London Meetup 05-Jun-2011 - very rough minutes

by Alexandros3 min read9th Jun 201116 comments

13

Personal Blog

This was posted to the London LessWrong mailing list, but I am crossposting here, as per David Gerard's suggestion, in case anyone else finds this interesting.

These notes are from my perspective, so things will be missing (as some are added).

So here's my notes:

Bitcoin - Mostly how it's quite interesting, but annoying that we can't transfer money in from the UK. Myself and ciphergoth were the interested parties. If anyone has any ideas, let us know.

Euthyphro Dilemma and Moral Realism - The first religion-themed conversation, mostly on the sorts of answers that come up to the dilemma and what constitutes moral realism anyway.

Evolutionarily Stable Strategies - The discussion of moral realism naturally led to what the nature of morality is and how evolution gave rise to it.

Learning Decision Theory & Project Euler - Not sure how we got here, but I mentioned my desire that the people working on decision theory would make a Project Euler-type introduction to the material, so the rest of us can eventually join the conversation. I should probably write this up as a separate discussion post.

Rationality as Landgrab, and Definitions of Rationality - Apparently some high-ranking figures in the general futurist cluster dislike LessWrong for 'appropriating the term rationality'. There may or may not be a point there, but we started discussing how the term can be defined, preferably in a LW-independent manner.

Libertarianism & LessWrong - There seems to be a high concentration of libertarians on LW, and it seems that the ban on talking politics has kept this from being discussed much. Which brings us to...

Talking Politics on LessWrong - There seems to be this norm against talking politics, which was inherited by other online communities. However, LessWrong is very much not like other communities. We can discuss religion and philosophy without flamewars breaking out, so why not try politics too? People on LW have been known to change their minds, so there is a good chance we will generate more light than heat.

Describing LW & Changing our minds - Leonhart described the site as 'an Internet forum where people occasionally apologise and change their minds'. Everyone else felt this was a great formulation that should be noted down. Discussion on what we have changed our minds on on LW followed

Historicity of Jesus - Back on the religious track, we discussed how atheists are often former Christians who looked into the Historicity of Jesus. Cases in point - taryneast's relatives and Lukeprog.

Making pepole admit cached thoughts - More or less what it says on the tin. What it is and if anyone's done it (not really).

Is the term 'Dark Arts' meaningful? - Perhaps one of the few discussions where there was active debate. A couple of good definitions for 'dark arts' came up, including 'techniques that if the other person knew you were applying them, they would be pissed off'. My personal definition was 'convincing techniques independent of the payload'. Which is to say, tricks anyone can use to convince the untrained about almost anything.

Methods of Rationality meetup - By this point we'd moved on to the next pub. The discussion was whether to do a MoR meetup (yes) and how we would go about setting it up (coordinating with Eliezer to have a date set before he posts the next chapter). What remains is actually doing any of this.

Plausibility vs. Possibility - David Gerard's idea. The ideas that seem plausible should raise a red flag since that may be due to the conjunction fallacy, reducing the possibility of them actually being true.

Biweekly Meetup Dates - It has been decided by the council of elders (aka, those who bothered to turn up) that the biweekly meetups will be on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of each month, with every 4th one being a 'big' bimonthly meetup.

Psychology & Science - Is psychology a proper science? (some of it yes, some of it no).

Race & Intelligence - Another debated topic. On the one hand, it's unlikely that intelligence would remain stable while so many other attributes vary among races. On the other David Gerard mentioned recent research raises questions about the studies that showed such differences. On the third hand, anyone seriously researching the topic without a view to disproving it will have their career destroyed, so, yeah...

Prevalence of Basic Knowledge - An anecdote by me about some fairly educated acquaintances that had basic misconceptions about evolution (oddly, not with religious motive, I think), and a warning not to consider the general public's education levels too high due to the Typical Mind Fallacy.

Comedy as Anti-Compartmentalization - Another pet theory of mine. I was puzzled by the amount of atheist comedians out there, who people pay to see tell them that their religion is absurd. (Yes, Christian comedians exist too. Search YouTube. I dare you.) So my theory is that humour serves as a space where patterns and data from different fields are allowed to be superimposed on one another. Think of it as an anti-compartmentalization habit. Due to our brain design, compartmentalization is the default, so humour may be a hack to counter that. And we reward those who do it well with high status because it's valuable. Maybe we should have transhumanist/rationalist stand-up comedians? We sure have a lot of inconsistencies to point out.

Spread of Atheism - The above developed into this. Has atheism saturated it's audience, and will it stabilise? No clear outcome, I guess we'll have to wait and see. I certainly hope not.

Wikipedia's Epistemology - How Wikipedia determines truth. I'll let David Gerard tell us what that was about

The Larrikin-Wowser Dynamic - Kristoff mentioned this theory on how societies work through this fundamental tension. He can probably say more on this than I can.

The Myers-Kurzweil argument - It turns out, the winner differs by how you frame the claims made. As far as I am concerned, of these two, whoever wins, we lose.

The Black Box experiment - The discussion turned to raising children, and I mentioned this experiment on how the children of other primates seem to do some things better than human children do, and what that tells us about our learning process. YouTube vid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIAoJsS9Ix8

Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Does it do anything? - DG says no, but it works by the power of telling people what to do.

End of notes.

That was a lot of text, if you made it down to here, you have my sincere congratulations.

13

16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:42 AM
New Comment

Wikipedia's Epistemology - How Wikipedia determines truth. I'll let David Gerard tell us what that was about

Um, OK. This is an inchoate thing I've been bouncing around in my head for about the past six months. To attempt to summarise ...

Normally, it's a four-year liberal arts degree to learn the subtle arts of weighing up unreliable human-generated evidence and turning it into useful information. The way Wikipedia works means that you have to explain all that from scratch to argumentative teenagers with Wikipedia-induced aspergism in three paragraphs, and they'll still argue it, 'cos it's not like there's people who really do know more than them about abstracting knowledge from data, is it.

This means that Wikipedia has evolved its own epistemology of where knowledge comes from. It means there's a massive systemic bias against fields that aren't favoured by people who don't think like that. It also generates absurdities like regarding newspapers as "reliable sources", which anyone who's ever been quoted in one will laugh hysterically in horror at.

This is treated as though it is not just one epistemology of many, but the epistemology of how to abstract truth for an encyclopedia.

This is enough of a problem that I know humanities scholars who know Wikipedia in depth but are having to work out what the hell they can do about this, as academic experts in various fields start bringing themselves to Wikipedia even if it gets idiots in their faces, just to get their field properly represented.

A further problem is that early Wikipedians were encyclopedia nerds who could answer "What's an encyclopedia?" by pointing to Britannica and saying "It's a bit like that." There are kids now who have never had any other encyclopedia than Wikipedia. So "what is an encyclopedia?" is coming loose from history. This may be good or bad. I suspect it's bad but would be willing to be convinced it wasn't.

The above needs work and, the hard bit, proposed solutions. That last is what I've been stuck on.

Normally, it's a four-year liberal arts degree to learn the subtle arts of weighing up unreliable human-generated evidence and turning it into useful information

I've never heard of that being taught in college. Is there a Bayesian stats class involved? Could these alleged evidence-weighers combine two likelihood ratios with a prior?

I mean, I'm sorry, but the above is just a ridiculous assertion. If there were any four-year university degree which taught people how to weigh evidence correctly, the world would look very different from the way it currently does.

David_Gerard's reasoning seems to me to depend less on the assertion that a four-year liberal arts degree is sufficient to extract truth from human-generated evidence by some set of external standards, and more on the assertion that however flawed the liberal-arts methodology is, WP:* generates some unique and serious issues of its own.

That seems pretty reasonable to me.

Pretty much. The Wikipedia method is actually worse.

Can you give some examples of the problem?

Historicity of Jesus

To expand:

I have worked on the RationalWiki article on this topic, which is not too bad IMO. (The list of objections by theists is actual real-life objections, not straw men invented for the article. [Yes, citations needed.])

What ancient historians and archaeologists mean by "X probably existed" is not what a physicist would mean. They mean something closer to "hey, why not." (Though stronger than that.) They hold onto belief of a person's existence quite lightly, knowing that tomorrow a new find could change everything.

We can say with confidence that Paul existed, even though the only evidence is the Bible - textual analysis shows that seven of the fourteen epistles attributed to Paul were written by one person who calls himself Paul, and a few others were this person's work with additions by others. So calling this guy Paul is not controversial.

The evidence for Jesus is far more meagre. Also, evidence that would be expected to be there if the person described in the Bible existed is absent.

We know nearly nothing of Pythagoras with confidence, but his body of work (if it was his) stands. If Socrates turned out to be a fictional character invented by Plato, philosophy would be unaffected. If Gautama Buddha turned out to be fictional, Buddhism wouldn't even bobble. But Jesus existing or not is a big deal. This means that getting a good answer is unlikely, as too many people have been too heavily invested in the answer "yes".

Bishop Eusebius, a close ally of the emperor Constantine, is one of the main culprits, shamelessly distorting the historical record at the time to slant Christianity in the direction suitable for Constantine's needs in terms of an official religion for the Empire. (He's the likely perpetrator of the forged mentions of Christ in Josephus, for example.) He muddied the waters horribly, leaving the history of the history in such a state that just learning the evidence we in fact have can be enough to explode a good Christian's head.

Quotes of the day:

  • "Mmm, karma. Can you get bitcoins with that?"
  • "Mmm, bitcoins. Can you get karma with those?"
  • "Yes, we're a cult. But we only accept donations in bitcoins."
  • (deadpan) "Oh, I embrace the Dark Arts now."

Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Does it do anything?

To expand:

The theory doesn't hold, so if you want to build further theory on it you're out of luck. (Wikipedia summarises the problems pretty well.)

NLP works insofar as having a theory at all, even an erroneous one, increases your confidence. The master hack for getting people to do what you want is confidence: simply, to confidently tell them to do what you want. And what NLP actually sells is getting people to do what you want. So NLP delivers what it's selling. Sort of.

If you don't buy that and think I'm just mired in pseudosceptic negativity, you could always try using NLP for weight loss, psoriasis or to cure cancer.

Also posted to my blog.

Wow, you covered a lot of ground.

We covered it very lightly though :-)

I've often thought that comedy is useful because it breaks down compartmentalisation, and more generally because it creates a sort of mental safe space in which ideas can be thought about without triggering the usual mental defences. I'll go as far as to say it's the safest way of breaking down compartmentalization- that if you do it while precommitting to accept the result, you'll tend to select the synthesis consistent with your most cherished beliefs, rather than the one which most accurately reflects reality. On a related note, humor-intolerance is a great warning sign for mentally dangerous ideologies.

I'd be wary of attempting to derive any universal "theory of comedy" though- this doesn't account for clowning or really any types of physical humour for instance. The only thing that seems to be universal about comedy is that it demonstrates awareness of/ability to manipulate multiple levels of meaning or interpretation - which isn't a sufficient condition.

Okay just looking at this now I realise I've failed to heed my own advice, there's one style of "humour" that doesn't involve multiple levels of awareness and is very common among joyless ideologues, which is the style of mean spirited mockery, vicious down-putting of out-groups.

It kind of rises into proper humour if you exaggerate it to the point of ridiculousness, and it's my impression that the people who do that are also comfortable with self mocking and silly humour, and are capable of talking amiably with people not on "their side".

Plausibility vs. Possibility

Plausibility is made of selected pieces of data, arranged to resonate in the human mind - humans think in stories, the universe doesn't work in stories. Both the data and its placement constitute a certain number of bits of information, which strictly decreases the probability. The conjunction fallacy works on increased plausibility but decreased probability.

So plausibility is not the precise opposite of probability - something being plausible does not mean it is therefore unlikely - but would tend to correlate negatively.

(I now have a little trigger in my head that, whenever I say or think something is plausible, pipes up with "that means it's less probable!")

Awesome.

How many people were present?

Eight then six then five :-) The above is Alexandros keeping track of a bunch of erudite smart people rambling :-)