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Vladimir_Nesov comments on Fact Posts: How and Why - Less Wrong

71 Post author: sarahconstantin 02 December 2016 06:55PM

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Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 01 December 2016 06:51:04PM *  5 points [-]

For some topics, finding an undergraduate textbook (or sometimes a handbook) is much more efficient, and similarly screens off conventionally unreliable sources. Not as good for original seeing, but it's not clear that it's any use, other than as an exercise, before enough background is in place (even though that background may bias towards the status quo). But when the absolutely standard material is at hand, this looks like a plausible move for organizing the rest.

Comment author: Lumifer 01 December 2016 07:05:10PM 5 points [-]

finding an undergraduate textbook (or sometimes a handbook) is much more efficient

For hard sciences, yes. For soft sciences, no.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 01 December 2016 09:00:05PM *  0 points [-]

In what way (how does the difference work)? My experience is almost exclusively with hard sciences.

Comment author: Lumifer 02 December 2016 04:22:38PM *  5 points [-]

Well, the discussion of the differences between the hard and the soft sciences is a complicated topic.

But very crudely, the soft sciences have to deal with situations which never exactly repeat, so their theories and laws are always approximate and apply "more or less". In particular, this makes it hard to falsify theories which leads to proliferation of just plain bullshit and idiosyncratic ideas which cannot be proven wrong and so continue their existence. Basically you cannot expect that a social science will reliably converge on truth the way a hard science will.

So if you pick, say, an undergraduate textbook in economics, what it tells you will depend on which particular textbook did you pick. Two people who read two different econ textbooks might well end up with very different ideas of how economics work and there is no guarantee that either of them will explain the real-world data well.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 03 December 2016 02:50:07AM 1 point [-]

You can basically believe the contents of an intro chemistry textbook; you have to be much more careful with the contents of an intro psychology or sociology textbook.

Comment author: NatashaRostova 03 December 2016 12:26:04AM 0 points [-]

Check out Yvain's sequence on Game Theory. I've actually studied game theory at a grad level, and had nothing to learn from what he wrote. But he opened it up in a fun/interesting/well-written way, which was specifically written for this audience, and addressed relevant interests here more than a textbook.

It's challenging to imagine a sequence on introductory chemistry that would have the same appeal. Having said that, I'm sure a sufficiently educated/talented writer could do one on intro chem.

Comment author: Lumifer 07 December 2016 06:49:02PM *  0 points [-]

So, undergrad textbooks. Let me quote Andrew Gelman (a professor of statistics at Columbia):

Dear Major Academic Publisher,

You just sent me, unsolicited, an introductory statistics textbook that is 800 pages and weighs about 5 pounds. It’s the 3rd edition of a book by someone I’ve never heard of. That’s fine—a newcomer can write a good book. The real problem is that the book is crap. It’s just the usual conventional intro stat stuff. The book even has a table of the normal distribution on the inside cover! How retro is that?

The book is bad in so many many ways, I don’t really feel like going into it. There’s nothing interesting here at all, the examples are uniformly fake, and I really can’t imagine this is a good way to teach this material to anybody. None of it makes sense, and a lot of the advice is out-and-out bad (for example, a table saying that a p-value between 0.05 and 0.10 is “moderate evidence” and that a p-value between 0.10 and 0.15 is “slight evidence”). This is not at all the worst thing I saw; I’m just mentioning it here to give a sense of the book’s horrible mixture of ignorance and sloppiness.

I could go on and on. But, again, I don’t want to do so.

I can’t blame the author, who, I’m sure, has no idea what he is doing in any case. It would be as if someone hired me to write a book about, ummm, I dunno, football. Or maybe rugby would be an even better analogy, since I don’t even know the rules to that one.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 08 December 2016 10:19:55PM *  1 point [-]

Yes, it's worthwhile to spend quite a lot of time on choosing which textbooks to study seriously, at least a fraction of the time needed to study them, and to continually reevaluate the choice as you go on.