Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Words per person year and intellectual rigor

13 PhilGoetz 27 August 2015 03:31AM

Continuing my cursory exploration of semiotics and post-modern thought, I'm struck by the similarity between writing in those traditions, and picking up women.  The most-important traits for practitioners of both are energy, enthusiasm, and confidence.  In support of this proposition, here is a photo of Slavoj Zizek at his 2006 wedding:

Having philosophical or logical rigor, or demonstrating the usefulness of your ideas using empirical data, does not seem to provide a similar advantage, despite taking a lot of time.

I speculate that semiotics and post-modernism (which often go hand-in-hand) became popular by natural selection.  They provide specialized terminologies which give the impression of rigorous thought without requiring actual rigor. People who use them can thus out-publish their more-careful competitors. So post-modernism tends to drive rigorous thought out of any field it enters.

(It's possible to combine post-modern ideas and a time-consuming empirical approach, as Thomas Kuhn did in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  But it's uncommon.)

If rigorous thought significantly reduces publication rate, we should find that the rigor of a field or a person correlates inversely with words per person-year.  Establishing that fact alone, combined with the emphasis on publication in academics, would lead us to expect that any approach that allowed one to fake or dispense with intellectual rigor in a field would rapidly take over that field.

continue reading »

Chomsky on reason and science

5 PhilGoetz 17 April 2009 05:52PM

I came across this delightful 1995 article by Noam Chomsky while testing whether googling 'rationality' would lead people to LW (it doesn't).  It defends rational inquiry against postmodern, Kuhnian attacks1.  I was pleasantly surprised, because Chomsky is ideologically aligned with the people making the attacks.  (Also because I have reservations about Chomsky's rationality, which I will not state because I don't want this to turn into a discussion of Chomsky, socialism, American foreign policy, or universal grammar.)

Here are some choice sentences:

With regard to the second problem, since what is called "science," etc., is largely unfamiliar to me, let me replace it by "X," and see if I understand the argument against X. Let's consider several kinds of properties attributed to X, then turning to the proposals for a new direction; quotes below are from the papers criticizing X.

<long paragraph of DHMO-like attributions about X>

Conclusion: there is "something inherently wrong" with X. We must reject or transcend it, replacing it by something else; and we must instruct poor and suffering people to do so likewise. It follows that we must abandon literacy and the arts, which surely satisfy the conditions on X as well as science. More generally, we must take a vow of silence and induce the world's victims to do so likewise since language and its use typically have all these properties.


There is also at least an element of truth in the statement that the natural sciences are "disembedded from the body, from metaphorical thought, from ethical thought and from the world"--to their credit. ... Though scientists are human, and cannot get out of their skins, they certainly, if honest, try to overcome the distortions imposed by "body" (in particular, human cognitive structures, with their specific properties) as much as possible. ... It is also true that "Reason separates the `real' or knowable...and the `not real'," or at least tries to (without identifying "real" with "knowable")--again, to its credit.


It strikes me as remarkable that their left counterparts today should seek to deprive oppressed people not only of the joys of understanding and insight, but also of tools of emancipation, informing us that the "project of the Enlightenment" is dead, that we must abandon the "illusions" of science and rationality--a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use.


The critique of "science" and "rationality" has many merits, which I haven't discussed. But as far as I can see, where valid and useful the critique is largely devoted to the perversion of the values of rational inquiry as they are "wrongly used" in a particular institutional setting. What is presented here as a deeper critique of their nature seems to me based on beliefs about the enterprise and its guiding values that have little basis. No coherent alternative is suggested, as far as I can discern; the reason, perhaps, is that there is none. What is suggested is a path that leads directly to disaster for people who need help--which means everyone, before too long.


1  Kuhn later claimed not to have made these kinds of attacks on science.  I don't accept citations of Kuhn's interpretation of Kuhn as valid; I've concluded that my interpretation of Kuhn-1962 is more accurate than Kuhn-1977's interpretation of Kuhn-1962.  What I think happened was that Kuhn made a lot of radical claims and rode them to fame; once he was famous and part of the establishment, it was advantageous to abandon those claims and pretend not to have made them.  Anyway, Kuhn has said "I am not a Kuhnian", so I take that as license to keep using the term the way I used it.

Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences)

112 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 July 2007 10:59PM

Thus begins the ancient parable:

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? One says, "Yes it does, for it makes vibrations in the air." Another says, "No it does not, for there is no auditory processing in any brain."

Suppose that, after the tree falls, the two walk into the forest together. Will one expect to see the tree fallen to the right, and the other expect to see the tree fallen to the left? Suppose that before the tree falls, the two leave a sound recorder next to the tree. Would one, playing back the recorder, expect to hear something different from the other? Suppose they attach an electroencephalograph to any brain in the world; would one expect to see a different trace than the other? Though the two argue, one saying "No," and the other saying "Yes," they do not anticipate any different experiences.  The two think they have different models of the world, but they have no difference with respect to what they expect will happen to them.

continue reading »