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What does the word "collaborative" mean in the phrase "collaborative truthseeking"?

by Zack_M_Davis1 min read26th Jun 201922 comments



I keep hearing this phrase, "collaborative truthseeking." Question: what kind of epistemic work is the word "collaborative" doing?

Like, when you (respectively I) say a thing and I (respectively you) hear it, that's going to result in some kind of state change in my (respectively your) brain. If that state change results in me (respectively you) making better predictions than I (respectively you) would have in the absence of the speech, then that's evidence for the hypothesis that at least one of us is "truthseeking."

But what's this "collaborative" thing about? How do speech-induced state changes result in better predictions if the speaker and listener are "collaborative" with each other? Are there any circumstances in which the speaker and listener being "collaborative" might result in worse predictions?

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If "collaborative" is qualifying truth-seeking, perhaps we can see it more easily by contrast with non-collaborative truthseeking. So what might that look like?

  • I might simply be optimizing for the accuracy of my beliefs, instead of whether or not you also discover the truth.
  • I might be optimizing competitively, where my beliefs are simply judged on whether they're better than yours.
  • I might be primarily concerned about learning from the environment or from myself as opposed to learning from you.
  • I might be following only my interests, instead of joint interests.
  • I might be behaving in a way that doesn't incentivize you to point out things useful to me, or discarding clues you provide, or in a way that fails to provide you clues.

This suggests collaborative truthseeking is done 1) for the benefit of both parties, 2) in a way that builds trust and mutual understanding, and 3) in a way that uses that trust and mutual understanding as a foundation.

There's another relevant contrast, where we could look at collaborative non-truthseeking, or contrast "collaborative truthseeking" as a procedure with other procedures that could be used (like "allocating blame"), but this one seems most related to what you're driving at.

Assumption: Most people are not truthseeking.

Therefore, a rational truthseeking person's priors would still be that the person they are debating with is optimizing for something else, such as creating an alliance, or competing for status.

Collaborative truthseeking would then be what happens where all participants trust each other to care about truth. That not only each of them cares about truth privately, but that this value is also common knowledge.

If I believe that the other person genuinely cares about truth, then I will take their arguments more seriously, and if I am surprised, I will be more likely to ask for more info.

There are two cultures in this particular trade-off. Collaborative and adversarial.

I pitch collaborative as, "let's work together to find the answer (truth)" and I pitch adversarial as, "let's work against each other to find the answer (truth)".

Internally the stance is different. For collaborative, it might look something like, "I need to consider the other argument and then offer my alternative view". For adversarial, it might look something like, "I need to advocate harder for my view because I'm right". (not quite a balanced description)

Collaborative: "I don't know if that's true, what about x" Adversarial "you're wrong because of x".

Culturally 99% of either is fine as long as all parties agree on the culture and act like it. They do include each other at least partially.

Bad collaboration is not being willing to question the other's position and bad adversarial is not being willing to question one's own position and blindly advocating.

I see adversarial as going downhill in quality of conversation faster because it's harder to get a healthy separation of "you are wrong" from, "and you should feel bad (or dumb) about it". "only an idiot would have an idea like that".

In a collaborative process, the other person is not an idiot because there's an assumption that we work together. If adversarial process cuts to the depth of beliefs about our interlocker then from my perspective it gets un-pretty very quickly. Although skilled scientists are always using both and have a clean separation of personal and idea.

In an adversarial environment, I've known of some brains to take the feedback, "you are wrong because x" and translate it to, "I am bad, or I should give up, or I failed" and not "I should advocate for my idea better".

At the end of an adversarial argument is a very strong flip, popperian style "I guess I am wrong so I take your side".

At the end of a collaborative process is when I find myself taking sides, up until that point, it's not always clear what my position is, and even at the end of a collaborative process I might be internally resting on the best outcome of collaboration so far, but tomorrow that might change.

I see the possibility of being comfortable in each step of collaboration to say, "thank you for adding something here". However I see that harder or more friction to say so during adversarial cultures.

I advocate for collaboration over adversarial culture because of the bleed through from epistemics to inherent interpersonal beliefs. Humans are not perfect arguers or it would not matter so much. Because we play with brains and mixing territory of belief and interpersonal relationships I prefer collaborative to adversarial but I could see a counter argument that emphasised the value of the opposite position.

I can also see that it doesn't matter which culture one is in, so long as there is clarity around it being one and not the other.

I share Richard Kennaway's feeling that this is a rather strange question because the answer seems so obvious; perhaps I'm missing something important. But:

"Collaborative" just means "working together". Collaborative truthseeking means multiple people working together in order to distinguish truth from error. They might do this for a number of reasons, such as these:

  • They have different skills that mesh together to let them do jointly what they could not do so well separately.
  • The particular truths they're after require a lot of effort to pin down, and having more people working on that can get it done quicker.
  • They know different things; perhaps the truth in question can be deduced by putting together multiple people's knowledge.
  • There are economies of scale; e.g., a group of people could get together and buy a bunch of books or a fast computer or a subscription to some information source, which is almost as useful to each of them as if they'd paid its full price on their own.
  • There are things they can do together that nudge their brains into working more effectively (e.g., maybe adversarial debate gets each person to dig deeper for arguments in a particular direction than they would have done without the impetus to compete and win).

There is a sense in which collaborative truth-seeking is built out of individual truth-seeking. It just happens that sometimes the most effective way for an individual to find what's true in a particular area involves working together with other individuals who also want to do that.

Collaborative truth-seeking may involve activities that individual truth-seeking (at least if that's interpreted rather strictly) doesn't because they fundamentally require multiple people, such as adversarial debate or double-cruxing.

Being "collaborative" isn't a thing that in itself brings benefits. It's a name for a variety of things people do that bring benefits. Speech-induced state changes don't result in better predictions because they're "collaborative"; engaging in the sort of speech whose induced state changes seem likely to result in better predictions is collaboration.

And yes, there are circumstances in which collaboration could be counterproductive. E.g., it might be easier to fall into groupthink. Sufficiently smart collaboration might be able to avoid this by explicitly pushing the participants to explore more diverse positions, but empirically it doesn't look as if that usually happens.

Related: collaborative money-seeking, where people join together to form a "company" or "business" that pools their work in order to produce goods or services that they can sell for profit, more effectively than they could if not working together. Collaborative sex-seeking, where people join together to form a "marriage" or "relationship" or "orgy" from which they can derive more pleasure than they could individually. Collaborative good-doing, where people join together to form a "charity" which helps other people more effectively than the individuals could do it on their own. Etc.

(Of course businesses, marriages, charities, etc., may have other purposes besides the ones listed above, and often do; so might groups of people getting together to seek the truth.)

I don't hear this phrase much, so I suspect it's heavily context-specific in it's usage. If I were to use it at work, it'd probably be ironic, as a euphemism for "let me correct your thinking".

I can imagine it being used as a way to explicitly agree that the participants in a discussion are there to each change their minds, or to understand and improve their models, by comparing and exchanging beliefs with each other. Truth-seeking is the intent to change your beliefs, collaborative truth-seeking is the shared intent to change the group members' beliefs.