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Just the facts, ma'am!

34 Post author: lukeprog 10 December 2011 10:54PM

“There’s something odd about the experience of talking to [Singularity Institute researcher] Carl Shulman,” I said.

“He never blinks?” said my friend.

“No. I mean: Yes, but that’s not what I was thinking of.”

“He speaks only facts.”

I paused.

“Yes,” I said. “That is what I meant.”

Normally, when I ask someone “Do you think human-level AI will arrive in the next 30 years?” or “Should we encourage faster development of whole brain emulation?” I get answers like “Yes” or “No, I don’t think so.”

When I ask Carl a question like “Do you think human-level AI will arrive in the next 30 years?” he instead begins to state known facts relevant to answering the question, such as facts about the history of Moore’s law, progress in algorithms, trends in scientific progress, past examples of self-improving systems, and so on.

Maybe this is a bit rude. Carl didn’t answer my question about his opinion. He answered a different question instead, about facts.

But I never feel like it’s rude. Carl went out of his way to make his answer more useful to me. His testimony alone would have been helpful, but argument screens off authority, so Carl’s “flood of facts” way of answering questions gives me more evidence about what’s true than his mere opinion could.

Why isn’t this more common? For one thing, most people don’t know many facts. I’ve read a lot of facts, but do I remember most of them? Hell no. If I forced myself to respond to questions only by stating facts, I’d be worried that I have fewer facts available to me than I’d like to admit. I often have to tell people: “I can’t remember the details in that paper but I remember thinking his evidence was weak.”

But it's worth a try. I think I've noticed that when I try to answer with facts more often, my brain is primed to remember them better, as if it's thinking: "Oh, I might actually use this fact in conversation, so I should remember it." But I haven't measured this, so I could be fooling myself.

Also see: Share likelihood ratios, not posterior beliefs

Comments (17)

Comment author: CarlShulman 11 December 2011 02:03:44AM 18 points [-]

For the record, I do too blink. Also, I endorse the discipline of sticking one's neck out and sharing probabilities and conclusions (so that the truth can lop it off).

Comment author: lukeprog 11 December 2011 02:11:10AM 3 points [-]


(That is a winky-face.)

Comment author: D_Alex 12 December 2011 06:19:22AM *  1 point [-]

I am quite certain I have never seen you blink!

Comment author: CarlShulman 12 December 2011 06:57:05AM 6 points [-]


Comment author: D_Alex 12 December 2011 07:00:57AM 2 points [-]

Just stating a fact.... Absence of evidence, etc.

I've never seen your reflection in a mirror either, you know. Do you cast a shadow?

Comment author: CarlShulman 12 December 2011 10:04:27PM *  4 points [-]

I do like garlic and have been seen outside during the day.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 December 2011 11:15:27PM *  22 points [-]

This can actually be harmful if the other person gives you filtered facts. For many issues, it's impossible to cover all of the evidence in the span of one conversation, so you have to beware of your conversation partner's beliefs influencing what they say, even if they aren't doing it intentionally.

Comment author: Cthulhoo 11 December 2011 12:45:28PM 5 points [-]

Interestingly, this is one of the first things I (indireclty) got from LessWrong. When people ask me about my opinion on a subject, I first state the known facts about it, and then give a motivated opinion. Sometimes, I even get to change what I thought was my opinion because I get to carefully examine the facts again as I state them.

Comment author: J_Taylor 11 December 2011 12:07:01AM 13 points [-]

It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!

-Possibly Nietzsche. However, I have never found an original source for this quote.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 11 December 2011 11:39:04PM *  3 points [-]

More generally, questions are often at least somewhat wrong, and it's not easy to notice that a question shouldn't be answered directly, but instead corrected or clarified in some way.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 December 2011 11:05:04PM 10 points [-]

I’ve read a lot of facts, but do I remember most of them? Hell no.


Comment author: Pavitra 11 December 2011 01:33:01AM 0 points [-]

I hereby make up out of nowhere that if you study K facts N times each, you will retain fewer facts than if you study K*N facts 1 time each.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 December 2011 03:01:57AM 2 points [-]

Um, good for you?

Comment author: Antisuji 11 December 2011 05:06:07AM *  14 points [-]

There are actually a couple of rather good points behind this statement, if perhaps not clearly expressed, and I say this as a regular, even religious, user of Anki. The first point is that there is significant overhead to (1) determining whether a given idea is worthy of memorization, (2) formulating the idea into a memorizable set of facts, and (3) entering those facts into your Anki deck. In my experience reviewing the facts is the cheap and easy part, whereas the initial steps are time-consuming and tiring, and the cost is entirely up-front.

The second point is that exposure to ideas often follows the pattern of spaced repetition naturally, because the idea is part of the zeitgeist. Arguably this is a superior way to learn many things for a number of reasons. For example, it avoids the problem of your mental model overfitting the identically repeating stimuli.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 December 2011 05:35:02AM 3 points [-]

I completely agree, but much prefer your explanation to grandparent's.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 14 December 2011 06:47:48AM 2 points [-]

Be aware that IME this makes people very angry sometimes. My hypothesis is that it comes off as a status grab in trying to ally yourself with experts (citing research) in order to lower the value of everyone else's opinion.

Comment author: fburnaby 13 December 2011 03:14:30AM 2 points [-]

I absorbed facts from Carl for an hour over skype one night, and I agree - it doesn't seem rude to me at all. It was informative. Thanks Carl.

However, I do find that most people (my girlfriend especially) get annoyed with me when I try to do it. Maybe that's just because it takes me a minute to get the facts straight, but more likely, I think they're conversing with me for completely different reasons.