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

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

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Comment author: VipulNaik 05 December 2016 01:28:51AM 3 points [-]

I like the spirit of the suggestion here, but have at least two major differences of opinion regarding:

  • The automatic selection of venue: I think that blogs are only a place of "last resort" for facts and not the goto place. I would suggest venues like Wikipedia (when it's notable enough and far enough away from original research), wikiHow and Wikia (for cases somewhat similar to Wikipedia but suited to the specifics of those sites), and domain-specific sharing fora as better choices in some contexts.
  • The filtering out of opinion and biased sources: I think separating out factual sources from opinion-based sources is harder than it looks, that many numbers, esp. in the social sciences, are based on a huge amount of interpretation conventions that you can't fully grok without diving into the associated opinion pieces from different perspectives, and that epistemic value is greater when you integrate it all. That said, a "facts-only" approach can be a nice starting point for bringing priors into a conversation.

Automatic selection of venue

Collecting and organizing facts is great not just for the fact-gatherer but also for others who can benefit from the readymade process. In some cases, your exploration heavily includes personal opinion or idiosyncratic selection of direction. For these cases, posting to a personal site or blog, or a shared discussion forum for the topic, is best. In other cases, a lot of what you've uncovered is perfectly generic. In such cases, places like Wikipedia, wikiHow, Wikia, or other wikis and fact compendiums can be good places to share your facts. I've done this quite a bit, and also sponsored others to do similar explorations. This provides more structure and discipline to the exercise and significantly increases the value to others.

Filtering out of opinion and biased sources

There are a few different aspects to this.

First, the numbers you receive don't come out of thin air; they are usually a result of several steps of recording and aggregation. Understanding and interpreting how this data is aggregated, what it means on the ground, etc. are things that require both an understanding of the mathematical/statistical apparatus and of the real-world processes involved. Opinion pieces can point to different ways of looking at the same numbers.

For instance, if you just download a table of fertility rates and then start opining on how population is changing, you're likely to miss out on the complex dynamics of fertility calculations, e.g., all the phenomena such as tempo effects, population momentum, etc. You could try deriving all these insights yourself (which isn't that hard, just takes several days of looking at the numbers and running models) or you could start off by reading existing literature on the subject. Opinionated works often do a good job of covering these concepts, even when they come to fairly wrong conclusions, just because they have to cover the basics to even have an intelligent conversation.

Moreover, there are many cases where people's opinions ARE the facts that you are interested in. To take the example of fertility, let's say that you uncover the concepts of ideal, desired, and expected fertility and are trying to use them to explain how fertility is changing. How will you understand who men's and women's ideal fertility numbers are changing over time? Surveys only go so far and are fairly inadequate. Opinion pieces can shed important light on the opinions of the people writing them, and comments on them can be powerful indicators of the opinions of the commenters. In conjunction with survey data, this could give you a richer sense of theories of fertility change.

It's also hard to keep your own biases, normative or factual, out of the picture.

My experience and view is that it's better to read opinion pieces from several different perspectives to better identify your own biases and control for them, as well as get a grounding in the underlying conceptual lexicon. This could be done before, after, or in conjunction with the lookup of facts -- each approach has its merits.