On Doing the Improbable

by Eliezer Yudkowsky1 min read28th Oct 201835 comments


Heroic ResponsibilityCause Prioritization

(Cross-posted from Facebook.)

I've noticed that, by my standards and on an Eliezeromorphic metric, most people seem to require catastrophically high levels of faith in what they're doing in order to stick to it. By this I mean that they would not have stuck to writing the Sequences or HPMOR or working on AGI alignment past the first few months of real difficulty, without assigning odds in the vicinity of 10x what I started out assigning that the project would work. And this is not a kind of estimate you can get via good epistemology.

I mean, you can legit estimate 100x higher odds of success than the Modest and the Outside Viewers think you can possibly assign to "writing the most popular HP fanfiction on the planet out of a million contenders on your first try at published long-form fiction or Harry Potter, using a theme of Harry being a rationalist despite there being no evidence of demand for this" blah blah et Modest cetera. Because in fact Modesty flat-out doesn't work as metacognition. You might as well be reading sheep entrails in whatever way supports your sense of social licensing to accomplish things.

But you can't get numbers in the range of what I estimate to be something like 70% as the required threshold before people will carry on through bad times. "It might not work" is enough to force them to make a great effort to continue past that 30% failure probability. It's not good decision theory but it seems to be how people actually work on group projects where they are not personally madly driven to accomplish the thing.

I don't want to have to artificially cheerlead people every time I want to cooperate in a serious, real, extended shot at accomplishing something. Has anyone ever solved this organizational problem by other means than (a) bad epistemology (b) amazing primate charisma?

EDIT: Guy Srinivasan reminds us that paying people a lot of money to work on an interesting problem is also standardly known to help in producing real perseverance.