Tag Archives: Meta

Meta-Comments On UFO Talk

Following my “live and learn” strategy, after having written a bit about UFOs, let me now make some meta-comments.

For most intellectuals, UFOs are a topic “beyond the pale” and “outside the Overton window”. As was the topic of sex once, not because people didn’t think sex existed, but because of a consensus it wasn’t a “serious” topic. We generally know which topics do and don’t have this label, even if we don’t have much of an idea of why each label was once applied.

Since I started talking about UFOs, I’ve more clearly seen some of the rules we apply to talk near the edge of acceptable topics. The edge isn’t that sharp, so these are rules that apply more strongly but in a graded way as you approach closer to the edge, and then perhaps go past it.

As you approach the edge of the pale, your tone is supposed to become more jocular, your language less precise and more evocative, and your writings short and infrequent. High prestige people are allowed to go a bit further toward or past the edge without modifying their writings quite as much in these directions. You are expected to eagerly lampoon any who violate these rules.

We can think of all this as our having a “vote” on whether to move the Overrton window, with high prestige people of course getting far more votes. If you go much further than usual in taking such a topic seriously, as your attempt to argue for moving the window, that will mostly fail, as you will mainly be seen as losing your standing to vote on the topic.

I’ve noticed that this topic of UFOs makes me feel especially uncomfortable. I look at the many details, and many seem to cry out “there really is something important here.” But I know full well that most people refuse to look at the details, and are quick to denigrate those who do, being confident in getting wide social support when they do.

So I’m forced to choose between my intellectual standards, which say to go where the evidence leads, and my desire for social approval, or at least not extra disapproval. I know which one I’m idealistically supposed to pick, but I also know that I don’t really care as much for picking the things you are supposed to pick as I pretend to myself or others.

We often fantasize about being confronted with a big moral dilemma, so we can prove our morality to ourselves and others. But we should mostly be glad we don’t get what we wish for, as we are often quite wrong about how we would actually act.

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Live And Learn

In my last four posts you’ll see a pattern repeated twice: first I participate in “ground” talk on a particular issue, then I stand back and reflect on some patterns in that ground talk. I see this as a healthy way to think about social behavior.

If I only participated in each topic, I’d miss the chance to notice key social patterns up close. A great pleasure and power of being a social scientist is that most all social behavior you see around you is grist for your mills.

If I only thought about behaviors from a distance, without participating in them, I’d miss many crucial details useful in testing broader theories. Yes, by participating I risk collecting biases due to my particular stances, biases that my block me from seeing larger pictures. That probably does happen, maybe even a lot. But this still seems like a good mix.

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10 Year Blog Anniversary

Ten years ago today this blog began with this post. Since then we’ve had 3,772 posts, 104 thousand comments, & over 15 million page views. This started as a group blog, and later became my personal blog, and I’ve been posting less the last few years as I focused on writing books.

I still have mixed feelings about putting in effort to write blog posts, relative to longer more academic articles and books. I agree that a blog post can communicate a useful and original insight in just a few paragraphs to thousands, while an academic article or book might be read by only tens or hundreds. But a much higher fraction of academic readers will try to build on my insight in a way that becomes part of our shared accumulating edifice of human insight. My hope is even if the fraction of blog readers who also do this is small, it is large enough to make a comparable total number. Because if not, I fear blogging is mostly a waste.

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‘About’ Isn’t About You

Imagine you told people:

  1. What looks like the sky above is actually the roof of a cave, and trees hold it up.
  2. The food we eat doesn’t give us nutrition; we get nutrition by rubbing rocks.
  3. The reason we wear clothes isn’t for modesty or protection from weather, but instead to keep cave frogs from jumping on our skin.

Imagine that you offered plausible evidence for these claims. But imagine further that people mostly took your claims as personal accusations, and responded defensively:

“Don’t look at me. I’ve always been a big supporter of trees, I’ve always warned against the dangers of frogs, and I make sure to rub rocks regularly.”

Other than being defensive, however, people showed little interest in these revelations. How would that make you feel?

That is how I feel about typical responses to my saying politics isn’t about policy, medicine isn’t about health, charity isn’t about helping, etc. People usually focus on proving that even if I’m right about others, they are the rare exceptions. They offer specific evidence on their personal behavior to prove that for them politics is about policy, medicine is about health, charity is about helping, etc. But aside from that, they show little interest in what such hypotheses might imply about the world in which they live. (They are, however, often eager to point out that I may have illicit motivations for pointing all this out.)

To which I respond: really, “X is not about Y” is not about you. Yes, your forager ancestors were hyper-sensitive to being singled out by public accusations of norm violations, and in fact much of our reasoning and story abilities may have evolved to help us defend against such accusations, and to make such accusations against others. So yes your instincts naturally push you to react this way.

But I’m talking about ways that we all violate the norms to which we all give lip service. I’m not trying to shame some of us, or even all of us, into trying harder to live up to our professed ideals. I’m focused first and foremost on making sense of our world. If I really believed that the sky might really be the roof of a cave held up by trees, or that we wear clothes to protect against frogs, I wouldn’t focus first on making sure that I was very publicly pro-tree and anti-frog; I’d instead ask what else I must rethink, given such revelations.

Once we better understand the basics of what we are doing in areas like policy, medicine, charity, etc. then we might start to ask if we should be doing more or less of those things, and if invoking norms, and shaming norm violators, will help or hurt on net. But first someone needs to figure out the basics of what we are doing in these areas of life. I implore some of you to join me in this noble quest.

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Eight Million Visits

If milestones mean something to you, here’s a new one. There is a lot it doesn’t catch, but the Sitemeter widget on this blog has been here from the very start, and it at least gives a consistent measure of traffic. And according to it, we’ve now had eight million visits here at OvercomingBias.com.

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Seven Million Visits

According to the Sitemeter figure on the lower right hand side of this page, there have now been seven million visits to Overcoming Bias since it began in November 2006. Of course many folks read this blog in ways that don’t trigger such counts, but this still seems a reasonable time to pause and take stock. THANK YOU to all you readers, and to all the other authors who have contributed over the years.

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This Is A Personal Blog Again

Last June I turned this into a group blog to help me overcome my addiction to blogging, and focus on writing a book. I think I’ve succeed in changing my work habits, and the book is coming along well, so I think it is time to switch this back to being a personal blog. After all, blogs work best when they have a very distinct coherent voice, and I’m weird enough that most anyone stands out in contrast.

So I offer my deep thanks to Katja Grace, Rob Wiblin, and Carl Shulman, who have honored me with their thoughtful contributions over the last ten months. They are promising young folks for whom I have great expectations, and I suggest you continue to read them, as will I, at their blogs:

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Thank You TrikeApps!

In 2009 my co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky split off from Overcoming Bias (OB) to create the Less Wrong (LW) blog. TrikeApps wrote the feature-full software for LW, and Eliezer wanted to start it off with a high Google page rank via inheriting his posts here at OB. To support this, I agreed to let TrikeApps move OB from TypePad to a new platform where TrikeApps could turn Eliezer’s OB post links into hard links to posts at LW, to have recent LW and OB posts show up in a sidebar at the other site, and to have TrikeApps manage the technical aspects of OB.

Four years later, I’d like to send a big hearty THANK YOU to TrikeApps for their blog management. I expect it would have cost lots to pay someone to do the work they’ve done. I don’t have any plans to change this arrangement anytime soon, though I’m of course open to suggestions for other ways to manage and structure this blog.

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Welcome Carl Shulman

Today we welcome a fourth author at Overcoming Bias: Carl Shulman. The other authors have known Carl for many years, he’s posted here at OB before, and while we (ok, I) have often disagreed, he’s consistently thoughtful, clear, and interested in interesting topics. You can read more about Carl here, here, and here, but I suggest you mainly just listen to what he has to say. 🙂

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This Is A Group Blog Again

The first stop to overcoming a problem is to admit you have one. So: I admit I’m addicted to blogging. In terms of total interesting intellectual insight, I’m actually pretty proud of my 5.5 years of blogging – I doubt I would have produced more insight had I blogged less. But my friends, colleagues, academia, patrons, etc. don’t want me to just find insights, they want me to gain prestige and have influence. And at this point in my life, they are right — intellectual influence *is what I should want. My insights will matter little if I can’t package them in a form that will tempt others to assimilate and build on them.

So, I am writing a book (which I’ll say more about in due time). Which feels great. Alas, I think readers prefer near-daily blogs, I’m reluctant to let this blog die, and as it is I get too easily engrossed in blog post topics. My solution: move Overcoming Bias back to a group blog, by including the young rising stars Katja Grace and Robert Wiblin, of whom I’ve long been a fan. We have mutual respect, similar interests, and similar styles of thought. With them posting more, I’ll hopefully be ok posting less. Overcoming Bias will continue at a similar rate and on similar themes, my less frequent posts will be more thoughtful and less newsy, and I’ll actually get a book written. What’s not to like? 😉

Btw, we aren’t seeking more authors – just the three of us are ok for a while.

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