Best of Rationality Quotes

73 points RichardKennaway 02 February 2011 01:07:05AM Permalink

At home there was a game that all the parents played with their children. It was called, What Did You See? Mara was about Dann’s age when she was first called into her father’s room one evening, where he sat in his big carved and coloured chair. He said to her, ‘And now we are going to play a game. What was the thing you liked best today?’

At first she chattered: ‘I played with my cousin . . . I was out with Shera in the garden . . . I made a stone house.’ And then he had said, ‘Tell me about the house.’ And she said, ‘I made a house of the stones that come from the river bed.’ And he said, ‘Now tell me about the stones.’ And she said, ‘They were mostly smooth stones, but some were sharp and had different shapes.’ ‘Tell me what the stones looked like, what colour they were, what did they feel like.’

And by the time the game ended she knew why some stones were smooth and some sharp and why they were different colours, some cracked, some so small they were almost sand. She knew how rivers rolled stones along and how some of them came from far away. She knew that the river had once been twice as wide as it was now. There seemed no end to what she knew, and yet her father had not told her much, but kept asking questions so she found the answers in herself. Like, ‘Why do you think some stones are smooth and round and some still sharp?’ And she thought and replied, ‘Some have been in the water a long time, rubbing against other stones, and some have only just been broken off bigger stones.’ Every evening, either her father or her mother called her in for What Did You See? She loved it. During the day, playing outside or with her toys, alone or with other children, she found herself thinking, Now notice what you are doing, so you can tell them tonight what you saw.

She had thought that the game did not change; but then one evening she was there when her little brother was first asked, What Did You See? and she knew just how much the game had changed for her. Because now it was not just What Did You See? but: What were you thinking? What made you think that? Are you sure that thought is true?

When she became seven, not long ago, and it was time for school, she was in a room with about twenty children – all from her family or from the Big Family – and the teacher, her mother’s sister, said, ‘And now the game: What Did You See?’

Most of the children had played the game since they were tiny; but some had not, and they were pitied by the ones that had, for they did not notice much and were often silent when the others said, ‘I saw . . .’, whatever it was. Mara was at first upset that this game played with so many at once was simpler, more babyish, than when she was with her parents. It was like going right back to the earliest stages of the game: ‘What did you see?’ ‘I saw a bird.’ ‘What kind of a bird?’ ‘It was black and white and had a yellow beak.’ ‘What shape of beak? Why do you think the beak is shaped like that?’

Then she saw what she was supposed to be understanding: Why did one child see this and the other that? Why did it sometimes need several children to see everything about a stone or a bird or a person?

Doris Lessing, "Mara and Dann"

64 points Alicorn 07 April 2011 03:08:53AM Permalink

When confronting something which may be either a windmill or an evil giant, what question should you be asking?

There are some who ask, "If we do nothing, and that is an evil giant, can we afford to be wrong?" These people consider themselves to be brave and vigilant.

Some ask "If we attack it wrongly, can we afford to pay to replace a windmill?" These people consider themselves cautious and pragmatic.

Still others ask, "With the cost of being wrong so high in either case, shouldn't we always definitively answer the 'windmill vs. giant' question before we act?" And those people consider themselves objective and wise.

But only a tiny few will ask, "Isn't the fact that we're giving equal consideration to the existence of evil giants and windmills a warning sign of insanity in ourselves?"

It's hard to find out what these people consider themselves, because they never get invited to parties.

-- PartiallyClips, "Windmill"

58 points DanielVarga 04 April 2011 09:06:57PM Permalink

It is not really a quote, but a good quip from an otherwise lame recent internet discussion:

Matt: Ok, for all of the people responding above who admit to not having a soul, I think this means that it is morally ok for me to do anything I want to you, just as it is morally ok for me to turn off my computer at the end of the day. Some of us do have souls, though.

Igor: Matt - I agree that people who need a belief in souls to understand the difference between killing a person and turning off a computer should just continue to believe in souls.

57 points Miller 01 June 2011 11:52:54PM Permalink

The megalomania of the genes does not mean that benevolence and cooperation cannot evolve, any more than the law of gravity proves that flight cannot evolve. It means only that benevolence, like flight, is a special state of affairs in need of an explanation, not something that just happens.

  • Pinker, The Blank Slate
56 points Oscar_Cunningham 01 June 2011 08:20:21AM Permalink

Just because you two are arguing, doesn't mean one of you is right.


55 points James_Miller 01 September 2011 05:13:46PM Permalink

It is a vast, and pervasive, cognitive mistake to assume that people who agree with you (or disagree) do so on the same criteria that you care about.

Megan McArdle

48 points MichaelHoward 02 February 2011 11:31:14AM Permalink

I will not procrastinate regarding any ritual granting immortality.

--Evil Overlord List #230

48 points NihilCredo 01 June 2011 03:06:46PM Permalink

A little long, but I don't see the possibility of a good cut:

“Other men were stronger, faster, younger, why was Syrio Forel the best? I will tell you now.” He touched the tip of his little finger lightly to his eyelid. “The seeing, the true seeing, that is the heart of it.

“Hear me. The ships of Braavos sail as far as the winds blow, to lands strange and wonderful, and when they return their captains fetch queer animals to the Sealord’s menagerie. Such animals as you have never seen, striped horses, great spotted things with necks as long as stilts, hairy mouse-pigs as big as cows, stinging manticores, tigers that carry their cubs in a pouch, terrible walking lizards with scythes for claws. Syrio Forel has seen these things.

“On the day I am speaking of, the first sword was newly dead, and the Sealord sent for me. Many bravos had come to him, and as many had been sent away, none could say why. When I came into his presence, he was seated, and in his lap was a fat yellow cat. He told me that one of his captains had brought the beast to him, from an island beyond the sunrise. ‘Have you ever seen her like?’ he asked of me.

“And to him I said, ‘Each night in the alleys of Braavos I see a thousand like him,’ and the Sealord laughed, and that day I was named the first sword.”

Arya screwed up her face. “I don’t understand.”

Syrio clicked his teeth together. “The cat was an ordinary cat, no more. The others expected a fabulous beast, so that is what they saw. How large it was, they said. It was no larger than any other cat, only fat from indolence, for the Sealord fed it from his own table. What curious small ears, they said. Its ears had been chewed away in kitten fights. And it was plainly a tomcat, yet the Sealord said ‘her,’ and that is what the others saw. Are you hearing?”

Arya thought about it. “You saw what was there.”

“Just so. Opening your eyes is all that is needing. The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin. Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth.”

- George R.R. Martin, "A Game of Thrones"

48 points Bugmaster 01 December 2011 03:17:24AM Permalink

Miss Tick sniffed. "You could say this advice is priceless," she said, "Are you listening?"

"Yes," said Tiffany.

"Good. Now...if you trust in yourself..."


"...and believe in your dreams..."


"...and follow your star..." Miss Tick went on.


"’ll still be beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Goodbye."

-- Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

47 points Costanza 01 February 2011 09:31:17PM Permalink

A long one:

. . . once upon a time men lived among the giants, who were like themselves but far more powerful, and these giants always had a supply of bread, fruit, milk, and all that was necessary to sustain life, which they must have acquired in ways that cost them little, for they would always give away their goods to whoever knew how to please them. And the giants would also carry them wherever they wanted to go, provided they asked in the proper way. So it came about that men never thought of working, nor of walking, nor of building wagons or ships; instead they became natural orators, and spent all of their time watching the giants, figuring out what would please or displease them, smiling at them or imploring them with tears in their eyes; or else simply pronouncing the necessary words, which had to be memorized exactly, though they had no understanding of the changes of humor that would come over the giants, their brusque refusals, or their sudden willingness. Now, if some man, in those days, had tried to get something for himself by his own industry, they would have laughed him to scorn; for the results of his labor would have been puny beside the immense provisions the giants had amassed; and besides with one false step the giants could easily have crushed those little beginnings of labor out of existence. That is why all human wisdom came down to knowing how to speak and how to persuade; and, rather than move things about with great effort, men chose to learn what words it would take to get one of the giants to do their moving. In short, their main business, or rather their only business, was to please, and above all not to displease, their incomprehensible masters, who seemed nevertheless to be charged with nourishing them and housing them and transporting them, and who eventually carried out their duties, provided they were prayed to. This kind of existence, in which men never knew whether they were the masters or the slaves, lasted for a long time, so that the habit of asking, of hoping, of counting on those stronger than themselves left indelible traces in human nature. . . . That is why, as if they were still waiting for the return of the giants, men do not forget to pray and make offerings, though no giant has ever shown himself . . .

-- "Alain" (Émile Chartier) The Gods. A meditation on childhood.

46 points Bongo 04 July 2011 04:25:00PM Permalink

The tautological emptiness of a Master's Wisdom is exemplified in the inherent stupidity of proverbs. Let us engage in a mental experiment by way of trying to construct proverbial wisdom out of the relationship between terrestrial life, its pleasures, and its Beyond. If ones says, "Forget about the afterlife, about the Elsewhere, seize the day, enjoy life fully here and now, it's the only life you've got!" it sounds deep. If one says exactly the opposite ("Do not get trapped in the illusory and vain pleasures of earthly life; money, power, and passions are all destined to vanish into thin air - think about eternity!"), it also sounds deep. If one combines the two sides ("Bring Eternity into your everyday life, live your life on this earth as if it is already permeated by Eternity!"), we get another profound thought. Needless to add, the same goes for it's inversion: "Do not try in vain to bring together Eternity and your terrestrial life, accept humbly that you are forever split between Heaven and Earth!" If, finally, one simply gets perplexed by all these reversals and claims: "Life is an enigma, do not try to penetrate its secrets, accept the beauty of its unfathomable mystery!" the result is, again, no less profound than its reversal: "Do not allow yourself to be distracted by false mysteries that just dissimulate the fact that, ultimately, life is very simple - it is what it is, it is simply here without reason and rhyme!" Needless to add that, by uniting mystery and simplicity, one again obtains a wisdom: "The ultimate, unfathomable mystery of life resides in its very simplicity, in the simple fact that there is life."

  • Slavoj Zizek

(I'm not recommending Zizek in general)

45 points DSimon 03 January 2011 06:20:37PM Permalink

In 1736 I lost one of my Sons, a fine Boy of 4 Years old, by the Smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by Inoculation. This I mention for the Sake of Parents who omit that Operation on the Supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a Child died under it; my Example showing that the Regret may be the same either way, and that therefore the safer should be chosen.

-- Benjamin Franklin

(To provide some context: at the time, the smallpox vaccine used a live virus, and carried a non-trivial risk of death for the recipient. However, it was still safer on the whole than not being immunized.)

45 points Mycroft65536 04 April 2011 02:03:38PM Permalink

Luck is statistics taken personally.

Penn Jellete

44 points dvasya 02 August 2011 06:39:01PM Permalink

...the discovery of computers and the thinking about computers has turned out to be extremely useful in many branches of human reasoning. For instance, we never really understood how lousy our understanding of languages was, the theory of grammar and all that stuff, until we tried to make a computer which would be able to understand language. We tried to learn a great deal about psychology by trying to understand how computers work. There are interesting philosophical questions about reasoning, and relationship, observation, and measurement and so on, which computers have stimulated us to think about anew, with new types of thinking. And all I was doing was hoping that the computer-type of thinking would give us some new ideas, if any are really needed.

-- Richard P. Feynman, Simulating Physics with Computers, International Journal of Theoretical Physics, Vol 21, Nos. 6/7, 1982

43 points Liron 04 January 2011 12:27:44AM Permalink

It's not renting a house vs. owning a house, it's renting a house vs. renting a bunch of money from the bank.

-- Salman Khan, Khan Academy

43 points Alejandro1 06 December 2011 09:10:10PM Permalink

On the difficulties of correctly fine-tuning your signaling:

I once expressed mild surprise at the presence of a garden gnome in an upper-middle-class garden …. The owner of the garden explained that the gnome was “ironic”. I asked him, with apologies for my ignorance, how one could tell that his garden gnome was supposed to be an ironic statement, as opposed to, you know, just a gnome. He rather sniffily replied that I only had to look at the rest of the garden for it to be obvious that the gnome was a tounge-in-cheek joke.

But surely, I persisted, garden gnomes are always something of a joke, in any garden—I mean, no-one actually takes them seriously or regards them as works of art. His response was rather rambling and confused (not to mention somewhat huffy), but the gist seemed to be that while the lower classes saw gnomes as intrinsically amusing, his gnome was amusing only because of its incongruous appearance in a “smart” garden. In other words, council-house gnomes were a joke, but his gnome was a joke about council-house tastes, effectively a joke about class….

The man’s reaction to my questions clearly defined him as upper-middle, rather than upper class. In fact, his pointing out that the gnome I had noticed was “ironic” had already demoted him by half a class from my original assessment. A genuine member of the upper classes would either have admitted to a passion for garden gnomes … or said something like “Ah yes, my gnome. I’m very fond of my gnome.” and left me to draw my own conclusions.

Kate Fox, Watching the English (quoted here).

43 points Manfred 01 December 2011 12:05:32AM Permalink

“Should we trust models or observations?” In reply we note that if we had observations of the future, we obviously would trust them more than models, but unfortunately observations of the future are not available at this time.

Knutson and Tuleya, Journal of Climate, 2005.

43 points peter_hurford 30 November 2011 09:06:07PM Permalink

Most people don't know the basic scientific facts about happiness—about what brings it and what sustains it—and so they don't know how to use their money to acquire it. It is not surprising when wealthy people who know nothing about wine end up with cellars that aren't that much better stocked than their neighbors', and it should not be surprising when wealthy people who know nothing about happiness end up with lives that aren't that much happier than anyone else's. Money is an opportunity for happiness, but it is an opportunity that people routinely squander because the things they think will make them happy often don't.

From "If money doesn't make you happy, then you probably aren't spending it right" by Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert, Timothy D. Wilson in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. (

41 points benelliott 02 February 2011 09:05:24PM Permalink

Day ends, market closes up or down, reporter looks for good or bad news respectively, and writes that the market was up on news of Intel's earnings, or down on fears of instability in the Middle East. Suppose we could somehow feed these reporters false information about market closes, but give them all the other news intact. Does anyone believe they would notice the anomaly, and not simply write that stocks were up (or down) on whatever good (or bad) news there was that day? That they would say, hey, wait a minute, how can stocks be up with all this unrest in the Middle East?

--Paul Graham

41 points Alejandro1 02 October 2011 03:08:18AM Permalink

Sometimes you hear philosophers bemoaning the fact that philosophers tend not to form consensuses like certain other disciplines do (sciences in particular). But there is no great mystery to this. The sciences reward consensus-forming as long as certain procedures are followed: agreements through experimental verification, processes of peer review, etc. Philosophy has nothing like this. Philosophers are rewarded for coming up with creative reasons not to agree with other people. The whole thrust of professional philosophy is toward inventing ways to regard opposing arguments as failure, as long as those ways don't exhibit any obvious flaws. However much philosophers are interested in the truth, philosophy as a profession is not structured so as to converge on it; it is structured so as to have the maximal possible divergence that can be sustained given common conventions. We are not trained to find ways to come to agree with each other; we are trained to find ways to disagree with each other.

Brandon Watson

41 points Maniakes 02 November 2011 01:12:00AM Permalink

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

John W. Gardner

40 points MinibearRex 02 March 2011 03:37:42PM Permalink

"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge." -Daniel J. Boorstin

40 points bentarm 02 March 2011 01:53:46PM Permalink

Cryonics is an experiment. So far the control group isn't doing very well.

Dr. Ralph Merkle (quoted on the Alcor website - I'm surprised this hasn't been posted before, but I can't find it in the past pages)

40 points RichardKennaway 01 June 2011 11:00:49AM Permalink

If the fossil record shows more dinosaur footprints in one period than another, it does not necessarily mean that there were more dinosaurs -- it may be that there was more mud.

Elise E. Morse-Gagné

38 points Nominull 04 April 2011 01:35:51PM Permalink

On the plus side, bad things happening to you does not mean you are a bad person. On the minus side, bad things will happen to you even if you are a good person. In the end you are just another victim of the motivationless malice of directed acyclic causal graphs.

-Nobilis RPG 3rd edition

38 points anonym 02 October 2011 02:17:17AM Permalink

Although this may seem a paradox, all exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation. When a man tells you that he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man.

Bertrand Russell

37 points Jayson_Virissimo 04 January 2011 05:46:11AM Permalink

It’s easy to lie with statistics, but it’s easier to lie without them.

-Fred Mosteller

37 points Eugine_Nier 02 February 2011 07:21:19AM Permalink

In the past, also, war was one of the main instruments by which human societies were kept in touch with physical reality.


In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four.

-- George Orwell, 1984

36 points benelliott 02 March 2011 03:26:27PM Permalink

When things get too complicated, it sometimes makes sense to stop and wonder: Have I asked the right question?

Enrico Bombieri

36 points RichardKennaway 02 March 2011 11:56:33AM Permalink

Education is implication. It is not the things you say which children respect; when you say things, they very commonly laugh and do the opposite. It is the things you assume which really sink into them. It is the things you forget even to teach that they learn.

G. K. Chesterton, article in the Illustrated London News, 1907, collected in "The Man Who Was Orthodox", p.96.

36 points scav 02 November 2011 03:36:55PM Permalink

I just noticed CVS has started stocking homeopathic pills on the same shelves with--and labeled similarly to--their actual medicine. Telling someone who trusts you that you're giving them medicine, when you know you’re not, because you want their money, isn’t just lying--it’s like an example you’d make up if you had to illustrate for a child why lying is wrong.

-- Randall, XKCD #971

35 points Kutta 03 January 2011 09:17:20AM Permalink

This idea that whenever something evil happens someone particular can be blamed and punished for it, in life and in politics is hopeless.

-- Hayao Miyazaki

35 points gwern 01 February 2011 06:03:48PM Permalink

"Programmers waste enormous amounts of time thinking about, or worrying about, the speed of noncritical parts of their programs, and these attempts at efficiency actually have a strong negative impact when debugging and maintenance are considered.

We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time; premature optimization is the root of all evil."

--Donald Knuth (see also Amdahls law)

35 points CronoDAS 04 April 2011 11:29:10PM Permalink

From a forum signature:

The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." --Psalm 14:1

It is a fool's prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak. --Neil Gaiman, Sandman 3:3:6

35 points Automaton 02 October 2011 03:00:47AM Permalink

Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality. When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of. The world itself becomes your memory, and if questions arise, you can always point others back to it. You can even reconsider certain facts and honestly change your views. And you can openly discuss your confusion, conflicts, and doubts with all comers. In this way, a commitment to the truth is naturally purifying of error.

Sam Harris, "Lying"

34 points Oscar_Cunningham 02 May 2011 02:02:00PM Permalink

If you think something's supposed to hurt, you're less likely to notice if you're doing it wrong.

Paul Graham

34 points Patrick 03 June 2011 02:13:04PM Permalink

If a process is potentially good, but 90+% of the time smart and well-intentioned people screw it up, then it's a bad process. So they can only say it's the team's fault so many times before it's not really the team's fault.

34 points jaimeastorga2000 01 June 2011 03:58:08PM Permalink

The bulk of political discourse today is purposefully playing telephone with facts in ways that couldn't be done in the Information Age if people just had the know-how to check for themselves. Comprehending complex sentences is something that can be done by first grade, and comprehending complex concepts and issues is without a doubt something better learned in math than in English, where one learns to obfuscate concepts and issues, and to play to baser emotions. Granted, one also learns to recognize and to defend against these tactics, but it still can't hold a candle to the "mental gymnastics" referenced above. Do you realize what the world looks like if you've got a background in math? Imagine signs reading DANGER: KEEP OUT are planted everywhere, but people purposefully and proudly ignore them, treating it as laughably eccentric to have learned more than half the alphabet, approaching en masse and dragging you with them.

From the Math It Just Bugs Me page, TV Tropes

33 points GabrielDuquette 01 September 2011 02:43:49PM Permalink

If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

-- Paul Graham

32 points cousin_it 04 April 2011 12:11:00PM Permalink

People commonly use the word "procrastination" to describe what they do on the Internet. It seems to me too mild to describe what's happening as merely not-doing-work. We don't call it procrastination when someone gets drunk instead of working.

-- Paul Graham

32 points Tesseract 03 July 2011 04:19:04AM Permalink

It was a good answer that was made by one who when they showed him hanging in a temple a picture of those who had paid their vows as having escaped shipwreck, and would have him say whether he did not now acknowledge the power of the gods,—‘Aye,' asked he again, ‘but where are they painted that were drowned after their vows?' And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happens much oftener, neglect and pass them by.

Francis Bacon

32 points Stabilizer 02 December 2011 09:40:22AM Permalink

(Tuco is in a bubble bath. The One Armed Man enters the room)

One Armed Man: I've been looking for you for 8 months. Whenever I should have had a gun in my right hand, I thought of you. Now I find you in exactly the position that suits me. I had lots of time to learn to shoot with my left.

(Tuco kills him with the gun he has hidden in the foam)

Tuco: When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.

--The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

32 points Grognor 01 December 2011 04:11:53AM Permalink

What is more important in determining an (individual) organism's phenotype, its genes or its environment? Any developmental biologist knows that this is a meaningless question. Every aspect of an organism's phenotype is the joint product of its genes and its environment. To ask which is more important is like asking, Which is more important in determining the area of a rectangle, the length or the width? Which is more important in causing a car to run, the engine or the gasoline? Genes allow the environment to influence the development of phenotypes.

-Tooby and Cosmides, emphasis theirs. It occurred to someone on the Less Wrong IRC channel how good this is an isomorphism of, "You have asked a wrong question."

31 points RobinZ 05 April 2011 05:04:14PM Permalink

Should we then call the original replicator molecules 'living'? Who cares? I might say to you 'Darwin was the greatest man who has ever lived', and you might say 'No, Newton was', but I hope we would not prolong the argument. The point is that no conclusion of substance would be affected whichever way our argument was resolved. The facts of the lives and achievements of Newton and Darwin remain totally unchanged whether we label them 'great' or not. Similarly, the story of the replicator molecules probably happened something like the way I am telling it, regardless of whether we choose to call them 'living'. Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use, and that the mere presence in the dictionary of a word like 'living' does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world. Whether we call the early replicators living or not, they were the ancestors of life; they were our founding fathers.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.

(cf. Disguised Queries.)

31 points Risto_Saarelma 05 April 2011 05:48:11AM Permalink

But, there's another problem, and that is the fact that statistical and probabilistic thinking is a real damper on "intellectual" conversation. By this, I mean that there are many individuals who wish to make inferences about the world based on data which they observe, or offer up general typologies to frame a subsequent analysis. These individuals tend to be intelligent and have college degrees. Their discussion ranges over topics such as politics, culture and philosophy. But, introduction of questions about the moments about the distribution, or skepticism as to the representativeness of their sample, and so on, tends to have a chilling affect on the regular flow of discussion. While the average human being engages mostly in gossip and interpersonal conversation of some sort, the self-consciously intellectual interject a bit of data and abstraction (usually in the form of jargon or pithy quotations) into the mix. But the raison d'etre of the intellectual discussion is basically signaling and cuing; in other words, social display. No one really cares about the details and attempting to generate a rigorous model is really beside the point. Trying to push the N much beyond 2 or 3 (what you would see in a college essay format) will only elicit eye-rolling and irritation.

-- Razib Khan

31 points Risto_Saarelma 04 April 2011 01:03:01PM Permalink

My friend, Tony, does prop work in Hollywood. Before he was big and famous, he would sell jewelry and such at Ren Faires and the like. One day I'm there, shooting the shit with him, when a guy comes up and looks at some of the crystals that Tony is selling. he finally zeroes in on one and gets all gaga over the bit of quartz. He informs Tony that he's never seen such a strong power crystal. Tony tells him it a piece of quartz. The buyer maintains it is an amazing power crystal and demands to know the price. Tony looks him over for a second, then says "If it's just a piece of quartz, it's $15. If it's a power crystal, it's $150. Which is is?" The buyer actually looked a bit sheepish as he said quietly "quartz", gave Tony his money and wandered off. I wonder if he thought he got the better of Tony.

-- genesplicer on Something Awful Forums, via

31 points CharlesR 02 May 2011 04:15:40AM Permalink

The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

-Paul Graham, Keep Your Identity Small

31 points kalla724 03 October 2011 06:50:07PM Permalink

"What do you think the big headlines were in 1666, the year Newton posited gravitation as a universal force, discovered that white light was composed of the colors of the spectrum, and invented differential calculus, or in 1905, the “annus mirabilis” when Einstein confirmed quantum theory by analyzing the photoelectric effect, introduced special relativity, and proposed the formulation that matter and energy are equivalent? The Great Fire of London and the Anglo-Dutch War; The Russian Revolution and the Russo-Japanese War. The posturing and squabbling of politicians and the exchange of gunfire over issues that would be of little interest or significance to anyone alive now. In other words, ephemeral bullshit. These insights and discoveries are the real history of our species, the slow painstaking climb from ignorance to understanding."

  • Tim Kreider
31 points GabrielDuquette 02 October 2011 04:39:44AM Permalink

There is one rule that's very simple, but not easy: observe reality and adjust.

Ran Prieur

31 points wallowinmaya 31 October 2011 07:55:56PM Permalink

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.


31 points Vladimir_M 02 December 2011 05:32:21AM Permalink

Every time that a man who is not an absolute fool presents you with a question he considers very problematic after giving it careful thought, distrust those quick answers that come to the mind of someone who has considered it only briefly or not at all. These answers are usually simplistic views lacking in consistency, which explain nothing, or which do not bear examination.

-- Joseph de Maistre (St. Petersburg Dialogues, No. 7)

30 points Alexandros 02 March 2011 11:15:08AM Permalink

Don't hate the playa, hate the game

-- Ice-T

Or, as the Urban Dictionary puts it:

Do not fault the successful participant in a flawed system; try instead to discern and rebuke that aspect of its organization which allows or encourages the behavior that has provoked your displeasure.

A meta-comment: It's always good to have an arsenal of mainstream-accessible quotes to use for those times when explaining game theory is just loo much of an inferential leap. I'd like to find more of these.

30 points peter_hurford 03 October 2011 06:45:23PM Permalink

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.

André Gide

29 points MichaelGR 03 February 2011 02:51:58PM Permalink

The Company that needs a new machine tool is already paying for it.

-old Warner Swasey ad

29 points TobyBartels 07 March 2011 02:22:17AM Permalink

Peanuts, 1961 April 2627:

Lucy: You can't drift along forever. You have to direct your thinking. For instance, you have to decide whether you're going to be a liberal or a conservative. You have to take some sort of stand. You have to associate yourself with some sort of cause.

Linus: How can a person just decide what he's going to think? Doesn't he have to think first, and then try to discover what it is that he's thought?

29 points RichardKennaway 03 March 2011 10:24:00PM Permalink

What scientists have in common is not that they agree on the same theories, or even that they always agree on the same facts, but that they agree on the procedures to be followed in testing theories and establishing facts.

Bruce Gregory "Inventing Reality: Physics as Language" pp.186-187.

29 points MichaelGR 02 June 2011 06:37:39PM Permalink

"At one of our dinners, Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” To which Milton replied: “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”

-Milton Friedman story

29 points abcd_z 03 July 2011 05:15:40AM Permalink

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

John Maynard Keynes

29 points Tesseract 03 July 2011 04:25:27AM Permalink

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it.

Mark Twain

28 points CronoDAS 03 May 2011 09:43:26PM Permalink

"War, Nobby. Huh! What is it good for?" he said.

"Dunno, sarge. Freeing slaves, maybe?"

"Absol--Well, okay."

"Defending yourself from a totalitarian aggressor?"

"All right, I'll grant you that, but--"

"Saving civilization against a horde of--"

"It doesn't do any good in the long run is what I'm saying, Nobby, if you'd listen for five seconds together," said Fred Colon sharply.

"Yeah, but in the long run what does, sarge?"

-- Terry Pratchett, Thud!

28 points Patrick 01 June 2011 01:47:26PM Permalink

I didn't do the engineering, and I didn't do the math, because I thought I understood what was going on and I thought I made a good rig. But I was wrong. I should have done it.

Jamie Hyneman

28 points Tesseract 03 July 2011 04:42:28AM Permalink

Sometimes, apparently rational self-interested strategies turn out (as in the prisoners' dilemma) to be self-defeating. This may look like a defeat for rationality, but it is not. Rationality is saved by its own open-endedness. If a strategy of following accepted rules of rationality is sometimes self-defeating, this is not the end. We revise the rules to take account of this, so producing a higher-order rationality strategy. This in turn may fail, but again we go up a level. At whatever level we fail, there is always the process of standing back and going up a further level.

Quoted in The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

28 points summerstay 04 August 2011 02:01:49PM Permalink

"A Thinking Machine! Yes, we can now have our thinking done for us by machinery! The Editor of the Common School Advocate says—" On our way to Cincinnati, a few days since, we stopped over night where a gentleman from the city was introducing a machine which he said was designed to supercede the necessity and labor of thinking. It was highly and respectably recommended, by men too in high places, and is designed for a calculator, to save the trouble of all mathematical labor. By turning the machinery it produces correct results in addition, substraction, multiplication, and division, and the operator assured us that it was equally useful in fractions and the higher mathematics." The Editor thinks that such machines, by which the scholar may, by turning a crank, grind out the solution of a problem without the fatigue of mental application, would by its introduction into schools, do incalculable injury, But who knows that such machines when brought to greater perfection, may not think of a plan to remedy all their own defects and then grind out ideas beyond the ken of mortal mind!" --- The Primitive Expounder in 1847

28 points Eugine_Nier 03 September 2011 05:36:08AM Permalink

One day, I was playing with an "express wagon," a little wagon with a railing around it, I noticed something about the way the ball moved. I went to my father and said, "Say, Pop, I noticed something. When I pull the wagon, the ball rolls to the back of the wagon. And when I'm pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon. Why is that?"

"That, nobody knows," he said. "The general principle is that things which are moving tend to keep on moving, and things which are standing still tend to stand still, unless you push them hard. This tendency is called 'inertia,' but nobody knows why it's true." Now, that's a deep understanding. He didn't just give me the name.

-Richard Feynman

27 points James_Miller 02 March 2011 08:55:46PM Permalink

There is some theoretical amount of honesty that is indistinguishable from mental illness...Imagine if you stopped filtering everything you said...just try to imagine yourself living without self-censorship. Wouldn't you sound crazy?

Dilbert creator Scott Adams discussing Charlie Sheen.

27 points RichardKennaway 02 March 2011 12:42:24PM Permalink

If a man proves too clearly and convincingly to himself . . . that a tiger is an optical illusion--well, he will find out he is wrong. The tiger will himself intervene in the discussion, in a manner which will be in every sense conclusive.

G. K. Chesterton (unsourced)

27 points jasonmcdowell 01 June 2011 09:23:48PM Permalink

I wish there was no illness, I don't care if an old doctor starves.

Loā Hô, a Taiwanese physician and poet.

27 points Unnamed 01 June 2011 07:11:09PM Permalink

Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.


27 points Oligopsony 31 October 2011 07:38:26PM Permalink

On precision in aesthetics, metaethics:

RS: Butt-Head, I have a question for you. I noticed that you often say, "I like stuff that's cool." But isn't that circular logic? I mean, what is the definition of "cool," other than an adjective denoting something the speaker likes?

BH: Huh-huh. Uh, did you, like, go to college?

RS: You don't have to go to college to know the definition of "redundant." What I'm saying is that essentially what you're saying is "I like stuff that I like."

B: Yeah. Huh-huh. Me, too.

BH: Also, I don't like stuff that sucks, either.

RS: But nobody likes stuff that sucks!

BH: Then why does so much stuff suck?

B: Yeah. College boy! Huh-huh, huh-huh.

-Rolling Stone, Interview with Beavis and Butt-Head

27 points gwern 02 December 2011 08:16:46PM Permalink

Economists essentially have a sophisticated lack of understanding of economics, especially macroeconomics. I know it sounds ridiculous. But the reason why I tell people they should study economics is not so they’ll know something at the end—because I don’t think we know much—but because we’re good at thinking. Economics teaches you to think things through. What you see a lot of times in economics is disdain for other's lack of thinking. You have to think about the ramifications of policies in the short run, the medium run, and the long run. Economists think they’re good at doing that, but they’re good at doing that in the sense that they can write down a model that will help them think about it—not in terms of empirically knowing what the answers are. And we have gotten so enamored of thinking things through that the fact that we don’t know anything needs to bother us more. So, yes, it’s true that the average guy on the street doesn’t understand economics, and it’s also true that we don’t understand economics. We just have a more sophisticated lack of understanding than the guy on the street.

---Culture in Economics and the Culture of Economics: Raquel Fernández in Conversation with The Straddler

26 points DSimon 02 February 2011 06:20:47PM Permalink

Kräht der Hahn am Mist, ändert sich's Wetter oder es bleibt wie's ist.

-- Common German folk saying

Translates as "If the rooster crows on the manure pile, the weather will change or stay as it is." In other words, P(W|R) = P(W) when W is uncorrelated with R.

26 points AlexMennen 08 March 2011 01:49:27AM Permalink

The discovery that the universe has no purpose need not prevent a human being from having one.

-Irwin Edman

26 points Dr_Manhattan 02 March 2011 02:54:54PM Permalink

In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.

Winston Churchill

26 points Dreaded_Anomaly 06 April 2011 03:27:01AM Permalink

Complex problems have simple, easy to understand wrong answers.

— Grossman's Law

26 points Tom_Talbot 03 August 2011 12:08:43AM Permalink

A writer on structuralism in the Times Literary Supplement has suggested that thoughts which are confused and tortuous by reason of their profundity are most appropriately expressed in prose that is deliberately unclear. What a preposterously silly idea! I am reminded of an air-raid warden in wartime Oxford who, when bright moonlight seemed to be defeating the spirit of the blackout, exhorted us to wear dark glasses. He, however, was being funny on purpose.

Peter Medawar

26 points Manfred 02 August 2011 11:08:49PM Permalink

It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the "plan of creation" or "unity of design," etc., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact.

-- Charles Darwin

26 points brazzy 03 September 2011 10:47:19PM Permalink

She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it)

-- Lewis Carrol, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

Hard to believe that it hasn't show up here before...

26 points Jayson_Virissimo 01 September 2011 04:40:38PM Permalink

The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes primitive again.

-Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy

In other words, politics is the mind killer.

26 points ciphergoth 13 October 2011 09:32:09PM Permalink

News flash, dearies: there’s lots of areas of life that aren’t ‘science’ where people do tend to get a mite hung up on particulars of what is and is not, in fact, true. Like in bookkeeping. Like in criminal investigations. Like when they’re trying to establish where their spouse was last night.

Like, in fact, in most facets of life, hundreds of times a day, even if accounting isn’t your field and you’re not the accused at a criminal trial, and you’re not even married. Getting the facts right isn’t a concern of ‘science’, specifically. It’s a general concern of human beings. Getting reality right is, frequently, indeed, rather important if you wish to stay alive. It’s not a particularly academic question whether the car is or is not coming, when you cross the road. It’s the sort of thing one likes to get right. And we don’t generally call this ‘science’, either. We call it ‘looking’.

-- AJ Milne

26 points J_Taylor 04 December 2011 08:23:34AM Permalink

Nobody panics when things go "according to plan"… even if the plan is horrifying.

  • The Joker
25 points wiresnips 03 January 2011 08:40:04PM Permalink

Whatever elaborate, and grotesquely counter-intuitive, underpinnings there might be to familiar reality, it stubbornly continues to be familiar. When Rutherford showed that atoms were mostly empty space, did the ground become any less solid? The truth itself changes nothing.

-- Greg Egan, Quarantine

25 points Psy-Kosh 03 February 2011 11:38:09PM Permalink

Just saw on reddit a perfect accidental metaphor: jakeredfield posted this in r/gaming:

For the people that have no played Portal yet, be warned, there may be spoilers up ahead for you.

So anyway, I am a huge fan of Portal, I love everything about the game. I bought it upon release and have played through it multiple times. My friends aren't as big of gamers as me so it took them some time to get their hands on Portal. My one friend didn't have a computer capable of running Portal so I let him play on mine.

I pulled up a chair besides him and eagerly watched him play then entire time. He loved the game. I expected him to. It's an awesome game. But here comes the WTF part...(SPOILERS AHEAD)

He go to the part at the last puzzle, right before GlaDOS tries to kill you in the fire. So then, my friend is like, "Oh, so it's one of those games where you die at the end. Haha, it was a good game." And then he immediately shuts it down. I just sat there. Shocked. In awe. I couldn't believe what I just saw. He turns to me and goes, "Good game, I'd play that again."

This is the part where I just hit him and yell, "IT WASN'T OVER YET!" He was so confused. He loaded it back up to that part and couldn't figure it out. I then pointed it out to him what he needed to do from there. He eventually fully finished the game.

Imagine what would have happened if I wasn't there? How many other people do you think only experienced the game up to this part, because they didn't have someone tell them?

What makes it even more perfect is this reply by Aleitheo:

So rather than try to see if he could live or even just die in the fire he turned off the game before he even saw the "ending"?

25 points RichardKennaway 02 May 2011 09:11:54PM Permalink

I never trust anyone who's more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at.

XKCD (the mouseover text)

For "success" and "successful" one might substitute "rationality" and "rational".

25 points wedrifid 01 June 2011 09:58:59AM Permalink

If you want to beat the market, you have to do something different from what everyone else is doing, and you have to be right.

David Bennett

25 points Thomas 04 July 2011 07:57:13PM Permalink

A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.

Daniel Dennett

25 points DSimon 02 October 2011 05:51:50AM Permalink

T-Rex: If I lived in the past I'd have different beliefs, because I'd have nobody modern around to teach me anything else!


And I find it really unlikely that I would come up with all our modern good stuff on my own, running around saying "You guys! Democracy is pretty okay. Also, women are equal to men, and racism? Kind of a dick move." If I was raised by racist and sexist parents in the middle of a racist and sexist society, I'm pretty certain I'd be racist and sexist! I'm only as enlightened as I am today because I've stood on the shoulders of giants.

Right. So that raises the question: Is everyone from that period in Hell, or is Heaven overwhelmingly populated by racists?

-- T-Rex, Dinosaur Comics

24 points Tesseract 03 January 2011 09:26:36PM Permalink

The mere fact that it is possible to frame a question does not make it legitimate or sensible to do so. There are many things about which you can ask, "What is its temperature?" or "What color is it?" but you may not ask the temperature question or the color question of, say, jealousy or prayer. Similarly, you are right to ask the "Why" question of a bicycle's mudguards or the Kariba Dam, but at the very least you have no right to assume that the "Why" question deserves an answer when posed about a boulder, a misfortune, Mt. Everest, or the universe. Questions can be simply inappropriate, however heartfelt their framing.

Richard Dawkins, Gods Utility Function

24 points billswift 02 March 2011 07:50:29PM Permalink

The most practical thing in the world is a good theory.


24 points CronoDAS 05 April 2011 06:25:31PM Permalink

A fable:

In Persia many centuries ago, the Sufi mullah or holy man Nasruddin was arrested after preaching in the great square in front of the Shah's palace. The local clerics had objected to Mullah Nasruddin's unorthodox teachings, and had demanded his arrest and execution as a heretic. Dragged by palace guards to the Shah's throne room, he was sentenced immediately to death.

As he was being taken away, however, Nasruddin cried out to the Shah: "O great Shah, if you spare me, I promise that within a year I will teach your favourite horse to sing!"

The Shah knew that Sufis often told the most outrageous fables, which sounded blasphemous to many Muslims but which were nevertheless intended as lessons to those who would learn. Thus he had been tempted to be merciful, anyway, despite the demands of his own religious advisors. Now, admiring the audacity of the old man, and being a gambler at heart, he accepted his proposal.

The next morning, Nasruddin was in the royal stable, singing hymns to the Shah's horse, a magnificent white stallion. The animal, however, was more interested in his oats and hay, and ignored him. The grooms and stablehands all shook their heads and laughed at him. "You old fool", said one. "What have you accomplished by promising to teach the Shah's horse to sing? You are bound to fail, and when you do, the Shah will not only have you killed - you'll be tortured as well, for mocking him!"

Nasruddin turned to the groom and replied: "On the contrary, I have indeed accomplished much. Remember, I have been granted another year of life, which is precious in itself. Furthermore, in that time, many things can happen. I might escape. Or I might die anyway. Or the Shah might die, and his successor will likely release all prisoners to celebrate his accession to the throne".

"Or...". Suddenly, Nasruddin smiled. "Or, perhaps, the horse will learn to sing".

The original source of this fable seems to be lost to time. This version was written by Idries Shah.

24 points AndrewM 04 April 2011 07:20:13PM Permalink

We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones.

-Robert Wright, The Moral Animal

24 points HonoreDB 04 April 2011 05:26:20PM Permalink

Part of the potential of things is how they break.

Vi Hart, How To Snakes

24 points Dreaded_Anomaly 02 June 2011 09:27:21PM Permalink

If you want to know the way nature works, we looked at it, carefully... that's the way it looks! You don't like it... go somewhere else! To another universe! Where the rules are simpler, philosophically more pleasing, more psychologically easy. I can't help it! OK! If I'm going to tell you honestly what the world looks like to the human beings who have struggled as hard as they can to understand it, I can only tell you what it looks like. And I cannot make it any simpler, I'm not going to do this, I'm not going to simplify it, and I'm not going to fake it. I'm not going to tell you it's something like a ball bearing inside a spring, it isn't. So I'm going to tell you what it really is like, and if you don't like it, that's too bad.

— Richard Feynman, the QED Lectures at the University of Auckland

24 points GabrielDuquette 01 June 2011 01:25:20PM Permalink

I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists.

Charles Darwin

24 points jimmy 04 July 2011 05:13:21AM Permalink

I had a scheme, which I still use today when somebody is explaining something that I'm trying to understand: I keep making up examples. For instance, the mathematicians would come in with a terrific theorem, and they're all excited. As they're telling me the conditions of the theorem, I construct something which fits all the conditions. You know, you have a set (one ball) – disjoint (two balls). Then the balls turn colors, grow hairs, or whatever, in my head as they put more conditions on. Finally they state the theorem, which is some dumb thing about the ball which isn't true for my hairy green ball thing, so I say, 'False!'

-Richard Feynman

24 points Maniakes 02 September 2011 08:52:25PM Permalink

The church is near, but the road is icy. The bar is far away, but I will walk carefully.

-- Russian proverb

24 points MinibearRex 01 September 2011 10:01:10PM Permalink

The proposition here is that the human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right - and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than for virtue.

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal

24 points anonym 02 October 2011 01:54:31AM Permalink

The most valuable acquisitions in a scientific or technical education are the general-purpose mental tools which remain serviceable for a lifetime. I rate natural language and mathematics as the most important of these tools, and computer science as a third.

George E. Forsythe

24 points Maniakes 03 December 2011 12:26:40AM Permalink

We are much beholden to Machiavel and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do.

-- Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning

24 points djcb 02 December 2011 06:48:20AM Permalink

If you hit this sign, you will hit that bridge.

-- Road sign in Griffin, Georgia, showing that sometimes it's good to have some distance between map and area.

24 points Tesseract 01 December 2011 05:40:37PM Permalink

One of the toughest things in any science... is to weed out the ideas that are really pleasing but unencumbered by truth.

Thomas Carew

23 points billswift 01 February 2011 07:45:56PM Permalink

Speed is not attained by hurrying; it is an unsought by-product of intelligent and continuous work.

-- Frederick Giesecke, et al, Technical Drawing, 8th ed

23 points MinibearRex 08 March 2011 12:17:29AM Permalink

On noticing confusion:

"Holmes," I cried, "this is impossible."

"Admirable!" he said. "A most illuminating remark. It is impossible as I state it, and therefore I must in some respect have stated it wrong.

Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Priory School

23 points aausch 07 March 2011 07:28:04PM Permalink

You'll worry less about what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.

-- David Foster Wallace

23 points Nominull 06 April 2011 03:40:18AM Permalink

using the word “science” in the same way you’d use the word “alakazam” doesn’t count as being smarter

-Kris Straub, Chainsawsuit artist commentary

23 points nhamann 05 April 2011 09:22:48PM Permalink

True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer.

— David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

23 points RichardKennaway 04 April 2011 10:45:00AM Permalink

I recently posted these in another thread, but I think they're worth putting here to stand on their own:

"Magic is just a way of saying 'I don't know.'"

Terry Pratchett, "Nation"

The essence of magic is to do away with underlying mechanisms. ... What makes the elephant disappear is the movement of the wand and the intent of the magician, directly. If there were any intervening processes, it would not be magic but just engineering. As soon as you know how the magician made the elephant disappear, the magic disappears and -- if you started by believing in magic -- the disappointment sets in.

William T. Powers (CSGNET mailing list, April 2005)

23 points Tesseract 01 September 2011 08:48:19PM Permalink

If you want to live in a nicer world, you need good, unbiased science to tell you about the actual wellsprings of human behavior. You do not need a viewpoint that sounds comforting but is wrong, because that could lead you to create ineffective interventions. The question is not what sounds good to us but what actually causes humans to do the things they do.

Douglas Kenrick

23 points Vaniver 05 November 2011 10:30:09PM Permalink

The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.

Gloria Steinem

23 points Nominull 31 October 2011 03:31:51PM Permalink

Opening your eyes doesn't make a bad picture worse.

23 points gwern 04 December 2011 01:47:19PM Permalink

In the autumn of 1939, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his young Cambridge student and friend Norman Malcolm were walking along the river when they saw a newspaper vendor's sign announcing that the Germans had accused the British government of instigating a recent attempt to assassinate Hitler. When Wittgenstein remarked that it wouldn't surprise him at all if it were true, Malcolm retorted that it was impossible because "the British were too civilized and decent to attempt anything so underhand, and . . . such an act was incompatible with the British 'national character'." Wittgenstein was furious. Some five years later, he wrote to Malcolm:

"Whenever I thought of you I couldn't help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. . . . you made a remark about 'national character' that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any . . . journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends."

--Marjorie Perloff, Wittgensteins Ladder; apparently of the many attempts, the one referred to did not actually have British backing, although some did eg. the Oster Conspiracy or Operation Foxley.

(This is the full and original quote; the emphasis is on the section which is usually paraphrased as, "What is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic...if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?")

23 points [deleted] 03 December 2011 03:05:16PM Permalink

Fujiwara no Yoshitake (954-974), a handsome nobleman, tragically died of smallpox at age 21. He left a love poem full of pathos:

Kige ga tame


Inochi sae

Nagaku mo gana to

Omoikeru kana

For your precious sake, once I thought

I could die.

Now, I wish to live with you

a long, long time.

--Hokusai and Hiroshige

22 points gwern 01 February 2011 06:00:54PM Permalink

"After solving a problem, humanity imagines that it finds in analogous solutions the key to all problems.

Every authentic solution brings in its wake a train of grotesque solutions."

--Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 430

22 points endoself 04 April 2011 06:44:35PM Permalink

Most people would rather die than think; many do.

– Bertrand Russell

22 points Jayson_Virissimo 02 June 2011 12:34:21AM Permalink

In the study of reliable processes for arriving at belief, philosophers will become technologically obsolescent. They will be replaced by cognitive and computer scientists, workers in artificial intelligence, and others.

Robert Nozick, The Nature of Rationality

If you haven't read this book yet, do so. It is basically LessWrongism circa 1993.

22 points gwern 05 August 2011 05:55:09PM Permalink

"Lottery tickets should not be free. In such purely random and independent events as the lottery, the probability of having a winning number depends directly on the number of tickets you have purchased. When one evaluates the outcome of a scientific work, attention must be given not only to the potential interest of the ‘significant’ outcomes but also to the number of ‘lottery tickets’ the authors have ‘bought’. Those having many have a much higher chance of ‘winning a lottery prize’ than of getting a meaningful scientific result. It would be unfair not to distinguish between significant results of well-planned, powerful, sharply focused studies, and those from ‘fishing expeditions’ with a much higher probability of catching an old truck tyre than of a really big fish."

Stan Young, 28-Jul-07; quoted in Everything is Dangerous: A Controversy, a paper discussing epidemiology's failure to use things like the Bonferroni correction which has led to things like 80% of observed correlations failing to replicate (or only 1 out of 20 NIH randomized-trials replicating the original claim).

22 points AlexSchell 08 September 2011 08:13:09PM Permalink

It's one thing to make lemonade out of lemons, another to proclaim that lemons are what you'd hope for in the first place.

Gary Marcus, Kluge

Relevant to deathism and many other things

22 points anonym 02 October 2011 02:27:50AM Permalink

It would be an error to suppose that the great discoverer seizes at once upon the truth, or has any unerring method of divining it. In all probability the errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one. Fertility of imagination and abundance of guesses at truth are among the first requisites of discovery; but the erroneous guesses must be many times as numerous as those that prove well founded. The weakest analogies, the most whimsical notions, the most apparently absurd theories, may pass through the teeming brain, and no record remain of more than the hundredth part….

W. Stanley Jevons

22 points lukeprog 03 November 2011 07:45:04AM Permalink

It is better to destroy one's own errors than those of others.


22 points gwern 08 December 2011 03:59:31AM Permalink

'Tell me one last thing,' said Harry. 'Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?'

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry's ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

'Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?'

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

21 points billswift 03 January 2011 07:48:43PM Permalink

To stay young requires unceasing cultivation of the ability to unlearn old falsehoods.

-- Robert A Heinlein, Notebooks of Lazarus Long

21 points atucker 02 February 2011 01:51:35AM Permalink

Things are only impossible until they're not.

-- Jean-Luc Picard

21 points KenChen 05 April 2011 01:58:17PM Permalink

Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

– Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

21 points Tesseract 02 May 2011 04:49:11AM Permalink

A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

21 points Nick_Roy 01 June 2011 06:25:51PM Permalink

The whole universe sat there, open to the man who could make the right decisions.

Frank Herbert, "Dune"

21 points MichaelGR 03 July 2011 04:39:12AM Permalink

One of the most serious problems with modern "management" is that the incentives are all wrong. Imagine that I hire a programmer and pay him by the line of code. This idea has been so thoroughly debunked that it is nearly impossible to write out the consequences without sounding cliché. Yet it happens all the time: Companies promote "Architects" who are evaluated by the weight of their "architecture." The result is stultifying and demoralizing. The architect does not work to facilitate the programmer's work, he works to produce evidence of his contribution in the form of frameworks, standards, and software process.

So, how are most managers evaluated? By the amount of "managing" they do, as measured by the amount of process they impose on their team. Evaluating a manager by the amount of managing they do is exactly the same thing as evaluating a programmer by the amount of code they write. And it produces results like you describe, where the manager works to produce evidence of their management in the form of processes and decisions from the top down, rather than facilitating the work actually being done.

-raganwald, HN,

21 points Yvain 22 October 2011 05:18:58PM Permalink

Don't you feel in your heart that these contradictions do not really contradict: that there is a cosmos that contains them all? The soul goes round upon a wheel of stars and all things return; perhaps Strake and I have striven in many shapes, beast against beast and bird against bird, and perhaps we shall strive for ever. But since we seek and need each other, even that eternal hatred is an eternal love. Good and evil go round in a wheel that is one thing and not many. Do you not realize in your heart, do you not believe behind all your beliefs, that there is but one reality and we are its shadows; and that all things are but aspects of one thing: a centre where men melt into Man and Man into God?'

'No,' said Father Brown.

-- G.K. Chesterton

21 points JenniferRM 02 November 2011 12:19:56AM Permalink

People can learn to look you in the eyes even when they're lying to you. But it's kind of like a fake smile; there are involuntary muscles up there. If you know what you're looking for, you can still tell. But what does it mean if they're looking you in the eyes and they mean it? It means that, at least in that moment, they're doing what they really believe is right. That's the definition of integrity.

That part is easy. That's not the surprising thing.

The surprising thing, to me, was that someone can have integrity and still be completely evil. It's kind of obvious in retrospect; the super-villain in an action movie can always look the hero in the eye, and he always does, just to prove it. He has integrity. Evil with integrity is more respectable, somehow, than plain evil. All it takes to have integrity is to do what you think is right, no matter how stupid that may be.

Beware of people with integrity.

-Avery Pennarun

21 points PhilGoetz 06 December 2011 04:19:12AM Permalink

"I did not think; I investigated."

Wilhelm Roentgen, when asked by an interviewer what he thought on noticing some kind of light (X-ray-induced fluorescence) apparently passing through a solid opaque object. Quoted in de Solla Price, Science Since Babylon, expanded edition, p. 146.

21 points J_Taylor 04 December 2011 08:10:29AM Permalink

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

-Probably not Henry Ford

20 points DSimon 04 January 2011 05:24:29PM Permalink

The Three Virtues of a Programmer:

  • Laziness - The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It makes you write labor-saving programs that other people will find useful, and document what you wrote so you don't have to answer so many questions about it.

  • Impatience - The anger you feel when the computer is being lazy. This makes you write programs that don't just react to your needs, but actually anticipate them. Or at least pretend to.

  • Hubris - Excessive pride, the sort of thing Zeus zaps you for. Also the quality that makes you write (and maintain) programs that other people won't want to say bad things about.

-- Larry Wall (Programming Perl, 2nd edition), quote somewhat abridged

20 points mjcurzi 02 March 2011 11:37:49PM Permalink

"An accumulation of facts, however large, is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house."

-Clyde Kluckhohn

20 points orthonormal 07 July 2011 04:04:14PM Permalink

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is "wishful thinking." You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant — but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must first find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

C.S. Lewis, "Bulverism"

(It's not exactly correct- evidence of bias is some evidence against a belief- but not always as strong of evidence as it's assumed to be.)

20 points innailana 04 July 2011 03:10:57AM Permalink

"When you choose an action, you choose the consequences of that action. When you desire a consequence you had damned well better take the action that would create it."

--Lois McMaster Bujold

20 points gwern 11 September 2011 02:53:32PM Permalink

Again and again, I’ve undergone the humbling experience of first lamenting how badly something sucks, then only much later having the crucial insight that its not sucking wouldn’t have been a Nash equilibrium.

--Scott Aaronson

20 points scav 03 October 2011 11:55:04AM Permalink

I honestly don't know. Let's see what happens.

-- Hans. The Troll Hunter

20 points Alejandro1 02 October 2011 02:01:37AM Permalink

Like every writer, he measured the virtues of other writers by their performance, and asked that they measure him by what he conjectured or planned.

Jorge Luis Borges, "The Secret Miracle".

19 points billswift 02 March 2011 07:57:01PM Permalink

Thinking allows us to anticipate ill consequences without suffering them.

Roger Peters, Practical Intelligence

19 points GabrielDuquette 02 May 2011 03:19:18AM Permalink

The idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

-Richard Feynman

Quoting Feynman might be obvious for y'all, but I was living by this tidy little maxim for years and years before I found anybody to talk to about it.

19 points CSalmon 04 June 2011 01:26:27AM Permalink

Rin: What are clouds? I always thought they were thoughts of the sky or something like that. Because you can't touch them.

[ . . . ]

Hisao: Clouds are water. Evaporated water. You know they say that almost all of the water in the world will at some point of its existence be a part of a cloud. Every drop of tears and blood and sweat that comes out of you, it'll be a cloud. All the water inside your body too, it goes up there some time after you die. It might take a while though.

Rin: Your explanation is better than any of mine.

Hisao: Because it's true.

Rin: That must be it.

Katawa Shoujo

19 points MinibearRex 03 July 2011 07:37:40PM Permalink

"When someone pulls a gun on you, what are your options?"

"Do what they say or get shot."

Wrong. You take their gun, or pull out a bigger gun, or call their bluff, or do any one of 146 other things."

-Suits (TV show)

19 points Nic_Smith 03 July 2011 03:01:50PM Permalink

"Death is the termination of life, not a creature with a scythe who has a just claim to the lives he takes. (Death hates to be anthropomorphized.)" -- Ben Best, Cryonics − Frequently Asked Questions

19 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 August 2011 10:23:50PM Permalink

A student study at the University of Cambridge concluded that it takes 3,481 licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.[7] Another study by Purdue University concluded that it takes an average of 364 licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop using a "licking machine", while it takes an average of 252 licks when tried by 20 volunteers. Yet another study by the University of Michigan concluded that it takes 411 licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. A 1996 study by undergraduate students at Swarthmore College concluded that it takes a median of 144 licks (range 70-222) to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.[8] Harvard Grad students created a rotating mechanical tongue and concluded 317 licks.

-- Wikipedia, on the reproducibility of scientific results

19 points Tesseract 02 August 2011 10:35:26PM Permalink

If we want to know where the truth lies in particular cases, we have to look.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

19 points Guswut 05 October 2011 05:17:00PM Permalink

Being right too soon is socially unacceptable.

Robert A. Heinlein

19 points Swimmy 04 October 2011 06:33:58AM Permalink

The god we seek must rule the world according to our own will.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2

19 points gaffa 31 October 2011 06:41:50PM Permalink

You can't make a movie and say 'It was all a big accident' - no, it has to be a conspiracy, people plotting together. Because in a story, a story is about intention. A story is not about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human action but not of human design - no, a story is about evil people plotting together.

19 points Bugmaster 06 December 2011 07:17:46PM Permalink

-- You can look at the stars and say "they sure are pretty" without having to calculate how many light-years away each one is.

-- Not if you want to get to them someday.

-- Questionable Content #2072

19 points DSimon 05 December 2011 02:04:14AM Permalink

Unlike programs, computers must obey the laws of physics.

-- Alan J. Perlis, in the foreword to Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs

19 points Maniakes 03 December 2011 12:30:14AM Permalink

If you're tempted to respond, "But I love school, and so do all my friends. Ah, the life of the mind, what could be better?" let me gently remind you that readers of economics blogs are not a random sample of the population. Most people would hate reading this blog; you read it just for fun!

-- Bryan Caplan

19 points gwern 01 December 2011 08:48:36PM Permalink

"The older we become, the more important it is to use what we know rather than learn more."

--I.J. Good (as quoted in "The Problem of Thinking Too Much" by Persi Diaconis)

19 points Ezekiel 30 November 2011 11:03:32PM Permalink

I had a dream that I met a girl in a dying world. [...] I knew we didn't have long together. She grabbed me and spoke a stream of numbers into my ear. Then it all went away.

I woke up. The memory of the apocalypse faded to mere fancy, but the numbers burned bright in my mind. I wrote them down immediately. They were coordinates. A place and a time, neither one too far away.

What else could I do? When the day came, I went to the spot and waited.


It turns out wanting something doesn't make it real.

~ Randall Munroe, xkcd #240: Dream Girl

18 points MichaelGR 03 January 2011 09:31:43PM Permalink

The person you are most afraid to contradict is yourself.

-Nassim Nicholas Taleb

18 points DSimon 10 February 2011 08:20:54PM Permalink

You know in those stories where there's this immortal guy and they talk about how bored they are and how boring life is after 5000 years or whatever? I am going to call something.

I am going to call SHENANIGANS.

You know who writes those stories? MORTALS. Folks using some of their PRECIOUS, FINITE LIFE to write a made-up story in which an imaginary person keeps going on about how being immortal is actually sucky and how they're totes jealous that others get to die someday!


And kinda sad!

-- Todays Dinosaur Comic

18 points Kutta 04 April 2011 05:29:14PM Permalink

The correct question to ask about functions is not „What is a rule?” or „What is an association?” but „What does one have to know about a function in order to know all about it?” The answer to the last question is easy – for each number x one needs to know the number f(x) (…)

– M. Spivak: Calculus

18 points Thomas 18 June 2011 08:46:31AM Permalink

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

  • Laurence J. Peter
18 points advancedatheist 01 June 2011 08:13:16PM Permalink

From Space Viking, by H. Beam Piper:

"Young man," Harkaman reproved, "the conversation was between Lord Trask and myself. And when somebody makes a statement you don't understand, don't tell him he's crazy. Ask him what he means. What do you mean, Lord Trask?"


18 points Dreaded_Anomaly 06 July 2011 02:33:34AM Permalink

"Aaron, you always criticize religious people for adhering to their beliefs... but the beliefs you have about evolution, global warming, or the lack of god are just as passionate as any fundamentalist. How are you any better?"

"There's one big difference. I know what it would take for me to change my mind."

— Raymond and Aaron, Calamities of Nature

18 points Daniel_Burfoot 03 August 2011 03:30:15AM Permalink

It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.

-Czeslaw Milosz, "The Captive Mind" (first sentence)

18 points lukeprog 01 September 2011 12:04:59PM Permalink

The rule that human beings seem to follow is to engage the brain only when all else fails - and usually not even then.

David Hull, Science and Selection: Essays on Biological Evolution and the Philosophy of Science

18 points James_Miller 02 October 2011 03:09:21AM Permalink

Three proposed derogatory labels from Dilbert creator Scott Adams:

Labelass: A special kind of idiot who uses labels as a substitute for comprehension.

Binarian: A special kind of idiot who believes that all people who hold a different view from oneself have the same views as each other.

Masturdebator: One who takes pleasure in furiously debating viewpoints that only exist in the imagination.

18 points Xom 01 November 2011 08:14:06PM Permalink

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.

~ Orwell

18 points Alejandro1 01 November 2011 01:25:25AM Permalink

Consider an instance close to hand: arguments on the Internet. Whether the discussion is about abortion or the definition of atheism or the advisability of tax cuts, one might think that the longer the debate continues, the more ideas would emerge. In fact, the reverse is the case. A couple of scientists discussing the proper taxonomy of flesh flies will entertain many options, but thousands of people talking about God will endlessly repeat the same rhetorical moves.

Jim Harrison

18 points peter_hurford 31 October 2011 04:20:46PM Permalink

Expert estimates of probability are often off by factors of hundreds or thousands. [...] I used to be annoyed when the margin of error was high in a forecasting model that I might put together. Now I view it as perhaps the single most important piece of information that a forecaster provides. When we publish a forecast on FiveThirtyEight, I go to great lengths to document the uncertainty attached to it, even if the uncertainty is sufficiently large that the forecast won’t make for punchy headlines.

Nate Silver

18 points Daniel_Burfoot 04 December 2011 12:23:32AM Permalink

In the early 1970's it cost $7 to buy a share in [Warren Buffett's] company, and that same share is worth $4,900 today... That makes Buffett a wonderful investor. What makes him the greatest investor of all time is that during a certain period when he thought stocks were grossly overpriced, he sold everything and returned all the money to his partners at a sizable profit to them. The voluntary returning of money that others would gladly pay you to continue to manage is, in my experience, unique in the history of finance.

  • Peter Lynch, "One Up on Wall Street"
18 points baiter 01 December 2011 10:34:19PM Permalink

God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.

-- Dutch proverb

17 points DSimon 03 January 2011 06:18:39PM Permalink

All Wars are Follies, very expensive, and very mischievous ones. When will Mankind be convinced of this, and agree to settle their Differences by Arbitration? Were they to do it, even by the Cast of a Dye, it would be better than by Fighting and destroying each other.

-- Benjamin Franklin

17 points Kutta 03 January 2011 09:18:45AM Permalink

It’s neither our economy or our multimedia that I’m most concerned about, but whether the kids are lively and in good shape. I mean, as long as the people are doing fine it doesn’t matter if the nation is in poverty.

-- Hayao Miyazaki

17 points aausch 07 February 2011 04:25:37PM Permalink

As they say in Discworld, we are trying to unravel the Mighty Infinite using a language which was designed to tell one another where the fresh fruit was.

-- Terry Pratchett

17 points purpleposeidon 04 February 2011 08:50:11AM Permalink

The following reminded me of Arguments as Soldiers:

Statistics for the enemy. Anecdotes for the friend. -- Zach Weiner

I'm sorry to have not found his blog sooner.

17 points Kazuo_Thow 02 February 2011 06:05:08AM Permalink

Apathy on the individual level translates into insanity at the mass level.

-- Douglas Hofstadter

17 points Jayson_Virissimo 02 February 2011 12:10:49AM Permalink

Statistics is applied philosophy of science.

A. P. Dawid

17 points Thomas 01 February 2011 10:45:33PM Permalink

Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Give a man a fishing rod and he'll sell it for a fish.

  • ???
17 points gwern 01 February 2011 05:52:07PM Permalink

"I submit that claims about God are of this latter sort. There’s simply no reason to take them more seriously than one does claims about witches or ghosts. The idea that one needs powerful philosophical theories to settle such issues I like to call the “philosophy fallacy.”

We will see that people are particularly prey to it in religious discussions, both theist and atheist alike; indeed, atheists often get trapped into doing far more, far riskier philosophy than they need."

--Georges Rey, Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-deception (2009)

(First version seen on but quote from an expanded paper.)

17 points Nominull 04 March 2011 05:08:06AM Permalink

It's terrible not being able to be happy even though you're not wrong.

-Kaname Madoka, Puella Magi Madoka Magica

17 points scav 03 March 2011 10:28:44AM Permalink


This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,

when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit

of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our

disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as

if we were villains by necessity; fools by

heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and

treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,

liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of

planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,

by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion

of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish

disposition to the charge of a star!

Wm. Shakspere King Lear

17 points Nominull 03 March 2011 04:00:43AM Permalink

The classical theorists resemble Euclidean geometers in a non-Euclidean world who, discovering that in experience straight lines apparently parallel often meet, rebuke the lines for not keeping straight as the only remedy for the unfortunate collisions which are occurring. Yet, in truth, there is no remedy except to throw over the axiom of parallels and to work out a non-Euclidean geometry.

-John Maynard Keynes, on models of unemployment that seemed nice on paper but did not measure up to the real world.

17 points phaedrus 02 June 2011 12:26:26AM Permalink

‎"We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself." --Chris Mooney

17 points sketerpot 14 August 2011 09:22:20PM Permalink

Our headlines are splashed with crime, yet for every criminal there are 10,000 honest decent kindly men. If it were not so, no child would live to grow up, business could not go on from day to day. Decency is not news; it is buried in the obituaries -- but it is a force stronger than crime.

-- Robert Heinlein, on selection bias. From this big list of quotes.

17 points Konkvistador 03 September 2011 09:07:47PM Permalink

"The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, and social. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the esteem of our peers. For most people, wanting to know the truth about the world is way, way down the list. Scientific objectivity is a freakish, unnatural, and unpopular mode of thought, restricted to small cliques whom the generality of citizens regard with dislike and mistrust."

— John Derbyshire

17 points Konkvistador 23 October 2011 10:59:30AM Permalink

A decision was wise, even though it led to disastrous consequences, if the evidence at hand indicated it was the best one to make; and a decision was foolish, even though it led to the happiest possible consequences, if it was unreasonable to expect those consequences.

-- Herodotus

17 points gwern 10 October 2011 05:00:42PM Permalink
"We know this much
Death is an evil;
we have the gods'
word for it; they too
would die if death
were a good thing"

--Sappho #7; trans. Barnard (seen on )

17 points grendelkhan 07 October 2011 03:29:50PM Permalink

The least evil is still evil. The least monstrous is still monstrous

When, as will happen, you are yourself forced to choose between two bad things, then choose the lesser of the evils and choose it boldly. That will be the right choice and, if circumstances are truly as circumscribed as you believe them to be, that will be the right thing to do in that situation.

But it still won't be a good thing. It isn't a good thing and cannot be made good.

Fred Clarke, August 9

17 points RobertLumley 03 October 2011 03:47:41PM Permalink

What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.

Adolph Hitler

17 points ShardPhoenix 03 October 2011 08:33:20AM Permalink

He wanted to find fault with the idea but couldn't quite do it on the spur of the moment. He filed it away for later discrediting

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

17 points ArisKatsaris 01 November 2011 11:01:13PM Permalink

If I let go of a hammer on a planet that has a positive gravity, I need not see it fall to know that it has in fact fallen. [...] Gentlemen, human beings have characteristics just as inanimate objects do.

-Spock, Court Martial, Star Trek: The Original Series

17 points Dr_Manhattan 02 December 2011 03:09:16PM Permalink

Mind is a machine for jumping to conclusions - Daniel Kahneman

16 points scav 05 January 2011 09:25:10AM Permalink

If you show me

That, say, homeopathy works,

Then I will change my mind

I’ll spin on a fucking dime

I’ll be embarrassed as hell,

But I will run through the streets yelling

It’s a miracle! Take physics and bin it!

Water has memory!

And while its memory of a long lost drop of onion juice is Infinite

It somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it!

You show me that it works and how it works

And when I’ve recovered from the shock

I will take a compass and carve Fancy That on the side of my cock.

Tim Minchin, Storm

Dammit, how do you get line-breaks? It's a poem, but the stanzas get flowed into paragraphs.

16 points steven0461 06 February 2011 09:16:23PM Permalink

Some in their discourse desire rather commendation of wit, in being able to hold all arguments, than of judgment, in discerning what is true; as if it were a praise to know what might be said, and not what should be thought.

Francis Bacon

16 points ata 04 March 2011 10:25:22PM Permalink

Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse.

— Wolof proverb

16 points taserian 04 April 2011 07:47:05PM Permalink

On perseverance:

It's a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don't quit when you're tired, you quit when the gorilla is tired.

-- Robert Strauss

(Although the reference I found doesn't say which Robert Strauss it was)

I think it goes well with the article Make an Extraordinary Effort.

16 points Thomas 02 May 2011 07:36:46PM Permalink

Nature is fucked up, and anyone who argues otherwise has not actually seen nature in action.

Michael Anissimov

16 points MarkusRamikin 08 June 2011 03:26:07PM Permalink

"Attack and absorb the data that attack produces!"

-Tylwyth Waff in Heretics of Dune

(Hi. I'm new.)

16 points servumtuum 06 June 2011 09:37:47PM Permalink

The essence of wisdom is to remain suspicious of what you want to be true.

-Jon K. Hart

16 points Jonathan_Graehl 05 June 2011 02:40:05AM Permalink

No man has wit enough to reason with a fool.

Proyas (fictional character - author: R. Scott Bakker)

16 points RichardKennaway 01 June 2011 11:08:54AM Permalink

If you have ten minutes unscheduled and the phone isn't ringing, what do you do? What do you start?

Seth Godin

16 points sketerpot 14 August 2011 08:38:14PM Permalink

From Wintersmith, on the ability to notice confusion rather than rationalizing:

"And now I shall tell you something vitally important. It is the secret of my long life.”

Ah, thought Tiffany, and she leaned forward.

“The important thing,” said Miss Treason, “is to stay the passage of the wind. You should avoid rumbustious fruits and vegetables. Beans are the worst, take it from me.”

“I don’t think I understand—” Tiffany began.

“Try not to fart, in a nutshell.”

“In a nutshell I imagine it would be pretty unpleasant!” said Tiffany nervously. She couldn’t believe she was being told this.

“This is no joking matter,” said Miss Treason. “The human body only has so much air in it. You have to make it last. One plate of beans can take a year off your life. I have avoided rumbustiousness all my days. I am an old person and that means what I say is wisdom!” She gave the bewildered Tiffany a stern look. “Do you understand, child?”

Tiffany’s mind raced. Everything is a test! “No,” she said. “I’m not a child and that’s nonsense, not wisdom!”

The stern look cracked into a smile. “Yes,” said Miss Treason. “Total gibberish. But you’ve got to admit it’s a corker, all the same, right? You definitely believed it, just for a moment? The villagers did last year. You should have seen the way they walked about for a few weeks! The strained looks on their faces quite cheered me up!"

16 points SilasBarta 03 August 2011 02:27:52AM Permalink

About the intersection of math and politics through the mind of a child, Bob Murphy relates this story about his six-year-old son Clark:

Clark: Daddy why can’t there be a biggest number?

Bob: Because no matter how big a number is, there is always a bigger number.

Clark (puzzled): Why?

Bob: OK, let’s say a guy comes up to me and says, “Hey, I know the biggest number!” Then I would say, “Oh yeah, what is it?” And the guy would tell me, “It’s a billion billion.” But then I would just add 1 to it, and say, “A ha, a billion billion and 1 is a bigger number. So you made a mistake when you said you thought of the biggest number.”

Clark (after a pause): What guy are you talking about?

Bob: Just any guy. I’m saying, if anybody tries to think of the biggest number, I’ll always be able to do that trick–where I add 1 to it–so they can’t do it. They’ll always lose.

Clark: What if a girl asks you?

[I ran through the same thing with a girl asking me...]

Clark: OK I want to tell the story!

Bob: Sure go ahead.

Clark: So what if a guy came up to me and said, “Hey Clark, I know the biggest number! It’s 100 billion!” Then I would say, “No, 100 billion and 1 is bigger! You’re wrong!”

Bob: Right, good job. So he didn’t really think of the biggest number after all, did he?

Clark: No.

Bob: And you can always do that.

Clark: OK let me tell it again with Sam [name possibly changed--a kid from his class].

Bob: OK.

Clark: So what if Sam came up to me and said, “Hey Clark, I know the biggest number. It’s 50 googol.” But I would say, “No Sam you’re wrong! 50 googol and 1 is bigger!” But Sam gets mad so he would start shouting and say, “I DID TOO THINK OF THE BIGGEST NUMBER CLARK!!”

And I know we're not supposed to quote ourselves, but you rarely get an opportunity to use a line like this:

I guess you already tried explaining to Clark that the cardinality of the natural numbers is invariant under transformations of largest number proponent?

16 points crazy88 04 September 2011 07:29:46AM Permalink

Ralph Hull made a reasonable living as a magician milking a card trick he called "The Tuned Deck"...Hull enjoyed subjecting himself to the scrutiny of colleagues who attempted to eliminate, one by one, various explanations by depriving him of the ability to perform a particular sleight of hand. But the real trick was over before it had even begun, for the magic was not in clever fingers but in a clever name. The blatantly singular referent cried out for a blatantly singular explanation, when in reality The Tuned Deck was not one trick but many. The search for a single explanation is what kept this multiply determined illusion so long a mystery.

--Nicholas Epley, "Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision Making"

16 points gwern 03 September 2011 06:28:06PM Permalink

"Asking a question is embarrassing for a moment, but not asking is embarrassing for a lifetime. "

--Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore, 2006, p. 255

16 points Vladimir_Nesov 06 October 2011 12:05:04AM Permalink

Truths were carved from the identical wood as were lies — words — and so sank or floated with equal ease. But since truths were carved by the World, they rarely appeased Men and their innumerable vanities.

-- Drusas Achamian, in "The White-Luck Warrior" by R. Scott Bakker

16 points kalla724 02 November 2011 08:34:16PM Permalink

The best way to escape from a problem is to solve it.

-Alan Saporta

16 points Nominull 31 October 2011 05:29:21PM Permalink

Writers of all stripes enjoy engaging in the most cynical readings of human behavior because they think it makes them appear hyper-rational. But in fact here is a perfect example of how trying to achieve that makes you irrational. Human emotion is real. It is an observable phenomenon. It observably influences behavior. Therefore to fail to account for it when discussing coupling and relationships is the opposite of cold rationality; it is in fact a failure of empiricism.

-L'Hote on Kate Bolick's "All the Single Ladies"

15 points RichardKennaway 06 January 2011 08:27:38PM Permalink

Let us be certain of a fact before being concerned with its cause. It is true that this method is too lengthy for most people who naturally run to the cause and overlook the certitude about facts; but at last we will avoid the ridicule of finding the cause of what does not exist.

Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle

Recently quoted on the web in relation to acupuncture studies.

15 points RichardKennaway 02 February 2011 01:41:35AM Permalink

People who have been living with serious problems for a long time find it hard to imagine that there's been a solution within their reach all along. For the short term, it's easier to go on putting up with the problem than it is to change one's expectations.

paulwl (quoted here)

ETA: I thought this had the smell of Usenet about it, and on Google Groups I found the original, written by one Alex Clark here. paulwl is actually the person he was replying to.

BTW, there's quite a bit of rationality (and irrationality) on that newsgroup on the subject of people looking for relationships (mostly men looking for women), from way back when. I don't know if 1996 predates the sort of PUA that has been talked about on LW.

15 points NancyLebovitz 15 March 2011 06:25:02PM Permalink

It's better to be lucky than smart, but it's easier to be smart twice than lucky twice

15 points CronoDAS 05 March 2011 01:50:12AM Permalink

In the middle of every silver lining there is a big black cloud.

-- Alonzo Fyfe

15 points djcb 03 March 2011 06:23:18AM Permalink

while enthusiasm may be necessary for great accomplishments elsewhere, on Wall Street it almost invariably leads to disaster.

  • Benjamin Graham (The Intelligent Investor)

[ In The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham, who was Warren Buffett's mentor, shares his views on investing for a wider audience. I like the rationalist, no-nonsense approach he takes (as seen in this quote) esp. in a field like this ]

15 points Matt_Duing 05 April 2011 02:13:41AM Permalink

The most important relic of early humans is the modern mind.

-Steven Pinker

15 points Risto_Saarelma 12 June 2011 05:30:47PM Permalink

The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke remarked that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Clarke was referring to the fantastic inventions we might discover in the future or in our travels to advanced civilizations. However, the insight also applies to self-perception. When we turn our attention to our own minds, we are faced with trying to understand an unimaginably advanced technology. We can't possibly know (let alone keep track of) the tremendous number of mechanical influences on our behavior because we inhabit an extraordinarily complicated machine. So we develop a shorthand, a belief in the causal efficacy of our conscious thoughts. We believe in the magic of our own causal agency.

  • Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will
15 points NancyLebovitz 08 June 2011 10:00:01PM Permalink

"Three-fourths of philosophy and literature is the talk of people trying to convince themselves that they really like the cage they were tricked into entering."

-- Gary Snyder (bOING bOING #9, 1992)

I don't have a strong feeling about the accuracy of the percentage, but the general point sounds plausible.

15 points NancyLebovitz 06 June 2011 01:21:30PM Permalink

If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin. - Ivan Turgenev

15 points MichaelGR 02 June 2011 06:36:26PM Permalink

"The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war."

--WSJ article about Navy SEALs

15 points loqi 01 June 2011 06:54:15PM Permalink

If you can't think intuitively, you may be able to verify specific factual claims, but you certainly can't think about history.

Well, maybe we can't think about history. Intuition is unreliable. Just because you want to think intelligently about something doesn't mean it's possible to do so.

Jewish Atheist, in reply to Mencius Moldbug

15 points Nominull 04 August 2011 04:14:24PM Permalink

Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think about, but it's the truth. It won't go away because we cover our eyes.

-Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk author

15 points CronoDAS 24 September 2011 10:55:38PM Permalink

No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, turn back.

-- Turkish proverb

15 points Thomas 05 September 2011 01:25:02PM Permalink

The investor who finds a way to make soap from peanuts has more genuine imagination than the revolutionary with a bayonet, because he has cultivated the faculty of imagining the hidden potentiality of the real. This is much harder than imagining the unreal, which may be why there are so many more utopians than inventors

  • Joe Sobran
15 points GabrielDuquette 01 September 2011 02:38:27PM Permalink

On practical questions of urgent importance we must make up our minds one way or the other even when we know that the evidence is incomplete. To refuse to make up our minds is equivalent to deciding to leave things as they are (which is just as likely as any other to be the wrong solution).

-- Robert H. Thouless

15 points Thomas 02 October 2011 09:38:21AM Permalink

If the Coyote orders all those gizmos then why doesn't he just order food?

  • Unknown
15 points Nisan 22 November 2011 03:02:18AM Permalink

Some years ago I was trying to decide whether or not to move to Harvard from Stanford. I had bored my friends silly with endless discussion. Finally, one of them said, “You’re one of our leading decision theorists. Maybe you should make a list of the costs and benefits and try to roughly calculate your expected utility.” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Come on, Sandy, this is serious.”

-Persi Diaconis

By the way, Diaconis stayed at Stanford. He's giving a public lecture on Nov. 30.

14 points Kutta 03 January 2011 09:20:55AM Permalink

I definitely think there is great art out there that was solely designed to give people what they want; in film, someone like Chaplin comes to mind. I mean, giving people what they want is an art unto itself, but I think the real challenge in that method is finding a way to give them what they want while giving them more.

-- Jonathan Henderson

14 points MichaelGR 03 February 2011 02:52:24PM Permalink

Life is tough, but it's tougher if you're stupid.

-John Wayne, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

14 points MichaelGR 03 February 2011 02:50:58PM Permalink

History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

-Mark Twain

14 points billswift 01 February 2011 07:55:18PM Permalink

Too broad a viewpoint, too philosophical an outlook paralyzes the will.

-- Robert A Heinlein, Lost Legacy

14 points Dreaded_Anomaly 11 March 2011 04:43:52AM Permalink

"If the wonder's gone when the truth is known, there never was any wonder." — Gregory House, M.D. ("House" Season 4, Episode 8 "You Don't Want to Know," written by Sara Hess)

14 points Louie 09 March 2011 11:42:52AM Permalink

"Anything you can do, I can do meta" -Rudolf Carnap

14 points Cyan 07 March 2011 04:17:55PM Permalink

What exactly qualifies some physical systems to play the role of 'measurer'? Was the wavefunction of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system... with a PhD?

John Stewart Bell, "Against Measurement" in Physics World, 1990.

14 points Costanza 04 March 2011 02:41:33PM Permalink

An irrationality quote from Samuel Johnson via Boswell:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."

14 points mispy 05 April 2011 03:08:38AM Permalink

Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.

-- Richard Feynman

(I don't think he originally meant this in the context of overcoming cognitive bias, but it seems to apply well to that too.)

14 points Apprentice 04 April 2011 03:17:38PM Permalink

Virtually everything in science is ultimately circular, so the main thing is just to make the circles as big as possible.

Richard D. Janda and Brian D. Joseph, 2003, The Handbook of Historical Linguistics, p. 111.

14 points scav 03 August 2011 10:08:20AM Permalink

I confess, for my part, that I have been taken in, over and over again. I have been taken in by acquaintances, and I have been taken in (of course) by friends; far oftener by friends than by any other class of persons. How came I to be so deceived? Had I quite misread their faces? No. Believe me, my first impression of those people, founded on face and manner alone, was invariably true. My mistake was in suffering them to come nearer to me and explain themselves away.

--Hunted Down: the detective stories of Charles Dickens (Charles Dickens)

14 points AngryParsley 03 August 2011 05:00:10AM Permalink

"You could trifle with your mind, using activators and redactors from your own thought-shop, and put yourself back into the state of mind you were in before the Curia forced you to experience your victims' lives."

"Is this some sort of test or quiz? You know I shall not do that."

"Why not?"

Ironjoy started to turn away, but then stopped, turned, and answered the question. “If I were now as I was then, I would gladly change my self to remain as I was then; but I am now as I am now. The me that I am now has no desire to be any other me. Isn’t that the fundamental nature of the self?”

-- The Phoenix Exultant by John C. Wright

14 points Nic_Smith 02 August 2011 08:05:28PM Permalink

I think that people use a rule of thumb when deciding what things in life are worth learning. Most people seek knowledge in one of the following three categories:

  • What many other people learn (calculus, C++, and so on)
  • What is easy to learn (hula-hooping, Ruby, and so on)
  • What has value that is easy to appreciate (thermonuclear physics, for example, or that ridiculously loud whistle where you stick your fingers in your mouth) -- Land of Lisp. Conrad Barski.
14 points MichaelGR 11 September 2011 04:37:05AM Permalink

“When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.”

-Steve Jobs, [Wired, February 1996]

14 points Normal_Anomaly 03 September 2011 01:08:18AM Permalink

From the day we arrive on the planet

and blinking, step into the sun

there's more to see than can ever be seen

more to do than can ever be done

--The Lion King opening song

14 points p4wnc6 04 October 2011 04:06:03AM Permalink

Most people who quote Einstein’s declaration that “God does not play dice” seem not to realize that a dice-playing God would be an improvement over the actual situation

-Scott Aaronson, from here

14 points JenniferRM 02 November 2011 12:17:36AM Permalink

All scientists despise the ideology of 'breakthroughs' --- I mean the belief that science proceeds from one revelation to another, each one opening up a new world of understanding and advancing still farther a sharp line of demarcation between what is true and what is false. Everyone actually engaged in scientific research knows that this way of looking at things is altogether misleading, and that the frontier between understanding and bewilderment is rather like the plasma membrane of a cell as it creeps over its substratum, a pushing forward here, a retraction there --- an exploratory probing that will eventually move forward the whole body of the cell... in real life, science does not prance from one mountain top to the next.

-Peter Medawar in Does Ethology Throw Any Light on Human Behavior?

14 points RobinZ 02 December 2011 03:18:52AM Permalink

Il est dans la nature humaine de penser sagement et d'agir d'une façon absurde.

English translation: It is human nature to think wisely and to act in an absurd fashion.

Anatole France, Le livre de mon ami (1885)

13 points MichaelGR 03 January 2011 09:33:59PM Permalink

In a strong enough wind, even turkeys can fly.

-Saying of investors

13 points gerg 03 January 2011 09:08:12PM Permalink

It is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire.

-- Thucydides

13 points billswift 03 January 2011 07:44:47PM Permalink

When somebody makes a statement you don't understand, don't tell him he's crazy. Ask him what he means.

-- H Beam Piper, Space Viking

13 points lukeprog 12 February 2011 03:30:48PM Permalink

If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Paul Graham

13 points benelliott 01 February 2011 08:28:48PM Permalink

Admitting error clears the score and proves you wiser than before.

--Arthur Guiterman

13 points billswift 01 February 2011 07:29:20PM Permalink

How emotionally entangled are you with your point of view? Test yourself - defend an opposing view, believing your life depends upon it.

-- Marc Stiegler, David's Sling

13 points wedrifid 04 March 2011 07:46:53AM Permalink

Running into a pole is a drag, but never being allowed to run into a pole is a disaster. Pain is part of the price of freedom.

Daniel Kish (Human Echolocation researcher, advocate and instructor).

13 points TobyBartels 03 March 2011 02:54:27AM Permalink

Stupid is as stupid does.

This is an old saying, which I learnt from the 1994 movie Forrest Gump (not otherwise a bastion of rationalism).

While we may judge people as irrational ("stupid") based on what they know (epistemic rationality, roughly), it's instrumental rationality that matters in the end.

13 points atucker 02 March 2011 05:38:28PM Permalink

I believe in using words, not fists. I believe in my outrage knowing people are living in boxes on the street. I believe in honesty. I believe in a good time. I believe in good food. I believe in sex.

Bertrand Russell

13 points Confringus 04 April 2011 08:39:08PM Permalink

"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

Douglas Adams

This quote defines my approach to science and philosophy; a phenomenon can be wondrous on its own merit, it need not be magical or extraordinary to have value.

13 points Pugovitz 07 June 2011 07:18:02PM Permalink

"Try to learn something about everything and everything about something." ~Thomas H. Huxley

One of my favorite quotes; from the father of the word "agnostic."

13 points wedrifid 01 June 2011 09:57:43AM Permalink

A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.

-- Kahlil Gibran

13 points djcb 03 July 2011 10:28:23AM Permalink

In an article in a women’s magazine many years ago we advised the readers to buy their stocks as they bought their groceries, not as they bought their perfume.

-- Benjamin Graham The Intelligent Investor, 1949.

(I really like Graham's rational, down-to-earth approach to investing, and this quote is a good example of the kind of thinking he wants to convey)

13 points lukeprog 16 September 2011 12:53:43AM Permalink

It is remarkable that [probability theory], which originated in the consideration of games of chance, should have become the most important object of human knowledge... The most important questions of life are, for the most part, really only problems of probability.


13 points DanielLC 04 October 2011 04:31:12AM Permalink

"-but I think it would probably kill you."

"Comforting to know. Well, more comforting than not knowing it could kill you," I remark pointedly.

Sam Hughes

13 points MichaelHoward 02 October 2011 03:36:38PM Permalink

It does not do to dwell on dreams... and forget to live.

Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

13 points Konkvistador 09 November 2011 12:05:44AM Permalink

Virtually no idea is too ridiculous to be accepted, even by very intelligent and highly educated people, if it provides a way for them to feel special and important. Some confuse that feeling with idealism.

--Thomas Sowell

13 points wedrifid 05 November 2011 07:49:49AM Permalink

Sweetie, if you work reaaaaly hard, and focus reaaaaly well, and there aren't that many people who are still better at what you do than you are despite your best efforts, you can be whatever you want. If you don't die.

Zach Weiner, SMBC]

13 points Oligopsony 04 November 2011 10:04:34PM Permalink

“Tell me, Eben: how is’t, d’you think, that the planets are moved in their courses?”

“Why, said Ebenezer, “’tis that the cosmos is filled with little particles moving in vortices, each of which centers on a star; and ‘tis the subtle push and pull of these particles in our solar vortex that slides the planets along their orbs – is’t not?”

“So saith Descartes,” Burlingame smiled. “And d’you haply recall what is the nature of light?”

“If I have’t right,” replied Ebenezer, “’tis an aspect of the vortices – of the press of inward and outward forces in ‘em. The celestial fire is sent through space from the vortices by this pressure, which imparts a transitional motion to little light globules – ”

“Which Renatus kindly hatched for that occasion,” Burlingame interrupted. “And what’s more he allows his globules both a rectilinear and a rotatary motion. If only the first occurs when the globules smite our retinae, we see white light; if both, we see color. And if this were not magical enough – mirabile dictu! – when the rotatory motion surpasseth the rectilinear, we see blue; when the reverse, we see red; and when the twain are equal, we see yellow. What fantastical drivel!”

“You mean ‘tis not the truth? I must say, Henry, it sounds reasonable to me. In sooth, there is a seed of poetry in it; it hath an elegance.”

“Aye, it hath every virtue and but one small defect, which is, that the universe doth not operate in that wise.”

-John Barth, the Sot-Weed Factor

13 points Hey 02 November 2011 09:01:09AM Permalink

I am thinking of coding up a web app for accumulating, voting, and commenting on quotes. Kind of like but much fancier.

Is that something you guys would be interested in? If so, what features would you want?

This would be free to use of course, and the site would not lock down the data (ie it would be exportable to various formats).

I am thinking there are a lot of communities that post quotes for internal use, and might be interested in a kind of unified web site for this. My initial thought is that it would be like Reddit, where each tribe/community/subculture/topic/etc gets its own subdirectory.

13 points djcb 01 November 2011 09:48:31PM Permalink

The nurse recorded the time of death, 9:21 P.M. He discovered, oddly, that the clock had halted at that moment —just the sort of mystical phenomenon that appealed to unscientific people. Then an explanation occurred to him. He knew the clock was fragile, because he had repaired it several times, and he decided that the nurse must have stopped it by picking it up to check the time in the dim light.

[ James Gleick - Genius - The work and Life of Richard Feynman; this is a really chilling passage, which describes the moments just after Feynman's wife has passed away, which devastated him. Somehow, this struck me.]

13 points jsbennett86 01 November 2011 12:53:29AM Permalink

Who first called Reason sweet, I don't know. I suspect that he was a man with very few responsibilities, no children to rear, and no payroll to meet. An anchorite with heretical tendencies, maybe, or the idle youngest son of a wealthy Athenian. The dictates of Reason are often difficult to figure out, rarely to my liking, and profitable only by what seems a happy but remarkably unusual accident. Mostly, Reason brings bad news, and bad news of the worst sort, for, if it is truly the word of Reason, there is no denying it or weaseling out of its demands without simply deciding to be irrational. Thus it is that I have discovered, and many others, I notice, have also discovered, all sorts of clever ways to convince myself that Reason is "mere" Reason, powerful and right, of course, but infinitely outnumbered by reasons, my reasons.

Richard Mitchell, The Gift of Fire

13 points GabrielDuquette 31 October 2011 06:11:05PM Permalink

Would anybody tell me if I was getting stupider?

Mike Patton

13 points paper-machine 06 December 2011 06:34:25AM Permalink

Rejecting all organs of information therefore but my senses, I rid myself of the Pyrrhonisms with which an indulgence in speculations hyperphysical and antiphysical so uselessly occupy and disquiet the mind. A single sense may indeed be sometimes decieved, but rarely: and never all our senses together, with their faculty of reasoning. They evidence realities; and there are enough of these for all the purposes of life, without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.

I am sure that I really know many, many, things, and none more surely than that I love you with all my heart, and pray for the continuance of your life until you shall be tired of it yourself.

Thomas Jefferson, to John Adams, August 15, 1820.

13 points J_Taylor 04 December 2011 12:04:58PM Permalink

When you choose

How much postage to use,

When you know

What's the chance it will snow,

When you bet

And you end up in debt,

Oh try as you may,

You just can't get away

From mathematics!

Tom Lehrer, Thats Mathematics

(If one were so inclined, one could give a quasi-rationalist commentary on practically every lyric in that song.)

13 points gwern 01 December 2011 04:35:04AM Permalink

"Suffering by nature or chance never seems so painful as suffering inflicted on us by the arbitrary will of another."

--Arthur Schopenhauer

12 points [deleted] 07 January 2011 07:53:08PM Permalink

Dirge without Music

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.

So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned

With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.

Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.

A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,

A formula, a phrase remains, --- but the best is lost.

The answers quick keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,

They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled

Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.

More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave

Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

12 points Nevin 05 January 2011 05:33:20AM Permalink

The new XKCD is highly relevant.

Okay, middle school students, it's the first Tuesday in February.

This means that by law and custom, we must spend the morning reading though the Wikipedia article List of Common Misconceptions, so you can spend the rest of your lives being a little less wrong.

The guests at every party you'll ever attend thank us in advance.

Subtext: I wish I lived in this universe.

12 points MichaelHoward 04 January 2011 08:49:53PM Permalink

You can make a small program (say, 1,000 lines) work through brute force even when breaking every rule of good style. For a larger program, this is simply not so. If the structure of a 100,000-line program is bad, you will find that new errors are introduced as fast as old ones are removed.

-- Bjarne Stroustrup

12 points MichaelGR 03 January 2011 09:32:11PM Permalink

Take the bettors in the racetrack experiment. Thirty seconds before putting down their money, they had been tentative and uncertain; thirty seconds after the deed, they were significantly more optimistic ans self-assured. The act of making a final decision--in this case, of buying a ticket--had been the critical factor. Once a stand had been taken, the need for consistency pressured these people to bring what they felt and believed into line with what they had already done. They simply convinced themselves that they had made the right choice and, no doubt, felt better and it all.

-Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The psychology of Persuasion, p.59

12 points PhilGoetz 06 February 2011 06:34:56AM Permalink

"But can people in desperate poverty be considered to be making free choices? Many say no. So, is the choice between starving and selling one’s kidney really a choice? Yes; an easy one. One of the options is awful. To forbid organ selling is to take away the better choice. If we choose to provide an even better option to the person that would be great – but it is no solution to the problem of poverty to take away what choices the poor do have absent outside help."

Katja Grace, on Metaeuphoric, Dying for a Donation

12 points aausch 04 February 2011 10:05:08PM Permalink

Some pirates achieved immortality by great deeds of cruelty or derring-do. Some achieved immortality by amassing great wealth. But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying

-- The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett

12 points Konkvistador 03 February 2011 08:35:54PM Permalink

To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous.


12 points MichaelGR 03 February 2011 02:53:17PM Permalink

It has never mattered to me that thirty million people might think I'm wrong. The number of people who thought Hitler was right did not make him right... Why do you necessarily have to be wrong just because a few million people think you are?

-- Frank Zappa, quoted from The Real Frank Zappa Book

12 points MichaelGR 03 February 2011 02:51:43PM Permalink

Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.

-Chinese proverb

12 points Eneasz 03 February 2011 04:58:02AM Permalink

At my mother's knee I learned to view religious worship as a practice which lures people away from their duties and pleasures on earth, and breeds in them a thirst for impossible things, the chasing of which can bring no honour or delight but only bewilderment, disappointment, and insanity.

  • K. J. Bishop, "The Etched City"

(a sentiment I think applies to all super-stimuli)

12 points lukeprog 06 March 2011 08:23:32PM Permalink

I got your Friendly AI problem right here...

"To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society."

Theodore Roosevelt

12 points Nornagest 03 March 2011 03:37:38AM Permalink

The majority of people in this world are ataxic: they cannot coordinate their mental muscles to make a purposed movement. They have no real Will, only a set of wishes, many of which contradict others. The victim wobbles from one to the other (and it is no less wobbling because the movements may occasionally be very violent), and at the end of life the movements cancel each other out. Nothing has been achieved, except the one thing of which the victim is not conscious: the destruction of his own character, the confirming of indecision.

-- Aleister Crowley, Liber ABA

Crowley's writings are an odd mixture of utter raving, self-conscious mysticism, and surprising introspective clarity. The above refers to his concept of True Will, which reads at times like an occultist's parameterization of epistemic rationality; some of his writings on meditation, too, wouldn't look too far out of place as top-level posts here.

12 points Oscar_Cunningham 14 April 2011 11:44:56AM Permalink

Fluff Principle: on a user-voted news site, the links that are easiest to judge will take over unless you take specific measures to prevent it.

Paul Graham "What Ive learned from Hacker News"

12 points atucker 06 April 2011 07:17:13AM Permalink

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

~ Story, used most famously in David Foster Wallace's Commencement Address at Kenyon College

12 points RichardKennaway 02 May 2011 09:10:18PM Permalink

If a guy tells me the probability of failure is 1 in 10E5, I know he's full of crap.

Richard P. Feynmann, "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"

12 points beoShaffer 12 June 2011 08:53:58PM Permalink

Tom smiled. "Yes, Don't you like that idea?" "Liking it and having it be true aren't the same thing, Tom."

-Clive Barker, Abarat

12 points Patrick 07 June 2011 03:45:19AM Permalink

If things are nice there is probably a good reason why they are nice: and if you do not know at least one reason for this good fortune, then you still have work to do.

Richard Askey

12 points RobertLumley 02 June 2011 12:19:35AM Permalink

"There always comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two plus two equals four is punished with death … And the issue is not a matter of what reward or what punishment will be the outcome of that reasoning. The issue is simply whether or not two plus two equals four." – Albert Camus, The Plague

12 points arundelo 07 July 2011 02:04:33AM Permalink

Bill James was asked about the Holmes saying "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth". He responded:

That Sherlock Holmes line is very, very interesting. It's false, and extremely arrogant, and very dangerous. That's not a real way to think about the world. This concept of eliminating the impossible -- we could never do that. The whole idea of Sherlock Holmes is dangerous because it encourages people to think that -- if they're intelligent enough -- they could put all the pieces together in absolute terms. But the human mind is not sophisticated enough to do that. People are not that smart. It's not that Sherlock Holmes would need to be twice as smart as the average person; he'd have to be a billion times as smart as the average person.

12 points paper-machine 10 August 2011 03:09:58PM Permalink

Advancing a career in science is not the same as advancing science.

-- John D. Cook, in a tweet.

12 points Tom_Talbot 02 August 2011 11:43:36PM Permalink

Suppose we know someone's objective and also know that half the time that person correctly figures out how to achieve it and half the time he acts at random. Since there is generally only one right way of doing things (or perhaps a few) but very many wrong ways, the "rational" behavior can be predicted but the "irrational" behavior cannot. If we predict the person's behavior on the assumption that he is rational, we will be right half the time. If we assume he is irrational, we will almost never be right, since we still have to guess which irrational thing he will do. We are better off assuming he is rational and recognizing that we will sometimes be wrong. To put the argument more generally, the tendency to be rational is the consistent (and hence predictable) element in human behavior. The only alternative to assuming rationality (other than giving up and assuming that human behavior cannot be understood and predicted) would be a theory of irrational behavior - a theory that told us not only that someone would not always do the rational thing but also which particular irrational thing he would do. So far as I know, no satisfactory theory of that sort exists.

David Friedman, Price Theory, An Intermediate Text

12 points GabrielDuquette 02 August 2011 08:43:01PM Permalink

"[I]f function is hard enough, form is forced to follow it, because there is no effort to spare for error. Wild animals are beautiful because they have hard lives."

Paul Graham

12 points CronoDAS 24 September 2011 10:56:02PM Permalink

If we don't change our direction, we're likely to end up where we're headed.

-- Chinese proverb

12 points lukeprog 16 September 2011 12:54:43AM Permalink

The enlightened individual has learned to ask not "Is it so?" but rather "What is the probability that it is so?"

Sheldon Ross

12 points lionhearted 01 September 2011 11:34:16PM Permalink

I moved out of the hood for good, you blame me?

Niggas aim mainly at niggas they can't be.

But niggas can't hit niggas they can't see.

I'm out of sight, now I'm out of they dang reach.

-- Dr. Dre, "The Watcher"

12 points lukeprog 01 September 2011 12:12:13PM Permalink

Imagine that everyone in North America took [a cognitive enhancement pill] before retiring and then woke up the next morning with more memory capacity and processing speed... I believe that there is little likelihood that much would change the next day in terms of human happiness. It is very unlikely that people would be better able to fulfill their wishes and desires the day after taking the pill. In fact, it is quite likely that people would simply go about their usual business - only more efficiently. If given more memory capacity and processing speed, people would, I believe: carry on using the same ineffective medical treatments because of failure to think of alternative causes; keep making the same poor financial decisions because of overconfidence; keep misjudging environmental risks because of vividness; play host to the [tempting bad ideas] of Ponzi and pyramid schemes; [and] be wrongly influenced in their jury decisions by incorrect testimony about probabilities... The only difference would be that they would be able to do all of these things much more quickly!

Keith Stanovich, What Intelligence Tests Miss

12 points grendelkhan 07 October 2011 03:35:44PM Permalink

Whether their motives were righteous or venal, highminded or base, noble or ig-, in retrospect the obvious verdict is that they were all morons--yes, even the distinguished fellows and visiting scholars at think tanks and deans of international studies schools. They were morons because the whole moral, political and practical purpose of their scheme depended on its going exactly according to plan. Which nothing ever does. The Latin phrase for this logical fallacy would be Duh. Some of them were halfway intelligent; some of them may even have been well-intentioned; but they lacked imagination, and this is a fatal flaw. What we learn from history is that it never turns out like it's supposed to. And the one thing we know for sure about the future is that it won't be like we think.

Tim Kreider, Artist's Note for The Pain

12 points Wix 07 October 2011 02:33:24PM Permalink

‎"Real magic is the kind of magic that is not real, while magic that is real (magic that can actually be done), is not real magic."

-Lee Siegle

12 points MinibearRex 04 November 2011 02:36:39PM Permalink

Through the discovery of Buchner, Biology was relieved of yet another fragment of mysticism. The splitting up of sugar into CO2 and alcohol is no more the effect of a "vital principle" than the splitting up of cane sugar by invertase. The history of this problem is instructive, as it warns us against considering problems beyond our reach because they have not yet found their solution.

-Jacques Loeb, 1906, on the discovery of the mechanism of glycolysis

12 points baiter 04 November 2011 02:31:09AM Permalink

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

John Adams, Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials

12 points kateblu 09 December 2011 03:42:02AM Permalink

"If a theory has a lot of parameters, you adjust their values to fit a lot of data, and your theory is not really predicting those things, just accommodating them. Scientists use words like “curve fitting” and “fudge factors” to describe that sort of activity. On the other hand, if a theory has just a few parameters but applies to a lot of data, it has real power. You can use a small subset of the measurements to fix the parameters; then all other measurements are uniquely predicted. " Frank Wilczek

12 points Alerik 06 December 2011 05:28:36PM Permalink

“To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” ― Paul Valéry

12 points harshhpareek 04 December 2011 07:32:21AM Permalink

The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn't do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea

-- Paul Graham, "The Age of the Essay" (

12 points hairyfigment 03 December 2011 12:17:34AM Permalink

Every properly trained wizard has heard of Abraham, the idiot apprentice who recklessly enchanted a massive diamond instead of selling it to pay someone more skilled to fix his cursed noble friend. Haven't you destroyed the bloody thing by now?

  • Raven, from Dan Shive's webcomic El Goonish Shive.
12 points Karmakaiser 01 December 2011 01:40:48AM Permalink

Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant.


11 points Nominull 07 January 2011 08:15:31PM Permalink

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.

-John F. Kennedy

11 points Document 05 January 2011 12:41:30AM Permalink

There should be a word for the things we do not because we want to but because we want to be the kind of person who wants to.

-- A Softer World #626

Possibly related: Cached Selves and some of its outbound links, and Violent Acres' idea of self-brainwashing (bottom of post).

11 points JohannesDahlstrom 04 January 2011 09:23:32PM Permalink

This is how Vetinari thinks, his soul exulted. Plans can break down. You cannot plan the future. Only presumptuous fools plan. The wise man steers.

—Terry Pratchett, Making Money

Although thought by a madman in the book, there seems to be truth in this quote. People often seem to think of the future as a coherent, specific story not unlike the one woven by the brain from the past events. Unpleasant surprises happen when the real events inevitably deviate from those imagined.

11 points AndySimpson 04 January 2011 07:01:56PM Permalink

"...natural selection built the brain to survive in the world and only incidentally to understand it at a depth greater than is needed to survive. The proper task of scientists is to diagnose and correct the misalignment." -- E. O. Wilson

11 points MichaelGR 03 January 2011 09:32:45PM Permalink

Where all men think alike, no one thinks very much.

-Walter Lippmann

11 points gwern 07 February 2011 12:48:39AM Permalink

"Nor let him [the ruler] ever believe that a state can always make safe choices; on the contrary, let him think that he must make only doubtful ones; because this is in the order of things, that one never tries to avoid one inconvenience without incurring another; but prudence consists of knowing how to recognize the kinds of inconveniences, and to take the least sad for good."

--Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

11 points Konkvistador 02 February 2011 10:40:20PM Permalink

On two occasions I have been asked, – "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

-Charles Babbage

11 points Threedee 05 March 2011 08:28:20AM Permalink

If you believe that feeling bad or worrying long enough will change a past or future event, then you are residing on another planet with a different reality system.

William James

11 points billswift 02 March 2011 07:22:47PM Permalink

It is discipline, the rigorous attention to detail, that distinguishes the work of a scholar from that of a dilettante.

Unfortunately I lost the source for this - anybody recognize it? It was from a book I read 12 to 15 years ago, I can't remember any more than that.

11 points dares 04 April 2011 07:52:14PM Permalink

“In life as in poker, the occasional coup does not necessarily demonstrate skill and superlative performance is not the ability to eliminate chance, but the capacity to deliver good outcomes over and over again. That is how we know Warren Buffett is a skilled investor and Johnny Chan a skilled poker player.” — John Kay, Financial Times

11 points RobinZ 04 May 2011 02:48:38PM Permalink

Too large a proportion of recent "mathematical" economics are mere concoctions, as imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze of pretentious and unhelpful symbols.

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money (1935), Book 5, Chapter 21, Section 3, pg. 298

11 points vallinder 02 May 2011 08:11:01PM Permalink

It is quite easy to show, decision-theoretically, that the greatest chance of survival generally belongs to those who have most of their beliefs about things which affect our survival ability true. Philosophy, however, is totally irrelevant to survival from an evolutionary point of view. Natural selection has no way of weeding out veridical intuitions about the basic constitution of matter, for instance, from false ones, because humans have not generally been killed before they can procreate due to having erroneous metaphysical intuitions. Or bluntly put: having a true metaphysical theory does not help you getting laid.

– Staffan Angere, Theory and Reality: Metaphysics as Second Science, p. 17

11 points Alicorn 24 June 2011 01:22:42AM Permalink

"People argue against the existence of spirits and immaterial souls because they can't be explained by science. But if by definition these things are outside the scope of science, then you can't use science to prove or disprove them."

"Do these spirits and souls actually affect anything in the real world?"


"Then they're within the scope of science."

"Okay, let's say they don't interact at all with the world."

"Then why do we care?!?!"

--Calamities of Nature

11 points MixedNuts 06 June 2011 03:17:18PM Permalink

When shall we cross ourselves?

Whenever we are about to perform a good deed, or when we see or feel that we might commit a sin.

  • Carlos Gimenez, Barrio (Context: children in a religious institution are answering catechism questions)

This sounds like a great way to prime yourself. Crossing yourself has all the wrong connotations, but a gesture meaning "I choose good." should help in general. (I like the fist-over-heart Battlestar Galactica salute.)

Having a whole set of gestures, along with pithy quotes, should prove even more effective.

11 points CharlesR 06 June 2011 01:09:01AM Permalink

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.

-- Michael Shermer

11 points RichardKennaway 03 June 2011 02:16:06PM Permalink

I see that I've quoted the following twice before within other comment threads, so I think it deserves a place here:

He who would be Pope must think of nothing else.

Usually cited as a Spanish proverb.

11 points jscn 02 June 2011 12:26:59AM Permalink

The intellect, as a means for the preservation of the individual, unfolds its chief powers in simulation; for this is the means by which the weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves, since they are denied the chance of waging the struggle for existence with horns or the fangs of beasts of prey. In man this art of simulation reaches its peak: here deception, flattering, lying and cheating, talking behind the back, posing, living in borrowed splendor, being masked, the disguise of convention, acting a role before others and before oneself—in short, the constant fluttering around the single flame of vanity is so much the rule and the law that almost nothing is more incomprehensible than how an honest and pure urge for truth could make its appearance among men. They are deeply immersed in illusions and dream images; their eye glides only over the surface of things and sees "forms"; their feeling nowhere lead into truth, but contents itself with the reception of stimuli, playing, as it were, a game of blindman's buff on the backs of things.

Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense

11 points RobertLumley 02 June 2011 12:21:14AM Permalink

"If in other sciences we should arrive at certainty without doubt and truth without error, it behooves us to place the foundations of knowledge in mathematics." – Roger Bacon

11 points Yvain 03 July 2011 11:07:00PM Permalink

"I would not give a farthing for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity."

-- Oliver Wendell Holmes (quoted by Venkatesh Rao; thanks to InquilineKea)

11 points CaveJohnson 23 September 2011 09:50:22AM Permalink

One of my favorite genres in the prestige press is the Self-Refuting Article. These are articles that contain all the facts necessary to undermine the premise of the piece, but reporters, editors, and readers all conspire together in an act of collective stupidity to Not Get the Joke

--Steve Sailer

11 points lukeprog 08 September 2011 01:58:27AM Permalink

If you cannot calculate you cannot speculate on future pleasure and your life will not be that of a human, but that of an oyster or a jellyfish.

Plato, Philebus

11 points Konkvistador 31 October 2011 04:50:03PM Permalink

A person usually has two reasons for doing something: a good reason and the real reason.

--Thomas Carlyle

11 points RobinZ 12 October 2011 01:14:49AM Permalink

This is one of those occasions when it would be wise to translate back into respectable gene language, just to reassure ourselves that we have not become too carried away with subjective metaphors.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, ch. 8

11 points Wix 02 November 2011 08:22:53AM Permalink

At sea once more we had to pass the Sirens, whose sweet singing lures sailors to their doom. I had stopped up the ears of my crew with wax, and I alone listened while lashed to the mast, powerless to steer toward shipwreck.

-- Odysseus in Odyssey

11 points Alejandro1 31 October 2011 10:44:25PM Permalink

I want to give thanks to the divine

Labyrinth of causes and effects

For the diversity of beings

That form this singular universe,

For Reason, that will never give up its dream

Of a map of the labyrinth,

Jorge Luis Borges, “Another poem of gifts” (opening lines).

11 points Thomas 11 December 2011 03:35:40PM Permalink

Remember — there is a correlation between correlation and causation.

  • ChaosRobie on Reddit
11 points brilee 02 December 2011 02:32:02PM Permalink

“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” - Zen saying

A warning that not all hyperrationality is beneficial.

10 points gwern 07 January 2011 04:11:49PM Permalink

"The usual touchstone of whether what someone asserts is mere persuasion or at least a subjective conviction, i.e., firm belief, is betting. Often someone pronounces his propositions with such confident and inflexible defiance that he seems to have entirely laid aside all concern for error. A bet disconcerts him. Sometimes he reveals that he is persuaded enough for one ducat but not for ten. For he would happily bet one, but at ten he suddenly becomes aware of what he had not previously noticed, namely that it is quite possible that he has erred."

--Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (A824/B852); seen on as linked by Marginal Revolution

10 points fiddlemath 03 January 2011 08:47:39AM Permalink

Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.

Lewis Hyde, Alcohol and Poetry.

10 points Tesseract 03 January 2011 06:54:16AM Permalink

Do not bear this single habit of mind, to think that what you say and nothing else is true. ...For a man, though he be wise, it is no shame to learn – learn many things, and not maintain his views too rigidly.

Sophocles, Antigone

10 points endoself 08 February 2011 10:53:58AM Permalink

After finishing dinner, Sidney Morgenbesser decides to order dessert. The waitress tells him he has two choices: apple pie and blueberry pie. Sidney orders the apple pie. After a few minutes the waitress returns and says that they also have cherry pie at which point Morgenbesser says "In that case I'll have the blueberry pie."

10 points CronoDAS 03 February 2011 07:19:37PM Permalink

Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes and the second law of thermodynamics. All three are processes in which useful or accessible forms of some quantity, such as energy or money, are transformed into useless, inaccessible forms of the same quantity. That is not to say that these three processes don't have fringe benefits: taxes pay for roads and schools; the second law of thermodynamics drives cars, computers and metabolism; and death, at the very least, opens up tenured faculty positions.

-- Seth Lloyd

10 points kboon 03 February 2011 10:46:55AM Permalink

We've all bought and enjoyed books called 'Optical Illusions'. We all love optical illusions. But that's not what they should call the book. They should call them 'Brain Failures'. Because that what it is: a complete failure of human perception. All it takes is a few clever sketches and our brains can't figure it out.

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson

Transcribed from

10 points Quirinus_Quirrell 02 February 2011 02:10:03AM Permalink

The world around us redounds with opportunities, explodes with opportunities, which nearly all folk ignore because it would require them to violate a habit of thought ... I cannot quite comprehend what goes through people's minds when they repeat the same failed strategy over and over, but apparently it is an astonishingly rare realization that you can try something else.

-- Eliezer Yudkowsky, putting words in my other copy's mouth

10 points MichaelGR 08 March 2011 06:41:38PM Permalink

Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

  • Mark Twain
10 points radical_negative_one 07 March 2011 08:56:08PM Permalink

I am taking a first-aid class at my local community college. Our instructor, a paramedic, after telling us about the importance of blood flow to the brain, and the poor prognosis for someone who is left comatose from oxygen deprivation, says:

"There are some people who say, 'But miracles can happen!' Yeah, miracles are one in a million. What number are you?"

10 points wedrifid 07 March 2011 11:23:30AM Permalink

Dr. Cuddy: "And you're always right. And I don't mean you always think you're right. But y--you are actually always right, because that's all that matters."

House: "That doesn't even make sense. What, you want me to be wrong?"

10 points TylerJay 05 April 2011 09:40:03PM Permalink

The north went on forever. Tyrion Lannister knew the maps as well as anyone, but a fortnight on the wild track that passed for the kingsroad up here had brought home the lesson that the map was one thing and the land quite another.

--George R. R. Martin A Game of Thrones

10 points beoShaffer 03 June 2011 12:40:04AM Permalink

quoted text The art of concluding from experience and observation consists in evaluating probabilities, in estimating if they are high or numerous enough to constitute proof. This type of calculation is more complicated and more difficult than one might think. It demands a great sagacity generally above the power of common people. The success of charlatans, sorcerors, and alchemists — and all those who abuse public credulity — is founded on errors in this type of calculation.

Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier, Rapport des commissaires chargés par le roi de l'examen du magnétisme animal (1784), as translated in "The Chain of Reason versus the Chain of Thumbs", Bully for Brontosaurus (1991) by Stephen Jay Gould, p. 195,

10 points Tom_Talbot 03 August 2011 12:30:12AM Permalink

The only way to get rich from a get-rich book is to write one.

Brother Ty's seventh law

10 points Yvain 19 September 2011 06:22:15PM Permalink

I think there's a few posts by Yudkowsky that I think deserve the highest praise one can give to a philosopher's writing: That, on rereading them, I have no idea what I found so mindblowing about them the first time. Everything they say seems patently obvious now!

-- Ari Rahikkala

10 points cwillu 05 September 2011 01:43:36AM Permalink

[...] Often I find that the best way to come up with new results is to find someone who's saying something that seems clearly, manifestly wrong to me, and then try to think of counterarguments. Wrong people provide a fertile source of research ideas.

-- Scott Aaronson, Quantum Computing Since Democritus (

10 points listic 02 September 2011 01:42:17PM Permalink

True courage is loving life while knowing all the truth about it.

-- Sergey Dovlatov

(translation is mine; can you propose a better translation from Russian?)

10 points AdeleneDawner 01 September 2011 09:54:09PM Permalink

I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.

-Sam Harris

10 points gwern 28 October 2011 11:19:52PM Permalink

"I find the Law of Fives to be more and more manifest the harder I look."

--Principia Discordia (surprisingly, not quoted yet)

10 points novalis 19 October 2011 06:00:16PM Permalink

"Don’t ask yourself if something is fair. Ask someone else--a stranger in the street, for example." -Lemony Snicket

10 points gwern 14 October 2011 01:46:37AM Permalink

"Many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory is too good."

--#122 Assorted Opinions and Maxims, Friedrich Nietzsche

10 points [deleted] 03 October 2011 08:35:56PM Permalink

Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses. It is a faculty that man has to exercise by choice. Thinking is not an automatic function. In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality—or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.

Ayn Rand

10 points gwern 20 November 2011 05:42:20PM Permalink

"The method of 'postulating' what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil. Let us leave them to others and proceed with our honest toil."

Bertrand Russell, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy 1919 ( )

10 points GLaDOS 06 November 2011 04:32:00PM Permalink
We do what we must
because we can. 
For the good of all of us.
Except the ones who are dead.


10 points peter_hurford 01 November 2011 02:23:57AM Permalink

I think, therefore I am perhaps mistaken.

Sharon Fenick

10 points Tesseract 01 December 2011 05:39:22PM Permalink

A system for generating ungrounded but mostly true beliefs would be an oracle, as impossible as a perpetual motion machine.

(McKay Dennett 2009)

10 points MinibearRex 01 December 2011 05:19:09AM Permalink

The story of computers and artificial intelligence (known as AI) resembles that of flight in air and space. Until recently people dismissed both ideas as impossible - commonly meaning that they couldn't see how to do them, or would be upset if they could.

-Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation