Explicit and tacit rationality

by lukeprog4 min read9th Apr 201377 comments


Skill BuildingRationalityPractical

Like Eliezer, I "do my best thinking into a keyboard." It starts with a burning itch to figure something out. I collect ideas and arguments and evidence and sources. I arrange them, tweak them, criticize them. I explain it all in my own words so I can understand it better. By then it is nearly something that others would want to read, so I clean it up and publish, say, How to Beat Procrastination. I write essays in the original sense of the word: "attempts."

This time, I'm trying to figure out something we might call "tacit rationality" (c.f. tacit knowledge).

I tried and failed to write a good post about tacit rationality, so I wrote a bad post instead — one that is basically a patchwork of somewhat-related musings on explicit and tacit rationality. Therefore I'm posting this article to LW Discussion. I hope the ensuing discussion ends up leading somewhere with more clarity and usefulness.


Three methods for training rationality

Which of these three options do you think will train rationality (i.e. systematized winning, or "winning-rationality") most effectively?

  1. Spend one year reading and re-reading The Sequences, studying the math and cognitive science of rationality, and discussing rationality online and at Less Wrong meetups.
  2. Attend a CFAR workshop, then spend the next year practicing those skills and other rationality habits every week.
  3. Run a startup or small business for one year.

Option 1 seems to be pretty effective at training people to talk intelligently about rationality (let's call that "talking-rationality"), and it seems to inoculate people against some common philosophical mistakes.

We don't yet have any examples of someone doing Option 2 (the first CFAR workshop was May 2012), but I'd expect Option 2 — if actually executed — to result in more winning-rationality than Option 1, and also a modicum of talking-rationality.

What about Option 3? Unlike Option 2 or especially Option 1, I'd expect it to train almost no ability to talk intelligently about rationality. But I would expect it to result in relatively good winning-rationality, due to its tight feedback loops.


Talking-rationality and winning-rationality can come apart

I've come to believe... that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah isn't known for being a rational thinker. She is a known peddler of pseudoscience, and she attributes her success (in part) to allowing "the energy of the universe" to lead her.

Yet she must be doing something right. Oprah is a true rags-to-riches story. Born in Mississippi to an unwed teenage housemaid, she was so poor she wore dresses made of potato sacks. She was molested by a cousin, an uncle, and a family friend. She became pregnant at age 14.

But in high school she became an honors student, won oratory contests and a beauty pageant, and was hired by a local radio station to report the news. She became the youngest-ever news anchor at Nashville's WLAC-TV, then hosted several shows in Baltimore, then moved to Chicago and within months her own talk show shot from last place to first place in the ratings there. Shortly afterward her show went national. She also produced and starred in several TV shows, was nominated for an Oscar for her role in a Steven Spielberg movie, launched her own TV cable network and her own magazine (the "most successful startup ever in the [magazine] industry" according to Fortune), and became the world's first female black billionaire.

I'd like to suggest that Oprah's climb probably didn't come merely through inborn talent, hard work, and luck. To get from potato sack dresses to the Forbes billionaire list, Oprah had to make thousands of pretty good decisions. She had to make pretty accurate guesses about the likely consequences of various actions she could take. When she was wrong, she had to correct course fairly quickly. In short, she had to be fairly rational, at least in some domains of her life.

Similarly, I know plenty of business managers and entrepreneurs who have a steady track record of good decisions and wise judgments, and yet they are religious, or they commit basic errors in logic and probability when they talk about non-business subjects.

What's going on here? My guess is that successful entrepreneurs and business managers and other people must have pretty good tacit rationality, even if they aren't very proficient with the "rationality" concepts that Less Wrongers tend to discuss on a daily basis. Stated another way, successful businesspeople make fairly rational decisions and judgments, even though they may confabulate rather silly explanations for their success, and even though they don't understand the math or science of rationality well.

LWers can probably outperform Mark Zuckerberg on the CRT and the Berlin Numeracy Test, but Zuckerberg is laughing at them from atop a huge pile of utility.


Explicit and tacit rationality

Patri Friedman, in Self-Improvement or Shiny Distraction: Why Less Wrong is anti-Instrumental Rationality, reminded us that skill acquisition comes from deliberate practice, and reading LW is a "shiny distraction," not deliberate practice. He said a real rationality practice would look more like... well, what Patri describes is basically CFAR, though CFAR didn't exist at the time.

In response, and again long before CFAR existed, Anna Salamon wrote Goals for which Less Wrong does (and doesn't) help. Summary: Some domains provide rich, cheap feedback, so you don't need much LW-style rationality to become successful in those domains. But many of us have goals in domains that don't offer rapid feedback: e.g. whether to buy cryonics, which 40-year investments are safe, which metaethics to endorse. For this kind of thing you need LW-style rationality. (We could also state this as "Domains with rapid feedback train tacit rationality with respect to those domains, but for domains without rapid feedback you've got to do the best you can with LW-style "explicit rationality".)

The good news is that you should be able to combine explicit and tacit rationality. Explicit rationality can help you realize that you should force tight feedback loops into whichever domains you want to succeed in, so that you can have develop good intuitions about how to succeed in those domains. (See also: Lean Startup or Lean Nonprofit methods.)

Explicit rationality could also help you realize that the cognitive biases most-discussed in the literature aren't necessarily the ones you should focus on ameliorating, as Aaron Swartz wrote:

Cognitive biases cause people to make choices that are most obviously irrational, but not most importantly irrational... Since cognitive biases are the primary focus of research into rationality, rationality tests mostly measure how good you are at avoiding them... LW readers tend to be fairly good at avoiding cognitive biases... But there a whole series of much more important irrationalities that LWers suffer from. (Let's call them "practical biases" as opposed to "cognitive biases," even though both are ultimately practical and cognitive.)

...Rationality, properly understood, is in fact a predictor of success. Perhaps if LWers used success as their metric (as opposed to getting better at avoiding obvious mistakes), they might focus on their most important irrationalities (instead of their most obvious ones), which would lead them to be more rational and more successful.

Final scattered thoughts

  • If someone is consistently winning, and not just because they have tons of wealth or fame, then maybe you should conclude they have pretty good tacit rationality even if their explicit rationality is terrible.
  • The positive effects of tight feedback loops might trump the effects of explicit rationality training.
  • Still, I suspect explicit rationality plus tight feedback loops could lead to the best results of all.
  • I really hope we can develop a real rationality dojo.
  • If you're reading this post, you're probably spending too much time reading Less Wrong, and too little time hacking your motivation system, learning social skills, and learning how to inject tight feedback loops into everything you can.