Discover more from Overcoming Bias
The reason I first started to study the sacred was that “sacred cows” kept getting in my way; our treating things as sacred often blocks sensible reforms. But now that I have a plausible theory of how and why we treat some things as sacred, I have to admit: I too treat some things as sacred. Maybe I should learn to stop that, but it seems hard. So perhaps we should accept the sacred as a permanent feature of human thought, and instead try to change what we see as how sacred or how exactly we do that.
So it seems worth my trying to describe in more detail how I see something as sacred, not just habitually but even after I notice this fact. In this post, that thing will be: intellectual inquiry. In this post I’ll mostly try to describe how I revere this, and not so much ask whether I should.
All the thinking and talking that happens in the world helps us to do many things, and to figure out many things. And while some of those things are pretty concrete and content-dependent, others are less so, helping us to learn more general stuff whose usefulness plausibly extends further into the future. And this I call “intellectual progress”.
In general, all of the thinking and talking that we do contributes to this progress, even though it is done for a wide variety of motives, and via many different forms of social organization. I should welcome and celebrate it all. And while abstractly, I do, I notice that, emotionally, I don’t.
It seems that I instead deeply want to distinguish and revere a particular more sacred sort of thinking and talking from the rest. And instead of assuming that my favored type is just very rare, hardly of interest to anyone but me, I instead presume that a great many of us are trying to produce my favored type, even if most fail at it. Which can let me presume that most must know how to do better, and thus justify my indignant stance toward those who fail to meet my standards.
This sort of thinking and talking that I revere is that which actually achieves substantial and valuable progress in abstract understanding, and is done in a way to effectively and primarily achieve this goal. Thus I see as “profane” work that appears to be greatly influenced by other purposes, such as showing off one’s impressiveness, or assuring associates of loyalty.
That is, I have a sacred purity norm, where I don’t like my pure sacred stuff mixed up with other stuff. Good stuff not only has to achieve good outcomes, it also has to be done the right way for the right reasons. I tend to simplify this category and its boundary, and presume that it can be distinguished clearly. I feel bound to others who share my norms, even if I can’t actually name any of them. I don’t calculate most of this; it instead comes intuitively, and seems aesthetically elegant. And I can’t recall ever choosing all this; it feels like I was always this way.
Now on reflection this has a lot of specific implications re what I find more sacred or profane, as I have a lot of beliefs about which intellectual topics are more valuable, and what are more effective methods. And I’ll get to those soon here.
But first let me note that while many intellectuals also see their professional realm as sacred, and have many similar sacred norms about how their work should be done, most of them don’t apply such norms nearly as strongly to their personal lives. In contrast, I extend this to all my thinking and talking. That is, while I’m okay with engaging in many kinds of thinking and talking, I want to sharply distinguish some sacred versions, where all these sacred norms apply, and try to actually use them often in my personal life.
Okay, I can think of a lot of specific implications this has for what I respect and criticize. The following is a somewhat random list of what occurs to me at the moment.
For example, I take academic papers to be implicitly claiming to promote intellectual progress. This implies that they should try to be widely available for others to critique and build on. So I dislike papers that are less available, or that use needlessly difficult languages or styles. Or that aren’t as forthcoming or concise as they could re what theses they argue, to allow readers to judge interest on that basis. I dislike intentional use of vague terms when clearer terms were available, and switching between word meanings to elude criticism.
I feel that a paper which cites another is claiming that it got some particular key input from that other paper, and a paper that cites nothing is claiming to have not needed such inputs. So I disapprove of papers that fail to cite key inputs, or that substitute a more prestigious source for the less prestigious source from which they actually got their input.
I see a paper on a topic as implicitly claiming that the topic is some rough approximation to the best topic they could have chosen, and a paper using a method that some rough approximation to the best method. So it bothers me when it seems obvious the topic isn’t so good, or when the method seems poorly chosen. I’m also bothered when the length of some writing seems poorly matched to the thesis presented. For example, if a thesis could have been adequately argued in a paper, then I’m bothered if its in a book with lots of tangential stuff added on to fill out the space.
I find it profane when authors seem to be pushing an agenda via selective choice of arguments, evidence, or terminology. They should acknowledge weak points and rebuttals of which they are aware without making readers or critics find them. I dislike when authors form mutual admiration societies designed to praise each other regardless of the quality of particular items. That is, I find the embrace of bias profane. Which maybe shouldn’t be too surprising given my blog name.
Now I have to admit that it isn’t clear how effective are these stances toward promoting this sacred goal of mine. While they might happen to help, it seems more plausible that they result more from a habit of treating this area as sacred, rather than from some careful calculation of their effects on intellectual progress. So it remains for me to reconsider my sacred stances in light of this criticism.