Monthly Archives: March 2008

Fantasy and Reality: Substitutes or Complements?

Eliezer’s post Saturday on if we would really like fantasy worlds raises in my mind this key question: are reality and fantasy complements or substitutes?  That is, does exposure to fiction tend to increase or decrease our ability to see reality as it is? 

The main substitutes argument is simple and obvious but still compelling:  the more we practice thinking about reality the better we see it, but attention to fiction diverts attention from reality, reducing our reality practice. 

The complement arguments are many and subtle:

  • The real alternative to thinking about fun fiction isn’t thinking about reality, it is unthinking fun. 
  • Fiction can frame the familiar in grand terms, making us care and think more about the familiar.
  • Fiction can teach us about rare but important events few actually see in reality.
  • Fiction can describe how familiar situations appear to many different parties. 
  • Fiction can suppress irrelevant detail and emphasize important essences, like a math model.
  • Fiction is a part of reality, so exposure to fiction teaches about that part.
  • (I’ll add more here as I hear more good suggestions.)
  • Identifying with characters important in their world lets us admit we are unimportant in ours.

Has anyone ever tried to test whether people who read more fiction see reality more clearly, controlling for other features?  I find it suspicious that many say, "yes, fiction substitutes for reality on average, but `good’ fiction is different" but offer no independent description of "good" we could use to test this claim. 

On the last argument above, that fiction lets us admit to being unimportant, I’ll admit that it fits with Eliezer and I being both relatively anti-fantasy and thinking ourselves unusually important.

Added: Many seem eager to point out that fiction need not always be a substitute for reality, but will anyone defend the view that it is on the whole a complement? 

(This last part seems less relevant than I originally thought:)

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Is Humanism A Religion-Substitute?

Followup toBind Yourself to Reality

For many years before the Wright Brothers, people dreamed of flying with magic potions.  There was nothing irrational about the raw desire to fly.  There was nothing tainted about the wish to look down on a cloud from above.  Only the "magic potions" part was irrational.

Suppose you were to put me into an fMRI scanner, and take a movie of my brain’s activity levels, while I watched a space shuttle launch.  (Wanting to visit space is not "realistic", but it is an essentially lawful dream – one that can be fulfilled in a lawful universe.)  The fMRI might – maybe, maybe not – resemble the fMRI of a devout Christian watching a nativity scene.

Should an experimenter obtain this result, there’s a lot of people out there, both Christians and some atheists, who would gloat:  "Ha, ha, space travel is your religion!"

But that’s drawing the wrong category boundary.  It’s like saying that, because some people once tried to fly by irrational means, no one should ever enjoy looking out of an airplane window on the clouds below.

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Showing That You Care

My ambitious theory paper, which attempts to explain diverse health behavior puzzles with just a few assumptions, has finally been published in Medical Hypotheses.  (Print copies were mailed today.)  The abstract

Human behavior regarding medicine seems strange; assumptions and models that seem workable in other areas seem less so in medicine. Perhaps, we need to rethink the basics. Toward this end, I have collected many puzzling stylized facts about behavior regarding medicine, and have sought a small number of simple assumptions which might together account for as many puzzles as possible.

The puzzles I consider include a willingness to provide more medical than other assistance to associates, a desire to be seen as so providing, support for nation, firm, or family provided medical care, placebo benefits of medicine, a small average health value of additional medical spending relative to other health influences, more interest in public than private signals of medical quality, medical spending as an individual necessity but national luxury, a strong stress-mediated health status correlation, and support for regulating health behaviors of the low status. These phenomena seem widespread across time and cultures.

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Amazing Breakthrough Day: April 1st

So you’re thinking, "April 1st… isn’t that already supposed to be April Fool’s Day?"

Yes – and that will provide the ideal cover for celebrating Amazing Breakthrough Day.

As I argued in "The Beauty of Settled Science", it is a major problem that media coverage of science focuses only on breaking news.  Breaking news, in science, occurs at the furthest fringes of the scientific frontier, which means that the new discovery is often:

  • Controversial
  • Supported by only one experiment
  • Way the heck more complicated than an ordinary mortal can handle, and requiring lots of prerequisite science to understand, which is why it wasn’t solved three centuries ago
  • Later shown to be wrong

People never get to see the solid stuff, let alone the understandable stuff, because it isn’t breaking news.

On Amazing Breakthrough Day, I propose, journalists who really care about science can report – under the protective cover of April 1st – such important but neglected science stories as:

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Religious Cohesion

Evidence is accumulating that religious rituals and belief, especially in moralistic supernatural observers, together strengthen social cohesion.  From the Economist:

To test whether religion might have emerged as a way of improving group co-operation while reducing the need to keep an eye out for free-riders, Dr Sosis drew on a catalogue of 19th-century American communes. … Dr Sosis found that communes whose ideology was secular were up to four times as likely as religious ones to dissolve in any given year. … the more constraints a religious commune placed on its members, the longer it lasted … But the same did not hold true of secular communes. … Ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community – what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified. …

Dr Sosis has also studied modern secular and religious kibbutzim in Israel. … Within religious communities, men are expected to pray three times daily in groups of at least ten, while women are not. … The researchers’ hypothesis was that in religious kibbutzim men would be better collaborators (and thus would take less) than women, while in secular kibbutzim men and women would take about the same. And that was exactly what happened. …

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The Beauty of Settled Science

Followup toJoy in Discovery, The Simple Math of Everything

Facts do not need to be unexplainable, to be beautiful; truths do not become less worth learning, if someone else knows them; beliefs do not become less worthwhile, if many others share them…

…and if you only care about scientific issues that are controversial, you will end up with a head stuffed full of garbage.

The media thinks that only the cutting edge of science is worth reporting on.  How often do you see headlines like "General Relativity still governing planetary orbits" or "Phlogiston theory remains false"?  So, by the time anything is solid science, it is no longer a breaking headline.  "Newsworthy" science is often based on the thinnest of evidence and wrong half the time – if it were not on the uttermost fringes of the scientific frontier, it would not be breaking news.

Scientific controversies are problems so difficult that even people who’ve spent years mastering the field can still fool themselves.  That’s what makes for the heated arguments that attract all the media attention.

Worse, if you aren’t in the field and part of the game, controversies aren’t even fun.

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Where Want Fewer Women?

My colleague Garett Jones mentioned he’d just written on how to get more women in economics, just after I’d noticed a recent Science article, "Igniting Girls’ Interest in Science."  Both of which raise the question:   Do those who want more women in science, economics, politics, etc. understand that more women in some places requires fewer women elsewhere?  If so, why don’t they tell us where exactly they want fewer women – and explain why the world is better with fewer women there?  Without this, they sound like people pushing more state education spending without saying whose taxes should be raised to pay for it. 

Sure, one could favor more skilled and productive women, which implies fewer women in lower skilled jobs.  But if this is the issue the question should be where can women be the most productive, not how to get more women in science.  And then why not listen to economists’ long-neglected advice on how most everyone could be more productive?

"Hey, I’m just saying …"

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New York OB Meetup (ad-hoc) on Monday, Mar 24, @6pm

Correction:  The giant Starbucks is at 13 Astor Place #25, not 51 Astor which is a smaller Starbucks.  (Yes, there are two Starbucks a block apart, here.)  The smaller Starbucks has metal steps and a ramp leading up; don’t go here.  The giant Starbucks, which is where we want to go, is next to Lafayette and Astor.

I (Eliezer) am in New York at the moment, and will have some time free on Monday night, March 24th, to meet any interested New York Overcoming Bias readers.

Where:  The giant Starbucks at 13 Astor Place #25, New York, NY 10003
When:  6pm, this Monday (March 24th, 2008)
Who:  Eliezer Yudkowsky (866-983-597), Carl Shulman

If you plan on attending, please leave a comment, so we know to expect you.  If you’re going to arrive later than 6pm, please note this as well.

I’ll also be at Princeton on Sunday.  My time is already mostly spoken for, but if you’re at Princeton and desperately want to meet up, comment or email before 7am tomorrow.

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If You Demand Magic, Magic Won’t Help

Followup toExplaining vs. Explaining Away, Joy in the Merely Real

Most witches don’t believe in gods.  They know that the gods exist, of course.  They even deal with them occasionally.  But they don’t believe in them.  They know them too well.  It would be like believing in the postman.
        — Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

Once upon a time, I was pondering the philosophy of fantasy stories –

And before anyone chides me for my "failure to understand what fantasy is about", let me say this:  I was raised in an SF&F household.  I have been reading fantasy stories since I was five years old.  I occasionally try to write fantasy stories (no, you can’t see them).  And I am not the sort of person who tries to write for a genre without pondering its philosophy.  Where do you think story ideas come from?

Anyway:

I was pondering the philosophy of fantasy stories, and it occurred to me that if there were actually dragons in our world – if you could go down to the zoo, or even to a distant mountain, and meet a fire-breathing dragon – while nobody had ever actually seen a zebra, then our fantasy stories would contain zebras aplenty, while dragons would be unexciting.

Now that’s what I call painting yourself into a corner, wot?  The grass is always greener on the other side of unreality.

Continue reading "If You Demand Magic, Magic Won’t Help" »

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Biases in Processing Political Information

In a post last year, Eliezer discussed a useful paper exploring the many biases that affect how people process political information. 

Via this blog, here’s comedian Lenny Bruce making a similar point:

I would be with a bunch of Kennedy fans watching the debate and their comment would be, “He’s really slaughtering Nixon.” Then we would all go to another apartment, and the Nixon fans would say, “How do you like the shellacking he gave Kennedy?” And then I realized that each group loved their candidate so that a guy would have to be this blatant — he would have to look into the camera and say: “I am a thief, a crook, do you hear me, I am the worst choice you could ever make for the Presidency!” And even then his following would say, “Now there’s an honest man for you. It takes a big guy to admit that. There’s the kind of guy we need for President.”

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