Beliefs Are For True Things

Beliefs, after all, are for true things, and if you lose sight of that you will lose your epistemics. If you think only of what gives you an advantage in a debate, of what sounds nice, of what wins you the admiration of your peers, of what is politically correct, or of what you would prefer to be true, you will not be able to actually believe true things.

Paul Graham wrote about this in Persuade xor Discover:

The danger of the [version of an argument intended to persuade] is not merely that it's longer. It's that you start to lie to yourself. The ideas start to get mixed together with the spin you've added to get them past the readers' misconceptions.

I think the goal of an essay should be to discover surprising things. That's my goal, at least. And most surprising means most different from what people currently believe. So writing to persuade and writing to discover are diametrically opposed. The more your conclusions disagree with readers' present beliefs, the more effort you'll have to expend on selling your ideas rather than having them. As you accelerate, this drag increases, till eventually you reach a point where 100% of your energy is devoted to overcoming it and you can't go any faster.

It's hard enough to overcome one's own misconceptions without having to think about how to get the resulting ideas past other people's. I worry that if I wrote to persuade, I'd start to shy away unconsciously from ideas I knew would be hard to sell. When I notice something surprising, it's usually very faint at first. There's nothing more than a slight stirring of discomfort. I don't want anything to get in the way of noticing it consciously.

This also reminded me of the Litany of Tarski:

Draco, let me introduce you to something I call the Litany of Tarski. It changes every time you use it. On this occasion it runs like so: If magic is fading out of the world, I want to believe that magic is fading out of the world. If magic is not fading out of the world, I want not to believe that magic is fading out of the world. Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

Adjectives from the Future: The Dangers of Result-based Descriptions

Yeah, that was a good point about changing the means but not the mission. It would be costly to change the name of the entire foundation every time you changed your tactic.

In the examples you give, it would be somewhat misleading to describe both motive and method - "weight-loss program" doesn't specify mechanism because it applies to a lot of different mechanisms.

We should probably do that when we are not experts. A doctor may safely call something a sleeping pill, but a novice at the gym should probably say "I'm doing crunches for weight-loss" and not "I'm on a weight-loss program".

Use more words, actually put effort into understanding rather than just assuming the the 2-4 word description is all there is.

We both agree that if people went into the features, they wouldn't be misled as often. I was hoping to make it easier to not be misled even when people didn't spend time reading beyond the headline. That is why it would be crucial to mention features in the name and not just the intended result.

Thanks for the feedback.

Adjectives from the Future: The Dangers of Result-based Descriptions

I agree that it can be hard to describe a detailed activity in a short phrase, especially to a layman who might care more that it is a weight-loss program than that it involves kettlebell swings. I don't have a great solution for that.

Why not minimize the manipulation by describing both the intent and the means, as in "Mosquito Nets to Fight Malaria" instead of "Against Malaria" (pure intent) or "Mosquito Net Distribution" (pure means)? As you say, we might lead people astray if we don't check the means against the intent, so I think we should avert that by specifying the means and letting the listener check it for us.

Thanks for the comment.

Adjectives from the Future: The Dangers of Result-based Descriptions

I guess you're saying we allow for the possibility of failure when somebody says "I'm on a weight-loss program". I agree. We are not completely gullible in the face of such descriptions.

I'm claiming that we seem to be visibly more skeptical when we see the features than when we see just the intended result. For example, "weight-loss program" vs using the telemarketed ab machine for 15 minutes. Similarly with "clean air law" vs raising the fuel tax rate, or "cost-cutting measure" vs switching to online advertising.

Would you agree with that claim? Thanks for your feedback.