Rationality Quotes November 2013

Another month has passed and here is a new rationality quotes thread. The usual rules are:

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted separately. (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments. If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
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A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.

Is this paragraph comprehensible or meaningless? Feel your mind sort through potential explanations. Now watch what happens with the presentation of a single word: kite. As you reread the paragraph, feel the prior discomfort of something amiss shifting to a pleasing sense of rightness. Everything fits; every sentence works and has meaning. Reread the paragraph again; it is impossible to regain the sense of not understanding. In an instant, without due conscious deliberation, the paragraph has been irreversibly infuesed with a feeling of knowing.

Try to imagine other interpretations for the paragraph. Suppose I tell you that this is a collaborative poem written by a third-grade class, or a collage of strung-together fortune cookie quotes. Your mind balks. The presense of this feeling of knowing makes contemplating alternatives physically difficult.

Robert Burton, from On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Not reminding me of Epiphany Addictions

It looked like nonsense to me. I stopped reading after a few sentences.

I'm not saying I'm immune to epiphany addiction, but I want the good stuff.

It looked like nonsense to me. I stopped reading after a few sentences.

I thought it was a puzzle or riddle, so I went back and looked at it again. My first guess was that it was something to do with running, then paper airplanes (which can be made from newspaper, but not a magazine). The rock as anchor made me realize there needed to be something attached, which made me realize it was a kite.

On the other hand, I don't have any trouble seeing alternative interpretations; perhaps it's because I already tried several and came to the conclusion myself. (Or maybe it's just that I'm more used to looking at things with multiple interpretations; it's a pretty core skill to changing one's self.)

Then again, I also don't see the paragraph as infused with irreversible knowing. I read the words literally every time, and have to add words like, "for flying a kite" to the sentences in order to make the link. I could just as easily add "in bed", though, at which point the paragraph actually becomes pretty hilarious -- much like a strung-together collage of fortune cookie quotes... in bed. ;-)

I could just as easily add "in bed", though, at which point the paragraph actually becomes pretty hilarious


The reason I posted the link to epiphany addiction was that this quote is an example of how confusion doesn't feel good (it prompted you to stop reading...), and that "sense of knowing" feels pleasant. The danger being that we have very little control over when we feel either, so the feeling of knowing is no substitute for rationality.

Thanks. I had no idea that was what you had in mind.

"The feeling of knowing" is probably worth examining in detail.

Sorry no cite, but I heard about a prisoner whose jailers talked nonsense to him for a week. When they finally asked him a straight question it was such a relief he blurted out the answer.

I tried to come up with a different 'magic word' and thought about bombs. The DIY kind (like sulfuric acid + KMnO4 + ...), with newspaper being better because it is easier to tear... Anybody has other ideas?

ETA: another possibility is a herbarium press, though the running part becomes confusing. Still, it might be better to run if you follow an expert on a survey, and to walk afterwards, trying to recall what you learned on the trip.

What makes it hard to think of alternatives is an automatic arrangement expectation of parsimony and classical unities of time and space. Bias?

But there’s a big difference between “impossible” and “hard to imagine.” The first is about it; the second is about you!

-- Marvin Minsky

And your experiences to date, which is also a thing about reality.

True, the availability heuristic, which the quote condemns, often does give results that correspond to reality - otherwise it wouldn't be a very useful heuristic, now would it! But there's a big difference between a heuristic and a rational evaluation.

Optimally, the latter should screen out the former, and you'd think things along the lines of "this happened in the past and therefore things like it might happen in the future," or "this easily-imaginable failure mode actually seems quite possible."

"This is an easily-imaginable failure mode therefore this idea is bad," and its converse, are not as useful, unless you're dealing with an intelligent opponent under time constraints.

"For my own part,” Ms. Yellen said, “I did not see and did not appreciate what the risks were with securitization, the credit ratings agencies, the shadow banking system, the S.I.V.’s — I didn’t see any of that coming until it happened.” Her startled interviewers noted that almost none of the officials who testified had offered a similar acknowledgment of an almost universal failure.

Economist and likely future chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board Janet Yellen shows the key rationality trait of being able to admit you were wrong.

Alternatively, she thought that kind of a lie would be well received. It's a widely used social skill to admit you were wrong even though you think you weren't.

Why would she claim she hadn't seen it coming, when it would be have been much more to her benefit if she had claimed that she had seen the crisis coming?

That claim a) begs the question of why she didn't say something at the time, or short the stock market, and b) is somewhat cliched anyway.