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Rationality Quotes Thread November 2015

5 Post author: elharo 02 November 2015 12:30PM

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  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson.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 Do not quote with only a name.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 (143)

Comment author: dxu 03 November 2015 06:21:08PM 18 points [-]

Even though there are no ways of knowing for sure, there are ways of knowing for pretty sure.

Daniel Handler (pen name Lemony Snicket)

Comment author: Lumifer 03 November 2015 06:44:51PM 0 points [-]

There are also ways to fool yourself into being pretty sure.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 November 2015 10:36:57PM 9 points [-]

"Our beliefs about ourselves and the world are built on each other in a Jenga-like fashion. My belief that Keynes said “When the facts change, I change my mind” was a block sitting at the apex. It supported nothing else, so I could easily pick it up and toss it without disturbing other blocks. But when Jean-Pierre makes a forecast in his specialty, that block is lower in the structure, sitting next to a block of self-perception, near the tower’s core. So it’s a lot harder to pull that block out without upsetting other blocks—which makes Jean-Pierre reluctant to tamper with it."

-Phillip Tetlock, Superforecasting

Comment author: EGarrett 04 November 2015 11:45:53AM *  9 points [-]

"It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience." -Einstein

Comment author: 27chaos 03 November 2015 07:34:56PM 17 points [-]

“I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.”

Stanley Kubrick

Comment author: Silver_Swift 05 November 2015 12:49:41PM 14 points [-]


I've never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive.

Randal Munroe

Comment author: 27chaos 16 November 2015 11:17:39PM *  5 points [-]

Maybe hubris means not knowing the capabilities of one's tools.

Edit: I've just realized that in that sense, underestimating the capabilities of one's tools and refusing to try would also be a sin. If you believe that Fate itself is opposed to any attempt by men to fly, that's more arrogant a belief than thinking Fate is indifferent. I like this implication.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 November 2015 10:42:17PM 6 points [-]

"The first step in changing someone’s mind is to know where that mind is."

-William Ury, Getting to Yes With Yourself

Comment author: username2 13 November 2015 12:39:04PM *  1 point [-]

I don't understand this quote. Could someone explain it to me?

Comment author: [deleted] 13 November 2015 04:44:27PM 2 points [-]

It's highly to related to another of my favorite quotes "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." It's saying that if you want to convince someone of your point of view, you have to do it from their current frame of reference, not yours.

Comment author: gjm 13 November 2015 06:25:21PM 0 points [-]

That's an excellent way to take that quotation, but note that it's probably actually derived from a famous prayer ascribed to St Francis of Assisi in which it surely isn't referring to what one should to in order to convince someone else of something.

(The prayer almost certainly has nothing much to do with St Francis, other than maybe being inspired by something written by one of his associates. But that's not important right now.)

Comment author: [deleted] 17 November 2015 03:47:06AM 1 point [-]

The "Seek First to Understand" quote comes from Stephen Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Habit 4), who meant it in kind of a hybrid way that has to do with both the "give first" idea of St. Francis as well as the "Changing People's Minds" idea I mention above.

Comment author: mwengler 20 November 2015 08:49:21AM *  0 points [-]


Comment author: RichardKennaway 18 November 2015 11:35:21PM 5 points [-]

That language is an instrument of human reason, and not merely a medium for the expression of thought, is a truth generally admitted.

George Boole, Laws of Thought, ch. 2.

Comment author: dspeyer 04 November 2015 09:45:53AM 10 points [-]

Don't trust any model that implies X is too low unless it's also capable of detecting when X would be too high


Comment author: Jiro 04 November 2015 07:32:45PM 4 points [-]

I think that the lifespan that humans can live to if they wish, given current medical and scientific knowledge, is too low.

Comment author: dspeyer 04 November 2015 11:05:14PM 5 points [-]

I agree.

The model I use to derive that involves looking at lots of dying people who don't want to die. If we had lots of people lying around saying "I wish I could die; why can't I die?" that same model would conclude the lifespan is too long.

Comment author: Good_Burning_Plastic 07 November 2015 09:42:55AM 2 points [-]

If we had lots of people lying around saying "I wish I could die; why can't I die?"

I think Sister Y would disagree with the implication that there are few such people.

Comment author: Jiro 05 November 2015 06:15:57AM 3 points [-]

I didn't say that lifespan is too low, I said that the lifespan that you can choose if you wish is too low. The existence of people who want to die is irrelevant to this.

Comment author: ChristianKl 04 November 2015 11:24:51PM 0 points [-]

If we had lots of people lying around saying "I wish I could die; why can't I die?" that same model would conclude the lifespan is too long.

We actually do have people around who want to die. At the same time we still want to increase the lifespan that people can achieve if they want to do so.

Comment author: dxu 05 November 2015 05:28:05PM 2 points [-]

I think the key word in the part of dspeyer's comment that you quoted is "lots".

Comment author: [deleted] 06 November 2015 05:44:33PM 3 points [-]

Hmmm... a Bayesian optimization model will detect high values for a target function while remaining ignorant of very low ones. So I shouldn't trust it?

Comment author: gwern 02 December 2015 08:08:49PM 0 points [-]

Your optimizer, whether Bayesian or not, needs to be able to recognize a low point when it hits one, or else it can't optimize at all! If every point looks the same... (It may learn more about high points, but it must still learn about low points.)

Comment author: [deleted] 03 December 2015 02:44:22AM 0 points [-]

(It may learn more about high points, but it must still learn about low points.)

That's not how Bayesian optimization works. Broadly, the idea is that we use Bayesian optimization when both calculating the value of the target function at a point and calculating its gradient are both expensive or infeasible. Thus, we instead choose points at which to sample the target function, and the samples train a Gaussian process model (or other nonparametric model of functions) that tells us what the function's surface looks like. In such a procedure, we obtain the best performance by sampling points where either the expected function value or the model's variance is particularly high. Thus, we choose points that we know are good, or points where we're very uncertain, but we never specifically search for low points. We'll probably encounter some when sampling points of great uncertainty, but we didn't specifically seek them out.

Comment author: 27chaos 03 November 2015 07:24:17PM *  8 points [-]

At root, our work suggests that creativity in science appears to be a nearly universal phenomenon of two extremes. At one extreme is conventionality and at the other is novelty. Curiously, notable advances in science appear most closely linked not with efforts along one boundary or the other but with efforts that reach toward both frontiers.

Mukherjee et. al, Atypical Combinations and Scientific Impact.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 November 2015 10:39:20PM 3 points [-]

" Look forward and reason backward. Anticipate where your initial decisions will ultimately lead and use this information to calculate your best choice."

-Avanish Dixit, The Art of Strategy

Comment author: xv15 05 November 2015 11:48:58PM 6 points [-]

The optimist fell ten stories, and at each window bar he shouted to the folks inside: 'Doing all right so far!'

Anonymous; quoted for instance in The Manager's Dilemma

Comment author: 27chaos 04 November 2015 10:31:42PM 8 points [-]

The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don't want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don't want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can't, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.

Most often, these days, medicine seems to supply neither Custers nor Lees. We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, "You let me know when you want to stop." All-out treatment, we tell the incurably ill, is a train you can get off at any time--just say when. But for most patients and their families we are asking too much. They remain riven by doubt and fear and desperation; some are deluded by a fantasy of what medical science can achieve. Our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People only die once. They have no experience to draw on. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come--and escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.

Comment author: Artaxerxes 08 November 2015 05:45:22PM 3 points [-]

This is a great quote, but even moreso than Custers and Lees I feel like we need someone not so much on the front lines, but someone to win the whole war - maybe Lincoln, but my knowledge of the American Civil War is poor. Preventing death from most relevant causes (aging, infectious disease, etc.) seems within reach before the end of the century, as a conservative guess. Hastening winning that war means that society will no longer need so many generals, Lees, Custers or otherwise.

Comment author: WalterL 17 November 2015 07:19:30PM 0 points [-]

I don't think we'll prevent death from aging within the century. Normally I'd offer to bet you, but obviously that wouldn't work out in this case...

Comment author: elharo 02 November 2015 12:36:20PM 8 points [-]

The terror that took Baru came from the deepest part of her soul. It was a terror particular to her, a fundamental concern—the apocalyptic possibility that the world simply did not permit plans, that it worked in chaotic and unmasterable ways, that one single stroke of fortune, one well-aimed bowshot by a man she had never met, could bring total disaster. The fear that the basic logic she used to negotiate the world was a lie.

Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, p. 292

Comment author: philh 02 November 2015 03:03:40PM 7 points [-]

The NTP Classic devs fell into investing increasing effort merely fighting the friction of their own limiting assumptions because they lacked something that Dave Mills had and I have and any systems architect necessarily must have – professional courage. It’s the same quality that a surgeon needs to cut into a patient – the confidence, bordering on arrogance, that you do have what it takes to go in and solve the problem even if there’s bound to be blood on the floor before you’re done.


Comment author: DanArmak 11 November 2015 08:10:27PM 6 points [-]

It's good that most people don't have such arrogance, because it would be unjustified. Don't strive for confidence, strive for calibration. And demand it from your system architect as you would from your heart surgeon.

Comment author: lmm 26 November 2015 11:27:39AM 0 points [-]

I think there's an underlying truth that most software engineers are too timid, perhaps because we're calibrated for working with materials where mistakes are more costly and harder to put right.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 03 November 2015 03:56:16PM 9 points [-]

“Pharmaceutical happiness isn’t actual happiness, John. It just feels like it for a while.”

“And if I take aspirin for a headache, my lack of headache isn’t actual lack of headache. It just feels like it for a while. I don’t see the relevance.”

From "Beyond the curtain", fiction by Jeffrey Wells.

Comment author: Good_Burning_Plastic 07 November 2015 09:31:28AM 8 points [-]

A: I don't believe in love. It's just a bunch of chemical reactions. B: [kicks A in the balls] A: WHYYY??! B: I don't believe in pain. It's just a chemical reaction.

-- SMBC on explaining vs. explaining away.

Comment author: Philip_W 05 November 2015 10:09:40AM 7 points [-]

'Happiness' is a vague term which refers to various prominent sensations and to a more general state, as vague and abstract as CEV (e.g. "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness"). 'Headache', on the other hand, primarily refers to the sensation.

If you take an aspirin for a headache, your head muscles don't stop clenching (or whatever else the cause is); it just feels like it for a while. A better pill would stop the clenching, and a better treatment still would make you aware of the physiological cause of the clenching and allow you to change it to your liking.

Comment author: Nomad 15 November 2015 03:30:20PM 4 points [-]

John Green on human inability to instinctively appreciate large numbers and broad events:

My current number one goal in life is to someday be as excited about something as Cheez Doodles Guy is about Cheez Doodles. But its a weird facet of human brains that some thins cause that joyful excitement and others don't. Like today, the World Health Organisation announced that maternal death over the last twenty-five years has fallen 44% worldwide. This is amazing news (arguably even better news than discovering Cheez Doodles in Antarctica) and yet while I am encouraged by this news I am not Cheez-Doodles-Guy-excited about it, which is so weird; humans are so weird!

Comment author: Zubon 15 November 2015 05:06:44PM 4 points [-]

Related quote from July's thread:

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 16 November 2015 12:32:20AM *  2 points [-]

I already gave a reply which suggested three things are wrong with that. It's conveniently right there when anyone clocks on your link, but here's a repeat, and I'll add a fourth item:

  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?
  4. The comparison invites the reader to think about the total benefits of the war, not the benefit to an individual reader. If you are happy about the end of the war based on the total benefits of winning the war, and everyone else is too, that's another form of double-counting

Also, although it may come under #1, that reasoning indicates we should be a lot happier about the invention of fire or agriculture than about the end of World War II.

Comment author: Stingray 17 November 2015 11:10:36PM *  2 points [-]

Happiness is not for appreciation of goodness of events, at least, that's not what evolution intended it to be for. It's for rewarding your actions to motivate you to do them as well as rewarding other people for their actions that are good for you. If neither you did anything to do it, neither you can pinpoint an actual person who did it and whose action you want to celebrate, it's no surprise that you do not feel happiness about that thing.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 November 2015 10:37:51PM 5 points [-]

"Wisdom is not the same thing as information. Wisdom is information + experience + context, and only a human can do that. Wisdom is information you can actually use."

-Tucker Max, The Book in a Box Method

Comment author: Zubon 20 November 2015 02:39:41PM 0 points [-]

What implies that only a human can do that?

Comment author: [deleted] 20 November 2015 05:03:43PM 2 points [-]

Well... Tucker Max does, in his quote.

I think it's true in a narrow sense, if you take "can" as a statement about the present, not the future. But that's the least important part of the quote regardless.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 November 2015 10:40:43PM 3 points [-]

"What tit for tat lacks is a way of saying “Enough is enough.” It is too provocable, and not forgiving enough. And indeed, subsequent versions of Axelrod’s tournament, which allowed possibilities of mistakes and misperceptions, showed other, more generous strategies to be superior to tit for tat."

-Avanish Dixit, The Art of Strategy

Comment author: RichardKennaway 16 November 2015 01:23:21PM 0 points [-]

Why the silent downvotes? If someone thinks the claims of the quote are inaccurate, let them expose the inaccuracies.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 November 2015 06:01:08PM 3 points [-]

Ask the next question.

Theodore Sturgeon

Comment author: username2 13 November 2015 12:42:31PM 0 points [-]

Could you explain this quote?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 November 2015 01:45:57PM *  4 points [-]

You think you've understood a situation, but you might be missing something. Is there anything else worth considering?

Sturgeon on the subject

Ask the next question, and the one that follows that, and the one that follows that. It's the symbol of everything humanity has ever created, and is the reason it has been created. This guy is sitting in a cave and he says, "Why can't man fly?" Well, that's the question. The answer may not help him, but the question now has been asked.

The next question is what? How? And so all through the ages, people have been trying to find out the answer to that question. We've found the answer, and we do fly. This is true of every accomplishment, whether it's technology or literature, poetry, political systems or anything else. That is it. Ask the next question. And the one after that.

PDF in which Sturgeon discusses this at greater length

Comment author: username2 13 November 2015 02:59:06PM 0 points [-]

Thank you!

Comment author: wizard 05 November 2015 01:51:07PM *  2 points [-]

The world is all that is the case.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Comment author: [deleted] 06 November 2015 11:23:02AM *  0 points [-]

I had totally forget about the Tractus! When I read the Tractus (yes...there was a time) I thought it was the most amazing thing ever. This was awhile I had very poor coping with both psychotic and OCD type symptoms so I remember reading sections of it over and over again, having all kinds of grandiose ideas and going on rants to strangers on the internet about things I was trying to understand, devoid of context... thinking the Vienna circle had figured it all out. Haha. I hope I can look back on today in the future and see a bit of a loon in me now too, a sign that I've matured. Then one day I decided to read a bit of Witties later works where he lost his former writing style. I couldn't get through it. I read reviews that said he denounced basically the entirety of the Tractus. In retrospect, the tractus really is amazing, from a certain perspective, but not from most of them...

Comment author: PhilGoetz 03 November 2015 03:51:57PM *  2 points [-]

For sentimental pacifism is, after all, but a return to the method of the jungle. It is in the jungle that emotionalism alone determines conduct, and wherever that is true no other than the law of the jungle is possible. For the emotion of hate is sure sooner or later to follow on the emotion of love, and then there is a spring for the throat.

Robert Millikan, "Science and modern life", The Atlantic Monthly, April 1928, Quoted in Understanding Poetry, 3rd edition, 1960.

Comment author: elharo 02 November 2015 12:45:14PM 2 points [-]

I picked up the folders for the two courses required of every student at the school. Statistics and epidemiology. Epi—what?

In the first lecture, we ‘reviewed’ all the major study types. For example, in the case-control study you find a group of people with a disease, and then look for people who are much the same but without the disease. You compare the two groups to see if they have different risks. It’s a relatively cheap method, but it doesn’t tell you much about the order in which things happen. I can’t remember all the examples used in the lecture, but let’s say you want to look at causes of depression in women. You start with 600 depressed women, find another 600 who match them in age, ethnicity and educational status, and then ask them all about their lives. Let’s say you find out that women who are depressed are six times more likely not to have had sex in the last year as women who are cheerful. That means if you’re not having sex you get depressed, right? But hang on, couldn’t it be that women who are moping around looking miserable don’t get laid much?

Perhaps you’d be better off with a cohort study. You start off with several thousand women who are perfectly happy. Then you follow them over time, recording their behaviours, and see which of them get depressed. If you find that women who have sex are less likely to become depressed than women who aren’t getting any, it suggests it is the lack of sex that causes the depression, not the depression which stops you getting laid. You can throw out the ‘misery guts’ theory and recommend more good sex as an intervention to promote mental health.

-- Elizabeth Pisani, The Wisdom of Whores, p. 16

Comment author: dspeyer 04 November 2015 10:00:00AM 5 points [-]

Chronology is evidence of causality, but it's weak evidence. In this case, there are (at least) two problems. First, there could be some other factor (disruption of social network? increase in pro-inflamatory microbiota?) which causes both, but the sex is caused faster. Alternatively, it could be that depression causes low sex drive, but that kicks in immediately whereas it takes months to get a depression diagnosis.

There are good ways to determine causality from observational data, but timing isn't one of them.

Comment author: gwern 02 December 2015 08:19:13PM 0 points [-]

but timing isn't one of them.

Hm? What Pisani is pointing out here is that of the 3 major causal patterns that a cross-sectional correlation can reflect, A->B, B->A and A<-C->B, a longitudinal correlation in which observations of A are followed by observations of B, will let you rule out 1 of the 3 patterns (B->A), reverse causation, which leaves either the hypothesized direct causation or confounding. This is much better evidence than just the cross-sectional approach, although I think confounding is much more likely in general so the boost is not as big as the trichotomy makes it sound.

Comment author: dspeyer 27 December 2015 08:28:23AM 1 point [-]

Reverse causation is not ruled out because diagnosis can be delayed.

It seems entirely plausible to me that it takes several months of worsening depression symptoms (during which time sex drive is effected) before a patient sees a psychiatrist.

I suppose it's ruled out if we separate "depression" and "diagnosed with depression" into separate nodes, but that doesn't rule out anything interesting.

Comment author: FairWitness 09 November 2015 03:17:12AM *  2 points [-]

"If you want to understand UFOs, reincarnation, and God, do not study UFOs, reincarnation, and God.
Study people."

Avatar, a character in Scott Adams' book, "God's Debris"

Comment author: EGarrett 12 November 2015 12:59:08PM 1 point [-]

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it." -GK Chesterton

Comment author: mwengler 20 November 2015 08:47:35AM 4 points [-]

This is my first time seeing this quote and it is a good one. Took me a minute to realize what he was saying. And I've been hanging out on this site for years.

I can't stop you from saying or thinking I should have noticed the quote before, if that's the way your mind works. But in reality I am not unique and I am not an idiot and if I find something particularly useful here there is likely a significant minority of the rest of the readers who find it useful. Which is sort of consistent with the quote.

Comment author: gjm 12 November 2015 03:42:32PM 1 point [-]

Posted before: December 2012 and February 2010 before that.

Comment author: EGarrett 12 November 2015 09:44:33PM -2 points [-]

3 years is enough time.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 12 November 2015 09:57:30PM 3 points [-]

Chesterton's Fence is a well-known concept on LessWrong and frequently alluded to. It even has an entry in the wiki, containing this exact quote.

Comment author: username2 17 November 2015 01:22:52PM 4 points [-]

What if the fact that Chesterton fence quote is posted frequently is by itself an example of Chesterton fence and should not be discouraged? :)

Comment author: EGarrett 12 November 2015 10:00:41PM 0 points [-]

It's a great concept.

Comment author: gjm 12 November 2015 11:54:22PM -1 points [-]

It is a useful idea, indeed, but it's familiar enough that it doesn't particularly need repeating, and the tradition here is not to repeat quotations at all. (Isn't it?)

Comment author: EGarrett 13 November 2015 01:47:11AM *  0 points [-]

The goal is not to tell people what they already know nor flout tradition. Just to share a quote from the Slack Chat that some segment of the thread readers may find useful.

Comment author: gjm 13 November 2015 08:49:41AM 0 points [-]

You can be telling people what they already know and flouting tradition even if that's not your goal :-). Seriously, I think part of the point of the "rule" (in so far as it is a rule) is to disable what would otherwise be a cheap strategy for getting lots of karma without actually adding much value or demonstrating good sense or cleverness or anything: look through 5-year-old Rationality Quotes threads and repost the ones that got the most upvotes.

For the avoidance of doubt, I'm not accusing you of doing that! I'm saying that you've done, for other reasons, something that's frowned on because not frowning on it would open the way for that sort of misbehaviour.

Comment author: EGarrett 13 November 2015 03:43:35PM 3 points [-]

Well I'm not interested in copy/pasting for cheap karma, and I don't wish to encourage or create an environment where others do it. All the best, no offense taken and hopefully no offense caused.

Comment author: Tem42 21 November 2015 10:23:56PM 1 point [-]

Slightly off topic, but if someone were to look through all the old quote threads and copy-paste the 10% highest ranked quotes within each thread into a single thread, that would be a good and useful service. That's still a ton of good quotes, so ideally this should be done yearly.

Comment author: VoiceOfRa 02 November 2015 04:20:15PM 0 points [-]

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

Richard Feynman, What is science?

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 02 November 2015 07:18:27PM 3 points [-]

This is a dupe.

Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2015 04:31:04PM 1 point [-]

I come from a country that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I'm from Missouri. You've got to show me.

--Willard Duncan Vandiver

Comment author: ike 15 November 2015 09:33:09AM 0 points [-]

I've said before that a "financial crisis" means, roughly, "that someone borrows money from someone else and can't pay it back, and it is socially or politically unacceptable that the people who loaned the money not get their money back." So the way to avoid financial crises is to clearly define the classes of people whom it is socially and politically acceptable not to pay back.

Matt Levine

Comment author: Lumifer 16 November 2015 02:04:52AM 1 point [-]

Um, no. That is, to put it politely, a naive view of what a financial crisis is. I can express it less politely if need be.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 November 2015 05:45:27AM 2 points [-]

The quote isn't supposed to define financial crisis. It's claiming that a financial crisis isn't called a crisis if the people who lose money are unpopular.

Though I read the link and still don't know what people Matt's thinking of.

Comment author: ike 16 November 2015 11:53:40AM 2 points [-]

The original source is more explicit:

Loosely speaking, what is meant by a "financial crisis" is that someone borrows money from someone else and can't pay it back, and it is socially or politically unacceptable that the people who loaned the money not get their money back. That last part is crucial: If someone borrows money and can't pay it back, and the lender loses money and no one else cares, then that's just capitalism, not a crisis.

Puerto Rico's Slide

So part of the trouble in Puerto Rico -- which borrowed a lot of money and can't pay it back -- is figuring out how sympathetic the lenders are. The hedge funds telling Puerto Rico to close schools to pay them back: not hugely sympathetic. But the individual retirees, in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, who bought Puerto Rican municipal bonds because they were tax-free and supposedly safe, might be more appealing.

Comment author: Lumifer 16 November 2015 03:40:58PM 1 point [-]

The quote isn't supposed to define financial crisis.

It sure looks like it's trying to.

It's claiming that a financial crisis isn't called a crisis if the people who lose money are unpopular.

Unpopular? That's an even worse way to try to define a financial crisis.

Comment author: gjm 16 November 2015 11:37:24PM 5 points [-]

When someone says "Something is called an X when it has properties P, Q, and R", they need not be endorsing the definition. They might simply be saying (with more or less cynical exaggeration) "This is how the term gets used in practice". Like when someone says that a language is a dialect with an army, or that a freedom fighter is a terrorist the speaker approves of.

I paraphrase Mike Levine's comment, in its context, thus: "If you look at how politicians and newspapers and the like use the term 'financial crisis', you will find that the point at which those words start getting used is the point at which someone is owed money they aren't going to get, and the powers that be find it unacceptable for them not to get it. From this cynical perspective we can see what's going on with these proposed new rules about banks: the idea is to make it clearer what sorts of debt the government can be expected to make sure gets paid back, and crucially what sorts it can't, in the hope that future bank failures will be less likely to be classified as financial crises."

I haven't looked at how the term "financial crisis" actually gets used carefully enough to know whether Matt Levine's description is defensible (as it stands, or as a deliberate overstatement for cynical effect). Perhaps it isn't. But the right criterion to judge it by isn't whether it offers a good definition of "financial crisis", but by whether it offers a good description of the (perhaps very bad) way in which that term actually gets used.

Comment author: Lumifer 17 November 2015 01:18:27AM 0 points [-]

Like when someone says that a language is a dialect with an army, or that a freedom fighter is a terrorist the speaker approves of.

Yes, I got a whiff of the "when a prole loses everything no one cares, when a fat cat gets pinched it's a crisis" flavour in the quote, but didn't bring it up since it was just a whiff and nothing conclusive.

I don't mind Matt Levine saying all these things in his column. But I don't see how it is a rationality quote and the smell of class struggle certainly doesn't help here.

Comment author: gjm 17 November 2015 10:54:18AM 1 point [-]

Oh, I completely agree that it doesn't seem at all like a rationality quote.

Comment author: ike 16 November 2015 12:02:11PM -1 points [-]

I know we kind of hate authority here, but the guy did work on wall street for a number of years, and has written his financial newsletter for years as well.

I feel like the quotes I've made recently have been taken less charitably than is usual here.

Anyway, with this particular claim, I think it's meant more as a simplistic view that gets at some truth versus something that's always true, in which case that might be naive (although you didn't provide any counterexamples).

Comment author: Lumifer 16 November 2015 03:45:04PM 1 point [-]

but the guy did work on wall street for a number of years, and has written his financial newsletter for years as well.

That doesn't make him an authority on financial crises. It makes him a Wall St. M&A lawyer who went into journalism.

I feel like the quotes I've made recently have been taken less charitably than is usual here.

Perhaps try with quotes that are more than "a simplistic view that gets at some truth"?

I see no reason to be charitable to quotes, anyway. There is a very very large number of quotable sentences around and stringent curation is much better than loose, lest we drown in clever turns of phrase without much insight behind them.

Comment author: ike 16 November 2015 05:44:13PM 0 points [-]

I'm not really arguing for a different norm. I'm just noting that it seems the norms have changed.

Also, you still haven't really justified your opposition to the claim. Even if you aren't going to be charitable, you should at least explain why you're rejecting it, in a more substantial critique than "naive".

Comment author: Lumifer 16 November 2015 06:04:24PM *  3 points [-]

I'm inclined to call it "not even wrong", but let's take an example. The Financial Crisis is the crisis of 2008. It started (the crisis itself, not the preshocks), notably, with a bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers which the Fed allowed to happen. This, by the way, was later deemed to have been a mistake and the TBTF -- Too Big To Fail -- monsters were born. The immediate danger during the September and October of 2008 was that the global payment network would freeze because of counterparty uncertainty and that the world finance would, essentially, collapse. That did not happen, but the effects on real economy were severe nevertheless -- consult any GDP graph for the relevant period.

So let's apply Levine's definition. Who in 2008 were the borrowers and who were the lenders? It was deemed "socially or politically unacceptable" for which creditors to not get their money back? Is it a useful way to think about the situation?

Comment author: lmm 26 November 2015 11:20:27AM -1 points [-]

AIG was the borrower (and separately Fannie and Freddie), banks were the lenders, it is absolutely useful to think about the situation in those terms. It highlights the conflict between our political intuition that insurance should be protected and financial speculation should not - some people thought AIG was doing one, some people thought the other. Likewise some people thought Freddie and Fannie were widows-and-orphans investments that the government should guarantee and some people thought they were private financial traders. Clarifying these things could have averted the crisis, it's absolutely a useful model.

Comment author: ChristianKl 18 November 2015 04:48:57PM 1 point [-]

I feel like the quotes I've made recently have been taken less charitably than is usual here.

I don't know about other quotes but I think this quote also would have gotten resistance years ago. Complex problem X can be simplified to Y and solved with populist solution Z is not a template that generally popular in the rationalist quote thread.

Maybe you did post different quotes in the past?

Comment author: ike 18 November 2015 05:38:04PM -1 points [-]

He's mostly describing what's going on, not giving advice on what should be done. And the TLACs he's discussing are not populist.

(This may be clearer in context.)

Comment author: ChristianKl 18 November 2015 06:35:56PM 1 point [-]

"clearly define the classes of people whom it is socially and politically acceptable not to pay back." sounds to me like a populist suggestion.

To the extend that you quoted him out of context, that's still an issue with the quote.

Comment author: ike 18 November 2015 07:45:47PM 0 points [-]

I kind of expect someone disagreeing with a quote to at least look at the context. Do you think quoting the entire section would have gotten a better reaction?

Comment author: ChristianKl 18 November 2015 08:39:10PM 2 points [-]

I kind of expect someone disagreeing with a quote to at least look at the context.

I generally do think that quotes in this thread are supposed to be able to stand alone.

Do you think quoting the entire section would have gotten a better reaction?

Lumifer probably still would have objected.

Comment author: Lumifer 18 November 2015 10:10:32PM 0 points [-]

I looked at the context -- the quote was made while Levine was talking about Puerto Rico. It still does not make sense. He might have meant it as a fancy way of saying that if nobody cares then nobody cares, but that's a trivial observation.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 15 November 2015 01:53:50PM 0 points [-]

If this is a way to avoid financial crises, then we can prevent anything bad from ever happening by clearly defining "bad things" as "things that cannot happen."

Comment author: ike 15 November 2015 02:24:09PM -1 points [-]

The example given is explicitly labeling certain debt as "not expected to be paid back if there are troubles", so that someone who buys that knowingly accepts the risk. That's more substantive than just defining it away, although the catchy way in which it's worded might not give that away.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 15 November 2015 05:56:43PM 0 points [-]

That will only work if you label all debt in that way, since you cannot have 100% certainty of any debt being paid back. And this means that there will be no real difference in the world except that people realize that debts are not always paid back, which they ought to realize anyway. It does not prevent anything bad from happening, just as my redefinition of "bad" does not.

Comment author: Lumifer 16 November 2015 03:57:11PM 3 points [-]

That will only work if you label all debt in that way

And, of course, people do that. It's called a "credit rating" and there are a few large institutions which assign ratings to bonds. Pretty much all bonds traded in financial markets have credit ratings.

Comment author: lmm 26 November 2015 11:23:14AM -1 points [-]

And one of the big issues leading to the financial crisis was that a lot of these ratings were wrong and a lot of AAA bonds defaulted.

Comment author: 50lbsofstorkmeat 16 November 2015 01:29:58PM 0 points [-]

I think there may be something to consider in the idea of having

"Loans where society has promised to go to great lengths to enforce the will of the creditor, even if the debtor's reasons for nonpayment are convincingly sympathetic."


"Loans where society may forgive the debt, if the debtor offers a good reason to do so, even if the creditor disagrees with society's judgement on this issue."

be legally distinct types of lending, such that the creditor and the debtor can negotiate on which type it will be without society retroactively altering the agreement. Creditors will of course prefer the first class of loan, but society as a whole would have a preference that many loans of the second type be available for personal emergencies.

Comment author: Lumifer 16 November 2015 04:00:10PM 3 points [-]

such that the creditor and the debtor can negotiate on which type it will be

Why wouldn't the market price these two types more or less efficiently meaning that the second type will have to charge a higher interest rate to compensate for the option of the politicians deciding not to pay the loan back?

Comment author: 50lbsofstorkmeat 16 November 2015 09:42:27PM 1 point [-]

It would? I don't quite follow the question. Yes, the second type of loan would invariably have a higher interest rate. Let's say there's two loans for 10000$ and that, regardless of the loan type there is a 0.1% chance that a debtor will have an accident. If the debtor is poor, they will be forced to choose between not making loan payments and (for example) losing a leg to gangrene. If the debtor is rich, they will can pay both their loan payments and medical bills at the same time.

Loan A asks for 1000$ in total interest and has enforced payment which will prevent a poor debtor from paying their medical bills. Regardless, the creditor has priority in payment and receives their interest either way. Expected value to the bank: 1000$.

Loan B asks for 1010$ in total interest, but has a hardship forgiveness clause. There is a 0.1% chance that the creditor will lose 10000$, but no chance of the debtor losing a leg. Expected value to the bank: 1000$.

The bank is indifferent between the two loans, as both have the same expected return (lets ignore variance for now on the bank's part; we can assume they deal in a large enough volume of loans or charge slightly more interest to compensate). The poor debtor prefers Loan B, as 10$ is a small price to pay for protection against crippling disability. The rich debtor prefers Loan A, as they do not want to pay 10$ to avoid a negative result which they are already protected against.

I don't see any particular social problems arising from this situation. Do you?

Comment author: Lumifer 16 November 2015 09:55:11PM 5 points [-]

I have a feeling you're trying to reinvent the wheel. Bond insurance, as well as various forms of bond guarantees, exists and is used when it make sense. Junk bonds have a non-trivial risk of default (reflected in their yield), but are actively traded. Moreover, if you are talking about bespoke loans, their conditions are entirely determined by what's in the contract, so there is nothing preventing the borrower from negotiating some appropriate "hardship" clause.

What do you want to make possible that is not possible now?

Comment author: 50lbsofstorkmeat 17 November 2015 01:59:51AM 1 point [-]

It's not about possible vs impossible. Its about industrial and social standards.

If a private individual goes to a bank and asks to take out a loan, and then starts asking about the possibility of more forgiving terms in the case of a default, the bank suddenly becomes incredibly suspicious. Planning for unexpected emergencies is seen as admitting that you intend to default. As a result, banks largely don't let people negotiate for generous debtor protection clauses, or, when they do, they only agree after incredibly punitive interest rates are agreed to. As a result, private individuals by and large just don't ask for that sort of thing. It's Not Done.

What I feel would be better is if creditors had a culture of less suspicion here. Debtor forgiveness clauses should be the default that a debtor opts out of with a bespoke loan exchange for a lowered interest rate rather than something they have to opt into if they're allowed the option at all. A debtor arranging their affairs such that a sudden injury does not financially cripple them should become the new norm, not an example of unusual prudence. Likewise, a debtor asking to take on that risk in exchange for a lower rate should be by seen creditors as dangerously recklessness rather than as confident and therefore trustworthy.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 18 November 2015 02:02:46PM *  2 points [-]

A poor person comes to the bank and wants a loan. The bank judges them a high risk, and either declines to offer the loan or offers it at a high rate of interest.

No way of drawing up loan contracts differently can affect that basic relationship between the risk of a loan and its cost.

Banks are not charities. They provide a service in return for a profit. As with any business, they must make a profit on whatever service they provide, at least on average, or they will cease providing that service. Even if the bank were set up as a non-profit organisation for the good of its customers rather than its shareholders, it still has to have a business model that breaks even. Selling £10 for £5 is not a business model. Laws and regulations that make a business sell £10 for £5 result in the business ceasing, or changing its form to avoid the laws.


Its about industrial and social standards.

I think the causality works the other way round. You can't make up social rules and say "wouldn't it be nice if people behaved like this?" That's not to say that what we have at present is the only possibility, but one has to think about how an alternative would actually work, and not merely imagine happy faces.

Comment author: Lumifer 17 November 2015 02:33:32AM 2 points [-]

If a private individual goes to a bank and asks to take out a loan, and then starts asking about the possibility of more forgiving terms in the case of a default, the bank suddenly becomes incredibly suspicious.

Well, moral hazard is a thing. Besides, the borrower always has the option of bankruptcy. You're talking about the situation when the debtor thinks he might not pay back the loan and not declare bankruptcy, right? I don't see why the bank should be sympathetic.

I also have trouble imagining the situation you're describing. Banks rarely lend money outright to individuals without any protection. The great majority of loans involve collateral -- a house (in the case of a mortgage), a car (in the case of an auto loan), securities (in the case of the margin loan at the broker), etc. And in practice, if you default, the bank gets the collateral and that's the end of it.

Given this, what kind of "debtor forgiveness clauses" do you have in mind and what protections against abuse will be there?

Comment author: ChristianKl 18 November 2015 04:08:59PM 0 points [-]

Loan A asks for 1000$ in total interest and has enforced payment which will prevent a poor debtor from paying their medical bills. Regardless, the creditor has priority in payment and receives their interest either way. Expected value to the bank: 1000$.

The US might have a system where something like that happens but Europe generally doesn't. You don't need two types on lending in this case. You just need laws about enforcing loans that are written in the public interest as they are written in a country like Germany and not laws that are written by banking lobbyists.

Comment author: Jiro 16 November 2015 02:44:06PM 0 points [-]

This proposal is equivalent to just having society never forgive debts. If society doesn't ever forgive debts, you can still do the equivalent to case 2 by simply writing a normal contract and adding a clause saying that the debt is cancelled under these conditions, then listing the same conditions that would cause society to cancel it under your proposal.

So we've already had this. It didn't work well.

Comment author: Lumifer 16 November 2015 04:02:29PM 2 points [-]

This proposal is equivalent to just having society never forgive debts.

Nope, the second type is just a bond with an embedded option to not pay if you can convince the politicians you shouldn't. I expect it to be very expensive :-/

As to never forgive debts, well, there is a reason for bankruptcy laws. Blood out of stone, and all that.

Comment author: 50lbsofstorkmeat 16 November 2015 03:15:01PM 1 point [-]

I do not think it would actually be the same in practice, due to coordination problems.

To make an analogy, consider unions: In theory, unions are unnecessary because the collective bargaining unions exist of facilitate can be undertaken without a formal structure. In practice, people will simply refuse to strike unless they have a strong, formal assurance that their fellow workers will follow through with their part of the strike. The same sort of situation exists for a hypothetical hardship forgiveness clause in a loan - creditors have every incentive to use their disproportionate negotiation position to deny all such clauses and debtors are in no position to boycott the creditors in response giving a lack of credibly coordinated collective action.

By making hardship forgiveness a standardized aspect of some classes of loans, you establish a Schelling point in loan negotiations - "I will not agree to any loan without the standard protections against unexpected hardships financially ruining me" - and frame the issue in the minds of consumers such that they are explicitly thinking of a generous default clause as a protection to them (which it is) and a lack of such a clause as a salient risk to their future finances (which it is).

tl;dr: It is currently possible to demand generous debt forgiveness clauses when asking for a loan, but creditors will not concede your demands if you do. Giving such clauses social and legal sanction and framing loans without such clauses as being very risky would encourage customers to negotiate collectively for such clauses where they would otherwise not do so.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 16 November 2015 02:27:41PM 0 points [-]

If you do that you might end up simply shifting the bad thing that happens from being "someone doesn't get paid back" to "someone doesn't get a loan who needed one."

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 24 November 2015 10:07:00PM *  0 points [-]

...it will be illuminating to discuss briefly an aspect of the biology and chemistry of yesterday, namely vitalism. Vitalism is the notion that living matter contains a vital principle which is absent from non-living entities, so that living matter obeys different laws from those that rule non-living matter. This is an old idea, and it is by no means ridiculous. This idea has led in chemistry to a distinction between organic and inorganic substances.


(strange that this very winding-road like insight follows from a comment almost at the same time as The Winding Path)

Comment author: Glen 25 November 2015 10:06:54PM 0 points [-]

Why is it not ridiculous? From skimming the source, he seems to be using a long discredited biological idea and applying it to intelligence because there's a vague resemblance if you squint at it. There's no clear reason to believe that vitalism would be any more possible, let alone plausible, with regards to intelligence as opposed to organic compounds.

Comment author: ChristianKl 25 November 2015 11:42:35PM 3 points [-]

It's not ridiculous because it's a concept that has been used to advance science. For many practical applications it makes sense to treat living entities different from non-living one's just as for many practical applications Newton's physics is useful. The fact that modern physics showed Newton's physics to be inaccurate doesn't make it ridiculous.

Comment author: EHeller 26 November 2015 02:36:08AM 1 point [-]

No, vitalism wasn't just a dead end, it was a wrong alley that too many people spent time wandering down. Vital theories were responsible for a lot of the quack ideas of medical history.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 26 November 2015 08:29:49PM 0 points [-]

Quantum theories are responsible for a lot of the quack ideas too. I fear this isn't enough to make an idea ridiculous.

Comment author: EHeller 27 November 2015 01:01:23AM 3 points [-]

But quantum theory also makes correct predictions, and mainstream physics does not en masse advocate quackery. Vitalism never worked, and it lead the entire medical community to advocate actively harmful quackery for much of the 19th century.

Comment author: ChristianKl 27 November 2015 11:20:58AM 2 points [-]

As said above Vitalism worked in the sense that it suggest to treat organic and anorganic chemistry differently.

Vitalism isn't a single idea. Aristoles get's labeled as a Vitalist but he didn't consider the vital force to be a prime element the way people in the 18th century did. He instead had the theory of the four bodily humors. Homeopathy that is supposed to strengthen the vital force is less harmful than draining blood from people during a cold as the four bodily humor theory predicted.

If you say the theory of the existance of a vital force lead to harmful treatments and there treatments that you mean that aren't based on humorism?

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 27 November 2015 05:03:45PM 0 points [-]

By this line of reasoning almost all past theories can the discredited. People use a theory to make predictions and act on them. Only later do you learn the shortcomings. If you don't have empiricism you don't even have a tool to systematically notice your error. I think this is a fully general counter argument.

Comment author: EHeller 27 November 2015 10:54:51PM 2 points [-]

No, the important older theories lead to better theories.

Newton's gravitational physics made correct predictions of limited precision, and Newton's laws lead to the development of Navier-Stokes, kinetic theories of gasses,etc. Even phlogiston lead to the discovery of oxygen and the modern understanding of oxidation. You don't have to be 100% right to make useful predictions.

Vitalism, on the other hand, like astrology, didn't lead anywhere useful.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 26 November 2015 08:31:17PM 2 points [-]

'long discredited' sounds like hindsight bias.

Comment author: DCo1 02 November 2015 04:18:31PM 0 points [-]

Met's manager Terry Collins made the controversial decision to pitch Matt Harvey instead of Jeurys Familia in the ninth inning of the final game of the 2015 MLB world series. After Harvey walked the first batter, Collins again faced the decision of whether to bring in Familia or let Harvey continue pitching:

"If you're going to let him just face one guy, you shouldn't have sent him out there," Collins said about the decision not to lift Harvey after the leadoff walk.

Classic sunk cost fallacy.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 03 November 2015 04:00:53PM 9 points [-]

Or a recognition that one guy is not a statistically significant sample.

Comment author: WalterL 02 November 2015 08:31:03PM *  0 points [-]

To answer without thinking leads to many defeats. - Shi Ding'an

Tried to find original source, but beyond "in a poem" my English google fu turned up naught. I think its a good sentiment though. Folks go wrong less often by carefully coming to the wrong decision than they do by not stopping to think.

Comment author: FairWitness 11 November 2015 01:04:57AM *  -2 points [-]

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."

Often attributed to Yogi Berra, but research done at Snopes casts doubt on this.


I thought of this quote when I read E. Yudkowsky's essay on The Map and the Territory.

Comment author: Zubon 11 November 2015 01:12:15PM 0 points [-]

Duplicate, although with the Yogi Berra attribution.