Three Discussions Approach

This post explains a way of organizing a discussion. It’s meant to be useful in some cases, not all the time. It doesn’t require that the other person know it’s being used. This method can be collaborative, or can be used as tips to guide your own actions.

The problem: people debate endlessly without anything being resolved.

The method: instead of having many debates, focus on reaching clear conclusions about three issues.

How? Ask the other person what they think is important or interesting. Get them to say something serious about an important issue (or link something they already wrote). Then focus on that. Instead of discussing whatever they carelessly say mid-discussion, try to get something more substantial that you can reply to. (People shouldn’t say careless things in discussions that they wouldn’t take responsibility for … that’s irresponsible … but they do.). Then clearly point out mistakes. Do one issue at a time, three times.

Tips: Focus criticism on key topics, not tangents or cherrypicked errors. Preferably, the criticisms to will point out important problems, not “this is incomplete” or “this is sloppy” (that doesn’t mean ignoring incompleteness or sloppiness, it means trying to get them to provide material which is more complete and effortful so that you have something good to respond to). If they can’t produce anything good (in your opinion), get them to say they think something they wrote is good (in their opinion), then point out that it’s incomplete or sloppy. That means they’re a poor judge of quality (which is an important criticism, but that should be your backup plan only if you can’t get them to say anything decent about a primary topic of interest like dinosaurs, history, politics, physics, etc.).

People make lots of excuses about their errors. They don’t want to figure out what caused their error (often a bad thinking method or static meme) and what other errors that cause could cause (often lots) and then fix the underlying problem. Focusing on three high quality critical interactions can reduce excuses. Pick things where they’d have few excuses for being wrong.

Does this method assume you’ll be doing all the criticizing, and unfairly have them stick their neck out while you don’t? That depends. People are welcome to criticize any of my important pieces of writing. Their criticism can be two of the three issues discussed, but shouldn’t be all three. If you want to use this method but have no public writing available for anyone to criticize, that’s a problem.

The second problem: People want answers to their questions, and corrections of their errors, one by one. What they should be doing is learning how to think better for themselves – learn better thinking methods, critical thinking skills and philosophy – so that they can answer more of their own questions and correct more of their own errors. Often, people want to ask a bunch of questions while not saying anything substantial themselves, so they minimize the ideas they expose to criticism.

It’s inefficient to outsource your thinking to me or to another wise person. I don’t have time to answer all your questions. I’ll answer a few if I like them, and to see if you learn much, and because people are interesting, and to interest people in learning my thinking methods (by giving examples of my wisdom). But most of your questions have to be answered by creating your own thinking and research skills, not by using mine. It’s the difference between teaching a man to fish and doing the fishing for him then giving him fish. Answering a question is giving someone a fish.

The solution: People should take an interest in learning to be better thinkers so they make fewer errors and can effectively find or create good ideas. I’ve written (and talked) a lot about how to do this and I’m open to questions about it.

Part of what learning involves is changing one’s mindset. It’s one thing to be a peer or equal, who is contributing about as many fish as he receives. It’s another to be unable to fish. (Or maybe you can only catch small fish, but you ask questions and make claims about big fish and are talking to people who know how to catch big fish. Big fish are complicated ideas.) You need to know which situation you’re in and act accordingly. Should you focus on learning more (to catch up to existing knowledge), or should you pursue your directly projects (with critical discussions and learning being secondary)?

The third problem: People view themselves as peers when they should be learners. And they don’t want to change that. They think they already are educated, good thinkers who can catch their own fish. They view their questions (areas of ignorance) and errors as occasional things, not a major pattern.

The solution: Show them their errors using three clear examples. Show them their ability to deal with ideas is less effective than they think it is, or less effective than it could be if they had the thinking skill that you do. Show them that you catch substantially bigger fish than they can, which is a skill they should learn if they want to successfully contribute anything important to human knowledge (or want to fight with their family less, or otherwise have a better life).

The three discussions method serves multiple purposes. It helps clarify the outcomes of discussions, and it helps limit how many different discussions happen before the patterns in the discussions are addressed, and it helps clarify the relative skill and knowledge of the participants, and it helps show people why they should try to learn to think better (because, three out of three times, they missed errors in their ideas – the type of errors that make the difference between success and failure).

The three discussions method can also show when something else is going on. Maybe the other guy will be right on some of the issues. Maybe there won’t be a pattern of error. Maybe he is wise, too. Maybe he can contribute a fair amount. That’s possible. Maybe you’re roughly equals. Maybe he knows far more than you, and you should be trying to learn from him. The three discussions method helps find out what the situation in a time-and-effort-efficient way.


Link: my discussion forums.

The first comment, below, is a second article on this topic with more info.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)

Example: Effective Altruism Is Incompetent

EA risks falling into a "meta trap". But we can avoid it. (EA is effective altruism. It is favored by people who believe they are into reason and logic, similar to the Less Wrong community. The standard type is an atheist who rejects superstition, loves science, talks about thinking fallacies and biases, and reads non-fiction books.)

While donating to AMF all our lives is great, if we can spend our effort to get two people to donate to AMF instead of us, we’ve doubled our impact.

The author means: instead of person A donating $100 to charity, he can spend $100 on marketing/outreach/persuasion to get persons B and C to each donate $100 to the charity. He claims that, if that works out, then it means person A has doubled his impact.

Is that good? I think it means person A doubled his impact at triple the total cost. Now $300 was spent instead of $100.

This is the same issue as the broken window fallacy, also known as the fallacy of the seen and unseen. (The seen is the window repair guy getting paid and then spending that money at a bakery and then the baker buying shoes and so on. The unseen is that the window owner would have spent the money on something else if he didn't have to buy a window repair, e.g. he would have bought a suit and then the tailor would have bought bread and then the baker would have bought shoes and so on. So breaking the window did not stimulate the economy by creating demand for window repairs and thus make people better off. Breaking windows is bad.) The seen here is persons B and C donating $100 each to the charity. The unseen is what they would have used that money for otherwise. That $200 would have been spent elsewhere, and might have provided more value than an additional $100 for the charity.

(If you don't recognize my explanation of the broken window fallacy, and want to learn more, read Economics in One Lesson. I'm just repeating economists like Bastiat and Hazlitt, not saying anything new. The book description at the link states 'this is the book that made the idea of the "broken window fallacy" so famous'. It's a great introductory book which doesn't require doing math.)

In the author's math, the $200 spent elsewhere has zero impact. It's worthless. That's not a considered opinion, it's because he forgot to count it for anything, he didn't think about it, just like the broken window fallacy forgets to consider what the window repair money could have been spent on instead.

Suppose the $200 was spent quite badly, then maybe it would have $50 of impact (25% effectiveness on a scale where the charity is 100% effective). That's generous and lets his meta strategy come out ahead, but not by double. Let's do the math on how much the person A actually helped anything. If he donates $100, and the other people spend their money badly, the total impact is $150. If person A does marketing and gets B and C to donate, the total impact is $200. The increase in impact in this generous scenario is 33% not 100%. (100% impact means double, that's the claimed impact.)

If B and C would have spent their money at 50% effectiveness, then everything comes out equal. If they would have spent their money at 75% effectiveness, then person A hasn't double his impact, he's made the world worse.

Also, charities can handle their own marketing. If you donate $100, the charity itself can then use that for marketing and bring in $200 of donations. If they don't think more marketing is the best use of that $100, there is a reason.

Some charities seem happy to spend $100 asking for donations in order to bring in $101 of additional donations. This makes the world a worse place! A lot more wealth gets spent on mailing letters and other things that don't help people.

The author thinks spending $100 to bring in $200 of donations is a $100 win. By the same logic, spending $100 to bring in $101 of donations is a $1 win. He'd see it as a positive thing because he forgets that those $101 of additional donations would have been spent on something else that would have been a larger win than the $1 benefit he sees.

Conclusion: The EA community is grossly incompetent. It's not just this one writer (who participates in EA discussions a ton), it's the whole community, or else he would have been corrected (the post was high effort and got significant attention, and there are a bunch of very positive comments). They are literally doing broken-window-fallacy level thinking while believing they are cleverly improving charity, and the whole big community of "smart" people do not see and correct the error.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (9)

Discussion Policy: Quotes or You’re Presumed Wrong

Understanding people you agree with is difficult. Understanding people you disagree with is even harder. When you comment on someone’s position – especially to disagree – it helps to use an exact quote and then directly engage with their words. The quote should have a source, too, so that people can check the context and accuracy of the quote.

If you specifically attribute an idea to a person, then you should quote it. If you only paraphrase from memory, you may do it wrong, and there’s no reasonable way to refute your mistake. Without a source, no one can point out your misreadings, nor can they see that you’re right and change their mind. All people can say is “uhh i don’t think i said that, i don’t know what you’re talking about”. That’s not productive.

You should use quotes and sources when the person might not be happy to agree that they said something, or when you’re saying something critical or negative.

If the person said something similar to what you remember, the difference may matter. Let’s see the actual quote. Maybe they were precise with their wording in ways you don’t even think about. Or not. We need the quote in order to analyze and decide.

Also, don’t use controversial examples from past discussions without quotes or references. It’s not much of an example if I can’t look at it! People commonly say things like “Joe was [bad thing] in a discussion 3 months ago” without quotes or details. (Examples of bad things to go in that sentence: mean, rude, dishonest, unreasonable, incorrect, wrong.) Sometimes people don’t even give a paraphrase or summary, they just claim something happened.

Often, people didn’t criticize Joe’s statements at the time they were said. Now they are bringing them up without any details. This avoids analysis, at the time or later, of whether their claim about Joe’s statements is correct or incorrect (that typically seems to be the goal of not using quotes). And it indicates they were holding an unstated grudge, which was hidden from criticism (like correcting a misunderstanding or incorrect logical reasoning). They never gave Joe the opportunity to change his mind, retract his statement, learn from his error, or refute the charges – and yet they remembered it negatively, or else they wouldn’t have brought it up negatively at a later time (especially without a quote, which means they didn’t go look it up to refresh their memory). It’s also especially unfair to expect other people to remember something that you thought was negative but you didn’t complain about at the time – you didn’t draw attention to it, so why would others have picked out that particular thing to remember?

Rational criticism involves explaining why something is a mistake. It has to be possible to learn from the criticism, but Joe won’t learn from being told an unspecified past statement was bad. And it has to be possible to refute the criticism, but there’s no way to give counter-arguments when the details are missing. (All one can do is refute the method of criticism for not using quotes, but that doesn’t actually mean Joe didn’t do the bad thing.)

So, at my forums – and I’d recommend this everywhere – don’t make unsourced accusations.


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Anne Discussion

This is a discussion topic for Anne B. Other people are welcome to make comments. Anne has agreed not to post anonymously in this topic.


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Alan Discussion

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Andy Discussion

This is a discussion topic for Andy Dufresne. Other people are welcome to make comments. Andy has agreed not to post anonymously in this topic.


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Errors Merit Post-Mortems

After people make errors, they should do post-mortems. How did that error happen? What caused it? What thinking processes were used and how did they fail? Try to ask “Why?” several times to get to deeper issues than your initial answers.

And then, especially, what other errors would that cause also cause? This gives info about the need to make changes going forward, or not. Is it a one-time error or part of a pattern?

Effective post-mortems are something people generally don’t want to do. What causes errors? Frequently it’s irrationality, including dishonesty.

Lots of things merit post-mortems other than losing a debate. If you have an inconclusive debate, why didn’t you do better? No doubt there were errors in your communication and ideas. If you ask a question, why were you ignorant of the answer? What happened there? Maybe you made a mistake. That should be considered. After you ask a question and get an answer, you should post-mortem whether your understanding is now adequate. People usually don’t discuss thoroughly enough to effectively learn the answers to their questions.

Regarding questions: If you were ignorant of something because you hadn’t yet gotten around to learning about it, and you knew the limits of your knowledge, that can be a quick and easy post-mortem. That’s fine, but you should check if that’s what happened or it’s something else that merits more attention. Another common, quick post-mortem for a question is, “I asked because the other person was unclear, not because of my own ignorance.” But many questions relate to your own confusions and what went wrong should be post-mortemed. And if you hadn’t learned something yet, you should consider if you are organizing your learning priorities in a reasonable way. Why learn this now? Why not earlier or later? Do you have considered reasoning about that?

What if you try to post-mortem something and you don’t know what went wrong? If your post-mortem fails, that is itself something to post-mortem! Consider what you’ve done to learn how to post-mortem effectively in general. Have you studied techniques and practiced them? Did you start with easier cases and succeed many times? Do you have a history of successes and failures which you can compare this current failure to? Do you know what your success rate at post-mortems is in general, on average? And you should consider if you put enough effort into this particular post-mortem or just gave up fast.

You may wonder: We make errors all the time. Should we post-mortem all of them? That sounds like it’d take too much time and effort.

First, you can only post-mortem known errors. You have to find out something is an error. You can’t post-mortem it as an error just because people 500 years from now will know better. This limits the issues to be addressed.

Second, an irrelevant “error” is not an error. Suppose I’m moving to a new home. I’m measuring to see where things will fit. I measure my couch and the measurement is accurate to within a half inch. I measure where I want to put it and find there are 5 inches to spare (if it was really close, I’d re-measure). The fact that my measurement is an eighth of an inch off is not an error. The general principle is that errors are reasons a solution to a problem won’t work. The small measurement “error” doesn’t prevent my from succeeding at the problem I’m working on, so it’s not an error. It would be an error in a different context like doing a science experiment that relies on much more accurate measurements, but I’m not doing that.

Third, yes you should try to post-mortem all your errors that get past the previous two points. If you find this overwhelming, there are two things to do:

  1. Do easier stuff so you make fewer errors. Get your error rate under control. There’s no benefit to doing stuff that’s full of errors – it won’t work. Correctness works better both for immediate practical benefits (you get more stuff done that is actually good or effective instead of broken) and for learning better so you can do better in the future.
  2. Learn and write down recurring patterns/themes/concepts and reuse them instead of trying to work out every post-mortem from scratch. If you develop good ideas that can help with multiple post-mortems, that’ll speed it up a ton. Reusing ideas is a major part of Paths Forward and is crucial to all of life.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Open Discussion (2019)

This is an open discussion topic. Discuss whatever you want.

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View the latest 30 comments. Use this if there are hundreds of comments and the page loads slowly.

FYI, I also have an email discussion forum which is active (703 posts in the last month). Posting there requires learning how to do plain text email quoting correctly.

Unsure what to discuss? Ask a question. Read some of my writing and comment or criticize. Try my book recommendations and try to analyze what you read and share your notes. Or share some of your life goals, learning goals, or problems you'd like help with, or share anything you think is important.

If you'd like your own discussion, with your name on it, please ask and I'll make a new post for you.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (380)

Podcast Discussion

Discuss podcast episodes below! Share your questions, criticisms, comments, additional points, related stories, thoughts, and reactions.


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Podcast: How To Learn Philosophy

I've made lots of new podcasts. You can normally find them via the link in the sidebar or subscribe in iTunes. I'm sharing this one on the blog because I especially recommend it:

How To Learn Philosophy

You should actually do this ... or post your objections below. Also share comments, questions, tips for others, etc.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (4)

Improving The World With Written Discussion Rules

my current main idea for how to improve the world is to spread the idea that intellectuals should publicly write down their discussion rules.

it’s something that fans could demand from authors, podcasters, etc, esp the many who do Q&As, AMAs, etc

and it gives a way for new ppl to identify themselves as rational, and challenge those with larger audiences and differentiate themselves

this is an example of a medium level CR idea. it’s not tiny details, but it’s an application of CR thinking.

it’s not super connected to CR, like it doesn’t logically follow from evolutionary epistemology. but it fits the critical, fallibilist spirit and concretizes a piece of how error correction can work.

other ppl are less interested b/c of their disinterest in criticism and error correction, whereas i see things like how to be open to lots of criticism as crucial.

it’s also one of the main problems i ran into when trying to talk to intellectuals. also with the ppl who come to FI and quit, it’s very hard to stop them from quitting b/c they all have different unstated rules about what they will quit over.

also, the vast majority of discussion forums are moderated. they usually have some written rules but the moderators do not follow those rules, and actually moderate by unwritten rules.

intellectuals will lie about their discussion rules. they’d have to be called out for this a lot. and there’d have to be an ethos of follow the literal rules instead of it being ok to break them whenever it’s common sense or you have a reason.

which is why ppl put up with moderator actions. they routinely break written rules, or enforce unwritten rules, to act in socially normal ways that seem reasonable or common sense to many ppl.

our legal system is better than this. you only go to jail if you LITERALLY break laws. this is very ingrained in judges, jury instructions, etc. (otoh you can be let off the hook if you literally broke the law but ppl think what u did is fine. the exceptions mostly just go the one way, for innocence and tolerance.)


See also my writing on Paths Forward, such as Using Intellectual Processes to Combat Bias and the further material linked at the bottom of that article.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (4)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (21)

Helping Resource Budget

People help each other. I will discuss parents helping children. These comments apply to many other situations.

John helps his daughter Lily in lots of ways, but he can’t give her unlimited help. He has a limited amount of resources: time, money, energy, attention, creativity, etc.

When Lily is very young, John decides how to help her. He uses his best judgment. He tries to take into account Lily’s gestures and reactions, but he makes the decisions. He decides how much to help and which types of help to provide.

As Lily gets older, she can make verbal requests for help, and John is often responsive to those. And later she can start planning her life more and having long term goals that she asks for help with. How John helps is still partly his decision, but he partly lets Lily decide for him. Sometimes John does something to help that he doesn’t want to, or disagrees with, because Lily cares a lot.

Since Lily gets a limited amount of help, it must be budgeted just like any other scarce resource. Lily could benefit from more help than is available. Choices have to be made about which help happens and which help does not happen. John and Lily have to say “no” to some types of help that would benefit Lily because they don’t have the resources, like time, to do them all.

John and Lily will be better off if they know that helping must be budgeted and they try to understand the prices of different types of help.

In order for Lily to get helped effectively, cost and benefit must be considered. How expensive is a particular piece of help, and how big are the benefits?

Suppose John can provide 100 points of help per day. Having a 30 minute tea party with Lily and her dolls might cost 20 points, and having a 2 hour tea party might cost all 100 points. And going out to the park is 40 points, and watching Lily’s TV show with her and answering questions is 30 points, and making her an easy dinner is 10 points, and making her a hard dinner is 50 points, and so on. That means, for example, that Lily shouldn’t ask for a 2 hour tea party if she also wants to go to the park today.

Some days, John goes over budget. That’s unsustainable. he can’t help that much, on average, every day, but he can do it occasionally as an exception. If John helps too much and keeps it up for months, then his own life will suffer, he’ll be unhappy, he’ll be exhausted, and he’ll end up having a worse life and being less helpful to Lily.

For life to go smoothly in general, John and Lily need to be aware of the budget and make reasonable choices about which things to fit into the budget and which not to. That requires having some idea of how big the budget is and how expensive different types of help are.

The prices are just estimates, but they can often be pretty decent estimates. You can’t make perfect predictions, in advance, about how expensive an activity will be. For example, John doesn’t know exactly how tiring taking Lily to the park today would be.

Technically the budget involves many different currencies: time, money, energy, etc. An activity can use 3 points of time, 7 points of money, and 5 points of energy. To simplify, it’s often OK to just think of a single budget for help and hope things average out OK (some activities cost more money than average, but some are free, so overall if the help budget comes out OK then the money budget may come out OK too). If there’s a notable shortage of a particular resource (commonly time, money or energy), then paying attention to that budget can help. People are pretty aware of time and money as limited resources, but pay somewhat less attention to energy. Sometimes you have plenty of time to do something but you’re too tired. E.g., after work one day, John might have 4 hours of free time, but because he’s tired he doesn’t want to do much more than watch TV.

Typical families do a poor job of communicating about budgeting. Parents don’t tell their children much about money. The child doesn’t know how much money the parent makes or what it’s spent on. Instead of rational budgeting, parents help in socially normal ways with no overall plan. As individual things come up, the parent tries to help if it’s a normal way that parents help children, and the parent can help (the budget hasn’t already run out). Then when the budget runs out, the parent starts saying “no” to stuff and the child is disappointed. Then the parent talks about how much he already helped his child, and how much he does for his child in general, instead of talking about how to stop doing some of those ways of helping so that the child can get some more things of his choice without running into “no”. The parent doesn’t normally say, “I don’t have time to do that for you today, but we can talk about which things I can skip doing for you tomorrow in order to save time for it and for your other requests.”

Parents often find their children’s requests unpredictable. Some days have way more requests than others. This makes it hard for the parent to know how much budget to save for the child’s requests, vs. how much help to offer the child earlier in the day.

Children often don’t think about budgeting, they just want all the help that seems reasonable or normal to them, that they see on TV or see their friends get, or that sounds good to them. That doesn’t work and leads to disappointment. They would be better off if they thought about budgeting. A 4 year old can understand and think about some budget, and a 14 year old can do a lot.

Parents can think of helping their children in three different ways: asks, expectations and guesses. Asks are things the child asks for. Expectations are things the parent is pretty confident the child wants, e.g. because he’s asked for it a lot in the past or likes it a lot. And guesses are things the parent thinks the child might like. Guesses should usually be small things so it’s not a big deal if it doesn’t work out. If the parent guesses the child would like a big thing, the parent should ask the child about it before spending a lot of resources on it.

With babies, parents start out guessing. These guesses are informed by our culture. People know, in general, what kinds of stuff babies commonly like and dislike. That gives the parent some ideas about how to help. Then the parent sees how the baby reacts, and what happens, and can start customizing the help and having some expectations. As children get older, they ask for more and more things. Once they are adults and move out, they still occasionally get help from their parents, and most of that help is specifically asked for.

At first, the parent controls the whole helping budget. Over time, he gives up control of an increasing large amount of the budget to the child. This makes rational budgeting harder. When the parent makes all the decisions, he can have a master plan. Parents are often stressed and don’t do a great job at bigger picture planning, but at least they can do it, and do give it some thought. Once the budget has two people deciding on expenditures, it’s harder to control and plan. The two people don’t have all the same goals. So one person is spending the budget for some goals, and the other is spending it for different goals, so it’s not all being used according to one single plan. People fight over budgets when they have different goals: John is trying to get Lily to do the stuff John thinks should be done, and wants help budget spent on that, but Lily has other ideas and wants more of the budget used her way. It gets really bad when people’s goals contradict and they are using shared resources, so they end up using up the resources to work against each other.

It’s hard for 10 year old Lily to control the helping budget because she doesn’t control the help provided in the expectations or guesses categories. And it’s hard for John to control the helping budget because he doesn’t control the help provided in the asks category. Lily does have some control about expectations (John is paying attention to what she likes, what she wanted in the past, etc) and guesses (Lily has less control here, but John tries not to spend a lot of budget on this because, for that reason, it’s a riskier category). And John does have some control over asks – he can say no or he can discuss whether an ask is a good idea and maybe change Lily’s mind.

John and Lily often don't see the costs or benefits of help the same way. Sometimes Lily asks for something which she believes is easy, but it's hard for John (it uses up a lot more budget than Lily expected). Sometimes John offers help which he thinks is very helpful to Lily, so it's worth the price. Lily accepts because it helps her a little, but it's not actually worth the price.

The budget model of helping can help John and Lily understand that there are limited resources (rather than just trying to do socially normal help in an ad hoc way) communicate about the costs and benefits of different ways of helping, think about big picture plans and goals, and try to figure out a budget which will do a good job of helping with those goals.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)

Social "Intellectuals"

The primary qualification for being regarded as an intellectual is to develop a reputation and convince people to regard you as an intellectual.

Being widely regarded as “intellectual” is a social status. It is achieved through specific types of social climbing.

Social climbing and reason are enemies. They’re incompatible. Someone really good at reason would reject social climbing. So we should expect to find that most “intellectuals” are bad at reason. And, from extensive surveying, I think the evidence fits the prediction well.

Being regarded as an intellectual does have something to do with being smart or figuring out some good ideas, at least in some cases. It’s not purely a social game. The best thinkers sometimes gain some intellectual reputation, though often not the best or highest reputation. So e.g. the best living economist, George Reisman, is largely unheard of, but would be regarded by most people as being an intellectual (since he was a professor and wrote a 1000 page book on economics). There are many more examples of great thinkers without accurate reputations.

Some types of intellectual accomplishments are easier to judge than others, so they do a better job of leading to a reputation regardless of what else the person does. Generally scientific ideas (“hard” sciences only) are easier to judge than philosophical ideas. Hence most famous philosophers are awful, while a fair amount of famous scientists are actually good (particularly people who got famous for scientific work, not for writing popular books about science or doing a science podcast or something like that).

Reputations sometimes get more accurate centuries after someone dies. That removes some of the social factors from mattering, and it gives people in the field more time to sort out which ideas are actually good. In general, scientists are much better at science 300 years later, so they can do a decent job of judging the scientific achievements of the scientists from 300 years in the past. However, historians are often wrong. The news is often wrong about what happened yesterday, and historians have a much harder job that gets harder as things get older. False reputations can persist for centuries and the refuting information can be lost.

The good news is: making intellectual contributions has a lower barrier to entry than you may have thought. You don’t need a fancy reputation. Most of the people you think are above you are incompetent. You don’t need the same education or peers that they have in order to do good work.

But beware. You can easily make the same mistakes as them. You can focus on social climbing while pretending to yourself that you’re seeking truth. Avoiding that is more important, and harder to come by, than any credentials.

The bad news is: if you don’t think, you can’t safely expect other people to do it for you. It’s not a safe thing to count on others doing correctly. You should try to learn and reason, yourself, if you value your life, instead of leaving your fate in the hands of our society's “intellectual authorities”.

The world needs more people who are willing to try to learn and think. The main tools needed are honesty, curiosity, energy, avoiding bias, choosing truth over social perceptions, and some stuff like that, not to have an extensive education or to be born a “genius”. Those things are harder and rarer than most people think, but if you think you have them, do something with them. E.g. start discussing ideas in the comments below. Anyone can do it if they are willing to prioritize truth over social status.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (5)

Time-Based Metric For Overreaching

How can you tell if you're overreaching? Here are simple guidelines:

90% of the time, thinking should take 2 minutes or less. (1 in 10 things goes past 2 minutes.)

90% of cases that take longer should be under 15 minutes. (1 in 100 things goes past 15 minutes.)

90% of the cases that take longer than that should be under 2 days. (1 in 1000 things goes past 2 days.)

Next steps should be fast. You shouldn't be stuck for long periods of time. ("Long" means longer than the amounts of time above. A main point of this post is that people have the times wrong and are routinely stuck for a few hours and don't realize how long and bad that is.)

Most stuff you do should be small and easy. If it's not, break it into smaller parts (so that you can be making progress frequently by finishing one little part) or find easier stuff to do.

If someone says something, you should usually have an idea of your reply within 2 minutes. A clarifying question is fine as a reply. It doesn't have to be a big thing. Or if you are going to give a big reply where you make 5 points, then you could think of each point as a mini project and figure each one out in 2 minutes.

If you're writing an article or novel, most steps should take less than 2 minutes of thinking before you do them. A paragraph is a reasonable step. You decide what the next idea will be, then you write the paragraph for it. If you stop midway through the paragraph, starting again is another step. If you need to do planning for the paragraph, e.g. checking your notes about the plot and your chapter outline, those activities are also steps. If you spend 10 minutes reading your notes before starting a paragraph, that's fine, that's time spent making progress on the activity. The time limits are for the time you aren't doing anything, where you're just thinking and not actively, directly getting anything time. When the breaks between actively doing stuff are larger than these time limits, that indicates it's hard for you and a lot of problems are coming up and you're probably making a bunch of mistakes.

Don't try to cheat. This will only help people who approach it honestly. Like if you think of a clarifying question in 10 seconds, just ask it. Don't save it for 1 minute 50 seconds to try to get extra thinking time.

If you're usually going near the time limits, something is wrong. Sometimes it should be 5 seconds, sometimes 30 seconds, sometimes 90 seconds. If you're frequently just under 2 minutes (or a little over and rounding down), you're probably overreaching. For the 2 day timeframe, most of those should only take a couple hours of time you actually spend on it. Actually spending a large portion of one day, let alone two days, should be much rarer. Two days gives you time to sleep on it, or leave it on the back burner for a while, wihch is good to do occassionally.

These guidelines are not exact but the simplicity and ease-of-measurement are major upsides. They can give you a ballpark of what to look for. Compare what you do to this and see if it's even close. I think people don't have much understanding of how long "too long" is, in concrete numbers, so this will help.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (2)