I've recently been spending more time doing things that involve algebra and/or symbol manipulation (after a while not doing these things by hand that often) and have noticed that small mistakes cost me a lot of time. Specifically, I can usually catch such mistakes by double-checking my work, but the cost of not being able to trust my initial results and redo steps is very high. High enough that I'm willing to spend time working to reduce the number of such mistakes I make even if it means slowing down quite a bit or adopting some other costly process.

If you've either developed such strategies for avoiding making such mistakes or would good at it in the first place, what do you do?

Two notes on the type of answers I'm looking for:

1. I should note that one answer is just to use something like WolframAlpha or Mathematica, which I do. That said, I'm still interested in not having to rely on such tools for things in the general symbol manipulation reference class as I don't like relying on my computer being present to do these sorts of things.

2. I did do some looking around for work addressing this (found this for example), but most of it suggested basic strategies that I already implement like being neat and checking your work.

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A quote from Wheeler:

Never make a calculation until you know the answer. Make an estimate before every calculation, try a simple physical argument (symmetry! invariance! conservation!) before every derivation, guess the answer to every paradox and puzzle.

When you get into more difficulty math problems, outside the context of a classroom, it's very easy to push symbols around ad-nauseum without making any forward progress. The counter to this is to figure out the intuitive answer before starting to push symbols around.

When you follow this strategy, the process of writing a proof or solving a problem mostly consists of repeatedly asking "what does my intuition say here, and how do I translate that into the language of math?" This also gives built-in error checks along the way - if you look at the math, and it doesn't match what your intuition says, then something has gone wrong. Either there's a mistake in the math, a mistake in your intuition, or (most common) a piece was missed in the translation.

This also helps to train your intuition, in the cases where careful calculation reveals that in fact the intuitive answer was wrong.

I've been more consciously (I think it's literally impossible to think "without intuition", but thinking about it as a necessary prerequisite was new for me) thinking about / playing with the recommended approach in this comment since you made it and it's been helpful, especially in helping me notice the difference between questions where I can "read off" the answer vs. ones where I draw a blank.

However, I've also noticed that it's definitely a sort of "hard mode" in the sense that the more I rely on it the more it forces me to develop intuitions about eve

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My main response here is declarative mathematical frameworks, although I don't think that post is actually a very good explanation, so I'll give some examples. First, the analogy: let's say I'm writing a python script, and I want it to pull some data over the internet from some API. The various layers of protocols used by the internet (IP, TCP, HTTP, etc) are specifically designed so that we can move data around without having to think about what's going on under the hood. Our intuition can operate at a high level of abstraction; we can intuitively "know the answer" without having to worry about the low-level details. If we try to pull www.google.com, and we get back a string that doesn't look like HTML, then something went wrong - that's part of our intuition for what the answer should look like. A couple more mathy examples... If you look at the way physicists and engineers use delta functions or differentials, it clearly works - they build up an intuition for which operations/expressions are "allowed", and which are not. There's a "calculus of differentials" and a "calculus of delta functions", which define what things we can and cannot do with these objects. It is possible to put those calculi on solid foundations - e.g. nonstandard analysis or distribution theory - but we can apparently intuit the rules pretty well even without studying those underlying details. We "know what the answer should look like". (Personally, I think we could teach the rules better, rather than making physics & engineering students figure them out on the fly, but that still wouldn't require studying nonstandard analysis etc.) Different example: information theory offers some really handy declarative interfaces for certain kinds of problems. One great example I've used a lot lately is the data processing inequality (DPI): we have some random variable X which contains some information about Y. We compute some function f(X). The DPI then says that the information in f(X) about Y is no

This, I think, may be too domain-specific to really be answerable in any useful way. Anyway, more broadly: when you run into errors, it's always good to think sort of like pilots or sysadmins in dealing with complex system failures - doing research and making errors is certainly a complex system, where there are many steps where errors could be caught. What are the root causes, how did the error start propagating, and what could have been done throughout the stack to reduce it?

  1. constrain the results: Fermi estimates, informative priors, inequalities, and upper/lower bounds are all good for telling you in advance roughly what the results should be, or at least building intuition about what you expect

  2. implement in code or theorem-checker; these are excellent for flushing out hidden assumptions or errors. As Pierce puts it, proving a theorem about your code uncovers many bugs - and it doesn't matter what theorem!

  3. solve with alternative methods, particularly brute force: solvers like Mathematica/Wolfram are great just to tell you what the right answer is so you can check your work. In statistics/genetics, I often solve something with Monte Carlo (or ABC) or brute force approaches like dynamic programming, and only then, after looking at the answers to build intuitions (see: #1), do I try to tackle an exact solution.

  4. test the results: unit test critical values like 0 or the small integers, or boundaries, or very large numbers; use property-based checking (I think also called 'metamorphic testing') like QuickCheck to establish that basic properties seem to hold (like always being positive, monotonic, input same length as output etc)

  5. ensemble yourself: wait a while and sleep on it, try to 'rubber duck' it to activate your adversarial reasoning skills by explaining it, go through it in different modalities

  6. generalize the results, so you don't have to resolve it: the most bugfree code or proof is the one you never write.

  7. When you run into an error, think about it: how could it have been prevented? If you read something like Site Reliability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems or other books about failure in complex systems, you might find some useful inspiration. There is a lot of useful advice: for example, you should have some degree of failure in a well-functioning system; you should keep an eye on 'toil' versus genuinely new work and step back and shave some yaks when 'toil' starts getting out of hand; you should gradually automate manual workflows, perhaps starting from checklists as skeletons

    Do you need to shave some yaks? Are your tools bad? Is it time to invest in learning to use better programs or formalization methods?

    If you keep making an error, how can it be stopped?

    If it's a simple error of formula or manipulation, perhaps you could make a bunch of spaced repetition system flashcards with slight variants all stressing that particular error.

    Is it machine-checkable? For writing my essays, I flag as many errors or warning signs using two scripts and additional tools like linkchecker.

    Can you write a checklist to remind yourself to check for particular errors or problems after finishing?

    Follow the 'rule of three': if you've done something 3 times, or argued at length the same thesis 3 times, etc, it may be time to think about it more closely to automate it or write down a full-fledged essay. I find this useful for writing because if something comes up 3 times, that suggests it's important and underserved, and also that you might save yourself time in the long run by writing it now. (This is my theory for why memory works in a spaced repetition sort of way: real world facts seems to follow some sort of long-tailed or perhaps mixture distribution, where there are massed transient facts which can be safely forgotten, and long-term facts which pop up repeatedly with large spacings, so ignoring massed presentation but retaining facts which keep popping up after long intervals is more efficient than simply having memories be strengthened in proportion to total number of exposures.)

Just wanted to note this was definitely helpful and not too general. Weirdly enough, I've read parts of the SRE book but for some reason was compartmentalizing it in my "engineering" bucket rather than seeing the connection you pointed out.

This is an excellent answer and I want to highlight that making Anki flashcards is especially useful in this case. I rarely make a mistake when I'm working with mathematics only because of the fact that I have made myself a lot of Anki cards thoroughly analyzing the concepts I use.

Using spaced repetition systems to see through a piece of mathematics, an essay by Michael Nielsen was really useful for me when initially investigating this idea.

Besides this, I have - what may be an eccentric idea - that when working I set special music soundtrack for the ... (read more)

One mini-habit I have is to try to check my work in a different way from the way I produced it.

For example, if I'm copying down a large number (or string of characters, etc.), then when I double-check it, I read off the transcribed number backwards. I figure this way my brain is less likely to go "Yes yes, I've seen this already" and skip over any discrepancy.

And in general I look for ways to do the same kind of thing in other situations, such that checking is not just a repeat of the original process.

Incidentally, a similar consideration leads me to want to avoid re-using old metaphors when explaining things. If you use multiple metaphors you can triangulate on the meaning -- errors in the listener's understanding will interfere destructively, leaving something closer to what you actually meant.

For this reason, I've been frustrated that we keep using "maximize paperclips" as the stand-in for a misaligned utility function. And I think reusing the exact same example again and again has contributed to the misunderstanding Eliezer descr... (read more)

This applies to any sort of coding, as well. Trivial mistakes compound and are difficult to find later. My general approach is unit testing. For each small section of work, do the calculation or process or sub-theorem or whatever in two different ways. Many times the check calculation can be an estimate, where you're just looking for "unsurprising" as the comparison, rather than strict equality.

Yeah, with coding, unit testing plus assertions plus checking my intuitions against the code as John Wentworth described does in fact seem to work fairly well for me. I think the difficulty with algebra is that there's not always an obvious secondary check you can do.

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I would like to hear from people who were "born that way".

It might turn out that they've always just had good intuitions and attitudes that we could learn.

Or if it does turn out that they're just wired differently, that would be fascinating.

This is a great point. Not sure why I phrased it the way I did originally in retrospect. I updated the question to reflect your point.