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

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I'm glad that this issue was brought up, because I've been reluctant to post at all until recently due to my history with smart people in other online communities being that any "stupid questions" I have would lead me being perceived as, well, stupid. However, people here seem to have a level of understanding that makes admitting ignorance on certain subjects less stressful.

My lurking days may be coming to an end.

Virtue ethics: "there are no stupid questions, only stupid people."

Seriously though, I wish LW was less attached to single parameter models of human competence (IQ tests, g, and the like). This undercurrent of ordering people from best to worst based on single parameter models from the early 1900s psychometrics is pretty toxic. These models are severely silly of course, like any vast dimension reduction strategy has to be, but its the ordering that's bad.


As far as I'm aware, there aren't any parameters that correlate with success quite as well as g does, though, apart from maybe economic status, which itself correlates with g. I admit to being largely uninformed on this topic, so of course I could be wrong--indeed, I'd go so far as to call it likely. Could anyone expand on this point?

Here is what the graph looks like:

g <- [a high dimensional space representing your brain] -> success in life.

You may well be right that it may be hard to design another single variable that is a child of [...] that correlates as well with success in life as g does. And if you are in the business of prediction, g is certainly a nice dimension reduction strategy. But why one number? Why not [some other integer] numbers? Aren't you losing information? Success is super complicated. There are huge components of success not measured by tests that measure IQ (morale, ability to navigate social settings well, etc. etc. etc.)

Where it also gets iffy is where people forget that g is a parameter reduction strategy for [...], not a status marker that admits a total ordering. People talk about IQ a lot here, not sure if there is a more charitable reading of this than status talk.

Or where people start recommending policy based on a g/success correlation (recommending policy based on correlations is always a tricky business).

"g correlates with everything" is a special case of a more general thing people noticed where "everything correlates with everything."


Also, it's a high-dimensional space with rich topological structure. The space of possible human brains is emphatically not a plain metric space.


Interesting. This of course raises the question of whether it's possible to write a hash function mapping various brain configurations to a relatively small space of hash keys. If so, then there really could be an integer parameter that correlates extremely well with everything you can do in life. Given the complexity of the brain, I somewhat doubt the feasibility of this, but it's at least interesting to think about.

What's wrong with being stupid? What's wrong with being perceived as stupid?

It seems that the "stupid" you're referring to is "not knowledgeable", or perhaps "poor aptitude". Those are both things that can (largely) be trained.

Personally, I judge people for lacking open-mindedness, and to a lesser extent curiosity, and to a lesser extent ambition. I sense that this is a rather common way that smart people judge others. But I don't think it's common to judge people for temporarily lacking knowledge.


Normatively there should be nothing wrong with being (perceived as) unknowledgable in a certain field as long as one tries to fix this.

However it is hardly news that people avoid situations in which they have to admit their lack of understanding, for which there may be many reasons, such as

  • People conflating lack of knowledge in a certain field with generally lower cognitive abilities, i.e. they may both believe themselves to lack lack cognitive abilities as well as believe that others will think they lack those abilities, which leads to

  • Perceived loss of status in one's social environment if others take one to be stupid (in a conflated sense)

  • Regret that they have not learned X when they think they should have learned X

  • etc..

Now none of these are very good reasons, but when did humans ever need good reasons to do something, when there are so many bad ones?

Normatively there should be nothing wrong with being (perceived as) unknowledgable in a certain field as long as one tries to fix this.

In what cases do you think "as long as one tries to fix this" applies?


I think that "as long as one does not vehemently refuse to integrate newfound knowledge into one's database and update one's beliefs" would be a better way to put it now and perhaps clearer too.

What I said before was probably too vague (or just wrong) because one can't really become knowledgable as to everything and I don't think that should be held as a point against them.

So it seems like you're talking about integrating knowledge, rather than seeking it. Is that true?


Yes, I mainly mean integrating knowledge. Which is not to say that I don't think people should not actively seek out new knowledge about all kinds of topics, but seeing how it's absolutely impossible to know even just a little about everything I don't think one can blame them for not seeking knowledge about a certain topic X. Unless of course X is something which by all means should be relevant to them.

Which is just to say it depends, I suppose.

Knowledge can be learned but aptitude is more or less defined in terms of not being trainable. Of course, this might mean that it's simply defined out of existence, but my experience has definitely been that it's much easier to teach some people things than others. Indeed, I experience a significant conflict between helping students who're most at risk of failing, and thereby accomplishing very little actual instruction, because they're mostly so difficult to teach, and focusing on the students who could pass under their own initiative, who'll actually absorb and comprehend the instruction, but can get by without it.

There are issues of attitude as well as aptitude, and they're closely intertwined, but they're not the same thing, and when you deal with a lot of people who vary along both metrics, it's hard to avoid differentiating between them.

It seems that the "stupid" you're referring to is "not knowledgeable", or perhaps "poor aptitude".

I think that usually "stupid" means "bad at acquiring and processing information".

I am really uncertain about writing this because it's such a controversial topic in most places, but my mom recently took a turn for the worse and I had to decide whether or not I would sign a DNR. I was completely overwhelmed. I started implicitly distrusting the doctors, not considering just how low the probability of her survival was, and not thinking clearly about my mom's preferences. She expressed a desire not to be resuscitated, and she had stage IV melanoma, and hepatic encephalopathy from her lifelong alcoholism and hepatitis B and C. She had wanted to die in a scenario just like this and there was nothing to be gained from prolonging her life. It wasn't public, but it was a LessWrong user whom I reached out to who helped me make the right decision, and she could have suffered a lot more for no damned reason other than my stupid jury-rigged brain if it weren't for that. I really wanted to point out that sometimes it's not stuff like whether or not we should use nicotine when we study, or even which career we should choose; sometimes it's really harrowing stuff that completely muddles our ability to think and that can turn out horribly for you and everyone else if you don't just ask for help. And this is a great place to ask for help.

Thank you for sharing this and encouraging others to also share in similar situations.

Holy cow this comment almost made me cry. Thanks for your honesty.

I really wanted to point out that sometimes it's not stuff like whether or not we should use nicotine when we study, or even which career we should choose; sometimes it's really harrowing stuff that completely muddles our ability to think and that can turn out horribly for you and everyone else if you don't just ask for help. And this is a great place to ask for help.

This is excellent. I wish I could upvote you twice.


I get immense benefit from just knowing that this helpful community exists and that I can ask it for advice.

Generally I try to ask one question in every open thread and to read them in general to see if someone solved a problem I didn't even know I have.

What impresses me is that this post not only argues persuasively for using LessWrong as social resource, but it has provided me with convenient links to many posts I otherwise would have missed that are pretty high-quality (both for choosing what to do with my life, and general quality).

I'm not going to lie - I always find discussions at LW very intense and rather intimidating. Discussing my and other people's ideas is bad enough - I personally would rather not expose anything highly personal to the brutally honest scrutiny here.

Users can always start a throwaway account, and post in a thread. That's done on reddit. It may be more difficult to start a discussion with a throwaway account, but I suppose it could be done. I just discussed this in the open thread. Some etiquette was covered:

  • Indicate clearly, and from the beginning, that the account you're using is a throwaway. For example, "this is a throwaway account..."

  • Use it to discuss topics you don't want to have your real name, or your regular account linked to, but don't use it as an excuse to engage Less Wrong at a lower level than you usually do.

  • Don't use the throwaway account as a mask to get away with trolling, harassment, bad jokes, vitriol, or not trying to be reasonable.

The community may be indifferent, or sympathetic, but usually not exclusionary. I mean, if somebody is using a throwaway account to discuss why it's rational for all of us to start hating this one particular outgroup, that would deservedly receive flak. However, maybe someone wants to discuss really signing up for cryonics, but the feel it's still too weird to have their name publicly linked to it. Or, maybe, they have a problem they believe Less Wrong might be able to solve better than other online, or meatspace, support communities, but they're embarrassed for people to know it's them. If I was in that particular sort situation, I would make it clear that I'm already a regular user of Less Wrong, and it's too harrowing.

However, no user would be obliged to qualify why they're using a throwaway, even if another user doesn't have the perspective to understand why a throwaway might feel necessary.


It can also be done without setting up a throwaway account. LW has an anonymous community account (Username) that can be used for this purpose.

username and password are Username and password


There's two ways I'm thinking your aversion could be interpreted: not revealing something because mostly you feel it's personally embarrassing, or not revealing something you because you believe you would be widely negatively judged for it. I tried to offer a solution to the former interpretation of the problem in the other comment. In this comment, I'll cover what I believe makes sense when you believe you'd be very harshly judged. I don't believe such aversions to sharing such thoughts are miscalibrated.

I'll start with an example. When I wrote this above post, when example I was considering using was from one user, not using a real name, who was asking about whether it was worth taking an illegal psychoactive substance for its therapeutic and cognitive effects. Now, I didn't need to ask anyone's permission to include their own perspectives as examples, and I still don't. That's because nobody does. However, this one user might be linked to their public identity. I'm not mentioning either the username, nor the substance in question, so it's not searchable. That was an edge case for which I erred to be more discrete, and not very publicly profile someone who asks a more taboo question. They got the answer they wanted, which is what's important. I wrote the post so individual users would get value for themselves, not ask questions out of a sense of 'improving the community', or whatever.

That's the sort of personal detail that might attract unwanted attention outside of Less Wrong norms. Talking about our own personal politics, or ideological beliefs (fringe-science, social, philosophical, etc.), that aren't shared by most others isn't always appreciated on Less Wrong. It's fine to hold those beliefs if you're willing to accept you may very well be wrong, but debating such on Less Wrong still seems problematic. However, the community has shifted from "politics is the mind-killer to "politics is hard mode to "we have other sites specifically for discussing controversial topics".


Human nature being what it is, when someone asks "how can I best do X", giving a straight answer will often be taken as validation of doing X. This makes me wary of answering such questions without saying "X is stupid".


What I meant was that stupid questions can be asked without the poser of the question being mass downvoted, or being repudiated as an incredibly stupid person who should go away and who is then discouraged from asking even good questions. Often, the questions in the Stupid Questions threads were not about what one person should do. For example, someone asked the question: "how do I talk to strangers?"

However, I don't mean that the premise of a 'stupid' question can't be rejected, or criticized. For example, some of the questions about what I should do were replied to with 'don't do that'. Of course, figuring out what supplements are worth taking, or what to study in university, aren't 'stupid' questions. However, some questions will seem dumb, so do criticize or reject them, just without making it personal.

If someone asks the question 'how do I do X?', that implies that doing X is a good idea. So, I recommend people either explain their reasons for believing an intent to act is justified, or at least ask everyone else if it's worth doing, directly prior to asking how they go about doing it.

Jiro, next time you're responding to a stupid question, maybe we can try stating "I don't X is:

  • worth your time."

  • what you should do."

  • what most people can succeed at doing."


Then, explain the reason(s) why, and suggest why they should choose an alternative, included neglected ones.

If this is still on LessWrong, then how others concur, or vote, will be an indicator of if everyone else thinks that a good idea. If it is, and the original poser of the question doesn't heed the warning, then we've tried the best we can, and we can't force the other person not to act. Of course, if you think someone is in danger, then maybe repudiating what someone intends to do as stupid and dangerous and being sterner/harsher could be warranted.

When I've received downvotes for a comment, I interpret that as useful information

How nice for you. Some of us are still getting fairly consistent downvotes from Eugine Nier.

I'm not too familiar with him. It doesn't seem he's using downvotes for their intended purposes in this site, nor in good faith interpreting those he votes down as trying in earnest to learn or make valuable contributions. I'm guessing it's difficult for moderators to permanently solve the problem because Mr. Nier may use sockpuppet accounts.

I made an oversight. Should I edit my OP to include a caveat or note about noticing abuse of voting mechanisms, and how to deal with it?

I don't know if we have a way to deal with it, but I'd appreciate a caveat.


What would you say to a good friend whose father was diagnosed with schizophrenia and who didn't take it well? As in, 'I shall not marry, I shall not have kids [though I was not otherwise against it], I have until forty in my mind.' And until forty she expects to mind her parents.

Depends on how old the friend is, and how prone she is to making dramatic declarations of that sort she doesn't actually follow through on, and on her relationship to her parents.

In general - if she's young (which from my current perch maps to mid-20s or so) and her relationship with her parents seems generally healthy, and she's not prone to following through on ill-advised oaths purely for the sake of consistency, I would probably ignore all of that and encourage her to talk (to someone) about her feelings about her father and his diagnosis and her own mental health, and expect her to gradually come to some kind of peace with it.

If she's older than that, or if she's more compulsive about consistency, I might engage her on the relationships question more actively... why not marry, for example? If her concern is with her spouse having to care for her, etc., I'd probably open the conversation up a little into questions of informed consent and whether she feels that's a situation people can choose to risk for themselves, and that sort of thing. If her concern is something else, I'd listen and try to decide whether it's a fair concern, and act accordingly.

If her relationship with her parents is unhealthy, I'd probably focus on that first. Not sure what I'd say exactly, but I'd encourage her to talk about that relationship and what she expects from it and whether she endorses that, and if not how she might go about changing that relationship.


She's almost 29, isn't prone of declarations of the kind at all (one of those ironic people who don't give much weight to others not giving much weight to what she said once), and hasn't done anything truly inconsistent with the claim in the last 6-7 years. She has talked about this issue with her friends, though many of them are child-free based on other considerations and so might not have steel manned homemaking. Her mother, who was the one to diagnose her father, has taken her to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed some antidepressants, I think (she also has some stress at her job during that time).

I talked to her about informed consent, and she did not answer me explicitly, but I think her objections would be of the sort 'people swear to help without any idea of what it entails, and since I have an idea through living with my parents, and do not wish to suffer through explaining it in sufficient detail, the honest thing is to not force others to choose.'

She's also unlikely to start living separately, unless she does find a postdoc in another country.

(nods) Yeah, that's tricky.
I'd be tempted to ask how she would feel about a prenup that specified a forcible divorce if she was diagnosed, but that would mostly just be a joke in bad taste.

Maybe there are third-party sources of information she could point potential suitors to?


She might not find the joke in bad taste. I am not sure what youmean by third-party sources, though. She has a sister with a wildly different opinion on the matter ('ah well, it's not like anybody's free from deleterious alleles, so my kid might obtain worse from my husband, but we still are going to have one') and she knows marriage != procreation for many men, but... She's still 'morally obliged' to stay with her parents until the end.

By third-party sources I mean, like, if the AMA or APA has a brochure entitled "So Your Spouse Is Schizophrenic... What Now?" Something that would provide potential suitors with the relevant facts without her having to explain it all (yet again).


Thank you. I'll look it up and talk to her. At worst, she'll laugh.

It's not so much "saying to" but providing the person a space to be clear about the assumptions that drive her thinking.


She seems to be well aware of them, and I have her come over as often as she is able to. It's just, I think this isn't enough in the Quirrelmort sense of 'enough'. The reason I ask this on LW is because we have a 'conflict of interests' - if she 'defects', the responsibility of minding her folks falls to me, meaning I might have not given it my best shot (even though I do think so.)

Agreed. I've asked personally important questions on LW also. Most recently about whether I (and more generally, people similar to me, and also people in general) should save for the long term.

The way I see it is that even though it might be uncomfortable, you have so much more to gain than you do to lose. Because the margins are quite big, I'd feel bad if I didn't do it. My hesitation is that it may be pestering the community a bit.

  1. I think it'd be great if there was a section for these sorts of questions and conversations. Posting in a more heavily trafficked section like Discussion may bug people who aren't interested. If there was a section for this, I sense that people would feel less hesitant to post. A more 'intuitive' reason for this belief of mine is because I think it's hard for your brain to say "you're not supposed to post this here, you'll be bugging people" when there's a clearly labeled section for that type of post.

  2. This doesn't make much sense, but I'll try to brain dump. For more serious things, it's bothersome that there's a record of the post on the internet for anyone who Googles you to see. I know that you could just delete it after the conversation... but something in my System I feels hesitant to do that. Probably because I/my system has a really big belief that I should never want to hide anything ever. So I guess what I'm saying is that perhaps others have similar-ish feelings, and perhaps a feature that adds privacy to these sorts of posts would be useful. I don't really have any good/more specific ideas though. But if anyone else wants conversation/feedback but doesn't want to post publicly, always feel free to message me. I enjoy helping people, I enjoy the problem solving aspect, and it's good practice for me.

Somehow this ended up at the top of the RSS feed for Main, even though I'm quite sure it was posted months ago (and there are comments on the post from months ago). Um?

I'm the author. It's not an error. I posted in Main because I believe a fair amount of people only read articles posted in Main. I never posted this in Main, but it seemed important enough to share to increase visibility or whatever. My apologies if it's bothersome.

Ah. It's not bothersome. I just wasn't sure how it happened, and thought it might be a technical glitch. Didn't realize moving a post from discussion to main would reset the date on it.

I suspect editing posts changes their date (possibly with some restrictions?), and the order is determined by current date rather than original date.

I found a website that might have credible evidence for the afterlife and I wanted to post about it here so it can be checked by the experts. I want to find evidence for whether God exists or not using rational methods and I think this site will be very helpful. I'm only a teenager though so I think I need adult guidance. I know many people here are atheists and naturalists so I hope there isn't any bias since you've learned to overcome it.

Did you mean to post a link here? I'm not seeing one.

Ah. That web site throws out too many claims to investigate fully -- who has the time? -- but if you google around for a sampling of them you'll notice that they tend to crumble under scrutiny. The sections mentioning quantum mechanics are especially blatant: they're gibberish, total incoherent misuse of terminology.

EDIT: There's a sequence of articles called Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions which is relevant here. One that applies in particular is Fake Explanations, which could be summarized as "If you are equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge." When people talk about "etheric worlds on different frequencies", or "energy vortices swirling faster than the speed of light on the earth plane", what does this predict? What, concretely, does it mean? If it can explain anything, then it predicts nothing.