Blind Empiricism

Follow-up to: Living in an Inadequate World


 

The thesis that needs to be contrasted with modesty is not the assertion that everyone can beat their civilization all the time. It’s not that we should be the sort of person who sees the world as mad and pursues the strategy of believing a hot stock tip and investing everything.

It’s just that it’s okay to reason about the particulars of where civilization might be inadequate, okay to end up believing that you can state a better monetary policy than the Bank of Japan is implementing, okay to check that against observation whenever you get the chance, and okay to update on the results in either direction. It’s okay to act on a model of what you think the rest of the world is good at, and for this model to be sensitive to the specifics of different cases.

Why might this not be okay?

It could be that “acting on a model” is suspect, at least when it comes to complicated macrophenomena. Consider Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between “hedgehogs” (who rely more on theories, models, global beliefs) and “foxes” (who rely more on data, observations, local beliefs). Many people I know see the fox’s mindset as more admirable than the hedgehog’s, on the basis that it has greater immunity to fantasy and dogmatism. And Philip Tetlock’s research has shown that political experts who rely heavily on simple overarching theories—the kind of people who use the word “moreover” more often than “however”—perform substantially worse on average in forecasting tasks.1

Or perhaps the suspect part is when models are “sensitive to the specifics of different cases.” In a 2002 study, Buehler, Griffin, and Ross asked a group of experimental subjects to provide lots of details about their Christmas shopping plans: where, when, and how. On average, this experimental group expected to finish shopping more than a week before Christmas. Another group was simply asked when they expected to finish their Christmas shopping, with an average response of 4 days. Both groups finished an average of 3 days before Christmas. Similarly, students who expected to finish their assignments 10 days before deadline actually finished one day before deadline; and when asked when they had previously completed similar tasks, replied, “one day before deadline.” This suggests that taking the outside view is an effective response to the planning fallacy: rather than trying to predict how many hiccups and delays your plans will run into by reflecting in detail on each plan’s particulars (the “inside view”), you can do better by just guessing that your future plans will work out roughly as well as your past plans.

As stated, these can be perfectly good debiasing measures. I worry, however, that many people end up misusing and overapplying the “outside view” concept very soon after they learn about it, and that a lot of people tie too much of their mental conception of what good reasoning looks like to the stereotype of the humble empiricist fox. I recently noticed this as a common thread running through three conversations I had.

I am not able to recount these conversations in a way that does justice to the people I spoke to, so please treat my recounting as an unfair and biased illustration of relevant ideas, rather than as a neutral recitation of the facts. My goal is to illustrate the kinds of reasoning patterns I think are causing epistemic harm: to point to some canaries in the coal mine, and to be clear that when I talk about modesty I'm not just talking about Hal Finney's majoritarianism or the explicit belief in civilizational adequacy.

i.

Conversation 1 was about the importance of writing code to test AI ideas. I suggested that when people tried writing code to test an idea I considered important, I wanted to see the code in advance of the experiment, or without being told the result, to see if I could predict the outcome correctly.

I got pushback against this, which surprised me; so I replied that my having a chance to make advance experimental predictions was important, for two reasons.

First, I thought it was important to develop a skill and methodology of predicting “these sorts of things” in advance, because past a certain level of development when working with smarter-than-human AI, if you can’t see the bullets coming in advance of the experiment, the experiment kills you. This being the case, I needed to test this skill as much as possible, which meant trying to make experimental predictions in advance so I could put myself on trial.

Second, if I could predict the results correctly, it meant that the experiments weren’t saying anything I hadn’t figured out through past experience and theorizing. I was worried that somebody might take a result I considered an obvious prediction under my current views and say that it was evidence against my theory or methodology, since both often get misunderstood.2 If you want to use experiment to show that a certain theory or methodology fails, you need to give advocates of the theory/methodology a chance to say beforehand what they think they predict, so the prediction is on the record and neither side can move the goalposts.

And I still got pushback, from a MIRI supporter with a strong technical background; so I conversed further.

I now suspect that—at least this is what I think was going on—their mental contrast between empiricism and theoreticism was so strong that they thought it was unsafe to have a theory at all. That having a theory made you a bad hedgehog with one big idea instead of a good fox who has lots of little observations. That the dichotomy was between making an advance prediction instead of doing the experiment, versus doing the experiment without any advance prediction. Like, I suspect that every time I talked about “making a prediction” they heard “making a prediction instead of doing an experiment” or “clinging to what you predict will happen and ignoring the experiment.”

I can see how this kind of outlook would develop. The policy of making predictions to test your understanding, to put it on trial, presupposes that you can execute the “quickly say oops and abandon your old belief” technique, so that you can employ it if the prediction turns out to be wrong. To the extent that “quickly say oops and abandon your old belief” is something the vast majority of people fail at, maybe on an individual level it’s better for people to try to be pure foxes and only collect observations and try not to have any big theories. Maybe the average cognitive use case is that if you have a big theory and observation contradicts it, you will find some way to keep the big theory and thereby doom yourself. (The “Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me” effect.)

But from my perspective, there’s no choice. You just have to master “say oops” so that you can have theories and make experimental predictions. Even on a strictly empiricist level, if you aren’t allowed to have models and you don’t make your predictions in advance, you learn less. An empiricist of that sort can only learn surface generalizations about whether this phenomenon superficially “looks like” that phenomenon, rather than building causal models and putting them on trial.

ii.

Conversation 2 was about a web application under development, and it went something like this.


startup founder 1:  I want to get (primitive version of product) in front of users as fast as possible, to see whether they want to use it or not.

eliezer:  I predict users will not want to use this version.

founder 1:  Well, from the things I’ve read about startups, it’s important to test as early as possible whether users like your product, and not to overengineer things.

eliezer:  The concept of a “minimum viable product” isn’t the minimum product that compiles. It’s the least product that is the best tool in the world for some particular task or workflow. If you don’t have an MVP in that sense, of course the users won’t switch. So you don’t have a testable hypothesis. So you’re not really learning anything when the users don’t want to use your product.3

founder 1:  No battle plan survives contact with reality. The important thing is just to get the product in front of users as quickly as possible, so you can see what they think. That’s why I’m disheartened that (group of users) did not want to use (early version of product).

eliezer:  This reminds me of a conversation I had about AI twice in the last month. Two separate people were claiming that we would only learn things empirically by experimenting, and I said that in cases like that, I wanted to see the experiment description in advance so I could make advance predictions and put on trial my ability to foresee things without being hit over the head by them.

In both of those conversations I had a very hard time conveying the idea, “Just because I have a theory does not mean I have to be insensitive to evidence; the evidence tests the theory, potentially falsifies the theory, but for that to work you need to make experimental predictions in advance.” I think I could have told you in advance that (group of users) would not want to use (early version of product), because (group of users) is trying to accomplish (task 1) and this version of the product is not the best available tool they’ll have seen for doing (task 1).


I can’t convey it very well with all the details redacted, but the impression I got was that the message of “distrust theorizing” had become so strong that Founder 1 had stopped trying to model users in detail and thought it was futile to make an advance prediction. But if you can’t model users in detail, you can’t think in terms of workflows and tasks that users are trying to accomplish, or at what point you become visibly the best tool the user has ever encountered to accomplish some particular workflow (the minimum viable product). The alternative, from what I could see, was to think in terms of “features” and that as soon as possible you would show the product to the user and see if they wanted that subset of features.

There’s a version of this hypothesis which does make sense, which is that when you have the minimum compilable product that it is physically possible for a user to interact with, you can ask one of your friends to sit down in front of it, you can make a prediction about what parts they will dislike or find difficult, and then you can see if your prediction is correct. Maybe your product actually fails much earlier than you expect.

But this is not like getting early users to voluntarily adopt your product. This is about observing, as early as possible, how volunteers react to unviable versions of your product, so you know what needs fixing earliest or whether the exposed parts of your theory are holding up so far.

It really looks to me like the modest reactions to certain types of overconfidence or error are taken by many believers in modesty to mean, in practice, that theories just get you into trouble; that you can either make predictions or look at reality, but not both.

iii.

Conversation 3 was with Startup Founder 2, a member of the effective altruism community who was making Material Objects—I’ll call them “Snowshoes”—who had remarked that modern venture capital was only interested in 1000x returns and not 20x returns.

I asked why he wasn’t trying for 1000x returns with his current company selling Snowshoes—was that more annoyance/work than he wanted to undertake?

He replied that most companies in a related industry, Flippers, weren’t that large, and it seemed to him that based on the outside view, he shouldn’t expect his company to become larger than the average company in the Flippers industry. He asked if I was telling him to try being more confident.

I responded that, no, the thing I wanted him to think was orthogonal to modesty versus confidence. I observed that the customer use case for Flippers was actually quite different from Snowshoes, and asked him if he’d considered how many uses of Previous Snowshoes in the world would, in fact, benefit from being replaced by the more developed version of Snowshoes he was making.

He said that this seemed to him too much like optimism or fantasy, compared to asking what his company had to do next.

I had asked about how customers would benefit from new and improved Snowshoes because my background model says that startups are more likely to succeed if they provide real economic value—value of the kind that Danslist would provide over Craigslist if Danslist succeeded, and of the kind that Craigslist provides over newspaper classifieds. Getting people to actually buy your product, of course, is a separate question from whether it would provide real value of that kind. And there’s an obvious failure mode where you’re in love with your product and you overestimate the product’s value or underestimate the costs to the user. There’s an obvious failure mode where you just look at the real economic value and get all cheerful about that, without asking the further necessary question of how many decisionmakers will choose to use your product; or whether your marketing message is either opaque or easily faked; or whether any competitors will get there first if they see you being successful early on; or whether you could defend a price premium in the face of competition. But the question of real economic value seems to me to be one of the factors going into a startup’s odds of succeeding—Craigslist’s success is in part explained by the actual benefit buyers and sellers derive from the existence of Craigslist—and worth factoring out before discussing purchaser decisionmaking and value-capturing questions.4

It wasn’t that I was trying to get Founder 2 to be more optimistic (though I did think, given his Snowshoes product, that he ought to at least try to be more ambitious). It was that it looked to me like the outside view was shutting down his causal model of how and why people might use his product, and substituting, “Just try to build your Snowshoes and see what happens, and at best don’t expect to succeed more than the average company in a related industry.” But I don’t think you can get so far as even the average surviving company, unless you have a causal model (the dreaded inside view) of where your company is supposed to go and what resources are required to get there.

I was asking, “What level do you want to grow to? What needs to be done for your company to grow that much? What’s the obstacle to taking the next step?” And… I think it felt immodest to him to claim that his company could grow to a given level; so he thought only in terms of things he knew he could try, forward-chaining from where he was rather than backward-chaining from where he wanted to go, because that way he didn’t need to immodestly think about succeeding at a particular level, or endorse an inside view of a particular pathway.

I think the details of his business plan had the same outside-view problem. In the Flippers industry, two common versions of Flippers that were sold were Deluxe Flippers and Basic Flippers. Deluxe Flippers were basically preassembled Basic Flippers, and Deluxe Flippers sold for a much higher premium than Basic Flippers even though it was easy to assemble them.

We were talking about a potential variation of his Snowshoes, and he said that it would be too expensive to ship a Deluxe version, but not worth it to ship a Basic version, given the average premiums the outside view said these products could command.

I asked him why, in the Flippers industry, Deluxe sold for such a premium over Basic when it was so easy to assemble Basic into Deluxe. Why was this price premium being maintained?

He suggested that maybe people really valued the last little bit of convenience from buying Deluxe instead of Basic.

I suggested that in this large industry of slightly differentiated Flippers, maybe a lot of price-sensitive consumers bought only Basic versions, meaning that the few Deluxe buyers were price-insensitive. I then observed again that the best use case for his product was quite different from the standard use case in the Flipper industry, and that he didn’t have much direct competition. I suggested that, for his customers that weren’t otherwise customers in the Flippers industry, it wouldn’t make much of a difference to his pricing power whether he sold Deluxe or the much easier to ship Basic version.

And I remarked that it seemed to me unwise in general to look at a mysterious pricing premium, and assume that you could get that premium. You couldn’t just look at average Deluxe prices and assume you could get them. Generally speaking, this indicates some sort of rent or market barrier; and where there is a stream of rent, there will be walls built to exclude other people from drinking from the stream. Maybe the high Deluxe prices meant that Deluxe consumers were hard to market to, or very unlikely to switch providers. You couldn’t just take the outside view of what Deluxe products tended to sell like.

He replied that he didn’t think it was wise to say that you had to fully understand every part of the market before you could do anything; especially because, if you had to understand why Deluxe products sold at a premium, it would be so easy to just make up an explanation.

Again I understand where he was coming from, in terms of the average cognitive use case. When I try to explain a phenomenon, I’m also implicitly relying on my ability to use a technique like “don’t even start to rationalize,” which is a skill that I started practicing at age 15 and that took me a decade to hone to a reliable and productive form. I also used the “notice when you’re confused about something” technique to ask the question, and a number of other mental habits and techniques for explaining mysterious phenomena—for starters, “detecting goodness of fit” (see whether the explanation feels “forced”) and “try further critiquing the answer.” Maybe there’s no point in trying to explain why Deluxe products sell at a premium to Basic products, if you don’t already have a lot of cognitive technique for not coming up with terrible explanations for mysteries, along with enough economics background to know which things are important mysteries in the first place, which explanations are plausible, and so on.

But at the same time, it seems to me that there is a learnable skill here, one that entrepreneurs and venture capitalists at least have to learn if they want to succeed on purpose instead of by luck.

One needs to be able to identify mysterious pricing and sales phenomena, read enough economics to speak the right simplicity language for one’s hypotheses, and then not come up with terrible rationalizations. One needs to learn the key answers for how the challenged industry works, which means that one needs to have explicit hypotheses that one can test as early as possible.

Otherwise you’re… not quite doomed per se, but from the perspective of somebody like me, there will be ten of you with bad ideas for every one of you that happens to have a good idea. And the people that do have good ideas will not really understand what human problems they are addressing, what their potential users’ relevant motivations are, or what are their critical obstacles to success.

Given that analysis of ideas takes place on the level it does, I can understand why people would say that it’s futile to try to analyze ideas, or that teams rather than ideas are important. I’m not saying that either entrepreneurs or venture capitalists could, by an effort of will, suddenly become great at analyzing ideas. But it seems to me that the outside view concept, along with the Fox=Good/Hedgehog=Bad, Observation=Good/Theory=Bad messages—including the related misunderstanding of MVP as “just build something and show it to users”—are preventing people from even starting to develop those skills. At least, my observation is that some people go too far in their skepticism of model-building.5

Maybe there’s a valley of bad rationality here and the injunction to not try to have theories or causal models or preconceived predictions is protective against entering it. But first, if it came down to only those alternatives, I’d frankly rather see twenty aspiring rationalists fail painfully until one of them develops the required skills, rather than have nobody with those skills. And second, god damn it, there has to be a better way.

iv.

In situations that are drawn from a barrel of causally similar situations, where human optimism runs rampant and unforeseen troubles are common, the outside view beats the inside view. But in novel situations where causal mechanisms differ, the outside view fails—there may not be relevantly similar cases, or it may be ambiguous which similar-looking cases are the right ones to look at.

Where two sides disagree, this can lead to reference class tennis—both parties get stuck insisting that their own “outside view” is the correct one, based on diverging intuitions about what similarities are relevant. If it isn’t clear what the set of “similar historical cases” is, or what conclusions we should draw from those cases, then we’re forced to use an inside view—thinking about the causal process to distinguish relevant similarities from irrelevant ones.

You shouldn’t avoid outside-view-style reasoning in cases where it looks likely to work, like when planning your Christmas shopping. But in many contexts, the outside view simply can’t compete with a good theory.

Intellectual progress on the whole has usually been the process of moving from surface-level resemblances to more technical understandings of particulars. Extreme examples of this are common in science and engineering: the deep causal models of the world that allowed humans to plot the trajectory of the first moon rocket before launch, for example, or that allow us to verify that a computer chip will work before it’s ever manufactured.

Where items in a reference class differ causally in more ways than two Christmas shopping trips you’ve planned or two university essays you’ve written, or where there’s temptation to cherry-pick the reference class of things you consider “similar” to the phenomenon in question, or where the particular biases underlying the planning fallacy just aren’t a factor, you’re often better off doing the hard cognitive labor of building, testing, and acting on models of how phenomena actually work, even if those models are very rough and very uncertain, or admit of many exceptions and nuances. And, of course, during and after the construction of the model, you have to look at the data. You still need fox-style attention to detail—and you certainly need empiricism.

The idea isn’t, “Be a hedgehog, not a fox.” The idea is rather: developing accurate beliefs requires both observation of the data and the development of models and theories that can be tested by the data. In most cases, there’s no real alternative to sticking your neck out, even knowing that reality might surprise you and chop off your head.

 


 

Next: Against Modest Epistemology.

The full book will be available November 16th. You can go to equilibriabook.com to pre-order the book, or sign up for notifications about new chapters and other developments.

 


 

  1. See Philip Tetlock, “Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs.” 

  2. As an example, my conception of the reward hacking problem for reinforcement learning systems is that below certain capability thresholds, making the system smarter will often produce increasingly helpful behavior, assuming the rewards are a moderately good proxy for the actual objectives we want the system to achieve. The problem of the system exploiting loopholes and finding ways to maximize rewards in undesirable ways is mainly introduced when the system’s resourcefulness is great enough, and its policy search space large enough, that operators can’t foresee even in broad strokes what the reward-maximizing strategies are likely to look like. If this idea gets rounded off to just “making an RL system smarter will always reduce its alignment with the operator’s goal,” however, then a researcher will misconstrue what counts as evidence for or against prioritizing reward hacking research.

    And there are many other cases where ideas in AI alignment tend to be misunderstood, largely because “AI” calls to mind present-day applications. It’s certainly possible to run useful experiments with present-day software to learn things about future AGI systems, but “see, this hill-climbing algorithm doesn’t exhibit the behavior you predicted for highly capable Bayesian reasoners” will usually reflect a misconception about what the concept of Bayesian reasoning is doing in AGI alignment theory. 

  3. I did not say this then, but I should have: Overengineering is when you try to make everything look pretty, or add additional cool features that you think the users will like… not when you try to put in the key core features that are necessary for your product to be the best tool the user has ever seen for at least one workflow. 

  4. And a startup founder definitely needs to ask that question and answer it before they go out and try to raise venture capital from investors who are looking for 1000x returns. Don’t discount your company’s case before it starts. They’ll do that for you. 

  5. As Tetlock puts it in a discussion of the limitations of the fox/hedgehog model in the book Superforecasting: “Models are supposed to simplify things, which is why even the best are flawed. But they’re necessary. Our minds are full of models. We couldn’t function without them. And we often function pretty well because some of our models are decent approximations of reality.” 

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I feel a frustration with the section that begins "this is not fair treatment of things people actually said, but an unfair treatment that illustrates a point." On one hand, it's not unreasonable to do that.

But, those three cases seem like areas where it sounds like it would have been totally practical to spend an hour touching base with each person in question, clarifying what they meant and getting their permission to give an account that could be straightforwardly described as a "fair."

This seems like a) reasonable effort to invest in a fairly Big Written Work, and b) I have this impression that a nontrivial amount of high level discussion between Eliezer and others has some talking-past-each-other going on (sometimes primarily in one direction, sometimes in others).

So getting the nuances right (and putting in some extra effort to more obviously be getting the nuances right) seems important, for a book that Eliezer is writing targeting people in his filter bubble, arguing that they are commonly making some particularly important mistakes.

And maybe this means the anecdotes don't end up clearly illustrating the point as well... and maybe the point is still a good point, but if it turned out that the people that seemed to be Eliezer to be missing the point, were either not missing it, or missing some different point, that'd be important.

And, meanwhile, if the original point being made turned out to be exactly right, you wouldn't need to disclaim it with a "this may not be a fair account", which would have been more compelling to me.

I wonder if it would have been as frustrating if he had instead opened with "The following are very loosely based on real conversations I've had, with many of the details changed or omitted." That's something many writers do and get away with, for the very reason that sometimes you want to show that someone actually thinks what you're claiming people think, but you don't actually want to be adversarial to the people involved. Maybe it's not the fairest to the specific arguments, but the alternative could quite possibly turn out worse, or cause a fairly large derail from the main point of the essay, when you start focusing on the individual details of each argument instead of whatever primary pattern you're trying to tie them together with.

I think Eliezer may have been too modest(!) in describing the treatment as unfair. I think I recognize Startup Founder 1, and that looks very much like a conversation I'd expect the two of them to have.

I expect that Eliezer had more evidence than he conveys for the hypothesis that Startup Founder 1 was engaging in blind empiricism. But I have doubts about whether Eliezer was wise to reject hypotheses about why Startup Founder 1's advice might be right. Here are some mistakes that can be avoided by the "release early, release often" attitude:

  • creating overly elaborate hypotheses, rather than looking for hypotheses that can be tested cheaply.
  • being overconfident in one's ability to model users.
  • identifying with one's announced plans in a way that leads to them becoming a substitute for implementing the plans; I suspect this sometimes creates an aversion to exposing the plans to possible falsification.

I imagine that Startup Founder 1 suspected that Eliezer was making at least one of these mistakes, but couldn't articulate strong evidence for those suspicions.

So, "agile" or "lean" development, done in practice at all, is not totally theory-free -- you have to select features that you think are worth testing to see if a change would be helpful, and you can't brute-force your way through A/B testing everything, you have to use hypotheses and models of the world. It's not actually possible to do totally model-free empiricism with limited resources.

(The same is true for science. On some level, you're doing an experiment to test a particular hypothesis. Vast "hypothesis-free" experiments like phenotypic screens aren't really completely hypothesis-free, and they may provide less information per time and money than testing specific well-informed hypotheses that come from the minds of experienced scientists.)

"I don't want to have a model" sometimes means "I don't want to tell you my model", or "I want to keep my model tacit, because formalizing it will make it oversimplified and worse." Sometimes people think they're being hypothesis-free, because the act of selecting hypotheses is done by their "common sense", which is invisible to them.

I sympathize a lot with the founders in your post who don't want to think theoretically about the details of how the market for their product works. You were telling Snowshoes Guy "it seems like you ought to be able to charge much more for your product than you do," and Snowshoes Guy was saying "wait wait wait, you're basing all this speculation on a chain of reasoning that I don't trust (or maybe understand), I don't want to bet my company on some Thinky Stuff that Eliezer told me once and which sounded semi-plausible to my easily-impressed mind. The last time I listened to a person ramble enthusiastically about how things are gonna be great, they totally weren't." If you're paying close attention, and if you have reason to believe that your thoughts about markets at a certain level of precision are better than totally random asspulls, then maybe it makes sense to try to "set prices by thinking", the way Feynman "fixed radios by thinking" as a kid. I sure wouldn't. When I freelance, I set prices by guessing, and then finding out empirically what people will pay.
There are people I'd trust to reason about markets (my husband is one), but I'm usually safer thinking of markets as big blobs of mysterious nothing. (Do I trust myself to fix computer programs by thinking? Of course, and I'd never get anywhere if I didn't. But then I'm a decent data scientist, and no kind of businessman at all.)

My understanding of A/B testing is that you don't need an explicit causal model , or a "big theory" in order to successfully use it, you mostly would be using intuitions gained from experience in order to test hypotheses like "users like the red page better than the blue page", which has no explicit causal information.

Here you argue that intuitions gained from experience count as hypotheses just as much as causal theories do, and not only that, but that they tend to succeed more often than the big theories do. That depends on what you consider to be "success" I think. I agree that empirically gained intuitions probably have a lower failure rate than causal theories (you won't do much worse than average) but what Eliezer is mainly arguing is that you won't do much better than average, either.

And as far as you don't mind just doing ok on average, that might be fine, then. But the main thing this book is grappling with is "how do I know when I can do a lot better than average?" And that seems to be dependent on whether or not you have a good "big theory" available.

"I wanted to see the experiment description in advance so I could make advance predictions "

This is incredibly useful as a source of calibration and incredibly underused. You have the opportunity to do this every time you are about to look up information .

On the margin I think pretty much everyone on LW is theorizing too much and not experimenting enough. But I agree that stopping yourself from theorizing while experimenting is dumb. Does that sound like a fair summary?

It's quite possible for a person do to a lot of theorizing in certain domains and no theorizing in others. The key is to theorize in a way that allows you to learn that your theories are wrong by exposing them to real experiments.

It's worth noting that the minimal viable startup as Eric Ries explains it in his "The Lean Startup" book is actually in line with what EY is saying. According to the book a startup founder is supposed to start by listing the assumption he makes that are required to succeed and afterwards build MVP's to test those assumptions.

I’ve also read the book and agree that it is totally compatible with what EY is saying. I’ve also met many people who sound like founder 1.

My theory is that founder 1s don’t exist in the wild because of confusion about epistemology. Rather, I think most people don’t like and / or are bad at top-down reasoning from first principles. I think that if you are good at it, and try to do things in the real world, your epistemology will automatically gravitate towards being reasonable. And if you are bad at it / don’t do it, it doesn’t matter how many articles you read about how to theorize or experiment... they’ll all get compressed into various heuristics that will sometimes work and sometimes fail, and you won’t know when to use which.

So, I am skeptical about the existence of readers of this essay who don’t intuitively grasp the point already, but who can be pursuaded by rational argument to adopt it.

I think the challenge of teaching the skill of top down reasoning from first principles is an interesting one. I am not sure I have seen evidence that it is a teachable skill, to be honest, but would be interested in finding some.

I've been the guy religiously arguing for pushing an early version of the product in front of users as soon as possible (as the saying goes, "if you're not ashamed of your first version then you've released too late"), not in order to learn whether it's a good product or not, but to learn details of what needs to be improved but also what doesn't need to be improved (because nobody cares about / notices the "problem").

A related debate has been about how much you should spec out your product before putting it before customers - Big Design Up Front vs. figure stuff out as we go along based on user feedback. I usually prefer the second, but have to admit that Big Design Up Front is probably the best (albeit less fun) approach. Part of that preference for improvisation is probably because of some halo effect around the fox approach or agile or XP or empiricism or something.

(probably paraphrasing this post a bit) So we probably have an issue where "we" (nerds) have plenty of warnings about trusting theory too much, but few warnings about trusting empiricism too much, so we're bound to end up under-valuing theory. Especially once we start attaching identity labels (hedges vs foxes, scruffies vs. neats, hackers vs. architecture astronauts...).

It is worth considering that in other environments than this one, speaking directly to the point with calibrated confidence is not the persuasive tactic. Just get something in front of users is a not a complete statement of the optimal strategy, it is a rhetorical overreaction to insisting on millions of dollars and years worth of waterfall-model development before actually checking to see if anyone cares. When these ideas were first proposed, IBM had overwhelming market share in computing.

The big corporate model of product development was and is very good at producing a finished product, the problem is it doesn't address whether anyone will buy it. This is solving the wrong problem - Big Design Up Front was mostly about how to use the corporation's technical resources efficiently. Further, it is all-or-nothing; people either buy the finished product or they do not. This still looks like the basic case of good model or bad model, not one of no model at all.

There are two further things to consider: one, that IBM is generations of dominance ago clearly indicates the norm has moved a great deal from that time; two, IBM is still alive and still routinely criticized for the heavy, bureaucratic way it goes about business.

From a software engineering perspective, your first founder is completely correct. The second you have something that runs you want to show it to users, because they're part of your feedback loop. You want to see how someone who knows nothing about your system will interact with it, whether they'll be able to use the interface, what new bugs they'll turn up with their fiddling, etc.

I wonder if perhaps the market research use of an MVP and the software engineering use have been confused, because they're both "the first time you show the product to users".

How is what Startup Founder 1 wanted to do different than the advice Anna Salamon gave you about CFAR lessons?

I may be late in the game here, but I found this chapter much less effective than the previous four, and I updated hard from "This book might resonate outside the LW community" towards "This will definitely not resonate outside the LW community." Maybe the community is the target, full stop, but that seems unnecessarily modest. The thing that most bothered me was that the conversations are full of bits that feel like Eliezer unnecessarily personalizing, which reads like bragging, e.g.:

When I try to explain a phenomenon, I’m also implicitly relying on my ability to use a technique like “don’t even start to rationalize,” which is a skill that I started practicing at age 15 and that took me a decade to hone to a reliable and productive form.
But from my perspective, there’s no choice.
From the perspective of somebody like me,

I'm having a hard time describing exactly why I found these so off-putting, but I think it has to do with the ways LW gets described as a cult. The more I think about it, the more I think that this is a problem with the framing of conversations in the first place: it's hard to avoid looking like a git when you pick three examples of being smarter than other people, even with the caveat up front that you know you're being unfair about it.

This chapter also felt much more densely packed with Rationalist vernacular, e.g. "epistemic harm", "execute the '[...]' technique", "obvious failure mode", "doing the hard cognitive labor", and to a lesser extent, Silicon Valley vernacular (most of part iii). Sometimes you have to introduce new terms, but each time burns inferential distance points, and sometimes even weirdness points.

I'm inclined to agree with the conclusions in general but had a strong feeling that some part of the argument was missing.