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Rationality Quotes Thread July 2015

5 Post author: elharo 01 July 2015 11:04AM

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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson.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 Do not quote with only a name.

Comments (86)

Comment author: Thomas 20 July 2015 10:43:04AM 12 points [-]
  • Just because a man has died for it, does not make it true.

Oscar Wilde

Comment author: Sarunas 22 July 2015 05:46:01PM 4 points [-]

A nitpick. This is a paraphrase of the original quote which can be found in The Portrait of Mr. W. H., page 29. The original quote is:

A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.

Comment author: Username 30 July 2015 02:37:07PM 3 points [-]

But isn't it evidence that this man strongly believed it? And isn't someone's strong belief at least a weak evidence for it?

Comment author: Lumifer 30 July 2015 02:48:53PM 5 points [-]

And so we come to "A thing is not necessarily true because there is weak evidence for it" which seems like a fair statement :-)

Comment author: James_Miller 01 July 2015 07:42:52PM 12 points [-]

When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.

Thomas Sowell

Comment author: 27chaos 29 July 2015 08:33:12PM 0 points [-]

Somewhat true, but if you want very badly to help people then you'll tell them the truth in a way that makes them feel good.

Comment author: Epictetus 01 July 2015 02:17:56PM 11 points [-]

I don't want to involve myself in an endless topic of debate by discussing the treatment of slaves, towards whom we Romans are exceptionally arrogant, harsh, and insulting. But the essence of the advice I'd like to give is this: treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors. And whenever it strikes you how much power you have over your slave, let it also strike you that your own master has just as much power over you. "I haven't got a master," you say. You're young yet; there's always the chance that you'll have one.

--Seneca, Letter XLVII

Comment author: michaelkeenan 01 July 2015 01:58:51PM 21 points [-]

Efficient Outrage Hypothesis: if you're hearing about it, it's probably already a dogpile. The return on marginal outrage will be low or negative.

-- Egregore Peck (source)

Comment author: Stingray 03 July 2015 09:06:30AM 3 points [-]

Sounds similar to paradox of voting.

Comment author: Sarunas 01 July 2015 12:26:26PM *  31 points [-]

Kissinger was not rushing to end our conversation that morning, and I had one more message to give him. “Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

“I’ve had a number of these myself, and I’ve known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all―so much! incredible!―suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t... and that all those other people are fools.

"Over a longer period of time―not too long, but a matter of two or three years―you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes. a while to learn.

“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues... and with myself.

“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.”

It was a speech I had thought through before, one I’d wished someone had once given me, and I’d long hoped to be able to give it to someone who was just about to enter the world of “real” executive secrecy. I ended by saying that I’d long thought of this kind of secret information as something like the potion Circe gave to the wanderers and shipwrecked men who happened on her island, which turned them into swine. They became incapable of human speech and couldn’t help one another to find their way home.

  • Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers
Comment author: Stingray 03 July 2015 09:13:31AM 1 point [-]

Dammit. This quote makes me feel even more of a pawn in the grand scheme of things.

Comment author: kleer001 29 July 2015 03:06:00PM 2 points [-]

Literally nobody else can see through your eyes. That's a pretty privileged point of view. Does that help at all?

Comment author: Lumifer 29 July 2015 03:41:14PM 6 points [-]

There’s no sense in writing down to the level of the readers you think are out there. Half the time they aren’t really there, and the rest of the time, they’re not interested in a watered-down version of the real product. Even if you succeed, all that you achieve is that now a bunch of morons don’t understand the subject and think that you agree with them.

It’s much better to write the piece that you want to read yourself, which usually means pitching the technical content at a level slightly higher than you were comfortable with when you started thinking about it. That doesn’t mean using jargon or writing dull sentences, but it does mean refusing to dumb down, and it definitely means keeping all the complexity in the article which you were able to wrap your own head around.

-- Dan Davies

Comment author: Username 30 July 2015 02:46:32PM 1 point [-]

It’s much better to write the piece that you want to read yourself, which usually means pitching the technical content at a level slightly higher than you were comfortable with when you started thinking about it.

Inapplicable when you're writing about natural sciences for layman audience.

Comment author: johnswentworth 03 August 2015 07:21:43AM 1 point [-]

Apparently, Davies thinks that half the time the layman audience isn't really there, and the rest of the time, they're not interested in a watered-down version of the real natural sciences. Even if you succeed, all that you achieve is that now a bunch of morons don't understand the natural sciences and think that you agree with them.

Comment author: Zubon 19 July 2015 02:11:37PM *  6 points [-]

Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.

― J.R.R. Tolkien explains how we get problems with the availability heuristic in The Hobbit

Comment author: Zubon 01 July 2015 10:52:29PM *  6 points [-]

Vagueness in legal threats is the hallmark of meritless thuggery.

-- Ken White from Popehat

Ken wants you to be specific because a vague claim is usually a meritless claim. Not citing a good example implies that there are no good examples.

Comment author: Zubon 01 July 2015 10:53:25PM *  6 points [-]

To match action to word, here are some of Ken's specific examples of vague legal claims, presumed meritless until actual examples can be cited (in reverse chronological order):

Comment author: James_Miller 01 July 2015 07:49:31PM *  14 points [-]

Sansa: "It can’t be worse."

Theon: "It can. It can always be worse."

Game of Thrones TV series

Part of the reason I supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was because I thought he was so bad that the alternative had to be better. I didn't take enough time to consider worse alternatives to him.

Comment author: Stingray 03 July 2015 09:15:14AM 3 points [-]

But can it always be better?

Comment author: James_Miller 03 July 2015 03:12:28PM *  2 points [-]

Yes, unless you die.

Comment author: Pancho_Iba 02 July 2015 08:38:39PM 1 point [-]

"In King's Landing, there are two sorts of people. The players and the pieces."

"And I was a piece?" She dreaded the answer.

"Yes, but don't let that trouble you. You're still half a child. Every man's a piece to strart with, and every maid as well. Even some who think they are players."

Talk between Sansa and Petyr - A Song of Ice and Fire: A Storm of Swords

Comment author: Silver_Swift 20 July 2015 10:24:12AM 0 points [-]

Why is this a rationality quote? I mean sure it is technically true (for any situation you'll find yourself in), but that really shouldn't stop us from trying to improve the situation. Theon has basically given up all hope and is advocating compliance to a psychopath for fear of what he may do to you otherwise, doesn't sound particularly rational to me.

Comment author: CCC 20 July 2015 02:05:07PM 3 points [-]

"When you make plans to stop something bad, make sure that you also make plans to ensure that it is not replaced by something worse - since there is always something worse that exists".

That's what I get from it, anyhow.

Comment author: James_Miller 20 July 2015 01:45:41PM 3 points [-]

It corrects an error people sometimes make when in a bad situation of assuming things can't get worse so any change can't be for the worst. Sansa had not been tortured by the psychopath in question while Theon had, so Theon better understood the price of defiance.

Comment author: Silver_Swift 21 July 2015 02:32:46PM 1 point [-]

Ok, fair enough. I still hold that Sansa was more rational than Theon at this point, but that error is one that is definitely worth correcting.

Comment author: elharo 25 July 2015 12:35:17PM 5 points [-]

Only in mathematics is it possible to demonstrate something beyond all doubt. When held to that standard, we find ourselves quickly overwhelmed.

Max Shron, Thinking with Data, p. 32

Comment author: [deleted] 03 July 2015 02:55:15PM 5 points [-]

I don't know if this was featured here, but I hope it generates some discussion. Edsger Dijkstra, https://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/transcriptions/EWD06xx/EWD611.html

"Traditionally there are two ways in which science can be justified, the Platonic and the pragmatic one. In the Platonic way —"l'art pour l'art"— science justifies itself by its beauty and internal consistency, in the pragmatic way science is justified by the usefulness of its products. My overall impression is that along this scale —which is not entirely independent of the Buxton Index— Europe, for better or for worse, is more Platonic, whereas the USA, and Canada to a lesser extent, are more pragmatic."

"It is here that I must mention three general phenomena that go hand in hand with greater pragmatism."

"The first phenomenon is a greater tolerance for the soft sciences which purport to contribute to the solutions of "real" problems, but whose "intellectual contents" are singularly lacking. (When I was a student at Leyden, a quarter of a century ago, economy and psychology had been admitted to the campus, but only with great reservations and absolutely no one considered them as respectable; we had not dreamt of "management science" —I think we would have regarded it as a contradiction in terms— and "business administration" as an academic discipline is still utterly preposterous.)"

"The second phenomenon is the one for which I had to coin the term "integralism". Scientific Thought, as I understand it, derives its effectiveness from our willingness to acknowledge the smallness of our heads: instead of trying to cope with a complex, inarticulate problem in a single sweep, scientific thought tries to extract all the relevant aspects of the problem, and then to deal with them in turn in depth and in isolation. (...) Dealing with some aspect of a complex problem "in depth and in isolation" implies two things. "In isolation" means that you are (temporarily) ignoring most other aspects of the original total problem, "in depth" means that you are willing to generalize the aspect under consideration, are willing to investigate variations that are needed for a proper understanding, but are in themselves of no significance within the original problem statement. The true integralist becomes impatient and annoyed at what he feels to be "games"; by his mental make-up he is compelled to remain constantly aware of the whole chain, when asked to focus his attention upon a single link. (When being shown the derivation of a correct program he will interrupt: "But how do you know that the compiler is correct?".) The rigorous separation of concerns evokes his resistance because all the time he feels that you are not solving "the real problem"."

"The third phenomenon that goes hand in hand with a greater pragmatism is that universities are seen less as seats of learning and centres of intellectual innovation and more as schools preparing students for well-paid jobs. If industry and government ask for the wrong type of people —students, brain-washed by COBOL and FORTRAN— that is then what they get." (This was written in 1982, perhaps, today that will be Java.)

"Finally a difference that is very specific to academic computing science in Europe: Artificial Intelligence never really caught on. All sorts of explanation are possible: Europe's economic situation in the early fifties when the subject emerged, lack of vision of the European academic or military world, European reluctance to admit soft sciences to the university campus, cultural resistance to the subject being more deeply rooted in Europe, etc. I don't know the true explanation, it is probably a mixture of the above and a few more. We should be aware of this difference, whether we can explain it or not, because the difference is definitely there and it has its influence on the outlook of the computing scientist."

For me the first quote hits really close to home. I am so immersed in a "Platonic" tradition that I am constantly amazed how pragmatic LW-ers are, I constantly feel like a Sophisticus.

Comment author: dspeyer 02 July 2015 06:00:00AM 12 points [-]

Don’t waste time trying to make him think that [your philosophy] is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous — that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about. The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?

-- Archfiend Screwtape, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis

Comment author: MJBantayan 29 July 2015 03:24:57PM 0 points [-]

Allow me to play captain obvious: This is screwtape's (the archdevil? tempter?) advice to one of the devils assigned to a human (patient). He basically states here that humans don't need to have certainty that a philosophical system is well founded, what he cares about is that it is controversial, scandalous, etc. And I have to agree to that, gone are the times that people change their lifestyle according to the latest scientific literature or piece of philosophy; how many among those who've read Nietzsche actually understood the profundity and the weakness of his writings? It appears that since he is wrongly associated with the Nazis it qualify him to be a philosopher of the edgy thirteen year olds.

On the other hand I see this as Lewis's jab at the philosophy that he opposes, particularly atheistic and agnostic ones. He didn't disprove them, he just committed slander. TSL is a good read tho

Comment author: RichardKennaway 19 July 2015 02:02:52PM 4 points [-]

A demonstration of dark arts. Ellipses are mine, to remove unnecessary amplification.

The laundry list, for us, had been a crossword puzzle with the squares empty and no definitions. The squares had to be filled in such a way that everything would fit. But perhaps that metaphor isn’t precise. In a crossword puzzle the words, intersecting, have to have letters in common. In our game we crossed not words but concepts, events, so the rules were different. Basically there were three rules.

Rule One: Concepts are connected by analogy. ...

Rule Two says that if tout se tient ["everything hangs together"] in the end, the connecting works. ...

Rule Three: The connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are obvious.

This, after all, was Signor Garamond’s idea. The books of the Diabolicals must not innovate; they must repeat what has already been said. Otherwise what becomes of the authority of Tradition?

And this is what we did. We didn’t invent anything; we only arranged the pieces. Colonel Ardenti hadn’t invented anything either, but his arrangement of the pieces was clumsy. Furthermore, he was much less educated than we, so he had fewer pieces.

They had all the pieces, but They didn’t know the design of the crossword. We—once again—were smarter.

I remembered something Lia said to me in the mountains, when she was scolding me for having played the nasty game that was our Plan: “People are starved for plans. If you offer them one, they fall on it like a pack of wolves. You invent, and they’ll believe. It’s wrong to add to the inventings that already exist.”

Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum.

See also "The Danger of Stories" and "Tyler Cowen on Stories". Of course, the quote itself is excerpted from an explicitly fictional story.

Comment author: 27chaos 29 July 2015 06:19:20PM 1 point [-]

Is all of Foucault's Pendulum like this? I've read a summary before, but this is much better than the writing I would have expected from it.

Comment author: g_pepper 29 July 2015 06:51:50PM 2 points [-]

The quoted section is fairly representative. Foucault's Pendulum is quite a good novel, IMO, and worth reading.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 29 July 2015 09:15:59PM 1 point [-]


Comment author: lmm 12 August 2015 06:17:17AM 1 point [-]

No. That's one of the few parts with content. It's not worth the hundreds of pages of tedium that come before.

Comment author: Zubon 17 July 2015 02:42:31PM 4 points [-]

Most people are neurologically programmed so they cannot truly internalize the scope and import of deeply significant, long run, very good news. That means we spend too much time on small tasks and the short run. Clearing away a paper clip makes us, in relative terms, too happy in the short run, relative to the successful conclusion of World War II.

-- Tyler Cowen

Comment author: Jiro 17 July 2015 03:22:54PM *  2 points [-]

I am skeptical of this.

  1. We're not happy about the successful conclusion of World War II because it is distant in time, and that seems reasonable unless he's arguing that we should be happier about, say, the death of Genghis Khan.
  2. He seems to imply that we should be happy at the end of World War II because the total benefits from winning the war are large. But people were also happy at the intermediate steps of winning the war and that happiness needs to be subtracted. In other words, if you're happy at the liberation of France, you can't be happy at the end of the war based on the entire benefit of winning the war, including the portion of that benefit that consists of France being liberated. That's double counting.
  3. This argument would apply to bad news too. Among people who think Obama's Iran deal is likely to lead to Iran getting nuclear weapons, should they be a lot unhappier than they are?
Comment author: dspeyer 02 July 2015 03:34:48PM 9 points [-]

There is the world that should be, and the world that is. We live in one.

And must create the other, if it is ever to be.

-- Jim Butcher, Turn Coat

Comment author: dspeyer 02 July 2015 05:56:04AM 8 points [-]

There is another proverb, "As you have made your bed, so you must lie on it"; which again is simply a lie. If I have made my bed uncomfortable, please God I will make it again.

-- G. K. Chesterton

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 14 July 2015 02:26:00PM 3 points [-]

Gargantua's admonishment of Pantagruel to employ his youth to profit both in studies and in virtue:

I intend, and will have it so, that thou learn the languages perfectly; first of all the Greek, as Quintilian will have it; secondly, the Latin; and then the Hebrew, for the Holy Scripture sake; and then the Chaldee and Arabic likewise, and that thou frame thy style in Greek in imitation of Plato, and for the Latin after Cicero. Let there be no history which thou shalt not have ready in thy memory; unto the prosecuting of which design, books of cosmography will be very conducible and help thee much. Of the liberal arts of geometry, arithmetic, and music, I gave thee some taste when thou wert yet little, and not above five or six years old. Proceed further in them, and learn the remainder if thou canst. As for astronomy, study all the rules thereof. Let pass, nevertheless, the divining and judicial astrology, and the art of Lullius, as being nothing else but plain abuses and vanities. As for the civil law, of that I would have thee to know the texts by heart, and then to confer them with philosophy.

Now, in matter of the knowledge of the works of nature, I would have thee to study that exactly, and that so there be no sea, river, nor fountain, of which thou dost not know the fishes; all the fowls of the air; all the several kinds of shrubs and trees, whether in forests or orchards; all the sorts of herbs and flowers that grow upon the ground; all the various metals that are hid within the bowels of the earth; together with all the diversity of precious stones that are to be seen in the orient and south parts of the world. Let nothing of all these be hidden from thee. Then fail not most carefully to peruse the books of the Greek, Arabian, and Latin physicians, not despising the Talmudists and Cabalists; and by frequent anatomies get thee the perfect knowledge of the other world, called the microcosm, which is man. And at some hours of the day apply thy mind to the study of the Holy Scriptures; first in Greek, the New Testament, with the Epistles of the Apostles; and then the Old Testament in Hebrew. In brief, let me see thee an abyss and bottomless pit of knowledge; for from henceforward, as thou growest great and becomest a man, thou must part from this tranquillity and rest of study, thou must learn chivalry, warfare, and the exercises of the field, the better thereby to defend my house and our friends, and to succour and protect them at all their needs against the invasion and assaults of evildoers.

Furthermore, I will that very shortly thou try how much thou hast profited, which thou canst not better do than by maintaining publicly theses and conclusions in all arts against all persons whatsoever, and by haunting the company of learned men, both at Paris and otherwhere. But because, as the wise man Solomon saith, Wisdom entereth not into a malicious mind, and that knowledge without conscience is but the ruin of the soul [...]. Suspect the abuses of the world. Set not thy heart upon vanity, for this life is transitory, [...]. Be serviceable to all thy neighbours, and love them as thyself. Reverence thy preceptors: shun the conversation of those whom thou desirest not to resemble, and receive not in vain the graces which God hath bestowed upon thee. And, when thou shalt see that thou hast attained to all the knowledge that is to be acquired in that part, return unto me, that I may see thee and give thee my blessing before I die.

-- Chapter 2.VIII. in Project Gutenberg's Gargantua and Pantagruel, Complete, by Francois Rabelais written in 1532-1564, translated in 1894, see also Wikipedia on Gargantua and Pantagruel

Note that this is not advice for everyone but apparently for a very capable youth:

Pantagruel studied very hard, as you may well conceive, and profited accordingly; for he had an excellent understanding and notable wit, together with a capacity in memory equal to the measure of twelve oil budgets or butts of olives.

Comment author: 27chaos 29 July 2015 06:15:40PM *  2 points [-]

I'm sympathetic towards the idea that pursuing all the knowledge we can get our hands on is a good thing. It is a tempting idea for me to believe in, because it offers a justification that is satisfying to values I hold like curiosity and respect for information. However, this means I might be biased. And I don't want to believe this idea if it isn't true.

When I think critically about this, I'm inclined to think that seeking so much knowledge across so many subjects is a suboptimal use of time, even for the prodigiously talented. My view is that details are important insofar as learning them helps us to learn broad patterns, and some types of details predictably are unlikely to lead to such insights and so can be safely ignored. For non-biologists, I don't think there is much value in knowing all the names and types of the plants. For non-astronomers, I don't think that the stars and planets are worth studying.

I acknowledge that there sometimes are cross-applicable ideas or universal patterns which can be discovered by studying obscure fields. For example, Newton's laws of motion or his law of gravity are useful to almost all of science, not just to astronomers. However, even acknowledging this, it's unclear to me whether the probability of discovering such patterns is high enough that it's worth the opportunity cost. Maybe if people before Newton had been more inclined towards specialized knowledge, some astronomer would have discovered the equation for gravitational attraction even sooner. Perhaps we'd also have some additional knowledge besides.

Is there any actual evidence for the idea that unfiltered pursuit of knowledge is superior to the filtered pursuit of knowledge? The only other argument for it that I can advance is that a lot of famous intelligent people have believed so, but I find this argument pretty unpersuasive. Thoughts?

Partly, I may simply be taking reliable access to high quality detailed information for granted, since I'm used to living with internet access and Wikipedia.

Comment author: btrettel 02 August 2015 03:53:56PM *  3 points [-]

Is there any actual evidence for the idea that unfiltered pursuit of knowledge is superior to the filtered pursuit of knowledge?

In my view, it's about the right level of filtering. For most people, I think looking at much more sources than they currently do is justified, as is developing the ability to quickly extract important pieces of information from sources for efficiency. The latter includes developing the ability to prioritize, skim, summarize, and assimilate information as well as abilities related to acquiring new sources, like knowing how to reach people with knowledge of other fields who can expand your horizons. I think it's also helpful to interact with others who can fill in gaps in your knowledge, e.g., you might have decided that learning about X was unimportant, but your friend in the same field read a lot about X and understands its importance. That example is basically applying parallel processing to knowledge acquisition. I can also think of a number of instances where I was looking for information about something, concluded it didn't exist, but later found what I was looking for (or something close) in a different related field, often with different terminology.

For some basic evidence, consider the foxes and hedgehogs dichotomy. Foxes, who take a more global view, tend to perform better in predictions. Geoff Colvin also thinks that more knowledge is better and he discusses this in his book Talent is Overrated on pp. 150-151. (Edit: Actually, the latter author says nothing about the unfiltered vs. filtered distinction as I recall now, but he does believe that more knowledge is better in a general sense.)

There's another common related view, which I see as misguided. Sometimes people claim that your thinking is often less constrained (i.e., you are more creative) if you are not familiar with a subject. I recently read a book, Gossamer Odyssey, where very successful engineer Paul MacCready attributed his success in human powered flight to not doing things the "standard" way, because he was totally unfamiliar with the standard way. He had a PhD in aerospace engineering, but he focused on atmospheric physics, not aeronautics. In MacCready's case, I think he was wrong about ignorance being the key. It was broader knowledge that helped him here. His knowledge of gliders rather than traditional aircraft turned out to be the key. Indeed, if you look at a lot of the cases where "ignorance" is held up as being useful for creativity, you see that having broader knowledge actually was the key (This blog post about Invisalign is another example I can find right now).

So, this seems to me like a post-hoc rationalization of intellectual laziness, and misleading because wider knowledge ("unfiltered" knowledge as 27chaos put it) is often key in cases where ignorance is held up as a benefit. Even if some creativity benefits come from ignorance, it does not follow that one should always remain ignorant in a field you are interested in. It seems to me that an hybrid strategy would be best: think about things before and after you learn. That way if your mind is unconstrained early on, you get the benefits of that. (In this popular book on decisions, they recommend the same thing on p. 50 according to my notes.)

However, according to this blog post, the book Origins of Genius by Dean Keith Simonton provides evidence that creativity follows an inverted U curve as a function of knowledge, where both too little and too much knowledge can hurt you. I have not read the book, but you might find it to be of interest.

Comment author: 27chaos 04 August 2015 04:42:30PM 1 point [-]

Excellent comment, thanks for all the links!

Comment author: RichardKennaway 30 July 2015 01:02:47PM *  1 point [-]

Here are the ellipses restored:

But because, as the wise man Solomon saith, Wisdom entereth not into a malicious mind, and that knowledge without conscience is but the ruin of the soul, it behoveth thee to serve, to love, to fear God, and on him to cast all thy thoughts and all thy hope, and by faith formed in charity to cleave unto him, so that thou mayst never be separated from him by thy sins. Suspect the abuses of the world. Set not thy heart upon vanity, for this life is transitory, but the Word of the Lord endureth for ever. Be serviceable to all thy neighbours...

What might rationalist!Rabelais write in place of those passages?

Replacing "God" by "Reality" goes quite a long way.

Comment author: Lumifer 29 July 2015 06:38:50PM 1 point [-]

Two words: "opportunity costs".

Comment author: RichardKennaway 30 July 2015 01:10:46PM 0 points [-]

Two more words: "training montage".

Comment author: michaelkeenan 01 July 2015 01:57:21PM 6 points [-]

If your moral reasoning doesn’t produce conclusions that seem absurd on the face of it… why are you bothering? I want to be the sort of person who would have come up with the absurd conclusion that slavery is wrong, or the absurd conclusion that women should have rights, or the absurd conclusion that sodomy shouldn’t be illegal.

-- Ozy Frantz (source)

Comment author: Jiro 01 July 2015 05:51:52PM *  12 points [-]

1) This strikes me as careful cherrypicking of "absurd" results to pick only the non-absurd "absurd" ones. You're supposed to say "well, giving women rights isn't so absurd after all, people who thought it is absurd were mistaken", but not all absurd conclusions from the past turned out to be okay in hindsight. Some were pretty horrible.

2) People who say "it is okay if my moral reasoning produces absurd results" generally don't personally think "that sounds absurd, but I'll accept it anyway". Typically, the result is something they are strongly motivated to believe, but which is thought absurd by others. They welcome the moral reasoning because it provides a way to reject their critics.

(In the LW-sphere, there are people who actually do accept results that seem personally absurd, but the LW-sphere is a minority. Most people don't act that way. Go tell a vegetarian that he should support exterminating all wildlife to end wild animal suffering, and see what response you get.)

3) Rejecting reasoning that produces absurd results even if we can't find a flaw in the reasoning is an important way we avoid errors.

Comment author: Jiro 02 July 2015 02:19:49PM 3 points [-]

And an addendum:

4) Sometimes people accept results that are absurd as a way of signalling commitment to an idea. If you're so dedicated to your religion that you're willing to stand up and publicly say it's wrong to lie even if telling the truth leads to someone's death, or so dedicated to your ethical system that you're willing to say that helping a stranger's child is as good as helping your own, you must be really committed.

Comment author: michaelkeenan 01 July 2015 07:07:05PM *  4 points [-]

This strikes me as careful cherrypicking of "absurd" results to pick only the non-absurd "absurd" ones...not all absurd conclusions from the past turned out to be okay in hindsight

I don't think Ozy is claiming that all absurd conclusions are correct. Rather, Ozy claims that some absurd conclusions are correct. When you just need an existence proof, there's no cherry-picking - you just pick your example/s and you're done.

People who say "it is okay if my moral reasoning produces absurd results" generally don't personally think "that sounds absurd, but I'll accept it anyway"

Maybe they should! My impression is that Ozy does.

Go tell a vegetarian that he should support exterminating all wildlife to end wild animal suffering, and see what response you get

Ozy's a vegetarian, and their position on wild animal suffering is:

short version:

  • wild animal suffering v bad

  • currently unfixable because we don’t understand the environment well enough yet to not destroy everything

  • am much more sympathetic to wild-animal antinatalism than human antinatalism but am still not convinced

Seems pretty open to absurdity to me.

Rejecting reasoning that produces absurd results even if we can't find a flaw in the reasoning is an important way we avoid errors

I'd prefer the framing of applying an absurdity penalty to one's estimated probability, rather than "rejecting" it in a binary way, but yes: absurdity could be a useful thing to weight in one's estimated probability of a conclusion being correct.

Comment author: Jiro 01 July 2015 08:21:53PM 2 points [-]

Ozy's a vegetarian, and their position on wild animal suffering is: [to seriously consider the absurd conclusion]

Ozy is in the LW-sphere. As I pointed out, people in the LW-sphere may actually say "it sounds absurd, but I'll still believe it despite that" and mean it. But people in the LW-sphere are exceptions. Most people, when they say that, don't really mean it, and instead mean that their opponents think the conclusion is absurd, but they personally think it's only slightly unusual.

Comment author: adamisom 01 July 2015 04:46:38PM 5 points [-]

Lack of curiosity made people lose money to Madoff. This you already know - people did not due their due diligence.

Here's what Bienes, a partner of Madoff's who passed clients to him, said to the PBS interviewer for The Madoff Affair (before the 10 minute mark) when asked how he thought Madoff could promise 20%:

Bienes: ‘How do I know? How do you split an atom, I know that you can split them, I don’t know how you do it. How does an airplane fly? I don’t ask.’ ‘Did you ask him?’ ’Never! Why would I ask him? I wouldn’t understand it if he explained it!’

And a minute later: ‘Did you ever think to yourself, this is just too easy, this is too good?’ Bienes: ‘I said ‘I’m a little too lucky. Why am I so fortunate?’ And then I came up with the answer, my wife and I came up with the answer: ‘God wanted us to have this. God gave us this.’ '

Comment author: [deleted] 15 July 2015 08:52:32AM 2 points [-]

Interesting. Modern religious people tend to not believe in the devil much, probably because that is not a very reassuring thing to believe and it is a pretty much a feelings based cafeteria today. This sounds like an example where believing in the devil would have been useful. "Maybe god wants us to be lucky, or maybe the devil tempts us into financial doom."

Comment author: hairyfigment 15 July 2015 07:38:45PM 0 points [-]

What do you expect to find if we look only at Christians who express belief in the Devil?

Comment author: Sarunas 15 July 2015 07:21:51PM 0 points [-]

In addition to that, perhaps it is because they are much more likely to perform a ritual of praying to the god, whereas rituals of fending of the devil seem to be rare. Thus the latter becomes a vague and remote figure, easy to forget and disbelieve.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 14 July 2015 02:36:28PM 2 points [-]

The health of the people should be the supreme law,

Cicero from latin "Salus populi suprema lex esto"

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 14 July 2015 02:34:17PM 4 points [-]

God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. — And we — we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.

Sec. 107. in Friedrich Nietzsche's The Gay Science

Comment author: Zubon 09 July 2015 03:52:18AM 3 points [-]

And when your surpassing creations find the answers you asked for, you can't understand their analysis and you can't verify their answers. You have to take their word on faith —-

—- Or you use information theory to flatten it for you, to squash the tesseract into two dimensions and the Klein bottle into three, to simplify reality and pray to whatever Gods survived the millennium that your honorable twisting of the truth hasn't ruptured any of its load-bearing pylons. ...

I've never convinced myself that we made the right choice. I can cite the usual justifications in my sleep, talk endlessly about the rotational topology of information and the irrelevance of semantic comprehension. But after all the words, I'm still not sure. I don't know if anyone else is, either. Maybe it's just some grand consensual con, marks and players all in league. We won't admit that our creations are beyond us...

Maybe the Singularity happened years ago. We just don't want to admit we were left behind.

-- Siri Keeton explains what a "synthesist" does in Blindsight by Peter Watts, page 35-37

Blindsight is an amazingly Less Wrong book, with much discussion of epistemology and cognitive failures, starting with the title of the book. It is some of the hardest science fiction in existence, with a 22-page "Notes and References" section walking through 144 citations for the underlying science.

Pushing a related quote to a comment... Pushing discussion to another comment...

Comment author: Zubon 09 July 2015 03:52:33AM 1 point [-]

"If you could second-guess a vampire, you wouldn't need a vampire."

-- an aphorism in Blindsight by Peter Watts, page 227

In Blindsight, a "vampire" is a predatory, sociopathic genius built through genetic engineering. They have human brain mass but use it differently; take all the brain power we spend on self-awareness and channel it towards more processing power. The mission leader in Blindsight is a vampire, because he is more intelligent and able to make dispassionate decisions, but how do you check whether your vampire is right or even still on your side? Like Quirrelmort, they are always playing at least one level higher than you.

The synthesist quote is the first time Blindsight brings up the problem of what to do when you build smarter-than-human AI. The vampire quote approaches it from a different angle, with a smarter-than-human biological AI. Vampires present a trade-off: they cannot rewrite their source code, so they cannot have a hard takeoff, but you know they are less than friendly AI.

(If you know what is wrong with the above, please ROT13 your spoilers.)

Comment author: Zubon 09 July 2015 03:53:01AM 0 points [-]

This being Less Wrong, this might be the point where you bring up whether P=NP and that solutions are often much easier to verify than compute. Easier does not necessarily mean easy or even within human cognitive capabilities. And if it does in whatever example comes to mind, just keep pushing to harder problems until we need not only tools to solve the problem but also meta-tools to tell us what our tools are telling us. And you can keep pushing that meta. (Did I mention that Blindsight is a very Less Wrong book?)

We trust our tools because we trust the process we used to develop our tools, and we trust the previous generation of tools used to develop those tools and processes, and we trust... At some point, you look at the edifice of knowledge and realize your life depends on a lot of interdependencies, and that can be scary.

And then I trust Google Maps to get me most places, because I know it has a much better direction sense than me and it knows things like construction and traffic conditions.

Comment author: WalterL 08 July 2015 07:13:18PM 3 points [-]

“When all hope was gone, they heeded the counsels of despair. Had they continued to strive, defying their doom, some unforseen wonder might have occurred."

-Stephen R. Donaldson

Comment author: Username 13 July 2015 09:06:56AM 2 points [-]

The key lesson for politicians: beware of vision. The future will probably mess up your vision. Instead of taking giant irreversible leaps, be backward-looking and evidence-based: what boring complex policy worked somewhere before?

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 14 July 2015 02:42:04PM *  1 point [-]

the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.

Jeremy Bentham (standing on the shoulders of Joseph Priestley and Cesare Beccaria)

Comment author: Jiro 14 July 2015 09:44:42PM 0 points [-]

That assertion isn't actually true, in the strong form in which he intends it. Even if you rely on the vagueness of "morals", it's certainly not true for legislation.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 03 August 2015 02:12:30AM 2 points [-]

Bentham is using Enlightenment shorthand; he means "good, just, natural-law-following legislation". He's not talking about the actual sausages that we get from real legislatures.

Comment author: wadavis 28 July 2015 02:35:36PM *  1 point [-]

Dr. Bunnigus: Are there 'bots (nano-machines creating new neural pathways) in my brain?

Petey: Nope. I don't need them. Your brain is working correctly. All I need to do is explain things to you, and you'll be able to make the right choice.

-Exchange between Dr. Bunnigus and the Benevolent Overlord AI (Petey) that turned the galactic core into a power generator. Schlock Mercenary 2015-07-25 by Howard Taylor

Comment author: wadavis 28 July 2015 02:38:37PM 2 points [-]

This little arc starts here and has a few gems.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 July 2015 11:42:56PM *  1 point [-]

I’m posting several quotes enbloc since they are all from the same video: All from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryFB6mvy4uE

Comment author: [deleted] 23 July 2015 11:59:18PM *  0 points [-]

We're always too prone to thinking what's valuable is what the other company is doing

Investors overvalue things they do use, and undervalue things they don't use

(Start-ups that are about brining existing products and services together] are capital intensive

(On difficulty of first experience with start-ups’ relationship to subsequent work ethic) easy and impossible converge to not working hard (see ~18.50 for verbatim, explained better)

(You can’t just assume it will be built – deterministic technological futures egg. Ai WILL happen) you have to ask yourself what is the future you want to build, then work on that

People always ask me about the future and about trends, I'm not a prophet, I don't think the future is fixed in that way

Things that are underrated, are the ones that there are no buzzwords, it doesn't fit into any pre-existing categories, and you got to walkways be listening for those

(about investing in weed) maybe a lot of the money (in the drug industry) came from the illegality so people are able to charge a lot for it…the details are what matters, not necessarily the big trends

If (inaudible) is perfectly competitive, you’d never be able to make any profit…. (Gives example of restaurant industry in some location)

These monopolies are the reward for innovation

Monopolies are the reward for innovation (~COMPETITION can be bad for business, and monopolies drive progress)

The goal of every successful business is to have a monopoly

Compares regulation of bits to regulation to atoms - points out that it might cost 100k to get a drug through the fad, but nobody does rats on video games to determine if they're addictive

addItional quote that I'll post for verbatim review:


quote shown in a slide, not spoken, from someone else: If you're not working on your best idea right now, you're doing it wrong - David Hansson

He definately privellages specific over sensitive answers (in the medical sense) and has inspired me to read The Reasonableness of Christianity and reconsider Chrstian practice from the allegorical perspective. I was inspired by his thoughts on original sin as a cultural critique. The name dropping of Straussian encourages me to read about Strauss who I haven't come across before.


from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_yJTCDU4uE

What great investments does not one like, what great cause is unpopular. Fund those causes...invest in those ideas. Contrarian

You can always disown a child, but you can't disown anything you've written (Talks about there being technologies innovations potentially that subvert the liberty/privacy vs security paradigm - can get more secure and more privacy concurrently)

A good scientist is very much the opposite, more like 180 degree, 179.5 degrees the opposite of a good politician a scientist is someone who's interested in the truth, and a political is someone with a very troubled relationship with the truth.... (But academic science) egressions law - the bad scientist have driven out the good, those who are nimble in writing government grant application have replaced the eccentric scientists who have really pushed the research. And that's sort of this deep corruption of the public. It’s very hard for the public to really appreciate it, because science is so specialised….self-reinforcing expert communities…have made this process of politicisation extremely opaque to the broader public

(on how happy the super rich are) I don't think this is an easy thing to measure, think it's extremely subject...

I'm not sure subjective happiness is the best way to evaluate things...I think there are many other ways of evaluating things (I think he's implying that if it's just subjective you're measuring, what's the point - they can intuit that themselves anyway)

Comment author: CCC 24 July 2015 01:54:14PM 3 points [-]

Monopolies are the reward for innovation (~COMPETITION can be bad for business, and monopolies drive progress)

I am going to disagree vehemently with the notion that monopolies drive progress.

Telkom spent a long time as a fixed-line telecommunications monopoly, and South Africa still has terrible fixed-line internet costs as a result.

Monopolies, as far as I can see, will almost always relax once their monopoly is secure and just keep doing things the same way all the time, holding onto their monopoly. (Sometimes they will even attempt to squash competitors before they grow large enough to threaten said monopoly). Companies in competition, on the other hand, will improve their offerings and/or lower their prices in order to attract more customers. Therefore - and this is borne out by the Telkom example - I conclude that monopolies lead to stagnation, while healthy competition is more likely to lead to progress.

Comment author: Lumifer 24 July 2015 04:18:05PM 3 points [-]

You seem to interpret "progress" as "lower prices" :-)

While I think that Clarity is misunderstanding Peter Thiel (Thiel says that a potential monopoly is the carrot that drives a lot of innovation; Clarity wrongly interprets this as "monopolies drive progress"), the question of monopolies and progress is complicated. The two major examples that come to mind are Bell Labs (run by AT&T) and IBM (in the 1950s - 80s era).

Comment author: g_pepper 24 July 2015 05:33:25PM 3 points [-]

The two major examples that come to mind are Bell Labs (run by AT&T) and IBM (in the 1950s - 80s era).

Assuming you are referring to IBM's mainframe business, they did not really have a monopoly; they were just a dominant player. Competitors at that time included Amdahl, Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell, General Electric and RCA. Amdahl even offered products that were compatible with IBM's mainframe offerings and could run software developed on/for IBM.

Comment author: Lumifer 24 July 2015 07:13:05PM *  3 points [-]

Given the context, I'm interpreting "monopoly" loosely and include being the dominant player in the definition.

Thiel talks about how you would want to parlay your technological (or first-mover) advantage into a monopoly and he clearly means companies like Microsoft or Google which are not legal monopolies like AT&T was.

Comment author: Vaniver 27 July 2015 05:07:38PM 1 point [-]

While I think that Clarity is misunderstanding Peter Thiel (Thiel says that a potential monopoly is the carrot that drives a lot of innovation; Clarity wrongly interprets this as "monopolies drive progress")

I read Thiel to be making the second argument as well, because monopolies have capacity to make the profits necessary for major R&D spending, as well as the capacity to benefit directly from major R&D spending. No individual commodity producer making zero economic profit has an incentive to invest in better methods of producing their commodity, as they correctly believe that the innovation will rapidly spread and benefit the consumers, rather than them.

The short way to visualize it is that the market for innovations has producer and consumer surplus, and only monopolists can capture both at once, which would suggest a monopolistic industry would spend more on innovation than a competitive industry. (This is true for some innovations and not others; monopolies should be expected to be better at developing basic science related to an industry, and competitions should be expected to be better at determining customer preferences.)

Comment author: [deleted] 09 August 2015 01:41:04AM *  1 point [-]

monopolies have capacity to make the profits necessary for major R&D spending, as well as the capacity to benefit directly from major R&D spending. No individual commodity producer making zero economic profit has an incentive to invest in better methods of producing their commodity, as they correctly believe that the innovation will rapidly spread and benefit the consumers, rather than them.

The short way to visualize it is that the market for innovations has producer and consumer surplus, and only monopolists can capture both at once, which would suggest a monopolistic industry would spend more on innovation than a competitive industry. (This is true for some innovations and not others; monopolies should be expected to be better at developing basic science related to an industry, and competitions should be expected to be better at determining customer preferences.)

Your explanation is compelling and unexpected. Can you reference a Wikipedia article (preferable) or another internet source so I can read more broadly on this thesis? The closest approximation I can find is theses on why patents and other forms of IP are awarded.

Comment author: Vaniver 09 August 2015 03:52:35AM 1 point [-]
Comment author: CCC 26 July 2015 02:53:06PM 0 points [-]

You seem to interpret "progress" as "lower prices" :-)

I see how it can look like that. But no, they are two related but seperate effects of a healthily competitive market.

...a potential monopoly is the carrot that drives a lot of innovation

That is a statement that I can agree with. (And I wouldn't count a severely dominant player as a monopoly; a dominant player can drive a lot of progress as the smaller fish frantically try to find a way to one-up it and pull in customers)

Comment author: welp 24 July 2015 02:46:36PM 1 point [-]

You're right, monopolies certainly don't drive progress. But the possibility of a monopoly can.

Progress requires R&D, and R&D is expensive and unpredictable. No one would want to do the type of long-term research that invigorates the economy or even creates brand new industries if they won't take in the lion's share of the profits. So it would be a bad idea to implement a policy of breaking up any and all monopolies, despite the fact that it is better in the moment (similar to Newcomb's problem). In fact, we actually institute monopolies using government power, via intellectual property.

Comment author: CCC 26 July 2015 02:49:35PM 0 points [-]

You're right, monopolies certainly don't drive progress. But the possibility of a monopoly can.

Agreed. The attempt to reach a monopoly is a great driver of progress; it's only once a company reaches that state that it starts to hinder progress.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 15 July 2015 05:22:17PM *  0 points [-]

I wonder why. I wonder why.

I wonder why I wonder.

I wonder why I wonder why

I wonder why I wonder!

-- Feynman Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman

The book is readable in general.

Comment author: gjm 16 July 2015 04:33:36PM 1 point [-]

I think you're missing one full stop; it parses like this:

  • I wonder why.
  • I wonder why.
  • I wonder why I wonder.
  • I wonder why (I wonder why (I wonder why I wonder)).
Comment author: Good_Burning_Plastic 16 July 2015 01:05:23PM 1 point [-]

Am I the only one who can't read this without singing "Lemon Tree" in my head?

Comment author: LizzardWizzard 29 July 2015 10:07:23AM 0 points [-]

Still makes me smile as I remember the context and nerdy philosophy professor. Hyperbolic but it doesn't make it any worse