Rationality Quotes October 2012

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Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect

--Teller (source)

My experience has been that when people try to understand what went into a magic trick, they usually come up with explanations more complex than the true mechanism. Oftentimes a trick can be done either through an obvious but laborious method, or through an easy method, and people don't realize that the latter exists. (For instance, people posit elaborate mirror setups, or "moving the hand quicker than the eye", or armies of confederates, when in fact simple misdirection, forcing, palming, etc. suffice.)

This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. “You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

--Michael Lewis' profile of Barack Obama

Possibly also explaining this trend in the world of academia.

I'm assuming many are already aware of this, but he's talking about decision fatigue here.

A lot of outcomes about which we care deeply are not very predictable. For example, it is not comforting to members of a graduate school admissions committee to know that only 23% of the variance in later faculty ratings of a student can be predicted by a unit weighting of the student's undergraduate GPA, his or her GRE score, and a measure of the student's undergraduate institution selectivity -- but that is opposed to 4% based on those committee members' global ratings of the applicant. We want to predict outcomes important to us. It is only rational to conclude that if one method (a linear model) does not predict well, something else may do better. What is not rational -- in fact, it's irrational -- is to conclude that this "something else" necessarily exists and, in the absence of any positive supporting evidence, is intuitive global judgment.

Hastie & Dawes, Rational Choice in an Uncertain World, pp. 67-8.


[The results that] (a) the correlation with the model's predictions is higher than the correlation with clinical prediction, but (b) both correlations are low [...] often lead psychologists to interpret the findings as meaning that while the low correlation of the model indicates that linear modeling is deficient as a method, the even lower correlation of the judges indicates only that the wrong judges were used.

Dawes, in JUU:HB p. 392.

Curiosity was framed. Avoid it at your peril. The cat's not even sick. If you don't know how it works, find out. If you're not sure if it will work, try it. If it doesn't make sense, play with it until it does. If it's not broken, break it. If it might not be true, find out. And most of all, if someone says it is none of your business, prove them wrong.

-Seth Godin

If it doesn't make sense, play with it until it does. If it's not broken, break it.

Spoken like a true cat.

And most of all, if someone says it is none of your business, prove them wrong.

I'm going to adopt at different social strategy and not be the obnoxiously nosy guy with no boundaries. Some things I'm curious about really aren't my business and actively seeking to uncover information that people try to keep secret is usually a personal (and often legal) violation. The terms 'industrial espionage' and 'stalking' both spring to mind.

Curiosity didn't kill the cat. The redneck with the gun killed it for tresspassing.

As I was growing up around here, I discovered that there are certain curiosities which are always welcomed in this redneck sort of area. They include such lovely questions as;

  • "What church do you go to?"

  • 1. "You root for the home sport team, right?" 2. "...Do you follow sport at all?" 3. "Why not?!" (They progress like this the more you answer "No")

  • "Politics? Politics? Politics? Politics? Politics? Politics? POLITICS?"

Any curiosity more complex than this is usually just there to serve these three topics.

But if you answer correctly (cough) these questions three, it's basically like using the Konami Code or something. Just in case you're ever in the South.

(They progress like this the more you answer "No")

Now I'm curious about how the progression continues. (In Italy, I am asked what football (soccer) team I support all the time, but when I say “I used to support Juventus, but I haven't actually followed football in years” they usually leave it at that, and when they do ask me why and I say stuff like “I just don't enjoy it anymore” they never progress any further.)

Usually I try to give similar answers that halt the line of conversation.

"I've never cared for sports, I shouldn't play for health reasons, it's not interesting to me, I don't understand the point, I've got other things to do, my dog was killed by a rogue football and I've never been the same since that fateful day", etc.

I've never actually answered "No" to the question "Why not?!", but I feel as though I should try, now...

So, I've never really let it progress beyond that point. As a kid, I did that with both religion and politics, by giving noncommittal answers.

“You’re saying I’ll get used to being a warlock, or whatever it is that I am.”
“You’ve always been what you are. That’s not new. What you’ll get used to is knowing it.”

Jem and Tessa, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

To succeed in a domain that violates your intuitions, you need to be able to turn them off the way a pilot does when flying through clouds. You need to do what you know intellectually to be right, even though it feels wrong.

-- Paul Graham

Thanks. That article (link) is very relevant to me after a discussion I just had on LW. Good advice, too, as far as I can tell.

And who shows greater reverence for mystery, the scientist who devotes himself to discovering it step by step, always ready to submit to facts, and always aware that even his boldest achievement will never be more than a stepping-stone for those who come after him, or the mystic who is free to maintain anything because he need not fear any test?

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies

The late F.W.H. Myers used to tell how he asked a man at a dinner table what he thought would happen to him when he died. The man tried to ignore the question, but on being pressed, replied: "Oh well, I suppose I shall inherit eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn't talk about such unpleasant subjects."

--Bertrand Russell (Google Books attributes this to In praise of idleness and other essays, pg 133)

Upvoted for entertainment value, but could someone enlighten me on the rationality value?

Will Smith don't gotta cuss in his raps to sell his records;

well I do, so fuck him and fuck you too!

--Eminem, "The Real Slim Shady"

Eminem seeks his comparative advantage and avoids self-handicapping.

I wonder how many other Rationality Quotes we can find in rap lyrics...

“But can’t you just wave your hand and make all the dirt fly away, then?”

“The trouble is getting the magic to understand what dirt is,” said Tiffany, scrubbing hard at a stain. “I heard of a witch over in Escrow who got it wrong and ended up losing the entire floor and her sandals and nearly a toe.”

Mrs. Aching backed away. “I thought you just had to wave your hands about,” she mumbled nervously.

“That works,” said Tiffany, “but only if you wave them about on the floor with a scrubbing brush.”

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

Understanding an idea meant entangling it so thoroughly with all the other symbols in your mind that it changed the way you thought about everything.

Greg Egan, Diaspora

It is easier to love humanity than to love one's neighbor.

--Eric Hoffer, on Near/Far

Invertible fact alert!

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.

  • Men In Black

It's a lot easier to hate Creationists than to hate my landlady.

And sometimes it's true with s/easier/harder/. ("feel compassion for".) Hence invertibility.

Well, yes, but the invertibility is conditional.

Compassion is easier with a concrete person for a target. As is... idk. There's probably some (respect? romantic love? Loyalty?).

Hate is easier with a diffuse target. As is, say, idolizing love, disgust, contempt, superiority, etc.

The invertibility isn't in that you can flip "harder" to "easier" and then have it make just as much sense. You have to change the emotion too, which signifies that there is a categorization of emotions: useful!

If you insist that this is invertible wisdom, then I must say you are misapplying the heuristic.

Hate is easier with a diffuse target.

Depends. A klansman may find it easy to hate "niggers" but much harder to hate his black neighbour. A literary critic who values her tolerance may it find difficult to hate an abstract group but can passionately hate her mother-in-law. I am not sure whether the difference stems from there being two different types of hate, or only from different causes of the same sort of hate.

It is easier to than to .

It is harder to than to .

I don't think hate is necessarily easier with a diffuse target. People hold personal grudges well. There's also the fact that there are sometimes legitimate reasons to hate specific people, but there are basically never legitimate reasons to hate entire groups of people.

there are sometimes legitimate reasons to hate specific people, but there are basically never legitimate reasons to hate entire groups of people

Can you summarize your understanding of legitimate reasons for hate?
I'm not asking for examples, but rather for the principles that those examples would exemplify.

Semi-legitimate might be a better descriptor. If someone destroyed me or the ones I loved out of spite and took pleasure in it, I would probably hate them and probably feel that my hate was legitimate. If I went through any traumatic experience like torture or rape, I would probably come out of that with some hate.

I'm an egoist, not a utilitarian (I have strong utilitarian preferences though). That probably has implications for this as well.

It is easier to control how you relate to a theoretical group than a concrete individual. If you believe it is proper to hate Creationists, you can do so with little difficulty. If you change your mind and think it is better to pity them, you can do that.

But if you landlady has actually helped or hurt you, and you know a strong emotional response isn't actually called for, you're going to have a very hard time not liking or hating her.

The truth is out there, but so are the lies.

-Dana Scully, The X-Files, Season 1, Episode 17

The truth may be out there, but the lies are inside your head.

--Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

The truth may be out there, but the lies are inside your head.

Pretty sure the lies are out there too. I think I prefer Scully.

The quote can be said to mean that reality ("out there") doesn't lie -- falsehoods are in the map, not in the territory. But truth is what corresponds to reality...

This point is also relevant to Eliezer's post on truth as correspondance. A belief can start unentangled with reality, but once people talk about it, the belief itself becomes part of the territory.

Yes, this.

Other people's expressions of verbal symbols that are not even part of their map are also part of the territory.

Lastly, there is an attitude not unknown in the crisis against which I should particularly like to protest. I should address my protest especially to those lovers and pursuers of Peace who, very short-sightedly, have occasionally adopted it. I mean the attitude which is impatient of these preliminary details about who did this or that, and whether it was right or wrong. They are satisfied with saying that an enormous calamity, called War, has been begun by some or all of us; and should be ended by some or all of us. To these people this preliminary chapter about the precise happenings must appear not only dry (and it must of necessity be the driest part of the task) but essentially needless and barren. I wish to tell these people that they are wrong; that they are wrong upon all principles of human justice and historic continuity: but that they are specially and supremely wrong upon their own principles of arbitration and international peace.

These sincere and high-minded peace-lovers are always telling us that citizens no longer settle their quarrels by private violence; and that nations should no longer settle theirs by public violence. They are always telling us that we no longer fight duels; and need no longer wage wars. In short, they perpetually base their peace proposals on the fact that an ordinary citizen no longer avenges himself with an axe. But how is he prevented from revenging himself with an axe? If he hits his neighbour on the head with the kitchen chopper, what do we do? Do we all join hands, like children playing Mulberry Bush, and say "We are all responsible for this; but let us hope it will not spread. Let us hope for the happy day when he shall leave off chopping at the man's head; and when nobody shall ever chop anything for ever and ever." Do we say "Let byegones be byegones; why go back to all the dull details with which the business began; who can tell with what sinister motives the man was standing there within reach of the hatchet?" We do not. We keep the peace in private life by asking for the facts of provocation, and the proper object of punishment. We do go into the dull details; we do enquire into the origins; we do emphatically enquire who it was that hit first. In short we do what I have done very briefly in this place.

-- G. K. Chesterton, "The Appetite of Tyranny", arguing against pretending to be wise

WAR, n.

A by-product of the arts of peace. The most menacing political condition is a period of international amity. The student of history who has not been taught to expect the unexpected may justly boast himself inaccessible to the light. "In time of peace prepare for war" has a deeper meaning than is commonly discerned; it means, not merely that all things earthly have an end -- that change is the one immutable and eternal law -- but that the soil of peace is thickly sown with the seeds of war and singularly suited to their germination and growth. It was when Kubla Khan had decreed his "stately pleasure dome" -- when, that is to say, there were peace and fat feasting in Xanadu -- that he "heard from afar / Ancestral voices prophesying war."

One of the greatest of poets, Coleridge was one of the wisest of men, and it was not for nothing that he read us this parable. Let us have a little less of "hands across the sea," and a little more of that elemental distrust that is the security of nations. War loves to come like a thief in the night; professions of eternal amity provide the night.

--Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Two WAITWs don't make a right.

In this quotation, Chesterton writes against people who compare war to vigilante justice. But his argument is not that this is a poor comparison, but that instead the analogy doesn't go far enough. So, he compounds the error of his opponents with an error of his own.

There's also some scenario slippage -- in the peacenik argument, the citizen "avenges" himself, but by the time Chesterton gets to him, the dead man was just "standing there within reach of the hatchet." That alone gives you a hint about you what kind of hearing the accused is likely to get in Chesterton's court.

The international equivalent is not a police and justice system, it's vigilante justice. Doing nothing is not much worse than killing the attacker, being killed by the attacker's friends who believe the victim had started it, and starting a vendetta. How do you arrest a state? Ask the UN for permission to carpet-bomb it?

Under the assumption that a lesser power is unable to punish injustice done by a greater power, the three possible alternatives at any level of power are "Injustice is dealt with by a greater power", "Injustice is dealt with by peers", and "Injustice is dealt with by nobody". The first system sounds nice, except that infinite regression is impossible, and so eventually you end up at the greatest level of power, choosing between systems two and three. In that case, system two seems preferable, "vigilante" connotations notwithstanding.

This sounds like it ought to mean something, but every time I try to think what it might be I fail. Is it just clever?

But it might cause it. Or it might not. If there's a correlation then that's interesting, surely? There's no smoke without a misunderstanding of causality.

Frodo: Those that claim to oppose the Enemy would do well not to hinder us.

Faramir: The Enemy? (turns over body of an enemy soldier) His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from, and if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home, and if he'd not rather have stayed there... in peace. War will make corpses of us all.

-- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (extended edition)

What Faramir says contains wisdom but so do Frodo's words. The enemy is trying to destroy the world with some kind of epic high fantasy apocalypse. Frodo does not terminally value the death (heh) of specific foot soldiers. They may be noble and virtuous and their deaths a tragic waste. But Frodo has something to protect and also has baddass allies who return from the (mostly) dead with a wardrobe change. But he doesn't have enough power to give himself a batman-like self-handicap of using non-lethal force. Killing those who get in his way (but lamenting the necessity) is the right thing for him to do and so yes, people would do well not to hinder him.

Agreed. Though of course, I don't really see Faramir as disagreeing -- it was, after all, the Rangers of Ithilien who ambushed the Haradrim and killed the soldier they're talking about.

Agreed. Though of course, I don't really see Faramir as disagreeing -- it was, after all, the Rangers of Ithilien who ambushed the Haradrim and killed the soldier they're talking about.

I'm a little bit proud that I don't know who all these people are.

downvoted. You're saying you don't know anything about the context provided by a story that is apparently of interest to (at least) several readers here, and you're proud of not sharing the context. Doesn't seem like something to crow about without first finding out if the content is frivolous.

You're saying you don't know anything about the context provided by a story

No I wasn't. I could give you an analysis of likely outcomes of a battle between Mirkwood and Lorien archers depending on terrain. It isn't often that my knowledge of utterly useless details of fantasy stories is outclassed. I may as well enjoy the experience.

I'd ding you for having confessed to being proud of your ignorance, except that what you confessed ignorance of was not, technically speaking, a fact.

I'm never quite sure what to think about being proud of not knowing a fact. On one hand, knowledge itself almost certainly has positive value, even if that value is very small. On the other hand, making the effort to acquire very low-usefulness knowledge generally has negative expected utility, so I can understand prioritized a particular body of knowledge as "not worth it."

Of course, pride is really about signaling, so it makes sense to look at what sort of signal one's pride is sending. If someone seems particularly knowledgeable about a low-status topic, such as celebrity gossip, I judge them negatively for it. I assume most people do this, though with different lists of which topics are low-status (or am I just projecting?).

Ultimately, I think the questions to consider are:

  1. As an individual, does prideful ignorance of a topic you consider not worthwhile send a signal you want to send, and
  2. As a community, is this the sort of signal we want to encourage?

I applaud your disdain of Nerdish Nonsense. E.Y. is missing some essential elements of crystallized intelligence; he's ignorant of philosophy and has recently confessed to not knowing even (for god's sake!) what Impressionism refers to. That's serious ignorance. He's a faux intellectual.

But not knowing Nerdish Nonsense tends to show you have better uses for your time. That's the kind of signaling DevilWorm appreciates!

I love uncertainty. In many situations I'd rather try something just to see what happens. I'm the character that gets killed first in every horror movie, but that's fine with me, since life is not generally like a horror movie.

Noah Smith

I prefer this sort of distant, reductionist, structural approach to analysing the race because there's little reason to believe in the validity of the implicit theories or "models" lurking behind pundits' gut judgments. When I heard Mr Romney's 47% comments, I thought "Oooh, he's toast!" and then I stopped myself and acknowledged that I actually have no rational basis for believing that his remarks would in the final analysis hurt Mr Romney at all. What percentage of undecided or weakly-decided swing-state voters ever caught wind of Mr Romney's embarrassing chat? I didn't know! Of those who became aware of it, how many cared? I didn't know! So why did I think "Oooh, he's toast!" Because I am human, and I make most judgments and decisions on the basis of crackpot hunches, the underlying logic of which is almost completely inscrutable to me.

--Will Wilkinson

That comment did move Intrade shares by around 10 percentage points, I think, though I'm only going on personal before-and-after comparisons. The good Will may have picked the wrong time to criticize his instincts.

That comment did move Intrade shares by around 10 percentage points,

So? That just means that some of the people who trade on intrade also made the mistake Will alludes to.