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Dominus' Razor

44 badger 26 May 2011 01:05AM

You are probably familiar with Hanlon’s Razor, the adage that you should never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity. In Bayesian terms, stupidity is sufficiently abundant that even fairly strong evidence of harmful intent can’t overcome the base rate. However, there is something of a converse, which to my knowledge doesn’t have an eponymous name. In honor of a recent post by Mark Dominus, I propose Dominus’ Razor: Never attribute to complete stupidity what can adequately be explained by ordinary stupidity and a good reason.

Dominus, well-known as a Perl programmer, found that astonishingly bad code looks better (if still bad) after hearing the reasons for its development. For instance, one program passed data between functions by writing it to a temporary file, only to read it back again. It turns out the programmer did this for debugging purposes, an admirable goal, even if done in non-standard ways.

The Razor is one more explanation for the frequent failure of other-optimization. People and institutions usually have some reason for doing what they do, even if they’ve since forgotten or never knew in the first place. “Evolution is cleverer than you are” (Orgel’s Second Rule) and “Free markets are cleverer than you are” are two related rules of thumb. Something that looks obviously stupid was probably implemented to meet some non-obvious need or constraint.

In the end, this is another way of saying to not expect short inferential distances. Based on personal observation, this community does a good job anticipating inferential jumps when playing the role of the sender, but not quite as well when acting as the receiver. Even if someone is wrong, be careful not to dismiss them entirely.

Honesty: Beyond Internal Truth

40 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 June 2009 02:59AM

When I expect to meet new people who have no idea who I am, I often wear a button on my shirt that says:


Honesty toward others, it seems to me, obviously bears some relation to rationality.  In practice, the people I know who seem to make unusual efforts at rationality, are unusually honest, or, failing that, at least have unusually bad social skills.

And yet it must be admitted and fully acknowledged, that such morals are encoded nowhere in probability theory.  There is no theorem which proves a rationalist must be honest - must speak aloud their probability estimates.  I have said little of honesty myself, these past two years; the art which I've presented has been more along the lines of:


I do think I've conducted my life in such fashion, that I can wear the original button without shame.  But I do not always say aloud all my thoughts.  And in fact there are times when my tongue emits a lie.  What I write is true to the best of my knowledge, because I can look it over and check before publishing.  What I say aloud sometimes comes out false because my tongue moves faster than my deliberative intelligence can look it over and spot the distortion.  Oh, we're not talking about grotesque major falsehoods - but the first words off my tongue sometimes shade reality, twist events just a little toward the way they should have happened...

From the inside, it feels a lot like the experience of un-consciously-chosen, perceptual-speed, internal rationalization.  I would even say that so far as I can tell, it's the same brain hardware running in both cases - that it's just a circuit for lying in general, both for lying to others and lying to ourselves, activated whenever reality begins to feel inconvenient.

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Generalizing From One Example

261 Yvain 28 April 2009 10:00PM

Related to: The Psychological Unity of Humankind, Instrumental vs. Epistemic: A Bardic Perspective

"Everyone generalizes from one example. At least, I do."

   -- Vlad Taltos (Issola, Steven Brust)

My old professor, David Berman, liked to talk about what he called the "typical mind fallacy", which he illustrated through the following example:

There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether "imagination" was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say "I saw it in my mind" as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?

Upon hearing this, my response was "How the stars was this actually a real debate? Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn't think we have mental imagery is either such a fanatical Behaviorist that she doubts the evidence of her own senses, or simply insane." Unfortunately, the professor was able to parade a long list of famous people who denied mental imagery, including some leading scientists of the era. And this was all before Behaviorism even existed.

The debate was resolved by Francis Galton, a fascinating man who among other achievements invented eugenics, the "wisdom of crowds", and standard deviation. Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn't. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn't had simply assumed everyone didn't, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question. There was a wide spectrum of imaging ability, from about five percent of people with perfect eidetic imagery1 to three percent of people completely unable to form mental images2.

Dr. Berman dubbed this the Typical Mind Fallacy: the human tendency to believe that one's own mental structure can be generalized to apply to everyone else's.

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Akrasia and Shangri-La

38 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 08:53PM

Continuation ofThe Unfinished Mystery of the Shangri-La Diet

My post about the Shangri-La Diet is there to make a point about akrasia.  It's not just an excuse: people really are different and what works for one person sometimes doesn't work for another.

You can never be sure in the realm of the mind... but out in material foodland, I know that I was, in fact, drinking extra-light olive oil in the fashion prescribed.  There is no reason within Roberts's theory why it shouldn't have worked.

Which just means Roberts's theory is incomplete.  In the complicated mess that is the human metabolism there is something else that needs to be considered.  (My guess would be "something to do with insulin".)

But if the actions needed to implement the Shangri-La Diet weren't so simple and verifiable... if some of them took place within the mind... if it took, not a metabolic trick, but willpower to get to that amazing state where dieting comes effortlessly and you can lose 30 pounds...

Then when the Shangri-La Diet didn't work, we unfortunate exceptions would get yelled at for doing it wrong and not having enough willpower.  Roberts already seems to think that his diet ought to work for everyone; when someone says it's not working, Roberts tells them to drink more extra-light olive oil or try a slightly different variant of the diet, rather than saying, "This doesn't work for some people and I don't know why."

If the failure had occurred somewhere inside the dark recesses of my mind where it could be blamed on me, rather than within my metabolism...

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Beware of Other-Optimizing

79 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 01:58AM

Previously in seriesMandatory Secret Identities

I've noticed a serious problem in which aspiring rationalists vastly overestimate their ability to optimize other people's lives.  And I think I have some idea of how the problem arises.

You read nineteen different webpages advising you about personal improvement—productivity, dieting, saving money.  And the writers all sound bright and enthusiastic about Their Method, they tell tales of how it worked for them and promise amazing results...

But most of the advice rings so false as to not even seem worth considering.  So you sigh, mournfully pondering the wild, childish enthusiasm that people can seem to work up for just about anything, no matter how silly.  Pieces of advice #4 and #15 sound interesting, and you try them, but... they don't... quite... well, it fails miserably.  The advice was wrong, or you couldn't do it, and either way you're not any better off.

And then you read the twentieth piece of advice—or even more, you discover a twentieth method that wasn't in any of the pages—and STARS ABOVE IT ACTUALLY WORKS THIS TIME.

At long, long last you have discovered the real way, the right way, the way that actually works.  And when someone else gets into the sort of trouble you used to have—well, this time you know how to help them.  You can save them all the trouble of reading through nineteen useless pieces of advice and skip directly to the correct answer.  As an aspiring rationalist you've already learned that most people don't listen, and you usually don't bother—but this person is a friend, someone you know, someone you trust and respect to listen.

And so you put a comradely hand on their shoulder, look them straight in the eyes, and tell them how to do it.

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