The Scout Mindset

Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't

[Amazon Link]

Another good book in the "How to Think" genre. I didn't like it quite as much as (guess what) How to Think by Alan Jacobs. But this is a noble effort.

When you are considering a contentious issue, Ms. Galef suggests you can approach it with either the "scout mindset" or the "soldier" mindset. The soldier approaches reasoning as defensive combat; evidence is accepted or discounted not on its inherent value, but whether or not it reinforces the belief one is defending; if you're wrong, you've been "defeated". Obviously, you're much more prone to the biases and fallacies of motivated reasoning.

The scout, on the other hand, is more of a "mapmaker". When scouts are wrong, they're not "defeated"; they just need to update their set of Bayesian probabilities. Usually incremental adjustments are fine. Scouts are also motivated reasoners, but their goal is achieving an accurate picture of reality, not defending their pre-existing beliefs.

This hit home for me. Back in my youth, I was a dedicated "soldier"; I wasn't that interested in finding "truth"; I was looking for rhetorical ammunition. If some dedicated sleuth digs out my contribution to BIX (BYTE Information Exchange) and Usenet groups, they'll see what I mean. I was pretty unpleasant. In my defense, everyone else was, too.

It's been a slow evolution, but I've been inspired by folks who are obviously of the scout mindset. And I've been turned of by people on "my side" who resort more to name-calling than coherent discussion; they're interested in the points the "other side" is making solely to disparage them.

Don't get me wrong, I still do a lot of that. But not as much, and I'm trying to improve. Ms. Galef's book provided me with a framework for (I hope) further incremental progress.

The book is a fun and easy read, full of anecdotes. It appears the author, Julia Galef, is kind of a Trekkie, so a lot of those anecdotes involve Mr. Spock. (Indeed, Appendix A is devoted to 23 predictions Spock made over the course of the series, and evaluates his accuracy. It's a mixed bag.)

Near the end of the book there's a handy set of "incremental steps" Ms. Galef suggests for moving yourself closer to the scout mindset. I've snipped them:

1. The next time you’re making a decision, ask yourself what kind of bias could be affecting your judgment in that situation, and then do the relevant thought experiment (e.g., outsider test, conformity test, status quo bias test).
2. When you notice yourself making a claim with certainty (“There’s no way . . .”), ask yourself how sure you really are.
3. The next time a worry pops into your head and you’re tempted to rationalize it away, instead make a concrete plan for how you would deal with it if it came true.
4. Find an author, media outlet, or other opinion source who holds different views from you, but who has a better-than-average shot at changing your mind—someone you find reasonable or with whom you share some common ground.
5. The next time you notice someone else being “irrational,” “crazy,” or “rude,” get curious about why their behavior might make sense to them.
6. Look for opportunities to update at least a little bit. Can you find a caveat or exception to one of your beliefs, or a bit of empirical evidence that should make you slightly less confident in your position?
7. Think back to a disagreement you had with someone in the past on which your perspective has since shifted and reach out to that person to let them know how you’ve updated.
8. Pick a belief you hold strongly and attempt an ideological Turing test of the other side. (Bonus points if you can actually find someone from the other side to judge your attempt.)

I hope everyone reads Ms. Galef's book, becomes more like a scout, and improves the quality of our public discourse by a couple orders of magnitude. ("Isn't it pretty to think so?")


Last Modified 2021-06-03 5:54 AM EST