Some long time ago, at some point after I’d discovered Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, I found LessWrong. I liked the articles I stumbled on and occasionally went on link safari the way I do on TV Tropes, but I didn’t start reading the Sequences in any organized way until Luke Muehlhauser (then of Common Sense Atheism, now of the Singularity Institute) started blogging through all of Yudkowsky’s posts in chronological order. I flagged some of the posts as particularly interesting as I went through, but I haven’t done much with that document, so today you get a sampling of things on LessWrong that caught my eye.
And in case this post and all the other ones this week on my time at the LessWrong retreat aren’t whetting your appetite to read through the Sequences yourself, I’ll have a very “now for something completely different” post later today.
As a solution to the “but won’t debating Group X legitimize them?” problem, the following suggestion: Let them Debate College Students!
It’s this notion of shutting down debate that I fear as dangerous; and it seems to me that you can get just the same strategic conservation of prestige, by endorsing the principle of debate, but sending out some bright college students to present the standard position. If the “controversy” as shown on CNN consists of some ID-er with a sober-looking business suit and an impressive-sounding title, versus a TA in jeans to represent the scientific community – but with accurate science, mind! – then I think this would viscerally answer what the scientific community thinks of creationism, and not create the false impression of an ongoing debate, while still giving airtime to the standard scientific replies. If CNN isn’t interested in showing that “controversy” – well then, that tells us what CNN really wanted, doesn’t it.
I like the style of this solution, but I just don’t expect that most public debates are decided on the merits.
Bach when I was debating college students on a weekly basis, I probably should have shared “The Correct Contrarian Cluster” with more people. It’s a way you might be able to recognize that you’re rebelling against the conventional wisdom in error. Do the people who share your belief tend to be well calibrated on other things that are little understood that you can use as a gold standard.
The more of your unusual beliefs are false, the harder it will be to notice, but if you’ve only got a few incorrect gonzo ideas, this approach may help you notice them.
You all must know by now that I’m a sucker for argument by wacky, detailed hypothetical, so you won’t be surprised I liked the New Improved Lotterypost a lot. If rational actors play the lottery to purchase a bit of fantasizing, there’s a way to amp it up:
Anyway: If we pretend that the lottery sells epsilon hope, this suggests a design for a New Improved Lottery. The New Improved Lottery pays out every five years on average, at a random time—determined, say, by the decay of a not-very-radioactive element. You buy in once, for a single dollar, and get not just a few days of epsilon chance of becoming rich, but a few years of epsilon. Not only that, your wealth could strike at any time! At any minute, the phone could ring to inform you that you, yes, you are a millionaire! …Maybe the New Improved Lottery could even show a constantly fluctuating probability distribution over the likelihood of a win occurring, and the likelihood of particular numbers being selected, with the overall expectation working out to the aforesaid Poisson distribution. Think of how much fun that would be! Oh, goodness, right this minute the chance of a win occurring is nearly ten times higher than usual! And look, the number 42 that I selected for the Mega Ball has nearly twice the usual chance of winning! You could feed it to a display on people’s cellphones, so they could just flip open the cellphone and see their chances of winning. Think of how exciting that would be! Much more exciting than trying to balance your checkbook! Much more exciting than doing your homework! This new dream would be so much tastier that it would compete with, not only hopes of going to technical school, but even hopes of getting home from work early. People could just stay glued to the screen all day long, why, they wouldn’t need to dream about anything else!
One post that’s a particularly useful check on an unfortunate tendency of mine is Guessing the Teacher’s Password.
In the school system, it’s all about verbal behavior, whether written on paper or spoken aloud. Verbal behavior gets you a gold star or a failing grade. Part of unlearning this bad habit is becoming consciously aware of the difference between an explanation and a password.
It can be a lot easier to model a person than a problem. I can think about how a person talks and try to match their language and tone. I get rewarded without actually having done any heavy lifting on the problem. I spent less time doing this in school, but a lot of time training this to sound less weird in social contexts, so I have this problem less in academic settings, but I think I’m in danger of defaulting to this cognitively lazy strategy in more informal situations.
I’ll confess, although I did read the Quantum Physics sequence, I didn’t get much out of it. But you shouldn’t be frightened off because if you go to that page and scroll down, you’ll hit the “Rationality and Science” subsequence which does not require you to have understood the physics that precedes it and is one of my favorite subsequences since it’s looking at how science works and when we get worried about this mechanism. From “When Science Can’t Help”:
Evolutionary psychology is another example of a case where rationality has to take over from science. While theories of evolutionary psychology form a connected whole, only some of those theories are readily testable experimentally. But you still need the other parts of the theory, because they form a connected web that helps you to form the hypotheses that are actually testable—and then the helper hypotheses are supported in a Bayesian sense, but not supported experimentally. Science would render a verdict of “not proven” on individual parts of a connected theoretical mesh that is experimentally productive as a whole. We’d need a new kind of verdict for that, something like “indirectly supported”.
Or what about cryonics?
Cryonics is an archetypal example of an extremely important issue (150,000 people die per day) that will have huge consequences in the foreseeable future, but doesn’t offer definite unmistakable experimental evidence that we can get right now.
So do you say, “I don’t believe in cryonics because it hasn’t been experimentally proven, and you shouldn’t believe in things that haven’t been experimentally proven?”
Finally, after I announced I was converting, a friend of mine turned to LessWrong to crowdsource a way to pull me back from the brink. This was definitely the most interesting comment section I read on the topic. I’m linking to the discussion on the condition that my readers do not comment on this thread unless you’ve commented on LessWrong before.
This has been a problem linking to some atheist comments on my conversion before. If you want to start an argument, do it in my comment thread here. If you think you need to comment to “come to my defense,” take me literally when I say I don’t want you to. In the first place, aggressive questioning is not attack. I don’t need to be defended from interesting, difficult questions.
In the second place, LessWrong manages to have more streamlined arguments because people have a useful, precise vernacular. If you’re not fluent in it (i.e. if you haven’t read the Sequences) you may be misinterpreting people and you’ll have trouble making your point clearly. You wouldn’t try and pick an emotionally intense fight in French if your vocab was as bad as mine, so forbear and study the way people talk over there if you want to participate in the future.
Don’t be the reason we can’t have nice things! Here’s the link: Thwarting a Catholic Conversion.
For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!