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# Rationality Quotes Thread May 2015

9 01 May 2015 02:31PM

Another month, another rationality quotes thread. The 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• Do not quote yourself.
• Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson.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.
• 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 Do not quote with only a name.

Sort By: Best
Comment author: 13 May 2015 10:56:11PM *  19 points [-]

During the conference I was staying with my sister in Syracuse. I brought the paper home and said to her, "I can't understand these things that Lee and Yang are saying. It's all so complicated."

"No," she said, "what you mean is not that you can't understand it, but that you didn't invent it. You didn't figure it out your own way, from hearing the clue. What you should do is imagine you're a student again, and take this paper upstairs, read every line of it, and check the equations. Then you'll understand it very easily."

I took her advice, and checked through the whole thing, and found it to be very obvious and simple. I had been afraid to read it thinking it, was too difficult.

Richard Feynman uses the try harder in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman ("The 7 Percent Solution" in chapter 5)

Comment author: 13 May 2015 05:25:07PM 12 points [-]

Which Constraints Should You Accept?

The best constraints to accept seem to be, first, the ones which actually exist.

Scott Young

Comment author: 23 May 2015 08:33:26PM 10 points [-]

Be nice to nice people
Be rude to rude people

The theory of iterated games explained in a Eurovision song.

Comment author: 15 May 2015 03:47:39AM 8 points [-]

To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar.

-- Francis Bacon

Comment author: 19 May 2015 04:52:42PM 7 points [-]

Reasonableness is, I believe, and underrated trait in research. By “reasonable,” I don’t mean a supine acceptance of the status quo, but rather a sense of the connections of the world, a sort of generalized numeracy, an openness and honesty about one’s sources of information.

Andrew Gelman

Comment author: 24 May 2015 09:13:12PM *  6 points [-]

In scientific thought we adopt the simplest theory which will explain all the facts under consideration and enable us to predict new facts of the same kind. The catch in this criterion lies in the word "simplest." It is really an aesthetic canon such as we find implicit in our criticisms of poetry or painting. The layman finds such a law as ${\mathrm{d}x \over \mathrm{d} t} = {k \, \mathrm{d}^2x \over \mathrm{d}y^2}$ much less simple than "it oozes," of which it is the mathematical statement. The physicist reverses this judgment, and his statement is certainly the more fruitful of the two, so far as prediction is concerned. It is, however, a statement about something very unfamiliar to the plainman, namely, the rate of change of a rate of change.

Comment author: 25 May 2015 07:44:28AM 5 points [-]

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

The German original is somewhat stronger:

"Ihr seid alle Idioten zu glauben, aus Eurer Erfahrung etwas lernen zu können, ich ziehe es vor, aus den Fehlern anderer zu lernen, um eigene Fehler zu vermeiden."

Comment author: 26 May 2015 11:59:56AM 3 points [-]

I prefer the English translation, it's more direct, though it does lack the bit about avoiding your own mistakes.

A more literal translation for those that don't speak German:

Those that attempt to learn from their mistakes are idiots. I always try to learn from the mistakes of others and avoid making any myself.

Note: I'm not a German speaker, what I know of the language is from three years of high school classes taken over a decade ago, but I think this translation is more or less correct.

Comment author: 26 May 2015 07:15:38PM 3 points [-]

It's not exactly the quote.

Bismark doesn't speak about people who attempt to learn but who believe they learn.

Comment author: 29 May 2015 09:05:32AM 0 points [-]

I stand corrected, thank you.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 May 2015 09:09:25AM 1 point [-]

German is my third language, and since 2009 I am learning Austrian German by immersion, so for just some idle Friday fun I will now try to translate that to Viennese:

"Ihr soid olle Depperten zu glauben, aus Eurer Erfohrung wos zu lernen zu gön, i zieh es vu, aus den Fühlern ondrer zu lernen, um oigene Fühler zu vüümoiden."

Comment author: 18 May 2015 02:48:35PM 5 points [-]

If we seek to change the inner state of an application but we cannot change its code, then we must change its inputs and hope for the best.

-- The Codeless Code, case 127.

Comment author: 01 May 2015 10:09:13PM *  12 points [-]

We wanted the best, but it turned out as always.

-- Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin, about economical reforms in Russia

(Not a rationality quote per se, but this is how I would start a lecture on outside view / planning fallacy.)

Comment author: 03 May 2015 04:51:35PM 15 points [-]

A prima facie argument in favour of the efficacy of prayer is […] to be drawn from the very general use of it. The greater part of mankind, during all the historic ages, has been accustomed to pray for temporal advantages. How vain, it may be urged, must be the reasoning that ventures to oppose this mighty consensus of belief! Not so. The argument of universality either proves too much, or else it is suicidal. It either compels us to admit that the prayers of Pagans, of Fetish worshippers and of Buddhists who turn praying wheels, are recompensed in the same way as those of orthodox believers; or else the general consensus proves that it has no better foundation than the universal tendency of man to gross credulity.

Francis Galton, ‘Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer’, Fortnightly Review, vol. 12, no. 68 (August, 1872), pp. 125–135

Comment author: 03 May 2015 09:33:54PM 6 points [-]

Though if we take "efficacy" to the include the social effects (say, persuading one's co-religionists to assist after a loss that prompted the prayer), the universality looks quite plausible... Perhaps in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, hunter-gatherer bands were small enough that all prayer was effectively public, and this always applied, while private prayer might be a recent maladaptive generalization?

Comment author: 05 May 2015 09:03:13PM 7 points [-]

It could just be that prayer doesn't hurt, and the combination of gratitude generally being useful and anthropomorphization being common results in people tending to pray.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 May 2015 10:17:55AM *  3 points [-]

Why, prayer almost certainly has psychological benefits, like being less gloomy and more hopeful about the thing you pray for, such as healing. Placebo effect etc.

So I am not sure what exactly this quote demonstrate? That widespread beliefs can be wrong? I would say, widespread beliefs are often wrong about how things work out in the world, but not wrong about the actual end effect delivered in the mind. A religous fisherman my logic this way I pray -> I get more fish -> I feel better. Instead it works out as I pray -> I feel better. The end effect is still the same. That is because if it would be like I pray -> I still feel the same, sooner or later they would find a way to rationalize stopping wasting time.

Of course it is a bit cynical to claim to that we do everything in the world ultimately only to generate warm fuzzies inside our own minds, but it does seem so, unfortunately.

Comment author: 08 May 2015 10:49:08AM 6 points [-]

So I am not sure what exactly this quote demonstrate[s]? That widespread beliefs can be wrong?

Yup. You might think that "prayer might not work even though lots of people think it does" is an entirely obvious idea, but I'm not sure it was so obvious in 1872.

(Although I notice that the argument "It must not have been obvious, or Galton wouldn't have bothered pointing it out" is uncomfortably similar to the argument Galton is refuting.)

not wrong about the actual end effect delivered in the mind

The kind of feeling-better that comes from having more fish to feed your family is not the same as the kind of feeling-better that comes from having prayed. (E.g., one will stop your children starving and the other won't.) Isn't this relevant?

Comment author: 08 May 2015 01:17:44PM 3 points [-]

There are some Christians on LessWrong. What is their experience of prayer?

Comment author: [deleted] 08 May 2015 03:45:33PM 12 points [-]

I de-converted from Christianity just a few months ago. Prayer is probably what I miss most. We learned that God always hears our prayers and answers in the way that is best for us, even if the answer isn't always "yes".

In general, I'm independent, I trust my own reasoning, and I like to be in control and make decisions. Yet, even for me, it felt REALLY GOOD to believe someone all-knowing and all-loving was in control. To believe that whatever happened was part of some perfect plan that I just wasn't smart enough to understand.

Comment author: 08 May 2015 04:31:37PM 4 points [-]

Thanks for sharing that.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 May 2015 02:33:41PM *  3 points [-]

This... really shows how wide is the Atlantic. I know many Europeans who identify with being Christians, but in all of the cases it is just a way to show their national loyalty, their national identity, their conservatism or their opposition to modern culture, their preference for a higher value system that does not worship money and business and consumption but has a more human-faced, soul-oriented, "deeper" approach. This is how they are Christians. Nobody, literally nobody I know has literal faith, the kind of faith people would pray with. The closest to that is having a faith in Christian values being useful for human growth because they remind people that money and consumption is not all.

So it is always surprising to me that America has pockets where faith is still alive pretty much in the old, pre-1800 sense, as if Voltaire, Hegel, Feuerbach or Marx never happened. Where it is not a culture or identity or values, but literally faith.

Or maybe these pockets exist here too, but the newspapers are not writing about them and I have no idea where they are.

Comment author: 28 May 2015 03:35:45PM 1 point [-]

These pockets definitely exist in the UK. There are a fair number of devout Christians here, although they don't shout about it because mainstream society is so hostile to Christianity. They are also easily the nicest people I've met.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 May 2015 03:40:21PM 1 point [-]

Physically where? I am moderately familiar with the Black Country area, having done some industrial projects, and it looks like a pretty undereducated area, which should correlate with this. Yet I have not seen any sign of it.

Comment author: 28 May 2015 04:59:30PM 2 points [-]

My own experience is in London and Cambridge.

I think your intuitions are steering you wrong if you'd expect this kind of thing among the "undereducated" (your word). That might be true in the US, but in Britain most people from those social echelons simply don't attend church, and haven't for generations, as an effect of urbanisation. Of course, there are relatively poor and uneducated people with that relation to religion in the Black Country, but they aren't Christians.

If you want to find devout Christians, you need to find educated, middle class, small-c conservative types - HTB and the like aren't filled with manual workers. Or else, recent immigrants - but they don't normally attend CoE churches.

Comment author: 27 May 2015 03:18:27PM 1 point [-]

America has pockets

Pockets? It's between a quarter and half of the US, depending on how you put the threshold for "literal faith." Secularization is also mostly hollowing out the 'mainline' denominations, that are more European in their presentation of things, while the hardcore denominations are growing.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 May 2015 07:09:24AM 0 points [-]

Yes but is it faith or a culture of values?

This is very easy to determine. The kind of cultural Christianity that is going on here is basically like conservative guys saying "XY is against a Christian system / order of values". They are not saying "Jesus/Bible said no". Are these people saying the former or the laer?

Comment author: 28 May 2015 12:28:06PM 1 point [-]

Mike Huckabee:

I didn't get into politics because I thought government had a better answer. I got into politics because I knew government didn't have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives.

Comment author: 28 July 2015 09:45:03AM 0 points [-]

From your username it looks like you're Dutch (it is literally "the flying Dutchman" in Dutch), so I'm surprised you've never heard of the Dutch bible belt and their favourite political party, the SGP. They get about 1.5% of the vote in the national elections and seem pretty legit. And those are just the Christians fervent enough to oppose women's suffrage. The other two Christian parties have around 15% of the vote, and may contain proper believers as well.

Comment author: 27 May 2015 05:53:24PM 0 points [-]

Or maybe these pockets exist here too

They certainly do. Some of them send out suicide bombers which is when the mainstream media starts to notice them... :-/

Comment author: [deleted] 28 May 2015 06:56:27AM *  1 point [-]

Yeah I mean those are imports, I was meaning traditional ones. (Breivik does not count as one, as he is more of a political type crazy.)

Comment author: 08 May 2015 06:14:01PM 1 point [-]

This comment resonates with me. I am also a Christian-turned-Atheist.

When something bad happens, or I feel in danger, or I don't know what to do, usually I want to send up a prayer. Then I have to catch myself and remember that yeah, that's not going to help.

Comment author: 08 May 2015 07:49:48PM 11 points [-]

yeah, that's not going to help

It won't help the situation, but it might help you to better handle the situation. The useful thing about "prayer" isn't that it actually calls down any outside help, but that it forces you to clarify your own thoughts regarding what you want and what would be useful... in much the same way that problem solving is made easier by explaining the problem to somebody else.

Verbal communication forces you to serialize your thoughts, to disassemble what may be a vague or complex structure of interconnecting impulses, ideas, mental models, etc. and then encode it in an organized stream for another mind to re-encode into a similar structure. But the process of doing this forces you to re-encode it as well.

So don't stop using a useful technique for organizing your thoughts, just because there isn't an actual mind on the other end of the encoding process (except maybe yours). Programmers have been known to "rubber duck", i.e., use a literal or figurative rubber duck as the thing to talk to. You're not going to commit some sort of atheist sin by using an imaginary sky deity as your rubber duck. Or ask the Flying Spaghetti Monster to touch you with His Noodly Appendage to grant you the clarity and wisdom you seek. The value of an invocation comes from its invoker, not its invokee.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 May 2015 08:06:24PM 3 points [-]

You're not going to commit some sort of atheist sin by using an imaginary sky deity as your rubber duck.

Interesting comment! I was catching myself about to pray all the time when I first deconverted, but always stopped myself, thinking that praying or listening to Christian music would make me a hypocrite of an atheist.

I still listen to Christian music occasionally, and reading your comment makes me wonder whether it would have been okay to go on praying, too.

Would any atheists here argue that it's always bad to pray?

Comment author: 08 May 2015 09:22:12PM 4 points [-]

I wouldn't find it inconceivable for prayer to have some role outside of the belief in supernatural communication with spiritual beings. In a certain sense it's a form of meditation. If you change the wording of a prayer away from the implication that someone out there will hear you and make supernatural changes in the world accordingly, you could pray as a sort of meditation on a desire or on a value. I guess, at least, that repeating to yourself that you hold a certain desire and care deeply about it is a way to reinforce it.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 July 2015 07:54:25AM 1 point [-]

Relevant: guy experimenting with custom-made gods for 12-step programs:

http://tailoredbeliefs.com/born-again-atheist/

Comment author: 14 May 2015 12:24:04AM -1 points [-]

Reading this reply, I was immediately reminded of a situation described by Jen Peeples, I think in an episode of The Atheist Experience, about her co-pilot's reaction of prayer during a life-threatening helicopter incident. ( This Comment is all I could find as reference. )

Unless your particular prayer technique is useful for quickly addressing emergency situations, you probably don't want to be in the habit of relying on it as a general practice. I think the "rubber duck" Socratic approach could still be useful, so this isn't a disagreement with your entire comment, just a warning about possible failure modes.

Comment author: 17 May 2015 02:14:49PM 3 points [-]

Rubber ducking is for when you're uncertain how to proceed. An incident on a military aircraft is not such a situation: there are checklists that detail precisely how you're supposed to proceed, which you'd better be following.

If you are doing problem-solving in a distressed aircraft, and that problem-solving activity is not explicitly listed on the checklist for the current issue, you are Doing It Wrong. And if you're praying in such a scenario, it had better be something like, "grant me the calm and clarity to follow the checklist, so I'm not distracted by any panicky impulses".

Comment author: [deleted] 08 May 2015 11:25:03AM 1 point [-]

It is. I guess I was probably reading too much into it. It is just, if see a widespread practice, I don't want to simply take the most literal possible prediction of what they claim it does, and if that doesn't, then consider them idiots. I will assume people are essentially economical so not idiots as long as time invested vs. some kind of psychological profit gained goes, and want to find out in what other ways does it work i.e. what kind of potential profit it gains, even if just psychological (and sometimes not just psychological but e.g. social).

Comment author: 02 June 2015 03:38:00PM 1 point [-]

That widespread beliefs can be wrong?

I take Galton as making the many-religions argument for atheism (often used against miracles): that the mutual inconsistency of religions tends to refute them all. ('If testimony is enough to establish the truth of miracles claimed by the Bible, why do you not admit the truth of Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist miracles? And if you deny their truth, how can you accept the Christian miracles?' etc etc.) Note his description:

...It either compels us to admit that the prayers of Pagans, of Fetish worshippers and of Buddhists who turn praying wheels, are [all] recompensed in the same way as those of orthodox believers...

The supernatural justification of all these practices are different and mutually inconsistent, and if there is no divine mechanism behind prayer, then how can it accomplish things like improving the health of someone hundreds of miles away, much less anything like world peace? (The 'self-help' model of prayer predicts only extremely limited placebo effects.)

Comment author: 08 May 2015 02:17:44PM *  -1 points [-]

A religous fisherman my logic this way I pray -> I get more fish -> I feel better. Instead it works out as I pray -> I feel better.

Aren't you assuming the conclusion? Here is another chain: I pray -> No fish bite -> God doesn't like me -> Depressed.

Comment author: 21 May 2015 11:08:53AM 1 point [-]

Here is another chain: I pray -> No fish bite -> God doesn't like me -> Depressed.

Or "maybe I shouldn't have sinned last week..."

Comment author: 12 May 2015 08:36:00AM *  10 points [-]

"You say that every man thinks himself to be on the good side, that every man who opposed you was deluding himself. Did you ever stop to consider that maybe you were the one on the wrong side?"

-- Vasher (from Warbreaker) explaining how that particular algorithm looks from the inside.

Comment author: 22 May 2015 09:58:57AM 8 points [-]

By chance, shortly after reading Mark Friedenbach's parting message, I saw this on Seth Godin's blog:

Is it meeting your needs…

Or merely creating new wants?

Is it honoring your time or squandering your time?

Is it connecting you with those you care about, or separating you from them?

Is it exposing you or giving you a place to hide?

Is it important, or only urgent?

Is it right, or simply convenient?

Is it making things better, or merely more pressing?

Is it leveraging your work or wasting it?

What is it for?

Good questions to ask, especially of any habit one has not reexamined in a long time.

Comment author: 21 May 2015 03:05:46PM 3 points [-]

Since a tradition of behaviour is not susceptible of the distinction between essence and accident, knowledge of it is unavoidably knowledge of its detail: to know only the gist is to know nothing.

Comment author: 02 June 2015 06:05:57PM 0 points [-]

On the other hand, nowhere is 'essence' and 'accident' more con-fused and intermingled than in biology, and it is certainly not true that to know gists in biology (what is more of a gist than the concepts of evolution and natural selection?) 'is to know nothing'.

Comment author: 02 June 2015 08:17:07PM 0 points [-]

Biology may include studying traditions of behaviour, but biology is not itself a tradition of behaviour.

Comment author: 18 May 2015 03:20:27PM 3 points [-]

Complexity only makes it an art. It is the apparent simplicity that makes it subtle. How simple it is to declare a static hashtable, and yet how perilous! The first challenge of a Subtle Art is recognizing that it even exists in the first place.

--Master Bawan, from case 148 of the Codeless Code.

Comment author: 07 May 2015 05:13:44PM *  9 points [-]

The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,

All centuries but this and every country but his own.

Comment author: 13 May 2015 01:57:42PM 2 points [-]

I will note that you can't improve the past and have limited ability to improve other countries. So criticism of those won't lead to anything useful. Critical views of where you are right now can lead to effective action. So I don't know if the pattern being criticized is a bad pattern

Comment author: 26 June 2015 11:48:40PM 0 points [-]

Talking at length about the good old days is hardly a way to make progress on local problems.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 May 2015 01:39:56PM *  9 points [-]

At this point in my story, you might have the following question: What kind of idiot puts himself in a position to be humiliated in front of a thousand people?

It’s a fair question. The answer is a long one. It will take this entire book to answer it right. The short answer is that over the years I have cultivated a unique relationship with failure. I invite it. I survive it. I appreciate it. And then I mug the shit out of it. Failure always brings something valuable with it. I don’t let it leave until I extract that value.

-- Scott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (Amazon)

Comment author: 21 May 2015 06:21:08PM 6 points [-]

Pedantry and mastery are opposite attitudes toward rules.

To apply a rule to the letter, rigidly, unquestioningly, in cases where it fits and in cases where it does not fit, is pedantry. Some pedants are poor fools; they never did understand the rule which they apply so conscientiously and so indiscriminately. Some pedants are quite successful; they understood their rule, at least in the beginning (before they became pedants), and chose a good one that fits in many cases and fails only occasionally.

To apply a rule with natural ease, with judgment, noticing the cases where it fits, and without ever letting the words of the rule obscure the purpose of the action or the opportunities of the situation, is mastery...

...if you are inclined to be a pedant and must rely upon some rule learn this one: Always use your own brains first.

--George Polya, How to Solve It

Comment author: 07 May 2015 08:38:40PM 8 points [-]

A man must be excessively stupid, as well as uncharitable, who believes that there is no virtue but on his own side, and that there are not men as honest as himself who may differ from him in political principles.

Joseph Addison, The Spectator No. 243 (8 December 1711).

Comment author: 07 May 2015 11:33:16PM 14 points [-]

I'm upvoting for the sentiment but I don't think the quote is very accurate. It doesn't take execessive stupidity to make this mistake. It is a very common mistake made often by even very bright individuals. If it simply took excessive stupidity it wouldn't be nearly as common a problem.

Comment author: 01 May 2015 07:57:48PM *  8 points [-]

The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job…I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.

-- Donald A. Norman The Art of Computer-Human Design p. 120, see e.g. here

Comment author: 02 May 2015 02:25:37PM *  6 points [-]

I'm not sure what this quote means. Interfaces are often badly designed and get in the way a lot, and that's definitely bad. But surely that's a truism.

Does the quote mean the interface should map 1-to-1 to the reality of the thing it's an interface for, not introducing new abstractions or complications for the user to learn?

Sometimes that is the right approach. Other times, an interface is good precisely because it simplifies a complex domain, even if at the loss of some power. I'm glad the now-universal 'file explorer' interface has a much simpler model than the underlying API. Except when I need to manage hardlinks or mountpoints or device files, in which case the interface gets in the way (and I switch to a different interface).

I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.

Many (most?) jobs which utilize computer interfaces exist because of computers, or have been radically transformed by them. These jobs' purpose is to manipulate computers. Their interfaces allow a lot of design leeway, since the underlying computer system is also designed, often by the same people. UX designers often disagree about things like skeumorphisms, or about the use of UI metaphors that are familiar because of 1980s UI design and have nothing to do with the actual problem domain (like desktops). What would Norman say about this?

Comment author: 01 May 2015 08:29:33PM 3 points [-]

This is an excellent quote... I had to write an essay last semester for one of my classes on how I would design my preferred interface, and I basically wrote my entire essay using this quote.

Comment author: 02 May 2015 07:53:03AM *  3 points [-]

I agree with this sentiment, but also feel like in some sense the whole point of an interface is to provide clear limits on what can and cannot be done.

Analogies: if you had a primitive form of direct brain-to-computer interfacing going on, that would probably actually make it harder to keep a project under control, the design would drift too easily. If our senses accessed reality directly, without interpretation by the brain, the world would make much less sense and thinking would be much more difficult -and more metabolically expensive.

To unify these two views, I think that cases where interfaces "get in the way" are cases where the interface lacks clear limits, so either the user is trying to do something that cannot be done with the program and hasn't been made aware of that or the user is trying to do something but does not know what tools to use or what to avoid doing in their attempt. Clear limits make the insides of an interface easier to understand and use in ways that fill the breadth of the interface's potential.

Comment author: 13 May 2015 05:07:03PM 4 points [-]

I think that cases where interfaces "get in the way" are cases where the interface lacks clear limits, so either the user is trying to do something that cannot be done with the program and hasn't been made aware of that or the user is trying to do something but does not know what tools to use or what to avoid doing in their attempt.

I wish interfaces could only fail in one way. There's also the interface that keeps making you do some non-obvious thing, but not often enough to make it easy to remember, and the interface with the related problem of making it hard to figure out how to get it to do what you want.

Comment author: 07 May 2015 10:09:24AM *  2 points [-]

This suggests that the perfect interface is one that gets in the way as little as possible, that allows the user to do their job as easily as possible. The perfect interface does not trumpet its own glory with bells and whistles and graphical thingys - rather, the perfect interface gets as far out of the way as possible and just lets the user work.

I agree with this.

Comment author: 10 May 2015 09:13:01PM 5 points [-]

Our brain does not operate by the principles of logic. It operates by a selection of pattern recognition. It's a dynamic network. It's not a "if-then" logic machine. Dr. Ralph Greenspan Seeking Wisdom p. 18

Comment author: 09 May 2015 11:26:55PM 4 points [-]

“It’s not a kid’s television show,” Andy told me, “Where the antagonist makes the Machiavellian plan and then abandons that plan completely the first time it fails. People fail, they revise, they adjust parameters, they you achieve victory through persistence and hard work.”

J. C. McCrae, Pact WebSerial

Comment author: 12 May 2015 03:30:39AM 3 points [-]

On the other had, in real life, after a plan of that scale fails, no matter the reason, you're generally not in a position to try it again.

Comment author: 10 May 2015 02:07:45AM 0 points [-]

I'd say that this is a spoiler for me, but I knew Blake would do something stupid again eventually so I guess not.

Comment author: [deleted] 01 May 2015 07:02:20PM 4 points [-]

Popular [scientific] book must be strictly scientific. Care for the simplicity of writing should not result in simplification of the problem ... presenting a hypothesis as an indestructible truth, describing one hypothesis but leaving out other ones, the popularizer nurtures in the reader primitiveness of reasoning.

Ye. Lichtenstein, Editing a scientific book, 1957.

Comment author: 02 May 2015 02:29:56PM 3 points [-]

The whole point of popular scientific books, as opposed to professional ones, is to simplify and reduce the amount of content. Even if everyone can understand the full complexity of the subject, not everyone wants to spend the time and effort studying it.

I want to learn about the accepted theories of biology and physics and chemistry, not all the competing hypotheses and caveats and special cases and supporting evidence and the history of their discovery, because I just don't have time for all of that!

The quote seems to reduce to "scientific books should not be popular in the first place". (In the sense of being aimed for the general population, not the sense of being bestsellers.)

Comment author: [deleted] 02 May 2015 03:03:13PM *  2 points [-]

I am sorry that I can't really point you towards good English books:( but incidentally, Serebryakov's Morphology of plants (from the sixties, I think) did start with an overview of dated theories, starting around Goethe; and he managed to write it logically and readably. (I think people should just accept that history of science is a discipline deserving popular books of it own, but so far, the best HoS stuff I'be come across was in introductions to pop-sci.) IMO at least the cutting-edge biology today is extremely 'model organism-oriented', which limits its applicability. (It also seems to me that you're not the kind of person to wish to learn about angiosperm evolution or archaeobacteriae from the deepest seas:) though I've read a cool monograph (1997, I think) on secondary metabolites in onion secreted when it is wounded, I can't say it is an introductory book. It has a section on plants' defences against infection... It's fascinating when you think 'wait, onions have mycorrhiza, and in other plants it was shown to influence the levels of sec. met. - I wonder how their results would change if...' But a layperson should be given the intro about onions in general - their observable properties, like smell when cut, and ability to keep well - maybe even their selection history (taxonomy of cultivated plants is often horribly convoluted.)

Comment author: 02 May 2015 07:45:16AM *  3 points [-]

Eh. This is not generally possible for those without exceptional talent. Also personally, when I'm learning new ideas, I usually need to absorb a popularized simplification, think on it for a while, and develop nuances for it over time after gaining some experience manipulating the idea in my mind. A lot of the time the advanced intuitions which surround a subject are too vague for me to put into words (at least without strenuous effort). Metaphors and simplifications are the stuff of thought.

I do acknowledge, though, that the specific suggestions given are probably possible for almost any writer to use effectively. I just dislike the idea that popularizations need to somehow be as rigorous as actual scientific work yet more entertaining. That feels like an overly demanding standard, an excuse to sneer at the peons outside the ivory walls.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 May 2015 09:07:45AM 3 points [-]

I agree. Lichtenshtein uses the following quote of Timiryazev's as an example of appropriate style, and it's full of metaphors. I sometimes think that 'good' sci-pop should just keep track of allusions and spend several paragraphs on patiently enrolling them. Then another passage of distilled wisdom...

'The green leaf, or, more exactly, the microscopic grain of chlorophyll is the focus, the point in the world's space where the sun's energy flows in through one end, and from the other one take off all manifestations of life on earth. The plant is a mediator between the sky and the earth. It is the true Prometheus who stole the heavenly fire. The seized ray burns in the glowing kindling chip and in the blinding spark of electricity. The ray of the sun impels to move the monstrous flywheel of the steam machine, and the brush of the artist, and the feather of the poet.'

...but all bets are off when the author inserts a mathematical formula. Why are there so few cases when the formula is explained in its entirety, not just 'x stands for blablabla...'? Why not spend ten lines talking about different outcomes for different parameter values, if you really need to put it there at all? I always find it so frustrating. Not only there's usually pretty nowhere I can easily look up the coefficients, ..., I'm often left stymied as to what, exactly, do other people use it for.

Comment author: 02 May 2015 09:12:46PM 2 points [-]

Since I'm unsure where else to place this recommendation, I'll take this opportunity to put it here. I'm currently reading the book The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature and absolutely loving it. It deals with advanced topics in a way that's so easy to understand I imagine it could be taught to fourth graders. Each chapter deals with a type of pattern, such as bubbles, or cracks, or waves, and discusses several examples of where those patterns appear and why, and what that indicates about the pattern. I'm not a physicist, but I'm reading the book because the experience is less like learning about physics and more like learning about common heuristics of thought.

Comment author: 11 May 2015 04:52:50AM 2 points [-]

The institutionizing on a large scale of any natural combination of need and motive always tends to run into technicality and to develop a tyrannical Machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption.

-- William James, The Ph.D. Octopus

Comment author: 02 May 2015 06:41:02PM 5 points [-]

Father spoke again, his eyes still closed, “Reality is what’s not the voting booth and not the salad bar. When you don’t get to vote and don’t get to pick,” he spoke louder. “That’s reality.”

--John C. Wright, Somewhither

Comment author: 06 May 2015 07:18:21PM 3 points [-]

Irresolute republics never choose the right alternative unless they are driven to it, for their weakness does not allow them to arrive at a decision where there is any doubt; and, unless this doubt is removed by some compelling act of violence, they remain ever in suspense.

--Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy

Comment author: 14 May 2015 04:39:53AM 3 points [-]

To have a stable social life, filter out those who get easily offended by offending them early on.

Nassim Taleb

Comment author: [deleted] 19 May 2015 10:49:57AM 3 points [-]

Not sure it counts as a rationalist quote, but I think you'll like it:

Sansa Stark: "You're awful."

Sandor Clegane: "I'm honest. It is the world that's awful."

Comment author: 14 May 2015 09:26:29PM 0 points [-]

I like the sentiment, but the advice is too often not practical. Also, not much to do with rationality.

Comment author: 24 October 2015 02:42:04PM 1 point [-]

Engineering a stable social life is certainly rational. I would not take this quote to mean "make random offensive statements to make touchy people leave you alone", but rather "be honest upfront about your beliefs and mental models, so that you can filter out people who react badly to them early on".

That is, it is good to politely and quietly (and perhaps indirectly) let people in optional social groups know early on if you are atheist/religious/vegan/liberal/conservative/rationalist/Klingon, so that both you and they can make informed decisions about the value of group membership.

There are, of course, non-optional groups in which this may be a terrible idea. But those are not generally referred to as social groups.

Comment author: 22 May 2015 06:57:00PM *  2 points [-]

Responding to an argument for skepticism:

That is to say, though, as I have said, I agree with Russell that (1), (2), and (3) are true; yet of no one even of these three do I feel as certain as that I do know for certain that this is a pencil. Nay more: I do not think it is rational to be as certain of any one of these four propositions, as of the proposition that I do know that this is a pencil.

- G.E. Moore, quote found here.

Comment author: 02 May 2015 06:52:02PM 1 point [-]

Social science epistemology, afaict:

1. Ignore all the interesting and replicable phenomena

2. Find data sets that can be interpreted in isolation as Cutting Social Commentary

3. Wonder why your interventions never work, findings never replicate, and you can't predict anything.

How it should be done:

1. Separate experimental studies from social commentary. Build a corpus of replicated phenomena that need explanation

2. Find a-priori plausible explanatory hypotheses or laws that explain the replicated phenomena.

3. Favor hypotheses that predict better, are simpler, and integrate with other theories

4. Check your work by building working social technology, making novel predictions, or otherwise demonstrating veracity

Note that my recommended social science epistemology is physics epistemology. Soc sci needs more physics envy and fewer linear regressions.

Oops forgot step 0. ASSUME AN UNUPPORTED IMPLAUSIBLE FALSEHOOD (SSSM) AS AXIOMATIC

Nyan Sandwich

Comment author: [deleted] 19 May 2015 11:04:17AM 3 points [-]

"The difference between science and the fuzzy subjects is that science requires reasoning, while those other subjects merely require scholarship." Heinlein

Comment author: 03 May 2015 11:50:40PM 5 points [-]

Economists are something like social scientists with physics envy. They still don't manage to get good at prediction and have a corpus of well replicated phenomena.

Comment author: 07 May 2015 05:01:54PM 7 points [-]

Economists do have a large corpus of well replicated phenomena, and they do have good predictive ability. The problem is that people want economists to make predictions on subjects that are least understood, or even ones that economic theory suggests cannot be generally predicted, such as stock market movements. Sure, economists can't do that, but they (mostly) don't claim to be able to do that.

Comment author: 07 May 2015 05:09:07PM *  0 points [-]

What kind of phenomena do you mean?

I don't think that the call for stock market prediction is central to an argument about economist. If someone can predict stock market movements in some capacity they make money on Wall Street instead about being open about their theories.

Changes in unemployment numbers or GDP on the other hand seem to be more like the job of economists.

Is there anything like a trial registry in economics where economists can publish predictions before they go out and gather data?

Comment author: 07 May 2015 05:59:55PM 3 points [-]

There are plenty of before-the-fact published predictions by economists. See e.g. here.

Comment author: 04 May 2015 12:07:45AM 6 points [-]

Something Nyan Sandwich should have been clear on is that he means "physics envy" in the sense of using the same epistemology physicists use. Unfortunately, in reality physics envy is more likely to manifest as the social scientists noticing that physicists use complicated mathematics and trying to use complicated mathematics themselves.

Comment author: 13 May 2015 06:35:02AM 1 point [-]

To help you see what some of the problems with Chetty’s work is, let’s walk through the top and bottom of his new rankings of 2,478 counties. When thinking about Big Data, I’ve long found it extremely useful to look at the highest and lowest examples in detail to see what kind of patterns leap out. It’s extremely easy these days to look up facts about outliers, so more people should do it. This doesn’t seem to be a common practice among academic data analysts, however, who evidently fear contamination by bias and stereotypes. But instead they wind up suffering from ignorance, which is worse.

Steve Sailer

Comment author: 13 May 2015 07:29:39AM *  -1 points [-]

I'm not sure what to make of this quote. It is better to be ignorant than to believe the wrong thing; ignorance is much easier to identify and fix.

Or maybe he's saying that the fear of contamination is unjustified? That doesn't seem accurate either.

EDIT: My bad, it's Steve Sailer, I read the article and of course he was talking about racial bias, not biases generally.

Comment author: 16 May 2015 10:36:12AM 0 points [-]

When thinking about Big Data, I’ve long found it extremely useful to look at the highest and lowest examples in detail to see what kind of patterns leap out.

Those will usually be the least populous counties because statistical fluctuations.

Comment author: 17 May 2015 10:18:06PM 1 point [-]

Well, in Sailer's examples it wasn't.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 May 2015 04:05:08AM *  1 point [-]

When due process fails us, we really do live in a world of terror.

-- JC Denton, Deus Ex.

May be a bad one but at least Deus Ex is an excellent game.

Comment author: 20 May 2015 02:02:13PM *  1 point [-]

If a scientific hypothesis were a self-generated bright idea which owed nothing to scientific activity, then empiricism governed by hypothesis could be considered to compose a self-contained manner of activity; but this certainly is not its character. The truth is that only a man who is already a scientist can formulate a scientific hypothesis; that is, an hypothesis is not an independent invention capable of guiding scientific inquiry, but a dependent supposition which arises as an abstraction from within already existing scientific activity. Moreover, even when the specific hypothesis has in this manner been formulated, it is inoperative as a guide to research without constant reference to the traditions of scientific inquiry from which it was abstracted... Or consider the example of cookery. It might be supposed that an ignorant man, some edible materials, and a cookery book compose together the necessities of a self-moved (or concrete) activity called cooking. But nothing is further from the truth. The cookery book is not an independently generated beginning from which cooking can spring; it is nothing more than an abstract of somebody's knowledge of how to cook: it is the stepchild, not the parent of the activity. The book... speaks only to those who know already the kind of thing to expect from it and consequently how to interpret it.

Comment author: 14 May 2015 04:20:00PM 1 point [-]

Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter.

Comment author: 11 May 2015 01:25:52PM 0 points [-]

The so-called "EPR Paradox" that is not a paradox at all. (well it is if you assume a deterministic physics with hidden variables, which is just wrong; it should be called the EPR Proof that Einstein was Wrong Sometimes).

Comment author: 11 May 2015 08:42:27PM 6 points [-]

It's not a paradox by the strict technical sense, involving some kind of self contradiction.....but easily qualifies in the popular sense, involving a contradiction with a cherished opinion or habit of thought.

Comment author: 12 May 2015 03:57:50PM *  -1 points [-]

Of course, refusing to examine oneself is the shortest distance to becoming an a**hole.

YorkNecromancer @ belloflostsouls

Comment author: 26 May 2015 01:51:17AM 0 points [-]

Depending on the perspective of the reader, this one's an attack either on faith or on explanations.

"To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible."

-St. Thomas Aquinas

Comment author: [deleted] 26 May 2015 08:48:04AM 5 points [-]

This is a highly suspicious quote. Aquinas was more or less a follower of Avicenna who thought faith and reason should be so close to each other that with good enough reasoning almost no faith should be necessary.

This comment here seems to argue it is a highly misleading paraphrasation of a text that means almost the opposite, http://www.fisheaters.com/forums/index.php?PHPSESSID=a87v4a2tvmgo7pqkbp4fvj42l5&topic=3154091.msg30423351#msg30423351 but I suspect this PHPSESSID thing means it is not a permanent link.

Perhaps I should just copy it here:

"It appears to be a loose paraphrase of S.T. II-II, Q. 1, Art. 5, reply obj. 1: "Unbelievers are in ignorance of things that are of faith, for neither do they see or know them in themselves, nor do they know them to be credible. The faithful, on the other hand, know them, not as by demonstration, but by the light of faith which makes them see that they ought to believe them, as stated above" (A. 4, ad 2, 3).

The paraphrase is a potentially misleading oversimplification, though, as you can see from S.T. II-II, Q. 2, Art. 10, "Whether Reasons in Support of What We Believe Lessen the Merit of Faith." Basically, one who has faith doesn't care whether explanation is strictly necessary, because "when a man's will is ready to believe, he loves the truth he believes, he thinks out and takes to heart whatever reasons he can find in support thereof; and in this way human reason does not exclude the merit of faith but is a sign of greater merit." And, although one without faith can't be sufficiently led to faith by explanation of doctrines, nevertheless the "reasons which are brought forward in support of the authority of faith [...] remove obstacles to faith, by showing that what faith proposes is not impossible." If it were not so, St. Thomas would not have written this:

Quote It is written (1 Pet. 3:15): "Being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that faith [*Vulg.: 'Of that hope which is in you.' St. Thomas' reading is apparently taken from Bede.] and hope which is in you." Now the Apostle would not give this advice, if it would imply a diminution in the merit of faith. Therefore reason does not diminish the merit of faith [S.T. II-II, Q. 2, Art. 10, sed contra].

So the truth is that, to one who has faith, explanation is eminently desirable, to the extent that it's possible; and to one without faith, explanation is possible, to the extent that it can remove what falsely appear to be persuasive rational objections to faith. The paraphrase deviates so far from this truth as to be seriously misleading, and it doesn't accurately represent St. Thomas's thought on the relationship between faith and reason."

Comment author: 26 May 2015 01:35:19PM 2 points [-]

Aquinas was more or less a follower of Avicenna who thought faith and reason should be so close to each other that with good enough reasoning almost no faith should be necessary.

Rather like science! Those who can do the reasoning need not have faith; those who cannot can only take the science on trust.