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Little Johny Bayesian

12 Post author: Darmani 18 March 2009 09:30PM

Followup to: Rationalist Storybooks: A Challenge

This was originally a comment in response to a challenge to create a nursery rhyme conveying rationality concepts, but, at the suggestion of Eliezer, I've made it into its own post.


Little Johny thought he was very bright,
But the schoolkids did not -- they would laugh when he came in sight.
He could count, sing, and guess the weather.
Then one day, Big Bill said "Real bright boys will grow a feather."

"Ach!" he cried, "Could it be true?"
"Then I'm not bright, which makes me blue."
So he went home, and searched all over.
And then found growth on his head, clear as a clover.

"It is true, feathers are sprouting!"
"It's proof that I'm bright!" So he stopped pouting.
He ran to show his mom, nearly tripping over some eggs,
When he saw on TV "Bright boys will grow long legs."

So he waited for weeks and weeks for to find proof,
Worried over his brightness, and staying quite aloof,
Until one day, feeling in a pinch,
He grabbed a tape measure, and found his legs had grown a whole inch!

So he leaped off to school, but a scientist walked by,
And Johny overheard him say, that real bright boys could fly.
"The hair, the legs, from these I know
Of my brightness. The flying thus follows, so..."

Little Johny plotted of his grand display,
Standing high on a wall, he would proudly say
"Behold, I have proof that I'm bright!"
And he would deftly leap off, and soar into flight.

So he climbed up the wall, and made his speech,
But there his plan stopped with a screech,
For he hit the ground hard with a smack,
Leaving his leg all bloody and black.

As the other children laughed, he tried to explain,
Of the things that he heard, and why he had taken it to his brain,
"They came from on high, from people who knew
I looked at myself, and saw they were true."

They laughed, "You're too eager to believe, you fool.
Your feathers are just hair, all boys grow long legs as a rule.
Yes, if all you heard were true, you'd fly, but you'll find out,
That if you do logic with garbage, then you'll get garbage out."

So Johny thought wrongly, and got his leg in a cast,
He had sought fame in the schoolyard, but now that's all past.
He's taken the lesson to heart, no longer believes all he hears.
So he doesn't believe them when they say he's not bright -- brightness doesn't come from peers.

Comments (17)

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 18 March 2009 10:52:55PM 9 points [-]

The meter is inconsistent...

Comment author: Yvain 19 March 2009 01:33:47AM 4 points [-]

Oh, I am so happy to meet someone else who cares about/notices this sort of thing. And on a rationalist website, no less!

Despite my conservative tastes, I give Darmani a lot of credit for writing a rationalist's children poem. That clearly took a lot of time and energy.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 20 March 2009 03:27:47AM 1 point [-]

Well, I'm not at all a poetry sort of person. But I was sort of singing it to myself in my head and getting frustrated.

And yep, I give him credit for writing the poem too.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 19 March 2009 01:43:10AM 3 points [-]

I thought so too, but I wasn't an expert - it could have been some meter I didn't understand.

However, given that we have the core of the story structure here, someone can go through and fix the prosody and then we'll have a real rationalist children's rhyme!

PS: Who the heck is downvoting this?!

Comment author: Yvain 19 March 2009 03:13:40PM *  10 points [-]

"Someone can go through and fix the prosody."
Do you consider this a friendly amendment?

Little Johnny Bayesian thought he was very bright
But the other schoolkids mocked him every time he came in sight
He could count and sing and read; he could spell and guess the weather
Until one day, Big Bill told him real bright boys could grow a feather.

“Ach” he cried, his spirits sinking, “Could a thing like that be true
“That would mean I must be dumb, and being stupid makes me blue!”
He went home and massaged his scalp until it hurt all over
Till at last he felt a growth shoot out, just like a little clover

“It's true!” he cried with glee, “It's true, and I've got feathers sprouting”
His intelligence now certain, he grew calm and stopped his pouting
He ran to show his mother that he hadn't been all wrong
When he heard on television: “Real bright children's legs grow long.”

So he strained for days and weeks and months to try to get the proof
Worried sick about his brightness and remaining quite aloof
Till at last he took his measurement, and it had been a cinch
In the days he had been fretting he had grown his legs an inch!

So he skipped to school, but as he went a scientist passed by
And he muttered that his research showed that real bright boys could fly
And Johnny thought of what he'd learned, his feathers and his height
And in a flash, he grew convinced he had the gift of flight.

Little Johnny spent a while planning his display
He thought he'd stand upon a wall, and proudly he would say
Behold my feathers! See my legs! I've evidence I'm bright!
And dazzle all his friends by soaring off and taking flight.

He climbed the wall and smiled and he proudly gave his speech
He took a flying leap – and there his plan stopped with a screech
Instead of soaring throught the skies, he heard an awful SMACK
And looked up, dazed, to find his leg all bloody, blue, and black

His classmates started laughing, and he struggled to explain
The logic that implied he had a more than normal brain
His friends, his favorite TV show, the scientists - all knew
That he was smart, and if they said it, surely it was true?

They laughed and said “You're just too eager to believe, you fool
Your feathers are just hair, and boys grow taller as a rule
If what you heard was really true, you'd fly without a doubt
But putting garbage in your logic gets you garbage out.

So Johnny made a bad mistake and ended with a cast
He'd looked for schoolyard fame, but now those days are long gone past
He's learned his lesson: don't go trusting everything they say
You get brightness from clear thinking - and not any other way.

Comment author: Darmani 19 March 2009 04:04:24PM 1 point [-]


Comment author: Nebu 19 March 2009 08:35:55PM *  1 point [-]

This has a better meter, but it's not quite fully consistent yet. I think the first line (with a few tiny modifications) has a good rhythm to it:

  • LIT-tle john-ny BAYE-si-an once THOUGHT he was real BRIGHT
  • ONE two three four ONE two three four ONE two three four ONE

The trick is then to get all the other lines to follow the same beat.

I'll look into trying to get the whole thing converted to one beat, but I don't promise anything.

Comment author: Nebu 19 March 2009 08:51:22PM 3 points [-]

LIT-tle john-ny BAYE-si-an once THOUGHT he was real BRIGHT

BUT the o-ther KIDS would al-ways MOCK him day and NIGHT

HE could count and SING and read and SPELL and guess the WEA-ther

TILL one day big BILL told him bright BOYS could grow a FEA-ther

“ACH” he cried, his SPI-rits down, “could THIS be real-ly TRUE?"

“THAT would mean I MUST be dumb, and THAT would make me BLUE!”

HOME, he went, and RUBBED his scalp till IT had hurt all O-ver

THEN, at last, he FELT a growth, 'twas JUST like a small CLO-ver

"WOW" he cried with GLEE and said "it's TRUE, I've got them SPROU-ting"

This is about as far as I could get before I ran out of time. The next line is "His intelligence now certain, he grew calm and stopped his pouting" but I can't seem to get the accent to land on the first syllable. I'm stuck with "in-TEL-li-gence" and "wis-DOM now cer-tain" sounds more natural to me than "WIS-dom now cert-ain". So someone else will have to take over from here.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 19 March 2009 08:37:50PM 0 points [-]

re-al = two syllables

THOUGHT that he was BRIGHT

Comment author: Nebu 19 March 2009 09:50:31PM 2 points [-]

I foresee a comment-threading nightmare. We definitely need a wiki to collaborate on this.

Comment author: Sanji 01 December 2013 06:00:48PM 1 point [-]

In a lot of old poems, fire is just one syllable, and fiery two. I imagine real could be similarly condensed. In the most widely accepted english translation of the Kalevala (Finnish national epic), fire is never two syllables. I always found that strange because I pronounce it "fie-urr".

Comment author: [deleted] 01 December 2013 06:08:18PM 1 point [-]

I think one-syllable "fire" is more common in British English. (When I have access to a more convenient Web browser than my phone's, if I remember to, I'll dig up relevant posts from John C. Wells's blog.)

Comment author: [deleted] 15 December 2013 09:21:41AM *  0 points [-]

See here about words like “fire”. IIRC he also considers “real” to be varisyllabic; and probably there are people out there who pronounce “Bayesian” with two syllables, to rhyme with (young people's pronunciation of) “Asian”¹. (I can find many posts about compression and smoothing but none which summarizes it all.)

  1. I read that some old people pronounce “Asian” to rhyme with “nation”.
Comment author: HalFinney 18 March 2009 10:29:59PM 4 points [-]

Not clear to me what the moral is here. Sounds like it's supposed to be, don't believe everything you hear. But then at the end, he doesn't figure that out for himself, he has to be told it. So should he believe everyone when they explain the lesson?

Or maybe this is a majoritarian tail, the the point is that the majority is right, while individuals who made those specific claims, about features and flying and such, were wrong?

Comment author: Darmani 18 March 2009 10:50:11PM 6 points [-]

Who says there's a moral?

Well, there's multiple, actually, although my original target was just confirmation bias. But, if you insist on purely viewing it through the individualist/majoritarian lens, that's hardly an accurate characterization, considering the sources were an antagonistic figure, television, and someone in idle chatter. And the last line is an affirmation of individualism, and an example of the idea that statements have a truth outside of their intended use; Johny uses it to reject status-seeking behavior and devalues the opinion of the people who taught him it.

Comment author: [deleted] 01 December 2013 05:20:55PM 0 points [-]

How comes people who think they can fly all try to jump off somewhere high, rather than take off from the ground? (Don't remember where I heard this, BTW.)

I'm guessing it's because those who try the latter don't make it into the news...

Comment author: Court_Merrigan 20 March 2009 06:18:16AM 0 points [-]

Nice work. Clean up the meter and I'll print it out to read to my daughter. You can never start 'em too young.