Stop Believing the Opposite of What I Say

Originally Published October 6, 2014

In the previous two posts, I explained that I often can't explain stuff, and that this is painfully lonely. Now let me explain why this is much worse.

There's a common phenomenon, which doesn't have a name yet, where people will update their belief in the opposite direction from a claim, if they intuit that the claim wasn't sufficiently justified by its speaker. In many cases this is rational because ideas salesmen will say whatever they think is convincing. So when you listen to a solicitor's justifications, you can correctly conclude that the claims aren't based on any sound reasoning. Intuitively this goes "That's the best possible reason to believe this? It must be false then, or there would be stronger reasons." Another benefit of this strategy is coming to a conclusion quickly. There's nothing more irritating than having to think for more than five seconds.

You also generally intuit whether the person really believes what they're saying. Generally they do, because the easiest way to fool others is to fool yourself first.

This phenomenon is actually part of why it's bad to make up an explanation on the spot. An impromptu rationalization can be less convincing than the real reasons.

The heuristic goes really wrong when you're dealing with someone who's abnormally honest. Someone who, rather than merely selectively reporting 'genuinely held' beliefs, just forthrightly reports all hypotheses, evidence, and conclusions deemed relevant and important. When the "insufficient justification for claim" detector goes off because an intellectually honest person is unable to justify the claim, it definitely causes an update in the wrong direction.

As you've guessed, I am complaining about something that happens too often to me. I find myself very often in the crazy situation that even people who know how formidable I am, who've seen how evenhanded and measured and reflective I am with my reasoning, who themselves believe that they should listen to me, actively disbelieve anything I say, if I fail to provide a good enough reason.

Seriously. What kind of nonsense is this? It's not that they are ignoring me. They are taking what I say, and considering it evidence for the opposite, while separately believing that they should not do this. Pointing out the contradiction is ineffective; it might produce lip service but nothing more.

Would it be better to just never make any claims unless I think I can justify them completely to my audience? I really don't know. I've gotten too used to talking to people who are willing to entertain ideas just because I think they're worth entertaining. There's a conflict between hypothesis-exploration and hypothesis-justification. You can't do both at the same time. Nor can you think and do PR at the same time.

Here's a concrete example. I'm not apolitical, I'm anti-political: I think talking about politics isn't just a waste of time, but actively harmful in that it automatically prejudices you toward some positions and away from others (particularly towards those that are in the relevant social group's Overton window), and makes you less rational in the long term, about things other than politics. I have never convinced anyone of this. Talking about politics is a self-reinforcing behavior, a reward button. It would take a lot of explaining, or at least a lot of status, to impose the necessary moratorium on politics this belief implies.

Perhaps you can see why this is so frustrating and terrifying. Here I am trapped in a social situation where people are as far as I can tell destroying their minds, destroying MY mind, and I'm powerless to stop it, and what's more they do it more because I told them to stop. I don't know if the heuristic I described earlier is really why this happened, but it was the only charitable explanation I could think of. The behavior is indistinguishable from spitefulness.

In more detail: I was at a party during the trauma-production. (The only one I've ever been to. Never again.) Less than twenty minutes after making the claim, which I thought should have been so obvious as to go without saying, I gave up the arguing and took to the couch, where I laid for the next seven hours while the other goers "discussed" gender politics. Sexism in academia, how to reduce incidence of rape, the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit, for seven hours.

The 'discussion' should have been about the costs and benefits of adopting the policy I was proposing, but instead it was framed as "should we respect Grognor's stupid arbitrary preference?" Imagine this conversation:

"Okay guys, let's talk about how stupid Republicans are."
"Wait, you might want to desperately avoid making a habit of this."
"Oh no, it's the Topic Nazi come to ruin our fun!"

It was almost that blatant. The hostess even confabulated increasingly exaggerated false memories of my behavior the previous week to reduce my credibility.

Needless to say, I left early openly crying at my profound epistemic loneliness, thanks to someone who provided me a ride. If I couldn't be a good influence on these people, the people who respect me more than anyone else, I couldn't influence anyone.

And I really DID think it should have been obvious, even though I wrote an article warning against that mistake. I almost felt stupid, having to defend such an obvious claim. Like I was among children and I was the one who didn't believe in Santa Claus. Didn't these people see what politics does to people!?

I almost didn't write this article, because I knew the explanation would be insufficient, because while so many ideas swam around in my head in preparation for writing this, most of them are forgotten, lost forever. I didn't want people to read this and see the insufficient explanation and thence update in the wrong direction. But considering the subject matter of the post, I hope you'll consider not making that mistake.

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