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Criticizing The Scout Mindset (including a misquote)

I quit the Effective Altruism forum due to a new rule requiring all new posts and comments be basically put in the public domain without copyright, so anyone could e.g. sell a book of my posts without my consent (they’d just have to give attribution). More info. I had a bunch of draft posts, so I’m posting some of them here with minimal editing. In general, I’m not going to submit them as link posts at EA myself. If you think they should be shared with EA as link posts, please do it yourself. I’m happy for other people to share links to my work at EA or on social media. Please share stuff in whatever ways you think are good to do.

This is quick notes, opinions and criticisms about the book The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef (which EA likes and promotes). I’m not going in depth, being very complete, or giving many quotes, because I don’t care much. I think it’s a bad book that isn’t worth spending more time on, and I don’t expect the author or her fans to listen to, engage with, value, appreciate or learn from criticism. If they were reasonable and wanted to interact, then I think this would be plenty to get the discussion/debate started, and I could give more quotes and details later if that would help make progress in our conversation.

The book is pretty shallow.

Galef repeatedly admits she’s not very rational, sometimes openly and sometimes by accident. The open admissions alone imply that the techniques in the book are inadequate.

She mentions that while writing the book she gathered a bunch of studies that agree with her but was too biased to check their quality. She figured out during writing that she should check them and she found that lots were bad. If you don’t already know that kinda stuff (that most studies like that are bad, that studies should be checked instead of just trusting the title/abstract, or that you should watch out for being biased), maybe you’re too new to be writing a book on rationality?

The book is written so it’s easy to read and think you’re already pretty good and not change. Or someone could improve a little.

The book has nothing that I recognized as substantive original research or thinking. Does she have any ideas of her own?

She uses biased examples, e.g. Musk, Bezos and Susan Blackmore are all used as positive examples. In each case, there are many negative things one could say about them, but she only says positive things about them which fit her narrative. She never tries to consider alternative views about them or explain any examples that don’t easily fit her narrative. Counter-examples or apparent counter-examples are simply left out of the book. Another potential counter-example is Steve Jobs, who is a better and more productive person than any people used as examples in her book, yet he has a reputation rather contrary to the scout mindset. That’s the kind of challenging apparent/potential counter-example that she could have engaged with but didn’t.

She uses an example of a Twitter thread where someone thought email greetings revealed sexism, and she (the tweet author) got cheered for sharing this complaint. Then she checked her data and found that her claim was factually wrong. She retracted. Great? Hold on. Let’s analyze a little more. Are there any other explanations? Even if the original factual claims were true, would sexism necessarily follow? Why not try to think about other narratives? For example, maybe men are less status oriented or less compliant with social norms, so that is why they are less inclined to use fancier titles when addressing her. It doesn’t have to be sexism. If you want to blame sexism, you should look at how they treat men, not just as how they treat one woman. Another potential explanation is that men dislike you individually and don’t treat other women the same way, which could be for some reason other than sexism. E.g. maybe it’s because you’re biased against men but not biased against women, so men pick up on that and respect you less. Galef never thinks anything through in depth and doesn’t consider additional nuances like these.

For Blackmore, the narrative is that anyone can go wrong and rationality is about correcting your mistakes. (Another example is someone who fell for a multi-level marketing scheme before realizing the error.) Blackmore had some experience and then started believing in the paranormal and then did science experiments to test that stuff and none of it worked and she changed her mind. Good story? Hold on. Let’s think critically. Did Blackmore do any new experiments? Were the old experiments refuting the paranormal inadequate or incomplete in some way? Did she review them and critique them? The story mentioned none of them. So why did she do redundant experiments and waste resources to gather the same evidence that already existed? And why did it change her mind when it had no actual new information? Because she was biased to respect the results of her own experiments but not prior experiments done by other people (that she pointed out no flaws in)? This fits the pro-evidence, pro-science-experiments bias of LW/Galef. They’re too eager to test things without considering that, often, we already have plenty of evidence and we just need to examine and debate it better. Blackmore didn’t need any new evidence to change her mind and getting funding to do experiments like that speaks to her privilege. Galef brings up multiple examples of privilege without showing any awareness of it; she just seems to want to suck up to high status people, and not think critically about their flaws, rather than to actually consider their privileges. Blackmore not only was able to fund bad experiments, then she was able to change her mind and continue her career. Why did she get more opportunities after doing such a bad job earlier in her career? Yes she improved (how much really though?). But other people didn’t suck in the first place, then also improved, and never got such great opportunities.

Possibly all the examples in the book of changing one’s mind were things that Galef’s social circle can agree with instead of be challenged by. They all changed their minds to agree with Galef more, not less. E.g. an example was used of becoming more convinced by global warming which, in passing, smeared some other people on the climate change skeptic side as being really biased, dishonest, etc. (True of some of them probably but not a good thing to throw around as an in-passing smear based on hearsay. And true of people on the opposite side of the debate too, so it’s biased to only say it about the side you disagree with to undermine and discredit them in passing while having the deniability of saying it was just an example of something else about rationality.) There was a pro-choicer who became less dogmatic but remained pro-choice, and I think Galef’s social circle also is pro-choice but trying not to be dogmatic about it. There was also a pro-vaccine person who was careful and strategic about bringing up the subject with his anti-vax wife but didn’t reconsider his own views at all, but he and the author did display some understanding of the other side’s point of view and why some superficial pro-vax arguments won’t work. So the narrative is if you understand the point of view of the people who are wrong, then you can persuade them better. But (implied) if you have center-left views typical of EA and LW people, then you won’t have to change your mind much since you’re mostly right.

Galef’s Misquote

Here’s a slightly edited version of my post on my CF forum about a misquote in the book. I expect the book has other misquotes (and factual errors, bad cites, etc.) but I didn’t look for them.

The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef quotes a blog post:

“Well, that’s too bad, because I do think it was morally wrong.”[14]

But the words in the sentence are different in the original post:

Well that’s just too bad, because I do think it was morally wrong of me to publish that list.

She left out the “just” and also cut off the quote early which made it look like the end of a sentence when it wasn’t. Also a previous quote from the same post changes the italics even though the italics match in this one.

The book also summarizes events related to this blog post, and the story told doesn’t match reality (as I see it by looking at the actual posts). Also I guess he didn’t like the attention from the book because he took his whole blog down and the link in the book’s footnote is dead. The book says they’re engaged so maybe he mistakenly thought he would like the attention and had a say in whether to be included? Hopefully… Also the engagement may explain the biased summary of the story that she gave in her book about not being biased.

She also wrote about the same events:

He even published a list titled “Why It’s Plausible I’m Wrong,”

This is misleading because he didn’t put up a post with that title. It’s a section title within a post and she didn’t give a cite so it’s hard to find. Also her capitalization differs from the original which said “Why it’s plausible I’m wrong”. The capitalization change is relevant to making it look more like a title when it isn’t.

BTW I checked archives from other dates. The most recent working one doesn’t have any edits to this wording nor does the oldest version.

What is going on? This book is from a major publisher and there’s no apparent benefit to misquoting it in this way. She didn’t twist his words for some agenda; she just changed them enough that she’s clearly doing something wrong but with no apparent motive (besides maybe minor editing to make the quote sound more polished?). And it’s a blog post; wouldn’t she use copy/paste to get the quote? Did she have the blog post open in her browser and go back and forth between it and her manuscript in order to type in the quote by hand!? That would be a bizarre process. Or does she or someone else change quotes during editing passes in the same way they’d edit non-quotes? Do they just run Grammarly or similar and see snippets from the book and edit them without reading the whole paragraph and realizing they’re within quote marks?

My Email to Julia Galef

Misquote in Scout Mindset:

“Well, that’s too bad, because I do think it was morally wrong.”[14]

But the original sentence was actually:

Well that’s just too bad, because I do think it was morally wrong of me to publish that list.

The largest change is deleting the word "just".

I wanted to let you know about the error and also ask if you could tell me what sort of writing or editing process is capable of producing that error? I've seen similar errors in other books and would really appreciate if I could understand what the cause is. I know one cause is carelessness when typing in a quote from paper but this is from a blog post and was presumably copy/pasted.

Galef did not respond to this email.

Elliot Temple on December 2, 2022


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