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James_Bach comments on No Evolutions for Corporations or Nanodevices - Less Wrong

28 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 November 2007 02:24AM

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Comment author: James_Bach 17 November 2007 06:48:32AM 3 points [-]

Quantitative thinking is just so much mystical numerology unless it is grounded in qualitative thinking. Unless you don't need your mathematics to mean anything with respect to the world, you must relate it to the world by using a system of assertions called a model. Of course, you know this, I'd just like you to bring this fact out from behind the curtain where you normally keep it.

Example: when I hear a scientist talk about how winning the lottery (or some other rare event) is less likely than getting hit by lightning, I have to wonder what the odds are of being hit by lightning if you take shelter during a storm, as most people do, or if you live in Nome, Alaska? I bet agoraphobic people are far less likely to die in car accidents, too. In other words, broad numerical reasoning, when applied to specific cases without recalculating for those cases, is essentially the same thing as the sloppy qualitative reasoning that you're worried about. It's just as absurd.

Maybe what you're trying to say is that sloppy and ungrounded qualitative reasoning is to be avoided, in favor of quantitative reasoning grounded in the appropriate qualitative reasoning that give the numbers meaning. That would be a qualitative judgment on your part, of course, but it seems like a defensible one in this case.

I think you are trying to advocate, not quantitative reasoning, but rather good reasoning. There's no call to hang the albatross of bad reasoning around the neck of qualitative research as a field. That bird belongs to all of us.