Preface

You hold in your hands a com­pila­tion of two years of daily blog posts. In ret­ro­spect, I look back on that pro­ject and see a large num­ber of things I did com­pletely wrong. I’m fine with that. Look­ing back and not see­ing a huge num­ber of things I did wrong would mean that nei­ther my writ­ing nor my un­der­stand­ing had im­proved since 2009. Oops is the sound we make when we im­prove our be­liefs and strate­gies; so to look back at a time and not see any­thing you did wrong means that you haven’t learned any­thing or changed your mind since then.

It was a mis­take that I didn’t write my two years of blog posts with the in­ten­tion of helping peo­ple do bet­ter in their ev­ery­day lives. I wrote it with the in­ten­tion of helping peo­ple solve big, difficult, im­por­tant prob­lems, and I chose im­pres­sive-sound­ing, ab­stract prob­lems as my ex­am­ples.

In ret­ro­spect, this was the sec­ond-largest mis­take in my ap­proach. It ties in to the first-largest mis­take in my writ­ing, which was that I didn’t re­al­ize that the big prob­lem in learn­ing this valuable way of think­ing was figur­ing out how to prac­tice it, not know­ing the the­ory. I didn’t re­al­ize that part was the pri­or­ity; and re­gard­ing this I can only say “Oops” and “Duh.”Yes, some­times those big is­sues re­ally are big and re­ally are im­por­tant; but that doesn’t change the ba­sic truth that to mas­ter skills you need to prac­tice them and it’s harder to prac­tice on things that are fur­ther away. (To­day the Cen­ter for Ap­plied Ra­tion­al­ity is work­ing on re­pairing this huge mis­take of mine in a more sys­tem­atic fash­ion.)

A third huge mis­take I made was to fo­cus too much on ra­tio­nal be­lief, too lit­tle on ra­tio­nal ac­tion.

The fourth-largest mis­take I made was that I should have bet­ter or­ga­nized the con­tent I was pre­sent­ing in the se­quences. In par­tic­u­lar, I should have cre­ated a wiki much ear­lier, and made it eas­ier to read the posts in se­quence.

That mis­take at least is cor­rectable. In the pre­sent work Rob Bens­inger has re­ordered the posts and re­or­ga­nized them as much as he can with­out try­ing to rewrite all the ac­tual ma­te­rial (though he’s rewrit­ten a bit of it).

My fifth huge mis­take was that I—as I saw it—tried to speak plainly about the stu­pidity of what ap­peared to me to be stupid ideas. I did try to avoid the fal­lacy known as Bul­verism, which is where you open your dis­cus­sion by talk­ing about how stupid peo­ple are for be­liev­ing some­thing; I would always dis­cuss the is­sue first, and only af­ter­wards say, “And so this is stupid.” But in 2009 it was an open ques­tion in my mind whether it might be im­por­tant to have some peo­ple around who ex­pressed con­tempt for home­opa­thy. I thought, and still do think, that there is an un­for­tu­nate prob­lem wherein treat­ing ideas cour­te­ously is pro­cessed by many peo­ple on some level as “Noth­ing bad will hap­pen to me if I say I be­lieve this; I won’t lose sta­tus if I say I be­lieve in home­opa­thy,” and that de­ri­sive laugh­ter by co­me­di­ans can help peo­ple wake up from the dream.

To­day I would write more cour­te­ously, I think. The dis­cour­tesy did serve a func­tion, and I think there were peo­ple who were helped by read­ing it; but I now take more se­ri­ously the risk of build­ing com­mu­ni­ties where the nor­mal and ex­pected re­ac­tion to low-sta­tus out­sider views is open mock­ery and con­tempt.

De­spite my mis­take, I am happy to say that my read­er­ship has so far been amaz­ingly good about not us­ing my rhetoric as an ex­cuse to bully or be­lit­tle oth­ers. (I want to sin­gle out Scott Alexan­der in par­tic­u­lar here, who is a nicer per­son than I am and an in­creas­ingly amaz­ing writer on these top­ics, and may de­serve part of the credit for mak­ing the cul­ture of Less Wrong a healthy one.)

To be able to look back­wards and say that you’ve “failed” im­plies that you had goals. So what was it that I was try­ing to do?

There is a cer­tain valuable way of think­ing, which is not yet taught in schools, in this pre­sent day. This cer­tain way of think­ing is not taught sys­tem­at­i­cally at all. It is just ab­sorbed by peo­ple who grow up read­ing books like Surely You’re Jok­ing, Mr. Feyn­man or who have an un­usu­ally great teacher in high school.

Most fa­mously, this cer­tain way of think­ing has to do with sci­ence, and with the ex­per­i­men­tal method. The part of sci­ence where you go out and look at the uni­verse in­stead of just mak­ing things up. The part where you say “Oops” and give up on a bad the­ory when the ex­per­i­ments don’t sup­port it.

But this cer­tain way of think­ing ex­tends be­yond that. It is deeper and more uni­ver­sal than a pair of gog­gles you put on when you en­ter a lab­o­ra­tory and take off when you leave. It ap­plies to daily life, though this part is sub­tler and more difficult. But if you can’t say “Oops” and give up when it looks like some­thing isn’t work­ing, you have no choice but to keep shoot­ing your­self in the foot. You have to keep reload­ing the shot­gun and you have to keep pul­ling the trig­ger. You know peo­ple like this. And some­where, some­place in your life you’d rather not think about, you are peo­ple like this. It would be nice if there was a cer­tain way of think­ing that could help us stop do­ing that.

In spite of how large my mis­takes were, those two years of blog post­ing ap­peared to help a sur­pris­ing num­ber of peo­ple a sur­pris­ing amount. It didn’t work re­li­ably, but it worked some­times.

In mod­ern so­ciety so lit­tle is taught of the skills of ra­tio­nal be­lief and de­ci­sion-mak­ing, so lit­tle of the math­e­mat­ics and sci­ences un­der­ly­ing them… that it turns out that just read­ing through a mas­sive brain-dump full of prob­lems in philos­o­phy and sci­ence can, yes, be sur­pris­ingly good for you. Walk­ing through all of that, from a dozen differ­ent an­gles, can some­times con­vey a glimpse of the cen­tral rhythm.

Be­cause it is all, in the end, one thing. I talked about big im­por­tant dis­tant prob­lems and ne­glected im­me­di­ate life, but the laws gov­ern­ing them aren’t ac­tu­ally differ­ent. There are huge gaps in which parts I fo­cused on, and I picked all the wrong ex­am­ples; but it is all in the end one thing. I am proud to look back and say that, even af­ter all the mis­takes I made, and all the other times I said “Oops”...

Even five years later, it still ap­pears to me that this is bet­ter than noth­ing.