SSC discussion: "bicameral reasoning", epistemology, and scope insensitivity

by tog1 min read27th May 20154 comments

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Personal Blog

(Continuing the posting of select posts from Slate Star Codex for comment here, as discussed in this thread, and as Scott Alexander gave me - and anyone else - permission to do with some exceptions.)

Scott recently wrote a post called Bicameral Reasoning. It touches on epistemology and scope insensitivity. Here are some excerpts, though it's worth reading the whole thing:

Delaware has only one Representative, far less than New York’s twenty-seven. But both states have an equal number of Senators, even though New York has a population of twenty million and Delaware is uninhabited except by corporations looking for tax loopholes.

[...]

I tend to think something like “Well, I agree with this guy about the Iraq war and global warming, but I agree with that guy about election paper trails and gays in the military, so it’s kind of a toss-up.”

And this way of thinking is awful.

The Iraq War probably killed somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 people. If you think that it was unnecessary, and that it was possible to know beforehand how poorly it would turn out, then killing a few hundred thousand people is a really big deal. I like having paper trails in elections as much as the next person, but if one guy isn’t going to keep a very good record of election results, and the other guy is going to kill a million people, that’s not a toss-up.

[...]

I was thinking about this again back in March when I had a brief crisis caused by worrying that the moral value of the world’s chickens vastly exceeded the moral value of the world’s humans. I ended up being trivially wrong – there are only about twenty billion chickens, as opposed to the hundreds of billions I originally thought. But I was contingently wrong – in other words, I got lucky. Honestly, I didn’t know whether there were twenty billion chickens or twenty trillion.

And honestly, 99% of me doesn’t care. I do want to improve chickens, and I do think that their suffering matters. But thanks to the miracle of scope insensitivity, I don’t particularly care more about twenty trillion chickens than twenty billion chickens.

Once again, chickens seem to get two seats to my moral Senate, no matter how many of them there are. Other groups that get two seats include “starving African children”, “homeless people”, “my patients in hospital”, “my immediate family”, and “my close friends”.

[...]

I’m tempted to say “The House is just plain right and the Senate is just plain wrong”, but I’ve got to admit that would clash with my own very strong inclinations on things like the chicken problem. The Senate view seems to sort of fit with a class of solutions to the dust specks problem where after the somethingth dust speck or so you just stop caring about more of them, with the sort of environmentalist perspective where biodiversity itself is valuable, and with the Leibnizian answer to Job.

But I’m pretty sure those only kick in at the extremes. Take it too far, and you’re just saying the life of a Delawarean is worth twenty-something New Yorkers.

Thoughts?

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[-][anonymous]6y 9

I loved that post. I commented on it originally, but I'll comment here too.

People probably use bicameral reasoning for a lot of things, but I doubt that too many people actually use it for thinking about politics.

I remember sitting around a campfire with my mom and grandpa in like kindergarten and listening to them discuss politics. My grandpa was talking about all these issues, and my mom was admitting to not being well-informed or having strong opinions about any of them. She said, “As long as democrats approve of abortion, nothing will convince me to vote for them.” My grandpa sighed and told her she was trapped in a religious bubble, that there was a whole world out there she was ignorant of.

But I remember thinking, “Wow! Mom is actually smart.” If democrats are murdering tons and tons of babies every year, and we only hope they go to heaven but God doesn’t actually say, who cares about money or guns or school or any of that other stuff? Even global warming was insignificant, since we believed the earth was going to end anyway. Maybe global warming would just be His way of destroying it. So based on abortion alone, I considered myself Republican until I deconverted from Christianity.

Maybe a week after deconverting, I thought, “well, I guess I should think about voting democrat now.” This was based solely on environmental concerns. There was no longer any guarantee that the earth would end anytime soon, and I’d quite rather it didn’t. All the other issues were fun to think about if I could find the time to inform myself, but I wasn’t terribly concerned about them.

So ultimately, maybe a lack of scope insensitivity could be the root cause of the strong correlation between political party and religious affiliation. Everyone blames herd mentality, which is a huge part of it, but even people who bother thinking for themselves are likely to arrive at the same conclusion as their peers... which is a nice counter for people who think that accurate beliefs aren't too important as long as people's beliefs make them happy.

While your family's situation is explained by lack of scope insensitivity, I'd like to put forward an alternative. I think the behavior you described also fits with rationalization. If you family had already made up their mind about supporting the Republican party, they could easily justify it to themselves (and to you) by citing a particular close-to-the-heart issue as an iron-clad reason.

Rationalization also explains why "even people who bother thinking for themselves are likely to arrive at the same conclusion as their peers" - it just means that said people are engaging in motivated cognition to come up with reasonable-sounding arguments to support the same conclusions as their peers.

[-][anonymous]6y 1

Yeah, but if my mom's parents were on one side of the fence, that would make it less likely for her to hop to the other side, right? She did seem like she thought the democrats were probably right about some things, but that those things were dwarfed by the larger issue. So I'm still mostly convinced this instance was a lack of scope insensitivity.

it just means that said people are engaging in motivated cognition to come up with reasonable-sounding arguments to support the same conclusions as their peers.

Ah yes, good point. I'm guilty too, haha. A few years ago I engaged in some motivated cognition to convince myself there were solid secular reasons to oppose gay marriage, since everyone I knew and respected was against it even though they claimed to believe in the separation of church and state.

For my part, I'm interested in the connection to GiveWell's powerful advocacy of "cluster thinking". I'll think about this some more and post thoughts if I have time.