Monthly Meta: Referring is Underrated

by Chris_Leong1 min read8th Feb 201810 comments


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For the next n months I'll be picking an issue within the community that I think is especially important to highlight. LW2.0 is not just a new site, but also an opportunity to do things differently and to ask ourselves how they could be better.

We all know that rationality is supposed to be about winning, but what does this mean? Let's assume that you already have some idea of what your problems are, but if you don't, then we can put not knowing what your problems are down as the first item on the list.

For each problem, there are generally two seperate strategies that we can take: 1) answering the problem by telling you how you can solve it or 2) referring you to other resources that can answer your question far better than we can. Of course, sometimes a combination of the two will work best, but this works well enough as a simple model.

A lot of rationality has been working towards getting better at answering. All of the discussion about biases and decision theory and psychology allow us to often give some pretty good answers.

Unfortunately, improving our ability to refer has recieved a lot less focus. Part of this may be related to status - if you are good at answering all of the credit flows to you, but if you are good at referring most of the credit goes to the person whose work you have referred them to. I suspect that improving referals is seriously underrated as rationality is of limited use if you don't have any concrete skills to utilise. If you want to start a business or improve your social skills or learn maths, then the main way that we can help you win is by pointing you to a great resource. And there's a valid question about how much the community wants to get into this, but if we're trying to systemise winning, it's not really something we can avoid.

Perhaps the lack of focus could be defended by questioning how easily tractable it is, but I'm not convinced that it has recieved enough attention yet for us to draw that conclusion. At the moment, we tend to solve this problems by sorting comments by the number of votes. As I pointed out in a previous post, this is far from the only way of doing this and one of the other techniques could be better.

While I listed a few ideas in that post, I really don't have a solid idea of what can be done about this problem. Instead, I'm just going to list some of the factors that make this issue so difficult and hope that people have ideas in the comments:

  • Subjectivity: There's no objectively best book on improving your public speaking or improving your motivation
  • Context-dependence: Even if someone perfectly shared your view of what makes a book or video good, what worked for them might not work for you if your situation is different
  • Trust: It's hard to know how trustworthy someone's recommendation is unless you already know them or you've tried some of their other recommendations


10 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:31 PM
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When it comes to book recommendations Goodreads is great. My GoodReads account is and a bunch of other rationalists also have accounts.

It would be great if other rationalists who have an account would leave links to their account here, so we can follow each other and learn from each other.

Following multiple rationalists means that for many books that are of interests to us we can easily get multiple good opinions.

I have historically had a hard time using goodreads for recommendations. It seems that everyone has at least 100 books or so with 5 stars, which strikes me as far too much, I feel like I want a category in goodreads that’s beyond 5 stars, or something like that. Interested in tips from other people on how to make use of goodreads as a recommendation tool.

I spent a number of my teenage years aggregating online recommendations I found into lists. If you’re looking for my ‘extra category that’s beyond five stars’ I made a “worldview Shaping list’ with 11 books.

The advantage of goodread is that if you have enough friends with decent judgement you can get opinion from multiple friends. For me it's a matter of having views from multiple people.

Whenever I get any book recommendation and think about whether or not to engage more with the book I go to goodread to see what friends have to say about the book.

I haven't had much success using goodreads as a recommendation tool. All of the best book recommendations I've gotten I got in person. (I wish I was better at using goodreads to recommend things to other people but for some reason I hate using it.)

We should all 1) recommend each other books, 2) get better at recommending good books, and 3) get better at discerning as quickly as possible whether a book will be good, and not continuing to read it if it seems bad. (Caveat: some books have the property that e.g. 70% of the content is good and 30% of the content is garbage or misleading or woo, and there's an additional skill in learning to find the 70% and ignoring the 30%.)

I specifically try to address this by frequently and heavily linking to things I have read in my writing. My own writing depends heavily on the things I have read that have shaped me into the person who would write what I have written, and giving links offers a way for a person to learn more of what I consider worth learning if they find what I write compelling.

I do think I've noticed a tendency among some rationalist writers to link way less than I would expect them to, especially to things written by other people. Maybe they really just aren't reading what other people write or are being very conservative about what they think is worth signal boosting by linking, but if I'm uncharitable it might be a case of laziness to bother looking up the links to include them, a desire to appear self-contained and keep the audience on your writing rather than send them to others' writing, or embarrassment over where a person got their ideas from.

I have no plan to remedy this other than continue to set an example by linking early and often, but you pointing the referencing issue gives me a good chance to call it out explicitly.

Another reason to become better at referring is to grow your network. I have in mind referring people to specific coaching. If we're referring aspiring rationalists to people outside the community, those people outside the community will be incentivised to engage with us.