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Epiphany comments on Welcome to Less Wrong! (July 2012) - Less Wrong

20 Post author: ciphergoth 18 July 2012 05:24PM

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Comment author: olibain 20 February 2013 08:34:42PM 8 points [-]

I'm Robby Oliphant. I started a few months ago reading HP:MoR, which led me to the Sequences, which led me here about two weeks ago. So far I have read comments and discussions solely as a spectator. But finally, after developing my understanding and beginning on the path set forth by the sequences, I remain silent no more.

I am fresh out of high school, excited about life and plan to become a teacher, eventually. My short-term plans involve going out and doing missionary work for my church for the next two years. When I came head on against the problem of being a rationalist and a missionary for a theology, I took a step back and had a crisis of belief, not the first time, but this time I followed the prescribed method and came to a modified conclusion, though I still find it rational and advantageous to serve my 2 year mission.

I find some of this difficult, some of this intuitive and some of this neither difficult or intuitive, which is extremely frustrating, how something can appears simple but defy my efforts to intuitively work it. I will continue to work at it because rationality seems to be praiseworthy and useful. I hope to find the best evidence about theology here. I don't mean evidence for or against, just the evidence about the subject.

Comment author: Epiphany 21 February 2013 01:24:33AM *  1 point [-]

I appreciate your altruistic spirit and your goal of gathering objective evidence regarding your religion. I'm glad to see you beginning on the path of improving your rationality! If you haven't encountered the term "effective altruist" yet or have not yet investigated the effective altruist organizations, I very much encourage you to investigate them! As a fellow altruistic rationalist, I can say that they've been inspiring to me and hope they're inspiring to you as well.

I feel it necessary to inform you of something important yet unfortunate about your goal of becoming a teacher. I'm not happy to have to tell you this, but I am quite glad that somebody told you about it at the beginning of your adulthood:

The school system is broken in a serious way. The problem is with the fundamental system, so it's not something teachers can compensate for.

If you wish to investigate alternatives to becoming a standard school teacher, I would highly recommend considering becoming involved with effective altruists. An organization like THINK or 80,000 hours may be very helpful to you in determining what sorts of effective and altruistic things you might do with your skills. THINK does training for effective altruists and helps them figure out what to do with themselves. 80,000 hours helps people figure out how to make the most altruistic contribution with careers they already have.

For information regarding religion, I recommend the blog of a former Christian (Luke Muehlhauser) as an addition to your reading list. That is here: Common Sense Atheism. I recommend this in particular because he completed the process you've started - the process of reviewing Christian beliefs - so Luke's writing may be able to save you significant time and provide you with information you may not encounter in other sources. Also, due to the fact that he began as a Christian, I'm guessing that his reasoning was not unnecessarily harsh toward Christian ideas like they might have been otherwise. The sampling of his blog that I've read is of good quality. He's a rationalist, so that might be part of why.

Comment author: Bugmaster 21 February 2013 02:59:15AM 0 points [-]

The school system is broken in a serious way. The problem is with the fundamental system, so it's not something teachers can compensate for.

See also Lockhart's Lament (PDF link) . That said, in my own case, competent teachers (such as Lockhart appears to be) did indeed make a difference. Though my IQ is much closer to the population than the IQ of an average LWer's, so maybe my anecdotal evidence does not apply (not that it ever does, what with being anecdotal and all).

Comment author: Epiphany 21 February 2013 03:18:26AM *  0 points [-]

That said, in my own case, competent teachers (such as Lockhart appears to be) did indeed make a difference.

I can't fathom that you'd say that if you had read Gatto's speech.

I am very interested in the reaction you have to the speech (It's called The Seven Lesson School Teacher, and it's in the beginning of chapter 1).

Would you indulge me?

Also:

Failing to teach reasoning skills in school is a crime against humanity.

Comment author: Bugmaster 21 February 2013 05:21:11AM 4 points [-]

I should also point out that, while Gatto makes some good points, his overall thesis is hopelessly lost in all the hyperbole, melodrama, and outright conspiracy theorizing. He does his own ideas a disservice by presenting them the way he does. For example, I highly doubt that mental illnesses, television broadcasts, and restaurants would all magically disappear (as Gatto claims on pg. 8) if only we could teach our children some critical thinking skills.

Comment author: Epiphany 22 February 2013 03:56:19AM *  0 points [-]

Connection between education and sanity

Check out Ed DeBono's CORT thinking system. His research (I haven't thoroughly reviewed it, just reciting from memory) shows that by increasing people's lateral thinking / creativity, it decreases things like their suicide rate. If you have been taught to see more options, you're less likely to choose to behave desperately and destructively. If you're able to reason things out, you're less likely to feel stuck and need help. If you're able to analyze, you're less likely to believe something batty. Would mental illness completely disappear? I don't think so. Sometimes conditions are mostly due to genes or health issues. But there are connections, definitely, between one's ability to think and one's sanity.

If you don't agree with this, then do you also criticize Eliezer's method of raising the sanity waterline by encouraging people to refine their rationality?

Connection between education and indulging in passive entertainment

As for television, I think he's got a point. When I was 17, I realized that I was spending most of my free time watching someone else's life. I wasn't spending my time making my own life. If the school system makes you dependent like he says (and I believe it does) then you'll be a heck of a lot less likely to take initiative and do something. If your self-confidence depends on other expert's approval, it becomes hard to take a risk and go do your own project. If your creativity and analytical abilities are reduced, so too will be your ability to imagine projects for yourself to do and guide yourself while doing them. If your love for learning and working is destroyed, why would you want to do self-directed projects in the first place? And if you aren't doing your own projects your own way, that sucks a lot of the life and pleasure out of them. Fortunately, for me, a significant amount of my creativity, analytical abilities, and a significant amount of my passion for learning and working survived school. That gave me the perspective I needed to make the choice between living an idle life of passive entertainment, and making my own life. Making my own life is more engaging than passive entertainment because it's tailored to my interests exactly, more fulfilling than accomplishing nothing could ever be, more exciting than fantasy can be because it is real, and more beneficial and rewarding in both emotional and practical ways than entertainment can be due to the fact that learning and working opens up new social and career opportunities.

If the choice you are making is between "watch TV" and "not watch TV" you're probably going to watch it.

But if you have a busy mind full of ideas and thoughts and passions, that's not the choice you're perceiving. You've got the choice between "watch character's lives" and "make my own life awesome and watch that". If you felt strongly that you could make your own life awesome, is there anything that could convince you to watch TV instead?

Gatto doesn't do a good job of giving you perspective so you can understand his point of view here. He didn't explain how incredible it can feel to have a mind that is on, how engaging it can be to learn something you're interested in, how satisfying it is to do your own d* project your own d* way and see it actually work! He doesn't do a good job of helping you imagine how much more motivation you would experience if your creativity and analytical abilities were jacked up way beyond what they are. If your life was packed full of thoughts and ideas and self-confidence, could you spend half your free time in front of a show? If you had the kind of motivation it causes to feel like you're in the process of building an amazing life, would you be able to still your mind and focus on sitcoms?

I wouldn't. I can't. It is as if I am possessed by this supernova sized drive to DO THINGS.

Restaurants and education

I honestly don't know anything about whether these are connected. My best guess is that Gatto loves to cook, but had found not being taught how to cook to be a rather large obstacle in the way of enjoying it.

Comment author: Bugmaster 22 February 2013 06:35:21AM 4 points [-]

I mostly agree with the things you say, but these are not the things that Gatto says. Your position is a great deal milder than his.

In a single sentence, he claims that if only we could set up our schools the way he wants them to be set up, then social services would utterly disappear, the number of "psychic invalids" would drop to zero, "commercial entertainment of all sorts" would "vanish", and restaurants would be "drastically down-sized".

This is going beyound hyperbole; this borders on drastic ignorance.

For example, not all mental illnesses are caused by a lack of gumption. Many, such as clinical depression and schizophrenia, are genetic in nature, and will strike their victims regardless of how awesomely rational they are. Others, such as PTSD, are caused by psychological trauma and would fell even the mighty Gatto, should he be unfortunate enough to experience it.

While it's true that most of the "commercial entertainment of all sorts" is junk, some of it is art; we know this because a lot of it has survived since ancient times, despite the proclamations of people who thought just like Gatto (only referring to oil paintings, phonograph records, and plain old-fashioned writing instead of electronic media). As an English teacher, it seems like Gatto should know this.

And what's his beef with restaurants, anyway ? That's just... weird.

If you had the kind of motivation it causes to feel like you're in the process of building an amazing life, would you be able to still your mind and focus on sitcoms?

Do you feel the same way about fiction books, out of curiosity ?

If you don't agree with this, then do you also criticize Eliezer's method of raising the sanity waterline by encouraging people to refine their rationality?

If Eliezer claimed that raising the sanity waterline is the one magic bullet that would usher us into a new Golden Age, as we reclaim the faded glory of our ancestors, then yes, I would disagree with him too. But, AFAIK, he doesn't claim this -- unlike Gatto.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 February 2013 08:25:25AM *  6 points [-]

For example, not all mental illnesses are caused by a lack of gumption. Many, such as clinical depression and schizophrenia, are genetic in nature, and will strike their victims regardless of how awesomely rational they are.

I'm afraid this account has swung to the opposite extreme---to the extent that it is quite possibly further from the truth and more misleading than Gatto's obvious hyperbole.

Schizophrenia is one of the most genetically determined of the well known mental health problems but even it is heavily dependent on life experiences. In particular, long term exposure to stressful environments or social adversity dramatically increases the risk that someone at risk for developing the condition will in fact do so.

As for clinical depression, the implication that due to being 'genetic in nature' means that the environment in which an individual spends decades of growth and development in is somehow not important is utterly absurd. Genetics is again relevant in determining how vulnerable the individual is but the social environment is again critical for determining whether problems will arise.

Comment author: Bugmaster 22 February 2013 07:53:05PM 1 point [-]

That's a good point, I did not mean to imply that these mental illnesses are completely unaffected by environmental factors. In addition, in case of some illnesses such as depression, there are in fact many different causes that can lead to similar symptoms, so the true picture is a lot more complex (and is still not entirely well understood).

However, this is very different from saying something like "schizophrenia is completely environmental", or even "if only people had some basic critical thinking skills, they'd never become depressed", which is how I interpreted Gatto's claims.

For example even with a relatively low heritability rate, millions of people would still contract schizophrenia every year worldwide -- especially since many of the adverse life experiences that can trigger it are unavoidable. No amount of critical thinking will reduce the number of victims to zero. And that's just one specific disease among many, and we're not even getting into more severe cases such as Down's Syndrome. If Gatto thinks otherwise, then he's being hopelessly naive.

Comment author: Epiphany 22 February 2013 06:47:58PM 1 point [-]

I agree that saying "all these problems will disappear" is not the same as saying that "these problems will reduce". I felt the need to explain why the problems would reduce because I wasn't sure you saw the connections.

Others, such as PTSD, are caused by psychological trauma and would fell even the mighty Gatto, should he be unfortunate enough to experience it.

I have to wonder if having a really well-developed intellect might offer some amount of protection against this. Whether Gatto's intellect is sufficiently well-developed for this is another topic.

And what's his beef with restaurants, anyway ? That's just... weird.

I don't know. I love not cooking.

Do you feel the same way about fiction books, out of curiosity ?

Actually, yes. When I am fully motivated, I can spend all my evenings doing altruistic work for years, reading absolutely no fiction and watching absolutely no TV shows. That level of motivation is where I'm happiest, so I prefer to live that way.

I do occasionally watch movies during those periods, perhaps once a month, because rest is important (and because movies take less time to watch than a book takes to read, but are higher quality than television, assuming you choose them well).

Comment author: Bugmaster 22 February 2013 07:39:37PM 2 points [-]

I felt the need to explain why the problems would reduce because I wasn't sure you saw the connections.

I see the connections, but I do not believe that some of the problems Gatto wants to fix -- f.ex. the existence of television and restaurants -- are even problems at all. Sure, TV has a lot of terrible content, and some restaurants have terrible food, but that's not the same thing as saying that the very concept of these services is hopelessly broken.

I have to wonder if having a really well-developed intellect might offer some amount of protection against this

It probably would, but not to any great extent. I'm not a psychiatrist or a neurobiologist though, so I could be widely off the mark. In general, however, I think that Gatto is falling prey to the Dunning–Kruger effect when he talks about mental illness, economics, and many other things for that matter.

For example, the biggest tool in his school-fixing toolbox is the free market; he believes that if only schools could compete against each other with little to no government regulation, their quality would soar. In practice, such scenarios tend to work out... poorly.

When I am fully motivated, I can spend all my evenings doing altruistic work for years, reading absolutely no fiction and watching absolutely no TV shows.

That's fair, and your preferences are consistent. However, many other people see a great deal of value in fiction; some even choose to use it as a vehicle for transmitting their ideas (f.ex. HPMOR). I do admit that, in terms of raw productivity, I cannot justify spending one's time on reading fiction; if a person wanted to live a maximally efficient life, he would probably avoid any kind of entertainment altogether, fiction literature included. That said, many people find the act of reading fiction literature immensely useful (scientists and engineers included), and the same is true for other forms of entertainment such as music. I am fairly convinced that any person who says "entertainment is a waste of time" is committing a fallacy of false generalization.

Comment author: Epiphany 23 February 2013 05:41:53AM 0 points [-]

I do not believe that some of the problems Gatto wants to fix -- f.ex. the existence of television and restaurants -- are even problems at all.

The existence of television technology isn't, in my opinion, a problem. Nor is the fact that some shows are low quality. Even if all of them were low quality, I wouldn't necessarily see that as a problem - it would still be a way of relaxing. The problem I see with television is that the average person spends 4 hours a day watching it. (Can't remember where I got that study, sorry.) My problem with that is not that they aren't exercising (they'd still have an hour a day which is plenty of exercise, if they want it) or that they aren't being productive (you can only be so productive before you run out of mental stamina anyway, and the 40 hour work week was designed to use the entirety of the average person's stamina) but that they aren't living.

It could be argued that people need to spend hours every day imagining a fantasy. I was told by an elderly person once that before television, people would sit on a hill and daydream. I've also read that imagining doing a task correctly is more effective at making you better at it than practice. If that's true, daydreaming might be a necessity for maximum effectiveness and television might provide some kind of similar benefit. So it's possible that putting one's brain into fantasy mode for a few hours of day really is that beneficial.

Spending four hours a day in fantasy mode is not possible for me (I'm too motivated to DO something) and I don't seem to need anywhere near that much daydreaming. I would find it very hard to deal with if I had spent that much of my free time in fantasy. I imagine that if asked whether they would have preferred to watch x number of shows, or spent all of that free time on getting out there and living, most people would probably choose the latter - and that's sad.

he believes that if only schools could compete against each other with little to no government regulation, their quality would soar. In practice, such scenarios tend to work out... poorly.

I think that people would also have to have read the seven lessons speech for the problems he sees to be solved. Maybe eventually things would evolve to the point where schools would not behave this way anymore without them reading it, because it's probably not the most effective way of teaching, but I don't see that change happening quickly without people pressuring schools to make those specific changes.

However, I'm surprised that you say "In practice, such scenarios tend to work out... poorly." Do you mean that the free market doesn't do much to improve quality, or do you just mean that when people want specific changes and expect the free market to implement them, the free market doesn't tend to implement those specific changes?

I'm also very interested in where you got the information to support the idea, either way.

a vehicle for transmitting their ideas

After reading Ayn Rand's the Fountainhead, my feeling was that even though much of the writing was brilliant and enjoyable, I could have gotten the key ideas much faster if she had only published a few lines from one of the last chapters. I'm having the same reaction to the sequences and HPMOR. I enjoy them and recognize the brilliance in the writing abilities, but I find myself doing things like reading lists of biases over and over in order to improve my familiarity and eventually memorize them. I still want to finish the sequences because they're so important to this culture, but what I have prioritized appears to be getting the most important information in as quickly as possible. So, although entertainment is a way of transmitting ideas, I question how efficient it is, and whether it provides enough other learning benefits to outweigh the cost of wrapping all those ideas in so much text. I could walk all the way to Florida, but flying would be faster. People realize this so if they want to take vacations, they fly. Why, then, do they use entertainment to learn instead of seeking out the most efficient method?

It makes sense from the writer's point of view. I have said before that I was very glad that Eliezer decided to popularize rationality as much as possible, as I had been thinking that somebody needed to do that for a very long time. His writing is interesting and his style is brilliant and his method has worked to attract almost twelve million hits to his site. I think that's great. But the fact that people probably would not have flocked to the site if he had posted an efficient dissemination of cognitive biases and whatnot is curious. Maybe the way I learn is different.

I am fairly convinced that any person who says "entertainment is a waste of time" is committing a fallacy of false generalization.

I think it depends on whether you use "waste of time" to mean "absolutely no benefit whatsoever" or "nowhere near the most efficient way of getting the benefit".

The statement "entertainment is an inefficient way to get ideas compared with other methods" seems true to me.

Comment author: Bugmaster 21 February 2013 05:14:16AM *  4 points [-]

I have, in fact, read the Speech before, quite some time ago. My point is that outstanding teachers can make a big positive difference in the students' lives (at least, that was the case for me), largely by deliberately avoiding some or all of the anti-patterns that Gatto lists in his Speech. We were also taught the basics of critical thinking in an English class (of all places), though this could've been a fluke (or, once again, a teacher's personal initiative).

I should also point out that these anti-patterns are not ubiquitous. I was lucky enough to attend a school in another country for a few of my teenage years (a long, long time ago). During a typical week, we'd learn how to solve equations in Math class, apply these skills to exercises in Statistics, stage an experiment and record the results in Physics, then program in the statistics formulae and run them on our experimental results in Informatics (a.k.a. Computer Science). Ideas tend to make more sense when connections between them are revealed.

I haven't seen anything like this in US-ian education, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that some school somewhere in the US is employing such an approach.

Edited to add:

Failing to teach reasoning skills in school is a crime against humanity.

I share your frustration, but there's no need to overdramatize.

Comment author: MugaSofer 21 February 2013 11:11:23AM -1 points [-]

Offtopic: Does anyone know where you can find that speech in regular HTML format? I defenitely read it in that format, but I can't find it again.

Ontopic: While I appreciate (and agree with) the point he's making, overall, he uses a lot of exaggeration and hyperbole, at best. It seems pretty clear that specific teachers can make a difference to individuals, even if they can't enact structural change.

Also:

What do you mean by "crime against humanity"?

Comment author: Bugmaster 21 February 2013 08:56:38PM 0 points [-]

I could've sworn that I saw his entire book in HTML format somewhere, a long time ago, but now I can't find it. Perhaps I only imagined it.

From what I recall, in the later chapters he claims that our current educational system was deliberately designed in meticulous detail by a shadowy conspiracy of statists bent on world (or, at the very least, national) domination. Again, my recollection could be widely off the mark, but I do seem to remember staring at my screen and thinking, "Really, Gatto ? Really ?"

Comment author: Nornagest 22 February 2013 05:24:57AM 1 point [-]

I read Dumbing Us Down, which might not be the book you're thinking of -- if memory serves, he's written a few -- but I don't remember him ever quite going with the conspiracy theory angle.

He skirts the edges of it pretty closely, granted. In the context of history of education, his thesis is basically that the American educational system is an offshoot of the Prussian system and that that system was picked because it prioritizes obedience to authority. Even if we take that all at face value, though, it doesn't require a conspiracy -- just a bunch of 19th- and early 20th-century social reformers with a fondness for one of the more authoritarian regimes of the day, openly doing their jobs.

Now, while it's pretty well documented that Horace Mann and some of his intellectual heirs had the Prussian system in mind, I've never seen historical documentation giving exactly those reasons for choosing it. And in any case the systems diverged in the mid-1800s and we'd need to account for subsequent changes before stringing up the present-day American school system on those charges. But at its core it's a pretty plausible hypothesis -- many of the features that after two World Wars make the Prussians look kind of questionable to us were, at the time, being held up as models of national organization, and a lot of that did have to do with regimentation of various kinds.

Comment author: MugaSofer 21 February 2013 11:20:42AM -2 points [-]

For information regarding religion, I recommend the blog of a former Christian (Luke Muehlhauser) as an addition to your reading list. That is here: Common Sense Atheism. I recommend this in particular because he completed the process you've started - the process of reviewing Christian beliefs - so Luke's writing may be able to save you significant time and provide you with information you may not encounter in other sources.

Speaking as a rationalist and a Christian, I've always found that a bit too propaganda-ish for my tastes. And I wouldn't call Luke's journey "completed", exactly. Still, it can be valuable to see what others have thought in similar positions to you, in a shoulders-of-giants sort of way.

I think it would be better to focus on improving your rationality, rather than seeking out tracts that disagree with you. There's nothing wrong with reading such tracts, as long as you're rational enough not to internalize mistakes from it (on either side) but I wouldn't make it your main goal.