The Scout Mindset, by Julia Galef

I have known about Julia Galef for a while, as she hosts the podcast Rationally Speaking. I have talked about this podcast in the past. She used to co-host it with Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher and authors of several books, including Live Like a Stoic. But that was years ago. And, truth to be told, I think she hosts much better by herself. She listens to the arguments of the others and engages with them—not with a strawman version of them, but with them. And she mentions how she changed her mind after the interviews, even if just slightly. She has a scout mindset. And now she has written a book about it, titled, yes, The Scout Mindset.

So what is a scout mindset? Julia uses this term as opposed to a soldier mindset. The soldier’s goal is to win. The scout’s goal is to obtain a more precise representation of reality. Many times, when we discuss heated topics, we enter into a soldier mindset. I mean, not me, of course, but everybody else does. Apparently, it is difficult to realise—or at least it is not straightforward—when you are in soldier mode. Yet if we really want to find out the truth, the soldier mindset is counterproductive. We should be willing to change our mind. The scout might think or hope that there is a bridge to cross the river; but if there is not, then he or she will update their map accordingly.

But, do we really want to find out the truth? Some might argue that we do not. Those that insist in being precise, in being as truthful as possible, in knowing all the facts, those people are just not willing to solve the problems. Let’s see an example where this reasoning can be applied:

Maybe we still have a couple of decades to adjust our CO2 emissions before a significant increase in temperature is irreversible. Maybe not. Would waiting for all the answers—being a scout—be the right approach, given what’s at stake? Or is it better to say that unless we act TODAY, the world is going to end this century?

Some people will say the latter is a better option. People have to react, and unless they feel the thread is imminent, they will not. Maybe. But maybe making strong statements that are not fully backed by the science also discredits a movement. Maybe discovering that scientists skeptic about climate change in the early part of this century (“climategate“) were shut down by other scientists made hesitant public opinion even more hesitant. To the extent one does not control the information that people can access, being truthful seems to pay off almost always.

A part of the book that I found particularly appealing is about “holding your identity lightly”. A problem when you strongly identify with a particular movement is that push back against the movement actions, for example, feel extremely personal to oneself. Even by people that share the ultimate goals. Or even more by these people. Validating oneself might become more important than the ultimate goal. Dunking on someone with a different opinion might feel very well—I am good, the other is bad—but might do very little to advance the cause. It can actually push other people towards the other side.

But at least we can rely on education and intelligence to avoid our soldier biases, right? Not really. Even though one could expect that the more educated one gets, the more one is able to formulate logically sound arguments without getting into fallacies, this appears to be wrong. One reason might be that better educated people are better able to rationalise—even if ex post—their actions, or be aware of some “evidence” that seems to confirm their beliefs. Anyone knows highly educated people that do not seem capable of changing their mind on certain issues, irrespective of the evidence. But to think that this is not the exception, but in a way the rule, that’s striking. The chart below, from Kahan et al. (2017), shows how many agree with the statement that “there is solid evidence of recent global warming due mostly to human activity such as burning fossil fuels“. In low levels of “ordinary science intelligence” (this is determined by a series of questions that participants have to answer before), there is no disagreement between liberals and conservatives. As their science intelligence increases, they diverge substantially. Whatever you think the right answer is (spoiler alert: it’s AGREE), at least one group moves away from it as they are more “intelligent”. Funny enough, this does not happen when we measure the science curiosity of the participants, which we could see as a proxy of having a scout mindset; if anything, both groups tend towards the right answer the more scientifically curious they are.

Kahan et al. (2017). Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pops.12396.

To wrap up, Julia has written a wonderful book, with funny anecdotes, great advice to be more of a scout, and a very positive attitude. She has been talking to several people about the book (and other things, such as the rationalist community). Here are some of her appearances: The Wright Show, Mindscape with Sean Carroll, and Julia’s YouTube channel. Recommended.

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