What is statistics?

I put the call out on twitter for ideas for my first post, and Gabe asked this:


I suppose I did ask for statistics questions. This one is a bit tough to answer because, like I hinted at on twitter, a wide variety of things get called statistics by the people doing them, statisticians do an even wider variety of things, and to muddy the waters even more, lots of things that typically get categorized as statistics often are also categorized as other things like machine learning or computer science. I suppose I should blame the computer people.

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Rationality Is Not A Martial Art

From the beginning, Yudkowsky’s sequences follow a running metaphor of rationality as martial art. This implies a bunch of shitty stuff. I’m going to describe why it’s shitty, and then propose an alternative metaphor that I think is somewhat less shitty.

  • Martial arts are individual pursuits. They are typically practiced in a social context, yes, students practicing together, masters passing their wisdom on to students. But they’re mostly not about fighting together, just training. Rationalists, like other humans, need to work together to complete large projects.
  • Martial arts are personal. They are specifically about what a human mind can do with a human body. Rationalists are encouraged to make and use tools.
  • Martial arts are only good for one thing: physical conflict with other humans. Rationality is broadly applicable, in almost any context or for any purpose.
  • It’s straightforward to identify skilled martial artists by holding fighting tournaments. What sort of tournament do you hold to test rationalists? Assessing rationality in humans is Hard.
  • Martial arts are competitive. They are about becoming the best fighter (comparative) and not about becoming the true fighter (absolute), whatever that would even mean.
  • In martial arts, your opponents are always human.

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Ice Under the Bridge

The BBC is renowned worldwide for the high quality of its journalism. Take this article from 2005:

A thirsty thief is being blamed for downing a bottle of water, valued at £42,500, at a literary festival.

The two-litre clear plastic bottle containing melted ice from the Antarctic was devised to highlight global warming by artist Wayne Hill…

Its value was worked out by the artist from the damage worldwide of the entire ice sheet melting – he estimates between £6 trillion and £9 trillion – and the relative amount of damage from two litres of water.

Hmm. Something seems off about those numbers. Let’s check them!

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A Very Funny Joke

A long time ago, I decided that if I were ever to get a tattoo, I would get a tattoo of an irregular black splotch.

“Say,” people would ask, indicating my tattoo, “what does that represent?”

“What do you mean, what does it represent?”

“You know, what’s it for, what does it symbolize?”

“This? It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Why’d you get a tattoo of a meaningless black splotch, then?”

“Oh, this isn’t a tattoo. It’s cancer.”

Contrarianism Explained, or Postmodernism: the Drinking Game

(Slightly edited from something I wrote over 20 years ago.)

RULE 1: If anyone, at any time, for any reason, believes in, supports, or likes a person, place, or idea, it’s only because they haven’t uncovered the fundamental contradictions underlying that belief; you are allowed to laugh at them because they are Less Jaded than you.

RULE 1a: If everyone disbelieves in, attacks, or dislikes a person, place, or idea, it’s only because they haven’t uncovered the fundamental contradictions underlying that disbelief; you may support that person, place, or idea, and you are allowed to laugh at the other players because they are Less Perceptive than you.

RULE 2: Never explain the rules.