Author Archives: Eliezer Yudkowsky

Less Wrong: Progress Report

Less Wrong is emerging from beta as bugs continue to get fixed.  This is an open-source project, and if any Python-fluent programmers are willing to contribute a day or two of work, more would get done faster.

The character of the new site is becoming clear.  The pace of commenting is higher; the threaded comments encourage short replies and continuing conversations.  The pace of posting exceeds my fondest hopes – apparently not being able to post automatically on OB was a much greater barrier to potential contributors than I realized.

We've had 12,428 comments so far on 113 articles, 100 of them posted since contributing was enabled for all users over 20 karma on March 5th.

Browsing to the Top Scoring articles on Less Wrong will give you an idea of how things are developing.  A quick view of all posts can be found here, with the current top scorer being "Cached Selves" by Salamon and Rayhawk, followed by "Rational Me or We?" by Hanson.  If this looks like a blog you like, go ahead and add it to your blog roll now, please!

Continue reading "Less Wrong: Progress Report" »

GD Star Rating

Another Call to End Aid to Africa

Dambisa Moyo, an African economist, has joined her voice to the other African economists [e.g. James Shikwati] calling for a full halt to Western aid.  Her book is called Dead Aid and it asserts a direct cause-and-effect relationship between $1 trillion of aid and the rise in African poverty rates from 11% to 66%.

Though it's an easy enough signal to fake, I find it noteworthy that Moyo – in this interview at least – repeatedly pleads for some attention to "logic and evidence":

"I think the whole aid model is couched in pity.  I don’t want to cast aspersions as to where that pity comes from.  But I do think it’s based on pity because based on logic and evidence, it is very clear that aid does not work.  And yet if you speak to some of the biggest supporters of aid, whether they are academics or policy makers or celebrities, their whole rationale for giving more aid to Africa is not couched in logic or evidence; it’s based largely on emotion and pity."

I was just trying to think of when was the last time I heard a Western politician – or even a mainstream Western economist in any public venue – draw an outright battle line between logic and pity.  Oh, there are plenty of demagogues who claim the evidence is on their side, but they won't be so outright condemning of emotion – it's not a winning tactic.  Even I avoid drawing a battle line so stark.

Moyo says she's gotten a better reception in Africa than in the West.  Maybe you need to see your whole continent wrecked by emotion and pity before "logic and evidence" start to sound appealing.

GD Star Rating

Wrong Tomorrow

Wrong Tomorrow by Maciej Cegłowski is a very simple site for listing pundit predictions and tracking them [FAQ].  It doesn't come with prices and active betting… but a simple registry of this kind can scale much faster than a market, and right now we're in a situation where no one is bothering to track pundit predictions or report on pundit track records.  Predictions are produced as simple entertainment or as simple political theater, without the slightest fear of accountability.

This site is missing some features, but it looks to me like a starting attempt at what's needed – a Wikipedia-like, user-contributed, low-barrier-to-entry database of all pundit predictions, past and present.

GD Star Rating

The Pascal’s Wager Fallacy Fallacy

Today at lunch I was discussing interesting facets of second-order logic, such as the (known) fact that first-order logic cannot, in general, distinguish finite models from infinite models.  The conversation branched out, as such things do, to why you would want a cognitive agent to think about finite numbers that were unboundedly large, as opposed to boundedly large.

So I observed that:

  1. Although the laws of physics as we know them don't allow any agent to survive for infinite subjective time (do an unboundedly long sequence of computations), it's possible that our model of physics is mistaken.  (I go into some detail on this possibility below the cutoff.)
  2. If it is possible for an agent – or, say, the human species – to have an infinite future, and you cut yourself off from that infinite future and end up stuck in a future that is merely very large, this one mistake outweighs all the finite mistakes you made over the course of your existence.

And the one said, "Isn't that a form of Pascal's Wager?"

I'm going to call this the Pascal's Wager Fallacy Fallacy.

You see it all the time in discussion of cryonics.  The one says, "If cryonics works, then the payoff could be, say, at least a thousand additional years of life."  And the other one says, "Isn't that a form of Pascal's Wager?"

The original problem with Pascal's Wager is not that the purported payoff is large.  This is not where the flaw in the reasoning comes from.  That is not the problematic step.  The problem with Pascal's original Wager is that the probability is exponentially tiny (in the complexity of the Christian God) and that equally large tiny probabilities offer opposite payoffs for the same action (the Muslim God will damn you for believing in the Christian God).

Continue reading "The Pascal’s Wager Fallacy Fallacy" »

GD Star Rating

Posting now enabled on Less Wrong

Posting is now enabled on Less Wrong, with a minimum karma required of 20 – that is, you must have gotten at least 20 upvotes on your comments in order to publish a post.  Or an adminstrator such as myself or Robin (by default you should bother me) can temporarily bless you with posting ability – in the long run this shouldn't happen much.

For those of you who haven't yet subscribed to / gotten in the habit of checking Less Wrong:

  • Test Your Rationality by Robin Hanson.  It's easy to find reasons to believe yourself more rational than others, but most people do this; what real ways can be found to test your rationality?
  • Unteachable Excellence and Teaching the Unteachable by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  The rare superstars are rare because their skills are currently hard to transfer.  A large number of Nobel laureates are students of other Nobel laureates.  How do you teach skills you can't put into words?
  • The Costs of Rationality by Robin Hanson.  Rationality can be useful for many things, but humans aren't really designed for it, and a true effort to believe truly can get in the way of many aspects of ordinary life.  Are you willing to pay the real costs of ratonality?
  • No, Really, I've Deceived Myself and Belief in Self-Deception by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  A woman I met who didn't seem to believe in God at all, while honestly believing that she had deceived herself successfully – which may bring most of the same placebo benefits.
  • The ethic of hand-washing and commuity epistemic practice by Steve Rayhawk and Anna Salamon.  Diseases become more virulent in the presence of poor hygiene, since they can jump hosts more easily.  Are there analogous effects for ideas?  What is the equivalent of washing our hands?

The five most recent LW posts now appear in OB's sidebar (and vice versa), but aside from this you shouldn't expect further regular summaries of LW on OB.

GD Star Rating

The Most Frequently Useful Thing

What's the most frequently useful thing you've learned on OB – not the most memorable or most valuable, but the thing you use most often?  What influences your behavior, factors in more than one decision?  Please give a concrete example if you can.  This isn't limited to archetypally "mundane" activities: if your daily life involves difficult research or arguing with philosophers, go ahead and describe that too.

Continue reading "The Most Frequently Useful Thing" at Less Wrong »

GD Star Rating

The Most Important Thing You Learned

My current plan does still call for me to write a rationality book – at some point, and despite all delays – which means I have to decide what goes in the book, and what doesn't.  Obviously the vast majority of my OB content can't go into the book, because there's so much of it.

So let me ask – what was the one thing you learned from my posts on Overcoming Bias, that stands out as most important in your mind?

Continue reading "The Most Important Thing You Learned" at Less Wrong »

GD Star Rating

Tell Your Rationalist Origin Story… at Less Wrong

(A beta version of Less Wrong is now live, no old posts imported as yet.  Some of the plans for what to do with Less Wrong relative to OB have been revised by further discussion among Robin, Nick, and myself, but for now we're just seeing what happens once LW is up – whether it's stable, what happens to the tone of comments once threading and voting is enabled, etcetera.

Posting by non-admins is disabled for now – today we're just testing out registration, commenting, threading, etcetera.)

To break up the awkward silence at the start of a recent Overcoming Bias meetup, I asked everyone present to tell their rationalist origin story – a key event or fact that played a role in their becoming rationalists.  This worked surprisingly well.

I think I've already told enough of my own origin story on Overcoming Bias: how I was digging in my parents' yard as a kid and found a tarnished silver amulet inscribed with Bayes's Theorem, and how I wore it to bed that night and dreamed of a woman in white, holding a leather-bound book called Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (eds. D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, and A. Tversky, 1982)… but there's no need to go into that again.

So, seriously… how did you originally go down that road?

Continue reading "Tell Your Rationalist Origin Story" at Less Wrong »

GD Star Rating

Markets are Anti-Inductive

I suspect there's a Pons Asinorum of probability between the bettor who thinks that you make money on horse races by betting on the horse you think will win, and the bettor who realizes that you can only make money on horse races if you find horses whose odds seem poorly calibrated relative to superior probabilistic guesses.

There is, I think, a second Pons Asinorum associated with more advanced finance, and it is the concept that markets are an anti-inductive environment.

Let's say you see me flipping a coin.  It is not necessarily a fair coin.  It's a biased coin, and you don't know the bias.  I flip the coin nine times, and the coin comes up "heads" each time.  I flip the coin a tenth time.  What is the probability that it comes up heads?

If you answered "ten-elevenths, by Laplace's Rule of Succession", you are a fine scientist in ordinary environments, but you will lose money in finance.

In finance the correct reply is, "Well… if everyone else also saw the coin coming up heads… then by now the odds are probably back to fifty-fifty."

Recently on Hacker News I saw a commenter insisting that stock prices had nowhere to go but down, because the economy was in such awful shape.  If stock prices have nowhere to go but down, and everyone knows it, then trades won't clear – remember, for every seller there must be a buyer – until prices have gone down far enough that there is once again a possibility of prices going up.

So you can see the bizarreness of someone saying, "Real estate prices have gone up by 10% a year for the last N years, and we've never seen a drop."  This treats the market like it was the mass of an electron or something.  Markets are anti-inductive.  If, historically, real estate prices have always gone up, they will keep rising until they can go down.

Continue reading "Markets are Anti-Inductive" »

GD Star Rating

Formative Youth

Followup toAgainst Maturity

"Rule of thumb:  Be skeptical of things you learned before you could read.  E.g., religion."
        — Ben Casnocha

Looking down on others is fun, and if there's one group we adults can all enjoy looking down on, it's children.  At least I assume this is one of the driving forces behind the incredible disregard for… but don't get me started.

Inconveniently, though, most of us were children at one point or another during our lives.  Furthermore, many of us, as adults, still believe or choose certain things that we happened to believe or choose as children.  This fact is incongruent with the general fun of condescension – it means that your life is being run by a child, even if that particular child happens to be your own past self.

I suspect that most of us therefore underestimate the degree to which our youths were formative – because to admit that your youth was formative is to admit that the course of your life was not all steered by Incredibly Deep Wisdom and uncaused free will.

To give a concrete example, suppose you asked me, "Eliezer, where does your altruism originally come from?  What was the very first step in the chain that made you amenable to helping others?"

Then my best guess would be "Watching He-Man and similar TV shows as a very young and impressionable child, then failing to compartmentalize the way my contemporaries did."  (Same reason my Jewish education didn't take; I either genuinely believed something, or didn't believe it at all.  (Not that I'm saying that I believed He-Man was fact; just that the altruistic behavior I picked up wasn't compartmentalized off into some safely harmless area of my brain, then or later.))

It's my understanding that most people would be reluctant to admit this sort of historical fact, because it makes them sound childish – in the sense that they're still being governed by the causal history of a child.

But I find myself skeptical that others are governed by their childhood causal histories so much less than myself – especially when there's a simple alternative explanation: they're too embarrassed to admit it.

Continue reading "Formative Youth" »

GD Star Rating