Best of Rationality Quotes

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

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

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

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.


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 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.

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

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.

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 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 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 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 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

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 cousin_it 16 January 2014 10:46:11PM Permalink

People will call it immoral until they can afford it

-- blindcavefsh on

I like this quote because it can serve as a replacement for "power corrupts" and also applies to things like embryo selection, so it seems to be pointing to something more general.

20 points Pfft 10 February 2014 05:43:22PM Permalink

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

--Mike Tyson

20 points Jayson_Virissimo 18 March 2014 09:18:23PM Permalink

The same persons who cry down Logic will generally warn you against Political Economy. It is unfeeling, they will tell you. It recognises unpleasant facts. For my part, the most unfeeling thing I know of is the law of gravitation: it breaks the neck of the best and most amiable person without scruple, if he forgets for a single moment to give heed to it. The winds and waves too are very unfeeling. Would you advise those who go to sea to deny the winds and waves – or to make use of them, and find the means of guarding against their dangers? My advice to you is to study the great writers on Political Economy, and hold firmly by whatever in them you find true; and depend upon it that if you are not selfish or hard-hearted already, Political Economy will not make you so.

-- John Stuart Mill

20 points Jayson_Virissimo 04 April 2014 01:24:36AM Permalink

Today is already the tomorrow which the bad economist yesterday urged us to ignore.

-- Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson

20 points somnicule 09 April 2014 11:13:15AM Permalink

“Even if it's not your fault, it's your responsibility.”

20 points RichardKennaway 10 June 2014 08:33:27AM Permalink

The quote is true to Bacon's thought, and its expression much improved in the repetition. Here is the nearest to it I can find in Bacon's works on Gutenberg:

For this purpose, let us consider the false appearances that are imposed upon us by the general nature of the mind, beholding them in an example or two; as first, in that instance which is the root of all superstition, namely, that to the nature of the mind of all men it is consonant for the affirmative or active to affect more than the negative or privative. So that a few times hitting or presence countervails ofttimes failing or absence, as was well answered by Diagoras to him that showed him in Neptune's temple the great number of pictures of such as had escaped shipwreck, and had paid their vows to Neptune, saying, "Advise now, you that think it folly to invocate Neptune in tempest." "Yea, but," saith Diagoras, "where are they painted that are drowned?"

Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning

20 points NancyLebovitz 08 June 2014 06:47:11PM Permalink

Let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.

Arthur Martine, quoted by Daniel Dennett

20 points John_Maxwell_IV 07 September 2014 01:56:45AM Permalink

Often, one of these CEOs will operate in a way inconsistent with Thorndike's major thesis and yet he'll end up praising the CEO anyway. In poker, we'd call this the "won, didn't it?" fallacy-- judging a process by the specific, short-term result accomplished rather than examining the long-term result of multiple iterations of the process over time.

This review.

20 points arundelo 04 September 2014 03:53:27PM Permalink

Hacker School has a set of "social rules [...] designed to curtail specific behavior we've found to be destructive to a supportive, productive, and fun learning environment." One of them is no feigning surprise:

The first rule means you shouldn't act surprised when people say they don't know something. This applies to both technical things ("What?! I can't believe you don't know what the stack is!") and non-technical things ("You don't know who RMS is?!"). Feigning surprise has absolutely no social or educational benefit: When people feign surprise, it's usually to make them feel better about themselves and others feel worse. And even when that's not the intention, it's almost always the effect. As you've probably already guessed, this rule is tightly coupled to our belief in the importance of people feeling comfortable saying "I don't know" and "I don't understand."

I think this is a good rule and when I find out someone doesn't know something that I think they "should" already know, I instead try to react as in xkcd 1053 (or by chalking it up to a momentary maladaptive brain activity change on their part, or by admitting that it's probably not that important that they know this thing). But I think "feigning surprise" is a bad name, because when I'm in this situation, I'm never pretending to be surprised in order to demonstrate how smart I am, I am always genuinely surprised. (Surprise means my model of the world is about to get better. Yay!)

20 points RolfAndreassen 02 September 2014 12:17:19AM Permalink

"I mean, my lord Salvara, that your own expectations have been used against you. You have a keen sense for men of business, surely. You've grown your family fortune several times over in your brief time handling it. Therefore, a man who wished to snare you in some scheme could do nothing wiser than to act the consummate man of business. To deliberately manifest all your expectations. To show you exactly what you expected and desired to see."

"It seems to me that if I accept your argument," the don said slowly, "then the self-evident truth of any legitimate thing could be taken as grounds for its falseness. I say Lukas Fehrwight is a merchant of Emberlain because he shows the signs of being so; you say those same signs are what prove him counterfeit. I need more sensible evidence than this."

-- Scott Lynch, "The Lies of Locke Lamora", page 150.

20 points dspeyer 02 October 2014 02:53:36PM Permalink

Lord Vetinari, as supreme ruler of Ankh-Morpork, could in theory summon the Archchancellor of Unseen University to his presence and, indeed, have him executed if he failed to obey.

On the other hand Mustrum Ridcully, as head of the college of wizards, had made it clear in polite but firm ways that he could turn him into a small amphibian and, indeed, start jumping around the room on a pogo stick.

Alcohol bridged the diplomatic gap nicely. Sometimes Lord Vetinari invited the Archchancellor to the palace for a convivial drink. And of course the Archchancellor went, because it would be bad manners not to. And everyone understood the position, and everyone was on their best behaviour, and thus civil unrest and slime on the carpet were averted.

-- Interesting Times, Terry Pratchett

20 points James_Miller 15 December 2014 07:01:03PM Permalink

Your mind is like a compiled program you've lost the source of. It works, but you don't know why.

Paul Graham

20 points Salemicus 01 December 2014 07:50:06PM Permalink

Geographers crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts, and unapproachable bogs.

Plutarch, from Life of Theseus.

19 points lukeprog 07 January 2014 05:46:00PM Permalink

[This] paper will be something of an exercise in saying the obvious, but on this topic it is worth saying the obvious first so that less obvious things can be said from there.

David Chalmers

19 points Wesmaster160 06 January 2014 10:41:02PM Permalink

There are lots of mysteries in the world. But the truth is that maybe... those things aren't all that mysterious at all... Maybe they're just things I don't know about yet. And that's why they seem mysterious.

--Your partner in Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity

19 points MattG 10 March 2014 08:54:26PM Permalink

"This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution." - Daniel Kahneman

19 points malcolmocean 01 March 2014 03:35:08PM Permalink

Allow me to express now, once and for all, my deep respect for the work of the experimenter and for his fight to wring significant facts from an inflexible Nature, who says so distinctly "No" and so indistinctly "Yes" to our theories.

— Hermann Weyl

(quoted in Science And Sanity, by Alfred Korzybski, of "the map is not the territory" fame)

19 points roryokane 18 April 2014 01:26:11AM Permalink

“If only there were irrational people somewhere, insidiously believing stupid things, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and mock them. But the line dividing rationality and irrationality cuts through the mind of every human being. And who is willing to mock a piece of his own mind?”

(With apologies to Solzhenitsyn).

– Said Achmiz, in a comment on Slate Star Codex’s post “The Cowpox of Doubt”

19 points redlizard 15 May 2014 02:58:04AM Permalink

Even with measurements in hand, old habits are hard to shake. It’s easy to fall in love with numbers that seem to agree with you. It’s just as easy to grope for reasons to write off numbers that violate your expectations. Those are both bad, common biases. Don’t just look for evidence to confirm your theory. Test for things your theory predicts should never happen. If the theory is correct, it should easily survive the evidential crossfire of positive and negative tests. If it’s not you’ll find out that much quicker. Being wrong efficiently is what science is all about.

-- Carlos Bueno, Mature Optimization, pg. 14. Emphasis mine.

19 points Torello 01 May 2014 11:33:48PM Permalink

Accident, n. An inevitable occurrence due to the action of immutable natural laws.

  • Ambrose Bierce, The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, complied and edited by Ernest J. Hopkins
19 points dspeyer 02 June 2014 06:28:30PM Permalink

I think the idea is something like: the probability of rolling 12 on fair 2d6 is 1/36, but the probability of fair dice being used when kings gamble for territory is far lower.

19 points Jayson_Virissimo 09 July 2014 04:56:08AM Permalink

An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.

-- Niels Bohr, A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations

19 points lukeprog 24 September 2014 07:06:10AM Permalink

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.

J.S. Mill

19 points JQuinton 07 October 2014 04:41:37PM Permalink

When I was 16, I wanted to follow in my grandfathers footsteps. I wanted to be a tradesman. I wanted to build things, and fix things, and make things with my own two hands. This was my passion, and I followed it for years. I took all the shop classes at school, and did all I could to absorb the knowledge and skill that came so easily to my granddad. Unfortunately, the handy gene skipped over me, and I became frustrated. But I remained determined to do whatever it took to become a tradesman.

One day, I brought home a sconce from woodshop that looked like a paramecium, and after a heavy sigh, my grandfather told me the truth. He explained that my life would be a lot more satisfying and productive if I got myself a different kind of toolbox. This was almost certainly the best advice I’ve ever received, but at the time, it was crushing. It felt contradictory to everything I knew about persistence, and the importance of “staying the course.” It felt like quitting. But here’s the “dirty truth,” Stephen. “Staying the course” only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Because passion and persistence – while most often associated with success – are also essential ingredients of futility.

That’s why I would never advise anyone to “follow their passion” until I understand who they are, what they want, and why they want it. Even then, I’d be cautious. Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.”

19 points alienist 11 December 2014 04:05:50AM Permalink

Why is Publius Scipio Nasica a "good guy"? His opposition to Carthage's destruction was based on his idea that without a strong external enemy Rome will descend into decadence.

Well, it did.

19 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 December 2014 10:34:14PM Permalink

I think all the work here is done by determining what actually constitutes a precipice.

18 points hairyfigment 13 March 2014 08:51:11PM Permalink

A: Maybe an Air Nomad Avatar will understand where I'm coming from...(simulates Yangchen)...

Y: Avatar Aang, I know that you are a gentle spirit. And the monks have taught you well. But this isn't about you. This is about the world.

A: But the monks taught me I had to detach myself from the world so my spirit could be free!

Y: ...Here is my wisdom for you: selfless duty calls for you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs, and do whatever it takes to protect the world.

  • Avatar: The last airbender
18 points CCC 07 March 2014 10:40:21AM Permalink

The demon is not just lying at random - the demon is lying with the purpose of getting a certain reaction (in this case, getting the human to subscribe to the philosophy of materialism). The original quote is advice on how to use the human's cognitive biases against him, in order to better achieve that goal.

The point of the quote isn't materialism. That could be replaced with any other philosophy, quite easily. The point of the quote is that, for many people, subscribing to a philosophy isn't about whether that philosophy is true at all; it's more about whether that philosophy is popular, or cool, or daring.

The point isn't to mock the demon, or the materialist. The point is to highlight a common human cognitive mistake.

18 points Benito 02 April 2014 06:15:24PM Permalink

“I propose we simply postpone the worrisome question of what really has a mind, about what the proper domain of the intentional stance is. Whatever the right answer to that question is—if it has a right answer—this will not jeopardize the plain fact that the intentional stance works remarkably well as a prediction method in these other areas, almost as well as it works in our daily lives as folk psychologists dealing with other people. This move of mine annoys and frustrates some philosophers, who want to blow the whistle and insist on properly settling the issue of what a mind, a belief, a desire is before taking another step. Define your terms, sir! No, I won’t. That would be premature. I want to explore first the power and the extent of application of this good trick, the intentional stance. Once we see what it is good for, and why, we can come back and ask ourselves if we still feel the need for formal, watertight definitions. My move is an instance of nibbling on a tough problem instead of trying to eat (and digest) the whole thing from the outset. “Many of the thinking tools I will be demonstrating are good at nibbling, at roughly locating a few “fixed” points that will help us see the general shape of the problem. In Elbow Room (1984a), o compared my method to the sculptor’s method of roughing out the form in a block of marble, approaching the final surfaces cautiously, modestly, working by successive approximation. Many philosophers apparently cannot work that way and have to secure (or so they think) the utterly fixed boundaries of their problems and possible solutions before they can venture any hypotheses.”

-Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Chapter 18 "The Intentional Stance" [Bold is original]

Reminded me of the idea of 'hacking away at the edges'.

18 points Lumifer 01 April 2014 05:13:57PM Permalink

if I was able to overcome this aversion and math was as fun as playing video games

Good video games are designed to be fun, that is their purpose. Math, um, not so much.

18 points James_Miller 01 April 2014 10:57:23PM Permalink

“Anything outside yourself, this you can see and apply your logic to it." She said. "But it’s a human trait that when we encounter personal problems, those things most deeply personal are the most difficult to bring out for our logic to scan. We tend to flounder around, blaming everything but the actual, deep-seated thing that’s really chewing on us.”

Jessica speaking to Thufir Hawat in Frank Herbert's Dune

18 points tristanhaze 04 May 2014 01:37:28AM Permalink

For my part, I've found the economic notions of opportunity cost and marginal utility to be like this.

18 points Jayson_Virissimo 09 July 2014 05:05:00AM Permalink

If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.

-- Orville Wright,

18 points James_Miller 06 July 2014 05:37:35PM Permalink

Show me a republic, ancient or modern, in which there have been no decorations. Some people call them baubles. Well, it is by such baubles that one leads men.

Napoleon who would have approved of gamification.

18 points Skeptityke 07 July 2014 03:12:34PM Permalink

The part after it was about how bad guys tend to be like people who have overspecialized in a less useful skill. You will never be able to beat them at what they do, but you don't need to. Said in the context of a very under-powered protagonist. Time for the rest of the quote, though it makes less and less sense as time goes on.

Everyone who will ever oppose you in life is a crazy, burly dude with a spoon, and you will never be able to outspoon them. Even the powerful people, they’re just spooning harder and more vigorously than everyone else, like hungry orphan children eating soup. Except the soup is power. I’ll level with you here: I have completely lost track of this analogy.

18 points RichardKennaway 04 September 2014 04:17:53PM Permalink

I dunno. I feel like "I don't understand how anyone could believe X" is a much, much better position to take on issues than "I know exactly why my opponents disagree with me! It is because they are stupid and evil!" The former at least opens the possibility that your opponents believe things for good reasons that you don't understand -- which is often true!

I am imagining the following exchange:

"I don't understand how anyone could believe X!"

"Great, the first step to understanding is noticing that you don't understand. Now, let me show you why X is true..."

I suspect that most people saying the first line would not take well to hearing the second.

18 points gjm 03 October 2014 12:52:17PM Permalink

Quite right, too.

Being able to take paper and pens home from the workplace to work is clearly useful and beneficial to the business. It's plainly not worth a business's time to track such things punctiliously unless its employees are engaging in large-scale pilfering (e.g., selling packs of printer paper) because the losses are so small. It's plainly not worth an employee's time to track them either for the same reason. (And similarly not worth an employee's time worrying about whether s/he has brought papers or pens into work from home and left them there.)

The optimal policy is clearly for no one to worry about these things except in cases of large-scale pilfering.

(In large businesses it may be worth having a formal rule that just says "no taking things home from the office" and then ignoring small violations, because that makes it feasible to fight back in cases of large-scale pilfering without needing a load of lawyering over what counts as large-scale. Even then, the purpose of that rule should be to prevent serious violations and no one should feel at all guilty about not keeping track of what paper and pens are whose. I suspect the actual local optimum in this vicinity is to have such a rule and announce explicitly that no one will be looking for, or caring about, small benign violations. But that might turn out to spoil things legally in the rare cases where it matters.)

Lest I be thought self-serving, I will remark that I'm pretty sure my own net flux of Stuff is very sizeably into, not out of, work.

18 points skeptical_lurker 03 December 2014 10:54:49PM Permalink

... the lateral thinker who finds a new route forward, the hedonist who bungee jumps off the edge, and the engineer who builds a bridge.

(Of course, there might not be another route to find, the bungee jumping could get you killed, and a bridge might not be cost-effective, but I'd like to at least consider a third way out of a dilemma)

17 points lukeprog 15 January 2014 01:20:18AM Permalink

Thus 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 a primitive again.

Joseph Schumpeter

17 points whales 13 January 2014 08:58:20AM Permalink

It’s tempting to judge what you read: "I agree with these statements, and I disagree with those." However, a great thinker who has spent decades on an unusual line of thought cannot induce their context into your head in a few pages. It’s almost certainly the case that you don’t fully understand their statements. Instead, you can say: "I have now learned that there exists a worldview in which all of these statements are consistent." And if it feels worthwhile, you can make a genuine effort to understand that entire worldview. You don't have to adopt it. Just make it available to yourself, so you can make connections to it when it's needed.

Bret Victor, reflecting on Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together by Bruno Latour

17 points bbleeker 04 March 2014 12:54:48PM Permalink

The world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of truth - that the error and truth are simply opposite. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it is cured on one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one.

--H. L. Mencken

17 points Weedlayer 10 March 2014 06:55:56AM Permalink

This quote reminded me of a quote from an anime called Kaiji, albeit your quote is much more succinct.

Normally, those people would never wake up from their fantasy worlds. They live meaningless lives. They waste their precious days over nothing. No matter how old they get, they'll continue to say, "My real life hasn't started yet. The real me is still asleep, so that's why my life is such garbage." They continue to tell themselves that. They continue. And they age. Then die. And on their deathbeds, they will finally realize: the life they lived was the real thing. People don't live provisional lives, nor do they die provisional deaths. That's a simple fact! The problem... is whether they realize that simple fact.

  • Yukio Tonegawa in Kaiji
17 points aarongertler 04 April 2014 05:56:29PM Permalink

So as to keep the quote on its own, my commentary:

This passage (read at around age 10) may have been my first exposure to an EA mindset, and I think that "things you don't value much anymore can still provide great utility for other people" is a powerful lesson in general.

17 points Mestroyer 01 April 2014 08:20:23PM Permalink

This quote seems like it's lumping every process for arriving at beliefs besides reason into one. "If you don't follow the process I understand and is guaranteed not to produce beliefs like that, then I can't guarantee you won't produce beliefs like that!" But there are many such processes besides reason, that could be going on in their "hearts" to produce their beliefs. Because they are all opaque and non-negotiable and not this particular one you trust not to make people murder Sharon Tate, does not mean that they all have the same probability of producing plane-flying-into-building beliefs.

Consider the following made-up quote: "when you say you believe something is acceptable for some reason other than the Bible said so, you have completely justified Stalin's planned famines. You have justified Pol Pot. If it's acceptable for for you, why isn't it acceptable for them? Why are you different? If you say 'I believe that gays should not be stoned to death and the Bible doesn't support me but I believe it in my heart', then it's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that dissidents should be sent to be worked to death in Siberia. It's perfectly okay to believe because your secular morality says so that all the intellectuals in your country need to be killed."

I would respond to it: "Stop lumping all moralities into two classes, your morality, and all others. One of these lumps has lots of variation in it, and sub-lumps which need to be distinguished, because most of them do not actually condone gulags"

And likewise I respond to Penn Jilette's quote: "Stop lumping all epistemologies into two classes, yours, and the one where people draw beliefs from their 'hearts'. One of these lumps has lots of variation in it, and sub-lumps which need to be distinguished, because most of them do not actually result in beliefs that drive them to fly planes into buildings."

The wishful-thinking new-age "all powerful force of love" faith epistemology is actually pretty safe in terms of not driving people to violence who wouldn't already be inclined to it. That belief wouldn't make them feel good. Though of course, faith plus ancient texts which condone violence can be more dangerous, though as we know empirically, for some reason, people driven to violence by their religions are rare these days, even coming from religions like that.

17 points Vulture 03 May 2014 09:17:23PM Permalink

[N]ature is constantly given human qualities. Wordsworth wrote that “nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” Mother Nature has comforted us in every culture on earth. In the 20th and 21st centuries, some environmentalists claimed that the entire earth is a single ecosystem, a “superorganism” in the language of Gaia.

I would argue that we have been fooling ourselves. Nature, in fact, is mindless. Nature is neither friend nor foe, neither malevolent nor benevolent.

Nature is purposeless. Nature simply is. We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept. We feel such a strong connection to nature. But the relationship between nature and us is one-sided. There is no reciprocity. There is no mind on the other side of the wall. That absence of mind, coupled with so much power, is what so frightened me...

-- Alan Lightman

17 points satt 01 May 2014 11:09:26PM Permalink

Nothing is so obvious that it’s obvious.

Errol Morris

17 points James_Miller 01 June 2014 09:26:32PM Permalink

Every time a mosquito dies, the world becomes a better place.

Glenn Reynolds

From Wikipedia "Various species of mosquitoes are estimated to transmit various types of disease to more than 700 million people annually in Africa, South America, Central America, Mexico, Russia, and much of Asia, with millions of resultant deaths. At least two million people annually die of these diseases, and the morbidity rates are many times higher still."

Related: lets eliminate species of mosquitoes that bite humans.

17 points eli_sennesh 03 June 2014 07:14:10AM Permalink

I'd love to see Taleb actually prove his assertion here, rather than expecting his readers' cynicism and bitterness to do the work of evidence.

17 points wedrifid 18 July 2014 03:32:27AM Permalink

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."

My shock as an observer would have been the gross breach of confidentiality. Is that revelation grounds for a lawsuit, a criminal offense or merely grounds for disbarment? Regardless, it would have been a gross ethical violation on the same order of either of the other two offenses. Undermining the justice system like that is Evil (just an evil that is on the other end of the visceral disgust spectrum than the molestation.)

17 points Salemicus 08 July 2014 07:28:51PM Permalink

The point is that even the Good Samaritan had to have the money to help, otherwise he too would have had to pass on the other side.

Margaret Thatcher, CPC Lecture.

17 points Benito 05 August 2014 12:50:36PM Permalink

But if that were the case, then moral philosophers - who reason about ethical principles all day long - should be more virtuous than other people. Are they? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel tried to find out. He used surveys and more surreptitious methods to measure how often moral philosophers give to charity, vote, call their mothers, donate blood, donate organs, clean up after themselves at philosophy conferences, and respond to emails purportedly from students. And in none of these ways are moral philosophers better than other philosophers or professors in other fields.

Schwitzgebel even scrounged up the missing-book lists from dozens of libraries and found that academic books on ethics, which are presumably mostly borrowed by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy. In other words, expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behavior, and it might even make it worse (perhaps by making the rider more skilled at post hoc justification). Schwitzgebel still has yet to find a single measure on which moral philosophers behave better than other philosophers.

  • Jonathon Haidt, discussing the idea that ethical reasoning causes good behaviour, in his book 'The Righteous Mind'.

I found the book-stealing thing quite funny, although I imagine that some of the results described could be explained by popularity; if more people get into / like ethics, then there are more people who might steal library books, more antisocial people who don't respond to emails, etc. This hasn't been demonstrated to my knowledge though, and I'm otherwise inclined to believe that people who spend their days thinking about ethics in the abstract, are simply better at coming up with rationales for their instinctive feelings. Joshua Greene says rights are an example of this, where we need a dictum against whatever our emotions are telling us is despicable, even though we can't find any utilitarian justification for it.

17 points dspeyer 05 September 2014 04:10:03PM Permalink

For the opposite claim: If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing With Made-Up Statistics:

Remember the Bayes mammogram problem? The correct answer is 7.8%; most doctors (and others) intuitively feel like the answer should be about 80%. So doctors – who are specifically trained in having good intuitive judgment about diseases – are wrong by an order of magnitude. And it “only” being one order of magnitude is not to the doctors’ credit: by changing the numbers in the problem we can make doctors’ answers as wrong as we want.

So the doctors probably would be better off explicitly doing the Bayesian calculation. But suppose some doctor’s internet is down (you have NO IDEA how much doctors secretly rely on the Internet) and she can’t remember the prevalence of breast cancer. If the doctor thinks her guess will be off by less than an order of magnitude, then making up a number and plugging it into Bayes will be more accurate than just using a gut feeling about how likely the test is to work. Even making up numbers based on basic knowledge like “Most women do not have breast cancer at any given time” might be enough to make Bayes Theorem outperform intuitive decision-making in many cases.

I tend to side with Yvain on this one, at least so long as your argument isnt going to be judged by its appearence. Specifically on the LHC thing, I think making up the 1 in 1000 makes it possible to substantively argue about the risks in a way that "there's a chance" doesn't.

17 points devas 02 September 2014 09:08:56AM Permalink

it would probably be some kind of weird signalling game, maybe. On the other hand, posting:"I don't understand how etc etc, please, somebody explain to me the reasoning behind it" would be a good strategy to start debating and opening an avenue to "convert" others

17 points jaime2000 01 September 2014 12:30:35PM Permalink

A Verb Called Self

I am the playing, but not the pause.

I am the effect, but not the cause.

I am the living, but not the cells.

I am the ringing, but not the bells.

I am the animal, but not the meat.

I am the walking, but not the feet.

I am the pattern, but not the clothes.

I am the smelling, but not the rose.

I am the waves, but not the sea

Whatever my substrate, my me is still me.

I am the sparks in the dark that exist as a dream -

I am the process, but not the machine.

~Jennifer Diane "Chatoyance" Reitz, Friendship Is Optimal: Caelum Est Conterrens

17 points James_Miller 05 December 2014 06:14:53PM Permalink

Agreed. His fundraising might be benefiting from a strategy that increases the variance of peoples' opinions of him even if it also lowers this mean.

17 points NancyLebovitz 08 December 2014 02:56:54PM Permalink

You may be right, but I'm also inclined to include that it's fun to draw monsters.

17 points 27chaos 01 December 2014 08:25:59PM Permalink

I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. That in the heat of conflict these ideologies tend to be smelted into rigid dogmas claiming exclusive possession of the truth, and the keys to paradise, is tragic. Dogma is the enemy of human freedom. Dogma must be watched for and apprehended at every turn and twist of the revolutionary movement. The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain, and injustice.

Saul Alinsky, in his Rules for Radicals.

17 points Gunnar_Zarncke 01 November 2014 11:12:29PM Permalink

Personality problems and pattern ordered by difficulty to change according to Seligman:

  • Panic - Curable

  • Specific Phobias - Almost Curable

  • Sexual Dysfunctions - Marked Relief

  • Social Phobia - Moderate Relief

  • Agoraphobia - Moderate Relief

  • Depression - Moderate Relief

  • Sex Role - Moderate Change

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder - Moderate/Mild Relief

  • Sexual Preferences - Moderate/Mild Cange [*]

  • Anger - Mild/Moderate Relief

  • Everyday Anxiety - Mild/Moderate Relief

  • Alcohol Dependency - Mild Relief

  • Overweight - Temporary Change

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - Marginal Relief [except for rape which shows Moderate Relief]

  • Sexual Orientation - Probably Unchangeable [*]

  • Sexual Identity - Unchangeable [*]

From 'What You Can Change and What You Can't*' by Seligman pg. 244 of the reviewed ('vintage') edition of 2006, explicitly confirmed to be still state of the art.

Just read the book and thought this table to be quite quote-worthy even though it isn't prosaic.

* These terms have specific and possibly somewhat non-standard definitions in the book. Seligman gives a convincing theory for formation of aspects of sexuality of different 'depth' (a core concept of Seligman) based on biological facts around expression of genes and hormones. See chapter 11.

16 points Mestroyer 04 January 2014 10:18:46PM Permalink

Competitive games like Go are most enjoyable when people all agree on the same rules, when losing grants you no excuses to salvage pride at the cost of the victor. For this to work, the rules must be unambigious. You either broke them and are a cheater and the match is invalid, or you exploited them and won fairly. Subjective codes of honor are extremely ambigious. My competitive game of choice (though I rarely play it these days) is Warcraft III, and the online community associated with it is rife with these kind of "codes of honor" (mostly in the mid levels of the skill hierarchy, or "ladder"; the low skill people are trying to learn, the high skill people got that way because they don't self-handicap, but the mid skill people want to imagine themselves as high skill people but with honor). I have seen several of these codes of honor. I once followed one. Examples are: "No mortar/sorceress, no mass chimera, no hero worker harass, no air worker harass no tower rushes, no tower/tank, no mass batriders, no mass raiders". There is never a clear line between honorable and dishonorable behavior. How many mortars and sorceresses do you have to have before it's mortar/sorceress? etc.

A game where you win by inching closer to "dishonorable" behavior is no fun. In addition, Warcraft III players will note that the majority of prohibited strategies are mainstays of the orc and human races. The game is already patched by Blizzard to make the races balanced in professional play, and professionals do not self-handicap. So taking them out of the game would strengthen night-elf and undead players.

And I can attest that beating a "scrub" with a strategy they deem dishonorable and hearing them protest is extremely fun. I can also attest that being a scrub and running into players who don't abide by your "code of honor" is not fun at all. I have even been a scrub and ran into other scrubs who had different "codes of honor", such that we were each violating each others, and that is sort of fun for the victor (if they are hypocritical enough to think that their code is the "correct" one, while laughing at the other one for their code's arbitrariness) and very unfun for the loser.

Besides enjoyment, there is another goal of gaming that you get by playing to win, which is self-improvement. If you allow yourself to think that you lost because you are good and honorable, then you will think about your choices during the game and your thought processes and ask "what can I improve?". And there are transferable Slytherin skills to learn from gaming, such as deceit, modeling your opponent's mind, and searching with (as Quirrell would say) "censors off" for ways to win. Scrubs don't only hurt their own development, but if there are enough of them, they hurt the development of their opponents. You can't really test "Is this a good stratregy" against a scrub, because often it will be a bad strategy but it's against their code so they won't have learned the counter to it, and it will work on them. There are players who do nothing but play anti-scrub strategies to exploit this, but they are also missing out on most of the depth of the game because that's not how you beat high-level players.

But for a related point, see this.

16 points Jayson_Virissimo 05 February 2014 04:36:11AM Permalink

Better beware of notions like genius and inspiration; they are a sort of magic wand and should be used sparingly by anybody who wants to see things clearly.

-- José Ortega y Gasset

16 points WalterL 03 February 2014 05:08:58PM Permalink

You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.

  • Napoleon Bonaparte
16 points MattG 10 March 2014 08:53:54PM Permalink

"Luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome." - Daniel Kahneman

16 points elharo 13 March 2014 11:08:10AM Permalink

May I make a general request to people posting quotes? Please include not just the author's name but sufficient information to enable a reader to find the relevant quote. This doesn't necessarily have to be full MLA format; but a title, journal or book name if from a print source, page number or URL, and date would be helpful. Hyperlinked URLs are excellent if available but do not substitute for the rest of this information since these threads will likely outlive the location of some of the sources.

Doing so enables the reader not just to get a brief hit of rationality but to say, "Gee, that's interesting. I'd like to learn more," and read further in the source.

In fact, why don't we add a fifth bullet point to the header:

  • Provide sufficient information (URL, title, date, page number, etc.) to enable a reader to find the original source of the quote
16 points Eugine_Nier 02 April 2014 01:10:14AM Permalink

I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.

G. K. Chesterton, attributed.

16 points eli_sennesh 06 April 2014 02:17:35PM Permalink

I don't see how that's any different from all the other age groups ;-).

16 points Tyrrell_McAllister 01 June 2014 08:33:14PM Permalink

To know what questions may reasonably be asked is already a great and necessary proof of sagacity and insight. For if a question is absurd in itself and calls for an answer where none is required, it not only brings shame on the propounder of the question, but may betray an incautious listener into absurd answers, thus presenting, as the ancients said, the ludicrous spectacle of one man milking a he-goat and the other holding a sieve underneath.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (trans. Norman Kemp Smith), p. A58/B82.

16 points NancyLebovitz 12 August 2014 03:15:08PM Permalink

In addition to the specific advice, this is an excellent example of rationality because it's about getting the best from people as they are rather than being resentful because they aren't behaving as they would if they were ideally rational.

16 points seez 14 September 2014 01:33:40AM Permalink

A conversation between me and my 7-year-old cousin:

Her: "do you believe in God?"

Me: "I don't, do you?"

Her: "I used to but, then I never really saw any proof, like miracles or good people getting saved from mean people and stuff. But I do believe in the Tooth Fairy, because ever time I put a tooth under my pillow, I get money out in the morning."

16 points hhadzimu 03 December 2014 11:13:25PM Permalink

Damon Runyon clearly has not considered point spreads.

16 points William_Quixote 04 December 2014 07:32:39PM Permalink

there is a familiar phenomenon here, in which a certain kind of would-be economic expert loves to cite the supposed lessons of economic experiences that are in the distant past, and where we actually have only a faint grasp of what really happened. Harding 1921 “works” only because people don’t know much about it; you have to navigate through some fairly obscure sources to figure out [what actually happened]. And the same goes even more strongly — let’s say, XII times as strongly — when, say, [Name] starts telling us about the Emperor Diocletian. The point is that the vagueness of the information, and even more so what most people [think they] know about it, lets such people project their prejudices onto the past and then claim that they’re discussing the lessons of experience.

Paul Krugman on the use of examples to obscure rather than clarify

16 points lukeprog 01 December 2014 11:27:14PM Permalink

Rationalizations are more important than sex... Have you ever gone a week without a rationalization?

  • Jeff Goldblum's character in The Big Chill
16 points Salemicus 11 December 2014 02:43:17PM Permalink

What does it say about us that (I would guess) most well educated westerners know about the "Carthage must be destroyed" quote but not the "Carthage must be saved" one?

It says that we care about the real as opposed to the imaginary. That is entirely to our credit.

Regardless of what may be considered moral, Carthage was destroyed. Educated people who wish to understand ancient history therefore naturally wish to learn of Cato's anti-Carthaginian campaign, precisely because it was successful. In addition, Cato the Elder was considered a model of behaviour by subsequent generations of Romans, in a way that Corculum was not, therefore to understand ancient Rome we have to understand the behaviour they valourised.

Similarly, Fumimaro Konoe is not nearly as famous as Hideki Tojo. This is not because educated Westerners favour Tojo's foreign policy, but because Tojo won the debate and Japan went to war.

16 points Weedlayer 03 November 2014 05:01:06PM Permalink

Also more than have died from UFAI. Clearly that's not worth worrying over either.

I'm not terrified of Ebola because it's been demonstrated to be controllable in fairly developed counties, but as a general rule this quote seems incredibly out of place on less wrong. People here discuss the dangers of things which have literally never happened before almost every day.

15 points Cyan 17 February 2014 04:07:37PM Permalink

Heaven and Earth are heartless

treating creatures like straw dogs.

- Tao Te Ching

Su Ch'e commentary on this verse explains: "Heaven and Earth are not partial. They do not kill living things out of cruelty or give them birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them."

- Straw dog in Wikipedia

15 points elharo 07 February 2014 12:40:46PM Permalink

For Popper (if not for some of his later admirers), falsifiability was not a crude bludgeon. Rather, it was the centerpiece of a richly-articulated worldview holding that millennia of human philosophical reflection had gotten it backwards: the question isn’t how to arrive at the Truth, but rather how to eliminate error. Which sounds kind of obvious, until I meet yet another person who rails to me about how empirical positivism can’t provide its own ultimate justification, and should therefore be replaced by the person’s favorite brand of cringe-inducing ugh.

--Scott Aaaronson, Retiring falsifiability? A storm in Russell’s teacup

15 points James_Miller 01 March 2014 05:23:02PM Permalink

If you're expecting the world to be fair with you because you are fair, you are fooling yourself. That's like expecting a lion not to eat you because you didn't eat him.

15 points Jayson_Virissimo 05 April 2014 06:50:49AM Permalink

...the utility of a thought experiment is inversely proportional to the size of its departure from reality.

-- Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

15 points jaime2000 01 April 2014 02:24:24PM Permalink

There is an important difference between “We don’t know all the answers yet” and “Do what feels right, man.” These questions have answers, because humans have biochemistry, and we should do our best to find them and live by the results.

~J. Stanton, The Paleo Identity Crisis: What Is The Paleo Diet, Anyway?

15 points Eugine_Nier 02 April 2014 01:21:46AM Permalink

A BS detection Heuristic.

You can tell if a discipline is BS if the degree depends severely on the prestige of the school granting it. I remember when I applied to MBA programs being told that anything outside the top 10 or 20 would be a waste of time. On the other hand a degree in mathematics is much less dependent on the shool (conditional on being above a certain level, so the heuristic would apply to the differene betwewn top 10 and top 2000 schools).

The same applies to research papers. In math and physics, a result posted on arXiv (with a minimum hurdle) is fine. In low quality fields like academic finance (where almost all academics are charlatans and all papers some form of complicated storytelling), the "prestige" of the journal is the sole criterion.

Nassim Taleb

15 points soreff 03 June 2014 04:36:45AM Permalink

And what is the probability that one of them is a Prior?

15 points shminux 02 June 2014 08:25:39PM Permalink

Having been on both sides... how do you know when you are the idiot?

15 points Lumifer 02 June 2014 04:22:21PM Permalink

I do like the old "Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience" maxim :-)

15 points James_Miller 04 August 2014 03:35:52AM Permalink

Come back with your shield - or on it.

Our kind might not be able to cooperate, but the Spartans certainly could. The Spartans were masters of hoplite phalanx warfare where often every individual would have been better off running away but collectively everyone was better off if none ran away than if all did. The above quote is what Plutarch says Spartan mothers would tell their sons before battle. (Because shields were heavy if you were going to run away you would drop it, and coming back on your shield meant you were dead.) Spreading memes to overcome collective action problems is civilization level rational.

15 points Viliam_Bur 05 September 2014 01:42:58PM Permalink

Instead of giving your employees $100 raise, give them $1200 bonus once in a year. It's the same money, but it will make them more happy, because they will keep noticing it for years.

15 points Jack_LaSota 09 September 2014 11:50:34PM Permalink

My transformation begins with me getting tired of my own bullshit.

Skeletor is Love

15 points Mass_Driver 08 September 2014 09:37:47PM Permalink

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

Steven Pinker, The New Republic 9/4/14

15 points James_Miller 02 September 2014 02:48:00PM Permalink

A heuristic shouldn't be the "least wrong" among all possible rules; it should be the least harmful if wrong.

Nassim N. Taleb

15 points James_Miller 02 October 2014 12:31:25AM Permalink

I want to say "live and let live" about non-scientific views. But, then I read about measles outbreaks in countries where vaccines are free.

Zach Weinersmith (Twitter)


Rather than panicking about the single patient known to have Ebola in the US, protect yourself against a virus that kills up to 50,000 Americans every year. It's the flu, and simply getting the shot dramatically reduces your chances of becoming ill.

Erin Brodwin Business Insider

15 points Vaniver 11 December 2014 07:13:11PM Permalink

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

--Marcel Proust

15 points Kindly 03 December 2014 09:07:47PM Permalink

I am reminded of:

"Arf arf arf! Not because arf arf! But exactly because arf NOT arf!" GK Chesterton's dog


In trying to find the above quote by wildcard searching on Google, I stumbled upon another quote of this nature by the dog's owner himself: "I want to love my neighbour not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I." There appears to be another one about science being bad not because it encourages doubt, but because it encourages credulity, but I'm unable to find the exact quote.

15 points Weedlayer 08 December 2014 07:20:11PM Permalink

Too strong.

Nobody EVER got successful from luck? Not even people born billionaires or royalty?

Nobody can EVER be happy without using intelligence? Only if you're using some definition of happiness that includes a term like "Philosophical fulfillment" or some such, which makes the issue tautological.

15 points Lumifer 11 November 2014 05:56:47PM Permalink

[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up]


Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

15 points pgbh 14 November 2014 07:25:51AM Permalink

"I remember reading of a competition for a paper on resolution of singularities of surface; Castelnuovo and Enriques were in the committee. Beppo Levi presented his famous paper on the resolution of singularities for surfaces.

Enriques asked him for a couple of examples and was convinced; Castelnuovo was not. The discussion got heated. Enriques exclaimed 'I am ready to cut off my head if this does not work', and Castelnuovo replied 'I don't think that would prove it either.'"

-- Angelo Vistoli, mathoverflow

15 points Grok_Narok 02 November 2014 02:27:52PM Permalink

The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.

-- Friedrich Nietzsche

14 points NancyLebovitz 27 January 2014 04:50:48PM Permalink

No one ever said reality was going to be dignified.

-- Claire Dederer

14 points lukeprog 15 January 2014 01:22:48AM Permalink

The bulk of available evidence suggests that people in all societies tend to be relatively rational when it comes to the beliefs and practices that directly involve their subsistence... The more remote these beliefs and practices are from subsistence activities, the more likely they are to involve nonrational characteristics.

Robert Edgerton

14 points Sniffnoy 09 January 2014 04:42:54AM Permalink

It's good to learn from your failures, but I prefer to learn from the failures of others.

-- Jace Beleren

14 points Oligopsony 22 January 2014 08:12:53PM Permalink

I suspect this was written and is being upvoted in very different senses.

14 points CronoDAS 24 February 2014 12:07:59PM Permalink

Now life is the only art that we are required to practice without preparation, and without being allowed the preliminary trials, the failures and botches, that are essential for the training of a mere beginner. In life, we must begin to give a public performance before we have acquired even a novice's skill; and often our moments of seeming mastery are upset by new demands, for which we have acquired no preparatory facility. Life is a score that we play at sight, not merely before we have divined the intentions of the composer, but even before we have mastered our instruments; even worse, a large part of the score has been only roughly indicated, and we must improvise the music for our particular instrument, over long passages. On these terms, the whole operation seems one of endless difficulty and frustration; and indeed, were it not for the fact that some of the passages have been played so often by our predecessors that, when we come to them, we seem to recall some of the score and can anticipate the natural sequence of the notes, we might often give up in sheer despair. The wonder is not that so much cacophony appears in our actual individual lives, but that there is any appearance of harmony and progression.

-- Lewis Mumford, The Conduct of Life

14 points TsviBT 09 March 2014 05:08:18AM Permalink

The secret of life is: This is not a drill.

-The Wise Man in Darkside, a radio play by Tom Stoppard

14 points Stabilizer 09 March 2014 08:08:37AM Permalink

This is not a drill. Therefore, make sure you have drills for the really important bits.

14 points Eugine_Nier 05 March 2014 02:55:41AM Permalink

If everybody thinks you're crazy, they might have a point. But if nobody thinks you're crazy, you have surrendered to herd consensus and are being far too timid in what you allow yourself to think and say in public.

Eric Raymound

14 points johnlawrenceaspden 15 April 2014 11:43:31PM Permalink

Encoded in the large, highly evolved sensory and motor portions of the human brain is a billion years of experience about the nature of the world and how to survive in it. The deliberate process we call reasoning is, I believe, the thinnest veneer of human thought, effective only because it is supported by this much older and much more powerful, though usually unconscious, sensorimotor knowledge. We are all prodigious olympians in perceptual and motor areas, so good that we make the difficult look easy. Abstract thought, though, is a new trick, perhaps less than 100 thousand years old. We have not yet mastered it. It is not all that intrinsically difficult; it just seems so when we do it.

Hans Moravec, Wikipedia/Moravec's Paradox

14 points IlyaShpitser 01 April 2014 10:47:57PM Permalink

You have to want to be a wizard.

14 points RichardKennaway 03 April 2014 08:55:27PM Permalink

On its own I can think of several things that these words might be uttered in order to express. A little search turns up a more extended form, with a claimed source:

My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.

Said to be by G.K. Chesterton in the New York Times Magazine of February 11, 1923, which appears to be a real thing, but one which is not online. According to this version, he is jibing at progressivism, the adulation of the latest thing because it is newer than yesterday's latest thing.

ETA: Chesterton uses the same analogy, in rather more words, here.

If I advance the thesis that the weather on Monday was better than the weather on Tuesday (and there has not been much to choose between most Mondays and Tuesdays of late), it is no answer to tell me that the time at which I happen to say so is Tuesday evening, or possibly Wednesday morning.

It is vain for the most sanguine meteorologist to wave his arms about and cry: “Monday is past; Mondays will return no more; Tuesday and Wednesday are ours; you cannot put back the clock.” I am perfectly entitled to answer that the changing face of the clock does not alter the recorded facts of the barometer.

14 points Lumifer 06 June 2014 07:40:53PM Permalink

I have to keep reminding myself that if nobody could outguess the market, then there'd be no money in trying to outguess the market, so only fools would enter it, and it would be easy to outguess.

There is the old joke about a student and a professor of economics walking on campus. The student notices a $20 bill lying on the sidewalk and starts to pick it up when the professor stops him. "Don't bother," the professor says, "it's fake. If it were real someone already would have picked it up".

14 points Jiro 02 June 2014 02:41:17PM Permalink

Maybe so, but this also assumes that you're good at determining who's an idiot. Many people are not, but think they are. So you need to consider that if you make a policy of "don't argue with idiots" widespread, it will be adopted by people with imperfect idiot-detectors. (And I'm pretty sure that many common LW positions would be considered idiocy in the larger world.)

Consider also that "don't argue with idiots" has much of the same superficial appeal as "allow the government to censor idiots". The ACLU defends Nazis for a reason, even though they're pretty obviously idiots: any measures taken against idiots will be taken against everyone else, too.

14 points Larks 08 June 2014 05:49:12PM Permalink

It is perplexing, but amusing to observe people getting extremely excited about things you don't care about; it is sinister to watch them ignore things you believe are fundamental.

Taleb, Aphorisms.

14 points shminux 18 July 2014 07:50:02PM Permalink

Always train your doubt most strongly on those ideas that you really want to be true.

Sean Carroll in his blog post describing why it is a bit premature to declare that Einstein's General Relativity has been experimentally proven to be incomplete, even if it would be very exciting if so.

14 points Pablo_Stafforini 07 July 2014 06:15:08PM Permalink

It takes […] what Berkeley calls a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange, so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act. To the metaphysician alone can such questions occur as: Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, “Of course we smile, of course our heart palpitates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made from all eternity to be loved!”

William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 2, New York, 1890, pp. 386-387

14 points Torello 07 July 2014 04:13:59PM Permalink

No matter how dissatisfied people are with the results they are getting, they rarely question their way of trying to get results. When what we are doing is not working, we do not try doing something totally different. Instead, we try harder by doing more of what seems self-evidently the right way to proceed.

  • Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand, p. 186
14 points Skeptityke 07 July 2014 02:16:05AM Permalink

It wasn’t easier, the ghost explains, you just knew how to do it. Sometimes the easiest method you know is the hardest method there is.

It’s like… to someone who only knows how to dig with a spoon, the notion of digging something as large as a trench will terrify them. All they know are spoons, so as far as they’re concerned, digging is simply difficult. The only way they can imagine it getting any easier is if they change – digging with a spoon until they get stronger, faster, and tougher. And the dangerous people, they’ll actually try this.

-Aggy, from Prequel.

On the importance of looking for more efficient ways to do things.

14 points Viliam_Bur 07 July 2014 10:58:54AM Permalink

That's a side effect of perfecting human rationality. :D

14 points shminux 26 August 2014 09:09:12PM Permalink

is consciousness more like the weather, or is it more like multiplication?

Scott Aaronson

More context:

a perfect simulation of the weather doesn’t make it rain—at least, not in our world. On the other hand, a perfect simulation of multiplying two numbers does multiply the numbers: there’s no difference at all between multiplication and a “simulation of multiplication.” Likewise, a perfect simulation of a good argument is a good argument, a perfect simulation of a sidesplitting joke is a sidesplitting joke, etc.

Maybe the hardware substrate is relevant after all. But [...] I think the burden is firmly on those of us who suspect so, to explain what about the hardware matters and why. Post-Turing, no one gets to treat consciousness’s dependence on particular hardware as “obvious”—especially if they never even explain what it is about that hardware that makes a difference.

14 points Torello 05 September 2014 01:49:45AM Permalink
14 points Lumifer 12 September 2014 05:13:53PM Permalink

It’s as if you went into a bathroom in a bar and saw a guy pissing on his shoes, and instead of thinking he has some problem with his aim, you suppose he has a positive utility for getting his shoes wet.

Andrew Gelman

14 points asd 10 September 2014 04:03:05PM Permalink

When I visited Dieter Zeh and his group in Heidelberg in 1996, I was struck by how few accolades he’d gotten for his hugely important discovery of decoherence. Indeed, his curmudgeonly colleagues in the Heidelberg Physics Department had largely dismissed his work as too philosophical, even though their department was located on “Philosopher Street.” His group meetings had been moved to a church building, and I was astonished to learn that the only funding that he’d been able to get to write the first-ever book on decoherence came from the German Lutheran Church.

This really drove home to me that Hugh Everett was no exception: studying the foundations of physics isn’t a recipe for glamour and fame. It’s more like art: the best reason to do it is because you love it. Only a small minority of my physics colleagues choose to work on the really big questions, and when I meet them, I feel a real kinship. I imagine that a group of friends who’ve passed up on lucrative career options to become poets might feel a similar bond, knowing that they’re all in it not for the money but for the intellectual adventure.

-- Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, Chapter 8. The Level III Multiverse, "The Joys of Getting Scooped"

14 points somnicule 08 December 2014 11:25:29PM Permalink

Isn't that the point of the quote?

14 points CCC 03 November 2014 10:37:32AM Permalink

Hmmm. I have a slightly different experience to you. I am bilingual - English/Afrikaans - though my Afrikaans was never a language I used a lot and I have a very poor grasp of it in comparison.

This has led to something interesting - if I try to think in Afrikaans, I notice a distinct difference in my thoughts. Normally, my thoughts take the form of an internal monologue (almost, but not quite, exclusively). If I try to think in Afrikaans, which has a different grammar (and importantly, a different word order) to English, then I get the distinct impression of parts of my thoughts queued up and waiting for their part of the sentence to happen. This tells me that there are more complicated things going on inside my head than I had previously thought.

...though interesting, I have not as yet found any practical use for this knowledge.

14 points jimmy 02 November 2014 07:18:44PM Permalink

The moment I realized that if I fall, that would probably be my end, I became really, really calm and detached. I picked up a good spot in the parking, with the back to the wall,, between 2 cars, and I moved there to meet them, all the time I was very focused to not get taken down and to take as many of them with me as possible. That was all I was thinking. In retrospect, I still think there were a decent amount of adrenalin circulating through my body, but in the moment I really felt zen and in complete control of myself.

Now, I don't think that's the average reaction you can expect in a combat situation, nor do I think that so much control is needed. But I've been in other critical and stressful situations (like in the middle of a forest fire, or going up the ring to fight other guys in front of a few hundred people), and I think that it's not the prospect of death or getting hurt that are most stressing, is not knowing what to do

--Bogdan M (emphasis mine)

13 points satt 06 January 2014 07:16:21PM Permalink

I am so very good at what I do because I never really believe anything is going to work and I'm always looking for the ways the things I make will fail.


13 points lmm 07 January 2014 10:05:18PM Permalink

Yes and no. Sometimes certain things are against the rules because they risk injuring someone. I wish more sports would make explicit the difference between the rules you're allowed to break and pay the penalty and the rules you should never intentionally break, because disagreements over which category a particular rule falls into can be very vicious.

13 points spxtr 04 January 2014 10:00:19PM Permalink

The most traditional way to begin a study of quantum mechanics is to follow the historical developments--Planck's radiation law, the Einstein-Debye theory of specific heats, the Bohr atom, de Broglie's matter waves, and so forth--together with careful analyses of some key experiments such as the Compton effect, the Frank-Hertz experiment, and the Davisson-Germer-Thompson experiment. In that way we may come to appreciate how the physicists in the first quarter of the twentieth century were forced to abandon, little by little, the cherished concepts of classical physics and how, despite earlier false starts and wrong turns, the masters--Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Dirac, among others--finally succeeded in formulating quantum mechanics as we know it today.

However, we do not follow the historical approach in this book. Instead, we start with an example that illustrates, perhaps more than any other example, the inadequacy of classical concepts in a fundamental way. We hope that by exposing the reader to a "shock treatment" at the onset, he or she may be attuned to what we might call the "quantum-mechanical way of thinking" at a very early stage.

-- Modern Quantum Mechanics by J. J. Sakurai, the standard graduate level quantum textbook. Following this quote is a discussion of the Stern-Gerlach experiment. I post this quote because it is in line with Quantum Explanations.

13 points Lumifer 07 January 2014 04:11:41PM Permalink

Carrots have no measurable positive effect on eyesight.

Even for someone who is suffering from a clinical-grade Vitamin A deficiency?

13 points Stabilizer 08 February 2014 05:53:30AM Permalink

Philosophy Bro writing as Popper:

So how does science proceed, if induction is fucked (which it is) and we can't logically determine how to have new ideas (which we can't)? Easy - just take a fucking guess. No, I don't mea- dammit, you asshole, I don't mean "guess how science works", I mean guessing just is how science works. Just start guessing shit and go from there. Of course you're going to make a couple stupid guesses at first. Seriously, some of the shit you're going to try is going to be genuinely fucked in the head. Remember when we thought heavier objects would fall faster? Boy was that wrong. But we took a guess, tried it out, and it didn't work. Instead of being whiny babies about it, scientists just took another guess and then tested that out, too. That's the process: guess, and then you test that guess. And if the test works, you're like "Huh! That was an even better guess than I thought." And the more tests it survives, the more people are like, "Great guess! I'll bet that's probably it." And then you get to a test that your guess doesn't pass, and you're like, "Welp, close but no cigar. Back to the drawing board."

We'll eliminate the fucking stupid guesses pretty quickly - it doesn't take long to show that we can't move things with our minds. Eventually, you start to build a pretty cool system of things so you can make better and better guesses. and you can totally use data to make good guesses; you don't always have to invent something completely new every time. I'm just saying that's all the data does, helps make good guesses. It doesn't prove shit.

And look! That method is deductive! What incredibly good news! You don't have to derive a universal statement from a bunch of single events, which is great because you can't; instead, you just guess a universal statement and then see if you can't find an event that breaks it. You can't get from "the sun keeps rising" to "the sun will always rise" but if one day the sun doesn't come up, you can be damn sure about "the sun does not always rise." All you need is one bad apple and you know for sure that not every apple is good, no induction needed. QED, motherfuckers.

And - AND - now we know what is and isn't science! Holy fuck I am on fire here. Not actually. Just- look, I'm solving lots of things, is my point. Scientific theories are falsifiable - they're incompatible with certain things we could observe. They predict shit, and then we see if that shit really happens. Back when we thought Newton's Laws were totally, completely true, Mercury had this weird fuck wobble in its orbit that said we should find another planet. Except we looked and no planet. And now we know for sure that Newton wasn't completely right. Einstein? He was a patent clerk for fuckssake, and he came up with a fucking incredible guess. And we just keep devising more and more complicated tests to check it out, and it keeps on passing. When it does finally fail, we'll fucking know. There won't be aaaaany confusion whatsoever. Souls? How the fuck would we go about testing for souls? "Well, we cut him open, and we didn't find a soul, so..." "Yeah, but you can't see souls! That's the whole point!" So you're saying we can't ever test for souls? That's fine, just, it means souls can't come to the science party. They're not falsifiable. You must be THIS FALSIFIABLE to ride the science ride, and souls just aren't.

13 points Vaniver 03 February 2014 06:45:58PM Permalink

But, while nothing can be done about the past, much can be done in the present to prepare for the future.

--Thomas Sowell

13 points Eugine_Nier 07 February 2014 07:56:11AM Permalink

I'm a big fan of the cognitive utility of the old phrase: "The exception that proves the rule." But then I'm kind of an exception in that regard, since anytime I mention I like that, I get deluged with logical and etymological objections.

I merely mean that an exception that is famous for being exceptional suggests a general tendency in the opposite direction. The canonical example is that Beethoven's titanic fame as a deaf composer suggests that most composers aren't deaf, while, say, the lack of obsessive publicity about painter David Hockney's late onset deafness suggests that deafness isn't all that big of a deal, one way or another, to painters. Judging from the immortal fame of Beethoven's battle with deafness, we can assume that there aren't many deaf composers, while the ho-hum response to Hockney's deafness suggests that we can't make strong quantitative assumptions about painters and deafness.

Steve Sailor

13 points wedrifid 04 February 2014 08:20:33PM Permalink

Perhaps we need a new thread: "Rationality Page Long Excerpts".

13 points RichardKennaway 04 March 2014 01:16:11PM Permalink


Just because you no longer believe a lie, does not mean you now know the truth.

13 points elharo 01 March 2014 10:57:41PM Permalink

I'm hardly an expert on the Book of Mormon, but this quote surprised me so I googled it. It appears to be an accurate quote but is not fully attributed. As best I can make out, the speaker is the antichrist (or some such evil character; not sure on the exact mythology in play here).

Failure to note that means this quote gives either an incorrect view of the Book of Mormon, or of the significance of the text, or both.

When quoting fiction, I recommend identifying both the character and the author. E.g.

Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true.

--Korihor in the The Book of Mormon (Alma 30.24-28); Joseph Smith, 1830

Having said all that, it's still a damn good rationality quote.

13 points NancyLebovitz 04 May 2014 01:33:56PM Permalink

There is such a thing as a less mediated experience of the world.

13 points EGarrett 06 May 2014 04:39:52PM Permalink

"The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it." -George Bernard Shaw

13 points James_Ernest 04 May 2014 06:18:56AM Permalink

Real probabilities about the structure and properties of the cosmos, and its relation to living organisms on this planet, can be reach’d only by correlating the findings of all who have competently investigated both the subject itself, and our mental equipment for approaching and interpreting it — astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and so on. The only sensible method is that of assembling all the objective scientifick data of 1931, and forming a fresh chain of partial indications bas’d exclusively on that data and on no conceptions derived from earlier and less ample arrays of data; meanwhile testing, by the psychological knowledge of 1931, the workings and inclinations of our minds in accepting, connecting, and making deductions from data, and most particularly weeding out all tendencies to give more than equal consideration to conceptions which would never have occurred to us had we not formerly harboured provisional and capricious ideas of the universe now conclusively known to be false. It goes without saying that this realistic principle fully allows for the examination of those irrational feelings and wishes about the universe, upon which idealists so amusingly base their various dogmatick speculations.

-- H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, 1932-1934.

13 points SaidAchmiz 02 May 2014 12:08:58AM Permalink

critical thinking skills; knowledge of the past and other cultures; an ability to work with and interpret numbers and statistics; access to the insights of great writers and artists; a willingness to experiment, to open up to change; and the ability to navigate ambiguity.'

Some of these things are not like the others...

13 points Stabilizer 03 June 2014 12:00:31AM Permalink

Kant seems to have one of the first systematic question dissolvers:

Philosophers have never lacked zest for criticizing their predecessors. Aristotle was not always kind to Plato. Scholastics wrangled with unexcelled vigor. The new philosophy of the 17th century was frankly rude about the selfsame schoolmen. But all that is criticism of someone else. Kant began something new. He turned criticism into self-reflection. He didn’t just create the critical philosophy. He made philosophy critical of philosophy itself.

There are two ways in which to criticize a proposal, doctrine, or dogma. One is to argue that it is false. Another is to argue that it is not even a candidate for truth or falsehood. Call the former denial, the latter undoing. Most older philosophical criticism is in the denial mode. When Leibniz took issue with Locke in the Nouveaux Essais, he was denying some of the things that Locke had said. He took for granted that they were true-or-false. In fact, false. Kant’s transcendental dialectic, in contrast, argues that a whole series of antinomies arise because we think that there are true-or-false answers to a gamut of questions. There are none. The theses, antitheses, and questions are undone.

Kant was not the first philosophical undoer. The gist of Bacon undoes the methodology of scholastic thought. But Kant is assuredly the first celebrated, self-conscious, systematic undoer. Pure reason, the faculty of philosophers, outsteps its bounds and produces doctrines that are neither true nor false.

-Ian Hacking, Historical Ontology

13 points Thomas 02 June 2014 11:40:51AM Permalink

It looks like that ANY advice from highly successful people might be dangerous, since they are only a small minority of those, who also tried those same things. Most of them much less successfully.

13 points johnlawrenceaspden 05 June 2014 09:23:45PM Permalink

He's saying that one does not need to do a perfect job to win. A common failure mode is to spend ages worrying about the details while someone else's good-enough quick hack takes over the world. It's quite a resonant quote for programmers.

C and Unix obliterated their technically superior rivals. There's a whole tradition of worrying about why this happened in the still extant LISP community which was one of the principal losers. Look up 'Worse is Better' if you're interested in the details.

13 points Mass_Driver 21 July 2014 11:34:15PM Permalink

Is that revelation grounds for a lawsuit, a criminal offense or merely grounds for disbarment?

None of the above, really, unless you have so few murder cases that someone could plausibly guess which one you were referring to. I work with about 100 different plaintiffs right now, and my firm usually accepts any client with a halfway decent case who isn't an obvious liar. Under those conditions, it'd be alarming if I told you that 100 out of 100 were telling the truth -- someone's bound to be at least partly faking their injury. I don't think it undermines the justice system to admit as much in the abstract.

If you indiscreetly named a specific client who you thought was guilty, though, that could get you a lawsuit, a criminal offense, and disbarment.

13 points Roxolan 07 July 2014 06:24:41PM Permalink

Now imagine someone gives you a spade.

I'd probably call it unethical and try to get it banned.

13 points grendelkhan 18 August 2014 06:45:56PM Permalink

Sometimes the biggest disasters aren't noticed at all -- no one's around to write horror stories.

Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep

13 points Iydak 13 August 2014 11:57:54AM Permalink

We try things. Occasionally they even work.

Parson Gotti

13 points Vulture 01 September 2014 11:35:53PM Permalink

Haven't tried it myself, but it seems to work for Scott Alexander

13 points johnlawrenceaspden 04 October 2014 12:05:52PM Permalink

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

-- Robert Heinlein (

13 points Torello 02 October 2014 01:22:37AM Permalink

"Put simply, the truth about all those good decisions you plan to make sometime in the future, when things are easier, is that you probably won't make them once that future rolls around and things are tough again."

Sendhil Mullaainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity, p. 215

13 points shminux 02 October 2014 05:59:19PM Permalink

Downvoted for mindless panic.

There are no measures to speak of to control the flu. It goes through the world every year and we just live with it because it's rarely fatal.

The Ebola curve is not exponential in the countries where appropriate measures were taken, Nigeria and Senegal: Clearly the US can do at least as well.

While Ebola might mutate to become airborne and spread like flu, and there is a real risk of that, there is little indication of it having happened. Until then the comparison with the Spanish Flu is silly. It's not nearly as contagious.

Your linked post in the underground medic is pretty bad. The patient contracted Ebola on Sep 15, most people become contagious 8-10 days later, so the flight passengers on Sep 20 are very likely OK. There is no indication that the official story is grossly misleading. There are bound to be a few more cases showing up in the next week or so, just as there were with SARS, but with the aggressive approach taken now the odds of it spreading wide are negligible, given that Nigeria managed to contain a similar incident.

My guess is that the total number of cases with the Dallas vector will be under a dozen or so, with 40% fatalities. I guess we'll see.

13 points Jay_Schweikert 18 December 2014 05:02:23AM Permalink

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation, For fear they should succumb and go astray; So when you are requested to pay up or be molested, You will find it better policy to say: --

"We never pay any-one Dane-geld, No matter how trifling the cost; For the end of that game is oppression and shame, And the nation that pays it is lost!"

--Rudyard Kipling, "Dane-Geld"

A nice reminder about the value of one-boxing, especially in light of current events.

13 points NancyLebovitz 17 December 2014 10:00:43PM Permalink

Where you are going to spend your time and your energy is one of the most important decisions you get to make in life.

Jeff Bezos

13 points Vaniver 05 December 2014 05:28:34PM 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.

This I'm not actually sure about. I think the guru look might be a net positive in his particular situation.

13 points faul_sname 04 December 2014 09:28:37AM Permalink

Seems to have worked for them.

13 points FullMeta_Rationalist 02 November 2014 02:32:22AM Permalink
max( Candy / e^Walking )

fudged with a constant of proportionality (pun intended).

13 points VAuroch 11 November 2014 07:02:01AM Permalink

Lampshading mysterious answers:

The door was the way to... to... The Door was The Way. Good. Capital letters were always the best way of dealing with things you didn't have a good answer to.

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

13 points Unnamed 01 November 2014 09:52:00PM Permalink

It is a sound maxim, and one which all close thinkers have felt, but which no one before Bentham ever so consistently applied, that error lurks in generalities: that the human mind is not capable of embracing a complex whole, until it has surveyed and catalogued the parts of which that whole is made up; that abstractions are not realities per se, but an abridged mode of expressing facts, and that the only practical mode of dealing with them is to trace them back to the facts (whether of experience or of consciousness) of which they are the expression.

Proceeding on this principle, Bentham makes short work with the ordinary modes of moral and political reasoning. These, it appeared to him, when hunted to their source, for the most part terminated in phrases. In politics, liberty, social order, constitution, law of nature, social compact, c., were the catch-words: ethics had its analogous ones. Such were the arguments on which the gravest questions of morality and policy were made to turn; not reasons, but allusions to reasons; sacramental expressions, by which a summary appeal was made to some general sentiment of mankind, or to some maxim in familiar use, which might be true or not, but the limitations of which no one had ever critically examined.


It is the introduction into the philosophy of human conduct, of this method of detail—of this practice of never reasoning about wholes until they have been resolved into their parts, nor about abstractions until they have been translated into realities—that constitutes the originality of Bentham in philosophy, and makes him the great reformer of the moral and political branch of it.


Instead of taking up their opinions by intuition, or by ratiocination from premises adopted on a mere rough view, and couched in language so vague that it is impossible to say exactly whether they are true or false, philosophers are now forced to understand one another, to break down the generality of their propositions, and join a precise issue in every dispute.

13 points TheOtherDave 12 November 2014 09:32:04PM Permalink

One of the major symptoms of my stroke was seriously truncated working memory, and I spent months both training it back and learning to work around the limitations of it.

So i agree that there are strategies that can overcome the limits of working memory,though I wouldn't describe them as "thinking more"... it was more like saving state externally on a regular basis, and developing useful habits of interacting with that saved state. More generally, it's not a question of doing the same thing for longer, it's a question of doing different things that end up taking longer. It's "thinking differently, for longer."

That being said, though, I cannot begin to describe how much smarter I felt (and seemed) when the damage began to heal and I could start doing stuff in my head again.

12 points Stabilizer 14 January 2014 08:33:01PM Permalink

As we saw, the E1A team [at Fermilab] found for some time that there were no neutral currents---they wrote letters saying so, even drafting a paper to that effect. By late 1973 they had a great deal riding on that claim. A consensus that neutral currents did not exist would have vindicated their earlier caution; they would have refuted CERN and denied the Europeans priority. For all these reasons it is stunning to reread Cline’s [a leading member of E1A] memorandum of 10 December 1973 that began with the simple statement, “At present, I do not see how to make this effect go away.” With those words Cline gave up his career-long commitment to the nonexistence of neutral currents. “Interest” had to bow to the linked assemblage of ideas and empirical results that rendered the old beliefs untenable, even if they were still “logically possible”.


Microphysical phenomena [...] are not simply observed; they are mediated by layers of experience, theory and causal stories that link background effects to their tests. But the mediated quality of effects and entities does not necessarily make them pliable; experimental conclusions have a stubbornness not easily canceled by theory change. And it is this solidity in the face of altering conditions that impresses the experimenters themselves---even when theorists dissent.

-Peter Galison, How Experiments End.

A major concept he introduces in this chapter is the stubbornness of empirical reality.

12 points TheAncientGeek 06 January 2014 08:49:52PM Permalink

"Indeed he knows not how to know who knows not also how to unknow." Sir Richard Francis Burton.

12 points Mestroyer 23 January 2014 10:34:31PM Permalink

Probably written in the sense: "If you were really strong of mind, you'd will yourself into believing because I just threw an infinity into your expected value calculations", and upvoted in the sense: "Atheism is evidence of strength of mind, but it's become too common to serve as a really good test." (I know I've heard this idea on LessWrong before, I can't remember where though).

12 points RichardKennaway 08 January 2014 09:38:22AM Permalink

Solve the halting problem.

12 points Vaniver 05 January 2014 03:46:08PM Permalink

Hmmm. This looks almost identical to an anecdote involving Wittgenstein and Malcolm (among other places, repeated here), with the names and nationalities changed. Any idea which is the original?

12 points RichardKennaway 03 February 2014 01:01:54PM Permalink

I find it rather unlikely that he ever said that. Google turns up only unattributed repetitions.

Wikipedia and Wikiquote require quotes to be attributed using reliable sources. I think the rationality quotes threads should adopt the same standard.

12 points Jayson_Virissimo 20 March 2014 08:31:28PM Permalink

For men imagine that their reason governs words, while, in fact, words react upon the understanding; and this has rendered philosophy and the sciences sophistical and inactive. Words are generally formed in a popular sense, and define things by those broad lines which are most obvious to the vulgar mind; but when a more acute understanding or more diligent observation is anxious to vary those lines, and to adapt them more accurately to nature, words oppose it. Hence the great and solemn disputes of learned men often terminate in controversies about words and names...

-- Francis Bacon, Novum Organum

12 points Kaj_Sotala 06 March 2014 11:00:11PM Permalink

The second is a straw man argument, and given that this is CS Lewis putting words in the mouth of Satan, I read this as the straw man argument.

That sounds to me like you're assuming that Lewis wrote the book so that he could put the devil to say strawmannish things, in order to mock the devil. Which is not the case at all - the demon writing the letters is much more similar to MoR!Quirrel, displaying a degree of rationality-mixed-with-cynicism which it uses to point out ways by which the lives of humans can be made miserable, or by which humans make their own lives miserable. Much of it can be read as a treatise on various biases and cognitive mistakes to avoid, made more compelling by them being explained by someone who wants those mistakes to be exploited for actively harming people.

12 points Dagon 17 April 2014 03:39:25PM Permalink

But understanding human limitations does not mean we can overcome them. It only means we can’t pretend they don’t exist. It should point us toward humility, not hubris.

Yuval Levin in the National Review

12 points lukeprog 09 April 2014 02:02:46AM Permalink

There is nothing that can be said by mathematical symbols and relations which cannot also be said by words. The converse, however, is false. Much that can be and is said by words cannot be put into equations — because it is nonsense.

Clifford Truesdell

12 points Baughn 02 April 2014 09:09:08PM Permalink

Well - law is, in a strict sense, entirely about convincing other humans that your interpretation is correct.

Whether or not it actually is correct in a formal sense is entirely screened off by that prime requirement, and so you probably shouldn't be surprised that all methods used by humans to convince other humans, in the absence of absolute truth, are applied. :)

12 points Torello 04 May 2014 04:25:15AM Permalink

Every 100 million years or so, an asteroid or comet the size of a mountain smashes into the earth, killing nearly everything that lives. If ever we needed proof of Nature’s indifference to the welfare of complex organisms such as ourselves, there it is. The history of life on this planet has been one of merciless destruction and blind, lurching renewal.

Sam Harris, Mother Nature is Not Our Friend, in response to the Edge Annual Question 2008

12 points David_Gerard 06 May 2014 08:10:00AM Permalink

The joke was that this is precisely what a liberal arts degree was meant to be; the main problem is that liberal arts degrees haven't kept up with the times.

12 points TobyBartels 12 May 2014 02:57:38AM Permalink

Don't just tell me what you'd like to be true.

This is from Greg Egan's 1999 novel Teranesia; since there are no hits for ‘Teranesia’ in the Google custom search, I'm inferring that it hasn't been posted before.

Here's a little background. This is a spoiler for some events early in the novel, but it is early; it's not a spoiler for the really big stuff (not even in this chapter). So Prabir lives alone with his father (‘Baba’) and mother (and baby sister Madhusree who is not in this scene), and their garden has been sown with mines for some very interesting reasons that needn't concern us, and Baba has discovered this by being blown up by one. But he's still alive, so mother and Prabir have laid a ladder atop some boxes across the garden, and she's crawled along the ladder to rescue Baba without setting off more mines. But this is harder than anticipated.

She turned to Prabir. “I'm going to try sitting down, so I can get Baba on to the ladder. But then I might not be able to stand up with him, to carry him. If I leave him on the ladder and walk back to my end, do you think the two of us could carry the ladder to the side of the garden with Baba on it—like a stretcher?”

Prabir replied instantly, “Yes, we can do it.”

His mother looked away, angry for a moment. She said, “I want you to think about it. Don't just tell me what you'd like to be true.”

Chastened, Prabir obeyed her. Half his father's weight. More than twice as much as Madhusree's. He believed he was strong enough. But if he was fooling himself, and dropped the ladder …

He said, “I'm not sure how far I could carry him without resting. But I could slide the crate along the ground with me—kick it along with one foot. Then if I had to stop, I could rest the ladder on it.”

His mother considered this. “All right. That's what we'll do.” She shot him a half-smile, shorthand for all the reassuring words that would have taken too long to speak.

(taken from the American hardback edition, pages 5051)

[Edit: grammar in the text written by me]

12 points EHeller 04 June 2014 01:48:46AM Permalink

At private companies the bureaucracy is constrained by market pressures

I disagree- you'd be amazed how inefficient you can be and still be profitable. Lots of very large companies are being strangled by their bureaucracy even while remaining at least somewhat profitable (generally the existence of a huge company is all-in-itself a barrier to entry for competitors). I've worked for a surprising number of companies that have the basic problem of "I used to be very profitable, but now I find I'm slightly less profitable despite selling more products at higher margins." Even worse, I've seen attempts to solve the problem derailed by the same management apparatus.

A former boss was fond of blaming MBAs. He had a saying something along the lines of- the core problem with MBAs is the idea that you can good at "business" without being good at any particular business. MBAs march in, say "we need to quantify these decisions" and add a ton of process (which invites the managers in). A decade later, they notice that despite generally better conditions they aren't as profitable, they higher some big data consultants to come in and we say things like "you are spending $x+100 dollars to better quantify decisions that are only worth $x, and thats not even counting all the time you waste for all the paperwork that the process requires."

12 points wedrifid 19 July 2014 01:54:40AM Permalink

The immediately preceding paragraph:

People wrongly accused of murder will have the charges dropped if the victim walks in the courtroom and testifies that it didn't happen. Accused child molesters get convicted even when the victim says that it didn't happen.

This is true. I hope the implied claim is "either people think differently about child molestation accusations than murder accusations OR necromancy is not possible".

12 points Jayson_Virissimo 16 July 2014 08:21:17PM Permalink

What is the first business of one who practices philosophy? To get rid of self-conceit. For it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.

-- Epictetus, Discourses

12 points Stabilizer 07 July 2014 02:09:21AM Permalink

The distinction between precision and accuracy is one of the most useful distinctions I've learnt.

If your goal is to get at the truth, then accuracy is always the primary goal, and precision secondary. Indeed, it is quite dangerous to aim for precision first. This was also captured by Knuth, "premature optimization is the root of all evil."

Unfortunately, most people are convinced more easily by precision than by accuracy. Politicians and false prophets often employ this trick. Precision reflects confidence. Also, it is trivial to very whether a statement is precise; but incredibly difficult to verify if it is accurate.

12 points EGarrett 20 July 2014 06:16:31PM Permalink

"One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide." -Saul Alinsky

12 points RichardKennaway 06 July 2014 11:45:08AM Permalink


12 points somervta 17 August 2014 10:25:28AM Permalink

I don't suppose you have a source for the quote? (at this point, my default is to disbelieve any attribution of a quote unknown to me to Einstein)

12 points devas 05 August 2014 10:37:41AM Permalink

This sounds like something from Schelling's strategy of conflict, although I haven't read it

12 points Lumifer 04 September 2014 02:58:43PM Permalink

I speaks to anchoring and evaluating incentives relative to an expected level.

Basically, receiving a raise is seen as a good thing because you are getting more money than a month ago (anchor). But after a while you will be getting the same amount of money as a month ago (the anchor has moved) so there is no cause for joy.

12 points Azathoth123 18 September 2014 05:10:18AM Permalink

Yet none of these sights [of the Scottish Highlands] had power, till a recent period, to attract a single poet or painter from more opulent and more tranquil regions. Indeed, law and police, trade and industry, have done far more than people of romantic dispositions will readily admit, to develope in our minds a sense of the wilder beauties of nature. A traveller must be freed from all apprehension of being murdered or starved before he can be charmed by the bold outlines and rich tints of the hills. He is not likely to be thrown into ecstasies by the abruptness of a precipice from which he is in imminent danger of falling two thousand feet perpendicular; by the boiling waves of a torrent which suddenly whirls away his baggage and forces him to run for his life; by the gloomy grandeur of a pass where he finds a corpse which marauders have just stripped and mangled; or by the screams of those eagles whose next meal may probably be on his own eyes.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, History of England

Frankly, the whole passage Steve Sailer quotes at the link is worth reading.

12 points Zubon 03 September 2014 10:43:35PM Permalink

"You sound awfully sure of yourself, Waterhouse! I wonder if you can get me to feel that same level of confidence."

Waterhouse frowns at the coffee mug. "Well, it's all math," he says. "If the math works, why then you should be sure of yourself. That's the whole point of math."

-- Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

12 points Vulture 02 September 2014 04:26:30PM Permalink

People who are often misunderstood: 6% geniuses; 94% garden-variety nonsense-spouters

-- David Malki !

12 points Omegaile 04 September 2014 02:10:30AM Permalink

I know that. People are so lame. Not me though. I am one of the genius ones.

12 points Lumifer 17 October 2014 04:12:43PM Permalink

"You know, esoteric, non-intuitive truths have a certain appeal – once initiated, you’re no longer one of the rubes. Of course, the simplest and most common way of producing an esoteric truth is to just make it up."

West Hunter

12 points James_Miller 14 October 2014 02:42:01PM Permalink

To summarize Twitter and my Facebook feed this morning: “The Ebola virus proves everything I already believed about politics.” You might find this surprising. The Ebola virus is not running for office. It does not have a policy platform, or any campaign white papers on burning issues. It doesn’t even vote. So how could it neatly validate all our preconceived positions on government spending, immigration policy, and the proper role of the state in our health care system? Stranger still: How could it validate them so beautifully on both left and right?

Megan McArdle

12 points Salemicus 09 December 2014 01:58:44PM Permalink

Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense.

Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Reflections on Exile

12 points LyleN 20 November 2014 02:59:00PM Permalink

With the truth, all given facts harmonize; but with what is false, the truth soon hits a wrong note.

-- Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics, pointing out entangled truths and contagious lies

12 points VAuroch 12 November 2014 08:03:26AM Permalink

I always feel a bit bad for Vizzini. His plan is very well thought-out and sensible; he's just in the entirely wrong genre for those qualities to be remotely relevant to its success.

It doesn't help that up to that point, the genre looks like one where it should work. Obviously the character's timeline could make it more obvious, but from ours it isn't.

12 points Lumifer 03 November 2014 05:30:26PM Permalink

Scepticism is directed not at things, but at claims. And claims about things difficult to measure should face increased scepticism.

11 points gjm 17 January 2014 11:47:50AM Permalink

I don't think anyone is claiming that this describes all instances where someone calls something immoral.

It's merely calling attention to two interesting phenomena: (1) envy can make people regard something as immoral when their real problem with it is that others can have it and they can't, and (2) even when someone has actual principled reasons for disapproving of something, once they are in a position to take advantage of it themselves they are liable to forget those principles.

(Perhaps those are really the same phenomenon, deep down. But they feel different enough that, e.g., it took me a while to figure out how anyone could think the quotation had anything to do with the idea that "power corrupts" because I was initially thinking only of #1 while cousin_it was referring to #2.)

11 points katydee 04 February 2014 07:50:26AM Permalink

The most important thing in life is to be free to do things. There are only two ways to insure that freedom - you can be rich or you can you reduce your needs to zero.

Colonel John Boyd

11 points eli_sennesh 03 February 2014 09:02:54AM Permalink

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

-- H.L. Mencken

11 points CasioTheSane 27 March 2014 10:32:55PM Permalink

Don't you think it would be a useful item to add to your intellectual toolkits to be capable of saying, when a ton of wet steaming bullshit lands on your head, 'My goodness, this appears to be bullshit'?

-Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon

11 points CCC 08 March 2014 05:00:29AM Permalink

You correctly describe what the quote literally says, but there's a fine line between "I'm just writing a story which requires that these particular materialists be biased" and "I'm accusing materialists in general of being biased like this".

Lewis is not accusing materialists in general of having that bias - Lewis is accusing humans in general of having that bias. The idea that humans have that bias, and that that bias can be exploited to convince a human to subscribe to a given philosophy independantly of whether that philosophy is true is rather the point of the quote.

11 points MichaelHoward 15 March 2014 02:13:44AM Permalink

How many things apparently impossible have nevertheless been performed by resolute men who had no alternative but death.

-- Napoleon Bonaparte.

11 points HungryHobo 02 April 2014 12:52:10PM Permalink

A bigger danger is publication bias. collect 10 well run trials without knowing that 20 similar well run ones exist but weren't published because their findings weren't convenient and your meta-analysis ends up distorted from the outset.

11 points Ixiel 14 April 2014 03:37:41PM Permalink

If the best minds were in charge of designing a bridge, I would expect the bridge to hold up well even in a storm. If the best minds were in charge of designing an airplane, I would expect it to fly reliably. But if the best minds were in charge of something no one really knows how to do, I would be ready for a failure, albeit a failure with superb academic credentials.

Terry Coxon

11 points shminux 11 April 2014 10:34:13PM Permalink

Does this quote have any rationalist content beyond the usual anti-deathism applause light?

11 points Anders_H 24 April 2014 03:20:34PM Permalink

Neither. Obviously, the average excellence of "doctors, masters and bachelors" of the most renowned universities is higher than the average excellence of people who are self-taught. Nobody suggests that being self-taught correlates positively with excellence.

The quotation is still undoubtedly true, because there are many more individuals who are self-taught than individuals who have these credentials. It is also plausible that the variance in excellence among the self-taught is much higher. Therefore, it is trivial to identify self-taught individuals who are more knowledgeable than most highly credentialed university graduates.

In fact, as a doctoral student in applied causal inference at a fairly renowned university, I can identify several self-taught Less Wrong community members who understand causality theory better than I do.

11 points Eugine_Nier 01 May 2014 11:21:22PM Permalink

People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to science, these same people say, "Give us schmaltz!" They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.

Steven Pinker

11 points Nornagest 21 June 2014 11:58:50PM Permalink

Relevant to bounded cognition and consequentialism:

"It is better to be just than to be kind, but only good judges can be just; let those who cannot be just be kind."

-- Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, The Citadel of the Autarch, Gene Wolfe

11 points RichardKennaway 06 June 2014 04:22:14PM Permalink
11 points sixes_and_sevens 08 July 2014 09:19:17AM Permalink

"My digital photography degree from an era of obsolescent technology isn't rendered completely useless through the passage of time" is a far cry from "I can divert the course of rivers".

11 points Stabilizer 04 August 2014 11:24:33PM Permalink

Most of the time what we do is what we do most of the time.

-Daniel Willingham, Why Dont Students Like School. The point is that, quite often the reason we're doing something is that that's what we're used to doing in that situation.

Note: He attributes the quote to some other psychologists.

11 points AlanCrowe 05 September 2014 11:07:11PM Permalink

I don't see what to do about gaps in arguments. Gaps aren't random. There are little gaps where the original authors have chosen to use their limited word count on other, more delicate, parts of their argument, confident that charitable readers will be happy to fill the small gaps themselves in the obvious ways. There are big gaps where the authors have gone the other way, tip toeing around the weakest points in their argument. Perhaps they hope no-one else will notice. Perhaps they are in denial. Perhaps there are issues with the clarity of the logical structure that make it easy to whiz by the gap without noticing it.

The third perhaps is especially tricky. If you "re-express your target’s position ... clearly" you remove the obfuscation that concealed the gap. Now what? Leaving the gap in clear view creates a strawman. Attempting to fill it draws a certain amount of attention to it; you certainly fail the ideological Turing test because you are making arguments that you opponents don't make. Worse, big gaps are seldom accidental. They are there because they are hard to fill. Indeed it might be the difficulty of filling the gap that made you join the other side of the debate in the first place. What if your best effort to fill the gap is thin and unconvincing?

Example: Some people oppose the repeal of the prohibition of cannabis because "consumption will increase". When you try to make this argument clear you end up distinguishing between good-use and bad-use. There is the relax-on-a-Friday-night-after-work kind of use which is widely accepted in the case of alcohol and can be termed good-use. There is the behaviour that gets called "pissing your talent away" when it beer-based. That is bad-use.

When you try to bring clarity to the argument you have to replace "consumption will increase" by "bad-use will increase a lot and good-use will increase a little, leading to a net reduction in aggregate welfare." But the original "consumption will increase" was obviously true, while the clearer "bad+++, good+, net--" is less compelling.

The original argument had a gap (just why is an increase in consumption bad?). Writing more clearly exposes the gap. Your target will not say "Thanks for exposing the gap, I wish I'd put it that way.". But it is not an easy gap to fill convincingly. Your target is unlikely to appreciate your efforts on behalf of his case.

11 points satt 02 September 2014 03:52:09AM Permalink

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."

Ah, but would it be, though?

11 points Viliam_Bur 05 September 2014 01:30:20PM Permalink

We could charitably translate "I don't understand how anyone could X" as "I notice that my model of people who X is so bad, that if I tried to explain it, I would probably generate a strawman".

11 points BenSix 07 October 2014 09:12:09PM Permalink

“Nobody supposes that the knowledge that belongs to a good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in a cookery book.” - Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics

11 points V_V 03 October 2014 10:55:22PM 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.

Except that Windows 95 actual version number is 4.0, and Windows 98 version number is 4.1.

It seems that Microsoft has been messing with version numbers in the last years, for some unknown (and, I would suppose, probably stupid) reason: that's why Xbox One follows Xbox 360 which follows Xbox, so that Xbox One is actually the third Xbox, the Xbox with 3 in the name is the second one, and the Xbox without 1 is the first one. Isn't it clear?

Maybe I can't understand the logic behind this because I'm not a billionarie, but I'm inclined to think this comes from the same geniuses who thought that the design of Windows 8 UI made sense.

11 points Gondolinian 05 December 2014 03:23:41PM Permalink

That hypothetical action doesn't "work" in the sense of helping you accomplish all relevant goals, among which, I assume, is the desire to not be incarcerated. (It is also obviously highly immoral.) Put another way, if you define "work" to include something very bad happening to you, that's just "stupid."

11 points tjohnson314 17 December 2014 01:02:59AM Permalink

"You should never bet against anything in science at odds of more than about 10^12 to 1 against."

  • Ernest Rutherford
11 points Robin 07 December 2014 11:55:40PM Permalink

"As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown."

Ayn Rand

11 points Lumifer 11 December 2014 04:08:28PM Permalink

While I agree with the overall sentiment, I think it's important not to overdo this approach. Let me explain.

Consider the situation where you have a stochastic process which generates values -- for example, you're drawing random values from a certain distribution. So you draw a number and let's say it is 17.

On the one hand you did draw 17 -- that number is "real" and the rest of the distribution which didn't get realized is only "imaginary". You should care about that 17 and not about what did not happen.

On the other hand, if we're interested not just in a single sample, but in the whole process and the distribution underlying it, that number 17 is almost irrelevant. We want to understand the entire distribution and that involves parts which did not get realized but had potential to be realized. We care about them because they inform our understanding of what might happen if the process runs again and generates another value.

Similarly, if you treat history as a sequence of one-off events, you should pay attention only to what actually happened and ignore what did not. But if you want to see history as a set of long-term processes which generate many events, you're probably interested in estimating the entire shape of these processes and that includes "invisible" parts which did not actually happen but could have happened.

There are obvious methodological pitfalls here and I would recommend wielding Occam's Razor with abandon, but that should not conceal the underlying epistemic point that what did not happen could be important, too.

11 points MotivationalAppeal 07 December 2014 04:12:06PM Permalink

Pathological counter example: "Passive propulsion in vortex wakes" by Beal et al. PDF

11 points timujin 06 November 2014 07:13:20PM Permalink

Are there no instances in Russian which reveal a poorly categorized concept in English, or vice-versa?

Oh yes, there are. My personal pet peeve, there is no way to distinguish "difficulty" and "complexity" in Russian. There is even no simple way (or, at least, I don't know one) like "difficult as in how hard it is to do, not as in how hard it is to describe"). However, hard way (spending a minute explaining the difference and then using some shorthand) works perfectly with Russian-only speakers, even not very intelligent ones. They do seem to have that distinction in their maps, and sometimes even comment on how weird it is that it is impossible to spell it properly. I never saw anyone being confused by it.

My own favorite example is how stunningly ambiguous the word "why" seems after learning about finer distinctions like the "por que" vs "para que" distinction in Spanish.

BTW, Russian does have that distinction. Question words is one area in which Russian is superior, in my opinion.

For an example from today's news commentary: even some ardent feminists are surprised to learn that "Banksy" might be a woman, possibly because even if you know intellectually that English uses "he" as a neutral pronoun for a person of unknown gender, that's not always enough to prevent prose references to an unknown person as "he" from affecting you subliminally.

Oh, that reminds me. In Russian, every noun has a grammatical gender. Cabinet is male, keyboard is female and window is neuter. It DOES carry a lot of connotations that affect me in introspectively noticable ways.

Curious note: when rereading this post last time before posting, I noticed that in the very first paragraph, when I talked about distinction between complexity and difficulty, I used words "simple" and "hard" as literal antonyms without even noticing.

11 points kilobug 05 November 2014 11:01:00AM Permalink

That's often true, but there are counter-examples, like my all time favorite : the Foundation cycle. In it, especially the beginning of it (the Foundation novel and the prequels), it's truly the heroes who are doing something awesome - the Foundation and all what's associated to it - and the villains who try to prevent them (and even that is more complicated/interesting as simple "vilain").

It's also often the case in Jules Verne fiction, or in the rest of "hard scifi", be it about trans-humanism (permutation city for example) or about planetary exploration.

11 points johnswentworth 05 November 2014 06:45:01AM Permalink

Alas, no. I just saw the bottom half of that list and my physicist instincts said "ah, some nice person has provided a list of interesting and difficult unsolved problems".

11 points RichardKennaway 07 November 2014 09:10:59PM Permalink

A good one, but a duplicate.

10 points lukeprog 15 January 2014 01:19:06AM Permalink

For it seemed to me that I could find much more truth in the reasonings that each person makes concerning matters that are important to him, and whose outcome ought to cost him dearly later on if he judged badly, than in those reasonings engaged in by a man of letters in his study, which touch on speculations that produce no effect and are of no other consequence to him except perhaps that, the more they are removed from common sense, the more pride he will take in them.

Rene Descartes

10 points Alejandro1 04 January 2014 10:30:07PM Permalink

An example in chess could be the enforcement of the touch-move rule in a "friendly" game not played under tournament conditions. Personally, I would tend to see someone who insisted on applying this rule in a friendly game when the opponent makes a mistaken touch as a bit of a jerk who cares too much about winning. I am sure this varies across different people and different chess circles though.

10 points komponisto 04 January 2014 10:36:18PM Permalink

I haven't read the whole text at the link (for which I'm grateful) yet, but I'll comment on the quoted paragraph.

I feel that music theory has gotten stuck by trying too long to find universals

More specifically, however, the problem is a confusion of universals with fundamentals. Music theory has succeeded in finding universals, but such universals by themselves aren't explanatory. If you don't know how to compose, it won't help you very much to learn that ancient flutes play the diatonic scale. And if you start doing statistical frequency analyses of local musical behavior patterns in some specific repertory, you've utterly gone off a cliff as far as explanation is concerned (at least, the kind of "explanation" that is of relevance to a prospective composer).

Music theory, as a discipline, suffers from a failure of query-hugging. My belief is that if theorists were to engage in honest introspection, they would, at the end of a (possibly quite long) chain of inference, reach the conclusion that their real goal is to devise a "programming language" for music: a set of concepts that facilitate the mental storage and manipulation of musical data. And that, if they attacked this goal directly, with conscious knowledge of what it is, music theory would (a) look very different (or rather, look a lot more like certain existing theories than others), (b) be more intellectually satisfying, and (c) be a lot more relevant to musical composition and performance.

(I'm grateful to Daniel Burfoot for the "programming language" metaphor.)

10 points Lumifer 15 January 2014 08:57:25PM Permalink

I'd like to offer a link to a blog post that looks very very rational to me. Though not in the usual-to-LW sense.

It starts like this:

One of the most consistent messages I offer here is about interactions with law enforcement, and can be expressed in two words — shut up — although "oh you dumb son of a bitch will you for the love of God shut up" might capture the flavor better.

10 points RichardKennaway 07 January 2014 01:13:29PM Permalink

I definitely think this one has been in a quotes thread before.


10 points adam_strandberg 24 February 2014 06:44:00AM Permalink

Also, this from his summary of Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra":

Humanity isn't an end, it's a fork in the road, and you have two options: "Animal" and "Superman". For some reason, people keep going left, the easy way, the way back to where we came from. Fuck 'em. Other people just stand there, staring at the signposts, as if they're going to come alive and tell them what to do or something. Dude, the sign says fucking "SUPERMAN". How much more of a clue do these assholes want?

10 points eli_sennesh 16 February 2014 07:39:52AM Permalink

Wait, hold on. You can't just flood Hell. There are people down there, apparently preserved well enough to torture for eternity without ageing (except if ageing is the torture, of course). Surely there's some way to exploit this!

Also, Hell would mean Lucifer is somewhere down there. Do you think we can dredge him up for a decent Faustian bargain? Any decent LW-er should be able to do a few things with Faust's traditional Omni-Knowledge that should render Christian-style immortal souls obsolete and unnecessary, and possibly irretrievable when Lucifer comes collecting as well.

Let's get Munchkining, people.

10 points brazil84 07 February 2014 03:00:31PM Permalink

All things being equal, I think I would rather be at loose ends than be dead.

That said, I would imagine that part of the problem is that many peoples' desire for immortality is informed partly by an instinctive reluctance to die -- as distinguished from a genuine preference for living over non-existence.

10 points MattG 10 March 2014 08:55:04PM Permalink

"Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed." - Daniel Kahneman

10 points Eugine_Nier 01 March 2014 06:54:55PM Permalink

As the marijuana legalization movement strengthens, you can see hints of how hard it is to hit the libertarian sweet spot where something is simultaneously legalized but remains rare and distasteful. People, especially young people, pick up messages from society about what is winning and what is losing more than they pick up nuanced messages. Smoking tobacco is losing so it seems reasonable to ban smoking it even in your own car while driving through a brushfire zone. Smoking marijuana is winning, so it doesn't seem like the ban on smoking in Laurel Canyon applies to dope.

Steve Sailer

10 points jaime2000 02 March 2014 10:25:24PM Permalink

Needs more context. You and I know what this quote refers to; others might not.

EDIT: Here's a non-Tweeted version of the quote. It is used again later in the book, but to quote that scene would be a spoiler.

They finally got themselves together along the wall. Ender noticed that without exception they had lined up with their heads still in the direction they had been up in the corridor. So Ender deliberately took hold of what they were treating as a floor and dangled from it upside down. "Why are you upside down, soldiers?" he demanded.

Some of them started to turn the other way.

"Attention!" They held still. "I said why are you upside down!"

No one answered. They didn't know what he expected.

"I said why does every one of you have his feet in the air and his head toward the ground!"

Finally one of them spoke. "Sir, this is the direction we were in coming out of the door."

"Well what difference is that supposed to make! What difference does it make what the gravity was back in the corridor! Are we going to fight in the corridor? Is there any gravity here?"

No sir. No sir.

"From now on, you forget about gravity before you go through that door. The old gravity is gone, erased. Understand me? Whatever your gravity is when you get to the door, remember-the enemy's gate is down. Your feet are toward the enemy's gate. Up is toward your own gate. North is that way, south is that way, east is that way, west is-what way?"

They pointed.

"That's what I expected. The only process you've mastered is the process of elimination, and the only reason you've mastered that is because you can do it in the toilet. What was the circus I saw out here! Did you call that forming up? Did you call that flying? Now everybody, launch and form up on the ceiling! Right now! Move!"

As Ender expected, a good number of them instinctively launched, not toward the wall with the door in it, but toward the wall that Ender had called north, the direction that had been up when they were in the corridor. Of course they quickly realized their mistake, but too late-they had to wait to change things until they had rebounded off the north wall.

In the meantime, Ender was mentally grouping them into slow learners and fast learners. The littlest kid, the one who had been last out of the door, was the first to arrive at the correct wall, and he caught himself adroitly. They had been right to advance him. He'd do well.

10 points johnlawrenceaspden 15 April 2014 11:44:57PM Permalink

The main lesson of thirty-five years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard. The mental abilities of a four-year-old that we take for granted – recognizing a face, lifting a pencil, walking across a room, answering a question – in fact solve some of the hardest engineering problems ever conceived... As the new generation of intelligent devices appears, it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists, and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come.

Stephen Pinker, Wikipedia/Moravec's Paradox

10 points DanArmak 04 April 2014 09:18:44PM Permalink

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.

What do you think about these other possible explanations?

  1. Some of these students really can't learn to prove mathematical theorems. If exams required real understanding of math, then no matter how much these students and their teachers tried, with all the pedagogical techniques we know today, they would fail the exams.

  2. These students really have very unpleasant subjective experiences when they try to understand math, a kind of mental suffering. They are bad at math because people are generally bad at doing very unpleasant things: they only do the absolute minimum they can get away with, so they don't get enough practice to become better, and they also have trouble concentrating at practice because the experience is a bad one. Even if they can improve with practice, this would mean they'll never practice enough to improve. (You may think that understanding something should be more fun than rote learning, and this may be true for some of them, but they never get to actually understand enough to realize this for themselves.)

  3. The students are just time-discounting. They care more about not studying now, then about passing the exam later. Or, they are procrastinating, planning to study just before the exam. An effort to understand something takes more time in the short term than just memorizing it; it only pays off once you've understood enough things.

  4. The students, as a social group, perceive themselves as opposed to and resisting the authority of teachers. They can't usually resist mandatory things: attending classes, doing homework, having to pass exams; and they resent this. Whenever a teacher tries to introduce a study activity that isn't mandatory (other teachers aren't doing it), students will push back. Any students who speak up in class and say "actually I'm enjoying this extra material/alternative approach, please keep teaching it" would be betraying their peers. This is a matter of politics, and even if a teacher introduces non-mandatory or alternative techniques that are really objectively fun and efficient, students may not perceive them as such because they're seeing them as "extra study" or "extra oppression", not "a teacher trying to help us".

10 points johnlawrenceaspden 05 April 2014 12:49:12AM Permalink

I assume that the reader is familiar with the idea of extrasensory perception, and the meaning of the four items of it, viz., telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis. These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming.

Alan Turing (from "Computing Machinery and Intelligence")

10 points Ian_S 14 April 2014 02:18:01PM Permalink

Maybe I need to include more context. This conversation occurs after the multiplication was done. This was discussing the aftermath, which had been minimized as much as the minds in question could manage. I took it to mean that, once you have made the best decision you can, there is no guarantee that you will be happy with the outcome, just that it would likely have been worse had you made any other decision.

10 points timujin 18 May 2014 08:29:07AM Permalink

“All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third Thoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine! I have a duty!”

― Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30)

10 points SaidAchmiz 03 May 2014 06:05:56PM Permalink

working out what must actually have gone on

How did he know that his judgment of what actually had gone on was correct? How did he verify his conclusion?

10 points Viliam_Bur 02 May 2014 07:14:01PM Permalink

The reason why the thing can't be expressed is that it's too definite for language.

This feels like a combination of words that are supposed to sound Wisely, but don't actually make sense. (I guess Lewis uses this technique frequently.)

How specifically could being "definite" be a a problem for language? Take any specific thing, apply an arbitrary label, and you are done.

There could be a problem when a person X experienced some "qualia" that other people have never experienced, so they can't match the verbal description with anything in their experience. Or worse, they have something similar, which they match instead, even when told not to. And this seems like a situation described in the text. -- But then the problem is not having the shared experience. If they did, they would just need to apply an arbitrary label, and somehow make sure they refer to the same thing when using the label. The language would have absolutely no problem with that.

10 points DanielLC 06 June 2014 07:28:54PM Permalink

As somewhat of a libertarian, I tend to fall into that last group. I have to keep reminding myself that if nobody could outguess the market, then there'd be no money in trying to outguess the market, so only fools would enter it, and it would be easy to outguess.

10 points Torello 02 June 2014 11:42:20PM Permalink

In reply to both Nancy and Thomas:

"For Taleb, then, the question why someone was a success in the financial marketplace was vexing. Taleb could do the arithmetic in his head. Suppose that there were ten thousand investment managers out there, which is not an outlandish number, and that every year half of them, entirely by chance, made money and half of them, entirely by chance, lost money. And suppose that every year the losers were tossed out, and the game replayed with those who remained. At the end of five years, there would be three hundred and thirteen people who had made money in every one of those years, and after ten years there would be nine people who had made money every single year in a row, all out of pure luck. Niederhoffer, like Buffett and Soros, was a brilliant man. He had a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. He had pioneered the idea that through close mathematical analysis of patterns in the market an investor could identify profitable anomalies. But who was to say that he wasn’t one of those lucky nine? And who was to say that in the eleventh year Niederhoffer would be one of the unlucky ones, who suddenly lost it all, who suddenly, as they say on Wall Street, “blew up”?

-Malcom Gladwell

A magician named Derren Brown made a whole program about horse racing to illustrate the point of the above story. It's kinda interesting, but wastes more time than reading the story above.

10 points raisin 12 June 2014 11:37:01AM Permalink

It tells a lot about the way our brains are built that you have to consciously remind yourself of this in the course of the argument and it doesn't really come naturally.

10 points Jayson_Virissimo 17 June 2014 06:37:24AM Permalink

The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating — in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around like rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.

-- Anne Morris

10 points LizzardWizzard 27 June 2014 10:33:42AM 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? (c)

According to the base rate there is an evidence that this is a joke about Russia national team or Suarez bite

10 points Stabilizer 04 June 2014 06:39:36PM Permalink

I would be interested to know how well documented this "curse of success" is? Is it studied in the economic literature? When do corporations, nations, firms, individuals suffer from this curse, when do they not? When do entire industries--like universities-- suffer from the curse? When do they survive and recover? When do they go completely bust? It seems possible to find examples going both ways, so I'm guessing there's something more subtle going on.

10 points shminux 18 July 2014 05:51:08PM Permalink

This link warrants a trigger warning:

multiple heartbreaking stories of false accusations ruining innocent people's lives

10 points Eliezer_Yudkowsky 18 July 2014 11:05:47PM Permalink

Good noticing of confusion, I feel slightly ashamed of not picking up on that immediately.

10 points wedrifid 18 July 2014 12:13:03PM Permalink

What is the first business of one who practices philosophy?


10 points dspeyer 07 July 2014 08:52:17PM Permalink

I don't know the original context, but I see several possibilities:

  • If the trench really needs to get dug, and it looks like it's going to take digging night and day, then they won't care if they're standing on your toes because stepping off would distract from digging.
  • Similarly, they may conclude everyone needs to be conscripted into the spoon-gangs, including the infirm who will die there and the nerd who was about to invent shovels.
  • If they devote the time and energy to develop their spoon skills they're likely to expect public deference commensurate to their sacrifice, and may get angry when they don't get it.
  • If they do get that deference, and then shovels are developed, they may try to suppress shovels to protect their status.
10 points sixes_and_sevens 07 July 2014 02:37:46PM Permalink

I'm not sure it plays out this way in real life all that often. For example, anyone who got a digital photography degree before the year 2002 spent three years learning how to accomplish what anyone with a knock-off copy of Photoshop can learn to do in half an hour. They're not super-badass, they're just obsolete.

10 points B_For_Bandana 07 July 2014 05:33:42PM Permalink

In times like these I really have to wonder why it's never (or at least rarely, to my eye) stressed that self-awareness is probably the single most important component of a healthy life. We're constantly handed very specific definitions of good behavior, complex moral and legal codes, questionable social constructs, and so on. I don't remember ever really being told to take a step back--to step back as far as possible--and look constructively at myself. But increasingly I feel that the only dividing line between being "that guy" and being a net positive to those around you comes out of being able to look at yourself critically and build constructively.

Maybe I'm oversimplifying or assuming that introspection is simple. But for every ten groups explaining religious ideology to me, or telling me why their political candidate is best, I wish one would have told me to get out of my own head as much as possible.

10 points dspeyer 07 July 2014 09:26:08PM Permalink

Perhaps we should do what Aristotle meant to do, instead of what he did. The goal he announces in the Metaphysics seems one worth pursuing: to discover the most general truths. That sounds good. But instead of trying to discover them because they're useless, let's try to discover them because they're useful.

-- Paul Graham

10 points Manfred 08 July 2014 11:09:54PM Permalink
10 points IlyaShpitser 07 July 2014 07:27:58PM Permalink

What's worse is the converse -- where common language users attempt to redefine a precise term for their own purposes. Mathematicians aren't confused by 'perfect numbers,' but I don't even know anymore what people mean around here when they use the B word. Maybe nothing interesting?

10 points Azathoth123 12 July 2014 01:34:32AM Permalink

You still need a theory, a.k.a., a prior on the kind of data you expect to be compressing. Otherwise you run into the No Free Lunch Theorem.

10 points Ixiel 19 August 2014 12:55:58AM Permalink

Most of the time he asked questions. His questions were very good, and if you tried to answer them intelligently, you found yourself saying excellent things that you did not know you knew, and that you had not, in fact, known before. He had "educed" them from you by his question. His classes were literally "education" - they brought things out of you, they made your mind produce its own explicit ideas.

Thomas Merton, about professor Mark Van Doren

10 points jaime2000 05 August 2014 04:51:38PM Permalink

Yes, that's exactly what I was thinking. General Broadwings thinks General Derpy is bluffing, so Derpy credibly precommits herself to not releasing him by telling him information that would surely doom her army if she did. She gives up the choice of freeing Broadwings, and comes out ahead for it.

10 points Benito 04 August 2014 09:58:03AM Permalink

A good argument is like a piece of technology. Few of us will ever invent a new piece of technology, and on any given day it’s unlikely that we’ll adopt one. Nevertheless, the world we inhabit is defined by technological change. Likewise, I believe that the world we inhabit is a product of good moral arguments. It’s hard to catch someone in the midst of reasoned moral persuasion, and harder still to observe the genesis of a good argument. But I believe that without our capacity for moral reasoning, the world would be a very different place.

-Joshua Greene, “Moral Tribes”, Endnotes

10 points Viliam_Bur 05 September 2014 01:40:21PM Permalink

Related: When (Not) To Use Probabilities:

I would advise, in most cases, against using non-numerical procedures to create what appear to be numerical probabilities. Numbers should come from numbers. (...) you shouldn't go around thinking that, if you translate your gut feeling into "one in a thousand", then, on occasions when you emit these verbal words, the corresponding event will happen around one in a thousand times. Your brain is not so well-calibrated.

This specific topic came up recently in the context of the Large Hadron Collider (...) the speaker actually purported to assign a probability of at least 1 in 1000 that the theory, model, or calculations in the LHC paper were wrong; and a probability of at least 1 in 1000 that, if the theory or model or calculations were wrong, the LHC would destroy the world.

I object to the air of authority given these numbers pulled out of thin air. (...) No matter what other physics papers had been published previously, the authors would have used the same argument and made up the same numerical probabilities

10 points Vaniver 05 September 2014 06:13:35PM Permalink

It'll also be easier to reduce a bonus (because of poor performance on the part of the employee or company) than it will be to reduce a salary.

10 points DanArmak 06 September 2014 11:06:44AM Permalink

People who often misunderstand others: 6% of geniuses, 94% of garden-variety nonsense-spouters.

10 points Jack_LaSota 07 September 2014 05:01:06PM Permalink

Katara: Do you think we'll really find airbenders?

Sokka: You want me to be like you, or totally honest?

Katara: Are you saying I'm a liar?

Sokka: I'm saying you're an optimist. Same thing, basically.

-Avatar: The Last Airbender

10 points bbleeker 04 October 2014 09:10:19AM Permalink

"What we assume to be 'normal consciousness' is comparatively rare, it's like the light in the refrigerator: when you look in, there you are ON but what's happening when you don't look in?"

Keith Johnstone, Impro - Improvisation and the Theatre

10 points Salivanth 04 October 2014 05:55:52AM Permalink

I believe this lesson is designed for crisis situations where the wiser person taking the time to explain could be detrimental. For example, a soldier believes his commander is smarter than him and possesses more information than he does. The commander orders him to do something in an emergency situation that appears stupid from his perspective, but he does it anyway, because he chooses to trust his commander's judgement over his own.

Under normal circumstances, there is of course no reason why a subordinate shouldn't be encouraged to ask why they're doing something.

10 points shminux 03 October 2014 09:53:10PM Permalink

The words out of your mouth will literally be ignored, misheard, or even contorted to the opposite of what they mean, if that’s what it takes to preserve the listener’s misconception

Scott Aaronson on why quantum computers don't speed up computations by parallelism, a popular misconception.

10 points Desrtopa 06 December 2014 03:40:57PM Permalink

The problems in North Korea are not so simple with straightforward solutions, when we look at them from the perspective of the actors involved.

For the average citizen in North Korea, there are no clear avenues to political influence that don't increase rather than decrease personal risk. For the people in North Korea who do have significant political influence, from a self-serving perspective, there are no "problems" with how North Korea is run.

North Korea's problems might be simple to solve from the perspective of an altruistic Supreme Leader, but they're hard as coordination problems. Some of our societal problems in the developed world are also simple from the perspective of an altruistic Supreme Leader, but hard as coordination problems. Some of the more salient differences are that those problems didn't occur due to the actions of non altruistic or incompetent Supreme Leaders in the first place, and aren't causing mass subsistence level poverty.

10 points ChristianKl 05 December 2014 01:31:56AM Permalink

There no such thing as evidence-based decision on strategies for research funding. Nobody really knows good criteria for deciding which research should get grants to be carried out.

Aubrey de Grey among other things makes the argument that it's good to put out prices for research groups that get mices to a certain increased lifespan. That's the Methuselah Foundation’s Mprize.

Now the Methuselah Foundation worked to set up the new organ liver price that gives 1 million to the first team that creates a regenerative or bioengineered solution that keeps a large animal alive for 90 days without native liver function.

Funding that kind of research is useful whether or not certain arguments Aubrey de Grey made about “Whole Body Interdiction of Lengthening of Telomeres” are correct. In science there's room for people proposing ideas that turn out to be wrong.

10 points Lumifer 01 December 2014 08:36:25PM Permalink

And you end up like this.

10 points elharo 09 December 2014 12:30:01PM Permalink

We're similarly shocked whenever authority figures who are supposed to know what they're doing make it plain that they don't, President Obama's healthcare launch being probably the most serious recent example. We shouldn't really be shocked, though. Because all these stories illustrate one of the most fundamental yet still under-appreciated truths of human existence, which is this: everyone is totally just winging it, all the time.

Institutions – from national newspapers to governments and politicial parties – invest an enormous amount of money and effort in denying this truth. The facades they maintain are crucial to their authority, and thus to their legitimacy and continued survival. We need them to appear ultra-competent, too, because we derive much psychological security from the belief that somewhere, in the highest echelons of society, there are some near-infallible adults in charge.

In fact, though, everyone is totally just winging it.

-- Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian, May 21, 2014

10 points Sarunas 03 November 2014 11:49:00AM Permalink

I, too, sometimes find that it is easier for me to express certain ideas in English than in my native language. However, I guess, in my case the reason seems to be analogous to the reasons mentioned in Steven Pinker's article Why Academics Stink at Writing. Although it mainly talks about why academics find it difficult to express their ideas in simple words, it seems to me that if one uses predominantly English in certain settings or talking about certain subjects, then the reasons (chunking and functional fixedness) why ideas about these subjects are difficult to express in one's native language are probably similar.

Scholars lose their moorings in the land of the concrete because of two effects of expertise that have been documented by cognitive psychology. One is called chunking. To work around the limitations of short-term memory, the mind can package ideas into bigger and bigger units, which the psychologist George Miller dubbed "chunks." As we read and learn, we master a vast number of abstractions, and each becomes a mental unit that we can bring to mind in an instant and share with others by uttering its name. An adult mind that is brimming with chunks is a powerful engine of reason, but it comes at a cost: a failure to communicate with other minds that have not mastered the same chunks.

The amount of abstraction a writer can get away with depends on the expertise of his readership. But divining the chunks that have been mastered by a typical reader requires a gift of clairvoyance with which few of us are blessed. When we are apprentices in our chosen specialty, we join a clique in which, it seems to us, everyone else seems to know so much! And they talk among themselves as if their knowledge were conventional wisdom to every educated person. As we settle into the clique, it becomes our universe. We fail to appreciate that it is a tiny bubble in a multiverse of cliques. When we make first contact with the aliens in other universes and jabber at them in our local code, they cannot understand us without a sci-fi universal translator.


The second way in which expertise can make our thoughts harder to share is that as we become familiar with something, we think about it more in terms of the use we put it to and less in terms of what it looks like and what it is made of. This transition is called functional fixity. In the textbook experiment, people are given a candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks, and are asked to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax won’t drip onto the floor. The solution is to dump the thumbtacks out of the box, tack the box to the wall, and stick the candle onto the box. Most people never figure this out because they think of the box as a container for the tacks rather than as a physical object in its own right. The blind spot is called functional fixity because people get fixated on an object’s function and forget its physical makeup.

Now, if you combine functional fixity with chunking, and stir in the curse that hides each one from our awareness, you get an explanation of why specialists use so much idio­syncratic terminology, together with abstractions, metaconcepts, and zombie nouns. They are not trying to bamboozle their readers; it’s just the way they think. The specialists are no longer thinking—and thus no longer writing—about tangible objects, and instead are referring to them by the role those objects play in their daily travails. A psychologist calls the labels true and false "assessment words" because that’s why he put them there—so that the participants in the experiment could assess whether it applied to the preceding sentence. Unfortunately, he left it up to us to figure out what an "assessment word" is.

While scholars package their ideas and abstractions into chunks, in everyday language we package the connotations of words/idioms/expressions into similar implicit chunks that are hard to separate from the word/idiom/expression itself. Direct translation might not preserve all these connotations. It seems to me that while we could try to preserve some connotations that are most relevant in a given situation, we might feel uncomfortable doing so, because losing connotations feels like losing accuracy and precise meaning of what we tried to convey, even in situations where a simple paraphrase could preserve connotations that are actually relevant.

In a professional setting, functional fixedness becomes very important. It is probably the reason why so much professional jargon (outside the Anglosphere) is based on other languages, especially English.

10 points roystgnr 05 November 2014 09:09:22PM Permalink

Are there no instances in Russian which reveal a poorly categorized concept in English, or vice-versa?

I'm surprised ESR didn't bring up the difficulty of talking about "free software" in a language that doesn't distinguish "libre" from "gratuit", for example.

My own favorite example is how stunningly ambiguous the word "why" seems after learning about finer distinctions like the "por que" vs "para que" distinction in Spanish. How many creationists are subconsciously confused by the fact that "from what cause?" and "for what purpose?" are treated in English as identical questions?

You can always translate the ambiguity logically (into any sufficiently "complete" language?), but the increased awkwardness of the translation may have an effect. For an example from today's news commentary: even some ardent feminists are surprised to learn that "Banksy" might be a woman, possibly because even if you know intellectually that English uses "he" as a neutral pronoun for a person of unknown gender, that's not always enough to prevent prose references to an unknown person as "he" from affecting you subliminally.

10 points Azathoth123 07 November 2014 02:59:06AM Permalink

For an example from today's news commentary: even some ardent feminists are surprised to learn that "Banksy" might be a woman, possibly because even if you know intellectually that English uses "he" as a neutral pronoun for a person of unknown gender, that's not always enough to prevent prose references to an unknown person as "he" from affecting you subliminally.

Or possibly because the prior for the gender of the kind of person who'd the kind of things Banksy does is heavily in favor of him being male.

10 points alex_zag_al 01 November 2014 09:19:28PM Permalink

Colin Howson, talking about how Cox's theorem bears the mark of Cox's training as a physicist (source):

An alternative approach is to start immediately with a quantitative notion and think of general principles that any acceptable numerical measure of uncertainty should obey. R.T. Cox and I.J. Good, working independently in the mid nineteen-forties, showed how strikingly little in the way of constraints on a numerical measure yield the finitely additive probability functions as canonical representations. It is not just the generality of the assumptions that makes the Cox–Good result so significant: unlike some of those which have to be imposed on a qualitative probability ordering, the assumptions used by Cox and to a somewhat lesser extent Good seem to have the property of being uniformly self-evidently analytic principles of numerical epistemic probability whatever particular scale it might be measured in. Cox was a working physicist and his point of departure was a typical one: to look for invariant principles:

To consider first ... what principles of probable inference will hold however probability is measured. Such principles, if there are any, will play in the theory of probable inference a part like that of Carnot’s principle in thermodynamics, which holds for all possible scales of temperature, or like the parts played in mechanics by the equations of Lagrange and Hamilton, which have the same form no matter what system of coordinates is used in the description of motion. [Cox 1961]

10 points James_Miller 02 November 2014 12:48:54AM Permalink

This conclusory invocation to "science" w/o reference to any study is an IQ test for the American intelligentsia.

Joel S. Gehrke, Sr. on Twitter referencing American Ebola policy and fears.

10 points aarongertler 17 November 2014 05:26:01PM Permalink

Teacher: So if you could live to be any age you like, what would it be?

Boy 2: Infinity.

Teacher: Infinity, you would live for ever? Why would you like to live for ever?

Boy 2: Because you just know a lot of people and make lots of new friends because you could travel to lots of countries and everything and meet loads of new animals and everything.

--Until (documentary)

10 points [deleted] 03 November 2014 09:03:34AM Permalink

More US citizens have married Kim Kardashian than have died of Ebola.

-- a member of the scientific collaboration I'm in.