Hug the Query

In the art of ra­tio­nal­ity there is a dis­ci­pline of close­ness-to-the-is­sue—try­ing to ob­serve ev­i­dence that is as near to the origi­nal ques­tion as pos­si­ble, so that it screens off as many other ar­gu­ments as pos­si­ble.

The Wright Brothers say, “My plane will fly.” If you look at their au­thor­ity (bi­cy­cle me­chan­ics who hap­pen to be ex­cel­lent am­a­teur physi­cists) then you will com­pare their au­thor­ity to, say, Lord Kelvin, and you will find that Lord Kelvin is the greater au­thor­ity.

If you de­mand to see the Wright Brothers’ calcu­la­tions, and you can fol­low them, and you de­mand to see Lord Kelvin’s calcu­la­tions (he prob­a­bly doesn’t have any apart from his own in­cre­dulity), then au­thor­ity be­comes much less rele­vant.

If you ac­tu­ally watch the plane fly, the calcu­la­tions them­selves be­come moot for many pur­poses, and Kelvin’s au­thor­ity not even worth con­sid­er­ing.

The more di­rectly your ar­gu­ments bear on a ques­tion, with­out in­ter­me­di­ate in­fer­ences—the closer the ob­served nodes are to the queried node, in the Great Web of Causal­ity—the more pow­er­ful the ev­i­dence. It’s a the­o­rem of these causal graphs that you can never get more in­for­ma­tion from dis­tant nodes, than from strictly closer nodes that screen off the dis­tant ones.

Jerry Cleaver said: “What does you in is not failure to ap­ply some high-level, in­tri­cate, com­pli­cated tech­nique. It’s over­look­ing the ba­sics. Not keep­ing your eye on the ball.”1

Just as it is su­pe­rior to ar­gue physics than cre­den­tials, it is also su­pe­rior to ar­gue physics than ra­tio­nal­ity. Who was more ra­tio­nal, the Wright Brothers or Lord Kelvin? If we can check their calcu­la­tions, we don’t have to care! The virtue of a ra­tio­nal­ist can­not di­rectly cause a plane to fly.

If you for­get this prin­ci­ple, learn­ing about more bi­ases will hurt you, be­cause it will dis­tract you from more di­rect ar­gu­ments. It’s all too easy to ar­gue that some­one is ex­hibit­ing Bias #182 in your reper­toire of fully generic ac­cu­sa­tions, but you can’t set­tle a fac­tual is­sue with­out closer ev­i­dence. If there are bi­ased rea­sons to say the Sun is shin­ing, that doesn’t make it dark out.

Just as you can’t always ex­per­i­ment to­day, you can’t always check the calcu­la­tions to­day.2 Some­times you don’t know enough back­ground ma­te­rial, some­times there’s pri­vate in­for­ma­tion, some­times there just isn’t time. There’s a sadly large num­ber of times when it’s worth­while to judge the speaker’s ra­tio­nal­ity. You should always do it with a hol­low feel­ing in your heart, though, a sense that some­thing’s miss­ing.

When­ever you can, dance as near to the origi­nal ques­tion as pos­si­ble—press your­self up against it—get close enough to hug the query!

1Jerry Cleaver, Im­me­di­ate Fic­tion: A Com­plete Writ­ing Course (Macmil­lan, 2004).

2See also “Is Molec­u­lar Nan­otech­nol­ogy ’Scien­tific’?” http://​​less­​​lw/​​io/​​is_molec­u­lar_nan­otech­nol­ogy_sci­en­tific.