Light reading about 'Rationalist Heroes'.

I am not sure how useful people find having personal heroes. I would argue that they are definitely useful for children. Perhaps I haven't really grown up enough yet (growing up without a father possibly contributed), but I like to have some people in my head I label as "I wonder what would X think about this". Many times they've set me straight through their ideas. Other times I've had to reprimand them, though unfortunately they never get the memo.

One living example is Charlie Munger.

He was an early practical adopter of the cognitive biases framework, and moreover he clearly put it into context of "something to protect":

"not understanding human misjudgment was reducing my ability to help everything I loved"

(The quote is from his talk on "Misjudgment" which is worth reading on its own

One interesting point is that Charlie is seemingly a Christian. I have a deep suspicion that he believes that religion is valuable, for the time, as a payload delivering mechanism.

“Economic systems work better when there’s an extreme reliability ethos. And the traditional way to get a reliability ethos, at least in past generations in America, was through religion. The religions instilled guilt. … And this guilt, derived from religion, has been a huge driver of a reliability ethos, which has been very helpful to economic outcomes for man.”

Also, judge for yourself from his recommended reading list - looks like something out of an Atheist's Bookshelf.


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Who is your favorite rationalist?

Me. Is this a trick question?

Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres

I was going to answer that, or myself.

[-][anonymous]12y 9

I hope this isn't too politically volatile, but Milton Friedman.

I don't mean this in the sense of "Oh, his views are so wonderfully rational compared to everybody else's!" Rather, he actually influenced me in how to think.

Capitalism and Freedom had a sort of pattern where he would take something conventionally considered an insoluble social problem, poke at it for a minute, and easily come up with at least one conceivably practical improvement. It would be original, but only because nobody else was bothering to poke around. (In Friedman's case, the goal was usually to refute the idea that "It's impossible to improve X without government." But the thinking style could be applied to a variety of goals. A claim of impossibility should be shaken a little bit before accepted.)

In everything I've read of his, technical and non-technical, there's a certain cheerful, reasonable attitude; he seemed to think that humans are good at problem-solving, that we actually can think and that it's worthwhile to try. That made a great personal impact on me, at a point in my life when I believed the contrary.

Radley Balko is another notable public rationalist. His blog specializes in justice system outrages, with a fair amount about how little science there is in a great deal of forensics, and a lot about many people's inclination to not take police misconduct seriously.

I wouldn't necessary call him a hero, but Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A's, is certainly a true rationalist. He is the protagonist of the nonfiction book Moneyball by Michael Lewis.

Before Beane, decisions about what baseball players to draft were mostly made by professional scouts. These guys spent their time driving across the country to find young players and watch them play. Serious attention was paid to how a player "looked" - his physique, his grace, and his personality (aggressiveness was a big plus). Statistics were factored into the decision, but not given much weight, since 1) statistics about a player's high school career didn't imply much about his professional career, and 2) people weren't counting the right things. For example, batting average turns out to be much less important than on-base percentage (the latter takes walks into account, the former doesn't).

Billy Beane helped to change that. He was able to turn a team with a relatively small budget (the A's spent about a third of what the Yankees spent on salaries) into a consistent winner. Like Munger, he looked for value: players who, because of inadequacies in other teams' evaluation methods, could be hired cheaply relative to their talents.

Pick up just the cream of the cream of a potential hero's rationality. And don't touch the rest.

I agree, the game can be dangerous.

The people at SIAI, and also Leo Szilard, are impressive consequentialists.

There are a lot of people whom I admire as epistemic rationalists. Pierre-Simon Laplace is one.

Zero-sum domains are not a great place to look for rationalists, but I admire Honinbo Dosaku for using higher-level and better abstractions than his contemporaries. Also Brad Baker (the fencer).

I'm having a hard time thinking of good heroes from fiction. Matt Simpson mentioned one, but I'd probably just file HJPEV under EY (modulo some quirks).

I always had a spot for Szilard, but not sure if it was just his personality. I have since had to distance myself from 'brilliant scientist' = rational equality. Any behavior in particular that stood out?

I feel a kinship with E. O. Wilson, because of something he wrote in Consilience: He was raised in a conservative Christian family and culture; he became an atheist, but now feels he can never be fully at home in either of those worlds. Or, it's like being part of bigger family whose members hate each other.

I don't have a single favorite, but I recommend Ta Nehisi Coates, whose blog shows the good effects of working to be rational about hard emotional issues, in particular, those around race. Lately, he's been observing Confederate History Month by working on dealing with having a painful historical past.

[-][anonymous]12y -1

It hadn't occurred to me that he was a rationalist, but it's true; so much of his blog is secretly about how to debate well.

Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. Always questioning, always seeking the truth, and very hilarious.

ETA: No, I'm not joking, he's one of my personal heroes, specifically because of his desire to understand in the most rational way possible. He may not be very good at it, being more of an everyman than a highly educated philosopher, but he has it as a core value nonetheless.

ETA2: I now wish I hadn't posted this.

I'm genuinely surprised by this suggestion. I used to be an avid viewer of the Daily Show because I did find it funny and a better way to keep vaguely abreast of the news than watching actual news but I've largely stopped watching now primarily because of Jon Stewart's inability to be rational about most of the topics he discusses. I actually think Colbert has a much better grasp of science and seems a clearer thinker behind the persona.

Colbert has some very nasty things to say against cryonics, and to people who don't celebrate Christmas.

Jon presents a much better picture of his actual stances when he's not on the Daily Show. His latest appearance on the O'Reilly Factor particularly impressed me.

When he's on his own show, it's much more about being funny and exposing hypocrisy. I thought this community liked debunkers; I guess, with the topics being primarily political in nature and with the short time format making it prohibitive of expressing complex thoughts, it's easy to dismiss.

Colbert has some very nasty things to say against cryonics, and to people who don't celebrate Christmas.

He is certainly satirizing those who criticize people who don't celebrate Christmas. It is at least possible (though much less likely) that he is also mocking those who criticize cryonics.

I wasn't referring to his 'war on Christmas' segments, but to his Christmas special. I don't have access to the lyrics, as I'm on my work connection at the moment and it's blocking everything, but I seem to recall him saying in the final song, "If you believe in nothing, then you're just a sorry nothing, And if you think I'm just being funny, then you've got another think coming," or something to that effect.

He also interviewed Larry Johnson on the show, and since then has been mocking the cryonics movement because of the lies perpetrated by Mr. Johnson.

It was "Some folks believe in nothing / But if you believe in nothing /Then what’s to keep the nothing from coming for you", which seems pretty obviously sarcastic to me.

I think there was something more on the version I saw after that segment. I no longer have access to it, and I'm not willing to expend more effort to prove a point I don't consider particularly interesting.

Suffice to say that Colbert is a strong theist; I don't think that's controversial.

Suffice to say that Colbert is a strong theist; I don't think that's controversial.

His character is a strong theist. It is less clear what his real views are. I believe he is a practicing Catholic but I get the impression his actual views on religion are rather more nuanced than those his character presents.

No, he is a strong theist. I like him a lot (although I'm not a liberal, like his fans usually are) but he is a very religious man, even in his out of character interviews. He also seemed to be trying to sincerely argue against Dawkins during part of his second interview with him.

I can believe Colbert is a Penn&Teller-esque anti-cryonics type, but his Christmas special was definitely tongue in cheek.

Colbert has some very nasty things to say against cryonics, and to people who don't celebrate Christmas.

I don't recall seeing his comments on these particular topics but it can be hard to tell when you are seeing the character Stephen Colbert speaking and when you are getting a glimpse of his actual opinions. Generally if he is explicitly attacking something it is the character speaking.

I'm not holding him up as a pillar of rationality anyway, just saying he seems more rational than Stewart (which is no great achievement in my opinion). I also get the impression that he has more scientists on his show and his questions reveal a greater understanding than Stewart's even when they are explicitly critical. This may say more about his writers than it does about him personally but his guest selection at least suggests to me that he has more of a genuine interest in science than Stewart.

I think it is true that there is a tension between being funny and giving the audience what they want to hear and actually exploring complex ideas. I don't think either program is immune from that. I should also say that I think Stewart actually does a better job than most 'real' news shows in the US so judged against the spectacularly low bar of mainstream TV broadcast journalism in the US he can actually look quite rational.

He doesn't have to be your hero.

You apparently don't see the rationality that I do. Maybe I watch more often, or maybe I'm applying Thomas's suggestion more than you.

I am curious as to your current motive. Are you attempting to say that Jon Stewart should not be a hero? That he should not be associated with rationality at all? That you don't like the Daily Show? That people in "the media" aren't and can't be rational? Or that I'm plain wrong that Jon Stewart can be a representative of the search for truth, fact, and understanding?

He doesn't have to be your hero.

That wasn't the reason for posting. Not my downvote by the way in case you assumed it was.

You apparently don't see the rationality that I do. Maybe I watch more often, or maybe I'm applying Thomas's suggestion more than you.

I used to watch every episode. I stopped watching because it got to the point where the irritation I felt at the fuzzy thinking, irrationality and bias began to outweigh the entertainment I got from the comedy and the sometimes interesting interviewees. I only watch the Daily Show very occasionally these days and the Colbert report slightly more often.

I am curious as to your current motive.

Really it was expressing surprise at the big difference of opinion and perhaps looking to understand it. I stopped watching the Daily Show largely because Jon Stewart's particular brand of irrationality was more than cancelling out any enjoyment I was getting from the show. To see him suggested as a 'hero' of rationality was thus surprising. When I see a dramatic difference of opinion I generally like to try and understand what's behind it and figure out if I should be updating.

I've always been puzzled by the idea of personal heroes so it is possible that my inability to grasp the concept of a hero is part of the problem here.

I've always been puzzled by the idea of personal heroes so it is possible that my inability to grasp the concept of a hero is part of the problem here.

I've noticed that, even if it may be a worthwhile endeavor, it doesn't help so much when you present the names to other people. Every time I've done so, I've been challenged by similar disagreements, and it becomes difficult for me to express why I consider them to be useful role models.

My suggestion to you is not to update. If I could take the whole thread back, I would. Consider me updated to 'personal heroes should remain personal,' and 'this post is not a call for personal heroes, but for easily remarked upon examples of rationality in the real world.'

(Offhand observation) That he is your hero would be hard for someone to refute given that it is a property of your mind. The "rationalist" criteria on the other hand is something that gives grounds for your claim to be rejected or affirmed objectively. (For my part I've never heard of either of them.)

Jon Stewart of the Daily Show

Here's a Jon Stewart quote that may be of interest:

Is it in your mind that the human race will be the cause of its own extinction? Because that is my theory as well.

And from the same interview:

What I have always believed will end up destroying us is... our own good intentions... Curiosity killed the cat.

Yeah, I saw that interview earlier today and was thinking I might post it to the Open Thread as a public, pop-sci discussion about existential risk, but they didn't get very deep, other than to point out that safety mechanisms would be pretty important.

Allow me to second the other replies by saying that just because someone is much more rational than the other people in eir reference class, doesn't mean ey is rational.

I admire him because he's a normal person, trying despite the difficulty.

It's the striving, the quest, that I admire, even if the end product is not up to your standards.

I'm an avid Daily Show watcher, but, uh, what? In what way is Stewart a rationalist?

He's a rationalist in the way that he desires truth and to understand.

The interview sections with scientists, economists, politicians, etc., all show that he desires to get beyond the standard talking points and to the numbers, the predictions, and the facts, and he feels that most of the media is failing due to their inability to run the numbers. He expresses that he ends up even more confused than when he started listening to them. Saying "I'm confused" is admirable, in my opinion, especially when dealing with subjects LessWrong banned entirely due to their mind-killing attributes.

The Munger quote you're looking for is this;

"A great business at a fair price is superior to a fair business at a great price."

(edit: never mind, I no longer want to make this point)

on the one hand handicapped by being imaginary...

A minor handicap, I'm sure, for someone who's omnipotent.

I'm not saying practical success by Christians is bad for others (and I didn't mean to talk of Christians and atheists as opposing teams); just nowhere close to being as good for others as practical success by well-informed (partial) utilitarians. I was taking Christianity as evidence that he failed harder at trying to be well-informed than many people, but that was probably unfair as I don't know anything about him. I should have brought up the point in a different context.