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JenniferRM comments on Scientific Self-Help: The State of Our Knowledge - Less Wrong

138 Post author: lukeprog 20 January 2011 08:44PM

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Comment author: JenniferRM 21 January 2011 07:59:10PM 17 points [-]

It seems this claim might itself be amenable to testing on groups of people to see if it "holds on average" across a spectrum of people who vary in the degree to which they are "weird". I suspect such a study would reveal uninformed self experimentation to be less effective than naively expected.

For most of my life I've had a useful heuristic for problems which is "seek out a self help book on the subject that seems relevant and is reasonably well recommended and try things in it if they seem like they might work". I got this heuristic from my mom, though I don't know whether it was her own invention or something she got from someone.

In any case, one of the ways she motivated the advice was to notice that on several distinct occasions she initially thought she was a unique snowflake with an unusual problem and then she found out from a book that lots of people had faced the same problem and were able to articulate surprisingly specific details of the problem that she'd thought where unique to her own circumstances. A sense of a problem being unique was even one of the things people would sometimes bring up as such a detail.

Based on this, its easy to see how people might not talk much about the painful or embarrassing things in their life, but its less obvious to carry that insight through to lowered estimates of one's own uniqueness and therefore a higher estimated value for finding usefully relevant literature.

One nice thing about "non-uniqueness" as a default assumption is that it trivially suggests a method of falsification for a problem: state your problem clearly, work out related keywords, and hit the library. If you don't find anything, then either you need to spend more skill points on library science, you have the wrong key words, or your problem is a genuine counter example and in that case it really would make more sense to deploy self-experimentation techniques instead of library skills.

Personally, having worked on and off according to the above theory for a while, the tricky part seems to be knowing the keywords to search for. On several occasions I've checked the library, found nothing, and only later learned that a literature existed but not where I was searching. Learning about new keywords is something I find LW to be really good for... its one of the concrete benefits I get out of the site. For example, before today, I'd never heard of "bibliotherapy" :-)

Comment author: CronoDAS 22 January 2011 03:29:38PM 4 points [-]

In any case, one of the ways she motivated the advice was to notice that on several distinct occasions she initially thought she was a unique snowflake with an unusual problem and then she found out from a book that lots of people had faced the same problem and were able to articulate surprisingly specific details of the problem that she'd thought where unique to her own circumstances. A sense of a problem being unique was even one of the things people would sometimes bring up as such a detail.

There are 6 billion people in the world. If you're one in a million, there are 6,000 people just like you. ;)

Comment author: arundelo 22 January 2011 05:59:56PM 8 points [-]

6 billion

7 billion!

There are facts that basically never change (the diameter of Earth) and there are facts that change fairly fast (the U.S. GDP; the temperature). There are also facts that change slowly enough that we tend to remember the first value we memorized for them (human population). Those last two sentences are an attempted summary of an article or blog post that I once read but can no longer find. Does this ring a bell for anyone?

Comment author: saturn 23 January 2011 07:52:37PM 9 points [-]

I think this is the article you read.

Comment author: arundelo 24 January 2011 05:16:50AM 2 points [-]

Oh hell yeah! My google-fu is pretty good, but I couldn't remember enough keywords to find that thing. Thanks!

satt also found mesofacts.org, a site founded by the author of the article I read and you found.

Comment author: satt 23 January 2011 07:24:37PM 4 points [-]
Comment author: arundelo 24 January 2011 05:17:38AM 1 point [-]

Yes! The article I read was actually the one that saturn found, by Mesofacts.org's founder (also linked from the site you found). Thanks!

Comment author: MartinB 22 January 2011 06:18:04PM *  1 point [-]

Yes. Its annoying if you base your habits around it. My grandmother had it cached how distance calls are super expensive. But in the last decade all land-line calls in Germany became either cheap, or flat feed. She would still cut them short.

Having the wrong number for the world population is probably not a problem.

Comment author: CronoDAS 23 January 2011 08:21:07AM 0 points [-]

7 billion!

Indeed. Correction noted.

Comment author: lukeprog 22 January 2011 07:04:17PM 1 point [-]

I completely agree that your knowledge can explode when you find the right keyword. Past examples for me include 'naturalism', 'formal epistemology', or 'distributed practice'.

Comment author: MartinB 22 January 2011 03:35:22PM 1 point [-]

And then we get these beautiful collections with methods and books for all segments of a problem.

It is worth to keep in mind how having the same problem does not mean having the same causes. So it is worth to have a few approaches and ideas to try.