Expecting that everybody should have an articulate opinion on the day’s pressing issues (“informed citizenship”) is pernicious. I state this without argument here; if you want it argued look at In Praise of Passivity by Michael Huemer.
Being convinced of this, for the past odd year I’ve been trying to implement the idea in my daily life, with mixed results. Now, part of the problem is simply that outrage porn is fun. But I think there is also a conceptual lacuna that makes it hard to articulate just what one is trying to do by “tuning out”, and why it is so difficult.
Let’s start with the first-person experience. Have you ever been in the position of arguing against an expert in the expert’s field? I suspect this happens to ordinary people most often in conversations with doctors, realtors, financial advisors, teachers/professors, salespeople, religious evangelists, and enthusiastically political relatives at Thanksgiving dinner.
(The latter is not so much a matter of expertise, it’s just that somebody who has pre-memorized talking points can usually carry an argument against somebody who hadn’t been anticipating one.)
I find the experience of somebody talking circles around me very unpleasant, and I don’t think I’m unique in this. Of course, it is even more distasteful if there is an audience in whose eyes you are losing status. The impulse I feel in such situations is to hunker down, avoid losing face, and lash out at the other speaker with some “gotcha” calculated to make them appear foolish. In the worst cases, it may not be possible to escape the conversation without making concessions, unless you are willing to stoop to some sort of emotional All-In bet, like a fit of righteous anger or crying.
This is one reason why the conscious project of not forming opinions is difficult: you may not be interested in the Topical Issues, but they are interested in you. The world will bombard you with claims about crime statistics, interest rate predictions, the Rights of Man, history, Gini coefficients, genetics, and sundry other things. More relevantly, it will tell you that stock A is a sure thing, or that diet B is sure to help your child’s brain development. It’s no good to be completely ignorant about these things; not only will you will lose face, but your interlocutor can make their argument and lead you to concede they’re right. (Another approach is to pretend to take pride in your ignorance, but my guess is that readers of this blog can’t pull that off easily.)
What is needed is a battery of defensive arguments and ideas. Their purpose is (a) to serve as sanity-checks on unfamiliar ideas, (b) to get irritating interlocutors off your back.
For example, an Efficient Markets heuristic can help you hold your own against realtors and financial advisors trying to pull the wool over your eyes. “Why isn’t the stuff you just mentioned priced into the stock already?” “If houses are cheaper in the winter, why aren’t millionaires loading up on houses in winter to sell them in summer, until the difference goes away?”
Another example is vigilance against selection effects. “You say this is a good school – but I bet it just takes in unusually good students.” (Tip: if you actually say “selection bias” here, it sounds very authoritative.)
Another example is a suite of basic game-theoretical and strategic ideas, like “if once you have paid him the Dane-Geld, you never get rid of the Dane”, and “people respond to incentives”.
Yet another is a general lack of faith in Interventions to change somebody’s life course; a heuristic of genetic determinism as a baseline prior. This doesn’t work so well as an *argument*, but simply as a prior, it’s helpful to know that the differences between, say, parenting styles don’t seem to lead to huge divergences in results, and that throwing lots of money at social problems more or less always has epsilon effect.
I invite readers to contribute to a list of other such ideas in the comments. Those above I chose because I have actually used them on more than a few occasions I can remember.
The key to this argument class is no requirement for detailed background knowledge. Ideally, they rely only on basic logic, or simple empirical laws. For example, I don’t actually know about the teaching quality of the school in question – all I know is the reason why that quality is hard to evaluate.
Note also that this is a basically negative project. Its emphasis is on checking others’ positive claims about the world, not creating new ones. Its goal is to make you antifragile against ideas, not to help you build a great edifice of theory.
So to the person who wishes to divest themselves of pointless opinions and refocus on near-mode stuff, I propose that if you go too far in that direction, you just make yourself exploitable. You need to practice the art of defensive epistemology, or risk being a sucker (or at least losing status). And that probably requires some engagement with the world of ideas, to train your discipline against actual enemies.
*You may notice that this sounds like a manifesto for the skeptic movement. I’m tempted to talk about why skeptics in practice are disappointing, but I will leave that discussion for now.