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Criticizing Ideas by Source

This posted is adapted from an email I wrote in 2019. I was accused of judging ideas by their author instead of their content and merit. In this post, I explain something a little bit similar to judging ideas by source but which is rational.

The issue isn't judging ideas negatively by source.

The issue is that there are outstanding, unaddressed criticisms of her ideas. And not merely of individual ideas, but of patterns of systematic error. New ideas should be checked against those known errors before being accepted. That isn’t judging ideas by source, it’s judging ideas by whether the criticisms refute them. It’s just adjusting which criticisms are considered by source.

We have default sets of criticisms we consider based on topic and some other contextual info. And we also do freeform criticism – you can try whatever you want, for whatever reason. It’s good to do both (if you leave out the standard criticisms, and only do freeform criticism, you risk missing basic or glaring errors, and the quality of your thinking will be inconsistent). The thing to do with Kate is add a few extra things to the list of criticisms to consider, which aren’t on your default list, because they are things Kate’s gotten wrong repeatedly and never fixed.

This is not judging ideas by source. It's taking the list of 25,000 criticisms I was already going to check (most criticisms are done very quickly, with very little conscious attention) and adding an extra 50 more criticisms to the list based on the source. If Kate actually fixes her mistakes, this won't lead to negative judgments by author. I'm judging by whether I have a criticism of the arguments. What I'm changing is just checking for some specific errors because Kate wrote it, even though they aren't common enough that I'd always check for them with any author.

Source-based error-checking is different than source-based negative judgments.

Taking into account context like this is standard and good. It’s the same principle used with other parts of the context. Like suppose an idea is presented verbally, then I will add extra criticisms to the list because of that contextual info. I treat ideas differently based on the context of being text or audio, which is an aspect of the idea’s source. E.g. when it’s verbal you should critically consider if you misheard someone due to their accent (normally done in under one second and without using conscious attention), but when it’s text you don’t consider that particular issue.

Slogans like “Judge ideas by content, not source”, there’s nothing objectionable or irrational about these general principles.

The right model is: consider some criticisms by default, some by context, some by intuition or creativity or whatever, some because someone else suggested it, and some for whatever other reasons. It’s pretty much the more the merrier as long as people aren’t trying to bulk-add millions of criticisms to the list for consideration (if they try that, you should address the matter, just not by addressing each individually – you should address the broader pattern, the template they are using to generate a million criticisms).

Put another way, the model is: consider criticisms based on broad, non-specific context (defaults). And consider criticisms based on specific contextual details. And consider criticisms based on mediumly-specific context. And so on. There’s a continuum of criticisms at different levels of specificity. There are criticisms that apply enough to consider in 90% of situations in your life, others that apply 60% of the time, others 30%, others 10%, etc.

Different levels of specificity of context examples: “it has to do with ideas and i need to consider what makes sense” (very non-specific context, makes some generic critical thinking stuff relevant like Paths Forward). “it has to do with medicine” (more specific topic, you could brainstorm some things worth considering for medicine that don’t apply for dealing with your lawyer). “it has to do with penicillin” (even more specific, suggests considering e.g. if you’re allergic and if your problem involves bacterial infection). and much more specific (so specific you wouldn’t have pre-existing known criticisms to use for this context, you’d have to think of them when it comes up): “medical test X indicates I have disease Y. it was done twice to double check. the test has the following false positive rate and has been researched in the following ways as explained in the following texts... should i now take drug A? here is what’s known about drug A... and here are alternative drugs..."

And don’t try to suppress criticism. Don’t limit this. Add criticisms to the “to be considered” list in all sorts of ways. Add whatever you want for intuitive reasons that you can’t justify. Add whatever you want for logical reasons. Add “might it kill me?” because the topic is medicine and some medicines can risk killing you and dying is bad. (that doesn’t mean you don’t take a medicine just because it could kill you. it may be worth the risk. but you need to critically consider that rather than fail to notice or think about that issue. that is something which shouldn’t get passed you without you realizing there is an issue there. which means it’s something you’re checking by default. you can’t just think of that only when it’s relevant. to reliably not miss it when it is relevant you have to be checking it in a broad category of situations, e.g. whenever medicine comes up.)

Unfortunately, the specifics of what criticisms should be considered because Kate is the author are things Kate doesn’t want to think about. This issue is coming up because she doesn’t want to talk about her recurring problems. But the same reasoning errors keep recurring in her reasoning, so they're relevant to most of her posts. Her posts and ideas should be judged critically, including by checking for the recurring errors every single time.

Elliot Temple on June 19, 2021


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