Defensive Epistemology

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.

Author: Simplicio

Engineer, dilettante.

6 thoughts on “Defensive Epistemology”

  1. One method I picked up in grad school is to relate the topic at hand to your research, if possible. If you can make at least a tenuous case for it applying you are suddenly talked about a domain in which you have great expertise rather than random trivia that you may not know. As a bonus, you should know how to relate your research to a lot of different areas and can thus steer the conversation in a new direction.

    This is a one time use evasion and is probably only useful in limited contexts.


  2. I don’t think it makes you “antifragile” against ideas (in the sense immune system is antifragile against typical antigens), it makes you resilient against ideas (in the sense that a meter-thick layer of tungsten is resilient against being punched with a fist)

    It’s not necessarily bad, but it might prevent evaluation of genuinely good ideas and useful risk-taking, which might result in being badly out-competed by less risk-averse agents 🙂

    Could you please flood me with sources regarding parenting styles having “little”/”negligible” effect?
    The idea seems counter-intuitive


  3. I think this is exactly wrong

    The reason why Huemer is right, why it’s an illusion to think you can reach reasonable, useful answers to questions of “public policy”, is that they don’t come down to easy generalisations. The details matter, the interactions with myriad other issues matter, and obtaining sufficient, and sufficiently reliable, information to get the right answer is not realistically possible.

    Taking pride in your ignorance of “current affairs” really is the way to go. It seems quite common to be able to pretend to take pride in one’s ignorance of, say, sports, or reality TV, so it is not be hard to do the same for day-to-day politics. One way is by explicitly equating the significance or value of the latter with the former. (I like to add the further point that sports reporting is generally more accurate and truthful than current affairs reporting).

    Scott Adams has recently been doing this excellently. After each of a long series of posts analysing the campaigning techniques of the US presidential candidates, he adds the following:

    “I do not endorse Trump or anyone else for president. I’m not smart enough to know who would do the best job. All the candidates look qualified to me, assuming their health holds out.”

    This is fine. It is ostensibly self-deprecating, a statement of ignorance, even of apathy. But, since Adams is clearly a very intelligent man, it is also an unambiguous attack on the very concept of democracy—if he is not smart enough to know who would be the best president, then 95% of voters certainly aren’t. So it is modesty with an arrogant edge.


  4. Hello, greetings from the future.
    I don’t find declining to listen to be very hard, you can just say “I would have to look into that”
    You can take pride in the standards you have for your knowledge, but also, you have the winning position if you just do nothing, here. You are the horse that cannot be made to drink. So say you won’t, and then don’t.


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