Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Methods of Rationality

I've mentioned this one in passing before, but it deserves more comment. "This one" being Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a Harry Potter fanfic. Yes, I know. Bear with me for a minute.

While I've been a Harry Potter fan for, erm, quite some time now (roughly half my lifetime) I was never into fanfiction. I think I've read two entire HP fanfics, one of them specifically because it was horribly bad (you probably know this one). So, saying that HP&MoR was the best fanfic I ever read would be very faint praise. Instead, I'll say that it's easily one of the best works of fantasy literature I've ever come across, and that I do not say lightly. Though calling MoR fantasy sounds like an odd fit.

The idea is as follows: Petunia married a biochemistry professor, instead of an abusive plot device, and Harry grew up as a child prodigy with a particular interest in science and rationality. Who then finds out that magic is real and the way he thought the universe worked is not. Bit of a nasty shock, but he got better..

Harry goes to Hogwarts and starts looking at magic with a sceptical eye, bringing some disappointments but also pretty significant discoveries. I'm not going into which ones, but apparent rules of magic are broken and, at age eleven, Harry seems to have potential to be the most powerful wizard/scientist ever. But, you can't just power-up the protagonist and leave the antagonists as they were. That way lies the Pitfall of Sue.

Which leads me to one of my favourite things about MoR, Professor Quirrell. The original Quirrell was a weak pawn of the Dark Side, whose main thing was pretending to be a stuttering nobody while secretly being Voldemort's host (if that was a spoiler, I don't know why you're reading about HP fanfic) . MoR Quirrel is badass. And also, the only wizard that seems to get, on the same level as Harry, the power of Muggle science and rationality.

Many are the literary merits of MoR, and I'm not the best person for enumerating them. I'll just say, f you ever read PS/SS (that being the first Harry Potter book), you'll find MoR hilarious, exciting, and possibly fascinating. But that's only half the reason I'm blogging. MoR is rationalist fiction. The fiction part is excellent, but the rationalist part is really what I loved.

I considered myself relatively good at being rational. I'm an atheist, I don't fall for new age bullshit, I could probably refute most arguments for paranormal phenomena from memory, etc. But, it's easy to be "rational" when the rational conclusion is handed to you on a silver platter. I really didn't know nearly as much as I thought about how I was tricking myself.

I went into MoR expecting mostly familiar arguments, science I already knew about, biases and fallacies I could easily name and give examples of. I was wrong. I found so much more. Just to give the biggest example, I barely knew anything about Bayes' rule and how to apply it before reading MoR. I only had the vague notion that there were a few common probability problems I didn't know how to solve yet. That turned out into quite a significant discovery

Eliezer Yudkowsky, the author of MoR, introduced the concepts covered in the fanfic in LessWrong, a  collaborative blog dedicated to rationality. I've been spending quite a lot of the last few weeks there, and it's been a learning experience of the kind I haven't had in, um, ever. Only my discovery of FSTDT comes close, and that was much more spread out in time, and not quite as powerful. Though it did set up my interest in rationality in the first place, so it can't be totally separated or discounted.

But I digress. If you have even the slightest interest in cognitive bias, science, reasoning, and other related topics, I strongly recommend reading MoR. Odds are, you'll learn something new. Or several somethings.

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