Don’t Be Afraid of Asking Personally Important Questions of Less Wrong

Re­lated: LessWrong as a so­cial cat­a­lyst

I pri­mar­ily used my prior user pro­file asked ques­tions of Less Wrong. When I had an inkling for a query, but I didn’t have a fully formed hy­poth­e­sis, I wouldn’t know how to search for an­swers to ques­tions on the In­ter­net my­self, so I asked them on Less Wrong.

The re­cep­tion I have re­ceived has been mostly pos­i­tive. Here are some ex­am­ples:

Other stu­dent users of Less Wrong benefit from the in­sight of their ca­reered peers:

  • A friend of mine was con­sid­er­ing pur­su­ing medicine to earn to give. In the same vein as my own dis­cus­sion, I sug­gested he pose the ques­tion to Less Wrong. He didn’t feel like it at first, so I posed the query on his be­half. In a few days, he re­ceived feed­back which re­turned the con­clu­sion that pur­su­ing med­i­cal school through the av­enues he was aiming for wasn’t his best op­tion rel­a­tive to his other con­sid­er­a­tions. He showed up in the thread, and ex­pressed his grat­i­tude. The en­tirely of the on­line ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity was will­ing to re­spond pro­vided valuable in­for­ma­tion for an im­por­tant ques­tion. It might have taken him lots of time, at­ten­tion, and effort to look for the an­swers to this ques­tion by him­self.

In en­gag­ing with Less Wrong, with the rest of you, my ex­pe­rience has been that Less Wrong isn’t just use­ful as an archive of blog posts, but is ac­tively use­ful as a com­mu­nity of peo­ple. As weird as it may seem, you can gen­er­ate pos­i­tive ex­ter­nal­ities that im­prove the lives of oth­ers by merely writ­ing a blog post. This ex­tends to re­spond­ing in the com­ments sec­tion too. Stupid Ques­tions Threads are a great ex­am­ple of this; you can ask ques­tions about your pro­ce­du­ral knowl­edge gaps with­out fear of reprisal. Peo­ple have got­ten great re­sponses about get­ting more value out of con­ver­sa­tions, to be­ing more so­cially suc­cess­ful, to learn­ing and ap­pre­ci­at­ing mu­sic as an adult. Less Wrong may be one of few on­line com­mu­ni­ties for which even the com­ments sec­tions are use­ful, by de­fault.

For the above ex­am­ples, even though they weren’t the most pop­u­lar dis­cus­sions ever started, and likely didn’t get as much traf­fic, it’s be­cause of the feed­back they re­ceived that made them more per­son­ally valuable to one in­di­vi­d­ual than sev­eral oth­ers.

At the CFAR work­shop I at­tended, I was taught two rele­vant skills:

* Value of In­for­ma­tion Calcu­la­tions: for­mu­lat­ing a ques­tion well, and perform­ing a Fermi es­ti­mate, or back-of-the-en­velope ques­tion, in an at­tempt to an­swer it, gen­er­ates quan­tified in­sight you wouldn’t have oth­er­wise an­ti­ci­pated.

* So­cial Com­fort Zone Ex­pan­sion: hu­mans tend to have a greater aver­sion to try­ing new things so­cially than is max­i­mally effec­tive, and one way of viscer­ally teach­ing Sys­tem 1 this les­son is by trial-and-er­ror of tak­ing small risks. Post­ing on Less Wrong, es­pe­cially, e.g., in a spe­cial thread, is re­ally a low-risk ac­tion. The pang of los­ing karma can feel real, but los­ing karma re­ally is a valuable sig­nal that one should try again differ­ently. Also, it’s not as bad as failing at tak­ing risks in meatspace.

When I’ve re­ceived down­votes for a com­ment, I in­ter­pret that as use­ful in­for­ma­tion, try to model what I did wrong, and thank oth­ers for cor­rect­ing my con­fused think­ing. If you’re wor­ried about writ­ing some­thing em­bar­rass­ing, that’s un­der­stand­able, but re­al­ize it’s a fact about your untested an­ti­ci­pa­tions, not a fact about ev­ery­one else us­ing Less Wrong. There are dozens of brilli­ant peo­ple with valuable in­sights at the ready, read­ing Less Wrong for fun, and who like helping us an­swer our own per­sonal ques­tions. Users shminux and Carl Shul­man are ex­em­plars of this.

This isn’t an is­sue for all users, but I feel as if not enough users are tak­ing ad­van­tage of the per­sonal value they can get by ask­ing more ques­tions. This post is in­tended to en­courage them. User Gun­nar Zar­nacke sug­gested that if enough ex­am­ples of ex­pe­riences like this were ac­crued, it could be trans­formed into some sort of repos­i­tory of per­sonal value from Less Wrong