I hope everyone is comfortably recovered from both Skepticon and any holiday shenanigans. I’m not entirely, but it’s time to follow up on the reactions to my “Why I Am Not a Rationalist” post last week. There’s been a fair amount of heat in response to the post, as well as a good bit of confusion. Let’s see whether I can clear some of that up.
Here are the most common questions and objections I’ve come across.
Q. Bro, do you even philosophy?
A. As is fair for a post that touches on expertise, people asked what qualifications I have for dealing with philosophical concepts. The answer is that most of my formal training in logic is mathematical, not philosophical, in nature. I do, however, have an interest in epistemology that I’ve pursued on my own. With a background in psychology, I’m particularly interested in the way people work with conflicting and incomplete information as a contrast to formal ideas of proof and justified (warranted) belief. I rarely mention the topic, however, as I’m very much a non-specialist.
However, there’s next to nothing in that post that requires any kind of philosophical specialization. The post is about self-identification with one means of understanding the world and its effects on behavior. That’s psychology. More on that later.
Q. What do you mean by “rationalism”?
A. By “rationalism”, I mean what anyone with a basic understanding of the concept means, that it is possible for people to derive or generate knowledge of reality internally rather than by reference to experience. Rationalism comes in many flavors, which differ mostly in how broadly or precisely they apply the idea. That’s why I say very little about it in my post except to note that it’s an individualistic approach. I talked about “rationalists”–those who identify with
rationalism the idea that promoting logic and critical thinking will lead to a more accurate view of the world–instead.
Q. What do you mean by “rationalist movement”?
A. The rationalist movement is, broadly, that group of people working to promote logic and critical thinking as the solution to the world’s problems. Critical thinking clubs, people who push to include more critical thinking and logic in schools, organizations that offer classes or other resources to improve thinking–all are part of the rationalist movement. They’re one of a number of overlapping movements that include self-improvement, atheism, skepticism, science communication, and futurism. However, they don’t include all of any of those groups.
Within each group, there are tensions between rationalist and non-rationalist approaches. For example, some atheists point to religion as a failure of critical thinking, while others note that many theologians have been quite sophisticated in their thinking. Some skeptics devote their resources to teaching about logical failures and fallacies, while others work to create repositories of expert opinions and analysis. The rationalist movement is diffuse and not always easy to identify because of these partial overlaps, but that’s true of skepticism too.
Q. This is an attack on Less Wrong, but you’re too cowardly/wishy-washy to say so.
A. That’s not a question. It is, however, a great example of coming to a conclusion with little reference to empirical evidence and treating that conclusion as reality.
If someone actually takes the time to review my blog, they’ll find that I’m hardly shy about naming names. When I have a problem with an individual or organization that is specific to that individual or organization, I say so. There are, in fact, many people who are upset at the degree to which I do this. If I’d meant to limit my critique to Less Wrong, I’d have named Less Wrong. I didn’t do that because I know that Less Wrong annoys a lot of people, and I didn’t want anyone fixating on them as the problem. I’ve found the behavior I talked about everywhere I’ve interacted with the rationalist movement. Given that I run in atheist, skeptic, and science communication circles, that’s a lot of exposure.
That doesn’t mean Less Wrong is exempt either, of course. Ironically, one of the easier places to find critiques of that community on this score is in the comments of Scott Alexander’s post defending Less Wrong from my “attack”. At least one of those critiques introducing the same general problem I’m talking about comes from within the Less Wrong community. Alexander’s post itself is also an example of “deducting” my motivation and meaning without asking me to clarify writing the author found confusing, then running with that interpretation.
Q. Is this about the Center for Applied Rationality?
A. Maybe. I can’t say for sure from where I sit. CFAR is on the self-help end of the rationalist movement, and I don’t have a lot of interaction with that group. I tend to like their advertising, which is goal-oriented and fairly limited in scope, but I can’t tell you how that plays out within the core group associated with the Center. I can’t tell you whether people who complete their workshops come away with a sense that they’ve learned some good brain hacks or that they’re better thinkers in general than they used to be. In short, I don’t have a lot of data. CFAR does research the results of their training, though, and I’d love to see them look at the question.
Q. I’m still confused. Who is this about?
A. Maybe it will help to take your focus off of “who” and think about “how”, because what I’m talking about is a form of cognitive bias. Specifically, it’s a form of the self-serving bias. This is a bias toward attributing our successes to internal factors and our failures to external factors. In other words, when we do well, we do well because of what or who we are. When we don’t, it’s because something else interfered.
Contrary to the name, one doesn’t have to be doesn’t have to be particularly selfish or self-centered to fall prey to this bias. There are a number of factors that make it more or less likely to apply. As this bias appears to function to protect self-esteem, we would expect to find it more often when we’re dealing with competencies that are important to our identities. We find it more in the young, in men, and in individualistic societies. All these things make it theoretically more likely that we’re likely to find a problem of rationalists overestimating the power of the reasoning skills with which they self-identify, which in turn, makes it more likely that they’ll overapply those skills in domains where they’re not warranted, producing the problems I mentioned in my first post.
The fact that we find evidence that this happens among rationalists isn’t definitive proof that this is a problem specific to people who identify as rationalists or critical thinkers. However, the combination of theoretical basis and a degree of empirical evidence suggests the problem deserves attention.
Q. You are aware that identifying as an empiricist comes with its own set of biases, right?
A. Yes. I intimated as much in my post. There’s a great example in the comments of a possible problem too.
While I’m functionally an empiricist, to the point that discussion of metaphysical questions makes my brain wander off and do something else because I have trouble convincing myself that it means something (it does, and I’m glad other people have the constitution for exploring those questions), I try mostly to recognize my own philosophical tendencies rather than identifying as an empiricist. Still, I find some degree of empiricist self-identification useful for maintaining my own epistemic humility, as it’s easy for me to visualize the amount that I don’t know about various topics.
Q. Can you point to specific examples of the behavior you’re talking about?
A. How about “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think”? Dawkins, who is commonly identified as a rationalist without complaint from him, reacted to people telling him that “ranking” rape is not only factually incorrect but serves–socially–to minimize the problem of acquaintance rape (well supported by literature on rape myths) by emphasizing the logic of his statement and accusing his critics of being unable to follow the logic.
Then there’s the phenomenon of rejecting social sciences and/or the humanities as insufficiently empirical, when the alternative is relying on intuition and common societal “wisdom”. That one is common enough that just about everyone who deals with rationalists should be able to call an example to mind.
See also the behavior and the comment thread I linked above in the section on Less Wrong.
Q. Are you trying to destroy the rationalist movement?
A. That would be silly. I don’t have that kind of power, even if that were my goal. Also, it makes many of my friends happy, as I mentioned in my original post.
Q. Then why did you write that post?
A. I wrote it for the same reason I wrote about a skeptic group thinking its inexpert membership had the background necessary to critique a controversial scientific proposition. I wrote it for the same reason I wrote about individual debate being orthogonal to the accumulation of knowledge. Those of us who value knowledge tend to easily recognize obstacles to achieving knowledge that rely on not sharing that value. We’re not as good at recognizing the obstacles presented by the tools we use to achieve knowledge. That means we often haven’t developed the vocabulary to have good discussions about the problems we present. We’ll only develop that vocabulary if we start having the discussion. In the future, when people run into the problem I described, they will, at the very least, have something to point to in order to talk about why it’s a problem.