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December 23, 2008


Honestly, almost everything the ordinary person thinks economists think is wrong. Which is what makes teaching intro to econ such a challenge. The main message here is to realize you don't know nearly as much as you might think about what other groups out there think, especially marginalized and colorful groups. Doubt everything you think you know about the beliefs of satanists, theologians, pedophiles, free-lovers, marxists, mobsters, futurists, UFO folk, vegans, and yes economists.

Well, you could say that about the Singularity too, but even there, "Singularitarians believe they alone will be saved" rises above the ordinary cloud of fail.

I'm not sure this is exactly the same thing, but it's probably related:

The way people sometimes... creatively misunderstand... various fields of endeavor.

Think along the lines of quantum mysticism stuff and the way that Godel's theorem is abused by religious types. (not to mention the ye olde "but the second law of thermodynamics proves you can't have evolution" that they love to trot out)

I'm not sure this is exactly the same phenomenon, but it does seem to be part of a larger "creative misunderstanding of another's position to somehow support my own" thing.

Actually, just remembered one I saw that was almost painful.

I don't remember the exact quote, but it went something like this:

"I don't really know anything at all about quantum mechanics, but I believe it does prove the truth behind the ancient eastern wisdom." (or something to that effect)

I'm pretty sure the person who said that was being serious.

My first thought was obviously "but... if you don't actually know anything about it, and you know you don't know, then why do you..."

Minor point perhaps, but in the field I once studied, diachronic linguistics, people always want to know what the oldest language is, and no amount of explanation will convince them that there question is off-base.

To give the journalist the greatest benefit of the doubt: In what capacity could it be said that singulitarians think only singulitarians will be saved?

Off the top of my head: If uploading is consensual, only people willing to be uploaded will be uploaded. (or made immortal, or cognitively enhanced) If they foom without the rest of humanity... It fits the story pretty well.

The question is not what misconceptions are common but rather, "What do other people falsely believe your profession believes, especially if they themselves believe it to be false?"

I write as an ex-christian. Common misconceptions:

-All christians believe in creationism(as opposed to evolution).
-All christians believe that the Bible is 100% correct and the inerrant word of God.

I remember a clip from Richard Dawkins' documentary where he confronts a guy running a large church (was later caught doing something naughty - at least according to their rules). The guy just smiles smugly and creatively misunderstands everything Dawkins says.

Those folks are just simply lost. The doc could have been called "Beyond salvation". Brings up painful memories of militant GeebusCamp moms... ugh... I'll study some logic to cleanse my mind of the filthy memes... :P

The issue of "failing to update" probably deserves its own post. The state of the world tends to change over time. Even people who bother to look stuff up to determine whether their views are in accordance with current reality and revise accordingly can't afford to constantly keep checking back to see if any relevant facts have changed. The first time you get in an argument you might look the facts up but from then on when the same issue comes up you fall back on your previously-researched conclusion.

This is one reason why old scientists need to die out before new ideas can receive suitable consideration.

I tend to think a lot of positions people hold that appear currently absurd were once validly held - either by that person, or by a source that person respects - at some point in the past. For example, many who think they want stronger gun control laws hold in their heads the idea that you're much more likely to be mugged in the US than in Great Britain...because that used to be true, back when they first formed their opinions on the subject. Or consider Macintosh versus Winodws arguments that allege Macs are/aren't more/less expensive and are/aren't much faster than comparable PCs; all those views are correct, depending on the reference frame of the speaker.

Non-lawyers often believe that lawyers and judges believe that laws and contracts should be interpreted literally.

@James Andrix

"If uploading is consensual, only people willing to be uploaded will be uploaded"

How funny you should mention this. I listened to a debate on this just on Sunday afternoon. It seemed agreed that the real issue revolved around the meaning of informed consent, and how that changes when uploading becomes possible.

The most common reasons people choose to die - depression, Alzheimer's, cancer - might be made moot by that advance alone, eliminating any "rational" reason to die, one side thought. One woman argued uploading would an easy extension of EU human rights; to deny people uploading would be as barbarous as the death penalty.

I think she was trying to make an explicitly anti-Hansonian claim - she argued that uploading would actually increase the value and meaning of life, not lessen it. This may be a distinctive European form of social thought, I don't know.

"This is one reason why old scientists need to die out before new ideas can receive suitable consideration."

So giving these scientists full ability to update their beliefs isn't an acceptable solution?

Now Kurzweil fits the description of techno-millionaire. I have no idea if he is an Extropian, but it does seem pausible. People don't usually label themselves, define themselves completely consistently and coherently, or distinguish between their beliefs and those of others which leaves others to do it and naturally enough get it wrong.

I, for one, find the whole natural vs. artificial intelligence argument little more than projections of inadequacy and fear. Far more likely to me is natural and artificial intelligence melding into complexes that one can no longer define as natural or artificial except on trivial irrelevant bases. I doubt we will even recognize a singularity until it is long past with historians debating what constituted it just as scientists debate what constitutes natural and artificial.

James, that's a good example - I remember being shocked to find out that there are various kinds of contract clauses that judges will ignore. It made me appreciate much more deeply why you have to have a lawyer look it over. Similarly, I used to have no idea of the philosophy behind stare decisis - I thought it was ingrained deference to the past a la Judaism.

Roland, since many Christians do believe those things, this isn't the sort of entirely imaginary position I'm talking about - the one that just gets manufactured from thin air because it seems so "truthy".

I think people believe economists are all leaning towards libertarianism and republican. In reality, they are mostly democratic.

I recently had 2 occasions where

- I said X
- Someone else said, No, Y
- I thought they were wrong
- I later realized: Not X, but Z
- then went back and looked, and saw Y = Z

In both cases, I didn't understand Y the first time because I had expectations for how X would be misunderstood, and looked for indications of them in Y, and on finding terms and phrases that matched my expectations stopped parsing Y prematurely.

Fortune, I wouldn't at all claim that uploading can't increase the value and meaning of life.

The distinction between natural and artificial is an artificial one. But it is also a natural one.

I fear, Robin, that no matter how many times you say it...

I propose there exists a confusion-recovery mode for conversation. It triggers when what you just heard makes no sense to you. Evolution expects this to happen when the speaker is rationalizing or dishonest. The instinct is to get suspicious, stop interpreting words literally, and look for an in-framework explanation that fits the other person's expected bias. I also think this has an element of preferring premature certainty to valid confusion.

If there's a huge inferential gap, you'll trigger this mode immediately.


I don't think there are scientists, who, in their capacity as scientists, debate what constitutes natural and artificial.

Julian Morrison, thanks for that hypothesis!

Very recently experienced exactly this phenomenon: someone discussing atheists who think "all religion/religious stuff is bad" to the inclusion of, for example, the music of Bach, or drinking and celebrating at Christmas. They seemed convinced that such atheists exist, and I doubt it, or at least I have never heard of them or met them, and I know for a fact that for example all four horsemen of atheism have made explicit statements to the contrary.

Your disclaimer is an annoying one to have to make, and of course this problem comes up whenever this move is made in discussion; your counterpart says "well, but some singularitarians believe that, don't they?" and you can't actually prove there are none, and you have the sneaking fear that given the vastness of the Internet a judicious Google search might just turn up someone crazy enough to vindicate them; but of course a handful of anonymous loons on the Internet sought specifically for their particular brand of madness does not a position worthy of discussion make.


"wouldn't at all claim that uploading can't increase the value and meaning of life."

Despite the confusing-to-some negative form of phrasing here, my impression that is I do in fact understand your position on this. However, the woman on Sunday believed she was arguing against you. This was exactly why I used this example here in Imaginary Positions, sorry if it seemed unclear to you.

My impression is that many people who do not regularly read OB with care come across your ideas in other places where they may not be well-stated, for example in TierneyLab or Wikipedia.

To set the record straight, my impression from reading all your papers is that you do actually argue for a basically positive future. Being an em - I now personally expect to be an em! - I look forward to being an em! - will be life-enhancing.

In short, I think it will be more like Gentle Seduction than the downbeat living as Tierney seems to describe. I am buying my Emotiv helmet ASAP!

Eliezer: The distinction between direct observation and deduction is pretty ambiguous for a Bayesian, is it not?
Also, MANY rationalists advocate "giving people the benefit of the doubt" which for them implies "behaving as if all people are reasonable and fair?". Furthermore, almost all rationalists, you for instance, advocate stating literally true beliefs towards people rather than stating the beliefs that you have most reason to expect to be most informative or to produce the best results. MANY people refrain from becoming more rational out of fear that they would have to do the same and out of justified belief that doing so would cripple their efficacy in life.

James Miller: Good call!
That point about non-lawyers deserves a post of its own somewhere? I seriously wonder where they got that idea. Strangest of all, they seem to have generalized that misconception to invent the "laws of nature" which really are literal.

Paul Crowley: Both my wife and I have had brief phases when we were atheists of the type you question exists.

I'm curious as to what non-game developers think game developers believe. :D

Also, on topic of the Singularity, half of the people I meet seem to think the concept is obviously absurd because "the Singularity is all about infinite growth, and that's physically impossible". Has anybody ever actually claimed that the Singularity would be literally infinite anything?


A British police blogger says that people sometimes want an off-record "talking to", but UK police will no longer do this. This is a false belief: the police will do as I want, or behave in the way I consider sensible. The blogger says that they will not.

Eliezer: The distinction between direct observation and deduction is pretty ambiguous for a Bayesian, is it not?

Um... not at all, actually. A key insight into causal networks consists of giving the messages two separate pathways to travel along, and recombining the two only after the messages have propagated separately. Like counting soldiers in a line using a distributed algorithm by having each soldier report the number of soldiers behind (and passing that number + 1 forward) and having each soldier report the number of soldiers forward (and passing that number + 1 behind) and only recombining the two messages afterward, rather than mixing them up as they pass.

So you will generally want a very crisp distinction between your reasons to believe something because of what you believe about its generating process, and your reasons to believe something because of what you have observed of its effects.

Kaj: that misunderstanding comes from the mathematical meaning of the word "singularity."

Brandon Reinhart: Jack Thompson. (Fortunately, he's been disbarred, now, so maybe that particular vein of stupidity is getting tapped out.)

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