Special Status Needs Special Support

by Eliezer Yudkowsky1 min read4th May 200975 comments


Affect HeuristicSocial & Cultural Dynamics
Personal Blog

I just recorded another BHTV with Adam Frank, though it's not out yet, and I had a thought that seems worth recording.  At a certain point in the dialogue, Adam Frank was praising the wisdom and poetry in religion.  I retorted, "Tolkien's got great poetry, and some parts that are wise and some that are unwise; but you don't see people wearing little rings around their neck in memory of Frodo."

(I don't remember whether this observation is original to me, so if anyone knows a prior source for this exact wording, please comment it!)

The general structure of this critique is that Frank wants to assign a special status to the Book of Job, but he gives a reason that would be equally applicable to The Lord of the Rings (good poetry and some wise parts).  So if those are his real reasons, he should feel just the same way about God and Gandalf.  Or if not that exact particular book, then some other work of poetic fiction that was always understood to be poetic fiction.

Later on I did demand of Adam Frank to say whether he thought the Book of Job ought to be assigned any different status from The Merchant of Venice, and Frank did reply "No".  I'm not sure that he lives up to this reply, frankly.  I strongly suspect he grants the two works a different emotional status.  One is widely revered as Sacred Religious Truth while the other is merely a Great Work of Literature.  Frank, while not a religious believer himself, does have different modes of thought for Sacred Truth and Great Literature and he knows that Job is supposed to be Sacred Truth.

When I challenged the sacredness of the Book of Job, Frank reacted by trying to praise Job's "great poetry", which positive affect then seems to justify the positive-affect sacred status via the affect heuristic / halo effect.  But "great poetry" would apply to Tolkien as well; and yet if you talked about Tolkien the way that Frank talked about Job, most people would write you down as a hopeless fanboy/fangirl...

So the general form of the bias that I'm critiquing is to try and justify a special positive (negative) status by pointing to positive (negative) attributes, saying, "Therefore I can assign it this very positive status!", but the same attributes belong to many other works that you don't grant the special positive status.

Other places to watch out for this would be if, say, you thought that Morton Smerdley was the greatest genius ever, and someone called on you to justify this, and you replied "Morton Smerdley became a Math Professor at just the age of 27" - but there are other people who became math professors at 27, or even 26, and yet you don't feel the special reverence toward them that you attach to Smerdley.