Best of Rationality Quotes

129 points Rain 03 August 2010 12:56:46AM Permalink

Personally, I've been hearing all my life about the Serious Philosophical Issues posed by life extension, and my attitude has always been that I'm willing to grapple with those issues for as many centuries as it takes.

-- Patrick Nielsen Hayden

110 points [deleted] 02 May 2013 03:48:24AM Permalink

"The spatial anomaly has interacted with the tachyonic radiation in the nebula, it's interfering with our sensors. It's impossible to get a reading."

"There's no time - we'll have to take the ship straight through it!"

"Captain, I advise against this course of action. I have calculated the odds against our surviving such an action at three thousand, seven hundred and forty-five to one."

"Damn the odds, we've got to try... wait a second. Where, exactly, did you get that number from?"

"I hardly think this is the time for-"

"No. No, fuck you, this is exactly the time. The fate of the galaxy is at stake. Trillions of lives are hanging in the balance. You just pulled four significant digits out of your ass, I want to see you show your goddamn work."

"Well, I used the actuarial data from the past fifty years, relating to known cases of ships passing through nebulae that are interacting with spatial anomalies. There have been approximately two million such incidents reported, with only five hundred and forty-two incidents in which the ship in question survived intact."

"And did you at all take into account that ship building technology has improved over the past fifty years, and that ours is not necessarily an average ship?"

"Indeed I did, Captain. I weighted the cases differently based on how recent they were, and how close the ship in question was in build to our own. For example, one of the incidents with a happy ending was forty-seven years ago, but their ship was a model roughly five times our size. As such, I counted the incident as having twenty-four percent of the relevance of a standard case."

"But what of our ship's moxie? Can you take determination and drive and the human spirit into account?"

"As a matter of fact I can, Captain. In our three-year history together, I have observed that both you and this ship manage to beat the odds with a measurable regularity. To be exact, we tend to succeed twenty-four point five percent more often than the statistics would otherwise indicate - and, in fact, that number jumps to twenty-nine point two percent specifically in cases where I state the odds against our success to three significant digits or greater. I have already taken that supposedly 'unknowable' factor into account with my calculations."

"And you expect me to believe that you've memorized all these case studies and performed this ridiculously complicated calculation in your head within the course of a normal conversation?"

"Yes. With all due respect to your species, I am not human. While I freely admit that you do have greater insight into fields such as emotion, interpersonal relations, and spirituality than I do, in the fields of memory and calculation, I am capable of feats that would be quite simply impossible for you. Furthermore, if I may be perfectly frank, the entire purpose of my presence on the bridge is to provide insights such as these to help facilitate your command decisions. If you're not going to heed my advice, why am I even here?"

"Mm. And we're still sitting at three thousand seven hundred to one against?"

"Three thousand, seven hundred and forty five to one."

"Well, shit. Well, let's go around, then."

The Vulcan your Vulcan could sound like if he wasn't made of straw, I guess? Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doris Lessing, "Mara and Dann"

75 points dspeyer 03 September 2014 05:06:19PM Permalink

A good rule of thumb might be, “If I added a zero to this number, would the sentence containing it mean something different to me?” If the answer is “no,” maybe the number has no business being in the sentence in the first place.

Randall Munroe on communicating with humans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- PartiallyClips, "Windmill"

73 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.)

72 points Mestroyer 06 February 2013 05:52:02AM Permalink

"If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?"

"Oh jeez. Probably."

"What!? Why!?"

"Because all my friends did. Think about it -- which scenario is more likely: every single person I know, many of them levelheaded and afraid of heights, abruptly went crazy at exactly the same time... ...or the bridge is on fire?"

Randall Munroe, on updating on other peoples beliefs.

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

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

  • Slavoj Zizek
70 points Alejandro1 01 September 2014 07:10:29PM Permalink

I’m always fascinated by the number of people who proudly build columns, tweets, blog posts or Facebook posts around the same core statement: “I don’t understand how anyone could (oppose legal abortion/support a carbon tax/sympathize with the Palestinians over the Israelis/want to privatize Social Security/insert your pet issue here)." It’s such an interesting statement, because it has three layers of meaning.

The first layer is the literal meaning of the words: I lack the knowledge and understanding to figure this out. But the second, intended meaning is the opposite: I am such a superior moral being that I cannot even imagine the cognitive errors or moral turpitude that could lead someone to such obviously wrong conclusions. And yet, the third, true meaning is actually more like the first: I lack the empathy, moral imagination or analytical skills to attempt even a basic understanding of the people who disagree with me.

In short, “I’m stupid.” Something that few people would ever post so starkly on their Facebook feeds.

--Megan McArdle

68 points [deleted] 05 April 2011 07:18:41PM Permalink

If you think that humans are nothing but Turing machines, why is it morally wrong to kill a person but not morally wrong to turn off a computer?

Your question has the form:

If A is nothing but B, then why is it X to do Y to A but not to do Y to C which is also nothing but B?

This following question also has this form:

If apple pie is nothing but atoms, why is it safe to eat apple pie but not to eat napalm which is also nothing but atoms?

And here's the general answer to that question: the molecules which make up apple pie are safe to eat, and the molecules which make up napalm are unsafe to eat. This is possible because these are not the same molecules.

Now let's turn to your own question and give a general answer to it: it is morally wrong to shut off the program which makes up a human, but not morally wrong to shut off the programs which are found in an actual computer today. This is possible because these are not the same programs.

At this point I'm sure you will want to ask: what is so special about the program which makes up a human, that it would be morally wrong to shut off the program? And I have no answer for that. Similarly, I couldn't answer you if you asked me why the molecules of apple pie are safe to eat and the those of napalm are not.

As it happens, chemistry and biology have probably advanced to the point at which the question about apple pie can be answered. However, the study of mind/brain is still in its infancy, and as far as I know, we have not advanced to the equivalent point. But this doesn't mean that there isn't an answer.

68 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

67 points RichardKennaway 01 February 2010 10:16:33AM Permalink

From a BBC interview with a retiring Oxford Don:

Don: "Up until the age of 25, I believed that 'invective' was a synonym for 'urine'."

BBC: "Why ever would you have thought that?"

Don: "During my childhood, I read many of the Edgar Rice Burroughs 'Tarzan' stories, and in those books, whenever a lion wandered into a clearing, the monkeys would leap into the trees and 'cast streams of invective upon the lion's head.'"

BBC: long pause "But, surely sir, you now know the meaning of the word."

Don: "Yes, but I do wonder under what other misapprehensions I continue to labour."

66 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

66 points westward 18 December 2013 09:05:29PM Permalink

"Finally, a study that backs up everything I've always said about confirmation bias." -Kslane, Twitter


66 points James_Miller 05 September 2014 08:36:09PM Permalink

A skilled professional I know had to turn down an important freelance assignment because of a recurring commitment to chauffeur her son to a resumé-building “social action” assignment required by his high school. This involved driving the boy for 45 minutes to a community center, cooling her heels while he sorted used clothing for charity, and driving him back—forgoing income which, judiciously donated, could have fed, clothed, and inoculated an African village. The dubious “lessons” of this forced labor as an overqualified ragpicker are that children are entitled to treat their mothers’ time as worth nothing, that you can make the world a better place by destroying economic value, and that the moral worth of an action should be measured by the conspicuousness of the sacrifice rather than the gain to the beneficiary.

Steven Pinker

64 points sediment 02 June 2013 07:58:49PM Permalink

Hofstadter on the necessary strangeness of scientific explanations:

It is no accident, I would maintain, that quantum mechanics is so wildly counterintuitive. Part of the nature of explanation is that it must eventually hit some point where further probing only increases opacity rather than decreasing it. Consider the problem of understanding the nature of solids. You might wonder where solidity comes form. What if someone said to you, "The ultimate basis of this brick's solidity is that it is composed of a stupendous number of eensy weensy bricklike objects that themselves are rock-solid"? You might be interested to learn that bricks are composed of micro-bricks, but the initial question - "What accounts for solidity?" - has been thoroughly begged. What we ultimately want is for solidity to vanish, to dissolve, to disintegrate into some totally different kind of phenomenon with which we have no experience. Only then, when we have reached some completely novel, alien level will we feel that we have really made progress in explaining the top-level phenomenon.


I first saw this thought expressed in the stimulating book Patterns of Discovery by Norwood Russell Hanson. Hanson attributes it to a number of thinkers, such as Isaac Newton, who wrote, in his famous work Opticks: "The parts of all homogeneal hard Bodies which fully touch one another, stick together very strongly. And for explaining how this may be, some have invented hooked Atoms, which is begging the Question." Hanson also quotes James Clerk Maxwell (from an article entitled "Atom"): "We may indeed suppose the atom elastic, but this is to endow it with the very property for the explanation of which... the atomic constitution was originally assumed." Finally, here is a quote Hanson provides from Werner Heisenberg himself: "If atoms are really to explain the origin of color and smell of visible material bodies, then they cannot possess properties like color and smell." So, although it is not an original thought, it is useful to bear in mind that greeness disintegrates.

— from the postscript to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, in Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (his lovely book of essays from his column in Scientific American)

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

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

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

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

62 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)

61 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

61 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

61 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.

61 points Eugine_Nier 02 February 2013 06:06:48AM Permalink

It’s nice to elect the right people, but that’s not the way you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things.

-- Milton Friedman

61 points Alejandro1 04 January 2014 07:57:52PM Permalink

My friend's kid explained The Hulk to me. She said he's a big green monster and when he needs to get things done, he turns into a scientist.


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

A Bet is a Tax on Bullshit

Alex Tabarrok

60 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

60 points Viliam_Bur 01 March 2013 03:37:40PM Permalink

Many hands make light work.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.

The optimal solution seems to be one cook with many hands.

59 points michaelkeenan 01 March 2010 11:00:15AM Permalink

"You know what they say the modern version of Pascal's Wager is? Sucking up to as many Transhumanists as possible, just in case one of them turns into God." - Julie from Crystal Nights by Greg Egan

59 points Oscar_Cunningham 01 June 2011 08:20:21AM Permalink

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


59 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

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

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

  • Pinker, The Blank Slate
58 points James_Miller 01 September 2011 05:13:46PM Permalink

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

Megan McArdle

58 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."

58 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 April 2013 06:22:30PM Permalink

Holy Belldandy, it sounds like someone located the player character. Everyone get your quests ready!

58 points Lumifer 05 December 2014 03:50:03PM Permalink

If it's stupid and it works, it's not stupid.

This is what survivorship bias looks like from the inside.

57 points Zando 03 August 2013 06:50:10AM Permalink

when trying to characterize human beings as computational systems, the difference between “person” and “person with pencil and paper” is vast.

Procrastination and The Extended Will 2009

57 points Benito 03 April 2014 08:10:35PM Permalink

Comedian Simon Munnery:

Many are willing to suffer for their art; few are willing to learn how to draw.

56 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

55 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

55 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

55 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)

54 points CronoDAS 01 March 2010 09:30:58PM Permalink

The Patrician took a sip of his beer. "I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect I never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I'm sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged onto a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to its day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature's wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that's when I first learned about evil. It is built in to the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior."

-- Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals

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

A long one:

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

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

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

On the difficulties of correctly fine-tuning your signaling:

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

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

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

Kate Fox, Watching the English (quoted here).

54 points Kaj_Sotala 01 March 2013 03:42:09PM Permalink

Remember the exercises in critical reading you did in school, where you had to look at a piece of writing and step back and ask whether the author was telling the whole truth? If you really want to be a critical reader, it turns out you have to step back one step further, and ask not just whether the author is telling the truth, but why he's writing about this subject at all.

-- Paul Graham

54 points Qiaochu_Yuan 11 April 2013 09:13:10AM Permalink

In a class I taught at Berkeley, I did an experiment where I wrote a simple little program that would let people type either "f" or "d" and would predict which key they were going to push next. It's actually very easy to write a program that will make the right prediction about 70% of the time. Most people don't really know how to type randomly. They'll have too many alternations and so on. There will be all sorts of patterns, so you just have to build some sort of probabilistic model. Even a very crude one will do well. I couldn't even beat my own program, knowing exactly how it worked. I challenged people to try this and the program was getting between 70% and 80% prediction rates. Then, we found one student that the program predicted exactly 50% of the time. We asked him what his secret was and he responded that he "just used his free will."

-- Scott Aaronson

54 points BT_Uytya 03 August 2013 01:39:05PM Permalink

The fear people have about the idea of adherence to protocol is rigidity. They imagine mindless automatons, heads down in a checklist, incapable of looking out their windshield and coping with the real world in front of them. But what you find, when a checklist is well made, is exactly the opposite. The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with (Are the elevator controls set? Did the patient get her antibiotics on time? Did the managers sell all their shares? Is everyone on the same page here?), and lets it rise above to focus on the hard stuff (Where should we land?).

Here are the details of one of the sharpest checklists I’ve seen, a checklist for engine failure during flight in a single-engine Cessna airplane—the US Airways situation, only with a solo pilot. It is slimmed down to six key steps not to miss for restarting the engine, steps like making sure the fuel shutoff valve is in the OPEN position and putting the backup fuel pump switch ON. But step one on the list is the most fascinating. It is simply: FLY THE AIRPLANE. Because pilots sometimes become so desperate trying to restart their engine, so crushed by the cognitive overload of thinking through what could have gone wrong, they forget this most basic task. FLY THE AIRPLANE. This isn’t rigidity. This is making sure everyone has their best shot at survival.

-- Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto

53 points anonym 03 November 2010 06:30:42AM Permalink

If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top … that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings.

Buckminster Fuller

53 points VincentYu 01 February 2013 09:36:33PM Permalink

In Munich in the days of the great theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld (1868–1954), trolley cars were cooled in summer by two small fans set into their ceilings. When the trolley was in motion, air flowing over its top would spin the fans, pulling warm air out of the cars. One student noticed that although the motion of any given fan was fairly random—fans could turn either clockwise or counterclockwise—the two fans in a single car nearly always rotated in opposite directions. Why was this? Finally he brought the problem to Sommerfeld.

“That is easy to explain,” said Sommerfeld. “Air hits the fan at the front of the car first, giving it a random motion in one direction. But once the trolley begins to move, a vortex created by the first fan travels down the top of the car and sets the second fan moving in precisely the same direction.”

“But, Professor Sommerfeld,” the student protested, “what happens is in fact the opposite! The two fans nearly always rotate in different directions.”

“Ahhhh!” said Sommerfeld. “But of course that is even easier to explain.”

Devine and Cohen, Absolute Zero Gravity, p. 96.

53 points Cthulhoo 03 September 2013 10:49:52AM Permalink

In some species of Anglerfish, the male is much smaller than the female and incapable of feeding independently. To survive he must smell out a female as soon as he hatches. He bites into her releasing an enzime which fuses him to her permanently. He lives off her blood for the rest of his life, providing her with sperm whenever she needs it. Females can have multiple males attached. The morale is simple: males are parasites, women are sluts. Ha! Just kidding! The moral is don't treat actual animal behavior like a fable. Generally speaking, animals have no interest in teaching you anything.

Oglaf (Original comic NSFW)

53 points 27chaos 01 December 2014 08:30:07PM Permalink

If the real radical finds that having long hair sets up psychological barriers to communication and organization, he cuts his hair.

Saul Alinsky, in his Rules for Radicals.

This one hit home for me. Got a haircut yesterday. :P

52 points satt 07 August 2014 01:38:38AM Permalink

On the other hand, a Slashdot comment that's stuck in my mind (and on my hard disks) since I read it years ago:

In one respect the computer industry is exactly like the construction industry: nobody has two minutes to tell you how to do something...but they all have forty-five minutes to tell you why you did it wrong.

When I started working at a tech company, as a lowly new-guy know-nothing, I found that any question starting with "How do I..." or "What's the best way to..." would be ignored; so I had to adopt another strategy. Say I wanted to do X. Research showed me there were (say) about six or seven ways to do X. Which is the best in my situation? I don't know. So I pick an approach at random, though I don't actually use it. Then I wander down to the coffee machine and casually remark, "So, I needed to do X, and I used approach Y." I would then, inevitably, get a half-hour discussion of why that was stupid, and what I should have done was use approach Z, because of this, this, and this. Then I would go off and use approach Z.

In ten years in the tech industry, that strategy has never failed once. I think the key difference is the subtext. In the first strategy, the subtext is, "Hey, can you spend your valuable time helping me do something trivial?" while in the second strategy, the subtext is, "Hey, here's a chance to show off how smart you are." People being what they are, the first subtext will usually fail -- but the second will always succeed.

— fumblebruschi

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

I will not procrastinate regarding any ritual granting immortality.

--Evil Overlord List #230

50 points Tesseract 03 December 2010 09:21:13AM Permalink

He uses statistics as a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not for illumination.

G.K. Chesterton

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

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

"Yes," said Tiffany.

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


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


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


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

-- Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

50 points satt 04 March 2013 12:42:11AM Permalink

There’s an old saying in the public opinion business: we can’t tell people what to think, but we can tell them what to think about.

— Doug Henwood

50 points B_For_Bandana 02 September 2014 01:25:28AM Permalink

Always go to other people's funerals; otherwise they won't go to yours.

Yogi Berra, on Timeless Decision Theory.

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

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

-- Salman Khan, Khan Academy

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

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

-- Benjamin Franklin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

49 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

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

49 points Matt_Caulfield 03 September 2012 10:27:36PM Permalink

Your contrarian stance against a high-status member of this community makes you seem formidable and savvy. Would you like to be allies with me? If yes, then the next time I go foraging I will bring you back extra fruit.

48 points Yvain 01 February 2010 12:21:53PM Permalink

On utility:

culturejammer: you know what pennies are AWESOME for?

culturejammer: throwing at cats

culturejammer: it only costs a single penny

culturejammer: and they'll either chase it, or get hit by it and look pissed off

culturejammer: i now use that system to value prices of things

culturejammer: for example, a thirty dollar game has to be at least as awesome as three thousand catpennies

48 points philh 03 September 2013 07:46:55PM Permalink

"However, there is something they value more than a man's life: a trowel."

"Why a trowel?"

"If a bricklayer drops his trowel, he can do no more work until a new one is brought up. For months he cannot earn the food that he eats, so he must go into debt. The loss of a trowel is cause for much wailing. But if a man falls, and his trowel remains, men are secretly relieved. The next one to drop his trowel can pick up the extra one and continue working, without incurring debt."

Hillalum was appalled, and for a frantic moment he tried to count how many picks the miners had brought. Then he realized. "That cannot be true. Why not have spare trowels brought up? Their weight would be nothing against all the bricks that go up there. And surely the loss of a man means a serious delay, unless they have an extra man at the top who is skilled at bricklaying. Without such a man, they must wait for another one to climb from the bottom."

All the pullers roared with laughter. "We cannot fool this one," Lugatum said with much amusement.

Ted Chiang, Tower of Babylon

48 points JQuinton 06 November 2013 06:35:10PM Permalink

A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.

Is this paragraph comprehensible or meaningless? Feel your mind sort through potential explanations. Now watch what happens with the presentation of a single word: kite. As you reread the paragraph, feel the prior discomfort of something amiss shifting to a pleasing sense of rightness. Everything fits; every sentence works and has meaning. Reread the paragraph again; it is impossible to regain the sense of not understanding. In an instant, without due conscious deliberation, the paragraph has been irreversibly infuesed with a feeling of knowing.

Try to imagine other interpretations for the paragraph. Suppose I tell you that this is a collaborative poem written by a third-grade class, or a collage of strung-together fortune cookie quotes. Your mind balks. The presense of this feeling of knowing makes contemplating alternatives physically difficult.

Robert Burton, from On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Not reminding me of Epiphany Addictions

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

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

--Paul Graham

47 points philh 02 February 2013 11:22:32AM Permalink

Men in Black on guessing the teacher's password:

Zed: You're all here because you are the best of the best. Marines, air force, navy SEALs, army rangers, NYPD. And we're looking for one of you. Just one.


Edwards: Maybe you already answered this, but, why exactly are we here?

Zed: [noticing a recruit raising his hand] Son?

Jenson: Second Lieutenant, Jake Jenson. West Point. Graduate with honors. We're here because you are looking for the best of the best of the best, sir! [throws Edwards a contemptible glance]

[Edwards laughs]

Zed: What's so funny, Edwards?

Edwards: Boy, Captain America over here! "The best of the best of the best, sir!" "With honors." Yeah, he's just really excited and he has no clue why we're here. That's just, that's very funny to me.

46 points MichaelGR 30 November 2009 12:23:59AM Permalink

It has always appalled me that really bright scientists almost all work in the most competitive fields, the ones in which they are making the least difference. In other words, if they were hit by a truck, the same discovery would be made by somebody else about 10 minutes later.

--Aubrey de Grey

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

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

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

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

46 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 June 2013 07:18:22PM Permalink

Single bad things happen to you at random. Iterated bad things happen to you because you're a dumbass. Related: "You are the only common denominator in all of your failed relationships."

46 points Kaj_Sotala 04 January 2014 08:03:06PM Permalink

My 5 year old came to the dinner table, and calmly announced, "There is no Santa." I was puzzled because just couple of days ago he had taken his Christmas gift from Santa (though now that I think about it, he was not totally thrilled). So I asked why he thought so. He said, "Well, for Christmas I only got the gifts I told you about; I had gone to bed and told Santa himself what I wanted without telling you to see if he is real, and none of those came through - and I was a good boy all year!"

To be sure, I asked him, "But you saw Santa at the mall?" He laughed as hard as could be, then pointed out to me, "They are people in costumes!"

-- Wen Gong

46 points Tyrrell_McAllister 02 April 2014 05:53:47PM Permalink

The mathematician and Fields medalist Vladimir Voevodsky on using automated proof assistants in mathematics:

[Following the discovery of some errors in his earlier work:] I think it was at this moment that I largely stopped doing what is called “curiosity driven research” and started to think seriously about the future.


A technical argument by a trusted author, which is hard to check and looks similar to arguments known to be correct, is hardly ever checked in detail.


It soon became clear that the only real long-term solution to the problems that I encountered is to start using computers in the verification of mathematical reasoning.


Among mathematicians computer proof verification was almost a forbidden subject. A conversation started about the need for computer proof assistants would invariably drift to the Goedel Incompleteness Theorem (which has nothing to do with the actual problem) or to one or two cases of verification of already existing proofs, which were used only to demonstrate how impractical the whole idea was.


I now do my mathematics with a proof assistant and do not have to worry all the time about mistakes in my arguments or about how to convince others that my arguments are correct.

From a March 26, 2014 talk. Slides available here.

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

Luck is statistics taken personally.

Penn Jellete

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

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

Elise E. Morse-Gagné

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

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

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

45 points nabeelqu 05 March 2014 10:56:01AM Permalink

As burglars, they used some unusual techniques...During their casing, they had noticed that the interior door that opened to the draft board office was always locked. There was no padlock to replace...The break-in technique they settled on at that office must be unique in the annals of burglary. Several hours before the burglary was to take place, one of them wrote a note and tacked it to the door they wanted to enter: "Please don't lock this door tonight." Sure enough, when the burglars arrived that night, someone had obediently left the door unlocked. The burglars entered the office with ease, stole the Selective Service records, and left. They were so pleased with themselves that one of them proposed leaving a thank-you note on the door. More cautious minds prevailed. Miss Manners be damned, they did not leave a note.

-- Betty Medsger

44 points knb 03 May 2010 03:06:59AM Permalink

From Thomas Macaulay's 1848 History of England.

[W]e are under a deception similar to that which misleads the traveler in the Arabian desert. Beneath the caravan all is dry and bare; but far in advance, and far in the rear, is the semblance of refreshing waters... A similar illusion seems to haunt nations through every stage of the long progress from poverty and barbarism to the highest degrees of opulence and civilization. But if we resolutely chase the mirage backward, we shall find it recede before us into the regions of fabulous antiquity. It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.


We too shall in our turn be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that laboring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they are now to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty workingman. And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendor of the rich.

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

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


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

-- George Orwell, 1984

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

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

Knutson and Tuleya, Journal of Climate, 2005.

44 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

44 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]

44 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

44 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

44 points Particleman 03 June 2013 04:04:26AM Permalink

Why is there that knee-jerk rejection of any effort to "overthink" pop culture? Why would you ever be afraid that looking too hard at something will ruin it? If the government built a huge, mysterious device in the middle of your town and immediately surrounded it with a fence that said, "NOTHING TO SEE HERE!" I'm pretty damned sure you wouldn't rest until you knew what the hell that was -- the fact that they don't want you to know means it can't be good.

Well, when any idea in your brain defends itself with "Just relax! Don't look too close!" you should immediately be just as suspicious. It usually means something ugly is hiding there.

44 points dspeyer 04 April 2014 02:26:23AM Permalink

"It is one thing for you to say, ‘Let the world burn.' It is another to say, ‘Let Molly burn.' The difference is all in the name."

-- Uriel, Ghost Story, Jim Butcher

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

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

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

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

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

-Nobilis RPG 3rd edition

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

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

John W. Gardner

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.

43 points gwern 03 May 2013 04:28:39PM Permalink

A great illustration of sunk cost bias.

43 points Stabilizer 05 January 2014 04:08:14PM Permalink

This morning my daughter told me that she did well on a spelling test, but she got the easiest words wrong. Of course that’s not exactly true. The words that are hardest for her to spell are the ones she in fact did not spell correctly. She probably meant that she missed the words she felt should have been easy. Maybe they were short words. Children can be intimidated by long words, even though long words tend to be more regular and thus easier to spell.

Our perceptions of what is easy are often upside-down. We feel that some things should be easy even though our experience tells us otherwise.

Sometimes the trickiest parts of a subject come first, but we think that because they come first they should be easy. For example, force-body diagrams come at the beginning of an introductory physics class, but they can be hard to get right. Newton didn’t always get them right. More advanced physics, say celestial mechanics, is in some ways easier, or at least less error-prone.

“Elementary” and “easy” are not the same. Sometimes they’re opposites. Getting off the ground, so to speak, may be a lot harder than flying.

-John D. Cook

43 points satt 10 July 2014 11:17:19PM Permalink

Charles II is said to have himself toyed with the philosophers, asking them to explain why a fish weighs more after it has died. Upon receiving various ingenious answers, he pointed out that in fact a dead fish does not weigh anything more.

— Robert Pasnau, "Why Not Just Weigh the Fish?"

43 points Zubon 03 September 2014 10:47:34PM Permalink

Your younger nerd takes offense quickly when someone near him begins to utter declarative sentences, because he reads into it an assertion that he, the nerd, does not already know the information being imparted. But your older nerd has more self-confidence, and besides, understands that frequently people need to think out loud. And highly advanced nerds will furthermore understand that uttering declarative sentences whose contents are already known to all present is part of the social process of making conversation and therefore should not be construed as aggression under any circumstances.

-- Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

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

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

Brandon Watson

42 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

42 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.


42 points MinibearRex 04 August 2013 06:07:56AM Permalink

I've got to start listening to those quiet, nagging doubts.


42 points AspiringRationalist 01 March 2014 10:10:34PM Permalink

As the world becomes more addictive, the two senses in which one can live a normal life will be driven ever further apart. One sense of "normal" is statistically normal: what everyone else does. The other is the sense we mean when we talk about the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best.

These two senses are already quite far apart. Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don't think you're weird, you're living badly.

-- Paul Graham, The Acceleration of Addictiveness

42 points WalterL 01 December 2014 08:30:37PM Permalink

The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.

-Damon Runyon

41 points Unnamed 15 June 2009 01:06:29AM Permalink

"Sometimes men come by the name of genius in the same way that certain insects come by the name of centipede; not because they have a hundred feet, but because most people cannot count above fourteen."

-- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

related: The Level Above Mine

41 points MichaelGR 03 December 2010 05:39:42PM Permalink

The Noah principle: predicting rain doesn’t count, building arks does.

-Warren E. Buffett

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

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

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

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

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

41 points AdeleneDawner 03 August 2011 01:35:41AM Permalink
41 points cousin_it 01 May 2012 07:29:08PM Permalink

Contrarians of LW, if you want to be successful, please don't follow this strategy. Chances are that many people have raised the same possibility before, and anyway raising possibilities isn't Bayesian evidence, so you'll just get ignored. Instead, try to prove that the stuff is bullshit. This way, if you're right, others will learn something, and if you're wrong, you will have learned something.

41 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

41 points Stabilizer 05 February 2013 01:20:51AM Permalink

Shipping is a feature. A really important feature. Your product must have it.

-Joel Spolsky

41 points Eugine_Nier 02 September 2013 04:46:08AM Permalink

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

Thomas Edison

40 points gwern 30 November 2009 02:04:43AM Permalink

"When will we realize that the fact that we can become accustomed to anything, however disgusting at first, makes it necessary to examine carefully everything we have become accustomed to?"

--George Bernard Shaw, A Treatise on Parents and Children (1910)

40 points MichaelGR 01 March 2010 10:26:40PM Permalink

John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

-Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong

40 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 April 2011 04:35:44AM Permalink

Look, sometimes you've just got to do things because they're awesome.

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

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

-- Randall, XKCD #971

40 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

40 points RolfAndreassen 01 January 2013 09:25:47PM Permalink

"Ten thousand years' worth of sophistry doesn't vanish overnight," Margit observed dryly. "Every human culture had expended vast amounts of intellectual effort on the problem of coming to terms with death. Most religions had constructed elaborate lies about it, making it out to be something other than it was—though a few were dishonest about life, instead. But even most secular philosophies were warped by the need to pretend that death was for the best."

"It was the naturalistic fallacy at its most extreme—and its most transparent, but that didn't stop anyone. Since any child could tell you that death was meaningless, contingent, unjust, and abhorrent beyond words, it was a hallmark of sophistication to believe otherwise. Writers had consoled themselves for centuries with smug puritanical fables about immortals who'd long for death—who'd beg for death. It would have been too much to expect all those who were suddenly faced with the reality of its banishment to confess that they'd been whistling in the dark. And would-be moral philosophers—mostly those who'd experienced no greater inconvenience in their lives than a late train or a surly waiter—began wailing about the destruction of the human spirit by this hideous blight. We needed death and suffering, to put steel into our souls! Not horrible, horrible freedom and safety!"

-- Greg Egan, "Border Guards".

40 points Mestroyer 07 February 2013 09:13:19AM Permalink

I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend

Faramir, from Lord of the Rings on lost purposes and the thing that he protects

40 points Stabilizer 02 March 2013 12:54:40AM Permalink

You know something is important when you're willing to let someone else take the credit if that's what it takes to get it done.

-Seth Godin

40 points SaidAchmiz 02 July 2013 01:11:36PM Permalink

Here's the thing about air-travel-related complaints.

Air travel is really unpleasant. Oh sure, it's technologically impressive, but the actual experience is terrible: sitting in a cramped space for hours on end, being in close proximity to so many other people; the pressure changes and the noise; the long, tiring process of arriving for your flight, which often takes longer than the actual flight and is quite stressful; the humiliating and absurd security procedures, which these days look more and more like ways for the government to gratuitously exercise its power...

So we've got this really impressive means of travel, which our society seems to have conspired to make as unpleasant as humanly possible. Ok, maybe it's all excusable and inevitable, just for the sheer amazingness of "ooh, we're FLYING through the AIR and so FAST!" etc. But then, after we pay the airline such impressive amounts of money for this amazing-but-unpleasant convenience, they don't deign to even serve us good drinks?

And what do the drinks have to do with how technologically impressive flight is, anyway? Are the people responsible for the drinks also the people who build, maintain, and fly the planes? What, are the drinks the pilot's responsibility, and he just can't be bothered, what with all that keeping the plane upright that he has to do? Did the Boeing engineer have "serve good drinks" on his to-do list, but just plain didn't get to it, tired as he was from all that "making sure the wings don't fall off" he had to do? No! The people responsible for the drinks had one damn job! And they're doing it badly! And then when people complain, they have the gall to evade responsibility by attempting to take credit for all that amazing science and engineering?!

In short, the quote is analogous to:

"I mean, when you think about it, our society is pretty freaking remarkable. We have computers, and indoor plumbing, and hundreds of channels on cable. Hundreds of millions of man-hours of work and struggle and research, blood, sweat, tears, and lives have gone into the history of all of our modern conveniences, and it has totally revolutionized the face of our planet and societies.

But look anywhere in the world, and I absolutely promise you that you will find someone who, in the face of all that incredible achievement, will be willing to complain about being mugged.

Being mugged, people."

Yeah, "everything is amazing so why are you complaining about this unrelated bad thing" is a fallacy. At this rate, all complaints about everything, ever, are apparently unwarranted.

40 points Mestroyer 05 October 2013 06:20:28AM Permalink

The market doesn't give a shit how hard you worked. Users just want your software to do what they need, and you get a zero otherwise. That is one of the most distinctive differences between school and the real world: there is no reward for putting in a good effort. In fact, the whole concept of a "good effort" is a fake idea adults invented to encourage kids. It is not found in nature.

--Paul Graham (When I saw this quote, I thought it had to have been posted before, but googling turned up nothing.)

40 points Kaj_Sotala 04 November 2013 01:15:49PM Permalink

But there’s a big difference between “impossible” and “hard to imagine.” The first is about it; the second is about you!

-- Marvin Minsky

40 points Nornagest 06 June 2014 07:57:21PM Permalink

That joke got less funny the first time I picked up a Christian tract disguised as a $20 bill. It got a lot less funny the second.

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

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

Bertrand Russell

39 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

39 points Oscar_Cunningham 01 June 2012 02:40:23PM Permalink

Then there is the famous fly puzzle. Two bicyclists start twenty miles apart and head toward each other, each going at a steady rate of 10 m.p.h. At the same time a fly that travels at a steady 15 m.p.h. starts from the front wheel of the southbound bicycle and flies to the front wheel of the northbound one, then turns around and flies to the front wheel of the southbound one again, and continues in this manner till he is crushed between the two front wheels. Question: what total distance did the fly cover ?

The slow way to find the answer is to calculate what distance the fly covers on the first, northbound, leg of the trip, then on the second, southbound, leg, then on the third, etc., etc., and, finally, to sum the infinite series so obtained. The quick way is to observe that the bicycles meet exactly one hour after their start, so that the fly had just an hour for his travels; the answer must therefore be 15 miles.

When the question was put to von Neumann, he solved it in an instant, and thereby disappointed the questioner: "Oh, you must have heard the trick before!"

"What trick?" asked von Neumann; "all I did was sum the infinite series."

An anecdote concerning von Neumann, here told by Halmos.

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 James_Miller 01 February 2013 07:41:37PM Permalink

You want accurate beliefs and useful emotions.

From a participant at the January CFAR workshop. I don't remember who. This struck me as an excellent description of what rationalists seek.

39 points James_Miller 01 May 2013 04:49:10PM Permalink

Unless challenged to think otherwise, people quickly move from "Phew! Dodged a bullet on that one!" to "I'm a great bullet-dodger."

Discussing the "Near-miss bias" which they define as a tendency to "take more risk after an event in which luck played a critical role in deciding the event's [favorable] outcome."

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, page 150.

39 points dspeyer 01 March 2014 06:43:02PM Permalink

In our large, anonymous society, it's easy to forget moral and reputational pressures and concentrate on legal pressure and security systems. This is a mistake; even though our informal social pressures fade into the background, they're still responsible for most of the cooperation in society.

  • Bruce Schneier, expert in security systems
38 points Cyan 01 March 2010 04:14:28PM Permalink

My genes done gone and tricked my brain

By making fucking feel so great

That's how the little creeps attain

Their plan to fuckin' replicate

But brain's got tricks itself, you see

To get the bang but not the bite

I got this here vasectomy

My genes can fuck themselves tonight.

—The r-selectors, Trunclade, quoted in Blindsight by Peter Watts

38 points Kutta 02 July 2010 07:38:00AM Permalink

If anything of the classical supernatural existed, it would be a branch of engineering by now.

-- Steve Gilham

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

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

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

38 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.”

38 points Tenoke 08 May 2013 06:19:30PM Permalink

‘Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that in your promiscuous pursuit of women you are merely trying to assuage your subconscious fears of sexual impotence?’

‘Yes, sir, it has.’

‘Then why do you do it?’

‘To assuage my fears of sexual impotence.’

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

explaining /= explaining away

38 points Particleman 02 August 2013 06:07:05AM Permalink

In 2002, Wizards of the Coast put out Star Wars: The Trading Card Game designed by Richard Garfield.

As Richard modeled the game after a miniatures game, it made use of many six-sided dice. In combat, cards' damage was designated by how many six-sided dice they rolled. Wizards chose to stop producing the game due to poor sales. One of the contributing factors given through market research was that gamers seem to dislike six-sided dice in their trading card game.

Here's the kicker. When you dug deeper into the comments they equated dice with "lack of skill." But the game rolled huge amounts of dice. That greatly increased the consistency. (What I mean by this is that if you rolled a million dice, your chance of averaging 3.5 is much higher than if you rolled ten.) Players, though, equated lots of dice rolling with the game being "more random" even though that contradicts the actual math.

38 points Gunnar_Zarncke 02 April 2014 11:21:01AM Permalink

It is easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them.

-- Alfred Adler

ADDED: Source:

Quoted in: Phyllis Bottome, Alfred Adler: Apostle of Freedom (1939), ch. 5

Problems of Neurosis: A Book of Case Histories (1929)

38 points Salemicus 04 September 2014 04:45:08PM Permalink

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

D.C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Dennett himself is summarising Anatol Rapoport.

38 points michaelkeenan 01 September 2014 10:23:50PM Permalink

A raise is only a raise for thirty days; after that, it’s just your salary.

-- David Russo

37 points simplicio 06 September 2010 06:20:05AM Permalink

I had, also, during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.

-From his Autobiography, 1902.

A wonderful quote indeed. Found by guessing that it was biographical or autobiographical (it seemed a little too personal for a scientific treatise) and searching for the word "fact" in the online text of the (very readable) autobiography.

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

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

-Fred Mosteller

37 points [deleted] 01 June 2011 03:58:08PM Permalink

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

~From the Math It Just Bugs Me page, TV Tropes

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

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

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

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

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

--The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

37 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

37 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

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 Viliam_Bur 01 April 2012 08:44:32PM Permalink

I agree with the necessity of making life more fair, and disagree with the connotational noble Pocahontas lecturing a sadistic western patriarch. (Note: the last three words are taken from the quote.)

37 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
37 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.

37 points nabeelqu 01 January 2013 03:33:09PM Permalink

Not long ago a couple across the aisle from me in a Quiet Car talked all the way from New York City to Boston, after two people had asked them to stop. After each reproach they would lower their voices for a while, but like a grade-school cafeteria after the lunch monitor has yelled for silence, the volume crept inexorably up again. It was soft but incessant, and against the background silence, as maddening as a dripping faucet at 3 a.m. All the way to Boston I debated whether it was bothering me enough to say something. As we approached our destination a professorial-looking man who’d spoken to them twice got up, walked back and stood over them. He turned out to be quite tall. He told them that they’d been extremely inconsiderate, and he’d had a much harder time getting his work done because of them.

“Sir,” the girl said, “I really don’t think we were bothering anyone else.”

“No,” I said, “you were really annoying.”

“Yes,” said the woman behind them.

“See,” the man explained gently, “this is how it works. I’m the one person who says something. But for everyone like me, there’s a whole car full of people who feel the same way.”

-- Tim Kreider, The Quiet Ones

37 points andreas 02 February 2013 05:42:44AM Permalink

"I design a cell to not fail and then assume it will and then ask the next 'what-if' questions," Sinnett said. "And then I design the batteries that if there is a failure of one cell it won't propagate to another. And then I assume that I am wrong and that it will propagate to another and then I design the enclosure and the redundancy of the equipment to assume that all the cells are involved and the airplane needs to be able to play through that."

Mike Sinnett, Boeing's 787 chief project engineer

37 points Grognor 03 February 2013 09:59:37PM Permalink

It is because a mirror has no commitment to any image that it can clearly and accurately reflect any image before it. The mind of a warrior is like a mirror in that it has no commitment to any outcome and is free to let form and purpose result on the spot, according to the situation.

—Yagyū Munenori, The Life-Giving Sword

37 points D_Malik 04 April 2013 07:23:23AM Permalink

There once was a hare who mocked a passing tortoise for being slow. The erudite tortoise responded by challenging the hare to a race.

Built for speed, and with his pride on the line, the hare easily won - I mean, it wasn't even close - and resumed his mocking anew.

Winston Rowntree, Non-Bullshit Fables

37 points James_Miller 01 November 2013 03:19:40PM Permalink

"For my own part,” Ms. Yellen said, “I did not see and did not appreciate what the risks were with securitization, the credit ratings agencies, the shadow banking system, the S.I.V.’s — I didn’t see any of that coming until it happened.” Her startled interviewers noted that almost none of the officials who testified had offered a similar acknowledgment of an almost universal failure.

Economist and likely future chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board Janet Yellen shows the key rationality trait of being able to admit you were wrong.

37 points Vulture 05 January 2014 12:00:26AM Permalink

I spent my childhood believing I was destined to be a hero

in some far off magic kingdom.

It was too late when I realized that I was needed here.

--A Softer World

37 points Pablo_Stafforini 07 July 2014 10:28:26PM Permalink

Prediction, not narration, is the real test of our understanding of the world.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, New York, 2007, p. 133

37 points dspeyer 01 November 2014 09:52:29PM Permalink

It’s easier to bear in mind that the map is not the territory when you have two different maps.

--Eric Raymond on the value of bilinguilism

37 points James_Miller 02 November 2014 12:46:09AM Permalink

I want to get the most amount of candy with the least amount of walking.

My 9-year-old son on Halloween.

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

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

Enrico Bombieri

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

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

--Scott Aaronson

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

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

-- Paul Graham

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

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

Sam Harris, "Lying"

36 points Larks 01 December 2011 11:17:30AM Permalink

There's not point being annoyed at nature, but a precommitment to revenge is useful.

36 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

36 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"

36 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"

36 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

36 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?


36 points NoisyEmpire 02 January 2013 08:01:12PM Permalink

What does puzzle people – at least it used to puzzle me – is the fact that Christians regard faith… as a virtue. I used to ask how on Earth it can be a virtue – what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements? Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence, that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid…

What I did not see then – and a good many people do not see still – was this. I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a thing as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up. In fact, I was assuming that the human mind is completely ruled by reason. But that is not so. For example, my reason is perfectly convinced by good evidence that anesthetics do not smother me and that properly trained surgeons do not start operating until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have me down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. I start thinking I am going to choke, and I am afraid they will start cutting me up before I am properly under. In other words, I lose my faith in anesthetics. It is not reason that is taking away my faith; on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other…

Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian, I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable... Unless you teach your moods "where they get off" you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of faith.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Caveat: this is not at all how the majority of the religious people that I know would use the word "faith". In fact, this passage turned out to be one of the earliest helps in bringing me to think critically about and ultimately discard my religious worldview.

36 points Zubon 03 May 2013 03:50:45AM Permalink

A lot of people gave very selflessly to build this warship so we can go out and battle the vikings, but the time has come to admit that hard work and hope are no substitute for actual knowledge and that we've made a really shitty ship. If we sail this ship against the vikings, we'll be massacred immediately.

Oglaf webcomic, "Bilge"

(Oglaf is usually NSFW, so I'm not linking, even if this particular comic has nothing worse than coarse language.)

36 points jaibot 03 May 2013 10:27:52PM Permalink

On the contrary, a sizable fraction of Oglaf's comics involve restraints.

36 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 July 2013 07:11:50PM Permalink

"If you don't know how to turn off the safety, being unable to fire the gun is the intended result."

-- NotEnoughBears

36 points aarongertler 05 February 2014 03:47:49AM Permalink

"The story of Japanese railways during the earthquake and tsunami is the story of an unceasing drumbeat of everything going right [...] The overwhelming response of Japanese engineering to the challenge posed by an earthquake larger than any in the last century was to function exactly as designed. Millions of people are alive right now because the system worked and the system worked and the system worked.

That this happened was, I say with no hint of exaggeration, one of the triumphs of human civilization. Every engineer in this country should be walking a little taller this week. We can’t say that too loudly, because it would be inappropriate with folks still missing and many families in mourning, but it doesn’t make it any less true."

--Patrick McKenzie, "Some Perspective on the Japan Earthquake"

(Disaster is not inevitable.)

36 points [deleted] 05 April 2014 05:45:29AM Permalink

Philosophers often behave like little children who scribble some marks on a piece of paper at random and then ask the grown-up "What's that?"- It happened like this: the grown-up had drawn pictures for the child several times and said "this is a man," "this is a house," etc. And then the child makes some marks too and asks: what's this then?

  • Wittgenstein, Culture and Value
35 points cousin_it 22 October 2009 06:04:21PM Permalink

However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.

-- Winston Churchill

35 points Kyre 02 September 2010 05:41:48AM Permalink

Comic Quote Minus 37

-- Ryan Armand

Also a favourite.

35 points gwern 15 December 2010 08:05:51PM Permalink

'One day when I was a junior medical student, a very important Boston surgeon visited the school and delivered a great treatise on a large number of patients who had undergone successful operations for vascular reconstruction.

At the end of the lecture, a young student at the back of the room timidly asked, “Do you have any controls?” Well, the great surgeon drew himself up to his full height, hit the desk, and said, “Do you mean did I not operate on half the patients?” The hall grew very quiet then. The voice at the back of the room very hesitantly replied, “Yes, that’s what I had in mind.” Then the visitor’s fist really came down as he thundered, “Of course not. That would have doomed half of them to their death.”

God, it was quiet then, and one could scarcely hear the small voice ask, “Which half?”'

Dr. E. E. Peacock, Jr., quoted in Medical World News (September 1, 1972), p. 45, as quoted in Tufte's 1974 book Data Analysis for Politics and Policy;

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

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

-- Hayao Miyazaki

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

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

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

--Donald Knuth (see also Amdahls law)

35 points NancyLebovitz 04 April 2011 03:58:53PM Permalink

I wonder if the default price was more like $10.

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

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

  • Tim Kreider
35 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

35 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

35 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

35 points TheOtherDave 01 June 2012 03:12:50PM Permalink

I recall a math teacher in high school explaining that often, in the course of doing a proof, one simply gets stuck and doesn't know where to go next, and a good thing to do at that point is to switch to working backwards from the conclusion in the general direction of the premise; sometimes the two paths can be made to meet in the middle. Usually this results in a step the two paths join involving doing something completely mystifying, like dividing both sides of an equation by the square root of .78pi.

"Of course, someone is bound to ask why you did that," he continued. "So you look at them completely deadpan and reply 'Isn't it obvious?'"

I have forgotten everything I learned in that class. I remember that anecdote, though.

35 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

35 points dspeyer 01 January 2013 04:37:36PM Permalink

You're better at talking than I am. When you talk, sometimes I get confused. My ideas of what's right and wrong get mixed up. That's why I'm bringing this. As soon as I start thinking it's all right to steal from our employees, I'm going to start hitting you with the stick.


If it makes you feel any better, I agree with your logic completely.

No, what would make me feel better is for you to stop hitting me!


35 points Jay_Schweikert 04 April 2013 02:18:00PM Permalink

Jack Sparrow: [after Will draws his sword] Put it away, son. It's not worth you getting beat again.

Will Turner: You didn't beat me. You ignored the rules of engagement. In a fair fight, I'd kill you.

Jack Sparrow: Then that's not much incentive for me to fight fair, then, is it? [Jack turns the ship, hitting Will with the boom]

Jack Sparrow: Now as long as you're just hanging there, pay attention. The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do. For instance, you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man or you can't. But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you'll have to square with that some day. And me, for example, I can let you drown, but I can't bring this ship into Tortuga all by me onesies, savvy? So, can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?

--Pirates of the Caribbean

The pirate-specific stuff is a bit extraneous, but I've always thought this scene neatly captured the virtue of cold, calculating practicality. Not that "fairness" is never important to worry about, but when you're faced with a problem, do you care more about solving it, or arguing that your situation isn't fair? What can you do, and what can't you do? Reminds me of What do I want? What do I have? How can I best use the latter to get the former?

35 points Pablo_Stafforini 01 July 2013 10:38:53PM Permalink

Far from being the smartest possible biological species, we are probably better thought of as the stupidest possible biological species capable of starting a technological civilization. We filled that niche because we got there first, not because we are in any sense optimally adapted to it.

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: the Coming Machine Intelligence Revolution, chap. 2

35 points Stabilizer 02 November 2013 01:41:02AM Permalink

A good stack of examples, as large as possible, is indispensable for a thorough understanding of any concept, and when I want to learn something new, I make it my first job to build one.

-Paul Halmos

35 points Alejandro1 02 December 2013 04:20:15PM Permalink

Most of the Headlines from a Mathematically Literate World. An example:

Our World: Hollywood Breaks Box Office Records with Explosions, Rising Stars.

Mathematically Literate World: Hollywood Breaks Box Office Records with Inflation, Rising Population.

35 points Ixiel 04 April 2014 11:14:37AM Permalink

Slartibartfast: Perhaps I'm old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what's actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, "Hang the sense of it," and keep yourself busy. I'd much rather be happy than right any day.

Arthur Dent: And are you?

Slartibartfast: Well... no. That's where it all falls down, of course.

Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

34 points RobinZ 01 April 2010 11:44:06PM Permalink

I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.

Daniel Dennett, interview for TPM: The Philosophers Magazine

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

From a forum signature:

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

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

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

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

Paul Graham

34 points 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

34 points Nisan 03 May 2012 11:57:16PM Permalink

"When life hands you lemons, make lemonade" = "I have water and sugar and you don't, aren't I awesome"

Steven Kaas

34 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

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 lukeprog 09 September 2012 01:36:00AM Permalink

A problem well stated is a problem half solved.

Charles Kettering

34 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

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.


34 points Qiaochu_Yuan 03 January 2013 08:49:14AM Permalink

In Japan, it is widely believed that you don't have direct knowledge of what other people are really thinking (and it's very presumptuous to assume otherwise), and so it is uncommon to describe other people's thoughts directly, such as "He likes ice cream" or "She's angry". Instead, it's far more common to see things like "I heard that he likes ice cream" or "It seems like/It appears to be the case that she is angry" or "She is showing signs of wanting to go to the park."

-- TVTropes

Edit (1/7): I have no particular reason to believe that this is literally true, but either way I think it holds an interesting rationality lesson. Feel free to substitute 'Zorblaxia' for 'Japan' above.

34 points GabrielDuquette 03 February 2013 01:13:32AM Permalink

Market exchange is a pathetically inadequate substitute for love, but it scales better.

S. T. Rev

34 points Jayson_Virissimo 01 March 2013 09:19:48AM Permalink

It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.

-- Thomas Sowell

34 points SaidAchmiz 02 August 2013 12:38:25AM Permalink

"If it July, I desire to believe it is July. If it is August, I desire to believe it is August..."

34 points philh 08 September 2013 01:53:01AM Permalink

Fran: A million billion pounds says you’ll have nothing to show me.

Bernard: Oh, the old million billion. Why don’t we make it interesting, why don’t we say 50?

Black Books, Elephants and Hens. H/t /u/mrjack2 on /r/hpmor.

34 points Stabilizer 02 September 2013 08:57:21PM Permalink

Don't ask what they think. Ask what they do.

My rule has to do with paradigm shifts—yes, I do believe in them. I've been through a few myself. It is useful if you want to be the first on your block to know that the shift has taken place. I formulated the rule in 1974. I was visiting the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) for a weeks to give a couple of seminars on particle physics. The subject was QCD. It doesn't matter what this stands for. The point is that it was a new theory of sub-nuclear particles and it was absolutely clear that it was the right theory. There was no critical experiment but the place was littered with smoking guns. Anyway, at the end of my first lecture I took a poll of the audience. "What probability would you assign to the proposition 'QCD is the right theory of hadrons.'?" My socks were knocked off by the answers. They ranged from .01 percent to 5 percent. As I said, by this time it was a clear no-brainer. The answer should have been close to 100 percent. The next day I gave my second seminar and took another poll. "What are you working on?" was the question. Answers: QCD, QCD, QCD, QCD, QCD,........ Everyone was working on QCD. That's when I learned to ask "What are you doing?" instead of "what do you think?"

I saw exactly the same phenomenon more recently when I was working on black holes. This time it was after a string theory seminar, I think in Santa Barbara. I asked the audience to vote whether they agreed with me and Gerard 't Hooft or if they thought Hawking’s ideas were correct. This time I got a 50-50 response. By this time I knew what was going on so I wasn't so surprised. Anyway I later asked if anyone was working on Hawking's theory of information loss. Not a single hand went up. Don't ask what they think. Ask what they do.

-Leonard Susskind, Susskinds Rule of Thumb

34 points johnlawrenceaspden 03 May 2014 03:17:45PM Permalink

When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny'd myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear'd or seem'd to me some difference, etc.

I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag'd in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos'd my opinions procur'd them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail'd with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

Benjamin Franklin

34 points Manfred 04 November 2014 02:54:10AM Permalink

In fiction, villains start with some great scheme to do something awesome, and that immediately makes them fascinating to the reader. The hero - if you're doing this poorly - sits at home and just waits for the villain to do something awesome so they can respond. This is a problem. The solution is for your heroes to have a great and awesome scheme also, that just isn't evil.

Brandon Sanderson

33 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 June 2009 01:17:40AM Permalink

"People are mostly sane enough, of course, in the affairs of common life: the getting of food, shelter, and so on. But the moment they attempt any depth or generality of thought, they go mad almost infallibly. The vast majority, of course, adopt the local religious madness, as naturally as they adopt the local dress. But the more powerful minds will, equally infallibly, fall into the worship of some intelligent and dangerous lunatic, such as Plato, or Augustine, or Comte, or Hegel, or Marx."

-- David Stove, What Is Wrong With Our Thoughts

33 points loqi 03 July 2009 01:24:48AM Permalink

You say that your opponent lacks humanity. It's the oldest semantic weapon there is. Think of all the categories of people who've been classified as non-human, in various cultures, at various times. People from other tribes. People with other skin colors. Slaves. Women. The mentally ill. The deaf. Homosexuals. Jews. Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Armenians, Kurds [...]

But suppose you accuse me of 'lacking humanity.' What does that actually mean? What am I likely to have done? Murdered someone in cold blood? Drowned a puppy? Eaten meat? Failed to be moved by Beethoven's Fifth? Or just failed to have—or to seek—an emotional life identical to your own in every respect? Failed to share all your values and aspirations?

The answers is: 'any one of the above.' Which is why it's so fucking lazy. Questioning someone's 'humanity' puts them in the company of serial killers—which saves you the trouble of having to claim anything intelligent about their views.

— Greg Egan (as James Rourke), Distress

33 points MichaelHoward 01 May 2010 10:11:56AM Permalink

The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at and repair.

-- Douglas Adams

33 points Lightwave 02 September 2010 10:59:12AM Permalink

When people ask me what philosophy is, I say philosophy is what you do when you don't know what the right questions are yet. Once you get the questions right, then you go answer them, and that's typically not philosophy, that's one science or another. Anywhere in life where you find that people aren't quite sure what the right questions to ask are, what they're doing, then, is philosophy.

-- Daniel Dennett

33 points RichardKennaway 05 October 2010 01:33:08PM Permalink

One thing I have advocated, without much success, is that children be taught social rules (when they are ready) in exactly the same way they are taught and teach each other games. The point is not whether the rules are right or wrong. Are the rules of 5-card stud poker or hopscotch right or wrong? It's that we're playing a certain game here, and there are rules to this game just as in any other game. If you want to be in the game, then you have to learn how to play it. Different groups of people play different games (different rules = different game), so if you want to play in different groups, you have to learn the games they play. When you develop the levels of understanding above the rule level, you'll be able to understand all games, and be able to join in anywhere. You won't be stuck knowing how to play only one game.

My problem with selling this idea is that people tend to think that their game is the only right one. In fact, being told that they are playing a game with arbitrary rules is insulting or frightening. They want to believe that the rules they know are the ones that everyone ought to play by; they even set up systems of punishment and reward to make sure that nobody tries to play a different game. They turn the game into something that is deadly serious, and so my idea simply seems frivolous instead of liberating.

William T. Powers

33 points RichardKennaway 05 October 2010 02:04:33PM Permalink

Proposition 1: All matter is composed of four elements: earth, water, air, and, fire, each having an unchanging essence, and the variety of the world resulting from their combinations.

Proposition 2: All matter is composed of about 90 elements (the cutoff depending on how many of the more unstable ones one counts), most of which are created out of hydrogen and helium in stars and their supernovas, and which, in combination, give rise to the different material substances we observe.

More abstract proposition that ignores the differences: all matter is composed of fundamental elements.

Erroneous conclusion: the ancients knew modern science!

Proposition 1: Six thousand years ago, God created the world in six days.

Proposition 2: Everything started with the Big Bang some billions of years ago.

Abstract proposition: The universe had a beginning.

Erroneous conclusion: God created the universe. Scientists just call it the Big Bang because they don't want to admit it was God.

ETA: Further example: anyone saying that all religions are fundamentally the same.

ETA: Proposition 1: Here is a hammer. It drives nails.

Proposition 2: Here is a screwdriver. It drives screws.

Abstract proposition: Here is a tool. It drives spiky metal fasteners.

Erroneous conclusion: A Manchester screwdriver.

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

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

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.

(cf. Disguised Queries.)

33 points childofbaud 07 April 2011 10:52:41PM Permalink

I think Donald Robert Perry said it more succinctly:

“If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think they'll hate you.”

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

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

-- Paul Graham

33 points sixes_and_sevens 02 December 2011 02:47:42PM Permalink

Or a warning that the Zen notion of enlightenment won't let you automate menial tasks you dislike.

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

33 points jsbennett86 02 February 2013 03:45:22AM Permalink

On scientists trying to photograph an atom's shadow:

...the idea sounds stupid. But scientists don't care about sounding stupid, which is what makes them not stupid, and they did it anyway.

Luke McKinney - 6 Microscopic Images That Will Blow Your Mind

33 points Qiaochu_Yuan 01 February 2013 06:08:33PM Permalink

Things that are your fault are good because they can be fixed. If they're someone else's fault, you have to fix them, and that's much harder.

-- Geoff Anders (paraphrased)

33 points jsbennett86 02 March 2013 04:31:22AM Permalink

On the presentation of science in the news:

It's not that clean energy will never happen -- it totally will. It's just that it won't come from a wild-haired scientist running out of his basement screaming, "Eureka! I've discovered how to get limitless clean energy from common seawater!" Instead, it will come from thousands of scientists publishing unreadable studies with titles like "Assessing Effectiveness and Costs of Asymmetrical Methods of Beryllium Containment in Gen 4 Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors When Factoring for Cromulence Decay." The world will be saved by a series of boring, incremental advances that chip away at those technical challenges one tedious step at a time.

But nobody wants to read about that in their morning Web browsing. We want to read that while we were sleeping, some unlikely hero saved the world. Or at least cured cancer.

David Wong — 5 Easy Ways to Spot a BS News Story on the Internet

33 points Stabilizer 01 April 2013 07:19:22PM Permalink

More specifically, one thing I learned from Terry that I was not taught in school is the importance of bad proofs. I would say "I think this is true", work on it, see that there was no nice proof, and give up. Terry would say "Here's a criterion that eliminates most of the problem. Then in what's left, here's a worse one that handles most of the detritus. One or two more epicycles. At that point it comes down to fourteen cases, and I checked them." Yuck. But we would know it was true, and we would move on. (Usually these would get cleaned up a fair bit before publication.)

-Allen Knutson on collaborating with Terence Tao

33 points James_Miller 01 April 2013 04:17:37PM Permalink

A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped. True, you occasionally face a question such as 17 × 24 = ? to which no answer comes immediately to mind, but these dumbfounded moments are rare. The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. You like or dislike people long before you know much about them; you trust or distrust strangers without knowing why; you feel that an enterprise is bound to succeed without analyzing it. Whether you state them or not, you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.

Daniel Kahneman,Thinking, Fast and Slow

33 points Qiaochu_Yuan 03 April 2013 08:23:03PM Permalink

Dude, suckin' at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.

-- Jake the Dog (Adventure Time)

33 points ShardPhoenix 03 May 2013 10:14:51AM Permalink

Noriko: Wow, you must have a real knack for it!

Kazumi: That's not it, Miss Takaya! It takes hard work in order to achieve that.

Noriko: Hard work? You must have a knack for hard work, then!

- Gunbuster

33 points [deleted] 01 May 2013 02:43:45PM Permalink

When I was at Cornell, I often talked to the people in the psychology department. One of the students told me she wanted to do an experiment that went something like this -- it had been found by others that under certain circumstances, X, rats did something, A. She was curious as to whether, if she changed the circumstances to Y, they would still do A. So her proposal was to do the experiment under circumstances Y and see if they still did A.

I explained to her that it was necessary first to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person -- to do it under condition X to see if she could also get result A, and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know that the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.

She was very delighted with this new idea, and went to her professor. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was in about 1947 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happens. Nowadays there's a certain danger of the same thing happening, even in the famous field of physics. ...

-- Richard Feynman's Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!

33 points Nomad 05 October 2013 04:20:03PM Permalink

We often like to think of World War II as a triumph of freedom over totalitarianism. We conveniently forget that the Soviet Union was also one of the winners.

Paul Graham

33 points Alejandro1 01 November 2013 01:48:51PM Permalink

Is time real? …In one sense, it’s a silly question. The “reality” of something is only an interesting issue if its a well-defined concept whose actual existence is in question, like Bigfoot or supersymmetry. For concepts like “time,” which are unambiguously part of a useful vocabulary we have for describing the world, talking about “reality” is just a bit of harmless gassing. They may be emergent or fundamental, but they’re definitely there.

Sean Carroll

33 points HungryHippo 02 December 2013 12:42:14PM Permalink

By the middle of the seventeenth century it had come to be understood that the world was enclosed in a sea of air, much as the greater part of it was covered by water. A scientist of the period, Francesco Lana, contended that a lighter-than-air ship could float upon this sea, and he suggested how such a ship might be built. He was unable to put his invention to a practical test, but he saw only one reason why it might not work:

". . . that God will never suffer this Invention to take effect, because of the many consequencies which may disturb the Civil Government of men. For who sees not, that no City can be secure against attack, since our Ship may at any time be placed directly over it, and descending down may discharge Souldiers; the same would happen to private Houses, and Ships on the Sea: for our Ship descending out of the Air to the sails of Sea-Ships, it may cut their Ropes, yea without descending by casting Grapples it may over-set them, kill their men, burn their Ships by artificial Fire works and Fire-balls. And this they may do not only to Ships but to great Buildings, Castles, Cities, with such security that they which cast these things down from a height out of Gun-shot, cannot on the other side be offended by those below."

Lana's reservation was groundless. He had predicted modern air warfare in surprisingly accurate detail—with its paratroopers and its strafing and bombing. Contrary to his expectation, God has suffered his invention to take effect. And so has Man.

  • B. F. Skinner, "Science and Human Behavior"
33 points Jayson_Virissimo 09 July 2014 05:01:31AM Permalink

We have to reinvent the wheel every once in a while, not because we need a lot of wheels; but because we need a lot of inventors.

-- Bruce Joyce, as quoted by Michael Serra in Discovering Geometry

33 points James_Miller 07 July 2014 04:19:44PM Permalink

How can you tell economists have a sense of humor? They use decimal points.

33 points dspeyer 02 September 2014 02:29:58AM Permalink

While I agree with your actual point, I note with amusement that what's worse is the people who claim they do understand: "I understand that you want to own a gun because it's a penis-substitute", "I understand that you don't want me to own a gun because you live in a fantasy world where there's no crime", "I understand that you're talking about my beauty because you think you own me", "I understand that you complain about people talking about your beauty as a way of boasting about how beautiful you are."... None of these explanations are anywhere near true.

It would be a sign of wisdom if someone actually did post "I'm stupid: I can hardly ever understand the viewpoint of anyone who disagrees with me."

32 points SilasBarta 01 September 2009 03:42:39PM Permalink

During the discussion of Pranknet on Slashdot about a month ago, I saw this comment. It reminded me of our discussions about Newcomb's problem and superrationality.

I also disagree that our society is based on mutual trust. Volumes and volumes of laws backed up by lawyers, police, and jails show otherwise.

That's called selection/observation bias. You're looking at only one side of the coin.

I've lived in countries where there's a lot less trust than here. The notion of returning an opened product to a store and getting a full refund is based on trust (yes, there's a profit incentive, and some people do screw the retailers [and the retailers their customers -- SB], but the system works overall). In some countries I've been to, this would be unfeasible: Almost everyone will try to exploit such a retailer.

When a storm knocks out the electricity and the traffic lights stop working, I've always seen everyone obeying the rules. I doubt it's because they're worried about cops. It's about trust that the other drivers will do likewise. Simply unworkable in other places I've lived in.

I've had neighbors whom I don't know receive UPS/FedEx packages for me. Again, trust. I don't think they're afraid of me beating them up.

There are loads of examples. Society, at least in the US, is fairly nice and a lot of that has to do with a common trust.

Which is why someone exploiting that trust is a despised person.

32 points Yvain 07 October 2010 07:00:04PM Permalink

Even after ten thousand explanations, a fool is no wiser, but an intelligent man requires only two thousand five hundred.

-- Brahma, Mahabharata

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

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

-old Warner Swasey ad

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

Don't hate the playa, hate the game

-- Ice-T

Or, as the Urban Dictionary puts it:

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

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

32 points gwern 02 March 2011 07:40:58PM Permalink

And is that laziness so bad? If extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, presumably ordinary claims require merely ordinary evidence...

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

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

-- Razib Khan

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

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

-Milton Friedman story

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

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

Francis Bacon

32 points GabrielDuquette 02 October 2011 04:39:44AM Permalink

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

Ran Prieur

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

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

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

32 points billswift 30 November 2011 05:30:07PM Permalink

There's 2 varieties of subjectivism:

  • Hayekian subjectivism of limited knowledge, and limited reason, and error, resulting in Bayesian probabilities in the .8 range and below, with required updating, and impact on making +EV decisions...

  • Hippie subjectivism of you believe what you want to believe, and I believe what I want to believe.


32 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.

32 points J_Taylor 01 February 2012 11:41:19PM Permalink

We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.


32 points florian 01 March 2012 12:11:53PM Permalink

Making the (flawed) assumption that in a disagreement, they cannot both be wrong.

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 Jayson_Virissimo 01 May 2012 08:08:55AM Permalink

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


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 [deleted] 02 June 2012 08:40:08PM Permalink

Bit of a tangent, but something from that essay always bothered me.

I recently saw an ad for waiters saying they wanted people with a "passion for service." The real thing is not something one could have for waiting on tables.

Paul Graham

So I began to linger in my duties around Vincent's tables to observe his technique. I quickly learned that his style was to have no single style. He had a repertoire of approaches, each ready to be used under the appropriate circumstances. When the customers were a family, he was effervescent—even slightly clownish— directing his remarks as often to the children as the adults. With a young couple on a date, he became formal and a bit imperious in an attempt to intimidate the young man (to whom he spoke exclusively) into ordering and tipping lavishly. With an older, married couple, he retained the formality but dropped the superior air in favor of a respectful orientation to both members of the couple. Should the patron be dining alone, Vincent selected a friendly demeanor—cordial, conversational, and warm. Vincent reserved the trick of seeming to argue against his own interests for large parties of 8 to 12 people. His technique was veined with genius. When it was time for the first person, normally a woman, to order, he went into his act. No matter what she elected, Vincent reacted identically: His brow furrowed, his hand hovered above his order pad, and after looking quickly over his shoulder for the manager, he leaned conspiratorially toward the table to report for all to hear "I'm afraid that is not as good tonight as it normally is. Might I recommend instead the [blank] or the [blank]?" (At this point, Vincent suggested a pair of menu items that were slightly less expensive than the dish the patron had selected initially.) "They are both excellent tonight." With this single maneuver, Vincent engaged several important principles of influence. First, even those who did not take his suggestions felt that Vincent had done them a favor by offering valuable information to help them order. Everyone felt grateful, and consequently, the rule for reciprocity would work in his favor when it came time for them to decide on his gratuity. Besides hiking the percentage of his tip, Vincent's maneuver also placed him in a favorable position to increase the size of the party's order. It established him as an authority on the current stores of the house: he clearly knew what was and wasn't good that night. Moreover—and here is where seeming to argue against his own interests comes in—it proved him to be a trustworthy informant because he recommended dishes that were slightly less expensive than the one originally ordered. Rather than trying to line his own pockets, he seemed to have the customers' best interests at heart. To all appearances, he was at once knowledgeable and honest, a combination that gave him great credibility. Vincent was quick to exploit the advantage of this credible image. When the party had finished giving their food orders, he would say, "Very well, and would you like me to suggest or select wine to go with your meals?" As I watched the scene repeated almost nightly, there was a notable consistency to the customer's reaction—smiles, nods, and, for the most part, general assent.

Robert Cialdini, Influence

32 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.


32 points zslastman 03 September 2012 06:32:55PM Permalink

I feel like Hanson's admittedly insightful "signaling" hammer has him treating everything as a nail.

32 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.

32 points jooyous 06 February 2013 09:57:17PM Permalink

I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet, then I continued weeping because his foot problem did not actually solve my shoe problem.

-- Noah Brand

I'd prefer if this quote ended with " ... and then I got done weeping and started working on my shoe budget," but oh wells.

32 points TeMPOraL 01 June 2013 04:48:25PM Permalink

Akins Laws of Spacecraft Design are full of amazing quotes. My personal favourite:

6) (Mar's Law) Everything is linear if plotted log-log with a fat magic marker.

(See also an interesting note from HNs btilly on this law)

32 points AlanCrowe 03 June 2013 12:47:46PM Permalink

The corollary is more useful than the theorem:-) If I wish to be less of a dumbass, it helps to know what it looks like from the inside. It looks like bad luck, so my first job is to learn to distinguish bad luck from enemy action. In Eliezer's specific example that is going to be hard because I need to include myself in my list of potential enemies.

32 points Zubon 02 July 2013 10:15:14PM Permalink

He senses in his gut that he did the right thing by showing up. As with all gut feelings, only time will tell whether this is pathetic self-delusion.

Neil Stephenson, Cryptonomicon

32 points Benito 01 August 2013 09:15:24PM Permalink

This analogy, this passage from the finite to infinite, is beset with pitfalls. How did Euler avoid them? He was a genius, some people will answer, and of course that is no explanation at all. Euler has shrewd reasons for trusting his discovery. We can understand his reasons with a little common sense, without any miraculous insight specific to genius.

  • G. Polya, Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning Vol. 1
32 points Pablo_Stafforini 02 September 2013 12:56:06PM Permalink

You should work to reduce your biases, but to say you have none is a sign that you have many.

Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, New York, 2012, p. 451

32 points Dentin 04 September 2013 04:09:34PM Permalink

There is no glory, no beauty in death. Only loss. It does not have meaning. I will never see my loved ones again. They are permanently lost to the void. If this is the natural order of things, then I reject that order. I burn here my hopelessness, I burn here my constraints. By my hand, death shall fall. And if I fail, another shall take my place ... and another, and another, until this wound in the world is healed at last.

Anonymous, found written in the Temple at 2013 Burning Man

32 points RobbBB 02 September 2013 04:45:31AM Permalink

Fallacy names are great for chunking something already understood. The problem is that most people who appeal to them don't understand them, and therefore mis-use them. If they spoke in descriptive phrases rather than in jargon, there would be less of an illusion of transparency and people would be more likely to notice that there are discrepancies in usage.

For instance, most people don't understand that not all personal attacks are ad hominem fallacies. The quotation encourages that particular mistake, inadvertently. So it indirectly provides evidence for its own thesis.

32 points Alejandro1 01 November 2013 01:46:41PM Permalink

“What else [have you learned]?”

“Never make a decision blindfolded.”

The teacher laughed. “An impossible wish. We’re all wearing blindfolds, every moment of our lives, and they come off far less easily than this cheap piece of cloth.”

“Then what should we do, when we can’t take the blindfold off?”

“Do the best you can,” the teacher said, “and never forget that you’re wearing it.”

Math with Bad Drawings

32 points FiftyTwo 04 November 2013 10:12:55PM Permalink

Medicine is not in our nature. Show me a man who would cut someone open to remove cancer, and I will show you man who would cut someone open and entirely forget he was originally planning to remove a tumour

Exact same argument. Does it sound equally persuasive to you?

32 points lmm 03 June 2014 11:44:56AM Permalink

"I just don't have enough data to make a decision."

"Yes, you do. What you don't have is enough data for you not to have to make one"

32 points AspiringRationalist 07 July 2014 12:50:45AM Permalink

Precise forecasts masquerade as accurate ones.

-- Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise

32 points grendelkhan 04 December 2014 09:48:07PM Permalink

If it's stupid and it works, it's not stupid.

"Murphy's Laws of Combat"

31 points James_Miller 22 October 2009 05:33:12PM Permalink

You want to learn from experience, but you want to learn from other people’s experience when you can.

Warren Buffett

31 points DaveInNYC 24 October 2009 06:53:52PM Permalink

I have met people who exaggerate the differences [between the morality of different cultures], because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, "Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?" But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did-if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.

-C.S. Lewis

31 points Jayson_Virissimo 02 July 2010 05:35:48PM Permalink

Doubt, n. The philosophical device Descartes so cleverly used to prove everything he previously believed.

-L. A. Rollins, Lucifer's Lexicon

31 points DSimon 02 February 2011 06:26:12PM Permalink

Another good one:

Ist's zu Sylvester hell und klar, ist am nächsten Tag Neujahr.

"If it's bright and clear on New Year's Eve, the next day will be New Year's."

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

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

-Paul Graham, Keep Your Identity Small

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

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

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

-Richard Feynman

31 points JoshuaZ 01 September 2011 05:27:58PM Permalink

Related SMBC.

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

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


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

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

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

31 points 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.")

31 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

31 points Viliam_Bur 05 April 2012 09:15:23AM Permalink

When speaking about sensory inputs, it makes sense to say that different species (even different individuals) have different ranges, so one can percieve something and other can't.

With computation it is known that sufficiently strong programming languages are in some sense equal. For example, you could speak about relative advantages of Basic, C/C++, Java, Lisp, Pascal, Python, etc., but in each of these languages you can write a simulator of the remaining ones. This means that if an algorithm can be implemented in one of these languages, it can be implemented in all of them -- in worst case, it would be implemented as a simulation of another language running its native implementation.

There are some technical details, though. Simulating another program is slower and requires more memory than the original program. So it could be argued that on a given hardware you could do a program in language X which uses all the memory and all available time, so it does not necessarily follow that you can do the same program in language Y. But on this level of abstraction we ignore hardware limits. We assume that the computer is fast enough and has enough memory for whatever purpose. (More precisely, we assume that in available time a computer can do any finite number of computation steps; but it cannot do an infinite number of steps. The memory is also unlimited, but in a finite time you can only manage to use a finite amount of memory.)

So on this level of abstraction we only care about whether something can or cannot be implemented by a computer. We ignore time and space (i.e. speed and memory) constraints. Some problems can be solved by algorithms, others can not. (Then, there are other interesting levels of abstraction which care about time and space complexity of algorithms.)

Are all programming languages equal in the above sense? No. For example, although programmers generally want to avoid infinite loops in their programs, if you remove a potential for infinite loops from the programming language (e.g. in Pascal you forbid "while" and "repeat" commands, and a possibility to call functions recursively), you lose ability to simulate programming languages which have this potential, and you lose ability to solve some problems. On the other hand, some universal programming languages seem extremely simple -- a famous example is a Turing machine. This is very useful, because it is easier to do mathematical proofs about a simple language. For example if you invent a new programming language X, all you have to do to prove its universality, is to write a Turing machine simulator, which is usually very simple.

Now back to the original discussion... Eliezer suggests that brain functionality should be likened to computation, not to sensory input. A human brain is computationally universal, because (given enough time, pen and paper) we can simulate a computer program, so all brains should be equal when optimally used (differing only in speed and use of resources). In another comment he adds that ability to compute isn't the same as ability to understand. Therefore (my conclusion) what one human can understand, another human can at least correctly calculate without understanding, given a correct algorithm.

31 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.

31 points gjm 02 June 2012 10:20:41PM Permalink

It doesn't seem to me that Vincent-as-described-by-Cialdini is someone with a passion for waiting at tables; especially not the sort that could also be described as a "passion for service". If anything, he has a passion for exploiting customers, or something of the kind. I would expect someone with a genuine passion for table-waiting -- should such a person exist -- to be as reluctant to mislead customers as, say, someone with a passion for science would be to spend their life working for a partisan think tank putting out deliberately misleading white papers on controversial topics.

(To forestall political arguments: I am not implying that all think tanks are partisan, nor that all white papers put out by partisan think tanks are deliberately misleading.)

31 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

31 points alex_zag_al 11 September 2012 01:13:28PM Permalink

Tropical rain forests, bizarrely, are the products of prisoner's dilemmas. The trees that grow in them spend the great majority of their energy growing upwards towards the sky, rather than reproducing. If they could come to a pact with their competitors to outlaw all tree trunks and respect a maximum tree height of ten feet, every tree would be better off. But they cannot.

Matt Ridley, in The Origins of Virtue

31 points MixedNuts 02 October 2012 06:09:59PM Permalink

Invertible fact alert!

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.

  • Men In Black

It's a lot easier to hate Creationists than to hate my landlady.

31 points SaidAchmiz 06 November 2012 11:43:50PM Permalink

Another from the same site — on free will:

"It's my fate to steal," pleaded the man who had been caught red-handed by Diogenes.

"Then it is also your fate to be beaten," said Diogenes, hitting him across the head with his staff.

31 points James_Miller 01 January 2013 05:58:51PM Permalink

The women of this country learned long ago, those without swords can still die upon them.

Éowyn explaining to Aragorn why she was skilled with a blade. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the 2002 movie.

31 points jsbennett86 02 February 2013 03:36:42AM Permalink

It seems that 32 Bostonians have simultaneously dropped dead in a ten-block radius for no apparent reason, and General Purcell wants to know if it was caused by a covert weapon. Of course, the military has been put in charge of the investigation and everything is hush-hush.

Without examining anything, Keyes takes about five seconds to surmise that the victims all died from malfunctioning pacemakers and the malfunction was definitely not due to a secret weapon. We're supposed to be impressed, but our experience with real scientists and engineers indicates that when they're on-the-record, top-notch scientists and engineers won't even speculate about the color of their socks without looking at their ankles. They have top-notch reputations because they're almost always right. They're almost always right because they keep their mouths shut until they've fully analyzed the data.

Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics review of The Core

31 points gryffinp 02 February 2013 10:32:43AM Permalink

I think you just independently invented the holy war.

31 points Vaniver 03 April 2013 02:05:53PM Permalink

Don’t settle. Don’t finish crappy books. If you don’t like the menu, leave the restaurant. If you’re not on the right path, get off it.

--Chris Brogan on the Sunk Cost Fallacy

31 points sixes_and_sevens 01 May 2013 06:42:45PM Permalink

It's my understanding that Marcus Aurelius no longer voices this opinion.

31 points David_Gerard 02 July 2013 04:13:17PM Permalink

Unix was not designed to stop its users from doing stupid things, as that would also stop them from doing clever things.

  • Doug Gwyn
31 points Alejandro1 01 August 2013 08:45:40PM Permalink

It's a horrible feeling when you don't understand why you did something.

-- Dennis Monokroussos

31 points snafoo 04 August 2013 05:51:26PM Permalink

When the axe came into the woods, many of the trees said, "At least the handle is one of us.

Turkish proverb

31 points [deleted] 04 October 2013 01:47:52AM Permalink

Whenever a group of subcompetent people get together to do something, they assume they are competent enough to throw tradition and protocol out the window...

31 points EGarrett 05 February 2014 01:34:22AM Permalink

"To convince someone of the truth, it is not enough to state it, but rather one must find the path from error to truth." Wittgenstein. "Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough," p. 119

31 points James_Miller 01 June 2014 09:20:25PM Permalink

"Do what you love" / "Follow your passion" is dangerous and destructive career advice. We tend to hear it from (a) Highly successful people who (b) Have become successful doing what they love. The problem is that we do NOT hear from people who have failed to become successful by doing what they love. Particularly pernicious problem in tournament-style fields with a few big winners lots of losers: media, athletics, startups. Better career advice may be "Do what contributes" -- focus on the beneficial value created for other people vs just one's own ego. People who contribute the most are often the most satisfied with what they do -- and in fields with high renumeration, make the most $. Perhaps difficult advice since requires focus on others vs oneself -- perhaps bad fit with endemic narcissism in modern culture? Requires delayed gratification -- may toil for many years to get the payoff of contributing value to the world, vs short-term happiness.

Marc Andreessen

31 points bramflakes 03 December 2014 03:56:16PM Permalink

When you hear an economist on TV "explain" the decline in stock prices by citing a slump in the market (and I have heard this pseudo-explanation more than once) it is time to turn off the television.

Thomas J. McKay, Reasons, Explanations and Decisions

31 points Jay_Schweikert 03 December 2014 04:40:11AM Permalink

All the logical work (if not all the rhetorical work) in “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” is being done by the decision about what aspects of liberty are essential, and how much safety is at stake. The slogan might work as a reminder not to make foolish tradeoffs, but the real difficulty is in deciding which tradeoffs are wise and which are foolish. Once we figure that out, we don’t need the slogan to remind us; before we figure it out, the slogan doesn’t really help us.

--Eugene Volokh, "Liberty, safety, and Benjamin Franklin"

A good example of the risk of reading too much into slogans that are basically just applause lights. Also reminds me of "The Choice between Good and Bad is not a matter of saying Good! It is about deciding which is which."

31 points VAuroch 11 November 2014 07:02:18AM Permalink

“There is no point in using the word 'impossible' to describe something that has clearly happened.”

-- Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams

30 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 18 April 2009 01:28:35AM Permalink

Correlation doesn't imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there'.

-- Randall Munroe

30 points RobinZ 01 April 2010 11:44:53PM Permalink

My dad used to have an expression: "Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value."

Joe Biden, remarks delivered in Saint Clair Shores, MI, Monday, September 15, 2008

30 points anonym 03 December 2010 08:36:05AM Permalink

Truth is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations.

— John Von Neumann

30 points JamesAndrix 09 December 2010 07:28:48AM Permalink

A young boy walks into a barber shop and the barber whispers to his customer, “This is the dumbest kid in the world. Watch while I prove it to you.” The barber puts a dollar bill in one hand and two quarters in the other, then calls the boy over and asks, “Which do you want, son?” The boy takes the quarters and leaves. “What did I tell you?” said the barber. “That kid never learns!” Later, when the customer leaves, he sees the same young boy coming out of the ice cream store. “Hey, son! May I ask you a question? Why did you take the quarters instead of the dollar bill?” The boy licked his cone and replied, “Because the day I take the dollar, the game is over!”

Found on /r/funny

30 points billswift 03 December 2010 05:21:36AM Permalink

A little learning is not a dangerous thing to one who does not mistake it for a great deal.

-- William A White

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

Peanuts, 1961 April 2627:

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

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

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

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

G. K. Chesterton (unsourced)

30 points DSimon 02 March 2011 02:55:18PM Permalink

Well, to be fair, the experimental group isn't doing a lot better either, just yet.

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

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

-- genesplicer on Something Awful Forums, via

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

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

"Dunno, sarge. Freeing slaves, maybe?"

"Absol--Well, okay."

"Defending yourself from a totalitarian aggressor?"

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

"Saving civilization against a horde of--"

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

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

-- Terry Pratchett, Thud!

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

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

Quoted in The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

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

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

John Maynard Keynes

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 points Davorak 01 September 2011 04:28:13PM Permalink

Better memory and processing power would mean that probabilistically more businessmen would realize there are good business opportunities where they saw none before. Creating more jobs and a more efficient economy, not the same economy more quickly.

ER doctors can now spend more processing power on each patient that comes in. Out of their existing repertoire they would choose better treatments for the problem at hand then they would have otherwise. A better memory means that they would be more likely to remember every step on their checklist when prepping for surgery.

It is not uncommon for people to make stupid decisions with mild to dire consequences because they are pressed for time. Everyone now thinks faster and has more time to think. Few people are pressed for time. Fewer accidents happen. Better decisions are made on average.

There are problems which are not human vs human but are human vs reality. With increased memory and processing power humanity gains an advantage over reality.

By no means is increasing memory and processing power a sliver bullet but it seems considerably more then everything only moving "much more quickly!"

Edit: spelling

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

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

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

-- AJ Milne

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

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

André Gide

30 points Nominull 02 October 2011 03:40:02AM Permalink

I think this is actually a myth. It's appealing, to us who love truth so much, to think that deviating from the path of the truth is deadly and dangerous and leads inevitably to dark side epistemology. But there is a trick to telling lies, such that they only differ from the truth in minor, difficult to verify ways. If you tell elegant lies, they will cling to the surface of the truth like a parasite, and you will be able to do almost anything with them that you could do with the truth. You just have to remember a few extra bits that you changed, and otherwise behave as a normal honest person would, given those few extra bits.

30 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


30 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

30 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

30 points [deleted] 01 March 2012 10:47:51AM Permalink

Meh. That's just hindsight bias.

All truths are easy to understand when they are revealed; what's hard is to find them out.

Galileo Galilei (translated by me)

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 Viliam_Bur 05 July 2012 06:28:09PM Permalink

From the same page:

if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. [...] And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is

This gives me a new perspective on human insanity, or more positively, on how much relatively low-hanging fruit is out there.

30 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

30 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 August 2012 06:00:43AM Permalink

Thank you, Professor Quirrell.

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

30 points RichardKennaway 07 November 2012 12:20:40AM Permalink

I would like to abstain from voting on them, but to do so in separate posts.

30 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

30 points Will_Newsome 01 January 2013 08:00:39PM Permalink

For the Greek philosophers, Greek was the language of reason. Aristotle's list of categories is squarely based on the categories of Greek grammar. This did not explicitly entail a claim that the Greek language was primary: it was simply a case of the identification of thought with its natural vehicle. Logos was thought, and Logos was speech. About the speech of barbarians little was known; hence, little was known about what it would be like to think in the language of barbarians. Although the Greeks were willing to admit that the Egyptians, for example, possessed a rich and venerable store of wisdom, they only knew this because someone had explained it to them in Greek.

— Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language

30 points DaFranker 01 March 2013 03:01:19PM Permalink

And what the hell is all this pay-to-win microtransaction crap? Life's devs should change their business model.

30 points ciphergoth 02 July 2013 12:59:11PM Permalink

“Erudition can produce foliage without bearing fruit.” - Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

30 points Alejandro1 02 August 2013 10:55:14AM Permalink

Now, now, perfectly symmetrical violence never solved anything.

--Professor Farnsworth, Futurama.

30 points CronoDAS 03 August 2013 01:48:52AM Permalink

It's ridiculous to think that video games influence children. After all, if Pac-Man had affected children born in the eighties, we'd all be running around in dark rooms, eating strange pills, and listening to repetitive electronic music.

-- Paraphrase of joke by Marcus Brigstocke

30 points ChrisPine 04 August 2013 05:28:06PM Permalink

It's a cautionary tale about Norwegian food.

30 points MattG 10 March 2014 08:57:46PM Permalink

"Consider the people who routinely disagree with you. See how confident they look while being dead wrong? That’s exactly how you look to them." - Scott Adams

30 points Jack_LaSota 11 October 2014 04:18:21AM Permalink

A novice asked master Banzen: “What separates the monk from the master?”

Banzen replied: “Ten thousand mistakes!”

The novice, not understanding, sought to avoid all error. An abbot observed and brought the novice to Banzen for correction.

Banzen explained: “I have made ten thousand mistakes; Suku has made ten thousand mistakes; the patriarchs of Open Source have each made ten thousand mistakes.”

Asked the novice: “What of the old monk who labors in the cubicle next to mine? Surely he has made ten thousand mistakes.”

Banzen shook his head sadly. “Ten mistakes, a thousand times each.”

The Codeless Code

30 points arundelo 03 December 2014 12:06:10AM Permalink

Problem is, "Fucking up when presented with surprising new situations" is actually a chronic human behavior. It's why purse snatchers are so effective -- by the time someone registers Wait, did somebody just yank my purse off my shoulder?, the snatcher is long gone.

-- Ferrett Steinmetz

29 points Randaly 03 August 2010 04:45:58AM Permalink

"Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from SCIENCE!"

~Girl Genius

29 points Morendil 01 September 2010 06:55:22AM Permalink

Writing program code is a good way of debugging your thinking.

-- Bill Venables

29 points Rain 03 September 2010 12:15:26PM Permalink

Robot: "With all your modern science, are you any closer to understanding the mystery of how a robot walks or talks?"

Farnsworth: "Yes you idiot! The circuit diagram is right in the inside of your case."

Robot: "I choose to believe what I was programmed to believe!"

-- Futurama, The Honking

29 points Alexandros 11 December 2010 11:03:27AM Permalink

if you're the smartest person in the room, go look for a room with smarter people in it.

kevinpet at Hacker News

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

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

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

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

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

Loā Hô, a Taiwanese physician and poet.

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

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

Mark Twain

29 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 September 2011 07:42:39AM Permalink

It's a nice list, but I think the core point strikes me as liable to be simply false. I forget who it was presenting this evidence - it might even have been James Miller, it was someone at the Winter Intelligence conference at FHI - but they looked at (1) the economic gains to countries with higher average IQ, (2) the average gains to individuals with higher IQ, and concluded that (3) people with high IQ create vast amounts of positive externality, much more than they capture as individuals, probably mostly in the form of countries with less stupid economic policies.

Maybe if we're literally talking about a pure speed and LTM pill that doesn't affect at all, say, capacity to keep things in short-term memory or the ability to maintain complex abstractions in working memory, i.e., a literal speed and disk space pill rather than an IQ pill.

29 points Nisan 22 November 2011 03:02:18AM Permalink

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

-Persi Diaconis

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

29 points Pfft 31 October 2011 06:24:06PM Permalink

This sounds good out of context, but I think it was actually confused. The context was a complaint that '"marriage market" theories leave love out of the equation'. But this is a false dichotomy. It could well be that people marry out of sincerely felt love, but fall in love with "older men with resources" and "younger women with adoring gazes”, as the original article had it. The cues that cause you to fall in love are not easily accessible to introspection.

More to the point, the original article was speculating about how a demographic shift that makes women wealthier than men would affect dating culture. What does it even mean to account for human emotion here? The way the problem is set up, the abstract model is the best we can hope for. In general, when discussing big trends or large groups, we don't have detailed information about the emotions of everyone involved. In that case, leaving those out of the model is not a failure of empiricism, it's just doing the best with what's available.

I think there are different contexts where this same quote makes more sense: for example you probably won't get a very good understanding of eBay auctions by assuming that everyone involved follows a simple economic model.

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 Yvain 03 January 2012 02:12:29AM Permalink

I don't know if there's enough of a specific, meaningful claim there for me to disagree with, but Yvain-2012 probably would not have written those same words. Yvain-2012 would probably say he sometimes feels creeped out by the levels of signaling that go on in the skeptical community and thinks they sometimes snowball into the ridiculous, but that the result is prosocial and they are still performing a service.

(really I can only speak for Yvain-2011 at this point; my acquaintance with Yvain-2012 has been extremely brief)

29 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

29 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

29 points Oscar_Cunningham 01 February 2012 09:55:36PM Permalink

A paradox arises when two seemingly airtight arguments lead to contradictory conclusions—conclusions that cannot possibly both be true. It’s similar to adding a set of numbers in a two-dimensional array and getting different answers depending on whether you sum up the rows first or the columns. Since the correct total must be the same either way, the difference shows that an error must have been made in at least one of the two sets of calculations. But it remains to discover at which step (or steps) an erroneous calculation occurred in either or both of the running sums. There are two ways to rebut an argument. We might call them countering and invalidating.

+To counter an argument is to provide another argument that establishes the opposite conclusion.

+To invalidate an argument, we show that there is some step in that argument that simply does not follow from what precedes it (or we show that the argument’s premises—the initial steps—are themselves false).

If an argument starts with true premises, and if every step in the argument does follow, then the argument’s conclusion must be true. However, invalidating an argument—identifying an incorrect step somewhere—does not show that the argument’s conclusion must be false. Rather, the invalidation merely removes that argument itself as a reason to think the conclusion true; the conclusion might still be true for other reasons. Therefore, to firmly rebut an argument whose conclusion is false, we must both invalidate the argument and also present a counterargument for the opposite conclusion.

In the case of a paradox, invalidating is especially important. Whichever of the contradictory conclusions is incorrect, we’ve already got an argument to counter it—that’s what makes the matter a paradox in the first place! Piling on additional counterarguments may (or may not) lead to helpful insights, but the counterarguments themselves cannot suffice to resolve the paradox. What we must also do is invalidate the argument for the false conclusion—that is, we must show how that argument contains one or more steps that do not follow.

Failing to recognize the need for invalidation can lead to frustratingly circular exchanges between proponents of the conflicting positions. One side responds to the other’s argument with a counterargument, thinking it a sufficient rebuttal. The other side responds with a counter- counterargument—perhaps even a repetition of the original argument— thinking it an adequate rebuttal of the rebuttal. This cycle may persist indefinitely. With due attention to the need to invalidate as well as counter, we can interrupt the cycle and achieve a more productive discussion.

Gary Drescher (Good and Real)

29 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

29 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 May 2012 11:38:26PM Permalink

"The Way is easy for those who have no utility function." -- Marcello Herreshoff

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 Eugine_Nier 03 September 2012 02:53:57AM Permalink

Well, his point only makes any sense when applied to the metaphor since a better answer to the question

"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?"


"where would Sisyphus get a robot in the middle of Hades?"

Edit: come to think of it, this also works with the metaphor for human struggle.

29 points Alejandro1 03 September 2012 03:35:59AM Permalink

"But I tell you he couldn't have written such a note!" cried Flambeau. "The note is utterly wrong about the facts. And innocent or guilty, Dr Hirsch knew all about the facts."

"The man who wrote that note knew all about the facts," said his clerical companion soberly. "He could never have got 'em so wrong without knowing about 'em. You have to know an awful lot to be wrong on every subject—like the devil."

"Do you mean—?"

"I mean a man telling lies on chance would have told some of the truth," said his friend firmly. "Suppose someone sent you to find a house with a green door and a blue blind, with a front garden but no back garden, with a dog but no cat, and where they drank coffee but not tea. You would say if you found no such house that it was all made up. But I say no. I say if you found a house where the door was blue and the blind green, where there was a back garden and no front garden, where cats were common and dogs instantly shot, where tea was drunk in quarts and coffee forbidden—then you would know you had found the house. The man must have known that particular house to be so accurately inaccurate."

--G.K. Chesterton, "The Duel of Dr. Hirsch"

29 points RobinZ 03 September 2012 04:22:57PM Permalink

I disagree, in fact. That books strengthen the mind is baldly asserted, not supported, by this quote - the rationality point I see in it is related to comparative advantage.

29 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.

29 points gwern 07 November 2012 02:26:04AM Permalink

The real irony of the story is a historical context I think most readers these days miss: that when the real Plato paid court to a 'king' - Dionysius II, tyrant of Syracuse - it went very poorly. Plato was arrested, and barely managed to arrange his freedom return to Athens.


And supposedly Plato was sold into slavery by the previous tyrant.

29 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

29 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.

29 points roystgnr 02 January 2013 09:24:29PM Permalink

I think, actually, scientists should kinda look into that whole 'death' thing. Because, they seem to have focused on diseases... and I don't give a #*= about them. The guys go, "Hey, we fixed your arthritis!" "Am I still gonna die?" "Yeah."

So that, I think, is the biggest problem. That's why I can't get behind politicians! They're always like, "Our biggest problem today is unemployment!" and I'm like "What about getting old and sick and dying?"

  • Norm MacDonald, Me Doing Stand Up

(a few verbal tics were removed by me; the censorship was already present in the version I heard)

29 points Eugine_Nier 05 March 2013 01:35:29AM Permalink

Somehow it seems appropriate that it's hard to track down the originator of this idea.

29 points philh 01 March 2013 07:14:03PM Permalink

"Luck" is useless as a strategy and "Hard work" is mostly useless. Prefer "Discover rules then systematically exploit them."

- patio11

29 points dspeyer 01 March 2013 07:55:35PM Permalink

I saw exactly that subtext.

The quote opens "I once had a civil argument with a woman". The author spends one noun to describe this person, and spends it on gender. It could have been "with a friend" or "with a politician" or even just "I once had a civil argument" (that the author had it with somebody is implied in the nature of argument). The antiepistimologist has exactly one characteristic: gender, and that characteristic is called out as important.

It gets worse because being bad at logic is an existing negative stereotype of women.

29 points DaFranker 03 May 2013 04:41:53PM Permalink

Well... not quite. The selection effect makes the survival number basically impossible to calculate, but regularly surviving risky scenarios seems like it would provide a bit better odds for the influence of moxie than 249:200.

At some point, if the Vulcan is smart enough, I suspect the calculation would begin to hinge more on plot twists and the odds that the story is nearing its end, as the hypothesis that they are wearing Plot Armor rises up to the forefront.

I'd also suspect that the Vulcan would realize quickly that as his prediction for the probability of success approaches 1, the odds of a sudden plot reversal that plunges them all in deep poo also approaches 1. And then the Vulcan would immediately adjust to always spouting off some random high-odds-against-us number all the time just to make sure they'd always succeed heroically.

Ow, this is starting to sound very newcomblike.

29 points James_Miller 01 May 2013 04:56:15PM Permalink

Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.


29 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 July 2013 09:55:48PM Permalink

If you could damage wires in a certain way and make the voices forget how to pronounce nouns, eliminate their short-term but not long-term memory, damage their color words, and so on, you would have a solid case for the wires doing internal, functional information-processing in causal arrangements which permitted the final output to be permuted in ways that corresponded to perturbing particular causal nodes. In much the same way, a calculator might be thought to be a radio if you are ignorant of its internals, but if you have a hypothesis that the calculator contains a binary half-adder and you can perturb particular transistors and see wrong answers in a way that matches what the half-adder hypothesis predicts for perturbing that transistor, you have shown the answers are generated internally rather than externally. In a world where we can directly monitor a cat's thalamus and reconstruct part of its visual processing field, the radio hypothesis is not just privileging a hypothesis without evidence, it is frantically clinging to a hypothesis with strong contrary evidence in denial of a hypothesis with detailed confirming evidence.

29 points RolfAndreassen 02 August 2013 02:48:21AM Permalink

Once there was a miser, who to save money would eat nothing but oatmeal. And what's more, he would make a great big batch of it at the start of every week, and put it in a drawer, and when he wanted a meal he would slice off a piece and eat it cold; thus he saved on firewood. Now, by the end of the week, the oatmeal would be somewhat moldy and not very appetising; and so to make himself eat it, the miser would take out a bottle of good whiskey, and pour himself a glass, and say "All right, Olai, eat your oatmeal and when you're done, you can have a dram." Then he would eat his moldy oatmeal, and when he was done he'd laugh and pour the whiskey back in the bottle, and say "Hah! And you believed that? There's one born every minute, to be sure!" And thus he had a great savings in whiskey as well.

-- Norwegian folktale.

29 points Turgurth 02 September 2013 12:11:39AM Permalink

"Not being able to get the future exactly right doesn’t mean you don’t have to think about it."

--Peter Thiel

29 points James_Miller 02 December 2013 12:59:52AM Permalink

There are tens of thousands of professional money managers. Statistically, a handful of them have been successful by pure chance. Which ones? I don't know, but I bet a few are famous.

The market doesn't care how much you paid for a stock. Or your house. Or what you think is a "fair" price.

Professional investors have better information and faster computers than you do. You will never beat them short-term trading. Don't even try.

The book Where Are the Customers' Yachts? was written in 1940, and most still haven't figured out that financial advisors don't have their best interest at heart.

The low-cost index fund is one of the most useful financial inventions in history. Boring but beautiful.

Highlights from 50 Unfortunate Truths About Investing by Morgan Housel.

29 points Kaj_Sotala 01 March 2014 05:52:25PM Permalink

The use with children of experimental [educational] methods, that is, methods that have not been finally assessed and found effective, might seem difficult to justify. Yet the traditional methods we use in the classroom every day have exactly this characteristic--they are highly experimental in that we know very little about their educational efficacy in comparison with alternative methods. There is widespread cynicism among students and even among practiced teachers about the effectiveness of lecturing or repetitive drill (which we would distinguish from carefully designed practice), yet these methods are in widespread use. Equally troublesome, new "theories" of education are introduced into schools every day (without labeling them as experiments) on the basis of their philosophical or common-sense plausibility but without genuine empirical support. We should make a larger place for responsible experimentation that draws on the available knowledge--it deserves at least as large a place as we now provide for faddish, unsystematic and unassessed informal "experiments" or educational "reforms."

-- John R. Anderson, Lynne M. Reder Herbert A. Simon: Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology to Mathematics Education

29 points Benito 08 August 2014 09:35:08PM Permalink

Hollywood is filled with feel-good messages about how robotic logic is no match for fuzzy, warm, human irrationality, and how the power of love will overcome pesky obstacles such as a malevolent superintelligent computer. Unfortunately there isn’t a great deal of cause to think this is the case, any more than there is that noble gorillas can defeat evil human poachers with the power of chest-beating and the ability to use rudimentary tools.

From the British Newspaper 'The Telegraph', and their article on Nick Bostrom's awesome new book 'Superintelligence'.

I just thought it was a great analogy. Nice to see AI as an X-Risk in the mainstream media too.

29 points KPier 27 September 2014 02:51:51AM Permalink

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He know that she was old, and not over-well built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely though so many voyages and weathered so many storms, that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such a way he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her depature with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship, but the sincerity of his conviction can in nowise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.

  • W.J. Clifford, the Ethics of Belief
29 points lukeprog 04 October 2014 09:28:52PM Permalink

Prominent altruists aren't the people who have a larger care-o-meter, they're the people who have learned not to trust their care-o-meters... Nobody has [a care-o-meter] capable of faithfully representing the scope of the world's problems. But the fact that you can't feel the caring doesn't mean that you can't do the caring.

Nate Soares

29 points wedrifid 03 November 2014 10:58:17AM Permalink

I want to get the most amount of candy with the least amount of walking.

My 9-year-old son on Halloween.

The Valley of Bad Rationality at work again. Improved optimisation skills and strategic awareness applied to increase the amount of candy consumed while reducing physical exercise!

28 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 July 2009 10:07:14PM Permalink

There is no real me! Don't try to find the real me! Don't try to find someone inside of me who isn't me!

-- Princess Waltz

Commentary: What's odd is not how many people think they contain other people. What's odd is how many of those people think the other person is the real one.

28 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 July 2009 10:14:44PM Permalink

When I was young, I thought the act of getting older meant, year by year, getting more sophisticated, more hard, cool, and unpitying. Less innocent.

Maybe that was a childish idea of what getting older was about. Maybe adults, mature adults, get more innocent with time, not less. Because the word "innocent" does not mean "naive," it means "not guilty."

Children do small evils to each other, schoolyard fights and insults, not because their hearts are pure, but because their powers are small. Grown-ups have more power. Some of them do great evils with that power. But what about the ones who don't? Aren't they more innocent than children, not less?

-- John C. Wright, Fugitives of Chaos

28 points RobinZ 22 October 2009 04:46:10PM Permalink

The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.

-- George Bernard Shaw, writer, Nobel laureate (1856-1950)

Edit: The full citation is to his 1903 play Man and superman: a comedy and a philosophy, where the character John Tanner ("M.I.R.C., Member of the Idle Rich Class") says:

Yes, because to be treated as a boy was to be taken on the old footing. I had become a new person ; and those who knew the old person laughed at me. The only man who behaved sensibly was my tailor : he took my measure anew every time he saw me, whilst all the rest went on with their old measurements and expected them to fit me.

28 points sketerpot 02 March 2010 12:43:39AM Permalink

He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.

-John McCarthy, on mainstream environmentalism.

As someone who regularly gets into arguments about this, I can say that he's definitely right; you wouldn't believe the amount of nonsense that can be disposed of simply by looking up the relevant numbers and doing a minute's worth of easy arithmetic.

For example, I've heard some people recently claiming that a combination of solar photovoltaics, electrolysis to produce hydrogen, and these new Bloom box fuel cells are cheaper than nuclear fission. Look up the costs of solar farms; about $3 per peak watt. Their average power output is less; we can very optimistically assume that they run at 20% of capacity on average. Efficiency losses from electrolysis and fuel cells are about 50%. Putting it all together, this would cost about $30 per watt of average power delivered. Not including the cost of the fuel cells.

A little googling will show that the total cost of building two new AP1000 reactors in Georgia is about $14 billion, and they average at least 93% of their peak power, and transmission line losses bring their average power delivered to about 1000 MW each. So their cost is about $7 per watt of average power delivered, or about 23% the cost of solar.

There's a lot of extremely harmful bullshit out there, and defeating most of it doesn't take any advanced techniques; it just takes a willingness to look up some relevant numbers and do a bit of arithmetic.

28 points Rain 02 July 2010 12:05:26AM Permalink

Nature draws no line between living and nonliving.

-- K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation

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

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

Winston Churchill

28 points benelliott 04 April 2011 10:21:55PM Permalink

And there are times when you don't get to choose whether or not you wrestle the gorilla.

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

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

Jamie Hyneman

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

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

-Richard Feynman

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

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

-- Charles Darwin

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

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

— John Derbyshire

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

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

-- Russian proverb

28 points Nominull 07 December 2011 11:48:59PM Permalink

Perhaps he's ultra-high-class, and is only defending the object-level irony of his garden gnome ironically.

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

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

  • The Joker
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 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

28 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

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 Desrtopa 04 September 2012 05:36:56PM Permalink

Unfortunately, doing bad shows is not only a route to doing good shows.

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."

28 points Nominull 02 December 2012 11:58:46PM Permalink

the past is a third-world country

28 points Qiaochu_Yuan 01 March 2013 08:45:09PM Permalink

It should be said about things that appear to work because of confirmation bias.

28 points DanielLC 08 April 2013 02:15:16AM Permalink

Columbus's "genius" was using the largest estimate for the size of Eurasia and the smallest estimate for the size of the world to make the numbers say what he wanted them to. As normally happens with that sort of thing, he was dead wrong. But he got lucky and it turned out there was another continent there.

28 points Alejandro1 03 July 2013 01:28:06PM Permalink

My experience as a marriage counselor taught me that for a discussion of a disagreement to be productive, the parties have to have a shared understanding of what is being debated. If a husband thinks a marital debate is about leaving the toliet seat up or not, and the wife thinks it is about why her husband never listens to, appreciates or loves her the way he should, expect fireworks and frustration. If you are in an argument that you think is about government debt and it’s going nowhere, it may be because the person you are debating isn’t really arguing about the current level of government debt. Rather, they are arguing about the size of government.

If you get into a debate that is ostensibly about the level of government debt, try the following tactic (or try it on yourself in your own mind): If your opponent says that government debt is too high and we therefore need to cut public spending, ask whether s/he has EVER favored under ANY economic conditions a nice, fat increase in public spending. If you are debating someone who says that government debt is no big deal and that we should be increasing public spending, ask if s/he has EVER favored under ANY economics conditions a big, fat cut in public spending. You are going to get a no answer most of the time; maybe almost all the time.

…Is that wrong? No, it’s just frustrating when you are arguing about one thing and the other person is arguing about something else (or, when BOTH of you are actually arguing about something other than what on the face of it you think you are arguing about). The solution?: Drop the charade and get down to business. How big government should be is an essential political argument for the members of a society to have, so why not just have it up front?

--Keith Humphreys

(I hope that the general point is appreciated instead of starting a politics discussion! I think these kind of proxy arguments are a very common failure mode in all areas of life.)

28 points James_Miller 01 July 2013 05:31:59PM Permalink

"Here are the ten major principles of rapid skill acquisition:

  1. Choose a lovable project.
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time.
  3. Define your target performance level.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills.
  5. Obtain critical tools.
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice.
  7. Make dedicated time for practice.
  8. Create fast feedback loops.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts.
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed."

The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast! by Josh Kaufman.

28 points gwern 02 September 2013 02:57:16AM Permalink

Fallacy names are useful for the same reason any term or technical vocab are useful.

'But notice how you could've just you meant the quantity 1+1+1+1 without yelling "four" first! In fact, that's how all 'numbers' work. If someone is actually using a quantity, you can just give that quantity directly without being a mathematician and finding a pat little name for all of their quantities used.'

28 points RichardKennaway 02 November 2013 07:29:54PM Permalink

It’s something I learned from animal ethology. An “overdetermined” behavior is one for which there are multiple sufficient explanations. To unpack: “For every interesting behavior of animals and humans there is more than one valid and sufficient causal theory.” Evolution likes overdetermined behaviors; they serve multiple functions at once.

Eric Raymond

Google Is My Friend.

28 points RolfAndreassen 02 March 2014 12:21:46AM Permalink

Humans in general are very bad at this. The only reason capitalism works is that the losing experiments run out of money.

28 points gwern 03 April 2014 09:54:23PM Permalink

I think we can safely say there were non-Euclidean geometries involved.

28 points [deleted] 02 June 2014 05:02:51PM Permalink

Though I am glad not everyone followed this advice with regards to me, when I was (more of) an idiot. I owe those patient, sympathetic, tolerant people a great deal.

28 points dspeyer 01 September 2014 05:36:19PM Permalink

Alex Jordan, a grad student at Stanford, came up with the idea of asking people to make moral judgments while he secretly tripped their disgust alarms. He stood at a pedestrian intersection on the Stanford campus and asked passersby to fill out a short survey. It asked people to make judgments about four controversial issues, such as marriage between first cousins, or a film studio’s decision to release a documentary with a director who had tricked some people into being interviewed. Alex stood right next to a trash can he had emptied. Before he recruited each subject, he put a new plastic liner into the metal can. Before half of the people walked up (and before they could see him), he sprayed the fart spray twice into the bag, which “perfumed” the whole intersection for a few minutes. Before other recruitments, he left the empty bag unsprayed. Sure enough, people made harsher judgments when they were breathing in foul air

-- The Righteous Mind Ch 3, Jonathan Haidt

I wonder if anyone who needs to make important judgments a lot makes an actual effort to maintain affective hygiene. It seems like a really good idea, but poor signalling.

28 points Azathoth123 02 November 2014 01:13:34AM Permalink

Base Commander: Anything I do at this point will only make things worse. Anything!

Chief of Police: Many people would charge in anyway.

Base Commander: Oh, the urge to do something during an emergency is very strong. It takes training and discipline to do nothing.

Freefall by Mark Stanley.

27 points Rune 18 April 2009 09:00:18PM Permalink

Sheldon: "More wrong?" Wrong is an absolute state and not subject to gradation.

Stuart: Of course it is. It's a little wrong to call a tomato a vegetable; it's very wrong to say it's a suspension bridge.

-- The Big Bang Theory

27 points wuwei 15 June 2009 04:39:02AM 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's 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

27 points Unnamed 08 January 2010 12:48:32AM Permalink

"Most haystacks do not even have a needle."

-- Lorenzo

27 points Rain 07 January 2010 11:39:22PM Permalink

In the wake of such suffering, there is no way to adequately explain the tragedy. Yet the seemingly random nature of the mass deaths has made them even harder for the survivors to understand.

"In a situation like this, it's only natural to want to assign blame," said Dr. Frederick MacDougal of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, who recently lost a third cousin to a degenerative nerve disorder. "But the disturbing thing about this case is that no one factor is at fault. People are dying for such a wide range of reasons--gunshot wounds, black-lung disease, falls down elevator shafts--that we have been unable to isolate any single element as the cause."

"No one simple explanation can encompass the enormous scope of this problem," MacDougal added. "And that's very difficult for most people to process psychologically."


Meanwhile, as the world continues to grapple with this seemingly unstoppable threat, the deaths--and the sorrow, fear and pain they have wrought--continue.

As Margaret Heller, a volunteer at a clinic in Baltimore put it, "We do everything we can. But for most of the people we try to help, the sad truth is it's only a matter of time."

-- The Onion, Millions and Millions Dead

Related: World Death Rate Holding Steady At 100 Percent

27 points Kutta 01 February 2010 02:40:35PM Permalink

Many people equate tolerance with the attitude that every belief is equally true, and that we should all simply accept this fact and go our separate ways. But I view tolerance as the willingness to come together, to face one another in the same room and hack at each other with claw hammers until the truth finally trickles out from the blood and the tears.

-- Raving Atheist, found via the Black Belt Bayesian blog (props to Steven)

27 points RichardKennaway 01 February 2010 11:53:30AM Permalink

"Intuition only works in situations where neurology and evolution has pre-equipped us with a good set of basic-level categories. That works for dealing with other humans, and for throwing things, and for a bunch of other things that do not, unfortunately, include constructing viable philosophies."

-- Eric S. Raymond

27 points anonym 01 February 2010 06:53:17AM Permalink

Education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at. Children don't have to go to school to learn how to walk, talk, recognize objects, or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding, or remembering dates in history. They do have to go to school to learn written language, arithmetic, and science, because those bodies of knowledge and skill were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for them to have evolved.

Steven Pinker -- The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

27 points Oscar_Cunningham 01 June 2010 08:37:23PM Permalink

On a similar theme:

Fiction often mixes up logical with other concepts ... For one thing, authors sometimes say "illogical" when they mean "counter-intuitive." Correct logic is very often counter-intuitive, however, which is to be expected, as logic is meant to prevent errors caused by relying on intuition.

TV Tropes

27 points DSimon 03 August 2010 03:27:01AM Permalink

My hotel doesn't have a 13th floor because of superstition, but people on the 14th floor, you should know what floor you're really on. If you jump out the window, you will die sooner than you expect.

-- Mitch Hedberg (Quoted from memory)

27 points sketerpot 03 December 2010 10:25:21PM Permalink

Mitch Hedberg on the distinction between labels and the things to which they are applied:

I just bought a 2-bedroom house, but it's up to me, isn't it, how many bedrooms there are? Fuck you, real estate lady! This bedroom has a oven in it! This bedroom’s got a lot of people sitting around watching TV. This bedroom is A.K.A. a hallway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Common German folk saying

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

27 points gwern 01 February 2011 11:41:55PM Permalink

Downvoted because this kind of quote is the kind of snide simplistic atheism that is best left on Reddit's atheism subreddit or similar places. It has no value here; it's not even good Dark Arts.

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

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

-Irwin Edman

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

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

Dilbert creator Scott Adams discussing Charlie Sheen.

27 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 March 2011 08:58:24PM Permalink

"Ordinary claims require merely ordinary evidence" is an overlooked and tremendously important corollary.

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

Complex problems have simple, easy to understand wrong answers.

— Grossman's Law

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

Part of the potential of things is how they break.

Vi Hart, How To Snakes

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

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


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

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

Peter Medawar

27 points cousin_it 03 August 2011 12:09:44AM Permalink

This sounds wrong. Biases have predictable direction, that's why they're called biases and not variance (ahem).

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

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

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

In other words, politics is the mind killer.

27 points Raemon 06 September 2011 05:49:15PM Permalink

I recently contemplated learning to play chess better (not to make an attempt at mastery, but to improve enough so I wasn't so embarassed about how bad I was).

Most of my motivation for this was an odd signalling mechanism: People think of me as a smart person, and they think of smart people as people who are good at chess, and they are thus disappointed with me when it turns out I am not.

But in the process of learning, I realized something else: I dislike chess, as compared to say, Magic the Gathering, because chess is PURE strategy, whereas Magic or StarCraft have splashy images and/or luck that provides periodic dopamine rushes. Chess only is mentally rewarding for me at two moments: when I capture an enemy piece, or when I win. I'm not good enough to win against anyone who plays chess remotely seriously, so when I get frustrated, I just go capturing enemy pieces even though it's a bad play, so I can at least feel good about knocking over an enemy bishop.

What I found most significant, though, was the realization that this fundamental not enjoying the process of thinking out chess strategies gave me some level of empathy for people who, in general, don't like to think. (This is most non-nerds, as far as I can tell). Thinking about chess is physically stressful for me, whereas thinking about other kinds of abstract problems is fun and rewarding purely for its own sake.

27 points Nisan 03 October 2011 07:14:38PM Permalink

On the other hand, those thousands of lives cut short by violence are also the real history of our species — the misery we are climbing out of. The value of the discovery of the spectrum of light lies in its being put to use in ensuring that London never burns again.

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

On precision in aesthetics, metaethics:

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

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

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

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

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

RS: But nobody likes stuff that sucks!

BH: Then why does so much stuff suck?

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

-Rolling Stone, Interview with Beavis and Butt-Head

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

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

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

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 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 wallowinmaya 01 February 2012 06:54:38PM Permalink

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

Charles S. Peirce

27 points pedanterrific 01 March 2012 07:41:37PM Permalink

watch out folks, we got a badass over here

27 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"

27 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

27 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."

27 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

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 Jayson_Virissimo 03 August 2012 01:23:26PM Permalink

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves. It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.

-Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

27 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

27 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

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 GabrielDuquette 01 January 2013 06:19:58PM Permalink

The first rule of human club is you don't explicitly discuss the rules of human club.

Silas Dogood

27 points ChristianKl 02 February 2013 05:07:14PM Permalink

You put them into a social enviroment where the high status people value logic and evidence. You give them the plausible promise that they can increase their status in that enviroment by increasing the amount that they value logic and evidence.

27 points Stuart_Armstrong 02 March 2013 01:53:25AM Permalink

"I once received a letter from an eminent logician, Mrs. Christine Ladd-Franklin, saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that there were no others. Coming from a logician and a solipsist, her surprise surprised me.”

Bertrand Russell

27 points etotheipi 08 April 2013 02:29:36AM Permalink

"The peril of arguing with you is forgetting to argue with myself. Don’t make me convince you: I don’t want to believe that much."

  • Even More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays from Vectors 3.0, James Richardson

The others are quite nice too:

27 points Jayson_Virissimo 03 April 2013 07:32:21AM Permalink

If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance we can solve them.

-- Isaac Asimov

27 points GabrielDuquette 05 May 2013 03:49:28PM Permalink

"Your third arrest, you go to jail for life." "Why the third?" "Because in a game a guy gets three times to swing a stick at a ball."

Hunter Felt

27 points NancyLebovitz 25 June 2013 02:01:01PM Permalink

The movie “Apollo 13″ does a fair job of showing how rapidly the engineers in Houston devised the kludge and documented it, but because of time contraints of course they can’t show you everything. NASA is a stickler for details. (Believe me, I’ve worked with them!) They don’t just rapid prototype something that people’s lives will depend upon. Overnight, they not only devised the scrubber adapter built from stuff in the launch manifest, they also tested it, documented it, and sent up stepwise instructions for constructing it. In a high-maturity organization, once you get into the habit of doing that, it doesn’t really take that long. Something that always puzzles me when I meet cowboy engineers who insist that process will just slow them down unacceptably. I tell them that hey, if NASA engineers could design, build, test, and document a CO2 scrubber adapter made from common household items overnight, you can damn well put in a comment when you check in your code changes.

27 points James_Miller 01 June 2013 03:15:46PM Permalink

Imagine you are sitting on this plane now. The top of the craft is gone and you can see the sky above you. Columns of flame are growing. Holes in the sides of the airliner lead to freedom. How would you react?

You probably think you would leap to your feet and yell, "Let's get the hell out of here!" If not this, then you might assume you would coil into a fetal position and freak out. Statistically, neither of these is likely. What you would probably do is far weirder......

In any perilous event, like a sinking ship or towering inferno, a shooting rampage or a tornado, there is a chance you will become so overwhelmed by the perilous overflow of ambiguous information that you will do nothing at all...

about 75 percent of people find it impossible to reason during a catastrophic event or impending doom.

You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney p 55,56, and 58.

27 points Creutzer 20 July 2013 09:28:36AM Permalink

“As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realize how insignificant they are."

Peter Cook

Not, perhaps, a rationality quote per se, but a delightful subversion of a harmful commonplace.

27 points snafoo 04 August 2013 05:46:45PM Permalink

Some say imprisoning three women in my home for a decade makes me a monster, I say it doesn’t, and of course the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Ariel Castro (according to The Onion)

27 points lavalamp 01 August 2013 11:03:03PM Permalink

It's probably a much more accurate feeling than the opposite one, though...

27 points JonMcGuire 04 September 2013 04:03:52PM Permalink

But, of course, the usual response to any new perspective is "That can't be right, because I don't already believe it."

Eugene McCarthy, Human Origins: Are We Hybrids?

27 points XerxesPraelor 20 September 2013 05:07:43PM Permalink

There is one very valid test by which we may separate genuine, if perverse and unbalanced, originality and revolt from mere impudent innovation and bluff. The man who really thinks he has an idea will always try to explain that idea. The charlatan who has no idea will always confine himself to explaining that it is much too subtle to be explained. The first idea may be really outree or specialist; it may be really difficult to express to ordinary people. But because the man is trying to express it, it is most probable that there is something in it, after all. The honest man is he who is always trying to utter the unutterable, to describe the indescribable; but the quack lives not by plunging into mystery, but by refusing to come out of it.

G K Chesterton

27 points wedrifid 06 October 2013 08:17:44AM Permalink

By poet I would mean someone who writes poems.

27 points NoSuchPlace 07 December 2013 03:05:36AM Permalink

It's hard enough to overcome one's own misconceptions without having to think about how to get the resulting ideas past other people's. I worry that if I wrote to persuade, I'd start to shy away unconsciously from ideas I knew would be hard to sell. When I notice something surprising, it's usually very faint at first. There's nothing more than a slight stirring of discomfort. I don't want anything to get in the way of noticing it consciously.

27 points jazmt 20 January 2014 02:56:07AM Permalink

Train your tongue to say "I don't know", lest you be brought to falsehood -Babylonian Talmud

27 points brainoil 04 February 2014 12:32:52AM Permalink

"Nothing exists in contradiction to nature, only in contradiction to what we know of it." - Dana Scully, The X-Files

27 points Jayson_Virissimo 04 February 2014 05:26:01AM Permalink

Shit, if I took time out to have an opinion about everything, I wouldn't get any work done...

-- L. Bob Rife, Snow Crash

27 points Thomas 01 March 2014 04:29:55PM Permalink

He says we could learn a lot from primitive tribes. But they could learn a lot more from us!

  • Jeremy Clarkson
27 points Stabilizer 02 March 2014 12:11:14AM Permalink

Procrastination is the thief of compound interest.

-Venkatesh Rao

27 points JQuinton 01 April 2014 01:00:19PM Permalink

Now, one basic principle in all of science is GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. This principle is particularly important in statistical meta-analysis: because if you have a bunch of methodologically poor studies, each with small sample size, and then subject them to meta-analysis, what can happen is that the systematic biases in each study — if they mostly point in the same direction — can reach statistical significance when the studies are pooled. And this possibility is particularly relevant here, because meta-analyses of homeopathy invariably find an inverse correlation between the methodological quality of the study and the observed effectiveness of homeopathy: that is, the sloppiest studies find the strongest evidence in favor of homeopathy. When one restricts attention only to methodologically sound studies — those that include adequate randomization and double-blinding, predefined outcome measures, and clear accounting for drop-outs — the meta-analyses find no statistically significant effect (whether positive or negative) of homeopathy compared to placebo.

27 points roystgnr 02 May 2014 03:35:24PM Permalink

PLAYBOY: So the experiment didn’t work?

[Craig] FERGUSON: No, the experiment always works. There’s no such thing as an experiment that doesn’t work. There are only results, but results may vary. Here’s what I learned:

27 points johnlawrenceaspden 09 June 2014 11:46:13PM Permalink

“The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses"

-- Francis Bacon

27 points James_Miller 18 July 2014 02:00:07AM Permalink

A law professor who was a practicing defense attorney whom I talked with during my ordeal told me of an experiment he had done. He was at a dinner party and told people at one table that he was defending a man who was wrongly accused of molesting a child, and was met with shock and accusations of trying to free a monster. He told another table that he was defending a murder suspect whom he was convinced was guilty, and got, "Oh, that's sounds interesting. Tell me more."

Ray Atkinson on Quora

27 points Pablo_Stafforini 07 July 2014 06:16:58PM Permalink

Another possibility is that our intuitive sense of justice is a set of heuristics: moral machinery that’s very useful but far from infallible. We have a taste for punishment. This taste, like all tastes, is subtle and complicated, shaped by a complex mix of genetic, cultural, and idiosyncratic factors. But our taste for punishment is still a taste, implemented by automatic settings and thus limited by its inflexibility. All tastes can be fooled. We fool our taste buds with artificial sweeteners. We fool our sexual appetites with birth control and pornography, both of which supply sexual gratification while doing nothing to spread our genes. Sometimes, however, our tastes make fools of us. Our tastes for fat and sugar make us obese in a world of abundance. Drugs of abuse hijack our reward circuits and destroy people’s lives. To know whether we’re fooling our tastes or whether our tastes are fooling us, we have to step outside the limited perspective of our tastes: To what extent is this thing—diet soda, porn, Nutella, heroin—really serving our bests interests? We should ask the same question about our taste for punishment.

Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, New York, 2013, p. 272

27 points Pablo_Stafforini 04 August 2014 05:59:45PM Permalink

A good rule of thumb to ask yourself in all situations is, “If not now, then when?” Many people delay important habits, work and goals for some hypothetical future. But the future quickly becomes the present and nothing will have changed.

Scott Young

27 points woodside 04 December 2014 08:26:52PM Permalink

If I could convince Aubrey de Grey to cut off his beard it would increase everyones expected longevity more than any other accomplishment I'm capable of.

26 points Yvain 18 April 2009 01:26:56PM Permalink

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world, and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

-- E. B. White

26 points Yvain 15 June 2009 09:57:40AM Permalink

"Voting in a democracy makes you feel powerful, much as playing the lottery makes you feel rich." -- Mencius Moldbug

26 points arundelo 03 July 2009 01:36:57AM Permalink

On some pitch black mornings, hearing what I knew was a cold wind howling outside, I might think, "Well, it is certainly comfortable in this bed, and maybe it wouldn't hurt if I just skipped practicing to-day." But my response to this was not to draw on something called will power, to insult or threaten myself, but to take a longer look at my life, to extend my vision, to think about the whole of my experience, to reconnect present and future, and quite specifically, to ask myself, "Do you like playing the cello or not? Would you like to play it better or not?" When I put the matter this way I could see that I enjoyed playing the cello more than I enjoyed staying in bed. So I got up. If, as sometimes happened or happens, I do stay in bed, not sleeping, not really thinking, but just not getting up, it is not because will power is weak but because I have temporarily become disconnected, so to speak, from the wholeness of my life. I am living in that Now that some people pursue so frantically, that gets harder to find the harder we look for it.

John Holt, Freedom and Beyond, p. 119

See also this comment by Z_M_Davis.

26 points ata 07 August 2009 04:50:43AM Permalink

"A witty saying proves nothing." -- Voltaire

I've always found that useful to keep in mind when reading threads like this.

26 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 November 2009 01:39:55AM Permalink

How utterly selfish of him.

26 points Nic_Smith 01 February 2010 07:43:17AM Permalink

If you can't feel secure - and teach your children to feel secure - about 1-in-610,000 nightmare scenarios - the problem isn't the world. It's you.

-- Bryan Caplan

26 points Theist 04 June 2010 11:27:54PM Permalink

"I accidentally changed my mind."

my four-year-old

26 points wiresnips 03 January 2011 08:40:04PM Permalink

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

-- Greg Egan, Quarantine

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

On noticing confusion:

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

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

Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Priory School

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

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

David Bennett

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

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

Charles Darwin

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Dennett

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

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

Gary Marcus, Kluge

Relevant to deathism and many other things

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

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

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal

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

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

'No,' said Father Brown.

-- G.K. Chesterton

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

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


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

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

-- T-Rex, Dinosaur Comics

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

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

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

26 points Nominull 01 December 2011 04:18:51AM Permalink

And they'll be beaten in turn by people who were in the right place at the right time, or won the genetic lottery. A little luck can make up for a lot of laziness, and working hard and learning things can just leave you digging ditches and able to quote every Simpsons episode verbatim.

26 points Jayson_Virissimo 01 December 2011 03:59:48AM Permalink

As a 911 Operator, I have spoken to hundreds of suicidal people at their very lowest moment (often with a weapon in hand). In my professional judgment, the quote is accurate for a large number of cases (obviously, there are exceptions).

26 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.)

26 points FiftyTwo 03 February 2012 12:01:34PM Permalink

Science knows it doesn't know everything, otherwise it would stop.

Dara OBriain

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 DanArmak 02 May 2012 04:48:51PM Permalink

Only while the island is smaller than half the world :-)

Anyway, I can always measure your shore and get any result I want.

26 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

26 points gwern 07 May 2012 09:48:45PM Permalink

Downloading the book, pg236, you forgot one interesting detail:

One of the many baffling mysteries concerns who survives and who doesn't. "It's not who you'd predict, either," Hill, who has studied the survival rates of different demographic groups, told me. "Sometimes the one who survives is an inexperienced female hiker, while the experienced hunter gives up and dies in one night, even when it's not that cold. The category that has one of the highest survival rates is children six and under, the very people we're most concerned about." Despite the fact that small children lose body heat faster than adults, they often survive in the same conditions better than experienced hunters, better than physically fit hikers, better than former members of the military or skilled sailors. And yet one of the groups with the poorest survival rates is children ages seven to twelve. Clearly, those youngest children have a deep secret that trumps knowledge and experience.

Scientists do not know exactly what that secret is, but the answer may lie in basic childhood traits. At that age, the brain has not yet developed certain abilities. For example, small children do not create the same sort of mental maps adults do. They don't understand traveling to a particular place, so they don't run to get somewhere beyond their field of vision. They also follow their instincts. If it gets cold, they crawl into a hollow tree to get warm. If they're tired, they rest, so they don't get fatigued. If they're thirsty, they drink. They try to make themselves comfortable, and staying comfortable helps keep them alive. (Small children following their instincts can also be hard to find; in more than one case, the lost child actually hid from rescuers. One was afraid of "coyotes" when he heard the search dogs barking. Another was afraid of one-eyed monsters when he saw big men wearing headlamps. Fortunately, both were ultimately found.) The secret may also be in the fact that they do not yet have the sophisticated mental mapping ability that adults have, and so do not try to bend the map. They remap the world they're in.

Children between the ages of seven and twelve, on the other hand, have some adult characteristics, such as mental mapping, but they don't have adult judgment. They don't ordinarily have the strong ability to control emotional responses and to reason through their situation. They panic and run. They look for shortcuts. If a trail peters out, they keep going, ignoring thirst, hunger, and cold, until they fall over. In learning to think more like adults, it seems, they have suppressed the very instincts that might have helped them. But they haven't learned to stay cool. Many may not yet be self-reliant. ?

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 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 Rhwawn 03 September 2012 12:20:30AM Permalink

Reminds me of Patton:

No man ever won a war by dying for his country. Wars were won by making the other poor bastard die for his. You don't win a war by dying for your country.

26 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 November 2012 12:29:25PM Permalink


I mean, grain of truth, yes, literally true, no. You can shock the hell out of people and distinguish yourselves quite well by doing rational things.

26 points katydee 01 January 2013 01:37:48PM Permalink

The dream is damned and dreamer too if dreaming's all that dreamers do.

--Rory Miller

26 points Eugine_Nier 02 February 2013 06:51:31AM Permalink

[S]econd thoughts tend to be tentative, and people tend not to believe that they are being lied to. Their own fairmindedness makes them gullible. Upon hearing two versions of any story, the natural reaction of any casual listener is to assume both versions are slanted to favor their side, and that the truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle. So if I falsely accuse an innocent group of ten people of wrongdoing, the average bystander, if he later hears my false accusation disputed, will assume that five or six of the people are guilty, rather than assume I lied and admit that he was deceived.

-- John C Wright

26 points curiousepic 06 February 2013 02:25:23AM Permalink

Q: I was wondering what the dumbest or funniest argument you've heard against the defeat of aging?

Aubrey de Grey: Um, It's been a very very long time since I've heard a question or concern I haven't heard before, so nothing's dumb or funny anymore, it's just... tedium.

From this recent talk

26 points GabrielDuquette 01 March 2013 06:18:01PM Permalink

Shouldn't "it works like a charm" be said about things that don't work?

Jason Roy

26 points Stabilizer 02 March 2013 12:58:40AM Permalink

“Anything left on your bucket list?”

“Not dying...”

-Bill Gates in his AMA on reddit.

26 points wedrifid 08 April 2013 06:14:33AM Permalink

"You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.

Moral: Just because the superior agent knows what is best for you and could give you flawless advice, doesn't mean it will not prefer to consume you for your component atoms!

26 points AlanCrowe 01 May 2013 09:35:53PM Permalink

There is, perhaps, a word missing from the English language. If Derek Lowe were speaking, instead of writing, he would put an exaggerated emphasis on the word real and native speakers of English would pick up on a special, metaphorical meaning for the word real in the phrase real boss. The idea is that there are hidden, behind the scenes connections more potent (more real?) than the overt connections.

There is a man in a suit, call him the actual boss, who issues orders. Perhaps one order is "run the toxicology tests". The actual boss is the same as the real boss so far. Perhaps another order is "and show that the compound is safe." Now power shifts to the mice. If the compound poisons the mice and they die, then the compound wasn't safe. The actual boss has no power here. It is the mice who are the real boss. They have final say on whether the compound is safe, regardless of the orders that the actual boss gave.

Derek Lowe is giving us an offshoot of an aphorism by Francis Bacon: "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." Again the point is lost if one refuses to find a poetic reading. Nature accepts no commands; there are no Harry-Potter style spells. Nature issues no commands; we do not hear and obey, we just obey. (So why is Bacon advising us to obey?)

26 points cody-bryce 02 July 2013 06:17:44PM Permalink

Truth would quickly cease to be stranger than fiction, once we got as used to it.

H.L. Mencken

26 points CronoDAS 04 July 2013 07:33:31PM Permalink

There are those among us - among you, too, I observe - who glorify the wonders of the natural world with a kind of glassy-eyed fanaticism and urge a return to that purer, more innocent state. This testifies to nothing other than the fact that those who recommend the satisfactions of living in harmony with nature have never had to do it. Nature is evil. Nature is conflict, violence, betrayal; worms that crawl through the skin and breed in the gut; thorns that poison; snakes that fight in writhing, heaving masses until all lie dead from one another's poison. From nature we learned to tear the flesh off the bone and suck out the blood - and to enjoy it. Do you want to return to that state? I do not.


I have known Nature. I have known Civilization. Civilization is better.

-- Donna Ball (writing as Donna Boyd), The Passion

26 points Vaniver 01 July 2013 04:57:29PM Permalink

We shall not grow wiser before we learn that much that we have done was very foolish.

-- F. A. Hayek

26 points SaidAchmiz 03 July 2013 03:45:37PM Permalink

It seems like your comment misses the point of the Unix philosophy, which is that the designers do not undertake to know in advance exactly which user actions are "stupid" and which are "clever". Unix is supposed to be a solid framework in which you can do things; figuring out what's stupid and what's clever is left to the user. It is an expression of fundamental designer trust in the user.

26 points Stabilizer 01 July 2013 10:02:31PM Permalink

This law according to Dennett is an extension of Schanks Law:

Because people understand by finding in their memories the closest possible match to what they are hearing and use that match as the basis of comprehension, any new idea will be treated as a variant of something the listener has already thought of or heard. Agreement with a new idea means a listener has already had a similar thought and well appreciates that the speaker has recognized his idea. Disagreement means the opposite. Really new ideas are incomprehensible. The good news is that for some people, failure to comprehend is the beginning of understanding. For most, of course, it is the beginning of dismissal.

-Roger Schank

26 points RolfAndreassen 06 August 2013 03:49:17PM Permalink

He took literally five seconds for something I'd spent two weeks on, which I guess is what being an expert means

-- Graduate student of our group, recognising a level above his own in a weekly progress report

26 points shminux 02 August 2013 03:23:24AM Permalink

A man who says he is willing to meet you halfway is usually a poor judge of distance.


26 points cody-bryce 02 August 2013 10:30:27PM Permalink

If Tetris has taught me anything it's that errors pile up and accomplishments disappear.


26 points SatvikBeri 03 September 2013 09:45:33PM Permalink

I discovered as a child that the user interface for reprogramming my own brain is my imagination. For example, if I want to reprogram myself to be in a happy mood, I imagine succeeding at a difficult challenge, or flying under my own power, or perhaps being able to levitate objects with my mind. If I want to perform better at a specific task, such as tennis, I imagine the perfect strokes before going on court. If I want to fall asleep, I imagine myself in pleasant situations that are unrelated to whatever is going on with my real life.

My most useful mental trick involves imagining myself to be far more capable than I am. I do this to reduce the risk that I turn down an opportunity just because I am clearly unqualified[...] As my career with Dilbert took off, reporters asked me if I ever imagined I would reach this level of success. The question embarrasses me because the truth is that I imagined a far greater level of success. That's my process. I imagine big.

Scott Adams

26 points MugaSofer 02 September 2013 08:44:06PM Permalink

"One of the penalties for not ruling the world is that it gets ruled by other people." - clearly superior quote

26 points Benito 12 December 2013 06:03:44PM Permalink

When I was a young untenured professor of philosophy, I once received a visit from a colleague from the Comparative Literature Department, an eminent and fashionable literary theorist, who wanted some help from me. I was flattered to be asked, and did my best to oblige, but the drift of his questions about various philosophical topics was strangely perplexing to me. For quite a while we were getting nowhere, until finally he managed to make clear to me what he had come for. He wanted "an epistemology," he said. An epistemology. Every self-respecting literary theorist had to sport an epistemology that season, it seems, and without one he felt naked, so he had come to me for an epistemology to wear--it was the very next fashion, he was sure, and he wanted the dernier cri in epistemologies. It didn't matter to him that it be sound, or defensible, or (as one might as well say) true; it just had to be new and different and stylish. Accessorize, my good fellow, or be overlooked at the party.

  • Daniel Dennett

Example of professing a belief - here, belief is a fashion statement, or something fun to whip out at parties, not a thing that actually constrains anticipation.

26 points Alejandro1 03 February 2014 03:21:43AM Permalink

A serious prophet upon predicting a flood should be the first man to climb a tree.

--Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage.

26 points lukeprog 12 March 2014 08:48:02PM Permalink

If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru, you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.

Warren Buffett

26 points Viliam_Bur 04 April 2014 10:19:42AM Permalink

There are many students who either can't, or don't want to, learn mathematical intuitions or explanations. They prefer to learn a few formulas and rules by rote, the same way they do in every other class.

Former teacher confirming this. Some students are willing to spend a lot of energy to avoid understanding a topic. They actively demand memorization without understanding... sometimes they even bring their parents as a support; and I have seen some of the parents complaining in the newspapers (where the complaints become very unspecific, that the education is "too difficult" and "inefficient", or something like this).

Which is completely puzzling for the first time you see this, as a teacher, because in every internet discussion about education, teachers are criticized for allegedly insisting on memorization without understanding, and every layman seems to propose new ideas about education with less facts and more "critical thinking". So, you get the impression that there is a popular demand for understanding instead of memorization... and you go to classroom believing you will fix the system... and there is almost a revolution against you, outraged kids refusing to hear any explanations and insisting you just tell them the facts they need to memorize for the exams, and skip the superfluous stuff. (Then you go back to internet, read more complaints about how teachers are insisting that kids memorize the stuff instead of undestanding, and you just give up any hope of a sane discussion.)

My first explanation was that understanding is the best way, but memorization can be more efficient in short term, especially if you expect to forget the stuff and never use it again after the exam. Some subjects probably are like this, but math famously is not. Which is why math is the most hated subject.

Another explanation was that the students probably never actually had an experience of understanding something, at least not in the school, so they literally don't understand what I was trying to do. Which is a horrible idea, if true, but... that wouldn't make it less true, right? Still makes me think: Didn't those kids at least have an experience of something being explained by a book, or by a popular science movie? Probably most of them just don't read such books or watch those movies. -- I wonder what would happen if I just showed the kids some TED videos; would they be interested, or would they hate it?

By the way, this seems not related to whether the topic is difficult. Even explaining how easy things work can be met by resistance. This time not because it is "too difficult", but because "we should just skip the boring simple stuff". (Of course, skipping the boring simple stuff is the best recipe to later find the more advanced stuff too difficult.) I wonder how much impact here has the internet-induced attention deficit.

26 points aarongertler 04 April 2014 05:55:35PM Permalink

"Throughout the day, Stargirl had been dropping money. She was the Johnny Appleseed of loose change: a penny here, a nickel there. Tossed to the sidewalk, laid on a shelf or bench. Even quarters.

"I hate change," she said. "It's so . . . jangly."

"Do you realize how much you must throw away in a year?" I said.

"Did you ever see a little kid's face when he spots a penny on a sidewalk?”

Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl

26 points fubarobfusco 02 May 2014 03:33:05PM Permalink

This lacks a ring of truth for me.

A lot of folks seem to expect the science of human beings to reinforce their bitterness and condemnation of human nature (roughly, "people are mostly crap"). I kinda suspect that if you asked "sophisticated people" (whoever those are) to name some important psychology experiments, those who named any would come up with Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment and Milgram's obedience experiments pretty early on. Not a lot of emotional uplift there.

As for the arts — horror films where everyone dies screaming seem to be regarded as every bit as lowbrow as feel-good comedies.

26 points Risto_Saarelma 06 June 2014 04:27:40PM Permalink

But in some form or another, a lot of people believe that there are only easy truths and impossible truths left. They tend not to believe in hard truths that can be solved with technology.

Pretty much all fundamentalists think this way. Take religious fundamentalism, for example. There are lots of easy truths that even kids know. And then there are the mysteries of God, which can’t be explained. In between—the zone of hard truths—is heresy. Environmental fundamentalism works the same way. The easy truth is that we must protect the environment. Beyond that, Mother Nature knows best, and she cannot be questioned. There’s even a market version of this, too. The value of things is set by the market. Even a child can look up stock prices. Prices are easy truths. But those truths must be accepted, not questioned. The market knows far more than you could ever know. Even Einstein couldn’t outguess God, Nature, or Market.

Peter Thiel

26 points RolfAndreassen 04 August 2014 05:40:54AM Permalink

A man is walking on the moon with his eyes turned up toward space And the bright blue world that watches him reflected on his face. The whole world sees the hero there and the module crew also. But few can see the guiding team that guards him from below.

Here's a health to the man who walked the moon, and the module crew above, And the team that watches from the sky with worry, joy, and love. To all who blazed the sky-trail come raise your glasses 'round; And a health to the unknown heroes, too, who never left the ground.

Here's a health to the ship's designers, and the welders of her seams, And all who man the radar-scan to watch our dawning dreams. For all the unknown heroes, sing out to every shore: "What makes one step a giant leap is all the steps before".

Leslie Fish, musically praising the Hufflepuff virtues.

26 points jaime2000 05 August 2014 04:24:47AM Permalink

"I want information. I want to understand you. To understand what exactly I'm fighting. You can help me."

"I obviously won't."

"I will kill you if you don't help me. I'm not bluffing, Broadwings. I will kill you and you will die alone and unseen, and frankly you are far too intelligent to simply believe that the stories of ancestral halls are true. You will die and that will probably be it, and nobody will ever know if you talked or not—not that conversing with an enemy in a war you don't support is dishonorable in the first place."

"You'll let me leave if I stonewall, because you don't want to set a precedent of murdering surrendered officers."

"We'll see. Would you like another cup?"


Derpy smiled deviously. "You know, in that last battle? We didn't fly our cannon up there to the cliffs. Nope. We had Earth ponies drag them. Earth ponies are capable of astounding physical feats, you know. We're probably going to be using more mobility in our artillery deployment going forward, now that they've demonstrated how effective the concept is."

"...why did you tell me that? What would drive you to tell me that?"

"I'll ask again before I continue. Would you like to assist me, Broadwings?"

"I am a gryphon. Telling me your plans will do nothing to change that. I will not barter secrets."

She leaned back, gesturing with a hoof as she talked. "My biggest strengths are that I understand the way crowds think and that I am good at thinking up unexpected ways to solve simple problems. My army's biggest weakness is that my soldiers are inexperienced, and that unexpected developments have an inordinate effect on their morale. Also, my infantry will never be able to stand against a sustained lion charge, so I have to keep finding ways to nullify that disadvantage, and frankly I won't be able to forever."

"I don't understand. What are you doing, Mare? Why are you--"

"--my personal biggest weaknesses," she continued, her smile now malicious, "are my struggles with morality, identity, and my desire to be loved. There's also my relationship with the stallion Macintosh Apple, who is usually called Big Macintosh, with whom I spend upwards of ten hours a day, and on whom I am completely emotionally dependent. If he were to be killed, I'd probably fall apart emotionally. I also have a daughter named Dinky—not by him, mind you—who is in the Southmarch, and who I am very, very guilty about abandoning. If anything were to happen to her I might kill myself. Do you understand yet, Broadwings?"

"Mare, this is insanity. I cannot--"

"--All right then, we'll continue. I also have in this camp Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo, three little fillies, though they're growing quite quickly now. Sweetie Belle is the writer of many propaganda songs, Apple Bloom is Big Mac's sister, who he protects like a daughter, and I believe Scootaloo has no special importance but the other two would defend her to the death. They would be quite easy to kill as well. Do you understand yet?"

"Mare! Are you mad?! Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to tell me these things? Aren't you afraid I would tell--"

"--Good," she nodded. "You're beginning to understand. Let's see. My logistics framework right now is nonexistent. I'm entirely reliant on local villages bringing me food and materiel, and on capturing food and materiel meant for your armies. My army is nowhere near as mobile as it appears, since it can only operate in areas where I have established relationships with each particular village. A bit of simple recon work would let you figure out where I can and cannot go. Do you understand yet?"

Broadwings' eyes opened and his pupils shrank with dawning recognition. "...If I came back to my army, I would use this to defeat you. If I told any other gryphon, they would use it to defeat you. have..."

"Yes. I have sealed your fate; you will not see your home. I can't let you leave now. I absolutely can't. I can now either kill you or keep you prisoner until this war is over—and I don't keep useless prisoners. It's now out of my hooves. One or the other. You pick."

~emkajii, Equestria: Total War

26 points gjm 03 December 2014 11:30:44AM Permalink

I mostly agree, but I think the slogan (like, I think, many others about which similar things could be said) has some value none the less.

A logically correct but uninspiring version would go like this:

It is a common human failing to pay too much attention to safety and not enough to liberty. As a result, we (individually and corporately) will often be tempted to give up liberty in the name of safety, and in many such cases this will be a really bad tradeoff. So don't do that.

-- Not Benjamin Franklin

Franklin's slogan serves as a sort of reminder that (1) there is a frequent temptation to "give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety" and (2) this is likely a bad idea. Indeed, the actual work of figuring out when the slogan is appropriate still needs to be done, but the reminder can still be useful. And (3) because it's a Famous Saying of a Famous Historical Figure, one can fairly safely draw attention to it and maybe even be taken seriously, even in times when the powers that be are trying to portray any refusal to be terrorized as unpatriotic.

Of course Volokh is aware of the "reminder" function (as he says: "The slogan might work as a reminder") but I think he undervalues it. (He says the "real difficulty" is deciding which tradeoffs to make, but actually just noticing that there's an important tradeoff being proposed is often a real difficulty.) And, alas, its Famous Saying nature is pretty important too.

25 points RichardKennaway 15 June 2009 05:32:08AM Permalink

"What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite."

Bertrand Russell, Free Thought and Official Propaganda, in "Sceptical Essays".

25 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 June 2009 01:12:22AM Permalink

"I have now reigned about 50 years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to fourteen."

-- Abd Er-Rahman III of Spain, 960 AD.

25 points arundelo 03 July 2009 01:32:56AM Permalink

Numerical arithmetic should look to children like a simpler and faster way of doing things that they know how to do already, not a set of mysterious recipes for getting right answers to meaningless questions.

John Holt, How Children Fail, p. 101

See also Paul Lockhart.

25 points RobinZ 22 October 2009 04:44:32PM Permalink

[I]n my opinion nothing occurs contrary to nature except the impossible, and that never occurs.

-- Sagredo, "Two New Sciences" (1914 translation), Galileo Galilei

25 points Rain 01 February 2010 10:25:15PM Permalink

also from (made as a reply since I'm already at my 5-quote limit):

+kritical christin: you need to learn how to figure out stuff yourself..

+Christin1 how do i do that

25 points Nic_Smith 03 April 2010 02:55:18AM Permalink

I recall, for example, suggesting to a regular loser at a weekly poker game that he keep a record of his winnings and losses. His response was that he used to do so but had given up because it proved to be unlucky. - Ken Binmore, Rational Decisions

A side note: All three of the quotes I've posted are from Binmore's Rational Decisions, which I'm about a third of the way through and have found very interesting. It makes a great companion to Less Wrong -- and it's also quite quotable in spots.

25 points RichardKennaway 01 June 2010 08:45:00PM Permalink

A certain mother habitually rewards her small son with ice cream after he eats his spinach. What additional information would you need to be able to predict whether the child will: a. Come to love or hate spinach, b. Love or hate ice cream, or c. Love or hate Mother?

-- Gregory Bateson, "Steps to an Ecology of Mind"

25 points Yvain 01 September 2010 06:53:36PM Permalink

We have not solved all your problems. Each answer only led to new questions. We are still confused - but perhaps we are confused on a higher level, and about more important things.

-- seen on a hotel bulletin board

25 points [deleted] 09 October 2010 01:42:32AM Permalink

Philosopher: Can we ever be certain an observation is true?

Engineer: Yep.

Philosopher: How?

Engineer: Lookin'.

Scrollover of SMBC #1879

25 points anonym 03 November 2010 06:52:53AM Permalink

Go down deep enough into anything and you will find mathematics.

Dean Schlicter

25 points MichaelGR 03 December 2010 05:40:15PM Permalink

A man who has committed a mistake and doesn't correct it, is committing another mistake.


25 points shokwave 04 December 2010 03:59:14AM Permalink

This bedroom's over in that guy's house! Sir, you have one of my bedrooms, are you aware? Do not decorate it!

And more Mitch Hedburg, illustrating how redrawing the map won't alter the territory.

25 points KrisC 03 January 2011 07:11:34PM Permalink

I used this quote to help convince a friend to vaccinate her child this past year. It worked.

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

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

Richard Dawkins, Gods Utility Function

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

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

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

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

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


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

A fable:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Robert Wright, The Moral Animal

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

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

XKCD (the mouseover text)

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

25 points gwern 07 June 2011 04:01:26PM Permalink

Reminds me of a Schneier quote that I like:

'Every time I write about the impossibility of effectively protecting digital files on a general-purpose computer, I get responses from people decrying the death of copyright.

"How will authors and artists get paid for their work?" they ask me.

Truth be told, I don't know. I feel rather like the physicist who just explained relativity to a group of would-be interstellar travelers, only to be asked: "How do you expect us to get to the stars, then?"

I'm sorry, but I don't know that, either.'

"Protecting Copyright in the Digital World", Bruce Schneier

25 points brazzy 03 June 2011 09:09:01AM Permalink

A few points come to mind:

  • Presumably they also wanted a canal and there may well be an optimum point where you maximize some sort of combined utility
  • Jobs programs, even those that create nothing particularly useful, are about giving people a sense of worth and accomplishment, otherwise you could just hand out money. Obviously futile make-work activities like the one suggested achieve the opposite of that and are, indeed, often deliberately used to punish and humiliate people.
25 points Konkvistador 23 October 2011 10:59:30AM Permalink

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

-- Herodotus

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

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

Gloria Steinem

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 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 April 2012 08:10:47PM Permalink

It surprises people like Greg Egan, and they're not entirely stupid, because brains are Turing complete modulo the finite memory - there's no analogue of that for visible wavelengths.

25 points CronoDAS 04 April 2012 03:13:41AM Permalink

"What was the Sherlock Holmes principle? 'Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'"

"I reject that entirely," said Dirk sharply. "The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, 'Yes, but he or she simply wouldn't do that.'"

"Well, it happened to me today, in fact," replied Kate.

"Ah, yes," said Dirk, slapping the table and making the glasses jump. "Your girl in the wheelchair -- a perfect example. The idea that she is somehow receiving yesterday's stock market prices apparently out of thin air is merely impossible, and therefore must be the case, because the idea that she is maintaining an immensely complex and laborious hoax of no benefit to herself is hopelessly improbable. The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don't know about, and God knows there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and all its specious rationality."

-- Douglas Adams. The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988) p.169

25 points MixedNuts 20 April 2012 05:48:27PM Permalink

Tips for dealing with people with big egos:

  • Don't insult anyone, ever. If Wagner posts, either say "Hmm, why do you believe Mendelssohn's music to be derivative?" or silently downvote, but don't call him an antisemitic piece of shit.
  • Attributing negative motivations (disliking you, wanting to win a debate, being prejudiced) counts as an insult.
  • Attributing any kind of motivation at all is pretty likely to count as an insult. You can ask about motivation, but only list positive or neutral ones or make it an open question.
  • Likewise, you can ask why you were downvoted. This very often gets people to upvote you again if they were wrong to downvote you (and if not, you get the information you want). Any further implication that they were wrong is an insult.
  • Stick closely to the question and do not involve the personalities of debaters.
  • Exception to the above: it's okay to pass judgement on a personality trait if it's a compliment. If you can't always avoid insulting people, occasionally complimenting them can help.
  • A lot of things are insults. You will slip up. This won't make people dislike you.
  • If you know what a polite and friendly tone is, have one.
  • If someone isn't polite and friendly, it means you need to be more polite and friendly.
  • If they're being very rude and mean and it's getting annoying, you can gently mention it. Still make the rest of your post polite and friendly and about the question.
  • If the "polite and about the question" part is empty, don't post.
  • If you have insulted someone in a thread - either more than once, or once and people are still hostile despite you being extra nice afterwards - people will keep being hostile in the thread and you should probably walk away from it.
  • If hostility in a thread is leaking into your mood, walk away from the whole site for a little while.
  • When you post in another thread, people will not hold any grudges against you from previous threads. Sorry for your epic quest, but we don't have much against you right now.
  • Apologies (rather than silence) are a good idea if you were clearly in the wrong and not overly tempted to add "but".

On politeness:

  • Some politeness norms are stupid and harmful and wrong, like "You must not criticize even if explicitly asked to" or "Disagreement is impolite". Fortunately, we don't have these here.
  • Some are good, like not insulting people. Insulting messages get across poorly. This happens even when people ignore the insult to answer the substance, because the message is overloaded.
  • Some are mostly local communication protocols that help but can be costly to constrain your message around. It's okay to drop them if you can't bear the cost.
  • Some are about fostering personal liking between people. They're worthwhile to people who want that and noise to people who don't.
  • Taking pains to be polite is training wheels. People who are good with words can say precisely and concisely what they mean in a completely neutral tone. People who aren't are injecting lots of accidental interpersonal content, so we need to make it harmless explicitly.

People who are exempted:

  • The aforementioned people, who will never accidentally insult anyone;
  • People whose contribution is so incredibly awesome that it compensates for being insufferable; I know of a few but none on LessWrong;
  • wedrifid, who is somehow capable of pleasant interaction while being a complete jerk.
25 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

25 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.


25 points Nominull 03 September 2012 10:53:57PM Permalink

I agree in principle but I think this particular topic is fairly nailoid in nature.

25 points DanArmak 02 October 2012 06:07:00PM Permalink

If it doesn't make sense, play with it until it does. If it's not broken, break it.

Spoken like a true cat.

25 points Armok_GoB 02 November 2012 09:25:49PM Permalink

My impression was that it was the screwing around that was lacking.

25 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.


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.

25 points Carwajalca 29 January 2013 11:21:28AM Permalink

"I've never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive."

-- Randall Munroe, in (What-if xkcd, Interplanetary Cessna)

25 points James_Miller 01 January 2013 05:34:35PM Permalink

We cannot dismiss conscious analytic thinking by saying that heuristics will get a “close enough” answer 98 percent of the time, because the 2 percent of the instances where heuristics lead us seriously astray may be critical to our lives.

Keith E. Stanovich, What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought

25 points arundelo 01 February 2013 05:00:17PM Permalink

Eventually you just have to admit that if it looks like the absence of a duck, walks like the absence of a duck, and quacks like the absence of a duck, the duck is probably absent.

--Tom Chivers

25 points Rubix 02 February 2013 01:17:50AM Permalink

"In any man who dies, there dies with him his first snow and kiss and fight. Not people die, but worlds die in them."

-Yevgeny Yevtushenko

25 points Kaj_Sotala 03 February 2013 10:20:44PM Permalink

Authors are deliberately excluded from all this, on the grounds that they're so in love with what's inside the book that they don't understand what the cover stuff is for. Which is advertising.

The purpose of cover art is not to show the reader what's inside the book.

It's to get his attention from across the bookstore and get him to pick the book up in the first place.

Half-naked women and muscular barbarians are very good for getting teenaged readers to at least take a look. Black and red are good, too. And spiffy hardware, like spaceships. Cut-out covers, foil, blood, all that stuff--it gets attention, and the art and marketing people really don't give a damn whether it agrees with what's inside the book.

The cover gets you to pick up the book and read the blurbs; the blurbs are supposed to convince you to actually buy it. The blurb writer doesn't care any more about accuracy than the art director did; his job is to sell the book, period. One way to do that is to skim through the book and pick out all the most lurid details.

So all this is done without the author's interference. The author might put up a fuss about the half-naked women, since everyone in the story is ninety years old and wearing dirty bathrobes the whole time. The author might object to having his sentimental tale of old age cover-blurbed, "Shocking Love Secrets of the Ancients!" Who wants to waste time arguing with him? Better to shut him out and deliver the package as a fait accompli.

-- Lawrence Watt-Evans

25 points BlueSun 03 April 2013 04:20:39PM Permalink

Something a Chess Master told me as a child has stuck with me:

How did you get so good?

I've lost more games than you've ever played.

-- Robert Tanner

25 points RichardKennaway 03 June 2013 11:04:38AM Permalink

Does Colonel Barnes? If not, he is just repeating a word he has learned to say. Rather like some people today who have learned to say "entanglement", or "signalling", or "evolution", or...

25 points satt 02 June 2013 01:41:38AM Permalink

I acknowledge respect this criticism, but for two reasons I maintain Simon had a worthwhile insight(!) here that bears on rationality:

  1. Insight, intuition recognition aren't quite the same, but they overlap greatly and are closely related.

  2. Simon's comment, although not literally true, is a fertile hypothesis that not only opens eyeholes into the black boxes of "insight" "intuition", but produces useful predictions about how minds solve problems.

I should justify those. Chapter 4 of Simon's The Sciences of the Artificial, "Remembering and Learning: Memory as Environment for Thought", is relevant here. It uses chess as a test case:

[...] one part of the grandmaster's chess skill resides in the 50,000 chunks stored in memory, and in the index (in the form of a structure of feature tests) that allows him to recognize any one of these chunks on the chess board and to access the information in long-term memory that is associated with it. The information associated with familiar patterns may include knowledge about what to do when the pattern is encountered. Thus the experienced chess player who recognizes the feature called an open file thinks immediately of the possibility of moving a rook to that file. The move may or may not be the best one, but it is one that should be considered whenever an open file is present. The expert recognizes not only the situation in which he finds himself, but also what action might be appropriate for dealing with it. [...]

When playing a "rapid transit" game, at ten seconds a move, or fifty opponents simultaneously, going rapidly from one board to the next, a chess master is operating mostly "intuitively," that is, by recognizing board features and the moves that they suggest. The master will not play as well as in a tournament, where about three minutes, on the average, can be devoted to each move, but nonetheless will play relatively strong chess. A person's skill may decline from grandmaster level to the level of a master, or from master to expert, but it will by no means vanish. Hence recognition capabilities, and the information associated with the patterns that can be recognized, constitute a very large component of chess skill.⁵ [The footnote refers to a paper in Psychological Science.]

The seemingly mysterious insights intuitions of the chessmaster derive from being able to recognize many memorized patterns. This conclusion applies to more than chess; Simon's footnote points to a champion backgammon-playing program based on pattern recognition, and a couple of pages before that he refers to doctors' reliance on recognizing many features of diseases to make rapid medical diagnoses.

From what I've seen this even holds true in maths science, where people are raised to the level of geniuses for their insights intuitions. Heres cousin_it noticing that Terry Tao's insights constitute series of incremental, well-understood steps, consistent with Tao generating insights by recognizing familiar features of problems that allow him to exploit memorized logical steps. My conversations with higher ability mathematicians physicists confirm this; when they talk through a problem, it's clear that they do better than me by being better at recognizing particular features (such as symmetries, or similarities to problems with a known solution) and applying stock tricks they've already memorized to exploit those features. Stepping out of cognitive psychology and into the sociology history of science, the near ubiquity of multiple discovery in science is more evidence that insight is the result of external cues prompting receptive minds to recognize the applicability of an idea or heuristic to a particular problem.

The reduction of insight intuition to recognition isn't wholly watertight, as you note, but the gains from demystifying them by doing the reduction more than outweigh (IMO) the losses incurred by this oversimplification. There are also further gains because the insight-is-intuition-is-recognition hypothesis results in further predictions explanations:

  • Prediction: long-term practice is necessary for mastery of a sufficiently complicated domain, because the powerful intuition indicative of mastery requires memorization of many patterns so that one can recognize those patterns.

  • Prediction: consistently learning new domain-specific patterns (so that one can recognize them later) should, with a very high probability, engender mastery of that domain. (Putting it another way: long-term practice, done correctly, is sufficient for mastery.)

  • Explanation of why "[i]n a couple of domains [chess and classical music composition] where the matter has been studied, we do know that even the most talented people require approximately a decade to reach top professional proficiency" (TSotA, p. 91).

  • Prediction: "When a domain reaches a point where the knowledge for skillful professional practice cannot be acquired in a decade, more or less, then several adaptive developments are likely to occur. Specialization will usually increase (as it has, for example, in medicine), and practitioners will make increasing use of books and other external reference aids in their work" (TSotA, p. 92).

  • Prediction: "It is probably safe to say that the chemist must know as much as a diligent person can learn in about a decade of study" (TSotA, p. 93).

  • Explanation of Eliezers experience with being deep: the people EY spoke to perceived him as deep (i.e. insightful) but EY knew his remarks came from a pre-existing system of intuitions (transhumanism and knowledge of cognitive biases) which allowed him to immediately respond to (or "complete") patterns as he recognized them.

  • Explanation of how intensive childhood training produced some famous geniuses and domain experts (the Polgár sisters, William James Sidis, John Stuart Mill, Norbert Wiener).

  • Prediction: "This accumulation of experience may allow people to behave in ways that are very nearly optimal in situations to which their experience is pertinent, but will be of little help when genuinely novel situations are presented" ("On How to Decide What to Do", p. 503).

  • Prediction: one can write a computer program that plays a game or solves a problem by mechanically recognizing relevant features of the input and making cached feature-specific responses.

I know I've gone on at length here, but your criticism deserved a comprehensive reply, and I wanted to show I wasn't just being flippant when I quoted Simon. I agree he was hyperbolic, but I reckon his hyperbole was sufficiently minor insightful as to be RQ-worthy.

25 points Viliam_Bur 03 July 2013 02:55:52PM Permalink

Most importantly, you are telling the world that anyone saying the same thing is in a risk of losing their tongue, regardless of correctness of the information.

That makes it cheaper for people to argue against the information than to argue for it.

And that increases that chance that people will finally consider him a liar.

25 points RichardKennaway 03 July 2013 02:01:48PM Permalink

any new idea will be treated as a variant of something the listener has already thought of or heard.

From a Bayesian point of view, this is as it must be. People have priors and will assess anything new as a diff (of log-odds) from those priors. Even understanding what you are saying, before considering whether to update towards it, is subject to this. You will always be understood as saying whatever interpretation of your words is the least surprising to your audience.

BTW, this is standard in natural language processing (which is what a lot of Schank's AI work was in). When a sentence is ambiguous, choose the least surprising interpretation, the one containing the least information relative to your current knowledge.

The narrower your audience's priors, the more of a struggle it will be for them to hear you; the narrower your priors, the more you will struggle to hear them.

Having shown how Schank's Law is but an instance of Bayesian inference, I trust you will all find it acceptably unsurprising. :)

25 points MinibearRex 05 August 2013 05:23:38AM Permalink

He wasn't certain what he expected to find, which, in his experience, was generally a good enough reason to investigate something.

Harry Potter and the Confirmed Critical, Chapter 6

25 points lavalamp 02 August 2013 08:22:28PM Permalink

The threat of massive perfectly symmetrical violence, on the other hand...

25 points arundelo 02 September 2013 02:44:29AM Permalink

You argue that it would be wrong to stab my neighbor and take all their stuff. I reply that you have an ugly face. I commit the "ad hominem" fallacy because I'm attacking you, not your argument. So one thing you could do is yell "OI, AD HOMINEM, NOT COOL."

[...] What you need to do is go one step more and say "the ugliness of my face has no bearing on moral judgments about whether it is okay to stab your neighbor."

But notice you could've just said that without yelling "ad hominem" first! In fact, that's how all fallacies work. If someone has actually committed a fallacy, you can just point out their mistake directly without being a pedant and finding a pat little name for all of their logical reasoning problems.

-- TychoCelchuuu on Reddit

25 points Stabilizer 03 October 2013 09:15:52PM Permalink

A majority of life's errors are caused by forgetting what one is really trying to do.

-Charlie Munger

25 points jsbennett86 03 October 2013 05:07:22AM Permalink

Him: We can't go back. We don't understand everything yet.

Her: "Everything" is a little ambitious. We barely understand anything.

Him: Yeah. But that's what the first part of understanding everything looks like.

Randall Munroe - Time

25 points pewpewlasergun 03 October 2013 06:06:56AM Permalink

“Whenever serious and competent people need to get things done in the real world, all considerations of tradition and protocol fly out the window.”

Neal Stephenson - "Quicksilver"

25 points satt 01 December 2013 11:27:45PM Permalink

Visit with your predecessors from previous Administrations. They know the ropes and can help you see around some corners. Try to make original mistakes, rather than needlessly repeating theirs.

Donald Rumsfeld

25 points wadavis 06 January 2014 03:32:31PM Permalink

I played a defender in high school school football. In football the defender can not touch or physically interfere the receiver of a pass from the time the pass is thrown until they catch the ball, to do so is a moderate penalty for the defenders team and considered bad sportsmanship at the amateur levels. As a adolescent that identified with Lawful Good, it came naturally to see Interference as against the rules, and not to be done.

It was an enlightening moment when a mentor explained that the penalties are not there to discourage and exclude types of behavior from the game. When they explained that penalties are part of the game with clearly defined rules, just another mechanical system to be gamed. That the penalty is not a punishment for bad behavior, but the price payed to implement certain tactics.

25 points B_For_Bandana 08 February 2014 12:39:25AM Permalink

Madolyn: "Why is the last patient of the day always the hardest?"

Costigan: "Because you're tired and you don't give a shit. It's not supernatural."

The Departed

25 points CronoDAS 04 March 2014 03:07:22AM Permalink

It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema, and telling us that it leads the young into crime. But all the work that goes to producing a cinema is respectable, because it is work, and because it brings a money profit. The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy. The butcher who provides you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are praiseworthy, because they are making money; but when you enjoy the food they have provided, you are merely frivolous, unless you eat only to get strength for your work. Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad. Whatever merit there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them. The individual, in our society, works for profit; but the social purpose of his work lies in the consumption of what he produces. It is this divorce between the individual and the social purpose of production that makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which profit-making is the incentive to industry. We think too much of production, and too little of consumption. One result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and that we do not judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the consumer.

-- Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

25 points Cyan 03 April 2014 05:59:38PM Permalink

It is, in fact, a very good rule to be especially suspicious of work that says what you want to hear, precisely because the will to believe is a natural human tendency that must be fought.

- Paul Krugman

25 points Cyan 05 May 2014 04:06:21AM Permalink

Bruno de Finetti heard of [the author's empirical Bayes method for grading tests] and he wrote to me suggesting that the student should be encouraged to state their probability for each of the possible choices. The appropriate score should be a simple function of the probability distribution and the correct answer. An appropriate function would encourage students to reply with their actual distribution rather than attempt to bluff. I responded that it would be difficult to get third graders to list probabilities. He answered that we should give the students five gold stars and let them distribute the stars among the possible answers.

- Herman Chernoff (pg 34 of Past, Present, and Future of Statistical Science, available here)

25 points B_For_Bandana 03 May 2014 02:28:58AM Permalink

One afternoon a student said "Roshi, I don't really understand what's going on. I mean, we sit in zazen and we gassho to each other and everything, and Felicia got enlightened when the bottom fell out of her water-bucket, and Todd got enlightened when you popped him one with your staff, and people work on koans and get enlightened, but I've been doing this for two years now, and the koans don't make any sense, and I don't feel enlightened at all! Can you just tell me what's going on?"

"Well you see," Roshi replied, "for most people, and especially for most educated people like you and I, what we perceive and experience is heavily mediated, through language and concepts that are deeply ingrained in our ways of thinking and feeling. Our objective here is to induce in ourselves and in each other a psychological state that involves the unmediated experience of the world, because we believe that that state has certain desirable properties. It's impossible in general to reach that state through any particular form or method, since forms and methods are themselves examples of the mediators that we are trying to avoid. So we employ a variety of ad hoc means, some linguistic like koans and some non-linguistic like zazen, in hopes that for any given student one or more of our methods will, in whatever way, engender the condition of non-mediated experience that is our goal. And since even thinking in terms of mediators and goals tends to reinforce our undesirable dependency on concepts, we actively discourage exactly this kind of analytical discourse."

And the student was enlightened.

25 points arundelo 05 August 2014 05:19:21AM Permalink

That's why I'm skeptical of people who look at some catastrophic failure of a complex system and say, "Wow, the odds of this happening are astronomical. Five different safety systems had to fail simultaneously!" What they don't realize is that one or two of those systems are failing all the time, and it's up to the other three systems to prevent the failure from turning into a disaster.

-- Raymond Chen

25 points Stabilizer 04 August 2014 04:01:20AM Permalink

Surgeons finally did upgrade their antiseptic standards at the end of the nineteenth century. But, as is often the case with new ideas, the effort required deeper changes than anyone had anticipated. In their blood-slick, viscera-encrusted black coats, surgeons had seen themselves as warriors doing hemorrhagic battle with little more than their bare hands. A few pioneering Germans, however, seized on the idea of the surgeon as scientist. They traded in their black coats for pristine laboratory whites, refashioned their operating rooms to achieve the exacting sterility of a bacteriological lab, and embraced anatomic precision over speed.

The key message to teach surgeons, it turned out, was not how to stop germs but how to think like a laboratory scientist. Young physicians from America and elsewhere who went to Germany to study with its surgical luminaries became fervent converts to their thinking and their standards. They returned as apostles not only for the use of antiseptic practice (to kill germs) but also for the much more exacting demands of aseptic practice (to prevent germs), such as wearing sterile gloves, gowns, hats, and masks. Proselytizing through their own students and colleagues, they finally spread the ideas worldwide.

-Atul Gawande

25 points Azathoth123 13 September 2014 07:08:04PM Permalink

What goes unsaid eventually goes unthought.

Steve Sailer

25 points shminux 02 September 2014 04:31:59PM Permalink
25 points Salivanth 02 October 2014 11:49:31PM Permalink

The Courage Wolf looked long and slow at the Weasley twins. At length he spoke, "I see that you possess half of courage. That is good. Few achieve that."

"Half?" Fred asked, too awed to be truly offended.

"Yes," said the Wolf, "You know how to heroically defy, but you do not know how to heroically submit. How to say to another, 'You are wiser than I; tell me what to do and I will do it. I do not need to understand; I will not cost you the time to explain.' And there are those in your lives wiser than you, to whom you could say that."

"But what if they're wrong?" George said.

"If they are wrong, you die," the Wolf said plainly, "Horribly. And for nothing. That is why it is an act of courage."

  • HPMOR omake by Daniel Speyer.
25 points NancyLebovitz 07 December 2014 03:46:52PM Permalink

Adulthood isn't an award they'll give you for being a good child. You can waste... years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just... take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I'm sorry you feel like that and walk away. But that's hard.

Lois McMaster Bujold

25 points Kinsei 06 December 2014 01:18:27PM Permalink

"It’s much better to live in a place like Switzerland where the problems are complex and the solutions are unclear, rather than North Korea where the problems are simple and the solutions are straightforward."

Scott Sumner, A time for nuance

25 points Gunnar_Zarncke 01 November 2014 10:37:35PM Permalink

The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.

Mark Twain

Actually I found this in The topology of Seemingly impossible functional programs which is using topological methods to 'check' infinitely many cases in finite time. Which might even be applicable to FAI research.

25 points Strange7 03 November 2014 01:41:48PM Permalink

Marriage to Kim Kardashian is not contagious.

As far as we know! Perhaps it simply has a long incubation period, and transitive polyamory will be legally recognized some time in the 2020s.

24 points djcb 30 November 2009 07:07:05PM Permalink

Today, safe flight inside clouds is possible using gyroscopic instruments that report the airplane’s orientation without being misled by centrifugal effects. But the pilot’s spatial intuition is still active, and often contradicts the instruments. Pilots are explicitly, emphatically trained to trust the instruments and ignore intuition—precisely the opposite of the Star Wars advice—and those who fail to do so often perish.

-- Gary Drescher "Good and Real"

(I really like this quote as a counterweight to the ubiquitous cliche-advise to follow you intuition. Often, your intuition may be fooled. And, it cannot be repeated often enough, Good and Real is a must-read for LW-minded folks)

24 points RobinZ 30 November 2009 12:05:58AM Permalink

It helps to stop worrying about what you are and concentrate on what you do. If you think of a poet as a person with some special qualifications that come by nature (or divine favor), you are likely to make one of two mistakes about yourself. If you think you've got what it takes, you may fail to learn what you need to know in order to use whatever qualities you may have. On the other hand, if you think you do not have what it takes, you may give up too easily, thinking it is useless to try. A poet is someone - you, me, anyone - who writes poems. That question out of the way, now we can learn to write poems better.

Judson Jerome, The Poet's Handbook, Chap. 1 ("From Sighs and Groans to Art")

24 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 November 2009 11:39:02PM Permalink

Just a few centuries ago, the smartest humans alive were dead wrong about damn near everything. They were wrong about gods. Wrong about astronomy. Wrong about disease. Wrong about heredity. Wrong about physics. Wrong about racism, sexism, nationalism, governance, and many other moral issues. Wrong about geology. Wrong about cosmology. Wrong about chemistry. Wrong about evolution. Wrong about nearly every subject imaginable.

-- Luke Muehlhauser

24 points gwern 06 October 2010 12:23:32AM Permalink

'One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he interrupted the lesson suddenly in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row, if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit.

"Nice biscuit, don't you think," said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog's head and the words "Dog Cookies."

The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet.

"You see," Korzybski remarked, "I have just demonstrated that people don't just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter."'

(R. Diekstra, Haarlemmer Dagblad, 1993, cited by L. Derks J. Hollander, Essenties van NLP (Utrecht: Servire, 1996), p. 58)

I think of this as a rationalist parable and not so much a quote. It has a lot of personal resonance since I often had dog biscuits with my tea when I was younger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- David Foster Wallace

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

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

— David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

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

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

-Kris Straub, Chainsawsuit artist commentary

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

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

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

Terry Pratchett, "Nation"

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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis, "Bulverism"

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

24 points ciphergoth 01 November 2011 08:47:57AM Permalink

One of the strengths of Apollo 13 is that it has only good guys in it, battling together against an unforeseen, mysterious and near-lethal twist of fate.

24 points Bugmaster 06 December 2011 09:44:42PM Permalink

Ah yes, my gnome. I’m very fond of my gnome.

Oh I am so getting my own gnome, just so that I can use that phrase on people.

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

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

-- Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning

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

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

Thomas Carew

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

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

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

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

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

24 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

24 points philh 02 March 2012 01:49:57AM Permalink

I don't agree that Vizzini is trying to reason in logical absolutes. He talks like he is, but he doesn't necessarily believe the things he's saying.

Man in Black: You're trying to trick me into giving away something. It won't work.

Vizzini: It has worked! You've given everything away! I know where the poison is!

My interpretation is that he really is trying to trick the man.

Later he distracts the man and swaps the glasses around; then he pretends to choose his own glass. He makes sure the man drinks first. I think he's reasoning/hoping that the man would not deliberately drink from the poisoned cup. So when the man does drink he believes his chosen cup is safe. If the man had been unwilling to drink, Vizzini would have assumed that he now held the poisoned glass, and perhaps resorted to treachery.

He's overconfident, but he's not a complete fool.

(I don't have strong confidence in this analysis, because he's a minor character in a movie.)

24 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

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 DanielLC 10 September 2012 05:33:12AM Permalink

He bought the present ox along with the future ox. He could have just bought the present ox, or at least a shorter interval of one. This is known as "renting".

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 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?

24 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

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 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

24 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

24 points GabrielDuquette 02 November 2012 02:44:03AM Permalink

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

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

24 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?

24 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

24 points Oscar_Cunningham 02 January 2013 02:21:31PM Permalink

I don't blame them; nor am I saying I wouldn't similarly manipulate the truth if I thought it would save lives, but I don't lie to myself. You keep two books, not no books. [Emphasis mine]

The Last Psychiatrist (

24 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 January 2013 09:07:07PM Permalink

Believing large lies is worse than small lies; basically, it's arguing against the What-The-Hell Effect as applied to rationality. Or so I presume, did not read original.

24 points Grif 02 February 2013 01:12:40AM Permalink

If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide that proves they should value evidence? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument would you invoke to prove they should value logic?

--Sam Harris

24 points harshhpareek 03 March 2013 08:05:37PM Permalink

The world of the manager is one of problems and opportunities. Problems are to be managed; one must understand the nature of the problem, amass resources adequate to deal with it, and "work the problem" on an ongoing basis.[...] But what if the problem can be fixed? This is not the domain of the manager.

An engineer believes most problems have solutions. The engineer isn't interested in building an organisation to cope with the problem. [...] And yet the engineer's faith in fixes often blinds him to the fact that many problems, especially those involving people, don't have the kind of complete permanent solutions he seeks.

-- John Walker, The Hackers Diet (~loc 250 on an e-reader)

24 points orthonormal 03 May 2013 10:21:34PM Permalink

And then the Vulcan would immediately adjust to always spouting off some random high-odds-against-us number all the time just to make sure they'd always succeed heroically.

Holy crap, canon!Spock is a genius rationalist after all.

24 points TheOtherDave 03 May 2013 03:18:40PM Permalink

An investigation into the shipyards, and current design paradigms, may be in order... I recommended strenuously before we left dock at the beginning of this mission, since a similar analysis performed then gave approximately 8000:1 odds that before this mission was complete you would do something deeply stupid that got us all killed, no matter how strenuously I tried to instruct you in basic risk factor analysis. That having failed, I gave serious consideration to simply taking over the ship myself, which I estimate will increase by a factor of approximately 3000 the utility created by our missions (even taking into account the reduced "moxie factor", which is primarily of use during crises a sensible Captain would avoid getting into in the first place). However, I observe that my superiors in the High Command have not taken over Starfleet and the Federation, despite the obvious benefits of such a strategy. At first this led me to 83% confidence that the High Command was in possession of extremely compelling unshared evidence of the value of humanity's leadership, which at that time led me to update significantly in favor of that view myself. I have since then reduced that confidence to 76%, with a 13% confidence that the High Command has instead been subverted by hostile powers partial to humanity.

24 points maia 01 May 2013 08:08:17PM Permalink

When a problem comes along / You must whip it / Before the cream sets out too long / You must whip it / When something's goin' wrong / You must whip it

Now whip it / Into shape / Shape it up / Get straight / Go forward / Move ahead / Try to detect it / It's not too late / To whip it / Whip it good

-- Devo, on the value of confronting problems rather than letting them fester

24 points cody-bryce 02 August 2013 10:29:11PM Permalink

Far too many people are looking for the right person, instead of trying to be the right person.

-Gloria Steinem

24 points Vaniver 06 August 2013 01:41:36AM Permalink

from poor/middle-class Indian

It is worth pointing out that Ramanujan, while poor, was still a Brahmin.

24 points Nomad 03 September 2013 05:28:00PM Permalink

The “I blundered and lost, but the refutation was lovely!” scenario is something lovers of truth and beauty can appreciate.

Jeremy Silman

24 points maia 02 December 2013 04:48:52PM Permalink

More of these gems, for the lazy:

Our World: Firm’s Meteoric Rise Explained by Daring Strategy, Bold Leadership

Mathematically Literate World: Firm’s Meteoric Rise Explained by Good Luck, Selection Bias

Our World: One Dead in Shark Attack; See Tips for Shark Safety Inside

Mathematically Literate World: One Dead in Tragic, Highly Unlikely Event; See Tips for Something Useful Inside

Our World: Poll Finds 2016 Candidates Neck and Neck

Mathematically Literate World: Poll Finds 2016 Predictions Futile, Absurd

24 points jsbennett86 09 January 2014 11:30:28PM Permalink

A remarkable, glorious achievement is just what a long series of unremarkable, unglorious tasks looks like from far away.

— Tim Urban (I think) of Wait But Why on How To Beat Procrastination

24 points michaelkeenan 05 January 2014 08:24:59AM Permalink

If you don't pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.

-- David Allen

24 points Mestroyer 04 January 2014 07:41:07PM Permalink

But losing can be upsetting, and can cause emotions to take the place of logical thinking. Below are some common “losing attitudes.” If you find yourself saying these things, consider it a red flag.

“At least I have my Code of Honor,” a.k.a. “You are cheap!”

This is by far the most common call of the scrub, and I’ve already described it in detail. The loser usually takes the imagined moral high ground by sticking to his Code of Honor, a made-up set of personal rules that tells him which moves he can and cannot do. Of course, the rules of the game itself dictate which moves a player can and cannot make, so the Code of Honor is superfluous and counterproductive toward winning. This can also take the form of the loser complaining that you have broken his Code of Honor. He will almost always assume the entire world agrees on his Code and that only the most vile social outcasts would ever break his rules. It can be difficult to even reason with the kind of religious fervor some players have toward their Code. This type of player is trying desperately to remain a “winner” any way possible. If you catch him amidst a sea of losses, you’ll notice that his Code will undergo strange contortions so that he may still define himself, somehow, as a “winner.”

David Sirlin on self-handicapping in competitive games

24 points Manfred 10 March 2014 05:38:45AM Permalink

And bits for the really important drills.

24 points arundelo 04 April 2014 02:13:10PM Permalink

Specifically, [these recent books that deal with parallel universes] argue that if some scientific theory X has enough experimental support for us to take it seriously, then we must take seriously also all its predictions Y, even if these predictions are themselves untestable (involving parallel universes, for example).

As a warm-up example, let's consider Einstein's theory of General Relativity. It's widely considered a scientific theory worthy of taking seriously, because it has made countless correct predictions -- from the gravitational bending of light to the time dilation measured by our GPS phones. This means that we must also take seriously its prediction for what happens inside black holes, even though this is something we can never observe and report on in Scientific American. If someone doesn't like these black hole predictions, they can't simply opt out of them and dismiss them as unscientific: instead, they need to come up with a different mathematical theory that matches every single successful prediction that general relativity has made -- yet doesn't give the disagreeable black hole predictions.

-- Max Tegmark, Scientific American guest blog, 2014-02-04

24 points Stabilizer 01 April 2014 08:10:10PM Permalink

How much of a disaster is this? Well, it’s never a disaster to learn that a statement you wanted to go one way in fact goes the other way. It may be disappointing, but it’s much better to know the truth than to waste time chasing a fantasy. Also, there can be far more to it than that. The effect of discovering that your hopes are dashed is often that you readjust your hopes. If you had a subgoal that you now realize is unachievable, but you still believe that the main goal might be achievable, then your options have been narrowed down in a potentially useful way.

-Timothy Gowers, on finding out a method he’d hoped would work, in fact would not.

24 points SaidAchmiz 04 April 2014 06:20:51PM Permalink

Speaking as a student: I sympathize with Benito, have myself had his sort of frustration, and far prefer understanding to memorization... yet I must speak up for the side of the students in your experience. Why?

Because the incentives in the education system encourage memorization, and discourage understanding.

Say I'm in a class, learning some difficult topic. I know there will be a test, and the test will make up a big chunk of my grade (maybe all the tests together are most of my grade). I know the test will be such that passing it is easiest if I memorize — because that's how tests are. What do I do?

True understanding in complex topics requires contemplation, experimentation, exploration; "playing around" with the material, trying things out for myself, taking time to think about it, going out and reading other things about the topic, discussing the topic with knowledgeable people. I'd love to do all of that...

... but I have three other classes, and they all expect me to read absurd amounts of material in time for next week's lecture, and work on a major project apiece, and I have no time for any of those wonderful things I listed, and I have had four hours of sleep (and god forbid I have a job in addition to all of that) and I am in no state to deeply understand anything. Memorizing is faster and doesn't require such expenditures of cognitive effort.

So what do I do? Do I try to understand, and not be able to understand enough, in time for the test on Monday, and thus fail the class? Or do I just memorize, and pass? And what good do your understanding-based teaching techniques do me, if you're still going to give me tests and base my grade on them, and if the educational system is not going to allow me the conditions to make my own way to true understanding of the material?

None. No good at all.

24 points arundelo 03 May 2014 06:27:58PM Permalink

Things like linear algebra, group theory, and probability have so many uses throughout science that learning them is like installing a firmware upgrade to your brain -- and even the math you don't use will stretch you in helpful ways.

-- Scott Aaronson

24 points NancyLebovitz 02 June 2014 06:08:16PM Permalink

Three Bayesians walk into a bar: a) what's the probability that this is a joke? b) what's the probability that one of the three is a Rabbi? c) given that one of the three is a Rabbi, what's the probability that this is a joke?

--Sorry, no cite. I got this from someone who said they'd been seeing it on twitter.

24 points timujin 03 November 2014 07:33:56AM Permalink

My native language is Russian (and was also the only language I could speak before my teens). I can also speak English, and it is my primary language for thinking now (it is MUCH easier to think in English, than in Russian - Russian is horrible). The two languages do not feel like different maps. I do have some problems in conversing with Russian-speaking individuals, mostly with expressing myself (English offers so many useful features not present in Russian that I feel like an amputee when I can't use them), but I do not think that knowing the distinction helped me with rationality much. They are not different ways of seeing the world, but different ways of describing what you see. Not different maps, different map colorings, maybe.

23 points Vlad 15 June 2009 08:09:13AM Permalink

"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." Christopher Hitchens

23 points Rune 06 August 2009 03:43:35AM Permalink

"As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life - so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls."

-- M. Cartmill

23 points dclayh 30 November 2009 12:44:23AM Permalink

It's not really surprising, though, is it? Brilliant people want to have other brilliant people as their colleagues.

(In fact, one mathematician of my acquaintance said that he once dabbled in circuit design, but when his first paper in the field was received as a major achievement, he left it immediately, concluding that if he could make such a large contribution so easily, the field must be unworthy of him.)

23 points Rain 01 March 2010 09:53:48PM Permalink

If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.

-- Isaac Asimov

23 points Yvain 02 April 2010 12:46:16AM Permalink

"Everyone thinks they've won the Magical Belief Lottery. Everyone thinks they more or less have a handle on things, that they, as opposed to the billions who disagree with them, have somehow lucked into the one true belief system."

-- R Scott Bakker, Neuropath

23 points khafra 02 June 2010 03:59:31PM Permalink

I'm embarassed to bring this up again, because I seem to quote steven0461 too often--but, in something close to his words; "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains is likely more improbable than an error in one of your impossibility proofs."

23 points CSmith 02 July 2010 04:53:11AM Permalink

"Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies."

--Friedrich Nietzsche

23 points Apprentice 03 August 2010 01:15:30PM Permalink

Upon his death man must leave everything behind ... and depart forever from the world he has known. He must of necessity go to that foul land of death, a fact which makes death the most sorrowful of all events. ... Some foreign doctrines, however, teach that death should not be regarded as profoundly sorrowful. ... These are all gross deceptions contrary to human sentiment and fundamental truths. Not to be happy over happy events, not to be saddened by sorrowful events, not to show surprise at astonishing events, in a word, to consider it proper not to be moved by whatever happens, are all foreign types of deception and falsehood. They are contrary to human nature and extremely repugnant to me.

-- Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) - quoted from Blocker, Japanese Philosophy, p. 109

Motoori was as far as you can get from being a rationalist but this quote was so Yudkowskian that I felt it belonged here.

23 points Apprentice 06 October 2010 10:13:16AM Permalink

We live in a world where it has become "politically correct" to avoid absolutes. Many want all religions to be given the same honor, and all gods regarded as equally true and equally fictitious. But take these same people, who want fuzzy, all-inclusive thinking in spiritual matters, and put them on an airplane. You will find they insist on a very dogmatic, intolerant pilot who will stay on the "straight and narrow" glidepath so their life will not come to a violent end short of the runway. They want no fuzzy thinking here!

-- Jack T. Chick

23 points NihilCredo 07 October 2010 02:50:43AM Permalink

There's also a certain fun challenge in looking for jewels among the fecal matter. Rationalist aphorisms by Voltaire or Russell are a regular feature of their writing, and have been quoted in books and articles for decades or centuries, but a pearl of wisdom by a fideist is a tough find and most likely unknown to other LW readers.

Heh. Of all goddamn things to be a hipster about, "rationality quotes" has got to be one hell of a weird choice.

23 points Tesseract 05 November 2010 08:34:18PM Permalink

Kołakowski's Law, or The Law of the Infinite Cornucopia:

For any given doctrine that one wants to believe, there is never a shortage of arguments by which to support it.

Leszek Kołakowski

23 points DanArmak 04 November 2010 10:53:54PM Permalink

In 1923, England and France divided between them the previously Turkish territories of what are modern Syria, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine. They drew a pencil line on a map to mark the treaty border.

It turned out that the thickness of the pencil line itself was several hundred meters on the ground. In 1964, Israel fought a battle with Syria over that land.

People were killed because someone neglected to sharpen their pencil. That's "scribbles on a piece of paper" for you.

Ref: a book found by Google. I originally learned about this from an Israeli plaque at the Dan River preserve near the border.

23 points [deleted] 02 November 2010 08:49:16PM Permalink

From desert cliff and mountaintop we trace the wide design,

Strike-slip fault and overthrust and syn and anticline...

We gaze upon creation where erosion makes it known,

And count the countless aeons in the banding of the stone.

Odd, long-vanished creatures and their tracks shells are found;

Where truth has left its sketches on the slate below the ground.

The patient stone can speak, if we but listen when it talks.

Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the rocks.

There are those who name the stars, who watch the sky by night,

Seeking out the darkest place, to better see the light.

Long ago, when torture broke the remnant of his will,

Galileo recanted, but the Earth is moving still.

High above the mountaintops, where only distance bars,

The truth has left its footprints in the dust between the stars.

We may watch and study or may shudder and deny,

Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the sky.

By stem and root and branch we trace, by feather, fang and fur,

How the living things that are descend from things that were.

The moss, the kelp, the zebrafish, the very mice and flies,

These tiny, humble, wordless things--how shall they tell us lies?

We are kin to beasts; no other answer can we bring.

The truth has left its fingerprints on every living thing.

Remember, should you have to choose between them in the strife,

Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote life.

And we who listen to the stars, or walk the dusty grade,

Or break the very atoms down to see how they are made,

Or study cells, or living things, seek truth with open hand.

The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand.

Deep in flower and in flesh, in star and soil and seed,

The truth has left its living word for anyone to read.

So turn and look where best you think the story is unfurled.

Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the world.

~Catherine Faber, The Word of God

23 points [deleted] 03 December 2010 05:39:17AM Permalink

The question I ask myself like almost everyday is 'Am I doing the most important thing I could be doing?'

Mark Zuckerberg

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

The Three Virtues of a Programmer:

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

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

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

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

23 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 January 2011 09:16:43AM Permalink

There's this:

People are always amazed by how much "free time" I have.
They're also amazed that I don't know who Ally McBeal is.
Frankly, I'm amazed that they can't make the connection."
-- Robert Wenzlaff
23 points MixedNuts 01 June 2011 09:37:14PM Permalink

I care. If illness is abolished and a doctor of any age is starving, they can stay at my place and I'll feed them. Alternately, we could raise taxes slightly to finance government-mandated programs for training and reconversion of young doctors and early retirement for old doctors.

In other words: beware of though-mindedly accepting bad consequences of overall good policies. Look for a superior alternative first.

23 points SilasBarta 01 June 2011 10:01:56PM Permalink

I agree. Unfortunately, the way it actually works is, "No, we can't allow your universal cure -- the AMA/[your country's MD association] is upset."

"No, we can't accept your free widgets -- that would cost our widgetmakers major sales."

"No, I don't want you to work for me for free -- that would put domestic servants out of jobs."

"No, I don't want to marry you -- that would hurt the income of local prostitutes."

"No, I don't want your solar radiation -- that would put our light and heat industries out of business."

Edit: Even better: "No, I don't want you to be my friend -- what about my therapist's loss of revenue?"

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

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

Robert Nozick, The Nature of Rationality

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

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

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

Douglas Kenrick

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

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

George E. Forsythe

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

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


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

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

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

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

-- Bryan Caplan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kige ga tame


Inochi sae

Nagaku mo gana to

Omoikeru kana

For your precious sake, once I thought

I could die.

Now, I wish to live with you

a long, long time.

--Hokusai and Hiroshige

23 points SilasBarta 01 December 2011 04:29:25PM Permalink

That sounds like less of a wrong question and more of a "right question with surprising (low prior) answer". As far as the asker knew, the answer could have turned out to be, "Genes produce the same organism phenotype across virtually all environments, so genes are more important because changing them is much more likely to change the expressed phenotype than changing the environment." (and indeed, life would not be life if genes could not force some level of environment-invariance, thereby acting as a control system for a low-entropy island)

I don't see what's wrong with answering this question with "neither [i.e., they're equal], because they jointly determine phenotype, as independent changes in either have the same chance of affecting phenotype".

An example of a wrong question, by contrast, would be something like, "Which path did the electron really take?" because it posits an invalid ontology of the world as a pre-requisite. The question about phenotypes doesn't do that.

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

"I did not think; I investigated."

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

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 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

23 points AspiringKnitter 05 April 2012 06:05:40AM Permalink

If this weren't Less Wrong, I'd just slink away now and pretend I never saw this, but:

I don't understand this comment, but it sounds important. Where can I go and what can I read that will cause me to understand statements like this in the future?

23 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

23 points fubarobfusco 01 May 2012 09:39:57PM Permalink

For what it's worth, some context:

JW: To what extent do you think you've become a part of the New Age movement? The stalls in the atrium tonight seemed to be concerned with a lot of New Age material, and to an extent the way you've been talking about Virtual Realities and mind expansion you seem to be almost a forerunner of the movement.

RAW: The Berkeley mob once called Leary and me "the counter-culture of the counter-culture." I'm some kind of antibody in the New Age movement. My function is to raise the possibility, "Hey, you know, some of this stuff might be bullshit."

Wilson had a tendency to come across as a skeptic among mystics and a mystic among skeptics.

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 sketerpot 03 July 2012 01:49:20AM Permalink

Or, because running into heavy objects is a good intuition pump:

Reality is what trips you up when you run around with your eyes closed.

I think this was in a book by James P. Hogan, but a bit of Googling only reveals one or two other people quoting it but not remembering where it came from.

23 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.

23 points GabrielDuquette 04 August 2012 06:09:52PM Permalink

Take, say, physics, which restricts itself to extremely simple questions. If a molecule becomes too complex, they hand it over to the chemists. If it becomes too complex for them, they hand it to biologists. And if the system is too complex for them, they hand it to psychologists ... and so on until it ends up in the hands of historians or novelists.

Noam Chomsky

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 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
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 arundelo 04 October 2012 12:46:48AM Permalink

This thread needs a mention of this saying: "Correlation correlates with causation because causation causes correlation." (I don't know if anyone knows who came up with this.)

23 points Alejandro1 03 October 2012 02:17:47PM Permalink

xkcd said it better:

Correlation doesn't imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there'.

23 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.

23 points [deleted] 01 October 2012 08:15:19PM Permalink

… if anyone asks, I did not tell you it was ok to do math like this.

23 points shminux 06 November 2012 11:52:40PM Permalink

More often than not it hits you first.

23 points FiftyTwo 02 November 2012 04:26:05PM Permalink

While everyone else is arguing the pragmatist has googled "Scottish Sheep varieties"

23 points Alejandro1 02 November 2012 05:56:22PM Permalink

And Robin Hanson sets up a prediction market in Scottish sheep colors.

23 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

23 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

23 points Death 03 December 2012 09:35:19PM Permalink


23 points Konkvistador 02 January 2013 07:57:26PM Permalink

Just because someone isn't into finding out The Secrets Of The Universe like me doesn't necessarily mean I can't be friends with them.

-Buttercup Dew (@NationalistPony)

23 points Stabilizer 01 January 2013 06:29:14PM 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. Without visual cues (e.g. the horizon) you can't distinguish between gravity and acceleration. Which means if you're flying through clouds you can't tell what the attitude of the aircraft is. You could feel like you're flying straight and level while in fact you're descending in a spiral. The solution is to ignore what your body is telling you and listen only to your instruments. But it turns out to be very hard to ignore what your body is telling you. Every pilot knows about this problem and yet it is still a leading cause of accidents. You need to do what you know intellectually to be right, even though it feels wrong.”

-Paul Graham

23 points James_Miller 01 January 2013 05:46:59PM Permalink

What You Are Inside Only Matters Because of What It Makes You Do

David Wong, 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person. Published in

23 points Desrtopa 06 February 2013 09:33:16PM Permalink

The first response that comes to my mind is "because if the butterfly were trying that hard to escape the kid, it would fly above the kid's reach, and the kid would give up." When I look at the scene, I see a kid chasing a butterfly, and a butterfly too stupid to realize it should flee instead of simply dodging.

Animals on the intelligence levels of butterflies (which, keep in mind, have specific mating flight patterns they use to tell other members of their species apart from things like ribbons and stray flower petals,) don't seem to even have retreat instincts, just avoidance instincts. They can't recognize persistent pursuit. A fly won't hesitate to land on a person who has been trying to swat it for minutes on end.

23 points fubarobfusco 02 February 2013 04:03:26AM Permalink

They beat you up. People who haven't specialized in logic and evidence have not therefore been idle.

23 points sketerpot 02 February 2013 06:13:42AM Permalink
23 points Qiaochu_Yuan 12 March 2013 05:07:31AM Permalink

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

-- George Bernard Shaw

23 points satt 02 April 2013 06:18:07AM Permalink

Within the philosophy of science, the view that new discoveries constitute a break with tradition was challenged by Polanyi, who argued that discoveries may be made by the sheer power of believing more strongly than anyone else in current theories, rather than going beyond the paradigm. For example, the theory of Brownian motion which Einstein produced in 1905, may be seen as a literal articulation of the kinetic theory of gases at the time. As Polanyi said:

Discoveries made by the surprising configuration of existing theories might in fact be likened to the feat of a Columbus whose genius lay in taking literally and as a guide to action that the earth was round, which his contemporaries held vaguely and as a mere matter for speculation.

― David Lamb Susan M. Easton, Multiple Discovery: The pattern of scientific progress, pp. 100-101

23 points Stabilizer 01 April 2013 07:36:20PM Permalink

One test adults use is whether you still have the kid flake reflex. When you're a little kid and you're asked to do something hard, you can cry and say "I can't do it" and the adults will probably let you off. As a kid there's a magic button you can press by saying "I'm just a kid" that will get you out of most difficult situations. Whereas adults, by definition, are not allowed to flake. They still do, of course, but when they do they're ruthlessly pruned.

-Paul Graham

23 points Kawoomba 03 May 2013 10:41:08PM Permalink

The computer is secretly making paper clips in cargo bay 2, beaming them into space when noone is looking.

I want to believe.

23 points Viliam_Bur 04 June 2013 01:18:41PM Permalink

Synonyms are not good for explaining... because there is no explanatory power in them.

23 points TheOtherDave 02 June 2013 02:50:27AM Permalink

It is perhaps worth noting that a similar comment was made by Dennett:

“The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn't need its brain anymore, so it eats it! It's rather like getting tenure.” 1991 or so.

23 points AspiringRationalist 01 June 2013 11:19:51PM Permalink

Bad things don't happen to you because you're unlucky. Bad things happen to you because you're a dumbass.

  • That 70s Show
23 points SaidAchmiz 02 June 2013 10:15:18PM Permalink

What we want to find is the denominator common to all of your failed relationships, but absent from the successful relationships that other people have (the presumed question being "why do all my relationships fail, but Alice, Bob, Carol, etc. have successful ones?"). Oxygen doesn't fit the bill.

23 points dspeyer 01 July 2013 08:25:02PM Permalink

The Milky-Way galaxy is mind-bogglingly big.

Eh," you say, "100,000 light years in diameter, give or take a few."

Listen, pal: just because you can measure something in light years doesn't mean you truly understand how big it really is.

By the time you carve our galaxy up into units you have actual, personal experience with, you'll have to start using numbers that you won't live long enough to count to.

That's okay. The galaxy doesn't care. In fact, not caring is one of the things it does best.

That, and being really, really, really big.

--Howard Taylor

23 points dspeyer 01 July 2013 08:20:30PM Permalink

Sometimes the most remarkable things seem commonplace. I mean, when you think about it, jet travel is pretty freaking remarkable. You get in a plane, it defies the gravity of an entire planet by exploiting a loophole with air pressure, and it flies across distances that would take months or years to cross by any means of travel that has been significant for more than a century or three. You hurtle above the earth at enough speed to kill you instantly should you bump into something, and you can only breathe because someone built you a really good tin can that has seams tight enough to hold in a decent amount of air. Hundreds of millions of man-hours of work and struggle and research, blood, sweat, tears, and lives have gone into the history of air travel, and it has totally revolutionized the face of our planet and societies.

But get on any flight in the country, and I absolutely promise you that you will find someone who, in the face of all that incredible achievement, will be willing to complain about the drinks.

The drinks, people.

--Harry Dresden, Summer Knight, Jim Butcher

23 points ShardPhoenix 02 August 2013 08:26:41AM Permalink

Rin: "Even I make mistakes once in a while."

Shirou (thinking): ...This is hard. Would it be good for her if I correct her and point out that she makes mistakes often, not just once in a while?

Fate/stay night

23 points DanArmak 02 August 2013 11:03:43AM Permalink

If people in the 1500 years since the Romans had been more willing to rename months...

23 points Eugine_Nier 02 August 2013 06:22:12AM Permalink

Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.

Reynolds law

23 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2013 09:03:39PM Permalink

If you cast out all the easy strategies that don't actually work as non-'solutions', then sure, in what remains among the set of solutions, the best is often the easiest, though not easy. I can think of much harder ways to save the world and I'm not trying any of them.

23 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2013 09:01:03PM Permalink

One who possesses a maximum-entropy prior is further from the truth than one who possesses an inductive prior riddled with many specific falsehoods and errors. Or more to the point, someone who endorses knowing nothing as a desirable state for fear of accepting falsehoods is further from the truth than somebody who believes many things, some of them false, but tries to pay attention and go on learning.

23 points satt 02 September 2013 01:36:41AM Permalink

I realize that if you ask people to account for 'facts,' they usually spend more time finding reasons for them than finding out whether they are true. [...] They skip over the facts but carefully deduce inferences. They normally begin thus: 'How does this come about?' But does it do so? That is what they ought to be asking.

— Montaigne, Essays, M. Screech's 1971 translation

23 points pjeby 06 November 2013 12:46:38AM Permalink

Realistically, most people have poor filters for sorting truth from fiction, and there’s no objective way to know if you’re particularly good at it or not. Consider the people who routinely disagree with you. See how confident they look while being dead wrong? That’s exactly how you look to them.

Scott Adams, in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

23 points Stabilizer 07 December 2013 10:34:41PM Permalink

In every way that people, firms, or governments act and plan, they are making implicit forecasts about the future.

-The Economist

23 points arundelo 07 January 2014 12:26:45AM Permalink

[I]n any system that is less than 100% perfect, some effort ends up being spent on checking things that, retrospectively, turned out to be ok.

-- Andrew Gelman

23 points hairyfigment 01 March 2014 08:26:28PM Permalink

"He keeps saying, you can run, but you can't hide. Since when do we take advice from this guy?"

You got a really good point there, Rick. I mean, if the truth was that we could hide, it's not like he would just give us that information.

  • Rick and Morty.
23 points Kaj_Sotala 06 March 2014 05:06:09PM Permalink

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’, ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous— that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

-- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

23 points Benito 01 April 2014 07:35:28PM Permalink

Trying to actually understand what equations describe is something I'm always trying to do in school, but I find my teachers positively trained in the art of superficiality and dark-side teaching. Allow me to share two actual conversations with my Maths and Physics teachers from school.:

(Teacher derives an equation, then suddenly makes it into an iterative formula, with no explanation of why)

Me: Woah, why has it suddenly become an iterative formula? What's that got to do with anything?

Teacher: Well, do you agree with the equation when it's not an iterative formula?

Me: Yes.

Teacher: And how about if I make it an iterative formula?

Me: But why do you do that?

Friend: Oh, I see.

Me: Do you see why it works?

Friend: Yes. Well, no. But I see it gets the right answer.

Me: But sir, can you explain why it gets the right answer?

Teacher: Ooh Ben, you're asking one of your tough questions again.

(Physics class)

Me: Can you explain that sir?

Teacher: Look, Ben, sometimesnot understanding things is a good thing.

And yet to most people, I can't even vent the ridiculousness of a teacher actually saying this; they just think it's the norm!

23 points Nisan 03 April 2014 08:42:22PM Permalink

I will only say that when I was a physics major, there were negative course numbers in some copies of the course catalog. And the students who, it was rumored, attended those classes were... somewhat off, ever after.

And concerning how I got my math PhD, and the price I paid for it, and the reason I left the world of pure math research afterwards, I will say not one word.

23 points RichardKennaway 03 November 2014 10:30:10AM Permalink

Marriage to Kim Kardashian is not contagious. The danger of Ebola is not to be measured by how many it has killed, but how many it may kill.

22 points gjm 19 April 2009 12:59:34AM Permalink

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.


22 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 18 April 2009 01:27:08AM Permalink

You cannot improve the world just by being right.

-- Confusion, Why functional programming doesnt catch on

22 points Marcello 02 July 2009 10:16:22PM Permalink

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

-- Voltaire

22 points anonym 02 May 2010 03:06:51AM Permalink

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.

-- Bertrand Russell

22 points Tyrrell_McAllister 01 May 2010 08:01:08PM Permalink

The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space. It was thus that Plato left the world of the senses, as setting too narrow limits to the understanding, and ventured out beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of the pure understanding. He did not observe that with all his efforts he made no advance—meeting no resistance that might, as it were, serve as a support upon which he could take a stand, to which he could apply his powers, and so set his understanding in motion.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (trans. Norman Kemp Smith), p. A5/B8.

22 points Kutta 01 May 2010 06:36:57AM Permalink

Forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

22 points BenAlbahari 01 June 2010 10:28:12PM Permalink

I know that most men — not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic, problems — can seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as obliges them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty — conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives.

— Leo Tolstoy, 1896 (excerpt from "What Is Art?")

22 points [deleted] 06 October 2010 01:48:49PM Permalink

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it--the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

... "But," says one, "I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments."

Then he should have no time to believe.

--W. K. Clifford, "The Ethics of Belief."

22 points Yvain 07 October 2010 07:04:21PM Permalink

"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."

— Marcus Aurelius

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

Things are only impossible until they're not.

-- Jean-Luc Picard

22 points ArisKatsaris 02 February 2011 06:18:44PM Permalink

I think we could modify our sense of it to mean that if you are down to having to accept a 0.01% probability, because you've excluded everything else, then it's probably better to go back over your logic and see if there's any place you've improperly limited your hypothesis space.

Several paradigm-changing theories introduced concepts that would have previously been thought impossible (like special relativity, or many-worlds interpretation)

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

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

22 points novalis 04 April 2011 08:57:02PM Permalink

Im not sure its a memetic hazard, but this post is one of the most Hofstadterian things outside of Hofstadter

Until this moment, I had always assumed that Eliezer had read 100% of all fiction.

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

Most people would rather die than think; many do.

– Bertrand Russell

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

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

Frank Herbert, "Dune"

22 points Unnamed 02 June 2011 04:15:37AM Permalink

I didn't read the quote as a blanket opposition to violence. It's a warning about one thing to consider before you choose violence.

I also didn't read the quote as only being about violence. It also makes a more general point about means and ends. When you're considering an action in pursuit of a goal, you should consider the action in its own right and try to predict where it is likely to lead. Don't settle on an action just because it seems to fit with the goal. This is especially relevant when you consider using violence, coercion, manipulation, or dishonesty for a noble purpose, but it also applies more generally.

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

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

--Lois McMaster Bujold

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

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

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

22 points player_03 03 August 2011 07:21:29PM Permalink

Daniel Oppenheimer's Ig Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

My research shows that conciseness is interpreted as intelligence. So, thank you.

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

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

-Probably not Henry Ford

22 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)

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 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

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 HonoreDB 01 February 2012 08:22:53PM Permalink

Humanity becomes more and more of an accessory every day; with increasing power comes increasing responsibility.

22 points James_Miller 01 February 2012 06:11:10PM Permalink

True, but you should first assign appropriate weights to the two categories you mention based on the expected cost of having an incorrect belief.

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 TheOtherDave 05 March 2012 10:19:19PM Permalink

"Actually," says the stage magician, "we merely know that there exists something in Scotland which appears to be a sheep which is black on at least one side when viewed from this spot."

22 points [deleted] 03 March 2012 03:25:48PM Permalink


22 points Nominull 07 March 2012 03:43:24PM Permalink

When you've eliminated the impossible, if whatever's left is sufficiently improbable, you probable haven't considered a wide enough space of candidate possibilities.

22 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

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 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 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

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 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

22 points RolfAndreassen 02 July 2012 04:13:44PM Permalink

For that matter—we—are chemical processes and nothing more.

While this is in some sense true, it doesn't add up to normality; it is an excuse for avoiding the actual moral issues. Humans are chemical processes; humans are morally significant; therefore at least some chemical processes have moral significance even if we don't, currently, understand how it arises, and you cannot dismiss a moral question by saying "Chemistry!" any more than you can do so by saying "God says so!"

22 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

22 points metatroll 06 August 2012 04:35:43AM Permalink

It does not! It does not! It does not! ... continued here

22 points [deleted] 02 September 2012 12:37:46AM Permalink

If I expect to be hit by a train, I certainly don't expect a ~68% survival chance. Not intuitively, anyways.

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 Alicorn 01 September 2012 08:08:35PM Permalink


"I made my walled garden safe against intruders and now it's just a walled wall." -- Aristosophy

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 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 [deleted] 03 October 2012 05:21:53PM Permalink

Lacking sufficient inspiration, I shall reduce my perspiration until recommended ratio is met.

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 simplicio 10 November 2012 09:04:46PM Permalink

If you don't think your life is more important than someone else's, sign your organ donor card and kill yourself.

(House, MD deals with moral grandstanding)

22 points GabrielDuquette 02 November 2012 02:14:36AM Permalink

What percentage of your philosophy? If your philosophy is completely unsettled daily, you're probably insane.

22 points Qiaochu_Yuan 02 December 2012 10:23:46AM Permalink

Yes, the universe is full of things waiting for our wits to grow sharp enough that we stop anthropomorphizing them...

22 points Vaniver 11 January 2013 01:32:09AM Permalink

Some may think these trifling matters not worth minding or relating; but when they consider that tho' dust blown into the eyes of a single person, or into a single shop on a windy day, is but of small importance, yet the great number of the instances in a populous city, and its frequent repetitions give it weight and consequence, perhaps they will not censure very severely those who bestow some attention to affairs of this seemingly low nature. Human felicity is produc'd not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.

--Benjamin Franklin

22 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 February 2013 11:33:28PM Permalink

I've just come across a fascinatingly compact observation by I. J. Good:

Public and private utilities do not always coincide. This leads to ethical problems. Example - an invention is submitted to a scientific adviser of a firm...

The probability that the invention will work is p. The value to the firm if the invention is adopted and works is V, and the loss if the invention is adopted and fails is L. The value to the adviser personally if he advises the adoption of the invention and it works is v, and the loss if it fails to work is l. The losses to the firm and the adviser if he recommends the rejection of the invention are both negligible...

Then the firm's expected gain if the invention is adopted is pV - (1-p)L and the adviser's expected gain in the same circumstances is pv - (1-p)l. The firm has positive expected gain if p/(1-p) L/V, and the adviser has positive expected gain if p/(1-p) l/v.

If l/v p/(1-p) L/V, the adviser will be faced with an ethical problem, i.e. he will be tempted to act against the interests of the firm.

This is a beautifully simple recipe for a conflict of interest:

Considering absolute losses assuming failure and absolute gains conditioned on success, an adviser is incentivized to give the wrong advice, precisely when:

  • The ratio of agent loss to agent gain,
  • exceeds the odds of success versus failure
  • which in turn exceeds the ratio of principal loss to principal gain.

You can see this reflected in a lot of cases because the gains to an advisor often don't scale anywhere near as fast as the gains to society or a firm. It's the Fearful Committee Formula.

22 points Dorikka 01 February 2013 10:49:12PM Permalink

People often seem to get these mixed up, resulting in "You want useful beliefs and accurate emotions."

22 points satt 02 May 2013 02:05:24AM Permalink

For one mistake made for not knowing, ten mistakes are made for not looking.

James Alexander Lindsay

22 points RolfAndreassen 03 May 2013 12:16:01AM Permalink

One interesting thing about Ms. Dowd’s description of “hardball” political tactics is just how dainty and genteel her brass knuckle suggestions actually are. A speech, an appeal to reason: there is nothing here about lucrative contracts for political supporters, promises of sinecure jobs for politicians who lose their seats, a “blank check” for administrative backing on some obscure tax loophole that a particular politician could award to a favored client; there’s not even a delicate hint about grand jury investigations that can be stopped in their tracks or compromising photographs or wiretaps that need never see the light of day. Far be it from Ms Dowd to speak of or even hint at the kind of strategy that actual politicians think about when words like ‘hardball’ come to mind. Ms Dowd speaks of brass knuckles and then shows us a doily; at some level it speaks well of Ms. Dowd as a human being that even when she tries she seems unable to come up with an offer someone can’t refuse.

-- Walter Russell Mead, describing someone else's failure to understand what a desperate effort actually looks like.

22 points shminux 09 June 2013 07:21:58PM Permalink

you can't wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act.

Edward Snowden, the NSA surveillance whistle-blower.

22 points arborealhominid 06 June 2013 03:31:47PM Permalink

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable: one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone 'a gentleman' you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not 'a gentleman' you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said- so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully- 'Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?' They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man 'a gentleman' in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is 'a gentleman' becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object; it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object. (A 'nice' meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

  • C.S. Lewis (emphasis my own)
22 points Zubon 02 June 2013 08:33:40PM Permalink

Sorry? Of course he was sorry. People were always sorry. Sorry they had done what they had done, sorry they were doing what they were doing, sorry they were going to do what they were going to do; but they still did whatever it was. The sorrow never stopped them; it just made them feel better. And so the sorrow never stopped. ...

Sorrow be damned, and all your plans. Fuck the faithful, fuck the committed, the dedicated, the true believers; fuck all the sure and certain people prepared to maim and kill whoever got in their way; fuck every cause that ended in murder and a child screaming.

Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks.

22 points lukeprog 02 September 2013 09:57:55AM Permalink

You cannot have... only benevolent knowledge; the scientific method doesn't filter for benevolence.

Richard Rhodes

22 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 September 2013 05:03:45AM Permalink

Caution in applying such a principle seems appropriate. I say this because I've long since lost track of how often I've seen on the Internet, "I lost all respect for X when they said [perfectly correct thing]."

22 points ShardPhoenix 03 December 2013 08:29:07AM Permalink

You know what they say - "Asking once will bring you temporary shame, whereas not doing so will bring you permanent shame".

They also say "Answering a question will make you feel superior for a while, whereas not doing so will give you a lifelong sense of superiority".

22 points dspeyer 02 December 2013 06:10:24AM Permalink

Mike nodded. He wasn't really surprised, though. One of the things he'd come to learn since the Ring of Fire, all the way down to the marrow of his bones, was that if the ancestors of twentieth-century human beings didn't do something that seemed logical, it was probably because it wasn't actually logical at all, once you understood everything involved. So it turned out that such notorious military numbskulls as Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Phil Sheridan, Stonewall Jackson, William Tecumseh Sherman and all the rest of them hadn't actually been idiots after all. It was easy for twentieth-century professors to proclaim loftily that Civil War generals had insisted on continuing with line formations despite the advent of the Minié ball-armed rifled musket because the dimwits simply hadn't noticed that the guns were accurate for several hundred yards. When—cluck; cluck—they should obviously have adopted the skirmishing tactics of twentieth-century infantry.

But it turned out, when put to a ruthless seventeenth-century Swedish general's test in his very rigorous notion of field exercises, that those professors of a later era had apparently never tried to stand their ground when cavalry came at them. After they fired their shot, and needed one-third of a minute—if they were adept at the business, and didn't get rattled—to have a second shot ready. In that bloody world where real soldiers lived and died, skirmishing tactics without breechloading rifles or automatic weapons were just a way to commit suicide. If the opponent had large enough forces and was willing to lose some men, at least.

-- 1634: The Baltic War, by Eric Flint and David Weber

22 points garethrees 05 January 2014 04:39:10PM Permalink

I think gwern is teasing us: there is no such quotation in Sluga's Heidegger's Crisis, or at least I cannot find it in the Google Books version. Perhaps gwern has taken the Wittgenstein/Malcolm story and swapped Britain for Germany to make a point about the universal applicability of the philosopher's rebuke.

But for what it's worth:

  • The date in the Heidegger version of the story is very suspicious: in 1939 Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty; he did not become Prime Minister until May 1940 and it is only with hindsight that we see his significance (even in 1940 most political actors seem to have thought that Lord Halifax would be a better choice for Prime Minister than Churchill).

  • The version of the anecdote featuring Wittgenstein and Malcolm is backed up by a citation to Malcolm's Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir where Malcolm quotes the letter from Wittgenstein at length. Also, the 1939 date for the original quarrel about "national character" is a better fit to this story, because in 1939 no-one could doubt the significance of Hitler, and assassination attempts on Hitler were by that point a fairly regular occurrence.

22 points shminux 03 February 2014 06:08:08PM Permalink

I’m better at tests than reality. Reality doesn’t tell you which of a million bits of information to look at.

A comment on slatestarcodex.

22 points James_Miller 01 March 2014 05:27:27PM Permalink

[A]lmost no innovative programs work, in the sense of reliably demonstrating benefits in excess of costs in replicated RCTs [randomized controlled trials]. Only about 10 percent of new social programs in fields like education, criminology and social welfare demonstrate statistically significant benefits in RCTs. When presented with an intelligent-sounding program endorsed by experts in the topic, our rational Bayesian prior ought to be “It is very likely that this program would fail to demonstrate improvement versus current practice if I tested it.”

In other words, discovering program improvements that really work is extremely hard. We labor in the dark -- scratching and clawing for tiny scraps of causal insight.

Megan McArdle quoting or paraphrasing Jim Manzi.

[Edited in response to Kaj's comment.]

22 points Salemicus 02 March 2014 10:30:49PM Permalink

On the contrary, honesty, conscientiousness, being law-abiding, etc. have powerful reputational effects. This is easily seen by the converse; look, for example, at the effect a criminal record has on chance of getting a job.

This quote only gets any mileage by equivocating on the meaning of fair. What the quote is really saying is: "If you expect the world to fulfil even modest dreams just because you try not to be a jerk, expect disappointment." But said like that, if loses all its seemingly deep wisdom. In fact, of course, if you personally fulfilled even some modest dream of a large proportion of the people on earth, you would be wealthy beyond the dreams of lucre.

22 points gwern 01 April 2014 04:56:37PM Permalink

Fairly often. One strategy I've seen is to compare meta-analyses to a later very-large study (rare for obvious reasons when dealing with RCTs) and seeing how often the confidence interval is blown; usually much higher than it should be. (The idea is that the larger study will give a higher-precision result which is a 'ground truth' or oracle for the meta-analysis's estimate, and if it's later, it will not have been included in the meta-analysis and also cannot have led the meta-analysts into Milliken-style distorting their results to get the 'right' answer.)

For example: LeLorier J, Gregoire G, Benhaddad A, Lapierre J, Derderian F. Discrepancies between meta-analyses and subsequent large randomized, controlled trials. N Engl J Med 1997;337:536e42

Results: We identified 12 large randomized, controlled trials and 19 meta-analyses addressing the same questions. For a total of 40 primary and secondary outcomes, agreement between the meta-analyses and the large clinical trials was only fair (kappa ϭ 0.35; 95% confidence interval, 0.06-0.64). The positive predictive value of the meta-analyses was 68%, and the negative predictive value 67%. However, the difference in point estimates between the randomized trials and the meta-analyses was statistically significant for only 5 of the 40 comparisons (12%). Furthermore, in each case of disagreement a statistically significant effect of treatment was found by one method, whereas no statistically significant effect was found by the other.

(You can probably dig up more results looking through reverse citations of that paper, since it seems to be the originator of this criticism. And also, although I disagree with a lot of it, Combining heterogenous studies using the random-effects model is a mistake and leads to inconclusive meta-analyses, Al khalaf et al 2010.)

22 points whales 02 April 2014 01:49:57AM Permalink

He said:

When you play bridge with beginners—when you try to help them out—you give them some general rules to go by. Then they follow the rule and something goes wrong. But if you'd had their hand you wouldn't have played the thing you told them to play, because you'd have seen all the reasons the rule did not apply.

from The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

22 points raisin 01 April 2014 03:45:37PM Permalink

Richard Feynmann claimed that he wasn't exceptionally intelligent, but that he focused all his energies on one thing. Of course he was exceptionally intelligent, but he makes a good point.

I think one way to improve your intelligence is to actually try to understand things in a very fundamental way. Rather than just accepting the kind of trite explanations that most people accept - for instance, that electricity is electrons moving along a wire - try to really find out and understand what is actually happening, and you'll begin to find that the world is very different from what you have been taught and you'll be able to make more intelligent observations about it.

reddit user jjbcn on trying to improve your intelligence

If you're not a student of physics, The Feynman Lectures on Physics is probably really useful for this purpose. It's free for download!

It seems like the Feynman lectures were a bit like the Sequences for those Caltech students:

The intervening years might have glazed their memories with a euphoric tint, but about 80 percent recall Feynman's lectures as highlights of their college years. “It was like going to church.” The lectures were “a transformational experience,” “the experience of a lifetime, probably the most important thing I got from Caltech.” “I was a biology major but Feynman's lectures stand out as a high point in my undergraduate experience … though I must admit I couldn't do the homework at the time and I hardly turned any of it in.” “I was among the least promising of students in this course, and I never missed a lecture. … I remember and can still feel Feynman's joy of discovery. … His lectures had an … emotional impact that was probably lost in the printed Lectures.”

22 points Tenoke 07 May 2014 12:25:19PM Permalink

"Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain."

--Corneliu E. Giurgea, the chemist who synthesized Piracetam and coined the term 'Nootropic'

22 points EHeller 03 June 2014 11:39:04PM Permalink

I suspect that the root of the problem goes to the fact that the universities are supposed to be both centers of research and teaching institutions.

In my estimation (having worked at several universities of various size and prestige, and more recently having consulted at all sorts of businesses) the problem is a common problem in a lot of American business/government since the 1970s/80s- the rise of professional management.

At large flagship U down the street from my house, professor labor costs have dropped markedly (the trend has been to replace tenure track lines with adjuncts and grad students as well as to increase grant overhead. In the science departments, many professors turn a net profit because grant overhead is larger than their salary costs). Enrollment is way up, tuition is way, way up. A drive to leverage university held patents has created massive profits for the university (with some absurdity along the way- a professor tried to start a company only to get a cease and desist order from a semi-conductor company. The university had sold the rights to his research to the semi-conductor company.)

And yet- the university finds itself on the verge of bankruptcy- why? Because management has exploded. The university now has a fellowship office (staffed entirely by managers who add no direct value), not one, but two bureaucratic offices devoted to education quality (how many people does it take to administer teacher feedback forms? Apparently about 20, of which several make more than 100k a year (roughly 5x an adjunct teaching a full load of 10 courses). Twenty years ago, all of the deans were tenured professors who rotated into the job for a few years, now all but one are outside hires who are deans full time. The last president they hired made an absurd amount of money, and brought with him several subordinates all making 150k+ a year. I often wonder how that negotiation went- "I need not only my salary, but I need these extra people to do the parts of the job I don't like."

The problem is insidious- you hire some managers to deal with work no one wants to do. But then, they start hiring people to deal with work THEY don't want to do, so on and so on. Pretty soon all your recent hires have nothing to do with the core competency of your business and they are eating all your profit from within. Its also damn near impossible to get rid of them, because by this point all the hiring and firing that no one wanted to deal with has become their domain.

Its not just education, I've consulted with companies that have more IT project managers than developers, that spend more money on medical benefits-management then they would have spent if they simply paid every claim that walked through the door,etc.

22 points CronoDAS 04 August 2014 08:24:52AM Permalink

The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

-- Alberto Brandolini (via David Brin)

22 points dspeyer 05 August 2014 09:34:00PM Permalink

It was a gamble: would people really take time out of their busy lives to answer other people’s questions, for nothing more than fake internet points and bragging rights?

It turns out that people will do anything for fake internet points.

Just kidding. At best, the points, and the gamification, and the focused structure of the site did little more than encourage people to keep doing what they were already doing. People came because they wanted to help other people, because they needed to learn something new, or because they wanted to show off the clever way they’d solved a problem.


An incredible number of people jumped at the chance to help a stranger

-- Jay Hanlon, Five year retrospective on StackOverflow

21 points billswift 20 May 2009 12:32:56AM Permalink

And when someone makes a statement you don't understand, don't tell him he's crazy. Ask him what he means.

-- H Beam Piper, "Space Viking"

21 points Vladimir_Nesov 23 October 2009 08:55:32AM Permalink

When things are hard to understand, people who suspect they're nonsense generally keep quiet.

-- Paul Graham

21 points Yvain 22 October 2009 08:53:47PM Permalink

A great many years ago, a couple of Jehovah Witnesses bit off more than they could chew with my grandmother. During the unsolicited conversation one of them remarked, "Only God can make a rainbow". To which my grandmother-who was watering her plants at the time-said, "Nonsense!", and created her own rainbow with a spray of water from the hose. Family lore has it that was the end of the conversation.

-- seen on Livejournal

21 points gwern 30 November 2009 02:05:28AM Permalink

CAESAR [recovering his self-possession]: "Pardon him. Theodotus, he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature."

--George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (1898)

21 points saliency 30 November 2009 01:26:44AM Permalink

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying." --Woody Allen

21 points Shalmanese 02 February 2010 09:47:05AM Permalink

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it." GK Chesterton

21 points anonym 04 April 2010 01:43:41AM Permalink

Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.

Bertrand Russell

21 points Rain 01 April 2010 08:48:19PM Permalink

The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.

-- George Eliot

21 points Peter_de_Blanc 02 April 2010 01:13:01AM Permalink

Of course, to really see what someone values you'd have to see their budget profile across a wide range of wealth levels.

21 points gwern 02 June 2010 06:11:18PM Permalink

That's not true. He had perfectly good reasons for atomism in his context.

The ontological arguments of Parmenides (and as exposited by Melissus) lead to extremely unpalatable, if not outright contradictory, conclusions, such as there being no time or change or different entities. The arguments seem valid, and most of their premises are reasonable, but one of his most important and questionable premises is that void cannot exist.

Reject that premise and you are left with matter and void. How are matter and void distributed? Well, either matter can be indefinitely chopped up (continuous) or it must halt and be discrete at some point. The Pluralists like Anaxagoras take the former approach, but continuousness leads to its own issues with regard to change.* So to avoid issues with infinity, you must have discrete matter with size/divison limits - atoms.

So, Democritus and Leucippus are led to Atomism as the one safe path through a thicket of paradoxes and problems. Describing it as wild conjecture is deeply unfair, and, I hope, ignorant.

* One argument, if I remember it from Sextus Empiricus's Against the Physicists correctly, is that if matter really is infinitely divisible, then you should be able to divide it again and again, with void composing ever more of the original mass you started with; if you do division infinitely, then you must end up with nothing at all! That is a problem. Cantor dust would not have been acceptable to the ancient Greeks.

21 points komponisto 02 July 2010 12:07:04AM Permalink

Hunches are not bad, they just need to be allowed to die a natural death when evidence proves them wrong.

-- Steve Moore, former FBI agent

21 points Nisan 10 November 2010 08:02:18PM Permalink

Know the hair you have to get the hair you want.

-Pantene Pro-V hair care bottle

21 points DSimon 04 November 2010 08:06:19PM Permalink

Man, I'm amazing! I'm a machine that turns FOOD into IDEAS!

-- T-Rex, Dinosaur Comics #539

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

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

-- Robert A Heinlein, Notebooks of Lazarus Long

21 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 February 2011 02:06:20AM Permalink

I thought the punchline was going to be that the men were cats.

21 points michaelcurzi 02 March 2011 11:37:49PM Permalink

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

-Clyde Kluckhohn

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

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

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

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

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

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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

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

-Richard Feynman

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

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

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

[ . . . ]

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

Rin: Your explanation is better than any of mine.

Hisao: Because it's true.

Rin: That must be it.

Katawa Shoujo

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

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

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

-raganwald, HN,

21 points MixedNuts 03 August 2011 06:32:13AM Permalink

Alternate hypothesis: the inferior man hates knowledge because "Yay knowledge!" is associated with people like Mencken, who go around calling people things like "inferior man" because they're poor and uneducated.

21 points MichaelGR 11 September 2011 04:37:05AM Permalink

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

-Steve Jobs, [Wired, February 1996]

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

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

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware of people with integrity.

-Avery Pennarun

21 points wedrifid 02 November 2011 10:17:15PM Permalink

I would never die for my beliefs because... screw that I would rather lie.

21 points Daniel_Burfoot 04 December 2011 12:06:20AM Permalink

For your precious sake, once I thought I could die.

It took me a long time to figure out this poem isn't about a recovering alcoholic.

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

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

  • Peter Lynch, "One Up on Wall Street"
21 points Mark_Eichenlaub 01 February 2012 08:24:34PM Permalink

I was interested in the context here. Chesterton was referencing Wells' original belief that the classes would differentiate until the upper class ate the lower class. Wells changed his mind to believe the classes would merge.

The entire book is free on Google Books.

21 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

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 satt 03 March 2012 02:53:15PM Permalink

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere 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?

— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

21 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

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 Nornagest 01 April 2012 10:59:04PM Permalink

Agree that that looks an awful lot like an abuse of the noble savage meme. Barbara Alice Mann appears to be an anthropologist and a Seneca, so that's at least two points where she should really know better -- then again, there's a long and more than somewhat suspect history of anthropologists using their research to make didactic points about Western society. (Margaret Mead, for example.)

Not sure I entirely agree re: fairness. "Life's not fair" seems to me to succinctly express the very important point that natural law and the fundamentals of game theory are invariant relative to egalitarian intuitions. This can't be changed, only worked around, and a response of "so make it fair" seems to dilute that point by implying that any failure of egalitarianism might ideally be traced to some corresponding failure of morality or foresight.

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 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.


21 points DanielLC 04 August 2012 02:39:48AM Permalink

… and I’d get back like $20,000. And I could save hundreds of people from dying of starvation with that money.

According to GiveWell, you could save ten people with that much.

21 points Ezekiel 03 September 2012 03:14:29PM Permalink

Don't think you can fuck with people a lot more powerful than you are and get away with it.

I'm no expert, but that seems to be the moral of a lot of Greek myths.

21 points TheOtherDave 02 November 2012 01:14:18PM Permalink

Previously approximated here.

I still habitually complete this joke with:

"Actually," says the stage magician, "we merely know that there exists something in Scotland which appears to be a sheep which is black on at least one side when viewed from this spot."

Though I'm now tempted to add:

"Hmph," snorts the cognitive psychologist. "Such presumption. An event occurred that we experienced as the perception of a black sheep, only one side of which was visible, standing on what we believed to be a field in Scotland."

21 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

21 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.

21 points Multiheaded 02 January 2013 04:21:17AM Permalink

This article greatly annoyed me because of how it tells people to do the correct practical things (Develop skills! Be persistent and grind! Help people!) yet gives atrocious and shallow reasons for it - and then Wong says how if people criticize him they haven't heard the message. No, David, you can give people correct directions and still be a huge jerk promoting an awful worldview!

He basically shows NO understanding of what makes one attractive to people (especially romantically) and what gives you a feeling of self-worth and self-respect. What you "are" does in fact matter - both to yourself and to others! - outside of your actions; they just reveal and signal your qualities. If you don't do anything good, it's a sign of something being broken about you, but just mechanically bartering some product of your labour for friendship, affection and status cannot work - if your life is in a rut, it's because of some deeper issues and you've got to resolve those first and foremost.

This masochistic imperative to "Work harder and quit whining" might sound all serious and mature, but does not in fact has the power to make you a "better person"; rather, you'll know you've changed for the better when you can achieve more stuff and don't feel miserable.

I wanted to write a short comment illustrating how this article might be the mirror opposite of some unfortunate ideas in the "Seduction community" - it's "forget all else and GIVE to people, to obtain affection and self-worth" versus "forget all else and TAKE from people, to obtain affection and self-worth" - and how, for a self-actualized person, needs, one's own and others', should dictate the taking and giving, not some primitive framework of barter or conquest - but I predictably got too lazy to extend it :)

21 points Antadil 02 March 2013 11:18:53PM Permalink

I remember asking a wise man, once,

'Why do men fear the dark?'

'Because darkness' he told me, 'is ignorance made visible.'

'And do men despise ignorance?', I asked.

'No!', he said, 'they prize it above all things - all things! - but only so long as it remains invisible.'

– R. Scott Bakker: The Judging Eye

21 points RichardKennaway 10 April 2013 07:00:22PM Permalink

BOSWELL. 'Sir Alexander Dick tells me, that he remembers having a thousand people in a year to dine at his house: that is, reckoning each person as one, each time that he dined there.' JOHNSON. 'That, Sir, is about three a day.' BOSWELL. 'How your statement lessens the idea.' JOHNSON. 'That, Sir, is the good of counting. It brings every thing to a certainty, which before floated in the mind indefinitely.'

From Boswell's Life of Johnson. HT to a commenter on the West Hunter blog.

21 points gwern 03 May 2013 04:27:55PM Permalink

Well, since Conscientiousness is heritable to a substantial degree, perhaps she inherited her knack for hard work.

21 points Stabilizer 03 May 2013 08:22:31PM Permalink

Why do you say that? Many times, you say something publicly, it then becomes part of your identity, and after that there is a subconscious force that tries to make sure that your future actions and words are in line with what you said earlier.

21 points BT_Uytya 03 June 2013 09:34:39AM Permalink

Baroque Cycle by Neal Stphenson proves to be a very good, intelligent book series.

“Why does the tide rush out to sea?”

“The influence of the sun and the moon.”

“Yet you and I cannot see the sun or the moon. The water does not have senses to see, or a will to follow them. How then do the sun and moon, so far away, affect the water?”

“Gravity,” responded Colonel Barnes, lowering his voice like a priest intoning the name of God, and glancing about to see whether Sir Isaac Newton were in earshot.

“That’s what everyone says now. ’Twas not so when I was a lad. We used to parrot Aristotle and say it was in the nature of water to be drawn up by the moon. Now, thanks to our fellow-passenger, we say ‘gravity.’ It seems a great improvement. But is it really? Do you understand the tides, Colonel Barnes, simply because you know to say ‘gravity’?”

Daniel Waterhouse and Colonel Barnes in Solomon’s Gold

21 points khafra 03 June 2013 11:28:58AM Permalink

Corollaries: The more of a dumbass you are, the less well you can recognize common features in iterated bad things. So dumbasses are, subjectively speaking, just unlucky.

21 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 June 2013 12:55:12PM Permalink

Though you can still find subjects who don't know the outcome, ask them for their predictions, and compare those predictions with subjects who are told the outcome to find the size of the hindsight bias.

21 points ygert 03 July 2013 09:42:13AM Permalink

"Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is false."

21 points malcolmocean 01 August 2013 11:11:59PM Permalink

Saw this under "latest rationality quotes" and was like "man, I'm really missing the context as to how this is a rationality quote."

21 points Alejandro1 03 August 2013 01:34:22PM Permalink

So Tetris is really an anti-procrastination learning tool? Hmmm, wonder why that doesn't sound right….

21 points jsbennett86 11 September 2013 06:03:45AM Permalink

If you cannot examine your thoughts, you have no choice but to think them, however silly they may be.

Richard Mitchell - Less Than Words Can Say

21 points snafoo 05 September 2013 02:22:22PM Permalink


It's like when those stupid car buffs say "Hmmm...yeah, transmission fluid" when telling each other what they think is wrong rather than "It sounds like the part that changes the speed and torque with which the wheels turn with respect to the engine isn't properly lubricated and able to have the right hydraulic pressure, so you should add some green oil product."


21 points Eugine_Nier 04 October 2013 02:53:15AM Permalink

the mass of an object never seems to change: a spinning top has the same weight as a still one. So a “law” was invented: mass is constant, independent of speed. That “law” is now found to be incorrect. Mass is found to increase with velocity, but appreciable increases require velocities near that of light. A true law is: if an object moves with a speed of less than one hundred miles a second the mass is constant to within one part in a million. In some such approximate form this is a correct law. So in practice one might think that the new law makes no significant difference. Well, yes and no. For ordinary speeds we can certainly forget it and use the simple constant-mass law as a good approximation. But for high speeds we are wrong, and the higher the speed, the more wrong we are.

Finally, and most interesting, philosophically we are completely wrong with the approximate law. Our entire picture of the world has to be altered even though the mass changes only by a little bit. This is a very peculiar thing about the philosophy, or the ideas, behind the laws. Even a very small effect sometimes requires profound changes in our ideas.

Richard Feynman Lectures on Physics

21 points lukeprog 14 November 2013 12:55:08AM Permalink

God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot predict, the courage to predict the things I can, and the wisdom to buy index funds.

Nate Silver

(h/t Rob Wiblin)

21 points malcolmocean 01 November 2013 11:01:56AM Permalink

"Next time you’re in a debate, ask yourself if someone is on offense or defense. If they’re neither, then you know you have someone you can learn from"

Julien Smith

21 points adamzerner 21 December 2013 05:52:32PM Permalink

"A problem well put, is half solved." - John Dewey

21 points Vaniver 06 December 2013 04:55:38PM Permalink

That depends, how were their reviews on Silk Road? :P

21 points Jayson_Virissimo 13 December 2013 05:19:34AM Permalink

I wonder what the story would sound like if told from the perspective of the literary theorist. Perhaps a story about how philosophers like to go on and on about truth and rationality, but when pressed by a relatively intelligent interlocutor, can't even supply you with something as basic as a theory of knowledge?

21 points RichardKennaway 04 February 2014 08:37:55AM Permalink

On the other hand:

The Stoical scheme of supplying our wants by lopping off our desires, is like cutting off our feet when we want shoes.

Jonathan Swift

21 points cousin_it 16 April 2014 10:22:07AM Permalink

Being wrong about something feels exactly the same as being right about something.

-- many different people, most recently user chipaca on HN

21 points aarongertler 16 May 2014 01:13:23AM Permalink

“I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don't know the answer.”

― Douglas Adams

21 points SaidAchmiz 04 May 2014 12:14:30AM Permalink

Dawkins, in arguments with theists, homeopaths, etc., is not trying to convince his interlocutors; nor are most of the other well-known atheist public figures. The aim to convince bystanders — the private atheist who is unsure whether to "come out", the theist who's all but lost his faith but isn't sure whether atheism is a position one may take publicly, the person who's lukewarm on religious arguments but has always had a rather benign and respectful view of religion, etc.

In private conversations with someone whose opinions are of concern to you, Franklin's advice make sense. The public arguments of Dawkins Co. are more akin to performances than conversations. I think he achieves his aim admirably. I, for one, have little interest in watching people get on a public stage and have exchanges laden with "in certain cases or circumstances..." and other such mealy-mouthed nonsense.

21 points Mestroyer 05 May 2014 08:52:19AM Permalink

Actually, if you do this with something besides a test, this sounds like a really good way to teach a third-grader probabilities.

21 points Mestroyer 04 May 2014 03:38:21AM Permalink

we're human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill Today.

Captain James Tiberius Kirk dodging an appeal to nature and the what the hell effect, to optimize for consequences instead of virtue.

21 points elharo 01 May 2014 09:53:13AM Permalink

The brutal truth is that reality is indifferent to your difficulty in finding enough subjects. It’s like astronomy: To study things that are small and distant in the sky you need a huge telescope. If you only have access to a few subjects, you need to study bigger effects, and maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

-- Joseph P. Simmons, The Reformation: Can Social Scientists Save Themselves

21 points rationalnoodles 02 June 2014 11:46:14AM Permalink



Arguing with idiots has the game-theoretic structure of a dollar-auction. Whoever gets in the last argument wins. Add to this the asymmetry that someone with low epistemic standarts can make up some nonsense argument in five minutes, while it takes you an hour to prove that it is nonsense. At which point the other guy will make up some new nonsense.


edit: If you decide to reply, please read the original comment on SSC for context.

21 points gwern 17 July 2014 12:22:19AM Permalink

"Independence is for the very few, it is a privilege of the strong. Whoever attempts it enters a labyrinth, and multiplies a thousandfold the dangers of life. Not least of which is that no one can see how and where he loses his way, becomes lonely, and is torn piecemeal by some minotaur of conscience. If he fails, this happens so far from the comprehension of men that they cannot sympathise nor pity."

--29, Part 2: The Free Spirit, Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil- Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future

21 points Torello 02 October 2014 01:39:31AM Permalink

"While there are problems with what I have proposed, they should be compared to the existing alternatives, not to abstract utopias."

Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future (page number not provided by e-reader)

21 points Stabilizer 03 October 2014 10:24:12PM Permalink

The version of Windows following 8.1 will be Windows 10, not Windows 9. Apparently this is because Microsoft knows that a lot of software naively looks at the first digit of the version number, concluding that it must be Windows 95 or Windows 98 if it starts with 9.

Many think this is stupid. They say that Microsoft should call the next version Windows 9, and if somebody’s dumb code breaks, it’s their own fault.

People who think that way aren’t billionaires. Microsoft got where it is, in part, because they have enough business savvy to take responsibility for problems that are not their fault but that would be perceived as being their fault.

-John D. Cook

21 points johnswentworth 03 November 2014 02:41:11AM Permalink

Someone should write a post called "Open Problems in Self-Improvement".

20 points Rune 21 May 2009 02:24:57AM Permalink

"We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

-- H. L. Mencken

20 points RichardKennaway 02 July 2009 10:05:51PM Permalink

"Experiment and theory often show remarkable agreement when performed in the same laboratory."

-- Daniel Bershader

20 points RobinZ 06 August 2009 01:05:22PM Permalink

No one has ever announced that because determinism is true thermostats do not control temperature.

Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, qtd. in Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room

20 points RobinZ 06 August 2009 01:04:15PM Permalink

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

Whitehead, Alfred North (1861 - 1947), An Introduction to Mathematics.

20 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 August 2009 04:05:53AM Permalink

Better our hypotheses die for our errors than ourselves.

-- Karl Popper

20 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 November 2009 11:44:45PM Permalink

Your calendar never lies. All we have is our time. The way we spend our time is our priorities, is our "strategy." Your calendar knows what you really care about. Do you?

-- Tom Peters, HT Ben Casnocha

20 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 November 2009 11:47:31PM Permalink

Sounds like I'd better change that.

20 points Rain 01 February 2010 12:44:08PM Permalink

One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.

I will maintain a realistic assessment of my strengths and weaknesses. Even though this takes some of the fun out of the job, at least I will never utter the line "No, this cannot be! I AM INVINCIBLE!!!" (After that, death is usually instantaneous.)

I will be neither chivalrous nor sporting. If I have an unstoppable superweapon, I will use it as early and as often as possible instead of keeping it in reserve.

If my advisors ask "Why are you risking everything on such a mad scheme?", I will not proceed until I have a response that satisfies them.

I will see a competent psychiatrist and get cured of all extremely unusual phobias and bizarre compulsive habits which could prove to be a disadvantage.

I will never build a sentient computer smarter than I am.

-- Peters Evil Overlord List on how to be a less wrong fictional villain

20 points MichaelGR 01 March 2010 10:27:23PM Permalink

Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.

--Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline (2009), p 216

20 points Rain 01 March 2010 09:54:29PM Permalink

In an universe full of inanimate material, sentient beings are gods.

-- spire3661, in a Slashdot post

20 points RobinZ 05 April 2010 03:16:59PM Permalink

You don't have to believe everything you think.

Seen on bumper sticker, via ^zhurnaly.

20 points Kaj_Sotala 01 May 2010 08:51:41PM Permalink

(In a thread where people were asked whether or not they had a religious experience of "feeling God"):

I had something similar to feeling God, I suppose, except it was in essence the exact opposite. I was in a forest one summer, and I looked up at the sunlight shining through the leaves, and suddenly it felt like I could see each and every individual leaf in the forest and trace the path of each photon that poured through them, and I remember thinking over and over, in stunned amazement, "the world is sufficient. The world is sufficient."

I'd never thought much about religion before that, but that experience made me realize that the material world was entire orders of magnitude more beautiful than any of the tawdry religious fantasies people came up with, and it felt unspeakably tragic that anyone would ever reject this, our most incredible universe, for spiritual pipe-dreams. In a way, you might say I felt the lack of god, and it felt like glory.

-- Axiomatic

20 points RichardKennaway 01 June 2010 10:06:41PM Permalink

When you interact with someone, you may think, I will do this, so that they will do that, or think such-and-such, or feel thus-and-so; but what is actually going on for them may bear no resemblance to the model of them that you have in your head. If your model is wrong at the meta-level -- you are wrong about how people work -- then you will either notice that you have difficulty dealing with people at all, or not notice that the problem is with you and get resentful at everyone else for not behaving as you expect them to.

Here, Mrs. B.F. Skinner imagines that she is reinforcing the behaviour that she desires, of eating spinach, by providing the reinforcer, ice-cream. Or is she really punishing the consumption of ice-cream by associating it with spinach? Or associating herself with an unpleasant situation? Or any number of other possibilities.

20 points MichaelGR 06 July 2010 02:49:03PM Permalink

From the Wikipedia article about perverse incentives:

In Hanoi, under French colonial rule, a program paying people a bounty for each rat pelt handed in was intended to exterminate rats. Instead, it led to the farming of rats.


19th century palaeontologists traveling to China used to pay peasants for each fragment of dinosaur bone (dinosaur fossils) that they produced. They later discovered that peasants dug up the bones and then smashed them into multiple pieces to maximise their payments.

20 points Jayson_Virissimo 03 August 2010 02:38:38AM Permalink

The fact that you are giving money to charity does not mean that you need not try to find out whether that charity is a fraud or not.

-C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

20 points Rain 03 August 2010 12:56:20AM Permalink

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

-- William James

20 points thomascolthurst 03 September 2010 11:28:42PM Permalink

Someone once quoted Shakespeare to the philosopher W. V. O. Quine: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." To which Quine is said to have responded: "Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than are in heaven and earth."

Reported by Chet Raymo

20 points NihilCredo 01 September 2010 10:51:33AM Permalink

I was about to reply that apparently Marcus Aurelius had never put his hand on a burning stove, but then I remembered that he had probably been taught about Mucius Scaevola about a million times.

20 points Rain 05 October 2010 05:37:38PM Permalink

The singularity is my retirement plan.

-- tocomment, in a Hacker News post

20 points PeterS 03 November 2010 05:22:17AM Permalink

Rule I

We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.

To this purpose the philosophers say that Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.

Rule II

Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.

As to respiration in a man and in a beast; the descent of stones in Europe and in America; the light of our culinary fire and of the sun; the reflection of light in the earth, and in the planets.

Rule III

The qualities of bodies, which admit neither intensification nor remission of degrees, and which are found to belong to all bodies within the reach of our experiments, are to be esteemed the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever.

For since the qualities of bodies are only known to us by experiments, we are to hold for universal all such as universally agree with experiments; and such as are not liable to diminution can never be quite taken away. We are certainly not to relinquish the evidence for the sake of dreams and vain fictions of our own devising; nor are we to recede from the analogy of Nature, which is wont to be simple, and always consonant to itself. . .

Rule IV

In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions inferred by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined, till such time as other phenomena occur, by which they may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions.

This rule we must follow, that the argument of induction may not be evaded by hypotheses.

Isaac Newton, Philosophiae naturalis: Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy

20 points RichardKennaway 02 November 2010 09:43:19PM Permalink

The fact that I have no remedy for all the sorrows of the world is no reason for my accepting yours. It simply supports the strong probability that yours is a fake.

H.L. Mencken, Minority Report.

20 points billswift 03 December 2010 05:16:54AM Permalink

In the Information Age, the first step to sanity is FILTERING. Filter the information; extract the knowledge.

Filter first for substance. Filter second for significance. These filters protect against advertising.

Filter third for reliability. This filter protects against politicians.

Filter fourth for completeness. This filter protects from the media.

-- Marc Stielger, David's Sling

20 points Jack 03 February 2011 11:08:42PM Permalink

But unlike sex you shouldn't change positions just for fun and novelty.

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

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

-Kaname Madoka, Puella Magi Madoka Magica

20 points Alexandros 02 March 2011 01:16:33PM Permalink

When said in first person, it can feel like a dodge.

However, when used as a third-person response to retorts like "politicians have got to stop being so corrupt!", I find it fits just fine, and it is in this context that I posted it. (also, notice that the elaboration is in third person)

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

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

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

— Raymond and Aaron, Calamities of Nature

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

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

20 points MixedNuts 04 August 2011 02:13:34PM Permalink

That's a bit freaky. If someone predicted the Singularity 150 years ago, it suggests current "Singularity imminent!" predictions are far off. We snicker at "thinking machine" applied to a simple calculator, because we understand that even though arithmetic operations are sufficient to build thought, there's a long way to go from these base components to the genuine article. The analogy with current talk of intelligence is clear.

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

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

-- Wikipedia, on the reproducibility of scientific results

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

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

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

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

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

-- Turkish proverb

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

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

Jorge Luis Borges, "The Secret Miracle".

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

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

-- Hans. The Troll Hunter

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

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

W. Stanley Jevons

20 points gwern 02 October 2011 06:01:09PM Permalink

To quote Warner's famous essay on cartoonialism, "The struggle enough to fill a character's heart. One must imagine Coyote happy."

20 points Karmakaiser 31 October 2011 01:12:50PM Permalink

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone's fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I'm one of Us. I must be. I've certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We're always one of Us. It's Them that do the bad things.

-Terry Pratchett, Jingo

20 points juliawise 02 November 2011 11:39:22AM Permalink

War is something we do to win. Dance is something we do either to entertain others, or for our own enjoyment. Debate teams work like this - you're assigned a position which you must argue, even if you don't believe it. The performers/debaters do it some for their own pleasure, and they attract audiences who come to be entertained. My husband and I do a lot of arguing/debate for amusement, which is more like social dance in that it's playful and designed to entertain us rather than to accomplish any other goal.

But neither of these metaphors deal with objective truth. If I win a war, a debate, or a lawsuit, it doesn't prove my point is correct. It just means I fought or argued more skillfully or impressively. In navigation, both skill and objective truth are involved. Imagine two people who are trying to reach a destination (representing truth). They need skill to figure out how to get there, and can even compete for who gets there first (as in the sport of orienteering). Or, they can collaborate to find it together. If I confidently and stylishly navigate in the wrong direction, I won't reach my destination. I can only get there by reading the signs correctly.

I would prefer serious argument to be more about truth-seeking and less about showing off or defeating the opponent.

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

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

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

20 points CronoDAS 01 December 2011 04:49:01AM Permalink

Grognor: chelz: is the area of a rectangle more the length, or the width?

The width. Changing the width makes a bigger change in the area than changing the length does. (By convention, the width is defined as the smaller of the two dimensions of the rectangle.)

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

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

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

-- Questionable Content #2072

20 points Jayson_Virissimo 30 November 2011 11:05:02AM Permalink

Gradually I began to intellectually reject some of my delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation. This began, most recognizably, with the rejection of politically-oriented thinking as essentially a hopeless waste of intellectual effort.

-John Nash, A Beautiful Mind

In other words, recognizing that politics is the mind-killer helped Nash manage his paranoid-scizophrenia.

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

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

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

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


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

~ Randall Munroe, xkcd #240: Dream Girl

20 points