List of compartmentalized people (who both win and fail at truth-seeking)

by gwern1 min read13th May 201127 comments


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Following up on an impromptu list XiXiDu made of famous recent scientists & thinkers who also held quite odd beliefs, I've created a wiki article with that list & a few other people.

This Discussion is posted for feedback on a few points:

  1. Is this a good idea in the first place? I feel vaguely uneasy, like it could be taken as a 'hit list' or a list of inviolable norms.
  2. What's a better name? 'Irrationalists' is a bad name but the only half-way self-explanatory one I could think of at the moment.
  3. Who's missing? There are currently only 8 people on the list right now.
  4. Is it reasonable to limit the list temporally only to people who lived in the 20th century & later, and so had access to all the data and philosophy done then that we take for granted?
  5. I added in a few 'See Alsos' that I could think of; are there more germane wiki articles? Especially LW articles? (I know Aumann in particular has been discussed occasionally by Eliezer - worth linking directly?)
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This is an awful idea for so many reasons that I'm seriously disappointed that I have to spell them out here.

For start, publishing condemnatory lists of people is bad for all sorts of PR reasons. Can you imagine what this list will look like to random visitors and what associations it will evoke?

Then, if you're going to denounce people publicly for their views, basic decency requires that you give a correct and detailed account of what exactly they said and wrote. Supporting your list with paraphrased soundbites from Wikipedia and the popular press is far below this standard.

Next, what exactly qualifies a belief as so irrational that someone who has it should be put on the official LessWrong list of shame? If religion counts, why wouldn't Marxism or any other modern ideological delusion? And if you're going to call out people for those, then you might as well save space by instead listing those who didn't (or don't) have any, according to you.

Also, as one commenter already noted, you're being extremely disrespectful towards people with mental problems who have ended up on your list. Normally I'm the last one here to insist on hypersensitivity, but this is in bad taste however you turn it.

These are not the only reasons why this list should be deleted, but they should be sufficient.

One PR problem is that the list may come across as an attempt to shame people out of their ideas (as opposed to an instructive list of examples of failure modes), and so people seeing the list may mistakenly infer that LessWrong thinks it has enough social clout to make famous thinkers fear its disapproval, and hence that LessWrong has delusions of grandeur. "Irrationalists" seems like a bad thing to title the page in this context.

Well, if it was titled "list of succesful people with weird beliefs" it would be a fun curiosity instead of weird and creepy.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

That sounds right; so can we find a different way to learn such lessons as we would have learned from this exercise?

I don't understand the standards you and your upvoters are using. So Eliezer can single out Aumann (with summaries of as much scholarly merit as the ones on the wiki page), to name one, in multiple articles - to general upvotes and lack of Vladimir_M comments; XiXiDu can make a list - to general upvotes and lack of Vladimir_M comments; I, timtyler, and nhamann can suggest additions - to general upvotes and lack of Vladimir_M comments, and so on except when I post a Discussion article about a wiki article, then it gets fiercely downvoted.

What lesson am I meant to infer from this? That I am not high-status enough to make such claims (but Eliezer is)? That only now have people come to their senses under your trenchant critique? That it's fine to name names and have a community-wide agreement that some are beyond the pale - but we dare not write it down?

And as far as bad taste goes - I would think that the ones with mental illness would be the most valuable ones to include inasmuch as they are the only ones most of the rest of humanity will agree with us in saying that they were flat-out wrong and this demonstrates compartmentalization. (There's a difference between mental diseases and mere religious or other beliefs...? But the mind is a physical thing, so the difference is not one of kind.)

What lesson am I meant to infer from this?

Simply that publishing a list like this one is a bad idea, for all the reasons I've listed (among others). I'm not picking on you personally in any way -- I would have made the same comments if it had been anyone else.

I don't keep track of all LW posts and comments, and I don't have the same amount of time and will for commenting at all times, so if I replied critically to one post but not to another similar one, that doesn't mean I'm playing favorites. Moreover, publishing a list like yours is much worse that just dropping a name in passing to illustrate a point. If you don't understand why, please take it at my word -- I really don't have the time to explain it at length now. As for the approving comments, they were all made (and upvoted) before mine, so it's reasonable to conclude that my comment has swayed the general opinion somewhat.

In any case, I will again urge you (and, barring that, the Wiki editors) to remove this really bad article. Besides all the problems I've listed, it's awfully sloppy and vague with facts. For example, Ayala left the priesthood more than fifty years ago, but you list him as if he still were a priest. And how on Earth do you know that Donal Knuth is "devout"? Do you perhaps know him personally to vouch for it? Have you read, or even just opened, that book because of which you think he deserves being mocked? Then, why on Earth was it irrational for Berger to try and investigate his hypotheses about telepathy experimentally (which he clearly did in a sufficiently sound way to make a major scientific contribution in the process)? You're just firing off cheap rhetorical shots at people like a propagandist.

Most of all, what gives you (or anyone else) the authority to choose which people are to be publicly attacked and mocked like this? What are your exact criteria based on which you're going to take a dozen or so people and proclaim them as the worst irrationalists among all scientists, worthy of being included in the official LessWrong hall of shame?

We should probably stick to dead people if we make a list like this.

No problem, I'll kill any living people that are added to the list. That will solve all the public relations problems stemming from such a list.

No, bad paperclip maximizer.

For that, I just unfolded a paperclip and am going to throw out the wire.

Don't do that (depaperclipping, or condemning me as overall "bad" simply for suggesting one possible method to ensure that living people do not appear on a compartmentalized thinker list).

You didn't simply suggest one possible method, you indicated a commitment (or potential commitment) to executing that method.

I didn't intend it to be a precommitment. I thought the context was still that of planning how such a list would work. And what is so wrong about a potential commitment? Why is the issue of killing compartmentalised humans so taboo?

I would guess that this is because personally killing specific humans is generally considered around here to be "something you shouldn't do even if you should", and because in this case the response seems disproportionate (in terms of its effects on the recipients of the solution).

Edit: Possibly also users wished to discourage you in particular from killing humans or determining which humans should be killed based on insufficient information?

The case of Kurt Gödel (already on the list) is really unfortunate — he starved himself to death apparently out of fear of being poisoned — but I think many folks would classify it as one of mental illness rather than merely "odd beliefs". Mixing mental illness in with odd beliefs held by otherwise mentally healthy people seems problematic. (The other example I'm thinking of here, not currently on your list, is John Nash.)

On the other hand, consider Isaac Newton — groundbreaking scientist and mathematician ... who wrote more pages of occult Biblical interpretation than he ever did of physics or math. There's supposition by some historians that he was mentally ill as well, of course.

EDIT: After seeing Vladimir_M's comment, I agree: This list is a bad idea. Please put it away or keep it on your own site.

Remember that Newton lived before Darwin. The Bible was the history of the world and nature was obviously the work of an intelligent designer. It may be supposed that Newton's occult investigations were performed rationally, given those premises.

Darwin lived before Darwin too. Or before Darwinism, at any rate. An epistemic rationalist should explore and be prepared to question even the most established premises.

Newton experimented extensively with alchemy. If he wasn't already mentally unstable, he may have been driven mad by prolonged mercury exposure.

I think that the composition of a list of people 'holding obviously false beliefs' depends in large part on who is making the list.

For example, I was expecting James D. Watson to be on the list. Others may disagree.

I think that the composition of a list of people 'holding obviously false beliefs' depends in large part on who is making the list.


For example, I was expecting James D. Watson to be on the list.


His comments where mostly accurate as far as sloppy human statements go. However he was foolish to agree to the interaction without properly testing his social skills and compiling a full list of taboos one must never touch when talking to seemingly benign and amicable journalists (subset of humans, the ones that are still alive aren't always benign).

Others may disagree.

Which is why you have chosen an excellent example. You, Dan Moore, must be the pride of [subject hometown here]!

regards the non-existence of Bible Codes as unproven (but unlikely)

Gah, too many negatives. Does he think that the codes are unlikely or that their nonexistence is unlikely. It seems to mean the second but, if so, it is a very awkward phrasing.

I was trying to get at Aumann being clever and statistics-savvy enough not to state that they exist for certain, but that he is almost as wrong to assign them any non-negligible probability (as he clearly does).

I don't think 'irrationalists' is a good name. Perhaps something like 'strong examples of compartmentalization'?

Well, I'm not sure 'strong' is the best adjective (what weak examples are we thinking of?) but that's a better name, I agree. I've moved it.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

I like the term. People who are demonstrably capable of rationality, yet choose not to be in all areas.

More candidates from Wikipedia's "List of Christian thinkers in science" article.

I am a bit shocked to find out that Freeman Dyson is a Christian...

[-][anonymous]10y -2
  1. Is it reasonable to limit the list temporally only to people who lived in the 20th century & later, and so had access to all the data and philosophy done then that we take for granted?

I think that you should include James Clerk Maxwell on the list, even though he lived in the 19th century. He was such an incredible thinker in the field of physics that his devoutly religious beliefs strike me as surprising.

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