One kid said to me, “See that bird? What kind of bird is that?” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush (or something). Your father doesn’t teach you anything!” But it was the opposite. My father had taught me, looking at a bird, he says, “Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown-throated thrush. But in Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida; in Italian, a Chutto Lapittida." He says, "In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda, et cetera." He says, "Now you know all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is, and when when you’re finished with all that," he says, "you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. Well," he says, "let’s look at the bird and what it’s doing."

--Richard Feynman, source. Full video (The above passage happens at about the 7:00 mark in the full version.)

N.B. The transcript provided differs slightly from the video. I have followed the video.

Related to: Replace the Symbol with the Substance

Knowing the name of the bird tells you next to nothing about it, but once you know the name of the bird it becomes much easier for people to tell you about them.

3dxu5yAlso related: Guessing the Teacher's Password []
10elharo5yFeynman knew physics but he didn't know ornithology. When you name a bird, you've actually identified a whole lot of important things about it. It doesn't matter whether we call a Passer domesticus a House Sparrow or an English Sparrow, but it is really useful to be able to know that the male and females are the same species, even though they look and sound quite different; and that these are not all the same thing as a Song Sparrow or a Savannah Sparrow. It is useful to know that Fox Sparrows are all Fox Sparrows, even though they may look extremely different depending on where you find them. Assigning consistent names to the right groups of things is colossally important to biology and physics. Not being able to name birds for an ornithologist would be like a physicist not being able to say whether an electron and a positron are the same thing or not. Again it doesn't matter which kind of particle we call electron and which we call positron (arguably Ben Franklin screwed up the names there by guessing wrong about the direction of current flow) but it matters a lot that we always call electrons electrons and positrons positrons. Similarly it's important for a chemist to know that Helium 3 and Helium 4 are both Helium and not two different things (at least as far as chemistry and not nuclear physics is concerned). Names are useful placeholders for important classifications and distinctions.

Rationality Quotes Thread March 2015

by Vaniver 1 min read2nd Mar 2015235 comments


Another month, another rationality quotes thread. The 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.
  • Provide sufficient information (URL, title, date, page number, etc.) to enable a reader to find the place where you read the quote, or its original source if available. Do not quote with only a name.