First of all, I'd just like to take a moment to say that I quite appreciate your username.

Second, to take your initial question literally, I don't think there are that many rationalists who actually want to rule the world. The position sounds like it would involve paperwork and talking to uninteresting yet obstinate people, so speaking for myself I don't think I'd actually want the job. There are probably many rationalists who would take the position for instrumental reasons, but because it's an instrumentally useful job, the competition for it is fierce. I'm not saying you meant it literally, but I think the distinction points at something important; what is it we actually want?

I'd like to be more in-shape, to work on more interesting programming projects, and to go on more successful dates. I'd pretty cheerfully read a guide on those subjects, and would probably be amenable to contributing to such a guide. Somebody else might want to save more lives, or have a higher class lifestyle, or lead a more interesting and exciting life. Some skills are generically useful to a large range of goals (financial management, persuasion, etc) but something that might be crucial to my goals might be irrelevant to yours. In addition, the format of whatever we're learning from matters; when learning to work out a youtube video is probably more useful than text. I would love to see more essays in the vein of SSC's Much More Than You Wanted To Know, but audio lectures, videos, or illustrations are good too. (Have you ever tried learning martial arts from a textbook? It's not ideal.)

Lastly, something worth thinking about. We all have the internet, and can all ask google for information. What advantage does a rationalist repository of teachings have? I'm confident we have some (offhand, we have common jargon, possibly a willingness to do experiments, and the occasional dedicated specialist) but if we want to do more than toss a lot of blogs in a pot and stir, it might be good to keep the comparative advantages in mind.

A Rationalist's Guide to...

by devils_rights_advocate 1 min read9th Aug 201834 comments


The one asks "why aren't rationalists ruling the world?" Do you have an adequate answer? No excuses allowed. I found that when I first heard the question, I didn't at all expect rationalists to be systematically outperforming others (except perhaps in IQ tests and the things they correlate with). I find my own expectations disappointing. I don't truly even expect rationality to be life-changing, but I would like it to be.

Rationality currently may very well be a filter for some smart people with common interests. So, how do we improve on our instrumental rationality? How do we make sure rationality is actually helping people grow? I'm obviously not the first person to ask this. I'd say Eliezer's first few essays in The Craft and the Community lay out the problem well. I don't really see a way to change the grand problem quickly, but I have a sense that there's some low-hanging fruit.

On an episode of the Bayesian Conspiracy, I forget which one, their guest said something along the lines that rationalists should be coordinating better to address growth in specific areas, such as health or the ability to increase your own predictive abilities. I quite agree. I think we could put together guides to many different topics of interest. For instance, "A Rationalist's Guide to Physics", assembling the best-known sources for learning about physics, with people sharing what did and didn't work for them. I started to think of this when I noted that the Feynman Lectures are cited as extremely good works for learning the basics of physics in a meaningful way, but had heard of no similar books for chemistry or biology. Might someone else know? Hm...

Another example could be "A Rationalist's Guide to Exercise", with analysis as in-depth as Scott Alexander's "Much More Than You Wanted To Know" series. I bet there's a rationalist that's done the reading and has the experience with the subject. There are many many basic things that actually have scientific support that a rationalist ought to know. One of my favorites being the simple trick of standing up every regularly, which can outperform exercising regularly followed by rest periods.

I've also been reading through MIRI's guide to start learning about AI alignment. There's CFAR's reading guide. And there's random rationalist-recommended books strewn across the internet. Have you tried to track down all the books Eliezer has recommended? I have. It's annoying. I've been trying to cobble together study plans for topics that interest me. My first idea was to look at my university's degree catalogs for all the majors I'd like to learn through self-study, pick out the courses that interest me but still ensuring a breadth of topics, and try to track down top-recommended textbooks for each course cheaply. This is a large task, to say the least. I think it could be crowd-sourced. Probably something modeled on MIRI's guide above, with books that many rationalists have read and can recommend.

I just know there's a chemist here somewhere itching to share all the best ways to learn chemistry. I'm dying to know! So let's make it happen! If this project is already being done, please let me know. If we can do it well enough, perhaps the Overlords Who Pick Recommend Sequences will pin them at some point. What kinds of topics do you think would be good for this project? Would you like to make a guide of your own? If you make one, message me and I can link it here to try to keep a central catalog of them all. Any chance this is a good idea?