re: Where are all the successful rationalists

I came across a blog post recently titled ‘Where are all the successful rationalists‘ by a newish blog called Applied Divinity Studies. The post raises the point that given the focus ‘rationalists’ put on better thinking there don’t seem to be many people who would call themselves ‘rationalists’ in high up positions.

A few answers are proposed of which the second answer is taken up the most.

  • Weakness of will: Even with good ideas, rationalists can’t execute
  • Specific knowledge beats out generalised theoretical knowledge
  • Noise

This second answer is basically suggesting two points, one is that knowing some, clever but abstract, thought processes and ideas when put up against domain expertise may well/will often lose out.

The other point is that there is a big difference between just having rational thoughts, using base rates etc and being a Rationalist. There are a fair number of people who use these techniques and may even read some rationalist blogs but who wouldn’t think of being a ‘rationalist’ as part of their identity.

I think both of these are to some degree correct and I want to offer two more options that I think are important additions.

Crony beliefs

This is an idea from Kevin Simler, the broad argument is that some of our beliefs are trying to truthfully model the world around us but some of our beliefs aren’t (crony beliefs). Why do we have these crony beliefs? Well in many settings some of your rewards come from pragmatic considerations whereas sometimes your reward comes from social considerations. You might be right that the oil company you work for is bad for the environment and maybe should operate very differently but you’re probably not going to get promoted if you do.

This suggests that in many cases irrationality is a feature not a bug. That’s not to say that crony beliefs have to be an incorrect representation of reality, they are merely ones where any payoff you get from the world is independent of your particular belief on a matter so the only payoff you will directly get is from others. 

You might have seen the link here, rationality is often a competition played within ones own head. Trying to get the most correct view of a situation possible, our actions though aren’t as constrained. They take place in a world surrounded by other people and we have to at least be aware of that.

If the rational belief is one that conflicts with the beliefs of the group then it is not necessarily clear it will be the one that does us the most good. One might want to ask at this point ‘if the world is acting in a semi irrational way doesn’t that mean that acting rationally is still your dominant strategy’, isn’t this the idea embedded in concepts like Mr Market? 

I would say yes and no. There are certainly times when rationality wins out but the Mr Market example has one important feature to note, the irrationality is not coordinated. In many real life settings you are not going up against some volatile irrational being but a group who may believe something that isn’t true but all believe it together and persistently. This pits you not against a world of optionality but against the collective interest of a group, not a great place to be a lot of the time.

Generative

My second proposed answer is that rationality is only one half (or less) of the process towards success. Consider the difference between checking the maths behind an elegant proof and trying to come up with it. Many people by the end of secondary school could point to some logical mistake in a line of reasoning using the probability of expected values, and yet it took two of the best Mathematicians in history to come up with the idea and get it to work.

This brings me to the idea that most kinds of knowledge can be either critical, it can tell you if something is incorrect, or generative, it can help you come up with new ideas. To put it in Popper’s words you need both conjecture and refutation to move forward.

The important thing to note is that critical knowledge by itself doesn’t move you forward. To be successful you need both of the skills of generation and criticism and rationality only really helps with one side of that.

The main point here is that yes rationality can and often does improve the quality of your critical thinking but this is only one part of success and it’s not clear to me that the other, the generative part, is necessarily positively correlated with being more rational. If anything I could see a slight negative correlation.

Benefits

The original post goes on to say that despite the seeming lack of a link between being a rationalist and real world success they’re not going to stop reading the posts or anything like that because it’s just something they find fun. I’d have to agree with this point as well, for some people these kinds of things are just fun to read about and ponder.

I would make one additional point though, while it may not seem that rationality has had outsized success in moving people ahead of the herd it seems like a good option for not being behind it. Testing this is obviously a bit tricky using the rationalist community given the very high levels of self selection but I think the point stands. This would suggest that even if there don’t seem to be many “successful rationalists” it is still a vital skill to try and spread to as wide an audience as possible and that this aim is maybe the important one to be focussing on.

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