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Epistemic learned helplessness [Jan. 3rd, 2013|01:10 am]
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[Epistemic Status | Probably I'm just coming at the bog-standard idea of compartmentalization from a different angle here. I don't know if anyone else has noted how compartmentalization is a good thing before, but I bet they have.]

A friend in business recently complained about his hiring pool, saying that he couldn't find people with the basic skill of believing arguments. That is, if you have a valid argument for something, then you should accept the conclusion. Even if the conclusion is unpopular, or inconvenient, or you don't like it. He told me a good portion of the point of CfAR was to either find or create people who would believe something after it had been proven to them.

And I nodded my head, because it sounded reasonable enough, and it wasn't until a few hours later that I thought about it again and went "Wait, no, that would be the worst idea ever."

I don't think I'm overselling myself too much to expect that I could argue circles around the average high school dropout. Like I mean that on almost any topic, given almost any position, I could totally demolish her and make her look like an idiot. Reduce her to some form of "Look, everything you say fits together and I can't explain why you're wrong, I just know you are!" Or, more plausibly, "Shut up I don't want to talk about this!"

And there are people who can argue circles around me. Not on any topic, maybe, but on topics where they are experts and have spent their whole lives honing their arguments. When I was young I used to read pseudohistory books; Immanuel Velikovsky's Ages in Chaos is a good example of the best this genre has to offer. I read it and it seemed so obviously correct, so perfect, that I could barely bring myself to bother to search out rebuttals.

And then I read the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct, so devastating, that I couldn't believe I had ever been so dumb as to believe Velikovsky.

And then I read the rebuttals to the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct that I felt silly for ever doubting.

And so on for several more iterations, until the labyrinth of doubt seemed inescapable. What finally broke me out wasn't so much the lucidity of the consensus view so much as starting to sample different crackpots. Some were almost as bright and rhetorically gifted as Velikovsky, all presented insurmountable evidence for their theories, and all had mutually exclusive ideas. After all, Noah's Flood couldn't have been a cultural memory both of the fall of Atlantis and of a change in the Earth's orbit, let alone of a lost Ice Age civilization or of megatsunamis from a meteor strike. So given that at least some of those arguments are wrong and all seemed practically proven, I am obviously just gullible in the field of ancient history. Given a total lack of independent intellectual steering power and no desire to spend thirty years building an independent knowledge base of Near Eastern history, I choose to just accept the ideas of the prestigious people with professorships in Archaeology rather than the universally reviled crackpots who write books about Venus being a comet.

I guess you could consider this a form of epistemic learned helplessness, where I know any attempt to evaluate the arguments are just going to be a bad idea so I don't even try. If you have a good argument that the Early Bronze Age worked completely differently from the way mainstream historians believe, I just don't want to hear about it. If you insist on telling me anyway, I will nod, say that your argument makes complete sense, and then totally refuse to change my mind or admit even the slightest possibility that you might be right.

(This is the correct Bayesian action, by the way. If I know that a false argument sounds just as convincing as a true argument, argument convincingness provides no evidence either way, and I should ignore it and stick with my prior.)

I consider myself lucky in that my epistemic learned helplessness is circumscribed; there are still cases where I will trust the evidence of my own reason. In fact, I trust it in most cases other than very carefully constructed arguments known for their deceptiveness in fields I know little about. But I think the average high school dropout both doesn't and shouldn't. Anyone anywhere - politicians, scammy businessmen, smooth-talking romantic partners - would be able to argue her into anything. And so she takes the obvious and correct defensive manuever - she will never let anyone convince her of any belief that sounds "weird" (note that, if you grow up in the right circles, beliefs along the lines of astrology not working sound "weird".)

This is starting to sound a lot like ideas I've already heard centering around compartmentalization and taking ideas seriously. The only difference between their presentation and mine is that I'm saying that for 99% of people, 99% of the time, this is a terrible idea. Or, at the very least, this should be the last skill you learn, after you've learned every other skill that allows you to know which ideas are or are not correct.

The people I know who are best at taking ideas seriously are those who are smartest and most rational. I think people are working off a model where these co-occur because you need to be very clever to fight your natural and detrimental tendency not to take ideas seriously. I think it's at least possible they co-occur because you have to be really smart in order for taking ideas seriously to be even not-immediately-disastrous. You have to be really smart not to have been talked into enough terrible arguments to develop epistemic learned helplessness.

Even the smartest people I know have a commendable tendency not to take certain ideas seriously. Bostrom's simulation argument, the anthropic doomsday argument, Pascal's Mugging - I've never heard anyone give a coherent argument against any of these, but I've also never met anyone who fully accepts them and lives life according to their implications.

A friend tells me of a guy who once accepted fundamentalist religion because of Pascal's Wager. I will provisionally admit that this person takes ideas seriously. Everyone else loses.

Which isn't to say that some people don't do better than others. Terrorists seem pretty good in this respect. People used to talk about how terrorists must be very poor and uneducated to fall for militant Islam, and then someone did a study and found that they were disproportionately well-off, college educated people (many were engineers). I've heard a few good arguments in this direction before, things like how engineering trains you to have a very black-and-white right-or-wrong view of the world based on a few simple formulae, and this meshes with fundamentalism better than it meshes with subtle liberal religious messages.

But to these I would add that a sufficiently smart engineer has never been burned by arguments above his skill level before, has never had any reason to develop epistemic learned helplessness. If Osama comes up to him with a really good argument for terrorism, he thinks "Oh, there's a good argument for terrorism. I guess I should become a terrorist," as opposed to "Arguments? You can prove anything with arguments. I'll just stay right here and not do something that will get me ostracized and probably killed."

Responsible doctors are at the other end of the spectrum from terrorists in this regard. I once heard someone rail against how doctors totally ignored all the latest and most exciting medical studies. The same person, practically in the same breath, then railed against how 50% to 90% of medical studies are wrong. These two observations are not unrelated. Not only are there so many terrible studies, but pseudomedicine (not the stupid homeopathy type, but the type that links everything to some obscure chemical on an out-of-the-way metabolic pathway) has, for me, proven much like pseudohistory in that unless I am an expert in that particular field of medicine (biochemistry has a disproportionate share of these people and is also an area where I'm weak) it's hard not to take them seriously, even when they're super-wrong.

I have developed a healthy dose of epistemic learned helplessness, and the medical establishment offers a shiny tempting solution - first, a total unwillingness to trust anything, no matter how plausible it sounds, until it's gone through an endless cycle of studies and meta-analyses, and second, a bunch of Institutes and Collaborations dedicated to filtering through all these studies and analyses and telling you what lessons you should draw from them. Part of the reason Good Calories, Bad Calories was so terrifying is that it made a strong case that this establishment can be very very wrong, and I don't have good standards by which to decide whether to dismiss it as another Velikovsky, or whether to just accept that the establishment is totally untrustworthy and, as doctors sometimes put it, AMYOYO. And if the latter, how much establishment do I have to jettison and how much can be saved? Do I have to actually go through all those papers purporting to prove homeopathy with an open mind?

I am glad that some people never develop epistemic learned helplessness, or develop only a limited amount of it, or only in certain domains. It seems to me that although these people are more likely to become terrorists or Velikovskians or homeopaths, they're also the only people who can figure out if something basic and unquestionable is wrong, and make this possibility well-known enough that normal people start becoming willing to consider it.

But I'm also glad epistemic learned helplessness exists. It seems like a pretty useful social safety valve most of the time.

From: (Anonymous)
2013-01-03 02:58 pm (UTC)
On "destroy nature guy": I've previously had the thought that maybe the world would be a better place with far fewer non-human animals in it. What kept me from exploring this possibility further is that, if I'm honest with myself, I don't care all that much about animal suffering.

To give you a better idea of the extent of my (non-)caring: I care enough to have been a lacto-ovo vegetarian for a few years, but then someone persuaded me that eggs may contribute more to animal suffering than beef, and I said, "okay... I care about animal suffering, but not badly enough to go full vegan" and went back to being an omnivore.
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[User Picture]From: Chris Hallquist
2013-01-03 02:59 pm (UTC)
Oops. That was my comment. I failed to select my usual "use Facebook to post" option by accident.
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[User Picture]From: simplicio1
2013-01-03 04:36 pm (UTC)
>then someone persuaded me that eggs may contribute more to animal suffering than beef, and I said, "okay... I care about animal suffering, but not badly enough to go full vegan" and went back to being an omnivore.

Was that someone Julia Galef? She would not have wanted you to go omnivore as a result!

I have to criticize this because I think it is an ethical error, namely, the "what the hell" effect. Meat consumption causes suffering. Egg consumption also causes suffering. Reducing consumption of one is good, reducing both - even better. There is no God Of Legitimate Vegetarianism than gives you an F for minimizing only *some* suffering, so minimize as much as you can bring yourself to.
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[User Picture]From: Chris Hallquist
2013-01-03 05:30 pm (UTC)
Yes, that someone was Julia Galef.

To clarify, at the time I saw that article, I was using eggs as my main protein source. So substituting beef for eggs *was* reducing animal suffering. I agree with your point though that going part way is better than going all the way, though.
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[User Picture]From: Chris Hallquist
2013-01-03 05:33 pm (UTC)
Also, given all my preferences I should probably try to work out what level of animal product consumption is a good idea for health reasons, and try to stick to the low end of that. I'm intending to try to learn a bunch about health and nutrition when I have more time in a couple months, and I should remember to think about the animal suffering angle then.
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[User Picture]From: simplicio1
2013-01-03 05:39 pm (UTC)
One thing you might want to consider is buying meat and eggs that are farmed according to ethical standards. In my country for example, there is SPCA-approved meat and eggs that I buy on occasion. They are expensive, but if you make it a rare treat rather than a staple, it doesn't break the bank.
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[User Picture]From: fenn lipkowitz
2013-01-04 12:47 am (UTC)
why not skip the farming entirely, and eat wild-caught fish instead?
it minimizes the amount of time animals are in cages, and maximizes the health benefits of eating animals in the first place. as an added bonus, they don't have cute baby eyes.

canned jack mackerel is high in methionine, b-12, vitamin D, EPA, DHA, phosphatidylserine, choline, selenium, iodine, and really won't break the bank at under a dollar per serving.

small "feeder fish" like mackerel, herring, and sardines are low on the food chain and reproduce rapidly. fish farmers grind them up and feed them by the megaton to other fish such as salmon, at massive reduction in overall efficiency. the usual overfishing argument doesn't apply.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2013-01-04 09:14 am (UTC)
I'm split on the ethics of wild-caught vs. farmed fish. Wild-caught seems more humane and like the fish lead better lives, but farmed means you're not destroying fish stocks and driving entire species to extinction-in-the-wild.
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From: (Anonymous)
2013-01-03 05:56 pm (UTC)
Here's an argument for reducing meat consumption which I personally find more convincing than those about animal suffering or health reasons: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/04/flex-fuel-humans/

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From: (Anonymous)
2013-01-03 07:50 pm (UTC)
Heh. I was ovo-lacto-veg for about a year too, and then I was convinced that in terms of animal suffering, poultry and farmed fish trump most everything else. So I took up beef and pork again but still avoid those two.
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[User Picture]From: dentin
2013-02-18 05:11 pm (UTC)
I'm the same way, and it mirrors my stance on climate change: I'm aware that my choice of foods causes animal suffering, and I'm aware that my use of fossil fuels causes climate change. It's not that I'm ignorant; it's that I don't care.

I don't care about animal suffering, because it's not a big enough part of my utility function for me to bother optimizing. It's much more important for me to optimize for my health and physical well-being. If that means I eat cow, then I eat cow. As it happens, it currently means that I eat a lot of fish instead.

Regarding climate change, I don't care because I see climate change, not climate disaster. If it gets too warm, we spend a decade or two and toss up some solar shielding into space. Problem solved.
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