Rationality Quotes January 2015

by Gondolinian1 min read1st Jan 2015153 comments


Rationality Quotes
Personal Blog

It is the beginning of a new year, and time for the beginning of a new rationality quotes thread.

The rules are:

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted separately. (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments. If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
  • Provide sufficient information (URL, title, date, page number, etc.) to enable a reader to find the place where you read the quote, or its original source if available. Do not quote with only a name.
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Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it's not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn't ask the question: What was Aragorn's tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren't gone – they're in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I've tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don't have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn't make you a wise king.

— George R. R. Martin, Rolling Stone interview (emphasis mine)

Although the main point of this quote is valid (that sound policies rather than great men are the cause of good government), criticizing Lord of the Rings for having a “medieval philosophy” is a bit silly – it is like criticizing Johnny Cash for sounding “kind of country”. More so than an author of fiction, Tolkien was a scholar who focused much of his effort on studying medieval literature and translating that literature into modern English. Medieval literature was an inspiration and a major influence on his fiction. Of course the Lord of the Rings has a medieval philosophy; it was intended to have a medieval philosophy.

Does the intent matter? Intended or not, Lord of the Rings has come to occupy a certain cultural position; surely it's right to ask whether it's fit for it, even if that position is not the one the original author intended?

9g_pepper6yI think that our culture is big enough to accommodate the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin and Michael Moorcock; we as a society don’t really need to choose among them (although some individuals will obviously prefer one over another). Aumann’s theorem does not apply to literature; not all rational authors have to write identical styles of fiction.
0AnthonyC6yTrue as far as it goes, but is really likely that men, elves, and orcs (really all but hobbits) could have that many thousands of years of civilization at a stable or declining level of technology and magic, with so many wars and disruptions of bloodlines, without trying out any form of government other than a kingdom? I know elves are stubborn, but that seems a bit much, even if there is a literal Divine Right of Kings passed down from Numenor.
6alienist6yYes, actually. Look at the history of say China before major Western contact, or Japan, or India, or Mesopotamia, or Ancient Egypt, or really anywhere outside Europe or extremely heavy European influence. More importantly they're immortal.
-2elharo6yMaybe. However many scholars and other authors (Isaac Asimov comes to mind) have criticized this tendency in Tolkien. There's an extent to which Middle Earth post-War and the Shire in particular are wish fulfillment. This is what Tolkien wants the world to be. For one recent take see The Anti Tolkien [http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/anti-tolkien] in the latest issue of the New Yorker which gives Michael Moorcock his say:
5alienist6yOr rather a middle class with values that Moorcock doesn't like. (Probably because they don't let him get high on claimed moral superiority.)
1g_pepper6yAlthough I have read and enjoyed several Moorcock novels in years past, I did not see much of substance in Moorcock’s views as described by the New Yorker blog post (FWIW, The Anti-Tolkien is a blog post; it is not in the latest print issue). In particular, the passage you quoted sounds like empty rhetoric from an aging pseudo-intellectual Marxist. Specifically, it raises several questions: 1. What makes Moorcock think that members of the middle class are apt to be morally bankrupt? 2. Are members of the middle class more apt than members of the upper and lower class to be morally bankrupt? If so, what evidence is there for this? If not, wouldn’t it be more descriptive to refer to “morally bankrupt society”? 3. Even if you accept that the middle class is morally bankrupt (which I do not), how is Tolkien’s “vast catalogue of names, places, magic rings, and dwarven kings” a “pernicious confirmation of the values” of that middle class? I don’t see any connection between a vast catalog of names, places, etc., and middle-class values (whatever those might be).
3soreff6yNot to endorse the view, but criticism of specifically the middle class is not novel: (from a comment on Paul Fussell's Class):
2g_pepper6yThis is true. In fact, reflexive bourgeoisie-bashing is so ubiquitous in some circles that it has become a cliché. This is what led me to liken Moorcock’s comment to empty pseudo-intellectual Marxist rhetoric.
427chaos6yIn fairness, real life kings were essentially indifferent to commoners a lot of the time. Having good intentions is a good start to being a better ruler than them.
3DanielLC6yBeing good isn't enough, but being wise and good is. Tolkien may not be able to answer all those questions, because he's probably not wise enough to make those hard decisions well, but Aragorn was.
-2hairyfigment6yIt's emphatically not enough. Jonathan Swift [http://ask.metafilter.com/163396/What-were-the-Yahoos-missing-out-on] may have been wise enough to figure out certain evolutionary principles; he may have been good; he was also wrong on the facts, because science is fscking hard.
-2DanielLC6yI'm not saying it wouldn't be hard. I'm saying that being able to make the hard decisions is part of being a "wise ruler". I admit I never finished the Lord of the Rings, so I don't know what Tolkien actually said, but from what Martin quoted, Tolkien never said it would be easy. If anything, specifying that Aragorn was wise was suggesting that it was hard.
3Luke_A_Somers6yYes, these are interesting questions. They're beyond the scope of what he wanted to write, and I don't think it's wrong for him to ignore them. It is also right for Mr. Martin to write about them, because they are within the scope of what he wants to write.

An escalator can never break -- it can only become stairs. You should never see an "Escalator Temporarily Out Of Order" sign, just "Escalator Temporarily Stairs. Sorry for the convenience. We apologize for the fact that you can still get up there."

I have seen escalators sufficiently out-of-order that they were completely non-traversable.

2Desrtopa6yMy regular commute has been impeded by such a set of escalators (currently dismantled for repairs from fire damage) for weeks.

One or more steps completely missing. Or, more commonly, the escalator blocked off because some repairmen are working on it.

0moorethunder6y'I got an idea for sweatshops - air conditioning' Mitch Hedberg Development Economists are say we shouldn't close sweatshops as they are the workers best options. I don't see why altruists can't pay for air conditioners to be installed in sweat shops.
0Vaniver6y1. Air conditioning has some cost associated with it; would the workers rather have the cost, or the cool air? It might be better to just give them the money, in which case it now competes with all other cash transfers for effectiveness. 2. This subsidizes the owners of sweatshops, which may have undesirable downstream effects, or set odd expectations.

With the information age the world looks uglier, dirtier, more corrupt, scheming, mostly because the malicious was hidden from us before.

Nassim Taleb, Twitter

It's not just information age, but also freedom of speech. Many people in regimes without free speech sincerely believe that there is no crime (except by people corrupted by other countries), no drug abuse, etc., simply because they can never read about it in the newspapers. So when the regime later changes, they will believe that things got worse, because now they can read about all the bad stuff (and of course some politicians will use this bias to say "this wasn't happening before when we had the power, so... vote for us again").

2anandjeyahar6yThis is something, I find a lot of people don't realize(by virtue of never testing their boundaries). It's not that the universe* has become suddenly maleficient, it was indifferent / mildly maleficient(think increasing entropy rule, if you prefer), we just didn't realize it and it's getting harder to ignore. *-- Edit Clarification: Universe - Humans. (- being set difference here.)
327chaos6yThe increasing entropy rule seems irrelevant, as planet Earth is not a closed system.
1anandjeyahar6yYou are right. I was guilty of repeating from memory an oversimplified quote. The wikipedia page [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_law_of_thermodynamics] points out that it was misworded quote by Rudolf Clausius. Thanks for pointing out.

We have blind, one-eyed, cross-eyed, and squinting people, and visions long, short, clear, confused, weak, or indefatigable. All this is a faithful image of our understanding; but we know scarcely any false vision. There are not many men who always mistake a rooster for a horse, or a chamber pot for a house. How is it that we often meet with minds, otherwise judicious, that are absolutely wrong in some things of importance? How is it that the same Siamese man who can never be fooled when he is supposed to receive three rupees, firmly believes in the metamorphoses of Sammonocodom...

If these besotted beings are shown a little geometry, they learn it easily enough; but, strange to say, this does not set them right. They perceive the truths of geometry; but it does not teach them to weigh probabilities: they have taken their bent; they will reason falsely all their lives; and I am sorry for them.

-Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary

"Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect." -- Salman Rushdie

In the final volume of the book A Positively Final Appearance (1997), Guinness recounts grudgingly giving an autograph to a young fan who claimed to have watched Star Wars over 100 times, on the condition that the boy promise to stop watching the film, because, as Guinness told him, "this is going to be an ill effect on your life." The fan was stunned at first, but later thanked him (though some sources say it went differently). Guinness is quoted as saying: "'Well,' I said, 'do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?' He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. 'What a dreadful thing to say to a child!' she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities."

4gwern6y--Hideaki Anno, "Skill Up" [http://web.archive.org/web/20001215150600/www.acsys.com/~tallman/newtype_e.html] ; ("From Newtype, April 4, p. 4, article entitled 'Skill Up'." Interview ~April 1995)
0hawkice6yI imagine it would be quite hard to be happy. In a society that demands that only a certain portion of your life can contain imagination and impossibilities and robots and dinosaurs and make-believe in general, the most make-believe-y stuff has real social costs. As a small child I remember imagining dramatic stories all around me. It's hard to escape the conclusion that if my mind wandered quite so much today, had such a focus on the unreal and imaginative, there would be almost no place in the world at all for me. Sadness would follow in the wake of all vivid diversions. Thank goodness television is socially acceptable! While most of it is hardly fictional at all, at least that element of life hasn't been completely subtracted from adult society.

We're talking about transferring my consciousness into a magic construct with a very finite existence. I'm reading the instructions first.

  • Susan, El Goonish Shive

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

-- Elon Musk

627chaos6yI disagree. Perhaps this is true in already well understood fields of study, but in others we do not have any trunks or branches. Trying to understand general guidelines and principles in such situation necessitates first manufacturing them without much empirical evidence, which seems like a large mistake. In my opinion, the best thinkers are those who try to use general principles and specific details simultaneously, and in turn the best of those ones tend to look at details slightly more often.
4dspeyer6yWhat fields do you have in mind?
0[anonymous]6yI disagree. Perhaps this is true in already well understood fields of study, but in others we do not have any trunks or branches. Trying to understand general guidelines and principles in such situation necessitates first manufacturing them without much empirical evidence, which seems like a large mistake. In my opinion, the best thinkers are those who try to use general principles and specifc details simultaneously, and in turn the best of those ones tend to look at details slightly more often.
0[anonymous]6yI disagree. Perhaps this is true in already well understood fields of study, but in others we do not have any trunks or branches. Trying to understand general guidelines and principles in such situation necessitates first manufacturing them without much empirical evidence, which seems like a large mistake. In my opinion, the best thinkers are those who try to use general principles and relevant details in conjunction with each other, and in turn the best of those ones are people who look at details slightly more than the guidelines.
0[anonymous]6yI disagree. Perhaps this is true in already well understood fields of study, but in others we do not have any trunks or branches. Trying to understand general guidelines and principles in such situation necessitates first manufacturing them without much empirical evidence, which seems like a large mistake. In my opinion, the best thinkers are those who try to use general principles and relevant details in conjunction with each other, and the best of those thinkers tend to look at details slightly more.

Some people seem terribly smug about being right about one thing. It makes me wonder if this is, in fact, the only thing they’ve ever gotten right in their whole lives.


That's not literally true. It's just booing irrational people. Which is appropriate for Ozy on zher own blog, but not for this thread of useful quotes.

To the superficial observer, scientific truth is unassailable, the logic of science is infallible; and if scientific men sometimes make mistakes, it is because they have not understood the rules of the game. Mathematical truths are derived from a few self-evident propositions, by a chain of flawless reasonings; they are imposed not only on us, but also on nature itself. By them the Creator is fettered, as it were, and His choice is limited to a relatively small number of solutions. A few experiments, therefore, will be sufficient to enable us to determine what choice He has made. From each experiment a number of consequences will follow by a series of mathematical deductions...This, to the minds of most people...is the origin of certainty in science.

But upon more mature reflection the position held by hypothesis was seen; it was recognized that it is as necessary to the experimenter as to the mathematician. And then the doubt arose if all these constructions are built on solid foundations. The conclusion was drawn that a breath would bring them to the ground. This sceptical attitude does not escape the charge of superficiality. To doubt everything or to believe everything is two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.

-Henri Poincare, Science and Hypothesis

Travelling is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

Ralph Waldo Emerson on If You Demand Magic, Magic Won't Help

And yet, I also have packed my backpack, embarked in the air, and woken up in Rome, and unlike Emerson have indeed been intoxicated in contemplation of the things that were. And as in Rome, so also in Florence, and Prague, and London, and the cave monasteries of Turkey, and the Alhambra, and the temples of Japan, and other places also.

In other words, YMMV.

3robot-dreams6yI hope the quote didn't come across as "travel sucks, period". Admittedly, with the opening "Travelling is a fool's paradise", it's hard for the quote to come across any other way. But my interpretation is not so much that Emerson is against travel; it's that Emerson is against yearning for travel as the magic solution to all of your problems. No matter where you go, you bring yourself--so if the problems lie within yourself, no amount of travelling will let you escape them. You sound like an awesome person who would love life even if you didn't get to travel (perhaps less, but still). When you chose to set out on your adventures, what was your motivation (I would be pretty surprised if it was to "lose your sadness")?
4RichardKennaway6yI wanted to see these places. There's nothing quite like being there.
8Epictetus6yThis reminds me of Socrates' quip:
4gwern6yIt's a common enough classical remonstration; eg Horace's "Skies change, not cares, for those who cross the seas."

Most of the time what we see is developers trying to minmax, micro-optimize and balance their designs, but when addressing metrics as a tool to achieve that goal, they acknowledge the relevance of the tool and at the same time their eyes wander, looking for someone else to talk to. I believe it is a human trait: when we don't know exactly how to do something, we will do anything else, procrastinating the blurry task indefinitely.

Nicholas Francis

0[anonymous]6yThis is a great quote that draws attention to a very common human mental failing --intellectual dishonesty. "It is braver to be intellectually honest than it is to be ready to do physical battle. In the latter case, the most you risk is torture and death, in the former, you risk being held accountable for the flaws in your character, ideas, and choices. A great many men are physically brave, but intellectually cowardly, dishonest, and unfaithful to exploring the reality they secretly suspect exists. Most men shun knowledge from a fear of it."

Good design is intelligence made visible.

Le Corbusier, Campden Technical Manual 17[3].

I want to climb a mountain, not so I can get to the top, but because I want to hang out at base camp. That seems fun as shit. You sleep in a colorful tent, grow a beard, drink hot chocolate, walk around... ‘Hey, you going to the top?’ . . . ‘Soon.’

  • Mitch Hedberg on fun theory and the complexity of human values.
7lmm6yEverest is probably an atypical example (though maybe not in the context of a joke), but Into Thin Air made it sound like base camp is a pretty unpleasant place to spend any time, because no-one really cares much about making it a nice place (and thus there is e.g. terrible hygiene, litter everywhere)

I think anthropomorphism is the worst of all. I have now seen programs "trying to do things", "wanting to do things", "believing thing to be true", "knowing things" etc. Don't be so naïve as to believe that this use of language is harmless. It invited the programmer to identify himself with the execution of the program and almost forces upon him the use of operational semantics.

-- Edgar Dijkstra, The Fruits of Misunderstanding

I know who Dijkstra was, respect him greatly, and agree with most of that article, and indeed, most of everything he wrote. But this is something I disagree about. He would (here) have us speak of a computer's "store" instead of its "memory", and there were various other substitutions that he would have us do. All that that would achieve would be to develop a parallel vocabulary, one for computing machines and one for thinking beings, and an injunction to always use the right vocabulary for the right context.

What it is for a human being to try things, want things, believe things, know things, etc. is different from what it is for a program to do these things. But they also have an amount of commonality that makes insisting on separate vocabulary an unproductive ritual.

So when, for example, a compiler complains to me (must I say "issues an error message"?) that it couldn't find a file, I want it to give me the answers to questions such as "why did you look for that file?" (i.e. show me the place where you were instructed to access it), "what were you looking for?" (i.e. show me the file name exactly as you received it), "where d... (read more)

2Pfft6yI thought the most interesting part of the quote was the proposed link between "empathizing" reasoning and operational semantics.
3sixes_and_sevens6yI don't know if this was your intent when you chose the username, but I subconsciously prepend "Pfft." to the beginning of all your comments and read them in a dismissive tone.
2Pfft6yHa, yeah that's an unintended effect.
027chaos6yHow so?

A computer is a mathematical machine, mathematics made physical. It is built of logic gates, devices which compute certain outputs as mathematical functions of their inputs. This is what they are designed to be, and in comparison with all the other physical devices mankind has contrived, they operate with phenomenal reliability.

Mathematics operates with absolute certainty. (Anyone quoting Eliezer's password is invited to go away and not come back until they've devised a new foundation for probability theory in which P(A|A) < 1.) Physical realisations can fall short. But an ordinary desktop computer can operate for weeks at a time without any hardware glitches. If you multiply the number of gates by the clock speed by the duration, that comes to somewhere in the region of 10 to the 24th operations -- approximately Avogadro's number -- every one of which worked as designed. When your program goes wrong, hardware error isn't the way to bet.

If the basic semiconductor gate were not so reliable, if each gate failed "only" one in a million times, you would be having millions of errors every second and computing on the scale of today would hardly be possible. This is one reas... (read more)

5sediment6yI also don't think this is a concern. It's just analogy, metaphor, figurative language, which is more or less what the human mind runs on. I also don't think it leads to real anthropomorphization in the minds of those using it; it's more just a useful shorthand. Compare something I overheard once about atoms of a certain reactive element "wanting" to bond with other atoms. I don't think either party was ascribing agency to those atoms in this case; rather, "it wants X" is commonly understood as a useful shorthand for "it behaves as if it wanted X". Edit: see also: http://catb.org/jargon/html/anthropomorphization.html [http://catb.org/jargon/html/anthropomorphization.html]
4gwern6y--"Fabulous Prizes" [http://dresdencodak.com/2009/07/12/fabulous-prizes/], Dresden Codak
2sediment6yAnd, while we're on the subject, here's a classic: -- Sidney Morgenbesser to B. F. Skinner (via Eliezer, natch.)

What goes around doesn’t come around. Karma’s not a bitch, she’s a myth (or a mythess).

Gary Brecher, The War Nerd

Some people claim that it is really, really difficult for humans to psych themselves up to kill another human...The neat thing about this argument is that me shooting or impaling some of the idiots saying that we’re too cool to kill would actually be introducing valid evidence. In most argumentation, strangling your opponent can legitimately be seen as a sign that your case is weak.

Greg Cochran

Not for the first time, someone on LW links a West Hunter page that isn't content to make a reasonable point, but has to exaggerate that point and present it with sneering.

Cochran's post is short, but to make it even shorter:

Some people claim that it is really, really difficult for humans to psych themselves up to kill another human. They often cite a claim by S. L. A. Marshall that only a small fraction – less than 25% – of WWII American combat infantrymen fired their weapons in battle.

[...] it’s all bullshit. S.L.A Marshall’s ‘data’ is vapor; there was and is nothing to it. He made shit up, not just on this topic. There’s every to reason to think that the vast majority of infantrymen throughout history did their level best to kill those on the other side [...]

You have to wonder about a universal human instinct that apparently misfired in every battle in recorded history.

It's true that Marshall's claim about WWII soldiers isn't trustworthy. (I haven't spent enough time with the literature to go further and confirm the claim's made-up bullshit vapour. But it wouldn't surprise me.) Unfortunately Cochran has to have his cherry on top; he writes off not only Marshall but t... (read more)

4alienist6yUm, most of these examples appear to be examples of soldiers fearing for their own lives as opposed to concern about the lives of the enemy.
1satt6yFailing to shoot someone out of fear is just as much a failure to shoot someone as failing to shoot someone out of concern for their life. And most of those examples are evidence of soldiers failing/refusing to fire competently at the enemy, or needing to be coerced to try to attack the enemy. Edit: surprised that within 30 minutes the parent's at +3 and this is at -1, especially at this time of day. How is the parent comment responsive to the claim that consistently shooting at people is hard for soldiers to do? All alienist is doing is disputing why soldiers don't manage it, not that they don't.

If you read through the comments in the linked article (which of course you were under no obligation to do before commenting here) you see that Cochran's main point was that it's silly to think that soldiers avoid killing because they have some basic aversion to doing so, although Cochran agrees that fear might cause them to not put themselves in a position where they can shoot.

5satt6yWould that Cochran's original post had focused on that specific point and on Marshall's unreliability. In any case, thanks for making the downvotes intelligible. Upvoted.
0Vaniver6yI see Cochran as also making the meta-point that we should be sneering at things that are obviously wrong when you look at them from an evolutionary or realist perspective, or that map blue tribe 'what-we-want-to-be' back to the historical past. Take this comparable aside (that I expect is more agreeable) from The Germ of Laziness [http://westhunt.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/the-germ-of-laziness/]:
2satt6ySounds plausible, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with such sneering. I do ask, though, that the sneering be reserved for obviously wrong claims, and that the sneerer not simultaneously make a sneer-worthy claim of their own.
-2hairyfigment6yYeah, screw those fools who think homosexuality [http://ask.metafilter.com/163396/What-were-the-Yahoos-missing-out-on] exists. Science is hard.
4Vaniver6yIn case you aren't aware, Cochran is one of the names behind the 'gay germ' hypothesis, which is basically the claim that homosexuality's most likely cause is a pathogen of some sort, given how common it is and the negative impact it has on fertility. (An index [http://jaymans.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/greg-cochrans-gay-germ-hypothesis-an-exercise-in-the-power-of-germs/] of his posts on the subject.)
2hairyfigment6ySo in practice, this means you will sneer at anyone disagreeing with an idea you consider "obvious", ie clever. The point of the Jonathan Swift link was that your prior is bad and you should feel bad:
0Vaniver6yConsider this quote: --Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1927) That there is some idea that you think is fundamental, and as a result it is overwhelmingly likely that anyone who goes up against will end in defeat, does not mean you extend that privilege to all ideas or that you lock in your current sense of obviousness. I wouldn't put evolution at second law status, but it seems like it should be more shameful to propose ideas that fail on basic evolutionary principles.
0hairyfigment6yAnd if you can prove mathematically that some idea goes against evolutionary principles - rather than making an informal argument of exactly the type that Swift seems to believe rules out homosexual behavior in other animals - this would be relevant.
8elharo6yThat is a really clever mixup of different argumentation modes. That being said, Mr. Cochran strangling one of his opponents would still be only weak evidence that it is not so difficult for humans to psych themselves up to kill another human. First of all, he hasn't actually done it (I presume). Secondly, we know it's difficult, not impossible. Thirdly, we know there are sociopaths and psychopaths who can do this without much thought, as well as perhaps normal people who have become desensitized to killing. Fortunately these are a small percentage of the populace. There is, in fact, a large amount of research that has gone into studying the minds of people who kill: in wartime, in criminal activity, in law enforcement, and so forth; and there is a strong consensus that for most people intentional killing is hard. For example, -- William S. Frisbee, The Psychology of Killing [http://www.military-sf.com/Killing.htm] If you want a more detailed look at this, including lots of references to the original Defense Department research, there are a number of good books by army officers including On Killing [http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0316330116/warcatslair] by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman. One of the originals is Men Against Fire [http://www.amazon.com/Sharpening-Warriors-Edge-Psychology-Training/dp/0964920506] by World War I Officer S. L. A Marshall. Bruce Siddle's work, more focused on law enforcement, is also worth a look. E.g. Sharpening the Warrior's Edge [http://www.amazon.com/Sharpening-Warriors-Edge-Psychology-Training/dp/0964920506] . None of these are perfect or irrefutable evidence. For instance, the research I'm aware focuses primarily on U.S. and British troops and police officers. It's certainly possible that this is culturally conditioned and the results might be different elsewhere. However, I've yet to see any strong critiques of the general consensus about the difficulty of killing in war. The best evidence we have is that killing

In World War Two, it is a fact that only 15-20 percent of the soldiers fired at the enemy.

One of the originals is Men Against Fire by World War I Officer S. L. A Marshall.

You find this claim all over the place; the problem with it is that comrade "S.L.A.M" is not "one of the originals", he is the sole and only source for the claim - and he made it up. A cursory Wiki search shows:

[So-and-so demonstrated] that Marshall had not actually conducted the research upon which he based his ratio-of-fire theory. "The 'systematic collection of data' appears to have been an invention."

My emphasis.

The best evidence we have is that killing is in fact difficult for most people, most of the time, even in war.

Ok. So on the one hand we've got a single book, later shown to have been an invention, but taken up by a huge number of people so it looks like a consensus, in the best Dark-Arts, "you have to be smart to know this", counterintuitive-Deep-Wisdom style. And on the other hand we have a huge amount of dead people, mysteriously killed by bullets that, somehow, got fired in spite of the noted reluctance of men to do so. I propose that your accola... (read more)

And on the other hand we have a huge amount of dead people, mysteriously killed by bullets that, somehow, got fired in spite of the noted reluctance of men to do so.

Let's not overstate your case, shall we? No 'somehow' about it, even if 90% of soldiers didn't want to shoot, the remaining 10% could kill a hell of a lot of people; that is the point of guns and explosives, after all - they make killing people quick and easy compared to nagging them to death.

(Where is the precise model relating known mortality rates to number of soldiers shooting, such that Marshall's claims could have been rejected on their face solely because they conflicted with mortality rates? There is none. The majority of soldiers survive wars, after all.)

2RolfAndreassen6yWith modern automatic weapons, if their targets obligingly massed in a single spot, sure. Bolt-action rifles, less so; Civil-War-era muzzle loaders, still less. Now, there's a more subtle version of the argument that could be made: Maybe a lot of people were shooting to miss. That would account for the 10000-to-1 bullets-to-hits ratio, also known as "fire your weight in lead to kill a man". But again, if people weren't actually shooting, you'd think their officers would notice that they never needed ammunition refills. Observe: The more people refuse to fire their rifles, the higher should be the proportion of casualties from artillery. Yet from WWII to Vietnam, we see that reports claim an increasing percentage of soldiers firing rifles, but a decreasing proportion of casualties from small arms. I propose that, instead, the proportion of rifle-firers was constant and the lethality and ubiquity of artillery was growing. Note that, to make up for an increase from 25% to 55% of rifle-firers, as is claimed from WWII to Vietnam, artillery would have to become twice as deadly just to remain on an even footing; this seems to me unlikely, even though there certainly were technical advances.
7gwern6ySo, do you know offhand exactly how many soldiers were killed by other soldiers in all those conflicts? Do you know how fast and effective those weapons were? Do you know what the distribution and skew of killings per soldier are and how that changes from conflict to conflict? You do not know any of those factors, all of which together determine whether the Marshall estimate is plausible. 'Marshall made everything up' is a good argument. 'Look, there's lots of dead soldiers!' is a terrible argument which is pure rhetoric. Ceteris is never paribus. You're just digging yourself in deeper. Those conflicts were completely different - WWII and Vietnam, seriously? You can't think of any reasons artillery might have different results in them?
6RolfAndreassen6yOk, I sit corrected.
5elharo6yYou're vastly overstating the criticisms of S. L. A Marshall. He did not just make up his figures. His research was not an invention. He conducted hundreds of interviews with soldiers who had recently been in combat. The U.S. Army found this research quite valuable and uses it to this day. Some people don't like his conclusions, and attempt to dispute them, but usually without attempting to collect actual data that would weigh against Marshall's. The Wikipedia article's claim that "Professor Roger J. Spiller (Deputy Director of the Combat Studies Institute, US Army Command and General Staff College) demonstrated in his 1988 article, "S.L.A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire" (RUSI Journal, Winter 1988, pages 63–71), that Marshall had not actually conducted the research upon which he based his ratio-of-fire theory" appears to be false. Spiller's article criticizes Marshall's methodology and points out a number of weaknesses in his later accounts. However it does not claim that the interviews Marshall described did not take place. Rather it suggests that Marshall intentionally or unintentionally sometimes inflated the number of interviews he had conducted, though it still allows for hundreds to have taken place. The RUSI article doesn't seem to be online, (I'll try and see if JSTOR has a copy) but some relevant portions are quoted here [http://warchronicle.com/us/combat_historians_wwii/marshallfire.htm]. I agree that Marshall's evidence is not perfect. I'd be interested to see better evidence, and if it came to different conclusions than he did, using better research techniques, then I would update my beliefs accordingly. Until I am see such research, though I am very wary of poorly sourced ad hominem attacks.
4gwern6yLibgen is your friend: https://pdf.yt/d/zueukhIJDa6woF9R [https://pdf.yt/d/zueukhIJDa6woF9R] / https://www.dropbox.com/s/dwjrpviga6e137z/1988-spiller.pdf [https://www.dropbox.com/s/dwjrpviga6e137z/1988-spiller.pdf] / http://sci-hub.org/downloads/d5cf/spiller1988.pdf [http://sci-hub.org/downloads/d5cf/spiller1988.pdf]
4RolfAndreassen6yHum! That first article is very interesting; it quotes Marshall as saying the percentage of men who fired their weapons was 15% in an average day's action. This is very different from 15% firing their rifles at all, which is the claim usually made. So quite apart from being a fabrication, Marshall's imaginary number is apparently even being misquoted! Some interesting quotes: (Emphasis in original).
2elharo6yUpdate: JSTOR does not appear to include RUSI Journal. If anyone has access to a library that does have it, please do us a favor and look it up.
0beoShaffer6yCan you please link what you're quoting from.
8RolfAndreassen6yHere [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S.L.A._Marshall].
0beoShaffer6yThanks. -ETA I followed both the link and the links to several of Wikipedia's sources, but no further. The stuff I saw all seems to support Rolf's claims about S. L. A Marshall being unreliable and the primary source for most of the claims of the killing is hard side.
2gwern6yIsegoria claims Grossman's claims, if not Marshall's, is better supported by things like fighter pilot studies: http://westhunt.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/shoot-to-kill/#comment-64665 [http://westhunt.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/shoot-to-kill/#comment-64665]
-2RolfAndreassen6yFighter pilot victories in clear-air combat are rare; it follows that they are Poisson-distributed, and that you would expect to have a few extreme outliers and a great mass of apparent "non-killers" even if every pilot was doing his genuine best to kill. That is even before taking into account pilot skill, which for all we know has a very wide range.
5gwern6yI don't see how that follows at all. You don't know it was a Poisson distribution (there are lots of distributions natural phenomena follow; the negative binomial and lognormal also pop up a lot in human contexts), and even if you did, you don't know the the relevant rate parameter lambda to know how many pilots should be expected to have 1 success, and since you're making purely a priori arguments here rather than observing that the studies have specific flaws (eg perhaps they included pilots who never saw combat), it's clear you're trying to make a fully general counterargument to explain away any result those studies could have reached without knowing anything about them. ('Oh, only .001% of pilots killed anyone? That darn Poisson!')
2DanielLC6yKilling them would be introducing valid evidence. Talking about it is just fictional evidence [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Generalization_from_fictional_evidence].

I do not see how this suggestion could be positively refuted. It enjoys a status well known in academic circles and doubtless elsewhere,—that of the Remotely Conceivable Alternative, contrary to the obvious implication of the facts, incapable of proof or disproof.

-- Denys L. Page (1908-1978), History and the Homeric Iliad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 57

2Nomad6yAny context? (e.g. what the suggestion is)
6gjm6yA Google Books search for "positively refuted" yields the following:

"Rationality isn't on anyone's side, but it's not neutral either." - Kevin Graham

Homer Simpson, on relativity of happiness: "When something great happens to one person, everyone else's life gets a little worse."

Source: http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=the-simpsons&episode=s26e08

0RichardKennaway6yThis is an anti-rationality quote, right?
1Kawoomba6yI'd call it an a-rationality quote, in the sense that it's just an observation; one backed up by evidence but with no immediate relevancy to the topic of rationality. On second thought, it does show a kind of bias, namely the "compete-for-limited-resources" evolutionary imperative which introduced the "bias" of treating most social phenomena as zero-sum games. Bias in quotes because there is no correct baseline to compare against, tendency would probably be a better term.
2Davidmanheim6yBut it is descriptive of how we are actually wired; perhaps it would be better if happiness were not relative, but it is.
0Davidmanheim6yPartially. It's related to how most of us are in fact biased, and taken to the extreme, the consequence of our implicit thought pattern.
0RichardKennaway6yI think the only answer to that is, speak for yourself.

We next tried to define what characteristics distinguished the smarter teams from the rest, and we were a bit surprised by the answers we got. We gave each volunteer an individual I.Q. test, but teams with higher average I.Q.s didn’t score much higher on our collective intelligence tasks than did teams with lower average I.Q.s. Nor did teams with more extroverted people, or teams whose members reported feeling more motivated to contribute to their group’s success.

Instead, the smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics.

First, their members

... (read more)
0Viliam_Bur6yPossible interpretation: If a team wants to do something smart together, the team members have to (a) communicate, or at least (b) be really good at guessing what the other team members are thinking. communication mind reading
0Nornagest6yI'm open to the idea that the factors informing group performance might not be identical to those informing individual performance, and it seems plausible that intra-group communication could play a strong role in that, but this is a result suspiciously amenable to the NYT's politics. Probably deserves a grain or two of salt.
1Manfred6yYou have probably actually heard of this study already - it was in the news briefly when the Science article got published in 2010, this is just a rehash. Anyhow, to some extent this is factor analysis smoke and mirrors - just because there's this nice factor that correlates well with performance on group tasks doesn't mean that the causal mechanism doesn't go through cognitive skills. This is especially obvious in the case of gender, where it seems implausible that women improve average performance just by exuding some sort of aura. They probably do it by using skills that are distributed differently among genders and weren't captured by the study's emotional-perceptiveness test. So as soon as they include number of women in their c-factor, you know it's correlational and not necessarily telling you useful actions to take (e.g. the intervention "get people to talk more equally" has no guarantee of helping, even though equal time spent talking correlates with success). But, that said, there is this nice factor that correlates well with performance on group tasks, and if one wants a diagnostic test, and your tasks look like those in the study (e.g. brainstorming, within-group bargaining, playing checkers, designing a building), and your participants are drawn from a population similar to college students, it's more valuable to measure social skills than it is IQ. EDIT: Nor are they discounting intelligence. From the paper [http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6004/686.full]: The correlation coefficients for intelligence are about half to 2/3 those for the social perceptiveness and turn-taking - and also about half to 2/3 what the correlation with IQ is when doing these tasks alone. this is consistent with the hypothesis that when working in groups, less of the variation depends on IQ and more of the variation between groups is due to different levels of social skills.
2elharo6yThat's pretty much exactly what the article, and the quoted selection, said. The improved performance of teams with more women is attributed to from gender disparity on the test for "Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible."

Truth had never been a priority. If believing a lie kept the genes proliferating, the system would believe that lie with all its heart.

Peter Watts, Echopraxia, on altruism. Well ok, I admit, not on altruism per se.

I don't try to intimidate anybody before a fight. That's nonsense. I intimidate people by hitting them.

-Mike Tyson

3Lumifer6yWhile a cute quote, I'm not sure it involves much (or any) rationality.
3WalterL6yAn expert declares one of his profession's social rituals to be nonsense, and explains how to get the same effect the ritual is intended to evoke through a simple physical procedure. Elegant rationalism.
0Lumifer6yAlternatively, the quote says that signaling is worthless and only the application of brute force matters. Not quite as elegant.

Alternatively, he says that he doesn't need to signal his confidence... and thereby signals confidence.

3Lumifer6yOf course, him having to actually say that signals less confidence... Say, how many turtles do you think there are on the way down? :-)
6MarkusRamikin6y42? 3^^^3? Somewhere in there.
5polymathwannabe6yWell, setting aside the hipster issue of trying too hard to show how much he didn't care, thereby betraying how much he actually did care, I sense there may be a link between that statement and the nameless twelfth virtue ("Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement"), in that, instead of making a show for the cameras before the fight, he focused on winning the fight, which was what mattered at the end of the day.
-3IrritableGourmet6yA similar example, from a Chris Farley movie: Tommy: Let's think about this for a sec, Ted, why do they put a guarantee on a box? Hmm, very interesting. Ted: I'm listening. Tommy: Here's how I see it. A guy puts a guarantee on the box 'cause he wants you to fell all warm and toasty inside. Ted: Yeah, makes a man feel good. Tommy: 'Course it does. Ya think if you leave that box under your pillow at night, the Guarantee Fairy might come by and leave a quarter. Ted: What's your point? Tommy: The point is, how do you know the Guarantee Fairy isn't a crazy glue sniffer? "Building model airplanes" says the little fairy, but we're not buying it. Next thing you know, there's money missing off the dresser and your daughter's knocked up, I seen it a hundred times. Ted: But why do they put a guarantee on the box then? Tommy: Because they know all they sold ya was a guaranteed piece of shit. That's all it is. Hey, if you want me to take a dump in a box and mark it guaranteed, I will. I got spare time. But for right now, for your sake, for your daughter's sake, ya might wanna think about buying a quality item from me.


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0JoshuaZ6yHow is this a rationality quote?
0lalaithion6yIf this is a joke, I love it. If this isn't a joke, it's probably just a typo.
2Kawoomba6yThe quote was dashed by the poster.
3Gondolinian6yIt looks like RPMcMurphy has replaced all of their recent comments with that character. RPMcMurphy, if you want to delete your account, you can do so by going to preferences [http://lesswrong.com/prefs/] and clicking on DELETE in the top right. You can also retract posts to protect them from being downvoted (will also keep them from being upvoted) by clicking on the button that looks kind of like Ѳ at the bottom right of your comments.

Truth —more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality— is the essential foundation for producing good outcomes.

I want you to work for yourself, to come up with independent opinions, to stress-test them, to be wary about being overconfident, and to reflect on the consequences of your decisions and constantly improve.

[...] Your goals will determine the “machine” that you create to achieve them; that machine will produce outcomes that you should compare with your goals to judge how your machine is working. Your “machine” will consist of the design and

... (read more)

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning —

  • The Great Gatsby

I always liked Fitzgerald's portrayal of what Something to Protect feels like.

Happy New Year's resolutions, all.

Happy is the man who always looks on the bright side of everything, and through life’s ups and downs lets himself be guided by reason. What will only make others weep will be for him a source of laughter, and in the midst of the whirlwinds of the world he will find peace.

From the finale of Cosi Fan Tutte, by W. A. Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte

Revolution is internal

Help yourself at any time

Evolution isn't over

We are about to use our mind

  • Gogol Bordello, Raise the Knowledge

I guess that's partly what we're here for, right?

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We postpone our literary work until we have more ripeness and skill to write, and we one day discover that our literary talent was a youthful effervescence which we have now lost.


Malkina: I don't think I miss things. I think to miss something is to hope that it will come back, but it's not coming back.

Reiner: You don't think that's a bit cold?

Malkina: The truth has no temperature.

Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem in The Counselor

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