A very good letter from reader Gavin Miller, reposted with his permission -
Based on your recommendation I recently started reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, and I wanted to share a situation where I was able to apply the book back to my work.
There was a passage that caught my attention; when Harry is hearing his parents argue over something that could be resolved via an experiment (emphasis mine):
Hoping against hope that this time, just this once, they would listen to him. "If it's true, we can just get a Hogwarts professor here and see the magic for ourselves, and Dad will admit that it's true. And if not, then Mum will admit that it's false. That's what the experimental method is for, so that we don't have to resolve things just by arguing."
A similar situation came up during a meeting where we were talking about hardware requirements for a project. The debate went back and forth over whether the latest gen iPod hardware was equivalent to the iPhone 4. Back and forth, back and forth. Everyone had an opinion on the matter. We were bike shedding to the nth degree (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_Law_of_Triviality this is one of my favorite laws, and occurs so often in programming.)
And of course I was gunned up, and ready to jump into the debate when I recalled the above passage from the Methods of Rationality. And it dawned on me that the entire debate was pointless; that the entire conversation could be resolved with someone checking for the answer online. I sat back and I thought about this, and realized there was nothing that I could add to the conversation. So I shut up. This is something I wouldn't have normally done, and I'm glad I did because I felt like I was applying some new learning - That's a good feeling.
We get to the end of the debate and no one had the answer, and so someone got assigned to look it up online. 5 - 10 minutes wasted. It makes me wonder how many other "problems" could be resolved with a simple data check, instead of engaging in posturing like this to demonstrate our wealth of knowledge?
My favorite line is the last one - "It makes me wonder how many other "problems" could be resolved with a simple data check, instead of engaging in posturing like this to demonstrate our wealth of knowledge?"
Great stuff. Gavin's website is http://www.thepursuitofquality.com/
The largest mental gains I made in the shortest period of time were from studying rationality.
I was amazed to discover a couple years ago that there were people who regularly studied and discussed how to think, how to get correct and accurate beliefs about how the world works, how to understand how your mind works, and to get at the real reasons people make decisions.
The whole rationality thing is as addictive as crack-cocaine for me. I love it. The difference from crack, though, is you grow stronger and smarter the more you dive in.
Our minds are funny. We humans, we're "adaptation exercisers, not fitness maximizers" -
Fifty thousand years ago, the taste buds of Homo sapiens directed their bearers to the scarcest, most critical food resources - sugar and fat. Calories, in a word. Today, the context of a taste bud's function has changed, but the taste buds themselves have not. Calories, far from being scarce (in First World countries), are actively harmful. Micronutrients that were reliably abundant in leaves and nuts are absent from bread, but our taste buds don't complain. A scoop of ice cream is a superstimulus, containing more sugar, fat, and salt than anything in the ancestral environment.
Edit: Some of the below links don't work, they just take you back to this page. For the ones where that is the case, I have tried to add the urls in parentheses afterwords. If you find one where that is not the case, please let me know.
This will probably sound like several ideas, but it all ties together really well into a single, coherent worldview. Much more coherent and applicable to living in the real world than any other one that I've encountered. This post isn't intended to teach all of these concepts, this is basically just me explaining myself. Because of that, the way I'm going to structure this is by splitting it up into a few sections and explaining the views I used to hold and contrasting them with the views that I hold nowadays.
If you want to actually learn all this stuff, read the Sequences on Less Wrong. They're really poorly laid out, extremely long, and very, very valuable. I do strongly recommend them to anyone who is at all interested in having accurate beliefs, being effective at whatever it is you choose to do, having an interesting life, and last and certainly least, philosophy. If this ends up being super incredibly valuable sounding, you might also want to check out the Center for Applied Rationality, who run week long intensive workshops on this, which will get you up to speed much quicker than reading blog posts, most likely. I was in the first of their attempts at that, back when it was 9 weeks long.
I'll try to include the appropriate links at the appropriate moments so that if you want to read more on a specific subject you can just click through to the Less Wrong article on it. I'm sure to miss some, though, and there's a lot more content there, so I again recommend reading the Sequences. If you want a more easygoing, fictional read, then even though I cringe to write this sentence, I do recommend reading the fan fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. HPMoR and the Sequences are written by the same person, Eliezer Yudkowsky.