Muck and Mystery
   Loitering With Intent
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February 21, 2009

Try writing a hypothetical apostasy.

Let's say you have been promoting some view (on some complex or fraught topic - e.g. politics, religion; or any "cause" or "-ism") for some time. When somebody criticizes this view, you spring to its defense. You find that you can easily refute most objections, and this increases your confidence. The view might originally have represented your best understanding of the topic. Subsequently you have gained more evidence, experience, and insight; yet the original view is never seriously reconsidered. You tell yourself that you remain objective and open-minded, but in fact your brain has stopped looking and listening for alternatives.
Two candidates come to mind for me: biochar and human diversity.

I don't quite fit Bostrom's initial condition requirement because I do have doubts about both. For biochar my antennae twitch whenever the durability of char in soil is discussed. We don't have good data on how long it lasts or the mechanisms that can break it down. There's a human diversity scenario where society completely fragments into some sort of MacLeodian free for all.

Still, I like the exercise and have used it myself in the past as a way to open up stalled discussions. A couple of fellows that I have some dealings with in my work - evangelical, home school, creationist, arranged weddings, the whole nine yards - buy calves that I have raised. They sell them to other members of their community. They tried raising their own animals, but I do it so much better that it was more profitable for them to just buy them for resale.

They have a knee-jerk preference for organic methods. I'm close to that with one major exception: I use fertilizer. I do low dose applications timed for the greatest benefit. This gives major bang for the buck, and done iteratively year after year hugely improves pastures. They have more organic matter so they use water more effectively as well as becoming ever more fertile. It's an increasing returns, non-zero sum, yada yada sort of effect.

I challenged them just as Bostrom has challenged us, suggesting that just for phun they do some googling to get educated and then argue the opposite case with me. Not surprisingly given their general intellectual stance, they declined. But they still buy the calves.

In Bayesian Ninjas something closely related was discussed: rote cognition.

How much of rationality -- of being a good Bayesian Ninja or whatever -- isn't about intelligence, or knowing how to think, but about having the self-control and discipline to exercise those capacities? And what does it mean for our attempts to become more rational if, as a lot of recent psych research has been suggesting, our self-control generally is a limited resource?
The method I use to combat this mental defect is relevant to debiasing.
I play games to try and jiggle myself out of rote mode. When I do a pasture walk - a semi-formal inspection and evaluation - I pretend that it is someone else's pasture that I've never seen before, and dispute every thought that pops into my mind as if it was a statement made by the not very credible owner of the pasture that isn't mine though it really is mine. Bad, lazy, stupid Gary said that, not me.
A side effect of this sort of self doubt and self debunking is that you end up not believing much of anything. That's good for rationality, but it can be a lonely spot in a world full of true believers with their fists in the air looking for heretics. There's no place to rest.
Posted by back40 at 10:03 AM | cognition

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