Rationality quotes - May 2009

(Since there didn't seem to be one for this month, and I just ran across a nice quote.)

A monthly thread for posting any interesting rationality-related quotes you've seen recently on the Internet, or had stored in your quotesfile for ages.

  • Please post all quotes separately (so that they can be voted up (or down) separately) unless they are strongly related/ordered.
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB - if we do this, there should be a separate thread for it.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
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And when someone makes a statement you don't understand, don't tell him he's crazy. Ask him what he means.

-- H Beam Piper, "Space Viking"

And when he cannot answer and stares at you dumbfounded while drooling a little,then you tell him he's crazy :)

"We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

-- H. L. Mencken

"There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all." - Peter Drucker

Surely it's at least as useless to do it inefficiently?

Depends what "it" is.

If the alternatives are killing 10 people efficiently at a cost of $100 a head vs. killing ten people inefficiently at a cost of $1000 a head, then killing them inefficiently is worse: I've not only killed 10 people, I've wasted $9000 worth of resources that could have been used to do something actually useful.

But if I've been given a $10,000 killing budget, then it's clearly better for the world if I spend this inefficiently and only manage to kill 10 people rather than 100.

this seems to convolute the example with personal moralities that have no bearing on the actual, objective "task" and how efficiently or inefficiently it is accomplished. if the goal is to kill people, your moral qualms don't make it "better" to kill less. you are still performing poorly relative to the task.

this does highlight a problem with the original quote. "useless" is rather ambiguous as the reader has to decide whether to tie "use" to the utility of the task relative to what it is trying to accomplish versus the reader's personal goals. the same applies to the equally ambiguous word, "should."

Doing it efficiently turns you into a dangerous paperclip monster, while doing it inefficiently makes you a mere harmless rock.

I guess it implies the extra cost of optimizing the useless task. Mostly agreed, though.

"The trouble with trying to be more stupid than you really are is that you very often succeed" - C.S.Lewis The Magician's Nephew

Truth comes out of error more readily than out of confusion.

-- Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620)

Some people revel in complexity, and what's worse they have the brain power to deal with vast systems of arcane equations. This ability can be a handicap because it leads to overlooking simple solutions.

William T. Powers

Do you have any sourcing for this quote? I'd like to stick it in the DNB FAQ but I try to keep everything there cited.

It's from a posting of his on the CSGNET mailing list some years ago (as are various other gems of his I've extracted to post here). I don't have a more precise citation than that.

And the CSGNET mailing list archives are incomplete so I can't even search for it... ಠ_ಠ

In the future, as science becomes more and more oriented to thinking in terms of information content, Godel's result will be seen as more of a platitude than a paradox.

--E. T. Jaynes (on the infamous eponymous theorem)

A competitive game, to me, is a debate. You argue your points with your opponent, and he argues his. “I think this series of moves is optimal,” you say, and he retorts, “Not when you take this into account.”

Debates in real life are highly subjective, but in games we can be absolutely sure who the winner is.

-- David Sirlin, Playing to Win

I like this, but beware the converse. Debates should not be competitive games. The goal is not to steer a path through the game tree that causes your opponent to seem a fool, but to resolve disagreement by the discussion of the actual reasons you have for your position.


After I started reading the linked source, I find my position really contrasts with Sirlin's:

Expert debate involves gaining an understanding of the opponent and what he will say, and knowing immediately what you will say back. It involves deception and boldness, risk-taking and conservatism.

Don't forget, your mind only simulates logic.

Used as .sig quote by Glen C. Perkins e.g. here.

People normally read only their own horoscope in the newspaper. If they forced themselves to read the other 11 they'd be far less impressed with the accuracy of their own.

-- Richard Dawkins, "Unweaving the Rainbow"

I can't find a reference, but I'm pretty sure this is actually false. Someone who reads a horoscope with his 'sign' attached tends to think the horoscope applied particularly well to himself (even amongst skeptics). Obviously, removing the 'signs' makes them indistinguishable.

Obviously, removing the 'signs' makes them indistinguishable.

I wonder if this is true. There is a personality attached to 'Aquarian' even within the generalism of horoscopes. If I've been reading a horoscope for many years that encourages me to act like an Aquarian, and think like and Aquarian, Then perhaps I just won't identify with the advice that the same astrologer would give to 'Scorpio'.

Relevant anecdotal evidence: I have a cousin who was really in to astrology a few years ago: so obviously my sister and I insisted she partake in an experiment. We had her do three specific readings (not just with signs but with the mercury rising nonsense for which she needed exact birth-dates and birth locations): for me, my sister and my brother who wasn't there. She read them to us without indicating who they belonged to and we tried to see if we could tell which ones referred to us. The second one she read was just shocking to hear. It described me perfectly. I was in awe for about 10 minutes until the experiment finished and I learned that the reading that described me perfectly belonged to my sister.

My girlfriend have been casually collecting data on this over the past 2 years. We occasionally end up in social situations with people who are flaky enough to take this stuff seriously. They'll usually -- after about 15 minutes of conversation -- make note of our 'auras' or personalities, and then guess a sign for each of us. We encourage them to try. Of the eight guesses we've had about our signs so far, none have been correct within 2 tries. I hope a few more years of this (and maybe some more data from less flaky friends) will offer enough data points to see if there's any bias, or if the odds of a good initial guess are uniform.

I think the point is that people attach a feeling of truth to their own horoscope, without considering whether other horoscopes could feel similarly true.

... hardly anyone except perhaps Richard Dawkins imagines that by denigrating religion one is advancing science.

--E.T. Jaynes, "Probability Theory".

As a rule of thumb, anything particularly ridiculous in an otherwise reasonable context is probably due to a law.

-- "TheWama" on Reddit

Some people dream of great things. Others stay awake and do them.

-Poster found in school classrooms

(Anyone know the original source?)

It's a paraphrase of T.E. Lawrence:

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.

That, I think, is part of the nature of beliefs about justice—they are absolute, bright edged, in a way in which preferences are not. The point is summed up in the Latin phrase Fiat justicia, ruat coelum—let justice be done though the sky falls. Those whose bumper stickers read "If you want peace, work for justice" simply take it for granted that there is no question what is just; if you want to find out, just ask them. The problem with the world as they see it is merely that other people are insufficiently virtuous to act accordingly.

-- David D. Friedman, If you want war, work for justice

“Whether and when law is more effective than code is an empirical matter — something to be studied, and considered, not dismissed by banalities spruced up with italics.” - Lawrence Lessig

Most of us, I suspect, would rather believe that the devil is running things than that no one is in charge, that our lives, our loves, World Series victories, hang on the whims of fate and chains of coincidences, on God throwing dice, as Einstein once referred to quantum randomness. I've had my moments of looking back with a kind of vertigo realizing how contingent on chance my life has been, how if I'd gotten to the art gallery earlier or later or if the friend I was supposed to have dinner with had showed up, I might not have met my wife that night, and our daughter would still be in an orphanage in Kazakhstan.

-- Dennis Overbye

Polemic—persuasive writing—only works when it doesn't feel like propaganda. The audience must feel that you're being absolutely fair to people on the other side.

-- Orson Scott Card, "Characters and Viewpoint"

Unfortunately, some audiences have rather interesting ideas about what passes for fairness to the other side.

It is the mark of an instructed mind to rest assured with that degree of precision that the nature of the subject admits, and not to seek exactness when only an approximation of the truth is possible.

-- Aristotle

Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it.

-- Donald E. Knuth

"If our Gods and our hopes are nothing but scientific phenomena, then let us admit it must be said that our love is scientific as well." -Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam

I desire to know which interpretation of this quote was intended by the author, but I know which one I prefer.

I once read his Tomorrow's Eve (hoping to understand the allusion to it in Ghost in the Shell).

After puzzling through, I suspect he meant both.

...look at 9/11 tower destruction theories. They want to believe something other than the planes caused the buildings to collapse. OK fine, let them bark up that tree if they want, but why must they leap to bizarre stories about government agents and secret operations? None of that is necessitated by the idea that another mechanism was fully or partially responsible. Why don't they suspect that Al-Quaeda planted a bomb in the basement in order to hasten the building's collapse, as a secondary part of their operation? Why leap to the US government as the culprit? Why not suspect that there was a flaw in the building construction, and that the blueprints don't reflect it because the building contractor covered it up? Why not suspect Martians? They create an incredibly open-ended doubt into which you could plug anything, and then they fill this void with (you guessed it) a story, with completely arbitrary elements.

-- Mike Wong

That quote seems silly. If there were hidden elements to 9/11 (or JFK, or anything) obvious enough for lone nuts to find, then it's reasonable to assume the government investigation would have found them also. Given that the government investigation didn't say anything about it, then, it's reasonable to assume it's because they have something to hide.

Also, there's the obvious, cynical "cui bono?" point. The government is one of the few entities that could reasonably be said to have benefitted from the attacks (expanded power, pretense for war, &c.), so if you start with the assumption that the "official story" is wrong the government would be the next most plausible culprit.

The argument used is much more applicable to creationist arguments of the form "evolution has this flaw, ergo god exists".

I heard an interview with the guys who do South Park that for their 9/11 conspiracy episode they were considering making the real culprits the American flag manufacturers, because they clearly benefited the most.

If you start with the assumption that the "official story" is wrong the government would be the next most plausible culprit.

Which government? Almost all the major world powers have spy agencies that could've pulled it off. Russia would do it because of ex-Soviets holding a grudge. China would do it to strengthen their relative economic power. Israel would do it to ensure the US would continue backing their military. Most of the countries in the middle east, and half the countries in Latin America have grievances against us.

Lots of people acted strangely that day, but trustworthy information is hard to come by. More than anything else, 9/11 reminds me of the story of Alexander Litvinenko, which was in the news in 2006: Spy poisoned, accuses spy agency, spy agency denies it and accuses different spy agency, radioactive trail painted to someone's door, and you might as well roll a die to decide who to accuse, because very skilled agents have already destroyed the evidence.

Which government?

What? there's more than one?!

I think that should be 'pretext for war', not 'pretense for war'.

Since we're doing quotes:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

-- Hanlon's Razor

Of course, once you start thinking in terms of stories instead of theories, it's easy to forget that only a tiny fraction of things that happen are the result of planning or motive.

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

-Patrick Henry

"First Law of Communication: The purpose of communication is to advance the communicator." - Putt's Law and the Successful Technocrat

The tools we use have a profound (and devious!) influence on our thinking habits, and, therefore, on our thinking abilities.

Edsger W. Dijkstra, "Selected Writings on Computing"

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

G.K. Chesterton

Nothing greater can happen to men than the perfection of their mental functions.

Leibniz (quoted in Maat, "Philosophical languages in the Seventeenth Century: Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz")

"If you understand something in only one way, then you do not really understand it at all." -- Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind

From comp.lang.c++.moderated:

This is just a simple example to illustrate the mechanics of the problem. The actual system is far more complex. For the sake of argument suppose that f passes the Handle to a different thread context that destroys the Handle during one of three distinct timeframes depending on the runtime environment. Either (1) before the constructor returns; (2) after the constructor returns and before the assigned handle is destroyed; or (3) after the assigned handle is destroyed. The problem occurs in case 1. -Andrew.

That doesn't make it any less flawed; it just demonstrates that it's flawed in a complex manner.

Kevin P. Barry

(Osmo A.) Wiio's first law of communication

Communication usually fails, except by accident


"Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed."

C. S. Lewis "The Magician's Nephew"

"Mathematicians are like Frenchmen: whatever you say to them they translate into their own language and forthwith it is something entirely different." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it.

-G. K. Chesterton

Only if you think violence is never justified ;)

It's a warning to rationalists, especially Hollywood Mister Spock type rationalists, that even though promoting true beliefs is a charitable act on par with patching up someone's slashed tires, people will often take rather unkindly to it.

God grant me the strength to change the things I must, the wisdom to know what I must change, and the rationality to know God isn't the key person here.

-- Eliezer Yudkowsky (pre-LW/OB, so it counts)

All advances of scientific understanding, at every level, begin with a speculative adventure, an imaginative preconception of what might be true — a preconception that always, and necessarily, goes a little way (sometimes a long way) beyond anything which we have logical or factual authority to believe in. It is the invention of a possible world, or of a tiny fraction of that world. The conjecture is then exposed to criticism to find out whether or not that imagined world is anything like the real one. Scientific reasoning is therefore at all levels an interaction between two episodes of thought — a dialogue between two voices, the one imaginative and the other critical; a dialogue, as I have put it, between the possible and the actual, between proposal and disposal, conjecture and criticism, between what might be true and what is in fact the case.

In this conception of the scientific process, imagination and criticism are integrally combined. Imagination without criticism may burst out into a comic profusion of grandiose and silly notions. Critical reasoning, considered alone, is barren. The Romantics believed that poetry, poiesis, the creative exploit, was the very opposite of analytic reasoning, something lying far above the common transactions of reason with reality. And so they missed one of the very greatest of all discoveries, of the synergism between imagination and reasoning, between the inventive and critical faculties.

Peter Medawar — Pluto’s Republic, “Science and Literature”, p. 46

That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.

-- P. C. Hodgell

Mens cujusque is est quisque. ("What a man's mind is, that is what he is.")

Cicero, De Re Publica

Just how animated objects perceived their surroundings was a mystery even to the wizards who created them; when customers asked, the universal reply was simply, "It's magic."

-- Lawrence Watt-Evans, Ithanalin's Restoration

Nobody actually wants to catch up with their heroes. It's depressing.

-- Apenwarr

"There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it."

George Bernard Shaw, "Man and Superman"

"You are a woman: you must never speak what you think; your words must contradict your thoughts, but your actions may contradict your words." -- William Congreve

My interpretation: "As a woman, you are stuck with not being allowed to speak what you think, but there is a workaround for this."

It's a line from a play called Love for Love. The quote is voiced by a character; so the presentation here lacks that context. The play was satirical, and I wouldn't take the quote at face value. I think Congreve was voicing what had become the standard social games of his time - say like Barney on How I Met Your Mother.

"Plod forever, but never believe you are going to get there."

-Sir Ranulph Fiennes

EDIT: I found this quote funny and strangely motivational, if you read it within the context. But looks like some people really dislike it.

"There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California." -- Edward Abbey

Our value judgements. -- All actions proceed from value judgements, all value judgements are either our own or accepted - the latter are by far the majority. Why do we accept them? Out of fear - that is: we consider it wiser to pretend that they have been our own as well - and we get used to this pretence, so that it eventually becomes our nature. Our own value judgement: that means measuring a thing on the basis of how much it pleases or displeases just us and nobody else - something exceedingly rare! But our judgement of another, that in which lies the reason why we so often rely on his judgement, should that at least come from us, be our own judgement? Yes, but we do this as children and rarely learn again in a different way; for our whole life, moreover, we are the fools of judgments to which we got used as children, if one considers the way we judge our neighbour (his spirit, his rank, his morality, his exemplarity, his loathsomeness) and hold it necessary to bow before his value judgements.

Friedrich Nietzsche, "Daybreak"

But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.

Umberto Eco, "Foucault's Pendulum"

This is actually an anti-rationality quote. Enigmas of the world are not harmless. Just try fighting "harmless enigmas" like diseases before germ theory. The mysteries of the world are not made terrible by our attempts to interpret them as though it had an underlying truth.

I interpret this quote to suggest that mysteries are harmless, and that trying to understand the world is what is harmful. The vast majority of the time, this view is backwards; it is falsified by the history of science. I really hope this isn't what the quote means in context, because otherwise, it is mystery mongering, and I can't even begin to fathom what is wrong with the thought process that led to it.

What we don't know can hurt us. Attempting to understand the world based on an underlying structure is at least instrumentally rational, and it might even be true, also.

I'm curious about the context of the quote, and what NihilCredo thinks it has to do with rationality.

"Anything you don't understand is dangerous until you do understand it."

Larry Niven, "Flatlander" (1967)

In my view, Eco wasn't referring to things in the world like diseases, but rather the world itself. Trying to answer questions like "what is the meaning of life" or "why does anything exist rather than not exist" can drive you mad, and it's a pointless exercise. The takeaway: accept that life has no 'meaning' beyond what we give it, and move on.

In my view, Eco wasn't referring to things in the world like diseases, but rather the world itself.

Diseases are a part of the world. My point is that empirical mysteries are not harmless.

Trying to answer questions like "what is the meaning of life" or "why does anything exist rather than not exist" can drive you mad, and it's a pointless exercise. The takeaway: accept that life has no 'meaning' beyond what we give it, and move on.

I agree with your view. Empirical mysteries are bad. Yet certain non-empirical mysteries such as questions of metaphysical meaning, or value judgment, are better left off as mysteries. Unlike empirical questions, there is no right answer. As many philosophers have argued, a lot of human suffering is based on assigning inappropriate meaning to things. Indeed, cognitive behavioral therapy, and self-help such as The Work of Byron Katie are based on destroying or suspending these meanings that people assign.

I hope this is what Eco means in context. But it's not what is literally said in this quote: the phrase "the whole world" sounds like it is also referring to empirical phenomena.

I hope this is what Eco means in context.

The novel is a satire on conspiracy theories. The entire book can be read as a polemic against the mind projection fallacy and confirmation bias.

Would it help to note that the book was something of a reductio of conspiracy theories?

Oh, so is it one of Eco's characters asserting this view? That would make more sense.

It is the narrator's final despair of rationality. He and his colleagues in a publishing house, having read many conspiracy theories, start inventing their own as an intellectual game. But it gets taken up by real conspiracy theorists; hijinks ensue.

Guess what happens when you're holding an apple and let go of it.

You're probably right.

"If something's hard to do, it's probably not worth doing!" - Homer Simpson, slightly misquoted

If something's worth doing, its worth doing right - Unknown

Sure, for a certain definition of "something" and "doing right." But people often use an unhelpful definition of "doing right." I have over-invested in many projects. For example, I used to spend hours organizing my music collection.

And thus the contrapositive also holds: if something's not worth doing right, it's not worth doing at all.

"...any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch...Put another way, we can expect unexplained and disturbing ambiguities, uncertainties, anomalies, or apparent inconsistencies to emerge more and more often. Furthermore, unless some kind of relief is available, we can expect confusion to increase until disorder approaches chaos— death.

Fortunately, there is a way out."

~ John Boyd, Destruction and Creation

This looks not like rationality, but like one of David Stove's examples of thought gone wrong. And like his examples, the context is just more of the same.

Can you explain what you see in Boyd's words?

ETA: I've since googled to see who John Boyd) was, and he was a notable military strategist credited with fundamental improvements to fighter aircraft design. That tweaked my interest up enough to read some more of his work, but I am still unable to see anything in it.

I agree. Many of the sentences in this essay have something horribly wrong with the thought process behind them, but I can't even begin to describe what it is. There is a similar problem with the Umberto Eco quote below.

The above quote begins with this:

According to Heisenberg and the Second Law of Thermodynamics any attempt to do so in the real world will expose uncertainty and generate disorder. Taken together, these three notions support the idea that any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch

I am pretty sure that Boyd is badly mangling Heisenberg, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, or his extrapolations are way off.

In fact, someone mentioning Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and Godel's Incompleteness Theorem all in one place, triggers my Bayesian epistemic spam filter.

Some people's minds seem to be infected with a strange solipsistic and skeptical epistemic disease where they think that trying to understand reality is futile, and will lead to either increasing mismatch of the map to the territory (in the case of this quote), or some other "terrible" results (in the case of the Eco quote).

How the hell do people come with ideas like these??

trying to understand reality is futile, and will lead to either increasing mismatch of the map to the territory

How the hell do people come with ideas like these??

That's actually a position of reasonable people who engage in non-greedy reductionism, mostly replying to greedy reductionists (to use Dennett's terminology).

To give an example, suppose you're trying to get better at playing chess on a chess program running on a computer. Further suppose that the computer you're using is a Turing machine being implemented in Conway's Game of Life. Does understanding the behavior of a turing machine, or gliders and spaceships, or the basic rules of the Game of Life, increase your understanding of how to get better at chess? Will focusing on such things make you better or worse at playing chess?

That said, I agree with you about the above quote.

That's actually a position of reasonable people who engage in non-greedy reductionism, mostly replying to greedy reductionists (to use Dennett's terminology).

Trying to understand reality is futile is a narrow and trivial sense: the map will never completely match the territory. That's not the notion I'm criticizing.

In the case of Boyd, when he says "any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch," he seems to imply that the harder we work to create a model of observed reality with our concepts, the worse the match will be. That's a truly weird notion.

Maybe his quote goes from being an example of thinking gone horribly wrong, to thinking gone horribly explained, if we try to figure out what he means by "inward-oriented."

When this orderly (and pleasant) state is reached the concept becomes a coherent pattern of ideas and interactions that can be used to describe some aspect of observed reality. As a consequence, there is little, or no, further appeal to alternative ideas and interactions in an effort to either expand, complete, or modify the concept.(19) Instead, the effort is turned inward towards fine tuning the ideas and interactions in order to improve generality and produce a more precise match of the conceptual pattern with reality. (19) Toward this end, the concept—and its internal workings—is tested and compared against observed phenomena over and over again in many different and subtle ways.(19) Such a repeated and inward-oriented effort to explain increasingly more subtle aspects of reality suggests the disturbing idea that perhaps, at some point, ambiguities, uncertainties, anomalies, or apparent inconsistencies may emerge to stifle a more general and precise match-up of concept with observed reality.(19) Why do we suspect this?

If we are charitable and creative, perhaps Boyd means something like this: "given a bad theory, additional ad hoc modifications increase the mismatch between the theory and observed reality." Though I don't think that's true either: ad hoc modifications of a bad theory don't "increase" its mismatch with observation. Rather, they stretch the theory until it does match the observations, making the theory more strained.

A much better framework for discussing matches of theory with observation than Boyd's 9th grade philosophy paper is Imre Lakatos' work on "progressive" vs. "degenerating" research programs.

The key word here is "inward-oriented;" that is, based on internal logic, instead of on new evidence. When previous theories are destroyed by the mismatch with reality, the facts that supported the previous theory are either revealed as untrue, or merged into a newer and more correct theory, that incorporates new evidence and different links between the facts to come to a different, and presumably superior, conclusion.

On second though, that was a bad section to quote, although Boyd never really gave any better ones in his essay. I tried to note the way out without throwing on too much of Boyd's pointless terminology in the last sentence ("Fortunately, there is away out.") I clearly failed; my bad.