Arational quotes

by Dr_Manhattan1 min read14th Apr 201153 comments

1

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Jacobi, an eminent algebraist, was fond of saying: “Invert, always Invert

- Charlie Munger

So based on the above and the regular "rationality quotes" feature I figured why not try a thread for quotes that are not rational? Obviously we do not plain stupidity, but I think quotes that appeal on first listen would qualify. As a side benefit of analyzing specific errors this might serve as an inoculation from rhetoric.  

I am using "arational" rather than irrational to highlight this distinction.

PS. Please feel free to reply with meta comments on whether this is a valuable idea.

 

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See Anti-rationality quotes for a previous thread of this type.

Note: I recommend against using the term "arational", when you appear to have actually meant "irrational", "anti-rational", or perhaps "pseudo-rational". I read "arational" as meaning "having nothing to do with rationality", and this caused me difficulties in understanding what this post was about.

"It is, of course, totally unclear whether Moravec, Kurzweil, and their supporters are correct. Will robots become massively intelligent? Will human beings become highly intelligent cyborgs or upload our minds fully into machines and thereby live forever? Whether they are correct is probably less important than the fact that the faithful who believe they are has a growing membership. " - Robert M. Geraci

I am not surprised see someone assigning low probability to a technological singularity. But low importance?

This is not an anti-rational prescription like the Glenn Beck quote I offered, but I found it a striking example of irrational bias.

Is it hard to make decisions as president? Not really. If you know what you believe, decisions come pretty easy. If you’re one of these types of people that are always trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing, decision making can be difficult.

-- George W. Bush

This quote sounds somewhat trite, but its message is straightforward, clear, and coherent, and while one may disagree with the opinion it expresses, it is at the very least plausible prima facie. As with the Regan quote in the earlier comment, I am baffled as to what elements of irrationality you (and those who upvoted the comment) find in it, let alone what makes it so remarkable that it's worth quoting years after it was said.

[-][anonymous]10y 6

I am baffled as to what elements of irrationality you (and those who upvoted the comment) find in it

So you are baffled by both quotes.

I offer the hypothesis that the function of the repetition of these quotes down the years has been to signal tribal affiliation. This being the case, the fact that outsiders are baffled may be a strength, because this reveals them as non-tribe-members. The quotes then serve a function similar to that of an inside joke.

the function of the repetition of these quotes down the years has been to signal tribal affiliation.

Affiliation with the tribe against Reagan and Bush, right?

I offer the hypothesis that the function of the repetition of these quotes down the years has been to signal tribal affiliation.

Your hypothesis seems clearly true to me, and I have thought of it myself. However, with these quotes, I was really unable to figure out which exact bad-faith misinterpretation was being suggested. (Admittedly, as I note in my response to Joshua Z., my own original interpretation of the Bush quote may have been too favorable, though even in that case, it still requires a hostile over-stretching to make the quote a remarkable exhibit of irrationality.)

It seems that an implicit part of the quote is that having certainty is a good thing because it makes decisions easier even when they might be difficult. I am however worried by the prevalence of quotes (granted only two right now) of quotes from a specific end of the political spectrum. This is a thread that could easily go into mind-killing territory.

Hm... it is possible that my English comprehension has failed me.

I interpreted the phrase "which way the wind is blowing" to mean the prevailing fashion and majority opinion, so that the quote would contrast making decisions based on principled conviction with bowing down to momentary fashion and popular pressure. (This phrase, i.e. its literal translation, is commonly used in this sense in my native language.) However, looking it up, now I see that this is not its usual meaning in English, though such meaning is attested to some degree.

So the question is, did Bush actually use the phrase "which way the wind is blowing" with this somewhat unusual meaning? It's hard for me to tell. (Even if this meaning is unusual or archaic, I can think of at least one other occasion when Bush was derided by many people for using what they thought was a bizarrely incorrect word, but the joke was in fact on them and their ignorance, since the word is nowadays unusual and archaic, but perfectly standard and well-attested. I have in mind the occasion when he referred to "Grecians.")

In any case, even if Bush didn't have this meaning in mind, the quote can be interpreted as making the assertion that in matters of politics firm and consistent principles provide a better guide for action than frantic and futile attempts to analyze each particular situation better than is actually possible, which leads to overthinking and indecisiveness. Whether or not one agrees with this, it's certainly not something deserving of being included into a chrestomathy of human irrationality.

[-][anonymous]10y 6

I interpreted the phrase "which way the wind is blowing" to mean the prevailing fashion and majority opinion, so that the quote would contrast making decisions based on principled conviction with bowing down to momentary fashion and popular pressure.

This is a major meaning of it in English as I know it. And I have a reference - see below.

(This phrase, i.e. its literal translation, is commonly used in this sense in my native language.)

Not surprising - they probably have a common historical origin, with somebody along the line translating the phrase.

However, looking it up, now I see that this is not its usual meaning in English, though such meaning is attested to some degree.

Whatever reference you consulted seems to have misled you. Here is a reference which explains:

The figurative sense of 'the way the wind blows', i.e. meaning the tide of opinion, was in use by the early 19th century. In November 1819...

So this meaning has been active for almost two centuries, if not longer. And since Bush is a politician, who ultimately succeeds or fails on the basis of the tide of opinion, this creates a strong presumption in favor of this meaning. If Bush were speaking as a sailor, it would be the other way around. But he wasn't.

Yes, this is a plausible interpretation. It seems that the quote is just very ambiguous about what was intended. It is functioning more as an inkblot for us than anything else (and yes, I know that test actually doesn't work but the point should be clear).

I looked for the context of the quote, and it was an impromptu answer to a question from the audience. Clearly, on such occasions it's hard to expect anything else from a professional politician.

[-][anonymous]10y 3

and yes, I know that test actually doesn't work but the point should be clear

The general topic of the persistence of representations of outdated technology in speech and graphic symbols is one that has long interested me. Some still-used pictures of obsolete or becoming-obsolete technologies are: an old-style bell, an old-style metal key of a sort that has been obsolete for a very long time, old telephone or handset, paper envelope (e.g. to represent e-mail), a spherical black bomb, a boat anchor of a certain very old style which modern anchors don't much resemble, a circular 12-hour clock face which used to be used because of how a clock worked, but which is now displayed (when it is) partly for familiarity. And the even older technology: the hourglass! Still used to represent time passing.

The point is: if we can store music on a compact disk, why can't we store a man's inteligence and personality on one? So I have the engineers figuring that one out right now. Brain mapping, artificial inteligence... we should've been working on it thirty years ago. And I will say this, and I'm gonna say it on tape so everybody will hear it a hundred times a day: If I die before you people can pour me in to a computer, I want Caroline to run this place.

-Cave Johnson, Founder and CEO of Aperture Science (1953 - 1986)

I still stand by this death is bad.

And believe me I am still alive. I'm doing Science and I'm still alive. I feel FANTASTIC and I'm still alive. While you're dying I'll be still alive. And when you're dead I will be still alive. STILL ALIVE

| heard this prescription live on the air several months ago:

"Refuse to believe in coincidence and you will see miracles." - Glenn Beck

I heard that and thought: Yup, I can sure see why it would then look like miracles all the way down.

I do not cite this to signal disapproval of Beck; on the whole I think well of him. I just thought it was a clear example.

If I knew nothing about Glenn Beck, I would assume that this was meant as a dismissal of miracles.

There’s a romance to danger. There’s a romance to drinking, to drugs, to petty crime and to heartbreak and loneliness. All of those things can be used to make the STORY of our lives better.

Joey Comeau, author of A Softer World

Saw this hanging in someone''s office; I thought it was pernicious enough to inspire this thread.

"Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don't have that problem. Ronald Reagan"

I'm honestly lost as to what is supposed to be pernicious about this quote, or what makes it remarkable enough to be cited and upvoted.

I assume the important thing is wanting to make a positive difference, not just a difference.

But this is implied in the quote.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

It certainly is kind of political bromide, but their doesn't seem to be anything irrational about it.

If the quote instead concluded with "The Marines verifiably know they do make a difference." there wouldn't be much wrong with it, other than what Nancy said below -- (one should strive for a positive difference, not just a difference).

But as it stands the quote just says the Marines no longer wonder about this, and presents it for a good thing. A surgical removal of all independent thought and/or all concepts of morality would just as easily lead to the same result. "Do not wonder about things, just trust your leaders." Pfft.

You're giving the quote a bizarre and implausible reading. Of course that Reagan (if he really said this) meant it to imply that a marine does make a difference, and a positive one. Any normal person interpreting the quote in good faith would make that assumption, whether or not they agree with the premise.

(Besides, googling for the source of this quote, I can't find any reference to a concrete time and place where it was uttered, nor to the rest of the speech or dialog whose part it was. This strongly suggests that it might be apocryphal, though of course I can't conclude this with certainty.)

[-][anonymous]10y 10

If the quote instead concluded with "The Marines verifiably know they do make a difference."

Then it would say the same thing but say it poorly. That this ending even occurred to you as you read the quote should be treated as evidence that this is what was meant. It is a common and highly effective rhetorical technique to leave a key element implied rather than explicitly stated. Stating it explicitly undermines the rhetorical impact. We might compare it to explaining a joke, which kills the joke.

But as it stands the quote just says the Marines no longer wonder about this, and presents it for a good thing.

You're misreading the quote by assuming that it did not leave a key element implied.

I was thinking that it could be interpreted as the Marines knowing they don't make a difference. It reminds me of this quote:

Dr. Nefarious: "To think, they called me insane, Lawrence. We'll see who's insane when my [mutant armies] have exterminated all life on this miserable planet!"

Lawrence: "That should clear things right up, sir."

On the reality of collective responsibility and collective guilt:

We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!

5th leaflet by the White Rose, Munich, 1943.

...The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals … Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!

2nd leaflet.

You can't really measure the effect of this kind of resistance in whether or not X number of bridges were blown up or a regime fell... The White Rose really has a more symbolic value, but that's a very important value.

  • Dr. Jud Newborn, Holocaust scholar

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man stupid and blind in the eyes.

-- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game

[-][anonymous]10y 0

But Marge, what if we chose the wrong religion? Each week we just make God madder and madder.

-- Homer Simpson

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cause permanent damage.

-- Unknown

Not really a quote, but a whole didactic story which I have on one of my own web pages here. (Not my composition, but I don't recall the source.)

I don't understand the context of the first quote. What does he want people to invert and in what circumstances?

The context is algebra, and I think the message is that you can improve your insight by thinking in terms of reciprocal values of various quantities that you normally use. (So, for example, you may get to understand certain problems in mechanics better if you think in terms of time elapsed per distance traveled rather than speed.)

The context is algebra, and I think the message is that you can improve your insight by thinking in terms of reciprocal values of various quantities that you normally use.

The context is actually mathematics in general, not specifically algebra. It's important to remember first of all that Jacobi was a 19th-century mathematician, and in those days mathematics didn't exactly have the same subdivisions it has now, and even to the extent it did, it was common for people to work across these boundaries. The quote at the beginning of this post refers to Jacobi as an algebraist for some reason, but you could equally well call him an analyst, for example.

The actual context of Jacobi's maxim is his work on elliptic functions, which he invented by inverting so-called "elliptic integrals". The inverses turned out to be much easier to work with. For an analogy, imagine that you'd never heard of the trigonometric functions sin and cos, but instead were working with arcsin and arccos, thinking of them as antiderivatives of and respectively. Along comes Jacobi (or someone in his role) who suggests considering the inverses of these things, giving them the names sin and cos, and shows how they satisfy all kinds of nice properties.

My own use of Jacobi's quote in Inverse Speed was meant to be slightly tongue-in-cheek, since the context I applied it to was so much more elementary than its original context. However, I felt that it was also a very illustrative application of the principle, its elementary nature notwithstanding. (Not to mention that a major subtext of my post was that I think of "elementary" concepts in terms of "advanced" concepts, since the latter are actually more natural to me.)

I see; I thought it was meant to be an example of a quote that sounds rational but isn't.

See here.

Also note that my recent post Inverse Speed used the same quote (which is probably what prompted Vladimir_M's comment).

Munger applied it in few different contexts, particularly business.

Quote from Snowball (Buffet bio)

They liked to ponder the reasons for failure as a way of deducing the rules of success. “I had long looked for insight by inversion, in the intense manner counseled by the great algebraist Carl Jacobi,” Munger said. “‘Invert, always invert.’”