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Evangelical Rationality

36 Post author: CannibalSmith 20 April 2009 04:51AM

Spreading the Word prompted me to report back as promised.

I have two sisters aged 17 and 14, and mom and dad aged 40-something. I'm 22, male. We're all white and Latvian. I translated the articles as I read them.

I read Never Leave Your Room to the oldest sister and she expressed great interest in it.

I read Cached Selves to them all. When I got to the part about Greenskyers the older sister asserted "the sky is green" for fun. Later in the conversation I asked her, "Is the sky blue?", and her answer was "No. I mean, yes! Gah!" They all found real life examples of this quickly - it turns out this is how the older sister schmoozes money and stuff out of dad ("Can I have this discount cereal?" followed by "Can I have this expensive yogurt to go with my cereal?").

I started reading The Apologist and the Revolutionary to them but halfway through the article they asked "what's the practical application for us?", and I realized that I couldn't answer that question - it's just a piece of trivia. So I moved on.

I tried reading about near-far thing to them, but couldn't find a single good article that describes it concisely. Thus I stumbled around, and failed to convey the idea properly.

In the end I asked whether they'd like to hear similar stuff in the future, and the reply was an unanimous yes. I asked them why, in their opinion, haven't they found this stuff by themselves and the reason seems to be that they have have no paths that lead to rationality stuff in their lives. Indeed, I found OB through Dresden Codak, which I found through Minus, which I found through some other webcomic forum. Nobody in my family reads webcomics not to mention frequenting their forums.

The takeaway, I think, is this: We must establish non-geeky paths to rationality. Go and tell people how to not be suckers. Start with people who would listen to you. You don't have to advertise LW - just be +5 informative. Rationality stuff must enter the mass media: radio, TV, newspapers. If you are in a position to make that happen, act!

I would also like to see more articles like this one on LW - go, do something, report back.

Comments (19)

Comment author: ameriver 21 April 2011 08:43:37AM 7 points [-]

A few weeks ago, I put a link to "Guessing the Teacher's Password" into one of my physics class lab reports. My professor followed the link, read several articles, and has shared at least that first one with several other science faculty at the community college I attend.

Doesn't quite count as non-geeky, but I am nonetheless well pleased.

Comment author: kpreid 21 April 2011 06:56:02PM 1 point [-]

I am curious what the context for the link was.

Comment author: ameriver 21 April 2011 07:06:21PM 3 points [-]

I was discussing an error I had made in a calculus problem becaues I tried to integrate a function of x with respect to z. I pointed out I made the error largely because my calculus skills are rusty, and I was just remembering a password ("velocity is the integral of acceleration!") and pushing on a magic button (INTEGRATE!) without remembering exactly what I was doing (calculating the area under the curve of a function of x, which doesn't make when you try to do it by adding up tiny pieces of z). At the end of my post-mortem, I linked the article and said it talked about some of the issues I was trying to articulate.

Comment author: swestrup 21 April 2009 09:53:11PM 4 points [-]

I have to admit, I've never understood Hanson's Near-Far distinction either. As described it just doesn't seem to mesh at all with how I think about thinking. I keep hoping someone else will post their interpretation of it from a sufficiently different viewpoint that I can at least understand it well enough to know if I agree with it or not.

Comment author: pjeby 21 April 2009 10:07:42PM 2 points [-]

I keep hoping someone else will post their interpretation of it from a sufficiently different viewpoint that I can at least understand it well enough to know if I agree with it or not.

There are two types of thinking: sensory experience, and abstractions about sensory experience. Each type of thinking has strengths and weaknesses.

Sensory thinking lets you leverage a high degree of unconscious knowledge and processing power, applied to detailed models. Abstract thinking can jump several steps at a time, but lacks precision.

A major distinction between the two systems is that our actions are actually driven almost exclusively by the sensory system, and only indirectly influenced by the abstract system. The abstract system, in contrast, exists primarily to fulfill social goals: it's the brain's "spin doctor", whose job is to come up with plausible-sounding explanations that make you seem like an attractive ally, mate, etc.

Thus, each system has different biases: the sensory system is optimized for caring about what happens to you, right now, whereas the abstract system is optimized for thinking about how things "ought" to be for the whole group in the future... in ways that just "coincidentally" turn out to be for your own good. ;-)

The two systems can work together or against each other. In a typical dysfunctional scenario, the sensory system alerts you to a prediction of danger associated with a thought (e.g. of a task you're about to complete), and the abstract system then invents a plausible reason for not following up on that thought, perhaps followed by a plausible reason to do something else.

Unfortunately, once people notice this, they have a tendency to respond by having their abstract system think, "I shouldn't do that" or "I should do X instead"... which then does nothing. Or they invent reasons for how they got that way, or why other people or circumstances are against them, or whatever.

What I teach people to do is observe what the sensory machinery is doing, and retrain it to do other things. As I like to put it, "action is not an abstraction". The only time that our abstract thoughts lead to behavior changes is when they cause us to make connections in the sensory machinery...

Which is why one little story like "Stuck In The Middle With Bruce" has so much more impact on people than just talking in an abstract way about self-defeating behavior.

Comment author: swestrup 23 April 2009 07:28:45PM 0 points [-]

But what does that have to do with the adjectives of 'near' and 'far'?

Comment author: pjeby 23 April 2009 08:00:07PM 0 points [-]

But what does that have to do with the adjectives of 'near' and 'far'?

The "near" system drives our behavior in relation to things that are "near" in terms of time, space, precision, and detail. The "far" system drives our verbalizations and abstractions regarding things that are "far" on those same axes.

Comment author: Velochy 20 April 2009 07:37:26AM 4 points [-]

The game of "Paranoid Debating" ( http://lesswrong.com/lw/77/selecting_rationalist_groups/6lb ) would make for a great gameshow and it would definately increase the popularity of rationality. Someone should try pitching it to a TV station...

Comment author: Velochy 20 April 2009 07:44:50AM 1 point [-]

Another thing that comes off the top of my head is that one might try to get some groups already interested in this topic (in theory) to read LW and OB. One such group I can think of are LaVeyan Satanists. In theory, it is a religion of rationality (although, in practice, it is rather far from it quite often.. Im just lucky to know a specimen who embodies the theory)... Then again, this might not be an association we want (especially in US.. it would even be rather bad here in Estonia where most of the country is atheistic).. but there should be some other groups who hold rationality as one of their core values but know relatively little about it. These people should be rather easy to get - just by stressing that it is one of their own core values...

Comment author: abigailgem 20 April 2009 11:09:20AM -2 points [-]

I vote this article down for discourtesy.

I do not think that "the apologist and the revolutionary" is a random mostly useless piece of trivia. I think it is an interesting introduction to a particular way a damaged brain can work, such that the map and the territory are grossly different. I was fascinated by the blast of cold water in the ear, and the effect of that.

I consider that if we are too discourteous to each other we may drive people away. It is quite possible to disagree courteously, or to vote down an article, or leave a comment there.

It may be relevant that I am female. I like people to get along. I believe that we work better together when we do. Men here do, from time to time, ask why LW and OB comments are predominantly from men.

Apart from that, I am glad to read your article, and interested to hear how your evangelism went.

Comment author: ciphergoth 20 April 2009 11:18:13AM *  5 points [-]

Actually I think this is overall an extraordinarily courteous site, compared to practically any open discussion forum anywhere else.

Comment author: abigailgem 20 April 2009 11:56:03AM 3 points [-]

Yes. That is why the comment that an article was a "random mostly useless piece of trivia" stood out. These are Boo words, rather than reasoned criticism.

Comment author: CannibalSmith 20 April 2009 01:53:50PM 4 points [-]

Got me. The reason is that, as I tried to explain the article to my family, they asked me "but what's the takeaway?", and I couldn't answer that. I'll add that to the article.

Comment author: gwern 20 April 2009 03:44:10PM 2 points [-]

Maybe you could try it on someone else, but do it like this: 'we can't trust ourselves, because we rationalize at the drop of a hat. Here's a remarkable example from psychology....'? Do you think that'd serve as a good enough takeaway?

Comment author: CannibalSmith 21 April 2009 07:16:15AM *  2 points [-]

The takeaway should be something actionable. And "think twice" isn't good enough.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 20 April 2009 04:20:37PM 1 point [-]

dicount -> discount
meantion -> mention

Comment author: MrHen 20 April 2009 02:33:10PM 1 point [-]

We must establish non-geeky paths to rationality.

I think this is important in teaching how these principles apply to non-geeky lives. While curiosity is a virtue, not everyone has in it spades. More specifically, when some people encounter a term they do not know they simply stop reading with an, "I do not understand." They should be filled with curiosity about what that term means but, for some reason, they are not.

On second thought, "should" may be too strong. Is curiosity an innate emotion/ability/feeling? Can it be trained? This is drifting further off-topic.

Comment author: stcredzero 21 April 2009 07:26:27PM *  6 points [-]

There is already a very powerful "non-geeky path to rationality." It is a strong hook to curiosity and innate emotion.

It's commonly known as "Follow the Money!"

Investigate the economics of just about anything, and one can figure out the underlying motivations. Also, people's inherent sense of fairness will often get them incensed about any irrationality involved.

Comment author: SirBacon 20 April 2009 11:34:07PM 0 points [-]

It might be prudent to avoid associating rationality with particular people or social institutions.

There's always the risk that particular instances of rationality will result in disaster, or that Bad Guys will be painstakingly rational, and in the early stages, wouldn't want to suffer the fate of religions, which often take reputation hits when their followers do nasty things.

Rationality could be advertised as a morally neutral instrumental value, i.e., Better Living Through Rationality.

On the other hand, we could sell rationality as a tool for atheists, drug policy activists, and stockbrokers, and publicly associate with their successes.