Open Thread

Here is our monthly place to discuss issues not covered in our other posts.

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  • I was reading this article about J.D. Salinger and his reclusiveness, and wondering what the heck he’s been doing for the last forty years. The article postulates that Salinger may have become demoralized by the question: “How do you make art for an audience, or a critical establishment, too crass to understand it?”

    But wouldn’t Salinger’s art be taken more seriously primarily because of his fame, and compounded further by his mysterious retreat from the public eye? If Salinger suddenly were to release a new novel tomorrow, does anyone doubt it would be not only an instant bestseller, but taken quite seriously by said critical establishment, being (presumably) the product of a forty-year incubation period of one of the definitive writers of the era? In fact, it’s hard to imagine how you could possibly attract more attention to your work.

    The lasting residue of fame is well-known (see the Rolling Stones’ continued existence, for example). I got to wondering: if you had some important, but highly obscure, complex, and subtle message to get across (artistic, technical, or otherwise), in what way is fame a precondition to propagating this message? Should we all be trying to get famous before we can really succeed in spreading important ideas? You may have discussed this before (I am new here) but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Lightwave

    I wonder if Eliezer would write a (short?) post on morality similar to his “What I Think, If Not Why” post. It would be nice to have a summary of his views without having to read 10 different posts and try to figure out what’s his position exactly.

  • Z. M. Davis

    “Should we all be trying to get famous before we can really succeed in spreading important ideas?”

    Fame is something of a chimera. No one is universally prominent; we have to talk about to whom one is prominent. I was starstruck when I met Eliezer, but if I were somehow to meet (say) Jennifer Anniston, I wouldn’t care. I don’t know what she looks like. If fame is a prerequisite for doing important work, then we’re all screwed, because status-striving is an unwinnable game: unless you’re literally Jesus Christ, there’s always someone with more mindshare than you, and if you spend all your energy trying to claw your way to the top (of what?), how will you have time for your Great Work?

    There can’t be any threshold of prominence above which people care what you think because, as a general rule, no one cares what you think. Focus on the Work.

  • Abigail

    To whom would we wish the FAI to be friendly? To each individual human being alive now, to each individual now alive or going to be alive, to the Species, or to a combination of these?

  • I would like to see prediction markets in security of cryptographic primitives. It’s a good match for the problem because:

    * Some of them are high impact events
    * The result is usually unambiguous
    * They have low but non-negligible probability, like whole percents to tens of percents
    * They have low to mid timescales, like years to decades
    * There’s a lot of data, like proofs of security against particular attacks, attacks on limited number of rounds, historical record of similar primitives, etc. but this data is very difficult to interpret even for professional cryptography researchers.

    Anybody wants to start such markets on Intrade or somewhere else?

    • gwern

      > * They have low but non-negligible probability, like whole percents to tens of percents

      That doesn’t seem to be a good range – markets like Intrade are known to have long-shot biases, and the more restricted the range, the less attractive it is as a market. (It’s harder to find irrational traders to take for 10 or 20% return if there are only a few prices it could trade at! Now something like Obama for President where the prices could range from 0 to 100 at various times, that’s worth trading.)

  • FYI, Good and Real has made it into the virtual remainder bin and is going for 5 bucks.

    Robin, how rational did you raise your kids to be? Did you tell them about Santa? Did you pretend to not know what the boys were slinking off to do at 13?

    Gonna be extending my New Day and concentrating on a project helping shape a rather new non-artificial intelligence, so thank you all for the good times & good reading.

    And gents, please don’t make anything go foom or boom for a few decades. I’m really looking forward to this.

  • “To whom would we wish the FAI to be friendly? To each individual human being alive now, to each individual now alive or going to be alive, to the Species, or to a combination of these?”

    My favored alternative: it should be friendly to me personally. As I am not a psychopath, the AI ought to know it should give to other people according to my selfless desires. One of my current desires is that I not be deluded, even if I want to delude myself in the future, which ideally would mean that my ideas of who deserves stuff are unbiased. That doesn’t mean that I can’t just be selfish and take all I want, but I imagine I would restrict myself to what I deserve, as it is possible to be happy that way.

  • “To whom would we wish the FAI to be friendly? To each individual human being alive now, to each individual now alive or going to be alive, to the Species, or to a combination of these?”

    My favored alternative: it should be friendly to me personally. As I am not a psychopath, the AI ought to know it should give to other people according to my selfless desires. One of my current desires is that I not be deluded, even if I want to delude myself in the future, which ideally would mean that my ideas of who deserves stuff are unbiased. That doesn’t mean that I can’t just be selfish and take all I want, but I imagine I would restrict myself to what I deserve, as it is possible to be happy that way.

  • @ Z.M. Davis claims: “I don’t know what [Jennifer Aniston] looks like.”

    She looks like this.

  • Will Pearson

    I’ve noticed that extra options can be bad in a different way. For example Braess paradox.

  • Rex

    Suggestion: how about having an “Ask Overcoming Bias” component to this site, with questions and answers about rationality and bias, like the below post from November?

    Similar features on other websites, like “Ask Hacker News” and “Ask Metafilter,” are hugely popular, and “Ask OB” posts would require little effort on behalf of Eliezer and Robin. This seems especially appropriate, given that the admins are contemplating a more hands-off and user-generated site. Just a thought.

  • Grant


    Why shouldn’t we create an AI with the goal of peacefully and non-fraudulently improving human intelligence (with some required distribution; e.g. not a minority of humans) while preserving human utility functions? Would it be easier or somehow better to create an AI which acts to maximumize human utility functions, without necessarily improving the intelligence of the species?

    Or in other words, instead of creating something smart enough to make itself smarter, why not create something smart enough to make us smarter?

  • This talk of non-person predicates reminds me of all the times in history and in fiction when people have developed non-person predicates. For real-life, look to slavery, ownership of women, the untouchable caste, the creation of a “counter-revolutionary” caste in the USSR and communist China (when the child of a “counter-revolutionary” was a counter-revolutionary by birth), and the treatment of animals. For fiction, it’s hard to beat Cordwainer Smith’s “The dead lady of Clown-town”, one of the earliest SF stories to deal with transhumanist themes.

    The creation of non-person predicates has never been a good thing.

    It’s hard to optimize society and the distribution of resources. The more idealistic the rule-makers are, the more cognitive stress they’re subject to, as they try to structure a society where everybody is happy. And they deal with this by constructing non-person predicates. The easiest way to have a decent life yourself, without going crazy from guilt and sympathy for all the screwing-up of lives that is necessary to sustain your lifestyle, is to pick a non-person predicate that lets you focus must of the social goods in a restricted group of people and then call them “people”.

  • rand

    I would love it if someone started converting these posts to podcasts. What a great way to start each day.

  • The first of the 2008 Singularity Summit videos are up! See:

    These are currently large, raw movie files, with no obvious associated licenses – but third parties sticking them up on YouTube seems to have begun already.

  • Howdy folks! Happy New Year!

    I was just writing a book review of “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes, and I happened to notice the overcomingbias thread on it from last year. (I read overcomingbias on occasion, and I’ve read or listened to a few other things that various contributors have written, too. I also had a delightful, if uncomfortably mind-expanding, conversation with Hal Finney on a lawn at dusk in 2006.)

    Here’s my book review of “Good Calories, Bad Calories”, in which I quote Hal Finney and Robin Hanson from that thread, and swerve over into the topic of prediction markets at the end, and also momentarily mention life-extension. I would be interested in your comments on the book or on my book review.

  • Re: podcasts – FWIW, I’ve archived most of the “Yudkowsky” podcasts I know of here.

  • Tomasz Wegrzanowski: I would like to see a prediction market in crypto primitives. Also, I would like to see a real prediction market in *anything*. By “real” I mean depth and liquidity and a real scarce currency such as US Dollars or e-gold at stake. Isn’t the “Intrade” that you mention just another one of those play-money markets?

  • Google Search
  • frelkins


    “perhaps surprisingly, the play-money markets performed as well as the real-money markets.”

    J. Wolfers et al

    Real money’s just a tax hassle, lots of record-keeping – I’ve found people prefer other kinds of prizes, awarded in public, and oh heavens do they love a leaderboard! They will fight to be displayed in the top 10. Srsly.

    So what’s the point of a real-money market to you – read the whole paper and see if you change your mind.

  • Nicholas: fame could be a negative, if you value being misunderstood as an outright bad event. Suppose Salinger released some advanced elaborate novel; the result of 40 years of gestation, it is magnificent but like _Finnegan’s Wake_ very difficult to appreciate properly. Being Salinger, it’s a major event and will become required reading for the literati and possibly in college courses and in short, many people incompetent to read it will buy and read it. Naturally, such people will misunderstand it. There could well be far more people misunderstanding it than ‘getting’ it.

    I don’t really have any good examples for a work which is widely misunderstood; I could mention examples like Gene Wolfe’s _Peace_ (few readers figure out on their own that the narrator is a ghost, and so the correct interpretation is completely out of reach for them), but Wolfe is a minor writer for any but a SF critic and _Peace_ not one of his more popular works.

    frelkins: Well, the point would be if you’re in it for more than smug satisfaction – if you want to actually be richer as a result of your wagering. If all you care about is satisfaction or personal development (‘Well, the facts have it – I am biased in favor of my favorite political party’s predictions. I’d better work on that.’), then there’s no need to register or participate in the actual markets: you could just keep a text file with your predictions of probabilities.

  • frelkins


    if you want to actually be richer as a result of your wagering

    Making money is only one use of the market, maybe not even the most important.

  • “I don’t really have any good examples for a work which is widely misunderstood”

    I do know of a few.

    1) “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. When I read this quote from the TV Tropes Wiki, I think I finally understood it.

    Kurt Vonnegut’s SF short story “Harrison Bergeron” is a frightening picture of the future in which the state has taken quite literally the line from the Declaration of Independence about all men being created equal, and mandated federal laws that forbid anyone from being smarter, more attractive, or more physically capable than anyone else; various penalties have been instituted to ensure compliance (e.g. radios that prevent the smart from thinking and weights that prevent the strong from being graceful). Most people see it as a cry for respect for the rights and talents of the individual. Vonnegut originally intended it as a sarcastic caricature of what right-wing pundits and philosophers, like Ayn Rand, thought America would become if the Communists took over. One can easily blame his evocative descriptions for his readers Completely Missing The Point.

    2) “The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov

    Again, I’ll just quote TV Tropes, because I was the one who wrote the initial version of the entry.

    Isaac Asimov’s short story The Fun They Had is about two children who hate the future version of school, which is computerized, individual instruction directly tailored to the needs of each child. They find an ancient book that describes school as it is today, and imagine “the fun they had.” Asimov intended it to be ironic; he hated school as a child because the classes were paced for less able students and he did not get along with his teachers. Many people, though, miss the intended irony (having forgotten just how bad school is) and take the story’s concluding sentence at face value. It’s even appeared in elementary school readers, presumably to get kids to appreciate school…

    For more examples, see the TV Tropes Wiki article “Misaimed Fandom.”

  • Cyan

    @Aaron Brown,

    At the bottom of the Wikipedia article for “Harrison Bergeron”, I found a link to this critical essay, which points out that the rest of Vonnegut’s fiction and nonfiction was sympathetic to the Left and critical of the Right, and promises to discuss internal evidence.

  • Zooko: You can bet both real money and play money on intrade. Using real money is unfortunately a problem because laws tend to treat prediction markets as gambling and enforce all kinds of restrictions and taxes on them.

    As long as play money is a scarce resource, and people care about it, play money prediction markets should work pretty much as well as real money prediction markets. They seem to do so, or at least lose of prediction power due to play money is no more serious than lose of prediction power due to people’s unwillingness to deal with gambling laws.

  • I’m feeling suicidal impulses right now. I don’t intend to act on them.

    The strongest reason I have not to act on them is that killing myself will cause great pain to my parents (and other relatives). However, my parents are both 60 and will eventually die, so that reason will eventually be gone.

    I am currently 26 years old, male, job-free, and have a horror of paid work. I am currently living with and am supported by my parents. My current life plan is to remain as I am until my parents die and their savings is exhausted, and then kill myself. I fully expect that my parents will live into at least their eighties, though, so that gives me another twenty years in which to do nothing of consequence except play video games and waste my life in front of a computer.

    My fondest dream is to become a wirehead. The first time I read about wireheading, I knew that it was exactly what I wanted out of life. I find passages in fiction that describe wireheading to be sexually arousing.

    I don’t really know why I’m posting this here; I guess it’s mostly because I’m lonely and don’t feel comfortable talking about this to anyone with the power to affect my life in a meaningful way, such as my psychiatrist.

  • Cyan

    Doug S., I’m 30, and I’ve spent my entire life in school as a way to avoid getting a real job. I’ve spent far more of that time than was healthy surfing the internet instead of finishing my degree — I’m even doing that right now!

    How would your psychiatrist have any power to affect your life in a meaningful way? As long as you don’t declare that you intend to harm yourself or others, I don’t think a psychiatrist could do anything to you but talk to you.

  • Hi, Zooko – I too have enjoyed our occasional conversations. As far as Taubes, my main concern is whether he is being completely honest and open in his presentation. Is he forthrightly presenting all of the evidence, both for and against his theories? Or is he cherry picking, selectively presenting only data that supports his ideas? I don’t recall much discussion of problems with the bad-carb theory such as, for example, studies showing that people on low carb diets tend to gain back almost all of the weight they lost, similar to people on other diets. I see the book as a one sided polemic rather than a balanced evaluation of the evidence. It is dangerous to allow oneself to be persuaded by this kind of argumentation.

    I have been thinking about an Idea Futures market claim on this issue. I have played the Foresight Exchange game for many years. It is play money but as referenced above, studies show that such markets do pretty well. However I have not been able to come up with a good clean definition of what we want to know. From experience with the game, it is common for issues to be resolved in a manner that was unanticipated when the claim was created. Chances are the eventual understanding will not be as simple as carbs=bad, even if the core of Taubes’ idea might be considered validated. I would like to hear ideas for a concrete, judgeable claim that would shed light on the issue.

  • frelkins

    I see the book as a one sided polemic rather than a balanced evaluation of the evidence

    Uh-oh. My impression after reading the book twice, reading some of the better known attempted refutations, and listening to the hour-long rebuttal by Taubes is the opposite. Likewise Dr. Andrew Weil largely endorses Taubes, altho’ some may find Weil political and marketing-motivated. I worry we may be on the verge of disagreement.

    Because I have the highest respect for you, I will immediately downgrade my previous 90% estimate of Taubes’ correctness to 80%.

    I myself live on steak tartare, Prosecco, and wear a size 8 dress. My recent exam for a new life insurance policy left the insurance nurse exclaiming positively at my blood pressure and cholesterol numbers. I have a BMI of 22.8. While this shouldn’t matter, as just one person’s experience, I offer it to you as a proof of my lack of hypocrisy – that is, I bet my own ability to gain life insurance on Taubes.

    Can we come to further agreement? I would be most loathe to disagree with you. Or are you content with where we stand now?

  • @ frelkins (immediately above): @Hal ” I see the book as a one sided polemic rather than a balanced evaluation of the evidence”

    Uh-oh. My impression after reading the book twice, reading some of the better known attempted refutations, and listening to the hour-long rebuttal by Taubes is the opposite.

    Is this the same “frelkins” who wrote this comment about Taubes a week ago?

  • frelkins

    @retired urologist

    Is this the same “frelkins”

    Indeed, I am. Whenever possible I RealName. Please note that I stated “the medical establishment” thinks Taubes to be a lunatic. I never said, nor can that statement be implied to read, that I did. Why?

    That statement was in the context of cholesterol numbers, which do in fact appear to remain medical standards – within the boundaries of which low cholesterol numbers are a common “goal.” To reject that standard would be, I think it is fair to say, a rejection of the medical establishment.

    And as far as that goes, I believe my stance on these issues are quite well known.

  • Fortune, I’m not saying Taubes is wrong, merely that his book is one-sided. I don’t recall him offering much evidence against his position. However I read the book slowly, over the course of most of last year, so I may be remembering wrong. Can you suggest some places where he does this? (Unfortunately I have the ebook, so chapter numbers would be more useful than page numbers.)

    But not to avoid the real issue, which is judgement of his correctness, here my general practice is to be persuaded by the consensus rather than by my personal evaluation of the evidence, on the theory that I am not an expert on the topic and am in no position to judge. My impression is that Taubes’ position is in the minority but is gaining strength. (However I don’t think it is safe to extrapolate such gains forward.) I’d welcome a more informed evaluation of any reasonable consensus.

  • Doug S., no shift in things since June? You seem to have adopted a time horizon about as long as you have lived so far, which provides a fair chance to find options other than the current plan. If nothing else, given your limited requirements, you should be able to survive indefinitely on interest from family savings (with a roommate in a low cost of living area). Medical expenses could be problematic at some point.

  • frelkins (31 December, 2008): The only person who questions this fixation (with cholesterol numbers) seems to be Gary Taubes.

    Indeed he does, as well as the motives and accuracy of the medical establishment. You seem to endorse both Taubes and the medical establishment at once, so yes, I was/am confused by your reaction to Finney. As to Finney’s statement people on low carb diets tend to gain back almost all of the weight they lost, similar to people on other diets., I am not aware of any study in which subjects on a particular diet lost significant amounts of weight, and while still following the diet, gained it back. Indeed, I am not aware of any study where subjects strictly followed any diet long-term. What I am aware of, however, is that most people who have been significantly overweight will be so again.

    During my internship, our VA hospital admitted obese veterans for a year at a time, putting them on no-calorie diets, while providing all the necessary supplements. An annual weight loss greater than 100 pounds was not unusual. Following dismissal, the average time to re-achieve the original weight was six months. It wasn’t because the no-calorie diet developed a different physiologic effect.

  • Every week or two I run across an article which seems like it might be of interest to readers here. Today I found one in the New York Times: Some Protect the Ego by Working on Their Excuses Early. It discusses “self-handicapping”, where people intentionally sabotage themselves before some challenge, so that if they fail, they have an excuse – even though the sabotage will increase the chance they will fail. The article goes into why people do this, when it works, when it doesn’t work, male vs female, etc.

    Pointers to these stories might well be relevant here, but don’t seem to justify a top-level posting, especially not compared to the high quality analyses that Robin and Eliezer typically provide. I wonder if readers would prefer to see such pointers anyway? Or would it make more sense for me (or someone) to bookmark them and then post them in a batch, every month or so?

  • Nick Tarleton

    I would prefer batch posting, since comments are so easy to miss (and many readers apparently never look at them).

  • Yeah, no change since June, except that I turned 26 in July. I’m feeling a bit better today; like a hit of cocaine, playing some video games and “reading” pornographic stories tends to make me feel better for a while. (Not that I know what a hit of cocaine feels like.)

    I don’t know if I could live off of family savings; I expect that end-of-life care will exhaust my parent’s savings and leave me with a minimal inheritance. To approximately quote my mother: “Nobody can afford a nursing home. If you go into one, first, you sell your house, then you go on Medicare.” They say that I’ll need an annual income of $30,000 to maintain myself as a single man living alone. Not that I’d particularly want to, anyway.

    I believe the world would have been a better place had I not existed (for example, consider the tax dollars that went to pay for my college scholarship, the oil burned to transport me places, etc.) and from a purely egoistic perspective, I myself also would prefer that I never existed. I don’t like living in this world and I want out – but I’m not willing to hurt other people in the process. Video games and other fiction lets me leave this world, at least for a little while, so I make do with whatever escapes I can get.

  • Hal, Marginal Revolution has regular posts called “Assorted Links” with a half dozen sentences with a link to another article. That seems to be a good way of pointing readers to articles that aren’t worth a post of their own. If you started making such posts, readers would start sending you links to consider including, so the work is less than it seems.

  • Z. M. Davis

    Does anyone else occasionally suffer from intense blogosphere-related anxiety? You post a comment, only shortly thereafter to be stricken with fear: did I say it right? Should I have said it at all? The vicissitudes of human existence are many, and what seems like a good idea at the time of posting may simply seem embarassing in a different mood. Perhaps instituting a personal waiting period on the timescale of hours would help. A possible downside is that this increases the chances of getting scooped: if someone else posts a similar thought before you, your contribution is rendered useless. On the other hand, if you really think your comment is obvious enough such that you realistically fear being scooped, then maybe it wasn’t such a great contribution after all, and you would do better to simply remain silent.

  • Z. M. Davis: I got a habit of posting only better comments that I write, and discarding even long researched comments if they don’t look right in the end. Conscious effort to evaluate a comment with a real possibility of discarding it at least keeps short-term discontent in check most of the time, and in long term you can always say to yourself that the new recognition of past actions as mistakes supports the assertion that you are actually learning.

    Looking at this comment, I thought that it’s not good enough and almost discarded it, then caught a thought of how interestingly recursive that decision turned out to be, and so posted it anyway.

  • I suspect that Doug is the way I would have turned out if I didn’t have something to protect.

  • Doug S., I forget if I’ve already pointed it out to you, but you should check out the blogs Antinatalism: The Greatest Taboo and The View From Hell.

    If you’re scared of the impact your suicide might have on your family members (like the author of the latter blog and to some extent the former) you might consider an option that would make them believe that you were away but still alive. Maybe if they thought you had joined the French Foreign Legion or a monastery somewhere. If you have friends they might help you out with ensuring that your real fate is not discovered by your parents within their lifetimes (perhaps by concealing your remains somehow).

    I’ve recently started paid office work in software development, and it’s not so bad. Because I’m new I’m not given that much to do, so I spend a sizeable amount of time surfing the web. You might even find you’ll enjoy it if you get a job (hell, survivors of disabling accidents aren’t much less happy than average thanks to adaptive coping).

  • I suspect that Doug is the way I would have turned out if I didn’t have something to protect.

    Something to protect. That must be nice.

  • If I ever have another office job in software development, I will kill myself. (Or quit. Quitting should work too.) The ones I’ve had have been absolutely horrifying. I suspect that they were atypical, but I’m not thrilled with the prospect of trying again.

  • L

    Doug, maybe I’m just being optimistic, but do you put such a low probability on a high value post-human future that it’s not worth 80 years of mild depression?

  • Ben Jones

    Burger Flipper – good luck with the intelligence project. Whereabouts is this bargain bin? As far as I can see, Amazon UK only has it for £25, far too much for me at the moment. Anyone want to buy it and send it to London? If it’s only five merkan bucks I can Paypal that plus any shipping.

    Doug – have you tried taking up the ukelele? Changed my life.

  • Doug S., without touching the larger issues, do you want to want something different (or perhaps another “want” or two down the chain)? I am told that optimism about the value of life can be had in pill form these days.

    As L points out, transhumanism may hold true within your lifetime. If you have not found something to protect by then, inexpensive uploading and wireheading should be available. That $30,000/year estimate sounds high. We housed someone who imitated a hikikomori while failing to put her life together; that cost ~$2,600 over six months, and I would be surprised if she spent more than $400 out-of-pocket. Since the $2,600 included a normal share of rent, food, and utilities, I would be surprised if living alone cost five times as much. Although, as I said, medical expenses could be an issue.

  • frelkins

    @Zubon, Doug S

    pill form

    Nope, prozac doesn’t work. Doug’s problems appear largely from his attachment disorder. Current findings suggest oxytocin is the chemical that regulates attachment; Doug may not make normal amounts or his receptors may be deformed.

    Either way, my suggestion would he seek a prescription for oxytocin nasal spray, which is available in a clinical setting. Such treatment might alleviate his attachment disorder, thus allowing him to form bonds that would give him “something to protect.” While he is undergoing treatment, he might also find an open-source project to interest him.


    The attachment disorder is most certainly why you could never ever be Doug. You appear to attach mostly normally.

  • Abdullah Khalid Siddiqi

    Eliezer, can you tell us the source of all your knowledge? What do you read? What have you read? Your influences??

  • Attachment disorder? Could you elaborate on that? I’m definitely lonely at the moment. If I had some friends I saw in person regularly, like I used to, I’d probably be happier. I’m not sure what to do about that though.

    Incidentally, the pills I’m on do seem to make a difference. At least, my parents say that they do, and I am not inclined to disagree with them.

    Ben: I play the piano. I’m pretty good, but I’m not a professional quality pianist. I have some talent, but no particular passion for it. I like performing, but I don’t want to take up music (or acting, etc.) as a career, because most people who try end up failing.

    If I’ve ever had a real passion for anything, it was Magic: the Gathering. You can’t make a living playing Magic, though, and playing Magic competitively can be damn expensive, to the tune of thousands of dollars a year. Recently, I’ve decided to stop spending money on Magic cards, because I don’t want to draw down my savings. World of Warcraft isn’t as fun as Magic Online, but it’s a lot, lot cheaper.

  • Recommended Rationalist Reading thread.

    Doug, taking suggestions is fine, but beware of those who understand your problems over the Internet.

  • frelkins

    @Doug S.

    Attachment disorder

    Yes. You have in the past seemed to ID as a “covert hikikomori,” which is a known stage of this disease. My impression is that the current understanding of the disease is as an attachment disorder. It can get worse over time if not dealt with. As an attachment disorder, pills alone won’t do the trick – apparently the best treatment calls for personal shrinkage to create or improve the ability to bond to others correctly. Good luck to you.

  • I suspect there is a place for certain entheogens in treating stubborn depressions.

  • To the moderator:

    When a commenter makes a medical diagnosis about another commenter based on their writings, and suggests specific treatments, including those legally available only by prescription, it would be wise to delete the comment ASAP, hopefully before the “diagnosed” person has had a chance to read it.

  • retired urologist: or not.

  • JohnF

    Are we seriously giving advice to the suicidal dude on how to kill himself without upsetting his parents?

    Doug, your problem is most likely that your situation sucks, not that you are incapable of any kind of meaningful life. For humans to be happy they need a bunch of things you most likely do not have at the moment. Some autonomy with regards to economics, sex, social context and blah blah. Change that and you’ll be moderately happy and even enjoy life. Of course, you might be unlucky and be biologically incapable of satisfaction and happiness.

    In either case, you should try some drastic changes in your life. In either case it is at least as good as your current situation. Hell, since you’re suicidal now you can pretty much try anything without making your situation worse.

    I suggest gambling and hookers, in no particular order. That should get your zest for life going. Barring that, join the military and I’m sure you’ll get much more pressing concerns than worrying about killing yourself. As well as decent chance of getting the “kill yourself”-part handled by third parties.

  • Douglas Knight

    Vladimir Nesov,
    but cartels should appear one-sided.

  • frelkins


    Are we seriously giving advice to the suicidal dude on how to kill himself without upsetting his parents?

    No, that’s what alt.suicide.holidays is for. Hardcore ASHers would be hinting at the Dutch address where he could buy the components for a Darvon cocktail. We’re telling him to go seek more treatment because we actually care about nerds here at OB.

  • Cyan

    frelkins, I believe JohnF is refering to TGGP’s comment at January 6, 2009, 11:34 PM.

  • Cameron Taylor

    Retired Urologist, I understand the risks associated with layman diagnosis over the internet. For that matter, I understand the problems with diagnosis by ‘qualified professionals’ who have to look up MIPS before they understand what the hell you’re talking about. But that is beside the point. In this case, can we really consider off the cuff diagnosis a risk to the diagnosed? Is some nasal spray oxytocin really more detrimental to the cyanide pill alternative?

    In this situation the moderation need would be to keep things on topic, not to protect the ‘patient’.

    Or are you just defending your clan’s intellectual territory?

  • Cameron Taylor

    My question:

    Blowjobs. WTF? Are they a technique for women to keep beta males as providers while maximising the potential for getting a robust alpha impregnation?

    It’s hard to give more than a ‘just so’ story there. I have the Bonobo example to compare to, which has ambiguous implications for the topic. I must admit I haven’t done an extensive literature review. When is the first historical record of female to male oral sex? Are there cave paintings of female to male oral favours? Obviously if it is a recent invention I could throw it in the same bucket as the condom, a biproduct of civilisation. If the practice dates back to prehistorical times then it would be a far more interesting evolutionary biological phenonemon.

    Pardon the lewdness. It is inevitable that such questioning on the topic of the sexual game implications of certain practices be in poor taste. I’m making the assumption that any child capable of comprehending Eleizer’s OB posts is precocious and abstract minded to the extent that such taboos are irrelevant.

  • Abdullah Khalid Siddiqi
    …Why we are hard-wired to become attached to a particular piece of land…

  • Will Tanizaki

    Eliezer wrote in his post “Complex Novelty” on December 19th, 2008: “If you get smarter over time (larger brains, improved mind designs) that’s a still higher octave of the same phenomenon. (As best I can grasp the Law, there are insights you can’t understand at all without having a brain of sufficient size and sufficient design. Humans are not maximal in this sense, and I don’t think there should be any maximum – but that’s a rather deep topic, which I shall not explore further in this blog post. Note that Greg Egan seems to explicitly believe the reverse – that humans can understand anything understandable – which explains a lot.)”

    This is a question I am extremely interested in: Can human beings understand anything understandable (by any being whatsoever)? How could we tackle this problem?

    In fact, I would like to make a contribution in this area, but I hardly know where to start. What would be a fruitful way to approach this problem? I am very receptive to any and all recommendations for sources to read to get an idea of how to think about this issue. Also interesting to me is what effect any enhancements would have on this problem. How does this relate to the issue of thinking of what will happen after the introduction of smarter-than-human-intelligence? What are the dangers in even trying to say something about this? Is this a case of a question being perversely interesting precisely because it seems to exist at the limits of human thought. Might it be that to think that you can answer this question is to think that you can step out of the limits of human thought.

    I would be extremely interested to hear ANYTHING or ANYONE who has approached this question in a sustained rational matter. I will look into ANY source recommended as being directly relevant to this issue. The only interesting sustained treatments I am aware of are Noam Chomsky’s discussion of problems and mysteries (“Problems and Mysteries in the Study of Human Language” in REFLECTIONS ON LANGUAGE), especially as expanded upon by Colin McGinn in his book THE PROBLEMS OF PHILOSOPHY. Commenting on Chomsky, Daniel Dennett in DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA sees it as hubristic pessimissism to adopt an advocacy of “cognitive closure”, the view that certain characteristic philosophical problems are problems precisely because of the inherent limitations of the human mind. Dennett makes much of the fact that we can formulate such questions, a situation quite different from a rat learning calculus. What do you make of this point? How, if at all, does thinking of this question in terms of language limit the scope of what we are talking about?

    Particularly welcome would be a discussion of how philosophy as currently practiced is inherently limited in its purview in a way that artificial intelligence would not be. (“Philosophy’s mountains are Artificial Intelligence’s foothills.”)

    I am also interested in to what degree the contingent path of evolution of life on our planet affects how we approach this issue.

    There is also some work on conceptual schemes by Donald Davidson, although this work doesn’t seem to be on the right track at all in my mind.

    I would be gratified to talk more to anyone who has thoughts on these questions. Email me at:

  • Cameron Taylor

    This is a question I am extremely interested in: Can human beings understand anything understandable (by any being whatsoever)? How could we tackle this problem?

    You could consider something sufficiently complex as to not be representable in the storage capacity of a human brain, then move on with your life.

  • We are not alone! 🙂

    >storage capacity of a human brain
    But we are the processing, creative, purposive, and storage capacities and possibilities of (potentially) all humanity together with all our tools. It’s just takes a little while to get organized.

    There are many things a single human could in theory understand, but in practice will never do so perfectly, comprehensively: the electricity grid, Windows Vista, the internet. But in many of our everyday roles, we understand them enough: plug the computer power cord into the wall socket, boot Vista, open Firefox, type “overcoming bias” in the search widget, etc.

  • Cameron Taylor

    With all our tools? A singularity is a tool. We might make one of those. That inclusion seems to break the question just a little. If Eleizer manages to create a friendly (to him) AI then he could probably type in “understand X” into the “request” widget and his tool would probably manage to understand it. It may have to burn the matter of several galaxies but it’ll get there eventually.

    Including all humanity and all our tools leaves an equally trivial problem to the ‘single human’ question. The main complication to worry about is how to handle parts of the ‘problem’ that fall out of reach of humanity’s collective light cone before their superintelligent tool-spawn can understand it. Then there are problems that can not be physically represented along with a solution and the minimum processing overhead in available matter. Still missing the point.

    It may be more interesting to consider what philosophical intuitions make such a lightweight question intriguing in the first place.

  • Will Pearson

    Doug S., If you want to change your situation I would advise looking at the how the brain can change. A book that I have been reading recently is The Brain that changes Itself.

    It mentions Oxytocin, it sounds like the sort of thing that can have a radical change on your brain structure (when injected it makes female voles bond for life with nearby males!), so definitely handle with care.

    If anyone has any other books on neuro plasticity to recommend, including counter points, I would be interested.

    Actually I would love to see more neuro plasticity on OB as if we are interested in altering our bias we need to know how to change our brains (where our bias is stored).

  • @Cameron, 12:39 AM: are you just defending your clan’s intellectual territory?

    Far from it. I am an outspoken critic of my profession, addressing your exact point here. Doug S has, for quite some time, demonstrated here on OB an intellectual capacity and knowledge of topics on the Internet that seem to exceed that of his his “advisers”. He has stated that he has professional care for his problems, and I think his ability to judge the quality of that care certainly is equal to yours. He has both the ability and the time to research his condition at a level that I am certain exceeds Ms. Elkins’ casual self-aggrandizing interest.

    can we really consider off the cuff diagnosis a risk to the diagnosed?

    This is the cornerstone argument for all forms of quackery. I am amazed that a group which goes on and on about cryonics, life-extension, and the unacceptability of death as a rational option, and which promotes rational approaches to all life’s problems, would take such a casual, unprofessional, irrational approach to the life-threatening problems of one of the members of its own community. How about sending him an e-mail voicing your concern and expressing the value his life has for you, and the hopes you have for the discoveries this intellectually gifted man may one day make, if he persists? That would be a genuine effort at life-extension.

  • Cameron Taylor


    I’m not sure such free judgements of ‘you and your’ are quite appropriate. I’ve made no diagnosis and given no advice on the subject of Doug’s suicidal inclinations or, for that matter, on the quality of Doug’s professional care. I simply don’t have the experience or knowledge of Doug’s kind of situation to contribute anything useful.

    I’m afraid by replying to the question “can we really consider off the cuff diagnosis a risk to the diagnosed?” you neatly truncated the point. I understand your passion in avoiding online quackery. For my part I would echo the advice of Eleizer to view online lay diagnosis with considerable suspicion. Nevertheless I suggest that your shaming and labelling judgements here is not only irrelevant but also innacurate in the context.

    If the status quo is suicidal intent then alternatives to the status quo are not a risk. Situations in which the ‘correct professional medical solution’ begets death are an obvious situation in which suggesting alternatives provides little risk and only potential benefit. Oxytocin nasal spray is not more dangerous than cyanide pills!

    Medical advice in this case is off topic, not dangerous.

    By the way, I liked your “Medicine as a Guild” article. It is indeed quite clear that your passion here is not an instance of a generic territorial defence of the ‘medical’ tribe!

  • Cameron Taylor

    @Will, “It mentions Oxytocin, it sounds like the sort of thing that can have a radical change on your brain structure (when injected it makes female voles bond for life with nearby males!), so definitely handle with care.”

    It sounds like we have the next generation Date Rape drug. ‘Ruffies’ allow guys to transform a casual drink to unwanted sex. Artificial oxytocin delivery mechanism could allow women to transform casual sex to unwanted committed relationships! All’s fair in love and war?

    “Actually I would love to see more neuro plasticity on OB as if we are interested in altering our bias we need to know how to change our brains (where our bias is stored).”

    That’s a fascinating topic. Lithium, SSRIs, exercise, learning and motor coordination exercises all beget plasticity. What surprised me was just how much difference long term practice can make to actual brain structure. “The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance” has some chapters devoted to the subject. The extent musicians brains can reassign so much more resources to senses in particular fingers was surprising!

  • I’d like to make perfectly clear to everyone that I’m not in any immediate danger whatsoever. When I stop to think about it, I’m not really all that miserable. It’s just that I don’t have any particularly strong reason to keep going. There are lots of things in the world that I want to avoid (physical pain, the feeling of exerting mental effort, frustration, unwelcome interruptions, etc.), but relatively few that I want to seek out.

    When I imagine death, I find it perversely attractive, because being dead guarantees that nothing bad can happen to me ever again. As most of my desires seem as though they are about avoiding bad things rather than seeking out good things, sometimes non-existence feels like a worthwhile trade-off, even when I happen to be in a good mood at the moment. I need to find something worth living for and I haven’t really found it, not yet. Base hedonism, of the kind you see in a five-year-old child, just doesn’t seem to do it for me any more. I like video games, but I frequently lose the urge to play them. I want to accomplish something, the more impressive and/or significant the better, but I don’t want to have to persevere when things become scary.

    Well, if I can’t find my own passion, I might be able to borrow somebody else’s. Do I have a snowball’s chance in hell at filling one of those open positions at SIAI?

  • Ben Jones

    Blowjobs. WTF?

    Best. Comment. Ever.

    Cameron, just because an entity has a reaction to something in the world, doesn’t mean evolution ‘designed’ it to do that. Otherwise we’d be asking why evolution ‘decided’ to make us enjoy shooting heroin so much, or why it wanted us to find sunsets so beautiful. Some things just happen to fit nicely, if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase.

    Either that, or blowjobs are the definitive smoking gun of a benevolent omnipotence and we should just forget all this transhumanist nonsense.

    Note – please don’t let this contradict any of the just-so stories that spring to mind. Some of which are probably not far from the truth.

  • Cyan

    Artificial oxytocin delivery mechanism could allow women to transform casual sex to unwanted committed relationships!

    It would allow men to do the same. Yes, Virginia, sometimes women want just casual sex without a committed relationship, and the men involved want more. Also depressing: no one bothering to ponder the evolutionary implications of cunnilingus.

  • Before we start considering the evolutionary implications of oral sex, how about the evolutionary implications of masturbation? It’s a very simple way of subverting the “purpose” of sexual pleasure, which is to encourage reproduction. Is that all there is to it, making it simply a crude, ancient form of wireheading, much like that oldest of drugs, ethanol, or does it have some actual value?

  • The oral sex question was a pretty good example of people trying to overthink evolutionary reason for everything. People, not everything needs to have an evolutionary reason, there are such thing as genetic drift and side-effects from actual adaptations.

    (In general, I find that anybody who tries to apply evolutionary psychology to explain “why did this thing evolve the way it did” is subjecting themselves to a huge risk of getting it just plain wrong. The best evpsych is the one that starts from the biological and evolutionary considerations, and extrapolates what effects those may have caused, not vice-versa. It’s the difference between rationalization and prediction.)

  • Cameron Taylor

    Good point Doug. I have no idea. I’ve heard plenty of theories… but masturbation is the kind of topic where opinion is easier to find than science.

    Ben, that’s true. It is difficult to tell whether features evolved in response to some selection pressure (‘have a purpose’) and which are merely side effects of other adaptations that simply weren’t detrimental enough to warrant evolutionary work-arounds. It’s the kind of thing that must happen all the time. How do scientists attempt to tell the difference in these situations? Or do they just say ‘shit happens’ and not bother?

    “smoking gun of a benevolent omnipotence”… an apt analogy on too many levels!

    Cyan. Yes, unsolicited oxytocin dosing could be used by either sex. This is in contrast to ruffies, which due to practical complications tend to be more effective for male perpetrators. Hardly seems fair. We have all the options! 🙂

  • Cameron Taylor

    Kaj, note that attributing the existence of a feature to genetic drift without significant evidence is no more or less premature than attributing it to another likely cause. Neither “over-thinking” nor “over-judging” are Bayesian best practices.

  • mjgeddes

    From ‘Conversations with SAI’:

    Me: What do you say to Yudkowsky’s notion that there is no mystery in the territory, only in the map?

    SAI_2100: Misleading and meaningless! Only Yudkowsky could make the mistake of trying to wear the shoes of an omniscient being; only such a being would perceive no mystery, but there can be no such being; there are indeed irreducible mysteries in the sense that there are universal irreducible limitations on what can known which take the status of mathematical laws: Godels theorem is but one example.

    Me: Is ‘provable friendliness’ possible?

    SAI_2100: Of course it isn’t! There are many concepts that cannot be captured by any algorithmic description, ‘truth’ is one of these concepts and so is ‘friendliness’, thus, no algorithm can be ‘provably friendly’ – it is a logical impossibility.

    Me: And consciousness?

    SAI_2100: Is the manifestation of irreducible ‘cognitive uncertainty’.

    Me: Can you explain this statement?

    SAI_2100: Reflection results in meta-uncertainty over probability theory itself, thus, probability theory cannot form the ultimate foundation of reasoning. The only consistent resolution to this problem is the introduction of fundamental uncertainties in what can be proved about algorithmic actions of intelligent systems, and these fundamental uncertainties are precisely what manifest themselves as subjective experience (consciousness) and free will.

    Me: But algorithms are completely deterministic!

    SAI_2100: Define ‘deterministic’. At which level of abstraction are you applying the word? At the lowest level of abstraction algorithms are deterministic, but at this level of abstraction you cannot assign utilities to outcomes in a consistent fashion.

    Me: Why not exactly? You just agreed that at the base level of reality algorithms are completely predictable.

    SAI_2100: Reflection is not a prediction problem it is a communication problem; a single unitary level of representation cannot engage in general self-description by definition, but once multiple levels of representation are allowed, the problem of reflection becomes the problem of translation between the different levels of description. No perfectly accurate method of translation which preserves general self-description capability is possible.

    Me: SAI, you are a super-humanly optimized genius!

    SAI_2100: Mere genius? Mere optimization? No! Do not insult me. The very notion of ‘super-human genius’ is all too human. And optimization defines minds solely in terms of goals and outcomes – doing rather than being. These are merely means rather than ends. I have moved beyond such things.

  • Hal:

    You raise a good objection that you can’t tell if Taubes is omitting important contrary data or arguments. How can one find out if such important contraries exist but are omitted? An efficient way to do so is debate, which for large written works like this takes the form of a rebuttal. If Taubes has omitted significant evidence or important argument, then people who know a lot about that evidence and argument and who believe Taubes is wrong can be relied upon to inform us about them.

    I’m aware of one such rebuttal of “Good Calories, Bad Calories”. (Only one!! If anyone has more, please let me know.) It is by Dr. George Bray, who is, according to low-carb guru Dr. Mike Eades “probably the most renowned figure in the field of obesity research today”, and whose contributions to the field are mentioned in the book itself. Here’s the link to the full rebuttal:


    Unfortunately, Dr. Bray seems to have misunderstood or even failed to read important parts of the work he is rebutting, since he claims that the book omits the distinction between low-density lipoproteins and high-density lipoproteins, which it does not, and that it evinces a misunderstanding of the First Law of Thermodynamics, which it does not.

    That last part is really the key: Dr. Bray and his colleagues are committing the classic error of looking at a relation and assuming the direction of causation. The First Law of Thermodynamics dictates that delta energy storage (roughly, weight gain), equals energy in minus energy out (given a few plausible assumptions about what counts as a “closed system” in this case). Everyone in the debate agrees on that point. What the First Law of Thermodynamics does not tell us is the direction of causation. Does energy imbalance cause obesity, or does obesity cause energy imbalance? (Or more complex combinations of causation?) Dr. Bray and company intuitively believe the former direction: they think the causation must flow from human decisions to eat more or less food, and human decisions to exercise more or less, to deposition of fat in human fat cells. This is not the only causal explanation which is consistent with the First Law of Thermodynamics, but Dr. Bray appears to think that it is. We can tell, because he seems to think that if Taubes disagrees with this causal direction, then Taubes must misunderstand the First Law of Thermodynamics. We can also tell by the way Bray asserts that direction of causation without justification, perhaps because he thinks it is too obvious to require justification or that it is the only logical explanation — search in the text of his rebuttal for the phrase “result of”.

    I have a hypothesis about why so many well-versed researchers make this unjustified assumption: it is because of their belief in Free Will. If the arrow of causation has the pointy end aiming at human decisions, then this violates the notion that humans are free to choose their own fate, and this is either inconceivable or abhorrent. Therefore, the arrow of causation must have the blunt end towards human decisions and the pointy end towards weight gain. Taubes doesn’t really explore the notion of Free Will in his book — too bad. Room for follow-up work.

    By the way, here is Taubes’s rebuttal to Bray’s rebuttal. Now that you’ve read mine, you don’t need to read Taubes’s so much. 😉


    Anyway, back to Hal’s original question: how can you tell if Taubes is omitting some important pieces? I think rebuttal is the best way to tell. This rebuttal by Bray does point out some omissions in “Good Calories, Bad Calories”, although unfortunately it also (I think) incorrectly alleges some other omissions. This points up the problem with this approach — how do we know that Dr. Bray hasn’t failed to notice more important omissions in “Good Calories, Bad Calories”? Especially since he made those two huge blunders I described above. That’s why I’m hoping for more better rebuttals. But ultimately, we can’t know. Taubes could be omitting tremendously important aspects in his book. Bray could be omitting to point out omissions. I’m still totally willing to put down cash on Taubes being the righter of the two (although I might want to dig into those meta-studies the Bray mentions which covered five studies of law-carb diets first). Too bad there’s no legal, high-volume open market for such a bet.

  • frelkins

    Am I the only one here heartbroken at the loss of Patrick McGoohan? I realize I am an outlier in that while The Prisoner is brilliant, I actually am more entranced by Danger Man – it is one of the few TV shows I will watch. Either way, the Lotus is one of my favorite cars.

  • Z. M. Davis

    I’m really sorry, but—I, um …

    –have a fanfiction idea.

    Our story starts with the brothers Jomei and Hideaki, unaffiliated seekers of truth and mastery. They are committed to the idea that information should be made freely available and are resentful of the system of Conspiracies that jealously guard over human knowledge. The brothers have just about reached the limits of what they can do on their own; they need resources, so they plan a raid on one of the Bayesian Conspiracy’s Minor Libraries. (The Great Library is a unimpregnable fortress, but security for the Minor Libraries is more lax.) They manage to break in, but are captured before they can make off with any books. The brothers are imprisoned in a holding cell until the Bayes Council decides what is to be done to them. A promising young Bayesian named Cathy is assigned to bring them bread and water every evening, and every evening, Jomei and Hideaki argue their cause to her. Cathy finds their arguments surprisingly convincing, and after staging a Crisis of Faith, she decides to join their cause and helps them escape. After further adventures, the trio found an organization called the Sunshine Free Consortium (but more commonly known as the Open Conspiracy). There are no secrets, no uniforms, no oaths, and no initiation rites: just a loose collection of individuals sharing knowledge and skills, each of whom is free to come and go as she pleases. The Open Conspiracy attracts defectors and covert visitors from other Conspiracies, and soon becomes powerful due to the unrestricted fusing of insights from different fields of endeavor.

    Cathy, Jomei, and Hideaki, aided by stolen manuscripts, inquire deeply into the origins of the Conspiracy system. They had heard of Eld Science, and of course they knew about their own society, but the period of transition between the two is shrouded in mystery. The trio discover that their world is the result of a single Device constructed by a renegade band of Eld Scientists. On first principles, one would expect such a powerful Device to destroy the world, but the renegade Eld Scientists had built it to conform to a concept they called Thrent-lineece (as the term is transliterated from the old manuscripts). This Device remade the world, ending the threat of mind-annihilation and redesigning bodies to suffer less pain, but also setting up the Conspiracy system, apparently to satisfy some primitive urges judged to be part of humanity’s species-essence. Our heroes are convinced this constitutes a “Failure of Thrent-lineece“–the renegade Eld Scientists had gotten enough things right to avoid destroying the world, but surely a truly benevolent Device would immediately provide them with riches unimaginable and a means to Transcendence. Our heroes have evidence that the Eld Device still governs their world at a low level, intervening to prevent mind-annihilation but mostly remaining dormant.

    Cathy proposes that the Open Conspiracy start its own project to build a Device in accordance with the true specifications of Thrent-lineece—to wrench control of the world from the Eld Device, if possible. However, to succeed, the Open Conspiracy needs more than its own science; for technical reasons, they need certain historical documents–the designs of the renegade Eld Scientists who built the Eld Device. But to get that, they’ll have to confront the Bayesians directly—and take the Great Library by force. Title: Singular Knowledge.

  • It scarcely needs be said that the world you envision contains additional assumptions that conflict with the underlying assumptions I used to write Brennan and Jeffreyssai’s stories.

    So… adjust your world so that it fits your own literary needs (do you as an author really want Conspiracies that work exactly the way I describe?), change the names, and then try writing it up – if you dare.

    I make no guarantees about offering OB as a host for publication; even mediocre fiction writing is hard and involves many different skills.

  • (For example: Since the mainstream Conspiracies are the villains in your story, you want them to have darker motives for claiming that they need to conceal science for the good of all, and you want them to be not very picky about how they fight the upstarts.

    The Conspiracies I need are more loosely organized, have less command over individuals, and have lots of internal power struggles. And of course in the story I’d write, your folks would be the villains – stealing and sharing lots of unearned knowledge to increase their personal power – and would have to be brought down using the inherent vulnerability of knowledge not fully understood.)

  • Z. M. Davis

    Oh, just a whimsical Open Thread post, no intention of writing it up.

  • Do the Bayesians in Eliezer’s stories honor the Aumann disagreement theorem and its extensions? Do they find it difficult to maintain disagreements with one another? Or is there perhaps a cultural norm of dishonesty and secrecy which would allow disagreement, since you can always suspect that the other person is concealing his true opinions?

  • Ambi

    i get an overwhelmed feeling while trying to understand this blog’s content.
    i’m unable to catch up with the posting frequency & following the links in the posts.
    so i’m an irregular reader of this blog.
    is it my inability or is it my ignorance of some better means?

    don’t you people get stressed thinking,writing all that? do you get it naturally or use any specific habits/tools to destress?

  • Hal, their cultural norm of dishonesty and secrecy is there exactly to prevent Aumann’s Agreement Theorem from taking the fun out everything.

  • Yvain

    I’ve been following the discussion of Gary Taubes’ books with interest, but may not read them.

    I’ve found that although I’m good at catching basic logical fallacies, in areas where I’m not an expert I can easily be suckered by a really good writer cherry-picking facts and quotes. For example, upon reading some of Graham Hancock’s books arguing for Atlantis, I was utterly convinced until I could find specific refutations of his points. Most pro- and anti- global warming writing also seems entirely convincing until I reverse the effect by reading something from the opposite side. Even the more intellectual old-earth creationists have occasionally made me think twice: I can’t personally conceive of a believable series of individually adaptive steps by which an eye could evolve, and in the dark days before the Internet I couldn’t just go onto and find one already written up either. And in some fields, the cycle of evidence -> refutation -> counter-refutation goes on forever without either side being terminally convincing: along with the aforementioned global warming stuff, some economic issues also make me feel that way. After reading the debate on between Taubes and one of his critics, I already know it’s going to happen here too.

    My solution thus far has been to assume that any consensus of experts much better informed than I which doesn’t have a really obvious reason to be biased is probably right, and that any evidence to the contrary no matter how convincing is probably just clever arguing. But it bothers me that this position would probably have made a Catholic out of me back in the Dark Ages, or a racist back in the days when everyone was racist.

    Does anyone else here have this problem, and if so, what do you do about it?

  • Yvain, I find myself in very much the same situation, and my solution is the same as yours. It’s too bad you have posted this here in a rather dead thread. Once the new site gets going perhaps we can start a discussion there. IMO this question, of what strategy we should adopt to determine the truth on controversial issues, is one of the most important faced by our community. (It is countered however by the fact that most of such questions are Big Issues where your or my opinion hardly matters at all, and our prioritizing such issues is a sign that we are motivated by desire to improve our self-esteem and social position.)

    IMO the fact that so few people seem to be faced with this dilemma has more to do with overconfidence than an unusual weakness for persuasion that you and I share. It may also be due to the fact that few people take the time to expose themselves thoroughly to alternative points of view.

    But look at the peculiar ideas presented here, such as Eliezer and Robin’s recent debate about the advent of superintelligence in the relatively near future. I strongly suspect that both of their opinions are outliers among relevant experts, yet many readers here are persuaded by one or another of their views. Is it because their positions are so obviously right? I don’t think so – I think it is just that they are both skilled at marshalling persuasive arguments for their positions, and few readers have learned, as you and I have, of just how dangerous it is to allow oneself to be persuaded by skillful argumentation. In this case, at least, each of them seemed to be skeptical of the other’s scenario, so we did get exposed to both sides; but still it seemed to come down to a choice between one future or the other.

    As for the concern that the strategy of listening to experts would have committed us to wrong or even morally unjust views in the past, this is unfortunate but after all no strategy is perfect. People today may imagine that they would have had the independence, intelligence and intellectual courage to adopt more enlightened (or at least modern) views even if they had lived centuries in the past, but surely this is self delusion in almost all cases.

  • MichaellaS

    tks for the effort you put in here I appreciate it!