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Rationality Quotes November 2011

6 Post author: Jayson_Virissimo 01 November 2011 06:28PM

Here's the new thread for posting quotes, with the usual rules:

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be voted up/down separately.  (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments.  If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote comments/posts on LW/OB.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.

Comments (391)

Comment author: Nisan 22 November 2011 03:02:18AM 29 points [-]

Some years ago I was trying to decide whether or not to move to Harvard from Stanford. I had bored my friends silly with endless discussion. Finally, one of them said, “You’re one of our leading decision theorists. Maybe you should make a list of the costs and benefits and try to roughly calculate your expected utility.” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Come on, Sandy, this is serious.”

-Persi Diaconis

By the way, Diaconis stayed at Stanford. He's giving a public lecture on Nov. 30.

Comment author: gwern 23 November 2011 03:00:52AM 10 points [-]

That's a pretty cool paper; eg.

There is not very much variability in coin flips, and practiced magicians (including myself ) can control them pretty precisely. My colleagues at the Harvard Physics Department built me a perfect coin flipper that comes up heads every time. Most human flippers do not have this kind of control and are in the range of 51⁄2 mph and 35 to 40 rps. Where is this on Figure 1? In the units of Figure 1, the velocity is about 1⁄5—very close to the zero. However, the spin coordinate is about 40—way off the graph. Thus, the picture says nothing about real flips. However, the math behind the picture determines how close the regions are in the appropriate zone. Using this and the observed spread of the measured data allows us to conclude that coin tossing is fair to two decimals but not to three. That is, typical flips show biases such as .495 or .503.


One of the most useful things to come out of my study is a collection of the rules of thumb my friends use in their decision making. For example, one of my Ph.D. advisers, Fred Mosteller, told me, “Other things being equal, finish the job that is nearest done.” A famous physicist offered this advice: “Don’t waste time on obscure fine points that rarely occur.” I’ve been told that Albert Einstein displayed the following aphorism in his office: “Things that are difficult to do are being done from the wrong centers and are not worth doing.” Decision theorist I. J. Good writes, “The older we become, the more important it is to use what we know rather than learn more.” Galen offered this: “If a lot of smart people have thought about a problem [e.g., God’s existence, life on other planets] and disagree, then it can’t be decided.”

Comment author: lukeprog 03 November 2011 07:45:04AM 23 points [-]

It is better to destroy one's own errors than those of others.


Comment author: sketerpot 09 November 2011 02:49:25AM *  7 points [-]

Certainly more convenient. I mean, you're right there. You don't even have to verbalize your arguments!

Comment author: gaffa 31 October 2011 06:41:50PM 21 points [-]

You can't make a movie and say 'It was all a big accident' - no, it has to be a conspiracy, people plotting together. Because in a story, a story is about intention. A story is not about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human action but not of human design - no, a story is about evil people plotting together.

Comment author: ciphergoth 01 November 2011 08:47:57AM 24 points [-]

One of the strengths of Apollo 13 is that it has only good guys in it, battling together against an unforeseen, mysterious and near-lethal twist of fate.

Comment author: dlthomas 31 October 2011 06:50:43PM 11 points [-]

Apparently he hasn't seen many Cohen brothers movies...

Comment author: dlthomas 31 October 2011 07:35:15PM 4 points [-]

Which isn't to say this undermines his overall point - such movies are the exception, and interesting partly because of that - just that his language was too forceful.

Comment author: juliawise 01 November 2011 10:13:51PM 4 points [-]

Or movies that are about relationships instead of stuff blowing up. There are plenty of good movies with plots and no bad guys.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 01 November 2011 12:48:58PM 4 points [-]

There's a mystery novel that left me incredibly angry at the author because I was expecting an interesting complex cause tying all the murders together, but there wasn't. I'm probably a calmer person now, and for all I know, there may have been hints I was missing about what sort of story it was.

Gur Anzr bs gur Ebfr

Comment author: peter_hurford 31 October 2011 04:20:46PM 19 points [-]

Expert estimates of probability are often off by factors of hundreds or thousands. [...] I used to be annoyed when the margin of error was high in a forecasting model that I might put together. Now I view it as perhaps the single most important piece of information that a forecaster provides. When we publish a forecast on FiveThirtyEight, I go to great lengths to document the uncertainty attached to it, even if the uncertainty is sufficiently large that the forecast won’t make for punchy headlines.

Nate Silver

Comment author: Alejandro1 31 October 2011 08:03:56PM 16 points [-]

From the same post:

One might expect it [our gut-feel sense] to be especially bad in the case of presidential primaries. There have been only about 15 competitive nomination contests since we began picking presidents this way in 1972. Some of them — like the nominations of George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 — are dismissed by experts if their outcomes did not happen to agree with their paradigm of how presidents are chosen. (Another fundamental error: when you have such little data, you should almost never throw any of it out, and you should be especially wary of doing so when it happens to contradict your hypothesis.)

Comment author: kalla724 02 November 2011 08:34:16PM *  16 points [-]

The best way to escape from a problem is to solve it.

-Alan Saporta

Comment author: djcb 01 November 2011 09:48:31PM 16 points [-]

The nurse recorded the time of death, 9:21 P.M. He discovered, oddly, that the clock had halted at that moment —just the sort of mystical phenomenon that appealed to unscientific people. Then an explanation occurred to him. He knew the clock was fragile, because he had repaired it several times, and he decided that the nurse must have stopped it by picking it up to check the time in the dim light.

[ James Gleick - Genius - The work and Life of Richard Feynman; this is a really chilling passage, which describes the moments just after Feynman's wife has passed away, which devastated him. Somehow, this struck me.]

Comment author: RobinZ 01 November 2011 10:01:44PM 18 points [-]

Arlene died a few hours after I got there. A nurse came in to fill out the death certificate, and went out again. I spent a little more time with my wife. Then I looked at the clock I had given her seven years before, when she had first become sick with tuberculosis. It was something which in those days was very nice: a digital clock whose numbers would change by turning around mechanically. The clock was very delicate and often stopped for one reason or another - I had to repair it from time to time - but I kept it going for all those years. Now, it had stopped once more - at 9:22, the time on the death certificate!

I remembered the time I was in my fraternity house at MIT when the idea came into my head completely out of the blue that my grandmother was dead. Right after that there was a telephone call, just like that. It was for Pete Bernays - my grandmother wasn't dead. So I remembered that, in case somebody told me a story that ended the other way. I figured that such things can sometimes happen by luck - after all, my grandmother was very old - although people might think they happened by some sort of supernatural phenomenon.

Arlene had kept this clock by her bedside all the time she was sick, and now it stopped the moment she died. I can understand how a person who half believes in the possibility of such things, and who hasn't got a doubting mind - especially in a circumstance like that - doesn't immediately try to figure out what happened, but instead explains that no one touched the clock, and there was no possibility of explanation by normal phenomena. The clock simply stopped. It would become a dramatic example of these fantastic phenomena.

I saw that the light in the room was low, and then I remembered that the nurse had picked up the clock and turned it toward the light to see the face better. That could easily have stopped it.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, "Los Alamos from Below" (third chapter of Part 3)

Comment author: djcb 01 November 2011 10:08:20PM 2 points [-]

Nice. This is probably where mr. Gleick got it from. The strange thing is that (I think), Feynman's wife's first name is Arline, not the more common Arlene. I found Gleick's book nice in that it did attempted to look beyond some of legends/anecdotes.

Comment author: Desrtopa 13 January 2013 03:06:12AM 12 points [-]

Alternate explanation: The clock stopped before his wife died, but the nurse recorded 9:21 as his wife's time of death, because she determined the time by checking the clock, not realizing it had already stopped.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 January 2013 03:33:25PM 4 points [-]

Things like this always remind me to doubt clever-sounding explanations of phenomena I wouldn't actually have predicted in advance. Obviously, "not supernatural" is a very strong bet - but the specific hypotheses? Those are less obvious.

Comment author: Maniakes 02 November 2011 01:12:00AM 43 points [-]

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

John W. Gardner

Comment author: Emile 31 December 2011 04:22:47PM 4 points [-]

I agree with the general thrust, but ... even though modern western society does scorn plumbers (compared to philosophers), our pipes do hold water, and I don't have any complaints about the overall quality of plumbing.

Our society may not have much high words of praise for excellence in plumbing (you're more likely to talk about your hobby as a wildlife photographer than your job fixing toilets on your OK Cupid profile, even if you're average at the first and excellent at the second), but good plumbers get more money than bad plumbers, which is enough to get quality plumbing. By contrast, good philosophers get more praise from their peers than bad philosophers do, which is both harder to evaluate and less motivating.

So I don't think it's a matter of humble activity / exalted activity; designing bridges and transplanting hearts are exalted activities too, and we don't tolerate much shoddiness there.

Comment author: Hey 02 November 2011 09:01:09AM 14 points [-]

I am thinking of coding up a web app for accumulating, voting, and commenting on quotes. Kind of like bash.org but much fancier.

Is that something you guys would be interested in? If so, what features would you want?

This would be free to use of course, and the site would not lock down the data (ie it would be exportable to various formats).

I am thinking there are a lot of communities that post quotes for internal use, and might be interested in a kind of unified web site for this. My initial thought is that it would be like Reddit, where each tribe/community/subculture/topic/etc gets its own subdirectory.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 November 2011 12:05:44AM 13 points [-]

Virtually no idea is too ridiculous to be accepted, even by very intelligent and highly educated people, if it provides a way for them to feel special and important. Some confuse that feeling with idealism.

--Thomas Sowell

Comment author: Oligopsony 04 November 2011 10:04:34PM *  13 points [-]

“Tell me, Eben: how is’t, d’you think, that the planets are moved in their courses?”

“Why, said Ebenezer, “’tis that the cosmos is filled with little particles moving in vortices, each of which centers on a star; and ‘tis the subtle push and pull of these particles in our solar vortex that slides the planets along their orbs – is’t not?”

“So saith Descartes,” Burlingame smiled. “And d’you haply recall what is the nature of light?”

“If I have’t right,” replied Ebenezer, “’tis an aspect of the vortices – of the press of inward and outward forces in ‘em. The celestial fire is sent through space from the vortices by this pressure, which imparts a transitional motion to little light globules – ”

“Which Renatus kindly hatched for that occasion,” Burlingame interrupted. “And what’s more he allows his globules both a rectilinear and a rotatary motion. If only the first occurs when the globules smite our retinae, we see white light; if both, we see color. And if this were not magical enough – mirabile dictu! – when the rotatory motion surpasseth the rectilinear, we see blue; when the reverse, we see red; and when the twain are equal, we see yellow. What fantastical drivel!”

“You mean ‘tis not the truth? I must say, Henry, it sounds reasonable to me. In sooth, there is a seed of poetry in it; it hath an elegance.”

“Aye, it hath every virtue and but one small defect, which is, that the universe doth not operate in that wise.”

-John Barth, the Sot-Weed Factor

Comment author: [deleted] 31 October 2011 06:11:05PM *  13 points [-]

Would anybody tell me if I was getting stupider?

Mike Patton

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 01 November 2011 02:00:28AM 10 points [-]

Even if they did, would you believe them?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 02 November 2011 10:29:08AM *  2 points [-]

were getting stupider. :p

Comment author: Emily 02 November 2011 05:30:54PM 2 points [-]

There's nothing stupid about "was" there. The subjunctive and indicative are equally grammatical in this context in modern English --- informal contexts might even prefer the latter over the former.

Comment author: MinibearRex 04 November 2011 02:36:39PM 12 points [-]

Through the discovery of Buchner, Biology was relieved of yet another fragment of mysticism. The splitting up of sugar into CO2 and alcohol is no more the effect of a "vital principle" than the splitting up of cane sugar by invertase. The history of this problem is instructive, as it warns us against considering problems beyond our reach because they have not yet found their solution.

-Jacques Loeb, 1906, on the discovery of the mechanism of glycolysis

Comment author: [deleted] 02 November 2011 08:22:53AM 11 points [-]

At sea once more we had to pass the Sirens, whose sweet singing lures sailors to their doom. I had stopped up the ears of my crew with wax, and I alone listened while lashed to the mast, powerless to steer toward shipwreck.

-- Odysseus in Odyssey

Comment author: Raemon 02 November 2011 01:56:49PM 1 point [-]

I'm confused about why it was valuable for him to be able to hear, if he wasn't allowed to act upon information.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 November 2011 02:28:00PM *  15 points [-]

The point of the story is that it illustrates the power of precommitment; Odysseus made a choice in advance not to steer towards the rocks even though he knew that when the opportunity would arise he would want to steer towards them.

Why he wanted to be lashed to the mast instead of stooping his ears with wax I guess was because he desired to hear the "sweet singing".

Comment author: MinibearRex 04 November 2011 02:45:36PM 11 points [-]

It was implied in myths that if you listened to the Sirens (and survived), you would learn more about yourself. Curiosity about your own true nature, fighting self-deception, etc. Very much a rationalist motivation.

Comment author: Bugmaster 03 November 2011 05:55:29PM 5 points [-]

Pure curiosity, probably. It's the same reason that (some) people climb mountains or poke around with rare and special rocks that glow in the dark.

Comment author: wedrifid 02 November 2011 02:02:56PM 5 points [-]

For the same reason a kleptomanic may enjoy visiting a museum even where all the beautiful works of art are securely displayed. Because he could appreciate the aesthetic without knowing that his decisions at the time would destroy him.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 02 November 2011 05:43:41PM 8 points [-]

Getting hit by basilisks can be very fun.

Comment author: wallowinmaya 31 October 2011 07:55:56PM 31 points [-]

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.


Comment author: gwern 20 November 2011 05:42:20PM 10 points [-]

"The method of 'postulating' what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil. Let us leave them to others and proceed with our honest toil."

Bertrand Russell, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy 1919 ( http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logical-construction/#Hon )

Comment author: [deleted] 09 November 2011 12:04:32AM *  9 points [-]

If you don't believe in the innate unreasonableness of human beings, just try raising children.

--Thomas Sowell

Comment author: JenniferRM 02 November 2011 12:16:16AM 9 points [-]

A lot of people are interested in predicting the future so that they can orient their present activities accordingly. With a few exceptions we can discuss, I think the future is inherently uncertain and unpredictable. We are way better off if we accept the enormous uncertainty that pervades the world and approach it with a sense of adventure and mystery... There are a couple of small but important exceptions to the unpredictability of the unfolding. We can notice a current reality that is hidden or nonobvious. We might notice the reality by looking at data, watching conversations, or observing practices. We then discuss the reality and its consequences in the near term -- a year or two is easiest, but sometimes we can go up to five years. Management guru Peter Drucker was a master at this; he said that others who rated him as a good prognosticator were wrong because all he was doing was revealing current truths that most of them had missed.

-Peter Denning

Comment author: Nominull 31 October 2011 03:31:51PM *  23 points [-]

Opening your eyes doesn't make a bad picture worse.

Comment author: orbenn 01 November 2011 04:39:42PM *  6 points [-]

Technically true, but that's a horrible analogy. Bullys are still a problem if you don't notice them. An ugly picture is completely not a problem if no one sees it, so in a way it is worse.

Comment author: Vaniver 01 November 2011 07:57:17PM 3 points [-]

Isn't this opposed to Lovecraft's claim that nothing he could describe would be as scary as the unknown / the reader's fears?

As well, there are a lot of shock pictures out there that were worse than what I could imagine before having seen them, and looking at them is worse than remembering them. If "worse" refers to subjective experience, then it seems obvious that closing your eyes can help.

Comment author: [deleted] 01 November 2011 09:01:30PM 4 points [-]

As well, there are a lot of shock pictures out there that were worse than what I could imagine before having seen them, and looking at them is worse than remembering them.

Care to name an example? I've been so desensitized, I think the worst any picture could do for me is to be somewhat depressing. Lovecraft, however, is still horrifying.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 01 November 2011 11:25:33PM 6 points [-]

You actually find Lovecraft horrifying? I read a bit (color out of space, a short about ancient lizard people being wiped out by a vengeful god, and a bunch of descriptions) and found it peculiar and sad, but not horrifying. Too much Poe as a baby, I guess.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 November 2011 12:19:48AM 6 points [-]

Lovecraft directly taps into my own madness and fears. He is psychologically quite similar to me and manages to actually express how bad xenophobia and the utter indifference of the cosmos feel. Worst of all, his more madness-focused stories like The Dreams in the Witch-House directly remind me of my own periods of insanity and paranoia. So it's really horrifying through its realism, at least for a certain kind of person.

(And he is the only one I know who does that, though I'm (intentionally) not very familiar with some related authors like Ligotti.)

Plus, violations of the natural order are much worse than anything in traditional horror. A color that doesn't fit in the light spectrum is more terrifying and disgusting to me than serial killers, torture or 2girls1cup. Not sure I can explain that one.

Comment author: kurokikaze 03 November 2011 08:58:34AM 11 points [-]

Pfft. Even magenta doesn't fit in the light spectrum. Are you terrified yet? :)

Comment author: Armok_GoB 02 November 2011 05:21:11PM 2 points [-]

This reminds me of an experiment I've wanted to do for some time, but don't have the necessary equipment for. I'd love to see it tested by someone who do.

*Take multiple light sources each shining in only one frequency, that can be dimmed, in specific triplets. Quickly eyeballing it I'd suggest [420nm, 550nm, 600nm] and [460nm, 500nm, 570nm]. *using a normal white light source as a reference, first adjust the relative intensity of each triplet so the combined light appears white, then scale the combined light (probably by simply altering the distance) to the same intensity. *Both lights should now appear identical. if they don't make further minor adjustments. *Look at them side by side, until you can see the colour out of space. :)


Comment author: saturn 03 November 2011 01:18:11AM 2 points [-]

Why do you want to do this?

Comment author: Armok_GoB 03 November 2011 08:06:41PM 2 points [-]

Because seeing tetracromaticaly would be awesome, even if it's only possible in contrived settings.

Comment author: Nominull 01 November 2011 09:04:11PM 4 points [-]

Please don't taunt the basilisk.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 09 November 2011 01:04:45PM 2 points [-]

Search Google Images for "teratoma".

Comment author: Vaniver 02 November 2011 04:55:47AM 2 points [-]

I do not have a very visual imagination, and so find it easy to forget the details of disturbing pictures, even if I saw them moments ago (forget meaning not be able to recreate in my mind, rather than not be able to recognize). Of the time when I was frequenting 4chan, I think my least favorite picture was ybghf gvg.

Comment author: Nominull 01 November 2011 09:00:23PM 2 points [-]

As always when we hear the word "worse", we need to ask ourselves, "worse on what metric?"

Comment author: player_03 01 November 2011 11:36:02PM 5 points [-]

This reminds me of Lojban, in which the constructs meaning "good" and "bad" encourage you to specify a metric. It is still possible to say that something is "worse" without providing any detail, but I suspect most Lojban speakers would remember to provide detail if there was a chance of confusion.

Comment author: Patrick 02 November 2011 01:03:39AM *  8 points [-]

Almost anything can be attacked as a failure, but almost anything can be defended as not a significant failure. Politicians do not appreciate the significance of 'significant'.

-- Sir Humphrey Appleby

Comment author: sabre51 01 November 2011 07:11:56PM 8 points [-]

Our civilization is still in a middle stage: scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly ruled by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly ruled by reason.

Theodore Dreiser

Comment author: JenniferRM 02 November 2011 12:19:56AM 21 points [-]

People can learn to look you in the eyes even when they're lying to you. But it's kind of like a fake smile; there are involuntary muscles up there. If you know what you're looking for, you can still tell. But what does it mean if they're looking you in the eyes and they mean it? It means that, at least in that moment, they're doing what they really believe is right. That's the definition of integrity.

That part is easy. That's not the surprising thing.

The surprising thing, to me, was that someone can have integrity and still be completely evil. It's kind of obvious in retrospect; the super-villain in an action movie can always look the hero in the eye, and he always does, just to prove it. He has integrity. Evil with integrity is more respectable, somehow, than plain evil. All it takes to have integrity is to do what you think is right, no matter how stupid that may be.

Beware of people with integrity.

-Avery Pennarun

Comment author: scav 02 November 2011 03:36:55PM 40 points [-]

I just noticed CVS has started stocking homeopathic pills on the same shelves with--and labeled similarly to--their actual medicine. Telling someone who trusts you that you're giving them medicine, when you know you’re not, because you want their money, isn’t just lying--it’s like an example you’d make up if you had to illustrate for a child why lying is wrong.

-- Randall, XKCD #971

Comment author: PhilGoetz 31 December 2011 08:18:56PM *  7 points [-]

I noticed this too, but they're fake homeopathic pills. They're not really homeopathic - they have active ingredients in the same quantity as the original brand-name products they are knock-offs of, but with the word "homeopathic" added as a marketing ploy. They're lying about lying.

Comment author: Alejandro1 01 November 2011 01:25:25AM 19 points [-]

Consider an instance close to hand: arguments on the Internet. Whether the discussion is about abortion or the definition of atheism or the advisability of tax cuts, one might think that the longer the debate continues, the more ideas would emerge. In fact, the reverse is the case. A couple of scientists discussing the proper taxonomy of flesh flies will entertain many options, but thousands of people talking about God will endlessly repeat the same rhetorical moves.

Jim Harrison

Comment author: Xom 01 November 2011 08:14:06PM *  18 points [-]

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.

~ Orwell

Comment author: RobinZ 01 November 2011 08:36:05PM 6 points [-]
Comment author: Armok_GoB 02 November 2011 05:33:37PM 2 points [-]

This is the exact opposite of my experience- I think wordlessly with both abstract and concrete things, and hunting for words might work for the concrete things occasionally, since they are mostly the same, but for almost all abstract things there simply does not exist any word even close to what I want to say, so surrender - the hard kind, accepting defeat and humiliation, like that class scene in MoR - and making do with unbearably clumsy, confusing and muddled metaphor is exactly what I have to learn in every case I don't know the exact mathematical notation to formalize my thoughts.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 01 November 2011 11:01:13PM *  17 points [-]

If I let go of a hammer on a planet that has a positive gravity, I need not see it fall to know that it has in fact fallen. [...] Gentlemen, human beings have characteristics just as inanimate objects do.

-Spock, "Court Martial", Star Trek: The Original Series

Comment author: [deleted] 03 November 2011 05:33:53PM *  9 points [-]

on a planet that has a positive gravity


Comment author: [deleted] 25 November 2011 01:40:20AM *  6 points [-]

The captain had a sudden awful thought.
"What's the chance that they've detected the dilithium?"
T'Vau said, "I can only estimate."
"Then do it."
T'Vau said, "Estimated probability one hundred percent."
Trofimov turned to stare at the Vulcan. "That's your guess?"
"It is an estimate," T'Vau said stiffly, "based on the level of Hecht radiation, and a standard survey of Klingon monitoring--"
"Your guess is that you're certain," Trofimov said, feeling slightly dizzy.

John M. Ford, How Much for Just the Planet?

Comment author: Thomas 11 November 2011 09:09:52AM 6 points [-]

Power is nothing without control.

  • a comercial slogan of Pirelli Tyre Company
Comment author: roland 03 November 2011 05:17:42PM 6 points [-]

As a team converges on a decision—and especially when the leader tips her hand—public doubts about the wisdom of the planned move are gradually suppressed and eventually come to be treated as evidence of flawed loyalty to the team and its leaders.

--Daniel Kahneman

Comment author: gwern 23 November 2011 03:06:23AM 7 points [-]

From the new book, I take it, based on http://mobile.bloomberg.com/news/2011-10-24/bias-blindness-and-how-we-truly-think-part-1-daniel-kahneman The full quote offers an interesting debiasing strategy:

Klein’s proposal, which he calls the “premortem,” is simple: When the organization has almost come to an important decision but hasn’t committed itself, it should gather a group of people knowledgeable about the decision to listen to a brief speech: “Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome has been a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.”

As a team converges on a decision, public doubts about the wisdom of the planned move are gradually suppressed and eventually come to be treated as evidence of flawed loyalty. The suppression of doubt contributes to overconfidence in a group where only supporters of the decision have a voice. The main virtue of the premortem is that it legitimizes doubts.

Furthermore, it encourages even supporters of the decision to search for possible threats not considered earlier. The premortem isn’t a panacea and doesn’t provide complete protection against nasty surprises, but it goes some way toward reducing the damage of plans that are subject to the biases of uncritical optimism.

Comment author: Craig_Heldreth 23 November 2011 05:09:12PM *  2 points [-]

Kahneman gave a talk at Google about how and why intuition works well for us on 10 November. I am about halfway through it and so far it is marvelous.


edit The same talk (very close) at Edge transcribed plus discussion after with Cosmides and Tooby and Pinker. Link to transcript.

Comment author: scav 02 November 2011 03:40:39PM 6 points [-]

I have no fear of ghosts, and I have never heard it said that so much harm had been done by the dead during six thousand years as is wrought by the living in a single day.

-- The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 02 November 2011 03:43:57PM 1 point [-]

Hmm, not sure I agree. The living now can cause great harm for the people in the future. In that regard at any given time the dead are creating harm in some sense. But the basic point seems valid. The dead at least can't alter their activity to help more or reduce harm, the living can.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 02 November 2011 09:48:34PM 3 points [-]

The dead at least can't alter their activity to help more or reduce harm, the living can.

It's the other way around: in timeless view, nether living not dead can "alter" anything, the relevant fact is that you can influence activity of the living, but not of the dead (not as you said whether the dead themselves can alter things vs. the living can alter things).

Comment author: JenniferRM 02 November 2011 12:17:36AM 14 points [-]

All scientists despise the ideology of 'breakthroughs' --- I mean the belief that science proceeds from one revelation to another, each one opening up a new world of understanding and advancing still farther a sharp line of demarcation between what is true and what is false. Everyone actually engaged in scientific research knows that this way of looking at things is altogether misleading, and that the frontier between understanding and bewilderment is rather like the plasma membrane of a cell as it creeps over its substratum, a pushing forward here, a retraction there --- an exploratory probing that will eventually move forward the whole body of the cell... in real life, science does not prance from one mountain top to the next.

-Peter Medawar in "Does Ethology Throw Any Light on Human Behavior?"

Comment author: Karmakaiser 31 October 2011 01:12:50PM 20 points [-]

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone's fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I'm one of Us. I must be. I've certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We're always one of Us. It's Them that do the bad things.

-Terry Pratchett, Jingo

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 27 November 2011 03:44:20AM 5 points [-]

Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. Thus they might come to be stamped as "necessities of thought," "a priori givens," etc. The path of scientific progress is often made impassable for a long time by such errors. Therefore it is by no means an idle game if we become practiced in analysing long-held commonplace concepts and showing the circumstances on which their justification and usefulness depend, and how they have grown up, individually, out of the givens of experience. Thus their excessive authority will be broken. They will be removed if they cannot be properly legitimated, corrected if their correlation with given things be far too superfluous, or replaced if a new system can be established that we prefer for whatever reason.

— Albert Einstein, obituary for Ernst Mach (1916)

Comment author: roland 07 November 2011 09:10:21PM 5 points [-]

Your moral feelings are attached to frames, to descriptions of reality rather than to reality itself.

--Daniel Kahneman

Comment author: ahartell 01 November 2011 05:28:51PM *  5 points [-]

Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense.

Henry St. John

Comment author: jsbennett86 01 November 2011 12:53:29AM 13 points [-]

Who first called Reason sweet, I don't know. I suspect that he was a man with very few responsibilities, no children to rear, and no payroll to meet. An anchorite with heretical tendencies, maybe, or the idle youngest son of a wealthy Athenian. The dictates of Reason are often difficult to figure out, rarely to my liking, and profitable only by what seems a happy but remarkably unusual accident. Mostly, Reason brings bad news, and bad news of the worst sort, for, if it is truly the word of Reason, there is no denying it or weaseling out of its demands without simply deciding to be irrational. Thus it is that I have discovered, and many others, I notice, have also discovered, all sorts of clever ways to convince myself that Reason is "mere" Reason, powerful and right, of course, but infinitely outnumbered by reasons, my reasons.

Richard Mitchell, The Gift of Fire

Comment author: Vaniver 05 November 2011 10:30:09PM 25 points [-]

The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.

Gloria Steinem

Comment author: sketerpot 10 November 2011 01:44:39AM 2 points [-]

This doesn't need to be true. Accepting the truth without getting pissed off is a learnable skill.

Comment author: Alerik 17 November 2011 05:57:26AM 1 point [-]

I think, in terms of truths that "set one free," there is a high probability of being in bondage to some delusion or malformed anxiety, and that the wrenching effect of having to overturn a lot of one's prior beliefs is quite likely to have some anger component, even if only at whatever forces kept one in ignorance previously. In many cases it means coming to terms with the degree to which one had been used and manipulated up until the new perspective arrived. At least this mirrors my experience leaving the church, as well as in some other emotionally loaded topics.

Comment author: baiter 04 November 2011 02:31:09AM 12 points [-]

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

John Adams, Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials

Comment author: Nominull 31 October 2011 05:29:21PM *  17 points [-]

Writers of all stripes enjoy engaging in the most cynical readings of human behavior because they think it makes them appear hyper-rational. But in fact here is a perfect example of how trying to achieve that makes you irrational. Human emotion is real. It is an observable phenomenon. It observably influences behavior. Therefore to fail to account for it when discussing coupling and relationships is the opposite of cold rationality; it is in fact a failure of empiricism.

-L'Hote on Kate Bolick's "All the Single Ladies"

Comment author: Pfft 31 October 2011 06:24:06PM *  29 points [-]

This sounds good out of context, but I think it was actually confused. The context was a complaint that '"marriage market" theories leave love out of the equation'. But this is a false dichotomy. It could well be that people marry out of sincerely felt love, but fall in love with "older men with resources" and "younger women with adoring gazes”, as the original article had it. The cues that cause you to fall in love are not easily accessible to introspection.

More to the point, the original article was speculating about how a demographic shift that makes women wealthier than men would affect dating culture. What does it even mean to account for human emotion here? The way the problem is set up, the abstract model is the best we can hope for. In general, when discussing big trends or large groups, we don't have detailed information about the emotions of everyone involved. In that case, leaving those out of the model is not a failure of empiricism, it's just doing the best with what's available.

I think there are different contexts where this same quote makes more sense: for example you probably won't get a very good understanding of eBay auctions by assuming that everyone involved follows a simple economic model.

Comment author: Bugmaster 28 November 2011 11:42:35PM 4 points [-]

"If you think a weakness can be turned into a strength, I hate to tell you this, but that's another weakness."

-- Jack Handey

Comment author: lukeprog 28 November 2011 05:05:25AM *  4 points [-]

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself, abus'd or disabus'd;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;
Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.
Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

Alexander Pope

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 24 November 2011 01:38:23PM 4 points [-]

Yet conscious cynicism is much rarer than you might suppose. Few of us have the self-knowledge and emotional discipline to say one thing while meaning another.

David Frum

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 24 November 2011 02:34:46PM 8 points [-]

Few of us have the self-knowledge and emotional discipline to say one thing while meaning another.

Yeah, right.

Comment author: gwern 24 November 2011 03:49:47PM *  0 points [-]

Keyword: "conscious cynicism".

Comment author: Vaniver 29 November 2011 03:03:11PM 5 points [-]

Ekman's studies on lying nurses found about half of them leaked nothing when lying about the emotional content of films they were watching. ("Oh, these are pretty flowers, not a gruesome surgery on a burn victim.") I don't think 'few' is the way I'd put it.

Comment author: Swimmer963 13 January 2013 04:28:43PM 3 points [-]

I hadn't known someone had decided to study that specifically...

Based on my experience of nursing school, I would say this ability not to leak emotional reactions is true of nurses in particular, because you do get used to seeing a lot of really gross or upsetting stuff and reacting matter-of-factly. I basically don't experience disgust anymore. (Specification: in certain situations where most people would be disgusted, I experience pretty much no emotions, i.e. cleaning up diarrhea or changing bandages on infected wounds. There are some situations where I wouldn't previously have been grossed out and I am now, i.e. by the idea of doing CPR without a pocket mask.) Even in the case of empathy in others' pain, I've had to learn to control my emotional reactions so that I can, you know, get my work done and not be totally useless.

Comment author: Vaniver 13 January 2013 05:01:01PM 2 points [-]

This is the study. A few more details (I don't have access to the full study):

One of the reasons they decided to study it was because it was a case where they were fairly confident that the liars actually wanted to lie well and be believed. The subjects were nursing students, and were all told that their ability to keep their calm and not present disgust is necessary for nurses. They watched a pleasant film about flowers, and narrated their reaction to it while being videotaped, and then watched an unpleasant film about surgery on a burn victim, attempting to react the same way as they did to the flower film.

The thing you're describing sounds different, though- whereas Ekman thought he had found people who hid their disgust well, perhaps he found people that didn't actually feel disgust in the disgusting situation. The full study may have more details.

Comment author: wedrifid 24 November 2011 02:47:32PM 4 points [-]

Yet conscious cynicism is much rarer than you might suppose. Few of us have the self-knowledge and emotional discipline to say one thing while meaning another.

That is a belief that I recommend people consciously choose to endorse in most social contexts. I wouldn't say it is true though, unless spoken by a three year old with respect to his peers.

Comment author: MichaelGR 04 November 2011 06:56:35PM 9 points [-]

We have two classes of forecasters: Those who don't know and those who don't know they don't know.

John Kenneth Galbraith

Comment author: scav 02 November 2011 03:46:28PM 9 points [-]

There are not books enough on earth to contain the record of the prophecies Indians and other unauthorized parties have made; but one may carry in his overcoat pockets the record of all the prophecies that have been fulfilled.

-- Mark Twain

Comment author: sketerpot 10 November 2011 02:23:56AM *  2 points [-]

A specific instance of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, which in turn is a type of selection bias.

Comment author: MichaelGR 06 November 2011 05:23:05PM 8 points [-]

The correctness of a decision can’t be judged from the outcome. Nevertheless, that’s how people assess it. A good decision is one that’s optimal at the time it’s made, when the future is by definition unknown. Thus, correct decisions are often unsuccessful, and vice versa.

--Howard Marks, The Most Important Thing p.136 (about investing, but applies to other things)

Comment author: Pfft 31 October 2011 02:46:39PM *  15 points [-]

[,,,]we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument--attack, defense, counter-attack, etc.---reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; its structures the actions we perform in arguing. Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.

-George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By.

Comment author: juliawise 01 November 2011 10:17:15PM 11 points [-]

I think navigators (maybe orienteers?) would be a better model than than warriors or dancers.

Comment author: dlthomas 01 November 2011 10:24:23PM 5 points [-]

Would you (or anyone else) please explore this further? How would we change the way we talk about discourse?

Comment author: juliawise 02 November 2011 11:39:22AM *  20 points [-]

War is something we do to win. Dance is something we do either to entertain others, or for our own enjoyment. Debate teams work like this - you're assigned a position which you must argue, even if you don't believe it. The performers/debaters do it some for their own pleasure, and they attract audiences who come to be entertained. My husband and I do a lot of arguing/debate for amusement, which is more like social dance in that it's playful and designed to entertain us rather than to accomplish any other goal.

But neither of these metaphors deal with objective truth. If I win a war, a debate, or a lawsuit, it doesn't prove my point is correct. It just means I fought or argued more skillfully or impressively. In navigation, both skill and objective truth are involved. Imagine two people who are trying to reach a destination (representing truth). They need skill to figure out how to get there, and can even compete for who gets there first (as in the sport of orienteering). Or, they can collaborate to find it together. If I confidently and stylishly navigate in the wrong direction, I won't reach my destination. I can only get there by reading the signs correctly.

I would prefer serious argument to be more about truth-seeking and less about showing off or defeating the opponent.

Comment author: Oligopsony 31 October 2011 07:38:26PM *  27 points [-]

On precision in aesthetics, metaethics:

RS: Butt-Head, I have a question for you. I noticed that you often say, "I like stuff that's cool." But isn't that circular logic? I mean, what is the definition of "cool," other than an adjective denoting something the speaker likes?

BH: Huh-huh. Uh, did you, like, go to college?

RS: You don't have to go to college to know the definition of "redundant." What I'm saying is that essentially what you're saying is "I like stuff that I like."

B: Yeah. Huh-huh. Me, too.

BH: Also, I don't like stuff that sucks, either.

RS: But nobody likes stuff that sucks!

BH: Then why does so much stuff suck?

B: Yeah. College boy! Huh-huh, huh-huh.

-Rolling Stone, Interview with Beavis and Butt-Head

Comment author: Alejandro1 31 October 2011 10:44:25PM *  11 points [-]

I want to give thanks to the divine
Labyrinth of causes and effects
For the diversity of beings
That form this singular universe,
For Reason, that will never give up its dream
Of a map of the labyrinth,

Jorge Luis Borges, “Another poem of gifts” (opening lines).

Comment author: satt 05 November 2011 11:11:48PM *  7 points [-]

All scientific work is liable to be upset or modified by advancing knowledge. That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have, or to postpone the action that it appears to demand at a given time.

Who knows, asked Robert Browning, but the world may end tonight? True, but on available evidence most of us make ready to commute on the 8.30 next day.

Austin Bradford Hill, "The Environment and Disease: Association or Causation?"

Comment author: wedrifid 05 November 2011 07:49:49AM 13 points [-]

Sweetie, if you work reaaaaly hard, and focus reaaaaly well, and there aren't that many people who are still better at what you do than you are despite your best efforts, you can be whatever you want. If you don't die.

Zach Weiner, SMBC]

Comment author: [deleted] 25 November 2011 03:19:31PM *  3 points [-]

I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible, and learn what appears to be wise and right. The subject is difficult, and good men do not agree.

--Abraham Lincoln

Comment author: cousin_it 22 November 2011 11:52:20PM *  3 points [-]

I used to Code Fearlessly all the time, tearing up everything whenever I had a thought about a better way of doing something. (...) There are all sorts of opportunities to avoid making honest comparisons between the new way and the old way.

-- John Carmack

Comment author: [deleted] 20 November 2011 09:06:26PM *  6 points [-]

As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth's final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.

~Commissioner Pravin Lal, fictional character from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Comment author: JenniferRM 02 November 2011 12:15:08AM 6 points [-]

Even more than the easier problem of remembering faces and matching them to favors, the ability of both parties to agree with sufficient accuracy on an estimate of the value of a favor in the first place is probably the main barrier to reciprocal altruism among animals. It is also likely the most important barrier to exchange among humans. Many kinds of exchange, probably many more than most economists perceive, are rendered infeasible by the inability of one or both parties to the exchange to estimate its value.

-Nick Szabo

Comment author: lukeprog 04 November 2011 12:04:15AM 5 points [-]

It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.

Jacob Bronowski

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 31 October 2011 11:34:37AM 5 points [-]

It seems to me as though people can only manage to see things at all clearly when some political wind or other is blowing from behind them; if they turn against it, it blows directly into their eyes, and they become blinded.

-Hans Georg Fritzsche

Comment author: Bugmaster 28 November 2011 11:40:31PM *  4 points [-]

"I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they'd never expect it."

-- Jack Handey

Comment author: [deleted] 25 November 2011 03:33:52PM 2 points [-]

For Wits are treated just like Common Whores; First they're enjoy'd, and then kickt out of Doors.

--John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

Comment author: lessdazed 14 November 2011 12:35:34AM *  6 points [-]

I never studied science or physics at school, and yet when I read complex books on quantum physics I understood them perfectly because I wanted to understand them. The study of quantum physics helped me to have a deeper understanding of The Secret, on an energetic level.

--Rhonda Byrne (Author of The Secret) (p. 156)


Comment author: RobinZ 14 November 2011 02:41:34AM 5 points [-]

That's a good irrationality quote - but that's a different thing.

Comment author: lessdazed 14 November 2011 03:52:09AM 5 points [-]

It was too epic not to post. I wonder what people's emotional reactions to it are.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 14 November 2011 01:38:51PM *  2 points [-]

My rational reaction is to be sceptical of whether Rhonda Byrne's claimed understanding of quantum physics extends to passing a finals exam.

Comment author: lessdazed 14 November 2011 02:33:59PM *  2 points [-]

Presumably her passing a finals exam in quantum mechanics would depend on her wanting to pass rather than her understanding. ;-)

Comment author: Nisan 20 November 2011 09:42:42PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: peter_hurford 01 November 2011 02:23:57AM 10 points [-]

I think, therefore I am perhaps mistaken.

Sharon Fenick

Comment author: kalla724 02 November 2011 08:30:48PM 10 points [-]

I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.

Bertrand Russell

A common sentiment among the thoughtful, it seems.

Comment author: wedrifid 02 November 2011 10:17:15PM 21 points [-]

I would never die for my beliefs because... screw that I would rather lie.

Comment author: cousin_it 04 November 2011 08:38:52AM 4 points [-]

I would die if I believed that would save the world, does that count?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 November 2011 07:46:09PM 10 points [-]

Is Bertrand Russell willing to die if he encounters someone with a gun who demands he agree that 2 + 2 = 5?

Comment author: dlthomas 03 November 2011 08:44:30PM 7 points [-]

Profess the belief or adopt the belief?

Comment author: [deleted] 03 November 2011 08:28:23PM 9 points [-]

I am willing to lie if I encounter someone with a gun who demands I agree that 2 + 2 = 5.

Comment author: thomblake 03 November 2011 09:35:56PM 2 points [-]

Deceptively clever.

Russell would have liked that one, I think.

Comment author: byrnema 03 November 2011 10:00:24PM 3 points [-]

Why? (Can you explain?)

Comment author: thomblake 03 November 2011 10:17:06PM *  7 points [-]

At first glance, it looks like a misunderstanding. "I would never die for my beliefs" is unambiguous, and the "because I might be wrong" is merely a bit of explanation in case you're wondering why he'd take that stance. So obviously, Russell would not be willing to die for "2+2=4".

Russell, while a Philosopher of any sort, is perhaps best known for his contributions to math and logic. He is the sort of person who would have insisted that he can't be wrong that 2+2=4.

In the case that "X because Y", it is generally assumed that ~Y would have counterfactually resulted in ~X. It was a popular-enough way to approach the problem in the early 20th century, anyway. Thus the statement seems to imply that for any beliefs Russell can't be wrong about, he is willing to die for them. And thus he seems to be saying that he would die for "2+2=4", and we're left to ponder what that would mean.

In what way is it "dying for one's beliefs" to refuse to capitulate to a gunman about a trivial matter? I'd guess that in that situation, Russell would have perfectly good reasons left to not die for "2+2=4".

So we might conclude that there are a lot of reasons not to die for a lot of beliefs, other than that we might be wrong about them. So that's not Russell's true rejection of dying for one's beliefs.

Comment author: byrnema 03 November 2011 11:22:22PM *  5 points [-]

Ah, got it. Thanks for the explanation.

Since Russell said he wouldn't be willing to die for his beliefs because of X, it seems logical to conclude he would be willing to die if not-X. But that is absurd (as highlighted by Eliezer's question) so Russell hadn't given his true rejection.

... I'll add that Russell didn't give his true rejection but a clever one, so he does prefer cleverness over truthiness, so he would appreciate Eliezer's rhetorical question, which was more clever than accurate (because 2+2=4 is something Russell could still possibly be wrong about.)

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 03 November 2011 08:58:09PM 1 point [-]

He's probably talking about "ought" beliefs, not "is" beliefs. Even so...

Comment author: lessdazed 03 November 2011 07:55:34PM *  0 points [-]

It's a bit late to threaten Bertrand Russell with anything, particularly a gun, considering that he died decades ago.

Comment author: TimS 02 November 2011 08:50:14PM *  5 points [-]

Barbarians shouldn't win. At the very least, we shouldn't surrender ahead of time.

Comment author: lukeprog 02 November 2011 12:46:36AM 3 points [-]
Comment author: GLaDOS 06 November 2011 04:32:00PM *  10 points [-]
We do what we must
because we can. For the good of all of us.
Except the ones who are dead.


Comment author: [deleted] 07 November 2011 03:09:07AM *  10 points [-]

Rule three of Quote Thread: You don't quote yourself on Quote Thread.

Comment author: Baughn 07 November 2011 03:27:29PM *  5 points [-]

"GLaDOS can do whatever she wants, just don't eat me."

-- Baughn

Comment author: Thomas 01 November 2011 07:12:34PM 9 points [-]

If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?

  • American proverb
Comment author: thomblake 01 November 2011 10:33:30PM 8 points [-]

A propos:

Thales of Miletus was a philosopher - so committed was he to thinking carefully that once he was walking along contemplating deeply and thus fell into a well. The locals made fun of him, commenting that philosophers were so busy attending to the stars that they could not see what is in front of them.

Since coins were recently invented (or recently brought to Asia Minor), Thales was involved in a discussion over the power of money. His interlocutors didn't believe that a philosopher could become rich, but he insisted that the power of the mind was paramount. To prove the power of having a reasoning mind, he devised a way of predicting weather patterns. He used this knowledge to buy up everyone's olive presses when the weather was bad and managed to corner the market, becoming quite wealthy when a very good season followed soon after.

Comment author: SisterY 03 November 2011 11:21:50PM *  6 points [-]

In "Self-poisoning of the mind" Jon Elster uses the Thales olive incident as an example of a perverse cognitive bias:

In his retelling of the [Thales olive] story, de Montaigne (1991, p. 153) explicitly asserts that when he condemned money-making, Thales ‘was accused of sour grapes like the fox’. Although Thales wanted to ‘show the world’ that the accusation was unfounded, one could also imagine that he had made a fortune in order to demonstrate to himself that his philosophy was not the product of sour grapes. Not content with thinking that he could have acquired riches had he wanted to, he might have decided to actually acquire them to deflect self-suspicion. [Emphasis in original.]

What Elster is pushing is that, since we are aware we edit reality to suit our self-images, we constantly suspect ourselves of doing so, and perversely believe the worst of ourselves on very flimsy evidence.

Comment author: Thomas 02 November 2011 10:51:30AM 2 points [-]

I don't buy that Thales indeed predicted any weather patterns so well, that he became rich be cause of those pattern predictions of him. Just an urban legend from those times.

Comment author: dlthomas 02 November 2011 06:15:32PM 6 points [-]

Just an urban legend from those times.

While I agree that this is the more probable explanation, I'm not sure one needs to predict the weather particularly well to know "it'll likely be different at some point soonish", which seems to be all he needed for the above story.

Comment author: khafra 02 November 2011 01:03:52PM 1 point [-]

I agree. With the strong incentives for people involved in the olive trade to be as good as possible at predicting the weather, it's hard to believe a philosopher could become better than the subject matter experts of his time; especially with the armchair methods popular at the time, and especially^2 since we still can't predict the weather very well. Also, the story switches from "the power of money" to "the power of thought" abruptly.

Comment author: thomblake 02 November 2011 05:44:38PM 5 points [-]

especially with the armchair methods popular at the time

Thales was arguably the first Western philosopher, and despite the 'well' story, he was noted for being particularly observant and empirical. The primary distinction between Thales and earlier philosophers was that where other philosophers made explanations based on supernatural forces and agents, Thales preferred explanations referring to the natural properties of objects. Notably, he was the first recorded person to study electricity.

Comment author: gjm 01 November 2011 07:29:50PM 6 points [-]

If you're so rich, why aren't you smart? -- Traditional reply. (I'm not sure it makes much sense, but then neither does the original question.)

Comment author: Logos01 03 November 2011 12:41:37PM 3 points [-]

If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?

  • American proverb

"It takes money to make money."
- Titus Maccius Plautus.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 02 November 2011 01:52:57AM 1 point [-]

Because my utility function includes moral constraints.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 02 November 2011 10:26:36AM 11 points [-]

is that your true reason or is it a reason that allows you to assert status over those wealthier than you?

Comment author: FiftyTwo 02 November 2011 10:29:02AM *  2 points [-]

If so, then my utility function places status/morality above wealth. Which also answers the question.;

Comment author: RomeoStevens 02 November 2011 09:12:45PM 9 points [-]

all of the economic analysis I've seen indicates it is more efficient to maximize wealth and then buy what you value directly. Forgoing money because it would harm someone is probably less efficient than making money and donating to givewell.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 02 November 2011 11:24:40AM 4 points [-]

A better phrasing might be: "If you're so smart why aren't you fulfilling your Goals/Utility Function"

Comment author: Xom 02 November 2011 01:09:05PM 0 points [-]


Comment author: lessdazed 20 November 2011 08:59:41AM *  4 points [-]

Look at any photograph or work of art. If you could duplicate exactly the first tiny dot of color, and then the next and the next, you would end with a perfect copy of the whole, indistinguishable from the original in every way, including the so-called "moral value" of the art itself. Nothing can transcend its smallest elements.

~CEO Nwabudike Morgan, fictional character from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri...or is he?

Comment author: lessdazed 20 November 2011 08:59:57AM *  3 points [-]

I plan to live forever, of course, but barring that I'd settle for a couple thousand years. Even five hundred would be pretty nice.

~CEO Nwabudike Morgan, fictional character from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri...or is he?

Comment author: citronade 18 November 2011 04:32:21PM *  3 points [-]

...ennui is an emotion for rich people. It is like boredom, but more refined, like high-thread-count bed-sheets.

  • Charles Yu, Third Class Superhero
Comment author: Bugmaster 10 November 2011 06:16:23AM *  3 points [-]

"It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy, it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either."

-Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light

Comment author: Grognor 10 November 2011 04:51:52AM *  3 points [-]

The facts are always friendly, every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true.

-Carl Rogers

Less redundantly,

The facts are always friendly.

Comment author: gwern 23 November 2011 02:20:54AM 0 points [-]

I tried to devise a similar maxim recently: "To the honest inquirer, all surprises are pleasant ones."

Comment author: vallinder 05 November 2011 05:32:32PM *  3 points [-]

We cannot defy the laws of probability, because they capture important truths about the world.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, p. 98

Comment author: MichaelGR 03 November 2011 06:23:22PM 3 points [-]

Let us take what the terrain gives.

-Amos Tversky

Comment author: Eneasz 03 November 2011 04:25:28PM 4 points [-]

Science is the assurance of things that exist, hoped for or not, the conviction of things that are actually seen.

Jerry Coyne

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 06 November 2011 08:33:52AM *  3 points [-]

Science is the assurance of things that exist, hoped for or not, the conviction of things that are actually seen.

Cute, but false. Scientists have been positing "things" for centuries that a consensus of modern scientists no longer believe exist. Also, most of the controversial parts of science don't have anything to do with what can been "seen", but things that are only observable using specialized equipment (which would seem equivocal to the non-scientist) or when interpreted from inside an elaborate theoretical framework (which the non-scientist would likely not even understand).

Comment author: gwern 23 November 2011 10:15:57PM *  3 points [-]

Hecataeus of Abdera, a Greek historian who lived at the end of the fourth century BCE, tells an amusing story about a certain march in which he participated during, or just following, Alexander the Great's conquest of the ancient Near East:

"When I was on the march toward the Red Sea, among the escort of Jewish cavalrymen who accompanied us was a certain Mosollamus [Hebrew Meshullam], a very intelligent man, robust, and by common consent, the very best of bowmen, whether Greek or barbarian.

This man, noticing that a number of people were now idling on the path and that the whole force was being held up by a seer who was taking the auguries, asked why they were stopping. The seer pointed to a certain bird he was observing, and told him that if it stayed in that spot, they would do well to wait around for a while. If it got up and flew forward, then they would be free to proceed; if, however, it flew backward, they were to turn back.

The Jew, without saying a word, drew his bow and shot, hitting the bird and killing it. The seer and some of the others became indignant and began heaping curses on him. "What you poor people getting so upset about?" he asked. Then, picking up the bird in his hand, he said: "How could any sound information about our journey have been provided by this poor creature, who was unable to make provision for his own safety? For if he had any gift for divination, he never would have come to this place, for fear of being killed by an arrow from Mosollamus the Jew."

--James L. Kugel, In the Valley of the Shadow pg 156-157 (doesn't provide any further reference)

Comment author: cousin_it 29 November 2011 06:57:14PM *  5 points [-]

The conclusion happens to be correct but the argument looks invalid to me. A man can smash a clock or a compass just as easily, but that doesn't prove that these defenseless devices cannot provide useful information.

Comment author: Bugmaster 29 November 2011 08:33:51PM 4 points [-]

The real argument may have went something like this: "I am a very busy and violent man, who, as I have just demonstrated, is quite accurate with a deadly projectile weapon. In light of this, would you perhaps prefer to rethink your policy of holding up my entire army ?"

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 November 2011 09:20:57PM 6 points [-]

Similar to Solomon's classic legal argument: "Don't bother me with petty crap like this or I will slice your baby in half!"

Comment author: [deleted] 29 November 2011 10:51:38AM *  3 points [-]

"Nobody ever gets that really mad at somebody unless they are telling the truth."

--Gregory Cochran

Which I would modify to:

Nobody ever gets that really mad at somebody unless they think they are telling the truth.

Which based on feedback I would modify to:

"Nobody ever gets that really mad at somebody unless they fear he will be believed."

Comment author: wedrifid 29 November 2011 11:27:27AM 9 points [-]

Just don't believe it. It's a convenient thing to say when the reaction to your accusation happens to be anger. If they don't get angry it must be true also because, um, they knew already and it isn't surprising, etc. Also, if they run away that means they are a witch and if they stay they are a witch.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 November 2011 11:30:01AM *  5 points [-]

That is certainly true. Taking such a saying to heart can basically make you just another crank ranting about how this is just like what happened to Galileo.

But it is often useful to remember that making a more moderate statement can actually get you in more trouble, precisely because it seems more believable to someone who's far away from you on the inferential chain. Thinking about it again, I see that the original quote will be more often employed in the first meaning than in this one.

Does anyone have a good quote that captures the spirit I wanted to convey?

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 29 November 2011 09:22:22PM *  3 points [-]

Check the rules: "No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please."

I think you're over 10 quotes already. Better exclude yourself from next month's quotes as well.

Comment author: MixedNuts 29 November 2011 11:47:39AM 3 points [-]

I know which jobs my mother worked, but that didn't stop bullies using this line.

Comment author: Dar_Veter 29 November 2011 11:44:39AM 3 points [-]

I would not agree even with the second statement. Do Holocaust survivors fear Holocaust deniers are telling the truth? (or insert some even more offensive and unpopular belief)

Comment author: [deleted] 29 November 2011 12:02:02PM *  1 point [-]

Good point.

"Nobody ever gets that really mad at somebody unless they fear he will be believed."


Comment author: lukeprog 27 November 2011 12:21:20AM 2 points [-]

The moral, children, is approximately Baconian. Don't think; look. Try not to argue.

Jerry Fodor

Comment author: spriteless 12 November 2011 03:49:51AM 2 points [-]

Face your fears or they will climb over your back - Odrade in Frank Herbert’s Chapterhouse: Dune

Comment author: earthwormchuck163 01 November 2011 03:07:16AM *  2 points [-]

Nature uses only the longest thread to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.


Comment author: Nominull 01 November 2011 04:01:52PM 4 points [-]
Comment author: [deleted] 20 November 2011 08:52:26PM *  2 points [-]

Why do you insist that the human genetic code is "sacred" or "taboo"? It is a chemical process and nothing more. For that matter -we- are chemical processes and nothing more. If you deny yourself a useful tool simply because it reminds you uncomfortably of your mortality, you have uselessly and pointlessly crippled yourself.

~Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, "Looking God in the Eye", fictional character from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Comment author: Mass_Driver 19 November 2011 09:07:04PM 2 points [-]

Man's unfailing capacity to believe what he prefers to be true rather than what the evidence shows to be likely and possible has always astounded me. We long for a caring Universe which will save us from our childish mistakes, and in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary we will pin all our hopes on the slimmest of doubts. God has not been proven not to exist, therefore he must exist.

~Academician Prokhor Zakharov, fictional character from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. God I wish Zakharov was real.

Comment author: Eneasz 03 November 2011 04:29:18PM 1 point [-]

Reach out and take also from the Tree of Life and eat, and live forever.

David Brin

Comment author: HonoreDB 04 November 2011 07:01:52PM *  7 points [-]

I'm all for appropriating religious language for fun, but the kind of argument David Brin makes strikes me as unhygienic. Inventing a strained interpretation of the Bible in order to support a conclusion you've decided on ahead of time is sinful, and I feel would actually be seen as disrespectful by most Christians. Jews like Brin do it all the time, but they're a minority.

Compare the Creationist who writes that the theory of evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. She literally doesn't care whether she's right, since it's not her true rejection, and that makes her paper more annoying to scientists than if she'd just quoted her own sacred text.

Comment author: Nornagest 04 November 2011 07:44:53PM *  9 points [-]

Inventing a strained interpretation of the Bible in order to support a conclusion you've decided on ahead of time is sinful, and I feel would actually be seen as disrespectful by most Christians.

I don't think it makes much sense to get too sensitive about Bible quotes; the context seems more like quoting poetry to me, along the lines of trawling Shakespeare for phrases to use as a title or chapter heading. There's plenty of precedent for doing so, both theistic and nontheistic: so much so, actually, that I think the text of the Bible might be more important as a work of literature than it is as religious doctrine. After all, most of the points of any particular Christian denomination (even nominally fundamentalist ones) are derived not from a clear "thou shalt" but from one or two lines of the text filtered through a rather tortured process of interpretation, and there's way more text than there is active doctrine.

This all goes double for the Old Testament, and triple for anything like Revelation that's usually understood in allegorical terms.

Comment author: lessdazed 05 November 2011 04:13:23AM *  6 points [-]

Inventing a strained interpretation of the Bible in order to support a conclusion you've decided on ahead of time is sinful, as it is written: "And in the eleventh year, in the month Bul, which is the eighth month, was the house finished throughout all the parts thereof, and according to all the fashion of it. So was he seven years in building it."


Comment author: Mass_Driver 06 November 2011 07:03:21AM 5 points [-]

That's sloppy, even for a random quote. The immediately preceding verse is "The foundation of the temple of the LORD was laid in the fourth year, in the month of Ziv."

11 - 7 = 4.

Whatever the flaws of the book of First Kings, failures of basic arithmetic in the literal text isn't one of them.

Comment author: Eneasz 04 November 2011 07:37:43PM 3 points [-]

I feel like this would be a bad thing if there was some truth or reality that was being distorted. But simply retelling a story in a new light to make a new point is not new, nor do I see a problem with it. For example, "Wicked" is a great retelling of "The Wizard of Oz" from the Wicked Witch of the West's point of view. It takes the opportunity to make commentary on society, as well as the nature of story-telling.

For that matter, Methods of Rationality is a retelling of the Harry Potter cannon to tell a story that supports a particular conclusion drawn ahead of time. That's the nature of stories. As long as one doesn't confuse "story" with "reality", the "telling" with the "drawing the conclusion", then there shouldn't be a problem.

I think this could only be called unhygienic if people took the story to be literal truth. I don't think anyone here is in danger of that, and I suspect anyone who does think that way is unlikely to be swayed very far with Brin's clever turn of phrase.

Comment author: sketerpot 14 November 2011 12:59:40AM 1 point [-]

It always bother me when atheists argue about the right way to argue with believers. This presupposes that there is a single Right Way. Personally, I'm happy that I live in a world where there are blunt and uncompromising people like Richard Dawkins, and people who take a gentler approach. And I'm happy that there are people using David Brin's clever Bible-quoting tricks. The combination of multiple approaches is more effective than picking one and using it consistently.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 14 November 2011 01:08:27AM *  4 points [-]

You're just arguing that a "mixed strategy" (rather than a "pure strategy") is better, which might well be true, in which case we should figure out which mixed strategy is the Right Way...

(I'm not sure how your comment was relevant.)

Comment author: [deleted] 20 November 2011 09:43:43PM 1 point [-]

We are all aware that the senses can be deceived, the eyes fooled. But how can we be sure our senses are not being deceived at any particular time, or even all the time? Might I just be a brain in a tank somewhere, tricked all my life into believing in the events of this world by some insane computer? And does my life gain or lose meaning based on my reaction to such solipsism?

-Project PYRRHO, Specimen 46, Vat 7. Activity recorded M.Y. 2302.22467. (TERMINATION OF SPECIMEN ADVISED)

~Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Comment author: [deleted] 09 November 2011 12:01:31AM 1 point [-]

It is far easier to concentrate power than to concentrate knowledge.

--Thomas Sowell

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 07 November 2011 06:47:07AM 1 point [-]

So I found [wrong] things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you'll see the reading scores keep going down--or hardly going up in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There's a witch doctor remedy that doesn't work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress--lots of theory, but no progress--in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way--or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do "the right thing," according to the experts.

Richard Feynman, "Cargo Cult Science"

Comment author: MixedNuts 07 November 2011 07:02:42PM 4 points [-]
Comment author: lukeprog 23 November 2011 09:56:57AM 0 points [-]

A witty quote proves nothing.


Comment author: steven0461 23 November 2011 09:56:33PM 3 points [-]
Comment author: lukeprog 13 November 2011 11:26:48PM 0 points [-]

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.


Comment author: [deleted] 20 November 2011 09:05:49PM 1 point [-]

I think, and my thoughts cross the barrier into the synapses of the machine - just as the good doctor intended. But what I cannot shake, and what hints at things to come, is that thoughts cross back. In my dreams the sensibility of the machine invades the periphery of my consciousness. Dark. Rigid. Cold. Alien. Evolution is at work here, but just what is evolving remains to be seen.

~Commissioner Pravin Lal, "Man and Machine", "We must Dissent", fictional character from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Comment author: [deleted] 20 November 2011 09:21:46PM *  0 points [-]

Tau Ceti flowering: Horrors visited upon neighboring systems must never be repeated. Therefore: if it means the end of our evolution as a species, so be it..

~Caretaker Lular H'minee, "Sacrifice : Life", fictional character from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri


Risks of Flowering: considerable. But rewards of godhood: who can measure?

~Usurper Judaa Marr, "Courage : To Question", fictional character from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Where do you stand?

Comment author: lessdazed 20 November 2011 08:59:29AM *  0 points [-]

Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.

~CEO Nwabudike Morgan, fictional character from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri...or is he?

Comment author: TimS 03 November 2011 12:12:29AM 0 points [-]

"Don't sell yourself to your enemy in advance, in your mind. You can only be defeated here." He touched his hands to his temples.

  • Admiral Aral Vorkosigan, Mirror Dance
Comment author: Jolima 31 October 2011 10:18:51PM 0 points [-]

There's no success like failure, and failure's no success at all.

  • Bob Dylan (Love minus Zero / No limit)