Monthly Archives: February 2013

Rationality Quote for February 2013

Rationality quote for February 2013! This months winner is a pretty good quote; one I wish would get put into practice. At Less Wrong, this quote had the highest karma — at 57 points — for February 2013:

It’s nice to elect the right people, but that’s not the way you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things.

I’m not much of a politics junkie, but it seems to me that right now it’s politically profitable for the right people to do the wrong things. Then again, that probably applies to situations/corporations/institutions beyond mere politics.

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Posted by on February 28, 2013 in rationality


Gangnam Style Prophesies Death Of Pope Benedict

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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Funny


Speaking of Good Explanations…


(Guitar is a lot harder to learn if it takes up 3/4ths of your body!)

For once I’m not going to pick on the poor reasoning skills of the religious 🙂

On Facebook, one of my friends who is a female singer-songwriter, asked a question about why there is such a skewed gender ratio in the music industry; specifically dealing with the touring musician. Most of the people she sees on the road are guys. What’s the deal? I would have attempted to answer, but I didn’t want my newsfeed blowing up due to sexism issues. The vast majority of my friends are liberals and thus have a high prior for issues dealing with male privilege and keeping women down. I don’t disagree that it’s a factor, but it shouldn’t be the first explanation we jump to for these sorts of things. I would think we have to rule out possible biological reasons for such a ratio (one person did attempt doing that in the comments thread, but was accused of being a sexist and committing the naturalistic fallacy. Note: The naturalistic fallacy only applies to moral issues; the guy wasn’t saying that that’s the way it was supposed to be but rather giving an explanation).

Her favorite answer to her gender skewing question was:

“I think that the life of the traveling musician, or better the idea of that life, is very close to the cultural archetype of what freedom means in America. You’re on the open road, you go where you want, do what you want, say what you want, drink what you want, fuck who you want, everyone loves you, you get paid for it, and the next night you’ll be somewhere else so there are no real consequences. None of that’s true, exactly, but it’s the idea, and with touring musicians you can believe it in a way that they can’t over at accounts receivable.

And so OK, there’s the sexism, the boys not wanting the girls to be that free. And that has to play out in all sorts of nuanced ways within the industry. But there’s also the fact that American women are only three or four generations from having the legal and social status of vending machines. It’s 2013, all the girls want to be free, but to reach for the absolute top-shelf version of freedom that our culture has to offer? That takes some guts.”

This raised all sorts of alarms with me due to overuse of some dark arts. No matter what, I don’t think we should be positing unconscious conspiracy theories to explain sociological phenomena. As I like to say, conspiracy theories are just religion logic without appealing to the supernatural.

Now what of my Good Explanation post? Does this pass any of the criteria I listed? The thing I’m thinking of here is precision and the Positive Bias. What sort of evidence would the above explanation say shouldn’t exist? The first thing that pops into my head is that the explanation above might posit that there were no touring women prior to around the 1960s. That is demonstrably false; many of the original blues singers in the early 1900s, for example, were women (and even worse, black!). And they were touring.

I also have the benefit of having tried to be a singer-songwriter myself. These are some of the things that I’ve noticed:

1. Playing guitar is hard. Not as hard as some other instruments, but it is. One of the things that makes playing guitar easier is if you have big hands. Men generally have bigger hands than women. And there’s probably an evolutionary psychology reason for that. IIRC having smaller hands is correlated with less testosterone and higher fertility. Of course, that explanation might be wrong, but generally if one sex has a specific feature that the other sex doesn’t, then it was sexually selected for by the opposite sex. So assuming an equal number of men as women attempt playing guitar, women will have more obstacles at this initial stage than men.

There are exceptions, obviously. Like 7 year olds who completely kick my ass at guitar playing. But I’m speaking probabilistically and not deterministically. Not every woman has the fortitude to get over that physical hump, but some do; like my singer-songwriter friend.

2. Getting good enough to play guitar competently and learn how to sing while playing guitar and learning how to write songs, like my friend does, requires a lot of time and effort. Not just any old time and effort, but time and effort by yourself. The age when most people start forging their identity, middle-school / high-school, is when they would start trying to learn how to play guitar and try to make it part of their identity. This is one of the worst times to try to be a loner, nerding out on a particular hobby by yourself. Girls would get sucked into the social pressure of trying to fit in with a clique as would guys. My singer-songwriter friend said that she didn’t go to high school and was homeschooled. This would prevent her from the added sociological pressure from other girls to conform to a high school clique. That brings up a related point:

3. We try to emulate people we admire when forging our identity at this age. There aren’t many images of women in the media playing guitar while there is an overabundance of media depicting men playing guitar. Or in bands. So for guys at the identity forging stage of their lives, they might find other like-minded guys to form a band and that would be their clique. So overall, there won’t be an equal number of men and women even attempting to play guitar. The ones that do would have to not only overcome the bare physical challenge of much more likely having smaller hands, but the sociological demotivation/challenge as well.

4. I was a member of the singer-songwriter’s society at NYU. I noticed that there were more men than women going regularly to the club. Not significantly more, maybe around 5 guys to 3-4 girls, but it was skewed. This wouldn’t be the whole story, obviously, but I would think that if there was an unconscious conspiracy to prevent women from touring, they simply would be unable to be successful and would be equally represented in a touring precursor like the club at NYU. I’ve also gone to select open mic nights in NYC and Pittsburgh attempting my hobby, and singer-songwriter women were less represented at that touring precursor stage than men. Even though those are both anecdotal, they are evidence (I plan to make that a “Logical fallacies as weak Bayesian evidence” post 😉 ). Again, the explanation that my friend liked above fails at precision.

Like I wrote above, my friend probably didn’t like it because it was “true” per se but because underlying the entire explanation was gushing about how awesome my friend is. So, of course she would like it thus would think it was true.


Posted by on February 3, 2013 in cognitive science


Guessing The Pattern


(I actually haven’t read this book but the title of it is apposite)

This is another great post by Eliezer Yudkowsky over at Less Wrong:

I am teaching a class, and I write upon the blackboard three numbers: 2-4-6. “I am thinking of a rule,” I say, “which governs sequences of three numbers. The sequence 2-4-6, as it so happens, obeys this rule. Each of you will find, on your desk, a pile of index cards. Write down a sequence of three numbers on a card, and I’ll mark it “Yes” for fits the rule, or “No” for not fitting the rule. Then you can write down another set of three numbers and ask whether it fits again, and so on. When you’re confident that you know the rule, write down the rule on a card. You can test as many triplets as you like.”

Here’s the record of one student’s guesses:

4, 6, 2 No
4, 6, 8 Yes
10, 12, 14 Yes

At this point the student wrote down his guess at the rule. What do you think the rule is? Would you have wanted to test another triplet, and if so, what would it be? Take a moment to think before continuing.

The challenge above is based on a classic experiment due to Peter Wason, the 2-4-6 task. Although subjects given this task typically expressed high confidence in their guesses, only 21% of the subjects successfully guessed the experimenter’s real rule, and replications since then have continued to show success rates of around 20%.

The study was called “On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task” (Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12: 129-140, 1960). Subjects who attempt the 2-4-6 task usually try to generate positive examples, rather than negative examples—they apply the hypothetical rule to generate a representative instance, and see if it is labeled “Yes”.

Thus, someone who forms the hypothesis “numbers increasing by two” will test the triplet 8-10-12, hear that it fits, and confidently announce the rule. Someone who forms the hypothesis X-2X-3X will test the triplet 3-6-9, discover that it fits, and then announce that rule.

In every case the actual rule is the same: the three numbers must be in ascending order.

But to discover this, you would have to generate triplets that shouldn’t fit, such as 20-23-26, and see if they are labeled “No”. Which people tend not to do, in this experiment. In some cases, subjects devise, “test”, and announce rules far more complicated than the actual answer.

Yudkowsky says that this is usually classified under the bias called Confirmation Bias, but thinks that it isn’t specific enough to describe this failure of reasoning. So he calls it the Positive Bias.

BUT… If one thought like a Bayesian, then one shouldn’t fall prey to not figuring out the pattern. That’s the ideal, anyway 😉 Referring to my previous post about what makes a good explanation, this Positive Bias is an example of not being precise enough. And what is the hallmark of precision, according to me? Finding out what sort of data a hypothesis excludes is more important than what it predicts. Any and every idea that you come up with to try to explain some phenomena should have some examples of evidence that it excludes.




Here’s the interesting thing. What if you’re a student in the experiment above, and you do start listing examples that you think break the rule… and nothing you posit breaks the rule? What if there aren’t examples that break the rule? What would you conclude about the pattern? There isn’t one! This is a good way of determining randomness; something that, say, people who believe in fate or god would never want to confront. The Positive Bias seems to be one of the ways the brain tricks itself into thinking there is order or a plan to random events. And if there’s a plan, then there must be some sort of agent behind that plan. Therefore god. Or the government (i.e. conspiracy theories).

Of course, to not fall prey to my own Positive Bias, I would like to conduct the above experiment on friends in real life 🙂 Maybe my atheist friends would be more likely to list patterns that they think break the rule and my theist friends wouldn’t. That would indicate a correlation.

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Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Bayes, cognitive science


Rationality Quote for January 2013

I’m going to start a monthly rationality quote, which I will get from Less Wrong’s Rationality Quotes thread. I’m not going to pick my favorite one (pretty much because it would be hard for me to pick just one) so I’ll just post the one that has the highest upvote.

So for this month, the quote with the highest vote on Less Wrong is:

“Ten thousand years’ worth of sophistry doesn’t vanish overnight,” Margit observed dryly. “Every human culture had expended vast amounts of intellectual effort on the problem of coming to terms with death. Most religions had constructed elaborate lies about it, making it out to be something other than it was—though a few were dishonest about life, instead. But even most secular philosophies were warped by the need to pretend that death was for the best.”

“It was the naturalistic fallacy at its most extreme—and its most transparent, but that didn’t stop anyone. Since any child could tell you that death was meaningless, contingent, unjust, and abhorrent beyond words, it was a hallmark of sophistication to believe otherwise. Writers had consoled themselves for centuries with smug puritanical fables about immortals who’d long for death—who’d beg for death. It would have been too much to expect all those who were suddenly faced with the reality of its banishment to confess that they’d been whistling in the dark. And would-be moral philosophers—mostly those who’d experienced no greater inconvenience in their lives than a late train or a surly waiter—began wailing about the destruction of the human spirit by this hideous blight. We needed death and suffering, to put steel into our souls! Not horrible, horrible freedom and safety!”

— Greg Egan, “Border Guards”.

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Posted by on February 1, 2013 in rationality

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