact Improvisation. While a lot of the crowd that dances Contact Improvisation has a New Agey background, you don't need to accept any spiritual ideas to follow the framework. The rules aren't complex. I was able to have a good dance the first time I went dancing Contact Improvisation without taking a course. That's partly because I do have other dance experience but there are other dances that I couldn't dance intuitively.

For people without dancing background I would recommend to take a course in Contact Improvisation before dancing it freely.

Scott Sonnon, the man in the prasara yoga video, takes a rationalist approach to exercise.

Here's Shiva Nata-- a sort of yoga that involves combinatoric movements. It would be easier to structure as competition-- the scoring could be based on the complexity of movement that a person could do accurately.

Here's Shiva Nata-- a sort of yoga that involves combinatoric movements. It would be easier to structure as competition-- the scoring could be based on the complexity of movement that a person could do accurately.

I think that goal misses the point. From the article you linked:

Continuous spiral movements consist of two complete counter-directional sine curves. Therefore, performing such movements sets a series of alternating active and passive fragments of the energy flow. These energy impulses purify energy channels and balance the circulation of energy inside them.

Synchronizing spiral movements of the limbs with the breath creates a constant and intensive energy consumption from the surrounding space, translation of it through psychic-energy structure channels, and accumulation and radiation into the surrounding space.

Complexity isn't the point but energy flow is. Those semantics are off-putting to rationalists. If you on the other hand simply drop the main part of the practice you are doing something like cargo culting. It might superficially look the same but you lose the essence.

I rather prefer to have bodywork that's from the ground up based on a more modern framework.

I don't think having competitions is necessary. But it might make sense to look at Tai Chi competitions. They don't do their Tai Chi patterns and see who does them the most beautiful way but they do push hands competitions.

I wasn't looking for something which was guaranteed to be good for people. I was looking for something which was harmless (probably), difficult, and possible to evaluate objectively-- the first makes it rationalist, and the second and third make it a potential sport.

I can believe that it's better for people to coordinate movement and breathing without buying into dubious metaphysics.

[Tai Chi competitions](http://www.wustyle-europe.com/competition2014.html include form competition as well as push hands.

I can believe that it's better for people to coordinate movement and breathing without buying into dubious metaphysics.

But it's not only about coordinating movement and breathing. If you reduce yoga to those elements you lose something.

Modern body work usually is also about things like authentic expression of emotions. It's about constantly discovering new ways to move your body.

I was looking for something which was harmless (probably), difficult, and possible to evaluate objectively-- the first makes it rationalist, and the second and third make it a potential sport.

I had to check the dictionary. Webster has two meanings for sport: "a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other" and "a physical activity (such as hunting, fishing, running, swimming, etc.) that is done for enjoyment".

I don't think that competition is needed.

Although the games themselves do not involve much physical activity compared to other sports, a lot of professional RTS players (Starcraft, League of Legends, etc.) end up on surprisingly strenuous exercise regiments to improve their reflexes and hand-eye coordination and gain the physical benefits mentioned (Cardiovascular benefits, muscle development, coordination and control over muscles) as a side-effect of preparing to compete at a professional level.

Certain kinds of war games might also qualify as a rationalist sport if they were modified a bit. If military war games were made less fake, airsoft and paintball made less dangerous, and laser tag made more realistic they would each meet all of these desiderata.

Certain kinds of war games might also qualify as a rationalist sport if they were modified a bit. If military war games were made less fake, airsoft and paintball made less dangerous, and laser tag made more realistic they would each meet all of these desiderata.

Them being fake doesn't seem like a huge hindrance for a sport. They'd still be a way of stretching both the intellectual and physical muscles, especially if you don't arbitrarily handicap one team.

Airsoft is actually something I play occasionally, and the article you linked only mentions getting hit in the eye for which there are already safety measures in place (goggles). Mitigating the eye-damage, I don't think airsoft is more dangerous than other popular sports.

Both of these are excellent points. Regarding military war games, what I had in mind is that the rules should be realistic (to maximize the number of possible strategies) while still being difficult or impossible to game; neither of which seems to be the case for military war games as they are currently played. This might entail (as in HPMoR!Quirrell's war games) that there should be no formal rules at all but a judge to decide who had won by practical real-world standards, but this would probably severely limit the popularity of the sport.

I have not played airsoft and so was unaware of these safety measures. What are the risks and rates of injury after accounting for common safety practices? It seems like the only other dangers would be those common to all sports involving running around in rough terrain. Assuming there are rules in place for players being eliminated from the game once they are shot (and not being allowed to give information to team members about enemy positions, etc.) this seems like the perfect rationalist sport.

Without going into a "definition war", I think not having a clear objective for winning makes it more into a game than a sport. Wiping out 90% of the enemy team could be a decent victory condition, but that's just the first thing that comes to mind and other ideas are likely better.

I have not played airsoft and so was unaware of these safety measures. What are the risks and rates of injury after accounting for common safety practices?

They seem to be about similar to other sports that have similar movement-types. You run, jump, slide... just like in other sports and those actions have the same risks. I haven't done a lot of large-group games, but with decent precautions (eye protections and regular-powered guns) it seems like you just get sprained ankles and little cuts.

It's easy to forget that first person shooters already have plenty of game modes with strictly defined victory conditions that make fun to play watch matches. Team Fortress 2 has arena mode, which seems like it has very appropriate win conditions for a war game. Teams must eliminate each other, or capture a central point that unlocks after a set amount of time to win. It discourages fleeing and hiding if your team is mostly eliminated, because you'll lose anyway when the point unlocks. In general all you should need is one clearly defined goal for at least one team, and a time limit.

I really like HPMoR style war games for a rationalist sport myself, using Airsoft or paintball, whichever comes out safest. One fun possibility is real life Trouble in Terrorist Town, which has the fun rationalist twist of trying to identify who the traitor(s) might be. I find the game incredibly fun to watch, which is something positive for a sport. Larger scale games with less betrayal mechanics might be more fun/interesting as well. War games is a very versatile specification for a sport, but should allow for consistent rules for specific tournaments or leagues.

I like people's attempts to step outside the question, but playing along...

LW-rationalists value thinking for yourself over conformity. A LW sport might be a non-team sport like fencing, a team sport in which individuals are spotlighted, like baseball, or a sport that presents constant temptation to follow cues from your teammates but rewards breaking away from the pack.

LW-rationalists value cross-domain skills. A LW sport might involve a variety of activities, like an n-athlon, or facing a quick succession of opponents who all trained together so that lessons learned against one are likely to apply to the next.

LW-rationalists value finding ways to cooperate with people whose values are different. A LW sport might involve a tension between behavior that supports the team and behavior that wins personal glory, like basketball, or it might involve more than 2 sides and more than 1 winner with potential for cooperation.

LW-rationalists value an ability to recognize when a previously useful heuristic isn't working, and break out of it. A LW sport might involve subtle shifts in the playing field that weaken some strategies and strengthen others.

The shooting sports have a lot of attributes that appeal to different mental aspects of rationality:

  • they require careful observation of internal mental states
  • academic knowledge can directly contribute to success (such as knowing a lot about human vision)
  • lots of opportunities to indulge in obsession over microimprovements
  • pre-event, post-event and on-the-fly computational skills are immensely useful
  • unusual conscious states, such as time slowdown, are relatively easy to achieve without chemical assistance

Potential drawbacks: associated in the USA with right-wing politics; distrusted by liberals; expensive; requires ownership of dangerous tools.

Since when are current "sports" unappealing to rationalists? We've got plenty of Magic, poker, chess, and Go players here. Do you mean that we're not so interested in spectator sports?

To me, "sports" means games of physical exertion. I don't call Magic etc. sports. I also take the question to be about playing them, not watching them.

Mostly, I don't like those kind of sports because I'm very bad at them (I tend to be worse than the typical beginner) and I'm unwilling to invest time and effort to improve.

Having a game that's enjoyable to watch is probably important as well. Being watchable seems to be a huge draw and I know that games that want to become e-sports are deliberately made in a way that makes just watching the game enjoyable.

None of those activities are sports. Most games are not sports.

My wording was careless. It should probably have been something like: "If there are things that are unappealing to rationalists in current sports, what should they be?"


  • Individualistic
  • Meditative
  • Works many different muscles

I'm not sure I believe the hypothesis, but I think most of the skills we value are mental, rather than physical, and so a contest designed to test these things would likely be considered a game, rather than a sport (e.g. something like forum mafia incorporates a lot of skills rationalists value, or I'd make the case for mahjong).

We value making probability estimates based on limited information, changing your mind appropriately when the information changes, and avoiding being influenced by others. We don't like blindly following orders (something that's necessary in many current team sports). I suspect many of us dislike arbitrary tribal affiliation (required for any kind of sports fan-experience really), the win-lose structure that means each match gives a risk of an unhappy result, and the value placed on physical ability.

So a rationalist sport would want to have physical ability relatively unimportant (secondary to skill and intelligence), either no teams or fluid teams, and some positive-sum scoring structure where it's possible to play risk-aversely and do well. And even then, that might be something we'd enjoy playing, but you wouldn't get the fan dynamics of mainstream sports.

On the contrary, I always liked sports that compensate for mental work. Also, physical activity can be healthy and, as they say, mens sana in corpore sano... (For example, running is said to be healthy for the brain and I found it very useful for forcing my brain to pause. One problem is that in the long term running destroys your knees, so after two marathons I will reduce long-distance running in the future.)

This has some tradition, for example Alan Turing (maybe the greatest computer scientist of all time?) and Bobby Fischer (maybe the best chess player of all time?) did a lot of sports and Fischer said that he wanted to keep in shape for chess explaining that one needs a lot of stamina for playing four to five hours.

So, I think rationalist sports should support the more important mental activities, e.g. by improving health.

Does running destroy everyone's knees? My impression is that it's risky for knees, but not everyone takes damage.

I remember the existence of an article in Runner's World long ago where they interviewed runners who hadn't taken damage.

The comments to Running with the Whole Body have some people who say the Feldenkrais work in the book protected their knees.

For a lot of people running should be fine for their knees if done properly.

As far as I can tell, running is most likely to damage your knees if you're (a) very big/heavy (b) have poor running technique (most people don't learn to run properly/efficiently) (c) run a lot on bad surfaces (avoid running extensively on surfaces that are banked, or where you may step in potholes!) (d) have a genetic predisposition to knee problems or have brought on ostearthritis-type conditions through poor diet (happens sometimes with exercise anorexics).

As a past competitive runner, I've spent a lot of time with running "lifers" (>10,000 miles on the legs) and knee problems don't seem to be particularly common (though obviously there are some selection effects there). Anecdotally, I have no knee problems after 6 years of 100mile/week training and most of my sports friends who do have them as a result of acute injuries (usually soccer).

That said, there's enough weak evidence to suggest that this kind of heavy aerobic training may not be good for long-term health and longevity to cause me to reduce my running to 20-30 mins/day (supplemented by weight training).

I actually did not want to go too deep into discussing specific sports and wait for another 24 hours, but...

I never had actual problems with the knees myself - I'm neather heavy, nor run that much at all (100mile/week for 6 years is extremely impressive!), also I eat helthy and think my technique to be okay. But I am very young. My grandfather, who has been doing a lot of sports his whole life (to my knowledge he still rides his bicycle for 50 miles a day or something at age 80) had some knee problems and therefore changed from relatively serious marathon running (best time ~2:40) to swimming and bicycling. Of course these are just anecdotes that do not prove anything. I would be very interested in the current state of research on the matter.

For me the most important argument against long-distance running is that it seems to conflict with general fitness. After running my second marathon I pretty much sucked at everything else, even riding a bicycle...

Also, long-distance running takes a lot of time to practice, so now I changed to less than daily interval training, also supplemented by weight training.

Some emerging concerns I'm aware of for really serious runners: heart problems due to thickened heart wall, skin cancer (just due to being out in the sun so much, sweating off sunscreen). Potential causes for concern: lots of cortisol production from hard aerobic exercise, inflammation.

I keep wondering whether sports where the major point is overriding the desire to stop are actually a bad idea-- that desire to stop might have evolved to be protective.

You may put a high value on physical activity, but my impression is that the averaged community as a whole does not. (It's not a socially acceptable thing to say directly that one does not value physical activity, but reading between the lines...)

Sure, however, most LWers put a high value on rationality and as our brain has some impact on our rationality (any dualist around?), our body has some impact on our brain and physical activity has some (positive) impact on our body, it seems rational to me to engage in some physical activity rather than "waisting your intelligence" on playing chess (which I also did a lot).

I haven't researched this, but I was told by a neuroscientist/martial arts-practicing friend that particular sports (like martial arts) where you have to practice a very wide and varied range of technical motions and thus challenge/develop neuromuscular systems widely may be particularly good for general brain health and plasticity (in the same way that varying your routine widely, etc, apparently is). Seems plausible, but I repeat that I haven't researched it.

Big wodge of evidence about karate in particular (not martial arts in general) being unhealthy.

A lot of it is about karate masters-- it's quite possible that if you stop when karate starts seeming like it's bad for you, it's not all that destructive.

I've poked around a little to see whether belly-dancing and tap-dancing (complex movement of very different kinds) increase longevity, but haven't turned up anything.

This probably wouldn't be an issue for karate, but a lot of high-level judo and jujitsu people in the last century died of stroke because blood chokes ( a major part of jujitsu technique) put unusual loads on the cardiovascular system. The modern consensus is not to practice them on people over forty-five or so, or with existing cardio issues.

Fascinating, thank you for this!

You're welcome. I keep hoping someone with more knowledge of statistics than I've got will take a look at the karate study.

our body has some impact on our brain and physical activity has some (positive) impact on our body, it seems rational to me to engage in some physical activity rather than "waisting your intelligence" on playing chess (which I also did a lot).

Huh? In the absence of further evidence I'd think the best way to get better at abstract reasoning is to practice abstract reasoning, which chess is going to be better at than sports. Sure, sport has effects on your brain, but so does chess.

The positive effects of chess may be higher, but I presume that the average rationalist or LWer practices 8 hours of abstract reasoning a day, simply by doing their job. Let us think about Bobby Fischer. He probably practiced at least 10 hours a day - maybe then another hour of chess did not have an impact as positive as an hour of tennis, swimming etc. At least, he did not think so.

The situation is of course very different, if you are a professional athlete. Then some hours of chess in the free time is (probably) a better way to train your brain, but so would be reading a book about AI, rationality, etc.

All I am saying is that the time you can improve your mental abilities by thinking about some hard problems is limited and above a certain threshold (maybe 8h a day, maybe a lot more or less depending on the kind of activities, the specific person etc.) it might be better to do something else, like sleep, go for a walk, listen to music or engage in some physical activity.

Here is some further evidence that physical activity might have a positive impact on your brain: (I neither have the time nor the competence to evaluate the quality of these papers; also I hope that they're visible from outside a university network)

Cotman, Carl W.; Engesser-Cesar, Christie: Exercise Enhances and Protects Brain Function. http://journals.lww.com/acsm-essr/Abstract/2002/04000/Exercise_Enhances_and_Protects_Brain_Function.6.aspx

Cotman, Carl W. , Berchtold, Nicole C., Christie, Lori-Ann: Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166223607001786#

Colcombe, Stanley J., Erickson, Kirk I., Raz, Naftali, Webb, Andrew G., Cohen, Neal J., McAuley, Edward, Kramer, Arthur F.: Aerobic Fitness Reduces Brain Tissue Loss in Aging Humans. http://biomedgerontology.oxfordjournals.org/content/58/2/M176.short

Google Scholar finds thousands of such articles.

I don't think that there's a consensus. I think there are a bunch of people who do understand that the academic consensus is that physical activity is very valuable and therefore value sport. There are other people who don't identify themselves with their body and don't value physical activity.

I think the second group simply holds irrational beliefs on the matter.

It would be interesting to get a relevant question into the next census.

Starcraft / League of Legends? :-D

I want to try Frisbee Go, modeled after Ultimate frisbee. Get a frisbee. Find a football field that you can mark up. Spray paint a 9x9 grid on it (or a finer grid if you dare). Have a Go board and stones off the field to keep "score" with. Divide the players into two teams of relatively equal physical and/or Go skill. Flip a coin for which team tosses first.

Teams start on opposite sides of the field. The first team tosses the frisbee toward the middle where it can be caught or picked up by the other team. An individual with possession of the frisbee must stay fixed in place; if they catch the frisbee while they are in motion, they must stop ASAP and return to where they caught it. An individual with possession of the frisbee may "toss" it or "tap" it.

Tossing a frisbee is throwing it so that another player might catch it. A tossed frisbee may be caught in the air by a member of the same team if there is at least a whole square of the grid between the tosser and catcher. A tossed frisbee may be caught in the air anywhere by a member of the other team as an interception. A frisbee that hits the ground before being caught, or that is caught ought of bounds, or that is caught by the same team too close to the tosser, results in a turnover.

Tapping a frisbee is touching it to the ground between one's own feet without losing control of it. If the frisbee is tapped within a square corresponding to a legal playing point on the Go board, the team that tapped it places their color Go stone on that point. The teams return to the sides of the field, and the team that tapped tosses the frisbee to the other team. If the frisbee is tapped within a square corresponding to a illegal playing point, it results in a turnover.

(Physically skilled teams may be able to play multiple stones in a row, unlike in standard Go.)

The team that wins the Go part of the game wins the Frisbee Go game.

Disc golf.