Forty-nine are cute quirks, and one is destroying civilization

Sunday, October 3rd, 2021

Julia Galef, author of Scout Mindset, earned her celebrity status honestly, Scott Alexander quips, through long years of hard labor in the rationality mines:

Back in ~2007, a bunch of people interested in biases and decision-making joined the “rationalist community” centered around the group blogs Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong. Around 2012, they mostly left to do different stuff. Some of them went into AI to try to save the world. Others went into effective altruism to try to revolutionize charity. Some, like me, got distracted and wrote a few thousand blog posts on whatever shiny things happened to catch their eyes. But a few stuck around and tried to complete the original project. They founded a group called the Center For Applied Rationality (aka “CFAR”, yes, it’s a pun) to try to figure out how to actually make people more rational in the real world.

Like, a big part of why so many people — the kind of people who would have read Predictably Irrational in 2008 or commented on Overcoming Bias in 2010 — moved on was because just learning that biases existed didn’t really seem to help much. CFAR wanted to find a way to teach people about biases that actually stuck and improved decision-making. To that end, they ran dozens of workshops over about a decade, testing various techniques and seeing which ones seemed to stick and make a difference. Galef is their co-founder and former president, and Scout Mindset is an attempt to write down what she learned.

Reading between the lines, I think she learned pretty much the same thing a lot of the rest of us learned during the grim years of the last decade. Of the fifty-odd biases discovered by Kahneman, Tversky, and their successors, forty-nine are cute quirks, and one is destroying civilization. This last one is confirmation bias — our tendency to interpret evidence as confirming our pre-existing beliefs instead of changing our minds. This is the bias that explains why your political opponents continue to be your political opponents, instead of converting to your obviously superior beliefs. And so on to religion, pseudoscience, and all the other scourges of the intellectual world.

But she also learned that just telling people “Hey, avoid confirmation bias!” doesn’t work, even if you explain things very well and give lots of examples. What does work? Research is still ongoing, but the book concentrates on emotional and identity-related thought processes.


Instead of thinking “I’m sure global warming is fake!”, try to think in terms of probabilities (“I think there’s a 90% chance global warming is fake.”) Instead of thinking in terms of changing your mind (“Should I surrender my belief, and switch to my enemy’s belief that global warming is true”), think in terms of updating your probabilities (“Now I’m only 70% sure that global warming is fake”). This mindset makes it easier to remember that it’s not a question of winning or losing, but a question of being as accurate as possible. Someone who updates from 90% to 70% is no more or less wrong or embarrassing than someone who updates from 60% to 40%.


A lot of the best rationalists I know instinctively apply these tests to everything they think. One technique for cultivating this practice (not the book’s recommendation) is to go on Twitter, where the adage is “there’s always an old tweet”. Argue that people who say racist things should be cancelled, and someone will dig up your old racist tweet and make you defend why you shouldn’t face the same consequences. Argue that it’s disgraceful when the other party uses extreme violent language about their outgroup, and someone will dig up an old tweet where you used even more extreme language about yours. Demand that the Republican senator resign for sexual misconduct, and someone will find the old tweet where you said the Democratic senator should tough it out. Eventually, if you want to maintain any dignity at all, you learn to double-check whether your beliefs are consistent with one another or with what you’d believe in vaguely similar situations.

Scout Mindset says: why not try the same thing, even when you’re not on Twitter, just to determine what’s true?.

And one very likely answer is: because it would hurt.

Scout Mindset tries to differentiate itself from other rationality-and-bias books by caring a lot about this. It argues that, while other rationality books just told you what to do, most people wouldn’t do it; they’d be too emotionally attached to their existing beliefs. So after giving a few intellectual suggestions, it goes on a deep dive into the emotional side.


It reminds me of C.S. Lewis — especially The Great Divorce, whose conceit was that the damned could leave Hell for Heaven at any time, but mostly didn’t, because it would require them to admit that they had been wrong. I think Julia thinks of rationality and goodness as two related skills: both involve using healthy long-term coping strategies instead of narcissistic short-term ones.


Julia is trying to normalize changing your mind, to assure you that lots of great people who you respect do it, that there are whole communities out there of people who do it, that she does it and she is a TED-talk-having celebrity who you implicitly trust.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Rationality is an inclination, not a choice. All that these rationalist techniques accomplish is to help you get a little better at what you already wanted to do: think effectively.

    They mean nothing at all to those disinclined toward rationality. That’s why the rationalist movement is unlikely to save the world.

    Christianity became corrupt when it decided it had to be for everyone (“catholic”) I see rationalism tempted to the same error. Don’t try to fix everyone. There’s probably no cure for confirmation bias or for all the quirks.

    What I want to see is a movement focused on how to survive and prosper in the world as it is, among human beings as we find them. Ditch universal salvation and focus on salvaging the salvageable.

  2. Jay Dugger says:

    I count three points of Calvinism. Did I miss any?

    Rather, what are the odds that count is correct?

  3. McChuck says:

    This is just another sophomoric attempt to say that Americans don’t have culture, our culture is bad, and we should abandon our culture in favor of unrestricted Leftism. It begins by defining culture as “cognitive bias”, then shows examples of how people can be healed by adopting Leftist mantras which are laughably wrong.

  4. Nels says:

    On that global warming, my bias is that folks who lie to me once (Mann’s hockey stick) tend to lie to me always. I suppose that’s confirmation bias, but it works for me.

  5. Hoyos says:

    “Nah it’s cool you don’t really disagree, you just suffer from cognitive bias, and need me to slowly change your mind with word games. What was that? No I don’t suffer from cognitive bias, don’t be silly, that’s you.”

  6. Contaminated NEET says:

    Let’s all think rationally about things. This will solve our problems. I can’t believe nobody in history has ever thought of this! Everyone else who ever lived must be pretty stupid.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    If Jesus died for our sins, then Socrates died for our biases. Me, I’m no Jesus. I’m no Socrates, either.

    Never trust anyone who insists he’s just trying to save humanity from itself. Especially if he asks you to help him.

    Any civilization that can be destroyed by human nature is doomed. Let it fall, and then try to build the next one to be more sturdy. (I’d say build back better, but that phrase has been robbed of meaning.)

  8. VXXC says:

    Reason is a problem solving tool. Politics is Power, not reason.

    I agree with the commenters above; this is just more Leftist nonsense to wear us down.

    If Julia wants to wear someone down, she can get married.

  9. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Notice how when it comes to changing your thinking the example is usually moving conservatives toward a liberal point of view never the other way around. The global cooling, warming, climate change is typical even after proven lies by Mann, et al. Screw these self-righteous bastards with their unending messiah complexes for every problem.

  10. Bomag says:

    “Notice how when it comes to changing your thinking the example is usually moving conservatives toward a liberal point of view never the other way around.”


    I’m sure there was a self-help book back in the day entitled How to get anything you want through negotiation that covered the same ground. I recall a few features discussing how to
    negotiate your way out of a mugging.

    Trouble today is that we are both getting mugged by the Left and getting bombarded by these negotiation techniques on how it is good for us.

  11. Altitude Zero says:

    And of course, the most hilarious thing of all is that, if anyone suffers from confirmation bias, its Scott Alexander.

  12. Albion says:

    If someone has a position and says I’m wrong on mine, I may reasonably expect them to provide conclusive evidence that shows I am wrong. When as so often is the case these days, there is only rhetoric and oft-repeated (and worn-out) ‘left-approved’ statements then I might reasonably be accused of ‘confirmation bias’ because I am not hearing any argument to persuade me otherwise. Labelling me as an irrational opponent because I don’t echo the same shouting points doesn’t change my mind.

    Let me give you an example. I voted, as did the majority of people in my country, for Brexit several years ago. It is a moot point if it has fully been delivered yet but I have heard since various ‘Remainers’ arguing we need a government of national unity. As I pointed out to some lefty friends we can never have that: one’s nation is either in the EU or is not. So how, I asked them, would we enjoy unity in such a world? Does this mean I surrender my view, or they do? As they are adamant that the EU is a kind, caring, sharing organisation (not my view) then how I am persuaded to change? They won’t change: they see the Leavers as evil spawn of the devil. That would be me, then.

    I can cite numerous cases of corruption, heavy-handedness, malfeasance and to me, incompetence at a very high price over in Brussels. All I can hear is ‘It isn’t working’ and ‘we are all better off together.’ Emotional statements aren’t always the best persuaders.

    Of course the amusing thing is these people would not be calling for ‘national unity’ if they had won. It would be assumed as winners, and righteousness in their view thus prevails, then the matter would be closed and unity somehow exist. They can now call for another referendum as we have, apparently, ‘all changed our minds’ but as I haven’t, then it isn’t all. They would, I am sure, if they won a second referendum and it went to a return to the EU, never allow a third.

    In this I can see the division between the two sides can never be closed.

  13. Mihc says:

    Just saying hello.

    Very, very glad to find this blog still active, stopping by at least 2 years after the last time.

    I also wish to never see you published on the Unz Review, a site that has taken a rather dislikable trajectory in the last one year or so.

  14. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Albion, re Brexit Remainers: “They won’t change: they see the Leavers as evil spawn of the devil. That would be me, then.”

    Brexit might be a good example of the limitations of the hypothesis that Confirmation Bias is the big problem facing humanity.

    How individual Brits saw Brexit was an emotional issue, not a rational one. Some looked back to those far-off days when Britannia Ruled The Waves; others looked across the Channel to their French girlfriend. Because Brexit was fundamentally a personal emotional issue for everyone, no-one was ever going to be convinced to change his view because of rational arguments. Indeed, those rational arguments were mostly rationalizations of emotionally-based convictions.

    The facts of that fast-receding election are clear: 37% of Brits voted to Leave the EU; 35% voted to Remain; 28% chose not to vote — many apparently thinking that the choice between Brussels and Westminster was like choosing between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

    If there was any Confirmation Bias, it was in Leavers then asserting that this narrow plurality — hardly an overwhelming democratic mandate — was a command to others to change their strongly-held personal beliefs. Shades of One Man, One Vote, One Time!

    Perhaps if there had been an overwhelming democratic mandate (say, the affirmative votes of 80% of the electorate for Leave), the Brexit vote would have impacted the emotional views of both the Leavers and those whose view could best be described as “a plague on both their houses”. We will never know.

    Leavers may have wished to treat their narrow plurality as the end of the issue. But that would be like expecting Conservative Party members to renounce permanently their Tory party loyalty because Labour happened to win an election. Emotions run too deep for that!

    It should be no surprise that losing an election did not change Remainers’ minds, any more than losing the US Civil War did not change Southerners loyalty to their States.

  15. Albion says:

    Gavin Longmuir,

    You are correct that there was a chunk of people who did not vote in the Brexit Referendum for whatever reason, though I cannot agree with your reasoning or imaginings it was emotional: it cost Britain £8 Billion a year as a ‘membership fee’ to be in the EU with remarkably little benefit other than pages of legislation how we should live — and this from an organisation that had not had its accounts signed off for more than 20 years. In short, no-one knew where all the money went. At times it smacked of a dictatorship and for all the many faults of Brits, being ruled from Berlin was not one of them (and yes, the EU is essentially there to aid Germany, as were the original treaties on which the EU/EEC was built.) The Referendum had the largest ever turn-out of an election in the UK and the assumption was, according to the politicians and media, it was a forgone conclusion Britain would elect to remain. Even Mrs May campaigned enthusiastically for us to stay, and then — such are the quirks of power — found herself having to negotiate the withdrawal. Perhaps that was why she took her time to come up with a very watered down get-out clause, having consulted Angela in Berlin at length. But then again, it was probably emotional.

    Certainly the vast machinery of the Civil Service was behind us remaining. More, Eire had already voted to Leave the EU but were told they would have to vote again, which then resulted in a Remain vote. So the implication was we would only go and do the same, so why bother? The outcome was regarded as settled however long it took.

    Why did so many not vote, yet so many vote to Leave of those who went to vote? I am not sure it was all emotional as you put it. After all, perhaps by your reckoning every revolution then has been emotional, and for that matter every civil war. It comes as shock to think that so much upheaval and bloodshed was only one of emotions, yet so many decisions by governments and its numerous agencies aren’t. What a curious world in which those who ‘lead’ are without any passion, though I can believe they are often without heart.

    As for France being Britain’s girlfriend I almost spat my Yorkshire Pudding out over that one. Thank you for the laugh. (Incidentally, a Yorkshireman does not eat his Yorkshire Pudding with his RosBif but separately. We like our separations!)

    True, not everyone voted in the Referendum and yes, the government did not set any margins beforehand. One supposes that under our democratic way that if only ten people had turned up to vote and six said one way or another then that was a done deal, but then every election in the UK is a first past the post which is why MPs sometimes win their seat in the Commons with much less than 20 per cent of the electorate being bothered to turn out and actually make a mark on the ballot paper.

    My OP was not to specifically go back over the whys and wherefores of the Brexit vote, but to point out that the notion of ‘National Unity’ is false because there are opposing, and entrenched, viewpoints that cannot be reconciled with broad statements of ‘unity.’ Thus Leavers and Remainers are divided, emotionally or not, because slogans alone don’t bridge the gap.

    One last point: A Remainer (and lefty) friend was complaining the other week that his much-needed medication was not available ‘because of Brexit.’ The fact that the whole drawn out Covid-business and the resulting breakdown in the supply chain (not least of which are fewer drivers and workers along the way as businesses were obliged to close) was ignored. His emotional ‘because of Brexit’ was enough in his mind. You will be glad to know that a way was found for him to get his medication, and for now his anti-Brexit stance has been put away. Until next time.

  16. Gavin Longmuir says:


    What I find intriguing about the Brexit situation is the parallel to US Independence. Some historians have estimated that, back in the 1770s, about 1/3 of the residents of the Colonies wanted independence from London; about 1/3 wanted to remain subjects of the Crown; and about 1/3 simply wanted to keep their heads down. Rather similar to the UK split over Brexit.

    Clearly, the concept of “democracy” has some flaws. Mark Steyn has a view that what matters is intensity, not numbers. How many people really want to make transgendered bathrooms a big issue? Yet elected representative fall over themselves to declare their support. As you point out, Albion, in most cases those “elected” representatives have the affirmative support of only a minority — sometimes a small minority — of the people; yet they make decisions for everyone.

    Perhaps Confirmation Bias leads us to give the democratic process too much respect. In reality, it is a severely dysfunctional system.

  17. Chedolf says:

    Gavin Longmuir: If there was any Confirmation Bias, it was in Leavers then asserting that this narrow plurality — hardly an overwhelming democratic mandate — was a command to others to change their strongly-held personal beliefs.

    Labour flooded the UK with immigrants in order to fundamentally alter the political culture, and the result was a close Brexit vote. If only the natives had voted, Brexit would have won more decisively.

    Why does anyone think it’s legitimate for the ruling class to manufacture a new, more compliant electorate?

  18. Goober says:

    I find a very helpful and handy tool in disabusing myself of bias is to apply an “ideological Turing Test” to myself and my position (and more specifically, the opposite of my position).

    It has become en vogue of late to not truly understand the real position of the opposition on charged issues. It is far more common to see, at least, strawmen erected, and at worst, outright demonization of what is inarguably a reasonable and understandable position.

    Pro-lifers calling pro-choicers “baby murderers”, and pro-choicers accusing pro-lifers of wanting to control women’s reproductive choices and their bodies like we’re living in “A Handmaiden’s Tale” would be good examples.

    A pro-lifer would do well to apply an ideological Turing Test to the “baby murderer” label, and discover that, while you might disagree with their reasoning for advocating abortion, that their desire to keep it legal is not because they want to “murder babies”.

    In reality, the debate really just boils down to a very simple question: at what point does a fertilized zygote become a “human being” worthy of legal protection from being destroyed?

    The thing that I see very commonly is that each side doesn’t understand the other side’s position, at all, and honestly, you’ve got no business debating against a position that you don’t understand.

    I see a lot of it in the left’s talking points about what they call “COVID conspiracists”. They are constantly claiming inconsistency in what they see coming from the “conspiracist” side, but there really isn’t – they just don’t understand the argument, and so cannot see the consistency in it.

    Ideological Turing Tests for all. It’s not hard. All you have to do is be able to elaborate your opposition’s true position by mock-arguing their position in such a way that the opposition would think you were on their side. If you can’t do this, you’re arguing against a strawman that isn’t actually the position that the opposition is advocating, and so you’re wasting your time and theirs, and simply contributing to the propagation of biases.

  19. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Chedolf: “If only the natives had voted, Brexit would have won more decisively.”

    Depends what the meaning of “won” is, doesn’t it?

    Winning on a key issue in a democracy ought to mean getting the support of a substantial majority of the total citizen body. For an important issue like leaving the EU, that might have been the affirmative support of (say) 60% of the electorate — 26 Million votes, instead of the only 16 Million achieved. (Joining the EU in the first place should also have been subject to a similar vote, of course).

    Back of the envelope, something like 16 Million voters would have had to be Remain-voting immigrants (and disenfranchised) for the 16 Million Leave voters to have achieved that kind of decisive win. Blaming the immigrants — invited in by the UK government, not Brussels — does not seem to be viable.

    It seems that many of the 28% of UK voters who chose to sit on their hands had the view that Westminster and Brussels were Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Looking at the chaos of Boris’s “government”, they certainly had a point.

Leave a Reply