About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ian’s Picks

by Ian Pollock

* Chapter 64 of the delightful Harry Potter & the Methods of Rationality, by E-who-must-not-be-named, is a funny collection of sketches for rationalist re-imaginings of literature & TV. My personal favorite, by Eneasz Brosky:

“Revenge?” said the peg-legged man. “On a whale? No, I decided I'd just get on with my life.”

* Givewell’s Holden Karnofsky weighs in on Kony 2012. I think he puts it beautifully. In case you’re wondering, donations to Against Malaria Foundation are tax deductible in the UK, USA & Canada.

* An extremely useful LessWrong comment thread, on money. The strongest objection to rationalism, in my mind, is something along the lines of: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Excuses for poor financial skills from people who value instrumental rationality start to wear thin after a while (in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m talking about myself).

* Thinking Physics, though rather old at this point, has got to be one of the most delightful books on physics out there. In addition, it is a miracle in pedagogy — that rare sort of book that is both elementary and advanced.

*It looks like in vitro meat might be on its way into our diets, though no doubt it will be something of a tough sell.


  1. Harry Potter & the Methods of Rationality...splendid. But how is it possible that I didn't know about LessWrong? Thanks for that above all else, Ian.

    Regarding Kony/Malaria, the Kony2012 phenomenon puts a fine point on the fact that there are very fertile discussions to be had about how to engage and motivate humans to get real-world results - as well as the importance of doing so. The contrast between the Against Malaria Foundation and the Kony2012 campaign can provide an excellent platform upon which to base them. There is a lot of territory to cover here, including...

    ❶ Tradeoffs between marketing to passion vs to rationality in generating real-world results.

    ❷ The intense scrutiny of the suitability and scope of goals of Kony2012 as ends in themselves vs as a prototype for a scalable model for effecting change in the world.

    ❸ The ethics of using dishonesty to create positive change.

    ❹ (potentially) The ethics of capitalizing on passion in order to achieve rational goals (i.e. using proceeds from a Kony2012-style campaign to fund an Against Malaria Foundation-type project.)

    ❺ The development of "smart grid" social systems wherein voluntarily contributed monetic energy can be directed where it is most needed.

    ...to name just a few.

    On point 4, two familiar, pre-existing examples come to mind: Using proceeds from Viagra to fund other kinds of pharmaceutical research, and using proceeds from gambling to fund education.

    1. Indeed, these topics are well worth talking about & huge in scope. I am not even sure if I have a coherent set of opinions on any of these points.

      Regarding the ethics of capitalizing on passion, I don't see a huge ethical issue there necessarily, and I would welcome a campaign as rhetorically well done as Kony 2012, in support of AMF or a similarly effective cause. After all, malaria does have lots and lots of real-world victims with poignant stories.

      Where they have us beat is in the bad guy department. It's easy to dislike mosquitoes, but not easy to actually loathe them. And loathing seems to be a better motivator than altruism. That's not to be preachy, I have the same psychology myself. When I was a kid I fantasized about assassinating torturers, not preventing diseases.

    2. Right, so what I was getting at is, the Kony2012 deal has that raw "get the bad guy" appeal. What if that was the Viagra, and when people bought into it some of their dollars went to solving other problems?

      Where the analogy fails is, when you buy Viagra you actually get Viagra, but when you buy Kony2012 you only hope that you get what you're paying for. Knowing that not all of your money would be going toward seeing Kony dealt with would rather diminish the usable passion, and therefore depress the total revenue one might hope to raise.

      If there were a reliable, acceptable, and monetarily estimable plan for dealing with Kony to the satisfaction of the activists, then it would become a matter of doing the market research and figuring out how to raise that amount of money (with a factor of safety built in). Do the same for the malaria project. Then bundle the two together, re-evaluate costs (there might conceivably be some realizable savings from resource sharing, for example), and devise a single marketing campaign to accomplish both goals.

      The question is, what if any any ethical issues arise by combining purposes in this manner and then devising a marketing campaign that only explicitly addresses one of them? In this case, we'll let that one be dealing with Kony since that's where the passion is. Is it all good as long as Kony gets captured or killed? What if there is some success on the malaria front but Kony eludes capture? Can the ethical validity of the method depend on its results?

  2. My favorite physics books were The Physics of Superheroes and the Physics of Star Trek. Neither of which help you understand the world. But they are fun

    1. I haven't seen those ones, so I oughtn't to comment on those two specifically. I might check them out.

      In general however, I wonder what the public gets out of many popular presentations of physics. Particularly since they tend to focus on obscure or advanced physics - string theory or some such, and usually try to present it in the sexiest light possible, with pretty little computer-generated graphs of n-dimensional phlebotinum manifolds in false colour. What does somebody without a physics background get out of that? (Or even someone with physics background?)

    2. I would say they exercise the imagination, which is certainly a kind of brain candy. Further, because of their link to science they steer clear of outright fantasy (at least ostensibly) and in some cases may therefore help reassure us that a world of laws and limits may yet be a world of wonders, where our fondest wishes may find fertile ground in which to grow.


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