How To Ask Questions

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: I was told that I should ask you about parenting, but I'm not sure why.
Elliot: OK, go ahead. Perhaps you'll learn why, after you ask.
Caeli: What do you think of parents, today?
Elliot: I am not impressed.
Caeli: Why not?
Elliot: They use false epistemology, they don't think about and address the primary issues they are responsible for addressing, they don't notice when they act cruelly, or worse sometimes they do notice and continue anyway, they...
Caeli: Let's stop there for now. What are the primary issues that a parent needs to consider?
Elliot: He needs to think about what role he should play in his child's life, and what his responsibilities are, and he needs to consider whether conventional parenting practices make sense before adopting them.
Caeli: What are his responsibilities?
Elliot: A parent should help his child become independent. This has various aspects. He needs to give material support, and he needs to help the child find interests, and he needs to help the child to learn a variety of things.
Caeli: What sort of things are important for children to learn?
Elliot: Morality is near the top. That means knowledge of what a good life is, and how to make good choices. Then there's various things loosely called philosophy: how to ask questions, how to approach learning about something new, how to think of good ideas, how to solve problems, how to be optimistic, how to treat other people well, how to treat one's self well, how to decide which ideas to believe or not, how to explain reality. But let us never forget that the goal is not to force a child to learn what the parent deems important, it is to help the child learn things he is interested in. The things I've mentioned are things I think pretty much everyone would like to know and find helpful. There will also be other things. They may include how to play chess, or build lego castles, or beat a video game, but they may not.
Caeli: What if my child doesn't care for most of the things you mentioned? I don't remember meeting any children who asked me about any of those.
Elliot: Did you offer them?
Caeli: No, I guess not.
Elliot: Most people you meet already have ideas about what all the things I mentioned are. About whether they are fun, hard, useful, and what the answers are. And most people you meet have already learned that most people give bad advice about those things. So I don't think you can expect someone to just start asking you about them.
Caeli: Still, what if my child isn't interested in them?
Elliot: Well, first of all, is there a problem? If he knows other things and is doing well, maybe you shouldn't worry. And maybe he knows more about them than you've realised. So, consider what the topics have to offer, and then offer those things.
Caeli: And if he says no?
Elliot: There will be a reason. He may not tell it to you; he may not know what the reason is, explicitly. But you can try to figure it out.
Caeli: I don't know how to.
Elliot: Aha! I think you're demonstrating two things here. The first is that philosophy is very useful: your lack of knowledge of it is an obstacle to being a good parent. And second, perhaps the reason you find it difficult to imagine persuading your child that you have valuable philosophy to offer, is that in some areas, you don't.
Caeli: Am I a bad person?
Elliot: No, I didn't mean it that way. Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. Especially because good philosophy is hard to come by. Most people don't know any, explicitly.
Caeli: What's explicitly?
Elliot: It means in a language, like English. It's like conscious thoughts. If you can put an idea into words, it's explicit, but if you can't, it isn't.
Caeli: Alright, continue.
Elliot: A bad person is someone who chooses bad things for his life, or who values bad things.
Caeli: Isn't it important to actively choose good things for my life?
Elliot: Yes, but did you ever turn down a chance to learn philosophy that looked promising?
Caeli: No, I guess not. But wouldn't it be better if I knew more, now?
Elliot: It would undoubtedly be nice if you did. But if there was no way available to you to do better, surely you've done nothing wrong. Also, bear in mind that if you did know more, you could still say, "Wouldn't it be nice if I knew more?". You can say that no matter how much you know. It's just the human condition.
Caeli: What if there was a way I could have known more already, but I didn't notice it?
Elliot: I'm sure there were ways, if you knew how to find them. But you didn't, and I don't see how anyone could fault you for that. What you're really getting at is that it's possible to do better than we actually do. And that is great thing. It means improvement is possible.
Caeli: Is it bad to not improve really fast?
Elliot: It's important to try to improve, and to care about improving. It's also important not to beat yourself up over any mistakes you might make. That won't help anything. I like you now; you ask good questions.
Caeli: Thanks, I feel better. Shall we get back to parenting?
Elliot: OK.
Caeli: So one thing a parent should do is help his child learn about life and philosophy and his interests. But you said not to force him to learn these things. Can you expand?
Elliot: The way conventional parenting works is that the parent feels a huge responsibility towards his child. There is this person, and he's vulnerable, and the parent doesn't want him to be hurt. And he could grow up to be a criminal, and the parent doesn't want that. And he could just grow up to be boring, and have a mediocre life, and the parent doesn't want that either. The parent wants to protect him, and guide him to good things.
Caeli: That sounds good to me.
Elliot: Well, the motives are good. But that doesn't mean the results will be.
Caeli: Go on.
Elliot: Parents are so keen to prevent mistakes, that when they disagree with their child, they force the child to do it their way. And they make rules, again to prevent the child from doing anything the parent thinks would be a mistake.
Caeli: Do you think children are usually right?
Elliot: No, of course not. Children have a lot of ignorance. But they aren't always wrong, especially when the issue is their own life.
Caeli: If parents are right most of the time, would it maybe be best to just always do what the parent suggests? It'd work pretty well, most of the time.
Elliot: I don't think it would. But the best way to discuss this may be to look at the alternative, which is clearly better.
Caeli: OK, what is it?
Elliot: Most of the time, parent and child will agree. The parent will say he knows best, and suggest something, and the child will have no idea what's best, so he'll take his parents advice, willingly. That's the common case. So without any mention of using force, we already have a good thing happening most of the time.
Caeli: OK, so I guess the important case must be when they disagree.
Elliot: That's right. When they disagree, what the child is saying is, "I do know something about this topic. I have some knowledge, and I think it's enough knowledge to make a decision, and this is what I want to do."
Caeli: Isn't the child probably wrong?
Elliot: I can't evaluate the probability. But it isn't important. What's important is that we don't dismiss the child out of hand. There's no good reason to, and it messes up the times the child is right. And it teaches the wrong lessons about how to think.
Caeli: What do you mean?
Elliot: It's important to think for yourself, and to learn about how good your ideas are. That way you can learn to create better ideas by avoiding mistakes you've made in the past.
Caeli: So, if the parent doesn't discuss a child's ideas, he won't find out which ones are good and which are bad?
Elliot: Right. So, when there is a disagreement, the first thing that should be tried is to consider the disagreement and try to persuade each other.
Caeli: What if they don't want to?
Elliot: If things are going well, they will want to. I think it'd be best to first consider the case where life goes smoothly, to see how things should work. Then, if you still have questions about alternative lifestyles, or how to get to the right lifestyle from a flawed one, we can address them. Does that sound good?
Caeli: Yeah, that makes sense. OK, so they are trying to persuade each other...
Elliot: Right. Now the most common thing will be that the parent persuades the child. The reason is that although both could be wrong about the subject itself, the child has less knowledge about how much knowledge he needs to venture an opinion. And he has less knowledge about what subjects might be related and important. There are a lot more ways the child is likely to go wrong.
Caeli: OK, so what's the point?
Elliot: Well, the most common case is that the child agrees immediately. In a disagreement, the most common case is that the child had a parochial misconception and is easily persuaded. But after that, the other case is that they still disagree, and then they are on even ground. There is no way to tell, automatically, who is right. We can't just assume the parent is.
Caeli: Are you sure it's even? I think a lot of parents misjudge how much they know about their child's life and interests.
Elliot: That's a very good point. Most disputes are about the child's life, so the child is in a better position to know about it.
Caeli: So what should happen if the parent and child can't agree?
Elliot: Well, first off, they can agree. It's possible. There's no powerful force stopping them.
Caeli: No? But people find it hard to agree.
Elliot: Well, communication is a very hard problem. That covers a ton of cases. And then there's the issue that maybe to come to agree they need to think of some new idea to help reconcile their positions. They can do that, and nothing is stopping them, but maybe they won't.
Caeli: OK, so they can agree. But let's say they don't. Then what.
Elliot: Well, the child's life is the child's life. Why shouldn't he make his own choices?
Caeli: He doesn't know what's best for himself.
Elliot: Well, remember we are only discussing the cases where first the parent's initial idea didn't win the child over, and then when they talked about it, the parent wasn't able to think of anything very persuasive. Or cases where the child has a really powerful idea of his own. So in these cases, either the parent hasn't been able to show that he knows what's best, or the child has an especially good idea. So this is the time it's least possible to say that children don't know what's best for themselves, because we are only discussing the few times when maybe they do.
Caeli: I'm not sure about that, but let's go on and maybe it will make more sense. Why should a child make his own choices, exactly?
Elliot: Because he's a person. A human being. One of the things we value in our culture is freedom. Everyone gets his own life, and his own property, and makes his own decisions about what to do with them. That's a great thing, and we should apply it to everyone.
Caeli: I think I'm losing track of the point. Can you summarise?
Elliot: You asked about parenting. One of the issues parents face is helping their children learn important things about life, to prepare them for independence. Parents commonly make rules, and insist on their way by force, but they shouldn't. It's better to persuade children, and in the rare cases where the parent can't figure out how to do that, he has just demonstrated his own ignorance of either the subject or the child, and either way he's now in the one situation where he'd want to use force, but also the one situation where he has lost all justification to use it.
Caeli: I'm getting tired, do you mind if we continue tomorrow? I promise I'll reread what you said. There's so many things I wanted to ask that we didn't get to. Like what is parochial, and how do you know about all this stuff, and what if the parent says persuasive things but the child won't listen.
Elliot: I don't mind taking a break. I'm glad you seem excited by this.
Caeli: By the way, why is the title "How To Ask Questions"? It was all about parenting.
Elliot: The topic was parenting. But the Caeli character asked a question for most of her lines. So this conversation serves as a good example of how to ask questions.
Caeli: Oh, that's great. I'm proud.
Elliot: You should be. Goodnight.
Caeli: Bye!

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 2

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: What's parochial?
Elliot: This is going to take a little while to explain, so bear with me.
Caeli: OK.
Elliot: In the distant past, life was very different, in some ways. But in other ways, it was similar. In the distant future, life will be very different, in some ways. But in other ways, it will be similar. Things that are constant between different places, different times, and different cultures, like logic or math, are not parochial. Features of our personal circumstances that are unique to our lives, are very parochial. The main idea is that parochial thinking is lacking in perspective. It mistakes local features of reality for universal patterns. The opposite of parochial is something like universal, necessary, or fundamental.
Caeli: What do you mean by "local"?
Elliot: Local usually means "here". It's stuff that's close to us, usually physically close, like in terms of location. But more generally, a local thing is one that isn't attached to the universe in general. It's something we can think about in isolation.
Caeli: Is anything really unrelated to anything else?
Elliot: Not perfectly, but we can think about the aspects that are unrelated, or make some approximations.
Caeli: OK, so parochial ideas are like local ideas?
Elliot: That's very close. But if an idea really is local, it's not wrong to think so. Parochial thinking refers to making mistakes about what is local. It's thinking stuff is not local, when actually it is.
Caeli: Can you give an example?
Elliot: There's a saying that death and taxes are universal. The reason people think that is that they play a huge role in our lives. But the saying is very silly. Already people are putting off death for many years using new medicines. And already there are books describing how we could have a good society without taxes.
Caeli: I think I see what you mean. So, should we just avoid saying that things are universal, if we don't know?
Elliot: What we need to do, is think carefully about what we do know, and what makes sense. Explanations have their own logic which says what they apply to, and you can't make it more or less just by saying something different. Now consider taxes. Lots of societies in the past didn't have any. So it's hard to imagine how a careful thinker could conclude they are a universal feature of human existence.
Caeli: What about death?
Elliot: Well, that one is easy to forgive, at least until recently. Let's not worry too much about whether people should have known better in the past. The point is that if we try, we can identify a lot of parochial mistakes and avoid them. Surely we will be making others we don't know about, but the goal is to get better at this.
Caeli: Why is this important?
Elliot: It's related to a lot of things. For example, parenting. Because of their extreme ignorance, young children are prone to make parochial errors. They have such a small data set to work with that unless they get a lot of advice about how to not think parochially, they are bound to make a lot of mistakes.
Caeli: That's cool. I like when seemingly different topics are related.
Elliot: Yeah. It happens a lot. The reason is that explanations have reach. I was actually just talking about this a moment ago. I was saying that you can't make explanations apply to more or less stuff. So, another word for "apply" there is "reach".
Caeli: What's an example that goes the other way: making an explanation have less "reach" than it should?
Elliot: Suppose someone says that it's wrong to hit people, because hitting hurts, and hurting is wrong. That applies to all hitting, whether he likes it or not. It applies to self defense. Hitting an assailant hurts him, and hurting is wrong (or so he says).
Caeli: That's silly. Of course not all hitting, or hurting, is wrong.
Elliot: Indeed, but people say stuff like this all the time. Another example would be if a parent says that pornography is sinful, so a child can't see any. Well, if that's so, then to be consistent the parent better not look at any pornography either, or by his own logic he is a sinner.
Caeli: A lot of people think life is different for parents and children, and different rules should apply to them. Does that make sense?
Elliot: Yes and no. Parents and children have different circumstances, and different characteristics. For example, parents are generally taller, so they have less need to keep things on low shelves. I think the important thing is that any difference between what's right for parents and children has a reason. It needs to be based on different characteristics. But what is the characteristic of children that makes pornography more sinful for a child than a parent?
Caeli: I don't know. Why don't you tell me?
Elliot: I think what people say is that children can't handle it as well until they are more mature. But I don't agree with that.
Caeli: Why not?
Elliot: I don't want to dwell on this, but I'll say briefly that people's obsession with sex is very parochial, and the ideas surrounding sex are full of error.
Caeli: That sounds interesting. Can I ask you about it some time?
Elliot: Yes, I'd be happy to talk about it. I just don't want to get too far away from parenting for now.
Caeli: OK, I agree, let's try to keep focussed. So, umm, what's next?
Elliot: Yesterday you asked, "What if the parent says persuasive things but the child won't listen?"
Caeli: Oh yeah! That's a good question.
Elliot: One issue is that the word "listen" is ambiguous here. It could mean that the child still disagrees, or it could mean that he plugs his ears and doesn't hear what the parent says.
Caeli: Well, I meant that he hears the parent, but he acts like he isn't listening.
Elliot: OK, I think I see the confusion. What you're imagining is a very common scene. It's a family where a lot of things have gone wrong in the past, and now the child doesn't trust the parent, but he also doesn't know how to stand up for himself, so he doesn't like what the parent is saying, but he doesn't know what to do about it, so he just sort of ignores it.
Caeli: What should be done about that?
Elliot: That's a very hard question to answer, because it's very parochial. First, there's no universal reason that things should go disastrously wrong in that way. It's a feature of our culture, and a fairly recent phenomenon. Second, every family is different, and the solution will depend on subtle details of the people involved and their lives. Third, if we focus on the wrong way to live, that misses the point. What people really need to know is the right way. If they understood that, they could work out how to get there.
Caeli: Hmm, so I guess you want to tell me the right way to live?
Elliot: Yes :)
Caeli: What is :) ?
Elliot: It's a smiley face. It's sideways.
Caeli: Oh, I see. Neat :)
Elliot: You can add a nose, too :-), or stick out its tongue :-p
Caeli: Haha, mine is winking ;)
Elliot: When things are going right, what does it mean for a child not to listen? It means he is not persuaded. It means he disagrees. It means he thinks his own idea of what to do is best, and nothing the parent has said has changed that. (Or, more likely, the child has changed his idea in small ways because he thought the parent was right about some side issues.)
Caeli: So, what should the parent do about this?
Elliot: Well, he should consider that he might be wrong. And he should also consider that it might not be very important either way. And if he thinks he is right and it is important, he should think about how to express this better. Maybe what you're really getting at is you want to know how to be persuasive?
Caeli: Yeah, that sounds right. And also, does persuasion always work, if you're right?
Elliot: That's a good question. OK, the key elements to persuasion are argument and suggestion. By argument, I mean pointing out flaws in the ideas other than yours, and saying criticism of them. I'll call those ideas "rivals", by the way. So, we give reasons that rival theories don't work. If you can convince someone his idea is no good, he won't want to do it any longer. By suggestion, I mean suggesting your own idea that you think would be best. To be persuasive, you don't have to conclusively rule out alternatives. If you highlight the great merits of your advice, people will take it even if other courses of action still look OK.
Caeli: What if someone is having trouble seeing the merits, and you know what they are, but you're having trouble putting it into words?
Elliot: That's hard. If it's important enough, you can keep trying and you will be able to figure it out, especially with the other person's help. He can say what he understands so far, and make guesses about what you mean.
Caeli: That sounds nice. I wish the people I talked with were so helpful.
Elliot: Maybe you should suggest that they try that.
Caeli: I will, now that you mention it. So, do continue.
Elliot: Well, if it's not really important, and you can't put your idea into words, then it won't be a disaster if the other person doesn't take your advice. So just relax.
Caeli: Would it be better if he did take my advice though, if I'm right?
Elliot: You can't be certain you're right, so it's important that he make up his own mind about who's right.
Caeli: OK, but the point is he can't make up his mind because I haven't expressed my idea properly. But if I am right, and I don't express it, isn't he missing out?
Elliot: Well, yes, I guess so. But consider that the time it takes to put your idea into words could be spent doing something else, which would also be valuable.
Caeli: So, I don't think I really understand how to be persuasive, yet.
Elliot: Well, you criticise rival ideas, and suggest your own. If you explain why your idea is good, and others are flawed, and you're right, and the person understands, surely he will be persuaded.
Caeli: It sounds easy when you put it that way. But in practice isn't it hard?
Elliot: Yes. Life is complex, so there will be lots of factors to take into account. And communication is hard, so people aren't going to understand all the nuances of your position, at least not immediately.
Caeli: So let's try to tie this back to parenting. You were saying a parent should use persuasion and not force or rules?
Elliot: That's right. There are some huge benefits to doing it this way.
Caeli: What are they?
Elliot: First is error correction. If the policy is to always do what the parent originally says, then any errors the parent has in his thinking will never be corrected. But when persuasion is attempted, a lot of errors can be found. And I don't just mean that the child will point them out. When he tries to present his ideas rationally and persuasively, the parent himself will discover a lot of problems with them, and a lot of improvements that could be made.
Elliot: Second is that how is a child to learn how to think for himself if the parent never lets him? I realise parents will try to give their children some choices. But, the more the better. A child who is accustomed to considering rival ideas, and evaluating criticisms and merits will be much better prepared to be independent.
Elliot: Third, by involving the child, we have a whole new source of creativity. No longer is it the parent's sole burden to find good things for the child. Now the child will be able to help. Maybe he won't have many good ideas at first, but over time he will get better at it.
Caeli: That sounds good. Why don't more parents do it?
Elliot: They think that they do! A lot of parents say they listen and give reasons, and only "lay down the law" when their child is being really unreasonable and is obviously wrong. Unfortunately what this actually means is that if the parent fails to be persuasive, he interprets this as the child's error.
Caeli: Could it be the child's error?
Elliot: Yes, certainly. But the parent doesn't know that it is. It's never obvious that something is wrong. Sometimes it appears to be, but that could be a parochial mistake.
Caeli: Wow, this parochial thing really does come up a lot.
Elliot: Yeah, I told you :)
Caeli: Could you give an example of something that seems obvious, but is actually a parochial mistake?
Elliot: Suppose a parent sees his child pouring cereal on the floor. He may think this is obviously a mistake. The child is making a mess, for no good reason. He has some horrible misconception, or worse he's trying to hurt the parent. In the parent's worldview, there is nothing to gain by putting cereal on the floor, and a lot to lose. He assumes this must be true of everyone else's life too. But it isn't.
Caeli: What's a worldview?
Elliot: It means all of someone's ideas and values and explanations.
Caeli: Why might a child pour cereal on the floor? That doesn't sound good to me.
Elliot: Maybe it makes an interesting sound. Maybe it's fun to walk on. Maybe the child wants to have more cereal, and thinks pouring it is a way to create cereal. Maybe the child dropped something into the box, and is trying to get it back out. Maybe the child thinks the cereal is pretty and makes the floor look nicer. Maybe the child has seen the dog eating things off the floor before, and wants to see it again. Maybe the child doesn't like that cereal and wants to get rid of it.
Caeli: A lot of those aren't very good reasons to pour cereal on the floor. Like if the child lost a toy in the box, he could probably get it by reaching in, or at least he could dump the cereal into a container to avoid making a mess and to be able to eat it later.
Elliot: That's very true. There are probably improvements that could be made. But the point is that the fundamental idea the child has could be sound. There are many, many ways it could be sound. That the parent couldn't think of any shows there was a serious error in his thinking.
Caeli: Oh, I guess there was.
Elliot: What the child really needs is not for the parent to force him to stop. That's terrible. He could just use some help. It'd be good if the parent found out what he was trying to accomplish, and then gave some suggestions. Like if the child is trying to decorate, he might like to know about paint, which has a lot of advantages over cereal. And he might like to know about paper too, instead of using the floor.
Caeli: That's cool. After some improvements, the final result could probably be something the parent doesn't mind anymore.
Elliot: That's right. And also, suppose the child likes walking on cereal, and he's doing it on the kitchen floor which is actually a good place for that. Then the parent could change his mind and approve once he knows that reason, and sees that the child's action makes sense.
Caeli: What if the child's idea actually is bad?
Elliot: The worse it is, the more better ideas exist for the parent to suggest. And the worse it is, the easier it is to find bad parts that the child won't like once they're pointed out.
Caeli: Oh, that's cool. So the times it's hardest to be persuasive are the times it's least important.
Elliot: Yes, exactly!
Caeli: I need to go, but I'd love to continue another time.
Elliot: I'll be happy to oblige. Farewell.
Caeli: Bye bye!

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 3

Caeli: Hey!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Last time we talked was fun. I'm glad to be back.
Elliot: That's excellent.
Caeli: So, where were we? Oh yeah. We were talking about persuasion. I don't think you clearly said if persuasion always works, if you are right.
Elliot: It doesn't, but that's OK. Keep in mind that the more important the situation is -- the more critical the error you wish to correct -- the easier persuasion is. So when persuasion fails, we're usually talking about cases where nothing too big is at stake.
Caeli: OK, but even then wouldn't it be better if we got the right answer? If persuasion won't work, maybe we can get it another way.
Elliot: There is no such thing as a way of acting that always does the right answer. It's not possible to have a system that makes mistakes impossible. What we should look for are policies that help spread good ideas to everyone, and help prevent mistakes from spreading, and help eliminate mistakes within ourselves.
Caeli: That sounds wise. OK, how do we do that?
Elliot: Let's compare persuasion and listening to people who feel completely sure that they are right. If someone is sure he's right, and everyone is required to listen to him, good ideas will have an easy time spreading. Someone just has to think of one, and be confident that it's good. Unfortunately, bad ideas will also spread easily. Every time someone mistakes a bad idea for a good one, that will spread just as easily as a good idea. And there aren't any mechanisms for correcting errors built into this system, so once they start to spread, there's nothing to stop them.
Caeli: What about with persuasion?
Elliot: Using persuasion, good ideas will often spread, and they will spread fairly effectively. Bad ideas, on the other hand, will have an uphill battle. Every step of the way, people will challenge them and criticise them. And if someone comes up with a powerful criticism of a bad idea, that itself is a good idea, and a persuasive one that many people will be interested in, so it could spread and cause the elimination of error. Further, if I try to persuade someone of my idea, he may end up persuading me that I was wrong, or I may realise I'm wrong while examining my own idea. So there are multiple levels of error correction.
Caeli: If someone's really sure he has a good idea, isn't that important? If we take that into account, maybe we can find and spread good ideas faster, while still thinking for ourselves some too.
Elliot: It does matter. There are a lot of steps people can take to get their ideas heard. For example, they can write and publish a book. If someone cares enough to do that, more people will be exposed to his ideas. Or he can go on TV, or give lectures. People can put effort into advocating their ideas proportional to how sure they are that it's true and valuable.
Caeli: Oh, that's cool. What if the author of a good idea is really busy, though?
Elliot: If he's too busy to ever tell anyone, then no possible system could spread his idea. But if he does tell some people, they are free to advocate his idea for him, with as much passion as they think is fitting.
Caeli: Are there any of your ideas that you'd like me to advocate for you?
Elliot: That would be nice. But I don't want to say which ones. Just pick whichever you find most interesting or important, or whichever ones come up frequently in your life.
Caeli: OK, I will!
Elliot: I will do the same for you, of course.
Caeli: But I haven't said any ideas.
Elliot: You've said some, but also your questions contain ideas in them. What I meant is that I learn things from you, and I won't hesitate to pass them on when good chances present themselves.
Caeli: Oh, thanks :)
Caeli: Will you tell people that the ideas came from me?
Elliot: Probably not. It's hard to keep track of where my ideas come from, and it's not very important anyway. We should judge ideas based on their merits, not their author.
Caeli: But I want to get credit, so people know I have good ideas.
Elliot: Don't worry about that. Anyone who talks to you will instantly see that you are bright. And if he doesn't, he's silly, so don't think of him.
Caeli: OK, I guess. Maybe I'll come back to this later. What I really want to know about today is you said parents act cruelly.
Elliot: That's right. There are a lot of well known things parents do or say which are cruel. Consider: "You'll understand when you're older", "Do what I say, or else", "Eat your vegetables", "Go to your room", "You can come back when you're ready to apologize", "Because I'm your father, and I said so".
Elliot: And then there's ideas like that children need limits and boundaries. Which are only meaningful and controversial because they mean limits and boundaries that children don't want. And there's the ideas of compromises, discipline, obedience, spoiling children, that "you can't always get what you want", and that a few dollars a week is plenty of money.
Caeli: Wow, that's a lot of stuff. I see why some of them are bad, like "I said so" isn't a good reason. But what about being a father? Don't parents need to be able to make some decisions for the family?
Elliot: As we've discussed earlier, the more critical the case, the easier persuasion is. If a parent can honestly say that something is very important, but for some reason, such as time pressure, he isn't able to explain things to the child now, then won't children voluntarily go along with it?
Caeli: Don't parents try that a lot, and their children don't listen?
Elliot: Yes, but I think you're proving my point. That situation doesn't happen very often. If a parent uses it frivolously, his children may notice and distrust him in the future.
Caeli: What about if they're at a restaurant, and the child is disturbing the other customers. I think that's pretty common.
Elliot: Yes, but it's nothing like the kind of emergency I was thinking of. What's the worst that can happen? You're asked to leave the restaurant. That's not very bad. It's nothing worth damaging your relationship with your family over.
Caeli: Wouldn't it be better if the child calmed down long enough for the parent to explain, so they wouldn't get kicked out?
Elliot: Yes, it would. And that can certainly happen. The parent could say, "Please stop. I think you're making a mistake, and I want to tell you why, but first it's very urgent that you lower your voice and stop throwing things." The child will get an explanation right away if he stops, so he doesn't have anything to lose. He doesn't have to take his parent's advice on faith for more than a few minutes. And once he does this, he'll have a better idea whether to do it again in the future. I think children who won't calm down for a little while to talk have almost always tried this many times in the past, and it didn't go well.
Caeli: How would it go badly?
Elliot: Well, the parent might say, "Great, now you're calm. So, you can't act like that in restaurants. You have to be polite to the other people, and it hurts me when you act like an animal."
Caeli: Wow, that's terrible. I wouldn't want any advice at all from someone who talked like that.
Elliot: Yeah, it's unpleasant. It says the child can't have what he wants, but it doesn't explain why in any detail, and it surely doesn't explain why the suggested way of life is nice and enjoyable. And it's manipulative. The parent has chosen to be hurt by behavior he doesn't like as a way to suppress it.
Elliot: By the way, there's a very important fact we haven't yet considered. It is that a parent does not have to take his child to a formal restaurant before explaining what sort of behavior is expected there. It's quite irresponsible to go to one without giving the child any warning. On the other hand, if the child knows what's happening in advance, and has chosen that he does want to go to the restaurant, then the only things that will stop him from acting with great decorum are either if he doesn't know how to, or he changes his mind.
Caeli: So, then what?
Elliot: If he changed his mind about the restaurant visit, perhaps you should leave. Oh well, but really not a very big deal. And if he doesn't understand decorum, despite the lessons he had before coming, that is almost certainly a very small problem. Just remind him, or tell him the parts he doesn't know. If he's truly interested in trying to act appropriately for a formal restaurant, that is, if he does want to be there, then he will be happy to get advice about how to do it better.
Caeli: I see. I guess most of the problems come when the child doesn't really want to be there, or doesn't want to behave.
Elliot: That happens a lot, yes. Another issue is that parents overreact. I've seen parents discipline their kids because they thought the child was bothering me, even though I said he wasn't. The parent refused to believe me, and thought I was just being polite.
Caeli: That's a shame. Why are parents to eager to be kind and helpful to strangers, but not their own children?
Elliot: Our culture values treating strangers with care, and being helpful to them as appropriate. And it's right to do that. It's just that it is also right to be good to our children.
Caeli: If treating strangers well is valuable, then isn't the parent being helpful by making his child do it?
Elliot: I'm sure he's trying to be helpful. But this gets back to using force or persuasion. There's no need, and no justification, to threaten a child if he has made a mistake out of ignorance. Won't he be happy to be told about a very good value that is present in the world, which he can enjoy?
Caeli: Oh, it sounds so much nicer when you put it that way.
Elliot: Indeed. What's going on frequently is that the child doesn't like the parent's advice, because it isn't persuasive, and doesn't seem to be good or nice.
Caeli: If most parents are bad at persuasion, even when they are right, is it understandable if they use force instead sometimes?
Elliot: Well, are they making a large effort to become better at persuasion? Any effort at all? I don't think they can be forgiven if they aren't trying.
Caeli: What if they don't know that persuasion is better? That's just ignorance, so can't we forgive it?
Elliot: Our society values freedom, and voluntary association, and not being forced to do things. Everyone in our culture knows this. If they decide it somehow doesn't apply to children, they are arbitrarily restricting the reach of one of our values to exclude people. It's well known that you shouldn't do this to other groups like blacks or women. But, yes, it's a parochial error and the real issue shouldn't be forgiveness, it should be how to help our society move past this blindness.
Caeli: That's very noble. What do you think would help to remedy this blight?
Elliot: Maybe writing dialogs.
Caeli: Do you like self-reference?
Elliot: Yes :)
Caeli: What are some ways persuasion can go wrong even though you're right?
Elliot: Persuading another person is a matter of communicating your idea and its merits, and discovering rival theories the other person holds, and communicating criticisms of those. Fortunately, the other person will often be helpful and refute some rival theories himself.
Elliot: So, successful persuasion isn't just about being right. It's also about being able to communicate with this person, and finding out about other ideas he has which are relevant, and responding to them. All those steps can go wrong even if your main idea is true.
Caeli: You've mentioned a few times that communication is hard. That goes against common sense. People hang out to talk all the time, and often use this to relax, and find it easy.
Elliot: How hard it is depends on what you want to say, and your culture. In our culture, some communication is common and easy, because everyone has knowledge to facilitate it. But that's cheating, in a sense, because it doesn't involve much knowledge getting from one person to another, it involves both people already having shared knowledge.
Caeli: OK, so tell me about the case when they don't already share an idea.
Elliot: If someone doesn't understand my idea already, the conventional theory is that I can just tell him, and then he will. But that doesn't make sense. He doesn't know what it is. I can say words that I think can be translated into the idea, but he will only be able to guess at the correct method of translating words to idea, because he doesn't know what he's supposed to end up with.
Elliot: By the way, far and away the best reference on this topic is the book Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. See chapter 6 on The Location of Meaning.
Caeli: Can you give a brief summary, now?
Elliot: Sure. OK, imagine sending messages to space aliens. We have to put the message in a language, say English. And we have to do something to indicate that this is a message, and not just random junk, so that they notice and try to understand it. And we can include some hints about how to decode the main idea, that we think might be helpful.
Caeli: Could we just include a dictionary?
Elliot: Yes, and that might be helpful, but unfortunately they won't know how to read it, when they start.
Caeli: Oh, well how will they ever get started?
Elliot: They can look for patterns, and they can make guesses about what things mean, and then try applying the guesses to other parts of the text, and if the guess makes sense in multiple places, then we know the guess has reach and that's a sign it's good and worth trying in more places.
Caeli: This idea of reach seems to have a lot of reach.
Elliot: Yeah. Now consider when we try to say something to another person. We face all the same problems as with a space alien, except for one difference. The difference is that we already have shared knowledge. In fact, we have a lot, including the whole English dictionary. So that makes it a lot easier, because whenever we want to express a new idea, we can say something that's partly new and partly old. Then it's easier for people to get started decoding it. It's like filling in the blanks, instead of guessing the entire thing at once.
Caeli: So this relates to how you were saying communication is easy when you already share knowledge of what you're saying, but hard when you don't already share the knowledge you want to communicate?
Elliot: Yes. Communicating new ideas to a person is exactly the same kind of problem as communicating them to a space alien. It's easier because we have more shared knowledge to start with. But as many people have pointed out, we can expect to have shared knowledge with space aliens too. They will have physicists and mathematicians, and know about logic and morality, just like we do. Communication is hard in both cases because it's hard to guess what idea someone has when you don't already know it.
Elliot: Now, there's a very important fact I haven't mentioned yet. It is that a baby is just like a space alien. What I mean is that he has very little shared knowledge with other people. So communicating to him is very difficult. And that he ever understands anything is amazing. Babies don't have a whole civilisation with foreign language specialists, physicists, mathematicians, and so on, to translate messages. They only have their own brain, and their extreme ignorance.
Caeli: But babies learn language, and lots of stuff. It doesn't seem like a problem.
Elliot: That happens for a few reasons. The first is that babies have fully functional brains. They are very creative. Otherwise learning human language would not be possible. The second is that our culture has evolved traditions about raising children. What that means is that over time ways to raise kids that work less well have been eliminated, and ways that work better have been found. I don't mean better for everything, but for specific issues like raising a child who can talk, we've evolved to be very good at it. (Of course, raising a child to talk intelligently is another matter, and many people would agree with me that there's room for improvement there.)
Caeli: Are there more reasons?
Elliot: Our children are immersed in our culture. There are people talking all the time. They don't have just one message to decode. There are thousands, and if they only decode every hundredth message, that will be fine. It's easier to find patterns in such a big data set.
Caeli: That's cool. So, I read that scientists have shown that young children don't have mature brains yet, not like adults.
Elliot: Those aren't scientists, they are psychologists and "social scientists". And they are not very interesting, so I'd prefer not to talk about them much. Maybe another time. For now, let me just say: if children don't have very functional brains, what is the explanation for how they learn so much?
Caeli: I don't know.
Elliot: Indeed. And neither do those "scientists" that you mentioned.
Caeli: Actually I better go now. But I'll prepare a few questions for next time.
Elliot: OK, see you.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 4

Caeli: Hiya!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: Yesterday you were talking about ways parents are cruel, but then we got distracted discussing communication and alien babies. I want to know more about parents being cruel.
Elliot: Alien babies?
Caeli: Oh, that was a joke. I pretended to have misunderstood most of what you said in the conversation about the difficulties of communication. Was it too subtle?
Elliot: No, it's a good joke, I just wasn't clear on what you meant :)
Caeli: I'm going to quote things you said that parents say, and then you can explain what's wrong with them in more detail, OK?
Elliot: Sure.
Caeli: "You'll understand when you're older"
Elliot: All that means is, "I won't explain it to you now". Or sometimes it means "I don't know how to explain it, won't try to figure it out, and won't admit it."
Caeli: Don't parents sometimes say that because a child isn't ready to understand something?
Elliot: Sort of. By "not ready", I believe you mean there is other background knowledge that would probably be best to understand first. But so what if there is? Start there. You can make progress towards learning about this today. There's no reason to be dismissive to your child and not help him just because the answer to his question is big and complicated.
Caeli: I see. OK next is "Do what I say, or else"
Elliot: That's a threat. It's vague, admittedly, but what good thing could "or else" mean?
Caeli: Good point, OK let's move on again. "Eat your vegetables"
Elliot: Parents have a habit of making their children eat food that the child does not want to eat. That's quite a lot like torture.
Caeli: Aren't you exaggerating?
Elliot: You tell me. How would you like it if I tied you up and ... well what foods do you truly loathe?
Caeli: Cottage cheese, lima beans, and mandarin oranges.
Elliot: Alright, well I force feed you those foods. Or worse, I mix them together, and add dog kibble and a can of cat food. Doesn't that sound awful?
Caeli: But it's not like that. It's just broccoli or brussel sprouts.
Elliot: Some people hate those just as much as you hate cottage cheese.
Caeli: Isn't it important to eat healthy?
Elliot: Sure. But what constitutes eating healthy is controversial. One of the health problems we have in this country is obesity. And the cure is to not eat when you aren't hungry. Forcing children to eat when they don't want to eat will surely mean eating when they aren't hungry. That isn't preparing them to eat properly.
Caeli: Oh my! Don't parents also say "finish your plate" because they don't want to waste food?
Elliot: Indeed. Although the food isn't really wasted. The point of food -- the reason we buy it -- is to have the option to eat it. We only want to actually eat it under certain circumstances. If we'd be required to eat it a certain food, we would rarely buy that food. Foods go bad, and no one minds throwing that out. And sometimes people serve too much food on their plate. So what? You had the option to eat food without getting up to serve more. You didn't use it. It isn't useful anymore. So throw the food out.
Caeli: What about the starving kids in Africa?
Elliot: What about them. If I eat more food, that won't help them. If you want them to have food, send them money.
Caeli: Why not send them food?
Elliot: Shipping food is far more expensive than sending money. Let huge corporations deal with transporting food between countries. They're better at it.
Caeli: If we give them money, they might waste it buying things other than food.
Elliot: Indeed. So don't give money to people who have wildly different values than you do. They won't use it to further objectives that you value.
Caeli: We're losing focus. Let's move on. "Go to your room"
Elliot: It's cruel to lock a child in a room against his will. And it's a harsh way to deal with a disagreement. It's not persuasion, and it's not helpful.
Caeli: But parents usually add, "And think about what you did", so the child will learn his lesson.
Elliot: An even better idea, if the object is that the child learn, is that instead of being pushed away and told he is bad, the parent tells him that everyone makes mistakes, and he has nothing to feel bad about, and now the parent will help him to learn how to do better next time.
Caeli: Will he take it seriously if he isn't punished?
Elliot: Punishment is a terrible way to get someone to take your ideas seriously. If your ideas are so good, why aren't you arguing for them? What punishment is good at is getting people to be scared of you, and getting them to take actions to avoid being punished again. Is that what you want?
Caeli: No, I don't, I was just asking questions.
Elliot: Oh, I apologize. I didn't mean you personally. It was a rhetorical question.
Caeli: That's OK! "You can come back when you're ready to apologize"
Elliot: What that's saying is the child can come back when he agrees that he was wrong and the parent was right. It's saying the child can't come back unless he says he's persuaded. Instead of persuading the child with ideas, the parent just orders him to be persuaded.
Caeli: Is it important that children apologize for their errors?
Elliot: Not really. Perhaps it's pleasant, but it's not worth fighting over.
Caeli: That's the end of the quotes, but you mentioned a number of other topics. Let's start with compromises.
Elliot: A compromise is a way of acting that no one thinks would be best.
Caeli: Ouch! That's a sharp way to put it.
Elliot: Indeed.
Caeli: How about obedience.
Elliot: Obedience means pretending the parent is always right, and never questioning things. It means the parent can abandon reason in favor of his whim.
Caeli: Spoiling children.
Elliot: Spoiling children means letting them get what they want, a lot. This should be encouraged.
Caeli: But I've met some spoiled brats, and they weren't pleasant at all.
Elliot: There's a lot of things going on here. One is that if a parent just buys his child whatever he wants, then he's not helping the child figure out what is good to want. Getting what you want is only very effective if you have knowledge of what things are good, and if you are creating more of it.
Caeli: What if a parent and child don't have that kind of knowledge. Then should they avoid getting what they want?
Elliot: I don't see how that will help. Especially because that knowledge is probably something they'd like to have.
Caeli: It would prevent them from getting bad things.
Elliot: It would prevent them from getting the best things they know how to get. If that's so terrible it must be stopped, perhaps you should just kill them now and get it over with.
Caeli: That's gruesome. Why'd you say that?
Elliot: Because I'm serious. What's the point of life if you are thwarted from getting anything you want? You'll soon starve to death anyway. Although, it's not as if you could commit suicide: someone would stop you.
Caeli: Oh, I didn't think of it like that. I didn't realise it applied to food, and everything.
Elliot: Explanations have reach, and can't be restricted arbitrarily.
Caeli: Right, right. Thanks for reminding me. But did you have to be so graphic?
Elliot: I like strong arguments, and I like taking things to their logical conclusions. But if it upsets you, I could try to avoid certain things.
Caeli: I think it's OK, but perhaps you could warn me next time? Besides, if it really bothers me, I'll just ask you how to feel better about it.
Elliot: That's a good plan.
Caeli: You mentioned a few dollars a week being plenty of money?
Elliot: That's what some parents seem to think. They spend more on makeup and booze than their kids spend on everything combined.
Caeli: A lot of parents have tight budgets, and they buy a lot of things for their kids out of their own wallets.
Elliot: That's true. But what's going on is the parent wants to have control over what the child buys. So he gives the child very little money. Then whenever the child wants something else, he has to ask his parent, and the parent can decide whether it's a good purchase or a mistake.
Caeli: Isn't it good for parents to help their children avoid bad purchases?
Elliot: Yeah, but this isn't helping. It's not giving advice, and it's not being persuasive. It's just the parent arbitrarily saying "no" when he wants to.
Elliot: I should add that a lot of parents mislead their children about what a lot of money is and isn't. Parents will claim they can't afford a $10 toy, but never mention that they spend $150 a month on cigarettes. They don't put it in perspective, so it's easier to lie.
Caeli: If the cigarettes are already in the budget, along with rent and bills, maybe there really isn't room for the toy.
Elliot: Yeah, but how many parents have an honest discussion about these things? How many consider that maybe some of the things they buy should be up for discussion? Everything the child wants the parent can veto, but the parent only vetoes his own purchases when he decides to on his own.
Caeli: The parents earn the money, so don't they have a right to buy themselves things with it?
Elliot: They do. But they also have a responsibility to their children.
Caeli: I think this is related. You said parents say, "you can't always get what you want". But isn't it true? For example, no matter how they adjust the budget, they won't fit in a jet plane.
Elliot: It's pretty much unheard of that a child seriously wants a jet plane. It's pretty easy to understand that a plane is a huge thing that took a lot of effort by a lot of people to make, and you have to do something really important to be entitled to one. That isn't the sort of purchase that families fight about. It's almost always small stuff that would be possible to buy if the parents really wanted to. And the rest of the time, the child could stop wanting it with a bit of help to create the right knowledge.
Caeli: What about things other than purchases. Like someone might want a certain guy, say Jack Bauer, to be her husband. But she can't have that. She probably can't marry the actor, either.
Elliot: It's true that there are things that you can't have. But the issue is whether you can get what you want. In other words, is there anything that we can't have, but also can't not want? Are there things where we can't have a reasonable preference, so we're bound to be unhappy?
Caeli: Well, are there?
Elliot: If there's a reason that we can't get something, then that's reason enough not to want it. As we understand it can't be gotten, we'll stop wanting it.
Caeli: What if we don't realise that we can't get it?
Elliot: Then there's nothing wrong with pursuing it. We'll learn as we go.
Caeli: That's a good attitude.
Elliot: I think so :)
Caeli: You mentioned limits and boundaries. And you said the only controversial ones are the ones that children don't want.
Elliot: That's right. If a child found a limit, rule, or boundary to be helpful, he'd thank his parent for it, and there wouldn't be any issue. But rules and boundaries are an issue. It's well known that kids frequently fight with their parents over them. The ones that they fight about are only the ones that they think are hurting them.
Caeli: If the child thinks he's being hurt, why would the parent keep doing it?
Elliot: Because he's using force and not persuasion. Persuasion would be better. Someone is right, and it'd be best to find out who. Once they agree, they won't fight any more. There won't be anything to fight about.
Caeli: You make it sound so easy.
Elliot: It's easier than people realize. In fact, even in conventional families, persuasion is successfully used every day. It happens literally all the time. Everyone is rational about some things.
Caeli: What about the times it doesn't work?
Elliot: Unfortunately, people give up easily and declare things impossible. I think most failures weren't really very hard. If people had had more optimism and tried a little more, they soon would have found a solution.
Caeli: What about the remaining hard cases?
Elliot: On the few, rare occasions that persuasion is very difficult to come by, there are still plenty of things to do. First, persuasion is possible. Second, attempting persuasion will help the people understand the problem better, which will make it easier to solve. Third, there are lots of ways to get along, and not hurt each other, without agreeing about everything.
Caeli: I don't agree with my neighbors about everything, or the people on the bus, or my friends and family for that matter.
Elliot: That's right. Everyone you see out on the street is different, but fights are rare.
Caeli: That's great. How does that happen?
Elliot: We live in a peaceful society. We value voluntary interaction, which means people choose to interact only if they want to, and don't use force. And we value freedom, and think it's better to let people live a way we disagree with than to force them to live our way.
Caeli: You'll have to tell me more about that sometime, but I've got to go now.
Elliot: It was nice talking.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 5

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: You said that parents use false epistemology.
Elliot: I did.
Caeli: How so?
Elliot: There are a few main forms of false epistemology. One is induction. One is the idea that knowledge is justified, true belief. There's relativism, positivism, solipsism, instrumentalism. There's the sponge theory of brains. There's foundationalism.
Caeli: And parents use those?
Elliot: Everyone uses them, except for a few people who know better.
Caeli: Is it fair to complain specifically about parents, then?
Elliot: Parents and teachers. Epistemology plays a large role in theories of education and learning, so parents and teachers are people that especially ought to care about it.
Caeli: What is epistemology?
Elliot: It is the field of knowledge about knowledge. It covers what knowledge is, and how we can get it, and its qualities.
Caeli: Oh. That does sound important if you want to help a young child learn.
Elliot: Exactly.
Caeli: Tell me about epistemology.
Elliot: The primary form of false epistemology is the justified, true belief view of knowledge. All the others I mentioned are related to it in some way. But let's start with good epistemology. Then we can compare.
Elliot: Before we begin, let me mention a few outside sources. One of the best philosophers was Karl Popper. He wrote a lot about epistemology and it's worth taking a look at his books. There's also a few chapters about epistemology in The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch which are excellent. Finally, a very good thinker and writer about education was William Godwin. Whereas Popper's focus was on epistemology, Godwin focussed more on the morality of education and parenting. Godwin's books are out of copyright now and you can download one for free at this link.
Caeli: So, what's the right epistemology?
Elliot: Knowledge is created through a process of conjecture and refutation. What this means is you make guesses and then you reject the guesses that are bad. When you find flaws in guesses, you don't have to throw them out entirely. Strictly speaking, that guess is no good. But you can create new guesses that are only slightly different and no longer have the flaw.
Elliot: By removing flaws and errors, our set of guesses constantly improves. So, we end up with new knowledge. This process is called evolution.
Caeli: I thought evolution was about animals.
Elliot: How to be an effective animal that survives and has offspring is a type of knowledge, and it is the best known example of evolution. Another well known example is memes. But the reach of evolution can't be arbitrarily restricted. The logic applies to any kind of knowledge.
Caeli: Do we need to start with true ideas? If we make small changes to false ideas, they'll still be false.
Elliot: It's not important where we start. Well, it sort of is. We should start in the best places we know how to. But it doesn't change the principle of the matter. For all we know, the ideas we are discussing now are largely false. That's OK. We can improve them. Doing so makes life better and lets us solve problems.
Caeli: So you're saying the goal is not to worry about having perfect ideas, but just to improve the ones we have?
Elliot: That's right.
Caeli: And the way to improve them are to find flaws and eliminate the flaws by making new ideas that are changed to not have the flaws anymore?
Elliot: Yeah.
Caeli: How am I supposed to know what the flaws are?
Elliot: People have problems in their life. One person might wish his door would stop getting stuck in the Winter. Another wants his child to be a doctor, but doesn't know how to make that happen. Another wants to marry a girl he met, but isn't sure how to act around her.
Caeli: You make it sound like problems are a lack of knowledge.
Elliot: Well noticed. They are. The only obstacles to doing things are knowing how and wanting to.
Caeli: So, I can't figure out how to get my door to stop sticking. How does that help me find flaws?
Elliot: The door embodies ideas about how to build a door. What shape to make it, and what materials to use, and what features to include to facilitate maintenance or replacement or to resist damage and malfunction. And it embodies ideas about what an aesthetic door would be, and what sort of door would go well with the other things in people's houses, and what sort of doors should be created given the resources available on Earth (including raw materials, technology, and labor).
Caeli: So, when it sticks, that is a criticism of some of the knowledge in the design?
Elliot: Yes, you've got it.
Caeli: How do we tell which knowledge?
Elliot: There's no formula for it. What we need to do is create an explanation of what's going on. It will explain why the door sticks. If we expand it, we can also explain what causes doors to stick or not, in general, and then work out what sorts of doors would not stick, and then use that to propose new ideas about what types of doors to build.
Caeli: Want to go through this example?
Elliot: OK. The door sticks because moisture in the air in Winter is absorbed into the wood, and this makes the door larger. Solutions would include making the door out of water-resistant materials, or coating it with something, or making slightly smaller doors (or slightly larger doorways), or using a lubricant to make it easier to push open even when there is friction with the doorway.
Caeli: You see so much detail in the ordinary.
Elliot: Doors aren't ordinary. They didn't exist for most of the history of the Earth. We create them through complicated processes that people take for granted, but shouldn't. Our civilization is a great wonder. There's a classic example economists give, which is that no one knows how to make a pencil. What they mean is that all the different labor involved is divided among so many people that no one knows how to do all the parts. A pencil includes wood, carbon, paint, rubber, and metal, and each of those things must be harvested, prepared, and put together, and then the pencils must be distributed to stores, and the stores and complex too, as are the ways of shipping things to stores. Shipping raw materials to factories involves trucks or trains. Those involve engines, and thousands of parts, and fuel, and many workers.
Caeli: Wow.
Elliot: Indeed.
Caeli: So, how do we know our criticism is correct? Couldn't we be mistaken when we think we find a flaw.
Elliot: We can be mistaken, but it's no big deal. A way I like to think about ideas is that they grow more complex over time. Instead of just inventing new ideas that don't fall victim to flaws we find, we can include in a new idea an explanation of the issue the flaw was about, and our current best ideas about how to deal with it.
Elliot: Now, suppose we make a mistake when we alter one of our ideas. That's OK. Now our knowledge includes the old idea, and the supposed problem with it, and the new idea, and supposed reason it is better. When we learn yet another new thing, we may see the old idea is better, but we won't ever go back to the past. We'll go to a new view of having an idea, plus a criticism of it, plus a criticism of that criticism. We'll be learning more even if we make mistakes sometimes.
Caeli: What if we made mistakes most of the time? Maybe we'd end up going backwards, or just never get anywhere. Why should we be right enough of the time to make progress? Aren't there more ways to be wrong than right?
Elliot: There are more ways to be wrong, but the ways to be right have more reach, so right away things don't look so gloomy. Every good idea we find counts for a lot, and will help us in many ways. But bad ideas we find will rarely matter to any other subjects.
Caeli: Don't we find a lot of bad ideas because they do have reach to other subjects, but they imply false things about the other subjects?
Elliot: That's a good point. I think the reason that happens is because we are looking for ideas with reach. We want to find general principles. But this policy has the effect of ruling out huge numbers of bad ideas, and few, if any, good ideas.
Elliot: Back to your question about how can we be sure to make progress. I should mention we can't be certain we are getting things right. Although having explored more bad ideas does count as progress. When we do learn better, we'll be less likely to mistake them for good ideas, because we'll have such thorough knowledge of them.
Elliot: But the primary answer is that criticism isn't arbitrary. We don't make it up. We don't just choose what to believe and hope we're right. As you saw in the door example, the problem was a fact of reality. The door was getting stuck. And the proposed solutions will either work, or they won't.
Caeli: I see how science will make progress, because we can verify our results. But what about moral and philosophical issues? For example, should we make the door stop sticking, or would it be better the way it is?
Elliot: There are many modes of criticism available to us for more airy topics. For example, almost all our untestable ideas claim to be compatible with present-day logic. If we discover they aren't, we can reject them. Next, good ideas are part of our explanations of the world. They don't just say "unstuck doors are good" and leave it at that. We'd want to know why that was so, and find the claim unpersuasive if there aren't answers to our followup questions. But if there are answers, then the idea is saying a lot of different things, and we can look for internal consistency, and consistency with our other ideas.
Caeli: Can you give an example of how we can relate our moral ideas to the real world to get some sense of whether they are any good?
Elliot: We can compare how pleasant life is it different societies (including past ones) which have different values. We can notice that our society is peaceful, as we've commented on previously, and this is an amazingly good thing, and extremely rare in history. Whatever moral values are behind that must have some truth to them.
Caeli: They must?
Elliot: I think they do.
Caeli: Can you say more about the interplay between moral ideas and real life?
Elliot: Which moral ideas we believe affects our life. How nice it is, how successful it is. Complex moral ideas usually (always?) have parts about how to live, and other parts about what nice things will result from living this way. This can in fact work, or not. Further, moral ideas have to offer explanations involving real-world events and facts. Our moral ideas need to have something to say when someone commits a murder, or a war starts, or we get in a fight.
Elliot: And other people can criticize our moral ideas. A lot of people think it's right and good that children be blindly obedient. What do you think of that?
Caeli: That's awful. As you've said, we live in a society that rightly values freedom and voluntary interactions. And we value people thinking for themselves. And there's no reason that shouldn't apply to children.
Elliot: Indeed. And if you go around telling people that, some will be convinced.
Caeli: What about someone who doesn't like our society. He wouldn't be convinced.
Elliot: You'd have two options. You could either find some shared beliefs and make reference to those in your argument. Or you could try to teach him the values of a free society. Communicating new ideas is hard, as we've discussed, but if he managed to create that knowledge he could certainly like it and then agree with you about kids.
Caeli: Couldn't I be wrong? I grew up in a society that said to value these things.
Elliot: Well, that same society said they don't apply to kids very much. You haven't taken your society's values on faith or authority, you've only adopted the ones that seem good to you.
Caeli: And ones I haven't thought about much.
Elliot: Yeah, but that's no big deal. If they come up and affect your life much, then you'll be reminded to think about them then. Just when they're important.
Caeli: Haha, that's cool. So, I'm still a bit fuzzy about how to link morality to the real world.
Elliot: It's tricky, because we don't know as much about the nature of morality as we might like. We have a lot of evolved moral ideas in real life which we can use. And they don't need to be justified, and it's not important where they came from. They'll get better over time as people think about them. But that doesn't really answer the question. If the real world wasn't linked to morality, maybe they wouldn't get better over time with thought.
Elliot: One thing to do is compare different groups of people that value the same thing, but try to achieve it in different ways. The group that better achieves its goals is more moral in some way.
Caeli: Couldn't they be lucky? Like they have more natural resources.
Elliot: Yes, that's possible. But you can form explanations of why they succeeded. If it's because of their policy of intense political debate and democracy, then that wasn't luck.
Elliot: Another thing to consider is that any morality which doesn't relate to the real world in any way is useless. So, if it doesn't relate, you can criticise it on those grounds. Any true morality must have a way it ties into life.
Caeli: What about people who debate nonsense and never get anywhere? Will their ideas evolve?
Elliot: If they have some rules to their debate, the ideas will evolve in accordance with those rules. But their ideas won't evolve usefully. What you should look at is: are these ideas solving problems people have in their lives, and accomplishing things, or not? If they aren't, you should be very concerned that it's arbitrary and pointless. But if the ideas are proving their value, then clearly they matter.
Caeli: That's cool. So what's next?
Elliot: Next is a brief summary of true epistemology, and then a comparison to various false ideas of epistemology.
Caeli: I think I'll go now. That summary would be a better way to start a discussion than end one.
Elliot: You're right. OK, bye.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

How To Ask Questions 6

Caeli: Hi, Elliot.
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: I believe you were going to summarize true epistemology.
Elliot: We have ideas. It's not critical what they are. What's critical is that we evolve them, by thinking of new ideas that may be improvements, and using criticism to reject flawed ideas. In this way, we can solve our problems and make progress.
Caeli: What is the justified, true belief view you mentioned earlier?
Elliot: It says that knowledge is justified, true beliefs. Every part of this is wrong.
Caeli: Knowledge shouldn't be true?
Elliot: Newton's laws of physics are incorrect. We know that now. But they contain truth in them. They were a great discovery. The insistence that knowledge must be perfectly true in order to count is silly. Nothing we have is perfect.
Caeli: OK, what about belief?
Elliot: They mean we only have a certain piece of knowledge if we believe it. But people have all sorts of knowledge that isn't beliefs. For example, our intuition contains knowledge.
Elliot: Further, there's knowledge that isn't in people at all. A book can contain knowledge even if no one currently knows the things in the book. Books don't have beliefs.
Caeli: Are you sure about intuition?
Elliot: If it didn't contain knowledge, it'd be random how it worked. But in real life, it reacts fairly appropriately to a wide variety of situations. Those appropriate reactions demonstrate it has some knowledge of those situations.
Caeli: Alright, and what about justification?
Elliot: The way they tell it, you could hold a true belief for the wrong reasons, and that's not knowledge. You have to also have justified believing that. You need to actually know it's true.
Caeli: That makes sense.
Elliot: It's true that sometimes people adopt beliefs without proper consideration, and it shouldn't be assumed that they have deep knowledge of the subject even if they happen to be right. But there is a wide range of possibilities in the middle. In fact, in every real case people have more than zero reason, but also less than perfect reasons.
Elliot: Basically what they're saying is that unless you can prove that your belief is true, with unlimited precision and perfection, then it's not really knowledge.
Caeli: Why would they say something like that? What's the point?
Elliot: Because they don't allow for the idea of imperfect knowledge. They want total certainty. And you can't have total certainty without complete proof. Unfortunately for them, you can't have those things at all.
Caeli: You can't possibly have certainty, no matter what? Are you certain?
Elliot: That is my best understanding. One reason is that no matter what reasons you give to be certain of a proposition, I can question how you are certain those reasons work. Whatever proof you give, you'll need to give a proof of that proof. And whatever you say, I'll ask again. And again. You might try to invent a proof that proves something and proves itself. But that won't work. There will be some logic involved in proving itself. A reason it does prove itself. And that can be questioned.
Caeli: What's the point of questioning everything like that?
Elliot: There isn't any point. It's not useful to do so. It's just a thought experiment which rules out perfect, complete certainty. To be absolutely sure you're right, you have to answer all possible policies for objecting or questioning your position.
Caeli: I see. So, how do parents use false epistemology?
Elliot: I've actually given a speech about the consequences of the justified, true belief theory for parenting. You can read it at this link.
Caeli: Cool, a speech.
Elliot: *bows*
Caeli: What are those stars?
Elliot: Sometimes they indicate emphasis, but in this case they indicate an action. *smile*
Caeli: *understands*
Caeli: Do many parents really use the JTB (justified, true belief) approach? I hadn't even heard of it before.
Elliot: It's rarely on their mind explicitly. But the JTB approach to knowledge has informed most epistemology, and is implicitly behind a lot of educational theory. And parents are not embarrassed to be anti-fallibilist, so the JTB approach, with it's notion of certain truth, is behind a lot of that.
Caeli: You said a lot of things. What's fallibilism?
Elliot: It's the belief that we can be wrong, even if we feel really sure. It means that we can't have certain, perfect, truth. It means we can make mistakes even when we think we haven't.
Caeli: That sounds pretty obvious.
Elliot: Indeed. But, alas, it is not.
Caeli: In what way are parents anti-fallibilist?
Elliot: They often insist that they are right. They say they know best. They don't admit that the child might possibly be right.
Caeli: Maybe they usually think it's too unlikely that the child is right to bother about.
Elliot: Perhaps. But that's not very different. And it's not on any better of a philosophical basis. What, exactly, is the procedure for determining the probability that a child might be right?
Caeli: I don't know.
Elliot: There isn't one.
Caeli: How can parents be so certain they are right about everything when the divorce rate is so high? Or when divorces exist at all. Each one indicates that adults made a mistake, or in all probability, many mistakes.
Elliot: That's a good point. Parents don't apply their certainty to their whole lives. They only do it to their children, and only some of the time. Plus, perhaps, a few other things that they are irrational about.
Elliot: An interesting fact is that there is no subject that all parents are irrational about. For every single issue, some parents treat it in a perfectly reasonable manner. This goes a long way towards proving that rational parenting is possible.
Elliot: So, there is no fact that all parents are certain of. Or put another way, for any disagreement with a child, some parents would think the child may have a point. There is never a total consensus against the child, on any issue, even among parents.
Elliot: One of the consequences is that one can't reasonably believe that any of these issues are completely obvious, and certainly not that any view on them is certain truth. For all of them, some parents who seem perfectly reasonable would disagree.
Caeli: You keep mentioning parents doing this or that thing which is very unreasonable. But is it really that common?
Elliot: Yes. Try to think about your own parents, and those of your friends. Think about parents you know now, and how you've seen them treat their kids. And consider how you see families depicted on TV.
Caeli: Hmm. I see your point some. But I'm still not sure if you're exaggerating.
Elliot: I'll try to point out examples to you in the future.
Caeli: OK. That sounds fun!
Caeli: What are some bad consequences when parents use JTB? I know you have a speech about this, but can you just say briefly?
Elliot: Sure. Justifications are very complex because they need to be perfect, so children can't make their own. Truths are hard to come by, so children can't expect to find any. If the parent thinks he has the truth, he won't be interested in criticism or objections. Anything but listening obediently is a waste of time. And when parents give justifications, children won't understand them in full, and will have to take them on faith.
Caeli: That's terrible.
Elliot: Yeah.
Caeli: You said that even though JTB isn't on people's minds explicitly, it informs a lot of educational theory. What did you mean?
Elliot: That's right. I meant that even though people aren't thinking to themselves "my belief is justified and true, and the students' beliefs aren't justified" and stuff like that, the ideas are still there. Students are expected to learn the truths that their teachers impart. That's the dynamic. The dynamic is not joint truth seeking. No one expects the students to have any good ideas, or to disagree with their teacher, except in very limited ways.
Caeli: Aren't there in-class discussions?
Elliot: Yes, but either they don't reach a conclusion, or the teacher is considered the arbiter of who was right.
Elliot: A good example is tests. A test doesn't determine what the truth is. Its purpose is to determine if the pupil has learned the master's view. If children frequently disagreed with teachers, then the whole idea of testing wouldn't make sense, because grading is in terms of the instructor's ideas.
Caeli: I have a feeling that you have more to say about tests.
Elliot: I sure do. What are they for? Not the child's benefit. If he's happy with what he knows about the subject, he doesn't need a test. And if he isn't, he needs another lesson, not a test. The point of tests is for the teacher to find out if a child is learning the material. Why? So that if he isn't, he can be forced to. Tests are to deal with children who don't want to learn the ideas their teacher presents. If the child did want to be there, there'd be no point.
Caeli: Which do you think is more disrespectful to children, schools or parents?
Elliot: Parents, by far. Which is unfortunate, given that schools blatantly use force against unwilling pupils, assume they are right, grade children, and so on.
Caeli: What's wrong with grading?
Elliot: It's a way to pressure people to conform to the teacher's ideas. If you don't, you'll get a low grade. If everyone was there because they wanted to be, and was learning what they wanted to, no one would care about grades. They wouldn't be competing with each other to best do what the teacher wants, they'd just be living their own lives, and many of them would be doing different things.
Caeli: Isn't the problem with public schools the lack of funding to get good teachers?
Elliot: It's possible that is a problem, but one can't blame having entirely the wrong approach on funding. Imagine a parent who spanked and said it's because he is poor. That's insane. Being poor may cause problems, but it certainly didn't force him to hit his child.
Caeli: We've gone far astray. Let's go over some of the other false epistemic ideas. How about induction?
Elliot: Let's skip induction. It's a major topic by itself. So is foundationalism. Let's do the others for now.
Caeli: OK, how about instrumentalism.
Elliot: Instrumentalism says that ideas are just instruments to be used to make factual predictions. Related is positivism, which says the only true knowledge is scientific. An extreme version says that statements which aren't about science and prediction are meaningless.
Caeli: What should we use ideas for besides to make predictions?
Elliot: To explain things.
Caeli: You mention explanation a lot. Do you want to say anything more about it?
Elliot: Predictions are very limited. They tell us the train will arrive at 5 PM, or the atom will perform certain motions in the experiment. Explanations answer all our other questions. They tell us why the train will arrive then, and how trains can move, and whatever else we might like to know about trains. A prediction can tell us if a certain design for railroad tracks will break under a train of a certain weight. But an explanation can tell us why one design is better than another, and what the principles behind each design are. Only with an explanation will we be able to make changes or improvements. Predictions have no reach. It's just a fact, and that's it. If you want to know about another design, you'll need another prediction. And if you want to know about a train of another weight, you'll need another prediction. But when we understand things, we'll know there's no point checking a heavier train if we know that the tracks can't hold this one. And we'll know that isn't universally true: if the heavier train is longer, so the weight is distributed over a longer length of tracks, then that may be fine. There's so much stuff to understand. Understanding is what explanations are for.
Caeli: Oh, that's lovely.
Elliot: Logical positivism, by the way, which says only scientific statements are meaningful, is not a scientific claim. So it denies being meaningful. That's a good example of how we can criticize a theory without needing to observe or test anything.
Caeli: What if they changed it to say that all non-scientific statements except logical positivism are meaningless?
Elliot: Then they are reducing the reach of their view, without providing an explanation for why it doesn't fully apply.
Caeli: What if they came up with a reason?
Elliot: That'd be fine. We could discuss if it was good or not. Can you think of a reasonable reason that all philosophy except logical positivism might be meaningless?
Caeli: No. I can't even think of a reason that any philosophy should be meaningless. That would mean all our conversations are pointless, but I like them.
Elliot: Well noticed. The logical positivism theory has distant consequences, such as asserting that our conversation is meaningless. And if those seem silly, then logical positivism itself must be equally silly.
Caeli: What about relativism?
Elliot: Relativism says that the truth is relative to your perspective. It's different for each person, or each culture. One of the unfortunate consequences of relativism is it means we have no common ground with other people, and therefore the problem of communication cannot possibly be solved.
Caeli: Why is that unfortunate?
Elliot: Because people do talk to each other, and therefore relativism is false.
Caeli: How about solipsism.
Elliot: Solipsism says that no one else exists; they are just my imagination.
Caeli: I'm not imaginary.
Elliot: I know, it's silly. There's a joke about it. A philosophy professor gives a lecture on solipsism. Afterwards a student comes up and says, "That was a great lecture. I totally agree with you." And the teacher replies, "You agree that you're just part of my imagination?"
Caeli: Haha. They'll argue about which one of them is real all day.
Elliot: I expect they won't. They'll get bored and stop long before that. If they actually enjoyed arguing for entire days then they wouldn't be solipsists.
Caeli: What's the sponge theory of brains?
Elliot: It says that brains are like sponges. They absorb whatever ideas touch them. This is useful for saying that TV is dangerous, but little else.
Caeli: Isn't it also useful for saying books are dangerous.
Elliot: Yes :) And people used to do that. But they don't any longer. There is no explanation of why this argument no longer applies to books, they just stopped applying it. But as we've said, you can't arbitrarily restrict the reach of explanations. On a similar note, shouldn't the sponge theory reach to adults?
Caeli: Do people really take this stuff seriously?
Elliot: They don't say it in quite these words. But they are often scared about "influences" such as TV. They think children are unable to be discriminating; that their brains absorb ideas with no choice involved.
Caeli: How do you know that the don't?
Elliot: Well, every teacher knows that the sponge theory is false. His lectures often go in one ear and out the other. It's hard to get students to learn the material. They don't just absorb it automatically.
Caeli: What's the difference? Why do children pick up so many ideas from TV, and so few from school?
Elliot: The difference is that people learn things when they want to be there and like what they're learning, but rarely otherwise.
Elliot: By the way, you wanted examples of bad things parents do. Well, they restrict TV watching, by force. There's also grounding, timeouts, curfews, taking away allowances, restricting usage of a car, and deciding if the child is allowed to go on a trip or not.
Elliot: Further, activists who don't like government schools take the position that government shouldn't decide what our children learn ... parents should. No one takes the position that children should decide for themselves. So these issues, including bad epistemology, are very prevalent in our culture.
Caeli: Oh dear. Something should be done.
Elliot: I know.
Elliot: By the way, solipsism, induction and more are addressed very well in The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch.
Caeli: What doesn't that book cover?
Elliot: Morality, education, and aardvarks.
Caeli: I've got to go in a moment, is there anything you'd like to add first? Besides that I should buy and read that book. Because I will, already :)
Elliot: The idea of children as gullible sponges, and the idea of children as extraordinary stubborn are both very common in parenting. This shows a lack of careful thinking. Watch out for it.
Caeli: What are some more examples of each?
Elliot: Until recently, the general idea was that children needed to be physically beaten to break their stubbornness. It's that hard a task to make them submit and start listening to your ideas.
Elliot: Meanwhile, parents are deathly concerned that their children may hang out with the wrong friends, because they could very easily pick up some bad ideas from them.
Caeli: That certainly does contradict. I better go now.
Elliot: It was nice talking, Caeli.
Caeli: Bye!

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Rationally Resolving Conflicts of Ideas

I was planning to write an essay explaining the method of rationally resolving conflicts and always acting on a single idea with no outstanding criticisms. It would followup on my essay Epistemology Without Weights and the Mistake Objectivism and Critical Rationalism Both Made where I mentioned the method but didn't explain it.

I knew I'd already written a number of explanations on the topic, so I decided to reread them for preparation. While reading them I decided that the topic is hard and it'd be very hard to write a single essay which is good enough for someone to understand it. Maybe if they already had a lot of relevant background knowledge, like knowing Popper, Deutsch or TCS, one essay could work OK. But for an Objectivist audience, or most audiences, I think it'd be really hard.

So I had a different idea I think will work better: gather together multiple essays. This lets people learn about the subject from a bunch of different angles. I think this way will be the most helpful to someone who is interested in understanding this philosophy.

Each link below was chosen selectively. I reread all of them as well as other things that I decided not to include. It may look like a lot, but I don't think you should expect an important new idea in epistemology to be really easy and short to learn. I've put the links in the order I recommend reading them, and included some explanations below.

Instead of one perfect essay – which is impossible – I present instead some variations on a theme.

Update 2017: Buy my Yes or No Philosophy to learn a ton more about this stuff. It has over 6 hours of video and 75 pages of writing. See also this free essay giving a short argument for it.

Update Oct 2016: Read my new Rejecting Gradations of Certainty.

Popper's critical preferences idea is incorrect. It's similar to standard epistemology, but better, but still shares some incorrectness with rival epistemologies. My criticisms of it can be made of any other standard epistemology (including Objectivism) with minor modifications. I explained a related criticism of Objectivism in my prior essay.

Critical Preferences
Critical Preferences and Strong Arguments

The next one helps clarify a relevant epistemology point:

Corroboration

Regress problems are a major issue in epistemology. Understanding the method of rationally resolving conflicts between ideas to get a single idea with no outstanding criticism helps deal with regresses.

Regress Problems

Confused about anything? Maybe these summary pieces will help:

Conflict, Criticism, Learning, Reason
All Problems are Soluble
We Can Always Act on Non-Criticized Ideas

This next piece clarifies an important point:

Criticism is Contextual

Coercion is an important idea to understand. It comes from Taking Children Seriously (TCS), the Popperian educational and parenting philosophy by David Deutsch. TCS's concept of "coercion" is somewhat different than the dictionary, keep in mind that it's our own terminology. TCS also has a concept of a "common preference" (CP). A CP is any way of resolving a problem between people which they all prefer. It is not a compromise; it's only a CP if everyone fully prefers it. The idea of a CP is that it's a preference which everyone shares in common, rather than disagreeing.

CPs are the only way to solve problems. And any non-coercive solution is a CP. CPs turn out to be equivalent to non-coercion. One of my innovations is to understand that these concepts can be extended. It's not just about conflicts between people. It's really about conflicts between ideas, including ideas within the same mind. Thus coercion and CPs are both major ideas in epistemology.

TCS's "most distinctive feature is the idea that it is both possible and desirable to bring up children entirely without doing things to them against their will, or making them do things against their will, and that they are entitled to the same rights, respect and control over their lives as adults." In other words, achieving common preferences, rather than coercion, is possible and desirable.

Don't understand what I'm talking about? Don't worry. Explanations follow:

Taking Children Seriously
Coercion

The next essay explains the method of creating a single idea with no outstanding criticisms to solve problems and how that is always possible and avoids coercion.

Avoiding Coercion
Avoiding Coercion Clarification

This email clarifies some important points about two different types of problems (I call them "human" and "abstract"). It also provides some historical context by commenting on a 2001 David Deutsch email.

Human Problems and Abstract Problems

The next two help clarify a couple things:

Multiple Incompatible Unrefuted Conjectures
Handling Information Overload

Now that you know what coercion is, here's an early explanation of the topic:

Coercion and Critical Preferences

This is an earlier piece covering some of the same ideas in a different way:

Resolving Conflicts of Interest

These pieces have some general introductory overview about how I approach philosophy. They will help put things in context:

Think
Philosophy: What For?

Update: This new piece (July 2017) talks about equivocations and criticizes the evidential continuum: Don't Equivocate

Want to understand more?

Read these essays and dialogs. Read Fallible Ideas. Join my discussion group and actually ask questions.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (239)

Asking Good Questions

I'm asked lots of questions. Writing great answers for all of them would take too long.

I prioritize writing answers I consider interesting or important.

Sometimes I give a short answers or a link. Sometimes I suggest that a friend answer a question. But I still don't answer some questions at all.

My first priority is what I want to answer. Secondarily, I'd like to answer questions that the asker cares more about, puts more effort into, and gets more value from.

Sometimes people ask careless questions. Sometimes they barely care what the answer is. Sometimes they lose interest in the topic a couple days later but don't share this fact. Sometimes they could have easily found the answer with Google, but they don't respect my time. Some questions are dead ends where they have no comment on the answer and no followup questions.

I have limited information about how important a question is to you. You can help with this problem by writing better questions. Here are some things you can do to get more attention:

  • Ask on the Fallible Ideas discussion group or curi forum (this website). Those are my preferred places to take questions and I give them priority. But don't use FI unless you read the guidelines and format your post correctly.
  • State steps you already took to find the answer yourself, and why they didn't work.
  • Write well. Use short, simple words, sentences and paragraphs. Clearly mark quotes. Emphasize key points. Do an editing pass to make it clearer and easier to understand. Keep things organized and limit repetition.
  • Make it really clear what the question actually is.
  • Give specifics. I don't have a solution to "I am sad". That describes millions of different problems. (If you want a very general purpose answer like "Then do problem solving." you can state that you want a general case answer with no specifics.)
  • Mention relevant background knowledge you have. If you ask about altruism, I may suggest you read Ayn Rand. If you've already read her, you should have told me!
  • Say what kind of answer you're looking for. What are you looking for? What sort of information would you consider an adequate answer?
  • Say why you want an answer to this question and what problem it will solve for you. Say why the question is important.
  • Use relevant quotes and make sure they are 100% accurate (use copy/paste) and give the source. E.g. if the question has to do with something I've written, link and quote it.
  • Keep it short. If some detailed information is important for reference, put it in a footnote after the question.
  • If you refer to something, and it's important to your question, then provide a link. For books you generally want to give the Amazon link. If it's long, say which section is relevant and explain what information the reference has and how it relates to the question.
  • Sending money, even just $5, sets your question apart from others.
  • I strongly prefer ebooks over paper. They don't have page numbers and do allow searching for quotes. And if you really want me to look at a book and can't find a free link, then buy me the ebook. But it's usually better to just quote a lot instead.
  • If your question isn't answered, look at it from another angle or make some progress on it, then ask another question. Having a question unanswered is no big deal. It's not a negative response or a rebuke. No answer is neutral. If it's important, just reread this guide and try again after a few days.
  • If you have followup questions or arguments that depend on my answer to the question, especially criticism of my ideas, let me know.
  • If you think I need to address this question for Paths Forward reasons, explain that.
  • If you want me personally to answer, say why. Otherwise write your question in a generic way that other people could answer, too.
  • If you think I'll get value from the question or a followup, tell me what's in it for me.
  • Don't be or act helpless or needy, don't act like you deserve free answers, and don't rush and write carelessly.

If this sounds like too much effort to you, then understand that answering your questions is not my problem. But note that you will benefit from these steps too because they'll guide you to do better thinking. They'll help you understand your problem better, make some problem solving progress, and sometimes answer your own question.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (9)

My Paths Forward Policy

If you think I'm mistaken or ignorant about something important, I want to hear it. I am open to public comments and criticism. See Paths Forward for an explanation of my methodology for not blocking error correction (always having some Path Forward so that if I'm mistaken, and someone knows it, and they're willing to tell me, then I can be told and I won't ignore it).

I do not reply to everything addressed to me, at all venues. I do reply to a fair amount, but I don't have time to answer everything. However, I will guarantee you some attention if you follow a method of getting my attention which anyone can follow with predictable success. Here's what you do:

  1. Post your issue to the FI Google Group. Format your post correctly, e.g. by making it plain text with attributed quotes. Read the guidelines for quote formatting. For most issues, you should quote from something you're arguing with and point out a mistake in the quote. You can also do general comments and respond to your own paraphrases of my views, but pointing out at least one mistake in a quote is important too.

  2. If you don't receive a reply from anyone within a few days, post a self-reply with some followup points. Try again. If the first post didn't have them, follow up with a brief statement of why this is important and a brief summary (one paragraph max, each). Also make sure you're providing a clear question or call to action. What do you want to happen next? What sort of response do you want? Mention you want a Path Forward from me.

  3. If you still don't receive a reply within a few days, write a self-reply asking why you didn't receive a reply, and include a brief statement of why replying to you matters and what you're looking for.

  4. If you still don't receive a reply within a few days, email me personally ([email protected]) and ask for an answer and say that you've read Paths Forward. Link the FI Google Group topic, or at least give the subject line and date.

Summary: Post to FI. Follow up on why it matters and what reply you want. Follow up asking why no one is answering. Follow up by emailing me. You will get an answer by the end of this process.

Notes

You're welcome to try contacting me in other ways, and that often works, but no promises.

Formatting posts correctly is an intentional barrier to entry. If you aren't willing to do that, I suggest you post to my blog comments (which don't have formatting requirements). I consider the FI formatting the best for a serious discussion, so if you're looking for a serious discussion you should learn it. I like this barrier to entry because I believe it improves discussion while avoiding unpredictable, subjective judgements (like about the quality of your writing and ideas – I will not ignore you because I believe your comments are low quality, as long as you follow the steps listed above.)

I don't answer everything the first time, but if you are persistent as stated above, then I can guarantee you an answer.

The reasons I want you to post on my public forum are that I want other forum readers to benefit from my answer, I want my answer to have a public permalink so I can refer other people to it in the future, and I want other people to be able to answer you (instead of me).

If you receive an answer from another person, and you think it's inadequate and really want an answer from me personally, you can continue with the steps outlined above and explain this (say why the answers from the other people are inadequate and why you want my personal attention).

I (or someone else) commonly will answer a point before reaching step 4. Often at step 1. (I'm most responsive on the FI forum, so just posting there with correct formatting is frequently enough to get a reply. I'm next most responsive to personal email, then blog comments, and then less responsive to everything else).

Like many busy people, I am less inclined to answer if I think something is low quality. I certainly don't want to reply to every low quality thing addressed to me. However, if you follow the steps then you'll get a reply from someone, including from me if necessary. (Often other people are fully capable of answering issues, especially the comments I consider lower quality, so I don't always want to do it personally if someone else will do it.)

If you don't want your content to be exclusive to my forum, that's fine. You're welcome to put it on your own website and post a link or copy/paste.

If you want me to address something which costs money, offer me a free copy somewhere within the first 3 steps. If you won't do that, say why.

If I still don't answer after step 4, your personal email went in my spam folder. I don't think this is a common problem, but if it happens feel free to post to FI again and bring it up and I'll see it or someone else will who can contact me. Or it'd be fine to post 10 blog comments in a row or tweet me or something until I notice. Say that you did the 4 Paths Forward steps and I didn't reply, so maybe the email went in spam, and identify the FI posts in question so I can find them. Or you can email Justin or Alan and they'll get my attention. I mention this because spam filtering is a conceivable problem that could get in the way of Paths Forward, and I don't want that to happen. Email is not 100% reliable for contacting me, but it's pretty good and there are solutions if it fails.

Alternatives

What if you don't want to be so demanding and challenging as to ask for a Path Forward from Elliot/CR/FI? Maybe you expect you're wrong (rather than offering a correction), but you're still interested in pursuing the issue and learning something and getting it resolved? Perhaps you want some Path Forward for yourself to make progress?

Follow up on your own posts with new questions, new explanations of the issues and their importance, new angles and perspectives. Rewrite what you're saying a different way. And report what you've done to make progress, what effort you've put in (and what the result was), what you're planning to do, and if you're running out of ideas and if you'd like help with something. Keep at it over time. Be persistent, honest and curious and FI people will want to help. And make it easy for them: take short advice/comments/suggestions and then do a bunch more on your own initiative (and share this so they see giving you help was worthwhile), rather than expecting them to guide you step by step. Put effort into your learning as independently as you can, e.g. by taking book and link suggestions and doing series of blog posts about them as you read. Be a pleasure to help and offer more value than you ask for. (If you don't know how to offer value, but want to, ask.)


Update My Paths Forward Policy is a now a backup for my debate policy. The debate policy should handle most issues. Use it first. If something goes wrong with that, the Paths Forward Policy is still available.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (9)

Pre-Scripted Discussions

People in conversations usually just say their own (largely pre-determined) stuff, following their own script, because that’s all they know how to say.

They know something, and they are proud to know anything at all, and they go into the discussion planning to talk about that knowledge they do have, and they try to stick to that.

This is why they are so non-responsive when I say things that require off-script responses. They don’t know how to think on their feet and actually address a question. They can basically only answer a question if they already read/heard what to think about it in advance.

Some things this comes up with:

  • Meta discussion (e.g. any kind of proposal about how to organize the discussion, like to switch forums, use quotes, or go slower with smaller steps).
  • Asking them to engage with critics or rival ideas instead of just present their positive case.
  • Any questions they didn’t expect or which seem a bit off topic to them. it doesn’t matter if you have a reason for asking and it’s actually relevant, they don’t know how to answer because it doesn’t fit their script.
  • Any criticism that doesn't fit the script, e.g. about their writing being too unclear and failing to communicate. Dealing with misunderstandings isn't part of their script or pre-knowledge.
  • The people who seem to be talking to themselves or doing a monologue more than they are having an interactive discussion.

This is unnatural and unintuitive to me because I learn during discussions.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Question-Ignoring Discussion Pattern

There's a common discussion pattern I've been trying to identify and understand. Example:

Me: What do you think about X?

Them: [silence]

Me: Why didn't you discuss X?

Them: [Starts saying their opinion about X.]

It happens with all kinds of meta discussion, not just asking why they didn't discuss. If you talk about how they were discussing badly, they often ignore you to discuss more. If you ask why they think the topic is unimportant (or whether they think it's important or not, and why), they often ignore that and start discussing it more.

The pattern seems to be they avoid bigger questions and bigger issues, like why they do things. They respond about smaller, more limited issues.

The major indicator of the pattern is they don't directly reply to the last thing you said. You just asked them a question and they start saying something else that is not an answer to the question. That's what stood out to me. They often seem to go back one step. We were talking about X. Then something went wrong, or they stopped talking, or a tangent came up. Then I ask a question about the new issue (the problem, the silence, or the tangent). Then they ignore the question but go back to the previous thing (stop being silent, drop the tangent). If the new issue was a problem, they often silently take one step to try to solve it – they will make a change to try to address the problem, but won't say that they did it, or discuss whether it'll work, they just do it. Often the supposedly problem-solving change is either counter-productive or irrelevant, and it's a burden for them, and they blame me for it (they think of themselves as doing it for me, because I wanted it). But all I'd said is what the problem is, not what I would regard as a solution or what I wanted – they just assumed that while refusing to talk about it.

The discussion issue is partly because people reinterpret questions as demands or assertions. They hear "Why didn't you discuss X?" as meaning "You should discuss X". They hear, "Why are you uninterested in X?" as meaning "X is interesting". They hear, "Do you want to discuss more, or not? You're sending mixed signals." as meaning "I demand you discuss more." They hear "Would it be OK with you if I shared more ideas about X?" as "Let's discuss X more."

I've been trying to understand this pattern and why people do it. I think it's related to people avoiding meta discussion, which I also don't understand very well. What is it about meta discussion that they don't like? My best guess is basically that they avoid talking about more important things in favor of less important ones, which fits their overall life pattern of not having productive discussions and learning philosophy.

I think it's kind of like getting a chore done by procrastinating on an even more unwanted task. They will have regular discussion to avoid discussion that involves "Why?" questions or other important things they find hard. They would feel bad about ignoring something like, "Why don't you want to discuss X? Do you have a reason X is unimportant?" They wouldn't feel justified in ignoring that and still believing themselves to be a rational person who discusses ideas. But if they start discussing X more (breaking their silence, doing one unstated action to try to solve the problem that was disrupting discussion, or dropping a tangent) then they feel legitimized to ignore the question.

One of the straightforward reasons I dislike it is because I don't want to ignore major signs they don't want to talk about X. I don't want to talk about X with a person who doesn't want to discuss X. I don't want to discuss with someone who isn't interested. I don't want to ignore problems like that and go back to the original discussion. Plus, the problems typically reoccur quickly so the discussion doesn't work out.

In general, problems are inevitable and no discussion can work out well, in the long run, without problem solving effort by the participants. But the pattern is people ignore things I say related to problem solving and just go back to the discussion.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (10)

Discussion Structure

Dagny wrote (edited slightly with permission):

I think I made a mistake in the discussion by talking about more than one thing at once. The problem with saying multiple things is he kept picking some to ignore, even when I asked him repeatedly to address them. See this comment and several comments near it, prior, where I keep asking him to address the same issue. but he wouldn't without the ultimatum that i stop replying. maybe he still won't.

if i never said more than one thing at once, it wouldn't get out of hand like this in the first place. i think.

I replied: I think the structure of conversations is a bigger contributor to the outcome than the content quality is. Maybe a lot bigger.

I followed up with many thoughts about discussion structure, spread over several posts. Here they are:


In other words, improving the conversation structure would have helped with the outcome more than improving the quality of the points you made, explanations you gave, questions you asked, etc. Improving your writing quality or having better arguments doesn't matter all that much compared to structural issues like what your goals are, what his goals are, whether you mutually try to engage in cooperative problem solving as issues come up, who follows whose lead or is there a struggle for control, what methodological rules determine which things are ignorable and which are replied to, and what are the rules for introducing new topics, dropping topics, modifying topics?


it's really hard to control discussion structure. people don't wanna talk about it and don't want you to be in control. they don't wanna just answer your questions, follow your lead, let you control discussion flow. they fight over that. they connect control over the discussion structure with being the authority – like teachers control discussions and students don't.

people often get really hostile, really fast, when it comes to structure stuff. they say you're dodging the issue. and they never have a thought-out discussion methodology to talk about, they have nothing to say. when it comes to the primary topic, they at least have fake or dumb stuff to say, they have some sorta plan or strategy or ideas (or they wouldn't be talking about). but with stuff about how to discuss, they can't discuss it, and don't want to – it leads so much more quickly and effectively to outing them as intellectual frauds. (doesn't matter if that's your intent. they are outed because you're discussing rationality more directly and they have nothing to say and won't do any of the good ideas and don't know how to do the good ideas and can't oppose them either).

sometimes people are OK with discussion methodology stuff like Paths Forward when it's just sounds-good vague general stuff, but the moment you apply it to them they feel controlled. they feel like you are telling them what to do. they feel pressured, like they have to discuss the rational way. so they rebel. even just direct questions are too controlling and higher social status, and people rebel.


some types of discussion structure. these aren’t about controlling the discussion, they are just different ways it can be organized. some are compatible with each other and some aren’t (you can have multiple from the list, but some exclude each other):

  • asking and answering direct questions
  • addressing unstated, generic questions like “thoughts on what i just said?”
  • one person questioning the other who answers vs. both people asking and answering questions vs. some ppl ignoring questions
  • arguing points back and forth
  • saying further thoughts related to what last person said (relevance levels vary, can be like really talking past each other and staying positive, or can be actual discussion)
  • pursuing a goal stated by one person
  • pursuing a goal stated by two people and mutually agreed on
  • pursuing different and unstated goals
  • 3+ person discussion
  • using quotes of the other discussion participants or not
  • using cites/links to stuff outside the discussion or not
  • long messages, short messages, or major variance in message length
  • talking about one thing at a time
  • trying to resolve issues before moving on vs. just rushing ahead into new territory while there are lots of outstanding unresolved points
  • step by step vs. chaotic
  • people keeping track of the outline or just running down rabbit holes

i’ve been noticing structure problems in discussions more in the last maybe 5 years. Paths Forward and Overreaching address them. lots of my discussions are very short b/c we get an impasse immediately b/c i try to structure the discussion and they resist.

like i ask them how they will be corrected if they’re wrong (what structural mechanisms of discussion do they use to allow error correction) and that ends the discussion.

or i ask like “if i persuade you of X, will you appreciate it and thank me?” before i argue X. i try to establish the meaning X will have in advance. why bother winning point X if they will just deny it means anything once you get there? a better way to structure discussion is to establish some stakes around X in advance, before it’s determined who is right about X.

i ask things like if they want to discuss to a conclusion, or what their goal is, and they won’t answer and it ends things fast

i ask why they’re here. or i ask if they think they know a lot or if they are trying to learn.

ppl hate all those questions so much. it really triggers the fuck out of them

they just wanna argue the topic – abortion or induction or whatever

asking if they are willing to answer questions or go step by step also pisses ppl off

asking if they will use quotes or bottom post. asking if they will switch forums. ppl very rarely venue switch. it’s really rare they will move from twitter to email, or from email to blog comments, or from blog comments to FI, etc

even asking if they want to lead the discussion and have a plan doesn’t work. it’s not just about me controlling the discussion. if i offer them control – with the caveat that they answer some basic questions about how they will use it and present some kinda halfway reasonable plan – they hate that too. cuz they don’t know how to manage the discussion and don’t want the responsibility or to be questioned about their skill or knowledge of how to do it.

structure/rules/organization for discussion suppresses ppl’s bullshit. it gives them less leeway to evade or rationalize. it makes discussion outcomes clearer. that’s why it’s so important, and so resisted.


the structure or organization of a discussion includes the rules of the game, like whether people should reply more tomorrow or whether it's just a single day affair. the rules for what people consider reasonable ways of ending a discussion are a big deal. is "i went to sleep and then chose not to think about it the next day, or the next, or the next..." a reasonable ending? should people actually make an effort to avoid that ending, e.g. by using software reminders?

should people take notes on the discussion so they remember earlier parts better? should they quote from old parts? should they review/reread old parts?

a common view of discussion is: we debate issue X. i'm on side Y, you're on side Z. and ppl only say stuff for their side. they only try to think about things in a one-sided, biased way. they fudge and round everything in their favor. e.g. if the number is 15, they will say "like 10ish" or "barely over a dozen" if a smaller number helps their side. and the other guy will call it "around 20" or "nearly 18".

a big part of structure is: do sub-plots resolve? say there's 3 things. and you are trying to do one at a time, so you pick one of the 3 and talk about that. can you expect to finish it and get back to the other 2 things, or not? is the discussion branching to new topics faster than topics are being resolved? are topics being resolved at a rate that's significantly different from zero, or is approximately nothing being resolved?

another part of structure is how references/cites/links are used. are ideas repeated or are pointers to ideas used? and do people try to make stuff that is suitable for reuse later (good enough quality, general purpose enough) or not? (a term similar to suitable for reuse is "canonical").


I already knew that structural knowledge is the majority of knowledge. Like a large software project typically has much more knowledge in the organization than the “payload” (aka denotation aka direct purpose). “refactoring" refers to changing only the structure while keeping the function/content/payload/purpose/denotation the same. refactoring is common and widely known to be important. it’s an easy way for people familiar with the field to see that significant effort goes into software knowledge structure cuz that is effort that’s pretty much only going toward structure. software design ideas like DRY and YAGNI are more about structure than content. how changeable software is is a matter of structure ... and most big software projects have a lot more effort put into changes (like bug fixes, maintenance and new features) than into initial development. so initial development should focus more effort on a good structure (to make changes easier) than on the direct content.

it does vary by software type. games are a big exception. most games they have most of their sales near release. most games aren’t updated or changed much after release. games still need pretty good structure though or it’d be too hard to fix enough the bugs during initial development to get it shippable. and they never plan the whole game from the start, they make lots of changes during development (like they try playing it and think it’s not fun enough, or find a particular part works badly, and change stuff to make it better), so structure matters. wherever you have change (including error correction), structure is a big deal. (and there’s plenty of error correction needed in all types of software dev that make substantial stuff. you can get away with very little when you write one line of low-risk code directly into a test-environment console and aren’t even going to reuse it.)

it makes sense that structure related knowledge is the majority of the issue for discussion. i figured that was true in general but hadn’t applied it enough. knowledge structure is hard to talk about b/c i don’t really have people who are competent to discuss it with me. it’s less developed and talked through than some other stuff like Paths Forward or Overreaching. and it’s less clear in my mind than YESNO.

so to make this clearer:

structure is what determines changeability. various types of change are high value in general, including especially error correction. wherever you see change, especially error correction, it will fail without structural knowledge. if it’s working ok, there’s lots of structural knowledge.

it’s like how the capacity to make progress – like being good at learning – is more important than how much you know how or how good something is now. like how a government that can correct mistakes without violence is better than one with fewer mistakes today. (in other words, the structure mistake of needing violence to correct some categories of mistake is a worse mistake than the non-structure mistake of taxing cigarettes and gas. the gas tax doesn’t make it harder to make changes and correct errors, so it’s less bad of a mistake in the long run.)


Intro to knowledge structure (2010):

http://fallibleideas.com/knowledge-structure

Original posts after DD told me about it (2003)

http://curi.us/988-structural-epistemology-introduction-part-1
http://curi.us/991-structural-epistemology-introduction-part-2

The core idea of knowledge structure is that you can do the same task/function/content in different ways. You may think it doesn’t matter as long as the result is (approximately) the same, but the structure matters hugely if you try to change it so it can do something else.

“It” can be software, an object like a hammer, ideas, or processes (like the processes factory workers use). Different software designs are easier to add features to than others. You can imagine some hammer designs being easier to convert into a shovel than others. Some ideas are easier to change than others. Or imagine two essays arguing equally effectively for the same claim, and your task is to edit them to argue for a different conclusion – the ease of that depends on the internal design of the essays. And for processes, for example the more the factory workers have each memorized a single task, and don’t understand anything, the more difficult a lot of changes will be (but not all – you could convert the factory to build something else if you came up with a way to build it with simple, memorizable steps). Also note the ease of change often depends on what you want to change to. Each design makes some sets of potential changes harder or easier.

Back to the ongoing discussion (which FYI is exploratory rather than having a clear conclusion):

“structure” is the word DD used. Is is the right word to use all the time?

Candidate words:

  • structure (DD’s word)
  • design
  • organization
  • internal design
  • internal organization
  • form
  • layout
  • style
  • plan
  • outline

I think “design” and “organization” are good words. “Form” can be good contextually.

What about words for the non-structure part?

  • denotation (DD’s word)
  • content
  • function
  • payload
  • direct purpose
  • level one purpose
  • task
  • main point
  • subject matter

The lists help clarify the meaning – all the words together are clearer than any particular one.


What does a good design offer besides being easier to change?

  • Flexibility: solves a wider range of relevant problems (without needing to change it, or with a smaller/easier change). E.g. a car that can drive in the snow or on dry roads, rather than just one or the other.

  • Easier to understand. Like computer code that’s easier to read due to being organized well.

  • Made up of somewhat independent parts (components) which you can separate and use individually (or in smaller groups than the original total thing). The parts being smaller and more independent has advantages but also often involves some downsides (like you need more connecting “glue” parts and the attachment of components is less solid).

  • Easier to reuse for another purpose. (This is related to changeability and to components. Some components can be reused without reusing others.)

  • Internal reuse (references, pointers, links) rather than new copies. (This is usually but not always better. In general, it means the knowledge is present that two instances are actually the same thing instead of separate. It means there’s knowledge of internal groupings.)

Good structures are set up to do work (in a certain somewhat generic way), and can be told what type of work, what details. Bad structures fail to differentiate what is parochial details and what is general purpose.

The more you treat something as a black box (never take it apart, never worry about the details of how it works, never repair it, just use it for its intended purpose), the less structure matters.

In general, the line between function and design is approximate. What about the time it takes to work, or the energy use, or the amount of waste heat? What are those? You can do the same task (same function) in different ways, which is the core idea of different structures, and get different results for time, energy and heat use. They could be considered to be related to design efficiency. But they could also be seen as part of the task: having to wait too long, or use too much energy, could defeat the purpose of the task. There are functionality requirements in these areas or else it would be considered not to work. People don’t want a car that overheats – that would fail to address the primary problem of getting them from place to place. It affects whether they arrive at their destination at all, not just how the car is organized.

(This reminds me of computer security. Sometimes you can beat security mechanisms by looking at timing. Like imagine a password checking function that checks each letter of the password one by one and stops and rejects the password if a letter is wrong. That will run more slowly based on getting more letters correct at the start. So you can guess the password one letter at a time and find out when you have it right, rather than needing to guess the whole thing at once. This makes it much easier to figure out the password. Measuring power usage or waste heat could work too if you measured precisely enough or the difference in what the computer does varied a large enough amount internally. And note it’s actually really hard to make the computer take exactly the same amount of time, and use exactly the same amount of power, in different cases that have the same output like “bad password”.)

Form and function are related. Sometimes it’s useful to mentally separate them but sometimes it’s not helpful. When you refactor computer code, that’s about as close to purely changing the form as it gets. The point of refactoring is to reorganize things while making sure it still does the same thing as before. But refactoring sometimes makes code run faster, and sometimes that’s a big deal to functionality – e.g. it could increase the frame rate of a game from non-playable to playable.

Some designs actively resist change. E.g. imagine something with an internal robot that goes around repairing any damage (and its programmed to see any deviation or difference as damage – it tries to reverse all change). The human body is kind of like this. It has white blood cells and many other internal repair/defense mechanisms that (imperfectly) prevent various kinds of changes and repair various damage. And a metal hammer resists being changed into a screwdriver; you’d need some powerful tools to reshape it.


The core idea of knowledge structure is that you can do the same task/function/content in different ways. You may think it doesn’t matter as long as the result is (approximately) the same, but the structure matters hugely if you try to change it so it can do something else.

Sometimes programmers make a complicated design in anticipation of possible future changes that never happen (instead it's either no changes, other changes, or just replaced entirely without any reuse).

It's hard to predict in advance which changes will be useful to make. And designs aren't just "better at any and all changes" vs. "worse at any and all changes". Different designs make different categories of changes harder or easier.

So how do you know which structure is good? Rules of thumb from past work, by many people, doing similar kinds of things? Is the software problem – which is well known – just some bad rules of thumb (that have already been identified as bad by the better programmers)?

  • Made up of somewhat independent parts (components) which you can separate and use individually (or in smaller groups than the original total thing). The parts being smaller and more independent has advantages but also often involves some downsides (like you need more connecting “glue” parts and the attachment of components is less solid).

this is related to the desire for FI emails to be self-contained (have some independence/autonomy). this isn't threatened by links/cites cuz those are a loose coupling, a loose way to connect to something else.

  • Easier to reuse for another purpose. (This is related to changeability and to components. Some components can be reused without reusing others.)

but, as above, there are different ways to reuse something and you don't just optimize all of them at once. you need some way to judge what types of reuse are valuable, which partly seems to depend on having partial foresight about the future.

The more you treat something as a black box (never take it apart, never worry about the details of how it works, never repair it, just use it for its intended purpose), the less structure matters.

sometimes the customer treats something as a black box, but the design still matters a lot for:

  • warranty repairs (made by the company, not by the customer)
  • creating the next generation production
  • fixing problems during development of the thing
  • the ability to pivot into other product lines (additionally, or instead of the current one) and reuse some stuff (be it manufacturing processes, components from this product, whatever)
  • if it's made out of components which can be produced independently and are useful in many products, then you have the option to buy these "commodity parts" instead of making your own, or you can sell your surplus parts (e.g. if your factory manager finds a way to be more efficient at making a particular part, then you can either just not produce your new max capacity, or you could sell them if they are useful components to others. or you could use the extra parts in a new product. the point was you can end up with extra capacity to make a part even if you didn't initially design your factory that way.)

In general, the line between function and design is approximate.

like the line between object-discussion and meta-discussion is approximate.

as discussion structure is crucial (whether you talk about it or not), most stuff has more meta-knowledge than object-knowledge. here's an example:

you want to run a small script on your web server. do you just write it and upload? or do you hook it into existing reusable infrastructure to get automatic error emails, process monitoring that'll restart the script if it's not running, automatic deploys of updates, etc?

you hook it into the infrastructure. and that infrastructure has more knowledge in it than the script.

when proceeding wisely, it's rare to create a ton of topic-specific knowledge without the project also using general purpose infrastructure stuff.

Form and function are related.

A lot of the difference between a smartphone and a computer is the shape/size/weight. That makes them fit different use cases. An iPhone and iPad are even more similar, besides size, and it affects what they're used for significantly. And you couldn't just put them in an arbitrary form factor and get the same practical functionality from them.

Discussion and meta-discussion are related too. No one ever entirely skips/omits meta discussion issues. People consider things like: what statements would the other guy consent to hear and what would be unwanted? People have an understanding of that and then don't send porn pics in the middle of a discussion about astronomy. You might complain "but that would be off-topic". But understanding what the topic is, and what would be on-topic or off-topic is knowledge about the discussion, rather than directly being part of the topical discussion. "porn is off topic" is not a statement about astronomy – it is itself meta discussion which is arguably off topic. you need some knowledge about the discussion in order to deal with the discussion reasonably well.

Some designs actively resist change.

memes resist change too. rational and static memes both resist change, but in different ways. one resists change without reasons/arguments, the other resists almost all change.


Discussion and meta-discussion are related too.

Example:

House of Sunny podcast. This episode was recommended for Trump and Putin info at http://curi.us/2041-discussion#c10336

https://youtu.be/Id2ZH_DstyY

  • starts with music
  • then radio announcer voice
  • voice says various introductory stuff. it’s not just “This is the house of Sunny podcast.” It says some fluff with social connotations about the show style, and gives a quick bio of the host (“comedian and YouTuber”)
  • frames the purpose of the upcoming discussion: “Wanna know what Sunny and her friends are thinking about this week?”
  • tries to establish Sunny as a high status person who is worthy of an introduction that repeats her name like 4 times (as if her name matters)
  • applause track
  • Sunny introduces herself, repeating lots of what the intro just said
  • Sunny uses a socially popular speaking voice with connotations of: young, pretty, white, adult, female. Hearing how she speaks, for a few seconds, is part of the introduction. It’s information, and that information is not about Trump and Putin.
  • actual content starts 37 seconds in

This is all meta so far. It’s not the information the show is about (Trump and Putin politics discussion). It’s about the show. It’s telling you what kind of show it’s going to be, and who the host is. That’s just like discussing what kind of discussion you will have and the background of a participant.

The intro also links the show to a reusable show structure that most listeners are familiar with. People now know what type of show it is, and what to expect. I didn’t listen to much of the episode, but for the next few minutes the show does live up to genre expectations.

I consider the intro long, heavy-handed and blatant. But most people are slower and blinder, so maybe it’s OK. I dislike most show intros. Offhand I only remember liking one on YouTube – and he stopped because more fans disliked it than liked it. It’s 15 seconds and I didn’t think it had good info.

KINGmykl intro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrN5Spr1Q4A

One thing I notice, compared to the Sunny intro, is it doesn’t pretend to have good info. It doesn’t introduce mykl, the show, or the video. (He introduces his videos non-generically after the intro. He routinely asks how your day is going, says his is going great, and quickly outlines the main things that will be in the video cuz there’s frequently multiple separate topics in one video. Telling you the outline of the upcoming discussion is an example of useful meta discussion.)

The Sunny intro is so utterly generic I found it boring the first time I heard it. I’ve heard approximately the same thing before from other shows! I saw the mykl intro dozens of times, and sure I skipped it sometimes but not every time, and I remember it positively. It’s more unique, and I don’t understand it as well (it has some meaning, but the meaning is less clear than in the Sunny intro.) I also found the Sunny intro to scream “me too, I’m trying hard to fit in and do this how you’re supposed to” and the mykl intro doesn’t have that vibe to me. (I could pretty easily be wrong though, maybe they both have a fake, tryhard social climber vibe in different ways. Maybe i’m just not familiar enough with other videos similar to mykl’s and that’s why I don’t notice. I’ve watched lots of gaming video content, but a lot of that was on Twitch so it didn’t have a YouTube intro. I have seen plenty of super bland gamer intros. mykl used to script his videos and he recently did a review of an old video. He pointed out ways he was trying to present himself as knowing what he’s talking about, and found it cringey now. He mentioned he stopped scripting videos a while ago.)

Example 2: Chef Heidi Teaches Hoonmaru to Cook Korean Short Rib

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwosbeZSSvY

  • music
  • philly fusion overwatch league team intro (FYI hoonmaru is a fusion twitch streamer, not a pro player)
  • slow mo arrival
  • hoonmaru introducing what’s going on (i think he lied when he said that he thought of this activity)
  • hoonmaru talking about his lack of cooking experience
  • hoonmaru says he’ll answer fan questions while cooking
  • says “let’s get started”
  • music and scene change
  • starts introducing the new seen by showing you visuals of hoonmaru in an apron
  • now we see Chef Heidi and she does intro stuff, asks if he’s ready to cook, then says what they’ll be doing.

The last three are things after “let’s get started” that still aren’t cooking. Cooking finally starts at 48s in. But after a couple seconds of cooking visuals, hoonmaru answers an offtopic fan question before finally getting some cooking instruction. Then a few seconds later hoonmaru is neglecting his cooking, and Heidi fixes it while he answers more questions. Then hoonmaru says he thinks the food looks great so far but that he didn’t do much. This is not a real cooking lesson, it’s just showing off Heidi’s cooking for the team and entertaining hoonmaru fans with his answers to questions that aren’t really related to overwatch skill.

Tons of effort goes into setting up the video. It’s under 6 minutes and spent 13.5% on the intro. I skipped ahead and they also spend 16 seconds (4.5%) on the ending, for a total of 18% on intro and ending. And there’s also structural stuff in the middle, like saying now they will go cook the veggies while the meat is cooking – that isn’t cooking itself, it’s structuring the video and activities into defined parts to help people understand the content. And they asked hoonmaru what he thought of the meat on the grill (looks good... what a generic question and answer) which was ending content for that section of the video.

off topic, Heidi blatantly treats hoonmaru like a kid. at 4:45 she’s making a dinner plate combining the foods. then she asks if he will make it, and he takes that as an order (but he hadn’t realized in advance he’d be doing it, he just does whatever he’s told without thinking ahead). and then the part that especially treats him like a kid is she says she’s taking away the plate she made so he can’t copy it, he has to try to get the right answer (her answer) on his own, she’s treating it like a school test. then a little later he’s saying his plating sucks and she says “you did a great job, it’s not quite restaurant”. there’s so much disgusting social from both of them.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Judging Experts by the Objective State of the Debate

Human civilization has more knowledge than any one person. We have a division of intellectual labor. Some people specialize in chemistry, others law, others fashion, others history, others football. A specialist in a type of knowledge is called an “expert” or even an “authority” for his field. The division of intellectual labor has progressed to the point of narrow specialities – e.g. we have experts in ancient Greek history, or WWII history, rather than all of history. There are different kinds of scientists, and then within a kind, e.g. physicist, there are sub-kinds, e.g. astrophysicist.

People accept expert advice from car mechanics, doctors, lawyers, scientists, tech support people, sports coaches and more. You may be able to learn about a few topics, in detail, yourself, but not all the topics that come up in your life. There’s too much to know it all yourself.

If you didn’t use other people’s expert knowledge – if you didn’t participate in the intellectual division of labor – you’d be handicapped, have a limited life and not accomplish much compared to people who do (just the same as a person who doesn’t participate in the economic division of labor cannot produce much compared to people who do participate).

The intellectual division of labor raises problems to be addressed. How do you know which ideas from other people to use? How do you judge an expert’s claim when you don’t know much about the field? How can decide what to think when experts in a field disagree with each other?

One attempted solution is credentials. Some people perform the task of judging experts. But the people saying which experts are good are themselves experts (in the field of judging expertise), so you’re left with the same problem of deciding which experts to listen to. That's just moved the problem: instead of deciding whether to listen to a scientist saying humans evolved, you decide whether to listen to a guy telling you he knows which scientists to listen to. And normally the qualifications of the people giving out credentials in a field are that they are experts in that field (not that they actually have any special expertise at judging experts), so it’s really just “Listen to me about which physicists you should listen to, because I’m a good physicist.”

Another attempted solution is reputation. Some people have a bunch of success in some visible way and then people listen to them more. And reputations can partially carry over to their associates, and to a lesser degree to their associate’s associates.

Another attempted solution – which is how a lot of reputation works – is to judge by popularity. But great ideas usually start out unpopular.

Another way people judge expertise is by charisma, social status, social skill, and stuff like that (including dressing well and speaking in a “smart” sounding way). This is a poor method. It leads to competitions not at field expertise but at expertise in impressing people and presenting as credible to them.

Another way people judge experts is by which ones create material (articles, books, videos, etc.) for a general audience that they like. This isn’t very good at figuring out who is the best at the details of the field because it looks for skills like being able to communicate well about the basics of the field.

I propose a better way to judge experts. This solution is especially meant for intellectuals rather than, e.g., bike repair experts. Experts should provide public information which can be evaluated by lay people. It’s their job to prove their own case if they want to be considered an expert. But how? Specifically by being open to debate. Experts should be open to questions and criticism, in public, and organize the information in a way that people can look it over and see who blocked further progress on resolving the disagreement. The public should favor experts who have addressed all outstanding criticism of their knowledge over experts who have withdrawn from that kind of discussion, ignored criticisms, refused to answer questions, derailed debates, etc. Experts should be judged by the current state of the debate in the field, and should organize that debate so it isn’t a mess with no clear answers.

People who don’t know how to do this aren’t fit to be experts in a fields that deal with controversies (but maybe they can successfully be an expert accountant). If your field has ongoing disagreements and debate, then you need to know how to organize and evaluate disagreements and debate in order to do effective work in your field.

The starting point of clarifying the state of the debate is to invite debate. The people who decline debate are the people blocking resolution of the issues. The people who are unwilling to try to address questions and criticisms should be presumed wrong, even though they might be right about some particular issues, because their methodology – their way of dealing with knowledge – is not oriented towards truth-seeking. People who reject intellectual collaboration, on principle, are limiting their participation in the intellectual division of labor and thereby limiting their effectiveness (just like a business that won’t consider any business deals with other businesses).

A good expert has the general attitude: “If I’m wrong, tell me what I’m wrong about. And I’ve told you what you’re wrong about and I’m still waiting for you to respond.” And he thinks of debate as primarily a matter of writing, over time, not verbal debate in person. So he can write a blog post criticizing something, and that advances the state of the debate, and if it’s not answered then that shows the other guy isn’t debating (or discussing, which should be the same thing). And it shows the other guy also lacks proxies to discuss for him. And lacks sources he could cite that address the issue with no new work. (Or else he has the perfect answer, already written, and just won’t bother to share the link, and none of his fans will share the link either? Not a plausible story.)

Openness to debate is a well known criterion, so many people pretend to meet it. But most don’t pretend in more than a token way. Suppose I wrote a blog post with some questions and criticisms for an expert. You, right now, could predict that most experts would ignore me. For example, Richard Dawkins would ignore me (and that’s not mere speculation, I have actually contacted him and been ignored, even though I’m an expert who has written serious criticism of some of his work). His openness to debate is limited in some ways.

What are the limits on the openness to debate of Dawkins and the large majority of other supposed experts? I could try to analyze and criticize them and talk about some Paths Forward stuff. But there’s a much simpler way for lay people to evaluate the matter. Has Dawkins written down what his limits on debate are, himself? Has he publicly shared a policy stating his openness to debate, including the limits and the reasons for those limits? Has he asked if anyone knows any ways to remove or reduce any of those limits? No he has not. Because he isn’t seriously interested in discussing and getting disagreements resolved.

Many experts were more open to debate when they were younger, and they get disillusioned after many bad, ineffective discussions. They give up and decide talking with people is mostly a waste of time. What they should have done is learned better methods that better conserve their time, get to the point faster, and so on (see Paths Forward for info on how to do that). Organize the debate better instead of giving up on debate (and then dishonestly pretending you’re still open to debate). Learn enough philosophy – methods of dealing with ideas, learning, resolving disagreements between ideas, etc. – to be an effective intellectual. Sure that’s hard (most philosophy is crap) but if you want to be a good intellectual you need to deal with that problem and find or create and then use actual good methods for making intellectual progress (and if you think you have those, write them down and expose those to criticism and debate, and also make them available for others to learn and use if you think they actually work well! As I have done.).

By the way, what if all the experts in a field are bad? What if none of them are really open to debate? Then it’s hard to evaluate, so you should ask a philosopher (general purpose expert) to evaluate the field (and you can judge which philosophers are experts by their openness to debate).


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (5)

Discussing = Thinking

Discussion is externalized thinking. Thinking is self-discussion.

Not entirely. This mostly applies to the conscious aspects of thinking. It’s thinking that you pay attention to, not autopilot/habits.

Rational critical analysis looks at the content of ideas, not their sources. It doesn’t matter if the source is you or someone else, it’s the same idea either way. The same sort of analysis needs to be done to evaluate two rival ideas regardless of their sources – which means, regardless of whether they come from two different people in a discussion or from one person who is thinking silently.

Discussion lets other people share criticism with you and learn from you. Those are big benefits. They help share good ideas and overcome people’s personal weaknesses. Some of your weaknesses are not shared by some of your discussion partners, and you don’t have some of their weaknesses, so there’s lots of scope to help each other.

Good thinkers can think out loud and can think as part of discussion. They don’t have to think alone first, in advance of discussion. They can do some thinking in real time, and some in fairly near real time (writing a text reply slower than talking out loud as one thinks, but without taking any significant break to think things over).

People who have trouble thinking in discussion also have trouble thinking outside of discussion. But there are some important differences. People who get pressured and socially manipulated a lot can think better alone because those things happen less when there isn’t another person directly involved. But if they were a better thinker they’d deal with that better.

Many people believe they know an idea, they just can’t explain it well. They separate thinking and communication as different skills. But if you can explain the idea to yourself, you can use that same explanation with other people!

People also claim they have arguments that convince themselves but wouldn’t convince you. This is biased. They believe it’s because they have access to information that you don’t, e.g. their own internal feelings or memories. But they can tell you those. You and they should both see the evidence the same way: “Joe reports remembering X.” or “Bob says that he feels Y very strongly and seriously.” The reason they think it’s more convincing for them, than you, is they realize that those kinds of reports are unreliable and you won’t accept it, but they believe those kinds of reports, anyway, when they are the reporter. That’s biased and bad thinking. People should learn to be skeptical of their own beliefs. If they know they have a belief that a reasonable external person would be skeptical of, they should doubt it themselves, too.

People also separate truth-seeking and debating as different skills. They think the better thinker, with the better idea, can lose a debate because he is less good at clever rhetoric. This is reasonably accurate when both thinkers aren’t very good. But great thinkers can handle these issues. A good thinker can point out rhetoric, manipulation, faking, etc. A good thinker will refocus the discussion on key points like what are the criticisms of each idea, and ask the other person to cooperate in joint truth-seeking. The gullible people in the audience may still be fooled, but that should clarify matters enough for the reasonable people to be able to see what’s going on. (Of course errors can always happen. There are no guarantees.)

All this means: learning to discuss is a way of learning to think well. And learning to think well without learning to discuss well is implausible and is a sign of fooling yourself. Because thinking and discussion are linked, and most genuine skill at either one also works for the other.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

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 | Messages (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.


Update: I think this needs emphasiszing: Quote don't speak for themselves. Give a quote and an argument about that quote.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

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 | Message (1)

FI Posting Tips

Tips for new people using the Fallible Ideas discussion group:

  • If you think a criticism is irrelevant, say so and give your reasoning. The person who posted it thought it was relevant. You disagree with him. Discuss your disagreement instead of assuming he’s stupid or acting in bad faith.
  • If you think a criticism is unimportant, say so and give your reasoning. For example, you can point out a small change to your idea which solves the criticized problem and which you think your critic should have been able to think of himself. Then ask if he disagrees with that analysis – maybe he sees a problem with that alternative or there was a reason he didn’t want to put words in your mouth by assuming that is the adjustment you’d want to make. (Putting words in your mouth without saying them out loud, just in his own head, is in general worse, not better because it’s more prone to lead to confusion and misunderstanding. It doesn’t have the social problems of attributing his dumb ideas to you, but in terms or having an effective discussion if he thinks you mean something you don’t mean, and he doesn’t say this out loud, it can get really confusing.)
  • If you think a criticism is pointlessly picky, pedantic, or hair splitting, say so and give your reasoning. Don’t think it’s obviously so and the person did it on purpose. They disagree with you. You may be right, but you can’t change their mind without giving some sort of explanation/argument/reason that is new information to them.
  • If you think someone does something mean, rude or bad, say so and give your reasoning. You may have misunderstood something. They may thank you for the critical feedback and apologize. If you don’t communicate about the problem you perceive, you are preventing problem solving, and anything bad that happens (e.g. you holding a grudge or forming a negative opinion of someone) is your fault and your error. Sarcasm or any sort of insulting joke is considered mean -- don’t post it, and do say something if you think someone did it to you.
  • If you have a problem of any kind with FI, say so and give your reasoning. That’s how truth seeking works.
  • Never use quotes when something isn’t an exact quote. Never manually type quotes, only copy/paste. (An exception is you can manually type in quotes from a paper book, but be careful to copy the exact words and review it for typos. Another exception is typing in quotes from a video or audio recording.)
  • Try to answer questions with clear, direct answers.
  • Try hard not to lie. Expect that you will lie anyway. Be open to criticism of your lying which can help you learn about your lying. If someone thinks you’re lying, that is productive criticism, it’s not a personal attack. If you don’t understand their reasoning, ask questions. And read this article about lying.
  • Try to understand things really clearly. Raise your standards for what you regard as actually understanding something. When in doubt, ask questions. If you’re not sure if you should ask a question, ask it.
  • “I don’t understand” is a bad question. Don’t say that. Which part don’t you understand? What issue are you having with it? When asking a question, or asking for help, you have to give some new information. People can’t give you a better answer without some kind of info about what the problem you’re having is. If you don’t give new info to let them customize what they say for you, they are in the same situation they were in originally when they first wrote it for a general audience, and they already wrote their generic answer for that.
  • When you want help, give information about what you tried. What is your problem? And what have you already done to try to solve the problem? And why didn’t those problem solving attempts work? What went wrong with them? Info about how/why/where you got stuck, what’s going wrong, is crucial for people to help you.
  • Keep your posts pretty short and have at most 3 sections (3 different quotes that you respond to). Most of your posts should have only one section – just reply at the bottom to the overall point instead of reply to details like specific sentences. Knowing how and when to reply to small parts is a skill which is hard and you shouldn’t worry about it for months. If your discussion is too complicated to write one reply at the bottom – if you feel like you need to reply to a bunch of details – then ask for help about how to simplify it.
  • Only post when calm. If you’re even a little bit emotional, don’t post. (BTW, your emotionalness can be divided into two categories: the stuff you’re aware of and the stuff you’re not aware of. So you’re basically always more emotional than you realize. For most people, the part they aren’t aware of is the majority.)
  • If you have negative emotions in reaction to a post, that is your choice. That is something you are doing to yourself. It’s about you, not the post. It’s your error. You could learn better and change. Don’t blame the other guy. Even if he was rude, your emotions are your responsibility. And, as above, don’t assume he was rude without a rational discussion where you explain reasoning and so does he.
  • Because you can and should ask for help with any problem at FI, then all your problems are your own fault, unless you actually raised the problem, discussed it calmly and reasonably (including answering clarifying questions), and then explained why you find the help inadequate and explained what you think is the source of the problem (e.g. you think something about FI’s design is bad, and you think it should be changed in a certain way, but people just refuse for no reason – which wouldn’t happen, but that is the sort of thing it takes for your problems to stop being your own fault.)
  • Be really careful with your preconceptions. FI has lots of unconventional ideas. It has something to offend everyone. You have to be tolerant, patient and interested, rather than just assuming that different ideas are bad ideas. Some different ideas are bad, but why? Consider and share your reasoning. We’ve probably heard it before and already written answers.

Update: See also my newer post Rational Discussion Tips


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (16)

Rational Discussion Tips

Be clear and direct about questions or requests.

When asking a question, ask for the information you want. E.g. don’t ask “why” unless you want to know why. Give some basic, simple thought to what your question is and directly say it.

Saying, “If you do X, I will do Y” is not a request that the person do X. It’s giving them information about their options.

Saying “I want X” is not literally a request, even if X has to do with another person. Sometimes that wording may be clear enough, but other times it won’t be, and it’s hard to tell the difference, so don’t rely on it. A clear request is “Please do X”. Requests are often phrased as questions, e.g. “Will you do X?” When in doubt, say “I request (that you) X”. (The parentheses indicate optional words that fit some scenarios but not others.)

Use question marks for your questions. Do not use question marks on non-questions.

Don’t skip steps. E.g. don’t ask “Why do you think X?” if the person has not said they think X. Instead ask “Do you think X?”

Don’t ask a question which is answered by the words “yes” or “no” unless you want a yes or no answer.

If someone asks a question with a yes or no answer, start your answer with “yes” or “no”. If you want to say something else, say it after giving the direct answer. Don’t leave out the clear, direct answer.

In general with all questions, start your answer with the answer. Your first sentence should clearly and directly answer the question. If you want to explain extra details, put those after the answer. Don’t use “But” for the extra details. Don’t contradict your original answer. Phrase the answer to be correct on its own. You can add minor/tiny exceptions in the details (“unless zombie Hitler shows up and points a gun to my head”), but if your answer requires a major exception, your answer is wrong and you should change it. E.g. say “often” instead of “almost always” in your original answer if there are some major exceptions.

When you use strong words like “always”, “never”, “all”, “none”, consider if they are actually, literally true (don’t say it if it’s false) and consider if you have a reason to make such a strong claim. In general, when you want to make a strong claim like that, you shouldn’t. Instead, remove the qualifier. E.g. instead of saying “All cats have hair” say “Cats have hair”. Adding the “all” is a way of saying “there are absolutely no exceptions” which is false (in this example and in many cases) and is generally an unnecessary/irrelevant claim. Don’t say “Some cats have hair” either, that’s too weak and defensive, there’s no need to limit it to “some”, that doesn’t represent reality well (more than “some” cats have hair, it’s more common than that).

Don’t use intensifiers without a big reason. In general, just delete it every time you write “very”.

Don’t assert things which other people should judge for themselves or which are being debated in the discussion. E.g. don’t call one of your arguments “good” when 1) it’s other people’s job and privilege to decide if it’s good or not 2) you’re debating with someone who you can expect to disagree with your evaluation of how good it is. Instead, simply call it an argument.

Don’t assert things, without giving an argument, which other people will disagree with. In particular this comes up with claims about people. E.g. if Joe claims Sue is angry and gives some reasoning related to what she wrote, Sue saying “I am not angry” is not a counter-argument, it’s an unargued assertion. Sue should not assume her beliefs about herself are true. Sue shouldn’t expect Joe to believe her claims about her emotions, thoughts, motivations, and so on, just because she says so. Further, Sue herself shouldn’t believe her claims about herself unless she has arguments.

Don’t respond to questions with counter-questions. Don’t respond to arguments by raising new topics. Engage with what people say.

Occasionally you may switch to a higher level meta issue with logical priority. E.g. suppose you’re debating politics. If someone asks you a question about your views on government-run healthcare, or makes an argument about that, don’t respond with a question or argument about immigration or border walls. Don’t change the topic to something else about politics. However, it can be appropriate to change the topic to something non-political like “Hold on, the discussion is getting really chaotic. Let’s try to organize it and go one thing at a time. OK?” Or you could say you were losing interest and suggest dropping it or discussing why it’s interesting, important and productive enough to continue. Those tangents make sense because those issues come before and govern the political discussion. But switching from one political issue to another is non-responsive to what the person said and is a way people avoid explaining their position.

To a first approximation, all mistakes matter. Try not to make mistakes. When you do make a mistake, don’t make the excuse of saying you weren’t really trying. Take responsibility for your error and try to fix it and figure out what caused the error.

Be prepared for discussion topics to change from e.g. politics to non-politics like the thought processes behind the mistake you made about politics.

Be prepared to discuss how you think rational discussion works. Be prepared to disagree with people about that and have to explain your thinking. Don’t expect the methods of productive discussion to be something everyone agrees on and which goes without saying.

Be prepared for people to say things you consider rude, impolite, etc. If they do, it means they disagree with you about how to discuss. You can argue your case or be tolerant and broad-minded and not mind.

Be prepared to use references and for other people to use them. You don’t have to write out every idea you have. Some have already been written down (or audio or video was recorded), in the past, by you or by someone else. You can link, cite or quote stuff to avoid repeating.

Consider, when you claim something, if you think it’s a new, original idea, an uncommon idea, a reasonably well known idea, or an extremely popular idea. If you don’t know which it is, or where you got it, that’s a problem. That indicates you don’t know much about your own idea. If you do know basic info about the idea’s status in the world, that is relevant in some ways. E.g. if an idea is very popular and widely accepted, then someone should have already written the idea down in a good, high quality way. So quote that instead of writing shoddy, half-assed new arguments. If you can’t or won’t do that, why not? What’s going on? Wanting to practice explaining things yourself is one answer. Another thing that can be going on is that millions of people believed it without ever caring whether anyone ever wrote good arguments explaining the matter, which would be an important and relevant fact about the idea.

If you don’t know the purpose of every word you read, you don’t understand it. Don’t ignore or skip some words. Don’t try to give counter-arguments when you don’t understand it (at least not without a warning that you don’t understand it but you’re going to try to say something anyway, so people know the situation – lots of stuff that’s normally bad to do becomes OK if you clearly state what’s going on so no one will be misled). Try to figure it out and/or ask what the text means.

Rational truth-seeking discussion is about figuring out decisive answers to resolve issues. E.g. criticisms that refute, not weaken, ideas. It’s not about scoring points, it’s about finding (contextually) conclusive answers.

Try to keep track of your discussion so that you know which ideas have been refuted by which arguments, which are not-refuted, which ideas conflict with each other, what questions are open and unanswered, etc.

Discussion is cooperative. Don’t be biased. Don’t argue for “your” side. Contribute arguments, questions and ideas for all sides in an effort to find the truth. And feel free to ask for help from the other guy about anything – he’s your ally, not your enemy.

If something is too hard or confusing or overwhelming, just stop and slow down. State the problem and propose something to do about it or ask for suggestions on what to do about it.

When in doubt, deal with the doubt. Don’t ignore problems. Don’t try to focus on the main topic like physics or immigration. Bring up the problem with the discussion. Ignoring the problem will only break the discussion and confuse the other person who you hid the problem from. Hiding the problem from your discussion partner(s) is dishonest and it sabotages the discussion.

If you’re emotional, take a break from discussing or pause the main topic and communicate about the problem. (Unless the emotions are clearly and significantly positive, that’s OK. But don’t make the excuse that you don’t feel “bad” or it’s not “negative” emotions – if it’s anywhere near neutral plus strong enough that you’re noticing it, it’s a significant concern and you shouldn’t be confident of your understanding of it.) Like other problems, getting emotional during discussions is not something to try to ignore or hide. Do something to solve the problem yourself and take responsibility for it working or ask for help.

Don’t rush. Take as much time as you need. Don’t sit there worrying endlessly for no clear reason either. Take reasonable steps that aren’t careless and which follow your thinking and discussing methods. No more, no less.

It’s easiest to organize and keep track of a discussion, and follow up over time, on the curi forum. That’s easier than FI because you don't have to learn to use and format emails and because it puts the whole discussion on one page. And it’s easier than Discord because it’s easy to find and refer to everything instead of it getting scrolled way up.

Plan to follow up on your discussions over time until they reach a conclusion of some sort. Don’t just end them for no reason because you went to sleep or 24 hours passed or whatever. You can end discussions when you reach answers about the topic or when you have some reason to, e.g. you feel like you learned enough for now. When you end a discussion, explain your reason and be prepared to consider and discuss criticism of your reasoning.

Try to be extremely honest and expect others to be honest too.

Don’t form negative judgments of people until at least one negative claim about them has objectively reached a conclusion in discussion. E.g. you argued your case fully and completely and you think it’s adequate, covered everything, and there are no substantive counter arguments that you haven’t addressed (all the replies are just distractions and bullshit like the person putting effort into misunderstanding what you said, which you covered as a general category but not for each one individually). If you’ve never quoted someone’s error, explained a criticism, and addressed questions and counter-arguments in a way you think is objectively conclusive (should satisfy and persuade any rational person, including the person criticized, who is only resisting the claim due to bias, irrationality, dishonesty, evasion, etc.) then don’t be judgmental. Give people the benefit of the doubt and act with good will and in good faith until there is at least one clearly established reason to do otherwise.

If you don’t like something and don’t say anything about it, you are the one behaving badly, not them. If you just assume it’s bad, you’re dealing with a disagreement (they don’t think what they did is bad) by assuming you’re right, without arguing your case. That’s an irrational, not truth-seeking, way to handle disagreements.

See also these other discussion tips including more in the comments there.

PS This is all related to epistemology because thinking and discussing are largely equivalent. Rational discussion is externalized rational thinking, and rational thinking is internalized rational discussion. For a truth-seeking process that deals with disagreements between ideas, the number of people involved (one, two, more) and the format (text, voice, thoughts in your head) do not fundamentally change what makes it rational and effective.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (46)

Introductory Questions

Are you looking for one reply, a small discussion, a big discussion, or a series of discussions?

Are you looking for help or to correct me? Are you trying or expecting to learn from me, or to win a debate with me?

Do you believe you’re a beginner, a skilled and knowledgable person, or my equal or peer?

How many relevant online articles have you written? How many words is that? Link your website with them. 5+ articles is preferred for beginners, 20+ is preferred for knowledgeable people, and 20+ is a hard requirement for peers (100+ preferred). I’m flexible if you have a good written substitute for online articles, e.g. a published book. Writing should be on your own website (either your own domain or your own account at something like WordPress, Blogger, or Medium, not Reddit comments, Quora answers, etc.)

What resources have you allocated to this project? The main ones are time (e.g. 1 hour, 20 hours, or 7 hours/week indefinitely) and money. If your allocations of both time and money are low, it’s hard to make much progress.

If you want to debate, are you planning to pursue the matter to a conclusion? And if you lose the debate (in your own opinion) will you thank me, pay me, or do anything else about it? If you want to learn, are you planning to pursue the matter until you’ve succeeded, or will you stop and try something else if it’s not quick and easy?

What have you already done to learn about this matter or develop the skills to deal with it effectively? Read books or articles (about the topic itself or about how to learn, think, discuss, study, etc.)? Studied them? Written notes? Discussed them? (Publicly? Link?) Watched YouTube videos? Read Wikipedia? Listened to podcasts? Asked experts? Gotten a degree? Worked in the field? Do you have much discussion or debate history/practice (link?)?

I ask these questions first because they’re relevant context for the discussion and second because they are areas where people commonly behave/communicate ambiguously or dishonestly.

Generally you can answer these questions just once and it’ll be fine for many discussions. People usually have similar answers for most or all of their discussions. But if the answers change significantly, you should communicate that.

I like long discussions or debates. You’re welcome to ask for that. Just say so. I don’t like e.g. people who try to debate me, anonymously, and they may stop replying at any moment (I have no idea), but before that they always demand I give them more answers or else they call me an irrational evader. Short questions are OK too if they’re clear about what they are, and they’re good, effortful questions. I don’t like people who bring up a topic so that it looks like the start of a substantial discussion but then don’t continue after they get an initial answer. The questions above help me know what to expect from a discussion.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (5)

Getting Elliot’s Attention

How do I allocate attention? Here are some things I look for.

I prefer public, asynchronous, unmoderated, text discussion with permanent archives and no editing messages. This is available on my curi website and Fallible Ideas email discussion group. Discord, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and personal emails don’t qualify. This facilitates discussion over time. I don't want recency biases or discussions that automatically end in a day or two.

I prefer non-parochial discussion. That means I’m writing something of general interest. It’s best if the topic is general interest and what I say about the topic is easy to share, or easy for someone else to read, rather than mixed up in a bunch of back-and-forth discussion. I prefer discussion formats where I can easily link to things I wrote and can easily copy/paste parts of the discussion without the formatting being screwed up.

I prefer productive discussion with people who are making an honest, friendly, serious effort over time (e.g. 2+ months of regularly working on learning something and sharing what they’re doing so I can see the effort for myself and can critically comment on it).

I prefer discussing with high-initiative, independent people who have their own motor. I prefer people who are going to learn whether I help or not, and who will guide themselves. Then my help or comments are an extra bonus. I dislike helpless behaviors.

I prefer people who will brainstorm a bunch of ways of making progress, and try them. I don’t like people who get stuck easily and don’t have any ideas to get unstuck. It’s best if you’re self-sufficient enough that my comments can help you do better at what you’re already doing (and sometimes reconsider it and change projects), rather than my comments needing to somehow get you unstuck. It’s OK if you’re getting low on great ideas about how to proceed and starting to try some more marginal ideas and you want help. It’s bad if you have no ideas for proceeding on your own and gave up.

I prefer paying attention to people who have a significant writing or discussion history, e.g. a blog or dozens of past, reasonable, effortful messages. If you’re posting anonymously and have no past reputation, you should put some extra effort into making your message clearly worthwhile and nice to engage with. I also generally like people with websites, and people who write public things which are meant to still be read years in the future.

If you want to post anonymously, I prefer that you pick a pseudonym and use it for at least an entire conversation, preferably longer.

I prefer people who use quotes effectively (such as including relevant context so that their message is self-contained, while also excluding irrelevant text), format their posts well, respond to what I actually said, don’t talk past me, don’t put words in my mouth, don’t misquote me, don’t respond to something different than what I said, don’t straw man me, and don’t reply with non sequiturs.

I prefer talking with people who don’t do social pressure behaviors. I dislike people who treat discussion as a popularity contest and pander to the non-participating audience.

I prefer good questions which talk about what you already did to solve your own problem and where/how/why you got stuck. I prefer questions which build on something that’s already written (e.g. by me or Rand). I don’t like vague questions. I generally like questions that explain your perspective.

If you don’t ask a question, I can write about a topic without you. I can create my own generic writing prompts and questions without you. Your questions, to be useful, need to have an advantage over that. They need to add some upside for me. There are two main ways to do that. First, you can include information about your perspective, what you tried, how you got stuck and your own experience with the problem. Suppose you have a question about capitalism. You can e.g. tell me which specific sentences you didn’t understand from one of my articles about capitalism, and what’s confusing about them for you. That’s more useful to me than the question “So, how does capitalism work?”, which I already thought of myself and wrote about. Second, you can write a high effort, detailed, organized question. You can e.g. write about the current state of the field, what are the open questions, what is already answered and how, etc. You can do research or think about the best way to approach the issues. In that case, the upside for me is that you put work into the topic. So, to make a good question, give me information I don’t already have – either info related to your personal learning or info from doing some good thinking about the issue.

I don’t like questions which essentially ask me to start over and explain the issue from scratch in cases where I (or someone else like David Deutsch) already wrote a one-size-fits-many, generic explanation addressing the matter from scratch.

I don’t like being asked questions that I preemptively answered in an article or in a previous discussion message. I understand that you had trouble understanding, but be more specific than “I don’t get it” or “How does X work?”. It’s important to give me some information about what you don’t get – which part of my explanation don’t you get, what’s the problem, what do you think it says in your words, what’s your best guess at what it means, what seems wrong about it to you, what criticism of it do you see no way to deal with, something.

I prefer cooperative discussion. Adversarial debates are overrated. The main benefit of them is that they’re better than no discussion at all.

If you want an adversarial debate, it helps if you communicate your background and why you think you have the skill to keep up and potentially win. Even better, bring up stakes or tests – e.g. if you’re wrong about X (something relatively easy to objectively evaluate the correctness of, e.g. a factual matter), then you’ll do Y (concede some points, read and comment on some books and FI articles, be extremely appreciative, impressed, surprised, pay me money, behave differently in your career, whatever – the more the better). It’s important to have clear criteria for what’d satisfy you in a debate, to have clarity about what it’d take for you to concede, and to have ways to objectively test who is right instead of it all being evaluated with freeform judgment. And it’s important that there be consequences to the debate, something actually happens if a conclusion is reached (it should be something that has value for me if I’m right). It’s also good to say why the issue you want to debate is important, why it matters, why it’s worth debating. And tell me how I would benefit from being corrected about this.

For all discussions, and especially debates, I prefer people who are persistent about reaching a conclusion. And people who will slow down and stop skipping steps or jumping to conclusions, will clarify things, will put effort into making the discussion organized, and will deal with tangents and sub-issues.

Communicate goals you have that I’ll appreciate, e.g. to debate to a conclusion, or to learn philosophy. If your question is the first of 20+ questions you plan to ask over a period of months, that’s a good thing, tell me that. I don’t like the people who ask one question, get their answer, and leave with no comment. I prefer helping people with bigger goals than to get one answer to one thing. (The one thing is almost never very important on its own, it’s just good as a step towards bigger stuff.)

Don’t try to have it both ways with being a beginner who wants leeway and also an expert who is challenging my ideas and expects to win debates with me. You can’t simultaneously be both. And, in general, pick one and say which it is. If you think you’re my peer or intellectual equal, say so, and then I’ll hold you to the same standards I hold my own work to. If you don’t think you’re my peer and don’t want to be held to the standards for my own work, say that. If your thinking and claims are not being held to the same quality standards as mine, and it looks to you like I’m wrong, your default assumption should be that you’re missing something (or, at least, there was a misunderstanding), because your ideas are less rigorous than mine. If you don’t have a comparable amount of learning and studying activity in your past (compared to me), including public writing exposed to criticism, then you shouldn’t expect that the criticism or critical question you just thought of is new to me. It’s not literally impossible, but it’s a bad default assumption because I’ve already heard or thought of so many ideas before.

I like talking to reasonable, smart, knowledgeable people. And honest, especially honest. I dislike talking with people who assume I don’t have enough information to make judgments about them that I’ve made. I have a lot of knowledge about how to judge discussion statements which have been exposed to a lot of critical commentary and tested extensively. Lots of your behavior, which you’re blind to, is expressed in your words and is easy for me to judge as e.g. dishonest.

I like when people talk to people other than me and have discussions that I can comment on. I don’t like being a major participant in 90% of discussions at my forums. Practice discussing with others (both on my forums and elsewhere), try things out, share what happened, and ask for help with problems.

I prefer people who answer my questions or, in the alternative, say why they aren’t answering. It’s hard to deal with people who ignore direct questions. I also dislike ambiguous answers, including giving one answer to three questions (and not even specifying which one is being answered). I also want direct answers like “yes” or “no” when possible – if you want to explain your answer with nuance, you should generally give a direct answer as the first sentence of your answer, then give extra information after.

I also prefer people who ask clear, direct questions. If you say some stuff with no question, I’m less inclined to answer. Tell me what you want. Don’t imply them or hint. Don’t think a key part of your message goes without saying. Even a generic comment like “Does anyone have criticism of this?” or “I’d like criticism of this.” (which is fine despite not being a question or request) is much better than nothing. It takes away wiggle room (both honest and dishonest) where you could later say you didn’t actually think what you said was true, or weren’t looking for criticism, or some other excuse for why you don’t appreciate the criticism you received. Even better is to say something less generic about what you think or want.

I like people who care about errors instead of making excuses about why those errors aren’t important. I find people dramatically underestimate what errors matter and don’t understand how they matter, and mostly don’t ask or want to know, either.

If you value my attention, say so explicitly and act accordingly. Or pay for it (contributions, consulting, digital educational products). Money is good. Money is actually a lot easier to come by and provide to me than high-quality discussion messages are. I don’t mind helping some people who are bad at stuff, and paying customers have priority there (as do friendly, cooperative, honest people who appreciate the help).

It’s good to share your goals, intentions and plans for a discussion or for your learning. And how much do you care? What will you do about it? What resources are you allocating to this project and what will you do with them? What resources do you estimate the project needs to succeed? How hard a project is it? What have you done to build up to being ready to do it by doing a series of easier project successfully and sharing the results publicly on your blog? These are areas you should be interested in critical feedback on. Many learning projects fail because of project planning errors, e.g. people think something is a much smaller project than it is. Many people start discussions and quickly drop out. They weren’t really interested in the topic they asked about, don’t want to think or talk about it much, don’t want to take actions to learn more such as reading an article, and don’t want to discuss and learn from their error either.

I dislike when people ask for my help with a project which is already in progress and they won’t share or revisit the project planning. They want my help with goals they already decided, using an approach they already decided, but they want to exclude me from discussing or criticizing that stuff. Lame!

The more you do the above things, the more attention you’ll get. If you don’t do them, don’t expect much attention.

I wrote this post partly to help people deal with me better and partly to clarify this for myself. I’m trying to change to better follow these guidelines. Expect me to be less responsive than I’ve been in the past if you don’t follow the above advice. I plan to ignore more stuff that I think is low value.

But what if I make a mistake and ignore something important? What if I’m biased? What about Paths Forward? My Paths Forward Policy is still in effect as a backup so that mistakes can be corrected – it can be used if I don’t allocate attention to something that you think I should. And, along with this post, I’ve just written introductory questions people can use, made a How To Discuss blog post category, written an explanation of how debates and impasses work and how to conclude a debate, and written a new debating policy.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (31)

Discussion Trees With Example

When you have a discussion, it’s important to understand what is a reply to what, and what didn’t receive a reply (especially direct questions that aren’t answered).

To track this, draw a tree diagram. Put the initial thing someone said on top, then connect replies below it. Then for the each reply, put replies to it below it and connect them. And so on. It looks like this (real discussion, then tree):

Use abbreviated versions of what was said. Treat this like an overview, outline or notes. Make it condensed so it’s easier to see the whole discussion at once. Notes (text that doesn’t represent what someone said) can be put in square brackets. The tree helps show the structure of the discussion while having only short notes about what was said.

If it gets too complicated, you can split it into multiple diagrams. Write “subtree [name]” as a reply, then make a second diagram with that name which represents that part of the tree. It’s just the same as if you had one giant diagram except you took a part of it and moved it to a separate piece of paper or computer document. You can make documents that zoom in on specific parts of the overall discussion tree. You can also make an extra-abbreviated summary tree which leaves a lot out, then make some more detailed trees for some parts.

You should do something to indicate who said what, e.g. put their initials or use different colors.

It’s good to mark what didn’t get a reply and non sequiturs (comments that aren’t responsive, don’t engage with what they reply to). You could also mark direct questions, or at least direction questions that weren’t answered.

In my example, a green outline is Jack Dorsey, red is me, and black is an anonymous poster named A. Bold indicates a direct question (I paraphrased some things as questions but only bolded if it was a question in the original text). Dotted lines are non sequiturs. Ovals are statements that were replied to and rectangles are statements that were not replied to.

You can keep a tree in chronological order if you extend the lines between replies. Each row can be a message someone sent. If someone replies to an old point, draw a long line from it down to the current row. You can draw horizontal lines the show the rows. This will help with complicated discussions. Look at how my example tree is organized in rows. You never see claims from the same person in the same row, and every row corresponds to a specific message (I wrote three messages in the discussion and I have three rows, same for A).

Trees help you understand the discussions you have. Practice making trees for many of your discussions until it’s easy. Also practice doing it with other people's discussions. (If other people's discussions are easier because you're less emotionally involved or biased, start there; if it's harder because you understand what's being said less, start with your own.) Mentally keeping track of trees like this is what people who are good at discussions do (except when they actually write notes). If you write them down a bunch of times, you’ll get way better at remembering them.

When you have a difficult discussion with someone, if you both share your tree diagrams, you can compare and see where you view the discussion differently. This helps clear up misunderstandings and other problems.

Tree Analysis

The tree diagram makes it easy to see that A wasn’t responding to most of what I said (look for the red rectangles and the dotted lines). You can also see the two things from A that I didn’t reply to. And you can see what happened with direct questions: first, no real answer, just a vaguely implied answer that doesn’t make sense (I asked the point of what he was saying and he implied no point) and then a non sequitur reply, that does not answer the question, to my followup question trying to ask the same thing again.

It’s hard to perfectly represent discussions as summary trees but you can represent a lot of information this way. It’s useful even if it’s not 100% complete. In this case, the tree leaves out an issue that helps explain why I didn’t reply to the claim that debates are irrational.

I said:

You haven't given reasons nor any way for me to learn that you're right and change my mind.

And A replied criticizing me for mentioning debate, saying:

learning from each other is what matters.

I had just complained about the lack of any opportunity to learn from him, and then he criticized me because, allegedly, I wanted to debate in a non-learning way. That’s unreasonable and it’s part of a pattern where he didn’t engage with any substantive thing I said (look at all the square rectangles, plus what happened with my direct questions).

Discussion trees are literally and technically equivalent to bullet point outlines with nesting (indenting). You nest/indent replies under what they reply to. That represents the identical information as a tree with lines indicating what is a reply to what. If you don’t understand this, practice creating both the tree and the outline until you do understand.

Making Trees

You can make tree diagrams with pencil and paper, art apps (FYI vector art apps like Affinity Designer make more sense than pixel or photo based apps like Photoshop, and more basic tools can work too, and there are mind mapping and diagramming apps), OmniGraffle, or Graphviz. For info on generating tree diagrams from s-expressions, see my email reply to Justin (who found a website which does it), sharing my Ruby script which converts s-expressions to Graphviz files. Here’s the s-expression I used to create the example tree:

("No political ads on Twitter"
    ("social status, favors, friends, pull"
        ("money shouldn't buy influence"
            "no info that could change my mind")
        (disagree
            "no reasons"
            ("debate?"
                "debates are irrational, aren't you a Popperian?")
            ("point?"
                ("[implied] there is no point"
                    ("purpose of contradicting me?"
                        "opinions are allowed here")))))
    "Less upward mobility"
    "Can't put money where mouth is"
    "Read Atlas Shrugged")

It’s worth learning to write trees as s-expressions. s-expressions are a general purpose intellectual tool. They’re a way of representing structured information/data.


Update:

See the Discussion Trees blog category for more tree examples.

See Mind Map software review for software choices.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (44)

Tracking Discussions

Tips for tracking discussions well:

  1. Write down a tree diagram (or, equivalently, a bullet point outline with nesting).
  2. Whenever you write stuff and get a reply, note down anything you’d written which the reply didn’t address. Also note down stuff the other guy said which you didn’t answer. With this method, the open issues are the things on your list plus the stuff in the latest post. (This is simplest in a two person discussion where you take turns writing one message at a time.)
  3. Get better at remembering stuff in discussions.

More on (1) and (3) below.

Trees and Outlines

Here’s an explanation of discussion tree diagrams with an example. And here’s another explanation below (actually written first, even though posted second):

Here’s an example tree diagram:

You can create tree diagrams with pen and paper or with various software options (some are mentioned in my other post on discussion trees).

Trees like this are always equivalent to outlines with nesting. Nesting X under Y in an outline is the same as drawing a line from X to Y in a tree (with Y below or to the right of X, depending on whether it’s a top-to-bottom or left-to-right tree). You can do both trees and outlines to get comfortable with how they’re the same. Both represent parent/child relationships (that’s standard terminology) where some things are attached underneath others. For discussion trees, replies are the children which you put under the thing they reply to. The “parent comment”, like on Reddit, is the thing being replied to.

Example outline which is equivalent to the tree:

  • Family Thanksgiving
    • Plan Meals
      • Pintrest
      • Web Search
      • Old Favorites
        • Mashed Potatoes
        • Stove Top brand stuffing
        • Cranberry sauce
      • Traditions
        • Deep Fried Turkey
    • Go Shopping
      • Food Shopping
        • Turkey
        • Ham
      • Other Shopping
        • Table settings
        • Chairs

To outline well, you need to be able to write short summaries. E.g. take a three paragraph argument and condense it to one sentence for your outline. This is a skill you can practice by itself.

Remembering Stuff

With practice you can remember more stuff without writing it down. This isn’t automatic. It’s something you can work on or not. It helps to try to remember stuff, and to reread the conversation to look up stuff you did not remember. And it helps to consider it important when someone refers to something you’d forgotten, and go reread it and take note of your memory error (try to find patterns and causes for your memory errors).

A related thing to practice is remembering what you say or read in general. You can quiz yourself on this. After reading something, try to write down what it said without looking at it. Start with shorter stuff (or break longer things into parts, like reading one paragraph at a time). If you get good at this and find it easy, do it with longer stuff and/or do it after a delay (can you remember it 5 minutes later without rereading? 20min? 3 hours? 3 days? 3 weeks?). And do it with your own stuff too. After you write something, try to write the same thing again later. See how accurate you can be for longer stuff and after longer wait times. You can do this with spoken words that you hear or speak, but you won’t be able to check your accuracy unless they were recorded.

People often don’t clearly know what they just read, or can’t keep it in their head long enough to write a reply (e.g. if you spend 30min writing a reply, you need to either remember the text you’re replying to that long or reread it at least once to refresh your memory). People often partially forget, partially remember, and don’t realize the accuracy loss happened (and don’t realize they should selectively reread key parts to double check that they remembered those accurately).

It’s also good if you can clearly remember what you said 1-3 days ago, which someone just replied to. You’ll often get replies the next day after you write something. And to the extent you don’t remember, it’s important to realize you don’t remember, recognize you don’t know, and reread. It’s also good if you can remember details from earlier in the conversation, which could be a week or more ago – and if you don’t, you better review relevant parts of the conversation back to the beginning if you want to write high quality comments which build on prior discussion text.

It’s easier to remember, especially for older material, if you have notes. If you keep an outline, tree and/or notes on what was said (including copy/pasting key quotes to your notes file), it’s easier to remember. If you do that for a while, it’ll be easier to remember without the notes. The notes are partly like training wheels that help you learn to remember stuff (it helps you break the remembering down into parts – instead of remembering everything, you partly read your notes and partly remember stuff that isn’t in your notes, so this way you have less to remember, so it’s easier, which makes good practice because you’re working on part of the skill instead of the whole skill at once).

However, notes and outlines aren’t just like training wheels, they are also good things which you shouldn’t expect to ever entirely stop using. They’re useful for practice but also just useful. With practice, you may learn to use them less but still use them. Or you might use them more with practice as you get better at creating and using them. Remembering everything in your head, instead of using tools, is not necessarily a good thing. Remembering some stuff is useful but there is some stuff you shouldn’t be trying to remember. Remembering basically means temporarily memorizing. The anti-memorization ideas you already know about have some relevance.

Also, notes, trees and outlines are useful for communicating with others. You can use them in the discussion. If the other person gets lost and confused, or there is a disagreement about what happened in the discussion, you can share your outlines/trees/notes to communicate your view of what happened. This can remind the person and help them, or it can be compared with their outlines/trees/notes to figure out specifically where you differ (find somewhere your outline is different than theirs, go reread the original text, find and fix someone’s error).

Sharing discussion trees/outlines is a good way to help figure out what’s going on in difficult discussions that become chaotic. Most people don’t have the tree in their head, didn’t try to keep notes, and also can’t (don’t know how to) go back and create the tree for the current discussion. Sadly, people also commonly don’t want to review a discussion and create a tree. That’s because it’s work and people are lazy and/or think discussion should be much easier than it is. People have incorrect expectations about what it takes to discuss well, so if it’s not working with ease they blame the other person or they blame bad luck and incompatibility, but they don’t usually seem to think the thing to do is increase their skill and put in more effort.

Many people avoid resuming conversations after the first day – they want to talk a bunch at once (e.g. talk for an hour) and then never continue later. This is a really common way trying to discuss issues with people sucks and fails. It’s hard to get anywhere with people like this. A major cause of this problem is their bad memory skill. They don’t want to continue the discussion the next day because they forgot most of what was said. To be good at truth seeking, you need to be able to discuss things over time, which requires both memory and willingness to review some stuff sometimes.

More Complicated Discussions

This section is some more advanced and optional material.

A discussion tree can actually be a directed acyclic graph (DAG), not a tree, because one argument can reply to 2+ parents. In that case, a bullet point style outline won’t represent it. However, you usually can make a good, useful discussion tree without doing that.

Directed means the connections between nodes go in a particular direction (parent and child) instead of being symmetric connections. Nodes are places on the graph that can be connected, they are parents or children – specifically they are discussion statements. E.g. “Go Shopping” and “Cranberry Sauce” are nodes. Acyclic means the graph isn’t allowed to go in circles. You can’t have node A be a child of B which is a child of C which is a child of A.

A DAG can always be put in a topological ordering (linear order, 1-dimensional order, similar to an outline or list) which could maybe be useful. Cycles ruin that ordering but aren’t allowed because no statement in a discussion can be a child of a statement that was made at a later time. A child of node N is a reply to N. Because statements don’t reply into the future (and we can treat all statements as being added one at a time in some order), cycles are avoided.

Statements do reply into the future in a sense. Sometimes we preemptively address arguments. One way to handle this is to add a new argument, C, “A already addressed B preemptively”, as a child of B. This gets into the “last word” problem. Even if you preemptively address stuff, people just ignore you or make tiny changes to try to make a new comment required. The big picture way to deal with this is by criticizing their methodology – they are creating a pattern of errors which need to be addressed as a pattern instead of individually.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (6)

Claiming You Objectively Won A Debate

When people end debates, they usually don’t even try to make an objective claim that they won (or, impersonally, that particular arguments were adequate to reach particular conclusions). Here’s a standard form for an initial impasse statement which is worth knowing:

Here is my understanding of the situation: My arguments, X, Y and Z, were adequate to objectively establish my conclusion, C. Those arguments were conclusive. I said enough that you should be persuaded. A rational, unbiased observer would agree that those arguments won the debate and would tentatively accept the conclusion C. You gave no substantive replies to X, Y or Z (except for one reply to X, which was refuted by my reply X2, which you did not substantively respond to). You made no substantive arguments about C that I didn’t address. There are currently no open questions left. So you should concede, change your mind, and start learning about C. Or else, say something new to change the situation. But you won’t do any of those, which is an impasse.

Most people end discussions with less than this. Not an abbreviated version of it (which could be fine) but less content. They don’t even claim to have won the debate. If you can’t even make a statement like this, you have no business giving up on the discussion.

To have won a debate, you have to be able to claim to have won the debate. That’s necessary but insufficient. It’s required but it’s not enough. Your claim could be wrong. But if you don’t even have a claim like that, you didn’t win. That means making a claim like “In [quote] and [quote2] I gave compelling arguments. I tried several times to get you to engage with them. You didn’t. They were adequate that they should have persuaded a reasonable person.” Making a claim like that is the bare minimum needed to think you won the debate. Actually checking whether that claim is true is a more advanced step but most people don’t even make the claim. They don’t realize that’s the sort of thing that would indicate you won a debate. They don’t know that’s the goal.

Your goal in a debate is to objectively establish some claims. Make adequate arguments for why those claims are correct. Adequate means they should be persuasive to an intelligent, objective, neutral observer. People can easily be wrong about what’s objective or adequate but they should at least try to do this. But most people, in most debates, won’t even claim to have done it and seem to be unaware they were supposed to. People quit discussions without ever saying something like “I thought my argument X was adequate and your responses were missing the point. You’re not listening, dumb or biased or something so I’m going to move on.” That’s not great but it’s better than what people commonly do.

People usually stop discussing without even any claim to have provided information adequate to change the other person’s mind or help them learn better ideas. That’s irrational.

People usually end discussions without even claiming the other person did something specific wrong, was unreasonable about a particular issue, was irrational in a way they’ve stated (rather than just irrational in general), incorrectly judged any particular argument (with reasons the judgment is incorrect), or anything like that. Pointing out a specific, impersonal flaw with the discussion (rather than the person’s ideas) would also work. If you won’t point out any problem with the discussion or with the person, you’re in no position to end the discussion in your favor. And if you have no rational claim that you won, you should consider that you lost and you’re leaving to avoid facing superior ideas.

People often make general, non-specific comments about how bad the other person is or how dumb their arguments are. These do not attempt to rationally and objectively establish any particular claims about what happened in the discussion. They don’t provide a case for why they’re right which they could honestly think was conclusive.

When debating, you should try to make an objective case for some conclusions. You should get to a point where you can claim (in your own opinion) that your arguments were objective, rational and conclusive and the debate should now be over. If you don’t do that, don’t claim you conclusively won the debate. There’s a lot more needed, but this is a basic starting point that people often don’t even reach.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (9)

Written and Unwritten Rules In Discussions

If you don’t have a debate policy, you have an unwritten, biased, inconsistent debate policy. Just like if you don’t have a philosophy, you still do, it just hasn’t been given much study or conscious consideration.

Public intellectuals use unwritten rules for who they talk to (gatekeeping, filtering) and how they talk during a discussion (how they think rational, productive discussion works).

Unwritten rules are confusing to others. They’re not predictable. If an intellectual had written gatekeeping rules, I could know “If I do X, Y and Z, I’ll get a discussion.” With unwritten rules, it’s unclear what’s even relevant (what helps at all), let alone what’s adequate, what’s enough.

Unwritten rules are usually applied inconsistently. They let people be biased and prevent accountability. They let people easily lie about the reasons for decisions (like not discussing with a critic).

Bias and dishonesty are hard problems. Instead of being confident we’re great at them, we should make it easier on ourselves. Written rules help keep us honest and prevent bias from affecting our discussions. We should be happy to find ways to combat bias and dishonesty rather than being so arrogant as to think that’s unnecessary. (Some people seem to think that doing anything about bias is like an admission of weakness, and admission that maybe they aren’t fully rational, so they’d rather take no anti-bias actions in order to deny they have any problem with bias.)

During discussions, people have unwritten rules for what they think should be replied to, what questions should be asked and answered, how much effort to use, whether links should be read or ignored, how conclusions are reached about sub-issues, in what circumstances the overall discussion should end. People who try to have discussions usually disagree about some of these things. Because neither side writes down or explains how they think this stuff works, it’s an ongoing source of conflict and misunderstanding. And then at some point someone gets frustrated and ends the discussion. Or they just end it because they’d rather do something else and that’s that – and then they also claim they’re really open to discussion and interested in ideas (just not that time, apparently, though they often make excuses like saying the other guy’s messages were low quality without providing conclusive specifics).

Going from unwritten, ad hoc, “I know it when I see it” type rules/behavior, to written, documented, policies procedures, methods and rules is a huge upgrade. It’s similar to going from “whatever the dictator says goes” (unwritten rules) to a system of law and order. The way intellectuals behave is really primitive compared even to governments (and I have a lot of criticisms of governments).

This is the unexamined life. People don’t know why they do things. They don’t know how they choose which discussions to have, what to do in the discussions, or when to end them. They don’t understand themselves. Writing down their discussion methods and policies is how they could both discuss better (figure out what their goals are, what they think is good discussion, share the idea with others, and try to do it) and also better examine their life, understand themselves, learn what they actually do (take some of their intuitions and whims and turn them into considered, written statements).


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Discussions Should Use Sources

People think you should debate or explain stuff yourself, not cite books or articles. But the truth doesn’t depend on what ideas are in my head or what I remember. So they aren’t using a truth-seeking approach.

The proper way to deal with complex topics is to look at what’s already been figured out. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Try to research and understand the state of the debate. If you find something missing you can make an original contribution, add something new, but mostly you don’t do that for well-developed topics.

E.g. take economics and political philosophy. That’s a big, hard topic. Even most of what Rand, Mises or Reisman said about it wasn’t new. Partly they organized existing ideas and figured out which ones are important and how they fit together. They did add in some new ideas too. Most people add a lot less than that. And it’s harder today after them. Anyway, the point of debate/discussion isn’t really to add new ideas to the field. If you have a new idea, write it down. Then when you debate someone, your idea is a book or article that you can cite. So it’s just like citing a Mises book, it’s pointing at the existing literature and trying to figure out what the discussion tree looks like, what is answered and unanswered, refuted or not, etc. If you have an original idea and write it down so it’s part of the literature, then the general project of evaluating the literature is going to include evaluating your idea. Nothing changes.

People object to citations in discussion to address some practical problems. They include:

  • Citing stuff you don’t understand or haven’t read.
  • Citing a million things to overwhelm someone.
  • Citing a new thing every time one is refuted.
  • Judging cites by the author’s name or what his conclusion is.

The main problems here are appeals to authority and argument quantity over quality. The proper way to use cites is only to cite your best material on each issue, and if it’s refuted you don’t cite second best then third best, you start reconsidering. If your evaluation of the best material (in your opinion) was incorrect, your evaluation of other material is also suspect. Your way of evaluating needs to be reconsidered.

Discussion should be kind of like a research project where you each help the other guy look through the literature for your side. If I talk with a socialist, he can tell me the key chapters in Marx that, as a Mises-advocate, are relevant to me and he thinks Mises didn’t answer. There’s a ton of socialist literature and a socialist is a good person to help guide me to the best stuff and also, simultaneously, to the key stuff to criticize (or cite criticism of) to change his mind.

This does depend on your goal in discussion. Are you trying to figure out what’s true? Are you acting the part of scholar, researcher, intellectual trying to reach some conclusions? Then don’t do a literature-independent discussion. Alternatively, you might be practicing talking about ideas and practicing debating. If you’re just trying to practice explaining stuff, not actually trying to reach a conclusion in the field, then using little or no literature can make sense.

People routinely mix these two things up. They debate like it’s unserious practice, won’t consider literature, but also think, at the same time, that they are reaching conclusions and this is a reasonable way to form their opinions. They think it’s a serious debate that can figure out the right economics while, at the same time, that they don’t want to read Mises, don’t know of any refutations of Mises by anyone, etc. You can’t figure out the truth of economics in that manner.

Rewriting published material doesn’t make sense in general. Books are carefully written and edited. What I say in a discussion is going to be lower quality (unless it’s about a position lacking good literature).

So for well-developed topics (like economics but not AGI), most of your comments should be about how the literature fits together, how it applies to particular cases that come up, stuff like that. Like if Mises wrote a general principle and a guy has a question that it answers, usually what Mises wrote is not a direct answer to that exact question. So I can write 3 sentences explaining how Mises’ principle relates to the question and then cite what Mises wrote. Those 3 sentences by me help customize the general purpose material to a particular case. Those kinds of sentences are generally missing from the literature, but they’re very important because people have particular questions and don’t always see how the one-size-fits-many general statements in the literature answer their questions. Even if they’re good at that, maybe they figure it out 9 out of 10 times, but it’s still a big deal if I can help relate the literature to the remaining cases.

And there’s a lot of literature, so a socialist might not know which Mises book to look in to get an answer to a particular question, and maybe I can find the answer and find some key quotes a lot faster than him because I’m more familiar with Mises’ writing. So that’s something useful I can contribute to discussion, it’s a way I can be helpful. And similarly, he can help point me at socialist literature that addresses some specific questions I have because he knows where to find that better than I do.

Cites also improve discussion by providing more targets to criticize. If I cite a Mises book, now you have plenty of details about my position that you can point out errors in. In literature-excluding discussions, people will bring up their ideas and never give you enough details about what they mean. They aren’t rigorous enough about explaining, piece by piece, how their claims work. They often change their position mid discussion. Literature is a fixed target that’s suitable for critical analysis.

And how do you get your own position, alone, on a complex topic like economics? You learn some parts of the field and, for other parts, you don’t investigate it beyond a summary level. You don’t have time to go into everything because it’s such a big field. Even professional economists specialize and can’t cover everything. For someone like me who has read a lot of economics but it’s not my specialty, it’s not even close – there are tons of issues where I believe it’s been covered by Austrian economics, and I could look it up if it came up, and I have some kinda summary info about it which makes sense to me and fits with other ideas and principles I have, but I haven’t carefully checked all the details. That’s how it’s gotta be. It takes many people working together and writing books and so on to develop all the complexity and detail that goes into a position in economics. The field’s standards are so high that it’s too much for one person to cover it all. You can understand the main principles as one person, you can think rationally, you can investigate areas you think may be problematic, you can investigate areas that discussion and debate partners bring up, but you can’t just go step by step through every last thing in the field, detail by detail, there’s been too much thinking about economics done. So to get a position I look for a body of work that I think gets stuff right. Ideally I find one I’m 99% happy with and my position can be “Austrian economics + X, Y and Z” and just make a few changes based on my own ideas (as long as the changes are isolated, that’s OK. If I want to change some major economic principle, it’d end up changing hundreds of conclusions, so it’d be a big issue.)

Less ideally (it’s more work), I might use the ideas of one school of thought for one big part of the field and another school of thought for another big part. That’s what I do in philosophy. I have Critical Rationalism for the majority of epistemology but not all of it, and I have Objectivism for some other parts of epistemology and for several other major areas of philosophy, and I also have David Deutsch for some other stuff like jumps to universality. To do this, one has to create more supplemental material explaining what’s used for what. It’s more complicated than just agreeing with one school of thought (even with some minor customizations). It’s still far less work than developing all the ideas from scratch.

Developing ideas from scratch is, in general, bad. It’s like rewriting software from scratch. You end up creating a bunch of new bugs. The existing stuff has been exposed to a lot of critical thinking. Many errors/bugs have been fixed. If you start over, you might think you’re fixing all the problems, like now you know what you’re doing and will get everything right, but what actually happens is making tons of mistakes including tons of mistakes that were already made and fixed in the past.

If the existing ideas are inadequate, in general you should help improve them instead of just ignoring them and trying to develop new ideas. This is especially true for complicated, established fields like economics or philosophy. It’s less true for a very new field like AGI, but even then you shouldn’t be e.g. reinventing algorithms, data structures, or programming languages – there’s lots of existing stuff that’s worth using (even an imperfect programming language is generally far better than trying to make a new one).

It’s kinda like existing human knowledge is a million points but has flaws, and if you help get it up to a million and 500 points, you improved things. But if you start over, you aren’t actually helping for the first 999,999 points, you’re still behind, so you have to do so much work before starting over is useful. Yeah maybe if you reinvent 100,000 points from scratch there will be a big chunk there someone could use and combine with some existing knowledge, but if that’s what’s going to happen you might as well do that yourself (develop in, from day 1, as an improvement on some existing knowledge – as something that can be added to some existing knowledge and/or some changes to some existing ideas with problems – rather than ignoring existing knowledge and leaving it to someone else to convert your work to be relevant to other ideas humanity has).

It’s hard enough to work with existing knowledge and improve it. Most attempts actually make it worse. It’s hard to understand how existing knowledge works, what the problems are, and how you can make changes without breaking things. It’s much worse, though, to just take the field itself and try to solve it yourself without all the help and guidance of existing knowledge. Then you’re trying to outcompete thousands or millions of people’s cooperative efforts by yourself.

Most people trying to build up intellectual systems from scratch don’t know much about the literature. It’s related to the cliche that you need to know the rules (e.g. of English) before breaking them. If you don’t understand what’s already known and what’s good about it, you aren’t in a position to do things differently and do a good job. But once you do understand the literature well, and get a good grasp on what’s already known, then you’re in a good position to improve it. A lot of why people want to start over, instead of adding to existing knowledge, is specifically to skip the step of learning much about what’s already known. They’ll never accomplish much.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

Potential Debate Topics

These are brief statements of some controversial ideas I believe. They are mostly unexplained conclusions. I’m not trying to argue my case here (just a little bit here and there). You can search my writing and discussion archives for explanations and reasoning. You can use this list to help find something you disagree with me about, which you could then research, ask questions about, or debate.


It’s possible and desirable to raise children without doing anything to them against their will. No punishments, no force, nothing that’d be illegal to do to an adult neighbor, no manipulative guiding, no agendas, no curriculums, no assumption that, in a disagreement, the parent is correct.

Objectivism is the best philosophy in general. Critical Rationalism offers improvements re refuting induction and replacing it with a fallibilist evolutionary epistemology.

I favor abortion. Only intelligent beings are moral agents, not fetuses. Abortion should not be “safe, legal and rare”, nor is it something to personally disapprove of. It’s either murder or it’s not. If it’s murder, it should be illegal. If it’s not murder, what’s to disapprove of? If you’re unsure, you should want abortion to be illegal because we should err on the side of caution when murder is at stake. For the sake of being careful, I’m fine with banning third trimester abortions (except e.g. when medically necessary to save the mother). I’m confident there isn’t an intelligent being until a while after there is a brain with electric signals. I don’t think that’s an ambiguous gray area. I’ve read the earliest brain activity that (very conservatively) starts to plausibly resemble consciousness starts around the start of the third trimester, but I haven’t researched an exact cutoff date. I don’t think birth corresponds to gaining intelligence, and I think it’s conceivable that a baby isn’t an intelligent being for a few weeks after birth.

Animals aren’t intelligent so they don’t have moral rights. The word “intelligent” has two related meanings. Sometimes it’s used to refer to degrees of intelligence – Joe is smarter than Bob. But it’s also used to refer to a distinction between intelligent or non-intelligent, e.g. a rock is not intelligent. The mainstream view is that animals are intelligent but to a lesser degree than humans (some people even claim that some animals are more intelligent than a 2 year old child). I claim animals are fundamentally different than human beings because humans can learn anything that can be learned (including by aliens or artificial intelligences) while animals don’t learn at all. Animals are robots which are controlled by software (developed by evolution) which is like a more complicated version of a computer-controlled video game character. It’s like an advanced Roomba.

I’m an atheist. I also reject superstitious ideas like luck, karma, reincarnation, the afterlife, ghosts, angels, devils, demons, voodoo, spoon bending, ESP, telepathy, telekinesis, fortune telling, astrology, talking to dead people (mediums), etc.

U.S. Christians and Jews are no more irrational, superstitious or unreasonable than atheists on average. Of major groups, Christians do the best job of understanding and promoting important, traditional American values like freedom. They’re more resistant to socialism, environmentalism, and other evil ideologies which violate common sense. They’re more willing to disagree with the assertions of human authorities like “scientists” or government officials.

Christianity was barbaric originally but improved along with civilization. It’s civilized now, at least in the English speaking countries. Islam is uncivilized today.

I favor pure laissez-faire capitalism. I will debate for “minarchy” (aka “nightwatchman state”) – a minimal government providing law, order, courts, police, military but leaving the economy alone. I’m open to anarchist ideas but generally don’t advocate them because minarchy is the correct goal for the foreseeable future.

I favor classical liberalism which advocates freedom (including free markets) and limited government power. As violence is irrational and destructive, no one should initiate force (including threat of force or fraud). Defensive force is OK. To learn more about liberalism and (Austrian) economics the main authors to read are Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, Ayn Rand and George Reisman.

Parents torture children for twenty plus years and destroy their rationality. Teachers are no better. Parenting needs to be reformed with rational epistemology – Critical Rationalism – so that parents and teachers are primarily helpers rather than leaders or guiders of children. People should manage their own learning and pursue their own goals, not have goals and conclusions imposed on them by authority. Parents should interpret all disobedience, misbehavior and not-listening as disagreements where the fallible parent may well be mistaken and rational truth seeking is the way forward. In the event of failure to reach agreement, the parent should follow liberal principles like leaving people alone instead of using force.

Romantic relationships are broken and irrational rather than a wonderful good idea. Relationships should be more varied instead of everyone following the same model. “Love” is a bad, ambiguous idea. Positive emotions are overrated and in this case often come from conformity to static memes. Jealousy is bad. In the long run, most marriages that don’t end in divorce are unhappy or merely OK. The fear of rejection, the stress of asking a girl out, the waiting and hoping a boy will notice you, the lipstick, the dancing, the partying, etc., are bad things. The heavy reliance on stereotyped interactions like dates and saying “sweet nothings” are bad.

Polyamorous people generally especially like and value love and sex. I think those are overrated. And they’re naive about how hard it is to interact closely with other human beings. It’s hard enough to have one romantic partner without fighting. More partners makes it harder because it’s more complicated and non-traditional.

When in doubt, follow traditions. By default, follow traditions. There are two main reasons to go against tradition. First, you can pick a small number of things to try to improve in your life. You can’t change everything but you can make a few improvements if you study and research what you’re doing a ton (which people rarely do). Second, you have to violate some traditions when they contradict each other. Contradictions between traditions give one no choice but to (partially) go against a tradition and are the main reason to do that.

Genes (or other biology) don’t have any direct influence over our intelligence or personality. We have free will. What kind of person someone grows up to be depends on the ideas they’re exposed to and accept, and their own choices. Genes play fairly non-controlling indirect roles, e.g. if you’re tall more people will encourage you to play basketball. All people are born with essentially equal intellectual capacity. Dumb people are people with bad ideas about how to think.

Human minds aren’t a collection of modules or compartments (for e.g. language, math, art, science, visual-spatial thinking, etc.). We have a single, general purpose, universal intelligence.

Environmentalism is evil. The basic idea is to reject human values and what’s good for humans and instead use nature as the standard of value. Global warming is a scare story to justifying oppressive government intervention in the economy. The “science” is shoddy. Environmentalism has some appeal because it’s confused with reasonable stuff like e.g. having clean lakes, but that is something generally favored and provided by non-environmentalists once there is enough wealth to afford it. The actual goal of the green movement is to shut down industry, not to encourage reasonable reforms and improvements when they become cheap enough to be worth it.

Unions, minimum wage, rent control and many other allegedly pro-worker and pro-poor-people policies harm everyone including workers and poor people.

There are no conflicts of interest between rational men. Self-interest is harmonious with the general welfare. Marxist class warfare is unnecessary and irrational. Workers and employers both benefit by cooperation (and, in the freer countries, people reasonably often change groups in both directions).

The vast majority of studies in the social “sciences”, like psychology, are low quality and should be ignored. The most common problem is they find a correlation and pretend they studied causation.

The government shouldn’t fund science, education, healthcare or retirement.

The vast majority of “intellectuals” and academics are social climbers who are faking being smart.

People lie all the time – primarily to themselves with lying to others as a secondary consequence – and are wrong about many of their claims about themselves. People are often wrong about why they want something, what they meant by a statement, or why they did an action. Being wrong about those things is often due to lying to themselves. People are often mistaken or lying (to themselves) about what their intentions were (e.g. they say they had good intentions but didn’t). People are often mistaken about whether they are angry, emotional or upset.

The laws of epistemology, computation and logic technically depend on the laws of physics. They aren’t a priori. (They are mostly autonomous. It’s generally OK to study them directly without studying physics.) Nothing is a priori. You can’t get away from physics and our understanding of physics is connected to observation of reality (experience).

Induction is an error and myth. No one has ever learned anything by induction. Induction doesn’t describe a physically possible series of actions.

A successful alternative to induction was offered by Karl Popper.

Men have more to gain by peace than war. Peace is strictly better.

Overall, I support president Trump. He was my second choice after Ted Cruz. My main complaints are that he has done much less than he promised. No wall, no dramatic reduction in immigration, no end to anchor babies, no end to Obamacare, and he’s worked with the GOP establishment a fair amount instead of draining that part of the swamp. Obama was the worst, most destructive president for a long time (maybe since the New Deal), and has anti-American values.

Infallible proof is impossible. Whatever arguments you make, whether a formal deduction, a mathematical proof, or claiming 2+2=4, you had to evaluate whether that’s true with a physical process like thoughts in your brain, and the correctness of your conclusion is dependent on your understanding of the properties of that physical process, and your understanding of the laws of physics is certainly fallible. (This argument was originated by David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality chapter 10.)

Most arguments are not inductive, deductive nor abductive. They aren’t equivalent to any of those. They’re just regular arguments. They don’t even have a special name. The main purposes of argument are to criticize and explain.

The French Revolution was evil and destructive.

People make choices about their interests, personality, sexual orientation and gender identity. Some choices are made in early childhood, forgotten about, and very hard to figure out how to change later. And choices are made while externally pressured. That doesn’t make something a biological non-choice, though.

Over 90% of the pleasure people feel during sex is due to ideas and mental interpretations, not biology or physical sensations. Sense data, including nerve data relating to pleasure or pain, is open to interpretation. As Karl Popper says, all observation is theory laden. Raw data doesn’t have an inherent meaning. Our ideas give it meaning and direct our attention selectively to the aspects we consider important.

All finite data sets are logically compatible with infinitely many explanations, patterns or conclusions. There is no such thing as which claims “better fit” the data – the data contradicts some claims and does not contradict others.

Correlation does not hint at causation.

Evolution is replication with variation and selection. That’s the origin of life on Earth. Evolution of memes (ideas, not joke images) is literally evolution, not an analogy.

Morality is objective. Everything is objective. We live in physical reality. It’s one single, shared reality for all people. Truths about this reality do not depend on who is inquiring. There are objective facts about how foods taste to you, which foods you should buy given your physical tastebuds, ideas, budget, etc. And there are truths about what ideas you have and what tastebuds you have and your bank account balance and income, all of which are parts of physical reality.

Solipsism, relativism, nihilism, and skepticism are false.

Cognitive biases, qualia and mirror neurons are confusions.

We live in a multiverse. There are trillions or infinite versions of you. The multiverse is local (no faster than light motion or communication). This is the best current understanding of physics. People who disagree are almost all ignorant or irrational, rather than innocently mistaken.

If you’re wrong about that idea, by what process can someone who knows you’re wrong correct you? Intellectuals should have good general-purpose answers to this in writing.

Arguments don’t have degrees of strength. There aren’t weak and highly compelling arguments. Arguments are conclusive or non-conclusive. If all arguments are non-conclusive, instead of tiebreaking between options without any conclusive way to decide, one can and should create a conclusive argument related to how to proceed.

One can always act on non-refuted ideas. Not merely as a theoretical possibility but as a practical, rational option that one should do. There’s never any good reason to act on a refuted idea.

All correct positive arguments (arguments in favor of something) can be translated into negative arguments (arguments against stuff). If it can’t be translated, it’s incorrect. The negative argument version is the more rigorous and formal version of the argument. Arguments refute. They only support as a loose statement, an approximation.

No Partial Universality: There are no classical computers that can compute 90% of what can be classically computed. (Classical computation is what Macs, Windows PCs, iPhones and Androids do. It excludes quantum computation which is related to quantum physics.) When adding features to a simple classical computing system, it jumps straight from near-zero functionality to universality. Universality and jumps to universality also come up in other areas, e.g. with ability to learn. There are no learners that can learn 90% of what can be learned. Learning systems jump from near-zero to universality.

Serious debates should be done publicly online, in writing, over days/weeks, with no editing or deleting messages, with written methodology for how to reach a conclusion or end the debate.

Intellectuals who are too busy to talk with everyone should have written policies for who they talk to, how much, etc., so it’s all predictable and people who believe they have something important to say can meet the policy requirements and get to discuss it. A major design goal of these policies should be combatting bias (so the policies don’t biasedly suppress certain ideas from being discussed).

The “burden of proof” idea is a misconception.

Don’t ignore “small” errors. You can’t reliably tell how small an error an idea is without correcting it. Once you have a solution, you can say in retrospect that it turned out to be a small, easy, quick fix. But knowing that in advance would be predicting the future growth of knowledge which is impossible.

Rational thinkers address every criticism of their ideas. They never ignore criticism. People who don’t know how to do this in an adequately time efficient manner need to learn how rather than make excuses. In particular, you can criticize patterns or categories of arguments at the same time, as a group, rather than addressing criticisms one by one. You should write down your arguments so that you can reference them in response to repeat criticisms, thus allowing the critic to learn why he’s mistaken and/or share an additional criticism about your argument.

Psychiatry is the modern inquisition. They aren’t doctors or scientists, they are a mechanism of social control. They suppress deviants, heretics, “misbehavior” (behavior unwanted by by those with more power and social status). Psychiatric diagnostic criteria are vague and non-objective because they’re judgment calls about conformity to largely-unwritten social rules.

Standard ideas about what foods are healthy to eat are full of fads and myths. Diets affecting energy levels and mood is primarily placebo. Balancing individual meals is dumb – better to balance what you eat during a whole day or a week. But the food groups and balancing methods are dumb too.

Current AGI (artificial general intelligence) research is working on dead ends. AGI workers should learn Critical Rationalism to make progress. Also non-AGI work called “AI”, such as software to play chess or drive cars, is useful but isn’t substantial progress towards AGI. An AGI won’t be created by combining a bunch of non-general modules like those.

Anti-semitism is wrong. The U.S. political left and media are broadly anti-semitic. Israel and Zionism are good. Anti-Israel political views are due to anti-semitism. The IDF is the world’s kindest military. (I would say most moral except I think they sacrifice too many Israeli lives, both military personnel and civilians, to prevent collateral damage. Plus they have conscription.) The Israel and the IDF doesn’t mistreat or abuse Muslims, they bend over backwards to be fair, generous, peaceful, reasonable, etc.

The USA is by far the best and most important country. It’s the leader of the civilized world.

Slavery isn’t in the rational self-interest of the slavers. And USA wasn’t built on slavery. Slavery is economically inefficient, not a source of industrial-age wealth.

If someone was really strongly motivated by greed, they’d learn economics and choose not to be a slaver, thief, fraudster, etc. Greed would motivate them to produce and trade, not to hurt anyone. The most effective way to get rich in a free country is by mutually beneficial social cooperation. But the more the government interferes in the economy, the more opportunities it creates for men to get rich by oppression and tyranny instead.

“Pickup Artist” (PUA) ideas are broadly correct about how dating works and what women want. Search “Dating and Social Dynamics” on the FI book recommendations for sources. Disclaimer: other sources may be bad. The PUA materials I respect are standard, popular ones connected to the original discussion forums, but there’s also a lot of other stuff which is crap.

All women are like that (AWALT).

Social metaphysics, altruism and second-handedness (see Objectivism for details) are evil.

Death, disease and weakness due to aging are a solvable medical problem. If ignored, aging will harm and kill every single person alive today along with all of our great grandchildren. It’s a big, urgent problem – far more important than global warming even if that were correct. It merits much more medical research than it receives. Arguments for not trying to solve aging (e.g. overpopulation, people getting bored with living, divine punishment) are wrong.

Many discussions fail because people are too impatient and intolerant about disagreement. People largely don’t understand how different another person’s ideas can be than their own, and aren’t interested in learning about ideas their prejudices say are unreasonable (but which they haven’t refuted and can’t cite any refutation of by anyone that they’d endorse).

Keynesian economics was refuted by Hazlitt’s Failure of the 'New Economics’. This is one of many examples showing intellectual culture is broken: often the right ideas are more ignored than responded to. Intellectually, in terms of objective truth-seeking, Keynes and his fans lost the debate (substantially by refusing to debate, refusing to study and engage with rival ideas). But they remain much more influential than the superior ideas which out-argued them. The primary issue is people ignoring ideas, not people learning the ideas but then coming to a different, reasonable evaluation of their merits. Most intellectuals are unreasonable, irrational, ignorant, uncurious, dishonest and aren’t truth seekers.

Steelmanning and the principle of charity are overrated approximations. They don’t involve substantial understanding of epistemology which reveals many limitations. They’re fairly commonly used to make discussions worse rather than better.

Ideas rule the world.

Everyone/anyone can contribute to truth seeking and ideas. Each person who chooses not to is individually guilty of refusing to think much and choosing not to participate significantly in the key issues affecting the fate of civilization. You should care about ideas instead of leaving it to alleged experts. You should read, study, debate, etc., in a patient, curious, serious way.

A key separator of rational truth seekers and dishonest frauds is unbounded pursuit of truth. Most people have some limits beyond which they won’t think.

Making progress effectively requires managing your error rate. Do things easy enough to keep your weighted error rate plus a buffer (to handle variance) below your error correction capacity. If you want to do harder or more complex things, build up to them. Learn more so they’re easier for you (can be done with fewer errors). And increase your error correction capacity. Doing stuff early is inefficient at best and often leads to failure.

If you want to do a project, consider what prior projects of a similar nature you’ve done successfully. Have you already succeeded at one or several projects with 80% or more of the difficulty and complexity of the one you want to do now? You should have. E.g. if you want to debate or study a complex intellectual topic, you should have a history of success doing that kind of activity. If you don’t, start simpler and get it right.

Learning effectively works by getting things right first and dealing with other aspects like speed, memory, forming habits or increasing complexity second. E.g. when learning typing, focus on correctness first and speed up second. If you speed up first, then try to fix your errors, you’re trying to fix the errors at high speed; it would have been easier to fix them earlier on at lower speed. Similarly, figure out how to have a simple rational, productive conversation successfully and correctly before trying for hard ones. Don’t try to learn everything at once. Try to isolate what you’re learning and learn a few things at a time.

Deplatforming is a major problem. It’s not simply the right of private tech companies to have whatever moderation policies or algorithms they want. They advertise fraudulently about how they are unbiased. They lobby for and get special government favors and privileges. The alternatives aren’t either to oppose deplatforming on statist grounds or to accept it (regretfully? but I don’t see many expressions of regret). One can make a classical liberal case against it.

We should go back to a gold standard for money. Prices are directly related to the supply of money. When the government prints money, it raises prices (which lowers the value of savings, so it’s like a wealth tax). The single best feature of a gold standard is that the government can’t print gold.

Bitcoin and cryptocurrency are worthless investment frauds. As investments they’re similar to a Ponzi scheme where earlier investors are paid by newer investors and it falls apart when people stop buying in. The software is terrible from a technical perspective, the companies involved are incompetent, and the main use case is to facilitate money laundering and crime.

Immigration should be restricted as part of defense against violence, because our welfare state gives big handouts to anyone here, and because our government has many oppressive powers – it’s not properly limited – so it’s dangerous to allow people to vote who don’t have civilized Western values.

Fossil fuels are great. Nuclear power is even better for electricity, though not for gasoline or plastic.

Affirmative action is racist. America is an especially non-racist country – except the leftist political activists who bring up race so much.

You have no right to make demands about what pronouns I use to refer to you. I’ll normally use “he”, “she” or maybe “they” at people’s request, but not any arbitrary words, and I’m not obligated to, it’s just a courtesy. My speech, my choice. It’s also OK to use previous names of public figures.

Grammar is useful to learn.

Being economically literate is roughly as important and useful as being scientifically literate. Fewer than 1% of people have basic economic literacy – e.g. they couldn’t correctly figure out the economic consequences of minimum wage laws (on their own without looking it up – it’s a simple enough issue that you should be able to do that) and they can’t reliably, consistently avoid all variations of the broken window fallacy.

“Picky” and “pedantic” arguments often matter. Ask people why they think the issue matters (often it’s a clarity issue – and clarity should be one of your main goals in writing or speaking about ideas) or fix it. It’s such a minor issue, correct it. A good policy is to ask what the point is if a person makes three arguments in a row that seem pointless to you, not one. Bring up problematic patterns but react initially, the first time, with some patience, tolerance, and willingness to consider a different person’s perspective. Don’t assume bad faith immediately. Good faith means they think it’s important for some reason or they wouldn’t be saying it. Also it’s possible they don’t understand how to discuss/debate properly and rationally but would appreciate finding that out and discussing what kinds of arguments are important or productive to make and why (this is different than them making dumb arguments on purpose to derail the conversation).

Reading (or skimming) until the first disagreement/problem/criticism is a good way of dealing with sources, articles, books, etc. that come up in discussions/debates. Refusing to look at them is a bad way.

Knowing foreign languages is overrated. (So are many other ways of being “cultured”). Learning to code is better than learning a second natural language. The exception is that English is the most important language, so people who don’t know it should learn. If you want to study philosophy and other good ideas, English is a crucial tool. Setting aside its widespread use, English is also superior to the world’s other major languages for communicating ideas.

People wear shoes that are too narrow due to dumb fashion preferences. Pinky toes aren’t supposed to be squished. Shoes actually change the shape of their feet. It’s so widespread it’s hard to get reasonable shoes. A substantial portion of parents fight with their kids to make them wear shoes. Kids often want to take their shoes off because the shoes are uncomfortable because they’re deforming the kid’s feet. It takes a long time, but being forced to wear uncomfortable shoes for years eventually causes permanent deformation.

Male circumcision is genital mutilation. People should stop doing it. People should have to jump through some sort of hoops to get it done (e.g. saying it’s important to their religion and signing a form). People who don’t care that much shouldn’t be able to carelessly or casually get it done. Female genital mutilation should be entirely illegal, no exceptions.

There should be no laws requiring children to go to school, e.g. no truancy laws. If a parent wants to force his kid to go to school, that’s his business, but the police and government shouldn’t help him do it. Compulsory school attendance is imprisonment without trial. Children may be ignorant of many things, but they are experts on whether they personally like or dislike school, whether they find it tolerable or intolerable, etc.

Serious, truth seeking discussion/debate should be done publicly, in writing, online, using block quotes liberally, over days/weeks/months.

The goal of a rational discussion/debate is to understand and add to the current, objective state of the debate. For complex issues, understanding what arguments already exist and how they interact (what questions are unanswered, what refutes what, etc.) is important to be able to productively add to the debate. Clarifying the existing situation is what many fields need more than they need new arguments to be chaotically added to the mix.

There is a single objective truth. For empirical issues it corresponds to objective reality (which exists). There are also truths for other issues like epistemology and morality (which, though technically connected to empirical reality, we study in a mostly independent way, so we call them non-empirical as an approximation.)

Rational people can quickly reach agreement in discussion. We don’t have all the answers but we can agree that some knowledge is inconclusive. When a range of views are reasonable, people can agree on what that range is (rather than bickering over their intuitions about which of the reasonable views, which it’s narrowed down to, is the best current guess). When someone is missing a bunch of background knowledge, agreement can be reached that, given their ignorance, they shouldn’t reach conclusions about certain issues until they know more. Inconclusive, unproductive discussions/debates are an indication of irrationality by at least one participant.


In the comments below, please post links (with one sentence saying what they are) to other controversial ideas I have which would make good debate topics. You can also share links to my writing about the topics above or debate them.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (17)

Dear Lurkers

I wrote this privately in Feb 2009. I've made minor edits.


Dear Lurkers (yes, you),

Figuring things out is hard. And fooling ourselves is easy. (This is a paraphrase of Feynman, one of the best philosophers of the 20th century.)

A truly wise man knows how ignorant he is. (This is a theme of Socrates.)

I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth. (Popper)

Through seeking we may learn, and know things better... (Xenophanes)

If you think you know how to parent without hurting your children, and haven't written a thousand posts about it, then you are probably violating these quotes.

It certainly took me a lot more than a thousand posts to figure out what I know today. David Deutsch too. Do you think you're a lot smarter than us, and a much faster learner?

If you are, that's great, please go invent something better than quantum computers and TCS. Then write a better book than The Fabric of Reality. If you're taking requests, start by defeating aging.

Back to parenting: what I know today is, in my view, insufficient. Parenting and education is a hard problem in the mundane sense of needing a lot of practical knowledge. And it's a hard problem in the sense that most people fail badly. And it's a hard problem in the sense that commonsense gets a lot of things about it wrong and advanced philosophy is required to correct those errors. And it's a hard problem because many mistaken ideas about it are entrenched traditions and seem obviously true. And it's a hard problem in the sense that many people see some of these dangers, and think they can do better, but fail to; it's very common to think you are different and still fail. There are also misconceptions about education built into the English language. And there is also constant pressure from your own parents, and friends, and neighbors, and sometimes Government officials, and school teachers, and well everyone, to do a wide variety of things that your children won't like. Also, sometimes these people will try to coerce your children, so there is the added problem of protecting children.

Parenting is also a hard problem because our own parents hurt us in such a way as to make us bad at parenting, and irrational at thinking about parenting and evaluating our knowledge of it. If your instinct is to deny this, that is a major indication that you will be a bad parent. If you intellectually will admit this, but still have the emotional instinct to deny it, then again you should expect to hurt your children. Just changing intellectual theories, but not intuitive reactions, emotions, and how you live life on autopilot by default, and thus being a person always in conflict, simply isn't good enough.

Fully non-coercive parenting is a harder problem. How many people here could even explain what coercion is accurately and answer questions? Hardly anyone. Few people have been interested enough to think about it a lot and ask lots of questions about it and try to talk about it frequently over the course of years. I also think it's implausible that someone who never tried to write an essay on it actually understands it.

It's easy to think you agree with and understand something. It's easy to miss things and not notice you missed anything. It's easy to fool ourselves. What's harder is to take the knowledge you think you have and apply it, and also explain it to others, and persuade people who disagree. If you really understand morality and epistemology well, you should be able to actually do things in real life that normal people can't do, such as change your emotional makeup from whatever it is to what you actually think is a good idea, or break your bad habits (bad in your view) without feeling bad, and many more things which, if you can't think of them yourself, you still have a lot more to learn.

(If you think some of these things are not desirable, then you definitely ought to post at least a little more. Why don't you write a post to try to settle the disagreement? To be confident in your view, and not feel an urgent need to learn more about our disagreement, you better have some significant and clearly thought out criticisms of my view. So post those, just to make sure I'll concede, and won't have anything to say that you hadn't thought of. If you don't feel the need to post ideas to be criticized, just in case others know something you don't, then you are not respecting the difficulty of finding things out.)

Maybe you are all having wonderful conversations IRL where you learn a lot. But I doubt it (I mean you probably have some, but not enough). Non-coercive parenting is extremely unpopular. It's hard enough to find any conversations about it on the whole internet, let alone in your neighborhood. And that's any serious conversation with interested people at all. Finding people who also know something about Popper and philosophy -- enough to have thoughts about education that actually engage with important questions -- is much harder.

Parenting is of course not the only issue. For example, non-coercive adult to adult relationships are very important as well. You will coerce your spouse unless you have quite a lot of knowledge of how to avoid doing so. I needn't list any more. Try to rattle off a dozen more danger areas in a couple minutes. If you can, you've listed them for me. If you can't, then certainly you don't know enough to avoid harming and wronging people you interact with. (What? You thought you could be a decent, peaceful, nice person without knowledge?).

If you'd like to post, but don't know what to post, then you have a problem. So ask a question about that. Or consider a common problem and try to figure out if you have it and how it can be solved. Or take a post and try to understand it, and if you don't get all of it, then ask a question, and if you think you do get all of it, then post some further implications, or even better ideas on the same topic, or something like that.

If you're bad at writing, don't worry, everyone is born that way. You just need a combination of practice, thinking about it, and educational resources. Here are some guidelines to get you started:

  • focus on expressing one idea at a time, very clearly
  • short sentences
  • no fancy words
  • short paragraphs
  • simple sentence structure
  • content matters more than form or style
  • don't try to impress anyone
  • omit anything unnecessary
  • avoid meta discussion
  • include an example
  • when in any doubt about the meaning of a word, check the dictionary or don't use it
  • short is better, but harder. don't try for length, but don't worry if it ends up long
  • misunderstandings are very common, and will happen, so don't get discouraged or pessimistic. if someone misunderstands then try to clarify
  • if someone says something abstract that's hard to understand, ask for a simple, practical example
  • above all, never write a list

PS Join the Fallible Ideas discussion group.


FYI, the last item on the list is a joke. Jokes frequently cause miscommunications, and this joke was misunderstood by at least one person who actually said so (people usually don't tell you when they don't understand you). A better tip is to avoid jokes if you want to be understood.

Although this post focuses mostly on parents, the issues apply to everyone. Knowledge helps you hurt yourself and others less. Choosing not to seek knoweldge means choosing to hurt people, including yourself. (I think you should especially care about hurting yourself, but many people think they care more about hurting others. Anyway both matter.)


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (5)

Fallible Ideas Learning Plan

Lots of people tell me they like Fallible Ideas (FI), they're interested, they think it's good, etc. Some of them try to learn more about FI, or think they're trying, or something like that, but then they don't learn much about FI philosophy. Others like FI and vaguely plan to do something about it, but never do much.

This is sad because learning FI philosophy can improve people's lives. Applied to problems people have, it can help provide solutions.

People often have reasons in their head which justify not doing much about FI. Or they do things that seem like learning FI to them, but which don't create visible results which could be criticized if incorrect. Most typically, ineffective FI engagement involves non-interactive content consumption: watching, listening, reading but without writing or discussing. Relying on self-criticism is inadequate, especially at first.

If you want to learn FI, consider a learning plan. Here's an example:

  • Try to work on FI every day, but missing 1 or 2 days per week is OK.
  • Working on FI means at least 15 minutes that day. But for the first month, two days per week can be 5 minute days. In the second month, you can do one 5 minute day each week.
  • Once a week, do at least an hour of FI stuff (30 min in the first month, 45 min in the second month).
  • Every day you do FI work, share what you did. The requirement is to write it down and share it on the same day you did it, and the recommendation is to do that immediately afterwards. This is just a basic overview like "I read X" which will keep records of what you do.
  • Starting after 3 months, at least once a week, share some work product publicly. This means sharing an idea, explanation, argument ... something people could discuss, debate, and criticize.
  • Once a month, consider the bigger picture, e.g.: what are your goals and your progress on them, what topics are you working on, why, are you satisfied with your progress over the last month, what progress has been exposed to criticism successfully, what progress has been exposed to what objective tests to check for errors, what are your goals for the next month?
  • The first day of the week is Saturday. (You're welcome to pick a different day. I like Friday or Saturday so you don't procrastinate stuff for the weekend. Depending on your sleep cycle you may also want to specify e.g. that days start at 5am.)
  • Be at least 90% consistent about following the plan. Write down every time you miss doing a plan requirement (which requirement was missed and the date). Keep counts of successes and failures so you can compare the percentage. I suggest a spreadsheet. Keep notes about why you miss stuff and what happens (they can be private if you prefer) and watch out for patterns, bad habits and problems. Share your miss counts and consistency percentage weekly until you succeed every week for 3 months in a row, then share it monthly.
  • If you fall a bit short in the early months, keep trying. But if you don't actually do the plan, the consequences are: don't tell yourself, or anyone else, that you're learning FI philosophy. The point here isn't to discourage people, it's to help you. That's because pretending you're learning FI, when you aren't, is a common thing that prevents or sabotages learning FI.

This can be done in around 10 hours per month minimum, but involves doing something on most days.

If some part of this plan wouldn't work for you, or it's just too hard, make a different plan. Change some things to what will work for you. You could e.g. start with a lower consistency target, but don't go under 66% – if you can't even be that consistent, make your plan easier so that you can actually do it. If the example plan sounds too hard, think about why it would be hard for you. You can discuss your plan ideas to get tips and feedback.

In general, you should place a low value on progress which has not been exposed to external criticism and objective tests.

In general, you should place a high value on finishing things. After doing an FI learning plan for a while, you should have a list of accomplishments instead of just 50 things you started and then stopped halfway through. It's fine to stop some things partway through and to look at a variety of stuff and be selective, but you should also finish some. That can be small things like finishing reading an essay, or bigger things like finishing a book or finishing a project to learn about an essay by writing notes about it and discussing one idea related to it (and having some goal which the discussion reaches).

It'd be a good idea to hire curi or ingracke to talk with you for an hour a month regarding your monthly review.

If you take FI seriously, it'd be a good idea to be a paying customer in some way, especially on a regular basis. E.g. contributing any amount per month is significantly better for you than zero. (Don't worry about it if you're actually too poor or can't do online payments to the US, especially if you're a kid. But if you can spend $20+/month on luxuries and can pay US dollars online, you could afford at least $2/month for FI, and you should if you genuinely care about it.)

Decide on your own learning plan and write it down and put it somewhere with a permalink. I suggest putting it on a website you control where you can edit it with updates in the future. I suggest everyone have a website they control even if you mostly post directly to curi and FI (directly as opposed to putting stuff on your own site and sharing a link, which is fine too).

Some people want to do freeform, unscheduled, unstructured learning. They think it's more rational or fun. Most people are bad at that. Anyway, it's fine to do that if you get results which clearly surpass those of the example learning plan above. Otherwise, you should do a plan. You can do all the extra learning you want in addition to the plan. Since the plan only takes around 10 hours a month minimum, just stick to the minimum when you're doing extra learning and you should still have time for more. But the plan doesn't dictate what you learn, anyway.

If you can do more and better learning, great. But don't let those aspirations get in the way of doing something concrete like the learning plan above. At least do that. If you can't or won't even do that, you shouldn't pretend to yourself that you're involved with FI. IMO, you should be happy if you can do this, and be happy with progress that looks kinda small to you. It's far better than no progress. And keep in mind that people in general in our culture (like you) are bad at judging how good/effective philosophy progress is or where it will lead. Our culture doesn't understand philosophy learning projects well and doesn't adequately respect the important early-stage work to achieve mastery over the relatively basic skills related to rational, critical thinking.

You don't have to be very ambituous at the start, and probably shouldn't be. If you read some stuff and write down what you read, that's enough to follow most of the plan. At first, get used to doing the plan itself and solve the problems you have with making the plan part of your life. Later you can worry more about saying your opinions of ideas, explaining concepts yourself, or debating issues (you're allowed to do those things early on, you're just not being asked to). More broadly, the goal is to get something working; you can add whatever you want after it's already working consistently and reliably.

Note: One of people's biggest problems with FI, besides the hard stuff (e.g. dishonesty, evasion, disliking criticism, refusing to try, static memes, irrationality), is dealing with people in writing instead of voice (and also there being a time delay, often hours, between saying something and getting a response, which is different than an IRL or phone conversation where people respond in a few seconds). Some people also broadly prefer listening to video or audio over reading. It's important to learn to deal with this stuff well and get used to using text. It's a valuable skill and should be one of your main goals early on. But if you find that hard, you can start by learning from videos and podcasts, and you could say what you did that day in a short video or audio recording, or do that in writing but say your more complicated thoughts with your voice. Try to start with something you can do and expand from there.

Note: Sometimes people do FI work and think that the time they spent doesn't count for some reason. Creating a gmail account and signing up to FI counts as working on FI stuff. Figuring out how to send a plain text email counts, including watching a video about it. Finding mind map software and learning to use it counts. So does spreadsheet, text editing or blogging software as long as you plan to use it for FI stuff. Watching a video someone from FI linked counts too. Reading novels to get more used to reading regularly (even using audio books or text-to-speech initially with e.g. a plan to do text reading for your 4th book) is relevant to FI too. You don't have to be reading or writing philosophy to count the time you spend. Be inclusive by default about what counts as FI time, and make some adjustments if you see a recurring pattern that you want to change. (The minimum for a problematic pattern is three times, but it's often better to first become concerned with it after somewhere between five and a dozen times.)


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (20)

Discussion Points of View and Mutual Benefit

A discussion needs to make sense simultaneously from both people’s points of view (povs). That means each person gets all his requirements met. (More than two people is harder and I won’t address that specifically.)

If my requirements for the discussion aren’t met, then we don’t have mutual benefit from the discussion. If yours aren’t meant, then we don’t have mutual benefit. The discussion should only happen if there is mutual benefit.

This means you can use my discussion methodology, or propose an alternative that I find acceptable, or you shouldn’t expect a conversation with me.

If someone refuses debate and also wants to be some sort of public intellectual – rather than leaving ideas and truth seeking to others – then he ought to say why. I do say why. I’ve written about my discussion methodology and I’m responsive to critical discussion about it.

Sharing one’s reasoning means that mistakes on either side can be potentially fixed. It leaves a path open for progress to happen, regardless of who is mistaken. And I try to be extra tolerant of methodology and framework differences when people try to discuss my methodologies and frameworks themselves. Demanding someone fully use my approach to discussion before discussing/criticizing my approach to discussion would be problematic. But I do expect people, even in those conversations, to try to use an approach that makes sense and is productive from my point of view. If they can’t or won’t tell me how it should make sense or offer value from my perspective, and I don’t see it (after trying some), then it’s not going to work. If I can’t see how their comments will lead to progress, and they won’t tell me in a way that addresses my concerns, questions, criticisms, etc., then it’s not going to lead to progress for me.

There are aspects of discussion that I’m flexible about. Some things I prefer one way but I can deal with them being another way. They aren’t dealbreakers. I see how progress can be made even if something is a bit inconvenient or non-optimal.

There are other aspects of discussion which I’m inflexible about. I don’t want to meet people half way or compromise. E.g., I don’t think it’s productive to criticize things I don’t think I said and refuse to use quotes. I don’t see value in having a discussion of that nature. Similarly, I don’t see value in people saying things I consider unclear or ambiguous, and then not being very responsive to clarification requests. People often say unclear things faster than then clarify any. If you won’t or can’t tone down the unclear, “sophisticated” or “advanced” statements to the point where communication is working, then I don’t know how to have a productive conversation with you.

I can be flexible about the occasional statement I have a problem with, and drop or ignore it without clarification. But if it’s a frequently recurring problem affecting the main points of the conversation, then either initial communication or clarification needs to be working reasonably well.

I also want reasonably organized discussions. There is lots of flexibility here but it can’t just be mass chaos. People who won’t cooperate with attempting to organize things make bad discussion partners.

I require that people respond to me. If people won’t answer my questions, then I don’t know how to have a mutually beneficial discussion. I am responsive to direct questions. Often people don’t use or respond well to direct questions or requests, and this makes discussion hard. They want me to respond to things they don’t say, and I want them to respond to things I do say, and neither of us is getting what we want. I won’t switch styles without my concerns being addressed, but the people who want to operate by unwritten rules and social hints don’t want to discuss that system itself and acknowledge what they’re doing, so my concerns don’t get addressed. Often instead they agree to use my system of saying things in words but then don’t. They haven’t practiced it and don’t really know how to do it, and don’t acknowledge their beginner status and work on learning, so then discussion fails. I don’t know what to do about that besides either not discuss or they try to learn and work their way up at rational, explicit discussion. I’m open to alternatives if someone can offer one that offers mutual benefit and makes sense from my pov.

I don’t know how to have a conversation that benefits me when people are doing a bunch of unacknowledged social dynamics, passive aggressively sniping at stuff, being dishonest, and refusing to (or more often incapable of) analyze text literally. And people get offended if I express problems like this. They also get offended if I question their competence. But what am I to do? Refuse to discuss and refuse to say why? Dishonestly take the blame for the discussion’s failure? Present myself as unwilling to discuss? No. I would discuss but have certain concerns. If people don’t want me to name concerns like those, they shouldn’t converse with me in the first place. I’m not going and doing this to random people who never signed up for it. I run forums aimed at rational, critical discussion. If people don’t want criticism they should go elsewhere. People come to me and I’ve written a ton to try to warn them about what to expect. And I’ve been open to suggestions on how to better warn people but no one seems to know any fixes. It’s hard to fix by writing different warnings since in general people don’t read much before discussing, and even if they do they usually don’t understand much of it. I occasionally do go to other forums but I pick ones that claim to be focused on rational discussion and I’m less assertive or pushy there and I much more often will drop conversations without explanation. I think it’s OK for me to stop responding there because anyone who cares can come to my forums and debate me, or can make an explicit request that I explain why I left. (I do make some effort to let people know those options exist.)

One of the things I commonly want in discussion is persistence. I’ve already had a lot of discussions. I don’t want to go over old ground at the start of the discussion … and then stop there. I understand that may be new ground for others, but if that’s going to be the whole discussion then I often don’t want it. I’m more interested in unbounded discussions that try to reach conclusions about important issues. Lots of people think their opinions and ideas don’t really matter. That is their privilege but it isn’t what I’m looking for.

A common discussion problem is people make statements that rely on premises that I don’t share. Either I disagree with some of their premises or I’m unfamiliar with some, or both. This is a reasonable and expected thing to happen some. But people should understand the issue and be willing to discuss the premises instead of continuing on the original topic. And they should start building up a mental model of me and should get better at saying things that don’t read to me as skipping steps (using premises I don’t know) or building on stuff I disagree with instead of speaking to the disagreement.

People are bad at lots of this stuff. Most people are pretty incompetent at discussion. But most of them won’t admit it. I won’t simultaneously treat you like a beginner, give you leeway and help you learn to discuss better while also treating you as a peer who is seriously challenging my ideas. People often want both – they e.g. want me to go easy on them while pretending I’m not going easy on them, so that they look good. And they want me to do that without being asked. It’s dishonest and doesn’t benefit me. And their sometimes implied offer to do the same for me in return is not appreciated. You can’t have it both ways and the excuse “I have great ideas; I’m not just great at debating” is not going to fix it. If you want help figuring out how to have a productive discussion, say that. If you think you’re in a position to correct me on stuff, say that. But don’t try to have it both ways at once. If you really think you can do both at once, say so, and try to explain why and how.

It’s hard for me to help people who refuse to present themselves as learners. When I try to help them learn, they often find it condescending and threatening to their implicitly claimed status as experts. A lot of people should be trying to learn but instead try to debate, and are really bad at learning from/during debate, and so it doesn’t work, and the discussion can easily shift to the issue of them doing a bunch of stuff they’re incompetent at, and so they ought to figure out a course of study to become competent first, and people often hate that and find it threatening to their self-esteem and social status. But there’s no benefit from my pov to ignoring recurring patterns of incompetence that are preventing the original topic from making progress. And I don’t want to quit the discussion without saying why. Again, all I want is a way to continue that offers value from my perspective. And you should have a way of continuing that offers value from your perspective. And that may not happen, in which case we need not talk. Lots of people just don’t want to be judged, and don’t want anyone to talk openly about problems discussing with them. If that’s you, don’t start a conversation with me, because I do judge and I do talk about my judgments and reasons.

If you present yourself as a beginner/student/learner who’s trying to improve and isn’t very good at stuff yet, you won’t find me very judgey. That’s fine and I’m sympathetic to that.

If you present yourself as an expert who knows I’m wrong about important issues, then that’s not something I want to ignore; it’s something I want to reach a judgment about. Can and should my judgment be impersonal? The short summary is that people mostly consist of ideas, so impersonal criticism of ideas is often threatening and scary to people, and feels personal. And also there are often patterns of error in ideas someone shares – e.g. they try to argue that I’m wrong about several things and make recurring mistakes – and speaking about those patterns and their causes is personal. Saying those ideas (that Joe said) contain patterns of error caused by specific thinking methods (the ones that Joe uses) is not going to to make Joe happy. That kind of wording change doesn’t address the real issue, which is that part of Joe’s identity is connected to the ideas being criticized.

If you want to be treated like a beginner every time you’re wrong, but also to spend most of your time trying to argue that I’m wrong instead of trying to learn anything, it’s not going to work. Learning via debate as a primary mechanism is hard and most people have no idea how to do it. It’s not taught effectively anywhere. People don’t go to classrooms, debate their teachers, and learn a bunch by doing it. That is not a common or standard way to learn. If you’re trying to learn in a way that’s dramatically different than all the learning that happens from interacting with parents, teachers or books, you should have some sort of plan and explanation of what you’re doing, how you developed the skill, why it’ll work, etc. If you don’t have that, don’t assume you know how to multitask debating and learning. Try doing one thing at a time, and only maybe do two at once if you’ve gotten both of those things to work well multiple times individually.

People often want to talk about sophisticated, advanced stuff with me, but they don’t know the medium stuff that builds up to it. That doesn’t work well and they usually don’t want to hear about the gaps in their knowledge. But it doesn’t work well from my pov to try to fill in those gaps as short tangents to an advanced debate. Learning those medium things is hard enough when it receives full focus for weeks.

If you don’t like any of this, or want something else, say so. Ask for what you want and we can discuss my concerns, if I have any. I’m open to other stuff as long as you can tell me the benefit from my pov or I can figure that out myself.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)