Generalized Mount Stupid

Originally published December 6, 2014

SMBC #2475 by Zach Weiner
The vast accumulations of knowledge—or at least of information—deposited by the nineteenth century have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.—T.S. Eliot
This is rather important.

People habitually conflate their ability to talk about something with their knowledge of it. Mount Stupid grows as you approach gender, race, nootropics, IQ, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, theology, metaphysics, consciousness, psychology, etc.

Robin Hanson points out that Mount Stupid is a global maximum for contentious but settled issues:
I have had this experience several times in my life; I come across clear enough evidence that settles for me an issue I had seen long disputed. At that point my choice is to either go back and try to persuade disputants, or to continue on to explore the new issues that this settlement raises. After a short detour to tell a few disputants, I have usually chosen this second route. This is one explanation for the existence of settled but still disputed issues; people who learn the answer leave the conversation.
Why is it so awful?


Actually knowing things is hard. Bullshitting is easy. People say whatever they think will create the best impression, which is unrelated to what they know. People are disingenuous as a rule.

But even the rare folk who don't bullshit all the fucking time are mostly on Mount Stupid most of the time. It'd be disingenuous of me to pretend I know all the reasons for this. T.S. Eliot points to part of it. Part of it is that humans automatically conflate familiarity with understanding.

Mount Stupid isn't limited to conversations and arguments. The oft-quoted Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect:
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
It's easy to debunk casual bullshit in print, but people never do, even smart people. The ubiquity of Mount Stupid bothers me so much because it's so easy to believe what people say. It's so easy to believe the specious thoughts you think and say aloud.

"Don't believe everything you read."
"Don't believe everything you think."

These things are read with approval and then ignored. Reading those words produces no change in epistemic behavior. Surely neither will this blog post change its readers in the way that it should.

If all you want is to have "interesting" conversations, then you will ignore me, you will go on bullshitting unaware that you are bullshitting and buying everyone else's bullshit. But if you want to believe truly, and wisely allocate your epistemic humility, then maintain a socially unviable level of lack of opinion on most things.

Quoth Gwern:
It’s worth noting that the IQ wars are a rabbit hole you can easily dive down. The literature is vast, spans all sorts of groups, all sorts of designs, from test validities to sampling to statistical regression vs causal inference to forms of bias; every point is hotly debated, the ways in which studies can be validly critiqued are an education in how to read papers and look for how they are weak or make jumps or some of the data just looks wrong, and you’ll learn every technical requirement and premise and methodological limitation because the opponents of that particular result will be sure to bring them up if it’ll at all help their case.
In this respect, it’s a lot like the feuds in biblical criticism over issues like whether Jesus existed, or the long philosophical debate over the existence of God. There too is an incredible amount of material to cover, by some really smart people (what did geeks do before science and modernity? well, for the most part, they seem to have done theology; consider how much time and effort Isaac Newton reportedly spent on alchemy and his own Biblical studies, or the sheer brainpower that must’ve been spent over the centuries in rabbinical studies). You could learn a lot about the ancient world or the incredibly complex chain of transmission of the Bible’s constituents in their endless varieties and how they are put together into a single canonical modern text, or the other countless issues of textual criticism. An awful lot, indeed. One could, and people as smart or smarter than you have, lose one’s life in exploring little back-alleys and details.
If, like most people, you’ve only read a few papers or books on it, your opinion (whatever that is) is worthless and you probably don’t even realize how worthless your opinion is, how far you are from actually grasping the subtleties involved and having a command of all the studies and criticisms of said studies. I exempt myself from this only inasmuch as I have realized how little I still know after all my reading. No matter how tempting it is to think that you may be able to finally put together the compelling refutation of God’s existence or to demonstrate that Jesus’s divinity was a late addition to his gospel, you won’t make a dent in the debate. In other words, these can become forms of nerd sniping and intellectual crack. “If only I compile a few more studies, make a few more points - then my case will become clear and convincing, and people on the Internet will stop being wrong!”
But having said that, and admiring things like Plantinga’s free will defense, and the subtle logical issues in formulating it and the lack of any really concrete evidence for or against Jesus’s existence, do I take the basic question of God seriously? No. The theists’ rearguard attempts and ever more ingenious explanations and indirect pathways of reasons and touted miracles fundamentally do not add up to an existing whole. The universe does not look anything like a omni-benevolent/powerful/scient god was involved, a great deal of determined effort has failed to provide any convincing proof, there not being a god is consistent with all the observed processes and animal kingdom and natural events and material world we see, and so on. The persistence of the debate reflects more what motivated cognition can accomplish and the weakness of existing epistemology and debate. Unfortunately, this could be equally well-said by someone on the other side of the debate, and in any case, I cannot communicate my gestalt impression of the field to anyone else. I don’t expect anyone to be the least bit swayed by what I’ve written here.
So why be interested in the topics at all? If you cannot convince anyone, if you cannot learn the field to a reasonable depth, and you cannot even communicate well what convinced you, why bother? In the spirit of keeping one’s identity small, I say: it’s not clear at all. So you should know in advance whether you want to take the red pill and see how far down the rabbit hole you go before you finally give up, or you take the blue pill and be an onlooker as you settle for a high-level overview of the more interesting papers and issues and accept that you will only have that and a general indefensible assessment of the state of play.

1 comment:

  1. I like the institution of commenting on one's own essay.

    This is a really good article. It's really useful to read it and then keep in mind and then keep in mind that having read it doesn't mean you're knowledgeable about the general topic.

    I was also surprised by how good Chrichton's "Why Speculate?" is, whence cometh the name of the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. It's admirably self-demonstrating in addition to making many nuanced points.

    I wanted to incorporate the Wittgenstein quote "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." I didn't know how.