Don't Be Afraid of Asking Personally Important Questions of Less Wrong


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Evan_Gaensbauer

Related: LessWrong as a social catalyst

I primarily used my prior user profile asked questions of Less Wrong. When I had an inkling for a query, but I didn't have a fully formed hypothesis, I wouldn't know how to search for answers to questions on the Internet myself, so I asked them on Less Wrong.

The reception I have received has been mostly positive. Here are some examples:

  • Back when I was trying to figure out which college major to pursue, I queried Less Wrong about which one was worth my effort. I followed this up with a discussion about whether it was worthwhile for me to personally, and for someone in general, to pursue graduate studies.


Other student users of Less Wrong benefit from the insight of their careered peers:

  • A friend of mine was considering pursuing medicine to earn to give. In the same vein as my own discussion, I suggested he pose the question to Less Wrong. He didn't feel like it at first, so I posed the query on his behalf. In a few days, he received feedback which returned the conclusion that pursuing medical school through the avenues he was aiming for wasn't his best option relative to his other considerations. He showed up in the thread, and expressed his gratitude. The entirely of the online rationalist community was willing to respond provided valuable information for an important question. It might have taken him lots of time, attention, and effort to look for the answers to this question by himself.

In engaging with Less Wrong, with the rest of you, my experience has been that Less Wrong isn't just useful as an archive of blog posts, but is actively useful as a community of people. As weird as it may seem, you can generate positive externalities that improve the lives of others by merely writing a blog post. This extends to responding in the comments section too. Stupid Questions Threads are a great example of this; you can ask questions about your procedural knowledge gaps without fear of reprisal.  People have gotten great responses about getting more value out of conversations, to being more socially successful, to learning and appreciating music as an adult. Less Wrong may be one of few online communities for which even the comments sections are useful, by default.

For the above examples, even though they weren't the most popular discussions ever started, and likely didn't get as much traffic, it's because of the feedback they received that made them more personally valuable to one individual than several others.

At the CFAR workshop I attended, I was taught two relevant skills:

* Value of Information Calculations: formulating a question well, and performing a Fermi estimate, or back-of-the-envelope question, in an attempt to answer it, generates quantified insight you wouldn't have otherwise anticipated.

* Social Comfort Zone Expansion: humans tend to have a greater aversion to trying new things socially than is maximally effective, and one way of viscerally teaching System 1 this lesson is by trial-and-error of taking small risks. Posting on Less Wrong, especially, e.g., in a special thread, is really a low-risk action. The pang of losing karma can feel real, but losing karma really is a valuable signal that one should try again differently. Also, it's not as bad as failing at taking risks in meatspace.

When I've received downvotes for a comment, I interpret that as useful information, try to model what I did wrong, and thank others for correcting my confused thinking. If you're worried about writing something embarrassing, that's understandable, but realize it's a fact about your untested anticipations, not a fact about everyone else using Less Wrong. There are dozens of brilliant people with valuable insights at the ready, reading Less Wrong for fun, and who like helping us answer our own personal questions. Users shminux and Carl Shulman are exemplars of this.

This isn't an issue for all users, but I feel as if not enough users are taking advantage of the personal value they can get by asking more questions. This post is intended to encourage them. User Gunnar Zarnacke suggested that if enough examples of experiences like this were accrued, it could be transformed into some sort of repository of personal value from Less Wrong