The Signal and the Corrective

I pulled this draft from my “things to develop”-folder, where it’s been since I first wrote it as a comment on Slate Star Codex a year ago. A new coat of paint and some structural reinforcements later I can check it off my list of things to feel guilty about.

In the article I was commenting on, Scott Alexander reviews the book House of God by Samuel Shem, in which Shem chronicles his experiences working as a medical intern. One section jumped out at me because it described — from a different angle — the same phenomenon I’d written about in Partial Derivatives and Partial Narratives (“PDaPN” from now on).

PDaPN uses a convoluted multivariate calculus metaphor to illustrate how narratives give only a partial account of the world, while sort of pretending to explain it all.

From the inside, when you subscribe to a narrative, when you believe in it, it feels like you’ve stripped away all irrelevant noise and only the essence, The Underlying Principle, is left — the signal, in the language of information theory. However, that noise you just dismissed as irrelevant has other signals in it and sometimes people will consider them stronger, truer and more important.

Our intuition has problems with the idea that the same set of facts can have different “signals” behind them and none is The Single Underlying Truth. In particular it’s hard to grasp that this allows multiple narratives to coexist, even if they appear to contradict each other. Why? Well, narratives contradicting each other means that they simplify and generalize in different ways and assign goodness and badness to things in opposite directions. While that might look like contradiction it isn’t, because generalizations and value judgments aren’t strictly facts about the world. As a consequence, the more abstracted and value-laden narratives get the more they can contradict each other without any of them being “wrong”.

My original thought in PDaPN was that just like any mathematical function can have as many derivatives as it has variables, concepts and entities in the world can have any number of different narratives making sense of them. That might be strictly true, but as my own examples and the following quote from Scott Alexander’s review shows, two opposing narratives is (for game theoretical reasons) the most common special case.

House of God does a weird form of figure-ground inversion.

An example of what I mean, taken from politics: some people think of government as another name for the things we do together, like providing food to the hungry, or ensuring that old people have the health care they need. These people know that some politicians are corrupt, and sometimes the money actually goes to whoever’s best at demanding pork, and the regulations sometimes favor whichever giant corporation has the best lobbyists. But this is viewed as a weird disease of the body politic, something that can be abstracted away as noise in the system.

And then there are other people who think of government as a giant pork-distribution system, where obviously representatives and bureaucrats, incentivized in every way to support the forces that provide them with campaign funding and personal prestige, will take those incentives. Obviously they’ll use the government to crush their enemies. Sometimes this system also involves the hungry getting food and the elderly getting medical care, as an epiphenomenon of its pork-distribution role, but this isn’t particularly important and can be abstracted away as noise.

I think I can go back and forth between these two models when I need to, but it’s a weird switch of perspective, where the parts you view as noise in one model resolve into the essence of the other and vice versa.

And House of God does this to medicine.

Doctors use certain assumptions, like:

1. The patient wants to get better, but there are scientific limits that usually make this impossible
2. Medical treatment makes people healthier
3. Treatment is determined by medical need and expertise

But in House of God, the assumptions get inverted:

1. The patient wants to just die peacefully, but there are bureaucratic limits that usually make this impossible
2. Medical treatment makes people sicker
3. Treatment is determined by what will make doctors look good without having to do much work

Everybody knows that those first three assumptions aren’t always true. Yes, sometimes we prolong life in contravention of patients’ wishes. Sometimes people mistakenly receive unnecessary treatment that causes complications. And sometimes care suffers because of doctors’ scheduling issues. But it’s easy to abstract away to an ideal medicine based on benevolence and reason, and then view everything else as rare and unfortunate deviations from the norm.

House of God goes the whole way and does a full figure-ground inversion. The outliers become the norm; good care becomes the rare deviation. What’s horrifying is how convincing it is. Real medicine looks at least as much like the bizarro-world of House of God as it does the world of the popular imagination where doctors are always wise, diagnoses always correct, and patients always grateful.

Compare this with the similar contrast I made between those who love and those who hate Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged — maybe the most divisive book I know of.

That prosperity depends disproportionally on “heroic” inventors and entrepreneurs isn’t wrong, it’s just not the whole story.

If this variable, this dimension, is central to your own life and experience then recreating the world around it is like removing all annoying noise from a model to make it crisp and perfect. Rounding off into nice, round numbers. It overwhelms you with a sense of absolute clarity (the same thing happens to the political polar opposites when they read Marx). This sensation is powerful and beautiful. It is also how ideologues and fanatics are born.

If this dimension is not central for you the whole thing feels like a violation. A perversion, gross and twisted. An insult to good taste and decency, theology and geometry. Instead of removing the noise to get a clear signal, you remove the signal and warp the remaining noise into something grotesque. A franken-narrative that can only be the result of blatantly ignoring the real signal staring you in the face! Self-serving bullshit anyone with half a mind can see through.

It goes without saying that I don’t think either the lovers or the haters are deluded or evil. They just derive with respect to different variables, get two different derivatives and two different reintegrated functions. Not strictly incompatible – that’s the point, they do live in the same world — but they disagree on what’s signal and what’s noise, what’s central and what’s marginal. What’s the essence of [thing] and what’s its nonessential caveats we discard when rounding off and saving the stem in our gray matter archives?

It’s a good idea to try this kind of figure-ground inversion with your own views. It might serve to make your opinions more nuanced and most importantly make it easier to understand how something looks to somebody else. Scott’s “government” example is one of the more interesting ones, but there are others. Examples from PDaPN:

There are of course more examples than capitalism. Like nature vs. nurture. “People’s behavior are the result of socialization that works to perpetuate power structures” and “people’s behavior are the result of biological impulses and instincts” are both partial truths. But the full truth is not “in the middle” but on another plane entirely.

“History is determined by the actions of individuals” vs. “history is determined by large scale economic and technological forces.”

“Art subverts the audience’s unexamined preconceptions” vs. “art is the creation of transcendent beauty.”

“Sex is about satisfying basic, impersonal appetites” vs. “sex is an act of intimacy and an expression of love.”

“Ethics is about maximizing happiness” vs. “ethics is about doing your duty”.

“Science works by accumulating knowledge about the world, asymptotically approaching perfect correctness” vs. “science works by replacing one paradigm with another in a series of revolutions.”

I’ll add a few more I’ve collected since then[1]:

“Societies who do certain things are more successful and survive better than societies that don’t, therefore institutions and traditions are the result of beneficial cultural evolution” vs. “institutions and traditions arise as tools the powerful use to oppress the weak, and justice requires tearing them down”.

“Feelings and beliefs are voluntary actions that you decide to have” vs. “feelings and beliefs are things that happen to you that you have no control over”.

“The industrial revolutions lifted us all up from grueling poverty and made life better for everyone” vs. “the industrial revolution made life worse for the poor because capitalists forced them to work in dirty, polluting and dangerous factories”.

“The Dark Ages was when European civilization declined and remained a shithole for centuries” vs. “the Dark Ages are a myth and things were just as advanced as in antiquity”.

“Wealth means access to resources, and wealth in one place has been diverted from somewhere else, in reality everyone is entitled to an equal share” vs. “wealth is created by people’s ingenuity and work, wealth in one place comes from nowhere else and noone has any right to anything but what they themselves create”.

Whatever the ‘SJW’:s say vs. whatever the ‘alt-right’ says.

“The main moral question is finding out what’s right” vs. “we know what’s right, the main moral question is how to get people to do it”.

“Desperation and poverty causes moral corruption” vs. “power and wealth causes moral corruption”.

“There’s something valid in every belief and point of view” vs. “views and opinions are either right or wrong”.

“Raw economic incentives rule the world and will always produce races to the bottom” vs. “intentions, empathy, culture and values determines how people act in the economic realm”.

“Humans are born good but society corrupts us” vs. “humans are born bad and must be socialized to behave”[2].

“Bad things happen because of coordination problems, inefficiency, incompetence and irrationality” vs “bad things happen because people intentionally do evil”.

The “nerd” way of looking at the world vs. the “wamb”  way of looking at the world.

Signals and correctives

Most people have somewhat moderate views and they recognize that there is a bit of truth to both of two apparently opposing narratives. This can mask fundamental differences between those appearing to be in agreement.

Like, look at this zebra:


We can all agree on what it looks like. But some of us will think of it as a white horse with black stripes and some as a black horse with white stripes, and while it doesn’t actually matter now, that might change if whether “zebras are fundamentally white” or “zebras are fundamentally black” ever becomes an issue of political importance.

In the real world zebras are (thank God) still politically neutral, but similar patterns exist. Two people with political views like:

“The free market is extremely powerful and will work best as a rule, but there are a few outliers where it won’t, and some people will be hurt so we should have a social safety net to contain the bad side effects.”


“Capitalism is morally corrupt and rewards selfishness and greed. An economy run for the people by the people is a moral imperative, but planned economies don’t seem to work very well in practice so we need the market to fuel prosperity even if it is distasteful.”

. . . have very different fundamental attitudes but may well come down quite close to each other in terms of supported policies. If you model them as having one “main signal” (basic attitude) paired with a corrective to account for how the basic attitude fails to match reality perfectly, then this kind of difference is understated when the conversation is about specific issues (because then signals plus correctives are compared and the correctives bring “opposite” people closer together) but overstated when the conversation is about general principles — because then it’s only about the signal.

The funny sad thing is that this supports the view that if we saw every issue on its own terms instead of part of a Big Referendum on Which Side is Right About Everything then we would agree more and fight less (which is part of the reason politics gets less terrible as it gets more local).

It also explains the sort of situation (which happens to me a lot) where you switch sides based on who you’re talking to. If you’re with someone with an opposite signal, you prioritize boosting your own signal and ignore your own corrective that actually agrees with the other person. However, when talking to someone who agrees with your signal you may instead start to argue for your corrective. And if you’re in a social environment where everyone shares your signal and nobody ever mentions a corrective you’ll occasionally be tempted to defend something you don’t actually support (but typically you won’t because people will take it the wrong way). My “defense” of the concept “War on Christmas” from last year is an example of that.

The model gives us a new way to characterize zealots or ideologues (they’re people without correctives) and groupthink (that’s when correctives are not allowed). Such people and such environments creep me out.

Finally, it offers a new perspective on the whole Rand lovers vs. Rand haters thing. Capitalist-types are usually the villains in fiction[3], and how the poor are oppressed by the evil rich has been dramatized so many times that the corrective[4] — that entrepreneurship is crucial for building wealth, capital owners fill a very important function, and the wealth of the industrialized world is disproportionally created by those who innovate and build technological systems — will be jarring when it’s for once brought out and given full signal-treatment instead (with the corresponding corrective ignored). It’ll feel perverse (or liberating) the same way “medical treatment hurts people who want to die” does in House of God.

But why does it? I think most who aren’t hard left ideologues would recognize that there is at least some truth to the notion that entrepreneurs and innovators carry the modern world on their shoulders and that you shouldn’t live your life in service to others — and that there is less than perfect truth to the opposite notion that everyone wealthy is nothing but a rent-seeking parasite and everyone’s labor belongs to the community. If offering up one acknowledged-as-partial narrative is ok, why not another?

Because “signal plus corrective” is not just a balanced view: there is a difference between “the market is immoral but also, I admit, effective” and “the market is necessary but also, I admit, effective”. While we’re willing to accept criticisms of what we support and defenses of what we oppose, respect to our basic view must be paid first. You can say how bad capitalism/government sometimes is but only after you’ve admitted its general goodness, and vice versa[5] .

I’ve noticed how well this explains how I function myself. There is a lot of valid criticisms of how science is done, for instance, but unless you first acknowledge that science is the best and perhaps only way to get reliable knowledge — far ahead any other contenders like religion or intuition — I’m not going to listen to them. I need to know you’re not going to use those valid points as a wedge to push something fundamentally unscientific. In other words, I need to know you’re on my side (avoiding triggering our coalitional instincts is key).

And sure, criticize modern civilization for destructive wars and environmental degradation, but not until after you’ve given proper thanks for everything good it’s brought us.

And sure, postmodernists and social constructionists have some good points about the relationship between knowledge, labels, and power, but it took realizing that they typically aren’t denying objective reality to let myself appreciate those points.

And, to pick a real life example: sure I’m aware of the paradox of choice (that more options can sometimes make us less happy), and I have my reservations about consumerism and contemporary materialistic culture, etc. But those are correctives to a rock-hard commitment to individual freedom of choice, so when a coworker I happen to know sympathizes with an actual communist party mentions such points I’m considerably more hesitant to agree than if it’d been someone else.

Order matters. Try scrolling back up to the list of opposing narratives and do this with them, picking your own preferred side as a requirement for the other. I’ll wait.

I’ve already said that when discussions get abstract and general people tend to go back to their main signals and ignore correctives, which makes participants seem further apart than they really are. The same thing happens when the communication bandwidth is low for some reason. When dealing with complex matters human communication tends not to be super efficient in the first place and if something makes subtlety hard — like a 140 character limit, only a few minutes to type during a bathroom break at work, little to no context or a noisy discourse environment — you’re going to fall back to simpler messages.

Internal factors matter too. When you’re stressed, don’t have time to think, you don’t know the person you’re talking to and you don’t really care about them, when emotions are heated, when you feel attacked, when an audience is watching and you can’t look weak, or when you smell blood in the water, then you’re going to go simple, you’re going to go basic, you’re going to push in a direction rather than trying to hit a target. And whoever you’re talking to is going to do the same. You both fall back in different directions, exactly when you shouldn’t.

And Moloch saw that it was good.

How to convince or alienate people

It makes sense to think of complex disagreements as not about single facts but about narratives made up of generalizations, abstractions and interpretations of many facts, most of which aren’t currently on the table. And the status of our favorite narratives matters to us, because they say what’s happening, who the heroes are and who the villains are, what’s matters and what doesn’t, who owes and who is owed. Most of us, when not in our very best moods, will make sure our most cherished narratives are safe before we let any others thrive.

With this in mind, what I said almost a year ago in Superweapon Proliferation Worries can now be explained better:

Pretending that disagreements are typically about simple facts is self-serving, thickheaded and counterproductive.

It’s counterproductive because if you want to make someone change their mind through sheer force of argument there must be no way for them to think that you’re wrong. It’s entirely possible to stay committed to a claim only a little bit true, since you can perfectly legitimately disagree with anyone who dismisses it completely.

Do not give anyone a reason to dismiss you, such as (1) pretending you’re 100% right when you’re not, or (2) pretend someone else is 100% wrong when they aren’t.

Solution 1: Make sure your opponent is completely and verifiably wrong. This is much harder that it appears, because being 99% wrong is not enough.

Solution 2: Make an effort to understand what they mean and acknowledge their damn point. Understand (and empathize with) why it makes sense to them, preferably without condescension. Then help them understand yours.

Most people will accept that their main signals have correctives, but they will not accept that their signals have no validity or legitimacy. It’s a lot easier to install a corrective in someone than it is to dislodge their main signal (and that might later lead to a more fundamental change of heart) — but to do that you must refrain from threatening the signal because that makes people defensive. And it’s not so hard. Listen and acknowledge that their view has greater than zero validity. It doesn’t have to be much (you don’t have to actually agree), but more than zero.

The big problem

In an ideal world, any argumentation would start with laying out its own background assumptions, including stating if what it says should be taken as a corrective on top of its opposite or a complete rejection of it. That way we could skip a lot of needless conflict.

Compared to this ideal world, the real one has a big (big) problem, and it is that when talking to people who already share your basic beliefs, denying the legitimacy of the opposition does work. It works like a charm when we don’t actually care about convincing anybody who doesn’t already agree.

This is the case in a world where we don’t feel we need each other[6], so conquest is preferable to consensus. The world of online debate is like this, where each contact is transient and with barely any real world meaning, where people fire salvos at strangers whose good will they are in no need of whatsoever. When making enemies comes with almost no cost, civility, generosity, restraint and trust atrophies.

I don’t know how to fix that.

• • •


In all these cases there could be other, more interesting narratives. But sadly everything tends to collapse into a dichotomy, with any other narratives confined to a tiny share of mindspace, a mere rounding error.

Debates about humans being fundamentally good or bad makes me want to rip my hair out. Humanity is not placed on some external good-bad scale, the space itself is spanned by the variety within humanity. It’s like asking which room your house is in.

This happens because fiction privileges the personal and the emotional over the structural and practical. Fiction that tries to do the opposite (most notably the Foundation series) still has to deal with individual characters and then gets criticized for not developing them enough.

Fiction typically tries to send a coherent message and therefore tends to avoid correctives — because they are dissonances (belonging to a different harmony). Aaaaand now I’m wondering if there’s a literary equivalent ofthe emancipation of dissonance

This also works to explain why criticisms against a group is interpreted differently depending on whether it’s coming from an outsider or a fellow member. Since an outsider cannot be trusted to share the fundamental values of the group, criticism that would be considered a corrective if given by an insider is instead interpreted as a full-on assault. I remember feeling a bit uneasy when starting reading Meaningness some time ago since it wasn’t immediately obvious exactly where its criticisms of objective truth was coming from.

This suggests that a future post-scarcity society might not be a perfect utopia. If needing other people is required for us to make the necessary effort to understand and respect them, then a future of fabulous wealth might be full of humans doing nothing but engaging in vitriolic yet petty fights for social status.

2 thoughts on “The Signal and the Corrective

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