Rationality Quotes March 2014

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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson.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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As burglars, they used some unusual techniques...During their casing, they had noticed that the interior door that opened to the draft board office was always locked. There was no padlock to replace...The break-in technique they settled on at that office must be unique in the annals of burglary. Several hours before the burglary was to take place, one of them wrote a note and tacked it to the door they wanted to enter: "Please don't lock this door tonight." Sure enough, when the burglars arrived that night, someone had obediently left the door unlocked. The burglars entered the office with ease, stole the Selective Service records, and left. They were so pleased with themselves that one of them proposed leaving a thank-you note on the door. More cautious minds prevailed. Miss Manners be damned, they did not leave a note.

-- Betty Medsger

Tears in my eyes... awesome beyond words. The fact that this wasn't fictional makes it brilliant. The fact that the burglars were acting against an over-reaching institution is just icing on the cake. It's been sometime since I heard a story that warmed my heart so much.

How did they know they considered leaving a thank-you note? Did they confess afterwards?


Well. Sort of. Not exactly.

They were stealing government files on domestic surveillance in order to leak them - the quote comes from the journalist who was their press contact (see the link beneath the quote.)

As the world becomes more addictive, the two senses in which one can live a normal life will be driven ever further apart. One sense of "normal" is statistically normal: what everyone else does. The other is the sense we mean when we talk about the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best.

These two senses are already quite far apart. Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don't think you're weird, you're living badly.

-- Paul Graham, The Acceleration of Addictiveness

Thank you for linking to the piece where the quote was drawn. Great article!

In our large, anonymous society, it's easy to forget moral and reputational pressures and concentrate on legal pressure and security systems. This is a mistake; even though our informal social pressures fade into the background, they're still responsible for most of the cooperation in society.

  • Bruce Schneier, expert in security systems

"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

I sense an asymmetry when both sides are express mere high confidence in their primary conclusions, but they keep on claiming I've got some sort of absolute faith.

The use with children of experimental [educational] methods, that is, methods that have not been finally assessed and found effective, might seem difficult to justify. Yet the traditional methods we use in the classroom every day have exactly this characteristic--they are highly experimental in that we know very little about their educational efficacy in comparison with alternative methods. There is widespread cynicism among students and even among practiced teachers about the effectiveness of lecturing or repetitive drill (which we would distinguish from carefully designed practice), yet these methods are in widespread use. Equally troublesome, new "theories" of education are introduced into schools every day (without labeling them as experiments) on the basis of their philosophical or common-sense plausibility but without genuine empirical support. We should make a larger place for responsible experimentation that draws on the available knowledge--it deserves at least as large a place as we now provide for faddish, unsystematic and unassessed informal "experiments" or educational "reforms."

-- John R. Anderson, Lynne M. Reder & Herbert A. Simon: Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology to Mathematics Education

He says we could learn a lot from primitive tribes. But they could learn a lot more from us!

  • Jeremy Clarkson

Yes, but on net primitive tribes (at least in the short-run) seem to be made worse off from contact with technologically advanced civilizations.

Sure, but that doesn't change the fact that they could learn a lot from us. Indeed, if that weren't so, they

a) would be primitive and b) wouldn't be (especially and unusually) harmed by the contact.

Even after controlling for harmful or exploitative behavior by the advanced civilizations?

Depends which primitive tribes. Amerindians died from European diseases and Europeans died from African diseases.

I'm pretty sure most uncontacted tribes had their own religious weirdness.

Good point, but that doesn't fall under the "a lot to learn from" rubric. Your general point about contact is likely true.

Pretend I'm a fantastic in-person teacher but if you get near me you will die of some disease. Do you have a lot to learn from me?

As I said, your general point about net value of contact is correct.

My reply was not entirely literal; in short, information and disease do not all follow the same vectors. A sterilized phone would be helpful, but of course then you could say what if you don't know how to use a phone...

So, it's positive-sum. But anyway, who cares what a primitive tribe learns? We, surely, are the center and purpose of the universe; our gain, however small or large, is the important thing.

Procrastination is the thief of compound interest.

-Venkatesh Rao

If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru, you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.

Warren Buffett

It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema, and telling us that it leads the young into crime. But all the work that goes to producing a cinema is respectable, because it is work, and because it brings a money profit. The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy. The butcher who provides you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are praiseworthy, because they are making money; but when you enjoy the food they have provided, you are merely frivolous, unless you eat only to get strength for your work. Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad. Whatever merit there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them. The individual, in our society, works for profit; but the social purpose of his work lies in the consumption of what he produces. It is this divorce between the individual and the social purpose of production that makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which profit-making is the incentive to industry. We think too much of production, and too little of consumption. One result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and that we do not judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the consumer.

-- Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

I once attempted to sum this up on another forum by saying, "Careerism is a subgoal stomp." Russell, of course, better expresses the broader point that the subgoal stomp of maximizing productivity has almost entirely replaced all discussion of what kind of terminal goals individuals and societies should have.

The problem with spending money -- and consumption in general -- is the opportunity cost. If by doing something you are not maximizing some value, then it would be better if you did.

The same criticism could be also made about production: if you work hard and make profit by creating value, but by doing something else you could create even more value, then it would be better if you did the other thing.

Perhaps the difference is that on the production side people at least try to maximize (of course with all the human irrationality involved), but on the consumption side we often forget to think about it. So we need to be reminded there more.

If by doing something you are not maximizing some value, then it would be better if you did.

Not some value -- a lot of people are maximizing the wrong values.

One of the reasons why this whole thing is so complicated is that in reality people very rarely optimize for a single value. They optimize for a set of values which usually isn't too coherent and the weights for these values tend to fluctuate...

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’, ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous— that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

-- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

This is better than the other Screwtape quote, but - given the example of Ayn Rand - I think Lewis still gets causality backwards where smart Marxists were concerned. I think they started by being right about God and "materialism" when most people were insistently wrong (or didn't care about object-level truth.) This gave them an inflated view of their own intelligence and the explanatory power of Marxism.

I admit, I get horribly mind-killed whenever I realize I'm reading something by CS Lewis, especially anything from The Screwtape Letters. That's because years ago, the arguments in this book were used against me by a girl I was dating as a means to end our relationship (me being non-religious), who herself was convinced by her friends and family that we should break up.

That said, I was able to read this and appreciate it more clearly if I substituted the quote like so:

Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the [bad guys]. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that [good guys' philosophy] is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous— that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

If we are attempting to spread good rationality around, would it be efficient to not try to convince people that rationality was "true", but instead attempt to promote good rationality by saying that rationality is "strong, stark, or courageous -- that it is the philosophy of the future"?

So you propose to spread rationality by encouraging irrationality?

Even assuming that this will work — that is, not just get people to buy into rationality (that part is simple) but actually become more rational, after this initial dose of irrational motivation — what do you suggest we do when our new recruits turn around and go "Hey, wait a tick; you guys got me into this through blatantly irrational arguments! You cynically and self-servingly pandered to my previously-held biases to get me on your side! You tricked me, you bastards!"? Grin and say "worked, didn't it"?

So you propose to spread rationality by encouraging irrationality?

That seems to be what the quote is arguing.

The quote is spoken by a devil, who's deliberately seeking to destroy and devour a person...

The speaker does not himself believe that materialism is true; he is giving advice on how to make another believe a falsehood.

We aren't trying to promote the idea that rationality is true. We are trying to promote that it is useful.

More accurately, we have defined "rational" to mean "useful", and when we argue that something is rational, we are arguing that it's useful.

If you are, you are being irresponsible because you are not checking what people are going to do with this useful thing.

I can't know for sure that it won't come back to bite me, but I suspect helping people generally tends to be helpful. There are things that are easier to use to cause harm than to help, like nuclear weaponry, but in general helpful things seem to have improved humanity's standard of living, and made them care more about morality.

I don't actually think that teaching rationality is dangerous. I think that LW expects it to have an edifying effect, to change values for the better. So it is the claim of purely instrumental rationality that is the problem.

We aren't trying to promote the idea that rationality is true. We are trying to promote that it is useful.

We are trying to promote the idea that it is useful because it is true.

The only senses in which you wouldn't say it's true are those in which that would be a type error.

While it is true that you shouldn't be a materialist just because it's fashionable, there's a fine line between saying "you shouldn't be a materialist just because it's fashionable" and "my opponents are just materialists because it's fashionable". The second is a straw man argument, and given that this is CS Lewis putting words in the mouth of Satan, I read this as the straw man argument. Needless to say, a straw man argument is not a good rationalist quote.

The second is a straw man argument, and given that this is CS Lewis putting words in the mouth of Satan, I read this as the straw man argument.

That sounds to me like you're assuming that Lewis wrote the book so that he could put the devil to say strawmannish things, in order to mock the devil. Which is not the case at all - the demon writing the letters is much more similar to MoR!Quirrel, displaying a degree of rationality-mixed-with-cynicism which it uses to point out ways by which the lives of humans can be made miserable, or by which humans make their own lives miserable. Much of it can be read as a treatise on various biases and cognitive mistakes to avoid, made more compelling by them being explained by someone who wants those mistakes to be exploited for actively harming people.

I read that quote as saying that the Devil (or a demon) deceives people by making them believe those things, not that the Devil believes these things himself. That's how demons behave, they lie to people. This one lies to people about why one should be a materialist and the people fall for it. The point is not to mock the demon, who in the quote is acting as a liar rather than a materialist, but to mock materialists themselves by implying that they are materialists for spurious reasons.

Of course, Lewis has plausible deniability. One can always claim he's not attributing anything to materialists in general--you're supposed to infer that; it's not actually stated.

Edit: Also, remember when Lewis wrote that. 1942 wasn't like today, when it's possible to say you don't believe in the supernatural and (if you live in the right area) not suffer too many consequences except not ever being able to run for political office. Any materialist at the time who claimed he was courageous could easily be just responding to persecution, not claiming that that was his reason for being a materialist. Mocking materialists for that would be like mocking gay pride parades today on the grounds that pride is a sin and a form of arrogance--pride in a vacuum is, but pride in response to someone telling you you're shameful isn't.

The demon is not just lying at random - the demon is lying with the purpose of getting a certain reaction (in this case, getting the human to subscribe to the philosophy of materialism). The original quote is advice on how to use the human's cognitive biases against him, in order to better achieve that goal.

The point of the quote isn't materialism. That could be replaced with any other philosophy, quite easily. The point of the quote is that, for many people, subscribing to a philosophy isn't about whether that philosophy is true at all; it's more about whether that philosophy is popular, or cool, or daring.

The point isn't to mock the demon, or the materialist. The point is to highlight a common human cognitive mistake.