MathOverflow as an example for LessWrong

by Academian1 min read27th Apr 201067 comments

48

Site Meta
Frontpage

"How can LessWrong maintain high post quality while obtaining new posters?  How can we encourage everyone to read everything, but not everyone to post everything?  How can we be less intimidating to newcomers?"

A lot of Meta conversation goes on here, and the longer it goes on without having a great example to learn from, the longer our discussion will be more aimless and less informed than it could be.  Consider speculating whether blue mould from bread could treat supporating eye infections before you knew it also treated supporating flesh wounds...  it would seem pretty random, and the discussion would be fairly aimless. 

But LessWrong.com is the first successful community of its kind! There is no example to learn from, right?

With the latter, I wouldn't agree: http://mathoverflow.net

[What I've already said in comments:  MathOverflow is a Q&A forum for research-level mathematicians, aimed at each other, created by a math grad student and a post-doc in September 2009.  As hoped, it expanded very quickly, involving many famous mathematicians around the world.  You can even see Fields Medalist — the math equivalent of Nobel Laurate — Terrence Tao is a regular contributor (bottom right).]

MathOverflow awards Karma for good questions and good answers, it's moderated, it's open to new users, and maintains a high standard so professionals stay interested and involved.  Sound familliar?  Well, what about these features...

The top of every page links to:

Have a look at those links.  If your first reaction is "Sure, precise guidelines worked for a professional mathematics Q&A site...", consider this:  they didn't start out as a professional mathematics Q&A site.  They started out wanting to be one.  They had to defend against wave after wave of undergraduate calculus students posting for homework help.  They had to defy the natural propensity of the community to become an open discussion forum for mathematicians.  I watched as these problems arose, were dealt with, and subsided.  For example: 

  • I can attest that the MathOverflow guidelines made me both more careful and more confident when I started posting.  I knew what not to do, and I didn't do it. 
  • When someone posts a non-research-level question, instead of "that's a dumb question", they respond with links to Ask Dr.  Math and The Art of Problem Solving where such questions are appropriate.  Everybody wins. 

    Do we have somewhere we send people looking to ponder philosophy less analytically than we?

There's no coincidence.  Those guys didn't just win...  they won on purpose, with a purpose. 

And LessWrong has a brilliant purpose:  "Refining the art of human rationality".  Our task of maintaining high post standards while expanding both the posting and reading community has recently been discussed at length.

Now, I know none of us wants to sit around armchair-mind-projecting to figure out what LessWrong should do.  I understand that people here really are thinking responsibly and extrapolating from their own experiences about meta issues.  I just want to give all you folks an intuition boost, so we can handle this massive social computation together:

What should we try that MathOverflow has already done?  What should we try differently?

48

67 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:57 PM
New Comment

I assume a lot of people already know this but in case anyone doesn't, Stack Exchange, the software that powers MathOverflow, is now free. If there was interest in creating a RationalityOverflow using the same software then convincing the community it is worthwhile is the only barrier.

I wonder what puts a question into the category "rationality question", and how people would know to go to that site to ask such questions.

This is a good question and I don't have a good answer yet.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

(I agree with you that creating competition with LW is not desirable.)

A class of problems I'd expect to have to ward off with a rationality Q&A site are explicit or implicit requests for personal advice... following the MathOverflow example, perhaps "Questions of interest to other rationalists" would be useful.

Another problem is that voting on the answers might start to be an opinion poll. It might just become a vehicle for majoritarianism in the community.

My first thought to treat this would be that answers should be "Robust to variation in priors". I believe Jaynes had similar advice for the philosophy of science. Anyway, it would prevent people mixing in particular with the answers. The goal would be to have answers provide "update procedures" rather than the posteriors of others' updates. "A good answer is a good update procedure"?

Reading the information on creating a site a bit more it seems they will consider existing users with over 1000 'karma' who support the proposed new site as a factor in accepting proposals. I have over 1000 reputation on StackOverflow (the original site) and would be willing to support a proposal for a RationalityOverflow.

That would be interesting. I'm not quite sure how it would work though. I guess examples of appropriate questions and inappropriate questions (as the proposal requires) would help to clarify the purpose of a RationalityOverflow.

No, I'm not exactly sure how it would work and I wouldn't want to see some spin off site that competed with Less Wrong. It is a possible resolution to the difference of opinion over expanding access to this site vs. 'dumbing down' the content. I would imagine the sites would serve overlapping but different purposes - a RationalityOverflow could be a place for people who might be intimidated or turned off by Less Wrong for other reasons to ask rationality themed questions. It could serve the role of the site we point people to do for answers to basic questions that they are expected to grasp before participating here. Not that it should only be for basic questions.

It might be that the proposed open thread/discussion board/forum thing would be the best place to send aspiring and uneducated rationalists.

MathOverflow also has a much more well-defined subject. Math has a major advantage: Disagreement cannot occur unless something has gone drastically wrong. In contrast, rationalists who don't have the same priors or have access to different evidence sets can disagree. (Aumann's agreement theorem is a statement about the limiting behavior). Thus, it is easier to run a group for professionals (and I'm not completely sure what the analogous category for professional rationalists would be. There may not be any useful corresponding category).

Regarding Math is also deeper than rationality. There are subjects in math where to even understand the basics one needs to have spent years studying them. Rationality doesn't have that sort of problem. So it isn't at all clear to me what LessWrong would gain by sending anyone away.

There are subjects in math where to even understand the basics one needs to have spent years studying them

Rationality as taught here is a young and undisciplined field, probably equivalent of high school math curriculum. It's not that there couldn't be advanced things to learn, rationality as a field has not had it's Laplace's, Gauss's, Leibniz's, Euler's...

Hrm, Laplace at least seems to have been a Laplace of rationality, and I think we might underestimate the strength of a lot of historical rationalists in general. Gautama Buddha is the extreme case, but it's hard to know what the hell happened there. So I agree that it's undisciplined, especially in the sense that it has few explicit disciples, but I'm not sure about its 'youth', as the foundations of epistemology seem to have been being pioneered since the dawn of humanity, and it's hard to talk about the instrumental rationality of agents that seem to not have anything very obvious or tangible to be optimizing for (hence the self-understanding-oriented epistemology).

There are various cultural differences between refining rationality and mathematics, one of which I present here, not as a critique but to highlight possible difficulties in emulating MathOverflow's success.

-Mathematics is taught in schools. Everyone is at least passingly familiar with mathematics. People gain prestige and money from studying mathematics, even when it is not very productive in terms of solving life problems. (I happen to be one of these people!)

--In schools, there are simple mathematics problems and methods with correct answers. It's very easy to set up and reference sites that you reference for simple math problems, because a "right answer" will not be controversial, nor will the questions.

So, in the OP there exists the more advanced site, MathOverflow, and less advanced sites which can help people build experience to participate. Which site is LessWrong? We currently operate at a fairly high level but I have not seen many resources for budding rationalists and these are important as well.

And, what would a budding rationalist site look like? What sorts of clear and uncontroversial questions are there in basic rationality? What sorts of clear and correct answers can be provided for schoolchildren to check their work on?

Possible examples might include Fermi problems and Bayesian problems, but even these are not uncontroversial.

Many links would be appropriate, but all are present in the OP.

I tentatively suggest General Semantics or something like it as a good starting point. It's a bunch of variations on the map not being the territory-- certainly not the whole of rationality, but intuitively plausible and necessary for more advanced work.

Semantics does sound like a good starting place. Does anybody know if there are any good semantics sites for beginners?

Note "General Semantics" is not the same as semantics.

I don't know much about the former but the latter is probably too boring to serve this function.

Do we have somewhere we send people looking to ponder philosophy less analytically than we?

Do we have evidence there is actually a demand for this? Any lurkers want to pop in and say they would like this?

One issue is that math is an established domain of expertise in a way philosophy isn't. Even someone who fancies themselves good at math has to listen to someone who has more expertise than they when they say "You're not ready for this place: try this for beginners." But, especially on the internet, there is a class of person who will just be offended by this suggestion when it comes to philosophy.

Do we have evidence there is actually a demand for this? Any lurkers want to pop in and say they would like this?

Not sure if I qualify as a lurker, but, well... this is a dojo. If a little kid walks in here and asks a stupid question, rhetorical and logical ass-kicking will commence. The virtues of rationality number twelve, and mercy is not among them. It's all terribly serious.

I have a theory about fiction, which I would like to test. People take fiction less seriously, because they aren't personally involved, but they can still learn from it (which explains the fallscy of generalization from fictional evidence). If it was possible for newcomers to adopt an explicitly fictional persona, and roleplay as budding rationalists within a fictional setting, I predict that would get more new people engaged. There is considerable precedent for success of online roleplay communities, and no reason I am aware of to believe that establishing a fictional setting with the explicit goal of rationally exploring the fantastical elements of that setting would be less successful.

I think the idea of personas is at least worth trying.

Not sure if I qualify as a lurker, but, well... this is a dojo. If a little kid walks in here and asks a stupid question, rhetorical and logical ass-kicking will commence. The virtues of rationality number twelve, and mercy is not among them. It's all terribly serious.

I very strongly recommend maintaining norms of courtesy, unless we are specifically trying to train the ability to stay calm when attacked-- and that isn't beginner's work.

It's impossible to completely avoid hurting people's feelings, but it cuts down on the noise level if you start with the presumption that people are capable of learning, and that you can't deduce their general defects of intellect and character because they asked a stupid question.

If I've jumped to inaccurate conclusions about what you mean by ass-kicking and lack of mercy, please let me know.

If I've jumped to inaccurate conclusions about what you mean by ass-kicking and lack of mercy, please let me know.

No, that's exactly what I meant. Thank you.

This sounds like fun; I'm not sure how useful it would be, but it might be fun enough to warrant trying even if it probably won't help.

In the context of attempts to attract more contributors, fun strongly implies useful.

As a semi-lurker, this likely would have been very helpful for me. One problem that I had is a lack of introduction to posting. You can read everything, but its hard to learn how to post well without practice. As others have remarked, bad posts get smacked down fairly hard, so this makes it hard for people to get practice... vicious cycle. Having this could create an area where people who are not confident enough to post to the full site could get practice and confidence.

I wonder if experienced, high-karma posters should offer to take on apprentices, or something. Would that be valuable? Does anybody want to be my apprentice and try it out?

That's so crazy that it just might work!

I agree with JoshuaZ that it might result in the construction of 'cliques', though I think the word we're looking for is "competing schools of thought". It's the ordinary way of things in academia, particularly philosophy.

What would this entail?

Not sure. I guess I'd make myself available to vet comments before posting, explain LW-related concepts that can be conveyed quicker or more effectively in conversations than by trawling the archives, and possibly introduce the apprentice to other people who I know from LW and are willing to be friendly.

Some feature that lets us share read and write access to post drafts would be nice for this reason: make it easier to get feedback on articles before giving them to the wolves. It would also be nice to have a way to coauthor posts as there are lots of benefits to cooperating on projects.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

One nice feature for the site would be the ability to give others read and write access to one's post drafts. First, so that beginners could get feedback from vets before posting. Second, because it would enable coauthoring posts which would be nifty and encourage cooperation on different projects.

Mentoring.

Is that an addition or a summary?

Summary. "Apprenticing" seems to imply something else to several people here.

This seems like a bad idea. Such apprenticeships would likely result in even further groupthink and could also result in the construction of cliques and political factions.

Your response was more serious mine. I was thinking of fun rules we can apply..

  • APPRENTICES MUST SHOW DEFERRENCE TO THEIR MENTORS BY UP-VOTING EVERY COMMENT MADE BY THEIR MENTOR

  • MENTORS MUST EXPLAIN EVERY DOWNVOTE (which means sometimes they'll need to make something up and this will encourage people to come forward with their real objections)

Of course, rules are between the mentor and mentee and needn't be made public.

I avoided this problem by using a hard-to-Google pseudonym, figuring that I could always make a new account or just stop posting if I majorly screwed up. I don't know if pseudonymity alone would reassure other lurkers, though; framing it as fictional roleplaying might be more useful for people who aren't me.

ETA: perhaps adding a reminder to the FAQ that pseudonymity is acceptable would help? And linking the FAQ more prominently.

Personally, pseudonymity wasn't that helpful, its not that I didn't want to risk my good name or something, as much as that I just didn't want to be publicly wrong among intelligent people. Even if people didn't know that the comment was from me per se, they were still (hypothetically) disagreeing with my ideas and I would still know that the post was mine. For me it was more hyperbolic discounting than it was rational cost-benefit analysis.

Voted up for advocating fun.

Yeah, really cool idea. And you found a use for this.

I could get behind a Less Moo. :)

What if we make a LessWrong World of Warcraft guild? ;)

No, no, you've flipped the twos bit - MOO, not MMO. (:

(In all seriousness: we want metarationality fun and games in our official venues - a rationality-dojo MOO might do, but WoW is optimized for something else.)

I intend to start playing World of Warcraft when the summer break begins. Does anyone actually want to do this? Please reply to this in the open thread.

I can't imagine why anyone would do this to their ability to get things done. Like, I read it as "I intend to start doing hard drugs when the summer break begins. Does anyone want to join me?"

Come now, hard drugs aren't that bad.

Personally, I got bored with WoW after about six months.

If a little kid walks in here and asks a stupid question, rhetorical and logical ass-kicking will commence. The virtues of rationality number twelve, and mercy is not among them. It's all terribly serious.

I actually think a little kid will get a useful answer to either his question or the question he should have asked. Much like in a dojo, ass kicking tends to be reserved for little kids who make obstinate stupid assertions that cannot be backed up.

I nominate Second Life as a potential venue for this (or OpenSim, if we don't want Linden Labs to host the place or want more control than they give). Assuming that I have time to do so among my work obligations, I'd be willing to help set such a place up.

We'd have to be careful flaming didn't spill over into the main threads. I think Karma would take care of that.

On the contrary, I think it would be more important to avoid having out-of-character hostility from the main threads spill over to the roleplay. One important rule would be, don't vote for or against an in-character post based on whether you agree, or how rational it is, but rather on how consistent it is with the setting and the character being portrayed. If you want to criticize a fictional character's statement, do so within the context of that fictional world, rather than sniping from behind the impenetrable ramparts of reality.

This just sounds better and better. Practice with devil's advocating can help people develop rationality skills without being sabotaged by their usual egos. But then you have to help them de-compartmentalize and apply it as themselves.

I am glad to have contributed, particularly in a way so closely connected to my obsession with nested worlds.

But LessWrong.com is the first successful community of its kind! There is no example to learn from, right?

Maybe not important, but LessWrong is older than MathOverflow.

ETA'd "with the latter" to the OP for clarity:

But LessWrong.com is the first successful community of its kind! There is no example to learn from, right?

With the latter, I wouldn't agree

Anyone know the traffic differential? Alexa is a mess right now.

I have several times wanted a RationalityOverflow to ask my rationality questions.

What would be our "Ask Dr. Math"? Wikipedia?

The Sequences, of course.

Google-fu turned up PhilosophyForums.com. It seems like a decent first-order approximation of where we could send people looking to post on philosophy less analytically/technically than is typical here.

Does anyone know a better option? I only found that site just now...

ETA: Further searching for specifically rationality-oriented sites that aren't subtitled something-about-atheism isn't turning up much; and we might want to keep the attention of theists at least long enough to inspire some thought!

Perhaps RobinZ's suggestion to use the proposed open thread/discussion board/forum thing is the best.

The problem with sending people to general philosophy sites is that there is generally a lot of confusion between "philosophy" and "history of philosophy", and the latter is more common. People tend to get railroaded into reading philosophers that're old and prestigious, but much more confusing than a modern rehash of the same topics would be. A quick glance at philosophyforums.com confirmed my suspicion that it's dominated by history of philosophy. If we aren't careful to avoid that, we'll be doing people a great disservice.

Agreed. There aren't enough good modern rehashings of the same things. But 'philosophy' doesn't seem to be the right sort of thing to start folks off on anyway.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

Agreed. Let's keep looking... or as RobinZ suggests, create it

I'm not sure we should be sending people to less analytical/technical philosophy forums. Most philosophy is bullshit, and most philosophical debate, as it's usually structured, just serves to reinforce people's confidence in their preferred bullshit. You compared it to MathOverflow referring basic questions to Dr. Math, etc., but I'm not sure the comparison is valid, because people will still usually get the right answers when they ask their more basic math questions on more basic sites.

Whereas if someone comes here and tries to start a discussion about the nature of free will, and we refer them to a philosophy forum, they'll probably end up with ideas about it no better than the ones they started with. If we refer them to the sequence on it without further comment, they may not bother reading it, if they don't have some sense of what to expect or why it would be worth reading a sequence of a dozen posts.

Maybe what we need, to supplement the Less Wrong FAQ, is a Reality FAQ — something that summarizes the generally-accepted LW positions on all the big mysterious deep philosophical questions that we've long since answered. (It would, of course, link each question to posts/sequences on them for anyone who wants to go further into it after reading the summary of the answer.)

Well is there anywhere that focuses on say history of science issues? Even if people don't get a heavy dose of Bayesianism they can still get a pretty decent background if they get the basic ideas of Popper, Quine and Lakatos for example. And it isn't like LW really does focus on philosophy in the general sense.

I suspect that more people would benefit not from emphasis on philosophy but on clear thinking. If that's what we focus on a lot of the general skeptical websites can teach simply by osmosis a lot of the basic good habits. (Yes, I know that's a claim that a lot of people here seem to disagree with. Part of the issue is that the aims of the skeptical movement are not identical to those of the rationalists).

Theres /r/philosophy on reddit...

Do we have somewhere we send people looking to ponder philosophy less analytically than we? Do we need one? I think it would be more worthwhile to try to convince them to take a more analytical perspective.

The Octagon has a similar set of interests as LW, with lower standards, no Karma system as well as considerable overlap in membership with LW.

Is that the right link? I didn't see any octagons there, only a discussion forum for a few web comics of no particular rationalist relevance, although I did like the one about the coffee shop where couples go to break up.

If you don't have an account, you aren't allowed to view The Octagon, because some of the discussions that have been contained within might have caused negative associations with the creators of the forum.