How to ‘Update’ Beliefs

From The Wall Street Journal:

Metaphors carry us from one idea that is difficult to understand to another that is easier to grasp. Many subjects are notoriously incomprehensible, making the use of metaphors essential.

The Newtonian “mechanical universe” metaphor, for example, transfers us from the difficult idea of gravity and the spooky notion of action-at-a-distance to the more understandable “clockwork” of gears and wheels. Enlightenment thinkers used the mechanical metaphor to explain everything from the human body (with its levers and pulleys of joints, tendons and muscles) to political systems (the king as the sun, his subjects as encircling planets) and even economies: François Quesnay modeled the French economy after the human body, likening the flow of money through a nation to blood coursing through a body’s veins; he compared ruinous government policies to diseases that impeded economic health, and therefore recommended laissez-faire.

The workings of the human mind are especially enigmatic, so scientists have long invoked metaphors such as hydraulic mechanisms, electrical wires, logic circuits, computer networks, software programs and information workspaces to help explain what’s going on. In “The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t,” Julia Galef, a co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality and host of the popular podcast “Rationally Speaking,” uses a military metaphor of scouts and soldiers.

According to Ms. Galef’s divide, the soldier mindset leads us to defend our beliefs against outside threats, seek out evidence to support our beliefs, ignore or rationalize away counterevidence and resist admitting we’re wrong—as that feels like defeat. The scout mindset, by contrast, seeks to discover what is true through evidence, and reasons toward conclusions that lead to a more accurate map of reality—“the motivation to see things as they are,” Ms. Galef explains, “not as you wish they were.”

The differences between these two mindsets are striking and, Ms. Galef argues, explain how thinking goes right or wrong. Soldiers rationalize, deny, deceive and self-deceive, and engage in motivated reasoning and wishful thinking to win the battle of beliefs. “We talk about our beliefs as if they’re military positions, or even fortresses, built to resist attack,” the author writes. This soldier mindset leads us to defend against people who might “ ‘poke holes in’ our logic,” “shoot down” our beliefs or confront us with a “ ‘knock-down’ argument,” all of which may leave our beliefs “undermined,” “weakened” or even “destroyed.” Soldiers thus become “entrenched” in their beliefs, resisting “surrender” to an opposing position.

When our beliefs are true, of course, this can be effective. The problem is that almost all reasoning and decision-making happens under uncertainty, so the soldier mindset can easily lead to a perpetuation of error. In seeking truth—that is, an accurate map of reality regardless of which belief is right—scouts engage in more open-minded discovery, objectivity and intellectual honesty. “I was wrong” and “I changed my mind” become virtues instead of vices.

Soldier-types are more likely to believe that changing one’s mind is a sign of weakness, or that it is important to persevere in beliefs even when evidence is brought to bear against them. Scouts are more likely to take into consideration evidence that goes against their own beliefs, or think it may be more useful to pay attention to those who disagree with them than to those who agree.

Scouts, Ms. Galef explains, “revise their opinions incrementally over time, which makes it easier to be open to evidence against their beliefs.” They also “view errors as opportunities to hone their skill at getting things right, which makes the experience of realizing ‘I was wrong’ feel valuable, rather than just painful.” In fact, the author suggests, we should drop the whole “wrong” confession and instead describe the process as “updating”—a reference to Bayesian reasoning, in which we revise our estimations of the probability of something’s being true after gaining new information about it. “An update is routine. Low-key. It’s the opposite of an overwrought confession of sin,” Ms. Galef continues. “An update makes something better or more current without implying that its previous form was a failure.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

3 thoughts on “How to ‘Update’ Beliefs”

  1. The scout mindset, by contrast, seeks to discover what is true through evidence, and reasons toward conclusions that lead to a more accurate map of reality—“the motivation to see things as they are,” Ms. Galef explains, “not as you wish they were.”

    Once the scout starts reasoning, he becomes the soldier.

  2. A character in one of my short stories says of another, “Being right is very important to James. It’s a shame he’s not better at it.”

    I like this scout/soldier metaphor. I suspect there’s not a lot more to the book than what’s summarized in the review, though.

    Of course, I’m open to correction on that.

    • Ohh, I love that line.
      I know people like that in real life.
      Also in fiction: Cliff Claven of CHEERS.

      The metaphor? It looks useful but it neglects the third, larger class of people; the rear guard, who are only concerned with the past.

      The story as I heard it is that the ancient greeks saw time as a mist shrouded river that we travel in the rear of a boat; the present reveals itself as the boat reaches it and becomes the known past immediately and slowly fades away into the mists of time. The future is unknowable.

      In contrast, the modern western mindset has us at the front and getting glimpses of the future to come, as long as we’re willing to look that way. Which few are. That being the reason most people act as if the future is just the past with a different calendar.

      Updating beliefs? Heh. Not likely.
      The scouts have a tough row to hoe.

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