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Rationality Quotes May 2013

5 Post author: katydee 03 May 2013 08:02PM

Here's another installment of rationality quotes. The usual rules apply:

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted 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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, Overcoming Bias, or HPMoR.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.

 

Comments (378)

Comment author: James_Miller 01 May 2013 04:49:10PM 39 points [-]

Unless challenged to think otherwise, people quickly move from "Phew! Dodged a bullet on that one!" to "I'm a great bullet-dodger."

Discussing the "Near-miss bias" which they define as a tendency to "take more risk after an event in which luck played a critical role in deciding the event's [favorable] outcome."

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, page 150.

Comment author: Plubbingworth 02 June 2013 02:40:50AM 2 points [-]

There wouldn't happen to be anything that's sort of the opposite of this, would there? Screwing up often but sporadically, not due to inherent inability but because of simple inexpertise, making you say "I'm bad at this" more often?

Comment author: Zubon 03 May 2013 03:50:45AM *  36 points [-]

A lot of people gave very selflessly to build this warship so we can go out and battle the vikings, but the time has come to admit that hard work and hope are no substitute for actual knowledge and that we've made a really shitty ship. If we sail this ship against the vikings, we'll be massacred immediately.

Oglaf webcomic, "Bilge"

(Oglaf is usually NSFW, so I'm not linking, even if this particular comic has nothing worse than coarse language.)

Comment author: Cyan 03 May 2013 04:53:55AM 17 points [-]
Comment author: gwern 03 May 2013 04:28:39PM 43 points [-]

A great illustration of sunk cost bias.

Comment author: Raemon 03 May 2013 09:12:35PM 9 points [-]

Took me a second.

Comment author: gjm 03 May 2013 10:11:27PM 20 points [-]

I find myself wondering whether that pun was the original impetus for the comic. (If so, I commend the artist's restraint, which isn't something one can often say about Oglaf.)

Comment author: jaibot 03 May 2013 10:27:52PM 36 points [-]

On the contrary, a sizable fraction of Oglaf's comics involve restraints.

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 03 May 2013 10:14:51AM *  33 points [-]

Noriko: Wow, you must have a real knack for it!

Kazumi: That's not it, Miss Takaya! It takes hard work in order to achieve that.

Noriko: Hard work? You must have a knack for hard work, then!

- Gunbuster

Comment author: gwern 03 May 2013 04:27:55PM 21 points [-]

Well, since Conscientiousness is heritable to a substantial degree, perhaps she inherited her knack for hard work.

Comment author: [deleted] 01 May 2013 02:43:45PM 33 points [-]

When I was at Cornell, I often talked to the people in the psychology department. One of the students told me she wanted to do an experiment that went something like this -- it had been found by others that under certain circumstances, X, rats did something, A. She was curious as to whether, if she changed the circumstances to Y, they would still do A. So her proposal was to do the experiment under circumstances Y and see if they still did A.

I explained to her that it was necessary first to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person -- to do it under condition X to see if she could also get result A, and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know that the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.

She was very delighted with this new idea, and went to her professor. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was in about 1947 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happens. Nowadays there's a certain danger of the same thing happening, even in the famous field of physics. ...

-- Richard Feynman's Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!

Comment author: katydee 01 May 2013 04:14:15PM 7 points [-]

Fortunately, things have since gotten better in that respect.

Comment author: satt 02 May 2013 02:05:24AM 22 points [-]

For one mistake made for not knowing, ten mistakes are made for not looking.

James Alexander Lindsay

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 06 May 2013 05:08:42PM 20 points [-]

But if the question is "Has this caused you to revise downward your estimate of the value of health insurance?" the answer has to obviously be yes. Anyone who answers differently is looking deep into their intestinal loops, not the Oregon study. You don't have to revise the estimate to zero, or even a low number. But if you'd asked folks before the results dropped what we'd expect to see if insurance made people a lot healthier, they'd have said "statistically significant improvement on basic markers for the most common chronic diseases. The fact that we didn't see that means that we should now say that health insurance, or at least Medicaid, probably doesn't make as big a difference in health as we thought.

-- Megan McArdle, trying to explain Bayesian updates and the importance of making predictions in advance, without referring to any mathematics.

Comment author: DanielLC 07 May 2013 04:17:28AM 6 points [-]

The value of health insurance isn't that it keeps you from getting sick. It's that it keeps you from getting in debt when you do get sick.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 07 May 2013 04:45:20PM 6 points [-]

This may be true, but McArdle's point is precisely that this was not said before the study came out. At that time, people confidently expected that health insurance would, in fact, improve health outcomes. Your argument is one that was only made after the result was known; this is a classic failure mode.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 07 May 2013 05:17:18PM 10 points [-]

(nods) Yup. Of course, McArdle's claims about what people would have said before the study, if asked, are also only being made after the results are known, which as you say is a classic failure mode.

Of course, McArdle is neither passing laws nor doing research, just writing articles, so the cost of failure is low. And it's kind of nice to see someone in the mainstream (sorta) press making the point that surprising observations should change our confidence in our beliefs, which people surprisingly often overlook.

Anyway, the quality of McArdle's analysis notwithstanding, one place this sort of reasoning seems to lead us is to the idea that when passing a law, we ought to say something about what we anticipate the results of passing that law to be, and have a convention of repealing laws that don't actually accomplish the thing that we said we were passing the law in order to accomplish.

Which in principle I would be all in favor of, except for the obvious failure mode that if I personally don't want us to accomplish that, I am now given an incentive to manipulate the system in other ways to lower whatever metrics we said we were going to measure. (Note: I am not claiming here that any such thing happened in the Oregon study.)

That said, even taking that failure mode into account, it might still be preferable to passing laws with unarticulated expected benefits and keeping them on the books despite those benefits never materializing.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 07 May 2013 07:38:26PM 10 points [-]

Of course, McArdle's claims about what people would have said before the study, if asked, are also only being made after the results are known, which as you say is a classic failure mode.

I don't think that's true; if you read her original article on the subject, linked in the one I link, she quotes statistics like this:

Most of you probably have probably heard the statistic that being uninsured kills 18,000 people a year. Or maybe it's 27,000. Those figures come from an Institute of Medicine report (later updated by the Urban Institute) that was drawn from [nonrandom observational] studies.

And back in 2010, she said

I took a keen interest when, at the fervid climax of the health-care debate in mid-December, a Washington Post blogger, Ezra Klein, declared that Senator Joseph Lieberman, by refusing to vote for a bill with a public option, was apparently “willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands” of uninsured people in order to punish the progressives who had opposed his reelection in 2006. In the ensuing blogstorm, conservatives condemned Klein’s “venomous smear,” while liberals solemnly debated the circumstances under which one may properly accuse one’s opponents of mass murder.

I don't think her statement is entirely post-hoc.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 07 May 2013 08:03:36PM 4 points [-]

Fair enough. I only read the article you linked, not the additional source material; I'm prepared to believe given additional evidence like what you cite here that her analysis is... er... can one say "pre-hoc"?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 07 May 2013 09:03:28PM 8 points [-]

can one say "pre-hoc"?

Ante hoc.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 08 May 2013 05:50:23PM 3 points [-]

can one say "pre-hoc"?

Well, if not, one ought to be able to. I hereby grant you permission! :)

Comment author: bbleeker 08 May 2013 08:51:46AM 5 points [-]

[W]hen passing a law, we ought to say something about what we anticipate the results of passing that law to be, and have a convention of repealing laws that don't actually accomplish the thing that we said we were passing the law in order to accomplish.

I love this idea!

Comment author: AlanCrowe 08 May 2013 12:37:38PM 5 points [-]

There would have to be a two sided test. A tort of ineffectiveness by which the plaintiff seeks relief from a law that fails to achieve the goals laid out for it. A tort of under-ambition by which the plaintiff seeks relief from a law that is immune from the tort of ineffectiveness because the formally specified goals are feeble.

Think about the American experience with courts voiding laws that are unconstitutional. This often ends up with the courts applying balancing tests. It can end up with the court ruling that yes, the law infringes your rights, but only a little. And the law serves a valid purpose, which is very important. So the law is allowed to stand.

These kinds of cases are decided in prospect. The decision is reached on the speculation about the actual effects of the law. It might help if constitutional challenges to legislation could be re-litigated, perhaps after the first ten years. The second hearing could then be decided retrospectively, looking back at ten years experience, and balancing the actual burden on the plaintiffs rights against the actual public benefit of the law.

Where though is the goal post? In practice it moves. In the prospective hearing the government will make grand promises about the huge benefits the law will bring. In the retrospective hearing the government will sail on the opposite tack, arguing that only very modest benefits suffice to justify the law.

It would be good it the goal posts are fixed. Right from the start the law states the goals against which it will be assessed in ten years time. Certainly there needs to be a tort of ineffectiveness, active against laws that do not meet their goals. But politicians would soon learn to game the system by writing very modest goals into law. That needs to be blocked with a tort of under-ambition which ensures that the initial constitutionality of the law is judged only admitting in prospect those benefits that can be litigated in retrospect.

Comment author: bbleeker 08 May 2013 02:33:58PM 4 points [-]

The goal posts should definitely be fixed! And maybe some politicians would want to pass a law that benefits him and his friends in some way, even though it only has a small effect, so there ought to be some kind of safeguard against that, too. But the main problem I can see is anti-synergy. Suppose a law is adopted that totally would have worked, were it not for some other law that was introduced a little later? Should the first one be repealed, or the second one? But maybe the second one does accomplish its goal, and repealing the first one would have negative effects, now that the second one is in place... And with so many laws interacting, how can you even tell which ones have which effects, unless the effects are very large indeed? (Of course, this is a problem in the current system too. I'm glad I'm not a politician; I'd be paralyzed with fear of unintended consequences.)

Comment author: AlanCrowe 08 May 2013 04:43:33PM 2 points [-]

Good point! I've totally failed to think about multiple laws interacting.

Comment author: EHeller 07 May 2013 04:48:45AM 4 points [-]

This annoys me because she doesn't talk at all about the power of the study. Usually, when you see statistically insignificant positive changes across the board in a study without much power, its a suggestion you should hesitantly update a very tiny bit in the positive direction, AND you need another study, not a suggestion you should update downward.

When ethics prevent us from constructing high power statistical studies, we need to be a bit careful not to reify statistical significance.

Comment author: Unnamed 07 May 2013 05:43:43AM 4 points [-]

That is Kevin Drum's take. Post 1:

In fact, the study showed fairly substantial improvements in the percentage of patients with depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high glycated hemoglobin levels (a marker of diabetes). The problem is that the sample size of the study was fairly small, so the results weren't statistically significant at the 95 percent level.

Post 2:

From a Bayesian perspective, the Oregon results should slightly increase our belief that access to Medicaid produces positive results for diabetes, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure maintenance. It shouldn't increase our belief much, but if you toss the positive point estimates into the stew of everything we already know, they add slightly to our prior belief that Medicaid is effective.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 08 May 2013 05:48:41PM *  3 points [-]

If this were the only medical study in all of history, then yes, a non-significant result should cause you to update as your quote says. In a world with thousands of studies yearly, you cannot do any such thing, because you're sure to bias yourself by paying attention to the slightly-positive results you like, and ignore the slightly-negative ones you dislike. (That's aside from the well-known publication bias where positive results are reported and negative ones aren't.) If the study had come out with a non-significant negative effect, would comrade Drum have been updating slightly in the direction of "Medicaid is bad"? Hah. This is why we impose the 95% confidence cutoff, which actually is way too low, but that's another discussion. It prevents us from seeing, or worse, creating, patterns in the noise, which humans are really good at.

The significance cutoff is not a technique of rationality, it is a technique of science, like blinding your results while you're studying the systematics. It's something we do because we run on untrusted hardware. Please do not relax your safeguards if a noisy result happens to agree with your opinions! That's what the safeguards are for!

Then also, please note that Kevin Drum's prior was not actually "Medicaid will slightly improve these three markers", it was "Medicaid will drastically reduce mortality". (See links in discussion with TheOtherDave, below). If you switch your priors around as convenient for claiming support from studies, then of course no study can possibly cause you to update downwards. I would gently suggest that this is not a good epistemic state to occupy.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 07 May 2013 04:54:59PM 8 points [-]

If the effect is so small that a sample of several thousand is not sufficient to reliably observe it, then it doesn't even matter that it is positive. An analogy: Suppose I tell you that eating garlic daily increases your IQ, and point to a study with three million participants and P < 1e-7. Vastly significant, no? Now it turns out that the actual size of the effect is 0.01 points of IQ. Are you going to start eating garlic? What if it weren't garlic, but a several-billion-dollar government health program? Statistical significance is indeed not everything, but there's such a thing as considering the size of an effect, especially if there's a cost involved.

Moreover, please consider that "consistent with zero" means exactly that. If you throw a die ten times and it comes up heads six, do you "hesitantly update a very tiny bit" in the direction of the coin being biased? Would you do so, if you did not have a prior reason to hope that the coin was biased?

I respectfully suggest that you are letting your already-written bottom line interfere with your math.

Comment author: DSimon 08 May 2013 01:05:21AM 10 points [-]

If I throw a die and it comes up heads, I'd update in the direction of it being a very unusual die. :-)

Comment author: satt 08 May 2013 11:31:52PM 5 points [-]

If the effect is so small that a sample of several thousand is not sufficient to reliably observe it, then it doesn't even matter that it is positive.

I strongly disagree.

An old comment of mine gives us a counterexample. A couple of years ago, a meta-analysis of RCTs found that taking aspirin daily reduces the risk of dying from cancer by ~20% in middle-aged and older adults. This is very much a practically significant effect, and it's probably an underestimate for reasons I'll omit for brevity — look at the paper if you're curious.

If you do look at the paper, notice figure 1, which summarizes the results of the 8 individual RCTs the meta-analysis used. Even though all of the RCTs had sample sizes in the thousands, 7 of them failed to show a statistically significant effect, including the 4 largest (sample sizes 5139, 5085, 3711 & 3310). The effect is therefore "so small that a sample of several thousand is not sufficient to reliably observe it", but we would be absolutely wrong to infer that "it doesn't even matter that it is positive"!

The heuristic that a hard-to-detect effect is probably too small to care about is a fair rule of thumb, but it's only a heuristic. EHeller & Unnamed are quite right to point out that statistical significance and practical significance correlate only imperfectly.

Comment author: gwern 01 February 2014 12:45:04AM *  2 points [-]

tl;dr: NHST and Bayesian-style subjective probability do not mix easily.

Another example of this problem: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/01/25/beware-mass-produced-medical-recommendations/

Does vitamin D reduce all-cause mortality in the elderly? The point-estimates from pretty much all of the various studies are around a 5% reduction in risk of dying for any reason - pretty nontrivial, one would say, no? Yet the results are almost all not 'statistically significant'! So do we follow Rolf and say 'fans of vitamin D ought to update on vitamin D not helping overall'... or do we, applying power considerations about the likelihood of making the hard cutoffs at p<0.05 given the small sample sizes & plausible effect sizes, note that the point-estimates are in favor of the hypothesis? (And how does this interact with two-sided tests - vitamin D could've increased mortality, after all. Positive point-estimates are consistent with vitamin D helping, and less consistent with no effect, and even less consistent with it harming; so why are we supposed to update in favor of no help or harm when we see a positive point-estimate?)

If we accept Rolf's argument, then we'd be in the odd position of, as we read through one non-statistically-significant study after another, decreasing the probability of 'non-zero reduction in mortality'... right up until we get the Autier or Cochrane data summarizing the exact same studies & plug it into a Bayesian meta-analysis like Salvatier did & abruptly flip to '92% chance of non-zero reduction in mortality'.

Comment author: wedrifid 01 February 2014 04:47:21AM 1 point [-]

A couple of years ago, a meta-analysis of RCTs found that taking aspirin daily reduces the risk of dying from cancer by ~20% in middle-aged and older adults.

That's a curious metric to choose. By that standard taking aspirin is about as healthy as playing a round of Russian Roulette.

Comment author: satt 01 February 2014 03:27:51PM 2 points [-]

That's a curious metric to choose.

It's a fairly natural metric to choose if one wishes to gauge aspirin's effect on cancer risk, as the study's authors did.

By that standard taking aspirin is about as healthy as playing a round of Russian Roulette.

Fortunately, the study's authors and I also interpreted the data by another standard. Daily aspirin reduced all-cause mortality, and didn't increase non-cancer deaths (except for "a transient increase in risk of vascular death in the aspirin groups during the first year after completion of the trials"). These are not results we would see if aspirin effected its anti-cancer magic by a similar mechanism to Russian Roulette.

Comment author: EHeller 08 May 2013 12:23:05AM *  4 points [-]

If the effect is so small that a sample of several thousand is not sufficient to reliably observe it, then it doesn't even matter that it is positive.

Have you read the study in question? The treatment sample is NOT several thousand, its about 1500. Further, the incidence of the diseases being looked at are only a few percent or less, so the treatment sample sizes for the most prevalent diseases are around 50 (also, if you look at the specifics of the sample, the diseased groups are pretty well controlled).

I suggest the following exercise- ask yourself what WOULD be a big effect, and then work through if the study has the power to see it.

Moreover, please consider that "consistent with zero" means exactly that.

Yes, but in this case, the sample sizes are small and the error bars are so large that consistent with zero is ALSO consistent with 25+ % reduction in incidence (which is a large intervention). The study is incapable from distinguishing hugely important effect from 0 effect, so we shouldn't update much at all, which is why I wished Mcardle had talked about statistical power. Before we ask "how should we update", we should ask "what information is actually here?"

Edit: If we treat this as an exploration, it says "we need another study"- after all the effects could be as large as 40%! Thats a potentially tremendous intervention. Unfortunately, its unethical to randomly boot people off of insurance so we'll likely never see that study done.

Comment author: Unnamed 07 May 2013 09:50:23PM 4 points [-]

If the effect is so small that a sample of several thousand is not sufficient to reliably observe it, then it doesn't even matter that it is positive. [...] Statistical significance is indeed not everything, but there's such a thing as considering the size of an effect, especially if there's a cost involved.

Health is extremely important - the statistical value of a human life is something like $8 million - so smallish looking effects can be practically relevant. An intervention that saves 1 life out of every 10,000 people treated has an average benefit of $800 per person. In this Oregon study, people who received Medicaid cost an extra $1,172 per year in total health spending, so the intervention would need to save 1.5 lives per 10,000 person-years (or provide an equivalent benefit in other health improvements) for the health benefits to balance out the health costs. The study looked at fewer than 10,000 people over 2 years, so the cost-benefit cutoff for whether it's worth it is less than 3 lives saved (or equivalent).

So "not statistically significant" does not imply unimportant, even with a sample size of several thousand. An effect at the cost-benefit threshold is unlikely to show up in significant changes to mortality rates. The intermediate health measures in this study are more sensitive to changes than mortality rate, but were they sensitive enough? Has anyone run the numbers on how sensitive they'd need to be in order to find an effect of this size? The point estimates that they did report are (relative to control group) an 8% reduction in number of people with elevated blood pressure, 17% reduction in number of people with high cholesterol, and 18% reduction in number of people with high glycated hemoglobin levels (a marker of diabetes), which intuitively seem big enough to be part of an across-the-board health improvement that passes cost-benefit muster.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 07 May 2013 11:01:52PM 2 points [-]

which intuitively seem big enough to be part of an across-the-board health improvement that passes cost-benefit muster.

This would be much more convincing if you reported the costs along with the benefits, so that one could form some kind of estimate of what you're willing to pay for this. But, again, I think your argument is motivated. "Consistent with zero" means just that; it means that the study cannot exclude the possibility that the intervention was actively harmful, but they had a random fluctuation in the data.

I get the impression that people here talk a good game about statistics, but haven't really internalised the concept of error bars. I suggest that you have another look at why physics requires five sigma. There are really good reasons for that, you know; all the more so in a mindkilling-charged field.

Comment author: Unnamed 08 May 2013 12:13:33AM 3 points [-]

I was responding to the suggestion that, even if the effects that they found are real, they are too small to matter. To me, that line of reasoning is a cue to do a Fermi estimate to get a quantitative sense of how big the effect would need to be in order to matter, and how that compares to the empirical results.

I didn't get into a full-fledged Fermi estimate here (translating the measures that they used into the dollar value of the health benefits), which is hard to do that when they only collected data on a few intermediate health measures. (If anyone else has given it a shot, I'd like to take a look.) I did find a couple effect-size-related numbers for which I feel like I have some intuitive sense of their size, and they suggest that that line of reasoning does not go through. Effects that are big enough to matter relative to the costs of additional health spending (like 3 lives saved in their sample, or some equivalent benefit) seem small enough to avoid statistical significance, and the point estimates that they found which are not statistically significant (8-18% reductions in various metrics) seem large enough to matter.

My overall conclusion about the (based on what I know about it so far) study is that it provides little information for updating in any direction, because of those wide error bars. The results are consistent with Medicaid having no effect, they're consistent with Medicaid having a modest health benefit (e.g., 10% reduction in a few bad things), they're consistent with Medicaid being actively harmful, and they're consistent with Medicaid having a large benefit (e.g. 40% reduction in many bad things). The likelihood ratios that the data provide for distinguishing between those alternatives are fairly close to one, with "modest health benefit" slightly favored over the more extreme alternatives.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 08 May 2013 05:39:15PM 3 points [-]

Again, the original point McArdle is making is that "consistent with zero" is just completely not what the proponents expected beforehand, and they should update accordingly. See my discussion with TheOtherDave, below. A small effect may, indeed, be worth pursuing. But here we have a case where something fairly costly was done after much disagreement, and the proponents claimed that there would be a large effect. In that case, if you find a small effect, you ought not to say "Well, it's still worth doing"; that's not what you said before. It was claimed that there would be a large effect, and the program was passed on this basis. It is then dishonest to turn around and say "Ok, the effect is small but still worthwhile". This ignores the inertia of political programs.

Comment author: Vaniver 08 May 2013 06:17:40PM *  2 points [-]

I do want to point out that, while I agree with your general points, I think that unless the proponents put numerical estimates up beforehand, it's not quite fair to assume they meant "it will be statistically significant in a sample size of N at least 95% of the time." Even if they said that, unless they explicitly calculated N, they probably underestimated it by at least one order of magnitude. (Professional researchers in social science make this mistake very frequently, and even when they avoid it, they can only very rarely find funding to actually collect N samples.)

I haven't looked into this study in depth, so semi-related anecdote time: there was recently a study of calorie restriction in monkeys which had ~70 monkeys. The confidence interval for the hazard ratio included 1 (no effect), and so they concluded no statistically significant benefit to CR on mortality, though they could declare statistically significant benefit on a few varieties of mortality and several health proxies.

I ran the numbers to determine the power; turns out that they couldn't have reliably noticed the effects of smoking (hazard ratio ~2) on longevity with a study of ~70 monkeys, and while I haven't seen many quoted estimates of the hazard ratio of eating normally compared to CR, I don't think there are many people that put them higher than 2.

When you don't have the power to reliably conclude that all-cause mortality decreased, you can eke out some extra information by looking at the signs of all the proxies you measured. If insurance does nothing, we should expect to see the effect estimates scattered around 0. If insurance has a positive effect, we should expect to see more effect estimates above 0 than below 0, even though most will include 0 in their CI. (Suppose they measure 30 mortality proxies, and all of them show a positive effect, though the univariate CI includes 0 for all of them. If the ground truth was no effect on mortality proxies, that's a very unlikely result to see; if the ground truth was a positive effect on mortality proxies, that's a likely result to see.)

Comment author: Unnamed 09 May 2013 04:42:36AM 3 points [-]

Most Medicaid proponents did not have expectations about the statistical results of this particular study. They did not make predictions about confidence intervals and p values for these particular analyses. Rather, they had expectations about the actual benefit of Medicaid.

You cite Ezra Klein as someone who expected that Medicaid would drastically reduce mortality; Klein was drawing his numbers from a report which estimated that in the US "137,000 people died from 2000 through 2006 because they lacked health insurance, including 22,000 people in 2006." There were 47 million uninsured Americans in 2006, so those 22,000 excess deaths translate into 4.7 excess deaths per 10,000 uninsured people each year. So that's the size of the drastic reduction in mortality that you're referring to: 4.7 lives per 10,000 people each year. (For comparison, in my other comment I estimated that the Medicaid expansion would be worth its estimated cost if it saved at least 1.5 lives per 10,000 people each year or provided an equivalent benefit.)

Did the study rule out an effect as large as this drastic reduction of 4.7 per 10,000? As far as I can tell it did not (I'd like to see a more technical analysis of this). There were under 10,000 people in the study, so I wouldn't be surprised if they missed effects of that size. Their point estimates, of an 8-18% reduction in various bad things, intuitively seem like they could be consistent with an effect that size. And the upper bounds of their confidence intervals (a 40%+ reduction in each of the 3 bad things) intuitively seem consistent with a much larger effect. So if people like Klein and Drum had made predictions in advance about the effect size of the Oregon intervention, I suspect that their predictions would have fallen within the study's confidence interval.

There are presumably some people who did expect the results of the study to be statistically significant (otherwise, why run the study?), and they were wrong. But this isn't a competition between opponents and proponents where every slipup by one side cedes territory to the other side. The data and results are there for us to look at, so we can update based on what the study actually found instead of on which side of the conflict fought better in this battle. In this case, it looks like the correct update based on the study (for most people, to a first approximation) is to not update at all. The confidence interval for the effects that they examined covers the full range of results that seemed plausible beforehand (including the no-effect-whatsoever hypothesis and the tens-of-thousands-of-lives-each-year hypothesis), so the study provides little information for updating one's priors about the effectiveness of Medicaid.

For the people who did make the erroneous prediction that the study would find statistically significant results, why did they get it wrong? I'm not sure. A few possibilities: 1) they didn't do an analysis of the study's statistical power (or used some crude & mistaken heuristic to estimate power), 2) they overestimated how large a health benefit Medicaid would produce, 3) the control group in Oregon turned out to be healthier than they expected which left less room for Medicaid to show benefits, 4) fewer members of the experimental group than they expected ended up actually receiving Medicaid, which reduced the actual sample size and also added noise to the intent-to-treat analysis (reducing the effective sample size).

Comment author: wedrifid 07 May 2013 06:12:32PM *  2 points [-]

If you throw a die ten times and it comes up heads six, do you "hesitantly update a very tiny bit" in the direction of the coin being biased?

If I throw a die once and it comes up heads I'm going to be confused. Now, assuming you meant "toss a coin and it comes up heads six times out of ten".

What is your intended 'correct' answer to the question? I think I would indeed hesitantly update a very (very) tiny bit in the direction of the coin being biased but different priors regarding the possibility of the coin being biased in various ways and degrees could easily make the update be towards not-biased. I'd significantly lower p(the coin is biased by having two heads) but very slightly raise p(the coin is slightly heavier on the tails side), etc.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 07 May 2013 07:31:45PM 3 points [-]

My intended correct answer is that, on this data, you technically can adjust your belief very slightly; but because the prior for a biased coin is so tiny, the update is not worth doing. The calculation cost way exceeds any benefit you can get from gruel this thin. I would say "Null hypothesis [ie unbiased coin] not disconfirmed; move along, nothing to see here". And if you had a political reason for wishing the coin to be biased towards heads, then you should definitely not make any such update; because you certainly wouldn't have done so, if tails had come up six times. In that case it would immediately have been "P-level is in the double digits" and "no statistical significance means exactly that" and "with those errors we're still consistent with a heads bias".

Comment author: EHeller 08 May 2013 12:56:26AM 2 points [-]

My intended correct answer is that, on this data, you technically can adjust your belief very slightly; but because the prior for a biased coin is so tiny, the update is not worth do

I would think that our prior for "health care improves health" should be quite a bit larger than the prior for a coin to be biased.

Comment author: pjeby 05 May 2013 05:24:06AM 18 points [-]

Nowadays many educated people treat reinforcement theory as if it were something not terribly important that they have known and understood all along. In fact most people don't understand it, or they would not behave so badly to the people around them.

-- Karen Pryor, Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training

Comment author: [deleted] 02 May 2013 03:48:24AM *  110 points [-]

"The spatial anomaly has interacted with the tachyonic radiation in the nebula, it's interfering with our sensors. It's impossible to get a reading."

"There's no time - we'll have to take the ship straight through it!"

"Captain, I advise against this course of action. I have calculated the odds against our surviving such an action at three thousand, seven hundred and forty-five to one."

"Damn the odds, we've got to try... wait a second. Where, exactly, did you get that number from?"

"I hardly think this is the time for-"

"No. No, fuck you, this is exactly the time. The fate of the galaxy is at stake. Trillions of lives are hanging in the balance. You just pulled four significant digits out of your ass, I want to see you show your goddamn work."

"Well, I used the actuarial data from the past fifty years, relating to known cases of ships passing through nebulae that are interacting with spatial anomalies. There have been approximately two million such incidents reported, with only five hundred and forty-two incidents in which the ship in question survived intact."

"And did you at all take into account that ship building technology has improved over the past fifty years, and that ours is not necessarily an average ship?"

"Indeed I did, Captain. I weighted the cases differently based on how recent they were, and how close the ship in question was in build to our own. For example, one of the incidents with a happy ending was forty-seven years ago, but their ship was a model roughly five times our size. As such, I counted the incident as having twenty-four percent of the relevance of a standard case."

"But what of our ship's moxie? Can you take determination and drive and the human spirit into account?"

"As a matter of fact I can, Captain. In our three-year history together, I have observed that both you and this ship manage to beat the odds with a measurable regularity. To be exact, we tend to succeed twenty-four point five percent more often than the statistics would otherwise indicate - and, in fact, that number jumps to twenty-nine point two percent specifically in cases where I state the odds against our success to three significant digits or greater. I have already taken that supposedly 'unknowable' factor into account with my calculations."

"And you expect me to believe that you've memorized all these case studies and performed this ridiculously complicated calculation in your head within the course of a normal conversation?"

"Yes. With all due respect to your species, I am not human. While I freely admit that you do have greater insight into fields such as emotion, interpersonal relations, and spirituality than I do, in the fields of memory and calculation, I am capable of feats that would be quite simply impossible for you. Furthermore, if I may be perfectly frank, the entire purpose of my presence on the bridge is to provide insights such as these to help facilitate your command decisions. If you're not going to heed my advice, why am I even here?"

"Mm. And we're still sitting at three thousand seven hundred to one against?"

"Three thousand, seven hundred and forty five to one."

"Well, shit. Well, let's go around, then."

The Vulcan your Vulcan could sound like if he wasn't made of straw, I guess? Link

Comment author: Vaniver 03 May 2013 04:31:49AM 14 points [-]

To be exact, we tend to succeed twenty-four point five percent more often than the statistics would otherwise indicate

Well... not quite. The selection effect makes the survival number basically impossible to calculate, but regularly surviving risky scenarios seems like it would provide a bit better odds for the influence of moxie than 249:200.

Fun Bayes application: what's the likelihood ratio for the existence vs. nonexistence of moxie-based immunity to death during battle for military leaders, given the military history of Earth?

Comment author: DaFranker 03 May 2013 04:41:53PM *  29 points [-]

Well... not quite. The selection effect makes the survival number basically impossible to calculate, but regularly surviving risky scenarios seems like it would provide a bit better odds for the influence of moxie than 249:200.

At some point, if the Vulcan is smart enough, I suspect the calculation would begin to hinge more on plot twists and the odds that the story is nearing its end, as the hypothesis that they are wearing Plot Armor rises up to the forefront.

I'd also suspect that the Vulcan would realize quickly that as his prediction for the probability of success approaches 1, the odds of a sudden plot reversal that plunges them all in deep poo also approaches 1. And then the Vulcan would immediately adjust to always spouting off some random high-odds-against-us number all the time just to make sure they'd always succeed heroically.

Ow, this is starting to sound very newcomblike.

Comment author: orthonormal 03 May 2013 10:21:34PM 24 points [-]

And then the Vulcan would immediately adjust to always spouting off some random high-odds-against-us number all the time just to make sure they'd always succeed heroically.

Holy crap, canon!Spock is a genius rationalist after all.

Comment author: Kawoomba 03 May 2013 10:26:57PM 2 points [-]

The C3PO of rationalists.

(At least when in a fight, the bridge crew always takes great care to ask for damage reports, and whether someone anywhere on the ship broke a finger, before, you know, firing back.)

Comment author: paper-machine 03 May 2013 10:28:38PM *  3 points [-]

Hey, the humans have to do something while the computer (which somehow hasn't obtained sentience) does all the real work.

Comment author: Kawoomba 03 May 2013 10:41:08PM 22 points [-]

The computer is secretly making paper clips in cargo bay 2, beaming them into space when noone is looking.

I want to believe.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 05 May 2013 09:10:22PM 2 points [-]

The last line of reasoning doesn't quite work. Not every incident has an episode made out of it.

Comment author: khafra 03 May 2013 12:20:30PM 6 points [-]

I read that charitably as indicating occasional failures in non-deadly situations. Not even Captain Kirk wins 'em all.

Comment author: CCC 03 May 2013 02:29:25PM 8 points [-]

There have been approximately two million such incidents reported, with only five hundred and forty-two incidents in which the ship in question survived intact.

Unweighted, that's 3690:1 odds.

we tend to succeed twenty-four point five percent more often than the statistics would otherwise indicate - and, in fact, that number jumps to twenty-nine point two percent specifically in cases where I state the odds against our success to three significant digits or greater

Since odds to three or more significant figures have been quoted, that gives us 2856:1 odds (still without weighting). From this, I conclude that the successful incidents usually involved ships that were either very differently designed to the ship in question, or were a long time ago (case in point - the 47-year-old success case). This implies that the current ship's design is actually somewhat more likely to fall afoul of the nebula than an average ship, or an older ship. Rather substantially, in fact; enough to almost exactly counter the determination/drive factor.

An investigation into the shipyards, and current design paradigms, may be in order once the trillions of lives have been saved. I suspect that too little emphasis is being placed on safety at some point in the design process.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 May 2013 03:18:40PM *  24 points [-]

An investigation into the shipyards, and current design paradigms, may be in order...

...as I recommended strenuously before we left dock at the beginning of this mission, since a similar analysis performed then gave approximately 8000:1 odds that before this mission was complete you would do something deeply stupid that got us all killed, no matter how strenuously I tried to instruct you in basic risk factor analysis. That having failed, I gave serious consideration to simply taking over the ship myself, which I estimate will increase by a factor of approximately 3000 the utility created by our missions (even taking into account the reduced "moxie factor", which is primarily of use during crises a sensible Captain would avoid getting into in the first place). However, I observe that my superiors in the High Command have not taken over Starfleet and the Federation, despite the obvious benefits of such a strategy. At first this led me to 83% confidence that the High Command was in possession of extremely compelling unshared evidence of the value of humanity's leadership, which at that time led me to update significantly in favor of that view myself. I have since then reduced that confidence to 76%, with a 13% confidence that the High Command has instead been subverted by hostile powers partial to humanity.

Comment author: CCC 04 May 2013 02:40:35PM 16 points [-]

The steel-Vulcan in the original quote admits that humans have an edge in the field of interpersonal relations. I imagine that's why the Vulcans let the humans lead; because the humans are capable of persuading all the other races in the Federation to go along with this whole 'federation' idea, and leave the Vulcans more-or-less alone as long as they share some of their research results.

Or, to put it another way; Vulcan High Command has managed to foist off the boring administration work onto the humans, in exchange for mere unimportant status, and is not eager to have it land back on their laps again.

Of course, some Vulcans do think that a Vulcan-led empire would be an improvement over a human-led one. The last batch to think that went off and formed the Romulan Empire. The Vulcans and the Romulans are currently running a long-term, large-scale experiment to see which paradigm creates a more lasting empire in practice. (They don't tell the other races that it's all a political experiment, of course. They might not be great at interpersonal realtions, but they have found out in the past that that is a very bad idea).

Comment author: TheOtherDave 04 May 2013 04:58:23PM 3 points [-]

It's not mere unimportant status, though. The Federation makes decisions that affect the state of the Galaxy, and they make different decisions than they would under Vulcan control, and those differences cash out in terms of significant differences in overall utility. For a culture that believes that "the fate of the many outweighs the fate of the few, or the one," the choice to allow that just so they can be left alone seems bizarre.

Of course, that assumes that they consider non-Vulcans to be part of "the many." Now that I think about it, there's no particular reason to believe that's a commonly held Vulcan value/belief.

Comment author: Zubon 04 May 2013 11:26:33PM 2 points [-]

This is a conceptually simple trade-off, although the math would be difficult. Assume that a Federation under Vulcan control would make better decisions but would have more difficulty implementing them (either on a sufficient scale or as effectively) because the strengths that make them better analysts are not the same strengths that make humans charismatic leaders. The Federation might not have as many planets, those planets might not be as willing to implement Vulcan ideas when advocated by Vulcans, etc. Is overall utility higher if Vulcans take the optimal action A% of the time at X% effectiveness or if humans take the optimal action B% of the time at Y% effectiveness? (You would adjust "the optimal action" for the relative strengths of the two species.)

If you believed that AX > BY, you formed the Romulan Empire. If you believed that AX < BY, you joined the Federation. I don't know enough Star Trek lore to say what happens if you end up with different estimates than the rest of your faction (defection, agitation for political change, execution?).

Comment author: Estarlio 04 May 2013 11:36:11PM 3 points [-]

The Federation makes decisions that affect the state of the Galaxy, and they make different decisions than they would under Vulcan control

Eh, questionable. I'm sure many of us have been in situations where we're advising more senior staff and the manager or whoever isn't really the one making the decision anymore - they're just the talking head we get to rubber stamp what those of us who actually deal with the problem have decided is going to happen.

In practice I tend to find that the people who control access to information, rather than the people who wield formal authority, tend to have the most power in an organisation.

Comment author: DaFranker 03 May 2013 08:23:33PM 5 points [-]

If I was rich enough, I would pay you to write fanfic like this.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 May 2013 08:51:26PM 3 points [-]

Given how well my time is recompensed these days, I suspect you could find many far-cheaper, equally good writers.

Comment author: Kindly 03 May 2013 02:59:46PM 3 points [-]

One could object by pointing out that moxie, determination, drive, and the human spirit have the strongest effect in life-or-death situations: situations in which their rate of survival over the past three years is obviously 100%.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 May 2013 08:49:00PM 3 points [-]

Thanks for the link. I really enjoyed reading the comic archives.

Comment author: ChristianKl 03 May 2013 12:38:47PM *  2 points [-]

"Mm. And we're still sitting at three thousand seven hundred to one against?"

"Three thousand, seven hundred and forty five to one."

You shouldn't trust people who claim to know 4 digits of accuracy for a forcast like this. The uncertainity involved in the calcuation has to be greater.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 May 2013 01:01:43PM 19 points [-]

You shouldn't trust people who claim to know 4 digits of accuracy for a forcast like this.

You shouldn't trust a human person who makes that claim. But if we are using 'person' in a way that includes the steel-Vulcan from the quote then yes, you should.

The uncertainity involved in the calculation has to be greater.

It is all uncertainty. There is no particular reason to doubt the steel-Vulcan's ability to calibrate 'meta' uncertainties too.

In the face of all the other evidence about the relative capabilities of the species in question that the character in question is implied to have it would be an error to overvalue the heuristic "don't trust people who fail to signal humility via truncating calculations". The latter is, after all, merely a convention. Given the downsides of that convention (it inevitably makes predictions worse) it is relatively unlikely that the Vulcans would have the same traditions regarding significant figure expression.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 May 2013 08:04:38PM 12 points [-]

And lo, Wedrifid did invent the concept of Steel Vulcan and it was good.

Do we actually have enough fictional examples of this to form a trope? (At least 3, 5 would be better.)

Comment author: DanielLC 07 May 2013 03:59:22AM 4 points [-]

Perhaps, but on the off chance that the captain doesn't listen, giving the exact probability increases the chances of success. The Vulcan mentioned that.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 02 May 2013 01:06:05AM 16 points [-]

With numbers you can do anything you like. Suppose I have the sacred number 9 and I want to get a number 1314, date of the execution of Jaques de Molay - a date dear to anyone who, like me, professes devotion ot the Templar tradition of knighthood. What do I do? I multiply 9 by one hundred and forty-six, the fateful day of the destruction of Carthage. How did I arrive at this? I divided thirteen hundred and fourteen by two, three, et cetera, until I found a satisfying date. I could also have divided thirteen hundred and fourteen by 6.28, the double of 3.14 and I would have got two hundred and nine. That is the year Attulus I, king of Pergamon, ascended the throne. You see?

Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum (1989)

Comment author: Kindly 02 May 2013 02:20:15AM 9 points [-]

In statistics this is known as "overfitting".

Comment author: SilasBarta 01 May 2013 05:17:41PM *  15 points [-]

I was pleasantly surprised to see this elegant phrasing of a (Machian?) rationalist principle in popular culture:

"There's an axiom in my business [i.e. law]: 'A difference that makes no difference is no difference.'"

-- Joe Adama in the TV series Caprica

Comment author: mcallisterjp 02 May 2013 09:56:24AM 7 points [-]

This is at least as old as Leibnitz.

Comment author: elharo 08 May 2013 10:58:16PM 14 points [-]

One of the most impressive features of brains – especially human brains — is the flexibility to learn almost any kind of task that comes its way. Give an apprentice the desire to impress his master and a chicken-sexing task, and his brain devotes its massive resources to distinguishing males from females. Give an unemployed aviation enthusiast a chance to be a national hero, and his brain learns to distinguish enemy aircraft from local flyboys. This flexibility of learning accounts for a large part of what we consider human intelligence. While many animals are properly called intelligent, humans distinguish themselves in that they are so flexibly intelligent, fashioning their neural circuits to match the task at hand. It is for this reason that we can colonize every region on the planet, learn the local language we’re born into, and master skills as diverse as playing the violin, high-jumping and operating space shuttle cockpits.

David Eagleman, Incognito, p. 71

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 09 May 2013 02:49:20AM 6 points [-]

Minor nitpick:

learn the local language we’re born into

The reason we can learn the local language is that languages are memetically selected for learnability by humans.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 May 2013 08:12:23PM 3 points [-]

So is everything else except biology and physics.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 May 2013 11:01:43PM 3 points [-]

The memetic evolution of baroque music in Europe is a development towards learnability? There are probably no more than 100 people alive that can make their way through Bach's 2nd Partita for violin.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 09 May 2013 11:38:29PM 7 points [-]

Ever notice how you never hear humans playing music that humans aren't capable of learning to play? I think there may be some selection effects at play here...

Comment author: [deleted] 09 May 2013 11:59:43PM 3 points [-]

Well, I never notice the satisfaction of that contradiction, quite, but I do notice that the history of baroque music includes the steady achievement of theretofore unreached technical difficulty.

Comment author: komponisto 13 May 2013 12:47:15AM *  11 points [-]

There are probably no more than 100 people alive that can make their way through Bach's 2nd Partita for violin.

I'm pretty sure you're underestimating that by...a lot. Fermi estimate time:

Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin are a cornerstone of the violin repertory. We may therefore assume that every professor of violin at a major university or conservatory has performed at least one of them at least once, just like we may assume that every professor of mathematics has studied the Lebesgue dominated convergence theorem. How many professors of violin are there? Let's just consider one country, the United States. Each state in the U.S. has at least two major public universities (typically "University of X" and "X State University", where X is the state); some have many more, and this doesn't even count private universities. Personal experience suggests that the average big state university has about one professor of violin. There are 50 states in the U.S., so that's 100 people already right there. And we have yet to count:

  • every other country in the world (including European countries like Germany where the enthusiasm for art music in general and J.S. Bach in particular is likely to be much higher);
  • private universities and conservatories in the U.S.;
  • members of the violin sections of professional symphony orchestras throughout the world (again, on average one in each U.S. state);
  • professional concert soloists (there may be more of these than you realize)
  • the students of the aforementioned professors (between 5 and 20 in a given semester, at least one of whom will typically be playing one of the sonatas or partitas that semester).

Thus, it wouldn't surprise me at all if there were at least 10,000 people alive who have performed one of the sonatas and partitas (to say nothing of those who would be capable of performing them). There are six of these works in total, so we can divide this already-conservative estimate by six to (under)estimate the number who have performed the Second Partita in particular. (This is likely an underestimate because many of them will have performed more than one -- indeed, all six, in a fair number of cases.)

A glance at the recordings available on Amazon, sorted by release date may help put things into perspective.

The estimate "no more than 100 alive who can make it through" would be much more appropriate for a difficult contemporary work (like, say, Melismata by Milton Babbitt) than a 300-year-old standard.

Comment author: Insert_Idionym_Here 10 May 2013 12:00:12AM 2 points [-]

It might be more accurate to say that pretty much everything, including what we call biology and physics -- humans are the ones codifying it -- is memetically selected to be learnable by humans. Not that it all develops towards being easier to learn.

Comment author: lukeprog 14 May 2013 08:43:46PM 13 points [-]

He who says "Better to go without belief forever than believe a lie!" merely shows his own... private horror of becoming a dupe... It is like a general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound. Not so are victories... over enemies or over nature gained.

William James

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 May 2013 11:25:14PM 13 points [-]

This debate brings to mind one of the more interesting differences between the hard sciences and other fields. This occurs when you firmly believe A, someone makes a compelling argument, and within a few seconds you firmly believe not-A, to the point of arguing for not-A with even more vigor that you used for A just a few seconds ago.

-- Lou Scheffer

(Most recent example from my own life that springs to mind: "It seems incredibly improbable that any Turing machine of size 100 could encode a complete solution to the halting problem for all Turing machines of size up to almost 100... oh. Nevermind.")

Comment author: yli 09 May 2013 11:49:36PM *  8 points [-]

So what's the program? Is it the one that runs every turing machine up to length 100 for BusyBeaver(100) steps, and gets the number BusyBeaver(100) by running the BusyBeaver_100 program whose source code is hardcoded into it? That would be of length 100+c for some constant c, but maybe you didn't think the constant was worth mentioning.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 May 2013 11:55:11PM 2 points [-]

Well, it's still encoded. But I actually meant to say "almost 100" in the original. And yes, that's the answer.

Comment author: army1987 11 May 2013 07:51:32AM 6 points [-]

Pretty sure that also happens in fields other than the hard sciences. For example, it is said that converts to a religion are usually much more fervent than people who grew up with it (though there's an obvious selection bias).

(The advanced, dark-artsy version of this is claiming with a straight face to never have believed A in the first place, and hope the listener trusts what you're saying now more than their memory of what you said earlier, and if it doesn't work, claim they had misunderstood you. My maternal grandpa always tries to use that on my father, and almost always fails, but if he does that I guess it's because it does work on other people.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 May 2013 07:10:25PM 6 points [-]

The operative glory is doing it in five seconds.

Comment author: Manfred 11 May 2013 07:35:15PM 3 points [-]

And, being right.

Comment author: Dorikka 10 May 2013 12:46:24AM 2 points [-]

I've also found this to be medium evidence that I'm not as informed about the subject as I thought that I was, so I back down by confidence somewhat. If I recently made an error that would have resulted in something very bad happening, I should be very careful about thinking that my next design is safe.

Comment author: wedrifid 10 May 2013 12:37:36AM 3 points [-]

(Most recent example from my own life that springs to mind: "It seems incredibly improbable that any Turing machine of size 100 could encode a complete solution to the halting problem for all Turing machines of size up to almost 100... oh. Nevermind.")

That does (did?) seem improbable to me. I'd have expected n needed to be far larger than 100 before the overhead became negligible enough for 'almost n' to fit (ie. size 10,000 gives almost 10,000 would have seemed a lot more likely than size 100 gives almost 100). Do I need to update in the direction of optimal Turing machine code requiring very few bits?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 May 2013 03:38:17AM 3 points [-]

Do I need to update in the direction of optimal Turing machine code requiring very few bits?

In general, probably yes. Have you checked out the known parts of the Busy Beaver sequence? Be sure to guess what you expect to see before you look.

In specific, I don't know the size of the constant c.

Comment author: Tenoke 08 May 2013 06:19:30PM *  37 points [-]

‘Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that in your promiscuous pursuit of women you are merely trying to assuage your subconscious fears of sexual impotence?’

‘Yes, sir, it has.’

‘Then why do you do it?’

‘To assuage my fears of sexual impotence.’

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

explaining /= explaining away

Comment author: BT_Uytya 06 May 2013 07:40:17PM 11 points [-]

But consider: Newton has thought things that no man before has ever thought. A great accomplishment to be sure. Perhaps the greatest achievement any human mind has ever made. Very well - what does that say of Newton, and of us? Why, that his mind is framed in such a way that it can out-think anyone else's. So all hail Isaac Newton! Let us give him his due, and glorify and worship whatever generative force can frame such a mind.

Now consider Hooke. Hooke has perceived things that no man before us has ever perceived. What does that say of Hooke, and of us? That Hooke was framed in some special way? No, for just look at you, Robert - by your leave, you are stooped, asthmatic, fitful, beset by aches and ills, your eyes and ears are no better than those of men who've not perceived a thousandth part of what you have.

Newton makes his discoveries in geometrical realms, where our minds cannot go, he strolls in a walled garden filled with wonders, to which he has the only key. But you Hooke, are cheek-by-jowl with all of humanity in the streets of London. Anyone can look at the things you have looked at. But in those things you see what no one else has. You are the millionth human to look at a spark, a flea, a raindrop, the moon, and the first to see it. For anyone to say that this is less remarkable than what Newton has done, is to understand things in but a hollow and jejune way, 'tis like going to a Shakespeare play and remembering only the sword fights.

Daniel Waterhouse says to Hooke in Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver

Comment author: lukeprog 14 May 2013 11:58:56PM 10 points [-]

The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself. Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind...

Daniel Dennett

Comment author: lukeprog 14 May 2013 08:20:57PM 9 points [-]

If we think of an intuition pump as a carefully design persuasion tool, we can see that it might repay us to reverse engineer the tool, checking out all the moving parts to see what they are doing... consider the intuition pump to be a tool with many settings, and "turn all the knobs" to see if the same intuitions still get pumped when you consider different variations.

Daniel Dennett

Comment author: gwern 15 May 2013 03:10:15AM 8 points [-]

All knowledge, every empirical statement about the real world, is an "if..., then..." proposition; there is no "fact" without "theory". But we buy knowledge with the assumptions we make - the more assumptions made, the more knowledge obtained. ...all knowledge is paid for; if the assumptions are correct, we have a bargain.

--Clyde Coombs, A theory of data 1964, pg284,488

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 02 May 2013 06:19:16PM 20 points [-]

Ownership is not limited to material things. It can also apply to points of view. Once we take ownership of an idea—whether it’s about politics or sports—what do we do? We love it perhaps more than we should. We prize it more than it is worth. And most frequently, we have trouble letting go of it because we can’t stand the idea of its loss. What are we left with then? An ideology—rigid and unyielding.

Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, New York, 2008, pp. 138-139

Comment author: James_Miller 01 May 2013 04:56:15PM *  29 points [-]

Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.

Aristotle

Comment author: tingram 01 May 2013 09:06:28PM 9 points [-]
Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 27 May 2013 02:31:46AM *  17 points [-]

We would all like to believe that if we win something it is because of our skill, but if we lose it is because of the good luck or cheating of our opponent. This is nowhere more apparent than in the game of backgammon. A good opponent will play in such a way that the dice rolls having highest probability will be "good rolls" for them on their next turn, enabling them to take the other player's pieces, consolidate their position, etc. However, since there is an element of randomness, when these rolls actually come up it is very difficult even for me to believe that my opponent's fortune is due to their skill rather than their luck. Whenever I am being consistently beaten by an opponent I have to fight very hard to make myself believe that there is actually something wrong with my play and figure out how to correct it.

This phenomenon is nowhere more apparent than in computer backgammon. Computer backgammon is essentially a solved problem. Unlike Chess or Go, the best neural network algorithms that run even on modest hardware will consistently beat most human players, and perhaps draw with the best in the world. In fact, we have learnt rather a lot from these algorithms. Many rules of thumb that were believed for years by most decent players have been overturned by computer simulations. Computers tend to play backgammon markedly more aggressively than is natural for a human, but we can show that they are nevertheless doing the right thing. If you are not an extremely high level player, playing against a good computer algorithm feels weird if you are used to playing against humans.

One of the most annoying results of this is that it is impossible to obtain a reliable user generated rating of a backgammon program. For example, GNU Backgammon is one of the two or three best algorithms in the world and an under-appreciated gem of the GNU project as a whole. A full 50% of the user reviews on the Ubuntu software centre accuse the program of cheating by fixing the dice rolls and give it a 1 or 2 star review. It is hilarious how many of these reviews include comments like they "know how to play" or have been "playing for a long time" as if this were evidence to support their claim. The rest of the reviews are by people who know better and they all give it 4 or 5 stars (4 is reasonable due to a few user interface quirks, but the algorithm itself is worth a 5). As a result, the averaged rating is only 3 stars, even though this is widely acknowledged as one of the three best backgammon programs in the world. It doesn't cheat because it doesn't have to, and it actually gives you mechanisms for checking that it is not cheating, e.g. entering dice rolls manually and a tutor mode that will correct your bad plays.

This phenomenon is repeated absolutely everywhere that user reviews of backgammon programs are available. On the Google Play store, I have seen this even on a program with an absolutely crappy algorithm that I can consistently beat on expert level as well as on decent ones that are backed by GNUbg. As a result, it is absolutely impossible to find out which are the good backgammon programs if you don't already know, since they all get a low average rating.

-- Matthew Leifer

Comment author: Cyan 27 May 2013 03:21:25AM *  9 points [-]

I like the quote, but I have a nitpick:

We would all like to believe that... if we lose it is because of the good luck or cheating of our opponent.

When I've lost in the first round of single-elimination tournaments, I've found myself hoping that the person who beat me would prove skilled enough to win the entire tournament. That way, my loss wouldn't mean that I totally sucked, but only that I wasn't the best. So I think the quoted observation fails to account for nuances relating to how losses inform us about our skill level.

Comment author: lukeprog 14 May 2013 08:45:43PM 17 points [-]

Philosophy... is what you have to do until you figure out what questions you should have been asking in the first place.

Daniel Dennett

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 05 May 2013 05:16:31PM 15 points [-]

It's often a good habit to keep track of seemingly identical concepts separately, just in case you're wrong and they're not identical.

-- aristosophy

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 05 May 2013 10:23:05PM 14 points [-]

This is often a good idea in mathematics. Two concepts that are equivalent in some context may no longer be equivalent once you move to a more general context; for example, familiar equivalent definitions are often no longer equivalent if you start dropping axioms from set theory or logic (e.g. the axiom of choice or excluded middle).

Comment author: skepsci 07 May 2013 02:22:37AM *  4 points [-]

Outside of mathematical logic, some familiar examples include:

  • compactness vs. sequential compactness—generalizing from metric to topological spaces
  • product topology vs. box topology—generalizing from finite to infinite product spaces
  • finite-dimensional vs. finitely generated (and related notions, e.g. finitely cogenerated)—generalizing from vector spaces to modules
  • pointwise convergence vs. uniform convergence vs. norm-convergence vs. convergence in the weak topology vs....—generalizing from sequences of numbers to sequences of functions
Comment author: simplicio 05 May 2013 10:10:34PM 7 points [-]

Arguable example: probability and uncertainty. (More or less identical in my theorizing, but some call the idea of their identity the ludic fallacy.)

Comment author: roystgnr 06 May 2013 02:59:27PM 2 points [-]

There's still a couple related fallacies that Bayesians can commit.

Most related to the "ludic fallacy" as you've described it: if you treat both epistemic (lack of knowledge) and aleatory (lack of predetermination) uncertainty with the same general probability distribution function framework, it becomes tempting to try to collapse the two together. But a PDF-over-PDFs-over-outcomes still isn't the same thing as a PDF-over-outcomes, and if you try to compute with the latter you won't get the right results.

Most related to the "ludic fallacy" as I inferred it from Taleb: if you perform your calculations by assigning zero priors to various models, as everybody does to make the calculations tractable, then if evidence actually points towards one of those neglected priors and you don't recompute with it in mind, you'll find that your posterior estimates can be grossly mistaken.

Comment author: PrometheanFaun 02 June 2013 11:21:09AM 3 points [-]

However, equivalences are also the bread and butter of inference. Distinguishing more than you need to will slow you down.

Comment author: army1987 10 May 2013 10:27:38PM 3 points [-]

Unfortunately I only have a finite amount of storage available, so I can only do that up to a certain point.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 03 May 2013 12:16:01AM 22 points [-]

One interesting thing about Ms. Dowd’s description of “hardball” political tactics is just how dainty and genteel her brass knuckle suggestions actually are. A speech, an appeal to reason: there is nothing here about lucrative contracts for political supporters, promises of sinecure jobs for politicians who lose their seats, a “blank check” for administrative backing on some obscure tax loophole that a particular politician could award to a favored client; there’s not even a delicate hint about grand jury investigations that can be stopped in their tracks or compromising photographs or wiretaps that need never see the light of day. Far be it from Ms Dowd to speak of or even hint at the kind of strategy that actual politicians think about when words like ‘hardball’ come to mind. Ms Dowd speaks of brass knuckles and then shows us a doily; at some level it speaks well of Ms. Dowd as a human being that even when she tries she seems unable to come up with an offer someone can’t refuse.

-- Walter Russell Mead, describing someone else's failure to understand what a desperate effort actually looks like.

Comment author: BT_Uytya 06 May 2013 07:53:48PM *  5 points [-]

“Monads and atoms both are infinitely small, yet everything is made out of them; and in considering how such a paradox is possible, we must look to the interactions among them <...> But either way, we’re obliged to explain the things we see — like the church-tower — solely in terms of those interactions. ”

“Solely, Doctor? ”

“Solely, your highness. For if God made the world according to understandable, consistent laws <...> then it must be consistent through and through, top to bottom. If it is made of atoms, then it is made of atoms, and must be explained in terms of atoms; when we get into a difficulty, we cannot suddenly wave our hands and say, "At this point there is a miracle," or "Here I invoke a wholly new thing called Force which has nothing to do with atoms. " ”

Leibniz in Neal Stephenson's The Confusion

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 May 2013 02:59:11AM 13 points [-]

"I don't really understand metaphysics or why it's needed." -- Matt Simpson

"Sketch version: There is no "no metaphysics" anwser, there is only "metaphysics I just unconsciously accept" and "metaphysics I've actually thought about". You can do it well or you can do it badly but you can't not do metaphysics." -- Andrew Summitt

Comment author: [deleted] 20 May 2013 03:43:12PM 7 points [-]

This is a wild guess, but (on the assumption that you endorse this quote) is the thought that MWI stands in relation to experimentally testable physics as something like a metaphysical thesis, and that instrumentalism doesn't lack metaphysical theses of this kind, but simply refuses to acknowledge and examine them?

Anyway, a related quote, and so far as I know the oldest of this kind:

The man who is ready to prove that metaphysical knowledge is wholly impossible..is a brother metaphysician with a rival theory of first principles. -F. H. Bradley "Appearance and Reality" 1893

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 May 2013 04:23:12PM 11 points [-]

Actually, it was someone asking what the heck I meant by "reality fluid", to which the answer is that I don't know either which is why I always call it "magical reality fluid". I mean, I could add in something that sounded impressive and might to some degree be helpful along the lines of "It's the mind-projection-fallacy conjugate of 'probability' as it appears inside hypotheses about collections of real things in which some real things are more predicted to happen to me than others for purposes of executing post-observation Bayesian updates, like, if the squared modulus rule appearing in the Born statistics reflected the quantity present of an actual kind of stuff" but I think saying, "It's magic, which is the mind-projection-fallacy conjugate of 'I'm confused'" would be wiser in a conversation like that. I think it's very important not to create the illusion of knowing more than you do, when you try to operate at the frontiers of your own ability to be coherent. At the same time, refusing to digress into metaphysics even to demarcate the things that confuse you, even to form ideas which can be explicitly incoherent rather than implicitly incoherent, is indeed to become the slave of the unexamined thought.

Comment author: maia 01 May 2013 08:08:17PM *  24 points [-]

When a problem comes along / You must whip it / Before the cream sets out too long / You must whip it / When something's goin' wrong / You must whip it

Now whip it / Into shape / Shape it up / Get straight / Go forward / Move ahead / Try to detect it / It's not too late / To whip it / Whip it good

-- Devo, on the value of confronting problems rather than letting them fester

Comment author: michaelkeenan 01 May 2013 04:48:52PM *  12 points [-]

Don't you understand anything about commitment, about being a pro, about sticking with what you say you wanna be? You don't do it just when you feel good. You don't do it just when you're not tired. You don't do it just when it's sunny. You do it every day of your life. You do it when it hurts to do it, when it's the last thing in the world that you wanna do, when there are a million reasons not to do it. You do it because you're a professional.

-- Teddy Atlas

Comment author: arborealhominid 03 May 2013 01:13:52PM *  16 points [-]

One of the biggest tasks, according to Gardner, was tracking information and beliefs back to their roots. This is always important, but especially in a field as rich in hearsay as herbal medicine. One little piece of information, or an unsubstantiated report, can grow and become magnified, quickly becoming an unquestioned truism. She used as an example the truism that the extracts of the herb Ginkgo Biloba might cause dangerous bleeding. Everyone says it can. The journalists say it. The doctors say it. The herbalists say it. Even I say it! It's nearly impossible to read a scientific paper on Ginkgo that doesn't mention this alleged danger. But why do we say it - where did the information come from? Turns out, there was one case report - of a single person - who couldn't clot efficiently after taking Ginkgo. Another 178 papers were published that mentioned this danger, citing only this one report. Those 178 papers were cited by over 4,100 other papers. So now we have almost 4-and-a-half thousand references in the scientific literature - not to mention the tens of thousands of references in the popular press - to the dangers of Ginkgo, all traceable back to a single person whose bleeding may or may not have been attributable to the herb.

-Adam Stark

Comment author: Morendil 03 May 2013 02:31:19PM *  14 points [-]

Upvoted initially because this seemed like a good example of what I've taken to calling a "leprechaun" - a fact that spreads in spite of limited empirical backing; however a quick Google search (fact-checking the fact-check, as it were) leads to this article which at the very least suggests that the second-hand story told above is somewhat exaggerated: the evidence for bleeding associated with Gingko Biloba is rather more solid than "one case report - of a single person". Upvote retracted, I'm afraid...

(ETA: also, the other story at that link makes for... interesting reading for a rationalist.)

Comment author: army1987 03 May 2013 12:03:52PM 16 points [-]

it is often better to pull numbers out of your arse and use them to make a decision, than to pull a decision out of your arse.

-- Paul Crowley

Comment author: wedrifid 03 May 2013 01:03:30PM 7 points [-]

it is often better to pull numbers out of your arse and use them to make a decision, than to pull a decision out of your arse.

How often? I can imagine this heuristic being better or worse depending on the details of which figures are chosen and how the are used.

Comment author: CCC 03 May 2013 02:19:48PM 12 points [-]

If I had to guess, I'd say that it's often better because picking a few random numbers leads to actually thinking about the decision for at least half a minute.

Comment author: orthonormal 04 May 2013 05:15:33PM 10 points [-]

In practice, guessing at numbers and running a calculation actually serves as a quick second opinion on your original intuitive decision. If the numbers imply something far different from the decision that System 1 is offering, I don't immediately shrug and go with the numbers: I notice that I am confused, and flag this as something where I need to consider the reliability both of the calculation and of my basic intuition. If the calculation checks out with my original intuition, then I simply go for it.

Basically, a heuristic utility calculation is a cheap error flag which pops up more often when my intuitions are out of step with reality than when they're in step with reality. That makes it incredibly valuable.

Comment author: DaFranker 03 May 2013 04:33:33PM 6 points [-]

of which figures are chosen and how the are used.

On first pass, I read this as "which figures are chosen and how the arse is used". That seemed oddly appropriate.

Comment author: jaibot 03 May 2013 08:37:14PM 17 points [-]

I figure it works better about 80% of the time, so I'm going to go with it.

Comment author: David_Gerard 04 May 2013 11:39:22AM 9 points [-]

This is a claim about reality. Do we actually know that pulling numbers out of your arse actually does produce better results than pulling the decisions out directly? Or does it just feel better, because you have a theory now?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 04 May 2013 07:29:45AM 2 points [-]

Does Paul Crowley fall under the recent clarification that the spirit of the quotes thread is against quoting LessWrong regulars?

Comment author: AlanCrowe 01 May 2013 02:17:44PM 15 points [-]

And I told her that no matter what the org chart said, my real bosses were a bunch of mice in cages and cells in a dish, and they didn’t know what the corporate goals were and they couldn’t be “Coached For Success”, the way that poster on the wall said.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 01 May 2013 07:31:02PM 3 points [-]

This doesn't really make sense. Just because the mice can't be coached for success, aren't aware of corporate goals, etc., it does not follow that they are one's "real bosses". Can the mice fire you? Can they give you a raise? Can they write you up for violations of corporate protocol? If you are having trouble with a coworker, can you appeal to the mice to resolve the issue? Do the mice, finally, decide what you work on? Your actual boss can take the mice away from you! Can the mice reassign you to a different boss?

Comment author: AlanCrowe 01 May 2013 09:35:53PM 26 points [-]

There is, perhaps, a word missing from the English language. If Derek Lowe were speaking, instead of writing, he would put an exaggerated emphasis on the word real and native speakers of English would pick up on a special, metaphorical meaning for the word real in the phrase real boss. The idea is that there are hidden, behind the scenes connections more potent (more real?) than the overt connections.

There is a man in a suit, call him the actual boss, who issues orders. Perhaps one order is "run the toxicology tests". The actual boss is the same as the real boss so far. Perhaps another order is "and show that the compound is safe." Now power shifts to the mice. If the compound poisons the mice and they die, then the compound wasn't safe. The actual boss has no power here. It is the mice who are the real boss. They have final say on whether the compound is safe, regardless of the orders that the actual boss gave.

Derek Lowe is giving us an offshoot of an aphorism by Francis Bacon: "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." Again the point is lost if one refuses to find a poetic reading. Nature accepts no commands; there are no Harry-Potter style spells. Nature issues no commands; we do not hear and obey, we just obey. (So why is Bacon advising us to obey?)

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 01 May 2013 11:29:43PM 0 points [-]

I'm afraid I just don't buy it. The distinguishing feature of one's boss is that this person has certain kinds of (formally recognized) power over you within your organization's hierarchy. No one thinks that their boss has the power to rearrange physical reality at a whim.

My objection to the quote as a rationality quote is that it reads like this: "Because my job performance may be affected by the laws of physical reality, which my boss is powerless to alter, he (the boss) in fact has no power over me!" Which is silly. It's a sort of sounds-like-wisdom that doesn't actually have any interesting insight. By this logic, no one has any legal/economic/social power over anyone else, and no one is anyone's boss, ever, because anything that anyone can do to anyone else is, in some way, limited by the laws of physics.

P.S. I think the Francis Bacon quote is either not relevant, or is equally vacuous (depending on how you interpret it). I don't think Bacon is "advising" us to obey nature. That would be meaningless, because we are, in fact, physically incapable of not obeying nature. We can't disobey nature — no matter how hard we try — so "advising" us to obey it is nonsense.

In a similar vein, saying that the mice have "the final say" on whether the compound is safe is nonsensical. The mice have no say whatsoever. The compound is either safe or not, regardless of the mice's wishes or decisions. To say that the have "the final say" implies that if they wished, they might say differently.

In short, I think a "poetic reading" just misleads us into seeing nonexistent wisdom in vacuous formulations.

Comment author: wylram 02 May 2013 12:19:25AM 14 points [-]

No one thinks that their boss has the power to rearrange physical reality at a whim.

It is a very common feature of bad bosses that they think they have the authority to order their underlings to rearrange physical reality. This seems to be exactly what's going on in the original post.

it reads like this: "Because my job performance may be affected by the laws of physical reality, which my boss is powerless to alter, he (the boss) in fact has no power over me!"

The fact that the speaker is addressing his boss directly changes the meaning a lot. I'd read it as "No matter what official authority you have, if you order me to violate the laws of physics then the laws of physics are going to win." Referring to the mice as his "real boss" is an attempt to explain why he's constrained by the nature of reality to someone who spends a lot more time thinking about org charts than about the nature of reality.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 02 May 2013 01:17:21AM 7 points [-]

This makes sense.

Comment author: pjeby 01 May 2013 08:11:29PM *  17 points [-]

When I argue with reality, I lose -- but only 100 percent of the time.

-- Byron Katie, Loving What Is

Comment author: lukeprog 14 May 2013 08:04:12PM 8 points [-]

You can't do much carpentry with your bare hands, and you can't do much thinking with your bare brain.

Bo Dahlbom

Comment author: endoself 01 May 2013 05:17:35PM 8 points [-]

If you find it strange that I make no use of the qualities one calls heat, cold, moistness, and dryness…, as the philosophers [of the schools] do, I tell you that these qualities appear to me to be in need of explanation, and if I am not mistaken, not only these four qualities, but also all the others, and even all of the forms of inanimate bodies can be explained without having to assume anything else for this in their matter but motion, size, shape, and the arrangement of their parts.

-- René Descartes

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 05 May 2013 03:49:28PM 27 points [-]

"Your third arrest, you go to jail for life." "Why the third?" "Because in a game a guy gets three times to swing a stick at a ball."

Hunter Felt

Comment author: elharo 31 May 2013 10:57:12AM *  3 points [-]

The most common mistake that people make in this regard is believing other people. For instance, a testimonial— whether it comes to you from a friend or blares out at you from a TV screen—is a poor criterion for determining truth.

A case in point is the experience of a writer for a popular fitness magazine who once wrote a facetious article about a “miracle supplement.” At the bottom of the page on which the article appeared, he had the magazine’s art department create a perforated square roughly the size of a postage stamp, next to which appeared the following recommendation: “For optimal muscle gains, cut out this little piece of paper and place it in a glass of water overnight. It contains a special mix of amino acids that are released in water over several hours. In the morning, remove the paper and place it on your tongue to allow the amino acids to enter your body.” He intended it as a joke, a last-minute bit of whimsy to fill a page where an advertisement had been withdrawn. His intention, however, was not communicated very well to the readers, as, within days of the magazine’s hitting the stands, the publisher was inundated with requests for “more of that awesome paper.” Many readers honestly believed that placing it on their tongues as instructed made their muscles bigger and stronger. This response is characteristic of the placebo effect, a demonstration of the power of suggestion, which impels people to buy all manner of things. If one of your friends or relatives happened to number among those who believed in this “miracle supplement,” he or she likely would have told you how “great” this product was, and you— if you put stock in testimonials—would probably have tried it.

-- Doug McDuff, M.D., and John Little, Body by Science, pp. ix-x

Comment author: [deleted] 20 May 2013 05:06:03PM *  3 points [-]

Rodger Cotes defending Newton from the charge that his theory treats gravity as an occult cause:

I can hear some people disagreeing with this conclusion and muttering something or other about occult qualities. They are always prattling on and on to the effect that gravity is something occult, and that occult causes are to be banished completely from philosophy. But it is easy to answer them: occult causes are not those causes whose existence is very clearly demonstrated by observations, but only those whose existence is occult, imagined, and not yet proved.

Therefore gravity is not an occult cause of celestial motions, since it has been shown from phenomena that this force really exists. Rather, occult causes are the refuge of those who assign the governing of these motions to some sort of vortices of a certain matter utterly fictitious and completely imperceptible to the senses.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 17 May 2013 12:59:23PM *  3 points [-]

-We can't go back. We don't understand everything yet.

-"Everything" is a little ambitious. We barely understand anything.

-Yeah. But that's what the first part of understanding everything looks like.

--from the ongoing animation xkcd: Time, dialogue transcript found here

Comment author: lukeprog 14 May 2013 08:05:57PM 3 points [-]

The stony path to truth is competing with seductive, easier paths that turn out to be dead ends.

Marcel Kinsbourne, quoted in Dennett (2013)

Comment author: Kawoomba 14 May 2013 08:10:55PM 8 points [-]

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Matthew 7:13-14

Comment author: grendelkhan 25 May 2013 07:50:06PM 11 points [-]

PROF. PLUM: What are you afraid of, a fate worse than death?
MRS. PEACOCK: No, just death; isn't that enough?

--Clue (1985)

Comment author: tingram 01 May 2013 09:21:16PM *  6 points [-]

To recognize that some of the things our culture believes are not true imposes on us the duty of finding out which are true and which are not.

--Allan Bloom, Giants and Dwarfs, "Western Civ"

Comment author: AlanCrowe 01 May 2013 10:10:12PM 6 points [-]

That clashes in an interesting way with the recent post on Privileging the Question. Let us draw up our own, independent list of things that matter. There will be some, high up our list, about which our culture has no particular belief. Our self imposed duty is to find out whether they are true or not, leaving less important, culturally prominent beliefs alone.

Culture changes and many prominent beliefs of our culture will fade away, truth unchecked, before we are through with more urgent matters.

Comment author: pjeby 01 May 2013 08:10:23PM *  6 points [-]

Reality, for me, is what is true. The truth is whatever is in front of you, whatever is really happening. Whether you like it or not, it's raining now. "It shouldn't be raining" is just a thought. In reality, there is no such thing as a "should" or a "shouldn't." These are only thoughts that we impose onto reality. The mind is like a carpenter's level. When the bubble is off to one side -- "It shouldn't be raining" -- we can know that the mind is caught in its thinking. When the bubble is right in the middle -- "It's raining" -- we can know that the surface is level and the mind is accepting reality as it is. Without the "should" and "shouldn't," we can see reality as it is, and this leaves us free to act efficiently, clearly, and sanely.

-- Byron Katie, Loving What Is

Comment author: katydee 13 May 2013 05:59:09PM 8 points [-]

if you have to choose between two explanations and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, choose the other one.

-Paul Graham

Comment author: katydee 01 May 2013 09:42:21AM 7 points [-]

I am also thankful that, once I had an appetite for philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of some so-called wise man, and that I did not waste my time publishing or attempting to solve logical puzzles, or busy myself with observing the sky.

-Marcus Aurelius

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 May 2013 04:42:45PM 3 points [-]

That's actually kind of sad. Hopefully times have changed since then.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 01 May 2013 06:42:45PM 31 points [-]

It's my understanding that Marcus Aurelius no longer voices this opinion.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 May 2013 05:08:50PM *  6 points [-]

And the people who preserved his words to reach us were more like wise men who watched the skies and solved the puzzle of cheaply distributing text, than like emperors or philosophers.

Comment author: DanArmak 01 May 2013 01:12:14PM 2 points [-]

Observing the sky is good and productive science. Perhaps he meant that as an emperor (or responsible senator, etc) he should not have been drawn into a serious scientific or philosophical career, but for those who can afford the time and effort, it's a fine pursuit.

Comment author: katydee 01 May 2013 04:08:43PM 11 points [-]

I was told that that part was actually a reference to astrology.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 18 May 2013 08:55:50AM *  4 points [-]

We are enormously indebted to those academics; what could be more advantageous in an intellectual contest--whether it be bridge, chess, or stock selection--than to have opponents who have been taught thinking is a waste of energy?

Warren Buffet on proponents of the efficient market hypothesis

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 06 May 2013 04:36:30AM 2 points [-]

"People don't pay much attention to anything unless you give them reason to"

--The Night Circus

Comment author: DanArmak 06 May 2013 04:08:01PM *  2 points [-]

People don't do anything unless they have a reason to - given a sufficiently broad definition of "reason".

Comment author: lukeprog 05 May 2013 08:06:46PM 5 points [-]

In Germany in 1911 the minimum requirement for a professor was a head circumference of 52 centimeters. This was used to discriminate against women; [one] leading medical physicist of the time stated: "We do not have to ask for the head circumference of women of genius — they do not exist." At the same time... a French scientist of note pointed out that, on average, women had brains which were closer in size to gorillas than they were to those of men! These serve as good examples of trying to use some sort of measure to come to the conclusion that was wanted... in the first place.

Kevin Warwick

Comment author: Nornagest 05 May 2013 09:55:21PM *  2 points [-]

I don't suppose you've got a cite for the central claim here? It's a decent enough example of reasoning from the bottom line whether or not it turns out to be true, but I Googled a couple different sets of keywords, and the only thing that came up besides a whole mess of birth records and obstetricians' papers was Warwick's lecture notes.

Comment author: Morendil 05 May 2013 11:12:07PM *  5 points [-]

Google turns up a source for the "women of genius" quote, a book "Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities" by D. Halpern. The book's quote is from someone named Bayertahl, and it's an indirect quotation from a 1989 article, "Sexual Dimorphism in the Human Brain: Dispelling the Myths" supposedly by a J. Janowsky. I say supposedly because looking for a fulltext leads me to a version with a similar title ("Sexual Dimorphism of the Human Brain: Myths and Realities") but is by M. A. Hofman and D. F. Swaab; it contains the Bayertahl quote in the original German and says that the primary source is this 1932 article by a Louis Bolk, "Hersenen en Cultuur" (Brains and Culture). This is also a full text, in Dutch; Google's translation seems to roughly confirm the claim as reported by Warwick (though the "women of genius" quote does not seem to appear in Bolk's article, at a first cursory glance).

Comment author: Stabilizer 02 May 2013 01:25:06AM 6 points [-]

When you have spoken the word, it reigns over you. When it is unspoken you reign over it.

-Arabian proverb

Comment author: cody-bryce 20 May 2013 02:39:50PM 3 points [-]

A not-entirely-different quote has been posted in the past

The words "I am..." are potent words; be careful what you hitch them to. The thing you're claiming has a way of reaching back and claiming you.

–A.L. Kitselman

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 May 2013 08:07:03PM 3 points [-]

...this seems exactly, diametrically wrong.

Comment author: Stabilizer 03 May 2013 08:22:31PM *  21 points [-]

Why do you say that? Many times, you say something publicly, it then becomes part of your identity, and after that there is a subconscious force that tries to make sure that your future actions and words are in line with what you said earlier.

Comment author: jaibot 03 May 2013 08:48:29PM *  3 points [-]

This is also what I take from the quote - before I state a belief out loud I have a much easier time adjusting and retracting it - once it's out there, I've got pride and status tied up with it being right. Once I realized this a few years ago I starting making a conscious effort to not say things out loud until I was extremely confident that I was right. I still make this mistake more often than I would like, but less frequently.

Comment author: wedrifid 04 May 2013 01:49:00AM 9 points [-]

...this seems exactly, diametrically wrong.

I would have said merely wrong. ie. When reversed it would still be stupidity. There seem to be both advantages and disadvantages to public expression with respect to it influencing you. Something along the lines of identity commitments on one side and the potential for denial, hypocrisy and lack of feedback on the other.

Comment author: khafra 06 May 2013 12:38:32PM 2 points [-]

I thought over verbal overshadowing when I read it.

Comment author: Dorikka 04 May 2013 09:35:26PM 2 points [-]

One of the things that I dislike about aphorisms is that they sometimes compress insight so much that it's not easy to see what they were actually saying. I intuitively think that this is sometimes done because sounding deeply wise is often high status.

Comment author: JQuinton 07 May 2013 03:49:32PM 4 points [-]

Time is a created thing. To say "I don't have time" is to say "I don't want to"

  • Lao Tzu
Comment author: gwern 07 May 2013 05:41:31PM 7 points [-]

Citation? I've read the Tao Teh Ching in a few translations and I don't recognize that at all; a Google and Google Books makes it sound like the usual apocrypha.

Comment author: wedrifid 07 May 2013 05:56:55PM *  3 points [-]

Time is a created thing. To say "I don't have time" is to say "I don't want to"

Lao Tzu

This is technically true for inclusive definitions of 'want' but highly misleading. There is a world of difference between "I want X but the opportunity cost (Y) is too great" and "I actively prefer !X". X and Y may be the prevention of parasitic worm infections and combating malaria. Precisely which limited resource is being allocated (time or money) changes little.

If "I don't have time" is to be replaced with an expression which conveys more personal acceptance of responsibility then it would be reasonable to translate it to "I have other priorities" but verging on disingenuous to translate it into "I don't want to".

Comment author: KnaveOfAllTrades 29 May 2013 10:54:46PM *  3 points [-]

An objection that can be brought against everything ought not to be brought against anything.

Lee Kelly.

Comment author: D_Malik 02 May 2013 05:43:14AM 5 points [-]

He who is firm in will molds the world to himself.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Hermann und Dorothea, IX. 303.

Comment author: CronoDAS 04 May 2013 09:58:35PM 6 points [-]

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

George Bernard Shaw

Comment author: gothgirl420666 03 May 2013 02:20:54AM *  4 points [-]

Can someone please explain to me how this is a rationality quote? (not sarcastic)

Comment author: wedrifid 03 May 2013 12:41:22PM *  4 points [-]

Can someone please explain to me how this is a rationality quote? (not sarcastic)

Seems to be along the lines of encouraging proactive agency. (Actively taking actions to optimise the world according to his preferences.) An instrumental rationality lesson.

(There are also less positive messages embedded there, which are a mix of anti-epistemology and dark arts, but I assume Malik is intending the instrumental message.)

Comment author: Nornagest 02 May 2013 05:48:38AM 2 points [-]

Nietzsche's hilariously intense (albeit somewhat tempestuous) intellectual crush on Goethe makes a little more sense to me now.

Comment author: timtyler 21 May 2013 11:59:35PM *  3 points [-]

Rationality is not the gold standard against which all other forms of thought are to be judged. Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged, along with all other forms of thought.

  • D. S. Wilson.
Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 05 May 2013 04:57:12PM 3 points [-]

Illustration of availability bias:

Baldrick: But then I will go to Hell forever for stealing.

Blackadder: Believe me, Baldrick, eternity in the company of Beelzebub, and all his hellish instruments of death, will be a picnic compared to five minutes with me... and this pencil.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVM4jR3TZsU

Comment author: pinyaka 06 May 2013 02:38:15PM 5 points [-]

Thus the availability bias defeats the Pascal mugging.

Comment author: lukeprog 14 May 2013 11:54:46PM 2 points [-]

If you attempt to make sense of the world of ideas and meanings, free will and morality, art and science and even philosophy itself without a sound and quite detailed knowledge of evolution, you have one hand tied behind your back.

Daniel Dennett

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 18 May 2013 08:52:33AM 5 points [-]

Does Dennett offer supporting arguments for this assertion?

Comment author: brainoil 02 May 2013 06:23:38AM 2 points [-]

"Take a step back. Look at the bigger picture. That's how you devour a whale. One bite at a time."

-Congressman Frank Underwood in the TV series House of Cards

Comment author: JQuinton 15 May 2013 04:24:09PM 2 points [-]

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

  • Hannah Arendt
Comment author: shminux 15 May 2013 05:31:10PM 2 points [-]

That's not true at all. It's those who made up their minds to be good but aren't who do the most evil.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 May 2013 04:58:39PM 2 points [-]

I'm not sure that's true in aggregate. I think most of the evil is done by people going along with things - like, if you talked to them about it for a while they'd concede that some aspects of what they were going along with were sort of questionable and maybe a bit bad, but they don't think about that spontaneously.

Comment author: arborealhominid 07 May 2013 01:46:04AM 1 point [-]

"If someone tells you their results before the results are gathered, be suspicious."

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 03 May 2013 03:45:45PM *  0 points [-]

The Spanish flu of 1918 killed 25-50 million people. World War II killed 60 million people; 107 is the order of the largest catastrophes in humanity’s written history. Substantially larger numbers, such as 500 million deaths, and especially qualitatively different scenarios such as the extinction of the entire human species, seem to trigger a different mode of thinking—enter into a ‘separate magisterium’. People who would never dream of hurting a child hear of an existential risk, and say, ‘Well, maybe the human species doesn’t really deserve to survive.’

Eliezer Yudkowsky, ‘Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgement of Global Risks’, in Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Ćirković (eds.), Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford, 2008, p. 114

Retracted because it violates the spirit of one of the section rules.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 03 May 2013 09:00:51PM *  11 points [-]

Can someone explain to me what is going on here? The comment is getting downvoted and Eliezer himself is telling me not to quote him (or so it appears--it's not clear whether he is being serious or not). Before deciding to post the comment, I read the instructions closely and it seemed clear that the quote--which comes from a published book, not from LW, OB, or HPMoR--didn't violate any of the rules. Maybe this is all obvious to those who post regularly on this section, but I am myself rather puzzled by the whole thing.

Comment author: wedrifid 04 May 2013 02:08:13AM *  14 points [-]

Can someone explain to me what is going on here?

You have the honour to have provoked the introduction of a new guideline (or a more explicit and precise modified version of an existing one). The norms shall henceforth be clearer to everyone. Bravo!

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 03 May 2013 09:20:26PM 11 points [-]

The spirit of the no-LW, OB, HPMoR rule is that the community shouldn't be quoting itself in quotes threads. That has a dangerous echo chamber-y feel to it.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 03 May 2013 09:25:54PM *  3 points [-]

Thanks. I didn't perceive that this was the spirit of the rule precisely because it was explicitly restricted to apply to writings from certain websites and ebooks. If the purpose is to ban quotes by (past and present) members of LessWrong, why not simply write, "No quotes by past or present members of LessWrong"?

Comment author: arundelo 03 May 2013 09:43:56PM 7 points [-]

There's a family resemblance effect going on here. Since Eliezer is the founder of the site, quoting him violates the spirit of the rule more strongly than quoting off-site writings of other Less Wrongers.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 May 2013 08:01:37PM 2 points [-]

Thou shalt not quote Yudkowsky.

Comment author: jaibot 03 May 2013 08:34:18PM *  15 points [-]

...how are we supposed to tell people about this rule?

Edit: Aw, I thought it was funny.

Comment author: Nornagest 03 May 2013 09:04:35PM 4 points [-]

Ever played Mao?

Comment author: shminux 03 May 2013 08:13:50PM *  3 points [-]

Is this a trivial extension of

Current restrictions are "Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, Overcoming Bias, or HPMoR."

to include SI/MIRI stuff or a new commandment?

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 03 May 2013 08:25:45PM 8 points [-]

I think that the purpose of the current instruction is to refrain from quoting ourselves and each other. So I'd see it as a trivial extension to understand that Eliezer and other well-known members of the community should not be used for a source for quotes.

Comment author: Kawoomba 03 May 2013 09:11:16PM 6 points [-]

Thou shalt not quote Yudkowsky.

Understood.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 May 2013 05:38:17AM 0 points [-]

Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.

-- Eric Hoffer

Comment author: Randy_M 06 May 2013 06:54:02PM 5 points [-]

Perhaps, but absolute power tends to be the more relevant one, as it definitionally also includes the means to persue the goals derived from absolute corruption.

I wonder where one could apply "Absolute" and not come up with a scary sounding conclusion. Absolute skepticism seems it would turn one into a gibbering madman. Absolute logic--well what is a dangerous AI but absolute logic plus power?

Comment author: DanielLC 07 May 2013 04:36:51AM 3 points [-]

Absolute goodness?

Anything else would be problematic. Making people smile is good. Tiling the universe with microscopic smiley faces is not.

Comment author: Benito 24 May 2013 08:52:10PM *  1 point [-]

"Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?" "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2