Defense Against The Dark Arts: Case Study #1


Scott Alexander

Related to: The Power of Positivist Thinking, On Seeking a Shortening of the Way, Crowley on Religious Experience

Annoyance wants us to stop talking about fancy techniques and get back to basics. I disagree with the philosophy behind his statement, but the principle is sound. In many areas of life - I'm thinking mostly of sports, but not for lack of alternatives - mastery of the basics beats poorly-grounded fancy techniques every time.

One basic of rationality is paying close attention to an argument. Dissecting it to avoid rhetorical tricks, hidden fallacies, and other Dark Arts.  I've been working on this for years, and I still fall short on a regular basis.

Medical educators have started emphasizing case studies in their curricula. Instead of studying arcane principles of disease, student doctors cooperate to analyze a particular patient in detail, ennumerate the principles needed to diagnose her illness, and pay special attention to any errors the patients' doctors made during the treatment. The cases may be rare tropical infections, but they're more often the same everyday diseases common in the general population, forcing the student doctors to always keep the basics in mind. We could do with a tradition of case studies in rationality, though we'd need safeguards to prevent degeneration into political discussion.

Case studies in medicine are most interesting when all the student doctors disagree with each other. To that end, I've chosen as the first case a statement that received sixteen upvotes on Less Wrong, maybe the highest I've ever seen for a comment. I don't mean to insult or embarass everyone who liked it. I liked it too. My cursor was already hovering above the "Vote Up" button by the time I starting having second thoughts. But it deserves dissection, and its popularity gives me a ready response when someone says this material is too basic for 'master rationalists' like ourselves:

In his youth, Steve Jobs went to India to be enlightened. After seeing that the nation claiming to be the source of this great spiritual knowledge was full of hunger, ignorance, squalor, poverty, prejudice, and disease, he came back and said that the East should look to the West for enlightenment.

This anecdote is short, witty, flattering, and utterly opaque to reason. It bears all the hallmarks of the Dark Arts.

I admit I am not a disinterested party here. The statement was in response to my claim that Indian yoga was a successful technique for inducing exotic and occasionally useful mental states. I don't like being told I'm wrong any more than anyone else does. But here I don't think I am. I see at least five fallacies.

First, a hidden assumption: if A is superior to B, A cannot learn anything from B. This assumption is clearly false. I know brilliant scientists whose spelling is atrocious. I acknowledge that these people are much smarter than I am, but I still correct their spelling. Anyone who said "Dr. A should not be learning spelling from Yvain, Yvain should be learning science from Dr. A" would be missing the point. If Dr. A wants to learn spelling, he might as well learn it from me. And best of all if we both learn from each other!

A related fallacy would be that Dr. A is so much smarter than the rest of us that he should not care about spelling. But if spelling is important to his work (perhaps he's writing a journal article) he needs to do everything he can to perfect it. If he could spell correctly, he would be even further ahead of the rest of us than he already is. The goal isn't to become a bit better than your peers and then rest on your laurels. The goal is to become as skilled as necessary.

The error is an interesting variant of the halo effect: that anyone superior at most things must be superior at all things.

Second, the statement assumes that India is a single monolithic entity with or without spiritual wisdom. But even the most gushing Orientalist would not study at the feet of a call-centre worker in Bangalore. Whatever spiritual wisdom may exist in India, it will be believed by a small fraction of Indian religions, be practiced by a small fraction of the believers, and be mastered by a small number of the practioners. And if Crowley is to be believed, it will be understood by a small fraction of the masters.

Compare the question: if America is so good at science, why does it have so many creationists? Well, because the people who are good at science aren't the same ones believing in creationism, that's why. And the people who are good at science don't have enough power in society to do anything about the creationism issue. This does not reflect poorly on the truth-value of scientific theories discovered by Americans.

I'm not one of those fallacy classification nuts, but for completeness' sake, this is a fallacy of composition.

Third, the statement assumes that spiritual wisdom makes people less poor and squalid. The converse of this statement certainly isn't true - being rich and sanitary doesn't give you any spiritual value, as large segments of western civilization have spent the past three hundred years amply demonstrating. People commonly interpret spiritual wisdom as conferring a disdain for material goods. So we wouldn't necessarily expect to see a lot of material well-being in a spiritually wise society.

Part of this is a problem with the definition of "spiritual wisdom". It can mean anything from "being a moral person who cares about others" to "being wise and able to make good decisions" to "having mastery of certain mental techniques that produce awe-inspiring experiences" Under the first and second definition, a spiritually attained country should be a nice place to live. Under the third definition, not so much. Crowley endorses the third definition, and believes that most spiritually wise people dismiss the mundane world as unworthy of their attention anyway. But this contradicts our usual intuitions about "spirituality" and "wisdom".

This is a failure of definition, and it's why I prefer "high level of mystical attainment" to "spiritually wise" when discussing Crowley's theories.

Fourth, this is hardly a controlled experiment. India is historically, geographically, racially, religiously, climatologically, and culturally different from the West. Attributing a certain failure to religious causes alone is highly dubious. In fact, when we think about it for a while, cramming a billion plus people into a sweltering malarial flood plain, dividing them evenly between two religions that hate each other's guts, then splitting off the northwest corner and turning it into a large populous nuclear-armed arch-enemy that declares war on them every couple of decades is probably not a recipe for success no matter what your spirituality. All we can say for certain is that India's spirituality is not sufficiently wonderful to overcome its other disadvantages.

People who like Latin call this cum hoc ergo propter hoc.

Fifth, this equivocates the heck out of the word "enlightenment". Compare "enlightenment" meaning the set of rational values associated with Newton, Descartes, and Hume, to "enlightenment", meaning gaining important knowledge, to "enlightenment", meaning achieving a state of nirvana free from worldly desire. The West is the acknowledged master of the first definition, and India the acknowledged master of the third definition. The anecdote's claim seems to be that since the West is the acknowledged master of the first type of enlightenment, and could teach India some useful things about politics and economics in the second sense of enlightenment, India can't teach the West about the third sense of enlightenment...which would make sense, if the types of enlightenment were at all related instead of being three different things called by the same name.

This is a fallacy of equivocation.

Just because I can point out a few fallacies in a statement doesn't make it worthless. Spiritual wisdom doesn't always correlate with decent living conditions, but the lack of decent living conditions is some evidence against the presence of spiritual wisdom. Likewise, a country's success or failure doesn't always depend on its religion, but religion is one of many contributing factors that does make a difference.

Still, five fallacies is a lot for a two sentence anecdote.

I don't think we all liked this anecdote so much because of whatever tiny core of usefulness managed to withstand those five fallacies. I think we liked it because it makes a good way to shut up hippies.

Hippies are always going on about how superior India is to the West in every way because of its "spirituality" and such, and how many problems are caused by "spiritually bankrupt" Western science. And here we are, people who quite like Western science, rolling our eyes at how stupid the hippie is being. Doesn't she realize that Western science gives her all of the comforts that make her life bearable, from drinkable water to lice-free clothing? And this anecdote - it strikes a blow for our team. It makes us feel good. We don't need to look to India for enlightenment! India should look to us! Take that, hippie!

But reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Just because the hippie is wrong about India, doesn't mean we have to be wrong in the opposite direction. It might be useful to share it with this hypothetical hippie, just to start her thinking. But it's not something we can seriously endorse.

Nor do I accept the defense that it was not specifically posted with the conclusion "Therefore, ignore Crowley's views on yoga." Merely placing it directly below an article on enlightenment from India is a declaration of war and a hijack attempt on the train of thought. Saying "I hear people of African descent have a higher violent crime rate" is not a neutral act when spoken right before a job interview with a black person.

Defense Against the Dark Arts needs to become total and automatic, because it is the foundation upon which the complicated rationalist techniques are built. There's no point studying some complex Bayesian evidence-summing manuever that could determine the expected utility of studying yoga if an anecdote about Steve Jobs can keep you from even considering it.

How do you know you have mastered this art? When the statements

In his youth, Steve Jobs went to India to be enlightened. After seeing that the nation claiming to be the source of this great spiritual knowledge was full of hunger, ignorance, squalor, poverty, prejudice, and disease, he came back and said that the East should look to the West for enlightenment.


For complex historical reasons, the average Westerner is richer than the average Indian. Therefore, there is minimal possibility that any Indian people ever discovered interesting mental techniques.

sound exactly alike.