Skip to main content

Readings: 21 Mar 2016

“There is No Secret Notebook”:

The feeling is that the answer to your question belongs to people who have some essential quality that you forever lack. You look at yourself, with your slow and fragile reasoning power, and you feel like you’re counting on your fingers, and imagine that someone out there has a supercomputer. (Or maybe that everybody on Earth but you has a supercomputer.)

This is an illusion. Everybody’s brain is made out of the same stuff, more or less. Sure, different people have different talents and levels of experience. But humans have general intelligence. Counting on your fingers, checking things to see if they match up to facts, going through arguments to see if they’re valid, trying things to see how they work–that’s how everyone figures out what’s true. There aren’t people out there who have found a shortcut.

We’re all making it up as we go using the evidence in front of us, our capacity for reason, and our intuitions. Most of the time, there is no defined path to success or knowledge, despite decades of schooling that try to teach us otherwise1. My slogan is “make graphs fast and don’t give a fuck when you’re in over your head” - in other words, be willing to feel dumb, work up from first principles, and connect back to evidence.

In his books Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel Dennett presents Anatol Rapoport’s rules for effectively critizing someone else’s ideas:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or critcism.

Everything but the first rule had faded from memory since I read Intuition Pumps2, but I revisited these after reading Massimo Pigilucci’s call for GMO proponents to steel-man3 their opposition in “If you endorse GMO, get the science straight”:

This is not a matter of being pedantic about science minutiae. Truth and honesty are important values that are all too frequently ignored or trampled in contemporary public discourse. We don’t need to help ourselves to false or inaccurate claims to make our case, because the facts (so far) make it for us. Let’s stick to the facts, then, shall we?

I happen to have not made up my mind on this subject4 and I appreciate not being equated with the anti-vaccine movement (as in this confused mess from George Johnson in the New York Times last year).

Thomas Frank says in The Guardian that the economy is top of mind for Donald Trump’s supports, especially with respect to the damage that free trade has done to American manufacturing:

Here is the most salient supporting fact: when people talk to white, working-class Trump supporters, instead of simply imagining what they might say, they find that what most concerns these people is the economy and their place in it.

Vox, on the other hand, endorses the view that Trump’s support is driven by appealing to authoritarian values and even show data saying that opposition to NAFTA and other free trade agreements is low on authoritarians' priorities, trailing opposition to same-sex marriage and paranoia about Muslims.

For the nerds - Julia Evans provides a friendly overview of the power of the tcpdump command.

  1. In the U.S., at least. ↩︎

  2. It’s a wonderful book–you should read it. ↩︎

  3. As in, the opposite of making a straw man argument. Yes, I just verbed that. ↩︎

  4. My reservations towards GMO foods are sort of halfway between Massimo’s second and third bullets (the environmental effects and ethics of existing players in big agriculture). Should we really be comfortable with Monsanto unilaterally deciding the fate of ecosystems? ↩︎