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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson.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 paragr

... (read more)
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. ;-)


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.
I think you nailed it.
Well, I know nothing of her role in what happened, but what you're suggesting is much harder to sell if her past actions and statements contradict it, which I assume is the case here. Lots of people benefitted from the crisis and the events that preceded it.

A good stack of examples, as large as possible, is indispensable for a thorough understanding of any concept, and when I want to learn something new, I make it my first job to build one.

-Paul Halmos

Is time real? …In one sense, it’s a silly question. The “reality” of something is only an interesting issue if its a well-defined concept whose actual existence is in question, like Bigfoot or supersymmetry. For concepts like “time,” which are unambiguously part of a useful vocabulary we have for describing the world, talking about “reality” is just a bit of harmless gassing. They may be emergent or fundamental, but they’re definitely there.

Sean Carroll

Sometimes it's disturbing how good Sean Carrol is at articulating my thoughts. Especially when it pertains to, as above, the philosophy of science. Here's another:

We should not think of the big bang as the beginning of the universe. We should think of it as the end [of] our [current] understanding of what is happening.


“What else [have you learned]?”

“Never make a decision blindfolded.”

The teacher laughed. “An impossible wish. We’re all wearing blindfolds, every moment of our lives, and they come off far less easily than this cheap piece of cloth.”

“Then what should we do, when we can’t take the blindfold off?”

“Do the best you can,” the teacher said, “and never forget that you’re wearing it.”

Math with Bad Drawings

Realistically, most people have poor filters for sorting truth from fiction, and there’s no objective way to know if you’re particularly good at it or not. Consider the people who routinely disagree with you. See how confident they look while being dead wrong? That’s exactly how you look to them.

Scott Adams, in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot predict, the courage to predict the things I can, and the wisdom to buy index funds.

Nate Silver

(h/t Rob Wiblin)

When the tech geeks raised concerns about their ability to deliver the website on time, they are reported to have been told “Failure is not an option.” Unfortunately, this is what happens when you say “failure is not an option”: You don’t develop backup plans, which means that your failure may turn into a disaster.

From an article about Obamacare.

The theme of this book, then, must be the coming to consciousness of uncertain inference. The topic may be compared to, say, the history of visual perspective. Everyone can see in perspective, but it has been a difficult and long-drawn-out effort of humankind to become aware of the principles of perspective in order to take advantage of them and imitate nature. So it is with probability. Everyone can act so as to take a rough account of risk, but understanding the principles of probability and using them to improve performance is an immense task.

James Franklin, The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability before Pascal

"Next time you’re in a debate, ask yourself if someone is on offense or defense. If they’re neither, then you know you have someone you can learn from"

Julien Smith

Corollary 1: Always try to be that person.

Disputed. Some people are naturally on the defensive even when debating true propositions. Defensiveness though is more often a bad sign, since somebody defending a false proposition that they know on some level to be false, is more likely to try to hold territory and block opponent progress. Many advocating true propositions very commonly go on the offensive, nor is it clear to me that this is always wrong in human practice.

Nitpicking, but the quote stated that people who are on neither offensive nor defensive are people you can learn from - it didn't say that people who are on the offensive or defensive are necessarily wrong to do so.

I'm not sure that's just a nitpick. It's a mistake so common that it should probably be listed under biases. It might be a variation on availability bias-- what's actually mentioned fills in the mental space so that the cases which aren't mentioned get ignored.
And I'm not sure it's a mistake. If you're getting your information in a context where you know it's meant completely literally and nothing else (e.g., Omega, lawyers, Spock), then yes, it would be wrong. In normal conversation, people may (sometimes but not always; it's infuriating) use "if" to mean "if and only if." As for this particular case, somervta is probably completely right. But I don't think it's conducive to communication to accuse people of bias for following Grice's maxims.
I also dispute this- obvious cases include partial disagreement and partial agreement between parties, somebody who is simply silent or who says nothing of substance, and someone who is themself trying to learn from you/the other side. (In particular, consider a debate between a biologist and the Pope on evolution. I would expect the Pope to be neither offensive nor defensive- though I'm not totally clear on the distinction here, and how a debater can be neither- but I would expect to learn much more from the biologist than the Pope.)
One reading: "offense" as "trying to lower another's status" and "defense" as "trying to preserve one's own status". The people you can learn from are the ones whose brains focus on facts rather than status. I'm not sure if this is relevant. In a technical sense, of course you can learn from people on offense/defense, since they are giving you information.
The set of people who hold and argue for accurate beliefs about a given issue, and the set of people from whom it is possible to learn about a given issue, may often overlap but are not at all the same.
I agree, besides which, if there is a popular rule, sign, or proxy for determining who is on the better side of a debate, you can bet that the intellectually dishonest fellow will start waving the "I'm right" flag.
That doesn't sound like a debate I could learn anything from listening to.
6Ben Pace9y
Corollary 2: If they are on offense or defense, check with yourself what you expect to gain from continuing with the debate.

Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.

-- Peter Drucker

"It is far better to improve the [quality] of testing first than to improve the efficiency of poor testing. Automating chaos just gives faster chaos." -- Mark Fewster & Dorothy Graham, Software Test Automation

See also: the distinction between verification and validation, or between quality control and quality assurance.
I dont get the distinction between verification and validation.
I really like this sentence (from wikipedia):
Thanks! []

"I spread the map out on the dining room table, and I held down the corners with cans of V8. The dots from where I'd found things looked like the stars in the universe. I connected them, like an astrologer, and if you squinted your eyes like a Chinese person, it kind of looked like the word 'fragile'. [...] I erased and connected the dots to make 'porte'. I had the revelation that I could connect the dots to make 'cyborg', and 'platypus', and 'boobs', and even 'Oskar', if you were extremely Chinese. I could connect them to make almost anything I wanted, which meant I wasn't getting closer to anything. And now I'll never know what I was supposed to find. And that's another reason I can't sleep."

Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (emphasis mine)

The "23 Enigma" is the Discordian belief that all events are connected to the number 23, given enough ingenuity on the part of the interpreter.
Apophenia [].
Well, sort of - the protagonist is a child who tries to decipher a clue for a treasure hunt and so he realizes that a model that can predict anything is useless.

Any man can learn to learn from the wise once he can find them: but learn to learn from a fool and all the world’s your faculty.

--John Ciardi

I guess the most difficult part is learning to extract signal from noise. Then all you have to do is keep the fools talking, and they will gladly do.

That's why it's so important to understand how unworried I was. I wasn't $400 worth of worried, or $100 worth of worried, or even $20 worth. I wouldn't have gone to the dermatologist if I didn't have health insurance. I probably wouldn't have gone if I had insurance but it had a big deductible, or even any real co-pay. The only reason I went to have my life saved is because it cost me zero dollars.

  • Jon Schwarz, A Tiny Revolution
Opportunity costs of time?
Source [] .
To what nugget of rationality does this point?

That behaviourally people treat free very differently from even $1, and that effective policymaking requires removing even trivial-seeming barriers to desired actions.

Yes. I also take it as a warning against hyperbolic discounting. I'm a little bemused by the fact that my karma dropped, shortly after this, by exactly twice the then-current score of the great-grandparent. The precision confuses me at least as much as the magnitude.
Out of all the possible things that might have happened this month for which you would have surprisedly noticed that they had only a 1% chance of happening, how many have actually happened?
Like most human beings, I'm not very good at estimating the exact probability of low probability events, so would have no idea if some event had a probability of 1% as opposed to 10% or 0.0001% in a situation where the distinction is actually important.
1% is a very conservative lower bound for the probability of the change of your karma being twice the then-current score of its great-grandparent. The cursive words are those whose many possible modifications already yield enough possibilities that noting one of them occuring is completely uninteresting, except for this resulting free lesson in combinatorics ;)

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!

We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.

No soldier's paid to kick against His powers.

We laughed, -knowing that better men would come,

And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags

He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.

-Wilfred Owen

From "The Next War" [] []

"One of the miseries of life is that everybody names things a little bit wrong, and so it makes everything a little harder to understand in the world than it would be if it were named differently."

--Richard Feynman

Analects of Confucius []
That's because words are in general a grossly inadequate way to express thoughts. I wonder if telepathy would help with that.
What do you mean with telepathy? You can't just transfer data from one neural net into another with having some sort of common data protocal that makes classifications. You still need some sort of language.
I suspect shared access to the conceptual referents of words would help with that specific problem, yes. I suspect (with Feynman) that it would make only a small difference. In particular, I suspect that if we did that we'd run more often into the currently-masked problem that everybody thinks about things a little bit wrong. (People seem to differ in their interpretations of "telepathy," so I've started trying to develop the habit of Tabooing the word. The irony of this in the current context does not escape me.)
That would depend partly on the specific problems with the words, and partly on the rationality of the people. If everyone is making the same mistake, telepathy will just amplify the problem. There will be a chorus of agreement which is amplifying the mistake. If people are using the wrong word, but with different shadings, then perhaps people will look into how well the word fits the concept it is supposed to indicate. However, the odds favor people yelling at each other about who's right.

Someone I know at TAC opined that everyone knows this stuff, and talking about it is just mean. I think he is mistaken: you have to state important facts every so often, or nobody knows them anymore.

West Hunter

The article contains the line: What's wrong here? 4 degrees of accuracy for brain size and no error bars? That's a sign of someone being either intentionally or unintentionally dishonest. Quick Googling shows that there's a paper [] published that states that European's average cranial capacities is 1347. Rather then describing the facts as they are he paints things as more certain than they are. I think that people who do that in an area, where false beliefs lead to people being descrimited, are in no position to complain when they some social scorn.

How meaningful are figures on brain size without figures on overall body size?

Quick Googling shows that there's a paper published that states that European's average cranial capacities is 1347.

That's close enough to not effect his point, or even the order. I think you're engaging in motivated continuing to avoid having to acknowledge conclusions you find uncomfortable.

Rather then describing the facts as they are he paints things as more certain than they are. I think that people who do that in an area, where false beliefs lead to people being descrimited, are in no position to complain when they some social scorn.

Do you also apply the same criticism to the (much larger number of) people how make (much larger errors) in the direction of no difference? Also, could you taboo what you mean by "descrimited". Steelmanning suggests you mean "judged according to inaccurate priors", yet you also seem be implying that inaccurately equaliterian priors aren't a problem.

Whatever the problem with non-factually-based equality may be, it is not a problem of discrimination, so the same criticism does not apply.
This gets back to the issue that neither you nor Christian have defined what you mean by "discrimination". I gave one definition: "judged according to inaccurate priors", according to which your comment is false. If you want to use some other definition, please state it.
Why would you think we are not using it in the standard sense? "Discrimination is the prejudicial and/or distinguishing treatment of an individual based on their actual or perceived membership in a certain group or category"

By that reasoning, refusing to hire someone who doesn't have good recommendations, is discrimination, because you're giving him distinguishing treatment (refusing to hire him) based on membership in a category (people who lack good recommendations).

I think you have some assumptions that you need to make explicit, after thinking them through first. (For instance, one obvious change is to replace "category" with "irrelevant category", but that won't work.)

Well, the recommendations you have are to some extent the result of your choices and actions, but whether your name sounds black hardly is. So, regret-of-rationality considerations [] apply more to the former than to the latter.
So you are saying that I should modify the definition of "discrimination" supplied by TAG, to include a qualifier "only as a result of your choices and actions"? That seems to say that some forms of religious discrimination don't count (choosing not to convert to Christianity is a result of your own choices and actions). It also ignores the fact that it is possible for someone to fall into a group where some of the group's members got there by their own choices and actions but some don't--not every person who can't get good recommendations is in that situation because of his own choices and actions. In fact, there's a continuum; what if, say, 10% of the people in a category got there by their own choices and actions but the other 90% had no choice?
Yes, it's a continuum. That's why I said “to some extent”, “hardly”, and “more ... than”.
That would still mean that if I say "convert to Christianity or I won't hire you" and you refuse, that wouldn't count as discrimination. It would also mean that refusing to hire gay people would not be discrimination, as long as you only refused to hire people who participated in some activity, whether having gay sex, wearing rainbow flags, having a gay wedding, etc.
So what? I'm not particularly outraged that atheists aren't allowed into the Swiss Guards. For some reason, this sounds more problematic to me; not sure why.
So would you oppose discrimination against wheelchair bound construction workers?
Oh dear. Whoever wrote the WP article I was quoting didn't steelman their definition.
Wikipedia is supposed to use what's in the sources. They're not allowed to steelman. It may just mean "group or category which I like", but I wouldn't count that as steelmanning. The best I can come up with is "group or category which has, in the past, often been subject to inaccurately negative judgment based on inaccurate priors". In fact, let's try that one.
First sorry for the typo. Claiming 4 degrees of accuracy means, claiming that the factor of uncertainity about the difference is off by a factor of more than ten. Understanding the uncertainity that exist in vital for reasoning effectively about what's true. Different people have different goals. If your goal is the search for truth than it matters greatly whether what you speaking is true. If your goal is to spread memes that produce social change than it makes sense to use different criteria. What does discrimination mean? If a job application with a name that common with black people gets rejected while an identical one with a name that's common with white people gets accepted that would be an example of bad discrimination.
Does it matter if having said name is in fact correlated with job performance?
Only if it's still correlated when you control for anything else on the CV and cover letter, incl. the fact that the candidate is not currently employed by anyone else.
Being correlated isn't very valuable in itself. Even if you do believe that blacks on average have a lower IQ, scores on standardized test tell you a lot more about someone IQ. The question would be whether the name is a better predictor of job performance than grades to distinguish people in the population of people who apply or whether the information that comes from the names adds additional predictive value. But even if various proxies of social status would perform as predictors I still value high social mobility. Policies that increase it might not be in the interest of the particular employeer but of interest to society as a whole.

The question would be whether the name is a better predictor of job performance than grades to distinguish people in the population of people who apply or whether the information that comes from the names adds additional predictive value.

Emphasis mine. I don't think this is the question at all, because you also have the grade information; the only question is if grades screen off evidence from names, which is your second option. It seems to me that the odds that the name provides no additional information are very low.

To the best of my knowledge, no studies have been done which submit applications where the obviously black names have higher qualifications in an attempt to determine how many GPA points an obviously black name costs an applicant. (Such an experiment seems much more difficult to carry out, and doesn't have the same media appeal.)

So, this "only question" formulation is a little awkward and I'm not really sure what it means. For my part I endorse correctly using (grades + name) as evidence, and I doubt that doing so is at all common when it comes to socially marked names... that is, I expect that most people evaluate each source of information in isolation, failing to consider to what extent they actually overlap (aka, screen one another off).
ChristianKI brought up the proposition "(name)>(grades)" where > means that the prediction accuracy is higher, but the truth or falsity of that proposition is irrelevant to whether or not it's epistemically legitimate to include name in a decision, which is determined by "(name+grades)>(grades)". Doing things correctly is, in general, uncommon. But the shift implied by moving from 'current' to 'correct' is not always obvious. For example, both nonsmokers and smokers overestimate the health costs of smoking, which suggests that if their estimates became more accurate, we might see more smokers, not less. It's possible that hiring departments are actually less biased against people with obviously black names than they should be.
...insofar as their current and future estimates of health costs are well calibrated with their actual smoking behavior, at least. Sure. Well, it's odd to use "bias" to describe using observations as evidence in ways that reliably allow more accurate predictions, but leaving the language aside, yes, I agree that it's possible that hiring departments are not weighting names as much as they should be for maximum accuracy in isolation... in other words, that names are more reliable evidence than they are given credit for being. That said, if I'm right that there is a significant overlap between the actual information provided by grades and by names, then evaluating each source of information in isolation without considering the overlap is nevertheless a significant error. Now, it might be that the evidential weight of names is so great that the error due to not granting it enough weight overshadows the error due to double-counting, and it may be that the signs are such that double-counting leads to more accurate results than not double-couting. Here again, I agree that this is possible. But even if that's true, continuing to erroneously double-count in the hopes that our errors keep cancelling each other out isn't as reliable a long-term strategy as starting to correctly use all the evidence we have.
Agreed. Any sort of decision process which uses multiple pieces of information should be calibrated on all of those pieces of information together whenever possible.
It's even possible that if the costs of smoking are overestimated, more people should be smoking-- part of the campaign against smoking is to underestimate the pleasures and social benefits of smoking.
That in no way implies that it would be a good choice for people to smoke more. People don't make those decisions through rational analysis.
If you combine a low noise signal with a high noise signal the combined signal can be of medium noise. Combining information isn't always useful if you want to use both signal as proxy for the same thing. For combining information in such a way you would have to believe that the average black with a IQ of 120 will get a higher GPA score than the average white person of the same IQ. I think there little reason to believe that's true. Without actually running a factor analysis on the outcomes of hiring decision it will be very difficult to know in which direction it would correct the decision. Even if you do run factor analysis integrating addtional variables costs you degrees of freedom so it not always a good choice to integrate as much variables as possible in your model. Simple models often outperform more complicated ones. Human's are also not good at combining multiple sources of information.

If you combine a low noise signal with a high noise signal the combined signal can be of medium noise. Combining information isn't always useful if you want to use both signal as proxy for the same thing.

Agreed that if you have P(A|B) and P(A|C), then you don't have enough to get P(A|BC).

But if you have the right objects and they're well-calibrated, then adding in a new measurement always improves your estimate. (You might not be sure that they're well-calibrated, in which case it might make sense to not include them, and that can obviously include trying to estimate P(A|BC) from P(A|C) and P(A|B).)

For combining information in such a way you would have to believe that the average black with a IQ of 120 will get a higher GPA score than the average white person of the same IQ.

Not quite. Regression to the mean implies that you should apply shrinkage which is as specific as possible, but this shrinkage should obviously be applied to all applicants. (Regressing black scores to the mean, and not regressing white scores, for example, is obviously epistemic malfeasance, but regressing black scores to the black mean and white scores to the white mean makes sense, even if the IQ-grade... (read more)

Could you explain your reasoning here? IQ is a strong predictor of academic performance, and a 1.5 sd gap is a fairly significant difference. The only thing I could think of to counterbalance it so that the average white would get a higher GPA would be through fairly severe racial biases in grading policies in their favor, which seems at odds with the legally-enforced racial biases in admissions / graduation operating in the opposite direction. Not to mention that black African immigrants, legal ones anyway, seem to be the prototype of high-IQ blacks who outperform average whites. I am a little puzzled by the claim, which leads me to believe I've misunderstood you somehow or overlooked something fairly important.
I missed the qualification of speaking of whites with the same IQ. I added it via an edit.
Right, okay. I did misunderstand you. I'll correct my comment as soon as I figure out the strikethrough function here.
I believe the primary way to get strikethrough is to strikethrough the entire comment, by retracting it.
You can use unicode [].
I'd recommend Vaniver's solution [] instead -- IME Android phones don't like yours.
Source is here []. SD for Asians and Europeans is 35, SD for Africans was 85. N=20,000. Why in the world would he present error bars? The numbers are in line with other studies, without massive uncertainty, and irrelevant to his actual, stated and quoted, point.

His stated point is about telling things that everybody is supposed to know.

If you have an SD of 35 for an average of 1362 you have no idea about whether the last digit should be a 2. That means either you do state an error interval or you round to 1360.

Human height changed quite a bit over the last century. . Taking data about human brainsize with 4 digit accuracy and assuming that it hasn't changed over the last 30 years is wrong.

European gained a lot of bodymass over the last 100 years due to better nutrition. The claim that it's static at 4 digit in a way where you could use 30 year old data to describes todays situation, gives the impression that human brainsize is something with is relatively fixed.

The difference in brain size between Africans and European in brainsize in that study is roughly the difference in height between todays Europeans and Europeans 100 years ago.

Given that background taking a three decades old average from one sample population and claiming that it's with 4 digits accuracy the average that exist today is wrong.

His stated point is about telling things that everybody is supposed to know.

No, that was absolutely not his point. I don't understand how you could have come away thinking that- literally the entire next paragraph directly stated the exact opposite:

Graduate students in anthropology generally don’t know those facts about average brain volume in different populations. Some of those students stumbled onto claims about such differences and emailed a physical anthropologist I know, asking if those differences really exist. He tells them ‘yep’ – I’m not sure what happens next. Most likely they keep their mouths shut. Ain’t it great, living in a free country?

More generally, that was not a tightly reasoned book/paper about brainsize. That line was a throwaway point in support of a minor example ("For example, average brain size is not the same in all human populations") on a short blog post. Arguments about the number of significant figures presented, when you don't even disagree about the overall example or the conclusion, are about as good an example of bad disagreement as I can imagine.

I don't think that the following classes are the same: (1) Facts everyone should know. (2) Facts everyone knows. I think the author claims that this is a (1) fact but not a (2) fact.

His claim was:

(a) Everybody knew that different ethnicities had different brain sizes (b) It was an uncomfortable fact, so nobody talked about it (c) Now nobody knows that different ethnicities have different brain sizes

If individual datapoints have an SD of 35, and you have 20000 datapoints, then the SD of studies like this is 35/sqrt(20000)≈0.24. So giving a one's digit for the average is perfectly reasonable.
According to the paper the total mean brain size for males is 1,427 while for females it's 1,272. Given around half women and half men the SD per point should be higher than 35.
(Assuming the sample is unbiased.)
Well, he did say “about”.

Most people think that the negotiation is about substance: I’m a financial expert, I’m a medical doctor, I’m an environmental lawyer, I’m an energy expert, I’m a mechanic. But studies show that less than 10 percent of the reason why people reach agreement has anything to do with the substance. More than 50 percent has to do with the people—do they like each other, do they trust each other, will they hear what each other has to say? Just over a third has to do with the process they use. That is, do they decide to explore each other’s needs (rational and emotional)? Do they agree on an agenda? Do they make genuine commitments to each other?

If you believe that negotiations are about the substantive issues, sadly, you will be right more than you are persuasive. That means that the truth, the facts, are only one argument in a negotiation. The people and the process are much more important. This is particularly hard for people who are focused on the substance—doctors, engineers, financial experts—to accept. But, based on research, it is true. You can’t even use substantive issues to persuade effectively unless and until the other party is ready to hear about them.

--Stuart Diamond, Getting More, 2010, pp. 51-52

I was once at a meetup, and there were some people there new to LessWrong. After listening to a philosophical argument between two long-time meetup group members, where they agreed on a conclusion that was somewhere between their original positions, a newcomer said "sounds like a good compromise," to which one of the old-comers (?) said "but that has nothing to do with whether it's true... in fact now that you point that out I'm suspicious of it."

Later in the meetup, an argument ended with another conclusion that sounded like a compromise. I pointed it out. One of the arguers was horrified to agree with me that compromising was exactly what he was doing.

Is this actually a failure mode though, if you only "compromise" with people you respect intellectually? In retrospect, this sounds kind of like an approximation to Aumann agreement.

Each side should update on the other's arguments and data, and on the fact that the other side believes what it does (inasfar we can't perfectly trust our own reasoning process). This often means they update towards the other's position. But it certainly doesn't mean they're going to update so much as to agree on a common position. You don't need to try to approximate Aumann agreement because you don't believe that either yourself or the other party is perfectly rational, so you can't treat your or the other's beliefs as having that kind of weight. Also, people who start out looking for a compromise might be led to compromise in a bad way: A's theory predicts ball will fall down, B's theory predicts ball will fall up, compromise theory predicts it will stay in place, even though both A and B have evidence against that.
Part of intellectual debate is that you judge arguments on their merits instead of negotiating what's true. Comprosing suggests that you are involved in a negotiation over what's true instead of search for the real truth.
It doesn't matter what it sounds like you are doing or what you think you are doing. One thing matters: how good is your actual answer?
Yes, but if you followed a crappy reasoning process it's less likely that you end up with a high quality answer than when you followed a good process.
Theoretically, if you treat your own previous position as a prior and the other guy's arguments as some evidence, the standard updating will lead you to have a new position somewhere in between which will look like a compromise. Obviously there are are lot of caveats -- e.g. the assumption that an intermediate position makes sense (that is, the two positions are on some kind of continuous axis), etc.
Not to the extent your current position already takes those arguments into account (in which case the arguments fail to address any disagreement). More than that, by conservation of expected evidence some arguments should change your mind in the opposite direction from what they are intended to argue.
Just underlining a bit I especially like.
In my experience, bringing substance into the conversation greatly reduces your chances of convincing anyone of anything. If your goal is not to seek the truth, but to actually convince someone, it's best to stay away from substance and to reach directly for their emotional levers.
I don't think this is a failure of rationality: in disagreements about facts you have to trust the other person to not lie, in a negotiation you have to trust the other person to keep his end of the bargain.

On not doing the impossible:

Ferrucci says. “We constantly underestimate—we did in the ’50s about AI, and we’re still doing it—what is really going on in the human brain.”

The question that [Douglas] Hofstadter wants to ask Ferrucci, and everybody else in mainstream AI, is this: Then why don’t you come study it?


Peter Norvig, one of Google’s directors of research, echoes Ferrucci almost exactly. “I thought he was tackling a really hard problem,” he told me about Hofstadter’s work. “And I guess I wanted to do an easier problem.”

-Article at The Atlantic

Will Burns []

If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.

-- Peter Drucker

I know that what I see through the microscope is veridical because we made the grid to be just that way. I know that the process of manufacture is reliable, because we can check the results with the microscope. Moreover we can check the results with any kind of microscope, using any of a dozen unrelated physical processes to produce an image. Can we entertain the possibility that, all the same, this is some gigantic coincidence?

-- Ian Hacking, Images of Science: Essays on Realism and Empiricism

That is (ETA: also) from Hacking's Representing and Intervening.

The idea that a self-imposed external constraint on action can actually enhance our freedom by releasing us from predictable and undesirable internal constraints is not an obvious one. It is hard to be Ulysses.

-- Reid Hastie & Robyn Dawes (Rational Choice in an Uncertain World)

The "Ulysses" reference is to the famous Ulysses pact in the Odyssey.

[-][anonymous]9y 10

I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that whereever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said "I don't know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that's always in the right"--"Il n'y a que moi qui a toujours raison."

--Benjamin Franklin

Natural selection is a tinkerer, not an idiot!

SMBC comics on the relative proximity of excretory and reproductive outlets in humans.

Evo-devo (that is to say, actual real science) gives an even better account of that accident of evolutionary history. For simple sessile animals, reproduction often involves dumping quantities of spores or gametes into the environment. And what other system already dumps quantities of stuff into the environment...?

Who puts sanitation next to recreation? Well here's why your excretory organs should be separate from your other limbs and near the bottom of your body.

Okay, but why should the reproductive outlets be there too?

I agree connotationally, but the comic only answers half of the question.

I am a fan of SMBC, but the entire explanation is wrong. The events that led to the integration of reproductive and digestive systems happened long before a terrestrial existence of vertebrates, and certainly long before hands. To get a start on a real explanation you have to go back to early bilaterals:

As near as I can tell it was about pipe reuse. But you can't make a funny comic about that (or maybe you can?). Zach is a "bard", not a "wizard." He entertains.

Try carrying the fetus and giving birth from any other location. I suppose having the fun parts somewhere else than the reproductive dumping tube could be nice, but wouldn't make any sense.
Consider the chicken, with its ingenious production line of eggs. Constant fertilization from a different orifice seems ideal, as (the source I just Googled suggests that) chickens have very short fertilization cycles. (They don't have separate orifices. Poor cloacas.) Since fertilization occurs at one end of a long tube, and birth occurs at the other, I wouldn't be surprised if the optimal arrangement involved separate organs.
Natural selection also led us to breathe and eat through the same hole. Seriously???? This causes so many problems. Well, not enough problems for natural selection to change it, I guess.
Having two (three, technically) holes you can breath through has its advantages. Ever had a nasty head cold that clogs your sinuses so bad you can't breathe?
You still have just one pharynx, though.
Being able to smell what you're chewing is a huge advantage. I suppose achieving that some other way could get pretty convoluted.
I've read horses can only breathe through their noses.
I've never heard this, but I have read and just re-checked, and apparently whales and dolphins have separate passages for breathing (connected to their blowholes) and eating, and thus cannot choke on food.
It's all a matter of which fish we evolved from and what solution evolution came up with, in the development from that water-breathing creature to air breathers. It could have produced [] separate air and foodways, as it did for whales and dolphins. But the blind idiot has no foresight and it can't get there from here any more.
Dolphins and whales have the same fish ancestors we do; they're former terrestrial mammals who returned to the sea and share the same common ancestors of all mammals.
" a morally blind, fickle, and tightly shackled tinkerer" (1) who "should be in jail for child abuse and murder"(2) (1) POWELL, Russell & BUCHANAN, Allen. "Breaking evolution's chains: the prospect of deliberate genetic modification in humans." In: SAVULESCU, J. & MEULEN, Rudd ter (orgs.) “Enhancing Human Capacities”. Wiley-Blackwell. 2011. (2) BOSTROM, Nick. “In defense of posthuman dignity.” Bioethics, v. 19, n. 3, p. 202-214, 2005.
There is no escape from evolution (variation and selection). Deliberate genetic selection is just more complicated evolution.
Sure there is. Organisms could, in theory, create perfect replicas without variation for selection to act on. Contrariwise, they could create new organisms depending on what they needed that would bear no relation to themselves and would not reproduce in kind (or at all). If I could write an AI, the last thing I'd want is to make it reproduce with random variations. If I could genetically engineer myself or my children, I'd want to introduce deliberate changes and eliminate random ones. (Apart from some temporary exceptions like the random element in our current immune systems.) I think you're overusing the term "evolution". If you let it include any kind of variation (deliberate design) and any kind of selection (deliberate intelligent selection), you can't make any predictions that would hold for all "evolving" systems.
In which theory? I don't think this is true if temperatures are above absolute zero, for example. I suspect that you're being too restrictive- it doesn't seem like variation has to be blind, and selection done by replication, for 'evolution' to be meaningful. Now, blind biological evolution and engineering design evolution will look different, but it seems reasonable to see an underlying connection between them.
True, you can't create perfect physical copies or even keep a single object perfectly unchanged for long. But macro-scale systems designed to eliminate variance and not to let microscopic deviations affect their macro-scale behavior can, for practical purposes, be made unchanging. Especially given an intelligent self-repairing agent that fixes unavoidable damage over time. So, what kind of statements are valid for all kinds of evolution?
The direction (and often magnitude) of expected change over time is generally predictable, for example.
Can you be more specific? What is the expected direction of change for all evolutionary processes?
In general, the entities undergoing evolution will look more like the complement of their environments as time goes on.
I'm sorry, I don't understand. What is the "complement of the environment"?
Suppose a gazelle lives in a savannah; we should expect the gazelles to digest savannah grass, flee from cheetahs, be sexy to other gazelles, etc., and become that way if not already so. I think Dawkins has a good explanation of this somewhere, but I was unable to find it quickly, that genes are in some sense records of the ancestral environment. Similarly, internet memes are in some sense a record of the interests of internet users, and car designs a record of the interests of car buyers and designers, and so on. Is that a clearer presentation?
It seems clear what you mean (though not why you called it the complement of the environment). But I still don't see what's common to all kinds of evolutions, so maybe I'm still misunderstanding. It's certainly true that any evolved object is a function of its environment and we can deduce features of the environment from looking at the object. But this is also true for any object that has a history of being influenced by its environment. A geologist looks at a stone and tells you how it was shaped by rain. An astronomer looks at a nebula and tells you how it was created by a supernova. "Being able to learn about a thing's past environment from looking at its present shape" is so general that you must have meant something more than that, but what?
That's basically what I meant, actually, with the inclusion of "looking at a thing's present environment tells you about its likely future shapes." I chose "complement" because it seemed like a better word than "mirror," but I'm not sure it was the best choice, and think "record" might have been better.
What about AGI? Radical human enhancement? Computronium? Post-biological civilizations? All impossible?
Offhand, I think they'd all include variation and selection.
I've seen an argument that a nanotech organism with a reasonable level of error-correction could with high probability make error-free clones of itself until the heat death of the universe.
That assumes the lack of black swans. Not a very good assumption when we extrapolate things until the heat death of the universe.
True, but it would have to be an exceedingly black swan to result in evolutionary-like mutations rather than simple annihilation.
First, annihilation is good enough -- a destroyed nanobot fails at making "error-free clones of itself until the heat death of the universe". Second, all you need to do is to screw up the error-correction mechanism, the rest will take care of itself naturally.
That seems plausible to me, but it's still likely to be subject to selection because of competition for resources. Depending on its intelligence level and ethical structure, it might also be affected by arguments that it should limit its reproduction.
The point is there'd be no variation for evolution to select on.
Why do you think there'd only be one sort of nanotech organism to select on and/or that perfect self-replication is the best or only strategy?
Well, the organism would need to be preprogrammed to survive in whatever environment it might find itself in until then.

He was not a very careful person as a mathematician. He made a lot of mistakes. But he made mistakes in a good direction. I tried to emulate him. But I've realized that it's very difficult to make good mistakes.

-Goro Shimura on Yutaka Taniyama

The only rigorous method, the only one that enables us to test an opinion against reality, is based on the clear recognition that opinions come first[as opposed to facts]—and that this is the way it should be. Then no one can fail to see that we start out with untested hypotheses—in decision-making as in science the only starting point. We know what to do with hypotheses—one does not argue them; one tests them. One finds out which hypotheses are tenable, and therefore worthy of serious consideration, and which are eliminated by the first test against observable experience.

-- Peter Drucker The Effective Executive

So what about MWI?

The next best thing to have after a reliable ally is a predictable enemy.

-- Sam Starfall, FreeFall #1516

What is the experience of eating a chocolate brownie like? Can you describe it?

I believe it is ineffable. There is nothing you can say about chocolate that would mean anything to someone who has not tasted it.

Chocolate brownies are one of my favorite things -- but I don't think their ineffability is a big deal.

All experiences are ineffable. The best we can ever do is say "it's like this other thing."

-- David Chapman

Saying that something is ineffable and saying that nothing we can say is meaningful without the exact same shared experience are rather different things. To use your own example, comparision is possible - so we can imperfectly describe chocolate in terms of sugar and (depending on the type) bitterness, even if our audience has never heard of chocolate.

Conveniently, this allows us to roughly fathom experiences that nobody has ever had. Playwrights, for example, set out to create an experience that does not yet exist and prompt actors to react to situations they have never lived through, and through their capability to generalize they can imperfectly communicate their ideas.

”I don’t believe in shouldn’t, like there’s some universal rules about the way things should be, the way people should act.”

“So there’s no right or wrong? People and animals should do whatever?”

“No, there’s always going to be consequences. Believe me when I say I know about that. But I do think there’s always going to be extenuating circumstances, where a lot of things we normally assume are wrong become excusable.”

Skitter the bug girl on morality, consequentialism and metaethics in Worm, the online serial recommended by Eliezer for HPMoR withdrawal ... (read more)

We're also biased toward believing we're in one of those circumstances when we're not [].
Yep, and the part after the quote alludes to that.


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Dupe. []
Thanks. I just read the article, so I guess I was assuming it was new and wouldn't have been quoted.
Why did you edit the text of the quote away rather than retracting the comment?

Robert Morris has a very unusual quality: he's never wrong. It might seem this would require you to be omniscient, but actually it's surprisingly easy. Don't say anything unless you're fairly sure of it. If you're not omniscient, you just don't end up saying much. More precisely, the trick is to pay careful attention to how you qualify what you say. ... He has an almost superhuman integrity. He's not just generally correct, but also correct about how correct he is.

--Paul Graham

I can't help but wondering if he's overcompensating due to a certain incident [].
So he's one of those Fair Witnesses from Stranger in a Strange Land?
Heinlein's Fair Witnesses show a rationality failure. It is impossible to report things "just as they are" without imposing implicit interpretation. All observation and all language depends on an implicit model.
As I recall, Fair Witnesses didn't ever give probabilities, they talked in binary terms. Morris, on the other hand, sounds calibrated.
They never drew conclusions.

For every ailment under the sun;
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

-- Mother Goose

Presumably, a wise implementation of this quote would consider a continuum of remedies, ranging from mild treatment of symptoms to vaccination against the possibility of ever contracting the ailment. Even if there is no cure for an ailment, there is still value in mitigating its negative effects.

It's one thing to feel your own problems more acutely than those of other people, even millions of other people, even many whose problems make yours look trivial by comparison. We all do that, and we could barely function if we didn't. It's quite another thing to expect that other people will see your problems as more important than those of millions. I sprained my ankle a few weeks ago, and I'll admit that in the time since I've given more thought to my ankle's recovery than I have to the 660,000 people who die every year from malaria. But if I asked you

... (read more)

Utilitarianism is not in our nature. Show me a man who would hold a child’s face in the fire to end malaria, and I will show you man who would hold a child’s face in the fire and entirely forget he was originally planning to end malaria.

James A. Donald

Medicine is not in our nature. Show me a man who would cut someone open to remove cancer, and I will show you man who would cut someone open and entirely forget he was originally planning to remove a tumour

Exact same argument. Does it sound equally persuasive to you?

I'd extend Eugene's reply and point out that both the original and modified version of the sentence are observations. As such, it doesn't matter that the two sentences are grammatically similar; it's entirely possible that one is observed and the other is not. History has plenty of examples of people who are willing to do harm for a good cause and end up just doing harm; history does not have plenty of examples of people who are willing to cut people open to remove cancer and end up just cutting people open.

Also, the phrasing "to end malaria" isn't analogous to "to remove cancer" because while the surgery only has a certain probability of working, the uncertainty in that probability is limited. We know the risks of surgery, we know how well surgery works to treat cancer, and so we can weigh those probabilities. When ending malaria (in this example), the claim that the experiment has so-and-so chance of ending malaria involves a lot more human judgment than the claim that surgery has so-and-so chance of removing cancer.

Yes, but keep in mind the danger of availability bias; when people are willing to do harm for a good cause, and end up doing more good than harm, we're not so likely to hear about it. Knut Haukelid [] and his partners caused the death of eighteen civilians, and may thereby have saved several orders of magnitude more. How many people have heard of him? But failed acts of pragmatism become scandals. Also, some people (such as Hitler and Stalin) are conventionally held up as examples of the evils of believing that ends justify means, but in fact disavowed utilitarianism just as strongly as their critics. To quote Yvain [] on the subject, "If we're going to play the "pretend historical figures were utilitarian" game, it's unfair to only apply it to the historical figures whose policies ended in disaster."
We already have a situation where we can cause harm to innocent people for the general good. It's called taxes. Since I got modded down for that before, here's a hopefully less controversial example: the penal system. If you decide that your society is going to have a penal system, you know (since the system isn't perfect) that your system will inevitably punish innocent people. You can try to take measures to reduce that, but there's no way you can eliminate it. Nobody would say we shouldn't put a penal system into effect because it is wrong to harm innocent people for the greater good--even though harming innocent people for the greater good is exactly what it will do. I don't think anyone really objects to hurting innocent people for the greater good. The kind of scenarios that most people object to have other characteristics than just that and it may be worth figuring out what those are and why. It seems to me that utilitarianism decides how to act based on what course of action benefits people the most; deciding who counts as people is not itself utilitarian or non-utilitarian. And even ignoring that, Hitler and Stalin may be valuable as examples because they don't resemble strict utilitarianism, but they do resemble utilitarianism as done by fallible humans. Actual humans who claim that the ends justify the means also try to downplay exactly how bad the end is, and their methods of downplaying that do resemble ideas of Hitler and Stalin.
Can you provide examples of this? In my experience, while utilitarianism done by fallible humans may be less desirable than utilitarianism as performed by ideal rationalists, the worst failures of judgment on an "ends justify the means" basis tend not to come from people actually proposing policies on a utilitarian basis, but from people who were not utilitarians whose policies are later held up as examples of what utilitarians would do, or from people who are not utilitarians proposing hypotheticals of their own as what policies utilitarianism would lead to. Non utilitarians in my experience generally point to dangers of a hypothetical "utilitarianism as implemented by someone much dumber or more discriminatory than I am," which is why for example in Yvain's Consequentialism FAQ, the objections he answered tended to be from people believing that utilitarians would engage in actions that those posing the objections could see would lead to bad consequences. Utilitarianism as practiced by fallible humans would certainly have its failings, but there are also points of policy where it probably offers some very substantial benefits relative to our current norms, and it's disingenuous to focus only on the negative or pretend that humans are dumber than they actually are when it comes to making utilitarian judgments.
Any example I could give you of humans fallibly being utilitarian you could equally well describe as an example of humans not being utilitarian at all. After all, that's what "fallible" means--"doing X incorrectly" is a type of "not doing X". If you want an example of humans doing something close to utilitarian (which is all you're going to get, given how the word "fallible" works), Stalin himself is an example. Just about everything he did was described as being for the greater good, because building the perfect Soviet society is for the greater good and the harm done to someone by giving him a show trial and executing him is necessary to build that society. Of course, you could explain how Stalin wasn't really utilitarian, but if he was really utilitarian, he wouldn't be fallibly utilitarian.
I would accept any figure as "fallibly utilitarian" if they endorsed utilitarian ethics and claimed to be attempting to follow it, but Stalin did not do so, and while his actions might be interpreted as a fallible attempt at utilitarianism, his own pronouncements don't particularly invite such interpretation [].
That doesn't actually contain any of his own pronouncements. I managed to Google this for Hitler: "It is thus necessary that the individual should come to realize that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation; that the position of the individual ego is conditioned solely by the interests of the nation as a whole ... that above all the unity of a nation's spirit and will are worth far more than the freedom of the spirit and will of an individual. .... This state of mind, which subordinates the interests of the ego to the conservation of the community, is really the first premise for every truly human culture .... we understand only the individual's capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow man." This may not be technically utilitarian,. but it is an example of Hitler endorsing the idea that some people should be harmed to benefit others (in this case to benefit society), and is an example of how that doesn't go well.
People have been proposing that some people should be harmed to benefit others long before anyone proposed the idea of utilitarianism; usually it was justified because the people being harmed are outgroup members, or simply Less Important compared to the people being helped, or to subordinate individual identity to the group identity. Sometimes, this doesn't go well. In some cases, such as, by your own example, in the case of taxes or a justic system, it goes much better than a refusal to harm some people to help others. Utilitarianism is a construction for formalizing under what conditions it is or is not a good idea to attempt such tradeoffs. Calling the purges of Hitler or Stalin failings of Utilitarianism is about as fair as calling every successful government intervention or institution ever, which after all all involve sacrificing resources of the public for a common good, successes of Utilitarianism.
Another way that a penal system is extremely likely to harm innocents is that the imprisoned person may have been supplying a net benefit to their associates in non-criminal ways, and they can't continue to supply those benefits while in prison. This is especially likely for some of the children of prisoners, even if the prisoners were guilty..
I am unsure how to map decisions under uncertainty to evidence about values as you do here. A still-less-controversial illustration: I am shown two envelopes, and I have very high confidence that there's a $100 bill in exactly one of those envelopes. I am offered the chance to pay $10 for one of those envelopes, chosen at random; I estimate the EV of that chance at $50, so I buy it. I am then (before "my" envelope is chosen) offered the chance to pay another $10 for the other envelope, this chance to be revoked once the first envelope is selected. For similar reasons I buy that too. I am now extremely confident that I've spent $10 for an empty envelope... and I endorse that choice even under reflection. But it seems ridiculous to conclude from this that I endorse spending $10 for an empty envelope. Something like that is true, yes, but whatever it is needs to be stated much more precisely to avoid being actively deceptive. It seems to me that if I punish a hundred people who have been convicted of a crime, even though I'm confident that at least some of those people are innocent, I'm in a somewhat analogous situation to paying $10 for an empty envelope... and concluding that I endorse punishing innocent people seems equally ridiculous. Something like that is true, yes, but whatever it is needs to be stated much more precisely to avoid being actively deceptive.
In your example, you are presenting "I think you should spend $10 for an empty envelope" as a separate activity, and you are being misleading because you are not putting it into context and saying "I think you should spend $10 for an empty envelope, if this means you can get a full one". With the justice system example, I am presenting the example in context--that is, I am not just saying "I think you should harm innocent people", I am saying "I think you should harm innocent people, if other people are helped more". It's the in-context version of the statement that I am presenting, not the out-of-context version.
(nods) Yes, that makes sense. Thanks.
I (and James Donald) agree. Remember that the traditional ethical laws this is based on also have traditional exceptions, e.g., for punishment and war, and additional laws governing when and how those exceptions apply. The thing to remember is that you are not allowed to add to the list of exceptions as you see fit, nor are you allowed to play semantic games to expand them. In particular, no "war on poverty", or "war on cancer", even "war on terror" is pushing it.
I think you're misunderstanding me. We all know that most ethical systems think it's okay to punish criminals. I'm not referring to the fact that criminals are punished, but the fact that when we try to punish criminals we will, since no system is perfect, inevitably end up punishing some innocent people as well. Those people did nothing wrong, yet we are hurting them, and for the greater good.
This is no different from the fact that it's okay to fly planes even though some of them will inevitably crash. Note that if a judge punishes someone who turns out to be innocent, we believe he should feel guilty about this rather then simply shrugging and saying "mistakes will happen". Similarly, if an engeneer makes a mistake than causes a plane to crash.
Just like not all people punished are guilty, not all innocent people punished are discovered; there's always going to be a certain residue of innocent people who are punished, but not discovered, with no guilty judges or anything else to make up for it. Hurting such innocent people is nevertheless an accepted part of having a penal system.
Sure. So we're sometimes willing to do some harm to innocents for the greater good. But if we were utilitarians we would always be thus willing. Civilized societies don't torture or execute their criminals, and wouldn't do so even if it was for the greater good.
The US has executions yet is otherwise considered civilized. So you must be claiming that the US is not civilized because it has executions, which makes it into a "no true Scotsman" argument.
Nope; there are other things about the US (poor public healthcare / higher education, high religiosity, weak labour laws...) that move it away from the empirical cluster of societies I'm thinking of. I made a lazy and politicized choice of terminology but it's a natural category, not a funny boundary I'm drawing arbitrarily.
That seems like a pretty low bar for "not civilized", which is a seriously bad characterization, and some of those are downright bizarre. It reads as though you took a laundry list of things you don't like about the US and decided that that's your definition of "not civilized". Would it make any sense if I pointed out that Europe tends to have weaker freedom of speech than the US, and a higher tendency towards anti-Semitism, and higher taxes, therefore Europe is "not civilized"? If "uncivilized" means anything it has to mean something other than "has policies I hate". And defining it to mean "has policies that I hatem and which hurt people" is no good--everyone thinks that policies that they hate hurt people, so that collapses down to just "has policies I hate". BTW, do you consider Japan to be uncivilized? It has the death penalty. (My own theory on how Japan manages to keep the death penalty is that it's easy for activists in Europe to connect to activists in nearby countries where some people are bilingual, but hard to connect with activists on the other side of the world who have no languages in common.)
It was a bad choice of word. But it seems like you agree that there are distinct empirical clusters for Europe-like and America-like (and Japan resides somewhere between the two - like most empirical classifications it's imperfect, but still useful). I think the case can be made that Europe is a better place to live (and that US states that practice executions are worse than those that don't). But in any case this is all beside the point; the fact that there is this kind of resistance to the death penalty, even if only in Europe, demonstrates that humans are not naturally utilitarian.
Or that the death penalties utilitarian merits are debatable. Or that in some societies, 'natural' utilitarian tendencies are subverted/modified/removed/replaced by the cultural environment.
I agree that if you try to list the differences between Europe and the US, you can come up with a list. However, many of the items on the list are related to each other mostly by historical accident. Europe lacks the death penalty because once activists get a foothold in one place, that makes it easier for them to get a foothold in other culturally and geographically close places. Not because people who like high taxes necessarily have to oppose the death penalty. The state of Europe right now is very path-dependent. Or that Europe is run by an unrepresentative subset of humans. Or that humans are not generally naturally anything to the exclusion of everything else. (Of course, in the limit, everything is utilitarian--people in Europe may get displeasure from using the death penalty the same way they get displeasure from bad-tasting food. Is someone who avoids bad tasting food for food that costs more a utilitarian, because pleasure from food taste is a form of utilon?)
Ok, we actually disagree then. I think that progress in the progressive sense is real, that most of today's politics is a product of historical/technological/etc. forces and more-or-less inevitable. (If I had to guess why the US is different from Europe I'd say it's largely an artifact of which groups of people originally settled there, and I expect the US to become more European in the future). I predict that even in legislatures far away from Europe we'd observe a correlation between support for high taxation and opposition to the death penalty, and that more generally if we did a NOMINATE-style analysis we'd find that positions on many issues were largely explained by a single axis of variation, and the list of things I mentioned would be at one end of it. Sure. I'm not arguing that we're naturally virtue ethicists or anything. But I don't think utilitarianism is an adequate description of intuitive human morality (even American morality). Perhaps the fat man in the trolley problem is a better example; while there are no doubt many clever arguments that people are being utilitarian via some convoluted route, it's not the result we would naturally predict utilitarian thinkers to come to. I understand utilitarian to mean someone who tries to maximize some pseudo-economically consistent objective function of the external world. If someone assigns different values to actions that have the same result but get there by different paths, or evaluates a future state differently depending on the current state of the world, or believes that the same action could have a different moral value depending solely on the internal state of the person performing it, then they're not a utilitarian.
Yep. I've heard similar speculations regarding surgeons before. Fortunately nowadays we can take appropriate measures to compensate (surgeons are highly paid and closely monitored; we take a lot of care that medicine be evidence-based; the rationale behind specific medical interventions is carefully documented and checked multiple times; we require medical professionals to train for longer than any other profession). But note that for most of human history, the interventions performed by almost all medical professionals were literally worse than nothing.

Utilitarianism isn't a description of human moral processing, it's a proposal for how to improve it.

One problem is that if we, say, start admiring people for acting in "more utilitarian" ways, what we may actually be selecting for is psychopathy.

Agreed. Squicky dilemmas designed to showcase utilitarianism are not generally found in real life (as far as I know). And a human probably couldn't be trusted to make a sound judgement call even if one were found. Running on untrusted hardware and such.

Ah- and this is the point of the quote. Oh, I like that.

Our nature is not purely utilitarian, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that utilitarianism is not in our nature. There are things we avoid doing regardless of how they advance our goals, but most of what we do is to accomplish goals. If you can't understand that there are things you need to do to eat, then you won't eat.
Strawman. Does any moral system anyone's ever proposed say we should never attempt to accomplish goals?
I agree that utilitarianism is "not in our nature," but what has this to do with rationality?
Utilitarianism is pretty fundamental [] around here. Not everyone here agrees with it, but pretty much all ethical discussions here take it as a precondition for even having a discussion. The assertion that we are not, cannot be, and never will be utilitarians is therefore very relevant. If you are suggesting by that emphasis on "nature" that we might act to change our nature and remake ourselves into better utilitarians, I would ask, if we are in fact not utilitarians, why should we make ourselves so? Infatuation with the tidiness of the VNM theorem?

We us::should try to be as utilitarian as we can because our intuitive morality is kind of consequentialist, so we care about how the world actually ends up, and utilitarianism helps us win.

If we ever pass up a chance to literally hold one child's face to a fire and end malaria, we have screwed up. We are not getting what we care about most.

It's not the "tidiness" in any aesthetic sense of VNM axioms that are important, it's the not-getting-money-pumped. Not being able to be money pumped is important not because getting money pumped is stupid and we can't be stupid, but because we need to use our money on useful stuff.

In another comment [] James A. Donald suggests a way torturing children could actually help cure malaria: Would you be willing to endorse this proposal? If not, why not?

If I'm not fighting the hypothetical, yes I would.

If I encountered someone claiming that in the messy real world, then I run the numbers VERY careful and most likely conclude the probability is infinitesimal of him actually telling the truth and being sane. Specifically, of those claims the one that it'd be easier to kidnap someone than to find volunteer (say, adult willing to do it in exchange for giving their families large sums of money) sounds highly implausible.

What's your opinion of doing it Tuskegee-style [], rather than kidnapping them or getting volunteers? (One could believe that there might be a systematic difference between people who volunteer and the general population, for example.)
In general, given ethical norms as they currently exist, rather than in a hypothetical universe where everyone is a strict utilitarian, I think the expected returns on such an experiment are unlikely to be worth the reputational costs. The Tuskegee experiment may have produced some useful data, but it certainly didn't produce returns on the scale of reducing global syphilis incidence to zero. Likewise, even extensive experimentation on abducted children is unlikely to do so for malaria. The Tuskegee experiment though, is still seen as a black mark on the reputation of medical researchers and the government; I've encountered people who, having heard of it, genuinely believed that it, rather than the extremely stringent standards that currently exist for publishable studies, was a more accurate description of the behavior of present researchers. That sort of thing isn't easy to escape. Any effective utilitarian must account for the fact that we're operating in a world which is extremely unforgiving of behavior such as cutting up a healthy hospital visitor to save several in need of organ transplants, and condition their behavior on that knowledge.

Here's one with actual information gained: Imperial Japanese experimentation about frostbite

For example, Unit 731 proved that the best treatment for frostbite was not rubbing the Limb, which had been the traditional method but immersion in water a bit warmer than 100 degrees, but never mom than 122 degrees.

The cost of this scientific breakthrough was borne by those seized for medical experiments. They were taken outside and left with exposed arms, periodically drenched with water, until a guard decided that frostbite had set in. Testimony From a Japanese officer said this was determined after the "frozen arms, when struck with a short stick, emitted a sound resembling that which a board gives when it is struck."

I don't get the impression that those experiments destroyed a lot of trust-- nothing compared to the rape of Nanking or Japanese treatment of American prisoners of war.

However, it might be worth noting that that sort of experimentation doesn't seem to happen to people who are affiliated with the scientists or the government.

Logically, people could volunteer for such experiments and get the same respect that soldiers do, but I don't know of any real-world examples.

It's hard for experiments to destroy trust when those doing the experiments aren't trusted anyway because they do other things that are as bad (and often on a larger scale).
I was going to say that I didn't think that medical researchers had ever solicited volunteers for experiments which are near certain to produce such traumatic effects, but on second thought, I do recall that some of the early research on the effects of decompression (as experienced by divers) was done by a scientist who solicited volunteers to be subjected to decompression sickness. I believe that some research on the effects of dramatic deceleration was also done similarly.
I have heard of someone who was trying to determine the biomechanics of crucifixion, what part of the forearm the nail goes through and whether suffocation is the actually the main cause of death and so on, who ran some initial tests with medical cadavers, and then with tied-up volunteers, some of whom were disappointed that they weren't going to have actual nails driven through their wrists. Are extreme masochists under-represented on medical ethics boards?
Actual medical conspiracies, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, probably contribute to public credence in medical conspiracy theories, such as anti-vax or HIV-AIDS denialism, which have a directly detrimental effect on public health.
Probably. In a culture of ideal rationalists, you might be better off having a government run lottery where people were randomly selected for participation in medical experiments, with participation on selection being mandatory for any experiment, whatever its effects on the participants, and all experiments being vetted only if their expected returns were more valuable than any negative effect (including loss of time) imposed on the participants. But we're a species which is instinctively more afraid of sharks than stairs, so for human beings this probably isn't a good recipe for social harmony.
That already had a treatment, hence it was not going to save the millions suffering, since they were already saved. Also, those scientist didn't have good enough methodology to have gotten anything useful out of it in either case. There's a general air of incompetence surrounding the whole thing that worries me more than the morality. As I said; before doing anything like this you have to run your numbers VERY carefully. The probability of any given study solving a disease on it's own is extremely small, and there are all sorts of other practical problems. That's the thing; utilitarianism is correct, and not answering according to it is fighting the hypothetical. but in cases like this perhaps you should fight the hypothetical, since you're using specific historical examples that very clearly did NOT have positive utility and did NOT run the numbers. It's a fact that a specific type of utilitarianism is the only thing that makes sense if you know the math. It's also a fact that there are many if's and buts that make human non-utilitarian moral intuition an heuristic way more reliable for actually achieving the greatest utility than trying to run the numbers yourself in the vast majority of real world cases. Finally, it's a fact that most things done in the name of ANY moral system is actually bullshit excuses.
7NancyLebovitz9y [] What do you think of that utilitarian calculation? I'm not sure what I think of it.
It seems like either (1) Rivers was deceived, or (2) she was in some other way unaware that there was already an effective cure for syphilis which was not going to be given to the experimental subjects, or (3) the other options available to these people were so wretched that they were worse than having syphilis left untreated. In cases 1 and 2, it doesn't really matter what we think of her calculations; if you're fed sufficiently wrong information then correct algorithms can lead you to terrible decisions. In case 3, maybe Rivers really didn't have anything better to do -- but only because other circumstances left the victims of this thing in an extraordinarily terrible position to begin with. (In much the same way as sawing off your own healthy left arm can be the best thing to do -- if someone is pointing a gun at your head and will definitely kill you if you don't. That doesn't say much about the merits of self-amputation in less ridiculous situations.) I find #3 very implausible, for what it's worth. (Now, if the statement were that Rivers believed that the benefits to the community outweighed the risks, and indeed the overt harm, to the subjects of the experiment, that would be more directly to the point. But that's not what the article says.)
Or (4), she was led to believe, either explicitly or implicitly, that her career and livelihood would be in jeopardy if she did not participate - thus motivating her to subconsciously sabotage her own utility calculations and then convince herself that the sabotaged calculations were valid.
But that might still matter. It may be that utilitarianism produces the best results given no bad information, but something else, like "never permit experimentation without informed consent" would produce better results (on the average) in a world that contains bad information. Especially since whether the latter produces better results will depend on the frequency and nature of the bad information--the more the bad information encourages excess experimentation, the worse utilitarianism comes out in the comparison.
But a good utilitarian will certainly take into account the likelyhood of bad information and act appropriately. Hence the great utilitarian Mill's advocacy of minimal interference in people's lives in On Liberty, largely on the basis of the ways that ubiquitous bad information will make well-intentioned interference backfire often enough to make it a lower expected utility strategy in a very wide range of cases.
A competent utilitarian might be able to take into account the limitations of noisy information, maybe even in some way more useful than passivity. That's not the same class of problem as information which has been deliberately and systematically corrupted by an actual conspiracy in order to lead the utilitarian decisionmaker to the conspiracy's preferred conclusion.
The cure was discovered after the experiment had been going on for eight years, which complicates matters. At this point, I think her best strategy would have been to arrange for the men to find out about the cure in some way which can't be traced back to her. She may have believed that the men would have died more quickly of poverty if they hadn't been part of the experiment.
Which one? The presumed altruistic one or the real-life one (which I think included the utilitly of having a job, the readiness to disobey authority, etc.)
The altruistic one, mostly.
Endorse? You mean, publicly, not on LessWrong, where doing so will get me much more than downvotes, and still have zero chance of making it actually happen? Of course not, but that has nothing to do with whether it's a good idea.
I meant "endorse" in the sense that, unlike the Milgram experiment, there is no authority figure to take responsibility on your behalf. Do you think it's a good idea?
If it will actually work, and there's no significant (as in at least the size of malaria being cured faster), and bad, consequences we're missing, or there are significant bad consequences but they're balanced out by significant good consequences we're missing, then yes.
The question is not "would this be a net benefit" (and it probably would, as much as I cringe from it). The question is, are there no better options?
Such as? Experimenting on animals? That will probably cause progress to be slower and think about all the people who would die from malaria in the meantime.
Yes. How many more? Would experimenting on little girls actually help that much? Also consider that many people consider a child's life more valuable than an adult one, that even in a world where you would not have to kidnap girls and evade legal problems and deal with psychological costs on the scientists caring for little humans is significantly more expensive then caring for little mice, that said kidnapping, legal, and psychological costs do exist, that you could instead spend that money on mosquito nets and the like and save lives that way... The answer is not obviously biased towards "experiment on little girls.". In fact, I'd say it's still biased towards "experiment on mice." Morality isn't like physics, the answer doesn't always add up to normality, but a whole lot of the time it does.

Would experimenting on little girls actually help that much?


The answer is not obviously biased towards "experiment on little girls.". In fact, I'd say it's still biased towards "experiment on mice."

So your answer is that in fact it would not work. That is a reasonable response to an outrageous hypothetical. Yet James A. Donald suggested a realistic scenario, and beside it, the arguments you come up with look rather weak.

Would experimenting on little girls actually help that much? Also consider that many people consider a child's life more valuable than an adult one

Given the millions killed by malaria and at most thousands of experimental subjects, it takes a heavy thumb on the scales of this argument to make the utilitarian calculation come out against.

...evade legal problems and deal with psychological costs...

This is a get-out-of-utilitarianism-free card. A real utilitarian simply chooses the action of maximum utility. He would only pay a psychological cost for not doing that. When all are utilitarians the laws will also be utilitarian, and an evaluation of utility will be the sole criterion applied by the courts.

You are not a utilitarian. Ne... (read more)

No, seriously. I've read the original comment, James A. Donald does not support his claim. This is granted. References to small mice were silly and are now being replaced by "small chimpanzees." However... This is not the calculation being made. Using your numbers, experimenting on little girls needs to be at least 1.001 times as effective as experimenting on chimpanzees or mice to be worthwhile (because then you save an extra thousand lives for your thousand girls sacrificed.) It's not a flat "little girls versus millions of malaria deaths." This is, quite frankly, not clear to me, and I'd want to call in an actual medical researcher to clarify. Doubly so, with artificial human organs becoming more and more possible (such organs are obviously significantly cheaper than humans.) Actually, I was interpreting the hypothetical as "utilitarian government in our world." But fine, least convenient possible world and all that. That's why I set the non-society costs aside from the rest. Honestly, this is probably true - case in point, I would rather not write a similar post from the opposite side. That being said, looking through my arguments, most of them hinge on the implausibility of human experimentation really being all that more effective compared to chimpanzee and artificial organ experimentation. The physics calculations around us have already been done perfectly. If, when we try to emulate them with our theories, we get something abnormal, it means our calculations are wrong and we need to either fix the calculation or the model. When we've done it all right, it should all add up to normality. Our current morality, on the other hand, is a thing created over a few thousand years by society as a whole, that occasionally generates things like slavery. It is not guaranteed to already be perfectly calculated, and if our calculations turn out something abnormal, it could mean that either our calculations or the world is wrong.
Point taken. Well, yes. I doubt that JAD has particular expertise in malarial research, I don't and neither do you. To know whether a malarial research programme would benefit scientifically from a supply of humans to experiment on with no more restraint than we use with chimpanzees, one would have to ask someone with that expertise. But I think the hypothesis prima facie plausible enough to conduct the hypothetical argument, in a way which merely saying "suppose you could save millions of lives by torturing some children" is not. After all, all medical interventions intended for humans must at some point be tested on humans, or we don't really know what they do in humans. At present, human testing is generally the last phase undertaken. That's partly because humans are more expensive than test-tubes or mice. (I'm not sure how they compare with chimpanzees, given the prices that poor people in some parts of the world sell their children for.) But it is also partly because of the ethical problems of involving humans earlier.
Note also that getting humans to experiment on by buying them from poor third world parents is generally frowned upon.
Well, given that more then 1 in 1000 drugs that look promising in animals fail human trials, I'd say that is a ridiculously low bar to pass.
How many drugs that look promising in one human trial fail to pass later human trials?
If it would result in a timely cure for malaria which would result in the disease's global eradication or near-eradication, I would say that it would be worth kidnapping a few thousand children. But not only would a world where you could get away with doing so differ from our own in some very significant ways, I honestly doubt that a few thousand captive test subjects constitute a decisive and currently limiting factor in the progress of the research.
Of wait we're talking about an entire society thats utilitarian and rational. In that case I'm (coordinating with everyone else via auman agreement) just dedicating the entire global population to a monstrous machine for maximally efficient FAI research where 99% of people are suffering beyond comprehension with no regard for their own well being in order to support a few elite researchers as the dedicate literally every second of their lives to thinking at maximal efficiency while pumped full of nootropics that'll kill them in a few years.
Then risk being the later man, while taking as many precautions as possible to preserve your intent.

Experts are simply people with more information and experience. But they are not necessarily as intelligent as you are, they often lack some of the most relevant information, and they usually have no skin in the game so they often don't even bother paying serious attention to the matter at hand.

Some of my biggest mistakes have been because, against my better judgment, I trusted the expert to know what he was doing. The main problem, I think, is that the expert is usually making a probabilistic decision based on the averages without bothering to apply the

... (read more)

I upvoted this comment, but I want to add an important caveat. Whether, and how much, you trust your own judgment over that of an expert should depend at least in part on the degree to which you think your situation is unusual.

The IT guy wants you to shut up and go away, but (if in fact he is an expert and not a trained monkey reading a script) he's not going to spout random nonsense at you just to get you to leave. He's going to tell you things relevant to what is, in his experience, the usual situation.

Consider well whether you're sure your problem is some special snowflake. The IT guy has seen a lot of issues. Sometimes he can, before you finish your first sentence, know exactly what your problem is and how to fix it, and if he sounds bored when he tells you "just reboot it", that doesn't mean that he's wrong. If it costs you little, try his advice first.

The expert also is better equipped to discern whether a situation is unusual, because the expert has seen more. To the non-expert, something really mysterious and weird must be going on to explain these puzzling symptoms. Computer A can ping computer B, but B can't ping A? That's so strange! After all, ping is supposed to test whether two computers can talk to each other on the network, right? How could it possibly work one way but not the other? Is something wrong with the switch? Is one of the network cards broken? Is it a virus?! To the expert, that's not unusual at all. One computer has the wrong subnet mask set. Almost every time. Like, that's 20 to 100 times more likely than a hardware problem or something broken in the network infrastructure, and it can be checked in seconds. And while the machine may have a virus too, that's not what causes these symptoms.
1Said Achmiz9y
Very true as well, though I will add the counter-caveat that the expert is usually biased toward concluding that your situation is not unusual. This is why many "tech support horror stories" have a bit where the narrator goes "... and then, when they finally got it through their heads that yes, I had tried restarting it five times, and no, I didn't have the wrong settings ..."
I suspect there are a couple of things going on there. One, it's important to distinguish consulting an expert from consulting a tech support script. Most of the time when you call up tech support, you're talking to a human being, but not an expert. You're talking to a person whose job it is to execute a script in order to relieve the experts from dealing with the common cases. (And yes, it's in the interest of a consumer tech-support department to spend as little money on expensive experts as they can get away with — which is why when a Windows box has gotten laggy, they say "reboot it" and not "pop open the task manager and see what's using 100% of your CPU". They don't want to diagnose the long-term problem (your Scrabble game that you left running in the background has a bug that makes it busy-wait if it's back there for 26 hours); they want to make your computer work now and get you off the line. That's a different case from, for instance, an institutional IT department (at, say, a university) that has to maintain a passable reputation with the faculty who actually care about getting their research done.) Two, there's narrative bias. The much-more-numerous cases where the simple fix works don't make for good "horror stories", so you don't hear them retold. Especially the ones where the poor user is now embarrassed because they have to admit they were outguessed by a tech-support script after giving the support tech a hard time. (Yeah, I like good tech support too; that's part of why I use the local awesome option ( for my ISP instead of Comcast. I can call them up and talk to someone who actually knows what ARP means. But sometimes the problem does go away for months when you power-cycle the damn modem.)
Well, we don't know that they're actually biased in this direction until we know how their assessment of the probability that the usual thing is going on compares to the actual probability that the usual thing is going on. Yes, there are plenty of "tech support horror stories" where the consultant has a hard time catching on to the fact that the complainant is not dealing with a usual or trivial problem, but for every one of those, there tends to be a slew of horror stories from the other end, of people getting completely wound up over something that the consultant can solve trivially, and failing to follow the simple advice needed to do so. The consultants could be very well calibrated, and still occasionally be dramatically wrong. Beware availability bias.
-1Said Achmiz9y
Note that cases where the tech tells you that it's usual problem X, and you deny this, asserting that your thing is a special snowflake, is NOT a case of the opposite bias. It's just a case of correct identification. The opposite bias would be if the usual thing was going on, but the tech thought that it was some unusual thing. Other IT-experienced people are welcome to correct me on this, but in my experience, the latter almost never happens, and when it does, it's mostly with newbie techies, recent hires/trainees, etc. This makes it substantially more likely that tech people have "usual problem bias" than that they have "unusual problem bias", and that they are well-calibrated. The usual problem bias could be small or it could be large, but available evidence is fairly clear that it exists.
The point I was making was not that tech support is likely to have an "unusual problem bias," but that being correctly calibrated with respect to usual and unusual problems will tend to appear like a "usual problem bias" when you examine in isolation the cases where they're wrong, because you would tend to observe cases where they need a significant amount of evidence to persuade them of the presence of an unusual problem, but not an unusual one. If you examine cases where they're right, you may find a large number of cases where the customer insists that the problem is not addressed by the tech support's script, only to be proven wrong; these often appear in the horror stories posted by tech support. Thus, tech support may to some extent be rationally discounting evidence favoring unusual problems.
This brings up another related problem, namely how often supposed "experts" actually aren't.

Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.

GK Chesterton

I don't really like quotes like this. It's not that it's not true and it's not that it's not that no one commits the error it warns against.

It's that no one who is blind to fallacies due to popularity is going to notice their mistake and change - it's too easy to agree with the quote without firing up the process that would lead you to making the mistake.

Good quotes will make it easy to put yourself in either position so that you can mentally bridge the two. If you're thinking "I can't imagine how they might make that mistake!", then you won't recognize that thought process when you go through it yourself.

The enemy of the enemy of my enemy is my enemy.

Harrap's First Law

"The enemy of my enemy has their own relationship with me."

Yup [].
Maxim 29 []

It turns out that when you are really really sleepy your favorite pieces of code are always the most 'obvious' ones. Thinking is not fun in the middle of the night, and it shouldn't be necessary all of the time.


Found here.

Nothing can be done [both] hastily and prudently.

Publilius Syrus

I'm not sure that's true in general. I can think of situations where the prudent course of action is to act as fast as possible. For instance, if you accidentally set yourself on fire on the cooker, if you are acting prudently, you will stop, drop and roll [,_drop_and_roll], and do it hastily.
The more I look at this, the less sure I am what "hastily" means. More precisely... if I understand "hastily" to mean, roughly, "more rapidly/sloppily than prudence dictates", then this statement is trivially true. If I assume the statement is nontrivial, I'm not sure how to test whether something is being done hastily.

if I understand "hastily" to mean, roughly, "more rapidly/sloppily than prudence dictates", then this statement is trivially true.

Trivial statements are often useful as reminders of facts, particularly when those facts are tradeoffs we would rather not have to face.

A good observation. I was going to suggest throwing a live hand grenade out of your tent as a counter-example -- but you don't want to do it so hastily that it misses the opening bounces back and lands in your lap.

Ignorance isn't a concatenation operator.

James Argo

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Would you mind unpacking that a bit. I don't understand it, and neither DuckDuckGo nor Google turns up anything but people on Twitter and Hacker News quoting the same sentence.
[-][anonymous]9y 16

puts "quantum" + " consciousness"

=> quantum consciousness

Here ignorance is acting as the "+" operator, binding the two strings into one. On reflection, it's not as clever as I thought it was when I read it on Hacker News. Rationality quotes should be scrutable. I'll retract.

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all interesting behavior is overdetermined

Eric Raymond

I don't get it.

It’s something I learned from animal ethology. An “overdetermined” behavior is one for which there are multiple sufficient explanations. To unpack: “For every interesting behavior of animals and humans there is more than one valid and sufficient causal theory.” Evolution likes overdetermined behaviors; they serve multiple functions at once.

Eric Raymond

Google Is My Friend.

You often see in the papers things saying events we just saw should happen every ten thousand years, hundred thousand years, ten billion years. Some faculty here in this university had an event and said that a 10-sigma event should happen every, I don't know how many billion years. Do you ever regard how worrisome it is, when someone makes a statement like that, "it should happen every ten thousand years," particularly when the person is not even two thousand years old?

So the fundamental problem of small probabilities is that rare events don't

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they are not making a statement based on empirical evidence, or computation of the odds, but based on what? On some model, some theory.

What's the difference between "based on computation of the odds" and "based on some model"?

Taleb is doing some handwaving here. "Some model" in this context is just the assumption of a specific probability distribution. So if, for example, you believe that the observation values are normally distributed with the mean of 0 and the standard deviation of 1, the chance of seeing a value greater than 3 (a "three-sigma value") is 0.13%. The chance of seeing a value greater than 6 (a "six-sigma value") is 9.87e-10. E.g. if your observations are financial daily returns, you effectively should never ever see a six-sigma value. The issue is that in practice you do see such values, pretty often, too. The problem with Taleb's statement is that to estimate the probabilities of seeing certain values in the future necessarily requires some model, even if implicit. Without one you can not do the "computation of the odds" unless you are happy with the conclusion that the probability to see a value you've never seen before is zero. Taleb's criticism of the default assumption of normality in much of financial analysis is well-founded. But when he starts to rail against models and assumptions in general, he's being silly.
So, this [].
Well, yeah, sure. Yvain wrote it up nicely, but the main point -- that what the model says and how much do you trust the model itself are quite different things -- is not complicated. To get back to Taleb, he is correct in pointing out that estimating what the tails of an empirical distribution look like is very hard because you don't see a lot of (or, sometimes, any) data from these tails. But if you need an estimate you need an estimate and saying "no model is good enough" isn't very useful.
But surely Taleb isn't saying "no model is good enough." He explicitly advocates greater care in model-building and greater awareness of the risks of error, not people throwing up their hands and giving up. He says at the end:
Actually, yes, he is. He is not terribly consistent, but when he goes into his "philosopher" mode he rants against all models. In fact, his trademark concept of a black swan is precisely what no model can predict.
Maybe it isn't the clearest way of describing it, but it seems that by "computation of odds" he means using at least some observation of frequencies, and is contrasting this with computing the probability of events for which there have as yet been no occurrences, so no observation of frequency has been possible.
No two real world events are exactly identical. You always need some model to generalize and say the ones you observed are like the ones you predict in some relevant way to reuse the observed frequency in your prediction. Without a model all you can say is that if the circumstances were to repeat exactly, then so would the outcome. And that just isn't very useful.
Hmm. But, if you multiply "once in every ten thousand years" by all the different kinds of things that could be said to happen once every ten thousand years, don't you get something closer to "many times a day"?
The computation is not relevant, because when you make a prediction that, say, some excursion in the stock market will happen only once in ten thousand years, you are making a prediction about that specific thing, not ten thousand things. It will be a thing you have never seen, because if you had seen it happen, you could not claim it would only happen once in ten thousand years—the observation would be a refutation of that claim. Since you have not seen it, you are deriving it from a theory, and moreover a theory applied at an extreme it has never been tested at. For such a prediction to be reliable, you need to know that your theory actually grasps the basic mechanism of the phenomenon, so that the observations that you have been able to make justify placing confidence in its extremes. This is a very high bar to reach. Here are a few examples of theories where extremes turned out to differ from reality: Newtonian gravity --> precession of Mercury Ideal gas laws --> non-ideal gases Daltonian atomic theory --> multiple isotopes of the same element
The computation is directly relevant, given that Taleb is talking about how often he sees "should only happen every N years" in newspapers and faculty news. Doesn't he realise how many things newspapers report on? Astronomy faculties are pretty good for this too, since they watch ridiculous numbers of stars at once. You can't just ignore the multiple comparisons [] problem by saying you're only making a prediction about "one specific thing". What about all the other predictions about the stock market you made, that you didn't notice because they turned out to be boringly correct? Intuition pump: my theory says that the sequence of coinflips HHHTHHTHTT-THHTHHHTT-TTHTHTTTTH-HTTTHTHHHTT, which I just observed, should happen about once every 7 million years.
Intuition pump: if I choose an interesting sequence of coinflips in advance, I will never see it actually happen if the coinflips are honest. There aren't enough interesting sequences of 40 coinflips to ever see one. Most of them look completely random, and in terms of Kolmogorov complexity, most of them are: they cannot be described much more compactly than by just writing them out. Now, we have a good enough understanding of the dynamics of tossed coins to be fairly confident that only deliberate artifice would produce a sequence of, say, 40 consecutive heads. We do not have such an understanding of the sort of things that appear in the news as "should only happen every N years". Feynman on the same theme [] .
Every sequence of 40 coin flips is interesting. Proof: Make a 1 to 1 relation on the sequence of 40 coin flips and a subset of the natural numbers, by making H=1 and T=0 and reading the sequence as a binary representation. Proceed by showing that every natural number is interesting [].
If you made ten million predictions of things that happen once every ten thousand years, and about three times a day one of them happens, then it would be sensible to conclude that a given one happens about once every ten thousand years. Most people don't do this, however. If someone managed to make ten million such predictions, they'd likely end up with a lot more than three of them happening a day.

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea.

-William Deresiewicz

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Dupe []

Rationality is only bridled irrationality.

-- Bas van Fraassen, Laws and Symmetry

I think Hume's 'reason is the slave of the passions' expresses the sentiment more clearly.
Rescue by saying ?

Rachel: I'll have to write that into the new gospel.

E-Merl: New gospel?

Rachel: Gospels should be updated regularly.

Guilded Age

Edit: mispelling of "write" corrected.

Write, not right. Sorry if you feel this is nitpicky; it broke up my concentration.
Thanks, fixed.

In fact, the more you ponder it, the more inevitable it seems. Evolution gave us the cognition we needed, nothing more. To the degree we relied on metacognition and casual observation to inform our self-conception, the opportunistic nature of our cognitive capacities remained all but invisible, and we could think ourselves the very rule, stamped not just the physical image of God, but in His cognitive image as well. Like God, we had no back side, nothing to render us naturally contingent. We were the motionless centre of the universe: the earth, in a very ... (read more)

This looks like it might mean something. Can anyone dumb it down to the point where I can understand it?
The basic gist of it seems to be that we don't have, and ought not expect evolved systems like ourselves to have, the cognitive capability to understand our cognitive limitations, at least not without information about the causes of those limitations that comes from something other than "metacognition". I'm not sure what Bakker means by "metacognition"; if he means this [] I'm pretty confident he's just wrong.

How would you move Mount Fuji?

Take some time. Think about it.

Got an answer?


Throw it away.

You can't move Mount Fuji.

-- Stefan Kendall

I bet he believes you can't walk on the moon either.

Yet, no one has been on the moon in decades. Environmental circumstances cannot be ignored. You can't go to the moon right now -- maybe in some years, most likely not. "What can a twelfth-century peasant do to save themselves from annihilation? Nothing. []"

That is true. There are some things that we cannot do. There are some things that we cannot do yet. There are some things that we can do, but have not.

The objection to the quote is that it seems to place "moving Mt. Fuji", as an example of some larger class, in the first class not arbitrarily, but in spite of the evidence (the fact that the audience has come up with an answer, if indeed they have). While the surrounding article makes a good point, the quote in isolation smacks of irrational defeatism.

As an alternative to the quote, I propose the following:

How would you move Mount Fuji?

Take some time. Think about it.

Got an answer?

I'll bet it's tremendously expensive, potentially devastating to the surrounding landscape, and requires the improbable cooperation of a lot of other entities.

Wouldn't it be so much easier to go around it instead?

Well, if we're proposing alternatives, I would probably reduce this to "Before setting out to move a mountain, consider what moving it accomplishes and whether there are cheaper ways of accomplishing that."
Why not?

Have you ever heard the phrase "rich as a Lannister"? ...Of course you have! You're a smart man. You know who the Lannisters are. I am a Lannister. Tyrion, son of Tywin. Of course, you have also heard the phrase "a Lannister always pays his debts". If you deliver a message from me to Lady Arryn, I will be in your debt. I will owe you gold... if you deliver the message, and I live, which I very much intend to do.

-Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

I'm always eager to upvote a Game of Thrones quote, but unfortunately I don't see the rationality insight here beyond an ordinary quid pro quo.

Tyrion is frequently put into situations where he relies on his family's reputation for paying debts.

It's a real-life Newcomb-like problem - specifically a case of Parfit's Hitchhiker - illustrating the practical benefits of being seen as the sort of agent who keeps promises. It's not an ordinary quid-pro-quo because there is, in fact, no incentive for Tyrion to keep his end of the bargain once he gets what he wants other than to be seen as the sort of person who keeps his bargain.

Think it's a stretch?

It's a real-life


Er...right. Realistic, I should have said! We often construct such ridiculous scenarios to illustrate this sort of thing ..."You're in a desert and a selfish pseudo-psychic drives by"? Really? I enjoyed the fact that Parfit's Hitchhiker came up as a pop-culture reference, in a situation that arose organically.
The point of these scenarios is make the issue as "clean" as possible, to strip away all the unnecessary embellishments which usually only cause people to fight the hypothetical. I guess what's inside the screenwriter's skull is organic... :-) But really, since the invention of writing pretty much every writer who addressed the issue pointed out the importance of one's reputation of keeping promises. There are outright commands (e.g. Numbers 30:2 If a man ... swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.) and innumerable stories and fables about good things which happen to those who keep their promises and bad things which happen to those who don't.
I don't disagree with what you say, but I do disagree with the connotation that things which are not original or counter intuitive are not worth pointing out. The last time [] this show was quoted, it basically amounted to "try hard to win, give it everything", which is also something that people have been saying since the beginning of writing. All quote threads are filled with things that have been said again and again in slightly different ways. Even outside of quote threads, it's worth rephrasing things. Pretty much every Lesswrong post has been conceptually written before by someone, with a few rare exceptions. Yes, but usually it's a punishment or reward issued directly from the other party, or by forces of nature...not about the practical value of going out of your way to establish reputation.
Something about the opposite of Parfit's hitchhiker? Developing a reputation for following through on promises one could renege on.