Lately I’ve been thinking over some common threads to my writings in this spot over the past three years. Well, perhaps the most general overarching theme is “Here’s another pervasive mode of thinking that annoys me!”, but there are certain commonalities between those failed thinking modes and I decided to write about one of them today. (Or I decided to write about it back at the beginning of the year but then wound up taking a six-month-long hiatus from this blog due to a continual work-related time crunch, so in the end I’m writing about it now. Somehow after lamenting in my last post what a long gap of time it had been, I managed to top myself.) One of those commonalities lurking behind the mental processes I’ve criticized in several past essays — the one I want to discuss today — is when people assume that maximizing truth and morality means aiming indefinitely far in one direction. Or, to put the misconception another way, that going as far as possible in one direction will always be a win-win.
A common mentality goes something like this:
Society / most people’s / my personal adversary’s thinking is far, far too much in the X direction [let’s call it “south”]. So I’m going to fight to move people’s hearts and minds in the opposite direction from south, that is, north. Where they are right now is so far south that I will never be able to exert enough force to push them as far north as they should be, so all I can do is put 110% into pushing northwards and hope that others who see the same truth I see will do the same. We are so far south that there’s no reasonable chance of going too far north; in fact, I’m not sure there even is such a thing as ‘too far north’ since we are so far south that it’s all nicer-looking territory as far as the eye can see gazing northwards. And in fact, not only are we positioned ridiculously far south; the prevailing mentality at the moment is so deludedly southern that if anyone actually manages to come up with any idea or plan of a northern or pro-north flavor, well, that idea just has to be right and any naysayer is only part of the problem.
The way I worded this is best fitted to group efforts like social and political movements (stuff like ideological purity tests and “How can you possibly worry that we might cause harm by overstating the problem?!”), but I wrote it with personal struggles just as much in mind of course (“That person is so abusive, stop searching for some other explanation for such-and-such thing they did, it’s like you’re trying to feel sorry for them!”).
Now my choice of words in the long “quote” above wasn’t especially charitable, but I wrote it that way to illustrate just how easy it is for somebody to convince themself to think that way. This is even when they’re reasonable enough to agree that in principle there is such a thing as too far in the X direction and the correct answer is just a particular degree of X-ness, provided that they have a strong enough conviction about how far we are from that degree of X-ness.
And yes, my “quote” above was basically just a rewording of the “arguments are soldiers” mentality. Moreover, my criticism of it, when you think about it, is just the core of my two posts on “acknowledging gadflies”, something that I obviously put a lot of effort several years ago into developing at a more sophisticated level than what I’m writing here. Why am I bringing this up again? Because sometimes I think it’s a good idea to extract one idea from something that was a bit convoluted and full of extraneous considerations, distill it down to its kernel, dust it off, and try to express it on its own. And this particular point, about how people choose a path in belief-space with the only intention only of walking as far down it as possible, is one that not only forms the basis of my thesis in the above-linked posts but is an element of other essays I’ve posted in this spot where I didn’t think to explicitly tie it in with the whole gadfly thing.
The “quoted” thought pattern above is worded in a way to seem transparently naïve and wrongheaded, but let me defend it for the moment with the following metaphor. If you’re playing one of those carnival games where you have to throw the beanbag into the hole that will win you a prize (and it’s never one of the holes in an extreme position on the board; it’s always in-between other holes that earn much fewer points), then since the beanbag is fairly light, you don’t throw it as hard as you can; the game is about calibrating the throw as precisely as possible rather than maximizing raw strength.
If, on the other hand, the game is to throw a shot put and make it land as close as possible to a target that seems dauntingly far in front of you, it doesn’t make sense to put mental energy on checking how much force you put into the throw. If the target is far enough away, let’s say so far that you can’t really see it, it doesn’t even make sense to worry that much about the precise direction. Your distance from the target isn’t infinite, of course, but it’s long enough that you might as well treat it as if it were infinite, which means putting all of your strength into it and not really bothering to get the direction right (in certain mathematical contexts, multiple directions will get you equally close to an infinitely-far-away point). There is nothing unreasonable about that.
My (counter)argument boils down to saying that most scenarios that feel in the moment like the shot put contest actually turn out to function more like the bean bag toss. A lot of this is a question of nuance. Maybe the shot put is heavy and the target far, but you don’t quite know your own strength (or the total strength of others who are combining forces with you), or your distance vision is faulty enough that you’re not clear on how far the target really is. Maybe because of that faulty vision you’re aiming in a slightly wrong direction which, because of the distance, will cause the landing spot of the shot put to be way off. Maybe there are several dimensions that matter in plotting the target and since you’re only able to see one or two of them, you’ll wind up overshooting in some dimensions and not changing the distance at all along others.
Or maybe there are a whole bunch of shot puts all at different distances from the target, one quite close or beyond it, and you keep throwing it as hard as you can because you assume yours is one of the farthest-behind ones.
It wasn’t until I decided to write about this that I realized there’s a close connection here with what I like to call “the gym-goers phenomenon”. During a number of periods in my adult life, I’ve been a regular gym-goer. I’m very reserved about showing photos of myself under this handle, but it so happens that the one self-photo I have uploaded on my other blog a couple of years ago is suitable for what I’m going to illustrate — I don’t think it counts as a selfie since it’s a reflection and (by design) a rather indistinct one at that, but it should be enough to give a sense of my body type.
From that image it’s easy to believe me when I say that I didn’t have great upper body strength for a man of my age, and inasmuch as it was a goal of mine to improve my upper body strength, it made sense for me to go to the gym. (It so happened that this photo was taken right before starting my most recent gym membership. Two years later* and my physique doesn’t look much different but I do feel a bit stronger.)
Anyway, let’s put it this way: I could benefit from working out significantly more than the average adult male, so one would expect to see the gym full of guys like me, right?
Wrong. At every gym I’ve ever worked out in, I’ve noticed that the place is full of guys who look much more like this.
What’s up with that? It seems almost paradoxical at first blush, but on a little reflection it makes sense that the men one sees at the gym tend to look like the ones who have the least “need” of it. In assuming that gym attendance is mostly determined by how much a client could stand to use it, we’re privileging one direction of causation over the other in our analysis: the dominant factor is not that a certain physical condition leads to gym attendance (although this is true) but that gym attendance leads to a certain physical condition.
One can ask why the gym usage —> strong physique direction of causation so much dominates the weak physique —> gym usage one in determining the correlation between gym usage and level of physical strength. That’s a good question. My gut impression is that this is a victory for low-agency-ism: on average, people do things like work out at the gym primarily because they’re wired to enjoy it rather than out of a willful effort to change their lifestyle, and the guys who do this get really ripped as a result**. But my point isn’t to examine the cause of the “gym-goers phenomenon” but to point out that it’s a thing, and a thing which applies in many more contexts than working out. It’s a factor in determining what kind of person is most likely to describe themself as possessing a certain negative trait: in my experience, those types tend to possess less of that trait than the average person. (For instance, the online rationalist/effective-altruism-sphere from what I’ve seen contains both some of the most severe scrupulosity issues and at the same time some of the most admirable engagement with doing good for the world that I’ve ever encountered anywhere. I don’t think this is a coincidence.)
I will sheepishly admit that the first time I remember seeing this observation succinctly stated was when I was in high school and this Magic the Gathering card came out (see the italicized flavor text at the bottom):
So anyway, when you hear that some guy Alex hits the gym five days a week, it’s a reasonably good bet to assume that he’s fairly strong, probably not someone who “needs” to go that often and perhaps even one for whom it would be healthier from a medical standpoint to take it a little easier. And when Beth tells you soon after you meet her that she’s worried that she might be a really selfish person, there’s a good chance that she’ll turn out to be one of the most selfless you’ll ever know, perhaps even someone who doesn’t take enough care of her own needs. In other words, oftentimes the ones who are most convinced of how far they (or the spaces they walk in) are from a desired target are actually closest to it or have even already overshot it.
* Well to be fair, I haven’t really worked out since around when I made my last post at this blog, but I intend my gym-going hiatus to continue for longer. For a combination of logistical, financial, and medical reasons I have resolved to not work out at the gym in the year 2019. To make this plan easier to stick to, I didn’t even renew my membership. I’m proud to say that this is probably going better than most people’s gym-related new year’s resolutions.
** For the sake of intellectual honesty I’ll add that another factor is amount of time spent at the gym which definitely affects what kind of guy I see during my relatively short hours there. And yes, I don’t have any actual statistics on this which take extra factors like that into account and should make the disclaimer that I’m not a doctor of physical trainer and have no idea how true the gym thing is in general. But I think we can all agree that what I’m calling “the gym-goers phenomenon” applies in a lot of places even if not to gym-goers.
Another form of the concept that I’m going for in this post is the idea that it’s never right to assume that one particular strategy should be pursued to as far as possible towards its “logical conclusion” because everything eventually comes with a risk. Let me be clear on what I’m not saying here: goals like “maximizing personal fulfillment”, “best reaching my students”, “keeping my children on the right track as they grow up”, or “ending world hunger” aren’t what I’m warning against pursuing as far as possible, because those aren’t strategies. Those are goals; particular strategies towards reaching those goals are things like “spend more time in introspection and meditation”, “explain each step of each problem painstakingly to my students”, “carefully monitoring my children to make sure they don’t get in trouble”, and “[insert specific platform of a particular humanitarian organization]”. And my point is that any of these strategies, or any other strategy that I might have come up with for each goal, has its risks and its costs eventually — or at least epistemologically speaking there are risks in embracing each strategy as a purely abstract concept.
I believe the fact that we’re tempted to choose an obvious-sounding strategy and run with it without considering how far to take it is too far has a lot to do with our tendency to interpret neutral emergent phenomena in terms of intrinsically good or intrinsically bad. In the post I just linked to, I discussed the teacher whose strategy is to make a priority of explaining small steps to their students as follows:
For instance, suppose a teacher makes a point of being super, super clear about everything they explain, outlining the smallest steps of the problems their students are trying to solve. After all, isn’t clarity a quality to strive for as a teacher? Well of course, this is probably a net beneficial practice up to a certain point, but one can imagine that it might become net harmful if taken too far. Someone may comment on that teacher’s style by remarking, “You really make every step of the students’ work very clear for them!” The teacher would almost certainly react warmly: “Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to do because I think clarity is important.” But suppose someone instead commented, “You really spoonfeed your students.” Now that comment sounds negative, and the teacher’s kneejerk reaction may well be to angrily deny it (“How can you say that? I’m just trying to make sure they understand every step!”). Or instead, the teacher may react by accepting the criticism as a sign that their approach is entirely wrong (“I thought I was being helpful by trying to be clearer, but I guess that strategy only hurts the students, so I should abandon it”). Obviously both reactions are misguided: the ideal response would be something more like “I still think it’s important to strive for clarity, but I guess it’s possible to take that too far and I should consider whether that’s what I’m doing right now.”
In other words, “best helping my students learn” is a good ultimate goal for me as a teacher to have (that’s pretty much tautological!). But it becomes all too easy, after being prompted by some classroom situation or just sensible-sounding advice, to decide that I need to fixate on making explicit clarity the main priority and in doing so, treat “in-class explanations” like a shot put that must be hurled as hard as possible in the direction of “more explicit”. And we all have a tendency to do this by (correctly) viewing “help my students learn” as an entirely worthy terminal goal but then extending the “entirely worthy” label to a particular strategy and shutting down all suggestions (gadflies!) that some caution should be taken or limitations imposed on that strategy. Perhaps it seems like such a good strategy in the first place because it pushes us in a direction we really should move in (or perhaps we really don’t need to move that way, as with many gym-goers), but we are not adapted to recognizing that there are always bounds on how far such a push should be taken.
Of course, ultimately this can be explained as almost all fallacies can: as a result of an instinct towards mental laziness by creating a simpler algorithm for how we should go forward towards reaching each of our goals. It’s always easier to declare, “I must do more X!” or “Society should do more X!” and leave it at that than it is to say, “It would be good to do more X but only up to a certain point and then we need to pay attention to Y” or even “The fact that so many people seem to be concerned that we’re not doing enough X might actually suggest that over in this corner we’re doing plenty of X; hmm I should consider that”. This bias towards mental energy-saving is a case of exactly what I talked about several posts ago under the clumsy term “second-order confirmation bias”.
But today’s formulation unites it with a stripped-down, barebones instance of all the gadfly-related things I wrote about earlier, as well as encapsulates one of my sources of frustration when arguing with people about how to question oneself or one’s cause and process criticism. So it feels good to have it written down, off my chest, and in a place that I can refer to when it (inevitably) comes up again.