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Rationality Quotes April 2014

7 Post author: elharo 07 April 2014 05:25PM

Another month has passed and here is a new rationality quotes thread. The usual rules are:

  • 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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.

And one new rule:

  • Provide sufficient information (URL, title, date, page number, etc.) to enable a reader to find the place where you read the quote, or its original source if available. Do not quote with only a name.

Comments (654)

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 02 April 2014 11:21:01AM *  38 points [-]

It is easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them.

-- Alfred Adler

ADDED: Source: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Alfred_Adler

Quoted in: Phyllis Bottome, Alfred Adler: Apostle of Freedom (1939), ch. 5

Problems of Neurosis: A Book of Case Histories (1929)

Comment author: Benito 03 April 2014 08:10:35PM *  57 points [-]

Comedian Simon Munnery:

Many are willing to suffer for their art; few are willing to learn how to draw.

Comment author: JQuinton 01 April 2014 01:00:19PM 27 points [-]

Now, one basic principle in all of science is GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. This principle is particularly important in statistical meta-analysis: because if you have a bunch of methodologically poor studies, each with small sample size, and then subject them to meta-analysis, what can happen is that the systematic biases in each study — if they mostly point in the same direction — can reach statistical significance when the studies are pooled. And this possibility is particularly relevant here, because meta-analyses of homeopathy invariably find an inverse correlation between the methodological quality of the study and the observed effectiveness of homeopathy: that is, the sloppiest studies find the strongest evidence in favor of homeopathy. When one restricts attention only to methodologically sound studies — those that include adequate randomization and double-blinding, predefined outcome measures, and clear accounting for drop-outs — the meta-analyses find no statistically significant effect (whether positive or negative) of homeopathy compared to placebo.

Comment author: HungryHobo 02 April 2014 12:52:10PM 11 points [-]

A bigger danger is publication bias. collect 10 well run trials without knowing that 20 similar well run ones exist but weren't published because their findings weren't convenient and your meta-analysis ends up distorted from the outset.

Comment author: raisin 01 April 2014 04:09:29PM 7 points [-]

This principle is particularly important in statistical meta-analysis: because if you have a bunch of methodologically poor studies, each with small sample size, and then subject them to meta-analysis, what can happen is that the systematic biases in each study — if they mostly point in the same direction — can reach statistical significance when the studies are pooled.

Does anyone know how often this happens in statistical meta-analysis?

Comment author: gwern 01 April 2014 04:56:37PM *  22 points [-]

Fairly often. One strategy I've seen is to compare meta-analyses to a later very-large study (rare for obvious reasons when dealing with RCTs) and seeing how often the confidence interval is blown; usually much higher than it should be. (The idea is that the larger study will give a higher-precision result which is a 'ground truth' or oracle for the meta-analysis's estimate, and if it's later, it will not have been included in the meta-analysis and also cannot have led the meta-analysts into Milliken-style distorting their results to get the 'right' answer.)

For example: LeLorier J, Gregoire G, Benhaddad A, Lapierre J, Derderian F. "Discrepancies between meta-analyses and subsequent large randomized, controlled trials". N Engl J Med 1997;337:536e42

Results: We identified 12 large randomized, controlled trials and 19 meta-analyses addressing the same questions. For a total of 40 primary and secondary outcomes, agreement between the meta-analyses and the large clinical trials was only fair (kappa ϭ 0.35; 95% confidence interval, 0.06-0.64). The positive predictive value of the meta-analyses was 68%, and the negative predictive value 67%. However, the difference in point estimates between the randomized trials and the meta-analyses was statistically significant for only 5 of the 40 comparisons (12%). Furthermore, in each case of disagreement a statistically significant effect of treatment was found by one method, whereas no statistically significant effect was found by the other.

(You can probably dig up more results looking through reverse citations of that paper, since it seems to be the originator of this criticism. And also, although I disagree with a lot of it, "Combining heterogenous studies using the random-effects model is a mistake and leads to inconclusive meta-analyses", Al khalaf et al 2010.)

Comment author: Martin-2 18 April 2014 01:32:36AM *  6 points [-]

I'm not sure how much to trust these meta-meta analyses. If only someone would aggregate them and test their accuracy against a control.

Comment author: Desrtopa 01 April 2014 04:21:11PM 6 points [-]

As a percentage? No. But qualitatively speaking, "often."

The most recent book I read discusses this particularly with respect to medicine, where the problem is especially pronounced because a majority of studies are conducted or funded by an industry with a financial stake in the results, with considerable leeway to influence them even without committing formal violations of procedure. But even in fields where this is not the case, issues like non-publication of data (a large proportion of all studies conducted are not published, and those which are not published are much more likely to contain negative results) will tend to make the available literature statistically unrepresentative.

Comment author: ChristianKl 03 April 2014 01:55:43PM 2 points [-]

We can't know for certain. That's the idea of systematic biases. There no way to tell if all your trials are slanted in a specific fashion, if the biases also appears in your high quality studies.

On the other hand we have fields such as homeopathy or telephathy (Ganzfeld experiments) where there are meta-analysis that treat all studies mostly equally that find that homeopathy works and telepahty exist. On the other hand you have meta-analysis who try to filter out low quality studies who come to the conclusion that homeopathy doesn't work and telepathy doesn't exist.

Comment author: More_Right 26 April 2014 09:24:06AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 02 April 2014 05:53:47PM *  46 points [-]

The mathematician and Fields medalist Vladimir Voevodsky on using automated proof assistants in mathematics:

[Following the discovery of some errors in his earlier work:] I think it was at this moment that I largely stopped doing what is called “curiosity driven research” and started to think seriously about the future.


A technical argument by a trusted author, which is hard to check and looks similar to arguments known to be correct, is hardly ever checked in detail.


It soon became clear that the only real long-term solution to the problems that I encountered is to start using computers in the verification of mathematical reasoning.


Among mathematicians computer proof verification was almost a forbidden subject. A conversation started about the need for computer proof assistants would invariably drift to the Goedel Incompleteness Theorem (which has nothing to do with the actual problem) or to one or two cases of verification of already existing proofs, which were used only to demonstrate how impractical the whole idea was.


I now do my mathematics with a proof assistant and do not have to worry all the time about mistakes in my arguments or about how to convince others that my arguments are correct.

From a March 26, 2014 talk. Slides available here.

Comment author: wuncidunci 03 April 2014 08:26:53AM 6 points [-]

A video of the whole talk is available here.

Comment author: khafra 03 April 2014 01:53:38PM 4 points [-]

And his textbook on the new univalent foundations of mathematics in homotopy type theory is here.

Comment author: JeremyHahn 04 April 2014 06:23:43AM 6 points [-]

It is misleading to attribute that book solely to Voevodsky.

Comment author: JeremyHahn 04 April 2014 06:33:22AM 4 points [-]

Computer scientists seem much more ready to adopt the language of homotopy type theory than homotopy theorists at the moment. It should be noted that there are many competing new languages for expressing the insights garnered by infinity groupoids. Though Voevodsky's language is the only one that has any connection to computers, the competing language of quasi-categories is more popular.

Comment author: DanielLC 04 April 2014 03:04:51AM 2 points [-]

I know you're not supposed to quote yourself, but I came up with a cool saying about this a while back and I just want to share it.

Computer proof verification is like taking off and nuking the whole site from orbit: it's the only way to be sure.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 15 April 2014 11:43:31PM 14 points [-]

Encoded in the large, highly evolved sensory and motor portions of the human brain is a billion years of experience about the nature of the world and how to survive in it. The deliberate process we call reasoning is, I believe, the thinnest veneer of human thought, effective only because it is supported by this much older and much more powerful, though usually unconscious, sensorimotor knowledge. We are all prodigious olympians in perceptual and motor areas, so good that we make the difficult look easy. Abstract thought, though, is a new trick, perhaps less than 100 thousand years old. We have not yet mastered it. It is not all that intrinsically difficult; it just seems so when we do it.

Hans Moravec, Wikipedia/Moravec's Paradox

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 15 April 2014 11:44:57PM 10 points [-]

The main lesson of thirty-five years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard. The mental abilities of a four-year-old that we take for granted – recognizing a face, lifting a pencil, walking across a room, answering a question – in fact solve some of the hardest engineering problems ever conceived... As the new generation of intelligent devices appears, it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists, and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come.

Stephen Pinker, Wikipedia/Moravec's Paradox

Comment author: roystgnr 02 May 2014 03:24:14PM 2 points [-]

What was the ratio of phone time spent talking to human vs computer receptionists when Pinker published this quote in 2007? For that matter, how much non-phone time was being spent using a website to perform a transaction that would have previously required interaction with a human receptionist?

Pinker understood AI correctly (it's still way too hard to handle arbitrary interactions with customers), yet he failed to predict the present, much less the future, because he misunderstood the economics. Most interactions with customers are very non-arbitrary. If 10% need human intervention, then you put a human in the loop after the other 90% have been taken care of by much-cheaper software.

If you were to say "a machine can't do everything a horse can do", you'd be right, even today, but that isn't a refutation of the effect of automation on the economic prospects of equine labor.

Comment author: mushroom 05 April 2014 05:45:29AM 36 points [-]

Philosophers often behave like little children who scribble some marks on a piece of paper at random and then ask the grown-up "What's that?"- It happened like this: the grown-up had drawn pictures for the child several times and said "this is a man," "this is a house," etc. And then the child makes some marks too and asks: what's this then?

  • Wittgenstein, Culture and Value
Comment author: Dagon 17 April 2014 03:39:25PM 12 points [-]

But understanding human limitations does not mean we can overcome them. It only means we can’t pretend they don’t exist. It should point us toward humility, not hubris.

Yuval Levin in the National Review

Comment author: dspeyer 04 April 2014 02:26:23AM 44 points [-]

"It is one thing for you to say, ‘Let the world burn.' It is another to say, ‘Let Molly burn.' The difference is all in the name."

-- Uriel, Ghost Story, Jim Butcher

Comment author: Ixiel 04 April 2014 11:14:37AM *  35 points [-]

Slartibartfast: Perhaps I'm old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what's actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, "Hang the sense of it," and keep yourself busy. I'd much rather be happy than right any day.

Arthur Dent: And are you?

Slartibartfast: Well... no. That's where it all falls down, of course.

Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Comment author: anandjeyahar 10 April 2014 06:07:26PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for this one.. It's been some time since I re-read Douglas Adams , and had forgotten how good he can be. It makes so much sense reading this right after reading "Bind yourself to Reality". Had good long guffaw out of this one .:-)

Comment author: wadavis 15 April 2014 11:08:26PM *  8 points [-]

'There is of course the question of public safety,' said Vetinari. 'Did I hear you say earlier you have blown up... "one or three" I think was the phrase?"

'I made those explode a-purpose, to see exactly how it 'appened. That's the way to get knowledge, you see, sir.'

Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett

Regarding the first steam engine in Pratchett's fictional world.

Comment author: whales 02 April 2014 01:49:57AM *  22 points [-]

He said:

When you play bridge with beginners—when you try to help them out—you give them some general rules to go by. Then they follow the rule and something goes wrong. But if you'd had their hand you wouldn't have played the thing you told them to play, because you'd have seen all the reasons the rule did not apply.

from The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

Comment author: cousin_it 16 April 2014 10:22:07AM 21 points [-]

Being wrong about something feels exactly the same as being right about something.

-- many different people, most recently user chipaca on HN

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 17 April 2014 12:19:24AM *  3 points [-]

Hmm, what about such things as feeling that you need to defend the truth from criticism rather than find a way to explain it better? Or nagging doubts that you're ignoring, or a feeling that your opponents are acting the way they are because they're stupid or evil? Or wanting to censor someone else's speech? I take all these things as alarm signals.

A communist friend of mine once said, after I'd nailed her into a corner in a political argument about appropriate rates of pay during a fireman's strike, "Well under socialism there wouldn't be as many fires.". I reckon that there must be a feeling associated with that sort of thing.

Comment author: DanArmak 19 April 2014 07:21:58PM *  3 points [-]

Defending the truth from criticism also feels exactly the same as defending what you wrongly think is the truth from criticism.

The feelings you list correspond to very common ways people behave. So they're very weak evidence that you're wrong about something. Unless you're a trained rationalist who very rarely has these feelings / behaviors.

Most people first acquire a belief - whether by epistomologically legitimate ways or not - and then proceed to defend it, ignore contrary evidence and feel opponents to be stupid, because that's just the way most people deal with beliefs that are important to them.

Comment author: rule_and_line 16 April 2014 10:04:01PM *  3 points [-]

This is the most forceful version I've seen (assumed it had been posted before, discovered it probably hasn't, won't start a new thread since it's too similar):

But by definition, there can’t be any particular feeling associated with simply being wrong. Indeed, the whole reason it’s possible to be wrong is that, while it is happening, you are oblivious to it. When you are simply going about your business in a state you will later decide was delusional, you have no idea of it whatsoever. You are like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, after he has gone off the cliff but before he has looked down. Literally in his case and figuratively in yours, you are already in trouble when you feel like you’re still on solid ground. So I should revise myself: it does feel like something to be wrong. It feels like being right.

Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong

But I'm not comfortable endorsing either of these quotes without a comment.

chipaca's quote (and friends) suggest to me that

  • my "being wrong" and "being right" are complementary hypotheses, and
  • my subjective feelings are not evidence either way.

Schulz's quote (and book) suggest to me that

  • my "being wrong" is broadly and overwhelmingly true (my map is not the territory), and
  • my subjective feeling of being right is in fact evidence that I am very wrong.

I'd prefer to emphasize that "You are already in trouble when you feel like you’re still on solid ground," or said another way:

Becoming less wrong feels different from the experience of going about my business in a state that I will later decide was delusional.

Comment author: brazil84 19 April 2014 08:15:10PM 2 points [-]

Being wrong about something feels exactly the same as being right about something.

It occurs to me that "being wrong" can be divided into two subcategories -- before and after you start seeing evidence or arguments which undermine your position.

With practice, the feeling of being right and seeing confirming information can be distinguished from the feeling of being wrong and seeing undermining information. Unfortunately, the latter feeling is very uncomfortable and it is always tempting look for ways to lessen it.

Comment author: Benito 02 April 2014 06:15:24PM *  18 points [-]

“I propose we simply postpone the worrisome question of what really has a mind, about what the proper domain of the intentional stance is. Whatever the right answer to that question is—if it has a right answer—this will not jeopardize the plain fact that the intentional stance works remarkably well as a prediction method in these other areas, almost as well as it works in our daily lives as folk psychologists dealing with other people. This move of mine annoys and frustrates some philosophers, who want to blow the whistle and insist on properly settling the issue of what a mind, a belief, a desire is before taking another step. Define your terms, sir! No, I won’t. That would be premature. I want to explore first the power and the extent of application of this good trick, the intentional stance. Once we see what it is good for, and why, we can come back and ask ourselves if we still feel the need for formal, watertight definitions. My move is an instance of nibbling on a tough problem instead of trying to eat (and digest) the whole thing from the outset. “Many of the thinking tools I will be demonstrating are good at nibbling, at roughly locating a few “fixed” points that will help us see the general shape of the problem. In Elbow Room (1984a), o compared my method to the sculptor’s method of roughing out the form in a block of marble, approaching the final surfaces cautiously, modestly, working by successive approximation. Many philosophers apparently cannot work that way and have to secure (or so they think) the utterly fixed boundaries of their problems and possible solutions before they can venture any hypotheses.”

-Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Chapter 18 "The Intentional Stance" [Bold is original]

Reminded me of the idea of 'hacking away at the edges'.

Comment author: arundelo 04 April 2014 02:13:10PM 24 points [-]

Specifically, [these recent books that deal with parallel universes] argue that if some scientific theory X has enough experimental support for us to take it seriously, then we must take seriously also all its predictions Y, even if these predictions are themselves untestable (involving parallel universes, for example).

As a warm-up example, let's consider Einstein's theory of General Relativity. It's widely considered a scientific theory worthy of taking seriously, because it has made countless correct predictions -- from the gravitational bending of light to the time dilation measured by our GPS phones. This means that we must also take seriously its prediction for what happens inside black holes, even though this is something we can never observe and report on in Scientific American. If someone doesn't like these black hole predictions, they can't simply opt out of them and dismiss them as unscientific: instead, they need to come up with a different mathematical theory that matches every single successful prediction that general relativity has made -- yet doesn't give the disagreeable black hole predictions.

-- Max Tegmark, Scientific American guest blog, 2014-02-04

Comment author: eli_sennesh 06 April 2014 01:54:26PM 5 points [-]

I would think the first objection to that line of reasoning would be that we know General Relativity is an incomplete theory of reality and expect to find something that supersedes it and gives better answers regarding black holes.

Comment author: Stabilizer 01 April 2014 08:10:10PM 24 points [-]

How much of a disaster is this? Well, it’s never a disaster to learn that a statement you wanted to go one way in fact goes the other way. It may be disappointing, but it’s much better to know the truth than to waste time chasing a fantasy. Also, there can be far more to it than that. The effect of discovering that your hopes are dashed is often that you readjust your hopes. If you had a subgoal that you now realize is unachievable, but you still believe that the main goal might be achievable, then your options have been narrowed down in a potentially useful way.

-Timothy Gowers, on finding out a method he’d hoped would work, in fact would not.

Comment author: raisin 01 April 2014 03:45:37PM *  22 points [-]

Richard Feynmann claimed that he wasn't exceptionally intelligent, but that he focused all his energies on one thing. Of course he was exceptionally intelligent, but he makes a good point.

I think one way to improve your intelligence is to actually try to understand things in a very fundamental way. Rather than just accepting the kind of trite explanations that most people accept - for instance, that electricity is electrons moving along a wire - try to really find out and understand what is actually happening, and you'll begin to find that the world is very different from what you have been taught and you'll be able to make more intelligent observations about it.


reddit user jjbcn on trying to improve your intelligence

If you're not a student of physics, The Feynman Lectures on Physics is probably really useful for this purpose. It's free for download!


It seems like the Feynman lectures were a bit like the Sequences for those Caltech students:

The intervening years might have glazed their memories with a euphoric tint, but about 80 percent recall Feynman's lectures as highlights of their college years. “It was like going to church.” The lectures were “a transformational experience,” “the experience of a lifetime, probably the most important thing I got from Caltech.” “I was a biology major but Feynman's lectures stand out as a high point in my undergraduate experience … though I must admit I couldn't do the homework at the time and I hardly turned any of it in.” “I was among the least promising of students in this course, and I never missed a lecture. … I remember and can still feel Feynman's joy of discovery. … His lectures had an … emotional impact that was probably lost in the printed Lectures.”

Comment author: Benito 01 April 2014 07:35:28PM *  23 points [-]

Trying to actually understand what equations describe is something I'm always trying to do in school, but I find my teachers positively trained in the art of superficiality and dark-side teaching. Allow me to share two actual conversations with my Maths and Physics teachers from school.:

(Teacher derives an equation, then suddenly makes it into an iterative formula, with no explanation of why)

Me: Woah, why has it suddenly become an iterative formula? What's that got to do with anything?

Teacher: Well, do you agree with the equation when it's not an iterative formula?

Me: Yes.

Teacher: And how about if I make it an iterative formula?

Me: But why do you do that?

Friend: Oh, I see.

Me: Do you see why it works?

Friend: Yes. Well, no. But I see it gets the right answer.

Me: But sir, can you explain why it gets the right answer?

Teacher: Ooh Ben, you're asking one of your tough questions again.

(Physics class)

Me: Can you explain that sir?

Teacher: Look, Ben, sometimesnot understanding things is a good thing.

And yet to most people, I can't even vent the ridiculousness of a teacher actually saying this; they just think it's the norm!

Comment author: kpreid 01 April 2014 08:01:17PM 2 points [-]

What level of school?

Comment author: Nisan 03 April 2014 08:07:30PM 4 points [-]

Teacher: Look, Ben, something not understanding things is a good thing.


"Headmaster! " said Professor Quirrell, sounding genuinely shocked. "Mr. Potter has told you that this spell is not spoken of with those who cannot cast it! You do not press a wizard on such matters!"

Comment author: Benito 03 April 2014 08:16:52PM 2 points [-]

Amusing, although I'll point out that there are some subtle difference between a physics classroom and the MOR!universe. Or at least, I think there are...

Comment author: Nisan 03 April 2014 08:42:22PM 23 points [-]

I will only say that when I was a physics major, there were negative course numbers in some copies of the course catalog. And the students who, it was rumored, attended those classes were... somewhat off, ever after.

And concerning how I got my math PhD, and the price I paid for it, and the reason I left the world of pure math research afterwards, I will say not one word.

Comment author: Nornagest 03 April 2014 08:56:10PM 4 points [-]

Were there tentacles involved? Strange ethereal piping? Anything rugose or cyclopean in character?

Comment author: gwern 03 April 2014 09:54:23PM 28 points [-]

I think we can safely say there were non-Euclidean geometries involved.

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 04 April 2014 06:13:43PM 3 points [-]

Were there also course numbers with a non-zero complex part?

Comment author: eli_sennesh 06 April 2014 01:40:32PM *  2 points [-]

For every EY quote, there exists an equal and opposite ~~EY~~ PC Hodgell quote:

That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.

Comment author: hydkyll 02 April 2014 01:04:20AM 1 point [-]

Me: But sir, can you explain why it gets the right answer?

So you wanted to know not how to derive the solution but how to derive the derivation?

I wouldn't blame the teacher for not going there. There's not enough time in class to do something like that. Bringing the students to understand the presented math is hard enough. Describing the process of how this math was found, would take too long. Because especially for harder problems there were probably dozens of mathematicians who studied the problem for centuries in order to find those derivations that your teacher presents to you.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 April 2014 05:12:19PM *  9 points [-]

I wouldn't blame the teacher for not going there. There's not enough time in class to do something like that. 

What's wrong with saying something to the effect of "There's a theorem -- it's not really within the scope of this course, but if you're really interested it's called the fixed-point theorem, you can look it up on Wikipedia or somewhere"?

Comment author: Benito 02 April 2014 05:59:28PM *  7 points [-]

Derive the derivation? Huh? And you say that's different from 'understanding' it. No, I just didn't have the most basic of intuitive ideas as to why he suddenly made an iterated equation, and I didn't understand why it worked, at any level. It was all just abstract symbol manipulation with no content for me, and that's not learning.

Furthermore, he does have the time. We have nine hours a week. With a class size of four pupils.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 04 April 2014 11:56:23PM 4 points [-]

He may actually not know. People who teach maths are often not terribly good at it. Why don't you post the equation and the thing he turned it into? One of us will probably be able to see what is going on.

In all fairness, at university, being lectured by people whose job was maths research and who were truly world class at it, I remember similar happenings. Although they have subtler ways of telling you to shut up. Figuring out what's going on between the steps of a proof is half the fun and it tends to make your head explode with joy when you finally get it.

I just gave a couple of terms of first year maths lectures, stuff that I thought I knew well, and the effort of going through and actually understanding everything I was talking about turned what was supposed to be two hours a week into two days a week, so I can quite see why busy people don't bother. And in the process I found a couple of mistakes in the course notes (that of course get passed down from year to year, not rewritten from scratch with every new lecturer).

Comment author: [deleted] 02 April 2014 02:00:14AM *  6 points [-]

He doesn't have to give proofs. Just explaining the intuition behind each formula doesn't take that long and will help the students understand how and when to use them. Giving intuitions really isn't esoteric trivia for advanced students, it's something that will make solving problems easier for everyone relative to if they just memorized each individual case where each formula applies.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 April 2014 08:04:27PM 8 points [-]

I suspect this is typical mind fallacy at work. There are many students who either can't, or don't want to, learn mathematical intuitions or explanations. They prefer to learn a few formulas and rules by rote, the same way they do in every other class.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 April 2014 10:19:42AM *  26 points [-]

There are many students who either can't, or don't want to, learn mathematical intuitions or explanations. They prefer to learn a few formulas and rules by rote, the same way they do in every other class.

Former teacher confirming this. Some students are willing to spend a lot of energy to avoid understanding a topic. They actively demand memorization without understanding... sometimes they even bring their parents as a support; and I have seen some of the parents complaining in the newspapers (where the complaints become very unspecific, that the education is "too difficult" and "inefficient", or something like this).

Which is completely puzzling for the first time you see this, as a teacher, because in every internet discussion about education, teachers are criticized for allegedly insisting on memorization without understanding, and every layman seems to propose new ideas about education with less facts and more "critical thinking". So, you get the impression that there is a popular demand for understanding instead of memorization... and you go to classroom believing you will fix the system... and there is almost a revolution against you, outraged kids refusing to hear any explanations and insisting you just tell them the facts they need to memorize for the exams, and skip the superfluous stuff. (Then you go back to internet, read more complaints about how teachers are insisting that kids memorize the stuff instead of undestanding, and you just give up any hope of a sane discussion.)

My first explanation was that understanding is the best way, but memorization can be more efficient in short term, especially if you expect to forget the stuff and never use it again after the exam. Some subjects probably are like this, but math famously is not. Which is why math is the most hated subject.

Another explanation was that the students probably never actually had an experience of understanding something, at least not in the school, so they literally don't understand what I was trying to do. Which is a horrible idea, if true, but... that wouldn't make it less true, right? Still makes me think: Didn't those kids at least have an experience of something being explained by a book, or by a popular science movie? Probably most of them just don't read such books or watch those movies. -- I wonder what would happen if I just showed the kids some TED videos; would they be interested, or would they hate it?

By the way, this seems not related to whether the topic is difficult. Even explaining how easy things work can be met by resistance. This time not because it is "too difficult", but because "we should just skip the boring simple stuff". (Of course, skipping the boring simple stuff is the best recipe to later find the more advanced stuff too difficult.) I wonder how much impact here has the internet-induced attention deficit.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 04 April 2014 06:20:51PM 24 points [-]

Speaking as a student: I sympathize with Benito, have myself had his sort of frustration, and far prefer understanding to memorization... yet I must speak up for the side of the students in your experience. Why?

Because the incentives in the education system encourage memorization, and discourage understanding.

Say I'm in a class, learning some difficult topic. I know there will be a test, and the test will make up a big chunk of my grade (maybe all the tests together are most of my grade). I know the test will be such that passing it is easiest if I memorize — because that's how tests are. What do I do?

True understanding in complex topics requires contemplation, experimentation, exploration; "playing around" with the material, trying things out for myself, taking time to think about it, going out and reading other things about the topic, discussing the topic with knowledgeable people. I'd love to do all of that...

... but I have three other classes, and they all expect me to read absurd amounts of material in time for next week's lecture, and work on a major project apiece, and I have no time for any of those wonderful things I listed, and I have had four hours of sleep (and god forbid I have a job in addition to all of that) and I am in no state to deeply understand anything. Memorizing is faster and doesn't require such expenditures of cognitive effort.

So what do I do? Do I try to understand, and not be able to understand enough, in time for the test on Monday, and thus fail the class? Or do I just memorize, and pass? And what good do your understanding-based teaching techniques do me, if you're still going to give me tests and base my grade on them, and if the educational system is not going to allow me the conditions to make my own way to true understanding of the material?

None. No good at all.

Comment author: Benito 05 April 2014 09:06:48AM *  9 points [-]

Ah. I think this is why I'm finding physics and maths so difficult, even though my teachers said I'd find it easy. It's not just that the teachers have no incentive to make me understand, it's that because teachers aren't trained to teach understanding, when I keep asking for it, they don't know how to give it... This explains a lot of their behaviour.

Even when I've sat down one-on-one with a teacher and asked for the explanation of a piece of physics I totally haven't understood, they guy just spoke at me for five/ten minutes, without stopping to ask me if I followed that step, or even just to repeat what he'd said, and then considered the matter settled at the end without questions about how I'd followed it. The problem with my understanding was at the beginning as well, and when he stopped, he finished as if delivering the end of a speech, as though it were final. It would've been a little awkward for me to ask him to re-explain the first bit... I thought he was a bad teacher, but he's just never been incentivised to continually stop and check for understanding, after deriving the requisite equations.

And that's why my maths teacher can never answer questions that go under the surface of what he teaches... I think he'd be perfectly able to understand it on the level to give me an explanation, as when I push him he does, but otherwise...

His catchphrase in our classroom is "In twenty years of questioning, nobody's ever asked me that before." He then re-assures us that it's okay for us to have asked it, as he assumes we think that having asked a new question is a bad thing...

Edit: Originally said something arrogant.

Comment author: SkepticalExcitement 07 April 2014 03:29:51PM 3 points [-]

even though I should be top of the class.

Why do you think that?

Comment author: Benito 07 April 2014 08:28:01PM *  2 points [-]

Oops, I didn't mean to sound quite so arrogant, and I merely meant in the top bit of the class. If you do want to know my actual reasons for thinking so, off the top of my head I'd mention teachers saying so generally, teachers saying so specifically, performance in maths competitions, a small year group such that I know everyone in the class fairly well and can see their abilities, observation of marks (grades) over the past six years, and I get paid to tutor maths to students in lower years.

Still, edited.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 April 2014 10:09:06PM 5 points [-]

I had this experience in a context of high school, with no homework and no additional study at home.

Comment author: EHeller 17 April 2014 03:03:56AM 4 points [-]

Say I'm in a class, learning some difficult topic. I know there will be a test, and the test will make up a big chunk of my grade (maybe all the tests together are most of my grade). I know the test will be such that passing it is easiest if I memorize — because that's how tests are. What do I do?

This is not usually true in the context of physics. I recently taught a physics course, the final was 3 questions, the time limit was 3 hours. Getting full credit on a single question was enough for an A. Memorization fails if you've never seen a question type before.

Comment author: DanArmak 04 April 2014 09:18:44PM 10 points [-]

My first explanation was that understanding is the best way, but memorization can be more efficient in short term, especially if you expect to forget the stuff and never use it again after the exam. Some subjects probably are like this, but math famously is not. Which is why math is the most hated subject.

Another explanation was that the students probably never actually had an experience of understanding something, at least not in the school, so they literally don't understand what I was trying to do.

What do you think about these other possible explanations?

  1. Some of these students really can't learn to prove mathematical theorems. If exams required real understanding of math, then no matter how much these students and their teachers tried, with all the pedagogical techniques we know today, they would fail the exams.

  2. These students really have very unpleasant subjective experiences when they try to understand math, a kind of mental suffering. They are bad at math because people are generally bad at doing very unpleasant things: they only do the absolute minimum they can get away with, so they don't get enough practice to become better, and they also have trouble concentrating at practice because the experience is a bad one. Even if they can improve with practice, this would mean they'll never practice enough to improve. (You may think that understanding something should be more fun than rote learning, and this may be true for some of them, but they never get to actually understand enough to realize this for themselves.)

  3. The students are just time-discounting. They care more about not studying now, then about passing the exam later. Or, they are procrastinating, planning to study just before the exam. An effort to understand something takes more time in the short term than just memorizing it; it only pays off once you've understood enough things.

  4. The students, as a social group, perceive themselves as opposed to and resisting the authority of teachers. They can't usually resist mandatory things: attending classes, doing homework, having to pass exams; and they resent this. Whenever a teacher tries to introduce a study activity that isn't mandatory (other teachers aren't doing it), students will push back. Any students who speak up in class and say "actually I'm enjoying this extra material/alternative approach, please keep teaching it" would be betraying their peers. This is a matter of politics, and even if a teacher introduces non-mandatory or alternative techniques that are really objectively fun and efficient, students may not perceive them as such because they're seeing them as "extra study" or "extra oppression", not "a teacher trying to help us".

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 April 2014 10:04:46PM *  5 points [-]

It could be different explanations for different people. This said, options 1 and 2 seem to contradict with my experience that students object even against explaining relatively simple non-mathy things. My experience comes mostly from high school where I taught everything during the lessons, no homeword, no home study; this seems to rule out option 3.

Option 4 seems plausible, I just feel it is not the full explanation, it's more like a collective cooperation against something that most students already dislike individually.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 April 2014 12:22:11AM *  3 points [-]

I'm closer to the typical mind than most people here with regard to math. I deeply loved humanities and thought of math and mathy fields as completely sterile and lifeless up until late high school, when I first realized that there was more to math than memorizing formulas. And then boom it became fun and also dramatically easier. Before that I didn't reject the idea of learning using mathematical intuitions, I just had no idea that mathematical intuitions were a thing that could exist.

I suspect that most people learn school-things by rote simply because they don't realize that school-things can be learned another way. This is evidenced by how people don't choose to learn things they actually find interesting or useful by rote. There are quite a few people out there who think "book smarts" and "street smarts" are completely separate things and they just don't have book smarts because they aren't good at memorizing disjointed lists of facts.

Comment author: ChristianKl 02 April 2014 10:53:20AM *  4 points [-]

Because especially for harder problems there were probably dozens of mathematicians who studied the problem for centuries in order to find those derivations that your teacher presents to you.

In my school math education we had the standard that everything we learn get's proved. If you are not in the habit of proving math, students are not well prepared for doing real math in university which is about mathematical proofs.

In general the math that's not understood but memorized gets soon forgotten and is not worth teaching in the first place.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 April 2014 08:09:05PM *  2 points [-]

That's a great rule, but it still has to have limits. Otherwise you couldn't teach calculus without teaching number theory and set theory and probably some algebraic structures and mathematical logic too.

Comment author: ChristianKl 02 April 2014 10:52:59PM 3 points [-]

Otherwise you couldn't teach calculus without teaching number theory and set theory and probably some algebraic structures and mathematical logic too.

We actually did learn number theory, set theory, basic logic and algrebraic structures such as rings, groups and vector spaces.

In Germany every student has to select two subjects called "Leistungskurse" in which he gets more classes. In my case I selected math and physics which meant we had 5 hours worth of lessons in those subjects per week.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 02 April 2014 09:52:55PM *  4 points [-]

What is wrong with learning logic, set theory, and number theory before (or in the context of high school, instead of) calculus?

EDIT: Personally, I think going into computer science would have been easier if in high school I learned logic and set theory my last two years rather than trigonometry and calculus.

Comment author: DanArmak 04 April 2014 08:50:46PM *  4 points [-]

What is wrong with learning logic, set theory, and number theory before (or in the context of high school, instead of) calculus?

The thing that's wrong is exactly that it would indeed have to be instead of calculus. And then students would not pass the nationally mandated matriculation exams or university entry exams, which test knowledge of calculus. One part of the system can't change independently from the others. I agree that if you're going to teach just one field of math, then calculus is not the optimal choice.

I do believe that for every field that's taught in highschool, the most important theories and results should be taught: evolution, genetics, cell structure and anatomy in biology; Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism and relativity in physics (QM probably requires too much math for any high-school program); etc.

There won't be time to prove and fully explain everything that's being shown, because time is limited, and it's better that all the people in our society know about classical mechanics and EM and relativity, than that they know about just one of them but have studied and reproduced enough experiments to demonstrate that that one theory is true compared to all alternatives of similar complexity.

And similarly, I think it would be better if everyone knew about the fundamental results of all the important fields of math, than being able to prove a lot of theorems in a couple of fields on highschool exams but not getting to hear a lot of other fields.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 01 April 2014 04:44:19PM 6 points [-]

I've noticed that one of the biggest thing holding me back in math/physics is an aversion to thinking too hard/long about math and physics problems. It seems to me that if I was able to overcome this aversion and math was as fun as playing video games I'd be a lot better at it.

Comment author: Lumifer 01 April 2014 05:13:57PM 18 points [-]

if I was able to overcome this aversion and math was as fun as playing video games

Good video games are designed to be fun, that is their purpose. Math, um, not so much.

Comment author: Aleksander 16 April 2014 07:36:44PM 4 points [-]

Only a small fraction of math has practical applications, the majority of math exists for no reason other than thinking about it is fun. Even things with applications had sometimes been invented before those applications were known. So in a sense most math is designed to be fun. Of course it's not fun for everyone, just for a special class of people who are into this kind of thing. That makes it different from Angry Birds. But there are many games which are also only enjoyed by a specific audience, so maybe the difference is not that fundamental. A large part of the reason the average person doesn't enjoy math is that unlike Angry Birds math requires some effort, which is the same reason the average person doesn't enjoy League Of Evil III.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 01 April 2014 05:30:17PM 3 points [-]

And at least some math instructors effectively teach that if you aren't already finding (their presentations of) math fascinating, that you must just not be a Math Person.

Comment author: ChristianKl 02 April 2014 11:04:55AM 8 points [-]

Math is a bit like liftening weights. Sitting in front of a heavy mathematical problem is challenging. The job of a good teacher isn't to remove the challenge. Math is about abstract thinking and a teacher who tries to spare his students from doing abstract thinking isn't doing it right.

Deliberate practice is mentally taxing.

The difficult thing as a teacher is to motivate the student to face the challenge whether the challenge is lifting weights or doing complicated math.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 April 2014 10:37:53AM *  3 points [-]

The job of a good teacher isn't to remove the challenge.

The job of a good teacher is to find a slightly less challenging problem, and to give you that problem first. Ideally, to find a sequence of problems very smoothly increasing in difficulty.

Just like a computer game doesn't start with the boss fight, although some determined players would win that, too.

Comment author: ChristianKl 04 April 2014 01:10:29PM *  3 points [-]

The job of a good teacher is to find a slightly less challenging problem, and to give you that problem first. Ideally, to find a sequence of problems very smoothly increasing in difficulty.

No. Being good at math is about being able to keep your attention on a complicated proof even if it's very challenging and your head seems like it's going to burst.

If you want to build muscles you don't slowly increase the amount of weight and keep it at a level where it's effortless. You train to exhaustion of given muscles.

Building mental stamina to tackle very complicated abstract problems that aren't solvable in five minutes is part of a good math education.

Deliberate practice is supposed to feel hard. A computer game is supposed to feel fun. You can play a computer game for 12 hours. A few hours of delibrate practice are on the other usually enough to get someone to the rand of exhaustion.

If you only face problems in your education that are smooth like a computer game, you aren't well prepared for facing hard problems in reality. A good math education teaches you the mindset that's required to stick with a tough abstract problem and tackle it head on even if you can't fully grasp it after looking 30 minutes at it.

You might not use calculus at your job, but if your math education teaches you the ability to stay focused on hard abstract problems than it fulfilled it's purpose.

You can teach calculus by giving the student concrete real world examples but that defeats the point of the exercise. If we are honest most students won't need the calculus at their job. It's not the point of math education. At least in the mindset in which I got taught math at school in Germany.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 April 2014 05:38:11PM *  5 points [-]

If you want to build muscles you don't slowly increase the amount of weight and keep it at a level where it's effortless. 

You don't put on so much weight than you couldn't possibly lift it, either (nor so much weight that you could only lift it with atrocious form and risk of injury, the analogue of which would be memorising a proof as though it was a prayer in a dead language and only having a faulty understanding of what the words mean).

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 April 2014 10:51:45PM 2 points [-]

Yes, memorizing proof isn't the point. You want to derive proofs. I think it's perfectly fine to sit 1 hours in front of a complicated proof and not be able to solve the proof.

A ten year old might not have that mental stamia, but a good math education should teach it, so it's there by the end of school.

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 01 April 2014 10:47:57PM 14 points [-]

You have to want to be a wizard.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 06 April 2014 01:51:08PM 4 points [-]

Plenty of us took the Wizard's Oath as kids and still have a hard time in math classes sometimes.

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 06 April 2014 01:55:14PM *  5 points [-]

I think everyone has trouble in math class, eventually.

Comment author: gwern 02 May 2014 10:39:27PM 4 points [-]

Thinking for a long time is one of the classic descriptions of Newton; from John Maynard Keynes's "Newton, the Man":

He parted with and published nothing except under the extreme pressure of friends. Until the second phase of his life, he was a wrapt, consecrated solitary, pursuing his studies by intense introspection with a mental endurance perhaps never equalled. I believe that the clue to his mind is to be found in his unusual powers of continuous concentrated introspection. A case can be made out, as it also can with Descartes, for regarding him as an accomplished experimentalist. Nothing can be more charming than the tales of his mechanical contrivances when he was a boy. There are his telescopes and his optical experiments, These were essential accomplishments, part of his unequalled all-round technique, but not, I am sure, his peculiar gift, especially amongst his contemporaries. His peculiar gift was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it. I fancy his pre-eminence is due to his muscles of intuition being the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted. Anyone who has ever attempted pure scientific or philosophical thought knows how one can hold a problem momentarily in one's mind and apply all one's powers of concentration to piercing through it, and how it will dissolve and escape and you find that what you are surveying is a blank. I believe that Newton could hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret. Then being a supreme mathematical technician he could dress it up, how you will, for purposes of exposition, but it was his intuition which was pre-eminently extraordinary - 'so happy in his conjectures', said De Morgan, 'as to seem to know more than he could possibly have any means of proving'. The proofs, for what they are worth, were, as I have said, dressed up afterwards - they were not the instrument of discovery.

Comment author: JoshuaFox 17 April 2014 07:34:13AM 5 points [-]

that he focused all his energies on one thing

He brags shamelessly about his wide variety of interests: Drumming, lockpicking, PUA, biology, Tana Tuva, etc.

Comment author: waveman 14 May 2014 11:51:03AM 2 points [-]

The Feynman divorce:

...the appointee’s wife was granted a divorce from him because of appointee’s constantly working calculus problems in his head as soon as awake, while driving car, sitting in living room, and so forth, and that his one hobby was playing his African drums. His ex-wife reportedly testified that on several occasions when she unwittingly disturbed either his calculus or his drums he flew into a violent rage, during which time he attacked her, threw pieces of bric-a-brac about and smashed the furniture.

Comment author: raisin 17 April 2014 02:37:11PM 2 points [-]

You're right.

Comment author: rstarkov 15 April 2014 01:59:37PM 2 points [-]

Indeed, terse "explanations" that handwave more than explain are a pet peeve of mine. They can be outright confusing and cause more harm than good IMO. See this question on phrasing explanations in physics for some examples.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 04 April 2014 01:24:36AM 20 points [-]

Today is already the tomorrow which the bad economist yesterday urged us to ignore.

-- Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson

Comment author: RichardKennaway 30 April 2014 11:30:38AM 5 points [-]

Imagine, then, that a man should need to get fire from a neighbour, and, upon finding a big bright fire there, should stay there continually warming himself; just so it is if a man comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own, but, delighting in the discourse, sits enchanted; he gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy.

Plutarch, "De Auditu" (On Listening), a chapter of his Moralia.

This essay is also the original source of the much-quoted line "The mind is not a pot to be filled, but a fire to be ignited." It is variously attributed, but is a fair distillation of the original passage, which comes directly before the quote above:

For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.

Comment author: aarongertler 04 April 2014 05:55:35PM *  26 points [-]

"Throughout the day, Stargirl had been dropping money. She was the Johnny Appleseed of loose change: a penny here, a nickel there. Tossed to the sidewalk, laid on a shelf or bench. Even quarters.

"I hate change," she said. "It's so . . . jangly."

"Do you realize how much you must throw away in a year?" I said.

"Did you ever see a little kid's face when he spots a penny on a sidewalk?”

Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl

Comment author: aarongertler 04 April 2014 05:56:29PM 17 points [-]

So as to keep the quote on its own, my commentary:

This passage (read at around age 10) may have been my first exposure to an EA mindset, and I think that "things you don't value much anymore can still provide great utility for other people" is a powerful lesson in general.

Comment author: roryokane 18 April 2014 01:26:11AM *  19 points [-]

“If only there were irrational people somewhere, insidiously believing stupid things, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and mock them. But the line dividing rationality and irrationality cuts through the mind of every human being. And who is willing to mock a piece of his own mind?”

(With apologies to Solzhenitsyn).

– Said Achmiz, in a comment on Slate Star Codex’s post “The Cowpox of Doubt”

Comment author: Vaniver 18 April 2014 04:04:42PM 3 points [-]

The original quotation on LW.

Comment author: Cyan 03 April 2014 05:59:38PM *  24 points [-]

It is, in fact, a very good rule to be especially suspicious of work that says what you want to hear, precisely because the will to believe is a natural human tendency that must be fought.

- Paul Krugman

Comment author: James_Miller 01 April 2014 10:57:23PM *  18 points [-]

“Anything outside yourself, this you can see and apply your logic to it." She said. "But it’s a human trait that when we encounter personal problems, those things most deeply personal are the most difficult to bring out for our logic to scan. We tend to flounder around, blaming everything but the actual, deep-seated thing that’s really chewing on us.”

Jessica speaking to Thufir Hawat in Frank Herbert's Dune

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 05 April 2014 12:49:12AM 10 points [-]

I assume that the reader is familiar with the idea of extrasensory perception, and the meaning of the four items of it, viz., telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis. These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming.

Alan Turing (from "Computing Machinery and Intelligence")

Comment author: gwern 02 May 2014 11:09:30PM 4 points [-]

Particularly relevant a quote given Yvain's recent http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/04/28/the-control-group-is-out-of-control/

Comment author: DanArmak 06 April 2014 04:47:42PM 2 points [-]

Can you provide some context? I don't understand: the claim that the evidence for telepathy is very strong is surely wrong, so is this sarcasm? A wordplay?

Comment author: fubarobfusco 07 April 2014 07:19:24AM 4 points [-]

Turing's 1950 paper asks, "Can machines think?"

After introducing the Turing Test as a possible way to answer the question (in, he expects, the positive), he presents nine possible objections, and explains why he thinks each either doesn't apply or can be worked around. These objections deal with such topics as souls, Gödel's theorem, consciousness, and so on. Psychic powers are the last of these possible objections: if an interrogator can read the mind of a human, they can identify a human; if they can psychokinetically control the output of a computer, they can manipulate it.

From the context, it does seem that Turing gives some credence to the existence of psychic powers. This doesn't seem all that surprising for a British government mathematician in 1950. This was the era after the Rhines' apparently positive telepathy research — and well before major organized debunking of parapsychology as a pseudoscience (which started in the '70s with Randi and CSICOP). Governments including the US, UK, and USSR were putting actual money into ESP research.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 07 April 2014 03:02:43PM 3 points [-]

Yes, but also remember that Turing's English, shy, and from King's College, home of a certain archness and dry wit. I think he's taking the piss, but the very ambiguity of it was why it appealed as a rationality quote. He's facing the evidence squarely, declaring his biases, taking the objection seriously, and yet there's still a profound feeling that he's defying the data. Or maybe not. Maybe I just read it that way because I don't buy telepathy.

Comment author: wuncidunci 08 April 2014 01:50:24PM *  8 points [-]

Hodges claims that Turing at least had some interest in telepathy and prophesies:

These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming. It is very difficult to rearrange one’s ideas so as to fit these new facts in. Once one has accepted them it does not seem a very big step to believe in ghosts and bogies. The idea that our bodies move simply according to the known laws of physics, together with some others not yet discovered but somewhat similar, would be the first to go.

Readers might well have wondered whether he[Turing] really believed the evidence to be ‘overwhelming’, or whether this was a rather arch joke. In fact he was certainly impressed at the time by J .B. Rhine’s claims to have experimental proof of extra-sensory perception. It might have reflected his interest in dreams and prophecies and coincidences, but certainly was a case where for him, open-mindedness had to come before anything else; what was so had to come before what it was convenient to think. On the other hand, he could not make light, as less well-informed people could, of the inconsistency of these ideas with the principles of causality embodied in the existing ‘laws of physics’, and so well attested by experiment.

Alan Turing: The Enigma (Chapter 7)

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 19 April 2014 10:43:41AM 4 points [-]

I think Turing's willingness to take all comers seriously is something to emulate.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 02 April 2014 01:10:14AM 16 points [-]

I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.

G. K. Chesterton, attributed.

Comment author: Stabilizer 02 April 2014 01:13:37AM 5 points [-]

Upvoted. I would've preferred the following version:

I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday only because it is Thursday.

Comment author: Benito 03 April 2014 08:11:56PM 2 points [-]

Might someone offer an explanation of this to me?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 03 April 2014 08:55:27PM *  14 points [-]

On its own I can think of several things that these words might be uttered in order to express. A little search turns up a more extended form, with a claimed source:

My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.

Said to be by G.K. Chesterton in the New York Times Magazine of February 11, 1923, which appears to be a real thing, but one which is not online. According to this version, he is jibing at progressivism, the adulation of the latest thing because it is newer than yesterday's latest thing.

ETA: Chesterton uses the same analogy, in rather more words, here.

If I advance the thesis that the weather on Monday was better than the weather on Tuesday (and there has not been much to choose between most Mondays and Tuesdays of late), it is no answer to tell me that the time at which I happen to say so is Tuesday evening, or possibly Wednesday morning.

It is vain for the most sanguine meteorologist to wave his arms about and cry: “Monday is past; Mondays will return no more; Tuesday and Wednesday are ours; you cannot put back the clock.” I am perfectly entitled to answer that the changing face of the clock does not alter the recorded facts of the barometer.

Comment author: Vaniver 03 April 2014 09:31:29PM 8 points [-]

It is vain for the most sanguine meteorologist to wave his arms about and cry: “Monday is past; Mondays will return no more; Tuesday and Wednesday are ours; you cannot put back the clock.” I am perfectly entitled to answer that the changing face of the clock does not alter the recorded facts of the barometer.

Note that this accentuates the relevance of a detail that might be skipped over in the original quote- that Thursday comes after Wednesday. That is, this may be intended as a dismissal of the 'all change is progress' position or the 'traditions are bad because they are traditions' position.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 09 April 2014 07:32:50AM 5 points [-]

Not to mention the people who think accusing their opponents of being "on the wrong side of history" constitutes an argument.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 09 April 2014 07:55:32AM 2 points [-]

So you are not going to argue that history has shown that socialism has failed?

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 09 April 2014 08:05:32AM 3 points [-]

That's using history as evidence. What I was complaining about is closer to the people who declare that all opponents of a change that they plan to implement (or at best have only implemented at most several decades ago) are "on the wrong side of history".

Comment author: William_Quixote 11 April 2014 12:39:14PM 1 point [-]

I think you may not be interpreting the phrase "the wrong side of history" as people who say it mean it. 

There a classic saying that "

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." Max Planck


Effectively there's a position that's obviously correct but there are also people who are just too hidebound and change averse to recognize it and progress can't be made until they die off. But progress will be made because the position is correct. When you tell someone they are on the wrong side of history you are reminding them they are behaving like one of the old men that Plank mentions.  Put another way, what it's saying is "if you look at people who don't come from the past and don't have large status quo bias you will notice a trend". 

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 05 April 2014 06:50:49AM *  15 points [-]

...the utility of a thought experiment is inversely proportional to the size of its departure from reality.

-- Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 16 April 2014 12:02:42AM 6 points [-]

Are we sure about this? Einstein's idea of riding along with a light beam was super-useful and physically impossible in principle. Whereas the experiment I just thought of where I pour my cup of tea on my trousers I can almost not be bothered to do.

Comment author: Vulture 16 April 2014 08:09:29PM *  7 points [-]

Ceteris paribus, then. On average, a thought experiment along the lines of "what if I poured this stuff on my trousers" is of much more practical use and tells you much more about reality than a thought experiment along the lines of "what if I could ride around on [intangible thing]". The most realistic thought experiments are the ones we do all the time, often without thinking, and which help us decide, for example, not to balance that cup of tea right on the edge of the table. Meanwhile, only very clever scientists and philosophers with lots of training can wring anything useful out of really far-out "what if I rode on a beam of light"-type thought experiments, and even they screw it up all the time and are generally well-advised not to base a conclusion solely on such a thought experiment. As I understand it, Einstein's successful use of gedankenexperiments to come up with good new ideas is generally considered evidence of his exceptional cleverness.

(note: I know very little about this topic and may be playing very fast and loose. I think the main idea is sensible, though)

Comment author: Stabilizer 25 April 2014 09:56:38PM 2 points [-]

This is funny. Until I read your comment, I was misreading the original quote; I didn't notice the "inversely" part. I was implicitly thinking that the quote was claiming that the farther the thought experiment is from reality, the more useful it is. I guess my physicist biases are showing.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 26 April 2014 12:22:07PM 3 points [-]

I think that's my point! It sounds just as profound without the 'inversely'.

Comment author: jaime2000 01 April 2014 02:24:24PM 15 points [-]

There is an important difference between “We don’t know all the answers yet” and “Do what feels right, man.” These questions have answers, because humans have biochemistry, and we should do our best to find them and live by the results.

~J. Stanton, "The Paleo Identity Crisis: What Is The Paleo Diet, Anyway?"

Comment author: Lumifer 01 April 2014 03:01:43PM 6 points [-]

These questions have answers, because humans have biochemistry

But the answers might be specific to each individual because the biochemistry of humans is not exactly the same.

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 April 2014 09:16:28PM 3 points [-]

It not at all clear that someone who knows all the biochemistry will outperform someone who's good at feeling what goes on in his body.

In the absence of good measurement instruments feelings allow you to respond to specific situations much better than theoretical understanding.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 05 April 2014 12:43:58AM 8 points [-]

I am told that the natural feeling for gravity and balance is worse than useless to a pilot.

Comment author: Vaniver 05 April 2014 12:49:55AM 3 points [-]

I am told that the natural feeling for gravity and balance is worse than useless to a pilot.

I am told this as well.

Comment author: somnicule 09 April 2014 11:13:15AM 20 points [-]

“Even if it's not your fault, it's your responsibility.”

Comment author: Brillyant 15 April 2014 09:55:38PM 7 points [-]

This is a great tagline for the doctrine of Original Sin.

Comment author: DanArmak 19 April 2014 07:36:03PM 3 points [-]

"Even if it's not your fault, it's your punishment."

Comment author: Ixiel 14 April 2014 03:37:41PM 11 points [-]

If the best minds were in charge of designing a bridge, I would expect the bridge to hold up well even in a storm. If the best minds were in charge of designing an airplane, I would expect it to fly reliably. But if the best minds were in charge of something no one really knows how to do, I would be ready for a failure, albeit a failure with superb academic credentials.

Terry Coxon

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 26 April 2014 10:16:30AM 6 points [-]

It has come to be accepted practice in introducing new physical quantities that they shall be regarded as defined by the series of measuring operations and calculations of which they are the result. Those who associate with the result a mental picture of some entity disporting itself in a metaphysical realm of existence do so at their own risk; physics can accept no responsibility for this embellishment.

Sir Arthur Eddington, 1939, The Philosophy of Physical Science

Comment author: lukeprog 09 April 2014 02:02:46AM 12 points [-]

There is nothing that can be said by mathematical symbols and relations which cannot also be said by words. The converse, however, is false. Much that can be and is said by words cannot be put into equations — because it is nonsense.

Clifford Truesdell

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 15 April 2014 11:53:36PM 4 points [-]

This is beautiful: I can't turn it into equations. Does that refute it or support it?

Comment author: The_Duck 19 April 2014 06:53:00AM 1 point [-]

I can't turn it into equations.

Did you try? Each sentence in the quote could easily be expressed in some formal system like predicate calculus or something.

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 01 April 2014 02:36:23PM *  7 points [-]

The representatives of the scientific world-conception resolutely stand on the ground of simple human experience. They confidently approach the task of removing the metaphysical and theological debris of millennia. Or, as some have it: returning, after a metaphysical interlude, to a unified picture of this world which had, in a sense, been at the basis of magical beliefs, free from theology, in the earliest times.

The increase of metaphysical and theologizing leanings which shows itself today in many associations and sects, in books and journals, in talks and university lectures, seems to be based on the fierce social and economic struggles of the present: one group of combatants, holding fast to traditional social forms, cultivates traditional attitudes of metaphysics and theology whose content has long since been superseded; while the other group, especially in central Europe, faces modern times, rejects these views and takes its stand on the ground of empirical science. This development is connected with that of the modern process of production, which is becoming ever more rigorously mechanised and leaves ever less room for metaphysical ideas. It is also connected with the disappointment of broad masses of people with the attitude of those who preach traditional metaphysical and theological doctrine. So it is that in many countries the masses now reject these doctrines much more consciously than ever before, and along with their socialist attitudes tend to lean towards a down-to-earth empiricist view. In previous times, materialism was the expression of this view; meanwhile, however, modern empiricism has shed a number of inadequacies and has taken a strong shape in the scientific world-conception.

Thus, the scientific world-conception is close to the life of the present. Certainly it is threatened with hard struggles and hostility. Nevertheless there are many who do not despair but, in view of the present sociological situation, look forward with hope to the course of events to come. Of course not every single adherent of the scientific world-conception will be a fighter. Some, glad of solitude, will lead a withdrawn existence on the icy slopes of logic; some may even disdain mingling with the masses and regret the ‘trivialized’ form that these matters inevitably take on spreading. However, their achievements too will take a place among the historic developments. We witness the spirit of the scientific world-conception penetrating in growing measure the forms of personal and public life, in education, upbringing, architecture, and the shaping of economic and social life according to rational principles. The scientific world-conception serves life, and life receives it.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 30 April 2014 10:59:34PM *  5 points [-]

I'm tired of coherent nonsense!

-- Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 16 April 2014 10:32:50PM 6 points [-]

Our recent research into team behavior [...] reveals an interesting paradox: Although teams that are large, virtual, diverse, and composed of highly educated specialists are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done. To put it another way, the qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success. Members of complex teams are less likely—absent other influences—to share knowledge freely, to learn from one another, to shift workloads flexibly to break up unexpected bottlenecks, to help one another complete jobs and meet deadlines, and to share resources—in other words, to collaborate. They are less likely to say that they “sink or swim” together, want one another to succeed, or view their goals as compatible.

Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams by Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson

This seems applicable as the LessWrong community is "large, virtual, diverse, and composed of highly educated specialists" and the community wants to solve challenging projects.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 02 April 2014 01:21:46AM 15 points [-]

A BS detection Heuristic.

You can tell if a discipline is BS if the degree depends severely on the prestige of the school granting it. I remember when I applied to MBA programs being told that anything outside the top 10 or 20 would be a waste of time. On the other hand a degree in mathematics is much less dependent on the shool (conditional on being above a certain level, so the heuristic would apply to the differene betwewn top 10 and top 2000 schools).

The same applies to research papers. In math and physics, a result posted on arXiv (with a minimum hurdle) is fine. In low quality fields like academic finance (where almost all academics are charlatans and all papers some form of complicated storytelling), the "prestige" of the journal is the sole criterion.

Nassim Taleb

Comment author: [deleted] 02 April 2014 01:29:04AM 5 points [-]

I think, by this standard, law is a BS discipline. But I'm not sure what to make of that.

Comment author: Baughn 02 April 2014 09:09:08PM 12 points [-]

Well - law is, in a strict sense, entirely about convincing other humans that your interpretation is correct.

Whether or not it actually is correct in a formal sense is entirely screened off by that prime requirement, and so you probably shouldn't be surprised that all methods used by humans to convince other humans, in the absence of absolute truth, are applied. :)

Comment author: brazil84 13 April 2014 04:03:28PM 5 points [-]

Well - law is, in a strict sense, entirely about convincing other humans that your interpretation is correct.

Would that include drafting a fire code for buildings? Would it include negotiating a purchase and sale agreement for a business? Would it include filing a lawsuit for unpaid wages? Would it include advising a client about the possible consequences of taking a particular tax deduction?

It's hard to see how it would, and yet all of these things are regularly done by lawyers in the course of their work.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 13 April 2014 05:16:02PM 1 point [-]

Well - law is, in a strict sense, entirely about convincing other humans that your interpretation is correct.

In a narrow, rather than a strict sense. In that same narrow sense:

  • science is about convincing other humans that your experiments are correct

  • art is about convincing other humans that what you have made is art

  • parenting is about convincing other humans that you are a good parent

  • working for a living is about convincing other humans to pay you a living

  • competitions are about convincing other humans that you have won

  • teaching is about convincing other humans that you are teaching

  • being intelligent is about convincing other humans that you are intelligent

  • living is about convincing other humans that you are not yet dead

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 16 April 2014 12:44:42AM *  3 points [-]

parenting is about convincing other humans that you are a good parent

What if you convince everyone that you're a good parent while poisoning your child?

And everyone else can believe you're dead and you can still be alive. In fact sometimes in order to live you have to convince everyone you're dead.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 16 April 2014 05:31:20AM 2 points [-]

What if you convince everyone that you're a good parent while poisoning your child?

Quite. Those were all intended to be bad arguments. Bad at a caricature level of badness. But Poe's law, I guess.

Comment author: More_Right 26 April 2014 10:09:37AM 3 points [-]

I think Spooner got it right:

If the jury have no right to judge of the justice of a law of the government, they plainly can do nothing to protect the people against the oppressions of the government; for there are no oppressions which the government may not authorize by law.

-Lysander Spooner from "An Essay on the Trial by Jury"

There is legitimate law, but not once law is licensed, and the system has been recursively destroyed by sociopaths, as our current system of law has been. At such a point in time, perverse incentives and the punishment of virtue attracts sociopaths to the study and practice of law, and drives out all moral and decent empaths from its practice. If not driven out, it renders them ineffective defenders of the good, while enabling the prosecutors who hold the power of "voir dire" jury-stacking to be effective promoters of the bad.

The empathy-favoring nature of unanimous, proper (randomly-selected) juries trends toward punishment only in cases where 99.9% of society nearly-unanimously agree on the punishment, making punishment rare. ...As it should be in enlightened civilizations.

Distrust those in whom the desire to punish is strong

 — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Comment author: Eugine_Nier 03 April 2014 06:43:03AM 4 points [-]

Interesting. There are famous cases of self-taught lawyers from previous centuries.

I wonder if this says something bad about the modern legal system. Maybe the modern legal system is less about making arguments based on how the law works (or should work) than about the lawyer signaling high status to the judge so that he rules in your favor.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 April 2014 01:37:32PM *  2 points [-]

than about the lawyer signaling high status to the judge so that he rules in your favor.

I don't think I have good reason to think this is the case. At any rate, it's clear enough that the prestige bit seems to come in heavily in hiring decisions, so let's just talk about that. How, in the ideal case, do you think lawyers would be evaluated for jobs? Off hand, I can't think of anything a lawyer could produce to show that she's a good hire.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 16 April 2014 12:35:41AM 2 points [-]

I'm not a lawyer, and English law is different from American, but I reckon that I can tell the difference between good and bad lawyers by talking to them for a while about various cases in their speciality and listening to them explain the various arguments and counter-arguments.

I've heard people who make a good living from the law make incoherent wishful-thinking type arguments about which way a case should have gone, when I can see perfectly well how the judge was compelled to the conclusion that he came to. I wouldn't want such a person defending me.

Presumably if you are yourself a good lawyer, it shouldn't be too difficult to do this. The law is fairly logical and rigorous.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 16 April 2014 01:35:31AM 2 points [-]

I've heard people who make a good living from the law make incoherent wishful-thinking type arguments about which way a case should have gone, when I can see perfectly well how the judge was compelled to the conclusion that he came to. I wouldn't want such a person defending me.

Well, if his "reality distortion field" was powerful enough to also affect judges.

Comment author: Jiro 03 April 2014 06:05:23PM 4 points [-]

There are famous cases of self-taught specialists in scientific fields, too. There aren't so many of them nowadays. That's because both the law and science are in a state where a practitioner must know a lot of details that didn't exist as part of the field in earlier days.

Comment author: shminux 03 April 2014 08:55:16PM *  7 points [-]

This seems false in physics. Prestige of your institution matters. Prestige of the journal matters, too. Arxiv is fine, Physical Reviews is better, PRL is better yet. Nature/Science is so high, if you publish something that is not perceived as top-quality, you may get resented by others for status jumping. And there are plenty of journals which only get to publish second- and third-rate results.

Of course, the usual countersignaling caveat applies: once you have enough status, posting on Arxiv is enough, you will get read. Not submitting to journals can be seen as a sign of status, though I don't think the field is there (yet).

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 04 April 2014 02:43:10AM 9 points [-]

My understating is that this effect is a lot smaller in physics than in the humanities.

Comment author: VAuroch 05 April 2014 04:48:38AM 4 points [-]

By that standard, all academic disciplines are BS disciplines.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 April 2014 05:38:51PM 7 points [-]

Edited OP to make it clear that you can provide a link to the place you found the quote, rather than needing to track down an authoritative original source.

Comment author: lionhearted 08 April 2014 11:03:13PM 5 points [-]

On thrust work, drag work, and why creative work is perpetually frustrating --

"Each individual creative episode is unsustainable by its very nature. As a given episode accelerates, surpassing the sustainable long term trajectory, the thrust engine overwhelms the available supporting capabilities. ... Just as momentum build to truly exciting levels…some new limitation appears squelching that momentum. ...The problem is that you outran your supporting capabilities and that deficit became a source of drag. Perhaps you didn’t have systems in place to capture leads. Perhaps you lacked the bandwidth necessary to follow up on all the new opportunities. Perhaps, due to lack of experience, you pursued the wrong opportunities. Perhaps you just didn’t know what to do next – you outran your existing knowledge base. In one way or another new varieties of drag emerge. The accelerating curve you had been riding becomes unsustainable and you find yourself mired in the slow build of the next episode. This is what we experience as anti-climax and temporary stagnation." -- Greg Raider, from his essay "A Pilgrimage Through Stagnation and Acceleration"

The whole piece is worth reading, it's really good -- http://onthespiral.com/pilgrimage-through-stagnation-acceleration

Hat tip to Zach Obront for linking me to it originally.

Comment author: fezziwig 02 April 2014 12:22:31AM 5 points [-]

"There are people out there that call themselves Cooks. But that doesn't make them Cooks. They say they're Cooks because they've heard about Cooks and they want to be Cooks. But they're not. Do you understand that?"

"Scip, where you think org'nizations come from? If they say they're Cooks and they do people like Cooks, that makes 'em goddam Cooks."

"Cooks are a specific thing, Reagan, not an idea."

"You don't even think they're real!"

"They don't have to be real to have a definition."

-- Reagan and Scipio debate the nature of definitions. From Templar, Arizona

Comment author: Armok_GoB 17 May 2014 08:18:34PM 5 points [-]

It wasn’t easier, the ghost explains, you just knew how to do it. Sometimes the easiest method you know is the hardest method there is.

It’s like… to someone who only knows how to dig with a spoon, the notion of digging something as large as a trench will terrify them. All they know are spoons, so as far as they’re concerned, digging is simply difficult. The only way they can imagine it getting any easier is if they change – digging with a spoon until they get stronger, faster, and tougher. And the dangerous people, they’ll actually try this.

Everyone who will ever oppose you in life is a crazy, burly dude with a spoon, and you will never be able to outspoon them. Even the powerful people, they’re just spooning harder and more vigorously than everyone else, like hungry orphan children eating soup. Except the soup is power. I’ll level with you here: I have completely lost track of this analogy.

What I’m saying, giant talking cat, is that everyone is stupid. They attain a narrow grasp of reality and live their life as though there is nothing else. But you, me, creatures with imagination – we aren’t constrained by our experiences. We’re inspired by them. If we have trouble digging with a spoon, we build a shovel. If we’re stopped by a wall, we make a door. And if we can’t make a door, we ask ourselves whether we really need an opening to pass through something solid in the first place.

You point out that you’re not a ghost, and that you do need an opening to pass through solid objects.

No – that’s your mistake, he replies. That’s why you’re still not thinking like a witchhunter. You’re trying to do things right, and that’s wrong. Mysticism means taking a step back – accepting that the very laws of reason and logic you abide by are merely one option of many. It means knowing you only see half the picture in a world where everyone else thinks they see the whole thing. It means having the sheer arrogance to have humility.

That’s why I’m saying you have to think like a witchhunter. You have to be a little wrong to be completely right – to abandon truth in favor of questioning falsehood. If you think something’s the easiest way, you have to know you’re wrong. You have to understand how to stand against the very stance of understanding! You have to know you are inferior; that your knowledge and perceptions will never stand up to the true scope of all possible reality. You have to be a little further from perfect, and embrace that notion.

Source: http://www.prequeladventure.com/2014/05/3391/

Comment author: elharo 01 April 2014 11:30:09AM *  8 points [-]

it's like arguing that fairies are coming out of my toaster in the middle of the night. You can't prove to me that there aren't fairies in my toaster, but that doesn't mean you should take me seriously. What I have a problem with is not so much religion or god, but faith. When you say you believe something in your heart and therefore you can act on it, you have completely justified the 9/11 bombers. You have justified Charlie Manson. If it's true for you, why isn't it true for them? Why are you different? If you say "I believe there's an all-powerful force of love in the universe that connects us all, and I have no evidence of that but I believe it in my heart," then it's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that Sharon Tate deserves to die. It's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that you need to fly planes into buildings for Allah.

--Penn Jillette in "Penn Jillette Is Willing to Be a Guest on Adolf Hitler's Talk Show, Vanity Fair, June 17, 2010

Comment author: Mestroyer 01 April 2014 08:20:23PM 17 points [-]

This quote seems like it's lumping every process for arriving at beliefs besides reason into one. "If you don't follow the process I understand and is guaranteed not to produce beliefs like that, then I can't guarantee you won't produce beliefs like that!" But there are many such processes besides reason, that could be going on in their "hearts" to produce their beliefs. Because they are all opaque and non-negotiable and not this particular one you trust not to make people murder Sharon Tate, does not mean that they all have the same probability of producing plane-flying-into-building beliefs.

Consider the following made-up quote: "when you say you believe something is acceptable for some reason other than the Bible said so, you have completely justified Stalin's planned famines. You have justified Pol Pot. If it's acceptable for for you, why isn't it acceptable for them? Why are you different? If you say 'I believe that gays should not be stoned to death and the Bible doesn't support me but I believe it in my heart', then it's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that dissidents should be sent to be worked to death in Siberia. It's perfectly okay to believe because your secular morality says so that all the intellectuals in your country need to be killed."

I would respond to it: "Stop lumping all moralities into two classes, your morality, and all others. One of these lumps has lots of variation in it, and sub-lumps which need to be distinguished, because most of them do not actually condone gulags"

And likewise I respond to Penn Jilette's quote: "Stop lumping all epistemologies into two classes, yours, and the one where people draw beliefs from their 'hearts'. One of these lumps has lots of variation in it, and sub-lumps which need to be distinguished, because most of them do not actually result in beliefs that drive them to fly planes into buildings."

The wishful-thinking new-age "all powerful force of love" faith epistemology is actually pretty safe in terms of not driving people to violence who wouldn't already be inclined to it. That belief wouldn't make them feel good. Though of course, faith plus ancient texts which condone violence can be more dangerous, though as we know empirically, for some reason, people driven to violence by their religions are rare these days, even coming from religions like that.

Comment author: Nate_Gabriel 02 April 2014 01:30:26PM *  3 points [-]

I don't think it's lumping everything together. It's criticizing the rule "Act on what you feel in your heart." That applies to a lot of people's beliefs, but it certainly isn't the epistemology of everyone who doesn't agree with Penn Jillette.

The problem with "Act on what you feel in your heart" is that it's too generalizable. It proves too much, because of course someone else might feel something different and some of those things might be horrible. But if my epistemology is an appeal to an external source (which I guess in this context would be a religious book but I'm going to use "believe whatever Rameses II believed" because I think that's funnier), then that doesn't necessarily have the same problem.

You can criticize my choice of Rameses II, and you probably should. But now my epistemology is based on an external source and not just my feelings. Unless you reduce me to saying I trust Rameses because I Just Feel that he's trustworthy, this epistemology does not have the same problem as the one criticized in the quote.

All this to say, Jillette is not unfairly lumping things together and there exist types of morality/epistemology that can be wrong without having this argument apply.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 April 2014 08:22:25PM *  3 points [-]

The problem with "Act on what you feel in your heart" is that it's too generalizable. It proves too much, because of course someone else might feel something different and some of those things might be horrible. But if my epistemology is an appeal to an external source (which I guess in this context would be a religious book but I'm going to use "believe whatever Rameses II believed" because I think that's funnier), then that doesn't necessarily have the same problem.

'Act on an external standard' is just as generalizable - because you can choose just about anything as your standard. You might choose to consistently act like Gandhi, or like Hitler, or like Zeus, or like a certain book suggests, or like my cat Peter who enjoys killing things and scratching cardboard boxes. If the only thing I know about you is that you consistently behave like someone else, but I don't know like whom, then I can't actually predict your behavior at all.

The more important question is: if you act on what you feel in your heart, what determines or changes what is in your heart? And if you act on an external standard, what makes you choose or change your standard?

Comment author: Mestroyer 02 April 2014 03:46:24PM 2 points [-]

The problem with "Act on what you feel in your heart" is that it's too generalizable. It proves too much, because of course someone else might feel something different and some of those things might be horrible.

It looks like there's all this undefined behavior, and demons coming out the nose from the outside because you aren't looking at the exact details of what's going on in with their feelings that are choosing the beliefs. Though a C compiler given an undefined construct may cause your program to crash, it will never literally cause demons to come out of your nose, and you could figure this out if you looked at the implementation of the compiler. It's still deterministic.

As an atheistic meta-ethical ant-realist, my utility function is basically whatever I want it to be. It's entirely internal. From the outside, from someone who has a system where they follow something external and clearly specified, they could shout "Nasal demons!", but demons will never come out my nose, and my internal, ever so frighteningly non-negotiable desires are never going to include planned famines. It has reliable internal structure.

The mistake is looking at a particular kind of specification that defines all the behavior, and then looking at a system not covered by that specification, but which is controlled by another specification you haven't bothered to understand, and saying "Who can possibly say what that system will do?"

Some processors (even x86) have instructions (such as bit rotate) which are useful for significant performance boosts in stuff like cryptography, and yet aren't accessible from C or C++, and to use it you have to perform hacks like writing the machine code out as bytes, casting its address to a function pointer and calling it. That's undefined behavior with respect to the C/C++ standard. But it's perfectly predictable if you know what platform you're on.

Other people who aren't meta-ethical anti-realists' utility functions are not really negotiable either. You can't really give them a valid argument that will convince them not to do something evil if they happen to be psychopaths. They just have internal desires and things they care about, and they care a lot more about having a morality which sounds logical when argued for than I do.

And if you actually examine what's going on with the feelings of people with feeling-driven epistemology that makes them believe things, instead of just shouting "Nasal demons! Unspecified behavior! Infinitely beyond the reach of understanding!" you will see that the non-psychopathic ones have mostly-deterministic internal structure to their feelings that prevents them from believing that they should murder Sharon Tate. And psychopaths won't be made ethical by reasoning with them anyway. I don't believe the 9/11 hijackers were psychopaths, but that's the holy book problem I mentioned, and a rare case.

In most cases of undefined C constructs, there isn't another carefully-tuned structure that's doing the job of the C standard in making the behavior something you want, so you crash. And faith-epistemology does behave like this (crashing, rather than running hacky cryptographic code that uses the rotate instructions) when it comes to generating beliefs that don't have obvious consequences to the user. So it would have been a fair criticism to say "You believe something because you believe it in your heart, and you've justified not signing your children up for cryonics because you believe in an afterlife," because (A) they actually do that, (B) it's a result of them having an epistemology which doesn't track the truth.

Disclaimer: I'm not signed up for cryonics, though if I had kids, they would be.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 07 April 2014 06:51:14AM 3 points [-]

my utility function is basically whatever I want it to be.

I very much doubt that. At least with present technology you cannot self-modify to prefer dead babies over live ones; and there's presumably no technological advance that can make you want to.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 07 April 2014 07:47:32AM 2 points [-]

my utility function is basically whatever I want it to be.

If utility functions are those constructed by the VNM theorem, your utility function is your wants; it is not something you can have wants about. There is nothing in the machinery of the theorem that allows for a utility function to talk about itself, to have wants about wants. Utility functions and the lotteries that they evaluate belong to different worlds.

Are there theorems about the existence and construction of self-inspecting utility functions?

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 April 2014 10:20:27PM 1 point [-]

Though of course, faith plus ancient texts which condone violence can be more dangerous

That means you can actually make people less harmful if you tell them to listen to their hearts instead of listening to ancient texts. The person who's completely in their head and analyses the ancient text for absolute guidance of action is dangerous.

A lot of religions also have tricks were the believer has to go through painful exercises. Just look at a Christian sect like Opus Dei with cilices. The kind of religious believer who wears a cilice loses touch with his heart. Getting someone who's in the habit of causing his own body pain with a cilice to harm other people is easier.

Comment author: DanArmak 01 April 2014 06:36:14PM 8 points [-]

Mr. Potter, in the end people all do what they want to do. Sometimes people gives names like 'right' to the things they want to do, but how could we possibly act on anything but our own desires?

-- Rational!Quirrel, HPMoR chapter 20

In other words: how else can you justify a moral belief and consequent actions, except by saying that you really truly believe in your heart that you're Right?

We should not confuse between the fact that almost all people other than Manson think he was morally wrong, and the fact that his justification for his action seems to me to be of the same kind as the justifications anyone else ever gives for their moral beliefs and actions.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 01 April 2014 09:14:54PM *  6 points [-]

Unlike Quirrell, Penn Jillette is not referring to "knowing in your heart" that your moral values are correct, but to "knowing in your heart" some matters of fact (which may then serve as a justification for having some moral values, or directly for some action).

Comment author: Randy_M 01 April 2014 10:39:35PM 5 points [-]

In what way is "deserve" a matter of fact?

Comment author: DanArmak 02 April 2014 08:16:04AM 2 points [-]

If you're a moral realist, and you think moral opinions are statements of fact (which may be right or wrong), then you think it's possible to "know in your heart" moral "facts".

If you're a moral anti-realist (like me), and you think moral opinions are statements of preferences (in other words, statements of fact about your own preferences and your own brain-wiring), then all moral opinions are such. And then surely Manson's statement of his preferences has the same status as anyone else's, and the only difference is that most people disagree with Manson.

What else is there?

However, it's true that Jillette talks about factual amoral beliefs like fairies and gods. So my comment was somewhat misdirected. I still think it's partly relevant, because people who believe in gods (i.e. most people) usually tie them closely to their moral opinions. It's impossible to discuss morals (of most humans) without discussing religious beliefs.

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 April 2014 12:25:42PM 1 point [-]

You have justified Charlie Manson. If it's true for you, why isn't it true for them?

That leaves the question of how Penn actually knows that Chalie Manson was acting based on what his heart was telling him.

Psychopaths are frequently bad at empathy or "listening to their hearts". It might even be the defining characteristic of what makes someone a psychopath.

Comment author: Benito 22 April 2014 09:30:04PM 4 points [-]

Whilst arguing that uncertainty is best measured using numbers and probabilities:

We want to measure uncertainties in order to combine them. A politician said that he preferred adverbs to numbers. Unfortunately it is difficult to combine adverbs.

  • Dennis V. Lindley, Understanding Uncertainty
Comment author: Eugine_Nier 02 April 2014 01:20:23AM 5 points [-]

Instead of journalism progressing into becoming more scientific, it is that science that is becoming more an more journalistic.

Nassim Taleb

Comment author: shminux 29 April 2014 03:05:31PM 3 points [-]

I reject the concept of "me" as some sort of static thing. Instead I see my moist robot container as something I can manipulate to engineer my mood to the situation. There are times when having more ego is useful. There are times when it is better to be humble. I jack my body chemistry as needed.

Scott Adams on consciously controlling your own moods and feelings

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 02 April 2014 01:18:13AM 4 points [-]

General Principle: the solutions (on balance) need to be simpler than the problems.

(Otherwise the system collapses under its complexity).

Nassim Taleb

Comment author: wisnij 07 April 2014 08:40:29PM 3 points [-]

Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it.

Donald Knuth on the difference between theory and practice.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 08 April 2014 08:32:00AM 3 points [-]
Comment author: B_For_Bandana 03 April 2014 12:27:32AM *  2 points [-]

(Edited to add context)

Context: The speakers work for a railroad. An important customer has just fired them in favor of a competitor, the Phoenix-Durango Railroad.

Jim Taggart [Company president, antagonist]: "What does he expect? That we drop all our other shippers, sacrifice the interests of the whole country and give him all our trains?"

Eddie Willers [Junior exec, sympathetic character]: "Why, no. He doesn't expect anything. He just deals with the Phoenix-Durango."

  • Atlas Shrugged

It gets at the idea talked about here sometimes that reality has no obligation to give you tests you can pass; sometimes you just fail and that's it.

ETA: On reflection, what I think the quote really gets at is that Taggart cannot understand that his terminal goals may be only someone else's instrumental goals, that other people are not extensions of himself. Taggart's terminal goal is to run as many trains as possible. If he can help a customer, then the customer is happy to have Taggart carry his freight, and Taggart's terminal goal aligns with the customer's instrumental goal. But the customer's terminal goal is not to give Taggart Inc. business, but just to get his freight shipped. If the customer can find a better alternative, like competing railroad, he'll switch. For Taggart, of course, that is not a better alternative at all, hence his anger and confusion.

(Apologies for lack of context initially).

Comment author: Cyan 03 April 2014 06:11:28PM 9 points [-]

Without context, it's a bit difficult to see how this is a rationality quote. Not everyone here has read Atlas Shrugged...

Comment author: gwern 03 April 2014 09:19:07PM 3 points [-]

I've read AS a while ago, and I still don't remember enough of the context to interpret this quote...

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 02 April 2014 09:48:40PM *  2 points [-]

-- Meta --

Shouldn't this be in Main rather than Discussion? I PM'ed the author, but didn't get a response.

EDIT: Thanks.

Comment author: More_Right 26 April 2014 10:20:24AM 2 points [-]

The ultimate result of shielding men from the results of folly is to fill the world with fools.

 — Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), ”State Tampering with Money and Banks“ (1891)
Comment author: DanArmak 26 April 2014 04:32:51PM *  5 points [-]

Or with smart people who profit at the state's expense when it rescues fools from their mistakes. If it's known that folly has no adverse results, people will take more risks.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 29 April 2014 06:33:24AM 2 points [-]

While this is true, it may also be the case that humans in the default state don't take enough risks. Indeed, an inventor or entrepreneur bears all the costs of bankruptcy but captures only some of the benefits of a new business. By classical economic logic, then, risk-taking is a public good, and undersupplied. Which said, admittedly, not all risk-taking is created equal.

Comment author: Lumifer 29 April 2014 02:52:44PM 7 points [-]

Indeed, an inventor or entrepreneur bears all the costs of bankruptcy

That's exactly wrong. Bankruptcy releases the entrepreneur from his obligations and transfers the costs to his creditors.

Not to say that the bankruptcy is painless, but its purpose is precisely to lessen the consequences of failure.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 April 2014 01:26:52PM *  2 points [-]

Indeed, an inventor or entrepreneur bears all the costs of bankruptcy

This premise doesn't seem true (for all that the conclusion is accurate). Our entire notion of bankruptcy serves the purpose of putting limits on the cost of those risks, transferring burden onto creditors. An example of an alternate cultural construct that come closer to making the entrepreneur bear all the costs of the risk is debt slavery. Others include various forms of formal or informal corporal or capital punishments applied to those that cannot pay their debts.

Comment author: Ian_S 11 April 2014 05:31:05PM *  1 point [-]

"Did many people die?"

"Three thousand four hundred and ninety-two."

"A small proportion."

"It is always one hundred percent for the individual concerned."


"No, no still."

-Ian Banks, Look to Windward

Comment author: shminux 11 April 2014 10:34:13PM 11 points [-]

Does this quote have any rationalist content beyond the usual anti-deathism applause light?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 April 2014 11:49:48PM 8 points [-]

And here I looked at that and saw a negative example of how not to do "shut up and multiply", though I suppose it could also be a warning about scope insensitivity / psychophysical numbing if the risk at hand required an absolute payment to stave off, rather than a per-capita payment, since in the former case only absolute numbers matter, and in the latter case per capita risks matter.

Comment author: Ian_S 14 April 2014 02:18:01PM 10 points [-]

Maybe I need to include more context. This conversation occurs after the multiplication was done. This was discussing the aftermath, which had been minimized as much as the minds in question could manage. I took it to mean that, once you have made the best decision you can, there is no guarantee that you will be happy with the outcome, just that it would likely have been worse had you made any other decision.

Comment author: gwern 02 May 2014 11:12:44PM 3 points [-]

I think the inability to include that context and make your interpretation clear means that it's a bad rationality quote because it's far too easily taken a 'consequentialism boo!' quote.

Comment author: Nomad 04 April 2014 03:46:08PM 1 point [-]

Teenage stupidity is magical. At that age, you're so dumb that you may think you know you're dumb, but you're actually so ignorant (and arrogant) that you think you're smart and wise for knowing you're dumb. In reality, you're just dumb. Take away the recursive loop of delusion and any sense of how wise you are even though you're so young, and the truth is all that remains: You Are Dumb.


Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 April 2014 05:05:42PM 7 points [-]

Finding out that you're stupid (or ignorant) is an important start. I don't recommend insulting people because they're started rather than continued the job, especially if they're young.

Comment author: eli_sennesh 06 April 2014 02:17:35PM *  16 points [-]

I don't see how that's any different from all the other age groups ;-).

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 02 April 2014 09:49:31PM 1 point [-]

Dogs know how to swim, but it’s unlikely they know any truths describing their activities.

-- Richard Fumerton, Epistemology

Comment author: RichardKennaway 06 April 2014 07:19:17PM 5 points [-]

Dogs know how to swim, but it’s unlikely they know any truths describing their activities.

How would one tell?

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 07 April 2014 09:41:05PM 6 points [-]

How would one tell?

First, you offer them a sequence of bets such that...oh wait.

Comment author: MugaSofer 08 April 2014 08:50:29AM 4 points [-]

Really? So, say, if I put a bone on the other side of the river, the dog doesn't know that it can swim across?

Comment author: AshwinV 24 April 2014 10:57:00AM 0 points [-]

"Many who are self-taught far excel the doctors, masters and bachelors of the most renowned universities" Ludwig Von Mises

Comment author: bramflakes 24 April 2014 02:41:00PM 2 points [-]

Correlation/causation? Selection effects?

Comment author: Anders_H 24 April 2014 03:20:34PM 11 points [-]

Neither. Obviously, the average excellence of "doctors, masters and bachelors" of the most renowned universities is higher than the average excellence of people who are self-taught. Nobody suggests that being self-taught correlates positively with excellence.

The quotation is still undoubtedly true, because there are many more individuals who are self-taught than individuals who have these credentials. It is also plausible that the variance in excellence among the self-taught is much higher. Therefore, it is trivial to identify self-taught individuals who are more knowledgeable than most highly credentialed university graduates.

In fact, as a doctoral student in applied causal inference at a fairly renowned university, I can identify several self-taught Less Wrong community members who understand causality theory better than I do.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 24 April 2014 07:50:43PM 2 points [-]

Some numbers would be useful there.

Comment author: shminux 24 April 2014 11:54:21PM *  1 point [-]

Oft discussed here and is shown to be empirically wrong in math and physics (if you define "excel" as "make notable discoveries"). Probably also wrong in comp. sci., chem and to a lesser degree in engineering. It might still be true in some nascent areas where one does not need 10 years of intense studying to get to the leading edge.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 30 April 2014 12:39:22PM 2 points [-]

There is one good example of an unschooled mathematician:Ramanujan. The lack of need for special equipment in maths probably has something to do with it.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 30 April 2014 11:34:03AM *  2 points [-]

Oft discussed here and is shown to be empirically wrong in math and physics (if you define "excel" as "make notable discoveries"). Probably also wrong in comp. sci., chem and to a lesser degree in engineering.

That sounds like a list of non-diseased disciplines. Is this by chance? Alternatively, it's the STEM subjects. Same thing?

On the other hand, if "excel" is "do well in life" then, I don't know. But that is the reading that the original context of the quote suggests to me:

The emphasis laid by sociologists upon mass phenomena and their idolization of the common man are an offshoot of the myth that all men are biologically equal. Whatever differences exist between individuals are caused, it is maintained, by postnatal circumstances. If all people equally enjoyed the benefits of a good education, such differences would never appear. The supporters of this doctrine are at a loss to explain the differences among graduates of the same school and the fact that many who are self-taught far excel the doctors, masters, and bachelors of the most renowned universities. They fail to see that education cannot convey to pupils more than the knowledge of their teachers. Education rears disciples, imitators, and routinists, not pioneers of new ideas and creative geniuses. The schools are not nurseries of progress and improvement but conservatories of tradition and unvarying modes of thought. The mark of the creative mind is that it defies a part of what it has learned or, at least, adds something new to it. One utterly misconstrues the feats of the pioneer in reducing them to the instruction he got from his teachers. No matter how efficient school training may be, it would only produce stagnation, orthodoxy, and rigid pedantry if there were no uncommon men pushing forward beyond the wisdom of their tutors.

Also an interesting view of education. One of the ancients said that the mind is not a pot to be filled but a fire to be ignited(1), and nobler teachers see the aim of their profession as the igniting of that fire in their students. However, Mises appears to take the view that this is impossible (he does not limit his criticism of education to any time and place), that teaching cannot be anything but the filling of a pot, and the igniting of the fire can come only from the inner qualities of the individual, incapable of being influenced from outside.

(1) As usually quoted. I've just added the original source of this to the quotes thread.

Comment author: CronoDAS 19 April 2014 05:24:14AM *  -3 points [-]

If only it were that easy in real life...

Comment author: Vulture 19 April 2014 04:49:35PM *  2 points [-]

Gratuitous image + obscure reference + anti-deathism not firewalled from rationalism = downvote, sorry.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 19 April 2014 06:57:53PM 2 points [-]

deathism not firewalled from rationalism

I second theruf's "what". The card reads like anti-deathism, not deathism. (Also, what the heck does "not firewalled from rationalism" mean?)

Comment author: Cyan 19 April 2014 07:36:39PM 1 point [-]

The term "rationalism" has a previously-established meaning quite different from LW-style rationality.

Comment author: therufs 19 April 2014 06:33:09PM 1 point [-]

deathism not firewalled from rationalism

Er ... what?