When rationalism goes wrong, it really goes wrong


I could almost believe this little essay, You Can Learn How To Become More Rational, is pure satire, except that I’ve seen too many people sincerely holding these nonsensical views, and it cites a source that is packed to the gills with precisely this advice. It takes pains to tell you where their authority comes from.

LessWrong is a community blog devoted to “refining the art of human rationality.” The blog is led by artificial intelligence theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky.
A charitable organization which Yudkowsky founded has received $1.1 million from Peter Thiel, and Yudkowsky has given a talk on rationality at Thiel’s hedge fund.

Oy. The vampire wanna-be has lots and lots of money, and he gave some to Yudkowsky, therefore these must be good ideas. Rationality!

Then comes a list of 10 things you can do that range from banal to LessWrong dogma and cant, but I’m only going to mention the last one…because hoo boy, it’s a doozy.

10. Become More Awesome.
Possible means: master mental math, learn mnemonics, play n-back, become a lucid dreamer, learn symbolic shorthand, study Esperanto, exercise, eat better, become a PUA (if you’re a single male), deliberately expose yourself to rejection so you become less afraid of it, learn magic tricks or juggling, memorize information using spaced repetition, understand Bayes’ theorem, become a faster typer, challenge your senses by wearing a blindfold, eye patch, or colored goggles, stop using your dominant hand for a week, learn self-defense, or get trained in First Aid.

Wow.

I mean, that’s just…wow.

So, learn gimmicky party tricks and become an asshole pick-up artist is the same as being “awesome”? Rationality!

I hereby refuse to ever be awesome. I’ve got better things to do.

Unless…if I wear colored goggles for a week, will Peter Thiel give me a million dollars?

Comments

  1. says

    Accurate summary there: “Anyone who doesn’t give all their spare money to Eliezer Yudkowsky, a high-school dropout with no computer programming experience, so he can use it to write an artificial intelligence that will eventually become God and fix all our problems is objectively on the side of destroying humanity. “

  2. says

    An article about LessWrong from 2011? That’s gotta be super out of date. My understanding is that the Rationalist community dispersed, which means people are still around but it’s no longer so cohesive and there isn’t any single person who holds as much sway as Yudkowsky used to. And a large segment of Rationalism transformed into Effective Altruism–a group I have some quibbles with, but they’re definitely not bad. All in all, the Rationalist community turned out a lot better than the atheist community, which only went downhill from 2011.

  3. hemidactylus says

    I was trying to resolve the acronym in “become a PUA (if you’re a single male)” and can only come up with pickup artist. Yet there is also “get trained in First Aid”. So we run the gamut from the most despicably misogynistic idea to promote to an actual socially responsible one. Colored goggles doesn’t have quite the value judgements of the other two.

  4. hemidactylus says

    The PUA thing was jarring but there’s this:

    “6. Don’t Forget Tradeoffs When Choosing a Charity.
    The $10,000 you donated to an art museum is $10,000 that could have gone to help desperately poor African children. And the tradeoff exists even if you give $10,000 to both charities because you could have always donated $20,000 to the children.”

    Unless I am missing something that doesn’t seem reprehensible, though one could think more locally and think promoting the arts in your own area is civically responsible. No judgement.

  5. says

    master mental math

    Useless for most people.

    learn mnemonics

    This one’s actually useful. Not that it makes you more awesome.

    play n-back

    What the hell is this?

    become a lucid dreamer

    Again, this one’s useless. I often have lucid dreams. So what? How is that even potentially useful?

    learn symbolic shorthand

    Useless for most people in 21st century. Granted, personally I do like making handwritten notes.

    study Esperanto

    Learning foreign languages, sure that’s useful. I’m a polyglot, I speak 5 languages, and I could give tons of reasons why knowing foreign languages is amazing. But Esperanto? Seriously? You are better off learning some large language like Spanish or Russian or Chinese. Or, if you live in some region where other people communicate in some small language, then by all means learn at least some of it. But Esperanto is comparatively useless. The main point of learning foreign languages is to communicate in them, and not that many people actually use Esperanto.

    exercise, eat better

    Ok, finally some actually good advice.

    become a PUA (if you’re a single male)

    Ouch, ouch, ouch. I’m female assigned at birth and I do sleep with heterosexual males. Whenever somebody tries standard pickup strategies on me, my immediate reaction is to get the hell away from them. Here’s the thing—I’m perfectly happy to have casual sex. As long as it’s about both people getting some enjoyment, I’m fine with it. But pickup artistry feels like attempted exploitation. Dating and sex stops being about two equal adults enjoying each other’s company, and instead it becomes a “game” where one person is a hunter and the other one is prey. Sex stops being about mutual enjoyment, and instead another person is attempting to exploit me for the purpose of boosting their own ego. The whole premise is insulting. I’m not a prize that could be won or conquered. My body isn’t just a piece of meat for a PUA to play with.

    Moreover, I would never treat another person like this when dating. In general, I tend to be the more assertive and dominant person in relationships, but the idea of treating my date like this feels wrong for me. If I like some person, I will respect them and treat them as an equal. I won’t try to manipulate or exploit them. If I don’t like some person, I won’t try to get in their pants in the first place.

    deliberately expose yourself to rejection so you become less afraid of it

    This one’s actually potentially useful. Though I would substitute the word “rejection” with “various social interactions, especially potentially awkward ones.” Experiencing all sorts of social interactions, including the unpleasant ones, made me step out of my comfort zone and become accustomed to being with people, and learning at least decent social skills is useful.

    learn magic tricks or juggling

    Again, useless for most people. And it doesn’t make a person awesome.

    memorize information using spaced repetition

    OK, memorizing some information can be useful.

    understand Bayes’ theorem

    Useless for most people.

    become a faster typer

    OK, this one’s useful for everybody who types a lot.

    challenge your senses by wearing a blindfold, eye patch, or colored goggles

    Paying more attention to sounds or smells can give you some nice experiences, but it won’t make you an awesome person.

    stop using your dominant hand for a week

    I have been practicing to become ambidextrous for over a year by now, but that’s only because I started feeling pain in my dominant hand. Repetitive strain injury for one’s dominant hand sucks, so yes, this one can be useful in specific circumstances.

    learn self-defense

    I practiced Krav Maga, because it was fun. So far I have never used any of the moves outside of the training room. I hope that I will never need it also in the future. But, yes, for a few people learning self defense skills does turn out to be useful. Not that it makes you more awesome.

    get trained in First Aid

    This can be useful in case you get stuck in a situation where these skills are necessary.

    Overall, in general I find the rationalist community really off-putting. The shit they have written about PUA stood out. Then there was also the elitist attitude—some people there still haven’t figured out that IQ tests are bullshit. Or the nonsensical ideas about genetics, like claiming that some groups of people, namely white men, have on average higher IQ scores, which proves that this community mostly consisting of white males get to pat themselves on the back due to being born superior. Oh, and then there was also lots of misogyny in rationalist writings. Basically, incels complaining about how women are too stupid and too emotional to appreciate the smart and rational guy with and IQ score of 145. Here’s the problem—personally I do like smart and rational people but only as long as they don’t start making misogynistic and offensive claims about how “all women are such and such.”

  6. PaulBC says

    Eliezer Yudkowsky, a high-school dropout with no computer programming experience, so he can use it to write an artificial intelligence that will eventually become God

    Wasn’t “brain builder” Hugo de Garis going to do that? Like over 20 years ago? (True he was going to evolve it, not write the software directly; what’s Yudkowsky’s angle?)

    The list of awesomeness traits is so scattered as to be, dare I say, irrational? Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on difficult skills that add up to proficiency in an active area of research where you can do more than impress your impressionable friends and hook up in bars?

  7. PaulBC says

    5. Rational People Can’t Agree to Disagree.
    If two rational people initially disagree then they should each use the fact of this disagreement as a reason to move towards the other person’s position. Disagreement is disrespect because it implies that your position on a topic is more rational than the other guy’s.

    Some of the points are obvious. This one is just silly. Rational people can agree that there is insufficient evidence to reach a definitive conclusion, but that each may have their own reasons for betting on the truth of a different one, at which point they go back and make their own plans based on their differing expectations. I would prefer “Rational people don’t waste their valuable rational time on a pissing match.” (beyond some amusement level)

  8. colinday says

    @ Andreas Avester
    #6

    Bayes’s Theorem (and a Bayesian approach to probability/statistics) could be useful to lots of people. But Bayes’s Theorem by itself isn’t that complicated.

  9. John Morales says

    Heh.

    To become more awesome, one needs to be at least somewhat awesome already.

    (Anyone who endeavours to do so based on this bullshit is, well, less than awesome; alternatively, anyone who is awesome won’t be fooled by bullshit, lest they lose that status)

  10. Owlmirror says

    If one clicks on the link (not under PUA, but under “10. Become More Awesome.” [ https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/knLZY52Yx9G23u3Ka/insufficiently-awesome ]), it can be seen that what was actually written was:

    Learn not just to cope socially, but to be the life of the party. Maybe learn the PUA stuff.
    […]
    Learn to control your voice. Learn to project like an actress. PUAs have also written on this.

    Note that this is not actually gender-specific, nor about the pick-up aspect specifically. The intent certainly seems to be “learn how to act more confidently and socially; vivaciously and extrovertedly”, rather than “manipulate girls into sleeping with you”

  11. wzrd1 says

    Well, “deliberately expose yourself to rejection so you become less afraid of it” is actually, within boundaries, good psychological advice.
    Rejection teaches you more than peer review passing does.
    Learning first aid, I strongly recommend that for everyone. The life you save may be your own, a loved one or Adolf Hitler mk II, you pays your money and you takes your chances, usually, it ain’t another Hitler, per recorded history.
    Become a PUA, seriously, not even wrong. Not right, but worse, not even wrong. Pretty good at it unintentionally, as I’m a good conversationalist and first and foremost is actively listening.
    A fair amount of the rest of the list could be replaced with equally valid, “learn how to slide down a ten foot razor blade and make an excellent splash into a pool of iodine” and “learn how to masturbate with a cheese grater”, to be equally building of irrational rationalism. Seriously, not even fucking wrong.
    Maybe I should start my own site, “NotEvenWrong”, where the goal is to leave the reader to wonder of satiric hyperbole is in use or is the entire content of the site the largest number of Poes on the planet.

    Nah, too much work, for minimal gain. Excuse me, as I go find where I stored the cheese grater…

  12. PaulBC says

    “Become More Awesome.” is kind of an odd formulation.

    If they were going for a self-esteem message, it would be “You’re awesome already, don’t change a thing.” If they were going for a tough “shape up” message, it would be “Become awesome.”

    Instead it’s this middle-ground, not quite willing to risk offending the audience by suggesting that they might not, in fact, be awesome. Of course you’re awesome! It’s just these things you could learn to become more awesome, such as wooing women with card tricks and recitations of the digits of pi (ah, my misspent youth!).

    It seems pretty shameless. Surely if you are “rational” you should be able to cope with the idea that you’re really not awesome at all and have a lot of awesomization before you can claim that title.

  13. drivenb4u says

    Interesting, I hadn’t heard of Yudkowsky in some time, but back in the heady days of New Atheism one of the many blogs I followed, Common Sense Atheism, was written by a guy that constantly espoused Less Wrong and Yudkowsky. I remember checking it out and though, yeah no thanks.

  14. John Morales says

    Owlmirror, I admit I have not bothered to look at the source material.

    So, it’s about the technique, not the goal?

    wzrd1:

    Well, “deliberately expose yourself to rejection so you become less afraid of it” is actually, within boundaries, good psychological advice.

    For you, maybe. Me, I think it would amount to aversion therapy more so than exposure therapy, and that latter is only necessary when there is a problem, regardless of boundaries.

    I seriously doubt anyone who has such low self-esteem that rejection becomes an issue is going to be helped by deliberately exposing themselves to rejection.

  15. suttkus says

    @7:

    How is Lucid Dreaming useful? Well, it’s fun, and entertainment is a good thing to have cheap access to, so… useful?

    Speaking as an author, I enjoy using lucid dreaming to plan out scenes for books. Absolutely useful. But probably not something most people would get anything out of.

  16. John Morales says

    Hm, suttkus. Speaking as a nobody, I think lucid dreaming (especially directed lucid dreaming) is the most fun you can have for nothing. Shame I’m too slack to develop my ability at it atm.

    Also, I’m pretty sure I once helped a friend who was haggard from not sleeping properly due to dread and exhaustion from the intensity and vividness of their dreams, and I borrowed from the dreamlands concept to put it to them that it was basically another life they were getting on top of their waking one.

    Did the trick; still wakes up a bit tired from all the activity, but that dread is no longer a thing.

  17. PaulBC says

    suttkus@17

    I think a lot of people would get something out of it, not just planning out scenes but working through all kinds of personal conflicts and ideas. I haven’t had lucid dreams in years, and it was always a very random event. The limited nature of the lucidity interested me more than anything. Often I would still believe there was some reality involved if the dream was vivid enough (and e.g. an attempt to preserve some object from the dream by placing it in a drawer). Another common theme was waking up and realizing I was still dreaming and having to go through several attempts before being awake. I knew I was dreaming, but was still not entirely in control.

    These days I still sometimes have interesting dreams but often forget them entirely minutes after waking up. The erasure is so swift that I feel the brain is working hard to make sure I keep subconscious and reality separate. If I had the time I might work harder to keep a dream diary and even get back some lucid dreams. It is not a requirement for “awesomeness” but I can definitely see it as enhancing my life, just not a top priority right now.

  18. pilgham says

    PUA threw me. I only know it as form of life insurance. If someone gave me a million dollars, I might consider putting it in a PUA. Assuming it was tax free.

    Learning mnemonics just seems weird. A friend at college had a thousand of them for anatomy to memorize bones of the hand or types of injuries. PAIL, for types of injuries to the skin, was one I remember (puncture, abrasion, incision and laceration), the only one because it was so vivid. But mnemonics are for learning something else. You don’t just “learn mnemonics”. It’s silly. (Although a mnemonic that teaches you how to spell “mnemonic” would be useful.)

    I’d like to have lusicd dreaming so I can just leave high-school.

  19. says

    PaulBC@#8

    Rational people can agree that there is insufficient evidence to reach a definitive conclusion, but that each may have their own reasons for betting on the truth of a different one, at which point they go back and make their own plans based on their differing expectations.

    Yes. I would also add that rational people understand that often they disagree because of having conflicting values. For example, let’s imagine that passing some law A increases safety but decreases individual freedom. Simultaneously, doing B increases individual freedom but decreases safety. One rational person will prefer doing A, while another will prefer doing B based on whether they value freedom or safety higher.

    Colinday @#9

    Bayes’s Theorem (and a Bayesian approach to probability/statistics) could be useful to lots of people.

    It’s useful for people who work with statistics. That’s a minority of human population.

    Suttkus @#17

    How is Lucid Dreaming useful? Well, it’s fun, and entertainment is a good thing to have cheap access to, so… useful?
    Speaking as an author, I enjoy using lucid dreaming to plan out scenes for books.

    Cool that it works for you. It just doesn’t work for me. If I compose some text in a lucid dream, upon waking up I quickly forget all the minor details. Thus I’m better off just doing the whole thing while awake anyway.

    I agree that lucid dreams can be entertaining, but I just don’t really enjoy them that much—many of the activities I can do while I’m awake simply are more enjoyable for me.

    Pilgham @#20

    You don’t just “learn mnemonics”. It’s silly.

    I’m pretty certain the author who wrote this meant to suggest that you learn how to use mnemonics for memorizing whatever you need to memorize. And no, using mnemonics is not silly, it actually works very well. I use mnemonics mostly for memorizing words in foreign languages that I learn.

    For example, in German there’s a word “Hörsaal,” which means “a lecture hall” or “auditorium.” In order to memorize this word, I imagined a horse being brought to my university’s largest lecture hall with students making the poor horse climb multiple flights of stairs until they finally made it all the way up.

    Creating such vivid and memorable images is much more effective than just trying to keep in mind random strings of sounds that constitute some word in a foreign language.

  20. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Andreas Avester,
    I would disagree. Doing mental math is at least as useful as understanding how to use mnemonics–if only for the reason that you don’t always have a calculator handy, and there is some useful math even if you do have a calculator.

    And Bayes’ Theorem is essential if you want to understand political polling, medical testing and diagnoses, even traffic patterns.

    The fact that most people are innumerate does not imply that their lives would not be improved if they weren’t.

  21. John Morales says

    Can’t use a slide rule properly without some mental math.

    (Ah, memories; matriculation, 1977, physics exam. My el-cheapo calculator conked out, and I had to use the provided 4-figure log books for my arithmetic. I was obviously impressed by Libby Lipstick as a lad — first trans character I recall reading)

  22. cvoinescu says

    Yudkowsky and Less Wrong are a very mixed bag, as far as I’m concerned. His AI work sounds ultra-important, but it could also be described as nebulous and aspirational (as in, there’s not much there, but wouldn’t it be nice if there was). Less charitably, it seems it’s vaporware of the most rarefied kind.

    Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality fanfic is fun (but could use some editing: it’s too long, a bit repetitive, and as preachy as Atlas Shrugged in places. At least he’s upfront about it being a vehicle for promoting his AI work, but edit that out and it’s actually a good story).

    pilgham@#20:

    (Although a mnemonic that teaches you how to spell “mnemonic” would be useful.)

    I am fortunate to have learned that early. In my first language, there are hardly any silent letters — there are none in “mnemonic”, for instance. So all I have to do is spell it phonetically. Easy! (The hard part is knowing how to mangle the pronunciation when speaking English.)

  23. says

    There is a lot of stuff in science – Bayes Theorem (or rather bayesian approach to statistic and probability) among them – that it is good to learn and understand at some point in your life. You may forget it later, but you will have a feeling that something in wrong and general idea where to look for more information when later in life you encounter related issue.
    Become PUA sounds much worse than the full version – becoming more confident and open in social encounters, overcoming fear and anxiety coming with being the center of attention in social situation.
    Stuff like mnemonics/learning other language/learning to juggle – all of those makes your brain work differently. Is it best way to increase your “awesomeness”? I don’t know. But it certainly won’t hurt. Not because you are awesome by being a juggler, but because if you learned juggling you improved your hand-eye coordination.

    Basically the list quoted is a lot of examples of things you may do that fulfill the general idea “learn different stuff, so your brain and body will be more flexible in the future”. We may discuss what specifics are best, but the idea behind the point #10 is rather obvious and not controversial at all

  24. PaulBC says

    Gorzki@27

    We may discuss what specifics are best, but the idea behind the point #10 is rather obvious and not controversial at all

    It’s phrased annoyingly. It’s also imprecise if you need to fall back on the “idea” behind it. Some imprecision is tolerable, but this degree of imprecision seems inappropriate for an article on being “rational.” (And again, what if you’re not “awesome” to start with.)

    I agree that there is nothing wrong with challenging yourself to learn diverse skills. It may or may not be “rational.” Some people may be quite content to shore up their strengths instead. It’s a question of priority. I tend to avoid feats of dexterity or public performance (though I did learn very simple juggling years back, just three balls). It doesn’t play to my strengths and I don’t feel the effort pays off.

    Andreas Avester@21

    I would also add that rational people understand that often they disagree because of having conflicting values.

    Agreed. There are also differing interests. Who gets to eat the last donut? Suppose we both want to. We will not come to a “rational” conclusion about who is most entitled to it (maybe we both showed up at the same time and there was only one donut left). It may not be “rational” to split the donut. I really want the whole donut. So do you. We could agree “rationally” that the answer is indeterminate, but we can’t really agree on what to do about the donut. We might agree to decide based on chance or a skill contest, but am I irrational if I reject a “fair” approach and simply act in my own interest to the extent possible?

    And in reality, a lot of disagreements look like this. There is no disagreement on facts or even values, but just a head-to-head contest of conflicting interests. There may be a rational explanation for the whole situation, but rationality will not provide a path for settling the matter to everyone’s satisfaction.

    And no, using mnemonics is not silly, it actually works very well.

    What do you think of method of loci (or memory palace)? I find the idea interesting, but have never put in the effort. I find that I can memorize most of what I need with an ad hoc approach, and rarely resort to mnemonics.

  25. PaulBC says

    And I said “donut” above to keep things light and neutral, but if you object that rational people won’t fight over a donut, replace it with a life-changing job opportunity, promotion, or prestigious university admission. At this point, it’s entirely possible for two people, who an outside observer judges equally entitled, to each prefer one outcome over the other for obvious reasons. They may also engage in sufficient motivated reasoning to conclude that the favorable outcome is also the “rational” one. They’ll almost certainly present that case to the person making the decision even if they are “rational” enough to see that they are not uniquely entitled.

  26. leerudolph says

    wzrd1@13: “Maybe I should start my own site, “NotEvenWrong”. Peter Woit has been using that (as a phrase) as the name of his blog, and the title of his book on superstring theory, since 2006.

  27. anat says

    Many of the skills on the list are good things to practice regularly even if you are never going to benefit from the apparent intended goal (as in, you will never speak the language you are learning, never apply mental math outside of your study sessions etc), because they build what is called cognitive reserve, which is thought to be what you need to delay, and possibly prevent mental decline. Especially if family history or genetics indicate you are at increased risk. Give your brain more things to do, especially more stuff to remember (including remembering how to do more things, hence the physical skills).

  28. PaulBC says

    anat@31

    Many of the skills on the list are good things to practice regularly even if you are never going to benefit from the apparent intended goal

    Sure, but I feel the whole tone of this article (and #10 specifically) conflates rationality with mental agility and they are not the same. A rational conclusion is based on sound reasoning about evidence. You can do this in a plodding way, checking your steps very carefully and fixing missteps. Some others may be way ahead of you, but your process is rational and you will reach a defensible conclusion. Conversely, you could dazzle with your wit and persuasive arguments. You could lead many listeners to believe your conclusion was correct, but your sheer “brilliance” may have papered over a fatal flaw in your reasoning.

    It’s also possible to be quick-witted yet careful and arrive at the right answer. Obviously, you can be slow and plodding and make a ton of uncorrected mistakes. My point isn’t that one way is better, but that they are largely orthogonal.

    I’m a strong believer that (a) you don’t have to be very smart or deeply knowledgable to practice critical thinking and (b) many of those who are brilliant and possess both breadth and depth of knowledge are prone to fool themselves and others with motivated reasoning.

    I equate “rationality” with reaching conclusions based on critical thinking. I am not sure if this is a universally accepted equivalence. In any case, I don’t see how #10 really speaks to rationality. It is good to be good at stuff (deep thought, right?) but actually reaching correct conclusions is more a matter of mental discipline than mental agility.

  29. Owlmirror says

    @Andreas Avester:

    play n-back

    What the hell is this?

    The link is in the OP: www.gwern.net/DNB-FAQ

    It’s a memory game intended to improve working memory. The author of the FAQ acknowledges that its utility is debatable.

  30. Owlmirror says

    It occurs to me that the skills that the poster I quoted @#12 wished to improve are no doubt described and laid out in books and other instructional material on self-improvement and public speaking. Why even reference pickup artistry? Probably because his own reading/media consumption was limited to what is online and fast, and pickup artist videos and similar was where it caught his attention.

    It’s a bit sad that his own research/reading on the topic was so limited that pickup artistry was the first reference he could think of.

    And of course, it speaks to James D. Miller’s own biases and poor reading comprehension that he turned what was written into ‘become a PUA (if you’re a single male)’.

  31. PaulBC says

    Owlmirror@33

    It occurs to me that the skills that the poster I quoted @#12 wished to improve are no doubt described and laid out in books and other instructional material on self-improvement and public speaking.

    Right. If he had said “Read Dale Carnegie and join your local Toastmasters” it would have sounded less awesome, more dorky, and yet it would have been the same advice people have been giving for decades.

  32. Owlmirror says

    @PaulBC:

    If he had said “Read Dale Carnegie and join your local Toastmasters” it would have sounded less awesome, more dorky, and yet it would have been the same advice people have been giving for decades.

    I don’t think they would have interpreted it as being less awesome for being a known thing, and I doubt that dorkiness would have been seen as a negative, given most of the other things on that list.

    No, I think that if someone had gotten to the author while they were typing up their list, and said, “Here’s some books/sites that talk about being convivial and speaking publicly, without needing the PUA misogyny”, the information would have been incorporated seamlessly without referencing PUA.

  33. says

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space @#22

    Doing mental math is at least as useful as understanding how to use mnemonics–if only for the reason that you don’t always have a calculator handy, and there is some useful math even if you do have a calculator.

    I’m very good at mental math and math in general. Back when I went to school I used to compete in state level math competitions. Nowadays, all my math knowledge is completely useless for me. I work as an artist, and I just cannot figure out where I could possibly use any at least half serious math. When I go grocery shopping, I tend to mentally calculate the total combined cost of all my purchases, this way I already know how much I will have to pay before reaching the cash register. I do this just for fun, it’s pretty useless. The math is also trivially simple, just simple additions with only a few digits. Where else can I use any math? Calculating my finances? Again, that’s trivially simple. Even though I used to be great at math (by now I have gotten really rusty), I cannot possibly think of practical real life situations where I could actually use it in my daily life. Being able to do math is essential for some people (like scientists), it’s also useless for other people (like artists).

    Gorzki @#27

    Become PUA sounds much worse than the full version – becoming more confident and open in social encounters, overcoming fear and anxiety coming with being the center of attention in social situation.

    The wording in the quoted text was “become a PUA (if you’re a single male).” There is no possible way how one could reinterpret this to mean “become more confident and open in social encounters, overcome fear and anxiety coming with being the center of attention in social situation.” Married men and women would also benefit from being confident and open in social encounters. The person who wrote the words “if you’re a single male” was clearly thinking about PUA as a form of manipulation and exploitation performed by single men on female victims. The author wasn’t thinking about something perfectly ethical like merely learning to be confident and open in social interactions, because the latter is applicable also to married men and women. As a matter of fact, a woman, regardless of whether she is straight or a lesbian, theoretically also could use the same pickup techniques when going to dates. After all, many women like being dominant in their relationships and also in their dating behaviors. But no, the entire pickup culture has to be extra misogynistic by explicitly stating that these techniques are for males only.

    PaulBC @#28

    What do you think of method of loci (or memory palace)?

    It just doesn’t work for me at all. I have no clue why.

    Anat @#31

    Many of the skills on the list are good things to practice regularly even if you are never going to benefit from the apparent intended goal (as in, you will never speak the language you are learning, never apply mental math outside of your study sessions etc), because they build what is called cognitive reserve, which is thought to be what you need to delay, and possibly prevent mental decline.

    Yes, I agree that using your brain for something is beneficial in itself.

    No, that doesn’t justify that “therefore people should learn otherwise useless skills.”

    I can spend an identical amount of time either learning Esperanto or learning Spanish. Both activities will be equally good at preventing mental decline. In addition to this, Spanish will actually be useful in the real world while Esperanto won’t. Thus I’m better off investing my time in learning Spanish.

  34. anat says

    Andreas Avester @36: For preventing mental decline, I would guess the harder the language is to learn the better, so probably Esperanto would be the worst choice for anyone who already speaks an Indo-European language.

  35. blf says

    I work as an artist, and I just cannot figure out where I could possibly use any at least half serious math.

    M.C.Escher

    When I go grocery shopping, I tend to mentally calculate the total combined cost of all my purchases, this way I already know how much I will have to pay before reaching the cash register. I do this just for fun, it’s pretty useless.

    I tend to do the same, usually so I know about how much cash I need to pull out (and as a quick check on the cashier’s reported total). Recently, for a few weeks, it had a more serious / useful purpose as well — I had only limited cash and no debit card, but adequate funds in the bank — so tried to write cheques whenever possible (still reasonably widely accepted here in France (in part due to the draconian laws which make “bouncing” a cheque an extremely stupid thing to do)). However, there are often(?) limits on the cheque’s amount, so the mental adding-up helped to keep me within whichever shop’s particular limit.

  36. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Andreas Avester: “I work as an artist, and I just cannot figure out where I could possibly use any at least half serious math.”

    [blink, blink, blink] Ever hear of symmetry? Ever hear of broken symmetry? Ever hear of the golden ratio and Fibonacci series/numbers? Ever hear of topology? And yes, as blf and the mildly deranged penguin have pointed out, M. C. Escher.

    Every musical tune is a mathematical problem of how to get where you want to go in 8 bars. Every painting follows mathematical tricks to make two dimensions look like 3–or it intentionally doesn’t. It may try to depict 4 dimensions

    How do you know how much you will need to retire? How do you know what assumptions are reasonable to make in those calculations?

    And every number you meet has a unique personality waiting to be discovered. Math is everywhere.

  37. Owlmirror says

    Andreas Avester @#36:

    Gorzki @#27

    Become PUA sounds much worse than the full version – becoming more confident and open in social encounters, overcoming fear and anxiety coming with being the center of attention in social situation.

    The wording in the quoted text was “become a PUA (if you’re a single male).” There is no possible way how one could reinterpret this to mean “become more confident and open in social encounters, overcome fear and anxiety coming with being the center of attention in social situation.”

    I am pretty sure that Gorzki was referencing what I posted @#12 (& #33, #35). The author of what PZ linked to wrote “become a PUA”, but that author was summarizing the a list posted by someone else @lesswrong, which did not say to become a PUA, but to “be the life of the party”, and maybe learn from what PUA had to say about that.

  38. Owlmirror says

    Andreas Avester @#6:

    play n-back

    What the hell is this?

    The link is in the OP, and the lesswrong posting, however, posting that link caused my comment to disappear, twice. Let me try again without the actual link.

    N-back is a memory/pattern game intended to improve working memory. The author of the FAQ about the game acknowledges that its utility is debatable.

  39. Owlmirror says

    I tried posting the link to the N-back FAQ separately and mangled, and once again, the comment disappeared. Wow. Pharyngula really hates that link.

  40. Owlmirror says

    By the way, if you click on James D. Miller’s name on the OP, you can see other articles he wrote for Business Insider. An incomplete list:

      • Jun. 19, 2016, 2:57 PM – Genetically enhancing our children could raise interest rates
      • Nov. 15, 2016, 7:00 AM – The stock market doesn’t fear a Trump presidency, and neither should you
      • Aug. 9, 2017, 3:05 PM – Get ready for the ‘tech alt-right’ to gain power and influence in Silicon Valley (!)
      [ The above is about the James Damore incident @ Google. He cites Vox Fucking Day on the topic of SJW’s. ]
      • Nov. 8, 2017, 11:27 AM – Trump’s plan to tax colleges will harm higher education — but it’s still a good idea
      [Last one]

  41. says

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space @#39

    [blink, blink, blink] Ever hear of symmetry? Ever hear of broken symmetry? Ever hear of the golden ratio and Fibonacci series/numbers? Ever hear of topology? And yes, as blf and the mildly deranged penguin have pointed out, M. C. Escher.

    Yes, I have heard.

    Ever hear of symmetry? Ever hear of broken symmetry?

    You don’t need to study math in order to understand trivially simple concepts like these.

    Ever hear of the golden ratio and Fibonacci series/numbers?

    This is just trendy bullshit. People who are total beginners and don’t know a thing about composition will learn about this crap and then go around claiming to be oh so educated about art. Every non-artist has heard about the golden ratio and Fibonacci series. Most of the artists don’t actually use these things. Yes, it’s possible to create a nice composition with the help of the Fibonacci numbers. But here’s the news for you—it’s also possible to create hundreds of different amazing compositions without this rule. The golden ratio and Fibonacci series/numbers provide you a single recipe how to create a nice composition. Once you discard this silly recipe, you can create hundreds of different unique compositions. Majority of artists won’t artificially limit their creative possibilities by clinging to a single trivial rule that gets taught to literally everybody.

    By the way, have you heard of the “rule of thirds”? Here’s one more trendy rule for you to flaunt the next time you want to pretend to be knowledgeable about composition. However this rule is also pretty useless for practical purposes, since it’s artificially limiting, and beautiful compositions cannot be reduced to simple mathematical formulas.

    Ever hear of topology?

    How the hell learning topology is supposed to help me when I want to draw a fluffy cat?

    M. C. Escher

    A few artists like to incorporate geometric designs into their art. So what? Personally, I pay my bills by drawing fluffy cat tattoos. Are you telling me that drawing fluffy cats is inferior to drawing geometric shapes?

    When a beginner artist starts learning how to draw, prior math knowledge isn’t going to be helpful. Let’s say you want to paint a portrait of a woman sitting in dark room and holding a candle in her hands. Knowing theory about the inverse square law for the light fall-off won’t be helpful. Turning off light in your own room, lighting a candle, and looking at how its light falls on various objects is going to be a lot more useful.

    Anyway, please give me a link to your own portfolio if you are an artist. If I will like your art and conclude that you are a better artist than I am, then I will reconsider your advice about how it is wrong for me to refuse to use the golden ratio while drawing fluffy cats. If you aren’t a better artist than me, then I will ignore your advice about how I am making my own art incorrectly.

    Every painting follows mathematical tricks to make two dimensions look like 3–or it intentionally doesn’t.

    Bullshit. Those are not “mathematical tricks.” Instead the artist is copying what the human eye perceives. Knowing mathematics won’t help me to paint a cat. In order to do that, I have to look at a cat and afterwards copy what my eye perceived.

    As for perspective, that’s something an artist has to learn specifically. Yes, there’s a little bit of geometry involved, because portraying a perspective, especially in paintings that portray architecture, gets reduced to a bunch of lines, but general math knowledge is useless for a beginner artist who wants to master portraying perspective on a sheet of paper.

    Moreover, if you want to portray perspective in a landscape or portrait artwork that involves no man-made objects in square shapes, then perspective will be about the relative size of various objects, their placement, and colors (in a distance color hue and darkness changes). This has nothing to do with math whatsoever.

  42. PaulBC says

    I completely agree that you don’t need mathematics to do art and most artists have not used math historically. In some cases, a mathematician can look at what any artist did intuitively, and work out the mathematics, but that’s something different. (Though even the play of light on a kittens fur can be handled with math, e.g. by ray-tracing a 3D model.)

    Some art is geometric in nature, and some of that is mathematically interesting. I’m not sure if Girih tiles count as not “trivially simple” mathematics. They are not really Penrose tiles, by the way, but they are based on pentagon angles, and share some properties. The most interesting part (demonstrated convincingly by Peter Lu, though I can’t find the full text right now) is that some of the larger tilings appear to be constructed through recursive substitution. That is, you start with a tiling, replace each component tile with arrangements of smaller tiles from the same set and construct larger, non-periodic tilings through inflation. This is a remarkable method to find in medieval art, but you can also see how it could be developed intuitively without a precise notion of recursion.

    Personally (and I’m not an artist; I’m a PhD computer scientist/software developer) I find myself thinking in terms of elementary but non-trivial math on a regular basis, often more in life and hobbies than in work.

    For instance, I was interested in the effect of cubes created by 60-120 rhombuses (such as in the old video game Qbert and even older Roman mosaics. I wanted to make a set of three parallelograms that could be tiled for an oblique view. I started out doing this by guessing, and realized that these were always stretched or flattened. Finally I worked out the equations for the projections and got much better results (that’s the extent of my “art”). Alternatively, a talented artist might just look at a cube and draw the sides. Or someone without that ability could trace a photo. So, yeah, you don’t need the math, but it seems to me to make things easier.

    I also find myself leaning a lot on algorithmic ideas like inductive proof, upper and bounds when I don’t have an exact answer, or even amortized complexity. These things are sometimes useful in my job, but more often they’re just another way to think about things. They don’t generally give me a leg up in any sense, but I see no reason to stop thinking like a computer scientist.

Leave a Reply