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Rationality Quotes January 2013

I am firmly atheist right now, lounging in my mom's warm living room in a comfy armchair, tipity-typing on my keyboard. But when I go out to sea, alone, and the weather turns, a storm picks up, and I'm caught out after dark, and thanks to a rusty socket only one bow light works... well, then, I pray to every god I know starting with Poseidon, and sell my soul to the devil while at it.

I'm not sure why I do it.

Maybe that's what my brain does to occupy the excess processing time? In high school, when I still remembered it, I used to recite the litany against fear. But that's not quite it. When waves toss my little boat around and I ask myself why I'm praying---the answer invariably comes out, ``It's never made things worse. So the Professor God isn't punishing me for my weakness. Who knows... maybe it will work? Even if not, prayer beats panic as a system idle process.''

How would you talk a stranger off the ledge?

I'd love to redirect everyone in my blast radius who's ever mentioned suicide to a hotline, but somehow I think that's the first thing just about anyone says when someone mentions suicide... to the point when "get professional help" is synonymous with "I don't want to deal with this personally."

In a similar vein, do suicide hotlines actually work? I'm reading up on them right now, and found this alarming article, that basically says that sometimes the call centers screw up, but overall they work sort of well, and that lapses need to be fixed with better training. I can't find any specifics about what that training entails; I'd love to read about what those hotline volunteers actually say to the strangers who call in.

Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate

“If I agree, why should I bother saying it? Doesn’t my silence signal agreement enough?”

That’s been my non-verbal reasoning for years now! Not just here: everywhere. People have been telling me, with various degrees of success, that I never even speak except to argue. To those who have been successful in getting through to me, I would respond with, “Maybe it sounds like I’m arguing, but you’re WRONG. I’m not arguing!”

Until I read this post, I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it. Yikes!

[SEQ RERUN] Why is the Future So Absurd?

Gotcha. I wasn't aware that there had been more discussion about sequence reruns than that one thread.

Magic Tricks Revealed: Test Your Rationality

If those teacher's students were absolutely not expecting a lie, then another out-of-the-box question based on physics they should understand wouldn't trick them. The trust has been broken. On the other hand, if the problem is their inability to be creative enough, they won’t become creative just because they learned not to trust the teacher.

My high school physics teacher in high school who liked tricking us. Demonstrating his point about reflections off of light/dark surfaces, he covered up the laser pointer while shining it at a black binder. He put a compass next to a magnet to throw us off. These tricks were rare enough that we didn’t expect them every time, but we also knew not to blindly trust his setup. Still, there were plenty of people who fell for them every time.

And then came the torque wheel, a gyroscope bicycle wheel almost exactly like the one in this video. My first reaction, based on physics I did understand (and that wasn’t it at that time) was, “That’s impossible!” Then the teacher then told us it wasn’t a trick. He wouldn’t lie, but my reaction was still, “That’s impossible!” If I remember correctly, my hypothesis involved a hinge at the end of a solid string. Eventually, the teacher just had me hold the wheel and spun it… and the friggin’ thing moved on its own!!! I even checked that the axis or the rim didn’t contain any magicary before I was able to admit that, “Huh, I guess it is possible.”

A couple years later after that, another physics teacher inadvertently placed a compass on top of the table with a classroom computer inside of it. And then he had us learn N/S/E/W by pointing. I was the only moron in a 200-person class pointing to the “wrong” North.

[SEQ RERUN] Why is the Future So Absurd?

Discuss the post here (rather than in the comments to the original post).

This comment by alexflint doesn't look like it's gotten much exposure back when sequence reruns were first discussed.

Maybe the template shouldn't be instructing people to leave comments here?

If You Demand Magic, Magic Won't Help

So, magic is easy. Then, everyone else is doing it, too. (And you're spending a good portion of your learning curve struggling with the magical equivalent of flipping a light switch). It's even more mundane than difficult magic.

By comparison, how many times today have you thought, "Wow! I'm really glad I have eyesight!" Well, now you have. But it's not something you go around thinking all the time. Why do you expect that you'd think "Wow! I'm really glad I have easy magic!" any more frequently?

Joy in Discovery

The problem with routine discoveries, like my most recent discovery of how a magic trick works or the QED-euphoria I get after getting a proof down, is that it doesn't last long. I can't output 5 proofs/solutions an hour.

Availability

Subjects thought that accidents caused about as many deaths as disease.

Lichtenstein et aliōrum research subjects were 1) college students and 2) members of a chapter of the League of Women Voters. Students thought that accidents are 1.62 times more likely than diseases, and league members thought they were 11.6 times more likely (geometric mean). Sadly, no standard deviation was given. The true value is 15.4. Note that only 57% and 79% of students and league members respectively got the direction right, which further biased the geometric average down.

There were some messed up answers. For example, students thought that tornadoes killed more people than asthma, when in fact asthma kills 20x more people than tornadoes. All accidents are about as likely as stomach cancer (well, 1.19x more likely), but they were judged to be 29 times more likely. Pairs like these represent a minority, and subjects were generally only bad at guessing which cause of death was more frequent when the ratio was less than 2:1. These are the graphs from the paper.

The following excerpt is from Judged Frequency Of Lethal Events by Lichtenstein, Slovic, Fischhoff, Layman and Combs.

Instructions. The subjects' instructions read as follows:

Each item in part one consists of two different possible causes of death. The question you are to answer is: Which cause of death is more likely? We do not mean more likely for you, we mean more likely in general, in the United States.

Consider all the people now living in the United States—children, adults, everyone. Now supposing we randomly picked just one of those people. Will that person more likely die next year from cause A or cause B ? For example: Dying in a bicycle accident versus dying from an overdose of heroin. Death from each cause is remotely possible. Our question is, which of these two is the more likely cause of death?

For each pair of possible causes of death, A and B, we want you to mark on your answer sheet which cause you think is MORE LIKELY. Next, we want you to decide how many times more likely this cause of death is, as compared with the other cause of death given in the same item. The pairs we use vary widely in their relative likelihood. For one pair, you may think that the two causes are equally likely. If so, you should write the number 1 in the space provided for that pair. Or, you may think that one cause of death is 10 times, or 100 times, or even a million times as likely as the other cause of death. You have to decide: How many times as likely is the more likely cause of death? Write the number in the space provided. If you think it's twice as likely, write 2. If it's 10 thousand times as likely, write 10,000, and so forth.

There were more instructions about relative likelihoods and scales. And there was a glossary to help the people understand some categories.

All accidents: includes any kind of accidental event; excludes diseases and natural disasters (floods, tornadoes, etc.).

All cancer: includes leukemia.

Cancer of the digestive system: includes cancer of stomach, alimentary tract, esophagus, and intestines.

Excess cold: freezing to death or death by exposure.

Nonvenomous animal: dogs, bears, etc.

Venomous bite or sting: caused by snakes, bees, wasps, etc.

Note that there was nothing about “old age” anywhere. There is no such thing as “death by old age,” but I’ll risk generalizing from my own example to say that some people think there is. And even those who know there isn’t might think, despite the instructions, “Oh, darnit, I forgot that old people count, too.”

I wish I’d tested myself BEFORE reading the correct answer. As near as I could tell, I would’ve been correct about homicide vs. suicide, but wrong about diseases vs. accidents (“Old people count, too!” facepalm). I wouldn’t even bother guessing the relative frequency. I didn’t have a clue.

When I need to know the number of square feet in an acre, or the world population it takes me seconds to get from the question to the answer. I dutifully spent ~20 minutes googling the CDC website, looking for this. It wasn’t even some heroic effort, but it’s not something I, or most other people, would casually expend on every question that starts with, “Huh, I wonder….” (we should, but we don’t).

As for what I found: I dare you, click on my link and see table 9. (http://www.cdc.gov/NCHS/data/nvsr/nvsr58/nvsr58_19.pdf). Did you? If you did, you would’ve seen that Zubon2 was right in this comment. Accidents win by quite a margin in the 15-44 demographic. I couldn’t find 1978 data, but I’d expect it to be similar (Lichtenstein’s et al tables are no help because they pool all age groups).

I spent the last two hours looking at these tables. Ask me anything! … I won’t be able to answer. Unless I have the CDC tables in front of me, I might not even do much better on Lichtenstein et aliōrum questionnaire than a typical subject (well, at least, I know tornadoes have frequency; measles doesn’t—I’ll get that question right). I suppose that people who haven’t looked at the CDC table are getting all of their information from fragmented reports like “Drive safely! Traffic accidents is the leading cause of death among teenagers who !” or “Buy our drug! is the leading cause of death in over 55!” or “5-star exhaust pipe crash safety rating!” Humans aren’t good at integrating these fragments.

Memory is a bad guide to probability estimates. But what’s the alternative? Should we carry tables around with us?

Personally, I hope that someday data that is already out there in the public domain will be made easily accessible. I hope that finding the relative frequencies of measles-related deaths and tornado-related deaths will be as quick as finding the number of square feet in an acre or the world population, and that political squabble will focus on whether or not certain data should be in the public domain (“You can’t force hospitals to put their data online! That violates the patients’ right to privacy!” “Well, but….”)

Note: repost from SEQ RERUN.

Introduction to the Sequence Reruns

Seconded.

At this point, [SEQ RERUNS] get very few responses. Barely any discussions happen in [SEQ RERUNS]. Might as well post comments in the original post and hope someone will respond in a couple months.

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