Reply toOverconfidence is Stylish

I respectfully defend my lord Will Strunk:

"If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!"  This comical piece of advice struck me as sound at the time, and I still respect it. Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?  Why run and hide?

How does being vague, tame, colorless, irresolute, help someone to understand your current state of uncertainty?  Any more than mumbling helps them understand a word you aren't sure how to pronounce?

Goofus says:  "The sky, if such a thing exists at all, might or might not have a property of color, but, if it does have color, then I feel inclined to state that it might be green."

Gallant says:   "70% probability the sky is green."

Which of them sounds more confident, more definite?

But which of them has managed to quickly communicate their state of uncertainty?

(And which of them is more likely to actually, in real life, spend any time planning and preparing for the eventuality that the sky is blue?)

I am often accused of overconfidence because my audience is not familiar with the concept of there being iron laws that govern the manipulation of uncertainty. Just because I don't know the object-level doesn't necessarily mean that I am in a state of fear and doubt as to what I should be thinking.  That comes through in my writing, and so I sound confident even when I am in the midst of manipulating uncertainty.  That might be a disadvantage in my attempts to communicate; but I would rather clearly describe my state of uncertainty, and worry afterward about how that makes me look.

And similarly, I have often seen people who spend no effort at all on possibilities other than their mainline, praised for their seeming humility, on account of their indefinite language.  They are skilled at sounding uncertain, which makes them appear modest; but not skilled at handling uncertainty.  That is a political advantage, but it doesn't help them think.  Also the audience is given more slack to interpret the speaker as being on their side; but to deliberately exploit this effect is dishonesty.

Often the caveats we attach to our speech have little to do with any actual humility - actual plans we prepared, and actions we took, against the eventuality of things turning out the other way.  And more to do with being able to avoid admitting to ourselves that we were wrong.  We attached a caveat, didn't we?

Maybe Will Strunk did think it was better to be wrong than irresolute (though that doesn't quite seem to have been a direct quote from him).  If so, then that was Will Strunk's flaw as a rationalist.  Presumably he only knew the part of rationality that pertained to writing.

But the core of Will Strunk's lesson learned from the art of writing, not to obscure your position when you are unsure of it, seems to me very wise indeed.  In particular you should not obscure your position from yourself.

EDIT 2015:  I am not saying that you should act more confident than you are, or fail to communicate uncertainty; this would be dishonesty. I am saying that it is okay to communicate uncertainty by saying “60% probability” rather than two paragraphs of timid language. Talking like this may cause some who know not the Way to criticize your status-overreaching for asserting so vigorous and definite a probability. This may be a real PR problem depending on your circumstances, but I don’t see it as an inherent ethical problem.

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Fer a bit thar I were thinkin' that ye'd be agreein' with that yellow-bellied skallywag Hanson. Yar, but the Popperians ha' it! A pint of rum fer ol' Eliezer!

At some level, the Humean doubts about the illogic of induction have to give way, and you make assumptions you cannot justify. If you listen to talk radio, everyone has a really strong opinion, but it gets you thinking, sets up an argument to critique. We make decisions based on assumptions and theories, and these are all suspect, but I think without some decisiveness that could be called overconfidence, we would be catatonic.

btw: do they even have Goofus and Gallant any more? I would think highlighting evil Goofus would be blaming the victim.

Eric: believe it or not, Highlights is still running Goofus and Gallant; it's an impressively long run!


wonderful post, I agree very much. I have also encountered this - being accused of being overconfident when actually I was talking about things of which I am quite uncertain (strange, isn't it?).

And the people who "accuse" indeed usually only have one (their favourite) alternative model enshrouded in a language of "mystery, awe, and humbleness".

I have found out (the hard way) that being a rationalist will force you into fighting an uphill battle even in an academic setting (your post Science isn't strict enough addresses this problem also).

But I think that it is even worse than people not knowing how to handle uncertainty (well, it probably depends on the audience). A philosophy professor here in Vienna told me about a year ago that "many people already take offense when being presented a reasoned-out/logical argument."

Maybe you (Eli) are being accused of being overconfident because you speak clearly, you lay down your premises, and look at what is being entailed without getting sidetracked by "common" (but often false) knowledge. You use the method of rationality, and, it seems, there are many who take offense already at this. The strange thing is: the more you try to argue logically (the more you try to show that you are not being "overconfident" but that you have reasoned this through, considered counterarguments etc) the more annoyed some people get.

I have witnessed quite some discussions where it was clear to me that many of the discussants did not know what they where talking about (but stringing together "right-sounding" words), and it seems that a lot of people feel quite comfortable in this wishy-washy atmosphere. Clear speech threatens this cosy milieu.

I have not yet understood why people are at odds with rationality. Maybe it is because they feel the uncertainty inherent in their own knowledge, and they try to guard their favourite theories with "general uncertainty" - they know that under a rational approach, many of their favourite theories would go down the probabilistic drain - so they prefer to keep everything vague.

A rationalist must be prepared to give up his most cherished beliefs, and - excepting those who were born into a rationalist family - all of us who aspire to be rationalists must give up cherished (childhood) beliefs. This causes quite some anxiety.

If someone fears, for whatever reasons (or unreasons), to embark upon this journey of being rational, maybe the easiest cop-out is calling the rationalist "overconfident".

Nate, I know that you're saying something deep, maybe even intelligent, but I'm having trouble parsing your post.

Greindl, Ah, but could not one be overconfident in their ability to handle uncertainties? People might interpret your well-reasoned arguments about uncertain things as arrogant if you do not acknowledge the existence of unknown variables. Thus, you might say, "If there's a 70% probability of X, and a 50% probability of Y, then there's a clear 35% probability of Z," while another is thinking, "That arrogant fool hasn't thought about A, B, C, D, and E!" In truth, those factors may have been irrelevant, or so obvious that you didn't mention their impact, but all the audience heard was your definitive statement. I'm not arguing that there is a better style (you might confuse people, which would be far worse), but I do think there are ways that people can be offended by it without being irrational. Claiming so seems very akin to Freud claiming his opponents had oedipal complexes.

There are also many factors that contribute to an assessment that someone is 'overconfident,' aside from their main writings.

Cool name, by the way. What are its origins?

Tiiba - I believe Nate's suggesting that part of the reason non-rationalists feel hostile towards rationalists could be that they fear the rationalists are not rationalists at all, but Clever Arguers.

That is, they fear that a superior intelligence is attempting to manipulate their beliefs through rationalization.

How easily would you be able to distinguish between a fAI trying to help you discover the truth and an unfriendly AI concocting a clever argument to lead you to the conclusion it (for whatever reason) wants for you, assuming both are vastly more intelligent than you?

Nobody actually says things like "70% probability the sky is green." It's an inconvenient truth that tradeoffs between accurate writing and effective writing are all over the place. (I think.) I wish English had dubifiers.


"Nobody actually says things like "70% probability the sky is green."

I do, all the time, because I run a prediction market. So far it's been right 57 out of 60 times. The market's ability to say 70% that [insert key business metric] is [insert major corporate strategy] allows management to make very valuable decision trees. Highly recommended.

Actually I don't know how to pronounce Eliezer's name. How do you pronounce "Eliezer Yudkowsky"?

This has puzzled me for a long time. Luckily, I live in Russia, and here we pronounce foreign words pretty much any way we want, often to the point of unrecoginzeability.

Upvoted for truth. Heh.

Still, "Yudkowsky" looks like it might be an English transliteration of a Russian(-ish) word anyway, so our pronunciation might not be all that far off.

His name is said in the first 5 seconds of this video if anyone is particularly interested.

Typically, the middle syllable of such names is pronounced as "cough" in Britain (roughly as in German/Polish/Russian/Yiddish/whatever) in Britain but anglicised to "cow" in America.

Or, as Bartlett put it:

If at times I do seem dogmatic, it is because it is convenient to give my own views as unequivocally as possible.

Sorry, but you can't get around the fact that humans are not well equipped to compute probabilities. We can't even state what our priors are in any reasonable sense much less compute exact probabilities.

As a result using probabilities has come to be associated with having some kind of model. If you've never studied the question and are asked how likely you think it is there are intelligent aliens you say something like "I think it's quite likely". You only answer with a number if you've broken it down into a model (chance life evolves average time to evolve intelligencechance of disaster*..).

Thus, saying something like "70% chance" indicates to most people that you are claiming your knowledge is the result of some kind of detailed computation and can thus be seen as an attempt to claim authority. You can't change this rule on your own.

Thankfully, there are easy verbal alternatives. "Ehh, I guess I would give 3:1 odds on it" and many others. But use of chance/probability language isn't it.

"I just don't like to see you make a fool of yourself."

"Oh!" MacBride stopped, glared. "I just should be a strong, silent guy, huh? Well, listen to me, Harry. I've noticed that a strong, silent guy is usually that way because he don't know anything. I'm willing to beef around, talk my head off, make a fool of myself—if it'll get me anywhere."

Frederick Nebel, "Doors in the Dark"