Best of Rationality Quotes

66 points Grognor 02 May 2012 03:42:19AM Permalink

Tags like "stupid," "bad at __", "sloppy," and so on, are ways of saying "You're performing badly and I don't know why." Once you move it to "you're performing badly because you have the wrong fingerings," or "you're performing badly because you don't understand what a limit is," it's no longer a vague personal failing but a causal necessity. Anyone who never understood limits will flunk calculus. It's not you, it's the bug.

-celandine13 (Hat-tip to Frank Adamek. In addition, the linked article is so good that I had trouble picking something to put in rationality quotes; in other words, I recommend it.)

62 points Solvent 02 February 2012 06:03:59AM Permalink

And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity. The ideas Earthlings held didn’t matter for hundreds of thousands of years, since they couldn’t do much about them anyway. Ideas might as well be badges as anything.

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

60 points MBlume 01 October 2012 07:54:31PM Permalink

Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect

--Teller (source)

60 points fortyeridania 02 November 2012 04:03:56AM Permalink

On the error of failing to appreciate your opponents three-dimensionality:

They had cliche answers but only to their self-created straw-men. To exaggerate only slightly, they had never talked to anyone who really believed, and had thought deeply about, views drastically different from their own. As a result, when they heard real arguments instead of caricatures, they had no answers, only amazement that such views could be expressed by someone who had the external characteristics of being a member of the intellectual community, and that such views could be defended with apparent cogency. Never have I been more impressed with the advice I once received: "You cannot be sure that you are right unless you understand the arguments against your views better than your opponents do."

Source: Milton Friedman, "Schools at Chicago," from The Indispensable Milton Friedman

H/T David Henderson at EconLog

Note: The final sentence of the passage, as presented by Henderson, is missing closing quotation marks. I have added them.

58 points arundelo 05 February 2012 08:54:15PM Permalink

You are not the king of your brain. You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going "a most judicious choice, sire".

-- Steven Kaas

57 points JoshuaZ 03 February 2012 05:33:42AM Permalink

Doctor Slithingly watched the readout on the computer screen and rubbed his hands together. ‘Excellent,’ he muttered, his voice a thin, rasping hiss. ‘Excellent!’ He laughed to himself in a chilling falsetto. ‘Soon my plan will come to fruition. Soon I will destroy them all!’ The room resounded with the sound of his insane giggling. This was the culmination of years of research – years of testing tissue samples and creating unnatural biological hybrids – but now it was over. Now, finally, he would destroy them all – every single type and variation of leukaemia. In doing so, he would render useless the work of thousands of charitable organisations as well as denying medical professionals the world over a source of income. He would prevent the publication of hundreds of inspiring stories of survival and sacrifice which might otherwise have sold millions of copies worldwide. ‘Bwahaha!’ he laughed. ‘So long, you meddling haematological neoplasm, you!’

Joel Stickley, How To Write Badly Well

57 points baiter 02 March 2012 12:52:37PM Permalink

"...I always rejoice to hear of your being still employ'd in experimental Researches into Nature, and of the Success you meet with. The rapid Progress true Science now makes, occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the Height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the Power of Man over Matter. We may perhaps learn to deprive large Masses of their Gravity, and give them absolute Levity, for the sake of easy Transport. Agriculture may diminish its Labor and double its Produce; all Diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of Old Age, and our Lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian Standard. O that moral Science were in as fair a way of Improvement, that Men would cease to be Wolves to one another, and that human Beings would at length learn what they now improperly call Humanity!"

-- Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Joseph Priestley, 8 Feb 1780

57 points Alejandro1 01 October 2012 08:00:01PM Permalink

This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. “You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

--Michael Lewis profile of Barack Obama

56 points RomeoStevens 06 November 2012 11:27:06PM Permalink

If any idiot ever tells you that life would be meaningless without death, Hyperion corporation recommends killing them.

--Borderlands 2

55 points James_Miller 02 November 2012 05:43:50PM Permalink

A Bet is a Tax on Bullshit

Alex Tabarrok

54 points Yvain 01 September 2012 02:20:44PM Permalink

Do unto others 20% better than you expect them to do unto you, to correct for subjective error.

-- Linus Pauling

53 points gRR 01 May 2012 12:10:20PM Permalink

Once upon a time, there was a man who was riding in a horse drawn carriage and traveling to go take care of some affairs; and in the carriage there was also a very big suitcase. He told the driver to of the carriage to drive non-stop and the horse ran extremely fast.

Along the road, there was an old man who saw them and asked, “Sir, you seem anxious, where do you need to go?”

The man in the carriage then replied in a loud voice, “I need to go to the state of Chu.” The old man heard and laughing he smiled and said, “You are going the wrong way. The state of Chu is in the south, how come you are going to to the north?”

“That’s alright,” The man in the carriage then said, “Can you not see? My horse runs very fast.”

“Your horse is great, but your path is incorrect.”

“It’s no problem, my carriage is new, it was made just last month.”

“Your carriage is brand new, but this is not the road one takes to get to Chu.”

“Old Uncle, you don’t know,” and the man in the carriage pointed to the suitcase in the back and said, “In that suitcase there’s alot of money. No matter how long the road is, I am not afraid.”

“You have lots of money, but do not forget, The direction which you are going is wrong. I can see, you should go back the direction which you came from.”

The man in the carriage heard this and irritated said, “I have already been traveling for ten days, how can you tell me to go back from where I came?” He then pointed at the carriage driver and said, “Take a look, he is very young, and he drives very well, you needn’t worry. Goodbye!”

And then he told the driver to drive forward, and the horse ran even faster.

--Chinese Tale

51 points Ezekiel 01 September 2012 11:27:29AM Permalink

"Wait, Professor... If Sisyphus had to roll the boulder up the hill over and over forever, why didn't he just program robots to roll it for him, and then spend all his time wallowing in hedonism?"

"It's a metaphor for the human struggle."

"I don't see how that changes my point."

50 points GabrielDuquette 01 February 2012 03:34:11PM Permalink

It shouldn't be disrespectful to the complexity of the human condition to say that despair is also, often, just low blood sugar.

Alain de Botton

49 points Delta 03 August 2012 10:41:45AM Permalink

“Ignorance killed the cat; curiosity was framed!” ― C.J. Cherryh

(not sure if that is who said it originally, but that's the first creditation I found)

49 points Kaj_Sotala 01 September 2012 06:08:27PM Permalink

The person who says, as almost everyone does say, that human life is of infinite value, not to be measured in mere material terms, is talking palpable, if popular, nonsense. If he believed that of his own life, he would never cross the street, save to visit his doctor or to earn money for things necessary to physical survival. He would eat the cheapest, most nutritious food he could find and live in one small room, saving his income for frequent visits to the best possible doctors. He would take no risks, consume no luxuries, and live a long life. If you call it living. If a man really believed that other people's lives were infinitely valuable, he would live like an ascetic, earn as much money as possible, and spend everything not absolutely necessary for survival on CARE packets, research into presently incurable diseases, and similar charities.

In fact, people who talk about the infinite value of human life do not live in either of these ways. They consume far more than they need to support life. They may well have cigarettes in their drawer and a sports car in the garage. They recognize in their actions, if not in their words, that physical survival is only one value, albeit a very important one, among many.

-- David D. Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom

46 points Delta 05 September 2012 01:09:15PM Permalink

“A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.” ― Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey

43 points peter_hurford 01 January 2012 11:23:36PM Permalink

"if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition – even when it seems to be doing a little good – we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.”

– Carl Sagan

43 points tingram 01 January 2012 12:38:52AM Permalink

Everyday words are inherently imprecise. They work well enough in everyday life that you don't notice. Words seem to work, just as Newtonian physics seems to. But you can always make them break if you push them far enough.

--Paul Graham, How to Do Philosophy

[surprisingly not a duplicate]

43 points Oscar_Cunningham 01 April 2012 02:08:01PM Permalink

I understand what an equation means if I have a way of figuring out the characteristics of its solution without actually solving it.

Paul Dirac

43 points alex_zag_al 06 September 2012 07:56:42PM Permalink

There is something about practical things that knocks us off our philosophical high horses. Perhaps Heraclitus really thought he couldn't step in the same river twice. Perhaps he even received tenure for that contribution to philosophy. But suppose some other ancient had claimed to have as much right as Heraclitus did to an ox Heraclitus had bought, on the grounds that since the animal had changed, it wasn't the same one he had bought and so was up for grabs. Heraclitus would have quickly come up with some ersatz, watered-down version of identity of practical value for dealing with property rights, oxen, lyres, vineyards, and the like. And then he might have wondered if that watered-down vulgar sense of identity might be a considerably more valuable concept than a pure and philosophical sort of identity that nothing has.

John Perry, introduction to Identity, Personal Identity, and the Self

43 points AlexSchell 01 October 2012 08:39:25PM Permalink

A lot of outcomes about which we care deeply are not very predictable. For example, it is not comforting to members of a graduate school admissions committee to know that only 23% of the variance in later faculty ratings of a student can be predicted by a unit weighting of the student's undergraduate GPA, his or her GRE score, and a measure of the student's undergraduate institution selectivity -- but that is opposed to 4% based on those committee members' global ratings of the applicant. We want to predict outcomes important to us. It is only rational to conclude that if one method (a linear model) does not predict well, something else may do better. What is not rational -- in fact, it's irrational -- is to conclude that this "something else" necessarily exists and, in the absence of any positive supporting evidence, is intuitive global judgment.

Hastie Dawes, Rational Choice in an Uncertain World, pp. 67-8.

42 points gwern 01 February 2012 03:23:59PM Permalink

"He [H.G. Wells] has abandoned the sensational theory with the same honourable gravity and simplicity with which he adopted it. Then he thought it was true; now he thinks it is not true. He has come to the most dreadful conclusion a literary man can come to, the conclusion that the ordinary view is the right one. It is only the last and wildest kind of courage that can stand on a tower before ten thousand people and tell them that twice two is four."

--Heretics, G. K. Chesterton

41 points Andy_McKenzie 01 April 2012 10:10:38PM Permalink

A few years into this book, I was diagnosed as diabetic and received a questionnaire in the mail. The insurance carrier stated that diabetics often suffer from depression and it was worried about me. One of the questions was “Do you think about death?” Yes, I do. “How often?” the company wanted to know. “Yearly? Monthly? Weekly? Daily?” And if daily, how many times per day? I dutifully wrote in, “About 70 times per day.” The next time I saw my internist, she told me the insurer had recommended psychotherapy for my severe depression. I explained to her why I thought about death all day—merely an occupational hazard—and she suggested getting therapy nonetheless. I thought, fine, it might help with the research.

The therapist found me tragically undepressed, and I asked her if she could help me design a new life that would maximize the few years that I had left. After all, one should have a different life strategy at sixty than at twenty. She asked why I thought I was going to die and why I had such a great fear of death. I said, I am going to die. It’s not a fear; it’s a reality. There must be some behavior that could be contraindicated for a man my age but other normally dangerous behavior that takes advantage of the fact that I am risking fewer years at sixty or sixty-five years of age than I was at twenty or twenty-five (such as crimes that carry a life sentence, crushing at age twenty but less so at age sixty-five). Surely psychology must have something to say on the topic. Turns out, according to my therapist, it does not. There was therapy for those with terminal illness, for the bereaved, for the about-to-be-bereaved, for professionals who dealt with terminal patients, and so on, but there was nothing for people who were simply aware that their life would come to a natural end. It would seem to me that this is a large, untapped market. The therapist advised me not to think about death.

Dick Teresi, The Undead

39 points GabrielDuquette 02 June 2012 05:40:17AM Permalink

You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings.

Pearl S. Buck


39 points GabrielDuquette 02 November 2012 12:57:17AM Permalink

People say "think outside the box," as if the box wasn't a fucking great idea.

Sean Thomason

38 points GabrielDuquette 02 February 2012 12:37:31AM Permalink

The point of rigour is not to destroy all intuition; instead, it should be used to destroy bad intuition while clarifying and elevating good intuition.

Terence Tao

38 points summerstay 04 August 2012 02:41:24PM Permalink

Interviewer: How do you answer critics who suggest that your team is playing god here?

Craig Venter: Oh... we're not playing.

38 points NancyLebovitz 06 November 2012 02:59:40PM Permalink

Let me differentiate between scientific method and the neurology of the individual scientist. Scientific method has always depended on feedback [or flip-flopping as the Tsarists call it]; I therefore consider it the highest form of group intelligence thus far evolved on this backward planet. The individual scientist seems a different animal entirely. The ones I've met seem as passionate, and hence as egotistic and prejudiced, as painters, ballerinas or even, God save the mark, novelists. My hope lies in the feedback system itself, not in any alleged saintliness of the individuals in the system.

Robert Anton Wilson

37 points Grognor 03 March 2012 08:57:49AM Permalink

“Stupider” for a time might not have been a real word, but it certainly points where it’s supposed to. The other day my sister used the word “deoffensify”. It’s not a real word, but that didn’t make it any less effective. Communication doesn’t care about the “realness” of language, nor does it often care about the exact dictionary definitions. Words change through every possible variable, even time. One of the great challenges of communication has always been making sure words mean the same thing to you and your audience.

-Michael Kayin OReilly

37 points Konkvistador 01 May 2012 01:06:48PM Permalink

For example, in many ways nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth. Anyone can believe in the truth. To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army.

--Mencius Moldbug, on belief as attire and conspicuous wrongness.


37 points wallowinmaya 01 June 2012 09:45:47PM Permalink

The categories and classes we construct are simply the semantic sugar which makes the reality go down easier. They should never get confused for the reality that is, the reality which we perceive but darkly and with biased lenses. The hyper-relativists and subjectivists who are moderately fashionable in some humane studies today are correct to point out that science is a human construction and endeavor. Where they go wrong is that they are often ignorant of the fact that the orderliness of many facets of nature is such that even human ignorance and stupidity can be overcome with adherence to particular methods and institutional checks and balances. The predictive power of modern science, giving rise to modern engineering, is the proof of its validity. No talk or argumentation is needed. Boot up your computer. Drive your car.

Razib Khan

37 points GabrielDuquette 04 November 2012 08:37:22AM Permalink

Diogenes was knee deep in a stream washing vegetables. Coming up to him, Plato said, "My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn't have to wash vegetables."

"And," replied Diogenes, "If you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn't have to pay court to kings."

Teachings of Diogenes

36 points lukeprog 02 February 2012 07:14:13PM Permalink

Just because science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.

Dara OBriain

36 points cata 02 November 2012 06:56:18PM Permalink

In which Winnie-the-Pooh tests a hypothesis about the animal tracks that he is following through the woods:

“Wait a moment,” said Winnie-the-Pooh, holding up his paw.

He sat down and thought, in the most thoughtful way he could think. Then he fitted his paw into one of the Tracks…and then he scratched his nose twice, and stood up.

“Yes,” said Winnie-the Pooh.

“I see now,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.

“I have been Foolish and Deluded,” said he, “and I am a Bear of No Brain at All.”

36 points Matt_Caulfield 01 December 2012 08:08:42PM Permalink

Politics, after all, is the art of persuasion; the political is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them. The problem is that in order to play the game effectively, one can never acknowledge this: it may be true that, if I could convince everyone in the world that I was the King of France, I would in fact become the King of France; but it would never work if I were to admit that this was the only basis of my claim.

  • David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
36 points James_Miller 01 December 2012 08:51:39PM Permalink

politicians and leaders worldwide don’t like to be associated with toilets, even state-of-the-art toilets. This sanitation stigma distorts international and national development agendas.

chairman of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation

The quote was brought to my attention by a student in my Economics of Future Technology course who is writing on sanitation in the developing world.

35 points Oscar_Cunningham 01 June 2012 02:31:58PM Permalink

Two very different attitudes toward the technical workings of mathematics are found in the literature. Already in 1761, Leonhard Euler complained about isolated results which "are not based on a systematic method" and therefore whose "inner grounds seem to be hidden." Yet in the 20'th Century, writers as diverse in viewpoint as Feller and de Finetti are agreed in considering computation of a result by direct application of the systematic rules of probability theory as dull and unimaginative, and revel in the finding of some isolated clever trick by which one can see the answer to a problem without any calculation.


Feller's perception was so keen that in virtually every problem he was able to see a clever trick; and then gave only the clever trick. So his readers get the impression that:

  • Probability theory has no systematic methods; it is a collection of isolated, unrelated clever tricks, each of which works on one problem but not on the next one.
  • Feller was possessed of superhuman cleverness.
  • Only a person with such cleverness can hope to find new useful results in probability theory.

Indeed, clever tricks do have an aesthetic quality that we all appreciate at once. But we doubt whether Feller, or anyone else, was able to see those tricks on first looking at the problem. We solve a problem for the first time by that (perhaps dull to some) direct calculation applying our systematic rules. After seeing the solution, we may contemplate it and see a clever trick that would have led us to the answer much more quickly. Then, of course, we have the opportunity for gamesmanship by showing others only the clever trick, scorning to mention the base means by which we first found.

E. T. Jaynes "Probability Theory, The Logic of Science"

34 points scmbradley 02 February 2012 01:43:12PM Permalink

The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem, in a way that will allow a solution

– Bertrand Russell

34 points Jayson_Virissimo 02 February 2012 08:59:37AM Permalink

It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.

George Bernard Shaw

34 points Konkvistador 01 March 2012 09:09:23PM Permalink

False opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing

--Joseph de Maistre, Les soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, Ch. I

34 points Yvain 02 April 2012 12:55:42PM Permalink

On counter-signaling, how not to do:

US police investigated a parked car with a personalized plate reading "SMUGLER". They found the vehicle, packed with 24 lb (11 kg) of narcotics, parked near the Canadian border at a hotel named "The Smugglers' Inn." Police believed the trafficker thought that being so obvious would deter the authorities.

-- The Irish Independent, "News In Brief"

34 points mindspillage 04 July 2012 06:08:12AM Permalink

The words "I am..." are potent words; be careful what you hitch them to. The thing you're claiming has a way of reaching back and claiming you.

--A.L. Kitselman

34 points Alejandro1 02 August 2012 08:52:13PM Permalink

British philosophy is more detailed and piecemeal than that of the Continent; when it allows itself some general principle, it sets to work to prove it inductively by examining its various applications. Thus Hume, after announcing that there is no idea without an antecedent impression, immediately proceeds to consider the following objection: suppose you are seeing two shades of colour which are similar but not identical, and suppose you have never seen a shade of colour intermediate between the two, can you nevertheless imagine such a shade? He does not decide the question, and considers that a decision adverse to his general principle would not be fatal to him, because his principle is not logical but empirical. When--to take a contrast--Leibniz wants to establish his monadology, he argues, roughly, as follows: Whatever is complex must be composed of simple parts; what is simple cannot be extended; therefore everything is composed of parts having no extension. But what is not extended is not matter. Therefore the ultimate constituents of things are not material, and, if not material, then mental. Consequently a table is really a colony of souls.

The difference of method, here, may be characterized as follows: In Locke or Hume, a comparatively modest conclusion is drawn from a broad survey of many facts, whereas in Leibniz a vast edifice of deduction is pyramided upon a pin-point of logical principle. In Leibniz, if the principle is completely true and the deductions are entirely valid, all is well; but the structure is unstable, and the slightest flaw anywhere brings it down in ruins. In Locke or Hume, on the contrary, the base of the pyramid is on the solid ground of observed fact, and the pyramid tapers upward, not downward; consequently the equilibrium is stable, and a flaw here or there can be rectified without total disaster.

--Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

34 points J_Taylor 03 August 2012 02:09:49AM Permalink

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience.

-- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

34 points wallowinmaya 02 September 2012 10:30:35PM Permalink

Nobody is smart enough to be wrong all the time.

Ken Wilber

34 points GabrielDuquette 01 December 2012 03:45:57PM Permalink

"Working in mysterious ways" is the greatest euphemism for failure ever devised.


33 points Lightwave 01 January 2012 12:24:52PM Permalink

Do not accept any of my words on faith,

Believing them just because I said them.

Be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns,

And critically examines his product for authenticity.

Only accept what passes the test

By proving useful and beneficial in your life.

-- The Buddha, Jnanasara-samuccaya Sutra

33 points shokwave 03 July 2012 05:09:07AM Permalink

Person: "It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you."

Robot: " ... Paranoia is such a childish emotion. You're an adult. Why aren't all your enemies dead by now?"

-- RStevens

33 points katydee 02 September 2012 09:01:21PM Permalink

Lady Average may not be as good-looking as Lady Luck, but she sure as hell comes around more often.


33 points Jayson_Virissimo 03 September 2012 08:59:50AM Permalink

...beliefs are like clothes. In a harsh environment, we choose our clothes mainly to be functional, i.e., to keep us safe and comfortable. But when the weather is mild, we choose our clothes mainly for their appearance, i.e., to show our figure, our creativity, and our allegiances. Similarly, when the stakes are high we may mainly want accurate beliefs to help us make good decisions. But when a belief has few direct personal consequences, we in effect mainly care about the image it helps to project.

-Robin Hanson, Human Enhancement

32 points khafra 03 January 2012 05:02:23AM Permalink

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.

-- H. L. Mencken, describing halo bias before it was named

32 points Stephanie_Cunnane 04 April 2012 03:27:55AM Permalink

Another learning which cost me much to recognize, can be stated in four words. The facts are friendly.

It has interested me a great deal that most psychotherapists, especially the psychoanalysts, have steadily refused to make any scientific investigation of their therapy, or to permit others to do this. I can understand this reaction because I have felt it. Especially in our early investigations I can well remember the anxiety of waiting to see how the findings came out. Suppose our hypotheses were disproved! Suppose we were mistaken in our views! Suppose our opinions were not justified! At such times, as I look back, it seems to me that I regarded the facts as potential enemies, as possible bearers of disaster. I have perhaps been slow in coming to realize that the facts are always friendly. Every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true. And being closer to the truth can never be a harmful or dangerous or unsatisfying thing. So while I still hate to readjust my thinking, still hate to give up old ways of perceiving and conceptualizing, yet at some deeper level I have, to a considerable degree, come to realize that these painful reorganizations are what is known as learning, and that though painful they always lead to a more satisfying because somewhat more accurate way of seeing life. Thus at the present time one of the most enticing areas for thought and speculation is an area where several of my pet ideas have not been upheld by the evidence, I feel if I can only puzzle my way through this problem that I will find a much more satisfying approximation to the truth. I feel sure the facts will be my friends.

-Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy (1961)

32 points VKS 04 April 2012 10:23:55AM Permalink

Just as there are odors that dogs can smell and we cannot, as well as sounds that dogs can hear and we cannot, so too there are wavelengths of light we cannot see and flavors we cannot taste. Why then, given our brains wired the way they are, does the remark, "Perhaps there are thoughts we cannot think," surprise you?

  • Richard Hamming
32 points chaosmosis 04 May 2012 07:00:21PM Permalink

Being - forgive me - rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.

Albus Dumbledore

32 points paper-machine 01 May 2012 08:27:25AM Permalink

If there is something really cool and you can't understand why somebody hasn't done it before, it's because you haven't done it yourself.

-- Lion Kimbro, "The Anarchist's Principle"

32 points lukeprog 09 September 2012 01:36:00AM Permalink

A problem well stated is a problem half solved.

Charles Kettering

32 points Jayson_Virissimo 01 September 2012 08:25:27AM Permalink

Infallible, adj. Incapable of admitting error.

-L. A. Rollins, Lucifer's Lexicon: An Updated Abridgment

31 points Jayson_Virissimo 02 January 2012 07:11:34AM Permalink

Not everything that is more difficult is more meritorious.

-Saint Thomas Aquinas

I wish I would have memorized this quote before attending university.

*This comment was inspired by Will_Newsome's attempt to find rationality quotes in Summa Theologica.

31 points fortyeridania 02 November 2012 05:25:58AM Permalink

Therefore, the first and most important duty of philosophy is to test impressions, choosing between them and only deploying those that have passed the test. You know how, with money--an area where we believe our interest to be at stake--we have developed the art of assaying, and considerable ingenuity has gone into developing a way to test if coins are counterfeit, involving our senses of sight, smell, hearing, and touch. The assayer will let the denarius drop and listen intently to its ring; and he is not satisfied to listen just once: after repeated listenings he practically acquires a musician's subtle ear. It is a measure of the effort we are prepared to expend to guard against deception when accuracy is at a premium.

When it comes to our poor mind, however, we can't be bothered; we are satisfied accepting any and all impressions, because here the loss we suffer is not obvious. If you want to know just how little concerned you are about things good and bad, and how serious about things indifferent, compare your attitude to going blind with your attitude about being mentally in the dark. You will realize, I think, how inappropriate your values really are.

Epictetus, Discourses I.20.7-12 (pages 51-52 of this edition) (original Greek, with alternate translations at the link)

Edited to correct a typo.

30 points Grognor 02 February 2012 03:29:36AM Permalink

Il est dangereux d’avoir raison dans des choses où des hommes accrédités ont tort.

It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong.

-Voltaire (usually presented as, "It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.")

30 points Maniakes 03 April 2012 12:51:28AM Permalink

There are big differences between "a study" and "a good study" and "a published study" and "a study that's been independently confirmed" and "a study that's been independently confirmed a dozen times over." These differences are important; when a scientist says something, it's not the same as the Pope saying it. It's only when dozens and hundreds of scientists start saying the same thing that we should start telling people to guzzle red wine out of a fire hose.

Chris Bucholz

30 points John_Maxwell_IV 07 May 2012 06:09:23PM Permalink

How a game theorist buys a car:

"Hello, my name is Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. I plan to buy the following car [list the exact model and features] today at five P.M. I am calling all of the dealerships within a fifty-mile radius of my home and I am telling each of them what I am telling you. I will come in and buy the car today at five P.M. from the dealer who gives me the lowest price. I need to have the all-in price, including taxes, dealer prep [I ask them not to prep the car and not charge me for it, since dealer prep is little more than giving you a washed car with plastic covers and paper floormats removed, usually for hundreds of dollars], everything, because I will make out the check to your dealership before I come and will not have another check with me."

From The Predictioneer's Game, page 7.

Other car-buying tips from Bueno de Mesquita, in case you're about to buy a car:

* Figure out exactly what car you want to buy by searching online before making any contact with dealerships.

* Don't be afraid to purchase a car from a distant dealership--the manufacturer provides the warranty, not the dealer.

* Be sure to tell each dealer you will be sharing the price they quote you with subsequent dealers.

* Don't take shit from dealers who tell you "you can't buy a car over the phone" or do anything other than give you their number. If a dealer is stonewalling, make it quite clear that you're willing to get what you want elsewhere.

* Arrive at the lowest-price dealer just before 5:00 PM to close the deal. In the unlikely event that the dealer changes their terms, go for the next best price.

30 points Jayson_Virissimo 01 May 2012 08:08:55AM Permalink

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.


30 points peter_hurford 01 September 2012 06:19:37PM Permalink

"He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his candle at mine, receives light without darkening me. No one possesses the less of an idea, because every other possesses the whole of it." - Jefferson

29 points Stabilizer 02 January 2012 05:58:19PM Permalink

The road to wisdom? — Well, it's plain

and simple to express:


and err

and err again

but less

and less

and less.

--Piet Hein


29 points Oscar_Cunningham 01 January 2012 03:53:09PM Permalink

...when you do have a deep understanding, you have solved the problem and it is time to do something else. This makes the total time you spend in life reveling in your mastery of something quite brief. One of the main skills of research scientists of any type is knowing how to work comfortably and productively in a state of confusion.


(emphasis mine)

29 points Grognor 01 May 2012 07:15:47AM Permalink

The Disobedi-Ant

The story of the Disobedi-Ant is very short. It refused to believe that its powerful impulses to play instead of work were anything but unique expressions of its very unique self, and it went its merry way, singing, "What I choose to do has nothing to do with what any-ant else chooses to do! What could be more self-evident?"

Coincidentally enough, so went the reasoning of all its colony-mates. In fact, the same refrain was independently invented by every last ant in the colony, and each ant thought it original. It echoed throughout the colony, even with the same melody.

The colony perished.

-Douglas Hofstadter (posted with gwern's "permission")

29 points Jayson_Virissimo 03 June 2012 10:01:09AM Permalink

The greatest weariness comes from work not done.

-Eric Hoffer

29 points Mark_Eichenlaub 02 June 2012 11:52:31PM Permalink

And clearly my children will never get any taller, because there is no statistically-significant difference in their height from one day to the next.

Andrew Vickers, What Is A P-Value, Anyway?

29 points tastefullyOffensive 06 July 2012 04:47:33PM Permalink

Just explained the Higgs Boson to my friend even though I don't understand it myself. He was very convinced. I bet this is how religions get started.

-Rob DenBleyker

29 points peter_hurford 03 August 2012 12:17:53AM Permalink

All of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value.

Carl Sagan

29 points Stabilizer 03 December 2012 02:13:14AM Permalink

Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you're in trouble. When you're making a film you have to make most of your decisions on the run, and there is a tendency to always shoot from the hip. It takes more discipline than you might imagine, to think, even for thirty seconds, in the noisy, confusing, high-pressure atmosphere of a film set. But a few seconds' thought can often prevent a serious mistake being made about something that looks good at first glance. With respect to films, chess is more useful in preventing you from making mistakes than giving you ideas. Ideas come spontaneously and the discipline required to evaluate and put them to use tends to be the real work.

-Stanley Kubrick

28 points Stabilizer 03 February 2012 10:42:15PM Permalink

"The truth is whatever you can get away with."

"No, that’s journalism. The truth is whatever you can’t escape."

-Greg Egan, Distress

28 points wallowinmaya 01 February 2012 06:54:38PM Permalink

It is easy to be certain....One has only to be sufficiently vague.

Charles S. Peirce

28 points DSimon 02 March 2012 05:50:57AM Permalink

T-Rex: Our bodies are amazing things! Check it, everyone!

We use our mouths to talk. We invent, remember and teach entire languages with which to do the talking! And if that fails, we can talk with our hands. We build planes and boats and cars and spaceships, all by either using our bodies directly, or by using instruments invented by our bodies. We compose beautiful music and tell amazing stories, all with our bodies, these fleshy bags with spooky skeletons inside.

And yet, if we have a severe enough peanut allergy, we can be killed in seconds by a friggin' legume. And hey, 70% of our planet is water, but what happens if we spend too much time in it? We drown. Game over, man!

I used to make fun of Green Lantern for being vulnerable to the color yellow. Then I choked on my orange juice one morning and nearly suffocated.

-- Dinosaur Comics

28 points peter_hurford 01 March 2012 05:19:45PM Permalink

The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.

-- Neil DeGrasse Tyson

28 points Grognor 01 May 2012 07:13:26AM Permalink

Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, probably not apocryphal (at first, this comment said "possibly apocryphal since I can't find it anywhere except collections of quotes")

28 points Oligopsony 06 June 2012 07:06:56PM Permalink

So, let's say some bros of mine and I have some hand-signals for, you know, bro stuff. And one of the signals means, "Oh, shit. Here comes that girl! You know. That girl. She's coming." That signal has a particular context. Eventually, one of my bros gets tired of sloppy use of the signal, and sets about laying out specifically what situations make a girl that girl. If I used the signal in a close-but-not-quite context, he'd handle it and then pull me aside and say, "I know she and I had that thing that one time, but we never... well, it wasn't quite THAT. You know? So that signal, it freaked me out, because I thought it had to be someone else. Make sure you're using it properly, okay?" And I'd be like, "Bro. Got it."

Another friend of mine, he recognizes the sorts of situations we use the signal in have a common thread, so he begins using the hand signal for other situations, any situation that has the potential for both danger and excitement. So if someone invites us to this real sketchy bar, he'll give me the signal - "This could be bad. But what if it's not?" And I'd respond, "I see what you did there."

Maybe you see where this is going. We're hanging out one day, and some guy suggests we crash some party. Bro #2 signals, and bro #1 freaks out, looking around. And then he's like, "OH FUCK I HAVE TO CALL HER." And #2 says, "No, dude, there's no one coming. I just meant, this is like one of those situations, you know?" And they're pissed at each other because they're using the same signal to mean different things. I'm not mad, because I generally know what they each mean, but I have more context than they do.

The same thing probably happens with analytics and Continentals.

Philosophy Bro

28 points Ezekiel 02 September 2012 01:16:02AM Permalink

My brain technically-not-a-lies to me far more than it actually lies to me.

-- Aristosophy (again)

28 points Stabilizer 02 October 2012 06:46:48AM Permalink

Curiosity was framed. Avoid it at your peril. The cat's not even sick. If you don't know how it works, find out. If you're not sure if it will work, try it. If it doesn't make sense, play with it until it does. If it's not broken, break it. If it might not be true, find out. And most of all, if someone says it is none of your business, prove them wrong.

-Seth Godin

28 points James_Miller 01 December 2012 08:19:55PM Permalink

You might expect that, having learned of the existence of immortal life, man would dedicate colossal resources to learning how the immortal jellyfish performs its trick. You might expect that biotech multinationals would vie to copyright its genome; that a vast coalition of research scientists would seek to determine the mechanisms by which its cells aged in reverse; that pharmaceutical firms would try to appropriate its lessons for the purposes of human medicine; that governments would broker international accords to govern the future use of rejuvenating technology.

NYT article titled Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?

The next line of the article after the above quote is "But none of this happened."

27 points J_Taylor 01 January 2012 08:35:29AM Permalink

“A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”

  • Friedrich Nietzsche
27 points NancyLebovitz 02 February 2012 10:15:50AM Permalink

“I was just doing my job” or “I don’t make the rules” is not a defense if you have a history of deciding what your job actually is, and selectively breaking or bending rules.

"Heads I Win, Tails You Lose" by Venkat Rao

27 points arundelo 01 February 2012 09:46:04PM Permalink

Robert Morris has a very unusual quality: he's never wrong. It might seem this would require you to be omniscient, but actually it's surprisingly easy. Don't say anything unless you're fairly sure of it. If you're not omniscient, you just don't end up saying much.

[....] He's not just generally correct, but also correct about how correct he is.

-- Paul Graham

27 points GabrielDuquette 01 February 2012 02:18:49PM Permalink

It is the most common way of trying to cope with novelty: by means of metaphors and analogies we try to link the new to the old, the novel to the familiar. Under sufficiently slow and gradual change, it works reasonably well; in the case of a sharp discontinuity, however, the method breaks down: though we may glorify it with the name 'common sense', our past experience is no longer relevant, the analogies become too shallow, and the metaphors become more misleading than illuminating.

E. W. Dijkstra

27 points Alicorn 11 June 2012 07:09:59PM Permalink

Do you ever get the feeling that God has a plan?

And you're the only one who can stop it?

27 points Will_Newsome 03 July 2012 05:06:21AM Permalink

I often tried plays that looked recklessly daring, maybe even silly. But I never tried anything foolish when a game was at stake, only when we were far ahead or far behind. I did it to study how the other team reacted, filing away in my mind any observations for future use.

— Ty Cobb

27 points RolfAndreassen 03 July 2012 06:17:44PM Permalink

We find it difficult and disturbing to hold in our minds arguments of the form ‘On the one hand, on the other.’ If we are for capital punishment we want it to be good in all respects, with no serious drawbacks; if we are against it, we want it to be bad in all respects, with no serious advantages. We want the world of facts to dictate to us, virtually, how to act; but this it will never do. We always have to make a choice.

-- Theodore Dalrymple, article in "Library of Law and Liberty".

27 points NancyLebovitz 08 August 2012 04:43:07PM Permalink

But I came to realize that I was not a wizard, that "will-power" was not mana, and I was not so much a ghost in the machine, as a machine in the machine.

Ta-nehisi Coates

27 points palladias 02 October 2012 07:52:35PM Permalink

“You’re saying I’ll get used to being a warlock, or whatever it is that I am.”

“You’ve always been what you are. That’s not new. What you’ll get used to is knowing it.”

Jem and Tessa, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

27 points Alejandro1 07 November 2012 06:20:08AM Permalink

Breaking: To surprise of pundits, numbers continue to be best system for determining which of two things is larger.


27 points Nominull 02 December 2012 05:03:11AM Permalink

Molten variables hiss and roar. On my mind-forge, I hammer them into the greatsword Epistemology. Many are my foes this night.

--Nate Silver Parody Twitter Account @fivethirtynate, on the night of the presidential election

26 points A4FB53AC 01 April 2012 03:48:12PM Permalink

A faith which cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets.

Arthur C. Clarke

26 points Alicorn 01 April 2012 06:09:23PM Permalink

Westerners are fond of the saying ‘Life isn’t fair.’ Then, they end in snide triumphant: ‘So get used to it!’

What a cruel, sadistic notion to revel in! What a terrible, patriarchal response to a child’s budding sense of ethics. Announce to an Iroquois, ‘Life isn’t fair,’ and her response will be: ‘Then make it fair!’

Barbara Alice Mann

26 points Mark_Eichenlaub 02 May 2012 05:34:28AM Permalink

Asked today if the Titanic II could sink, Mr Palmer told reporters: "Of course it will sink if you put a hole in it."

26 points rocurley 03 May 2012 11:42:32PM Permalink

Inspired by maia's post:

“When life gives you lemons, don’t make lemonade. Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! I don’t want your damn lemons, what the hell am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life’s manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons! Do you know who I am? I’m the man who’s gonna burn your house down! With the lemons! I’m gonna get my engineers to invent a combustible lemon that burns your house down!”

---Cave Johnson, Portal 2

26 points Will_Newsome 03 July 2012 05:24:54AM Permalink

Here is a hand. How do I know? Look closely, asshole, it's clearly a hand.

Look, if you really insist on doubting that here is a hand, or anything else, there's nothing really I can say to convince you otherwise. What the tits would the world even look like if this weren't a hand? What sort of system is your doubt endorsing? After all, you can't just say "It's not true that here is a hand." You have to be endorsing some other picture of the world. [...]

So it turns out when I say things like "Here is a hand" I'm not really making a claim about the world, I'm laying down some rules for discussion. If you doubt there's a hand here, then fuck you and that's all there is to it. We can't really talk about anything now, because we can't even agree on something as simple as a goddamn hand. When we all agree here is a hand, then we can go about discussing our world in meaningful ways. Skepticism just undermines a foundation and replaces it with nothing; it[']s paralyzing. The grounds for such radical skepticism don't exist; it presupposes and relies on the very certainty it tries to undermine.

This is more practical than you realize. There are people who actually believe that the world is only 6,000 years old. What the fuck, right? But if you've ever talked with one of them, you know that they're fucking impossible to have what you consider a 'reasonable' discussion with. It's not like they don't have answers for everything, it[']s just that those answers don't make any fucking sense to you. It[']s the sort of gibberish that makes you want to scream. The problem is that you don't even play the game by the same goddamn rules. You're both certain of your positions, because those positions are logically derived from the worldview each of you endorses as your starting point, and you both look at each other's foundations and say, "Seriously, what the fuck are you talking about?" You don't even know how you would go about convincing them that you're right and they're wrong; you don't even agree on a method by which to do that.

If you flew to some part of the world where they'd never heard of an airplane or even a bird, how the fuck could you convince them you flew? They don't even know what that means. They would have all sorts of questions, and would consider your answers nonsensical or magical. When a non-believer is told that God exists, he reacts in the same way; also, a believer when he is told there is no God.

So everything we believe about the world is built on some sort of foundation. Sure, that foundation can change, but there is always something there at the base, and it is that base that enables us to talk about the world. Not everyone has the same base you do, and that has to be okay. Just know that some of your beliefs are just as unsupported as everyone else's. It's just the way it is, bro.

Philosophy Bro summarizing Wittgensteins On Certainty. (I'm not sure the summary is very true to the original but it's interesting nonetheless.)

26 points roland 03 August 2012 08:56:07AM Permalink

Yes -- and to me, that's a perfect illustration of why experiments are relevant in the first place! More often than not, the only reason we need experiments is that we're not smart enough. After the experiment has been done, if we've learned anything worth knowing at all, then hopefully we've learned why the experiment wasn't necessary to begin with -- why it wouldn't have made sense for the world to be any other way. But we're too dumb to figure it out ourselves! --Scott Aaronson

26 points frostgiant 08 August 2012 02:13:24AM Permalink

The problem with Internet quotes and statistics is that often times, they’re wrongfully believed to be real.

— Abraham Lincoln

26 points katydee 07 September 2012 02:15:02AM Permalink

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?


26 points Jay_Schweikert 02 September 2012 05:48:43PM Permalink

Qhorin Halfhand: The Watch has given you a great gift. And you only have one thing to give in return: your life.

Jon Snow: I'd gladly give my life.

Qhorin Halfhand: I don’t want you to be glad about it! I want you to curse and fight until your heart’s done pumping.

--Game of Thrones, Season 2.

26 points Eugine_Nier 02 December 2012 02:52:14AM Permalink

Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether “democratic behaviour” means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same.


Even if they don’t read Aristotle (that would be undemocratic) you would have thought the French Revolution would have taught them that the behaviour aristocrats naturally like is not the behaviour that preserves aristocracy. They might then have applied the same principle to all forms of government.

-- Screwtape, from "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" by C. S. Lewis.

25 points torekp 02 January 2012 12:50:30AM Permalink

"Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake." -- Napoleon Bonaparte

(This has been mentioned before on LW but not in a quote thread. I figured it was fair game.)

25 points Tesseract 01 February 2012 07:53:34PM Permalink

What is the aim of philosophy? To be clear-headed rather than confused; lucid rather than obscure; rational rather than otherwise; and to be neither more, nor less, sure of things than is justifiable by argument or evidence. That is worth trying for.

Geoffrey Warnock

25 points gwern 01 March 2012 05:58:00PM Permalink

"It's easy to think of yourself as being quite a nice person so long as you live on your own and are the only witness to yourself."

--Alain de Botton

25 points Ghatanathoah 02 May 2012 04:42:39PM Permalink

"It is indeed true that he [Hume] claims that 'reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.' But a slave, it should not be forgotten, does virtually all the work."

-Alan Carter, Pluralism and Projectivism

25 points Incorrect 02 August 2012 11:13:29PM Permalink

It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.

-- Oscar Wilde

25 points VincentYu 11 November 2012 01:45:03PM Permalink

Often a person uses some folk proverb to explain a behavioral event even though, on an earlier occasion, this same person used a directly contradictory folk proverb to explain the same type of event. For example, most of us have heard or said, “look before you leap.” Now there’s a useful, straightforward bit of behavioral advice—except that I vaguely remember admonishing on occasion, “he who hesitates is lost.” And “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is a pretty clear prediction of an emotional reaction to environmental events. But then what about “out of sight, out of mind”? And if “haste makes waste,” why do we sometimes hear that “time waits for no man”? How could the saying “two heads are better than one” not be true? Except that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” If I think “it’s better to be safe than sorry,” why do I also believe “nothing ventured, nothing gained”? And if “opposites attract,” why do “birds of a feather flock together”? I have counseled many students to “never to put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” But I hope my last advisee has never heard me say this, because I just told him, “cross that bridge when you come to it.”

The enormous appeal of clichés like these is that, taken together as implicit “explanations” of behavior, they cannot be refuted. No matter what happens, one of these explanations will be cited to cover it. No wonder we all think we are such excellent judges of human behavior and personality. We have an explanation for anything and everything that happens. Folk wisdom is cowardly in the sense that it takes no risk that it might be refuted.

Keith E. Stanovich, How to Think Straight About Psychology, 10th ed. (2013), 14.

ETA: Should have included the subsequent paragraph:

That folk wisdom is “after the fact” wisdom, and that it actually is useless in a truly predictive sense, is why sociologist Duncan Watts titled one of his books: Everything Is Obvious—Once You Know the Answer (2011). Watts discusses a classic paper by Lazarsfeld (1949) in which, over 60 years ago, he was dealing with the common criticism that “social science doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know.” Lazarsfeld listed a series of findings from a massive survey of 600,000 soldiers who had served during World War II; for example, that men from rural backgrounds were in better spirits during their time of service than soldiers from city backgrounds. People tend to find all of the survey results to be pretty obvious. In this example, for instance, people tend to think it obvious that rural men would have been used to harsher physical conditions and thus would have adapted better to the conditions of military life. It is likewise with all of the other findings—people find them pretty obvious. Lazarsfeld then reveals his punchline: All of the findings were the opposite of what was originally stated. For example, it was actually the case that men from city backgrounds were in better spirits during their time of service than soldiers from rural backgrounds. The last part of the learning exercise is for people to realize how easily they would have explained just the opposite finding. In the case of the actual outcome, people tend to explain it (when told of it first) by saying that they expected it because city men are used to working in crowded conditions and under hierarchical authority. They never realize how easily they would have concocted an explanation for exactly the opposite finding.

25 points TeMPOraL 02 December 2012 07:02:50PM Permalink

It has been said that the past is a foreign country. Well, it is certainly inhabited by foreigners, people whose mindset was shaped by circumstances we shy from remembering. The mother of three children who gave birth eight times. The father of four children, the last of whom cost him his wife. Our minds are largely free of such horrors, and not inured to that kind of suffering. That is the progress of technology. That is what is improving the human race.

It is a long, long ladder, and sometimes we slip, but we've never actually fallen. That is our progress.

24 points Mark_Eichenlaub 02 April 2012 12:03:19AM Permalink

Gene Hofstadt: You people. You think money is the answer to every problem.

Don Draper: No, just this particular problem.

Mad Men, "My Old Kentucky Home"

24 points Daniel_Burfoot 01 September 2012 03:57:48PM Permalink

It is now clear to us what, in the year 1812, was the cause of the destruction of the French army. No one will dispute that the cause of the destruction of Napoleon's French forces was, on the one hand, their advance late in the year, without preparations for a winter march, into the depths of Russia, and, on the other hand, the character that the war took on with the burning of Russian towns and the hatred of the foe aroused in the Russian people. But then not only did no one foresee (what now seems obvious) that this was the only way that could lead to the destruction of an army of eight hundred thousand men, the best in the world and led by the best generals, in conflict with a twice weaker Russian army, inexperienced and led by inexperienced generals; not only did no one foresee this, but all efforts on the part of the Russians were constantly aimed at hindering the one thing that could save Russia, and, on the part of the French, despite Napoleon's experience and so-called military genius, all efforts were aimed at extending as far as Moscow by the end of summer, that is, at doing the very thing that was to destroy them.

  • Leo Tolstoy, "War and Peace", trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky
24 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 September 2012 08:41:56AM Permalink

The following quotes were heavily upvoted, but then turned out to be made by a Will Newsome sockpuppet who edited the quote afterward. The original comments have been banned. The quotes are as follows:

If dying after a billion years doesn't sound sad to you, it's because you lack a thousand-year-old brain that can make trillion-year plans.

— Aristosophy

One wish can achieve as much as you want. What the genie is really offering is three rounds of feedback.

— Aristosophy

If anyone objects to this policy response, please PM me so as to not feed the troll.

24 points Alejandro1 02 October 2012 03:24:10PM Permalink

And who shows greater reverence for mystery, the scientist who devotes himself to discovering it step by step, always ready to submit to facts, and always aware that even his boldest achievement will never be more than a stepping-stone for those who come after him, or the mystic who is free to maintain anything because he need not fear any test?

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies

24 points Nominull 02 November 2012 04:08:43PM Permalink

A sound banker, alas, is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him.

-John Maynard Keynes

23 points Jayson_Virissimo 02 February 2012 07:53:20AM Permalink

Already I had learned from thee that because a thing is eloquently expressed it should not be taken to be as necessarily true; nor because it is uttered with stammering lips should it be supposed false. Nor, again, is it necessarily true because rudely uttered, nor untrue because the language is brilliant. Wisdom and folly both are like meats that are wholesome and unwholesome, and courtly or simple words are like town-made or rustic vessels — both kinds of food may be served in either kind of dish.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

23 points William_Kasper 06 May 2012 08:10:15PM Permalink

[Political "gaffe" stories] are completely information-free news events, and they absolutely dominate political news coverage and analysis. It's like asking your doctor if the X-rays show a tumor, and all he'll talk about is how stupid the radiologist's haircut looks. . . . ["Blast"] stories are. . . just as content-free as the "gaffe" stories. But they are popular for the same reason: There's a petty, tribal satisfaction in seeing a member of our team really put the other team in their place. And there's a rush of outrage adrenaline when the other team says something mean about us. So, instead of covering pending legislation or the impact it could have on your life, the news media covers the dick-measuring contest.

-David Wong, 5 Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under 10 Seconds

23 points Alejandro1 05 June 2012 03:26:47PM Permalink

When I was 11, I was fascinated with a flame and I didn't know what it was. I went to a teacher and said, "What's a flame? What's going on in there?" And she said "It's oxidation." And that's all she said. And I never heard that word before, so that was like, calling it by another name.

--Alan Alda, in an interview at The Colbert Report, telling the story that gave rise to The Flame Challenge. It has been mentioned on LW before, but I thought it was worth posting it here as a perfect illustration of a Teacher's Password.

23 points [deleted] 09 July 2012 11:30:38PM Permalink

Suppose we find a society which lacks our understanding of human physiology, and that speaks a language just like English, except for one curious family of idioms. When they are tired they talk of being beset by fatigues, of having mental fatigues, muscular fatigues, fatigues in the eyes and fatigues of the the spirit. Their sports lore contains such maxims as 'too many fatigues spoils your aim' and 'five fatigues in the legs are worth ten in the arms'. When we encounter them and tell them of our science, they want to know what fatigues are. They have been puzzling over such questions as whether numerically the same fatigue can come and go and return, whether fatigues have a definite location in matter and space and time, whether fatigues are identical with some physical states or processes or events in their bodies, or are made of some sort of stuff. We can see that they are off to a bad start with these questions, but what should we tell them? One thing we can tell them is that there simply are no such things as fatigues - they have a confused ontology. We can expect them to retort: 'You don't think there are fatigues? Run around the block a few times and you'll know better! There are many things your science might teach us, but the non-existence of fatigues isn't one of them!

--Dan Dennett, Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology

23 points Konkvistador 04 July 2012 05:43:39AM Permalink

We are all aware that the senses can be deceived, the eyes fooled. But how can we be sure our senses are not being deceived at any particular time, or even all the time? Might I just be a brain in a tank somewhere, tricked all my life into believing in the events of this world by some insane computer? And does my life gain or lose meaning based on my reaction to such solipsism?

--- Project PYRRHO, Specimen 46, Vat 7. Activity recorded M.Y. 2302.22467. (TERMINATION OF SPECIMEN ADVISED)

From Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

23 points Scottbert 08 August 2012 02:34:31AM Permalink

reinventing the wheel is exactly what allows us to travel 80mph without even feeling it. the original wheel fell apart at about 5mph after 100 yards. now they're rubber, self-healing, last 4000 times longer. whoever intended the phrase "you're reinventing the wheel" to be an insult was an idiot.

--rickest on IRC

23 points lukeprog 09 September 2012 11:56:38PM Permalink

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t easily be measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t easily be measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.

Charles Handy describing the Vietnam-era measurement policies of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara

23 points ChrisHallquist 03 September 2012 06:22:54AM Permalink

“Why do you read so much?”

Tyrion looked up at the sound of the voice. Jon Snow was standing a few feet away, regarding him curiously. He closed the book on a finger and said, “Look at me and tell me what you see.”

The boy looked at him suspiciously. “Is this some kind of trick? I see you. Tyrion Lannister.”

Tyrion sighed. “You are remarkably polite for a bastard, Snow. What you see is a dwarf. You are what, twelve?”

“Fourteen,” the boy said.

“Fourteen, and you’re taller than I will ever be. My legs are short and twisted, and I walk with difficulty. I require a special saddle to keep from falling off my horse. A saddle of my own design, you may be interested to know. It was either that or ride a pony. My arms are strong enough, but again, too short. I will never make a swordsman. Had I been born a peasant, they might have left me out to die, or sold me to some slaver’s grotesquerie. Alas, I was born a Lannister of Casterly Rock, and the grotesqueries are all the poorer. Things are expected of me. My father was the Hand of the King for twenty years. My brother later killed that very same king, as it turns out, but life is full of these little ironies. My sister married the new king and my repulsive nephew will be king after him. I must do my part for the honor of my House, wouldn’t you agree? Yet how? Well, my legs may be too small for my body, but my head is too large, although I prefer to think it is just large enough for my mind. I have a realistic grasp of my own strengths and weaknesses. My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer, and I have my mind… and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.” Tyrion tapped the leather cover of the book. “That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow.”

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

23 points gwern 18 October 2012 05:33:06PM Permalink

The late F.W.H. Myers used to tell how he asked a man at a dinner table what he thought would happen to him when he died. The man tried to ignore the question, but on being pressed, replied: "Oh well, I suppose I shall inherit eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn't talk about such unpleasant subjects."

--Bertrand Russell (Google Books attributes this to In praise of idleness and other essays, pg 133)

23 points AspiringRationalist 04 October 2012 06:59:56PM Permalink

To succeed in a domain that violates your intuitions, you need to be able to turn them off the way a pilot does when flying through clouds. You need to do what you know intellectually to be right, even though it feels wrong.

-- Paul Graham

23 points Jayson_Virissimo 05 November 2012 11:56:48AM Permalink

After all, the essential point in running a risk is that the returns justify it.

-Sennett Forell, Foundation and Empire

23 points MTGandP 02 November 2012 02:11:36AM Permalink

You can't distinguish your group by doing things that are rational and believing things that are true. If you want to set yourself apart from other people you have to do things that are arbitrary and believe things that are false.

Paul Graham

23 points Alejandro1 05 December 2012 02:03:14PM Permalink

I was once, years and years ago, falsely accused by someone of egregious dishonesty, and after I put forward evidence that the accusation was false, was told, "Let's just agree to disagree." At which, of course, I exploded; I would not be agreeing to disagree about whether I had been completely dishonest, thank you very much. And every time someone uses the phrase I am tempted to say, "We don't need to agree to disagree because we already are disagreeing." I think what gets me is that it's such an unbelievably low standard that almost anything would be more intellectually robust; why not agree to something more ambitiously intellectual, like swapping book recommendations, or having a temporary cooling-off period, or going to a third party for arbitration or advice, or anything else, really?

23 points Konkvistador 09 December 2012 07:33:05PM Permalink

In December of each year, the New York Times film critics, like film critics everywhere, write Deep Think pieces about what patterns in the movies released in the current year tell us about Trends in the Big Issues. The annual answer ought to be: Virtually nothing, because what gets released in a single year is a close to a random sample of projects that had been in the works for years and happened to come to fruition now. But that never stops the critics from pontificating on 2012: The Meaning of It All.

--Steve Sailer, here

22 points NancyLebovitz 01 February 2012 04:50:16PM Permalink

I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.

— from *The South Pole* by Roald Amundsen
22 points Kyre 02 February 2012 05:11:44AM Permalink

“I choose not to believe in any gods as an act of charity,” Marcus said.

“Charity toward whom?”

“Toward the gods. Seems rude to think they couldn’t make a world better than this,”

Daniel Abraham, The Dragon's Path

22 points GabrielDuquette 01 March 2012 04:56:33PM Permalink

“Anne!” Anne was seated on the springboard; she turned her head. Jubal called out, “That new house on the far hilltop — can you see what color they’ve painted it?”

Anne looked in the direction in which Jubal was pointing and answered, “It’s white on this side.”

Robert Heinlein, Stranger In A Strange Land

22 points Yobi 03 March 2012 03:25:48PM Permalink

Of a milk bottle:

It is of interest that when the [milk] bottle is half filled with milk it is more often described as half empty, but when it is half filled with water it tends to be described as half full. This probably happens because in the case of the milk one is working downward from a full bottle but in the case of the water one is working upward from an empty milk bottle. The history of a situation has much effect on the way it is looked at.

— Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking

22 points Elithrion 03 April 2012 01:38:31AM Permalink

"What really is the point of trying to teach anything to anybody?" This question seemed to provoke a murmur of sympathetic approval from up and down the table. Richard continued, "What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that's really the essence of programming. By the time you've sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you've learned something about it yourself."

Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

22 points Spurlock 02 April 2012 04:45:14AM Permalink

"Muad’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult. Muad‘Dib knew that every experience carries its lesson"

Frank Herbert, Dune

22 points RichardKennaway 09 May 2012 07:48:11AM Permalink

Saying "what kind of an idiot doesn't know about the Yellowstone supervolcano" is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano for the first time.


22 points Jayson_Virissimo 03 June 2012 10:11:44AM Permalink

Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all.

-Charles Babbage

22 points ChristianKl 02 June 2012 05:25:23PM Permalink

[About the challenge of skeptics to spread their ideas in society] In times of war we need warriors, but this isn't war. You might try to say it is, but it's not a war. We aren't trying to kill an enemy. We are trying to persuade other humans. And in times like that we don't need warriors. What we need are diplomats.

Phil Plait, Dont Be A Dick (around 23:30)

22 points VKS 04 September 2012 11:51:02PM Permalink

After I spoke at the 2005 "Mathematics and Narrative" conference in Mykonos, a suggestion was made that proofs by contradiction are the mathematician's version of irony. I'm not sure I agree with that: when we give a proof by contradiction, we make it very clear that we are discussing a counterfactual, so our words are intended to be taken at face value. But perhaps this is not necessary. Consider the following passage.

There are those who would believe that every polynomial equation with integer coefficients has a rational solution, a view that leads to some intriguing new ideas. For example, take the equation x² - 2 = 0. Let p/q be a rational solution. Then (p/q)² - 2 = 0, from which it follows that p² = 2q². The highest power of 2 that divides p² is obviously an even power, since if 2^k is the highest power of 2 that divides p, then 2^2k is the highest power of 2 that divides p². Similarly, the highest power of 2 that divides 2q² is an odd power, since it is greater by 1 than the highest power that divides q². Since p² and 2q² are equal, there must exist a positive integer that is both even and odd. Integers with this remarkable property are quite unlike the integers we are familiar with: as such, they are surely worthy of further study.

I find that it conveys the irrationality of √2 rather forcefully. But could mathematicians afford to use this literary device? How would a reader be able to tell the difference in intent between what I have just written and the following superficially similar passage?

There are those who would believe that every polynomial equation has a solution, a view that leads to some intriguing new ideas. For example, take the equation x² + 1 = 0. Let i be a solution of this equation. Then i² + 1 = 0, from which it follows that i² = -1. We know that i cannot be positive, since then i² would be positive. Similarly, i cannot be negative, since i² would again be positive (because the product of two negative numbers is always positive). And i cannot be 0, since 0² = 0. It follows that we have found a number that is not positive, not negative, and not zero. Numbers with this remarkable property are quite unlike the numbers we are familiar with: as such, they are surely worthy of further study.

  • Timothy Gowers, Vividness in Mathematics and Narrative, in Circles Disturbed: The Interplay of Mathematics and Narrative
22 points imaxwell 03 September 2012 10:01:52PM Permalink

The only road to doing good shows, is doing bad shows.

  • Louis C.K., on Reddit
22 points AlexMennen 04 September 2012 02:11:40AM Permalink

Discovery is the privilege of the child, the child who has no fear of being once again wrong, of looking like an idiot, of not being serious, of not doing things like everyone else.

Alexander Grothendieck

22 points CronoDAS 06 September 2012 11:05:03AM Permalink

“The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” This may sound like the pronouncement of some bong-smoking anarchist, but it was actually Arthur C. Clarke, who found time between scuba diving and pinball games to write “Childhood’s End” and think up communications satellites. My old colleague Ted Rall recently wrote a column proposing that we divorce income from work and give each citizen a guaranteed paycheck, which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that’ll be considered a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage and eight-hour workdays. The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.

-- Tim Kreider

The interesting part is the phrase "which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that’ll be considered a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage and eight-hour workdays." If we can anticipate what the morality of the future would be, should we try to live by it now?

22 points RichardKennaway 12 October 2012 08:51:49AM Permalink

“But can’t you just wave your hand and make all the dirt fly away, then?”

“The trouble is getting the magic to understand what dirt is,” said Tiffany, scrubbing hard at a stain. “I heard of a witch over in Escrow who got it wrong and ended up losing the entire floor and her sandals and nearly a toe.”

Mrs. Aching backed away. “I thought you just had to wave your hands about,” she mumbled nervously.

“That works,” said Tiffany, “but only if you wave them about on the floor with a scrubbing brush.”

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

22 points [deleted] 02 October 2012 03:37:26AM Permalink

Understanding an idea meant entangling it so thoroughly with all the other symbols in your mind that it changed the way you thought about everything.

Greg Egan, Diaspora

22 points Alejandro1 03 November 2012 02:54:30AM Permalink

In a man whose reasoning powers are good, fallacious arguments are evidence of bias.

--Bertrand Russell, "Philosophy's Ulterior Motives". (The context is Descartes' philosophy and the obviously fallacious proofs he offers of the existence of God and the external world.)

22 points Konkvistador 09 December 2012 07:24:52PM Permalink

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. ... [M]ost of the bizarre and depressing research findings [about cognitive biases] make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.

I'm not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I'm saying is that we must be wary of any /individual/'s ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to 'decide' whether to fire a pulse along its axon. A neuron by itself isn't very smart. But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it's so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.

--Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

22 points Macaulay 01 December 2012 04:52:32PM Permalink

A person is said to exhibit rational irrationality when it is instrumentally rational for him to be epistemically irrational. An instrumentally rational person chooses the best strategies to achieve his goals. An epistemically irrational person ignores and evades evidence against his beliefs, holds his beliefs without evidence or with only weak evidence, has contradictions in his thinking, employs logical fallacies in belief formation, and exhibits characteristic epistemic vices such as closed-mindedness. Epistemically irrational political beliefs can reinforce one’s self-image; boost one’s self-esteem; make one feel noble, smart, superior, safe, or comfortable; and can help achieve conformity with the group and thus facilitate social acceptance. Thus, epistemic irrationality can be instrumentally rational.

If I falsely believe the road I am crossing is free of cars, I might die. So I have a strong incentive to form beliefs about the road in a rational way. However, if I falsely believe that import quotas are good for the economy, this has no directly harmful effects. (On the contrary, the belief can have significant instrumental value. It might make me feel patriotic; serve my xenophobia; serve as an outlet to rationalize, sublimate, or redirect racist attitudes; or help me pretend to have solidarity with union workers.) … Epistemic rationality is hard and takes self-discipline.

When it comes to politics, individuals have every incentive to indulge their irrational impulses. Demand for irrational beliefs is like demand for most other goods. The lower the cost, the more will be demanded. The cost to the typical voter of voting in epistemically irrational ways is nearly zero. The cost of overcoming bias and epistemic irrationality is high. The psychological benefit of this irrationality is significant. Thus, voters demand a high amount of epistemic irrationality.

Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting, p.173-74

21 points HonoreDB 10 January 2012 07:48:23PM Permalink

...some people requested that I be prohibited from studying. One time they achieved it through a very holy and simple mother superior who believed that studying would get me in trouble with the Inquisition and ordered me not to do it. I obeyed her for the three months that she was in office in as far as I did not touch a book, but as far as absolutely not studying, this was not in my power. [...] Even the people I spoke to, and what they said to me, gave rise to thousands of reflections. What was the source of all the variety of personality and talent I found among them, since they were all one species? [...] Sometimes I would pace in front of the fireplace in one of our large dormitories and notice that, though the lines of two sides were parallel and its ceiling level, to our vision it appears as though the lines are inclined toward each other and the ceiling is lower in the distance than it is nearby. From this it can be inferred that the lines of our vision run straight, but not parallel, to form the figure of a pyramid. And I wondered if that was the reason that the ancients questioned whether the earth was a sphere or not. Because although it seemed so, their vision might have deceived them, showing concave shapes where there were none. [...] Once I saw two girls playing with a top, and hardly had I seen the movement and the shape when I began, in my insane way, to consider the easy movement of the spherical shape and how long the momentum, once established, remained independent of its original cause, the distant hand of the girl. Not content with this I had flour brought and sprinkled on the floor in order to discover whether the spinning top would describe perfect circles or not. It turned out that they were not perfect circles but spirals that lost their circular shape to the degree that the top lost momentum.

Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, 1691 (tr. Pamela Kirk Rappaport)

21 points taelor 01 February 2012 06:05:49PM Permalink

I am a physical object sitting in a physical world. Some of the forces of this physical world impinge on my surfaces. Light rays strike my retinas; molecules bombard my eardrums and fingertips. I strike back, emanating concentic air waves. These waves take the form of torrents of discourses about tables, people, molecules, light rays, retinas, air waves, prime numbers, infinite classes, joy and sorrow, good and evil.

--W. V. O. Quine

21 points gwern 01 March 2012 05:57:07PM Permalink

"All logic texts are divided into two parts. In the first part, on deductive logic, the fallacies are explained; in the second part, on inductive logic, they are committed."

--Morris Raphael Cohen, quoted by Cohen in The Earth Is Round (p 0.05)

21 points HonoreDB 01 March 2012 04:58:22PM Permalink

"Are you trying to tell me that there are sixteen million practicing wizards on Earth?" "Sixteen million four hundred and--" Dairine paused to consider the condition the world was in. "Well it's not anywhere near enough! Make them all wizards."

--Diane Duane, High Wizardry

21 points Alejandro1 02 April 2012 07:08:33PM Permalink

On politics as the mind-killer:

We’re at the point where people are morally certain about the empirical facts of what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman on the basis of their general political worldviews. This isn’t exactly surprising—we are tribal creatures who like master narratives—but it feels as though it’s gotten more pronounced recently, and it’s almost certainly making us all stupider.

-- Julian Sanchez (the whole post is worth reading)

21 points NancyLebovitz 02 May 2012 03:49:35PM Permalink

The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.

Wikiquotes: Huston Smith Wikipedia: Ralph Washinton Sockman

21 points MichaelGR 03 May 2012 05:33:52PM Permalink

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea...

  • Antoine de Saint Exupery
21 points RobertLumley 02 July 2012 03:15:03PM Permalink

Human behavior is economic behavior. The particulars may vary, but competition for limited resources remains a constant.

– CEO Nwabudike Morgan in Alpha Centauri

21 points bungula 03 August 2012 07:28:59AM Permalink

“I drive an Infiniti. That’s really evil. There are people who just starve to death – that’s all they ever did. There’s people who are like, born and they go ‘Uh, I’m hungry’ then they just die, and that’s all they ever got to do. Meanwhile I’m driving in my car having a great time, and I sleep like a baby.

It’s totally my fault, ’cause I could trade my Infiniti for a [less luxurious] car… and I’d get back like $20,000. And I could save hundreds of people from dying of starvation with that money. And everyday I don’t do it. Everyday I make them die with my car.”

Louis C.K.

21 points J_Taylor 03 October 2012 03:43:31AM Permalink

Will Smith don't gotta cuss in his raps to sell his records;

well I do, so fuck him and fuck you too!

--Eminem, "The Real Slim Shady"

Eminem seeks his comparative advantage and avoids self-handicapping.

20 points GabrielDuquette 01 January 2012 02:51:00AM Permalink

AUGUSTUS: I've had premonitions. Premonitions of death.

FABIUS MAXIMUS: We all have them.

AUGUSTUS: No, no, no. This is serious. Listen, old friend, let me tell you. Two weeks after we came back from you know where, I was in Mars Field giving a libation. A little ceremony. You remember?

FABIUS MAXIMUS: I remember, but I wasn't there.

AUGUSTUS: No? Well. nearby, there's a temple built in memory of Marcus Agrippa.

FABIUS MAXIMUS: Yes, I know it.

AUGUSTUS: An eagle circled me five times, then flew off and settled on the "A" of Agrippa's name.

FABIUS MAXIMUS: Well. Caesar...

AUGUSTUS: No, don't lie to me. It's clear what it means. It was telling me that my time had come and that I must give way to someone by the name of Agrippa.


AUGUSTUS: Who else?

FABIUS MAXIMUS: Did you consult an augur?

AUGUSTUS: No. I don't need an augur.

FABIUS MAXIMUS: Well. you're not an expert on the interpretation of signs.

AUGUSTUS: Then listen to this. The following day, lightning melted the "C" on my name on a statue nearby. It struck the "C" off "Caesar". Do you follow? What does "C" mean?


AUGUSTUS: A hundred. Exactly! Livia saw it. She went to an augur to find out what it meant. She wouldn't tell me, but I forced it out of her. It means that I have only a hundred days to live. I shall die in a hundred days.

(long pause)



FABIUS MAXIMUS: Why shouldn't it be weeks? Or months? Why shouldn't it mean that you'll live to be a hundred?

--I, Claudius, Poison Is Queen

20 points Alejandro1 02 February 2012 05:40:03PM Permalink

... People usually don't know why they vote for the candidates they choose to vote for, and are not particularly good at assessing how something influenced that vote -- let alone how some hypothetical future event would influence them.

...if you ask voters, it turns out that some will tell you that they would be more likely, and a somewhat larger number will tell you that they'll be less likely, to vote for someone with a Trump endorsement. Hey, reporters: don't believe those polls! You can take it as a measure of what respondents think about Trump, if you care about such things, but there's no reason to believe that this kind of self-reporting about vote choice is meaningful at all, and it shouldn't be included in stories about a Trump endorsement as if it was meaningful.

...The bottom line here is that polling is a really good tool for reporters to use in many cases, but remember: what polling tells you for sure is only what people will say if they're asked a question by a pollster.

Jonathan Bernstein

20 points Maniakes 02 February 2012 12:41:11AM Permalink

"Today we will be dragoons, until we are told otherwise"

"Where are our horses, then?"

"We must imagine them."

"Imaginary horses are much slower than the other kind."

Neal Stephenson, The Confusion

20 points Cthulhoo 01 March 2012 10:18:27AM Permalink

When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit.

Ayn Rand

20 points lsparrish 04 April 2012 03:19:15AM Permalink

What really matters is:–

  1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn't mean anything else.

  2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don't implement promises, but keep them.

  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean "More people died" don't say "Mortality rose."

  4. In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me."

  5. Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

-- C. S. Lewis

20 points Emile 04 June 2012 09:50:15PM Permalink

In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time someting like that happened in politics or religion.

-- Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP Keynote Address

20 points GLaDOS 06 August 2012 10:04:20AM Permalink

The findings reveal that 20.7% of the studied articles in behavioral economics propose paternalist policy action and that 95.5% of these do not contain any analysis of the cognitive ability of policymakers.

-- Niclas Berggren, source and HT to Tyler Cowen

20 points JQuinton 11 September 2012 02:01:34PM Permalink

"If your plan is for one year plant rice. If your plan is for 10 years plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years educate children" - Confucius

20 points simplicio 01 September 2012 04:06:40PM Permalink

...a good way of thinking about minimalism [about truth] and its attractions is to see it as substituting the particular for the general. It mistrusts anything abstract or windy. Both the relativist and the absolutist are impressed by Pilate's notorious question 'What is Truth?', and each tries to say something useful at the same high and vertiginous level of generality. The minimalist can be thought of turning his back on this abstraction, and then in any particular case he prefaces his answer with the prior injunction: you tell me. This does not mean, 'You tell me what truth is.' It means, 'You tell me what the issue is, and I will tell you (although you will already know, by then) what the truth about the issue consists in.' If the issue is whether high tide is at midday, then truth consists in high tide being at midday... We can tell you what truth amounts to, if you first tell us what the issue is.

There is a very powerful argument for minimalism about truth, due to the great logician Gottlob Frege. First, we should notice the transparency property of truth. This is the fact that it makes no difference whether you say that it is raining, or it is true that it is raining, or true that it is true that it is raining, and so on forever. But if 'it is true that' introduced some substantial, robust property of a judgment, how could this be so? Consider, for example, a pragmatism that attempts some equation between truth and utility. Then next to the judgment 'it is raining' we might have 'it is useful to believe that it is raining.' But these are entirely different things! To assess the first we direct our attention to the weather. To assess the second we direct our attention to the results of believing something about the weather - a very different investigation.

Let us return to Pilate. Where does minimalism about truth leave him? It suggests that when he asked this question, he was distracting himself and his audience from his real job, which was to find out whether to uphold certain specific historical charges against a defendant. Thus, if I am innocent, and I come before a judge, I don't want airy generalities about the nature of truth. I want him to find that I did not steal the watch if I did not steal the watch. I want him to rub his nose in the issue. I want a local judgment about a local or specific event, supposed to have happened in a particular region of time and space.

(Simon Blackburn, Truth)

20 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 September 2012 07:56:47PM Permalink

"Nontrivial measure or it didn't happen." -- Aristosophy

(Who's Kate Evans? Do we know her? Aristosophy seems to have rather a lot of good quotes.)

20 points peter_hurford 01 September 2012 06:18:48PM Permalink

"In a society in which the narrow pursuit of material self-interest is the norm, the shift to an ethical stance is more radical than many people realize. In comparison with the needs of people starving in Somalia, the desire to sample the wines of the leading French vineyards pales into insignificance. Judged against the suffering of immobilized rabbits having shampoos dripped into their eyes, a better shampoo becomes an unworthy goal. An ethical approach to life does not forbid having fun or enjoying food and wine, but it changes our sense of priorities. The effort and expense put into buying fashionable clothes, the endless search for more and more refined gastronomic pleasures, the astonishing additional expense that marks out the prestige car market in cars from the market in cars for people who just want a reliable means to getting from A to B, all these become disproportionate to people who can shift perspective long enough to take themselves, at least for a time, out of the spotlight. If a higher ethical consciousness spreads, it will utterly change the society in which we live." -- Peter Singer

20 points Athrelon 02 October 2012 05:58:56PM Permalink

It is easier to love humanity than to love one's neighbor.

--Eric Hoffer, on Near/Far

20 points gwern 04 November 2012 03:26:33AM Permalink

"The boundary between these 2 classes [the Eloi Morlocks] is more porous than I've made it sound. I'm always running into regular dudes - construction workers, auto mechanics, taxi drivers, galoots in general - who were largely aliterate until something made it necessary for them to become readers and start actually thinking about things. Perhaps they had to come to grips with alcoholism, perhaps they got sent to jail, or came down with a disease, or suffered a crisis in religious faith, or simply got bored. Such people can get up to speed on particular subjects quite rapidly. Sometimes their lack of a broad education makes them over-apt to go off on intellectual wild goose chases, but, hey, at least a wild goose chase gives you some exercise."

--Neal Stephenson, In the Beginning Was... the Commandline

The last project that I worked on with [Richard Feynman] was in simulated evolution. I had written a program that simulated the evolution of populations of sexually reproducing creatures over hundreds of thousands of generations. The results were surprising in that the fitness of the population made progress in sudden leaps rather than by the expected steady improvement. The fossil record shows some evidence that real biological evolution might also exhibit such "punctuated equilibrium," so Richard and I decided to look more closely at why it happened. He was feeling ill by that time, so I went out and spent the week with him in Pasadena, and we worked out a model of evolution of finite populations based on the Fokker Planck equations. When I got back to Boston I went to the library and discovered a book by Kimura on the subject, and much to my disappointment, all of our "discoveries" were covered in the first few pages. When I called back and told Richard what I had found, he was elated. "Hey, we got it right!" he said. "Not bad for amateurs."

From Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine

20 points Alejandro1 05 December 2012 03:57:39AM Permalink

One in four Americans has an opinion about an imaginary debt plan

A new poll from Public Policy Polling found that an impressive 39 percent of Americans have an opinion about the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan.

Before you start celebrating the new, sweeping reach of the 2010 commission’s work, consider this: Twenty-five percent of Americans also took a stance on the Panetta-Burns plan.

What’s that? You’re not familiar with Panetta-Burns? That’s probably because its “a mythical Clinton Chief of Staff/former western Republican Senator combo” that PPP dreamed up to test how many Americans would profess to have an opinion about a policy that did not exist. They found one in four voters to do just that.

Panetta-Burns’ nonexistent policy proposals were supported by 8 percent and opposed by 17 percent of the voters surveyed. Simpson-Bowles’ real policy proposals had stronger favorables, with 23 percent support and 16 percent opposition.

20 points GabrielDuquette 01 December 2012 03:46:47PM Permalink

how are opinions like assholes? I've trained mine to be uncommonly elastic and accepting of new things


19 points Konkvistador 05 February 2012 04:29:03PM Permalink

The tendency toward generalization doesn’t bother me in an of itself, rather, I’m focused on whether the proposition is true. But the hypocrisy gets tiresome sometimes, as people will fluidly switch from a cognitive style which accepts generalization to one which rejects it. A stereotype is often a generalization whose robustness you don’t want to accept. Negative generalities need context when they’re unpalatable, but no qualification is necessary when their truth is congenial.

--Razib Khan, here

19 points Woodbun 04 March 2012 12:02:38PM Permalink

"One of the great commandments of science is, 'Mistrust arguments from authority'. (Scientists, being primates, and thus given to dominance hierarchies, of course do not always follow this commandment.)"

-Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World

19 points Stabilizer 04 March 2012 05:50:49AM Permalink

Society changes when we change what we're embarrassed about.

In just fifty years, we've made it shameful to be publicly racist.

In just ten years, someone who professes to not know how to use the internet is seen as a fool.

The question, then, is how long before we will be ashamed at being uninformed, at spouting pseudoscience, at believing thin propaganda? How long before it's unacceptable to take something at face value? How long before you can do your job without understanding the state of the art?

Does access to information change the expectation that if you can know, you will know?

We can argue that this will never happen, that it's human nature to be easily led in the wrong direction and to be willfully ignorant. The thing is, there are lots of things that used to be human nature, but due to culture and technology, no longer are.

-Seth Godin

19 points Random832 13 April 2012 08:41:37PM Permalink

The other day I was thinking about Discworld, and then I remembered this and figured it would make a good rationality quote...

[Vimes] distrusted the kind of person who'd take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, "Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fell on hard times," and then unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of a man's boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he'd been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement. What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience!

-- Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay

19 points Pavitra 13 June 2012 02:20:58AM Permalink

Every creative act is open war against The Way It Is. What you are saying when you make something is that the universe is not sufficient, and what it really needs is more you. And it does, actually; it does. Go look outside. You can’t tell me that we are done making the world.


19 points VKS 08 June 2012 11:13:33AM Permalink

I am reminded of a commentary on logic puzzles of a certain kind; it was perhaps in a letter to Martin Gardner, reprinted in one of his books. The puzzles are those about getting about on an island where each native either always tells the truth or always lies. You reach a fork in the road, for example, and a native is standing there, and you want to learn from him, with one question, which way leads to the village. The “correct” question is “If I asked you if the left way led to the village, would you say yes?” But why should the native’s concept of lying conform to our own logical ideas? If the native is a liar, it means he wants to fool you, and your logical trickery will not work. The best you can do is say something like “Did you hear they are giving away free beer in the village today?” and see which way the native runs. You follow him, even if he says something like “Ugh, I hate beer!” since then he probably really is lying.

  • Alexandre Borovik, quoting an unidentified colleague, paraphrasing another unidentified source, possibly Martin Gardner quoting a letter he got.
19 points Jayson_Virissimo 03 October 2012 01:22:57AM Permalink

The truth is out there, but so are the lies.

-Dana Scully, The X-Files, Season 1, Episode 17

19 points Eugine_Nier 02 October 2012 12:44:21AM Permalink

Lastly, there is an attitude not unknown in the crisis against which I should particularly like to protest. I should address my protest especially to those lovers and pursuers of Peace who, very short-sightedly, have occasionally adopted it. I mean the attitude which is impatient of these preliminary details about who did this or that, and whether it was right or wrong. They are satisfied with saying that an enormous calamity, called War, has been begun by some or all of us; and should be ended by some or all of us. To these people this preliminary chapter about the precise happenings must appear not only dry (and it must of necessity be the driest part of the task) but essentially needless and barren. I wish to tell these people that they are wrong; that they are wrong upon all principles of human justice and historic continuity: but that they are specially and supremely wrong upon their own principles of arbitration and international peace.

These sincere and high-minded peace-lovers are always telling us that citizens no longer settle their quarrels by private violence; and that nations should no longer settle theirs by public violence. They are always telling us that we no longer fight duels; and need no longer wage wars. In short, they perpetually base their peace proposals on the fact that an ordinary citizen no longer avenges himself with an axe. But how is he prevented from revenging himself with an axe? If he hits his neighbour on the head with the kitchen chopper, what do we do? Do we all join hands, like children playing Mulberry Bush, and say "We are all responsible for this; but let us hope it will not spread. Let us hope for the happy day when he shall leave off chopping at the man's head; and when nobody shall ever chop anything for ever and ever." Do we say "Let byegones be byegones; why go back to all the dull details with which the business began; who can tell with what sinister motives the man was standing there within reach of the hatchet?" We do not. We keep the peace in private life by asking for the facts of provocation, and the proper object of punishment. We do go into the dull details; we do enquire into the origins; we do emphatically enquire who it was that hit first. In short we do what I have done very briefly in this place.

-- G. K. Chesterton, "The Appetite of Tyranny", arguing against pretending to be wise

19 points arborealhominid 19 November 2012 01:49:02AM Permalink

If I have a Grand Unified Theory Of Everything, it's this: I believe that people always do things that make sense to them. Hard as it is to believe with all the hurting out there, almost nobody hurts others just to be a jerk. So if you want to change human behavior on a grand scale, you can't tell people "stop being a jerk." You have to dissect and then recreate their models of the world until being a jerk doesn't make sense.

Cliff Pervocracy

19 points Raemon 04 November 2012 07:21:06PM Permalink

"Oh, sorry, I have this condition where I don't see or hear anything I disagree with."

"I had no idea that being human was a disease."

"A bad one! Everyone who contracts it eventually dies!"

Something Positive

19 points Wrongnesslessness 05 November 2012 09:53:16AM Permalink

The inhabitants of Florence in 1494 or Athens in 404 BCE could be forgiven for concluding that optimism just isn't factually true. For they knew nothing of such things as the reach of explanations or the power of science or even laws of nature as we understand them, let alone the moral and technological progress that was to follow when the Enlightenment got under way. At the moment of defeat, it must have seemed at least plausible to the formerly optimistic Athenians that the Spartans might be right, and to the formerly optimistic Florentines that Savonarola might be. Like every other destruction of optimism, whether in a whole civilization or in a single individual, these must have been unspeakable catastrophes for those who had dared to expect progress. But we should feel more than sympathy for those people. We should take it personally. For if any of those earlier experiments in optimism had succeeded, our species would be exploring the stars by now, and you and I would be immortal.

David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity

19 points Posterity 13 December 2012 05:25:11AM Permalink

If you were taught that elves caused rain, every time it rained, you'd see the proof of elves.


18 points NancyLebovitz 04 January 2012 10:04:36PM Permalink

Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule.

Francis Bacon

18 points cousin_it 09 January 2012 04:32:27PM Permalink

Chu-p’ing Man studied the art of killing dragons under Crippled Yi. It cost him all the thousand pieces of gold he had in his house, and after three years he'd mastered the art, but there was no one who could use his services. - Chuang Tzu

So he decided to teach others the art of kiling dragons. - René Thom

18 points quinox 01 January 2012 01:46:52AM Permalink

"Is it hard?"

"Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard."

-- Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

18 points GLaDOS 06 January 2012 09:42:21AM Permalink

In questions of this appalling magnitude, I find the best way to "overcome bias" is often to find perspectives which seem to make each answer obvious. Once we recognize that both A and B are obviously true, and A is inconsistent with B, we are in the right mindset for actual thought.

--Mencius Moldbug

18 points gwern 01 January 2012 01:28:47AM Permalink

"When picking fruit, an excellent first choice is the low-hanging ladderfruit. It is especially delicious."

--Frank Adamek

18 points tingram 01 January 2012 12:39:11AM Permalink

Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.

--Bruce Lee

18 points Alejandro1 05 February 2012 05:41:50AM Permalink

Any time we find that “math” disagrees with reality, the problem is never with “math”—it’s with us, for using the wrong math!

Scott Aaronson

18 points Stephanie_Cunnane 10 March 2012 10:32:20PM Permalink

Some environments are worse than irregular. Robin Hogarth described "wicked" environments, in which professionals are likely to learn the wrong lessons from experience. He borrows from Lewis Thomas the example of a physician in the early twentieth century who often had intuitions about patients who were about to develop typhoid. Unfortunately, he tested his hunch by palpating the patient's tongue, without washing his hands between patients. When patient after patient became ill, the physician developed a sense of clinical infallibility. His predictions were accurate--but not because he was exercising professional intuition!

--Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow

18 points ShardPhoenix 06 March 2012 09:55:47AM Permalink

Past me is always so terrible, even when I literally just finished being him.

18 points Alejandro1 02 March 2012 01:36:55AM Permalink

The reason you can't rigidly separate positive from normative economics is that you can't rigidly separate claims of fact from claims of value in general. Human language is too laden with thick concepts that mix the two. The claim that someone is a "slut" or a "bitch", for example, melds together factual claims about a woman's behavior with a lot of deeply embedded normative concepts about what constitutes appropriate behavior for a woman. The claim that financial markets are "efficient" is both an effort to describe their operation and a way of valorizing them. The idea of a "recession" or "full employment" or "potential output" all embed certain ideas about what would constitute a normal arrangement of human economic activity (...) You could try to rigorously purge your descriptions of the economy of anything that vaguely smells of a thick moral concept, but you'd find yourself operating with an impoverished vocubulary unable to describe human affairs in any kind of reasonable way.

--Matt Yglesias

18 points gwern 01 March 2012 05:58:13PM Permalink

"Hope always feels like it's made up of a set of reasons: when it's just sufficient sleep and a few auspicious hormones."

--Alain de Botton

18 points VKS 03 April 2012 07:51:55AM Permalink

Pedantry and mastery are opposite attitudes toward rules. To apply a rule to the letter, rigidly, unquestioningly, in cases where it fits and in cases where it does not fit, is pedantry. ... To apply a rule with natural ease, with judgment, noticing the cases where it fits, and without ever letting the words of the rule obscure the purpose of the action or the opportunities of the situation, is mastery.

  • George Pólya, How to Solve It
18 points Multiheaded 06 April 2012 08:20:31PM Permalink

[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all "progressive" thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades.

However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarized version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people "I offer you a good time," Hitler has said to them "I offer you struggle, danger and death," and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

(George Orwell's review of Mein Kampf)

(well, we have videogames now, yet... we gotta make them better! more vicseral!)

18 points cousin_it 16 May 2012 11:51:40PM Permalink

The Patrician steepled his hands and looked at Vimes over the top of them.

"Let me give you some advice, Captain," he said.

"Yes, sir?"

"It may help you make some sense of the world."


"I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people," said the man. "You're wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides. "

He waved his thin hand towards the city and walked over to the window.

"A great rolling sea of evil," he said, almost proprietorially. "Shallower in some places, of course, but deeper, oh, so much deeper in others. But people like you put together little rafts of rules and vaguely good intentions and say, this is the opposite, this will triumph in the end. Amazing!" He slapped Vimes good-naturedly on the back.

"Down there," he said, "are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathesomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don't say no. I'm sorry if this offends you,'' he added, patting the captain's shoulder, "but you fellows really need us."

"Yes, sir?" said Vimes quietly.

"Oh, yes. We're the only ones who know how to make things work. You see, the only thing the good people are good at is overthrowing the bad people. And you're good at that, I'll grant you. But the trouble is that it's the only thing you're good at. One day it's the ringing of the bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next it's everyone sitting around complaining that ever since the tyrant was overthrown no-one's been taking out the trash. Because the bad people know how to plan. It's part of the specification, you might say. Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world. The good people don't seem to have the knack."

"Maybe. But you're wrong about the rest!" said Vimes. "It's just because people are afraid, and alone-" He paused. It sounded pretty hollow, even to him.

He shrugged. "They're just people," he said. "They're just doing what people do. Sir."

Lord Vetinari gave him a friendly smile. "Of course, of course," he said. "You have to believe that, I appreciate. Otherwise you'd go quite mad. Otherwise you'd think you're standing on a feather-thin bridge over the vaults of Hell. Otherwise existence would be a dark agony and the only hope would be that there is no life after death. I quite understand."


After a while he made a few pencil annotations to the paper in front of him and looked up.

"I said," he said, "that you may go."

Vimes paused at the door.

"Do you believe all that, sir?" he said. "About the endless evil and the sheer blackness?"

"Indeed, indeed," said the Patrician, turning over the page. "It is the only logical conclusion."

"But you get out of bed every morning, sir?"

"Hmm? Yes? What is your point?"

"I'd just like to know why, sir."

"Oh, do go away, Vimes. There's a good fellow."

-- Terry Pratchett, "Guards! Guards!"

I really like the character of Lord Vetinari. He's like a more successful version of Quirrell from HPMOR who decided that it's okay to have cynical beliefs but idealistic aims.

18 points maia 03 May 2012 09:12:09PM Permalink

"If God gives you lemons, you find a new God."

-- Powerthirst 2: Re-Domination

18 points Stabilizer 05 July 2012 08:53:15AM Permalink

A computer is like a violin. You can imagine a novice trying first a phonograph and then a violin. The latter, he says, sounds terrible. That is the argument we have heard from our humanists and most of our computer scientists. Computer programs are good, they say, for particular purposes, but they aren't flexible. Neither is a violin, or a typewriter, until you learn how to use it.

-Marvin Minsky

Thinking of your brain (and yourself) like an instrument to played might be useful for instrumental rationality.

18 points katydee 03 August 2012 08:35:20AM Permalink

I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, makes the execution of that same plan his sole study and business.

-- Benjamin Franklin

18 points army1987 11 September 2012 10:07:40AM Permalink

To use an analogy, if you attend a rock concert and take a box to stand on then you will get a better view. If others do the same, you will be in exactly the same position as before. Worse, even, as it may be easier to loose your balance and come crashing down in a heap (and, perhaps, bringing others with you).

-- Iain McKay et al., An Anarchist FAQ, section C.7.3

18 points taelor 14 September 2012 07:16:44AM Permalink

Oh, right, Senjōgahara. I've got a great story to tell you. It's about that man who tried to rape you way back when. He was hit by a car and died in a place with no connection to you, in an event with no connection to you. Without any drama at all. [...] That's the lesson for you here: You shouldn't expect your life to be like the theater.

-- Kaiki Deishū, Episode 7 of Nisemonogatari.

18 points mrglwrf 11 September 2012 07:00:03PM Permalink

You know those people who say "you can use numbers to show anything" and "numbers lie" and "I don't trust numbers, don't give me numbers, God, anything but numbers"? These are the very same people who use numbers in the wrong way.


18 points RichardKennaway 01 September 2012 04:03:28PM Permalink

Nothing can be soundly understood

If daylight itself needs proof.

Imām al-Ḥaddād (trans. Moṣṭafā al-Badawī), "The Sublime Treasures: Answers to Sufi Questions"

18 points GabrielDuquette 03 October 2012 04:07:44PM Permalink

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man misunderstand correlation versus causation.


18 points Eugine_Nier 15 November 2012 02:14:07AM Permalink

As the philosopher David Schmidtz says, if your main goal is to show that your heart is in the right place, then your heart is not in the right place.

Jason Brennan, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know

18 points Fyrius 07 December 2012 02:10:09PM Permalink

Long quote to make a simple point, but relevant. (Context: this is from a Star Wars novel, so it's fiction.)

A death hollow is a low point where the heavier-than-air toxic gases that roll downslope from the volcanoes can pool.

The corpse of a hundred-kilo tusker lay just within its rim, its snout only a meter below the clear air that could have saved it. Other corpses littered the ground around it: rot crows and jacunas and other small scavengers I didn't recognize, lured to their deaths by the jungle's false promise of an easy meal.

I said something along these lines to Nick. He laughed and called me a Balawai fool.

"There's no false promise," he'd said. "There's no promise at all. The jungle doesn't promise. It exists. That's all. What killed those little ruskakks wasn't a trap. It was just the way things are."

Nick says that to talk of the jungle as a person-to give it the metaphoric aspect of a creature, any creature-that's a Balawai thing. That's part of what gets them killed out here.

It's a metaphor that shades the way you think: talk of the jungle as a creature, and you start treating it like a creature. You start thinking you can outsmart the jungle, or trust it, overpower it or befriend it, deceive it or bargain with it.

And then you die.

"Not because the jungle kills you. You get it? Just because it is what it is." These are Nick's words. "The jungle doesn't do anything. It's just a place. It's a place where many, many things live... and all of them die. Fantasizing about it - pretending it's something it's not - is fatal. That's your free life lesson for the day," he told me. "Keep it in mind."

I will.

  • Mace Windu, in Shatterpoint by Matthew Stover
18 points almkglor 07 December 2012 09:29:17AM Permalink

"It's frightening to think that you might not know something, but more frightening to think that, by and large, the world is run by people who have faith that they know exactly what is going on." - Amos Tversky

18 points SaidAchmiz 02 December 2012 08:34:25PM Permalink

It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if the cat is not there.

— Confucius, allegedly (quoted in The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed)

Edit: The rationality relevance might need some explanation. The way I've seen this aphorism used is this: it's sometimes hard to distinguish between a task that's achievable but very difficult (and that it therefore might make sense to spend time/effort on), and a task that is impossible (and thus is a complete waste of time/effort).

If you spend some time searching for the cat in the dark room, you might not find it. Is that because finding it is difficult (after all, this is what you might quite plausibly expect, if you assume that the cat is there), or because the cat is not there and you're wasting your time?

17 points gwern 01 January 2012 01:28:20AM Permalink

"Don't ask whether predictions are made, ask whether predictions are implied."

--Steven Kaas

17 points gwern 01 January 2012 07:58:04PM Permalink

"The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death"

--1 Corinthians 15:26

(I wonder what Eliezer would've made of it - as far as I know, he never read Deathly Hallows and so never read about the tombstone.)

17 points RobinZ 04 February 2012 12:17:40AM Permalink

I’ve very often made mistakes in my physics by thinking the theory isn’t as good as it really is, thinking that there are lots of complications that are going to spoil it — an attitude that anything can happen, in spite of what you’re pretty sure should happen.

Richard Feynman, in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, chapter entitled "Mixing Paints".

17 points scmbradley 02 February 2012 01:41:43PM Permalink

Anyone who can handle a needle convincingly can make us see a thread which isn't there

-E.H. Gombrich

17 points Oscar_Cunningham 01 February 2012 09:51:09PM Permalink

Paradoxes, like optical illusions, are often used by psychologists to reveal the inner workings of the mind, for paradoxes stem from (and amplify) dormant clashes among implicit sets of assumptions.

Judea Pearl (Causality)

17 points daenerys 05 February 2012 02:52:23AM Permalink

This is why science and mathematics are so much fun; You discover things that seem impossible to be true, and then get to figure out why it's impossible for them NOT to be.

-Vi Hart, Doodling in Math: Spirals, Fibonacci, and Being a Plant- Part 3 of 3

17 points NexH 06 March 2012 02:19:52PM Permalink

When it comes to rare probabilities, our mind is not designed to get things quite right. For the residents of a planet that may be exposed to events no one has yet experienced, that is not good news.

 --Daniel Kahneman, *Thinking, fast and slow*
17 points Stabilizer 01 March 2012 09:29:18AM Permalink

To be a good diagnostician, a physician needs to acquire a large set of labels for diseases, each of which binds an idea of the illness and its symptoms, possible antecedents and causes, possible developments and consequences, and possible interventions to cure or mitigate the illness. Learning medicine consists in part of learning the language of medicine. A deeper understanding of judgments and choices also requires a richer vocabulary than is available in everyday language. The availability of a diagnostic label for [the] bias... makes it easier to anticipate, recognize and understand.

-Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

17 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 March 2012 02:15:31AM Permalink

"I don't know if we've sufficiently analyzed the situation if we're thinking storming Azkaban is a solution."

17 points Will_Newsome 02 March 2012 09:55:32AM Permalink

If you want to know how decent people can support evil, find a mirror.

Mencius Moldbug, A gentle introduction to Unqualified Reservations (part 2) (yay reflection!)

17 points Stephanie_Cunnane 05 April 2012 04:09:46AM Permalink

I believe I am accurate in saying that educators too are interested in learnings which make a difference. Simple knowledge of facts has its value. To know who won the battle of Poltava, or when the umpteenth opus of Mozart was first performed, may win $64,000 or some other sum for the possessor of this information, but I believe educators in general are a little embarrassed by the assumption that the acquisition of such knowledge constitutes education. Speaking of this reminds me of a forceful statement made by a professor of agronomy in my freshman year in college. Whatever knowledge I gained in his course has departed completely, but I remember how, with World War I as his background, he was comparing factual knowledge with ammunition. He wound up his little discourse with the exhortation, "Don't be a damned ammunition wagon; be a rifle!"

-Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy (1961)

17 points EditedToAdd 02 April 2012 04:51:17PM Permalink

But, the hard part comes after you conquer the world. What kind of world are you thinking of creating?

Johan Liebert, Monster

17 points Rhwawn 06 April 2012 07:54:30PM Permalink

By relieving the brain of all unnecessary work, a good notation sets it free to concentrate on more advanced problems, and, in effect, increases the mental power of the race.

Alfred North Whitehead, “An Introduction to Mathematics” (thanks to Terence Tao)

17 points dvasya 01 April 2012 04:01:25PM Permalink

Our minds contain processes that enable us to solve problems we consider difficult. "Intelligence" is our name for whichever of those processes we don't yet understand.

Some people dislike this "definition" because its meaning is doomed to keep changing as we learn more about psychology. But in my view that's exactly how it ought to be, because the very concept of intelligence is like a stage magician's trick. Like the concept of "the unexplored regions of Africa," it disappears as soon as we discover it.

-- Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind

17 points Eugine_Nier 01 April 2012 07:40:33PM Permalink

Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it.

G. K. Chesterton

17 points john_ku 05 May 2012 12:48:46PM Permalink

If the difficulty of a physiological problem is mathematical in essence, ten physiologists ignorant of mathematics will get precisely as far as one physiologist ignorant of mathematics and no further.

Norbert Wiener

17 points MichaelGR 03 May 2012 05:32:32PM Permalink

“Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.”

― Brandon Mull, Fablehaven

17 points Mark_Eichenlaub 02 May 2012 05:29:43AM Permalink

I don't think we can get much more specific without starting to be mistaken.

Paul Graham, "Is It Worth Being Wise?"

17 points James_Miller 01 June 2012 04:34:51PM Permalink

“My other piece of advice, Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, “you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (HT Cafe Hayek.)

17 points Nominull 08 July 2012 08:01:12PM Permalink

I never felt I was studying the stupidity of mankind in the third person. I always felt I was studying my own mistakes.

-Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics

17 points Alicorn 06 August 2012 04:40:11AM Permalink

Since Mischa died, I've comforted myself by inventing reasons why it happened. I've been explaining it away ... But that's all bull. There was no reason. It happened and it didn't need to.

-- Erika Moen

17 points Stabilizer 05 August 2012 11:19:45PM Permalink

I don't think winners beat the competition because they work harder. And it's not even clear that they win because they have more creativity. The secret, I think, is in understanding what matters.

It's not obvious, and it changes. It changes by culture, by buyer, by product and even by the day of the week. But those that manage to capture the imagination, make sales and grow are doing it by perfecting the things that matter and ignoring the rest.

Both parts are difficult, particularly when you are surrounded by people who insist on fretting about and working on the stuff that makes no difference at all.

-Seth Godin

17 points Alicorn 05 August 2012 07:18:30PM Permalink

My knee had a slight itch. I reached out my hand and scratched the knee in question. The itch was relieved and I was able to continue with my activities.

-- The dullest blog in the world

17 points Zvi 01 September 2012 09:10:38PM Permalink

Subway ad: "146 people were hit by trains in 2011. 47 were killed."

Guy on Subway: "That tells me getting hit by a train ain't that dangerous."

  • Nate Silver, on his Twitter feed @fivethirtyeight
17 points Konkvistador 04 September 2012 08:39:45AM Permalink

Neither side of the road is inherently superior to the other, so we should all choose for ourselves on which side to drive. #enlightenment

--Kate Evans on Twitter

17 points Jay_Schweikert 01 October 2012 08:27:21PM Permalink

Frodo: Those that claim to oppose the Enemy would do well not to hinder us.

Faramir: The Enemy? (turns over body of an enemy soldier) His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from, and if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home, and if he'd not rather have stayed there... in peace. War will make corpses of us all.

-- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (extended edition)

17 points Nick_Tarleton 07 November 2012 07:56:04AM Permalink

"Because they were hypocrites," Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, "the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefandous conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves-they took no moral stances and lived by none."

"So they were morally superior to the Victorians-" Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under. "-even though-in fact, because-they had no morals at all." There was a moment of silent, bewildered head-shaking around the copper table.

"We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy," Finkle-McGraw continued. "In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it's a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing."

"That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code," Major Napier said, working it through, "does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code."

"Of course not," Finkle-McGraw said. "It's perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power."

— Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

17 points VKS 03 December 2012 06:50:16AM Permalink

Truth comes out of error more easily than out of confusion.

-Francis Bacon

16 points CharlieSheen 25 January 2012 11:55:12PM Permalink

It’s not a good idea for members of the faith-based community like Hitchens to proclaim things like: Science proves we’re all genetically equal, so therefore you shouldn’t be beastly toward people of other races. The obvious flaw in this strategy is that eventually people will figure out that you are lying about what the science of genetics says, and therefore, by your own logic, that discredits the perfectly valid second half of your assertion.

--Steve Sailer

16 points Konkvistador 08 January 2012 05:03:52PM Permalink

... if anyone thinks they can get an accurate picture of anyplace on the planet by reading news reports, they're sadly mistaken.

--Bruce Schneier

16 points HonoreDB 18 February 2012 09:45:08PM Permalink

Luck is opportunity plus preparation plus luck.

--Jane Espenson

16 points arundelo 11 February 2012 06:22:39PM Permalink

Any time you say something is "more likely" than something else, that an explanation is "improbable," or "almost certainly true," or "implausible," and so on, you are making mathematical statements. Any time something is "more" than something else, that's math.

-- Richard Carrier

16 points kalla724 01 February 2012 09:38:43PM Permalink

Probably a duplicate, but I can't find a previous version:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

H. L. Mencken

16 points ArisKatsaris 07 March 2012 11:08:18PM Permalink

-So what do you think happens after we die?

-The acids and lifeforms living inside your body eat their way out, while local detritivores eat their way in. Why?

-No, no, no, what happens to you?

-Oh, you guys mean the soul.


-Is that in the body?


-The acids and lifeforms eat their way out, while local detritivores eat their way in.

--SMBC Theater - Death

16 points Vaniver 01 April 2012 11:20:25PM Permalink

For those who feel deeply about contemporary politics, certain topics have become so infected by considerations of prestige that a genuinely rational approach to them is almost impossible.

-George Orwell

16 points Alejandro1 03 April 2012 05:01:58PM Permalink

‘I’m exactly in the position of the man who said, ‘I can believe the impossible, but not the improbable.’’

‘That’s what you call a paradox, isn’t it?’ asked the other.

‘It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,’ replied Father Brown. ’It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible.

-G. K. Chesterton, The Curse of the Golden Cross

16 points Alejandro1 02 May 2012 07:33:52PM Permalink

The word problem may be an insidious form of question-begging. To speak of the Jewish problem is to postulate that the Jews are a problem; it is to predict (and recommend) persecution, plunder, shooting, beheading, rape, and the reading of Dr. Rosenberg's prose. Another disadvantage of fallacious problems is that they bring about solutions that are equally fallacious. Pliny (Book VIII of Natural History) is not satisfied with the observation that dragons attack elephants in the summer; he ventures the hypothesis that they do it in order to drink the elephants' blood, which, as everyone knows, is very cold.

-- Jorge Luis Borges, "Dr. Américo Castro is Alarmed"

16 points baiter 01 May 2012 01:07:24PM Permalink

My function is to raise the possibility, 'Hey, you know, some of this stuff might be bullshit.'

-- Robert Anton Wilson

16 points CaveJohnson 13 June 2012 03:00:40PM Permalink

In general, nothing is more difficult than not pretending to understand.

--Nicolás Gómez Dávila, source

16 points pkkm 02 June 2012 07:04:03AM Permalink

People who do great things look at the same world everyone else does, but notice some odd detail that's compellingly mysterious.

Paul Graham, What Youll Wish Youd Known

16 points lukeprog 22 September 2012 01:28:25PM Permalink

The problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence.

Bill Clinton

16 points Matt_Caulfield 03 September 2012 03:55:04PM Permalink

It may be of course that savages put food on a dead man because they think that a dead man can eat, or weapons with a dead man because they think a dead man can fight. But personally I do not believe that they think anything of the kind. I believe they put food or weapons on the dead for the same reason that we put flowers, because it is an exceedingly natural and obvious thing to do. We do not understand, it is true, the emotion that makes us think it is obvious and natural; but that is because, like all the important emotions of human existence it is essentially irrational.

  • G. K. Chesterton
16 points DanielVarga 10 October 2012 10:49:46PM Permalink

I love uncertainty. In many situations I'd rather try something just to see what happens. I'm the character that gets killed first in every horror movie, but that's fine with me, since life is not generally like a horror movie.

Noah Smith

16 points Alejandro1 06 October 2012 03:35:52PM Permalink

I prefer this sort of distant, reductionist, structural approach to analysing the race because there's little reason to believe in the validity of the implicit theories or "models" lurking behind pundits' gut judgments. When I heard Mr Romney's 47% comments, I thought "Oooh, he's toast!" and then I stopped myself and acknowledged that I actually have no rational basis for believing that his remarks would in the final analysis hurt Mr Romney at all. What percentage of undecided or weakly-decided swing-state voters ever caught wind of Mr Romney's embarrassing chat? I didn't know! Of those who became aware of it, how many cared? I didn't know! So why did I think "Oooh, he's toast!" Because I am human, and I make most judgments and decisions on the basis of crackpot hunches, the underlying logic of which is almost completely inscrutable to me.

--Will Wilkinson

16 points gwern 06 October 2012 12:49:25AM Permalink

Despite the difficulty of exact Bayesian inference in complex mathematical models, the essence of Bayesian reasoning is frequently used in everyday life. One example has been immortalized in the words of Sherlock Holmes to his friend Dr. Watson: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four, 1890, Ch. 6). This reasoning is actually a consequence of Bayesian belief updating, as expressed in Equation 4.4. Let me re-state it this way: “How often have I said to you that when p(D|θ_i ) = 0 for all i!=j, then, no matter how small the prior p(θ_j ) 0 is, the posterior p(θ_j |D) must equal one.” Somehow it sounds better the way Holmes said it.

--Kruschke 2010, Doing Bayesian Data Analysis, pg56-57

16 points arundelo 02 October 2012 01:58:29AM Permalink

My wife and I, since we'd been in lock-down with each other, oh, these past nine years, have developed a bit of shorthand. If one of us says something the other has heard so many times before that tears of boredom flow, the victim has a right to protest. The victim says, "That's on the tape." As in, that's on your tape -- the list of stories and obsessions you've rewound so often I could sing along with them in my sleep.

-- Mark Schone

16 points roland 16 November 2012 06:08:58PM Permalink

In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many ways consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.

--Carl Sagan

16 points Stabilizer 04 November 2012 07:09:05AM Permalink

"Look,” [Deutsch] went on, “I can’t stop you from writing an article about a weird English guy who thinks there are parallel universes. But I think that style of thinking is kind of a put-down to the reader. It’s almost like saying, If you’re not weird in these ways, you’ve got no hope as a creative thinker. That’s not true. The weirdness is only superficial."

New Yorker article on David Deutsch

(I saw this on Scott Aaronsons blog)

16 points Nisan 03 November 2012 06:34:57AM Permalink

And then she said, "Ha ha ha, I figured out how to remove the closing quotation mark! From now on, the whole future is my story!

-Aristosophy. I like to think this is about the Robots Rebellion.

16 points GabrielDuquette 01 December 2012 05:29:20PM Permalink

Nobody likes to face the more painful question, What Made the Dogs Want to Leave?


15 points CaveJohnson 18 January 2012 07:36:34PM Permalink

Most people are theists not because they were "reasoned into" believing in God, but because they applied Occam's razor at too early an age. Their simplest explanation for the reason that their parents, not to mention everyone else in the world, believed in God, was that God actually existed. The same could be said for, say, Australia.

--Mencius Moldbug

15 points gwern 01 January 2012 01:24:02AM Permalink

“The general method that Wittgenstein does suggest is that of ’shewing that a man has supplied no meaning for certain signs in his sentences’.

I can illustrate the method from Wittgenstein’s later way of discussing problems. He once greeted me with the question: ‘Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis? I replied: ‘I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.’ ‘Well,’ he asked, ‘what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?’

This question brought it out that I had hitherto given no relevant meaning to ‘it looks as if’ in ‘it looks as if the sun goes round the earth’.

My reply was to hold out my hands with the palms upward, and raise them from my knees in a circular sweep, at the same time leaning backwards and assuming a dizzy expression. ‘Exactly!’ he said.”

–Elizabeth Anscombe, An Introduction To Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (1959); apropos of a recent Scot Sumner blog post

15 points wilder 01 February 2012 10:34:36PM Permalink

Wishing for something that is logically impossible is a sign that there is something better to wish for.

David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity

15 points gyokuro 02 March 2012 04:39:18AM Permalink

"I've never ever felt wise," Derk said frankly. "But I suppose it is a tempation, to stare into distance and make people think you are."

"It's humbug," said the dragon. "It's also stupid. It stops you learning more."

Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm

15 points Alejandro1 01 March 2012 06:23:41PM Permalink

The demons told me that there is a hell for the sentimental and the pedantic. They are abandoned in an endless palace, more empty than full, and windowless. The condemned walk about as if searching for something, and, as we might expect, they soon begin to say that the greatest torment consists in not participating in the vision of God, that moral suffering is worse than physical suffering, and so on. Then the demons hurl them into the sea of fire, from where no one will ever take them out.

Adolfo Bioy Casares (my translation)

15 points FiftyTwo 03 April 2012 09:31:53PM Permalink

I know a lot of scientists as well as laymen are scornful of philosophy - perhaps understandably so. Reading academic philosophy journals often makes my heart sink too. But without exception, we all share philosophical background assumptions and presuppositions. The penalty of _not _ doing philosophy isn't to transcend it, but simply to give bad philosophical arguments a free pass.

David Pearce

15 points Oscar_Cunningham 01 April 2012 02:07:43PM Permalink

You don't understand anything until you learn it more than one way.

Marvin Minsky

15 points Spurlock 02 April 2012 04:44:28AM Permalink

“The mind commands the body and it obeys. The mind orders itself and meets resistance. ”

-St Augustine of Hippo

15 points komponisto 01 May 2012 03:05:58PM Permalink

[S]top whining and start hacking.

-- Paul Graham

(Arguably a decent philosophy of life, if a bit harshly expressed for my taste.)

15 points Mark_Eichenlaub 02 May 2012 05:33:38AM Permalink

If you're trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right.

Paul Graham “What You’ll Wish You’d Known”

15 points GabrielDuquette 02 June 2012 05:26:51AM Permalink

Problem solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.

Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

15 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 July 2012 08:45:06PM Permalink

"Buddhism IS different. It's the followers who aren’t."

-- A Dust Over India.

Commentary: Reading this made me realize that many religions genuinely are different from each other. Christianity is genuinely different from Judaism, Islam is genuinely different from Christianity, Hinduism is genuinely different from all three. It's religious people who are the same everywhere; not the same as each other, obviously, but drawn from the same distribution. Is this true of atheistic humanists? Of transhumanists? Could you devise an experiment to test whether it was so, would you bet on the results of that experiment? Will they say the same of LessWrongers, someday? And if so, what's the point?

Now that I think on it, though, there might be a case for scientists being drawn from a different distribution, or computer programmers, or for that matter science fiction fans (are those all the same distributions as each other, I wonder?). It's not really hopeless.

15 points cousin_it 16 August 2012 05:35:13PM Permalink

If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are.

-- Terry Pratchett, "Lords and Ladies"

15 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 August 2012 05:04:58PM Permalink

"Silver linings are like finding change in your couch. It's there, but it never amounts to much."


15 points aausch 05 August 2012 07:52:35PM Permalink

Did you teach him wisdom as well as valor, Ned? she wondered. Did you teach him how to kneel? The graveyards of the Seven Kingdoms were full of brave men who had never learned that lesson

-- Catelyn Stark, A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin

15 points cata 03 September 2012 11:10:45PM Permalink

Does the order of the two terminal conditions matter? / Think about it.

Does the order of the two terminal conditions matter? / Try it out!

Does the order of the two previous answers matter? / Yes. Think first, then try.

  • Friedman and Felleisen, The Little Schemer
15 points katydee 02 September 2012 06:51:54PM Permalink

When we were first drawn together as a society, it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing.

Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin'd by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.

Michael Welfare, quoted in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

15 points katydee 13 September 2012 05:07:40AM Permalink

There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.

Ernest Hemingway

15 points peter_hurford 01 September 2012 06:16:01PM Permalink

"Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us." - Sagan

15 points MBlume 01 October 2012 07:56:20PM Permalink

I can pick up a mole (animal) and throw it. Anything I can throw weighs one pound. One pound is one kilogram.

--Randal Munroe, A Mole of Moles

15 points beoShaffer 12 November 2012 05:17:09AM Permalink

I've never heard more different explanations for anything parents tell kids than why they shouldn't swear. Every parent I know forbids their children to swear, and yet no two of them have the same justification. It's clear most start with not wanting kids to swear, then make up the reason afterward.

-Paul Graham in The Lies We Tell Kids

15 points lukeprog 12 November 2012 03:39:32AM Permalink

Slogans like “practice random acts of kindness” feel good and are easy to put into practice. But if we don’t take our activism more seriously than that, our motive is probably a desire to feel good about ourselves, to help ourselves or those close to us, or to act out our self-identity. The endpoint of authentic compassion is a desire to do the most good that one can, to be as effective as possible in creating a world with less suffering and destruction and more joy. Figuring out how we can do the most good takes careful thought over a long period of time, and it means moving into new and possibly uncomfortable areas of advocacy. But the importance of taking our activism seriously and approaching it from this utilitarian perspective cannot be overstated. It will mean a difference between life and death, between happiness and suffering, for thousands of people, for thousands of acres of the ecosystem, and for tens of thousands of animals.

Nick Cooney, Change of Heart

15 points BerryPick6 06 November 2012 03:08:10PM Permalink

Recognizing the startling resurgence in realism, Don Philahue (of The Don Philahue Show) invited a member of Realists Anonymous to bare his soul on television. After a brief introduction documenting the spread of realism, Philahue turned to his guest:

DP: What kinds of realism were you into, Hilary?

H: The whole bag, Don. I was a realist about logical terms, abstract entities, theoretical postulates - you name it.

DP: And causality, what about causality?

H: That too, Don. (Audience gasps.)

DP: I'm going to press you here, Hilary. Did you at any time accept moral realism?

H: (staring at feet): Yes.

DP: What effect did all this realism have on your life?

H: I would spend hours aimlessly wandering the streets, kicking large stones and shouting, "I refute you thus!" It's embarrassing to recall.

DP: There was worse, wasn't there Hilary?

H: I can't deny it, don. (Audience gasps.) Instead of going to work I would sit at home fondling ashtrays and reading voraciously about converging scientific theories. I kept a copy of "Hitler: A Study in Tyranny" hidden in the icebox, and when no one was around I would take it our and chant "The Nazis were bad. The Nazis were really bad."

-- A dialogue by Philip Gasper

15 points katydee 02 December 2012 08:15:19AM Permalink

Do not read written works and think, "This is the Way." Written works are like the gate to approach the Way. Thus, there are people who remain ignorant of the Way regardless of how much they have learned and how many Chinese characters they know. Though they face the pages and read as skillfully as though they were annotating the ancients, they are ignorant of the truth and so do not make the Way their own.

— Yagyū Munenori, The Life-Giving Sword

15 points GabrielDuquette 01 December 2012 03:44:40PM Permalink

Keep your solutions close, and your problems closer.


15 points Will_Newsome 01 December 2012 05:13:57PM Permalink

When you have run the length of various practices and none of those practices remain in your mind, that very lack of mind itself is the heart of "all things." When you have exhaustively learned the various practices and techniques and made great effort in disciplined training, there will be action in your arms, legs, and body but none in your mind; you will have distanced yourself from training, but will not be in opposition to it, and you will have freedom in whatever techniques you perform. You yourself will be unaware of where your mind is, and neither demons nor heresies will be able to find it.

— Yagyū Munenori, The Life-Giving Sword

14 points paper-machine 05 January 2012 03:51:50AM Permalink

A critical analysis of the present global constellation -- one which offers no clear solution, no "practical" advice on what to do, and provides no light at the end of the tunnel, since one is well aware that this light might belong to a train crashing towards us -- usually meets with reproach: "Do you mean we should do nothing? Just sit and wait?" One should gather the courage to answer: "YES, precisely that!" There are situations when the only truly "practical" thing to do is to resist the temptation to engage immediately and to "wait and see" by means of a patient, critical analysis.

Slavoj Žižek, Violence, emphasis added. Admittedly not the most clear elucidation of the subject of how urgency (fabricated or otherwise) should affect ethical deliberation, but see also his essay "Jack Bauer and the Ethics of Urgency" -- if you're into that sort of thing.

14 points CaveJohnson 08 February 2012 05:51:26PM Permalink

When people talk about the importance of democracy, it is never democracy as it has ever actually functioned, with the politicians that have actually been elected, and the policies that have actually been implemented. It is always democracy as people imagine it will operate once they succeed in electing "the right people" — by which they mean, people who agree almost completely with their own views, and who are consistent and incorruptible in their implementation of the resulting policies.

--Ben O'Neill, here

Considering the above quote can be used to criticize nearly any popular political position I don't think it is inherently mind-killing. Also since we all agree democracy is a good thing this isn't even very political. The original article and context obviously does make it somewhat political.

14 points Alejandro1 01 February 2012 04:55:17PM Permalink

"Stay, 'tis just a figure!" Root laughed rather winningly, reaching out to touch Locke's shoulder.

"A faulty one," Daniel said, "for you are an alchemist."

"I am called an Alchemist. Within living memory, Daniel, everyone who studied what I—and you—study was called by that name. And most persons even today observe no distinction between Alchemy and the younger and more vigorous order of knowledge that is associated with your club."

"I am too exhausted to harry you through all of your evasions. Out of respect for your friends Mr. Locke, and for Leibniz, I shall give you the benefit of the doubt, and wish you well," Daniel said.

"God save you, Mr. Waterhouse."

"And you, Mr. Root. But I say this to you—and you as well, Mr. Locke. As I came in here I saw a map, lately taken from this house, burning in the fire. The map was empty, for it depicted the ocean—most likely, a part of it where no man has ever been. A few lines of latitude were ruled across that vellum void, and some legendary isles drawn in, with great authority, and where the map-maker could not restrain himself he drew phantastickal monsters. That map, to me, is Alchemy. It is good that it burnt, and fitting that it burnt tonight, the eve of a Revolution that I will be so bold as to call my life's work. In a few years Mr. Hooke will learn to make a proper chronometer, finishing what Mr. Huygens began thirty years ago, and then the Royal Society will draw maps with lines of longitude as well as latitude, giving us a grid— what we call a Cartesian grid, though 'twas not his idea—and where there be islands, we will rightly draw them. Where there are none, we will draw none, nor dragons, nor sea-monsters—and that will be the end of Alchemy."

Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver.

14 points NancyLebovitz 06 March 2012 12:15:36PM Permalink

Carefully observe those good qualities wherein our enemies excel us

Plutarch, found here

14 points James_Miller 01 March 2012 03:22:58PM Permalink

Had no idea so much strategy was possible in Rock, Paper, Scissors? The rules of the game itself may be simple, but the human mind is not.

Natalie Wolchover

14 points Konkvistador 12 April 2012 07:39:12AM Permalink

The most fundamental form of human stupidity is forgetting what we were trying to do in the first place


14 points Ezekiel 04 May 2012 10:52:03PM Permalink

When scientists discuss papers:

"I don't think this inference is entirely reasonable. If you're using several non-independent variables you're liable to accumulate more error than your model accounts for."

When scientists discuss grants:

"A guy who worked at the NSF once told me if we light a candle inside this jackal skull, the funders will smile upon our hopes."

"I'll get the altar!"

~ Zach Weiner, SMBC #2559

14 points Old_Rationality 02 May 2012 11:44:04AM Permalink

The atmosphere of political parties, whether in France or England, is not congenial to the formation of an impartial judgment. A Minister, who is in the thick of a tough parliamentary struggle, must use whatever arguments he can to defend his cause without inquiring too closely whether they are good, bad, or indifferent. However good they may be, they will probably not convince his political opponents, and they can scarcely be so bad as not to carry some sort of conviction to the minds of those who are predisposed to support him.

Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer, Modern Egypt

14 points Nominull 02 May 2012 01:39:17AM Permalink

Plato says that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?

-Kurt Vonnegut

14 points MichaelGR 03 May 2012 05:31:34PM Permalink

“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”

  • Confucius
14 points AlexMennen 06 June 2012 04:31:12PM Permalink

The present impossibility of giving a scientific explanation is no proof that there is no scientific explanation. The unexplained is not to be identified with the unexplainable, and the strange and extraordinary nature of a fact is not a justification for attributing it to powers above nature.

-The Catholic Encyclopedia

14 points shminux 05 June 2012 06:05:55PM Permalink

If you pay nothing for expert advise you will value it at epsilon more than nothing, if you pay five figures for it you will clear your schedule and implement recommendations within the day. In addition to this being one of consulting’s worst-kept secrets, it suggests persuasive reasons why you should probably extract a commitment out of software customers prior to giving them access for the software. Doing this will automatically make people value your software more

Patrick McKenzie, the guy who gets instrumental rationality on the gut level.

More from the same source:

I always thought I really hated getting email. It turns out that I was not a good reporter of my own actual behavior, which is something you’ll hear quite a bit if you follow psychological research. (For example, something like 75% of Americans will report they voted for President Obama, which disagrees quite a bit with the ballot box. They do this partially because they misremember their own behavior and partially because they like to been seen as the type of person who voted for the winner. 99% of geeks will report never having bought anything as a result of an email. They do this because they misremember their own behavior and partially because they believe that buying stuff from “spam” is something that people with AOL email addresses do, and hence admitting that they, too, can be marketed to will cause them to lose status. The AppSumo sumo would be a good deal skinnier if that were actually the case, but geeks were all people before they were geeks, and people are statistically speaking terrible at introspection.)

14 points Alejandro1 04 July 2012 08:11:35AM Permalink

Religion begins by being taken for granted; after a time, it is elaborately proved; at last comes a time (the present) when the whole effort is to induce people to let it alone.

--John Stuart Mill (1854).

14 points peter_hurford 02 July 2012 07:35:13PM Permalink

I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. I think most people will agree about this, although one may reach the same view by different routes. I shall not argue for this view. People can hold all sorts of eccentric positions, and perhaps from some of them it would not follow that death by starvation is in itself bad. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to refute such positions, and so for brevity I will henceforth take this assumption as accepted. Those who disagree need read no further.

Peter Singer

14 points baiter 02 July 2012 11:27:14PM Permalink

"New rule: If you handle snakes to prove they won't bite you because God is real, and then they bite you -- do the math."

– Bill Maher, Real Time with Bill Maher, 6/8/2012


14 points lukeprog 22 August 2012 07:03:40PM Permalink

M. Mitchell Waldrop on a meeting between physicists and economists at the Santa Fe Institute: the axioms and theorems and proofs marched across the overhead projection screen, the physicists could only be awestruck at [the economists'] mathematical prowess — awestruck and appalled. They had the same objection that [Brian] Arthur and many other economists had been voicing from within the field for years. "They were almost too good," says one young physicist, who remembers shaking his head in disbelief. "lt seemed as though they were dazzling themselves with fancy mathematics, until they really couldn't see the forest for the trees. So much time was being spent on trying to absorb the mathematics that I thought they often weren't looking at what the models were for, and what they did, and whether the underlying assumptions were any good. In a lot of cases, what was required was just some common sense. Maybe if they all had lower IQs, they'd have been making some better models.”

14 points D_Malik 04 August 2012 04:15:04AM Permalink

Only the ideas that we actually live are of any value.

-- Hermann Hesse, Demian

14 points lukeprog 09 September 2012 11:47:06PM Permalink

...the 2008 financial crisis showed that some [mathematical finance] models were flawed. But those flaws were based on flawed assumptions about the distribution of price changes... Nassim Taleb, a popular author and critic of the financial industry, points out many such flaws but does not include the use of Monte Carlo simulations among them. He himself is a strong proponent of these simulations. Monte Carlo simulations are simply the way we do the math with uncertain quantities. Abandoning Monte Carlos because of the failures of the financial markets makes as much sense as giving up on addition and subtraction because of the failure of accounting at Enron or AIG’s overexposure in credit default swaps.

Douglas Hubbard, How to Measure Anything

14 points Alicorn 17 September 2012 05:43:03PM Permalink

I've always thought of the SkiFree monster as a metaphor for the inevitability of death.

"SkiFree, huh? You know, you can press 'F' to go faster than the monster and escape."

-- xkcd 667

14 points [deleted] 04 September 2012 06:55:38AM Permalink

"If at first you don't succeed, switch to power tools." -- The Red Green Show

14 points BlazeOrangeDeer 02 October 2012 08:04:52AM Permalink

From the stories I expected the world to be sad

And it was.

And I expected it to be wonderful.

It was.

I just didn't expect it to be so big.

-- xkcd: Click and Drag

14 points lukeprog 05 November 2012 08:08:07PM Permalink

I am too much of a sceptic to deny the possibility of anything... but I don't see my way to your conclusion.

Thomas Huxley

14 points DSimon 02 November 2012 05:55:00AM Permalink

Remember, kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.

-- Adam Savage

14 points NancyLebovitz 13 December 2012 07:11:36AM Permalink

It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking; and it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

John Cleese


13 points Anubhav 08 January 2012 05:16:29AM Permalink

Imagine willpower doesn't exist. That's step 1 to a better future.

Second slide of this powerpoint by Stanford's Persuasive Tech Lab.

13 points NancyLebovitz 10 January 2012 09:33:38PM Permalink

In short, they made unrealistic demands on reality and reality did not oblige them.

Cory Doctorow talking about DRM, but I think there are some wider applications.

13 points fortyeridania 02 January 2012 12:03:22PM Permalink

The truth is common property. You can't distinguish your group by doing things that are rational, and believing things that are true.

Paul Graham, Lies We Tell Kids

13 points MixedNuts 02 January 2012 02:20:33PM Permalink

The ultimate theological question is: ‘Where does the Sun go at night?’.

The answer that so many civilisations agreed for so long was: ‘The Sun is driven by one of the gods, and at night it goes under the Earth to fight a battle. There is at least some risk that the god will lose this battle, and so the Sun may not rise tomorrow’. It’s something the human race understood was a cast iron fact before they knew how to cast iron. It survived as the working model twenty-five times longer than the four hundred years we’ve understood the Earth goes around the Sun.

Lance Parkin, Above us only sky

This is less a rationality quote than a "yay science" quote, but I find that impressive beyond words. For millenia that was a huge and frightening question, and then we went and answered it, and now it's too trivial to point out. We found out where the sun goes at night. I want to carve a primer on cosmology in gold letters on a mountain, entitled something in all caps along the lines of "HERE IS THE GLORY OF HUMANKIND".

13 points [deleted] 01 January 2012 12:17:44AM Permalink

Science isn't just a job, it's a means of determining truth. Methods of determining truth that aren't trustworthy in the laboratory don't become trustworthy when you leave it. There is no doctrine of applying scientific methodology to every aspect of one's life, you either follow trustworthy methods of investigation or you don't, and "follow trustworthy methods of investigation" is the core of science.

~Desertopa, TVTropes Forum

13 points army1987 08 February 2012 05:21:12PM Permalink

Don't say you don't have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.

H. Jackson Brown

(The second-last paragraph of The Power of Agency by Lukeprog reminded me of it.)

13 points gwern 01 February 2012 03:27:12PM Permalink

On the Outside View:

"Of course, if you want to, you can always come up with reasons why the lessons from the Neo-Sumerian Empire don't apply to you."

--Steven Kaas

13 points taelor 07 March 2012 09:00:12AM Permalink

But even as light is opposed by darkness, science and reason have their enemies. Superstition and belief in magic are as old as man himself; for the intransigence of facts and our limitations in controlling them can be powerfully hard to take. Add to this the reflection that we are in an age when it is popular to distrust whatever is seen as the established view or the Establishment, and it is no wonder that anti-rational attitudes and doctrines are mustering so much support. Still, we can understand what encourages the anti-rationalist turn without losing our zeal for opposing it. A current Continuing Education catalogue offers a course description, under the heading "Philosophy", that typifies the dark view at its darkest: "Children of science that we are, we have based our cultural patterns on logic, on the cognitive, on the verifiable. But more and more there has crept into current research and study the haunting suggestion that there are other kinds of knowledge unfathomable by our cognition, other ways of knowing beyond the limits of our logic, which are deserving of our serious attention." Now "knowledge unfathomable by our cognition" is simply incoherent, as attention to the words makes clear. Moreover, all that creeps is not gold. One wonders how many students enrolled.

-- W. V. O. Quine

13 points EllisD 02 March 2012 02:24:29PM Permalink

Whether a mathematical proposition is true or not is indeed independent of physics. But the proof of such a proposition is a matter of physics only. There is no such thing as abstractly proving something, just as there is no such thing as abstractly knowing something. Mathematical truth is absolutely necessary and transcendent, but all knowledge is generated by physical processes, and its scope and limitations are conditioned by the laws of nature.

-David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity.

13 points bungula 01 March 2012 01:30:50PM Permalink

It's the Face of Boe. I'm absolutely certain about this, absolutely positive. Of course I'll probably turn out to be incorrect

Sam Hughes, talking about the first season finale of Doctor Who, differentiating between the subjective feeling of certainty and the actual probability estimate.

13 points Bugmaster 05 April 2012 05:48:37AM Permalink

-- So... if they've got armor on, it's a battle !

-- And who told you that ?

-- A knight...

-- How'd you know he was a knight ?

-- Well... that's 'cause... he'd got armor on ?

-- You don't have to be a knight to buy armor. Any idiot can buy armor.

-- How do you know ?

-- 'Cause I sold armor.

-Game of Thrones (TV show)

13 points Konkvistador 23 May 2012 05:45:15PM Permalink
Is it fair to say you're enjoying the controversy you've started?
Thiel: I don't enjoy being contrarian.
Yes you do. *laughs*
Thiel: No, I think it is much more important to be right than to be contrarian.

--Peter Thiel, on 60 Minutes

13 points GabrielDuquette 08 May 2012 02:24:04PM Permalink

The universe, I'd learned, was never, ever kidding.

Cheryl Strayed, Wild

13 points Vaniver 10 May 2012 04:07:28PM Permalink

If rational thought is useful at all, then it must be maintained as a practice. Parents must teach it to their children, teachers must teach it to their students, and people must respect each other for their rationality. If the practice of rational thought is not to be lost, some group of people, at least, will have to maintain it.

-Jonathan Baron

13 points AlexSchell 02 May 2012 02:32:49AM Permalink

[Instrumentalism about science] has a long and rather sorry philosophical history: most contemporary philosophers of science regard it as fairly conclusively refuted. But I think it’s easier to see what’s wrong with it just by noticing that real science just isn’t like this. According to instrumentalism, palaeontologists talk about dinosaurs so they can understand fossils, astrophysicists talk about stars so they can understand photoplates, virologists talk about viruses so they can understand NMR instruments, and particle physicists talk about the Higgs Boson so they can understand the LHC. In each case, it’s quite clear that instrumentalism is the wrong way around. Science is not “about” experiments; science is about the world, and experiments are part of its toolkit.

David Wallace

13 points CasioTheSane 05 May 2012 07:01:54PM Permalink

We're even wrong about which mistakes we're making.

-Carl Winfeld

13 points arundelo 05 July 2012 02:13:49PM Permalink

However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it's worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

-- Clay Shirky

13 points Alicorn 22 August 2012 05:09:26AM Permalink

Some critics of education have said that examinations are unrealistic; that nobody on the job would ever be evaluated without knowing when the evaluation would be conducted and what would be on the evaluation.

Sure. When Rudy Giuliani took office as mayor of New York, someone told him "On September 11, 2001, terrorists will fly airplanes into the World Trade Center, and you will be judged on how effectively you cope."


When you skid on an icy road, nobody will listen when you complain it's unfair because you weren't warned in advance, had no experience with winter driving and had never been taught how to cope with a skid.

-- Steven Dutch

13 points lukeprog 09 September 2012 12:46:27AM Permalink

If a thing can be observed in any way at all, it lends itself to some type of measurement method. No matter how “fuzzy” the measurement is, it’s still a measurement if it tells you more than you knew before.

Douglas Hubbard, How to Measure Anything

13 points Konkvistador 04 September 2012 08:40:20AM Permalink

Erode irreplaceable institutions related to morality and virtue because of their contingent associations with flawed human groups #lifehacks

--Kate Evans on Twitter

13 points NihilCredo 04 November 2012 07:37:34PM Permalink

The great thing about reality is that eventually you hit it.

Source: Andrew Sullivan in an otherwise fairly bland political post

13 points lukeprog 21 November 2012 11:22:50AM Permalink

Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat. Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn't there. Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn't there and shouting "I found it!" Science is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat using a flashlight.


13 points gotdistractedbythe 06 December 2012 12:37:13AM Permalink

"Right and wrong do exist. Just because you don't know what the right answer is — maybe there's even no way you could know what the right answer is — doesn't make your answer right or even okay. It's much simpler than that. It's just plain wrong."

--Dr. House

13 points michaelkeenan 01 December 2012 05:27:13PM Permalink

The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

-- Eden Phillpotts

12 points Karmakaiser 09 January 2012 04:33:02PM Permalink

"A “lie-to-children” is a statement which is false, but which nevertheless leads the child’s mind towards a more accurate explanation, one that the child will only be able to appreciate if it has been primed with the lie." "Yes, you needed to understand that” they are told, “so that now we can tell you why it isn’t exactly true." It is for the best possible reasons, but it is still a lie".”

--(The Science of Discworld, Ebury Press edition, quotes from pp 41-42)

12 points Alejandro1 03 January 2012 11:56:30PM Permalink

Prompted by Maniakes, but sufficiently different to post separately:

It cannot have escaped philosophers' attention that our fellow academics in other fields--especially in the sciences--often have difficulty suppressing their incredulous amusement when such topics as Twin Earth, Swampman, and Blockheads are posed for apparently serious consideration. Are the scientists just being philistines, betraying their tin ears for the subtleties of philosophical investigation, or have the philosophers who indulge in these exercises lost their grip on reality?

These bizarre examples all attempt to prove one "conceptual" point or another by deliberately reducing something underappreciated to zero, so that What Really Counts can shine through. Blockheads hold peripheral behavior constant and reduce internal structural details (and--what comes to the same thing--intervening internal processes) close to zero, and provoke the intuition that then there would be no mind there; internal structure Really Counts. Manthra is more or less the mirror-image; it keeps internal processes constant and reduces control of peripheral behavior to zero, showing, presumably, that external behavior Really Doesn't Count. Swampman keeps both future peripheral dispositions and internal states constant and reduces "history" to zero. Twin Earth sets internal similarity to maximum, so that external context can be demonstrated to be responsible for whatever our intuitions tell us. Thus these thought experiments mimic empirical experiments in their design, attempting to isolate a crucial interaction between variables by holding other variables constant. In the past I have often noted that a problem with such experiments is that the dependent variable is "intuition"--they are intuition pumps--and the contribution of imagination in the generation of intuitions is harder to control than philosophers have usually acknowledged.

But there is also a deeper problem with them. It is child's play to dream up further such examples to "prove" further conceptual points. Suppose a cow gave birth to something that was atom-for-atom indiscernible from a shark. Would it be a shark? What is the truth-maker for sharkhood? If you posed that question to a biologist, the charitable reaction would be that you were making a labored attempt at a joke. Suppose an evil demon could make water turn solid at room temperature by smiling at it; would demon-water be ice? Too silly a hypothesis to deserve a response. All such intuition pumps depend on the distinction spelled out by McLaughlin and O'Leary-Hawthorne between "conceptual" and "reductive" answers to the big questions. What I hadn't sufficiently appreciated in my earlier forthright response to Jackson is that when one says that the truth-maker question requires a conceptual answer, one means an answer that holds not just in our world, or all nomologically possible worlds, but in all logically possible worlds. Smiling demons, cow-sharks, Blockheads, and Swampmen are all, some philosophers think, logically possible, even if they are not nomologically possible, and these philosophers think this is important. I do not. Why should the truth-maker question cast its net this wide? Because, I gather, otherwise its answer doesn't tell us about the essence of the topic in question. But who believes in real essences of this sort nowadays? Not I.

Daniel Dennett, Get Real (emphasis added).

12 points imbatman 10 January 2012 11:21:33PM Permalink

"A Confucian has stolen my hairbrush! Down with Confucianism!"

-GK Chesterton (on ad hominems)

12 points Alicorn 06 January 2012 09:19:01PM Permalink

"This has been a good day... I haven't done a single thing that was stupid..."

"Have you done anything that was smart?"

--Peanuts (Nov. 23, 1981) by Charles Schulz

12 points Alicorn 09 January 2012 06:04:02PM Permalink

If some persons died, and others did not die, death would indeed be a terrible affliction.

--Jean de la Bruyère

12 points Maniakes 03 January 2012 08:24:54PM Permalink

I replied as follows: "What would you think of someone who said, "I would like to have a cat, provided it barked"? [...] As a natural scientist, you recognize that you cannot assign characteristics at will to chemical and biological entities, cannot demand that cats bark or water burn. Why do you suppose that the situation is different in the "social sciences?"

-- Milton Friedman

12 points David_Gerard 03 February 2012 07:33:07AM Permalink

The human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called "sciences as one would." For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should seem to be occupied with things mean and transitory; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless, in short, are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections color and infect the understanding.

-- Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (Aphorism XLIX), 1620. (1863 translation by Spedding, Ellis and Heath. You should read the whole thing, it's all this good.)

12 points Konkvistador 07 February 2012 03:20:34PM Permalink

It may be expecting too much to expect most intellectuals to have common sense, when their whole life is based on their being uncommon -- that is, saying things that are different from what everyone else is saying. There is only so much genuine originality in anyone. After that, being uncommon means indulging in pointless eccentricities or clever attempts to mock or shock.

--Thomas Sowell

12 points Alicorn 01 February 2012 08:16:27PM Permalink

Death is the gods' crime.

12 points Will_Newsome 04 March 2012 12:10:37PM Permalink

The world is paved with good intentions; the road to Hell has bad epistemology mixed in.

Steven Kaas

12 points GLaDOS 01 March 2012 07:07:58PM Permalink

I have sometimes seen people try to list what a real intellectual should know. I think it might be more illuminating to list what he shouldn’t.

--Gregory Cochran, in a comment here

12 points Stephanie_Cunnane 09 April 2012 02:15:40AM Permalink

From this moment forward, remember this: What you do is infinitely more important than how you do it. Efficiency is still important, but it is useless unless applied to the right things.

-Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek

12 points Klevador 14 April 2012 04:48:48AM Permalink

Any collocation of persons, no matter how numerous, how scant, how even their homogeneity, how firmly they profess common doctrine, will presently reveal themselves to consist of smaller groups espousing variant versions of the common creed; and these sub-groups will manifest sub-sub-groups, and so to the final limit of the single individual, and even in this single person conflicting tendencies will express themselves.

— Jack Vance, The Languages of Pao

12 points Pavitra 05 April 2012 12:59:38PM Permalink

In the real world things are very different. You just need to look around you. Nobody wants to die that way. People die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness. When you lose someone you loved very much you feel this big empty space and think, 'If I had known this was coming I would have done things differently.'

Yoshinori Kitase

12 points VKS 03 April 2012 08:52:49PM Permalink

Don't just read it; fight it! Ask your own questions, look for your own examples, discover your own proofs. Is the hypothesis necessary? Is the converse true? What happens in the classical special case? What about the degenerate case? Where does the proof use the hypothesis?

  • Paul Halmos
12 points Stephanie_Cunnane 03 April 2012 07:51:19AM Permalink

In short, and I can't emphasize this strongly enough, a fundamental issue that any theory of psychology ultimately has to face is that brains are useful. They guide behavior. Any brain that didn't cause its owner to do useful--in the evolutionary sense--things, didn't cause reproduction.

-Robert Kurzban, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind

12 points jsbennett86 03 April 2012 02:17:07AM Permalink

But when we have these irrational beliefs, these culturally coded assumptions, running so deep within our community and movement, how do we actually change that? How do we get people to further question themselves when they’ve already become convinced that they’re a rational person, a skeptic, and have moved on from irrationality, cognitive distortion and bias?

Well I think what we need to do is to change the fundamental structure and values of skepticism. We need to build our community and movement around slightly different premises.

As it has stood in the past, skepticism has been predicated on a belief in the power of the empirical and rational. It has been based on the premise that there is an empirical truth, and that it is knowable, and that certain tools and strategies like science and logic will allow us to reach that truth. In short, the “old guard” skepticism was based on a veneration of the rational. But the veneration of certain techniques or certain philosophies creates the problematic possibility of choosing to consider certain conclusions or beliefs to BE empirical and rational and above criticism, particularly beliefs derived from the “right” tools, and even more dangerously, to consider oneself “rational”.


I believe that in order to be able to question our own beliefs as well as we question those of others, we need to restructure skepticism around awareness of human limitation, irrationality and flaws. Rather than venerating the rational, and aspiring to become some kind of superhuman fully rational vulcan minds, we need to instead create a more human skepticism, built around understanding how belief operates, how we draw conclusions, and how we can cope with the human limitations. I believe we need to remove the focus from aspiring towards ridding ourselves of the irrational, and instead move the focus towards understanding how this irrationality operates and why we believe all the crazy things we believe. We need to position as our primary aspiration not the achievement of a perfect comprehending mind, but instead an ability to maintain constant hesitation and doubt, to always always ALWAYS second-guess our positions and understand that they’re being created through a flawed mind, from flawed perceptions.

Science and reason are excellent tools to allow us to cope with being crazy, irrational human beings, but it CANNOT allow us to transcend that. The instant we begin to believe that we have become A Skeptic, A Rational Person, that is when we’ve fucked up, that is when we stop practicing skepticism, stop keeping an eye out for our mistakes, and begin to imagine our irrational perceptions as perfect rational conclusions. It’s only by building a skepticism based on the practice of doubt, rather than the state of Skeptic, that we’ll truly be able to be move on from our assumptions.

12 points Annie0305 20 May 2012 10:13:35AM Permalink

Oh, and Paul Graham again from the same piece:

When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get the wrong answers on tests. But when people are bad at open-mindedness they don't know it.

12 points Old_Rationality 02 May 2012 11:59:39AM Permalink

His mind refused to accept a simple inference from simple facts, which were patent to all the world. The very simplicity of the conclusion was of itself enough to make him reject it, for he had an elective affinity for everything that was intricate. He was a prey to intellectual over-subtlety.

Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer, Modern Egypt

12 points mindspillage 14 May 2012 02:19:05PM Permalink

"In war you will generally find that the enemy has at any time three courses of action open to him. Of those three, he will invariably choose the fourth." —Helmuth Von Moltke

(quoted in Capturing the Potential of Outlier Ideas in the Intelligence Community, via Bruce Schneier)

12 points Jayson_Virissimo 01 May 2012 07:48:47AM Permalink

Proper treatment will cure a cold in seven days, but left to itself a cold will hang on for a week.

-Henry G. Felsen

12 points Vaniver 03 July 2012 12:56:18AM Permalink

Reality is the ultimate arbiter of truth. If your thoughts, beliefs, and actions aren't aligned with truth, your results will suffer.

--Steve Pavlina

12 points Oscar_Cunningham 02 August 2012 09:27:58PM Permalink

By keenly confronting the enigmas that surround us, and by considering and analyzing the observations that I have made, I ended up in the domain of mathematics.

M. C. Escher

12 points Alicorn 09 August 2012 12:26:50AM Permalink

It's not the end of the world. Well. I mean, yes, literally it is the end of the world, but moping doesn't help!

-- A Softer World

12 points RichardKennaway 16 September 2012 06:10:49PM Permalink

When a precise, narrowly focused technical idea becomes metaphor and sprawls globally, its credibility must be earned afresh locally by means of specific evidence demonstrating the relevance and explanatory power of the idea in its new application.

Edward Tufte, Beautiful Evidence

12 points ChristianKl 09 September 2012 10:49:29PM Permalink

“The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.”

― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

12 points chaosmosis 09 September 2012 12:34:36AM Permalink

"You're very smart. Smarter than I am, I hope. Though of course I have such incredible vanity that I can't really believe that anyone is actually smarter than I am. Which means that I'm all the more in need of good advice, since I can't actually conceive of needing any."

  • New Peter / Orson Scott Card, Children of the Mind
12 points Jayson_Virissimo 01 September 2012 08:18:04AM Permalink

Conspiracy Theory, n. A theory about a conspiracy that you are not supposed to believe.

-L. A. Rollins, Lucifer's Lexicon: An Updated Abridgment

12 points grendelkhan 15 October 2012 05:40:26PM Permalink

It's all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't have and then ask, "Why?"

--Ta-Nehisi Coates, "A Muscular Empathy"

12 points taelor 02 November 2012 02:47:46AM Permalink

If we see in each generation the conflict of the future against the past, the fight of what might be called progressive versus reactionary, we shall find ourselves organizing the historical story upon what is really an unfolding principle of progress, and our eyes will be fixed upon certain people who appear as the special agencies of that progress. [...] But if we see in each generation a clash of wills out of which there emerges something that probably no man ever willed, our minds become concentrated upon the process that produced such an unpredictable issue, and we are more open for an intensive study of the motions and interactions that underlie historical change. [...] The process of the historical transition will then be recognized to be unlike what the whig historian seems to assume – much less like the procedure of a logical argument and perhaps much more like the method by which a man can be imagined to work his way out of a "complex". It is a process which moves by mediations and those mediations may be provided by anything in the world – by men’s sins or misapprehensions or by what we can only call fortunate conjunctures. Very strange bridges are used to make the passage from one state of things to another; we may lose sight of them in our surveys of general history, but their discovery is the glory of historical research. History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which the past was turned into our present.

-- Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History

12 points fortyeridania 02 November 2012 07:11:52AM Permalink

On confirmation bias

If a man objects to truths that are all too evident, it is no easy task finding arguments that will change his mind. This is proof neither of his own strength nor of his teacher's weakness. When someone caught in an argument hardens to stone, there is just no more reasoning with them.

Epictetus, Discourses I.5.1-2 (page 15 of this edition) (original Greek, with alternate translations at the link)

12 points SaidAchmiz 02 December 2012 07:26:34AM Permalink

"Well, how about this — that man, unlike animals, is a creature who experiences an insurmountable need for knowledge? I've read that somewhere."

"So have I," said Valentine. "But the trouble is that man, or in any case the common man, easily overcomes this need for knowledge of his. It seems to me that he doesn't have such a need at all. There's a need to understand, but knowledge is not required for that. The God hypothesis, for instance, gives one an unparalleled ability to understand absolutely everything, while discovering absolutely nothing... Give a person a highly simplified model of the world and interpret any event on the basis of this simplified model. Such an approach required no knowledge. A few memorized formulas plus some so-called intuition, so-called practical acumen, and so-called common sense."

Roadside Picnic, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

11 points CaveJohnson 19 January 2012 10:59:42PM Permalink

We should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.


11 points Grognor 16 February 2012 07:59:35AM Permalink

If we want to know if there has been a change from the start to the end dates, all we have to do is look! I’m tempted to add a dozen more exclamation points to that sentence, it is that important. We do not have to model what we can see. No statistical test is needed to say whether the data has changed. We can just look.

I have to stop, lest I become exasperated. We statisticians have pointed out this fact until we have all, one by one, turned blue in the face and passed out, the next statistician in line taking the place of his fallen comrade.

-William M. Briggs

11 points Stabilizer 06 March 2012 04:51:18AM Permalink

We have not succeeded in answering all our problems.

The answers we have found only serve

to raise a whole set of new questions.

In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever,

but we believe we are confused on a higher level

and about more important things.

-Posted outside the mathematics reading room, Tromsø University

From the homepage of Kim C. Border

11 points XFrequentist 02 March 2012 09:01:52PM Permalink

May the best of your todays, be the worst of your tomorrows

  • Jay-Z, Forever Young

[Taking the lyrics literally, the whole thing is a pretty sweet transhumanist anthem.]

11 points arundelo 01 March 2012 08:03:29PM Permalink

When reading, you win if you learn, not if you convince yourself that you know something the author does not know.

-- Reg Braithwaite (raganwald)

11 points army1987 02 April 2012 05:13:52PM Permalink

I first encountered this in a physics newsgroup, after some crank was taking some toy model way too seriously:

Analogies are like ropes; they tie things together pretty well, but you won't get very far if you try to push them.

Thaddeus Stout Tom Davidson

(I remembered something like "if you pull them too much, they break down", actually...)

11 points tgb 01 April 2012 01:30:37PM Permalink

Who has seen the wind?

Neither I nor you:

But when the leaves hang trembling,

The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I:

But when the trees bow down their heads,

The wind is passing by.

-- Christina Rossetti, Who has seen the Wind?

11 points Kutta 01 April 2012 01:00:30PM Permalink

He who knows how to do something is the servant of he who knows why that thing must be done.

-- Isuna Hasekura, Spice and Wolf vol. 5 ("servant" is justified by the medieval setting).

11 points MixedNuts 09 April 2012 03:24:07PM Permalink

On specificity and sneaking on connotations; useful for the liberal-minded among us:

I think, with racism and sexism and 'isms' generally, there's a sort of confusion of terminology.

A "Racist1" is someone, who, like a majority of people in this society, has subconsciously internalized some negative attitudes about minority racial groups. If a Racist1 takes the Implicit Association Test, her score shows she's biased against black people, like the majority of people (of all races) who took the test. Chances are, whether you know it or not, you're a Racist1.

A "Racist2" is someone who's kind of an insensitive jerk about race. The kind of guy who calls Obama the "Food Stamp President." Someone you wouldn't want your sister dating.

A "Racist3" is a neo-Nazi. You can never be quite sure that one day he won't snap and kill someone. He's clearly a social deviant.

People use the word "Racist" for all three things, and I think that's the source of a lot of arguments. When people get accused of being racists, they evade responsibility by saying, "Hey, I'm not a Racist3!" when in fact you were only saying they were Racist1 or Racist2. But some of the responsibility is on the accusers too -- if you say "That Republican's a racist" with the implication of "a jerk" and then backtrack and change the meaning to "vulnerable to unconscious bias", then you're arguing in bad faith. Never mind that some laws and rules which were meant to protect people from Racist3's are in fact deployed against Racist2's.


11 points shminux 24 May 2012 06:14:17PM Permalink

if you can’t explain how to simulate your theory on a computer, chances are excellent that the reason is that your theory makes no sense!

-- Scott Aaronson

11 points Annie0305 20 May 2012 09:43:39AM Permalink

"Almost certainly, there is something wrong with you if you don't think things you don't dare say out loud."

~Paul Graham

11 points Stephanie_Cunnane 02 May 2012 05:11:15AM Permalink

Are you better off than you were one year ago, one month ago, or one week ago?

-Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek

11 points J_Taylor 03 May 2012 06:16:35PM Permalink

It is not seeing things as they are to think first of a Briareus with a hundred hands, and then call every man a cripple for only having two. It is not seeing things as they are to start with a vision of Argus with his hundred eyes, and then jeer at every man with two eyes as if he had only one. And it is not seeing things as they are to imagine a demigod of infinite mental clarity, who may or may not appear in the latter days of the earth, and then to see all men as idiots.

-G.K. Chesterton

11 points Alejandro1 02 June 2012 12:35:00AM Permalink

"The veil before my eyes dropped. I saw he was insincere ... a liar. I saw marriage with him would have been marriage to a worthless adventurer. I saw all this within five minutes of that meeting.” As if she heard a self-recriminatory bitterness creep into her voice again, she stopped; then continued in a lower tone. “You may wonder how I had not seen it before. I believe I had. But to see something is not the same as to acknowledge it."

-- John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman

11 points RobertLumley 02 July 2012 03:16:55PM Permalink

Why do you insist that the human genetic code is "sacred" or "taboo"? It is a chemical process and nothing more. For that matter—we—are chemical processes and nothing more. If you deny yourself a useful tool simply because it reminds you uncomfortably of your mortality, you have uselessly and pointlessly crippled yourself.

– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang in Alpha Centauri

11 points Konkvistador 25 August 2012 10:55:45AM Permalink

To understand our civilisation, one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection — the comparative increase of population and wealth — of those groups that happened to follow them. The unwitting, reluctant, even painful adoption of these practices kept these groups together, increased their access to valuable information of all sorts, and enabled them to be 'fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it' (Genesis 1:28). This process is perhaps the least appreciated facet of human evolution.

-- Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit : The Errors of Socialism (1988), p. 6

11 points paper-machine 16 August 2012 10:47:22PM Permalink

The problem with therapy-- include self help and mind hacks-- is its amazing failure rate. People do it for years and come out of it and feel like they understand themselves better but they do not change. If it failed to produce both insights and change it would make sense, but it is almost always one without the other.

-- The Last Psychiatrist

11 points Stabilizer 03 August 2012 04:07:02AM Permalink

But a curiosity of my type remains after all the most agreeable of all vices --- sorry, I meant to say: the love of truth has its reward in heaven and even on earth.

-Friedrich Nietzsche

11 points MichaelGR 09 August 2012 08:06:20PM Permalink

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes…

— Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

11 points Eneasz 20 August 2012 06:56:35PM Permalink

An excerpt from Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss. Boxing is not safe.

The innkeeper looked up. "I have to admit I don't see the trouble," he said apologetically. "I've seen monsters, Bast. The Cthaeh falls short of that."

"That was the wrong word for me to use, Reshi," Bast admitted. "But I can't think of a better one. If there was a word that meant poisonous and hateful and contagious, I'd use that."

Bast drew a deep breath and leaned forward in his chair. "Reshi, the Cthaeh can see the future. Not in some vague, oracular way. It sees all the future. Clearly. Perfectly. Everything that can possibly come to pass, branching out endlessly from the current moment."

Kvothe raised an eyebrow. "It can, can it?"

"It can," Bast said gravely. "And it is purely, perfectly malicious. This isn't a problem for the most part, as it can't leave the tree. But when someone comes to visit..."

Kvothe's eyes went distant as he nodded to himself. "If it knows the future perfectly," he said slowly, "then it must know exactly how a person will react to anything it says."

Bast nodded. "And it is vicious, Reshi."

Kvothe continued in a musing tone. "That means anyone influenced by the Cthaeh would be like an arrow shot into the future."

"An arrow only hits on person, Reshi." Bast's dark eyes were hollow and hopeless. "Anyone influenced by the Cthaeh is like a plague ship sailing for a harbor." Bast pointed at the half-filled sheet Chronicler held in his lap. "If the Sithe knew that existed, they would spare no effort to destroy it. They would kill us for having heard what the Cthaeh said."

"Because anything carrying the Cthaeh's influence away from the tree..." Kvothe said, looking down at his hands. He sat silently for a long moment, nodding thoughtfully. "So a young man seeking his fortune goes to the Cthaeh and takes away a flower. The daughter of the king is deathly ill, and he takes the flower to heal her. They fall in love despite the fact that she's betrothed to the neighboring prince..."

Bast stared at Kvothe, watching blankly as he spoke.

"They attempt a daring moonlight escape," Kvothe continued. "But he falls from the rooftops and they're caught. The princess is married against her will and stabs the neighboring prince on their wedding night. The prince dies. Civil war. Fields burned and salted. Famine. Plague..."

"That's the story of the Fastingsway War," Bast said faintly.

11 points OnTheOtherHandle 19 September 2012 05:24:59AM Permalink

Let us together seek, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are reached, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God's sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people...let us not - simply because we are at the head of a movement - make ourselves into the new leaders of intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason.

Pierre Proudhon, to Karl Marx

11 points Will_Newsome 01 September 2012 10:17:14AM Permalink

Proceed only with the simplest terms, for all others are enemies and will confuse you.

— Michael Kirkbride / Vivec, The Thirty Six Lessons of Vivec, Morrowind.

11 points Konkvistador 15 September 2012 05:58:02PM Permalink
The Perfect Way is only difficult
for those who pick and choose;
Do not like, do not dislike;
all will then be clear.
Make a hairbreadth difference,
and Heaven and Earth are set apart;
if you want the truth to stand clear before you,
never be for or against.
The struggle between "for" and "against"
is the mind's worst disease.

-- Jianzhi Sengcan

Edit: Since I'm not Will Newsome (yet!) I will clarify. There are several useful points in this but I think the key one is the virtue of keeping ones identity small. Speaking it out loud is a sort of primer, meditation or prayer before approaching difficult or emotional subjects has for me proven a useful ritual for avoiding motivated cognition.

11 points lukeprog 19 October 2012 10:54:24PM Permalink

To say our predictions are no worse than the experts’ is to damn ourselves with some awfully faint praise.

Nate Silver

11 points AlexMennen 02 October 2012 02:27:13AM Permalink

A common mistake is to suppose that scientists are such admirable people that they can be safely entrusted with the ultimate responsibil­ity for guiding scientific research. In fact they are no more admirable than any other type of worker. Neither selection nor self-selection tor a scientific career is based on admirableness. Though the conventions and protocols of science enforce on scientists, in comparison to astrologers and English professors—and lawyers—a high degree of objec­tivity when they are doing science, it does not follow that such indi­viduals can be depended on to be objective policy analysts. That is a role for which they are not trained (but is anyone?) and that does not impose the constraints that science imposes.

Richard Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response

11 points Eugine_Nier 15 November 2012 05:12:14AM Permalink

It is neither desirable nor any longer effective to try bullying people into accepting the authority of science. Instead, all members of the educated public can be invited to participate in science, in order to experience the true nature and value of scientific inquiry. This does not mean listening to professional scientists tell condescending stories about how they have discovered wonderful things, which you should believe for reasons that are too difficult for you to understand in real depth and detail. Doing science ought to mean asking your own questions, making your own investigations, and drawing your own conclusions for your own reasons. Of course it will not be feasible to advance the "cutting edge" or "frontier" of modern science without first acquiring years of specialist training. However, the cutting edge is not all there is to science, nor is it necessarily the most valuable part of science. Questions that have been answered are still worth asking again, so you can understand for yourself how to arrive at the standard answers, and possibly discover new answers or recover forgotten answers that are valuable.

Hasok Chang, Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress

11 points chaosmosis 12 November 2012 03:17:08AM Permalink

'At my funeral, I don't want people to wear bright colors and smile and laugh fondly at the wonderful memories of the precious time we spent together on Earth. Tell them to wear black and cover their faces with ash. Tell them to weep bitter tears and rail angrily against the cruel God who took me at so young an age. Do this for me, my beloved.',772/

I find both the ironic and straightforward meaning of this quote to be meaningful.

11 points gwern 10 November 2012 06:53:11PM Permalink

If any man pretend to me that God hath spoken to him … immediately, and I make doubt of it, I cannot easily perceive what argument he can produce to oblige me to believe it .. For to say that God … hath spoken to him in a dream is no more than to say he dreamed that God spoke to him.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter 13

11 points GabrielDuquette 02 November 2012 12:57:41AM Permalink

One swallow does not make a summer, but one swallow does prove the existence of swallows.

Anzai Simon

11 points ChristianKl 05 December 2012 03:42:32PM Permalink

But are we asking too much when we declare that our drugs need to work through single defined targets? Beyond that, are we even asking too much when we declare that we need to understand the details of how they work at all? Many of you will have had such thoughts (and they've been expressed around here as well), but they can tend to sound heretical, especially that second one. But that gets to the real issue, the uncomfortable, foot-shuffling, rather-think-about-something-else question: are we trying to understand things, or are we trying to find drugs?

Derek Lowe, In the Pipeline

11 points Alicorn 04 December 2012 02:54:54AM Permalink

"...they have all these experts' predictions about the year 2000 and I kid you not they are fucking psychotic. Just not even close, like oh we'll be growing cars in vats and having nuclear wars with China and then black rainbows will drain the earth of its oxygen and kill everyone except our moon colonists. Experts. I mean people cannot predict shit. We think we can and we fucking can't."

11 points Mestroyer 04 December 2012 04:26:52PM Permalink

We're Nature's conscience. One day, we'll finally make it listen and realise what a monster it's been all along.

Catharine G. Evans

10 points lukeprog 25 January 2012 10:26:25PM Permalink

I do not pretend to start with precise questions. I do not think you can start with anything precise. You have to achieve such precision as you can, as you go along.

Bertrand Russell

10 points Patrick 23 January 2012 05:11:30PM Permalink

Ninety per cent of most magic merely consists of knowing one extra fact.

Terry Pratchett

10 points CharlieSheen 14 January 2012 09:18:22AM Permalink

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

-Winston Churchill

10 points Konkvistador 15 January 2012 08:44:11AM Permalink

Each age would do better if it studied its own faults and endeavoured to mend them instead of comparing itself with others to its own advantage.

--James Anthony Froude

10 points Eugine_Nier 01 January 2012 08:05:18PM Permalink

As in the Roman empire age, the theoretical concepts, taken out of the theories assigning their meaning and considered instead real objects, whose existence can be apparent only to the initiated people, are used to amaze the public. In physics courses the student (now unaware of the experimental basis of heliocentrism or of atomic theory, accepted on the sole basis of the authority principle) gets addicted to a complex and mysterious mythology, with orbitals undergoing hybridization, elusive quarks, voracious and disquieting black holes and a creating Big Bang: objects introduced, all of them, in theories totally unknown to him and having no understandable relation with any phenomenon he may have access to.

Lucio Russo, The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why it Had to Be Reborn

10 points fortyeridania 02 January 2012 12:04:37PM Permalink

Songs can be Trojan horses, taking charged ideas and sneaking past the ego's defenses and into the open mind.

John Mayer, Esquire (the magazine, not the social/occupational title)

10 points scmbradley 03 February 2012 09:25:26PM Permalink

Any logically coherent body of doctrine is sure to be in part painful and contrary to current prejudices

– Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy p. 98

Bertie is a goldmine of rationality quotes.

10 points CasioTheSane 09 March 2012 07:51:03AM Permalink

"Sir Isaac Newton, renowned inventor of the milled-edge coin and the catflap!"

"The what?" said Richard.

"The catflap! A device of the utmost cunning, perspicuity and invention. It is a door within a door, you see, a ..."

"Yes," said Richard, "there was also the small matter of gravity."

"Gravity," said Dirk with a slightly dismissed shrug, "yes, there was that as well, I suppose. Though that, of course, was merely a discovery. It was there to be discovered." ...

"You see?" he said dropping his cigarette butt, "They even keep it on at weekends. Someone was bound to notice sooner or later. But the catflap ... ah, there is a very different matter. Invention, pure creative invention. It is a door within a door, you see."

-Douglas Adams

10 points Stephanie_Cunnane 08 March 2012 10:44:15PM Permalink

Now let's talk about efficient market theory, a wonderful economic doctrine that had a long vogue in spite of the experience of Berkshire Hathaway. In fact, one of the economists who won--he shared a Nobel Prize--and as he looked at Berkshire Hathaway year after year, which people would throw in his face as saying maybe the market isn't quite as efficient as you think, he said, "Well, it's a two-sigma event." And then he said we were a three-sigma event. And then he said we were a four-sigma event. And he finally got up to six sigmas--better to add a sigma than change a theory, just because the evidence comes in differently. [Laughter] And, of course, when this share of a Nobel Prize went into money management himself, he sank like a stone.

-Charlie Munger

10 points Konkvistador 06 March 2012 12:19:59PM Permalink

The reality is actually scarier than that if there was a big conspiracy run by an Inner Party of evil but brilliant know-it-alls, like O’Brien in “1984″ or Mustapha Mond in “Brave New World.” The reality is that nobody in charge knows much about what is going on.

--Steve Sailer, here

10 points Ezekiel 05 March 2012 10:13:09PM Permalink

Because throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be... Not Magic

-- Tim Minchin, Storm

10 points philh 01 March 2012 10:32:08PM Permalink

The Princess Bride:

Man in Black: Inhale this, but do not touch.

Vizzini: [sniffs] I smell nothing.

Man in Black: What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the more deadlier poisons known to man.

[He puts the goblets behind his back and puts the poison into one of the goblets, then sets them down in front of him]

Man in Black: All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right... and who is dead.

[Vizzini stalls, then eventually chooses the glass in front of the man in black. They both drink, and Vizzini dies.]

Buttercup: And to think, all that time it was your cup that was poisoned.

Man in Black: They were both poisoned. I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.

10 points maia 12 April 2012 05:22:24PM Permalink

Suppose you know a golfer's score on day 1 and are asked to predict his score on day 2. You expect the golfer to retain the same level of talent on the second day, so your best guesses will be "above average" for the [better-scoring] player and "below average" for the [worse-scoring] player. Luck, of course, is a different matter. Since you have no way of predicting the golfers' luck on the second (or any) day, your best guess must be that it will be average, neither good nor bad. This means that in the absence of any other information, your best guess about the players' score on day 2 should not be a repeat of their performance on day 1. ...

The best predicted performance on day 2 is more moderate, closer to the average than the evidence on which it is based (the score on day 1). This is why the pattern is called regression to the mean. The more extreme the original score, the more regression we expect, because an extremely good score suggests a very lucky day. The regressive prediction is reasonable, but its accuracy is not guaranteed. A few of the golfers who scored 66 on day 1 will do even better on the second day, if their luck improves. Most will do worse, because their luck will no longer be above average.

Now let us go against the time arrow. Arrange the players by their performance on day 2 and look at their performance on day 1. You will find precisely the same pattern of regression to the mean. ... The fact that you observe regression when you predict an early event from a later event should help convince you that regression does not have a causal explanation.

  • Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
10 points John_Maxwell_IV 02 April 2012 05:39:48AM Permalink

Don't kid yourself, just because you got the correct numerical answer to a problem is not justification that you understand the physics of the problem. You must understand all the logical steps in arriving at that solution or you have gained nothing, right answer or not.

My old physics professor David Newton (yes, apparently that's the name he was born with) on how to study physics.

10 points Konkvistador 16 April 2012 05:49:36AM Permalink

The fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance.

--Jonathan Haidt, source

10 points tut 08 May 2012 05:55:31PM Permalink

Those who wish to appear wise among fools, among the wise seem foolish.


10 points Jayson_Virissimo 01 May 2012 07:58:52AM Permalink

Scientific Realism is the only philosophy that doesn't make the success of science a miracle.

-Hilary Putnam

10 points hairyfigment 03 May 2012 07:36:27AM Permalink

When somebody picks my pocket, I'm not gonna be chasing them down so I can figure out whether he feels like he's a thief deep down in his heart. I'm going to be chasing him down so I can get my wallet back.

-- illdoc1 on YouTube

10 points David_Gerard 23 June 2012 01:21:11PM Permalink

The biggest threat to an artist is neither piracy nor obscurity. It's dicking around on the internet.

-- James L. Sutter

10 points Vaniver 07 June 2012 10:55:44PM Permalink

One reason why research is so important is precisely that it can surprise you and tell you that your subjective convictions are wrong. If research always found what we expected, there wouldn't be much point in doing research.

--Eugene Gendlin

10 points [deleted] 03 June 2012 12:40:51AM Permalink

Humility bids us to take ourselves as we are; we do not have to be cosmically significant to be genuinely significant.

  • Patricia Churchland
10 points gwern 09 June 2012 04:31:48PM Permalink

I favor any skepsis to which I may reply: 'Let us try it!' But I no longer wish to hear anything of all those things and questions that do not permit any experiment.

--Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science #51

10 points Konkvistador 04 July 2012 05:41:30AM Permalink

And here we tinker with metal, to try to give it a kind of life, and suffer those who would scoff at our efforts. But who's to say that, if intelligence had evolved in some other form in past millennia, the ancestors of these beings would not now scoff at the idea of intelligence residing within meat?

--Prime Function Aki Zeta-5, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

10 points Vaniver 03 July 2012 12:58:26AM Permalink

Many difficulties which nature throws our way, may be smoothed away by the exercise of intelligence.

--Titus Livius

10 points James_Miller 02 July 2012 03:29:42PM Permalink

All mushrooms are edible. But some of them you can eat only once.

From Paleohacks.

10 points army1987 08 August 2012 07:58:35PM Permalink

When a philosophy thus relinquishes its anchor in reality, it risks drifting arbitrarily far from sanity.

Gary Drescher, Good and Real

10 points lukeprog 04 August 2012 10:28:30AM Permalink

Reductionism is the most natural thing in the world to grasp. It's simply the belief that "a whole can be understood completely if you understand its parts, and the nature of their sum." No one in her left brain could reject reductionism.

Douglas Hofstadter

10 points army1987 29 September 2012 09:57:18AM Permalink

For a hundred years or so, mathematical statisticians have been in love with the fact that the probability distribution of the sum of a very large number of very small random deviations almost always converges to a normal distribution. ... This infatuation tended to focus interest away from the fact that, for real data, the normal distribution is often rather poorly realized, if it is realized at all. We are often taught, rather casually, that, on average, measurements will fall within ±σ of the true value 68% of the time, within ±2σ 95% of the time, and within ±3σ 99.7% of the time. Extending this, one would expect a measurement to be off by ±20σ only one time out of 2 × 10^88. We all know that “glitches” are much more likely than that!

-- W.H. Press et al., Numerical Recipes, Sec. 15.1

10 points khafra 10 September 2012 07:06:52PM Permalink

I particularly like the reminder that I'm physics. Makes me feel like a superhero. "Imbued with the properties of matter and energy, able to initiate activity in a purely deterministic universe, it's Physics Man!"

-- GoodDamon (this may skirt the edge of the rules, since it's a person reacting to a sequence post, but a person who's not a member of LW.)

10 points Eugine_Nier 27 September 2012 12:26:39AM Permalink

As far as I know, Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were indeed unusually incorruptible, and I do hate them for this trait.

Why? Because when your goal is mass murder, corruption saves lives. Corruption leads you to take the easy way out, to compromise, to go along to get along. Corruption isn't a poison that makes everything worse. It's a diluting agent like water. Corruption makes good policies less good, and evil policies less evil.

I've read thousands of pages about Hitler. I can't recall the slightest hint of "corruption" on his record. Like Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, Hitler was a sincerely murderous fanatic. The same goes for many of history's leading villains - see Eric Hoffer's classic The True Believer. Sincerity is so overrated. If only these self-righteous monsters had been corrupt hypocrites, millions of their victims could have bargained and bribed their way out of hell.

-- Bryan Caplan

10 points [deleted] 05 September 2012 08:36:08PM Permalink

He had bought a large map representing the sea, / Without the least vestige of land: / And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be / A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators, / Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?" / So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply / “They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes! / But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank: / (So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best— / A perfect and absolute blank!”

-Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the snark

10 points J_Taylor 02 September 2012 03:33:00AM Permalink

Major Greene this evening fell into some conversation with me about the Divinity and satisfaction of Jesus Christ. All the argument he advanced was, "that a mere creature or finite being could not make satisfaction to infinite justice for any crimes," and that "these things are very mysterious."

Thus mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity.

  • John Adams
10 points MBlume 01 October 2012 07:57:22PM Permalink

Paths are made by walking

-Franz Kafka (quoted in Joy of Clojure)

10 points vallinder 06 November 2012 09:08:56AM Permalink

The folly of mistaking a paradox for a discovery, a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is inborn in us.

Paul Valéry

10 points Unnamed 03 November 2012 09:03:43AM Permalink

Chris Cillizza says that [...] the surge in the quantity of public polling available creates a confusing fog of numbers in which "partisans, who already live in a choose-your-own-political-reality world, can select the numbers that comply with their view of the race and pooh-pooh the data that suggest anything different."

That's true. But if you actually want to know what's happening in the race the increased poll volume makes it clearer not less clear. The sense that the polls are "all over the map" is the mistake. You need to think of each datapoint as having an associated probability distribution and then look at where they overlap. [...] The fact that we now have tons of polling that averages out to [a] conclusion means the scope for "sampling error" to throw us off is, at this point, tiny. One poll showing a lead of the current magnitude would leave us with a ton of uncertainty, but a bunch of polls makes the picture pretty clear.

10 points Jay_Schweikert 14 December 2012 05:16:31PM Permalink

I don't have any previous experience with this sort of thing, but judging from what I hear and read, I'm supposed to be asking why all this is happening, and why it's happening to me. Honestly, those questions are about the farthest thing from my mind.

Partly, that’s because they aren't hard questions. Why does our world have gravity? Why does the sun rise in the East? There are technical answers, but the metaphysical answer is simple: that’s how reality works. So too here. Only in the richest parts of the rich world of the twenty-first century could anyone entertain the thought that we should expect long, pain-free lives. Suffering and premature death (an odd phrase: what does it mean to call death "premature"?) are constant presences in the lives of most of the peoples of the Earth, and were routine parts of life for generations of our predecessors in this country—as they still are today, for those with their eyes open. Stage 4 cancers happen to middle-aged men and women, seemingly out of the blue, because that's how reality works.

As for why this is happening to me in particular, the implicit point of the question is an argument: I deserve better than this. There are two responses. First, I don't—I have no greater moral claim to be free from unwanted pain and loss than anyone else. Plenty of people more virtuous than I am suffer worse than I have, and some who don't seem virtuous at all skate through life with surprising ease. Welcome to the world. Once again, it seems to me that this claim arises from the incredibly unusual experience of a small class of wealthy professionals in the wealthiest parts of the world today. We think we live in a world governed by merit and moral desert. It isn't so. Luck, fortune, fate, providence—call it what you will, but whatever your preferred label, it has far more to do with the successes of the successful than what any of us deserves. Aristocracies of the past awarded wealth and position based on the accident of birth. Today's meritocracies award wealth and position based on the accident of being in the right place at the right time. The difference is smaller than we tend to think. Once you understand that, it’s hard to maintain a sense of grievance in the face of even the ugliest medical news. I’ve won more than my share of life's lotteries. It would seem churlish to rail at the unfairness of losing this one—if indeed I do lose it: which I may not.

The second response is simpler; it comes from the movie "Unforgiven." Gene Hackman is dying, and says to Clint Eastwood: "I don't deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house." Eastwood responds: "Deserve’s got nothing to do with it."

That gets it right, I think. It's a messed-up world, upside-down as often as it's rightside up. Bad things happen; future plans (that house Hackman was building) come to naught. Deserve's got nothing to do with it.

--William J. Stuntz, discussing his cancer diagnosis

Apologies for the length, but I wanted to include the full substantive point and hated to snip lines here and there. For what it's worth, Prof. Stuntz was a devout Christian, and the linked post went on to discuss his theological views on why "something deep within us expects, even demands moral order—in a world that shouts from the rooftops that no such order exists." Obviously I draw a different conclusion about this conflict, but I still respect that he could take such an unflinching view of how morally empty nature really is.