Category Archives: Rationality

On Being Rational. 10 skills of a rational person.

A list of skills that I thought up today.  Ordered by which came to mind first, not by importance.
  1. Introspection.  Understand why you believe the things you do.  Understand why you act the way you do.
  2. Scholarship.  Stand on the shoulders of giants.  Scientists and philosophers have settled many issues, discovered many biases, created many de-biasing techniques.  You’ll do better to read academic sources than popular science sources.  I’m constantly surprised by what science knows about _how to think_ and how much of this people generally don’t know we know.
  3. American physicist Richard Feynman Português: ...

    American physicist Richard Feynman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Take joy in the merely real.  Internalize the concept that there doesn’t need to be mystical causes for things to be joyful and beautiful. “Nothing is ‘mere’.” –Richard Feynman

  4. Recognize rationalization.  Rationalization argues for a side already chosen.  As a rationalist you want to effectively pick a belief based upon evidence, you don’t want to find evidence to support your belief.
  5. Probabilistic universe.  You don’t know anything with 100% probability.  Visualize a little number between 0 and 1 floating next to every idea you hold dear.  This number represents the weight of the evidence that this idea represents reality.  Sometimes we have reasons to be _really_ confident that an idea represents reality, but that little number won’t ever reach 100%.  Where we most need to remember this is when ideas are controversial.  When others don’t think the idea is the best fit for the evidence.  If we don’t remember that we’re dealing with probabilities, it becomes too hard to update our beliefs on new incoming evidence.
  6. Fallible minds.  Recognize from your scholarship efforts in (2), that human minds are crappy kluges of systems and layers all intertwined with failure modes lying all over the place.
  7. Fix your opponents arguments. “If you’re interested in being on the right side of disputes, you

    Spock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    will refute your opponents’ arguments.  But if you’re interested in producing truth, you will fix your opponents’ arguments for them.  To win, you must fight not only the creature you encounter; you must fight the most horrible thing that can be constructed from its corpse.”  — Black Belt Bayesian

  8. Argue yourself out of your beliefs.  Try to think of what evidence would convince you that your cherished beliefs are wrong.  If you can’t think of any evidence, then you have to really question if the belief is the belief of a truth-seeker.
  9. Statistics.  The effectiveness of your scholarship will be increased the more you understand statistics.  You don’t have to be some sort of whiz, but even some popular-level book on statistics will help you understand more.
  10. Remember that rationality is about winning.  It’s about achieving your goals.  Spock was a

    straw man cariacture of rationality.  A real rationalist doesn’t look anything like Spock.  A rationalist revels in joy, and experience sadness.  A rationalists goals may be set by emotion.  A rationalist tries to avoid having his emotions interfere with his goals.

Placebos, dude

Our alien benefactors

Ten years ago a powerful alien race appeared in the skies above humanity’s major cities.

These aliens are so far in advance of our technical abilities that they have what seems to be magical powers.  Remember Clarke’s third law:  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  These aliens, who call themselves the Oodat, claim to have experience all over the universe helping species like humans reach their full potential and in fact to reach a state of “perfection”.  They’ve helped millions of species.  If you accept them at their word, you have no reason to doubt that they know whats better for you than you yourself does.

To receive their aid, all you have to do is do what they say.  Because of their unique history, they have many customs for you to follow.  For example, they have a large digital archive full of advice and stories from their past that they require you to read from every day.  They require you to gather together with other like-minded individuals and read from this archive together and listen to others expound upon what they think this archive means to you.  The Oodat require you to hold them in…something even more than esteem and appreciation.  Maybe the right word is reverence.

The most important part of the Oodat’s requirements is this:  you must reject the any ideas that could possibly be construed as not agreeing with what they’ve taught you no matter what the outside evidence.  Not only that, you must also reject any people who aren’t living up to the requirements the Oodat have set out for you.

After awhile, it becomes apparent that many people who follow the Oodat actually are happier.  Of course, it isn’t possible to know whether they are actually on the way to perfection, but the evidence for some people is that their lives are better.

On the flip side, some people actually seem to be worse off.  There are conflicts on the edges between people who follow the Oodat and those who don’t.  Even people who are happier under the Oodat’s tutelage lie, murder, and steal just like other humans.

Would you follow the Oodat?

Say you knew that the Oodat were legit, and actually had raised people of many species to “perfection”.  Would you follow them?

What if you realized that your idea of perfection wasn’t the same as the next person contemplating following the Oodat?

What if you realized that the Oodat’s idea of perfection was different from your own?

Reality isn’t what we think it is

…our brains are not objective perceivers of reality. Not even close. What we perceive as reality is constructed in an active process that is rife with assumptions and flaws. Everything you take for granted about what you experience as yourself and the outside world is actively constructed by specific brain processes.

Steven Novella

I love this quote.  It so succinctly describes the reason most people are so wrong about so much.

Cartoon Home Simpson > Real Home Simpson

Fashion and style

I often say I don’t care what other people think about me.

Now that I think about it, that’s a bit misleading.

When I say I don’t care what other people think about me, what I really mean is that I don’t care if people disdain my ideas for irrelevant reasons.  If you have a rational reason to disagree, then I definitely care about hearing your argument, but otherwise I just don’t care.

What people think about you determines how they treat you and what you can get them to do for you, so it’s worth some effort to manipulate[1] their feelings towards you.

Unsurprisingly to students of the human mind, fashion can really alter someone’s perception of you.  Even if that someone thinks they’re above such things.  It’s just not possible to avoid.

Because of this, I pay some attention to fashion and style for men and women and am able to say with some confidence what works.

This post was motivated by this great post with fashion tips for men.

In fashion as in art – style emerges not from a lack of rules but from a mastery of them, from making them serve you instead of the other way around. If you’re a geek like me, you need to dial a fresh start – clear your closets of all those conference freebie t-shirts, put a shine on your shoes, and burn your butt-crack pants. Ultimately, these rules are not at all about tamping down your personality but about learning how to express it. And unfair as it is, people will take you more seriously when you dress with a modicum of style.


[1] Manipulate isn’t a bad word.  When you choose your clothing for the day you’re manipulating other people…it’s just the way it is.  Hopefully by giving some thought to what you wear, you’re manipulating people into paying attention to what you’ve got to say.  If you don’t give any thought to your clothing, you’re manipulating people into having impressions of you that you probably would rather they didn’t have.

Contrary actions to the Twelve Virtues – Relinquishment

Again, Yudkowsky writes:

The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs. The thought you cannot think controls you more than thoughts you speak aloud. Submit yourself to ordeals and test yourself in fire. Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm. Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.” Beware lest you become attached to beliefs you may not want.

I like that P.C. Hodgell quote:  “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.”  Your beliefs should hang upon the truth, truth doesn’t care about your beliefs.  Of course, this isn’t the way the human brain works.  When we’re comfortable with an idea, or if something we believe engenders positive emotions, we’re more likely to avoid facts that contradict our beliefs.

If you want to have an accurate view of the world around you, you’ve got to cultivate a willingness to give up things you believe, no matter how painful.

I know many who will find this idea foreign.  Others will play lip service to the idea.  Few will understand just how deep a change we have to make to implement the idea of being willing to relinquish our beliefs.  It’s not comfortable.  It hurts.  Relinquishing cherished beliefs is anathema to the soul if you haven’t made it into something you enjoy.  The default human position is to cherish beliefs, not to cherish truth.  It require effort to reverse that.

One of the worst methods of practicing non-relinquishment is cherry-picking of facts to support a belief.  It’s easy to “prove” anything you desire if you only accept facts in support of your belief.  An important thing to remember in this circumstance is that most of the time, when cherry-picking of the facts is going on, the picker doesn’t think they’re doing it.  It’s so easy for your brain to utterly dismiss things that don’t fit in to your worldview, that it doesn’t even seem like you’re making a mistake.

Unfortunately, you are. is misleading to further their anti-vaccine agenda

Someone recently pointed me to an article on  It’s idiocy blew my mind.

I probably shouldn’t even dignify it with a rebuttal, but I can’t help myself.

#1) Where are the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies proving flu vaccines are both safe and effective?
Answer: There aren’t any.

The CDC would like to disagree.  Even if there weren’t such studies, we have to make decisions based upon the best available evidence and every study that has been done points to the flu vaccine being effective and safe.

#2) Where, then, is the so-called “science” backing the idea that flu vaccines work at all?
Answer: Other than “cohort studies,” there isn’t any. And the cohort studies have been thoroughly debunked. Scientifically speaking, there isn’t a scrap of honest evidence showing flu vaccines work at all.

See the previous question.  Studies of flu vaccine effectiveness have not been “thoroughly debunked”.  If this was so how come the scientific consensus still supports the use of the flu vaccine?

#3) How can methyl mercury (Thimerosal, a preservative used in flu vaccines) be safe for injecting into the human body when mercury is an extremely toxic heavy metal?
Answer: It isn’t safe at all. Methyl mercury is a poison. Along with vaccine adjuvants, it explains why so many people suffer autism or other debilitating neurological side effects after being vaccinated.

Point number one, thimerosal is ethyl mercury, not methyl mercury which is a critical difference as ethyl mercury doesn’t accumulate in the body like methyl mercury.  Regardless of that, almost all evidence points to no ill effects from thimerosal in vaccines.

As Wikipedia says:

Most conclusively, eight major studies (as of 2008) examined the effect of reductions or removal of thiomersal from vaccines. All eight demonstrated that autism rates failed to decline despite removal of thiomersal, arguing strongly against a causative role.

On to their next point…

#4) Why do reports keep surfacing of children and teens suffering debilitating neurological disorders, brain swelling, seizures and even death following flu vaccines or HPV vaccines?
Answer: Because vaccines are dangerous. The vaccine industry routinely dismisses all such accounts — no matter how many are reported — as “coincidence.”

I don’t even understand how this is an actual argument.

Correlation is not the same thing as causation.  I’m sure hundreds of people have got in car accidents after getting a flu vaccine as well.  Is that the flu vaccine’s fault?

#5) Why don’t doctors recommend vitamin D for flu protection, especially when vitamin D activates the immune response far better than a vaccine? (…)
Answer: Because vitamin D can’t be patented and sold as “medicine.” You can make it yourself. If you want more vitamin D, you don’t even need a doctor, and doctors tend not to recommend things that put them out of business

Oh gosh, a conspiracy theory.  Why didn’t I see that coming?  It’s not an either/or situation.  Vitamin D does strengthen the immune system.  However, a strong immune system doesn’t keep you from getting the flu.

I’ll finish up with my rebuttal in my next post.

We don’t understand ourselves, or, how psychologists see themselves

As Tyler Cowen points out this is quite an interesting time waster:

The email edition of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest has reached the milestone of its 150th issue. That’s over 900 quality, peer-reviewed psychology journal articles digested since 2003. To mark the occasion, the Digest editor has invited some of the world’s leading psychologists to look inwards and share, in 150 words, one nagging thing they still don’t understand about themselves. Their responses are by turns candid, witty and thought-provoking. Here’s what they had to say…

Here’s one of the answers submitted by Chris McManus, Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at UCL:

Chris McManus: Beauty

What is this thing I call beauty? Not “art” as a social phenomenon based on status or display, or beautiful faces seen merely as biological fitness markers. Rather, the sheer, drawing-in-of-breath beauty of a Handel aria, a Rothko painting, TS Eliot’s poems, or those everyday moments of sun shining through wet, autumn leaves, or even a Powerpoint layout seeming just right. Content itself doesn’t matter – Cezanne’s paintings of apples are not beautiful because one likes apples, and there are beautiful photographs of horrible things. Somewhere there must be something formal, structural, compositional, involving the arrangement of light and shade, of sounds, of words best ordered to say old ideas in new ways. When I see beauty I know it, and others must also see it, or they wouldn’t make the paintings I like or have them hung in galleries. But why then doesn’t everyone see it in the same way?

Get more answers here.

The base rate fallacy

Amongst my favorite fallacies lies the base rate fallacy.

Here’s a great introduction to this fallacy on the BBC’s website.

Imagine you’ve invented a machine to detect terrorists. It’s good, about 90% accurate. You sit back with pride and think of the terrorists trembling.

You’re in the Houses of Parliament demonstrating the device to MPs when you receive urgent information from MI5 that a potential attacker is in the building. Security teams seal every exit and all 3,000 people inside are rounded up to be tested.

The first 30 pass. Then, dramatically, a man in a mac fails. Police pounce, guns point.

How sure are you that this person is a terrorist?
A. 90%
B. 10%
C. 0.3%

What is your brain lying to you about?

There are ways for your brain to lie to you, which pretty much guarantee you’ll never know it. Even if someone points out the exact way in which you’re being lied to, you probably won’t accept it. Even if a being that is proven to be smarter and more right than any human being who has ever lived tells you, the chances are good you won’t believe it.

As Yudkowsky says:

I find it disturbing that the brain has such a simple macro for absolute denial that it can be invoked as a side effect of paralysis. That a single whack on the brain can both disable a left-side motor function, and disable our ability to recognize or accept the disability. Other forms of brain damage also seem to both cause insanity and disallow recognition of that insanity – for example, when people insist that their friends have been replaced by exact duplicates after damage to face-recognizing areas.

The very idea is frightening.