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Science: Do It Yourself

53 Post author: alyssavance 13 February 2011 04:47AM

In the nerd community, we have lots of warm, fuzzy associations around 'science'. And, of course, science is indeed awesome. But, seeing how awesome science is, shouldn't we try to have more of it in our lives? When was the last time we did an experiment to test a theory?

Here, I will try to introduce a technique which I have found to be very useful. It is based on the classical scientific method, but I call it "DIY Science", to distinguish it from university science. The point of DIY Science is that science is not that hard to do, and can be used to answer practical questions as well as abstract ones. Particle physics looks hard to do, since you need expensive, massive accelerators and magnets and stuff. However, fortunately, some of the fields in which it is easiest to do science are some of the most practical and interesting. Anyone smart and rational can start doing science right now, from their home computer.

One of the key ingredients of DIY Science is to discard the more useless trappings of university science, for these frequently do more harm than good. Science doesn't need journals and universities. Science doesn't need beakers and test tubes. Science doesn't need p < 0.05, although I have found p-tests to be occasionally useful. The point of science is not to conform to these stereotypes of academia, but to discover something you didn't know before. (To our detriment, this is the opposite of how science is taught, as noted by Paul Graham: "So hackers start original, and get good, and scientists start good, and get original.")

Instead, as an simple first example, consider this question:

 - I want to get rich, or to be specific, have a net worth of over $100M USD. How do people get rich?

Here, we have an opportunity: We don't know something, and we want to find out what it is. To answer this question, our first intuition might be to Google "how do people get rich?". This isn't a horrible method, but by just asking someone else, we are not doing any science. Googling or asking a friend isn't the scientific method; it's the medieval method. (In medieval times, we would just have gone to the Church and asked, and the Church would have replied, "Pray diligently to the LORD and have faith, and you will be prosperous." Different people, same thing.)

In fields like physics, where lots of science is already being done by others, this will probably be OK. However, what if the question isn't about physics, like most questions people ask? Then, when you ask Google or a friend, you wind up with complete nonsense like this, which is the first Google result for "how do people get rich". Most people don't know how to use science, so that sort of nonsense is what most people believe about the world, which is why Western civilization is in such a mess right now.

Instead of Googling or asking someone else, we can apply the scientific method of actually looking at the data, and seeing what it says. Who are some rich people? How did they get rich? Where can we find information on rich people? The simplest technique, the one that I used when answering this question, is:

- Google the list of the Forbes 400.

- Go through each of the biographies for people on the list (or the first 200, or the first 100, or whatever is a large enough sample).

- Write down how they got rich.

- Summarize the data above: How do most rich people get rich?

Actually looking at data is simple, easy, and straightforward, and yet almost no one actually does it. Here's another one: Adjusted for inflation, what is the average, long-term appreciation of the stock market? Here's the historical Dow Jones index, and here's an inflation calculator. Try it and see!

The underlying principle here is very simple: Want to know whether something is true? Go look at the data and see. Look at the numbers. Look at the results. Look at a sample. JFDI.

For another simple example, one that I haven't done myself: It is a common perception that lottery players are stupid. But is it actually true? Is stupidity what causes people to play the lottery? It's easy enough to find out: look up a bunch of lottery winners, and see how smart they are. What jobs do they work in? What degrees do they have? What about compared with the average American population? What do they have in common?

There are an infinite number of these sorts of questions. How accurate are food expiration dates? How important is it to wear a helmet on a bike? How likely are STD infections? How many Americans are college graduates? Dropouts? What about high-income Americans?

Unlike most university science, DIY Science can actually make you happier, right here and now. One particularly useful group of questions, for instance, concerns things that people worry about. How likely are they, really? What are the expected consequences? What does the data say? For example, when I was younger, when I got a cold, I used to worry that it was actually some serious disease. Then, I looked up the numbers, and found out that virtually no one my age (10-25) got sick enough to have a high chance of dying. Most people worry too much - what things do you worry about that make you unhappy? What do the data say about them?

Or, suppose you want to save money to buy something expensive. The usual way people do this is, they take their income, subtract all of their necessary monthly expenses, and then figure that whatever is left over is how much they can save. Trouble is, people's necessities grow to match whatever their income is, even if their income is $2,000,000. If you get used to something, you start seeing it as "necessary", because you can't imagine life without it. How do you know if you really do need something? Use science! Try, just for a day, not using one thing with those monthly payments attached- electricity, phone, Internet, car, cable TV, satellite radio, what have you.

Of course, it isn't always easy, because sometimes people try to fool everyone. For instance, intelligence is distributed on a bell curve. Everyone knows that... right? As it turns out, the only reason IQ scores fit a bell curve, is because IQ is defined as a bell-curve-shaped statistic! Now, after the lie has been exposed, come the interesting questions: How is intelligence actually distributed? How could we find out? What measurements could we use?

Sometimes, questions get so politically loaded that you have to get tricky. To name a perennial favorite: Is global warming happening, and if it is, how much damage will it cause? It doesn't matter how much funding the NSF or some other agency gives this question, because the answers are already pre-determined; "yes" and "a lot" if you're a Blue, and "no" and "not much" if you're a Green. Peter Thiel, SIAI's largest donor, sums it up very nicely:

"There’s a degree to which it is just a status and political-correctness issue. The debates are for the most part not about the policies or about the ideas, but what is cool, what is trendy. Take something like the climate-change debate. I think it’s an important question, and I think it’s actually quite hard to figure out what the science is. It might be something for us to worry about. But I think there’s actually no debate at all — there’s no attempt to understand the science. It’s mostly moral posturing of one form or another.

Beyond the posturing, it’s a form of cowardice that’s very much linked to political correctness, where it’s not fashionable or not cool to offer dissenting opinions."

So, how do we really find out? Which evidence can we use? Where can we find it?

In exploring DIY Science, we ought to question everything, even things that we know (or think we know) to be true. "Common knowledge" is such a bad guide that false things float around for decades, all the time. Consider Wikipedia's List of Common Misconceptions. Reading through the whole thing, how many did you think were true? And these are the small set of things for which we have undeniable proof!

To name something which I do believe to be true: do men and women have the same average intelligence? They do, but how do we know that? Present studies can't be trusted, because the field is too politicized. You have to also look at pre-1970 studies, which indeed show agreement with modern ones. (Of course, past studies aren't always right, but agreement across many different time periods is fairly strong evidence.)

Or, to look at the subject of this blog: is rationality an effective means of achieving goals? To what extent? How do we know that? Well, on one side, what statistics I can find show that atheists make more than Christians. But they also show that Jews have higher incomes than atheists. Should we all convert to Judaism? Or, to take historical cases, Franklin was far more rational than average, but Hitler was far less. Clearly, more analysis is needed here.

One idea might be to look at what top chess players do: chess is a very objective metric, the players all have the same goals (to win the game), and the game is purely about mental decision-making. How rational are Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fisher? What about the top few hundred players worldwide? I don't have any clue what this will find, just a wild guess. 

I say all this on this blog, to some extent, because thinking about the data is not the only component of rationality; in order to have rational beliefs, one must also gather lots of data, and specifically, data about the problem one is trying to solve. No one in ancient Greece, no matter how well they thought, could have a good understanding of particle physics, because they didn't have any data on how particles behaved. Fortunately, with the Internet and online ordering of everything under the sun, data is very easy to collect. So- forward, in the name of Science!

Comments (202)

Comment author: Desrtopa 14 February 2011 04:02:28PM 7 points [-]

With regards to investigating how people become rich, if you want results that are meaningful and useful, I think you would want to examine, not just what rich people did which resulted in them becoming rich, but what people in the general population are doing, and whether people doing those things in general tend to become rich. If doing the same things doesn't tend to lead to the same results, you can look to see if there are other factors that reliably occur in conjunction with people becoming rich. You need to go this far to be able to predict, not just what a person should do if they intend to become rich, but under what circumstances you should expect someone to become rich. At this point though, you're probably going to have to expend more than spare time and pocket money to get your answers.

Comment author: Wakebright 16 November 2011 06:26:16PM 1 point [-]

Great point. In the author's description he only discussed how to establish a correlation. However it's important to point out that in those types of studies you are not manipulating any variables in the equation which means it's very difficult to tease apart the different interactions in the system. If you really wanted to do DIY science you would need to change something and determine whether there was a change in the outcome with appropriate controls to make sure that your changes only produced an effect in the variable you wanted. This is the really fun part of science!!

Comment author: Konkvistador 13 February 2011 05:35:25AM 12 points [-]

Upvoted because data really is important.

People that are above two sigma and have studied relevant math would I think have real gains by taking some of academia with a grain of salt and checking the data to see what they think it says.

An added bonus is that it is also the only way to be rational about things that perhaps our society isn't rational about due to status and moral posturing, a incentive to deceive or just simple widely held biases.

Generally I think the topic could potentially get a better treatment, not because the article is bad, but because it really is that important.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 13 February 2011 09:34:31AM 8 points [-]

Unlike most university science, DIY Science can actually make you happier, right here and now.

Really? Even if I'm already in the libertarian-atheist-countercultural-hacker-intellectual cluster? I checked two statistics in high school...car crashes were high enough that I chose to drive conservatively, and STI rates were high enough that I chose to make a big deal about condoms, although not so high that I took arguments from STDs for abstinence or monogamy seriously. Since then, I just haven't felt the need to go look at the data as I make personal life choices. I feel like I'm surrounded, socially, by the kind of weirdos who also looked up a couple of statistics in high school, and together we all bring each other's factual assumptions about lifestyle risks and rewards into something approaching the reality zone.

There are, of course, some questions to which I don't know the answer and that would interest me because the answer could help me make choices. But these questions tend to be narrow enough that there's no "Forbes 100" list to use as an objective reference -- I have to go and compile the data myself, which is both more annoying and less reliable. E.g., I don't really care how one becomes a top-earning CEO, because it involves, among other things, decades of sacrifices that I'm not willing to make. I do care about how one becomes a successful solo practitioner in the field of California consumer law, but they don't exactly have databases about that...just a couple of pages scattered here and there, which of course I'm reading, for all the good it will do me. Likewise, I don't really care what the odds are that I die of some horrible virus -- I agree with you that at my age (10 - 30) they're quite low unless somebody bio-engineers a plague. I am interested in the success rate for patellar smoothing surgery, but it's a technique, not a drug, so it doesn't have publicly scrutinized, large-n trials, and PubMed rarely goes into enough detail to let me assess whether, e.g., post-surgery functionality was self-reported (in which case it was probably driven by the placebo effect and cognitive dissonance) or was actually measured with objective performance tests.

Probably if I did enough research I could get a better estimate than I have now on some of these narrower questions. Maybe I will someday if one of the questions becomes important or if I find myself with spare time. I think the real science deficit, though, is not in our personal lives, but in the calculations of policymakers and professionals. Atul Gawande's article on Dr. Jeffrey Brenner in the 1/24/2011 New Yorker is a fascinating case study in how applying science to your day job can help you do it more effectively and at a fraction of the cost.

Comment author: [deleted] 14 February 2011 05:43:14AM 7 points [-]

I do care about how one becomes a successful solo practitioner in the field of California consumer law, but they don't exactly have databases about that.

Here's what I do:

Look at the job type you want. Look at professional websites of the people who have the jobs you want. Look at their CV's and see how they got there. If any of that info is expressible in a quantitative form (e.g. percent who went to top ten law schools) tabulate that.

You might notice "Oh, wait, most people who have the job I want have background X that I don't have!" (Different college major or whatever.) That might be evidence that you can't get that job; but before you start worrying, send someone an email and ask "How likely is it for me to get a job like yours with background Y instead of X?" It may be that your background is unusual but not a handicap.

Is it less rigorous than a scientific study? You bet. Is it better than nothing? Much.

If you have access to the attention of lots of professionals, a homemade poll can be very illuminating even if it's informal. For example, this survey about how novelists get published is more informative than most "how to be a writer" advice out there.

Comment author: CronoDAS 13 February 2011 07:44:11AM 6 points [-]

For the record, I heard that, outside of chess, Bobby Fisher was a grade-A nutcase.

Comment author: bogdanb 13 February 2011 09:33:34AM 4 points [-]

On this subject, a hypothesis (I didn’t do the science yet!) that I favor is that one should look at people who are successful in several very different subjects, rather than just one.

Even if a subject is intellectual, like chess or even, say, physics, someone may be successful at it because of “local optimization”; it’s useful to look at them to figure out how to do good at that subject, but not necessarily in general. Given the constraints of a human life, however, it’s very hard to become an expert (i.e. specialize) in more than one or two unrelated subjects. This suggests that being successful in several is evidence of having good general skills (presumably rational ones when the subject is intellectual), rather than specialized ones.

Another point: computers are really good at chess, but it doesn’t seem that looking at chess programs is a good way to learn rationality. Thus, looking at people that do chess well is also not likely to be a good way to learn rationality.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 16 February 2011 03:56:19PM 5 points [-]

It looks to me like chess is an excellent way to learn a rare and important part of rationality, but becoming a chess grandmaster is a terribly irrational life decision for almost everyone due to the intense competition and low rewards. Also, at world champion levels, many skills, especially intellectual skills, probably rely on biological abnormalities which correlate highly with autism, psychosis, etc. Also, extreme privilege and fame, especially at a young age, is very often a cause of functional insanity. I suspect that this includes the privilege of growing up with modern 'magical and opaque' technologies.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 17 February 2011 05:12:31PM *  2 points [-]

suspect that this includes the privilege of growing up with modern 'magical and opaque' technologies.

Please unpack this term. My kids have a Wii; should I be scared?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 19 February 2011 06:23:18PM 1 point [-]

Scared? Definitely not. However, I think its almost certainly the case that if they could be as motivated to play a musical instrument or paint as they probably are to play the Wii, or at least half as motivated to dos so, that would be a good thing to encourage.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 16 February 2011 06:48:54PM 2 points [-]

It looks to me like chess is an excellent way to learn a rare and important part of rationality

Please explain. I wonder if I'm missing something important by not playing chess.

Comment author: wnewman 17 February 2011 01:56:07PM 4 points [-]

Wei_Dai writes "I wonder if I'm missing something important by not playing chess."

I am a somewhat decent chess player[*] and a reasonable Go player (3 dan, barely, at last rated tournament a few years ago). If you're inclined to thinking about cognition itself, and about questions like the value of heuristics and approximations that only work sometimes, such games are great sources of examples. In some cases, the strong players have already thinking along those lines for more than a century, though using a different vocabulary. E.g., Go concepts like aji and thickness seem strongly related to Less Wrong discussions of the relative value of conjunctive and disjunctive plans.

There might also be some rationalist value in learning at the gut level that we're not on the primordial savannah any more by putting a thousand or so hours or more into at least one discipline where you can be utterly unmistakably crushed by someone who scores a zero on the usual societal/hindbrain tags for seriousness (like a bored 9 year old Ukrainian who obliterates you in the first round of the tournament on the way to finishing the tournament undefeated with a rating provisionally revised to 5 dan:-).

That said, I think you will probably get much more bang for your rationalist-wins-the-world buck from studying other things. In particular, I'd nominate (1) math along the usual engineering-ish main sequence (calculus, linear algebra, Fourier analysis, probability, statistics) and (2) computer programming. History and microeconomics-writ-large are also strong candidates. So it's not particularly worth studying chess or go beyond the point where you just find it fun for its own sake.

[*] highwater mark approximately 60 seconds before I abandoned my experiment with playing chess somewhat seriously: forced threefold repetition against a 2050ish-rated player who happened to be tournament director of the local chess club minitournament, who had told me earlier that I could stop recording when my clock fell below 5 minutes, and who ruled upon my 3-fold repetition that it didn't count as a draw because the game was not being recorded

Comment author: MichaelVassar 17 February 2011 04:47:49PM 11 points [-]

Empirically, we have more impressive instrumental rationalists, such as Peter Thiel, Tyler Cowen and Demis Hassabis coming from the much smaller field of chess than from the much larger field of math (where I think there's only James Simmons). There's also Watizkin, who seems very interesting. It seems to me that math emphasizes excess rigor and a number of other elements which constitute the instrumental rationality equivalent of anti-epistemology, and possibly also that the way in which it is taught emphasizes learning concepts prior to the questions that motivated their creation, which never happens in games. Fischer was probably more insane than any famous insane mathematician I can think of though, and Kasparov does claim the following http://www.new-tradition.org/view-garry-kasparov.php though given his Soviet education, e.g. education in a system which actually did teach a blatantly false version of history, this is more understandable.

At the elite PhD level, the mathematical community encourages a level of rigor, and the analytical philosophy community a level of pseudo-rigor that may even qualify as epistemic anti-epistemology for the typical student, (hence the anomalous number of theists in those fields relative to other high-IQ fields) but the people who are recognized as the best in those fields are probably matched only by the best physicists (as a group) in epistemic rationality. Certainly those fields reward epistemic rationality like no others.

Poker, MtG, Go, etc have good instrumental track records compared to math but bad ones compared to chess IMHO.

BTW, I feel instrumental rationality guilt at writing a blog comment that few people are likely to read. I'd love it if someone were to incorporate this and their thoughts about it into a top level post.

Comment author: komponisto 17 February 2011 05:04:10PM 6 points [-]

Empirically, we have more impressive instrumental rationalists, such as Peter Thiel, Tyler Cowen and Demis Hassabis coming from the much smaller field of chess than from the much larger field of math (where I think there's only James Simmons)

Am I missing something? Is Tyler Cowen famous for something other than being a moderately high-status academic economist with a blog? Otherwise, why are you more impressed with him than with leading academic mathematicians, such as Terence Tao?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 19 February 2011 06:15:50PM *  1 point [-]

Tyler has a regular New York Times column and is part of society in a way that no mathematician I know of is. He can influence influential people in a way that Terry can't. He also very clearly has a life that is optimized to meet his values. Terry does what lots of other people do, he just does a hundred times more of it moderately better than they would.

Once again, apparent disagreement on this point seems to me to be an instance of academics and those with academic aspirations simply not seeing status other than academic status. Not doing so is part of their training of course, but it leads to a very confused picture of the world.

Comment author: komponisto 19 February 2011 08:14:14PM 9 points [-]

He also very clearly has a life that is optimized to meet his values

That is every bit as true of Terry as Tyler, and probably more so: Tyler would probably like to be Larry Summers, Milton Friedman, or Paul Krugman, while Terry Tao is pretty much exactly who Terry Tao wants to be.

My interpretation of the disagreement is different: an unwarranted assumption on the part of some that those with academic high status would really prefer something else, but are willing to "settle" for academia; as opposed to academia simply being the best place society currently offers for their values to be pursued. (And yes, academia is "part of society".) I would argue that any picture of the world on which "instrumental rationality" is synonymous with "financial/political success" is more confused than mine.

As for influence, see the USQ affair. Terry Tao can influence when he wants. I'm sure he could get a NY Times column (or certainly a LA Times column) if he wanted one.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 20 February 2011 04:19:34PM 0 points [-]

I just doubt that you are correct, about the Times column or anything else above.

Academia, and especially math, seems to me to exist to not be part of society, to be literally descended from monastic orders, etc. It indoctrinates people to claim what you are saying, and even believe it, but people's values are pretty objective and not so measurable by such claims.

How impactful was his involvement in the USQ affair?

Terry may have more fun than Tyler, since he's smarter and can access more fun, but I think it's VERY unlikely that after spending a year like Tyler does he'd go back to his life.

Financial/political success isn't 'instrumental rationality'. Maslow's 'self-actualization' is. Tyler and Terry both do pretty well in that respect, but in my assessment, not comparably well.

Comment author: wnewman 17 February 2011 06:56:16PM 2 points [-]

I don't have enough data to compare such gaming outcomes very well, but I'll pass on something that I thought was funny and perhaps containing enough truth to be thought-provoking (from Aaron Brown's The Poker Face of Wall Street): "National bridge champion and hedge fund manager Josh Parker explained the nuances of serious high school games players to me. The chess player did well in school, had no friends, got 800s on his SATs, and did well at a top college. The poker and backgammon set (one crowd in the 1970s) did badly in school, had tons of friends, aced their SATs, and were stars at good colleges. The bridge players flunked out of high school, had no friends, aced their SATs, and went on to drop out of top colleges. In the 1980s, we all ended up trading options together."

Also, FWIW, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are apparently in the bridge camp, though I dunno whether they played in high school.

Comment author: Alicorn 17 February 2011 07:01:48PM 1 point [-]

Who do the chess and bridge players play bridge and chess with if they don't have friends?

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 01 March 2011 04:06:54PM *  1 point [-]

I've never become friends with any of the dozens of people with whom I've played chess in person (see below for why the qualifier "in person" is relevant) excepting one high-school classmate. A chess player is pretty much forced to suppress any natural human cooperative instincts like reciprocal altruism, instincts that are probably very important in the establishment of friendships. Also, sharing small pleasures seems important in starting friendships, and in chess the pleasure of one party coincides with pain in the other party.

Also, since the early 1990s anyone logging on to the Free Internet Chess Server can with an expected wait of less than a minute be matched up with another chess player of whatever skill level (more precisely, Elo rating, which is calculated automatically by the server) one desires. There is no need to remember the identity of who one has previously played against (although doing so will tend to increase one's rating a little since individual players have styles that can be learned and exploited in the game).

Comment author: wnewman 17 February 2011 07:45:09PM 1 point [-]

Of course there could well be some exaggeration for dramatic effect there --- as David Friedman likes to say, one should be skeptical of any account which might survive on its literary or entertainment value alone. But it's not any sort of logical impossibility. In Dallas near UTD (which had a strong well-funded chess team which contributed some of the strong coffeehouse players) ca. 2002 I was able to play dozens of coffeehouse games against strangers and casual acquaintances. One can also play in tournaments and in open-to-all clubs. Perhaps one could even play grudge matches against people one dislikes. Also today one can play an enormous number of strangers online, and even in the 1970s people played postal chess.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 19 February 2011 06:24:29PM 0 points [-]

I didn't mention bridge because I think of it as a game people take up later in life and transfer skills to, not as a game people learn as kids and transfer skills from. I could easily be wrong about this.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 24 February 2011 01:56:41PM 0 points [-]

Other members of the chess and bridge clubs.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 17 February 2011 05:00:35PM 1 point [-]

I don't suppose you've considered having a blog? It would increase the odds of what you write getting seen.

Would the love of pure math for its purity count as part of the anti-epistemic epistomology?

More generally, the subject of anti-epistomology (ideas so bad that they're crippling) seems worth exploring, especially if it's grounded in knowledge about the ways people actually think rather than guessing about the mistakes that people one disagrees with must be making. (Not a swipe at you-- I'm thinking more about the way atheists seem to overestimate how irrational religious people are.)

I don't know if I've got enough for a top level post there, but I'll seriously consider it. Meanwhile, if anyone else has ideas about anti-epistolomology, please write about it.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 17 February 2011 04:58:42PM *  1 point [-]

Kasparov does claim the following

He wrote a book specifically about transference of chess training to instrumental rationality

http://amzn.to/eYiTaS

I found it quite good, and parts of it sound much like Waitzkin. He talks a lot about psychology, self-control and management of (one's own) computational resources, all of which should be quite useful for instrumental rationality.

Comment author: Kevin 16 February 2011 08:46:12PM 4 points [-]

I think there's probably more to learn by playing poker... it seems that most advanced rationalists still fail at poker and are aware enough to attribute their losses to irrational failings of emotion. Being aware of why you fail at poker seems to be a valuable life lesson. And of course, learning that you do not fail at poker is an even more valuable lesson.

Comment author: Nornagest 16 February 2011 09:36:32PM *  2 points [-]

I'm honestly a little surprised that poker hasn't gotten more attention here. Half the game is managing emotional bias and modeling others' internal state, and the other half is pure statistics. It's like a beautiful little microcosm of applied rationality.

Comment author: Cosmos 18 February 2011 06:54:21AM 0 points [-]

FWIW, the LW NYC group holds regular game nights, and uses poker specifically as a rationality training ground. If you make the correct EV decisions, the pure statistics really will get you a long way. The rest, well...

Comment author: gwern 16 February 2011 10:53:26PM 0 points [-]

How much attention should it get? http://www.google.com/search?num=100&q=poker%20site%3Alesswrong.com

We discuss an awful lot of topics here so it makes sense that anyone's pet topic has only been minimally discussed.

Comment author: Nornagest 17 February 2011 12:24:24AM *  0 points [-]

Oh, I'm not calling for it to be covered; its absence doesn't leave a gap in our knowledge, except insofar as our knowledge applies to poker night. But it's surprising to me that Kevin's post was the first time I'd seen it used, given how widely known the rules are and how attractive it is as an example.

Comment author: JGWeissman 16 February 2011 07:21:56PM 3 points [-]

Please explain.

Chess teaches you to carefully consider the consequences of your available actions and choose the action with the best consequences. Becoming a grand master involves increasing your ability to do this in the domain of chess when you should be generalizing the skill to other applications.

I wonder if I'm missing something important by not playing chess.

I expect that you in particular managed to learn this skill from other sources.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 16 February 2011 10:32:04PM 0 points [-]

Maybe, or perhaps Michael meant the importance of cultivating a competitive spirit, or a habit of studying and practicing, or something else?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 17 February 2011 04:29:51PM 0 points [-]

He got it right, though The Art of Learning is VERY interesting on those topics.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 17 February 2011 07:15:35PM *  2 points [-]

You heard it well.

On a related note, Garry Kasparov comes off as a very reasonable man (or at least he did in a few of his TV interviews I saw), but a few years ago, I was shocked to find out that he has some extremely bizarre crackpot ideas about history. Specifically, he appears to have a serious interest in the theories of Anatoly Fomenko, and although he's not a full supporter of Fomenko's "New Chronology," he does believe that the conventional chronology of historical events is completely wrong, and the mainstream historians are naive for believing it. There has even been some direct collaboration between the two: Kasparov wrote a friendly preface to one of Fomenko's books, and Fomenko credits him for "valuable discussion."

For what that's worth, Fomenko himself appears to be an accomplished academic mathematician in his day job.

Comment author: Hook 20 February 2011 07:36:56PM 0 points [-]

Bobby Fischer, and a chess playing computer, highlight the difference between rationality and talent. Talent is simply the ability to do a particular task well. I tend to think of rationality as the ability to successfully apply one's talents to achieving one's reasonably complex goals. ("Reasonably complex" so the computer doesn't score very high on rationality for achieving it's one goal of winning chess games.)

Someone with limited talent could still be rational if he was making the best use of what strengths he did have. In a very real sense, we are all in that situation. It's easy to imagine possessing particular talents that would make achieving our goals much more likely.

That said, certain talents will be correlated with rationality and it's an interesting question to see to what extent chess is one of those talents.

Comment author: wedrifid 13 February 2011 09:09:08AM 7 points [-]

Or, to take historical cases, Franklin was far more rational than average, but Hitler was far less.

Nonsense. Hitler was far more rational than average - especially before he overused the meth for too long. I suggest your definition of 'rational' is broken.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 February 2011 02:07:21PM 5 points [-]

In re Hitler being far more rational than average, are you deducing this from the facts that Hitler was far more efficacious than most people (got control of a country and had many of his policies adopted) or do you have specifics about how Hitler was thinking about what he was doing?

Comment author: alyssavance 13 February 2011 03:42:28PM *  3 points [-]

What's your evidence? Nazi Germany's government was tremendously dysfunctional, and the Nazis believed many things considered insane even by the average Joe's lowly standards, like "mass-murder is a good thing". Hitler himself was sufficiently dysfunctional that he pretty much failed at everything before going into politics.

Comment author: Emile 13 February 2011 08:36:50PM 15 points [-]

the Nazis believed many things considered insane even by the average Joe's lowly standards, like "mass-murder is a good thing".

I'm not sure they considered it a good thing, maybe they would have preferred to just ship off all the Jews to Madagascar, the Final Solution was a second-best solution that happened to be cheaper and more practical.

And the "average Joe" you're talking about would have to be a Western one - I suspect in many countries, mass murder of some ethnic groups wouldn't be considered insane by everybody's standards, especially in a war situation - either because they're sitting on some land that's "rightfully ours", or they're more economically successful, or they're not-very-well integrated immigrants, etc.

By the way, Hitler isn't always seen as a Big Bad Guy by the non-Western world, sometimes he's just considered a pretty bad-ass leader like Stalin or Napoleon. When a german friend of mine met her new colleagues at a Chinese univiersity's biology lab, one of them said "Oh, you're German! Like Hitler! Cool! thumbs up". And the Chinese find that the Westerners don't seem that aware of how nasty the Japanese were.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 13 February 2011 09:06:23PM *  8 points [-]

Emile:

By the way, Hitler isn't always seen as a Big Bad Guy by the non-Western world, sometimes he's just considered a pretty bad-ass leader like Stalin or Napoleon. When a german friend of mine met her new colleagues at a Chinese univiersity's biology lab, one of them said "Oh, you're German! Like Hitler! Cool! thumbs up".

I've read about some hilarious examples of non-Westerners who perceive Hiter as a distant and exotic historical figure, completely oblivious to how Westerners are apt to react to his mention. Like for example the parents of this Indian politician:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Lu_Hitler_Marak

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 February 2011 09:50:22PM 15 points [-]

That's nothing, I once saw a restaurant called Genghis Khan's Mongolian BBQ.

Comment author: jacob_cannell 13 February 2011 10:19:29PM 6 points [-]

I dated a Mongolian for a bit, and apparently in that culture Genghis Khan is still highly regarded as a founding figure.

Comment author: TobyBartels 13 February 2011 10:20:26PM *  5 points [-]

I didn't realise that Genghis was an actual genocide (worse than any other conqueror), but apparently he was.

But if history is written by the victors, then of course we'll see him more positively than we do Hitler. It'll be a while until they rename the main airport in Berlin!

Comment author: Konkvistador 13 February 2011 10:58:14PM *  8 points [-]

I've heard estimates that put the total death toll of aftermath of the various wars Genghis Khan waged at ~40 million people. The estimates for all the Mongol conquests go from a low of ~30 to a high of 60 million.

Its mind-boggling to consider that isn't that much better than WW2 (low estimates 40, high estimates 72 million). It just gets ridiculous once we remember that population at that time was somewhere in the 300 to 400 million range.

We would probably have had to go nuclear or biological to get the death toll anywhere near 7,5 to 17% of global population!

Comment author: MartinB 13 February 2011 11:06:00PM 4 points [-]

With distance the atrocities get forgotten. Many well known leaders in the past did pretty bad stuff. I am usually surprised how kings and queens still get items named after them while dictators usually get institutionally forgotten and purged.

Comment author: ciphergoth 14 February 2011 07:53:08AM 0 points [-]

s/Berlin/Ulaanbaatar/

Comment author: wedrifid 14 February 2011 08:47:55AM 0 points [-]

(Works without substitution.)

Comment author: ciphergoth 14 February 2011 01:10:44PM 0 points [-]

Say more?

Comment author: wedrifid 14 February 2011 01:17:38PM *  3 points [-]

(The Ulaanbaastar airport has been renamed for the famous Mongolian conquerer but...) it'll be a while until they rename the main airport in Berlin (after Adolf Hitler, because Hitler is a loser and Genghis Khan is a winner).

Comment author: MartinB 13 February 2011 09:58:05PM 9 points [-]

I see people running around with Che Guevara T-shirts.

Comment author: HonoreDB 13 February 2011 10:19:01PM 9 points [-]

And people bow to and kiss the Torah.

David Mitchell has a youtube video on the subject.

Comment author: wedrifid 14 February 2011 03:00:56AM *  8 points [-]

There is also a group "Sons of Korah" who sing remixes of the Psalms. Including Psalm 137. Which builds up to:

Yes, a reward to the one who grabs your babies and smashes their heads on the rocks!

The Sons of Korah version makes it sound a little better:

Blessed is he who destroys your progeny

Still, it is a recent band singing joyously about genocide. (It is a little better given that the Psalm was written by people at a time when they had just been conquered and the same atrocities done to them, crying out to a power for vengeance.)

They are actually really catchy, and most of their songs (and the Psalms themselves) are reasonably poetic.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 February 2011 02:26:02AM 6 points [-]

The comedian looks young enough to not remember the extent to which there's been a big campaign to take rape seriously.

Earlier, (and to a lesser extent still) it could be presented with enough distance to be a subject of humor. For example, I can remember when a boss chasing a secretary around a desk was considered funny.

More recently, prison rape was a reliable joke in general. Now there are social circles where such jokes aren't welcome but I wouldn't say it's a sort of joke you absolutely can't get away with.

With the recent research on the effects of concussion, I don't think the old cartoons (with the character looking dazed and the little birds chirping as they circle his head) are going to look quite the same as they used to.

To some large extent, people notice what they're told to notice. This doesn't mean I think it's all signaling, but I think perception is very much shaped by social pressure.

Comment author: orthonormal 13 February 2011 10:49:26PM 3 points [-]

He hits the nail on the head: "At the point when everyone who fought in [the World Wars], and everyone who remembers anyone who fought in them, has died, surely they'll become as comic as the Vikings."

After all, the purpose of moral disapproval of atrocities is simply to avoid offending anyone who could be personally connected to them†. Even when people acknowledge that there's nothing besides length of time separating ancient genocides from modern ones, there's just no way to spark the same feeling of outrage.

† Of course, longstanding cultural divides can keep offense alive even when the secondhand witnesses are gone; the Armenian genocide shows no sign of becoming funny, because the acknowledgment of it is a continuing rift between Armenians and Turks.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 February 2011 02:14:40AM 5 points [-]

After all, the purpose of moral disapproval of atrocities is simply to avoid offending anyone who could be personally connected to them.

Personal connection is in the mind, as you say later. I've been looking at the "It would have been me" aspect of the past, and I think it's mostly trained in.

A major reason that the Holocaust is taken very seriously is that there are people who believe that doing so will make a repetition less likely. I don't know how long it would take for that to fade out.

I also don't know how close we are to longevity tech, but when such exists, the past is presumably going to fade more slowly.

On the relativity of what is considered serious-- I think there's been a bit of a shift lately, but when you think about Hitler's atrocities, you probably mostly think about the Holocaust. He was also responsible for tens of millions of deaths as the result of WWII, but that doesn't get the same publicity, probably because building an empire is viewed as sort of normal behavior. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Shaka Zulu, and Napoleon aren't usually counted as mass murderers.

Comment author: wedrifid 14 February 2011 03:17:58AM *  6 points [-]

On the relativity of what is considered serious-- I think there's been a bit of a shift lately, but when you think about Hitler's atrocities, you probably mostly think about the Holocaust. He was also responsible for tens of millions of deaths as the result of WWII, but that doesn't get the same publicity, probably because building an empire is viewed as sort of normal behavior. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Shaka Zulu, and Napoleon aren't usually counted as mass murderers.

Alexander the Great, Shaka Zulu and Napoleon were 'just' empire builders. Genghis Khan, on the other hand, make Hitler look like a fluffy puppy in every way except temporal and social proximity.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 February 2011 04:35:12PM 0 points [-]

A major reason that the Holocaust is taken very seriously is that there are people who believe that doing so will make a repetition less likely. I don't know how long it would take for that to fade out.

That the Jews were slaves in Egypt [1] has been commemorated every year for at least 2500 years-- possibly 3000 years or so.

I wouldn't expect it to fade quickly.

[1] This is disputed-- there doesn't seem to be any solid evidence of it.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 19 February 2011 01:42:40PM *  3 points [-]

After all, the purpose of moral disapproval of atrocities is simply to avoid offending anyone who could be personally connected to them

That's absurd. When I disapprove of Serbs (and Greek volunteers) massacring civilians in Srebrenica, it's not because I want to avoid offending people, it's because I want to offend them into shame, so that they stop supporting policies and parties in my own nation (Greece) that will make a repetition of the butchery and support of such butchery, likely.

You talk as if all discussion of politics is a signalling of status, rather than a sometimes hopeless attempt to influence the future into a better direction.

Comment author: orthonormal 19 February 2011 03:13:31PM 0 points [-]

You're right, of course- my comment needs modification. I'm just talking about the case where one isn't really angry about an old atrocity, but would still hesitate to make a joke about it. I'm not made of Hansons all the way down.

Comment author: MartinB 13 February 2011 11:26:32PM 2 points [-]

He hits the nail on the head: "At the point when everyone who fought in [the World Wars], and everyone who remembers anyone who fought in them, has died, surely they'll become as comic as the Vikings.

But this time we got video.

Comment author: orthonormal 13 February 2011 11:34:45PM *  4 points [-]

Assuming a non-Singularity future where all the second-order witnesses have died, one would not expect many people to go and watch video of 20th-century atrocities. I mean, first-hand accounts of the Spanish Inquisition and the genocide of the Americas exist. How much of them have you read?

(In high school, we read a few excerpts at most; I did read this book in college, thanks to its Great Books focus. Of course, I read plenty in high school about slavery, but that's because the Civil War is still tied to current cultural divides in the U.S.)

Comment author: CronoDAS 13 February 2011 10:57:10PM *  0 points [-]

He hits the nail on the head: "At the point when everyone who fought in [the World Wars], and everyone who remembers anyone who fought in them, has died, surely they'll become as comic as the Vikings."

You mean this hasn't happened already?

Comment author: orthonormal 13 February 2011 11:16:32PM *  5 points [-]

As noted in the Mitchell video, there are comical pieces set in the World Wars, but one has to be careful how one writes it. Catch-22 is a black comedy, as are Blackadder Goes Forth, Life is Beautiful and most of the other comedies set in 20th century wars.

The simplest way to put it, perhaps, is to note that Mel Brooks could do the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution in straightforward screwball style, but had to do Hitler as a musical-within-a-movie.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 February 2011 02:16:29AM 0 points [-]

It's been a while since I've read it, but I think all the viewpoints were in the military and about the treadmill of being trapped into flying unlimited bombing missions. There was nothing from the point of view of the people on the ground who were being bombed, was there?

Comment author: Swimmer963 13 February 2011 11:06:56PM 1 point [-]

I've seen that plenty of times. Seems to be a fairly common university-campus phenomenon, especially for students in the humanities.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 14 February 2011 12:16:06AM *  3 points [-]

I'm not sure if there are any cultures whose folk historical memory of Genghis Khan involves the same visceral horror as the present-day Western reaction to Hitler. So while this is an accurate historical parallel, it might not be one in terms of unintentional hilarity.

Comment author: Emile 14 February 2011 09:12:17AM *  4 points [-]

I'm not sure if there are any cultures whose folk historical memory of Genghis Khan involves the same visceral horror as the present-day Western reaction to Hitler.

If Hitler had ended up winning the war, there may not be that much memory of visceral horror either by now.

Though according to Wikipedia, there are some places where Genghis is still a very bad memory, for ending the Islamic Golden Age and all that.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 February 2011 04:19:53PM 8 points [-]

And note that there isn't general visceral horror about the Soviet Union, even though it committed mass murder on a grand scale. You can wear or display Soviet stuff without it being taken nearly as badly as if you were wearing or displaying Nazi stuff.

Comment author: HughRistik 14 February 2011 09:19:22PM *  6 points [-]

Although not Soviet himself, Soviet fanboy Che Guevara is another example. I'm not an expert on Latin American history, but some things I've read make me never want to buy a Che T-shirt.

http://www.slate.com/id/2107100/

But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's "labor camp" system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims.

http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1535

It is not surprising that Guevara’s contemporary followers, his new post-communist admirers, also delude themselves by clinging to a myth—except the young Argentines who have come up with an expression that rhymes perfectly in Spanish: “Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué,” or “I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why.”

[...]

In January 1957, as his diary from the Sierra Maestra indicates, Guevara shot Eutimio Guerra because he suspected him of passing on information: “I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain.... His belongings were now mine.” Later he shot Aristidio, a peasant who expressed the desire to leave whenever the rebels moved on. While he wondered whether this particular victim “was really guilty enough to deserve death,” he had no qualms about ordering the death of Echevarría, a brother of one of his comrades, because of unspecified crimes: “He had to pay the price.” At other times he would simulate executions without carrying them out, as a method of psychological torture.

"I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why" is a scary testament to the power of social proof, and the double standards applied to the perpetrators of atrocities based on sympathy towards their ideology.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 February 2011 09:22:38PM 2 points [-]

Do you think people wearing Che shirts without knowing why increases the risk of massively destructive political choices?

Comment author: NihilCredo 14 February 2011 05:58:26PM 4 points [-]

It could be because, while the Soviet Union was generally oppressive, it severely toned down the murderin' during the last ~40 years of its eight-decade history, whereas Nazi Germany spent over half of its brief history conquering Europe and conducting genocide, and then collapsed while it was right in the middle of such activities.

Comment author: wedrifid 14 February 2011 06:33:11PM 3 points [-]

The Soviet Union also wasn't in a desperate war for survival with the people with whom those with the most power to declare things offensive closely identify.

Comment author: Mercy 14 February 2011 06:42:56PM 1 point [-]

A more important reason I suspect is that communism as a whole is bigger and Soviet iconography can be indicative of loyalty to some harmless local brand. A british trotskyist waving a hammer and sickle is emphatically not a big fan of the USSR.

There may be places where nazi iconography mostly signals loyalty to some local band of fascists but those local nazis are probably associated with or are violent thugs, not reformist presidential candidates.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 February 2011 07:13:53PM 1 point [-]

Now that you bring it up, I realize I don't know why people wear Soviet stuff. I'd assumed it was a combination of liking the art style (it's at least distinctive and not much like anything being done currently) and the wish to be a little edgy, but there are other possibilities.

Comment author: MartinB 14 February 2011 06:56:46PM 1 point [-]

Depends on the country. In hungary some symbols from the SU are outlawed atm.

Comment author: katydee 14 February 2011 07:33:06PM *  0 points [-]

Ironically, the equivalent exists too, or at least it did at one point.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 February 2011 02:03:00AM 0 points [-]

And the Dark Horde in the SCA was a reference to killing on the grand scale long enough ago that it could be considered just slightly edgy, I think.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 March 2012 10:27:20AM 2 points [-]

Stalin is seen as a Big Bad Guy where I am. I had no idea this is not the case throughout the Western world.

Comment author: Konkvistador 13 February 2011 10:41:00PM *  1 point [-]

I think Stalin is seen as a big bad guy in the West at least among the more educated.

But people like Napoleon and Genghis Khan do get a free pass. Especially the latter should be a source of cognitive dissonance even though Napoleon is far from a innocent little lamb either.

Comment author: wedrifid 11 March 2011 12:35:16AM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure they considered it a good thing, maybe they would have preferred to just ship off all the Jews to Madagascar

Because Australia was already taken...

Comment author: rabidchicken 11 March 2011 12:51:33AM 0 points [-]

On top of that, an unfortunately large number of americans were disappointed that japan surrendered when it did, and wanted to drop the rest of the usa's arsenal anyway. You would be hard pressed to find a society where everyone is actually as nice as they want people to believe.

Comment author: Konkvistador 13 February 2011 04:09:59PM *  6 points [-]

Thinking Mass-murder is a good thing is not insane as in being irrational its insane as in "these values make as much sense as baby eaters to me!".

Comment author: randallsquared 16 February 2011 10:26:00PM 4 points [-]

I believe the word for "goals which fundamentally clash with my goals" is not "insane" or "irrational", but "evil". Someone who has goals I consider evil may well be quite intelligent, sane, and rational.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 16 February 2011 11:45:41PM 2 points [-]

I don't think "goals which fundamentally clash with my goals" is quite what you mean, here.

For example, if I want the last cookie, and you also want the last cookie, our goals clash, but neither of us is necessarily evil (nor insane, nor irrational).

It sounds to me like the word konkvistador wants is "alien."

Comment author: Konkvistador 17 February 2011 12:43:06AM 1 point [-]

It sounds to me like the word konkvistador wants is "alien."

Yes.

Comment author: randallsquared 17 February 2011 12:38:13AM 0 points [-]

Perhaps "fundamentally" was too opaque. We both want a cookie, but it's not a top level goal for either of us. Given that, either of us might be argued out of wanting a cookie by rational means. If acquiring a cookie were a top level goal for both of us, and there were no other ways to acquire cookies than to take the last cookie, then we would each be evil in the value system of the other.

I hope I've been clearer. :)

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 19 February 2011 01:58:54PM *  1 point [-]

A paperclipper has a top level goal that clashes with my own, but I wouldn't call it evil.

If there was a species of aliens whose top level goal was the extermination of all happiness in the universe, I would call that evil.

Evil is not just the clashing of goals. I would probably define it as "the intentional pursuit of disutility".

Or if you want an even more technical description, evil is "a utility function that incorporates a negative factor for the utility of others".

As the paperclipper cares zero for mankind, that's not innately evil. Hatred of others is evil, sadism is evil, spitefulness is evil.

Comment author: Konkvistador 17 February 2011 12:45:15AM *  0 points [-]

Evil has the unfortunate baggage of implying that there is something "objectively" wrong with what the "evil" guys are doing, not just wrong as judged by say my or your values.

I'm perfectly satisfied with pursuing my values even when they are as arbitrary as my opponents, I don't need to consider my value set something special beyond it being mine.

BTW This topic made me reread: Are your enemies innately evil?

Comment author: randallsquared 17 February 2011 01:02:50AM 3 points [-]

It only implies "objectively wrong" if you believe in objective morality. But even if you do, the term "evil" also implies that your top goals and theirs conflict, so it works even then. The alternative, it seems, is to have "evil" be a term we can't use under any circumstances, which just means some other word or phrase will come to mean what "evil" meant before we stopped using it, and it looks like you're using "alien" for that purpose in the other branch of this thread.

The 19 hijackers (or Hitler, as originally mentioned) were not (necessarily) irrational, stupid, insane, or otherwise mentally damaged. Nor were their motivations completely opaque or untranslatable, as "alien" implies -- any human could understand their position given the effort to do so, unpleasant though it might be. Their goals were just incompatible with our goals, and only one set of goals could win. It seems to me that evil is exactly what that means.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 19 February 2011 01:55:03PM 1 point [-]

But even if you do, the term "evil" also implies that your top goals and theirs conflict, so it works even then.

That definition doesn't work, because for starters it deprives you of the possibility to declare some of your own goals as evil.

Also the way I normally use the word, 'evil' goals certainly conflict with my own (I want to think), but not all goals that conflict with my own are evil.

'Evil' can be much more precisely defined in a way customarily understood if you consider it to be "the intentional pursuit of disutility".

If I'm doing something that incidentally hurts someone else, that may be wrong but it's not evil. If I'm doing something that hurts someone else, because I want them hurt, so that if they stop hurting by this action I'll have to find some other way to hurt them, that's evil.

If you want to destroy a beautiful forest in order to build a powerplant, that's not evil. If you want to destroy a beautiful forest because you want people to stop loving its beauty, that's evil.

If you don't believe evil exists, you've never heard of sadistic and spiteful people.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 17 February 2011 04:17:34PM 1 point [-]

I wouldn't have a problem with describing a system whose motivations I understand, but which lead it to make decisions I can't imagine myself ever making or endorsing, as "alien."

But I agree that this has nothing to do with whether our goal-systems motivate mutually exclusive states of the world. (For which I usually use the word "opponent.")

Comment author: Konkvistador 17 February 2011 03:07:53AM *  0 points [-]

But most people do work with a implicit belief in objective morality even if they seldom do stop to think about it. Isn't it a bit misleading to use it in another sense without clarification? Though of course the kind of person who typically visits LW would probably not be confused.

Also let me point out that "evil" has a whole host of associations in Western popular culture and especially in fiction, saying something is evil can in certain circumstances be like saying something is Elvish. Sure most of these don't ever make it into serious thinking, but they are there and can be employed in say propaganda.

Nor were their motivations completely opaque or untranslatable, as "alien" implies -- any human could understand their position given the effort to do so, unpleasant though it might be.

Well baby eaters aren't really that hard to understand. Looking back it seems that I may have affirmed the use of alien to describe this without thinking about it too much, a tendency to complete patterns in familiar ways I suppose .

Comment author: randallsquared 17 February 2011 03:40:36AM 0 points [-]

I don't think the question of whether one's top goal(s) rely on an objective morality would really change the sense of "evil" for most people.

It's unclear to me whether your second paragraph was intended as disagreement, since evil in fiction is often even more relative than I would argue. :)

Comment author: gwern 13 February 2011 04:58:04PM *  4 points [-]

The Nazis also believed many sane things, like exercise and the value of nature and animal welfare and the harmful nature of smoking.

Possible rationalist exercise:

  1. Read The Nazi War on Cancer
  2. Assemble modern demographic & mortality data on cancer & obesity.
  3. Consider this hypothetical: 'If the Nazis had not attacked Russia and negotiated a peace with Britain, and remained in control of their territories, would the lives saved by the health benefits of their policies outweigh the genocides they were committing?'
  4. Did you answer yes, or no? Why?
  5. As you pondered these questions, was there ever genuine doubt in your mind? Why was there or not?
Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 February 2011 05:44:31PM 1 point [-]

I'm a very bad rationalist. I have a strongly preferred answer to those questions.

Of course, it's hard to predict what the amount of murder would have been-- they wanted to wipe out the Poles, but didn't have enough time.

I do think you've just given a argument for why measuring in terms of lives isn't good enough if it treats suffering as irrelevant.

It's completely obvious why there is no doubt in my mind-- I've spent a lot of years believing that if I'd been there, I'd be one of the corpses. I don't think I have an obligation to be that abstract about the happy healthy people who might have resulted if Nazism had been unopposed.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 February 2011 04:55:27PM *  3 points [-]

I've slept on this, and here are a couple of more angles.

I've read a fair amount of argument about racism, sexism, and related topics, and have been considerably influenced as a result-- and not always in the ways anyone in the arguments intended. I'm still sorting the thing out.

Two of the things I took away is that power isn't given, it's taken, and that I'm not obligated to be polite or neutral when I'm advocating for my right to exist.

These played into my response. I suspect I would have reacted more calmly if the question had been raised as "What do you think?" rather than as a test of rationality.

The thing is, I don't think that approach is entirely right or entirely wrong. After I'd posted, I was getting into what I think is a trained response of wondering whether Less Wrong was worth bothering with if things like gwern's comment could be said here. I believe that sort of purity-driven reaction is actually unwise, especially when it's other people's ideas about purity, but I still have to dig past other people's status issues that I've picked up.

I don't think the privilege model is entirely false-- look at what happened when Eliezer brought up his problems with exercise and weight loss. Most of the people who replied didn't notice what he actually said, and just rolled forward with the usual advice. Eliezer's situation is in a blind spot which is highly socially supported, and even people who are quite intelligent and working on rationality got snagged by the blind spot. The result was harder on Eliezer than it was on them.

At the same time, I don't want to tell people that they should have known better, though it's very tempting. I'm sensitized to that particular issue because I've been fascinated by it. Not everyone is.

Tying the two topics back together, I was fascinated by the fact that Nazis were the first to connect smoking and lung cancer. You mean "health Nazi" isn't just a random metaphor?

What can happen when utilitarianism meets obesity

Comment author: Konkvistador 19 February 2011 12:37:07PM *  0 points [-]

I at first had a similar reaction to yours, but perhaps more severe. I was somewhat humbled and even slightly ashamed to be honest by how reasonable your response was. After thinking about it in a dispassionate sense I realized that especially considering the context there is nothing worth getting upset over. I mean there are discussions about baby eaters where people didn't get upset over billions of hypothetical alien teenagers dying painfully because of their parents preferences in the baby-eater civilization. This scenario:

'If the Nazis had not attacked Russia and negotiated a peace with Britain, and remained in control of their territories, would the lives saved by the health benefits of their policies outweigh the genocides they were committing?'

Isn't really any less hypothetical unless someone comes up with a time machine or we where posting on a site that was actively hostile to the groups that would suffer dis-utility in such a scenario (where it would serve as fantasy).

gwern really highlighted a blind-spot of mine (mind-killing conditioning) with her questions and while I can't judge what effect this has on other people, particularly the net effect, I am very grateful for the personal insight.

I'm impressed how status signaling resistant LW community is, at least it seems resistant to the kinds of signaling that get a strong conditioned response from me. It does have some blind-spots but these don't seem to be exactly the same as those of the man on the street or society at large.

Comment author: Konkvistador 13 February 2011 06:57:06PM *  1 point [-]

Least convenient world. National socialism limiting itself to a fair chunk of Europe results in a net gain in life, and perhaps even say net gain in happy productive pain free years by say the current date.

Even in this scenario I don't think anyone here expects people to cheer-lead a system that would most likley lead to their death or the death of their family regardless of its utility (or dis-utility).

Grudging acceptance is the most one can reasonably demand of a person.

But here I'm going to go on a limb and flat out say it that when the difference between being selfish and not being selfish is survival I think it inhumane (in the sense of being out of sync with most of humanities values, despite what Christianity tries to convince a good 2 billion) to punish it if the gain is only marginal.

The localized suffering needs to be significantly smaller than the globalized gains.

I'll come out and admit bias here since I and all my family and many of my friends would also be most definitely dead in this scenario (or better said our grandparents would most definitely be dead).

My number is a profit of 30 million happy productive man years (in other words a scenario where the suffering just balances out the grains has disutlitly compared to the present, I do have other values than people being generally well off and yes some are selfish.

Comment author: MartinB 13 February 2011 08:07:14PM 0 points [-]

The Nazis also believed many sane things, like exercise and the value of nature and animal welfare and the harmful nature of smoking.

one question I pondered at times is if the experiments done on prisoner by Mengele and others actually lead to anything interesting. In theory the lack of ethics would allow for more research with less effort. But it seems they did not, and actually worked rather sloppy. I guess that is preferably, because otherwise the ethics people would have a hard time keeping eager researchers in check.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 13 February 2011 08:22:01PM *  8 points [-]

There are interesting data on hypothermia based on Nazi human experimentation, which are especially interesting because it's impossible to replicate these measurements for obvious reasons. The ethics of using and citing those have been a matter of controversy for decades:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/holocaust/experi02_no.html

Otherwise, however, the human experiments done by Nazi doctors seem to have been scientifically worthless. Mengele in particular was just a particularly cruel dilettante.

Comment author: Alicorn 13 February 2011 08:18:58PM 6 points [-]

Poll: what studies would you do if ethics were not a constraint?

Comment author: Vaniver 14 February 2011 03:58:11AM 3 points [-]

There's a lot of stuff involving patient secrecy that would be convenient to not worry about. Conglomerating everyone's medical records could result in dramatic gains in knowledge on efficacy of treatment. But it should be possible to do that in a way that respects patient secrecy, and I don't think ethics is the true rejection there.

There are a number of cases where people consider it unethical to use controls. AZT is a famous example, where they stopped the study midway through because AZT was so effective for the experimental group, but then some nasty side effects started showing up- and it was unclear how much was due to the AZT, because there wasn't a control group to compare to anymore.

Comment author: DSimon 16 February 2011 06:27:59PM 2 points [-]

(Assuming that not only institutional ethics but my own sense of morality is not a constraint.)

A lot of the really interesting things we know about broad-scale human neurology, particularly some tricky stuff about the nature of consiousness, are due to the study of people who have suffered brain damage. If there were no ethical constraints, I would deliberately induce carefully controlled forms of brain damage on humans and observe the results.

Comment author: gwern 13 February 2011 08:23:33PM 3 points [-]

I'm afraid I have no citations handy for this, but I seem to recall reading that a number of Nazi medical experiments, such as the ones simulating (fatal) high altitude exposure, were in fact quietly studied and used by the occupiers, in addition to the more famous rocketry and other research. (Probably the more bizarre experiments, like Mengele's torture of twins, did not attract the military's interest.)

I also read once that Japanese intelligence agencies made a deal with the Americans to turn over the results from their biowarfare units in exchange for them being quietly overlooked and not included in the war crimes tribunals that executed the likes of Hideki Tōjō.

Comment author: Konkvistador 13 February 2011 04:17:10PM *  5 points [-]

You are right that the Nazi run government, despite popular opinion, was very inefficient and dysfunctional from several points of view.

However it seems to have done a pretty good job of:

  • a) Keeping the various fractions and individuals under Hitler too busy fighting each other to challenge Hitler
  • b) Keeping the public happy and moulding public opinion
  • c) Allowing innovation in warfare and hence pretty good at waging war (by modern standards they weren't good, however compared to say the Soviet Union they did a pretty good job)
  • d) Killing off large numbers of certain other ethnicities

Arguably these where all primary objectives Hitler had in mind.

You also seem to be too quick to dismiss the IQ and instrumental rationality needed to rise to the rank of top politician or world leader. As well as underestimate the tendency of high IQ people to have more radical political positions. While top Nazis don't seem to have been particularly brilliant (especially the lower half is disappointing, cost of ethnic and ideological nepotism I suppose), Hitler was probably in the upper half of the group (warning slight mind-killer danger in the commentary). My guesstimation would perhaps put him a bit below three sigma above the Austrian average.

Comment author: alyssavance 13 February 2011 04:39:44PM 3 points [-]

I think Hitler was more intelligent than average, and a great deal more instrumentally rational. He just didn't have more accurate beliefs about the world.

Comment author: Konkvistador 13 February 2011 04:51:55PM *  10 points [-]

This might get me down voted, but I don't think Hitler hated Jews because he had a misconception or two about them or was a result of a honest mistake, I think he would have at least disliked them strongly anyway. This is probably however not true of most German National socialists at the time.

I also don't think he was ok with getting rid of those tiresome Slavs in the East because he had misconceptions about them, he wanted to get rid of them because they where sitting on land that could be used by his tribe. This particular bit is generally part of a very ancient and in humans very viable value system.

A good way to remind yourself of why indifference of a AI god would be horrifying is the realization that its perfectly possible the Hitler had no real ill will towards Russians or Poles once controlled for his dislike of Communism but that the moral worth of them in his value system just happened to be zero.

Humans can and do have very different value systems.

Comment author: wedrifid 13 February 2011 04:30:45PM 4 points [-]

and the Nazis believed many things considered insane even by the average Joe's lowly standards, like "mass-murder is a good thing".

This was the kind of thing I had in mind when I suggested a broken definition of 'rational'. Hitler was more rational than average, not more all round virtuous.

Comment author: MartinB 13 February 2011 08:13:04PM *  1 point [-]

When suggesting exercises I have two in cache.

I) Compare the antisemitic policies of the 3rd Reich with those of other 1st world nations from the same time. Also see what policies where used regarding treatment of permanently ill.

II) take a look into what their view of the world was actually based on. Try to understand what made a person of sound mind subscribe to that belief. Also interesting to do with current interest groups.

Comment author: wedrifid 14 February 2011 01:59:23AM 1 point [-]

One more exercise: spot the excess 'h'.

Comment author: MartinB 13 February 2011 04:35:39PM 1 point [-]

The question deserves at least a thorough looking at. Something happened that made the unsuccessful painter into a dictator of one of the most developed countries in the middle of europe. That might be that he did something right, or maybe he got lucky. But probably both.

For fellow dictatorship researchers it might be good to know that there are others with similar stories that also deserve to be looked at.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 February 2011 05:55:40PM *  3 points [-]

Hard to test, but there's Alice Miller's theory in For Your Own Good. She researched the advice about child-rearing which was popular among the parents of the generations that wanted Hitler.

The advice was for the parents to demand extreme obedience starting at six months old, and Miller's claim is that those generations were primed to want an authoritarian leader.

I recommend the book for rationalists-- even if Miller is wrong about Hitler's rise, it's still important to have examples of how much authoritative sounding advice is just people making things up.

One of the hard questions for understanding extreme success is figuring out how much of a success is a matter of generalizable traits like hard work, and how much is happening to have a personality which fits well into a particular situation.

There's also the intermediate possibility of having a personality which is a pretty good fit plus the generalizable trait of being perceptive and flexible enough to make a pretty good fit into an excellent fit.

More theory about fit: The Money Game, which claimed that a lot of stock market success was happening to have a personality which fit the condition the market was in for a few years.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 February 2011 06:46:48PM 5 points [-]

Parenting advice of earlier generations is terrifying. They used to tell people not to cuddle their babies! That they'd be actively harming the kids by encouraging dependence!

Fortunately, it seems that in practice caregivers (read: mothers) largely ignored this advice. They still cuddled their babies; they just felt weak and ashamed as they did so.

Comment author: Emile 13 February 2011 08:09:14PM *  2 points [-]

For all we know, it's not that unlikely that they were right, or at least that cuddling isn't strictly better than not cuddling (either it doesn't make a difference, or each has consequences we would consider as beneficial and consequences we would consider harmful).

(disclaimer: I cuddle my baby. So far he hasn't killed millions of jews, but he's only a few months old, so it may not be a significant datapoint)

Comment author: [deleted] 13 February 2011 08:37:14PM 8 points [-]

For all we know, it's not that unlikely that they were right, or at least that cuddling isn't strictly better than not cuddling (either it doesn't make a difference, or each has consequences we would consider as beneficial and consequences we would consider harmful).

No, actually, we have substantial evidence now that babies need skin-to-skin contact to thrive. Because the maternal instinct is very strong in this direction (for a good reason) the data about what happens to babies who are not cuddled mostly comes from orphanages. It's a very sad answer.

Comment author: Emile 13 February 2011 08:40:36PM 3 points [-]

OK, that probably should have been "for all I know" :P

Comment author: Alicorn 13 February 2011 08:18:20PM 2 points [-]

Well, not touching babies will cause serious issues; I don't know if cuddling per se is required.

Comment author: MartinB 13 February 2011 08:00:35PM 1 point [-]

I read lots of Miller, and also some of the Psychohistory stuff (Basically the history of child raising and its influence on the society of the next generation)

It is however important to notice that both are highly controversial, and maybe simplify complicated issues.

In case you want to raise a dictator it is not enough to severely abuse the kid and let it grow in absolute despair. I would expect there is something else that plays a role. And I am curious to know what it is.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 February 2011 08:50:08PM 2 points [-]

The point wasn't about how to raise a dictator, it was about how to raise a population which would want a dictator.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 March 2012 10:25:55AM *  0 points [-]

the Nazis believed many things considered insane even by the average Joe's lowly standards, like "mass-murder is a good thing".

This doesn't necessarily mean they weren't rational, only that if they were their utility function was very different from yours. (Though Hanlon's razor -- and this which is a pretty good argument for it -- makes me assign a higher prior probability for the former than for the latter. I haven't looked for evidence which would raise or lower that prior, though.)

Comment author: Not-A 02 June 2012 08:36:16PM 2 points [-]

" Google the list of the Forbes 400.

  • Go through each of the biographies for people on the list (or the first 200, or the first 100, or whatever is a large enough sample).

  • Write down how they got rich.

  • Summarize the data above: How do most rich people get rich?

Actually looking at data is simple, easy, and straightforward, and yet almost no one actually does it."

Won't that incur in the "not seeing the cemetery" fallacy?

Comment author: Not-A 17 June 2012 11:27:32AM 2 points [-]

So to make myself clear, maybe I'll get some responses. If 100000 people use strategy A which gives results 10% of the time, and 100 people use strategy B which gives results 50% of the time (results as in they get rich), you will have 10000 people that got rich trough A and only 50 trough B.

If you wanted to get rich you'd be better served using strategy B, but you cannot see the cemetery of strategy A only looking at the Forbes 400. So isn't this strategy not only not optimal, but actually harmful?

Comment author: thakil 13 February 2011 10:11:05AM 7 points [-]

DIY science seems to ignore prior work. You claim using google is a medieval way of doing science. On the contrary, its a very modern way of science. Medieval science relied on polymaths discovering things for the first time. Gallileo needed his thought experiments to determine such things as the inverse square law and that mass did not impact the acceleration of a falling object (he also reasoned that light was instantaneous, but given the tools at the time it wasn't such an unreasonable conclusion). Nowadays scientists make progress by building on the progress of others, so while it can be useful to develop a critical mind to figure out from first principles how one's fridge functions, you'd be better off using your critical facilties to assess the evidence someone else has collected.

Note that the critical assessment of scientific literature is a non-trivial skill, but a far more valuable one. By myself, doing some work on how to become rich, I might make some decent conclusions, but I have neither the man power nor training to necessarily come to the correct conclusions. If I can accurately assess scientific papers, however, I should be able to discern which papers are closest to reflecting the evidence.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 February 2011 01:39:30PM 21 points [-]

Put it another way: looking up other people's research is scholarship, not science. Scholarship isn't bad. In most fields scholarship is useful, and in technical fields it's a prerequisite to doing science. But -- people should also look at the data directly. If the literature isn't useful (and "how to get rich," for instance, doesn't have an obvious body of sound literature behind it) then unless you look at the data, you'll never know.

And is the literature accurate on more explicitly scientific topics, like global warming? Well, I don't know. To know the answer, I'd have to know more about geophysics myself, be able to assess the data myself, and compare my "DIY science" to the experts and see if they match. Or, I'd have to know something about the trustworthiness of peer-reviewed scientific studies in general -- how likely they are to be true or false -- and use that data to inform how much I trust climate scientists. Either way, to have good evidence to believe or not believe scientists, I'd need data of my own.

The phrase "DIY science" makes it sound like there's some virtue in going it alone. All alone, no help from the establishment. I don't think there's any virtue in that. Help is useful! And after all, even if you do what Tom did and tabulate data about millionaires, it's data that someone else gathered. This isn't My Side of the Mountain science. It's not idealizing isolation.

The trouble with doing all scholarship but no science is that you have no way to assess the validity of what you read. You can use informal measures (prestige? number of voices in agreement? most cited? most upvotes?) but how do you know if those informal measures correlate with the truth of an argument? Eventually, at some point you have to look at some kind of data and draw your own conclusion from it. Critically assessing scientific literature eventually requires you to do some DIY science. (Here, let's look at the data section. Do the paper's conclusions match their actual data?)

Comment author: Mass_Driver 14 February 2011 05:08:59AM 0 points [-]

Top level post, please!

Comment author: alyssavance 13 February 2011 03:39:00PM *  8 points [-]

"DIY science seems to ignore prior work."

Yes, because most of the 'prior work' that floats around on the Internet and in books is terrible, and it's a lot more difficult to figure out which parts are good than to just do simple empiricism yourself.

"You claim using google is a medieval way of doing science."

The important thing isn't the act of using Google (a tool), but where you're getting your information from. If you simply Google X and click on the first result, this is basically equivalent to just asking the person who wrote the web page what they think about X. The distinction is:

medievalism: go to someone who seems like they're an expert, and ask them about X

rationalism: look at the data, see what the data says about X

This also applies if you're reading books or whatever.

"Nowadays scientists make progress by building on the progress of others,"

You don't provide evidence that this actually works well. In physics this seems to genuinely be the case, and in a few other sciences to varying degrees, but for the sorts of questions I'm considering here the "progress of others" is largely gibberish.

Comment author: thakil 13 February 2011 04:57:36PM 2 points [-]

I'm not saying that doing science oneself in areas where problems are genuinely unsolved is un-useful, I'm saying the first instinct of the scientist would be to see what work others have done, and then, if that proves useless, do it oneself. Usually discovering what others have done is instructive because it allows you to see things they've missed.

I'm not particulary interested in the question of how one becomes wealthy, but I'd be surprised that there aren't useful answers out there if one searches hard enough. Certainly clicking the first link on google is basically medieval, but using google as it is meant to be used, a tool which allows you to discover information as efficiently as possible, will usually be better than finding the answers oneself.

On an investigation into wealth, I might critisise your work [note, this is a guess because you do not (understandably) give your results and I have no interest in repeating them myself] by supposing that the top 400 may not be a terribly useful sample, being rather exceptional, and might not provide useful insights: I'd much rather look at the aggregate of the thousands of millionares, for example, and think about that.

I'm not necessarily dismissing this post, using your mind to solve these kind of problems is often very instructive, but I'm not sure its the best way to acheive results.

Comment author: David_Gerard 13 February 2011 10:10:41AM 2 points [-]

This is a nice essay as it may inspire people to think about their thinking and that getting useful answers to questions is in fact possible.

Now, how could we test that?

(Perhaps atucker could print out copies for his class ...)

Comment author: jwhendy 13 February 2011 04:53:54PM *  7 points [-]

Yes -- I agree, though the article focused a bit more on somewhat intangibles[1] for me. Try to apply science to daily life. Rather than wondering and walking away or leaving it in the realm of unknowable -- try to figure out how you might find out.

While the article does cultivate a similar approach, I think just applying these sorts of things to immediate daily life might be a more immediate way to visualize how the scientific method (and rationality in general) can be effective. Some that have happened to me:

  • What's wrong with my garage door? It keeps stopping on the way down Inspect various components, form a hypothesis (unlubricated bearings) and test (lubricate bearings and raise/lower door several times). Begin again.
  • The insulation in my attic seems less than adequate (MN suggest a R-60 and I have about R-20). Calculate cost (~$200 for enough bags of blowing insulation + $50 for machine rental - energy tax credit of %30 off). Seems reasonable. Blow insulation (done) and compare energy bills (in process).
  • Disagreement with wife about which path is fastest. Form hypothesis and then next time we drive separately, agree to both drive the speed limit and see who gets home first.

Perhaps stupid cases. The point is that cultivating a "scientific" gets one in the habit of thinking "Let's find out" in response to a question rather than "I think x" based on intuition or popular adage and then never finding your own data.

[1] By "intangible" I mean that the examples in the article struck me as things that are unlikely (for me) to come up on their own; I've got enough other items I'm thinking about solving as it is. In giving some other examples, I guess I'm trying to present the idea of just considering the testable obstacles already in one's daily path. We probably have plenty of these already. What's wrong with my computer? How can I fix x? This seems, to me, as a more "concrete" application with immediate results compared to me wondering about the Dow Jones adjusted rate. Though, I will say that I hope to carve out time to tackle those sorts of questions as well. For now, I'll stick with the things I run smack into. I guess that's just where I'm at.

Comment author: David_Gerard 14 February 2011 10:53:20AM 7 points [-]

What's wrong with my computer? How can I fix x?

Oh, man. Just getting people to think of their computer as being a constructed device amenable to prediction, rather than a malevolent box of evil out to make their life a misery, would be a major advance.

(As a sysadmin, I know that computers are actually in fact malevolent boxes of evil out to make your life a misery, and dealing with them is mostly a matter of who has the bigger spanner. But we want to start the masses gently.)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 14 February 2011 04:31:21PM 9 points [-]

Perhaps we could shoot for "malevolent boxes of evil amenable to prediction"?

Comment author: David_Gerard 14 February 2011 04:42:33PM *  3 points [-]

Perhaps we could shoot the malevolent boxes of evil amenable to prediction! This is a variety of bigger spanner. The secret sysadmin art is to understand the machine sufficiently well that you can glare at it, have it understand that you can and will strip it down to the case if it doesn't behave, and have it start behaving. This is why when you call your sysadmin over about a problem, your PC starts working again.

It strikes me that "malevolent boxes of evil amenable to prediction" applies to many humans as well.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 14 February 2011 04:47:37PM 4 points [-]

Humans are better approximated as malevolent tubes of evil.

Comment author: DSimon 16 February 2011 06:32:29PM *  3 points [-]

Malevolent Hot Pockets (tm) of evil? Or maybe more of a nefarious calzone...

Comment author: TheOtherDave 16 February 2011 09:40:06PM 5 points [-]

Nefarious Calzone is a totally awesome name for a melodrama villain.

Comment author: wedrifid 14 February 2011 12:28:37PM 0 points [-]

As a sysadmin, I know that computers are actually in fact malevolent boxes of evil out to make your life a misery, and dealing with them is mostly a matter of who has the bigger spanner. But we want to start the masses gently

Well said!

Comment author: CronoDAS 13 February 2011 08:58:39AM *  1 point [-]

Sometimes, questions get so politically loaded that you have to get tricky. To name a perennial favorite: Is global warming happening, and if it is, how much damage will it cause? It doesn't matter how much funding the NSF or some other agency gives this question, because the answers are already pre-determined; "yes" and "a lot" if you're a Blue, and "no" and "not much" if you're a Green.

At this point, I have to object... the one thing that guarantees lasting fame to a scientist is to successfully overthrow a widely believed theory.

"There’s a degree to which it is just a status and political-correctness issue. The debates are for the most part not about the policies or about the ideas, but what is cool, what is trendy. Take something like the climate-change debate. I think it’s an important question, and I think it’s actually quite hard to figure out what the science is. It might be something for us to worry about. But I think there’s actually no debate at all — there’s no attempt to understand the science. It’s mostly moral posturing of one form or another.

This is pretty much accurate. As far as I can tell, the "debate" is mostly among people who don't actually know the science; most of the people who do know the science tend to come down on one side. And, as I have said before, I am not one of the people who knows the science and anyone who wants to convince me otherwise needs to take it up with them.

Comment author: alyssavance 13 February 2011 03:43:51PM 6 points [-]

"At this point, I have to object... the one thing that guarantees lasting fame to a scientist is to successfully overthrow a widely believed theory."

Yes, but essentially no one wants to be famous in fifty years at the expense of having their funding pulled tomorrow.

Comment author: Konkvistador 13 February 2011 04:05:38PM *  3 points [-]

Also note the Matthew effect.

Comment author: Jordan 13 February 2011 10:19:58AM 5 points [-]

At this point, I have to object... the one thing that guarantees lasting fame to a scientist is to successfully overthrow a widely believed theory.

How many scientists are really banking on lasting fame? The vast majority of scientists are well aware they'll never be famous, that grant money is hard to come by, and that getting tenure is damn hard.

Comment author: Manfred 13 February 2011 05:07:52PM *  0 points [-]

There are three-ish reasons why lasting fame wouldn't be too hard if global warming was a hoax or a mistake.

One is that it's actually extremely easy to expose a gigantic error of the sort that would be required to create "global warming" from thin air. A bigger difference from the truth just makes it a bigger target. All it takes is for one person to stumble upon something anomalous and think that there's a research topic there.

Another is that there's this thing called "ethics." Now, not everyone may have this magic, but to assume all, or even a sizable minority of research scientists are in it for the money is (edit) inconsistent with their histories or payscales.

Last is that you don't get refused a grant for being a "contrarian." You get refused a grant for proposing bad science. It may make it harder, yes, but look at all the stochastic models of climate (as opposed to the physical models, which are the ones that use CO2's absorption properties to predict warming) of climate funded by grant money.

EDIT: I suppose on issues like this, if nobody's displeased then you're doing it wrong.

Comment author: Jordan 13 February 2011 11:25:50PM *  3 points [-]

One is that it's actually extremely easy to expose a gigantic error of the sort that would be required to create "global warming" from thin air.

Not so. Climate science is not cut and dry like physics. The confidence levels are necessarily smaller. There is a lot more room for a person to be irrational and get away with it, doubly so for groups.

Another is that there's this thing called "ethics." Now, not everyone may have this magic, but to assume all, or even a sizable minority of research scientists are in it for the money is (edit) inconsistent with their histories or payscales.

First off, the payscales in academia really aren't that horrible once you escape the lower level of the pyramid scheme. On top of that there are lots of perks which don't show up just by looking at salary: job security, time off, setting your own hours, status. I know many graduate students who told me the main reason they went to grad school was to avoid getting a real job. Academia is a way of life, and that way of life is very valuable to most people in it.

Second, ethics may have nothing to do with it. Just because a scientist genuinely believes in a theory doesn't mean she arrived at that belief in a rational manner. It is unethical to consciously allow money/status to color your public beliefs; it is a common human failing to let money/status color your actual internal beliefs. I wouldn't call it unethical.

Last is that you don't get refused a grant for being a "contrarian." You get refused a grant for proposing bad science.

You get refused a grant for proposing something the grant issuer is not interested in. There is a lot of good science that goes unfunded because those with the purse strings have a particular idea in mind as to what they want funded. This isn't always unethical -- sometimes you have to choose between good science and good science -- but it is my fairly unfounded opinion that in many cases a very real factor in the decision is money and interest groups (in those cases where there are interest groups, namely health, food, climate, etc).

I'm not a "climate skeptic", but I am skeptical. I'm a mathematician, not a climatologist, so I defer to their expertise. If I had to bet money, I'd bet on climate change. I am skeptical, however, that they have legitimately reached the level of confidence they claim to have reached.

Comment author: Manfred 14 February 2011 12:11:59AM *  0 points [-]

One is that it's actually extremely easy to expose a gigantic error of the sort that would be required to create "global warming" from thin air.

Not so. Climate science is not cut and dry like physics. The confidence levels are necessarily smaller. There is a lot more room for a person to be irrational and get away with, doubly so for groups.

Most of the case for global warming is based on physics. Climate models are numerical solutions to a physics problem. If they were all sufficiently wrong, it would be simple to demonstrate. Or an energy-budget type analysis could convincingly show that it was one cause instead of another as long as it also identified where current energy-budget type analyses are wrong. I mean, obviously there's a ton of evidence, and you don't overturn a ton of evidence overnight. But if you were really, testably right, you could show where existing evidence went wrong.

ethics may have nothing to do with it. Just because a scientist genuinely believes in a theory doesn't mean she arrived at that belief in a rational manner.

True, but it makes it a lot harder to explain things through mass deception if everyone's adhering to scientific ethics. That's a lot of the point of having them. Fun link: http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com/2010/11/9-circles-of-scientific-hell .

Last is that you don't get refused a grant for being a "contrarian." You get refused a grant for proposing bad science.

You get refused a grant for proposing something the grant issuer is not interested in.

And if the grant issuer is interested in furthering our knowledge of the climate? I think you're far too quick to imply that any project that challenged conventional wisdom would be left unfunded because of bias, or groupthink, or whatever. Lots and lots of climate research could be construed as tests of global warming, where if global warming failed the test it would be "bad," and it gets funded just fine. The grant-funded stochastic models I mentioned go against what other modelers are doing. If global warming is overturned, it will probably be by someone who just went out and did good science, with a project description a lot like that of everyone else who went out and did good science.

Comment author: Jordan 14 February 2011 03:46:40AM 3 points [-]

Most of the case for global warming is based on physics.

Understanding the low level physics does not mean your high level models are right. Simplifying assumptions must be made and key physical components may be overlooked entirely. That's not to say that models are worthless, far from it. What it means is that you need additional evidence before placing very high confidence in them. Namely, your model must make successful predictions.

In the case of climate science we don't have the luxury to wait and see if our models are successful. Even if we only had 75% confidence in our models, it would still be imperative to effect policy change. Nonetheless, the models are unverified, and I believe skepticism is warranted when someone claims very high confidence.

Comment author: Manfred 14 February 2011 05:07:30AM *  -1 points [-]

Successful predictions, you say?

But back on the topic of physics, it's true that there are conditions under which simplifying assumptions (let's go with the single-object simplification of Arrhenius) are and are not safe even to get an order of magnitude estimate. Do small forcings get amplified or damped by more than 10x by feedbacks (like water vapor or cloud cover)? To what extent do other conditions (like... water vapor or cloud cover) affect the greenhouse effect from CO2?

The second one is fairly straightforward, since in the upper atmosphere (the part that radiates to space, at least in the wavelengths where the atmosphere absorbs) there's not much competing with CO2 (since water precipitates out miles below), and so we can treat a change in CO2 as a change in energy flux and ignore some complicated stuff. The first bit is more complicated, maybe the clearest way is to look at non-CO2-caused variation in temperature: if there were too much damping or amplification we'd expect things to look different when the sun dimmed by a known amount (e.g. around 1700). We can tell from that that there's a bit of amplification, but definitely less than 10x. So Arrhenius' estimate should be fairly good.

Comment author: Jordan 14 February 2011 06:02:06AM 1 point [-]

Successful predictions, you say?

I would certainly consider that positive evidence, but it's not knock out evidence. It's not even 90% confidence evidence, in my opinion. The data is just too noisy to draw high confidence conclusions after only a handful of years.

Comment author: Manfred 14 February 2011 01:52:26PM *  -1 points [-]

The IPCC must agree with you that that's not 90% confidence evidence, because there's a whole heck of a lot more evidence and they (well, several years ago) only gave human-caused global warming 95% certainty.

That's just a good example of a prediction, compared to all the inference from physics and historical data.

Comment author: CronoDAS 13 February 2011 10:53:44PM 1 point [-]

On the other hand, "more money for research" isn't going to get rid of the evolution "controversy" either...

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 16 February 2011 08:43:52AM 1 point [-]

Is global warming happening, and if it is, how much damage will it cause? It doesn't matter how much funding the NSF or some other agency gives this question, because the answers are already pre-determined.

I don't care if a lot of people want to form opinions on the question for stupid reasons. That doesn't mean that science can't be done. I'm not sure if you disagree. If you're just being fatalistic about the likelihood of political policy being correctly influenced by science in this case, then I sympathize.

Comment author: bshannon 23 July 2013 01:47:50PM 0 points [-]

Generally a good idea. Doing science yourself and focusing on data instead of intuition seems likely to yield results but there are serious limitations.

Instead of Googling or asking someone else, we can apply the scientific method of actually looking at the data, and seeing what it says. Who are some rich people? How did they get rich? Where can we find information on rich people? The simplest technique, the one that I used when answering this question, is:

  • Google the list of the Forbes 400.
  • Go through each of the biographies for people on the list (or the first 200, or the first 100, or whatever is a large enough sample).
  • Write down how they got rich.
  • Summarize the data above: How do most rich people get rich?

Actually looking at data is simple, easy, and straightforward, and yet almost no one actually does it.

Confirmation bias and perhaps congruence bias (related: Correlation is not causation). You test your hypothesis using only the data used to form the hypothesis, thereby only using data which supports your hypothesis. In order to have a significant degree of confidence in your hypothesis, I think it's fair to say that it must have predictive power which hasn't been established by this mode of thinking. Perhaps it is more reliable than an intuitive answer and it is therefore a (minor) win but there is at least one other major problem.

It doesn't actually answer the original question: It focuses on one extreme which may not be (and I would guess probably isn't) representative of the whole. I imagine the best way to get into the Forbes 400 is to do what many (note: not most) people do and be very, very lucky but that doesn't necessarily represent the most effective way of becoming rich.

Thought experiment: Many people randomly invest all their money in one of a number of companies. Some become very rich. Most people don't. Expected utility is very low and, if we focus on the very rich and attempt to mimic their behaviour, we will almost certainly lose.

But I have no idea whether or not this can reasonably be said to represent the top 400. I have made no effort to study them. It is an hypothesis worth considering, however.

Other problems include stooping to behaviours one might consider unethical, requiring further study, and pre-existing conditions which are difficult or impossible to replicate.

Basically, be wary about taking your own conclusions too seriously because academic-grade science is there for more than one reason and expect to do a lot more work than one might expect having read this post, including reflecting on and revising the methods used to arrive at the conclusions.

Comment author: false_vacuum 18 February 2011 05:26:57PM 0 points [-]

is rationality an effective means of achieving goals?

Yes, by definition. (Maybe you want an 'epistemic' in there.)