THUNK – 136. Engineering Wisdom: Tolerance & Failing Gracefully

Engineering is a highly technical field, but it makes use of exceedingly useful & straightforward ideas.

-Links for the Curious-

“How To Accept Over-Engineering For What It Really Is” (Fagner Brack, 2016) –

Summary of the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) philosophy on engineering tolerances –

A good explanation of Graceful Degradation (aka failing gracefully) vs. Fault Tolerence (aka robustness) –

Boeing 777 Wing Flex Test –

A bigger tank (the Landkreuzer P.1000 Ratte) –

THUNK – 135. Aumann’s Agreement Theorem & Arguing to Learn

Aumann’s Agreement Theorem suggests that rational folk shouldn’t be able to continuously disagree…so why do we?

-Links for the Curious-

Agreeing to Disagree (Aumann, 1976) –
(You might be intimidated to read the original paper, but it’s only 5 pages long!)

Are Disagreements Honest? (Cowen & Hanson, 2004) –

The Influence of Social Interaction on Intuitions of Objectivity and Subjectivity (Fisher et al, 2016) –

Rationally Speaking, Episode 143 – Scott Aaronson on Aumann’s Agreement Theorem (AAT) & its Implications –  

“Political Polarization in the American Public,” by the Pew Research Center –

“Are Toxic Political Conversations Changing How We Feel about Objective Truth?” (Fisher et al, 2018) –

Lesswrong’s entry on the AAT –

THUNK – 134. The Problem of Universals

-Links for the Curious-


The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is invaluable for getting a broad understanding of this topic quickly. Some key pages I found helpful:

Metaphysics Overview –
Platonism in Metaphysics –

Abstract Objects –

Nominalism in Metaphysics –

Tropes –


The n-tuple representation of tropes was from “Tropes: Properties, Objects, & Mental Causation” by Douglas Ehring –


Is This a Sandwich? Teaching the Platonic Dialogues through sandwiches (M Ritchey, 2014) –

A Bro And A Philosopher Debate The True Meaning Of A Sandwich (Scherer, 2015) –


THUNK – 133. Game Theory & Power Structures

Power structures: Hobbes thought we’d murder each other w/o ’em, but there’s a great game-theoretic reason, too!

NOTE: Sorry this episode is so late – there have been electrical troubles at THUNK studios. 🙁

-Links for the Curious-

“Meditations on Moloch,” one of the primary inspirations for this whole episode –

I also borrowed heavily from Kenneth N. Waltz’s “Theory of International Politics.”

Beyond the Prisoners’ Dilemma: Coordination, Game Theory, and Law –

The 10 Catanmendments (NOTE: The first Catanmendment rightly assumes the eventual collapse of cooperative strategies, & illustrates the failure mode of specialized alliances –
when you see an “ally” building over to the resource you’re specializing in, they’re diversifying so they don’t need you quite so much, in preparation to dump you.) –

A fun sci-fi book about an intergalactic empire built specifically in this fashion –

A set of responses from anarcho-capitalist philosopher Roderick T. Long, including point 2, defending an-cap’s capability to achieve coordination without the state –

THUNK – 132. On Understanding Others

“I will *never* understand why people X.” Oh really? Let’s turn that dial up to 11 and see what happens.

-Links for the Curious-

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t include a reference to the Netflix show “Mindhunter” (a fictional drama based on the origins of FBI profiling & forensic psychology of serial killers), there’s a growing body of criticism regarding the methods & rigor of those techniques, & I didn’t want to get bogged down hashing out details. Pretty much all of the criminal psychology used in law enforcement today assumes the central premise of this video (that even horrifyingly divergent minds can be simulated & understood to some degree), but it’s possible that the FBI’s whole classification system is pseudoscience –

Psychopathology of terrorists (Piccinni et al, 2017) –

Patterns of Thinking in Militant Extremism (Saucier et al, 2009) –

Inside the Terrorist Mind (Schaefer, 2007) –

Psychology of Terrorism (Borum, 2004) –

Psychological Vulnerabilities and Propensities for Involvement in Violent Extremism (Borum, 2014) –

Genesis of Suicide Terrorism (Atran, 2003) –


THUNK – 131. Puzzles of Epistemology

Gettier problems, extreme skepticism, the closure principle – “knowledge” is one hell of a rabbit hole. Thus: epistemology!

-Links for the Curious-

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s (SEP) fantastic article on epistemology –

The SEP on epistemic closure (& academic skepticism) –

Philosophytube’s “Knowledge Explained” –

Crash Course’s “The Meaning of Knowledge” –

“On Certainty” (Wittgenstein, 1969) –

“Debating Scientific Epistemology” (Dougherty, 2016) –

The Epistemology of Democracy (Anderson, 2006) –


On Local Minima

I was thinking about doing this for THUNK, but I always try to keep THUNK upbeat, & I don’t know if I can do that here. So spoiler warning: serious downers.

One of the interesting concepts associated with evolution is the evolutionary local maximum. Imagine two hills right next to each other: a tall one & a shorter one. Imagine a torrential downpour begins to flood the area, & animals of various types are forced to flee to these hills to keep from drowning. Some are lucky enough to have started off next to the big hill, but some head for “high ground” on the short one.

Clever creatures might figure out that their chances are better on the other hill, & if the water hasn’t gotten too deep, can brave the rising waterline trying to swim over. But after a certain point, the water has become so deep (& the distance between the hills so great) that trying to switch hills is tantamount to suicide – they’d simply drown before they got there. So they climb as quickly as they can to the top of the short hill & hope that the rain stops soon.

This is why we often get suboptimal evolutionary “designs” – chlorophyll can’t capture energy from green light, DNA is prone to kinking up & causing cancer, that sort of stuff. There are obviously better solutions, but the rising tide of survival waits for no creature, & if you spend too much time tinkering to find the best hill to climb, you’ve already drowned.

Of course, you can also drown on the shorter hill; we call that “extinction.”

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to evolution; as game theorists know intimately, any scenario with some sort of pressure to find competitive advantage is subject to “terminal” local maxima. Businesses are an obvious example here, but so are cultures, ideas, nations, & politics. Occasionally, we can navigate from one hill to another, frequently at great cost (e.g. the American revolutionary war transitioning from a precarious colonialist monarchy to a more stable local democracy), but even with a known superior solution, transitioning can sometimes be logistically impossible.

Some examples:

1. The American medical education system is very clearly & unapologetically exploitative, requiring incredible sacrifices of time & quality of life from people who want to be doctors (so hospitals can bleed free labor from them). This causes a shortage of doctors, which forces hospitals to exploit med students to stay profitable & open.

2. The method we use for federal elections (a plurality vote) is demonstrably inferior to other methods (e.g. ranked choice voting). But everyone who is elected by that method has at least some incentive to preserve it, & advocating for something new is politically dangerous.

3. App developers largely succeed/fail based on how much attention they can demand from users. Ideally, they’d build apps to maximize user wellbeing (which would probably include shutting off our phones), & given a large enough user base, that strategy could be very successful, but any developer who “defects” to a less attention-grabbing app is at a disadvantage.

4. As businesses grow, the infrastructure laid in their startup days becomes embedded & calcified under necessity – software, processes, etc. become increasingly essential for daily operation as the company gets bigger, & replacing/updating them with something better gets more costly over time.

We can see the higher ground from here, but I don’t know if there’s actually any practical way to get there, &  I don’t know when or if the water will swallow us up here on our little hills. That scares the hell out of me.

THUNK – 129. Immortality

Coping with the knowledge of our own mortality is often tricky – what if we just tried a different angle? #YOLO

If you’re struggling with suicidal ideation or depression call the national suicide prevention hotline right now: 1-800-273-8255
Also see:

-Links for the Curious-

Terror Management Theory Overview (Wikipedia) –

Is Death Always a Misfortune? (SEP, 2014) –

Descartes projected that his newfound rationalist version of medicine would result in people living a thousand years. Let’s just say he was optimistic. (Shapin, 2000) –

Scientists up stakes in bet on whether humans will live to 150 (Fleming, 2016) –

Some history of hype regarding the human genome project and genomics (Eisen, 2014) –

Evidence for a limit to human lifespan (Dong et al, 2016) –

Human age limit claim sparks debate (Geddes, 2016) –

Many possible maximum lifespan trajectories (Hughes & Hekimi, 2017) –

Evolution of the human lifespan and diseases of aging: Roles of infection, inflammation, and nutrition (Finch, 2009) –

Lust for life: breaking the 120-year barrier in human ageing (Roy, 2013) –

THUNK – 128. Boredom


Boredom isn’t just murderously frustrating, it’s a psychological trait with surprisingly far-reaching effects.

-Links for the Curious-

Boredom Proneness Test, by Science of Us –

Boredom Proneness – The Development & Correlates of a New Scale (Farmer & Sundburg, 1986) –

Why boredom is anything but boring (Koerth-Baker, 2016) –

The History of Boredom (McRobbie, 2012) –

Relations between brain chemistry and problem-solving among rats raised in enriched and impoverished environments (Rosenzweig & Bennett, 1962) –

Relationships between boredom proneness, mindfulness, anxiety, depression, and substance use (LePera, 2011) –

The Relationships Between Need for Cognition, Boredom Proneness, Task Engagement, and Test Performance (Diehl & Wyrick, 2015) –

Cognitive Correlates of Boredom Proneness: The Role of Private Self-Consciousness and Absorption (Seib & Vodanovich, 2010) –

The Bright Side of Boredom (Elpidorou, 2014) –

THUNK – 127. Overfitting & Reference Class Forecasting

Predicting the future is hard. Weirdly enough, you can sometimes do better with *less* information!

-Links for the Curious-

Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979) –

“Curbing Optimism Bias and Strategic Misrepresentation in Planning: Reference Class Forecasting in Practice” (Flyvbjerg, 2008) –

“The accuracy of hybrid estimating approaches? Case study of an Australian state road & traffic authority” (Liu, Wehbe, & Sisovic, 2010) –

THUNK – 126. Debiasing: How to Change Your Mind

Critical thinking is well and good, but it only really helps if you’re willing & able to change your mind!

-Links for the Curious-

Giving Debiasing Away: Can Psychological Research on Correcting Cognitive Errors Promote Human Welfare? (Lilienfeld et al, 2009) –

Debiasing (Larrick, 2004) –

A User’s Guide to Debiasing (Soll et al, 2013) –

The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks (Braman et al, 2012) –

Considering the opposite: a corrective strategy for social judgment (Lord et al, 1984) –

Overcoming Intuition: Metacognitive Difficulty Activates Analytic Reasoning (Alter et al, 2007) –

The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases (Keysar et al, 2012) –

Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence (Kaplan et al, 2016) –

Evaluating the Effectiveness of the PreMortem Technique on Plan Confidence (Veinott et al, 2010) –

A Scientist-Practitioner Model of Psychological Assessment: Implications for Training, Practice and Research (Spengler et al, 1995) –

The effects of perspective-taking on prejudice: the moderating role of self-evaluation (Galinsky & Ku, 2004) –

Debiasing Decisions: Improved Decision Making With a Single Training Intervention (Morwedge et al, 2015) –

LessWrong, an online community & blog archive for fans of debiasing & rationality –

The Center for Applied Rationality –

THUNK – 125. What Is Consciousness?

There’s much ado about “consciousness,” but what even is it? What’s the big deal? How hard could it be? @_@

-Links for the Curious-

If you are *at all* interested in this topic, please please please read the SEP entry on consciousness, it’s just fantastic –

What It Is Like to Be a Bat (Nagel, 1974) –

Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness (Chalmers, 1995) –

A summary of Paul Churchland’s “Matter and Consciousness,” specifically oriented at summarizing common positions about the mind/body problem (Blackman) –

Continuity, Consciousness, and Identity in Hume’s Philosophy (Yandell) ––v18n2.pdf

Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977) –

Introspection and verbal reports on cognitive processes—Two approaches to the study of thinking: A response to Howe (Ericsson & Crutcher, 1991) –

For a contrasting opinion: “When Does Introspection Bear Fruit? Self-Reflection, Self-Insight, and Interpersonal Choices” (Hixon & Swann, 1993) –

What is Consciousness? (Vsauce, 2012) –


THUNK – 124. Play Theory

All work & no play make Jack not only dull, but also less productive, healthy, neurologically developed…

QUICK NOTE: The most commonly-cited explanation for animal play (practicing direct analogs of survival behavior) doesn’t square with all the evidence. Check out this paper:

-Links for the Curious-

“Taking Play Seriously,” by Robin Marantz Henig –

Juvenile peer play experience and the development of the orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortices (Bell, Pellis, & Kolb 2009) –

“More Play, Please – The Perspective of Kindergarten Teachers on Play in the Classroom” (Lynch 2015) –

“Vygotsky Meets Neuroscience – The Cerebellum and the Rise of Culture through Play” (Vandervert 2015)

“Plans Unveiled for Star Wars-Inspired Themed Resort at Walt Disney World,” by Jennifer Fickley-Baker –

The National Institute for Play, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating play for adults & children –

“Symbolic Play: The Development of Social Understanding” (Bretherton 1984) –

“The Ambiguity of Play” (Sutton-Smith, 1987) –

“How Play Makes for a More Adaptable Brain, a Comparative & Neural Perspective” (Pellis, Pellis, & Himmler 2015) –

“The Nature of Play – An Overview” (Henricks 2008) –

“Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative, and Ecological Perspectives” (Summary by Bekoff & Beyers, 1998) –

“Examining playfulness in adults: Testing its correlates with personality, positive psychological functioning, goal aspirations, and multi-methodically assessed ingenuity” (Proyer 2012) –


THUNK – 123. Personal Identity & the Transporter Paradox

What makes me “me?” How can I still be me, even though I change over time? Is Starfleet taking applications yet?

-Links for the Curious-

CGP Grey’s amazing “The Trouble with Transporters” –

PhilosophyTube’s very thorough (& speedy!) coverage of personal identity –

The SEP’s brilliant article on personal identity (including major problems & possible solutions) –

“Teletransportation Paradox,” via Wikipedia –

Thomas Reid’s scathing letter to Lord Kames regarding the Resurrection (the OG transporter paradox) –

A brief summary of Hume’s work on personal identity (aka bundle theory) –

THUNK – 121. Teleological Bias

Teleology: explaining things via their intended purpose. Turns out we’ve a tendency to use it *everywhere.*

-Links for the Curious-

“Why Are Rocks Pointy? Children’s Preference for Teleological
Explanations of the Natural World” (Kelemen, 1999) –

“Intuitions About Origins: Purpose and Intelligent Design in Children’s Reasoning About Nature” (Kelemen & DiYanni, 2005) –

“The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults” (Kelemen 2009)

Students’ preconceptions in introductory mechanics (Clement, 1981) –

“Why we evolved the urge to explain,” via the Rationally Speaking Podcast –

“Explanada,” Tania Lombrozo’s Blog-

THUNK – 120. Business Networking

Networking is an essential part of career advancement in business today, but should it be?

-Links for the Curious-

Networking, Corruption, and Subversion (Ned Dobos, 2015) –

A general summary by Dobos on his paper –

Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians (Goldin & Rouse, 1997) –

Do informal contacts increase labor market inequality? Social ties, job access and wages for the unemployed (Oesch & von Ow, 2015) –

The Impact of Social Structure on Economic Outcomes (Granovetter, 2005) –

Sifting and Sorting: Personal Contacts and Hiring in a Retail Bank (Fernandez & Weinberg, 1997) –

Three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends (WSJ, Christopher Ingraham, 2014) –

Manager Race and the Race of New Hires (Giuliano, Levine, & Leonard, 2006) –

Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity (BLS Reports, 2012) –

41 CFR 60-300.5 – Equal opportunity clause (Via Cornell Law School) –

Structured Interviewing: Avoiding Selection Problems (Pursell, Camplon, & Gaylord, 1980) –

Summary of Research on the Selection Interview Since 1964 (Wright Jr., 1969) –

How AI Is Changing Your Job Hunt (Fortune, Alsever, 2017) –

THUNK – 119. The Limits of Order & Harmony

Un/satisfying gif albums are scratching a very human itch. Where does it come from, & does it mean anything?

-Links for the Curious-

Perception of Symmetry in Infancy, Bornstein et al –

Bilateral symmetry & sexual selection: a meta-analysis, Møller & Thornhill

Sorting preference in children with autism: the dominance of concrete features, Ropar & Peebles –

The Existential Satisfaction of Things Fitting Perfectly Into Other Things, Julie Beck –

The Dollar Auction Game: A Paradox in Noncooperative Behavior & Escalation, Martin Shubik –

What is Godel’s Theorem?, Melvin Henriksen –

Pythagorean Tuning –

The Square Root of Two, Numberphile –

Creepy Out of Tune Piano –

THUNK Episodes Now Available as MP3’s!

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while: if you’d like to listen to an episode of THUNK on the go, I’ve converted all the YouTube videos into MP3 format. I’ll try to keep it updated as I release more episodes, although I’ll reiterate: I’ve been meaning to do this for a while.