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Archive for April 18th, 2021

Interview: Julia Galef

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Noah Smith interviews Julia Galef:

If the Rationalist movement can be said to have a leader, I would argue that it is Julia Galef. She hosts the podcast Rationally Speaking, and is the founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, which tries to train people to eliminate cognitive bias. And now she has written a book! It’s called The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t, and you can buy it on Amazon here.

In the interview that follows, I talk to Julia about different concepts of rationality, about the purpose of the “scout mindset”, about whether rationality will win in the marketplace of ideas, and more!

N.S.: So I hear you have a new book! It’s called “The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t”. I’m going to read it, but why don’t you give me a preview of what it’s about!

J.G.: I do! It’s about, unsurprisingly, the scout mindset — which is my term for the motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were. In other words, trying to be intellectually honest, objective, and curious about what’s actually true.

The central metaphor in the book is that we are often in soldier mindset, my term for the motivation to defend your own beliefs against arguments and evidence that might threaten them. Scout mindset is an alternative way of thinking. A scout’s goal is not to attack or defend, but to go out and form an accurate map of what’s really there.

So in the book, I discuss why soldier mindset is so often our default and make the case for why we’d be better off shifting towards the scout instead. And I share some tips for how to do that, which I illustrate with lots of real examples of people demonstrating scout mindset, in science, politics, sports, entrepreneurship, activism, and lots of everyday contexts as well.

N.S.: So are we always better off being scouts instead of soldiers? Just to indulge in a bit of devil’s advocacy, don’t many entrepreneurs succeed by being overconfident about their idea’s chance of success? And doesn’t irrational optimism often sustain us through trying times? Isn’t excessive realism considered a hallmark of clinical depression?

I guess this is a specific way of asking about the more general question of analytic rationality versus instrumental rationality. Are there times when, if we were a planner trying to maximize our own utility, we would choose to endow ourselves with logical fallacies and incorrect beliefs? 

J.G.: Yeah, my claim isn’t that soldier mindset has no benefits. My claim is that:

1. We overestimate those benefits, and

2. There are usually ways to get those benefits without resorting to soldier mindset

I’ll briefly sum up my case for those claims. To the first point, one reason we overestimate soldier mindset’s benefits is that they’re so immediate. When you convince yourself “I didn’t screw up” or “My company is definitely going to succeed,” you feel good right away. The harms don’t come until later, in the form of making you less likely to notice yourself making a similar mistake in the future, or a flaw in your business plan. And just in general, humans tend to over-weight immediate consequences and under-weight delayed consequences.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that the research claiming things like “People who self-deceive are happier” is really not very good. I’m willing to believe that self-deception can make you happy, at least temporarily, but I wouldn’t believe it as a result of the academic research.

Then to the second point… even though people often claim that you “need” soldier mindset to be happy, or confident, or motivated, there are lots of counterexamples disproving that.

For example, you brought up the claim that entrepreneurs need to be overconfident in their odds of success, in order to motivate themselves. That is a common claim, but in fact, many successful entrepreneurs originally gave themselves rather low odds of success. Jeff Bezos figured he had a 30% shot at success with Amazon, and Elon Musk gave his companies (Tesla and SpaceX) each a 10% chance of success.

Yet obviously both Bezos and Musk are highly motivated despite recognizing the tough odds facing them. That’s because they were motivated not by the promise of a guaranteed win, but by the high expected value of the risk they were taking: The upside of success was huge, and the downside of failure was tolerable. (“If something is important enough, you should try,” Musk has said. “Even if the probable outcome is failure.”)

That kind of thinking about risk is a better source of motivation, I would argue — because it doesn’t require you to believe false things.

N.S.: Got it! The idea of scout mindset reminds me of my favorite Richard Feynman term: “a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance“. Was Feynman’s thinking influential to you at all?

Anyway, I have another question, about the relationship between the soldiers and the scouts. In real armies, scouts and soldiers are on the same side, doing different jobs but fighting a common enemy. What is the common enemy in the case of people who take the two mindsets? Or if not an enemy, what is the common purpose that unites them, or ought to unite them? 

J.G.: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2021 at 10:53 am

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