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Eliezer_Yudkowsky comments on Reference class of the unclassreferenceable - Less Wrong

25 Post author: taw 08 January 2010 04:13AM

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Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 January 2010 07:30:57AM 16 points [-]

So to sum up, you think you have a heuristic "On average, nothing ever happens for the first time" which beats any argument that something is about to happen for the first time. Cases like the Wright Brothers (reference class: "attempts at heavier-than-air flight") are mere unrepeatable anomalies. To answer the fundamental rationalist question, "What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?", we know the above is so because experiments show that people could do better at predicting how long it will take them to do their Christmas shopping by asking "How long did it take last time?" instead of trying to visualize the details. Is that a fair summary of your position?

Comment author: patrissimo 15 January 2010 03:21:16AM 3 points [-]

"On average, nothing ever happens for the first time" is an erroneous characterization because it ignores all the times where the predictable thing kept on happening. By invoking the first time you restrict the reference class to those where something unusual happened. But if usually nothing unusual happens (hmm...) and those who predict the unusual are usually con artists as opposed to genius inside analyzers (is this really so unreasonable a view of history?), then he has a point.

"Smart people claiming that amazing things are going to happen" sometimes leads the way for things like the Wright Brothers, but very often nothing amazing happens.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 January 2010 03:34:37AM 1 point [-]

Sure. But then the question becomes, are we really totally surprised without benefit of hindsight? Can we really do no better than to predict that no flying machine will ever be built because no flying machine ever has been? The sin of underconfidence seems relevant here; like, if it's not a sin to try and do better, we could do a bit better than if we were blind to everything but the reference class.

Comment author: CronoDAS 15 January 2010 03:41:22AM 0 points [-]

Can we really do no better than to predict that no perpetual motion machine will ever be built because no perpetual motion machine ever has been?

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 15 January 2010 05:18:17AM 11 points [-]

But the fact that no perpetual motion machine has been built is not the reason we believe the feat to be impossible. We have independent, well-understood reasons for thinking the feat impossible.

Comment author: Unknowns 15 January 2010 05:24:30AM -2 points [-]

As Robin Hanson has pointed out, thermodynamics is not well understood at all.

Comment author: JGWeissman 15 January 2010 05:55:24AM 0 points [-]

Conservation of energy is more basic than thermodynamics.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 January 2010 05:17:04AM 2 points [-]

But you illustrate my point; it seems possible to discriminate between the probabilities we assign to perpetual motion machines, especially those built from classical wheels and gears without new physics, and flying machines, even without benefit of hindsight.

Comment author: CronoDAS 15 January 2010 08:37:39AM 0 points [-]

Indeed, it is obvious that heavier than air flight is possible, because birds fly.

Everyone in the past who has offered a way to "cheat death" has failed miserably. That means that any proposed method has a very low prior probability of being right. There are far more cranks than there are Einsteins and Wright Brothers. The set of "complete unknowns who come out of nowhere and make important contributions" is nearly empty - the Wright Brothers are the only example that I can think of. Even Einstein wasn't a complete unknown coming from outside the mainstream of physics. Being a patent clerk was his day job. Einstein studied physics in graduate school, and he published many papers in academic journals before he had his Miracle Year. So no, I wouldn't have believed that the Wright Brothers could make an airplane until they demonstrated that they had one.

And it's often futile to look at the object-level arguments. It's not that hard to come up with a good sounding object-level argument for damn near anything, and If you're not an expert in the relevant field, you can't even distinguish well-supported facts from blatant lies.

Comment author: taw 08 January 2010 11:04:23AM 6 points [-]

I entertain the notion that outside view might be a bad way of analyzing some situations, the post is a question on what this class might look like, and how do we know a situation belongs to such class? I'd definitely take outside view as a default type of reasoning - inside view by definition has no evidence of even as little as lack of systemic bias behind it.

The way you describe my heuristic is not accurate. There are cases where something highly unusual happen, but these tend to be extremely difficult to reliably predict - even if they're really easy to explain away as bound to happen with benefit of hindsight.

For example I've heard plenty of people being absolutely certain that fall of the Soviet Union was virtually certain and caused by something they like to believe - usually without even the basic understanding of facts, but many experts make identical mistake. The fact is - nobody predicted it (ignoring background noise of people who "predict" such things year in year out) - and relevant reference classes showed quite low (not zero, but far lower than one) probability of it happening.

Comment author: MatthewB 08 January 2010 05:16:09PM 13 points [-]

For example I've heard plenty of people being absolutely certain that fall of the Soviet Union was virtually certain and caused by something they like to believe - usually without even the basic understanding of facts, but many experts make identical mistake. The fact is - nobody predicted it (ignoring background noise of people who "predict" such things year in year out) - and relevant reference classes showed quite low (not zero, but far lower than one) probability of it happening.

Everyone I knew from the Intelligence community in 1987 - 1989 were of the opinion that the Soviet Union had less than 5 years, 10 at tops. Between 1985 and 1989, they had massive yearly increases in the contacts from Soviets either wishing to defect or to pass information about the toppling of the control structures. None of them were people who made yearly predictions about a fall, and every one of them was not happy about the situation (as every one of us lost our jobs as a result). I'd hardly call that noise.

Comment author: RobinHanson 09 January 2010 07:54:22PM 6 points [-]

Is this track record documented anywhere?

Comment author: MatthewB 10 January 2010 03:13:24PM *  4 points [-]

Probably not. I could probably track down an ex-girlfriend's brother who was in the CIA, who also had looming fears dating from the mid-80s (He's who explained it to me, orginally)...

Now, there may be books written about the subject (I would expect there to be a few), but I can't imagine anyone in any crowd I have ever hung with being into them. I'll check with some Military Historians I know to see.

Edit: After checking with a course from the Journal of International Security, he says that there is all kinds of anecdotal evidence of guys standing around the water cooler speculating about the end of the Cold War (on all Mil/Intel fronts), yet there are only two people who made any sort of hard prediction (and one of those was kinda after the fact - I am sure that will draw a question or two. The after the fact guy was from Stanford, he will forward a name as soon as he checks his facts).

He also says that all sorts of Policy Wanks managed to pull quotes from past papers citing that they had predicted such a thing, yet if one examines their work, one would find that they also had made many other wild predictions regarding the Soviet Union eventually eclipsing the West.

Now that I have looked into this, I am anxious to know more.

OH! As for the defection rates. Most of that is still classified, but I'd bet that there is some data on it. I completely forgot to ask about that part.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 08 January 2010 11:25:29AM *  3 points [-]

I entertain the notion that outside view might be a bad way of analyzing some situations, the post is a question on what this class might look like, and how do we know a situation belongs to such class?

The Outside View's Domain

inside view by definition has no evidence of even as little as lack of systemic bias behind it.

Not 'by definition'; if you justify using IV by noting that it's worked on this class of problems before, you're still using IV. Semantic quibbles aside, this really sounds to me like someone trying to believe something interpersonally justifiable (or more justifiable than their opponent), not be right.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 10 January 2010 04:30:58AM 1 point [-]

What objective source did you consult to find the relevant reference classes or to decide who was noise? Is this a case of "all sheep are black and there is a 1% experimental error"?

Comment author: Johnicholas 09 January 2010 12:25:35PM 2 points [-]

Would you buy:

"After something happens, we will see the occurrence as a part of a pattern that extended back before that particular occurrence."

The Wright Brothers may have won the crown of "first", but there were many, many near misses before. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_flying_machine

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 January 2010 02:30:42PM *  4 points [-]

And if superintelligence were created tomorrow, people would choose new patterns and say exactly the same thing, and they'd probably even be right. So what?

Comment author: Johnicholas 09 January 2010 05:03:58PM 0 points [-]

The original article went too far in the direction of "the future will be like the past", but you may have overcorrected.

Was it you who said something like "The future will stand in relation to the past as a train smoothly pulling out of a station - and yet prophesy is still difficult."?

Scavenging the past for preexisting patterns isn't as sexy as, say, working out scenarios for how the world might end in the future, recursively trying to understand understanding, or prophesying the end of prophesy. Because it's not as sexy, we may do too little of it.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 January 2010 03:37:47AM 6 points [-]

Trying to understand patterns on a sufficiently deep level for them to be stable, and projecting those patterns forward to arrive at qualitative and rather general predictions not involving e.g. happy fun specific dates, is just what I try to do... which is here dismissed as "the Inside View" and rejected in favor of "that couldn't possibly happen for the first time", which is blessed as "the Outside View".

Comment author: Dustin 11 January 2010 11:26:49PM 3 points [-]

Trying to understand patterns on a sufficiently deep level for them to be stable, and projecting those patterns forward to arrive at qualitative and rather general predictions not involving e.g. happy fun specific dates, is just what I try to do

Have you had any successes?